Saturday, August 28, 2010

America's Pastime

I was going to write up a post about the baseball games I got to see a while ago, but then I forgot, then some more time passed, and here we are now, with me getting back to it: baseball, the great American Pastime! Not quite as great (or popular) as the NFL these days perhaps, but a nice relaxing way to spend an evening or an afternoon.

I've been to a good number of baseball games before - from San Diego to Seattle to Philadelphia to a lot of places in between (The new Giants Stadium in San Francisco is the best. Though Seattle's very own Safeco Field is up there too), but I had never seen either of the two oldest, venerable, most famous stadiums in the major leagues: Boston's Fenway Park, where the Red Sox play, and Wrigley Field, on the North side of Chicago, home of the green ivy and your favorite lovable losers, the Cubs. So, off I went planning my advance across North America, keeping famous baseball stadiums in mind:

Of course, my first North American stop was New York City

And they've got a fairly famous baseball team here too - something called the Yankees, at the New Yankee Stadium, shown here. I would've actually been more excited to see the old, more historic Yankee Stadium, but that had been replaced by this shining new stadium last year, so that's what we get. I would have been really, really excited to catch a game here (or even at the new Mets Stadium in Queens), but I happened to be in New York during baseball's All Star break, so no games for you! In fact, I even missed the hours for the tour of the stadium... So, enough with the Yankees then - on to Boston!

Boston, the city, I had visited on a number of occasions before, so I wasn't really inclined to do much sight-seeing, I did catch up with Mary Catherine (of Lake Baikal fame) here briefly, but really, my main raison d'etre in Boston was to catch a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, so on a beautiful summer evening, around 7 o'clock, I arrived at my Fenway seat and settled in to watch the Red Sox take on the Texas Rangers

Welcome to Fenway Park! Every game is sold out...

The Green Monster under the lights. I thought you'd be a little bigger, a little more monstrous actually, Green Monster? ('Green Monster' is what they call that big green wall over there, Mom)

My seats weren't very far from the Red Sox bullpen, so here's an action shot of the warm-ups

Unfortunately, the beautiful summer evening did not last, and around the fourth inning, the game was paused indefinitely due to rain. This was all a part of my Egypt hangover month of travel, where each new city I'd arrive in would greet me with rain and clouds after the interminable heat and sunshine that was everywhere in Egypt: Tunis, Naples, Rome, Paris, Bristol, London (of course), New York, Boston, Montreal, Buffalo... they each got me a taste of overcast skies and rain. I stuck with it though, waited out the delay, taking a chance to explore the stadium, and sample the local bratwurst offerings.

An hour later, the action resumed, and we all trooped back to our seats. Sadly, the weather didn't get the memo that we were all back, while the umpires were clearly inclined to try and get the game finished, so we were experiencing a little more New England drizzle than I felt I had really signed up for

The skies continuing to look ominous over Fenway

I put up with the rain for about another inning, and promptly packed up and headed out of the stadium - I'm all for catching a Sox game at Fenway, but getting soaked wasn't part of the plan. Fenway itself was really cool to see - it's certainly very small, very cozy, distinctly old school. The fans used to be known as the most knowledgeable baseball fans in America - as the ticket prices have risen sharply, the most die-hard, most knowledgeable fans have stopped being able to afford tickets, so while there still isn't an empty seat to be found in the house, I didn't necessarily think the makeup of the crowd was any different than what you'd expect at a baseball game anywhere else around the country.

And speaking of anywhere else around the country, a couple of weeks later, after a detour through Canada, I reached Chicago, home of the Cubs. I was once again here for just a single night, staying with Ellen, a new couch-surfing buddy, and we headed off towards Wrigley Field to catch an evening game against the St. Louis Cardinals (somewhat ironically, last time I had been in St. Louis, I caught a game there against the Cubs...).

Approaching Wrigley!

Ellen and I over by our 'seats' - all the games at Wrigley are sold out too, so we ended up with standing room seats, which was actually just fine by us!

National League MVP Albert Pujols taking a swing

'Beyond the Ivy' seats - Wrigley Field feels really small! Part of the reason is that the outfield seats don't go up very high, so the houses beyond the stadium, across Waveland Avenue, get a clear look onto the action

I accessorized in some St. Patrick's Day Cubbies attire and got a picture with Ernie Banks

We once again didn't make it all the way through the game... no rain this time, it's just that it went into extra innings, and we had a visit to Al Capone's old jazz club still ahead of us (which was awesome, by the way). Wrigley Field, I enjoyed even more than Fenway - they are both small, cozy and somehow feel closer and more genuine than most of the gigantic, new, corporate-sponsored stadiums, but Wrigley has a little more of a quiet, relaxed vibe to it than does Fenway. Maybe it's just the ivy on the outfield walls, or maybe it's because the Cubs are the lovable losers (last championship in 1908, next one does not currently appear to be imminent), while the Red Sox have become all smug, corporate, and expensive(!) after breaking through their own curse (read: cheapness of a former owner) and winning a pair of World Series titles in the past ten years.

And that, in short, was my America's Pastime baseball experience. Some day, catching a game at the two New York stadiums needs to happen, but I've gotten the two venues that I really wanted to see out of the way: Fenway and Wrigley! Oh, and I did pass by some other baseball venues along the way, but I wasn't quite so inclined to catch a game at either one of these:

Some fun decorations on the side of the Rogers Stadium in downtown Toronto - generally regarded as a particularly unattractive stadium... At least, I imagine, the CN Tower makes for a nice background

Seeing a game at Denver's Coors Field would be pretty cool actually (and ironically enough, the very same Chicago Cubs were apparently arriving in town just as I was taking off), but I didn't have the time - Seattle was calling by now!

And now that I'm back here in Seattle and not really traveling anymore, a whole new American Pastime has come calling: The Burning Man Festival in the Nevada Desert.

No, I've never been before, and I can't really describe it all that well - if you are not familiar with this particular form of insanity, you are best off just looking at their website and waiting for my blog posts afterward (no, not during!). Irina has gone the past two years, and she seems to absolutely love it, so this year I've decided to join her (and 50,000 of our fellow 'burners') - if she and I made it through Colombia, Israel, and Egypt unscathed, this is bound to go well too, right!?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Go West, Young Man! Even Further West!

This is Lara:

She was one of my 17 closest friends in Rio de Janeiro over Carnaval last year. Meaning we were in the same 18-person dorm at our Rio hostel. Then I ran into her again in Argentina. And then she went back home to Western Australia, while I proceeded to do all the silly things you read this blog for!

This is Victoria, BC:

Victoria is actually the capital of British Columbia, not Vancouver, and this is the Parliament Building.

The Empress Hotel is the other uber well-known landmark in Victoria.

Lara + Victoria = an excuse for me to travel a little more! Somewhere on the train ride to Denver, a plan was hatched: upon reaching Seattle, I'd keep heading further West and make it across the bay to Victoria and we'd hang out on Vancouver Island for a day. After all, I still had some Canadian cash on hand! More importantly, the following conversation had become all too common of a refrain while I'd been traveling:
- And where are you from?
- Seattle, in the US
- Oh, I visited there - it's beautiful! How do you like Victoria? We thought it was really lovely!
- Well, actually, I still haven't been to Victoria or Vancouver Island... <frowny face>
And catching up with Lara, and her funny Australian accent would be cool too, so after spending Friday in Seattle, I was off again, to nearby Canada bright and early on Saturday morning.

A three hour ferry ride and 45 minute wait for immigration later, and I was back in Canada! Victoria itself is rather peaceful, and pretty, and quiet. It certainly has a pronounced quaint Victorian feel to it (duh!), especially in the summer - with the immaculate houses, lots of flowers, and the imposing Parliament building

Like I said, lots of pretty, brightly-colored flowers! Right in front of Parliament...

The rest of Vancouver Island, the largest island on the Pacific side of North America (and the 43rd largest island in the world - thanks, wikipedia!) is a pretty big adventure destination - from hiking to surfing to bungy jumping, you've got it all available, but I was only here for a day, so there weren't any big outdoorsy adventures on the schedule (other than camping overnight). We did our loop around Victoria, then went for a brief hike, more of a stroll rather, in a park, which hugged the jagged shoreline of a medium-sized lake in the suburbs of Victoria. I can't remember the name of the park or of the lake, but I do remember getting completely disoriented during the hike because the lake is a very, very irregular non-geometric shape... Anyway, I digress, following this non-geometric shape of a lake, we headed off to the Butchart Gardens, arguably the best known attraction of Vancouver Island. The gardens are an enormous, sprawling collection of flower beds, begun by Mrs. Butchart early in the 20th century. When you enter, you get a flower guide, which among other trivia, tells you when the flowers are likely to be in bloom - flowers being what they are, just about everything is in bloom in July/August, so you too should be coming to visit right about now:

There's pretty purple flowers

And really nice white ones... If I could get Lynn to help write this post, she could probably identify each of these flowers, but I can't remember the names...

The Ross Fountain in the back of the Gardens is animated into some exotic shapes and contortions. I was just at the Cirque du Soleil studios in Montreal two weeks ago - this seemed like the sort of thing they would've thought up!

Apparently, girls aren't welcome at the Gardens! I disapprove!

Well, I could let you go on believing that Mrs. Butchart was just mean and didn't want any other women in her garden... but instead, that sign was accompanied by a 'No Boys' sign on the other side of the street - it's just their polite, Canadian, politically correct way of saying 'No Entry,' to anyone... please! The Canadians are very polite - they really are renowned for it all over the world. Consequently you get all the idiot Americans parading around Europe with Canadian patches on their backpacks, thinking that'll make them appear slightly less obnoxious.

It was starting to get a little dark by this time, which was very good news, indeed - it was a Saturday, and as we discovered, The Butchart Gardens puts on a big fireworks display every Saturday in the summer. And this isn't just a shoot all sorts of sparklies into the sky, like we do for Fourth of July (or the Chinese do for Chinese New Year... they do a lot more actually!) - this is more of an old-school show: there's both the normal fireworks lighting up the skies, and lots of animated, firework-ed displays performing little song and dance tricks down on the ground. Not sure how well this shot captures it all, but it gives you an idea:

All in all, the 30 minute show was spectacular, and certainly offered the most creativity and variety of any fireworks show I'd ever seen. They design a new one every season, and have won a number of awards for their efforts

Visited the Ross Fountain again while waiting for the crowds to clear out after the fireworks - the fountain is spectacularly lit up at night

Yup, on the way out, I posed for a picture with a fountain in the shape of a wild pig...

By this time it was getting towards midnight, so we booked it back to our campground and crashed for the night - see the picture of Lara and I at the start of this post in front of our tent, if you are curious about our accommodations, which were surprisingly comfortable, by the way! (thanks for letting me borrow the tent, Lott!) In the morning, we caught a car ferry back to the States via Anacortes, which took long enough to frustrate and annoy me, but we did make it back to Seattle just in time to go get my furniture out of storage and get me moved in to my new place on Capitol Hill. All in all, a success then! If the ferry had taken another 45 minutes, my storage would've closed, and this success would have turned into a spectacular failure, so I like to think I was justified for wishing that the American Customs would move a little faster, but they are world-renowned for being slow and [often excessively] thorough these days. Especially when dealing with an Aussie... sigh...

My new humble abode in Capitol Hill!

I suppose it's not really new actually, but it's certainly new to me. It isn't exactly mine either, as I've got five house-mates, but I have slept in the same place for the past two weeks, in my very own bed, with my very own sheets, and that sure has been nice.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Where school buses go to die

What happens to that dear 'ol bus that would take you to school and back when you were a kid? Well, apparently, the school buses all have their different personalities, just like the rest of us, and they all go in a number of different ways. And what do a lot of retired Americans do now? Why, they dress up in bright and loud outfits and take a trip to Central America - school buses are no different:

The brightly colored, former school bus is the backbone of the public transportation networks in places like Panama City, Panama. This one is actually from Cochabamba, Bolivia, which is a place that most Americans (and American school buses) don't generally reach, but it certainly looks the part of its Central American brethren.

The ones who invested more time and money into their financial retirement planning during the long days of carting screaming, bratty little kids around the suburbs have a few more options. Instead of working through retirement on the mean streets of Panama City, they are able to afford to settle down in relative peace and comfort not far from the azure waters of the Pacific Ocean, near a Central American beach:

Witness this former North American workhorse now administering a surf camp at the beach town of Tamarindo, Costa Rica. Life under the palm trees is pretty peaceful in Tamarindo!

Unfortunately, life in Central and South America is fraught with danger, and there's constant competition for jobs from newer, younger, fresher immigrants coming across the border from up North, so not everyone can keep up. And when the time comes when you are no longer up to the task of being a brightly painted, suspension-optional transportation kog in a Central American municipality's public transport scheme, you are just put out to pasture in the fields of, say, Western Argentina

With the Andes providing a dramatic backdrop. If you are fortunate, like this guy, your final resting place will be near a National Monument - Puente del Inca here, and within a short hike from Aconcagua, South America's tallest peak

But not all Americans travel outside the country in their retirement years - many simply try to take in the many, many natural sites that North America has to offer. And the school buses are right there with them!

Who knows where this guy started, but he only made it as far as South Dakota, where he was turned into a tourist shuttle for the construction site of the Crazy Horse monument. Definitely missing out on a seriously psychedelic paint job though!

And then, there's a few school buses that were clearly forced to retire much too early - their adrenaline is still rushing, their engines are still roaring, and the fighting spirit is still strong within these ones! Fortunately, there's a place for these restless, competitive types too - it's the All-American institution called the Demolition Derby:

The Battlebus, ready to bring the pain, at the Derby in Monroe, Washington

School buses racin' and bumpin' around the tight corners. Yeah, that shady spot under a palm tree on the beach in Costa Rica may seem nice, but that's not the place for these guys!

Well, apparently these are all the school buses I've got pictures of... and all the witty commentary I have to offer. But my mother is always upset whenever a post doesn't have a single picture of me, so let's solve that - here I am, roughly school-bus aged. Except that I was in Soviet Russia at the time, where there were no school buses, but I digress. Besides, you wouldn't want to see any pictures of me from high school in Kentucky... I'm not sure I even have any!

I'm guessing this is 4th grade, I ought to be wearing my blood red Pioneer tie, but I think fourth grade was when we all got a little rebellious and learned we didn't really have to wear them in these crazy days of Glasnost and Perestroika...

Ok, here's me actually with a one of the buses above too: clicky here!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I'm [kinda] famous...

Just not quite the way I had ever wanted to become famous. Apparently, I was responsible for (maybe 'involved in' is more appropriate actually) holding up some traffic in Seattle: - the 3:23PM incident at 14th and Yesler is all me, baby! Not that I remember it all that clearly, but I was definitely biking down Yesler, quickly, and there was definitely a white Ford Explorer making a right turn right in front of me... I'll get a look at the police report tomorrow, and I hear they had plenty of witnesses, but I am very curious to know if the guy had his turn signal on, since I'm usually fairly careful and pretty good at avoiding these sorts of things, and I wasn't going so fast that I couldn't have stopped if I had gotten an indication that he was about to turn. That's what I think anyway - we'll find out more tomorrow. At least I had a helmet and health insurance!

As far as the insurance goes, no serious damage appears to have occurred - a number of bumps and bruises that I've been told to put neosporin on, and most likely a mild concussion, but they put me through a CT scanner, and concluded that the insides of my head looked as good as ever, then sent me home. I noted that the CT scanner looked a little like a time machine... I was seriously bored by this time: they ended up keeping me at the hospital for about five hours - Harborview was busy! and thus slow... At least I got to go wakeboarding in the morning before - had been planning to play some hockey too, but that plan went a little astray obviously. Probably should stay away from both of those for the next couple of weeks, unfortunately!

No pictures to show... but you'll be happy to know that I've got a nice big red mark on the left side of my face. But they did keep telling me back in Russia that women are attracted to scars - this is totally my time to shine then, isn't it!?

Sunday, August 8, 2010


I left Chicago by train, the same way I had arrived - from Union Station in the heart of the city. The station's waiting hall set a properly All-American scene:

This was making me feel fairly patriotic

So, in this patriotic, all-American spirit, I headed for my one last destination: Mount Rushmore. Actually, I was heading to Denver, then driving to Rushmore, but it just plain wouldn't be an All-American adventure if there was public transportation available...

Mount Rushmore National Monument, in the middle of South Dakota's Black Hills National Forest. This was, incidentally, my first time in South Dakota too...

Rushmore is absolutely unique - I've been trying to think of something to compare it to, but there really isn't anything. The monuments are huge - the faces are each sixty feet tall, and they are carved into one of the tallest peaks in the park. There are, of course, other giant monuments around the world, but all the ones I can think of fall neatly into two distinct categories: religious shines (topped perhaps by The Buddhas of Bayman in Afghanistan... until the Taliban destroyed them in 2001), or pure cults of personality - my favorite is certainly the giant golden Turkmenbashi sun dial in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. (Holy Crap - they are taking down the Golden Turkmenbashi!) Mount Rushmore, however, is neither religious in nature, nor was it constructed to immortalize those building it (or at least authorizing the construction), which, I think, makes it pretty uniquely American. The four Presidents depicted are (from left to right) George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. I think it's safe to say these four were already pretty well immortalized in American history books by the time the monument was completed in 1939. In a related sign of an American oxymoron, accessing Mount Rushmore is free of charge (something that would be inconceivable just about anywhere else in the world) - the parking lot, on the other hand, is privately run and will set you back ten dollars.

In defense of my rather grizzly appearance I'll note that the previous two nights had been spent in a seat on board an amtrak train and in a tent in the South Dakota wilderness. Was starting to look forward to my Denver hotel room by now!

In a mildly ironic twist of fate, Mount Rushmore, this most iconic of All-American monuments is actually located on what has traditionally been Native American land - Sioux land, specifically. Perhaps as a result (or in response?), the tribes are banding together to erect a commemorative monument of their own, not far from Mount Rushmore - Crazy Horse. And you've got to give them credit - they are dreaming big! The mountain chosen as the site, is one of the few that's taller than Rushmore in the area, and, as planned, Crazy Horse will become the tallest monument currently in existence in the world. Now I say 'currently in existence' because they are nowhere near completion - in fact, at the rate they are going (10 workers at the site, not accepting any money from the US government to help with the construction), it is estimated that the monument will take another hundred and fifty years to complete... Nothing highlights your imminent mortality quite like being on a bus and being told that none of you on board, not even the youngest children, will live long enough to see the completed structure, assuming they stick to the current pace.

So far, we've completed Crazy Horse's face - this took about 50 years!

The envisioned model of the entire structure - just another 150 short years! I am a little curious about the slow pace - if money was the only obstacle, you'd think with all the money the tribal casinos are bringing in these days all over the country, that would be an imminently resolvable problem?

Assuming the final statue is eventually carved to the design originally envisioned, will it be the largest monument in the world when eventually finished? Hard to say - China and India currently have competing projects to erect the tallest Buddha statue, but neither reaches the projected height of Crazy Horse (560 feet, or about 171 meters), but what will happen over the next 150 years, assuming it really takes that long? Noone knows for certain... but unless the Taliban come to power in more parts of the world, I think it's safe to say there will be more statues getting erected, and given a century and a half, 171 meters may not be an entirely indomitable limit.

And so, after seeing the two monuments, each representing a different take on the notion of All-American, it was time to pack up my tent and head back to Denver. Now Denver is about a six hour drive from Mount Rushmore; the road passes through parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota along the way... and lemme tell you this ain't the most scenic drive you'll ever take! In fact, unless you are a big fan of vast, flat open spaces and really, really, really straight roads, you may grow kinda bored along the way - I surely did. At least the speed limit on the interstates in 75 mph - they clearly know just how straight, flat, and devoid of compelling scenery the roads are. The immediate area surrounding Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse is legitimately beautiful of course - the lush greens of the Black Hills National Forest and Custer State Part, interspersed with a variety of lakes, rivers, and scraggy mountain ranges... But as soon as you leave those behind, you are left with, well, flatness. Some highlights:

An oil derrick in the middle of the prairie actually seemed like a very appropriate site

The town of Deadwood is within the National Forest - it's famed for its Wild West, Gold Rush days (as the HBO show of the same name reminded us), but these days its attraction is the legalized gambling...

Cargo trains criss-crossing Wyoming

A faint rainbow over Northern Colorado after a brief, but fierce thunderstorm. I later heard about golf ball-sized pieces of hail coming down around Mount Rushmore the following day... breaking windshields(!)

And occasionally, you see a big, seemingly incongruent tower of a mountain over the horizon

Actually, that last one wasn't exactly a random site along the way - that's Devils Tower, another National Monument, just across the border in Northern Wyoming. It probably added another hour or two to the drive back, but I figured as long as I was nearby, it would be a shame to miss it. Plus, it gave me a chance to drive along I-90 for some 30 miles, and that made it feel almost like home (I-90 proceeds all the way West to Seattle).

I don't know a whole lot about Devils Tower honestly - it looks like the neck of a big volcano... and it looks that way no matter how close you are to it, so I didn't see the point of paying to actually enter the grounds of the national park. I've since read that it's actually possible to climb to the top of the Tower, which would have certainly been cool, but I didn't really have time to do it anyway, so back to Denver I went! After snapping a few more pictures...

You don't mess with Texas and you don't mess with 386 meters of Wyoming's Devils Tower!

It's cowboy country, ya know!

One last bit of adventure on the way back from the Tower - I actually had to head North, in the opposite direction at first to find the nearest gas station (these are every bit as uncommon as you might imagine in the eternal flat emptiness of the Great Plains). After filling up, I turned out around, pulled back out onto the highway, and sent my little Hyundai on its way back South... Then things went into slow motion in my head - hey, there's a big white car parked on the side of the road - Crap! It's a cop! - Was I speeding? I wonder how fast I was going? I've no idea what the speed limit in the town of Hulett is! - Fuck! He's pulling out - lights on... So, I was speeding. Technically, if he had waited, he may have had a better catch as I was speeding up (probably not much better though, as I did notice him and slowed back down), but as it turned out, the speed limit in tiny little outposts of civilization (e.g. Hulett; population: 516) in rural Wyoming (is there another kind of Wyoming?) is 30 mph, and I was doing 41. Fortunately, I was polite, and the officer was nice, and after running my rental documents through his computer he let me off with a warning, thus not making this the most expensive gas stop in my life! I did make sure to inquire as to what exactly the speed limits were in future rural Wyoming towns... Fortunately, that knowledge would not be needed any more the rest of the day.

Friday, August 6, 2010

And so, we meet again, mini!

Being back in Seattle finally, first order of business was, of course, to check in on the ongoing struggle for survival that is the current state of the mini. Ok, not really the very first order of business, but it was pretty high up on the list.

Gunnar, who is the man in charge of the restoration process, had previously sent me a few pictures of the process: see here. But this time I was here to see it for myself, equipped with a camera and everything! I'm pleased to report that I don't appear to have missed much, as I am hoping the gradual process will continue to get covered here on the blog...

Not so surprisingly, the vast majority of the front panels are to be scrapped

Headlights gaping from their open spaces

The trunk panels are going to be all new too... Same with the floor and the doors actually - anything that's been anywhere near the Mongolian soil is more or less in a state where it's cheaper/easier to replace than it is to salvage and repair

GD Engineering still representin' - thanks Zoran!