Sunday, November 07, 2010

Observations from Malaysia

Standing on a Beach in Malaysia

It occurs to me that I probably need to rename the blog, since I have gone far afield from Europe since I first started it. But for now, I will leave as is, but this blog also covers trips to Africa, Asia, New Zealand, and Central America.

In October 2010 I had to make a business trip to Malaysia. This would be my first time visiting there, and I would also set foot in two other countries for the first time: Japan and Singapore. I totaled up the number of countries that I have visited while on this trip: 31 countries and 47 U.S. states.

Day 1, October 23, 2010 – I was traveling with a South African colleague (Chris) who had just finished a visit to Hawaii and was on his way back to Malaysia where he lives. We had to get up at 4 a.m. because we had a 6 a.m. flight from Kona to Honolulu. There, we connected for a 7.5-hour flight to Tokyo. I had heard that the trip to Malaysia was pretty tough, and I found that to be the case. When I am traveling between the U.S. and Europe, I generally have one long leg – 8 hours or so – and then sometimes a short leg. That can get me to get about any place between the U.S. and Europe.

For this trip, I had a 45 minute drive to the airport, a 30 minute flight to Honolulu, a 7.5-hour flight to Tokyo, a 7-hour flight to Singapore, spent the night at a hotel in the airport, and then finished with a 2-hour flight to Kuching, Malaysia. The time zone difference between Malaysia and Hawaii is similar to that between Europe and the U.S. (6 hours versus 7 hours between Dallas and Amsterdam), but it takes so long to get to Singapore that you have the time zone difference in addition to a very long day.

I slept a little on the plane to Tokyo, but mostly worked. I conducted a 40-minute interview with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy the previous week (that interview can be found here), and I spent most of the flight transcribing it. I worked on this for about 4 hours and got half of it transcribed. I took a break and watched “The Special Relationship” which detailed the intersecting careers of U.S. President Bill Clinton and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Day 2, October 24, 2010 – We crossed the International Date Line on the trip, so about 4 hours into the flight Saturday became Sunday. Tokyo’s Narita airport wasn’t much to write home about. I landed and immediately checked the score of the OU-Missouri game. OU lost their first game of the season, likely taking them out of the national championship hunt. No matter, they are a very young team and aren’t national champion caliber yet anyway (despite their #1 BCS ranking at the time of their defeat).

The airport advertized “Free Wireless Internet.” What I always find is that “free” is never really free, so while I got connected to the router I was never able to open up a web page. I kept getting “You are not connected to the Internet.”

I found a spot in the airport to work, and spent another 3 hours finishing up the interview. By then I had a migraine and had to take an Immitrex. I also had caffeine for the first time in months. I had gotten completely off of it because it triggers migraines, but I was so tired that I decided I would just get back on the caffeine train for the duration of this trip. I will have to go back to caffeine rehab when I get home in a week.

When we got on the plane to Singapore, I popped a couple of sleeping pills. We weren’t supposed to land until midnight, and on the long flight I wanted to make sure I got plenty of sleep. I woke up a few times feeling pretty stiff, but overall I was fine until I was jolted awake. I thought the plane had just had a very hard landing, but it was severe turbulence. We were about a half hour away from landing, and then we hit another patch. I would describe it as the feeling of hitting the runway much too hard. I was buckled up, so it was mostly just a bit scary, but right after the turbulence a flight attendant came on and started requesting a doctor.

We later found that someone behind us had been standing up when we hit the turbulence, and he had hit his head and lacerated it. But apparently there were others, as there was an announcement that we should all stay seated after landing because paramedics were going to board the plane and tend to “the people who were injured.” The pilot came on and apologized for the unexpected turbulence, but said “This is Southeast Asia. Those kinds of things are going to happen.” I also later received an e-mail from United apologizing for the turbulence.

Day 3, October 25, 2010 – We arrived at the airport in Singapore about midnight. I checked my watch, and noted that it was officially Monday. So we left on Saturday morning, it was now Monday, and I still had a flight ahead to get to where I needed to be.

We were staying at a hotel inside the secure area of the airport. We were told our rooms wouldn’t be ready until about 1 a.m., so we walked through the airport to find a place to eat. My favorite airport anywhere is probably Schiphol in Amsterdam, but the one in Singapore could easily become my favorite. It doesn’t feel like an airport; it feels more like a mall. There were movie theaters, all sorts of shopping, a butterfly garden, fern garden, orchid garden, and many restaurants.

When I am in a new place, I like to see what kind of music they listen to. When I first went to Germany, I recall turning on the radio to hear German music, and Snoop Doggie Dog was playing. Here, in the airport, the first two songs I heard were Fast Car by Tracy Chapman and Centerfold by the J. Geils Band.

We found ourselves a Hard Rock Café and sat down for a bite. They had free Internet in there, and I tried to log onto Facebook. It didn’t recognize the location, so it tried to authenticate me. There were two choices: They could send a text to my old cell phone number (got to update that!) or I could identify specific friends. Since I have a lot of FB “friends” that I don’t really know, I thought that would be a bad option too. So I canceled the authentication, but apparently that set off alarms and now I can’t even log in on my phone. The same thing happened when I tried to play Warcraft (which I like to do from time to time). Every time I logged in from a new place, they thought it had been hacked and locked my account.

I bought myself a shirt at the Hard Rock. My favorite t-shirt is from the Hard Rock in Berlin. It is a silky black shirt that has Berlin on the front of it and a cool design on the back. My new Singapore shirt is in the same style; it just doesn’t have as cool a design on the back.

When I got to my room, it was freezing. They had the temperature set at 5 degrees C (41 degrees Fahrenheit). I turned it up to 20 and went to bed. But three times during the night I woke up freezing, and finally had to turn it off. The only nights I have ever been colder than that were nights when I camped out in sub-freezing temperatures. So one of my coldest ever nights was spent practically on the equator.

The room itself was unusual. It is a transit hotel, and the rooms were small but clean. But what was funny was that there were curtains and blinds in front of walls. So the place had the appearance of a regular hotel room with windows, but open the curtains or blinds and you were looking at wall. There were absolutely no windows in there.

I slept well and didn’t wake up until 8. Our flight out wasn’t until 2 in the afternoon, so we had some time to kill. My friend Chris asked if I wanted to try a local breakfast of noodles and shrimp, but I was starving and needed something more filling. I would get plenty of noodles and shrimp in the days ahead. Back to the Hard Rock where we had an American breakfast and listened to an AC/DC marathon.

After breakfast I tried to get wireless Internet on my computer. At first it said I had to have a registered Singapore telephone number, but then I finally seemingly got to a page where I could just buy access for 2 hours. But my two attempts to enter my credit card number were rejected, so I settled in to just write and catch up which is what I am doing now.

I finally went to a help desk where they gave me a user name and password after I provided my passport. Chris said this is because they monitor all Internet traffic and would want to be able to detain me in case it was warranted based on my Internet usage.

We finally boarded the plane for the short flight to Kuching, Malaysia. When we landed and stepped off the plane, I said “Ah, feels like I am in Houston.” That’s exactly what Kuching felt like: Hot and sticky humid. First impressions of the place were “Not Mumbai.” I had somewhat been expecting India, but there weren’t nearly the crowds, noise, and chaos I had experienced when I first landed in India.

I had to watch it when I stepped off a curb, as they drive on the left there (which I didn’t know). I also couldn’t get over the fact that it was actually Monday; this certainly felt like a Sunday to me. I had lost a day due to crossing the International Date Line, and I was finding it hard to adjust.

We were met at the airport by Chris’s wife and two daughters. I tried to pull out cash from an ATM with no luck, and then Chris took me to my hotel. There was a sign displaying that “There are no cases of H1N1 detected in the hotel yet.” That struck me as an odd thing for a hotel to note.

In my room, I had Internet access but it was about like dial-up. Very slow, and hard to work with. I decided to catch up on my writing for a while, but after a bit I started hearing a noise. I looked out and there was quite a downpour. Chris later said that they call that “drizzle” and that a real downpour meant near zero visibility.

Giant Cat Statue in Kuching, Malaysia

We joined up with another colleague (Glen) later and went out to a bar for a few drinks. I was introduced to all of their local friends in the bar. One of them was a young girl who worked there. I found that it was often very difficult for me to determine the ages of people there, so I asked Glen “How old is she? 12?” I was told that “No, she is 32.” I wanted to take a picture of her to show people back home because it seemed so unlikely. She was only about 4 feet tall and had the face of a child. But she also had a kid of about six years with her, who I was told was her son.

We were overlooking a very broad river (the Sarawak River) that reminded me of the Mississippi. The size of the river attested to the amount of rain that they receive there, which apparently amounts to a deluge every evening. I was told that they had found piranhas in the river recently.

We left the bar to have some local food. It was really good for the most part. But one of the dishes contained sea cucumber, which I found to be really bland and rubbery. No forks in sight, so I tried my hand with the chopsticks. Mostly I got down close to the food and used them to shovel food into my mouth. But overall, we had quite a good meal before returning to the hotel for the night.

Day 4, October 26, 2010 – I woke up at 5 a.m. and started reading over the energy headlines. I also saw that Indonesia, which was the neighboring country, had been hit by a tsunami caused by a earthquake. A number of people had died, and the tsunami was followed by a volcano that also resulted in fatalities. There was apparently no impact on Malaysia’s beaches though.

I also did a bit of writing before we headed off to breakfast. We met a colleague at a local café, which I was told was a meeting place for millionaires and gangsters. You wouldn’t know it by looking at it; it appeared to be just a bustling outdoor café full of locals.

Breakfast was unusual. We started with a few spring rolls stuffed with local vegetables. Then they fed me a spicy noodle dish with shrimp. I ate it with chopsticks, which I was becoming more accustomed to. But I still made a bit of a mess as I got the noodles to my mouth and then slurped them up. I also had a cup of coffee that was one of the best I have ever tasted. I had given up coffee about six months previously, so it had been a while. But this was really great coffee. We snapped a few pictures at breakfast, one of which I uploaded to Facebook.

Breakfast in Malaysia

Afterward, we went to the office to talk business for a while. When we got ready to break for lunch, we headed to an Indian restaurant. There was a buffet, and I had a variety of things. Later that afternoon, my stomach became very disagreeable, and I found out that one of the other people who ate with us had the same symptoms.

As we sat there eating lunch, I tried to think about what Malaysia reminded me of. In some ways, it reminded me of Panama. Some of the buildings looked very similar, and the climate felt the same. I had really expected India, but it wasn’t at all the assault on the senses that India was. While I found myself occasionally seeing something unusual, in India it was constant: “Was that a monkey walking that dog?” or “That motorbike has 7 people on it!”

We had some free time in the afternoon, so I was asked what I wanted to do. I said I preferred to get out of town. But first my host took me on a drive around Kuching. There were giant cat statues around town, and I was told that this is because that’s where the name Kuching derives from: cat.

One thing my colleagues told me when I was there is that I made things easy for them, because I would tell them exactly what I did and didn’t want to do. They said sometimes people are just polite and go along with anything. I said “No, I am pretty direct” and they said that’s the way they like it.

One thing I did notice when were driving around is that while the crowds are not as large, and there isn’t the constant honking, driving is still an adventure compared to the west. Numerous times we saw people simply park on the road, in a lane of traffic, and get out and walk away. Once we came upon a woman standing in the middle of the road texting, with cars flying around her on both sides.

A Street in Malaysia

At one point we stopped to take a walk down by the river. I noticed a white key card laying on the ground, and thought “Someone is going to miss that.” I would soon find out who.

Chris drove me out of town, and we first stopped by his apartment building. It was out of town, and in a beautiful setting. As we pulled up to the gate, he said “I have to have the guards let me in; I can’t find my access card.” I asked “Was it white with a crack at the top?” He said that it was, so I said “I know where it is.” We went back there later that evening and retrieved it; I was surprised that it was still there.

My host took me out to a virgin rain forest, which was really incredible. I peered into the edge of it, and it was so thick that I couldn’t imagine anyone walking into it. He told me that there were some trails in there, and he had climbed up the mountain previously. He said there was a lot of wildlife in there, including proboscis monkeys.

We were going out to eat in a bit, but we decided to get in a swim first back at his apartment. On the drive there I introduced him to a little ZZ Top and Rage Against the Machine. He recognized some of the ZZ Top songs, and Wake Up by Rage (from The Matrix soundtrack). Chris told me a funny story while we were driving around. We were talking about my company’s name, Merica. My title is CTO and Executive Vice President of Merica. His daughter picked up my business card and thought I was the Vice President of America. He said I was briefly a celebrity in his house.

After we had a swim, Chris, his wife, and I all went out to dinner. I mentioned to Chris that my stomach was churning from the food earlier in the day, and he said that his was doing the same. I would spend half my night with abdominal cramps as a result.

Dinner was really good; a buffet with lots of items on the menu. I had a lot of seafood and beef, but even in this really nice restaurant there were flies crawling around the food. So I pulled food off the bottom, and tried not to think about things crawling around.

Day 5, October 27, 2010 – After a restless night of stomach cramps, I got up at 5 for a flight to Bintulu. We were to meet up with a colleague and look over some infrastructure there.

After we arrived in Bintulu, we drove out to a little town in the bush. They pointed out to me the longhouses that people lived in. Those have a very long history. They are essentially a very long house with one entrance after another side by side by side; each housing a family.

We stopped for breakfast, and I was asked what I wanted. “Fruit?” No fruit. We were literally surrounded by fruit; I was staring at a big bunch of papaya growing 20 feet from where we were sitting, but there was no fruit on the menu. I thought about the contradiction. Another one I noted was that I was told the soil is very poor, and yet everything was incredibly lush and green.

So, after breakfast of coffee, noodles, and a fried egg (really good), we hit the road again. Before I got in the car, I stepped into the bathroom in the restaurant. It wasn’t really a restaurant, but I don’t know what else to call it. It was an open air facility that served food. There was one toilet for everyone, and when I went in I almost got sick. It was right next to the kitchen, and it smelled horrible. But what made me sick was that there wasn’t even a sink to wash your hands. Forget about the sign that says “Employees wash your hands before returning to work” – there was no washing the hands. So I started to think about the hands that had prepared my food, and my stomach started to churn. I went through so much hand sanitizer on the trip, which everyone thought was pretty funny.

We drove out and had a look at some oil palm plantations. They have oil palm growing almost everywhere we looked. It was my first time to see it up close. I crushed one of the seeds so I could see and smell the oil. Oil palm has been vilified in the west because of the implications in deforestation, and in fact my host pointed out a forest that had been cut down to plant some oil palm. But for some people there, it is a way out of poverty. So it’s a difficult situation. (I did an essay specifically on the palm oil situation here).

After we left the forest, we had a visit to the Bintulu port facility. They rolled out the red carpet. There was a sign near the entrance welcoming us, and they had a photographer taking pictures. They even had wrapped presents, fruit, and cheesecake prepared. It was a little intimidating, but we had a very nice visit and overview of the port there. The discussion again centered on palm oil; this is clearly a very big and growing business there.

I got to my hotel room in Bintulu that evening, and once again my Internet was unreliable. Constant disconnections, and very slow. Every other website was refused; I wonder if things are being censored. One of the things I am doing is working on an article on hemp as a renewable energy source. The problem is that marijuana advocates don’t always distinguish between hemp and marijuana, so it can look like I am for marijuana legalization if I am writing about making the use of hemp legal. When we were landing in Malaysia, they announced that people trafficking in drugs get the death penalty, so I wondered if they were tracking my hemp searches as suspicious.

We went out to eat at a local place; I had some beef pepper steak, some spicy fish, and some ostrich. One of the guys I was with asked when I was coming back to Malaysia, and I jokingly said “When you guys get faster Internet.”

Day 6, October 28, 2010 – Today’s big event would be a visit to Shell’s GTL plant in Bintulu. Colleagues know when I say "Bintulu" that's shorthand for Shell's Bintulu, Malaysia gas-to-liquids (GTL) facility. As someone involved in gasification, I was really looking forward to getting a look inside their facility, the largest in the world.

We met three Shell representatives for breakfast, including the site manager. We had breakfast (I had ordered an omelet, but it turned up with onions in it) and then made our way to the facility. We had a really good visit; I will be putting up a story on my blog. In fact, that was the reason for the visit; to write a story and bring the Bintulu story to my blog readers.

We spent the morning in the facility, talking to the manager (who was a Kiwi, and in the middle of a move to Houston) and then took a drive into the plant. I got plenty of information for a story, which I started writing up right away. I also found out that Shell had flown someone in from media relations just for my visit.

We had lunch and then I caught up on some e-mails before checking out of our hotel. Our flight was much later in the day, so we went to another hotel that had faster Internet. I was actually able to play a little Warcraft for the first time that week; most of the time I couldn’t stay connected. In fact, by 4:30 in the afternoon the Internet got really slow again, presumably from people coming home from work and logging on.

After a bit, the Shell Bintulu site manager that we had met with earlier in the day showed up and sat down to work. We would see him often for the rest of the day. He was headed to Switzerland, and we bumped into him in the hotel lobby, again in the airport check-in counter, while waiting for a flight (he had a different flight, but connecting to the same city), at the baggage claim in the next city (Kuching) and then the next morning in Starbucks at the airport when I was getting ready to fly to Singapore.

Anyway, after leaving the hotel, my colleague Glen and I took a taxi to the airport for the flight from Bintulu back to Kuching. The flight was delayed by weather, but we finally flew and I made it back to my hotel in Kuching for my last night in Malaysia at about 10 p.m.

Day 7, October 29, 2010 – I woke up early and got a bit of work done before heading out with Glen and Chris for a final breakfast. We discussed the nature of the work that we wanted to do, and brainstormed possible energy outcomes going forward. Ideally, we want to be positioned in the right place as oil supplies deplete, and my trip to Malaysia was to gain a better understanding of the options there.

At the airport, we had a coffee at Starbucks (believe it or not only the 2nd time I have ever had a coffee at Starbucks) and talked about plans. A few tables over sat the Shell manager once more (I joked that he was following us) and then a Muslim friend that they knew came up and started talking. He mentioned something about drinking, and said “They are very strict here.”

After he left, I asked what that was all about. He said that Muslims are subject to religious laws. Since drinking is against Islamic law, Muslims who drink in Malaysia are subject to arrest by the religious police. They can ask for your ID if they suspect you of drinking, and if it indicates that you are Muslim they can arrest you. He said there was a recent case in which a Muslim woman had been caught drinking a beer, and she had gotten 10 lashes with a cane.

I got on the plane, and once more two rows in front of me was the manager from Shell. We got to Singapore, and I have to say again that this is one amazing airport. They actually offered a free city tour from the airport, and you didn’t even have to go through immigration. The catch was that you had to have a boarding pass, and since I didn’t fly out until the next morning I didn’t have one. So I settled down to catch up on my writing. I had dinner at the Hard Rock, and did a bit of shopping. Lady Gaga was blaring as I walked through the airport.

It was really hard to find anything that had been made in Singapore. They had Swiss chocolates and plenty of goods made in America, wines from Australia, France, South Africa, and California – but very little that was uniquely from Singapore. So I headed back to the Hard Rock to pick up t-shirts for everyone.

I hadn’t turned on a TV during my entire trip, so I went back to my room to check out Singapore’s version of television. I turned on the TV, and Wheel of Fortune was on. I changed channels and found a show where a kid was dancing – very badly. The audience seemed to enjoy it, but it looked like a train wreck.

Day 9, October 30, 2010 – I boarded the plane to Tokyo, which is where I am writing these words from just now. There were some movies on that I hadn’t seen, so first I watched those. There had been such hype over the Twilight series (that’s all my wife and daughter talk about), and they had Eclipse, the 3rd in the series available. So I checked it out. I suppose it was OK, but not having seen the previous two there was a lot that I didn’t follow. I guess I will have to go back and watch them. Following that I watched the new version of Predators, which I didn’t think was all that good.

We flew into Tokyo in a tropical storm, and our flight out to Honolulu was delayed. So I kicked back in the lounge, ate sushi, drank wine, and caught up on episodes of South Park and The Daily Show. We finally took off a bit late, but I made it home without too much delay.

My stomach continued to grumble for several days after returning; probably a response to my diet changing back to normal. But overall it was a good trip. I am sure I will be going back at some point.

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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

New Zealand

New Zealand – March 2010

While I have traveled a lot around the northern hemisphere, until this trip I had never crossed the equator. I had nearly been to New Zealand on business a couple of times in the past, but things had never quite worked out.

On this trip, we visited Auckland, Wellington, Whangarei, Rotorua, Christchurch, and Taupo. We spent a lot of time out looking at forestry operations in the country, trying to gain a better understanding of what it would take to do a project there.

New Zealand reminded me of two places: Scotland, where I lived once before, and Hawaii, where I live now. Wellington specifically reminded me of Seattle; lots of water and tree-covered hills, with houses dotting the hills. But if I had to describe New Zealand in relation to one place, it would be Scotland with better weather. As in Scotland, the people are extremely nice, everyone is driving on the left, the breakfasts are the same, they have fish and chips everywhere and afternoon tea, and the newspapers are sensational (Mayor Urinates on Tree; Public is Outraged).

Airport security in New Zealand has not caught up to the rest of the world. On most flights, not only did I not have to show ID, but I didn’t have to go through a metal detector. On the one hand, this makes for very convenient travel around the country (security is tight on international flights), I was uneasy knowing that no screening had taking place. I remember when it was like that in the U.S….

Wellington is a really windy city. The first day we were there, the winds must have been tropical force strength, and people acted like that was pretty normal. We actually flew in that weather, and those were some of the roughest flights I have ever been on. Those little planes were tossed around so badly that I was sure we were going to crash. A man we met with later said “If you have the stomach for it, go to YouTube and look up Landings at Wellington Airport.”

We saw a rugby match while I was there, and ironically the only other place I have done that was in Scotland. For the match we attended in New Zealand, the local Wellington team played a South African team, but lost in overtime.

New Zealand is more international than I would have guessed. You see many different nationalities walking down the street. Our host, in fact, had emigrated there from India. When we were in restaurants, we would try to guess where different waiters/waitresses were from. Sometimes we just asked. I was sure one waiter was from Greece, but we didn’t ask. Another time, a waitress was from Thailand, and then we had a waitress from Indiana. (I didn’t ask what brought her to New Zealand; she probably has to answer that question several times a day).

The trip was business, so we didn’t do much sight-seeing other than what we saw as we traveled from one meeting to another. I hope to make it back down at some point, and have a little more time to enjoy the sights.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Hamburg ist Schön

Hamburg - at least in late spring, is a lovely city. I had driven through some years ago, but had never spent any time in the city. I spent the last weekend in May there, and while I was on business, I did have some time to see some of the sights.

I took a train from Arnhem, Netherlands and the trip was about 5 hours each way. The weather was great, and the scenery across Germany was perfect. Lots of green farmland. It was a holiday weekend, and the train was packed - at first I had to sit on the floor in the bicycle compartment - but after a while a seat opened up and I read a book during the long trip.

I arrived in the early afternoon, and I took a cab to the hotel. I got to practice my German a bit (I had spoken for a bit with someone earlier when I ordered bratwurst for lunch) and it went generally OK. I had a bit of trouble checking in, though. I was speaking, and I thought the person checking me in asked if I had been there before. I shook my head "No", and she looked confused. What she was actually doing was welcoming me. As I tell people sometimes "Miss a verb here and a noun there, and pretty soon you don't know what the heck anyone is saying."

After checking in, I met up with my colleague Terry Kennon. We had a dinner engagement outside of the city, but we had some time so we took a stroll and had a look around. The architecture was quite impressive, but what really stood out is the amount of water in the city. There are lots of canals - I learned that there are more bridges than in Amsterdam and Venice put together - and also a couple of large artificial lakes.

We killed some time walking around, but when it was time for dinner we hopped in a cab. I gave the cab driver directions in German, and after a bit of back and forth he understood where we needed to go. We were headed outside of the city to an area called Nienstedten, overlooking the Elbe River. At one point I noticed that we were driving on the infamous Reeperbahn, although I didn't see any of the things the street is famous for.

We had a nice meal while watching the steady ship traffic on the Elbe. I got to practice my German a bit more, and we talked about energy, politics, peak oil, and the weather in Hamburg. Several of us had just come from the U.S. and were jet-lagged, so we finally called it an evening at about 10 p.m.

Several times in Europe I have run across pleasant surprises. The following day, Sunday the 31st, was such an occasion. Terry and I went out exploring again. I showed him how I use Google maps on my Blackberry for navigation. Without worrying about getting lost, we went exploring. We first walked along the artifical lakes (the Aussenalster and Binnenalster). The weather was great, and there were lots of people in and around the lakes. I was kicking myself for not having a camera.

There was a large area of green on the map, so we headed toward it. Turns out it it was a very large park, and right in the middle of it was the Hamburg Botanical Garden. It was really impressive. There were a number of rooms for tropical plants (very warm and humid), and one was full of thriving banana trees. I had never seen the blooms on banana trees before, but there were beautiful pink/purple blooms, along with tiny bananas on some of these trees. There was also an area for desert plants, and I have never seen so many cactuses in my life. There were all shapes and sizes, and they had some of the biggest aloe plants I had ever seen.

After enjoying that (free!) garden, we headed back toward the hotel. But we had another surprise. We thought we were going to walk along a traffic filled road all the way, but we spotted one of those car-free pedestrian areas that just happened to be a shortcut. Terry enjoyed that a lot and took some pictures. We were hungry, so we stopped at a little Italian place and had a meal outside. One funny thing was that most of the restaurants were preceded by "Hamburger." So I kept looking up and thinking I was looking at a hamburger joint.

After lunch, I walked back over to the central train station to catch my train back to Arnhem. One thing I have to remember in the future is that not all of those trains are air conditioned, and I spent a very hot Sunday afternoon coming back. I just about got dehydrated on the train. Next time I have to leave earlier in the day - or take plenty of water along with me.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Iceland and Greenland

I flew back from Amsterdam to Dallas on Friday, July 18th. I have to say, summer brings out the worst in people. I never saw so much line-jumping as took place when I was waiting to clear passport control, security, and then getting on the plane. Line-jumpers in each case, and at passport control, people were actually bypassing the line altogether for the security check and going straight to passport control. Security was a bit lax. I waited in line for 15 minutes only to have someone walk right to front of the line. When I was waiting for the security check, an elderly Chinese couple was carried by cart to the line, where they promptly walked right up to the front. They did the same when we got on the plane; walked right to the front. Must be the tourist season, as I haven't seen it like this before.

Anyway, that's a digression. Every time I fly back and forth to Europe, I always sit on the north side of the plane. The reason for that is that I love to get a glimpse of Greenland if we fly close enough, and the weather was clear. On 7/18/08, I flew back from Amsterdam to Dallas, and not only was Greenland quite visible, but for the first time I could clearly see Iceland from the plane. Mark James, another person traveling on the same flight was taking some pictures, and I asked him if he could send me some copies (I had left my camera in Europe). Below are the pictures from the window of the plane, and they are impressive. The display said we were at 34,000 feet, but it seemed that we were much lower than that.

Vestmannaeyjabær off the Southern Coast of Iceland.

Credit for all Photos to Mark James

Icebergs off the Eastern Coast of Greenland

The Eastern Coast of Greenland

The Southern Coast of Iceland

I spotted that town off of Iceland from the air, and looked it up. It is Vestmannaeyjabær. You can see some pictures of it from the ground here:

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

India Part II

Day 3, Sunday, March 16 - I woke up a few times during the night and smelled garbage coming in through the air conditioner vent. I guess this happened when the wind shifted and came in from Bombay. Twenty million people must create quite a garbage dump. I also woke up with my face itching, so I slapped it in case a mosquito was biting me. Sure enough, I woke up with a bloody – but hopefully malaria free – mosquito squashed to the side of my face.

We had a leisurely breakfast and talked about politics and energy. Breakfast, by the way, included some spicy things which I mostly avoided. One thing that was hard to get used to was that people were constantly jumping up and getting me food. Someone would ask if I had tried something, and when I said "No" they would jump up and get it for me.

We talked about their impressions of the West, and my impressions so far of India. I learned that most people in India view everyone in the West as being rich. I said that I suppose it is relative: They would be rich relative to them. It is the same as when I was a kid. Rich was anyone with more money than us.

The energy discussion revolved around jatropha and ethanol. Jatropha is very interesting, because the West has high hopes for the potential of jatropha to provide biofuel. The problem is - as was explained to me - that all of the fertile land is being used, and there are no roads or infrastructure to the marginal land. Everywhere we went, jatropha was like a myth: Everyone knew a little about it, but nobody had seen it or could tell us where to find it.

After lunch, Kapil and I took a walk down the road. Everywhere we went, there was trash beside the road. Waste management has got to be a challenge with that many people. As we were walking, we passed a number of those sacred Hindu cattle. They were really small, and I wanted to get a picture for perspective. Kapil got his camera out, and a cow came up to me expecting food. When she figured out I didn't have any, she hooked her horn under my Blackberry and flipped it into the road. Then she hit me in the arm with her horn. After considering a steer-wrestling move, I shooed her away. But there was a bull right behind her and he came in looking for food. I put out my arm to stop him from doing the same thing she had just done. Kapil snapped some pictures of this.

On the way back, Kapil pointed out some natural beehives that were just hanging off of buildings. There were numerous clusters just hanging in a semicircle formation. (I later retrieved my camera and took some pictures).

I was anxious to move on, but we found that all of the others were taking a siesta. That is common in India as in Mexico: During the heat of the day people take a nap. So Kapil and I spent some time outside discussing the future of our company, and about our personal expectations. Once Kapil left me, and the four-year-old son of one of Kapil's friends came out and started talking to me. I just kept smiling and nodding. He had a toy that he was showing me. I finally took a picture of him, and showed it to him. Then he really started cutting up.

We finally hit the road much later than planned. We were again cutting across rural India. I finally got accustomed to "the look." We were passing very close by people (and there were people everywhere) and I was on the side of the car closest to them. Someone would see me in the car, look away for a second, and then their head would snap back around to take a second, longer look. After a while, I started waving at people. Some even waved back.

The crowds were just something else. The population density of India is probably the highest of any country in the world. All night long, the crowds alongside the road were like crowds streaming out of a concert. I once caught myself asking "I wonder what happened" as I watched a huge crowd gathered in a town. Turns out nothing had happened; it was just a big crowd of people. I told Kapil that if I saw that in the U.S., it is almost certain that there has been an accident.

I saw some pretty interesting things as we drove along. I again saw four people on a motorcycle, and I told Kapil "I still haven't seen five." He pointed in front of us, and said "Look there. There's five." A second later: "No, six!" About 3 seconds later, both of us at the same time "Seven!" There were seven people piled on to a motorcycle. I snapped a picture as they drove by, but didn't get all of them.

We passed a building once that said "Fellowship Pentecostal Church." Another time, we passed a very run down building that announced "Computer Training Lessons." There were loads of barbershops in these little towns. They, like other shops, were just tiny buildings all joined together with no observable door. (I never did see any place for women to get their hair cut). I finally realized what this all reminded me of: The world's largest flea market. That's the only thing I can relate to that is similar in the West. And it struck me that this may be why all of the Indians I know seem to be such good businessmen: They grew up bargaining and doing business every day in these shops.

We finally got into our hotel late, after stopping of to meet the parents of one of Kapil's friends. It was my first time inside a house in India. Anyway, after checking into the hotel, I was anxious to get caught up on e-mails and writing. Neither my telephone nor Internet was working. It probably took them a couple of hours to get it fixed, but in the meantime I started working on this essay. I finally got to bed at 2 a.m.

Day 4, Monday, March 17 - Ah, St. Patricks Day. You wouldn't have guessed that. As soon as the sun started coming into the room, I got up. I checked the time; it was 2 a.m. Netherlands time. I had been trying to keep to Netherlands time since I have to fly back to the U.S. at the end of the week, but I am not doing a very good job of it.

I went down for breakfast, and against my better judgment had bacon. I had only had meat one other time since being in the country, so I decided to have just a tiny bit of bacon. Of course I was thinking about trichinosis as I was eating it. I also had a fruit called chikko. I had never heard of this fruit, but it was really delicious.

We had a business meeting in another town, so we were picked up. We again had a driver. I was told that it was very cheap to hire a car and driver, and after the chaos I observed on the road, I would never recommend that an American try to drive in India.

As we were driving, I finally saw an elephant standing in a town. Besides the elephant, there was again the overwhelming poverty everywhere you looked. I am not sure a Westerner can understand this without seeing it. We have poverty. We have homelessness. But we don't have anything like this. You can see it on the TV, but I think you tune it out. When you see mile after mile of it here, there is no tuning it out. At least not for me.

The crowds were as they had been everywhere else. I asked Kapil about the colorful garments of the women; whether they had any specific significance. He said no, that it just depended on their mood. But that is something that stands out: The women dress in very bright and vibrant colors. (I got my picture taken with a couple of them to show an example).

The horn honking continued. You apparently honk your horn as a warning to others. And horns are honked constantly. It has a different connotation in the West, where if someone was constantly honking at you they would probably get flipped off. Here, it is as normal as a turn signal (although turn signals were not at all normal).

Besides people, cows, and buffalo, there were also dogs everywhere. There were no breeds you would recognize; they all just looked like strays. Also, I noticed that for all of the motorcycles on the roads, almost nobody anywhere wore a helmet.

I noticed an apparent swastika on a truck on the highway. I knew that there was some Hindu symbol that looked like that, so I asked. Kapil pointed out to me that it is different than the swastika in that the lines point the opposite direction, and it predates the Nazi usage by a long, long time.

We finally got to our meeting at a fabrication shop. Again with the handshaking. I excused myself as quickly as possible to wash my hands. (As I already pointed out, this habit of mine is not limited to India; I always wash my hands as soon as I can after shaking hands). I was asked whether I wanted coffee, and I said "Yes, that would be nice." Apparently, they didn't have any coffee, because it was about an hour before it actually arrived. I presume they sent someone down the street for my coffee, which of course I wouldn't have had them do had I known.

We toured the fab shop, and I commented to Kapil that ConocoPhillips, for instance, wouldn't do business here unless a number of safety policies were implemented. There was hot work and metal work going on, but nobody was wearing safety goggles. There were kids milling about the shop. I saw frayed and bare electrical cords attached to welding machines. There was metal sticking out with sharp edges. You had to keep very alert to avoid getting hurt. And the noise was horrible. Of course, no earplugs in sight. I had to wonder about their injury statistics.

We finally concluded our meeting, and began a seven-hour drive to our next stop. As we were leaving, I noticed the familiar site of people lying in the shade outside hovels. I saw a woman picking (presumably) lice out of a young girl's hair. The youngest kids weren't wearing clothes at all. I thought about the gulf here between rich and poor. I bet that it is larger here than at any other place in the world. You have billionaires, and then millions living in horrible conditions.

Although I was really tired, I wasn't able to nap. I drifted off once for about 5 minutes, but then woke back up, afraid I would miss something. It struck me that I would be at the family farm in Oklahoma in only 5 days, as I had a return trip to the U.S. planned. That seemed a million miles away; it literally seemed like I was thinking about flying to a different planet.

As we drove, I quizzed Kapil about Indian society. He told me that life expectancy, even for educated people, lags the West. This surprised me, considering that he also told me that 70% or so of the country are vegetarians. He had told me that India is self-sufficient in food; I think this is only possible because of their diet. If they had a meat-heavy diet as we do in the West, I think the population density is too high to be self-sufficient. Then again, there are a lot of Hindu cattle wandering about.

I asked him some questions about the caste system, and he told me some of the history. We passed a migrant camp, and I posed the following question: "If a little girl is born in that camp, and she is the next Einstein, will she ever realize her destiny?" He said "Probably not, because there is no means. There isn't anything that would legally prevent her from it, but practically speaking it would be very hard."

I also noted that despite the poor conditions of many, the health of the people seemed to be quite good. I didn't see any blind or handicapped people. He said that's because the infrastructure isn't equipped to deal with them; that life for them is very hard. He said they exist, but are locked out of normal society.

I made a few more observations about the traffic. Trucks and buses just meander back and forth across the lines. The roads seem to be shared equally by all modes of transportation, but you better pay attention as you are expected to get out of the way when someone honks. I also noticed that there were no tour buses at all. Maybe there are in the big cities, but where we were, I never saw one.

We spent most of the day making our way through Gir Forest National Park. There were signs indicating all kinds of wildlife. From Wikipedia:

The count of 2,375 distinct fauna species of Gir includes about 38 species of mammals, around 300 species of birds, 37 species of reptiles and more than 2,000 species of insects. The carnivores group mainly comprises Asiatic lions, Leopards, Jungle cat, Hyenas, Jackals, Mongoose, Civet cats, and Ratels. Desert cats and Rusty-spotted cats exist but are rarely seen.

There were no towns, and finally the people had thinned out, but Kapil told me that there were still tribes in the jungle. At one point we stopped high in the mountains and had a spectacular panoramic view. It was very hazy though. There were a couple of women there also enjoying the view, and Kapil asked them if I could take a picture with them to show some traditional Indian dress. They giggled, but agreed.

We eventually arrived back in another town. Just when I didn't think I could possibly be more isolated from Western culture, I saw a guy walking down the street wearing a Dallas Cowboys t-shirt. And right after that, a pig darted out in front of us, and we managed to graze him.

We finally arrived very late to our destination in Shirdi, which was home to a very famous Hindu holy man: Sai Baba of Shirdi. There is a Hindu temple - Saibaba Temple - there dedicated to him that hosts 10 million visitors a year. Kapil said we were probably the only ones in the hotel not on a religious pilgrimage, but he did plan to take me to the temple the next day.

Day 5, Tuesday, March 18 - I woke up trying to remember where I was as my Blackberry was going off. I jumped up and got ready (the power went off for a few minute while I was getting ready) and Kapil and I had a quick breakfast. We were supposed to be taken at 9 to a sugarcane factory that produces sugar, ethanol, and several other industrial chemicals from the ethanol (acetic acid, ethyl acetate, etc.) The guy we were meeting still hadn't shown up at 9:30, so we called. He said "10 more minutes." That's something I have noticed – 10 minutes is never really 10 minutes. Time is pretty casual here. Every day our schedule slipped. It always took longer to do something than we thought.

I am going to skip over most of the factory tour, and cover it in a separate post. Just some general observations. On the way to the plant, we saw migrant workers out harvesting sugarcane by hand. It seems to me that it wouldn't be very hard to mechanize that process. It looks like brutally hot work, but then the alternative for some may be starvation.

We started the day with the Office Superintendent of the facility. We had gotten into the habit of asking everyone we ran into about jatropha. Again, same response as all of the others: They knew of jatropha, but didn't know anyone who was growing it.

As we were waiting, someone brought in drinks for us. I had been looking to Kapil to advise me of what to eat or drink, but this was hot so I drank it. It had a really odd smell, and a very sweet taste. It also was very quick to form a skin on top. I drank it, and as soon as we were alone I asked "What did I just drink?" It was coffee with buffalo milk and locally produced sugar. The buffalo milk was responsible for the odd smell.

A few notes on our plant tour. Safety is not treated at the same level as in the West. We were walking around burning hot furnaces and distillation columns, and nobody was wearing any kind of protective equipment. Once we were standing underneath a platform where people were working about 40 feet above us. None of us had a hard hat on.

Following the tour, we were taken to a room that looked like it might host a city council. There were a lot of hushed tones, and I wasn't sure what was going on. Finally, in came a local political leader. He was treated with great deference. Kapil told me he was equivalent to a state senator, and that this was typical Indian hierarchical customs. He also said that some of these political guys were really nasty, but he said this guy seemed to be really nice. One odd thing is that he kept shaking his head "No" when he was agreeing. Kapil said this is normal Indian body language. I found it hard to get used to. The Indian people also seemed to have trouble with my name. Like many others, he referred to me as "Mr. Robert."

They had a welcoming ceremony for us, and I got treated to a flower necklace and a red dot of paint on my forehead. Pictures were taken, but I think I will keep those to myself. I felt very awkward during the whole thing; not quite sure what to do. This is another reason I am not a politician - I don't like ceremony too much.

Following the tour and lunch, we went to the temple. We got VIP treatment: We were taken to the front of an hours long line to pay respects to a Hindu god. I heard them call out "VIP" several times. I will keep the details private, but I did feel bad about jumping in front of all of those people. I got a number of curious stares, and a number of very cold stares. Imagine that you have been standing in line at the Vatican for three hours to see the Sistine Chapel, and in comes a foreigner who is whisked right to the front of the line.

I have a feeling we did run into one of those "nasty" politicians that Kapil was telling me about. A man came in with an entourage, and someone in my group was very deferential and stepped forward to shake his hand. The man literally rolled his eyes and acted like a pompous jerk.

We finally finished up, and began a very long drive across the mountains to our next destination. This time, we had no seat belts, and our driver was the most reckless one yet. Kapil kept telling him to take it easy, but he assured Kapil that he does this all the time. Kapil told him that it was possible that someone else might make a mistake. But the guy continued to drive recklessly. I kept visualizing the headline "...Killed in a Car Crash in India."

The trip was long, but largely uneventful. We came across a wind farm in a desolate location. That was the first wind farm we had seen. We stopped once at a road side vendor and had fresh coconut milk. They chop the coconut open, insert a straw, and you drink the milk. It is different than the coconut milk Westerners are used to. The coconuts we usually eat have had most of the liquid evaporate through the shell and leave behind what we consider the meat. But in fresh coconuts, that meat is dissolved in the liquid and you drink it. It is supposed to be really healthy. It was quite good.

We saw a lot of farmers carrying sugar cane behind cattle-driven wagons. Another time we came upon a sign that said "Weak Bridge Ahead." Now why do you want to go and say something like that? The drive was dusty, and I felt covered wtih grime. Once we got to the outskirts of our destination - Bombay - traffic slowed and it took us forever to work our way across the city. But we finally got to our hotel at about 10 p.m., and I started catching up on e-mails.

Day 6, Wednesday, March 19 - I had stayed up until 2 a.m. writing, and had intended to sleep late. Again, I was up with sun. I am going to drop from exhaustion soon. But tonight I fly home (to Amsterdam, anyway), so I can get a little rest on the flight.

Another morning, another meeting. Another person who doesn't know anything about jatropha. The man we were meeting with, who is involved in biofuels and the import/export business was very skeptical of the whole ethanol scene, saying that it is a political farce. He said that India has far too many people to count on ethanol as much of a solution, and that they could not do what Brazil had done. He also brought up the water usage issue; suggesting that it will take too much fresh water, and this is in short supply. Very interesting perspective from the tropics, where sugarcane is abundant.

When we left the meeting, we walked out onto the street. There was a family (mother, grandmother, and two small children) on the sidewalk, where they were apparently living. I reached in my pocket for money, but then remembered the warning that I had been given. Besides that, they weren't actually asking for money. I wasn't sure how they might respond. But it is tough for me to see children in that condition.

We were going to have a bit of free time to walk around down town, so we headed across town. At one point, a guy came up and tried selling us a book that is banned in India: The Polyester Prince. It is about the guy who started Reliance Energy. It was apparently not very flattering, and the Reliance lobby was strong enough to get the book banned. But we already had a copy in the car, so Kapil held it up and showed the guy.

We also observed something that I hadn't seen since I arrived: Violence. It seems odd that in a city of 20 million, I never saw anyone fighting. But we did see a car accident, and one guy trying to drag another out of the car.

We stopped for a few minutes at the beach. As soon as we got out, a little girl came up and started begging. Kapil said "Watch your wallet." I told him that I already had my hand on it. He said "Your skin color attracts them." Then another woman said something to Kapil, and he agreed. I asked what she said, and he told me "If you give, more will come." I snapped a couple of pictures of her; I thought that might scare her off. And it did at first, but she came right back.

From there, we went down town and saw the Gateway of India. We walked around a little, took a few pictures, and then it was souvenir time. I thoroughly hate shopping, but I figured I better pick up a few things. So we went in a government-operated shop, and I bought a few items. It was the most inefficient operation you ever saw. You took your goods to the counter, and someone wrote up a ticket. Then you took your ticket downstairs, and they stamped it and you took it to the pay window. After paying, you took it to a 4th counter where they "delivered" it to you. It was really something else. Kapil said it was basically just a government jobs program.

We walked around the outdoor shops, but I felt really insecure. I had my laptop with me, and I was afraid of someone picking my pocket in those crowds. I was constantly turning my head to make sure nobody was right behind me, but there was always someone right behind me.

After we finished walking around, we stopped in a café and had a drink. Kapil asked me if I was feeling adventurous. He asked me if I wanted to ride the train. We were going to have dinner at his parents' house, and he said we would save an hour going by train. "Besides", he said, "I want you to have the full Indian experience."

So we flagged down a cab to take us to the central train station. I was just in awe of how lively that city is. Imagine New York City, only bigger and with no traffic rules at all. I was looking at some things on the street to the right while we were stuck in traffic. After a bit, I looked out my window, and almost jumped out of me skin. There was a beggar right there in my face. She was reaching in and touching me. I don't like to be touched, so I rolled the window up.

When we got to the train station, Kapil said "Watch your bags." That's what I was afraid of. We hopped out and ran a gauntlet through some incredible crowds. My head felt like it was on a swivel – looking forward to keep up with him, and behind to make sure nobody was dipping hands into my bags.

There was a long line for train tickets, and Kapil walked right to the front. I asked about that, and he said "First Class ticket purchases go to the front of the line." He then told me that a 1st Class ticket was about 3 bucks, and a 2nd Class was about 20 cents. He said that at least with 1st Class, we would probably get a seat.

He was wrong. We packed into that car like cattle. People were jumping on and off when the train was still moving, and people were hanging out both doors while the train was running. I had people pressed up against me all around. It was crowded – not London Tube crowded, but India crowded: Bodies packed tightly, intense heat, and everyone sweating. It was standing room only, and it took us an hour to get to our destination. At one point, Kapil took my photo. Everyone on the train – all Indians – suddenly started staring at me as if something was horribly wrong.

After we hopped out, I got to experience an auto-rickshaw. I had seen them everywhere, but hadn't been in one. We hopped in one to take us the final distance to Kapils' parents. Those things are pretty good transportation options. They have very small (I think 150 cc) engines, and most (maybe all?) run on compressed natural gas. The fuel efficiency is enormous. They are really built for only 3 passengers or so, but I saw 8 packed in one once. (Later someone told me that he saw 13 packed into one).

We had a nice meal with Kapil's parents. This was only the 2nd Indian home I had been in, but this time we got to have a long visit. Kapil's father was 2 years old when they were banished from Pakistan. I have read about the journey; they were packed tightly into trains and banished. Kapil's father gave me a book to read called Vedic Culture. Kapil's mother made this crispy bread – almost like a crisp tortilla, that I had really grown fond of. Kapil said it is made from lentils, but you would swear it was pork rinds.

It's a good thing we took the train, because it wasn't long before it was time to head to the airport. Kapil drove me; it was the first time I had seen him drive in India. I have ridden with him in Holland, but the traffic in Bombay is just something else. In fact, as we were driving, the absurdity of the situation hit me, and I said "This is just the craziest thing I have ever seen. People don't drive within the lines; 3 cars will straddle 2 lanes of traffic, cars move over randomly without signaling or looking back – it's chaos." He agreed, "Yes, it is chaos." I said that I can't really describe this as traffic, because that implies just a lot of cars on the road. Here, you have that – but then you also have everyone just doing their own thing. I will say this, if I haven't already: Nothing I ever seen again on the road will surprise me. If I see a monkey driving a motorcycle, it won't even be one of the stranger things I saw.

We eventually arrived at the airport around 11 p.m., and I said my goodbyes, as Kapil is flying back a few days later. I thanked him for keeping me out of trouble while I was there. I never got sick, and always enjoyed what I ate. Plus, we got to do a little business on top of everything.

Day 7, Thursday, March 20 - Security at the airport was the most stringent I have ever seen. And the guy who frisked me seemed to be enjoying it a little too much. His hands lingered a bit and gave me the creeps. I popped out my laptop and tried to catch up a bit, but pretty soon we boarded the plane for our 1:40 a.m. flight back to Amsterdam.

I mostly tried to sleep on the way back, but a couple of interesting things happened. Again, someone occupied the bathroom for about half an hour. I said to myself "I bet it's an Indian man." Sure enough, it was. What the heck are they doing in there for so long?

The guy sitting next to me was British, but working in India. He told me some stories. In fact, we had some similar experiences. I told him that I kept seeing mutton on the menus, and finally noted that I hadn't seen any sheep in the country. I was told that mutton is goat (which I saw plenty of). He said "At least you found out before you ate it. I didn't find out until I commented that my mutton tasted strange." He also said that nothing he will ever seen again would surprise him after being in India. I told him that I felt the same way. We talked about the way that Indians never seem to have to stop for a restroom. I was in a car with several for 7-hour stretches on 2 different occasions, and they never had to stop. That was good, because I never saw many restrooms. I don't know how they manage.

But, despite getting almost no sleep, I have arrived back in the Netherlands. I am finishing this up on the train from Amsterdam to Arnhem. In just a little over 24 hours, I will be back, headed for my first trip to the U.S. since last June. I will be house-hunting in Dallas with my wife, who I haven't seen in 7 weeks, so I expect my writing to continue to be limited for a bit longer. I will try to knock out some things while traveling tomorrow.


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