Sunday, September 25, 2011

Bad vacation choices...

When your camping trip ends with you spending two years in an Iranian prison, I think it is safe to say that you made a poor vacation choice.  While we are all glad that Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer have been "released" and are now back home - and let's be clear that, all political posturing aside, they were ransomed, plain and simple - we should not forget that these two were in prison because they decided to go backpacking in Iraq, close to the Iranian border.  What the hell?  Did these two mouthbreathers grow up on Planet Pollyanna?

In truth, bad vacation choices, like Josh and Shane's, are made all the time and I am tempted to start up an annual award for the worst vacation choice.  But first, what constitutes a "bad" vacation choice?  Let's rule out vacations that are ruined by force majeure - or acts of God, if you will.  For example, a vacation in Thailand is not necessarily a bad choice, even though vacationing on the Thai coast on December 26, 2004 ended up being an egregiously bad idea.  Let's also rule out vacations ruined by the unknown and people who deliberately put themselves in harm's way.  Case in point, the Farralon Islands, off the coast of California, were discovered to be the home of one of the largest great white shark populations in the world when a tour boat full of divers suddenly realized that there were a lot fewer divers getting back into the boat than had initially jumped off.  It's hard to say this was a bad vacation choice - unlucky, to be sure - because none of the divers realized they were serving themselves up for a sharks' buffet.  Nowadays, however, anyone diving near the Farralons is clearly in the "thrillseeker" category.  So, for the purposes of discussion, a "bad" vacation choice will be one where a reasonable man would look at the situation and say, "That's not just foolish, it is borderline insane." and when I say, "reasonable man" I mean, me.

Without further ado, here are some recent examples:

Hendri Coetzee - Kayaking on the crocodile-infested Lukuga River in the Congo.  What could possibly go wrong?  Well, getting eaten by a crocodile kind of comes to mind...which is exactly what happened to "legendary" kayaker and adventure guide, Hendri Coetzee.

Bicycle touring in Lebanon - Most people would hesitate to tour Lebanon in an M-1 tank, let alone on a bicycle, but a bicycle tour of Lebanon's Bekka Valley seemed like a good idea to seven Estonians who subsequently were - wait for it - abducted by armed gunmen.

Pleasure boating in pirate-infested waters - You have a sailboat.  Don't you just want to stay far, far away from the Pirate World Headquarters, also known as Somalia?  Apparently not, since Somali pirates have captured private yachts sailing off the Somali coast, not once, but twice in the past few years.  The first was a British couple who were held hostage for over a year and were released for a $1 million ransom...and the pirates kept their boat.  The second was a yacht with four Americans, who the pirates killed before the Navy could mount a rescue attempt.  Just so.

Any vacation anywhere near Somalia - An exotic safari at a luxury resort in Kenya.  What could be better?  Well, almost anything, as it turns out...if that luxury resort happens to be near the freaking border of Somalia!!  Per the BBC story, "Tourist resorts have not been targeted before but the site is near Somalia and Somali pirates could be involved."  Ya think?

Dances with polar bears - I've written about this before.  Camping when there is nothing between you and a hungry polar bear but a few layers of ballistic nylon?  Bad idea.  But this is not just the case in the Great White North; right here in the western U.S. of A., grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park have started gobbling up tourists like they were pick-i-nick baskets with legs.  Yeah, I know you're thinking, "Damn! That's scary.  Next time I go to Yellowstone, I'll be packing heat."  Let me make a few points here.  First, it may not be entirely legal for you to have a firearm in a national park.  Second, if you worry at all about the previous point, what part of "concealed carry" are you not understanding?  But, finally and most importantly, even having a gun probably won't help, as this particular "feel good" article points out.

Any place Paul Theroux has written about - This man is a gifted writer and a ruthlessly adventuresome traveler, but he also seems to live a charmed life in that he has traveled through some of the most lawless parts of the world and has never had anything really bad happen to him.  I suspect that there are few other people who would be that lucky.  My advice?  Let Theroux make the bad vacation choice and then you can read about it.  A couple of his more recent books I would very much recommend are Dark Star Safari and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.

This is my current list of bad vacation choices I don't doubt that there will be further additions as the year progresses.  Your nominations for what I plan to call the Hendri Coetzee Memorial Bad Vacation Award are also welcome.

UPDATE: Our two intrepid ex-Iranian prisoners, nee' carefree hikers, held a press conference today wherein they announced that they were held by the Iranians for two years purely because they were Americans.  Wow.  That is exactly the kind of deep thinking I would expect of anyone who plans a vacation in northern Iraq.  Holy crap, Skippy, where have you been for the past 20 years?  Did you think the Iranians were going to give you a big, wet kiss when you wandered into their country?  A little bit, I am beginning to think that the Iranians really had these guys in protective custody because they recognized that any Americans hiking in northern Iraq were clearly too stupid to walk around without supervision.

Saturday, September 17, 2011 a luggage problem.

This scene from Joe vs. The Volcano captures the dilemma all frequent travelers face: Getting your stuff from Point A to Point B.  As the luggage salesman says, "Out there, it's just you and your luggage."  Overnight trips aren't a problem...throw a shirt, underwear, and socks in the Adventure Bag and I'm good to go.  Two to three day trips are equally trouble-free...extra clothes in a small, carry-on bag and the Adventure Bag with its usual collection of gear suffices nicely.

Now, when I say small, carry-on bag, I really mean a small bag that I physically pick up and carry on the airplane...and "small" means it takes up about a quarter of an overhead bin.  This, I recognize, is in marked contrast to the three other major classes of "carry-on" luggage: backpacks, shopping bags, and wheelie bags.  I accept day packs as perfectly legitimate carry-on luggage and have, on occasion, resorted to using one.  However, to men who travel wearing a suit and a back pack: "Buy yourself some 'big boy' luggage and grow up."  Also note that I specify "day pack" here.  See that overhead bin, Sparky?  Only a third of it is yours.  The rest belongs to your two seat mates.  They may choose to use it or not.  That is their prerogative as a fellow passenger.  Don't presume to make the decision for them by being a selfish asshole and throwing your big-ass piece of luggage up there.

Shopping bags are an unfortunate, but sometimes necessary, piece of carry-on luggage.  However, I have to say that if you find yourself using plastic grocery bags as carry-ons on even a semi-regular basis, you really need to rethink your travel strategy.

Wheelie bags.  Wheelie bags are one of the most diabolical evils ever foisted upon the traveling public...and, like most diabolical evils, it, at first, seemed to be a good thing.  A bag, with wheels and a handle, that you wouldn't have to carry, just pull behind you like a grown-up version of a little red wagon.  What could be better?  Why nothing, nothing at all...until you have a plane full of people trying to maneuver their bloated wheelies down a narrow 757 aisle and heft them up and stuff them into an overhead bin.  The GI's in World War II presciently invented the word "blivet" to describe this situation...and men, if you are young and in good health, and I see you trotting down a concourse with a little wheelie carry-on bag trailing behind you....well, let's just say that I have to assume you are flying off to see a Cher concert and your wheelie contains your "in-drag" costume.  Man up, bro.

Having said all this, on extended trips when I have to check luggage, for years, my "go-to" bag has been a Land's End duffel that has served me long and well:

I have survived for multiple weeks out of the contents of this bag...and had enough extra room to pack trinkets for family members for the return trip (Attention female relations: Those Prada bags you're sporting around came back from Shanghai in this bag).  But there's a problem here.  After a few trips of lugging this bag through the Frankfurt airport through tunnels like this:

I realized, like Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, that I was getting too old for this shit.  I needed to trade in my old faithful duffel for a wheelie bag that I could check  in.  Let me stress that this, given my tirade about wheelies earlier, would only be for luggage that I have to check, because whenever I cannot carry - as in hold in my hands - my carry-on luggage onto a plane, that will be a signal that I need to stay home sitting in my rocker wrapped in a shawl. Either that, or start going "dress-up" to Bett Midler concerts.

So, after having just lugged my Land's End duffel through the Honolulu airport, I decided I needed to buy a wheelie bag I could check.  After doing a lot of research, I've decided on this one, (Click on the "fit1" picture) because sometimes, the redhead likes to travel with me.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Botanical Darwinism... the oleander that grows by the Fortress of Solitude.  It's really pretty bad-assed.  I recognize that bad-assery is not normally a quality that one ascribes to plants, but let's recap:  The Fortress of Solitude is in the middle of the Mojave Desert, no rain to speak off, hotter than Satan's sauna in the summer, and what passes for "soil" here is a mixture of powdered gypsum and lime.  It's not very plant-friendly and yet, here is this giant oleander that gets no attention from me outside of my checking, once a year, that my drip system is not giving it anymore water than it deserves, which isn't very much because I'm a cheap bastard.  Not only does it survive, it thrives.

Three years ago, I embarked on a major trimming of this bad boy.  I was not gentle.  There was a chainsaw, a Sawzall with a 12 inch branch trimming blade - there's a horror movie right there, and every other sawing, cutting, and snipping device imaginable involved.  At the end of two days, I had hauled three truckloads of dismembered oleander parts away.  Did it care?  No.  It just kept sprouting and growing.

The oleander is actually four separate plants and, two years ago, in what we now refer to as the Unfortunate Water Softener Incident, the two plants on the left of the picture above were subjected to a flood of brine.  It killed them.  Dead.  Dead as a plant can get.  Leaves wilted, dried up and dropped, leaving nothing but a bunch of naked sticks sticking up, like a giant's wienie roast gone wrong.  Nothing to do, I thought, but grab the chainsaw, cut this all out and start over.

But, it turns out, salt to an oleander is like cobra venom to a honey badger.  It doesn't kill, it just turns the oleander into a sleepy fuck for a while.  Three weeks later, I noticed new sprouts on the stumps and, now, look at the picture above.  Can you tell the difference between the two plants on the left and the two plants on the right?  No.  No, you can't, because the oleander just doesn't give a shit what you do or don't do to it.  God forbid, I should ever fertilize this son of a bitch.

Having been convinced of the invincibility of the oleander, we've come to terms with the beast.  A couple of times a year, I trim the big guy to a) keep the homeowner's association busy bodies out of my hair, b) let the neighbors keep their view of the Strip, and c) allow me to open my back gate.  In turn, the oleander provides an effective screen that prevents passers-by from observing what's going on in my back yard as well as supplying biomass.  Lots and lots of biomass.  In the past 6 months, I've dumped something like twenty 30-gallon barrels of oleander trimmings onto my compost pile, which is a good thing.

But still...
Here's a close up of Mr. Oleander.  The light green stuff you're seeing is what has grown since I trimmed it back last week.  It's like the bastard is almost defying me.

All I can say to that is, "How about a little FIRE, Scarecrow??"