Monday, December 28, 2015

Lubbock is paralyzed—not with fear, but with snow

They say that we had a similar storm back in 1983. Well, I'm not so sure as I remember a few times that Judy and I would take out the cross-country skis and terrorize the local parks instead of going to work. But still: For a place like Lubbock, that was a monster of storm that hit us yesterday and last night.
In the days before we got hit, we were bombarded with all kind of hyperbole. Why, one could have thought that the apocalypse was imminent! Fortunately I do not watch local news and their clownish weather experts, so I was spared the worst. Nevertheless, there was quite a bit of anticipation: So when is it gonna hit? How bad is it gonna be?
On Saturday night, Tom and Trish were over for a belated Christmas feast with one of my patented Kamado-prepped turkeys. Joining us for the fun was Janet from down the street, and of course the imminent End of the World was part of the evening's conversation. The afternoon was OK, a bit nippier than the week before when we had hit spring-like temperatures, but certainly not really nasty or worse.
All of that changed abruptly when, at 21:30 hours, the sounds of the wind, which had increased in strength for quite some time, were joined by the loud clatter of falling ice. The front had arrived! Freezing rain and sleet were driving at 30+ mph from the north, pelting my garage door with the first round of ammunition. Needless to say, the guests soon left.
The wind howled all night, and in the morning things were white in those areas where the precipitation had had a chance to actually settle down. You know, in Lubbock rain and snow don't fall vertically; they follow horizontal patterns! Still, it was all a bit disappointing: All that doomsday talk for that? Janet and I shared a cup of forenoon hot tea and lambasted the quack forecasters.
And then it started snowing! The wind never stopped, but suddenly we had white-out conditions, almost out of nowhere. TXDoT had warned of "blizzard conditions" in its advisories, and that's what we had on our hands for the next 14 hours or so. I have never experienced such violent precipitation, with spindrift and falling snow indistinguishable. It snowed and snowed, and it blew and blew, and thus was born what the illustrious Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, our hometown newspaper, labeled Winter Storm Goliath.
I don't know whether the "Storm from '15" will truly enter the folklore of the South Plains, but when I awoke this morning I was stunned by the drifts in my yard. Sure, if you have lived all your life in Billings, Montana, or Buffalo, New York, then you rightfully chuckle and ask, "What storm?" But this is Texas, on the same latitude as Morocco, and we just aren't used to something like this. So give us our one day in the news!
For my part, I had already pulled out my cross-country boots last night in anticipation of a romp through the park. So, after breakfast and under a brilliant blue sky, I stepped into the bindings and headed for the park. On the way I paid a visit to Janet who chronicled the occasion by taking a pic of me in full regalia. Later we subjected her dachshund, Chase, to his first taste of snow.
It was an amusing excursion, I have to say. It is just mind-boggling how many pick-up owners as well as drivers of normal cars manage to pull out of their driveways and—get stranded! Believe or not, the drifts were not just in the backyards—duh! I spotted the first F150 just down the street from me, with the driver frantically gunning the engine in hopes of getting traction. Or some other hope. As I said, it was entertaining.
A few folks were out to clear their driveways, and a few friendly comments were thrown one way and the other. Everybody (except the bubba drivers) seemed to be happy. It felt like Sunday, even though it was Monday. Who cares? Lubbock was closed and remained so for the rest of the day. No newspaper or mail delivery, no open convenience stores, a shuttered mall, Mickey D. dark and forlorn, not an open restaurant in sight. At Bed Bath and Beyond, I saw Lubbock's tallest drift, probably five feet tall.
I skied for a little more than two hours, over to Quaker on one side, then to Slide on the other, both of them major thoroughfares. There were few signs of snow removal (they use front-end loaders and graders for this purpose here), and traffic was less than light, almost non-existent. I stopped by Smitty and Lori's place down by the park, and they hadn't ventured out yet to assess how deep the drift were around his truck. Here is the photographic evidence.
The only part of Lubbock's population that seemed unfazed were the Canada geese that populate our parks in the winter. The lake was frozen over so that they could march happily in the sun. It was a veritable Winter Wonderland.
In the afternoon I took a walk over to the post office to drop off a small package with some eBay stuff. It was about 3 o'clock, and traffic hadn't increased one bit. The Loop seemed to be snow free, with the few trucks and cars that were on the road going way too fast, in my opinion. But if you own a truck, your civic duty seems to be to show everyone in the world how large your dick is and how loudly you can roar your engine. You gotta love Texas! And you gotta love the innovative park jobs that F150 drivers come up with.
The melting process will start in earnest tomorrow, and that's when things will become messy and really dangerous. Lubbock will awaken from its paralysis, and life will once again normalize. But I am sure we'll talk about the Blizzard of 2015 for quite a while.


Monday, December 21, 2015

Winding toward Christmas in an unexpected way

Munich airport Christmas market, November 22
The last time I updated the blog I was still glowing from the wonderful time we had had in Spain and Portugal—and right now I am still glowing from some of the light fevers that hit me in the days after my second ablation less than a week ago.

Things can change rather quickly.

Let's first of all say it out loud: I am doing well, the fevers are gone, and I hope to recover perfectly this time around (even thought that's what we thought after the first heart ablation this summer as well). While writing this I am sitting in the backyard of my friends Martha and Alan in Temple, with Osler the Doberman and Clifford, Chewbacca's look-alike, lending me company. I am recovering well on a 74-degree day in central Texas, looking forward to driving back up to Lubbock tomorrow and reclaiming my house after an absence of the better part of one-and-a-half months.

After our time on the Iberian peninsula, I spent another week with Sabine in Freising. For her, the daily grind had started up again but I had elected to stick around for a few extra days. Coming back to Germany from the south was a shocking experience, literally: When we arrived, the Munich airport's Christmas market was going full throttle and it snowed! So much for eternal summer. It didn't get much better until I finally got back to Lubbock, late on Sunday, November 29. It was cold, but at least there was sunshine.

The schedule called for a week in Lubbock, enough time to take care of the bills, some eBay stuff, the occasional bike ride, and of course the WTCA Christmas Party. Also thrown into the mix was a visit with my cardiologist, to check the old ticker. Well, the news wasn't so hot: There was a flutter back in the heart, something we thought we had nixed with the first laser procedure back in late July. Shit.
Approaching Cancun
When things had looked happier and healthier, I had booked a flight to Cancun for December 8, to spend a week down in Playa del Carmen. But suddenly the heart issues came to the forefront, and on Monday the 7th telephone calls and e-mails started to take over. Add to that a bike frame that I had sold on eBay and that FedEx could not track, and you can start to imagine how I spent my last three hours in the Admiral's Club in DFW on the way to Mexico. Dr. Horton at St. David's Hospital had a cancellation for an ablation the following week, the frame was spotted, then not, and suddenly I was on a 757 to Cancun, with a racing heart, not knowing how all this was going to play out.

The first two days in Mexico were not about relaxing and just listening to the waves but rather shooting e-mails back and forth. Finally, I had it all in the bag: I was going to leave the all-inclusive a day early, get back to Lubbock in time to drive down to Austin, and stay with friends before and after the procedure. The hotel was easy to work with and refunded the cancelled day, American Airlines (and my old friend Jose in the DFW Admiral's Club who had proactively booked for me a second flight back to the US) didn't charge me any fees since I had paid for my travel with miles, and my old friend Micki in Austin immediately stepped up to take me to the hospital and then pick me up again. Things started to fall in place, and I actually was able to enjoy some of my time in Mexico. I had taken the Ritchey along, but I rode less than 50 miles—that's how shitty I felt. Sometimes things happen fast.
Bubbly fun at the all-inclusive
To show you how much in flux everything had been: I was not notified of the time when I should report to St. David's until about 7 a.m. on the day of the procedure—be there at 9:30 a.m, it said. That's the nature of cancellations, I suppose. But I was in good hands, starting from the time that I arrived at Micki and her husband, Kent's, home in Oak Hill, just outside of Austin, until now, here in Temple. My procedure took place on Wednesday, December 16 (at noon on the 14th I had still listened to the waves of the Caribbean). I was released 24 hours later, a bit groggy still, but in better cardiac health than before. Doc Horton found two areas that were transmitting erroneous electrical impulses in the area that he had burned during the first procedure. After this initial laser blast I was given more adrenaline to make the system fire on all cylinders, and after a 20-miunte wait (is that why I felt as if a truck had hit me?) he found two other spots in a different part of the heart (both known to emit such impulses) that were active, and he burned the hell out of them, too. My cardiac nurse said that altogether he used 32 minutes of burn time for these four areas, which to her showed that he was very thorough; overall, I was knocked out for more than two-and-a-half hours.

Sounds pretty gruesome, doesn't it? It sure is a good thing that they know how to put us out of our misery and then bring us back without too much of a hangover. As I said, 24 hours later I left the hospital and spent the next two days with Micki and Kent before driving on Saturday morning up to Martha and Alan in Temple. I've been taking it easy and have been napping and sleeping a lot, but I also have gone for walks and have tried (upon doctor's orders) to not be totally inactive. This morning I woke up after the best sleep so far, without body aches and the feeling that I may have been running a slight, low-grade fever. No need to get cocky or in a rush—there's still a lot of recovery to come, but I think the worst is over.

The official prognosis is that this time all rogue transmitters have been obliterated, but we thought so the first time around, too. Judging from some of the Facebook comments, few people have just one ablation to get it all fixed—some have three or even five. I hope I won't be one of them. Dr. Horton is considered to be the best in the business, and if one has had four ablations this is where one goes to get it fixed once and for all. So, let's keep our fingers crossed.

My plans for the remainder of the month have changed a bit in that I cancelled a flight to surprise Sabine over Christmas. I'll be in Lubbock, taking things easy and not getting in a rush to do anything. In a few days I'll start an easy exercise program again, but it will all be soave e piano. Tom and Trish have invited me to have Christmas dinner with them, and I am sure that I will enjoy more reading and movie watching time by myself. And then it will be 2016, and my heart will be like that of a 21-year-old!
Christmas in Micki and Kent's neighborhood
Things will be just fine, thanks to my wonderful friends and docs. I owe them all a lot!


Thursday, November 26, 2015

Portugal's Algarve: As beautiful as the travel brochures say

Worshipers lighting candles at El Rocio
After a week of city hopping in southern Spain's Andalusian region we were ready for a week of less cultural vacation on the coast. I had been able to use RCI timeshare points to secure a 7-day stay in a resort in the western Algarve of Portugal, in a small place called Alvor. So, on Sunday morning after an evening of more tapas in Sevilla, we loaded up the rental Polo and headed west.
The packed church at El Rocio
El Rocio has no paved streets—it's all sand, and everyone wears boots
Worshippers or true pilgrims? We couldn't figure it out, but they kept coming.
On the way we detoured from the main highway to check out a small place that was highlighted by the guidebook, El Rocio. We had read that this sleepy village comes to life once a year when tens of thousands of pilgrims converge upon it to seek the favors of the Virgin Mary. We expected a sleepy hamlet with unpaved roads, as the guidebook had led us to believe—but instead we found the place teeming with busloads of religious tourists and the occasional pilgrim who had walked at least the last few miles on sandy trails. We were totally surprised, assuming that this had to be a religious holiday, but that didn't seem to be the case; at least we were not able to link November 15 to any major saint's holiday.
El Rocio is not just about religion—it's about horses and everything equine, too
Advertising on the side of a building
Excursion on horseback in the Donana, a huge national park
We milled around El Rocio for a while and then headed on, toward Portugal. On a near-empty highway we crossed the bridge across the Rio Guadiana and then we were in Portugal. It's weird how almost immediately countryside can change when one crosses borders. It doesn't happen often, but here it did: Suddenly the mountainsides were green, a fresh, spring-like green, instead of the more subdued and dry colors of Spain. We had left the fairly flat region that stretches from Sevilla toward the coast, and now we were traveling through rolling hills. Olive groves gave way to orange orchards, and the towns looked differently, too, more often whitewashed than sporting the color of natural stone. The farther west we drove, the more pronounced the contours became, and the greener the ground cover became. Either these were the effects of recent rains, or maybe it was the Atlantic's effect on the climate.
An empty motorway leads into Portugal—maybe because it was a toll road?
Alvor, a small fishing hamlet between Albufeira and Lagos on the south coast of Portugal, sports only a few high-rise hotels. And since this was the off-season, there were so few tourists around that many of the restaurants, bars, and shop were closed and the ones that were open had only few guests. Wonderful!
Alvor has both a wide sandy beach as well as sandstone cliffs
View from our terrace
Sunday night Happy Hour
We were staying in an immaculately landscaped small holiday colony, with two-story units that were inviting and stood out with their whitewashed walls. There were flowers and plants everywhere, and the lawns were green and well kept. For once, RCI points had yielded a truly great vacation experience! Our one-bedroom unit had a large living room, a dining area, a full kitchen with any appliance one could ask for, and two bathrooms, in addition to the master bedroom. We took our breakfasts and spent numerous Happy Hours on our terrace. Thanks to Alto Golf Club's being built onto a hillside the terrace overlooked the units below us and had a clear view of Alvor and the Atlantic; we had sun from the early morning until it set in the late afternoon in the west over Lagos. There were a table, four comfortable chairs, and two chaise lounges, and there was total privacy for German-style sunbathing in the buff.
How's this for a coastline?
That was our home base for a week. Nice!
Or this for a private beach?
Weather-wise we were equally lucky. Just like in Spain, every day was sunny and temperatures topped out around 72 to 74 degrees. The wind was light and gentle most of the time, and there was no haze in the air. It doesn't get much better than that. The Atlantic is always pretty chilly, but we ventured into the water once or twice. Lying on the beach was definitely warmer, but this was not really a "beach" vacation, either. But when we came across a nice, scenic beach we'd strip down (hey, it's Europe!) and enjoy the sound of the waves and the screaming of the seagulls.
Contemplating life—or just taking a picture
We took several excursions by car along the coast. These trips were all  rather brief as the days are short and it is difficult to get going when one can enjoy a leisurely breakfast on the terrace. We also walked around Alvor, and one morning just hung out for an hour or two in a small harbor cafe watching what was happening (or not). In the evenings, we'd coe back for octopus salad and a Super Bock. It all was very laid-back, and without tourists the pace was extremely measured, which was just what we wanted.
Alvor harbor
Espresso time
Sabine helping the locals
Alvor harbor, going from sleepy to asleep
The Algarve is Portugal's southern coast, and it is divided into an eastern, a central, and a western section. From the east, the coast becomes progressively rugged, with wide sandy beaches giving way to first fairly low sandstone cliffs with still-large sandy beaches to finally imposing cliffs that no longer allow shore access to the few coves. Here one needs a boat to get to those secluded beaches that one sees in the postcards and brochures. Alvor is on the western end of the central sector—or the eastern end of the western sector, if that makes sense—and here one finds both the wide beaches and the spectacular rock formations. Thanks to the fragile nature of the sandstone one needs to be careful in regard to climbing around, obviously, but also where one lies on the beach—some rocks tumble all the time.
One afternoon we drove out to the most southwestern point of mainland Europe, the Cabo de Sao Vincente. Here the south and the west coasts meet at what is essentially a 90-degree angle, and the difference in the seas could not be more pronounced: When we were there, the southern coast was almost totally calm, with just gentle waves, while the western shore took a beating from hard rollers that had traveled thousands of miles to work on eroding the land here. What a wildly beautiful place! The keeper of the lighthouse gave us and four other tourists a private tour of the tower, and we saw close-up the giant refractor whose light can be seen as far away as 59 kilometers out at sea! The lighthouse keeper and his family live on the premises, for four years, before being rotated to another lighthouse. He's responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of this important beacon, and he makes a few extra euros by giving private tours for a small tip. The next grocery store is about 10 kilometers away.
Fishermen just off Cabo de Sao Vicente
The lighthouse at the most southwestern point of mainland Europe
In front of the huge refractor, inside of the lighthouse
The light can be seen from as far away as 59 kilometers
Sunset at the End of the World
Our last full day was the first one of the entire trip when we did not wake up to sunshine and blue skies. Large black clouds were racing across the sky, and we had heard the windows rattle all night. On the South Plains we would have called it an arctic cold front; here it was an Atlantic low pressure system that was moving through. We decided on one more road trip with the car, this time to the west coast where in the neighborhood of Carrapateira a scenic loop leads along the steep granite cliffs (if these were sandstone, not much would be left of the coastline!). The drive through the Portuguese hinterlands was quite memorable, with small villages, cork oaks, and green pastures. And once we got to the coast, our breath was literally taken away by the roaring wind. Sabine, as a sailor, tried to assess its strength by looking at the spray of the whitecaps and other such stuff—I went by feel and would say that we experienced gusts of at least 40 to 50 mph. I don't think I have ever seen breakers like this roll in! We may have been in Portugal, but this was not the Algarve that you see in the tourist brochures—this was the wild Atlantic with raw force.
That evening, upon our return, we went out for a last meal in one of the local restaurants. Food ain't cheap here (years ago, Judy and I had taken a trip along the northern coast of Portugal and were amazed by the low, low prices), but since this was our last evening of the trip we didn't count the pennies and had wonderful fish dishes. What a great way to end our two-week jaunt through the southern parts of the Iberian peninsula.
On Sunday morning we left bright and early for Malaga. It was about a five-hour drive, comfortable and easy with hardly any traffic and the most stunning views as the storm system had cleared out any haze that might have lingered. It never quite warmed up, staying in the mid- to upper forties for most of the day. With plenty of time to spare we made it to the Malaga airport, and it felt good to return our Europcar without any other wear than a lot of dust and sea-spray and and extra 1,700 kilometers on the odometer. Our Airberlin flight was more or less on time, and with a sad heart we said goodbye to the sun and the Costa del Sol—only to reenter reality in Munich less than 3 hours later to the tune of snowflakes and freezing temperatures and the hallmark of the Holiday Season, the Munich Airport Christmas Market.
What happened to summer???
Thank goodness, in two weeks I'll take in some more sun on the Riviera Maya. :) So long,