Saturday, February 13, 2016

New Destinations: Roanoke, Virginia

From Portland, across the country to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I wrote about Carlisle last year (See Historic Carlisle entry, posted January 2015), so I'll tell you about the road trip we took to Roanoke, Virginia, where my dear friend Marjorie's son lives. Before the road trip we stopped at the Lindt Chocolate factory outlet, conveniently located on the outskirts of the town she lives in. I don't think I'd be able to resist going there every week, if I had that store practically in my back yard!

Our plan was to meander the 4 hours south, to where her son and his family live, making a stop midway, in Harrisonburg, to dine at a German restaurant there. Having grown up in Germany, we were both looking forward to a taste of our youth. Unfortunately, we had dithered too long at the chocolate store and missed the restaurant's lunch opening by 20 minutes: it had closed at 2PM!

We were both so hungry, having breakfasted early and waited our lunch in anticipation of the German palate teasers. Now, with no German food to be had, we scrambled for meal options, finally deciding on a chain buffet restaurant, where we ate more than our fill. Buffets tend to have that effect, you know?

Marjorie and I have been lifelong friends, so naturally we watched each other's kids grow up, marry and have kids. Seeing her son and his family again was not at all inordinary. I felt the welcome radiate from this fine young man and his gorgeous wife. Even their young son remembered me from my visit 2 years ago! An added bonus: Ana's mother, Cielo is visiting from Columbia. I knew her to be beautiful from the pictures Marjorie shared over the years, but seeing her in person... the woman is breathtaking!

Our first evening there, we sat around, catching up on life. Terran's current hobby is role-playing to the movie Aliens. A significant portion of his house's basement is dedicated to Aliens, and he manufactures all of the costumes. The whole family gets in on the fun! Here's Marjorie, wearing a helmet and toting a gun that Terran built himself, out of scrap metal. He did all of the weaponry on the wall, as well as the armor on the mannequin.

It seems good weather follows me on my travels, so the next day we woke up to sparkling sunshine, reflecting off the snow that lingered from the storms of the week before. Terran treated us to a traditional Southern breakfast while the rest of us scrambled to get ready. I was so eager to take in the sights, sounds and smells of Roanoke!

That city, established in 1852 was initially called Big Lick, from the large outcropping of salt that drew wildlife to the area, making hunting particularly fruitful. It was officially chartered in 1884 and renamed Roanoke, from the native American word for 'shell money'. Roanoke is also the name of the river flowing through it; most likely where the shells used as money came from.

Roanoke prospered with the railroad, and thrived because of the garment industry. However, around the 1960s, people started leaving and not coming back. This phenomenon, known as 'brain drain' or 'human capital flight' signified doom for this historic city until local and federal governments stepped in with preservation incentives and new industry moved in. Now, Roanoke is tentatively hopeful for the future, and so am I. I'd hate for Terran and his family to have to relocate yet again!

The Star seems to be a major tourist draw. I was immediately intrigued because Marjorie's husband mentioned it before we even left Carlisle. Terran echoed 'The Star' when planning the sightseeing route, and for good reason. It truly is worth seeing.

In 1949, area merchants decided to kick off the holiday shopping season in spectacular fashion: by building a monumental star atop Mill Mountain, the highest point of the city. Although said merchants weren't sure at the time whether they wanted the star lit year-round, eventually that became the norm. Initially lit with white lights only, soon the city decided to use red lights on the days anyone died in a traffic fatality, to honor them. After the September 11th attacks, the star was lit with a red/white/blue configuration which stayed until 2007. On April 22nd of that year, city officials decided to revert to the all-white motif as a symbol of hope after the Virginia Tech Massacre.

Suitably impressed, we took in other sights: St. Andrew's Roman Catholic Church, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the historic Farmer's Market. Although history is interesting to me, I was more interested in Terran's life: where he works, were his family goes to church, where their newborn daughter will be baptized. He graciously obliged me, cruising all over town. None of those locations are particularly noteworthy or picturesque to anyone not intimately connected to the family. Thus, I offer you the stunning cathedral.

We enjoyed a savory lunch at a New York style deli. Marjorie and Terran were both hungry for pastrami. I scanned the menu for something more to my taste, and then laughed aloud: that deli offers a Vagabond Sandwich! This being the Vagabond blog, I thought that sandwich must be tailor-made for me. It was delicious!

Back home for an evening with family; last laughs, fond memories, posing for pictures and getting ready for the start of the week... at least for the Roberts. As for me, I had to get ready for a 32-hour bus ride, to my dear ones in Texas.

And speaking of Texas, the Lone Star State: visiting the Roanoke star reminded me of all the fun waiting for me. 

See you there!      

Thursday, February 11, 2016

New Destinations: Crater Lake

Finally I'm at Darrell's house, anticipating all that he has planned for my visit. Mind you, I'd be perfectly fine sitting around loved ones' houses, soaking  them up and being a part of their lives for just the little while I'm here, but everyone always plans over-the-top entertainment. I love them for it. And for many other reasons.

But then, with loved ones: does one need a reason to love them? And, while thinking of great loves: I hear my beloved China is suffering its worst winter in thirty years! Buck up, my Chinese friends; it will soon get better. My heart and thoughts are with you even as I revel in the warmth of kith in kin.

As usual, my first stop was my son's house. Darrell had to work the first few days I was in Portland but had taken time off for the rest of my visit. Thus, after a few days to get used to being here, we loaded up the car and took off for snowier realms: Crater Lake. 

Let's back up for an instant.

We all know of the Seven Wonders of the World, right? The Pyramids, The Hanging Gardens, the Colossus of Rhodes and all, right? Well, Oregon has its own Seven Wonders, and Crater Lake tops that list.

It sits in the caldera of a dormant volcano. It is not fed by any other bodies of water. Its content comes solely from rain and snowmelt, making it one of the purest bodies of water in the world. The azure blue you see in the picture is a result of that, not of any Photoshop wizardry. It is the deepest lake in America and the 7th deepest in the world – or the 9th deepest, depending on whether average or maximum depth is measured/counted.  

See what I mean about my loved ones planning over-the-top entertainment for me? I had the privilege of seeing this wonder with my own eyes, but not before we drove through a mountain pass, and banks of snow more than 9 feet (3 meters) high.

I should tell you that little Benjamin came along, and Zeva the dog got her snow on, too. She loves playing in the snow! See her retrieving a snowball?

Driving home from this adventure, we passed through the Columbia River Gorge. In fact, the Columbia outdoor gear that is currently all the rage in China is named after that river, and the company's headquarters are in Portland. The Gorge, as it is known, is another of Oregon's wonders. That state's other wonders are: Mount Hood (a dormant volcano), The Painted Hills, Smith's Rock and the Oregon Coastline.

On a... worrisome note: I found myself terrified to climb the small, snowy slope to get up to the lake. I had broken my leg climbing down a gentle slope last year and found, much to my dismay, that I am now terrified of climbing or descending any slope for fear of breaking another limb. Darrell to the rescue! He pulled me up to the rim of the lake so that I could see for myself this scenic marvel. But then, I had to get back down that slope. A panic attack nearly overwhelmed me until Darrell suggested a foolproof way to get down. As you can see, I made it down the hillock just fine!  

Although sliding was fun, I don't want to have a panic attack every time I partake of my usual adventures because I'm afraid of breaking another bone. That's what is truly worrisome.

Arrival U.S.A.: Getting Through LAX

You might guess by the title that I am again among my loved ones, after a grueling fifty-plus hours in transit. Little Benjamin has just had a bath and been put to bed, Samantha is studying and Darrell is at work – the overnight shift. Zeva the Dog lays at my feet and the cat is curled up on the arm of the chair. I find myself at loose ends, having slept like a log last night: no jet lag for me!

The trans-pacific plane ride did not last fifty hours; in fact, it went rather quickly. What did me in was the 16-hour layover in Hong Kong. I got a great deal on the ticket but I'm not sure the thousand Yuan I saved was worth the time spent in transit. The trouble is that I cannot seem to sleep on the road so, all night and into the next day I stumbled around Hong Kong airport, enviously staring at those who seem to be able to sleep in any position, in any environment and in any condition.

That 'not sleeping' deal applies to plane rides, too. I might have nodded off for a few minutes out of sheer exhaustion, but true sleep never visits me in transit. So, you can imagine what fine form I was in when we finally touched down in Los Angeles.

Last year I glossed over the pain and aggravation of getting admitted to America. Now, I'm glad I did because this year, the 'clearing customs' ritual has established an all-new level of annoyance and aggravation, and I get to tell you all about it!

LAX's Tom Bradley International terminal must have been planned and laid out by fitness gurus who hold the belief that extended walking is the secret to unhappy life, or by blind architects. The distance from the jetway to the passport validation area – the step that precedes claiming baggage and clearing customs is convoluted and consists of up-and down-ramps, escalator rides and more than a few meters of straightaway concourse. As opposed to many other airports, there are no moving sidewalks. That might help explain why I believe sadistic fitness gurus might have been involved in the planning and design.

Normally I would not balk at taking exercise but, because of lack of sleep and sitting overly long, my newly mended leg was screaming. And then, when I thought of all the standing and queueing still to be done...

After about 10 minutes' walk we all arrived in the great hall, ready for passport  examination and customs declaration. Whereas visitors to the country were instructed to enter the first serpentine queue marker, those with American passports had to walk to the end of the large hall to line up, switchback style. The line had already folded back on itself 7 times by the time I got there. I was not happy.

And then, futher aggravation set in when we collectively noticed a line of machines. Assistants were inviting queued-ups to face the contraption. Others coached the bewildered travelers on how to use the machine. “What could these be for?” I wondered.

Finally, my turn to face the gadget. After engaging it by requesting it speak to me in a specific language, it asked my name, nationality, purpose of coming to America. Next screen asked what type of passport I have, and what country issued it. Third screen detailed duty items: had I anything I needed to declare? Did I bring any produce or seeds? Soils? Had I been in contact with any livestock while abroad? Am I importing gifts totaling... what amount? And then, I was to present my passport to the built-in scanner. Next, the machine instructed me to remove my glasses, adjusted itself to my height and took my picture. The ritual concluding by it printing a receipt, with the instructions to present that paper to the official who will inspect my documents in the next stage of the process.

This step of in-processing is new. Last year, we were all given a blue and white form to fill out while still in flight which, after the death-march through the terminal and endless queueing, we were to present to a security officer, who would ask leading questions such as: “What were you doing in China?” “Why did you come back?” Where will you go?” in order to ascertain whether or not you are a terrorist. By that short conversation, your form would be marked in a certain way, indicating to the officer downstream that your bags are to be opened and checked, or you should just be waved through.

Those new gizmos asked the same questions as the officers did last year, so I reckoned that, once more a machine has supplanted a human. After moving further up the new serpentine queue I found myself in after wrangling with the machine, the officers' booths – minimally staffed, were still in place, and travelers still stepped up to and stopped at them, handing over documents. Officers made conversation, supplicants removed eyewear and pictures were taken... just as the machine had done. 

I thought that those officers were there to ease the pain of transitioning to the automated passport validation system so, when my turn came to be interviewed by such an official, I asked if the machines will indeed take their job in the near future. “No” he replied. “It's just another layer of security.”

I'm confused. Those machines, no doubt having cost the taxpayers a bundle, asked the same questions and fulfilled the same function as the officer. While it is true that a machine would not necessarily be able to interpret subtle nuances of body language, all other aspects of the entry process are done mechanically.

And these machines are supposed to help thwart terrorists' feet touching American soil? Wasn't it just a few weeks ago that ISIS claimed responsibility for a shoot-up in San Bernadino? And, the American economy being what it is – the poor getting poorer, can America afford to throw tax money toward  a redundant layer of security?

My sleep-deprived mind pondered that as we all queued up for the next step in the process: claiming our bags and going through customs. Here, there were no serpentine arrangements, just lines of people, stretching out as far as the eye can see,  front to back, the entire length of the building. To get to the proper carousel, we had to cross those lines, and then find a place in one of the three lines and wait.

Progress was slow. Several travelers around me fretted over missing their connecting flights. An officer on the fringes insisted that this procedure is normal, that no one line is moving any faster than the other, and that everyone should just be patient.

I've been in plenty of airports, around the world. I contend that only Israel beats America in aggravation as far as entry procedures. They have good reason for it: their country is constantly in turmoil/under attack.  Presumably America is also under attack, and these measures are necessary. However, in all of the time I've been traveling in and out of America, the only terror incidents I've heard about are 'homegrown' – initiated by citizens who've lived there long-term.

Gaining entry was an aggravating time. Fortunately, we had scheduled my connecting flight to Oregon for several hours after touchdown in L.A. so that there would be plenty of time to go through all of the procedures necessary for admittance to the country.

Nevertheless, in the back of my mind, niggled: “How must they feel: those who, their whole lives, have dreamt of coming to America, only to be confronted with... this?”