Take My Goat! Please

(Originally posted on July 31, 2007)


The simple fact about Mali is that you need to know things to survive. You need to know who, where and how for just about everything. Don’t ask why, nobody really cares about that. It just is. If you get a flat tire and don’t have a spare, you need to know how to negotiate to get it fixed. Even if it means sidling up to the guy that just pulled up in a panel truck and just might have an extra tire. You have to be prepared for things not to work. You can’t pick up a Yellow Book and wave your credit card to get things fixed. Electricity and water are not to be taken for granted. When they’re available, great, but when they’re not, you better be prepared.

The village doesn’t have electricity? Well, glad you have that generator over there. Wait, it’s broken? Thanks, I guess I’ll stew here without lights and air conditioning. Where’s the bathroom? I’ll have to use the outhouse? There’s no running water and I can’t flush the toilet or take a shower? You’re willing to fetch me a bucket of water from the well down the street? How great. I’m fine, thanks. I’ll pretend I’m camping. What’s this? A flashlight and a mosquito net? Hmmm, okay. Good night.

Electricity is one of the essentials to combat the heat. Is it hotter than hell today? Why, yes it is! Thanks for noticing, could you turn on the air conditioning, please? Not today, you’re in Mali! Stop being a wuss, its only 118 degrees Fahrenheit today. Last week it was 130. No worries, I’ll just sit back and sweat until I pass out.

So I must say, thank God for cars. Cars need gas and batteries, but they don’t need electricity! I was fortunate to be on a road trip after all, zooming past the melting trees in my icy metal cocoon. No, don’t stop. Not here! Wait, we have a flat tire? NO! (By the way, don’t stand on pavement for more the 10 seconds during a blistering heat wave.)

Some people aren’t so fortunate though. Those are the ones that ride the buses. Crammed, hot, dirty and exactly as you would imagine. You just can’t waste the battery on air conditioning. It just isn’t done. Despite that, the people on buses are quite a bit better off then their animals. Goats. Yes, goats ride on the buses. Not just on the bus, but on TOP of the bus. Wrapped in feed bags, feet tied, just so… you know… they don’t get up and jump off. The ten or more pairs of baleful eyes gave the impression of not good times.

Speaking of goats, unlike their human counterparts, it’s what they don’t know that helps them survive.

To be continued… (Author’s note: I never wrote the third installment…sue me.)

Bozos of Bla

(Originally posted June 12, 2007)

Relieved to discover that Bamako endured a thunderstorm mere hours before my shoes hit the tarmac, I realize that this might not be so bad after all. Those 105 degree days the weather websites predicted might not be in the cards.

The airport terminal had little to offer besides chaos. People milling about the passport control booth, raised voices and the lack of order that Westerners are allergic to. Suddenly, someone holding up our sign gets our attention and introduces us to another guy who wants our passports and is eager for us to follow him. Follow him to the front of the passport line, where angry people waiting impatiently are about to start yelling at us. Not really wanting to go, I give up my passport, and trudge behind him around the edge of the crowd. He snakes around people doing the same thing and reaches around the passport booth to slip our passports under the glass. Not quite making it, we stand around for 15 minutes as he tries to sneak his way in and around the other line-cutters. Finally, he makes it and adds our passports to the stack of 20 or so already poised for effect in front of the officer. The value of cutting in line escapes me, yet everybody has their own person to take them to the front of the line. In fact, only a couple of shell-shocked Westerners agape in the back of the mob didn’t have a proper Malian airport guy to get them through the throngs of chaos.

1-1/2 hours later we are still waiting in the parking lot for our airport guy to bring our luggage. Something about Air France with faulty baggage equipment and having to borrow a replacement from the only other airline around. It probably didn’t help that our new friend only had our baggage claim numbers and not an actual description of the luggage. Somehow, probably after checking every single claim number on every piece of luggage, he comes out proudly dragging our suitcases to the Landcruiser. Welcome to Mali.

There are only three bridges crossing the Niger river into Bamako and two of these are relatively new. Before that, people just didn’t cross the river. One of these bridges is more a series of road sections snaking through a basin that completely floods during wet season. Then bring your boat or go home. The scrub trees along this so-called bridge are dressed up in fluttering and rotting plastic bags. Not a single branch for miles fails to bear its share. For the other bridges, during certain times of day, the traffic goes one way. Those unfortunate to be stuck on the wrong side have to wait for hours. Welcome to Mali.

After little sleep, we wake the next morning at the crack of dawn. The temperature is still on our side. Our tour of various projects is about to get underway. We have a true road trip over the next five days; Segou, Koro, Sanke, Mpoti, Dieli. First stop: Bla. Home of the Bozo people.

To be continued…

Don’t Mess With My Tu-Tu

(Originally posted September 30, 2008)

There is not much that can redeem those beach resorts that ooze vacationing Brits, endless buffets, and crappy wireless connections, except for that at any moment, should you so choose, you can escape to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Even so, that stretch of shallow, seaweed-choked ocean might not provide much solace from the tedium, especially when the pesky sea fleas start biting and black, spiky sea urchins blissfully embed their quills deep into the soles of your feet.

The Sun N’ Sand Beach Resort near Mombasa, Kenya has everything a fat, lazy tourist could want. You want cigarettes? You have to buy them. You want a massage? You have to pay for it. You want to make a phone call? You have to pay for these. Otherwise everything is included. You want 5 star service? They are happy to report, yes indeed, they live up to their 5 star reputation. Sigh… I only had to hear about it every two seconds on an endless loop from two out of five available TV channels. Soccer, bad Kenyan soap operas, and the BBC rounded out the other viewing options. The one good thing the Sun N’ Sand did offer was free use of kayaks and wind surfing boards, however, the window of time to use them was contingent on the high tide, which always occurred while we were working or after the boathouse staff went home.

Spending two weeks in a resort while you’re working has its drawbacks. Mostly the work. Laying about and soaking in the pools (four by my count) can help a bit, but it wouldn’t be any vacation of choice. The nightly entertainment often scraped the bottom of the barrel but nights of watching Masai warriors jumping high and contortionists squeezing through a small tube did distract momentarily. The DJ had a daily affinity for “Jambo Bwana” in Swahili and “Don’t Mess With My Tu-Tu”, both of which are permanently lodged in my head, much to the chagrin of my head.

On a side note, digging sea urchin spines out of your feet is a rewarding, joyful time. One of the best activities at the Sun N’ Sand was to walk out to the reef during low tide. It’s about a 30 minute walk in thigh deep water but the diversity of sea life (sea urchins) is unparalleled (unparalleled by the number of spines in one’s foot). Of course, bring your good flip-flops (me = barefoot) or you’ll enjoy the business end of many a sea urchin.

10 Favorite Hikes in Washington State

(Originally posted February 13, 2007)

Not that you care, but someone once asked me to list my favorite hikes in Washington state when I was about to move across country to Washington, D.C. It got me thinking and I always ‘meant’ to create the list. Well, so much for procrastination, here it is to no fanfare. If you don’t live in Washington State, don’t complain to me that it lacks relevance, just don’t read it. If you don’t like to hike, then get bent. If you plan on going to Washington state, than read this.

I’ve done a good 50+ day hikes (usually between 6-12 miles each) in the state of Washington. Alas, I haven’t hiked in my majestic state of trees, mountains and lakes since moving to Washington, D.C.! (Update: I have since this was written) Such tragedy! They have strange ideas of what constituents a mountain over here. I’ve gone hiking in a few other places, so don’t worry too much. Maybe you’ll get a list of that someday. Don’t hold your breath.

Here are the ten best places to hike in Washington (so far – I’ll get back there someday). Someday I may scan in my pictures but don’t hold your breath.

10. Mount Si (6 trips) – Hate to put this on my list because it’s so crowded and the hike itself is boring (4 miles up!). But once you’re at the top, there may not be a better view anywhere. And it’s just easy to get to.

9. Fort Flagler State Park (1 trip + 1 camping trip) – A military base decommissioned after World War I, it’s great to hike along and suddenly find a lost, overgrown barracks or a gun battlement overlooking the Puget Sound. Like finding your own lost civilization in the middle of nowhere.

8. Ape Cave Trail (1 trip) – Two miles or so in a volcanic lava flume. Yes, underground and yes some spots are a bit of a tight squeeze. Bring your flashlight and don’t watch the movie “The Descent” before going.

7. Hoh River Trail (1 trip) – What is better than the biggest trees you’ve ever seen, a world covered in moss in the middle of a rainforest right on the Olympic peninsula?

6. Point of the Arches Trail (1 trip) – On the beach. With sea stacks. This is the same type of place that makes the Oregon coast so popular. Only it’s not in Oregon, it’s on the very tip of the Olympic peninsula with the backdrop of the Olympic Mountains and the National Park.

5. Woody Trail to Wallace Falls (3 trips) – Walk uphill and get excited as three consecutive waterfalls appear on your right, the tallest being 265 ft.

4. Tolmie Peak Trail (2 trips) – Once you’re at the top of the fire tower you can see Mt. Rainer (almost close enough to touch) and a vista that goes on forever. You can almost see where my parents live some 50 miles away.

3. Cape Alava-Sand Point Loop (1 trip) – Walk to the beach for about 3 miles, walk in the sand and in the surf for 2-3 miles (harder than it sounds) then head back another 3 miles somewhat pleased with yourself for finding such a place.

2. Greenwater Trail (8 trips) – There is this tiny, serene lake (Quinn) with a giant moss-covered log on the surface that makes the whole trip worthwhile. Walk to the end of the log and look straight down into crystal clear water and see every log and rock at the bottom. Then you can continue to Lost Lake. Or alternately you could go to Echo Lake but each time I’ve been there (twice) it is has been foggy and cold.

1. Walt Bailey Trail (4 trips) – Well, this is after all named after my grandpa and I did on a few occasions help build/repair parts of the trail, but forget all that! This is a beautiful area with seven lakes at the top (Cutthroat Lakes) and a mountain (Bald Mountain) that you can scamper up, if you’re not afraid of death, for a view of everything. Don’t jump in the lakes unless you enjoy being a popsicle. You will be hard pressed to find a more beautiful hike anywhere.

The Best Non-Required Christmas Letter 2007

(Originally sent via email January 2, 2008)

I trust you had a fantastic year and are just about ready to wrestle this new year, 2008, into submission. I simply ask that you keep your New Year’s resolutions child-friendly. Forget it, no one ever listens anyway.

Once again, I give you exactly what you didn’t want, another biased, self-absorbed Christmas Letter (albeit now after the fact). You can run, you can hide, but why bother? Like a scab, you just have to pick at it. Since you probably have a ridiculously short attention span and more interesting things to do, I have used bold letters and words a 5th grader can follow (no research went into this claim). So here it is, a graphic, untamed sampling of my experience that was the year 2007. No minors allowed.

Butterfly Farm (Georgetown, Malaysia)
Hot and steamy… this is not the opening of a romance novel, it is simply the environment butterflies like to pupate, grow and burst forth from their cocoons. They seem to be quite happy flitting about their flower gardens, babbling brooks and koi ponds, that is until a net flashes from below and they find themselves pinned behind a framed pane of glass in your plastic shopping bag. You just had to ruin it, didn’t you? A writhing pit of large, obsidian scorpions stabbing each other with mammoth stingers is also a good way to enjoy the wonders of nature.

Northern Virginia Wineries (USA)
On two occasions I spent the day touring wineries and quaffing the various offerings. My pretentious wine awards go to:

  • Best winery name: Naked Mountain
  • Best hot tub wine: Moonrise (from Gadino Cellars)
  • Best use of fake guns and fake beards: Civil War Re-enactment (at Gray Ghost winery)
  • Best T-shirt slogan: Drink Naked (from Naked Mountain)
  • Best wine: Mediterranean Cellars’ Sweet Lucia
  • Best documentary: My thrilling, timeless expose of an inchworm’s quest for the meaning of life (42)
  • Best view: Rolling farmlands – everywhere
  • Best Sommelier: Me

Top Songs
The best songs I heard this year…..drum roll please…….. “Bubbly” by Colbie Caillet, “Starts With One” by Shiny Toy Guns, “Time” by Chantal Kreviazuk, “LDN” by Lily Allen, “Love Song” by Sara Bareilles, “Sugar, We’re Goin Down” by Fall Out Boy, and “Champagne From a Straw” by Andrea Corr. If you haven’t heard any of these songs, hmmmmmm – why do I even bother

Cliffs of Bandiagara (Mali)
Intertwined within a dusty, heat drenched cliff face, village ruins (former home of the Dogon people) overlook a tree-scattered landscape that almost touches the Sahara Desert. Climbing up and around narrow paths, ladders, random paintings and dark rooms passing off as homes, you finally reach the town meeting place, a narrow, cave-like hollow that one cannot stand in – so one cannot jump up in anger during the tumultuous town meetings.  No women allowed. Why didn’t corporate America think of this? (well, the first part)

McMenamins Kennedy School (Portland, Oregon, USA)
McMenamins has a tendency to convert old buildings, theaters, schools, frankly whatever they can get their hands on, into brewpubs serving their various beers on tap. The Kennedy School just so happened to have been an elementary school early in its existence. Now it is a busy brewery, restaurant, theater, hotel, art gallery, pub and whatever else they managed to cram into the former classrooms and locker rooms (yes the showers still work). The only thing that’s missing right now is me.

European Champions League Match (London, England)
In an epic match between football clubs from England and Portugal, titan Chelsea (England) took on FC Porto (Portugal) at Stamford Bridge in London. The stadium was electric with blue and fans hoarsely and enthusiastically singing “Blue Flag” and “Blue is the Colour” as Chelsea handed Porto a devastating 2-1 defeat to advance to the Champions league semi-finals against Liverpool. Me, I just tried not to provoke any hooligans. Go Chelsea

Pet Photo Contest (Capital Hill, Washington, D.C.)
My wiener dog became famous for one month during Capital Hill’s Hill Rag annual Pet Photo Contest. He didn’t win anything, but he was pictured under the “Best of the Rest” section, looking so cute carrying an oversized bone. At least I didn’t dress him up in a stupid costume! Those people should get acquainted with the inside of a padded room. You know who you are.

Facebook.com (website)
Oh man, last year I got on MySpace and this year I added Facebook to my repertoire of extreme time-wasting activities. I’ve “superpoked” so many people that I think the police are looking for me.

Fish (Key Largo, Florida)
In the Florida Keys, I saw fish from all angles, inside and out. First, we went to the Fishhouse, a busy little restaurant that served great Mahi-Mahi stuffed with blue crabmeat. Fried Conch, although it sounds interesting, is just not. Then I did four (scuba) dives off French Reef and played with the inquisitive lobsters and tried to tickle the clown fish (apparently they don’t find that very funny – false advertising!)

Planet Earth (DVD)
This 11-part epic mini-series exhibits our little planet through breathtaking cinematography and stunning, never before captured live action. Wait, do I sound like I’m writing the back of the DVD jacket? Crap, well, if you want to see lions kill an elephant, or crystal caves that are off-limits to preserve their beauty (except the film crew and only for this series), or a desperate polar bear try to kill an elephant seal bull (not a good idea really), or the lovely ecosystem that lives in a pile of bat guano the size of your house, then this is the DVD for you.

U.S. and A
Over the last few years, I’ve been traveling to quite of range of countries. This year, I actually took some time to poke around my home country a bit. So I had a look see of Boston (no tea party but plenty of Harvard talent), Atlanta (home of the Braves), the Florida Keys (where else can you get key lime pie on-a-stick?), St. Petersburg (it’s silly to expect much), New York (those damn Yankees want how much for a ticket?), Seattle (still sore from too much sports and coffee), Portland (good for drowning oneself in beer) and Miami (South Beach!).

Canadian Rocky Mountains (Alberta, Canada)
If only to stroll the picturesque Banff in minus 13 (Celsius) weather, to sip hot cocoa at Banff Springs Hotel or to ski much too fast down the Lake Louise ski slopes. Or to be overwhelmed by the imposing blue mountains as the sun begins its descent. Or to spy a bald eagle at dusk making short work of a frozen deer. Or to…but I digress.

Beaches and Tsunamis (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania)
Outside our hotel, south of Dar es Salaam, was a beach granting uninhibited access to the Indian Ocean. With just a 20-minute boat ride, you could land on a small island and stroll up from the cobalt blue water and small patches of coral and park yourself in the sand. Or you can wait out a tsunami warning after an 8.2 earthquake rocked Indonesia. Sadly, it petered out and didn’t wash us all away. Though harder to write about when dead, it probably makes for a more interesting story.

Top Books
The best books I read this year….”The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, “Manhunt: The 12 Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer” by James L. Swanson, “Heat: How to Stop the Planet From Burning” by George Monbiot, “Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die” by Chip Heath and Dan Heath, and  “Guns, Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond.

Spice Farm (Zanzibar)
If you want to know where nutmeg, cinnamon, peppercorn, cocoa beans, lanolin, vanilla and other spices come from, then your next adventure should be a trek through a spice farm. Smell, taste, touch and guess what each plant grows. Then eat all manner of fruit until the juices can’t help but drip from your chin. If you also want some guy to make hats, ties, bags and jewelry out of banana leaves (you heard me), then my work here is done.

Yikes, I started a blog this year. Noooooo! Although it is the last thing the world needs, I feel compelled to infect the unsuspecting masses with my unnecessarily lazy prose. Dark, disturbing and beyond redemption, it can only get worse. Read more: (Myspace link removed – A Random Journey is now my blog which you are on…)

Top Movies
Some of the best movies I saw this year, even if they weren’t all released this year were….”Pan’s Labyrinth”, “The Lives of Others”, “Superbad”, “American Gangster”, and “No Country for Old Men”.

Wicked (Musical in Baltimore, Maryland, USA)
As you may not know, the Wicked Witch of the West was actually good, just misunderstood. This is a great bit of revisionist history about the classic tale ‘The Wizard of Oz” set to music. Green is good!

Flowering Balconies (Cartagena, Colombia)
Ahh, perchance to stroll aimlessly about the walled city of Cartagena de Indias, spying the spectacular hanging flowers exploding from balconies, plazas, and gardens only to be tempered by the pulsating colors and architecture of the myriad of edifices densely packed into narrow cobblestone streets. (Would you rather I wrote it in Spanish?) You can gaze out onto the Caribbean watching (hoping) for pirate ships to attack the impregnable Castillo de San Felipe. Wishful thinking, once they built that sucker, no one ever took the city or made off with boatloads of booty again.
Speaking of booty, this is the end of the Christmas Letter. Get back to whatever you were doing before this unwelcome intrusion. Or do something interesting.
Bonus Entry!
For anyone just not sure how to handle 2008 yet, let me give you some options. Baseball games at Yankee Stadium (New York Yankees) and Shea Stadium (New York Mets). They are tearing down the stadiums after the 2008 season and I have to go before it happens. Mark your calendars.

The Best Non-Required Christmas Letter 2006

(Originally sent via email on December 24, 2006)

Merry Christmas! I trust you had a good year.

Some of you may have fallen off my keen radar, as I’ve often been remiss in keeping up with email. Some of you may be new to this venerated list of annual happenings. Either way, fret not my friends! I wish to give your mind a spellbinding journey into the sublime world that I have been traveling this past year (yeah right). Sit back, strap in, secure your valuables, position the barf bag and get ready for the ride.

What have I been doing, eating, smoking in 2006? Read on for the highlights:

Sabang Beach, Philippines
A boat is the only way to get there. The only way to get off the boat is to get wet. The only way to get to the nearby village is to stroll along the beach, avoiding the surf. The only reason to go is to scuba dive, laze about the beach and eat mangos.

Mamma Mia! (Musical in Baltimore, Maryland, USA)
This is an example of how the entire musical oeuvre of ABBA can be transformed into a singing, dancing musical about the Greek Islands, long-lost love, and getting married simply as an excuse to sing ABBA songs. They pulled it off like dancing queens.

Jimmy Buffett (Concert in Virginia, USA)
Parrotheads rejoice! Jimmy’s fans are as crazy and strange as ever. Cars transformed into volcanoes, sandboxes and gigantic umbrellas washed up on the parking lot, shark hats, shark cars, shark stickers, surf boards, tropical shirts, sandals, parrots and pot. Lots and lots of pot (I merely assume – how else can you explain the rest?). And then Jimmy did oblige us a bit of music to sing along to.

Scuba Diving
I took a class, spent money, read the manual, spent money, got some basic gear (fins, mask, snorkel), got in a public pool (after hateful kids made toilet), spent money, passed a written exam and a pool skills test, went to the Cayman Islands, spent money, did nine dives from a boat, completed the skills test, saw an octopus and a dead shark, watched in disbelief as our boat almost got swamped and other people’s expensive stuff vanished into the sea and then got certified as an Advanced Scuba Diver! It only ends because I ran out of money.

Great Ocean Road (Victoria, Australia)
Scenic. Vast. Impressive. Windy. Twelve Apostles. Koalas. Surfboarders. (Actually, do you really need me to continue? The name says everything you need to know.)

Battlestar Galactica (TV show on DVD)
If you’ve never watched this show, you need to take a long hard look at yourself. You may have your reasons not to. Yet your reasons are lame. Trust me. The show is timely and engaging and so much more than the original TV series or anything before it. Stop being lame.

Wine Tour (Virginia, USA)
A group of us did a little jaunt around scenic Virginia to sample vintages from the local wineries. We managed to have tastings at three: Three Foxes Vineyard, Rappahannock Cellars and Oasis Vineyard. The first priority was to drink (in quick, non-stop sips), yet surprisingly you gain a bit of wisdom about wine along the way. Alas, the wine ensures no wisdom is retained. Burp.

Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
You already know the city slogan, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”, so don’t ask questions.

Bill Bryson (Author)
Simply for the book “A Short History of Nearly Everything” is sufficient reason to list him, but I also had the pleasure to read “In a Sunburned Country” and “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”. He’s a travel writer mostly, but “A short history” makes learning seem fun! He also can make you laugh out loud.

Kangaroos (Brisbane, Queensland, Australia)
These guys look ready to fight! However, I won them over with my charming wit (or because I was their source of some nasty food pellet thingies that they seemed to love. Actually, one wasn’t too impressed so I put some on his belly to which he defiantly fell asleep to.). Also, emus are mean and ugly!

No More Car
Got rid of my car (was crumpled like a used pop can). Now walk and skip and whistle to work.

Sting Ray City (Grand Cayman Island, Cayman Islands)
Stingrays suck! No I mean literally, they suck. They don’t have teeth so they catch their prey with a powerful suction mouth. My arm discovered the joys and wonders of this process. They also like to swim all over you (well, if you tease them with squid chunks, what do you expect?).

Shakira (Concert in Washington, D.C., USA)
I think simply to ogle all the Latin girls in attendance is sufficient reason to list this. Plus she’s hot and her hips don’t lie. And did I mention the Latin girls?

World Cup Fever (Washington, D.C., USA)
Yes, soccer (err…football) is not America’s sport (not even in the top 6 or 7), but it was still fun to go to various bars around DC and catch the action. Some fans are fanatics (that means you Brazil) and some are just plain exuberant (viva Italia). Got myself on a TV newscast by waving tiny Italian and US flags during the USA vs. Ghana game. It sucks that the US did nothing, but the ride was worth it.

Danube River Cruise (Budapest, Hungary)
Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest, separated only by the Danube River. Taking a wine and buffet cruise at night is one great way to experience both halves of Budapest. The other ways involve exploring during the day (riding the Funicular!) and cavorting at local clubs until all your compatriots have exhausted themselves drinking and dancing. Hypothetically

MySpace.com (website)
I was pressured to get onto MySpace so I did it kicking and screaming. Check out my space and then sign up so you can be my friend. Or not.

Charles Bridge (Prague, Czech Republic)
Prague in general was a fantastic place to walk around, but the Charles Bridge (or ‘Karlùv most’ if you’re Czech) gets a special mention for the view of the Prague Castle (Pražský hrad) (one of the world’s biggest) as it crosses the Vltava River. If that means nothing to you then book a ticket and get off the computer!

Harper’s Ferry (West Virginia, USA)
Located at the convergence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers where the US states of Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia are poking each other like siblings is Harper’s Ferry, a historical town of some significance way back in the day when history actually mattered and people cared to know about it. Whew, whatever, I hiked around the town and the surrounding ridges and tried to avoid the idiotic and vocal KKK rally, the police perimeter and equally vocal protesters. Hatred is not pretty. Harper’s Ferry is.

DC Movie Club
A group of us see a movie each month. We take turns choosing which one. Then we pontificate about the movie afterwards in ways that would make most film critics blush. The best selections this year: Thank You For Smoking, Little Miss Sunshine and The Departed.

Guinness Storehouse (Dublin, Ireland)
Aaah, to see how the fine brew of Guinness is made and then wind your way to the top of the storehouse with a 360 view of Dublin while enjoying a complimentary pint. Yes, you should do that.

For the naysayers, television is great. If you fail to watch some of the shows currently on (or on DVD), you have only yourself to blame. Frankly most are better than any movies you care to name. Great right now: The Office (US version), Lost, The Shield, Arrested Development (alas, gone!), 24, Veronica Mars, Entourage, plus I already mentioned Battlestar Galactica. It’s so easy to catch up on DVD, it’s almost a crime to deny yourself.

Since I did a bit of globetrotting this year (13 countries by my count), why not spend most of that time imbibing beer in all its majestic forms? From the ever tasty Guinness in Dublin to the refreshing Pilser Urquell in Prague to unpronounceable Zywiec in Warsaw to the meatless Wieselburger in Vienna to Carlsberg and Tuborg in Copenhagen to San Miguel in the Philippines to Foster’s in Melbourne to Dreher in Budapest to everything in Berlin to Super  Bock in Lisbon to Singha in Bangkok and finally Stella Artois, Sierra Nevada and Dogfish 90 Minute IPA at Brickskellers right in my own backyard of DC (which has the largest selection of beer in the US), I managed to have it all. Well maybe not all, but there’s always next year.

Ice Bar (Warsaw, Poland)
Everything is made of ice! The tables, the bar, the shot glasses, the chairs, the sculptures. The bartenders are on the warm side though. They keep the temperature at a brisk -8 Celsius and give everyone a stylish Eskimo parka. Complete body shut down happens after 30 minutes of exposure or two strawberry vodka shots.

Chicago, Illinois, USA
In trying to think what specifically I should tell about Chicago, nothing really came to mind. Then I realized it was the whole thing combined, the L train, the neighborhoods, the bars, the deep-dish pizza, the restaurants, the view from the John Hancock Building and Wrigley Field (from the outside). Next time I’ll get on the inside.

Good Books
“Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell” by Susanna Clarke and “Wicked” by Gregory Maguire.

iPod (Music)
I got myself a 60GB, video iPod then uploaded all my 350 + CDs to it. Then I scoured iTunes for even more music! Then I listened to it all until my ears bled. I spent more time doing this then almost any other single activity (except maybe one, which shall remain nameless). The five songs I listened to most: “Breakaway” by Kelly Clarkson, “Everything I’m Not” by the Veronicas, “Cessie La Pluie” by Anggun, “Caraluna” by Bacilos and “Old Town” by the Corrs. Also download: “Over My Head (Cable Car) by The Fray.

Pena Palace (Sintra, Portugal)
After spending the morning in Cascais, a coastal town, I took a last-minute bus to Sintra. Upon arrival, the tourist info lady warned me not to walk up the hill to the castles (too far), a few cars stopped to see if I needed a ride (or to see if I was crazy), the bus to the top whisked by every 20 minutes yet had I done any of those things this would just end up as another one of countless sightseeing trips. How fantastic to be walking along a winding, uphill country road for 30 minutes with the palaces and mansions of Sintra visible distantly through every gap in the trees, only to come around the corner and have an imposing 9th century Moorish castle looming overhead. All the better for not even knowing it was there until that very moment! Then I hiked the rest of the way up to the strangely yellow, red and blue Pena Palace, the workings of severe human eccentricity. Once it started to rain, I took a different path down to the Old Towne. With a few large trees and eventually a doorway of a church I managed to be only mildly damp and not disappointed.

Alas, the list has come to an end. Maybe you can hold out until next year, but in case you can’t or you don’t have anything better to do, have a peek at some photos.

2007 Tour di Vino (Virginia – Limited Production)

(Orginally posted July 15, 2007)

With hints of sunshine and overtones of summer, a tour group of rich complexity set forth on the 7th day of July. This array of sommeliers journeyed to sample a flavorful and intense set of wines at vineyards of  distinction in the rolling farms of Virginia. The day had the potential to unfold beautifully.

Integrated into two mini-vans and unmarred by pretension, 11 snappy explorers departed the fair estate of District di Columbia. Arriving, with a slight hint of disbelief, the versatile band faced a unique scenario at the first vineyard. As if uncorking a Hungarian oak puncheon, the wayfarers burst from the vans to greet a lingering yet finished winery. With nothing in range to quaff, the gourmands blended together once again and traced a path to the elusive Gray Ghost. Faced with the choice of a mere tasting or the bonus of an intense Civil War Re-enactment, the enthusiasts hunkered down with a spot of cheese and a glass and disdained the remnants of the Confederacy laying siege to the proceedings. Newly fresh with bottles and rumbling bellies, the aficionados set sight on luncheon fare at the Griffin Tavern & Restaurant.

Full-bodied and savoring a refreshing mouth feel, the sojourners left their lunch site, questing for an Italian cellar known in certain circles as Gadino. Crafted from the mind of an expert sommelier and navy man, the cellar boasted a rich assortment of clean and persistent flavors. The fruity and refreshing hot tub wine left many of the fairest sex aflutter.

With just a touch of residual affect, the connoisseurs continued their pilgrimage to seek the rare and reservedly elegant Unicorn. Intensely spicy and fruity, the winery tried to surprise their palettes with a fun new twist. Enduring a nearby raucous crowd and the slight “jammy” flavors that gave way to layers of disinterest, the cynics paired cheese loaf and a $7 bottle and retired to the sundeck to gaze upon a lily padded pond with hints of koi.

Begging for the accompaniment of nature, the devotees spied a delightful inch worm that paired wonderfully with their newly fermented minds.

The ride home started with an intense craving for cream and ice that left the seekers weak until they spied a richly colored stand of cool treats that catered to their palates.

The tour ended with a smooth finish.

For the nutritional content of this blog write to:

No Reply Service, 123 Random St., Nowhere, North Dakota

If we do not respond within 6-12 weeks, this blog is free.

(Author’s note: I do not work for the marketing departments of any of these wineries, although I did stay at a Holiday Inn last night.)

Confessions From A Mexican Taxi Driver

‘Oh, Mexico
It sounds so sweet with the sun sinking low
Moon’s so bright like to light up the night
Make everything all
right’ – James Taylor

If you find yourself in Pasadena, California with the opportunity to drive your co-workers across the border to visit a project site in Tijuana, Mexico, you should take it, right? Welcome to a tale from the A Random Journey Taxi Service.

The said taxi was a 7-person mini-van procured from a very sketchy rental joint. Indeed, I could imagine even the tiniest scratch or dent leading to broken fingers or a date to sleep with the fishes. One taxi was not enough for this traveling roadshow, so we added a 15-person van-beast, driven by – let’s call him Brad.*

The odyssey became real as the brief morning dew melted. No surprise, when 21 people cram together with a shipping container’s worth of luggage into two vans at such an unsightly hour, a late start is the norm. Even as we gobbled our prepared breakfast burritos, choked down bitter coffee, and wedged together uncomfortably, little did we know repercussions for our delay were beginning to take shape.

After another delay to offload the ton of luggage at the office, the real journey began.

For some, you can imbue Mexico with certain stereotypes. I can be accused (though not proven) of having had visions of federales pouring down the hillside, horse nostrils flaring, guns blazing, Davy Crockett readying Ol’ Bessie for the last time. Or of Salma Hayek types flipping their dresses and vestidos (ole!), dancing furiously around straw somberos while an 11-amigo mariachi band warbles an epic rendition of ‘La Cucaracha’. Or a room full of wary bandidos downing tequila shots (please, not again) and painting the spittoon dark with tobacco over a tense game of Gringo hold ’em. But I digress.

Just maybe these stereotypes exist only in the movies. How does the real Mexico compare? Your faithful taxi driver can happily report that no shots were fired nor poured down any throats. The rest we may need to tap-dance around the truth with plausible deniability.

Hours zip by and the border crossing looms. Mexico’s mysteries await. But first we need to buy insurance for the vans, which leads to another delay as the paperwork is drawn up in blood and first-born children are bartered off. Finally, our vans ease into the border-crossing lines. Inch by inch we get closer. Minute by minute we can sense the change of cabin (van?) pressure – as if we are about to land in an exotic, unknown land. Or it may have been the rolling down of windows, the concerned questions from a real federale, and the waving of us through. Victory to the taxi driver! Welcome to Mexico.

Our first destination, of course, is a Wal-Mart parking lot. Where else would you meet your hosts for the day? After exchanging greetings and receiving our Spanish-laced reprimands for being woefully tardy, we discover that our first border crossing was a mere illusion. Barbara*, our trusted host, declares that we need to pay for the privilege to enter this country and have our passports stamped with entry visas. As an American citizen under normal circumstances, e.g. every circumstance ever, I would object to such effrontery. But I set aside my ‘Ugly American’ hat, and let the situation unfold ‘gracefully’, e.g. whatever the opposite of ‘gracefully’ is. Not that I did or said anything, I just let it happen. We were 21 people from about 15 different countries, returning to the border we just crossed to exchange pesos for bureaucratic glares and angry stamping of the passports. This formula does not smack of win-win. I would gleefully regale you with every loving detail of our 1-1/2 hours of special and priceless moments with the Mexican border guards, but this taxi is on the meter and you’re paying. So let’s get on with it.

Border crossing at your own risk

We were meant to follow a goldish brown van to the project site. Immediately upon entering Tijuana traffic all rules flew out the window. There is no road rage in Mexico. There is no strict adherence to what can be considered ‘suggested’ traffic signs. It is go, go, go. Fast. If your bumper is not two inches from the car in front of you, you are not driving correctly. Once you learn that whatever you do will be accepted without complaint by other drivers, it is quite liberating. And dangerous. Of course the lead van was off like lightning and hit the freeway entrance exactly when I was in the wrong lane. And just like that, we were on our own. Cell phone calls were made. Plans were changed. All in rapid-fire Spanish.

I circled a huge roundabout and finally made it on to the freeway at break neck speed. So fast even the other drivers took notice. I was determined to catch up. After 20 minutes of mad driving, we saw the gold van in the distance! Success! Somewhat relieved, we followed the gold van for another 15 minutes until it veered off on to a random gravel road that was NOT an exit from the freeway. As soon as our tires crunched the gravel we could see that this gold van was indeed not ours. And indeed was not going anywhere we wanted to be. We had followed the wrong van too far and now we were about to be carjacked and left for dead. If thoughts were actions.

After more cell phone calls and a new set of directions, we zipped through the neighborhoods of Tijuana. Eventually, we got on a main road and had a clear idea of where we should go. Left at the stop light to meet the others at a store parking lot. The only problem was we had entered on this busy six lane road (4 going our direction) and were in the 2nd to the right lane waiting for the red light. In other words, we had two lanes of cars between us and a possible left turn.

In what would only happen anywhere but in the USA, Barbara began honking the horn to get the attention of the guy next to us. Honking and honking. Finally, he looked over and she made gestures to the effect that we wanted to get over in front of him when the light turned. Surprisingly (to me) he nodded and WAITED for us to drive in front of him, cut off the left most lane of cars (no honking) and swerve in front of all of the oncoming traffic to make what should go down as the craziest left turn ever by a gringo. I drew a map.

Traffic patterns of Tijuana

We met up with the rest of our group and continued our journey to the project site.

Stay tuned for Part 2.


* Real name used, no innocents need protecting.

Top Reasons To Visit Northern Virginia Wineries

After the 5th annual running of the DC Movie Club does wine tasting, here (in random order) are a few highlights. These are also reasons you should slide off of your high chair, grab your sippy cup and crawl to Northern Virginia. Now!

Wood fire pizza – sitting outside on the patio of Martella Winery with a fire-breathing wood oven is the ideal way to cook and slightly blacken the crust of your pizza. High marks for effort, but next time they could stand to avoid the frozen variety and make it fresh.


Dog friendly wineries – everyone loves dogs, (believe me – you do, or we’ll have words) so what better combination then canines and wines? Seems like a no-brainer. Martella Winery sported a few resident pooches, happy to beg from you and bark at you. Barrel Oak Winery (BOW – get it?) is another such wine purveyor. Grab a dog (preferably yours), grab a table at BOW, do a tasting, eat cheese, and life will be good. The question is, what do the dogs get out of it? A nice place to nap in the grass? Easy access to a dizzying array of doggie butts to sniff? A sly piece of cheese passed under the table? No. They get nothing more than the opportunity to bask in the glow of being in their master’s presence. This concept is about the people, people.

Not a cat nap

Grapes – although many wine grapes are not so good to eat right off the vine (wait, who would have tried that?), they sure do crush, press, ferment and age nicely.

A grape time was had

The act of tasting – one of our wine tastings turned out to be a rapid fire affair with 10 unique wines to sip, swish and spit. Another was just an excuse to smile in wine induced happiness at the wine pourer/hostess. Burp.

Cupid of Wine

Mystery cases – anything could be inside! Risk it! Do it! Buy it! We did. Inside were 11 dusty Mad Dog 20/20s and an open wine cooler rimmed in red lipstick. Well, no. It was much less mysterious. Some chardonnays, a few merlots, this, that, and the other but all were actually legit bottles of wine. Score!

It's a mystery

Cheese plates – cubes, wedges, white, yellow, with or without rinds, soft, hard, with a grape, with a sip of wine, with crackers and bread – you can barely go wrong with a plate full of cheese at your fingertips.

So cheesy

Oh the beauty! – this cannot be described in any lame blog post. Get out of your seat and immediately go to Northern Virginia and get your wine tasting adventure on. In your haste, I’ll even forgive you for not commenting on this post.

So flowery

It starts here

and ends up in here
BOW wow

DC Movie Club Wine Tastings: