Traveler vs. Hotel Room

I’ve been traveling a lot for work, which often means a bad night’s sleep.

For complicated reasons involving hotel no-vacancies, my only room option last week was on the other side of the machinery at the top of the elevator shaft. If you can imagine the sound of enormous carts rolling across bumpy pavement every ten to twenty seconds, you’ll have an idea of what it sounded like.

But it was either than or hump over to another hotel at at 11 p.m., so I took the room. I even fell asleep at a decent hour.

Then I woke up. It was about 3:30 a.m. The elevators were pretty quiet, but a green light was flashing from overhead every five seconds or so.

And I was hot. I tried to adjust the thermostat, but every single knob was missing. Luckily, I guess, it was preset for a decent temperature. I flipped back the fancy down comforter, which would have kept Nanook warm in the north, and went with a complicated thermal solution that involved wearing a long sleeve t-shirt under the sheet.

And then the elevators started to rumble again. I lay in bed for a while, then remembered I had a solution for the sound:

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Those things that look like bullets are actually foam ear plugs. I’d forgotten I had them, but necessity is apparently a great spur for your memory. I put the ear plugs in, and there was much rejoicing. You can buy them at any drugstore. They pencil out to about 10 cents apiece. Trust me: a pair of those in your suitcase is money well spent.

But there was still a flashing green light above my head, and I needed a fix for it. A piece of tape would have been perfect, but I didn’t have tape (I am not, you know MacGuyver). I took a look at the light sources, which was a smoke alarm of some sort. 

After some casting about for suitable material, I realized the cardboard key sleeve that the hotel provides could be shimmed into the alarm on either side of the light, creating a barrier. Even better, the sleeve was printed in a dark color on one side, letting less light through.

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I was proud of that hack … and it was probably for the best I didn’t see the mold around the smoke alarm (yeesh!) until I downloaded my photo a few days later.

So I managed to outwit the elevator, the balky air conditioner, and the green light — yet I still lost out on sleep, because I had to do major surgery on the hotel room in the middle of the night.

If you can help it, don’t travel for business.

Friday in Austin, Texas: Pool, Country Music, and Chicken Shit Bingo

I happened to be in Austin, Texas last weekend, which bills itself as the “Live music capital of the world.” I was visiting my friend Rob, who took me out to a local honky-tonk to hear some. We went to Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon.

Ginny’s is  a simple rectangle of a building with an assortment of castoff decor. The pavement under the pool table had potholes. The paint on the ceiling was pockmarked and peeling. The door to the beer closet had no lock on it. You could call it run down, beat up or dingy. It was my kinda place.

Here’s my cruddy cell phone pic of Ginny’s. Those are some genuine Beautiful People (what other kind of man wears a pink shirt?) standing near the bar. Better still, that’s an elderly couple dancing in front of the band.

We bought a couple of beers, my friend asked for quarters for the pool table. We could play for free, the bartender told us. The coin-op part was broken.

The table was tucked into a corner between the excess chairs, and a spare stage riser. For certain shots near the rail, there was no other way to get behind the ball than to park your ass on the chairs.

The table’s felt was stained, one rail was warped, and one side pocket had a hole in it wide enough to let the ball fall out the side. At one point I sunk a shot in that pocket, and my friend ran out the front door like the joint had caught fire. He returned holding the ball.

The game paused when a large bug landed on the 8 ball.

But you know, the quirks were part of the fun. We shot pool and drank beer and listened to the band.  “Peewee Moore is a self proclaimed Honkytonk/Outlaw Country Singer/Songwriter in the same vein as Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Johnny Paycheck, and Hank Williams. He has been barnstorming around the country with his trio dubbed “Peewee Moore & The Awful Dreadful Snakes” doing an endless string of one night stands from Austin TX to you name it. “

Deep into the band’s second set, Rob said that at some point, all the trucks, hard times, whiskey and women become interchangeable components of some greater country ür-song. “Freightliner woman, you jack-knifed my heart.” “I would drown myself in whiskey but my wife used it to bathe the dog” … But I digress.

Rob also mentioned that the table we were playing on was mildly famous. It turns out that one night a week, Ginny’s puts a board over the table, and a cage of chicken wire over the board. The board is a grid, and each grid has a number. Contestants pay money to stake claim to one of the numbers.

Then the chicken comes goes in the cage and cruises around does some version of the Poultry Strut. Sooner or later, the chicken takes a shit. Whoever owns the chicken shit-besmirched square is the lucky winner of Chicken Shit Bingo. Yee haw!

(You can skip the first three minutes or so, if all you really want to see is the, um, money shot.)

Links to What Distracted Me from Working This Week

This week, I read someone talking about legal threats to bloggers linking to the New York Times. The writer made the comment that the Web is basically a giant copying machine. How true, how true.

In that spirit, links to some of the stuff I happily distracted myself with this week:

On the highbrow end, not one but two interesting pieces about online reviews. First, from the Economist, this discovery:

a handful of bad reviews, it seems, are worth having. “No one trusts all positive reviews,” he says. So a small proportion of negative comments—“just enough to acknowledge that the product couldn’t be perfect”—can actually make an item more attractive to prospective buyers.

And this one: A company that researches this “shows that visitors are more reluctant to buy until a product attracts a reasonable number of reviews and picks up momentum.”

Know who does this really well? Amazon.com. One company estimates that one little feature of reviewing on the Amazon site is worth $2.7 billion of new revenue. Wow.

On the middlebrow end, I wrote my sustainability tip this week about how green cigarettes are, based on an excellent article by Nina Shen Rastogi, a.k.a. The Green Lantern, a columnist on Slate.com.

Long story short, cigs are a disaster. 27 million pounds of pesticides every year in the U.S., nearly a half-million acres of forest and woodland cleared every year for tobacco farming, 84,878 tons of fine particulate matter (bad stuff!), 1.7 billion tons of cigarette butts … yuck.

message-traffic-pollution-mAlso, British project is showing the effects of traffic pollution. Using a network of wireless sensors near major roads, they collect data on carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, other pollutant levels, temperature, humidity and noise levels, as well as a count of vehicle passages. The result is a real-time “pollution map” of London, to help people choose travel routes, and government officials figure out solutions.

In lower brow fun, The New York Times has a great article about kooks who do like Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, right down to the costume, and building replica chairs. The photos are priceless. I’d run one, but the New York Times is pretty ornery about that nowadays.

The UK’s Telegraph has a list of 20 the most ridiculous complaints made by travelers to their travel agent.

One of my favorites:

A tourist at a top African game lodge overlooking a waterhole, who spotted a visibly aroused elephant, complained that the sight of this rampant beast ruined his honeymoon by making him feel “inadequate”.

On that note, courtesy of the Boston Globe’s Braniac blog, I also had to laugh at one of the funniest faux-self-help books I’ve ever seen. (Which is not for the more prudish of your friends and relations.)

And last but not least, some clever Brits did their take on what the publisher’s meeting might have been like for the Harry Potter books. Which is funny as hell if you’ve every tried to pitch a book.

Chicago, Part 3 – Baby, It’s Cold Outside

I live in Portland, Ore., which is actually farther north than Chicago. In fact, it’s farther north than Toronto—and even than Montreal (though by only a mile or two). But because Portland’s climate is softened by the Pacific Ocean, we get snowstorms once or maybe twice a year, making it a novelty. So when I was in Chicago last week (part I; part II) I found the snowstorm and cold spell somewhat exciting, in the way of a tourist safely ensconced in a hotel room.

On day two it got cold. When I left the hotel the next day, the temperature had dropped into the “bitter” range, and the story on the street had changed. Though Michigan Ave. still had a lot of pedestrians, the cold-weenies like me hoofed it with purpose, instead of dawdling and window-shopping.

Signs also appeared on the sidewalks in front of high-rises: Beware of Falling Ice.

The odds were stacking up against a life of ease: it was bitterly cold; the streets were slick; snow was still blowing; and, if the prospect of freezing, falling to the pavement or getting snow in your eyes weren’t enough, you could got smacked by falling icicles.

Winter: It’s not for sissies.

My hotel was a big box, with the eastern side all glass … much of it single-pane. That meant that if I opened the drapes, I immediately felt the draft. The second night I went out and bought goodies at Trader Joe’s, including a bottle of white wine. I cooled it in my ice bucket at first. Then I realized the huge single-pane windows were great for keeping my bottle of wine cold: I just placed it against the aluminum frame and glass.

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The windows were such a bad layer of insulation, there was a sign next to the thermostat that read, “At certain times of year, you may not be able to achieve a comfortable temperature.”

I should have taken a picture of that sign. I’m sure it applies to the city of Chicago as much as my room.

Chicago, Part 2 – This City Was Made for Walkin’

In my last post, I just described raiding the rails in Chicago … something do to once (and hopefully not too much more). Today we’re getting off the train.

Without getting all gushy and lyrical, I love walking in big cities. And by big cities, I mean places like Chicago and Toronto, not necessarily Portland. Portland is a decent-sized city, but its downtown is fairly small: really it’s just a few square miles on one side of the Willamette River.

Chicago, on the other hand, knocks you on your ass with its grandeur. In my walk up Michigan Avenue, I walked by—in no particular order—the Wrigley Building, The Tribune Tower (fascinating and Gothic), the Corn Cob Towers (this explains more), over the Chicago River, past Donald Trump’s latest ego-creation, past the Art Institute of Chicago and their awesome lion statues. A couple nights later, I walked north a few blocks and saw the Water Tower, and Sears Tower. It’s an architectural treasure-trove (
see some pics). Portland just doesn’t compare this way.

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One of the lions.

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Tribune Tower

I reached my hotel just as snow flurries started dusting the city. Two hours later, when I went out for dinner, the flurries had become a full-fledged snowstorm, slanting into people’s faces (some carried umbrellas to keep it away), making people squint. As I walked and squinted, it occurred to me that ski goggles would have a practical application—they’d keep the snow out of your eyes, not to mention marking you as a kook (which might deter some of the panhandlers and hucksters).

I went out twice that night, early and late, and saw the progression of the storm. The bridge across the Chicago River was treacherously slick … I followed one woman who wore high-heel boots across the bridge, and she skittered her feet, leaving a trail in the snow like cross-country skis. I mentioned that to her, and she said she did it to keep from slipping.

Umbrellas, shuffle-steps … walking had changed from one kind of an adventure (sightseeing) to another (don’t fall).

Chicago, Part I – Railroaded

I flew into Chicago last Tuesday. Because I was in no hurry, and I’m a fan of public transit, and I could save my company $25 if I didn’t take an airport shuttle, I took the CTA train. Good thing I wasn’t in a hurry: I saw a sign that the train line’s speed was up, from 15 mph to 35. 15 is unbelievably slow. I go 15 mph on my bike!!

While the train follows a freeway for much of the way in, it does so at a slower speed, so I got a lot of opportunity to remind myself just how ugly a northern city is in winter.

The entire palette was dull: grays, browns, dingy blacks, off whites. Even blues and greens looked dull … wisely, because winter is a sloppy season, not many buildings are brightly colored.

The local subway in Chicago is actually elevated—it’s called the “L” for that reason—though it’s been in so many movies (such as the Fugitive with Harrison Ford) that that’s hardly news to many people. But there were a few huge differences between the trains in Toronto (where I grew up) and Portland (where I live now).

First, the “L” is much older than the TTC subway, and the downtown core is surrounded by The Loop. So there’s a loop of elevated track running about 40 feet above the street, making turns right by the windows of office and apartment buildings. Again, I’d seen it in movies, but it had been a long while since I’d actually been peering in people’s windows while riding public transit. I spent an interesting minute watching a woman working at her desk; the train was so commonplace to her, she didn’t pay us any attention.

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A station on the “L”

Getting off the train was interesting too. It’s about three flights above street level, and the platform is wooden, and everything feels very cadged together and rickety, and on the turnstiles are textured with countless coats of paint.

In the last week I ended up riding the El in Chicago, the MAX in Portland, and the Toronto subway. The “L” (sometime it’s called the El) is by far the oldest, grottiest, quirkiest, slowest, and hardest to navigate. Funny thing was, it was also the most interesting. Then again, I didn’t have to depend on it to get to work.

More Fun in Paradise

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When we were in Hawai’i last month I took my kids to the Kahalu’u Beach Park (above) in Kailua-Kona to go snorkeling. I affectionately refer to the place as “fish in a bucket,” because it’s so darned easy to see fish. (There’s a good slide show on this site that has 19 more pictures of what it’s like.)

The day we went, however, the place was overrun with hapless tourists standing on the coral (bad), and generally flailing about. (I was one of those, trying not to swallow water while propping up my youngest.)

One sea turtle was loitering in the shallow water, eating and letting some gentle waves wash him this way and that. But because this is a city beach, he was surrounded by pale, sunscreen-gooped people, about twenty feet from where some volunteer was patiently explaining all the things you weren’t supposed to do so the reef and its poor denizens wouldn’t get completely thrashed.

It was a perversion of nature, an endangered species surrounded by us icky humans like were were in an interactive zoo. Then, when things didn’t look as if they could get get any weirder, an teenager waddled up with his waterproof camera, stuck it into the one foot of water, and snapped off a couple pictures of the turtle’s head.

The text on the kid’s shirt said it all: “Industrial Vultures.”

Hawai’i Tourism: A Modest Proposal

Not long ago I was on the Big Island of Hawaii on vacation. We were there for a week, and we snorkeled, body-surfed and dined out. Last year we also went to Volcanoes National Park, where we hiked through lava tubes, checked out the Kilauea Caldera, then drove down to the end of the park to see the lava falling in the ocean, which was fascinating and sketchy, in about equal measure. We also ponied up for a submarine ride, which allowed our little guy and his grandma to see fish by looking through the windows.

In other words, we had quite a fun, busy week — though that isn’t the point of this post.

We also visited with friends who were staying at a different hotel. Their hotel typically has a kiddie pool, but since it was being remodeled, the kids were allowed to share one of the adult pools during the remodel.

In tight proximity to the pool on three sides were chaises, about half full of adults doing … nothing. Just lying there, reading, while the Pacific Ocean beckoned 100 yards away, while sea turtles rested on the beach, while tropical fish swam in their own tide-filled lagoon. I even took a picture of an eagle ray cruising around there … it was just that easy.

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Yet the whole time we were watching someone feed the eagle rays and having lunch and swimming and watching the turtles, these people poolside didn’t budge, unless it was to roll over, or get Evian water spritzed on them. (No I’m not making this up. If you have enough money, apparently you can get people to do all sorts of embarrassing things to you.)

Then in USA Today, I found statistical evidence that these hopeless slugs are practically the majority of vacationers:

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Which makes me think we could save a great deal of time, money and carbon if we just identified these people before they ever got on a plane. Hell, if Dubai can build a ski resort

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Then surely we can build Hawaii simulation centers in large urban areas. With enough warming lamps, humidifiers and island-trained chefs, I’m sure we could build a very expensive, exclusive, peaceful pool where lazy, harried vacationers can get the Hawaii “experience” without bothering to move their carcasses halfway across the Pacific just to baste.

Meanwhile, the few of us who actually want to do stuff will just do things the old-fashioned way.