Category Archives: Travel

China Without a Passport

Want to know how to visit China without a passport? Just do like my wife and me, and head to Grant Avenue, near downtown San Francisco. That’s the heart of Chinatown.

Our Muni bus regurgitated us into a crowd of Asians, like we’d been shanghaied, and sped away on it’s electric cable, leaving us disoriented in the Orient.

The iconic Transamerica Pyramid building towers above nearby Chinatown. At 853 feet, it was the tallest building in San Francisco from 1972 until 2018, when it was surpassed by the 1,070 foot Salesforce Tower.

Chinatown is aptly yclept. It’s abustle with throngs of Chinese immigrants, peppered with a few befuddled, agog, and somewhat frightened tourists. It occupies 24 square blocks of steep boulevards, mysterious alleyways, and hieroglyphic Hanzi characters on storefront signage.

Notice the alley beside this Buddha shop? Chinatown is famous, or perhaps notorious, for its alleys. Here, hidden from street view have been brothels, gambling halls, and other disreputable or low-profile establishments. And a Chinatown alley hosted the secret office of exiled Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, where he raised money to support the Chinese Revolution of 1911.

Most of the denizens of Chinatown are immigrants from Hong Kong or mainland China. They speak little or no English. And they eye foreigners like my wife and me with wariness and animosity. Or so we imagined.

A typical Chinatown street.

If you visit Chinatown, I suggest you learn Cantonese first, or bring along a translator. Mandarin was once the dominant language. But that started to change in the 1960’s, when Cantonese-speaking immigrants began arriving in earnest. But hell, it all sounds Greek to me.

We wandered the streets like lost foreign tourists, eyeing the exotic goods offered at storefronts with a mix of wonder and morbid curiosity. The sidewalks were difficult to navigate, due to the ruck of Asian pedestrians on this Wednesday afternoon. I understand that weekends are even worse.

Red seems to be the favorite color of the Chinese. Red represents good luck, in Chinese culture, and is also thought to scare away evil spirits.

Chinatown is the most densely populated community west of Manhattan, with 54,000 people per square mile (Manhattan has 70,000 per square mile). Many of the immigrants here were professionals of respectable status in China, but have had to settle for low-paying livelihoods in restaurants and garment factories, upon arriving in Chinatown. As a result, they live in impoverished and overcrowded conditions.

I wonder if these red cat souvenirs are meant to scare away evil mice?

I put my wallet in my front pocket, and kept my hand close by. My wife clutched her purse. We chuffed and staggered up and down steep streets, trying to figure out what to do in this byzantine warren of legs, traffic, and loud city noises.

My wife caught my attention and cupped her hand to my ear. “I’m scared!” her voice quivered. “Get me out of here.”

That’s all it took to bring out my knight in shining armor. “Of course, my fair lass, I shall lead you to safety! Just follow me!

“But first, I’m hungry. I want to try some Chinese food.”

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None of the eating establishments looked very palatable for western stomachs, until we passed by a rather large-looking restaurant buried in one of the many, ubiquitous old brick buildings. My wife’s face brightened and appeared relieved. “Hey!” she shouted above the din of traffic, “this place looks big and clean, like they cater to Americans!”

We stepped inside. It was a grand, brightly-lit, high-ceilinged eatery, decorated in traditional Chinese ornamentation. A clean-dressed waitress walked by, pushing a stainless steel cart, and smiled at us. She gestured for us to come in further. Hers was the first friendly face we had encountered in this suspicious community, and it helped us regain our confidence.

We were seated at a large table by a waitress who spoke a bowl of Cantonese with one or two garnishments of English. We had captured one of the last available tables. This large eatery was packed with jabbering diners of eastern dialect. We were the only westerners in the building.

Suddenly a train pulled up beside our table. It was two waitresses pushing and pulling a large stainless steel food incubator. They opened up covers, displaying various Chinese dishes. “You want? You want?” They inquired as they pulled out steaming dishes and proffered them under our noses.

We were flummoxed. We’d never encountered this type of food service before. We were accustomed to menus, indited with English descriptions, and with numerical price tags. You know, where you choose from the menu, and someone writes down your order, as you calculate in your head how much this is going to lighten your wallet. We waved off the waitresses, hoping for a menu option.

They gave us annoyed looks and pulled away. But within seconds a new train pulled up, with new waitresses, and new offerings of exotic meals.

At this point we realized there would be no menus. So we carefully examined each dish. Finally we chose some spicy barbecue pork, and wontons that turned out to be stuffed with ground shrimp.

“Drink?” a new waitress walked up and inquired.

I wasn’t sure how much all of this was going to cost, so I decided to just order water.

“No free wata!” the waitress scolded. And she left in a huff.

Fortunately, complimentary tea was served, and although tea is poison I went ahead and slaked my thirst with the hot leaf juice anyway. And come to think of it, I’ve heard you should never drink the water in China, so perhaps tea was a safe choice for the circumstance.

I could take or leave the wontons, but the pork was heavenly, and I slurped and smacked down as many helpings as my clumsy chopsticks could handle.

As we ate, more food trains pulled up, with multiple offerings of delectables. The waitresses were pushy, and I began to wonder how much they expected us to eat here. Finally I shouted in my best Spanish, “No mas! No mas!” Spanish is the foreign language I’m most familiar with, so this was the best I could do for communication. But I think my angry look got the message across, and the food trains ceased.

I quaked in my hiking boots as we approached the cashier. The check was written in Hanzi characters, so we had no idea what this would cost. Were they going to try to soak us for $100? $500? $1,000? Would we be thrown into a Chinese prison if we refused to pay an exorbitant tab, and then have to contact the American Consulate?

It came to about $23. We threw in a $4 tip and then got the hell out of there.

We finally found a Muni and got on board. Within minutes the bus transported us back to America and dropped us off near our hotel.

We were back home safe, in our motherland. And we did not have to pass through Customs, or show anyone our passports. Which kind of surprised us. The contrast between Chinatown and the rest of San Francisco is very stark.

And as for China itself, we have both concluded that it’s a country we never have to visit. Because we’ve already been there.

We’ve been to Chinatown.

Leaving on a Road Trip

The Winchester House in San Jose, California, was one of our first stops. This 161 room mansion was the home of Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester gun fortune. With all those rooms, she could have expanded to a hotel chain.

It’s 4:00 am, and we’re up and moving, looking forward to our next road trip and a cure for cabin fever. I pull the car up close to the front door and start loading luggage.

If a man knows what’s best for him, he will put the woman’s luggage in the car first, before he tries to find room for his own.

The Golden Gate Bridge, and San Francisco behind it.

My wife belts out an order: “Take the black bag!”

She means the multi-colored bag with the black handle. I don’t know this, so I stand in front of it looking stupid, trying to find the black bag. “Oh, I’ll get it myself!” she huffs impatiently, and snatches the bag and puts it by the front door for me to carry the rest of the way.

Five of the 21 California missions are in the San Francisco bay area. We pilgrimed to all five. Poppies bloom beside the northernmost mission, in Sonoma.

Our pack of dogs follows her every movement, as she frantically darts about the house looking for this and that to take on the trip. She screeches, “Move you fucking dummies or I will kill you!” She doesn’t mean a word of it, and the dogs know that. They continue to mosey and mill about her feet.

Sea lions at Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39, in San Francisco. Their playful ways reminded us of our dogs at home.

The dogs are aware that something is up. They’ve watched our madcap routine before. They know we’re abandoning them. They’re casting forlorn looks at us. We avoid their eye contact.

A meat market in Chinatown, San Francisco. For some reason, this too reminded us of our dogs at home.

I was hoping we could leave by 4:45. But no, she hasn’t poured her coffee yet. Coffee. That poisonous impedimenta that slows us down like leg irons, everywhere we go.

Time to leave the motel? No, wait, not until she walks to the lobby, pours one last cup of joe, and admixes the precise blend of cream and sugar to make it just right. Time to leave the restaurant? Nope. Not until she gets a cup of coffee to go, again carefully mixing in the perfect blend of condiments. Time to get out of the car and walk to the tourist attraction? Uh-uh. Not until she grabs her styrofoam tumbler of java, locates the ice chest, and creates a cup of iced coffee.

Lombard Street, in San Francisco. This is putatively the crookedest street in the world. So I guess a lot of politicians live here.

Ice. Coffee. And tea, also. Banes of my existence. I don’t use ice in my drinks, and I don’t drink coffee or tea. But she does. And it throws quicksand in our path to vacationland.

The north fork of the American River, near Auburn, California. Gold was first discovered on the south fork, sparking the 49er gold rush. It would have been discovered on the north fork first, but the prospector there had to brew a cup of coffee, and missed his chance.

At 4:55 am we finally drive off, feeling electric with excitement. Her electricity supercharges her mouth, and she starts yacking and yacking and yacking, while my ears sink lower and lower and lower, until they drop off my skull. But that’s okay, after just 300 miles of this she finally tires and nods off.

We ventured over the Sierras between snowstorms, and caught this wintry view of Lake Tahoe.

We see many sights on this trip, some of which I’ll be blogging about. And we make just as many memories. We laugh, we grouse, and we’re awestruck by all the new, unique things we encounter.

Mono Lake, and the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Los Angeles has a 350 mile-long straw, which it uses to suck up the snowmelt that would normally flow into this lake. It’s caused ecological catastrophe, and has been a source of controversy since 1941.

Finally, after a long, circuitous route through northern and southern California, and a few bits and pieces of Nevada, we drive home. We’re looking forward to familiar territory, our cabin fever cured. The dogs yap at the door, and paw us with happy feet as we step over the threshold.

13,754 foot Mt. Morgan, in the Sierra Nevada, overlooking Bishop, California.

This was how my last vacation went, and basically how they all go. It isn’t easy traveling with someone whose habits are different from mine. But I adjust to her, and she adjusts to me. And this makes it a whole lot better than traveling alone.

Because it wouldn’t be a vacation without her.

We spiced things up a bit, by going from 40 degree temperatures one day, to the 80’s the next, with this side trip through Death Valley.

A Nice Place to Visit

I couldn’t blog last week. They don’t let you blog inside a correctional institution. And besides, you can’t get an internet connection in prison.

What prisoners saw, shortly before docking at their new home. The large building at dock level is the barracks that housed the guards. There was one guard for every three prisoners at this supermax facility. The cellhouse is at the top of the hill, with the warden’s house to the left, near the lighthouse.

My wife and I went to San Francisco, and toured the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. This prison was closed in 1963, by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. It was taken over by the National Park Service in 1972 and reopened, this time for tourism. Today, about 5,600 tourists visit Alcatraz Island every day, making it the most popular landmark in the United States, and the seventh-most popular landmark in the world. It just beats out the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro.

We inmates, er, tourists, stood out on the dock in a cold, San Francisco wind, to be briefed by the warden, er, park ranger, on how to conduct ourselves during our stay.

Alcatraz has a lot of history. It began as a military prison in the 1850’s, then was converted to civilian inmates in 1933. It has housed the baddest of the bad, including Al Capone, Whitey Bulger, and Clint Eastwood. Clint Eastwood escaped from Alcatraz in 1962, which embarrassed the hell out of RFK, and so that’s why he shut it down. Or so I think I learned from a movie, way back when.

Here, we all had to strip down and take a shower, after receiving the one-fingered wave.

But in my view the most famous inmate was #1259. These days he’s referred to as William G. Baker, and he’s one of the only two former inmates of Alcatraz still alive. Baker wrote a fantastic book about his time there, as a guest of the federal government, which I recently had the pleasure to peruse. Maybe I’ll write a review, after I get caught up on all the crap I came home to after getting out of the hoosegow.

Typical 9’ X 5’ cells. Alcatraz inmates never had cellmates, so they got to enjoy their palatial 45 square feet all to themselves.

We opted for the Early Bird Special tour, through Alcatraz Cruises, which is the only tour company that takes tourists to the island. The cost was a little less than $50 each for my wife and me. The Early Bird Special has the first tour boat of the day to reach the island, and it departs at 8:45 am.

The idea behind leaving this early was to beat all the crowds. Well, the boat was jam-packed with sardines, er, inmates, er, tourists, who debouched and populated the island in such massive, invasive numbers that the idea of “beating the crowd” was laughable. We should have known, though. I mean, there have been many campaigns that have addressed this issue, but so far no one has been able to solve the problem of prison overcrowding.

The upper two tiers of several cell blocks.

A long, sloped, switchback walkway takes you from the dock, up 13 stories, to the cellhouse on the hill. My wife couldn’t handle such an incline, due to her arthritis acting up in the cold, damp, San Francisco weather, so we rode a free tram that’s provided for weaklings such as us.

The prison yard. Prisoners were allowed outside to use this yard on weekends and holidays only. Unless it rained, which occurs fairly often in San Francisco.

The tour is an audio tour. Intake occurs at the cellhouse, where each new inmate, er, tourist, is processed. You are fitted with a control box on a loop that they hang around your neck. Until dead. But if you survive this, you put on headphones that are attached to the control box. Then you hit the play button on the box and hear the voice of someone who I guess is the warden. He orders you about, telling you where to walk, where to stop and stand, what to look at, and all the while filling you in on the history of this joint.

My wife and I failed to hit our play buttons simultaneously. So she and I were out of sync for awhile, she going in one direction, and me going in another, while occasionally bumping into each other. Fortunately there’s a pause button, where you can shut the warden up for a little bit. And this enabled us to synchronize.

The Golden Gate Bridge, through barbed wire leading to the prison yard. The top rows of bleachers in the prison yard allowed inmates to view the Golden Gate and the San Francisco skyline. It was a popular spot for artistic inmates, who painted “freedom”, as William Baker noted in his book.

Now and then my wife would nudge me and say, “Ooh, take a picture of this.” Whereupon I would have to disentangle my camera, which was hanging from my neck, from my camera bag, which was also hanging from my neck, and from the control box and headphones, which, too, were hanging from my neck. I was like a leashed dog that gets wrapped tighter and tighter around a pole.

Finally I dropped a few F-bombs, to the astonishment of some fellow inmates, er, tourists, nearby. I smacked the warden in the pause button, and got out of sync with my better half. Then I methodically removed all the impedimenta from my neck, untangled the cords and straps, then returned them in an orderly fashion.

The warden’s house, now in ruins. Alcatraz Island was occupied by Native Americans from 1969 to 1971, who were protesting federal policies toward American Indians. During the occupation several structures were destroyed by fire, although nobody admitted who, exactly, set those fires.

But the tour was very informative and fun, in spite of all the formidable logistics with cords and cameras and pause and play buttons. We learned about famous Alcatraz prisoners, such as The Birdman, George “Machine Gun Kelly”, and Clint Eastwood. We learned about the Battle of Alcatraz, which was a blaze of glory escape attempt in 1946, that cost the lives of three prisoners and two guards. And we saw the very cells, with the selfsame holes, dug by Clint Eastwood and his gang, when they escaped from Alcatraz in 1962.

Clint Eastwood played Frank Morris, in the 1979 thriller, Escape From Alcatraz. Morris, and brothers Clarence Anglin and John Anglin, fashioned lifelike images of their heads, which fooled the guards and gave them time to escape. They passed through vent holes they had widened, climbed up pipes to the roof, made it to shore, then floated away to who-knows-where, in a makeshift raft. Several military prisoners had successfully escaped this prison, but this is the only known possibly successful escape by civilians.

Imagine if Clint had been unsuccessful. We’d still have old Rawhide reruns, but we wouldn’t have such great flicks as, Fistful of Dollars, Dirty Harry, and yes, Escape From Alcatraz.

Boats depart the island about every half hour. You can stay in prison all day, if you want, and catch the evening transit back to the mainland. But my wife and I got stir crazy. Immediately after the tour, we applied for parole. We rode the tram back down to the dock and grabbed the first departing vessel.

Alcatraz is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there.

The Alcatraz water tower, with a welcoming message left over from the Native American occupation.

The Arm of Cape Cod

The Pilgrim Monument, in Provincetown, Massachusetts. At 252 feet, this is the tallest all-granite structure in America. It was completed in 1910, and commemorates the pilgrims’ first landing. Yes, the pilgrims first landed at the tip of Cape Cod, in 1620. But they couldn’t find any unicorns, so they got back on the Mayflower and headed for Plymouth, where unicorns thrived in abundance.

My damned unicorns have forsaken me. They don’t come out to play anymore. They’ve all run off. Headed for the hills. And no matter how much I chase them, I can’t run fast enough to catch the bastards.

That’s because I’ve been in a lot of pain lately, and unicorns hate pain.

Pain makes my brain as murky as a Cape Cod fog.

Pain is sameness, and sameness is the opposite of a unique experience. My pain happens to be physical. I have one bad neck and two bad shoulders, which have given me a lot of trouble over the past five or so years.

I woke up about three weeks ago with a neck as stiff as a zombie’s. And a Great White Shark was chomping down on my neck. And, goddamnit, there was a sadistic carpenter driving a large nail through my left shoulder and arm.

Great White Sharks use Cape Cod as a tourist destination. They’re attracted by the fine food, that is often garnished with surfboards, bikini tops, and other decorative plate arrangements.

This pain has not relented, and has no end in sight. And that’s why my unicorns have run off.

Where or where did my unicorns go?

It’s the sameness that drives my unicorns away. The same unrelenting shark bite and piercing nail, over and over again. They distract my mind. They keep my mind on the sameness, and away from new, different, unique experiences. It’s the same, same, same, pain, pain, pain.

So for me these days, there is no such thing as a unicorn. I can’t have any fun. Nor can I be any fun.

Provincetown, Massachusetts at the end of the clouds, from the shores of North Truro, on Cape Cod. Provincetown is where all the tourists go for fun, so maybe that’s where my unicorns went.

But that’s not going to stop me from trying. My pain-crazed brain has come up with an idea. I’d like to propose the world’s first geophysical transplant. I think I need a new shoulder and arm, and I have just the shoulder and arm in mind:

The arm of Cape Cod from outer space.

Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

I know it sounds crazy, but check it out on a map. You’ll see that Cape Cod is shaped just like a person’s brachial appendage.

My wife and I visited Cape Cod a few months ago, and we had a memorable time. I remember a cool breeze blowing across the dunes of the Cape, at Cape Cod National Seashore. That cool breeze would feel so refreshing right now, curving over my burning shoulder.

A cool breeze was stirring up this large, American flag. I wish I had bottled that breeze up and taken it home.

The surf also felt cool. I can imagine right now pouring that sparkling Atlantic water, like soothing unguent oil, deep into the dried out bursa sacs of my shoulder joint.

The cool, clear surf of Cape Cod.

I remember the wet sand of the beach squeezing between toes, gently massaging bare feet. I’d like to press that same wet sand between the glenohumeral joints of my shoulder, and feel it snuff out the fiery coals, and smoothen and slicken the rough, bone-spurred surfaces.

This Unicorn Bird is enjoying a cool foot massage as it wades through the wet sands of Cape Cod.

And I recall that the weather was overcast, giving the water and sky the same color. It conveyed a continuum. A sense of harmony and peace. A blending in with the universe. An infinite vista of surrender to serenity.

Shoes against the horizon.

My favorite memory was when we lounged upon the beach of Cape Cod that lazy, overcast afternoon. We gazed sleepily at the invisible horizon, and allowed our thoughts and cares to surcease and dissolve into the peace this peninsular arm offered.

Race Point Lighthouse, built in 1876, at the entrance to Cape Cod Bay. This is where seagulls congregate for peaceful communion and meditative reflection.

This is the sort of arm I want right now, if it was somehow possible to perform a geophysical transplant.

For it’s the only kind of arm that can catch a unicorn.

A grounds-eye view of birds, and the bending arm of Cape Cod.

Agiocochook

The drive up Mount Washington offers several viewpoints where you can pull over and watch clouds play peekaboo with mountaintops.

My wife and I have embraced the tourism industry, in our retirement. So in honor of this industry we decided to visit Mount Washington, in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. In 1852, Mount Washington became one of our nation’s first tourist attractions, with the construction of a stone hotel at its peak, called the Summit House.

We enjoyed this spectacular view of New England, at the top of Mount Washington, through a small break in the clouds.

This just proves how inexperienced and ignorant we Americans were back then, at vacationing and sightseeing. Mount Washington bills itself as “Home of the World’s Worst Weather.” It’s the highest peak in the Northeastern United States, at 6,288 feet. And as you may guess, it’s pretty cold and windy up there.

There’s a big weather station at the top of the Mount, with all kinds of large, mysterious meteorological instruments. I think the big white drums are used for alerting New Englanders of coming Nor’easters.

In 1934, the Mount Washington Observatory weather station recorded a world record surface wind speed of 234 miles per hour. Hurricane-force wind gusts occur on the summit on average of 110 days per year. It warms to 60 degrees Fahrenheit (F) or more on only 13 to 14 days of the year, with its highest recorded temperature hiccuping to just 72F. It’s official record low is -50F, occurring in 1885, but it’s lowest recorded wind chill is -102F, occurring in 2004. Mount Washington’s average daily mean temperature is just 27F, and it receives 97 inches of precipitation per year (including over 28 feet of snow).

Why in hell would any tourists want to go to this place?

Because we’re stupid.

I think this tall, towering structure is used for measuring snowfall depth. Or perhaps it’s used by the resident meteorologists as an escape rocket when the weather turns super bad.

The Native Americans weren’t so dumb. They named it Agiocochook, which means “the place of the Great Spirit.” Out of deference to the Great Spirit, they made it against their religion to climb the mountain. Or maybe this was really out of deference to intelligence, and an aversion to freezing to death.

No, these stone cairns aren’t little monuments to the Great Spirit. I suspect they mark various spots where tourists have perished from exposure.

But then along came a colonist, in 1642, named Darby Field. He convinced the local tribe that the white man was not subject to their god and asked permission to climb Agiocochook. I imagine they looked at each other astonished, then shrugged their shoulders and said, “Tourists. Go figure.”

They gave permission and Darby Field successfully ascended this peak. And he managed to keep from being transformed into a block of ice by the Great Spirit. But for the next 200 years it was largely left alone by the wise inhabitants of New England.

This building on Mount Washington has been secured with chains, to prevent it from blowing away.

And then someone got the bright idea that they could attract tourists.

The Summit House came first, in 1852, and then two years later the Tip-Top House was built as competition. And tourists from thousands of miles away flocked to these facilities, not knowing, I guess, that more comfortable destinations could be had at places like Florida, California, or Hawaii.

The Tip-Top House, built in 1854. Instead of being secured with chains, this old hotel has been anchored in place with granite boulders.

Entrepreneurs must have realized that if tourists could be attracted to a freezing hell such as Mount Washington, then why not to anywhere else? And thus America’s tourism industry took off and boomed.

A cog railroad was built in 1869, for tourists who felt sorry for any horses that might have to travel to this harsh environment. It is still in operation today.

My wife and I were the latest in a long string of idiots to tour Mount Washington. It’s a privately owned attraction. It cost $40 to enter, and required about 20 minutes of hair-raising driving time to reach the summit.

We spent about an hour or so at the top, admiring the views and touring the old buildings, including the Tip-Top House. Fortunately, the temperature was a mild 48F and the Great Spirit was only blowing about 30 mph. Beautiful weather for September.

There are no guardrails on the road to the top. This is actually a safety feature, as it gives motorists an incentive to drive slowly and carefully.

The descent was more frightening than the ascent, as evidenced by the dent my wife put in the floorboard, with her foot. When we reached the bottom I stopped and opened the window, and caught the whiff of smoldering brake pads. We parked the car and waited a few minutes for the wheels to cool off, and then it was off to saner, more intelligent tourist destinations in the north of New England.

If you tour Mount Washington, eat a bowl of Boston Baked Beans first. You’ll need a good windbreaker.

By the way, if this post has inspired you to visit Agiocochook, this weekend’s forecast calls for highs in the 30s, with the Great Spirit blowing from the Northwest at 70 mph, a wind chill below zero, and an 80% chance of snow.

An Exciting Flight to Boston

Our plane pulled out from the gate, beginning our five-and-a-half hour flight from Los Angeles to Boston. It’s always a relief when a plane pulls away on time. It means no delays. It means we’re gonna get there when we planned to get there. It means just settle back, relax, and enjoy the view from 32,000 feet.

But when we were no more than 10 feet off the ground the right engine failed. Yep, that’s right. Suddenly no right engine. Sound scary? I hope so, because I’m trying to make this flight sound exciting.

Actually it was just our asses that were 10 feet off the ground. That’s about as high as these jumbo jets sit, from ground to belly, above the landing gear.

The plane had been pushed backward away from the gate and onto the tarmac by the little white truck that does the plane-pushing job. Then the pilot tried to start the engines to get us onto the runway. After about 10 minutes the plane was pushed right back to the gate.

“Aw shit,” I thought.

The pilot got on the PA. “Ladies and gentlemen, that was a short flight, ha-ha. I couldn’t get the goddamned right engine to start. I’m callin’ a mechanic, so just hold tight for a few minutes and we’ll get this bird movin’ again.”

My wife and I held tight. What the hell else could we do? We were prisoners inside a motionless fuselage. But we were philosophical. Sitting trapped on the ground sure beat having our bodies scattered over the landscape in a horrific airplane crash.

A few minutes passed. Then another few. Then a half hour. A sense of anxiety and claustrophobia was becoming palpable when the pilot got on and announced, “Gotta mechanic comin’. Finally, for Chrissake. He’ll be here shortly. Just hold tight.”

15 minutes later a new announcement: “The mechanic just reset all the damned inputs. Now he’s gettin’ to work on the engine. We’ll know something shortly.”

But not long after that came bad news. “The fuckin’ engine wouldn’t start after all that. Now they gotta change the goddamned module. I’m tellin’ ya, I don’t know when we’re leaving this godforsaken airport.”

About an hour-and-a-half after we boarded this A321 came both welcome and dreaded news. “Ladies and gentlemen, fuck me to tears. We’re gonna have to deplane and wait in the terminal for our shitty wrench-turners to finish repairing this bucket of bolts. But hopefully we’ll get your asses to Boston by the end of the day. Or at least by the end of the calendar year.”

This was welcome news because at least we would be allowed out of the confines of our tubular prison and into the more open space of the terminal, where we could stretch our legs, get something to eat, and use the restroom.

But it was also dreaded news. It seemed the big “C” was coming soon. Cancellation. And perhaps the end of our vacation before it could even begin.

Periodic messages dribbled down upon us from airline staff, as we patiently waited in the terminal, updating us on the progress of the mechanics. Such as:

“We sure as hell don’t know when this goddamned flight will depart, but we’ll keep you updated with all of our latest factoids and fuckups.”

“The stupid-ass mechanics failed again. Now they have to replace another motherfucking module.”

“You may have noticed that the plane is rolling away. Yeah, goodbye stupid plane! The stooges we employ for mechanics decided they have to take it to the hangar, so they can screw around with the engine big time.”

A rack of snacks was rolled into the waiting area, accompanied by this announcement: “Ladies and gentlemen, food makes everything right. So help yourself, you mindless trained seals, and grab a snack off the rack.”

And we did, descending upon the startled food rack like ravening locusts. A crowd of pissed-off passengers stuffed pockets and purses with bags of chips, cookies, and lukewarm sandwiches. We all grabbed much more than we needed to sate our hunger. We grabbed compensation. Recompense for a delayed day. Revanche, arrogated in crinkly containers, plucked from that food rack until it was clean to its bare metal bones.

More and more food racks were wheeled in to replace the empties, until we finally gave up on protesting through feasting. With faces full of crumbs, and stomachs, pockets, and purses bulging, we belched, rolled back in our seats, and surrendered to an onslaught of more merciless messages.

A few hours later came this augury:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re really gonna fuck with you now. We’ve moved you from Gate 47 to Gate 9,253. So y’all get off yer fat asses and head down there. Pronto!”

We dutifully grabbed our bags and waddled to our new, distant gate, which might as well have been in Boston itself. And then we waited for more announcements. Finally one came.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the Boston flight. Hallelujah! After a thorough search of our fleet, we finally found a replacement plane. We gave up on that other fucking death trap. Now listen to this ingenious goddamned plan. A plane’s gonna pull up to this here gate. Every peckerhead on board is getting off. Then we’re gonna clean all the shit out of it and allow you to get on board. And then we’ll flap our merry wings and haul your sorry asses to Beantown.”

Finally, six hours after we boarded the first plane, we staggered onto the second. It jetted off into the big blue void without incident. And late in the evening of a very long day, American Airlines delivered us safely to Boston, Massachusetts.

Disclaimer: The staff of American Airlines was actually very professional and polite in their announcements and treatment of us pathetic passengers. If anything in this post indicates otherwise, it might merely be subconscious slippages from my mind, that unintentionally interjected themselves into my writing, betraying my emotional state at the time.

At last, our plane got us higher than ten feet above the ground.

How to Breeze Through a Carnival Cruise

The Carnival Breeze cruise ship, moored to the dock at Mahogany Bay, Roatan, Honduras.


“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” said the warden to Luke Skywalker. Or was that Cool Hand Luke? If you’re confused, so was I, on the Carnival Cruise ship Breeze. My wife and I recently sailed aboard this ship, while on a Caribbean cruise that began in Galveston, Texas.

I’m going to tell you what you need to know, that the cruise line and ship’s crew failed to communicate, so your ride on this vessel might go a little more smoothly than ours.

The byzantine layout of this ship can be mystifying. You have to explore on your own, and pry information from the ship’s crew and passengers, to figure it all out.

First, take a winter jacket. They refrigerate the hell out of the ship, with their ubiquitous air conditioning. My wife and I expected balmy Caribbean conditions, but our indoor experience felt much more like a gelid cruise to Alaska. And even with the thermostat in our cabin cranked all the way up to a volcanic setting, cool air still poured out of the ceiling vent.

Fortunately we had a balcony stateroom, so when we hit warmer waters we were able to prop open the balcony door and allow some blessed tropical heat enter our icebox. Er, I mean cabin. It felt nice to defrost.

Passengers defrosting on an aft deck.

There were no lights in our quarters when we first moved in. My wife complained to a steward, and he said he’d look into it. A few hours later, as the tenebrous fingers of twilight were creeping in, I desperately asked another passenger if he had lights in his cabin. Yes, he claimed, to my surprise. Then he explained that you have to insert your Sail and Sign card in a slot by the door to make the lights work. I felt a little sheepish, and wished I was as smart as him, to have figured that out.

Anyways, our cruise was finally starting to feel a little pleasant, as we no longer had to pee on the floor of our dark bathroom.

A Sail and Sign card, by the way, is a little plastic credit card like thing that you are issued when you board a Carnival ship. It allows you to buy stuff and have it put on your account, to be settled after the cruise ends. And you must have it in your possession to get off the ship and back on. And it also admits you into your cabin, much like a motel room key.

Problem is, you must leave this very important card in the slot by the door, to make the lights turn on and stay on. If you happen to leave your cabin and forget to take your card with you, you’ll be locked out. So you must spend your entire cruise worrying about this possibility.

But there’s a loophole. About two days before our cruise ended, we discovered that we could fold over a piece of paper and stick it into the slot, and that kept the lights on. What chumps we were for all that angst over forgetting the Sail and Sign card. We felt annoyed with ourselves, but also gloated and delighted in the sneakiness of bypassing Carnival’s diabolical energy-saving scheme.

Our balcony, plus a couple of other cruise ships, anchored off Belize City, Belize. We discovered that many other cruise ships were visiting the same tourist traps as us, at the same time. Translation: Large crowds ashore.

If you want to protect yourself from hearing loss, avoid the Lido Deck (Deck 10). There they blast music so loud, you can receive a free ear piercing. But the Lido Deck is also where they serve food, in a smorgasbord-like setting. So if you like smorgasbords, pack a pair of earplugs.

And men, if you prefer to be served by waiters, pack a pair of long pants. Dinner is served at the Sapphire Restaurant on Deck 3, every evening beginning at 5:45 pm. Most nights, casual attire is allowed. But on two of the cruise nights you are required to wear formal attire for what they call Elegant Dining. That means long pants. They don’t seem to give a damn what kind of shirt you wear, as long as it isn’t a tank top. But they won’t let you in if you’re wearing shorts.

This Elegant Dining crap really gets under my skin. I’m on vacation and going for a cruise to the Caribbean, goddamnit, so why can’t I just wear shorts and relax the whole time? Two reasons. First, as I mentioned above, they refrigerate the hell out of the ship, and that includes dining areas. So you might want to dine in long pants every night, and also huddle in a heavy parka wrapped over your Hawaiian shirt.

I found some lifesaving peace on this cruise, and spent quiet moments admiring beautiful sights.

The second reason has to do with the fashion police. Some folks on cruises have a thing about clothing. I suspect that dressing up is some sort of competitive sport for them, and they want to compete against as many participants as possible; even if they have to force those who just want to relax and be casual, to participate in this sick competition.

Well, I showed those snobs a thing or two. Yes, I did bring along a pair of long pants, and yes I did wear them during the goddamned fucking Elegant Dining nights. But while eating and engaging in table talk, I employed words such as “ain’t”, “y’all”, and “shaddup”, while deploying my thickest redneck accent. In this manner I demonstrated that while this rebel could be forced to be elegant, I could not be compelled to be eloquent.

By the way, to find the Sapphire Restaurant, go to the fore elevator, and ride it to Deck 3. Don’t take the mid elevator. That’s a trap they don’t tell you about. You can’t get into the restaurant from there, and have to brave crowded elevators to get back to a different deck and walk to the fore of the ship.

Learn the elevators. They have their ups and downs. There are three sets of elevators, at the fore, mid, and aft areas of the ship.

Breakfast is served at the Blush Restaurant, Deck 3, near the aft elevator. Elegant Dining never occurs at the Blush, thank God. (I wonder if that’s why they named it Blush?)

Plan your shore excursions before you cruise. Just get on Carnival’s website, and you’ll find descriptions for all the excursions available, and that should help you choose. Excursions are important. After all, why would you sail a thousand miles to a foreign port to just stay on the ship, or browse through the souvenir shops on shore? If you really want to see something, you must book an excursion.

We waited until the second day of the cruise to actually book our excursions. We knew what we wanted way before the cruise began, but we worried that we might have to cancel our cruise, and then lose our money from booking excursions too early. The tickets are nonrefundable, you see. But because we waited, some of the excursions we wanted had already been taken. So we were left with alternate, mediocre choices, for some of the tours we went on.

Don’t let that happen to you. Book on the first day of cruising. You can book your excursions at the Carnival Adventures desk, near the fore elevator, on Deck 3.

Mahogany Bay, Roatan, Honduras. If you want to see more than this at the exotic foreign ports you visit, I advise that you book an excursion.

The night before an excursion, buy some water at the Plaza Cafe, on Deck 5. It only costs $1.44 for a one-liter bottle. If you don’t take this precious chemical with you, in the tropical heat, you may find yourself humming a certain Sons of the Pioneers tune the entire day. (Can you name that tune?)

Do you get seasick easy? Then reserve a cabin that’s situated in the middle of the ship. That’s where the least amount of pitching and rolling motion is felt. Vacations are always more enjoyable when you find a way to minimize the vomiting.

Do you have ochlophobia, like me? That’s a fear of large crowds. If so, you might want to reconsider going on a cruise. The Carnival Breeze is very populated, accommodating over 3,000 passengers. You may often find yourself being herded around with other passengers, like a parade of elephants.

I say elephants, and not cattle, because I noticed that most of the passengers are overweight. I suspect that the appeal for many people to cruising is the “all-you-can-eat” dining feature. Fatsos are in food heaven, on a Carnival cruise ship. And their sheer numbers and individual sizes can make it challenging to navigate down narrow aisles, or stand in elevators. You sometimes must contort your body in weird positions, to avoid contact with big bellies.

I think that’s also why they keep the air-conditioning cranked up. Fatsos can’t tolerate any amount of heat. They must always have cold air blowing over them to cool their adipose-insulated bodies, and they howl like tormented souls in hell whenever a hypothermic skinny person inches the thermostat up.

I remained in my cabin as much as possible, due to my ectomorphic frame, ochlophobia, and misanthropic nature. Several times I relied upon room service for a Reuben or BLT sandwich, to avoid cold, crowded dining areas.

This is the casino. Photo was taken around 6:00 am, when most of the passengers were snoozing like beached whales. I did very well at this casino. That’s because I do not gamble.

At the end of the cruise you will receive printed and oral information concerning Carnival’s highly organized, well-thought-out-plan to disembark its 3,000 passengers from the ship in a safe and sane manner. This orderly plan involves disembarking manageable groups of people, one-by-one, by assigned zone, and by deck. You will be warned repeatedly over loudspeakers to follow the plan.

We’ve learned to ignore the warnings. We suspect it’s just Carnival’s way of paying lip-service to maritime safety regulations.

We do like it seems everyone else does, and stampede for the elevators. The crew doesn’t seem to actually care about, or enforce its complex disembarkation procedure. Hell, they want you off the ship more than you want to get off of it, so they can make room for a fresh new load of elephants.

We’ve learned that the sooner we start running for the exits, the sooner we get off the boat before the rest of the stampede, and the less time we have to wait in line at Customs. Believe me, those Customs lines can be murderously long. So take my word for it. Run like everyone else runs! Beat the crowds and get the hell out of there, quick!

Galveston Bay, with the full moon setting, on the last day of our cruise. True to this astrological sign, it was lunacy getting off the ship.

And finally you’ll be heading home. Perhaps in your very own car. An uncrowded car, where you can breathe easily. A comfortable car that will leave you wondering if you could have had more fun on a road trip, rather than a cruise. A responsive car where you have control over everything except the price of gas.

And a car where you can finally remove your parka. Because you also control the air-conditioning.

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