3-2-1-Liftoff

No matter how many times I hear “3-2-1-liftoff” it is always exciting (and suspenseful)  to witness a missile launch.  Just a few days ago tourists and locals had gathered at 4th Street South in Cocoa Beach to watch the newest SpaceX Falcon 9 launch and my family and I were among them.  Liftoff was scheduled for 10:21 a.m. and the launch window was brief.  If it failed to launch, the second chance would not be until the next day.

4th Street South, Cocoa Beach.  (Photographed a day after the launch.)
4th Street South, Cocoa Beach. (Photographed a day after the launch.)

3-2-1-Liftoff!

As the morning sun beat down on us, we listened to my dad’s short wave radio that kept us up to date on the pre-launch news and countdown.  Soon we heard “3-2-1- liftoff”   Success!

Waiting for SpaceX Falcon 9 launch!
Waiting for SpaceX Falcon 9 launch!

We could clearly see the white missile slowly lift up, with its massive bright yellow flame beneath it.  It was picture perfect against the sky blue sky. It seemed there was only one cloud in the sky, and the Falcon disappeared for a moment as it pierced that cloud and continued to win against earth’s gravity. Northerly wind blew away from us, so we couldn’t enjoy the thunderous roar of the engines. Nevertheless, I still felt awed.

Binoculars would have been helpful for a moment, but having grown up watching launches seemingly all the time – and thus having lots and lots of viewing experience –  I chose not to use them.  Then puff, a lot of white stuff billowed out – like a halo – from the missile and while it looked different,  I assumed it was just a different type of stage separation; after all, it was my first Falcon 9 launch!  We turned our backs and headed home.

Ooops…

A few minutes later,  we watched the replay on NASA TV which was eerily quiet. Eventually the commentator explained there had been a launch failure at the 2:19 mark, and it dawned on us that we had seen the explosion but from our 12 mile vantage point, we had misdiagnosed the big white puff.  Ooops.

We wish the SpaceX team great success both in solving the problems that occurred and for all future launches.  Success does not exist without failure, so onwards!  And next time, I’ll use binoculars.

 

Cool Kathmandu (Before the Earthquakes)

My first memory of the word Kathmandu came from a Bob Segar song playing on the radio in 1977.  “I think I’m goin’ to Kat-man-du”  he shouted, I mean sang….I couldn’t have known then that one day I actually would visit Kathmandu many times during a month-long visit to Nepal.

Thamel is a touristy area in Kathmandu, and brick, dirt, and broken pavement form the streets.  The streets seem the right width to handle one-way traffic only, but traffic flows both ways.  Somehow all the bikes, rickshaws, motorcycles, taxi cars, trekkers’ vans and pedestrians share the roads.

As a pedestrian…

I quickly noticed the lack of street signs and so I memorized various buildings and landmarks to learn the lay of the land.  While I’m a lover a maps, sometimes it is simply a richer experience to explore without assistance.   And I’m not sure maps would have been that helpful anyway!

On one street corner I saw a one-hour laundry, and I nicknamed another “the Gurkha knife corner”.  That nickname would later be a mistake because the street vendor who sold the Gurkha knives was not always there! The Barnes and Noble corner was an unfortunate landmark because I prefer to see local, not American, businesses in foreign lands.

Intersection near Old Tibet Road, Kathmandu, Nepal
Intersection near Old Tibet Road, Kathmandu, Nepal

It was still daylight when I first saw Old Tibet Road.  Someone told me that people used to just “walk down that road to get to Tibet”, hence the obvious name, but I don’t know if the name was official or not.  Old Tibet Road had hundreds of fantastic shops and street vendors.  Cows, chickens, mangy dogs and dirty children roamed and people hawked colorful spices and beautiful handicrafts.  I knew I would have to return to explore more of the exciting street activity. This place was cool!

  • Vendors selling spices BEFORE...

When I returned about 8:30 later that night, a mass exodus of vendors was in progress as they were breaking down their stalls and going home for the night.  Such hustle and bustle. The stalls reminded me of trade show booths, each reserved as a space from which to display and sell one’s widgets.  Vendors left trash and food scraps in the road.  Meandering cows ate the cabbage scraps.  Children warmed their hands over a small burning pile of trash in the street.  Streets became dark without street lights.

Warming her hands in Durbar Square, near Old Tibet Road, Kathmandu
Warming her hands in Durbar Square, near Old Tibet Road, Kathmandu

People were very friendly and I felt very safe, even though it was obvious my friend and I were not Nepalese.   A group of about twenty men, sitting on a small ground level stage area, played musical instruments and sang.  I smiled and gestured with my camera and they readily allowed me to photograph them.  Others volunteered to pose for a picture, and at times beggars or sellers of hashish  followed me.  I learned that by looking them square in the eye, smiling, and saying “Namaste,” they would wander off.

Musicians performing and "story telling" in a Kathmandu disco
Musicians performing and “story telling” in a Kathmandu disco

Some buildings that looked like apartments did not have glass in the window openings. Dozens of black telephone and electrical wires hung from balconies and wood or metal poles, and I did my best to not walk underneath them.   I removed my shoes explored an ancient, plain Hindu shrine, where one man removed flowers for the night and another sat cross-legged on the ground and prayed.

Since all the people had scattered and it really was too dark to see much, I wandered into a Nepalese disco at the UPS corner.  I enjoyed a cold “Mt Everest” beer (my favorite) while I watched two costumed dancers and five musicians perform ‘story telling’ on a small stage.  Only men danced on the dance floor, and occasionally a single man would dance alone, with easy, graceful rhythmic swaying.

Back at Hotel Vaishali, the electricity was partially down so I skipped the elevator and climbed three flights to my room.  It had been such an exciting night!  I had spent hours exploring Kathmandu, watching people, glimpsing how they live and simply absorbing the sights and sounds.  My roommate Maryanne was glad to see me and wanted to hear all about my cool Kathmandu adventures.  I had much to share.

Broken Bhaktapur

When I first walked into Durbar Square in Bhaktapur, it was as if I was stepping back in time and into a wholly different world. Paved in worn reddish-brown brick, the large public square was bounded by Hindu temples, historic statues, and brick buildings with dozens of potted plants lining the roofs.   What was most striking was the shape of the roof-line of the temples; the architecture was ancient and awesome.

 

Durbar Square in Bhaktapur
Durbar Square in Bhaktapur

I write “was” because after this week’s massive earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal, much of these architectural gems have probably been destroyed.  I was lucky enough to have visited several years before this earthquake – when a  500-year-old hand-carved wood Peacock window was well-preserved, and grass actually grew on some unkempt ancient temple roofs.

Hand carved peacock window - hundreds of years old
Hand carved peacock window – hundreds of years old

Children skipped along to play in Durbar Square and they helped me to buy tomatoes.  They tracked me down when they discovered that earlier I had accidentally given one of them a useless Thai baht instead of valued, and needed, Nepalese rupees.  After the earthquake…well, I can’t imagine the temples and statues remain, nor can I imagine children playing in the courtyard.  Bhaktapur is probably broken.

Bhairavnath Temple, Bhaktapur - grass grows on the roofs
Bhairavnath Temple, Bhaktapur – grass grows on the roofs
Vendors selling in Durbar Square, Bhaktapur, Nepal
Vendors selling in Durbar Square, Bhaktapur, Nepal

In the middle of the square, dozens of vendors had laid large cloths and tarps on the ground.  They spread out their fruits, vegetables, and hand carved wood objects and tried to sell to anyone who wandered by.  Many had metal scales and weights for measuring the food they would sell.  We Westerners would call the scales old-fashioned, but hey, they didn’t need electricity or batteries to make the scales function!

Nyatapola Temple, Durbar Square in Bhaktapur
Nyatapola Temple, Durbar Square in Bhaktapur

To this day, Bhaktapur remains one of my all-time favorite travel memories.  Having not read anything about this small city in Kathmandu Valley before I visited, I had zero preconceptions and thus each sight and sound was unexpected and captivating.  I could not get enough of it. I wanted more, but I had to leave.  It’s the kind of place where, for days on end, you want to alternate wandering down each narrow lane with sitting in the square absorbing the simplicity of life.

Happy school children riding atop a tractor, Bhaktapur, Nepal
Happy school children riding atop a tractor, Bhaktapur, Nepal

My last photograph of the day shows grinning school children, still dressed in their uniforms, riding on a tractor down a narrow lane.  Rather than the current headlining pictures of the earthquake ravaged Nepal, I prefer my own memories and pictures.

 

Fifty Shades of Green

Fifty shades of green.  Go ahead, wrap your head around that and you’ll be surprised how many shades you will recognize. Kelly green, spinach green, hospital green, milky green, pistachio green and fern green, for example.  They say the human eye can see 10 million colors, and while fifty shades don’t seem to make a dent in that, the variety and depth of color that you see when traveling through African countries on safari is simply beautiful.  There is nothing quite like it.

Pine green, apple green, sagebrush green, dusty green, emerald green, birds nest green and safari green: recognize those?   Perched up on a hill overlooking the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe is a perfect safari lodge, Imbabala Safari Lodge.  From there, you can see and feel all those shades of green.   The lodge comprises about a dozen bungalows, a swimming pool and a main open-air bungalow for cocktails and dining, and from there, looking out over the Zambezi is spectacular.  The river winds, hippos blare, crocodiles lurk.  Where the green shrubs meet the water’s edge, animals hide.

Floating along the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe (Imbabala Safari Lodge)
Floating along the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe (Imbabala Safari Lodge)

Greens of blue, amber, green tea, lily, ice, pastel, golf, laurel, slate, peacock and lime:  Shades of green continue westward in Botswana, where floating along in a pontoon on the Chobe River brings you up close and personal with the animals, flora and fauna. Wide, flat, endless riverbanks flank the Chobe and birds abound.  Here, Southern carmine bee eaters (birds) sport vibrant turquoise green crowns.

Southern Carmine Bee Eater Botswana
A Southern carmine bee eater, basking in the sun. Chobe River, Botswana.

Meadow green, golden green, paradise green, bronze green, green bean green, palm green, olive green, and chartreuse green.  The colors in Kruger National Park in South Africa are rich indeed.  Around every curve of a road, each new vista is unique and full of color, and shades of green, of course.  Roads in Kruger are varied; some are paved, some are soft light colored sand, and others are hard packed red dirt.  I was particularly in awe of the views where the vibrant greens met the dry red dirt (or sometimes the wet red mud!).  Would an artist be able to capture all the colors?  A European roller is a favorite bird with its royal green and turquoise feathers.

European roller, Kruger National Park, South Africa
European roller, Kruger National Park, South Africa
Fifty shades of green.
Grass is always greener, at least in Kruger National Park, South Arica

Granite green, lettuce green, dark green, gumdrop green, hunter green, light green, moss green and yellow green.   In The Kingdom of Swaziland, the world’s second largest monolith is surrounded by bush, shrubs, grass and trees.  While Sibebe Rock is about 3 billion years old, the plants obviously are not.  Have these fifty shades of green, along with the other millions of color, been around for that long?

Grey, banana, jasmine, balsam, Irish, jade, sea, vibrant, asparagus and holly greens: just a few more shades.  Recognize any?  They all blend naturally and beautifully together.  When cruising through national parks in Southern Africa, I can’t help but feel like I am surrounded by fifty shades of green.   At least fifty.  The colors are different over there.  Go see for yourself.

Ivories in Atlanta

Passengers banging suitcases into walls as they race to their gate, a child crying because her liquid filled snow globe souvenir was confiscated by a TSA Agent, and metal chair legs scraping across floors in a food court are some typical sounds anyone hears when passing through any airport.

On a recent flight to South Carolina, I changed planes in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest airport.  My flight was early, but there wasn’t enough time to take an earlier connecting flight. So, I wandered around and found a nice (read: quiet, clean, and not jam packed with travelers) food court and a reasonably healthy meal.  A decent looking fake flower (silk) in a small white vase decorated my table for one.

Within minutes I heard a beautiful tune; a musician was playing the shiny black baby grand piano right in the middle of the concourse.  And, wow, could he play!  He tickled those ivories just like in the movies, and I melted away.  I felt like I should be enjoying a full-bodied glass of red wine curled up on a plush velvet couch in the corner of a small wine bar.

I recognized several of the songs he played, including As Time Goes By (Casablanca), In Your Own Sweet Way (Dave Brubeck) and Just the Way You Are (Billy Joel).    The music was such an unexpected treat, and it was easy to see other travelers enjoying the moment as well.

Tickling the Ivories in Atlanta
Louis Heriveaux – Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport

It was obvious he could play by ear and that he had the gift; you know, where a musician can stroke a few keys, figure out what will feel good and then lets ‘em rip.  Travelers stopped to compliment him, and some placed a few dollars in his tip tray.  Louis Heriveaux (www.louisheriveaux.com) was the pianist, and he also composes and produces music.

Next time you’re transiting an airport, just stop, sit for a while and watch and listen – I mean really listen – to all that’s going on around you.  If you’re in Hartsfield-Jackson (Concourse E) on a Tuesday, listen for Louis  playing the ivories.  You may just find the sounds you hear are real music to your ears!

My Little Big Rig

When I was little, I wanted to be many things when I grew up but being a truck driver was not one of them.  Yet, now I can call myself a truck driver.  Kind of.

January 1 seemed an auspicious day to pick up and load my rental truck – my little big rig – for a cross country journey.  After 30 minutes of paperwork, instruction, shopping for ratchet straps and making payments at my local Home Depot, I was handed a single silver key to my truck. Glad to have two strong arms, I hoisted myself up into driver’s seat, slid behind the wheel, and cranked the engine.  Across the parking lot I rolled, 7 miles an hour. It was going to be a long drive.

At oh dark thirty the next morning, fog met me in the driveway and I discovered the wiper blades were in great shape.  I cautiously reversed out of the driveway, and headed for the turnpike.  My truck hugged the right lane, and I was humored that I was quite comfortable cruising along 5 miles under the speed limit.  The headlights worked, my brain didn’t yet need the distraction of a radio and my seat was reasonably comfy.  It was still going to be a long drive.

  • Donna at the helm of the little big rig
    My own little big rig

Soon I needed to pass an even slower vehicle in front of me. I took several minutes to fully assess the lane to my left; I had no rear view mirror and I had to get used to the two-part mirror on my driver’s door.  While the huge mirror reflected much, it was the small mirror that filled in the blind spot.  Finally I was confident I could switch lanes so I drifted to my left.  It worked!  No one was hurt and I didn’t cause an accident!  I passed the slower vehicle, waited another mile or so and drifted back to the right lane.    Out of nowhere, a full sized 18-wheeler blew past me on my left.    With limited peripheral vision, it was impossible to see or sense other vehicles approaching from behind, until they were right next to me.  Over the next four days and 2,000 miles, I would never became accustomed to that.

The driver of the next huge truck to pass me actually slowed down to drive side by side, shoulder to shoulder, axel to axel.  I glanced to my left:  oh, my gosh, I was eye level with a truck driver in an 18-wheeler!  Gulp.  I cruised on, remaining in the right lane, in my own little big rig…until the sign by the Florida Agriculture Inspection Station commanded that “all trucks stop”.  Sure, I was in a truck, but my 16-footer only had 6 wheels.  Did that mean I was actually driving a real truck?

I pulled in to the Inspection Station and smiled at the guard, asking “am I supposed to be here?”  He replied in the affirmative, asked a few questions, and when he learned I was headed to Colorado, his colleague was inclined (happy?) to inspect my cargo.  I started to make a joke about a certain kind of plant that is legally grown in Colorado, but stopped before I planted any seeds.  No pun intended.   I hopped out of my cab, unlocked the back and rolled up the door.  (I had one of those fancy combination locks that 7th graders use on their school lockers.)  After a bit more than a cursory examination, the inspector approved my cargo and I was free to go.   Three state borders, five hundred miles and a couple of pit stops later, I pulled into a hotel in Mississippi.  It had a small parking lot.

Throughout Florida, Alabama and even half way across Mississippi, I had carefully analyzed all the ingresses and egresses of gas stations, driveways, parking lots, and so on, but at the hotel I couldn’t be bothered.  It was dark, it was raining, and I was very tired.  And my GPS had been providing bad intel, so I was cranky too.  I ignored the “no trucks allowed” sign, parked incorrectly and chatted up the front desk clerk.  Turned out that my little big rig was allowed after all, and the clerk showed me a perfect spot for the truck to spend the night.

At dawn I fired up the ignition and began the 2nd leg of my journey driving through drizzling rain for 400 of the next 500 miles.  I now had at least 12 hours experience and my journey was going well except I wanted for one thing:  a tall semi-dry cappuccino from Starbucks.  Try to find a Starbucks in Mississippi that you can see from the Interstate; it isn’t going to happen.  I finally drove into the city of Jackson, sans peripheral vision, and got my fix.

At the end of the day, it was such a treat to arrive at long-time friends’ home near Dallas and to have a good conversation, a hot meal, and an adult beverage waiting for me.  Ahhhh….Marty volunteered to ride (and drive!) with me for the next and last 1,000 miles.  Being able to share driving and chat along the miles would be luxurious.  Marty confirmed we would spend the entire next day driving only in Texas and before she took the wheel, I gave driving lessons in a large parking lot at a gas station in the middle of somewhere.

We alternated driving every few hours, had contests to find the cheapest gas ($1.73 a gallon!), and learned that our auxiliary cable to the stereo didn’t work.   Our massive dashboard stored our collection of water bottles, snacks, and iPhones.  We finally stopped for dinner and a hotel close to the border, still in Texas of course.  An ice storm had wreaked havoc on the small town of Dumas, and muscling the little big rig across icy parking lots was challenging.  In the freezing rain, we still opted to drive 100 yards to go out for dinner.  Back at the hotel, we parked and re-parked the truck four times until we were satisfied we would have an easy exit in the morning.

The fourth day was Home Stretch Day.  Winds in New Mexico and Colorado were fierce, and rattled the sides of the truck.  They decreased the mileage from 10 to 8.5 mpg.  Oh well.    Eighteen wheelers continued to pass me, and I am now more in awe of the great skill required to maneuver one of those big rigs; I say steer clear when you share the road with one.   Truck drivers have their hands full – and they are bigger than our normal civilian cars – so let them have the space to drive.   I rediscovered that it is a lot easier to see and absorb America the Beautiful as a passenger; somehow as a driver it is too easy to ignore the scenery.  It was fun to see snow on the ground next to the sunny yellow New Mexico border sign, and the rugged Rockies were magnificent as we paralleled them for hours.

One of many border crossings...
One of many border crossings…

We finished the journey and safely parked the little big rig our destination, north of Denver, in time for another home cooked meal.  It still took a day or so to unload and return the truck, but wow, what a ride!

Top 10 Airport Observations

Like many other millions of Americans, I spent part of my Thanksgiving holiday at one of our nation’s busiest airports.    My journey to gate A24 in Denver International Airport was easy breezy, due in part to traveling with just a small carry-on and also to only having 12 people in front of me in the security line.  These stress-free moments gave me ample opportunity to form my Top Ten Airport Observations.  In no particular order, they are:

  1. Why are there so many luggage stores IN an airport? Don’t most travelers arrive at the airport already with their own suitcase?
  2. An easy way to annoy passengers is to demand that many in the gate area who have carry-ons must check them at the gate because the overhead bins onboard are guaranteed to be over flowing…and come to find out, the overhead bins are only a third full, and there is enough room in them to actually stash a few extra stand-by passengers (if only the Federal Aviation Authority would allow it).
  3. Some people think it is okay to lay down in the middle of the floor while they wait for their flight. See photo below.

    Some people think it's okay to lay down on the floor near their departure gate.
    Some people think it’s okay to lay down on the floor near their departure gate.
  4. Restaurants in a food court often fail to have an exit plan for their customers. While there might be five cashiers waving people over to take their orders and collect payment, but there will be zero opportunities for those same people to exit the chaos.
  5. One can’t help but wonder why there might be four departure gates, all in one corner of a terminal, all within 100 feet of each other. It was very understandable that people for the Phoenix flight were in the Salt Lake City line and some Salt Lake City people were in the Tucson line.   Maybe the airport architects learned that trick from the restaurant architects (see above).
  6. When (out of curiosity) you politely ask a TSA agent why a laptop and a wallet must be placed in separate bins, he won’t explain the WHY. He will answer you by simply repeating the WHAT.
  7. The hand driers in restrooms are ear-splitting loud. Does the perceived need for supersonic fast hand-drying cause this?
  8. A friendly smile and a “hello, how is your busy day going for you?” comment to an airline attendant or TSA agent goes a long way. Most of them will even smile back.
  9. The sharpest looking traveler does not wear baggy, worn athletic clothing and tennis shoes. He wears a sharp leather jacket, crisp jeans and polished shoes and he has his personal items neatly tucked into his small and manageable carry-on.
  10. The tackiest traveling tourist carries souvenirs and junk in plastic bags. Oh, wait!  Maybe it is these people who comprise the target market for the above-mentioned luggage stores (see Item 1).

Happy Thanksgiving and safe travels!

Not all who wander are lost

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