Category Archives: Travel

Business Brisk in the Sonoran Desert

The air conditioner was roaring away to keep the room at 68 degrees, a temperature that is normally tolerable yet feels cold when you enter in from 100 degree heat. It was 8 o’clock, the sun had set behind the mountains, and I was sweaty and tired from travel and a long dinner in Tempe. This was my first business trip, the first time I’d have to sit through day after day of meetings followed by evenings socializing with my coworkers, and I was glad that I had gotten in on Sunday to see some of Phoenix prior to the week ahead.

I laid out my clothes for the morning, checked in on the coffee maker, and read for a while before going to bed. In the middle of the night I woke up cold, my head whirling with the sound of the fan, and shut it off, only to wake up again, not long later, hot and stuffy. I made the mistake of thinking that the night had cooled the desert, when it had not; in Phoenix, the climate must be artificially controlled at all hours of the day, for the greater part of the year.

I do not think that I could ever live contently in such a place. I would always long for green pastures and roaring rivers, the lands of plenty that succored my ancestors in the evolutionary past. Having read too many post-apocalyptic books, I would also be concerned about the remote possibility of civilization collapse. In such a scenario, Phoenix’s millions would be left scavenging for food and water in a parched wasteland where the only things in abundance are open space and sun.

In our post-scarcity high-tech economy, open space and sun are exactly the things that has attracted millions of people people and companies like my own, to settle in this sprawling desert metropolis. In this day and age, it makes perfect economic sense to build up the desert. Even from an environmental perspective, it’s not a bad idea, since air conditioning uses less power than heating, and the areas where it is needed are full of solar energy. Wildlife is rare and unremarkable (though some people may disagree), so one’s impact on nature is relatively light. In a weird technocratic future, I could imagine all of mankind being relegated to sparse deserts, while the rest of the land is used for minimal impact farming and grazing, and the lush forests are left open for nature. A city, anyway, creates a kind of desert of its own—so why not put people there in the first place?

There are even some good arguments for human health and happiness. Desert air is clean and clear; the sun puts you in a good mood; there are no bugs to worry about; there is enough space that you can build laterally and give people plenty of acreage for their homes; when the heat is tolerable in winter you go outside, and when not you can sit in the cool of your home or one of the dozens of malls. So why was I still opposed, at an instinctual level, to the idea of a place like Phoenix existing?

The first day of the conference, I wore jeans and a short-sleeve button-down. At noon I changed into a long-sleeve and an undershirt. I doubt that the thermostat was set much lower than 70, but when air-conditioning continues to run, the air gets drier and drier and the soft blow of the cold air can give your skin a chill.

We had imported the brisk, windy climate of business into our halls of work, here in the fiery desert of central Arizona. Cold climate and business go hand-in-hand, and the modern work environment is a product of cold northern Europe. Heat and mentally taxing work don’t mix well; a certain crispness of the air is necessary to keep the brain functioning optimally.

The conference hall, and the hotel at large, had very few windows, and those they had were small. At the back of the hall there were a few that were covered in dark drapes. As you approached, you could feel the heat intensify. At breaks I would go outside to warm up and to experience what I could of the local climate. The air was so dry that it vacuumed all the moisture out of my lungs and throat. Most of the heat seemed to come off the ground. I felt nauseous going back and forth from the heat to the air-conditioned interior.

At night, when the meetings were finally over, I would eat with my coworkers, enjoying the sense of camaraderie, but after a couple of nights, I needed some time alone. After happy hour one night, I slipped out and headed toward a Mexican restaurant close to downtown. The wide Phoenix freeways were hotter than they had been at noon. With the AC going full blast, I periodically cracked the window in amazement. In the heat at night, cars moved across the lanes with nervous carelessness, like nocturnal animals swaggering out toward a feast.

The restaurant called itself a “Modern Taqueria” and served fresh, Tex-Mex style food that appealed to yanquis like myself. I sat at the bar. The waitresses were mostly second- or third-generation immigrants. Tattoos and piercings were common but not excessive. People seemed down-to-earth, focused on their services jobs and making ends meet. After spending days among software engineers and product managers, it was relaxing to be among the woking class locals.

After dinner, I walked around the adjoining parking lot and strip mall. There was a freshness to the earth here; humans had not been living and dying here for centuries. (Unlike Germany, where I had lived and could always feel the presence of the dead piled on top of each other.)

As I was walking back to the car, I stared into one of the giant, mall-like buildings and saw that boys were sliding over a massive ice floor: it was full-sized hockey rink.

Driving back to the hotel, I noticed a baseball field was lit up and little leaguers were playing under the bright stadium lights. At this time of year, October, this was the only time of day they could practice, and they were not going to miss out.

As bizarre as Phoenix was, I could not conclude that it is much different than living in Alaska, where you have to heat your home 10 months out of the year. The only reason it strikes us as more acceptable is because heating has been part of our past for much longer. It’s also worth recalling that our reliance on technology has been true of every epoch. Before we settled into civilization, our stomachs had already evolved to require fire-cooked food; our exoskeleton had shrunk in adaptation to our tools for hunting and protection.

The adaptation to new places through technology and the shedding of unnecessary skills, is all part of the great human endeavor. Today, in places like Phoenix the trend has accelerated, and the amount of technical knowledge required to maintain this civilization is astounding. Civilization is no longer a choice or convenience, but a necessary adaptation. I suppose in Alaska, though, you can build your cabin, cut your own wood, and hunt to survive. In Arizona, you rely upon the collective to provide you with air-conditioners, solar panels, and irrigated or imported food.

I hate flying. I have a darker imagination than most, and I’m willing to take it to the extreme. As we took off, en route to Oakland, I imagined the cabin ripping open and our heads exploding under the pressure. Burning up in igniting jet fuel, we turned into char and then ash in a matter of minutes.

When we landed in the Bay Area, I caught an Uber and headed home. We were in the first days of fall. The seaside was close, and I could smell the fresh air even at the airport. While I’ve never felt at home in California, I was glad to be back, and felt like I was in my element now. Maybe the feeling is relative.

Yet I was fooling myself if I thought I was somehow less reliant upon civilization out here than in artificial Phoenix. Even the short drives rely upon cars and freeways, and the brilliant engineering minds who developed them. What concerns me is that, while our civilization provides us with many great wonders, it is expensive and fragile. It needs constant maintenance just to get off the ground safely. Most troubling of all, it tends toward being all-consuming, spreading into every location in search of cheaper land and resources, given the opportunity by its latest technical advances. There is no escaping it. And once it has taken over a region, there is no turning back the clock, because everyone has been made reliant upon the conveniences it provides.

Phoenix epitomizes this state of affairs, and constantly reminds us of it, which is why it is more troubling than the more temperate regions of the earth. Either that, or I just hate the strong sun and heat.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 27, 2017 in Travel


All the Hiking You’ve Been Missing in the East Bay

Get out there and start conquering the East Bay’s underused regional parks.

When you’re in the mood for a day hike, do you head over to Marin more often than not? Or even drive all the way to the Santa Cruz mountains, where you spend more time in traffic than outdoors?

Here’s a notion: You can easily avoid all the drama of these crowded, picked-over places by staying the East Bay. Within 20 miles of Oakland—the land of Oaks—there’s an abundance of sparsely populated hiking trails, with a great variety of terrain, all waiting to be trod by your hiking boots, still muddy and moldy from your humid hikes along the coast. And there’s no need to cross any bridges and pay tolls or sift through any traffic to get to there.

You’ll notice right away that East Bay hikes have more open and rougher terrain, drier land, plenty of oaks and great vistas, fewer people, and no problem finding free parking. So heed the call—Yes, In My Back Yard (YIMBY)—and get out there exploring.

Some regional parks to get started are Redwood Regional, Lake Chabot, Briones and Las Trampas. Once you’ve conquered those, you can move on to parks as distinct and diverse as Sunol, Black Diamond Mines and Morgan Territory.

If you’re looking for a particular route, you can always go to the Regional Park District’s website at for trail maps, but I tend to prefer, a private website that does an impeccable job of organizing 60 Bay Area hikes within 60 miles of San Francisco.

There are many great things about First of all, the map lets you see all of the locations, so you can find something close to you and waste as little time as possible in the car. Jane Huber, the author, provides a route that winds you through the highlights of each park, and gives important information such as the mileage, estimated time and standard weather conditions per season. The routes are mostly easy to follow, but there’s always some adventure involved, since most of the articles are over 10 years old. (And hiking guides in general seem to enjoy leaving a fair amount of ambiguity in the directions.)

For those of you who know of the site and haven’t visited it in a while, you’ll be surprised to know that it’s been updated. The browser version is a lot snazzier and the mobile version now readjusts to your device, so you can look forward to a lot less squinting and twisting your phone when attempting to follow the trails. On that note, if you’re relying on the phone to guide you, don’t forget that you’re bound to lose reception in most parks.

Happy trails. I hope to see you out there.

Leave a comment

Posted by on January 14, 2016 in California, Going out, Hiking, Tourism, Travel


Honeymoon 2015

Dan and Marta’s lune de miel trip through Poland and the Czech Republic.

On April 26, 2014, Marta and I got married in Lake Tahoe. Instead of taking our honeymoon right after, we decided to hold off until our Polish wedding with Marta’s family the following year.


Second day of the second wedding.

Americans may make a big deal about weddings these days, but so do Poles—in a different way though. The emphasis isn’t so much on proving your individualism, but rather on pleasing and entertaining your family and friends through constant spectacle. Like something out of a fairy tale, Polish weddings last for two days, and you put everyone up in a hotel for the night in between. Although our wedding was indeed entertaining, suffice it to say that by the second day, we were pretty exhausted and ready to head out on our trip.

To complicate matters, the day before we were planning to leave for the trip, we drove to drop Peter off to see his family in Kamieniec Zabkowicki and I made the fatal blunder of leaving my iPhone cable—the only one I had brought for both of us—at his grandparent’s house. It wasn’t till we got back in Lisięcice, 60 miles away, that I noticed it was missing. Going in the opposite direction of our first destination was not something I was open to doing. On the bright side, we had the chance to see the sublime Kamieniec Palace as well as the abbey and medieval church while we were visiting his family.

The charger missing, most of the day before of our voyage was spent trying to find various ways of finding a replacement, especially since we were going to rely heavily on battery-draining Google Maps to help us navigate the backroads of Poland and the Czech Republic. Marta’s family, in typical Polish fashion, ran around the house, to stores, and through all of their supplies, trying to find us a different one, but we just couldn’t seem to get one to work. Apple’s disabling “non-genuine devices” really screwed us over. Eager to get on the road, I said that I had enough battery to get us to Krakow—dubious though that was—and that we could pick up a new one there. There would be no postponing the trip, that much was certain.

The Fiat Doblo - 1.9 L diesel, manual beast

The Fiat Doblo – 1.9 L diesel, manual beast.

So with the whole extended family worried, we took off the next morning in the green diesel Fiat Doblo, and started our way to the bustling city of Krakow. As we drove out of town, I felt an initial elation to be out and on our own again—there’s nothing quite like that feeling of roaring off into the distance in pursuit of adventure and the unknown and away from the comforts of home life.

On our way, near Katowice, some light rain fell as we arrived at our first waypoint to meet Jacek and Dominika, a nice couple who came to the wedding, Dominka being an old friend of Marta’s. They served us good coffee, cake, and a full meal of spinach crepes. Truth be told, we were both still full from the constant eating of the wedding, but the food was so good that we powered on regardless. Dominika was pregnant then and Jacek was working from home. After good conversation, we said our goodbyes, knowing it’d be a long time before we saw each other again.

First Stop: Krakow

Great place in Krakow!

Great place in Krakow!

An hour later, the rain cleared as we made it into Krakow. I had booked us an Airbnb near Old Town for two nights, which included parking. In the end, this place would turn out to be the best one we had during the whole trip: the bed was comfortable, the place was spotless, and we were in walking distance to everything. After checking in and relaxing, we wasted no time in heading to see some of the sights.

We walked past the university and to the main square, explored the marketplace, and went up into one of the towers. Storm clouds started to form and it was nearing dinner time, but we were too excited and wanted to get a quick view of the town and its offerings.


Krakow Town Square.

In Krakow, I already felt back in old Europe, with its rich history and architecture. This city already embodied everything I love about Europe: medium-sized cities of medium-density, somehow the ideal balance for human creativity and progress, not too sparse and barren and atomized as American cities and small towns, nor too dense, crowded, overwhelming, and coldly modern as Asian cities. There is something in Europe that always is on the human scale, a legacy of humanism, itself an outgrowth of Christianity’s human God. From the Renaissance onwards, everything in Europe—up to, of course, modernism—speaks to our natural human senses. The music is orderly and beautiful, as are the cities, the fashion, and the societies themselves. There’s a brisk, robust health to everything, and the fact that every town in Europe worth seeing is from this era, speaks of a universalism apparent in Renaissance humanism. That Europe decided to turn on itself and throw out its great civilization and traditions is one of history’s great tragedies.

These thoughts must have come out while pondering the middle age tortures as we climbed the Town Hall Tower. Despite that, my hunger continued to grow unabated. By the time we got out of the tower, we were ready to search for some food. On the way back to the room, we dined on fish at a small, underground place with odd, risqué paintings—which somehow blended the medieval with the contemporary—and then we headed in for the night.

First dinner in Krakow.

First dinner in Krakow.

The second day in Krakow we set out to conquer the city, with no plans to use the car at all. After a quick detour in which we set up a bank account and got the wedding cash out of our hands, we went to Old Town.

Marta in front of Wawel Cathedral.

Marta in front of Wawel Cathedral.

We hijacked a tour a couple of times and got some of the details on the Jagiellonians and other royal lines. The deep link between the nations of Lithuania and Poland interested me, since my last name is Lithuanian and I’m also partly of Polish heritage.

After all this, we strolled through the Jewish quarter some more, and I came across Zamoyski’s Poland: A History, which I assumed I could get elsewhere and did not purchase at the time. (For some reason, I always make this mistake.) In the end, I had to purchase it online back in America. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but wished I’d got it in Krakow. All I can really say about for now is that Polish history is a lot different than what I expected.

We learned about the German occupation and near destruction of the city. And then we walked over to the Jewish quarter and the Jewish cemetery, two areas of town filled with dark, sad memories of the occupation and holocaust. On a moderately bright note, the Jewish quarter had started to see huge renovation projects and was filling with youth and life. We dined in a small place here for lunch, then made an obligatory trip to the mall for the iPhone cable. We got a knock-off at an exorbitant $10 USD, which was to work about 60% of the time before breaking completely, barely managing to get us through the trip.

If you look very careful, you can see Korwin's gray hair and bald head.

If you look very carefully, you can see Korwin’s bald head (left of the other bald guy).

After a break at the room for a while, we headed out to a nice Italian dinner back near the main plaza, where we both enjoyed excellent risotto. After that, we walked through the plaza and caught sight of a rally at which the controversial Euro-skeptic Korwin-Mikke was in attendance.

We then headed over to a local brew pub for some of the craft beers. Although Polish craft beer has a long ways to go, it was nice to see it up and coming in Krakow.

Second Stop: Zakopane

Our second waypoint was a bit out of the way of our final destination, but I was eager to get a taste of the Polish mountains, so we headed there in full force to a small hotel in Ząb, the highest place in Poland, which promised the respite of a sauna.

The Fiat had no trouble making it in the hills, but we barely managed to find our way around the confusing mountain town to the small inn. Although the chalet was cold and empty, we had a great view looking out at the mountain ranges.

Overlooking Zakopane, before taking the tram down.

Overlooking Zakopane, before taking the tram down.

Wasting no time, we drove off in search of the tram to take us into Zakopane. We had a tough time finding our way around the mountains. We had to ask some locals where we were going, but finally ended up in some strange area with a parking lot and a mountain tram to take us into Zakopane. And . . . oh my! What a tourist trap it was. I did enjoy the local cheese, but I really was not expecting so many miles of trinkets and junk. The town looked kind of like a section of Disney World. Really shocking. Fortunately, we did get to try some mountain-style kasha (hearty buckwheat) and then we headed back in for a nice evening of beer and relaxation in the sauna.

The next day was a big one. We planned to hike Morskie Oko, the “Sea Eye” deep in the Tatra Mountains along the Slovak border. Although it was early May and we knew there’d be some weather to deal with, we still assumed it wouldn’t anything extreme. The hike itself was 8 kilometers in and 8 back—not too much for us seasoned hikers, but still a full outing hike. So out we went with our Converse sneakers and a standard urban jackets. Umbrellas, yes, but nothing much else for weather. Anyway—what could happen in May in the mountains?


Morskie Oko in May, 2015.

At the start, the sky was a bit gray, but I couldn’t help relishing the views and the freshness of the air. Mountain air, in Poland or America or anywhere else, is always refreshing and enlivening—there’s something holy about it. The path was paved, so it wasn’t too extreme of a hike and we were moving along quickly, until about halfway in the rain began to fall heavily. We carried on for another 4 kilometers through this rain, passing waterfalls and seeing more and more snow on the ground. Then at last, completely soaked, we made it to the great lake, the Eye of the Sea—frozen solid amid the snow-capped mountains, our hands and extremities frozen and wet.


Standing on Morskie Oko in May. Life is great.

Most people like to spend their honeymoons in some hot, touristy location. In America, they go to Hawaii or the Bahamas, depending on the coast they reside nearest to; in Europe, they may go to Spain or Italy—or better yet, to Tunisia or Egypt. Often, people “don’t leave the room,” as the joke goes, or if they do, they just go down to the pool to relax, drink, eat and spend hours on end in the sun. We met people who visited north Africa but stayed in the hotel or resort the whole time, even failing to get out and see some of the major sites. But a Bablinskas honeymoon? That’s not for us. We’ll go to the mountains—covered in snow if they happen to be, no matter cold or storm, no matter if we only have an old Fiat diesel to get around and that the only place we have to stay is a random chalet in a tiny mountain town. We get out day and day again, exploring new haunts and never letting anything get in our way.

On the way down from the mountain, we were pretty damn tired and wet, so we shelled out the money to take the horse cart back down. The Poles sat there with us, smiling and soaked. When we got to the car, we popped across the border to Slovakia for a quick picture, and then headed back in for food and a relaxing night at the hotel. We ordered a giant pizza for dinner, whose leftovers (along with some mayonnaise for Marta) were to become an interesting part of our next leg of the journey.

Third Stop: Brno

The next morning we got up early and packed up the car. It was damn cold and we were at a high altitude so the engine took some time to roar to life. This was the first time I was worried the little beast might not last the whole trip. The day was to be rainy and we had quite a lot of ground to cover: we were finally going to get into the Czech Republic. After winding our way through the hills of Poland for a few hours in heavy rain, and over numerous potholes and rough roads, we made it to the Polish-Czech bordertown of Cieszyn. Here we stopped for a coffee and saw a giant Rubik’s cube some ancient relics from the Swedish invasion of the area.

Rubik's Cube in Cieszyn.

Rubik’s Cube in Cieszyn.

As we were getting back on the road and preparing to enter the Czech Republic, I fired up the Fiat and told Marta to get the map ready so we could get going. At the time she was trying to eat her pizza that she had covered in mayo. She couldn’t see why I was in a hurry to get out of the parking lot (our ticket there had expired, and I didn’t want to have to dish out any more money), so I kept going and kept asking her to get the map started on the phone.

There was a verbal altercation about the status of the map and let’s just say that the pizza and mayo didn’t exactly end up where I hoped they would. I pulled off to clean my face and clothes while Marta now prepared the map at her speed.

Finally we entered the Czech Republic and were soon on the vast, beautiful highway heading towards Brno. Not long after we got into the clean, sleek town and made our way to our modern-looking hostel. As usual, we headed right for downtown to check out the city, since we’d only have one night here.


Doing what I do best – this time in Brno.

Despite being cleaner than Poland, there was something a bit colder about the Czech town—maybe it was the lack of religion, or maybe it had just more fully integrated into the Western sphere (the two could be related). It was nice, but there wasn’t really anything very characteristic about the city itself. There was a good-sized, open square, but very few cafes or eateries sat against it, unlike in Krakow, where the square bustled with life and character. There weren’t many Medieval or other historical landmarks either. Well, what can I say I expected… Brno isn’t much covered in guidebooks, probably for a reason. But we did get some good food and beer. I was glad to have a real Pale Ale—I’d been missing the kind of beer that the Czech Republic could provide me.

Last Stop: Prague

The next day we started off toward Prague, crossing most of the Czech nation in the process, moving along the beautiful highway again. Marta had long had the opinion that the Czech Republic was Poland’s smarter, more sophisticated older brother, always beating the latter by just a hair—better roads and cities, a higher standard of living, more integrated into the West, and so forth. In general, she thought that the grass really was greener in the Czech Republic. She remarked at the quality of the roads, but also of the countryside, which was cleanly groomed and had more of a gentle roll to it, as opposed to Poland’s bleak flatness interspersed with shabby towns and unkempt forest. I did notice  a bit of a difference, but I didn’t find it to be so great, and I did like that Poland seemed to have a stronger identity than the Czech Republic, but to be honest, I liked them both about equally and for different reasons.

Beer and sausage. We're not hard to please.

Beer, sausage, bread. We’re not hard to please.

As we got close to Prague, we saw a sign on the highway for a castle in a small town in Central Bohemia, so we took our chances and pulled off the road. Marta expertly navigated me toward the castle, which was on a hill in the center of the small town. There happened to be a marathon going on at the time, and the finish line was passing right through the castle. We didn’t think we were intruding too much, so we sat with the people at the finish line and had ourselves some grilled sausages, beer, and bread. It was about as perfect as a meal can get.

A couple of hours later we sped into Prague and managed to find our way to the agency downtown that provided our key to the Airbnb. The flat was in a protected building with German writing all over it. It had a parking garage, which solved our main concern and would let us keep the car out of our minds for the rest of our time there. Inside, the room was very poorly cleaned—which irked us quite a bit. It was a Russian agency, and I called them up and they said that the cleaning lady was on her way. To our chagrin, she didn’t clean the place very well. Oh well, we were just there to sleep and see the city. It would do.


Only in Prague.


Only in Prague (part 2).

That afternoon, we took a long detour through a park, then made our way down to Old Town for some dinner. What can I say about Prague that hasn’t been said? It was great to be back in this Bohemia. The town appeared richer and cleaner than my last visit, also less Eastern and more Western. At heart it’d become “just another Western European city,” which is in many ways a good thing, given the increase in prosperity and variety, but in other ways a bit sad.

The following morning we a went on one of Sandeman’s free walking tours back in Old Town. Our guide was a witty Bavarian who took us through a crash course in the ups-and-downs of Czech history, writ-large all over the city of Prague. Despite the aforementioned, this is truly the best time to be alive in the Czech Republic. Europe survived the religious wars of the Middle Ages and the Reformation, survived the wars of the colonial powers, of Nazism and Communism, and at last came out of it all with a reasonable standard of living and the framework for a successful civilization. This was a very long, painful process, costing the West millions of lives, so it’s sad to see now, at this pinnacle of progress, that everyone is losing their belief in Western values and the elites are working overtime to undermine their societies. In any case, it’s not a bad time to be alive in Eastern Europe—and it may end up being one of the freest parts of the globe in the not-so-distant future.


Marta in front of the Estates Theater.

The next day, we saw a good deal more of the city, including the Charles Bridge, where jazz music played and artisans worked on crafts. We finished up some shopping, getting gifts for family and friends, and had more good local food. That final evening, we ended with a trip to the Mozart opera in the Estates Theater, which was a perfect way to bring our honeymoon to close, despite Cosi Fan Tutti not being a very honeymoon-esque opera. Afterward, we stepped out into the night—the black brick of the city was all lit up orange and a light rain was falling. We hopped in to a bus, and it felt good to be in the warmth among the evening commuters.

And it was over. The next morning we packed up and started the car, and headed all the way back to Lisięcice, Poland.

Leave a comment

Posted by on December 15, 2015 in Europe, Travel


Nocturnal nations: Argentina and Spain

The Argentines must be the most nocturnal people on the face of the earth. Although this tradition clearly derives from Spain, the Argentines have taken it to a new level. Whereas on the continent, the nocturnal Spaniards will eat around 10 or 11 and begin filling the bars and clubs around 12 or 1, the Argentines eat around midnight and don’t make it to the bars and clubs around 3 AM. You can go out at 8 or 9 and see empty bars. You can pass by around midnight and see them with still just a few loafing foreigners. It’s not until 4 or 5 in the morning do you see them full and bustling with activity both inside and out. The whole city is suddenly alive and scampering with people who came out of the high multi-leveled flats, feeling at last the call of life. As in Spain, you do not really feel the extreme density of the cities until you have experienced the night life. But the night life occurs at such odd hours in Argentina, that you’re better off adapting to it by holding a completely different sleep schedule.

I actually did live with one fellow who was nocturnal. He was a student and I was living in a kind of student boarding house, a noisy, dirty place full of young Argentines and other South Americans. He slept upwards of 18 hours a day and did not stir until dinnertime. The guy was a large, strong, bearlike, bearded type from the south of the country. He’d roll into bed late in the morning, usually when I was getting up after a difficult night of sleep (the constant noise was really taking its toll on my sanity).  And he would stay there, snoring quietly, rolling over now and then, until around 10 or 11 at night, just in time to catch a shower before going to eat.

I remember overhearing him at dinner saying that he felt so tired. He rubbed his eyes and brushed his hair back. His eyes were red. His sleeping habit was wreaking havoc on his system. He was becoming more and more tired and lethargic the more he slept. Yet he continued for as long as I lived there. A 20-year old man living like this. He didn’t work or show any real ambition, but he was an excellent classical guitarist. He studied something or other at the university but I never saw him crack a book my whole time there. I don’t even think he went to class. As for partying, I didn’t see him as one to go out very much either. He was mostly sleeping and eating. And when he ate, after just having awoken, he would be yawning the whole time, and in some cases would go straight back to bed after.

Needless to say, he’s not representative of the Argentine nation, just another case in an otherwise nocturnal-leaning country. I remember going out to extravagant meals with my coworkers around 10 or 11 and seeing whole families–mom, pop, grandma and grandpa, the kids, the relatives, etc.–eating together as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Sunday morning around 11 AM, Buenos Aires appears like a city following an Neutron Bomb explosion, in which all the people have died and all the lights are out, but the buildings remain intact. It’s probably the best time to go sight seeing because of this, but can be a bit lonely for the wayfaring tourist.

In Spain, however, people don’t really adjust their lives to the weekend rite of going out late; they just bear out the long Friday and Saturday nights and still remain throughout the week on normal European hours. This is of course because they are part of Europe and the EU and must maintain those standard hours of the common market. Since they also want to enjoy their drawn-out  Spanish evenings, you see something similar to what happens on Friday and Saturday night, though less pronounced—the streets are mostly empty for a long time, then the restaurants fill up around 10, and the bars shortly afterward. Then the Metro suddenly swarms alive with people, bedecked in their most alluring and provocative clothing. The whole thing sometimes feels like a pagan rite, an ancient tradition stemming all the way back to the Roman era when circenses were partaken with a deep gusto and guiltless pleasure-seeking. I do not know if it this has recurred due to Spain’s sudden lapse in  Catholicism and the end of Franco, or if this was something that always was there in Spanish culture, a deep love of the nocturnal pleasures. Whatever the case, it all happens like clockwork and doesn’t seem to depend on the weather, the economy, or the weekend. Whenever and wherever, the cities will fill to the brim with life on Friday and Saturday night, but only after 10 o’clock.

Although I say this is indeed pleasure seeking behavior as if that were a bad thing, I have to add that in many respects it’s more civilized than what you see in the Anglo or northern European countries. In Spain and Argentina, the night is long and slow. People do not drink until their head hangs over the toilet bowl, starting at 8 and passing out by 2. They start sipping a light beer or glass of wine, and spend most of their meal time chatting loudly. Then they enjoy a few more drinks sprinkled with more food and then go out dancing. Conversation rarely turns frank and philosophical, as it does among Anglos and other Europeans, and things rarely take a dark turn into drugs or fighting. The conversation and flow remains light at all times; there is a surprising lack of conflict and restraint, although the conversational style often comes off as argumentative. (The way to talk in Spain is for everyone to yell at once and the loudest person to be heard. If you want to order something you have to go up and be the loudest person to talk and ask in the most direct way imaginable. Otherwise, you’ll never get any service. I think this is a Mediterranean trait and can come off as crass to outsiders, but you have to understand that it’s normal to them and they don’t think they’re coming off as harsh.)

Also, there aren’t as many different subgroupings in Spain and Argentina: fewer Goth clubs, or hip-hop clubs, or rock-only pubs, etc. There’s a homogeneity to the culture, which leads to a generic bar and club style: the bars are for eating over beer and chatting while listening to pop and the clubs are more for drinking harder alcohol and mixed drinks while listening to techno and some more trendy American pop. So people tend to follow the same trends and there is less of a sense that people only go to one type of pub, club, or other venue and only listen to one type of music. Less variety, to be sure, but less isolation as well.

Lastly, I’ll add that in all this night life, random coupling “hooking up” doesn’t occur–believe it or not–as often as you’d suspect. Women and men do show off and dress up, but they are out to have fun, not to find a one-night stand. Your chances are much better with the women of northern Europe if that’s what you seek. There are a few reasons for this. Usually Spaniards and Argentines go out in self-contained groups that do not associated with other people. They may encounter friends and join with them, but they do not usually venture to meet strangers. And the groups can be rather large, so it although may look like autonomous people, but they are usually there together. Because of this, all the old social pressures apply (which are greater in these less individualistic countries) and especially since people aren’t plastering themselves with booze, random coupling remains rare. Of course, there’s a lot of flirtatiousness and showing off but in general going out is just a way to pass the time and socialize. The social circle is an impediment and hurdle that must be circumvented or encountered if you’re to have any luck. Generally speaking, you need to get to know people and their groups of friends to be accepted and then go on a date with someone. This may be changing, of course, but that was my experience and observation.


GasBuddy: a must-have app for road trips

I don’t generally go out of my way to recommend apps, but when it comes to road travel, there’s one that’s indispensable to saving money: GasBuddy.

When you’re on the road, the app is great for finding the cheapest close gas station. Stations right along the freeway can have a markup of up to 30 cents. In the past, rather than driving around not knowing where I was going, I would just find the nearest Arco or other discount station, and live with it. More often than not, I’d drive for about two miles and pass a significantly cheaper station. In total, this would probably lead to me paying 10-20% more on gas than I needed to.

Those days are over. Now I can find the best gas station along my entire route and plan accordingly. Furthermore, I can try to get one which will allow me to use my credit card (most of the time they’ll state whether price is cash or not) and save me another 3-5% depending on which gas-friendly card I use.

The website is also great because it shows whether prices are falling or rising. During the week, I’ll wait or hurry to get gas based on their local predictions, which are usually pretty accurate.

Road travel ain’t cheap anymore—but this is one simple way to make it more affordable.

1 Comment

Posted by on March 22, 2015 in California, Cars, Economics, Travel



San Francisco day trip to Angel Island

Believe it or not, you can do a bit of island adventuring in the San Francisco Bay. Although world-famous Alcatraz commands most of the attention, the larger Angel Island is equally impressive, especially if you’d prefer to do some hiking, see some nature and historic buildings, and have a picnic.

It’s a bit oceanic out there, so probably the best times of the year to come are on one of those rare nice summer days, fall or late spring. Weather is variable but tends to be some variety of mild. The ferry trip, accessible from both the Ferry Building and Pier 39, takes some time—up to an hour. And the trek itself is about two to three hours, depending on how many stops you take. All this is why the trek is more of a day trip, rather than a quick hike. (Note as well that you can also get there from Tiburon. Here’s a full list of ferry departures.)

This being the SF Bay, the ride can be bumpy, crowded, foggy and windy, but affords sublime views of the bay and its environs. If you’re coming from the Ferry Building, you actually pass and get a good views of all the main islands, Yerba Buena and Treasure Island, and then—when just a few miles south of Angel Island—Alcatraz.


Generally, there’s a lot of people sailing off the coast of wealthy Marin County, especially on a nice day. Filling the water with an active brilliance, their boats waltz over the water. Mere mortals aboard the ferry can look on in awe and wonder at the spectacular affair.


Upon disembarking, there are two routes for those who came to hike: a somewhat more difficult path to and around the top of the island’s hill and a path circuiting the entire island. They both take roughly two-and-a-half hours.


As a long aside, if you don’t much like walking or simply want a guided tour, you can also spend a few bucks to take a bus around the island, stopping at the main sights along the way. Or, if you don’t want a full hike, it’s not a long walk to a private beach where you can barbeque and hang out. I should not forget to mention that bikes are welcome, the island having great paths all around it. And camping, let’s not forget . . . (But there’s no wood fires, which in my book kind of defeats the purpose.) If none of that interests you, you can also just go to the local bar, and sit and have a drink while watching the sun move across the water in the harbor. Personally, though, I’d save that cold beer for after a hike.

So anyway, we did the peripheral trail. Of notable interest on the hike are the abandoned barracks and army officer buildings. There’s even a sort of abandoned city, with defunct factories and stately mansions falling into ruin and disrepair. On a foggy day they are gloomily mystical, like old industrial centers, whereas on sunny days they probably take the cast of ancient Mediterranean ruins. (Just speculating on that latter point, as you can see.)

IMG_0950 IMG_0958

For those not as into the stark melancholia of decrepit buildings as myself, there’s a lot more to see on the island: an old immigration holding station, missile sites from the Cold War, a whole a lot of precipices, vistas and hidden beaches, and a small historical museum. You can really make a whole day trip of it if you want to, seeing everything, or just do it in bits and pieces.

One last reminder though is to make sure you catch the last ferry back to wherever you’re going, which is usually not very late. The last back to San Francisco for us was 4:30.


Leave a comment

Posted by on September 29, 2014 in California, Hiking, Tourism, Travel


Turkmenistan’s Door to Hell

Over forty years ago, Soviet scientists detected a large natural gas source in what’s now Turkmenistan.

They set up a rig and got drilling. Shortly thereafter, though, the rig collapsed and formed a giant crater.


The crater, moreover, was giving off large quantities of poisonous methane gas, threatening the lives of villagers in nearby Turkmen villages.

To solve the problem in one fell swoop, the scientists decided to burn off the methane gas and then resume drilling.


After starting the fire, it expanded to cover the entire crater, but the fire neither burned off the methane gas nor abated.

In time, it became just another forgotten failure and, before too long, became part of another country.

To this day, in the Karakum Desert, the methane still blazes in the crater, creating a tourist attraction dubbed the “Door to Hell.”