Posts Tagged With: car

Poke Your Eyes Out

That’s “po-keh”, which sort of rhymes with “okay”, as opposed to “poke” that rhymes with “croak”. But I am getting ahead of myself.

We are back on the Big Island, comfortably ensconced in our beautiful annual rental house for the next month or so, and enjoying our view of the blue, blue Pacific while all our East Coast friends and family gnash their teeth in envy. Feel free to gnash along: it’s gorgeous here. Photos in later posts.

Our first order of business upon arrival was picking up our rental car, which was, um, shall we say, more “expansive” than anticipated. Expecting a midsize SUV or large Jeep, we were presented with a Lincoln Navigator, a Brobdingnagian exercise in libertarian consumerism of such exuberant eco-criminality that Greenpeace now has a price on my head. A technology-laden behemoth, it is the size of a full-grown bull elephant and has a fuel economy measured in “crushed dinosaurs per mile”. At speeds above 60 mph, or whenever in four-wheel-drive mode, it requires its own convoy of refueling tankers. But it is roomy, quiet, and comfortable, so we’ll live with it. At least until I have to parallel park somewhere.

But mostly I wanted to talk about food, that being one of the sybaritic mainstays of our annual sojourns here. As you may know, the de facto state food of Hawaii is…. Ha! You were going to guess poi, weren’t you? But no. Poi is indeed a traditional staple here, but for historic reasons dating from World War II rationing, the go-to food in these parts is pig parts in a can, i.e. this stuff:

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Hawaiians eat more Spam than any cohort in the known universe, or at least the U.S., an average of 5 cans per year for every man, woman, and child in the state. And as you can see from the photo, it comes in a wide variety of disguises flavors to suit every taste. That is, every taste except ours, since we never touch the stuff.

What we do eat a lot of here, is poke, which is a genuinely traditional Hawaiian food that has gone mainstream. Poke (remember, it is pronounced po-keh) can take many forms but is most commonly served as marinated ahi, i.e. raw yellowfin tuna. The word itself is Hawaiian for “sliced”.

Japanese cuisine has a strong influence on poke’s preparation, Japanese being the second largest ethnic group in the state, slightly behind Filipino. For one thing, poke is prepared with an enormous variety of marinades that include both Japanese and Hawaiian influences, such as soy sauce. And for another, at even the most hole-in-the-wall poke restaurants, it is presented with a certain symmetric Japanese aesthetic, as you can see from this photo of my lunch a few hours ago:

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We had this little masterpiece at “Da Poke Shack”, just down the road from our house; it is possibly the mostly-aptly named restaurant in existence. That’s seaweed salad in sesame oil at the upper right, white rice with dried seaweed and sesame seeds at lower left, and two flavors of ahi poke in the other two diagonal corners. It is a little bit of culinary heaven that has now made its way to the mainland US with varying and usually dubious degrees of authenticity. I can assert from personal experience that if you are eating it anywhere outside of Hawaii with fish more than 10 hours old, you are not experiencing the good stuff.

Having thus officially alerted our digestive systems to our arrival in Kona, we moved on to the largest local farmer’s market, a frequent stop of ours. We bask for a while among the tropical fruits, a spectral riot lilikoi (a.k.a. passion fruit), rambutans, soursops, mangoes, tiny “apple bananas”, carambolas (= star fruit), and of course pineapples. The faces there are comfortingly familiar: we see the same multi-ethnic smiles at the stalls every year.

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(This picture dates from three years ago, and we bought lilikoi from the same woman today. I showed her this photo on my phone; she gave Alice a big hug and asked me to email it to her.) We loaded up with a few bags of fruit, our eyes ever larger than our stomachs, before moving on somewhat reluctantly to the more conventional and cringingly expensive grocery shopping at the Kona Safeway. We will be entertaining a lot of visitors during this year’s stay; there will be many such trips to the farmer’s market, the Safeway, and to the KTA, a local family-owned grocery chain.

So in summary, we’re here, happily nestled into our house in the delightfully-named area of Kahalu’u-Keauhou. More posts later as this year’s adventures unfold.

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Categories: Hawaii | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

No, NOT the One With the Green Handle

OK, I want to be clear here. In the United States, the petrol pump with the green handle is always diesel. Always! Am I right, or am I right? I thought so. And so my error was not only forgivable, but unavoidable. Unavoidable, I say! But I am getting ahead of myself.

We left Reykjavik at about 10 AM today, en route to the north, to the area around Borganes, a small town on one of the western fjords of the country. Our specific destinations were a lava cave and a couple of well-known waterfalls in the vicinity. But first we needed to fill the tank of our thirsty 4WD behemoth, a double-cab Isuzu pickup truck with an enclosed bed for our luggage.

There was a gas station just around the corner from the flat, a brand called Olío. (Notice the accent over the letter i, which gives it a long i sound.) Our vehicle requires diesel fuel, which I noticed that all the pumps offered. So I drove up to the first pump, inserted my credit card, and engaged the pump with the green handle since that is OBVIOUSLY DIESEL FUEL. I pumped about 40 liters — costing approximately 12 million dollars US — as Tim and I congratulated each other on our manly ability to pump gas in a foreign country. (By the way, for the record, petrol actually costs roughly US $9 per gallon here.) But as I hung the pump back in its cradle, my eye was drawn to an adjacent pump handle — stealthy black in color — with a tag on it that, in ominous Icelandic, read “Díesl”. By virtue of my highly advanced linguistic skills, I immediately realized that, in NASA parlance, I had screwed the proverbial pooch. In particular, I had just put about 40 liters of 95-octane petrol into a diesel vehicle. The only saving grace of the situation was that I had noticed this before we had set out on our drive and inevitably broken down in the middle of some godforsaken windswept glacial tundra, which is where it surely would have happened.

But since we were still at the petrol station, the potential catastrophe had been reduced to what Alice and I refer to in our travels as an “MSP”, which stands for “Money-Solvable Problem.” I went to the counter of the service station, where the friendly attendant called a local guy who handles this sort of thing. Said local guy, a creased, windburnt, businesslike 60-something in coveralls, showed up about 20 minutes later, siphoned out the contaminated fuel, and — because we had called him from home on a weekend — somewhat apologetically charged me an amount of money that was shockingly much even by Icelandic standards. Like I said, an MSP.

We refueled the vehicle — another 18 million dollars of “Díesl” this time — and, this particular misadventure behind us, set out on our away again. Our route to the lava cave first brought us past Borganes and its adjacent fjord, bordering a scrubby green and yellow steppe at the foot of a line of steep volcanic mountains. Despite the bleakness — it was an overcast, windy day with a smattering of rain — there was a certain stark idyllic quality to the setting, as you can see from scenes like this.

Iceland Borganes 2018-004-Edit

The fjord itself is broad and still, and at the time we were there the tide was out, revealing a maze of low muddy shoals. Fortunately both the wind and rain died down for long enough to allow a drone flight, during which I captured these panoramas from the air:

Iceland Borganes Drone 2018-030-EditIceland Borganes Drone 2018-017-Edit

The bridge at lower left leads directly into Borganes. But although we are sleeping there tonight, our lava cave of interest lay about a 45 minute drive beyond it. The cave — actually a lava tube — is called Víðgelmir, which like many Icelandic place names is best pronounced whilst eating a marshmallow. It sits in the middle of a lava field at the foot of the Langjökull  glacier, which you can see here.

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The cave is more than 30 meters underground with assorted ledges and overhangs, so we were first equipped with helmets with mounted flashlights. As you can see from this photo we were ready for some volcanic spelunking.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-009

The entrance to the cave is suitably maw-like, and we picked our way along the, um, unadventurous wooden stairs and boardwalk, following our guide and listening to his lecture about the geology of the place.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-019Iceland Lava Cave 2018-023

We are not unfamiliar with lava tubes because of our time in Hawaii, but Víðgelmir is particularly impressive. It’s nearly a mile long and sports a variety of lava formations much more typical of a “conventional” limestone cave, e.g., stalactites and stalagmites, albeit very small ones. But its most (to me) unexpected feature is a consequence of its temperature, which hovers at just about freezing. Consequently there are a large number of crystalline stalagmite-like ice formations like these.

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I found them particularly otherwordly. And indeed, if you get too close they break open and this thing that looks like a horseshoe crab jumps out and grabs your face, and you just know what’s gonna happen after that.

The cave tour lasted about an hour and a half, and we set out to our next destination, the Barnafoss and Hraunfossar waterfalls, adjacent to each other along a short looping walking path. They’re beautiful and would have made a great venue for a drone flight except that by this time the rain had started in earnest.  Hraunfossar — the name means “lava falls” — has an unusual property: its water seems to come out of nowhere. What actually happens is that the glacial melt percolates through the surrounding lava field and emerges as a line of cataracts along the river; indeed, you can actually see the water coming out of the rock. Take a look:

Iceland Barnafoss 2018-006

Barnafoss, only about 200 meters away, means “Child Falls”, named after a rather dreary local legend about them. The story goes that one day two boys, home alone while their parents went to church, got bored and decide to follow.  (The assertion that two young boys spontaneously decided to go to church on their own tells you immediately that this is a myth.)  Anyway, the legend tells that they tried to take a shortcut over a natural stone bridge that crossed the falls, but fell off the bridge and drowned. The mother of the boys then cursed the bridge, and shortly afterward it was destroyed by an earthquake. This is about as cheerful as Icelandic legends get. It must be the weather. In any case, here’s Barnafoss:

Iceland Barnafoss 2018-013

You can tell from the photos how gray the sky had gotten, and in fact it was pretty much pouring by this time. So we gawked until satisfied, then retreated to the car and returned to Borganes. Our lodgings are an AirBnb, a very pleasant two-bedroom cottage overlooking the fjord. Borganes has a population of only about 3,000 but I am happy to report that we were able to satisfy Janet’s craving for pizza: there are at least two pizzerias in town, and the one we chose was excellent.

Tomorrow: further into the frozen north!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Eclipse-ward, Ho!

By now, unless you have been living in an undersea lab at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, you are aware that there will be a total solar eclipse tomorrow, August 21st. We have planned our eclipse expedition for about a year and a half and have made our way to central Oregon, since the state is more or less bisected by the totality path.  We flew into Portland last night and made the three hour drive to our unexpectedly lovely AirBnB in Bend, which is about 40 miles south of the center of the totality path. Later today we will make our way to the normally sleepy hamlet of Madras, which happens to be almost dead center on the totality path and is expecting its normal population of 6500 to swell to slightly under 11 billion. See the map!

Totality Map

Oregon and neighboring Washington (part of our flight route) are home to a number of famous peaks, starting with the iconic Mt Ranier, which practically waved to us as we flew over it yesterday. Here’s Alice’s photo of it, taken with her cell phone:

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More notoriously, Washington hosts Mt Saint Helens, which famously blew its top in 1980, killing 57 people and destroying hundreds of homes.  Here was our view of the guilty — and clearly headless — volcano.

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Prior to our departure from Victoria, the local TV newspeople insisted on regaling us with horror stories about the crowds descending upon Oregon to view the eclipse. Thirty mile traffic backups! Cannibalism in the airport! We witnessed none of this. The airport was certainly busy, but not pathologically so, and the good folks at Enterprise Rentals had laid in a large supply of extra cars so that we were even able to upgrade our vehicle.

That last was not a trivial consideration. Traffic between Bend and Madras tonight and tomorrow is pretty certain to fulfill all the dire warnings, so we have elected to get there a day early and sleep in our car tonight. This put a premium on obtaining a comfortable vehicle, and the Enterprise folks delivered in spades. We are now the proud renters of a jet black Dodge Durango, a hulking 23 mile-per-gallon behemoth that has its own telephone area code and is fueled by testosterone instead of gasoline.

With reluctance we will shortly depart our comfy B&B in Bend, called Duck Hollow, operated by the delightfully New Age-y Debbie and Kevin. We have our own good-sized paneled cabin with a full kitchen and sitting room, and a hot tub. Not so easy to trade for the back seat of the ManlyMobile, but we’ll be back tomorrow night. (Debbie and Kevin have kindly supplied us with sleeping bags for our night in the car.)

That’s about it for now, since I doubt I will be able to post from Madras, whose communications infrastructure is likely to be strained to the breaking point. But before I go, please bear in mind these Important Eclipse Safety Tips:

  • Smear SPF 50 sunscreen on your eyeballs so that you can look safely at the sun. (Ignore the stinging, burning sensation: that just means its working.)
  • Remember that water magnifies sunlight, so do not drink any liquids during the eclipse. Also, if you have goldfish, wrap the bowl in tinfoil.
  • Remember that the demon god Zuul demands blood sacrifice in order not to permanently consume the Sun. Sharpen a big knife, find a slow neighbor, and get busy.

Hey, stop looking at me like that. These aren’t any dumber than a lot of stuff that’s circulating on the web.

Categories: US Mainland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Riding on the Marrakech Expre…Oh Never Mind

Our hotel in Ouarzazate (there will be a spelling quiz later) was quite the place, by far the nicest of the our lodgings so far. In fact, it felt like we were trespassing, but I’m not complaining. The decor was Desert Movie Prop; remember that Ouarzazate is the “Mollywood” of Morocco, the center of the film industry, and…

WAIT! WAIT! I just had another can’t-miss idea for a locally produced, Moroccan-themed TV show. It’s a reality game show called “Survivor: Sahara”, and the idea is that contestants get voted off the oasis, one by one, like in the American version except that unlike in the American version they are kicked out into the Sahara where they actually die. Pure ratings gold! But anyway…

The hotel lobby and common areas are decorated with the actual movie props from assorted desert epics that were filmed in the area, including Gladiator and the granddaddy of them all, The Ten Commandments. And indeed, just off the lobby is a familiar-looking seat, namely Yul Brynner’s pharaonic throne! You can even sit on it and pretend to be pissed off at Charleton Heston. Although on reflection I realize that because of his gun control views I am in fact pissed off at Charleton Heston. But I digress. Here’s the throne:

“Moses, you may lead your people to the breakfast buffet by the pool.”

As our luggage was getting loaded onto the bus we realized that ours was not the only vehicle departing the hotel. There is an auto rally going on, a Madrid-to-Marrakech race by a British group, and they were all revving up their beautiful but pretty beat up classic cars in preparation for the final leg. Here is one of the cars: notice the Sahara Challenge tag in the front.

Here’s another, with their route painted in the side. They had been underway for 10 days and were in their next to last leg.

They were all very dashing looking, and I fell into one conversation with a handsome cigarette-smoking throwback to the 1930’s, complete with aviator scarf. He asked about our trip and I explained that we were in a small group touring the country for three weeks. He responded slightly ruefully, “I’ll bet your vehicle is all comfortable and air conditioned, isn’t it?” I agreed that it was, and observed that though it might be a lot less romantic than their means of travel, it did have its virtues.

The rally cars, about a dozen of them, went roaring away amidst much din and exhaust smoke and adjusting of goggles, and we pulled out rather less dramatically a few minutes later. Not far out of town we passed the two largest movie studios, both set back from road and both marked at roadside by very retro-looking movie scene clap-boards (or wherever those things are called):

This particular studio was in a compound that included a hotel, surrounded by an adobe wall and gate that was guarded by giant Egyptian statues that I assume were left over from one or another movie. You can see them here (though not very well since the studio was a ways off the road). Notice the scenic Atlas Mountains in the background; this whole country is one giant movie set.

The movie industry brings in something like $100 million per year into Morocco’s economy, much of it spent in the Ouarzazate region, which as a consequence sports a lot of very modern looking apartment buildings, wide streets, and of course our hotel. Morocco is an attractive place to film a movie: the weather is pretty reliable, labor costs are low, and if you need a lot of extras for (say) a battle scene, you can rent the Moroccan army. Yes! This is true! I have no idea how much it costs to rent the Moroccan army — I assume they charge per soldier — but you have to agree that it opens up a world of possibilities.

We didn’t have enough cash with us to rent the army, so we continued driving for another hour or so until we reached the hilltop village called Ksar Ait Ben Haddou. The ksar is a fortress-like warren perched on a hilltop overlooking the town across a nearly dry river, otherwise surrounded by desert. It makes for quite the panoramic view from the top, as you can see in the two photos below. 

The ksar as seen from town


…and the other way around.

It took a couple hundred steps to get to the top, but the view was worth it. When we finally did reach the summit, we were serenaded by a beggar playing a stringed instrument with a haunting, almost Asiatic melody, a perfect background to the view.

Berber families have occupied the ksar since 11the century. It can hold 20 families but there are only only seven there now. Vendors line the narrow twisting, uneven, up-and-down streets, selling drawings and paintings of the ksar, movie-related postcards, and assorted merchandise — clothing, knives, musical instruments — that unlike in the northern part of the country have a strong sub-Saharan theme. These include the instruments and castanets that we had seen the Sudanese Berbers play.

We spent most of the rest of the day driving….slowly. In order to get to Marrakech we had to once again cross the High Atlas Mountains, the road being tortuous in the extreme and sometimes more than a little scary both for its extreme narrowness and for the occasional gaps in the guardrails. The narrowness in particular seems like a an act of extreme traffic engineering insanity; passing an oncoming bus on a tight curve involved clearances of inches, a very small distance indeed especially when compared to the several hundred foot drop that awaits you if you get it wrong. Here’s a view of the terrain, not far from the 7400′ (2260 m) crest of the road at Tichka Pass.

At one point we faced a truck in what can only be called a Moroccan Standoff since the road was clearly not wide enough for both. The problem was solved by the truck driver folding in his outside mirror and innnnnchhhhhhing forward, oh so slowly, and squeezing past us with perhaps two inches of clearance.

We arrived in Marrakech around 5PM, cruising past golf courses and expensive hotels — there is clearly a lot of investment going on here, and more of a sense of both money and Westernization than in most places we have seen in the country. But it is very unevenly distributed, as you might expect; our lodging, a very beautiful riad, is located on a rather seamy looking side street about halfway between the royal palace and Marrakech’s famous souk, known for its 5000 shops and 500,000 pickpockets.

We’re a straight 5 minute walk from the main square outside the souk, and so Momo matched us there for dinner on the street. I’ll post some pictures of it tomorrow, but it was an extraordinary sight, an utter madhouse of people and food stands and smoke and beggars and street performers. It is energetic in the extreme, an overwhelming cacophony of shouting and smells, and getting variously bumped into by people or brushed by motorcycles. It’s a vast plain of Third World free enterprise, a cauldron of people buying, selling, begging, stealing, cooking, eating, strolling, dancing, playing, and probably a whole lot else that I never even saw.

Momo led us to a favorite food stand (number 55, if you happen to be in the area), known to be honest and acceptably hygienic. We crowded onto benches under the open air tent, sandwiched among the other crowded stands, and had quite a good meal — kabobs, couscous, tagine, etc — for about eight bucks a person including tip. There were other kinds of food at other stands — escargot seems to be popular — as well as fruit places, and hijabi women pushing around desert carts loaded with cookies and baklava-type sweets. It was, in short, total sensory overload, and we had a grand time. More tomorrow!

Categories: Africa, Morocco | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Viva Italia: Where the Pasta is Prologue

Having now fully recovered from last October’s sojourn to the bottom of the world, we are about to turn our attention to a (literally) more classical destination: Italy.

We depart on Wednesday, April 15, for a three week ramble through northern Italy. Most of the trip will be in four regions (see map): Veneto (since we are starting in Venice), Lombardy, Emilia Romagna, and northern Tuscany. We’ll only go about as far south as Florence and Pisa, which you can see on the map. A bit northwest of Pisa along the coast is the town of La Spezia, which is one of our major destinations since it is the jumping-off point for the famous Cinque Terre hiking region.

Why Italy? Since our travel proclivities seem to run along the lines of Botswana and Patagonia, you might ask, isn’t Italy a little….pedestrian? To which we can only reply: “C’mon, it’s Italy!” Both of us have been to the country a number of times — Alice spent ten weeks there as a visiting mathematics professor many years ago — but we have never explored these regions very much. And neither of us has ever been to Venice, an egregious oversight that we will now correct. Moreover, while we enjoyed eating warthog and pan-fried insect grubs well enough, generally speaking Italian cuisine carries just a tad more appeal than Zimbabwean. We did not much worry about gaining weight in Africa or South America; on this trip it’s pretty much a given.

2014-08-01 17_29_26-Italy Driving Trip 2

If the route were simple, it wouldn’t be our trip.

Our first five days will be in Venice, after which we pick up a rental car and follow the route shown in the second image. And now you know that this is really us making the trip, since the route is far too complicated for any rational travelers to undertake. In truth it is not quite as crazy as it looks; we will only be driving every few days, with few-day stays at “hubs” like Verona from which we will make driving and walking day trips.

We will not be alone on this trip, nor will we be in a 16-person group as we were in Africa and South America. Rather, we will be with another couple, our friends Jim and Elaine. Jim and I know each other from NASA, from which he retired a number of years ago, and we have all become quite good friends since discovering ten years ago that they lived only a few minutes from us. They are also one of the very few couples we know — my parents being about the only other one — that have traveled to even more places than we have.

As usual I will be posting my travel journal interspersed with some of my photos (Jim is also an avid photographer). So stay tuned and, as they say over there, “Ciao bella! Dolce Gabbana!” Which means, “Say goodbye to all your money if you buy this designer handbag.”

 

 

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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