Austin’s Tags

August 13, 2014

It’s called “The People’s Republic of Austin” because it’s Texas’s left-leaning pocket.

Residents of Austin take the idea of a food truck to a new level.

Residents of Austin take the idea of a food truck to a new level.

If Austin changed its name to “San Jose without the taxes,” it wouldn’t be too far off. It’s hard to miss the high tech scene as people in jeans and black t-shirts yell about their hot new apps over loud live music while drinking craft beers.

Not unlike my recent trip to San Jose, this visit to Austin had nothing to do with anything technological. I’m an old soul whose iPad sits silently by my bed where it — and its fully drained battery — has remained since shortly after I bought it. No, my trip was for a meeting of business colleagues in another industry. A close friend is a resident of Austin and inspired me to remain in the city for the weekend. He didn’t disappoint.

Based on the map, Austin looked like a very walkable city. But I tend to be sanguine about sauntering where I shouldn’t. For example, I once walked to work in Phoenix in July. That was ill-advised. The only positive outcome is that I now know that heat exhaustion is a real thing! People don’t walk through a desert. And when you add mile upon mile of hot asphalt, it gets even worse.

I should have taken a lesson from that experience. While Austin isn’t in the desert, it was experiencing an unusual heatwave with 100+ temperatures and high humidity. And, not only was the heat overwhelming in Austin, I wasn’t exactly walking through the nicest part of town. 

Indeed, I was heading to meet my friend when I faced a choice. Fight or flight kind of stuff. As I rounded a corner, I noticed a couple in the distance. A gentleman appeared to be walking slightly ahead of a lady. I assumed they were on a date gone wrong. A stroll along a tree-lined street turned into a sweltering walk in the noonday sun along a major interstate. Anyway, at 75 yards, the situation looked tame. At 50 yards, the lady seemed exercised about something. As the distance closed, I heard high-pitched yelling. Something slightly more baritone than a scream. As I got even closer, it became clear that the gentleman was walking ahead of the lady because she was hitting him. Repeatedly. Over and over again. With great force. Her yelling indistinguishable from grunts. She was quite angry. He seemed unfazed. 

Until she knocked his hat off. The camel’s back had been broken.

By this point, I was within a thumbnail of the tiff. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that my fight or flight response was to freeze. The gentleman turned toward his lady friend and, with vigor, requested that she, “Leave me ugrundi f*#$ alone, pwrathniguw.” 

She responded with, “Haku jaundice.”

Her response told me everything I needed to know. Thanks to mind and mood altering substances, the two were in a world not occupied by me. They had no clue I was there. Still, I avoided eye contact, gave a wide berth, and moved on at a good clip. “Welcome to your Austin weekend,” I thought.

Fortunately, that was my only run-in with the riffraff. For the rest of the weekend, we explored safe hipster bars with one-of-a-kind drinks and unusual interpretations of common foods. Chicken fried ahi tuna, anyone? 

Sadly, the only wildlife I saw was stuck to the wall.

Sadly, the only wildlife I saw was stuck to the wall.

The scene in Austin is hip, young, and full of fun. As an aside, should the city consider that for a tag line to replace “People’s Republic,” I will welcome a check. 

We enjoyed a thorough tour of Sixth Street, the hippest of the hip. Sixth Street left me with the impression it was favored early by downtown workers and later by a younger crowd.  Our tour concluded with a ride in a pedicab. It served our tired feet well. The poor dude pedaling, on the other hand, didn’t feel too optimistic about hauling two dudes. Can’t blame him, we are not a couple of hundred pound undergraduate women.

Bars on Sixth Street simply can't have enough taps.

Bars on Sixth Street simply can’t have enough taps.

We also visited Rainey Street, which had more of a “local” feel than Sixth Street. While Sixth Street was surrounded by hotels and curio shops, Rainey Street was filled with Austin residents. It’s here that entrepreneurs convert houses built in the 1930s into trendy bars and restaurants. Given a choice, I’d pick Rainey Street — although we didn’t try them, the food trucks looked impressive, too.

One house turned into the comfortable "Bungalow Bar."

One house turned into the comfortable “Bungalow Bar.”

And this one is waiting for conversion. And some sturdier walls.

And this one is waiting for conversion. And some sturdier walls.

Other than the couple on the date-gone-wrong and the pedicab driver, the people we met were excited about their city despite the unusual heat wave. Everyone was optimistic and seemed zealous about the assorted opportunities available to them in The People’s Republic of Austin. 

I can’t wait to get back!

{ 0 comments }

When I think of Silicon Valley, I think of apps and hipsters, sun and startups. Guess what? That’s exactly what I found on a recent trip to San Jose.

This is California in a nutshell.

This is California in a nutshell.

As with most visits from the East Coast to the West, one leaves early in the morning, stops briefly in Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International Airport, and arrives just in time for a fashionably late lunch. In my case I invested the afternoon in a combination of conference calls and a brief visit to downtown San Jose. 

I won’t bore you with a recap of my conference calls, though they were quite exciting as far as conference calls go.

San Pedro Square is a hip area with plenty of restaurants and loads of hipsters.

San Pedro Square Market is a cool area with plenty of restaurants and loads of hipsters. It’s right in the heart of Downtown San Jose.

Being in San Jose presented me with an opportunity to test out all kinds of apps. You see, as a North Carolinian, I’m somewhat of a late bloomer to apps. The best by far was the sometimes controversial car service app, Uber.

With two taps on my phone, Taruq and his like-new Camry pulled up in front of me. He was ready to take me anywhere my heart desired with no exchange of cash — I’d preloaded my credit card information. Taruq was shocked that this was my first Uber ride, saying he hadn’t had a first timer in his car in years. He also told me he loved the money he earned from Uber and then offered an assortment of snacks and drinks to make the ride downtown a bit more pleasant. It easily beat virtually every other cab ride I’ve ever taken.

I’d always heard that practically everyone out in Silicon Valley eventually tries to start a business of their own or builds an app. This proved true. After I’d finished dinner, I was held back by the waiter who seemed reluctant to turn the table. He wore carefully ripped jeans, colorful sneakers, and a T-Shirt with a picture of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle on the front and the Pope on the back. A well-trimmed beard with a waxed handlebar mustache tied the whole thing together.

The bar at Firehouse No 1 in Downtown San Jose includes all the conveniences of a First Class Seat.

Many of the bars in Downtown San Jose include all of the conveniences of a First Class Seat.

Rather than letting me leave, he insisted on talking to me about his “bossman’s” great new app, which I needed to download forthwith. 

I asked him what it did.

“Oh yeah. That’d be helpful, wouldn’t it? Lahl.”

It took me a second to figure that one out. The guy used txt in casual, everyday conversation. “Lahl” to him were the letters “LOL” to you and me. As in Laugh Out Loud, which, by the way, he did not actually do when saying “Lahl.” Offering it, instead, with an air of condescension. 

Regardless, what followed was a lengthy and possibly thorough (I can’t be sure) string of words, some of which I’d never before heard. I wish I could tell you about the app or the conversation, but I can’t. I had literally no idea what he was saying. There was something about an API, something else about reducing bandwidth, and one last bit about dealing with large volumes of data. 

“Imagine collating news sources based on location-based data through the Twitter API in a way that allows users to crowdsource funding for solutions to commonplace developmental challenges. We can do it!”

He went on for another several minutes. And nothing I did phased him. Even through my yawns, stretched with the fervor of a guy who’d just flown in from the East Coast, he kept pitching.

By the way, he didn’t tell me the name of the app — only that I should download it. In fairness, I never asked.

Regrettably, I had an early morning so I missed this free event.

Regrettably, I had an early morning so I missed this free event.

The waiter’s unusual garb really wasn’t that unusual. It was I who was out of place in my business casual attire. The dress code is universal and can best be described as “Hobo Chic.” It’s properly executed when punctuated by tattoos, beards, heavy-looking piercings, skinny jeans, and other evidence of general hipstering. I did however see one gentleman downtown wearing a proper East Coast suit. Although, admittedly, he had accessorized with a legitimate pair of blue blockers. I didn’t know you could still get those?!

The Silicon Valley dress code makes me wonder whether it’s really self expression if everyone does it.

Since it's from the Cupertino Union School District, it must be an iBus.

Since it’s from the Cupertino Union School District, it must be an iBus.

Google is over that way.

Google is over that way.

Anyway, my meeting began the next day. The meeting was not with Google, but it was on their campus. I was among the oldest (and lowest paid) people within a twenty mile radius. The Google culture was hard to miss. Young techies ride brightly colored bicycles everywhere (in fact one member of our group was nearly run over by one). There were even four-wheeled cycles, which could be ridden (and powered) by five or six people for mobile meetings. Regrettably, I was locked in an internal conference room.

Google Bike

These colorful bikes were everywhere.

We took a walk at lunch during which my colleagues debated about a particular tree, wondering whether it was a Redwood or some other kind of fir. I said, “Hold on. I’ll Google it”

I then stopped a happy, young Google employee and asked. I, of course, thought this was hilarious. Neither the employee nor my colleagues seemed amused.

It was a Redwood.

They make it easy on the Googlers.

They make it easy on the Googlers.

Silicon Valley is a high tech gem. Check it out if you get the chance.

{ 1 comment }

The Greenbrier

July 22, 2014

The Greenbrier

The Greenbrier has been around since the 19th Century. Hidden in the high hills of West Virginia, it’s one of America’s first resort destinations. The site was selected for the healing powers of the natural warm springs. Those springs continue to flow and bring thousands of guests in every year. Now, with our short attention spans and high need for activity, there’s far more to do than wallow in a spring-fed farm pond.

The Greenbrier was once known as "The Old White."

The Greenbrier was once known as “The Old White.”

In a bit of a departure, my entire family chose to take a vacation together this summer. Why not the “Old White” as it was once known? So, we all piled into cars for a brief three-day family reunion. We enjoyed a few of the activities and suffered through others. You’ll see in a few moments how unpleasant the massage was for me. In the end, the trip was an adventure for all and I’m sure our visit benefited Mr. Justice, the owner of the Greenbrier, along with his two or three thousand employees.

That's me in the carriage. Cletus, also pictured, had a bit of a challenge digesting whatever he ate beforehand. I dealt with the aftermath.

That’s me in the carriage. Cletus, also pictured, had a bit of a challenge digesting whatever he ate beforehand. I dealt with the aftermath.

Falconry

This is a Harris Hawk from the Southwest USA. It's a popular bird for the sport.

This is a Harris Hawk from the Southwest USA. It’s a popular bird for the sport.

The Greenbrier is known for its tremendous list of activities. When I saw that a demonstration of the Sport of Kings was among the possibilities, I jumped at the chance. We piled into a bus, which carried us across the street to a barn that smelled like bird excrement. This, by the way, was a slightly sweeter smell than Cletus, the horse that hauled us around the golf course in a carriage.

In any event, our host was Ron and he delivered his memorized speech about the history of Falconry with the measured skill of a well-practiced second grade science project presentation. We were invited to ask questions, which prompted a bevy of queries about a range of topics including the “helmets” (actually hoods) the birds wear. It turns out, they wear then in order to prevent them from eating each other. We also learned the birds only weigh 2.5 pounds…feathers and bone are lightweight.

I'm glad I don't have to wear one of these.

I’m glad I don’t have to wear one of these.

Once we stepped outside the barn (and began breathing through our noses again), we saw just how amazing these animals truly are. Ron showed us how skilled the birds are by having one weave through our tightly packed group. I had the good fortune of savoring the experience of being slapped across the face with a wing. Apparently, the bird is mostly concerned with getting its body through narrow passages between trees. This is why there are so many falcon rehabilitation centers working on healing wings.

This was a really great activity that I’d love to do again. Perhaps I’ll even consider a pet Falcon of my own?

Deep Tissue Massage

It would be a shame to visit the Greenbrier without stopping at their spa. I chose therefore to avoid the shame.

Malcolm the masseuse weighs in at a solid 260. When he came to “pick me up” in the waiting room, I had no idea he would literally pick me up during the massage. Indeed, I was airborne for at least a few of the 80 minutes I spent with him.

For those of you unfamiliar with a deep tissue massage, it’s not quite what you might expect. I’m no expert about the art and science of body rubbing, but I’d always thought it was a relaxing indulgence that combined oil and Enya. Turns out that was something else. Deep Tissue essentially means you’re on the losing end of a schoolyard fight.In an effort to distract myself from the pain and suffering, I chose to strike up a conversation.

“How’d you get — hmph — into — ouch — this business?” I asked.

“I’ve just always enjoyed making people feel better. Now, just relax,” he instructed.

“Yowch kay.”

“Just breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. Focus on your breathing,” he said.

“Son of a. Is it supposed to?” I grumbled.

“Okay now we’ll turn it up a notch.”

You get the point, I think. But imagine 80 minutes of that. 80.

The good news was that it was a classic lesson in the old concept of “The Ends Justify the Means.” I felt incredible afterwards.

Fortunately, a mint julep dulled the pain Malcolm caused.

Fortunately, a mint julep dulled the pain Malcolm caused.

Dress Code

The Greenbrier takes its complicated dress code quite seriously. I learned this on the last day when I attempted to enter the Main Dining Room in a pair of jeans.

“Sir, I’m afraid you can’t enter the Main Dining Room in a pair of jeans,” said the hostess.

She turned to the man behind me, “Won’t you follow me, sir?” He was wearing a classy pair of cutoff camouflaged shorts.

In short, the Greenbrier is a great spot that I’d recommend to anyone looking for a week(end) away. There’s plenty to do, the people are nice, and the setting is beautiful. Just carefully review the dress code.

{ 0 comments }

“The Christian version of the Hajj should be to San Diego. It’s Eden. Perfect in every way.” 

At least according to my Kurdish cab driver who’d recently moved here with his family from Phoenix.

I asked him how he felt about Kurdish independence and his enthusiasm nearly caused an accident. He can’t wait for the Kurds to break free from the Iraqi government, which is “full of useless wastes of space.”

Based on my short ride with him, he has a much stronger grip on his opinions than California’s traffic laws.

Why not go fly a kite in San Diego?

Why not go fly a kite in San Diego?

Anyway, he’s right. San Diego is as close to perfect as a place can get. Cool sea breezes add fan-like comfort to already balmy temperatures. The landscape and geography are ideal. And the manmade additions are clean and neatly organized. Oh! And the people! Let’s just say I stuck out like an ugly, sore thumb among these beauties. I had flashbacks to Bondi Beach around every corner.

If it sounds like I’m overselling the place, it’s because I should. 

The waterfront is worth a panoramic photo

The waterfront is worth a panoramic photo

While this wasn’t my first trip to San Diego, it was the first in which I could really enjoy myself.

My last visit included surprise surgery. It was a few years back and, on my flight out, I noticed a strange pain in my mouth. The next morning, I woke up with a swollen cheek that stretched to the Pacific. 

I did precisely what anyone would do when suffering from such an affliction: I went to the concierge. Naturally, he knew San Diego’s best oral surgeon and, for a $10 tip, got me an immediate appointment. I had the right concierge. Turns out, the guy had special access because the surgeon had worked on his cleft palate. 

I’ll spare you the gory details, but the issue turned out to be a peanut that wound up where it shouldn’t have. I finally learned to chew thanks to this too-late-in-life lesson.

In any event, my most recent trip to Eden involved neither dental exams nor peanuts.

It did, however, involve four hours of exploration between landing and a meeting.

I began with lunch on the waterfront. When dining alone, it’s difficult not to observe (some might say “eavesdrop on”) one’s fellow-diners. In this particular case, there was a giddy little family who ordered several rounds of liquor drinks. They seemed most satisfied with the strength of the “Long Island Iced Tea” that Mother got. The topic switched to dramamine before Son offered a loud and animated prayer expressing extreme gratitude for “those who prepared our food, most especially our bartender.” 

Was this the Hajj my Kurdish cab driver spoke of?

These converted vessels go on land and water.

These converted vessels go on land and water.

When they looked ready to pass out, I sought out further entertainment. I found a Seal Tour, which is like the more established Duck Tours, but without the quacking. You still may not know what these are, which is truly your loss. Enterprising individuals in cities with waterfronts have modified WWII landing craft that are capable of driving on city streets and then becoming boats. And, for a modest fee, they offer tourists like me guided journeys of their fine communities.

I was ready to tie up the vessel if they needed a first mate.

I was ready to tie up the vessel if they needed a first mate. Although, thankfully for my fellow passengers, they did not.

Making a fool out of oneself is encouraged and I, naturally, obliged by wearing one of the paper pirate hats provided with the fee. I brought it home as souvenir and plan to whip it out for cocktail parties and such. The tour is also an opportunity to learn many irresistibly useless facts:

  • San Diego hosts 190 cruise ships every year
  • San Diego has one of the largest “Little Italies” in the United States
  • Camp Pendleton hosts 21,000 Marine Recruits every year
  • San Diego County has more endangered species than any other County in the United States.

Now you know!

Yes. That's an Aircraft Carrier. The USS Midway.

Yes. That’s an Aircraft Carrier. The USS Midway.

San Diego is a gift. And I’m glad I got to unwrap it. Even if it was only for four hours.

{ 1 comment }

(Few) Spanish Surprises

February 14, 2014

(Un)fortunately, this trip to Madrid and Tenerife proved relatively uneventful.

I woke up with a sore throat thinking about the long flight to Madrid.  This wasn’t going to be easy. I rarely get sick, but when I do, it’s usually a pretty rough time. And the idea of having a cold at 36,000 feet in a metal tube over the Atlantic seemed all the more unpleasant. So, with some coaxing, I called the Doctor, picked up some prescriptions, and popped some pills.

Airline food doesn't do much for a cold.

Airline food doesn’t do much for a cold.

Although it was a long flight, I was feeling better by morning (or the middle of the night).

In any event, the day was spent catching up on overdue projects. By the time the evening hit, my colleague and I decided to visit the lobby for a glass of sangria. This stuff was strong. So strong, in fact, that we were shocked when we saw a familiar face.

The man was in a hurry to get away from my not-so-subtle camera phone.

The man was in a hurry to get away from my not-so-subtle camera phone.

I’m not sure whether it really happened or it was just the strong sangria, but Ben Franklin and Alec Baldwin met in Madrid.

I’m not sure whether it really happened or it was just the strong sangria, but I think we witnessed a meeting between Ben Franklin and Alec Baldwin  in Madrid.

The next day involved a very productive meeting in the Madrid airport followed by a flight to Tenerife for yet another meeting.

The boarding process reminded me of the Ear Steers in Queenstown.

The boarding process reminded me of the Ear Steers in Queenstown.

Admittedly, most of the time was spent working; however, the setting was much better than the usual…

We stayed at the Abama Hotel near the South Airport. It was a spectacular spot.

We stayed at the Abama Hotel near the South Airport. It was a spectacular spot.

The mojito was better than an afternoon cup of coffee to combat that 2:30 feeling.

The mojito was better than an afternoon cup of coffee to combat that 2:30 feeling.

The meeting was not nearly as interesting as the views on this tropical paradise off of the coast of Morocco in the Canary Islands. These views taught me an important life lesson:

When everyone at home is under a pile of snow, don’t post pictures of beautiful sunsets and beaches to Facebook. It’s really asking for trouble.

Tenerife Sunset 1

.

.

.

Tenerife View 3

.

 

.

.

With one, free day, I tried to replicate my sangria experience in Madrid.  Although neither Ben nor Alec appeared, the garnish was as strange as seeing them.

sangria

 

I had really hoped to hop on a plane for the short flight to Marrakech. Unfortunately, due to timing, it just wasn’t possible. Perhaps next time?

{ 0 comments }

Tokyo Take Out

November 4, 2013

The view from my hotel is the train station. Makes it that much more humiliating that I couldn't find it when I arrived by train...

The view from my hotel is the train station. Makes it that much more humiliating that I couldn’t find it when I arrived by train…

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Japanese-Cook-in-Front-of-You-Food. I’ve also started experimenting with sushi. So, when I found out I’d be in Tokyo for a night-or-two, my belly got excited. Count me in for raw fish and Teppanyaki in Tokyo!

On my first night in the City, I was operating on about 4 hours of sleep and a bit of anger-fueled adrenaline resulting from the difficult time I had finding my hotel. To relax, I set out for some real Japanese food. The first place I saw was in the Shangri-La. I traveled up to the 29th floor where I ordered Teppanyaki Beef and an assortment of 8 pieces of “Yuki” sushi.

The beef was explosively good. There is no doubt that the best beef on earth is in Japan.

Seven of the pieces of sushi were spectacular. Truly.

Dinner.

Dinner.

The eighth piece, however, is worthy of its own paragraph. It was whelk, I think. But what it was doesn’t matter as much as how truly repulsive it was. It was as rubbery as rubber and equally disgusting. But, of course, I didn’t know that before trying it.

As I gripped it in my chopsticks, I smiled at the happy Japanese family who were in the restaurant to celebrate their son’s eighth or ninth birthday. How happy they looked as they enjoyed a special meal! Just as the mother passed a gift to her son, that blasted eighth piece made its way to my mouth. In it went. With the first chew, I knew something was wrong. Really wrong. A California Roll it was not. Uncooked whelk tastes like something that should never pass one’s lips. There is really nothing redeeming I can say about it. Except, I suppose, that it provided fodder for this blog post.

I began retching uncontrollably when I experienced what I can only describe as an out-of-body experience. I  saw myself vomiting all over the restaurant when, suddenly, I snapped back to reality. My first thought was of the happy Japanese family. What would they think if I re-shared my meal all over this table? My second thought was you, dear readers. What would you think of me if I lost control? I would become “that” ugly American we all fear so much.

I regret to say there is no exaggeration in this post.

So, somehow with every fiber of my being, I held it together. For you. The feeling I experienced will last for the rest of my life. It has certainly played a role that’s not worth sharing  in the rest of my trip to Tokyo.

The worst part of the whole thing was the waitress who saw what was happening and pounced.

“Would you like another glass of wine?”

Anything to get rid of this godawful taste. “Yes.”

By the way, I had some octopus today and it was pleasant compared to the whelk.

When in Rome…

{ 0 comments }

Singapore Surprise

November 3, 2013

Singapore

My leg started buzzing while I was sitting in a meeting in Washington, DC a week-or-so ago. When everyone in the room began glaring at me, it became clear that “vibrate” does not mean the same thing as “silent” on a cell phone.

I, of course, played it off. With an annoyed look on my face, I joined the others by searching around the room for the source of the distraction. They didn’t fall for it. To make a long story short, the buzz was a text message saying, “You’re going to Singapore for a client meeting.”

Okay.

Candidly, I had to ask exactly where Singapore was. I knew it was in Southeast Asia somewhere near Indonesia. Unfortunately, my knowledge of the neighborhood is extremely limited. For those of you with the same question I had, I’ll use some big landmarks: It’s a little island northwest of Australia and east of India nestled between the Philippines and Indonesia. It’s a city state (one of only three in the world) on the southern tip of Malaysia with about 5.3 million people.

The view from the top of the Singapore Flyer, currently the world's highest ferris wheel.

The view from the top of the Singapore Flyer, currently the world’s highest ferris wheel.

What I did know about Singapore going into the trip was just what a “fine” city state it is. Indeed, there are fines for just about everything. Spitting, Yelling, Cursing… And for some things, there are even punishments like Caning. Remember Michael Fay who got caned for his youthful indiscretions? Yup. He was a teenager living in Singapore. For awhile, chewing gum in Singapore was a “canable” offense, too. Just in case, I stuck with Altoids for this trip.

They do take their cleanliness very seriously in Singapore. Almost too seriously, in fact. The floors are so clean and there’s so much rain that unless you focus on each step, you stand a 50/50 chance of slipping and falling at any given time.

Unfortunately, I was recently introduced to Candy Crush, which meant that my eyes were often on my phone so my attention was even more diffused. I had my share of embarrassing slips in Singapore.

It wasn’t easy getting there, either. It took 22 hours of flying for me and about 48 for my suitcase. For some as-yet-undetermined reason, it got a brief tour of the baggage carousel in Jakarta.

It was a long, long, long trip.

It was a long, long, long trip.

I also used this trip as an opportunity to pick up a suit. If you’ll recall, I got some tailored clothes in Hong Kong and I’d heard that the experience was the same in Singapore (fast and cheap), but that the quality is a bit better. It turns out that rumor was true. If you need a recommendation for a Singapore tailor, I gotta guy.

Singapore is truly one of the most multicultural cities I’ve encountered. Although about 80% of the residents are Chinese, people from all over the world are welcomed. Everyone I met seemed to be sincerely gracious and eager to get to know me.

Although public transit is extremely good in Singapore, I relied on taxis. It added to the sense of adventure. Many of the drivers are…aggressive. I was luckier than some because I was only in one minor fender bender and witnessed only one near hit-and-run — a gutsy construction worker barely won a stare-down contest with a fast-moving cab.

The taxi business is brisk because people are always going somewhere. Very often, it’s for a meal. Singaporeans love to eat out. You can’t blame them. The food is out of this world! Before I left the States, a friend told me that Singapore has the best food in Asia. Since I haven’t yet been everywhere in Asia, I can’t speak to that, but I can say it would be tough to beat what I’ve eaten here.

The best of Malay, Chinese, Thai, Indian, and Japanese cuisine combine in Singapore. Beef marinated in coconut milk, Dumplings filled with hot soup, curry… The list of great food I tasted is pretty long.

Wok fried beef that I'd like to eat over and over again.

Wok fried beef that I’d like to eat over and over again.

The Merlion is the symbol for Singapore. Apparently several centuries ago, a prince from somewhere nearby was out on a guys’ trip with some of his buddies. They were fishing when they came across the island we now know as Singapore. The prince spotted a lion on the beach. This was noteworthy since lions never lived in Singapore. I think the guy was probably just drunk. But, because he was a prince, his buddies kept their mouths shut. Ever since that prince “saw” that lion, the “Merlion” has been important to Singapore. It combines the body of mermaid, the tail of fish, and the head of lion.

The city's largest Merlion.

The city’s largest Merlion is exempt from the “No Spitting” rule.

Today’s Singapore is vastly different. It’s a capital of commerce and a playground for all of Southeast Asia. To that point, when I learned that Singapore was the second largest gambling market in the world (even though it only has two casinos), I had to check out the scene. I hopped in a cab for the Marina Bay Sands, which was developed by the Sands Corporation based in the world’s top gambling destination – Las Vegas.

The building is spectacular. The three towers are capped by a stylized boat, which I think looks more like a Bratwurst. All told, it’s 57 stories tall and the views from the top are unbeatable (and come at a cost of S$20). On a clear day, you can see the Philippines. Or maybe Indonesia? Or both? I don’t know. Anyway, on a clear day, you can see really far away. I need to get a map.

Here's a view of the Marina Bay Sands from the Marina. Doesn't that look like a Bratwurst?

Here’s a view of the Marina Bay Sands from the Marina. Doesn’t that look like a Bratwurst?

After a trip to the bar on the bratwurst at the top of the building, I went downstairs into that casino like I owned it. You know, I was ready to win big. Unfortunately, I was greeted by a smiling (but very, very large) guard standing in front of a security checkpoint. That’s new.

“Passport, please” he asked.

“Huh?”

“Are you a Singapore Permanent Resident?”

“No.”

“You can only enter the casino with a passport or a Singapore PR Card.”

It turns out that Singapore residents must pay a S$100 levy to enter the casino (it’s only good for 24 hours). If you receive any kind of government assistance, you can’t enter at all. Since I don’t receive any Singapore Government Assistance and was still eager to get my fair share, I hopped back in a cab, got my passport, and returned. Fortunately, it turned out to be a smart decision…the Roulette wheel was in my favor that night.

The place was H-U-G-E.

The place was H-U-G-E.

Hopping into the cab to head back to my hotel wasn’t a big deal because Singapore is such a small island. Everything is always nearby. In fact, it only takes 45 minutes to get from the extreme far end of the island to the other extreme far end. The whole island is only about 450 square miles. It used to be 310 square miles, but thanks to land reclamation, it’s grown.

The government has done a very careful job of controlling traffic, too. It begins with an extensive road network. If you were to stretch them out, the roads would be 2,100 miles, which would get you across the US. The government also limits cars by requiring a COE, which is a Certificate of Something-that-starts-with-an-E. Currently, these certificates cost about USD$80,000. Further, cars are subject to a tax of about 150%. All that combines to mean a BMW 3 Series will set you back about USD$300,000. Oh, and there don’t seem to be as many BMW 3 Series-es as there are Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Maseratis.

One in six households in Singapore includes a millionaire.

A normal Bentley is expensive. But the cost of a Singapore Bentley can't be understood.

A normal Bentley is expensive. But the cost of a Singapore Bentley can’t be understood.

The Singapore Flyer is a monster.

The Singapore Flyer is a monster.

I squeezed in one more adventure by riding on the 541 foot tall Singapore Flyer. It’s the world’s tallest Ferris Wheel (although there’s one being built in Las Vegas, which will be taller). The ride and views were nice. But the real adventure came when I tried the “Fish Spa” at the bottom. Several years ago, I saw Samantha Brown on the Travel Channel stick her feet into a pool somewhere in Asia. Fish began feeding on the dead skin on her feet. I knew right then: I had to try it. So try it, I did.

It was an unusual feeling.

It was an unusual feeling.

The fish, which are called Garra Rufa or The Doctor Fish were first discovered in a hot spring near Kangal in Turkey. The place I visited has a series of three tanks. The fish get progressively larger as you move from one tank to the next. I didn’t make it to the final one, the middle-sized fish were enough for me.

For the first 10 minutes, this was my expression. The lady at the desk told me that it "wasn't having the desired effect."

For the first 10 minutes, this was my expression. The lady at the desk told me that it “wasn’t having the desired effect.”

The tingling was, at first, off-putting. Slowly, it became overwhelmingly pleasant. The best part was becoming a tourist attraction in my own right. There was a steady stream of people who wanted to look at the fish eating my feet. Not all of them spoke English, but they clearly wanted me to say something. I just offered a thumbs up. After it was done, my feet did feel better. Unfortunately, the feeling was short-lived because I spent the rest of the day walking around the city in flip flops.

He thought it was really funny.

He thought scaring the fish away from my feet was really funny. I thought it was a welcome change.

I’ve just arrived in Tokyo for a quick meeting tomorrow before I head home on Tuesday. I hope to have a bit to report from Japan, too!

{ 0 comments }

Beverly Hills Car

August 17, 2013

Beverly Hills has always held a certain mystique for me. As I was packing for a trip to LA, I wondered why. Sure, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the LA area, but I’ve never really explored it. So how could I get this image? Then it hit me. I got it from Hollywood. Yes! Hollywood has installed into Middle America a sense that the LA Basin is about glitz and glamor, silicone and sun.

Earth's second most recognizable logo. The first? The Golden Arches.

Earth’s second most recognizable logo. The first? The Golden Arches.

This trip was my first opportunity to determine whether Hollywood’s carefully crafted story is grounded in reality.

  • Is Rodeo Drive as over-the-top as we’ve been led to believe?
  • Is everybody really as happy as the Brady family?
  • Do the CHiPS guys really ride on Motorcycles?

SPOILER ALERT: Everything you’ve heard is true.

LA’s CAR CULTURE

They don't have these in many places.

They don’t have these in many places.

Few places in the country embrace America’s love affair with the car like LA. Three- or four-hour commutes are not unheard of. Traffic at 2:00 on a Tuesday can be as brutal as 5:30 on a Friday. And brutal probably isn’t quite the right word. Perhaps something along the lines of painful or awful or slightly-worse-than-death-by-crocodile gets closer. Stop-and-go, constant construction, road rage. It’s all there.

In any event, our noble steed for this journey was a lovely rental: A 2012 12 horsepower Roller-Skate. People in Los Angeles gain their identities from their cars. We were no different as we pushed it to the max, red-lining the engine at 19 miles-per-hour.

It was a blast to drive (slowly) along the 405.

It was a blast to drive (slowly) along the 405.

We saw some amazing vehicles. There were Teslas, Aston Martins, Maseratis, Ferraris, and other cars that haven’t even been invented for real people yet. The funny thing was that our Roller-Skate got more attention than all of their fancy-dancy cars put together. Perhaps they hadn’t seen a “real car” before. Our Skate showed them a whole new world.

Do you know about the difference between a New York Actor and an LA Actor? One has a car.

Do you know about the difference between a New York Actor and an LA Actor? One has a car. I’m guessing this one doesn’t belong to a no-namer.

RED BLOODED AMERICAN TOURISTS

On our way back to the hotel one day, we passed one of this nation’s great tourist attractions (as measured by both odor and floating trash): The La Brea Tar Pits. How could we miss the opportunity to see that?! We couldn’t, so we didn’t. One of the truly great features of the Skate was that it was easy to parallel park. Sliding it between the Mercedes and Porsche convertibles was a snap!

Off we went, to smell the pits. It turns out the smell of tar can wake up a Southern Boy’s appetite faster than the promise of a deep fried biscuit and sweet tea. So we did what any self-respecting tourist would do. We stopped for a burger. As we we left, we noticed some activity in the general vicinity of the Roller-Skate.

“No. It’s Impossible. Right?”

There was no time to think. We dashed onto Wilshire Blvd. After all, it’s basic instinct: Los Angeles without a car is a fate worse than death. At that moment, the chance of being pancaked by a celebrity trash truck carried less risk than being left at the Tar Pits without the Skate. Fortunately, like a well-rehearsed scene in Beverly Hills Cop, we made it.

Breathlessly, “Uhhh. Sir. This is us.”

“Okay. You gotta move it,” said the tow truck driver who already had a Maserati on the back of the flat-bed. I got the impression that he thought the Skate would detract from the high-end look he wanted for his rig. Thank goodness.

That was close.

Uhhh. That was close.

LOST IN COMPTON

From what is admittedly a limited knowledge of crime statistics, Compton is not a great place to stop and ask for directions. This was an assumption we chose not to test when we got lost in Compton; however, it turns out that you need not stop to put your life at risk.

A Magnum in Compton nearly took us out.

Yes, friends. You nearly didn’t get to read this post.

Without realizing it, we lost track of where we were. Please note, we weren’t lost. We temporarily found ourselves in a place we had not yet identified.

During this brief time, a yellow light appeared in front of us and, like a good driver, I carefully moved my foot to the brake pedal and began applying pressure. By the time the light was red, the Skate came to a complete stop.

Suddenly, it got dark. I thought a cloud had miraculously appeared in the Southern California sky.

I was wrong.

A quick glance in the rearview mirror revealed (what memory describes as) a tremendous Dodge Magnum. The engine revved. The driver revealed what appeared to be a complete set of gold teeth. It was clear that I had upset him.

I’m good at context clues. He wanted me out of his way. Now, based on our best approximations, the Skate does 0-35 in about 45 seconds.

The instant that light turned green, I pressed the gas pedal as deep into the floor as it would go. Two (possibly three or four, it was a blur) seconds passed, and we were off.

Clearly dissatisfied with the Skate’s gittyup, the Magnum driver whipped around us with centimeters to spare.

Let me tell you what. These young kids these days. They drive like maniacs! For a nanosecond, I considered giving him a piece of mind. But, with visions of 60 Minutes stories about California Road Rage rushing through my mind and the fact that the Skate topped out at 42, we opted to let the fine gentleman from Compton drive on by.

Once we regained our bearings (and our composure), we returned to the safety of our hotel where we ate room service behind a dead-bolted door.

CELEBRITIES IN THEIR NATIVE HABITAT

The movie business is everywhere in LA. In fact, during our stay some serious looking workers were filming a movie called Too Late at our hotel. John Hawkes, whom I mistakenly called a B-Lister (apparently if you get an Oscar nod, you’re moved up on the list) was filming a scene in which he lit a cigarette by the pool. We watched for about an hour, went away for about six, and returned (unscathed by LA). They were still filming! They went on for another three hours. All for a cigarette! Don’t they know the things will kill you?

Don't worry, I didn't recognize him either.

Don’t worry, I didn’t recognize him either.

Anyway, we were able to tack on an extra, free day so we headed to Paramount Studios for their tour. I’m no movie-buff, so I figured most of the day would be lost on me much like The Lord of the Rings Tour. Turns out I was wrong.

We had the enviable opportunity to see both Forrest Gump’s shoes and Ryan Bingham’s ConciergeKey from Up in the Air. One fellow tour-goer was over the moon when the cast of Glee walked past our golf cart. She had to fan herself so she didn’t pass out.

Look Forrest! Look! It's your shoes!

Look Forrest! Look! It’s your shoes!

Ryan Bignham's ConciergeKey was probably the highlight for me.

Ryan Bingham’s ConciergeKey was probably the highlight for me.

Snaking the Roller-Skate out of the parking lot was a challenge — you don’t want to ding those Paramount Executive’s Teslas — but overall the day was incredible. If you’re ever out in the area and can tack on a studio tour, it’s certainly worth it.

LA really is an amazing place. When you ask the locals how they feel about living in LA, they inevitably say something like,

“It’s like totally way different than New York.”

Which makes sense, I guess. Since both places are completely unlike the real world. Especially when it comes to the cars.

A quick stop at Dr. Phil's studio completed the trip.

A quick stop at Dr. Phil’s studio completed the trip.

{ 2 comments }

One of Philadelphia's two spectacular buildings: City Hall. The other? Independence Hall.

One of Philadelphia’s two spectacular buildings: City Hall. The other? Independence Hall.

For a long time, I’ve said, “I love Philadelphia.” It has been my favorite colonial city.  You have one of those, too, right? The way they worship Ben Franklin is rivaled only by Atlanta’s love of the peach. Unfortunately, each time I confessed my love for Philadelphia, the response was somewhere between a wrinkled brow and a “You’re an idiot.” In other words, it seems most people don’t particularly care for Philly.

Downtown Boston looks great when you're leaving the airport. But it's even better on the ground.

Boston is loaded with gorgeous buildings that celebrate the city’s incredible history.

One of the best things to come out of this past weekend in Boston is that I don’t have to say that I love Philadelphia anymore. Now, I can say I love Boston.

That’s because Boston makes Philly look like a dump. Well, that might be an overstatement.

No. You know what? That’s pretty accurate.

For every piece of trash I saw blowing around the streets of Philadelphia, I saw a flower blooming in Boston.

Until this weekend, I hadn’t spent much time in Boston. Only for a meeting here and there. But all of that changed during the past few days.

People say how “walkable” Boston is. Based on my 25 or 30 miles, they would be right. When my traveling companions tried to think of something to do, the inevitable answer was, “Let’s go for a walk.”  And that was a fantastic way to see the city. Around every corner is a surprise. Plus, it was a cheap mode of transport, which was good in a city where Big Money means serious dough.

 

Boston's Armenian Heritage Park is home to a pretty cool Labyrinth. I never thought I'd say those words together.

Boston’s Armenian Heritage Park is just one example of an amazing place you only discover on foot. It’s home to a pretty cool Labyrinth. I never thought I’d say those words together.

For many years, when people talked about big money in Boston, the only things that came up were Mitt Romney and the Big Dig. Because Mitt didn’t come out to welcome us, let’s focus in on the Big Dig, which only cost about $12 billion more than it was supposed to. That’s like a couple of bets for Mitt.

The Big Dig project included the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, which is impressive up close. Here it is from the Charles River.

The Big Dig project included the Leonard P. Zakim Bunker Hill Memorial Bridge, which is impressive up close. Here it is from the Charles River.

Anyway, back in 1982, some folks in Boston decided their highway system was unattractive so they decided to bury it. Shortly afterwards, construction workers began digging tunnels through the earth in order to bury the roads and create parks. The effort, known officially as the Central Artery / Tunnel project was finished on December 31, 2007. It annoyed virtually every Bostonian and a few out-of-towners, too.

In fact, I was once late for a meeting once because of the traffic jam caused by the Big Dig. That means, like most everyone else, I cursed the thing. Well, let me tell you what. I take it all back. The public spaces created by the monstrous projects were totally worth it. I know, that’s easy  for me to say because I only suffered one day for one meeting. You might get a different story from the locals. But I don’t really have to worry about that.

Anyway, there’s plenty to do in Boston. Whether you’re interested in Sport (I’m not), History (I am), or sitting on comfortable chairs watching the world go by (I was when we were about 20 miles into our walk).

The Massachusetts State House is oddly named give that it's a Commonwealth.

The Massachusetts State House is oddly named give that it’s a Commonwealth.

We took a Boston Duck Tour, which was an adventure in itself. These things are repurposed WWII amphibious landing vehicles. They’re now driven by clownish tour guides who bring joy and happiness to the lives of Boston tourists day-in and day-out.

They're interesting vehicles and worth a ride.

They’re interesting vehicles and worth a ride.

I caved and went for some fresh Lobstah. Unfortunately, it was preceded by what turned out to be some rank Calamari so the benefits were short-lived. I’m sure it was marvelous and, in order to describe it accurately for you, I’d be willing to give it another try (sans Calamari).

The most embarrassing part of the trip came when  a conversation with a flight attendant somehow turned into a stint sitting in the cockpit on my flight home. With a bright red face, I kept saying, “I’m not seven. I’m not seven.” The first officer looked at me and reflected the disappointment I felt.

I'm not seven. I promise.

I’m not seven. I promise.

 

{ 0 comments }

Denver Round 2

July 26, 2013

After hearing that my post about Denver wasn’t “up-to-snuff,” I decided to return.

It's always sunny in Denver.

This is what a meeting looks like from the outside.

Well, in truth, I decided to return because I had another meeting there, but if it makes the reader who complained feel better, I’ll tell him it was for him. By the way, who complains about a post on this site?!?! You know who you are…

Anyway, now that I’ve been there 2.5 times (the 1/2 was a layover in the airport), I fall decidedly in the “expert” category and can say with confidence that Denver is basically America’s gift to the world.

Let’s put it this way: Think of the best parts of every community — large or small — that you’ve visited. Now, put them into a single place. Guess what you’ve got? That’s right! Denver.

Then, go ahead and add what (at times) can be a weird beer culture…

And Colorado becomes the Australia of the United States. Why? Because all anyone talks about is beer.

Dude. Have you tried that new Microbrew with the ginger and strawberries? The hops are incredible.

With 300 days of sun, endless outdoor activities, and beautiful people rivaled only by the people back at Bondi Beach, Denver is wonderful. In this glowing review, I’ll choose to ignore the heavy industrial areas, heavier traffic, and vast distances between Point A and Point B.

Tasty. I always wondered where the dog food came from.

Tasty. I’ve always wondered where the dog food came from.

Now, at this point, you’re either reflecting on your own trip to Colorado or trying to figure out what the place is all about. Let me put it this way: If you’ve ever been to a Chipotle, you’ve basically seen the State.

I did ask one resident what he didn’t like about living in Colorado. He told me that he missed the lakes of his native Oklahoma. As he looked wistfully in the distance, he told me that Oklahoma has more lakes than Minnesota and more shoreline than California. I’ve been to Oklahoma and, lakes or no lakes, it’s got nothing on Colorado.

Wow.

Wow.

Sure, like most of my trips, the majority of my time was spent in meeting rooms, but when I was outside of them, there were some pretty amazing things to take in.

For example, because I brought my internal East Coast clock, I woke up early enough for a run. Let’s put it this way, the Mile High City’s nickname is not just for show. That run was brutal! I somehow clawed my way 3.5 miles 1.0 miles up. Although the thin oxygen made it unpleasant, a surprise coyote inspired speed I didn’t know I had.

Following the run and a long meeting, I grabbed a quick, pre-sunset trip to Red Rocks Amphitheater. It’s pretty amazing.

I'm sure Red Rocks Amphitheater is sometimes filled with concert-goers. However, all I saw were athletic people losing weight by running up these stairs.

I’m sure Red Rocks Amphitheater is sometimes filled with concert-goers. However, all I saw were athletic people losing weight by running up these seats.

And, before I sign off, let’s talk about The Rockies (the mountains, not the baseball team).

Jeeze. These things are big. Massive rocks calling me from the distance.

I grew up among the Appalachians, which are beautful and retain their place as my favorite mountain range (you have a favorite mountain range, too, right?).

You can call the Appalachians beautiful, but they ain’t majestic. The Rockies sure are. But I wanted to get close. Since I had a late flight out on the last day, I decided to drive up to Boulder. Granted, I was on a conference call during the brief hike, but the views were incredible (the cell service was also quite remarkable, too. I now recommend conference calls in unusual places).

That's legit. Yeah, I used THAT word.

That’s legit. Yeah, I used THAT word.

Oh! And the food in Denver does not suck.

{ 2 comments }