A Week in the Desert

In retrospect, I was not prepared.

To recap how I got here: I tried all year to get tickets to Burning Man. Didn’t work. Gave up hope. Through random chance (and kindness) I managed to meet a group of people heading to Burning Man. I Met them two weeks before we had to leave. And the rest, as they say, is history. As this post will recount.

The group of Burning Man virgins I was to head down with all agreed to meet up and pack the RV’s on Friday, starting around 4pm, with the intention of leaving at 10pm sharp. This would allow us to arrive before noon Saturday and have the rest of the day to set up camp, pitch tents, get our bearings, set up the dome, all that.

The reality was far more chaotic. People filtered in from four until midnight. We didn’t actually leave until after 1 am. One surprised member of the troop commented “Oh, you guys were serious about leaving at 10? Hold on, I haven’t started packing.” This was, as I understand it, at nearly 10pm.

We packed an inordinate amount of booze.

And food.

And bikes, chairs, tents, carpeting, PVC, rolls of spandex, tools, sunscreen, throw pillows, hanging paper lanterns. And glowing things. My god the sheer number of glow sticks, EL wire, and glow in the dark do-dads. We filled two RV’s and two trailers, as well as the trucks hauling them.

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Only the essentials, please.

We even loaded up a six foot tall welded steel heart.

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Bike racks: not just for bikes anymore.

We drove all night, our caravan of RV’s and trucks with trailers. We stopped frequently for gas. Or food. Or regrouping. Night turned to daybreak, then crawled forward to noon and beyond. In the heat of the day we hit Gerlach; last stop before the vast empty desert. In Gerlach we topped off with fuel to last the week, and took on water.

If you are to spend a week in the desert, you must have water. Burning man recommends 1.5 gallons per person per day. We had eighteen people for nine days.

I did some quick napkin math, and while I’m not very good with numbers, my calculations showed we needed precisely: one crap-ton (metric) of water. Luckily one of the camp members had somehow found a giant “water cube”, which was basically a five-foot cubed monstrosity of a holding tank, braced with aluminum bars. More napkin math revealed that while this would indeed hold a metric crap-ton of water, the weight of said water might be a little more than the axle of the u-haul trailer was prepared to shoulder. After much deliberation and shifting of some of the contents in the trailer to arrange the cube squarely over the axel, the agreement was to fill it “mostly” full, and pray everything worked out. So long as the truck could still drive we’d be okay.

So we sped off down the single-lane road towards the empty desert. In our eagerness, our RV might have been piloted a little more aggressively than expected. The coolers shimmied across the floor of our RV, knocking urgently on the door, trying to make a break with our cold beer and food.

Then suddenly we were there. The single-lane paved road brought us to the edge of a vast, flat, empty expanse, like a lakebed long-since dried, white and dusty and featureless. This emptiness was dotted with orange traffic cones which neatly marked out a plethora of lanes winding into the distance.

Since we were there on early passes, the lanes were not filled with cars yet. However, we couldn’t careen wildly about the playa, as the speed limit posted admonished us to keep it down around 5 mph, so as to keep the generation of dust clouds to a minimum. We crawled patiently through the heat until we found the rest of the early birds; lines of cars waiting to get in. The lines were long enough we couldn’t actually see any gate or line of demarcation that would let us know we had arrived.

So we waited.

Every ten minutes or so the cars would move.  Between this time everyone got out and mingled with people from other cars, checking out each other’s outfits or what strangeness was strapped to each other’s vehicles for use later in the week.

An hour of so later our tickets were inspected, our early passes reviewed, and we were given wrist bands to mark the fact that we were allowed in.  The bands were bright red with black, gothic lettering:

“Work Hard.  Don’t Do Stupid Shit.”

A fitting motto, yet a surprising one given Burning Man’s perception from the uninitiated as a hedonistic, hippie-ish playground.  Nobody talks about the work that goes into it.

Next we were caught out as virgins.  We received a welcoming speech at the line between Burning Man and The Rest of the World.  We were welcomed home.  We crawled through the dust to ring a bell and proclaim loudly that we were no longer virgins.  Thusly baptized (and disabused of any thoughts of keeping ourselves in any way clean to start this adventure), we found our site and were shown around the boundaries by a “placer”.

At this point we had about one hour of daylight remaining. So we set about taking care of the priorities: food hastily eaten, tents roughly erected, but most importantly: bikes lit up.

To explain for those who have not been to Burning Man: you are in a desert at night, which means there is no light. If you are moving around, you need to be lit up or Bad Things will happen. People will run into you. You will run into people who don’t see you coming. If you are part of a group, you will become a roving damage field. Bad Things.

So we lit our bikes with battery-powered rope lights, chemical glow sticks, dangling lanterns. And we lit ourselves up too, threading glowing things through our clothes, hats, and shoes. Thusly prepared we ventured out en masse to the playa. This would become a nightly ritual that would never get old. Sadly, pictures can’t do it justice (at least not from my crappy camera):

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Playa at night. Got it? Yep, didn’t think so.

Riding across a darkened flat desert, cool wind rushing by you, amid a sea of lights, sound, and occasional jets of fire, turns out to be a spectacular way to pass a night. And we would do this every night because it is simply amazing. Even without a plan of where to go, you could see something in the distance, fly over to check it out, and invariably you would end up at something spectacular. A roving dance party in the desert. An interactive art installation. A fire-breathing machine. Some combination of all three.

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A lit stage in the background. Various madness in the foreground.

Next time I must bring a camera that is capable of nighttime photography instead of my poor little phone camera. We returned to camp after 2am. And that would be the earliest we ever returned for the rest of the week.

The following morning, I was awakened by the unexpected intrusion of Sheena Easton into my tent.  Apparently one of the camps near us decided that “My Baby Takes The Morning Train” might make a perfect alarm clock.  This was not the “oontz-oontz” experience I had been promised.  By 8:30 the tent’s greenhouse properties were in full effect and I was thus left with a choice of either getting up or dying in a puddle of my own sweat.

So we rose, gather for breakfast, and planned our fist day on the playa.  But not before we saw our first desert fish:

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A fish. In the desert. Sure, why not?

Our camp site was large, and climbing on top of the RV’s gave an excellent view of both it and the rest of Burning Man.

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The camp site
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Dust devil on the march.
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Panorama-rama

So, first order of business was to get the camp constructed, build the dome and all that. However, the encroaching sun reminded us that if we didn’t rapidly construct something to provide us a retreat from it we would regret it. So shade become the priority.

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Shade: a precious commodity.
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The common area, which would shift with the sun until every chair was piled under a tiny spot of shade.

With shade constructed, and our camp common area established, the real work could begin in earnest.

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Let’s build a dome in the desert.

A few of the guys had actually stayed up late, after everyone had gone to sleep and threaded all the branches we brought down into the steel heart to make it more awesome.

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My heart is a work in progress

With enough people working, constructing a thirty foot dome and decorating it, complete with sound system, carpet, throw pillows, and a giant beating heart decorated with leather souvenir bracelets goes pretty quickly.

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The fully operational battlestation. Err… heart.

Once we had the dome and our common area constructed, our attentions turned to experiencing all that Burning Man had to offer. And here is where days blend into one another and I fail to take any pictures to help distinguish or document the days. So instead of giving a day-by-day, I’ll try to summarize what boils to the top for me.

We quickly learned there is too much going on for you to possibly see everything. You won’t be able to even attend all the things that sound extremely interesting, never mind the “kind of interesting”, “slightly curious”, “intriguing but rather scary and intimidating” or even the “wouldn’t normally, but what the hell” options. There is a guide book that lists everything going on every day at every hour. It’s daunting. Most of us ended up wandering around and seeing what we ran into.

Which is not a bad approach, as it turns out.

We quickly made friends with our neighboring camps, especially the Shady Lady Saloon, which contributed to the community by holding happy hour every afternoon with custom created bourbon drinks, a new one each day and each one lovely.  The camp just up the street, Spank The Monkey, offered to instruct you on how to either give or receive a good spanking.  Up from that was the “Department of Collections” which had a wall of things or experiences they were collecting.  We planned to partner with the Shady Lady camp to earn the “30 Person Cinnamon Roll (group hug)” item, but someone beat us to it.

And the madness went on from there.  Yoga classes, tattoo stamping stations, football viewing parties (most unexpected), climbing structures, movie walls, and many, many places to have a drink and get to know people.

In between all this, we offered our own camp to people.

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Step into my office.

A heart that would pulse light in time with your own heartbeat if you put your finger on a sensor.  Leather bracelets to take away as keepsakes.  A place to sit and relax, listen to music, or even perform some if the mood took you.  Also a good launching place for our camp madness each night.

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Everything is perfectly normal here. Just another Tuesday.

We even hosted a guided bike ride around several points of interest on the playa, complete with liquid refreshment in the form of the finest (not really) bagged wine one can purchase (Franzia, natch). This was, of course, called the Tour De Franzia, and the bags of wine were well received.

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Count the things wrong with this picture.

Some experiences that stand out for me:

  • Climbing a plexiglass pyramid at night, looking around at the view of the lights on the playa from the top.
  • Finding a massive array of discs in the ground that light up when you jump on them.  Proceeding to leap from one to the next in an attempt to get them all to change color.
  • The Space Cowboy’s saloon, hanging out on second floor, looking out over the railing at the massive Burning Man experience go by all night.
  • Climbing into a giant spinning steel globe, and alternating climbing down to push it around, or sitting in it while others pushed, like an elevated grown-up merry-go-round.
  • A giant tesla coil that made music by alternating the intensity of the crackling lightning that erupted in the gap, a singularly impressive sight at night.
  • Riding an art car around in the wee hours of the night, stopping at art installations, dancing, relaxing, exploring.
  • Paint cannons that blast you with your choice of color (leaving you to figure out how you will deal with suddenly being covered in paint yet without ready access to a shower).
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More colorful than the dust one is normally covered in.

The days and nights eventually took on some semblance of pattern.  We would explore in small groups during the day, gather for a group dinner at night (no shortage of amazing food), recount stories from the day, and call out nighttime destinations.  After dinner and clean-up, we would proceed out in a massive lit mounted calvary.  Trying to keep eighteen people on bikes together through a nighttime ride through the streets of the playa was a unique challenge, and invariably we splintered into satellite groups.  We would run into each other throughout the night a surprising amount of times though, given there were sixty five thousand other people there too.

And the mornings would take on a certain pattern as well

Sheena Easton at 8am like clockwork.

Forced out of the tent by 8:30.

A walk to the port-a-potties where along the way a man with a megaphone would offer some morning jab at you.

This would be followed by a group breakfast to recount the adventures from the previous night, then the forming of small groups to explore for the day.

Eventually the week marched on, and the three burns that mark the close of Burning Man were upon us.  The first was the burning of “Embrace”, which was the first-ever day time burn.  We chose to watch this from atop the RV’s since none of us actually slept the night before and just couldn’t bring ourselves to be too far from our beds.  I do wish I would have made myself go close up as the experience looks to be totally unique.

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Sunrise is better in a pink onesie. And with your friend the bear, of course.
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The bear finds your exhaustion unacceptable.
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The burn! Less impressive from this distance…

Here’s what I missed by not being up close and personal with this one.  It is particularly amazing to see the dust devils spawned from the heat of the burn:

This being the first burn, it was sad and shocking to realize that this amazing sculpture was just gone.  One day you could walk up in it, look out from the eyes, marvel at all the work it took to construct it.  The next: it’s just gone.

The second burn was The Man himself.  We gathered the entire camp for this.  We sat in front of the man along with everyone else.  Sixty Five thousand people in one place.  It was remarkable that when people started sitting, everyone followed suit to ensure the people behind them had a decent view.  Art cars ringed the gathering, jets of fire shot out at random intervals.  Booming music played from every part of the ring that formed around The Man.

The Man’s arms were raised.  Fireworks went off and people cheered.  The man burned.  And burned.  The woman next to me and I shouted a discussion over the music while we watched it burn; her reasons for coming, what this meant to her, my reasons, our takeaways.  It took a long time.  Here it is reduced to one minute.

It was a big thing to watch this construct that not only took a massive amount of effort to construct, but also represented the colossal amount of work, time, emotion, expectations, and dreams people put into burning man, burn up into the night.  The message for me: doing good work is what matters, not the remains of your work.  The outcome is secondary, and ultimately temporary; doing the work is the important part.

Our camp originally wanted to stay for the third burn: the Temple.  After The Man burnt, we all agreed we would have one more epic night, strike the camp in the morning and head out before the infamous Exodus got too bad (it’s notorious to wait for hours in line as sixty-five thousand people all try to enter a one-lane road to Gerlach).  So we had an epic night.  And we all collapsed late in our tents and RV’s.

And at 8 am Sheena Easton reminded us that her baby was, indeed, taking the morning train.

And the sun pushed us out of our tents.

And the dome came down quickly.  As did the shade structure, all our tents, the sound system, and the throw pillows.  We packed the RV’s and the trailers and the trucks.  We handed out water to other camps as we drained what was left of the mighty water cube.  We picked up all aspects of our camp, no matter how tiny to ensure we would follow the Leave No Trace principle.

Our departure was slightly delayed by one of our camp members not showing up, but we left one car behind for him and the rest took off.  Exodus was an hour or two before we were again on paved roads.  We drove through afternoon, then into night, finally arriving back into Portland around three am.

And as great as Burning Man was, the shower and clean bed I experienced were pretty damn fine as well.

So a few notes now that I have had time to process Burning Man.

People have many pre-conceived notions of what Burning Man is.  A drug fest.  A hippie commune.  A sex party.  A playground for Bay Area Billionaires.  An experimental society.  An art project.  None of these are really accurate.  If you go looking for something, you will probably find it at Burning Man.  But you will find both more than you expected, and perhaps less in some ways as well.

To live for a week in a place that has no economy other than gifting is hard to describe.  The interactions and behavior this engenders is completely amazing, and a total antidote from the horrible feed of news that comes at you the rest of the year.  Nobody is trying to get ahead, keep up with the Joneses, or accumulate.  People give things, and both parties in that exchange feel great and are better off for the interaction.  I came out thinking the human race might just be okay after all.

Unlike any event or festival you might have attended, there are no trash cans, no facilities other than port-a-potties, no real central authority to talk to or rely on.  Despite this, there is no trash anywhere.  I saw no rowdy altercations or poor behavior necessitating security or authority to intervene.  Everyone took care of themselves and got along fine, all sixty-plus-thousand of us.  A friend reminded me that this is not a festival, it’s a community.  Everyone has skin in the game, and that’s probably a large part of why things just work.

There are two ways to attend Burning Man: you can drive down, pitch a tent or park an RV, and experience all that the place has to offer.  You will have an amazing time.  Or you can form a group (or join one like I was lucky enough to), put in the work and participate in the community.  I got so much more out of this second aspect than I expected, and cannot ever attend in any other way now.

And I will go back.  Oh yes.  I will return.

In closing, here’s a great video summary by another Burning Man virgin this year:

Who goes to Iceland in March?

Iceland?  In March?  Who does that?

The idea started years ago.  Hate, Rosebud and I were having a beer at Brouwer’s in Fremont.  It seemed delightful: a quick weekend jaunt off to the tiny, frozen place.  Sadly we never did anything about that idea.

Then suddenly BC and Rosebud sent me a message: it was on. Here’s a date.  Book the flight.  Take a day off work.

Let’s start with a fun fact about Iceland:

Geographically, it’s a little smaller than Kentucky.  However, at a little over 300,000 inhabitants, it’s quite a bit less crowded since Kentucky has over four million people.

So we left around 5:30pm Thursday, and arrived around 8am Friday morning.  Since I can’t sleep on planes, this means that by the time we arrived I was able to muster just enough brain cells to form monosyllabic grunts and move my feet with relative coordination.

Coincidence: this is a state I would return to late that night.  But more on that later.

The place we rented was right smack dab in the middle of the best part of town.  Now, Reykjavik is a pretty small place for a major city, so it’s not hard to be close to all the happening stuff.  But this place was something else.  A two bedroom loft on one of the main drags through town, a bakery right across the street, and a beautiful view out on the deck.

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Houston, we have deck. I repeat: we HAVE DECK.

Now, the interior was decorated in modern style mostly, which is very cool by me. Clean lines, lots of windows, funky furniture of questionable value for actually using, all that normal modern European quality. However, the artwork inside the place was… interesting? For example, one wall held this statement on it (and this is the only lettering in the entire place, it is not a continuation of anything else):

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BC demonstrates.

The loft contained a mere two bedrooms, and neither of the beds were the “two twins stuck together” that we might separate in order to comfortably house the three of us, so Rosebud and I opted to alternate on one of the beds; I would take first night, he would take second. The other sleeping surface was a perfectly serviceable couch. As it happens, I would not actually get to use the bed. More on that later as well.

Right. So we perused the bakery briefly, then agreed that a quick nap (no more than 2 hours, don’t want to miss our chance to get to sleep at regular times tonight) was in order. After that, we had to get the main attraction of town out of the way first: Hallgrimskirkja:

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Hmm, I don’t know Reykjavik, are you compensating for something?
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Mr. Erikson stands guard.

Another fun fact: 85% of Iceland is Lutheran. Another 10% are other assorted Christian alignments. Around 5% are undeclared or unaffiliated. What other country (shut up, Vatican City) can claim that kind of alignment around beliefs!?

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Surprisingly artistic entry doors.
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Impressive. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a European Church.
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Cleanest and most harley-esque organ pipes ever.
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Convertible pews! This is a game changer!
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View from the top
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I can see my house from here. I think.

Post-church, it was time again to indulge our stomachs. We wandered for a good long while before settling on a lunch spot that seemed to offer a wide enough selection to appease us all. Rosebud The Adventurous chose a Minke Whale Burger. It turned out to be basically a very tough steak slapped between two buns. Not worth anything more than the novelty of it. And for the amount of disdain and moral shame he should feel for eating a whale, totally skippable. I opted for the remarkably safe chicken salad. BC got a safe-sounding club sandwich, which turned out to be a fabulous surprise:

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Not your average club sandwich

While we ate, it came to our attention that someone thought a necessary dining view would of course have a depressed sculpture hanging its head for your enjoyment.

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Iceland: home to sad man sculpture.

Rosebud pointed out that this is remarkably similar to Arrested Development’s ongoing Charlie Brown reference. I’m not one to disagree:
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Post-imbibing we ambled around town rather aimlessly taking in the sights. While Reykjavik has many “normal” buildings, it also has some of obvious new design that stand out:

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Noticeably awesome building
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Honeycomb. Apparently Iceland has large, architectural bees.
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Yes, on the inside too. Fabulous.
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More modernistic buildings

It’s also got some public sculpture that is NOT of sad, moping gentlemen. Which comes as a relief.

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Solfar. Not to be confused with “sulfur”. It’s much prettier and doesn’t smell nearly as bad.
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Looks kinda like a scorpion from the front.

Also, while cruising around town there are other unexpected sights to appreciate:

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Not without it’s public wall art.
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Or some public “art” installations or a less ambitious, more pedestrian scale.

Lastly, just as in places like Croatia, the street names are sometimes a joy all on their own.

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Them’s fightin’ words, yo.
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Them’s… well, I have no idea what them’s supposed to be.
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STOP MAKING ME LOVE YOU, REYKJAVIK.

Eventually nighttime fell and we took a deep breath and braced ourselves to sample the nightlife. If you don’t know, Reykjavik is developing a bit of a legend where it comes to having a night scene and the party culture around it. We being old, OLD men (well, okay; I’m technically the OLD man, whereas my companions are just old): we were eager to see what the collection of whipper snappers could bring to bear.

Happily, we discovered some rather excellent bars. For example, the first establishment (the questionably named “Bunk Bar”) turned out to be a well designed, airy, and thoroughly hopping establishment. A couple of the local beers turned out to be quite nice as well.

This message was displayed on one of our later establishments, much to our approval:

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Dear world, please add this to every place ever anywhere. Thank you.

Some places were not quite the home run that these others were:

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Please form your own opinion on the fact that this exists. In Iceland.

Eventually we found ourselves in several British or Irish seeming bars that fit us just fine.

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You really can’t beat truth in advertising.

Now, the thing to realize about nightlife in Reykjavik is that it goes on for quite a while. In fact, it goes on far longer than one might expect. In our glee of trying new bars and new drinks and new bars and new drinks and new (well, you get the idea), eventually four or five in the morning rolled around. BC, being a reliable steward of such nights out, at one point ferried me back to the house when I had seemed to regress to my previous monosyllabic state, but we had lost track of Rosebud. So,
BC gamely ventured out to reacquire Rosebud, and on return they found that I was occupying the restroom, which was of concern as they were in need of such facilities.

Upon entreating me to finish up, the sad news was delivered that I didn’t actually know how to get out of the bathroom, the door refusing to release me when tried. They did explain slowly that there was a key, and it should be turned (as keys are usually supposed to be operated). I informed them that not only did I not know the location of said key, but could, in fact, not say whether there was even a keyhole in the door for application of such technology.

Long and short: in the morning when I awoke in the bathroom, the key was quickly located and the door performed as expected. The bed accepted my exhausted head for a good fifteen minutes before our bus was ready for our day’s tour.

Fun fact #3: Iceland has a split down the middle which marks the division of two tectonic plates: the North American plate on one side, and the European on the other. And you can visit this divide. Awesome.

So: the tour. First we bussed out to Gullfoss, a massive waterfall area in the middle of a stark, desolate plane of rock and whiteness.

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Gullfoss. Means “Gold Falls” Imagine my disappointment upon seeing it’s whiteness.
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In truth, rather impressive.
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Barrel ride over the falls is not recommended.
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Iceland’s saddest snowman attempt.
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Smile. Don’t think about why you came here in March, for god’s sake. March? Really? Brrrrr.

After Gullfoss, we visited a geyser area, which was notable for being rather bereft of snow due to the extreme temperatures from the boiling water which would erupt on a rather regular basis. It was also notable for having wind that would nearly pick you up and hurl you, screaming and confused, into one of these open pots of boiling water. This wind would never actually stop. No, it might die town to a minor threat for a moment or two, but then, as if to say “ah hah! Fooled you!” would pick right up and yank all of your clothes violently against your frame, attempting to tear it all off you. Alarming. And freezing.

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This is what a non-erupting geyser looks like. Not so exciting.

Only Rosebud had the patience to hold a camera steady at the geyser long enough, letting the wind tear at his frozen, locked fingers, to get an actual video of the geyser going off. Kudos to him. BC and I quickly glanced around the frigid landscape, then scurried inside warmer places.

Then it was off to the divide. The split. The tectonic rift. A placed called Þingvellir.  And it did not disappoint, as you can walk down in it:

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America on one side, Europe on the other.
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I can see Europe from here!
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There’s a lake out there. It’s kind of hidden by all that white stuff.
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No part of me thinks: gee, I’d love to set up a little shack out here. Kind of a vacation home, ya know?
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More of the lake.

We returned to Reykjavik red-faced from being windblown and more than impressed with the starkly beautiful, rugged and stony landscape. It really is a beautiful country, definitely worth seeing once in your life. Actually, probably twice: once during the cold, and once during a greener time, where maybe the wind might not be so committed to assault and battery at every chance.

That night we opted for traditional Icelandic food, which basically means a bunch of fish dishes.

Fun fact #4: 70% of Iceland’s export economy has to do with the fishing industry.

All the dishes were ordered with a little bit of hesitation as “fish soup” doesn’t engender the same kind of mighty salivating as a great steak or a even a scrumptious crepe. Salted fish on rye; similar. “Mashed fish” was the one none of us were going to touch, but ended up getting anyway. Surprisingly all our dishes panned out beautifully. All of them were quite tasty, with the Mashed Fish taking top honors. We all agree they need a marketing revamp, and found that once you put the word “fish” in anything, it takes on a less appealing aspect. Eventually BC came through with the improved name: “Flippers and Mash”. If you see this on offer next time you are in Iceland, you have him to thank.

We resolved that, while we would go out for another couple drinks, none of us were at all into the level of exertions we performed on the first night. Our first bar, called Ob La Di Ob La Da was approached with subterranean expectations, but it turned out to be quite excellent. Fate decreed that Rosebud would discover that an old college friend was in town at that very moment, so our threesome became four, and we moved from beer at the Beatles bar to whisky at the whisky bar. After that, the details don’t really matter but we found ourselves enjoying cigars on our deck at five in the morning and shaking our heads at the fact that we had gone through two nights in a row at that speed.

Overall, I’ll give Iceland 4.5 pickled herrings (out of 5).

I’m only deducting a half a herring for the bloody wind.

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At least they understand that their names for things are ridiculous.
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Farewell Iceland. I shall be back.

The Scarface connection

Last weekend the Elder came to visit, and to celebrate this fact, Fruit Cup joined us for a run around Portland multiple nights in a row.  Friday saw us out until the wee hours with the Navy Gang from Seattle.  Saturday we met up with Microbe and Vegas.

While imbibing of a cocktail at the Low Brow Lounge, I decided to order a pretzel.  In my defense, it was advertised as “The Crack Pretzel” and the waiter advised us that I’d know what that meant when I was on the third one and craving a fourth.  See, it was warm, soft, and stuffed with jalapeno cheese!  How could I resist?

However, the experience took a turn for the strange: the side of my face, along my jaw and under my ear, swelled up rapidly upon eating this supposed culinary delight.  It felt like a small mouse had been stuffed under my skin right at the joint of my jaw.  It was tight to the touch and the others around the table nodded their observations that, yes indeed, that does look swollen.

A subdued panic ensued.  The Elder inquired as to the exact ingredients of the pretzel (it’s, like, pretzel and like, fake cheese, man.  With bits of jalapeno…), but this is not a help as I’m not allergic to anything.  So we continued to sip our drinks and agree with each other that this was a rather strange event.

Within fifteen minutes the swelling had gone down.  We continued on to our next haunt, again ordering a round of tasty libations, with some snacks for good measure.  Again that mouse was inserted into my jaw.  This time sans pretzel.  And the drink was something entirely different.

Puzzlement all around.

A quick web search on symptoms pointed to the likely diagnosis of a Sialolith.basically a stone in the saliva duct.

What?  This is a thing?  This happens?  I’ve already got one bizarre malady that crept up as age sets in, now I get another?  Getting old is not fun, people.  Anyone who tells you different is deluding themselves and trying to drag you in with ’em.

So Monday I make an appointment with a doctor.  Tuesday I’m admitted.  I describe the symptoms and he stops me before I’m even close to finished and says “yeah, got it, totally a salivary blockage”.

He proceeds to prod and probe my cheek and jaw with all the tenderness of a meat tenderizer, while telling me how “Scarface” Al Capone relates to this; how it was a common punishment to slice down someone’s face, severing the salivary duct so that every time this unfortunate person eats, drinks, or even THINKS about doing such will have swelling and pain at the least, and at the worst: oozing puss dripping down his cheek and inside his mouth.

Ladies and gentlemen: we have a bedside manner WINNER.

However, the good side of this is that his prescription is to put a hot compress on the outside of my face a couple times a day, and eat lemon drops constantly.  This later order is in the hopes that the constant salivation will flush out whatever material is blocking my duct. My dentist might be at odds with that recommendation, but I’m not about to look a medically-prescribed horse in the mouth.

Especially not if it’s got a severed salivary duct.  Ew.

So four old dudes go into a bar…

Eight years ago, my buddy got married and we had a hell of a bachelor party for him.  Each year since we’d talked about getting the guys back together for a guy’s weekend.  This year we finally committed.

I’m used to the fact that I’ve got some travel karma issues.  Things can frequently go badly.  Sometimes big, sometimes small, but either way I think I’ve got a bit of a curse following me.  Probably some kind of penance for having such a ridiculously awesome travel life in 2013.

So when it came time to fly to Vegas, it wasn’t terribly shocking that things started to go all pear shaped.

So: wake up at 5, to the airport by six for a flight at 7.  All good.  The path was PDX–> SFO –> LAS.  Karma kicked in right as I got through security: delayed plane.  Something about high winds in SFO wouldn’t let planes land.  Wind?  Please; planes don’t need wind.  They run on magic and happy thoughts.  People try to explain to me concepts like “lift” and “wing shape”.  Balderdash: if you take a pressurized metal tube, fill it with people and luggage, then hurl it thousands of miles and expect it will just land, there’s some magic involved.

A couple of hours blinking sleep out of my eyes in the PDX gate eventually landed me in San Francisco’s terminal.  My original itinerary had a one hour gap between connecting planes, but since we had to wait around for two hours in Portland, I knew that connection was missed.  I felt strangely tranquil about this.  The day was still young, and Vegas wasn’t going anywhere (and, apparently, neither was I).  Checking in with United’s customer service yielded a slightly confusing interaction:

me: “Hi, my plane from Portland got in late, so I missed my connection to Las Vegas and need to get on your next plane”

her: “certainly, let’s see, I can put you on one at… 10pm?”

me: “er, it’s noon.  I’d rather not wait in an airport for ten hours.  Any other options?”

her: “oh, actually yes, it looks like there is one leaving in 1/2 hour.”

me: “Great, can I get on it?”

Her: “Let’s see… looks like it’s a full flight… let me see your ticket.  Hmm.  Oh, you are already on it!”

me: “But it was supposed to leave at 10?”

her: “yes, it was delayed.  High winds, you know.”

I attempted to explain to her about the whole winds / magic issue, but her polite and dismissive smile was impenetrable.  Regardless, I had a plane flight after all, so things were looking up.  Karma, it seems, was only going to trifle with me this trip.

Upon arriving at my gate, they informed me that the flight had been delayed indefinitely.  High winds, you see.

I did not attempt to educate the rather severe and harassed woman at the gate re: magic vs. winds.  Judging by the fact she’d been holding off impatient Vegas-bound gamblers for a better side of three hours left her in no mood.

So, I wandered.  And here’s where I’ve got to give Travel Karma an appreciative nod.  I would have never known how cool SFO’s temporary installations in their terminals were if I didn’t have time to walk around and discover them.  They had a museum-worthy collection of Japanese toys that I would have paid to see.

These pictures don’t really do the collection justice, and it’s less than half of what they had on display. Regardless: might be worth a flight in to SFO just to check these out.

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Obligatory Hello Kitty collection.
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Great Mazinga!!! I had this exact one when I was a kid! Well, okay, not this exact one; mine ended up filled with b-b pellets from some jerk who lived on my street. But still! Mazinga!
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A collection of Ultraman’s enemies.
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A ping-pong ball pitching godzilla knock-off. Because Japan.
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Godzillas. Of all shapes and sizes.
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Sweet Japanese kite art.
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A dress made of Hello Kitty. Because, as I said before: Japan.

Eventually whoever was in charge of such things decided we could go forward with the flight. And here is where Travel Karma gave me a little reminder that things can always be much, much worse. And also where my arguments regarding magic vs. wind were put to the test. Halfway through the flight the captain informed us that we would likely experience “turbulence”.  Now, I’ve done my share of flying so I realize this usually means there will be some bumps and jostling. Enough to make you look around slightly concerned and ponder what actually keeps the plane flying.

Soon after that the captain informed us it was too dangerous to have carts in the aisle, and indeed too dangerous to have flight attendants walking around so the remainder of the flight would everyone please just stay glued to their seats.

This was a new wrinkle.  But time passed without much more than a few shakes, so people started to relax a bit.  The tension that had formed with the removal of the drink carts eased and dissipated.

Then we suddenly had one of those fantastic “falling elevator” feelings.  The kind that last for just one moment too long, enough to make you go “oh God, we are dropping out of the sky”.  But not long enough for full on panic to take over.  People looked around, smiling and joking nervously as the plane again felt to be moving right.

Then the plane really fell.  Long enough for actual full mouthed screaming and assorted things to fly up in the air.  Like someone forgot to charge the magic fairy dust holders.  We dropped, things flew, people screamed, and then a great tugging force as the plane eventually decided that it didn’t want to drop all the way to the ground after all.  The joking was gone after that and people just clutched their belongings and white-knuckled it until we were on approach to the airport.

We did eventually land in Las Vegas (thus my ability to still type), but I would like to formally inform my Travel Karma that I fully respect how bad things could be, I really don’t need any more reminders or wake-up calls, thank you very much.

Sadly, my time in Vegas was not going to be the warm, sunny time I was hoping for.  Here’s the view from my room:

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You got your Seattle in my Vegas!

Regardless, eventually I meet up with a friend and past co-worker who now lives in Vegas and who showed me an amazing burger joint (Holstein’s in the Cosmopolitan) and a beautiful cocktail lounge with a view of the strip.

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Someone finally turned off the water.

We were joined later that night by the rest of the Seattle contingent: Rosebud, Dinjo, and Horns. So, there we were, a bunch of old dudes in Vegas. Things progressed as one can imagine a Vegas night would.

It did not, however, end up how I would expect a Vegas night might. More specifically: if you take a bunch of guys, put them in Vegas on a guy’s weekend (ostensibly in celebration of a bachelor party 8 years prior), where do you think this motley crew will end up?

Probably not at a dive Korean karaoke bar in a strip mall far away from the Vegas strip. But that’s where we found ourselves at 3am.

Now I have been to my share of karaoke bars before. Usually the best are the ones where you get your own room so you can be as ridiculous as you please, and I was happy to see this was one of those. But I have never been, and likely never will be in one again, like this:

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First: there’s a TV on the back wall and a projector that plays videos on the front wall. That’s all well and good. However, the videos are basically a running loop of k-pop, little wayne, and maybe a Taylor Swift video thrown in the mix. There is absolutely zero coherence with whatever song you may or may not select, the video loop will just play on relentlessly.

Second: the song you select will be played for you in nothing but the cheapest of midi renditions. Any kind of production value or nuance to reflect the original song will be stripped for this midi version. We tried many, many songs, and every one of them was tinny midi playback.

Third: the words are obviously transcribed by pseudo professionals. Amusing misspellings and mangled translations on english songs are to be expected. And these words are projected on top of the incessant video loop.

Fourth: you can get food, but it may not be what you expect. For example, we opted to share a few delicacies of the house: pot stickers and sweet potato fries. The pot stickers turned out to be hard crispy heavily deep fried concoctions with a small cup of soy to dip in, and a small cup of… ketchup? Because; sure, that makes sense.

The sweet potato fries came out as long, thin cut pale potato fries, but with sugar instead of salt.  And for dipping? a mound of fluffy whiteness on the side that turned out to be whipped cream. So, technically: sweet + potato.

We did our best to fully exhaust the potential of this place, staying for probably twenty or more songs.  And now we know how a bunch of old dudes end a night in Vegas: strangely.

Comrade, is this not an impressive hat?

When starting off in a new town, it helps to have friends.  It especially helps to have friends who live on a boat.  Sure, there’s the benefit that they can take you out on the boat in good weather, but an overlooked benefit is that if one lives on a boat, one falls into one of the following categories:

  • Love being on a boat so much you won’t leave it and become a hairy, suspicious hermit.
  • Never spends a minute on the boat except to sleep or sail.

Luckily for me, Fruit Cup falls into the later category, and as such knows every good place to go, every event happening, and every option (however marginal) to be somewhere other than home.  So it is that my introduction to Portland has not been slow and easy, but rather more of a shove off a high cliff into whatever teeming pit of madness PDX has to offer.  One such cliff revolved around Halloween.  Allow me to relate it to you now:

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I meet up with Fruit Cup at the Low Brow bar after work on a Friday and the laundry list of options he presented earlier in the day has narrowed to a single option: we will hit up Howl.

Howl, as it turns out, is a long-standing massive dance party on the eastside of the river.  A costume will be required.  I, however, have limited things in my possession, having divested myself of most worldly items eight months ago.

But Fruit Cup?  He lives for dress-up.  My lack of costume is not even a thing.  Why, on any given day in the trunk of his car he has a veritable emporium of options.  Sombrero?  Check.  Luchador mask?  Got three of ’em.  Fake chicken head mask?  I mean, who doesn’t have one of those in their cars for just such an occasion?

But this will not suffice.  We must go find fresh duds.  This being FC, he knows where to go.  A place called Red Light is our first destination and it proves to be quite capable of solving my sartorial needs for the night.  In short order I have tried on torn overalls in order to facilitate a hayseed / bubba kind of outfit (didn’t fit), a red lumpy shirt to perchance serve as the base for some odd disco-theme, a cape that might serve to inspire a demon / devil / vampire concoction, but none really lights up the inspiration sign.

Then FC finds a hat.  A marvelous hat.  A broad, ornate, Russian military configuration.  It screams, nay COMMANDS to be worn.  It promises to imbue its wearer the ability to speak with a stilted Russian accent, to begin all sentences with “Comrade”, and to influence many a vodka-laced encounter for the night.  In short order a matching military coat is found, then slacks as well.

The finishing touch: a mustache.  But not just any mustache: a long, bushy, black one.  With LED lights imbedded that twinkle on and off behind the black fibers, hinting that there is, indeed, a party happening on my very lip.

And so it is that this horror comes to fruition:

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Comrade, is this boat listing to the side?

Note the lone red dot on the mustache. Much more impressive in motion, I assure you.

Anyway: with FC set as a sailor (his girlfriend also as a female sailor, natch), and myself as some form of Russian military commander with secret lip-disco technology, we embark.

Upon arrival, a problem presents itself: FC has two tickets, but I have none. They, being holders of pre-purchased tickets, breeze right in. I, however, am left to languish in a line that extends down the block, and even around the corner.

This being a popular event, it could be a while.  It could even be that the place sells out. Imagine, all Russian’d up with nowhere to go! That would not do.

Still, there was nothing for it but to bide my time. This gives me ample time to appreciate all the creativity on display with my fellow line-waiters. Cookie monster is present, along with a bucket of cookies to offer everyone. Gay assess-chaps-cowboy puts in an appearance. Slutty Panda makes me wonder if I might have been better served being dressed as a stalk of bamboo. Ace Ventura with full tutu get-up and crazy hair make me curse the fact that I didn’t think of that. Laces out!

Eventually the line leads me to the guy that checks IDs, and it occurs to me this must be the most useless job ever on Halloween. How do you check the picture on the ID against whatever intricate and bizarre configuration stands before you? Answer: you don’t. Either that or he is so mesmerized by my mustache he just waves me in without a thought. I pay my money and begin my journey down the rabbit hole.

Now, it turns out this place is in an old warehouse down by the river. And it is huge. Multiple floors holding many rooms, DJs and dance floors. I wander about the teeming masses, pushing past Scary Batman, Sexy Wilma Flintstone, a pair of debauched Smurfs, trying to catch sight of my sea-faring friends. Eventually I stumble out the back to discover that the party continues even out there.

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The neighbors must LOVE this.

So, by now I’m pretty much sold on this place. A quick jaunt upstairs and I discover the sailors. Drinks in hand, we proceed to mingle properly.

Now, by “mingle” I mean “shout over the music”.  And by “we” I mean that The Friendly Skies (FC’s girl) proceeds to befriend everyone in site, which usually results in her introducing us hapless wankers to whomever she has currently befriended, at which point we proceed with the yelling and straining to hear.

Such is mingling in a dance club.

Fun is had. And many an impressive outfit is seen.  A girl dressed as SpongeBob knocks people out of the way with her cardboard box self.  A man with articulating six-foot wings that light up poses for pictures.  Multiple examples of Wonder Woman parade past.  Sadly I captured exactly zero pictures of all the awesomeness on display.

Through all this, it turns out we have situated ourselves under a backlight.  Friendly’s sailor outfit is all white.  This yields impressive results in the darkened room.

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Sailor tron?

Alas, as the night wears on, that fact that Friendly forgot to eat that day yields unfortunate results: her bloodstream becomes a solution of 90% alcohol and thus she and Fruit Cup bow out for the night. By this point, my own blood, if checked for alcoholic contaminants, would be found potentially abhorrent to all but the most desperate of vampires.

So the only option is to dance.  And dance and dance and dance.  Until, sometime around 2:30 in the morning, I realize that I’m rather tired.  Knackered.  Spent.  Ready for some shut-eye.

And it is only at this point that realize that tragedy has struck:

First: my mustache will no longer adhere to my face, despite repeated applications of stickum-stuff.

Secondly, and more tragically: my hat and I have parted ways at some point.

A brief search of my surroundings reveals that many of my fellow party attendees have started to lose parts of their costumes as well.  SpongeBob’s edges seem a bit worse for the wear.  The lone remaining Wonder Woman’s hair appears to be going askew, releasing a shock of light brown hair from underneath the blackness.  Poseidon’s trident has lost a tine.

Worse: I see no trace of The Hat.

And so it is with a heavy heart that I make my way back across the bridges, trudging towards my home, mourning the loss of, not just any hat, but THE Hat.  I mean, it really tied the room together.  Or outfit.  Something like that.

Luckily, at 3am in the morning, one’s concerns can be easily distracted. Especially by food.  Something which Portland does not lack:

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I love combining food as much as the next guy, but a burrito wrap pizza? I don’t even… yeah, okay, I want one. Gimme.

Prague part 2 – rolled by gypsies.

I decided to take the guided tour arranged at the hostel. Prague applauded my decision by ceasing the watery barrage for a while.  But not too long.  The weather in Prague seems a little psychotic.  In the space of 10 minutes you can go from sunny and beautiful to cloudy, cold and drizzly, and then back again.

First off, they took us to the center of “old town” to see a building with a balcony and an lovely picture of a woman hanging out in a field with trees and some other people gathered around.

Story has it, this woman had visions.  First she had a vision of her future husband, who she saw as a guy working the land.  So her people went out, found this guy working in a field and brought him to her.  Moral of the story: cupid.com is for chumps if you have people doing your work for you.  Her second vision was that there would be a grand city.  This would become Prague.  This girl really had some good people with her.  They got stuff done.

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Me, personally? I have a vision of gelato.

We then went to the busy town square. Here they have a cool astrological clock that all the tourists gather at since every hour there is an animatronic show where a skeleton on the side of the clock rings a bell and little windows open and twelve apostles rotate through.

It is the most underwhelming show you have ever seen. The clock is impressive though, and hundreds of years ago might have been quite cool. The neat part for me is that it all still works.

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A huge crowd gathers, then lets out a collective “er, that was it?” then wanders away with a vague sense of emptiness
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Town square. And blue sky. Yay!

We then wandered around town seeing many other impressive buildings and learning random facts along the way.

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Gate tower. Or something like that. Very gothic.
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Designs on the side of the building are done by building up layers of different colored material then scratching it away.
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Mozart debuted “Don Giovanni” here. It was too risqué for many Germans at the time, but he was quoted as saying “My Prague people understand me”
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It really was a pretty fabulous day. For about 10 minutes. Then it go cold and cloudy for 10 minutes. Then warm and sunny. Rinse, lather, repeat.

Eventually we wound up at a church, one of many in Prague, and heard a story that there was once a thief who got into the church to steal some of the riches there (churches back then controlled much of the wealth). He went to take the necklace from the statue of the virgin Mary, but the statue grabbed his hand and held him there until the next morning. When he was discovered, they severed his hand from the statue (I mean, you wouldn’t want to hurt the statue, right?) and left it there as a lesson to any other wrong-doers.

Here’s the thing: there is still a mummified hand hanging in the church. I know, right? Sadly I only have digital zoom on my camera so I didn’t get any good detail. Also: it’s not imbedded in any virgin Mary statue, so I’m not sure how it comes to be just hanging there. Regardless: I’ve never seen a mummified hand hanging in a church before.

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The (in)famous church.
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It has a lovely ceiling.
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The mummified hand. This might be the point where I decide I need a real camera.

Speaking of churches: apparently Prague isn’t a very religious place. Only 20% of people here say they are part of an organized religion. Old churches get repurposed. This one here was turned into a bar / strip joint last year.

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It appears God was not down with that plan as it went out of business shortly after.

All in all, the tour lasted about three hours and took us all over old town. Very cool.  Recommended.

So that’s all good. But what about Prague at night?

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Prague at night. It’ll do.

The food stalls in Wenceslas square (try to visit that every day and NOT get that damn “good king Wenceslas” song stuck in your head) are open at night. Sausages and other open-air cooked meat products are prevalent, along with many other options:

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Potato pancakes are a big thing here.
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Rings of coal-fired sweet and crusty sugary dough. I’m not sure there is a down side to this.

So, the old Museum was shut down for remodels, but it turns out that the week I was there they were doing one last thing: a nightly performance by the Czech strings orchestra being held inside, and this would be everyone’s last chance to see the original interior. Of course, I had to go.

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No DJs anywhere on the bill

This was one of the highlights of my visit. The interior was beautiful, sumptuous, and absolutely perfect for a small orchestra. The performance was intimate and stunning.

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Music too beautiful, I can’t generate any snark.

So, how do you follow something like that? Well, since I was staying at a hostel, pub crawls are kind of the order of the night. So, when in Rome (er, Prague)…

Several of the pubs look like a tiny, intimate affair from the front, but then you are led down flights of stairs into an underground maze of room after room.  I literally had trouble trying to find my way out of one of these.

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I don’t remember what that says, but should say “abandon hope, you are entering an underground labyrinth.”

Each place they take you has some claim to fame. Such as the Vodka Bar. Themed in cold war Russian style, I couldn’t help but think Dr. Strangelove would feel at home there. They have some crazy number of flavored vodkas. I tried “peanut butter and jelly” vodka. It is exactly as horrific as it sounds. They also had a room for live music with a giant Stalin statue dressed as the Joker hanging from the ceiling. I’m not sure why.

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Live band doing a pretty decent cover of Portishead.

In another room they just had random graffiti. Some of it was cool:

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Han shot first

By the end of the night they drop you off at a five story club and leave you to find your own way back to your hostel.

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Karlovy Lazne. Translation: leave your money with us.

luckily, everyone made it back okay, even without supervision, which I count as a big win after a pub crawl like this.  Unfortunately, an Aussie I met (let’s call him RacerX) didn’t make it back without incident.

RacerX wandered home alone after some time at the massive club, and on the way encountered some gypsies.  They befriended him briefly, and as he wandered away, thought to check his wallet, only to discover that his three hundred euros was now reduced to a mere fifty.

Yep, the gypsies took most of his money, but seemed to have a heart and left him enough to get by.  Unfortunately for Racer, he encountered a second set of gypsies.  Now, he was rather alcohol-addled, but still had presence of mind from his first encounter to sequester what was left inside his waistband.  This next set of gypsies also attempted to befriend him and dance with him a bit, but he quickly extricated himself.  Upon arriving back at the hostel though, he found he was now missing everything: cards, cash and phone.  So either the second set was very crafty and more heartless, or through some fumbling he just lost everything on the street.

So, if you wander Prague at night, perhaps keep your valuables somewhere more safe.  Like your shoe?  I don’t know, obviously I’m not good at securing my belongings.

A few more odds and ends from nights out in Prague:

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So, beer spa. It’s a thing.

Wandering around, especially on the weekend, you’ll encounter lots of street performers and buskers. I ran into this couple playing some really amazing violin music under the town gate.

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Much cheaper than the Museum show.

Many of the buildings are lit up at night, making a nighttime tour just as interesting (maybe even more-so) than a daytime tour.

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More Prague at night.

So: Prague. Really cool city. Lots to see and do. I will come back some day.

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The castle from afar. Yep, still need a better camera.

Ibiza, Eivissa, Eat Pizza.

You left your heart in San Francisco?
Well, I left my wallet in Ibiza.

But I get ahead of myself. Let’s start again:

Ibiza. When in Spain, this is pronounced “Ee-beetha”. In local Catalan it is spelled “Eivissa”. Most foreigners rhyme it with “pizza”. Regardless: world-over this is pretty much synonymous with clubs, the electronic music scene, and warm island party paradise.

It is all that and more.

When discussing my taste in music with actual musicians, I’m not sure I have a leg to stand on with Electronica. I think there is a lot of dismay and bitterness at how popular Elecronic Dance Music is, especially because these guys aren’t actually performingmusic. When it comes down to it, it’s just a bunch of guys playing pre-recorded music to a crowd of gyrating loonies.

Doesn’t matter; for me it gets at some part of my primitive brain and just makes me feel good . Also, the art of the thing for an electronica DJ is not the same as a musician skilled at playing and instrument (though there is a lot of skill and expertise needed to run a gig properly), it is that they are curators. The best DJ’s in my experience collect amazing tunes, arrange and blend them uniquely, and surprise their audience with their curated and set of music that they mix in real time, simultaneously driving and responding to the audience.

So for years I’ve been thinking of coming to the penultimate EDM scene: Ibiza. Back in May I had this all booked, and then I broke my foot. So now that I’m healed, this is a do-over of sorts.

First off, the island is everything you could want in a tropical paradise. Palm trees. Warmth, sun, sand and sea. A casual and laid-back atmosphere.  A great town for just walking around.

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This town was made for walking

It’s got a very active downtown, lots of shops and even a lovely little park at the center:

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Pleasant park is pleasant.

Moving on from the city, you’ve got a lovely coast line.

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The shore.
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The coast line just keeps going.
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Ibiza and a rocky outcropping from the beach.
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The beach. Not a lot of waves…

And even some unexpected things. I didn’t take the time to explore these, sadly.

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Caves!

While I walked around, the comparisons to Playa Del Carmen were inevitable. It’s a Spanish beach town, after all, with a very lively party scene. More: there is a huge disparity between those who have money and those who don’t. The very rich have amazing places.  The very poor live in squalor.  Ibiza seems to be much further developed than PDC though, which makes sense since this place has been a famous party place for many years. I imagine Ibiza is what Playa might become in a decade or so if development continues.

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Condos as far as the eye can see.
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This could be your home.
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the Marina
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The old town looms over the marina
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The view from the 1%
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Not a bad place to live, if you can manage it.
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Yep, doesn’t suck

So, one of the most unexpected things for me, was the old town. Also called “Dalt Vila”, and the center of which is ” Catedral de la Verge de les Neus”, or “Cathedral of our Lady of the Snows” (snow?  Ibiza?  Seems highly unlikely.).

Anyway, the old town is a huge fort type affair that looks over the rest of the island and protects the place with cannons pointing at the sea.

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The fortress walls around old town.
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Car entry to old town. I’d advise taking the walking entry instead. Much more interesting.
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Fort Houses
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Old town. Filled with old buildings.
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Cannons. And a guy dressed like a golden Jack Sparrow hanging out on one of them. Don’t ask.
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Boom.
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Good views from the battlements at the top.
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The view mentioned before
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Sunset from the top
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Night time approacheth
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Ibiza wakes up at nightfall
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The entry to the marina
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More sunset over the town.

But enough about the town. Most people come here for the clubs.  Here’s where things get expensive.  The first night I was here, David Guetta was headlining one of the main clubs (Pacha).  This was a little disappointing as I’d seen billboards for Paul Van Dyke.  But still, the kids these days seem to be all about Mr. Guetta, so while in Ibiza I figure it was mandatory I check it out.

Tickets: advertised at 90 euros.  Holy merde: no.

However, turns out you can get discount tickets from a number of places.  You find signs like this outside some of the major outlets:

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The daily club board.

So, along with a Canadian and a Brazilian that I met at the hostel, we shopped around for tickets.  Seems that every little clothes shop along the main streets has some sort of tickets connection.  However, Guetta turned out to be more popular than I thought: three shops were sold out, and the second only had two left.  Eventually we all got tickets for about 20% off.  Which if you do the calculation turns out to be “Still way too much”.  Regardless: gotta do it once, right?

At this point, I should re-assert what I learned about how the Spaniards conduct a night out.  You start with dinner around nine, followed by drinks from ten until midnight.  Between midnight and one o’clock you may go to your destination early, or you continue to have drinks and chat.  Some people don’t actually roll out until three.

The way this went down for us: we bought cheap libations from the market by the hostel, sat out in the warm air chatting about our various travels, then were pulled across the street to a rooftop where a guy from LA had a view of the harbor where we continued our drinking, mingling, and chatting with others from the hostel.  At around one, we hopped in cabs to go to the show.

The club itself is unlike anything outside of Vegas, and even those clubs are not the size of some of these monstrosities.  Pacha turns out to be not as large as something like Amnesia, which I would eventually attend as well.  Sadly my phone just doesn’t do well at night, so I have no pictures to provide.

The show itself?  Completely not worth the price of admission.  The club was packed to the gills, sweaty and a maze of rooms.  Drinks there are around 20 euros each (thus all the Spaniards drinking beforehand I guess).

The highlight of the show for me was when I discovered my wallet was missing.

Yep.  Wallet = gone.  Sadly I thought I’d learned a bit from my last brush with having no access to finances.  This time, I was out BOTH credit cards.  Also, my drivers license, an Oyster card, about 15 British pounds, and some other odds and ends I kept in my wallet.

The following day I searched my backpacks thoroughly, hoping I had actually just misplaced it.  When I came to grips with the fact I had been a victim of a pickpocket in a crowded club, I got to experience the joys of reporting a crime in a Spanish Police Office, purchasing a local sim for my phone so I could make all the necessary calls to cancel cards and dispute claims, as well as learn how to get cash when you don’t have a credit card any more.

The cliff notes advice to future travelers:

  • Split up your credit cards.  Keep one off your person at all times.
  • Keep a stash of emergency money in your packpack somewhere
  • If the worst happens, Visa has an “emergency cash advance” program where you can pick up money from any Western Union branch (luckily very numerous around the world).

So: more lessons learned.  After the day of scrambling and misery, the next few days were lovely in Ibiza.

So now I’ve had my Debit Card skimmed in Mexico, and my wallet stolen in Ibiza.  We’ll count the crime rate for both these places as pretty much on par then.  The beaches at Playa Del Carmen are unrivaled compared to Ibiza.  The club scene in Ibiza is pretty much the standard by which all others are judged.  So the deciding vote for which place is better?

Well, which place can you get tacos and guacamole any time of the day?

So there you have it.  PDC wins after fair and balanced research.  Still: Ibiza is lovely.  Come visit, but keep your cards and cash on lockdown.

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Street art = awesome.
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Farewell Ibiza! Enjoy my wallet!

Beer, Craic, Whiskey and music

Ah, Dublin.

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Discovered in a design shop. Herge’ would be so proud.

Being a fan of Irish pubs, I considered a visit to Dublin as mandatory on this trip. Almost like a pilgrimage to the promised land of stout beer and jigging music.

Dublin did not disappoint. As with all fabulous European cities, cool buildings abound.

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I’m almost numb to historic architecture now
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Well, okay, not actually numb yet. Beautiful.
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Impressive entry way

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There is a large and very busy shopping thoroughfare, with a surprisingly modern tram system.

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Fancier than most

And, for some reason, the world’s largest needle.

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Skydivers beware

Legend has it that the IRA blew up the monument that used to be there, and the town held a contest for what to replace it with. I suppose something that is all smooth, polished steel makes it harder to attach something like a bomb to.

Further walking around can reveal some interesting eccentricities. Like this display set up on the man taxi thoroughfare.

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The Taxi driver’s savior

So after a day of wandering, I wanted to check out local culture. By this I mean beer. What better way to do this than by visiting the source? Right: to the Guinness Storehouse it is!

The area leading up to this is very clearly blue-collar, working class neighborhoods. It’s all brick: the cobblestone streets, the buildings, walkways, probably even the plumbing, furniture, and children: all brick. When you actually amble up to the Storehouse, it can be a bit imposing.

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The Gates of Guinness. Not as imposing as the Gates of Mordor.
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A bridge to Guinness.

Taking the tour was in heavy contrast with the working class surroundings. Everything is modern, polished, glass and steel, and strangely formal. They take themselves very seriously here. You go through the process they use to make Guinness and the videos that play along with the plaques describing what you are seeing remind you over and over again how seriously each ingredient is treated (special strain of barley! Special blend of yeast! Water from the Wicklow mountains that the founder was willing to lay down his life to maintain access to!). There are video walls with characters in period clothing telling stories of the founder and what a great and phenomenal man he was, and his wife and kids as well.

It could have used a drop of humor. Or modesty.

Still, you can tell they put a lot of time and money into making this a premium experience. For example, at one point where the tour is talking about the water they use, you walk under a waterfall that flows over a glass roof. A cool moment set to feel like you are in a dark cave. My camera’s low-light performance leaves a little to be desired here.

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Curse my camera’s lack of flash!

You do get to learn some cool stuff, like how they started making stout in the first place, and how the famous foreign stout came to be (added triple hops since they are a natural preservative and the stout needed to endure three weeks or more at sea). Eventually you reach the seventh floor, and the whole culmination of the journey: a pint fresh from the source.

So the coolest part of the tour is absolutely the Gravity Bar: a room at the top made of glass with a 360 degree view of Dublin. You get to enjoy your pint of fresh, creamy, dark goodness while taking in Dublin from a great vantage point.

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Dublin as seen from Guinness

And from here, you get a reminder again just how huge the Guinness Storehouse is.

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Foreground: still all Guinness Storehouse.

Still, my favorite picture from the tour was this one seen upon leaving for the day.

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Stop pouring Guinness on the servers! They obviously don’t like it.

The following day, in addition to my ambulations around town, I decided that since I’d seen the source of the most famous Irish beer, I should (in all fairness) experience the source of the most famous whiskey. I wouldn’t want to be unfair. It’s for science’s sake, really. So, off to Jameson’s Distillery.

Turns out, they moved the actual distillery. But touring the old distillery was cool.

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Aptly named “old” distillery: not made here anymore.
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Chimney of the Gods

This tour is in direct contrast to most things about the Guinness tour. It’s a guided tour, so there’s more of a human element to it, and a few more instances of self-deprecating Irish humor sprinkled throughout. The building itself is well preserved but obviously ancient construction.

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Less polished, more “real”. Very cool.

During the tour you’ll learn everything you need to about whiskey, and see all the old equipment they used to make the stuff for hundreds of years.

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Little known fact; Jameson comes from small spaceships

They will ask for volunteers in the group, and if you are fast you can be chosen as one of the eight from the group to be official taste testers. I am very fast. If your are chosen, then at the end of the tour in addition to the free glass of Jameson everyone gets, they have you sample American (represented by ol’ J.D.), Scottish (Johnny Walker Black) and Jameson.

All but one of our group selected Jameson as the bestest. I was not that lone and misguided dissenter.

Having cleared out the two most famous Irish drinking exports, more ambling around town was required. This was also a good way to work through four shots of whiskey. Standing on the street corner I was concerned that the mixing of whiskeys was messing with my vision as I beheld a giant yellow monstrosity filled with people in Viking helmets. In Seattle we have these amphibious tours running as we wall them the Seattle Ducks. Here they theme it around Vikings. ‘Cause when in Ireland, I always think “Viking”, right? No? Yeah, I don’t know why then.

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Irish Viking Ducks

There are many places around town that I found street art had been used to good effect, which made me happy.

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Good street art makes most things better.
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Just ’cause your place is closed, doesn’t mean it can’t be awesome.

And back near the heavily tourist part of town (Temple Bar area), street art of a different sort. I watched this guy meticulously paint tiny details into a corner of his picture and wondered briefly what he does when it starts raining.

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Street art, except literal.

Also, ran into a sculpture that made me pretty happy. Didn’t find out what the significance of this running horse was, sadly.

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Coolest horse sculpture ever? Yep.

Also, there’s sections of Dublin that have clearly gone through a bit of an upgrade. Not sure if it’s well received or not due to the number of bodies present (or lack thereof).

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New town. Seems a bit… deserted.

In any case, when it doubt, strolling around Dublin, hanging out by the river is sure to get you some lovely views.

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The river Liffey.

There are many cool little shops to visit as well where you can buy anything from local made foods, local crafts, to blatantly touristy things. My favorite shop by far was the one where I found the Tin Tin design at the start of this post:

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Source of awesome stuff

It’s a tiny shop, but found within is layer upon layer of awesome. Just a few samples:

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I probably need this sign in several forms. T-shirt, poster, bumper sticker…
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It’s good to have a dividing line to group things by.

But eventually night will fall and you will require proper sustenance. Which means it’s time to really check out the proper Irish pub.

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Early evening, when things are still going your way.

Since I’m rather unfamiliar with Irish food (other than Shepard’s Pie), I just ordered things at random. Full Irish Breakfast at 9pm? Sure, why not? The waitress laughed at me, but I like to think she admired my pioneering spirit. Other dishes just sounded intriguing, like “Coddle”:

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Coddle, in Ireland, means a potatoe-y soup with sausages in it.

And it seems a pint of Guinness is mandatory with every meal. Or a half-pint if you are a wee girl-man (or, in fact, a girly-girl)

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A wee baby draught for ya laddie!

Along with your meal, you will invariably have live music playing. And after the meal. And well into the early hours of the morning. Music is pretty much omnipresent here, and as I would come to learn it’s just a strong part of Irish culture. If you are in a tourist part, this will take the form of a cover band, and they come in all shapes and sizes: from a lone dude with a banjo, to four guys crowded on a stage, and everything in between.

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Guitarist with a headbanger backup.

However, if you are in a touristy place with cover bands, you will come to hear several things repeatedly:

  • Wagonwheel
  • Black Velvet Band
  • John Denver (who knew he was big in Ireland?): Jet Plane, Country Roads, Country Boy
  • Johnny Cash: Folsom Prison Blues
  • Fields of Athenry
  • Whiskey in the Jar
  • Seven Drunken Nights

Strangely, even after multiple hearings per night, I’m not sick of any of these. Would still happily plop myself down in a good pub and yell myself hoarse singing along. Good times.

However, don’t limit yourself to one pub! Go wandering a try a few. You may run into all manner of folk out drinking. Young and old, man and woman, local and foreigner, they are all out doing the same thing in Dublin.

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Touristy district is touristy

You may even run into more “colorful” folks.

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I think she was explaining how embarrassed they were to find they each wore the same thing to the party.

A note of caution here.  Drinking is kind of a national sport.  Some people are good at it.  Some are maybe still practicing.  Some probably just shouldn’t play.  Example: at about nine thirty one night I watched a man in his late 40’s stumble to the bar, acquire a whiskey, drink said whiskey, then discretely and calmly lean over, arm still on the bar for support and proceed to vomit on his shoes.  For a good thirty seconds or so.  His pal eventually came to collect him an lead him away from the bar.

In happier news, music is pretty much everywhere here, and street corners are fairly bursting with buskers (which would be a grand name for a band, by the way).

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Buskers: younger every year. This band looked to be about twelve.

However, if you come to Dublin, you owe it to yourself to experience the more traditional side: traditional Irish songs, and Irish dancing. One good way to start this is to take part in a “traditional Irish Music Pub Crawl”. This takes you around to three different quiet pubs, led by two local musicians who will take time to explain the history of songs, instruments, language, dance, and more. I highly recommend you start with this instead of doing it late in your visit like I did. From this one experience, the musicians will give you a far better appreciation for the different styles and will point you to local pubs that host traditional music and dancing so you can continue to go enjoy this stuff.

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Traditional.

So, in summary, Dublin is a blast.  Things to love about Dublin:

  • Music is everywhere
  • Cool, beautiful, historic town
  • Good food
  • Friendly people
  • People love a good night out (some maybe a bit too much…)

Things to not like about Dublin

  • Weather.

Seriously: want to look like a tourist? Put on shorts in the middle of August and walk around. You will be the only one. I went into two stores to confirm that they don’t even sell the bloody things here.

Still, with the amount of fun you will have in Dublin, the weather isn’t even a thing. Enjoy.

Land of Haggis

A few more days in Edinburgh, a few more experiences.

I continued to walk about six miles a day, so my blister didn’t really heal until I was laid up in bed (more on that in a minute). Now, a wise(r) man might have availed himself of the public bus system, but each day as I set out, the massive blood blister SEEMED like it was all good, and the weather was just lovely, and I really need to get some strength back in my leg / foot after being out of action for so long…

Yeah, after the first mile the blister would quietly inform me: “‘sup?”

At which point it was only one more mile before I got to town proper. Maybe if I walk a little bit differently I can keep the blister from reforming. I’ll just put extra weight on my heel…

By end of day, with a full-on blister from wandering the streets in a strange hop-limp, I would admit defeat and just trudge home, reasoning that strengthening my leg / foot was what I needed to do to get my gait back to normal and this remove this whole massive blister / limp thing going on.

As a result of this I never made it up the Scott Memorial, as advised by YamAdventures Inc. Next time…

However, I did learn a lot about local food supply. For instance, you may run into many dishes that offer “neeps and tatties”. My initial reaction, that this was some veiled and lurid offer better reserved in a den of ill repute, was easily corrected by my de-facto tour guide, the most excellent host: Industrial.

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Learn the lingo, people.

Turns out this is mashed turnips and potatoes. Seems innocuous enough.

But come on Edinburgh: what’s with all the haggis? Haven’t you gotten the message that this is a “joke” food for the rest of the world? Like Lutefisk or limburger cheese? Why are you putting it on everything?

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How about: NO.
  • Also seen:
    Haggis offered at every late-night shop, along with Kebab, hamburger, and pizza. Your 3am dining options are numerous in Scotland.
  • Haggis sandwich. ’cause everything is better between two slices of bread?
  • Haggis pizza. Not making this up, people.

However, if you are to stomach down some haggis, you might need to have a bit of liquid courage to help you face that pile of assorted Sheep parts. Luckily, Scotland’s got you well covered here.

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Cocktails by the pitcher. Seems like a fine idea.

What you see in the above picture is a Dark and Stormy. A *pitcher* of dark and stormy. I felt a little like Merry (or was it Pippin).

Also, grocery stores there sell pancakes.  Wrapped up in little packages.  Yep, just a little ol’ stack of pancakes.  Looked a bit lonely without a side cup of maple syrup.  But hey: for 24 hour access to pancakes, I’m not sure anyone is complaining.

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24 hour access to pancakes. No cooking or cleanup required.

Saw a few more shows in the Fringe Festival. Some not worth mentioning, a couple that are.

The Horne Section ended up being a fantastic free-style mash of music and comedy. Super entertaining and unpredictable. Fantastic to see musicians free-associate along with a comedian who just made stuff up on the spot and do it so well. Highly recommended, and it looks like they tour all over the place.

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Unexpected collision of music and humor

There was also a fantastic Cirque-show with some impressive shows of strength and contortion. Can’t find a link to them though and don’t know if they tour, so that’s not too helpful.

Lastly, walking around at 2am in Edinburgh is blissfully peaceful. Even with a massive blister:

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Castle at night.

Subnote: One of Industrial’s friends cooked dinner one night. Steak and veggies , everything was arranged just so on the plate, by hand.

Dug in, super tasty.

The friend then mentioned in passing about some potential infection, a “tickle” in the back of the throat.

I stare in horror at the bare hands that have been so artfully arranging the food, and despair. The following morning I wake up with a “tickle” at the back of my throat.

Down for at least a day. But my blister healed.

Defining Amsterdam

A few more odds and ends from my Amsterdam wanderings and musings. First off, they might be pretty darn serious about their flowers, as mentioned previously, as well as their ice cream, but they are also equally serious about cheese. And I can’t fault them for this.

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Imagine that your town replaced every Starbucks with a shop like this.
Serious cheese, people.
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Grocery stores will not be outdone on the battlefield of cheese. Lactose intolerance as far as the eye can see.

And speaking of grocery stores, it turns out some very random things can make one feel closer to home. Take, for example, this sign outside their grocery store. Very reminiscent of a certain chain from the US:

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Albertsons? Nee, we noemen het “AlbertHeijn”

Now, while walking around I’ve found many a pooch trundling along with its human, or riding in a basket on the bike, or just chilling at a café. However, this city is not about to let the town go to the dogs I just can’t let that horrible line stand. Let’s go with “not about to let the streets run rampant with poop”

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Literally “Dog in the gutter”. I just appreciate the icon and the fact that it’s a stencil they paint everywhere around town.

Also, what post about Amsterdam would be complete without a couple more images devoted to language? None, I tell you. None:

Luckily, I found a bar whose name conjures surprising images:

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Wait… Beer, Café… Golem? This is a café where they make a golem out of beer? I’m not sure if that’s scary or awesome.

Also, as mentioned they take the ice cream seriously. I’ve done my duty to take a fair sampling. Repeatedly. I’ve landed on a favorite shop, and I’m lucky it’s a chain with many stores around town because I would never be able to ask for directions to it.  Ben and Jerry, as well as Haagen, should both be happy the marketing department for this store hasn’t considered how to spread beyond these shores with a pronounceable name:

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Pretty sure one must say “Gesundheit” after pronouncing this.

While walking around town, you will experience more canals than you knew were possible while still maintaining a thriving city. Eventually you might wonder, as I did, how do they ever construct these things in the first place? I mean, how do you build things *IN* water? Luckily, reconstruction of bridge number 5 (such a romantic name!) is underway providing me with at least a modern insight of how this is done:

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How bridges over troubled canals are done nowadays.
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Originally wood, then stone, now being re-constructed with sterner stuff.

But I’m left trying to sum up Amsterdam. For each place I’ve been to there are scenes that stand out in my mind that kind of define my experience there. For example:

Mexico: having lunch with a woman and her three adult daughters who I met randomly and just wanted to help me learn Spanish and talk with someone from the States. Nicest people you’ll ever meet. The mom wrote Spanish cuss words on the back of a paper place mat while her daughters debated proper use and translation of them.

Spain: Boggling at the Sagrada Familia with my new friend Mimic.

London: Legos on the carpet with Baylor’s son, with my leg elevated in it’s moonboot.

So how to sum up my time in Amsterdam?  Well, its not over yet, but there are many candidates:

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Awesome buildings and monuments that date back 800+ years.
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A water view for everyone in this city.
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Baby strollers. Not for babies in this town.
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Even the nightclubs are pointedly friendly.
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Love, right next to torture. That summarizes this place well.

But I think I had the defining moment tonight. I hobbled over to a small restaurant near my hotel. I ordered some bruschetta and a fish / vegetable dish along with some green tea, and I watched as the late evening sun splashed on people cruising by on bicycles, wind in their hair, smiling and care free. A pair of dark skinned Italian women sat by the window next to me, and a group of  middle aged guys behind me discussed spy novels and technology in Dutch, English, and what I think was occasionally Swedish. The food was fabulous, the people broadly European, and the weather was perfect.

So while Amsterdam has many sides: the pot and red light district, some impressive clubs and nightlife, beautiful buildings, streets and canals, I think it’s extreme multi-culturism defines it. At least for me. And just like the United States, I think great things come from a mixing of so many cultures and nationalities. This is an unforgettable city.