Pre-Dawn Cacti

I had to get up super-early today to catch a flight, and stopped on my way to my rental car to take this photo of some cacti around our hotel.

Marana, Arizona is, intentionally, a “dark” community with minimal lighting to avoid light pollution and facilitate better viewing of stars. Desert darkness is about as absolutely dark as it gets. The stars stand out in sharp relief, to be sure, while the giant saguaros are ghostly figures in the gloom, unless you use a flash as I did here.

The night and early morning hours are apparently a favorite time for gangs of Javelina to prowl the neighborhood, although I didn’t see any on my way to the parking lot. I was happy about that, because I’m not sure I would know how to deal with a nighttime encounter with a herd of wild, pig-like creatures.

Making The Bed

A stay in a hotel reminds you that there are different approaches to making a bed. At home, you might simply do a few quick tugs here and there to make sure that the sheets and blankets are reasonably straightened, and return the pillows to their position at the head of the bed—but hotel bed-making is a much more rigorous exercise.

The maid in our hotel in Tucson apparently belongs to the precise, Army basic training/a quarter must bounce off the sheets school of bed-making. The sheets are stretched so taut and have been cinched so tightly under the mattress that it takes a few good heaves just to loosen the sheets enough to actually get into bed. It looks neat, but is kind of a pain in the keister—although you’ve got to give the maid an A for effort.

Have you ever wondered why the act of arranging the sheets is called “making” the bed?

Imaginary Voyages

The Austin airport is pretty darned cool, with some little touches that bored travelers who are walking around while waiting for their flights will appreciate–like this mock “Interimaginary Departures” board found at Gate 14. It changes just like your standard departures board, only the destinations are fictional locations from literature, film, TV, comic books, video games, and other elements of popular culture. The airlines are fictional too, of course, but very cleverly named. And all flights leave from Gate Infinity.

For example, you could catch a flight to Gotham City on DystopiAir, or head to Hogwarts on Spellbound Airlines, or visit the Hundred-Acre Wood on Wistful. I’d avoid the flight to Isla Nublar on GossAmerica, myself. On the other hand, I admit to being tempted by the chance to experience the most wretched hive of scum and villainy in the known universe, so I would probably grab a seat on the 11:07 to Tattoine in order to check out the Mos Eisley spaceport.

I’ve included photos of two of the many boards with this post. Somebody obviously had a lot of fun with this great idea.

The destinations on the “Interimaginary Departures” board are a kind of litmus test of your awareness of different elements of popular culture, and I am sad to say that I am not aware of many of them. How many of the references do you recognize? And, like me, if you see a destination you haven’t experienced through books or movies or comics, are you motivated to check them out?

Froot Loops

Our hotel in Austin had a great breakfast bar that included an omelet-to-order option, freshly baked biscuits, and lots of other tasty breakfast options—including two gigantic containers of Froot Loops. The cereal must be popular in Texas, because two of the three dry cereal options were Froot Loops. The other was Raisin Bran.

I successfully resisted the temptation to chow down on a bowl of Froot Loops, but it was a challenge, because one of my childhood memories involves that cereal. In the early’60s Grandma and Grandpa Neal took UJ and me on a trip to Battle Creek, Michigan, where we took a tour of the Kellogg’s cereal factory. At the end of the tour Kellogg’s served every visitor with a little dish of vanilla ice cream topped with Froot Loops, which had just been introduced. I liked my Froot Loops sundae very much and asked Mom to buy the cereal when we got home—which I’m sure is what Kellogg’s was hoping for. (I liked Toucan Sam, too.)

Froot Loops remains a favorite cereal to this day, although my metabolism doesn’t permit me to eat it anymore.

Dinner With The Killer Bs

Years ago, I went to dinner with a business associate who knew a lot about Italian wines. He took control of the crucial wine-ordering responsibilities at our meal, studied the wine list carefully before ordering a bottle, inspected the bottle when the waiter delivered it, instructed the waiter to decant the wine, and then noted that we would let it breathe for 15 minutes or so. When I remarked on his impressive command of the wine-ordering function, he shrugged and responded: “In reality, all you really need to know about Italian wines is the three Bs — Brunello, Barolo, and Barbaresco.”

I’ve always remembered that lesson in fine wines, although I quickly realized that “The Killer Bs”–as those three wines are known among at least some wine lovers–must regrettably be reserved for very special occasions, because they are pricey. Last night was just such a special occasion, as we celebrated the new year and a wonderful performance by the Austin Symphony Orchestra and, especially, its principal oboist. We went to a terrific restaurant called It’s Italian Cucina, had a very fine meal, and the sommelier selected two bottles–a Brunello followed by the Barolo above–to accompany our dinner. (There were only four of us at dinner, so we couldn’t reasonably complete the Killer B trifecta with a Barbaresco.)

I don’t have an educated wine palate, but it wasn’t hard to conclude that we were enjoying some pretty spectacular wines. The taste of the Brunello changed and ripened and became even more delectable as it continued to breathe in the decanter, and the Barolo was simply wonderful and went perfectly with our main courses. It was great to be able to enjoy a fun celebration with the Killer Bs. I definitely look forward to the next opportunity to implement my friend’s wise advice.

Dodging The Bad Travel Bullet

We were sad to leave Aruba yesterday, but mostly felt apprehensive about the travel day before us. It was the last day of the busy holiday travel season, and we were booked on Southwest, the airline that had experienced so much trouble during the recent big snowstorm. In anticipation of potential problems we had packed light, so we would not need to check bags. We figured that if we ran into cancellations or other snags, at least our clothes would always be with us.

We made it through the multiple layers of Aruba airport security and U.S. Customs without a hitch, but when we got to Orlando things started to turn sour. We got a text that our flight home had been delayed, and when we entered the airport the departure board was showing lots of delays and cancellations. The food court area in our terminal was jammed, and the only sit-down restaurant was not seating new diners. In the meantime, we feared getting the dreaded second text announcing that our flight had been cancelled.

But the travel fates were kind. We noticed that an earlier flight to Columbus had also been delayed, and we were able to switch over to that flight, without having to worry about the impact on any checked bags. The flight left shortly after we made the change, and we actually arrived at John Glenn International earlier than if our original plans had gone forward without delay. As we rolled through the baggage claim area of the Southwest concourse we noticed many pieces of luggage along the periphery of the room, in groups like that shown above. We didn’t know if they were the glum remnants of last month’s travel hell, but the scene made us even more glad to have gone with the carry-on approach and to be homeward bound, having dodged the bad travel bullet.

Square Change

I had to gas up the Jeep before returning it, because the rental agreement was to return it with a full tank. I paid in U.S. dollars, which are accepted everywhere in Aruba, but got my change back in the official Aruban currency, the florin.

The Aruban 50-cent piece is a square, as shown in the photo above. I think it’s the first square coin I’ve ever handled. It’s actually a handy shape, because you can detect it immediately when you are fishing around in your pocket for the right change. It makes me wonder why more coins don’t deviate from the standard circular shape and go with squares, triangles, and other shapes you learned about in junior high geometry class.

The key thing about getting foreign coins in change is to be sure to use them up, or leave them in your hotel room when you depart. I managed to remember to do that, with the coins becoming part of our tip to the maid, and thereby managed to avoid adding to my collection of francs, kroner, marks, and other unusable currency kept in a wooden box on my dresser.

Aruba Ariba

No Caribbean vacation would be complete without enjoying a rum-based cocktail in an oceanfront bar. My choice on this trip was to try an Aruba Ariba, one of a number of different options that would have fit the bill.

The barkeep cautioned me that an Aruba Ariba should be sipped, not guzzled. When you read the traditional recipe for the drink, you will understand why: ½ ounce vodka, ½ ounce white rum, ¼ ounce Grand Marnier, 1 ounce crème de banana, and fruit punch made from orange juice, lemon juice, pineapple juice, and grenadine syrup. The Bucuti & Tara beach resort version of the cocktail is served with a wedge of orange and a maraschino cherry. It has a pleasantly fruity flavor and is not too sweet, which is appreciated. It’s an ideal drink for a day where you have been in the sun and are feeling a warm tropical breeze as you look out over the ocean.

I sipped my drink, following bartender’s orders, and also took some water breaks in between, for the record.

Big Boats

Oranjestad is the Aruban port where the big cruise ships dock. As we ate our dinner last night I marveled, once again, at just how huge some of the cruise ships are. This passing cruise liner was colossal, but it was dwarfed by an even bigger ship that left the port about a half hour earlier. I’ve never been on a ship of that size, but I imagine it carries thousands of passengers.

Whenever I see a cruise ship of that size, I think about what it would be like if The Poseidon Adventure were filmed on one of these modern, titanic vessels. Shelley Winters would have to do a lot more swimming, Gene Hackman would have even more perils to overcome, and it was take Ernest Borgnine a lot longer to get everyone to the propeller shaft.

On The “Jeeps Only” Trail

Yesterday we decided to get away from the resort and explore a bit of the rest of the island of Aruba. On the advice of the Long-Haired Red Sox Fan, we rented a Jeep Wrangler so that we could explore the mostly uninhabited “wild side” of the island. It proved to be a memorable experience, but perhaps not in precisely the way the LHRSF conveyed.

Our journey began at the northern tip of Aruba, at the California lighthouse shown above. It was crawling with tour buses and tourists, but the area provided a nice view of the surrounding area. Interestingly, this part of Aruba is very desert-like. The landscape around the lighthouse featured prickly pear cactus, saguaro cactus, and other desert fauna.

At the bottom of the lighthouse promontory we turned right, off the paved road onto a “Jeeps-only” trail and left the tour buses behind. The trail was described as a “dirt road,” but really “trail” is a better description of it. It was a rocky, twisting, deeply rutted track that was more like what you would expect to find in an X Games off-roading competition. The Wrangler held up well under the conditions–any normal car or bus would break an axle within 100 yards of the turn-off point–but fair warning should be given to any drivers and passengers who want to take the trail. It is truly a rough ride.

Unless you rent one of the dune buggies that some people were riding along the trail, you can expect an incredibly bone-jarring, kidney-busting journey that is beyond your wildest imagination. I’ve driven on dirt roads before, but nothing approaching the Jeeps-only trail. If you’ve ever bought a gallon of paint from a hardware store and had them mix it–where they put the can into the machine that agitates it like an overly aggressive bartender with a cocktail shaker–you have a mild sense of what driving on the road was like. The dune buggies were flying past, but we decided to take it slow to try to preserve the Wrangler and our internal organs. The rough road did provide incentive to periodically stop the car and the swaying and tossing and explore the surroundings–like Druif beach, shown above.

The Jeep-only trail runs along the coastline, heading directly southeast. The ocean clearly is a lot rougher on that side of the island, with the waves crashing into the land mass and lots of spraying surf. There are only a few small houses along the way, and it isn’t clear whether people live there currently. As you proceed along the trail, the coastline and roaring ocean is to your left, and to your right are lots of rock formations and dry areas, like that seen above

The coastline featured lots of different kind of rock formations, from a kind of spiny coral-type rock at Druif beach to some larger boulders and other kinds of rock as we moved southeast along the oceanfront. All of the rocks were getting pounded by the surf, and the surf, unfortunately, brought other things too–in some areas significant amounts of plastic debris from the ocean had washed up and been deposited on the rocky beaches.

After a long, bouncing ride over the rough road, we reached an interesting point at which the tide had cut a cave-like entrance through the coastline rock formation. I found myself wondering how long this feature would be able to hold up against the pounding surf before collapsing. You wouldn’t want to get into the water in this area, for fear of being smashed against the rocks by the rugged surf.

A little farther along the road we reached the Bushiribana ruins, which are the remnants of a large smelting works built in 1872 by the Aruba Island Gold-mining Company. According to our guide map, the smelting works were only in operation for 10 years, but the ruins remain. Kids and adults who were happy to be out of their cars were crawling all over the fallen rocks inside the ruins, but a few of the ocean-facing windows remain intact and provide a nice view of the Caribbean beyond.

Across the road from the ruins there is a field where people have constructed stone sculptures, as seen in the photo below. We weren’t tempted to construct one of them, but instead were motivated to find an exit from the Jeeps-only trail and back to the world of paved roads and civilization. Fortunately, after only a few more minutes of shake, rattle, and roll, there was a turnoff, and we took it with pleasure and relief. That means we didn’t follow the dirt track into the national park, but our kidneys thanked us for the sacrifice.

Sunset Shots

Aruba, like many Caribbean islands, is a great place for sunsets. Above is a photo of last night’s effort, taken as we were waiting to head to dinner at our resort. Below is tonight’s handiwork of Mother Nature, taken as we were having dinner at a seaside restaurant just south of Oranjestad, Aruba’s main town. We thought they were both pretty special.

Sunset Shots

Aruba, like many Caribbean islands, is a great place for sunsets. Above is a photo of last night’s effort, taken as we were waiting to head to dinner at our resort. Below is tonight’s handiwork of Mother Nature, taken as we were having dinner at a seaside restaurant just south of Oranjestad, Aruba’s main town. We thought they were both pretty special.

Key Advances In Beachfront Technology

Our excellent resort in Aruba, Bucuti & Tara, is at the cutting edge of beachfront technology. I say this because the resort’s beachfront options feature developments I’ve not seen before in the essential umbrella, towel, and lounge chair categories. For example, you reserve your umbrella using a tablet in your room, with reservations becoming available at 5 p.m. for the next day’s umbrella location–and you’d better be quick with a click at 5 o’clock on the dot if you want one of the front row umbrellas.

I’m been more impressed, however, by two nifty advancements that avoid some common beach seating annoyances. The first is a towel design that has a kind of hood that fits over the back of the chaise lounge, as shown in the photo above. As a result, the towel stays snugly atop the back of the chair, and you don’t have the issue of the towel slipping down a chair that has been put into 45-degree reading position and then uncomfortably bunching up behind the small of your back in a wrinkled, damp wad. The second advancement is a kind of belt at the foot of the chair cushion, shown in the photo below. This thoughtful option allows you to slip your towel under the belt and anchor the towel so it doesn’t slip off the end of the chair and get all sandy–which can be literally irritating.

I don’t know the names of the Edisons who came up with these inventions, but I salute them. Now, if someone could just invent suntan lotion that doesn’t attract grains of sand and cause them to bond to your skin like Superglue . . . .

The Fofoti Trees Of Eagle Beach

Our resort is located on Aruba’s Eagle Beach. At one end of the beach, in a sandy area atop a rocky outcropping next to the water, you will find a stand of the amazing Fofoti trees–which have to be among the coolest trees anywhere, as well as some of the most photographed.

The Fofoti trees are of the species Conocarpus erectus, and are also known as the buttonwood or button mangrove tree. But on Aruba, which is constantly swept by brisk trade winds, the Fofoti trees have a special characteristic: they have been twisted and shaped by the constant gusts. The trees have a deeply gnarled trunk and have been bent almost to the ground, and they always point to the southwest, which is the direction of the prevailing breeze. As trees go, the Fofoti are pretty amazing.

Pappa’s Eight Rules Of Etiquette

Last night we went to a great restaurant called Papiamento for a terrific dinner, and after dinner we decided to visit Pappa’s cigar lounge, named for the cigar-loving patriarch of the clan that owns the restaurant. That’s him in the photo above, in the chair facing the camera. While at Pappa’s I savored our meal as I smoked a very fine cigar, sipped some excellent port, and enjoying a nice conversation with Pappa, his son, and one of their friends.

Interestingly, Pappa has published eight “rules of etiquette” for people who come to the cigar lounge. They are a pretty good guide for proper conduct, not only in cigar lounges specifically, but in visiting establishments generally:

  1. Don’t bring in outside cigars. Customers are expected to support the lounge and not take advantage of the amenities without buying a cigar (or a drink).
  2. Stay out of the humidor and ask for assistance.
  3. Leave the cigars of other people alone.
  4. Don’t stick a cigar from the humidor up to your nose, in the event you decide it’s not the right cigar for you.
  5. No trash talking, no religious discussion, and no politics.
  6. Don’t wet the cap of the cigar before cutting it, so as to keep the cutter sanitary.
  7. Watch your ashes to avoid accidents.
  8. Don’t expect freebies, because Pappa’s is “a big boys’ room.”

When you think about it, the eight rules all boil down to having respect for an establishment and its owners and acting accordingly. We scrupulously complied with the rules (especially rule no. 5, which is a challenge for many people these days) and enjoyed a very pleasant, wide-ranging conversation that touched on David Bowie, Salvador Dali, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the guitar playing of George Harrison, the World Cup final, the history of the restaurant, and other interesting topics. The world would probably be a more pleasant place if everyone follow Pappa’s rules.