Monday, November 25, 2013

And then it was winter, suddenly

Good grief! Less than a week ago I was basking in the sun in Mexico, thinking that warm weather would never end. Seriously, I was still in serious summer mode even when I got back to Lubbock—after all, this has been a weird year for me with the broken leg, changes in travel plans, feeling seemingly a bit outside of the space/time continuum at times. It was warm in Cancun, it was warm when I was picked up at the LBB airport Wednesday night, and then it was warm on Thursday as well, so I rode my bike for 35 miles in shorts and a short-sleeve jersey—and less than an hour after I returned from my ride, a massive arctic cold front hit Lubbock. The temperature dropped 30 degrees in 15 minutes.

Wow, what a shock.

On Friday morning, it was around 25 degrees (after Thursday's high of close to 75 degrees), and I was glad that I had had sense enough to put the hardtop on the Miata; after all, the plan was to drive to Waco to help officiate a cyclocross race this weekend. I left shortly after 10 a.m., and I was hoping to beat the "wintry mix" that had been forecast. Alas, I was a bit too late: Barely had I left the city limits that the sleet hit, hard. The wind was howling at 30 mph out of the north, and US 84 became an ice rink. It took me almost 1 1/2 hours to make the 35 miles down to Post. Cars were in ditches or, worse, wrapped around telephone poles. Of course some numbskulls in big bubba trucks thought that going 50 mph was the smart thing to do, endangering everybody else. In my rear view mirror I observed one such maneuver, with cars having to scatter off the road to avoid a collision.
Saturday's front page of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal
Once off the Caprock, conditions improved—marginally. There were still patches of ice and snow, until things really got better (i.e., just wet) south off I-20 around Eastland. I made it to Waco after the cloud-induced early nightfall.
The Highlander Cyclocross race dished up authentic Euro conditions
The bike race, of course, thrived on the adverse, yucky conditions. 'crossers are an odd bunch, loving (yet hating) the muck, the cold, the snot that flows uncontrollably from the noses, the sheared-off derailleurs, and the challenge presented by the elements. For us officials it is a challenge, too, simply to stay warm enough during a day of mainly standing in the cold, occasional rain, and wind. The fingers get stiff, and scoring becomes difficult. We, too, have to fight the snotty noses, but we don't get to change into fresh clothing at the end of the 45- or 60-minute race but have to stay in position to score the next race, or, as was the case for me, keep a vigilant eye on the "pit," the area where the racers are allowed to exchange bikes or wheels.
Hecklers "helping along" one of the racers in the labyrinth
One nice thing about being stationed in the pit rather than scoring at the finish line is that one gets to observe the racers up close. Either you love the mud and the wet and cold, or you better stay at home. Riding in these conditions requires some real mental stamina, in addition to the physical type. And then there are the hecklers, usually your compatriots from other age groups or categories who are done with their race and "cheer" on the soggy bunch who are tyring to ride through yet anther mud pit. "C'mon, this is a race, why don't you pedal?" "That white skin suit doesn't help you now, does it? You look as if you've shat all over yourself!" "You're getting beaten by a little GIRL!" "Get off the damn breaks!" Did I mention that hecklers usually have a beer in hand and yell at the top of their lungs?
Nanook of the North, anno 2013
I had been smart enough to bring a whole bunch of clothes, and even so I had a hard time fending off the cold. I know I am fat, but I'm really not that fat: I looked like the Michelin man because I had a whopping five layers on top (long-sleeve wool undershirt, official's shirt [for what???], official's fleece, down jacket, and rain shell) and two pairs of pants, plus a rain hat on top of the beanie when needed; the gloves were the thickest I own (and there were two back-up sets). Thanks, Susanne Schmidt, for taking the above pic in my "office." That was shortly before Ian brought me my lunch: A hot burrito, a cold Lonestar beer, and a shot of Jägermeister. OK, I was a USAC official on the clock, but that Jägermeister could simply not be turned down. I wished it had been half a bottle!

How to destroy equipment the quick and easy way: cyclocross!
After two days of racing I was glad when the fun had an end. I had made arrangements to travel another 45 minutes south to stay Sunday night with Martha and Alan in Temple, and that turned out to be a good thing as the TX Department of Transportation was issuing all kinds of travel advisories, urging motorists to stay off the highways that I would have had to frequent to make it back to the South Plains. It took me most of the way down to Temple to thaw (even though the temperatures hadn't dipped much lower than maybe 33F or 34F, but the relentless wind and the oft-heavy rain had done their respective parts). Just to make sure that there wouldn't be any lingering aftereffects, Alan and I hopped into the outdoors hottub—bliss!
Warming up at the Howell Inn in Temple
This morning (Monday) I decided not to take any chances and hang here for an extra day. There is nothing pressing in Lubbock that requires my return today, and I'd rather drive home safely tomorrow than worry about an accident all the way home today. And it is nice to stay with my friends. Thanksgiving is on Thursday, and I have asked Smitty and Lori over for turkey a la kamado, and that will really feel like winter. With that said: Happy Thanksgiving to all of you, and thanks to M&A for your hospitality!


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Once more on the Riviera Maya

Goodness, almost a week has gone by since our arrival here in the Ocean Coral & Turquesa, in heavy rain and across a road that now looks more like a bumpy canal. I'm glad I didn't bring a bike the way I usually do, because there wouldn't have been any way to ride it from the hotel to the main road. But as it was, after two days of unseasonably heavy rain the sun came back out, and since then Sabine and I have been eating and drinking too much and doing too little. Thus is life in an all-inclusive paradise that has little to do with Mexican reality.
The road from the main highway to the resort
Thankfully, after two days of more rain than not the skies cleared and we've been enjoying the various pools and of course the Caribbean, even though the rains and heavy swells have brought a lot of sea grass and general murkiness to the usually white beach and crystal-clear water. Still, you can't complain when lying in a soft chaise lounge, while the waves create that beautiful background noise of the oceans and the waiter brings yet another piña colada, spiked with a bit of amaretto. Or a mojito. Or a margarita....
The H10 Ocean Coral & Turquesa—still an amazing place to live la dolce vita
There were two highlights to our trip, and both came on the final two full days. On Monday, we took a day-long excursion to Chichen Itza, the mystical Mayan town that is considered one of the Wonders of the World. Years ago, Judy and I had traveled to Cancun with our then-neighbors, Tom and Trish, and we had rented a car to visit the ruins, but this time around we opted for a guided tour in a comfortable tourist bus. With an $85 price tag for a rental car alone (plus gas, toll fees, entry to Chichen Itza, lunch, etc.) it was a no-brainer to shell out $196 for the two of us and not to have to do at least six hours of driving ourselves. We were picked up in the hotel shortly before 8 a.m., and when we finally made it home it was a little after 9 p.m. (The catastrophic state of the roads to some of the hotels where passengers had to be offloaded was partly responsible for this long day.) Our on-board guide and host was extremely funny, telling us about the history and culture of the area in both Spanish and beautifully colored Spenglish. Sabine said that she now finally understands where some of my own sayings and intonations at times come from—she thinks I have listened to too many good folks like Alejandro (or, if you are his friend—which of course we all were—Alex).
This is not a tourist brochure—this is the pee stop halfway to Chichen Itza on the toll road

Before we got to Chichen Itza, however, ladies and yentlemen, we were going to stop at the cenote Ik Kil, a very big sinkhole where we were going to have a chance to swim as well as eat lunch. For some unfathomable reason, our tour bus was the first to arrive on this particular day, and Sabine and I immediately beelined for the cenote—and no kidding, we were the first and had this entire cathedral  of nature to ourselves for the next ten minutes before the hordes arrived and transformed serenity into frivolity. But by that time we had already soaked in the immensity of this underground cavern that has a 90-foot-deep pool and just a small opening at the top where the sunlight enters. (Visitors enter through a TNT-facilitated tunnel.) Wow, at least for me that was worth the entire trip.
Cenote Ik Kil: Entrance ...
... hole in the ceiling ...
... and 90-foot-deep water, as pristine as it comes before we entered

The buffet-style lunch in this out-of-the-way place featured cochinita pibil, a pork stew that involves slow cooking in banana leaves and that brought back memories of last Thanksgiving when Martha, Alan, and I feasted on this Mayan delicacy at their now-sold residence in Lubbock. Good, very good stuff! Thanks to the on-board free beer, expertly dispensed by a happy-to-serve helper, we were able to off-gas a few cochinita  burps before arriving at Chichen Itza. Alejandro, aka Alex, made clear how much time we would have, that we were to have English and Spanish-speaking groups with their respective guides, and that the bus would leave at 4:30 p.m., so pleece, ladies and yentlemen, be rrready! As a true Yerman, I kept taking mental notes never to pronounce a G again and rrroll every “r” in sight.
One of the so-called Wonders of the World—don't Wonder why
Chichen Itza has changed since my last visit, about a decade ago. Back then, one could still clamber atop the big pyramid, and I remember having somebody take a pic of a twenty-somethingish Jürgen as a sacrifice to Chac Mool, on my first visit to the Yucatan. Alas, as Dylan crooned, the times they are a-changin’. Apparently, not so long after our visit with T&T some visitor stumbled on those steep, uncannily precise and mathematical steps up (or more likely, down) the pyramid, started to roll, and ended up screwing things up for everyone to arrive after her: One death (and possibly a lawsuit) is enough, said the government, and now we can actually see all the ruins because they are people free. Fine and good—but what about the hundreds and hundreds of hawkers inside (yes, in-, not outside) this Wonder of the World? Only one dollarrr, sirrr. Verrry good quality! Last chance! At least in the past they’d have proudly proclaimed that everything es hecho a mano, handmade by their blind mother-in-law and their crippled children. But I guess they can no longer do so since all that kitsch must have been produced in China. Yikes. So, please, continue to keep us tourists off the rocks but ask the vendors to vacate the premises.
OK, so maybe I looked like this in my days as a gainfully employed lecturer....
Our guide, an older gentleman with the aristocratic name of Luis Ortiz Rendon, was obviously amazingly knowledgeable about the Maya in general and this site in particular, but unfortunately he suffered from a severe case of PD (Professor’s Disease). After we had remained in the same spot for 20 minutes (far away from the ball court) with him pontificating about the hip armor of the ball players, and gentle nudges did not have any effect on his geographical location whatsoever, Sabine and I continued our 2-hour tour of this magnificent site on our own. Occasional heavy showers hit us, and immediately the entire place started to steam; there was a rainbow; and there were poncho-hawkers, damn them. We managed to look at most of the exposed and reconstructed ruins (my goodness, how much stuff must still be hidden under that subtropical vegetation!) and came away with a sense of how small and short-lived our current “civilization” is—these dudes stuck around for more than 3,700 years, and that without air conditioning or iPhones.
Caracol—one of the few circular structures at Chichen Itza
We weren't sacrificed to the gods, but our legs were chopped off, nevertheless
Late in the afternoon, even rubble looks dramatic
Chac Mool is waiting for your still-pounding heart to be placed on his midrift
On the way home, we had a 10-minute stopover in Valladolid’s zocalo, or main square, just enough to smell Mexico and see what one misses when one stays in resorts and takes to organized bus tours. I’m starting to have more and more of an itch for another “real” trip, like the one to Machu Picchu last year.
Sabine, about to board the vessel of choice for her first open-water dive
The second highlight came yesterday, when Sabine dived for the first time in open water. Upon my encouragement and, OK, urging, she had started and almost completed a certified divers course in Yermany last year, but she never quite completed the whole thing since open-water check-out dives in Yermany’s notoriously cold lakes in the middle of the winter are quite sucky. But here we were able to do a two-tank “Discover Scuba” dive that took us about 30 feet below the surface for about 50 minutes each, and now I think she is HOOKED! To take a skiff to the outer reef in the Caribbean and descend to the world of lobsters, rays, and turtles (all of which she got to see on her first two dives!) is quite different from going to the local swimming pool and pretending that you are out of air. Better yet: We were the only passengers on the boat, with a very kind and emphatic French dive master by the name of Ivan, and thus the entire experience was simply superb. Half-way through the first dive we looked at each other, and the sparkle of her smiling eyes through the mask was simply blinding. And no BS here: I don’t think I have ever dived with anybody with fewer than ten open-water dives who was as adept at buoyancy control and general etiquette as Sabine was. Very, very impressive, and superbly promising for the future as there are lots of oceans beckoning to be dived.
Taking the plunge for the first time—dude, this is virgin territory!
SCUBA: Some Come Up Barely Alive! Sabine far left, moi far right
So, four hours ago (after encountering a flat in our taxi thanks to the huge potholes in our road and an ensuing transfer into a private taxi that happened to stop) we arrived at the Cancun airport. About 90 minutes later we bid each other our farewells. I’m typing these last few words on the approach to DFW and will go "live," I hope, in the Admiral’s Club once I clear customs, and Sabine is on the way to Yermany. This was a great trip to our neighbor to the south. Viva Mexico!
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La ponchada
Next trip: Waco and a cyclocross race. And then it's turkey time. As if I could eat anything after all that float and bloat....


Friday, November 1, 2013

German ruminations

One of the many typical Bavarian churches, this one in Rudolfing
Since my long weekend in Prague, I have been whiling away my time in various parts of Germany. First, there was a week in Freising, punctuated by mostly beautiful weather and a few cultural happenings. Since Sabine had to work for most of that week, I was on my own to pedal around the lovely landscape surrounding this old university town. On one particularly gorgeous day I rode something like 55 miles, through a bucolic fall landscape that could not have been much more scenic. The colors—all those reds and yellows of the leaves combined with the deep blue of the sky and the saturated greens of fields with winter forage—were picture perfect. But what place does not look spectacular in sunlight?
Fall cycling at its best
For our cultural fill we spent an evening at Munich's Künstlerhaus, listening to a concert that had been billed as a fusion of  "classical virtuosity and jazz improvisation," or something of that nature. True, the four musicians were technically brilliant, but somewhere the spark was missing and the improvisation—hallmark of jazz—never materialized. We left somewhat disappointed, even if the venue was spectacular and the music pleasant. Quite different was our visit to the amateur theater in Freising, which celebrated its 25th anniversary (and the 125th anniversary of the town's volunteer fire department) with a performance of the local-dialect comedy Das Wunder des Heiligen Florian. If I understood 75% of the heavy Bavarian dialogue, it was a lot; even Sabine admitted that after living in Bavaria for most of her life she still didn't get it all. But the performance was tremendously enjoyable, the actors did a fabulous job, the theater was so Old World, and the mayor's address after the performance was so heartfelt that I didn't mind the 25% that I missed. Now, that was really local flavor, especially since all the local glitterati and movers-and-shakers showed up in their finest traditional dress (no, not Lederhosen—fancy Loden suits and tastefully embroidered long dresses were the norm).
Lederhosen were worn only on stage

A few days ago I left Bavaria and headed for Jena, the place that is world-renowned for its Carl Zeiss factory and its glass factories. Two years ago I had stopped over here to see my old mentor and friend, Dr. Dennis deLoof, whose classes I had taken during my university days back in Trier. We spent an enjoyable afternoon/evening catching up with each others' lives, and there was much to chat about. Dennis had arranged for my room at the Steigenberger Esplanade, from where I looked upon the dome of the Zeiss astronomical observatory. Jena is certainly not the most exciting town for a tourist visit, but that was not the purpose of my trip anyhow. It sure was good to see you, Dennis!
A room with a view in Jena: The old Carl Zeiss observatory center right
On Tuesday I took the ICE to Berlin, a short three-hour trip from Jena that was extended by 25 minutes when a new train crew was delayed because of a major storm in norther Germany that had paralyzed most train connections overnight. It didn't matter—the train was comfy and I had no time schedule.
A fellow ICE passing us, inch by inch, while both are barreling along at 100 mph
Since arriving in Berlin I have been spending time with my dad, whom I hadn't seen since early May. He still smokes and coughs, he's getting around just a little slower, and he still loves political satire and talk shows, so the current NSA brouhaha provides just the right kind of material to poke fun at the inability of the politicos to keep their own spies in check. The news are continually revolving around the scandal that really broke loose after it was revealed that Chancellor Merkel's private cell phone has been tapped for a decade or more. It's quite a show.
Two giant pugilists in the river Spree, with red-hot lofts and the TV tower in the back
Since I keep a single-speed bike (my first, steel Ritchey) here in Berlin I have been able to go for a few rides. Even if they were fairly short (because of the low temperatures as well as the heavy traffic), they nevertheless give me a chance to exercise at least a little bit. The part of Berlin where my dad lives is certainly not the most scenic, but it is interesting to occasionally stop by for a dose of reality. And, let's not forget it, I'm not here for the sightseeing but to spend some time with my dad, even if that means countless hours in front of  the TV set. Who knows how many such visits are left for us, as dad is pushing hard toward his 82nd birthday.
The view from my dad's balcony: the 24-hr beer stop and the tattoo place next door
A few more days, and I'll finally return to the US and my own life. Obviously I enjoy these trips to Europe, but they also help me realize time and again that my home is somewhere else, even if I do enjoy running away from it maybe a bit more often than most of the people I know. It sure is a privilege to be able to do all of these things, and I am not taking any of them for granted.