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Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

On Saturday we traveled to Big Bear, California (a town up in the mountains) to watch our son Devin, at age 31, race the Spartan – The Beast. This is a 13.1 mile race with 30 obstacles and almost 6,000 feet of elevation gain on the course. Read all about it here.

Here is the course – photographed the banner at the beginning of the race.

It takes place at the Big Bear ski area, and some of the trails follow the slopes. We were able to see him leave at the starting line, then take the ski lift to the top of the mountain and wait for him there on stations 10, 14 and 15.

Here is champion before the race:

And here is his pit crew:

From left to right (the parental units): Norbert, Jack, Devin, Mary and Trisha.

Here is the starting lineup. Notice, to get into the starting area you have to climb over a wall.

The voice you hear is that of the announcer, getting the crowd ready.

They released the participants in batches of up to 250 people every 15 minutes. They carry chips that track their individual times. Devin was in the last batch for the day, and there were only a few participants left at that time. Other starting waves were packed with people.

Here is a view of the start.

Off they go, up the mountain.

After they left, we made our way to the ski lift and went to the very top. Here is a view of Big Bear Lake, and some of the racers below us:

Once on the top, in the background you can see one of my favorite mountains. This is the peak of San Gorgonio, at 11,503 feet (3,506 meters) the highest mountain in Southern California. I have been on its top many a time over the years, and I have loved being there every time.

The two of us bundled up and waiting in the cold at the top:

Then I waited for Devin at Station 10. It was good to know he was the one with the neon-green leggings. I could see him coming from a distance. I could tell from his pace that he was faster than most people.

At station 10 there is an 8-foot wall to climb over. Many people struggled with that wall, needed assistance up from fellow racers. Here is how Devin handled it:

After he dropped to the other side, I turned off the camera and ran around the wall, only to find him long gone, running up the hill. He was not waiting around for us spectators.

I was able to hike back up the mountain from 10 to 14, and Trisha and I waited for him there. It was freezing cold. The weather service had forecasted snow the next day. Good thing not today.

About 45 minutes later (see the map and the big loop on the left after station 10) he arrived at station 14, just as fresh and chipper as ever.

Station 10 had monkey bars to navigate. We watched many people struggle with these.

Judge for yourself on how Devin did on those. After he dropped off the monkey bars, he immediately ran away up the hill toward the next station, number 15. I went into a full sprint and ran up the hill on a side road, and I beat him to the top by just enough time to run over to the ropes and take this video:

After he dropped off he ran away. The picture below is the parting view.


We got back on the ski lift to make our way down into the valley. We had just enough time to go into the ski café, get a quick sandwich, before we needed to go back out and catch him at the finish. We ALMOST missed him. He was there as soon as we got out.

We were waiting for him at the mud bath pit, but missed him. This is what it looked like:

In the video below you can see him right after the mud bath (where they are completely in the water) making his way to the end. We missed the mud bath, so I have no video of it.

One of the last obstacles are the rings. Judge for yourself:

Here is Devin on the rings:

Then, finally, before the finish line, the barbed wire run.

I could hardly keep up with him taking the video.

Here is a pretty crappy sequence of him going through the finish line. I had to run around people to catch this, and my finger slipped over the lens a few times.

Victory!

Here he comes out with is medal.

The medal:

After this, he had to change into some dry clothes quickly as he shivered uncontrollably. He kept us busy trying to keep him warm. Note to pit crew for next time: Bring extra sweats, a towel, and warm accessories.

The next morning he found out about his statistics. He completed the race in 3:26:33 (hh:mm:ss).

In the open category, there were 3,995 participants. Devin came in number 2. That is incredible. Out of the open category for males between ages 30 and 34, there were 562 participants, and Devin came in number 1.

Incredible! Congratulations, Devin, from us all!

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San Diego [click to enlarge]

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Yes, there is a city in the distance. You can see the Golden Gate at the right side, next to the large building.

San Francisco in the Gray [click to enlarge]

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Road Warrior Tales

Today I traveled to Seattle. I need to be in Olympia, the capital of Washington tomorrow, but I am staying near the SeaTac Airport both nights. Olympia is just an hour’s drive south of here.

I get off the plane, pick up my rental car, punch in the directions to the Embassy Suites where I like to stay. When I get there, it does not look familiar, but to a guy who has spent more than 30 nights in hotels already in 2019 those hotels all start blending in together. As I am checking in, the desk clerk can’t find a reservation. Now I am stumped. I am certain I made a reservation, but maybe I just thought I did and forgot to actually do it. “Do you have any rooms?” They do. It’s a miracle what $250 a night and a Hilton Diamond card can do for you.

I get a room, go upstairs, open my computer, and start looking for my reservation. Sure enough, here it is: At the DoubleTree!

I went to the wrong hotel! You know you’re a road warrior when you go to the wrong hotel and never think twice about it.

So I go back down, cancel my stay, and make my way to the DoubleTree at SeaTac. The hotel is somewhat more dated than the Embassy Suites, but when I look out of the 11th floor window from the balcony, I see this:

Mt. Rainier

Mt. Rainier in all its glory.

The mountain looms large in the evening light, some 50 miles away. At 14,411 feet (4,392m) it is one of the highest mountains in the United States outside of Alaska, and just a few hundred feet lower than the famous Matterhorn in Switzerland. Rainier is a majestic mountain.

These are the rewards of a road warrior.

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With all the press we are now getting about the devastating results of the fire at Notre Dame, I have been thinking more about cathedrals and why they inspire us so. More than 10 years ago I wrote a post about the Cologne Cathedral and the awe I have of it – religious building or not – and what the building of a cathedral meant – and today means – to mankind.

Here is that old post about the Cologne Cathedral – der Kölner Dom

If you have any interest in learning more about the building of cathedrals in medieval times, you might want to read Follett’s series of books starting with Pillars of the Earth. It takes you right into the world and the hearts of the people that built these structures.

And I remain in awe.

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…or is it?

Recently I had a layover at Washington, DC’s Ronald Reagan Airport (DCA). Remember, this is the airport of our nation’s capital city. When you land at DCA, try to sit in a window seat on the left side of the plane. Almost all the time, the landing approach is to the south, and you get a wonderful glimpse of the Mall, the Capitol building at the end, the Washington Monument in the front, and the White House to the left, all in plain view, seemingly close enough to reach out and touch. Capital glory at its best.

…until you get off the plane and enter the DCA airport terminal. Quite often, if you land in a small commuter plane, you don’t even get a jet bridge. You walk on rickety metal stairs and ramps, outside, then enter a bus, wait until the entire plane is empty and all the people are in the bus, all the while breathing fumes of jet engines and bus exhaust all around.

The terminals are dilapidated, musty and crowded. The facilities are in want. It feels like you are in a third world county airport. It does not seem like you are in our proud nation’s capital. It is embarrassing.

Take, for example, a modern Asian airport, like Singapore Changi Airport, which has received the title of “World’s Best Airport” for seven years in a row.

This is an example of an airport of a thriving country which does not spend trillions of dollars on overseas wars in all corners of the world. It’s a country that invests in its infrastructure.

Jimmy Carter recently took a call from Donald Trump to talk about China. Carter’s main point reportedly was that China hasn’t spent a single dollar on war in many years. It has built an infrastructure of roads, it has more than half of the entire world’s high-speed train tracks, it has some of the world’s greatest and most modern airports, and it loans the United States money.

We need to rebuild our country’s roads – all of them. We need to fix our crumbling bridges. We need to improve our airport infrastructure.

When I watched the video above about Changi, I could not help but think of the book King Rat by James Clavell. The prison camp the entire story plays in is located near the premises of the Changi airport. Read King Rat, a 4-star book (in my rating) and marvel about the difference 75 years can make, from the bed-bug infested prison camp to the Jewel at Changi airport.

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In early December I visited Detroit and called an old friend (EP). We had not seen each other in many years, and it was time for a visit. As friends dating back to high school are wont to do, it took only a few minutes for us to be back in the groove. He is a professor at a large university, and we have nothing much in common, other than our love for art, writing, philosophy and a general feeling of living lives of joy and integrity. We disagree on religion, and that brings spice to the conversation.

We met at a Chinese “deco” restaurant; the sushi was great, we downed a bottle of Champagne, and before we knew it we might as well have been back in high school, so the discussions went. I got a call from work in the middle of it telling me that a critical public server was down, and the internal stress went through the roof, but I recovered, and I hope I was not too absent-minded after that.

Of course, in the age of smart phones, it was appropriate that we two old dogs took a quick selfie before we said good-bye, for the record, and for evidence that we actually met. Hey, I had forgotten about the visit we both did together to the art museum in Toledo, some 15 years earlier. He reminded me of that.

Here we are, the professor and the software CEO, with a set of titties on a painting between us photobombing the occasion.

We have to get together more often.

Friends. Timeless.

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San Diego on a Clear Day

San Diego [click to zoom]

This a view of San Diego this morning at 9:30am. Downtown is in the center. The San Diego Bay is prominent across the picture, and the Pacific Ocean is on the bottom. The island you see is Coronado, and the “cross” on the left are the two runways of the Navy base. The beaches on the bottom left is where all the Navy SEALs get their training. On the upper side of the island, opposite the city skyline, you can see two moored aircraft carriers.

The airport, from where we came, is on the other side of the bay, to the left of downtown. To the right of downtown you can make out the curve of the famous Coronado bridge connecting the island with the city.

And incredibly, in the very distance, on the horizon on the left side of  the picture you can see the massive Mt. San Gorgonio, at 11,503 feet the highest mountain in Southern California. Read more about it here.  To its right you can see Mt. San Jacinto, the massive peak above Palm Springs. It’s 10,833 feet high. Here is a post about San Jacinto and the famous cactus to clouds (C2C) hike.

These mountains are 120 miles north of San Diego. The air was obviously very clear today.

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It’s the last few days of the year, and the Platinum Marathons are in full swing at American Airlines.

Yesterday, on the way back from Kaua’i to Los Angeles we were in the First Class section, courtesy of upgrades from American Airlines. I am an Executive Platinum frequent flyer, which is the highest tier you can reach. To get there, you have to spend at least $12,000 a year on tickets and fly at least 100,000 miles. Mind you, that’s a lot of traveling and there is no cheating your way there.

You might ask what it’s worth. The difference between “regular” Platinum and Executive Platinum is huge. For instance, as a Platinum member, you get occasional upgrades when there is room – which is not very often. As an Executive Platinum member, I fly First Class without paying for First Class at least 3 out of 4 flights or more. Quite often I am upgraded on an entire trip, like this time to Hawai’i. It makes a huge difference in the overall travel experience.

And that’s where the Platinum Marathons have their origin. Toward the end of the qualifying year, many Executive Platinum members may find themselves short a few miles from the 100,000 and are at risk of losing the status for the next year.

The lady in front of us yesterday was an example. She flew from North Carolina to Kaua’i on Wednesday, checked into the Marriott for the night, spent Thursday at the resort, and boarded the plane back to the mainland at 10:00pm that night. She was in Hawai’i barely 24 hours, but she burned 8,000 miles which was enough to get her over the 100,000 mile threshold. Whew, another year of top tier status achieved!

This is not unusual between Christmas and New Years in the First Class sections of long-distance flights. All the road warriors, or better “air warriors” who are lacking a few miles are just spending time on airplanes, traveling long distances with no destinations in mind, burning miles.

And now all you land-lubbers know a little bit more about the world of the road warriors: Platinum Marathons!

 

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‘Twas the night before Christmas and it rained buckets. The rain came down so hard on our cabin, the roof seemed to vibrate. I drifted in and out of sleep surrounded by the white noise of the rain storm.

In the morning it was clear and we decided to go on a drive to see some waterfalls.

One the way we stopped at a scenic overlook, and the most scenic part of it was the abundance of wild chickens that seemed to converge on any parked car. They must have learned that these creatures in their cruising tin boxes were the bringers of crumbs.

The highland of Kaua’i is lush, green and apparently a paradise for horses.

We stopped so Trisha could scratch the heads of a couple of horses, and they thoroughly enjoyed our attention.

When we got to Wailua Falls they were very swollen and completely brown. Normally those falls are beautiful, white and blue. But the heavy rains had stirred up the waters. The rivers and the waterfalls were all reddish-brown and fierce.

Later, at the ocean at the mouth of the Wailua River, it was an altogether eerie picture. The ocean was deep brown and wild. Driftwood covered all the beaches, and as far as we could see, brown water. The rivers wash the brown earth into the ocean, and the currents push it back to the beaches.

The island of Kaua’i is about 5.1 million years old and in another 5 million years, it will have largely been washed into the sea and become an atoll. Today, I was able to see this process of erosion in action, in front of my eyes. The brown ocean was my witness, as I stood, a bystander only in the eons of time, like dust in the wind, watching the dust in the ocean.

It put me in my place on this very different Christmas Day.

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Christmas Eve in Kaua’i

It’s nice and warm on the island of Kaua’i, except it’s rainy. Great single and double rainbows, though. Merry Christmas!

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Grand Canyon

[click to enlarge]

A beautiful and clear view of a vast section of the Grand Canyon this afternoon from 36,000 feet.

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Guatemala – a Nation Tortured

Touring Guatemala City and Antigua, visiting the sights of the city, traveling around the country, I would not help but feel that the Guatemalan people are beaten by centuries of torture of all possible kinds.

The country is filled with old missions, churches, monasteries and mansions, and not one of them seems intact. Everything old, and much new, is in utter ruin.

I grew up in Germany, the “old country,” in a small and ancient city named Regensburg. Traces of the city were there over 2,000 years ago, before the Romans arrived and built the first fortress there called Castra Regina. Regensburg has 17 churches, many of them hundreds of years old and none of them ruined. I might note that the city was fortunate to not have been the victim of Allied carpet bombing during World War II, and many of its ancient treasures are still preserved. My point is, the city is very old, and all the old stuff is there to see, live in, worship in, and generally enjoy.

The old buildings in Guatemala have all been destroyed, some of them many times over. The country has 37 volcanos, eight of them active today. When we were there, Fuego, the volcano just outside Antigua, which last had erupted in June 2018, was spewing flames and smoke every 10 or 15 minutes.

We just waited a few minutes, and sure enough, there would be a plume (see arrow) and we would be able to photograph it. Then, four days after we left, Fuego erupted again, and thousands more people living on its slopes were evacuated. Volcano eruptions have devastated Antigua and many other cities and villages in Guatemala routinely, consistently and devastatingly. Ash, lava, fire, landslides, mudslides, and flashfloods, all stemming from volcanic activity, have ruined cities, homes and killed thousands of people with brutal regularity.

When it wasn’t a volcano, it was an earthquake. Guatemala experiences frequent and severe earthquakes. Being a Californian myself, I can relate to that, but I have to say that I have never experienced any actual damage from an earthquake. I hope my writing this does not evoke one. In Guatemala, however, buildings are not always constructed based on the same building codes we have in California, and a quake that would make our cupboards shake and rattle in our house, might completely collapse a Guatemalan church or monastery. The last significant earthquake hit Guatemala City on February 4, 1976 at 3:04am. 23,000 people died. Many were crushed in their adobe homes in their sleep.

Extreme poverty and inept leadership then resulted in things not being rebuilt. So you walk around the city and you find it dotted with ruins of buildings, sometimes not even fenced in, where the rocks that fell out of walls decades ago are still on the ground, weeds and bushes growing over them, and trees growing inside the walls of a church were the pews once stood centuries ago.

Then there are hurricanes that have beaten over the ravaged country, coming in from both directions, the Caribbean as well as the Pacific side. Here is a list of many of the hurricanes.

Before the 1500s, when the Spanish had not yet arrived, the Mayans were the people tortured by volcanos, earthquakes and hurricanes. Then came the Spaniards, and in their thirst for Mayan jade and gold, enslaved the people, brought murder, rape, slavery and diseases. The Mayan people were then tortured by volcanos, earthquakes, hurricanes and the invaders and conquerors from Europe. They died by the millions at the hands of the conquistadores and from their diseases.

Then, most recently, came the Gringos and their thirst for drugs. They spawned crime from the drug trade. Cartels took over the desperate villages, where lack of opportunities for the young and hungry caused them to join whatever promised a way to make a few coins to feed their children and provide a semblance of hope.

And all the while, the volcanos and earthquakes never stop.

Guatemala is a tortured nation, and the Guatemalan people are a tortured people. And they deal with it with grace, pride, and smiling faces. I learned a lot about life and happiness during this visit.

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrowmindedness … and many of our people need it solely on these accounts.

— Mark Twain

The Guatemalan people have earned my respect forever.

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[click to enlarge]


After two weeks of miserable conditions, the rains on Wednesday finally cleared up the smoke just in time for the holiday. The city breathes again. Happy Thanksgiving!

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Guatemala – Security

In the week we were in Guatemala, I never once felt at risk or uncomfortable. The people were always friendly and accommodating. Whether I knew it or not, I was probably “protected” as a tourist.

However, check out the picture above. The people in the center are members of our group. See the two men in black on the right side of the building? Those are armed guards.

The picture above is in front of a bank.

Here is a guard at a convenience store at a gas station. He was very friendly and held the door open to any patron that walked up to it.

The guards are also never shy about posing with tourists. There is quite a bit of that going on all the time.

It became quickly obvious that any business of significance required armed guards. Banks usually had two or three heavily armed guards, with full battle uniforms and bullet-proof vests. Hotels, restaurants, gas stations, car dealerships, and many other retail businesses had armed guards. I didn’t count them, but just riding in a shuttle from Guatemala City to Antigua, which is a very industrial stretch, I am sure I saw hundreds of armed guards in front of businesses.

We went to visit a coffee plantation.

The Filadelfia Estate is owned by the family of Robert Dalton. The plantation was started in 1870 and Dalton is the 4th generation owner. It’s a huge farm and I learned a lot about coffee that I never knew. I will not ever look at a coffee bean the same way again. But I digress.

We took a tour of the plantation. At one point, we stopped and the guide explained the harvesting of coffee beans when I looked over and saw a huge wall behind the trees.

The green shrubs in the foreground are coffee plants. The trees are shade trees that are necessary to protect the coffee. The wall is huge, with a chain link fence on top, and razor wire coils above that. At the corner, there is a cluster of video surveillance equipment.


Looking in the other direction, the chain link fence is even higher. You can see the bars in the center of the image. This is on top of the wall.

We were obviously curious what’s behind that wall, so we asked the guide.

“The house of the owner” was the answer.

In the context of security, this is a frightening thought.

The owner of a large coffee plantation is obviously very rich. His house is probably beautiful and opulent, yet, nobody can see it since it’s behind a 20 foot high wall. Not only is it inside a wall, but it’s way in the middle of a plantation which is surrounded by fences, and a massive guard house with armed men protecting it 24 hours a day.

The owner has to basically imprison himself in concentric circles of security to be safe. I cannot imagine living this way. He must be in constant fear of being kidnapped, obviously, why otherwise would he imprison himself and his family.

Hotels in Guatemala are also interesting with regard to security. I wrote about that in another post.

 

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