Time Passes Slowly Here

Time is a tricky thing.  The busier you are, the more quickly it seems to pass.  The more tasks you have on your to-do list, the faster hours fly by.  The worst day at work is the rare one where your calendar is empty, your in-box is clean and you have no pressing deadlines.  Those days just crawl by.  I became more sensitive to this phenomenon after we bought our house in Phoenix.  My many years as a visitor to Phoenix have firmly imprinted this city in my mind as a vacation spot.  As soon as I step off the plane, my entire body lets out a big sigh and I shift into a lower gear.  Two or three days of just hanging out can feel like a full week.  Perversely, when we try to cram a lot into trip, usually when it’s a week or more long, it feels like a really short stay.

Whenever we are at our home in Minnesota, I always feel like I should be doing something.  Maybe because there’s always something needing to be done.  At our home in Arizona,  I can go for days without doing anything more ambitious than picking up a few groceries or checking out a new restaurant.  When I watch TV here, I actually just sit and watch TV.  In Minneapolis, watching TV is always accompanied by reading, working on my PC and/or eating.  Okay, I do still eat in front of the TV here.  We have beautiful dining room tables in both places that primarily collect dust when they aren’t being used as ad-hoc work spaces.

I don’t know if my lower gear mindset in Phoenix will change when we start spending the majority of our time here this winter.  Will it start to feel more like just being in another home, with all of the nagging tasks that implies?

I hope not.

Busting up a Starbucks

I have a gold card from Starbucks with my name on it.  This is a sign that I spend too much money at Starbucks.  Ironically, it doesn’t really take much to get one.  I had always used cash at Starbucks until I received a re-loadable giftcard last Christmas and for some reason decided to register it online.  Primarily because it allowed me to reload it online.  It’s actually quicker than paying cash and since we started traveling so much, it was handy to just use the card and save my smaller bills for things like cabs and tips.  Once you register and start reloading a card online, you become a much more valuable marketing commodity to Starbucks.  So they enroll you in their little loyalty program and start issuing you “stars.”  After spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $100, which is frighteningly easy to do at Starbucks, they send you a gold card with your name on it.  They also send you postcards for free drinks after you accumulate so many points and you get a free coffee for your birthday, so there is definitely some benefit to the whole thing.

It’s sort of amusing, since I am not a heavy Starbucks user by any means.  I rarely get anything other than a regular coffee and only recently upgraded the size from Tall to Grande.  Mostly because I object to having to order a cup of coffee by saying Grande Bold instead of medium dark roast.  They do really brainwash you about the lingo at Starbucks.  They’ll take your order if you say medium or dark but they will repeat it back as Grande Bold in a tone that suggests you please use the correct terminology next time.  Of course it’s only correct at Starbucks.  So it gets a little confusing when, on the rare occasion I visit a coffee shop other than Starbucks, I need to use normal terms or god forbid some other made-up lingo for that particular establishment.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Starbucks or I wouldn’t spend so much money there.  Their product is reliably good and you just have to admire any retailer that can take a product costing maybe 10 cents wholesale and get people to willingly pay $2 for it.  It sometimes makes you wonder if they put something other than coffee in their coffee.  I am not a coffee snob by any stretch of the imagination.  Other than the basic brew, my order has never been more complicated than a non-fat latte.  (I did learn the hard way never to order a latte in Europe – you will get hot milk)  In New Zealand we drank something called a flat white.  As best as I could tell, it was a no foam latte.

Most days when we are not traveling, we brew our own coffee.  By “we” I mean my husband, who is the designated coffee maker in the family.  We buy 3 pound bags of beans at Costco, paying about $13 per bag.  I haven’t figured out our exact cost per cup, but it can’t be more than about 30 cents.  The coffee tastes just as good as anything at Starbucks and the best part is you get to drink it in front of the TV in your pajamas.  So it was highly amusing to me when I recently received an email (the downside of the whole marketing thing) toting some exclusive new blend of coffee that was available for pre-sale to Starbucks Gold Members.  This was the advertising pitch:

If your love of the bean has you yearning to explore something exquisite and rare, you’ll fall in love with the rich, woodsy herbal complexities of Aged Sulawesi Kalosi. With hints of warm baking spices and a rich mouth-feel, this extraordinary coffee is produced in very small batches on family farms and has been aged five years to gently reveal deep, intricate flavors that play delicately on the tongue.

Just for fun, I clicked on the link to see you much they were charging for this rare treasure.  $18 – for 8 ounces.  About 8 times what we pay for the coffee at Costco.  And get this – it was SOLD OUT.  I have a hard time paying $18 for a really good bottle of wine.  But apparently there are a lot of serious coffee connoisseurs out there.  Or a lot of people who have been brainwashed by Starbucks.  I think I’ll stick to buying from Costco and occasionally enjoying a medium dark, excuse me, Grande Bold from Starbucks.  Purchased with my personal goldcard, of course.

In case you didn’t get the title reference to this blog – it’s a Mike Doughty song.

What Time is it Anyway?

Jet lag sucks.  I’ve never had a huge problem with it on European trips, taking the approach of toughing it out and staying up long enough to sync with local time.  Australia/New Zealand are so far ahead in the time zone that you just sort of shift into the next day without experiencing a lot of issues.  Asia kills me.  The first time we went (in 2005) I kept wanting to fall asleep during dinner.  I never had difficulty falling asleep when we finally did go to bed, rarely before 11 PM, but would consistently wake up around 3 or 4 AM and be unable to get back to sleep.  This lasted for more than half of our 2 week trip, leaving me feeling like a zombie.

When I traveled to India for work in 2007, I resorted to taking sleeping pills.  They didn’t really help me on the flight, I think I managed less than 3 hours on a full dose of Ambien, but they did allow me to fall asleep and stay asleep once I arrived.  I made the mistake of not taking one after about 3 nights, thinking I had to be adjusted to the time zone by then.  Bingo, I woke up at 3 AM the next morning.  At least I’m consistent.  So I went right back to taking sleeping pills for the rest of the trip.

I’ve never been able to sleep on airplanes, even in the relative comfort of a business class seat.  When we took our epic first trip to Australia, spending 46 hours in transit, I only managed a few short cat naps on the plane.  This trip to Japan was no exception.  The coach seats were extraordinarily uncomfortable, with less leg room than a typical domestic Delta flight.  We also experienced a lot of turbulence, which I don’t generally find to be conducive to sleeping.

We stuck with our strategy of toughing it out and staying up until something close to a normal bedtime once we arrived.  We did wake up early (4-5 AM) every day, but since we were able to go to bed by 8 PM it wasn’t bad.  Staying on a super early schedule fit with the buses to the track and seemed to lessen the effect of the jet lag.  At least while we were in Japan.

Our first day home we managed to stay awake until after 8 PM before crashing in what turned out to be an epic (nearly 15 hour) sleeping jag.  Since we had been up for over 30 hours, I assumed this was just catch up sleep.  When we flew to Phoenix the next day, I actually thought it would help us readjust, since the time would be 2 hours earlier.  So we hadn’t really slept until 11 AM, just 9 AM Phoenix time.  No big deal right?

Hah!  We didn’t even try to go to bed until 2 AM, since neither one of us felt tired.  It took at least an hour to fall asleep and by 6 AM we were both awake again.  Now I’m just getting a little annoyed.  We needed to be up early today, so we went to bed at 8 PM last night, hoping for a better night’s sleep.  Now it’s not even noon and I’m tired already.  Maybe I’m getting too old for this.

Jet lag sucks.

Home Away From Home

We flew out of Minneapolis at 10 PM last night and still spent the night in our own bed.  Neat trick, huh?  It’s because we are currently hanging out at our second home in Phoenix.  I don’t think I could have gotten back on a plane 30 hours after returning from Japan to go anywhere else.  Even I have my limits.

One of the reasons we have a home in Phoenix is because I complained to my husband last September that I needed a project.  He was out of town at the time, so we were talking on the phone.  We didn’t have any big trips on the horizon and I was feeling lonely and bored so I started whining about needing a new project.  He suggested looking for a vacation home in Phoenix.  In some respects it seemed like an obvious thing to do.  I’ve been vacationing in Phoenix for well over 20 years.  My dad owns a vacation home here so it was a free place to stay during my early post college years, when I didn’t have a lot of money to spend.  I fell in love with the desert.  The real estate market in Phoenix was one of the hardest hit (along with Vegas) when the economy tanked, so there were plenty of deals to be had.

So we went to Phoenix together at the beginning of October and spent two days looking at condos and townhomes.  We figured out pretty quickly that we wanted someplace new that wasn’t a distressed (short/foreclosed) sale.  One, we wanted to be able to just furnish the house and enjoy it.  Two, we wanted to close quickly, which is impossible with distressed sales.  Of course this meant we wouldn’t get the best possible deal, but that wasn’t the primary driver.

After two full days of seeing just about everything in our price range we narrowed it down to two options.  One was in Scottsdale and one was in Phoenix.  I spent Saturday night agonizing over the decision.  We decided to drive around both of the neighborhoods on Sunday morning, before I needed to fly back to Minneapolis.  The Scottsdale place, while in a unique looking complex, was surrounded by hundreds of cookie-cutter generic Southwestern condos and apartments.  The only retail space within a reasonable walking distance was a strip mall with Starbucks, Chipotle and similar fare.  The Phoenix place was in an urban, mixed neighborhood with small homes, businesses, churches, schools and a number of independent restaurants within a 2 mile radius.

It was sort of a head slapping moment.  There were a number of other factors that we evaluated, but in the end it was the vibrancy of the neighborhood that was the tipping point.  We made an offer on Monday and closed at the end of October on our beautiful new Phoenix home.  Since then we have received nothing but reinforcement on our choice.  Whenever we tell someone familiar with Phoenix where our home is located, their first response is “that’s a great neighborhood!”

They’re right.  It is and we love it.

Reflections on Japan

Now that we’re back home and relatively rested, I thought I would use a few of our 15 conscious hours in between flights to reflect on our journey.  The total transit time was about 25 hours of flying and 12 hours of bus rides.  The race lasted a little over 2 hours.  Therefore, the fun to inconvenience ratio was highly unfavorable.  The food was mediocre at best with limited choices.  It’s bizarre to spend almost 5 days in a country without eating any of the local food.  The bed was incredibly uncomfortable.  The days were long with a lot of “free” time and not much to do.  All of those factors make it highly unlikely that we would ever repeat the trip.

On the plus side, it was a truly unique experience.  The fans are not like any you will find in the US, we spent a lot of time with the Target crew and we got to see a race outside of North America.  I took some great photos, especially of Scott and Dario during the autograph session.  I’m glad we went.  I do wish we would have had more opportunity to see the area.  Having to take a bus to and from the track every day just didn’t allow us much in the way of free time.  In theory we had the evenings free, but staying up past 8 PM was pretty much impossible.  It would have been nice to be more ambitious with our last free day and take the train somewhere, but with the language barrier and cumulative exhaustion it would have been a daunting task.

Never turn down a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

We Made it Back Alive

Our epic race journey came to an end today.  We were up before 5:30 AM for our final bus ride.  At 9:30 AM, with bags checked and boarding passes in hand, we were eating at the Narita Subway.  It was the best Subway sandwich I have ever eaten and unlike McDonald’s, I actually have a basis for comparison.  In retrospect, it would have been smart to purchase a second one to take on the plane.  Our flight was airborne just after noon and it turned out to be much smoother than our departure, up until we landed.  Sadly, the food wasn’t much better but this time I had a few granola bars and a pack of peanuts instead of just candy bars to stave off the hunger.

We arrived at O’Hare right on schedule and went through the scariest landing I have ever experienced.  For a few seconds I was convinced the pilot would roll the plane or at least hit the ground with one of the wings.  As we exited the plane, all of the flight attendants cheerily wished us goodbye and invited us to fly ANA again.  NOT IF YOU PAID ME.  I promise to never complain about a Delta flight again.

Of course landing at O’Hare wasn’t the end of the trip.  We still had a 3 hour layover and our final flight home.  Fortunately the Delta Sky Club at O’Hare is lovely and since it was morning I was able to get a bagel with peanut butter.  Our flight to Minneapolis left on time and was short and uneventful.  Sadly, we sat on the ground at MSP for nearly 30 minutes because our gate was occupied.  (I promise not to complain about Delta.  I promise not to complain about Delta)  There’s nothing more frustrating than being so close to home and still being stuck on an airplane.

We managed to stick it out until just after 8:00 PM, when we crawled into our heavenly soft bed for what turned out to be a nearly 15 hour sleeping marathon.  It’s nice to be home.

Here’s one of my photos from our day of wandering in Utsunomiya:

Japan (Sept 20)

This is our one free day in Utsunomiya.  The charter flight is scheduled for an extra day in Japan in case the race is delayed by rain.  We stayed in bed until almost 7 AM (yeah!) and didn’t leave the hotel room until 10.  It was raining, again.  We borrowed an umbrella from the hotel and headed for the Starbucks in the train station.  Sometimes you just need the predictable.  A Venti and a Grande drip coffee cost 830 Yen (a little under $10), about double what it costs in the US.  It was worth it.

We  also managed to find the McDonald’s.  The menu was in Japanese but they did have pictures.  We thought we ordered a chicken sandwich and a burger.  It turned out to be a Filet O’Fish sandwich instead of chicken.  Fortunately, Tim likes the fish so I get to eat most of the burger.  Ironically, I would never eat a McDonald’s burger in the US but after 3 days of the prison camp buffet, it was a nice change.

We wandered around town for a few hours after lunch, visiting a cemetery, a temple and an open air market.  It was a holiday in Japan – Respect for the Aged Day – so many people had recently visited the temple and left offerings.  It was nice to just wander around aimlessly, although we were a little too burnt out to stay on our feet for any length of time.  We looked for gifts and souvenirs, but only ended up with some cheap funky black eyeglass frames.  It was painful trying to explain through gestures that we didn’t want the prescription lenses, which were included in the price.  Even if the time hadn’t been a constraint, I can’t imagine trying to take an eye exam in Japanese.

I really didn’t want to go through the pantomime routine at a restaurant, so we settled for buying chicken wraps at Starbucks.  They were tiny, less than half the size you would get in the US, but they were cheaper than our morning coffees.   As we were walking through the lower level of the train station with our meager dinner, we were offered samples of a cream sponge cake.  We made the mistake of showing that we liked it and were immediately pressured into purchasing a whole one.  Apparently free samples come with a price.  It was almost worth it for the slogan on the box:  Cream LandThis highest quality cakes are made from the raw material selected carefully.  Truly a cake to be enjoyed by the most jolly Tea-time.  You’ll be satisfied, we believe.

We escaped to the hotel to enjoy our dinner while watching Sumo wrestling, something that loses nothing in translation.

Japan (Sept 19)

Race day.  Since there was really nothing on the schedule until the race at 1:00, we decided to be lazy and take the late bus.  Which left at 7:30.  The early bus was now at 5:00.  We stayed in bed until the decadent hour of 5:30.  I can’t say I slept that long, but at least I was lying down even if it was on a rock hard bed.  The late bus was a lot less crowded, so we each had our own seat.  I took a few blurry photos out of the bus window.  Including one of a crane taking off, which would be spectacular if it were actually in focus.

The one disadvantage to the “late” bus is that you get to the track just after breakfast service is over.  Given the food, I’m not sure that’s really a bad thing.  We did have yogurt and granola bars in the hotel, plus lunch started at 10:30 so it wasn’t a big deal except for the lack of coffee.  We sprung for 2 cups of coffee at the Grand Turismo Cafe.  It seemed like a small gesture, given how much we had used their tables.  The 2 small mugs of coffee cost the equivalent of a little over $7 in US currency.

I’m not a real fan of buffet eating.  The hot food isn’t really hot and the cold food isn’t really cold.  Lunch today consisted of stir fried beef, hot dogs, soy burgers, spaghetti, fried chicken dough balls. pork skewers and a little bit of fruit.  The salad is lettuce, just lettuce.  My digestive system is about ready to shut down after 3 days of this.  The beverage choice is orange juice, milk (lukewarm) or industrial strength iced tea.

After everything we’ve done to get here, the race almost seems anti-climactic.  Dario does well, finishing second with Will Power right behind him.  This puts the point spread down to 12, not great but not terrible either.  I don’t really have a great feeling about our ability to win the championship in Miami.  Maybe that’s the exhaustion speaking.  I’m definitely ready to go home and sleep in a comfortable bed.  We still have a long way to get there and I’m not looking forward to another 12+ hours in an airplane seat.

Here’s one of my bus window photos:

Japan (Sept 18)

The early bus today left at 5:30 AM.  Since we were awake at 3:30 and ready to leave at 4:30, it wasn’t tough to make.  This time I kept my camera ready, in case I saw more cranes in the rice fields.  So of course I didn’t.  Since there are limited places to sit once you’re at the track, we lingered as long as possible over breakfast.  We watched practice from the pits, clinging to a shrinking sliver of shade at the back of the pit area.  By the time practice had finished at 10:30 the shade was completely gone and the day was starting to heat up.  Several people told us that this is the hottest they can remember it being for the Japan race.  We apologized, as clearly we are continuing the trend of bringing hot weather to the track.

In between our designated meal times and the day’s practice session, we hid out at a table in the back of the Grand Turismo Cafe.  Clearly the tables were intended for people purchasing food, but there seems to be a squatters rule here, where if you claim table you can linger at it as long as you want.  Many people leave belongings unattended for prolonged periods of time in order to save their spot.  No one seems to worry about anything getting stolen.

Qualifying was less than stellar, with the Penske cars taking the top 3 spots.  Dario was on the pole prior to that, so he ended up 4th.  At least Will Power didn’t get the pole again.

Dinner was served at the big tent starting at 4:30, so we were able to consume our 4 different proteins before getting in line for the first bus back to the hotel.  The whole drill is starting to remind me of prison work camp, without the hard labor.  We get bused everywhere, eat together in a big tent and can’t leave the premises.  We had enough people on the bus by 5:30 to warrant a 30 minute early departure.  Of course this meant it took 30 minutes longer to get back to the hotel than the previous night.  Our total bus time is now about 6 hours.  This bus happened to be filled with a lot of loud, redneck IRL officials, so it wasn’t the most soothing ride.

When we got back to the hotel I splurged by having 2 drinks, courtesy of Tim’s duty free Stoli and some lemon soda from the hotel vending machine.  (70 Lemons Worth of Vitamin C in Every Bottle!)  Did I mention they also sell beer in the vending machine?  I’ve seen vending machines on the street with cigarettes in them.  Crazy.  At any rate, it worked better than a sleeping pill and I was out by 8 PM, again.

Japan (Sept 17)

There are two buses that go to the track every day.  An early bus, which departed at 6 AM this morning, and a late bus at 9 AM.  Our strategy was to set the alarm for the late bus but plan to take the early one if we awoke in time.  Since we had gone to sleep at 7 PM, we were both awake by 4:30 AM.  So the early bus it is.  I was amazed we slept that late, given the rock hard mattress and lumpy pillows.    Our room is huge by Japanese standards, with a small sitting area and a mini-frig.  We have a fancy toilet with a washing mechanism.  The weight of a person on the seat starts water running into the bowl.  I’m not sure if this is for cleaning or sound masking, but it startles me every time I sit on it.

There are no real freeways in this area, so even though the track is relatively close it takes at least an hour to get there every day.  We wind through rice fields and little towns on a single lane road with a speed limit from 50 to 70 kilometers per hour.  There are no on-track activities today but we’ve been told that there is a great Honda museum to visit and it’s good to get the lay of the land while the team is setting up.  Since the teams can’t bring their normal hospitality set-ups and cooks, all meals are served in a big tent just outside of the paddock.  The food is mostly western, or at least the Japanese interpretation of western food.  Very heavy on the protein.

We kill the time between breakfast and lunch by wandering around.  The fans here are very respectful but rabid in their pursuit of autographs from their favorite drivers.  There are also large groups of school children – something I’ve never seen at a track before.  They wear yellow hats and excitedly wave hello when they see us.  A woman comes to the garage bearing gifts and photos of the pit crew in plastic envelopes that she hands out to everyone.

After lunch we check out the Honda museum.  Soon after we finish touring, an interview with 3 of the drivers starts.  One of them is Dario.  They are being asked questions about their helmets.  We later find out that the first question Dario was asked translated into English as “tell us about your helmet love.”  Even though we can’t understand anything but the drivers’ responses, it’s entertaining to watch.  There is an autograph session down in the garage area later that afternoon.  I go crazy taking photos.

There is a welcome party at 5:00 in the big catering tent.  We expect to see most of the team there but only 2 engineers show up.  It turns out that one of the crew convinced a bus driver to take them back to the hotel right after lunch.  We take the first scheduled bus back, leaving at 6:00.  We arrive back at the hotel 13 hours after departing this morning.  I am exhausted beyond belief and every muscle in my body aches.  Bedtime is 8 PM.

Here’s my favorite photo from the autograph session: