Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Travel: Memories of Abu Dhabi, UAE

© 2014 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

It was November, and I hadn't flown in 10 whole days! Having nothing better to do, I thought I'd hop on over to the Middle East where the temperature was a bit warmer. Now this wasn't an impulsive decision; in fact, it had been planned for more than 12 months. As chair of an international committee, each November, I'm required to attend the annual plenary of the parent committee, and this year our host was Abu Dhabi, one of the two best-known of the seven United Arab Emirates (simply UAE or, to the locals, دولة الإمارات العربية المتحدة), the other being neighboring Dubai. After 35 years and 1.8 million air miles of international travel, it would be a new country for me as well as a new airline. The weather forecast for my visit was at least high 70's F during the day and mid-50's during the night, something I was sure I could live with now that back home was headed towards some serious cold.

Before I get into the details of my trip, here's some basic information about the UAE. Abu Dhabi is the capital. The time is GMT+4 (nine hours ahead of my home), and the currency is the UAE dirham (AED), one of which is made up of 100 fils. (Interestingly, before independence, they used the Indian rupee.) Although it's a former British territory, they drive on the right (while tailgating at high-speed, I found). The vast majority of the population is made up of guest workers, mostly from a variety of Asian countries.

[Diary] Ordinarily when I have an "International Travel Day", most of the day is given over to that; however, this flight didn't depart until 10 pm, so I had the whole day to fill. Knowing the trip would be grueling, I took it easy working on household chores and business administration before settling down to work on an essay for a future blog. It's always a challenge to finish off all the perishable food before leaving for an extended stay. As I've written before, on the last day before departure, not everything in the fridge looks good in an omelet!

I left home around 2 pm in cool sunshine, and drove to my old area, Reston, where I had a number of meetings around various volunteer and business activities. One task was to make sure the new bank cash-machine card I'd received in the mail that day worked properly, as I'd need it the next day. At 7:30 pm, my trusty Nepalese taxi driver arrived to take me to Washington Dulles Airport (IAD). It was cool, but pleasant out, and we chatted along the way.

Most domestic and international flights had departed, so the airport was quiet. Although there was a line at the Etihad Airlines desk, that moved steadily and soon I was checked in by a very friendly young woman. Next to me, the crew was also checking in. The cockpit crew of four were all white males, while the cabin crew were all females, but from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. (The one who eventually sat in the jump seat opposite me in flight was from Bombay, India.) The women were very neatly dressed in uniforms, and most wore a white scarf around their necks, one end of which was tucked up under their mini-pillbox hats. It was my first time flying that airline, which is based in Abu Dhabi. [Dubai is home to Emirates Airlines, and the two compete quite actively.] The line at security was non-existent.

My flight was departing from Terminal A, a place I'd rarely visited except to take short-haul commuter flights. As that terminal was reachable by an underground walkway, and I had plenty of time, I decided to walk rather than take the train. Besides, I'd be sitting on a plane for 13 hours, so some exercise in advance would be a good idea. It turns out that the terminal also handles some long-haul carriers, and when I arrived and looked at the flights departing during the next two hours, I saw the following destinations listed: Abu Dhabi; Doha, Qatar; Dubai; Istanbul, Turkey; Kuwait; London, England; Munich, Germany; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and Toronto, Canada.

Flight EY130 boarded on time and I took up residence in Seat 24A. The bad news was I was flying Economy Class. (Ordinarily, Business Class costs about four times that, but for this trip, the cost was about seven times, which is why I declined to upgrade.) The good news was I'd paid $120 extra each way for an exit seat with loads of legroom and the ability to get in/out of my seat without disturbing my neighbor. I'd also brought my own pillow.

The Airbus A340-500 took off to the north and we headed up to the Atlantic provinces of Canada. We were at least 30 minutes late departing. As you might expect, all announcements were in Arabic and English, as was the text in the in-flight magazine and the audio/video system. Arabic is written right-to-left, top-to-bottom, and the characters on each line seem to run together. (If I understand correctly, there are characters for consonants only, with vowels expressed via some special marks. Also, they write numbers left-to-right, in the middle of right-to-left text!) In the hour leading up to takeoff, I'd been yawning with increased frequency, a good sign, so as soon as possible, I lay back my seat, wrapped two blankets around my feet and long legs, and tried to sleep. Having had a substantial snack at 5:30 pm, I had no problem missing the inflight dinner service.

As I'm sure everyone who's flown Economy Class knows, the seats simply do not tilt back far enough for a comfortable sleep, and this trip was no exception. I slept fitfully for the next six hours. On waking, I had a sandwich and drink, and read some magazines. So, how does one get from Washington DC to Abu Dhabi? I fired up my personal video system and played around with the options to look at the route map. Here's the path of our flight: From Newfoundland, Canada, we crossed the Atlantic to Spain. Then we followed the Mediterranean Sea to a point just south of the island of Sicily. South of the Greek island of Crete, we veered right into Egyptian airspace, passing south of Cairo, and out over the Red Sea south of the Sinai Peninsula. From there, it was a straight run due east across Saudi Arabia to the Emirates.

Afterwards, I took several more not-so-restful naps. I surfed the movie and audio selection, none of which inspired me, not even the readings from the Koran in Arabic! I couldn't even get interested in a novel I'd brought. Finally, I started work on this diary.

Now on long flights, it is common to be served several meals. What was unusual on this flight is that both meals were called "dinner". The first was served at 11:15 pm, DC time, less than an hour after departure. The second came at 6 pm, Emirates time, an hour before landing. Anyway, I had a nice meal of chicken with vegetables and mashed potato, served with real cutlery and a cup of mango juice. On long-haul flights, the crew encourages travelers to keep the window shades closed, so people can sleep, and although I like to look out the window, there isn't much to see from 40,000 feet up when you are over water or desert. I finally looked out as the sun set behind us over the Arabian Desert, when we were not too far south of the Iraqi border. There was a haze below and all I could see was desert with occasional rocky outcrops. In one area, the desert contained many circles and semicircles of irrigation booms.

After a 13-hour flight with no serious turbulence, we had a smooth touch down at 8:30 pm with the local temperature at 75 degrees F. Apparently, someone had lost the front-door key, and we all stood waiting for at least 10 minutes before we could deplane. It was pleasant out, and the long walk to passport control got my blood circulating again. Along the way, I saw a few men in traditional white robes and headgear. All passport agents were dressed in that manner. There was no paperwork and no questions other than, "Is this your first visit to Abu Dhabi?" And then, "Welcome!" My luggage took a while to appear and as I waited, I chatted with a young Aussie woman who was on her way back home from a visit to Nairobi, Kenya. After some detective work, I found a cash machine and coaxed from it 800 dirhams, successfully using my new cash card. I have a checking and a savings account, but almost no cash machines I've used around the world give me a choice; they simply take the money from my checking account. However, this time, the machine took it from my savings account without asking. Bloody computers! Next up was a stop at the tourist desk where a friendly young man gave me a map, some brochures, and other useful information.

I went outside to the long line of black minivan taxis, and was soon on my way to the hotel. My driver was from Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as we old-timers know it). The ride took about 30 minutes, and I think we spent most of that one car length behind whatever vehicle was in front of us, while traveling at speed. Several times, I had to look away, think of pleasant things, and not dwell on whether or not I'd die on my first day in country.

Everywhere we went, signs were written in Arabic and English. The fare was about US$30, which included a small tip. At the entrance of my hotel, Al Maha Arjaan, two bellmen met me, one to escort me inside to the front desk, the other to take my luggage and computer bag. As I was the only customer at that time, both of the front-desk staff gave me their undivided attention. I broke my 500-dirham bill into something usable, and got some smaller bills to use as tips after asking the staff as to what the tipping practice was. When I enquired as to the size of my bed, they asked, "What size bed would you like?" Of course, it was obvious I was tall, so they upgraded me to a king-size bed, and as we were getting along so well, they threw in free wifi and breakfast.

By the time I got up to my room on the 15th floor, it was 10:30 pm. The bellman gave me a thorough orientation for which I tipped him the princely sum of 5 dirhams (about $1.50). One whole wall was glass, and outside I could see signs of civilization: A Southern Fried Chicken restaurant, a KFC, and a McDonalds! My room was quite large with a work desk, a lounge area, a wet area with sink and mini-kitchen, complete with refrigerator and tea/coffee-making facilities. The large bathroom had a walk-in shower stall that I figured could comfortably accommodate six people at a time. (Time would tell if that number was accurate.)

Back at the front desk, I got directions to a local supermarket and I headed out. Pedestrian and vehicle traffic was heavy, and everyone waited respectfully for the green light before crossing, primarily I think because of the crazy drivers. I found all my basics. By chance, I went down an aisle that had soap, and there right in front of me were packs of Pear's transparent soap, something I'd used for years, but have been unable to get back home for a long time. I rescued several of them. Back in my room, I settled down to several glasses of nice, cold, whole milk, some slices of cheese, and some potato chips. That took care of three of my four food groups!

I took my time unpacking and setting up my computer gear before connecting to the world to see if anyone was missing me yet. Afterwards, I had a long, hot shower (with five imaginary friends). Then I turned off the air conditioning and climbed into my wonderful, flat bed. Lights out at 12:20 am. The saying goes, "It's the journey, not the destination." However, it this case, the opposite was definitely true!

[Diary] I woke at 4 am, and after trying to get back to sleep, I decided that wasn't going to happen, so I put on the monogramed bathrobe provided by the hotel and sat at my desk working on this diary. When I pulled back the blinds, the city was still quite alive, although only a few eating-places remained open. Around 5:15, I heard a public-address system sound the first call for prayers, which brought back memories from my first experience in a Moslem area (in Malaysia in 1979). Speaking of prayers, inscribed on the top of one of the bedside tables in my room was a green circle with a green arrow inside that pointed in the direction of Holy Mecca. This allows one to face the proper direction while praying.

At 6:15, dawn was just beginning to break. Having brought this diary up to date, I dressed and went down for breakfast. Hmm, a bowl of cornflakes or a camel steak, medium rare? Decisions, decisions!

The restaurant was understated, but pleasant and with friendly staff. I started with a senior's breakfast of cereal with fresh fruit. I went through some tourist brochures to see how I might spend my free time. I snacked on some nice bread, jam, and cheese while sipping juice. Afterwards, I sat in the lounge area and read a regional newspaper. Interestingly, it contained a full-page ad for a sale of Christmas decorations from a Japanese company. Now I don't seem to recall Japan or the Middle East being particularly Christian, but I guess that when it comes to marketing and selling, anything is fair game. On the way back to my room, I took a detour to the 21st floor to inspect the exercise facilities, steam room, massage rooms, and the open-air rooftop pool.

Back in my room, I closed the heavy curtains and lay on the bed in search of the other half of my night's sleep. It took a while, but the good news was that it did come. More than five hours later, I woke feeling reasonably rested. And after a cup of coffee and a snack, I was almost ready for the world. Back home, it was 5 am, so with the magic of internet radio, I tuned into my home radio station and got a news update.

At 3:15 pm, I stepped outside into a very nice, warm, and bright day. I had a 4-o'clock meeting at a hotel nearby, so I set out to locate that. The hotel was the one in which my conference was to be held and when I went to the meeting room to have a look, the stage area at the front was under construction, literally! There, I met the director of national standards for UAE. He was Irish and, along with British Standards, had hosted us in Belfast some years ago when he headed the Irish national standards organization.

My meeting ran for more than two hours after which I had a private meeting with a colleague. I walked home via a different route. After looking at the menus at a number of restaurants, I settled on a Turkish-style Kebab place where I shared a table with a young Moroccan from Casablanca. He'd been working in the Emirates for a year and managed a Middle-Eastern restaurant. Almost all his employees where Philippinos. We chatted while we ate. I had garlic lamb in local bread with a side salad and drink. It was cheap and filling, and I enjoyed my conversation. Apparently, there are numerous differences in reading, writing, and speaking Arabic from different countries just as there are in dialects in English.

Back in my room, I prepared for the next day.

[Diary] I slept about four hours only and was down at the restaurant when it opened just before 6 am. At 7:45, I stepped out into another nice day. As I had extra time, I walked through a park. At the meeting hotel, I registered, received my badge, and chatted with a number of delegates. We meet once each year, usually in November. (Last year, it was Brittany, France, and next year it's Beijing, China.)

We met from 9 am to 5 pm with morning and afternoon coffee and snack breaks, and lunch for an hour from 1 pm. I renewed my acquaintance with a number of delegates. After lunch, jetlag took hold and I closed my eyes for much of the afternoon. On the way home, I stopped off at a post office to get some postcard stamps.

As I'd eaten more than enough during the day, I decided to skip the evening meal, and as I lay on the bed reading, I fell asleep. At 7:30, I woke and got into bed where I managed to sleep deeply about three hours. I got some more hours later on. In-between times, I read, snacked, and watched an interesting program on the BBC World channel about Western Australia.

[Diary] Once again, it was quite nice outside at daybreak, and I had a leisurely breakfast. Back in my room, I set my alarm for 90 minutes and lay on the bed. Alas, no further sleep came, but I did rest my eyes. At the conference hotel, I kept one ear on the meeting while working on my laptop; however, I faded as the afternoon wore on. As such, at the end of the day, I went back to my hotel and had a 1-hour nap. That certainly recharged my batteries for the evening event, a very nice buffet dinner outdoors at a large resort hotel. I spent a delightful evening with an Irish delegate and his wife.

[Diary] I had my first all-night sleep, but knew from experience that I might relapse the following night. The day had the same format as the previous ones. The highlight came after the meeting ended. Our host provided buses and we drove to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. It was an impressive piece of architecture. Our tour guide was a young woman, dressed in a black abaya, but with her face showing. After the women guests were given abayas or donned head coverings, we walked around the outdoor cloisters before entering the main prayer hall.

Back in my room, I had a quiet evening reading.

[Diary] I slept soundly, but came up several hours short; bugger! After a custom omelet for breakfast, I walked out into a pleasant morning. The meeting was pretty much a repeat of the previous days, with lots of unnecessary eating and drinking. When the official proceedings ended for the day, there was a 2-hour meeting of subcommittee chairs, which I attended. I had trouble staying awake. I took supper in my room after which I went up to the rooftop pool to swim and sit in the hot tub.

[Diary] After a decent sleep, I had a leisurely breakfast. No work today! Having studied the list of things to see and do around Abu Dhabi, I decided that I'd already covered the things I really cared about, so I called the airline to see about going home early. It took a while to complete the transaction, but they had room on the next day's flight, three days earlier than my ticketed date.

At 10 o'clock, I walked over to the conference hotel where I met colleagues from Germany and Finland. We took a taxi to see the Heritage Village, a recreation of life in a desert oasis town. It was hot out, so we kept in the shade. We watched a few tradesmen at work and looked around at some stalls where I bought some postcards. Most of the visitors were small children, dressed in western uniforms or traditional clothing. They were all quite disciplined. From there, we went to the Marina Mall, a huge shopping complex nearby that contained mostly expensive fashion and accessory places. We chatted over lunch in air-conditioned comfort, with our efficient and friendly waiter, Ismael, taking good care of us. Mid-afternoon, we rode a taxi back to the hotel; our driver was from Ethiopia. He told us the biggest guest-worker minority was Indian, with Philippinos second.

Back in my room, I packed up my gear and used most of my emergency rations before starting a new novel. Lights out at 7:30 pm.

[Diary] As usual, I slept in stages, finally getting up at 4 am, two hours before my wake-up call was due. Don't you just hate that when that happens! I snacked, watched TV, and went online to check the weather back home. (Apparently, it was well below freezing the previous night!) Once the breakfast room opened, I went down for some cereal and fruit. Back in my room, I packed my gear and went down to the front desk to check out.

It was 7:45 and peak-hour traffic was in effect, and supposedly, taxis were in short supply, so I rode in one of the hotel's cars. The driver was from India, and with his very thick accent, I had trouble deciphering more than a few of his sentences. Anyway, he was quite talkative and informed me about all sorts of local things. The sun was very bright, and it was going to be another hot day. I arrived at my terminal three hours before departure, which was exactly when my flight opened for check-in. A very perky young woman, born in the UK but raised in the Emirates, with a distinct British accent, took good care of me. From there I went through my first lot of security. Then it was on through the long line of duty-free shops where I stopped to be shocked by the ridiculously high prices for my favorite chocolate. Perhaps it was time to cut back! I found a currency exchange place and unloaded my surplus dirhams.

Given the number of flights each day from Abu Dhabi to US airports, the US customs and immigration service does pre-clearing, so flights arrive in the US as if they had a domestic origin. That went smoothly, and I went through another security checkpoint. Near my gate, I fired up my laptop and worked on this diary then read until my flight was called.

Flight EY131 boarded for an on-time departure of 11:30 am. (By that time, my feet were freezing from the air conditioning in the taxi and terminal, and I was starting to sniffle.) I was in the same spacious seat I'd had on the way over. Ordinarily, a return flight follows the same general path as the out-bound one; however, that was not the case this time. From AUH, we flew north across the narrow Strait of Hormuz and into Iranian airspace. From there it was up over the Iranian capital, Tehran, then up the west side of the Caspian Sea over Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and over Russia to a point just southwest of Moscow. From there it was onto Estonia, the Baltic Sea, across Sweden and Norway, just south of Iceland, across the southern tip of Greenland, across the northern tip of Labrador, down across Quebec, down the east coast of Lake Ontario, and on into Dulles Airport.

Most people kept the window shades closed the whole trip, and except for the occasional crying baby, it was a smooth ride. Although it was not very comfortable for sleeping, I drifted in and out for 10+ hours. The multi-national cabin crew (headed by an Aussie) took great care of us and were very friendly.

Not long after takeoff, we were served lunch. The following were on offer: lamb meatballs in spicy tomato sauce with roast courgettes (Zucchini) and mashed potatoes; chicken biryani with aromatic rice, friend onions and cashew nuts; and dal tadka and cauliflower bhaji, red lentils tempered with aromatic sauces, served with spinach rice. All were followed by semolina pudding. I chose the lamb, which was wonderful! I skipped the mid-flight snack offerings. Just like we'd had two dinners on the way over, on the way back, we had two lunches. The second came a couple of hours before landing, and there was only one choice, a vegetarian dish called kadal paneer with haryali mutter and turmeric rice. So, what is that, you may well ask? Well, there was a lot of yellow rice, some mushy peas sprinkled with mint, and some spicy sauce with some non-descript "thingies" in it. Actually, it was pretty darned tasty.

We touched down on time at 5:45 pm, local time. We pulled into Terminal A and soon I was on the train to the main terminal where the luggage came out after a short wait. The plane would be turned around for a 10-pm departure back to Abu Dhabi. It occurred to me that such a schedule, 15+ hours over and then 13+ hours back after a few hours on the ground required some very reliable equipment. Even with four engines, there isn't a whole lot of room for error when you are out over the wide Atlantic, or anywhere, for that matter, when you are at 35,000 feet!

Although the cold weather was a shock, it was still above freezing. I jumped in a taxi, picked up my car, and started the drive back home on the expressway. I cranked up the car's heater and was wondering why I hadn't stayed in some warmer place a bit longer, say, for the whole darn winter! My house was just where I'd left it, and soon I was inside raising the temperature. As I was home three days early, I called my neighbors to let them know I wasn't a burglar. I unpacked my gear and then watched some recorded episodes of a news program while sipping a mug of hot chocolate. Lights out by 8:30 pm, 25½ hours after I'd gotten up in Abu Dhabi.

This was an unusual trip in that it was a new country, but with minimal free time added. In fact, I went home three days early! I had toyed with the idea of making a day trip to Dubai, but not being interested in shopping or visiting the world's largest indoor downhill skiing facility, it didn't seem worth the 6-hour round-trip by bus. Of more interest to me was the idea of an overnight trip out into the desert, sleeping in traditional tents. Well that didn't seem at all easy to organize either.

By far the biggest—and very pleasant—surprise was that with all the guest workers, the common language of the masses is English! Yes, even the chamber maids at my hotel, the servers at KFC, and the checkout operator in the supermarket spoke my language. This in contrast to my having to deal with mostly Arabic speakers during my previous foray to the region, to Jordan.

Signs of Life: Part 15

© 2017 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

From time to time during my travels, I come across signs that I find interesting for one reason or another. Sometimes, they contain clever writing, are humorous, or remind me of some place or event. Here are some, mostly from Lillehammer and Oslo, Norway.


From Brussels Air's Business Lounge in Brussels, Belgium. I've seen a lot of different "rest rooms" in airline lounges, but this one had a clever name.


101 Uses for an Air-Sick Bag!

From the seat pocket on a Brussels Air plane. The missing text from the top read, "This paper bag can …"


I can hear you say, "I'm glad you brought that up, Rex!"


On the back of the door in my hotel room in Lillehammer.


I guess this happens when the window has no screen cover.


BTW, the Norwegian text shows all three of the letters that language has over and above the 26 English ones: Æ/æ, Ø/ø, and Å/å, shown here in uppercase/lowercase. When looking in a dictionary, they come after a–z, in the order shown above.


This literally is "a shop for adult girls".


OK, vaskeri is Norwegian for laundry, but what is the significance of the ladybug?


Actually, Marihøna is the name of the business, and that is Norwegian for ladybug.


Those Norwegians seem to have words for everything!


"Seat pads for Sale! Only NOK279 (US$36) each! Get them while they last!


Oh, and did I mention that the skins were "donated" by local reindeer?


I love gyros—especially with copious quantities of tzatziki sauce—which originated in Greece. What caught my eye was the clever use of the uppercase Greek letter delta (Δ) as the letter A.


An up-scale women's clothing store.


Now in the good old days in the British Commonwealth, pharmacies where called chemist shops. If you have traveled around England or been exposed to English culture, you'll know about the chain of Boots the Chemist shops (now known simply as Boots) with its distinctive logo. Well, the company is alive and well, and present in Norway, where apotek means drugstore, from the word apothecary, from the Greek.


And, yes, that is snow and ice on the ground!


So, you're hungry, and you're at the Lillehammer railway station. But what to buy? Apparently the soup of the day (dagens suppe) is sold out, but the stir-fried chicken (kyllingwok) sounds good. And, for the little ones, the kid's burger (barneburger), pasta, and pancakes are still available.


Did I mention that the Norwegians have words for (almost) everything!


There I was in Oslo visiting the grave of my dear backgammon-playing friend, Gunnar, when I came across this map of the cemetary. While I understood all the signs at the bottom, I was quite surprised to learn that people might think that riding a horse around a cemetary was OK.


I came across this sign while walking around the fjord in Oslo. What caught my eye was the presence of pigtails/braids/plaits, suggesting a girl. Perhaps Nowegian boys don't need/want to be seen in public holding their father's hand!


OK, at a first glance, you read, "THE SPA". But if you look again, you'll notice the extra space between the H and the E. And if you look even closer, you see who stole the two letters!


Click here to learn more.


OK, it seems reasonable to prohibit the kicking of soccer balls in certain places, but this sign was on the glass wall inside a very large revolving door! My guess is that it really applied to the large indoor shopping area beyond.


If you've ever wondered what those dog kennels do with all that doggie drool they collect, now you know. They bottle and sell it!


According to the label, "It's SODAsgusting".


This from a shop window in Seattle, Washington, USA.


Of course, after a while, one can tire of dog drool. So, why not have some toxic slime instead?


Now Avery's Soda has other enticing flavors in their "Totally Gross Soda" line. For example: Fungal Fruit, Bug Barf, Kitty Piddle, Monster Mucus, Zombie Brain-Juice, and Swamp Juice. Isn't that, like, totally awesome?


My Time in Maine

© 2018 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Over a 15-year period (1983–1998), I serviced a business client in central Maine. Several times, I took my family along for a vacation. [Interestingly, when I went into business as an independent computer consultant in mid-1984, despite all the Federal, State, and local government, and defense-related work going on in the Washington DC area where I lived, for the first 20 years of my business, my projects were based in other states! C'est la vie!]

Where and What is Maine?

Maine is the northeastern-most US state. At its western border is the US state of New Hampshire; to its north and east are the Canadian provinces of Quebec (French-speaking) and New Brunswick (bilingual), respectively. To the southeast is the Atlantic Ocean. With all its inlets and islands, Maine has more than 3,000 miles of tidal coastline, quite a bit of which is rugged.

There are numerous peaks over 4,000 feet (1,230 meters), and one local saying goes something like, "You can see so far from the top that it takes two of you to look!" [Mainers love their very dry humor.] Two well-known sets of peaks are in Acadia National Park and Baxter State Park.

Commercial fishing is big along the coast with Maine lobster being an important industry. Inland, there is plenty of agriculture, especially potatoes. And there are huge forests, many of which are harvested and replanted. There is a lot of surface water, which leads to a huge insect population in the summer. (Can you say mosquitos!) There is an abundance of wildlife: bear, moose, deer, and water fowl, with plenty of fishing and boating opportunities. Many locals have non-winterized "camps", which really are small, second houses used except in winter.

After going 2,200 miles (3,500 km) from Springer Mountain in Georgia, the Appalachian Trail ends at the top of Mt. Katahdin at Baxter Peak in Baxter State Park. [You can argue that the trail also runs in the reverse direction, but through-hikers start in the south where the weather is warmer, and get to the northern terminus after the snow has melted but before the biting insects get too hungry.] A number of times while in the area, I picked up hitchhikers who'd just completed the whole trail in one shot. They typically took three months and wore out several pairs of boots!

Now if you spend any length of time in the state, you'll learn about the term "Down East". Its meaning differs. As best I could tell, it was a derogatory term in the northern (rural) parts when referring to that very-populated southern tip. But for those living down east, they thought something else. It seemed to me that to the northerners, pretty much anywhere in the world was "down east!"

Great Northern Paper Company

Great Northern Paper Company (GNP) produced softwood pulp from which it made paper of various grades, especially that used for newspapers and catalogs. It had facilities in several US states, but my work only involved the Maine paper mills in Millinocket and East Millinocket. (Both towns were created around those mills when they were constructed more than 100 years ago.) When I started work there, GNP was a subsidiary of Great Northern Nekoosa, which had a number of subsidiaries, including one that harvested and sold lumber cut from various hardwoods. At the time, GNP owned or controlled some two million acres of forest in Maine. Much of the border with Canada was GNP forest, and there were a number of border crossings on company land, run by company employees.

The Maine mills were built right next to a branch of the Penobscot River. The reason for this was the company operated six hydroelectric dams. It also operated two steam plants, one at each mill, which generated power by burning wood chips. While the hydro dams were unmanned, the steam plants were manned, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They and the mills typically only closed once a year, around Christmas, for maintenance. (It took a lot of effort and time to get two large paper mills operational from a cold start!)

Both mills had a grinder room in which 4-foot-long, debarked logs floated down a sluice and into one of a number of hoppers where they were physically ground into pulp by rotating stones. An alternate approach to extracting fiber from wood was to use a chemical digester. And as the natural chemicals that came out of the wood during this process were flammable, they were used as fuel for the steam plants. It truly was amazing to watch logs going in at one end of the mill, and not far away, very wide sheets of strong paper coming off at the other onto huge rolls, all in a very short time.

My involvement was with the power-generation operation. As such, while GNP was a paper company, I always thought GNP stood for "Great Northern Power" company!

Getting There and Back

The way I got to central Maine was to fly from Washington DC to Boston, Massachusetts (BOS), where I changed planes, and then flew on to Bangor, Maine (BGR). For most of my time on the project, I was living in Reston, Virginia, and I flew from Washington's National Airport (DCA). However, for the time I lived in Rockville, Maryland, I used Baltimore-Washington International (BWI).

For the first year or so, I flew out early on a Monday morning, and flew back on the following Friday afternoon, for three weeks each month. So, I was away from home a lot! I also racked up a lot of Frequent-Flyer miles, which I used to take the family on vacations (including Alaska and Bermuda). So, on each trip, I had the drive to the airport, a wait, a flight, a wait, another flight, and then a 75-minute drive to Millinocket. Then I'd do the reverse coming home. It took about six hours one-way.

GNP had a fleet of cars, and as more than a few employees, contractors, and clients flew in/out of BGR, most times I arrived there, I took a company car from a reserved spot in the parking lot, and drove it "home" to Millinocket. If no company car was there, I rented a car.

Throughout my time on that project, I did this roundtrip 75–100 times. In fact, during the first year, I spent much more time in Maine than in the state in which I supposedly lived!

Over time, the need for me to be on-site diminished, and I went once every two or three months, often staying for 7–10 days at a time.

GNP had several of its own propeller-powered aircraft and several pilots. The larger one had a cockpit for two pilots, and could carry at least three passengers. Sometimes, it flew directly to/from BOS, but the highest priority passengers were company executives and senior staff, and representatives from potential or current customers. Only once did I manage to hitch a ride. There was only one pilot, and he invited me to sit in the co-pilot's seat from where the view was great. As we didn't fly particularly high, I got a good look at the countryside below, and the highlight was landing among the "big boys" at BOS, a major international airport.

Despite the harsh winters one can experience in Maine, I recall only one really bad day for making the drive from Bangor to Millinocket. The fog was so thick, visibility was down to about 100 feet, which made driving on a major interstate highway a challenge.

The Work

So, why was I in the woods of Maine? GNP wanted to be able to accurately monitor—and where possible, control—its hydro- and steam-power systems from a central location. To that end, more than a year before I came on the scene, it contracted with a group to develop a custom-computer application, which was called EOS (Energy Optimization System).

As I mentioned earlier, the six hydro dams were unmanned. At each of those, every three seconds, a large set of analog and digital measurements (such as water flow, volts, and vars) was made at each dam, and these were relayed to the power dispatcher's office in Millinocket, where those numbers—or numbers computed from them—were displayed on a set of seven, large, colored screens. Summary information was recorded permanently on disk every minute and every hour, and reports were printed on a regular basis, or on demand. Even the remote fire and intrusion alarms were tied to the system. A dispatcher was on duty 24x7. (When I started, they worked three 8-hour shifts a day. However, some years later, they moved to two 12-hour shifts.) The dispatcher could also control the remote facility, for example, to start and stop a turbine, or to increase or decrease the flow through one or more turbines.

Now each water turbine had a series of unique physical characters that determined how much power was produced for a given flow (measured in cubic feet per second [cfs]). As a result, one could draw a graph that showed this. Basically, the steeper the curve on the graph, the more power one got from a given amount of water. The on-site computer calculated this every three seconds, and unless told otherwise by the dispatcher, it made adjustments itself. For example, to pass 3,000 cfs through one station, would it be more efficient to do that at a lower flow through three turbines or using a higher flow through only two? [This calculation involved differential calculus of a polynomial function, which I had first studied in Year 12 high school in 1969. It is the only time in my life that I have used that subject for real work, so never say "Never" regarding all the things you learn in theory, but never think that you'll use!]

The two steam plants were manned. Once again, every three seconds, a large set of measurements was made and relayed to the central computer. However, the dispatcher had no control over those plants. Instead, he communicated with their operators to have changes made as his needs dictated or as operations in the steam plants allowed.

To make the engineering challenging, when the hydro and steam systems were initially installed, most (if not all) of the power consumed in the mills was 40Hz. However, later, it changed to 60Hz. As a result, the power network had two separate parts, which were connected. Over time, many 40Hz motors were converted to 60Hz, so some of the hydro and/or steam units had to be changed. An interesting twist on all this is that the whole internal power system was linked to the public utility, Bangor Hydro, via a tie-line. If GNP was generating more power than it needed in-house, and it didn't want to cut back on generation, it sold it to the utility. [For example, this might happen in spring when there is excess snowmelt, and the water had to be passed through a dam. Better to use it to make power to sell than to waste the water over the spillway!] And when GNP needed more than it could produce, it bought it, all in real-time. Yes, you could see the tie-line gauge switch from buy-to-sell or from sell-to-buy in front of your eyes! Importantly, many of the utility's big customers only needed power from 8 am to 6 pm, at which time, GNP sold its excess power at a premium, and then bought back power at a discount during the night when the utility was generating power its customers didn't need. After all, the utility couldn't switch off its facilities every night!

While there were many hundreds (if not thousands) of electric motors to be powered in the mills and support facilities, one of the biggest power users were the grinding wheels used to make pulp. As grinder lines were started up and shut down, the system load would change significantly, and these actions were coordinated with the dispatcher in advance, so he could prepare to generate more or less power, as appropriate.

When I arrived on-scene late in 1983, the system was operational and doing quite well. However, GNP had parted company with the original contractors, there were numerous rough edges to be fixed, and new features to be added. Within a few days of arriving, I made a significant contribution. On a system in which everything changes every three seconds, one cannot stop and open the hood when something goes wrong, and one can't recreate a problem to trace its origins. By the time one knows about it, it's ancient history! What I did, was to write a small program that, on demand, took a snapshot of all the transient data from a hydro or steam facility at some instant, and saved it for analysis off-line. As this program ran at a higher priority than anything else on the remote computer, we knew that all the data was related to the same instant, not some from the previous 3-seconds and some from the next.

There were nine identical minicomputers: one each at the six hydro plants, one each at the two steam plants, and a so-called Hot Spare (although it really didn't replace anything) in the central computer room in Millinocket. I could make that computer simulate any of the hydro facilities, the idea being that I could test out new code before downloading it to the real site. However, one time, I didn't go that route, and did some live testing on a hydro station, causing one of the turbines to be shut down, and we were unable to restart it remotely. Of course, this had to happen during the night when no electricians were working. So, the electrician-on-call had to be called in, paid time-and-a-half for a minimum of four hours, and for safety, he had to have a buddy go with him. So, my little stunt cost the company eight hours of time at penalty rates! [After that, I only did such testing during daytime hours when electricians were on duty.] Oh, and this all happened at the most remote site, some 20+ miles out in the wilds!

For all but one remote site, the data sent every three seconds was transmitted on a dedicated phone line from that site. However, the most remote site had no phone line. Instead, the data was magically encoded in the high-voltage power line running from that site, and then decoded back at the central facility. If a communications link went down, the isolated remote system kept running using the most-recent commands it had been given.

For all you (older) computer nerds, here's the computing environment: The central facility was a Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) PDP-11/45 with 1MB of memory, a printer/console, some hard disks, a line printer, a 9-track magnetic tape drive, numerous video terminals, and a bank of color displays in the dispatcher's office. There was also a paper tape reader and punch. The operating system was RSX-11M-Plus, and all the application code was written in Fortran with a bit of MACRO-11 assembler. The remote computers were PDP-11/23s running the memory-resident operating systems RSX-11S. The only peripherals they had were analog and digital I/O devices and a communication link; they had no disk drives or terminals, not even a console. The systems were connected using DECNet communications software. A remote system image was created on the central host, with an operating system and the applications suite combined. This was downloaded, and booted remotely.

Air Quality and Managing the River

Most of the stuff that the mills put into the air was water vapor from the steam plants. But, of course, other particulate matter made it out as well. In general, air quality was regulated, and the company also had its own operating rules in that regard. As such, certain steam-plant and mill operations could be reduced, and these affected the power needs.

It should be no surprise that while GNP had the right to generate power from dams along the river, the public and wildlife could not be denied reasonable access to that same river. Let's start with the fish. During spawning, fish lay their eggs at a certainly water depth, not so deep that they get too little sunlight/heat, and not too shallow that they overheat. As such, at those times, the power dispatcher had to maintain an even level in the lakes and river behind each dam. After all, recreational fishing was an important activity, as was rafting. Drop the water too much, and the rapids were exposed and impassable. Raise the water too much, and there would be no rapids to challenge the canoeists and kayakers.

So, as is often the case, numerous things were interconnected, with one affecting one or more of the other. In order to be legal and to not upset the tourist and recreation industry, a balance had to be maintained.

As you may have seen in old photos of logging operations, logs used to be floated down rivers, and this approach was used by GNP to deliver wood to the two mills. However, due to environmental concerns, that stopped in 1971, after which all wood came in on trucks.

Outdoor Adventures

Although I worked long hours while onsite, I also took time out to enjoy some local activities. Probably the most memorable was a hike and climb with power dispatcher Wally. We climbed up Mount Katahdin via the knife-edge, and that's as adventurous as I ever want to get climbing. As mentioned earlier, the Appalachian Trail ends at the summit, and to our surprise, when we got to the top, it was so crowded, we had to walk a bit to find a quiet patch for our picnic lunch. As well as the usual day-trippers, some people had climbed up to welcome friends who were arriving on the trail. One welcoming person even played bagpipes (despite the fact there is an ordinance prohibiting the playing of loud music in the park). The mountain is 13 feet short of a mile high, so over the years, at the summit climbers have built a cairn 13 feet high. As you might imagine, going down afterwards was harder and no less dangerous than going up.

Once when my family visited with me, we hiked and climbed up South Turner Mountain. I carried my small son on my back in a frame. As I was near to having a heart attack a thousand or so feet up, he informed me that he really liked hiking! Once I got my breath back, I explained to him that I was hiking; he was riding!

Maine typically gets a lot of snow each winter, and from GNP's perspective, "snow lying frozen on the ground is money in the bank". After all, when that snow melts, it will eventually become water in the river and then power at the hydro stations. So, how to tell how much money one has in one's snow bank? One makes a snow survey, and I had the great pleasure of being asked to go along on one.

The chief power dispatcher, Gene, and I drove to the town airport where a 4-seat propeller plane was waiting. The pilot welcomed us, and Gene sat in the co-pilot's seat. (Gene also had a private pilot's license.) We took off in the usual way, on wheels, but the undercarriage had a set of large, metal skis that could be lowered and raised to allow the plane to land on snow. So off we went, landing on frozen lakes and measuring the depth of snow in various places. Now, the surface of frozen lakes in Maine isn't necessarily smooth. In fact, far from it, as winds can be howling when the water freezes, causing frozen waves. So, landing on what looks like smooth snow can result in finding very rough ice underneath! And unlike landing on wheels, skis have no brakes. The only way to slow down is to turn the rudder, and have the plane turn a bit sideways to slow things down.

While in flight, Gene noticed out the window that a critical metal pin holding one ski in place was vibrating loose, and would eventually cause us a serious problem. So, we put down on a lake and studied the situation. Despite the fact that the pilot was an aircraft mechanic, he had brought no tools, and the plane had almost none either. We lowered the wheels, so we could work on the ski assembly. Then we fashioned a tie (using Band-aids and stuff from the first-aid kit, if I recall correctly), that would hopefully be enough to hold the pin for the rest of the trip. The final problem was, how to get the plane back up onto the skis? Ordinarily, one did that while in the air, using gravity! Well, after much manual huffing-and-puffing, with two of us lifting under the wings, and the pilot hand-pumping the hydraulics, we managed it.

Now you might think that was enough of an adventure for one flight, but no, there was more. The question was raised as to whether we had sufficient fuel to get back home. Apparently, the pilot thought this plane was a different model than it really was, and had overestimated the size of the fuel tank. So, in fact, we did not have enough! Can you say, "Flying by the seat of one's pants"? So, the two of them discussed the possibilities of where one might be able to get some aviation gas out here in the remote woods. "That should be easy", thought I, facetiously. Then Gene said, "There's a summer fishing camp on one of the lakes nearby, and that has a fuel tank to resupply the floatplanes that bring in fishermen. During the winter, a caretaker lives there to keep an eye on the place. Let's try that." So, we buzzed the camp, the caretaker came outside, we landed, and he said, "Sure, help yourself!" Of course, being young and enthusiastic, I got the job of filling the wing tank using a handpump out in the cold! All's well that ends well, right? It was quite an adventure, and I can remember it quite clearly 25+ years later.

One very nice, calm, sunny, winter's day, Wally and I went snow shoeing. It was quite an interesting adventure. It was very quiet with only the sound of a few, small birds flitting about in the trees, the sound of our snow shoes on the snow, and my heavy breathing. In general, an inexperienced snow-shoer will walk in circles when they think they are going in a straight line. On a separate occasion, I tried cross-country skiing. Now while that very likely is great exercise, I never quite got the proper rhythm of it, and my hips were very sore for days afterwards.

On numerous occasions, I hiked with one or more locals along trails through the woods, in the open, and around the lakes. Once, not too far away, I saw a huge "thing" in a lake. After some minutes, it lifted its head from under the water. It was a bull moose. It had been feeding off the bottom, and it had all kinds of plant material hanging in its big antlers.

I was invited to go snowmobiling, and was given my own sled. While it seemed like a fine idea at the start, as soon as we headed out, the others were racing at 50–60 mph (80–96 kph). When one is very close to the ground, which has rocks, ice, and debris under a possibly thin coating of snow, and one is racing between tree trunks at highspeed, after the adrenaline rush, one might start to think, "This could be very dangerous!" One local told me with great authority that a person on a snowmobile could go across open water for at least 50 feet! (While this might seem a strange thing to do, imagine someone snowmobiling in limited light, through falling snow, or in thick fog, and coming across ice-covered water where the ice turns out to be not strong enough to support much weight. Add in alcohol consumption, and you get the idea.)

Once I hired a floatplane and pilot, and took my family around the area and up over Mount Katahdin. Taking off and landing on water is a whole new experience (which I had first experienced on the Amazon River in Peru). And, like a plane on snow skis, a floatplane had no brakes.

The Town of Millinocket

The town had a population much like that of my home town in South Australia. However, while mine is at the heart of a large irrigated citrus, grape, stone-fruit, and dry-land farming area, Millinocket is a small town whose main purpose was to serve the paper mill and supporting businesses and services. [The mill has since closed.]

When I was first offered the work at GNP, I pulled out a detailed map and located the place. I'd never been to Maine before. Given the French influence in the general neighborhood in past times, I thought the ending of the town name might be French, and pronounced as in beret; that is, with the t silent, and the e as an a. But no, it was Anglicized with et as in let. So, it was no surprise that when I saw a coastal Maine town called Calais, I found it was pronounced like callous, not like the French coastal town Calais. Yes, really!

When the mill was constructed 100+ years ago, many stonemasons came from Italy, and they lived in a part of town still known today as Little Italy.

During my many trips, I stayed at the same hotel, and ate often at my favorite family diner. I also was invited to meals on a regular basis to the homes of colleagues who became friends. My friend and colleague Wally eventually became Chairman of the town council.

Some Miscellaneous Bits

After I stopped work at GNP, the power-generation group was sold to another company, which moved the dispatching center several miles away across town. Eventually, that center was moved to Boston, Massachusetts, a long way away, yet it still controlled and monitored the hydro and steam plants remotely. By then, the entire computer hardware and software systems had been completely replaced, sadly, leaving no trace of the previous effort in which I was involved.

One time I took my father-in-law, John, to Maine with me. A $20-million conversion effort of some turbines was nearing completion, and the winning bidder was told that they could hire anyone called Rex Jaeschke living at my address, to do the work to connect the equipment to the EOS. I had carefully planned and made all the software changes necessary in advance, and went back for a week of engineering testing. However, the prime contractor had problems and we didn't start testing for several days. Meanwhile, John and I played tourist. When the new turbine finally came online, there were more issues, and the contractor staff pointed their finger at me; after all, how could an international engineering megacorporation be wrong? It must be this incompetent foreign guy they were forced to use! In their eyes I was guilty until I proved myself innocent, which to their embarrassment, I eventually did.

Some years before I first arrived in Millinocket, a couple of kids scaled the security fence around the base of a pylon that carried high-voltage power lines. They had been drinking beer, which probably made them braver. One of them climbed up the pole and sat on a ledge with his legs dangling either side of some live wires. Eventually, he touched one and got electrocuted. In fact, he was blown out of the tower and suffered major burns to large parts of his body. The interesting thing is that his shoes were still sitting up on the ledge with the laces tied!

The Bangor International Airport (BGR) was a former US Air Force base, and it has a very long runway, of 11,440 feet (3,487 meters). Today, it shares that with the Maine Air National Guard. That guard unit has refueling tankers, and the group's nickname is "Maineiacs". Given the length (and width) of the runway, it was an emergency landing site for the Space Shuttle. The airport was heavily used for charter flights taking military personal to/from peace-keeping missions in Yugoslavia and wars in the Middle East. As I was waiting for my flight home one time, standing right near me was a rather short man who looked very familiar. It was Casper Weinberger, President Reagan's Secretary of Defense. He maintained a house in Maine.

Finally, I once thought that "The rain in Maine stays mainly in the plain.", but apparently that's not the case.

Travel: Memories of Prague, Salzburg, and München

© 2014 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Join me as I spend a week in Prague, Czech Republic, working from my hotel and attending business meetings. Then it's playtime in and around Salzburg, Austria, and Munich, in the German state of Bavaria.

[Diary] By the time we landed at PRG, I was running on empty. I coaxed 3,000 CZK (Czech Korunas/crowns) from a cash machine and waited five minutes for my luggage. (It still amazes me each time it comes out when one considers the amount of baggage processed at large airports.) I bought a ticket for the bus to downtown and boarded that soon after. The passengers were like me, very subdued, probably because they had flown overnight too. Forty minutes later, I found my hotel right where I'd left it two+ years ago. This was my fourth trip to Prague, and my third time at this hotel. The reception staff was ever so happy to have me back for six nights. Although I was there more than three hours before the official check-in time started, they called housekeeping to get a room ready as soon as possible, and that took an hour. In the meantime, I walked to the supermarket nearby and bought a liter of cold, whole milk and a small block of Milka chocolate with hazelnuts, as comfort food. I sat on the edge of a fountain in a plaza and watched the locals at play.

[Diary] At 06:30 am, I was at the front desk buying postcard stamps, after which I headed for the breakfast area, which is a glass-enclosed platform that seems to be hanging from the ceiling, with walkways leading to it from several sides. (In fact, it's built on top of a glass-walled conference room on the level below.) The buffet was included in my room rate, and it was open from 06:30 until 11:00, which was very civilized. I took my time eating and drinking a variety of things while working on a Sudoku puzzle and perusing some brochures for musical concerts. I packed a small snack for Ron (as in "later on"). The whole experience was very pleasant and took 90 minutes.

I was hard at work on my laptop by 08:30, and hardly stopped until just before 14:00 when I went downstairs to the fitness room. There, I met Luci, a tall, thin, and very strong, young Czech woman who asked me to get naked and to lie on a bench. As she looked like she wasn't about to take NO for an answer, I complied, and my 60-minute Swedish, full-body massage began. She rubbed so vigorously that I feared she might ignite the oil! It had been a long while since I'd had a massage, and it felt good. Despite the physical nature of it, I almost went to sleep.

Earlier in the day, a tag-team from housekeeping appeared, to give my room the once-over. I'd asked at the desk for a light blanket to replace the super-efficient, one-piece, oven-like quilt on my bed. (I'd woken up several times during the previous night covered in perspiration.) Unfortunately, they brought me a blanket that was Leprechaun-sized, so it wasn't clear just which of my ends would be exposed to the elements.

As the day had looked nice out my window, I decided to venture out into the Old Town. Everything was just where I'd left it from my previous visit, which was very convenient. My first stop was a theater box office to buy tickets for some concerts later in the week. Then I wound through the cobblestone-paved alleys in the general direction of the river that divides the city. There, I crossed the famous Charles Bridge, which was filled with stalls selling paintings, jewelry, and various crafts. The tourists were out in force and I chatted with a woman from Bavaria. I came across a jazz quintet that included trumpet, double bass, clarinet, and banjo. The percussion section consisted of a metal washboard with two small cymbals attached, which the man played using metal thimbles on his fingers or with a pair of egg whisks. I stood there for 15 minutes tapping my toes as the lead singer, a white Czech guy, did a pretty good imitation of Louis Armstrong singing "What a Wonderful World" and "When the Saints go Marching In." Soon after, the band packed up for the day and I made a small donation.

A light breeze blew down the river and there were some tour boats and a group of kayakers moving up and down. I walked all the way across the long bridge and a little way on the other side before turning around. On the way home, next to the famous astronomical clock that performs several times each day, I spied a gelato stand where I had a small cone of hazelnut ice cream. It was altogether satisfactory.

I was back in my room at 19:00, where I treated myself to a glass of ice-cold milk. Then it was time to bring this diary up to date, and to write postcards to twin boys in California.

At 20:15, I looked at the time, and thought, "After all that exercise and fresh air, I'm no longer tired. So, what's next?" The answer was easy. I headed back to the fitness room, got naked, again, had a hot shower, and assumed the position on a bench, again. However, this time there would be none of that massaging business; no, this would involve some serious hanky-panky sauna time. I poured several ladles of cold water over the hot coals and lay flat on a bench with my head on a wooden support. The roof was a high dome that was floodlit from recessed lights, which seemed to be changing between white, yellow, lime green, and pink. Either that or I was hallucinating from dehydration! After 10 minutes, a middle-aged Polack man from Gdansk joined me and we chatted a bit. Then when we went outside to cool off, we shared a newspaper, and he had many questions; I got a good reminder of Polish history, and how things were going there these days. Then we went back into the steam for another session, after which I had a not-too-cold shower. It was all quite enjoyable.

[Diary] At noon, I was back in the fitness room with Luci. Even though we were old friends by now, she didn't ask me to strip naked; I only had to take off my shirt. For 30 minutes, she worked on my hands and arms, and then she spent another 30 minutes on my neck, head, and face. We chatted a bit and I found that this was her second job; her main job was being a pre-school teacher.

Back in my room, I packed up my computer bag and put on some casual-business clothes. I stepped out into sunshine with a cool breeze and walked the 10 minutes to my meeting place. There, I met eight other colleagues from six countries: Japan, China, Czech Republic, Denmark, UK, and US. We had a meeting for 2½ hours, which really didn't achieve anything other than to let some delegates restate their old positions and to dig in their heels further. Afterwards, the Chinese delegation made a presentation on a new idea they had. I left at 17:00 and walked back to my hotel. Fifteen minutes later, I was having a conference via Skype with a colleague who was attending meetings in Switzerland.

[Diary] At 18:30, my Czech friend of 18 years, Robin, arrived at my hotel, and we walked to my favorite restaurant nearby for three hours of eating and conversation. My pork ribs in gravy were divine as was the large mug of grapefruit lemonade. We topped it off with apple strudel and whipped cream. Afterwards, I walked Robin back to the subway station, and then went and had several sessions in the sauna.

[Diary] I headed out in warm sunshine and walked 15 minutes to St. Michael monastery, where I joined 25 other patrons for a musical concert. I sat in the front row several arms'-length from the performers. Promptly at 18:30, the concert began, alternating with a female singer and male clarinet/saxophone player. Both were accompanied by a pianist. The theme was Broadway musicals, and without a doubt, the highlight was the sax and piano rendition of Rhapsody in Blue. It was 60 minutes of non-stop professional music.

After a 30-minute break, another 1-hour concert started, but this time it was classical with a good dose of Baroque. The singer from the first performance sang quite a few numbers and she did a great job, especially with Ave Maria and Amazing Grace. Three musicians played violins while the fourth played cello.

It was a glorious night out, so I walked to the river and out on the Charles Bridge. There a couple was playing well-known Baroque pieces on violin and accordion. They were so good, I stayed and listened for at least 15 minutes after which I gave them a generous donation. Back in my room, I ended my last day in Prague with a glass of cold, whole milk.

[Diary] The breakfast area was completely empty, just my five personal attendants and me. Really! Fortunately, they didn't hover too close to my table. I had a light meal and packed a sandwich for my trip. Afterwards, I dropped by the supermarket to rescue a liter of pear juice. Back in my room, I got my last email fix and closed my luggage and computer bag. Friendly Michaela was working the front desk, and as she'd remembered my name the whole week, I gave her a block of my finest Milka chocolate with hazelnuts. I settled my bill and walked out into a quite cool morning. It was 08:00, but busy for a Saturday morning, especially as I got closer to the main train station. Many people were going on the train with their hiking or bike-riding gear.

My train, Regional 1543, was listed on the main board, but no platform had been assigned, so I waited there for 10 minutes. Up flashed 7J, so I headed off in search of that. Signage was decidedly lacking, and I recalled the difficulty I'd had the last time there. I found my platform, but was at the wrong end, way away from the train! Don't you hate that when that happens? The good news was that the First-Class carriage was at the very end of the train, nearest to me. There were nine 6-person compartments, and even though it was a Saturday, I'd paid to reserve a seat. However, I'd forgotten to ask for a forward-looking seat, and got one looking backward, against the window. By the time we pulled out the station at 09:36, three whole minutes late, two other people had seen fit to sit in MY compartment.

We went due south through an industrial area with numerous high-rise apartment buildings. Then the countryside opened up and it was all rolling hills of green cereal crops, some bales of hay, and green fields topped with white flowers. In the distance, I saw a couple of yellow flowering fields of rapeseed. Mid-morning, I had an unnecessary snack, and as I was eating my Lay's potato chips (a very popular brand in the US) I started reading the back of the packet. The bag was packed in Poland, and the labelling on the back came in a multitude of languages: Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Czech, Slovakian, Hungarian, Polish, and English.

[Diary] I'd known about the accommodation website www.airBnB.com for some years, but didn't use it until August 2013 when I stayed three nights in Amsterdam. That first experience was so good I thought I'd try it again. Anyone with a room to rent short-term, and who can comply with the rules, can join. I found this place in Salzburg, on-line within minutes and paid about US$60/night. The resident was at a wedding reception, but had arranged for his father to meet me. He got me oriented and then we sat and talked for 30 minutes, which was just an excuse for me to pat his dog, who was so smart he understood German! The apartment was quite large, had large windows over a small park, and a fresh breeze wafted through. After I unpacked a few things, I set up my computer, was connected to the outside world, and started working on this diary.

[Diary] Around 13:30, I ventured out to meet the day. It was quite warm with a gentle breeze. I walked to the bus stop and several minutes later a Number 6 arrived. I rode it three stops and then walked to the river to cross on a large pedestrian bridge. Both railings were chain-wire mesh and they were covered with padlocks with lovers' names attached, something I'd seen in a number of countries. On the other side of the river, there was a very long row of stalls along a river walk. They were selling all sorts of crafts, clothing, and food. I soon heard a distinctive noise, an Australian Aboriginal didgeridoo. A man was playing it along with a percussion instrument. Further down, there was a booth selling jewelry made from Australian opals.

From there I wandered the back streets and alleys of the Old Town, sticking my head in churches, courtyards, and shops as the mood took me. In an attempt to improve my Kulcha-quotient, I paid €7 to go into the Salzburg Museum. It contained a mixture of art, ceramics, photos, and film, and covered history, architecture, and World War I when this area was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

I stopped to take the occasional photo and to people-watch. It was a gorgeous day to be out, and every hundred meters there was another outdoor eating-place. I crossed back over the river and headed home through a park containing some abstract sculptures. I'd only been out three hours, but that was enough. Besides, I had to leave something for the next visit!

[Diary] At 18:00, I headed out to a restaurant across the street whose menu I'd perused the night before. A pleasant young waitress seated me in the sunshine in the biergarten, and after my attempts at German, she asked if I'd like an English menu. I took both, and switched to the English one whenever I needed something translated. I ordered the chicken cordon blue, which came with parsley-covered boiled potatoes and some berry sauce along with a mixed salad. I washed that down with a glass of apricot juice. It was a lot of food, so I took my time. A big-screen TV was showing a World Cup soccer game. Once again, I had no room for apple strudel; bugger! I read some chapters of my novel and worked on this diary. Diners came and went, and a small boy at the next table worked on filling his pockets with gravel.

[Diary] After a small breakfast complete with a custom mug of milch-café, I headed out to play tourist. It was quite hot out, so I kept in the shade as much as possible, which included a walk through a nice park. In 15 minutes, I was across the river in the old town and winding my way through back alleys in search of the funicular railway that went up to the famous castle of the Salzburg Prince-Bishops.

I paid €11:50 for a return ticket, admission to the castle, an audio tour, and several museum admissions. Although I saved some energy and perspiration by riding the tram up, once inside the castle and its grounds, I still had many stairs some of which were quite steep for an old man. I—and most tourists with whom I spoke—gave the organizers a failing grade for the lack of signs, especially for the tours included in our ticket. The view from the top was very nice. You could see so far, it took two people to look! Two hours there was more than enough, and as I rode the tram back down, I chatted with a Canadian couple. They were travelling with a group down the river. More than 100 Aussies were on their boat, and as I walked around the castle and town, I heard their accents.

I walked along the river a good way in the shade before crossing over and entering the grounds of the summer castle and its Mirabell Gardens. Flowers of all shapes and sizes abounded along with manicured lawns and large fountains with statutes. From there it was quite a hike back home.

Once I got my shoes off and splashed some cold water on my face, I was ready for a large glass of ice-cold milk. It sure tasted good and represented one of life's simple pleasures. Then I settled down to business email, which led to a 30-minute phone call with a colleague in Hawaii, 10 hours behind me. Afterwards, I posted the June essay to my blog.

[Diary] I packed my gear and got my final email fix just as my host got back from grocery shopping. We chatted a while and then I departed soon after 11:30. It had rained heavily that morning, but was clearing up as I walked to the bus stop. After only a few minutes, my bus arrived and I managed to convince the driver to sell me a ticket to the main train station. All of the city buses ran on electricity, so there were many overhead wires. It took 20 minutes to get to the station, and then I had to find out where the 120 bus to Mattsee departed from. I finally asked a bus-company employee who pointed me in the right direction. However, my bus had just left, and I had a 30-minute wait for the next one.

The bus trip was comfortable and pleasant with quite a few passengers. We had many stops and passed through a number of large towns and small villages on the 25-km drive. The end of the line was near my destination, Mattsee, the town in which my friend, Renate, lived. She had given me directions to her house, and as I got off at the town shop, I asked another passenger to confirm, and she sent me in the wrong direction. However, a young woman at a restaurant came to my rescue and gave me a map of the town. Soon after, I was knocking on Renate's front door.

We had met in the summer of 1989 when she was our second guest through the American Host Program. European teachers and librarians who were fluent in English came to the US for 30 days where they stayed with host families for 10 or 15 days to experience American culture first-hand. My family and I visited her and her mother in Mattsee in 1992, and my brother-in-law, Colin, and I visited again in 1996. However, although we'd kept in phone and email contact over the years, we hadn't seen each other in 18 years. When I saw her, she looked the same to me, and she was enjoying her retirement from teaching.

The weather improved as the day wore on, and she proposed we head up into the surrounding mountains for a nice walk through the fields and forests. It certainly was a little piece of Paradise. At the top, we climbed a wooden tower and looked out over the valley. We came home by a different path that brought us along the lake and yacht club where Renate keeps her boat and teaches children how to sail. We caught up with a lot of each other's news along the way, and so we didn't notice we were exercising. We walked at least six kilometers.

We had some pastries and drinks for a late afternoon tea after which Renate had an engagement for 90 minutes. I pulled up a chair in the sun in the garden, and finished my novel. Having less than my sleep quota the night before, that caught up with me and I fell asleep sitting up in the chair. We sat down to a late supper around 20:15 when we had hausgemacht (homemade) soup with semolina dumpling-like thingies. By then it was 22:00 and I was thinking about sleep. Lights out soon after.

[Diary] At 09:00, we sat down to breakfast outdoors. The sun was streaming down and all was right in this little corner of the world. I savored fresh bread rolls with ham and hausgemacht orange marmalade.

By 10:00, we were packed and on the road to our next adventure, hiking at the top of a mountain. After a short drive, we reached the parking lot of the cable car that would take us to the top of Der Untersberg. We had 30 minutes to wait for the next car, so we sat outdoors in the sunshine drinking milk coffee, which was served with a piece of chocolate; very civilized! As the car ascending the steep slope, the clouds came in and visibility was quite limited when we got off. We walked over the rocks and some loose gravel, and the wind came up a bit. Occasionally, the clouds cleared and we could see way down to the valley below. We went all the way to the top of the mountain, but couldn't see through the fog. On the walk back at the cable car station, it rained lightly, but got heavier as we went inside. We looked at the restaurant menu to see if they had any hausgemacht soup, which they did. Renate had the goulashsuppe and I had the würstsuppe with noodles. Mine was "just like Grandma used to make", and, with some bread, it was just the right amount of food. By the time we got back to our car, the sun was out; however, light rain continued to fall. The locals call this "liquid sun".

By the time we got back home it was 16:30, time for afternoon tea. We consumed some pastries whose use-by date was 15 minutes later, and Renate made me her style of milch-café. Afterwards, we walked a short way to a new car museum created by the grandson of the creator of the Porsche car brand. All the old cars are registered and are driven on a regular basis. Some are available to rent. Back home, I set up my laptop in Renate's office and started working on this diary while listening to an album by Andrea Bocelli.

We had a late supper of wurst with salad and talked until late. Lights out by 22:30.

[Diary] We headed out of town for a 75-minute drive to the south. We spent a long day in the National Park along the Groβglockner Hochalpenstrasse some 7,000 feet up. We drove the 45 kms of the winding mountain road. There was quite a bit of traffic especially motor cycles. Entrance to the park for the day cost €43! The views were spectacular. The deep glacial valleys were braced on each side by green pastures and mountainsides right up to the snow line. There was quite a bit of snow left from the winter, and it's possible to have snowfall in the summer as well. We parked at the end of the road where we met Renate's friend, Johanna. The remnants of a glacier were below us. We visited some exhibitions and then had a nice lunch. We'd planned a hike there, but that route would not open until July 1, so we drove a short way back to a small restaurant set down a steep slope from a parking area. We hiked a kilometer or so down and across a lush, green field among some grazing cows, where we jumped across a raging stream that came down from a waterfall further up the mountain. A marmot (US: groundhog) was guarding his burrow nearby and watched as we passed. Back at the restaurant, I had another bowl of soup while the ladies had apple strudel and coffee. It was all very civilized.

[Diary] It was another glorious day outside, so we put on our walking shoes and headed out through the neighborhood and to the lake where we toured the very nice swimming club and playground. (Rumor has it that Big Kid Rex was seen riding one of the kiddie rocking horses.) From there, we dropped by the boat-rental place, and then at the sailing club, of which Renate is a member. It's a very nice facility, and Renate proudly showed off her refurbished sailboat, which is made of brightly varnished mahogany. We walked into town and sat in the sun while sipping coffee and chatting. It was all hard work, but someone has to do it, right?

At noon, after we took photos of each other in the garden by Renate's house, we said our "Goodbyes". Now friends help you move, good friends help you move bodies, and great friends pick up with you where they left off, even if that was 18 years ago. Renate is a great friend!

It was another Travel Day; another city in another country. I walked the few hundred yards to the bus stop. Three young women were already waiting. Compared to them, I looked boringly normal. The first was dressed as a Goth and was busy with her music player. The second was wearing a top that she had thrown on as she left the house, and she nearly missed! Inside one upper arm, she had a large amount of tattooed text. The third was also dressed completely in black, and she had a large tattoo on her shoulder. Half her head was shaved, and the other half had long hair that was dyed bright red. She had a small ring through her bottom lip. I couldn't decide which of the three I should take home to meet Mother!

The bus arrived at least 10 minutes late, and quite a few students boarded, and by the time I got on, it was quite full. I sat down next to a girl, who immediately decided I fit the profile of suspicious-old-men-her-mother-had-warned-her-about, and she escaped to safety on the other side of the aisle. Several stops later, a large group of students boarded with lots of luggage; apparently, they were headed out on a trip.

When I walked into the Salzburg Hauptbahnhof, the train to München was just leaving. Don't you just hate that when that happens? I went to buy a ticket, but found it a bit confusing. There was a long line at the ticket for the Austrian train company and a very short one for Germany's Deutsche Bahn. After I asked for help, I was directed to the DB line where I chatted with two American women. I bought a First-Class ticket with a reserved seat, and was directed to the First-Class Lounge next door. There I had a drink and some nuts, and chatted with a family from Oregon.

At 12:50, I headed for Gleis (Track) 1 where my train awaited, and a conductor pointed me towards Wagen 262, Sitzplatz 76. Well don't you know there was a couple in MY compartment and the man was sitting in MY seat! We greeted each other in German and after a few sentences, I knew they weren't native speakers, so I asked where they were from. Melbourne, bloody Australia. Fair suck of the sauce bottle, Cyril! Which, roughly translated from Orstralyan means, Strewth! or Stone the Flamin' Crows, Bruce! (Is that clear? Probably not.)

As we bounced along in the glorious sunshine through lush, green pastures, it was boringly beautiful. I cleaned out my collection of papers, used tickets, and the other flotsam and jetsam of travel, and worked on my diary while eating delicious, fresh cherries from Renate's neighbors' garden. I chatted with the Aussies off and on. They were on their annual 6-week tour of Europe, and he was a professional musician who was performing along the way.

We arrived in München on time, at 15:40, and I went in search of a bank to change my leftover Czech money. The cashier politely directed me the Tourist Office a couple blocks away. There I got a city map and information about getting to my hotel and the airport on Sunday morning.

[Diary] At 11:00, it was time to head out on my cultural tour. It was hot, so I kept to the shady side of the street. Soon, I was at the famous square, Marienplatz, with its Town Hall complete with performing figures and bells. I arrived a few minutes after the production began, and watched along with a few thousand of my close friends. I seemed to recall that it looked a lot like it did when I last saw it, 22 years earlier.

From there, I took a fortuitous wrong turn and found myself at the Viktualienmarkt, a large plaza with many stalls selling food, beer, fruit, vegetables, and crafts. A maypole stood there and some sort of ceremony regarding beer and brewing was taking place. Hundreds of men milled around in traditional Bavarian costumes. Four large beer wagons each pulled by a team of four beautiful horses stood nearby.

Next stop was the Hofbräuhaus, the famous beer-drinking hall. As it was early in the day, only a few tourists were inside drinking. I took some photos of the ceiling and the metal stands where regular patrons keep their beer steins locked up. Out front, a mime was performing.

For my Kulcha fix, I dropped into the former royal palace complex, the Residenz Museum. Knowing that it would be "over the top", I bought just the basic ticket, forgoing all the extra rooms and smaller museums one could visit. It was room after room of huge wall tapestries, ornate furniture, elaborate ceilings, and gold-covered everything! Although all the contents were moved out during WWII, almost all the buildings were destroyed, so much of it had been reconstructed.

I walked back to my hotel through the market. By the time I got my shoes off in my room, my legs were complaining about all the work they'd done in recent days. I tried napping, but that didn't work; I was simply too tired to sleep! So, what to do, but sip on a bottle of cold Coke while working on this diary while off in the distance some church bells pealed out a tune for quite a long time.

I finished off a travel essay for my blog, and worked on some other personal projects. Around 17:45, I was thinking about going out for my last supper and a walk, but the Heavens opened and the rain came down quite heavily. It cooled things down and left a fresh smell in the air. I had my large window wide open throughout to get the full effect. After 30 minutes, the rain stopped, so I went out in search of just the right place for just the right meal. After 10 minutes of walking around, I found the end of the rainbow, a small snack bar near my hotel. All the young staff were friendly. I had a large bowl of creamy potato soup with large bits of sausage in it along with a liberal dose of fresh parsley. "Was it good?" you ask. Well let's just say that it was the kind of soup that your Grandma wished she could make! Even before getting the soup, I was dreaming about dessert, but, once again, I had no room, so I settled on a very nice, large mug of hot chocolate. As I finished up, the kitchen crew was shutting down for the day.

I walked a number of blocks down a pedestrian shopping area, and as I passed a bakery, the aromas coming out the door lured me in. However, I was very disciplined and only looked. I figured that with each sniff I took in 50 calories!

Back in my room, I worked on this diary while listening to an album by Elton John. Lights out at 22:30; asleep much later!

[Diary] I was awake at 07:00, before my 07:30 alarm. I'd had the window open all night, and it had been pleasant. Light rain was falling. After a quick shower, I packed my gear. As the front desk was not yet open, I dropped my key in the night-box and stepped out into a light drizzle. The city was quiet at that hour, and it took me 15 minutes to walk to the central train station, where I rescued breakfast from a bakery, and bought a ticket for the S-Bahn to the airport. I walked up to Track 26, and less than a minute after I boarded, the doors closed and we were off. Apparently, the train had been waiting just for me! It took 40 minutes and the passengers were all very subdued. The young American couple opposite me was reading a very thick Lonely Planet guide to Western Europe. They were on their last leg of a 6-week trip around the continent. As I ate my ham and cheese croissant and drank the last of my rhubarb nectar, I was pretty sure I was the only person in the greater München area (maybe even the world!) to be having that for breakfast that morning.

At MUC, I found my way to the United Airlines Business-Class counter where a young woman from New Mexico politely ran me through the security checks. I said goodbye to my luggage, and went through security and passport control. The Lufthansa Business Lounge was ever so happy to have me as a guest. I gathered up some English-language newspapers and a banana for the flight, and found a worktable in a secluded corner where I sipped my hot chocolate while sorting through photos and bringing this diary up to date.

Soon after 10:30, I ambled through the terminal arriving at Gate H8 just before boarding started. UA133 departed, on time, at 11:40. As the Boeing 767 rose up through the clouds, we had quite a bit of turbulence. The flight was more than eight hours, and I was tired, but attempts to sleep were futile. I had a very nice Thai chicken curry on rice for lunch. Then it was Movie Time! First up was Saving Mr. Banks, the story of how Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) convinced P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) to let him make a movie version of her books on Mary Poppins. Colin Farrell played Travers' father. Next, was Winter's Tale, also starring Colin Ferrell, with Russell Crowe as the bad guy. Finally, it was Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity. All were excellent, and I found the space catastrophe scenes in Gravity to be so convincing, I was gripping my seat. Then after all that sedentary time, a nice snack was served. Touchdown at IAD was quite rough.

I was through the Immigration Express Lane, luggage, and customs in double-quick time, and was in a taxi heading for Reston in less than 40 minutes. From there, I took care of a few chores before driving home on the express toll road. It was hot out, with much hotter days to come. On the way, I picked up some groceries to tide me over until I did a full grocery shop. My house was right where I'd left it, and neighbor Mary had kept my indoor plants alive. My grass was freshly cut that morning. I spent a couple of hours unwinding from the 2-week trip, unpacking my luggage, and making some lists for the week. At 6 pm, it was lights out (despite the bright sun outside). And while I woke a few times during the night, I managed to get more than nine hours of sleep. It was good to be home and in my own bed!


I've had more than a few trips to Prague, and have enjoyed each one. I always take in a couple of concerts, and I have a favorite hotel and restaurant. Salzburg is always a great place to visit, although less so in winter. Munich has plenty to offer as well.

Signs of Life: Part 14

© 2018 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

From time to time during my travels, I come across signs that I find interesting for one reason or another. Sometimes, they contain clever writing, are humorous, or remind me of some place or event. Here are some from trips to Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy.


From Fažana, Croatia, jumping-off point by ferry to the island complex of former Yugoslavia's President, Marshal Josip Broz Tito.

Who knew such a competition existed!


One of them there squat toilets.


From Pula, Croatia.

Basically, "No fun allowed at this waterfront".


I "discovered" naïve art in a museum in Zagreb. Then in Rovinj, I saw all kinds of galleries selling it.


According to Wikipedia, "An atelier … the private workshop or studio of a professional artist in the fine or decorative arts." It was a new word for me.

I saw many of them in Rovinj.


From a construction site during a day trip to Venice by ferry from Croatia.

"Pedestrians keep left!". Interestingly, in the bad-old days, left-handed people were considered devils, and the Latin word sinistro (left) became the English sinister.


On the door of a compartment on the ferry from Croatia to Venice.

I finally decided that it was a stretcher. For the longest time, it looked like the end wall of a public toilet cubicle that just happened to have a human outline on it.


I thought this was an usual use of the word lush, which I've only ever used in the context of a garden.

The reflection in the window is just some Aussie/American tourist wearing an Adelaide Crows football cap.


On the back of the seat in front of me on a bus going from Croatia to Slovenia. "How satisfied are you with us today?"

Now, you may well ask, "Why is the sign written in German?" Because, the bus company was German—the former German National Railway company, in fact—and was (eventually) going on to Munich, Bavaria. The company serviced that route once each day in each direction.


One Hell-of-a-place to eat and drink in the famous Slovenian tourist town of Bled.


The good news was the Slovenian sign was also written in English. The bad news was I still had no idea what was downstairs in this castle/museum in Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital.

According to Wikipedia, "A lapidarium is a place where stone (Latin: lapis) monuments and fragments of archaeological interest are exhibited."


An innocent-looking sign, except for the interesting spelling of Tuesday.


Lo and behold, right there at the base of the castle-on-the-hill in Ljubljana was a "nursery under the castle".

Do all those kids have one or two artificial arms, or am I being too literal?


As best as I can tell, the green text says, "No God, no State, no Califate!" Then someone added, "And no correct grammar either!", apparently because one or more of the negated articles doesn't have the right gender.

As to why this graffiti in Slovenia was written in German is a mystery to me.


Once I was in Ljubljana, I learned about Metelkova, "a self-proclaimed autonomous neighborhood much like Copenhagen's Freetown Christiania". Having visited the latter, I thought I'd drop by for a visit. It was quite small, and most buildings were painted with interesting street art.


Very clever!



Living in Chicago

© 2018 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In August 1979, after leaving Australia and traveling five weeks in Asia and Europe, and then spending a week in the Washington DC area, I arrived in Chicago. Then, after a week in temporary housing, my wife and I moved into a 30-story apartment building. It was the first time I'd ever lived in an apartment, the first time I'd lived off the ground, and the first time as an adult I'd not had a car! It was our first place living in the US, and I was to start my first job there. It was also the first autumn after the big winter storm of Christmas 1978.

Prior to leaving Australia, I'd told my visa sponsor, Harvey, that I'd be interested in working on either of the east or west coasts of the US, but definitely not in the Midwest! However, after not working for a couple of months, and eager to get started on something challenging, when I arrived in DC, he informed me that the best fit he had for my skill set was a project in Chicago. Despite my earlier lack of interest in that area, I accepted the position. After all, what was the worst thing that could happen there, right?

Staying at the Y

We rode the overnight train from Washington DC to Chicago. On arrival, the only place we could afford to stay was the YMCA, right downtown. Were we broke? No, but we weren't too far from it, at least in terms of readily available cash! After our initial plan to travel from Australia to the US in two weeks went sour at the last minute, we'd replaced it with an open ticket that eventually took five weeks to complete. And while we saw and did a lot more in numerous countries, we foolishly had not made adequate financial-support provisions. While all the money from the sale of our house was Down Under in a bank account, we had no way to get at it. [Of course, this was well before the internet, on-line banking, and cash machines.]

As we needed more money to get started with our new life, Harvey gave me an advance against my first month's salary, and sent it in the form of a check in the first-class post. And that should have taken no more than two days to get there. While we were waiting, we went in search of a place to live, and we found a nice apartment that was suitable for a man whose name means King in Latin. The rental agent was very pleasant and understanding as we explained our temporary financial situation.

Well, don't you know, each day we went to the front desk for the check, and each day we were told, "Sorry; not yet!" Of course, we were getting quite desperate. Finally, we got the check; it had been delivered days earlier, but had fallen behind a desk in the office, so was mislaid for days, but it didn't know that. Don't you just hate it when that happens!

We finally had money, but only for a very short while. After paying the first month's rent plus one-and-a-half month's security deposit, we were back to having very little. On the one hand, we couldn't afford to stay at the Y any longer, but we almost couldn't afford to move into the apartment either! In hindsight, it was a ridiculous situation, but, hey, we were 25 and invincible!

[I can say with great certainty, that our week at the Y was nothing at all like the 1978 hit record Y.M.C.A. by the American disco group Village People.]

North Pine Grove Avenue

The location of our new home was half a mile inland from the western shore of Lake Michigan, near the intersection of Lake Shore Drive and Irving Park, at 4000 North. [In US cities, each block has up to 100 address numbers, so 4000 means 40 blocks. But of course, some blocks can be longer than others, although in many grids they are about the same length.] We were on the northern edge of a "nicer part of town". The building had 30-odd floors with about 1,000 residents. Clearly, that was more than the population of many towns!

The front entrance was manned day and night by one of several uniformed doormen. The doorman's job was to welcome people, help them with their luggage or shopping bags, and to hail a taxi with his whistle. I well remember Henry, the main guy on the day shift; he was very personable and was always positive.

Inside the expansive lobby sat one or more receptionists behind a counter, and they helped residents with issues, dealt with guests, and handled various administrative tasks. At the back of the lobby was a wall of mailboxes, of which there were more than 600. Packages that were too large to fit in the box were retrieved from reception. When I learned that the job of the mailman who served our building was to serve only our building, I was shocked. But when you think about it, sorting and delivering mail to 1,000 people at 600 addresses, six days a week (yes, mail was delivered on Saturdays back then, and still is today), certainly sounds like it could keep a person busy all day.

When I say that the building was self-contained, I mean, it was self-contained! There was a large indoor gym, table tennis rooms, meeting/function rooms, an outdoor pool, and several tennis courts. At ground-level, there was a White Hen Pantry convenience store, alongside a dry-cleaning shop. Underground were resident and guest parking garages and a gasoline pump. One could come home from work Friday night and not have to go outside again until the following Monday. And we did just that on a few very-cold-and-snowy weekends!

Home Sweet Home

Our apartment was on the 19th floor. Of course, we had elevators (AU: lifts), and I don't recall having to ever use the stairs up or down.

One entered the apartment through an entrance hall that had a large coat and storage closet. There was one large bedroom with built-in closets; a decent kitchen, complete with all appliances (including a refrigerator, which apartments in Australia often did not provide); a dining room connected to a large lounge room; and a bathroom with a shower over the tub, a vanity unity, some cabinets, and a toilet bowl. (Now that we were living in America, we could see firsthand why "going to the bathroom" usually meant "going to the toilet"; after all, the toilet was in the bathroom!) The place was tastefully carpeted. There were laundry facilities every few floors.

One thing I noticed very early on was that there was a phone jack in almost every room. In Australia, houses came with only one. What we'd heard was true after all, those Americans truly were decadent!

Back in South Australia, people paid (and still pay) rent by the week, so when we were confronted with having to pay by the month, in advance, we were shocked. $400 was a lot of money all at once! [We'd signed a 1-year lease that had a penalty for early termination.]

One lounge room wall was all glass, and it faced west. So, how was the view from the 19th floor? Ours was by far the tallest residential building in the neighborhood, so we looked down on everyone. The only trees we could see were at a cemetery way off in the distance. We were beyond the end of the landing path for one of the many runways at O'Hare International Airport (ORD), so at night we could see up to seven or eight planes on approach stacked up with their landing lights on.

[Ironically, that airport was significant to us before we knew we'd be living in Chicago. On 1979-05-25, American Airlines Flight 191 crashed moments after takeoff from ORD, killing all passengers and crew. What made this significant for us was that the plane was a McDonnell Douglas DC-10, the type we'd initially planned to fly across the Pacific with Air New Zealand. As a result, all DC-10s around the world were grounded, indefinitely. It took us some time to realize the impact on us, and by the time we did, the alternate flights across the Pacific were taken, so we went via Asia and Europe instead.]

Although I worked long/odd hours, not once in the whole year I lived there did I ever meet anyone on my floor! And I only ever met one neighbor, and she phoned before coming to our door to be sure to not inconvenience us. What I learned was that one could live among 1,000 people, yet still be alone, unless one made it a point to engage those around one. In fact, one story told was of a tenant dying in their apartment, but it wasn't until some days went by, and an unpleasant odor wafted out into the corridor, that they were discovered. Is that sad, or what?

Starting from Scratch

Some four months earlier, back in Australia, we'd been living in our own house that was filled with furniture, and driving two cars and a motorcycle. And here we were literally starting all over again. All we'd brought with us to the US was a large suitcase of stuff and two pieces of hand luggage. [A year later, we had another mid-sized case of supposedly important stuff airfreighted over, and some five years later, we filled a container with stuff we had in storage, which came by ship. This included a 1,000-book library.]

In the first week after we moved into the apartment, we had a couple of cheap aluminum folding beds, pillows, blankets, a few kitchen things, and some bathroom stuff.

So, how to get some furniture. At that time, Australia had its own credit card, Bankcard; Visa and Mastercard were not supported. Knowing that card would not be accepted abroad, weeks before we departed, we got an American Express card, and that's what helped us establish credit in the US. We went to Wiebolts Department store, and they sold us a queen-size bed with base, provided we paid cash-on-delivery. And as we didn't have any new cash for a month, we had to wait until then to take delivery of the bed. Once that happened, the store was happy to give us our own charge account, and we used that to buy a sofa-bed, a TV, a stereo, a dining table and four chairs, linens and towels, and several large indoor plants. Despite that, we kept the place rather Spartan; for example, the bed never did get a base, and the stereo and TV sat on a pile of house bricks we'd scavenged from somewhere.

We also needed to set up a bank account, but there were no banks in our neighborhood. As I'd be in the city each business day, I decided to find one near my workplace. Well, don't you know, one of the biggest banks in the US, Continental Illinois, was just around the corner, so I went there. [That bank went out of business in 1984!] I walked into this cavernous room with rows of tellers around several sides, each separated from their neighbor by a glass partition, and on top of each partition sat a brown plastic doe kangaroo, complete with joey in her pouch. Of course, it was a money box into which one could put one's spare change. And as a new customer I got one. [Thirty-nine years later, I still have it.] So why would a huge American bank have a kangaroo as one of its symbols? While on the one hand the bank served big business, on the other it served the little people as well, so it was a "a little bank within a big bank!" Surprise enough? Well, you might think so, but wait, there's more! When I asked about branches and where else I could make deposits or withdrawals, or do other business, they told me I could come to this head office, or to either of the other two branches the bank had. Say what? This huge bank had only three branches? Yes, and according to bank regulations at that time, while a bank could have branches, they had to be no more than 1,000 yards from the head office. Really! [In the US, banking in each state is controlled by that state's laws, and back then to stop big banks moving into small towns and markets, putting small and famers-and-merchants' local banks out of business, there were severe restrictions. I don't imagine that is still the case today.]

Playing Tourist Around Town

As I worked very long working hours, I didn't do a lot most weekends but rest. I did, however, visit the following: Opening Day of the baseball season at Wrigley Field to see the Chicago Cubs, a ride up into the clouds at the top of the (then) Sears Tower, Lincoln Park Zoo in winter to see how the kangaroos were handling the snow, the Chicago River dyed green for Saint Patrick's Day, Water Tower Place, the Chicago Art Institute, and Michigan AvenueThe Golden Mile, lit up for Christmas with trees wrapped in lights.

Going Out of Town

We managed to take a few personal trips out of town: snow skiing in Traverse City, Michigan; canoeing and camping on the Au Sable River, Michigan; and a visit to Washington DC then driving back from Detroit, where we visited the Henry Ford Museum. I also travelled a bit on business: to Indianapolis, Indiana; Columbus, Ohio, Lansing, Michigan; Salt Lake City, Utah; and San Diego, California.

Race in America

Although Australia was a large and growing melting pot of immigrants when we left, for the most part, people of different ethnic backgrounds got along quite well. Certainly, there were people from many eastern and western European, and Asian countries. Chicago was also a melting pot, with large groups of Polish, Irish, and African Americans, with a sizeable Jewish community. And the Federal Government (for which I consulted) hired a lot of minorities.

Two race-related situations come to mind: Derek, an African-American colleague planned to paint his apartment one weekend, and I said I'd go there and give him a hand. As I got closer to his neighborhood, I noticed that I was the only white person on the bus and then in the whole neighborhood, and the locals were eyeing me suspiciously. Well, I got there and back safely, but other colleagues told me afterwards they'd never even drive through that area for fear of breaking down and getting mugged!

The second event also involved Derek. We rented a car and I drove us to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where we stayed two nights with an uncle of his. The uncle was a very nice guy, and he took us to the neighborhood bar for a drink and some food. Of course, I'm the only white guy in the place, and after a while, I noticed how people at other tables were staring at me: "What's Whitey doing in our place?" Interestingly, all those people who actually came over to our table and met and talked with me became very relaxed and friendly, once they found out I was not a white American! Then, on the drive home, in suburban Chicago, the Police stopped us. We didn't ask them why, but we figured there were two likely reasons: We were driving a rental car, which happened to have out-of-state plates, and we were a black guy and a white guy traveling together, so we were probably up to no-good!

The Job

The US Federal Department of Labor had requested bids on a computer-related job, and, as often happens, the lowest bidder won. Never mind that the client had no expertise with the winning hardware, operating system, or software! A large company had a contract to supply IT staff, and I worked through them. The client had been waiting for some months to find qualified people, and was happy to have me, even if I did speak a little funny!

Five-to-six days a week, I rode the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) bus to and from work downtown at the Federal building at Kluczynski Plaza. [BTW, the original name of the popular rock band Chicago, was Chicago Transit Authority.]

My first project was to design and program an application to track apprenticeships in a 4-state region of the Midwest: Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois. I also wrote a user guide, and traveled to each state to train users who connected using a video terminal via a phone line and modem. The system I delivered was very well accepted, and became the model for a national system, replacing an antiquated and unfriendly one. I worked very long days, and often rode home after midnight on the CTA along with some very interesting passengers, some of whom were arguing with themselves!

My second project was for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), for a lab in Cincinnati, Ohio. It calibrated and repaired various kinds of instruments for Federal and State governments, as well as for private companies. They needed a system to track arrivals of equipment, the stages of the repair process, and the return shipping. They also dialed in over phone lines to use the central computer. That project also went very well.

For any old-time, computer nerds out there, here are the technical details of my computing environment: We had a Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) PDP 11-34 with 256 KB of memory, various small-capacity cartridge disk drives, a console terminal, VT100 screens, a line printer, a 9-track magnetic tape drive, and some 300-baud dial-in phone lines to which remote terminals connected via acoustic couplers. The operating system was RSTS/E V6, and the programming languages we used were BASIC-PLUS, DIBOL, and COBOL. [Although I'd used RSTS as a student, five years earlier, it was only as a novice user/programmer. Now I was The Man, the person who installed and maintained the O/S!]

Accents and Aussie vs. American English

For the whole year I was on the job, each week, we'd have a staff meeting, during which the head guy would ask for status reports. And each week when I spoke, he whispered to my boss, "What did he say?" I found this amusing given that many of the people working in the group were from the south side of the city, and spoke out the side of their mouths. I often had trouble understanding them! It seemed to me that they just assumed that as I was a native-English speaker that they should be able to understand me without having to pay close attention. They made allowances for others whose first language was not English, but not for me.

One weekend, we were with American friends in our apartment building and the topic of Rhyming Slang came up as an Australian thing. For example, bag of fruit means suit, trouble and strife means wife, and china plate means mate. [The challenge is that often the rhyming words get shortened, so china plate is reduced to china, which had no obvious rhyme-association with mate.] One person asked, "Do you have any terms like that about Americans?" To which we smiled and replied, "Yes, Septic Tank, Yank, which is shorted to septic!" They didn't think that was at all funny. [Aussies think that's hilarious. Besides, the more an Aussie likes you, the more he insults you! So, if an Aussie is insulting you, he either really likes you, or he really dislikes you; you decide.]

Chicago Politics and Government

Perhaps the most famous politician in Chicago was the long-serving Mayor, Richard J. Daley. He famously said, "Chicago is a city that works!" The winter before we arrived, his successor, Michael Bilandic, was golfing in Florida when the superstorm referred to earlier, hit. It's unlikely he could have done more than was done to manage the crisis, but he was ousted at the next election by a feisty woman, Jane Byrne, who served during our stay. Her promise was to move the snow if/when it came! And she did, although it was a very mild winter.

I recall that one time, the Chicago Tribune newspaper provided detailed coverage of all the murders that had occurred in the past month. During our year there, the school system, which was run by the city, went broke. A crime ring was caught that had been stealing radio equipment from police cars and selling it back to the Police Department! Although I wasn't out in the community all that much, over the year, I only saw police in action once, from a window in a high-rise building nearby, going down an outside subway entrance to deal with an incident. I recall that many police were quite obese, and some rode on three-wheel motorcycle trikes. [At the time, there was a popular comedy sketch showing a police officer shooting a suspect and then yelling, "Freeze!"]

Some Miscellaneous Stuff

Several unrelated things come to mind:

  • In Australia, FM/stereo radio existed, but there were almost no commercial stations allowed to use it. In Chicago, we had a wide range of such stations, with many specializing in a particular style of music. That suited us just fine! [BTW, Australia had, and still has, Federal-Government-run national radio and TV networks.]
  • Unlike in Australia where the phone company was Federal-Government controlled (and formerly joined with the Post Office), in the US, phone companies were private although there were near-monopolies. The year or so after we arrived, deregulation of that industry went ahead full steam. We had also been used to state-controlled electricity, water, and natural gas supplies.
  • Concrete beaches! Yes, large concrete slabs ran along the waterfront of Lake Michigan back up to where people sat "at the beach!"

Moving to the DC Area

As the end of our year was approaching, I made it clear to Harvey that I was ready to move on, and he found a great fit for me with an international IT company based in the planned city of Reston in Northern Virginia, 45 minutes from Washington DC.

Although we had arrived in Chicago with one case and two carry-on bags, we now had a 1-bedroom apartment full of furniture, household things, and numerous personal things. So, we rented a small moving truck and took three days to drive to the Washington DC area. However, the departure was not without incident. On moving day, I took the expansion leaf out of the dining table, and carried that table all the way to the freight elevator on our floor, where I left it to go back and get more things to fill up the elevator for the ride down to the truck. But when I came back, the table was gone. Unbeknown to us, it was common practice in the building to leave stuff one didn't want any more near the freight elevator, so neighbors who wanted it, could take it. After some hours of panic and investigation, we found the guy who'd taken it and he gave it back to us once we explained the situation. Thirty-eight years later, I still have that dining table, complete with expansion leaf, although the chairs have long since been replaced. The queen-size bed is now my guestroom bed, and I think I still have some bath towels, cutlery, and cookware from that time.

Looking Back

After we moved, a replacement for me wasn't yet in place, so I agreed to go back to Chicago for a month, during which time I stayed in a very nice hotel downtown near the waterfront, and walked to/from work each day.

I can't say that I ever missed the city, but then I was so busy with work that I wasn't really connected to the place. In any event, I'm always looking forward to the next adventure, rarely looking backwards. However, from 1989 to 1996, I did return to the area on a regular basis for a week at a time. In each of those visits, I taught a computer-programming language seminar at the nuclear accelerator facility FermiLab in nearby Batavia, but only once did I stop over to re-visit downtown Chicago.

Although I try to use direct flights as much as possible, from time to time I've been routed through Chicago's O'Hare Airport. It is the home of my main airline, United, whose gates occupy two enormous terminals, with an underground moving sidewalk with an art/color/light/sound show between them. If you are passing through those terminals, it's worth taking a look.

Travel: Memories of Puerto Rico

© 2002, 2009, 2017 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

Over the past 30 years, I've vacationed in the Spanish-speaking US territory Puerto Rico more than 10 times, and I've passed through its capital, San Juan, on the way to Venezuela and various Caribbean islands. [As I prepare this essay, it's October 2017, and the island has just been completely devastated by Hurricane Maria. And as I get ready to post this essay, it's a year later with a lot of damage still.]

From a trip over Christmas, 2001:

[Diary] To while away the 90 minutes until flight time, we went into the First-Class lounge and enjoyed hot tea while sitting in comfortable chairs in a sunny window. Our flight left on time. The twelve of us seated in First Class certainly got excellent, friendly service. The extra room was appreciated. The food was rather exotic, but nicely presented. It felt a bit strange, however, to have linen napkins, and real silverware. Our scheduled flight time was 3:18 hours, and it was a smooth ride. We landed in San Juan 15 minutes early but had to wait for a gate. The 80-degree-F weather was quite an improvement over the 30 degrees back home.

We collected our rental car and set out for Playa Caribe, a small family-friendly hotel on the southeast coast that we had stayed at a number of times before. The local maps and road signs (or lack thereof) left much to be desired. First, we missed the exit to go south. Then coming back, we missed the exit, but, luck was with us, and, eventually, I found my way off one freeway, around a few streets and back on going in the other direction to finally head south. Finally, nine hours after leaving home, we were settled into our new home. The first thing we did was to take off the plastic screens that had been installed for the air conditioning, and switch off the A/C. Soon a very nice breeze had cooled the room. The crashing of the waves about 30 feet away was soothing and would help us sleep. It also drowned out any noise from neighbors.

[Diary] It was Jenny's 48th birthday. Her Majesty slept late, and apart from a shopping trip to a nearby town, spent the day sitting on the beach and lying in a hammock. As usual, I took over the kitchen, and served very adequate meals, which often involved salads. The day started out cloudy and rainy, but that soon gave way to partly sunny skies and 82 degrees. The breeze made it pleasant to be on the beach. There had previously been a fenced-off swimming area, but the current was very strong, and the ocean floor very rocky, so it really wasn't a place to swim. The new owner had put in a swimming pool and removed the enclosed area in the sea.

We quickly settled into a routine: sleep late, have a leisurely breakfast, work (I took my laptop), read, swim, chat with other guests, eat, watch news on TV (particularly the German channel Deutsche Welle, which had some informative programs in English, including reactions from the man on the street to the first day of using the Euro), and retire late. We met some very nice people: a couple from Atlanta and a honeymooning Dutch couple with whom we planned to keep in touch. [I am very happy to say that more than 17 years later, we are still in touch, and they have three delightful daughters. I've visited them several times in Utrecht.] One evening we had a potluck snack/dinner down on the beach. Three couples contributed food and drink, and we had four hours of lively conversation.

[Diary] One day, we decided to use the rental car and check out some accommodation in the northeast of the island, an ecolodge near the southern entrance to the rainforest. We remembered the windy road to the rainforest. Years ago, a landslide blocked the road that went through the rainforest. We walked a short way along that road. A local was dropping off some hikers who were trekking six miles to a waterfall we could see from the road. He said it was eight miles to the landslide, but we weren't interested in hiking that far. The ecolodge didn't excite us much, so we didn't get a brochure. We did, however, visit a nice-looking inn with a spectacular view of the eastern coast. This place had possibilities for a future visit. We took the coastal road back to our hotel.

The weather continued to be warm and mostly sunny. A couple of days were very windy, with many gusts over 20 mph. There was always a breeze, but not usually over five mph. Most days some brave guests swam in the sea. Every day keen surfers sought the best waves nearby. Jenny usually ventured into the ocean for a quick dip, and then swam in the pool for 30 minutes. One evening before dusk, we walked along the shore. Another evening we sat in chairs near the shore, enjoying the cool breeze and the sounds of the waves.

Another day, we revisited the hot springs at Coamo, about 25 miles away as the crow flies. A drive along part of the mountainous, scenic highway seemed like a good plan, but, again, we were tricked by poor sign posting. We missed the scenic route completely, but did enjoy winding through the mountains, even if we didn't really need to be there. We finally caught the freeway south and reached Coamo. The area was more built up since our last visit nine years earlier, but the hotel still looked attractive. By 4 p.m. we were back at Playa Caribe.

One evening, we drove into Guayama for dinner to give the cook a night off. We ate pizza, which was a nice change from salads. We also shopped for the barbecue we were to attend Friday evening with a group of guests at the hotel.

On the last day, we drove into the town of Patillas where we picked up ice and a few more necessities for the barbecue. About 15 people attended. We dined well on hamburgers, hotdogs, fajitas, salad, chips and salsa, and coconut layer cake. A most enjoyable evening was had by all.

[Diary] We rose early, enjoyed our last breakfast listening to the waves, packed and checked out. We set off for San Juan about 10 am. We had arranged to have lunch with the parents of a former teaching colleague. Norma was an ESL teacher at Terraset in Reston, but had married and moved to Istanbul, Turkey. She was visiting her parents who had spent a day with us at the beach on a previous trip. We enjoyed our visit, and Norma's 10-month-old daughter, Selin, was delightful.

We got to the airport in plenty of time. Check-in went smoothly, and, although the line for security was long, it helped to pass the time. For no apparent reason, everyone was removing their shoes to be X-rayed, so we did too. We had exit seats, which gave us extra room. We had a good flight during which we enjoyed a very nice salmon dinner and saw a good film. Our trusty taxi driver, neighbor Joe, came to collect us from Dulles Airport. After unpacking, we joined him at his house for coffee and snacks.

This was a most enjoyable, relaxing trip. For me it was also very productive, as I worked about half-time developing a new seminar. Now we were back into the routine of home life. While it wasn't 85 degrees, at least it was milder than January can be.

From a trip over Christmas, 2008:

[Diary] Feliz Navidad! (That's "Merry Christmas" in Spanish.) Being a frequent flyer, I accumulate a lot of points, and the best way to use them is to fly even more, but for free. So, this Christmas, we decided to spend a week in the sun, in Puerto Rico, to the east of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. We've visited quite a few times before, but always during the Christmas-New Year break as that's when Scott was out of school. However, our previous visit was in April 2007. However, now that Jenny was back teaching fulltime, once again, she was constrained by the school calendar.

[Diary] Our Airbus A320 departed, on time, at 8:15 am, pretty much full. It was a cold but clear day. We took off to the north then headed east over Maryland getting a great view of the whole of the Chesapeake Bay. We then flew south overland. Flying time was estimated at 3:45 hours. I advanced my clock one hour to GMT-4 time.

The flight was uneventful, just like a flight should be. Although I was tired I wasn't able to sleep, so I read, worked on some puzzles and started this diary. Almost before we knew it, we were on approach to Puerto Rico, and the view out my window was of bright blue sea, beaches and, yes, sunshine. We touched down right at 1 pm, local time. Soon after we got to the baggage carousel our luggage arrived and we were out at the curb waiting for the Avis Car Rental shuttle bus. We were dropped off at our Hyundai, and navigator Jenny was pressed into service. The temperature was in the high 70s F, just like winter should be.

We headed east on the autopista (freeway) towards Fajardo. Since almost all the signs on the road and the shops and businesses were in Spanish, I switched to Spanish mode. And although they use the metric system for most things, the speed limit signs are all in miles per hour! The freeway system had been under construction for many years. As to when it will be finished, the answer is probably "mañana" (literally "tomorrow", but really "whenever", maybe "never"). Near the east coast, we turned south passed the old U.S. Navy base of Roosevelt Roads.

It took about 1:40 hours to get to our destination, Playa Caribe, a little piece of Heaven, and a small hotel at which we'd stopped five or six times before. Two friendly guys checked us in to our favorite block of rooms, 30 yards in from the pounding ocean. We were in a ground floor room with a king-size bed, cable TV, table and chairs, refrigerator and mini kitchen. Outside on the verandah we had a table and chairs. Hammocks hung in the coconut trees. The first thing we did even before we unpacked was to take off all the plastic window screens (installed for the air conditioning), so the breeze could blow right through from front to back, or vice versa. No artificial air conditioning for us, thank you very much! Once we were unpacked and changed into beachwear, I made a pot of tea, which we had with some snacks. It was all rather civilized.

We managed to stay awake all afternoon and went to the hotel restaurant at 6:30 pm. Jenny had a very nice pasta, chicken, and shrimp dinner, and I had a great bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. We capped it with glasses of iced pineapple juice.

To wind down, we read, played computer games and listened to my newest album, from the young female Welsh singer Duffy. Lights out at 9 pm.

[Diary] After breakfast, we drove into Guayama, the nearest large town, where we shopped for groceries. The sun was very intense and we both remarked that if this was winter, how hot could it be in summer?

We had salad and sliced meat with glasses of passion fruit juice while sitting out on our verandah being serenaded by the crashing waves. After that strenuous effort, Jenny retired to a hammock with a novel.

We lazed away the afternoon, snacking whenever the mood took us, and watched several TV shows. Lights out at 9 pm.

[Diary] We were awake at 7 am after 10 hours of pretty good sleep. Her Majesty was served breakfast in bed, which she consumed while reading a novel. At 11 am, we started watching a series of TV shows, pausing to fix lunch and to allow the chambermaid to make our bed, change towels, and sweep the floor.

The afternoon was spent in much the same fashion, with reading, music (can you say "Duffy"?) and the crash of waves. Once again, we had a steady intake of calories throughout the day. I started a novel, the latest from J.D. Robb, "Salvation in Death". Then we watched a movie that was mildly amusing. Lights out at 11 pm.

[Diary] It was 8:30 am by the time we were awake. Once again, the butler delivered breakfast-in-bed to Princess Jenny; tea and cookie, with cereal and fruit. Then it was reading time until 10 am. It was sunny out, and a bit warmer than the previous day. Several lots of new guests came to sunbathe on the folding chairs under the palm trees. Some women even took off their tops. Well, I ask you! I marched right out there and gave them 24 hours to stop that behavior.

Before starting on some work, I made sure I really was ready, by doing a series of logic puzzles. As that went well, I set about making detailed plans for a business trip I'd be taking to Sacramento, California, soon after we got home.

We spent much of the day reading and snacking, following by snacking and reading. In short, we took it very easy. Jenny did some lesson preparation just in case she decided to go back home and to work.

Supper was a very casual affair, and we read until lights out at 10:30 pm. However, for me, my brainstorming continued until at least midnight, by which time, I was overtired.

[Diary] I was awake soon after 5 am. (Don't you just hate that when that happens!) Unfortunately, my brain kicked in soon after, and all attempts to get back to sleep failed, so, at 6:15 am, I got up and dressed. Day broke as I went north along the beach dodging the crashing waves. I walked more than a mile before the sun rose. It was a brilliant orange ball rising over the eastern sea. However, not long after, rain clouds moved over it and I could see heavy rain falling in the distance out over the sea.

Back at the hotel, I met some new residents, and chatted awhile with them. Then I gave the wireless internet connection one last try, and, lo and behold, I got connected. A bunch of email went out and, of the flood that came in, only two messages were of interest, and there was no new work waiting. Yes!

At 8:30 am, Jenny stirred, so I made tea. We'd bought two very large Asian pears (sometimes known by their Japanese name "nashi"), and treated ourselves to one of them for breakfast. It was absolutely delicious. Then it was on to reading, listening to music (can you say "Duffy"?), and computer games.

We "vegged out", lying on the bed watching quite a few shows on TV. Basically, we took a holiday, and did things we don't ordinarily do.

Soon after 5 pm, we hopped in the car and headed off to the east taking a random local road deep into the mountains and through little villages. Once it got dark, it was hard to see all the sharp turns and narrow parts of the road, but that just made it a bit more exciting. And a few of the locals didn't believe in headlights. We finally emerged in the town of Patillas, and from there, we went back home on the main highway, arriving at 6:29 pm, just in time for our 6:30 pm dinner reservation. Jenny had a well-done steak with rice and beans, and I had catfish with rice and beans. Once again, we had ice-cold pineapple juice. Lights out by 11 pm.

[Diary] Jenny's 55th birthday; holy Toledo! As with all the other days on the trip, I served her breakfast in bed. I worked solidly for about six hours, taking breaks now and then to stretch and snack. Jenny lay in the hammock and read.

At 4 pm, I stripped down for Rafael, who gave me a full body massage for 75 minutes. Despite the fact that he was quite physical, I was so relaxed that I nearly went to sleep. He was a physical therapist who came to the hotel after work, on demand.

After supper, we went to the hotel restaurant for dessert; we shared pineapple flan and vanilla cheesecake. I had a cup of café con leche (coffee with milk), but it was very strong, and not quite how I expected it to be. (Don't you just hate that when that happens!) However, it didn't keep me awake.

[Diary] After our usual light breakfast I planned to do some work, but I got distracted listening to music (can you say "Duffy"?) and playing computer games. Around noon, I finally got going, and put in a couple of solid hours.

We snacked for lunch. New neighbors arrived, bringing everything a small army might need for a New Year's Eve BBQ and party. Late afternoon, we joined up with our immediate neighbors to talk, snack, and then have supper together on our joint verandah.

Jenny met a couple who had no car, so, after several days at the hotel they were ready to go somewhere; anywhere. So, at 10:30 pm, we headed out looking for a convenience store, so they could buy some supplies. As we found, almost everything was closed for New Year's Eve. However, as we approached Patillas, we found a place open, and it was very busy. We arrived back at the hotel at 11:50 pm, just in time to hear the New Year countdown by the partygoers and to see a man light up a very large string of pretty fireworks he had hanging from a palm tree down on the beach. After that, it was pretty anticlimactic; everyone packed up and went to bed, which was fine with us. Lights out at 12:15 am, and we were asleep very soon after.

[Diary] New Year's Day; prospero nuevo año!

We were awake at 8:15 am. We had a light breakfast, which just about used up our food supplies. I made a picnic lunch, and then got my last email fix before we packed our bags.

Reluctantly, we checked out at 11 am, and some fellow guests joined us. We stopped at a convenience store for some snacks before dropping the guests at a beach just outside of town.

We took our time driving back to San Juan. Being a holiday, traffic was very light. The weather was wonderful, and we had the windows down all the way. By the time we got to our hotel it was 1:30 pm; however, no rooms were available until 3 pm, so we had our picnic lunch in the shade by the pool. I'd found the Coqui Inn on the internet. It's near the international airport, had all we needed, and was quite cheap. It was painted in brilliant colors with nautical murals. (A coqui is a local species of frog. It is featured on all kinds of souvenirs.)

I sat in the foyer and worked on this diary while Jenny wrote some postcards and read. At 2:45 pm, our room was ready, so I moved our gear into room 218, on the second floor, way at the back through a maze of open corridors. There was a sizeable kitchen, which was a bonus. Right about then, we decided to forgo spending the afternoon in old San Juan in and near the old fortress. Instead, we found a second, larger pool near our room, and went there to sit in the sun. Rumor has it that I was even seen swimming, a rare sight. Although the water was mostly in the sun, it still felt cold, but I took the plunge anyway, and recovered fairly quickly. After some 10 laps, I'd gotten the exercise bug out of my system, and then I sat in the sun reading my favorite English grammar book, "Woe is I", by Patricia O'Connor. (I kid you not; doesn't everybody take a grammar book on their vacation?)

Back in our room I hooked up to the free wireless internet connection and got some New Year email from friends around the world.

At 7 pm, we went out to eat and buy gas. We ended up at a "traditional Puerto Rican place", Burger King. Lights out at 9:15 pm with the ceiling fan on all night.

[Diary] The alarm was set for 5:20 am, but I was wide awake at 4:15 am. (Don't you just hate that!) We checked out of the hotel just before 6 am and drove the five minutes to the airport. The rental car shuttle bus air conditioning was so cold it was a shock to the system.

We ran our cases through the U.S Dept. of Agriculture X-ray system, and then checked in. As Puerto Rico is a U.S. Territory there was no immigration check. We stopped off at a café for some empanadas and hot chocolate. The lines at security moved quickly, and, soon, we were at Gate 34 with 40 minutes to wait before boarding.

When traveling, I find it interesting to look at all the places flights are departing to and arriving from. At that time, these were Anguilla, Antigua, Bonaire, Grenada, Panama City, St. Croix and St. Thomas (U.S. Virgin Islands), St. Lucia, St. Maarten, Santo Domingo, Tortola and Virgin Gorda (British Virgin Islands), various cities within Puerto Rico, and a number of cities in the U.S.

United's flight UA972 boarded, and I was first on the Airbus A320. It was a full flight. We took off, on time, in very pleasant weather. The Captain told us that he expected a bit of turbulence during the 3:52-hour flight, and that the temperature at IAD was currently 32 degrees F with the possibility of light snow when we arrived. Right about then I knew it was a mistake to go back home!

As soon as we lifted off, my body cried out for sleep. However, after repeated attempts to get comfortable and to sleep, I gave up and just closed my eyes and planned my trip to Sacramento, the capital of California, the following week.

Back home, we unpacked, Jenny got a load of washing going, and I went off grocery shopping. Basically, life was back to the usual. However, we sure were missing that natural warmth.

Adios, mis amigos (goodbye my friends).

Signs of Life: Part 13

© 2017 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

From time to time during my travels, I come across signs that I find interesting for one reason or another. Sometimes, they contain clever writing, are humorous, or remind me of some place or event. Here are some from a trip to Croatia.


To say that Zagreb, Croatia's capital, has a lot of museums and cultural places, would be an understatement.


A club in Zagreb.


A shoe shop in Zagreb.


A clever cross-stitch pattern sign.


The Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, was a highlight of my visit.

It "grew from a traveling exhibition revolving around the concept of failed relationships and their ruins." The exhibits were all articles that people had donated, along with their stories of relationships that went sour or ended in death. There were the usual teenage- and adult-breakup stories. One woman had become a dominatrix, and while disciplining a new male client, realized he was an old boyfriend. He begged her to give him one of her stiletto-heeled shoes. She did, and eventually donated the other one to the museum. Another man's girlfriend had run off with another guy, so the man got an axe and chopped up her furniture, one piece per day. He donated the axe. Another woman donated the suicide note her mother had left her.


How to win friends; NOT!


According to Wikipedia, a boudoir "is a woman's private sitting room or salon in a furnished accommodation usually between the dining room and the bedroom, but can also refer to a woman's private bedroom."

Just what this shop was selling was a mystery to me.


A souvenir shop next to the Bloody Bridge in Zagreb.

What caught my eye was the use of the word bloody, which in Australian English is often used to mean very.


A sundial.

So, just what time is it? I'd say, "It's time to replaster the wall!"


Short and to the point!


Yeah, right!

BTW, I've heard it said that if you don't clean your house for two years, it doesn't get any worse after that! I'll let you know if that's true.


OK, it's a clock; so what? On closer inspection, we can see that it's a 24-hour clock; however, both halves go from 1–12 rather than a continuous 1–24.

Click here to read more about 24-hour clock faces.


At a quick glance, the cat and mouse appear to best friends, but on closer inspection, I think we can see the beginnings of a strangle hold followed by lunch!


An interesting take on the name of adventurer Marco Polo.

This is the Zagreb branch of an international chain of fashion stores.


Fast food, Italian style.


In Pula, I went to the neighborhood supermarket to get supplies, and along the way stopped to listen to a violin concert by a 6-year-old girl called Anna. I chatted with her mother who was standing across the street. Anna practiced an hour each day and was quite professional in her approach. Passersby all clapped and put money in her violin case. I did too and added a piece of candy as well.



A Little Bit of Religion

© 2017 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

According to Wikipedia, "Religion is any cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, world views, texts, sanctified places, ethics, or organizations, that relate humanity to the supernatural or transcendental. Religions relate humanity to what anthropologist Clifford Geertz has referred to as a cosmic 'order of existence.' However, there is no scholarly consensus over what precisely constitutes a religion."

As best as I can figure out, a belief system is one that attempts to explain how the world came into being, and after that, why things are like they are. But could a belief system simply be an attempt to rationalize what happened and what exists anyway? That is, an attempt to explain creation and good and evil? In any event, I don't consider it possible to prove that any belief system is actually true, let along its being the one true belief system!

According to what archeologists have uncovered, mankind has been fascinated for millennia about the night sky and heavenly objects (e.g., the Great Pyramids and their connection with Orion's Belt, or the Mayan observatories). The heliocentric view that the planets go around the Sun is relatively new, and until it was widely accepted, the church in Rome executed or treated harshly more than a few adherents. (Think Galileo and Copernicus.) The questions regarding the world being flat, and what causes floods, plagues, volcanic eruptions, eclipses, and so on, were all pondered by high priests of many faiths. Human sacrifices were often called for to appease the Gods.

Then along came Charles Darwin and his Theory of Evolution to challenge Creationism. (See also, Alfred Russel Wallace.) [Here in the US, this debate is still being fought vigorously in numerous school districts as to whether Biology textbooks should even mention evolution. According to them, at the very least, such textbooks should clearly state that "Evolution is only a theory!"]

Growing up Lutheran

I'm descended from German-speaking Lutherans who left their native Prussia in the 1840s to start a new life in the new state of South Australia. [Along with their religion, they brought grape vines; after all, you do need wine with your communion!]

For me, the process of becoming a Lutheran started with baptism, which took place in a cathedral-like Lutheran Church in my home town. Then came Sunday School, which involved religious instruction for pre-school and school-age kids. It mostly happened while the adults were in church. The next stage was confirmation. While some Christian faiths had a much-shortened version, we Lutherans prepared for this for about nine months. Around age 12, I and 15–20 others from my congregation attended 2½ hours of religious instruction every Saturday morning. At the end of that time, we underwent a verbal examination, in public, in front of the whole congregation! The next day was Sunday, and we walked down the church aisle in our black suits and white dresses to take our first communion of wafers and port wine. At that moment, we became full members of the church.

There was a Lutheran youth organization, but as I lived out of town, and was too young to drive, I never participated in its activities. Besides, I was "into" sports!

Throughout my five years of high school, each Friday morning there was a Religious-Instruction period, at which time, all faiths in the area could send a representative to the school to lead a group of students who were members of their faith. Although it was possible for parents to opt-out their kids from this activity, I don't recall knowing anyone who did. For many (most?) students, it simply was time away from academic classes, which was just fine with them.

I finished high school and left home when I was 16, and soon after that I discontinued any involvement with organized religion. In fact, up until that time, I'd never been a believer anyway; the whole idea behind Christianity just seemed quite unbelievable (and still does)!

In Australia, many Aboriginal tribes live on what are called missions, somewhat akin to American Indian reservations. These also exist in present-day Papua New Guinea. While some missions were overseen by government agencies, many were managed by the Lutheran Church. Two of my uncles and their families spent much of their lives at missions at Hermannsburg in Australia, and at Lae in what used to be called German New Guinea. I also have a sister who lived many years at several missions in Australia. During her time in Hermannsburg, I visited her twice, at age 15 and then again at 25. Apparently, at one time, my father had applied to work on a mission, but he never got approval. As you may know, Australian Aborigines have a very rich and complex dreamtime belief system. It is very likely that based on my visits to Hermannsburg, I started to dislike what I perceived to be religious-missionary "interference" with regards to native belief systems.

Now while there are numerous faiths within Christianity, due to schisms in established sects or new creations, some faiths split into competing camps. In Australia, we had the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Australia (ELCA) and, yes Dear Reader, the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Australia (UELCA). The two branches merged in 1966 becoming the Lutheran Church of Australia (LCA). However, many people in my home town still carry on like they are separate! [Once I'd moved to the US I discovered it too had two Lutheran branches: The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.] As a young boy, for five years I attended a UELCA church in a small country town. A family that lived quite close to that church was of the ELCA persuasion, so as we arrived at our church, they drove past to go to their church in the next town. Such schisms remind me of the Judean People's Front and the People's Front of Judea in the satirical film, Monty Python's Life of Brian.

Australia had (and still has) parochial schools. In my state, except for the greater metropolitan area of the state capital, Adelaide, the only faiths typically having their own schools were the Catholics and Lutherans. My home town had (and still has) a Lutheran Day School for Grades 1–7. I attended that for a bit more than two years. In the capital, various faiths had schools catering for Grades 1–12 with many boarding students from rural areas. In the US, more than a few universities started out as, and many continue as, parochial ventures.

Why Does a Person have a Particular Religion?

It seems to me that the vast majority of people having some belief system grew up with it. That is, they were born into a family that practiced it. The generation before them practiced it, and those before that did too. It was a tradition, and each generation was indoctrinated (and inculcated) in it. (Yes, I really do mean "taught with a biased, one-sided or uncritical ideology".) And if anyone questioned it, there were ways to "convince" them to conform. And in extreme cases, they were ostracized, banished from the group, or even worse. (See apostasy below.) In fact, my father was excommunicated from his church, presumably for living with another woman "without the benefit of clergy"! Some years ago, when I discovered Quakerism, I was interested to learn they did not believe in Sunday School or child-indoctrination. One must be an adult to become a Quaker, at an age when one can make decisions for oneself.

For many, the indoctrination is so strong, that even if they have abandoned their belief system, they still turn to it in times of crisis, danger, or war. Yes, belonging to a group can have its comforts!

As I think about all the people I have known well, I can probably count on two hands the number who have taken up a first religion after having none, or who have changed from one religion to another. In contrast, I know many who have gone from their raised faith to having none at all! This raises the question of whether a particular religion can survive and thrive without child-indoctrination. [Obviously, Quakerism manages to survive, but I wouldn't say that it thrives.]

The Crime of Non-Belief or Conversion

Although I've long known about the general idea (having practiced it myself), it's only recently that I learned the term apostasy. According to Wikipedia, this "is the formal disaffiliation from, or abandonment or renunciation of a religion by a person. It can also be defined within the broader context of embracing an opinion contrary to one's previous beliefs. One who commits apostasy is known as an apostate."

One of the best-known apostates was Martin Luther. Wikipedia states, "… the founder of Lutheranism was considered both an apostate and heretic by the strict definition of apostasy according to the Catholic Church. Most Protestants would naturally disagree, calling him a liberator and revolutionary."

Under the Sharia Law practiced in certain Islamic countries, apostates can be punished by death. [Such a lack of tolerance can also be seen in countries in which it is illegal to speak negatively about the Royal Family or the head of the government.]

To learn more about religious conversion, click here; for religious intolerance, click here; for apostasy in Judaism, click here; for apostasy in Christianity, click here; and for apostasy in Islam, click here;

Some well-Known Belief Systems

There have been many such systems; here are some of the best known: Paganism, Animism, Native American, Monotheism (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, Zoroastrianism, and Rastafarianism. Of course, once the Reformation occurred, over time, the resulting Protestants broke into many different faiths.

For a list of religions and spiritual traditions, click here. For details about state-sponsored religions, click here.

It is interesting how a new religion can co-opt some of the customs from its predecessors. Basically, rather than try to convert people to a whole new system, you keep some of the familiar bits of the old way. To that end, the Christian holiday of Christmas is celebrated on December 25th, a date from pagan times (see Saturnalia) and around the northern winter solstice. [Scholars generally agree that the actual date of Jesus' birth is unknown.]

Theists, Atheists, and Agnostics

According to Wikipedia, "Atheism is, in the broadest sense, the absence of belief in the existence of deities. Less broadly, atheism is the rejection of belief that any deities exist. In an even narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which, in its most general form, is the belief that at least one deity exists."

Wikipedia also states, "Agnosticism is the view that the existence of God, of the divine or the supernatural is unknown or unknowable."

Also see nontheism.

While such labels can be convenient from certain viewpoints, I doubt that every member of any religious group agrees on exactly the same things. (This is why I'm not affiliated with a particular political party.)

From a logic point of view, proving a negative has long been seen as being impossible, so I reject the notion that one can prove there are no gods.

The Great Religious Disputes

There have been, and continue to be, major—and very often bloody—disputes between religions and between sects of the same religion. The ones that immediately come to mind are: Catholics vs. Protestants in Northern Ireland; the eviction of the Islamic Moors from Spain by the Christians, and the Jews caught in-between; the Romans and the Jews; the Crusades: Christians vs. Moslems; and the Shi'a vs. Sunni Moslems.

It is interesting, and very sad, to see how much blood has been shed over these disagreements.

So, what am I?

As I have written and stated numerous times, like Spock the character from Star Trek, I am a Vulcan. That is, I "attempt to live by logic and reason with as little interference from emotion as possible."

The simple answer is, "Why do I have to be anything?" And when asked various deep philosophical or religious questions (such as "What happens after one dies?"), I often respond, "I don't know, and I don't care!"

I am deeply suspicious of the idea that the next life is way better than the one here on earth, but you are not allowed to get there early. That sounds to me very much like a man-made, clergy-dominated system that wants/needs to keep people in line. Do the things I tell you are good and you'll go to a wonderful place, Heaven. Otherwise, you'll go to a terrible place, Hell!

[Reviewer John (who has two degrees in psychology), made me aware of Sigmund Freud's book Civilization and Its Discontents. According to Wikipedia, "The second chapter delves into how religion is one coping strategy that arises out of a need for the individual to distance himself from all of the suffering in the world. … Freud, an avowed atheist, argued that religion has tamed asocial instincts and created a sense of community around a shared set of beliefs, thus helping a civilization. Yet at the same time, organized religion exacts an enormous psychological cost on the individual by making him or her perpetually subordinate to the primal father figure embodied by God."]

Heaven and Hell

Numerous religions have the notion of Heaven and Hell, and the goal of their adherents is to make it to the former; the latter being for the truly unworthy.

What exactly do believers think these "places" are like? After all, they are trying to make it to one place, but not the other! I hear claims that in Heaven there is no war, no sickness, no pain, no famine, and really nothing at all unpleasant. And that Hell is a terrible place involving eternal punishment. However, all of these things only mean something in the context of our earthly bodies, which I hear are left behind when one dies. So, if I'm in Heaven and I don't have a body, I can't see a rainbow, I can't hear a Strauss waltz, I can't taste my favorite food or wine, and I can't touch anything. So, how do I do anything, and just what exactly is there to do? And what exactly am I? Similarly, if I'm in Hell, what punishment can be inflicted on me if I have no body?

It seems to me that we mere mortals, who are constrained by our own experiences, and those we have reliably learned about, can have absolutely no idea what Heaven and Hell might actually be like. [I've long suggested that Hell may well be a telephone-support center for computer users!]

Finally, just where are Heaven and Hell located? If they exist, they must be somewhere, right? And even if they reside in some parallel universe, if our souls can get there, the scientific principles must exist for that to happen. [Think, the movie Contact.]

Odds and Ends

I highly recommend Karen Armstrong's writings, especially the autobiographical titles about her becoming a nun and then leaving the order, and the church, and then reconnecting.

Take a look at some of the more-than-200 episodes of Robert Lawrence Kuhn's Closer to Truth.

I read somewhere that under Islamic law it is forbidden to translate the Koran from Arabic for fear of getting it wrong. This in contrast with the Bible, which has been translated to/from numerous languages by many people, and over which scholars still argue that literal things like "40 days and nights", might actually mean "many days and nights". I've met people who actually believe the Bible was originally written in an earlier form of English!

I have a large, fold-out book that shows the supposed family tree starting with Adam and Eve. It also contains a floor plan of Noah's Ark. [My question regarding that story is, "Did the Ark have koala bears on-board? After all, Noah supposedly had two of each species. And if so, how did he even know koalas existed, did he have time to go all the way to Australia to get them, and where did he get the right kind of fresh eucalyptus leaves to feed them each day? To me, taking some stories literally requires an extreme stretch of the imagination. That said, I have no problem with the idea there actually was a great flood, just not one that covered the whole earth!]

James Ussher proposed that the time and date of the creation was "around 6 pm on 22 October 4004 BC according to the proleptic Julian calendar." For other information about the purported date of creation, click here.

If you'd like some light science-fiction reading, I recommend River World, a series written by Philip José Farmer. The basic premise is that when they die, all humans (and Neanderthals) who lived on Earth beyond the age of six go to a place called River World, where they live in groups mixed up over the ages. And people like Mark Twain, Sir Richard Francis Burton, King John, Alice Liddle, and Herman Goering, have interesting adventures. Some of them want to find out how the world works and who is running it.

Dan Brown's novel The Lost Symbol, set in Washington DC, mentions a machine that can measure the departure of the so-called soul on a person's death.

Another of Dan Brown's novels, Origin, provides food for thought as it deals with the origins of life on earth, and where our species might be headed. Reading this lead me to read about the Parliament of the World's Religions, the breakaway Palmarian Catholic Church, the Miller-Urey experiment, and the panspermia hypothesis.

[Reviewer John wrote, "Almost all religions ('belief systems') attempt to deal with creation and some code of conduct/morality that revolves around what is good and what is evil, and they address what is called the 'eschatology ' aspect to theology—meaning they also concern themselves with not just creation stories and the battle between what is determined to be good and evil, they speak to what death means, some kind of final judgment, and the fate of the soul (whether it is reincarnation, an eternal home in Heaven with Christ, an eternal holiday with 72 virgins, or a home in a fiery Hell or the like). One of the things Freud said was that the human need to have a view on eschatology is that there is terror in contemplating the utter, eternal loss of the self/ego or soul if you will. I think the most important part of a religious belief system may be the question, 'What is going to happen to me when I die?']


I understand the power of prayer, but I view prayer as a mechanism to get oneself to do something rather than being helped by some supernatural entity.

Although I'm not looking for a religious home, aspects of Buddhism appeal to me. And I can say for certain that each time I enter the grounds of a Buddhist temple, I feel serenity from the running water, the wind in the bamboos, the orange paint, and the chanting of monks.

I've long known the saying, "Religion is the opiate of the masses." As it happens, the actual quote is, "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people". When he wrote that, I think Karl Marx was on to something.

[John also shared with me the following: Faith is the utter belief that something is true even in the face of no supporting evidence, or (more so) in the face of evidence to the contrary.]

I'll leave you with the following thought: Just because you believe something doesn't make it true!

Travel: Memories of Sacramento, Tahoe, Reno, and Napa Valley

© 2005, 2009 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

In April of 2005, I took a trip to central California and northwestern Nevada.

[Diary] The Sacramento, California, airport (SMF) is a manageable-sized airport, with only two terminals. My luggage came after a short wait, and I caught the bus to the car rental depot. I settled into a nice new Ford Taurus, and headed down the freeway to a cheap motel I had booked on the Internet. Along the way I picked up some emergency rations and then settled in for a good night's sleep, wanting to take advantage of my 3-hour time gain coming west.

[Diary] I was up early, showered and packed. (Shaving was suspended recently, in preparation for my four weeks hiking in England, so I am now sporting a distinguished looking salt-and-pepper beard and moustache, with the occasional patch of red/brown.) I was on Interstate 80 (I80) going east by 8:30 am. By 9 am, I had located a Denny's 24-hour restaurant, where breakfast is available at all hours (none of this "we can't fry an egg after 10:30 am" nonsense). I settled in to a big trucker's breakfast of pancakes, sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, and sundry other things, all for $5.50. Of course, I knew I couldn't eat it all, but they do provide "doggy bags" to go. While eating, I read the national newspaper. The sun was shining, the food was great, the waitress friendly, and I wasn't working. What more could I want?

It took an hour at 65 mph to reach the mountains, and pretty soon I was up at 7,000+ feet surrounded by snow-covered evergreens. I went through Donner Pass and down to Donner Lake for a look around. (The Donner Party of explorers of long ago was stranded there one harsh winter, and the story is that the survivors cannibalized those who didn't make it. Hey, what are friends for?) I started shooting video and stills once I crested the mountain.

At the town of Truckee I turned off toward Lake Tahoe, the well-known summer and winter resort area. The road followed the Truckee River, and I stopped quite often to look at it and shoot video. I passed through Squaw Valley, which has hosted at least one winter Olympics. I parked at the waterfront in Tahoe City and had a look around, stopping to talk to some women and kids playing in the sand. Then I drove northeast along the shore, settling in at King's Beach. I found a nice parking spot in the sun, had a nap, ate more of my breakfast, did some work, and listened to the radio. It was a relaxing four hours, and I even got paid for some of it. I drove back to Truckee on a different road, and rejoined I80 going east.

Pretty soon after, I crossed the California/Nevada state border and headed on into Reno, the second biggest city in Nevada. (While there are many casinos there, I am happy to say I didn't go in any. I also learned that Nevadans refer to Las Vegas as "Lost Wages".) At 6 pm, I pulled up at house of my first hosts. They were Donica and Scott, who taught geography and journalism, respectively, at the university, two of their three children, Alex and Kate, and Hakan, an exchange student from Turkey. The chocolate lab dog was named Mud, and the cat Mo (Moses). We got acquainted over dinner then Alex and I chatted into the night. (He spent a year in Argentina as a student, and the whole family lived in the Basque region of Spain for some months.)

[Diary] I was up at 7 am and joined the family for breakfast. Afterwards, I went shopping to get ingredients for my Chinese dinner. I took a nap on a lounge chair in the back yard. Then it was time to check my email and do a few hours of work. The parents had a university function to attend that evening, so it was just the three students and me for dinner. I really liked working in the large open kitchen. There were plenty of leftovers. Dessert was loquats with ice cream.

[Diary] After an early breakfast, I spent some time with Scott discussing a number of things, including their religion, Christian Science (not to be confused with Scientology). He also gave me some tips for my drive later that day. I was packed and heading south from Reno by 10:30.

First stop was Carson City, the capital of Nevada. It's a pleasant small town, named for Kit Carson. I toured the museum, which was formerly the mint in which Carson City Silver Dollars were made during the heyday of silver mining in the region. I also looked in on a small American Indian museum next door.

Down the street was the State Capitol, a nice building set in some pretty grounds. Security was minimal and I wandered around shooting video. I dropped in to the state Treasurer's office and asked his receptionist if she had any surplus cash. She said that, unfortunately, she didn't, and that like most other states, they had a shortage, but if I'd like, she could give me a tour of the Treasurer's office. I accepted. Then it was on to the Department of State where I enquired if they had any major crises happening that day. They did not, which, I suspect, is par for this part of the world. Finally, I poked my head into the Governor's office reception area to take a picture.

Next to the Capitol is a large park containing a life-size bronze statue of Kit Carson on horseback, some modern sculptures, and a memorial to fallen law-enforcement officers. I took a look at that, and a grounds man stopped his mower, came over to me, and gave me an impromptu history lesson about the memorial.

Then it was on to the state Legislature, a new building constructed 30 years ago. The senate is in one wing, and the assembly in the other. The front desk security officers were most helpful and friendly and told me to wander wherever I wanted. The legislature meets for 60–120 days every two years; however, they only get paid for the first 60 days, so they have some incentive to not mess around. (One local wag told me that it would be better if they only met for two days every 120 years!) They were currently in session, but break for the weekend at noon on Fridays. However, the assembly was running late, so I sat in their session watching them amend some bills. It was very interesting.

I had lunch across the road at a small restaurant, at a table right next to one at which some state senators were eating and discussing the current session.

I headed south on US50 and then west to Lake Tahoe. It was indeed a beautiful drive, and I stopped and shot video along the way. I crossed back into California and went up the west side of the lake in search of the Stream Profile host Scott had advised me to visit. Unfortunately, it had not yet opened after the winter, so I drove on to see Emerald Bay, a very picturesque spot. Then it was back to US50 heading west again. I stopped along the way looking at the mountains, rock formations, and streams, especially the American River along which the highway ran.

I drove down out of the mountains around 5 pm and took the first exit into Folsom. Soon after, I pulled up at the home of my colleague Joel's house, which he shares with his wife, Catherine, and their two babies (black cats, that is), Malcolm and Izzy.

[Diary] After a restful night we drove back up US50 in light drizzle for lunch at "Z Pot Pie, America's answer to Aussie meat pies", they claimed. Mine tasted mighty fine and was accompanied by coffee. Then we had a short hike in the mountains nearby, and visited a local orchard, where we bought fruit and vegetables picked fresh from that and nearby farms. On the way home, we bought supplies for our Chinese dinner the next day. We bought some new season's sweet corn for dinner, and it was very good considering the season has hardly started. Then we settled into watching Sideways, a new movie about two guys traveling the California wine areas for a week. We all enjoyed it.

[Diary] After a light breakfast, we stopped at a deli to get some rolls, and then set off on a 5–6-mile hike. Well, things got out of control and we finished up covering 12 miles, up and back along the American River (which goes west to join the Sacramento River in Sacramento). We walked, talked, and had our lunch over a 5–6-hour period. I also shot video.

We were all happy to be back home with our boots off, but it was enjoyable, and almost certainly good for me. (As the German philosopher Nietzsche once said: "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger.") I then started preparing the Chinese food, advising my apprentice, Joel, on the proper technique for chopping and food presentation. He paid close attention and showed considerable promise. They had a nice big skillet and wok, so cooking was a breeze, and it was definitely one of my best efforts to date. There were two dishes: Kung Pao chicken with vegetable in a spicy sauce, and pork fried rice with other vegetables. The food was well received. We ate dessert while watching the movie "The Astronaut's Wife" starring Johnny Depp and Charlize Theron. Most enjoyable.

[Diary] I was up by 8, said goodbye to Catherine as she left for work, and was packed by 10 am. I left Joel working at home, and drove across town to the (in)famous Folsom State Prison, where Johnny Cash recorded an album many years ago. The original prison is now called "Old Folsom" while the new one next door is "New Folsom". Each has about 3,500 prisoners (all men), mostly for serious crimes and long sentences. The approach road was through rolling hills and forests, with wild turkeys crossing, like the entrance to an exclusive country club. Exclusive yes; however, I doubt the prisoners think of it in that way. I toured the prison museum, watched a video, and took pictures of and near one of the main gates in the very thick stone wall. At 11 am, my next host met me there. Helen was retired, but taught meditation classes at the prison each week, and was there on business that morning.

We drove back to her house near downtown Sacramento, the state capital of California. We had some of my left-over Chinese food for lunch in the back garden. I went off to do some grocery shopping for a dinner I was to make the next day, and then I rested in the shade and read the paper. Helen's husband, Terry, an arborist, came home about 6 pm, and he and I headed for the American River where we launched two kayaks. It was my first time in a kayak, but I soon got the hang of it. Soon after starting, we saw a beaver surface and splash its large tail. Then I saw two river otters just ahead. We also saw three different kinds of heron. There were some very minor rapids, just enough to give me a slight sensation. It was an evening of firsts, and was most enjoyable.

[Diary] I slept in a bit and had a casual and light breakfast before heading off on a walking tour. The streets were simply covered by large deciduous trees, and there were gardens and trees everywhere. First it was McKinley Park with its playing fields and rose garden. Then it was on to the Capitol Park Vietnam War memorial and the Firemen's memorial. The gardens around the Capitol are great, and even include orange trees.

I entered the Capitol building from the eastern side, passing all my camera gear through the metal detector. I stopped to look at a state police exhibit and got talking to a trooper (from CHiPs, the California Highway patrol). He told me how to get something special down the hall. About 20 yards in from that entrance was a large doorway guarded by another trooper and flanked by the US and Californian flags. This was the entrance to the governor's office suite. As directed, I went into the receptionist and asked for the Governor's business card. She smiled and gave me one. It said "Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor, State of California", along with his office address and phone number.

Arnold declined the salary for being Governor, and he himself pays for the top two floors of the hotel nearby: top one for him and the one below for his security people. He flies home to his wife and four kids in the LA area on weekends. This job is probably a lot more work (and certainly more frustrating) that being a movie star.

I went on a 45-minute guided tour, which included the senate and assembly chambers, which were empty at the time.

Then it was on to the Governors' Mansion, now run as a state park. Ronald Regan was the final governor to live there (in 1967), before it was vacated for good. It had been declared a fire trap in 1941, but they kept on using it. The guide on the tour told us that the reasons Ron and Nancy Reagan only stayed there three months were many. They included: the road alongside was a major interstate route with heavy traffic and noise, a gas station was across the street and every time a car drove in each tire rang the bell when it ran over the rubber hose, there was no safe place for their young son Ron to play, and, above all, the formal dining room seated only 10! Then to top it all off, on the third night they were in residence, the fire alarms went off. The governor's bedroom had an emergency exit out the window down a metal stairway, while the fire exit from the first lady's bedroom consisted of a rope down a trapdoor in the floor! Anyway, California is one of only six states that does not provide a residence for its governor. The house is restored to the time of its last fulltime family, Governor "Pat" Brown, his wife and their daughter, Kathleen, who later held a state office. Son Jerry, who became governor after Ronald Reagan, never lived there as he was already in college when his father took office. Another well-know governor was Earl Warren, California's only 3-term governor, who became associate and then Chief justice of the US Supreme Court.

Back home, after a rest from walking, I made my secret "Hungarian Goulash, ala Rex" and had it simmering on the stove for three hours. We ate it at 9:30 pm, and hit the hay soon after, which ended two nice days in Sacramento.

[Diary] The alarm went off at 5 am; don't you just hate it when that happens! It was a pleasant morning and I was on the road by 5:30, headed for the airport. There wasn't much traffic, and I had the car gassed-up and returned by 6 am. In the lounge, I got talking to a young Japanese man who was flying to Tokyo to get married having been away from his sweetheart all of a week. I quickly used up my basic Japanese. Then it was on to my national newspaper and then boarding.

A minimal breakfast was served, and I had a short nap before starting in on some work. The ride was uneventful, but smooth, and we touched down a bit late, having been routed around the countryside by air traffic control as we neared the airport.

As always, it was good to be back home again. But not for long, as in less than two weeks, I'll be hiking the English countryside for four weeks. (See my essay from July 2011: A Walk along the River.) No rest for the wicked. I don't work that hard for money!

Four years later, I was back in Sacramento, to visit friends and to have a short driving trip to the world-famous wine region, Napa Valley.

[Diary] After getting back from a vacation in Puerto Rico, my sleeping patterns had changed to short nights and long afternoon naps. So, after only five hours of sleep, I was wide awake. (Don't you just hate that when that happens!)

Outside, it had been raining lightly but steadily for 24 hours. Fortunately, the ice that had been forecast did not eventuate, although other parts of the DC metro area did get enough to cause accidents and other traffic problems.

During the morning, I worked for a few good hours (you know, quality over quantity!), stopping around 9:30 am for a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, fried tomatoes, and coffee. Then it was on to some household chores, packing my case, lunch and a 1-hour TV show.

At 3:30 pm, my taxi arrived to take me to Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD). The driver was from Uganda and was well educated, and, on the way, we had a good chat about African history and politics.

At IAD, check in went smoothly, but security was veeeeery slow. (Don't you just hate that!) I took the bus to the mid-field Terminal C. At United's Red-Carpet Club, I had two cups of French Vanilla coffee, some cheese and crackers, and carrot and celery sticks with ranch dressing while reading the Financial Times from London, and the Wall Street Journal. Between them, the news was pretty much all bad.

At 5:15 pm, I made my way to Gate C17, to find that the in-bound flight had only just arrived. As a result, boarding was delayed, but only for 10 minutes, while the cleaners did their thing. Meanwhile, I chatted with the gate agent, a woman from Peru.

I was first in line on the red carpet, so was first on board the Airbus A320 where my window exit-seat 11A had plenty of leg room. I had cashed in 25,000 of my airline miles in exchange for a free ticket, which cost only $5 for taxes. So, the price was right. (Don't you just love that!)

It was still raining, and runway traffic was delayed. Finally, flight UA291 took off to the west, in the dark, some 20 minutes late. Once we were airborne I put my seat back and slept for two and a half hours. (Don't you just love that when that happens!) When I awoke, I set my clock back three hours, to Pacific Standard Time (PST), GMT-8.

I summoned the flight attendant for a drink, which I had with the Scottish short bread cookies I had rescued from the Red-Carpet Club. Although the flight was nearly six hours, time passed quickly, and we landed at Sacramento (SMF) in light fog, right on time. My luggage arrived and I waited outside in the cold for 15 minutes until the rental car shuttle bus came.

[Diary] At 9:30 am, I loaded up my van, and headed for the highway with Duffy playing on the CD player. I headed west on state highway 50 towards Davis, the home of the University of California Davis campus. From there, it was north on 113 then west on E6 to Winters. The stands of huge eucalypts made me feel a little "at home". The land was flat with quite a bit of agriculture. The sun streamed down. I passed through some huge walnut groves and orchards of persimmons. Winters was founded in 1875, and I drove around the back streets to have a look at small town America.

From Winters, I went west on 128 and soon climbed into the green rolling foothills and then into some steep hills at the top of which was a reservoir and hydroelectric dam. It sure was windy up there with small waves being whipped up on the lake. By that time, I'd played Duffy's album twice, so I switched to a local smooth jazz radio station. I turned south into 121 and soon saw my first vineyards, both on steep hillsides and down in a valley to the east.

It was noon when I reached downtown Napa, and, eventually, I located the visitors' center where I got some maps and brochures. From there I headed north up the famous Napa Valley on Highway 29. However, as it was a freeway, I took the first exit and headed up along the foothills to the west through vineyard after vineyard, and, eventually, through ever narrower canyons. I passed through some small stands of magnificent redwoods. By the time I came back to 29, that was a 2-lane road.

At 1 pm, I reached St. Helena, where I stopped off at V. Sattui's winery, which had a big selection of wine, cheese and breads in its store, along with a picnic area under the trees. By then, it was quite warm, at least in the high 60s. I stopped at a convenience store to buy a copy of the national newspaper, USA Today. I also spied frozen rice puddings on a stick, so I bought one. Can you say "delicious"? By then, I was starting to fade, so I found a quiet side road where I parked in the sun, pulled out my pillow, laid back my seat, and had an hour's nap.

I woke reasonably recharged, and I headed north to Calistoga, which looked like an interesting town. On my third attempt, I located some accommodation at a price I was willing to pay. It was the Village Inn and Spa, an aging property on the eastern edge of town away from the main highway. The friendly clerk upgraded me to a king-bed room for the price of a queen. The room was so huge the TV looked pretty small way across the room from my bed! It came complete with refrigerator and microwave. The bathroom had a very large sunken tiled spa tub.

At 4:30 pm, I drove back into town and parked on the main street. Right then I needed a fix, and, fortunately, right there across the street was a bookstore. (Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I unashamedly admit to being a bookaholic, who is making no effort whatsoever to recover!) Their 50%-off sale rack out front produced two purchases. I browsed awhile before walking up and down the main street look at candidates for supper. The bookstore clerk assured me that when the locals wanted a good cheap meal they went to Nicola's, and that's where I finished up. Having grazed all day with no specific lunch, I ordered supper at 5:15 pm. I chose one of the specials, meatloaf with mashed potato, carrots, and gravy. And after having been assured that it "was just like Grandma used to make", I paid and took a table at the window overlooking the main street. I read more of my paper until the food arrived. It certainly was good and filling.

Back at the hotel, I went to a conference room that had an internet connection, and received and sent some email. Apparently, the world was still functioning despite my having been disconnected for 10 whole hours. At 8 pm, I switched to the Fox network to catch the 2nd 2-hour half of the season opener for "24". It was most enjoyable. Lights out at 10:15 pm.

[Diary] The hotel was on a quiet street, and I woke at 8 am, feeling quite decent. I lay in bed for 45 minutes reading one of my new books while the sun streamed in my windows. All was right in my part of the world. Then, after a long shower, I dressed and packed, and worked on this diary. There was no hurry, so I decided to make use of the nice facilities at hand. I got my morning email fix and checked out around 10:15 am.

At 10:30 am, I was sitting at a window table at Nicola's waiting for my breakfast, a 3-egg omelet containing bacon, sausage, peppers, and mushrooms, with a good dose of cheese melted over the top. It was accompanied by four slices of toast and a boiling cup of Earl Grey tea; it was just the thing for a growing boy on vacation. Of course, it was way too much food for my first meal of the day, so I got a container "to go" and drank tea while doing some puzzles from the previous day's paper.

I eased back on Highway 29 at 11:30 am, and stopped to pick up the daily paper. Then it was four miles up into the hills on a side road to see the petrified forest. They claim to have the oldest known petrified trees in the world. Some three million years ago, there was a big volcanic eruption in the area, and the blast felled the redwood forest for miles around, including that area. Some of the trees knocked down at that time were more than 2,000 years old. Due to the deep cover of ash and the subsequent weathering and water action, quite a few redwoods were petrified. They also had some very interesting live trees there, including one estimated to be about 650 years young!

A little further north I dropped in at the famous Old Faithful geyser (not to be confused with the one by the same name in Yellowstone National Park). Although I saw it erupt three times in 30 minutes, it really wasn't at all impressive; it probably shot no more than 20 feet in the air, with a fairly thin stream, and lasted for several minutes each time. After Yellowstone and the monster geyser I'd seen in Iceland, I guess my expectations were somewhat unreasonable. I visited the adjacent petting zoo and fed the goats, sheep, and llamas.

I followed Highway 29 into the hills and along lots of winding road. Pretty much as soon as I got started my low-gas warning light came on and it seemed to take forever to find a gas station. I had visions of walking or waiting a good while if I ran out completely. After driving through Robert Louis Stevenson State Park (he honeymooned there in a cabin and wrote a book about the area), I coasted into Middletown at 1:45 pm with a few thimble-fulls of gas left.

Soon I was out of the hills, and from then on it was flat as I hit agricultural country. I was surprised to see many hundreds of acres of rice fields, all harvested and brown. Then came lots of fruit trees. At Williams, I met Interstate Highway 5 running south from Canada to the Mexican border, and followed that. And although the speed limit was 70 mph, I stayed at a leisurely 60. I passed miles and miles of fruit trees, more rice fields, and occasional vineyards and some flocks of sheep.

About 10 miles short of the Sacramento airport I came upon an exit in Woodland for a cheap hotel next to the freeway. They honored one of my discount cards, and gave me a very nice room with Queen bed, small lounge and work area, a refrigerator, and a microwave in the main office. It was a nice little "home away from home". At 4:15 pm, I was all settled in, sorting through my gear and working on this diary.

Around 5:30 pm, I took my left-over breakfast to the lobby where I heated it in the microwave oven. I also grabbed a cup of hot apple cider from the complementary refreshment counter. The breakfast was just as good the second time. I finished that day's newspaper while I ate.

[Diary] My wake-up call came right on time, at 5 am. (Don't you just hate that when that happens!) After a cold wash to wake myself up, I dressed and packed my last few things. I checked out and grabbed another cup of hot apple cider. Continental breakfast ingredients had been laid out, but I wasn't yet ready to eat. Right next to my on-ramp for the freeway there was a gas station, so I stopped to fill up. It was pretty cold out. Right next door was a Denny's restaurant, my favorite, but I showed great restraint and passed it by. From there it took 15 minutes to get to the airport, and as I got closer the fog got thicker, so much so that I missed one of the rental car return signs and had to go "around the block again". The shuttle bus took me to Terminal B where I checked in and went through security.


Sacramento and its surrounds are certainly worth a visit.