Pupusas en Pilsen con Parker

With my brother in from out of town, May and I wanted to maximize our multicultural exposure.  Because those two share a fondness for Latin culture, we opted to spend the afternoon in the Lower West Side neighborhood of Pilsen.  Chicago has a great many such culturally distinct neighborhoods that I have thus far done a poor job of exploring.  The time spent here certainly inspires me to get around to a few of the others as well – Greektown perhaps?

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Immediately upon our arrival, it was clear that we were someplace rather different.  All signage was Spanish, the people were Latin, the primary language of communication changed, and all of the shops catered to the local tastes.  Our first stop was to the National Museum of Mexican Art.  Outside of it though we bumped into a friend of Parker’s, who seemed familiar to me as well – oh yea, my college adviser’s husband. iQue casualidad!  The museum wasn’t enormous, and we took a pretty quick pass though the exhibits.  The art though was of impressive, colorful, and distinctly Mexican.

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We enjoyed what we saw, but wound up having the better time in the gift shop. Los Tres Luchadores!

S__3506180We left the museum with a certain pang in our guts, we stopped into a garishly decorated Salvadorean restaurant that was dressed in some some odd combination of tropical Margaritaville and nationalistic flair.  The food that caught our eye, one of El Salvadore’s signature treats, are called pupusas.  These are about the size and thickness of a pancake, and include some meat and cheese inside them.  One top, one adds salsa and pickled cabbage to taste.  It was muy bueno.

S__3514480We stopped into a few vintage shops, a bakery, a bookshop, and whatever else struck our fancy.  One of our last stops however was a paleteria, which included a number of exotic ice creams.  Parker of course had to sample each before making his calculated decision.  May and I on the other had just dove in and hoped for the best from the tequila and corn flavors; both were a surprisingly true to life.
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We hit up a couple of bodegas on our way back home to get what we needed for dinner.  May was going to be treating us to some chicken nanban.  After carefully selecting thighs for their succulence, she breaded and fried them, and then added a vinegar sauce to it.  This provides the unique, sour bite.  Chicken nanban was one of my favorite meals when I first got to Japan, but this home-cooked version blew that away.
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Business Tripping: Bismarck & Fargo, ND

I once again had the opportunity to set out for work, and this time to fabulous North Dakota.  I was genuinely excited about this opportunity for numerous reasons: a chance to see somewhere new that I certainly wouldn’t have hit otherwise, going solo would leave evenings my own to plan, and most importantly, it was a speaking opportunity that would provide me a great opportunity for growth.  I spoke the week before as well at a one-off event in Oconomowoc, WI which served as a good warm up for this spot at the Tessman Turf Academy.

I arrived on Monday to a small Bismarck airport, AmEx in hand, and there was not a single cab waiting to take me to the nearby capital.  I went to the help desk and they were able to provide some numbers of taxi companies, of which two didn’t want to come to the airport, and none accepted plastic.  I guess I was unaware that this was going to be a trip to the developing world.  I got some cash, a cab, and was soon checking into my hotel.

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Having no obligations that evening, I wanted to make use of it somehow and opted for the newly refurbished Heritage Center.  The cap from the hotel was going to take longer than walking, so I decided to grab some exercise and fight through the fierce Dakota winds.  One thing I noticed along the way that every restaurant, store, and potential employer was hiring.  ND’s unemployment rate sits somewhere below 3% and has been the lowest in the country since 2008.  It would seem that anyone wanting a job need only to sign up at the company of their choosing, at a twice the minimum wage.

The museum was described to me as the ‘Smithsonian of the North’, and the 52 million dollars that they spent really went a long way.  Even better was that entry was free.  This museum had all the sorts of exhibits I appreciate when I travel; the range went from prehistoric to modern times.  The first room showed what a balmy, dinosaur utopia the Dakotas once were.  Much of the area was covered by an inland sea.  Here is the main entrance, along with some large stones fashioned by the glaciers that long ago covered this area.

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The exhibits took me through the influx of settlers – the region’s folksy accent can be attributed to the Norwegians – the histories of the various Native American tribes, and also some information on North Dakota today.  I thought that the information on the indigenous peoples was one of the most valuable, and the quote below caught my attention; the idea that man always was and simply awoke to existence was a fresh take on things.
20150301_163224The museum closed up at 5, so I saw myself out to take a peek at the capitol complex.  The state’s tallest ‘skyscraper’ and capitol building is located here, along with a statue dedicated to Sacajawea, the woman who helped Luis and Clark.  I never realized that this good ol’ American tale took place way up here.  I knew that they were exploring Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase, and therefore assumed them to be more to the south.

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I walked the rest of the way to the downtown area to grab some food and a drink.  One of the other things that amused me was the absurd mishmash of houses that lined the streets, consistent only in their uniqueness.  The docent directed me toward the town’s microbrewery where I plopped down for a bit and sampled the spread.  They had a solid selection, though the day’s dark horse was the Strawberry Wheat Ale, whose flavors were subtle and not too fruity.  The Laughing Sun comes highly recommended by myself, and all the other patrons I spoke with.

20150301_182052Like many fledgling breweries they offered no food options, giving me the chance to see another Bismarck monument.  When the former Patterson Hotel opened in 1911, this 7 story, towering behemoth used to be the swankiest place around.  It was the place to stay on those rare occasions that presidents and dignitaries actually visited the area.  The rooms have now been converted to accommodate senior living, and the lobby into Peacock Alley.  The oldest bar in the state had another beer to try from the nearby Mandan Brewery, as well as great burger.  I worked though both and then set about getting back to my hotel.  No way was I going to walk back the way I came, so I asked them to call me a cab.  I was amazed to have them present me with a voucher for a gratis ride!  This awesome (and probably easily abused) system is meant to keep people off the road who shouldn’t be.
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The purpose of this trip was of course to speak, which I did in Bismarck, and then again in Fargo.  I rode east to the second location with one of the other speakers, and together we enjoyed a full three hours of unchanging landscape.  There was a little bit of snow, and the odd outcropping of houses, but it was mostly nothing.  Once in Fargo, I checked into the hotel, supped on the complimentary dinner, and then set out to explore this fabled town.  I swung into the local Drekker Brewing, and also fought through the frigid cold to snap a blurry shot of the famed Fargo Theater marquee.  Here’s a better one, compliments of Google.

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The next day I delivered the speech again, and I can say that it went pretty well.  It started strong, but felt like it grew a bit repetitive in the last ten minutes or so.  Still though, it was a strong showing, and something I could definitely feel good about.  Toastmasters encourages its members to record themselves so that they can listen back after the fact and critique themselves.  I went ahead and did that, and have also uploaded that here for your listening pleasure.  I assure you, it is not the most gripping of content, but if you’ve got 40 minutes and nothing better to do, here you are.

After the work was done, I joined some of the other speakers for a beer before they dropped me back off at the hotel.  Just across from my lodging was an airplane museum that had caught my eye the day before.  I’m always curious, and such places are great for rounding out a trip.  Of course I was in North Dakota for work, but I always approach these opportunities with the mentality of a traveler as well.  For such a place as Fargo, I was genuinely impressed with the quality of the collection.  Overall, it was a great trip, and another great opportunity to grow my experience and capabilities.  I must also add that it inspired May and I to watch Fargo, the movie.

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Business Tripping: The Mohegan Sun & New Haven, CT

Once again, I was given the opportunity to man a booth, and this time it was for the World Baseball & Softball Coaches’ Convention being held in the podunk of Uncasville, CT.  There isn’t a great deal going on in the area, but the show was being held at the impressive Mohegan Sun Casino.  I would have volunteered to go anywhere the company asked, but this one genuinely seemed like it would be a good trip.  The show ran Thursday to Saturday, leaving the door open for an extra day of exploration on Sunday.

I arrived into Hartford on Thursday morning, and took a rental car to the casino. The small towns and old homes I was passing though had a distinctly New England charm to them, though the casino was anything but quaint.  After parking up, I had a long walk through the various gambling floors and past all the shops before I could get checked in and off to set up the exhibition space.  We were upgraded to a booth twice the expected size.
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There were a few hours that first evening spent chatting with attendees, and then it was time to stroll around the casino and grab dinner with Aaron and Amy, a distributor doing the show with me, along with his wife.  None of us were big gamblers so we just watched table games for a while.  They were eventually bit by the bug and decided to make a sacrifice to the penny slots.  For dinner we went to Michael Jordan’s 23.Sportscafe, where I got a delicious burger, and the beer that I frankly deserved.  One of my early impressions of the Mohegan was that it was a sort of geriatric Disneyland.  There were plenty of old, overweight folks scootering about on their Hoverounds, parking up at slot machines, and then spending hours dumping their children’s inheritance down the toilet.  This certainly wasn’t the same crowd as Vegas…

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All Friday was spent at the booth.  We talked to lots of people, and it was a good investment, but I’ll just skip to where we patrol the tables.  Our game that night was Roulette, and my mind was filled with fantasies of undeserved riches, and what I would be doing with them.  Reality came quickly though as I failed to hit on both spins, leaving me out 20 dollars.  Oh, for shame.  My companions got in next and walked away with 100 dollars between them…I guess I was doing something wrong?

We took a stroll into the high stakes section to see the real ballers, and were not disappointed.  I watched a gentleman drop 5K on the Roulette table…and lose it all.  These were tough moments, but in the next turn he hit it huge and took in some 15K.  For every spin he had thousands and thousands out on the board.  It seems crazy, but unbeknownst to me was whether that amount is peanuts to him, or if he does in fact have a serious problem.  It was entertaining either way.  I thought that they pulled off the Native American decor in a modern and uncheesy way.
MoheganfloorThe show was great and spawned numerous leads, but by Saturday afternoon I was pretty ready to get myself out of there.  Fortunately I had a rental car and an extra day to play with, so my first stop was the quaint seaport of Mystic.  I arrived as shadows were drawing long but with enough twilight left to check out some shops and take a few pictures.  With a bit of time on hand, I hunkered down at Bartleby’s to enjoy some ‘Fine Coffees & Teas’, and also a muffin.  My phone’s camera is rubbish but something so photogenic doesn’t take much to capture well.  This place was exactly what I would have expected from New England.
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The next stage of my weekend involved a night spent in New Haven with a Couchsurfing host.  The thought was that if I had to come all the way out to CT, I may as well add a little something more to round out my experience.  From Mystic I had to burn three hours before meeting my host, so I took the slower, meandering Route 1 and hugged the shoreline as closely as possible.  It was of course dark, but I could still appreciate the coastline.

Based on his online profile I knew that my host had an interest in bourbon, but I was actually blown away by his passion for it.  Not only could he talk in detail about the different flavors and production methods, but he had a collection that impressed on a basis of both quantity and quality.  Many of these bottles ran in the hundreds of dollars, with the Pappy Van Winkle 20 Year worth something over 1000.

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A buddy of his was celebrating a birthday, so after tippling a bourbon we set out to meet some people at Karaoke Heros.  As the name suggested, this bar involved public display of song, and was actually packed out.  I left the singing to the pros though since Japan has left me most comfortable singing in a box.  After a bit the lights came up, the taps ran dry, and people were heading home.  My host however insisted on some aerial maneuvers.  You can see that I wasn’t completely sold on the idea, but his sound reasoning must have won me over in the end.

The next day he cooked up a solid breakfast before we set out to stroll the Yale campus in the rain.  New Haven was America’s first city to feature urban planning, and the university sat squarely on a few of the city blocks.  All of the stone buildings really gave it that Ivy League feel.  We made a stop at the Yale art museum, which was free, and featured an impressive collection.  There were some Picassos, Reubens, and Rothkos, among many others.

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My last stop of the trip was to an establishment with the creatively generic name of ‘BAR’, which is known for their pizza.  We met a friend of his there and split a ‘medium’ mashed potato and bacon pizza.  It was cooked in a stone oven and then brought out to us on a large baking sheet.  The enormous size meant they can’t even place it on the table, but instead set up a sort of luggage stand next to it.  This was a new flavor combination, but I was told that it’s the crowd favorite.  I approved.  From there I packed up and made the drive back to the airport.  This extra night in New Haven was great, and helped to make my first visit to the state a memorable one.

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はるばるの手紙だ! – Letters From Afar!

This recent holiday season I decided to be an adult and send Christmas cards to friends and family.  I recycled spoilage that I had siphoned way back during my print shop days and stashed in my room, only to be unearthed some 8 years later.  There are a whole lot more of them remaining, so perhaps you too can look forward to one of these lovely cat hate crime cards in 2015.

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Now that I’ve got myself a real address, I’ve been fortunate enough find a few notes in my letterbox as well.  Old fashioned as it may be, there is no modern day replacement for that satisfaction felt for getting something personal in the mail.  I appreciate everything that comes in of course, but perhaps the most exciting were those that came in from students and friends in Japan.  Perhaps because it furthered the illusion that I still mattered to people over there…  This first set came from the Nakai family, my awesome landlords of three years, along with letters from their daughters and a picture taken on a recent trip.

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The other two letters to come in from Japan were crafted by the students of Kaminishi Elementary School.  These remaining four (yes, four) students, just finished their final semester in that mountain school before it was officially closed down.  While the opportunity to play and learn among all of Shionoe’s other kids is great for them, it does feel like the end of an era – teaching at that school was just so refreshingly different than the others.  There were lots of good feels from being remembered by them despite being well over a year returned from Japan.  First were the two younger students.

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There were a bunch of pictures showcasing some of the recent student endeavors enclosed, but one of my favorites was this group shot, featuring all members of the school staff and student body too.  They were just in the planning stages of that mosaic when I left.  I got to know all of these people pretty well.

TeamKaminishiThe two older students slipped in a bit of English, which I suppose brought some merit to my time spent there.  One of my 2015 goals is to write a letter each week, and I’m sure that I’ll be crafting them responses in the coming months.

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Business Tripping: Dallas & Fort Worth, TX

For the first time in a while, I was given the opportunity to visit somewhere new on behalf of work.  I would be hopping over both to Dallas, and Texas, for the first time.  My obligations were actually in the nearby Fort Worth, but I flew in a day early for the chance to walk around and see some of both.  The flight arrived without issue, and then a short cab ride had me at the Wild Wild West Backpacker’s Hostel, in the suburb of Irving.  There was only one other guy staying there, but the place was actually pretty decent. Once checked in, I was only up for getting some grub and to relax.  I wasn’t feeling 100% for some reason, and didn’t mind the opportunity to sit down and catch up on life.  Here’s the inside of the place.

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Irving isn’t much of a tourist draw, but it had personality.  I was struck by the sprawling ranch homes – almost nothing went above a single story.  For food I walked a short way down the road to El Jefe’s Cocina Mexicana for some authentic Tex Mex.  Judging by the quaint appearance and maximum occupancy of 12, this was going to be legit.  I scanned the menu and assessed the depths of my hunger before inevitably caving to an enormous burrito. When I travel anywhere, these are the sorts of restaurants that always lure me in.

20141214_140118After waking rested and well the following day, I walked a few blocks over to the train station to get myself time in Dallas.  After alighting I was approached by another tourist for directions.  I fessed up to knowing nothing myself, so we set out together.  Food was first, so we sat down at a Corner Bakery where I brunched and learned a little bit more about my companion.  He had just come from the UK to take part in a world grappling competition, which he had in fact won [for his age group].  Hard to believe he was 42, but here he is atop the podium.

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We walked around a bit but time was short and The 6th Floor Museum was our primary objective.  This of course is all about the JFK assassination.  I’ll admit to knowing little more than that Dallas was home the the assassination, and Lee Harvey Oswald the shooter.  There was a lot of potential to learn nothing new about this major piece of American history.  The bullets were fired from the 6th floor, corner window into the motorcade traffic below.

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The museum was informative, and actually located on the same 6th floor, in the same building where LHO made the fatal shots.  It was a bit eerie looking out the same windows, with the same view as the man who assassinated a president.  News to me was that JFK was actually the fourth US president to be assassinated – roughly 9% of those to ever hold the office.  The continuation of the debacle, where Oswald was shot point blank by some vigilante club owner from Chicago was all new to me.  Towards the end of the exhibit was information on the various conspiracy theories abounding over this case.  The two of us shuffled through the gift shop, where he picked up a novelty newspaper running the headline.  I thought it a bit crass for them to be selling ‘The Game of LIFE’…

20141215_120626From there we parted ways so that I could to Fort Worth, where duties awaited me.  I only needed to set up the booth at the Omni by the morning, which didn’t take much time.  The plan for the remainder of the evening was to locate a Texan feast, sip a local brew, and then pass out in my enormous bed.  After walking a few blocks into town to the concierge’s recommended spot, I gorged on the best beef brisket ever, and quaffed an average lager.

20141215_184226The next morning I made a few finishing touches to the booth and waited for my flocks to come.  What I’ll say is that we sell a number of a great, established products which are well known and used in the sports and turfgrass industries.  This makes the process of wrangling people in to go over things and explain new products a whole lot easier – no snake oil necessary.  Fast-forwarding a couple days, I can say that the show was both a complete success and fantastic opportunity for me to get out and prove my worth to my overlords.

20141216_095313That last night before going home, I walked back into town to check out a show happening at the Jazz Lounge I spotted earlier.  To get in, I had to walk down a dark alley to a neon-clad marquee and pass through a door which opened directly to an elevator that took me down to the basement.  The secluded entrance, and cigarette smoke wafting inside really gave this the quintessential lounge feel that I had hoped for.

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The music started and I was impressed.   With Big Sexy on the drums, a 7 string bass, awesome guitar playing, and strong saxophone lead, they cobbled together a fantastic sound.  What amazed me was that entrance was free when the level of musicianship was so high, and also that there weren’t more people there enjoying it.  For a rainy evening spent alone in Texas, this one turned out quite alright.  My flight home the next day was in no way exciting, but I was able to meet friend Ian Hudson at the airport.
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Jamaica: Montego Bay & Ocho Rios

After a full eight months of rotting away stateside without any opportunity to explore on an international level, I felt like my travel-tuned mind was growing soft from neglect.  There were several signs that I was in need of a tuneup: I failed as a vexillonaire to some country’s flags flying in downtown Chicago, and was also unable to name Chad’s capital in during team trivia.  This was just unacceptable.  I looked at my travel map and decided that a complete lack of Caribbean exploration merited an excursion.  Jamaica seemed like it would have a distinctive character and so the decision was made.  I must admit that as I write this, I’m nearly 4 months returned from the trip.  I’m sure that some details I often capture have been lost, but this steeping process will ensure that those most profound will be brought to light.

For this trip, I was able to lure friend Nick VanderHovel away from his Michigan life to come on down and try something different, and I certainly give him credit for booking a flight despite the lack of concrete details.  This is just how I tend to travel, and it can be far from what others are comfortable with.  Nick turned the reins over to me, with his only demand being ‘that we not get stabbed’.  Jamaica has one of the highest homicide rates in the world though, so there was only so much I could guarantee.

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Our adventure began at the Montego Bay airport where our separate flights came in on time.  With a little local currency in our pockets, we marched through the salvo of taxi drivers, and opted to go for a bit of a walk.  We weren’t going to be on as cheap a budget as I subjected myself to on other trips, but we were certainly going to avoid the obvious rorts.  And the walk wasn’t bad either: we grabbed some disgusting stout beers, traced along the shore, and found ourselves locals wanting to take advantage of us in no time at all.  In the end they did a bit, but I hadn’t fully acclimated to the Jamaican tourist environment and wasn’t quite on my normal guard.  It took me very little time to realize that similar to other countries, many people are disingenuous crapmongers, just looking to get their piece.  After thickening our skin, hardening our hearts, and honing our ripoff alarms, the rest of the trip carried on pretty well.  Here you can see the Montego Bay coastline, as well as the vacant husk of a Burger King.

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Our initial impressions were that this place was rough.  A handful of resorts dotted the shore, but the absolute lack of Montego Bay charm would make any extended stay here truly a disappointment.  After walking all the way to the taxi depot, escorted much of the way by some hucksters, we rode up to our pension.  I had been talking up the hostel atmosphere to Nick as a sort of oasis in places like these, but honestly, this one did not deliver.  We were relieved enough to at least see some fellow foreigners staying there, though it appeared all would be leaving the next day.  We unloaded our things and set out on a little walk.  We were both starving, and the first meal we ate was goat curry, which while bony was rich in flavor.  Nick was not of the same mind on the quality of the cuisine.  This area looked better from a distance.

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The rest of that day was spent getting ourselves established.  We needed to walk a fair distance to the hospital to make use of the ATM, exchange our US dollars at rates far better than those offered at the airport, and stop at the store for something more to eat.  Nick had no doubts about his shopping list.

IMG_3416This was about all the excitement to be had this day, except for a few drinks in the evening.  The hostel closed down and we were basically locked in there, with just one other guest.  At first she seemed normal, even interesting I might say, but as we listened further her presence became neigh unbearable.  I’ll first of all state that these feelings took a while to appear, but she did indeed become comic relief.  Imagine how much you would enjoy spending time with someone who talks constantly of being vegan (but takes no issue with fish), had to modify every single thing she orders, is cheap beyond belief (letting mere cents affect her decisions), talks of refusing to tip in the US, complains constantly about anything and is always argumentative, refuses to come in contact with cold water (including the patently un-cold ocean, neglects taking showers for days when the water wouldn’t get warm enough, is completely unappreciative of financial or physical assistance (and yet expecting of it), complains that despite her Jamaican descent everyone identifies her has a foreigner (as if the fanny pack she wore didn’t calcify that label), was intent on getting tanned (despite caking on a thick layer of SPF 55 ever 5 minutes), and takes offense at the numerous people asking why her face was looking white (which again, was attributed to the absurd amount of sunblock).  There is no vignette that can be painted to show just how we loathed this individual, but I thought it necessary to at least take a moment and make sure to capture the ire that emerged from our time together.  The one nice thing about her was a willingness to share, that all I’ll give her.

Before developing this knowledge of her nature, we agreed to go to the beach together.  She wanted to go to a local spot which sounded good to us – why pay to hang out with the people I had just gotten away from?  It was a little bit overcast, but still plenty sunny enough to give us a healthy dose of color.  Nick had a tan line by the time we got there beach.  I was the only one to swim, and the water was fantastic.  A while later we returned to the hostel where some locals were gathering to listen to music and play dominoes.  I fancy myself a sporting man, and despite their challenge that we wouldn’t stand a chance, managed to take the first few rounds.  It was a bit different from the Mexican Train that I’m used to, but wasn’t too confusing.  Nick was not taking my superiority in stride.

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The next morning, we cleaned up our mess, took a last shower, and then ‘checked out’.  There were no employees, so this just meant leaving.  Nick had allegedly promised to carry the scourge’s bag, well before he realized how heavy it was, or how far we would be going.  We were all sweat bombs by the time we arrived to the minibus depot.  We located a ride going to Ocho Rios, and ended up paying a couple extra dollars to avoid shoving another sweaty, disgusting body in that cramped back seat with us.  She would go on to neither pay Nick[el]back, or even thank him for hauling the suitcase all the way there, which really marked the beginning of the end of our patience with her.  Yeah, we got some color.

IMG_3437smallThe merits of travelling in a smaller country were quickly obvious as it only took an hour or so to get to our next destination, quite unlike the 40 hour bus Neil and I took in Argentina.  The road traced the ocean and offered some lovely views of cerulean waters, beaches, palms, and the occasional blight.  We were overjoyed to have MoBay behind us, because it offered so little..

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We arrived and fought through the ‘generosity’ of people willing to help (for tips, of course), and eventually made our way to our next hostel.  We both breathed a sigh of relief, seeing that it was actually a nice place.  This place was so much more like what I had been describing to Nick: things were nice, it was a bit more developed, the hostel was located on the beach, had open air rooftop bar, decent accommodations and, most importantly, other people with whom to mingle.  Once checked in, the first order of business was to find food.  My travel companion was not loving the local cuisine so far, and fair enough goat isn’t for everyone, but we decided that some of Jamaican’s signature Jerk Chicken could perhaps turn his heart.  Right we were, this was delicious.

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Back at the hostel we started to formulate a plan.  As always, this trip was being planned just a day or two at a time, but with a lot more people to gather intel from, we came up with a good idea of how to spend our remaining days.  One of the tourist traps here is Dunn’s River Falls, not that it’s a bad spot, but everyone described it as over hyped.  They unanimously suggested that we get ourselves over to the Blue Hole instead, since it offered all the same atmosphere as Dunn’s, but without all the other tourists, and a great deal more adventure.  We banded together with some others, hopped in a van, and took off.  We were able to leave ‘her’ behind, as she was defeated by the ‘cold water’ and ‘expensive’ cab.  I assure you, both were extremely reasonable.  The ride took us up into the jungle a bit before we reached a clearing with some locals ready to take care of us.  For about 10 USD each we had an afternoon filled with excitement, our own personal guide, and plenty of good memories.  This was the first basin we came to, and it was was a perfect remedy for the heat and humidity.  I was ever the acrobat.

IMG_3464After a bit of merriment around the rope swings, our guide took us further up the river, stopping at all the good spots along the way.  We were clearly down for anything, so he made sure we got the full tour.  This included jumping off a high ledge out from the jungle foliage and into a pool far below.  I went for it with little hesitation.  I should add that our guide was clearly just having a great time with us, and the number of times I heard him say ‘yaa maaaan’ was unbelievable.  He gave us a little Patois performance as well.

Some other stops included more rope swings, a waterfall we were able to run down and spelunk behind, and plenty more places from which to jump.  Our guide had clearly done this before and at one point climbed a tree to reach branches high above a pool.  Leaping from the branch he was standing on, he grabbed a smaller one, built momentum by swinging, and then did a perfect flip and dive into the pool far below.  We were all very impressed, though, I was indeed disappointed when they wouldn’t let me try…I guess the last white guy to attempt it punctured his eardrum…bush league.  While this photo doesn’t particularly exhibit the beauty of the spot, it was a trip favorite and needed to make an appearance in my write-up.

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We working our way back to the start, and relaxed a bit while the afternoon passed us by.  Our guide, deciding that he was hungry, eyed a few breadfruit hanging from a tree high above.  Being the beast that he was, simply bear-climbed a tree to knock a few of them down.  These green balls are not what one would generally consider food at first glance, but he assured us it was a true Jamaican dish.  To have it freshly harvested and cooked before us made for a truly authentic experience.  These are cooked by tossing them into a fire until they’ve taken on a deep carcinogenic black.  Once cool enough to handle, the char is cut off, giant pit removed, and then the yellow flesh portioned out in banana leaves.  It had a dense, spongy consistency with just a hint of sweetness.  It wasn’t something that I needed to eat a great deal of, but it wasn’t bad either.IMG_3544 IMG_3546 IMG_3547 IMG_3551

That evening, back at our hostel, we spent much of the night on the roof with the other guests.  It was good fun listening to music, enjoying some of the local rum, and also the comfortable temperatures.  As the night wore on people retired to bed, and soon it was just us two and a security guard.  We were really feeling the pangs of hunger, and with KFC tempting us from just across the street we had no other option.  We indulged in 30 dollars worth of glorious fried chicken, which we devoured with help of our new-found security guard pal.  The bunk room was too hot for comfortable sleeping though, so I relocated to an outdoor hammock, and Nick to a nearby picnic table.

IMG_3458Before leaving this town, we checked out a nice Indian restaurant.  I know it would make sense to eat more local food during our relatively short stay, but this was what sounded good.  We ate just as the restaurant opened and were the only two in there, and the food was great.  There was some sticker shock, at least compared to the prices of the other food available, but we were awash in gaiety.  After dinner we packed up, begrudgingly exchanged contact details with the girl, and departed on the next stage of our trip.
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Jamaica: Kingston & The Blue Mountains

Nick and I piled into a minibus, larger than the one we took from Montego Bay, and bisected the island en route to Kingston.  Ochi had served us well, but it was time to seek out adventure in a new locale, and that would be the Blue Mountains.  The road through to the southern side of the island twisted and turned through the jungle, but only required a couple hours to get us to our destination.  We got off at the capitol city’s central market, which was packed with locals selling their fruits, cock soup, clothing, and whatever else you could imagine.  We knew roughly where we needed to get to, but the zombie hoard of shady taxi drivers closing in had us running to the nearby constabulary patrol who then redirected us to the city bus.  The market was crowded and very authentic.  I bought some spices, bags of purple flower juice, and local fruits.  The green ginnups have a sweet taste and bizarre consistency.  The ackee however needed to be boiled before it could be eaten, so we just skipped out on this national staple.

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The large city bus got dropped us at a hub to the east of the city where small vans were waiting to haul us into the mountains.  There was a bit of a wait while it filled up, but once at capacity we rolled an hour or so into the lush green jungle.  The distance that we needed to cover was no so great measured as the crow flies, but the abundance of blind corners and circuitous routes extended our travel time significantly.  It was no matter though, we were just hoping to get as far as possible before dark.  There were a number of settlements that we had to reach, each offering a set of vans that would bring us to deeper one.  One guy wanted to charge us 25 dollars each to take us directly to the hostel we had booked, which we knew was a rip off,  Being men, we opted to go on our own.  Pleased to have each other’s company whilst wending our way, we left the illuminated area and slipped into the night.  Nick contemplated picking up a machete, just in case it proved necessary (it didn’t).  Shacks like these lined single lane roads, often sitting precariously along the cliffs.

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While tracing the roads on the Google Maps I had pre-loaded, a van came upon us and foretold that we would find a truck waiting for us at the next outcropping of houses.  They had kindly told the guy and his daughter that we were coming, and to wait for us.  We hustled over to indeed find a truck which let us hop in the back for just a small sum.  We got bucked around as it navigated uneven dirt roads, but some sore coccyges was a small price to pay.  This was a moment of deep satisfaction for the two of us: we had succeeded in taking the road less traveled thanks to the help of complete strangers, and now had this vibrant memory of plunging into the Jamaican highlands.  There was something special about all the different pieces came together to let this work.  After a bit we arrived to the even deeper village of Hagley Gap, which was little more than a few shacks surrounding a tavern, which was where we would wait with (6 Ws!) some Red Stripes while our ride to the Jah B’s Hostel came to pick us up.  This was our view out the back of the truck, aided by a flash.

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After a short while our ride rolls up, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the same guy we had turned down way back before.  Irksome indeed, but despite getting this far we were at his mercy, as we had no idea where to go.  They still robbed us of the 25 each to go just the last bit of the way, but the experience we garnerd from going it alone to Hagley Gap made that cost much easier to stomach, versus paying it straight away.  We were just ready to be settled in, as it had been a long day of nodes and transfers.  True Blue coffee indeed.

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We were at a Rastafarian’s home for the night, and he set us up with a decent bed, but in typical Jamaican extortionist fashion made sure to kill us on nearly every amenity.  Dinner? 10 US dollars each, for a simple meal of rice and beans that could not have cost more than a few cents to cook (Rastas are strictly vegetarian).  Our plan was to hike to the peak of the country the following day, but when he mentioned how catching the sunrise is best from the top, we decided to nap a couple hours and then set out that night.  Flashlight? 5 dollars.  You didn’t bring water? 5 dollars.  Oh, you want me to show you where the trail head is? (Obviously, why else would anyone even come up here…) 10 dollars.  The only thing that came gratis was a cup of the freshest Blue Mountain coffee one could ever drink.  He grew it, roasted it, ground it, and brewed it, all on site.

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After begrudgingly shelling out, he led us up to the start of the trail, which with a bit of verbal direction would have been well within our capacity to locate on our own.  And then, there were two.  Nick and I were hiking along at a good clip, marveling all along the way at the incredible translucence of the night sky and the swathes of stars.  It took us a couple of hours to near the summit, and we could feel it become much cooler.  This was partially due to the elevation of course – the mountain is 2,256 meters high – but also the thick blanket of fog that decided to roll in and obfuscate our once fantastic view.  This was certainly more typical of my mountain hiking experiences…I shouldn’t have expected anything better this time around.  At one point we came across a rat, leading Nick to dance some sort of jig, drop his sole sustenance, and then crush it.  It was a difficult moment.

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In addition to the cold clamminess and misting precipitation that awaited us up there, the wind too was gusting.  There were nearly two hours before the sun was slated to peek above the horizon, so our only thought was to seek shelter.  We expected nothing but actually managed to located a ramshackle building to cower in.  The roof had gaping holes in it, so the elements still chilled us to the bone, but blasts of wind weren’t as direct and I did somehow manage to sleep on the damp concrete floor.  I awoke shivering uncontrollably and entirely unpleasant.  We were genuinely suffering, and let ourselves draw closer and closer to each other, forgoing the usual preferences of personal space in exchange for warmth/survival.  It got weird.

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The most disappointing aspect was that for all our efforts and mental fortitude, there was no sunrise to be enjoyed.  T’was our ‘green beacon’ that inspired us to fight on, but our only reward was an ambiguous lightening of the sky.  We eventually decided that that was all there would be, so we made a break for the warmth of lower altitudes.  With a bit more light, it was possible to see what we were pent up in.  I’m sure that we would not have lasted atop that mountain without this refuge.

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Climbing down the mountain seemed to take longer than the hike up, as it always does, and my legs were certainly growing weary.  Each step added to an accumulating ache and burn in my thighs, but at least the scenery was something that we could enjoy in a new way.  It was incredible how much the night had concealed on our trek up.  This whole area was an Elvin Forrest, which are those at higher elevations and characterized by a great deal of moss draped from everywhere.  I had seen something like this in the Malaysian Highlands as well.

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On the way down we realized we had also marched through a lot of coffee plantations that the night had not permitted us to explore.  I had never seen a coffee plant before, and it was really quite interesting to see what they looked like.  I always get a kick out of seeing how the products I interact with on a daily basis are grown and sourced; a cocoa plantation would be another that I hope to check out someday.  These green fruits weren’t yet ready for harvesting, not until they turn red.

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Back at the hostel, having accomplished all that we wanted to do in the Blue Mountains, it was deemed time to mosey on down from this money pit.  With a can-do determination stemming from what we had just accomplished, we declined their kind, 25 dollar offer to bring us back.  They probably thought we were idiots, but we weren’t going to give them the satisfaction of milking us further.  This actually played out well though, because we came across a truck of guys going all the way down to Kingston who offered to let us jump in the back for whatever we deemed a fair price.  We took in the sights of the valley, villages, and local life while snaking down and down.  I didn’t realize just how deep into the mountains we had actually made it the night before.  There were a lot of avocado trees catching my eye, which also tickled my produce curiosity.  Waving back at the students on their way to school was fun.

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Skipping ahead a bit, we arrived at our Kingston hostel, and truly felt like this was the right sort of place to stay.  It was a welcome sight to see guests from all over, offering a venue for the varied conversations I so enjoy.  There was fun atmosphere where we could embrace the leisure of holiday, and the luxury of AC.  Something that really made this hostel stand out compared to any other that I’ve stayed in was the authentic meal they prepared for us every night.  This really gave me a sense of Jamaican cuisine beyond jerk chicken, and inspired me to try my hand at cooking some as well.  I bought a couple packs of salt mackerel, green bananas, and ginger beer at the store and was keen to see if I could actually turn it into something edible.  With the help of one of the maids, I was taught how to properly peel and boil the bananas, and also also how to prepare the fish.  When it was all said and done, our meal consisted of bland fruit and unbearably salty fish – just they way they like it.

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One of our days there involved a day trip to Port Royal, which was once a pirate fortress and de facto capital of the Caribbean.  The stronghold was razed by an earthquake in 1692 after which its importance declined significantly.  A few people do live out there though.  Once our bus arrived, we set about walking around the little area.  There was a fortress that we admired from the outside, and decided a 10 dollar tour wasn’t particularly worth it.  I did make sure to read all of the signs though, and was pretty impressed to know that both Captain Morgan and Admiral Nelson spiced rums were named after people whose legacy is based here.  Blackbeard the Pirate was another recognizable name from the lore of this place.  Sorry, I had to use this photo.

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We walked around, trying to make as much of the trip as possible, and indeed there were some photogenic spots to be found.  Another thing that we gave a whirl was festival, a stale and ever so slightly sweetened doughnut popular in Jamaica.  They required a great deal of saliva to soften up, and it took a long while of chewing before we could swallow it down.   It didn’t really take us too much time before we had ‘done it’, and we hopped on a bus just as it was beginning to rain.

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There was one exchange in particular that really left a mark on my time there.  I had known going in that Jamaica was one of the world’s most homophobic countries, but getting on the bus I had a chance to witness this firsthand.  A guy waiting was dressed very effeminately, and as soon as he got on people started to point and laugh, calling him a disgrace repeatedly to his face.  Beyond just this verbal abuse, he had horrendous Joker-esq scars that extended from the corners of his mouth halfway to his ears.  It was difficult as an outside observer to witness that, and see just how disgusting humanity can be.  People are free to whatever opinions they please, but actually treating any other individual in this way is disgraceful.  I imagine that none on the fence about their sexuality would subject themselves to such persecution, and instead opt to simply conform.

On a lighter note…Nick and I went over to a museum to take in an exhibit on Rastafarianism, which was extremely informative.  We had our own personal guide speak to the history and beliefs of its adherents.  As she described, Rastafarianism is akin religion and in fact based on Christianity, but they don’t like to consider it as such.  There was a lot of information on reggae music – Bob Marley’s of course, but other artists too – and it actually brought me a lot of understanding of the meaning behind the lyrics I already knew.  One of the most interesting takeaways was an understanding of their belief of Haile Selassie as the reincarnated messiah to deliver those of African origins.  This Ethiopian king passed away in only 1975, and people took his legitimacy from being of the line of Judea.  This is why the Lion of Judea is an important Jamaican symbol, as seen on the cup of coffee above.  I know that I’m doing a really nonacademic job of elucidating, but Wikipedia would bridge the gap for those those so inclined.

Hanging around the hostel was good fun, which as I mentioned had significantly more character than the others we’d been at.  One of the guests that we spent some time with was a Japanese guy who had come for music.  Unfortunately English was really tough for him, and he didn’t have the confidence to explore other parts of the country as we had, so we made sure to include him in our local excursions.  In the evenings he, Nick, and I had a great time drinking a bit of Wray & Nephew Jamaican rum mixed with their grapefruit soda, and chatting with fellow travelers.  One moment that had me in stitches was when he friend tried emulating one of my party tricks: releasing butane from a lighter into my mouth, and blowing it into a flame to create a fireball.  During his attempt, he exhaled a bit too gingerly, causing the flame to trace the gas back and singe his lips.  I witnessed every moment of this absolute failure, as if in slow motion.  He was a good sport about it though, and even ventured to try again.  Here we have much of the crew that we walked around with.

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Our days in Kingston were significantly slower than had been those at the beginning, but that was perfect.  After first arriving to a country, I hit the ground running to see and do as much as possible.  I’m much more of a traveler than vacationer, though, I understand the importance that there be some combination of both.  I’ll never pay good money to sit solely on some generic resort beach, while the true character of the country sits outside its fabricated bubble, but also I’m not about to deny how nice a day or two of that can be.  For this first trip in many moons, I certainly satisfied my needs, and developed a great sense of appreciation for this island nation of Jamaica.  The culture here was manifold and distinct, and left me with a generous return on my financial investment.  One love, mon.
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Katie Adler Interview

I was recently contacted to appear on a Japan based, internet radio show, which sounded like an interesting opportunity.  The host, Katie Adler, typically seeks out those with an online presence and who have had interaction with Japan, which I suppose made me an ideal candidate.  I had to get up bright and early to accommodate the 14 hour time difference, but I figured it was a worthwhile opportunity.

Katie asked me a number of different questions, most of them having something to do with my time in Japan.  I take her target audience to be advanced learners of English, and during the half hour interview there were a couple of instances in which they would submit questions for me to answer.  I really appreciated being extended the chance, and have embedded the conversation below for any interested.  I would skip ahead to the 2:00 mark.

A Return To Thanksgiving

I was recently at a family Thanksgiving meal for the first time in 6 years, and it was good.   I returned a short couple of days, during which I enjoyed a stein night with dad (briefly) and the siblings, and also the merriment of family at the Koppenaal’s.  Things started as they always do: gathered around the TV to root on the Lions, and in the kitchen making final touches.  There were several false alarms as things were gotten set; clearly if the table is not ready to have people sit at it, then it is not time to migrate from the TV.  While I did have some interest in the game myself, my interests were in the kitchen.  I spent enough time in the minor leagues hacking up chickens, so, on this day when I was called up to the bigs, I ensured that the turkey was carved masterfully.

photo 1smallWe all crammed into the dining room, to dine.  All the staples were placed before me: sweet potato pie, a potato of potatoes, something with cranberry, the turkey of course, and some other things that I never got around to eating.  It was however fantastic to get at some of these once-a-year-dishes again.  I share this post-gluttony clip to laud the family’s progressive stance on gender roles.

That evening we returned to the estate to take part in a little family gaming.  We got things going with some a few rounds of Mexican Train, where I took a respectable second place behind dad.  Then, the boys decided to throw down in a friendly game of Scrabble.  I took the first round easily against Parker, who tried inventing words, and dad, who ‘couldn’t get any good tiles’.  Not able to stomach the embarrassment, Parker was practically begging me to go again, to which I eventually obliged.

We were locked into a battle of wits.  After exchanging the lead with nearly every turn, Parker established what appeared to be an insurmountable advantage by playing ‘SOCK’ on the Triple Word Score, and also getting the points for ‘NOMADS’.  Adding 39 to one’s tally late game is huge, and things were looking bleak for me.  With only 7 tiles left, and my back against the wall, I managed to cobble together ‘MEDALIST’ for the ultimate kibosh. Not only were the 50 bonus points for playing all seven tiles at once enough to surpass him, but it abruptly ended the game and offered the schmuck no chance at a rebuttal!  It was unbelievable, and shall forever remain in the annals of Bussies lore.

IMG_4156As a bonus during my time home, our Kenyan exchange student Shiku was also around to join in the festivities.  Together we took part in a wish making ritual, but had an unfortunate/inconclusive outcome.

I had to leave the following day to get back to a few Chicago obligation, but it was all indeed a nice trip back to Michigan.  I don’t make the painfully long drive often, so a day or two every once in a while is always nice.  We did manage to squeeze a family picture in though.
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Wedding Weekend With Friends & Family

I recently had the pleasure of picking up my Londoner friend Ryan from the O’Hare International Airport,and then tearing off towards Michigan with May for the weekend.  He was a companion of mine during the three years I had spent in Japan, and this was the first for us to cross paths in some 15 months.  We obviously had some catching up to do, which three hours in the car accommodated nicely.  We all rode off into the dark night and wisps of blowing snow.  The goal for the weekend would be to have my guests at least meet my family, and then to fill in as many gaps in their knowledge and understanding of my origins as possible, a process that started with a stop at Jimmy Johns.

It wasn’t too late by the time we arrived home, so I was at last able to introduce the two of them to my family and also make something of the night.  It was Halloween, so there was an added amount of life to the evening as many were out celebrating.  We first tried going into New Holland Brewery, but they turned a 26-year-old Ryan away for not having proper identification.  Though he was able to furnish his Press Pass bearing his face, a couple matching credit cards, and also his British Driving Permit, it wasn’t enough.  “Do you at least have a college ID?” “No.  I’m 26.  I work.”  This was clearly an instance of some jobsworth with no common sense.  Miffed, we walked on over to Our Brewing Co., which had no issues with making sense of the situation.

Once we closed them down, it was a short walk over to the Curragh to grab a couple more drinks and chat.  The scotch was warming, and then the sambuca hit the spot.  Parker was of course dressed like a fool throughout our excursion, though he did meet a doppelganger of sorts.  After a while longer, we decided that it was now time to hit the road.  Parker chauffeured us through a dark Hope College campus, and then stopped off at Bedrock for a little fraternity fun.  May took this gem of a photo.

S__2867210We walked into Bedrock just as a crowd of people were leaving the remnants of a party.  We had just missed Piano Man, unfortunately, but there were enough people remaining to justify sticking around.  It was of course great to see some of these people again, but it also lended credibility to the idea of ‘frat’ whenever everyone there was pleased with my presence.  Parker’s interest in the evening was certainly waning, and he was also very concerned about getting his minimum 8 hours so that he could he could play tennis with some old man the next day.  Way to see past the significance of me visiting…  Parker and May deserted us, while Ryan and myself stuck around to Brawl, mingle, and catch a cab back to mine.  He picked up the cab, and I directed it through Taco Bell…a fair deal indeed.

The next morning we woke to a delicious breakfast of quiche and coffee cake and then set out to do a little bit of good ol’ Holland tourism.  Of course we had to hit the glorious golden shores of Holland State Park.  We parked up and climbed the wooden steps to reach the top of Mt. Pisgah.  I wouldn’t exactly call it a mountain, but it does offer an unrivaled view of Lakes Macatawa & Michigan.  It was also a great place to pause for a few photos.  Big Red made snuck into the frame as well.

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Our remaining time was spent strolling briefly through downtown Holland.  We did stop into the Peanut Store, and also the hipster oasis that is Lemonjellos to get some exotic coffee.  May was very pleased with her Mexican bean selection.  Time was running short before we had to get home and ready ourselves for the wedding, so we took off, leaving much of 8th street untouched.  May traded a beautiful bouquet of flowers to my mom for a lunch of Big Apple Bagel sandwiches, and then we started putting on our faces, getting dapper, and just getting classy.  Throughout all of this, feckless Parker was failing to keep up with our swag.  Ryan had never looked more British after borrowing my dad’s jacket.

The wedding took place at some church, starting promptly at 4:00, and finishing a short 40 minutes later.  I’d say that this is the perfect duration – short enough to keep people’s attention, and long enough to infuse that tincture of meaning.  We left the church and traced below the beautiful autumn canopy of Lakeshore Drive up towards Grand Haven.  We went to a golf course clubhouse where we had a cocktail reception before being seated in the room.  We went on in and enjoyed our premium location right near the wedding party, which is so much better than being sent far away from the action.  Here we have all but Ryan, who was stuck being the photographer.  Parker, fix that collar, you look like a schmuck!

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Highlights included some tasty food, the rare inclusion of wine and beer, and also a photo booth.  May and I enjoyed it a number of times, often wrangling in others to join us.  I give May full credit for talking Grandpa into joining us.wedding purikuraAs things were wrapping up, the crew drove on over to Grand Rapids where we popped into Yesterdog for some glorious food.  We also met up with Adam and Bri for a couple of drinks at Hopcat and their homestead. The night was great for all involved. That next morning we spent a little time in the ‘garden’, playing table tennis, and also getting everything set to make the return trip to Chicago.  We had to wait for fellow Japan friend and Michigander Saad to come on over as well.  He was going to share in a Tex-Mex lunch and then take Ryan off my hands to keep the tourism going while I was putting in my time at work.  May and I needed to hit the road so that we could get her moved into a new apartment, which was no problem.  We grabbed some new bedding along the way.  It was a great weekend.

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