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:

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.

Edinburgh on the fringes

Edinburgh.

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Castle Fabulous. Visible from everywhere.

Land of haggis, castles, and awesome accents. It’s a great town on its own, and when you add their annual Fringe Festival to it, you have a recipe for awesomeness.

Back in Seattle, when I was still planning this trip, I talked to friend and co-worker of mine (let’s call him Makerbot), and when I mentioned that I wanted to spend some time in Edinburgh, he graciously offered that he and his girlfriend (Let’s call her Industrial) owned a house there, and I’d be welcome to crash when I was in town.  Fantastic.

Fast forward nine months, get through Spanish lessons in Mexico, a broken foot in Spain, abusing the hospitality of friends in London, a trip to the arctic, and I actually made it to Edinburgh to take him up on his offer.

A couple call outs here:

  • Nicest room I’ve stayed in since leaving my apartment.  Actually, probably nicer than my apartment.
  • Not only did Industrial agree to put me up (even though she hadn’t met me), but when she found out about my card-woes, she gave me cash to ensure I could have a good time at the festival.
  • Industrial stayed out drinking at Festival with me, her sister and their friend until far too late/early.
  • Also, the front door key is absolutely the coolest key you’ve ever seen.  Ever.

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  • Hard to make duplicates, I imagine.

So, add all this to the list of kindnesses I’ve experienced on this trip and can probably never repay, but just be thankful for.

Now, Edinburgh is worth visiting on it’s own. It’s a beautiful town, and large enough to have lots of interesting history, places to see and things to do, but small enough to be at times quaint, approachable, and super friendly. It’s got all the things that seem pretty much required of a European city. Like castles.

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Castle Fabulous, backside
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And fantastic buildings, streets, and alleyways.
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Beautiful park + gothic architecture = fabulous

And other impressive structures.

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Cathedrals? Yeah, we got those too.
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Canals? In Edinburgh? Ehhhhh, sure, why not.

However, it’s not ALL sixteenth-century stone and plaster awesomeness, there’s a fair amount of new construction going on as well.

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Not so castle-like.

All in all, a great town, and I’m not even taking into account the highlands. Then when you add in the Fringe Festival, well that takes things to eleven.

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Peeps everywhere.

The Fringe goes basically all of August, and there are a MASSIVE number of shows, far too many to make sense of. Also, most of these shows will be things you have never heard of. So how do you go about choosing some shows to go to?

Well, in my case, like I’ve managed everything else so far: arrive, walk around, and make it up as you go along.  As it turns out, this has some distinct advantages.  First off, there are so many shows that it’s understood extra has to be done to get your attention.  So promoters, artists, and volunteers are circulating the crowds, actively pushing information in your face about the shows you simply NEED to see.  One day of walking around the festival netted me a few brochures and such:

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A single day’s loot.

So in addition to there being many MANY shows, there are many MANY people milling about. This means it is quite difficult for anyone to really stand out or get noticed. You’ve got to resort to extreme measures. For example, as a man, you could dress like a giant princess, then break down in the middle of the street, sobbing about your broken wand, like this chap:

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OMG! My wand is all brokeded.

Note: he wasn’t promoting a show that I could see. No fliers to hand out, didn’t talk with anyone who gathered around, just sobbed about his wand, then got up, walked a while more, then repeated. Not sure what that was about.

Or, you could just spin some wool, which one would think is a perfectly normal thing to do. But usually not in the middle of the street. Got to be one of the more unusual street performances I’ve run across.

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Spinning wool. On the street. Like ya do.

Or hey, you could be a busker! Oh, but there are many, many a busker on the streets. What’s your angle? How about bringing Scottish music with a more modern style by adding a drumset and electric guitar? Done.

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Bagpipe rock

So, I walked around, got a forty-two pound festival guide, picked up many flyers and promotions, and talked to many people promoting their shows. Turns out that taking the time to talk to these folks about why you should see the show can be quite beneficial: oftentimes you can get free tickets out of them (have seen three shows for free so far).  Note – this might only work at the beginning of Festival, where they are all desperately trying to make a splash.

However getting the tickets and finding the show are two very different things. The guide attempts to give you a map with all the locations numbered (there are 300 of them).  The map is full of numbers, that correspond to a list of names on another page. The numbering on the map looks like it was assigned by meticulously writing numbers 1-300 on small pieces of paper, stuffing them in piñata, then shooting the piñata with a howitzer. The list of names should hopefully be in alphabetical order to help you find your place. Turns out no. How about grouped by map location? Nope. Hmm, maybe by promotional group? Wrong again.

There is no order to this. Maybe it was chronological?

So, looking at my ticket, I’ve got a venue name like “Venue 40, Udderbelly Grassmarket”. This is not a street address exactly, and if you are a visitor, the terms “grassmarket” or “udderbelly” might seem less than descriptive. After some asking around, you will eventually establish some landmarks. For example, udderbelly is basically a giant inflatable purple cow.

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Meet me udder the cow (see what I did there?)

Then, once you are actually AT the venue, these shows are so small that many of them are tucked away in dank-smelling caverns, unused for anything until this special moment of the year rolls around where twenty folding chairs are set up in front of a make-shift stage. This leads to some rather unfortunate signs that equate the show with activities of a less-than-special nature:

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Unfortunate grouping.

Regardless, having taken in a number of shows so far, I feel there are two in particular I should mention are worth seeing. In case you want to hop a flight and get over here. Or if you run across either of these blokes in the future, as I think is likely since they are pretty fantastic:

Jon Bennet: My dad’s deaths. This is a guy who attained some small level of Internet fame by traveling the world and taking pictures of things, pretending these objects were anatomically attached to his nether regions. He even got a book out of it. His stage show is stories about his dad and is funny, tragic, heartfelt, amusing, surprising, hilarious, touching, and worth every minute.

Howard Read: Hide and Speak – This guy puts on a show using 2-d animations projected on a screen that he controls with a microphone, game controller and foot pedals. It’s frantic, ridiculous, inventive, and hilarious. Also worth checking out, especially when he gets into heckling with the audience. Good stuff.

So that’s my first few days of Edinburgh and Fringe.  I’ve still got a number of days left, so I’ll probably have at least one more thing to say about it.

 

Updates on various issues:

  • My bank rushed a card to me which arrived Friday.  The PIN code, which must be sent separately, was sent to my brother (seemed easy: he could email it to me once he got it).  First Tech is in Seattle.  Elder Wanker is in Sammamish.  I got my card in Edinburgh before they could get a PIN code across the pond to the eastside.  Kinda odd.
  • My foot is nearly fully healed.  I hope to begin running again in about three weeks.  However, either due to a different gait or some other factor, I’ve developed a huge blood blister that I keep re-creating by walking around for 4-8 hours a day.  Today is day five of dealing with this.  I may have to just amputate, the foot is far too much trouble.
  • For those reading along on the YA novel I’ve been working on, I failed to post any chapters whilst cruising around the arctic.  I apologize, and think this is proof that breaking my foot was the best thing that could have happened for my writing.  I’m back to my regularly scheduled posting schedule now.  New chapter today, more new every Sunday, Tuesday and Friday.  Should be complete in one week.  Thank you SO much for following along, having early criticism and feedback is invaluable.

No Dark Thirty

“We are sitting in a bar on a ship, drinking a beer in the middle of the arctic, while a Philippino cover band busts out ‘Country Roads’ by John Denver.  What.”

This was uttered to me by my erstwhile travel companion, Hate, as a reality check.  It served its purpose well.

We started off in Oslo, where I met up with Hate and Damage.

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Damage and Hate. They look nice enough…

The former was named thusly for reasons that are obvious to anyone who spends more than five minutes with her. The latter earned her name through copious amounts of self-inflicted damage through use of various and sundry power tools or yard-taming devices.

We had a seven hour layover in Oslo.  Since Damage is the most organized of the group, she decreed that we would use our time to go in search of boats.  Specifically, the Fram and the Viking ship museums.  I will just brush over this stuff as Oslo deserves far more time that I gave it.  The town itself is clean, historical, beautiful, and full of character.

One of the main buildings was having a remodel done, and they printed out a tarp to look like the real thing, just to maintain the illusion.  Well done:

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Impressive. Though the paper front makes one suspect this might just all be an elaborate façade.

From there, it was short ferry ride to the boat museums. The Fram is basically a temple to Roald Amundsen and crew, documenting their impressive polar expedition.

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He froze. They moved his as-is to pose in front of his boat. Seems a bit barbaric.

The most impressive part? The boat itself. It was designed to get stuck in the ice, built bulbous and massively curved to keep from getting crushed but instead pushed up on the ice, and the plan was to just let the ice flow carry them.

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Must have had a hell of a time finding a place to rent that would store a boat this large.

The museum is well worth a few hours of time, reading through everything they went through and picturing how dangerous and crazy it must have been at that time to attempt what they did. While in Oslo we also had to check out the Viking museum. Because, well, VIKINGS.

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Viking boat! I feel the urge to pillage rising… RISING…
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Even the Vikings had a sense of style. That’s a pretty impressive curl. My peeps on Project Spark should feel vindicated by this.

I was a bit crestfallen to learn that each of the three impressive boats there weren’t actually used for the pillaging of far off lands, but instead were burial ships. However, my imagination is not bound by silly things like reality, so I just jettisoned that “fact” and let my mind wander.

Soon it was time to go. We had to acquire some snacks though. Two things to know about Norway:

  1. They love their queues.  If you get in a line, you need to look out for a number dispenser.  Several times I went to talk to someone only to be rebuffed and sent away, chastised, to take a paper ticket from a dispenser.
  2. Buying anything, even a cheeseburger, will likely involve taking out a mortgage or providing collateral.  Example: simple cheeseburger at the airport?  $35.  Hate opted for “cheez doodles”
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Truth in advertising: they claim they are the “cheesier” snack. They are, in fact, cheesier than many things. Rocks and pocket lint, for example.

Damage had been good enough to agree to Sherpa various cold weather gear across the Pacific for me, since I didn’t want to haul this across Mexico and Spain. Elder Wanker agreed to supply these from his rich cache of snow boarding equipment, and so it was that she arrived with several pairs of gloves, a hat, goggles, snow pants, parka, several pairs of wool socks, and enough hand-warming packets to burn a hole in a glacier. He also provided me with a little taste of home in the form of “Mike & Ike’s”. I mentioned potentially missing these once in some obscure blog post that has now been long forgotten, and for those of you unfamiliar, these are basically elongated jelly beans and I’ve been known to plow through a theater-sized box in one sitting. So, I was tickled to receive a box. I was more tickled to discover a second box. The third and fourth box seemed like they were just overdoing things a little. To quote Monty Python: “Five, is RIGHT OUT”. Yep, diabetes here I come.

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Proper consumption technique

From Oslo, it was a short ride up to Svalbard. More specifically Spitsbergen. More specifically than that, Longyearbyen.

Flying into Svalbard (the archipelago) is magical.  I didn’t have a window seat, so my ability to snap pictures with my little camera phone was limited.  But picture God’s own vat of Cool Whip, all smooth rounded piles of white and elegant pointed ridges and tops, with a few jutting and ragged mountains of rock stabbing out of the whiteness and you’ve got a decent idea.  And looking out at that landscape reminded me: I would not see darkness again for more than week.

The plane landed in Longyearbyen (the town of Longyear, if that is correct interpretation of Norwegian naming), and promptly disgorged us through both for and aft doors (already getting the hang of sailor-speak, see?).  The town isn’t large enough for all the trappings of a modern airport, so the plane just drops you off on the pavement and basically says “welp, good luck to ya.”

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Welcome to Longyearbyen. Hope you don’t freeze.

We settled into the “Radisson Blue”, which was a surprisingly good hotel for being out in the middle of nowhere, then experienced our first “night”. Note: it is basically required for all houses to have curtains thick enough to survive a nuclear blast so as to keep out the blinding sun 24 hours per day.

In the “morning” (really, such distinctions fall away out here, we’ll just say, when we woke and dragged ourselves through our starting rituals of showering and such), we explored the bustling burg of Longyear. They are good enough to supply a couple tourist attractions.  The museum is surprisingly well appointed and extensive for a town of a couple thousand people.  Also, walking around town you find a few curiosities:

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Polar bears: less ferocious when cast in steel.

We wanted to get down to the coast, but were impeded by a sign explaining that the Arctic Terns would attack you if you came near their nests, and explained that you could hold aloft a stick (provided, happily) to keep them from pecking your head off. It also instructed you not to wave the stick around, which might hurt the birds, but just hold it above your head. So while we weren’t sure if this was some sort of practical joke the locals entertained themselves with (“look, more tourists holding sticks! Ha ha!”) we took the sticks and went along.

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Er… carry sticks? Okay. Is this tourist hazing?

Turns out they weren’t kidding. Two birds came leaping and screeching at us, then saw the sticks poised above our heads and thus stayed a safe distance from us, boiling hatred and menace in our general directions. This prompted Hate to observe:

“So, you don’t have to fend them off with the sticks, they just get intimidated by it? So they are stupid. And angry. They are basically Americans.” And thus the Tern would be known as “The American Bird” for the rest of the trip. One of the many nicknames to be generated.

But I get ahead of myself. Finally it was time to board the ship:

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Welcome “home”

Now, while this is a cruise ship, it’s not really your “typical” cruise ship. It holds a little over 100 guests, and was converted from a car ferry. Still, it was perfectly nice for our voyage. We got the first of many briefings (this one of security, general rules and structure, how to put on life vest, etc), then prepared for departure.

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View from the bow, Longyearbyen harbor.
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Ooooh. Looks all… arctic-y.

We got underway and had our first meals and first sleep-period on the boat (really, you can’t call it a night when it’s just blazing sunlight the whole time). Now, this is a cruise ship, so food is plentiful. This is dangerous, as there’s also a lot of down time while cruising around between destinations where there’s not a lot to do, so eating always sounds like a great idea. Urp.  As a down-side, the hand sanitizer provided smelled like tequila gone bad, so that put most people off their appetite.  All the more for me.

Day two saw us on our first expedition, but it was rather a let-down. We rode out in groups of ten on zodiacs (big rubber boats) and walked around our first arctic tundra. We were told to keep well behind the guide who would be armed with a rifle. They posted several other long-range lookouts to scout for bears. They take their bear sighting seriously. They pointed out many different kinds of plants, which I found hard to get too excited by. The landscape was stark and beautiful, though the day was gray and cloudy. The tundra was surprisingly squishy, like walking on brains.

Near the end though, we came back to the landing spot and found a couple of walrus. Everyone gathered a safe distance away to take photographs, then Frank, one of the on-board wildlife experts, went up close to the walrus, barking and woofing. It was impressive to watch them respond, they wobbled up to him, confused, trying to see if he was actually one of them. I would always wonder if I was saying something insulting about their waistline if I attempted this. No pictures taken as I couldn’t get anything useful without a zoom lens. Ah well.

Every night there would be a “debrief” where on-board experts would do presentations about what we saw that day, or history of the area and other topics.  I wasn’t expecting this, and honestly found it to be one of the cooler parts of the trip.  You come away with a bunch of knowledge every day that you didn’t have before, ready to apply it to what you encounter the next day.

At dinner every night, we were joined by Damage’s friend who was the Kayak Master on board.  He fit right in with the levels of sarcasm provided and more than earned the name Caustic.  So, while the days were filled with beauty, the nights were balanced out with a dinner recap between Hate, Damage, Caustic, and myself.  It was as strange counterpoint, but I left most nights weary from laughing so much.

Day three we stopped off at a research base, and a place named “Ny London” (New London), which was rather ambitiously named.  First the research base:  we walked around the town, took in the scenery, saw some birds, and learned about how Amundsen died looking for his one-time partner, then competitor, Umberto Nobile and the saga of airship exploration to the north pole.  Overall good stuff.

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Damage flaunts the rules. Might be why she ends up earning her name.
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Commemorating the blimp. Dirigible. Flying ship. I wonder if there are any good steampunk arctic stories?
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Tie your balloon to the top and stay the night.
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Oh Amundsen. You so dreamy.
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It once cost me $40 to ship some reese’s pieces to my sister in Japan. Can you imagine what it costs to ship a couple of marble dragons from China?

Ny London.

As I mentioned: ambitiously named. Some guys were panning for gold and failed for many years. So then they found marble and set up a company to ship marble from here to all around the world. Got hundreds of thousands of pounds invested, set up lots of infrastructure then found that the marble, while beautiful when in the ground, basically crumbled to dust once you moved it. Heartbreak and tragedy followed. So we basically just get to be tourists in their misery.

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Oh I don’t know, a few throw pillows, couple cans of paint, this could be quite nice!
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Can you say “Steampunk”? This seems positively built for it.
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The pit of despair. Or more precisely, the pit of crumbly marble.
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You built it wrong. Roof should pitch up. To keep off the snow, right?
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If one was talented with a camera, one could get some good shots here.
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I *really* wanted this to be a trebuchet.
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Little house on tundra. Very different than little house on the prairie. Far less Laura Ingles Wilders running about.
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The arctic. More nuance than just snow and ice, it turns out.
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Base of operations

Day four knocked it outta the park. We saw a blue whale. Now, taking a picture from the deck of a boat, even of something as large as a blue whale, just doesn’t do it justice, so I didn’t even try.

But come on people:
We.
Saw.
A Blue Whale.

I was pretty much happy to end the tour there. Largest living thing in the world, and I got to see it. Now, there are some pictures taken by the on-board photographer that they say will be made available to us all, but on last checking there’s nothing on the site they provided for us, so at some point I hope to update this post with those pictures. They are worth it. There was even a police boat that came to check on us, and almost got wiped out by the whale. Both boat and whale scared the hell out of each other and both buggered off. Fun times.

However, that wasn’t all! We also went kayaking out to glaciers and saw some fantastic calving happen. Giant towers of ice splitting off from their wall, crumbling to the sea in a cacophony of cracks and booms. Impressive. No action shots of calving, sadly.  In fact, no shots from this day at all because I didn’t even think bringing my phone with me while kayaking would be a valid option.  I remedied that in future excursions.

Day five we got what everyone wanted.  First off, we got up to 90 degrees north (very close, geographically speaking, to the North Pole), we got into massive ice fields, and we saw our first polar bear.

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Polar bear. It’s there, trust me. Curse my lack of zoom lens!

So, yeah, the image is pretty underwhelming. Again, I’ll update this when I get access to all the excellent zoom-equipped images. For now, use your imagination.

Day six, disaster struck. Well, it struck me, at least. I came down with the same Montezuma’s-revenge type of stomach hell that I last experienced in Mexico. There was a family from Portland on board that all came down with it in the previous days, so I blame them. I stayed in my bunk, alternating between sweating, sleeping, and running to the bathroom. I heard people went out to “the bird cliffs” and saw another bear. I hobbled up on deck near the end of the day and took a few pictures. I couldn’t get terribly excited about it.

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The cliffs of relative insanity. Or at least less-than sane amount of birds.

The following day I was magically all better. Sadly, it turns out that I had passed the evil to Hate. She lay in her bunk and plotted my demise, promising no less than ten times that I would die for this. I chose to enjoy my final days on this earth. I kayaked around more ice bergs. I climbed a glacier. I got to see an ice berg roll, break apart and disintegrate right near my kayak, which was alarming and impressive all at once. And I took pictures:

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Glacier hike:

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Okay, now that looks legitimately arctic.
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Everything here is glacier. A river is running through it.
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Base of the mountain, as far as we went on the glacier.
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View from the glacier.
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View from other direction off the glacier.

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Ice applied to the top of the head is quite cooling.

Eventually Hate got better and we agreed on a hold to hostilities long enough to take a zodiac tour around an ice field full of bergs. Fun fact: ice bergs have five different names. The top three aren’t all the interesting (small berg, medium berg, large berg), but the first two are great. The smallest ones are called “growlers”. Yep, just like those things you fill beer with. The second largest are called (and I’m not making this up) “bergy bits”. Yep, that’s the actual name.

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River flowing off of the shelf. Would make a hell of a good water slide.

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Ship not shown to scale.
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Oh hi. I have a berg behind me. And I’m quite cold.

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Look! Look! Another ice berg!

The following days start to run together, and since this post has gotten ridiculously long, I’m just going list some high points:

Kayak trip out a relaxing coast line where we got out and hiked a rocky beach and found a perfect place for solitude at the base of a monstrous glacier, looking out at a perfectly blue sky day.

A shore landing with five walrus, as well as a walrus bone yard and old shacks used for over-wintering.  If living with no darkness was strange, how hard would it be living with no light?  No thanks.

Many many polar bears, some of them eating seals leaving bloody smears across the ice.  Nature in action!

The final kayak trip out to a shelf where we found a berg that must have broken off from the base of the glacier; super-compacted ice along with dirt and rocks that gave it a stunning and unique appearance.

A shore landing where we found arctic fox kits, a small herd of raindeer (named derp-deer, ’cause man do they look derpy when you see them up close), birds that dive-bombed both the deer and one of the guys trying to photograph the attack, and more raindeer poop than you can shake a stick at.

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Another cave! w00t!
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All the comforts of home.
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Bones. These two might not actually fit together.

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Shack. Walrus bones. Mountains.
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Meebus didn’t have a life jacket. He made do with what was around.
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Walruses. Walri?

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Dirt, when encased in ice, becomes a little more beautiful.

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Tranquility found

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Kayaking around glaciers: achieved.
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Come to Svalbard, land of death and poop.
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There are two foxes in this picture. If I had a zoom lens you might be able to see them.

Some assorted beauty shots:

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In between all these excursions, there was much food eaten (the chef kept a pretty good variety nigh-to-night).  Nightly on-board music was provided by an LA dude named Clayton (which was quite the contrast: a sun-drenched musician in the arctic).  We gathered for drinks at the bar most nights, and one night the staff band got up and played for three hours (covering, among other things, “country roads”, as mentioned).

Things in the bar weren’t always strictly logical.

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There’s something different about you. Did you cut your hair?

Then finally back to Longyearbyen, onto a plane, and back to the real world. Looking back, the arctic has more majesty and mystery than I could possibly appreciate immediately. I find myself constantly thinking back and reliving my days there: being on the ice, or looking out from land at what the world looks like in its pristine, untouched, unpolluted state.

Sadly, the real world does encroach there: plastic washes up on the shores, and the ice is retreating rapidly. If I return to visit again in five years it will likely be a different, and lessened place than I saw now. But I am completely grateful I got to experience it as it is now.

On a clear day you can see forever. The air is crisp and has a clarity I haven’t experienced before. The land is raw, elemental, and strikingly beautiful. If you are in need of mental clarity, surrender, and tranquility, this place can provide it. This is a world so separated from your normal life it can take you completely out of your tiny self-important state. And if you want to see this world unspoiled and pristine, this is a stunning example of it.

Now I’m back to real life, and big cities.  There are some benefits though:

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Civilization.

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.

Walking. Healing. Geekery. Writing.

when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; 
for there is in London all that life can afford."

 — Samuel Johnson

London is far more interesting when you are ambulatory. As my healing progresses, so does my experience of London. Brief note on the foot: follow up declares that no surgery is needed, no further movement of bones is seen, life may indeed return to normal some day many weeks from now. Side note: moving around enough to work up a sweat means a walking boot can become… stinky.

But on to more pleasant topics!  Whilst making my way around London with ever progressing pedestrian capabilities, I have begun to sample a bit more of what she has to offer.  For example, I met up with fellow Barcelona Hosteller Schnaps, fresh back from Portugal, and she and I procured cheap tickets to a showing of Spamalot.  Needless to say, if you enjoy Monty Python and musicals, you owe it to yourself to see this.  I’ve seen it once before, but my how times have changed over six or seven years.  The play has evolved and at numerous points the cast saw fit to add lib to themselves and the audience, making for a particularly unpredictable show.  While it can’t come anywhere close to being as amazing as Book of Mormon (still the best thing I’ve ever seen on stage), it’s a fun show.

In addition, Baylor and I took a turn out on the town to quaff beer and cider at several fine local watering holes.  In London, it seems that starting around 4 on a weekday the pubs begin to fill up and spill out on the sidewalks with people who are just damn finished with working and would kill for a pint.  I attempted to blend in with the suits-and-tie crowd by wearing all black along with my black walking boot and black-topped crutch.  I’m sure I was a natural.

While stumbling from one pub to the next, I got to record a few more excellent buildings in London.  For example: the stack of coins:

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Yep. Coins. Ostensibly the Mayor’s office is here. You think they could stack them straight, no?
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The Tower bridge. Blue and white seems more festive than I’m used to with British architecture.
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Much construction going on.

Another day, while stumping along on my own, I discovered a store that is Geek Holy Ground: The Forbidden Planet. This place is amazing. Upstairs is a sprawling collection of models, figurines, paraphernalia, toys and other goodies related to comics, games, movies, and all things geeky. Downstairs is a massive dungeon of comics, graphic novels, RPGs, sci-fi and fantasy books. A few images to drive the point home:

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So, sure, they have Star Wars. I mean, that’s just baseline expectations.
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Love me some TF.
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Sweet TV Batman.
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Well, it’s England. They kind of HAVE to represent, no?
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House Baratheon scarf and cap? No? How about Stark? Lannister? It’s all here.
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Ye old Wall Of Portal.
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Bruce Lee in a chair, wearing a suit, giving you a “thumb’s up”? Check.
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Because you need your own minecraft sword, but you don’t want to actually forge one like that one guy did.

Another great thing about London: free museums. Yep, just walk right in. And they are non too shabby, too:

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The British Museum has a purty ceiling.
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Nice mix of classic walls and artistic, modern architecture.

Many impressive things await you at the British Museum. Much of it, strangely, having nothing to do with Britain. However, there was one display in a larger collection themed around “life and death” that I thought was absolutely brilliant. There were old pictures, snapshots from moments in people’s lives, lined around a massive center piece which was a tapestry made of pills. Yep, some seventeen thousand and more pills from vitamins to pain killers to heart medication, all stitched together to represent the pharmacopeia of two people’s life from birth to death. There were printed pages detailing how vitamin K is prescribed for a new born, all the way through being diagnosed with heart disease (for the man) or menopause (for the woman) and the requisite prescriptions. I thought it was a fascinating statement about our casual reliance on health in pill form.

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Every pill a couple would take from birth through death, snipped out in their individual blister package, woven into a massive tapestry.

Heading home I noticed this at Green Park subway station: if you want to see a map of the Underground, but really don’t like things printed on icky, boring paper, they have hung this on the wall:

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Made of all Legos. Why? Because awesome, duh.

Lastly, for those interested in reading (and critiquing!) my in-progress novel aimed (potentially) at the young-adult crowd, I’ve committed to posting new chapters every Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday. Three chapters a week (oy). I’ve gotten some great, insightful, and super-duper-helpful feedback and critiques on what I’ve posted already, so once I actually get the whole thing written I’ll be re-writing it with all the changes I see I need to make.  Thanks for those of you reading along and making the story better!

London via crutches

When I left the hospital last week, I asked how much walking I was allowed to do on my leg.  The answer was “as much as you can bear.”

So I decided to put that to the test and finally make like a proper tourist after spending many many days at my friend’s house with my leg propped up.

First off: mass transport in London.  This is transit done right.  Done proper if you will.  You purchase a stored value card (called, oddly, “the Oyster” card), and this works for both busses and subway (Tube, Underground, etc).  I’ve used it three day running now and am quite a fan.  Also: the busses are those fabulous double-decker contraptions with huge windows, perfect for a tourist with limited mobility.

Baylor lives in an area called Crystal Palace.  This is 7 miles south-east of London proper, so while my instructions were to walk as much as I could bear, walking into town seemed a little aggressive.  So, the first day was a trial foray: can I make it into London, mosey around a bit, and get back with no mishaps.

The day started marvelously, and I had the top floor seat, right up front.  Just perfect for taking pictures from:

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Finally! A nice, summery day!
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Ah London, such beautiful buildings.
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Ooooo, pretty.

The first wrinkle came when the bus stopped partway through the route and announced the bus had been redirected; everyone off. Strange. I took the transfer ticket the driver gave me and asked for his recommendations on what bus to take instead to reach my destination. I’m sure he gave me advice that would be just right for someone who knew the city. I was quickly lost and decided to just wander and make the best of it. One easy landmark to run into was the new building (The Shard). It kinda sticks out:

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Er… BIG. Also: crap picture from my Surface tablet. Yes: I was that guy, taking pictures from my tablet. I had no choice.

So, the rest of that day I wandered on my crutches and walking boot. One observation: when you are hobbling about town on crutches, other people pointedly do NOT stare at you, but their kids (7 and younger) stare at you from the moment you are in sight until you are completely out of site, even turning their heads and walking backwards, wondering “why does that man walk so funny? Is he in a circus?” Good times.

Soon enough the nice weather realized that this was not Spain and returned to proper form. Luckily I was back on a bus by then.

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Now we are doing London proper.
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Oh look, Piccadilly is coming up. Just how I always pictured it.

Also on the way back, the bus stopped twice and forced everyone off it and onto a replacement bus. Each time was for no discernible reason other than to force the passengers to get a little exercise. Might be a new NHS policy? I don’t know.

Day two was much the same, although this time the buses operated flawlessly. On this trip I decided to purchase a new phone (seeing as how my old phone has now stubbornly refused to hold a charge or even work when plugged directly in). So I am now armed with a full and working UK phone. Stand back, people, I might be dangerous. (I expect only DT will get that quote).  Benefit: back to taking pictures with a phone like a normal human.

Day three I felt like I knew the limits of my foot more (or, rather, was ready to push them a bit), so I spent even longer wandering about town.  This took me to all kinds of places where I failed to take pictures.  The aptly named Green Park.  The tiny Soho Square park.  China town.  Oxford Circus (much less clowns than you’d expect).  Piccadilly circus (ditto.  What’s up with the disappointing circuses here?).

I did, however, get a few pictures of random things I came across:

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Exiting Chinatown. You can tell ’cause of the lantern, right?

Found a street than randomly had many awesome cars parked. An absolutely drool-worthy Aston Martin Vantage was just hanging out on the curb. A few 911’s. Then this absolute beauty:

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Note: left-side driver. Must be confusing to drive over here.

I ran into a giant drum band, randomly. Couldn’t do much dancing of jigs what with my leg / crutch situation and all, but they were fun to stand and listen to.

Then, eventually I stumbled on what appeared to be a large crowd, barriers, and this thing:

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That carpet looks awfully red. Waitaminit… red carpet? I know what that’s for…
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Ruins my belief that these things are one big roll. Also: nice thumb action Mr. Paparazzi. First time using a camera?

So, since I’ve never seen an honest-to-god movie premier before, I figured I’d hang around and see how these things work. Note for those of you who attend these in the future:

  • find the guys with earbuds in. Watch them, you’ll knew when things are going to be happening.
  • Finding the guy with an earbud AND a clipboard means you’ve got your finger on the pulse.
  • The celebrities are unleashed in waves, giving ample time for interviews and such.
  • Along with celebrities are floods of seemingly normal folk. Hard to tell the difference sometimes.
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Celebrity?
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Er… Celebrity?

Often there would be enough of a ruckus made that you know it was someone, but since I don’t read many tabloids on a regular basis, I’m afraid I’m the worst sort of paparazzi here.

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Photographers made a lot of fuss over the blonde lady. Not sure who she was.
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People kept yelling “Rosie” at her. So, I guess she’s Rosie?

Now most celebrities faced away from the “fan” group because they were playing to the other side of the line up; the one with all the TV cameras. Near the end, there was one bloke that broke this pattern and came to hobnob with the rabble:

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Then this dude came out.

He turned out to be pretty cool, was signing things and joking with people and generally having a good time with it.

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Quothe Statham: “hey, this guy here’s my stunt double, let’s get a picture!”

Which is good ’cause it’s kinda his night and all.

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Guess it’s a movie! Neat!

Turns out the DailyMail does a much better job covering this than I.  I did see the other people they pictured, but got even worse pictures of them than what I have above so didn’t think they were worth cluttering this page with.

After that, I wandered around and right nearby found posters for what might be the most awesome combinations and themes of movies I’ve ever seen:

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In the running for coolest theater. I would go to this lineup.
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Um… quote along? You mean everyone in the theater would be as obnoxious as me? Sign me up!
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Cagesploitation? Does the awesome never end?

Finally, I stumbled home on sore and aching feet (both of ’em) to a fabulous sunset. Good day in London: accomplished.

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Note: Picture doesn’t do justice.

Health Care in London.

Ah, London. (This clip is required viewing anytime London is mentioned anywhere)

I have come here far earlier than planned due to the unfortunate state of my right foot.  My plan is to discuss options with someone in the medical profession through a purely English dialect, instead of trying to fumble my way through the details of Spanish + medical jargon.

My brilliant plan has a catch: this being the UK and I being a foreigner who doesn’t pay into their medical plan, I’m not exactly sure how all this will work out.  However, so far I’m quite happy with the approach.  There is one number to call to begin to “triage” your issue (111, pretty easy to remember, really).  Once you get hold of this number, the kind person on the other side will ask you a string of questions, much like troubleshooting a computer issue really, before recommending your next steps.

It took a bit of wrangling to get to this point though.  First off, the number my friend (we’ll call him Baylor) gathered for me before heading off to work turned out to be old, and when dialed advised me instead to dial 111.  Trying “111” from Skype was met with no success as Skype flagged this as an emergency number and thus wouldn’t call it (???).  So I attempted the call with my Spanish phone, which yielded some recorded Spanish message explaining that the number didn’t exist.  Adding in the country code + 111 didn’t help either.

However, Baylor came to the rescue again and guided me to a local SIM card he wasn’t using which fit my phone perfectly and I was then on the call with NHS.  After numerous questions, it came down to the fact that my cast has begun to see some wear and tear in form of a seam opening up near my ankle, and thus the advice was: go to your nearest hospital’s ER and get them to assess it.  Fair enough.  Baylor advised me from afar that, since it was already late in the day by the time I got to this point I should just go tomorrow since wait times are notorious for being several hours and usually at their worst later in the day.  Also, the nearest hospital is Mayday, colloquially known as “May Die”.  That doesn’t bode well…

This was not all I have done on my first day in London though!  First off: whatever image you have of London, potentially influenced by the clip included at the start of this post, is wrong, based on my current experience.  I arrived in Gatwick and am staying in an area near Croyden called “Crystal Place”.  This is ostensibly all “London”, but very much on the outskirts.  The drive in from Gatwick is gorgeous: you go through Surrey so it’s all rolling hills, trees, bushes and greenery.

The weather has been absolutely perfect: Sunny, about 70 (20 C), not a cloud in the sky.  I took a mid-day hobble 3 blocks away to a Chinese take out place and was greeted with an absolutely stunning view of London from atop the hill.  I would provide a picture, but sadly my phone (which is my only camera) has decided it hates electricity and refuses to charge.  So you get stock views (my view is actually prettier than this):

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Regardless: beautiful! The addition of that monstrous building in the center that dwarfs everything else is new since I was here briefly 4 years ago.  It’s called “The Shard”, and simply dominates the skyline.  Broken foot or no, I need to get down to see it.

I got my Chinese food and wobbled back to the house (stopping to sweat every block or so) where I discovered my hosts have a lovely back yard / garden area which proves to be perfect for enjoying a bit o’ chicken-n-broccoli.

While tucking in (see, I’m already picking up the London vernacular), I heard a surprised “Oh, hello!” with a strong English lilt to it. Looking up I saw a head of colorful curlers suspended atop a woman, perhaps in her 60’s, looking over the fence at me, much like Wilson from Home Improvement.

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Though not nearly this close.

We ended up having a lovely little conversation, similar to the following:

“Are you moved in then?”

“Oh, no I’m just staying with my friends.  I broke my foot so I’m staying here to heal up”

“Oh, I see!  Well, you’ll be a proper nuisance then won’t you?”

“Er, yes, I suppose so…”

In addition, I should point out you haven’t experienced adorableness properly until you have a 3-year old boy with a budding English lilt tempered by a bit of German accent as well (Baylor speaks mostly in German to him so he can grow up bi-lingual), come up and ask you:

“Kodey, would you like a cup o’ tea?”

I’m not sure there’s anyone out there who could turn that down, even if drinking tea gave you hives and projectile vomiting.  Simply crushing with cuteness.

Tomorrow I’ll see how May Die performs, whether the waiting times are as legendary as expected, what an American in London can expect to pay for health care, and more.  What fun!