Friday, April 28, 2006

Another trip to NY - Part 1 (the drive)

Last weekend Chris and I went to NY to visit my parents. Of course, they don't live in the City, that would be too expensive and crazy. Instead, they live in a typical burb in Rockland County, 30 miles away from the excitement.

Now, we decided to drive to NY instead of flying. Flying costs a lot. And even with the gas prices being what they are, driving is still cheaper for us. But between Daytona Beach, FL and New City, NY it's a lot of miles. It was kind of exciting driving there the first time. The second time wasn't too bad either. But after a couple more trips back and forth, one tends to loose any interest in the scenery and attractions along the I-95.

The South-North drive goes something like this:

Florida - we set the car on autopilot and drive with our eyes closed. After all, we drove this portion countless times. We open our eyes only to admire Jacksonville's skyline and its famous blue bridge. It is a very nice skyline that makes you want to move to Jacksonville to work in one of the downtown highrises and after work cross its bridges heading eastward, towards the oceanside neighborhoods. This is very misleading because Jacksonville has very little to offer except for red-necks, heavy traffic, suburban sprawl (it is the largest city in the US by land area) and one of the highest murder rates in the country. Of course, none of this information is listed on the city's website (except for it being the largest city by land area). So just trust me on this - don't move there!

Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina - this is the longest and the most boring part of the drive. I-95 doesn't go through any big cities there and stays mostly uncrowded. It becomes a 4-lane highway with a wide wooded zone separating North and South directions. The roadside is either an endless grassy marsh, easily identifiable by the smell of rotten eggs, or a dense woodline of mostly palmetto bushes and pine trees. The only two things that break the monotony of the drive are the billboards and the road construction. I don't know what the deal is with road construction in these states. I never see anyone actually working there. But the lines of orange and white traffic barrels stretch for miles and sleepy drivers are sure to get a jolt driving at 75mph over the patched roadways. This is a huge distraction to my favorite road game - counting the "South of the Border" billboards. Now, the billboards in this tri-state area are pretty boring. They are very old-fashioned and rarely rise higher than 20 feet or so. They don't show as much color, sprite, or sex appeal as the boards up North. I guess, they are built with a traffic-less highway and a bored driver in mind because they have almost no pictures, but force you to actually read. Most of these billboards advertise chain hotels, endless Cracker Barrells, BBQ restaurants, roadside strip clubs (windowless shacks no bigger than a one-bedroom house that sprout in the middle of nowhere and make one think of scenes from "Deliverance"), and discounted cigarettes. The only exception to this are the "South of the Border" billboards advertising all different ways Pedro can entertain you. At first they appear every 10 miles or so, but soon they are seen more and more often, counting down miles and even fractions of a mile to this Pedroland. It can only be compared to a Ron Jon Surf Shop billboard assault for those driving to Cocoa Beach on I-95 South. And just like the surf shop, the "South of the Border" amusement park/hotel/conference center/restaurant/fireworks store is kitchy, mostly empty, and infinitely disappointing. So just trust me on this - read the billboards (some are pretty clever) and skip the exit!

Virginia - Things start happening here - there are more lanes on the highway, more traffic, more signs to historical attractions, and no palm trees at all. This also marks the half-way point of our trip and unless we drive straight through we stop here for the night. I highly recommend Hampton Inn for its upscale interior design, highspeed Internet, super-comfortable mattresses and the most delicious little omelets that come with a hearty breakfast. In general, driving anywhere in the US makes me very appreciative. I generally love adventure and quirky attractions. But there are some things that I prefer to be as predictable as possible - clean restrooms with unlimited toilet paper along the way or Starbucks coffee, for example. The kind of stuff that most people here take for granted until they end up in another country, desperately looking for a WC only to find out that you have to pay to get in and the only toilet paper available is the used one (yes, it is gross, but I'm keeping it real). Driving also lets one appreciate how many wealthy people are in the US. High gas prices nonwithstanding, they chug along in huge RVs, sometimes towing an SUV or a boat, going South in the winter and North in the summer. And the rest of us shouldn't be jelous because we are reacher than most people on this planet. Otherwise how would one explain huge 18-wheelers rushing at neckbreaking speeds to deliver goodies to Publixes, Wal-Marts, and Home Depots all over the country.

Maryland - One must stay very alert because a lot of things start happening here. First of, the bathrooms at local gas stations stop being predictably nice. Some of them even stop being, period. On the way back we had to stop at a couple of the gas stations off of Baltimore-Washington Parkway before we actually found one that was open, reasonably clean, and could be locked from the inside. But if you stay on the Interstate, things actually improve with appearance of Service Stations, one-stop-shops with large restrooms, a food court, and a gas station or two with their own convenience stores. Imagine - all this and you don't even have to get off the highway! Of course, maitaining services like this costs money. And so tolls are introduced. The first toll on the way up North is around Baltimore. It's $2.00 and you get to drive in a pretty cool-looking tunnel for a minute or two. Another thing that happens in Maryland is highway patrol. I mean, of course, every state has them, but these guys are especially vicious in Maryland. They park the cars in the median, get out and literally flag down speeding cars right out of the left lane. Nobody goes the speed limit on I-95, so they must be making a killing on a traffic-free day. Lesson learned - stay in the middle lane.

Washington, DC - It's like right in the middle of Maryland. More traffic and construction. Don't leave I-95 trying to catch a glimpse of the national monuments - you will see the Capitol dome and the Washington Monument, but would have to pay for it dearly driving through slums for 30 minutes or so. Don't be fooled into taking a scenic ride along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. It starts out innocently enough with tree groves, stone retaining walls, and the complete absence of billboards. But just as you start enjoying the boucolic views while getting all misty-eyed about the glorious job our National Park Service does here, it takes you right into the slums. But then again, we're talking about Washington, DC which is mostly a slum.

Delaware - ok, that's the state that really screws you. You only drive in it for about 18 miles, but you pay 2 (!) substantial tolls (about $3.00 each) for this privelege. Other states have "Welcome!" signs while Delaware has a state-of-the-art toll booth. Of course, the big attraction is to see Wilmington, DE - the town that gets more than half of our paycheck. But they cheat you here too. Of course, plenty of corporations are registered in Delaware, but not that many have headquarters there. Or maybe they try to keep low profile to avoid inevitable retribution from angry credit-card holders. Either way, Wilmington isn't much to look at.

Pennsilvania - ok-ok, we could take New Jersey Turnpike straight from Delaware, but we missed it and ended up stuck in traffic around Philadelphia.

New Jersey - Officially, the most irritating state to drive through. First, you get on New Jersey Turnpike, then - on Garden State Parkway. Either way, you get stuck in traffic. In Florida, if there's traffic it means somewhere out there there's an accident. It might even be clear on the other side of the highway, so everyone is rubber-necking, but it's there. In Jersey, traffic is existential in nature. That's just how things are in this state. Both the Turnpike and the Parkway are toll roads and we end up paying around $7.00 for going less than 200 miles. And they still can't fix their traffic situation?! But at the same time getting gas in New Jersey is a great experience. First of, it's much cheaper than anywhere else. Second, you don't have to get out of the car; an attendant will pump it for you and process the payment. And finally, they have LukOil gas stations and it makes me proud for my Motherland. Also, New Jersey wins a trophy for a state with least diverse license plates. They are all yellow and white and say New Jersey on them. No one tries to save the dolphins or manatees or express pride for being in the Armed Forces, graduating from college, or routing for the winning team. There are almost no plates from other states either, which just proves the point that the only people that find New Jersey tolerable are New Jerseyers themselves (and yes, it's a real word - I looked it up on Google).

New York - my parents live almost right on the border with New Jersey. We only get to drive about 2-3 miles on I-95 in New York. So we get off the highway after almost 17 hours of driving, standing in traffic, driving some more, getting mad, bored, sleepy, and irritated. Only 10-15 more minutes of relatively sane and definitely scenic (spring time in New York State) drive and we arrive to my parents' house!

P.S. To get an idea of what our drive home was like, just read this post from bottom to top.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Pie in the Sky

America is a great country! You don't have to be a John Travolta to own a plane. Ordinary people, average Joes and Janes, can with some studying get their private pilot license, buy a plane, and fly to Iowa for a family reunion or to Bahamas for a weekend of scuba-diving. Hundreds of thousands of little planes are available for purchase - new and used, historical replicas and real vintage things, planes that land on land and planes that land on water, planes ready to fly and planes in kits waiting to be assembled and even little helicopters.

Now, just as dog owners have dog shows, bikers have the Bike Week, and pumpkin growers have the Cirleville Pumpkin Show , the airplane owners and owner-wanna-bees have airshows and fly-ins. One of the most famous small plane shows is the AirVenture held annually in Oshkosh. Of course, that's in Wisconsin.

It would be really surprising if Florida did not have some kind of an airshow, right? I mean, we have everything else here (except for mountains, snow, and good-paying jobs). And so of course, we have the Sun-n-Fun airshow and fly-in held annually in Lakeland. AirVenture-shmareventure, our event even sounds cooler! Now, an airshow of this kind is not just an airshow. First, it lasts a whole week. Second, air performances with all the fly-bys, aerobatics, wing-walkers, precision flying, and such are held every single day of the week. Third, besides an airshow itself various exibits, classes, swap meets, and other events are held daily for everyone to enjoy.

Of course, Lakeland is 2 hours away from us. And the admission to the show is $30 per person once you get there. Neither Chris nor I are small aviation enthusiasts. So how come we ended up at the Lakeland Airport last Saturday and willingly paid $60 for something we had little interest in? It's elementary, my dear Watson! My father, who is a big general aviation enthusiast, drove all the way from New York just for this show.

My father used to fly little YK planes when he was young and impressionate. I have no clear idea as to what happened back then that effectively ended his pilot career, but I believe it involved some kind of a prank or probably even several that he pulled during his flight training. And so he got kicked out at some point. But, as they say in cheesy novels, the dream stayed alive in the young man's heart. Of course, being that my Dad lived in the Soviet Union, there was no way for him to fulfil his dream of flying outside a para-military flight school. And so the dream curled up snuggly in his cerebral cortex (or wherever these things are stored) and took a long nap.

It was awakened with Dad's arrival to the US, the land of unlimited possibilities. And it became particularly strong once Dad turned 60 and both my brother and I were semi-established on our way to that pie in the sky commonly known as The American Success Story. To make the long story short, the dream reared its ugly head and took posession of my Dad. He started spending long hours on Internet searching for good deals on planes and became a regular on eBay. He talked of FAA regulations, torque, altitudes and cross-country flights. He even started saving money. Of course, he understood his limitations, both financial and linguistic. So he set his sight low - on a no-license-required category of ultra-lights.

It would be a mistake to think that these things are cheap. Of course, compared to a Cessna, a $12,000 price tag is really a bargain. But let's not forget that $12,000 effectively buys you a motorized chair with a 5-gallon jerrican of gasoline underneath, a swamp-boat propeller strapped to its back and an oversized kite on top that keeps you from falling 500 or so feet to the ground. Of course, there are plenty of schools and clubs throughout the United States where one can pay money and experience a solo or a tandem flight on one of these things. But my Dad has been in the US long enough now to catch the ownership bug. And so he came to Florida to find an ultra-light of his dream. We followed.

The day we went to the show was hot, sunny, and very windy. After walking a bit around the ultra-lights, we left Dad and a couple of his friends and made our way to the airfield. There was but little time to spare as the skydivers drifted slowly on their canopies signaling the start of the daily airshow. As we tried to get closer to the stands, we passed a field of small planes parked neatly in rows with the camping tents taking the space between them. Just like on a regular camping trip, their owners were sleeping, snacking, sunning themselves, or in one case rocking in a hammock carefully hung under a wing. In short, it was very Norman Rockwell.

The closer we got to the airfield, the more crowded it got. Keeping one eye on a 11-plane formation flight, we passed by a showcase of military planes. It was a little bit weird to see people sitting under the guns of an F-15, hiding from the sun; children, excitedly watching the show from its wings; and a young Air Force pilot smiling good-naturadely while posing for a picture. It was weird because somewhere thousands of miles away another F-15 was probably executing a less friendly mission bringing fear and pain to both adults and children in its path.

After walking aimlessly for a little while trying to find some shade, we finally saw a patch of grass that was not only shaded by a wing of a small plane, but was miraculously unclaimed by anyone else. As far as we could see it had no trash or signs of spilled beverages or melted ice-cream either. We sat there and watched several great aerobatic performances for some time before my Dad called. He was done with the ultra-lights and was looking for us. After much confusion ("let's meet by a small plane, the yellow and red one") we finally found each other. Dad was very tired and sun-burnt. His leg was bothering him and he was limping more noticeably than usual. And so instead of returning to our seats, we tried to find something nearby.

Luckily, we were next to a row of YK planes that were flying in a show earlier. We stretched out on the grass under a red-star studded wing and watched the rest of the show. At some point the owners of the plane, two men from Tennessee, showed up and Dad started a conversation with them. The airshow was almost over. And of course, the best or at least the most impressive, was saved for last. We watched as the American newest figher plane, the F22-Raptor, took off, completed several fly-bys and performed some aerobatics. Finally it was joined by an F-15 and a P-51 for the final fly-by.

The show was over and everyone headed home. Most people shlepped to the parking lots. Ultra-light owners were disassembling their flying chairs and carrying the propellers to their trucks. The real planes lined up at the runaway waiting to take off.

On the way home we stopped to buy some freshly-picked strawberries. There are tons of strawberry fields in and around Lakeland. It is the heart of the strawberry country, so to say. For 6 dollars we bought a big cardboard box full of freshly-picked strawberries. And so, in a strawberry-smelling car, we sped up to I-4 in a vain attempt to beat its eternal traffic.

A big box of strawberries proved a bit too much for us. We ate the berries ourselves and force-fed them to guests, we gave them away to friends, and had them for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and occassional munch attacks. But there was no end to them. We even baked a strawberry shortcake. Days later we still had a couple of pounds of berries in the refrigerator.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

A boring lunch break

What is the difference between Xander, my cat, and a loquat?

This sounds like a stupid question. But if you think about it, both are round, orange in color, sweet and soft. But of course, there are important differences that one must be aware of. Xander is furry and a loquat's smooth skin is covered with fuzz. Xander can jump up and down and sideways, while a loquat can only fall down. Xander chases lizards and birds, but a loquat is indifferent to both. Finally, Xander is raised inside a house and is pretty much useless. A loquat grows outside and is used in landscaping as well as for eating.

One of the pictures here is of a loquat and the other one - of Xander. Thanks to my little explanation you will never get mixed up over which one to eat and which one to pet.

But that's not it! This is Ponce Inlet Lighthouse as seen last Saturday from a park in New Smyrna Beach. I also saw a family of dolphins there, but they were too hard to photograph. So just use your imagination.