Rambling travelogs from a world traveler

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Cosmo Crapper

This email is from a trip to Nagoya, Japan in April of 2005.

Warning, All, this e-mail contains potty humor! As I do not wish to offend, continue reading at your own risk. You have been warned!

The hotel rooms we've been staying in - both in
Nagoya and Osaka - have state-of-the-art Japanese crappers. An adequate description defies the meager talents of your humble correspondent. Therefore, you will find attached to this missive a picture. The Gentle Reader is humbly requested to refer to the picture before continued reading.

This is not your standard Japanese "Benjo" that I recall from my years on Okinawa. No squatting here. One sits.

At first glance, the potty looks fairly conventional. It’s got a seat, a bowl, a water tank and a flush handle, same as in
America. On closer inspection, the curious will notice a control bar on the reader's right side of the picture; more on that later.

When one sits, one is struck by the padded seat. This is not a significant development since padded seats have been available for decades in the good ol' US of A. But, not so fast, GI. A few moments after taking a seat; one begins to notice that the padded seat is warmed electrically to keep one's nether regions from developing a chill. The features only get better.

The next thing one will notice is that placing one's weight upon the seat engages a micro switch powering a pump causing a trickle of water to issue from under the bowl's rim. This initiates a pleasant sound reminiscent of a mountain stream- which as you can well imagine, gentle reader - is a clever design that greatly enhances the experience of using this device. There appears to be some sort of timer built into the pump circuitry as the trickling sound does not continue for as long as one remains seated, but, in fact, stops at some point during the process. (Unless of course, one concludes one's business with dispatch.)

As a side note, I must admit that I think there is some sexism in this design. A male using the device in the conventional configuration dear to all males - the seat standing at attention in the vertical position - does not derive the trickling benefit. No, only seated users will experience this pleasure. A minor design fault, I believe. Or possibly, if you subscribe to the "Black Helicopter" crowd, it is an insidious plot to feminize the male population. You, gentle reader, must decide.

Finally, I move on to the control bar on the side of this device. One function contained on the bar controls the temperature of the heated seat. But moving down from that, you will notice that there is a water pressure control. This controls the water pressure supplied to the bidet feature of the crapper. Extreme care must be utilized by the unwary user in hand placement while occupied on the throne. It is easy to push off on this control as one rises from the seat causing an unwanted and severely surprising stream of water to issue upward with deleterious effects unless one is firmly seated. I leave the mental image to you.

As near as I can tell the bidet has two modes. I have no direct knowledge - frankly, the thing frightens me and my main goal is to not arouse it from its slumber. But reading the directions, it appears that it can function in a steady and directed stream mode or in a gentler and all encompassing mist/shower function.

One final feature is contained on the
Osaka models but not on the Nagoya hotel devices. Pressing a button will cause a deodorizer/disinfectant to issue forth and a fresh piney aroma to fill the lavatory. Those clever Japanese!!

You now have my complete knowledge of these devices. I hope you find it as intriguing as I do.

I remain,


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Day Trip to the Big Apple

Esteemed Reader,

In the last post, I spoke of seeing the Twin Towers Light Memorial as we landed at Newark Liberty International. We loaded our tired carcasses in the Golden Touch Limousine that FedEx contracts with and set off for the Woodbridge Hotel and Conference Center south of Newark in Iselin, NJ.

Enroute to the hotel, the FO I am flying with – a really good guy – says these fateful words: “I heard that you can get on the train near the hotel and go to Penn Station in New York City. We oughta go have lunch there tomorrow.” It was with more than a little internal horror that I heard my voice saying: “Sure, sounds like fun.” So, Esteemed Reader, we got to the hotel around 0300 am, set our alarms for 1100 and got some rest. The hotel gave us a ride over to the Metropark station of the New Jersey Rail System and off we went to the Big Apple on an impromptu lark.

Gentle Reader, as I have reported before, I am always alert for new things to report in these travelogs. Reputable sources – people I know and trust – have reliably informed me that there are picturesque and beautiful vistas to be found in the State of New Jersey. While I can not vouchsafe that belief, I can confirm that the train from Metropark to Penn Station does not pass through any such areas. It appears to me that the train windows are heavily tinted, not to protect from the sun’s glare, but from the hideousness that is the railroad right-of-way in the vicinity of Newark, NJ. Esteemed Reader, I shall say no more and I highly recommend that you not use your imagination to fill in any details…….

We really had no goal for sight seeing in NYC – we just wanted to find a place that would sell us a nice lunch and an adult beverage. Penn Station is right underneath Madison Square Garden. Here’s yours truly posing.

Not seeing any place that excited us enough to give our patronage too, we decided to walk towards the Empire State Building (ESB) in the hopes that something would turn up.

Just underneath the ESB, we discovered Jack Dempsey’s Grill. Who can pass that up? So, we promptly entered and feasted on a fine lunch of German Sausage, sauerkraut and red cabbage. The FO actually had a Manhattan for lunch, just because he was – well – in Manhattan.

After lunch and on the spur of the moment, we decided to walk across the street and take the ESB tour. Esteemed Reader, I am sad to report that this was an error. We spent most of the tour waiting in line with bajillions of other tourists in ugly hallways and construction areas with no view outside. Once we achieved the pinnacle of the ESB’s observatory, we discovered that it was raining like – well, choose your favorite rainy cliché and insert it here - and it was windy and we spent very little time enjoying the view of midtown Manhattan from the observatory at the top of the Empire State Building.

I would not – in good conscience – recommend a tour of the Empire State Building to you, Gentle Reader. At least not until the “Under Construction For Your Viewing Pleasure!” areas are completed.

Gentle Reader, I know you can not help yourself but wonder about King Kong. Your curiosity is allayed.

Walking back from the ESB to Penn Station, I noticed this store.

Gentle Reader, I hope this does not shock you, but this store did not sell the delightful little yellow marshmallow chicks often found in Easter Baskets and microwave ovens. It would be best for us to turn our thoughts away at this juncture and give this no more attention.

At Penn Station, we discoverd that the next train was soon to leave; so we divided our efforts to great benefit. The FO went to purchase the train tickets while I went to the ubiquitous Starbucks and bought two Mocha Fraps. We returned to the lovely Iselin/Woodbridge NJ area around 5 pm that afternoon nicely caffeinated and refreshed. Esteemed Reader, while I am sure that the Big Apple has much to commend it to travelers and tourists; I found it to be an unpleasant place on a rainy and blustery day. Just thought you’d like to know in the event you need to plan a trip there.

The next morning at 0450 am, we entered another Golden Touch Limousine and were conducted to the American Airlines Terminal of the Newark Liberty Airport and from there we deadheaded to Chicago. Chicago was even rainier than the Big Apple and was also a big bust for material for one of these travelogs. I remained in my room, mostly catching up on sleep during the short layover yesterday and have nothing to report that you would care to hear.

Now I am in MD11 N613FE somewhere west of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, on the way back to Anchorage and Ilona’s. Tomorrow I operate to Oakland, CA with a new FO. If anything reportable occurs you will be the first to know.

I remain,

Dad / Geoff

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Newark on Thursday

Howdy all!

Because I am junior in the Anchorage Domicile, I have very little control over my schedule. I consider myself lucky if I get the block of time off that I ask for. Very seldom to I get to fly to places I really want to go to. Last Thursday night's flight down to Newark was a prime example.

First some pilot lingo: when we are actually flying the jet somewhere, we say we are 'operating'; when we are repositioning as a passenger on another airline we say we are 'deadheading.' So Thursday night's trip was an operate to Newark, get up Saturday morning and deadhead on American to Chicago, operate to Anchorage Sunday morning trip.

I don't much like flying in and out of Newark, I don't like where we layover in Newark and I don't like deadheading. So, I really tried to trade off of this trip. Not just a token effort, I hawked the computer looking for any other trip.

I'm glad I wasn't successful. I knew it was the evening of 911 and I knew Newark is just across the Hudson from the south side of Manhattan. I've got some fairly nice mental images from years ago of sitting in the cockpit on the ramp in Newark, looking to the east and seeing the Twin Towers all lit up. Somehow, though, I hadn't put it together in my mind as we let down into Newark just after midnight what I would see.

There has a been a thick overcast over New England for days now. It was true that night. Further there was a lot of moisture in the air under the clouds - not just drizzle - the air was very humid.

Newark Liberty International was landing to the north which puts Manhattan Island out the right front of the jet......and there before us was a striking sight from a vantage point few get to have: The Twin Towers of Light. These pictures really don't do justice to what we saw. We broke out of the clouds at about 5000' or about a mile high. The lights were hitting the bottom of the clouds and producing a huge shining halo of light that must have been a half mile in diameter. Because of all the moisture in the air below the clouds, the twin shafts of light were really accentuated. I'd never seen this before except of course in the news. It is a very striking display that brings out all the confused emotions we all feel when we are forced to remember that day.

My meager descriptive skills fail to do justice to what I saw and felt there.

Of course, none of those feelings are conducive to safely operating an airplane....so I had to fairly quickly compartmentalize what I felt and get on with business; but, I would have loved to have been able to just hang there in space several miles south of Manhattan and just look for a while.

It was a very striking sight - not just a little awe inspiring and more than a little awful.

I remain,

Dad / Geoff

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tales from Ilona's Bed and Breakfast

Gentle Reader,

I have about two years of travelog emails that I would like to put on this blog, but I find the task somewhat daunting. There's a lot of stuff, most of it somewhat boring, all of it disorganized. What I've decided to do is to just start telling my tales from the present and go back and include previous emails if they add something to the story.

Today, I just finished two days of simulator check rides which make me a qualified pilot for another year. I don't want to talk about these check ride events - in fact, I want to forget them as quickly as possible.

What I do want to talk about is where I stay while I am here in Anchorage. I am 'domiciled' in Anchorage. FedEx now has three domiciles. The main domicile in Memphis where most of the pilots work with Boeing 727s, Boeing 757s, Airbus 300's, and MD-11s. There is a much smaller MD-11 domicile in Los Angelese, another here in Anchorage, a very small Airbus domicile in Subic Bay, Philipine Islands and soon we will open a new Airbus domicile in Hong Kong. One does not have to live in the city of one's domicile but if you don't, the commute to and from work and your living arrangements while you are there are your responsbility. Not FedEx's.

I was lucky to discover Ilona's Bed & Breakfast operation here in Anchorage. She does not have a website so no linky-link. Here's what I wrote in December '06 when I started staying here:

Ilona's Bed and Breakfast: Ilona Gnosmer and her husband, Laurenz, run an interesting operation near the airport in Anchorage. Their background is somewhat murky: it runs from Yugoslavia to Hungary to Germany. They raised a family in Germany and still have children there. They also have a kid in Alaska, which I gather is why they live in Anchorage, now. They have two houses - the "Old House" and the "New House." Each house has to six or so bedrooms and while they will take anyone in, they really cater to airline crews, mostly NW and FedEx. They run both places, just the two of them together, and will come to pick us up at the ramp, show us to the room, feed us breakfast and take us back to work. It looks like they go as hard as they can go, all day long, 7 days a week.

Ilona is as grandmotherly as you wish to mentally picture. She's "Oma." Loves to cook and wants you to eat. Great breakfasts, TVs in every room and a big screen TV in the living room. Both houses are full of kitschy knick knacks and pictures and suchlike, very comforting and homelike. There are computers in both houses and a wireless network too. They even have an extra car they'll rent for $10 a day. All this for $300 a month, so, I've solved my crash pad dilemma.

2008 Update: She will rent you a room a day at a time for $40/Day American in the winter off season and $65/Day in the summer tourist season. The Boys from UPS have discovered the deal and she's making money like gangbusters. She's always full.

Six Days later I wrote this:

A quick story: there is a "Tasty Freeze" near this place. Walked up there
the other day out of boredom. They have a sign that says: "The most northern Tasty Freeze in the world. Selling ice cream to Eskimos is not a joke, it's a business." That tickled me. It was a 20 degrees F outside, but I had milkshake anyway.

Then this email in March of '07 started what I have come to think of as the 'Hummer Debacle':

As I go about my globe spanning duties, I am ever on the alert for
interesting or absurd sights to share with you all. Last night I saw a sight that falls heavily into the absurd category. There is a nice grill about a 1/4 mile away and I went there last night about 9pm for dinner after I got settled into my room. I had a nice salad and some coconut shrimps at the grill, paid for them and left to walk home.

Next door is the famous "Tasty Freez" (TF) that I described some months back. This is the TF that brags about being the "Most Northerly Tasty Freez in the World" and the place where "Selling ice cream to Eskimos isn't at joke, it's a business plan!" They also cater heavily to the Air National Guard C-130 wing that is just around the corner. You always see "guard bums" in uniform having lunch in there. They have a sign behind the counter that claims that the Tasty Freez is the "301st Ice Cream Support Squadron (ISS)", which I think is kind of cool. By the way, gentle reader, I have not reached the absurd part of this story yet, I'm just trying to paint the foundation on the canvas for you. This TF has a personality not found in your garden variety fast food gee-dunks.

Walking towards the TF, I saw a Hummer Limousine parked in front of the TF. Gentle reader, I did not know that Hummer made limousines. Inside the TF were a group of nicely dressed teenagers getting ice cream, obviously on their way to some High School soirée. Back to the limo: it was a solid white, stretched Hummer Limousine. Actually, "stretched" does not do service to this thing. It was looooong. I swear as I looked at it, my eyes detected a slight spavined droop to the thing it was so long. I walked right by it so I decided to pace off the length of the thing. It was 12 strides from front to back, which from my golfing game, I know makes it 12 yards long or 36 feet. It had purple and white flashy lights along the running board and white strobe lights in each of the 7 side windows. "Gaudy", "ridiculous" and "extravagant" were words that came to mind. Oh, and "absurd" too.

As I walked along side of it to measure it, I swear I heard it whisper, "Hey, stop that, it's not my fault! If I'd have been one car back in the factory line, I'd be a perfectly respectable Hummer working in Afghanistan!" But this poor thing had to wind up being a gaudy joke of a vehicle, sitting in front of the only TF in Alaska, hauling teenagers around. If ever there was an indicator that America is too prosperous, this may be it.

Esteemed readers, the very next day I was veritably deluged with email explaining how out of touch I was with the modern world. First my eldest cousin:

Geoff, Geoff, Geoff,
Much as I giggle with mirth at your wonderful description of a pimped out Hummer stretch parked at the Anchorage Tastee Freeze, Son, you are revealing yourself to be a sheltered MEENA S-O-O-O TAN.
Limo-Hummers, or is it Hummer-Limos, are now de rigeur. As I recall, about 3 years ago there was dust-up in LA over an attempt to limit the length of limos to ( I think it was) 50 feet. The reason: Hummer was about the only one factory-equipped with frame and suspension to support such beast without extra re-build expense and the competition didn't like it. True to form, Angelnoes rose as one mighty chorus and smote down the Dragon of Unwanted Regulation. Californians know officious, intermeddling, liberal, nanny-state, government when they see it. [Unfortunately, most of the time they like it.] Everybody had to "arrive" in one, and arrive, and arrive, and arri-i-i-ive. Then, it became "high school." I think now the poobahs go for personalized stretched Escalades -- I kid you not, they will detail the damn things with your name or something for a mere $500 or so extra (it has got to come off really easily at that price). But I may be a limo generation behind, not having been to LA since last September.
When I was there for several weeks in 04, I personally marveled at the half-block long jet black, silver, and other Hummer standard color beauties. Then, you had to be in a non-Hummer-standard color to make your mark (think robin's egg blue, or metallic fuschia). I think local colleges out there offer degrees in limo selection, design, and marketing [no, that part is just exaggeration--as far as I know].
The center of the limo universe is LA, uh...not The Twin Cities, beautiful and liveable though they may ever be.
Yours in Wonder,

And then nail in the coffin, my wonderful, loving Mother:

Even I, your elderly, stay-at-home, cracker mother, have seen Hummer limos here in Provincial Florida. Admittedly, not parked in front of the Tasty Freeze in Anchorage, Alaska, a setting I especially appreciated! We do have some "big time" hotels and plenty of tourists around here.

Have a big time on your trip around the World and steer clear of the Asian Flu Bug.

Love you, Mother

To which I could only respond:

Gentle Readers,

My more erudite cousin and my Mother have set me straight on the growing popularity of the Hummer Limo. I forward their comments to you, and apologize for not knowing a cultural phenomenon when I saw it. You know when a fad hits Alaska that it is established.


Having established yet again that I am qualified to fly a freighter for food by successfully completing yet another rigorous course of simulators, I can begin another week of globe trotting beginning tomorrow.

I have three trips in a week in the next week and a half. One down to Newark, Chicago and back to Anchorage, then a trip to Oakland, CA and back then a short Asian trip...Narita, Hong Kong, Seoul and back. I will be ever alert for new and absurd things to share with you, my esteemed readers and loving family.

Dad / Geoff

Monday, September 1, 2008

Beijing and Shanghai after the Olympics

Gentle Readers and Loved Ones All,

I had another Asian trip after the one where I got to visit the kids in Yokota. We flew back to Narita with no time there to do anything other than eat and sleep.

The next day we flew from Narita to Beijing, offloaded the freight and then made the short hop down to Shanghai. This occurred on Monday, the day after the Olympics ended.

I have several observations.

First, Gentle Reader, China’s air pollution problem, in my humble observation and opinion, has not been abated by efforts to clear the air for the Olympic Games. Further, Chinese poor air quality is not limited merely to the greater Beijing metropolitan area. No, esteemed reader, the air is filthy from the southern border for hundreds of miles all the way to the northern border. It is accepted wisdom that America contributes over 30% of the world’s greenhouse gases while containing less than 10% of the population. (...or numbers in that ballpark….) These travelogues are about what I see with my own eyes, Gentle Reader. I have flown the length and breadth of both countries – all of China looks like what Los Angeles used to look like but does not any longer. Can you say 'smog'? Sure, I knew you could. Methinks we are being intentionally lied to about the US's contribution to ‘Global Warming’.

Second, China is a growing economic powerhouse – which may be good or may be bad. The Shanghai and Beijing airports alone are works of engineering art. They are lovely to look at and the Chinese built them in no time at all.

Now, consider, Gentle Reader that New York City is still ‘discussing’ and planning what the replacement to the Twin Towers will be. China can complete huge construction projects while we sit around arguing with ourselves over silly issues. This does not bode well for the future of the US economically.

Flying in and out Beijing's Capital Airport is always a challenging proposition. It is every bit as busy as any big US airport – in fact bigger than many. The ‘Conga Line’ waiting for takeoff is always at least 10 airplanes long and I have never gotten out of there less than 30 minutes late.

Shanghai is also a growing economic powerhouse and will be the site of Expo 2010. They are very proud of that. There are billboards and banners proclaiming this event throughout the city. They have a mascot – Haibao – based on a Chinese Kanji writing character Ren, which is the character for 'person'. Luckily, I got Haibao to pose for a picture with yours truly.

Other than meeting Haibao, this layover in Shanghai was uneventful and boring; which leads me to…..

Esteemed Reader, I have been waiting for an opportunity to share a picture and video with you. Some months back, my FO and I decided we would go ride the Maglev Train from Shanghai to the Pudong Airport and back.

There are actually two trains running on parallel tracks. As one goes out to the airport, the other goes into town and then vicey versey. You pass the other train roughly halfway out and at about the time you are up to top speed. Gentle Reader, that is a combined passing speed of over 400 mph. I made sure to sit next to the window on the passing side of the train. Wheee! If you aren’t ready for it, the passing train will cause you to soil your linen. Two very quick, loud, “WHOOM WHOOMs” and then it’s gone.

This video is my amateurish attempt to share the ride with you. It is not sped up or modified electronically in any way. I tried to turn around and scan the speedometer near the top speed.

The train has no seat belts or other restraining devices. The acceleration rate is very limp, less than what you feel in your family car. This has to be by design as a mag device has the capability to give really huge accelerations. But the speed just keeps building and building….. It is really quite exhilarating as you are only 50’ or so above the street level and you can look out the window and see how fast you are going. I’ve been much faster in a jet but never so close to the 'stuff' as it goes by so this gave the highest sensation of speed I’ve ever had.

Eight minutes from the airport to the downtown station! The same ride in a cab in Shanghai traffic takes an hour or more. I’ve heard of guys putting their luggage in the company paid cab we always get to take us to the hotel and then walking over to the Maglev and taking it downtown. They are in the hotel for 30 minutes before the bellman brings up their bags from the cab. I may try that sometime.

Hope you enjoyed this small saga,

I remain,

Dad / Geoff