Sunday, August 23, 2009

A Visit to St. Augustine.

Friday, August 31, 2007

I cruised down to St. Augustine, I drove through it on the famous route A1A. For those unfamiliar, route A1A a north/south local route that runs Atlantic coast of Florida. It is the local version of US 1, the famous north/south highway that runs from Maine in the north and ends in Key West, Florida. It meanders through Miami Beach, Daytona Beach, Ft. Lauderdale and at Cape Canaveral, it leads to NASA installations.

I drove from Jacksonville to follow A1A because I knew, A1A would drive down the coast and I was hoping to see some seashore views. I drove down early Saturday morning with very little traffic. It was late enough in the morning that I missed the sunrise, that would have meant my waking at 4am to drive down to the beach, something I had no intention of doing.

I drove down and watched the road turn from a 4 lane divided highway to a single two lane road that hugged the coast. I saw the houses crowd the seashore, blocking the sea from my view on the road. I was surprised at the small towns that I drove through. I marveled at the front lawns that had sand not grass. The sand covered their sidewalks and lingered on the street.

I stopped at a little sign that said there was beach parking. I was in Pontevedra. The road was lined with tall trees that seemed similar to mangrove trees, but then I'm not a horticulturist. The parking was on the west side of the road and once you parked, you had to cross the road to reach the beach via boardwalk. Once I climbed over the sand dunes, I saw a ribbon of sand that stretched out to the north and south of me. I wished that I had been prepared to spend the day walking up and down that beach. Instead, all I could do was spend a few minutes to admire the view before I continued with my drive.

I drove through and kept driving, following the signs for A1A. Then I noticed another welcome sign for a city I didn't recognized, so I turned around and found that I had driven straight through St. Augustine. I never get lost, I just drive around in circles until I find what I've decided I've been looking for, the minute I find it.

I ended up in the parking lot for Castillo de San Marcos. It's part of our national parks system. I went ahead and paid the $12 to enter the fort. As I arrived one of the park rangers was telling people, very nicely, to get off the edge of the wall. The fort only had a wall that was just tall enough to make a nice ledge to sit on and pose for pictures, which was exactly what some people were doing. Since the fort was 300yrs old and was made of a kind of cement made from the local sand and you could see small sea shells in the wall, it was fragile.

I made it in time for a cannon demonstration. Volunteers were dressed as old soldiers who used to man the fort. They were going to shoot off the cannons, sort of like a daily practice round. It was interesting to see. They go through the proper forms, complete with the “captain” barking instructions in Spanish. They marched in unison and precise step as they left their post to return to the barracks. As the troops were marching out, the captain told someone “…tell that beautiful thing to get off my wall.” I turned to see what he was talking about. The beautiful thing wore a green dress, had auburn hair and big sunglasses, she must have thought she was posing for a magazine...only someone forgot to get a photographer. She had positioned herself directly on top of the wall.

I thought I’d take a nice leisurely drive through St. Augustine to find a nice restaurant on the water. When I had visited Galveston, Texas I had stopped to eat lunch at a restaurant that had an attached dock where boats would just tie themselves up and stop for lunch. It was at the southern end of a bridge and I saw the restaurant from the top of that bridge.

It was great to find another such restaurant just outside of the city limits of St. Augustine on the North River. I had lunch at the Kingfish Grill, it sits on the North River in St. Augustine so as I ate my food, I watched a boat come into the marina as sailboats glided past. The air had the saltwater tang that only comes from the sea. It didn’t sit exactly on the water, the outside deck where I ate was surrounded by sea grass. It was low tide so the water was several yards away. But that saltwater smell is one I always relish and I enjoyed it for the time I had. We don’t have that smell in Chicago and I missed it terribly. But I knew my time was short for storm clouds were heading for me from inland and there was that electric feel in the air as thunder sounded in the distance. I thought how magnificent it would have been to be sitting on a porch watching the storm head out to sea, surrounded by that saltwater smell, then turn around and take a nap on a hammock.

I finished my meal just as small drops started to hit the boardwalk. I then raced the slow moving storm back up north on A1A. As I turned westward back towards my hotel in Jacksonville, I ran straight into the storm. It was beautiful to see the play of lightening. It's only scary when you're driving an unfamiliar car, coming down an unfamiliar bridge, in an unfamiliar land, distracted by the light display.

Letter from Chengde, China

Chengde-Tuesday November 27, 2007.

Chengde was definitely a new geographic location for me, closer to Mongolia and North Korea than Shanghai. Chengde has the Summer Palace. It is cool during the hellacious August heat of Bejing, yet in winter, Chengde is a cranky old city huddling in the cold; all greys, browns and dingy reds.

The Yunshan Hotel is considered a 4star hotel in this small town. It is the best they can offer to their foreign guests. But an American breakfast was included(eggs, toast and bacon) with the price of the room and I was happy.

We arrived around noon, checked in and took about 15minutes before we took off again for the factory. I had spotted a glass door leading outside when I was first shown to my room. So on stolen moments alone, I went exploring to the rooftop area that must be a hustling, hot spot when Chengde swings with tourists in the summer. I found the area startling, because it was green and evoked a secret-garden feeling. Having wandered into it alone, I felt like I'd found out a special secret place. Yet when I leaned over the parapet or stared out the view, the winter greys superceded the garden illusion.

I had spent the night comfortably ensconced in the hard Chinese mattress. But there was a sterility to the room thatcomforted me against the stories of bed bugs, smoky rooms and thin walls. The heat was strong against the winter night, I watched the river slowly freeze. I spent some time hanging my head outside the open window in my room. I was forewarned before this trip that I should expect the windows to be lined with moist towels. It provides the humidifying effects that will otherwise cause a winter nosebleed. It is a dry heat that is so strong, it feels like there is a force field of heat that guards the window against the cold mists. I had a silly thrill of waving my hand back and forth, hot, cold, hot, cold.

In the evening, I was taken to a Mongolian restaurant that sat next to the Summer Palace walls. It was an odd looking arrangement. You walk into a building that looks like any other kind of building and you are greeted with a comfortable reception area. But then you walk through a doorway that takes you back outside. It seemed covered, yet there was no heat for my breath steamed before me. Then we walked along a narrow cement pathway that meandered across a pebbled courtyard. We were brought to a rounded room, styled from the Mongolian yurt. We walked in and a large circular table, synonymous with Chinese eating sat with its lazy susan empty and forlorn.

We walked in and an employee immediately scuttled in and increased the fan on the room heater and started to lay out cups and cutlery. It was comfortably warm and I removed my coat and followed my hosts as we settled in for a traditional Mongolian dinner.

I can’t begin to describe the amount of food nor the different types of food I ate, except to note, that I ate venison that was rolled in a tempura-type coating and sat on a bamboo skewer, it looked like milk chocolate and had a slight chocolate taste. But it was firm and had a texture akin to cornmeal. The other prominent feature was the Chinese vodka that was drunk. It was so strong, it smelled like industrial cleaner. So potent; the shot glass was the size of a thimble. Where my hosts tossed it back with gusto, I sipped hesitantly. Where they clanged their glass against the glass lazy susan with appreciation, I tapped with trepidation. I’ve been know to take shots, I know how to drink strong libation, when asked I still order Russian vodka, but the Chinese version is nothing I’ve ever tasted before. When I risked a full blown swallow, after having only sipped previously, my eyes watered and my throat closed up; in seeming revolt for the assault.

My host voiced his concern, he thought I had eaten something that was too spicy, instead I could barely wave my hands and smile blandly while I tried to recover my breath. Before long, I looked around me and my hosts’ faces were cherry bright.

The other fascinating observation I had was the majority of Mongolian cuisine is meat, meat and more meat. Pork, beef, chicken, mutton, venison, duck; if it walks, it’s eaten. I’m not sure of what all the meat dishes were. But in the afternoon as we drove through the countryside on our way to the factory, I noticed a man walking with his donkey. Assuming it was a beast of burden, I turned to my host, Tony, who nonchalantly told me, before I could even ask; “That’s dinner.” Yes, the memory of that moment flashed a few times during dinner, but I pushed it aside, intent on simply experiencing the evening.

When in Rome, do as the Romans, when in China, become Chinese.

But I demurred when my hosts invited me to go dancing and more drinking, Tony was gracious and escorted me back to my room before he went out with the rest of the men for a night of more baizhuo(sp?), it's pronounced BYE-JOE. Instead, I snuck away to the rooftop garden. At night the scene took on an eerie rose-colored glow, my camera couldn't handle the darkness. But I was soothed, when I'm in a strange, unfamiliar land, I'm comforted in my solitude. It allows me to regain my sense of self and I let the inner dork in me escape without fear of seeming odd. I position my camera to take the pictures, I try to blow smoke rings with my breath, I make clicking noises with my tongue to hear the empty night's echo.

The next morning, I pledged to catch the sunrise in Chengde, it wasn't the best sunrise I've ever seen, but at least there was a sunrise. On my previous trip, I never saw the sun, it was filtered by the extremely strong smog that seems to cover all of China and it badly affected my mood and my throat. I spent most of that previous trip with my tonsils feeling like golf balls. It made things difficult to swallow and my throat felt like it was raw with pain. But that's another post.

It started out a crisp cold Mongolian morning. I awoke before sunrise and ran out to the rooftop garden to catch the sunrise. Some odd romantic idea about sunrises permeate my mornings in new geographic locations. It is settled on a the crook of this small river that stretched out about 500 yards across. At this date, the river has already frozen overnight, still and cloudy in the morning light. The air is thick with frost, the traffic is a quiet hum with a light blush of orange peaking behind the mountain in front of me. Yet what took the eye and grabbed it like a mugging, was a tall, dark, foreboding chimney blasting black bilous smoke into that quiet sky. It is the legacy being left to this country, the stereotype of all the horrible pollution stories written about industrial China. Looking at the picture, I tried my best to disguise the chimney, you can barely see it in one side of my picture, but standing on that rooftop, I found that it ruined any shot of the city.

I spent some time taking pictures of the rooftop garden with the sun quickly illuminating the dark corners from last night. The effects were startling, the garden was inviting and cheery. I could easily imagine visitors strolling around and a little section, about one floor down had tables and chairs, so I could see how nice the place would be in the summer with a meal and drinks.

When I left Chengde, I left with fine memories and a new Chinese name, Gao Le Da, it is supposed to mean, achieving more happiness. My hosts gave me the name in appreciation for my affable nature and my winning smile. You know what they say about first impressions, it’s usually right.

Letters from Beijing

Monday, Nov. 26, 2007
I landed in Beijing last night, it actually felt like a faster trip than I'd ever flown out to the far east. I had found a hotel on the internet, close to the airport was all I wanted. The guys driving me to the factory liked it too because it was close to the airport and we avoided all the Monday morning legendary Beijing traffic.
Sino Swiss Hotel, Japanese and Swiss conglomerate, how could they go wrong I asked myself? Yeah, well, the lobby looked great, but with a "No fly" list, "Do Not Call" list, I've got my 1st entry into the "Do Not Stay" hotel list.
I was on the 7th floor, yet I heard the singers in the lounge back on the 1st floor. The sound wafted through the vents along with hot air, lots of it. So much hot air that I had to open a window so I could breathe. When I opened the window and stuck my head out, I could see my breath, yet it barely staved off the strong dry heat of the hotel.
The air was so bad I woke up at 2am and thought someone had their dog in their room only to realize that it was someone sneezing/coughing at the same time. The reason I know it was a human? Because a few minutes later I heard the distinct sound of someone trying to cough up a phlegm ball and having a hard time.

I checked the mattress for bed bugs, I checked the seams, if there is evidence of them there, then the mattress has got bedbugs. So I slept on top of the beddings, luckily I had brought long sleeve flannel pajamas, the thought of it now, still leaves me itchy.


I only had one bath towel, one hand towel, a bar of soap, 2in1 shampoo and body wash that came out of a screwed-to-the-wall dispenser. So I took their toothbrush.

I'm in Chengde tonight, check your map if you're really interested. It's where the royal summer palace is located-I ate next door to the summer palace for dinner. But my hosts told me it was basically inner Mongolia. We actually drove through the Great Wall. The region reminds me of the Mojave desert and Colorado. Mountains and desert. This place is only 60km away from the border between Mongolia and China. People take the drive up there to saddle up and ride around like a Mongolian, sleeping in a yurt. I wonder if the tours offer fermented yak milk?
The picture is a view from my room, the city is split in half by a river that is lined with large rubber bladders that they inflate/deflate to regulate the water levels.
This is my 2nd stay in a Chinese hotel, and this is better than the Sino Swiss. I checked the mattress and it's clean. Maybe because the owner of the factory I'm visiting is a hotshot in the area and they knew better than to give me substandard service. I have two of everything, towels, slippers and robe! The bathroom was stocked will all kinds of goodies.
But again, even though parts of the road are icy from the cold, I'm sitting here with the window open because the heat is stifling. I should have turned off the heat completely when I left for dinner.
On my bedstand is this Star Trek-like command console, you can control the lights, the temperature, the radio and television. I want one for myself!
I slept maybe 8total hours since Sat. morning when I left Chicago, it is now Monday night in China and my hosts are all impressed that not only did I work through the afternoon, I was able to perform intricate computer work without once going crossed-eyed nor did I fall asleep during dinner, which from what they said, have actually happened.
Lunch was beef dumplings, mutton dumplings(tastes like beef), pork w/cabbage dumplings, and pork w/onion dumplings. Lunch was called a light meal.
I ate at a traditional Mongolian dinner, served in a restaurant shaped like a traditional Mongolian yurt(tent). I tried a few new dishes. Venison was served rolled in what looked like tempura and served on a skewer, tasted like chicken. I ate their version of Peking duck, tasted like beef. They are heavily into meat, meat and more meat.
Then there was the obligatory cheer to everyone's health. The northern Chinese drink a Chinese vodka that is so strong it could probably cure gangrene. They serve it in this teeny weeny brandy snifter looking thimble. Probably only held one teaspoon, but when I brought that to my lips, I stopped and watched everyone else toss back their heads. My host told me not to do the same, just take a small taste. I took a very little sip simply because before I even tasted it, I smelled it and my teeth turned black. It felt like I was drinking rubbing alcohol. I was promptly informed that despite the various cheers the rest of the group exercised, I only had to lift my glass or drink my tea. But I did take several sips to at least give them the benefit of my respect and appreciation. I finally stopped sipping when I took a bigger sip than previously and promptly had my eyes water as the alcohol drained down my throat. It burned my lips and my tongue, instantaneously caused a bright red flush across my face. My host thought I had eaten something spicy and expressed his concern. I thought my brain had liquified.

(Pronounced like bung!I think. It's what they say in the north, to be said with a thumbs up, meaning "Good!" "Great!")