Monday, October 30, 2006

rest of the UK trip

Writing these takes time. For these last couple of entries I've been curious about things I've seen so did research which didn't always make it into my writeups. I figure you can follow hyperlinks and do web searches as well as I can.

I stayed at B's place in Oxford for the weekend, to Cambridge for the week, then back to Oxford for the next weekend. On the 2 Friday evenings I went with Carole, one of B's roommates, to tango practice. It's held at the Quaker center. The first Friday had about 40 people, the 2nd about 25. As a rough estimate from memory. I didn't count. They dance in open embrace. On that Sunday I went with B and Carole to tango class and we chatted with the teacher after class who said, "this *is* England" when asked about the different styles. In the US some of the first lessons, for those who teach the close embrace, is to get used to being that close. It is hard, and can make for giggles while struggling with the cultural expectations of personal space with strangers.

The music was almost all traditional. Only the last few songs were alternative tango. On the second Friday I don't agree with the DJ's music choice. One of the alt. tangos had little in the way of a followable beat and another was a cover of The Beatles' "Yesterday". It didn't work.

The first Saturday night was a salsa party. I realized I hadn't danced salsa for some weeks, what with all the traveling. I had chosen tango over salsa. The event was after a salsa class and the teachers had recently decided to switch from teaching on-1 to teaching on-2. I know I should learn to do on-2, but I can't. I can start okay but when I get off the basic I switch back to on-1 timing. In Sweden and (I think) the UK they teach cha-cha (which they call cha-cha-cha) on-2. That comes from the ballroom tradition. In Santa Fe people dance cha-cha on-1, because they almost all come to cha-cha through salsa and club dancing. I had one lesson from an on-2 cha-cha dancer.

Before that night I had met perhaps 4 people who could dance on-2 and not dance on-1. I did try. The best was when I asked a very new dancer. We both equally struggled with the dance. I asked a woman, a relative beginner, to dance and mentioned I would dance on-1. She was relieved because she had been gone for a while and came back only to find the dance had changed from underneath her.

I still find something lacking when I dance salsa in the UK. That sense of playful flirting I've mentioned before. There were a couple people I enjoyed dancing with. (In addition to dancing with B, Carole and Sarah - I'm talking about strangers.) Luckily for me I asked the one I liked the best towards the end, and we finished up the night. That makes for a nice finale.

Before going out dancing B and Carole hosted a small dinner party for their salsa friends. One was Alladin, who came out from London. I pointed out how clear the sky was, as we came back from the dance. He had never seen the clear night sky nor the constellations. Not surprising for someone living in London. The Dark Skies people will need to do a lot of convincing to make it possible to see the Milky Way once again from London's center.

Carole served (among other things) stuffed peppers and baked veggies. Must remember to make sweet potatoes more often. Sliced, brushed with olive oil, bake 20 minutes. Yum!

A dance instruction observation. At least in Oxford the teachers want the students to advance together. You start with the beginning class and stay with it until everyone advances to the next class. No drop-ins.

During the week in Cambridge I worked. No dancing. Nothing much interesting to say here. I did stay in a 900 year old hotel. I don't know which part was 900 years old, though the TV did not have remote control. The guy behind the bar (pub master? host? Some UK term I don't know) sounded like he was from eastern Europe. I'm told there's been a lot of Poles who've moved to UK in the last couple years after they became part of the EU. That explains why I read that Poles were one of the largest emigrant groups to Sweden last year.

Back in Oxford for the 2nd weekend I took a walk with Carole to see more of the city. In this one we went through the parks and I got to see the bench dedicated to Tolkien, with two trees nearby planted in memory of the Ents. That was cool.

At Stanstead airport, waiting for the plane to take us to Sweden, a woman comes up to me. I met her tango dancing. We chatted for a bit, and more after getting off in Sweden. I've been struggling to remember her name. Even normal Swedish names I have problems with. They are just different enough that they don't stick. Then again, I'm only average about remembering names in the first place. It's practice-able, I know.

That brings me back, finally, to Gothenburg. I'll be here for a while. I had thoughts about going to Craig and Rachel's (and David's) for Thanksgiving but at $700 that's a bit steeper than I want to pay, and I don't want to deal with the hassle that is TSA security theater. For Christmas I think I'll go to Leipzig and visit the Visagies. Could even take the night train again. (It's about 14 hours by train from there to here.) My next trip to the US will be in February, which is when my legal ability to stay in Sweden expires. Though I could go elsewhere (South Africa? UK? Ireland? NZ? Oz?) there are a couple of conferences in the US I plan to attend and people to visit.

Outside it's raining, and dark comes early now that we've stopped saving it.

UK road trip, Cornwall

Daylight, in Santa Fe, used to host a weekly, open Friday lunch. I was a regular and so was Dick Cramer of Tripos. He would occasionally mention a branch of Tripos in Cornwall, far from anywhere. That made me curious. At the pre-UK-QSAR dinner I asked about it and was told it's in Bude. In looking at the map I saw a point called "Land's End." I decided then to go to Cornwall and see those two places. I did want to see a third; Neal Stephenson's Wire amazingly good article some years back on next-gen transoceanic cable mentioned a place on Great Britain where for 100+ years the transatlantic cables have come ashore. He said there were only a few places on the western shoreline where that could happen. I wanted to see it, but I did not know where it was.

Driving about the UK is slow. The fastest routes are the motorways (M25, M10, etc). The GPS mapper in the car said to head north towards the London Orbital and take the motorway across. I declined. I wanted to take the local roads. It's pretty good going if you can manage 40 on those, making for a long trip. Then again, it's pretty good during rush hour if you can get to 40 on the Orbital.

Because of the traffic, curvy roads, close walls and trees, UK driving is pretty tense compared to cross-country US driving. They've a high population density and it's pretty uniform, meaning that even in the countryside it's a lot of small towns instead of a few big ones. The biggest exception so far was west Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Cornwall.

I drove and drove and drove and drove. I finally got to Land's End at around midnight. I wasn't sure what was there. Was it some place I could say "I've been here" and go? For example, I visited Hoover Dam at midnight. Parked the car (much easier at night), walked to the dam, looked out on the water, and that was good enough. I didn't want the dam tour nor see any museum about the making of the dam. Was Land's End the same?

I got there. It was dark. Dark enough to see some of the dust bands in the Milky Way . The skies for much of my visit were clear. I could even see a bit of the haze of the Milky Way from Oxford. I saw the lighthouses off the Cornwall coast and I could hear the surf in the distance. I started down the trail, thinking it wasn't so far. I quickly realized I was quite a ways above the sea and it was too dark to see much.

I came back in the early, early morning. Land's End itself is a small theme park. If it was open I could have bought food, seen some history, including that of ships and wrecks, and watched a sped-up movie of the trip from Land's End to John o' Groats. Those are the traditional ends of Great Britian. But I was there at sunrise, and solely to see the end of the land.

I took that trail again. Very quickly I reached the end. The coastline is an eroding granite cliff. Someday I should learn more geology — geology of Cornwall. A quite impressive place, though no whales as there were near Cape Town. Though Wales was just a ways north.

After ooh-ing and ahh-ing a bit, I drove into Penzance [pictures]. Yes, where the pirates were from. That is, the soccerfootball team. At the time of Gilbert and Sullivan it was, and still is, a quiet seaside town. Population about 30,000. I parked near the Jubilee Pool. It's called a "lido", which is a UK term for a public swimming area. Now I understand why the lido deck on the Love Boat was named that. This one is from the art deco era. It's a salt water pool filled by the sea at high tide, which is when I was there. In my various readings now the marina is dry at low tide, which wasn't the case when I was there.

I stopped for a quick breakfast snack and asked the woman behind the counter where I should go. Following her directions I walked around the main shopping area and stopped at the statue of Humphry Davy, Penzance's best known citizen.

From there I drove to Bude. Coming into town I saw a great beach so stopped at Widemouth Bay. Wide sandy beach near low tide. Mild waves. There was a surfing class going on. While the water was cold enough that they wore wet suits it wasn't cold enough to walk barefooted. I chatted a bit with a woman who was getting ready to go surfing. She was an avid beginner. I mentioned I was there because of Tripos. She knew several people who had worked there. "Had" because Tripos (as I knew) had a layoff because that facility was a big money loser.

I parked at the tourist center near the harbor. "Harbor" is the misnomer. It's a cove protected by a breakwater. The tides on the Atlantic side are very impressive, though perhaps magnified by the shallow slope of the beaches. Like in Penzance boats could float in the harbor at high tide, including old-style sailing ships, but be beached at low tide, with a decent walk to the shoreline. It has an interesting piece of Victorian era engineering. The harbor proper is a sea lock, which like the Jubilee Pool is filled during high tide. That's when ships can come in and out. They close the locks (by hand, by the way) and the sea drops away at least 10 feet. The canal was meant to bring the local lime-rich sand as fertilizer in to the farmlands and ship out local crops. The canal boats had wheels because there was one section which was too steep for locks. They put the boat onto rails, pulled it up (or let it down) and took it to the continuation of the canal. Technology. Amazing, ain't it?

I learned this by visiting the historical museum next to the canal. It had the standard set of pictures, models, memorablia that you find in this sort of small town museum. (Compare to the Hamburg museum which was huge and gave more of a historical perspective and interpretation than being a collection.) Of interest to me was a picture of the HMS Bude in dazzle camouflage. I read about that last year so it was neat to look at the picture and say "a-ha, I know why it's painted that way. Education. Amazing, isn't it?

I had a Cornish Pasty in Bude. I like South African pies a lot better. The pasty was tough and bland. Hearty is another way to say it. I first had a pasty visiting EBI some years ago and learned pasties were meant for Cornish miners to eat while deep in the mines. Hearty and able to last the trip, which a ZA one couldn't do. Wikipedia quotes "It is said that a good pasty should be strong enough to endure being dropped down a mine shaft." The EBI pasties had small dough handles on the side. A guy in line at the cafeteria said that's because deep in the mines, covered in dust, the miners would hold the pasty by the handles, eat the rest of the pasty, and throw away the contaminated dough part.

Bill Bryson, in his "The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America", which I read on Rhoda's hide-a-bed in 1992. He's an American who had lived in the UK for a long time and was taking a tour through the US. He went through the UP ("Upper Peninsula of Michigan") and was surprised to see pasties for sale there. It was at the end of the season but there was one place still open. He bought one and said it tasted exactly like a pasty should, and very un-American, meaning there wasn't enough butter/grease for US tastes. The woman selling him the pasty was happy to be told it was very authentic. He had picked up a British accent and she thought he was British.

Later in his tour Bryson visited Santa Fe. I didn't notice that in my first read. It wasn't until later when I reread the book, and well after I moved to Santa Fe, that I noticed it. He liked Santa Fe based purely on going downtown, buying a margarita at the Ore House overlooking the Plaza, and meeting his .. niece? second cousin? .. who was attending St. Johns. Not much to go on to judge a town, but then it's about what I've been doing for most of my road trips, and I've done nowhere near the background research he's done.

Leaving Bude I headed for Oxford. I had seen Cheddar on the map and I knew (because I read "Salt: A World History") that Cheddar cheese originated from the caves of the nearby Cheddar Gorge. I had hoped to visit, and it wasn't far off my path. But I was also hoping to make it to Oxford by 6:30pm or so. I decided to go anyway, even knowing I wouldn't get to Cheddar until 4:45 or so, which wouldn't give me enough time to visit the gorge or any historical institutions. It would give me enough time to say I've been to Cheddar. So I did and now I can. I bought cheese too, from The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company, which is "the only Cheddar made in Cheddar." Call me a sucker - I went there. They had various samples available. I ended up buying a medium cheddar (I usually go for sharp but didn't like their mature well enough), a smoked (my favorite of the bunch) and an English Stilton, which is a blue cheese.

All tasty. We (I, B and Carole) feasted on cheese for a late dessert that night. It was a good thing I decided to take the detour as there was no way I would have been on time to Oxford. The motorway was backed up for some miles and after an hour I finally made it to an exit where I could take the back roads into town. It's the sort of thing were having a GPS guidance system should be helpful. It was, kind of. It knew there was stopped traffic and offered to do an alternate route. But the alternate route would be the same as the alternate for everyone going to London and looking for an alternate. I couldn't tell it to choose a different alternate. Once I started on the right road it gave up on trying to route me the other way and became helpful again.

I've heard stories about people obeying the GPS more than their own senses, like ending up along a route little more than a cow path on the edge of a cliff. That didn't happen to me. The closest was saying that a road went through to the Oxford ring road and when I tried it out found that it dead ended at a relatively recent fence. It was help for a few places where I decided "I think I'll see what's that way" or took the wrong exist, and it could take me back to where I wanted to go.

UK road trip, Hastings and Battle

I've driving across the US 4 or 5 times. It's hard to count because they weren't all direct trips. For example, summer 2005 I drove from Santa Fe to Detroit then to Florida, with stops in between. Sprint 2006 I drove from Santa Fe to California. Does that count as a cross-country trip? Probably. But I don't remember all the trips I did. I used to have a map with my cross-country road trips highlighted. The route from Urbana to Tallahassee and then to Miami was rather well marked. It was such that I was getting to get a feel for which stores were at which exits.

In Europe I've only done road trips in the UK. My first was with Karen when we went to Bath and the Cotswalds. She drive because I couldn't drive stick and the rental cars here were almost all standard. My second was after the 2004 ISMB in Glasgow, when I drove around central Scotland. I rented a bigger car because it had automatic and I could instead focus on staying on the correct side of the road.

In this most recent trip I had two days to travel. I started in Hastings. I found someone else's B&W pictures if you want to take a look, or do a Google image search for Hastings. In my posting from Hastings I mentioned the gravel on the beach. It's normal. The term is "shingle", an uncountable noun meaning "small smooth pebbles, as on a beach" It makes a nice clattering sound when the waves hit it.

In the morning I drove to downtown Hastings and walked along the beach for a short bit to the fishing boat area. They are beach-launched ships. "The largest in X" where X was variously written "England", "the UK" and "Europe". A tractor puts them into the water at high tide. They are out for 12 hours and pulled back in at the next high tide. It's a long tradition. I went to a local historical museum with various pictures and memorabilia from the last 150 years or so along with some bits about the long-term history. I went to the lifeboat station nearby. Tough-looking boat, and designed for beach launches.

October is the end of the season so things weren't all that happening. There were a few tour busses, including one full of German students. I couldn't figure out just why they were there. What's the draw? Were they all going to Battle afterwards?

I did. The Battle of Hastings was not at Hastings. The Normans (and their pals the Bretons and the Flemish) landed near Hastings but the battle was a bit north, at what is now called Battle. After the Norman Conquest was complete William had an abbey built at the site. This evolved over time and was privately owned in the 1800s. Now it's a tourist site and a school. After paying the entrance fee you get an audio device for the self-guided tour. Enter the number listed on placards to have it recount the events from the various points of view as people who were there might have.

The site has changed since then. The top of the hill upon which the English were was likely leveled somewhat. It's not a large area. This was an era when a big battle had only a few thousand people. I would like to have been there with Geoff, acting as interpreter and enthusiastic travel companion. I don't know enough of the era to understand it well enough it on my own.

Even better would be there for the yearly reenactment of the battle, in traditional garb and weapons. I missed it by a week. Signs were still up for it. I suspect finding a place to stay at the last minute would have been harder. There were flowers on the plaque marking the spot where Haroldfell. Attached to the flowers were cards, in modern and old English, with various praises and benedictions to Harold, "last of the true English kings." Like I said, I wish Geoff was with me.

Knowing modern Swedish does not help reading Old English.

Someone must have written a book about an alternative world where the Vikings attacked a week earlier, or later, and not so deplete the English foces in Battle of Stamford Bridge.

Stopped afterwards to get a pastry from "Martel of Battle." Solely because I wrote a software package named Martel.

Afterwards I had to decide what to do next. It's early afternoon Thursday and I was not expected in Oxford until evening Friday.

Riding the rails

In digging through my files I came across this posting from July. I finished it in mid-July on the couchette car going from Berlin to Malmö. There was no internet access. I saved it to a file meaning to upload later. In this case, much later. A couchette car is a sleeper car with bunk beds, shared often amoung strangers. It was the overnight train to Sweden.

Sleeping became better once I put earplugs in. Couchettes aren't a bad way of traveling, nor are trains. They just take a while. They are extremely convenient because the stations are in the center of town. At least nearly always. Back in Illinois, many years ago, the city of Urbana refused (as I recall) to give certain concessions to the railroad building the line from Chicago south. Or they asked for too much. Instead the railroad created a new town originally named "West Urbana" a mile or two away. That city grew, changed its name to Champaign, became the county seat, has more businesses, and when I was there was twice as big as Urbana. Roughly 70,000 vs. 35,000.

Amtrak still goes through Champaign but that's the only passenger service. The station is two blocks from the center of town but it's not part of the city life. Something like 2/3rds of the school come from Chicagoland, and both C-U and Chicago have decent mass transit. A weekend service back and forth to Chicago should get some takers. It's 3.5 hours by car so perhaps 3 hours (or less?) by train.

Why doesn't that happen? It's several things. One is the chicken-and-egg problem where people don't take the train because there is no train because there are no people. In New Mexico Governor Richardson has been pushing a light rail project .. named the Roadrunner Express? ... between Albuquerue and Santa Fe. I think it's a top-down political decision likely to fail. Even when trains were the way to get around the US there was no good rail connection to Santa Fe because of geography. The train stops at Lamy and people going to Santa Fe finish the trip with a 15 minute car ride.

There are two competitors to trains: planes and automobiles. Planes are fast but the airports are out of town, the airlines and security demand passengers arrive early, luggage is separated from the passengers and cannot contain certain items, security screening can be humiliating, etc. Figure two hours overhead and an hour flight takes a bit over three hours of travel. That's 2.5 hours of rail time, assuming 15 minutes of overhead on each side.

Execepting the northeastern part of the US, neighboring cities are a but further apart than that by car. Urbana was 3 hours to Chicago and St. Louis and 2 hours to Indianapolis. Competitive train service must be high-speed train service. I've heard about two reasons keeping this from happening. High-speed lines must be straight. The existing tracks aren't straight enough, with bends too often and too sharp. Fixing that requires new right-of-ways, which is expensive and time-consuming. It isn't worthwhile if there are no passengers and shaky evidence that things will change. Hence a top-down political decision could overcome the barrier. If it fails (in the US) then it's more proof that the government is incompetant. If it succeeds then nay-sayer will say that it was economically worthwhile and free enterprise would have put one in no matter what the government did. Heads I win, tails you loose.

I've also heard that freight lines in the US have right-of-way over passenger lines. The rails are owned by the freight companies after all. So few people ride that they have no political power to change this. Risk management of uncertain schedules requires either a huge number of trains (just catch the next one, coming in a few minutes) or large buffer times ("good thing I had a 90 minute layover because the train was delayed by an hour"). Both make train travel less viable.

The train to Leipzig on Friday was 20 minutes late. The Germans on the train were quite annoyed. German trains run on time. There were people from Deutsch Bahn giving OJ, bottled water or candy to the passengers as an apology. Some people missed the outbound connections. For example, one of my transfers had about 12 minutes between arrival and departure and the train arrived 3 minutes late, which made me nervous. You can't be this tight with airplanes. It takes about as long to load a plane as the train is at the station.

The other train competitor is the car. When ready, hop into the car and go. No nervousness or worry about missing the train. I saw several suit-clad businessmen miss the train by mere seconds. It was still at the station but the doors were closed. They were not let on.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


I'm staying tonight in the Grand Hotel on Grand Parade, St. Leonards, Hastings, East Susses, TN38 0DD, Great Britain. That's what it says on the receipt. 35 Sterling (cash only). Includes wireless and breakfast.

Yes, I'm in the UK now. I got into Sweden last week, for 6 days. I was at the UK-QSAR meeting today on the Novartis campus in Horsham and flew out yesterday to get here. It was a comedy of errors. I thought the meeting was on Thursday, not Wednesday, and had planned to visit AZ on Monday and Tuesday. On Monday morning I check the schedule and realized my mistake. Ryan airlines is cheap and getting tickets wasn't bad, even for the day before. When I showed up I was 8 minutes late. Check-in closes 40 minutes before the flight. Had to get a new ticket. Oops! Still, a new ticket (one way) was about $100. It was cheaper flying later, but it messed up my schedule.

You see, I didn't have a place to stay. I was expecting to come into Horsham with 4-5 hours to spare and look for a room. The pre-conference dinner was at 7:30 and I arrived in Stansted at about 4:30 then had a long wait through immigration. Last year immigration control took about 1 minute. Here the line was 30-40 minutes long. Blah. I think they centralized it
so they could lower the number of people staffing the desks. Last time I think there were different immigration controls for each terminal, and coming from the EU meant there were a lot of EU people who didn't require much processing. I was one of the few non-EU people on that Ryan flight.

I got to the restaurant about 15 minutes late as it was. I was helped by a navigational computer, sometimes. GPS controled with a map of the UK. I told it where I wanted to go. It wanted to change the routing frequently - the rush hour traffic gave it the heebie-jeebies. Today I figured out how to turn it off temporarily when it gets annoying ("Luke, you switched off your targeting computer. What's wrong?"). Trouble was, it put me into a car park and said the street I wanted to go to was a special traffic area. Meaning that it was for pedestrians only. It took me a while to figure out what that meant.

After dinner I tried finding a place, with help from others at the conference. Andrew Henry (from CCG) had a mobile phone with web support so looked up a few web pages for me. It didn't help enough so I haded to Crawley, a bigger town nearby. Got there around 11pm. First place - booked up. Second place - the same. They called another place, also booked. "If they are full then there's no place in town."

Others from the conference dinner suggested that if Crawley failed me I should go up to Gatwick for an airport hotel. I did not heed their advice. Sounded too boring. Drove down to Brighton instead. It's about 15 miles away, which in the UK is further than it sounds. First place was locked up for the night. Second place was open. Checked in just before midnight. Guy behind the desk as Mohammad Ali. I kid you not. He's a British citizen from Egypt. Lived in the US for a while, specifically in New York. He was rather hopeful that I knew NYC but as I've only been on the ground there there for about 3 hours I couldn't talk about the place with him. Nonetheless we chatted a bit about other things.

Like that most of the taxi cab drives in Brighton are from the Sudan but if you ask them they say they are from Egypt. Mohammad thinks it's because they don't like telling people they come from a very poor country and would rather claim they come from Egypt. I wondered if it's easier to say "Egypt" then to explain where the Sudan is. Eg, "I'm from Miami" "Really, so am I - which part?" "Ft. Lauderdale" "But that's not Miami." "But people know where it is."

This Friday I'll visit friends in Oxford. The extra day gives me time to travel. I looked on the map and decided to head eastward today to Hastings and see what there is to see of the old 1066. Arrived just at sunset. Pulled into a car park on the boardwalk and went down to the beach. It's a gravel beach, with what looks like river gravel. It has a lot of sea barriers I think to prevent erosion, so I don't think it's the real beach. That's a lot of gravel then.

It reminded me of my high school English class where we were forced to read Elliot's "The Love Song of J. Edgar Prufrock". I hated that was a passion. It made no sense to me, I understood none of the analogies, references or allusions. The only memory I have (besides agony) is of a references to waves crashing onto a gravel beach, and something about Dover. Which is nearby. As I'm on the beach overlooking the Channel (touched the water too, to say I've done it) I wondered about the poem. Did it describe this scene.

I walked on down the promenade and espied the Grand Hotel, with wi-fi and rooms to rent. En suite for £35. The innkeeper knows his facts. He knew right away that Santa Fe was the capital of New Mexico and that it's at about 2000 meters. He didn't know the population though and guessed it at 1.5 million. He was surprised at the 70K number, which is smaller than Hastings. I mentioned Prufrock and he got T.S. Eliot right way. He mentioned some BBC report as news of some economics professor's fantcy that within 1000 years there will be two races of humans. I mentioned the Eloi and he mentioned H.G. Wells. Is that type of knowledge commonplace for British inkeepers? Has decades of experience with pub quizzes kept the mental skills of the UK public in tip-top shape? Find out more as I experience life on the road in the UK.

I looked up Prufrock on the web. There is no mention of waves on gravel. The closest is

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

for my memory of the waves is tied with crabs or lobsters. The sound of claw clattering like gravel rattling? I don't know why I thought of it. Perhaps my teacher had gone to England and recounted being here? I checked "The Waste Land" in case I got the reference wrong but again found no reference. The closest there was "If there were only water amongst the rock".

Freeman Dyson, who is close to being a personal hero, wrote an autobiography titled "Disturbing the Universe". Profrock contains the line "Disturb the universe?". Perhaps I should try again to understand that poem. Dyson is wicked literate. And there's my early 90s slang again.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Last month I went to Mariana's to see the whales. There were a couple but they weren't doing much.

On Sunday most recently I went again. There were many more whales out there. Some were just lazying around, flapping flippers and rolling about. A few were doing tail lifts. It's a sight to be walking, talking, then look up and see the huge tail off in the distance of an otherwise flat sea.

It wasn't flat, flat. Not like the time Cindy, Sharon and I went to SGI and the sea was so flat it was reflecting the clouds making the offshore islands appear to float. It was the flat of frustrated waves finally getting around the cape peninsula, bouncing around False Bay to say hello.

I went there from and back to Hout Bay using the Chapman's Peak road. It's R23 each way (about $3, but in local purchasing power more like $6-$8). It's an expensive road to maintain, being effectively on the cliff face, with large steel fences to keep some of the boulders away from the road and the paying customers. Part even has an artificial overhang where the cliff is the steepest.

On the way back I stopped a few times to watch the waves come in from the deep Atlantic. The wind was behind it pushing the swells and raising the spray. At one spot there's a short footpath leading to an almost bow-like ending with a long drop down and not much else. I was enjoying the power and the glory and noticed, way down below, was another whale doing tail lifts. I thought it was rare to have whales on that side of the mountain, but there it was. It gave a great sense of scale too because that fin seems more small than distance suggested. I'll need to recalibrate my eyeballs.

Just Nuisance

Here's a story which has not yet made it into the collections of truths, stories, lies and tales that is Wikipedia.

Atop the mountain overlooking Simonstown is the grave of Able Seaman Just Nuisance, R.N. Unlike most seamen he is, or was, a dog. A Great Dane. He would enjoy laying on the gangplanks of the naval vessels at the yard there. Great Danes are, well, huge, and it was hard to get past him. Sailors said he was just a nuisance, from which came his name. The sailors took a liking to him, and him to them. He would follow them at times onto the train taking them into town for a bit of leave. The conductors didn't like the pooch getting a free ride and would kick him off. They wanted the owner to pay for a season ticket. The Navy figured a way around that. The induced Just Nuisance into the Royal Navy, first as Ordinary Seaman and then promoted to Able Seaman. As a volunteer during the War such he had a free pass to the trains. When he died at age 7, for Great Danes don't live long, he was laid to rest atop the mountain overlooking Simonstown.

You can drive to the top up a winding road, or take a steep road from down about 1/2 of the way up. From there take the stairs up and up and up. It's perhaps 15 minutes but we stopped several times so I could look at the frigates and the submarines and the sight of the military harbor and sailing club.

Thanks to Mariana for telling me the story and taking me there. See for more details.

Monday, October 09, 2006

driving in South Africa

The big highways are the national highways, with country-wide names like N1, N2 and N7. Mostly these are two lanes, though none so far quite like "Bloody" US 27 in the Everglades. In some places near the cities they can be four line divided highways. While I say "two lanes" it's only in the legal sense. The can be 3 or even 4 lanes, depending on who is driving. There is a yellow line seperating the driving lanes from the break down lane / shoulder. Here it's often called "the yellow lane." Trucks will have signs on the back saying "this truck does not drive in the yellow lane" and "max speed 100" (that's kph). Don't believe either one.

Like elsewhere I've been you're not supposed to drive in the yellow lane. It's for breakdowns and doesn't have enough space for continuous safe driving. But here if someone comes up behind you and wants to pass you're supposed to slide over to the side - still going a highway speed - and let him by. Good manners require him to put his hazards on for a couple of blinks, to which you may respond with a flash of the head lights. It's a bit stressful trying to handle all this on a crowded highway at night in the mountains in near stop-and-go traffic while driving a left-handed stick. At least for me. I can't manage a conversation while doing all that.

It's also unnerving when there's traffic the other way, so cars might be lined up with two going one and one the other. There is enough space for two cars in the lane+yellow lane but with little room for error. In most cases the car going the other way goes partially into the other side's yellow lane to make things more comfortable.

Like Bloody 27 there is a high accident rate. On the drive to/from Durbin there were 3 or 4 accidents. One was with a minibus, another with a truck and a third with a car. There may have been another I don't recall. There were also a few broken down cars on the side of the road. Many people here regard the minibus taxis as very dangerous. Many people die in minibus collisions. They are independent contractors mostly going between a region of town with work and one of the poor residential areas. They speed and swerve and try to go as fast as they can, since they want to make a profit. There's usually one guy manning the door, using big gestures to tell other cars to make way, and call out after new riders.

The brother of Joyce, Heikki's and Minna's cleaning woman, died the weekend before last in a hit-and-run taxi accident.

There's a push to have higher safety standards on the taxis. There's pushback from the drivers who will protest if that happens.