Monday, March 27, 2017

Tales from the Road: International Breadcrumbs


I was in the safe the other day and way in the back, down at the bottom, I came across bags of money!!!

Yeah, if only. . .




You see - I used to do a fair amount of international travel for my job and one thing I learned early on is that you need cash, as in local currency, when traveling most places.









Surprising?  Maybe not to most, but here in the US I live off my two cards, one debit, one credit, (One Visa one MasterCard. I use the credit card like a debit, paying off the full balance every month.) and can keep the same $20 bill in my money-clip for months, Usually right up until The Wife snags it off me to pay for a fountain-drink or something else small. (When that happens I always insist on getting the change back which I tuck away in The Van to be used at self-pay stations.)

Another thing I learned early on was that exchanging money is a pain in the ass, not to mention expensive. So I didn't unless I had to. Instead I tucked any leftover currency away to use the next time I was in that country.

Now that my international travels are much less frequent - OK, lately pretty much non-existent, though I do keep my passport current just in case - I suppose I should take it all down to the exchange and convert it back to US dollars, and someday I might. But for now I'll just tuck my little stash of international breadcrumbs back into the safe as reminders of where I've been,




There's the 'usual' places like Canada.

When I was a kid growing up in Michigan with relatives on the other side of the border we used to cross back and forth with little more than a "Where were you born? Have a nice day." Even when I was in the military with a Top Secret security clearance stationed near Boston no one ever said boo when I took the shortcut home across southern Ontario.

Nowadays - well let's just say things have changed.  US bound passengers actually go through US Immigration and Customs inside the Calgary Alberta airport and I've missed more than one flight out of there because those frightened little bureaucrats are jacking around with people just because they can.

It got so bad that airlines were asking for passenger's contact numbers so they could be informed of customs wait times and plan accordingly, but that didn't do me much good since the Calgary - Houston flight was an early one and customs didn't open their doors until an hour before it's departure.





One of the other 'usual' places was Mexico.

Now Villahermosa, despite it's name, is not the most picturesque part of Mexico but it is the administrative heart of Mexican off-shore oil exploration and production.

The airport is small, with a single luggage kiosk for incoming international flights. You picked up your bag, dropped it on an xray machine (Presumably checking for firearms) then pushed a big yellow button on a post near the output end of the machine. If the light above turned green you were done and walked on through to find your ride, if it turned red, and in all my trips there it never did for me, you put your bag on a nearby table and opened it up for inspection.

Like Calgary, the return flight was early, the first one of the day, and the immigration office where you got your exit stamp didn't open until shortly before the flight was scheduled to leave. Unlike Calgary, if there was a delay the flight would be held.

The flight isn't long, just a couple hours on what amounts to a commuter plane, but the down-side is, when you disembark in Houston you are as far away as you can get from Customs and Immigration so not only is it a very long walk, you will be at the end of the line of all the other incoming flights and in a country reputed to have one of the worst entry processes in the world, Houston's Customs and Immigration is probably near to being the worst of the worst. (When did we become frightened little wimps who think our only resort is bullying??)






Though the UK did join the EU, it did not buy into the Euro, so I needed the Queen's pounds there.

Normally I barely carry any cash at all and I certainly don't willingly carry coins, but you don't really have a choice in the UK since any denomination less than 5 pounds is in coin and not available in notes.

Getting into the UK is simple, after presenting the visa that you filled out on the plane to immigration (You are either going there on vacation or for a conference/training. Never check 'going there to work' because that's a whole lot of complication!) you are faced with three lines through customs. EU citizens, something to declare, and nothing to declare. The EU and nothing to declare lines are nothing more than short passageways that bypass the customs check stations and there may or may not be a customs official standing near the end watching you go through while holding your passport up for the cameras.

I found the best way for getting around the UK is to use the train system for longer distances, (There's a train station right inside both major airports.) other public transport for medium trips and to be prepared for a lot of walking which is the only way to handle those shorter excursions.

Just outside pretty much all the London train stations you can buy a day ticket (Unlimited off and on again) on any number of 'tourist' open-air double-deckers. They have a set route and by making a full circuit you can get the lay of the city, as well as a lot of information from the 'barker's' running patter, then the next time around start jumping off at points of interest and either getting back on at the same spot or take a stroll and jump on at one of the other stops, all well marked both on the street and on the map you get with your ticket.

Brighton is another train-ride destination with more than enough museums and beach-side stuff to keep you busy for a day or two, and if you are near London over a weekend you won't go wrong spending a day in the Sussex countryside on the Bluebell Railway.

Oh yeah, and be forewarned, the shops close at 5 so don't expect to go to the mall after work!




As long as we're in Europe, my least favorite trips were having to go to France.

I know, I know, that's not what you heard, but in my experience France, and the French, suck.

The food you ask?? Frankly I'd rather eat English fare than the swill I encountered in France. At one conference I attended there the food was so bad we collectively demanded the set menu be scrapped and we be allowed to order from the normal menu. 'That's fine,' we were told, 'but you will have to wait until day after tomorrow because tomorrow's chicken cordon-bleu is already being defrosted.'   !!!Defrosted!!!!

Like the UK, to go any distance in France use the train system. There are automatic ticket kiosks outside the stations, just be prepared to be a bit thick skinned (Good advice for being in France in general!) as you will have to take a moment during your turn to decipher the maps and buy the right ticket.

Need to get from Paris to London or the other way around? Forget flying. Take the Eurostar train through the Chunnel  instead. Much more relaxed and once all is said and done, it takes about the same amount of time, door to door, as flying. Like Calgary, UK customs is located in the Paris train station. Unlike Calgary, this is not US customs so the process is much more friendly, respectful and efficient.



Nigeria in the 80's was - well, let's just say it was a challenging place to go.

Back then Shell Oil, mostly staffed with expats, owned an island near Lagos that they turned into a resort and was heavily patrolled. On weekends they would ferry employees to the island for some R&R.

In those days the experienced traveler to Nigeria stocked up on 49 cent Bic pens, all except one of which you kept hidden deep in a pocket lest they all be taken at once. It seemed like no Nigerian official, and believe me there were a lot of officials to get through, was ever issued a writing implement and if you didn't have one on you for them to use the two of you would be stuck just looking at each other while the process came to a grinding halt. And not once was my pen ever returned to me!

If your company had a no-bribery policy there would be a clause in it somewhere excepting Nigeria because without something crossing palms, nothing ever got done there.

But Nigeria is a shining example of the people verses individual phenomenon. For Westerners the Nigerian people can be - shall we say, difficult - to deal with, but the individuals I had any prolonged contact with were hard-working, open and amiable. In fact the best intern I ever had was a young Nigerian woman. She was so good that I arraigned for the company to fund her last semester of school and sponsor her work-visa in exchange for staying with us for two years after she graduated.



On pretty much the opposite end of the spectrum is Singapore. This country (Actually there's some debate as to whether Singapore is a country or a city.) is clean, ordered and efficient.

It does have a weird mix of cutting edge and old colonialism. One popular lunch spot is the Polo Club where you can sit out on the covered veranda and watch players practicing just like the expats of the early 20th century, (Back then though entrance to the club was highly restricted.) and you can still stroll the 150 year old Botanical Garden. On the other hand there's a multi-storied 'mall' in the city with hundreds of shops devoted to nothing but electronics and technology. as well as all the new, high-tech playgrounds on top of impossibly tall buildings around the harbor.

Getting around Singapore by taxi is easy and safe since, like most everything else there, taxis are highly regulated and you can count on the fare being - well, fair.

On the other hand, daily life in Singapore is also highly regulated. Unless you are willing to pay a stiff fine, don't dare act like the ugly American and drop you cigarette butt or spit your gum onto the sidewalk (Bringing more than a pack or two of gum for your own consumption is not allowed because there are only a few 'approved' gums and they are only sold at pharmacies.) TV shows and movies are highly censored and if you find you need to buy a disposable razor it can be found in a locked cabinet behind the counter at the pharmacy.






OK, I have no idea how or why I ended up with a single Indian Rupee.  I was scheduled to stop in Mumbai for a few days on my way back from Singapore once, but the deal fell through and my expertise was no longer needed.










Ever heard of Bucaramanga Columbia??  Not many people have, despite being the 5th largest (economically) city in the country.

Bucaramanga sits in a mountain valley astride highway 45A which, northbound, eventually works its way through the mountains and jungles to the coast and southbound, through more mountains and jungles, to Bogota.

It's one of those places you can't get to from here. From the US you fly to Panama and pick up a flight the rest of the way from there. From much of the rest of Central and South America you fly to Bogota and catch a flight.

Like Caracas Venezuela, where I've actually spent a lot of time but for some reason have no currency in my safe, Bucaramanga's climate is near ideal. Basically you just need a shelter over your head, and many restaurants are just that, no walls around the dining area at all. Beyond that, non-sealing jalousie windows and open-walled living rooms adjacent to courtyards are abundant. If you are into eating fresh food either city will be a mecca of gastronomic delight.

Unlike Caracas where you could travel an hour or so north to the coast then east through coastal bannana plantations on primitive dirt roads, fording unbridged rivers to find pristine, untouched beaches, or spend a couple more hours heading west up the valley then north over the mountains on a narrow track spotted with crosses (Where people fell off the road) to a more developed set of beaches where you can spend the night in a hammock under a thatched shelter and eat the freshest of seafood from cart-vendors, Bucaramanga is far from the beach, but there are a number of beautiful if challenging mountain-jungle trails with trail-heads practically within the city limits.


I haven't checked exchange rates, or even counted the currencies I have, but I would imagine it's more than enough for a really fancy couple of dinners out. But I think for now I'm just going to put my breadcrumbs back into the safe and hang onto them for a while. . .




Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Am I Slowing Down??


The other day I was doing some miscellaneous stuff around the property, nothing too ambitious. Just cleaning things up, re-potting a few plants, creating a little nook-in-the-trees for one of our benches; that sort of thing.



At one point I caught myself walking around the long way and using the slope rather than taking a shortcut and making the two foot step up onto the RV pad. This was a little counter-intuitive since, for some reason I can no longer remember, I was in a rush, which left me wondering if the current me, the Geezer Card carrying, eligible for Social Security, only two years left until Medicare, me was moving slower than the more youthful me of the past. You know, like last week. . .

This is an important question because fathers must be ever vigilant that their sons do not surpass them, (OK look, I don't make the rules, that's just the way it is. On the last walk my Dad and I ever took together he had that walker really clicking and clattering as we went farther, and faster than I ever expected and I'm convinced it was that father - son rival thing kicking in for one last hurrah.) but then I remembered that I don't have a son to out walk, to out do, so what's the big deal??

I do have a daughter, but because of the wisdom and experience that comes only with age I was recently able to give her some financial advice that was received with enough enthusiasm and gratitude that I walked away strutting like a peacock.  - - -  Oh yeah, still got it!!

But to answer the original question; am I slowing down?  Hell yes!!! I mean what did you expect? I don't have a Basil Hallward portrait of myself  hanging on the wall in the parlor, (He's the character that painted the Dorian Gray portrait in Oscar Wilde's one and only novel.) nor am I some sort of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Benjamin Button aging backwards. So yeah, I'm slowing down.

I can still knock out back to back 10 mile hikes on successive days, but where I used to do such a hike in the morning and still put in an active afternoon, now I make a day of it and spend more time in the evening just kicking back and chilling. I can still pick up a teak bench and carry it across the field by myself, but where I used to just snatch-and-go, now I'm more aware of the frailties of the human back and pay attention to just how I lift. I can still get up off the ground without using my hands (I read once that that's an indicator of your overall physical conditioning.) but, while it used to be something I did automatically, now I find myself thinking about it first.

But I don't mind. That's just the natural order of things. This was always going to be a limited engagement and I'd rather go along with the natural order of things and enjoy the journey than waste time lamenting.

It just so happened that over dinner on that same day The Wife asked, "If we had a time machine that would let us go back to our youth what would you do different?" It only took me a moment to come up with my answer. "Get my degree in biology (Wildlife and environmental degrees didn't exist back then.) and work in habitat restoration and management for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Private Lands and Habitat program." I would still be doing the planning and problem solving that I'm good at and using it doing something I was made for (Those aptitude tests we took in Junior High said my top three career choices were Forest Ranger, Forest Ranger or Forest Ranger. . .) and all without the high stress of the high-tech route I did take. True I wouldn't make as much money, but then The Wife intends to use her 'inside knowledge' to make a killing in Houston real-estate, (Which would make her Houston's Donald Trump but I'm not dumb enough to point that out!!) so we'll be fine.

It takes wisdom to appreciate the art of enjoying life

But let's get real here. By definition wisdom and youth just don't go together. Wisdom is the carefully amalgamated result of an individual's experience and knowledge, two things of which can only be acquired through time, so even if we could go back to our younger selves, we wouldn't be taking that hard-won wisdom with us, and frankly I've reached the stage where I'd rather have the wisdom than the youth.






Now where the hell did I leave my reading glasses?? 










Friday, March 17, 2017

Yep, It's Spring in Central Texas





(Which, in the pursuit of the almighty dollar, over the past ten years has morphed into Antiques Two and a Half Weeks, during which the area is to be avoided at all costs!!)







and Wildflowers

(Beware of otherwise intelligent parents pulling over along busy, 75 MPH highways, flipping the doors open without a care, and spilling out their little kids to run amok while the 'adults' pursue the obligatory child-in-the-wildflowers photo.)




Thursday, March 16, 2017

Oops, Not Quite Done Screwing With The Van Yet!


I had just spent most of a month standing at my workbench pretty much every day working on the remodel of The Van. After that you, as a sane and normal person, would think I'd be ready for a break; want to kick back; to come up for a little air; but apparently me, as a less than fully sane and not quite normal person, wasn't done yet!

Admittedly this hardly rates as a project since, other than the time for a slight diversion to pick up the supplies during one of our normal trips to town, (Actually not supplies but only supply, since this micro-project only required one thing.) it took me less than an hour, not much but less nonetheless, to tick off the 'done' box on this one.

But the change was noteworthy, at least to me,



because I spend a lot of time looking at the back of this overhead cabinet where I keep all my dishes, mug, kettle and spices, and looking at those stains there on the back wall is annoying, not to mention embarrassing when someone else wants to take a peek in there too. (OK, that almost never happens, but it could!!)

I've tried doing something about the unsightly view, but those two panels (It has to be two in order to make each one small enough to get shoehorned into the cabinet in the first place.) are covered with a tufted, almost micro-carpet like, fabric that has successfully resisted all efforts at cleaning.



I can't do without the panels because of the jumble of wiring that lurks behind them. (My electrical panel, both 110 and 12 volt, is just to the left and this is the main raceway in and out of it.)



So the obvious solution was to cover the panels with something other than that very stain-prone carpet-like material. (The entire ceiling of The Van is covered in this same material and I'm dreading the day it needs replacing too!!)

I found this cleanable leatherette type stuff in a color that works well in The Van for $8 a yard and snatched it up. (I bought one yard and used about a third of it so I have some left over for later. I'm not sure for what later, but I have it.)

In order to fit into the highly irregular space at the back of the cabinet the panels themselves are far from square and regular, so the sanest way forward was to peel the stained material off the already cut and fitted backing boards and recover those boards with the new stuff.



The original covering appears to have been glued on with some sort of contact cement that was sprayed on, and not always very neatly. I have some regular brush-on contact cement laying around but I chose to do my fastening with a spray-on adhesive as well. One that I know from experience I can control pretty well.

After cutting the leatherette to size I gave the surface of the panel a decent coating of adhesive, let it cure about 10 minutes, (If this was a stick and peel situation, such as when I am cutting masks from paper patterns, I would stick everything together as soon as I sprayed the adhesive, but letting it cure a little first makes for a more tenacious bond.) then pressed it, sticky side down, onto a piece of pre-cut leatherette.

At this point I used an awl to mark where the original mounting screws went so I could use the same holes later.


After laying down some guide marks to help show me the limits of where to spray the adhesive, (The yellow stuff is the original contact cement, my adhesive is clear. Sticky but clear.)




I folded the extra leatherette over the edge and onto the back of the board. Fast. simple, but effective.



Slip the panels back into place, drive the 4 screws that keep them from falling back out, reload the cabinet, stand back and grin in satisfaction at how much better it looks now, and will look well into the future since the new panels can be cleaned with a quick swipe of a damp rag.

Notice how closely the new panels match the background color of the backsplash, which matches one of the colors in the rugs.




As an added bonus the darker background inside the cabinet makes the designs on the frosted panels of the cabinet door stand out better than they did with the white(ish) background in there.


All right! Time to put van projects on the shelf for a while. Otherwise it's bordering on obsession and I just might find myself on the wrong end of an intervention.



Come on in here and sit down greg.
Why? We're concerned and want to talk to you. 
Who? Oh just some family and friends that care.
No, don't be afraid, just put the tools down.
That's right, just lay them on the bench.
All of them.
Including that screwdriver we all know you keep hidden in your sock.

Good, now everything's going to be fine. You'll see. This is for your own good.

 No, NO! Step away from the workbench and let me see your hands! Do It Now!! Wait!  Stop!! You drop that toolbag and come back here right now!!! - - - OK, you can run for now, but just know, you'll have to face this someday - - - 






Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Plotting Blackberries








No, I don't mean that the blackberries are up to some nefarious no good - - although, come to think of it, those toothy little runners do seem awful eager to shred my ankles - - Maybe the little buggers are out there plotting to get me!!














But what I really meant was that I'm plotting where they are this year.

I don't know why, but the blackberries turn up in different places every year. I guess they have the wanderlust gene.



Which is no big deal while they are blooming, since the blackberries are the first thing to bloom every year



which makes it easy to spot the little white flowers, every one of which will hopefully turn into a fat, juicy berry.













But being the first to show, blackberry blossoms are also the first to go.  After that the berries can be pretty hard to locate.























Every one of those tiny little stamen connect back to what will become one of the many little balls of juicy goodness that makes up a berry/


And for such a tough little plant, the blossoms are surprisingly delicate and short lived.



Just a little bit of rain is enough to do them in.

So the trick is to have the camera ready and get some placement shots of the blossoms to act as little white homing beacons later when I'm ready to harvest the berries.







Moon and Vultures





What's not to love about that face??


Thursday, March 9, 2017

Remodeling The Van: Extras


While I was doing this latest remodel I threw in a few extra things just for good measure.



I don't know how y'all feel about the typical RV window treatment, but I haven't been a real fan for a long time. Not only does it often look cheap and predictable, but it also looks so - well - RVish.

When I first got The Van there was plenty of other things to focus on as I went about making it mine, so this window was just - well - there. But after looking at cheap plywood covered with foam and wrapped with less than inspiring grey leatherette, or whatever it is, for long enough, doing something different here became a priority.



So I ditched the heavy,leatherette covered bolster above the window, (Not entirely sure what the point of that was in the first place. ) as well as the original valence, and replaced it with my own version.



This is one of the places where fasteners are hidden behind some of the ebony plugs



I also got rid of the day-night shade. It's a good concept, but it takes two hands to operate and wrestling with the dang thing was becoming annoying. The replacement is a simple roller shade just barely visible here at the top of the opening.



And while I was messing around with the window, I ebonized some 1/8th inch thick oak and cleaned up the sill and side-jams by screwing it down over the grey leatherette that had been glued, not always neatly, over the blocking around the window, using a black marker on the screw-heads to make them less obvious.



And remember when I removed the TV from The Van and was left with all this mounting hardware, and the holes that went with it?



Originally I covered up the holes by moving a picture-frame I already had, but it didn't take long before I figured I could do better than that.



After a bit of brain-storming (Oh yeah, that gave me a headache!) and tossing a few ideas around to see what stuck, I came up with this combination paperback/magazine rack.


Something that would actually be useful


and, as a bonus, it gave me a chance to add at least a hint of the finger-joints that the Greene brothers were so fond of.




This next 'extra' was really simple, but it is part of the project so I've included it.

The Van came with one of those heavy leatherette covered bolsters over the counter, like the one on the window side of The Van, there just under the overhead cabinet.



It was a no-brainer to pull that out and replace it with something simple but much more appropriate.



The hooks aren't exactly authentic to the Arts and Crafts hand-wrought iron work, but they did fit my budget much better than the real thing.


The Van's water tanks, 10 gallons each of potable and grey, are there below the sink behind the white panel. Experience has shown that I go through about a gallon of water a day so 10 gallons is a reasonable capacity. That same experience has shown me that having the tanks, as well as all the plumbing, inside the heated envelope of The Van greatly simplifies camping during the colder months.

When designing The Van I asked for a couple of portals to be cut into that panel so I could see the tank levels. Well that fell through the cracks and didn't happen, but I can see the grey-water tank when the side door is open all the way, so it wasn't that big a deal, though I did have to limit myself to about 3/4's full before dumping/refilling because not all the water pulled from the potable tank ends up in the grey-water tank.



But as long as I was tearing things apart I figured I would remedy that design over-sight by removing the panel,



cutting a couple of portals in it so I could easily see the level in both tanks. (Much more reliable than in-tank sensors and costs less too!!)



And tuck it all away behind a second hinged panel that matches the rest of the decor.


Another long standing issue I had was that when my portable toilet is snugged up against the wheel-well inside this lower cabinet it was still about a quarter inch too wide. Depending on the weather (Which dictates how much the door flexes.) this went from hardly noticeable to hardly ignore-able.




So while I had this area torn up putting in the water tank portals I added a half inch to the framing around this cabinet, remounted the hinges,


and finally the door closes properly every time!!


Speaking of doors, the last 'extra' I'll mention has to do with this set of double-doors under the drawer. These doors are each 10 inches wide, not quite wide enough to get my frying pan, or much of anything else, through, so every time I needed something from this cabinet, (Which is where, in addition to the frying pan, the stove, stove fuel, potable water hose and my tool-bag live, so I need something from here a lot!) I had to open both doors, which either took two hands or two operations with one hand, and it was getting old.




So I replaced the pair with a single door.


Of course there was a reason for the two narrow doors. A 20 inch door and an 18 inch isle-way just don't go together very well.

Yep, this could be a problem. . .

But not to worry because this time I was paying attention,


and built a magic 20 inch door


that opens into an 18 inch isle-way just fine!!


OK, you can relax now because that's it for this remodel project.

So what's next??




Wellllll. . . Remember a couple years ago when I built this mini fireplace of sorts??

Doesn't that seem like the perfect place to build a Greene and Greene inspired sconce instead???


And I really should think about trimming out the vent fan with something better than white plastic, and - OK, you're right. Maybe I better give it a rest for a moment and perhaps start a puzzle instead.

Besides, there's the rampant blackberrys on the far side of the pond that need to be cut back before spring get here, and a couple of dead trees I should really take down before they fall on something important, and the dead lawn mower needs looking after, and . . .