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:

On The Way to Japan (Sept 14-16)

The first leg of our trip to Japan was a quick flight to Chicago and an overnight stay at the O’Hare Hilton.  Once we checked in and dumped our luggage, we decided to take the airport tram to Terminal 5 to scope out our point of departure for the morning.  This seemed like a good idea but turned out to be a mistake.  For some odd reason, All Nippon Airways departs from Terminal 1 and lands in Terminal 5 (international).  So when we went looking in Terminal 5 there was no departure desk for ANA.  Okay, back on the train to Terminal 1.  ANA shares a departure desk with Lufthansa.  We asked the nice lady there to look up our flight and she was able to tell us that it did show as leaving from terminal 5.  All of that killed about an hour.

After the worst night’s sleep in a long time, we were up at 5:30 and back at Terminal 5 by 6:55 for our 9:45 AM departure.  Now of course, there were signs indicating where to check-in for our charter flight.  One team had arrived ahead of us.  The Target team came in right behind.  Most of the people had flown in from Indianapolis that morning.  Considering the lousy sleep we had at the hotel, it would have been nice to have that option.

It was an interesting flight. There was a group of people that stood in the back and drank beer for most of the flight.  The Target crew member that sat at the window next to me did not get up once during the entire 12 1/2 hour flight.  His butt must be made of steel.  I was up 4 times and felt like I should have done it more often.  Zero sleep of course.  I did get through 2 books and ran out of reading material about an hour before the flight ended.  I took the Japanese Bento Box option for dinner, which turned out to be a huge mistake.  It was the worst airline meal I’ve ever had, loaded with sodium.  Mostly I just ate the rice and noodles.  Since the food was so bad, we went through 14 fun size candy bars during the flight.  I felt a little nauseated from all the sugar.

Landing in Narita is a little like getting booked into prison.  You need to have your index fingers printed and a photo taken.  Prison mug shots are more flattering.  Plus I got slapped for trying to stay with Tim while we went through this process.  After going through customs and collecting our luggage, we were loaded on a bus for the drive to Utsunomiya.  Another 2 1/2 hours in an ass-numbing seat.  We were treated to some beautiful scenery along the way, including the sight of white cranes feeding in the rice fields.

After we checked in to the hotel, we went out in the rain to try and find some food.  We heard there was a McDonald’s nearby but were unsuccessful in locating it.  We finally settled for buying some yogurt and water at a small grocery store in the lower level of a mall.  By the time we got back to the hotel, we were soaked, exhausted and not really hungry.  I was sound asleep by 7 PM.

Welcome to Japan.

Thanks for Stealing, Here’s $10

I was flipping through an issue of Popular Photography when an ad for their reader photo contest caught my eye.  I went online to check it out.  The first red flag was a $10 fee per photo to enter.  Generally speaking, I distrust photo contests that require an entry fee.  To be fair, $10 is minimal and it may be largely intended to thin the herd of images submitted.  From that perspective, it appears to be working.  The contest has been open since June 15, closes in less than a month and has less than 1000 submissions so far.  (Assuming all submissions are posted online)  Compare that to the nearly 20,000 images submitted in a Conde Nast contest that I entered earlier this year.

The second red flag was the totally lame prizes being offered:

One (1) GRAND PRIZE: *Sony A550 DSLR Camera and Lens (Approx. value $849.99)

Eight (8) FIRST PLACE CATEGORY PRIZES: *Sony a NEX-3 with 18-55mm lens (Approx. value $599.99)

Even with the relatively low number of submissions, Pop Photo will still make money from the contest, assuming they pay for the prizes.  Nice gig.  Personally, I wouldn’t be willing to pay even the income tax on a Sony camera prize.  Okay, but the real prize is getting published if you win, right?  I mean, isn’t it sort of every amateur photographer’s dream to get published in Popular Photography?  So, of course I would expect that by entering you are giving them the right to publish your photo, if you are a winner.

The third red flag was this bit of wording in the rules:

By entering, you grant to Sponsor a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty free license to edit, publish, promote, republish at any time in the future and otherwise use your submission, along with your name and likeness, in any and all media for any purpose, without further permission, notice or compensation (except where prohibited by law).

So, you are asking me to pay $10 for the privilege of giving you free use of my image for perpetuity??  Even if I don’t win anything?  How stupid do you think I am?  Assuming people actually read the rules, I am amazed they received any entries.  I guess it was nice of them to throw in the “non-exclusive” part.

Sheesh.

Read the fine print.

Just Let Me Do It

Alright, I admit it.  I am a control freak.  I’m sure this confession will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me.  It’s probably a large part of the reason I became a project manager.  (A pretty good one, at that)  I think I’ve managed to let go of a lot of my perfectionism over the years and be satisfied with good enough, but I still want to be in control of deciding what good enough is and how to get there.  So I am the one who does all of the travel planning.  I may grumble about it occasionally, but I don’t think I’d be willing to give it up.  In the past, the only exception to this was when we went on family trips.  Since those were always driven by my dad’s schedule, his assistant handled all of the details.  She’s an amazing person and always put together a very detailed itinerary well in advance of our departure, so my inner control freak was appeased.

Now we are leaving for Japan in less than 40 hours and someone else is handling all of the details (I hope) and providing us with minimal information only after some prodding.  To be fair, he’s doing this for about 50 other people, all of whom have made the same trip multiple times and are used to traveling as a group.  The first concrete piece of information we received was exactly 2 weeks ago and consisted of this:

We now have your flight information from Chicago to Japan. Please let me know if you would like me to help you with your connecting flights.

AYZDJZ

1 NH WE 15SEP  ORDNRT    0945 1240*

2 NH TU 21SEP  NRTORD    1130 0905

I am not kidding.  This told me the airports (which I already knew) and the flight dates and times.  So I booked flights to Chicago and a hotel, since there was no way we were going to be able to get into Chicago early enough to make a 9:45 AM international flight.  I also let him know that my first name was spelled incorrectly, something the TSA really frowns on these days.  A week later I received this message:

You will be going through Terminal 5 in ORD.

Great.  So now we know which terminal to wander around in looking for a charter flight on an unknown airline with an unknown flight number.  Hello, a little help here??  So I finally broke down and sent an email requesting the airline, flight number and (god help me) hotel information.  A day later I received an email with the flight information.  This was followed about 30 minutes later by another email with the hotel information.  I feel SO MUCH BETTER NOW.

Continue breathing deeply.

11 Years and a Day

Yesterday was our 11th anniversary.  For the math challenged, that means we were married on 9/9/99.  No, that wasn’t a happy accident.  After we got engaged (on Christmas Day 1997), we had a lot of discussion about the “right” day to pick for our wedding.  Most people pick a season or month and the actual day depends on availability of the venues for the wedding and reception.  Since we never intended to have more than a handful of people at our wedding, it made more sense to pick a date that would be meaningful.  I knew a couple that had married on 8/8/88 and I always thought that was a cool idea.  So we decided on 9/9/99.  It turned out to be a Thursday.

Finding a place was a little tricky.  I wanted a nice restaurant with a private space that would allow smoking in order to accommodate my dad.  This would not be possible today, but back then there were still smoking areas in restaurants.  Not too many of them were keen on allowing cigars, however.  We selected Nikki’s Cafe and Bar, which sadly closed some years later.  Nikki was a character and I was a little worried when 3 months after first talking to her, she still hadn’t charged the deposit to my credit card.

Total attendance for our wedding was 25, including the priest and his wife.  I had a moment of panic at the start when my mom failed to show up on time.  Turns out she was halfway downtown when she realized that she had left my bouquet and Tim’s boutonniere in her refrigerator.  She did all of the flowers for the wedding, including a spray for the top of the Wuollet’s cake.  I bought the smallest two tier wedding cake they made and it was still way too much.

It really was a beautiful wedding.  I have a secret theory that the happiness and success of a marriage has an inverse relationship to the size and cost of the wedding.  Short of eloping, which I had seriously considered, we had about the most cost effective wedding possible.  Unfortunately, I was so busy making sure we took photos with everyone there, I neglected to get a photo of just Tim and me together.  So our official wedding photo required a bit of Photoshop magic.

So what did we do for our anniversary?  We ordered a pizza, opened one of the nice bottles of wine from our trip to Watkin’s Glen and watched two Blu-ray movies on our new player.  It really doesn’t get any better than that.

Flying for Miles

I am sitting in the Delta Sky Club at the Atlanta airport.  I’ve never been to Atlanta before and since I won’t be leaving the airport, I’m not sure this really counts either.  Since it’s currently 91 degrees, I’m glad I’m not actually going to Atlanta.  Any place that’s not Phoenix isn’t somewhere I want to be when it’s over 90 in September.  I’m also missing a beautiful early fall day in Minneapolis right now – 68 degrees and sunny.  Pretty much perfect.

So, why am I in the Atlanta airport?  Am I on my way to or from someplace wonderful?  No, I’m just whoring for miles.  That’s right – I left MSP at 1:00 this afternoon and if all goes well I will be back there just before 10 PM, spending 9 hours and just under $200 to earn about 1600 frequent flyer miles.  Why would I go to the trouble and expense to do this?  Because my husband got ahead of me in the frequent flier miles game due to his extra trips to Phoenix this winter.  He will earn the coveted Silver Elite status after our flight back from Phoenix in Sept.  With the addition of this trip, I will pass the required 25,000 mile mark after we get back from Miami in early October.  Since we only have one day between those two flights, it’s about as close as I can get without doing another crazy one day trip in the next week, before we go to Japan.

As it is, I am making five round trip flights in just under four weeks.  We have a flight to Chicago next week to catch our charter flight to Japan, plus the aforementioned flights to Phoenix and Miami.  And since our charter flight to Japan leaves at 9:45 AM, we actually have to get to Chicago a day early and spend the night at the O’Hare Hilton.  Fortunately, Hilton is our preferred hotel brand (Hampton Inn, mostly) so at least we were able to use points instead of paying the ridiculous $359/night they usually charge.

This is the final stretch of insanity until the racing season comes to a close.  I’m looking forward to a more relaxing pace in Phoenix for the winter.  Of course then I’ll probably start getting bored.  I secretly thrive on organized chaos.

I’m trying to keep up with some of my photo processing, so here’s a couple from our Woodward Reserve bourbon tour.