A taste of Alaska

I just got back yesterday from a 10-day wilderness experience in Alaska. Our friend Rai in Anchorage had organized a “taste of Alaska” tour for our little group of 6 from around the country. I was a bit nervous going in: it was the longest trip I’d spent away from Jay since we first got together, and the 10-day forecast before I left predicted showers 10 days straight. But it all worked out well: the weather was wonderful and despite missing Jay I had an amazing time.

After meeting up with the others in Anchorage, we took the ferry from Whittier to Valdez, where we spent 4 days in a cabin on Shoup Bay, kayaking to the nearby glacier. After relaxing there, we drove north to Glenallen where we were picked up by a bush pilot and deposited at the source of the Dadina River in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. From there, we had a trek up to the plateau nestled between three volcanoes, exiting 6 days later at the Sanford Glacier.

There are many stories to tell of the trip, but the details will have to wait until I upload the pictures. More later.

Vienna Waits for You

President Bush is scheduled to visit Vienna on the 20-21st of this month and the Austrians are preparing to meet him. This rooftop by the Naschmarkt (“snack” market) is only one part of what the locals have planned for the extremely unpopular leader. Democrats Abroad are also going to be there, along with Cindy Sheehan and other activist organizations.

The organizers state up front that the protests aren’t anti-American, saying that US citizens are paying for the Bush administration’s war politics just like the rest of the world. (My flimsy translation.) The city of Vienna will be pretty much under lock down for the time of the visit, with streets and businesses closed for the duration. Sorry, your kaffeehaus won’t be compensated for loss of income, Herr Ober. (Think WTO, Seattleites.)

I’m sorry I’m not going to be there to stand in solidarity with my compatriots abroad.

We’re back! And the pictures are here!

Well, we’ve been back in Seattle for a week, but while Meg and David were in town it felt like we were still on vacation. Now that they are back in Australia, we are well and truly back to the daily grind. But these photos are a great reminder of all the fun we had… including our day trip to Victoria and Butchart gardens, our cocktail party and the Alaska cruise (with stops in Juneau, Skagway and and Ketchikan). Expect a lot more photos now that we have a Nikon D50, which we love.

Bodies: The Exhibition

While I was walking around New York last week I saw several posters for Bodies: The Exhibition, showing at the South Street Seaport. The poster shows a man in The Thinker’s pose … but it’s actually a cadaver with the skin removed and the brain exposed. Some colleagues I was walking with had heard of, but not seen the show. Apparently, a technique called “plastinization” is applied to real human cadavers, replacing all the water in the body with silicone, which preserves bone, flesh, and even nerves in a life-like state. It sounded intriguing to me, so I went to check it out. Despite reports of long lines and the cold weather, I headed down on Saturday morning. Luckily at that time I could walk right up and buy my ticket ($29.50 including audio tour) and enter the exhibition. When I exited a couple of hours later there were long lines waiting to get in, so I’m glad I went early.

Despite a slight but continuous sense of nausea brought on by the sight of all the dead bodies, this was a fascinating exhibit. For some reason, I had the idea that this was an art exhibition, but it’s really more a science exhibit on the topic of human anatomy. The show is divided into several sections: muscles and skeleton, circulatory system, digestive system, etc. and the dissections in each section serve to illustrate a certain system in the human body. Many of the dissections inventive in the way that they show the behaviour of certain muscle groups or organs, and the information shown with the exhibits gives clear and informative explanations.

The audio tour was a bit of a waste though, as it doesn’t really give any information that isn’t shown on the printed posters by the exhibits. There are “kids versions” of the audio explanations though. I only listened to the kid version of the “reproductive organs” exhibit description which basically boiled down to: “don’t giggle, we all have reproductive organs; this is a penis and it makes sperm; sex is a serious subject — ask your parents about it”. If that’s anything to go by (and it’s not a representative sample I’m sure), the kid’s audio tour isn’t worthwhile either.

Two of the sections were particularly fascinating. One section is all about the circulatory system. A process is used to fill all the veins and arteries of a body (or section of a body) with a bright red plastic, and then the flesh and bone is dissolved away. What’s left is a perfect 3-D representation of the circulatory system, suspended in liquid and displayed in a glass case. It’s amazingly creepy to see this ghostly image of an entire body in red filaments. The legs and arms and head are all there, but only in outline created by the underlying blood vessels. Some parts of the body like the legs and brain are densely represented due to the greater blood supply, while the stomach and is just a faint image. Very cool and unusual.

The other interesting section — behind a large warning sign asking visitors to ask themselves if they really want to see it before entering — is on embryology. A sequence of embyos and fetuses (all preserved using the same plastination technique) vividly demonstrated the miracle of nature that is human development. The warning sign also mentions that all of the embryos and fetuses died of natural causes, and in fact some of the deaths were due to disease or deformity, like spina bifida or conjoined twins.

All in all, a very intersting exhibit if you want to know more about how the human body is put together and how it all works. It’s an amazing machine. But skip the audio tour.

The Empire State Building

I spent the afternoon today visiting the Empire State Building. I’m sure any sane New Yorker would recommend against visiting it, but like climbing the Eiffel Tour in Paris or the Space Needle in Seattle, it seems to me like it’s one of those things a tourist has to do once, if only to say he’s done it.

The visit starts off well, with the amazing art deco lobby inside the entrance on 5th avenue. But then begins the queuing. It took me at least an hour to get from ground level to the top, and judging from the unfilled expanses of crowd control mazes on the second floor, I don’t think this was a particularly busy day.

If the lines of tourists don’t put you off, the prices might: it’s US$16 just to get to the observation deck on the 86th floor. If you want to go to the very top — the 102nd floor — that’s an extra $14. And if you want the audio guide, that’s another $6. I figured I was only going to do this once, so I went for all three, for a total cost of $36. They were also hawking the “NY Skyride” attraction — some kind of multimedia moving-seats-and-video thing on the 2nd floor for an additional $18 including the combo discount, but I’m not that much of a sucker.

After you take the elevator to the 80th floor, walk past a large poster of New York where they annoyingly try and take your photo to sell you on the way out (I told them they couldn’t take my photo for religious reasons — those cameras steal your soul y’know), and pick up your audio tour device, you finally get on another elevator to the observation deck on the 86th, and the experience finally moves out of the aggravating phase. I flashed my upgrade ticket and hopped on yet another elevator — apparenly the highest manual elevator in the world — to the 102nd floor. The elevator attendant who ran the elevator was a nice old man who got a nervous laugh from the crowded tourists by starting off the elevator going down. Responding to the gasps, he chortled “Oh, you wanted to go up did you?” and send us on the way to the enclosed observation room at the top of the dirigible tower.

The observation room on the 102nd floor is a tiny, circular room with a narrow path on the circumference behind large curved windows. Visiting there was well worth the extra $14, because you got a significantly better view, out of the cold wind, and with fewer people to contend with. I spent about an hour up there, listening to the commentary on the audio tour. This was also well worth the $6, with an interesting and humorous “New York Cabbie” explaining the sights and history while taking you from landmark to landmark with careful and clear spoken directions. The only complaint was that the audio tour was clearly designed for the 86th floor, not the 102nd, where the numeric markers to select the audio track were absent. But there were only 7 tracks, and they all started by announcing the direction to look, so provided you can find your way around a compass it wasn’t much of a problem. The audio had obviously been recorded (or at least re-recorded) since 2001, since it was sensitively aware of the absence of the Twin Towers downtown, leaving the Empire State Building the tallest in New York.

I finished my visit by dropping back down to the 86th floor and heading outside to the main observation deck. It was cold, and I was very glad for the hat and scarf my colleague Joe had loaned me the night before as I was waiting for a cab in the financial district. It was about 5:15 by this time, so I wandered around for a while checking out the buildings in the failing sunlight. Bracing myself against the wind on the west side, I watched the sun finally set below Jersey, and then headed back down to ground level just as the lights of New York were coming alive.

All in all, I’d say it was worth the visit, although I mightn’t do it again. If you’re willing to pay the base cost to visit, the marginal costs of the upgrade to 102nd floor and the audio tour are well worth it. Just make sure you go on a clear day like I did, so you can appreciate the unobstructed views to every horizon. And if it’s cold out, bring a heavy coat, hat and scarf for the outside deck!

Drag Queens and Drunk Mozarts

We were in town for not 10 minutes when a tall man in a dirdnl and a blonde wig walked right up to me and kissed me on the cheek. No introduction, nothing, his arms spread out, his hands facing upwards as though he was greeting an old friend. His companion, a similarly attired person of less height wrapped an arm around my shoulder and leaned it to tell me something unintelligable.

On the stage in the center of town, two bewigged women lip sycnched to painfully bad German pop songs while the MC, in a used car salesman jacket, riffed on the song titles. From up the street came the sound of drumming and handclapping. The Trommelweiber – men dressed in white bonnets and skirts practiced their marching routine, swilled beer, and smoked, their masks tipped up on top of their heads.

Tina and I squeezed through the main square to find the Fetzen and the Fishchermen. (I give random ukulele lessons to Tina’s son, Alex.) The Fetzen-Frau joked with Tina about trading for her orange scarf. The Fisherman waved their baited hooks around – some of them had candy on the line and were able to catch a few small children, others had actual bits of fish and you had to be careful to avoid not getting whacked in the face with a bit of sardine. They were followed, finally, by the Flinserln – this is what we’d come to to see. The musicians, up front, played a string tune. They were followed by a large troup in elaboroate sequined and appliqued costumes. The sun hit the little sequins, sending bits of light out in to the street. Flinserl roughly translates to “tinsel” – the sparkly stuff with which the costumes are covered.

In the center of town, the Flinserln gathered little groups of children and taught them the Fasching rhyme, at the end of which they’d all shout “Nuss!” (Nuts!). The Flinserl would then toss walnuts or tangerines in to the air, and the kids would scramble for the treats.

“Heut ist da Faschingtag,
heut sauf i was i mag,
heut mach i ‘s Testament
‘s Geld geht zan End.”

We went hunting for a cup of coffee and ended up in the private party of the Trommelweiber and the Flinserln, unmasked now, drinking champagne and eating Faschingskrapfen. “Look, it’s the governor!” said Tina, making her way between the packed humans to snap a photo. We snaked through the tight crowd at the Levandovsky, usually a staid, civilized coffee house, now full of clowns and jesters, but were unable to find a table. “No matter,” said Tina, “Let’s go to the bar, we’ll find something there.”

Inside a blurry trio of Mozarts drank beer. We sat on a bench with a handful of costume punk teenagers. Tina (she teaches kids just this age) asked them to repeat the Flinserln rhyme and baited the boys. “Ask that woman where she’s from,” she said. My neighbor, a 15 year old in a torn white t-shirt, turned to me and I told him. “George Bush is an asshole,” he said. “Nice to meet you,” I responded, and shook his hand. Another boy, across the table from me, proceded to list all the places in America he wanted to go. His sidekick, a quiet kid with a spectacular mohawk, leaned forward to let me touch his hair when I reached out my hand towards his head. One of the Mozarts stumbled over and slapped a piece of paper on the table in front of me. “My autograph!” he said. I turned the paper over to read “Wolfi” scrawled in ball point pen.

The Mozarts bid us good day and we headed back to the car, winding through a crowd of fur coated ladies, wasted pirates, stray Flinserln, witches, little princesses, old men in traditional hats, television camera men, and tourists.

You want pictures, right? They’re here.

Ah, Venice, II

Last year around this time, Paulette wrote beautifully about her trip to Venice. I got back from Venice last night and I’m not even going to try to match Paulette’s eloquence. Plus, in an unusual state of affairs, I find myself at a loss for words. Instead, I’ll post a link to my Flickr photos. Oh, I will say this: I am a feet on the ground kind of person. I’m not dispassionate, but I’m so not a crier. But when we headed out on the Grand Canal and I laid eyes on Venice for the first time, I got weepy. I was overcome by how beautiful it is.

My tombstone will read, “It’s okay, I saw Venice.”