pergamond: ([Bleach] Ichigo // -.-)

The day I travelled down to Rochester dawned fresh and bright and full of the scents of spring. The sun shone, birds chirped and bunnies skipped through the fields, oblivious to the fact they would shortly be caught, covered in chocolate and stuffed into an egg for Easter. Yet, despite all these pleasantries, I was nervous.

Why?

Because we were about to cross the Canadian-USA border and there was a non-finite chance I might be detained and miss my flight back to Japan. In three weeks time. 

Since I had --upon consideration-- decided against renting a car on my slightly illegal Canadian driving license[*] and using it to cross an international border, I was hitching a ride with a friend. She and I used to play on the same hockey team in Canada and we were visiting another ex-team mate who was a Baptist minister and had recently relocated to a church over the border. Really, you couldn't do better than our trip for shiny, wholesome fun. 

Knowing the USA border as I did, I suspected we would be detained for decades.

My friend was Canadian and in possession of a 'Nexus card'; an ID program that allows pre-approved, low-risk travellers to skip the queues at the Canadian-USA border. However, on this trip her vehicle was harbouring a British citizen who was working in Japan, visiting Canada and carrying a new passport which contained suspiciously little evidence of her sordid part. Low-risk we were not. We would have to go through the long way. 

"Where are you from?"

"Canada."

"UK."

And so the questions began. 

"What is the purpose for your trip?"

"We're visiting a friend," my friend explained. "He lives in Rochester."

"And what does he do?"

"He's a minister," my friend obediently expanded. "He's Canadian but working in the USA."

"And what sort of friend is he?"

OK, let's take a pause in our story to consider WHAT SORT OF QUESTION IS THAT? This guy has a car in front of him which contains two women of different nationalities, one from neither of the countries that this border straddles. The questions I was expecting concerned how I knew my chauffeur, how long I was going to be in North America and what I was doing here to begin with. His main concern seemed to be how did some religious dude get a job abroad and import an international harem of women for his guilty pleasures.

You believe I'm unfairly jumping the gun on the internal workings of this poor border guard? Let me continue….

"He's my boyfriend," my friend admitted after a slightly surprised pause.

The border guard leaned down and took another look at me. "What about her?"

WHAT ABOUT ME? The 'girlfriend' role is now taken. Did he expect me to admit I was the concubine? Sister wife? Imported bride? The girl they picked up on kijiji when advertising for a genuine 'Tarts and Vicars' weekend? I feel these should not have been the first 'go to' options here!

"She's …. a random friend," my friend volunteered.

…. well, I suppose 'random' beat 'imported concubine for an orgy'.

After that we were let through to collect the required visitor visa. I suspect the border guard went to fill in his application to theology college. 


--
[*] Technically, the license was in date, but showed my old Hamilton address, which meant lying about being a Canadian resident. It was also not possible to update said address without having a current national health card (OHIP). Go figure. 

 

pergamond: ([Disney] Sleeping Beauty // rooting for)

Lake Avenue Baptist Church in Rochester, NY, prides itself on welcoming worshippers from all walks of life. This extends most particularly to its acceptance (and indeed performance) of gay marriage and its widely international congregation, a significant fraction of whom are not fluent English speakers. The diversity of the church members was celebrated at the beginning of the service where we exchanged a 'Good morning' with the paster in Mandarin (Zao Shang Hao), French (Bonjour), Burmese (Ming Gulava), Chin (Na Dam Ma), Spanish (Buenos Dias), Karen (Gaw Ler Gay), Kerenni (Teh Rya Beh Thee) and Nepalese (Namaste).

… And incase anyone like me was forced to reach for google after looking at that list, Karen and Kerenni are spoken by a group of people living in the south of Berma. Berma shares a border with China, Thailand, India, Laos and Bangladesh. It is not infeasible I had to also check that second fact. 

However, I couldn't help thinking --as I scanned the pews-- that this highly diverse greeting was wasted on the people around me who were predominantly white American. Was this a case of laying the table and hoping that the well known Kerenni speakers of northern New York state pour in? I'd noticed there were a lot of churches in Rochester, but this niche seemed a bit of a long shot. 

But by the time we were half an hour in, the demographic had changed; families with black hair, brown hair, blonde hair and red hair, of all different ages and tones of skin had filled out the pews. Ideas of punctuality (and perhaps the driving of the church bus) appeared to vary as vastly as language choice. In fact I was to later learn that this congregation was smaller than usual; daylight saving does nobody any favours but at least most of the absent had the excuse of language. Afterall, the idea there might be a Government backed mandate to STEAL AN HOUR OF YOUR LIFE in March is hard to anticipate.

… is that not how it works? Felt like it this morning.

With the pastor announcing three times that the adult education class on race and ethnicity would begin promptly at 11:30 that morning, one had to conclude start times were problematically open to interpretation. A fact that extended to the publication of the notice sheet which had the same class listed as 11:45 pm. 

Quite aside from that, may I say right now that Burmese children, with their Asian black hair and eyes and tanned skin, are frankly adorable? This sentiment was probably reinforced (if not created) by the fact they arrived late and then left shortly afterwards to go to Sunday School elsewhere in the church. Before they departed, the associate pastor led the 'Children's Worship' whose topic was the same as the main sermon; The Prodigal Son.

As the children confirmed, this parable is well known. A feckless whelp of a boy demands his inheritance from his father and disappears off to a life of partying (activity provided by the child audience; probably from one who was anticipating turning 4 years old real soon). Having spent all his cash in an irresponsible and stupid fashion, the son is forced to suck up his own mistakes and work on a pig farm for scraps of food he barely deserves.

and PIGS ARE NO FUN! (Helpful calibration point provided during the children's sermon incase anyone thought that did sound rather good)

Finally acknowledging that he was a idiotic twerp, the boy returns home to beg for work on his father's farm as a servant. Upon seeing the worthless spawn who had left him for dead for a life of debauchery, the father runs out to greet him, demands his servants hold a huge party (clearly knowing his son's perchance for such activities), dress him in robes and rings and kill the fatted calf. The older son who has experienced no such party life style is exceedingly pissed off and gets fobbed off by the promise of being able to inherit his father's hard working lifestyle when he dies. 

The pastor asked us all who we identified with more: the piggy scum of a prodigal son, the father or the older sibling. (Slight paraphrasing in progress.)

In case anyone was in any doubt based on my re-telling of this famous religious story, I SYMPATHISE WITH THE OLDER SIBLING.

Slapping it into the context of the day, Jesus told this story as a mirror to the attitude of the religious leaders who were angry that Jesus was hanging with the sinners of the town for dinner. 

Prior to this morning, I had never had much sympathy with those said religious bods. They seemed a stuffy bunch, more interested in bashing scrolls that actually applying any of the good that they preached. However, having thought the matter through carefully in right-hand side of the penultimate pew, I realised THEY HAVE EVERY REASON TO BE ANNOYED!

Let's take a step back and assess the situation: these people have dedicated their EVERY WAKING MINUTE to God. They have given up career plans of ballet dancing, Formula One racing and pimping for one of fasting, studying-without-macbooks and uncomfortable hair growth.

Then MIRACLE UPON MIRACLE! It all pays off! The promised Son of God appears not only in their lifetime, but right there in their town! 

Then he goes and hangs out with the scum who have just been making like Uncle Scrooge of Ducktails in his money bath. 

WOULDN'T YOU BE A TAD MIFFED?

TEAM OLDER SON. I'm getting a tee-shirt made up. 

Having thoroughly digested the sermon, I paused on my way out of the church to use the bathroom. Pinned on the wall of the cubicle was a notice that not only demonstrated the problems with a congregation with a language barrier but utilised a technique familiar with my own teaching in Japan: Use pictures. Keep the words few and simple. No. In. That goes for nappies and possibly religious messages. 

pergamond: ([PoT] Ryoma // all or nothing)
The United States of America is a nation of immigrants. The concept goes that anyone from anywhere can make it in New World and for centuries, people have entered the country searching for their own 'American dream'. There are many good reasons for this but let me assure you none of them involve visa applications.

To be strictly fair, getting your US visa is not so much hard as long, tedious and expensive. Once you have received your work papers from your employer, you must make an appointment with the US embassy.

In your country of citizenship.

It is impossible to apply for a US visa from inside the US. Technically, you can go to a different, randomly chosen country that might have good margaritas, but the documentation warns that this increases your chances of refusal. The idea being that if you can't stand even a week with your parents, perhaps you'll conveniently forget to leave America once your visa expires.

To make an appointment at the embassy, you have to call their premium rate telephone number. This call must be made up to a month in advance of your desired appointment and ....

.... also from within your country of citizenship.

Because it is charged at the inflated rate of £1 per minute (or equivalent), you can't use skype and it must be from a national land line. The last two times I had to get a visa, I was living in the US so I had to ask my Mum to call on my behalf. It occurred to me recently I probably owe her dinner at the Ritz as a thank you.

After this you receive an appointment letter in the mail with dire warnings about being turned away if you are late. Despite this, pretty much everyone has the same appointment time. You all queue up outside high wire fences and watch the only guys armed with guns in the UK prowl the outside. The documents you must be equipped with include your current passport plus any past passports that contain stamps from the US, a receipt for several hundred dollars worth of fees, a pre-paid recorded-mail envelope for return of your passport and an application form that lists every instance you've passed through US border control.

... Did I mention I was living in the US during two of these applications? That list was somewhat long.

Amusingly, my American friends who have moved to the UK tell me that the fees for a British visa match the ones for the US equivalent to the last cent. The Brits, however, don't bother actually seeing you. You just mail in the money stuffed in your passport like some form of documented bribe. Fair's fair, after all.

Once done with the queue, it's through the metal detectors where laptops, phones and anything fun that might play 'angry birds' is removed from your possession. You end up in a room that resembles an airport lounge and has a ticketing system like a fresh food counter. In one corner there is a small kiosk selling muffins and coffee. It may seem unexciting, but after a five hour wait that snack counter is where it's at. 

Finally, there is a couple of two minute interviews, a finger print scan and you get to leave with a note saying that your passport will be mailed to you in roughly two weeks, barring any unforeseen circumstances such as concern over your second cousin Osma or the playstation IV being released.


It was therefore with a sense of resigned apprehension that I went into Toronto to get my visa for Japan. Japan, in contrast to America, is perceived as a mono-ethnic society so their immigration process had every reason to be difficult.

The embassy building was two blocks away from the bus station. I was there and back in time to get the same bus and driver back to Hamilton.

No appointment was necessary, the paper work was a single page that accompanied my work papers and my passport can be collected on Wednesday in exchange for $35. Where does one even go from here?

Oh right. Japan.
pergamond: ([Futurama] Bender // Applause)

"What are those lights between my legs?"

This unfortunate choice of wording was underlined by my friend having to clutch the handle of her own illuminated machine as she doubled over with laughter. Our tour guide made a brave attempt to answer my question straight-faced.

"They tell you the segway is activated."

Yes, I was on a segway. One of those electric two wheeled mobiles that look somewhere between a scooter and a circus act. It was one of the multiple options I had for taking a tour of Chicago; bus, boat, bike or segway. Sorry, did I say this was a choice? Who wouldn't take a segway?!

Segways are operated by touch sensitive pads under your feet. Move your weight onto your toes and you will accelerate, lean back and you slow down. Lean too far back and you reverse; not a good thing. Pulling the handlebars straight to the left or right causes you to turn. After a brief instruction, we were set free to wheel around a small square in Millennium Park. Forwards, backwards, round and round and ... okay, I was good to go!

Our tour guide explained to us that our route would involve many hills and dips and a few road crossings. By the time he had explained what we had to do to handle each of these events (lean forward, back, speed up slight to go over bumps) I was less good to go. Actually, I was quite sure I was going to die.

Myself and a long-standing friend were the only two people taking this particular tour. This situation (me feeling death was imminent while my friend wondered where the turbo-boost button was located) had been mirrored multiple times throughout our childhood. It perhaps didn't help that I had been reminded of a certain horse riding incident from when we were about eight twenty minutes previously. Currently, I was concerned about how I'd explain what a segway was to Saint Peter at heaven's pearly gates.

Evidently, my anxiety regarding this near-future conversation must have shown on my face. Our tour guide kindly suggested I went behind him in our line and my friend behind me. As we reached the road, he put a hand on my segway to ensure I survived the crossing, or at least had company into the afterlife.

After a short distance, I gained more confidence and zipped off after our guide around Chicago's parks. A typical segway has a maximum speed of 12 mph and when switched on, cannot be over-turned. The police, incidentally, have suped-up segways that can travel up to 30 mph, go down stairs and can be over-turned so the riding officer can jump over the segway's handle to bring down a suspect. I tried to show enthusiasm for this information while feeling secretly grateful my segway could do no such thing.

The paths we travelled along where largely very smooth, making it ideal segway conditions. Occasionally, we did go over a bump large enough to warrant me holding onto the segway's handle pretty firmly but the large wheels meant they weren't a real problem.

"Boing." I helpfully supplemented as we went over a particularly big crack.

We saw the Chicago Planetarium, the Buckingham Memorial Fountain (which is one of the largest in the world and is bizarrely operated by controls in Georgia), the spot where Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech for president, the four-story presidential suit on top of the Hilton Hotel (complete with helicopter pad), the building that looks more like a vagina than a penis (apparently an intentional move by the female architect) and the outside of the aquarium and Field Museum where Sue the most complete (and male) Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton is housed.

Our tour guide greeted people cheerfully as we moved around the pavements. This had the combined effect of being good publicity and preventing people from getting annoyed at the more unpredictable driving of the people following him. As we drew level with a runner, our tour guide glanced at the computer on his segway and said casually, "You're going at about 8 mph." He then glanced back at us and shrugged. "I thought he might want to know!"

Finally, we headed back to the rental shop. As we roller over a few cracks in the street, our guide turned to me, looking slightly exasperated;

"Thanks to you, all I can think of is 'boing!' everytime we go over a crack."

My work here was done.
pergamond: ([Bleach] Rukia // fed up)
"Did you say, Buffalo?"

Finally! After 12756 tries (or there abouts), Continental Airlines automatic phone system had detected the airport I wanted to leave from. Now we just had to ...

"Please give the name of the airport you wish to travel to."

I closed my eyes, pinching the bridge of my nose with one hand.

"Sapporo."

"Did you say, South Korea?"

May I just point out that is a country and not an airport? I suppose I should be grateful that I would at least be heading in the right direction rather than starting in Russia and ending in Mexico. I wondered how many virtual airports I would have to tour before something approximating a flight to Japan was being considered by both parties.

"Did you say, Sapporo, Japan?"

Bullseye. Second try, no less. Still, we weren't out of the woods yet.

"Please give the date you wish to depart."

"March 21st."

"Did you say March 28th?"

"No."

"Sorry about that. Please give the date you wish to return."

... What? So we have unequivocally established that you did not record the correct date for my departure so you're going to apologise and just ... carry right on? Apparently, I was not the only one getting annoyed here. Continental's phone system had clearly decided I should be grateful for any flight at all.

Strangely, at this stage in the proceedings, I was pretty much in agreement. Just get me to Japan for some period of time; I'll sort out the rest from there.

... it was preferable to calling this whole thing off.

pergamond: ([Bleach] Ichigo // -.-)
"Please give the name of the airport you wish to travel from."

"Buffalo."

"Did you say, Finland?"

"No."

"Sorry about that. Please give the name of the airport you wish to travel from."

"Buffalo."

"Did you say, Barcelona, Spain?"

"...No."

I was attempting to communicate with the automatic telephone system for Continental Airlines. While the pleasant sounding male voice appeared to have an extensive knowledge of world cities, it was apparently rather less good on world accents. I pulled a face and tried to think of a different way of pronouncing 'Buffalo'. Buuuffalo, perhaps? Buffaaalo?

"Did you say, Boston?"

Well, at least we were in the right country this time. Perhaps I should just have said 'yes' and driven there. Indeed, I promptly regretted not doing exactly that when we moved onto:

"Did you say, Campeche, Mexico?"

How does one go from 'Buffalo' to 'Campeche, Mexico'? How is it that a voice recognition system can cope (presumably) with a southern drawl and not with a British accent? Could this plausible sounding recording actually be a particularly annoyed employee having a laugh? Maybe it was someone taking an extended lunch break by wiring up the phone system to keep the customer on hold until gone half-past two. If so, I had to hand it to them; it would be a hard crime to prove.

"Did you say, Perm, Russia?"

Then again, a tape of this conversation ought to nail the skiving bastard.


pergamond: ([Bleach] Ichigo // -.-)
My flight from London had touched down in Detroit at 11:45am EST. It was now past 2pm and I had spent the last two hours of this fresh new year standing in the line before American border control.

For me, the standard question of "Why do you want to visit the United States of America?" had the simple -- if slightly obnoxious -- answer of "I don't." My intention was to take a connecting flight to Buffalo, collect my car and scoot over the border back to Canada. Because of this audacious plan, I had struggled with my customs form which demanded to know the full street address of where you would be staying while in the USA. After a moments consideration, I had scrawled 'Canada' in that box with the idea that this was either an issue they dealt with frequently, or they just wouldn't notice that Canada wasn't part of America. Of course, this did require me making my connecting flight. The 3.5 hour layover was starting to look woefully inadequate.

As I looked down the snake-like line of people waiting with me, I realized I was probably sharing these dilemmas with a sizable fraction of the room. American security demands that incoming international flights go through US customs, even if you are simply connecting through the airport to leave the country directly again.

I idled away the time imagining all the irritating answers I'd like to give to the humorless border control guards if I had less sense and a taste for prison food, and watched while a couple of students were carted away for forgetting their I-20 work permits.

Finally, after another 20 minutes of waiting, I was third from the front of the queue. Another student was taken away, probably to be sent to the modern equivalent of hard labour in Detroit's failing automobile industry. Second in line...

Due to a nation-wide error, we are have a problem with our computers and cannot process passengers at this time.

I raised my head slowly to look up at the intercom that just broadcast this announcement. It appeared the USA border control and I would be starting 2011 as we undoubtedly intended to continue.
pergamond: ([PoT] Eiji // Huh?)
My face was wet.

It had all been in the name of science. I was walking along the street, admiring the immaculate parks that lay in between the immaculate houses of Aspen town. How did they keep them so green in this baking heat? A large splash mark on the pavement provided a possible answer. It looked like the product of a sprinkler system, except I could not see the sprinkler anywhere. Hmm .... Perhaps it was actually the product of a very large dog.

With that in mind, I gave the puddle a wide birth, stepping onto the lawn. It was then I noticed a peg-sized depression in the ground. Was it a miniature mole? Perhaps like handbag dogs, such downsized creatures had become popular in wealthy Aspen. I bent down to examine it ....

... and was promptly sprayed on the nose as an underground sprinkler popped up and turned its jet right on me.

I sneezed and rubbed my face clear just in time to see the sneaky little watering can disappear into the ground again. Oh the temptation to place a large rock over it! (No, I am not remotely above taking revenge on inanimate objects. We all know that was on purpose.)

Feeling hard done by, I continued on my way. It was obvious physicists were not the main brand of person in this town, or surely there would have been complaints from the regularity of this occurrence.

Of course, there were a few other clues that the Physics Centre was a little out of place here. I stood on a residential street of large detached houses and looked along it. Three mail boxes had been customised to resemble a train, a polar bear and a dog. Little yellow replicate street signs hung outside another four houses, declaring them a Beagle / Maltese / yappy handbag dog x-ing.  The last house in that row was for sale ... by the international auction house, Sothebys. My eyes swept over the deserted windows. Apart from myself, the only people in sight were the gardeners, who had driven in from out of town to keep the flowers in a riot of colour. The property owners were apparently at one of their other multi-million dollar homes; it was not the ski season after all.

Given this obvious display of wealth, it was surprising to see the town had a McDonalds. It is unclear exactly who frequented this. Possibly it was there because every American town must have such an object. Or it could have been there to pacify the black bears, whose regular presence was evident from the extremely complex trash cans. Sadly, I did not get to see a bear during my visit. If I had though, lopping a big mac at it might have seemed like a good option.

I might have altitude sickness but you, you my large pawed friend, now have heart disease, kidney failure and gummed up arteries! Ha!

In anycase, to compensate for this common monstrosity, Aspen felt the need for four large art galleries within view of one another. These exhibition stores sold nothing less that full wall-sized pieces. I attempted to buy a card in one but the concept did not appear to be understood.

Our own apartment had a huge living room with a balcony and a compulsory ski closet outside. I might have been tempted to stay, but the third week in Aspen swept in a cold wind to remind us that the town's actual inhabitants would soon return. I remarked on this sudden change of weather to a friend who replied:

"Well, we've just had labor weekend. It marks the end of summer."

... Huh. Who would have thought the calendar would be so accurate?
pergamond: (Alanna: won't look back)

"The canyon beckons across the ages for you to slow your pace, even for a little while. Take your time, touch a juniper tree, listen to the river, feel the breeze, and you will see beyond the brink of time."


Words to rival even the Scientology orientation video and I could not help feeling, as I read the pamphlet over a friend's shoulder, that the rangers of the Gunnison National Park spent a little too much time alone.

The Black Canyon of Gunnison National Park is named on account of the steepness of its sides, causing its interior to be shrouded in inky shadows. It has an average depth of 2,000 ft, extending to a maximum of 2,722 ft and a total length of 53 miles, 14 of which are inside the park. It is also narrow, with a minimum rim-to-rim distance of 1,100 ft, closing to a mere 40 ft at the river on its bottom. This water stream (otherwise known as the Colorado River), undergoes one of the steepest drops in North America from the surrounding mountain peaks and it is the force of this that had created the canyon over millions of years.

The guide we had acquired from a box at a trail head took us round on a short loop of ten observations points. The canyon itself was the obvious highlight, the likes of which seemed hard to match since they then told us to examine the shrubs. The quote above actually came from the rangers' log book, but when we stopped by the north side ranger's station, it was deserted apart from a board for rock climbers to sign in and out on. Possibly, upon the log book being read, the quote had been stolen for visitor information publications and the ranger himself sent for intensive shock treatment. 

The climbers we spotted as multicoloured dots against the black stone of the canyon. One stretch of the canyon's side is known as the 'Painted Wall' and is the tallest vertical wall in the state of Colorado with a height of 2,250 ft. This is a popular spot for, our guide warned us, experienced climbers. As we watched them cling to invisible ropes like small brightly coloured beetles, I felt that a hefty dose of insanity was required too. If they lived, perhaps they went on to become park rangers.

The summary then, must surely be left to the same rangers who also noted in their official log:

"More importantly, though, the scene jolts us, awakening our senses toward the gorge. The clock that ticks away our lives seems very distant, and visiting the canyon is a way we can experience time on our own terms."

... the ranger station could be empty for a while.
pergamond: ([She-rah] Triumphant)


Bouncing around to my iPod the first week I arrived in Aspen, I sprinted up the hill to our rented apartment. Blasting through my headphones, 'The Scissor Sisters' had just finished their chorus line of "I can't decide whether you should live or die" when their question became completely academic as I doubled over on the side-walk heaving for breath.

I .... must have .... the fitness .... of .... a ......

I looked around, but frankly everything right then looked fitter than I was. Including the large statue of a bear and the rectangular postal box, which was looking positively svelte. Head swimming, I staggered up the remainder of the road and tumbled through my door to collapse on the coach.... whereupon I was confronted with a brochure lying on the coffee table, detailing all the fun you could have at 8000 feet.

8000 feet above sea level. 

Aspen is high.

I scooped up the pamphlet which suggested gondolas, horse-back riding and family hikes. Oddly, it did not suggest breaking into sudden sprints up hills because 'The Scissor Sisters' had a faster beat that 'Owl City'.

While still too low to be a serious problem, there was no doubt that Aspen's altitude was noticeable. At 8000 feet, Oxygen in the air has dropped by about 25%. It you were to make the summit of the highest peaks at 14,000 feet, then it would have dropped by 40%. I had a headache for several days, stuffy nose, I ran out of breath quickly and my recovery time was shot to pieces. I felt the Physics department rather emphasised the problem by offering free bike rental.

Rather than taking a bike, I took the pamphlet's advice to heart and bought a week's pass for the gondolas. One of these led from the centre of Aspen to the summit of the aptly named "Aspen mountain". The other led up from the nearby resort town of Snowmass. Once at the top, there were hikes that looped around in trails along the mountain ridges.

Completing a few of these hikes revealed an important fact; the best views were from where the gondola deposited you. This had actually been true of our trip to Maroon Bells too, where the bus left you by the scenic shores of Maroon lake, but you had the option of walking much further. I have to say, I found this faintly unrewarding, but it probably saved on countless mountain rescue operations for a bunch of fainting tourists. The Aspen gondola even had a jazz concert at its summit, surrounded by many deck chairs.

It was a hint.
pergamond: (Eiji Inui Juice)

It was a dangerous decision. According to the presentation we had yesterday, the chances of us all returning alive were slim. We were supposed to be staying in our nice safe bear-proof physics office.  Yet we ignored it all and went for a hike. We didn't even bring along an expert.

The chosen site for our inevitable demise was Maroon Bells, one of the best known beauty spots around Aspen. A bus ran from the town up to Maroon Lake where a trail led up to a second pool, Crater Lake. So popular is this wilderness park that no cars are allowed inside the boundaries between 9am and 5pm, unless they have a special overnight permit. To further minimise damage from people, no electricity or water system is run up the mountain. Instead, solar panels provide basic power to the information station and the toilets are the latest flush-less compost systems (a.k.a. pits).

In fact, such precautions are still not enough to guard against environmental damage. A short way into our walk we passed a dispenser bin for "disposable travel toilets". These were bags for ... poo ... that backpackers could use (multiple times per bag, no less) and carry their poo with them to dispose of in the trash at the end of their hike. Apparently, the weather conditions in the Rockies are such that human waste can only decompose four months of the year which just isn't long enough for the annual influx of campers. But don't worry -- the instructions said reassuringly -- the bags are double lined to prevent against leaks.

While Alaska has the highest peaks in the USA, Colorado has the highest average elevation of any of the states. Where we started in the Maroon Bells scenic area, it was 9,580 feet and we walked to around 10,100 feet. The path weaves through a thick forest of Aspens from which the nearby town takes its name. Aspens (we learnt on the bus on the way to the park) reproduce by setting down a long root system from which genetically identical trees spring. Biologists consider the resulting cloned forest (which can extend to 100s of acres) an individual body, resulting in the Aspen being classed as the largest single organism on Earth. I watched the thousands of quaking trees and was irrefutably reminded of 'The Day of the Triffids' in which bioengineered plants move to take over the world. It was an unnerving concept but with one silver lining; our bus driver told us that the population of fast growing Aspens were protecting the slower growing juvenile pines who would eventually mature and take over the mountain side. Perhaps I should buy the URL www.pineskiresort.com in preparation for the necessary rename and secure my fortune.

The path through the military tree infestation was rocky underfoot and surprisingly hard going, possibly due to the altitude. Of course, then we mislaid the path entirely and became horribly lost.

.... back at the Physics Center yesterday's speaker was probably pouring himself one very smug cup of coffee.

We survived on wild raspberries and were shrieked at by a pika (I might have provokingly called it a tail-less rat) before rejoining the actual route half an hour later and continuing on to the lake. Bouncing over to the water in relief, I proceeded to sink ankle deep into the mud and be laughed at thoroughly by my advisor while I painstakingly hauled my way free.

It was sad. And muddy. And wet. I complained. No one cared. That was sad too. And muddy. And wet. Bah D:

Once I was free and promised many facebook profile pictures from everyone's camera, our group of seven split into three parties. Two people went on for a three day hike (complete with a poo bag), two went to nab a local peak and I with the more sensible British contingent continued on past the lake for an hour and then turned back.

As we reached the first lake again, we came across signs placed by the US Forest Service. Their name for 'The Maroon Bells' is 'The Deadly Bells'. Apparently, climbers die frequently by underestimating how unstable the peaks are, causing ropes to slip and rocks to fall on even experienced mountaineers. Of course, there was now nothing to worry about. We were safely on our way home and our companions ... well ... they had laughed at my mud incident.
pergamond: ([PoT] Ryoma // !)
With the weekend looming, the organisers at the Aspen Center for Physics gave a short presentation on hiking in the local area. The sun was shining as we entered the auditorium, lighting up inviting green hills up which a stream of gondolas were gaily making their way. Everyone from the elderly professors to the young researchers clutching babies was keen to get outside.

The speaker was a retired Physicist from Chicago who started his speech with a clear pronouncement that he proceeded to repeat:

"If you want to go hiking, you should find someone who has been before. What we call an expert."

I looked sceptically out at the landscape around one of America's most up-scale tourist centres. Of course, all hiking had risks, but the walks around Aspen were not known for being technically difficult. Our guide however, was most insistent. A waterproof coat was essential if you were even looking in the direction of a mountain. As was a topologically detailed map, a cell phone (although this wouldn't work, so relying on it would result in DEATH) and you should inform at least three people and a lamppost where you were going and when you were expected back.

It was sound advice but presented with a strong side-dollop of terror, which swiftly became the main course as our host warmed up to the theme.

For Cinderella, the time of destruction was midnight, but for us hikers in Aspen, it was midday. Be up on the mountain after this time and a lightening storm would descend upon you, causing your hair to stand on end and leaving you nowhere to run. Then you would be electrocuted and promptly eaten by a bear. The end.

These instructions were followed by a tale of warning about a Physicist from the centre who went missing for three days. Apparently, despite having a topological map and other appropriate equipment, he became lost. Because he was a loner, no one noticed he was gone until his wife called the Sheriff's office after not hearing from him for two nights.

That could be YOU, you friendless socially awkward geeks

was the unvocalised message.

After fifteen minutes, a blue booklet listing walks was waved at us and our speaker departed with a cheerful, "I strongly encourage you all to get out and about!"

There was stunned silence in the auditorium.

This event was directly followed by a seminar on 'crumpling'. Yep, that's right. An entire scientific talk on crumpling paper. Or Physicists. Somehow it was oddly appropriate.

Go west

Aug. 24th, 2010 07:14 pm
pergamond: ([He-Man] Orko // ehhh?)
Sharing the driving on long journeys might naively be considered an act worthy of encouragement. Car rental companies, however, appear to relish the prospect of a single jet-lagged aeroplane passenger, probably freshly arrived from the UK, Australia or Japan, taking out a vehicle they have never driven before on a long road trip starting at the edge of a major city. As such, they charge exorbitant rates for adding a second driver to the rental agreement. This phenomenon resulted in me taking advantage of Alamos' alternative solution of free coffee, before heading out from Denver airport to the ski resort town of Aspen.

The first part of the journey ran straight along the highway. Normally this would be an uninteresting route, but it was marked by me having the dubious honour of being the only sober driver on the road. Our first encounter with the upshot of this situation was a car just in front of us that was positioned in the lane about as centrally as the right-wing player in a hockey game. So far over was the vehicle that two of its wheels were running in the narrow hard shoulder. Deciding that this was not a person I wished to be behind, I overtook, allowing us a great view of the driver actually drinking behind the wheel.

Any illusions that we might have harboured of this being an isolated incident were swept aside by the electronic road signs. There must have been at least half a dozen, all flashing messages about fines incurred for DUI. The law, one stated, was cracking down, which rather implied this was a new initiative. Police cars littered the road side, pulling over cars on both sides of the highway. I should have pointed them half a mile back to our friend with the centring problem.

Since we were passing through the mountains, the road went through a series of fairly steep dips and peaks. This must have been an issue for large trucks, since sheer run off ramps, resembling the world's best skateboard playground, led off the road at frequent intervals. Despite the encouragement of my supervisor, I refrained from trying one out in our corolla. Worryingly, one of the only non drunk driver signs I saw requested those without breaks to not take the next turn.

Rather to my relief, a couple of hours later saw us leaving the highway and weaving into the mountains. The route was winding and narrow in places, with a number of hairpin 180 degree turns. My GPS unit apparently grew weary of it, since at one point it directed us to a track I could barely make out, that was unmarked by road signs. Evidently, it thought the time had come to go straight over a mountain. As with its suggestion regarding leaping the bridge at the US border, I ignored it. 

The main hazards on this part of the trip were not the roads, the GPS unit or the drunk drivers, but the wildlife. It was now late at night and the roadsides were peppered with deer, foxes, rabbits, raccoons and even a coyote. The raccoons comprised of a family, with two adults and a slightly smaller stripey beast. This diminutive one stopped right before my wheel to have a good examination of the red shiny machine before it finally conceded to move along. I could have taught it a lesson, but there seemed little point if it wouldn't have lived to benefit from the education.

Aspen itself is beautiful, as was revealed when we surfaced the next morning (from our beds, not a ditch, in case anyone was doubting my driving ability). Houses that I'd need to marry a movie star to own are scattered on the hillside and the town, when not in ski-season, hosts many different cultural groups including musicians, Shakespeare performers, ballet camps and, um, physicists. I couldn't help but wonder, as I walked through the streets in a tee-shirt and khakis, whether the person who suggested the institute was still allowed a home inside the town boundaries.

I have been put in an apartment with the two other British postdocs in our workshop. We have bought 100 teabags.
pergamond: (Alanna: won't look back)
My Mum once told me about a PR video she saw at work. It showed a foreign client talking to a receptionist. At the end of the piece, people were asked for their thoughts and they all agreed that the man had been very rude and brusque. It turned out that if you translated his words directly into his native tongue, he was actually being incredibly polite. This was put forward as an example to not take everyone at face value.

I decided to apply this principal when I went through USA border control this afternoon after my return flight from Tokyo. For the questions posed to me, I simply translated their words into those I am sure they meant.

Your J1 visa has expired. What are you doing here?
Welcome back to America; the country in which you have paid taxes and made your home for the previous five years. We are delighted to see you again. What brings you back to us?

When will you leave?
For how long will we have the pleasure of your presence during this visit?

[Muttered] Welcome to America.
Welcome to America!

To which I replied:

[Brightly] Thank you!
I don't like you either.

The process was short though, and not nearly as bad as I thought it might be. You are not supposed to enter the USA as a tourist without a return plane ticket and of course, this was my return plane ticket from when I left Florida four months ago. Since I ultimately drive to Canada, I had brought a pile of paper work including my new job contract to prove my intention to leave, but this was only checked once at the Tokyo end and not at the border.

So hello from the flip side, people! Now everyone has to prey for that bottle I bought in the Tokyo duty-free and had to stuff into my checked luggage at Dallas to be transferred to Florida. If it cracks, my poor Totoro will get soused. That's completely inappropriate for a sweet anime character.

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