Influenza A (H1-2009)

With the Thanksgiving holiday just past here in the United States, 2022 is starting to come to a close. It has been quite year for me, including losing a parent, starting a new job and buying a new farm. With the new job I’ve started to travel more, and for the first time in years I’ve gotten very sick from a business trip. It’s not something I’ve missed.

TL;DR; Getting the flu as an older adult sucks. During flu season mask up and take as many precautions as you can to prevent exposure.

Up until about August of 2019, I was doing about 85,000 “in seat” airline miles a year. I was away from home about 50% of the time. In July of 2019 I was in a bad car accident, and just as I was recovering the COVID pandemic hit, and for nearly three years I did almost zero travel.

The upside was I didn’t get sick. Between masks, isolation and lots of hand washing I just wasn’t exposed to anything that could make me sick, to the point that I’d forgotten how debilitating it can be.

Times are changing. People are traveling more and it seems like we as a society have just made the decision to forgo some of the habits we picked up during the pandemic. When I started traveling again in June of this year, people were still wearing masks indoors and on planes, and most events had a mask requirement as well. That is no more. Two weeks ago I got the opportunity to go to Helsinki, Finland, and I saw very few people out in public in masks either in the USA as I traveled there or in Finland itself. I found myself less inclined to wear one as well, but I usually kept it on when being inside for any length of time.

I’d been to Helsinki twice before, and as it is a really cool town I was looking forward to returning. It is also seven hours ahead of New York, my home time zone, and that can make things a bit awkward. I found a relatively inexpensive flight on Finnair direct to Helsinki from JFK which arrived mid-afternoon on Wednesday.

So far so good.

People often think of Finland in winter as being cold, and it is, but for once it was actually colder at my home in North Carolina. Usually when I travel I try to stay at Marriott properties. I really enjoyed the hotel I used last time, but all three Marriott affiliated locations were booked. It turns out that a famous European start-up conference called Slush was going on at the same time as my meeting. The Raddisson I booked was okay, but it wasn’t in a very vibrant section of town. I just grabbed some snacks at a local convenience store, tried to stay up as late as possible and then went to bed.

My meeting was an all-day conference on Thursday, and as it was being streamed they set it to start at 3pm (15:00) local time which mapped to 8am New York time. That meant it was also going to run until 10pm or so followed by a meal. Our host, Monty, had arranged for this to happen at his house, and I didn’t make it back to my hotel room until early Friday morning (I’ll post more on the conference later).

Now, usually when I travel from Europe back to the US I leave a little before noon and I get home mid-afternoon. There were a couple of flight options like this but they all pretty much doubled the cost of the ticket. Not sure why. So even though I was eager to get home for the start of the Thanksgiving week, I took the evening flight out at 5pm which gave me a little more time to spend with the folks on Friday who were still at Monty’s. The downside was that I wouldn’t land at RDU until midnight and it would take even more time to make it home.

I slept until about 8am, showered, packed and ate breakfast, aiming to arrive at the house around 10:30. I don’t remember feeling bad, although I had developed a slight cough. My body had no idea what time it was, however. I spent some more time with my gracious hosts, got to the airport and boarded the plan without issues.

The plane had a coach seating arrangement of 2-4-2 and I was lucky enough to get on a row with not only extra legroom but also I was the only person in the “4” section. Score. After the meal I pulled up all the armrests, gathered the extra blankets and pillows into a little “nest” and tried to get some sleep.

This is when I started to feel bad. Have you ever had one of those days where you were just dragging and you managed to grab about 30 minutes of a “cat nap” and then you felt great? Have you ever had the opposite happen, where the nap makes things worse?

This made things worse.

When I finally gave up on sleeping I woke up with a splitting headache and we were still a couple of hours from JFK. (sigh)

I’m happy that for the most part the rest of my trip went as smooth as possible. By this time I had added feeling nauseated to having a bad headache and I was pretty sure I was running a fever. I tried to sleep on the flight to RDU and managed to get home just before 2am.

Andrea and I came up with a routine when it comes to travel, and I always isolate for a night or two when I get back from a trip (longer for those trips involving conferences or lots of people). I crawled into the guest bed thinking that all I needed was a good night’s sleep and I’d be better.

I didn’t get that sleep. I tossed and turned and dozed a bit but then a third major symptom arrived: shortness of breath. To feel my best I had to actively monitor my breathing and pretty much force the air in and out.

At this point in time I decided to activate my medical deductible.

While we live in a somewhat rural section on North Carolina, we have easy access to the UNC Health Care System, a selection of hospitals, doctors offices and clinics. There is a UNC Urgent Care facility about ten miles from my house, so about 8:30 I on Saturday I got dressed and asked Andrea to take me there.

When I got to reception there was a sign about not being able to take patients until about 10am for some reason, but the magic words of “I … can’t … breathe” had the desired affect and I was seen pretty quickly. They noticed that my pulse-ox was a little low (97%) but if I was talking or walking that would drop as low as 92%. There first thought was that I might have had a pulmonary embolism during flight, and they took a couple of chest x-rays and an EKG in order to grab more data. They also did a nasal swab to check for COVID, the Flu and RSV. The care provider wanted me to get some blood work done but if they did it at the clinic it would take hours for the results, so she asked me to drive about 20 minutes away to the hospital in Siler City where the results would come in faster. Then I was to go home and wait for further instructions.

That went smoothly and I was back home just about to get back into bed they called to tell me to go to the UNC Emergency Department. The pulmonary embolism was still a possibility and they wanted to schedule a chest CT scan.

So we got back in the car.

A downside of UNC Hospital is that it is colocated on the UNC campus and last Saturday was also the day of a huge rivalry football game. That made parking an issue but since Andrea just dropped me off at the Emergency Room entrance it worked out okay. Pretty soon I was in a room of my own being fitted with a heart monitor, pulse-ox, oxygen and an IV. Between the travel, headache, nausea and getting tested I had not consumed many fluids. The nurse hung a liter of lactated ringers and I was very grateful, grateful enough to actually doze off for a bit.

Me getting settled in the UNC ED

That peacefulness ended when I woke up to see the bag was nearly empty and realizing that my bladder was nearly full. While I would have been happy with a curtain and a jar, they took the time to unplug me and escort me down the hall to the toilet.

When I got back I got the diagnosis that I had a confirmed case of Influenza A. This was actually good news as it lessened the chance of a pulmonary embolism, but they still wanted to do the CT scan.

While I waited for my turn I did try to look at my phone to keep up with what was going on, but my head hurt to much that looking at screens was painful. I did see that there had been a mass killing in Idaho, which made me want to stop looking anyway.

The scan itself was a non-event. I’ve had several in the past and they don’t bother me, although this one was “with contrast” and that it always a little weird. Just before they take the pictures they push in what is basically a dye to increase the contrast shown in the scan. But whenever I get it I get momentarily flush and it almost feels like I’ve been incontinent. The moment passes quickly but I’m glad they told me to be aware of it.

After the scan came back normal they decided to send me home. If I have any complaint about my care it would be that once it was determined that I had the flu I wasn’t given much direction. I asked for Tamiflu (although I should have asked for Xofluza) but outside of that they didn’t give me much advice for treating symptoms.

At this point in time I just wanted to get home and get into bed. This happened about 6:30 on Saturday night.

The next few days were pretty much a blur. My fever would bounce between 100F and 102F, and I would either be sweating through my clothes or shivering so hard I thought I was having a spasm. The weird part was trying to understand how my brain was trying to process this whole experience.

I like to sleep, but it often takes me a long time to fall asleep. My brain usually uses that first hour or so to unpack the events from the day and then it signals the time for “sleep”.

But by this point in time my “day” had been so screwed up that my brain really didn’t know what was going on. I remember for I time I was convinced that while I was in Helsinki my hosts had inserted some sort of probe into the base of my neck and that they were controlling what I was seeing. I was actually still in Helsinki and if I could just concentrate hard enough I could break through their technology. What’s funny is that it actually worked. There were times where I would see the vague outline of my darkened guest room break apart to reveal the light wood of Monty’s house in Finland. This was pure hallucination of course but it just made me want to try harder. The backstory my fever-ridden brain created was quite detailed.

In calmer times I was just plagued by earworms. I have a couple of albums I listen to when I travel as they provide enough background to block out the crying infant but not enough to keep me from napping. Those songs were in pretty heavy rotation in my head (in fact if I pause there is one of them roaming around back there now).

I remember there was a four-hour stretch of time where I could hear nothing but the song “Henry Kissinger” by Monty Python. I hadn’t thought of that song in years yet here it was, flowing gracefully, and non-stop, through my noggin’ for nearly four hours.

Death could not come swiftly enough.

Early into the week I started having a number of false breakthroughs. Just when I thought my fever had broken it would return, but at least it wasn’t to the levels I experienced over the weekend.

While I still slept most of the day, I was able to look at a screen for a bit (apparently the mass shooting I thought was in Idaho was in Colorado) and I would drink as much fluid as I could manage. My throat was raw from coughing, my lips were severely chapped and I I’d lost most of my senses of taste and smell.

Wednesday was the first day I could honestly say I was better than the day before. I got up around 5am for my usual fluid intake, and when I woke up at 7:30 or so I found out that I had sweated through my T-shirt, but my fever seemed to have faded. I made the decision not to join my family for Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday and instead used the time get some real rest, and on Friday I started trying to return to normal. I managed to get through a lot of e-mails and the news backlog (apparently that mass shooting I though was in Colorado was in Virginia).

I also made the difficult decision to skip this year’s Amazon Web Services re:Invent conference. I was one of the the lucky few from our department to get a ticket, but I’ve heard it can be physically challenging in the best of times and I was certain I wouldn’t be ready.

I’m writing this up on Saturday morning. If I had not contracted the flu I would be on my way to Las Vegas, and even though I am feeling much better the thought of flying brings back the nausea at the moment.

There are a number of things that depressed me about this illness, and one of them is that this is the first time “the flu” has taken so much from me. As I sometimes view bad cases of the flu as an old person’s disease I think this means I have to consider that I have become old.

Flu Test Results

The strain I contracted is the one from the 2009 “Swine Flu” epidemic, which was pretty nasty, although at times I felt like it was the one from 1918.

In any case I know that there is a strong desire if not outright need to move on from pandemic restrictions, but if you are one of the three people who read my blog you are special and I want you to take care of yourself. I don’t want you to have to expend a lot of mental energy trying to break through a spinal implant given without your knowledge.

Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

I have a Harlan Ellison story.

Ellison, who passed away last week at 84, was one of my favorite authors. While I had read a few of his stories growing up, it wasn’t until my friend Craig made a reference to “The Deathbird” that went over my head that I got into Ellison in a big way. This was probably around 1985, and Craig loaned me the Deathbird Stories and I was hooked.

Harlan Ellison was a polarizing person, but as this was before social media was ubiquitous I remained pretty much isolated from the more negative aspects of his personality. Ellison was also the first author who demonstrated to me that being a writer was a job. When I was younger writing seemed like something you did on the side. I knew a number of people who were like “when I retire, I think I’ll become a writer”. Ellison simply went to work, and nothing demonstrated that more than his habit of self-promotion that involved writing a short story, in public, in a day.

It worked like this: he would show up at a book store when they opened. Someone, usually a local celebrity, would give him a “seed” for a story. It could be a word, a phrase or a short paragraph. He would then sit down in the window of the shop and type out a short story during the course of the day, on a manual typewriter, taping each page to the window as he progressed. You could come to the store to meet him, and if you purchased a certain amount you would get a copy of the story. Considering the time pressure and the minimal ability to make edits, it is quite an accomplishment when you think about it.

Anyway, in the spring of 1991 I was finishing up my fourth and final senior year in college when the Engineering department announced a bus trip to the IEEE conference in New Orleans. I had little interest in attending the conference, but “cheap trip to New Orleans” resonated with me so I signed up. As it involved a 12 hour bus trip and sharing a room with three other guys it wasn’t my dream trip, but the price was right.

We rode overnight from Charlotte to New Orleans, arriving in the morning. A group of us immediately made our way to Pat O’Brien’s for our morning Hurricanes on the large patio.

Along the way I saw a flier for Harlan Ellison coming to the Bookstar on Tchoupitoulas Street (which doesn’t appear to be there anymore). He was doing his short story thing, and I was very excited at the prospect of meeting the man in person.

As advertised, he was set up on a little platform near the front window. There were only three or four people around him, but for once I developed a bit of shyness and I didn’t walk over, choosing instead to hover around the display near the cash register with the pencils and erasers. To my surprise, a few minutes after I arrived he walked right over next to me to get a pencil. I used the opportunity to introduce myself and he immediately grabbed on to my name, going as far as to ask me if he could use it in a story sometime. I was so flattered and shocked that I didn’t even request that the character not be an asshole (to my knowledge he never went through with it, but it was cool to consider).

Emboldened, I followed him back to the typewriter and kind of hovered. Most of his conversation was with a bearded gentleman next to him who was obviously a local. He would ask things like “If I were to leave New Orleans, heading north, what highway would I take?” etc. Turns out that man was George Alec Effinger. While this would be my only interaction with Harlan Ellison, I carried on a pen-pal relationship with Effinger for several years after meeting him here.

Ellison was writing the story that would become “Jane Doe #112”. The main character, Ben Laborde, needed to leave New Orleans which was why he’d asked about highways. His writing process was done out loud, and he said he needed Laborde to be in some sort of “everyman car” and came up with a 1978 Toyota Corolla. Unable to help myself, I interjected that my Dad had a blue 1977 Corolla and that the air conditioning was crap. He loved it. Encouraged, when he ask out loud that he needed Laborde to have some sort of job that caused him to travel, I suggested “ATM repairman”.

If you grab a copy of 1997’s story collection Slippage and turn to page 232, you’ll read at the bottom about Ben Laborde’s complaints about the air conditioning in his blue 1978 Corolla, and on page 233 you’ll learn that he was a “repairman for ATMs”.

Go me. That is the sum total of my contribution to my first and only collaboration with Harlan Ellison.

Harlan Ellison note

For once I didn’t overstay my welcome. I bought a few books, including his latest Angry Candy, and he was kind enough to autograph them.

I never talked with Harlan Ellison again, although I did hold out hope that my name would show up somewhere in his work. Even if I was an asshole.

Morocco (Country 41)

I recently got to visit Morocco for the first time. It marks the 41st country I’ve visited and my first time in Africa.

I was on my way to teach a class at the African Internet Summit, which this year in being held in Dakar, Senegal. Now I usually fly American Airlines but their website wouldn’t book a flight to Dakar, so I started searching on-line. I did see that Iberian Airlines (a partner of American) had a flight from Madrid, but in the process of searching I discovered Royal Air Maroc. They had a business class fare on a Boeing 787 (one of my favorite planes) for about the same price as economy, so I decided to give them a try. Plus, I would transfer through Casablanca. Having never been to Morocco before, I decided on a one day layover so that I could see some of the city.

I flew American to JFK and then had to switch terminals from Terminal 8 to Terminal 1. This is a little frustrating because you have to exit and re-enter security. I did figure it out and even got there before the check-in desk opened (you can’t check in on-line on RAM from the US).

While I was waiting in line, I struck up a conversation with a man named Tommy. Tommy is an American born in Lebanon, and he travels a lot for his business just like I do. Having spent a month in Syria many years ago, I did have some knowledge of the area, and we talked about the tensions between Syrians and Lebanese. I did confirm that “Syrian Checkpoint Jokes” are a thing, and he’d knew the one about the Volkswagen.

He has an apartment in Casablanca and offered to both drive me to my hotel once we landed and show me around. We got our tickets and headed for the gate.

I had an incredibly frustrating experience with the TSA at Terminal 1. They wouldn’t recognize my Pre-Check status, and when I was asked to get in the box for a scan I politely asked to opt-out for a pat down instead. The screener immediately barked “Why?”. Again, being polite, I asked if he really wanted to have this discussion. Apparently he did. When I brought up that these types of searches violated both the 4th Amendment and Freedom of Movement he didn’t take it well, hand-waving it away with the nonsensical “this is administrative”. In any case he made me wait for about 30 minutes for my pat down, and I’d still be there if another screener hadn’t asked why my bags had been sitting there for a half an hour and did the pat down himself.

It was enough to make me avoid any flight through Terminal 1 in the future.

RAM Business Class

The rest of the trip went smoothly. When I fly on a 787 with American, the seat arrangement is 1-2-1. RAM uses a 2-2-2 arrangement which means the seats are slightly smaller. The entertainment options were also just okay, and while the little handout listing the movies was for “May-June” the actual content hadn’t been updated, so they mainly had movies I’d seen. I always bring my own entertainment so that wasn’t an issue, and the food was amazing.

We landed and getting through customs was a breeze. I swear Morocco has the friendliest customs agents I’ve ever met. They even smile. Crazy, I know.

Tommy and I met up at baggage claim, and after getting his bags we went outside to pick up his rental car. He has an arrangement where they meet him at the airport, so there was no counter like in the US, we just met his contact, waited a few minutes while they got the car, and then headed into town.

Sign for Casablanca

The airport is some distance from the city center, and as Casablanca is the largest city in the country it did start to get crowded as we got closer. Tommy dropped me off and we agreed to meet later in the evening.

Casablanca from My Hotel Room

I checked in, slept for a bit and showered, and Tommy came by around 7pm. I wanted to shop for a present for Andrea, and he had some friends who ran a jewelry store in a local mall so we went there. On the way we passed the famous Hassan II Mosque.

Hassan II Mosque

Morocco has been experiencing a lot of growth recently, and construction was everywhere. The Morocco Mall is similar to other high-end western-style shopping malls, and while not as outrageous as the malls in, say, Dubai, they did have a big aquarium.

Morocco Mall Aquarium

They were setting up for what I assumed would be a fashion show over the weekend, with the aquarium as the backdrop.

Tommy had a late evening business meeting and offered to drop me back at my hotel before going to dinner. His meeting was in the Kenzi Tower Hotel, which is also home to Sky 28. Sky 28 was suggested as a place to visit for cocktails so I offered to wait at the bar until his meeting was over, which would save some time (always willing to take one for team I am).

Sky 28

There are amazing views from up there, but I struggled to get a good picture. The drinks were just okay. I started off with a “Mai Tai” which was tasty, but isn’t wasn’t quite a Mai Tai and it was missing the signature lime. When the bartender identified me as an American he offered to make me a Manhattan and I thought it would be rude to refuse, and as he made it with Jack Daniels I probably should have, but it was nice even if it wasn’t quite a Manhattan.

Once Tommy’s meeting was over he took me to a place called Loubnane. Featuring Lebanese food and entertainment, Tommy was greeted as if he lived there. Needless to say we received excellent service.

Tommy and I

The place was packed and everyone seemed to be having a good time. It is loud and people were really into the man singing. Tommy ordered for us and it wasn’t long before our table was literally covered with small plates.

Round One of Food

The food was amazing and since it was now after 10pm I was very hungry. I was working my way through each dish when Tommy pointed out that this was just the first round of “cold” plates – there would end up being three more – two sets of hot dishes and one of desserts.

I was stuffed, and I didn’t eat another meal for about twenty hours.

Anyway, I learned that having a big mouth and talking to random strangers does have its benefits. Tommy lives in Miami most of the time and I hope to see him again and meet his family when I’m there in October. He dropped me off at the hotel with promises to see each other again, and I slept very well.

He gave me one other piece of advice which was to take the train to the airport in the morning. There was a train station less than a five minute walk from my hotel and the cost was US$6 versus about US$40 for a cab.

Colorful Tent

Plus I got to see a colorful tent that reminded me of Cirque du Soleil, although I don’t think they are in Morocco at the moment.

While the trip was too short to say I’ve seen much of Casablanca (much less Morocco) we did cram a lot in and it was so much fun.

Explaining Cricket to Americans

I recently got to visit Perth, Australia. While I’ve been to Australia before, this was my first time in Western Australia, and it turns out that Perth has a brand new cricket stadium. I wasn’t able to get tickets, but my host Chris was kind enough to spend the afternoon with me in a bar watching a match between England and Australia. I thought, as a public service, I would share what I learned about the game of cricket. Where possible I’ll make comparisons to baseball.

[Note: I plan to use the masculine pronoun in this story because I saw a men’s match, but it is in no way meant to imply women can’t play the sport].

First, watching cricket seems to involve a lot of beer. I think that can be said for most Australian activities, but cricket in particular. I spent part of the afternoon working my way through all of the draft beers with the word “cricket” in them.

List of Draft Beers

Cricket is played on an oval field. In the middle of this field is a rectangle of dirt known as the “pitch”. Most of the action occurs here. Think of it as if the baseline in baseball only extended from the pitcher’s mound to home plate.

On each end of the pitch are three upright pieces of wood called the “stickies”. Placed on them are two blocks called the “toppers”. They used to be made of wood but now they have sensors in them that light up if disturbed.

At this point I need to mention that I was watching one day cricket. In the beginning of the sport they envisioned it to be “the eternal game” so it never ended. New players were actually conceived during breaks in the action and raised to continue the tradition. Over time they decided to shorten the game to five days, known as “test” cricket, as a test of the patience of the spectators.

In 1979 a media mogul named Kerry Packer popularized “one day cricket”. Instead of lasting five days, it was designed to be played in one. To make a comparison to baseball, this is a game with one inning with ten outs per team, with the added restriction of a maximum of 300 pitches.

But getting back to the basics. So, we have the pitch, the stickies and the toppers. It is the job of the fielding team to try and knock the toppers off the stickies. The other team attempts to prevent this from happening by the use of paddles. The “paddlers” stand in front of the stickies on each end. From one end of the pitch a “flinger” runs up and then flings a ball toward one of the paddlers. I say “flings” because it isn’t a throw, per se, as the flinger’s arm must stay straight (unlike a pitch in American baseball).

The ball bounces in front of the paddler and toward the stickies, and the paddler tries to hit it. At this point three things can happen: he can hit the ball with the paddle, he can hit the ball with his body, or he can miss.

Cricket Diagram

If he hits the ball, he has the option to run, which means heading toward the other side of the pitch while the other paddler changes sides. They can do this as many times as they want, and each exchange scores a “run”. A run is scored when the paddler or part of the paddle crosses a white line in front of the stickies. Depending on where the paddlers end up, they may paddle again or it may switch to the other one (the flinger only throws in one direction).

If, however, the fielding team can catch the ball in the air, the paddler is out. Also, if they can throw the ball and knock off the toppers before the paddler crosses the white line, he is also out. It is rare that the ball is hit and more than one or two runs are scored.

Around the edge of the field is a marked area, probably about three meters from the wall. If the paddler hits the ball and it lands in this area, or hits the wall, or goes over the wall into the stands, that scores six runs and is known as a “six”. If the ball managed to hit the ground outside of this area but rolls into it, that scores four runs and is known as, you guessed it, a “four”.

Now the player can also hit the ball with his body. This is not good. Unlike baseball, the ball bounces at least once in front of the player, so there is no “hit by pitch” rule. The paddlers wear leg protection and helmets, but I saw one player get hit in the chest with the ball and it didn’t look fun (the balls go around 100kph/62mph). Outside of the addition considerable pain, it doesn’t affect the game much unless he hits it with his leg. If it is determined that the ball would have struck the stickies had he not blocked it, the paddler is out.

The final option is that the paddler misses the ball. If it hits the stickies hard enough to drop the toppers, he’s out. Behind the set of stickies near the active paddler is the “stickler”, kind of like the catcher in baseball. If the stickler can grab the ball and hit the toppers off while the paddler is over the line, he’s out. In order to get a better strike on the ball, many paddlers will step towards the fling, but this adds the risk of getting out if they miss.

If the ball just goes out into the field, usually nothing happens. Depending on how far out, the paddlers may choose to run. The signal to run is usually done by the paddler not actively paddling as they can keep an eye on what is going on in the rest of the field.

And those are the basics. There are eleven players on each team, and since you have to have two paddlers the inning ends when ten are out. Then the fielding and paddling teams switch and the process starts all over. The flingers change after every six flings, called an “over” (as in “thank God that’s over”), and in one day cricket there are usually 50 overs for each team. In the match I saw neither team lasted all 300 possible flings as the paddlers were out before that point.

Then you just add up the runs and the team with the most runs wins.

I am not really covering all of the strategy and subtleties of the game. One thing became clear is that most teams start with their best paddlers. In the match I watched, England paddled first and when Australia took over it looked like they were going to run away (get it?) with it, but after some unfortunate outs it became obvious England was going to win.

I also learned that if you get out without scoring a run, that is called a “duck”, and if you are out at your first attempt to paddle that is a “golden duck”. Not sure why we have all of the avian terms in sports but we do.

I really enjoyed watching the game and found myself cheering when Oz scored a four or six, or got someone out. I don’t think I’m up for test cricket, but they have something called a twenty20, which apparently involves force feeding the players methamphetamine and motivating them with explosive fireworks.

Streaker at Cricket Match

Oh, cricket apparently involves streaking, too. The wonderful security officials escort you off the field and there is a large fine.

Beer and Cricket on TV

Good times.

2017 Havana, Cuba

There are no mobile phone zombies in Cuba. That was one of the things I noticed right away. I don’t think that Cubans have any special resistance to the lure of the Internet, it is just that Cuba is one of the least connected countries in the world. I’d have to agree, since I’ve connected from places as remote at the Night Market in Siam Reap, Cambodia, and the island of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu, yet had a hard time getting on the Internet from Havana.

But I get ahead of myself.

Many years ago I set the goal of visiting 50 countries before I turned 50. I didn’t make it. Cuba was the 40th country I’ve been in, if you include the United States.

Even though Cuba is very close to the United States, it has always seemed a bit mysterious to me because of the embargo. I do have friends who have visited, mostly from Europe, but one American friend of mine was able to go via Mexico. He was kind of upset – he arrived the day after Fidel Castro resigned. Last year I decided I was going to visit Cuba, but I wanted to do so legally, and thus I set out to find the requirements.

It turns out that one of the allowed reasons an American can visit Cuba is for “professional meetings”. As I work in both telecommunications and with free and open source software, I started searching for a conference I could attend. I discovered CubaConf, but was disappointed to learn that the conference had already been held for 2016.

So, I kept my eye out to see if the conference was going to be held again in 2017. When they announced November dates, I submitted a paper and was happy when it was accepted. I decided to take along my friend and coworker Alejandro. He was born and raised in Venezuela and thus speaks fluent Spanish, and while my Spanish is good enough that I might have been able to get by, it was extremely handy to have Alejandro around (plus I think he enjoyed the trip as well). I had wanted to spend as much time as possible in Cuba, but I also wanted to make sure I adhered to the travel rules, and since those forbid tourism outside of a registered tour we went down on Monday and returned on Friday (the conference was Tuesday through Thursday).

Due to the embargo, American banks cannot do business in Cuba, thus credit cards don’t work. Luckily, the two most expensive parts of the trip, airfare and lodging, could be arranged and paid for in advance. American Airlines has a number of flights to Havana, and AirBnB has a large presence in Cuba due to the tradition of “casa particulares” or “private homes”. There are hotels in Cuba but many people stay in rented rooms, usually in peoples’ homes. This matched perfectly with the AirBnB service and I was able to book a wonderful, three bedroom apartment in the heart of old Havana.

American Airlines Sign for Havana

We flew from RDU to Miami, and then took the short flight to Havana. Entering the country was pretty easy. You had to have a visa, which I bought beforehand, and you needed to fill out a health card, but outside of that the longest wait was for luggage. They do perform a thorough search of luggage, looking mainly for wireless electronics and other contraband, but as I had none of that my bag arrived pretty much unmolested.

Yaima, who was renting us the apartment, had arranged for a driver, so we were met after we exited customs. While Alejandro talked with him I went to the Exchange to get Cuban Convertible Pesos, or CUCs (kooks). They map one to one with the US dollar, except they also charge an exchange fee (which doesn’t exists for euros or UK pounds). I had brought several hundred dollars in cash with me to cover expenses, and the whole process was pretty easy.

The airport is some distance outside of the city and so we got to see some of the area on our way to Old Havana. Our taxi was a later model car, I think it was a Nissan of some sort, and our driver was pretty quiet. We passed through the more modern section of Havana on our way to Havana Vieja (Old Havana) and you could tell when the buildings got older and the streets narrower.

When we arrived at the apartment building, the driver made a call and a large garage door came up. He drove in on the ground floor, which also served as the lobby, and we got out to check in to our room.

Our apartment was on the top floor, and it was very nice. It had three bedrooms. There was me and Alejandro but also my friend Elizabeth who I often see at open source conferences. She had heard about CubaConf from me and decided to attend as well, and so I offered up the last bedroom to her. There were two rooms with king-sized beds that shared a bathroom, and a smaller room next to the kitchen that Elizabeth took. On each end of the apartment was a balcony, and I spent a lot of time out on the front one enjoying the sights and sounds of Old Havana.

Our Apartment Balcony

Outside of the conference I had another objective. I wanted to visit three famous bars in Havana: El Floridita, Hotel Ambos Mundos and the Hotel Nacional. El Floridita was pretty close to our hotel, so as soon as we dropped off our bags, the three of us made our way there.

La Floridita

Old Havana is easy to walk, and we felt pretty safe for most of the trip, no matter how late it was. There were several “touts” trying to get you to go into a store or a restaurant, and one that kept coming up was “La Familia”. We were told by several people in the street, in both Spanish and English, that we should eat at La Familia. It was so prevalent that we made a group decision to never eat there.

El Floridita bar is known as the birthplace of the Daiquiri. I learned about it from Ted Haigh’s seminal book Vintage Spirit’s and Forgotten Cocktails and I had always wanted to visit. This is a place made famous by Ernest Hemingway, who used to drink there, so much so that they have a bronze statue of him in the corner of the bar.

Bronze Statue of Papa Hemingway

I have no idea what was going on with my hair in that picture.

The place was crowded but we managed to squeeze in right next to the statue. I wanted Hemingway’s signature drink, the Papa Doble, which is a Daiquiri with double the rum and the addition of grapefruit juice. The bartender told me, in Spanish, that due to the recent hurricane they couldn’t get toronja (grapefruit) and suggested a “Daiquiri Classico”. I figured it was the next best thing and had several (as did my companions).

I liked sitting there watching the bar. There is a sign announcing that this is “The Cradle of the Daiquiri”

La Cuna del Daiquiri

and I liked watching the bartenders (cantineros) prepare drinks. While they use shakers like most bartenders around the world, there is a style unique to Cuba where they pour the drink from one iced cup to another several times in order to mix it.

Cantinero Pouring a Drink

It takes skill and creates a nice airiness to the cocktail. We stayed there for some time, drinking, talking and listening to the band in the corner, and they we decided to get dinner there as well. It was good and a wonderful start to our trip.

The next day the three of us made our way to the conference. It just so happens that it was being held right across the street from the Hotel Ambos Mundos.

Hotel Ambos Mundos

The Ambos Mundos is where Hemingway lived when he was in Havana. It’s on the opposite end of O’Reilly street from El Floridita. As that street can get busy with traffic we usually walked down Obispo, which was a parallel pedestrian street lined with restaurants and shops. After the conference was over Alejandro and I went to have a couple of drinks at the hotel.

Ambos Mundos Bar

I don’t remember anything special about the cocktails, but I do remember enjoying sitting in the open air bar and watching the people. I could see why Hemingway got attached to the place.

That night we asked the guy at the apartment where to eat for dinner, and he suggested a place called Habana 61. While I didn’t have Internet connectivity, Elizabeth had thought ahead and bought a Digicel SIM card off of Amazon that worked in Cuba so she was able to help us from getting lost. In trying to link to it I can’t find it on Amazon anymore so perhaps it has been discontinued.

I really liked wandering the streets in the evening.

Street in Old Havana

We found the place and they were able to seat us. I told the waitress that I wanted that most macho of Cuban cocktails, the Mary Pickford.

Mary Pickford Cocktail

She laughed and made sure to get me a pink straw to go with my pink drink. Alejandro had a Mojito, which is something of the national drink of Cuba. I have never been a fan but the Mojitos in Cuba are extremely tasty. We talked about why and Alejandro suggested it was because of the mint. Whereas in the US and other parts of the world we use something like peppermint for the drink, Cubans use Yerba Buena which is similar but milder, so you don’t get that overwhelming mint taste. I am going to try to find some seed and grow it in the spring. The other bonus about Habana 61 is that while cocktails in Cuba tend to cost 6 CUC ($6) theirs were only 3 CUC ($3) and were some of the best drinks I had while I was there.

I also got to check something else of my list. I wanted to eat Ropa Vieja while in Cuba.

Ropa Vieja

While Ropa Vieja is sometimes considered the national dish of Cuba, the main ingredient, beef, is not readily available. You are much more likely to eat pork, chicken or fish, but I was happy to be able to eat it as least once while I was there. If you ever go to Havana, do your best to find this place.

On Wednesday I had to do some work. My hosts at the conference had learned about my cocktail hobby, and they asked me if I would be willing to do a presentation on cocktails to a group of students learning to become cantineros. In Havana they have a number of trade schools for young people, and they wanted me to address a group of them training to be bartenders.

While I had never done a formal presentation on cocktails before, those who know me know I would never pass up an opportunity to run my mouth, so I did a bunch of research and decided on a presentation on the grand history of Cuban cocktails. I think it turned out pretty well. I focused on four main drinks and their history. I started with the Cuba Libré, which includes Coca-Cola. I drank a lot of Coke (and Coke with rum) while there because Coke made with Cuban sugar is just superior to what we get in the States or even from Mexico.

Cuban Coke

I then talked about the Daiquiri, as well as one of my current favorite drinks, the Hotel Nacional Special (which I’ll discuss later). I finished up with a discussion of the Mojito and how Sir Francis Drake (El Draque) used it to combat upset stomachs and scurvy.

To get from the conference to the school (bar) where I would be giving my talk, we rode in a Lada.

Lada Automobile

I had never been in a Russian car before. It wasn’t in the best shape, and my host apologized but pointed out that it was extremely hard to get parts to fix things in Cuba. It was kind of a theme for my visit. The embargo does hurt the Cuban people, yet I’ve never met people more determined to improve their situation with so little to work with.

My presentation was held at a bar off of “Barber’s Alley” which is a pretty “hip” street near the water. There were a couple of cool murals along the way, such as this one about barbers:

Barbers Mural

and another one nearby by the same artist:

Mural with Scissors

We walked down the alley, went upstairs and set up for my presentation. I think it went well and I got a lot of good questions from the students afterward. I felt weird given a presentation that was a little out of my comfort zone, but they were very kind and seemed to like it.

Bartender Class

It was now about 11am and I figured I was ready to return to the conference, but I was told that the students would like to make a cocktail for me. Sure, I never turn down a cocktail, but then I learned that all 22 of them wanted to make me a cocktail.

Well, the one thing I strive for when traveling is to never be the rude American, so I sucked it up. (grin)

Of course I didn’t drink all of them, but I did taste each one, and Alejandro helped a lot as well. In addition to classics like the Daiquiri and the Mojito, I had one called the Canchanchara. It had honey in it and was very nice, and I hope to make it at home soon.

Afterward we walked back to the conference (not necessarily in a straight line). After the conference ended for the day we wandered around a bit. It is real easy to walk around Old Havana, although it can be jarring to go from an area of well maintained, brightly painted buildings

Street in Old Havana

and then in the next block see things turn residential and perhaps not nearly as well maintained.

At one point in time we stopped in a bookstore and I saw the following poster:

Bookstore Poster

I read the words

Nada tiene sentido cuando tú me miras con esos ojos que quieren decir no te conozco

and it hit me like a ton of bricks. The phrase translates to

Nothing makes sense when you look at me with those eyes that mean I do not know you.

and it was like I’d just read the saddest thing ever written. I was unable to find out more about it on the web, only other people talking about seeing it and how it affected them.

There is a lot of art in Havana. You have your usual “statues in parks” like this one of Simón Bolívar

Statue of Simón Bolívar

to just random installations on street corners.

Corner Sculpture

There was a mural depicting life in colonial Havana that took up a city block

Colonial Life Mural

as well a artistic graffiti.

Fidel 90 años

They even use old cannons to block the pedestrian streets which is artistic in its own way.

Cannon Barriers

There are also the old cars. One of the things many Americans associate with Cuba is the image of colorful, antique American cars still being used. They are, mainly as taxis

Old Car Taxis

although I did see a mid-1960s Mercedes as well.

Old Mercedes

By Wednesday evening the local cuisine was starting to take a toll on my system. Elizabeth had a much worse case of “Castro’s Revenge” and ended up resting in the apartment for the last half of the trip. I can remember telling Alejandro that I wish I could find something to settle my stomach when it dawned on me that the Mojito was invented as a medicinal beverage. The evening conference event was hosted at a bar so I decided to enjoy some 1 CUC mojitos that did help settle my stomach (although Vitamin I, Imodium, may have played a role as well).

Havana Club at the Bar

The weather in Havana was weird. One moment it would be sunny and blue skies, and a few minutes later it would be raining. We managed to keep dry and since it never rained for long we were still able to walk around. It added a nice touch to the scenery, such as a park

Park After the Rain

or the plaza in front of the Catedral de San Cristobal.

Catedral de San Cristobal

Thursday was the last day of the conference and our last full day in Cuba. I still had one place to mark of my list, the Hotel Nacional.

I learned about the Hotel Nacional from the Smuggler’s Cove cocktail book, specifically the recipe for the Hotel Nacional Special. The National Hotel of Cuba is just outside of Old Havana, and while we could have walked it we decided it was far enough away to merit a cab.

As we were walking down the street I saw a taxi and I flagged him down. What I didn’t realize is that we were standing in front of some sort of police station. As the taxi pulled up a uniformed man started asking the driver all sorts of questions in a rapid-fire Spanish that I couldn’t follow. When he looked at me I pointed to the car and asked “permiso?” and he waved us in, but we still couldn’t leave. I could hear the driver getting out some coins which I assumed was for some sort of payoff. Another man, obviously the boss, approached the car and when he saw us in the back he just waved the taxi on. From there to the hotel Alejandro got an earful from the driver about his poor treatment at the hands of the police (or whatever they were) and I caught “I drive by there every day”. It was one of the few examples of any form of corruption I saw during my visit.

The Hotel Nacional is a grand old hotel located next to a motorway across from the water.

Hotel Nacional Lobby

It was once the scene of an intense battle during a coup, but it seems to have been restored to glory.

We walked in and were seated on the patio. In five minutes I saw more Americans than I had seen the entire trip.

Hotel Nacional Patio

I ordered a Hotel Nacional Special and looked over to the bar to watch them make it.

Hotel Nacional Bar

While rain was once again threatening, it was otherwise a lovely day and I enjoyed relaxing with my drink.

Hotel Nacional Special

I will say that I think I make them better, however. (grin)

We then wandered around the hotel a bit to soak in the atmosphere

Hotel Nacional Exterior

and continuing in that vein we decided to take an “old car” taxi back to Old Havana.

Classic Car Taxi

Our driver was Pablo, and as he drove us back we passed some Havana landmarks such as the Great Theatre

National Theatre

and the Capitolio.

Cuban Capitolio

This building, which greatly resembles the US Capitol, was the seat of Cuban government before the revolution. It currently houses the National Library of Science and Technology, among other things, and is undergoing a restoration. Cubans like to say it is three feet taller, three feet longer and three feet wider than the US Capitol.

As we approached Old Havana I took one of my favorite pictures ever:

Pablo Returning Us to Old Havana

It is just such a nice composition of Pablo, the old purple car and the buildings in the background.

Our last evening event was held in a brewery. We sat at large tables with others from the conference, and I sat next to a woman named Inauri. I’m not sure how the discussion came up, but we ended up talking about race in Cuba.

One thing I noticed, outside of the lack of mobile phone zombies, was that there didn’t seem to be any real racial divides in Cuba. Cuba was such a focal point of trade in the New World that people from all over met, settled and had children in the country. There are blond-haired, blue-eyed Cubans as well as Cubans with skin so dark it is almost blue. Yet they seem to intermingle way more than in any other place I’ve been. Whether in a restaurant, a bar, walking down the street or in groups talking on street corners there was always this glorious mix of skin tone.

Inauri told me that before the revolution there were schools for rich “white” children, schools for poor white children and schools for everyone else. After the revolution it was declared that no matter your skin color, you were all Cubans, and while I’m sure it took some time it seems to have worked. I have no doubt that there are racists in Cuba but from my experience it was the first truly integrated culture I’ve seen.

The next morning we took another “classic” car to the airport. It was based on a 1953 Pontiac and was in incredible shape.

1953 Pontiac Taxi

The driver was obviously proud of the condition of his car, and he even offered to turn on the air conditioning, which I don’t believe was stock in 1953.

Pontiac Taxi A/C

It was a rainy morning and quite humid, so the A/C was nice. I took a few pictures on the ride, including this mural “Faithful to Our History”

Faithful to Our History Mural

and sat back reflecting on my visit.

I was extremely happy I went. The people in Cuba are amazing and I sincerely hope that the political situation both inside and outside the country warms up so that they can get access to the things they need to be great. I’m certain what they would create and share with the world would be wonderful.

Cuba from the Plane

The House on the Rock

As part of my effort to deal with the PTSD I suffered after visiting The House on the Rock, I thought I would write up my experience here.

House on the Rock sign from American Gods

I first heard about The House on the Rock in Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece American Gods. Now that the book is being made into a television series, I wanted to visit before it becomes even more famous in the next season. The picture above is from the very end of Season 1.

I am in Minnesota for work, and I suggested to my friend Mike that I come up a day early and we drive out to The House on the Rock. It would be a long day as the attraction is four hours from Minneapolis, but I haven’t seen Mike in awhile and I was sure we could pass the time. The ride back was a lot quieter since we were still trying to process all that we saw. As sensitive as I assume Gaiman is, I can easily imagine that the whole idea of American Gods could have been triggered by visiting. It was both an amazing and an unsettling experience.

The House is located in a geographical area known as The Driftless, which is poetic on its own right. When glaciers extend and retract, they “leave behind silt, clay, sand, gravel, and boulders called drift”. This area was never exposed to glaciers, so it is both rugged and beautiful. It inspired Frank Lloyd Wright to build his studio and school Taliesin here, and the area is marked by tall columns of rock.

On one such column Alex Jordan Jr. decided to build a house. It started in 1945 as a private artist retreat, but word spread about the unusual house and by 1959 Jordan was able to charge admission. While the house itself is interesting in its own right, around the base were built a number of metal buildings which house the most eclectic and strange collection of items I’ve ever seen in one place.

House on the Rock Entrance

We did not see that sign shown in the television show, but as it is supposedly sixty miles away we probably didn’t come that way. I did ask about it when buying tickets and the lady was pretty closed-mouthed about filming. It would be hard for me to imagine that they would try to build a copy of the House on a set, and the typeface used on that sign is used throughout the property, so I’m eager to see what sections make it on the show.

Around the entrance are a number of very tall pots decorated with lizards and other creatures and used as a planter for flowers. I have a better picture later on but you can see one to the left of the sign in the image above.

After a short drive you come to a parking lot and the main visitors center. Take note of the metal building to the left used to house some of the collection, and you can also see another one of those pots.

House on the Rock Visitor Center

Here is where you buy your tickets and then you can enter another building that covers the history of the House. There are three sections you can tour, starting with the House itself. We decided to just do the first two, ending up at the Carousel. We are both glad we did because we were pretty weirded out by the end.

As a hint as to what to expect, the Visitor Center has a number of works that kind of set the mood for what you are going to see, such as this one.

Three Headed Statue

We wandered around the center for awhile but then were eager to start the tour. Even though it was lightly raining, all of the walkways are covered so it was easy to get around, and I also think that they limit what you can see to just what they want you to see. It was very hard to get a whole perspective of the place.

As you head to the House, you pass through the Asia Garden.

Asia Garden

This was pretty and way too normal for what was going to come later. We wandered around for a bit before heading up the ramp to the House on the Rock.

Entering the House you have to stoop. The ceilings are quite low, which is surprising since Jordan was supposed to be six foot two. I asked one of the ticket takers and she said it was to keep in the heat, but I’m not totally convinced. The visitor center stated that Jordan tended to build without many plans, and would often tear down a section that didn’t work and rebuild it.

One of the first rooms you enter features a set of automated musical instruments. This group played Ravel’s Boléro.

Instruments Playing Bolero

I haven’t been able to get that song fully out of my mind.

While it definitely looks like they are producing the music, I’ve read that some of the music coming from these animated machines is simulated. I can kind of believe that, since the amount of tuning and upkeep would be daunting. But then, considering how bad some of them sound, it is also easy to believe they are real. It is kind of at this point the place starts to seep into your mind. What is real, what isn’t, and what in the hell would drive someone to create stuff like this?

I also want to mention the smell. The House on the Rock smells very, very odd. Sometimes you get a whiff of something musty, like in an old attic. Other times it is a much more … biological smell. It is almost impossible to determine where the specific smells are coming from and they can wax strong and then wane faint in seconds. In telling people about our weekend, one person said they had a friend who had to leave because of the smell, but I just found it disconcerting.

Back in the 1950s to the 1970s, some “modern” houses were built with sunken areas called conversation pits. Many of the rooms in the House looked designed around that aesthetic.

Conversation Pit

The House is built on many levels, and at one point we heard a player piano above us. Climbing some ramps and stairs we came to another decorated living space.

Living Room

That’s Mike in the shorts and you can see the piano in the background. The entire tour was very dimly lit when not outside, so I will apologize in advance for the quality of some of the pictures.

At some point you end up at the Infinity Room. Built in 1985, this is a cantilevered 218 foot room that shrinks to a point in the distance, with around 3000 panes of glass forming the windows.

Infinity Room

You can’t walk to the end of it, but when you get close there is a rectangle cut into the floor so you can look directly down on the tree tops.

Glass in the Infinity Room

It kind of reminded me of the “Moon Door” in the Eyrie castle in the Game of Thrones television series.

You end up exiting the House the same way you came in, and I tried to get a shot of the exterior of the building. As I mentioned before, much of this is blocked by the covered walkway, but I was able to stick my camera out at arms length and get this picture.

House on the Rock Exterior View

After leaving the house you walk back down to start the second, and much weirder, part of the tour. We were there during the Halloween season, and so some of the place was decorated with things like skulls.

Walkway with Skulls

I want to point out the side of the metal building. They do an extremely good job keeping you from realizing that your a basically wandering around inside a big metal warehouse. We walked down the path and entered the building.

The first section we came to was called The Streets of Yesterday.

Streets of Yesterday

This is an area designed to look like a street in a small town in the 19th century. It reminded me a lot of Pirates of the Caribbean (the ride not the movie). You knew you were in a building but it was dark, the ceiling was high above you and the light was dim and indirect. The “street” was lined with a number of “shops” but I have never been in a place that would have shops like this so close together and it was more of a way to show off various collections.

Like dolls? Go to the doll store:

Store with Dolls

How about clocks?

Store with Clocks

and there was china:

Store with China

Each store displayed a collection that would have been the pride of any collector of those particular objects, but it was weird seeing so many of them clumped close together. Plus there was little context. It’s like a rich compulsive hoarder met up with an OCD museum coordinator with an aversion to labels. It was also hard to tell what was real and what was just made up. Take this display of firearms:

Weird Pistols

See those strange pistols with the many, many barrels? While some of them resemble real “pepper box” pistols, others looked like they were simply welded together to look funky and would never fire. But without context you didn’t know.

It was at this point my mind started going all sideways. Who would put something like this together? Who had a fetish for, say, dolls and antique brass cash registers?

Cash Registers

We then moved on to a section dedicated to music machines called Music of Yesterday.

Music of Yesterday

I should mention that a lot of these devices wouldn’t move or play until you inserted a token. I expected a token to be expensive, like one for a dollar, but it turns out they cost a quarter. This is wise on the part of the owners since if it were free people would just push everything they passed. I can’t imagine many of these devices would stand up to that kind of use. As it was, it was rare to pass one of the larger displays that someone had not already inserted a token.

We bought some tokens when we got to this player piano thing with an odd mechanism (it had a xylophone attached to it but it didn’t seem to use that part). The music was produced using a scroll of paper, like other player pianos, but instead of winding it on a spool it was just pushed and folded into a glass case at the top of the device.

Player Piano with Scroll Music

It would feed out of the left side and then get smushed back in on the right. I was very surprised it worked.

While that was a standalone machine, many of the displays contained numerous musical devices.

Music Room

Probably the most famous is a machine called the “Mikado”. In the visitor center we read that Jordan had acquired a number of Asian figures in Chicago and they created this display to use them. I captured this one with a short video.

Melodious, no?

In the last room in this section there was a calliope called The Gladiator.

The Gladiator

I liked this one because I thought the male figures looked like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Off to the right of The Gladiator was a small machine that told fortunes.

Fortune Teller

This device is mentioned in American Gods, and had I had the time to read up on it before visiting I would have inserted a token. As it was, I thought it was cool enough to take a picture of it.

As we left this section Mike and I were talking about a time we visited the main Google campus, but as we turned into the Heritage of the Sea display our conversation just trailed off into silence.

We were looking at this:

Huge Whale

Now a blue whale can get up to one hundred feet long. This thing was two hundred feet long and huge. Who, I mean who makes something like this? It’s crazy. And if adding teeth to a two hundred foot long blue whale model wasn’t enough, why not have it being attacked by a huge Kraken/Octopus thing?

The Kraken's Eye

Again, here we are, in this huge room dwarfed by one of the largest sculptures I’ve ever seen and we were reduced to blubbering. Why? Seriously, why? We don’t even know what it was made of. It looked like it could have been formed concrete over a wire frame, but it was more likely some sort of foam that was sprayed and then carved (concrete would be very heavy)

It was crazy. Gaiman wrote of the House on the Rock in a blog post that “I had to tone down my description of it and leave things out in the book in order to make it believable.”

A set of ramps, five levels tall, surrounded this spectacle. In cases along the wall were collections of items with a nautical theme. There was a Titanic display with items that may, or may not, have been from the ship, such as a menu. In keeping with shipwrecks there was another case focused on the Lusitania. In between you might find scale models of tall ships or a Soviet sub. As you got higher you could see more of the massive sculpture in the center.

More Huge Whale

I did take a picture of two models of the Monitor and the Merrimack, considered the first battle between armored ships.

Monitor and Merrimack

Another view of the Kraken:

Moar Kraken

As I mentioned, this seems to be a blue whale, but blue whales do not have big teeth (like sperm whales do).

Huge Whale Mouth

Of course, without the teeth it would have a hard time eating a boat, right?

Huge Whale Mouth Eating a Boat

I can just hear the artist now: okay, we have this big honking whale thing being attacked by a big honking octopus thing, but something is missing. I know – a boat in the whale’s mouth.

After leaving Heritage of Sea we were a little shaken. It is hard to get across how this tour makes you feel. You are trying to puzzle out some sort of reason or system and it just isn’t there.

The next exhibits were tame by comparison. You get into an area that is a little more modern, so why not put up a bunch of hot air balloon models.

Hot Air Balloons

The tented space below was a pizzeria restaurant with some of the sorriest looking pizza I have ever seen. It also plays a role in American Gods and it isn’t like you can miss it since the way out is through the restaurant.

There were some other displays. For example, why not stick a perfectly normal looking Gull-wing Mercedes in this place?

Gull-wing Mercedes

If that is too normal, walk a few feet to admire a 1963 Lincoln Continental with suicide doors, a radiator modeled after the one on a Rolls Royce, and covered in over a ton of ceramic tile?

Lincoln Covered in Tile

There was still a touch of the weird, such as a display featuring marionettes:


and a store that displayed cameras:

Camera Store

The camera display was labeled with detailed little cards for most of the items. Mike and I joked that the guy who set up the display must have been busily working along when Jordan ran in, saw the labels and screamed “What are you doing! Stop that right now!”

Exiting this area we came to a few more displays, including another elaborate music room.

Stringed Instruments

For some reason the devices they used to control the strings reminded me of something out of H.R. Giger, and they reminded me of the facehuggers from Alien. I did put up a little video if you want to see them in action.

The final room on the tour was the coup de grace. It was a huge room dominated by the world’s largest indoor carousel. Eighty feet wide and 36 feet tall, it features over 20,000 lights, 183 chandeliers and 269 animals. Not one of which is a horse (I thought I saw one in the back but it turned out to have a fish tail, making it a hippocampus).

If that weren’t enough, the walls and ceiling were covered with angels. Well, female mannequins with wings. Just to try and explain the weirdness, many of the wigs weren’t on straight and some of the dresses were falling off. To finish the effect, throw in some of those automated musical instruments and add the mouth of a large monster (whose eyes move) leading the way to section three, just for good measure.

We’d had enough. After chatting with the employee in charge of watching over the carousel (you are not allowed to ride it), with followed the ominous sign out of the building.

Final Exit

You exit into the Japanese Garden, which was a beautiful example of normalcy after the previous two hours of insanity.

Japanese Garden

As you exit past the gift shop, there were a few more of those huge pots we saw at the entrance.

Large Pot and Sign

We made our way back to the car and started the long drive back to Minneapolis. We stopped at Taliesin but our hearts weren’t in it and we’d missed the last tour of the day in any case.

Two days (and one long blog post) later, I’m starting to come back to normal. I do want to go back and take Andrea. Perhaps I’ll have the nerve to do section three, and I would like to visit Taliesin. Even if you aren’t a fan of Neil Gaiman, if you have the chance to visit the House on the Rock, I urge you to take it.

It is a place of power.

2017 Total Solar Eclipse

My friend Bob and I are both science geeks, Bob perhaps a little more than me. We started planning for the 2017 total solar eclipse months ago. We thought it would be cool to watch from the beach, so we booked a hotel in Charleston, South Carolina, for the weekend, ordered our eclipse glasses and waited.

In hindsight we didn’t really plan for the weather. We should have booked two hotels, one at the beach and one in the mountains, and then canceled the other booking based upon the weather (the viewing conditions for the mountains were supposed to be excellent). As we left for Charleston the weather forecast was not promising. However, we had picked Charleston because we knew we could simply head inland if needed, and as long as we stayed in the path of totality we would be fine.

This was to be my first total solar eclipse. The closest I’d come before was in 1984. I was just getting ready to graduate from the NC School of Science and Math and we all went out to witness an annular eclipse on May 30th.

1984 Annular Eclipse

It was cool. The picture above was taken by Joe Liles, the school’s art director, but it really didn’t get all that dark. It is surprising how bright even a sliver of the Sun can be, and since we didn’t have totality it was less impressive than I was expecting.

Flash forward 33 years.

Isle of Palms

The four of us: Bob, his wife Kathy, Andrea and I drove down to Charleston late Saturday night, and we explored the city a bit on Sunday. Of course, all of the tours were booked due to the influx of people, so we just wandered around the market and ate some seafood. Later in the afternoon we drove over to the Isle of Palms. This was where we were planning on watching the show, but as the forecast just kept worsening we decided to head inland. We made it an early night so we could get up early Monday and beat the traffic.

Bob decided we should try to go to Lake Murray in Irmo, South Carolina, just outside of Columbia (and once home to Donna Rice). A few miles away was the Columbiana mall, so we made that our destination as a place to get lunch and sit in some air conditioning. We figured if worst came to worst, we could simply watch it from the parking lot.

Traffic wasn’t bad until we actually headed for the lake, and even then it was only congested near the two parks on either side of the dam. All the public parking lots were full, so we paid a guy $20 to park in a business lot and then walked the rest of the way. Luckily there was a nice place to sit on a hill overlooking the water, and so that’s where we made camp.

The place was crowded but not packed, and there was a general festive atmosphere. We were still worried about the clouds, and soon after the eclipse started this is what the sky was like:

2017 Eclipse - clouds

We had heard that an eclipse will actually cause cumulus clouds to dissipate. In the summer most of them are caused by afternoon heating, and while I couldn’t tell that the light level had decreased at all, the clouds did thin and eventually go away completely, and we had excellent viewing for totality.

2017 Eclipse - Kathy and Tarus looking up

Since we ended up at a lake, Andrea decided to watch from the comfort of the water. She found that she could float on her back and hold on to one of the float wires marking the edge of the “beach” area, and since her ears were submerged she said it was a very cool and quiet experience.

2017 Eclipse - Andrea floating

I hate the water so I stayed on land. With our glasses we could see totality inching closer and closer.

2017 Eclipse - nearly total

I had decided not to take any pictures during totality, and almost all of these in this post were taken by Bob. We only had about two and a half minutes for the main event, and there is a lot to take in. You get to look at the sun with the naked eye:

2017 Eclipse - totality

and there is a sunset in every direction you look:

2017 Eclipse - sunset

In a word, it was amazing. It got considerably darker than it did during the annular, and it was just so totally awe inspiring I really don’t have words to express it. While I consider myself spiritual if not religious, there is something about seeing the moon fit over the sun just so perfectly that implies the divine.

When it was over I wanted to do it again, immediately. I also felt kind of gypped, as it is possible to have a much longer eclipse than the two and a half minutes we observed. In fact, it can go up to seven and a half minutes (when the Moon is close to the Earth and the Sun is farthest from the Earth), but since that won’t happen until 2186 I’m going to have to be satisfied with what we got, for now.

Once totality was over, there were still some cool effects to discover. The leaves of trees act kind of like pinhole cameras, so you get little crescent shaped shadows everywhere:

2017 Eclipse - crescent shadows

Still buzzing from the experience, we walked back to the car and joined the throngs heading home.

Google wanted us to take I-26 to I-95, but I-26 had become a parking lot:

2017 Eclipse - cars on I-26

Looking at Google Maps it kept telling us traffic would get lighter, but when we got to that point it was “red” again. It dawned on us that folks leaving the area after the eclipse probably formed a sort of “clot” that would continue to move, slowly, along the interstate. It was funny that I don’t think Google Map’s algorithms really planned for something like this, so we decided to take back roads.

That was slightly better, until you would hit a small town. For example, in Bethune, South Carolina, there is a four-way stop on the highway.

2017 Eclipse - Bethune four-way stop sign

Based on the amount of time we sat in traffic, my guess is that they didn’t think to put a cop there to direct traffic until just before we made it to the sign.

So, it took us about seven hours to travel what should have taken four. I don’t care, I would still do it again even if I had to wait longer.

I might have caught the “eclipse” bug. According to Neil deGrasse Tyson, a total eclipse happens on average about once every two years.

2017 Eclipse - Tyson tweet on eclipse frequency

This is backed up by Wikipedia. The next one is in July of 2019, and the path of totality is just south of Buenos Aires in Argentina. That could be doable with frequent flyer miles and hotel points, and it will occur near sunset which should be hella-cool.

The next one in the US is in 2024 and should last more than four minutes. Bob and Kathy may have an RV by then, and if so … road trip. If you get the chance to see a total eclipse, don’t miss it. I’m still thinking about it two days later.

Travel: Barcelona – Part One

Well I never been to Spain
But I kinda like the music
Say the ladies are insane there
And they sure know how to use it

Hoyt Axton

In the weeks leading up to my first trip to Spain, I would joke about the fact that “I never been to Spain”. Guess I can’t use that line anymore.

Spain is the 37th country I’ve been lucky enough to visit. Although I spent the entire time in Barcelona, I loved the city so much I don’t know if I’d ever want to leave it.

And there is a lot to love. That I was there on business meant that I didn’t get to see as much of the city as I would have liked, but what I did see was amazing. Beautiful architecture, wonderful weather and some of the nicest people I’ve met outside of the United States.

Oh, and good food and drink, of course.

I landed on a Saturday, and as luck would have it my hotel room was ready. When I travel east it is usually an overnight flight where I arrive mid-morning. If I can, I like to sleep for a few hours, wake up before dusk, and then stay up to a normal bedtime. If I can do that, I tend to adapt to the local time quickly, but sometimes my room isn’t ready and I have to make other plans. Luck was with me, so I took a nap and got up around 16:00 to wander around the city. I ended up wandering the Barrio Gotico (Gothic Quarter), a warren of old streets which was kind of fun yet spooky, since it was dark and there were few people about due to some rain showers.

It was also that night I learned something cool about Spain. Where I live it is not unusual for restaurants to close about 20:00 (8pm). Around 19:40 I walked into a restaurant and asked for a seat (in my broken Spanish). The person I talked to tried to explain something to me, and after a minute or so I realized that the restaurant didn’t even open until 20:00.

I knew I would love this town.

I had the next day to myself, so I decided to play Ingress. This took me all over the main parts of the city. In fact, I walked about 25km that day alone.

This took me past the famous Sagrada Familia.

I didn’t plan ahead and the line was long, so I missed seeing the inside of Gaudí’s masterpiece, but it is on the list for next time.

After the weekend I spent most of the time working. We would start around 9:00 to 9:30 and go until 20:00. We would eat lunch sometime around 15:00-16:00, and unlike the US where lunch is usually a trip to a fast food restaurant, every place we went to had a “set” lunch, often referred to as “el menú del día”. For a set price, between 9 and 11 euros, you get two plates, a drink (including a beer or wine) and a dessert. So civilized, and good for you.

As I was in a major city, I wanted to indulge my passion for vintage cocktails. Number 42 on the list of the World’s Top 50 bars is Dry Martini, and when I mentioned to friends that I wanted to go there, they also suggested a place called Boadas.

Since Boadas was closer, I decided to try it first.

Boadas is a triangular-shaped room off of the touristy Las Ramblas. I immediately fell in love with the atmosphere: intimate, with dark paneled walls. Crowded, but with a few open seats. Older bartenders dressed in tuxedos.

Now in preparation for my trip I spent a lot of time practicing my Spanish on Duolingo. If you haven’t heard of it, it is a website where you can learn languages for free. They “gamify” the whole process so it’s fun, and I actually got compliments on my Spanish skills. They will remind you to visit every day, and I felt guilty when my string of 21 days broke. I wanted to tell Duolingo “but, I’m actually practicing my Spanish in Spain!”

I should mention that most people here speak Catalan, a language derived from Roman Latin, along with Spanish. It can get confusing, such as the time I was given a menu and it took me a full minute to realize it was in Italian.

Anyway, back to Boadas. I went up to the bar and asked, in Spanish, if they had a drink menu. They did not – they just made classic cocktails. Cool, I thought, and I asked for a Golden Dawn. The bartender looked at me with a confused expression and said he didn’t know that one. No worries, it’s pretty obscure, how about a Scofflaw? No, he replied, we only make “classic” cocktails.

Okay, if that’s the game you want to play, how about a Brandy Crusta?

At this point the guy next to me at the bar, who I later learned was from Zurich, was like “good one!”. Of course, the bartender didn’t know of the Brandy Crusta. I explained that it was the origin of such drinks as the Margarita and Sidecar.

Sidecar! He knew that one, so for 9€ I got a very good sidecar, but the whole experience was a little disappointing. They were offering a cocktail special called the “Leap Craddock”. I, of course, was familiar with Harry Craddock, but I had never heard of this drink. I think it might have been their interpretation of the Leap Year Cocktail, but I didn’t stick around to find out. Perhaps my accent and elementary Spanish skills had something to do with it, so I won’t put the whole blame on the bartender.

Later in the week I did make it to Dry Martini.

This was slightly larger than Boadas but with just as much atmosphere. The bartenders here wore ties and white jackets. I went up to the bar and introduced myself to Paco. When I asked if he had a drink menu he produced two: one for Martinis and one for other cocktails.

The Martini menu included 100 drinks, many of them classics that I wouldn’t exactly call Martinis, but I was willing to overlook that. For my first drink I decided to follow the adage “when in Rome” so I ordered a classic Martini. They do theirs with equal parts gin and vermouth, which is practically unheard of, but the final product was delicious. Part of the secret is that they stir it in a huge pitcher completely full of ice, so when it is finally served it is oh so ice cold.

It was one of the best Martinis I’ve ever had.

I mentioned to Paco, in Spanish, that I had a cocktail blog. He asked if I spoke English, and when I said “yes” he introduced me to Lorenzo. Lorenzo was originally from Italy and he is also a fan of Ted Haigh’s book. One of the first things he said to me was “I think my favorite cocktail of his is the Golden Dawn”.


We had a really nice discussion about cocktails, starting with how the Golden Dawn should always be made in equal proportions (which goes against my friend and cocktail chef Justin, but he does just have that one flaw. Well, maybe two as he doesn’t like Tiki drinks). It was nice how a love of real cocktails can bring people together.

As I was sitting at the bar, contented, I decided I would like some food. Since lunch was pretty filling, I was wondering if I could just get something small, then I realized I was in the country that invented small dishes. I asked for a tapas menu and ordered the “Dry Martini Potatoes” and a tuna dish. Both were very tasty and just the right portions.

For my final cocktail I went with an old favorite, The Last Word. Equal parts gin, maraschino liqueur, green chartreuse and lime juice. I thought the dried lime slice was a nice touch.

As much as I would have liked to go there every night, it didn’t happen. I was able to take two of my customers back on Friday, the last night I was in town. Both Paco and Lorenzo were working, and I think I made an impression since they seemed to remember me.

Although we weren’t in Lorenzo’s section, he came by to chat and I asked if he would make, off the menu, three Golden Dawns. He was more than happy to do so:

I actually was a little unhappy, since his were better than mine. I think he has access to superior Calvados.

Anyway, I plan to return in September with Andrea and so I should have more to say on the culture of Barcelona than just a synopsis of the cocktail culture, not that focusing on the cocktail culture is a bad thing.

Travel: 2015 Ireland – Dublin and Doolin

My first trip to Ireland was in 2014 and I welcomed the opportunity to return this year. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate very well.

I did manage to snap a picture of the Irish countryside from the plane.

It is quite beautiful, but I did find it strange that there was almost no “forest”. One of the things you get when flying over the United States is that you can always see large stands of trees. Apparently the British cut those all down to make boats.

Still, it is very pretty and I can see why it is called “The Emerald Isle”.

I got into Dublin on a Sunday morning and made my way to the hotel. I’ve been traveling a lot and I have little spare time, so I didn’t have as much time to plan for this trip as I wanted. During the entire journey I had the feeling that I’d forgotten something. I realized what it was when I got to my room and discovered I had left all my electrical power adapters at home. As I was leaving Ireland for Germany I needed both UK and European adapters, but luckily Dublin is a tourist town and I was able to find them with little problem.

That evening I was eager to try something I had read in the book Boozehound. The author referred to ordering a “Guinness and Powers” and I wasn’t quite sure what that was. Turns out that Powers whiskey is the most popular whiskey sold in Ireland.

I can see why – it is quite tasty. It’s smooth, even in the “normal” version (there are lots of grades of Irish whiskey, even within the same brand).

The weather was cold, windy and raining, but the company was wonderful. On Wednesday evening my friend Patrick took me to a local pub that specialized in craft beer and was known for good food. He brought along his childhood friend Liam, who was a lot of fun, and an Englishman named Malcolm who was in town doing some construction work. Malcolm is from north of Newcastle, which means he probably has more in common with Scottish culture than British, and he was also fun to hang around.

During the wonderful meal I mentioned I was interested in learning about Irish whiskey, and Liam suggested a place in Temple Bar called Mary’s Hardware. The only problem was that we were considerably north of there. It was suggested that instead of taking a taxi that we should get on the ubiquitous public bikes and ride down there. A few minutes later I found myself barreling down O’Connell street, dodging buses, construction and irritable taxi drivers.

Mary’s Hardware turned out to be a blast. It’s a little hole in the wall, and speaking of walls, along one side of the bar is a wall full of hardware supplies. While mainly a bar, apparently you can actually buy hardware there.

There we had some whiskey, including the excellent Green Spot, and delightful conversation that I am both unable to and refuse to post here (grin). It had the makings of a long night but Patrick and I had meetings the next morning, so I announced I was going to walk back to the hotel and play Ingress. Since it was now around 1am, I was informed that a fat geek like me walking along looking at a gigantic phone would probably get mugged, so we all got into a cab. The stereo was playing Bob Marley’s “Don’t Worry” and we all started singing, including the driver. It was a perfect end to a wonderful evening.

One part of the conversation I can repeat involved me getting out of Dublin. I really like that city but I was told I needed to see the rest of Ireland. One location that kept coming up was the Cliffs of Moher, which is on the west coast near the town of Doolin. So I decided to head out there over the weekend.

Since I didn’t have a car I decided to take a bus. The main bus line in Ireland is Bus Éireann, but Google told me the best way would be to take a GoBus to Galway and then a Bus Éireann bus to Doolin. The GoBus is nice, with WiFi and a bathroom, and it goes direct from downtown Dublin to Galway. I then had to rush to make my connection for the rest of the trip, and although it was only a fraction of the distance, the journey is on back roads and takes almost half of the total trip time.

The western countryside is beautiful – what I could see of it. It was a miserable day weather-wise, with rain and wind and about 100m of visibility. That said I enjoyed the trip. There is a lot of stone in this area so everywhere you look are stone walls and stone buildings. There is the occasional “castle” although they tend to be in such disrepair that only a wall or two remain. I got left off in Doolin near my Bed and Breakfast, and I felt like I was in a movie from the 1960s when I was the only person to get off the bus. I watched it pull away through the drizzle, leaving me alone by the side of the road.

But it was a quick walk to the Bed and Breakfast, which was warm, comfortable and inviting. It is right across the road from Fisher Street, which is both picturesque and the home of Gus O’Connors Pub, renown for Irish music.

This is Fisher Street, with the ocean off to the left and what is left of the 500 year old Doonmacfelim Castle can be seen on the right (it’s that little back square toward the top of the frame).

While it was time for lunch, I was told I needed to visit McGann’s, which was another pub a short walk away. The owner asked me to sit at the bar since he was expecting a bus load of tourists.

Now, I’m an avid tourist who hates tourists. I know that sounds hypocritical, but when I travel I try to blend in and both meet and become part of the local culture. Not like the group that arrived in Doolin by bus, stormed into the pub and then proceeded to demand things. Now, I’m sure that this is good for business and the owner took care of them all (including the guy who asked for a Miller beer – hey, I guess in Ireland it is an import) but I really disliked the noise and jostling.

Food was good, though.

As I walked back to the B&B the weather got worse so I decided it was time for a nap. First, I had to change my plans to go to Paris later in that week, but after that I had a wonderful siesta falling asleep to the sound of the roaring wind.

For dinner I had to walk down to O’Connors. The place was full but not packed, and I found a spot in a corner. The food here was excellent, and I had the best sea bass I’ve ever eaten.

O’Connors in known for music, but I was still tired and decided to leave before they started. Apparently this was a good thing, because at breakfast the next morning I learned that they didn’t go on until late, around 22:30, and I doubt I would have liked sitting there alone for 90 minutes or so.

Speaking of breakfast, I was staying at a B&B so I went for the full Irish:

It was yummy.

Sunday morning found me starting my journey back to Dublin, this time to an airport hotel and a flight to Germany the next day. I was on the left side of the bus which meant for the first part of the journey I was often looking straight down at the sea, with only a small stone wall between me and it. Beautiful. I really look forward to visiting this part of Ireland again, just not during winter.

Travel: 2015 Munich Oktoberfest

I’ve had a visit to the Munich Oktoberfest on my bucket list for some time, and when it was announced that the OpenNMS Users Conference was going to be held in September, I decided this would be the year I went. There are quite a few German beer festivals held in the fall, but Oktoberfest is the largest and most well known. Yes, despite the name, it occurs mainly in September as it is scheduled to end the first weekend in October.

I arrived on a Thursday morning, as most flights from the US are overnight, and checked in to my hotel. My room wasn’t ready so I dropped off my bags and decided to head for the “Wiesn” – the main Oktoberfest grounds named after its location (Theresienwiese).

This sucker is huge.

Even on a Thursday morning there were lots of people about, and by Saturday there would be over one hundred thousand packed shoulder to shoulder on the grounds.

The best analogy for people in the US would probably be a State Fair. There are rides, including a huge ferris wheel, roller coasters and at least one haunted house:

There are food stalls stalls everywhere, including the famous “half meter bratwurst”:

as well as stalls selling souvenirs and booths to play games. But the area is dominated by ten huge beer “tents” from a variety of area brewers, along with several smaller tents as well.

Some friends of mine host a tech podcast called “Bad Voltage” and they were coming to do a show at the Users Conference, but they all wanted to come to Munich as I did. While Jono, Stuart and Ilan were showing up on Friday, Jeremy did what I did and came a day early, so through the wonders of modern mobile technology we were able to meet up on the Wiesn (near a huge ride called “Konga”).

Of course the first order of business was to obtain a beer. A serving of beer at Oktoberfest is called a maẞ (“mass”) and is served in a liter-sized glass mug. We picked a beer tent and entered to find it filled with thousands of like-minded people.

Since there were only two of us, we managed to find a seat at one of the large communal tables and within minutes we had a huge pretzel as well as huge beer each.

This was the first time I’d seen Jeremy since the SCaLE conference, so we spent the time catching up and taking in the crowd before getting up and seeking out our next beer in another tent.

I liked this tent the best, as we had nice people at our table (at this time of day on a Thursday most of the people were older – this would change on the weekend), a nice waitress named Julia and good food. Jeremy had a traditional dish called Schweinshaxe, or roasted pork knuckle, whereas I had Weißwurst (“white sausage”). I apparently was eating mine wrong so the friendly couple next to me demonstrated the proper way (you are supposed to remove the outer casing with a knife). By the time we were done with our beers I was in a good mood and was very happy I had come. The hotel called to let me know my room was ready but I didn’t want to leave, so it was off to the third tent.

This is when things started to go south.

Okay, I am nearly fifty years old, so I’ve been drinking for, what, almost thirty eight years or so. I know how alcohol affects me. I rarely drink to excess and at this point I figured I had about two more maß before I needed to quit. I was wrong.

We found a place at a table in the third tent and ordered another beer. I don’t remember much more than that. I know I bought a pin with the word “Boss” on it in the shape of the heart-shaped gingerbread cookies (Lebkuchenherz) popular at Oktoberfest. I can vaguely remember buying a hat and arguing it was too small (the lady went away and came back again, but the hat was still a “medium”). The best theory I have is that Jeremy slipped me a roofie, but to hear him tell it at some point in time I just got up and announced it was time for me to go.

This part was a bit frightening. I got lost and ended up wandering around Munich. At one time I remember looking at my phone and it told me I was an hour away from the hotel. Google showed me wandering around quite a bit.

But somehow I managed to make it back, and the next thing I remember is waking up, face down on the bed and fully clothed, in my hotel room. All of my bags were there, including a huge Pelican case with our telepresence robot, as was my passport, wallet and about as much money as I expected to have.

So, all in all not bad.

Needless to say, I slept in on Friday. I did manage to get out of the hotel around noon and meet up with Jeremy at the large, open air Viktualienmarkt. Munich is a beautiful city, so it was fun to wander around while slowly returning to being human.

The rest of our friends, including Stuart, Jono and Ilan, showed up late afternoon. We all met at their hotel, but as my friend Fanny was coming in too I left them to meet up with her at her hostel. She had lived in Munich for several months and wanted to get some traditional Bavarian food, so while the rest of the guys headed off to the Wiesn we went searching for a quieter place to eat.

We found a little restaurant that fit the bill and wasn’t too crowded. They had a band, which was actually pretty good, and I thought it was funny that in addition to traditional German songs they played some old American Pop.

This included a rendition of “Achy Breaky Heart”, but the crowd really got into a cover of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. Combined with my continuing recovery from Thursday, I did feel a bit of cognitive dissonance.

But the food was good. I got Nürnburger sausages with sauerkraut while Fanny really wanted Obazta cheese. Both were good, but I thought it was funny than when I used the Google Translate mobile app to look at “Obazta” it translated that to “Obama”. I wasn’t fully recovered from the previous day so I drank Apfelschorle (apple juice and water) while Fanny had a beer. The waiter joked as he brought them to us that it was usually the other way around.

We then wandered over to the Wiesn to try to find the other guys, sampling a number of rides and attractions along the way. We never were able to find them – as I mentioned this place is huge and it was considerably more crowded than Thursday.

Fanny was very eager to find the Teufelsrad, or “Devil’s Wheel”, and after asking a number of people for directions we found it and were finally able to squeeze our way in. This is an old traditional attraction consisting of a large spinning wheel mounted in the floor. The “master of ceremonies” will call out certain requirements, such as “men in short lederhosen” and if you meet the requirements, you rush out and try to secure a good position near the center of the wheel. It then begins to spin, ultimately throwing off the riders until there is one left, who is the winner. You don’t win anything but pride, but man is it fun to watch.

The categories are funny, too. In addition to short lederhosen, long lederhosen and no lederhosen, there were a couple for only people over 50 and even one for men with a “penis less than 10cm long” – which both drew laughs from the crowd and a surprisingly large number of participants (with one man offering to prove himself before the crowd indicated that wouldn’t be necessary).

Woman participate as well, include those in the traditional Bavarian Dirndl dress. In fact, the best competitor of the evening was a young woman in just such a dress. See, even when you are the last rider of the wheel, they still have to get you off of it. They do this a number of ways. There is a large, pumpkin-shaped ball that they can drop down but mainly they use ropes. This woman avoided the ropes and ball like a ninja. She got a huge ovation when, after five or so minutes, they managed to slide her off.

I posted a little video so you can see the wheel in action, but it doesn’t do it justice.

By this time it is early morning on Saturday so we called it a night, promising to meet up in front of the Daemonium haunted house later in the morning. I walked Fanny back to her hostel and successfully took the S-bahn back to my hotel.

By late Saturday morning the Wiesn was packed. It was incredible just how many people were there, with more than half in traditional dress. It was nice having a German guide in Fanny to show me around, or I would have missed many things. She took me to the Old Wiesn, which is a part of the grounds set up like the Oktoberfests of a hundred years ago. The rides are mostly mechanical and it was more of an agricultural faire (we saw a lot of old tractors, etc). We stopped at a shooting arcade and Fanny managed nine out of ten shots, which netted her a small stuffed devil.

We then decided to try and find a place to sit and drink. We went into Käfer Wiesenschänke which was an amazing tent, but it was totally full and we were not able to get a seat. We did find a place at the Schottenhamel which seats nearly 10,000 people, but I think it was mainly because Fanny is pretty and the bouncer let me in with her out of pity (grin).

We were outdoors, which was fine, since it wasn’t raining and they had outdoor heaters near the tables. We started off with our first maß of the day, and I ordered a large pretzel.

I asked for some süßer Senf, or sweet mustard, to eat with the pretzel and both our waiter, Stuart, and Fanny looked at me like I was crazy. I was satisfied to see that Fanny ate nearly half of the mustard with her part of the pretzel. Note that in the picture she is wearing the hat I bought on Thursday.

We were seated at a large table with a bunch of other people. There were two women from Switzerland next to us as well as two men, one from Columbia and one from the US. The US guy sat next to me and it turns out he is from Greensboro, NC, which is less than an hour away from where I live. Small world.

I looked down the table to see what looked like a bunch of young people snorting cocaine. I was told that it was powdered caffeine, although it did cause us to tease the guy from Columbia a bit.

When I was planning on coming to Oktoberfest, I wondered that with all the excessive drinking, how did they handle people throwing up? Well, I didn’t have to wait long to discover that as a young man decided to empty his stomach right next to our table. It was promptly and efficiently covered up with sawdust, and I figured the floor would be getting thicker and thicker with it as the day went on.

We stayed there for several hours but then decided to head out and wander around. The rest of the guys were sleeping in, so we grabbed lunch from a food stall and just enjoyed people watching. There were people of all ages, and while most appeared to be sober there were a few who definitely were not, including people passed out in random places. By mid-afternoon we did finally meet up with the rest of the team.

I wanted to get everyone in bumper cars, so that was the first thing we did. It was a blast, although the green hat (which was sporting Fanny’s little devil in the hat band) disappeared at some point. The guys really wanted to buy lederhosen, so we eventually left the Wiesn and walked into town.

With Fanny’s help we found a place that specialized in traditional clothing that was of a decent quality but not too expensive. Lederhosen means “leather pants” and all of the men’s clothes were along the front of the store. For men there were no changing rooms, so you basically just “dropped trou” in the open. So, yes, I know the answer to the burning question of “briefs or boxers” for Bad Voltage, but I’ll leave that up to your imagination.

Rather you think that I was just a voyeur in this process, I spent most of my time in the back of the store as Fanny wanted to try on a Dirndl (the women could use the changing rooms). While she rocked it, it just wasn’t her style. She’s usually dressed in black, so after trying on a more traditional colored dress we got a black one, but it still wasn’t her.

The guys, however, left in full hosen gear, and we headed back to the hotel so they could change. At this time, two more of my friends, Jeff and Ken, had arrived and so as a group we headed out to find dinner, which was a bit of a challenge as by this time we were nine people and it was Oktoberfest. We ended up at an Italian place with bad service that could seat us, but the food, when it finally came, was very good. A nice time was had by all.

Fanny and I decided to call it fairly early, say a little after ten, but the rest of the group went back to the Wiesn. I hit the S-bahn, found my hotel, and managed a good night’s sleep.

Our last day in Munich started off with me meeting up with Fanny for breakfast at a café near the Marienplatz. We had a leisurely meal and then decided to wander around Munich. As I mentioned before it is a beautiful city, and I ended up going in a number of the churches:

It reminded me of a NOVA episode about how all these old cathedrals were built, and before I go back I’ll need to watch it again.

Fanny needed to get to the airport, so after saying goodbye I met up with most of the rest of the gang. Ken had driven, so Jeff and Ken were going to pick up my bags and drive them to our next stop, Fulda. This left me with just a small backpack. Our train wasn’t until late afternoon, so we wandered over to the Viktualienmarkt for light lunch.

Then it was time to grab a cab to the Hauptbahnhof for the train. The ride on an ICE train took less than three hours and was amazingly comfortable – I kind of wish we had a better train system in the US as I could get used to it.

Overall, I had a great time in Munich. While I am not sure if I’ll ever go back for Oktoberfest, I do hope to return to the city real soon.