Peruvian Esteem

December 8, 2014

You can't throw a rock without hitting Inca ruins in Peru. Like these at Moray. The site was used by the Incan People for worshipping and/or agricultural research. Archaeologists aren't sure which.

You can’t throw a rock without hitting Inca ruins in Peru. Like these at Moray. The site was used by the Incan People for worshipping and/or agricultural research. Archaeologists aren’t sure which.

It’s taken me awhile to put pen to paper (or, more truly, fingers to keyboard) on this one. I’d love to tell you that there’s a simple explanation like I’ve been too busy. However, in all honesty, it’s been because there was something different about this trip. For one, I had a traveling companion: My fiancée was with me. Most of my travel has been solo, so having someone to share experiences with was a new ballgame. But, I think there was something else, too. Something about the place that captivated me and almost defies words. Especially my usual curt words. Sure, we had our share of the kinds of experiences that I’m told garner the occasional chuckle from readers — but this sketch has a different kind of theme running through it. If you pick up on a subtle hint of awe, I did my job right.

Peru — the Sacred Valley in particular — has a certain mysticism to it.

The Sacred Valley is breathtaking, especially from above. It's sacred because it's so fertile.

The Sacred Valley is breathtaking, especially from above. It’s sacred because it’s so fertile.

  • Shortness of breath?
  • Numbness of the extremities?
  • Confusion?

Those are the symptoms of finding oneself in Peru’s Sacred Valley. At altitudes ranging from a cool 8,000 feet (or some number of confusing meters) to 22,000, it’s a vigorous mountain climb attempted by thousands of otherwise lazy tourists each and every day (up to 2,500 people enter Machu Picchu each day). The guides are trained in their universities to literally “walk slower for the tourists who aren’t acclimatized” to these altitudes. And boy was I grateful. Most of the negative effects are reduced for those who can respond, “Yes” when a guide says, “Did you get dee pill?”

“Dee pill” is a twice-daily prescription for a drug that causes the pH in your blood to increase, which through some trick of science means you can skip the headaches and nausea normally suffered by travelers at these altitudes. It also means you get the occasional and unpredictable tingling of your hands, feet, and (if you’re lucky) face. It became a sensation that we looked forward to.

Lima is a very modern city.

Lima is a very modern city.

We first arrived in the big city of Lima. A shocking (at least to me) 3,000,000 of Peru’s 10,000,000 people live here. Despite my less than stellar math education — which will play a character part in a few paragraphs — I can tell you that’s about 1/3 of the country. I can also tell you, based on personal experience, that the country’s educational system seems lacking in what I would call “Driver’s Ed.” Not since I was in Moscow have I seen anything quite like it.

I’ve had close calls in cars everywhere from Copenhagen to New York to – the worst – Moscow. It seems like people in nearly every big city take pride in their ability to say, “We have the craziest drivers.” I have always chortled. There was no chortling in Lima. These are some crazy drivers.

The Presidential Palace doesn't look like a rough place to live.

The Presidential Palace doesn’t look like a rough place to live.

What Flashes Before You When You’re Facing Death?

Let me share our near-death experience from Day One in Lima. It was 3:00 or so. We were wandering the streets exploring the five-hundred year-old Spanish Colonial architecture. Across the plaza, we noticed the Presidential Palace and decided to take a closer look. Being the extraordinary (and humble) gentleman I am, I led my fiancée across the street practically draping my jacket over a puddle so that her shoes wouldn’t get wet. As I was brushing off the brownie points I’d just earned from my jacket, I suddenly froze. Out of nowhere appeared some kind of unmarked Chinese-made delivery truck. They say when you’re near death, your life flashes before your eyes.

If it was my life that flashed, I really need to live more. What I saw was even more shocking than an unmarked Chinese-made delivery truck barreling toward me in a South American capital.

There, before us, was a completely, absolutely, buck-naked woman in her mid-seventies. I’ve seen a lot in my life. But I haven’t seen that before. Sure, there was this one time in Philadelphia where I saw a middle-aged woman changing her shirt in front of the LOVE statue in Kennedy Plaza, but that was just a shirt. This Limanite was completely devoid of clothing. Not a stitch. In broad daylight. In front of the Presidential Palace. No, she wasn’t protesting. She was just walking around wrestling with a burlap potato sack that said, “Fresco! Organico! De Los Andes!” or “Fresh! Organic! From the Andes!”

Thankfully, I have been forgiven for staring at this unexpected sight since it inspired both of us to run away from it — and the truck — saving us from being pancaked in Peru.

The food -- especially the fruit -- was delicious.

The food — especially the fruit — was delicious.

Which brings us to our experience in the Andes, away from the dangers of the Big City.

But first, let me explain that Lima is on the Pacific coast, west (1 hour by plane) from Cusco, the Incan capital. It, like the rest of Peru is in the same time zone as New York. Most tourists from the States come to Peru to see the Incan wonders of the Sacred Valley, culminating, of course, at Machu Picchu (correctly pronounced, as I learned, “Machu Pick-chu,” by the way).

A Confusing Past

So, this is Francisco Pizarro's body. You might remember him as the Conquistador who conquistadored the Inca civilization. That box to the left? That's where they put his head after they cut it off.

So, this is Francisco Pizarro’s body at the Cathedral in Lima. You might remember him as the Conquistador who conquistadored the Inca civilization. That box to the left? That’s where they put his head after they cut it off.

Our time in Peru left me with many questions about the unique and unusual history of the Peruvian people. It’s truly complicated.

So, imagine this: You’re sitting in your house minding your own business doing your normal activities like, say, watching Entertainment Tonight. All of the sudden a UFO shows up. So, your mayor does what she should do. She goes and says, “Hi. Welcome to our town!

Then, after that, the people in the UFO behead your mayor. And make you one of their slaves. You know, after they take all of your prized possessions, forbid you from speaking your language or going to your church, and begin marrying your children.

Well. That, my friends, is exactly what happened when the Spanish arrived in 1534. Except no one was watching Entertainment Tonight. It was, in a few small ways, a better time. 

I say it’s a complicated heritage because, not only did the Spanish conquer the ancestors of today’s Peruvian people, but they also infiltrated their DNA. Practically every Native Peruvian has both Inca and Spanish heritage. The Spaniards brought religion, food, language, blood(shed). They did it by conquering and nearly destroying most of the traditions.

Thankfully Quechua, the native language, and many traditions (including the beautiful worship of Pachamama — Mother Earth) remain in many of the rural areas where they were protected by the almost insurmountable landscape.

Dinner was a Pet?

The Peruvian ambrosia is, of course, Guinea Pig. I don’t know if it’s just for the tourists, although it seemed genuine: The act of eating Guinea Pig is held with a level of respect normally reserved for religious experiences. On the most special occasions, families will save their soles (1 sole = 33 cents) and buy a Guinea Pig for roasting.

A Guinea Pig awaiting a certain future. By the time of publishing, I'm nearly certain he's been done in.

A Guinea Pig awaiting a certain future. You can see the fear in his little eyes. By the time of publishing, he’s likely been done in.

Now, if you go to Peru and skip the Guinea Pig, you’re really not living. And I love living so what do you think I did?

Admittedly, after I ordered it, I was freaking out. Like completely freaking out. I recalled the time I ate the as-yet unidentified fish in Tokyo that caused me to nearly wretch all over one of Tokyo’s finest rooftop restaurants. This was a different experience altogether because I had the misfortune of knowing what was coming. I was absolutely 100% freaking out. As I sat there, white as a ghost, afraid I’d wasted a precious meal and might embarrass my country, I did my best to meditate and think about something — anything — else. I looked across the restaurant at the beautiful view of the Rio Sagrado (Sacred River). I thought about the amazing Incan ruins we’d seen everywhere. I gazed into the eyes of my fiancée — normally an easy distractor. Nope. Nothing could get my mind off of what was coming: A class pet for millions of Americans was about to be dinner. Freaking. Out.

I recognize cultural mores are unique to each place. So, my definition of Guinea Pig is certainly not the same as my Peruvian friends, but this was tough. And it was about to be even tougher.

“DING.”

The cook rang the bell indicating that the little creature was ready to be delivered.

Our waitress knew exactly what was about to happen. She’d seen it many times before. In fact, she’s probably watching some other poor schmo from another country doing the same thing right now as you’re reading this. “Hahaha! I’ll have the Guinea Pig!” She knew the result when I asked for it with my hard US accent.

To say it tasted like chicken would indicate to anyone who’s had it that I didn’t get up the nerve to try it. I tried it. And it didn’t taste like chicken. It tasted like Guinea Pig. Like a spongy, sad meat that really had no business being eaten. The tiny little leg bones just made it that much sadder. The spongy, roasted meat was…I really can’t go on. I ate enough to say I’d done it and hid the rest under my mashed potatoes.

It was all the more real when some of my friends from home heard about what I’d done. They started sending pictures of their children petting their little furry Guinea Pigs. For the next several nights, I woke up in cold sweats with nightmares of little, cute, friendly fur balls named “Lollypop,” “Boo Boo,” and “Cream Puff” attacking me.

It’s a meal I’d rather soon forget.

The treatment of the chickens, on the other hand, is remarkable. They're given shoes.

The treatment of the chickens, on the other hand, is remarkable. They get shoes.

“Education is the Currency of Democracy.” ~ T. Jefferson

I’ve found that every trip takes on a life of its own. This one somehow focused on education.

Ollayntayntambo was also a pretty sacred site. It was on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and remains a must-do on the way.

Ollayntayntambo was also a pretty sacred site. It lies on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and remains a must-do on the way.

One day, we rode in a car for about an hour to a town called, Ollantaytambo, and then headed up, into the mountains for another couple of hours along an unpaved road that held onto the mountain by its gravelly fingertips. We passed women herding cattle and llamas. We dodged hippies. We saw the “real” Peru. (As a quick and worthwhile aside, there are a lot of hippies — mostly from the States — wandering around Peru. They sell bracelets made of string and look, for the most part, lost.)

Upon arrival, we walked into the classroom, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Excited about the opportunity to look, from a safe distance, at the kids as they learned their alphabet or whatever. When we walked into the room I immediately knew something was different. On the board: Advanced math. How did I know it was advanced? Because I’d seen it in college. It had funny shapes and really big numbers. Really big numbers. I didn’t understand. These were fourth graders.

And then, the students — these kids weren’t kids anymore — saw us. And suddenly their teacher lost control of them. They became kids again.

“Gringos!!!”

Our guide would later say, “Gringo is a term for foreigners whom we like. It’s not offensive.”

Right. Who’s kidding who? Aside from your excellent grammar, you’re wrong. But, whatever. Hat’s off to you for properly using “whom.”

These kids threatened me with their math. Once I’d moved passed their math skills, I saw their faucet-like noses. With a combination of yellow and red that belonged on a hotdog and not a nose, it was clear these kids were suffering with an epidemic of something I didn’t want. (In a bit of literary foreshadowing, I’ll share with you that I would get it. It set in on the flight back to the states and I was sick for a solid week.)

You can't see their runny noses in this picture. But believe me, they were juicy.

You can’t see their runny noses in this picture. But believe me, they were juicy.

“What have you brought me?!” They asked, not-quite in unison, but in nearly perfect English.

I looked at our guide. Then at the teacher. Then at the students. The teacher told them to start singing. One of the boys suddenly jumped up, vertically, I don’t know, maybe three or seven feet in the air pointed at his chair, pointed at me, and said, “Sientete!” I recall hearing that a lot in school when we were being disobedient. Fearing a demerit, I sat down. My knees were level with my chin in his tiny chair. One point for the boy, no points for me.

They began singing a song, which our guide later translated. My favorite verse went roughly,

“Airplane! Airplane! Bring back my girlfriend. She’s cheating on me. My family is so sad. I’m so sad that I kissed a skeleton. Airplane! Bring back my girlfriend.”

If you think that’s strange, just take some time with, “Humpty Dumpty.”

After their song, we passed out apples. They seemed pleased with us and, like any good performers, offered another tune in response to our apples, which, to them, were akin to a standing ovation.

Meeting these students was a great fortune. Seeing them light up when we walked in was awfully exciting. 

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is everything you could imagine. Seeing it was an inspiration and awe-inspiring. I can’t put words to it. So pictures will have to do. The only thing I will say is that it sat covered by dense vegetation unknown to anyone for five-hundred years. Which leads me to this exciting question: What else is out there waiting for discovery?

My take on the quintessential view.

That’s the quarry in the bottom left. You know, the quarry they used to make all of this. Based on the way the rocks are laid out, there was more to do when they abandoned the site to prevent the Spanish from finding it.

The quality of the construction was directly related to how sacred a particular place was.

The quality of the construction was directly related to how sacred a particular place was. We saw them cleaning these stones. They were using toothbrushes and toothpicks. No, not even kidding.

This trapezoid shape was everywhere because it stood the test of earthquakes. This niche would have been used to display religious idols.

This trapezoid shape was everywhere because it stood the test of earthquakes. This niche would have been used to display religious idols.

This door led to the Priest's house.

This door – again a trapezoid – led to the Priest’s house.

The Incan People held water in the highest esteem. Their mastery of its management is probably why so much of the site remains. In this view from above, you can see just how well they controlled its flow.

The Incan People held water in the highest esteem. Their mastery of its management is probably why so much of the site remains. In this view from above, you can see just how well they controlled its flow. The channels are about two inches wide.

It never stopped amazing me. They did this with sand and sticks. Sand and sticks!!

It never stopped amazing me. They did this with sand and sticks. Sand and sticks!!

Closing

In closing, we went because we’d never been. We’ll return because it’s amazing.

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If you said to me in August, “By the middle of September, you’ll be riding through the streets of Bogotá, Colombia in a cab listening to Frank Sinatra’s version of Jingle Bells,” I’d likely have said, “I’ll believe you up until the Jingle Bells thing.”

Well, you would have been right and I would have been wrong. Because that’s exactly what I was doing day-before-yesterday.

As I rode to the airport at the end of the trip, the music shifted to a Neal Diamond classic, “Forever in Blue Jeans,” and I began to reflect on my time in this amazing (and often misunderstood) city.

The flight to Bogotá is less than five hours from Atlanta.

The flight to Bogotá is less than five hours from Atlanta.

A few weeks ago, I contacted a consulting company down in Colombia because we needed a partner to deliver our company’s services in Latin America. Our firm has known these people for awhile, but, because I hadn’t met them personally, I decided to go down to do so. One of my colleagues here in the States asked if I was going to Bug-otta? No. So let’s clear that up first:

It’s Bogotá, not Bug-otta. And, it’s Colombia. Not Columbia.

Anyway, I arrived late on Saturday evening, which left me with a free day on Sunday to explore the largest city in a country in which the US State Department encourages visitors, “to exercise caution and remain vigilant as terrorist and criminal activities remain a threat throughout the country. Explosions occur throughout Colombia on a regular basis, including some in Bogotá itself.”

The Ciclovía is a once-weekly, well-marked pedestrian and cycling path around the City. Many other places around the globe have built their own.

The Ciclovía is a once-weekly, well-marked pedestrian and cycling path around the City. Many other places around the globe have built their own.

So, that led me to wander out of my hotel alone and unarmed to explore the Ciclovía. What, you ask, is the Ciclovía? Each Sunday from 7:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m., many of the streets in downtown Bogotá are shut down to allow runners, cyclists, rollerbladers, and other exercisers to freely explore without fear of certain death from the unusually heavy and erratic traffic of the city. So, with nothing but my wits and a cell phone camera, I walked out of my hotel, rented a bike, and set off along the Carrera Séptima. After four hours, I’d seen a lot of the city, breathed in more than my share of soot, smelled the inevitable odor that results from cramming millions of people into a confined area (i.e., refuse), and earned a bad sunburn.

After that experience, I wanted to pick up a couple of gifts for friends. I did this with a visit to the Usaquén neighborhood, which on Sundays hosts a giant flea market. (As an aside, Sunday is the day to visit Bogotá — there’s a lot to do). People at the Usaquén market sell everything from Chinese copies of Colombian antiquarian treasures to genuine handmade crafts. I found a couple of things to buy including an intricate tree made from wire. I asked the vendor about it and her eyes got huge.

The photo doesn't do it justice. It's really something!

The photo doesn’t do it justice. It’s really something!

“How much?” I asked.

She stared back at me blankly. “Stella! Stella! Steelllllla!” she yelled. I half expected Marlon Brando to show up.

She kept yelling and eventually looked back at me, saying, “This made by someone else.” Her English outperforming my Spanish dramatically.

About that time, Stella arrived.

“Que?” she asked. Which was followed by a feverish and emotional exchange.

“How much?” I asked again.

“Uhhh. Errrr. 150,000. Es bery beautiful,” she told me.

She was right.

I nonchalantly reached for my cell phone and clicked on my trustworthy currency app. She wanted about US$75 for her creation.

Sometimes, it's good to be American.

Sometimes, it’s good to be American.

Meanwhile Stella and her friend were looking at each other with expressions that could either have been…

  • What kind of moron would actually buy this? or
  • Can you believe I’m about to sell this thing of great beauty that I poured my heart and soul into?!?!?!

I’m an optimist and prefer to see the best in people so I choose to believe the second. Now, I’m not saying that US$75 isn’t a lot of money. It certainly is. But, to get a thing of great beauty that Stella poured her heart and soul into PLUS make (what I can only assume was) a significant impact on her financial situation was worth far more than seventy-five bucks to me. So I pulled out my cash and gave her 150,000 Colombian Pesos. I hope she’s still thinking about me. I don’t think I’ll ever forget her.

With play time over, it was time to get to work.

There were lots of police everywhere. Although, I got the sense I could have gotten away with anything if I'd been willing to part with some folding money.

There were lots of police everywhere. Although, I got the sense I could have gotten away with anything if I’d been willing to part with some folding money.

“In the dark times, when the mob ruled this country, they would plant bombs in cars. That was like 15 years ago. Don’t worry, you’re safe,” said my host. I reflected on the State Department warning as a heavily armed man and his dog were checking our trunk for a pipebomb. We were cleared to drive on.

On several occasions, I began meetings with,

“Lo siento porque mi Español es muy mal.”
“I’m sorry, my Spanish is very bad.”

The language barrier made meetings difficult. But, they would have been impossible without my new companion, Andrés the omnipresent translator. Seriously, this dude never left my side. He even went to the bathroom with me. If you’re ever in Bogotá and in need of translation services, he’s your man. As a head’s up, you’ll need to ask him not to follow you into the bathroom.

I was very tall in Colombia.

Andres and me. I was very tall in Colombia.

Fast forward to my last night in town when I realized I needed to get that tree home. Unfortunately, Andrés had left us so it was just me and my mono-lingual hosts. After a few days of hearing nothing but Spanish, my language skills had improved (slightly). As a matter of context, my language skills have always been terrible. In fact, in college, I took Spanish. The final exam required us to have a seven minute conversation with our professor. At the end of mine, she told me:

“Señor, you have no grasp of this language at all. None. But your accent is incredible!”

So, with that memory floating through my mind, I asked my hosts…

“Necesito un caja, por favor.”
“I need a box, please.”

Thankfully, I got it right.

We stopped in a couple of stores whose proprietors looked at us with judgmental faces and single word responses: “No.” That one translates with ease. Finally, we stopped in a third store. There was an exchange I couldn’t even begin to understand.

So…my hosts grabbed me by the arm and pulled me out onto the street.

This, I thought, is how it all ends?

How do I call the State Department?!

Turns out, I had nothing to fear. They were running after the garbage man who was literally folding up boxes and putting them into a dumpster on wheels that he pushed along the sidewalk. We slipped him a couple of (hundred) pesos, and gained permission to dig through his trash cart. Again, had you told me a few weeks ago (err..make that an hour before) that I’d be digging through a Colombian trash cart, well…I don’t know what I would have thought. But, I’ll do virtually anything for this blog so I went all in. I mean, I was in a suit climbing through the garbage. I think the suit’s done for, but it was worth it for you, dear readers.

You’ll be relieved to know that I found a box and my treasure made it home. It serves as a reminder of the people I met in Colombia.

I work very hard to understand a little bit about the people I meet on every trip I take. It’s why I love travel so much. Because of the unique nature of this trip, I was able to meet some amazingly accomplished people. My hosts arranged for us to, among other things…

  • Have lunch with faculty from one of Latin America’s leading business schools,
  • Talk with senior business leaders about leading Colombian companies, and
  • Meet people who are literally building this country.
Like this traveler, the Colombians have a huge load to carry as it relates to building a nation, but they seem eager and happy to do it.

Like this traveler, the Colombians have a huge load to carry as it relates to building a nation, but they seem eager and happy to do it.

And, my takeaway is that rarely have I come across a group so consistently dedicated to serving the greater good as Colombians. There’s a sense of national obligation that transcends our definition of patriotism. It’s not about placing a hand on your heart before a game. It’s not about fireworks on the Fourth of July. Instead, it’s about serving something outside of oneself. About building a country. Each business person I met said essentially the same thing, which was summed up very well by a CEO I met:

“Yes, I am interested in growing for my family, but I’m also doing this for my country. To grow Colombia and make it a better place.”

This uniquely Colombian trait is truly inspiring. I am so impressed with them that I can only hope they’ll remember me as something more than that American they saw dumpster diving.

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“Let’s do that on Monday,” I suggested in a meeting last Thursday. 

“Umm. That’s Labor Day. The office is closed. Right?” someone said with a tone of desperate hope.

She was right. I’d failed to load “National Holidays” into my calendar. As a result, I had no idea we could enjoy a long weekend until 48 hours before it began. That opened a world of possibilities. I Googled “Delta Route Map” to see where I could go. 

Contenders included

  1. Halifax, Nova Scotia
  2. Anchorage, Alaska
  3. Jackson Hole, Wyoming

It was my own Goldilocks moment: The first one was too close, the second too far, and the third…just right.

IMG_7214

This trip was much faster than it would have been only a century ago.

The trip took me from Greensboro to Atlanta to Salt Lake City and on to Jackson Hole. The most eventful leg by far was Salt Lake City to Jackson Hole. After refereeing a wrestling match between my bag and the overhead bin, I settled into my seat. Suddenly, the gentleman two rows ahead caused quite a kerfuffle. “What’s up with that,” I wondered.

Turns out he was ready for a refill. 

“More,” he commanded while waving an empty high ball glass in a pseudo-circle in front of him.

“Where’d you get that?” asked the youngish Flight Attendant.

“The Reskrant,” said the fellow. Also youngish.

“You mean you stole it? I can’t get you anything else.”

“Why not,” he asked.

“Because you’re inebriated,” she confidently responded. I heard her mutter, “And this is Salt Lake City.”

“Yup,” he said before donning his headphones and playing Boston’s Peace of Mind loudly enough for all of us to enjoy.

The Flight Attendant went about her business. So admirably, indeed, that following the safety briefing, our thirsty friend removed his headphones (forgetting to pause his music) and tried to tip her. She declined, “It’s against company policy,” she told me.

XXX

I was hopeful the guy wouldn’t cause too much of a ruckus so we could get in the air. Fortunately, he calmed down quickly.

Anyway, after landing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I climbed past the drunken gentleman who, despite a very bumpy flight, was now passed out.

From the airport, I took a cab for the 20 minute ride into town.

It turns out that 97% of Teton County is Federal land. What do you do when you’re surrounded by unbelievable natural beauty and have so little tax-generating private property? Pump in the tourist dollars, of course! And also, it turns out, get really rich people to move in. The County has the highest personal per capita income in the country ($132,728, which is greater than Manhattan’s $12o,790).

Hello Wyoming!

Hello Wyoming!

Thanks to the front desk clerk at the Wyoming Inn, I learned about the Start Bus, which is not frequented by Teton County’s rich and famous.

It’s a free transportation network that’s also a great way to make new friends. There was, for example, the guy who told me (and everyone else on the bus) without prompting that he’d been “legally dead 3 times.” He also shared with us that he’s “lived in Paella” along with another 37 states and 6 countries. In case there was some question, “I was completely twisted on cocaine for half of it.”

Mmmm. M&Ms.

Mmmm. M&Ms. Wonder if they were purchased locally or back in Paella?

There were a handful of places that I’d decided I wanted to hit up because of their positive reviews on Yelp. One of them was the Snake River Brewery. Fortunately, my busmate didn’t have the same idea. I grabbed a seat at the bar and ordered a hamburger and an IPA. Two guys from Denver and a local woman had the adjacent seats.

Unfortunately, I left my stickers at home.

Unfortunately, I left my stickers at home.

“Hi! I’m Camber, this is Chris and Dave. We just met. But they’ve got great energy.”

After earning her undergraduate degree, Camber became a journalist for the local alternative paper. She never left. But that’s not cutting it so she DJs weddings and waitresses at a Thai restaurant for extra cash. She’s got a sister who traps prairie dogs. Apparently that’s a thing. The sister’s temporarily laid up though because a prairie dog bite is bad. Very bad. Camber also just got a “Soul Reading” in which she learned about her past lives. Turns out she was on the wrong end of WWII. She didn’t go into detail, but did tell us — wide eyed — that it explains her fear of small spaces.

She had a lot to say. She must have been quiet in that previous life.

“After this, I’m going to Idaho for a potato digging party,” It was going to be a big night for Camber.

“Is that what I think it is?” I asked.

“I mean, we’re going to dig potatoes,” she explained with her hands. “It’s only like 20 minutes away or something. You guys should come. You’ve got great energy!”

Chris, Dave, and I made the right call. We passed. I headed back to my hotel room instead.

I spent the next day exploring downtown Jackson. When dinner time arrived, it was time to try another Yelp recommendation — the Rendezvous Bistro

Yes. It's stuck between the highway and the Hampton Inn.

Yes. It’s stuck between the highway and the Hampton Inn.

“I’m tryyyyying to decyyyyyyde what to drink,” says the woman seated at the table next to mine.

She asks to taste five different drinks including, but not limited to a local craft beer called Pako’s, the house Pinot Noir, and something called Wyoming Whiskey. I don’t know how she tasted anything after the fourth one. But, then again, maybe it wasn’t the flavor she was after. She settled on the Pinot Noir.

Anyway, the drinks menu proved more interesting than her date. She read it with the occasional editorial comment while waiting for her Pot Stickers to arrive.

“What’s this? A South African wine!? I’ve never even heard of that. How can they make wine in Africa? I mean, c’mooooooooonnnn. But I’ll try it.”

“May I possibly please have umm one more beer, please,” asks her husband. 

She’d ordered the beef, which she decided was overcooked after eating about half of it. Naturally, it needed to go back to the kitchen. Bold move, lady. Bold move.

I wish I had a wall big enough for this six foot thing of beauty. But, then again, I don't have $28,000 to drop on it.

I wish I had a wall big enough for this five foot thing of beauty. But, then again, I don’t have $28,000 to buy it.

I noticed a theme. There are many locals who, despite surviving on the dollars of tourists, seem to despise us. I overheard one woman at a restaurant I infiltrated called the Local Restaurant:

“I’m finally done with my freaking day of making caramel freaking macchiatos and iced freaking cappuccinos for people from freaking Idaho and freaking Colorado. It’s time for a beer. NOW!” There was a lot of rage there. I kept my head down and my North Carolina accent to a minimum.

An early morning had me in bed early, too. That means I missed out on seeing more drunk people.

An early morning had me in bed early, too. That means I missed out on seeing more drunk people.

My time in Jackson was great. Maybe it was a Labor Day thing? Maybe it was the free Lynyrd Skynyrd concert (that I missed) on Sunday night? Whatever the reason, it was a fun trip and, other than a couple of demanding restaurant-goers, everyone was in a great mood. Sure, there was an air of superiority given off by some of the locals (certainly not Camber), but that’s not so much my problem as it is theirs.

Next time I go, I’ll rent a car to explore. Jackson Hole is reminiscent of Queenstown. There’s plenty of adventure and beauty. Yellowstone’s just around the corner and The Tetons taunted me. But, I resisted and hopped back on an airplane a short 36 hours after I landed. Fortunately, everyone seemed sober on the return trip.

m4s0n501

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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!

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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(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

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Tenerife View 3

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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?

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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…

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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!

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