----------------------------------------------- Google Site Map ----------------------------------------------- Cindy in ...: June 2006

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Road-trip: Falls Church, Virginia

After about a week in Wilmington, on to visit CR in northern Virginia . I always dread the drive. The traffic around Washington, DC can be hell, adding hours at the end of the trip. But this time it wasn't bad at all. I even managed to find the house with only one wrong turn, a victory for directionally challenged me.

Mostly the two of us just hung out, talked, watched TV or DVDs. The biggest outing was a visit to a garden center. The only social occasion was the first night, when one of CRs friends came over for dinner. She works for an NGO, and had stories about visits to Tblisi (capital of Georgia) and cancelled trips to Dili (capital of East Timor).

I met a friend for dinner. She and another friend went to Antarctica this year, and the trip sounded fantastic. The Falklands, South Georgia, the Orkneys, the Anarctic Peninsula. In addition to the usual experts that are available on such trips, this cruise had some famous guest lecturers. Roauld Meissner, who was the first perston to climb Mt. Everest without oxygen, and Conrad Anker, another mountaineer. The whole trip sounded so interesting. Jealousy abounds.

Before meeting my friend at Ivy's, an Indonesian restaurant on Connecticutt Avenue, I drove out to Rockville, MD. I wanted to visit Bagel City, my favorite bagel shop from back when I lived in the area. Bagel City was part of my Sunday morning ritual for several years. Even after I left Bethesda to live in the District, I would drive out on Sundays for a veggie cream cheese on a toasted onion bagel. This time I had two.

Then I went to camera shop and learned that if I had hung on to my Nikon when it died, Nikon would have repaired or replaced it for free. So now I get to buy a new camera (yeah!) and spend money needlessly (boo!).

Add a couple of trips to the supermarket, a haircut, and a gas fill-up, and you have my stay covered.

I loved it. After being away so much it takes a while to get back into a comfortable place with friends. There's the initial chatter, then a sort of lull before you reach that easy spot of disjointed conversations and casual references. Some sort of timeline, a collection of recent references that include day-to-day stuff, adds a kind of ease. My choice to travel, to pass my years outside the US, totally interrupts that flow, and it is nice to get it back, even for little while.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Road-trip: Wilmington, NC

My first stop was in Wilmington, NC to visit my friend Jellybean (her nickname - I let my friends decide who they wanted to be on this blog). The Wilmington area is great, with nearby beaches, a river walk with restaurants and shops, and a lively arts scene. We had a great week just catching up. Since I only spend a couple of months in the US a year, if that, we've a lot to cover.

We ate on piers jutting out over the water, scarfed down that wonderful North Carolina barbeque, wandered the river walk, and wandered in and out of shops. The fourth Friday of every month, the downtown art galleries have open houses. The event is called, surprise, Fourth Friday. We went to see the work of one of Jellybean's friends, and wandered around the other galleries, munching on appetizers and drinking wine.

The next day we were back for an art fair. Jellybean found some pottery serving dishes, and I browsed the photographers' booths. One guy had pictures from Peru. I recognised one of his street scenes, much better than anything I took. I asked around about what sells, and found that notecards sell well. This information surprised me. Hasn't the internet done away with hand-written correspondence?

Jellybean is a birder and a photographer, and one day we drove out to the end of Wrightsville Beach in search of something called a black skimmer. On the way back Jellybean caught sight of a swan. "That's not a mute swan!" We stopped for a better look, then decided we wanted to get closer. So we approached two women standing on the dock behind their house and asked to take pictures.

We were introduced to Martha. She had a feeding station, and came when called or when a conch shell was blown.

Jellybean thought she had it identified, but we learned it was a whooper swan, common in England, but in the US found only in Alaska. Martha had probably escaped from a private collection. These swans don't do well in heat, and the two women joked about building it an air-conditioned pen. I'm sure Jellybean will be checking back to see how Martha does as the summer progresses.

Advice to myself: Do some sightseeing the next time. Visit the US North Carolina. Tour a couple of old houses.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Road-trip: the cost of gas

This year I'm not choking so much on the cost of fuel. I know most of the rest of the world pays more. Europeans in particular find our outrage amusing. The problem is not just the price. Volatility has an effect. One summer in Florida, a gallon of gas cost 99 cents. A year later it was over two dollars. People who planned RV vacations were stunned. Businesses had to deal with tripled delivery costs, costs that were not allowed for in budgets set long before.

If the change over the past few years had been more gradual, the adjustment would have been easier. Volatility exacerbates the effect, letting us hold on to hope. We think, "Maybe next year prices will go back to 99 cents again. Or at least down to $1.70 or so."

The photo is from my 2004 cross-country road trip. The prices seemed outrageous. Now they look pretty good.

I'm so glad I have my little Hyundai Accent. It's older now, and no longer gets 40 miles to the gallon. Prices are up, and my mileage is down. Still 35 mpg, is not bad. Good car choice. However it has its flaws.

Advice to myself: Next time get cruise control.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Road-trip: the long green tunnel

In the last three weeks I have driven over 1000 miles, much of it in the long green tunnel of Interstate 95 through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. Nearly the entire route has been planted with a screening wall of evergreens, making every mile identical. In the plains states, boredom while driving is considered a danger. In Montana, unnecessary curves are added to the highway in an effort to keep drivers alert. In the east, lulling the driver to sleep seems to be the goal.

It's a shame, because when the road does open up at rivers, the country is beautiful. Sometimes when the trees are thin, I glimpse a bit of farmland behind them and think how nice it would be to drive through open land for a while.

About the only variation is the type of flowers along the verge and the median. Usually there are great swaths of one flower, one color. A green backdrop speckled with lavender or densely packed yellow blooms are, I guess, the south's version of curves in the road.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Re-entry: Indulgences

Weeks before I return, I start to fantasize about how wonderful and perfect the US is. Of course I'm quickly disabused of my most far-flung and unrealistic fantasies. Some, however, are fulfilled to perfection.

I love being able to assume that the basic things in life will work. Anyone reading this and thinking, "Hah! Nothing works here!"? Well, things do. We function here on certain assumptions that are turned upside down in other countries. Take change, for instance. You know, that money you get when you don't have "exact" and aren't using plastic? We assume that everywhere we go, people who are selling things will have change. In the rare instances when there is no change in the cash register, a quick call to a manager results in new rolls of quarters, dimes, and nickels.

It doesn't work that way in the much of the world, where change is a precious commodity. I've waited as long as half an hour while a shop owner went from store to store, hunting for someone who will make change for her. In Cuzco, one returned to tell me she couldn't sell me the hat I wanted, because she couldn't get change. I intended to go back, but I could never find the shop again.

To get into the museum housed in the equator monument in Ecuador, I had to have lunch first. The ticket seller had only about 40 cents in change. I had only twenties. It cost $7, I think. (Ecuador uses the US $ as its currency). So I went to lunch, ate, then gave the retaurant owner a twenty dollar bill. I knew that since I'd already eaten, he had no choice but to find change somewhere.

It is for these occasions that I always carry a book. I ordered another Diet Coke, took out my novel, and settled in for the long wait. A couple of chapters later, I had one dollar bills, and a couple of fives. Amission! On these occaisions, it is important to manage the cost of the meal so you generate the correct change. A $14 meal would not have helped my situation much.

Going to the bank is usually not an option, sometimes because there are lines that stretch out the door and around the block. Other times, however, banks simply don't give change. In India, where changing a hundred rupee note can be a challenge, the ATMs dispense notes for 500 . In Bombay, ATMs spew out 1000 rupee notes. When I went into a bank and asked for change, I was told, "No." No apology, no explanation, just an irritated tone. "No."

While this all can seem cute or quaint or only mildly annoying for a week or two, after a couple of months it gets just a little bit hard to take. So after six months of this, not having to hoard change, think about change, or plan my use of change is a true treat.

Another luxury is hot water. No need to ask at check-in whether there is a hot water shower. Hot water in the shower and sink is a given. When the boiler broke in the St. Pete Ramada Inn, I got two days at half price, for the inconvenience of taking cold water showers that would pass as hot in many countries. Florida doesn't have really cold water coming out of its taps in the summer, so it really wasn't bad.

On some trips I don't miss hot water. When it is really hot and humid, a hot shower that raises my body temperature is not what I want. I have been known to curse if I should accidentally get hot water out of a pipe that is exposed to the sun. Unlike the change situation, I could, of course, pay more money for a room and not have to ask about hot water. Maybe.

Advice to Myself: Wallow. Just wallow in the luxury.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Re-entry: Must it always be bad?

My view that attention to checklists and proper preparation will eliminate re-entry trauma is probably optimistic. Most of my long trips have ended with problems.

In 1984 my return home from two years in South Africa, a five-and-a-half month overland camping trip through Africa, and six weeks in Europe certainly ended badly. I hadn't been feeling well, but soldiered on, shopping at Harrod's for Christmas presents, trudging around Earl's Court hunting for a cheap flight from London to Pittsburgh. The day before my flight, the owner of the small hotel where I was staying insisted that I go to the hospital. She walked me to St. Elizableth's to make sure I really went. There I learned that I had a fever (39.4 Celsius, about 103 Farhenheit). I flew the next day anyway.

Twice, in 2004 and this year, the problem has been car insurance. The return in 2004 also featured the three hour flight that took twelve hours.

In 1993, I didn't recognize one of my best friends when she came to pick me up at Logan International in Boston. She had changed her hair and was wearing really high heels. I just didn't look at the right level. Worse, she didn't recognize me. She told me later that I was so bent over that I looked two inches shorter and so worn out that I looked ten years older. Cheap person that I am, I had spent the night in Heathrow airport. I had to be at the airport before the trains started running, and I didn't want to pay for a taxi to Heathrow. I took the last train the night before and slept, sort of, on the floor.

I don't remember anything special about 2003 or last year. I think 1994 was also uneventful. Three reasonable returns out of seven. I suppose that is OK. Obviously I could significantly reduce the chance of drama in my life by either never going anywhere or by never coming back.

Advice to Myself: Accept the drama. And get a new car insurance company.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Re-entry: Preparing for the road

Every time I come back, I do a road trip, stopping to visit friends in North Carolina, the Washington DC area, and Massachusetts, and my brother in Pennsylvania. I have to work my schedule around theirs. Usually I spend a week or two in St. Pete, going to the beach, visiting my storage locker, luxuriating in my suddenly expanded wardrobe, and eating my way through my list of foods I missed.

This year, however, one of my friends had a month-long vacation planned. Between my car insurance problems and her schedule, I had only two full days to prepare for the trip. Surprisingly, this turned out to be plenty of time. I did forget a couple of things, but it wasn't bad at all. In restrospect, I can see that I usually lounge around for most of the time, then rush around like mad at the end. I really don't spend any more time preparing for the trip. I just do things not related to getting on the road and goof off a lot.

When I have time, I debate about which clothes to take. When I don't have time, I decide to take this, and this, and that, boom, I'm done. When I have time, I choose books for the trip from the stock in my storage locker, seeking a balance among different genres. When I don't have time I just grab the box of books that I didn't get to on the last road trip.

That's the good. The bad is that I was rushed and did not take out my To Do list for one last check before I left. I had intended to do some on-line applications for ESL (English as a Second Language) jobs in China, but I need scans of my degrees for that, as well as scans of my marriage license and change-of-name papers from my divorce. My MBA is in my married name, so I need to prove that degree belongs to me. But all these documents are safely stored in my storage locker in St. Pete, and I'm in Pennsylvania now.

Advice to Myself: Use your To Do lists. Of course I know this, but a To Do list that you don't use is just an interesting exercise to prove to yourself that you are really, really busy. Being really, really busy is a virtue in the US. That now seems strange to me, but apparently I still succumb when I get back on American soil. It radiates up through the sidewalks and seeps through the soles of my shoes into my feet, I think.

Re-entry: Back in the USA

I'm back in the US after six months in Ecuador and Peru. Re-entry was rough. I've returned from long periods abroad so many times I should have the whole procedure down pat, but I don't. This time I had problems getting my car insurance changed from storage status to driving status. The insurer made a mistake, and it took frustrating days to fix. Of course, if I had started my return preparations earlier, I could have had the insurance questions and other issues all resolved before I arrived.

Years ago, all these arrangements would have been a hassle and expensive. With the advent of cell phones, e-mail, and internet phone services, setting things up in advance has become easier and much cheaper. In Ecuador and Peru, calls to the States were 40 centimos (US$.12). Domestic long distance was 50 centimos or more. I've paid as little as 3 US cents per minute at internet cafes that have net2phone or other phone services installed. E-mail makes the time difference less of a problem.

Advice to myself: Don't leave all your pre-return arrangements for the day before your flight. Assume that anyone who told you that they needed "only a couple of day's notice" is a confirmed optimist. Do everything a week in advance.

Pre return arrangements might include:

  • Contacting the people who will pick you up at the airport
  • Contacting the friends you are hoping will take you in for a few days
  • Reinstating cell phone service

  • Reinstating car insurance company

  • Arranging to get your car checked out to put it safely on the road

  • Calling your hairdresser for an emergency appointment

  • Booking and reconfirming flights, trains, or buses

  • Making a hotel reservation

  • Reserving a rental car

    When returning to a house or apartment, deal with all the utilities, get the renters out, and arrange to have your stuff moved back in.

    Some of these things could wait. Before you delay them, however, picture yourself dealing with your phone company after a 33-hour flight. There really is no excuse. Don't repeat the mistake. Get it all done well in advance.