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Stay Classy San Diego

Finishing Our Vacation at Sea World and Balboa Park

sunny 72 °F

Our first day back in San Diego was spent at Sea World. My sister was able to get discounted tickets for us all through work. Of course, we started the day with the obligatory killer whale show. There were actually four Shamu’s in the performance. They did a bunch of flips and such, splashing people in the foremost sections.

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The killer whale show was like watching Circus De Soleil with NFL linebackers—huge but surprisingly agile.

We caught the dolphin show afterwards. At least I think they were dolphins because they just looked like minnows all the way up in the nosebleed section where we were stuck sitting. I thought this show was more interesting because there is more of a human element, with acrobats and divers involved. Sadly, when one of the guys rode on the backs of two dolphins, this prompted my son to give a long discourse on the dolphin-riding zombie on his iPad game.

We ate lunch at the barbeque joint inside the park. The food wasn’t bad considering it was served cafeteria style under heat lamps. We treated the kids to a stuffed animal souvenir. They had a “Build-A-Bear” style shop where you could pick a marine animal and dress him up. My girl (not my boy, thankfully) picked the princess outfit for her dolphin. My nephews decided to get two giant, oversized stuffed animals. Their dad was stuck lugging them around for the rest of the day. We visited a couple of other areas such as the penguins and the polar animals, but the kids enjoyed the Sesame Street play area much more. They got to climb obstacle courses and push each other around in a large area full of big punching bags. By mid afternoon, we were exhausted from dragging around our large caravan of infants and small children. On the way out, my girl was enthralled by some of their animal ambassadors—a cockatoo and a baby kangaroo. We parted ways with my sister later that day as her family headed back home.

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(Above left and right) Net ladder and tunnel.

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(left) The boys tired out quickly in the punching bag room. (right) I am a little curious to know in which of the seven seas kangaroo’s are commonly found.

We wanted to take it easy on our last day of vacation so we headed to Balboa Park. It’s a great area next to the San Diego Zoo filled with all kinds of museums with varying themes. We purchased a pass that would get us into five of them. We started at the Air and Space Museum which was filled with a surprisingly large collection of vintage aircraft. The nerd in me could have spent half the day looking at all their displays. However, my paternal instincts compelled me to keep moving as the kids could not have cared any less. Did they care about the full-sized replicas of the Apollo landing craft or the planes that Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, or the Red Baron flew? No, the highlight for them was the freeze-dried space ice cream from the gift shop.

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(Left) The Spirit of St. Louis. (Right) Fokker Dr. 1 triplane

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(left) P-51 Thunderbolt. (Right) Spitfire.

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(left) Huey gunship. (Right) Catalina airboat.

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(left) Not so Top Gun. (right) This car looked familiar sometime back in the future.

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(left) Man on the moon. (middle) Eject! (right) Ground control to Major Tom...WTF is on your head!

We then proceeded to the science museum next. There was an IMAX show included in the passes. We saw the “Born to Be Wild” flick about these women who raised orphaned orangutans and elephants. It was pretty slow, and my girl fell asleep. Our kids weren’t too interested in most of the museum exhibits. However, there was one room filled with computers that was pretty intriguing. One terminal took a picture of your face and calculated what you would look like at age 60 if you smoked or not. Neither was a future worth looking forward to for me. However, if I smoked, at least I would have an excuse. But, my favorite computer there calculates what you would look like if you were of a different ethnicity or gender. I’m no Beyoncé.

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My son as an African-American female.

Our last stop was the museum of natural history. There arre some interesting statues and fossils of dinosaurs and extinct mammals. The kids were more interested in riding them instead of learning about them. We caught the 3-D flick “Ultimate Wave” about guys surfing in Tahiti. It was impressively shot by multiple divers holding up large professional cameras as they battled monster waves. At many times it almost seemed like the surfers were going to run over these camera men. Technical issues aside, the story just wasn’t that interesting. More nap time for my daughter and wife. We were batting a nice 0 for 2 on the movies.

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(left) The rebuilt dinosaur fossils were fleshed out on one side. (middle) The sign said "do not ride." Too bad my girl can't read. (right) The impressive-sized Megalodon.

By the time we finished these three museums, it was already starting to get late. Many of the museums were starting to close, so we never got to use the two remaining passes that we had already paid for. I was hoping to see the automotive museum with their collection of classic cars. Oh well, maybe next time.

Later that night, we ate at the Fish Market restaurant located in the shadow of the U.S.S. Midway. The place was packed and we ended up using a valet after having driven around for 15 minutes looking for a parking spot. The food and service were good, but it was so crowded that I doubt I would go there if I was a local. We flew back home early the next morning. We had to listen to our kids whine and cry that they didn’t want to leave San Diego. I guess that’s a sign of a good family vacation.

Posted by evilnoah 20:57 Archived in USA Tagged sea san world diego balboa Comments (0)

Being a Kid Again in St. Louis

A Long Weekend in St. Louis

overcast 80 °F

When the wife insisted that we take the kids to St. Louis for Labor Day weekend, I had serious reservations whether we would find anything worthwhile to do there. I mean, we weren't talking about New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago. What's so special about St. Louis? However, since the vote was 1 to nothing in favor of St. Louis, we headed up there as soon as the kids’ schools dismissed for the weekend.

We agreed that we had to eat dinner at Lambert’s Café on the way up there. This place is not a stop, it’s a destination. It had been over a decade since we had been to their sister restaurant in Foley, Alabama and almost two decades since I had last been to this original location in Sikeston, Missouri. Although there doesn’t seem to be anything but small towns and farmland in the surrounding area, this place is always packed with at least 50 to 100 people waiting outside for a table. They serve standard country fare with oversized mugs of ice tea or sodas. So what’s the big appeal of the place? It’s the “home of the throwed rolls”. Instead of bringing bread to the table, the servers heave the rolls across the room to the diners. It’s a big dining area seating at least 150 people. That’s a lot of space and a lot of throws. Rotator cuff injury anyone? It’s not unusual to have an errant roll land on your table or smack you in the head. I was disappointed that the kids didn’t step up to catch a few of the flying yeastballs. They also have “pass-arounds” too. Servers walk around scooping fried potatoes, black-eyed peas, apple butter, and some of the best fried okra I have ever consumed onto your plate. Lots of people just box their orders to go and eat the extras in the restaurant. It’s hard not to leave this place without loosening your pant buttons.

We eventually made it to St. Louis and checked into the Four Seasons Hotel. Parking is a bit annoying since they share a garage with an adjoining casino. Our room had a great view of the Mississippi River, the St. Louis Arch, and a giant billboard with the schedule of upcoming rock bands. I was surprised some of those guys were still alive. The wife loved the bed and the pillows which were nice and soft. The kids were amazed at the LCD TV built into the bathroom mirror. I was annoyed that I had to go down 5 floors just to get to an ice machine. I guess most patrons are smart enough to call room service.

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View from our hotel room.

The next morning, we started off with breakfast at Roosters which was a five minute drive from our hotel. Although we were still downtown, street parking was a cinch that early on the weekend. The place definitely catered to the more-upscale-than-IHOP crowd. The wife had Flemish pancakes which looked like an overcooked slice of pizza, but tasted like a delicious custard. The kids shared some cinnamon raisin French toast sticks and a lemon ricotta cheese crepe. I had the Rooster slinger which tasted as good as it looked disgusting. It was a piece of toast layered with andouille sausage, fried eggs, country fried potatoes, all slathered with white gravy. I wouldn’t be surprised if it looks better coming out than going in. We had perfect timing. The place got very busy when we left, probably because the food was really good.

Afterwards, we visited the Magic House. Yes, it used to be the 19th century mansion of a local family. No, there was nothing magic about it. No David Copperfield, Penn and Teller, or even Uri Geller. Instead it is just a children's Museum...that's been fed a cocktail of Red Bull, Viagra, and ecstasy. For only $35 for the four of us, we gained entrance to a children's museum 2-3 times the size of the one at home.

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(left) Kids can climb between floors on the Jack's beanstalk. (Right) Many of the exhibits were fun and interactive, with expensive touch screen computers.

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(left) Your handprints and faceprints will last all of a second at this popular exhibit. (right) Tunnel where kids can squirm like a worm.

There was just so much to do. They had mock creations of a supermarket, construction site, bank, a baby hospital, restaurant, etc. Sure the kids could dress up and role-play, but they also learned at the same time. The faux power plant taught kids about circuitry and electricity. The bank taught them about our currency. Hopefully, the baby hospital taught my girl not to get knocked up for at least another 20 more years.

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(left) Preparing for a future in pizza delivery. (right) Preparing for a future with the Teamsters.

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(left) What a Tease! Fake ice cream. (Right) They never did get the light bulb to turn on.

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(left) I'm gonna use her to power my next electric car. (middle) I can't believe it's not butter! (right) Paging Doogie Howser?

There were also informative areas which educated kids on the basics of government and civics.

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(right) First Asian- American president in 2040? (left) General, invade Disney World.

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(left) When she is done with the Liberty bell, it will have more than just a small crack. (right) Hopefully, these fingerprints won't end up on a police blotter in the future.

There is an area dedicated to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Only kids five or older were allowed through the obstacle course.

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(left) 19th century soldier uniform. (middle) She may look cute, but she will still scalp you. (right) Pulleys can teach children that they have no upper body strength.

On the lower level there was a craft area where kids could paint, cut out shapes from construction paper, or get Play-Doh under their fingernails.

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(left) Kids can express their creativity (or lack of) with acrylic paints. (middle) Insects look extra scary under a microscope. (right) They even have a timer to race lego creations.

They also have a section dedicated to traveling exhibits. Currently, they have one based on the Alice in Wonderland theme. Some of the other exhibits were above the age of our illiterate kids, but they were appropriate for my immature brain. The Magic House was definitely one of the best children's museums that we have taken the kids too. But it could still use a magician who can bend spoons.

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(left) Anti-gravity balls. (right) Bad hair day.

Despite being exhausted, sweaty, and ready to get back to the hotel, we took a slight detour to a place called Sweetie Pies. It's a cafeteria-style restaurant that gets very high reviews on tripadvisor. Guy Fieri has profiled it on the Food Network (that alone should be a red flag) and the place is going to have a reality show which will air on Oprah's network. "Oh look! Tina Turner's been here," said the wife as she pointed to her autographed photo on the wall. "That's nothing, he's been here too" I replied as I pointed to the picture of the African-American Jesus hanging behind her. We really couldn't figure out what the fuss was all about. The place is clean and well-kept, but the surrounding neighborhood is not. The food was fine. I had the fried chicken which is wings only. They are from bigger chickens, so you do get some meat. The wife had the fried catfish which was very good. Many places tend to overcook it so it gets dry and chewy. Theirs had a nice crunchy crust but was still moist on the inside. The sides were the same as what you get, well, from a cafeteria. Nothing special. The place wasn't pricey. But it also wasn't anything unique from the hundreds of other soul food cafes throughout the South.

After convalescing at the hotel, we decided to visit the Jefferson Expansion Memorial Monument, better known as the St. Louis Arch. Based upon my wife's visit there a dozen years ago, we thought it would be a quick visit that would take only an hour. Boy, were we wrong. The place was packed. It took 20 minutes alone just to get through the metal detector lines to get inside the complex. It looked like a refugee camp with some people queued up in long lines and others sitting on the hard floors slowly passing the time.

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It was a long wait to get to the top of the Arch.

Trams to the top were by appointed time. The earliest tickets we could get were an hour and a half wait. We decided to watch the 45 minute Nat Geo film on Lewis and Clark instead of the flick about the construction of the Arch. The former was actually a very well produced picture which really conveyed the importance and hardship of their expedition over 200 years ago. They also had a museum on the expansion of the west. It probably would have been very interesting if I actually had time to appreciate it. Unfortunately, museums and little children don't mix well.

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(left) Standing beneath the St. Louis Arch. (right) Memorial commemorating the construction. Never heard of any of these guys.

When the time came to take the tram ride up, we lined up...and waited some more. Eventually, we climbed into cramped little capsules for the four minute ride to the top. By then it was well into the night. I couldn't see anything worthwhile on the Eastern side of the river. Maybe the Griswalds if I looked really hard. The western view was much better with the Old Courthouse, Busch Stadium (sadly no game in progress), and other large downtown buildings all illuminated in lights. We ended up spending only 10 minutes at the top, but the whole process took us over 3 hours. We ended up eating room service because the wait time at the hotel's restaurant was too long. Sadly, the five-star hotel served up some two-star food.

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View of Busch Stadium from the top of the St. Louis Arch.

The next morning started with breakfast at the hotel. They had a "special" Labor Day buffet for $22. There are very few culinary evils that can rival that of the buffet. It is rumored that the Devil himself invented the concept. Either that or a struggling Chinese restauranteur. On one hand, the restaurant charges more money since it is all-you-can-eat. On the other hand, the food's quality usually suffers as most items are bland-tasting to not offend the masses and overcooked as they sit under a heat source for too long. Mentally, it is hard to resist the temptation to gorge yourself just to meet the cost of the meal. After all, who wants to get ripped off when all you had to do is eat more. Altogether, buffet's are a fool's paradise. The younger me with the higher metabolism would have opted for the challenge. The older me who lives in one of the most obese areas of the country wisely backed away. Instead, we decided to order from the menu getting the waffles with espresso-marscapone whipped cream, the panetone French toast with Nutella, and chocolate pancakes for the kids. Quality over quantity was definitely the better choice.

If Tim Burton ever designed a museum, I bet it would look like the St. Louis City Museum. Hence, it is awesome. On the outside, there are slides and stairwells crisscrossing in every direction. People can climb into the gutted remains of two airplanes and one school bus suspended several stories in the air. There is even a small ferris wheel on the roof of the building. We made the horrible mistake of trying to climb through some of the mesh tunnels suspended three stories high. They are easy for a little kid to navigate, but hard for a full grown adult to crawl around in. I bruised my thigh badly when I exited the small door of one airplane, and fell and hurt both my wrists on some of the other obstacles. Suddenly, I feel very old. I think I may need to get a Life Alert bracelet.

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(left) From afar, the City Museum looks like a junk yard. (right) Otto must have driven this bus.

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(left) We had to wait about 45 minutes in the rain for a ride. (middle) Of course everybody throws the balls at the fat kid. (right) Probably the reason why this plane crashed here.

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(left) This tunnel is not meant for adults, unfortunately there is no way to turn around. (right) These kids are like little bugs stuck in a ceiling light cover.

On the inside there is a hodgepodge of activities. The first floor has an elaborate system of tunnels and caves that are too narrow for a fat-ass like me to navigate. At one point I lost contact with the kids for 15 minutes when they disappeared into a tiny opening. I can see why it is so hard to track down the Taliban.

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The decor is faaabuulous!

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(left) The World Aquarium is located within the City Museum. Admission is extra. (right) I am not following her in there.

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(left) This slide takes kids from the 3rd floor down to the museum entrance. (right) There's a large treehouse complex inside the museum.

The next floor up has a life-sized hamster wheel. I gotta give some serious props to those little rodents, because those things are not easy to move.

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These wimpy little rugrats couldn't get the wheel to start.

They also have a room filled with skateboarding ramps. Despite the absence of wheels, kids were having a blast just running back and forth up and down the sides.

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(left) Hanging on for dear life. (middle) It looks alot more scary at the top. (right) It's supposed to be sumo wrestling, not Greco-Roman wrestling.

The third floor has a potpourri of activities. There is an arts and crafts area with claymaking, face painting, acrylics, and even a gymnastics room.

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"Steve the Clay Guy" shows kids how to make small figurines.

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(left) Not-so-creative dumbells. (right) Probably the most important advice when handling clay.

Crammed in the back of the top floor is an eclectic collection of pop art and advertisements.
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(left) Boy, he's big. (middle) Big Brother is a pervert. (right) Nothing like a good peep show to teach the kids about the birds and the bees.

My daughter rode the dinky-little children's train. Afterwards, she was so excited about seeing the "little boy with the mustache." Huh?!?. Sure enough the train "conductor" was a little person with a beard. Of all the staff members at the City Museum, how irreplaceable is he?

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Is that Fidel Castro's Mini-me?

Since it was the Labor Day weekend, the place was packed with kids and exhausted adults trying to keep up with them. Sadly the only empty area in the building was their exhibits on taxidermy and architecture. I guess kids just don't get too excited about collections of decorative doorknobs.

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The loneliest room in the museum.

We spent over five hours there, leaving when they closed at 5pm. We did take a small break to snack. Instead of eating the generic museum food, we headed out to the English Tea Room only two blocks away. They had a wide selection of exotic hot and cold teas as well as accompanying sweets and scones. A full, proper tea service could be had with reservations. The wife had considered doing this earlier, but the thought of a four year-old handling delicate china made us cringe. Our fears were justified when she ended up tipping over her paper cup of hot chocolate three times.

The remaining afternoon was spent by the hotel pool. Since it was overcast the entire day and the pool was not heated, most of the guests just crammed themselves into the hot tub. Later we walked around some of the adjacent areas downtown. There were some live bands playing outside the restaurants and bars. The atmosphere would have been pretty cool if we didn't have two little kids tagging along. We tried the family-friendly Italian restaurant, but the wait time was way too long. So we headed over to the Lumiere complex and faced my old nemesis, the casino buffet. The lady was nice enough to let my runty four year-old in for free, but the six year-old had to pay the full price. There was the usual--junk, junk, shrimp cocktail, junk, prime rib, and more junk. None of it was bad, but none of it was really good. Except for the desserts. It's impossible to mess up sugar. We left there with stomachs full of food and hearts full of regret. All those calories we burned off at the City Museum were gained back at the buffet.

After a failed attempt at going to the Uppity Mall the next morning (oops--Labor Day hours!), we drove back home that morning. We stopped off at Lambert's Cafe again at noon, but the wait time was over an hour. Since we were ready to get home soon, we headed to McDonald's instead for an unfulfilling lunch. Two hours later, my son threw it back up in the car. He missed the puke bag, too. Oh well, at least it's my wife' car. What an eventful ending to a surprisingly eventful weekend.

Posted by evilnoah 18:30 Archived in USA Tagged st. city museum house louis magic Comments (0)

Everything Is Bigger In...Metropolis?

Getting our scuba certification in Mermet Springs

sunny 65 °F

We have been planning a trip to see the Pyramids in Egypt next year (provided the political situation remains stable). During our research on the country, we realized that the Red Sea is a great place for scuba diving. I have been pining to get scuba certified for the past 20 years but never got around to it. Career and kids always seemed to get in the way. So I convinced the wife to take lessons with me at The Dive Shop over the summer. After several sessions, we were ready to do our open water dives.

We were hoping that our instructor Keith would be doing our certification dives this weekend. However, he already had plans to attend the International Goat Days Festival with his grandkids. I was speechless because I have never heard of such a lame-sounding event. Seriously? Goats! But then I found a youtube video from this fair which showed people racing chariots pulled by goats. This festival seems absolutely absurd. Yet, I also find it strangely intriguing.

After work, we dropped the kids off with their grandparents and headed to Mermet Springs on the Illinois and Kentucky border. Neither of us had ever heard of this place, but the poster in our dive shop proclaimed that it is "Just like the Bermuda Triangle...but not in Bermuda, and not a triangle". The drive there sucked. There is no major highway to get there so we had to pass through little podunk towns. I tend to get annoyed whenever I have to turn my cruise control off. As a result, I had a lot of road rage whenever the speed limit slowed down to as low as 35 miles per hour.

We finally made it to the assigned hotel after 10 PM. Just a week before, we had stayed at the Four Seasons. Now we were holed up in a Super 8 that smelled like an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting—cigarette smoke and stale coffee. Inexplicably, they had crappy ESPNU, but not regular ESPN! Who the heck wants to watch crappy Conference USA football games! The beds weren't very comfy so we tossed and turned all night. However, the hotel DID have free WiFi. Super 8: 1, Four Seasons: 0.

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You can't keep a scuba enthusiasts away from his "dives".

The next morning we drove the 12 miles to the dive site. The place is an old quarry with a bunch of sunken vehicles and planes. They had underwater speakers blasting hits from the 70's and 80's. It's pretty emasculating wearing skin-tight neoprene while having to listen to ABBA. The first 15-20 feet weren't too bad, but the thermocline below was freezing. Experienced divers going to the deeper depths had to wear dry suits to protect themselves from the cold. The wife remarked that they looked like the SWAT team of the underwater world. No, those would be the Navy SEAL's.

Things didn’t start off smoothly for my wife. Literally seconds into her first dive, the mouthpiece fell off of her 2nd stage, causing her to suck in a load of lake water. She freaked out and shot to the surface (we were only less than 10 feet underwater at that point). This set the tone for her for the rest of the day as she had difficulty demonstrating some of the routine skills that she aced during her previous training.

The dives themselves were fairly uneventful. On the first one, the visibility was still pretty good at around 20 to 25 feet. We could see plenty of small fish swimming around. They are so accustomed to divers that you can just reach out and gently touch them. Some of the other open water trainees caught glimpses of decent-sized catfish. The more advanced divers swimming at much lower depths ran into the odd-looking paddlefish (spoonbills), although none were the 200 lb Monster-fish variety.

Unfortunately, the other two dives that day were less enjoyable. With all the people in the water (more than 5 dive schools) stirring up silt, the visibility was greatly decreased to only about 5 feet. We did get a chance to visit some of the sunken structures in the lake. Some of the more shallow objects include a school bus, a Cessna, and the fuselage of the airplane that was used to film the Tommy Lee Jones movie U.S. Marshals. Yeah, that was the one with Wesley Snipes, not Harrison Ford. There was even a motorcycle down there that served as an advertisement for a local bike shop. For lunch, we ate at “Big Daddy’s” snack shack, a concession stand operated by the sloooweeest lady around. When we finally did get our burger, hot dogs, and fries, I have to admit, it was worth the wait. It was damn good. Or maybe we just needed something to warm us up from the cold lake water.

During our free time after diving, we explored the city of Metropolis. Yes, they do proudly point out that they are the “Home of Superman.” And it isn’t just cheap talk either. They apparently have had over 30 annual Superman conventions there.

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Isn't Superman from Smallville?

The townsfolk certainly ham it up with the Superman motif. The lobby of our hotel had framed comic books as their décor. Downtown, there is a Super Museum with over 20,000 items devoted to the “Man of Steel.” The town newspaper is The Metropolis Planet (ala The Daily Planet). They even have soft drink dispensers emblazoned with the “S” emblem.

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I didn't go inside the Super Museum. I'm more of a Marvel Comics fan.

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(left) Bizarro? (right) Someone put a bag on her head!

However, it was really the oversized statues throughout the area that we found fascinating. Outside their city hall is a 30 foot statue of Clark Kent’s alter-ego.

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Apparently this wasn't the first Superman statue erected by the town. The original was shot by folks who wanted to see if he really was faster than a speeding bullet.

The town’s only grocery store has a statue of a gigantic man named Big John as its mascot and namesake. Even Mermet Springs celebrates their supposed monster fish with a sculpture of a giant catfish. Unfortunately, you just don’t see these huge, over-the-top statues anymore. I guess people nowadays consider them too tacky. It’s too bad because they really do add to Metropolis’ small town charm.

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(left) Big John also has a big package...of groceries. (middle) Shouldn't that be a hamburger instead of an ice cream cone? (right) Mmmm...giant donut...

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You gotta dump a lot of bodies in the lake to feed this huge bottom feeder.

For dinner that night, we avoided the temptation of the casino buffet and drove across the river to Paducah. We ate at an Asian-fusion restaurant that got surprisingly good business. A similar style restaurant back home only lasted a year or two.

The next morning we finished our last two certification dives. On the first one, the wife complained of water leaking into her 2nd stage. In between dives, I exchanged regulators with her to make her feel more comfortable. On our second and last dive, just the two of us dove together. Despite taking the same route that we had done the last four dives, I somehow got us lost. We passed the school bus, then the Cessna, and then followed a guide line that we thought was going to the passenger airplane. The water temperature got very cold and I realized that we were already 30 feet deep, with the line still descending. Oops, I was following the wrong line. With visibility at five feet, we swam around until we found another line that we followed. Next thing we knew, we were back at the school bus. Doh! As we took off back to the Cessna, I suddenly sucked in a mouthful of lake water. It took me a second or two to realize what was going on. My mouthpiece for my 2nd stage had fallen off, just like what had happened to the wife the day before. I guess I should have checked all the components of the regulator after I switched with her in between dives. After what seemed like an eternity, I was breathing with my backup 2nd stage. Unfortunately, as panic was about to set in, I had dropped the disconnected mouthpiece. Now with only a single 2nd stage, we didn’t think it was worth the risk to continue diving deeper. It was already hard enough seeing each other at a depth of only 10 feet. We finished the dive at a very shallow depth and received our open water patch. Yay! Now I can buy a jacket so I can sew the patch on it. Those jackets were really cool…when I was nine.

Instead of driving back home the way we came, we decided to make a detour. 45 minutes later, we found ourselves back at Lambert’s Café in Sikeston, Missouri. It was a more relaxing experience this time without the kids. We treated ourselves to more throwed rolls, pass-arounds, and huge vats of ice tea. I finally bought myself a souvenir Lambert’s mug (I had coveted one for years). The wife had a tasty barbeque sandwich and I had a plate of fried hog jowls. It sounds disgusting, but they have a consistency and taste very similar to chewy, thick-cut bacon.

In the end, we were happy to get our scuba certifications. However, we came to the realization that we are not big fans of lake or quarry diving. Hopefully, we will have a more enjoyable (and more picturesque) experience when we get to the Red Sea.

Posted by evilnoah 18:08 Archived in USA Tagged springs scuba metropolis mermet Comments (0)

Stupid Is As Stupid Does?

Beginning Our Journey to Egypt and Jordan

rain 45 °F

[Note: I'm posting my blog entries that I wrote daily during my trip to Jordan and Egypt. There's a 2-3 week delay because I am morally opposed to paying for internet access at my hotels (i.e. I'm too cheap).]

Last year, several of our friends, family members, and colleagues questioned our decision to travel to India. "You're stupid to go there. It's too hot. It's too dirty." they said. When we considered visiting Egypt in 2012, we again raised suspicion about our intelligence. For the past decade, Egypt had been one of the safest places to travel in the Middle East. The government had suppressed the radical and militant organizations which had been responsible for horrendous terrorist atrocities in the 1990's. While their Libyan and Sudanese neighbors had been condemned by the international community, Egypt had been a popular vacationing spot for pasty-white Brits and Russians. It would have been smart to go at that time. Nope. We decided to wait until they had a revolution, riots in the capital, an unpopular military-controlled transition government, increased support for the polarizing Muslim Brotherhood, massacres of Coptic Christians and soccer fans, shark attacks at their beach resorts, and a recent spate of kidnappings in the Sinai by disenchanted bedouins. And it might even get worse. No time in its 5000 year written history has Egypt ever been a democracy. Even if the elections proceed smoothly as planned this summer, they will have years of growing pains to make it work. Therefore, we decided that our vacation destination this year would be Egypt just in case the country took a turn for the worse. Plus, I don't want to go to India again. It's too hot and dirty.

So we thoroughly researched the country's history. Bob Brier's audiobook lectures on ancient Egypt for The Teaching Company were really informative. We watched every video we could find about Egypt--the 2006 BBC series, 3D IMAX films about pyramids and mummies, every documentary on the Discovery or History Channel on Egypt (they all have Zahi Hawass mugging for the camera), The Mummy 1 and 2, and Scooby-Doo in Where's My Mummy?.

We also got our open water certification in anticipation of scuba diving in Sharm El-Sheikh. Somewhere along the way, we tacked on a couple of days in Jordan to visit the Dead Sea and Petra. After thoroughly researching exactly where and when we wanted to go, we contacted a tour company called Lady Egypt. Their representative, Amanda Whittome, was very helpful in tweaking our itinerary and making all the reservations. Then we waited nervously for two months as the news channels continued to portray Egypt in a negative light. Finally, the departure day arrived and we were off.

Our journey started off with some disappointments. On the way over, we had a four hour layover in Paris. The Wife had been looking forward to hitting up the Lauduree store at the Charles De Gaulle airport for some French macaroons. We haven't had any since our last visit to France nine years ago as they are almost impossible to find in our area of the U.S. Our flight was departing from terminal A which is probably the crappy hub since it housed mainly dinky airlines. A quick survey of the shops came up empty for macaroons. Fine, we still had two hours, we'll try a different terminal. That's where the problem arose. For some inexplicable reason, travel is restricted between different terminals. Once you get to your terminal, you're stuck there. What an unbelievably poor design for such a major airport. The Wife was pissed. What a big letdown.

Despite the horrible reviews that Royal Jordanian Airlines has received online, we had decided to use them for our last leg of our itinerary. This was supposed to have gotten us in 1.5 hours earlier than the European carriers. However, the flight ended up being delayed an hour. The airline was actually fine with good English-speaking service. The plane was only half-full, so we had room to spread out.

Once we landed, I sauntered off the plane in my T-shirt expected a blast of nice warm air. Instead, I got a 41 degree F drizzle. WTF. We had expected hot, sunny weather in Jordan. After all, it's a freakin desert. Apparently, we hadn't done enough of our homework. It does get cold in the winter, and they were experiencing a particularly unusual cold spell for this time of year.

We met with our driver Bashar from Desert Horizons Tour Company, and he drove us to our hotel at the Dead Sea. Along the way, we passed a couple of embankments piled high with several inches of snow. We were pleased to see that the road was smooth and well maintained. Plus there was minimal traffic or camels to slow us down. Bashar told us that tourism has been down significantly in Jordan because of the events in the Middle East. Although Jordan has been a political eye of the hurricane that has swept through their neighbors in Syria and Iraq, foreigners have tended to lump them in with those other countries and stayed away.

During our car ride, I had a chance to interrogate Bashar. He has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, usually as a tour guide. Oddly enough, Israel and the West Bank are some of the few places where he has not traveled. Those places can literally be sen across the Jordan River. In fact, we could see lights from the city of Jericho penetrating through the fog. We learned that Bashar's father originally came from Palestine, so we weren't too surprised to hear that he's not a huge fan of the Israeli government. However, he was still very diplomatic about this topic and not hateful against any individuals in generally.

What surprised me was that he is actually somewhat supportive of Bashar al-Assad, the ruler of Syria. Prior to leaving for our trip, all I heard was news on CNN about street violence and civilian deaths in Syria. I just assumed that it was the case of another authoritarian government trying to suppress its democracy-loving people. Our guide whose mother hails from Syria explained that the situation is not that simple. The country has so many different factions (Sunni's vs Shiites, Turks vs Kurds, Arab tribe A vs Arab tribe B, etc) that it has taken a strong centralized government to prevent outright anarchy and civil war. While he admits that the current ruler of Syria has done some heinous things (most obviously using tanks against his own people), our guide gave him the lukewarm endorsement, "At least he is better than his father."

We eventually arrived at our hotel the Kempinski Ishtar Dead Sea. With few dining options outside the hotel, we ate at their Thai restaurant. The food was pricy and Westernized, but still very good.

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(Left) Krupuk [shrimp chips] with hot, spicy, and sour dipping sauces. (Right) Fish tempura amuse bouche.

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(Left) Chicken with green curry. (Right) Mixed seafood in yellow curry.

Afterwards we toured the expansive grounds of the hotel. It's a really a spacious, well-kept property with a modern-style decor.

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(Left) There are no shortages of fountains or pools at the Kempinski. (Right) View of the Dead Sea from the hotel.

There are rooms that open up to lounging areas and swimming pools overlooking the Dead Sea. It would seem like a really relaxing place to bring the kids in the summertime. Unfortunately, we were there at the wrong time of year. It was way too cold to spend any appreciable time outdoors. Plus, the place seemed dead--we barely saw any other guests that night in the resort. That night, I collapsed in bed fearing that we had made a stupid decision coming to the Middle East.

Posted by evilnoah 21:15 Archived in Jordan Tagged sea egypt dead jordan Comments (0)

Not Tickled About Being Pickled

Wading in the Dead Sea and the Jordan River

sunny 50 °F

In the weeks proceeding our trip, I was obsessed with making banchan--Korean side dishes such as kimchi. I tried to pickle everything I could get my hands on--cucumbers, daikons, cabbages, eggplants, garlic, etc. I was getting out of control. The neighbor's dog wisely kept his distance from me. I dumped every vegetable I had into a big bowl of salt water in preparation to be pickled. When the process was complete, I found, to my dismay, that everything was inedible. As I bit into the pickles, I couldn't imagine that anything could be more salty. Unfortunately, I would be proven wrong today when it would be my turn to be human banchan in the Dead Sea.

We woke up early and hit the gym for a morning run on the treadmill. I set the machine to the turtlesque speed that I had been doing over the past few months. A few minutes into the run I thought I was killing it. A day's rest on the plane must have invigorated me. My legs had never felt that energetic and relaxed while running at that rate on the treadmill. Then I realized the reading was in kilometers not miles. Damn metric system! In actuality, I was doing far worse than my usual routine.

After the feeble attempt at exercise, we adorned our fleece coats for the short walk to the Dead Sea. When we got there the attendant told us the beach was closed because the water was too hazardous. Heck no I'm traveling halfway around the world and not getting in that water.

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Technically, we were just going to float, not swim.

We pressed on and waded into a calm, shallow area. People say that nothing lives in the Dead Sea because of the high salt content. I say that it's because the water is freezing cold. What were we thinking going in the winter time? We were tempted to go back and grab our wetsuits from our luggage. We floated for only 5-10 minutes (in fact, sinking is virtually impossible). Then the burning started to get bad. You are supposed to lay on your back in the Dead Sea as the high salt content burns every mucosal surface. Yes, EVERY mucosal surface. Sure I dunked my head in just to see how bad it felt (yep, it hurt momentarily). However, the real problem was the pain in the backside which was unrelenting until I left the water.

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(Left) Ouch! It Burns! (Right) The sea bottom was littered with what I first thought were rocks, but were actually huge salt accumulations.

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This guy stole my wetsuit idea! I really wasn't exaggerating when I said it was cold. This guy is in the HEATED pool.

After our quick dip, we ate a late breakfast. The buffet was well stocked with an eclectic variety of items that were mainly very good. However, two items were particularly disturbing--beef bacon (yuck) and chicken sausage (even more yuck). Most of the world kicks our ass when it comes to lunch, dinner, and dessert. But, North America owns breakfast. Nothing beats a heaping plate of greasy PORK bacon or PORK sausage to get your day started. The two hours of stomach cramps that follows is, as they say in Louisiana, lagniappe.

Bashar then drove us 10 minutes away to Bethany Beyond Jordan. For quite awhile, I had been contemplating a conversion to Christianity. Maybe it was all those years of Christian private schools, maybe it was the desire to lead a more fulfilling life for my children, or maybe it was because I just wanted to 'Tebow' without suffering the Wrath of God. Whatever the reason, it was time. What better place to make it official than the site where Jesus was baptized. We had arranged in advance for a priest to take us through the ceremony. As there are few Protestants or even Catholics in Jordan, we got a Greek Orthodox priest, Reverend Father Georges to ordain us into his church. Great, now we will have to stand up the whole time during service. He made sure that we understood that we would have to follow the tenets of Christianity from now on. I assured him that I had no future plans to covet my neighbor's wife (sure she seems like a nice lady, but she's gotta be at least 60 years old).

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The Baptism pool is an offshoot of the Jordan River filled with water so muddy that it's close to being quicksand.

We were instructed to disrobe completely and wear only a really thin Baptism gown. It was still no warmer than 50 degrees F outside. We walked into the frigid water and were led through the Baptism ceremony. I could feel a sense of warmth and serenity passing through my frozen body. Was it the cleansing of my sins? Was it The Holy Spirit coursing through my bones? Or was it just hypothermia?

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I'm pretty sure Jesus was smart enough to get baptized during the summer months.

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"You may dunk your head in the water now," said the Reverend Father. "Ummm...Do I really have to?" I whined.

After the ceremony, we said our goodbyes to the Reverend Father. As we were wiping the mud off of our feet and massaging our legs to get the sensation back, Bashar joked, "You should have converted to Islam instead. You would have been much warmer". We left the Baptism site with dirty bodies but clean souls.

We explored the rest of the site which included the ruins of old Byzantine churches that dated back to the 6th or 7th century A.D. There is not much left except for some old floor tiles and a stone stairwell down to the place in the river where Jesus was thought to have been baptized.

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The remnants of the Church of John the Baptist overlook Jesus' baptism site.

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(Left) Mosaic depiction of the ruins. (Middle) A modern church arises over the "Jungle of the Jordan." (Right) This cat shadowed us everywhere. I suspect that he's a Mossad agent making sure we don't cross the river to the Israeli side.

We next stopped off at an obligatory touristy souvenir store. Neither one of us was planning on wasting any money. We were just going to look around briefly to be polite. Unfortunately, we have a weakness for colorful and sparkly things. Soon enough, we were haggling over a couple of items. Jordan is known for their intricate mosaic tiles that decorate their church floors and beauty products made from Dead Sea mud. So what did we buy? A hand-painted ostrich egg. What Jordan has to do with ostriches? I don't have a clue. The egg is pretty cool though, albeit expensive and absolutely useless.

Salespeople 1: Us 0

We departed for the three hour drive to Petra. The main road was too dangerous because of snow; so we had to take a rocky, gravel-strewn backroad that snaked through the mountains. Some of the drop offs on the side of the road are several hundreds of feet down, and there are no guardrails. Also, the endless number of hills and dips in the road made the car bounce up and down like we were riding a @&$#! camel. I hate @&$#! camels.

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The land was desolate with miles and miles of endless sand and rocks.

Nary was there another car or settlement around. Even in this remote landscape, an occasional Bedouin or a pack of grazing camels or sheep would sometimes appear out of nowhere in the distance. In this arid desert, water can be scarce. We stopped at a cistern carved into a mountain that is used to store water.

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(Left) Entrance to the cistern. (Right) You have to be really thirsty to drink this water.

Eventually, we arrived at a place known as 'Little Petra'. Centuries ago, it was a rest stop for the trade caravans right before they made it to Petra itself. There wasn't much to the place. There was a narrow canyon with a couple of rooms and decorations carved into the rocks. The place was free and it was serene (we had to share it with only a handful of tourists). It was so quiet that we could hear the muffled steps of our shoes in the sand. It was a good warmup for Petra tomorrow.

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(Above and Below) Various areas in Little Petra.
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We then checked into the Movenpick Hotel right across the street from the entrance to Petra. Someone must have confused our hotel for the Piccadilly Cafe because there were a lot of elderly people in the lobby at 5 PM. We ate dinner at the fancy "romantic" restaurant in the hotel. The hotel advertises it as being the highest-rated restaurant in all of Jordan--and the good food backs up that claim. However, the elevator music of Lionel Ritchie and Bryan Adams songs were pretty cheesy. It was even more lame that I knew all their lyrics.

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(Left) Assorted bread with compound butters. (Right) Amuse bouche of falafel stuffed with lamb.

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(Left) Mediterranean seafood soup. (Right) Eggplant stuffed with peppers, artichokes, zucchini, and herbs.

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(Left) Al Iwan style lamb loin. (Right) Despite all of the tempting items on the menu, The Wife inexplicably ordered pasta.

The weather forecast predicted even colder weather the next day. Therefore, we enjoyed the comforts of our warm hotel room that evening, knowing that we were gonna go from being pickles to popsicles in the morning.

Posted by evilnoah 20:58 Archived in Jordan Tagged sea dead jordan bethany Comments (0)

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