Saturday, February 5, 2011

I partied in the middle of Lake, Michigan...

Every three years, my family and I are bound by sacred law to meet in a grove of trees in central Michigan where we slaughter rabbits on the altar of the Dark Lord Cthlulu to preserve our sinister powers over the weak and feeble…

And while we’re there… we have a family reunion.

In mid-June of last year, I flew thirty plus hours from Doha to Frankfurt to Chicago to Saginaw, Michigan for my family reunion. At the tiny two-terminal Saginaw airport, things started off well with my bags being left behind at O’Hare. My parents picked me up in the pristine pine scented air of mid-Michigan. It was fifty degrees cooler there than when I had left Doha a day and a half before. After a quick beer, we picked up my sister Nadine and took off to our home for the next two weeks.

My sister Colleen and my parents were able to rent a house on a tiny lake in the middle of nowhere… actually, just outside of nowhere in a township called Lake. The house was good sized with a large kitchen, a basement for the kids, and a magnificent backyard under a gorgeous oak tree overlooking a dark blue lake. The lake, Perch Lake, was small… very small. But just large enough for the large pontoon boat and fourteen foot speed boat the house owner was letting us use.

The house was in good shape… but it needed a little work. So during the first few days, we all cleaned the floors and cupboards, organized his shed, weeded the beach, and polished the garage to a fine shine… it’s what we do in my family. The owner was incredibly kind to let us use the house for almost nothing, and we weren’t about to overstep his kindness.

Basically, for two weeks, it was my immediate family, all twenty of us, including one who came in from Iraq, plus a revolving door of relatives on both sides of the family coming by to drink beer, play cards, water ski and swim in the lake. In the early mornings, my sisters and I would take the boat out and fish before the kids woke up, catching small perch and sunfish. Dad and one of the nephews would clean them on the shore and fry them up in mustard for lunch with white bread to down the bones. We showered in the lake to save water using rags and bars of Dove soap; I washed my nieces’ hair.

My job was simple… I was in charge of the boats. Keep them clean, gas them up, top off the oil… and teach the kids how to ski. That was fun. I couldn’t get up myself, but everyone, including my sisters and my dad, all got up easily. Even the really little kids tried their best and almost got it. Thankfully, we had a tube where I got to swing them around and toss them off like rag dolls. Unfortunately, my turn on the tube ended up with me giving myself a massive hernia and turning my groin black.

For lunch, we ate our fish, grilled hotdogs, and made sandwiches from leftovers. At night, we took turns making dinner and doing the dishes. Every night we played cards, sometimes with the kids, sometimes just the adults. At dusk everyone would pack into cars and drive to the neighborhood gas station for bait and incredibly good ice cream cones.

We saw our entire extended family and shared meals and beer. A few times we all took off and dined out at the local mom and pop diner, or stopped off for a beer at our parent’s old watering holes. We played golf in the middle of a corn field, and bought tomatoes and cucumbers and apple cider from roadside stands.

After two weeks, we left the house on the lake for a weekend hotel where the families gathered for more beer, games of cards, horseshoes, and cornhole. Polkas were played and the old folks that still could, danced.

I spent every morning swimming in the cool lake water, the days playing with kids under the sun spying wild turkeys and deer in the fields, and laughing nearly nonstop with my parents, sisters, and cousins…

I can't wait for the next one…


IKEA summer... Sweden, Finland, Estonia...

Seven months. Jeez…

I’m exactly seven months behind on posting on my travels. Well, I’m done teaching for the semester, everyone is starting to leave for the holiday break, and I should now have sufficient time to sit down and get my shit done.

A great perk of my job is that I get to travel to conferences and trainings across the globe. This year, I was lucky enough to get to attend two… one in San Francisco and one in Tartu, Estonia. The only problem with the science education conference in Tartu was that it’s really hard to get to Tartu... it’s even hard to find Tartu. I was stuck taking multiple flights, trains, buses, and ferries… and that was just fine with me. After departing a going away/ birthday party for [NAME REMOVED], I took my cab to the airport for my first destination…Stockholm, Sweden.

Stockholm, Sweden

After checking in, I was awarded one hell of a bonus… business class upgrade. Unlike everyone else at work that gets to fly business class all the time, I have been relegated to economy. I keep hearing these wonderful stories about the Qatar Airways business class lounge… the free food, wide seats, showers, and top-quality booze. And there I was, entered the always forbidden, yet now welcoming terminal. Clean, white, and supremely quiet, I was neatly escorted up the escalator and turned left, away from the first class lounge (soon, my sweet, soon) and entered the business class.

Holy crap… I have been flying like an animal my whole life! This terminal was a palace! It was almost midnight, and I was still able to enjoy a full dinner spread and a beer while reading my travel book. I was then summoned to the downstairs exit where I entered the waiting limousine and was driven on the tarmac to the plane… nice.

After making a fool of myself not being able to find the headphone jack (yeah, I fly business all the time), I landed eight hours later in the capitol city of Stockholm, Sweden. The airport was, naturally, very IKEA. Stained wooden floors, glass stairs, and polished steel kiosks were abounding. Instantly you could tell this was part of Scandinavia… due to the women. Every woman had long blond hair, pale alabaster skin, and was nearly six foot tall. After grabbing my bag, I bought a ticket to take the Arlanda Express train into Stockholm’s Centraalstationen. Thankfully, no one else was on the train… because I could not fit into the seats. They were all separated by immovable steel armrests that only fit one of my powerful thighs. I ended up straddling a waste bin on the wall. From the Centraalstationen I took the metro to Kungstadgarten. The metro stop was really beautiful, with art decorating the open rock walls and fountains cascading into chambers below. Especially fun was the longest escalator I have ever seen. I actually went up, down, and then back up so I could time it… almost two full minutes.

When the doors to the outside opened, I could feel the cool air (~50F) coming off the harbor just visible down the alley. The alley dumped me into the city’s stunning center. Colorful pastel buildings covered with chimneys and copper roofs were all around. Fishing boats and ferries were tied to the red steel posts along the water’s edge. In the middle of the harbor was one of Stockholm’s most recognizable landmarks, the Vandrarhem af Chapman, a three-masted former military and royal sailing ship… and my hotel for the night.

Actually a hostel, I walked across the Skeppsholmsbron Bridge to the island of Skeppsholmen. Just moored off the island was my ship, the AF Chapman. It was too early to check into the hostel, so I ditched my bag and resolved to walk around the city under the grey, overcast skies. I was determined to follow the walking tour provided in my Lonely Planet guide; having failed repeatedly in following the guides for Goa and Hanoi. I found the statue of Karl XII and headed north past the cherry red opera house and into the Kungstadgarten park. Colorful flowers were in bloom, and the winter skating rink was now a sparkling fountain. An ugly Friday’s spoiled the view at the far end of the park.

It was around this time when I realized that I had not seen another person since getting off the metro. Not one. There were no tourists along the water’s edge or at the museums, and no one strolling along the park promenade on this Saturday morning. At the end of the park was the city tourist office where I popped in to grab a postcard and my obligatory shot glass. When I purchased the shot glass, the man behind the counter questioned my walking around so early in the morning with all the schnapps still in me. Not having a clue what he was talking about, he explained that three days earlier was the country’s largest holiday, the mid-summer’s eve, and just one day after that was Princess Victoria’s royal wedding. The country had just finished four days of solid partying… and now, everyone was hung over.

I ended up walking around back to the Centraalstationen and down to the water’s edge, passing numerous churches, halls, and statuary. Crossing yet another bridge, I entered onto the island of Gamla Stan, the headquarters of the royal family and the oldest area of Stockholm. Surrounded by mustard yellow and red facades weaving around and around, concealing new sights of museums and cafes around every cobblestoned bend. A statue of St. George slaying the dragon overlooked a small square where the sun finally peaked thru the grey clouds. Along the alleys I walked until a large square opened up with a local musician playing a guitar and singing aloud some song I could not recognize. Three sides of the square were covered in charming tenements and cafes, but one end held the Swedish Academy, and home of the Nobel Prize.

I toured the Nobel Museum, and was kinda disappointed. Having met multiple Nobel winners (six, so far), I thought the museum would be showing off their personalities and discovered knowledge. Instead, it was more of an artist’s interpretation of the prizes. The one cool exhibit was Alfred Nobel’s actual will, the one that gave his money away to awarding “human achievement.”

The grey skies opened up, but coming from Doha with no rain and temperatures over 125F, I failed to bring my umbrella. The rain had started to downpour, and people were scampering under canopies. I savored the rain for about five minutes, and then began jumping between doorways. I bought an overpriced travel umbrella from a man on the street, and continued getting lost along the alleys.

With a complete stroke of luck, I entered the doorway of the Kungliga Slottet, the new royal palace right as they were having their changing of the guard. With silver helmets and appropriate royal blue outfits, they marched in a circle around the palace and took their places outside of the gates. I walked along the moored boats back across to the mainland, and then again to the AF Chapman. Up above the boat on a hill was the modern art museum. I decided to check it out and really enjoyed their exhibits. But the design museum was really crappy… one big room with only one exhibit that cost me twelve euro… insane. I ate my first creamy shrimps sandwich (delicious, and sold everywhere) in the museum cafeteria and walked back down the hill to check into the hostel just as the rain subsided and the sun came streaming out.

I boarded the boat and squeezed thru the uncomfortably narrow doors and steep steps down into the forecastle. My room was a six-bed shared with two small portholes opening onto the harbor. It was late in the afternoon, and I really needed a nap. So I made up the bed and took a nap until 8pm… and it was as bright as noon outside. I soon realized how close I was to the Arctic Circle, and it being mid-summer’s… the sun would only set for a few hours. I spent some time walking around the ship and the surrounding areas, taking in the fishing boats coming in from the sea. I ate some smoked salmon and chips and went back to my bunk to read myself asleep. The sun didn’t set until after midnight, and the younger folks sharing the room were coming in and out all night. The gentle rolling of the ship and the sea air quickly put me to sleep.

I woke up way too early, snuck out of the room, and climbed onto the main deck to watch the sun… not so much of a sunrise since it had been up since before 4am. Breakfast was made up of sunflower bread with preserves and slices of ham. People were squeezing two toothpaste tubes onto their plates, so I had to try some. One was a creamed and frothy bologna… ugh. But the second tube was a bright pink, foul smelling creamed roe. At first, it tasted sweet and salty on the tongue, but soon it became like eating rotten fish sautéed in shit. Four glasses of milk later, I began my morning walk.

Back at the King Karl XII square, I bought a ticket for a double-decker bus tour of the city. It took me to places I had already seen, but the headphones provided a lot more info of the history. We drove across the harbor and saw the public lift and the murder steps. After the tour, I visited the national museum, and realized that the Swedes love their chairs! There were entire wings dedicated to Swedish design principles and ideals, and room after room of nothing but chairs of every shape, size and design. I also finally got to study Eero Saarinson, the famous designer and the only man that shows up in every crossword puzzle published.

After the museum, it was back to the AF Chapman to check out, grab my bag, and held back to the airport once again, shoving one ass cheek into a seat. At the departure terminal, I had to eat another creamy shrimp sandwich and a coconut roll. The sheer amount of blue-eyed, blonde-haired people was staggering. An extremely beautiful and shapely redhead was busy sweeping the airport floors and emptying the trash! In the U.S., this woman would have been married off just out of high school, but here she was in Sweden, banished to janitorial because of her freckles. The Finn Air flight was quick and easy, and I soon landed at my next stopover, Helsinki, Finland.

Helsinki, Finland

On the bus taking the passengers to the terminal, I looked around and saw that everyone had the same blue/blonde complexion… everyone but me and one dark-skinned black guy. Our eyes met, and I quickly read the same thing in his eyes… “We don’t belong here.”

I had to buy a bus ticket to get to central Helsinki, since the airport is over an hour away. Unfortunately, I bought the non-express ticket, and the hour-and-a-half bus ride meandered thru little suburbs and towns before we reached Helsinki’s main station. Along the way were dozens of people fake cross-country skiing with trekking poles along the sidewalks. I tried to follow the signs to get a ride to my next hostel. After walking up and down endless flights of stairs and escalators, I ended up walking right out of the rear of the station. It turns out my metro was actually a tram… a tram that wouldn’t take my credit cards or Euros. Shit. So instead I grabbed a cab to my hostel where I was charged ELEVEN EUROS for the ten minute ride!! I was pissed!! I tried to refuse to pay, but finally thru my money at the driver just so I could get the hell out of that cab.

The hostel was packed with people in the lobby getting settled in to watch a World Cup game… Mexico versus who the fuck cares. I unloaded into my singles room and went back out to grab dinner. It was then I found out that even though it was completely sunny outside and nearly 11pm, no restaurants were open. I walked along to a local grocery store where I picked up a nice snack of cold cuts, processed cheese, and some pudding cups. On the way back I passed a crowd of modern skinheads… shaved heads, jackboots, “SS” tats on their necks… pleasant young folk trying to look thuggish.

Helsinki isn’t nearly as nice as Stockholm. It’s not as modern, the buildings aren’t quite as pretty, and it’s a little more rundown… a holdover from the proximity to the USSR. After breakfast of yogurt and granola, I walked along the waterfront and the onion-topped churches. The fishermen were selling their morning catch in stalls setup on the cobblestone quay. Across the harbor were the ferry jetties. I bought my LindaLine ticket to take the ferry across the Gulf of Finland to Estonia. After an hour wait of watching two guys dressed like Russian-mobster extras from The Sopranos (track suits, fresh sneakers, greased chest hair catching their long gold chains) the ferry arrived. I was expecting a cruise ship; instead it was a three story, jet-powered catamaran. We idled out of the harbor passing hundreds of charmed islands filled with cottages and lighthouses until we reached the open sea… and then the engines roared to life. We must have been traveling at least a hundred kilometers an hour, skimming over the water. A massive spray erupted from behind the boat, as people crammed together on the rear view deck to feel the saltwater spray on their faces. It was on that tiny deck that someone asked me how my Aggies were going to do in the fall. Every single trip I’ve taken, someone recognizes my TAMU ring, and I meet my fellow Ags… kinda cool.

In just over an hour, the boat slowed as we pulled up into the Estonian port of Tallinn. As we docked, a tall spire of buildings could be seen just into town, right beyond the fifteen Baltic Sea cruise ships that were docked around us.

Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn was a huge surprise. I was expecting the run-down antiquity of Helsinki. Instead, Tallinn is a very modern and bustling tourist town. A quick cab to the bus station to leave my bag in a locker, and I headed to the Tallinn old-town. Built upon a huge mound of rock, the old town is packed with churches, and high walls built as early as the mid-1700’s. It is very touristy… but done is a really well. Disney is touristy, but people still flock there… the old-town Tallinn is similar, and yet very charming. As soon as you enter the city walls, you’re inundated with pretty, busty girls is old dresses trying to pull you into their restaurants and pubs. As you ascend the steep cobblestone roads, curio, t-shirt, and flower shops keep barking for sales. The little squares with the different churches (at least ten in all) were around every corner. Yet more pretty young things were giving archery lessons and selling sodas from bicycle baskets. In fact… all the women in Tallinn were just stunningly beautiful… truly take your breath away women. Gothic and baroque spires kept jutting up out the background, leading you around the maze of back alleys. I had a little more time to kill so I sat down for lunch under the sun at a place called Kalle Kustos where I had to try the house specialty of ice cold local beer, Ale’ Coq (“chicken beer?”)… with a side of moose and cranberry sauce. Oh yes… moose. And it was… delicious. It was a strange mix of people around my table. Young couples with tattoos were mixing it up with Asian tourists with translator headsets. Rows of flower stalls were directly across the road that filled the air with an aroma of spring.

Back at the bus station, I met up with my coworker, Alaska. She and I were both heading to the conference. We boarded our bus and relaxed as we cruised along the narrow roads in between fields of alfalfa, oats, and yellow flax for three hours (reminded me of Michigan) from Tallinn to our destination of Tartu in central Estonia.

Tartu, Estonia

We walked from the bus station to our apartments, the Dormus Dorpatensis overlooking the town square fountain of students kissing under a squirting umbrella. Alaska and I walked around the town square and ate a late dinner outside, along with the rest of the city, where I dined on pickled herring with cottage cheese and boiled eggs; constantly aware that everywhere around me was the most beautiful women I had ever seen. Something about the eastern European/Russian women… I just could not get enough.

I got to sleep with the window open, and woke up covered in little gnats… my bad. I turned on the tv at five a.m. to kill some time, and was able to watch “Hogan’s Heroes” dubbed in German! That is the one show you would never think would be dubbed over and shown in Germany! We went to the opening of the conference at the University of Tartu in their main hall. Covered in faded pink walls, they welcomed us and had their men’s choir sing their national songs overhead wearing flax jackets. Turns out, Estonia is famous for three things: Skype was invented here, their flax is considered the finest in the world, and their “Singing Revolution” where the people fought against their USSR rulers by protesting in song… and succeeded. Everyone in Estonia… and I mean everyone… is part of some choir groups that get together and sing in national festivals throughout the year.

The day was full of talks about teaching and science… boring shit. After the conference, we dined on reindeer and potato latkes with more local beer. A large circle of chess tables were set up outside of my window. The Estonian grand champion and his ten-year-old protégé’ were celebrating a win by competing against the entire town. The two champions were within the circle, playing all thirty opponents at the same time. Geez… I thought I was under pressure when I bowled to break 200. Later that night, we walked just out of town to the botanical garden where a fancy reception was being held for the conference. It was really beautiful, seeing all the grass and flowers… something we have little of in Doha. Back at the hotel I watched yet another World Cup match, team who cares versus why I am watching this.

The morning was spent doing laundry and walking around the town center before the conference restarted. It’s only about two city blocks in total area, so it only takes an hour to crisscross all the streets. Both the main church and the local museum are so crooked you think they’re about to fall over… bad foundations I was told. After a few talks, the conference ended early so that we could all enjoy the excursions that were planned for us. We could choose from a vineyard visit, a river tour, or an obstacle course (“for the young and fit, only.”) Well, since I am neither young nor fit, I thought the obstacle course was the perfect excursion for me. Everyone under thirty and I boarded the obstacle bus. As soon as I boarded, I got some odd looks from the incredible aerobic and active people on board. Once again… “I don’t belong here.”

The bus pulled out of town and headed south to a famed exercise and training facility, Otepaa Adventure Park. The Estonian and Russian cross-country skiers and speed skaters all train here for the Olympics. Off the bus, a skinny stoner passed out the liability waiver forms and our belay harnesses.

Oh shit… a belay harness. When I asked the guy about me and my bulk, he calmly said no problem, that the lines could easily hold me. Oh shit…

For those of you that don’t know, my current largess and general state of laziness is directly related to a belay harness. Back in my freshman year of college, a freak accident while belaying caused me to fall about forty feet and break my back. I repeat… I actually broke my spine. Lumbar 2 vertebrae to be specific. Ever since then, I’ve never been able to be as active. And since that day on April 17th, 1995… I’ve never belayed. Not so much out of fear… I just never went anywhere that required belaying.

So here I am, wearing a harness while the stoner shows how to hook on our safety lines and our zip line rollers… unable to stop my hands from shaking. Once our guide is done, he asks “who’s first?” And before I knew it, I jumped up onto the platform and hooked on. Everyone in the group was staring, thinking that the fat guy was going to slow them all down. Instead… I jump ahead and no one got near me again. The first section was hooking on to safety lines and walking balance beams and swinging logs about ten feet off the ground. The last part was a thirty foot zip-line back to the ground where you ended up being drug along the grass by your own mass. As soon as I unhooked and looked back… I was five minutes ahead of everyone…

I scrambled up the hill path to the second group of stations. It was the same as before, but ten feet higher off the ground, and the obstacles were just a little more difficult… ending in a longer and steeper zip-line to the ground. I went through stations one through three until a fifty-year-old lady caught up to me. I let her go ahead at the start of four, which was a great thing. A simple straight horizontal zip-line is where my leg got caught in a rope and I got rope burn on my nuts. The next obstacle was hanging on to a rope for a Tarzan swing into a cargo net. The swing was no problem, but you don’t realize how difficult those cargo nets are to climb! The close you get to the top, the harder it is to reach the platform… damn near killed me! After getting on top of the platform and trying to catch my breath that was about forty feet up, I crossed a bridge made up of loose, swinging cables and my arms started to give out. My adrenaline rush was fading, and so was my upper body strength. I finished out proudly on a long zip-line through the trees, and joined up with the dozen or so people that had to crap out before me. Hah.

While waiting for the others to finish, I was told to skip ahead to station six up on the hill. When I approached, I realized what station six was… two long zip lines. The first went across the valley to a large hill about three hundred meters long. The guide said to hook on and to run off the edge of the little drop off ahead, but keep running. I ran straight ahead, reached the drop off, and jumped… holding on to the rope, forgetting to keep running. I dropped hard right on my ass and came to a complete stop. After a second to regain my composure and to feel my ass starting to bruise, I started rolling down the hill… the rigging had enough momentum to drag me along the ground! There I was being dragged down the hill when finally the ground fell out from under me and I was freely zipping along the cable. It wasn’t until I stopped on the mat on the other side of the valley that I realized my underwear was filled with tree bark and mulch from the dragging. I had to unhook and dig chucks of wood from out of my ass cheeks.

I followed the signs around the hill and started to worst part of getting back to the park… the two-hundred steep steps up the hill to reach the return zip-line. At the top of the hill were ruins from the ancient settlers of the area… the hill itself was actually an old stronghold of a since destroyed city. It was here, all alone, overlooking the valley ninety feet below when I asked myself, “why the hell am I strapping myself to a single cable and literally jumping off a building?” For a minute, I actually questioned why I was doing this shit anymore? I’m not twenty, I’m almost thirty-five. I have a bad back, a bad heart, and am too old and fat to be risking my life anymore…

Fuck it, I thought… and jumped…

You just don’t know how much fun that sense of danger and speed feels… hearing the little metal wheels of the pulleys spinning to the breaking point… I really need to lose weight so that I can go skydiving…

Afterwards, we all went to a local camp where we ate steamed salmon, dill potatoes, cottage cheese and local wines. We ended up spending hours just talking and getting to know each other. I ended the night flirting heavily with a beautiful Estonian who was assisting the conference, Agny. I had one last beer outside of my apartment before taking a shower to rinse off all the blood from the myriad cuts and scrapes, and to fish the last of the mulch from my ass.

Dear God… did I hurt in the morning! But it was a good hurt. Little bloody welts and abrasions were reminders of how much fun the course was, and how much I want that life again. I skipped the morning session of the conference and toured the museums and churches of Tartu. I went to where Agny worked in the administration building and asked if her out for a drink. We met up later at the fountain and took a long walk outside of the city where she explained the “Singing Revolution” to me, showed me their singing groups, and even gave me a glimpse of her ballroom dancing career. We strolled along the river through the public parks and little back alleys. We ended up walking up the university hill and entered into a doorway that led into an enormous stone barn built under the hill. It was the old munitions storehouse, appropriately called the Gunpowder Cellar. It was an awesome bar that, strangely, had a mechanical bull in the middle of the floor. We ended up ordered a plate of smoked fish and meats, and large glasses of Ale’ Cog, singing along with a bad cover band until they shut the place down. Good times with Agny…

Hungover in the morning, I nodded through the last of the conference talks, checked out of the apartment, and walked to the bus station. My bus was just leaving, so I hopped on for the ride back to Tallinn. There, I bought my ferry ticket, and sat on the quay for an hour under the cool afternoon sun waiting for the ferry. Once onboard, I bought a beer and somehow slept for most of the ride. I arrived back in Helsinki late in the day, and checked back into the same hostel as before, and even got the same room. I undressed and climbed into my single bed for yet another World Cup match and a long night’s sleep from a long travel day.

I booked an early morning taxi to take me to the airport, where I boarded another puddle jumper to Stockholm. From there, I had a two hour wait at that beautiful airport where I had to indulge in one more creamy shrimps sandwich before returning to a god-awful Qatari summer.