Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Ride

During our recent trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico, Ro and I ventured up in a hot air balloon with our friends, Bob & Doris. We lifted off shortly after sunrise on a parcel of desert south of Albuquerque, near the town of Belen. It was a first time experience for everyone but me and we had a very smooth flight, affording us some great views.

A gas generator powers a fan to blow air into the balloon and inflate it.

Soon, the propane burners are turned on to throw
super-heated air into the balloon and cause it to rise.

After everyone climbs on board, more hot air is added
to the balloon and we're lifted up toward the sky.

The photos of us in the air were taken by one of the crew
and emailed to us after we returned home.

Ro took a couple of great shots of our shadow, using the new Canon A1000.

I had originally gone up in a balloon a few years ago,
upstate New York, but was disappointed
we only went up about 1,500-2,000 feet;
this time, I was happy we made it to about 3,500 feet.
I was hoping we'd fly over the Rio Grande (visible in the distance,
on the other side of the town), but the wind did not take us there.

Telephoto shot of someone's desert compound.

This is an industrial park and school complex which is to be
the start of another planned community like Rio Rancho.

As we were descending toward our landing, a truck
and the billowing dust behind it
were captured with the telephoto lens.
A coyote was seen running across the
landscape shortly afterward.

And we're eventually spilled out onto the ground
as the basket tips over... lots of fun, really!
(Note: no lizards or geckos were harmed in the making of this photo.)

After the landing, we were treated to a breakfast of
bagels, cookies, and Champagne/orange juice Mimosas
while the crew packed up the balloon into its trailer.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

The REST of the Cabo Story

Please see my first post on this blog (from November, 2008) for the first part of this story and photos from the resort.

For those geographically-challenged amongst us, Cabo San Lucas is located on the southernmost tip of Baja California Sur. From San Diego, you would continue driving south until you couldn’t go any further; then, you’d be in Cabo. It’s also the place where the Pacific Ocean–to the west–sweeps around the tip of Baja California and meets the slightly warmer waters of the Gulf Of California to the east, otherwise known as The Sea Of Cortez.

Arriving at Los Cabos International Airport is a bit daunting; when our friends, Bob and Doris, first started visiting, there wasn’t even a permanent building on the site. Now, they’ve erected a modern air-conditioned terminal but you still exit the plane down a ramp of steps that they roll over to the door of the plane, and must walk across the tarmac to get to the terminal and customs.

The Los Cabos International Airport... no, really!
(Click on any photo to enlarge it.)

I decided to rent a car so we would be able to have the freedom to go wherever we wanted whenever we wanted; otherwise, there are car services and cabs to take you around. I got a great low rate through CarRentals.com for a car from National. But the car rental companies in Mexico are privately owned, so you’ve got to be very careful about what they try to sell you in the way of insurance or other extras. Your U.S. auto insurance does NOT cover you for more than a few miles inside Mexico and it is illegal to drive without insurance. I purchased collision insurance online for $83 before leaving. The woman at the rental car desk told me I
still needed some other mandatory insurance and wouldn’t rent me the car without it; all together, it somehow totaled $247, for seven days. Then, she said, “I will give you the car for free if you all agree to take a tour of a timeshare property.”

Well, this seemed too good to be true. In addition, she was giving us a voucher for $300 if all four of us took the ninety-minute tour; of course, we knew that someone was going to try to pressure us into buying a timeshare which we knew we didn’t want. However, even if we didn’t buy a timeshare, as long as we got our papers signed that we took the tour, she said she would get a commission for sending us and we would get the car for free and the $300 voucher. Bob and I decided it was worth the time invested and agreed.
(As mentioned in my first post, we eventually took a time share tour at the property where we stayed instead and received a voucher from them to pay for the rental car.)

The first car they offered us was an older Nissan that looked like it had been painted with a spray can; we couldn’t even fit three pieces of luggage in the trunk. After complaining to the manager, we got a new Dodge Attitude (made by Hyundai) which was also quite small, but at least we were able to put most of our stuff in the trunk; one large suitcase stood upright between Doris and Ro in the back seat.

It turned out our resort was located right on The Sea Of Cortez, about fifteen miles north of the actual “old town” of Cabo San Lucas. The Fiesta American is described in detail in my first post of this blog so I’ll dispense with those details here. After checking in, the first order of business was stocking our “apartment” with food and drink that we’d be using while there; we figured on making breakfast and lunch for ourselves a few days to help save money. Of course, we needed to stock up on wine and snacks. We got our car back from the valet and drove into the town of Cabo San Lucas where Bob and Doris knew of some stores from previous visits.

We stopped in a grocery store where we picked up eggs, ham, and other food stuffs, plus a case of bottled water. Then, a visit to a wine store where we selected an assortment of various types from names we were familiar with. I was surprised that none of the stores we shopped in had pretzels... you could find any type of chips–potato, corn or nachos, flavored or regular, from numerous companies–but
no pretzels! We returned to our resort and spent the rest of the day relaxing at the infinity pool and spa closest to our rooms.

Barrel cactus on the resort property,
shot with telephoto lens since it was in an unaccessible area.

We drove back into Cabo San Lucas that first evening and did a little exploring. We wound up at Poncho’s Cantina for dinner and drinks before walking around the marina area. Like similar waterfront areas in Baltimore and San Francisco, the marina had recently been renovated and now boasts such trendy clubs as a Hard Rock Café and Harley Davidson, along with eateries like Domino’s Pizza, Ruth’s Crist Steakhouse and Haagen Dazs–all in stark contrast to the older buildings and streets comprising the majority of this town. There are actually some wooden sidewalks still in use, reminding me of a scene from an old western movie.

Dinner at Poncho's Cantina... just what you'd expect from Cabo San Lucas.

The following morning, we stopped at the timeshare rental office and met our host/salesman: Walt. He’s a US native with a great personality and a colorful past; his resumé includes the fact that he was once run over by a truck while protecting a woman he was the bodyguard for. He escorted us to the restaurant for our free buffet breakfast. There was literally anything available–including a chef, making fresh omelettes or eggs any style–and easily the best, most filling breakfast you could ask for.

Afterward, we began our tour with Walt. He walked us through the entire complex, explaining all its features. It’s a beautiful place and I can’t imagine anyone needing more; there’s even a golf course adjourning the resort. Bob told Walt that he was only interested in buying additional points if he could add them to his other account. That was not a problem so Walt was able to make a sale and everyone was happy. After the paperwork was completed, Walt invited us all to a second free buffet breakfast the following day.

During the course of our tour, I mentioned to Walt that I would love to swim in the Sea of Cortez but the rocks on the resort’s beach seemed dangerous. He told me of a better beach about a mile or so down the road.

“Meet me by the main entrance at one o’clock, when I get off work, and I’ll show you all a great out-of-the-way beach with safe swimming.”

We spent the rest of the morning at the pool, enjoying the warm water, the beautiful views and sampling the Margueritas. At one point, I felt asleep on the recliner by poolside. I was awakened by the feeling of something on my right ear; I sensed it was a large bug of some kind so I instinctively swatted at it with my hand as I awoke. Some people at the other recliners on my right side were pointing at me; a couple were concerned while others laughed.

“The lizard was on your chair... did he bite you?” they asked.

I looked around and saw a large lizard–at least twenty inches long, from his head to the end of his tail–on the rock wall directly behind my chair. I touched my ear and looked at my fingers; there was no blood. “No,” I answered, “but I thought it was a bug or something. It woke me up.”

Well, I guess I was just
kissed by a lizard; maybe he stuck that tongue of his out and touched my ear with it, but it sure felt like he nipped me. If nothing else, it gave us something to talk about for the rest of the trip and I got some good photos of that critter.

My friend, the Lizard.

By noon, we returned to our rooms and made sandwiches with the bread and ham we had bought at the grocery store the previous day. We packed some drinks into a cooler and headed on down to the main entrance by one o’clock. Walt was waiting for us in a big Dodge Ram pickup truck with Colorado plates on it.

We got our car from the valet and headed out of the resort, following Walt. Upon reaching the main highway, he turned north and we trailed along behind him for a short distance. Presently, he turned onto a dirt road and headed toward the water; we soon arrived at a nearly deserted but lovely beach on a cove, parked the Attitude and set our stuff down near the water’s edge.

A tall-masted tourist ship sails by some rocks,
down the beach from where we were swimming.

Walt told us it was safe to swim here and proceeded to put on his wet suit and snorkeling gear. We placed some large towels that we took from poolside on the sand and admired the boats offshore; a fisherman was casting his line from a large group of rocks where the waves were breaking nearby. I felt the water and found it to be a bit cool but still warmer than Long Island beaches on most summer days. The sand was a bit course but very clean; the bottom dropped off sharply as I walked further from the shore and the water was soon over my head.

Bob came in the water and the two of us swam a bit before Walt jumped in and disappeared under the waves with his gear, the large black flippers on his feet occasionally visible as he dove from time to time, getting a good look at the fish, I imagined. Bob soon went back to sit on the beach but I remained in the water for another fifteen minutes or so. The waves were breaking a bit too close to shore for body surfing but I stayed out past the breakers, enjoying the clean, clear water; I was surprised to find no seaweed, jellyfish or debris. We ate our lunch and enjoyed the sun, working on our tans long after Walt packed his gear up and headed home. We thanked him for showing us this little stretch of Mexican paradise.

We eventually headed back to our resort and relaxed around the pool before getting dressed for dinner at the onsite Italian restaurant, Rosario. Part of the timeshare tour deal was getting a 30 % discount at this place and it was certainly a worthwhile offer. The food was sumptuous (I had Ossa Bucca lasagna), the decor elegant, and a piano player serenaded us while we ate; his selections were beautiful and not so loud as to distract from our table conversation.

Pelican on the rocks, just outside the harbor, from our whale watch boat.

The next evening, we headed back into town where Bob had previously made reservations for us on a whale-watch dinner cruise.
(rissacat@prodigy.net.mx Eduardo Padilla, cell 044-624147-70-37, 044-624-147-53-59
phone# 624 143 30 48)
He and Doris had enjoyed this event during another of their visits and highly recommended it to us. The boat was pretty crowed as we headed out of the harbor and the captain pointed out the various sights to us all: Lovers Beach, the rocks separating the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez, and–eventually–the whales!

The famous rocks separating the Pacific Ocean on the far side
and the Sea of Cortez on the near side (from our whale watch boat).

View between the rocks near Lovers Beach; Pacific ocean toward the horizon.

The water was pretty choppy so I was glad I had taken my new camera with the Optical Image Stabilization. I managed to get a few shots of several whales and even took some video footage, but because you never know where these beasts are going to surface, it’s difficult to catch just the right moment.

Dinner, prepared on the boat, consisted of barbecued spare ribs, roasted chicken, and various side dishes–all quite tasty but difficult to eat while seated on a chair, with no table, on a boat that’s bouncing all over the place.
Now, where did I put my drink?

Unretouched photo of sunset from the Whale Watch Cruise boat.

Sunset across the ocean was beautiful as the sky turned a deep orange before the fiery-red ball sank below the horizon. In the afterglow of dusk, we headed back into the harbor and left the boat by the time darkness had enveloped the marina.

On one of our trips into town, I spotted some animals made out of metal; it seems to be a specialty of the area artisans. It looks like they take heavy-gauge sheet metal and cut out a design that looks like a frog, a parrot–even an octopus or lizard. Well, I just had to have one of those lizards to remind me of my poolside encounter at our resort so I found a cool one, painted green, with dimples in the metal to resemble lizard skin. After checking out a few different shops, I wound up back in the first place I looked and got the best deal there. I later found a frog I also liked and bought that too; I thought it would look good out by our hot tub at home.

At some point of each day or evening, we could be found relaxing in or about one of the pools or spas, sipping Margueritas and rubbing on sunblock. During one afternoon, I was walking along one of the paths near the pools and saw a low-flying pelican gliding past me, only several feet above my head. I turned and watched as he made a graceful landing right in the middle of the largest infinity pool on the property. Luckily, I had my camera with me and quickly made it to the edge of the pool so I could grab a few shots. The other bathers and folks lounging around the pool gradually caught sight of the bird and began to run over with cameras as well. A few minutes later, the pelican took flight and left without even saying “good-bye.”

On another day, we drove north, back toward the airport and visited the town of San José del Cabo. It was a bit smaller than Cabo San Lucas but had some typical touristy shops and some very nice eateries. After stopping by the historic Catholic church, we found La Panga restaurant offering a three-course lunch for just $19.95. We were seated in a cozy outdoor courtyard with much native flora growing about and discovered the food was really great! After checking out a few more shops and buying some goodies to bring home for our grandkids, we headed back to our car and made the return trip to our resort.

Old Catholic church in San Jose del Cabo.

Interior of church, photographed with available light.

Ken and Bob enjoy lunch at La Panga, in San Jose del Cabo.

Another round of Margeritas for Doris and Ro.

While hanging out at one of the pools after we returned from San José del Cabo, we asked our poolside waiter Adolfo if he could recommend someplace really authentic for us to go for Mexican food. “Where do the locals go?” we wondered.

“Oh, you’ve got to go to Las Guacamayas for the ‘dollar tacos’,” Adolfo told us. He grabbed one of the visitors guides from a nearby table and proceeded to find the page with the street map of town. After studying it a minute or two, he said, “Here!” as he put a small dot on the map with a ball point pen.

Since we had a big meal around lunchtime, we decided to take Adolfo’s suggestion and drove into town and what we figured would be lighter fare for dinner: dollar tacos. We weren’t sure exactly where it was; the dot on the map was pretty vague. We parked in the general vicinity of the dot and started walking. This was a very residential area with many small shops that the locals frequented. We saw several people wandering about so we asked if anyone knew where Las Guacamayas was. They knew exactly where we wanted to go and pointed us in the right direction, about a block further up the street, on the east side of José Ma. Morelos street, near where Avenida de la Juventud crosses... I think.

When we arrived at the place, we found what looked like a giant tree house, elevated above street level, with outside stairs leading to a deck with a thatched roof. From that vantage point, you could look down on the street and a small adjourning yard where someone was cooking and preparing everything–outdoors! “What does he do when it rains?” I wondered.

We could see that this was a local place. We were shown to a large table and given menus; a single laminated sheet with choices in Spanish on one side, and English on the other. Our waiter spoke no English so we found what we wanted on the “English” side and then pointed to the same thing on the reverse side for the waiter to take our order.

On the table were various condiments like sliced cucumbers, grilled onions, hot peppers, some kind of delicious chopped tomato salsa, plus a kind of guacamole/salsa verde... all things to put on your tacos or whatever else you ordered. The menu was quite extensive in that you could get tacos (soft shell, not the hard shell like Taco Bell serves), quesadillas, burritos, soups, gorditas, and standard fare like beans and rice. You could order your taco with a wide selection of fillings like marinated pork, shredded pork, different kinds of chicken or beef, and then add any of the extras that were on the table.

I ordered three tacos with assorted fillings, a chicken and cheese quesadilla, and a bowl of bean soup. Bob also ordered some kind of sausage which sounded good, so I ordered one too. Everything was really tasty and much more filling than I expected. Sure enough, the tacos were 1.3 pesos, which–with the exchange rate–worked out to a dollar each; quesadillas were a dollar-thirty, the soup was two-twenty. Including the beer I ordered, my whole meal came to less than ten bucks... and it was much more filling than I’d expected.

After we left the restaurant, we found the car and headed back to the main road. We had only gone a few blocks when I spotted a bakery; I parked the car and walked back to check it out. It was another little local shop with some good-looking items so Bob and I bought the two remaining chocolate muffins in their case and took them back to our resort for dessert.

On another trip into town one evening, we visited Cabo Wabo, owned by Sammy Hagar of Van Halen fame. This place is huge, located in an older building near the main strip, and spreads out over several floors including a courtyard where some vendors sell souvenirs and tee-shirts. There didn’t seem to be any cover charge or minimum; we just wandered around, caught a live trio on one of the stages doing some American rock, and grabbed a nearby table. I didn’t see any waiter or waitresses so Bob and I got up, went to the bar, and ordered four drinks which we brought back to have with Ro and Doris while we listened to the performers on stage. Down some stairs there was more of a nightclub atmosphere with a fancier stage and a dance floor; there was nothing much going on when we looked in so it may have been too early yet for this area to come alive.

One of the places on our “must-see” list in Cabos San Lucas was The Office, a restaurant right on the beach, on the bay side of town. Doris and Bob told us we had to go there. As one story on the internet tells it:
“...once upon a time, in the decade of the 70’s, when the Baja peninsula was still a remote and isolated place and few visitors came to the region, the first–and at that time the only–palapa on the beach was built on the médano beach of Cabo San Lucas...

...on the virgin beach this palapa, with its small kitchen and unpretentious bar tended to the needs of locals and the few tourists of the time, offering simple fare such as ceviches, fried fish, burritos or hamburgers, and the always wanted margaritas, cuba libres and beers, besides the traditional water or coffee...

...a local character–a gringo viejo, as the writer Carlos Fuentes would say–rented wind-surf equipment on the beach and entertained his clients and friends in this same palapa, which was referred to–by him and others–as the office, the office on the beach...

...the name stuck, and shortly after a blue sign with yellow lettering somehow popped up identifying the place officially as an office... the Office on the beach...”

The best thing about The Office is that–being right on the beach–you can go there in your swim suit, carrying a towel, and swim before, during, or after your meal. You sit at a patio furniture-type table and chair set, with a big blue umbrella protecting you from the hot sun; of course, the tables are close together so most of the umbrellas touch each other, giving the illusion of a large indoor room... but
you’re in the sand! Another reason to like The Office is that the food is great! A four-piece marriacci band also walks between the sea of tables taking requests; they happen to be quite good as well.

The Marriacchi band entertains us at The Office.

Naturally, the area along the beach has built up tremendously over the years and numerous other eateries now flank The Office. In addition, the water’s edge is now neatly partitioned with ropes and floating buoys dividing public swimming areas, water taxis, and glass-bottom tour boat operators. There are also many vendors hawking tee-shirts, jewelry and other goods along the beach that disturb the beauty of the setting but offer their own unique charm. Regardless of the busy scene, I still enjoyed swimming right in front of The Office and the water was still amazingly clean in spite of all the activity around it.

Looking north along the beach in front of The Office.

Alas, all good things must come to an end. Before too long, we were packing for our return trip to New York. We decided to splurge for one more fabulous breakfast at the resort on the morning before our flight. Upon leaving the breakfast area, Bob and I smuggled some sandwiches out so that we’d have something to eat on our plane that afternoon; you know, those peanuts and Oreo cookies the airline gives you are a pretty poor substitute for lunch.

We arrived at Kennedy and found our luggage, then headed over to the Air Train back to Jamaica to pick up Bob’s car. The first train that came into the station was going to the Howard Beach shuttle station so we had to wait for another. Just as the train pulled out of the station, I saw a young couple with a small child on the platform, and the guy was obviously upset. It seems his wife got on the train with one of their kids, then got off to get a piece of luggage but they took too long getting back on. The doors of the train closed and their five year-old son was whisked off without them. Luckily, a transit cop came along and called ahead to the next station where someone else could hopefully retrieve the child.

It was 9 PM New York time when we landed but it was still 7 PM as far as our stomachs were concerned. We decided to stop in East Meadow on our way home to get some Chinese food “to go.” The perfect ending to a perfect trip, I guess you could say.

Do you know how few drivers actually stop at stop signs in New York? Granted, many drivers will slow down and
almost stop, but only a handful come to a complete stop. Well, in Los Cabos, nobody even slows down at stop signs. It’s like the signs aren’t even there. Of course, if there’s another vehicle or line of traffic already in their way, they’ll slow down and maybe even have to stop. Otherwise, it’s a game of “chicken” driving with those bozos.

In the weeks following our return from Los Cabos, I emailed the online insurance company that I had bought the car insurance from before leaving for Mexico. I explained that I was told the insurance I bought was all I needed and yet couldn’t rent the National car without buying additional insurance. My latest credit card statement included a full refund of the $83 that I paid for the online insurance.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Take Me Out To The Ball Game

I’ve always enjoyed baseball and it remains one of my favorite sports to watch in spite of the fact that it can be a bit slow moving at times. I recently attended the opening game of the season for the Chicago Cubs minor league team in Daytona Beach while Ro and I were visiting my cousin Warren and wife Joan in Port Orange. And while Ro and Joan agreed to go with us to the game, it was clear that they’d rather be somewhere else.

When one of the teams got a few hits in a row, Joan called out, “DELAY OF GAME!”

I said, “What do you mean, ‘delay of game’?”

She replied, “It’s supposed to be three up and three down. That’s my idea of a good game...
fast moving.”

Well, soccer and basketball move at a much faster pace but I find there’s just a lot of repetitious running back and forth in each of those sports. I also think there’s too much scoring in basketball and not enough scoring in soccer. If you eliminated the goalie in soccer and created one in basketball, you have two better games as far as I'm concerned.

Hockey is certainly a fast game with a reasonable amount of scoring. But, similar to soccer and basketball, each game kind of follows the same pattern of repetition. I think football and baseball are more unpredictable; I mean, you never know what’s going to happen next and there’s a bit more strategy involved as well.

Anyway, I like the game–the tradition–of baseball more than the business of baseball... which seems to be what all sports have become these days. Long ago, you rooted for a team and certain players that usually stayed with a team for a long time. These days, players change teams like underwear and vice-versa. And, considering the prices stadiums charge for seats nowadays, I’ve pretty much given up the desire to attend a game in person any more... except a minor-league game, anyway.

But my old friend, Joe, called recently to ask if I wanted to go to a Yankees game at their new stadium. It seems Joe’s wife, Esther, had to attend a funeral for one of her aunts who just passed away and couldn’t use her ticket.

I thought, “Sure, I’d love to go,” but I declined at first.

You see, Ro and I were scheduled to visit our daughter in Connecticut and take care of the grandkids who had a few days off from school. But, since the game was on a Sunday and we didn’t actually need to watch the kids until Monday morning, we decided that Ro would drive up early Sunday morning and spend the day with Joanne’s family; then after the game, I’d take Metro North to New Haven where Ro or Joanne could pick me up.

So, Joe and I caught the Long Island Rail Road train out of Hicksville to Penn Station in Manhattan. From there, Joe suggested we walk over to Sixth Avenue to catch the subway up to Yankee Stadium as it’s easier to get a seat on that line. We arrived at the stadium in plenty of time to walk around and check out the exterior before going inside. I also took the time to buy a Philly Cheese-Steak sandwich from one of the food vendors across the street from the stadium to save some money; you know what they charge for food in any sports stadium!

View of the new Yankee Stadium as seen from across the street
on what began as an overcast day.
(Click on any photo to enlarge it.)

Entering through Gate 6 enables you to see
the large tribute posters to Yankee players.

Once inside, we walked around and checked out the various views from different parts of the new ball park. One of the biggest differences between the old and new stadiums is that the new one is not as high as the old one. But I think, in an effort to keep people lower, and possibly closer to the field, they sacrificed sightlines.

There are a lot more seats in the outfield fair territory than there used to be. But, unless you’re in the first few rows, you see less of the field as your seats go further back. Joe and some co-workers chipped in and bought 20 games for the two seats we occupied in the second level, about twenty feet on the fair side of the right field foul post. While we had a pretty good view overall, we could not see the wall nor the warning track in right or center field. When a home run was hit into the stands in the level in front of us, we couldn’t see the play live and had to turn around sharply over our right shoulders to see the replay on the big screen high over center field.

From our $50 seats, the outfield wall in front of us
and the warning track were not viewable

Infield shot using about a 250 mm setting
on my zoom lens from our seats.

There is also a new restaurant forming a large part of the stadium in center field that juts out toward the field in such a way that anyone sitting close to the wall of this monstrosity has absolutely no view of the opposite field. If you’re on the right field side of this structure, you can’t see left field and–if you’re sitting far enough back in this section and close to the wall–you may not even see third base. The opposite holds true if you’re sitting on the other side of this thing.

In addition, the area on top of this structure has tables set up for people to bring their overpriced food to–and eat while standing and looking toward the field. Of course, a lot of people stand by the edge closest to the field so you’re not going to see much from the location of the tables anyway. The other problem is that surrounding this area is a waist-high wall with a flat top surface just begging you to put your food and drink on it since there aren’t many tables to begin with. And, since it’s very easy for your food and drink to get knocked off this surface, the folks in the seats below will receive more than their fair share of french fries and beer falling on them. I can’t believe someone actually got paid to design this thing; can you say, “
stupid engineering?

Seriously obstructed views from this area next to the new restaurant
jutting out into center field. Note the people at the top of the wall
where food and drink can easilly be spilled onto folks below.

Another thing that Joe and I noticed immediately was the lack of signage. We learned where our seats were from a stadium usher and, from where we were standing at the time, I could have thrown a baseball and hit them with it. But, because the signs on the stair landings are so small–and the text on them even smaller and a bit cryptic–it took us fifteen minutes of walking to the wrong levels to try and access them. We were told by one worker that one set of stairs we were using didn’t even go to the level we wanted...
very confusing!

At one point, I needed to use the men’s room. I found it easy enough and went inside. Before leaving, I pressed up on the soap dispenser with the palm of my hand and then pulled it away to wash. There was no soap on my hand. It seems there’s a delayed action on the soap dispenser so, after pressing up with your hand, you have to wait a couple of seconds before the soap comes out. I noticed a puddle of soap on the floor under each soap dispenser so it wasn’t just me. Then, after washing my hands and drying them with a paper towel, I looked for a place to toss the crumpled towel to no avail. There were no trash pails in sight. So, I took the towel and planned on throwing it away outside the men’s room except... there was no handle on the inside of the door I entered through.

“Okay,” I thought, “there’s a separate exit door.”

But I couldn’t see another door. Obviously, there must be one.

Sure enough, on the far side of the room, there was an attendant sitting on a chair by a wall and, the way the wall was designed, you couldn’t tell there was an exit door hidden behind it. Of course, there were no “exit” signs anywhere.

Now, I don’t mean to look a gift horse in the mouth and I’m very happy Joe invited me to the game. It enabled me to see a good game and experience what has become the talk of New York lately. Naturally, Joe didn’t design the park so I’m certainly not blaming him for its shortcomings. But, for over a BILLION AND A HALF DOLLARS, I think the new Yankee Stadium could have been a lot better than what I’ve seen.
It turned out to be a pretty good game with the lead going back and forth a couple of times but the Yankees finally won it. I wouldn't have been too upset if they had lost since I was always a Dodgers fan until they left Brooklyn and half-heartedly rooted for the Mets ever since.

28 mm wide angle shot of the entire field
from the vendors area on the second level behind the first base line.

I left at the end of the eighth inning so I might get a seat on the subway going back to Grand Central Station before boarding the Metro North train. An hour and fifty minutes later, I was in New Haven. Ro, Joanne, Mark and the grandkids all met me and... we went to Modern Apizza for dinner.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Visit to the Bronx Botanical Gardens

This past fall, Ro and I joined our friends Bob & Doris on a visit to the Bronx Botanical Gardens, right across Fordham Road from the world-famous Bronx Zoo. While I was wandering around, I grabbed a bunch of photos with my Fuji S8000, all under natural light, positioning myself to get the best background for each. The frog was about 10 or 12 feet away and captured using the telephoto while the others utilized macro mode.

(Click on the images to enlarge.)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Me & My Garmin

I’m generally pretty good with directions and finding my way on the highways. I love maps and often study them; I usually have no problem figuring out the best route, no matter where I am. But there are times when traffic is backed up, due to an accident or just excessive volume, and it would be an advantage to be able to get off a particular road and find another way. If this occurs in familiar territory, it’s not a big deal; if you’re in a strange land, it’s quite another story. It is for that reason I bought a GPS receiver–a Garmin Nuvi 350.

This particular model has a couple of features I don’t really need–like a built-in MP3 player–but it was cheaper at the time I bought it than a lesser model, so I figured, “why not?”

I should have known there would be impending problems upon my first use of the unit; I was going from East Meadow to Amityville, where I worked a part-time job since retiring, so I decided to see how the GPS would suggest I go. I entered the address of the place where I worked and left my home, driving east on Hempstead Turnpike, in the general direction of work. The first weird thing it did was suggest I go south on Loring Road , which runs along side the Wantagh Parkway, instead of directing me onto the Parkway–an obviously quicker route.

If I had taken Loring Road, I would have had to drive a couple of miles, turning onto two other roads, before getting on the Southern State Parkway, going east, which anyone would tell you is the best route to Amityville. As it is, I disregarded the GPS directive and used the Wantagh Parkway, evoking a now-familiar response from the Garmin’s digital female voice: “RECALCULATING!

Since that day, I’ve blessed the GPS on several occasions, for getting me out of trouble or back onto the correct route after missing a turn. It’s extricated me from areas in which I had no clue where I was going, and I’ve been amazed by its ability to direct me through very tight and quick turns within the streets of Manhattan. While there is no doubt it is a very useful tool for anyone doing frequent driving, it’s also disappointed me by displaying its many faults.

When our grandkids were spending a week with us last summer, we took them to the Vanderbilt Planetarium and Museum, in Centerport, Long Island. Upon leaving the Vanderbilt, we asked the kids where they might want to go for lunch; “Taco Bell” seemed to be their choice. In an effort to find the closest Taco Bell, I plugged in the Garmin, brought up “restaurants”, and typed in “Taco Bell.” The GPS immediately found one on Larkfield Road, in Northport, about three miles away.

I followed the on-screen directions until the GPS told me to turn left down a residential street; “odd,” I thought, but I figured it was a shortcut. Upon making the turn, however, I saw a “dead end” sign on the side of the street. It seems the street originally cut through to Larkfield Road but, for some time anyway, it no longer did. After detouring south to the next street parallel to the previous one, I eventually did reach Larkfield Road and the Taco Bell restaurant. It was boarded up and closed!

Last December, we were up at our daughter’s place in Connecticut, on a Saturday, and had to go to Rutherford, New Jersey, on Sunday for my cousin John’s annual Christmas Party. Of course, I know how to get to John’s place from our home on Long Island, but since we were driving from Wallingford, Connecticut, I was going to take some different roads.

I would surely encounter less traffic by crossing the Tappan Zee Bridge, in Westchester, and then driving south to Rutherford once I was on the west side of the Hudson River. However, the entire time I was driving southwest on the Wilbur Cross/Merritt Parkway, my GPS kept directing me to go south on every major road I came upon in an effort to get me on I-95 and, eventually, the George Washington Bridge. For those readers who are not from the New York metropolitan area, I’ve got to tell you there are two things I avoid like the plague: the Cross Bronx Expressway (I-95) and the George Washington Bridge. Besides, the Cross Westchester Expressway (I-287) and the Tappan Zee Bridge are further north and closer to where I was coming from. But, once that lady in the Garmin has a route in her head, it’s hard to dissuade her from her plans.

Anyway, I took the Tappan Zee, the GPS “recalculated,” and it eventually took me down the Garden State Parkway in Jersey, directing me through all kinds of complex interchanges and tight turns, before depositing me outside my cousin’s front door from the opposite direction I usually approach it from.

During our May, 2008, trip to visit some cousins I’d never met before (but found while compiling my genealogy research) Ro and I spent a couple of days in Baltimore, Maryland. On the day we left to visit some friends, I entered “flea market” into my GPS search directory; the Garmin came up with a flea market in Tracy’s Landing, not far from our friends’ place in Edgewater.

I proceeded to follow the directions but the further I drove, the smaller and more rural the roads became. At long last, we arrived at our destination, but there was no flea market; we found ourselves at the edge of a lake, with residential homes all around us. Clearly, the GPS had steered us wrong. Maybe there was originally a person living at that location who ran a flea market and the GPS had found that listing in the phone directory which it often utilizes. I don’t know. But that’s only one of many times my Garmin has sent in on a wild goose chase.

This past summer, Ro and I were driving up to Cape Cod. I programmed in our destination and figured the GPS would help me get around any traffic I might encounter along the way. As I approached Providence, Rhode Island, on I-95, my Garmin told me to take Exit 21 to I-195 (east toward Cape Cod). However, there had been recent road work in the area and there was now a NEW exchange between I-95 and I-195: Exit 20!

Once we were in the area near our motel, we occasionally put in addresses of nearby attractions. At one point, we tried to find a restaurant at 1176 Main Street, in South Yarmouth, MA (zip 02664). My search did not find that address (even though it exists and I found it by driving along & looking for it) but the GPS offered me SIX other addresses in South Yarmouth instead: 999 Main St., 499 Main St., 499 N. Main St., 499 N. Main (again), 173 N. Main, and 21 N. Main Street. Why on earth would it do that?
I recently emailed Garmin with a list of things I was not happy about with my GPS. After a few exchanges between myself and a customer service rep, I was told I could download updated maps for my GPS at a cost of $69.95. Now, if I hadn’t just spent over $300 for my Garmin only a year ago, I might find that a reasonable suggestion (they've also come down in price in the past year). But, given the fact that my unit was less than a year old, and was shipped with what I feel were outdated maps to begin with, I think Garmin ought to comp me at least one map upgrade. A subsequent letter to Garmin's corporate headquarters went unanswered!

The bottom line is that the GPS can be a very useful aid while driving but I wouldn’t say it takes the place of a map. I still prefer to study a map before I go somewhere new, and plot what I feel is the best route. I’ll use the GPS to alert me to upcoming turns and exits, and as a backup in case I have to deviate from my planned route. It’s strongest virtue is still in close quarters and insuring that you find your final destination when you’ve approached the target area.