Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The coldest winter I ever spent: Summer in San Francisco!

Well it has been a while hasn't it. I guess that means I've been working too much and not vacationing enough. I've finally put an end to that as vacation season is just heating up. Two weekends ago I traveled with the lovely Irina Zeylikovich to Grand Rapids for a whirlwind brewery tour and I must say, they certainly deserve the title of Beer City USA. In 36 hours we visited five separate brew-pubs and they were all pretty fantastic. They were: Harmony, Grand Rapids Brewing Co, Hopcat, Founder's and Brewery Vivant. I have to say my favorite was Brewery Vivant. They're housed in a converted cathedral which gives it a very monk-y feel when you walk in. We actually ended up sitting outside since it was such a beautiful day, but the building is gorgeous. Of course the most important part was the beer, which was also of course delicious. They have a great selection ranging from a classic, refreshing Farmhand - based on a beer French farmers would offer their field workers after a long day in the sun - to The Abyss which was a dark, rich stout that had been aged in whiskey barrels for a delicious woody finish. I ended up getting a growler of the Farmhand, if only to have a reminder to go back sometime. I almost forgot to mention the duck confit nachos which were incredible, but sinfully rich. We split them as an appetizer and they ended up being plenty to fill us both for lunch. If you find yourself on the west side of the state, I would highly recommend paying them a visit.

Now onto the real reason for this post: I'm in San Francisco! Irina got a grant to come out here for a conference of the Society of Scholarly Publishing and that was excuse enough to get me to spend a few of my hard-earned frequent flyer miles to come see her home, meet the rest of her family and all of her best friends from before grad school. We arrived yesterday morning and her friends Stephanie and Shelby picked us up from the airport and we all went out for lunch at a place called the Outerlands. It's essentially a trendy sandwich shop and damn, was it delicious! We got grilled ham and cheese on house-made bread and an open face bacon, egg and cheese sandwich with some celery and potato soup. It was all tasty, though I must say I had to reserve my effusiveness over the quality of the food, knowing what was coming later that night. As good as the sandwiches may have been, I knew they'd be nothing compared to the awesomeness of our dinner, but I'll get to that in a minute. After lunch, we took a couple hour nap, having woken up at 5 AM and knowing that dinner would be going until nearly midnight. It was a stroke of genius for Irina to work that into the itinerary as we both might have passed out in a 5 star restaurant without it. After the nap, we went to Palio d'Asti downtown for happy hour with a few of Irina's good friends and it was great to finally meet after hearing so much about them. I'm sure they felt much the same way since they seem to know as much about our relationship as I do. After a few drinks and plenty of old stories, we made our way towards our dinner venue:

Restaurant Gary Danko

This place came rather highly reviewed from the guy who taught me to appreciate a good meal (thanks Dad!) and it did not disappoint. We followed his suggestion of trying the tasting menu with the wine pairing and also picked out a unique five course meal so we could each try 10 different dishes.

The (signed!) tasting menu and wine pairings
The rest of the rather extensive menu
Off the a la carte menu, we went for the risotto with lobster and shrimp, roast Maine lobster, lemon pepper duck breast, roast loin of bison and the Louisiana butter cake. Nothing we had was anything short of delicious, and, recalling my rule from my dinner at Alinea, when I'm paying that much for a meal, you bet your ass I'm going to eat everything they put in front of me. I have to say I was surprised to find that my favorite course was the horseradish crusted salmon with dilled cucumbers. Considering I generally am not a huge fan of fish or pickles, that course knocked my socks off. The wine paired with that was my favorite of the evening as well. Unfortunately I don't have any pictures of the food since they're all on Irina's phone and she's at her conference now, but they'll make it onto Facebook eventually. Take my word for it, everything looked as good as it tasted. I also have to give a special shout out to the dessert on the tasting menu. After my first bite of that salted caramel ice cream with bourbon sauce I couldn't stop myself from throwing my head back and wowing while grinning like a fool at how perfectly the sweetness and saltiness balanced and played off each other. It was quite possibly the best ice cream with sauce I've ever had. It's truly a shame that I was so stuffed at that point that I couldn't finish.

After dinner we walked down to the pier and around the block a couple times to help things settle and then headed back to her parents house for bed. Between the jetlag and the total foodie satisfaction, we slept like logs.

Today we woke up and had a nice breakfast of homemade honey-lemon-rosemary bread with cheese and cold cuts and then Irina showed me around a few of her favorite places in town. We started in Pacific Heights, one of the nicer neighborhoods, checking out multi-million dollar houses and mini-palaces. There are some damn impressive residences in this city, notably fantasy-filth writer Danielle Steele's house which looks like it was converted from a palatial art museum. Maybe there's something to this writing gig...

After grabbing some Peet's coffee down the hill from there, we got back in the car and headed for the Golden Gate bridge and the park that follows the beach near it. Apparently this week is the North American kiteboard racing championships. I'd never actually seen kiteboarding in action but imagine a combination of parasailing and wake boarding. Essentially you harness yourself to a giant kite, strap a stubby surfboard to your feet and race around a course using the kite for propulsion. It looks pretty nuts, but I'm also kind of curious to try it sometime. The racers were all setting up when we got to the beach and by the time we had walked to the bridge and back, they were well into the races. There must have been at least 50 of those guys out there racing, it was fun to see! Speaking of the bridge, I got a couple pretty good photos, especially considering I took them with my phone!

I love the panoramic photo feature on iPhones. If you look carefully you can spot
the Bay Bridge near the center of this photo

I really like this perspective of the bridge

Now that Irina's conference has started, I'm going to be doing a bit more exploring on my own for the next few days. I'll post again later when I inevitably find something cool, but in the meantime I'm going to read for a bit and maybe take a nap because I'm on vacation and I can do whatever the hell I want!

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Across the other pond!

Being the travel fiend that I am, I am happy to present you with my next entry in the series. This one is all about Japan, but as I was traveling the week before, I'll give you a quick prequel.

I was in San Antonio for work from Monday-Friday. Me and another VCA engineer (Chuck) were down there testing engine power for John Deere. Basically it consists of making sure the engine has all the proper sensors attached to it and then sitting outside the test cell for 8 hours straight while the operators bring it up to a certain speed, wait for the oil temperature to stabilize, make sure it's producing the power John Deere says it should and then move on to the next speed. They have to do that for like 15 different speeds per engine and we were testing 6 engines. It took a full 40 hours for two of us. Very tedious, very boring. At least Chuck is a cool guy. I always hear other people at our office complaining about him because his work is disorganized, but he's a 62 year old dude who loves South Park. We get along just fine. Anyway, on to the fun stuff...

I got home from San Antonio Friday evening. Happily, that was the same day that Kevin came into town, Kinsey got back from Greece and Crumble came to visit. That night we all hung out at Archwood along with Sam, Allie, Josh and Kelly. We watched some movies, drank and generally had good times. Saturday, Crumble, Kinsey, Kevin, Kelly and I went cabrewing (that would be drunken canoeing for those of you who've never lived). Later I had dinner with Grandma and Grandpa Haupt and Jason at Creekside. It was really nice to see them, especially without the usual hectitude (is that a word? it is now) that comes with a big Haupt family gathering. After dinner I came home where Kevin, Crumble and Kinsey were still hanging out. We watched some more movies while I did laundry. Eventually I started packing around 3 am for an 8:40 am flight. Cutting it close? maybe. A good way to keep yourself awake? Absolutely. Around sunrise Crumble came back over to pick me up and take me to the airport. I slept a bit on the flight to LA and had a good ham and cheese croissant during my layover at LAX. Finally, around 1 pm I giddily boarded my plane to Tokyo. During the flight I watched a bunch of movies: Red Tails, Iron Man 2, slept through Ghostbusters, and woke up to watch a few episodes of Parks and Rec and the Simpsons. After about 6 months of anticipation, I had finally arrived in Japan. I went through customs, met Mike, had a nice bro hug, exchanged all of my cash into Yen and then hopped on a train back to Ryugasaki. I dropped off my stuff, checked out the apt then we went to Hana No Mai, a local izakaya. An izakaya is a restaurant where you get a fairly private table and then have drinks and tapas style plates. The waiters only come when you press a button on the table. we had gyoza (pan-fried and steamed pork and veggie dumplings), kara age (fried chicken), cheese wrapped in bacon and fried, grilled pork belly, salad, miso soup and pickled daikon radish. Oh, and a few rounds of beers, this would become a theme for the trip. It was all quite good (and not very expensive).

Tuesday we walked to the local shrine which was on the other side of some rice paddies (Ryugasaki is a rural city outside of Tokyo). It was pretty, but since it's active, we couldn't go into the main building itself.

After we got back, completely sweat soaked, Mike's friend Tyler (another American teaching English over there) drove us all out for lunch, we had udon noodles with yummy fried stuff in the next town up from Mike's. We also checked out Don Quijote and Uniqlo. Donqui is I guess as close as Japan would get to a Walmart or target. They have everything from costumes to iPod docks to groceries. It was certainly interesting. Uniqlo is a clothing store similar to an old navy or maybe H&M. I got a pair of athletic shorts to sleep in since I forgot to bring some. We climbed this big mound and got a peek of the daibutsu (big Buddha) statue. More on that later. We had curry for dinner and it was delicious. That night I met a bunch of the other english teachers in Mike's town (they're all american except for one brit). It's definitely an interesting mix of characters, I can see why some of them would have left America, as they probably had some social issues there (coming here didn't exactly fix them) but as Mike says, they're patient with them because Americans are rare over here and you don't want to alienate yourself. Anyway, we went to a couple local bars, one was very small. As in, 2 tables, 4 seats each and another 4 seats at the bar. The guys here all know the bar staff and have a great time with them. They also have karaoke set up there so we had a great time doing that. The other bar was more what you'd expect, several tables, darts, Olympic soccer on tv. We had a couple drinks there and then headed back to Mike's apartment.

The big crosswalk in Shibuya
Part of Meiji Jingu. I love the color in this photo.
Timing it so there weren't people in the shot took awhile.
Wednesday Mike and I went into Tokyo for the day. We wandered around some shops near Shinjuku (the biggest train station in the world) then went to Harajuku and Shibuya. Shibuya is the equivalent of Times Square in Tokyo. It's where you see that huge crosswalk with thousands of people crossing at once. Harajuku was where we found a gyoza place for lunch that Tyler had recommended and it was really good. We also wandered through Meiji Jingu which is a large park and shrine in the middle of Tokyo. It was really serene, kind of like walking through the arb, it's easy to forget you're in the middle of the city until you see a huge building peeking through the trees. We were planning on meeting up with a former student of Mike's from when he taught summer camp there years ago and one of her friends. We were supposed to meet in Shibuya near a lion statue that roars if you put a coin in it's mouth but we were a bit early so we decided to go to a convenience store to get some drinks and as luck would have it, while we're looking at the drinks, Chinami and Asami are standing right next to us picking out some drinks for themselves. Even in Tokyo you can get that small world feeling. The 4 of us went out to another izakaya that offered unlimited drinks for 2 hours for 1000 yen (about 12 bucks) and then you add food to that. It was ridiculously cheep, but the drinks weren't especially strong so I was still fully with it by the time we left. We ate a bunch of pretty good bar food, including my favorite dish over here so far, takoyaki which is an unsweetened pancake batter with octopus, cabbage, ginger, tempura fried bits (imagine the stuff in the bottom of a deep fryer), and green onion fried into a ball with flakes of smoked, salty whitefish, a brown BBQ sauce and more green onion. Delicious! We had to catch the last train back to Ryugasaki around 10:45 so we parted ways with the girls and called it a night after that.
Shibuya: Me, Asami, Chinami and Mike

Me and the Daibutsu
Thursday we took it easy because we were wiped out from all the walking around Tokyo. Tyler drove us out for kaiten sushi (conveyor belt style). Basically there's a whole bunch of different plates with a piece or two of sushi on them and they parade around the restaurant on a conveyor belt. When you see one you like you just grab it. They're all 100 yen each so they just add up the plates at the end. You can also order specific things off a computer screen at the table and it comes out on a little train on a different track. It's really neat! After that we drove to the Daibutsu and just looked at it from the parking lot. There wasn't a whole lot of point in going any closer since you can see it quite clearly from miles away. After all, it is 2 and a half time taller than the statue of liberty. When you see it you expect that it'd be some several hundred year old marvel of engineering, but nope. It was built in '93, still cool though. After visting Buddha, we wandered around an outlet mall for a while. It was pretty much exactly the same as Birch Run except with awful coffee and it has a cool view of the Daibutsu. After that we stopped by a grocery store, picked up some food and Mike made a nice Japanese dinner (I helped!) it consisted of rice, a salad (cabbage with dressing), garlic pickles made from the garden behind the apt, some fried things (one crab-cheese, one pork with some other stuff) and yakisoba (fried noodles with pork and a bunch of seasonings). It was really good and actually pretty healthy. I've noticed that about Japanese food and it's making me want to cook like this all the time. We were still pretty wiped from Tokyo so we took the night off and went to bed early.

Friday we went to Yokohama with Mike's friend Jacob (another English teacher from the states). It's a really cool city near Tokyo and has a similar feel but a little younger and more casual. We checked out a couple arcades, had some lunch consisting of a delicious tonkatsu (fried pork chop), miso soup, cabbage salad and rice. Then we wandered around the mall there and eventually found this cool mini amusement park. It had a couple arcades, some carnival games and a few rides and roller coasters.  Mike and I went on the roller coaster that dives into a tunnel of water which was way cool. We stopped by a restaurant which felt ridiculously like a TGIFridays but it had beer and a view (and Obama was hanging out on a bench outside the door) so we were happy. After geting our America on, we wandered around the Tokyo bay a bit, saw some really nice views of the Yokohama skyline and then went to Chinatown. It felt super kitschy with lots of cheap little souvenir shops and street food. It was really interesting to see the difference between that and regular areas of Tokyo.

Me and the prez, no big deal.

Cool skyline
Another angle
After Chinatown we all grabbed a walking beer from a convenience store (yup, you can drink in public in Japan) and made our way to Ueno which is the area of Tokyo where the train for Ryugasaki leaves from. We stopped by an izakaya for a couple more rounds and some food and then made our way back to Ryugasaki with Jacob in tow. Tyler met us at the station and we went to Nyan Pis (the same tiny bar from Tuesday night, and yes, Nyan like Nyan cat. It means meow. For the readers not well versed in memes, this is nyan cat: and hung out with the bartenders there. I was the only one who didn't speak Japanese so I missed most of the conversation, but I had a good time anyway because Mike was translating enough for me to sort of follow what was going on.

Saturday was another lazy day. We were going to go to the beach but it rained all day, so Mike, Tyler and I went to an all you can eat chinese buffet which was delicious. That evening a couple other English teachers, Lloyd and Colin came to Ryugasaki and then we all went to Toride (a city just south of Ryugasaki) for their summer festival. There were a ton of people there with lots of street food and a really cool fireworks display that went on for at least an hour. We met up with Colin's Japanese girlfriend and a few of her friends. After the fireworks ended we all went to an all you can drink karaoke bar for an hour or so. We took full advantage of the all you can drink policy and left stumbling. Did I mention I love karaoke? I don't specifically remember where everyone slept that night, but in the morning, Mike, Lloyd, Colin and I all piled into Lloyd's car and drove a couple hours to Sano (near the city where Lloyd and Colin teach) for some famous Sano Ramen. We had to wait outside for an hour all sweating profusely. I suppose this is a good time to mention that the entire time I was there the temperature was in the mid 90's and the humidity probably never dropped below 85% and was usually higher. I don't think I went an hour without breaking a sweat while I was there. Anyway, the ramen was delicious, definitely better than the stuff you make in 3 minutes on the stove! After ramen we had planned on going to Niko which I guess is another park/shrine kind of place similar to Meiji Jingu but they closed at 5 and by the time we could have gotten there it would have been too late so instead we went to this really beautiful shrine on top of a mountain. Apparently this place was something like 1200 years old. Also of note, there were cats EVERYWHERE. I probably saw 40 different cats in the hour and a half or so we were walking around up there. The views of the countryside all the way to Tokyo were amazing. Looking one direction you could see rice paddies leading up to where Tokyo starts and finally the Tokyo skyline on the horizon. Looking the other way you could see rows and rows of mountains fading into the distance. It was really stunning. Here, enjoy some pictures (but note that they really don't do it justice)

Goofy cat
Scenic view #1
Scenic view #2
Scenic view #3, Tokyo on the horizon
Colin, Mike, Me and Lloyd. Awwww
After checking out that shrine we headed back to Lloyd and Colin's town (can't remember what it's called) and had some okonomiyaki for dinner. Okonomiyaki is basically all of the same ingredients as takoyaki (the fried octopus/pancake balls) except actually made into a pancake and you grill it up yourself. I got what I thought was a chicken one but it turned out to be chicken "soft bone", that is the crunchy cartilagey bits around the joints. Not exactly my cup of tea, but the rest of it was delicious. We spent the rest of that night hanging out at Colin's apartment drinking and watching youtube videos. Another teacher, Gareth from England, came over and chatted for a bit. He was a very interesting character, I had a nice conversation with him about the magazine he used to publish and trains (that's what the magazine was about and what he totally geeks out about)

The next morning Lloyd drove us all back to Ryugasaki and we had lunch with a local woman who absolutely loves foreigners. She's probably in her 70's and is very eccentric. She prepared a huge traditional summer feast for us which we all felt bad about because we were all feeling a bit under the weather (read: hung over) but we struggled through it. After lunch she made us all get up and start dancing and then asked us to play her koto ( so we all took a turn. Though Lloyd was a music major, in this case I have to toot my own horn (pun definitely intended) and say that I took to it the most naturally (proof here: It helps that I already knew the song she had us all playing and that I've been practicing guitar lately. I'm not sure if it was a prize for being good at the koto or because I was visiting and going home soon, but she sent me home with a TON of gifts/souvenirs. I got a table runner and fan pendant to give my mom, a bright orange shawl to give to the girl I've been dating recently, a nice water color painting, some traditional wooden sandals, a decorative fan, one of those collapsable painted paper lanterns that you (probably shouldn't) put a candle in and a can of green tea powder (just add water!). I honestly felt guilty taking all of that stuff but I guess it's pretty common in Japanese culture to keep a bunch of stuff like that on hand to give to guests so I would have felt even worse had I refused it. Plus it made souvenir shopping easier, thanks Niwa san! After we left her place, Lloyd and Colin headed back to their city and that night Mike and I went back to Donqui's so I could do some more souvenir shopping. I ended up getting a bunch of random foods (green tea kit-kats, fizzy hard candies, hi-chews (like starbursts), insect jelly (turns out its actually for insects), dried shredded squid, dried fish fins, seaweed with sesame seeds, curry and instant miso soup) and liquor (a couple bottles of sake, shochu and some sake cups (cute little jars with pandas on them full of sake). We also went to the curry place in town and it was SO GOOD. It's run by a Nepalese guy, so apparently Nepalese curry is the way to go. The nan was perfect and the butter chicken curry… well I can't put to words how good it was so you'll just have to take my word for it. I'd have to say it was my favorite food out of everything I ate in Japan.

Souvenir food!
The next day, Tuesday, my last full day in Japan, Mike and I went back into Tokyo to meet up with Tyler who was already there hanging out with a friend who was in town before his flight home. We met up at Ueno, got some ramen for lunch which was also delicious. It had better broth and pork than the place in Sano but the noodles weren't quite as light and tasty. I'd say Sano wins by a hair. Eventually Tyler's buddy left to catch his flight and the 3 of us headed to Akihabara to check out video games, electronics and porn shops. I gotta say, the Japanese are into some weird stuff. There were 8 story porn stores and they just get freakier and freakier as you go up. Apparently we didn't even get into the really bad ones but I saw plenty. On a different note, I was able to pick up a most excellent souvenir for myself (no pervert, not from the porn store), I present you with the Supaboy. It's basically a super nintendo with a built in screen. You can use it like a gameboy or plug it into a tv and separate controller. My (brother's) super nintendo has been acting up the last few times I've used it so it's nice to have one that works consistently (and with both controller ports).

Best souvenir evar!
After Akihabara we went to Asakusa which is this big touristy shrine/street vendor area. We did some window shopping, taking more time in front of the stores that were air conditioned and felt a good 10 degrees cooler on their sections of the sidewalk (good marketing!). From there we decided to head to the Tokyo Skytree which is the 2nd tallest structure in the world. The only thing taller is the Burj Dubai. I guess it's basically a giant radio tower with some observation decks but it looks pretty cool. We didn't actually go all the way to it since it was too cloudy/hazy to be worth going up anyway but we got close-ish and it is damn impressive. The kind of impressive that makes you wonder who's compensating for what… I'll let you finish that line of thought at your own discretion.

The Tokyo Skytree
Cool reflection
Later we met up with Mike's former host mom when he studied abroad in Japan, Asaka and a couple of her friends. We went to a yakiniku restaurant for dinner which was either my 2nd or 3rd favorite thing we ate while I was there, after the curry and maybe the takoyaki. Yakiniku is essentially DIY grilled meats. You order the animal, cut and quality and they bring it out in bite size strips which you grill yourself on the grill set into the table. We had some Wagyu beef, pork, some other beef and an assorted veggie plate. I ate way too much, but it was delicious. After that we went to a convenience store to pick up a couple bottles of shochu which is like a distilled sake that's more alcoholic to take to a karaoke place. We got unlimited soft drinks and mixed in the shochu (college student style!) and sang like crazy people. It was a great time for everyone involved (except maybe one of the girls who had too much to drink). After our time was up at the karaoke place we all went back to Ryugasaki. The aforementioned girl who had too much literally passed out standing up while we waited for the other two girls to pick up some more drinks and munchies from the convenience store by the train station. Tyler and I ended up having to carry her back to the apartment. It was a good, albeit unexpected workout. Eventually we got her into his bed where she slept for a couple hours and then woke up feeling great apparently. The rest of us were all just chatting and drinking a bit more. Eventually I got tired so Mike and I headed back to his place and passed out. I guess the rest of them stayed up all night until the first train around 5 am which the girls all had to catch back to Tokyo.

A pretty useless superpower, but impressive nonetheless
The next morning I woke up, finished packing, got cleaned up and then Tyler drove us to the airport where we all shared a tearful goodbye and I checked in and headed to my gate. Apparently since I had the San Francisco to LA leg of my trip upgraded to first class I also got to use the sky priority security line in Tokyo which was awesome. They had it walled off so the lowly commoner passengers (I kid!) couldn't see how ridiculously short that line was (there wasn't one). It was excellent. I got to the gate with plenty of time, wrote a bit of this blog post and played Mario Kart until it was time to board. I dozed a bit on and off the whole way back and was forced to watch crappy movies since there weren't individual screens. I think they showed This Means War, the one where Tom Hardy and Chris Pine play spies dating the same girl, then they showed the one about the whales trapped in ice in Alaska. I only watched half of that one. Then they showed some Sarah Jessica Parker flick that looked absolutely awful because she is absolutely awful so I decided to take that opportunity to stare out the window. Turned out to be one of the coolest things I saw during the entire trip. 33,000 feet above the Aleutian islands off the coast of Alaska, above the clouds I could see more stars than I've ever seen, including the most vivid view of the Milky Way. It looked like a cloud but I knew it couldn't be since we were above all of the clouds. The best part though, was the fact that the Perseids meteor shower was still going on. I never could have imagined how awe inspiring watching a meteor shower from what felt like the edge of space could be. All I could think was how badly I wanted to see the stars from even closer at some point in my life. I decided to start working on a bucket list and wrote down some words to live by. The one that occurred to me first and felt the most natural was this: "I want my sphere of daily thoughts and concerns to extend beyond myself and people and things I know" Seeing the universe "close" up has this unique way of making you realize how personally insignificant you are and it's a very humbling and, for me at least, comforting. Some people hate that their life won't make a big difference in the flow of events on a universal scale. I love knowing that no matter how bad I screw up in my daily life, the stars will continue to live and die. I love that level of perspective.

So in some sense, and this may be the only time these words have legitimately been put together, thanks for the inspiration Sarah Jessica Parker.

Also, thank you to Michael Rudowski for being a fantastic host and tour guide for the 10 days I was there. The trip was everything I hoped it would be and more!

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Here we go again

Sorry for the hiatus. I guess I got it in my head that since the blog is called across the pond blah blah blah that I can’t write it if I’m not overseas. Then I remembered it’s my blog and I make the rules!

As I sit here watching the Super Bowl (go Pats I guess) I find myself with some down time, so here goes...

A (hopefully) brief catch-up on what’s been going on since Europe:  Came home, saw Michigan crush Nebraska and overthrow the evil reign of that school down south. Thanksgiving was in between and I gotta say it was probably the best one yet. Not only was I desperately missing home cooked food, but I have a lot to be thankful for these days. The follow week I went out to San Jose with Mark (my manager) to test some electric motorcycles, which was pretty awesome. We also went to the Monterey aquarium and whale watching since Mark is a fish nerd. That was neat, we saw a bunch of seals, pelicans and a… flock? swarm? pod? gaggle...? whatever you call a group of 200 dolphins. We also saw 4 killer whales. I got some pretty good pictures. See?

The whales (actually orcas are closer to dolphins) put on a pretty good show!

Then it was Christmas. That was nice. Had a slow month of work in January then headed out to LA for a few days. It was pretty uneventful. Worked early, stayed on Michigan time which meant bed early too. Back for the weekend then off to Arizona to do some brakes testing for Chrysler. I was scheduled to be out here for two weeks, but we got through the testing really fast so I’ll be done on Tuesday and can come home on Wednesday! I’m really excited about that because one thing I forgot to mention is that I FINALLY GOT MY NEW CAR AND IT’S SITTING IN THE GARAGE WAITING FOR ME! I really love it and can’t wait to get back.
I wish it still looked like that
but when you get a car in January that pretty paint job doesn't stay clean too long.

Anyway, onto the real reason I’m writing this post. Originally I thought we’d be testing through the weekend, but as I said we’re ahead of schedule, so they gave me the weekend off. I had a choice to make: Vegas or the Grand Canyon. To be honest, I didn’t do as much research as I normally would when presented with two exciting options like that. Nature just sounded better to me than… well pretty much the exact opposite of nature. Plus, I’ve been feeling lazy lately so a good hike sounded like just the ticket.  Once I decided to do the hike I had to gear up. I figured I’d at least need some solid hiking shoes and a camelbak. Once I got to the canyon I realized it’s cold up here (colder than Ann Arbor these days actually) and a there’s fair amount of snow on the ground so I picked up a hat, the equivalent of tire chains for your shoes and a headlamp just in case my 5 hour hike ended up taking more like 11. That would have been a disaster, but it would have been an even bigger disaster if I had to find my way back using a cell phone for light.

On Friday night I figured I should have a good meal since it could have been my last (just kidding) but really because I needed a good protein and carbo load so I wouldn't drop dead on the hike. I made a reservation at the El Tovar, which is the “premier lodge” at the canyon and has a "premier restaurant" to match. It was really good. As in 20 times better than any food I ever imagined I’d eat in a national park. I had the mixed grill which was a 6 oz filet mignon and a 6 oz pork tenderloin, both marinated in a dijon-y sort of sauce. My basic understanding of food science (compliments of Alton Brown) tells me that that’s probably why the steak was so tender. It was served with carrots and broccoli (yup, I ate those) and bacon and cheddar mashed potatoes which were damn good as well. I finished the meal off with a slice of red velvet cake which was pretty good, but definitely not the highlight of the meal.

Down to business:  Saturday morning. Woke up at 7, made sure I had everything I needed, had some breakfast, told the parents that I was going to do the Bright Angel trail and judge how I was feeling as I went. There is a rest house every mile and a half (that’s outwards, each one is another 1200 feet down from the rim) and interestingly, I seemed to get less weary the farther I went. When I first started, I was nervous about all the things that could go wrong so I was uncomfortably cautious. Once I started seeing people jogging back up the trail I started realizing “hey, I’m not climbing Everest, I’m walking through a national park.” I felt a lot more comfortable hiking alone as time went on because I saw so many people who’d be able to help me if I needed it. It also helped that I had cell signal the entire time. I stopped at the 1.5 mile rest house, used the composting toilet, rubbed my feet, had a muffin and granola bar and continued on my merry way. Before I knew it I was at the 3 mile rest house.  At this point I’m about 2 hours into the hike and feeling pretty good. I chatted with a guy down there who looked like he’d done his fair share of hikes. He told me that I could continue to Indian Garden, which was another 12 or so switchbacks down and then a gentle walk down a dried up river bed, but if I was thinking about heading back up, I should go around and below the rest house and check out the really nice view. That’s what I decided to do and damn it was worth it.

I wish the pictures could do it justice but alas, you have to be there to really feel it.

While I was checking out the vistas, I saw a pile of old metal cans. I climbed down and grabbed a couple souvenirs. One of them is a beer can. I’m guessing it’s at least 60 years old. Not exactly sure what the other thing is, but I’m guessing it’s an equally old cigarette case or something.

I sent a picture of the view to my parents using my iPad at that point (god I love technology) and then started working my way back up. It actually became much easier at that point because the trepidation about my abilities turned into determination to not be stuck in a canyon all day. No more thinking about if I have it in me to keep going. Just became a simple matter of getting it done.

Final count: 5 hours, 6 miles, 5000 feet  elevation change, 100 oz water, 1 bottle of Gatorade, 2 muffins, 2 granola bars, a few pieces of beef jerky, 2 pouches of weird energy/electrolyte gel, 90 photos, 2 aching legs, 1 outfit completely sweated through, 1 great hike!

Check out the rest of my pictures from this trip on my facebook. I'll even make it easy for you: click 

I'll be back in AZ towards the end of March so I may get another entry up then or, if you're lucky, maybe I'll do one that's unrelated to travel!

I'm planning on going to Japan this summer to visit my friend Mike who will be moving there for at least a year to teach English, starting in March. There will definitely be a post or three from that trip!

That's all for now. Hopefully the next one won't take another 3 months!

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Sorry it's been so long, I've been busy!

Well, I meant to start this post about 2 weeks ago, but better late than never. That reminds me of this: Check it out sometime if you have a free afternoon and evening.

I seem to remember the last post being before I did my driver training, so let's start there. First off let me start by saying


There were four (actually five) parts, which I did entirely driving a manual, since it was faster than my auto and... why not?
1. On the mile straight. Basically, I took this time to learn how get up to speed, smooth out my shifting and then stop again from high speeds. There's actually more to it than putting your foot on the floor. Most people who've never done it before tend to be a bit hesitant about hitting full brakes at 120 mph, but its totally doable. Also, stopping fast without engaging ABS takes a bit of practice too.
2. In the high speed bowl. It's basically a circular track with the sloped sides so I learned about what happens to your steering when you go 130 mph (a new personal record). What happens? You go up and down (side to side) in your lane because of slight changes in the steering alignment as the suspension loads and unloads over small bumps. If you try to correct each little sway you'll only make it worse, so you just have to accept that its going to happen. Also, each lane has a speed marked on it, where if you drive that speed, the car will automatically hold the corner and stay in its lane. Since it's a circular track you could put on cruise control and take your hands off of the wheel. The car will keep going until it runs out of gas. That's pretty neat.
After lunch,
3. On the handling course. This is basically a small circuit with a couple hills and a bunch of corners that are all a bit different so you can learn different cornering techniques. This involves taking the correct racing line, braking the right amount at the right time to maximize your speed out of a corner (or not if you have another corner afterwards), how to combine two corners into one by taking the right line, how to steer around a corner only moving the steering wheel to one angle and then back (i.e. not making small adjustments through the corner). All of this makes the car more able to stay within or on the limit of adhesion (where the tires start slipping on the road) so you can drive faster and safer. This is the part that I can practice the most while doing every day driving since the rest involves going too fast or slamming on the brakes, which is generally frowned upon.
4. The alpine circuit. Similar to the handling course, except way more awesomer. There's lots of ups and downs and hairpin corners. The two other guys in my car have quite a bit more experience with track driving than I do, so they were about to do that course faster, and both of them got air coming over one particular hill coming into a hairpin. It was terrifying and exhilarating. We were all laughing hysterically after each time they did it because it felt like we just looked death in the face, even though we were actually quite safe. Don't worry mom. Fun bit of trivia, you know the scene in Casino Royale where Bond is chasing the baddies in his Aston Martin and then has to swerve (rolling and destroying the car) to avoid hitting the girl? Yeah, that one. It took place on that track. Very cool.
5 was a bit of a surprise for us, they told us at the end that to wrap everything together, they had set up a gymkhana course. If you don't know what gymkhana is, watch this. Actually, watch this anyway.
Our course was nothing like that, nor was our driving, but we it was a watered down version of that. Our course took about 30 seconds to drive, had a couple tight corners, a slalom section, a 360 "spin" and a little box to stop in. Fortunately, the cars we got to drive were separate from the rentals we had been using. The driver training company provided were about like these:
The one on your left is a run of the mill suped up Subaru Impreza, and the one on the right is a Caterham (pronounce kay-trim) roadster. When I first looked up the Caterham I couldn't find it because I thought it was actually called a k-trim car. Then I remembered people here have a silly accent so I started typing in different ways you could spell it. I never got close but fortunately google could figure out what I meant by cay tram roadster. Unfortunately we drew straws for who would drive what and I was put in the Subaru. Not that it wasn't awesome, it's just that I don't think I'll have a chance to drive a Caterham for a long time, if ever.

Anyway, the goal for the gymkhana was not to have the fastest lap, but the most consistent pair of laps. So after the warm up lap to familiarize ourselves with the course we got two more and the most consistent won a hat. It wasn't me unfortunately, because it was a really cool hat. I tied for 3rd out of 6 guys, so I'm reasonably okay with that. I think most of my time difference was because I had trouble getting the car started on one try, but I still did a lot better than I would have if I had been driving my auto all day! We all got certificates saying we completed the course, though I'm pretty sure they don't actually get us any extra privileges but it's still my best souvenir so far.

I'm gonna skip over most of the work stuff I've done since then because it was mostly boring. Did some tractor testing, some trailer inspections, and some brakes.

Now on to the fun bits, the weekends!

The weekend after the driver training was my Amsterdam Halloween trip! I left work a bit early on Friday, flew out of Bristol to Amsterdam and got on a train to the hotel to meet up with Megan. After checking into our super trippy room (see below) we decided to head into town for some delicious french fries and wandering around, checking out the scenery/people. This would become a theme for the weekend as the fries are amazing, the buildings and city are beautiful and the people are more diverse than Ann Arbor and even more free spirited and crazy. That was it for that evening.

Our hotel...

...was nuts. There was a panel on the wall controlling the lights. You could keep it steady or set it to strobe like a night club or have it slowly change between the colors. Surprisingly, this was not located in the red light district, but in the financial district, in the World Trade Center! Notice anything missing? Check the green one.

The next morning we had the bizarre experience of doing our respective morning routines while the other loudly watched TV on the other side of the wall, since the bathroom had no door. It was strange but we got used to it. We headed to the Nieuwmarkt to check out some food whatever else they might be selling there. Turns out it was pretty much just food, but it was really cool to see all the different stuff. Lots of cheese and bread, fruits and veggies and other things. For example, Megan found some vegetarian pate. I didn't know that was possible, but this very friendly Dutch guy figured it out. I think it was made from apricots? We bought half a loaf of yummy bread and a block of delicious gouda-ish cheese and ate it in a nearby park. After that we resumed our wandering around, checking out random things. We saw Rembrandt Square, near where I stayed last time in Amsterdam, the Anne Frank House (still didn't make it in, the line has been around the block every time I've gone past it) and of course did the compulsory walk through the red light district. It's such a surreal experience. That's all I'm going to say about that here. We went to a bar and had a couple drinks as everything besides the bars, coffee shops and street food close up pretty early, in fact the whole city goes to sleep quite early, and likes to sleep in. My kind of place (at least the sleeping in part). After the bar we got a large cone of fries for dinner and went back to the hotel and slept.

The next day we decided we wanted some Dutch pancakes for breakfast and it was a GREAT choice. I had an apple and cinnamon pancake and Megan had banana and nutella. They were delicious and filling (each one is roughly three times the size of your average double bed). That kept us going strong until we required our next fix of fries. I suppose I should explain why the fries are so good and keep you coming back. First of all, they're steak fries, and somehow always perfectly cooked. Second, and more importantly, every shop has a huge selection of sauces including but not limited to fritesauce (like a sweet mayo), ketchup (boring!), mustard, garlic, hot sauce, cheese and curry sauce. And it's served in a parchment paper cone with a cool little plastic fork so you don't get too messy. I would go back for the fries alone. Okay, and the pancakes too. 

That day was filled with more random wandering, this time checking out some cool drawbridges, the theatre, the ballet, and a duck that loved peanuts. We also found a few street performers who were really good. One was a "magician" from Australia. I hesitate to call him that since one of his tricks was making a handful of cigarettes from the audience disappear... into a box in his suitcase. The other one was escaping from some plastic wrap and a chain that was cleverly wrapped so he could shake out of the whole thing. His real talent though was in working the crowd. He was hilarious and I can't even begin to explain his shtick because it was all "you had to be there" kind of humor, which is the best when you were there, and the worst when you weren't. I won't ruin it. Another performer was playing an amped acoustic guitar with a loop box so he could essentially play all the tracks of a song simultaneously, and he was really good at it. What drew me towards him was the unmistakable sound of Stairway to Heaven, and he continued with some more songs I recognized but couldn't name. Eventually we moved on and found a guy playing a bunch of Bob Marley songs, he was really good too, and a perfect fit for... shall we say the atmosphere of the city. Back to the hotel-rave again to sleep.

Our last day in Amsterdam was spent checking out the museums in the appropriately named "museum district". We looked at the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. They were both awesome. I especially liked the audio tour guide for the Rijksmuseum. It was very personal, friendly and funny. He talked about his experiences as a kid in the museum and as an adult with his kids and how he perceives it differently. Very cool perspective. It turns out he's somewhat famous. If you're curious what the tour was like... check out this video:
Jeroen Krabbe guides us through the first room of the Rijksmuseum

Yup, so that took a while. We were hungry afterwards so we went to an Italian restaurant nearby and I'm sure there are some people reading this who may not believe what I'm about to write. We ordered an appetizer of mushrooms with a garlic butter sauce. Just a plate of mushrooms, and I happily ate a good portion of it. Also had some good pasta and a frozen, hollowed out lemon filled with tasty lemon sorbet. It was a bit of a pain to eat with a fork, but totally worth it. The wine on the other hand was terrible. Especially with the lemon sorbet. Good thing we ordered water too.

That was pretty much it for Amsterdam since I had to get up really early for my 8 am flight. It was super fun though, and felt a lot more productive than my last trip there when no one wanted to be decisive so we just wandered around pointing at restaurants saying "Wanna eat there?" "I don't care." "Me neither." "Ok, I guess let's keep going then." As much as I enjoyed the city then, it's much better when you just go do things.

The beautiful thing about the flight from Amsterdam to Bristol is that it was an hour long with an hour time change, so I took off at 8 and landed at 8. I made it to the office by about 9:15 which is pretty darn good considering I woke up in another country. Only 3 days of work that week since Thursday night I drove up to Edinburgh to meet up with my parents!

Let me start by saying... I love Edinburgh! Walking around it made me feel like I was in a Final Fantasy game or something.


Final Fantasy

See what I mean?

Even the drive up there, in the rain, at night, was beautiful. About 75 miles from Edinburgh, the GPS pulled me off of the motorway onto a little two lane mountain road. It was such a fun drive with winding roads and nice hills. Having no other cars the entire way also contributed to the awesomeness.

Since the parents had just taken a train up from London after flying from home, they were very tired so after some brief catching up, we all went to bed. The next day we walked the Royal Mile which includes a lot of historical buildings. Check it out!

 There were lots of these cool little alleys (called a close)

 The castle, complete with tactless Americans :-p
 View from the top

 I can't decide if I like the composition of this picture or not. I really the castle coming out of the rocks though.

Calton Hill, we watched the Guy Fawke's Night fireworks here
And we saw a super awesome DOUBLE RAINBOW!!


I felt super lucky to have seen this, until I saw the wikipedia page for the royal mile... the first picture has a double rainbow! I guess Edinburgh is just cool like that.

We also walked through the Grassmarket and had lunch there, then bought some sweaters and other wool/cashmere things because that's what you do in Scotland. I ended up with a sweater and nice scarf, and unintentionally continued expanding my blue wardrobe. Whatever, at least everything goes together :-)

Dinner on Friday was my treat to the parents as my thank you for all the support they've given me to get where I am in life and it was exactly what I was hoping for. I booked a table at the nicest restaurant in town, called Restaurant Martin Wishart. It's French cuisine and good enough to get a Michelin star. Apparently that scale has lost some credibility recently, but this restaurant definitely lived up to the hype. We got a few amusee bouches, all fall themed, mostly with pumpkin, all delicious. Then I had a wonderful white truffle risotto for an appetizer and roast hare loin and leg for dinner. After all the talk of what wonderful stew and slippers the bunnies would make last year, I had to order it when I saw it on the menu. The other thing that I had to order when I saw it was the "soufflee of the day." I mean really, how often do you see that? It was mandarin flavor and came with a mandarin, something and olive oil gelato. It was all so delicious. I think I have to say this was the second best meal I've ever had, only trailing Alinea, which was out of this world almost literally.

Anyway, after a wonderful dinner we went to bed. The next day we drove to Roslin Chapel (the one that was in the end of the DaVinci code. It was really stunning, but unfortunately it was being restored so there was scaffolding covering half of it so we could only look at part of it. There was a lot of really ornate carved stone covering the entire inside. It's hard to believe that it's so impressive and they never even built half of what it was originally planned to be. That night was Guy Fawkes Night, which is kind of the British equivalent to the 4th of July. Basically Guy Fawkes tried to blow up parliament on the 5th of November, was caught and hanged, so now every year they celebrate his failure by blowing up other stuff and having big bonfires. We walked up to the top of Calton Hill to watch the fireworks from all around the city. It was a bit chilly, but aside from that a great show. It's pretty unique looking down on fireworks. It makes them a bit less impressive I suppose, but the uniqueness more than made up for that.

Sunday we went to the royal yacht Britannia, which was the Queen's ship for 50 or so years. The tour was really well done, but unfortunately we had to rush through so the parents could get back down town to catch their train back to London. It was neat seeing the officer's quarters, the marines barracks (for security) and the royal family's area of the ship. It was all very different, but luxurious no matter where you went, even the engine room was chrome plated and sparkling! I would post pictures but I've been working on this post for something like 4 hours and I'm kind of running out of steam so I think I'm going to end it here. I'll put up a bunch of pictures on facebook when I get a chance. That might not be until I get home, but that's only 9 days away now!

I can't wait to have a kitchen and a bed room to sleep in for more than 4 days in a row!