Posts Tagged travel

¡Cuba Libre!

30 December 2013

Wow!  Looking at my last entry, I see it was the last day of 2012 — meaning I very nearly went all of 2013 without a post.  Clearly blogging has not been a priority for me lately, but I did want to take some time to document something worthwhile.  I recently returned from a trip to Cuba!  I cannot hope to capture all of my fond memories here, but as I’ve done for other big trips in years past, I’ll do my best to hit the highlights.

First, the obvious question: isn’t it illegal to travel to Cuba?  To which I answer: not so!  The seed for this trip was first planted by a coworker of mine who travels very extensively.  Just in the few years I’ve known her, she’s been to Antarctica, Afghanistan, Burma, Easter Island, and more.  If it’s remote and/or dangerous, she’s been there.  And she clued me in to the fact that under a “People To People” license issued by the U.S. government, in fact American citizens can travel to Cuba legally.  The catch is that you can’t go on your own and just lounge on the beach the whole time.  You have to go with one of a few licensed travel agencies (such as the one I used, Friendly Planet), and there is a curriculum of sorts that you must follow.  You need to participate in the cultural activities set forth in the agenda, but it’s not a hindrance at all!  Unlike the throngs of tourists from every other country but the U.S., we are given access to more of the real Cuba.  We saw behind the scenes and actually learned something!  We got to meet some fun people and make new friends.  Plus there was plenty of time to enjoy ourselves in the evenings.  I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

So without further ado…

Day 1 – Shel and I headed out to Miami, the plan being to get there a few days early to make full use of the weekend and explore a bit.  Coming from the brutal cold snap the Bay Area had been experiencing, the warm and humid night air as we stepped out of the airport was most welcome.  A hop, skip, and a jump over to our hotel, and we were settled in.  Tired as we were, we agreed to just walk across the street to a Cuban restaurant.  You know, get started with the cuisine early while still in the States.  Well, my vegetarian option was a grilled cheese sandwich with three or four times as much cheese as was sustainable by the bread.  Not to be recommended.  It was late.  We were pooped.

Day 2 – We grabbed a taxi down to the famous South Beach.  I was struck by the color of the place.  Seems like most everything in Miami is turquoise and peach, including the buildings.  And the hotels all look like they were built in the 60’s.  It’s flat out there, and I was reminded of having read recently that if the sea level rises, Miami is one of the first major cities to be S.O.L.  The “Miami Vice” connection is milked at every opportunity.  We got to ride on A1A (Beachfront Avenue!).  And Vanilla Ice wasn’t kidding.  The people watching out there is no joke.  If you can forgive the Jersey Shore feel of it all, people apparently really take care of themselves there.  Men and women, all in fantastic shape, tanned, bleached, and not wearing much in the way of a bathing suit.  All strutting up and down the strip, where maître d’s harass you like carnival barkers to get you into their open-air restaurants.  We chose one and had our first cocktails of the trip, along with an unexpectedly pricey lunch.  Afterwards, it was off to the beach!  I swam in the Atlantic for the first time, which was long overdue.  Clear water and hot weather.  We walked around a bit, had some tea, and then cabbed it back to the hotel.  On the way back, I noted the many mansions on the water and the yachts to go with them.  Fits with the Rolls-Royces and other fancy cars that abound in South Beach.

It was early evening, but the day wasn’t over yet.  We were determined to have a night out in Miami, but our research uncovered no appropriate venue.  There was a rockabilly event going on 40 minutes away in Ft. Lauderdale, but that’d be a steep cab ride.  Instead, we picked the only club that showed any promise of not being a douchey techno club.  We got gussied up and headed across town again to what would be perhaps the best meal of the trip.  City Hall had such delicious food that I was genuinely sad I didn’t have room to finish it all.  So while we couldn’t find a new wave club per se, we settled on the most promising option: The Vagabond.  It was a walk through a dodgy area of town.  Probably the most unsafe I felt on the whole trip, actually.  The Vagabond claimed to have burlesque that night, but it was cancelled.  The music was every bit the douchey stuff we were trying to avoid, not to mention freestyle rapping going on out in the patio area.  All reminiscent of San Francisco’s The End Up , if you’re familiar.  Anyway, it was a bust in all senses but for one odd thing.  They have a 10-foot portrait of Morrissey making a kissy face in the middle of their main room, which is a permanent fixture there as far as I could tell.  We each snapped a photo with it of course, and in our time before admitting defeat, I noticed may other girls snapping similar photos of them kissing Moz’s gigantic face.  I quizzed each that came along to see if they knew who he was, and of course no one did.  Only one girl claimed to be a Smiths fan, but did not recognize him.  Questionable.  So how incredibly strange that such a decoration would be in this club, or in Miami at all.  Were it in a San Francisco club, I imagine it would be famous in our circles.  It’s the face in the image below.  I suspect it’s exploited for its aesthetic appeal rather than the fact it’s Morrissey.  Though apparently, there is a monthly Smiths night there, and if we’d get along with anyone in Miami, it’d be whoever showed up there.  But the dates didn’t align, and it was not to be.  Later research revealed that there is a local Smiths tribute band called Ordinary Boys, which was due to play there the night we flew home.  Had we coordinated, who knows what might have been?  And not that you asked, but catching a cab home was terrifying.  We had to stand close to the bouncer to help ward off the street tweakers that descend on anyone who steps outside the club.

Day 3 – After brunch at the hotel, we headed to the mall so Shel could find a new suitcase.  I saw signs for something called Churromania.  I got on the horn with Sus to coordinate tickets for SF Sketchfest (thanks Sus!), and then returned to the hotel to lay out by the pool and watch the planes fly overhead.  We grabbed dinner across the street at the Cane Fire Grille, splitting several dishes.  At our own hotel, we met in a conference room for our Cuba trip orientation.  The group in total was 24 people, I believe.  We did basic introductions, made initial assessments of who would be friend or foe, got our questions and paperwork sorted out, and called it a night.

Day 4 – Finally, it was time to leave for Cuba!  There are a lot of rules and paperwork, but it all went pretty smoothly.  Out chartered flight was actually an American Airlines plane operated by an American Airlines crew.  The flight from Miami to Havana was only about 40 minutes.  After making it through passport control, we exited the terminal to a huge crowd.  In addition to having a welcoming party for arriving family members, there is something else going on too… since nothing can be bought directly from the U.S. (or even afforded in most cases), American relatives bring things like flat-screen T.V.s when they visit Cuba.  They bring whole palettes of stuff since it can’t be shipped.  Anyway, so we exit the terminal and enter the parking lot and get shock #1.  You’ve heard there are lots of old cars in Cuba, but you are not prepared.  There are something like 65,000 operational American cars on the roads of Cuba from before the embargo started in 1962 (not long after the revolution).  The parking lot was packed, and there were more classic cars from the 40’s and 50’s than not.

A Word About… Cars
Most of the classic cars or “Yank tanks” you see are taxis.  You constantly see them on the side of the road, hood up, and someone working on them.  It is said that everybody in Cuba is a mechanic (you have to be), and that Cubans are some of the most creative engineers around.  Parts are essentially impossible to come by, so the guts of these cars may be jury-rigged Toyota stuff or even diesel engines to make for cheaper fuel costs.  But the outsides are immaculate.  At any given intersection, you’ll see three or four of them, and that’s throughout the whole city of Havana.  We got to ride in a few of them.  All part of the charm.  We also learned that the ability to buy cars (since the State owns most of them) is restricted to people with special accomplishments, such as doctors who’ve worked overseas.  And even then, the cost can be astronomical.  We heard a used Hyundai minivan can fetch $80,000+!

The next thing you notice are the buildings.  It really is just like the pictures you’ve seen.  Beautiful pre-revolution decay.  Brightly painted in pastels, but fallen into disrepair and neglected for decades.  Salty sea air is harsh, and while the people take care of the insides of their homes, the outside is owned by the State and is generally left to crumble.  Dilapidated buildings are all there is there.  It’s everywhere.  We saw only a handful of buildings and parks in Havana that had been built since the revolution.  That’s the constant backdrop for our entire time in the city.  Another thing you can’t ignore: propaganda.  Images of Castro and Che, along with inspirational quotes… you see them as murals and bus stop benches everywhere the way you’d see McDonald’s ads around here.

After the bus trip to the center of town, we started off with a walking tour of some of the important buildings.  I’ll have to rely on Shel’s fancy pictures to capture the sights here.  The best I could do was camera phone.  We stopped for lunch, where I had the first of many so-so meals.  The consensus on the trip was that cuisine is not Cuba’s strong suit, and Shel confirmed that this is the case for other Central and South American places she’s visited.  My vegetarian needs probably didn’t help matters in that department, but I survived.  I got the usual yokel earful from the carnivores in the group, and Shel kept me from engaging in a debate and making some enemies early on.  Afterwards, we had a peek at one of the very few shopping opportunities of the trip: a used book market made up of vendors in a town square (Plaza de Armas).  We didn’t have any local currency yet, but we made plans to return on another day.  It was time to check in at the historic Hotel Nacional.  This place has been visited by celebrities of all kinds, both revered and reviled, from Winston Churchill to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Hollywood royalty of the 30’s and beyond, and not a few pre-embargo mobsters (Meyer Lansky’s name comes up a lot).  We received our first “welcome drink” of the trip — in this case, a Cuba Libre (rum & Coke) using Cuba’s national Coke substitute “tuKola.”  (I say our first because apparently this is a thing in Cuba.  Each time we arrived at a hotel and many times when we arrived at restaurants, we were automatically issued a “welcome drink.”  With cocktails being free in some cases and only $3 or $4 in most others, I was unintentionally averaging about five a day.)  After a delayed check-in process and a quick dinner at the hotel buffet, we met up with some of our travel groupmates and made for El Polinesio, the ill-fated former Trader Vic’s tiki bar that was opened just months before the revolution.  Legend has it the original (American) manager was shot while running to catch one of the last flights out of Cuba!  The décor seemed mostly intact, but it was dead there and felt a bit rundown.  The drinks were tasty enough, and we spent some time getting to know each other.  From there, we visited a sports bar of sorts called El Conejito.  After a few more drinks, Shel and I turned in while the party animals continued on to yet more bars.

Day 5 – I awoke and washed my hair with communist shampoo.  We first toured one of Havana’s most famous cigar factories, watching and learning as workers expertly rolled three different kinds of tobacco leaves (based on shade) into the various sizes, shapes, and blends that make up their major brands like Cohiba and Monte Cristo.  We were not allowed to take pictures in there, but their quality control process was extensive.  Clearly they are deserving of their reputation as the world’s most expert cigar rollers.  There was a factory store built in where you could buy their official straight-from-the-factory products, but officially we were not to buy any, and certainly not allowed to bring them into the U.S.  So that’s all I’ll say about that.  The busy day continued as we toured an old folks home (where the elderly make crafts, socialize, and dance) as well as an elementary school where we were allowed to give the donations (officially “gifts”) that we’d brought them.  We learned about Havana’s city dogs, which are essentially State-owned dogs that roam the streets and are taken care of and fed, etc.  Like an institutionalize stray program.  These dogs are all over the city, usually sleeping in the middle of the street and accepting pettings from passersby.  We stopped for lunch at an Italian place (I had a pretty passable pizza), and then moved on to Callejón de Hamel, which is a colorful Afro-Cuban/Santeria art project consisting of an alley and the buildings around it, covered and filled with murals and sculptures.  We continued to Revolution Square (site of a tower dedicated to José Martí and government buildings bearing huge portraits of Che and Castro), and eventually to the vast and magnificent Colon Cemetery — one of the unexpected highlights of the trip.

A Word About… Water
In short, don’t drink the water.  Not from the tap, anyway.  You have to drink bottled water.  You have to brush your teeth with bottled water.  You have to make sure the ice in your cocktail was made with bottled/filtered water.  I mentioned communist shampoo, but the shower is no joke.  Don’t get the water in your mouth or you will die!  OK, not really.  But apparently, your “number 2’s” will turn into “number 3’s.”  Did I mention all the bottled water you get in Cuba was bottled in Cuba?  Hmmm…

We returned to the hotel for dinner and then attended a stellar lecture on the history of U.S.-Cuban relations.  There was too much to recount, but I feel like I walked away with a much better sense of the problem(s) and complexity therein.  For instance, Havana is old.  You walk on the same stones pirates and slave-traders and Russians and mobsters did.  Where else can you find a city that’s essentially been cut off and frozen for 50 years?  It’s crumbling all around them, and there isn’t money to fix any of it.  Now they could get money to fix it by further opening up tourism, but how long before there’s a Starbucks on every corner and Havana becomes another Cancun?  Another mini-U.S. like every other place on the planet?  It would absolutely ruin everything that makes Havana the gem that it is.  This is just one of the many problems Cuba faces, and it was explained well to us.  I feel so fortunate to have had a chance to see it before it all changes… because it will change.  It has to.

On a lighter note, after the lecture, it was a mad dash to get out to the local baseball stadium to see hometown heroes the Industriales play (for the towering cost of $3, which also got us into the only section tourists were allowed: the netted-in space behind home plate)!  I didn’t get to yell “¡jonrón!” as I’d desperately hoped to, but I must admit it was one of the most exciting sports events I’ve ever watched.  A real bottom-of-the-ninth nail-biter with a comedy of defensive errors.  Another comedy of errors took place outside the stadium after the game when — against my better judgment — we let one of the others in our group handle the taxi situation, leading us to stumble through the poorly-lit streets of Havana alone until we finally happened upon a cab about a mile out.  Still, Cuba is safe, and it seemed we were in no real danger.  For $1 a person, we were back at the hotel.

Day 6 – On our way to the first stop of the day, we passed Coppelia, described as “you’ve heard of an ice cream parlor… this is an ice cream cathedral!”  Our tour guide explained the concept of a “dollar date.”  It turns out that for about one dollar, you can have ice cream at Coppelia and see a movie nearby, so when you say you went on a “dollar date,” any young local will know what you did.  Incidentally, one dollar buys something like 20 scoops of ice cream or so we were told.

A Word About… Currency
Cuba uses two currencies.  There is the CUC, which is meant for tourists and visitors and roughly equates to a dollar.  Then there is the CUP, which is the currency of locals, and is worth about 1/20th or a dollar or five cents.  Locals are paid in CUP and can spend it in places visitors aren’t supposed to shop (such as subsidized stores for citizens only).  But CUCs are still highly valued considering many Cubans live on the equivalent of 20-30 CUCs a month.  This came up in unexpected ways during the trip, e.g. tour guides and taxi drivers making more than doctors simply because they have jobs that interface with tourists, giving them access to tips in CUC.  And you don’t have to worry about a maid going through your stuff, because none of them would risk their job which gives them similar access to CUCs.  Also worth noting is that American ATM cards and credit cards issued by U.S. banks don’t work in Cuba.  So you have to plan ahead and bring lots of cash.  For that matter, internet is slow and scarce, and U.S. phone providers are prohibited by law from operating in Cuba.  So no cell phone, no way, no how.

The tour continued through a neighborhood where aristocrats lived before the revolution, where the massive homes are now inhabited by embassy personnel, and where paradoxically simple Toyota sedans are parked in the driveways.  From there, it was off to our main destination: Las Terrazas national park.  We doused ourselves with bug spray, enjoyed a welcome drink, and ventured onto the trail.  We came across whole chicken families, visited the artist Lester Campa, and learned about the food rationing system and the rural medical clinic.  There was the park’s famous Café Maria, where we had the specialty: “Las Terrazas Coffee,” which tasted exactly like melted coffee ice cream.  We had a country-style lunch at a local farmhouse, chickens running around, and finished up touring the ruins of one of the many coffee plantations/haciendas.  It was interesting to see the layout of where they grew, dried, and milled the beans.  Also sobering to see the slave quarters.  Cuba’s main export was sugar, but its main import was slaves — outnumbering the U.S.

On the way back to the hotel, our final official stop was Fusterlandia, workshop of artist José Fuster, whose style falls somewhere between Gaudi and Picasso.  It was reminiscent of a McDonald’s playland made of trippy rounded architecture with every surface covered in colorful mosaic.

We hit the used book once more now that we had some money, and then returned to Hotel Nacional.  This was to be our big night out in Havana, including Shel’s long-overdue birthday dinner.  She and I dressed up and walked over to Café Laurent, a paladar in a 1950’s apartment building, with dining on the penthouse terrace.  It was the first broad selection of vegetarian food I’d found, so I pigged out.  Most of it was very good!  We caught a taxi over to Floridita for a daiquiri.  It was on our list as I’d read it was one of the top bars (worldwide) to visit before you die.  I guess it was a favorite hangout of Hemmingway, as images and sculptures of him abounded.  As luck would have it, two separate pairs of friends from our travel group walked in a while later.  Seems one of them had made friends with a local while playing chess earlier in the evening, and this local gentleman invited us all to a local spot.  We followed him for several dimly-lit blocks until we came to a building that looked dark and closed.  He knocked on the door, exchanged words with the doorman, and said he had to go talk to the boss.  He came back out a few minutes later and beckoned us in.  Turns out it was a locals-only hotel… a nice one at that!  And inside was a bar that was the most hoppin’ of any we saw in Havana.  Packed with young Cuban men and young and middle-aged Caucasian women tourists loving the attention.  All salsa dancing.  Exactly what you’d imagine when you think crazy Cuban salsa club.  Some of us danced with strangers, while others guarded purses.  Some of us were propositioned by working girls and/or their handlers.  Some of us danced with said working girls.  We gave our local connection five CUC for a round of drinks, and he kept the change — more of the CUC/CUP insanity.  We get a round of drinks for five bucks, and he makes money on the deal.  Anyway, when it came time to negotiate with the working girls, that’s when we decided to head back — much to the chagrin of one of our younger travelmates who was obliterated and miffed his dad blocked him.  We had a round a very late drinks on the back patio of Hotel Nacional and retired for the evening.

Day 7 – This was our day to leave Havana and head to Varadero.  We started out visiting the Morro Castle fort across the water from Havana.  We continued to the fishing village of Cojimar, inspiration for Hemmingway’s The Old Man And The Sea.  Then it was on to Hemmingway’s own estate: Finca Vigía.  It means “Lookout Farm,” and among other things (such as a pool and his boat) it includes a tower that looks out over the hillside.  It’s easy to imagine him being inspired to write with a view like that.  The drink offered here was a delicious daiquiri of pineapple and the juice from freshly-pressed sugar cane… which they do right in front of you with large cane stalks.   We stopped by Organoponicos, a large organic garden where residents grow their own food.  We got to wear stylish plastic bags on our shoes to protect them from mud.  In addition to puppies running wild, we got to see and try the “miracle crop” moringa and the noni fruit (which looks, smells, and allegedly tastes like blue cheese — I didn’t try that one).  We returned to Cojimar for lunch (and a honey-based daiquiri) and then hit the road towards Varadero.

On the way, we stopped at Cuba’s tallest bridge for some sightseeing and what is reported to be the best piña colada in the nation.  (Here, they pour the colada and leave the bottle of rum on the bar for you to complete it yourself, though I’m not sure if that’s what makes it the best.)  It’s a long drive to Varadero.  I napped on the bus some.  I think we all did.  One final stop before reaching our hotel was at a puppet museum in Matanzas.  Not really a museum I guess, as they still actively have performances.  I don’t know, but there were a lot of puppets.  Even “adult” puppets that flashed us.  Anway, on to the Meliá Varadero resort, where we were to spend our last two nights.  This is a big hotel for tourists, in an area for tourists, and it didn’t feel particularly “Cuban” to me.  It was very nice, but we could have been anywhere.  Our stay was all inclusive, meaning the entertainment, the restaurants, and the booze were all a mere show-of-the-wristband away.  We were given a welcome drink of course, but by this point in the trip, it was all a blur of sugary daiquiris, cuba libres, mojitos, and piña coladas.  Between having 5+ drinks a day and little in the way of protein, I was over it.  It was more buffet dinners, better than the Hotel Nacional’s but not much.  Afterwards, we met up with some travelmates, had some drinks, and explored the grounds.  There’s lots to do there… pool, activities, beaches, and romantic hideaways.  The “shows” ended up being strange dancing events, and after watching only a few minutes, we left.  We tried to get the giant game of Connect Four to work, but it was broken.  Instead, we played a game of giant chess, where some of us jumped on the board to replace and act as the pieces.  The outcome was an upset of our resident chess master.

Day 8 – This was our last day of real touring.  We drove by Elián González‘s house.  We visited an artist who makes award-winning tie-dyed textiles and is known for an incredible dress she put together with bicycle parts, including a parasol made of spokes.  She works using the sun on the roof while her husband crafts wooden humidors in the garage.  We visited another artist’s estate (Héctor Correa’s Coincidencia Farm) who also grows delicious fruit (like “apple bananas”).  We got a tour, but my favorite part was a small bamboo grove he had near a stream.  There were wild rabbits all around, and I thoroughly enjoyed a woman feeding their pet rabbit an apple banana.  I am easily entertained.  The final stop was a children’s community project where at-risk youth performed The Wizard Of Oz.  The wizard himself was an adult on stilts.  Each of the many children really had personality that came through in each role.  It was pretty adorable.

The rest of the day was open to us, and we chose to spend it enjoying the resort’s beach.  The conditions were just like Miami’s… hot enough to sunbathe and swim in the ocean.  Past the rocky part of the beach carved out of the cliff was smooth sand.  A hundred feet or so into the water was a sandbar which allowed you to stand and be only about knee deep.  Got some body surfing in.  As close as I live to the water in San Francisco, it’s so cold and murky that I never really get to take advantage of it.  So between Miami and Varadero, I wanted to milk it as long as I could.  As we drank our coladas in the sand, we noticed storm clouds in the distance.  Soon, we got a short and gentle sprinkle of rain, just long enough to give us the full (and nearly double) rainbow you see below (not Photoshopped… that’s a real picture).  When it cleared up, we walked to the next hotel over and watched an incredible sunset — our last in Cuba.  Back at our own hotel,  we planned to take a final dip in the hot tub, where we found a young Peruvian woman posing for bikini photos being taken by what appeared to be a security guard.  He walked away, and our group got in, one by one.  It was a small tub, and when the six(!) of us got in, it was ridiculous.  The water level reached the top when only four of us joined, so the last two pushed a ton of water overflowing all over the deck.  We were way up close and personal, legs all tangled.  If the Peruvian was freaked out (I would have been), she didn’t show it.  When the water started to cool, we exited, eventually leaving one of our guys behind to hit on the Peruvian.  Never mind the fact that when the rest of us exited, we left them in only about knee-deep water, jets sucking air.

After showering and dressing for the evening, it was another buffet dinner and drinks with travelmates.  By this last night, there was a clear divide in the group.  Factions, as it were.  There were some younger folks, but mostly older, and we had all had time to have run-ins with each other, good and bad.  We heard about how this couple was outraged at the rudeness of that couple, or about how that one lady had said something really offensive to so-and-so.  We’d all pretty much picked our sides, and so this last night, there were two separate tables.  Ours was the cool kids table.  The cocktail-drinkin’ and cigar-smokin’ one.  Your intuition might tell you differently, but if you know me then you can trust that ours were the easy-going folks who were not rude to the locals or each other.  We’d had enough of the wet blankets and the folks barking orders and taking pictures of locals like they were a zoo exhibit.  I will not miss them.  The tour guide did his best to spend time with both tables, and I did my best to drink and watch the lingerie fashion show taking place in the bar.  Eventually, Shel and I conked out, but I’m told the party animals stayed up quite a bit later.  There was karaoke and breakdancing, allegedly.

Day 9 – It was time to go home.  We got on the bus for the 2.5 hour drive back to the Havana airport.  Aside from the short pit stop at a roadside bar (where the picture below was snapped), it was a straight shot.  We went through the extensive process to get on the plane, including passport control, paying of exit fees, return of visa, etc.  While waiting to board, I got a real treat… I heard my name over the loud speaker in the crowded terminal.  It was hard to make out, but I distinctly heard my name and the word “customs.”  Naturally, I shit a gold brick, hastily explaining to Shel and others that I had to go, presumably to my death.  They took me into a small empty room, where my checked bag stood in the corner.  There were two uniformed officers who spoke no English.  I communicated as well as I could, and they motioned for me to put my bag on the table and open it.  I won’t tell you all the things that raced through my mind, but I was relieved(?) that they stopped at the first item they found: a bronze plaque I bought at the used book market.  They looked it over, then called in a third woman.  She was not uniformed, but had an air of authority and began examining the plaque closely with a jeweler’s loupe.  They exchanged Spanish a bit, and I only picked up “antiguo,” which I assumed was “antique.”  Turns out there are laws against exporting art or anything that looks old enough to be an antique without a special license, which of course I did not have.  They asked me where I got it and if I had a receipt.  I explained I had no receipt and that I bought it at the used libro market.  After some discussion, the woman waved me on, and I was allowed to repack my bag and keep the plaque.  Thankfully, they searched no further.

So after a short flight, we land in Miami.  All my travelmates sail right through customs and onto baggage claim… except me.  My printout has a big black “X” through it, and I have to stand in a slow-moving line where I am eventually interrogated by customs and asked face-to-face all the same questions on the customs form.  Though the agent was gruff, I was let through and finally out of the airport and free, back on U.S. soil.  The delay robbed me of the chance to say goodbye to the new friends I’d made travelling, but Shel didn’t, and I have contact info for them.  So after a long day of travel, and being detained by customs in both countries, I was ready to eat and then sleep forever in the Miami hotel.  We returned to the Cane Fire Grille, this time ordering all of the same food, but not splitting it… ordering all those same dishes each.  Uncomfortably full, but satisfied and relaxed, we hit the hay.

Day 10 – We had a late flight out of Miami, so we had time to kill.  We started off sunbathing by the pool, where — after getting no color the whole trip — I managed to get slightly burned in a very short time.  We walked down the street to see the new Hobbit movie.  Then we headed to the airport, got on a slightly-delayed flight, and landed in San Francisco after midnight.  And I was thrilled to be home.

What did I learn?  In addition to everything above, what miscellaneous findings did I take away from the whole experience?

  1. Cuba is safe and friendly.  Every time the bus rolled by a farmer on a tractor, or a child on the street, they’d wave at us and smile.  Shel noted that of all the Central and South American destinations she’s visited, Cuba felt like the safest by far.  And it’s not terribly expensive.  And Friendly Planet, based on this experience, is solid.  I’d highly recommend the trip if you can make it happen.  And do it soon before Cuba changes!
  2. Napkins and toilet paper are like gold in Cuba.  I don’t know why that is, but in some places they’re nigh impossible to come by.  And most public bathrooms have attendants that dole them out to you… for a price.  For as strong as the dollar is, I would have loved to just pay an up-front “unlimited toilet paper fee” so that I wouldn’t have to constantly worry about where I might get stuck with nothing to wipe with.
  3. My Spanish is better than I thought.  I pulled out some random vocab words and was able to understand most conversations.  I even had some rudimentary exchanges with out bus driver about his kids, and he spoke zero English.  Guess some of that stuff sticks with you after all!
  4. A lot of the weird regulations you’ve heard about, those ones that make you scratch your head on why our relationship with Cuba is so unnecessarily bizarre… well, they’re mostly true.  For instance, if someone tries to enter Cuba illegally by water… if they are caught in the water, the Coast Guard sends them back, but if they make land, they can stay permanently seeking political asylum.  Imagine now a Cuban who tries to visit the U.S. legally with a visa.  They apply and are often turned down by the U.S. as a flight risk.  That same Cuban can then make the easy trip to Mexico, walk right up to U.S. Border Patrol and say “I’m Cuban, and I want political asylum.”  Then we have to let them stay.  They have the option to become citizens.  They can still return to Cuba any time they want, and the Cuban government doesn’t care.  What sense does that make?  Just one example of many strange and contradictory policies we have.  After all these years, even the Russians and the Chinese are our allies now, and yet we hold this grudge against Cuba.  Unless I’m missing something, it sure seems pointless.  At least it’s purely between the governments.  The Cuban people seemed to love us, and they gave us no reason not to love them.
  5. Some places just have a charm all their own.  I will forever remember the feeling of cabbing through the late-night streets of Havana, crumbling but clean, and empty as a movie lot but for a few classic cars idling in this or that alleyway.  It was unreal.
  6. Cuba is not immune to the phenomenon I’ve noticed in other countries where English is not the native language.  People have shirts with English phrases on them that make no sense out of context.  Things like “Right on, brother!” and “Knock it off!”  I guess though maybe that’s the equivalent of when Americans get tattoos of Chinese and Japanese characters?

This was such an amazing and memorable trip.  I lost two combs, but I didn’t get Dengue Fever or the shits.  Big thanks to my favorite travelmates: Handcuffs, Jersey, Bobby Fischer, Mom, Indiandy, Andy’s Dad, the Chicago Two, and the Denver couple whom we did not nickname.  (My nickname was “Franklin.”)  And of course, Shel!  The trip would not have been the same without you!  Your friendship and tremendous help in planning were incredible from start to finish.  We travel great together!  Love ya!

(P.S.  I will not miss the Downer-Bickersons.)

The soundtrack of the trip:

  • Theme from “Miami Vice” – Jan Hammer
  • “Ice Ice Baby” – Vanilla Ice
  • “Santeria” – Sublime
  • “My Way” – Frank Sinatra
  • “Havana Moon” – Chuck Berry
  • “Guantanamera” – The Sandpipers
  • “Here I Go Again” – Whitesnake
  • “The Lazy Sunbathers” – Morrissey
  • “Badfish” – Sublime
  • “Come Monday” – Jimmy Buffett
  • “Smuggler’s Blues” – Glenn Frey

Dragon, Slain

24 May 2012

Well friends… I finally got on a plane and returned to Europe.  The first time since Jared and I went to Ireland all those years ago.  Fitting then that he’s the reason I returned: he got hitched!  I spent a couple weeks across the pond, first to visit him in London and see his life out there, and then to Italy for the wedding and festivities.  Verizon kinda fucked me with some bad information that led to me finding out just before leaving that my phone actually would not work in Europe.  That stressed me out at first, and I considered a loaner or a pay-as-you-go, but in the end I lived without it perfectly fine.  Grabbed some free WiFi when I could, and lived without phone the rest of the time.  Two weeks was a long time to be gone, and I missed home and people here.  But of course it was amazing too.

Part I – Smoke Lingers ‘Round Your Fingers
After a difficult airport goodbye, needless to say I was not looking forward to a 10-hour plane trip.  British Airways was great though.  Individual screens and on-demand movies made the flight a lot better than it could have been.  I finally got to see “The Boat That Rocked,” which seemed appropriate for a trip to London.  I was able to sleep, but only a little.  I didn’t leave my chair once in the 10 hours.  It was 11am local time when I landed, and Jared was kind enough to meet me at the airport.  We went to take the train into downtown, but just as we boarded, they announced that there was a fatality on the tracks… which I understand is a common occurrence there (suicides).  Jared is experienced enough in travel now to know that this means trains can be stopped for hours, and cabs are about to be in high demand.  We caught a cab right away and left.  Along the long ride, I learned about cabs in London.  It’s nothing like it is in the States.  For one, you have a city of 12 million people to memorize if you’re a driver.  And they do memorize it.  It takes three years of training, and they call it “The Knowledge.”  These guys are serious experts.  And it’s not a profession popular with immigrants.  Literally every taxi driver I saw during my stay in London — and there were many — was an older U.K. native.  They apparently have the reputation for being nationalistic and way into football (read: soccer).  For instance, when Jared gets in a cab, they ask what hotel he’s going to, and when he explains that he lives in London, they immediately ask “when you going home?”  All part of the charm I guess.  Also, all the cabs are the same model of car, specifically designed to be cabs.  And as such, they are very well laid out for their purpose.  I was thoroughly impressed with the efficiency of the whole system.  Not to mention that these guys are masters at maneuvering through insanely tight holes in insane traffic.  We’re talking regularly operating with a couple inches of room to spare, and at high speed.  At least the pedestrians don’t have an automatic right of way… which was amazing to see.  Pedestrians didn’t get angry or indignant when a cab sped around a corner in front of them, because they knew it was their bad.  So unlike California!

It turns out there was someone holed up in a flat not far from Jared’s place, threatening to set off a bomb or something.  The streets were blocked off and the traffic horrendous.  We got out of the cab and decided to walk the last half mile or so.  Of course it started to rain, and so that walk carrying luggage was not ideal.  Logistics were proving to be hit or miss, but eventually we got to his flat right downtown, where he graciously let me stay to save on hotels.  After freshening up there (I felt and smelled not so great after the long and humid flight), we set out to sightsee.  We were able to go on foot due to his proximity to central London.  We had some Indian food at what is apparently the oldest such restaurant in the city.  As luck would have it, next to us was a table of retired cabbies, all having lunch and sounding like Michael Caine.  At one point a wife called and was greeted with “I told you not to call me now, I’m with my mates!”  That’s how you do it, son.

Anyhow, we walked through Covent Garden and out to Trafalgar Square, Big Ben, and The Houses Of Parliament.  Then along Whitehall to Scotland Yard, and on to Westminster Abbey, St. James’s Park, and Green Park.  The parks impressed me with the bravery of their squirrels and pigeons, who will happily take food right from your hand, as well as the beauty of some of the exotic birds there.  My favorite was the “coot,” which is unlike any other waterfowl I’ve seen… almost dinosaur-like!  By the way, did you know it’s a big deal if you touch one of the Queen’s geese (which apparently live there)?  Hearing this reminded me of my continuing confusion over the royal family’s role in England.  They’re not really in control, but they’re not normal citizens either.  For instance, you can touch Jared’s geese all you want and no one cares.  (For some clarification, check out this excellent video on the U.K. vs. England vs. Great Britain, which seems to summarize a very complex system pretty well.)  In any event, we finished up at Buckingham Palace, mused about if the guards would shoot us if we stormed the gates, stopped for iced tea, and headed home through Piccadilly Circus.  By the time all this walking was done, it was becoming increasingly clear that I might die here.  Not only do the cars have the right of way (as I mentioned), but I was constantly looking the wrong way when stepping into the street (damn left side driving countries)!  But I’m here, so I guess I survived.  So that was Day 1.

Day 2 – In their infinite mercy, Jared and his wife let me sleep late.  We headed to Primrose Hill where they had an appointment to see a few flats for sale.  Still rainy.  The neighborhood seemed like the Noe Valley of London.  We walked through a canal there, which would be sketchy in the States but seemed safe enough here.  Saw a busker playing Bob Marley.  Saw the Pirate Castle, which looked cool from the outside, but we didn’t go in.  Jared’s wife split to run errands, and he and I went on to Camden, which I guess is like their Haight.  Music and tattoo shops everywhere.  Edgier people.  Went to The Elephant’s Head pub on Christina’s recommendation, expecting it to be a rockabilly bar of sorts.  There was a great jukebox that included a Link Wray album, but the afternoon crowd was decidedly “normal.”  After a valiant effort at some London Pride and a bag of U.K.-specific flavored Kettle Brand “crisps,” we moved on.  We checked out the Stables Market, which is like Hellboy II‘s “troll market” in almost every way.  A crowded, open air food market of all sorts, along with shops selling all manner of art and bootleg t-shirts.  On the way home, we’d intended to hit the Natural History Museum, but it was just closing.  That evening, we went to an 80’s themed American diner called “The Breakfast Club” and had great food.  There’s a refrigerator door there that’s actually the portal to a scenester speakeasy called “The Mayor Of Scaredy Cat Town,” but they would not let us in.  Clearly, I’m not American or hip enough.  Instead, we had a drink down the street at Ten Bells, owned by a friend of a friend.  Turns out, this is the place where Jack The Ripper used to select and stalk his victims.  Creepy!

Day 3 – Still sleeping till 1pm, which works out to about 12 hours a night.  The three of us went to high tea at The Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon at Fortnum & Mason.  It was my first-ever English tea, served with milk and sugar (a.k.a. “white tea”) and it was delicious.  I was hooked and ordered it many other places before leaving London.  If I recall, the meal included a cheese pie, along with a course of scones, and then two towers of amazing tea cakes.  By the time we were done, none of us could indulge in the final course from their “cake carriage.”  It was the most enjoyable meal of the trip!  Fortnum’s was neat in general.  Like a very upscale department store with shades of Brookestone.  Their beautiful blue color (which is essentially Tiffany Blue, though I don’t know how the copyright works there) is everywhere there, and it’s lovely.  Afterwards, Jared and I met up with a friendly MBA classmate of his from Spain, and we all saw The Avengers 3D, released a week earlier than in the U.S. for some reason.  Also renamed “Avengers: Assemble” there I guess to avoid confusion with their old television show.  More white tea afterwards, saw Jared’s office building, traded the Spaniard for the wife, and headed to Soho to find a late dinner.  The only thing open was Moroccan, which suited me just fine.  A long walk home saw us pass perhaps England’s only Baskin Robbins, which was sadly closed at that late hour.  Then another night of trying to make my body fall asleep.

Day 4 – Jared and I set out for the Thames, passing St. Paul’s Cathedral and crossing the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern.  We didn’t go in though, instead taking the opportunity to walk along the south bank.  We headed towards The Shard (still under construction), crossing again towards the Gherkin, then on to the Tower Of London.  We considered going in (and I’d love to next time), but there was so much to see and not enough time.  We continued on to cross Tower Bridge (which I was sure was “London Bridge,” but I was mistaken) , viewing more of the south bank, the HMS Belfast, and the distant skyline of Canary Wharf, where apparently there are a lot of American companies, and I must admit it looks a lot like Chicago.  That night, I read in a Starbucks and drank white tea while the happy couple completed their final pre-wedding dance lesson.  Afterwards, I had vegetarian bangers and mash with them at The Troubadour.

Day 5 – It was a travel day, and I’ll be damned if I wasn’t up at a decent hour!  We had breakfast at a Greek cafe, packed up, and took a very long and stressful cab to London Gatwick, due to traffic which nearly made us late for our flight.  But lucky for us, our boy’s extensive business travel and airline status meant that we were rushed through security, and when I say rushed, I mean we were shown to a private screening room, empty but for the standard X-ray and staff to operate it.  No one else in there.  No line.  It was a whole security line (in its own large room) just to the three of us.  Needless to say, we no longer had to worry about delays.  His status helped both of them get automatic upgrades to first class, and they would have upgraded me too just for being with him (not even on the same reservation), but first class was too full.  It was pretty neat to see how he rolls.  When it comes to travel, he is fucking elite.  It was off to Naples…

Part II – Americano
After a short and pleasant flight, we landed in Naples.  I was immediately faced with the stereotype of disorganized and somewhat rude Italy (at least by American standards).  From the moment the plane landed, the people all seemed boorish, pushing ahead, not waiting what I would consider their turn.  We deboarded the plane to get on a bus, which drove us all of about 100 feet to the other side of the building, where we were let out to go to border control.  It was comical.  Then people were climbing over each other to be first to get their bag.  For example, picture the conveyor belt that disperses checked luggage.  Imagine it is 50 feet long.  The first 25 feet of it was ridiculously crowded, and the last 25 feet empty.  We were near the back of the crowd, and rather than wait just 10 feet down the line to have open and sole access to get their bag, people would climb over us and push people out of the way to get their bag immediately.  I don’t know if I’ve described that clearly, but I was too shocked to even laugh.  It was so needless.

We had a driver to take us to our destination of Positano, and he was predictably crazy and aggressive when driving, as was everyone else.  The hour-long journey included a winding, white knuckle drive that makes Highway 1 look like I-5.  I was just about to reach my limit of car sickness when we finally arrived at the hotel.  I was so pleased with my room though.  Charming and plenty big enough for what I needed, it had tile floors and a drinking fountain next to the toilet.  It had a curtain-less shower that let me look out the window to the ocean while bathing.  That window view was incredible in ways I can hope to describe.  It looked directly out onto the beach and town.  I tried to take pictures and video, but there’s just no way to capture it in words… waking up each morning and coming home each night, and throwing open that big double window, breathing in that ocean air, and looking out over the peaceful Mediterranean Sea.  It was a postcard come to life.

Day 6 – The next morning, I joined the two of them at the breakfast the hotel offered.  I went on to do this a few more times over the next week… lots of good pastries, fruits, etc.  Jared showed me around town (what little of it there is).  Positano really is beautiful.  It seems there are a million passageways and staircases winding through the shops and restaurants.  So many ways to get where you’re going… or to get lost.  I had delicious granita (and later in the trip, mixed with iced tea).  I was tricked into sipping Jared’s disgusting Campari,  and again he suckered me into trying limoncello on an empty stomach.  It tastes something like kerosene and lemon, and without any food in your system, you can feel it searing its way down through your guts.  I tried a lot of limoncello over the course of the trip but never really got used to it.  Later in the evening, I explored the town and beach a bit more on my own.  I saw many of the town’s infamous stray cats, along with a lone pair of ducks, and an occasional dog.  I saw some of the little grocery stores selling produce like huge heirloom tomatoes and and the area’s famous gargantuan lemons — they were the size of cantaloupes.  That’s not an exaggeration.  It may not surprise you to learn that in addition to the art galleries and women’s clothing and jewelry stores, Positano’s other big export is all manner of lemon-related souvenirs.  Anyway, I finished out the night with dinner alone: a plate of gnocchi at Buca Di Bacco.

Day 7 – These first few days were pretty tame.  Relaxing and eating, you know.  Read a lot.  Took naps in the middle of the day, which I generally never do.  I took showers just for the ambiance and relaxation.  Sat in my window ledge and admired the view.  This particular day, I had a giant plate of caprese for lunch down at Covo Dei Saraceni which was so massive that I couldn’t even look at caprese the rest of the trip.  Picked up some Euros from the ATM, though virtually all of my valuables and important documents stayed locked in the room safe for the trip.  Picked up some Italian cookies and water for the room.  In the evening, we had our first massive dinner, this time on the lower level of Buca Di Bacco.  I experienced my first quattro formaggi pizza of the trip.  Got to meet up with Jared’s just-arrived parents as well as get to know some of his many brilliant and interesting international friends.  People from every corner of the globe doing big things with their lives.  Mostly I talked to a South African newlywed living in Singapore.  Oh, and Jared casually dropped a request that I be his best man… at the wedding happening in about 36 hours.

Day 8 – The next day basically consisted of two big meals.  First was the rehearsal brunch, of which I was now a part given my best man status.  It was a gut-busting several-course meal outdoors at the Michelin-starred Hotel Palazzo Murat.  Then for dinner that night, anyone in town for the wedding descended on Chez Black (noted for celebrity clientele like Denzel Washington).  It was another plate of gnocchi sorrentino, which is the only way they seem to prepare it in Positano.  It’s basically a sauce of tomato and mozzarella.  Now, I’m not complaining, because gnocchi in Italy is still gnocchi in Italy.  I’m just saying by the end of the trip, it started to taste like Chef Boyardee.  Of course throughout this time, there was more cookie buying and no small amount of hastily scribbling an emergency best man speech on hotel stationery.  By the way, that’s my room pictured below in white…

Day 9 – Wedding day.  Jared and his bride had spent the night apart, and so in the morning we were just killing time together.  In the early afternoon, I got dressed up in my suit and headed down to the cathedral with him.  The ceremony was beautiful.  Hard to go wrong in a place like that.  Got to pelt them with rice and flower petals.  Some confused tourists sat in the church to watch the ceremony and stood outside taking pictures of us taking pictures.  I don’t know how they thought that was appropriate, but such are the perils of wedding in Positano I guess.  We retired to Covo for pre-reception cocktails.  I got a chance to talk with a few more of Jared’s friends from Brussels and Genoa.  Super cool guys who may join Jared and the Spaniard for a tip to SF for a triathlon.  I had a sip of 20 year old cognac that the bride’s family had brought.  The reception included many delicious courses of dinner and dessert, as well as some entertaining Armenian customs and folk dancing, also courtesy of the bride’s family.  I delivered my speech, which was well-received (in that about two dozen folks who had ignored me thus far made a point to come and introduce themselves).  I danced my ass off, demonstrating that I have the moves like Jagger.  After the reception, the heartiest among us continued on to the town’s only nightclub, which was steadily filling up with crazy vacationing Eurotrash.  I chatted with a few more of Jared’s friends including one with great music taste, another telling me about real life in Moscow, and another from Australia who’d sailed part of the way to Italy… essentially solo.  Thanks to the DJ, I again demonstrated how I still have the moves like Jagger, and about the time I heard a dance remix of The Doobie Brothers’ “Long Train Runnin’,” I realized my one White Russian had done me in!  I started to feel dizzy and decided it was time to get back up the hill to my hotel.  Luckily, I ran into some buzzed wedding friends staying at the same place, and we all jovially walked together.

Jared has some great friends out there.  In another life, I could see myself in that circle.  All these guys I mentioned, these successful and handsome international playboys with charming accents… if we get them out to SF for that triathlon or Bay To Breakers next year… ladies, watch out.  That reminds me, outside of our wedding party, that night at the club was the only time on the whole trip where there was anything close to a concentration of good-looking people.  True, most of it was the European equivalent of the Jersey Shore, but I get the appeal of being young and converging on the only nightclub in town while on a remote vacation, trying to hook up.  Good for them.  Did I mention it was lonely on this trip?  Positano is for lovers.  Just ask the giant neon Durex vending machine in the middle of town.  I’m not kidding.

My last word on the wedding: damn, I look good in a suit.  Sometimes I forget, and cameras don’t ever do it justice.  I ought to wear them more often.

Day 10 – The next day was a huge catered goodbye brunch at Murat.  So much good food, and they just kept bringing it and bringing it!  People started to say their goodbyes, while others planned to stay an extra few days.  A big group of us took a day trip to Pompeii by bus, which was brutal and tested the limits of my car sickness.  But Pompeii itself was incredible.  The amazing craftsmanship and technology there, not to mention the good shape it’s still in.  My favorite was the polished white stones they put in their streets to reflect moonlight!  Beautiful marble everywhere.  They repaired after earthquakes.  Used concrete.  Had structures in the streets to control and divert traffic.  Saw a few of the dogs that live on the grounds and sleep all day.  I loved the bath house with a tiny mosaic floor and marble basins so preserved as to look almost new.  The size of the neighborhoods too… it really is a whole preserved city which used to hold thousands of people.  Alleyways, storefronts.  The old barracks and the odeon.  And then of course there was the famous brothel, with its preserved “menu” paintings inside, showing the services available there.  Among them was a man with two peckers (which Jared and I later referred to constantly as “due pini”).  And then there was the brothel street sign in the form of a phallus fresco on right on the side of the building.  (It may not surprise you that I purchased a bronze statuette of a disembodied phallus with wings at the souvenir stand.)  Pompeii was my kinda town.  I wonder what their rents are like.  To think that after 260 years of constant excavation, they’re still only 75% of the way done.  The mind reels.  That night was a challenger for best meal of the trip.  Il Capitano served me a bowl of mini zucchini medallions with basil and stir-fried in so much vinegar, they almost tasted like salt and vinegar chips.  Yum!  And also… weird!  It also didn’t hurt that their quattro formaggi pizza included a very strong smoked cheese.  Again, we were eating outdoors, admiring the nearly full moon reflecting from a clear sky onto the calm Mediterranean.  That huge reflection of the moon makes you feel like you’re in a painting.  It’s every night out there, but here in SF, it’s almost unheardof.  When is it ever clear out on Ocean Beach?  The serenity was only broken up by a fireworks from a private party down the coast.  Jared’s brother-in-law suggested it might have been a neighboring town’s annual “Bite This, Positano!” fireworks display.

Day 11 – Somewhere around this time, I had seen enough blue suede loafers that I felt confident in making the call that it is some kind of fashion phenomenon in Europe.  Mark my words, it’s a trend, and I’ll bet it comes to the States before long.  Anyway, it was time for us to take a day trip to Capri.  I survived the boat ride and the white knuckle driving along shear cliffs.  In addition to the fancy designer stores and coral jewelers, there were small shops selling homemade limoncello (read: moonshine).  We visited the breathtaking Villa San Michele, built by Axel Munthe on the ruins of Tiberius’ own villa.  Munthe was an interesting guy, building priceless archealogical artifacts into the walls and furniture of his house.  We saw a perfume factory, but ran out of time before we could see the Blue Grotto or do more than snap a few distant photos of the Faraglioni.  An average meal back at Caffe Positano finished off the night.

Day 12 – Our last full day in Positano.  I joined the happy couple’s respective families at their shared villa for brunch.  By this time, my knees were destroyed from all the walking up and down hills and stairs all over this vertical town.  We took a last minute boat ride to Amalfi, and there we saw the massive cathedral,  full of tombs and relics.  Had some great gelato.  Had a look at a nice and lewd public drinking fountain.  Discovered the shoe art of Inna Panasenko, and finished off with a quiet dinner at Covo with just the families.

Day 13 – Going home.  We shared a couple of vans to Naples, said rushed goodbyes, and took our separate flights.  I was fortunate enough to share a flight with Jared’s family though.  A layover in Frankfurt gave me the chance to compare Germans to Italians, if only for an hour or so.  In that time, I got the impression that the Germans are way more organized and polite.  That airport was humming along like a machine, and everyone I dealt with at the airport was super nice.  I stocked up on a couple of pretzels and a danish, and hit the last leg home.  Nearly 12 hours for that last leg, and so I invested $120 in moving to an exit row, which I ended up having to myself.  So worth it for a flight that long.  I will definitely do that in the future.  Had room to stretch out, was right near the bathrooms, and had a screen to watch movies on demand.  Which I did.  Like four of them, including Chronicle, The Immortals, Anchorman (tip o’ the hat to my previous Ireland trip, and the rest of Sherlock Holmes 2.  I didn’t sleep much, but I survived it just fine.  And nothing like getting home after a trip like that, and getting back to the loved ones you missed.

Well fuckity duckity (or fuckity doo dah, as Jared would say)… I feel like I should have some big philosophical wrap-up here, but I really don’t.  I have effectively gained back all the ground I lost to anxiety years ago in that I have proven to myself that I can handle those logistics.  It was my last dragon to slay, the last thing I was telling myself I was too scared to do, and now it’s done.  It was amazing to get to spend so much time with Jared again of course.  It was lots of fun, and I’ll remember it always, but there were no big revelations for myself or my life plans the way I had hoped.  I learned that Jaffa Cakes are delicious, and that London is expensive.  Ridiculously and wastefully so.  I’m serious.  For real.  I learned that t-shirts and jeans are not all-purpose wear in Europe the way they are in California — and that I need to pack some nicer clothes next time.  I learned that the high school game where you make a circle with your hand below your waist and trick someone into looking at it so you can punch them in the shoulder twice… it’s still fun.  I learned that Nicole loves lamb.  And thanks to the bride’s family, I learned more Russian than Italian.

  • previet = hello
  • paca = goodbye
  • pajalsta = please
  • spasibo = thank you
  • da = yes
  • nyet = no
  • fsyo = it’s done
  • golka = kiss (at least in context?)
  • zot kinees = shut up = susminna (in Armenian)

I can’t thank enough Jared’s family for treating me like one of their own.  It really kept me together on the trip.  And of course I can never thank Jared and his wife enough for their extreme generosity and thoughtfulness in making this trip possible for me… and honestly as easy as it could possibly be.  They watched out for me and had everything to do with making this vacation as amazing and memorable as it was.  I couldn’t have hoped for a better first foray back into international travel after a long hiatus.  I love you guys!  Come out to California again so I can at least begin to return the favor!  And hopefully I won’t let so much time go by before I’m out there again.

“The wild, cruel beast is not behind the bars of the cage.  He is in front of it.”
— Axel Munthe

Soul Purpose

22 May 2012

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to life lately.  Asking myself if I’m really making the most of my time on earth, or if I’m mindlessly going with the flow because it’s easy or because I assume I have no other choice.  I was reading the April 2012 issue of Guitar Player magazine a while back — bear with me — and the editor (Michael Molenda) offered up a gem, just the latest great quote encouraging us to be present and mindful and take the time to sit down and savor life’s great moments.  As he put it, “‘Live every day as if it were your last’ often gets rewritten as ‘Make sure every day is crammed with meaningless, self-important crap that allows you to feel busier and more valuable than the person next to you.’”  And that pretty much sums up how I’ve been feeling about a lot of the things that I spend my time and energy on.  I have this increasing sense that it’s time for some big changes.  Some once-every-ten-years kinda changes.  That could mean a pretty big shake up.  Maui might be one part of it, and just think of all the consequences that might have.

Before I get too deep, how about some more lighthearted updates?  I’ve seen some great shows lately.  Most astonishing was The Darkness at The Fillmore.  That show was jaw-dropping.  The ease with which Justin Hawkins seemed to set the stage on fire with his soaring falsetto, acrobatics, and guitar mastery… I mean it was stunning.  I saw him drop a plectrum, kick it back up sideways hacky sack style, catch it, and start his solo, all while looking not at all surprised it worked.  It is a contender for the best live show I’ve ever seen.  Other highlights include Devo (looking very old but not caring… oh, and also sounding amazing), The Buzzcocks, Pulp (another fantastic show), and a one-time reuniting of our old friends Dead Souls.  After dragging my feet about it, I finally broke down today and got tickets for Morrissey in Stockton this weekend.  Happy birthday, you old diva.  You get my money again.

My own music has been good, too.  The Rumble Strippers have had a few successful shows and seem to be climbing the ladder a bit.  Our name is getting out there.  We’re working on new songs.  We recorded four songs in an actual studio (which was new to me), including one I wrote.  It’s all very promising.  And then TCB has an incredible new singer (Michael) who is possibly the best I’ve ever heard outside of Mozzer himself when it comes to those songs.  He’s got the moves, the voice, and is a terribly nice person to boot.  We’ve got a ton of shows coming up this summer, including trips to Portland, Seattle, and SoCal, and even a date opening for The Polecats.  Not to mention the great shows last weekend at Slim’s and The Catalyst!  Slim’s had some epic moments like walking on to “Imperfect List,” playing the “Subway Train” intro to “Everyday Is Like Sunday” as well as having David’s help on keys.  He also joined us for “Jack The Ripper,” and Nick took on an acoustic guitar for “King Leer” and “Seasick, Yet Still Docked.”  We closed with “Now My Heart Is Full,” which Michael ingeniously medley’ed with “I Won’t Share You” and then bowed and walked off while we continued playing.  It was perfect.  But come to think of it, the last couple months were brutal in terms of shows.  I think at one point I had six or seven straight weekends of shows, alternating between TCB and The Rumble Strippers.  But I guess that’s a Cadillac worry, as they say.

I had a minor surgery which was new for me as well.  No stitches, but dealing with caring for it led me to have my first panic attack in ages.  It happened at the hospital.  Good times.  But at the end of the ordeal, I was left with a better sense of my own resilience and confidence in what I can deal with, and that’s the ultimate antidote for anxiety.  Let’s see, what else?  Had a fun time at the pinball museum in Alameda thanks to Eden’s surprise party for Margaret.  Damn, there was a ton of stuff in past months I never got around to mentioning, including my brief attempts at ice skating and Bikram yoga, as well as ongoing vocal lessons.  Then there were two big trips.  One was Europe (yes, Europe!), but more on that next time.  The other was Viva Las Vegas, which after all these years I finally attended, along with my expert C-Po.  I’d intended to write about it last month, but preparing for Europe kept me swamped.  I’ll do my best to recall it now…

I’d been waiting to go to Viva since around 2004, but the right situation just never presented itself.  C-Po calls it “rockabilly summer camp.”  And specifically for vintage-lovin’ girls, it’s the “Fashion Olympics.”  Both descriptions are totally accurate, it turns out.  We spent most of the time within the Orleans Hotel, as that’s where all the events were anyway.  We perused the many, many booths of clothes, jewelry, pomades (where I picked up some Layrite swag), stickers, etc.  There was a vegan custom shoe maker from the U.K. that I plan to work with in the future.  We gambled and won and then broke even.  (Penny slots, dude.  It’s the only way to go.)  We didn’t stick around for the whole of Elvira’s show, but we caught most of one of Charles Phoenix’s hilariously-narrated slideshows.  We took advantage of several free dance lessons, and though I’ve forgotten many of the steps already, I was a damn decent jiver and bopper for a few days there.  We skipped the car show due to time constraints, and limited our time at the pool party to a quick walk around it just to get the feel.  We took a walk through a fancy mall full of only the highest-end designers’ storefronts.  We saw tons of friends and spent a good amount of time with the drummer from Quarter Mile Combo.  I heard there were something like 8,500 paid attendees this year.  Then there was that damn wristband, pretty and detailed as it was… I did not appreciate having to keep it on 24 hours a day for four days.  The “rockabilly summer camp” vibe was really all about all these scene people under one roof, staying in the same hotel as if it were a giant dorm or a sleepover party.  And of course everything is open 24 hours a day.  Everyone getting all dressed up to be seen each night.  It was fun, I can’t deny.  And as for that “Fashion Olympics” aspect, I don’t doubt it now.  There were countless unique and wonderful outfits.  Obviously I don’t know what I’m looking at, but C-Po  and her friends all know and recognize who’s bringing it and who’s a poseur.  I actually held my own, poseur-wise.  You know, part of me was staying away from VLV just to avoid being anonymous in a sea of people who look just like me, and that’s valid.  But if I’m being honest with myself, I suppose there was also the fear that I would feel like an imposter among people who are rockabillier than thou.  But there was none of that.  If anything, I saw more neophytes than veterans, and I felt totally confident and comfortable in my own skin there.  It probably helps that I’m old now.  In fact, from what I saw, there were lots of badly dressed people, and I looked comparatively great.  It was interesting to see all the different directions the neophytes and the veterans alike have taken a relatively small amount of cultural reference and tried to make it look flattering and authentic.  What I saw ran the gamut from cherry print everything, to just a flower in the hair, to totally immaculate vintage from head to toe.  I saw full-on cat suits, incredible dresses, and even overalls.  For the record, I lost track of how many compliments C-Po got on her outfits, from friends and strangers alike.  It was an embarrassing amount though, so apparently she really brought it.  In terms of this scenester posturing that we’re all guilty of, my favorite moment was in an elevator when a wannabe queen bee — who didn’t know who she was talking to — responded to a casual compliment from C-Po with, “Yeah I don’t know if you know this, but my purse is like super rare.  It’s worth like $1300.”

Over the course of the weekend, the dining was hit or miss.  Right there in the Orleans, there’s a T.G.I. Friday’s, which disappointed us twice.  However, there was a decent Denny’s-esque diner and great Asian place there too.  The in-house food court had a Subway and Baskin Robbins, neither of which I took advantage of, but I got the obligatory veggie burger at the Fuddruckers there.  Their facade was decorated with jukebox record streamers, a cardboard cut-out of James Dean, and a cringe-worthy banner that read, “Fuddruckers loves rock-a-billy’s.  Welcome back!!”  There are so many things wrong with that, I don’t even know where to start.  We ventured away from the Orleans twice, and it resulted in the best and worst meals of the trip.  I’m fairly certain that food poisoning from Garduño’s is what led us to have to stay in sick one night.  But then brunch at the Mon Ami Gabi bistro at the Paris was one of the best meals I’ve had all year!  Warm brie with black pepper, honey, hazelnuts, and croutons?  Crisscut fries with blue cheese dip?  Some kind of amazing salad that I can’t remember now?  Yes, ma’am.  I even did my share of drinking over the weekend, mainly to collect the commemorative mugs, including a boot, a skull, and a bowling pin.  I vaguely remember some delicious Sailor Jerry punch.

Music was the main attraction for me, of course.  I got to see most everything I intended to.  Seeing Duane Eddy and The Ventures in person was definitely something I’m glad to say I did.  The “legends” show featuring older stars on the verge of senility was interesting.  J.D. McPherson was alright.  Saw our friend Irving play in The 454’s.  I forget who else now.  The highlight was The Polecats, who were just full of energy and sounded great.  Awesome to see Boz cutting loose and really playing!  We even got to meet him and Tim Polecat after the show!  Now with all that went on during the weekend, it’s just impossible to see it all.  The bands that — in hindsight — I wish I’d seen include:  Si Cranstoun (who is apparently Jackie Wilson-esque and amazing), Voola & The Jayhawks (which are all but a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins tribute), Jinx Jones (whom Paul has seen locally and has raved about), and Blind Rage & Violence (a Link Wray tribute).  There were tons of other bands too that might have been nice.  C-Po knew many of them, but I did not.  Seeing the massive list of events for VLV meant seeing a lot of rockabilly band names alongside each other.  And that led to some observations, and ultimately to us creating this:

So that was Viva.  I’ll definitely be doing it again next year.  Which I guess brings us back to the bigger “life” stuff…  I didn’t do a “New Year’s” blog this year the way I’ve done in the past, but that’s not because I haven’t been reflecting.  As I mentioned, I’m considering some big changes.  And I mean big.  Virtually no sacred cow is safe.  This public forum isn’t really the place for me to get into it, but I’m pondering things.  They’re not quite formed into specific resolutions, but instead loosely arranged into areas of my life that are due for an overhaul.  A while back at work, it was suggested that each of us take a shot at creating a personal “mission statement” to succinctly sum up what we’re all about.  At first, I thought it was kind of a silly exercise, but I admit that when I sat down and really gave it some thought, the end result was pretty valuable.  This is what I settled on.  My “mission” is:

To search for meaning and understanding, strive for absolute integrity, actively recognize and experience as much joy as possible in every moment of my limited time on earth, and do what I can to protect the right of all living things to do the same.

I wrestled with the precise phrasing of that statement, considering alternatives for nearly every word, and making sure the connotation and message was exactly what I meant to say.  Now that was written sometime back in 2011, and though I didn’t intend it, it really fits well as a kind of framework for me to work with as I do some life overhauling to get more aligned with my real goals.

  • So to search for meaning and understanding makes me think of Spirit Rock, the Buddhist retreat.  I’ve been thinking about doing a week out there for almost a year now, and I just know it would be helpful, but I may have to put it off (depending on my vacation time situation what with Europe burning up two weeks).  Spirituality is something that I had a real awakening with while I dealt with anxiety a few years ago, and I know that there would be a tremendous benefit to pursuing it further.  I really have to make this happen.
  • Then to strive for absolute integrity, that comes naturally to me.  It may not surprise you to hear that “Responsibility” was my #1 strength according to StrengthsFinder.  It isn’t always a good thing though, as I hold myself to an unrealistic standard sometimes.  That’s where the word “strive” comes in.   That’s to remind myself that I should shoot for perfection but remember that I am human too.  Another big thing for me here is to continue to get comfortable with anger — allowing myself to experience it, express it, and let it go, rather than tamp it down like I’ve done for years.  My progress and small victories there have been kind of amazing.  To see how fast you can let something go after you express it.  It’s still so foreign to me as I’m used to holding it in until it hardens into resentment.  There are many great quotes on that subject.  Anyhow, I feel like I’m still making slow progress in this area.
  • And then to actively recognize and experience as much joy as possible in every moment of my limited time on earth, that’s a loaded one.  A lot of key words there.  “Actively” because it takes attention and effort to see (or “recognize”) the value in everything you experience.  You can’t control everything that happens to you, but you can control how you view it.  Easier said than done, but that is the ultimate power to have in your own life.  That’s the ultimate goal.  Originally, instead of “recognize,” I was playing with variations of “pursue.”  I’m at least putting some of this into action this year by travelling.  Already VLV and Europe are behind me.  With my remaining vacation time, I still would like to try to pull off Cuba later this year, maybe combined with a Florida manatee stopover.  New Orleans is off the table for a number of reasons, but I’ll see it and the G.I. Joe convention eventually, even if they’re not at the same place in the future.  I’d like to make time to relax and rest and ponder and redistribute my time based on true enjoyment rather than just trying to use it to efficiently complete and endless list of tasks.  I want to feed ducks more.  I want to finally get an Ocean Beach bonfire going with friends, and throw more events like that to expand the circle of friends.  I want to finish my massive house clean and purge of all non-essential material things.  I want to purge non-essential commitments and usages of my free time.  I want to do something for a living that excites my passions and feels real.  I want to live somewhere (Maui?) that helps me “be here now” rather than silently prods me to work on a to do list.  That “be here now,” that idea of mindfulness is the really the key.  Pursuing happiness through vacations and simplifying my schedule, it’s certainly a valuable use of my time, but it’s too limiting as an overall goal.  It’s not enough just to try to improve what happens to you, because you can’t really control everything that happens to you.  Vacations are nice, but no amount of vacations or material things is going to guarantee your happiness.   The happiness comes from your mindset.  It’s easy to be happy on vacation with your friends, but that’s not where you spend the majority of your life.  It’s more important to find how to be happy the rest of the time.
  • And finally, to do what I can to protect the right of all living things to do the same.  For this one, I struggle.  I need to find something meaningful to do here, and if it doesn’t come in the form of a new career in that field, it might at least be some volunteer time.  Ideally though, I would do for a living something that leverages my talents towards a noble cause that matters to me and to the world and makes a real difference, rather than just the accumulation of wealth.

So those are the big plans, somewhat mapped to more actionable items.  It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by day-to-day life and commitments while your big plans… your important plans… your life plans… all stay on the back burner.  In some ways, that’s the biggest obstacle.  Some of these goals have been on my mind for months with no progress or answers yet, but hell if I’m not trying.

The quote of the week is just a question for you to ponder:

“If your life had its own board of directors, who’d be on it?”

Aloha, Motherfuckers!

5 January 2012

I just wanted to put down some notes about my exciting New Year’s trip to Maui.  Getting up at 5am sucks, but arriving in Maui around 3pm local time does not.  After some initial stress of finding our way around town to the essentials like water shoes (yes I shopped at the Maui Walmart, but I didn’t feel good about it), we made our way around the island toward the hotel.  Memories of my previous trip there (must have been around 2000?) started to come back to me.  Slowly letting it sink in, the magnitude of the difference in scenery and climate there.  Like being on another planet.

We stayed at the amazing Sheraton Maui resort, noted for having one of the nicest beaches on the island.  Travelocity hooked us up, because a room there can run upwards of $800/night, and we didn’t pay near that much.  The grounds there are breathtaking.  Check out their site for pictures, but if I ever win the lottery, I would want to move in there permanently.  (Turns out it’s actually very close to the Hyatt I’d stayed at when I was in Maui before.)  The air smells sweet, I’m not kidding.  It smells perfumed everywhere you go.  Then big, open, manicured grassy areas all over.  A pool that snaked through the landscape along with a hot tub.  We checked in, put on shorts, and headed out to one of the outdoor bars to eat.  Not 30 seconds after sitting down to dinner that first night, the older Australian couple next to us noticed my Smiths shirt and started talking to me about them — surely a good omen for the new year.  There was live music and hula all the time.  Took a walk on the beach at night, where even in December it barely dipped below 70°.

I can’t get over the freedom of a vacation like this.  I probably haven’t had it since that last Maui trip.  The freedom to just roll out of bed, put on nothing but board shorts — I mean no shirt, no shoes — and walk through the resort on your way to pick up a piña colada (which you carelessly charge to the room) and head to the beach.  No need for heating or AC.  Indoors and out, day and night, you are comfortable in shorts and nothing else.  I felt like I spent the whole week in my underwear, but that’s what everyone does there.  There’s no shame.  And that feeling is the highlight of the whole trip.  I can’t overstate that.  The freedom of no schedule and no climate restrictions.  (Side note: I wore sunblock religiously and as a result got almost no color at all!)  Some of the noteworthy activities include:  We went ziplining from tree to tree in a forest canopy.  I swam so much in the ocean… which is warm and so clear.  Totally unlike the ocean in the Bay Area where it’s murky and prohibitively cold.  The ocean in Maui is like being in a bathtub.  It’s that comfortable.  You can be in it all day, just swimming and rolling in the waves.  It makes you feel human again… and animal, all at the same time.  I climbed up Black Rock there off the coast and cliff dove.  We saw whales jumping and spouting just off shore.  We rented snorkeling equipment for a couple hours.  I didn’t know it then, but all the time I was swimming and cliff diving near Black Rock… I was surrounded by colorful tropical fish.  Armed with the snorkel gear, we got to see what was going on beneath the surface.  Thousands of beautiful butterfly fish, trumpet fish, etc. swimming around people’s feet while they don’t even know it.  Darting around the coral at the base of Black Rock.  It was stunning.  We didn’t see any turtles, but we did later see crabs along the rocks in another part of town.

The food was so-so, mostly in that it wasn’t very vegetarian-friendly.  I ended up eating a lot of junk food and fried food, but I survived.  Front Street was great for shopping and some food.  It’s more or less their Pier 39 equivalent.  I had some handmade chocolate with kava… which numbed my tongue.  We had a fancier dinner at Roy’s, where I had grilled tofu steaks.  We had more “local” food at Aloha Mixed Plate.  We rang in 2012 at the Sheraton’s New Year’s Eve party, which included a nice buffet, dancing with awkward white people toward the countdown, and an opportunity to wear a Hawaiian shirt.  At first I felt a little strange as many others were dressed kinda ritzy for NYE.  But soon I realized that I was just the rock and roll one at the party, and I got into that mindset.  It’s an expensive resort, and these people don’t know who I am.  For all they know, I’m a real rock star.  At least that’s the irreverent mindset I adopted, and I think I pulled it off.  Our last night there, we did the obligatory luau which included an open bar, a whole roast pig (which was kinda depressing), and a full on music and dance performance.  Again, the Sheraton is reputed to have one of the best luaus on the island.  Other than NYE and the luau, the resort’s food was overpriced and not great.  I was happy when we got to venture out.  One last note… at almost every restaurant we ate at, the seating was open air or at least facing wide open windows.  There weren’t many bugs, but there were plenty of birds flying into these places and hopping around the floor.  I rediscovered my love of feeding birds and exercised it at nearly every meal.  As with the geckos that came out at night around the resort, and the flowers everywhere you go, I just loved how much nature and open air is a part of everything you do there.  It makes my life back home feel sterile and isolated and artificial by comparison.

The only real downside was the sense that in general, the locals hated us.  I mean, I kinda get it.  In S.F., we’re annoyed by tourists.  And though I don’t know the history, I can only assume there’s some less-than-pleasant past crimes of the white man against the native people.  I noticed were some very aggressive and almost combative driving by locals against us both as other drivers and as pedestrians.  (Though when I let one particular car in front of me, he very casually flashed a “hang loose” gesture at us, which was so charming!)  At one point, we got a very chilly reception by a couple of locals carving tikis.  Was it just because I was a tourist?  Or white?  Or with a girl who looks like she could be Hawaiian?  Maybe I read into it too much, but there was a definite sense of “we’ll take your money because we need to, but in all other respects, go to hell.”  I’d heard that Maui was the most fiercely independent of the islands, historically speaking.  I wonder if there is an active anti-statehood movement there?  In any event, if you know me, you know that I was overly polite and careful not to be in anyone’s way or make a mess.  So unless I’m oblivious to something horrible I was doing, I’m pretty sure I was looked down upon for no good reason.  Mahalo, bitch.

It turns out this is peak season for Hawaii, and so the limited rental cars on Maui are hard to come by.  All the agencies jack up their rates significantly, and a six day rental from one of the last places with cars left cost me over $1100!  The good news is that it for a small upcharge I was able to snag a convertible Mustang.  The salesguy pressed hard for it, but he wasn’t wrong.  Driving around the island with the top down was well worth the extra ~$100.  For the view and the weather.  And these new Mustangs let you change the color of all the dashboard backlighting and trim lights.  A silly feature that is so up my alley.  But tonight, when I got behind the wheel of my own Town Car — it’s been in the shop since getting hit by a drunk driver after the last TCB show — I was again reminded, as I have been so many times before, just how much I love my car.  It’s so smooth.  It was made for me.

On the way back, we were in desperate need of food before the flight.  The only “real” food around was a bar and grill… it turned out to be called “Sammy’s.”  And can you guess why?  It’s apparently Sammy Hagar’s own restaurant, and it is every bit as full of self-aggrandizing bullshit as you might imagine.  We’re talking walls covered with his platinum records.  An autographed guitar.  Chickenfoot merch left and right.  Picture upon cringe-worthy picture of him posing with various celebrities.  Even the bamboo decorations in his signature red.  A menu full of recipes he allegedly picked up from his travels and his celebrity friends.  A plaque at the front door explaining what a model citizen and philanthropist he is.  All of the marketing, none of the artistic integrity, and all done with the delicate touch of a sledgehammer.  But what should I expect from a man who has a band named after his own brand of tequila?  Good Lord.

But back to the real story here.  I’m seriously looking into moving to Maui.  The practical side of me is weighing how much of a lifestyle change that would represent, as well as how wise it is to make a decision like that based on a week at a resort, when “real” life there would not be like vacationing at a resort.  And what would I do for work?  The tech market doesn’t seem to be booming there.  And I don’t know if I’m cut out for the tourism/service industry.  Maybe a government job?  Am I too old to be a cop?  I think it fits my personality, and I’ve considered looking into that as a way to do something impactful for a living irrespective of my new Maui plans.  Or maybe Maui needs therapists and I could pursue that as a career?  Though, who needs a shrink when you live in paradise?  Everyone we talked to — and there were dozens — said that moving to Maui was the best thing they’d even done and they love it there.  Be they bartender or concierge.  From Fresno or Portland.  The love it there.  Rents are cheaper than San Francisco.  But then… there’s no scene there at all.  Nowhere to go dance to new wave.  Nowhere to go to listen to (or play) rockabilly or Smiths music live.  I’d have to join a reggae band if I wanted to gig anywhere out there.  Or maybe I could start a weekly new wave club night?  OK, maybe unrealistic… but the wheels are definitely turning, folks.  You’d all come visit me, right?

“All men should strive to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why.”
— James Thurber

Viva Lost Wages

21 November 2011

I just had to share some deets about the best vacation I’ve had in a while.  So I was invited on a spontaneous trip to Vegas this last weekend.  I love doing that kinda stuff, but I’m not the type to plan it.  So when an extrovert comes along and says “let’s go,” generally I go!  And despite my initial hesitation, I’m always happy I did.

We flew out of SFO on Virgin America.  I’d never flown this airline, and my was I impressed.  The primary lesson of the weekend: ask about upgrades.  We asked during check-in if there were any upgrades available, and just for asking (read: no charge!), they put us in whatever class is right below first.  That meant early boarding, more leg room, unlimited free drinks, and free movies and services on the LCD screens that adorn the back of every seat.  The inside of the plane looked more like a nightclub than a vehicle.  I got to watch X-Men: First Class while stretching out my legs and drinking free drinks.  I normally fly SWA because it’s cheap and easy, but this was a whole new world.  For any flight longer than an hour or two, I’m going Virgin from now on if it’s at all feasible.  The only downside of the flight was some severe turbulence, but hey I’m still here, aren’t I?

We stayed at The Wynn.  Did I mention upgrades?  We asked about upgrades while checking in and scored a relatively cheap (but not free) upgrade that turned our regular room into a Wynn Tower “Parlor Suite.”  This is a $650/night 1,200 sq. ft. space overlooking the pool and golf course that is far and away the nicest hotel room I’ve ever stayed in.  Nearly every surface covered in mirrors.  A giant living room, a gianter bedroom, and the most giantest bathroom you can imagine.  It seriously had three separate vanities, a big shower with a bench in it, a separate bathtub, a toilet, and a deep walk-in closet.  And it was nearly all marble.  Whatever I’ve said in the past about money can’t buy happiness, forget it, because money can rent that suite, and that suite equals happiness.

I hadn’t been to Vegas in several years (2007?), and I forget the opulence of that place.  It really is magnificent.  The whole city is lit up like a theme park, and it even feels that way when you’re walking around at night.  Like Disneyland or Great America, but on a civic scale.  Every surface in every room, hallway, casino floor, restaurant, elevator, and driveway is carefully designed down to the last detail.  There are no plain ceilings, only meticulously carves filigree with carefully placed lighting.  Every bathroom is clean.  The customer service is excellent everywhere.  And it makes sense, because they want you feeling comfortable and safe and important so that you stay longer and keep gambling your money away.  And there are people in the casino ALL day and night.  It never looks empty, not even in the wee hours.  It’s like there’s no night or day there.

The first night, we checked in and then went straight over to see The Blue Man Group.  Not my idea, and after a day of work, a flight, and a couple drinks, yes I admit I dozed a little.  But it was definitely worth seeing once.  Their backup band wore fluorescent paint under black lights… very “In Between Days.”  This was in The Venetian, and afterwards we stayed a while to gamble.  It was there that I first noticed the music plying throughout the casino was all new wave.  I was hearing Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, etc.  I later noticed this back at The Wynn and elsewhere too.  After giving it some thought, I figure what must be going on is that the generation that grew up in the 80’s are all old enough and have enough money to make up a large part of the tourist demographic there.  As the next generation ages, I’m sure we’ll start hearing… I dunno, Taylor Swift in there.  And even now, rest assured Vegas is still overflowing with douchey meatheads and hoochie women dressing ridiculously and being their version of “classy.”

The rest of the weekend, we all stayed up gambling and drinking and eating and dancing… till 5am both nights.  I gambled more than I have in the past, but didn’t lose my shirt.  I was careful.  The slots were good to me, and usually kept me playing for an hour or so anytime I fed in a $20.  Of course eventually, da gamblin’ mosheen takes it all.  Though on the giant Wheel Of Fortune machine (with real giant working wheel!), while playing in tandem we did get the highest value on the bonus (“boners”) wheel on a max bet, which paid a few hundred dollars — basically the best thing you can get on that machine short of the progressive grand prize, if it even had one?  Other machines included Tarzan, variations of fishing themes, and several movie slots… Star Trek, Batman / Dark Knight, Ghost Busters, and many others.  I tried a table game once (roulette) and it took $70 from me in only a few minutes.  I gave up on it very quickly.

Eating was another story.  We’d heard of The Wynn’s buffet restaurant called… well, “The Buffet.”  It was pricey, but worth it.  There’s a line out the door, but we learned that our “red card” room key also granted us special access all over the hotel, including being allowed to cut to the front of the line basically anywhere!  We went for brunch Saturday morning.  I’d never seen anything like it.  This buffet was simply huge.  We’re talking Asian, Mexican, Italian, Indian, Mediterranean, pizza, succotash, and a sweet pea truffle oil and Parmesan risotto that was incredible.  But I haven’t even mentioned the actual brunch part yet.  If anyone has ever thought of eating it for breakfast, they have it at The Buffet.  Pancakes, waffles, eggs, bacon, sausage, yogurt, granola, gourmet cheeses, bagels, a salad bar, fruit of all kinds (grapefruit with brown sugar and mint!).  That’s just what I can remember now.  There were hundreds of dishes.  Still hungry?  Then head to the dessert section where it’s still all-you-can-eat… red velvet cupcakes, warm brownies, candied apples, tiramisu, rice crispy treats, bread pudding, key lime shots, cream puffs, ice cream, a made-to-order crepe station, and tons more I’m forgetting.  Even vegan cookies (which reminds me that vegan and vegetarian options were pointed out everywhere we ate… they really go the extra mile to serve)!  And then of course we went back Sunday morning for brunch again.  And when we couldn’t eat anymore, we relaxed outside in the Parasol Lounge by the Lake Of Dreams and watched the fountain.

Needless to say, I wanted to live in that suite and eat that brunch every day forever.  But all good things must come to an end.  The flight home had no upgrades available, so in-flight movies were a whopping $8!  I went without.  And as always, it’s a great moment to step off the plane when you’re back in the Bay Area and get that first breath of sweet air.  Though I would have liked to have spent another few weeks there to see everything we missed, I guess you need some “normal” life to keep perspective on just how amazing your vacation spot really is.  It makes the pampering all the more memorable.  And remember kids, ask for upgrades!  And it doesn’t hurt if you’re super cute and bat your eyelashes too.

“If you could beat the house, there wouldn’t be a house.”
— Maybelle Carter

Your band sucks.

1 February 2011

Wouldn’t that be great on a t-shirt?  I’d wear that to shows all the time. 

It’s been an interesting few weeks, and I am overdue for some quiet time.  TCB played a sold out show at The Blank and then turned around to play to 350+ at Rickshaw.  There were a ton of friends at both, to the point where at Rickshaw it almost seemed like I knew everyone in the room.  Good times.  A new Smiths night also started up in the Haight called “The Queen Is Dead,” and it seems to be taking the place of the former “Louder Than Bombs” club night.  I went to this last one, and it was tremendous.  You’ll be hearing more about it soon.  Viva Haight!

Somewhere in all that mess, I snuck away for a short L.A. vacation to see Wanda Jackson and Jack White play the El Rey.  It’s a tiny place (explaining why tickets were so hard to come by).  Once we staked out a killer spot, we didn’t move around until it was time to leave.  We stood next to a nice couple of locals who took brought their teens to the show.  Total rock and roll parents.  We chatted with them for a bit until the show started.  Wanda sounded great, the band was top notch, and Jack was appropriately featured without taking anything away from Wanda.  The two of them had a fun chemistry on stage that seemed genuine.  And as expected, the high profile show in such a small venue attracted some celebs.  In the crowd, we saw Patricia Heaton and Alan Tudyk, and it sounds like Nick recognized Beck, Josh Homme, Clem Burke, Pamela Des Barres, and James Intveld.  Looks like someone posted a few songs from that show:

Other highlights of the trip included my first visit to Medieval Times, which was a total hoot and highly recommended if you’ve never been.  Basically, it’s a decent prix fixe menu that you eat while jammed together in a small indoor stadium.  You wear a paper crown and root for one of the pretend knights that battle it out in the arena.  Obviously a kids / family vacation type attraction, but whatevs.  At some point, I got in some Claim Jumper too.  A waitress there came by our table to compliment our “look” and as us about rockabilly.  Turns out she was from Chicago and also happened to be black, so I took the opportunity to in turn ask about the fashion I noticed on a lot of young black girls in Chicago (see  #4 here).  She confirmed that it’s generally referred to as the “Motown” look, and it’s quite popular there.  I wish that would catch on around here!

Incidentally, I’m typing this on my new computer, which I spent the better part of this last weekend getting up and running.  See, I’d been hobbling along on the same machine that crashed on me not once, but twice for the last seven or so years.  Just the same, the idea of moving to a new one… learning a new operating system, reinstalling all my old software (if it even still works), moving over all my stuff, getting everything reconfigured and set up just so… well, it’s a headache I was all too happy to postpone.  But rather than wait for a third crash, I figured I’d take the bull by the horns and at least do it on my own terms.  After hours of frustration and exploration, the pain is mostly behind me, and I can rest easy, secure in the knowledge that this screaming fast new PC should last me another several years.  Despite the once-a-decade hassle of reconfiguring and relearning where everything is in a new OS, I gotta admit that Windows 7 has some pretty slick UI features.  (Any idea what to do with my old machine running XP?)  And then I also finished a brand new pedal board for my new rockabilly band.  Which involved drilling actual metal!  And like, wiring stuff.  ‘Cos that’s what men do (I’m told).  We’ve got a couple of gigs in the next month or so, and I promise to share the info on us as soon as we officially “launch.”

So yeah, that was supposed to be my relaxing weekend to recuperate.  I’ll be trying again this weekend.

Oh, and by the way, your scene sucks.

The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Fresno

20 October 2010

Another quick check in, kids.  I keep getting behind on writing here, and then you just get a theme-less mass update about a bunch of random stuff.  Sorry about that.  Could it be that I’m just running out of steam on this thing?  Wouldn’t that be something.

There have been a few great shows lately, such as The Drums at The Independent, which also introduced me to Surfer Blood.  Then I hit a couple stops on the indie-bands-I-really-liked-in-the-mid-2000’s-but-never-got-around-to-seeing-live tour, including Arcade Fire at The Greek in Berkeley and Interpol at the new Fox Theater in Oakland… both great shows!

Other than that, I continue to sort through my living room full of storage unit clutter.  It’s taking longer than expected, but I’ve also found some unexpected treasures.  I’ll write about all that when I’m done with it all.  Let’s see… I got my first “24 hour bug” which resulted in me being completely bed-ridden for a full day, too weak to eat or drink.  Then it was almost completely gone the next day.  Very strange.  Oh, and I attended one of the more interesting weddings I’ve ever been to.  Held at the DNA Lounge, the wedding of Sparkly and Bones was more a theatrical and produced nuptial even than I was expecting.  It was not unlike a Hubba Hubba Revue, but with cake.  Fun stuff, and huzzah for the happy couple!  My attendance (as well as Nick’s and Charlene’s) was immortalized in the upstairs photo-booth run by John Adams:

This Charming Band had a pair of central California shows this last weekend.  A road trip with the boys, who were all obsessed with quoting “Gimme Pizza” all weekend.  First, it was out to sweltering Bako, and later Zingo’s truck stop for dinner.  Again, we stayed in the swanky Padre Hotel, and for whatever reason, this time I got much less of a “Jersey Shore of the West” vibe from it.  Then it was off to tropical Fresno, where not only did we get to play our beloved Club Fred, but we also made the traditional pilgrimage to Claim Jumper.  Not to mention dinner at the highly-recommended New Stars vegetarian restaurant.  I had orange “chicken” for the first time since going vegetarian, and it was delish!  Along with several other items we shared.  I hear they’re moving to Davis though, so beware!  Something else too… during that long drive on Highway 99, I kinda found myself wanting to road trip along there for a few days and stay in a bunch of those creepy roadside motels.  Is that weird?  My whole thing is just that whenever I’m out in that rural area, I wonder what it would be like to live in one of those farmland hovels on the side of the road or even in one of the nice ranch houses. What is that life like?  I think those Bates Motels and spending several days in the middle of nowhere is as close as I’ll ever get.  Anyone care to join?

TCB’s five year anniversary show is coming up on 11/12, and I definitely have some thoughts to share on the last five years with this band.  It’s coming soon, I promise.  Until next time…

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.”

— Philo of Alexandria

Whoops, there goes another rubber tree plant…

7 August 2010

I’m freshly returned from my first ever trip to Charlotte, NC.  A business trip.  Was it high on my wish list of travel destinations?  Of course not, but it was a welcome diversion… and perhaps more importantly, it was an ideal next step in expanding my comfort zone.  This was a five-hour flight, after all.

I’ll confess to a certain reticence concerning the South, and spying a large Nascar store in the airport as soon as I walked off the plane didn’t help.  (In fact, I was later to find that a Nascar-branded skyscraper was visible from my hotel room!)  I grabbed a cab and headed towards downtown.  It wasn’t long before I was experiencing first hand the heat and humidity that was to define my whole trip.  Near triple-digit temperatures and the crushing moist air made me wish I had brought my business casual shorts and sandals.  The good news is that I was in air conditioning more often than not during my 3+ days in town.

I don’t mean to sound negative though.  Aside from the weather and the almost comical lack of vegetarian food options (even the upscale Asian place served no tofu nor much of anything else veggie apart from a side of noodles), the trip was really valuable.  Not least because I found it all very inspiring.  Not just the change of scenery but even the general experience of travelling.  It really seems to get the creative juices flowing, or at least it does for me.  I remember my consulting days were rich in that department.

Christ, why don’t I do more travelling on my own time?  It’s exciting, that getting up early on the day of your flight, the nerves as you pack up and leave the house, that walk through the airport parking lot, all leading up to some great unexpected wide open.  It was the same preparing for Ireland as it was for anywhere else.  And then once you’re there,  I mean, my memory/concept of both work travel and vacations is wrapped up in experiences like the ones in Charlotte.  Walking around some neon-heavy outdoor marketplace on a night so hot and humid you can wear shorts.  Walking light because all my stuff is securely in the hotel.  There’s something to the idea of having so few possessions to worry about.  Just being out there without much more than the clothes on your back.  Even the rental car — when there is one — isn’t actually yours.  Somehow it makes you live in the moment more.  Really live.  No strings.  You’re simply there absorbing all the new sights and sounds, taking it all in.  And there’s a feeling of such independence that goes along with that too.  You, dropped into unfamiliar surroundings and left to fend for yourself.  You against the world.  Mano-a-mundo.

Speaking of consulting, that was definitely the vibe of the trip.  Preparing for it was not unlike reliving those old days.  Bringing a laptop, living out of a hotel, wearing my trusty work jacket (and digging out of it two crusty Dramamine vials that expired in 2006)… then keeping receipts for expenses and just remembering all the little details like that.  Well, it was my own white collar version of a washed up gunfighter dusting off his guns and coming out of retirement for one last ride.  Happy and sad at the same time.  I really need to get around to writing my old consulting stories here and just exorcising that once and for all.

I always enjoy catching the local news when I’m travelling, just to try to get a flavor for the place.  Usually I’ll watch the Fox affiliate, because even though their 24 hour cable station’s reputation is understood, the local branches like our own KTVU seem relatively independent.  Charlotte’s?  Not so much.  I’ll spare you the breakdown of every skewed story choice, story angle, and show of incompetence I witnessed.  You’ve got the Daily Show to do that for you at the national level.  Suffice it to say the anchors’ views — or perhaps in some cases the network’s views — were plain as day.  So much for journalistic integrity and unbiased reporting, eh?  Is “news” like that a bad influence on the local public, or is it actually a product of the existing public disposition?  I watched and thought no wonder people here think this way… it’s what they hear every day on T.V.  But I guess they might say the same for the more liberal Bay Area.

Anyhoo, Charlotte was nice.  We all stayed in/near what is kind of like the Metreon of that city.  A movie theater, an outdoor music bandstand, several restaurants.  We met up with a local coworker one night and walked around downtown for the evening.  Highlights included Crave, billed as a “dessert bar.”  Basically it was an embarrassingly trendy bar that also happened to serve food… to the tune of 26 gourmet desserts.  I bought two.  Because I’m a grown-assed man, that’s why!  Don’t question me.  Oh, and when walking near the ball park, we happened across The Breakfast Club: a full time 80’s dance club!  Sounds great, right?  Well, even though it was open on a Tuesday night, all we saw was a bouncer, and empty parking lot, and what looked like a half dozen prostitutes loitering nearby.  We passed.

So there you have it.  Another wall comes down.  This makes all of the continental United States and possibly even Hawaii “reachable” again.  Pretty exciting stuff.  I may not be that far from a European trip… eventually.

“In the face of such uncertainty, believe in these two things:  you are stronger than you think, and you are not alone.”

— Maya Angelou

… in which I see the world!

21 June 2010

And by “world,” of course I mean “Bakersfield.”

Well, it seems Old Man Hudson’s birthday is coming up.  And what better way to celebrate than to relive some of my fondest memories of the few decades?  By which of course I mean running down the last few TCB shows…

Bakersfield / Fresno
It’s been over a month now, so my memories are fading.  I meant to write about this earlier, but alas.  That Bako/Fresno weekend was a hell of a trip.  I drove out to pick Nick up at the farm and got the whole tour, goats and all.  Loved it.  Saw a bunch of meerkat-looking things on the side of the freeway just standing and watching cars drive by.  (This was a little north of Morgan Hill on 101.)  Blazing hot Bakersfield, as a town, was interesting.  We stayed at the newly renovated Padre Hotel, and though it was pricey, it was totally worth it.  I wish we had more time there, because it was pseudo-Vegas and gaudy, but undeniably comfortable.  One of the nicer rooms I’ve been in, honestly.  Downstairs was a different story, because it was packed to the gills with locals.  The prevailing style and attitude of the town was as douchey as I expected.  A lot of big pickup trucks, awful club clothes, and general meathead-ery.  Like our own West Coast Jersey Shore kinda.  The overall effect was not unlike Biff’s casino in Back To The Future II’s alternate 1985.  There’s just a weird vibe in that city.  But that doesn’t apply to everyone.  We had a good crowd at Fishlips, and after a little while, we even got some of that seated room up dancing.

On the way out of town, we visited Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace museum and had Macaroni Grill for the first time in years.  I myself even made a detour to see C-Po in Visalia, tucked almost in the shadow of what I think were the Sequoia National Park mountains.  Saw the Moz-friendly Velouria Records.  The place we played in Fresno (the all ages Starline) was actually great, and the show itself was probably the best of the last few months.  The crowd was way into it.  Nick rocked his electronic drum-kit.  I joined For The Masses for “Personal Jesus.”  I’m hoping we get to play there again.  Have I mentioned how much I love playing Fresno?  That town just fits us!

And so does its Claim Jumper, which of course we hit the next morning.  So yeah, great trip.  Special thanks to For The Masses.  I’m so glad they’re back together.  Such nice guys, and they sound amazing.  That “Pain That I’m Used To” intro gives me chills.  The shows were fun, had some side adventures, and saw a lot of California roads I’d never driven on before.  Me gusta!

Slim’s (San Francisco)
The Slim’s Moz birthday show was another huge night, with 450+ in attendance.  Fascination Street’s San Francisco debut went every bit as well as we all expected.  I’m sure they’ll be back soon.  Love Vigilantes put on a great set, and TCB overcame several obstacles to have a killer show.  We had to cut some songs, our big intro video plans were botched at the last minute, ans some other drama too.  My brand new Les Paul got a big gash in it at some point during the evening, but I didn’t see it happen.  But despite it all, it was good times.  The Jenny Wehrt raffle situation went over well, and I think she sold all of the paintings she brought.  Hope to have her back next year!  I’m telling you Bay Area folks, our annual Slim’s show is the one not to miss.  It’s been pretty consistently epic if I do say so myself.  🙂

It was always going to be a quick trip.  Barely 24 hours, but in that time, holy shit did we eat some good food.  In just one day, we accidentally found Beth’s Cafe which turned out to be some hip locals place.  Among other things, I had the best blueberry muffin.  So good in fact that I assumed it would be the culinary highlight of the trip.  How wrong I was.  Before the show was a delicious arugula salad with chevre and pistachios.  Then after the show, we were looking for a 24 hour place.  A punk rock girl at the venue directed us to The Night Kitchen, a place so hip that no one we asked on the street could help us find it… despite us thrice circling and asking around on the very block it’s located on.  We eventually found it, and with it the true culinary highlight of the trip.  Everything we had was amazing, but the prize goes to the fried cheese curds.  Delicious and revolting at the same time.  Picture bits of fried mozzarella sticks where the batter is like salty donut batter.  My mouth said yes, but my conscience said no.  Whew!  OK, so then the next day we hit up Luna Park, and with a few hours to kill before heading home, a waitress suggested Full Tilt in White Center.  This is a homemade ice cream parlor (that serves beer floats) and has old arcade and pinball games.  (Operation Wolf!)  Despite being stuffed from Luna Park, I managed to squeeze in some salted caramel ice cream.

Sorry for “fooding out” there, but believe me, this trip warrants it.  Now, the Yang to that good food Yin was, without question, our dirty hotel in the meth part of town.  Let’s just say I chose to lay down some towels to avoid too much contact with the sheets.  The show itself at Tractor Tavern was great!  We played solidly and drew a big and fun crowd.  Our friend and fill-in singer Virgil helped us out and did an amazing job, with some real vocal chops and showmanship.  A total success!

I’ll leave you with some new music.  When I was in Chicago a while back, I heard a song playing in the background while checking out some antique shop.  Mainly I noticed the glammy guitar tone, and I knew I had to find out what it was.  Turns out it was — quite unexpectedly — Monsters Of Folk.  And that killer guitar work was not at all representative of the rest of the album.  But just the same, it ended up being a great find, and believe that I am no fan of most modern folk music.  My assessment?  A lot of the singing reminds me of Yes.  I hear a Simon & Garfunkel influence in songs like “Magic Marker.”  But the glam factor is in there too, where you hear a Bowie sound in many track, including the one that boasted the aforementioned killer guitar solo “Say Please.”  Other standouts included “Ahead Of The Curve” and “Dear God.”  At the end of the day, I wasn’t blown away or anything, but it’s certainly worth a listen.  I love how that happens sometimes where you come across new music when you least expect it and occasionally end up finding a gem.  Hell, it’s how I’ve found some of my favorite bands over the years… including The Smiths!

How The Midwest Was Won

9 May 2010

Well kiddies, I survived the trip to Chicago/Milwaukee with virtually no problems.  Despite all the little things that went wrong along the way, the overall trip was fun and well worth it.  Not to mention the added bonus of expanding my (mentally) allowable travel range a little further than before.  Another step on the path, you know.  I had a non-stop out there, a layover on the way back.  Different airlines, different jet models.  The little puddle jumper was not as stressful as I thought, and I’m a new fan of that big Boeing 777.  So big you can barely even tell you’re in the air, and I almost didn’t notice we had landed.  Plus the bathrooms are huge comparatively… ah, but I digress.  Anyway, if you’re interested in the trip, read on.  Here are some scattered impressions:

  1. There’s a certain magic to travelling that I do miss sometimes.  It used to be that I travelled almost every week for work, to the point that I probably took it for granted.  In a taxi heading into downtown Chicago from the airport at dusk, I observed its skyline for the first time.  At once both familiar and foreign.  You could see that it’s a world unto itself.  And I got to thinking about how to millions of people, Chicago is “the city” the way that to me San Francisco is “the city.”  Chicago has its own neighborhoods and character, its own touristy areas and locals-only bars and restaurants, its own scenes and players and hot shots and local celebrities.  And to think that every big city around the country (and even the planet) are each their own little world the way that S.F. is its own little world.  It’s one of those things that makes you feel tiny in the grand scheme of things.  In a word: wonderment.
  2. Chicago loves it some brick buildings.  I suppose if San Francisco ever had a bunch, earthquakes would have knocked them down by now.  But I don’t know if it’s an exaggeration to say that half the buildings in Chicago are brick.  Unpainted brick.  Which is to say that a lot of the city is the same color.  But I didn’t dislike it.  It had a ton of character wholly unlike any west coast city I’m aware of.  The scores of burned out factories might be considered “blight” by the locals, but I found it charming.  The library was amazingly decorated on the outside.  And though there were plenty of skyscrapers (including the epic Sears Tower which there sadly wasn’t time to visit), there’s still a lot of open space between buildings which S.F. somehow seems to lack.  Not to mention a river going through the middle of the city.  My evidence, though collected in only a couple days, is based on time walking around the city, through the outskirts, and even riding on the famous elevated subway.
  3. Chicago also loves it some flowers.  Tulips to be precise.  Many buildings throughout downtown and really all over the city were landscaped beautifully with these perfect tulips.  All I could think was that in S.F. those would last about two days.  As it was, it gave a certain Disneyland quality to walking around town.  It didn’t hurt that I saw almost no litter anywhere there.
  4. Oh, and Chicago also loves it some purple shoes.  Fashion in general was a little off, but it could have just been our proximity to the colleges and their awkward youths.  But whatever the reason, I saw plenty of ridiculous hipsters and more than my fair share of purple shoes.  I don’t get it.  There also seemed to be a trend that I don’t notice around here so much: many young, black women seemed to dress in a sort of traditional 60’s girl group style.  By that I mean nice plaid dresses, tasteful hairstyles, super classy all around.  I much prefer it over what I usually see in the Bay Area.  Maybe it’s a Midwest thing?  Also, I saw virtually no rockabilly folks, but there were some tatted up goth types here and there.
  5. This trip reminded me some of old times.  It used to be the with band trips, we’d all pile into the same van and deal with the hassles together.  It seems to breed a certain camaraderie.  Over the years, we’ve all gotten to where we book our own trips and make our own plans with other friends or girlfriends or wives, and band trips end up just like any other trip… and the show itself ust happens to be the one time we all meet up.  Well, for this trip we all shared one car and one room, and for all the occasional inconveniences that go along with that arrangement, I think it’s nice to do that every so often… get in the trenches with each other as it were.  Sure, it stretches you comfort zone a little, but the benefits far outweigh the hassle.
  6. The food on the trip was decadent and delicious.  We ate at Girardano’s pizza the first night and the famous Gino’s East on the way out of town.  Gino’s deep dish actually did live up to all the hype.  It was amazing.  I had lunch at some point at a place called the Midtown which was also great.  Chicago has several 24-hour combination Baskin Robbins / Dunkin’ Donuts.  They are seriously on every other corner, including directly across the street from our hotel.  I saw at least as many of them as I did Starbucks.
  7. We didn’t spend as much time in Milwaukee, but it also had a lot of character.  The last (and only time) I’d ever been there previously was near the end of 2004,  right around the time I first started bloggin’ I think.  It’s a nice town with a liberal feel.  We ate at the equivalent of S.F.’s Ferry Building, and I had a delish made-to-order salad and some juiced apple/beet/strawberry/lime concoction.  Unfortunately that was about all I had time for before it was time to fly home.
  8. I guess I should say something about the shows, huh?  The Double Door in Chicago was a big place, and it reminded me of a slightly-smaller Slim’s.  The sound guys were great, and after a rough start, we played a good show.  Astonishingly, there were a few separate people from the San Jose area that happened to be in town and came to the show.  Apparently, this is a hot little place, with such acts as The New York Dolls and The Buzzcocks coming there later in the Spring/Summer.  As for Milwaukee’s Shank Hall, they fully embrace the Spinal Tap tie-in.  They also have a history of some huge acts, which of course I can’t remember now.  But the walls were adorned with autographed publicity photos of those bands.  Hundreds of them.  Smashing Pumpkins, Blue Oyster Cult, The Reverend Horton Heat, and a ton of others.  Anyway, the sound here was great too, and we played well I think.  Because of some logistical issues, we didn’t get a chance to hit the hotel before the show, so I played what I believe is my first ever TCB show where I did not shower immediately before.  I survived, but it is not my preference.  Not only do I feel clean and refreshed, but it helps to clear my head and prepare me for the show.
  9. A general comment on the trip… I am again reminded how easy it would be for you and your significant other — and this goes for me too, of course — to just take a quick weekend trip to some far off city for a date/getaway weekend.  If you plan ahead, you’re talking like $200 round trip.  Fly off to Chicago or wherever, some city you don’t really know, and just explore and find new vistas and restaurants, just the two of you.  Sounds like an adventure, doesn’t it?  I don’t know why I haven’t and don’t do that more often.  Seems like such a good idea!
  10. On my way out of Milwaukee, one of the TSA ladies took a look at my pedalboard case and laughed at the sticker that reads “I ♥ Hunting Accidents.”  She told me she loved it.  I explained to her that it gets me a lot of dirty looks and I wasn’t sure how wise it was to display it up north, and with a wink she said “yeah, we may be the only two people in this whole state that support it, but I do.”  It made my afternoon.  🙂

OK, I think I’ve bored you enough.  In closing, fun trip!  This weekend, TCB is off to Bakersfield and Fresno, and then the following weekend is our big Slim’s show!  Tell your friends!  Spread the word!  Goodnight all!

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.  If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

— Warren Buffett

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