Wednesday, September 29, 2021

living the dream -- or the reality?


Every dream contains the seeds of disappointment.

Icarus’s flight. The Trojans’ gift from the Greeks. Anne Boleyn’s marriage as the next ex-Mrs. Henry VIII.

I cannot remember when I first started hearing the rave notices of the Emirates first class suites. But raves they were. They sounded as if Emirates had managed to find the perfect balance of elegance and fun to make the less-salubrious aspects of flying at least bearable, if not forgotten. I needed to give it a try. I fly often enough that having a memorable experience would be a worthy quest.

Twice I have booked a suite on Emirates. And twice I have had to cancel the flights -- the latest being when The Virus swooped down on my India cruise in March 2020, leaving me with a touch of covid and no Emirates experience. It was not a good trade.

But I am persistent enough when the prize is worth the effort to keep on trying. And I thought I had this prize in my grasp. I booked a cruise with my travelling friends, the Millers, out of Vancouver to Tokyo. It was supposed to sail the ocean blue this September. And, by sheer luck, I found an Emirates suite I could buy with my Alaska air miles that would take me home after the cruise. Tokyo to Dubai to Los Angeles. It was my dream abirthing.

Then, Canada, Japan, and The Virus all got together on a dark stormy night in an Illuminati castle in Bavaria, and decided that that was not the trip for me. The cruise was cancelled.

I kept the Emirates reservation because Emirates no longer allows Alaska membership members to book the suites.  If I wanted the Emirates experience I would either hang onto this flight or shell out $19,000 (US). I decided to wait.

As you know, my Mexican-earned patience paid off. I came up with a plan to essentially sneak into Japan to connect with the flight I had wisely chosen not to cancel. And with all the odds against me, it worked. With a scare here and there to make the trip even more exciting.

So, after 11 hours of flight time from Tokyo to Dubai and 16 more hours in the air from Dubai to Los Angeles, was the experience a dream realized or a dream that crashed on the shoals of reality? Was I Icarus or Eddie Rickenbacker?

That is exactly what we are going to discuss in the next two essays. We could start the discussion now, but the in-flight internet system is slipping on and off. And, no, that is not a hint about my ultimate conclusion.

But I do promise photographs.

See you soon.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

eternal night

Whump! Whump! Whump!

And the sound of creaking structures.

I knew those sounds far too well. Having lived in Oregon, California, and now Mexico, the sounds, along with the shaking of the building, could mean only one thing. An earthquake. And a strong earthquake. I needed to get out of the hotel. Now!

Of course, it was not an earthquake. And I was not in my hotel in Los Angeles.

Whatever it was had awakened me from a sound sleep, it was not a dream. It was real. But it turned out to be nothing more than just air.

My flight from Tokyo to Dubai had encountered air turbulence. I looked at the map scrolling across my television screen. We were now over the west coast of India, and had encountered one of those moments that keep the fun in flying.

Yesterday I told you that we spent the day chasing the afternoon sun from Los Angeles to Tokyo (welcome to eternal tomorrowland). On this flight, we are chasing the night from Tokyo to Dubai.

But let's get some context here. There are fourteen hours missing from my tale. I will bring you up-to-date.

The JAL flight landed on time at Narita airport. It has been two decades since I was last there. In 2001, it was relatively new. But it was hard to see the airport itself for all of the activity. Airplanes were on the move. Passengers crowded into the hallways with their moving sidewalks and incessant recorded warnings to take caution.

This visit was entirely different. There were fewer airplanes at the gates than at most regional airports.

When we landed something odd happened. All of the passengers (about a quarter of the 54 on board), who had connecting flights, were asked to debark as a group and wait together at the head of the jetway. We were met thereby a very polite and efficient customer service representative. Her job was to help us navigate the airport to our respective gates.

The gesture was appreciated. But unnecessary. There was not much to navigate. The airport looked like the set of a Twilight Zone episode. There was not a soul in sight for the first fifteen minutes of our journey. I almost expected to round a corner and find a group of zombies ready to enslave our tasty group.

Almost all of the shops that once were filled with customers buying luxury goods were closed. The few that were open had no customers. In some, it looked as if even the shop staff had gone missing. It was probably the zombies.

When I was dropped off at Gate 72, no one was there. Absolutely, no one. I had one of those sinking feelings that I had received the wrong party invitation.

 Our guide told me to wait there until the Emirates staff showed up. The time was then 5:00 PM. My flight was at 10:30 PM. When I asked her what time the staff would show up, she said they would be there around 9:30 or 10:00. That meant waiting for about 5 hours.

Normally, I would have made my way to the first class lounge. But it was closed -- along with everything else. There was not even a snack bar open. So, I walked and read -- putting this gift of time to good use.

The check-in staff arrived in a flurry of activity around 9:45. As they were powering up the computers and handing out placards to their assistants, I waited patiently at the desk. No one even looked up at me. I know that routine. I have done it myself when I have things that must be done and someone wants to interrupt me.

Eventually, I mentioned I was there to obtain a boarding pass for the flight. The harried young woman looked at me in astonishment and asked how I got to that portion of the airport without one. I told her. Her confusion melted into resignation.

For the next 30 minutes, I took her away from her other duties while she asked me questions, looked at my supporting documents, and had me sign forms before she graciously handed me my boarding passes along with a very formal bow.

I ended my last essay with four questions based on scenarios that could have driven this car into the ditch at Narita airport. Here they are with the answers corrected to 100%.

1. Will Japanese immigration allow me to enter the airport to catch my connecting flight?

You already know the answer. I never encountered a Japanese customs officer. Like most countries, if passengers are just passing through, there is no need for formal entry procedures. American immigration at Los Angeles could learn a lesson from the Japanese.

2. Will Emirates be able to provide me with a boarding pass now that their first class lounge is temporarily closed and there is no customer service desk inside the "secured" area?

You know the answer to that one, as well. The only inconvenience of waiting was that I did not know if that light at the end of the tunnel was the door to my Emirates flight or that mob of zombies we mentioned earlier.

3. If I get to Dubai, will Emirates find that the covid test that I obtained in Los Angeles to be adequate to satisfy the Americans?

I don't know. While processing my boarding passes (including the Dubai-Los Angeles leg), the woman who helped me needed to have two of her colleagues look at my covid test documents. That was too reminiscent of my team-based check-in at Los Angeles. Eventually, the test was approved. We will see how that works in Dubai.

4. Will the dreaded Jones Act once again raise its eccentric head?

I doubt it. If this were an Alfred Hitchcock production, the Jones Act would be our McGuffin -- like the microfilm in North by Northwest. Interesting, but not central to the plot. I doubt we will see its like again.

So, there we are. I have long viewed Narita as the Achilles's heel in this mission. There were a number of big things that could have gone wrong. None did. The patience that Mexico has taught us proved useful.

Now, let me write something that really irritates me when other writers do it. I have already given you enough information that you know I am on my flight to Dubai. So, I am now going to tell you I am on my flight to Dubai. Why writers do that, I do not understand. But I just did. Do that, that is. I still do not understand.

But the time (and word length) of this essay are both getting too long. So, I will tell you about the flight itself in my next piece. 

After all, the Emirates flights of the trip are why this whole thing is happening.

See you in a couple of hours. In Dubai.

welcome to eternal tomorrowland

It is now tomorrow -- compared with where most of you will be reading this.

We just crossed over (through?) the International Date Line -- the imaginary line that served as a plot sop for the very fortunate Phileas Fogg. In my case, instead of gaining a day (as he did), I am losing the good portion of one. It is already approaching 2 PM on Tuesday in Tokyo. And I have just arrived at the party.

But before I tell you about my arrival at the second airport on this trip (because that has not yet happened), let me tell you a little about where I will have been living for the 11 hours it takes to fly from Los Angeles to Tokyo.

First, the technical stuff. I am in one of my favorite Boeing aircraft -- the 777-300 with a passenger capacity of 388 passengers in three classes of service: first, business, and economy. With a range of over 5800 nautical miles, it is a standard international workhorse.

Japan Airlines has a reputation of outfitting their aircraft in oriental chic. It may be an odd thing to notice, but the bathrooms with their black and chrome decor and extensive use of mirrors is just this side of understated without looking as if they had been designed for last week's lottery winner.

And you certainly will not find these choices in every airplane loo.

Here is an unfocused peek at the first class cabin. That is not mine.

This is my seat. JAL provides so many luxuries that when they are piled in the seat, the space looks crowded. It s not. It is an incredibly comfortable sit -- even on long hauls.

The seat folds down into a bed -- an option I did not exercise. Right now, with two more hours of flight time, it is not yet 10:00 PM in Los Angeles. For a guy who usually does not slip under the coverlet until 2:00 or 3:00 AM, there is little sense in trying to fool myself that I am going to use the bed on this trip. (It will be a different tale on Emirates later today.)

In addition to being a bed, the seat is also a recliner -- or it can be set to be a computer chair (and that is the position it has been in most of the day). I have caught up on my Spanish lessons, read The Economist and National Review, completed my daily Bible study, and written two essays.

Some people are big fans of the amenity kits that are handed out in first and business class. I usually travel with my own dopp kit with the things I need. So, a little bag filled with a single-use toothbrush, lip balm, and ear plugs and a mask I did not use are not high on my travel list.

If I did not have my dopp kit, the amenity bag would be helpful. This one will undoubtedly end up in Omar's hands.

The slippers always come in handy. The packet thoughtfully includes a shoe horn because feet removed from shoes in a pressurized cabin are not so easily put back where they were.

Airline food gets a bum rap. I can remember comedians complaining it about it on the Ed Sullivan. True, some of it is atrocious. But I have found most international flights to offer some interesting fare.

Because I do not like eating dishes I have tasted before, I passed up the western menu choice of either prime beef tenderloin or sautéed sea bass.

Instead, I opted for the Japanese menu of:

  • Iridori Gozen -- snow crab and radish in vinegar sauce; simmered sea bass and eggplant; Japanese omlette with salmon roe, chicken meat ball with miso sauce, and beef tataki salad with citrus soy jelly

  • Followed by the Dainomono course of stir-fried braised pork and mushrooms; salmon and seared tofu with yuzu chili-flavored sauce, steamed rice, miso soup, japanese pickles, and kanmi

  • The dessert was the only nod to western taste: raspberry Bavarian cake 

No one flies for the food. But the presentation and varied tastes in today's lunch was a very good effort. I may have learned a few new combinations to try at home.     

Traveling from east to west (even though I am traveling from the Far West to the Far East) can be taxing on the circadian cycle. We are chasing the sun in what feels like perpetual afternoon.

The same afternoon sun in Los Angeles that we left behind at 1:30 is the same afternoon sun we will see in Tokyo at 4:40. It will simply be a day later -- without a sunset. The whole thing seems like a terrible Houdini stunt to push my expiration date forward 24 hours.

As you know, Japan Airlines is merely the warm-up act for what is coming next as I fly from Tokyo to Dubai and on to Los Angeles.

But, before any of that can happen, several quest riddles must be solved first.

  1. Will Japanese immigration allow me to enter the country to catch my connecting flight?
  2. Will Emirates be able to provide me with a boarding pass now that their first class lounge is temporarily closed and there is no customer service desk inside the "secured" area?
  3. If I get to Dubai, will Emirates find that the covid test that I obtained in Los Angeles to be adequate to satisfy the Americans?
  4. Will the dreaded Jones Act once again raise its eccentric head?
For the answers to these and probably several other questions no one has yet raised, show up later today (whenever that is for wherever you live), and find out how The Perils of Steve turn out.

See you then.

Monday, September 27, 2021

dodging a bullet

In every flight check-in line, there is that guy in front of you who holds up the rest of the line for what appears to be the world’s most difficult ticketing problem.

Today, I was That Guy.

I thought yesterday that I had successfully reconnoitered all of the possible land mines that could blow my circumnavigation truck off the road this afternoon (sneaking out of the country). I was wrong. And I was not surprised.

There are probably no rational reasons why anyone would spend two days on an airplane landing in three different cities and not setting foot outside of an airport. I label this mission as idiosyncratic.

I felt sorry for the engaging young Japanese Airlines clerk who unwittingly drew the short straw when she asked me: “May I help you?” I told her what I was doing. That I was flying to Narita airport where I would catch a connecting Emirates flight to Dubai on the same day. I would not be going through Immigration or Customs. I was just transiting.

That obviously made no sense to her because she asked me for the results of my covid test, proof of health insurance, and the reservation number of the hotel where I was quarantining -- things I would need to enter Japan. I reminded her I was flying to Japan, but I was not entering Japan. A construct that would make far more sense in a transcendentalism seminar or a court decision (if there is any appreciable difference between the two) than in a pedestrian ticketing discussion. She asked for help from Agent Two, who walked her through the required computer entries.

About a month ago, a JAL agent told me on the telephone he would enter information showing my connecting flight, but he warned me JAL could not give me a boarding pass in Los Angeles. I would still need to do that in Tokyo. He was true to his word. The note was there.

I am glad he did what he did. Without it, I am certain it would have been “Game Over” at the outset.

The team at the computer had now grown to three agents and a supervisor. None of them had ever faced a similar booking problem. Fortunately, for each of their requests, I had an appropriate document in response.

I thought I was minutes away from receiving my boarding pass, when the supervisor came up with a fascinating scenario. I immediately recognized it, and I was a bit chagrined that I had not thought of it myself. She was concerned that I was using a foreign carrier to leave the United States and then returning to The States on another foreign carrier (essentially on the same day) without first stopping at an American airport.

It was the dreaded Jones Act. A piece of protectionist hoohaw that causes free-trade sceptics like  Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden to join hands and sing kumbaya. I think of it being an impediment in cruise ship itineraries. But she knew better. It appears its nonsensical restrictions apply to air carriers, as well.

So, off she went for about fifteen minutes to discuss her hypothetical with an Emirates representative (because Emirates could pull the rug out from underneath me in either Tokyo or Dubai) and with an immigration officer (because he works for the agency that could enforce a violation – most likely, against the airlines for allowing such tomfoolery.).

When she returned with a glum look, I was positive the jig was up and the piper was about to be paid (and any other string of related clichés)
. In her absence I had tentatively booked an afternoon flight to Redmond. But I cancelled it. She said there was no problem.

About 20 minutes later, I had my boarding pass and headed through security.

I did not feel too bad being That Guy during the ticketing process because I held up exactly zero people -- even with four people helping me. The delta variant and Japan’s closure to foreigners (as if Japan had reverted to the days prior to Commodore Perry) make this flight looks as if it is made up of the survivors of the German Christian Democrats in Sunday’s election. There is one guy in first class. And only two of us in my section of business class. In total, there are only 54 passengers on a Boeing 777.

It was fortunate that I was not flying Westjet today. (Or, any day, for that matter.) I do not know why, but a line of Westjet passengers snaked out of the terminal and down the sidewalk. I would estimate that there were at least 200 very unhappy people just waiting to share a slice of nasty with anyone who got in their way. I would not have wanted to be That Guy with That Mob.

So, I am on my way to Tokyo, Days will get a little strange because we are about to cross the international dateline. But if I get the internet to work, I will post this essay while I am in the air.

The details of this segment my flight may wait until I get to Tokyo. Assuming I will have any internet time there once I track down how I am going to get a boarding pass.

We soldier on.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

sneaking out of the country

I have made several allusions to my around-the-world odyssey as if it were Ulysses's.

No, I am not so steeped in hubris that I think I am Homer. But, when I travel, I want to encounter difficulties that will amuse future dinner guests. Like being chased down a hill in Salvador de Bahia by a prostitute, or being led too far into the bowels of the slums of Alexandria.

Well, nothing like that happened in Los Angeles today. But I am glad that I arrived here a day early for my trip. Two potential snares arose that could have cut my trip short. Both of them involving my covid test to get back into The States.

When I last talked with the customer service agents at Japan Airlines and Emirates, no one could answer my question as to the documents that would get me on the flights to accomplish this little ego trip. Japan has excluded all foreigners (with very few exceptions, of which, I am not one). 

But I am not going to Japan. I am just going to a Japanese airport to connect to an Emirates flight. According to the official Japanese website, I will not need to fill out all of the certificates and accompanying covid tests that are required to actually go to Japan. But no one would verify that on the telephone for me.

So, I thought I had a brilliant solution. I would walk over to the airport and talk to a JAL ticket agent. My question was going to be simple: When I show up tomorrow, what documents will get me on the airplane?

Did you notice the "was going to be" construction? The idea may have been brilliant, but its execution was a bust. The JAL agents are at the counters only when processing passengers for flights. And all of the morning and afternoon flights were gone by the time I arrived. No JAL representatives in sight.

My second unanswered question was for Emirates. How can I get a boarding pass at the Tokyo airport if I cannot leave the secured area without a visa?

A very helpful customer service representative snapped to at what was an original question for her. But she gave me the same answer I got on the telephone. She did not know. Because my flight is not linked to the JAL flight, I will have to wing it when I get to Tokyo. Same story for when I get to Dubai. But she did wish me well.

For a moment, she caught me off guard when she informed me I was not even listed in the computer. Before I could slip into a coma, she laughed and said she was looking at the wrong date. I was in the computer. But she could do nothing to help me in Los Angeles.

That means I still am not certain that I will be allowed to board the JAL flight tomorrow in Los Angeles -- or the Emirates flight early on Wednesday morning. But I am committed to this mission.

I did know that I would need a covid test to get back into the United States. It turns out the timing was a bit problematic. I waited as late in the day as I could to stay within the 72-hour test period required to reenter the country. The procedure was a lot more convoluted than the simple procedure of being tested in Melaque. But it has been done.

I had a friend recently tell me that he was heading north from Mexico. The one thing that he was fearful of was that his covid test might come back positive even though he had no exposure and no symptoms. He was a bit surprised when I told him that I never even consider the possibility that the test might be positive. Nor was I today. And it wasn't.

The second speed bump, of which  I had no idea even existed, was a certificate that some countries require in addition to the covid test itself. It turns out Dubai and Japan are two of those countries. I am still unsure whether or not a negative test is required for either airport, but I have both in hand now. It will probably make the lives of the ticketing agents I encounter a bit easier.

Those of you who remember John Wilson, AKA John Calypso, will recall that he usually populated his posts with two stories. In an homage to him, here is my second part.

Signs entrance me. Especially those where humor can be ferreted out. Without a lot of commentary, I offer you three I saw today in, to keep up The Odyssey analogy, the Land of the Lotus Eaters.

There has to be some sort of back story for this sign. I can imagine several. And they are all undoubtedly incorrect.

This business combination (a Thai restaurant, a live fish store, and an oriental massage parlor) looks like something Woody Allen would cook up as a reductive cultural stereotype. But there it is.

And then there is this. It sent my mind off on an entirely different track until I re-read the company name.

So, there you have it. My take on what Los Angeles has offered to American culture.

When we next chat, I hope to be in Tokyo.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

humpty dumpty redux

And so it begins.

Today is the day I board an Alaska flight out of the Manzanillo Airport for a two-night stand in Los Angeles. Then the true adventure begins Monday afternoon when I do my round-the-world stunt to Tokyo then to Dubai and back to Los Angeles on Wednesday afternoon. If all goes as planned, there will be a number of problems that will develop to make the adventure a bit more interesting.

Or maybe not. Maybe I have already had my share of unexpected pleasures.

My friend Julio was scheduled to stop by at 2:00 this afternoon to take me to the airport. Because I was ready a little early, I stepped out the front door of my house to see if anything needed to be tidied up befolre I left. It did. A few weeds had started poking their insolent heads through the gravel.

So, I started my own version of planticide against the young before they became pesky adults. As I bent over to start the slaughter, I heard one of those stomach-twisting sounds that herald the occurrence of A Stupid Mistake.

The sound was my front door slamming. I did not even bother looking for my keys. I knew where they were. On my bed with the rest of the contents of my pants pockets.

Julio drove up just as I was asking my neighbor for the use of a ladder. You do not need all of the details, but I managed to climb to the top of a 10-foot wall from which I gracefully abseiled to my upper terrace.

But I didn't. My descent was far more Humpty Dumpty than Wallendaesque. I am becoming accustomed to the wet laundry sound my body makes against hard surfaces.

All Julio heard was the crash of the ladder and then the distinctive plop. Followed by my laughter.

Yes. Yes. I know it is not a laughing matter. Old men falling off of walls usually have worse endings. I was not unscathed. The scrapes on my right arm caused by my last two falls contributed a bit of blood to the tale. Then there is the broken sconce that preceded me hitting the ground. But I think I escaped any further rib damage.

Here is the laugh line material. When I looked in my bedroom, three were no keys on the bed. Nor were they in my backpack. 

They were where they had been all along. In my left pocket. I was fortunate enough not to have fallen on them.

Now, that incident could be a bad sign or a good sign. It might be a bad sign that this is just the first of a series of mishaps in waiting over the next few days. Or it could be a sign that I got all of the mishaps out of the way before driving to the airport.

I am personally putting my pesos on a third option. It is simply a good story to share with you before I am on my way.

I usually travel with two suitcases -- even on my brief journeys north. After all, I may find something to cart back home. Not on this trip.

I have stripped to the essentials. A small carry-on bag that attaches to my computer backpack. It should be sufficient for the next seven days passing through four countries.

If the internet gods smile on us, I will have some traveling missives for you.

For now, I am simply happy the rest of my shell is not cracked.

Friday, September 24, 2021

when you walk through a storm

I was afraid I had lost another faithful friend.

This time to the weather.

One of my favorite offerings in Barra de Navidad is the walkway (the andador) that joins highway 200 with the town. A mile-long path dedicated to walkers and bikers -- with each having their own parallel universes. A perfect way for doppelgängers to show their various talents.

I remember when it was dedicated in 2014. My thoughts were not quite that sentimental. The designed pavement was quite attractive, especially when paired with street lights for night-time use and an army of saplings to beef up the landscaping. But I wondered what it was all for.

The two signs at the trailhead clearly state who the target audience was. Tourists.

Now, I do not know if that was merely a justification to receive grant money for an imagined flock of tourists who were anxiously awaiting the opportunity to strap on their running shoes or to mount their trusty pedal-steeds -- or if the designers actually thought those people were going to show up to use the paths.

It turns out that my sardonic welcome was not justified. Tourists -- Mexican and northern alike -- immediately started walking, running, and biking beside the road into town. The local Rotary even built an exercise station.

But it was not just tourists who used the paths. By my estimate about 80% of the users are my Mexican neighbors who have turn the paths into a stream of walking, conversing social groups. The answer to my "what is it all for?" is now obvious. It turns out there were a lot of people who wanted to exercise. They just needed a place to do it.

Whoever designed the project had an almost German sense of organization. The narrower eastern path is for walkers only. The broader eastern path is for bicycles only -- no motorcycles allowed.

We know that because the paths have been clearly stenciled to inform the unwary (or uncaring) -- with a bicycle symbol and a set of feet. The foot path is even divided to show which side of the path walkers should be on.

Looking at the division, the designer must have lived just outside of London.

The andador is now an intrinsic part of the 11-mile walk I have blazed through the streets of Barra. When I travel, I really miss the lack of traffic that makes the town a great place to walk.

That is why when Hurricane Nora hit last month, I was a bit concerned. When Hurricane Patricia blew through six years ago, a lot of the trees along the andador were young and stood up to the challenge of the wind. But, even then, a portion of the big trees were felled. In the process, their roots pulled up several portions of the paths.

Nora seemed to take a greater toll of trees on the road. My concern was how the pathway survived. It turned out the damage was not as severe as I suspected.

There were a couple of sections where downed trees pulled up sections of the concrete.

In one place, a new home was created for a young iguana.

But the andador is not unscathed. Most of the damage to the andador is old.

When the andador was built, the idea was to parallel the street. The downside of that approach is that concrete was laid over land subject to moisture. And moisture in soil means movement. Some sections of the path are tilted so far they are begin to move into the neighboring ditch.

And the landscaping that provides welcome shade presents another problem. The tree roots have lifted and separated several sections as effectively as a Maidenform bra, creating the type of tripping hazards that have proven to be a bane in my recent walking regimen.

Every time I pass this double-arrow marker, I laugh.

Someone (undoubtedly, with a marked sense of irony) apparently thought the small crack was a tripping danger -- while the larger gaps go unmarked. Just like some topes. Only the small ones have signs.

Robert Frost said it well in another context: "Something there is that doesn't love a wall." Nature is prone to chaos far more than it is to tranquility. Everything eventually rots. It is just a fact of life. And death.

Until it slips away into oblivion, I tend to use the andador as part of my daily walks. 

I do not know who J. Cipriano Ceballos Martínez was (or is), but the andador is dedicated to him. He must have been a visionary because the andador is not only a good addition to the community, it really is my friend.

Note -- If all goes well, I will write later about some creative art of he andador. I may even relate a tale that was a bit disturbing. But that is for later.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

ghosting our way through the summer

I love ghost towns.

Some of the best, of course, are in the west. Gold towns that were bustling commercials centers bloomed and died faster than a cactus flower. You can still find their remnants scattered across the mountains of California, Nevada, and Arizona. And in the highlands of Mexico.

My Air Force buddy, Robin Olson, and I have spent hours traipsing through their skeletal remains. At times, I swear I can hear Samuel Clemens whispering story suggestions in my ear.

What is interesting to me now was once a tragedy for the people who watched the decline of the towns they built. I suspect that is exactly how a lot of the merchants in Barra de Navidad felt this summer. The place looked as if it was rehearsing to be the next Cerro Gordo in California.

I realize that a lot of northerners who spend all or part of their winters on the Costalegre believe that Melaque and Barra de Navidad disappear into the mist like Brigadoon the moment they leave and then just as magically reappear on their return. I realize that -- because that is exactly what I have been told. Well, not the Brigadoon part. That is my invention.

But it is not true. At least, not during a normal summer.

Mexican families usually arrive here every summer in buses, SUVs, and airplanes to spend their school vacations on the same beaches northerners use in the winter. And weekends are almost as busy before the summer vacation crowds arrive. The bad months for merchants is when children return to school in September. The lull does not pick up again until the northerners start arriving in October.

When The Virus made its debut here in the spring of 2020, most northerners fled home. And, other than what turned out to be (probably) an ill-advised closure of the beaches for semana santa, not much happened in the way of preventive medicine. Despite warnings of doom, not much happened.

No one knew why. Masks were a rarity. Social distancing gave way to cultural hugs. Large gatherings went on as normal.

But The Virus did not seem to take up the dare as it had elsewhere -- even in close living quarters where one person was infected and no one else in the house was affected. Several of us developed theories, but none of us really had an answer (dodging the bullet). A reader in England gelded our hubris with the observation: "just wait until delta hits you."

He was correct. When the delta variant moved into the neighborhood, our villages were finally introduced to what the rest of the world had suffered. Illness. Hospitalization. Death.

And, even though Mexican tourists continued to visit the beach as usual while Guadalajara and other highland cities were hit hard in the summer of 2020, Mexican tourism dried up in the summer of 2021.

The shot at the top is of the main tourist street in Barra de Navidad last month. The proverbial cannon could have been fired and the only damage would have been to a pile of bracelets-with-your-name-embroidered-on-it. No one was here.

Now, I will lift my hand to the accusation that the photograph is a perfect example of journalistic manipulation. I purposely timed the shot to avoid the few people who were out and about. But the point is just the same. Shopkeepers cannot make a living without customers.

This is what the tianguis looked like this morning. There were more stall workers than shoppers. in fact, there were more stray dogs than shoppers.

We are in the middle of the September-October lull. Because the summer trade was so bad, most (but not all) business owners are looking forward to the return of The Canadians (as anyone north of the Rio Bravo is known amongst my Mexican friends) to bolster sagging revenue.

Don't disappoint them. Every person traveling here has to make up his own mind whether the risks are worth the pleasures of spending the winter on the Costalegre. For me, it is not even a close call.

And to prove my point (at least, to me) I am going to closet myself in airplanes for two days to fly around the world. If I can do that without being confined to a covid bed, you can choose to do as wish with the result.

Of course, if I die of covid in Dubai, just ignore that pesky little fact.

But come December, when I return from a different journey, I hope not to find Barra de Navidad the ghost town it has been this summer. 


Wednesday, September 22, 2021

riddle me this

I have been walking in circles.

Like a horse that has been injured in a jump, I have shied away from public walking spaces. At least, until my ribs heal.

And I have the perfect alternative space for exercise. The upper terrace in my house. Ten laps is a mile. The steps add up quickly.

Because there is little variety walking in circles like that, I have re-awakened a long-dormant interest in music. When I am in Oregon, I listen to KWAX, a classical music station out of Eugene, on the radio. Fortunately, for me, the station live streams its broadcasts.

This morning I was walking along at my usual brisk pace when I heard the distinctive French horn chords that open Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto number 1. I suspect that I have heard the concerto hundreds of times. For some reason, though, those notes evoked my first memory of the piece.

While growing up, I was almost oblivious to popular music (with the exception of a brief interest in The Beatles). The music I listened to at home was what is confusingly labeled "classical," but includes music far afield from the Classical Period.

The year was either 1966 or 1967. The place was Linfield College -- one of those church-founded colleges that dot the western edge of the Willamette Valley. 

Our high school speech team was at Linfield to compete for positions at the state-level tournament later in the year. At the closing dinner, the entertainment was provided by the Linfield orchestra. The featured performer that night was a young student who had chosen the Tchaikovsky piece to display her talent. It was my first live performance of serious music. And nothing is better than a live performance.

Enjoy it I did. In a rather pedestrian way. Being seventeen, I was enamored with the pianist. She was pretty, talented, and, I assumed, witty (because back then I believed all women musicians were clever dinner partners -- a notion of which I was soon disabused). As she played, I imagined that we had married, moved to London, and were just sending our third child off to university when she ended the piece with a flourish.

Now, this essay is not about teenage hormones -- or even speech tournaments. It is about connections.

The photograph above is of the 1967 members of the Rex Putnam Forensics Club. I am missing because I am averse to having my photograph taken. Just ask my mother.

But several people in my life are there. My foster sister, Diane Abraham. My friends Gary Welk, Bob Robinson, and Jim Gassaway. Tom Hanson, who is now a high falutin' antiques dealer in New York City. Plus my debate partner, Marcia Jacobson. I still see or hear from a few of them.

But the photograph is here today because of the young woman on the left. She is Carolyn Riddle, our speech teacher. We were some of her first students.

And the connection part? While writing an essay about rhetoric a couple of years ago, I was reminded of a quotation that was our first assignment from Miss Riddle. She wanted us to memorize and internalize it.

I could not conjure it up fifty years later. In fact, I even muddled the first portion. The internet was no help.

Then, about a year later, I received a Facebook friend request from someone named Carolyn Kilmer. It only took me a moment to realize it was Miss Riddle.

We spent several lengthy message threads catching up on our lives. I asked her about the quotation. It was lost to her as much as it was to me.

But here is something that was not lost. That connection. Every time I hear the Tchaikovsky, I remember that night at Linfield College when I was introduced to the joys of live classical performances. And I thank Carolyn for that opportunity. I have since been hooked on live music.

Not only did she help build my confidence in speech class and as a competition coach, she let me see that the boxes in which we live in are actually connected to one another.

In a very real sense, Mexpatriate would not exist without teachers like her. It is only appropriate that they should receive the thanks we forgot to give them long ago.

Even when we are just walking in circles.   

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

swimming with cal

Calvin Coolidge, the wisest of American presidents, once said: "If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you."

I cannot verify his words of wisdom are true for everyone. But they are certainly true for me. When faced with the possibility of some pending doom, I find that if I just sit down and wait, the vast majority resolve themselves.

My swimming pool recently provided me with another test of the Coolidge Law.
I have written before about how well-engineered my swimming pool is. Not only is it a thing of beauty on the surface, its hidden innards are extremely functional.

First, let me say I had nothing to do with the design. It was all in place when I bought the house with no name. I have simply been the lucky beneficiary of its plan.

Every pool has a pump that filters and circulates the water. Mine has an added function. There is a tinaco (a water storage tank) buried in the patio. It serves two functions. The first is to act as reservoir when the pump starts circulating the pool water. Any evaporation is replaced from the reservoir. I do not need to schlep a hose to the pool to top it off.

But its second function is far more important. During the heavy summer rains, it works as a leveling device to keep the pool from overflowing. When the rain raises the level of the pool water, it starts flowing through a return to the tinaco. That obviates the need of manually taking water out of the pool to avoid flooding.

Whoever came up with the idea is a genius. The pool almost operates on its own.

That is, until something goes wrong. The only problem I have had with it in the past is when the toilet float in the tinaco stops operating. Last week I thought that had happened again because the well pump was sending a lot of water to the tinaco.

When Antonio and I lifted the concrete cover to the tinaco, we were a bit shocked at what we saw. The tinaco looked as if it had collapsed. It looked that way because it had. In the process, some of the plumbing had pulled away.

Ignoring the advice of Silent Cal, I started calculating how much concrete would need to be removed to replace the tinaco. A friend from church had to do something similar last week.

Biting the bullet, I asked Tracye and Jorge from Crazy Cactus to give me an estimate on installing a new tinaco. We discussed a couple of options -- all of them that would cut into my travel budget. 

Then, Jorge tried something. He stepped on the edge of the tinaco. It bobbed up and down. The tinaco had not collapsed; it had been crushed.

Our heavy rains during the past two months have raised the water table. That is evident in the bubbling sewers and the large puddles that still flood my street. The water has no place to go.

There must be an open space under the tinaco that allows water to escape. But that is a two-way street. What can escape can also back up. And that must be what happened to the tinaco. The water floated the tiaco and crushed it against the the cover on the patio. Just like a soda can.

Tracye and Jorge suggested that I leave the concrete lid off to let the space dry out. I did that. When Antonio came to clean the pool yesterday, the tinaco was no longer buoyant. He re-attached the plumbing to the tank and everything was in order.

Simply by waiting, everything is now in working order.

I have written it before, but I will do so once again. Mexico's greatest gift to me has been teaching the virtue of patience. That almost anything improves by simply sitting in silence for an answer.

And to watch those other nine troubles run into the ditch before they reach me.    

Monday, September 20, 2021

a star turn for barra de navidad

Each morning I do my impression of Earl Warren.

You remember him. Governor of California. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. He once told an interviewer about his newspaper-reading habits: “I always turn to the sports section first. The sports page records man’s accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man’s failures.”

I have a similar morning ritual of reading The Oregonian. As an amateur historian, I skip the front page and head directly to the "This Day in History" column. There are always a few interesting acorns buried there.

This morning was no exception. This caught my eye:

On Sept. 20, 1519: Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and his crew set out from Spain on five ships to find a western passage to the Spice Islands. (Magellan was killed enroute, but one of his ships eventually circled the world.

Short historical blurbs usually get some things wrong. Though born Portuguese, Magellan had already renounced his citizenship before he set sail in an attempt to get Charles I of Spain to finance his exploration. Charles did. Magellan was no longer Portuguese.

But two facts (one mentioned and one implied) are what caught my attention. 1) The year Magellan set sail (1519) was the same year that Hernán Cortés began his conquest of Mexico. 2) The place left unnamed in the blurb where Magellan died in 1521 was in what would become known as The Philippines -- named after another Spanish king.

Both of those facts have a direct relationship with Barra de Navidad.

Despite what some people would now contend, Magellan was not just another white man out to oppress non-Europeans (though some of that did eventually happen). He was first and foremost an economic enabler.

Europe had long been trading with Asian nations. Especially, the Spice Islands (or, as they are now known, the Moluccas), an archipelago that is currently part of Indonesia. The islands provided Europe with -- you guessed it, spices. What we would now classify as a high-value, low-volume commodity.

When the land routes proved to be unstable due to disputes in and between Muslim countries, the Portuguese found an alternate sea route to The Orient when Bartolomeu Dias rounded the tip of southern Africa in 1488 -- opening the Indian Ocean to Portuguese trade.

As a result of the 
1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, Portugal was awarded colonial rights in Africa and Asia, and Spain was awarded The Americas (with the exception of Brazil). And because monopolies are a powerful, but entirely inefficient, economic driver, the Portuguese built forts along the African-Asian trade routes, effectively barring Spain from the eastern route to the Spice Islands.

But Magellan had a better idea. Actually, he cribbed the idea from Columbus, who thought he was on his way to the Spice Islands in 1492 until he ran into a huge land mass not included on his charts.

Magellan knew The Americas were there. He just needed a way to get around them. He reckoned that he could sail south. That the land mass had to end somewhere.

And that is exactly what he did. He never made it to the Spice Islands because of his martial martyrdom in The Philippines. But Spain now knew that sailing west could make it a major commercial empire. And The Philippines were perfectly situated as a trading post with China and the Spice Islands.

That is where Barra de Navidad comes into the story. Magellan laid the foundation. Now, someone had to take the theory and turn it into a practical economic model. That man was Miguel López de Legazpi. Locally, we know him best as the name of a street.

Fast forward to 1564. After Magellan's crew circumnavigated the globe, the Spanish had a good idea what crossing the Pacific would entail. It could be done.

Mexico (a Spanish colony) faced the Philippine Islands, that had been claimed for Spain by Magellan. And the Philippines were a perfect trading post for setting up shop with Chinese merchants.

The problem was finding a route there -- and back. The only known trade winds blew to the east. No one knew of any that blew west. In the age of sail that was a rather important point. 

So, the Viceroy of Mexico commissioned López de Legazpi, a financial bureaucrat, to lead an expedition to the Philippines to establish a trade route from the east to Mexico and on to Spain. López de Legazpi had two galleons and two tenders built in the harbor of what is now Barra de Navidad. He then pressed Indians from the mountains of Jalisco into the expedition as sailors. They set sail on 21 November 1564.

As unlikely as it seems, the expedition was successful. López de Legazpi made it to The Philippines and set up an economic colonial trade node.

Then came the hard part. Getting back to Mexico. That task fell to a friar, Andrés de Urdaneta, who was known as an expert navigator and who had accompanied López de Legazpi on the voyage west.

Urdaneta had a hunch. If the southern hemisphere had a circular current blowing east, there must be a similar current in the northern hemisphere blowing west. Of course, if his hunch was wrong, they would all die at sea. It was a high-risk business.

With only that hunch to guide him (and a lot of Catholic faith), he headed northwest (almost to the 45th parallel north) and discovered what we now call the Japanese current. But the voyage took him longer than he had anticipated. Much longer.

130 days.  12,000 miles.  Fourteen of the crew dead.  Only Urdaneta and another crew member had enough strength to drop anchor in Acapulco on 8 October 1565.

When that anchor dropped, the world was forever changed. Spain set up an annual trading regime with China -- the Manila Galleon. In exchange for Mexican and Peruvian silver, China sold Spain silk, ceramics, and other luxury goods that were shipped to Spain through Mexico.

Columbus and Magellan were vindicated. Their dream had become a reality.  Spain had its trade route to the east by going west.

And thus was born one of the greatest eras of globalization. That is, until Spain debased its currency with a glut of silver and nearly bankrupted itself in all sorts of pointless national endeavors.  Including an ill-conceived invasion of England.  Eventually, Mexican independence in 1821 was the death knell for the Manila Galleon and its attendant mercantilism.

That is why this day in 1519 when Magellan set sail to circumnavigate the globe is directly connected to the monument that regally stands on the Barra de Navidad malecon. Urdaneta and 
López de Legazpi are not merely street names. They are the names of people who brought honor and fame to Barra de Navidad.

Not bad for one little blurb in the morning's newspaper.

Sunday, September 19, 2021

back on the road

My calendar taunts me.

For the last few mornings, my telephone notifies me that I am on a cruise from Vancouver to Tokyo. It reminded me this morning that I am "at sea" -- and that I should have a nice day. I made up the "nice day" wish, but everything else is true.

Over a year ago, I joined my friends Roy and Nancy in signing up for a Celebrity cruise that would leave Vancouver on 10 September and arrive in Tokyo on 26 September. Those plans fell apart this spring. 

The continued strain that The Virus was putting on travel made a long cruise like that look unlikely. And unlikely it was.

First, Canada decided to close all of its ports to cruise ships for the remainder of 2021. The cruise line looked at the possibility of moving the start of the cruise to Seattle. But the wheels fell off of that Studebaker when Japan shut down its ports even while it struggled to keep airports open for the Olympics. As we all know, that plan ended up with Japan shutting its borders to tourists.

Our original plans were to stay in Tokyo for a couple of days. We would then board our respective flights to head home on 28 September -- having enjoyed the sybaritic pleasures of Tokyo for two days.

Just by chance, I discovered a homebound flight on Emirates that would take me from Tokyo to Dubai and then another flight from Dubai to Los Angeles. Effectively I would have made a trip around the world -- almost like an astronaut. The prospect fascinating me.

I booked one of Emirate's first-class suites. By now, I suspect that everyone knows that Emirate's suites are one of the crown jewels for international travel. But, best of all, I purchased the suite with my accumulated air miles on Alaska. To purchase it my savings would have meant selling a tidy share of my house.

When Celebrity cancelled the Tokyo cruise early in the summer, I did not cancel the Emirates reservation. Due to travel plan changes on two prior occasions, I was forced to give up the chance to experience the Emirates experience.

So, I decided to stall as long as I could. After I booked the flight, Alaska joined another airline alliance. There would be no further air mile purchases on Emirates. It was truly a use-it-or-regret-it choice.

The problem was how could I get to Tokyo. Cruise lines were no longer serving the country and the airport was closed to everyone with the exception of a limited number of special-visa holders. My papers were certainly not in order.

Then, it occurred to me. The restrictions clearly said that tourists could not enter the country. I did not need to enter the country; I just needed to enter the airport. Certainly connecting flights through Tokyo were still flying.

And, I was correct. With a little bit of research, I discovered that I could connect through Narita airport without even having a test for The Virus -- on two conditions. The first is that I cannot have a connecting flight at another Tokyo airport (like Haneda). The second condition is that the connecting flight has to be on the same day.

That sounded simple. All I needed to do was book a flight to Narita to arrive in sufficient time to catch my connecting Emirates flight.

That sounded simple enough. I gave myself a six-hour window and purchased a Japan Airlines business class ticket to Narita. That is when the fun began.

I asked if the two flights could be linked to show that I have a connecting flight that will qualify me to get on the airplane in Los Angeles. The answer was "no," but the agent helpfully volunteered to send an email to the check-in clerk in Los Angeles next week. Without meeting the "connecting flight" condition I would end up going nowhere.

I then checked with the Emirates customer service representative explaining my situation, that I cannot leave the secured area at Narita but I need to get a boarding pass for the second half of my journey. He had no suggestions other than to inform me there is no Emirates customer Service past security and, unlike other airports where the First Class lounge could help me, the Emirates lounge is closed in Narita.

So, there it is. The type of adventure that keeps my adrenaline burning. There is a good possibility that I will not be allowed onto the airplane in Los Angeles, and, that if I do, I may not be able to get on the Emirates flight in Tokyo. I may turn into Tom Hanks in The Terminal.

Is it worth the risk? Of course, it is. I refer you back to the "burning adrenaline" comment. What is the sense of doing anything if it can only go as planned?

If it works out, I will have flying experiences on which I can dine out on until I am tossed out with the rest of the refuse. If it doesn't, I will still have a tale to share. It is a writer's win-win adventure.

Even if there was not a story to be had, I would still do it. I need to start traveling again -- if only to prove to reluctant flyers that, with proper precautions, I am no more likely to contract The Virus on an airplane than I would at home. (Ignoring, for a moment, that my flight from Seattle in early March 2020 was most likely where I contracted my small bout with The Virus. But those were different times.)

It will also prepare me for a series of cruises I have already booked to take with Roy and Nancy over the next year.
  • January 2022 -- Caribbean - out of San Juan
  • February 2022 -- Antarctica -- out of Buenos Aires
  • April 2022 -- Los Angeles-Vancouver
  • September 2022 -- Vancouver-Tokyo 
  • January 2023 -- Dubai-Cape Town
It is a start. I still have a lot more ground to cover here in Mexico. Delta is starting to wane, but Mu is starting to wax. We will see if anything comes of it.

But all of this will wait until I finish my David Niven impression -- with or without Cantinflas. Saturday I will be on my way. 

Note -- I am starting to feel like the guy in one of the greatest send-ups of pretentious folk music in Christopher Guest's A Mighty Wind. Enjoy it. And then get up and start traveling.