Rambling travelogs from a world traveler

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Eagle

  "There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as  a good tavern."  ~   Samuel Johnson

Gentle Readers and Loved Ones All,

I am back home now after circumnavigating the globe in 12 days.  

We spent one night in Cambridge, England.  FedEx freight going into the London area arrives at London Stanstead Airport.  Then we cab up to Cambridge to layover.  Enroute we passed by the Duxford Imperial War Museum - which I one day hope to visit.

Other than the university - home of the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics (Newton!  Hawking!) - one of Cambridge's most famous landmarks is the Eagle.  Established in 1500, it's a great place to eat and drink.

The Eagle is famous for two things.  In 1953, Watson and Crick announced the discovery of DNA there at lunch.  

More importantly, from my point of view, is the RAF Bar.  There are aviation pictures all over the wall and various RAF and USAF Squadron Stickers (zaps) applied on manifold surfaces.  There are a huge number of Eagle photos here.

Most important of all is the ceiling.  During WWII, RAF pilots used their lighters, candles and other incendiary devices to burn and smoke graffiti and their names in the ceiling where they remain today.  

On that happy note, I remain,


Monday, November 11, 2013

Dubai Desert Safari

“No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”
Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass

Gentle Readers and Loved Ones,

I am presently in Dubai.  Yesterday I experienced one of the top ten best layover experiences of my highly mediocre FedEx career.  Let me tell the story chronologically.  

I am flying this trip with an old friend - we have flown together more than a few times.  When we found out that we had a two day layover in Dubai, we decided to be tourists.  Since the flight here from Paris was over 8 hours, we picked up a Relief First Officer (RFO) so we could spend some down-time in the back of the airplane at cruise.  Federal Aviation Regulations do not permit us to exceed 8 hours in a day at the controls.  Emails flew back and forth and we decided to begin researching Dubai's infamous "Desert Safari".

A side story now.  The hotel in Dubai treats us to a free 18:30 Happy Hour in the 6th floor's Executive Lounge.  All the crews in the hotel - being frugal sorts - get together each evening to share free victuals, drink and comradely badinage.  The night we got here I met an old friend and his FO and our list of Desert Safari adventurers rose to 5 members. 

Google was consulted, emails flew betwixt electronic devices, notes were shoved under doors and it was decided that we would meet yesterday in the lobby to be picked up by North Tours Dubai Safari sometime between 1530 and 1600 local.  For the nominal fee of 185 Dirhams - roughly $50 'murkan - we would be picked up and returned to the hotel, driven through genuine desert sand dunes - "Dunes Bashing" - ending the evening at a desert campsite for a barbecue dinner and Belly Dancer show.  Included in the fee was camel rides.  For a small extra fee you could run ATVs through the sandy race area and snowboard a nearby sand dune.  

We loaded up in the 4th Generation Range Rover that would be our carriage for the next 5 hours and drove off into the UAE's desert stopping off to pick up a Nigerian Chemical Engineer who was in Dubai for the Formula 1 race.  
Four Guys in a Range Rover with Roll Cage
 The driver was employed by the North Tours and had been doing these Safaris for nine years. 

As I understand it, Dubai's economy is not primarily based on oil.  It is a commercial and entertainment hub.  They rely heavily on imported experience and labor.  Our driver was a Pakistani citizen, trained in the special Dunes Safari Drivers School.  We drove through town seeing many Dubai sights that I had not seen before.

Burj Khalifa Tower from freeway
On the freeway we passed a stretched hummer.  I thought this made nice artsy photo.  Please note the Arabic Script at the bottom of our Range Rover's mirror.  I cannot bring myself to think that it said:  "Infidels may be closer than they appear."

Rearview Mirror
 South of town, we stopped at an authentic traditional Arabic Oasis for possible potty breaks and because I am sure the Tour Owner had a contractual arrangement - if he did not out-right own the oasis itself.

Range Rover and Oasis

Oasis Signage
Inside the oasis, you could purchase critical desert survival supplies..... 

Desert Survival Store
and have your picture taken with a genuine Arabian Falcon.  (CJ Box's Nate Romanowski would probably not approve...but I digress.)

The Falcon
 After this necessary break, we loaded back up and drove to the site of the "Dunes Bashing".  Here is a google map to orient yourself.  The long line from the exit of the desert to the campground is an artifact of a bad GPS position capture.

View Desert Safari in a larger map

Here we are entering the marshalling area to begin the Dunes Bashing.  (You may view these videos full screen by clicking the square in the lower right corner.)

Several observations here.  First, our Range Rover was luxuriously appointed.  The interior was heavily padded to include the roll cage.  Second, the air conditioner was never turned off, despite the fact that we did some serious, sand flinging Dunes Bashing.  Finally, the radio blasted the entire time.  This was not some old, rusted, tired, hot jeep.

Next, I had pictured that we would have the desert to ourselves.  Not so.  Whoever runs these tours is making some serious bucks as there were hundreds of vehicles from multiple tours all marshaled up ready to run.  There must be some system of Sand Dune Traffic Control as our driver appeared to know where to enter the queue.  We did not just drive willy-nilly over any and all the dunes.  There was a track and all the vehicles followed it.  I am sure this was experience speaking; if we had all pursued random tracks the probability of collision at the top of a blind dune would rise astronomically. 

At the marshal point, our driver got out and let the air out of the tires, lowering the tire pressure to 15 psi so as to improve sand traction.  I was transported back to my youth running the sandy orange groves of Central Florida in our old dune buggy.  

At some signal, we were off Dune Bashing.

Our driver issued us a warning about car sickness. 

A note at this point.  There were five experienced international freight pilots in this car.  We ain't getting sick in front of each other - even if we gotta swallow it.  Secondly and more importantly since none of us even got queasy - we are pros after all - was that I guarantee you that each of us thought we could do a better job of driving the dunes than the driver.  (...and we were all wrong.)

Roughly 3/4s of the way across the desert we stopped on a sandy dune ledge that overlooked a really pretty crag.  As we approached that crag, I noticed a 'feral' SUV that was high-lining the sand.  As I put the camera up to get a picture a C-17 screamed overhead.

SUV on bluff with C-17 overfly
Once we stopped, I got this video of the same guy on the crag.


At this point, we had stopped to cool the vehicles - note all the hoods are up - and to enjoy the desert sunset.  

Rest Stop

Sunset on the Dunes

 At this point our intrepid driver pulled out a battery powered air pump and re-inflated our tires while other drivers did not.  I wondered at the wisdom of this as we were still in the desert. 

Air Pump
Once we reached the highway I learned why.  The other vehicles were pulled over to the side of the asphalt and driving slowly on their vastly under inflated tires.  We cruised right by them and were among the first to arrive at the desert campground. 

After our campground orientation, we went out and acquainted ourselves with the camels.

Geoff and the nice camel
Evidently, this camel did not spit and therefore did not require the nose cover that you see on the other camels.   Behind me you can see the tires that mark out the ATV driving area and there is an ATV just off my shoulder between me and the red shirted fellow.  Tourists were not allowed to enter the foreboding desert and were constrained to a small track.

Camels sit on the ground in a very compact posture.  They stand up in a lurching 3 step process.  Rear end first, rear end higher and then the front legs extend.  This process subjects the unwary and inexperienced camel jockey to a sudden forceful lurch against the front of the saddle bringing pressure to bear on the 'Swimsuit Region".  Those of us not on the camels found this hilarious.  

By then it was dark and good photography - not that any of this has been good - was impossible. We enjoyed the pre-dinner male dancer who whirled around the stage for about 7 minutes with an LED costume that formed complex patterns in the night.

After dinner, the authentic belly dancer appeared.  She was not a traditionally rubenesque sort of belly dancer with finger cymbals.  I would guess she weighed in at about 100 lbs, lithe and fit.  I am not qualified to critique belly dancing, but she seemed to these amateurish eyes both skilled and tireless.  You may judge for yourself why I have no photos of her.

Before dinner, we climbed the roughly 50' sand dune that overlooked the campground.  This is where the sand boarding occurred.    As an end to this saga, I give you this poor photo of the venue.

Dinner Compound

On that happy note, I remain,

Dad / Geoff

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Around the World in 12 Days - Introduction

"Never have children, only grandchildren." ~ Gore Vidal

Gentle Readers and Loved Ones,

I am at present on the third leg of flying around the world on a general easterly progression.  The itinerary is like this.  Road trip from Home to Ames, Iowa to Little Rock, Ark to Memphis TN, a jumpseat commute to Anchorage to begin the operational portion.  I operate Anchorage, Indianapolis, London/Stanstead, Great Britain, Paris, Athens, Dubai, Guanghzhou, China, Osaka, Japan, Beijing, Seoul Korea and finally back to Anchorage.

There will be some fun tales to tell on this trip, methinks, but I'm having a hard time figuring out how to start the tale.  The rest of this post will be a jumbled, incoherent mess.  I apologize in advance.

You probably noticed that this saga starts with a road trip.

Soon, within a month, I will become a grandfather. Gunther James Whisler is due around the beginning of December.  A quick note on the name.  There are a lot of James in all the families.  My grandfather was James Roy Vanhooser.  Ann's dad was a James - about the finest man and best father in law there ever was.  Jaybo is really a James and finally and most important, Brook's dad is a James.  I like all that.  But here is what I really like.  "Gunner Jim" will be the third generation of G. Whislers.  

Some months back, Brook and George announced the intention to have a Baby Shower in their home in Little Rock, Ark in early November.  Ann and I began plans to make it and one of the factors for having the soiree' on that date was that I had vacation then and knew I would be free.

So, last Thursday - Halloween , Ann and I loaded up the Urban Assault CX-9 and started south down IH-35.  We stopped in Ames, Iowa at Iowa State University to see Katie and to pick up her gift.  It's always good to see the Katester.

The next day we continued on down to Little Rock. That night we had a pleasant evening out on the town with George and Brook.  More on that below.  Saturday was spent in preparation for the following days' Shower.   George and I and a friend of George's went to a local firing range and had fun punching holes in targets.

The shower itself was great fun.  Introductions were made, hugs were exchanged, food was eaten, games were played and gifts where showered.  George and Brook's facebook pages are full of pictures of the festivities and I don't want to steal their thunder here.  

I had to cut the shower short and leave early to drive to Memphis to catch that evenings' FedEx Boeing 777 / Toolbox freighter up to Anchorage.  A good friend of George's lives in Memphis assigned to the Memphis Air National Guard and he volunteered to give me a ride back after the shower.  We had a very pleasant conversational 2.5 hour drive over to Memphis.

As I've said before, my goal with this blog is try to find different viewpoints as I travel around the world - striving for whimsy and humor.  I noticed something Friday night in downtown Little Rock that I think meets that goal. 

On Friday evening, Ann and I had George and Brook to ourselves.  We went to dinner in downtown Little Rock at Boscos, sat out on the balcony overlooking the Arkansas River and the Junction Lift Bridge.  On the way out, Brook got a craving for a fried pie at the Flying Fish

A small trip back into ancient history.  My brother and I grew up water skiing on Lake Eva behind our house.  Back in the day of 25 cent per gallon gas you could water ski all day.  Water skis back then had not reached the pinnacle of fiberglass perfection you find today and I remember being really happy when we got a nice set of Cypress Gardens Nash skis.  This was the ultimate expression of water ski performance in the 60s and we could cut on that slalom like the pros..... or so we thought anyway.

Back to the Flying Fish now.  The walls were cluttered with hundreds of Big Mouth Billy Bass placques personally modified with the names of customers.  I thought that was cool until I saw this:

Nash Ski

Yup.  There on the wall, looking like a museum piece from the Paleozoic with yellowed and cracked rubber foot bindings was the water ski that I thought was the epitome of skiing technology in my youth.

Which reminded me of another museum piece that made me feel old.  My first flying training was in the Soaring Program at USAFA and my first solo flight was in a Schweizer 2-33 glider - probably the safest, most forgiving training airplane ever built.  Hanging from the ceiling in the USAFA Barry Goldwater Visitor Center is this 2-33.  If it isn't the actual glider I soloed, it might as well be.
Schweitzer 2-33

So...Gentle Reader, I find it humbling and an indication of my rapidly advancing maturity that two of the pieces of technology of my youth that I treasure have been relegated to displays hanging on walls and ceilings.

On that humbling note, I remain,

Dad / Geoff