Friday, April 30, 2010

Rollin', Rollin', Rollin'!

Hello, blog, have you missed me? I haven't abandoned you, just a prolonged bit of neglect, while being busy not traveling for a month, but let's catch up! This is Tina, rolling down the hill on a powder-ful day at Crystal Mountain at the beginning of April:

And here's a Tina still in mid-roll. I proposed she use this one as her Facebook profile photo, but she continues to refuse to create a Facebook account...

A bit more from the day at the mountain

A rare [partly] sunny break in a day otherwise filled with lots of clouds, dumping lots of fresh snow

I returned to Seattle in the middle of March, but thanks to the unpredictable vagaries of the Pacific Northwest weather, did not end up missing the entire ski season. In fact, we had a record snow fall over Thanksgiving right before I left, followed that up with hardly any snow while I was gone, and the skies greeted my arrival back with a couple of unseasonably powdery weekends in late March and early April. Hooray for fresh snow! Only wish there'd been more of it during the winter months for everyone that was here.

What else have I been up to over the past month? Well, I've tried being an adult again and rented an apartment, that seemed a nice change from sleeping on a couch, both for me and the owners of said couch. Spring promptly showed up, bringing with it my personal favorite rite of spring - March Madness. When buying my return ticket back in November, I didn't really give a whole lot of thought to my precise return date, and yet my non-plan happened to work out surprisingly well: not only did March Madness (NCAA basketball tournament) commence on my second day back in the US, but March 17th, my actual return date, turned out to be St. Patrick's Day. I wasn't quite up for an all night affair with a bunch of Irish backpackers like the year before, but I was all for hanging out with friends at a party - thanks, Ann! Three weeks later, the basketball tournament concluded the way it always should - with Duke being crowned National Champions for the fourth time in school history, and everything was right with the world of college basketball once again! The past month in pictures:

Let's Go Duke! I welcome your hatred and envy, the rest of college basketball world!

Spring commencing in bloom in Seattle

Spring is a time for new beginnings - this one for the mini, which is now in the capable hands of Gunnar, who is about to take the whole thing apart, then put it all back together, minus the parts that have rusted through (or been welded together by Mongolian mechanics). Good as new... some nine short months from now!

The new beginning did require a jump start, for which we attempted the Subaru and BMW batteries, but eventually had to call in AAA... My push starting skills just aren't what they used to be back in Mongolia

And in other new beginnings, the boat is back to life! After taking last summer off, wakeboarding is once again in the plans for this summer.

And the other thing I dedicated my time has, of course, been scheming for another trip. I really felt very much ready to just stop at this point actually, and am far less excited to be on the road again right now, than I had been at the start of the last two journeys, but Yael was getting married in Israel, Bailey wanted to go, and I've not yet made it to either the Middle East or Africa, so a plan was eventually hatched together. Helped quite a bit by a frequent flyer miles sponsored ticket to Europe. And while, I can't honestly purport a whole lot of excitement about the unique opportunity to spend more nights in hostels, I am nonetheless pretty excited to see Budapest, Jerusalem, Petra, the pyramids of Egypt, Carthage, Sicily, Pisa, and the Niagara Falls just to name a few of the places I'm aiming to see over the next three months. Plus, there's a lot of friends now in all those places along the way, so maybe I won't have to sleep in hostels quite so much!

And just to get things started, I took a quick trip down to San Diego to see family and friends just before taking off:

With friends in San Diego's Little Italy, getting a base for comparing Italian foods in Italy vs the ones in the States

Art on display - San Diego's Art Walk in Little Italy

And that evening, the Miss iTAN bikini contest at the Siren Lounge in San Diego's Sè Hotel, a very appropriately South Californian way to spend an evening. The brunette on the right clearly should have won, but was robbed by the judges... She was born in Hungary, so I'm currently on my way to Budapest to try and set things straight... Or I could just settle for meeting a few of her friends and beautiful country-women

And finally, from the fun and novel department, we get this tale about Iceland. No, it's got nothing to do with the volcano and the ensuing flight delays - Lynn and I were disappointed to have left Iceland without a single volcano erupting over the course of our stay there (eruptions are a regular occurrence there - most don't play havoc with airspaces over Europe), and the ash has dissipated enough by now to not be having any affect on my flight to Budapest. No, this is about the 8,000 Iceland Kronur I brought back from Iceland and promptly took to Bank of America to exchange and deposit, along with my remaining Thai Baht and British Pounds. After verifying the pictures of all three currencies in her 'big book of world currencies,' Brittney, my helpful bank clerk, processed my Baht and Pounds and moved on to the Kronur. Now, Iceland's economy has hit a bit of a rough patch lately - at one point the whole country was just about bought by Russia, and the currency has fallen enough for Iceland to make some budget travel destination lists - not because it's actually inexpensive, just because it's a whole lot cheaper than it used to be. So the currency has been a little volatile of late, but I knew my 8,000 Kroner were worth about $65 USD. Brittney, on the other hand, just as clearly did not know that, and she informed me that according to her computer, my Icelandic currency was worth $1951 USD... I wasn't quite ready for such news, so I duly pointed out that her exchange rate was off by a factor of, oh, 250. She called her manager over, conferred, and insisted that I take my two thousand dollars. I felt I had by now done my due diligence and left with a simple 'Thank you!'

I quickly transferred the money to a different account and wondered what would happen - eventually they'd have to discover the 'Bank error in your favor,' right? This isn't Monopoly after all... A week passed. And then Brittney called and very apologetically explained that their system was wrong (really!?) and she wasn't supposed to accept Icelandic currency at all, so she would need to take the money back out of my account. I pointed out that the money was no longer in the account. I got a few more apologies in response, but eventually, your bank account will be frozen (big deal, I've got others), and they'd send it to collections. I felt ruining my credit wasn't worth $2,000, so I put the money back. A few days later, I had my Kronur back, did not have my two thousand dollars anymore and was feeling a bit annoyed because that final, seemingly straightforward, exchange involved a lot more phone calls, waits, and trips to the bank than I felt it should have. I mentioned my dissatisfaction to dear Brittney, and was assured that a manager would be calling me back to 'set everything right.'

Two more weeks passed. I had time to wonder what the bank's version of 'setting everything right' might end up being; it didn't seem like it would be sufficient. Yet, no apologetic word from the manager, or anyone else. Anger kept mounting, so I went to visit the the bank yet again to express my new feelings. Brittney was very, very, very sorry again, but unfortunately, the branch didn't have a manager right now (did the manager actually get fired over the Kronur thing? I suppose, I hope not...), and it would all be settled on Monday when the new manager was arriving. That evening, I got a message from the 'temporary manager,' apologizing some more, and assuring that they had put 'a gift' in the mail to make up for the inconvenience. Hearing about the gift helped upgrade from angry to furious.

So, Monday came, the day of reckoning - I wasn't expecting much, but the new manager was certainly going to hear all about how I felt on her first day on the job. She was actually there this time, apologized some more, invited me to her desk, and went off to collect some more documents and information. I contemplated my attack. But before I could launch my assault and demand, say, a hundred or so dollars for my troubles, she came back and matter of factly stated that they would put 'the money' back in to my account because that's the right thing to do. This took me by surprise...
- you mean, the $2,000? the entire two thousand dollars!?
- yes, that's the right thing to do, and what we should have done in the first place
- uhm, well, that is the right thing to do. I wasn't really expecting that, but thank you! Uhm, would you mind also writing me a letter stating that Bank of America will make no further attempts to retrieve this money?
- certainly

So, the next day, I delivered my 8,000 Icelandic Kronur back to Bank of America, and had $1951 deposited into my account in exchange. Along with a letter from the branch manager confirming that the money was mine to keep. And thank you for being a loyal customer! Now, I generally tend to have somewhat mixed feelings on Bank of America, but any bank that can make my trip to Iceland not only inexpensive, but downright profitable, is OK by me!

Today's Exchange Rate:
1.00 USD = 127.860 ISK
8,000 ISK = 62.5684 USD
1951 USD = 249,454.86 ISK(!)

Appreciate doing business with you! At the end of this current trip, I will actually be making a brief stopover in Iceland again (just for two hours to change planes this time), but I think I'm just too honest for my own good to try bringing any more Kronur back with me...

As for the current trip, me and my black eye (deflecting a hockey puck with your cheekbone [two days before departure] apparently leaves a mark... Don't worry, mom - nothing broken, I'm just going to look extra dashing for a week) are on the way to London for a few hours currently, and then on to Budapest by Friday evening. If you want to follow along, the website is back in operation and back to tracking my progress across seven continents - and this time, I plan to finally make it to Africa, that fabled 7th continent! No matter how much I keep hearing that 'real' Africa is the sub-Saharan stuff, Egypt and Tunisia will still, definitely, be enough to finish my continent count. And one day, one day, your day will come too sub-Saharan Africa! Anyway, the website, in case you'd forgotten:

One last picture, from London's Heathrow: a classic mini at an airport shop. British racing green, and a Union Jack on the roof - that's roughly what I'm aiming for with the one Gunnar's got at the moment

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Who can build me the biggest Buddha?

The head's all that's left of this Buddha in Ayuthaya, Thailand. It's been here for a few centuries and nature has been trying to re-absorb

When you go to far East Asia, most places tend to have a lot of Buddha statues. The predominantly Catholic Philippines remains an exception, but 'communist' China is all about getting in on the Buddha bandwagon. And while, I suspect, Buddhism tends to generally discourage competition (especially when it comes to depicting Buddha himself), this hasn't really stopped everyone from trying to build bigger and bigger statues. Some time when I was in Burma (which really likes to build things on a grand scale), I started thinking about some of the biggest statues I've come across. And now that I'm back, and have access to my entire photo library again, let's share what I've come up with with the blogosphere. Note: the list is by no means scientific, and I don't even know the actual measurements of most of these statues, it's just the way I had remembered the Buddhas when I had first seen them... I also like how Lord Buddha looks significantly different as you move from country to country...

So, without further adieu, we'll start with:

#1: The cute and adorable, vaguely life-size Buddhas

From left to right: The Emerald Buddha at the Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand; The slightly spacy looking Buddha at the Pha That Luang in Vientiane, Laos; and a very happy rotund Buddha in Kunming, China.

#2: Let's see what we find in this cave

A reclining, napping stone Buddha in the Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra, India

#3: Bangkok chimes in with an imposing sitting statue

A golden seated Buddha at Wat Suthat in Bangkok, Thailand

#4: Mongolia is also re-discovering its Buddhist roots ever since the Soviet Union has withdrawn its influence

A white stone statue sitting just off the road in Darkhan, Mongolia

#5: reclining Buddhas are hard to judge, since they are not standing up, but they are nonetheless impressive, and giant

This may have been one of the biggest statues of any sort I had seen at the time - a huge reclining Golden Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok, Thailand

#6: I only spent one day in Sri Lanka, but that was plenty of time to come across a very serene and flexible Buddha
A statue in the park in the center of Sri Lanka's capital, Colombo

#7: Japan's not to be outdone!

The slightly weathered statue of Amida Buddha on the grounds of Kotoku-in Temple in Kamikura, Japan. This has so far been the only Buddha statue I've been able to walk inside of...

#8: The Burmese love a good competition, especially if the winner is determined by quantity, or sheer size

Things in Bagan, Burma, home of over 5,000 temples, really are on a whole different scale, so this massive Buddha statue, barely fitting inside of the Ma-nu-ha Temple is right at home

#9: Commence the heavy weight division!

Hong Kong didn't strike me as a particularly religious place, but the nearby island of Lantau is nonetheless crowned by a large statue of a sitting Buddha - the Tian Tan Buddha. Hong Kong being Hong Kong, of course, it's mostly just a tourist attraction

#10: Modern Technology to the Rescue!

This is the Naung Daw Gyi Mya Tha Lyaung in Bago, Burma. It was only built in the past twenty years, likely making it a lot easier to construct this giant relic. There was apparently a different reclining Buddha, a mere block away - that one was much older, and slightly bigger, but we didn't expect to keep looking for another huge reclining Buddha after finding this one!

#11: more from Japan
The Todai-ji Temple in Nara, Japan is the largest wooden building in the world, and today, it's only a third of the size it used to be at its peak a few centuries ago. Inside, there's a number of imposing (and sometimes angry) statues, headlined by the massive seated Virocana Buddha

#12: And the winner is...

The 45 meter tall Phra Puttamingmongkol Akenakkiri Buddha on the island of Phuket in Thailand rules over the surrounding islands and countryside. It is not yet quite finished, unfortunately, but it's just the details that remain - the huge structure itself is already in place.

If we were to be a little more scientific about it, things get very complicated very quickly as there are categories for standing Buddhas, and sitting Buddhas, and reclining Buddhas... and some have pedestals, while others do not, so it's hard to judge. The Taliban has also taken the liberty of destroying one of the biggest Buddha statues in the world in the mountains of Afghanistan - the Buddhas of Bamyan. The Leshan Giant Buddha, outside of Leshan City, China seems to be generally accepted as the biggest Buddha statue in the world at 71 meters in height - then again, it's unclear what the criteria are, as on this list it only comes in at number eleven. Everyone does seem to agree that the Maitreya Buddha in Uttar Pradesh, India will eventually become the biggest Buddha statue in the world (152 meters tall), but they are still working on it, and considering that it is India, I wouldn't hold out too much hope for a speedy completion.

In the mean time, if you'd like a Buddha of your own, to, say, decorate a backyard, the Thais have been perfecting their Buddha transportation techniques:

Buddha on a truck in Bangkok, Thailand - getting ready to hit the road!