Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My flag.

I apologize for the time away. I've recently been promoted to a supervisory position at another camp and the new job carries an enormous burden of paperwork. My CSA / Admin was promoted just before I arrived, and her replacement won't be here for another month or more, so the burden falls on my shoulders for a while. My bosses have told me several times that the paperwork is a necessary part of the job. I explained that I see work like pooping. The actual pooping is the good part. It's the functional and productive part of the job. A little paperwork after the work is done, and all is well. However, too much paperwork leaves me irritated.

But I digress from my reason for posting today....

A few months ago the company for which I work decided that we, the American contractors working in Iraq, should stop flying American flags on our vehicles or over our offices and living quarters on base so as not to offend our "host nation" and all of our co-workers from other countries.

This is my answer to their request.

I've GOT to catch up on my Tobago trip posts!

Friday, July 4, 2008

First Annual COB Speicher Chili Cookoff.

I have to take a break from our regularly scheduled vacation programming to vent a little.

When I got back from vacation I was informed that there was going to be a chili cookoff here at the base and I had been signed up to represent the dept. Those of you who know me know that I was honored and excited to do so. I love to cook, and I love to cook chili. I have a huge chili pot and lots of spices here in Iraq with me.

I started prep a few days ago. I purchased steaks from the PX, took a couple of to-go boxes full of onion, tomato, jalapeño slices, and pinto beans from the DFAC, made sure I had beer (non-alcoholic of course!), and lined up my spices.

Yesterday, I diced up the steaks, seasoned the meat heavily with onion, garlic, cumin, and jalapeños, and let it sit overnight in the fridge to meld all together.

I fired up the grill at 4am this morning and started heating the pan.

The meat went into a little hot olive oil to brown, got stirred around a bit every few minutes, then in went the tomato, more onion, a load spices, and more jalapeño.

Once that was simmering away nicely, I added beer, V8 juice (no tomato sauce available), and tossed on the lid.

I checked the progress periodically, made seasoning / liquid adjustments, and stirred, stirred, stirred. Around 10:30 AM, I tasted the concoction, declared it good, and called the concoction "Chili."

The judging was held at our area offices on the north side of the camp. A small group of emissaries was dispatched with me to escort the pot via an unreported route. We arrived safely at 11:30 and turned in our entry. The tasting began at noon sharp.

Judges tasting chili while spectators watch and hydrate. (It was 129 deg F here today.)

Judges about to announce the winner(s).

I knew I was in trouble when the late-entry canned chili from the HSE dept placed third. The lady who won first place is a very nice lady, but her chili was reminiscent of spaghetti sauce. Delicious, mildly spicy spaghetti sauce, but spaghetti sauce nonetheless. Here she is with my... I mean her trophy.

The first place trophy.

I know that I can't help that the judges were milquetoast Yankees who's lips get blistered by black pepper, but I still sat there feeling like I should have won. This wasn't a superior chili that beat me, but inferior taste buds!

After the official judging, people kept coming up to me telling me that they thought my chili should have won. As I stood beside my pan dishing out bowl after bowl of delicious Texas Red, I heard people telling their friends, "Hey, try this guy's chili! It's the real deal!" or "As hot as this is, I want to eat more! How do you do that?" The flattery was humbling.

I was standing down by the other end of chili row when I heard someone yell, "Time to go! We're out of Chili!"

What? We're not out of chili. There are still people standing in line. Let me look.

Sure enough. About 1/2 left in each pot. Let's go check out the winner's pot.

A little less than 1/2 a pot left over.

"What do you guys mean we're out of chili?"
"No, Joel. YOUR chili. It's all gone."

Second place, my behind. ;)

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Tobago Vacation - Day 4 - June 2008

I woke up wanting to do more than see the local shops and beach. I wanted to see the whole island. Tobago is around 7.5 miles wide, 25 miles long, and very mountainous. There are waterfalls, old forts with sweeping views of the ocean, many small parks, and a forest reserve that is older than the USA.

After a quick breakfast of local fruit I had purchased the day before, I asked Paul if he could recommend a car rental company. He did, so I walked down to pick up a car. $300.00 TT ($50.00 US) later, I was in my right-hand drive Hyundai Matrix driving on the left side of the road. Yes, it was a little weird at first, but pretty soon it was second nature. That's me on the right.

A quick check of the GPS so I can find my way back to the hotel.... wait... does that sign say "K-Mart?"

Unfortunately, I didn't take the time to visit.

Setting out from Crown Point, I drove to the Eastern side of the island and up the coast. It was a magnificent drive.

Somewhere along the way I stopped and took a picture of this HUGE abandoned house up on the side of one of the mountains. At one time it must have been some kind of place because there is actually a paved road running up to it. I'm a bit of an explorer and I had to fight to keep from driving up and going inside. With my luck it probably wouldn't have been abandoned after all!

Stopping at one of the many small beaches on the island, I couldn't help but take yet another pan. Those of you who are better photographers than I am, yes, I know I should have turned my camera sideways and gotten more vertical coverage.

Gorgeous, no?

Driving on up the coast I found a place to take this shot. Had it not been for the two large trees in the foreground, I think this might be suitable for a postcard. It was a beautiful view. (Get used to me saying that.)

Further up, sitting just off the coast of Speyside, Tobago is an island set aside as a bird santuary called "Little Tobago" or "Bird of Paradise Island."

What I found more interesting is the little island in-between Speyside and Little Tobago called "Goat Island." Goat Island was the home of writer Ian Fleming. In this photo you can see Mr. Fleming's old house on Goat Island with Little Tobago looming in the background.

Do I need to say it?

Some weird rock formation with a hole in it. (Zoomed in below.) Taken from one of the highest points on the island.

Speaking of high spots:

While driving through the mountains I noticed what looked like cow pies laying on the road. I thought, "Cow pies? What kind of weird Tobagoan mountain animal makes things that look like cow pies."

I quickly found out.

It seems that cows make things that look like cow pies.

After getting back to the hotel, Paul informed me that there is "One proper herd of cattle" on the island. They are a mix of all kinds of breeds including some Zebu and Water Buffalo.

The hotel serves the beef on their menu when it's available. Sadly, it was not available while I was there. However, I did have some wonderful yellow-fin tuna and garlic shrimp expertly prepared by Paul.

Same cow there on the right... just from higher up.

Whomever owns the herd of cattle stakes them out to graze along the roadside for miles. You'll see goats staked out all over the island as well.

It must be a pretty common occurrence as there are signs in the Main Ridge Forest Reserve telling people that tethering of animals is not allowed.

It sure seems to keep the roadside weeds in check.

Today would be the first day to visit a fort. Tobago was once the home of many fierce battles. She's changed hands no less than 31 times. The last "major" upset was on her sister island, Trinidad, in 1990 when there was a coup brought about by:

a) Baptists
b) Muslims
c) Catholics
d) George Bush

All you left-wing idiots are wrong for guessing D. The correct answer is B, Muslims. Big surprise, huh? I'm sure someone will call for my death for pointing that out.

But I digress.

There are cannon placements like this all over Tobago.

One can only imagine the thunderous belching of smoke and fire over the waters as an enemy ship came around the bend just a few hundred yards offshore.

If memory serves, the cannonballs shot from these particular cannon weighed 18lbs each.

This old guardian has stood vigilant for hundreds of years.

I didn't take a chance and sample the water, but locals fill water jugs from springs located all over the island. I ran across this fill station in the Main Ridge Forest Reserve.

Coming back down out of the mountains was a treat. I wonder how many tires and brake shoes the typical car goes through in a year. This was one of the easier areas to drive. (Mom, don't click this video. You're on dial-up. The clip would take all day to download.)

Oh! I almost forgot about the leaf cutter ants! I was standing by the car taking pictures when a little yellow something that was moving across the ground caught my eye. At first I thought it was a tiny butterfly, but as I got closer I saw ants! I was in a National Geographic Special! Of course I filmed them.

With all the running around I did today, bedtime came early and easy.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Tobago Vacation - Day 3 - June 2008

Tuesday morning I woke up, ate a light breakfast, and lounged in the room for a while. Around 10am there was a knock on the door. I assumed it was the hotel owner, Paul, coming to ask me to check in. It WAS Paul, but he said, "I'm taking a couple next door to the beach in about 10 minutes. Would you like to go?" I said I would and hurried to get dressed.

We piled into Paul's car and took a 5 minute drive to Pigeon Point, one of Tobago's most famous beaches. As a matter of fact, the thatched hut pictured below has become Tobago's trademark shot for travel brochures.

There weren't many people around which was really nice. I had read that petty theft was a problem at some of the beaches. Sure enough I caught this fellow trying to steal an unattended banana.

The area had several of these shady characters as well.

There are TONS of "stray" dogs like this on Tobago. Most are friendly because they are cared for to some degree by the locals. I was informed that the Caribbean people are very superstitious about dogs. They believe that if you mistreat a dog in this life, the dog gets his revenge on you in the afterlife. Karma with teeth.

The "Most Decorated Person on the Beach" award goes to this guy. I wish I could have gotten a clearer photo, but not knowing local customs on taking photos of strangers, I opted for the sneaky shot.

This wasn't the most bizarre hairdo I saw during the week. (The island has a few Rastafarians.) I grew up being told to wash, cut, and comb my hair regularly. Now I'm 40 and bald and I find a WHOLE SOCIAL CASTE OF PEOPLE WHO DON'T GIVE A CRAP!!! Sigh....

By the way, notice the Roti on the menu? I ate the fish and chips instead. Flying fish battered in a mildly curried batter then fried. It was great.

I really wish I knew more about photography. The photos posted here do absolutely NO justice to the beauty of Tobago.

Fruit trees exist in abundance. I have never seen so many types of fruit growing in one area in such large quantities. Later in the week I would stop and pick wild, tree-ripe fruit to enjoy as a snack.

There are almonds, cashews, oranges, mangoes, jackfruit, breadfruit, bananas, cocoa, papaya, dates, guava, pineapples, and I even found some small crabapples on the beach that I was tempted to eat but thought twice about since they were just laying in the sand. From what I've read about the indigenous fruit, it's a good thing I passed on them.

It seems they aren't "real" apples at all, but the sweet, delicious, and very deadly fruit of the Manchineel tree. Also known as "Manzanilla de la Muerta" or "Little apple of death."

The tree is so dangerous that even the sap from them will ulcerate your skin and eyes. The tree releases it's milky sap at the slightest provocation, including rain. Many tourists have taken shelter under these trees during a rainstorm only to spend the rest of their vacation suffering in a hospital.

Don't eat strange fruit you find on a beach!

These papayas were screaming "EAT ME!!!" but I'm not much of a tree climber. Plus it was taller than the surrounding coconut trees!

One last panorama before I leave the beach.....

These photos were taken walking back to the hotel:

Waterfall at the entrance to Pigeon Point.

This is a "Seagrape" tree. The berries are edible but I didn't know that at the time.

The above is Soursop / Guayabana. The palm tree is some sort of date I didn't care for. (Unripe?)

This next photo is for my mom. Her maiden name is Spence. Perhaps these are some long-lost relatives. (There was a "Spence Apartments" on the island as well, but I don't think I got a photo.)
The rest of the walk was pretty uneventful. I got back to the hotel, ate a little supper, showered, and crashed until the next morning.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Tobago Vacation - Days 1 and 2 - June 2008

After a two day flight delay due to dust storms, I was on my way to beautiful San Antonio, Texas to spend a week with my kids. It was incredible. If anyone wants to know my secret for youth and happiness, it's my kids.

To preserve my tax status as an expatriate contract worker, I needed to take my second week of vacation outside of the US or its territories.

I work with people from Macedonia, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, India, Brazil, New Zealand, Africa, and other places who all recommended their home countries as the best place to take a vacation. Air travel from where I work to the U.K. or Europe is very reasonable, but because of spending the first week with my kids, I would be flying from Texas. I needed something close and inexpensive. Mexico certainly fits the requirements, but I've already been there several times.

After a few days of playing with Google Maps and scouring travel websites, I found that Trinidad and Tobago were close, easy to get to, and best of all, INEXPENSIVE! I've worked with several people from the two islands who told me that Tobago was the place Trinidadians (?) go for a quiet getaway. That sounded like just what I needed.

My flight left on Father's day from Houston, Texas and landed in Port of Spain, Trinidad around 19:30.

I snapped the following photo on the way in. (I had my camera set wrong and this is the clearest of 14 pictures!)

After standing in line for about an hour to clear Immigration, I went to the ticket counter to inquire about a commuter flight over to Tobago.

There was no one at the airline counter. Looking around, I noticed there was no one at ANY of the airline counters. Hmmmm.......

I found the tourism office and inquired where I could find a flight to Tobago. The woman behind the desk looked a bit surprised and asked, "Todey?"
"Yes, today. I have a hotel reservation in Tobago."
"Dey ah no moh flights todey."
"Where do I catch the ferry then? I understand there is a ferry to Tobago."
"Dey no moh boats tonight. Everting closed now."
"What is the earliest I can catch a flight to Tobago in the morning?"
"Be heyah at 4am for check-in."
"Ok... perhaps not the EARLIEST then. How about a hotel? Where is a close hotel?"
"Dey ah fliahs behine you. All about $92 US wit pick-up."
"Any you would recommend?"
"Let me call dem for you."

The lady spent a few minutes on the phone and found an available room for me. I sat and waited for the car. The driver finally showed and took me on a 20 minute ride to the hotel. We weren't heading into the city or near anything that looked habitable, but we finally pulled up to a gate near a guard shack. After someone inside finally opened the gate, we drove a long, narrow driveway to a building that looked as if was being renovated. The driver parked and I took my bags inside. I can't say it was a nice looking place, but they did advertise free internet. I paid for my room and was shown upstairs to an unmarked door. "Great" I thought "they are putting me in a closet." I wasn't far off the mark. The room was small, but cool and dry and came with a television and private bathroom. I showered, emailed the hotel in Tobago that I would be delayed a day, watched a little television, then fell asleep.

The next morning I woke to sounds of construction somewhere in the hotel. I got up, had breakfast, then decided to look around. I opened the window upstairs and was greeted with this view. (I have tried to re-create it here with a panorama stitched together from several photos.)

I decided this place needed more exploring. This view was on the opposite side of the hotel:

Around 10am I had the driver from the previous night take me back to the airport to check for flights. Guess what? There are no mid-day flights from Trinidad to Tobago. You either pick them up in the morning, or take an afternoon flight. I inquired about an afternoon ticket.
"Hi! I'd like to catch a flight to Tobago."
"Actually, I wanted it yesterday, but I got in too late last night. When is the next flight?"
"Dey sold out."
"Your flights are sold out?"
"All of them?"
"I need to get to Tobago TODAY."
"You kin try de ferry."
"How do I get there?"
"Tek a cab, but de ferry don leave 'til five."
"What time should I get there?"
"Aroun' tree to check in."

I remembered passing a mall on the way in so thought that would be an easy way to kill the next few hours. I found a secure area to park my bags and grabbed a taxi to the mall.

By the way.... anytime you take a cab in Trinidad or Tobago GET PRICES FIRST. It was $17.50 US ONE WAY to the mall. The cab driver didn't volunteer this info, nor did he tell me this until he picked me up to take me back to the airport. I did think it neat that he didn't charge me for the ride until he picked me for the second trip. "Pay me later when I pick you up."

The mall was interesting. Just like any mall you'd go to in the US, there are expensive items and there are bargains. There weren't any store names I recognized, only some fast food places like Subway, KFC, and TCBY.

Speaking of food, I had a local dish called "Roti" which was basically a big oily fried doughy bread (fry bread) wrapped around a filling of curried potato and chick peas with your choice of beef, chicken, or lamb / goat. (Or more potato and chick pea if you are vegetarian.) Very similar to Indian Roti / Paratha, just much more oily and messy.

After returning to the airport, I retrieved my bags and we took off on a 30 minute jaunt to the ferry terminal.

It was a beautiful afternoon for a drive.

The ferry terminal was an interesting place. If it weren't for the hundreds of people milling around and the nice terminal building, it didn't look like the kind of area you'd want to be in after dark. Fortunately, it wasn't after dark yet.

Once inside I found my way to the ticket counter and said, "Hi! I need to get to Tobago."
"Actually, I needed to get there yesterday, then tried again this morning, but everything closes here or sells out of tickets rather early."
"We don have no moh tickets to Tobago todey."
"Ma'am, I've been on this godforsaken island a day and a half now. I need to get on with my vacation."
"We might have standby. Wait over there in line."

I waited, fuming, for about 15 minutes. The woman called me up to the window, said they had seats available, and that I would be good to travel. WOO HOO! I checked my bags and headed upstairs.

The ferry that was supposed to LEAVE at 17:00, ARRIVED at 18:00. We loaded and FINALLY got underway. Looking around, I noticed the boat was only about 1/3 occupied, which caused a few seconds of confusion about why I was told there were no more seats.

After the snack bar opened, I grabbed a drink and headed upstairs to take a look around.

My vacation had a more official feel to it and I was happy!

I'd never seen anything as lovely as the Port of Spain getting smaller and smaller on the horizon.

Then I saw the sunset.

This amazing sunset was the last bit of beauty I would experience for the next 3 hours.

A bit of history before we continue. When I was a little kid, I had NO problems with motion sickness. I could ride any and every ride in a theme park, read in the car or on the front porch swing for HOURS, and even ride in a boat. My sophomore year in High School, I woke up one morning with a bad pain in my side. Thinking appendicitis, my parents took me to the hospital. I spent 3 days getting poked and prodded then made a miraculous recovery and felt better. I was sent home only to wake the next morning with a 104.whatever fever and even worse pain. I spent the next week being poked and prodded more until the doctors decided that my gall bladder didn't like me any more. I made another miraculous recovery and was sent home. Riding in the van on the way home I got so nauseated that I made my dad pull over so I could throw up. I've battled motion sickness ever since. Even after having my gall bladder removed, I have problems. I'm not sure if they are related issues, but I don't recall having motion sickness prior to the gall bladder flare up.

Back to the boat ride.

The cafe on the boat sold the above mentioned Roti dish, assorted fried foods, and served a lot of beer and rum. Served it to people who apparently have the same problems with motion sickness that I do just before embarking on a 3 hour boat ride across choppy Caribbean / Atlantic waters. There is nothing quite as gross as hundreds of people serial vomiting on a hot boat. I found a secluded corner where I could sit and let the waves of nausea flow through me while bullets of sweat rolled down my head and face. About an hour into the ride I mercifully fell asleep.

I woke about an hour and a half later due to a rather urgent call of nature. Having worn my contacts all day, then falling asleep in them, it took a few minutes of blinking and squinting to get my vision up to par. I did this while walking to the bathroom. On a rolling ship. Just after waking and standing. With no sea legs at all. It must have been comical to see because as I rounded the corner of the railing to head downstairs one of the locals yelled, "Hey! White guy! Watch ya step. We be laughing atcha punk ass!" I smiled and gave him a big thumbs up. He yelled back, "Ya, mon!" I went on to take care of business and headed back to my seat. The waves of nausea had pretty much subsided, and the boat's frigid air had dried most of the sweat. I sat in relative comfort listening to the retching of my ship-mates until we pulled into port at Scarborough.

After exiting the ship, I contacted the hotel to tell them I had FINALLY made it to Tobago and to inquire about how to get to Crown Point. They recommended taking a taxi.

Bit of info on T&T Taxis: Most of the legitimate drivers who offer you rides will have their taxi license hanging from their neck on a lanyard. Also, REAL taxi cabs have license plates that begin with the letter "H." If someone offers you a ride and they aren't wearing their license around their neck, check the plate on the car. Some of the gypsy cab drivers will carry a lanyard in their hand. They have no taxi license on the end, but it will fool people who look for a lanyard. Now, all that being said, even most of the gypsy cab drivers are honest and will take you anywhere on the island you want to go for a small fee. Just be sure to ask the price before getting in the car. Some will press you because you don't know the local currency, exchange rates, or normal prices. If you think you're getting a bad deal, find another driver and compare. Find a "real" cab and compare.

I hooked up with a nice fellow who offered to take me to the hotel for about $40.00 TT. I tipped him an extra $20.00 TT when we got there. That's around $10.00 US total for the ride AND tip.

I arrived at the hotel to find the owner just locking up the office. He yawned and said, "The ferry was late, eh? We were just about to give up on you. You can sign in come morning. Let me show you to your room."

The room was larger and more comfortable than the one in Trinidad. I showered, unpacked a little, then crashed. It was going to be a wonderful rest of the week.