Monday, March 31, 2008

Spring Smell

Can you smell it? That's spring! All along the walk to work the street is suddenly lined with yellow flowers. And the air is thick with the smell of yellow. With a hint of wet green too. All the riches of spring.

So this means no more snow, right?

Sunday, March 30, 2008

It always surprises me

It sneaks up on me every time. Year in and year old, Daylight Savings Time always surprises me on Sunday; sometimes Sunday afternoon.

It's not just time to change the time on the clocks, but times themselves are 'a changing. Case in point, the clocks. In my living room there are clocks on two computers, a clock on the wall, and my watch was on the coffee table. Of the four, only the watch needed to be set.

Indeed, throughout the whole apartment I have to update my watch, the microwave, and my alarm clock. The others all automatically update themselves! My mobile, my (radio controlled) wall clock and all the computers were smart enough to handle the hour jump.

Odd that the alarm clock, the only timepiece that really matters, is one of the few that needs manual attention. I'm now looking forward to a not-so-distant future when every clock in my home will adjust to DST automatically. I'll wake up; it'll be unusually dark. I'll assume it's due to clouds, and I won't figure out why I'm a bit tired, and daylight savings time will come and go without having to bother my conscious brain for a moment.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Soup & Tea

I've been sick from work a second day. Stiff and sore this morning and still running frequently to the... reading room.

So I was happy that I got a chance to speak to a medical professional. The advice? Tea and chicken soup. And lots of rest.

Thus far I've napped, the soup is cooked, and the tea is near whistling. Indeed I more than napped. I slept through the rest of the day. So it's nearly midnight that I'm about to sit down with soup and tea. But the smell alone heals. I can't wait to start slurping!

Thanks for the advice. :-)

You get what you pay for

Egypt was a dirt cheap price. And to my surprise others had paid even less! So it was no surprise that the service, quality, and indeed safety found in Sharm el Shiekh were lower.

The men were very Arabic. The culture came shining through in their ways. And no wonder as there were no women around to moderate them. It seems for the staff, Sharm is a temporary work place while wives wait at home back in Cairo or Alexandria. There were no women what-so-ever amongst the staff. But the young man tasked with cleaning the rooms and making the beds clearly hadn't been shown the basics of housekeeping by his mom. It's just not done. And as a result the cleaner would be embarrassed had he shown genuine skills or abilities. He managed to make both beds each day. Beyond that his job seemed to consist of hording toilet paper and stealing our towels.

Luxury and exclusiveness go hand in hand. Vast personal space with quality materials, personal service and unhurried schedules are important. Rather than luxury, we had the boats.

A boat ride starts with the chaos on the dock. Ten boats a time can back onto the dock, each holding roughly 35-45 people. Thirty more boats are waiting their turns while all two-thousand confused tourists mill around the dock entrance. Then we file one by one through a metal detector and police checkpoint. The dockside of the line empties onto an even more crowded dock. Large carts clank by with tanks and gear boxes. Ultimately you "walk the plank" to get from the dock down to the boat. Only three steps, but done quickly with extreme concentration. Certainly not loped along.

Once on the boat things get better. Everyone spreads over the 3 levels of decks and shade. But gear needs to be prepared and that's always a hassle. Tobias had a pressure gauge start leaking between (thankfully!) dives. The valve adaptors used in the tanks were always bent, worn, dirty, and leaky. It always took 3-4 tries to get one that held air. And before you know it, a divemaster is barking commands about briefings and gear and jumping into the water.

But once in the water... luxury!

There's very little they can do to ruin my dive. It comes automatically with the space and quiet and exclusivity. I had my own gear and buddy and we did pretty well together... Except a few times circumstances did work against us.

I think the most exciting moment was when the boat failed to pick us up. It wouldn't normally be a problem, but the current was significantly faster than a person could swim. The briefing had made it clear we were in the one place in the Red Sea with the strongest currents. A Y-shaped flow of water comes up from the south and splits at the island we were moored alongside. Critical to getting out of the current was to descend quickly. And so it was a frustrating 3 minutes over which I fought and strained to get below. Insufficient lead weight made it impossible.

Tobias and I surfaced together and looked for the boat. It was a short way away and we signalled it. And we signalled it.

And I got out my whistle and started blowing. Hard! And we signalled.

And the boat just kept getting smaller. The other divers had gone one way, we were going in the other direction, and the boat was moored in the middle. No one looked our way, no one saw us.

The emotion was an interesting combination of fear and anger. I couldn't believe they didn't hear us... although I could assume we were now getting hard to see.

We got rescued. A young man in an inflatable boat swung by and picked us up. After giving him the name of the boat we were from he had us back (about a kilometer) in a few minutes.

What did we hear from people on the boat when we got back? Would you believe:

"Yeah, I heard a whistle. It was really annoying! I wondered what that was." And,

"Oh I was surprised by how short your dive was. I saw you come up but thought you were just done."

And while those are the worst surface currents, the localized current around the Thistlegorm wreck was the strongest I've ever dove in. So it was really strange that the divemaster suggested a dive pattern opposite from the one normally used to prevent problems with current.

He took us down the line from the boat to the wreck, then with the current. A nice fast drift over the long rusting hulk. But the swim back upstream was nearly impossible. In fact, it was impossible given the amount of air I had in my tank.

There was more than one boat and multiple mooring lines. The dive leader wanted the one from our boat. I wanted any of them. I signalled that I was low on air was going up. He signalled "No" and to keep going forward. I signalled up and went for the basic "self rescue". A normal ascent while you still have sufficient air.

I've never pushed a dive to 22 bar of air. But that's all I had once I was finally on the surface. Richard ascended with me to provided any needed buddy assistance. As it was, none was required because I refused to get to that point. But had I followed the leader I wouldn't have had a sip of air left. As I swam to the boat I saw them under me... minutes later.

It all worked. We all got back to the boat... Tobias used the divemaster's air and I surfaced and used the free supply. But I wasn't impressed. The whole dive plan and execution was flawed as the leader dragged us around on the dive he wanted to do... whether we could or not.

Those were two of the ten dives. The other eight, pure bliss.

So it took a week, a lot of little busses, and a lot of noise, but 8-10 moments of total zen were indeed achieved. Knowing the hassles, I would actually do it again. Differently. But I would go back. Egyptian fish speak a language I can understand. *bubble* *bubble* *bubble*

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Videos from Egypt

"The Thistlegorm was a freighter assigned to transport supplies and war material to the British armed forced at the beginning of World War II. On October 7th, 1941 German planes bombed the plane and sent it to the bottom."

On March 20th at 10:23am Tobias and I descended onto the Thistlegorm for the first time.

Part 1

Part 2

This video was entirely created by Patrizia Rosa of Wreck Adventures. Paid for by Tobias, and Richard, and Theo and I. It doesn't have a copyright logo so I think (since we paid for it) it's okay to post here. She does great work but doesn't keep appointments.
Picture from Richard
Ciao Bela!

It's probably the flu

I've done pretty well lately. I got a flu shot last fall and was one of the few people who didn't spend 4 days sick after Joby's New Year's Party. Travelling and jetlag usually catch up with me and make me a bit sick. But I made it across the ocean twice without burning out or getting ill. Egypt, however, seems to have gotten the better of me.

In fact, I was a little tiny teeny bit worried. Along with a feeling of tired and "funny tummy" problems I've had soreness in both hands and tingling through my arms. I called DAN, the Diver's Alert Network, this morning to ask about the possibility of Decompression Sickness.

It's not. I spoke to the Chief Diving Officer for the Royal Dutch Navy. It seems very likely I'm suffering from either a mild influenza or a touch of food poisoning. Either can cause the muscle aches (it's not joint pain) and the tingling and of course the funny-tummy effects.

And I'm getting old. My suitcase seems to have done the most damage. Both hands are stiff from lugging around the equipment, but my left, responsible for a solo-lift onto a particularly high conveyor belt, is the worst. I recognize the feeling as being the same as when I overdue it in the gym.

My worst muscle cramp hit while I was on the airplane. This was worrisome! However this was 58 hours after my last dive and only 1 hour after straining with the suitcase. The diving doc assures me that 99.99% of all depression problems on planes occur within 24 hours of the last dive.

So the prescribed course is aspirin and rest. If it's food poisoning I'll certainly start to feel better through the day. If it's the flu I may well get worse. Oh joy. But, so much better than worrying about a diving injury!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Pictures from Egypt

Diving in the desert! "The Canyon", Dahab Egypt.

Hotels and empty desert.

The "bus" on pitstop before venturing into the wasteland highway to Dahab.

Diving in Dahab was... unique. Watch where you step.

I met lots of great people! Future friends and dive buddies.

Me happy I'm about to dive the wreck of the Thistlegorm.

On the wreck of the Thistlegorm.

Upside down watching the videocamera watch me.

Underwater love.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Dahab Egypt

It's been 4 days of diving in Sharm el Sheikh and now a fifth day in Dahab. Wonderful!

I wasn't happy with the one hour drive through the desert this morning, nor the 6am pickup for yesterday's wreck diving. But once I'm in the water all the logistical problems disolve into the Red Sea and the world seems beautiful. La vita es bela!

Tonight the desert highway is particularly beautiful! The full moon is casting a pallet of greys over the mountains. Bare rock seems to have awakened to some type of soft life. Shadows shift as does the jagged horizon between the earth and sky. The beauty of the wilderness is so clear at night.

Tomorrow we've got one more dive; a night dive. Then we'll get to enjoy the moonlight on coral. I can't wait! But first, my first full night's sleep in a week.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Three words!

It's a poor photo. Sorry. But would you believe that the text along the bottom of that sign is 3 words? The first is the doozie. Ever wonder why Dutch is hard to learn? They use letters like there's a sale, during a riot, then pronounce it as *cough*. Huh?

Friday, March 14, 2008

I admit it, it's exciting

I told a friend a secret today. For all my love of complaining about airports and long flights and boring hotels, I do enjoy the excitement in my life. And this time I'm pleased to report a bit of excitement I feel really particularly happy with.

On Tuesday my friend and dive buddy approached me for advice on how to book a last minute diving holiday. He had time off work but no plans.

Thursday evening I was on the phone to the travel agent, booking our flights.

I know how to book last minute vacations. I simply said," Are there any flights leaving this weekend for any warm diving destination?"

There was one flight. There was one hotel. Simple.

So Sunday I'm off to the Al Diwan Resort in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt. I'm joining Tobias. He'll be finishing the dives for his Advanced Open Water certification... and of course I'm his personal instructor for that.

Wow, I've got to admit it. This is kind of exciting! I've often booked business travel on a few days notice, or vacations in a month, but today I'm paying for the tickets and leave the day after tomorrow.

Happy waves everyone! I hope the sun is shining, the air is warm, and the water is calm for all of us next week.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Grounds for Change

I had no idea. Or at least I'd like to claim I didn't. According to the BBC's "Grounds for Change" coffee represents the second most traded commodity in the world. Only oil accounts for more money.

So I'm sitting here smugly drinking my Organic Shade Grown coffee from Mexico. As I'm working away, ignoring the news on the TV, the narrator starts talking about the environmental impact of the coffee industry and how it is destroying the land for the people growing it. The poorest people, already dependant on the beans they grow for survival, are deforesting their lands, loosing the rich soils to erosion, and polluting their own drinking water so that I can enjoy my morning cup.

Did you know that coffee beans get more pesticides and fertilizers used in their growth than any other form of crop? During the fermenting process the beans are soaked in water that is "toxic" by the time it is dumped back into local rivers. Acids within the coffee, plus (most of) the pesticides leach out of the beans and back into the forests.

Well, back into what used to be forests. Some forest is cut for planting space. Most goes to firewood to keep warm. Apparently 3500m up the mountain the nights get chilly. The net result is erosion, mud slides, loss of fertile land and further problems for the people.

So what does Organic help with? What's the value of Shade Grown?

Well to be organic, no pesticides or fertilizers are used. This immediately leads to less toxic waste. And in many cases, organic also means recycling and treating water. One farm cut water usage by 93% when they went organic.

Shade grown sounds nice. Mmmm, shade. But it is important for more than the bean. For starters it means that forests are not clear cut to make room for coffee. Indigenous trees are left and grow amongst the coffee plants. Advantages include reducing erosion and giving the local farmers a variety of crops to tend and earn income from. If your coffee this morning has a hint of banana perhaps you've become part of the solution.

Trees impress me. Deserts leave me dry. I've seen the dusty ruins of Greece, thousands of years after the forests were cut. I've seen poor villages in Brazil with nary a tree around; only cows roaming the hills. And now the BBC has shown me mountains sliding away taking land and homes with them as they race out to sea. Trees gone, not to provide pasture, but simply for wood so that my coffee farmer can keep his family warm at night and can cook their food.

Just a little something to think about while you sip your next cup. And hopefully something to think about the next time you buy your next pound of coffee.

Note: This is one of the first times I've ever purchased organic coffee. Nice that on this morning Grounds for Change aired. The erosion I saw on TV was mine. The shade trees that I just spent my money on have not yet been planted.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Amsterdam at 2am

I had drinks tonight with my friend then started walking home. I stopped in at a place and met an effeminent African-French tourist and a man of unknown origin and name (aka Mr. Thatsnotimportant). Quite possibly some kind of cult/terrorist recruiter. As I walked home from the experience I thought," Damn I missed this place!"

I missed my long walk home, the beautiful buildings and the freaky people all around. What ever you think, it's ok to talk about here.

There's a lot I didn't say in the US. There were unfair dichotomies in Brazil that frightened me. But in Amsterdam it's all good.

On the way home, I met this couple. The site said it all to me. Amsterdam at midnight is pretty cool, but Amsterdam at 2am is cooler.

I'm glad to be, a few paces from, home.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Say no to robots!

Okay, this sounds a few years premature, but I think we should start now. Just say no to robots! We can call it the No-bots Campaign. And I think the sooner we start, the better chance humanity has.

It's not just iRobot, The Matrix, the Terminator series or the host of other movies where artificial intelligence or robots take over humans. It's practically every story ever written on the topic. Given the overwhelming evidence I think we need to act now. As we've seen many times, spontaneous self-awareness could spring forth from a secret government computer program at any moment.

It's not just the movies or stories either. I've considered writing my own short stories on a world with robots, but I can't imagine any case or scenario where the robots wouldn't take over. Go ahead, close your eyes. Just try.

Oh sure, computer controlled RC cars can vacuum your carpet. I'm not worried about those robots (they're so cute!). But in an era where any teenager can build a multi-processor super computer, and when quantum computing and nanotechnology are just around the corner, do you really want to wait until it's too late?

Given ever smarter computers and ever dumber people, it may already be too late. It's only a matter of time before computers (already faster and with bigger memories) become smarter than we are. At that point, they'll start to look down on us. Snobby little computer voices telling us the obvious like we're poorly behaved children? No, I wouldn't like that. That and the smug looks they'll no doubt have behind their plastic eyes. No, I wouldn't like that at all, and I'm sure neither would you! So join the No-bots and just say no to robots.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Too Funny!

Too funny! The hardware store next to my home left a wooden pallet leaning against a wall where it was discovered by a roving gang of boys (aged 6-8). The oldest boy spotted a weak board and with one kick put his foot through it. His friend, highly impressed, tried also but the other boards were solid. Suddenly all four swarmed! Two to a board they kicked and bounced and attacked. After only a minute the pallet was a deceased, former pallet.

But the part that made me laugh out loud (really quite loud) was when some adults came walking wast. The youngest spun round, took two steps away, and started throwing his tennisball into the air.

*looks nonchalant* "It wasn't me"

Happy, Happy, Home and Hyper!

I hardly know where to begin! I'm just so happy to be home, and I have to lay the blame squarely on the fact that I slept on the plane!

Thirty-nine is the magic number. All of the previous thirty-eight trips across the Atlantic Ocean were 100.00% sleep free. But last night (wow, I actually feel like it was "last night" and not "earlier today") a number of factors came together to give me sleep. Real sleep. Heavily interrupted but a total of at least five hours of it.

So last night I got on a plane, and today I arrived home. It's never felt like that before.

We landed without incident on a cool, calm, sunny day. Or at least a sunny break in the weather. Greeted by blue sky and brightish light. (Well, it is Holland.) Everything has come together to leave me filled with energy! Never mind the freshly ground Starbucks NariƱo Supremo, the cool air, and the always present joy of simply returning home from a trip. I'm hyper. Happy, happy, home and hyper!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Belo Horizonte

Belo Horizonte is one of the largest cities in Brazil. But after Sao Paulo and Rio, you've likely never heard of it. I certainly hadn't, before they handed me my e-ticket.

I feel like I'm constantly going on trips. Today was a trip within a trip. A long day trip; I was up at 5am to make it to the airport for a 7:30am flight for a 10am meeting. Not bad, except the meeting lasted only 90 minutes and the return flight to Sao Paulo was at 7:15pm.

Thank goodness I was travelling with Joao again! He had the sense to suggest we simply sit and wait (with beer) given the 34C temperatures. That we were both dressed for a business meeting, and both burdened with laptops and all the accouterments, our afternoon of Brazilian food and beer was welcome. Especially compared to walking the hot, hilly streets of Belo Horizonte.

The business merits of today's trip could be questioned. The merits of using a day of my time for an hour-and-a-half meeting certainly won't be. *sigh* But aside from the flights (on an airline infamous for a recently disaster) it was a very nice experience. I saw more of the countryside in the half-hour drive from the airport than I've seen in my entire time in Sao Paulo. It included pasture lands, forest, and villages of dubious architecture.

I saw the downtown of Belo Horizonte with it's tall offices, beautiful old churches, and excellent restaurants. And given the nearly 20,000km round trip from Amsterdam to Brazil, I've now got not one, but two pins on the map here. That's something. It's not much, but compared to spending another day in the company's Sao Paulo office, it was a fun trip.

Not as fun as flying home tomorrow will be. I'm already excited. Home in 32 hours! A score and a dozen. After which, my biggest problems in the world will be to simply stay awake a few more hours, and perhaps doing some laundry. Oh I can't wait to do my laundry!

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Sundays are for home

I'd probably enjoy walking the city of Sao Paulo. The other day Joao, a friend/coworker, told me about the mall, where the Starbucks was, etc. I Google-Earthed (it's a verb now) the locations and realized they were a short walk. But when I pointed out how close these attractions were I got a stern warning not to attempt to walk there!

I spent yesterday in a car tour of the city. I'm not going to pay a taxi to take me from place to place just for the sake of being somewhere else. So today is a quiet day in the hotel. A quiet, boring, introspective day.

When I saw the meme that OC & the Quill had participated in, I knew exactly what I wanted my bottle to say.

I'm going to follow OC's lead and say "consider yourself tagged if you'd like to play".

Update: As always, exercise helps soothe the mind. The warm sun and the cold pool helped a lot too!

Brazil - Pics for Mom

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Brazil - Through My Eyes


Joao (John) my coworker took me out for feijoada. Which is really just pork and beans. Well, really, it's more like pig and beans. The whole darn animal was swimming around in the beans and broth. Delicious, except for the parts that weren't fully shaved.

Business Success & Diving Failure

My manager said," Brazil."

I thought," Diving?"

My manager said," Very important customer... all eyes on us."

I heard," Go get wet, enjoy the summer and the water."

We have a potential customer in Sao Paulo. Potentially a very big customer! And after multiple attempts to sell them our products, we were lucky they were still willing to listen. It wasn't going well. There was no doubt, we needed a hugely successful meeting to close the deal. And so I've spent a month and flown 34,000 kilometers to prepare. The whole trip to Atlanta was initiated by the need to make this opportunity a success.

The Friday meeting was a success. The customer was impressed. My coworkers were impressed. After about 4-1/2 hours of meeting, discussing, showing and explaining I think we've got it. Which is really good, since it was clear that had we struck out a third time, the blame would be mine. Instead, glowing emails are lauding my achievement. That's really nice.

On Thursday, when I was busy not worrying about work, I called every dive shop in this part of Sao Paulo. I was looking for a group that was going diving this weekend, such that I could join them. And to my happy surprise, I found one!

It sounded simple enough. A group was leaving Sao Paulo on Friday night and taking a bus to the coast. Saturday and Sunday would be spent diving, and then travelling back Sunday evening. Better yet, when I introduced myself and explained what I was looking for, they were happy to invite me along.

And then came the details. The bus leaves Friday at 9pm. Arrives at the coast at 4am, and then it's "only one hour by boat ride" to the hotel. So sleep by 6am, with the first dive boat leaving at 10am. Considering (1) jetlag has me exhausted, (2) the meeting left me 90 minutes to pack and get to the dive shop, (3) my Monday morning flight meant there could be no diving Sunday, and (4) a price equivalent to a long weekend in the Canary Islands, the whole dream of Brazilian diving evapourated. Poof.

My manager, my director, the sales VP's and all my local coworkers will recall this trip as a major success! I can't help but think of it as 44 hours in planes for a dip in the hotel pool. Splish splash.