Tags: travel

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Report from Lost Wages AKA Las Vegas NV

I arrived back in Darien last night after a four-night, three day visit to Lost Wages, also known as Las Vegas, NV. It's the first time I've been there in at least five years. Herewith is a long report on the same.

Flying in the (hopefully) tail-end of a pandemic

I flew out of Midway Airport on mid-day Thursday and back in on Sunday afternoon. On my admittedly non-peak outbound flight, the airport felt eerily empty - maybe 35% of normal capacity. Only about half of the normal stores and bars were open. The flight (Southwest Airlines) was full, so I assume Southwest has reduced the number of flights to accommodate the reduced travel demand.

Facemasks were required everywhere, including on the plane, except when "actively eating or drinking." They were polite but insistent - the rule was lift your mask, take a sip, put mask back down. McCarran in Los Vegas felt busier and everything was open. How much of that was an illusion due the the million slot machines everywhere I don't know.

Los Vegas proper

I stayed at the Downtown Grand Hotel & Casino. This was my first time staying in downtown Vegas. I'm a blackjack player, and downtown used to be known as the home of cheap blackjack tables. Whether due to the 50% capacity restrictions or trends since my previous visit, that is no more. $10 tables were the standard, with the only $5 tables being one or two at my hotel. Also, it was eerie seeing a bunch of tables empty (no dealers) on a Friday or Saturday night. Lastly, table games followed the same mask rules as the airlines.

The hotel itself was nice - a newer property with freshly-renovated rooms. I ate dinner twice at their steakhouse, the Triple George Grill. I highly recommend the pork chop. As far as the "Fremont Street Experience" - the light show is nice, the crowds not-so-nice.

The Mob Museum

The Mob Museum was less than a block from my hotel, so as a history geek I visited. Although all the marketing says "Mob Museum" the official name of the place is the "National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement" and the story told by the museum is from the law enforcement perspective. If you're downtown, it's worth a visit.

The museum is the converted county courthouse. The highlight of the visit for me was their Underground Speakeasy. It's in the basement (duh!) and aims to explain what speakeasys were. Part of that explanation is selling various cocktails of the era. Try a Bees Knees (gin, fresh lemon juice, and honey, served shaken and chilled). Also, the liquor for their Old Fashioned comes in a fake book. It was a nice way to spend a few hours.

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Thoughts on Utah

I had occasion to visit the Salt Lake City area over the 4th of July weekend. Herewith, some random thoughts.
  1. The greater Salt Lake City area is very north-and-south. All of metro Salt Lake and thus the majority of people in the state are jammed into a strip of land around 10 to 15 miles wide between the lake and the Wasatch Mountains. The later are shockingly steep, in many places being barely less than cliffs. As a result, there is really one main north-south road, I-15. If things are flowing on that road, traffic is good. If not, well, you’re stuck.
  2. Utah has funny laws regarding the sale and consumption of alcohol. Before the law changed in 2009 most places serving alcohol were at least nominally “private clubs.” Now, as I understand it, Utah has three classes of places serving booze to the public., to wit: Bars. These are over-21 only places, and they allow you to actually see the booze like in a regular bar.  Restaurants. These can let in all ages, but you must order food and the drinks are brought out from a back room, even if they have a physical bar area.  Taverns. These can serve beer only. Many local microbreweries (of which the SLC area has a lot) have this class of license which means they only sell their beer.
  3. Utah is a desert. (Yeah, news flash.) Salt Lake City is a high desert (around 4,500 feet high) and so gets cold in winter. In summer, it gets hot (90s) but there’s so little humidity that if you can find some shade and/or a breeze it’s quite comfortable. At night, it tends to drop off pretty quickly, which again makes for comfortable evenings.
  4. I learned the high-low desert difference at the Natural History Museum of Utah, which I visited on Sunday. The museum was well worth the admission price. (https://nhmu.utah.edu/)
  5. Also while in Utah, I visited Temple Square, which is the heart of the Mormon Church and right in the middle of downtown Salt Lake City. It was a surprisingly small area, although pleasant enough. Architecturally, it’s just okay – the buildings are either uninspired copies of European church architecture or modern buildings. Having said that, when in Utah one does what Utahans do.
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Metra

This week, I spent four of five working days attending a training class in downtown Chicago AKA The Loop. Since it was a 9-to-5 kind of thing, I took the train in, specifically Metra's Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) line. It is the busiest Metra line in the system, and runs (in my case) from Westmont into Union Station.

Back in the late 1990s, I was a consultant and had a multi-month contract downtown. While on that contract, I rode the same route over the same tracks. Given that Metra hasn't bought a new railcar in 30 years, I probably rode in the same cars. A few thoughts on the difference between Then and Now.

Then: Metra's communication sucked. The loudspeakers at the stations didn't work and if you got a car in which the loudspeakers worked, the conductor was making the announcements and thus frequently incomprehensible.

Now: Loudspeakers work fine everywhere, some stations have electronic signage, and the announcements are recorded and thus professionally enunciated.

Then: Everybody riding in had a book or a newspaper.

Now: iPads and laptops. A lot of the iPad folks are watching video with a headset on.

Then: The BNSF never had bar-cars, but Union Station in the afternoon had several pop-up stands with people selling cans of beer for the train.

Now: You can still find a beer to go, but it's not nearly as prevalent.

Then: talking on the train tended to get some dirty looks.

Now: they have specific "quiet cars" so if you don't get one, talk away. Although most non-quiet cars are pretty quiet.

Then and now: at least nine times out of ten you get where you were going within five minutes or so of the scheduled time. The tenth time is usually a big hoopla.

It's fashionable to bash Metra. However, in my experience, they really do offer a good service at a fair price.

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Schedule of Events, 2019

As discussed previously, I have been less-than-enthusiastic about attending this year's Worldcon in Dublin. Well, my lack of enthusiasm has led to a decision. I will not be attending Worldcon. I will, in fact, be donating my attending membership to the Fantastic Dublin Fund, which is attempting to get a more diverse group of attendees to Worldcon. Since cons in general need less fat white middle-aged guys, it's a fair trade.

Having freed that time and money commitment up, I will be attending two cons in the US. First, I'll be going back to ConQuest 50 in Kansas City over Memorial Day. I took the last two years off from that con. There were a variety of reasons, including budget and a bit of over-exposure as a result of the 2016 Worldcon in KC. In any event, it's time to go back.

The other con I've decided to attend is NASFIC AKA Westercon AKA Spikecon, to be held in Layton Utah July 4-7. I suspect I'll get to both of these events for about the same money as I would spend on Worldcon in Dublin.

I'll also be able to accumulate miles and money for New Zealand 2020. That's going to be a long trip, and if I'm going Down Under I'll be spending more time down there than a long weekend in a convention.

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Honduras!

As mentioned, I flew to Honduras for the long weekend. The purpose of my visit was to meet fellow Rotarians in support of a project to build a school in a rural area of Quimistan, a municipality in the Santa Barbara Department. (Here's a link to my Facebook photo album of the trip.)

First off, in Honduras, a municipality is more like a US county than a city. It covers both what we would consider a town as well as the surrounding rural areas. Quimistan (link to Spanish-language edition of Wikipedia - the English entry is a stub) is the second-largest municipality and reportedly has a population of just under 30,000. There's a lot of empty land, most of it mountainous and only suitable for goats. It's a mere 50 miles or so from San Pedro Sula, the second-largest city in Honduras, but those miles are over a two-lane road shared with every barely-mobile beat-up jalopy imaginable. It's a slow drive.

Still, we left San Pedro Sula early on a Sunday morning, and so had no traffic to speak of. The school we're replacing is up in a rural part of Quimistan. Due to rains, the road was impassible. Based on an experience I had later that day, when a Honduran says a road is impassible, they are not kidding. In any event, a group of people from the local community walked to where vehicles could be gotten and were carpooled into town.

Everybody met at a fairly nice roofed-over sports facility. No walls, but not needed in that climate. We chatted for a bit, then had a ceremony where we signed an agreement to build the school. It was a big deal for all involved.

After a nice home-cooked lunch (we ate in air conditioning, even!) then, at the mayor's request, we went to visit another school which we were promised was accessible. The mayor wants that school to be the next on the list.

We drove on the main road in the direction of San Pedro Sula for a while, then turned off the paved road onto a crappy dirt track. After a few miles of that, we stopped and transferred into the personal four-wheel-drive vehicles of the Honduran Rotarians. Then we pressed on, hitting roads that I would haven't attempted to drive on under any circumstance.

After another few miles of that, the road ended at a town called Urraco Camalote. Literally at the end of the road was a school. Well, a shack with faded delusions of grandeur that they called a school. It was dark, damp, falling apart and had a pile of junk about 4 feet high in one corner. Oh, and it had one teacher and only went to 6th grade.

We chatted with the locals (I noted no men of working age were present), took some pictures and piled back into the trucks.

I've seen poverty before. This was real poverty. It was a stark reminder of how lucky I have been, and how much of that luck was due to an accident of birth.

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Travel Thoughts

Over the long weekend, I flew to Honduras and back. Boy are my arms tired! [Yes, I plan on keeping the day job.) The purpose of the visit was to investigate sites for charity work, specifically building schools. I'll have more details on that portion of the trip later, but since I got back home at 9:30 PM, not today. Today I'll have some thoughts on travel.

Drink Carts

I normally fly Southwest. They serve snacks, pop and simple alcoholic beverages in-flight. For a variety of reasons, on this trip I flew Delta. Both flights, including the international leg, had a very similar menu.

On Southwest, the process of getting a drink is that the flight attendant comes, takes your order, and comes back with a tray of drinks. Snacks are distributed via them walking down the aisle with a wicker basket. There is no drink cart. On Delta, they push the damn drink cart down the aisle. Why? Southwest's system is much quicker and if you're not actually feeding people just as effective.

Getting There

For purposes of the flight, my final destination was San Pedro Sula, Honduras's second-largest city and the economic capital thereof. However, given that Honduras is the second-poorest country in this hemisphere, that's not saying a lot. They have an airport, but for commercial aviation the city is the end of the line and for most airlines can only support a single flight a day. So to get there, one flies out of a US city in the late morning.

The plane arrives in the early afternoon and is fairly quickly turned around and sent back to home base. It means that the tiny airport (eight "gates" all within 200 feet of each other and sharing a single waiting room) is busy as hell from around 11 AM to 3 PM and then goes to sleep. It also means one spends an entire day in the air getting to or from.

Tomorrow (hopefully) pictures and more details.

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Travel Advice Needed

Travel decisions need to be made, and thoughts from the wisdom of my readership are welcome. As of right now, I am sitting on an attending membership for this year's Worldcon to be held in Dublin Ireland in August. That's looking to be, well, costly.

Just to get to Dublin is around $1000 - and that for the privilege of cramming big me into small economy seat for 7.5 hours. Thus I'll arrive in Ireland cramped and zombie-like from no sleep. Then, Dublin has very expensive hotels. The bargain hotels are $200 / night. Yeah, you get breakfast too, but that's still at least 5 nights so that's another $1000. I'm thus at $2000 before dinner, booze, local transport, etc.

And I've been to Dublin. It's a nice place, but I've seen it. So do I really want to go? Helsinki was fun, and tied into a cruise and other events. London gave me an excuse to see some of Britain. But for me, Dublin would be just that, Dublin.

I'm strongly considering cutting my losses and going to Nasfic AKA Westercon. It's in Utah so it's much cheaper and unlike the underwhelming Puerto Rico Nasfic it's attached to an existing con so should be well-attended.

Again, thoughts welcome.

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799 miles

My trip odometer tells me I just put 799 miles on my car. This was because I drove up to Door County, Wisconsin and back for a week's vacation. Google tells me that 534 of those miles were spent getting there and back, which means I drove 266 miles around Door County. So what did I do?

1) Visited Washington Island. There's not much to see there, but I had a drink at Nelsen’s Hall Bitter’s Pub & Restaurant, the oldest continuously-operating tavern in Wisconsin.

2) Played golf at two courses. One, Alpine, was literally right outside my door. The course is gorgeous, but the clubhouse and general resort facilities are old and tired. The other course, Peninsula State Park's course, was also gorgeous. Neither course was at all crowded.

3) Visited five or six wineries. (Yeah, hard to keep track.) Nice way to spend a warm day that was threatening storms.

4) At at a number of nice restaurants. They were all good, but I highly recommend The English Inn supper club in Fish Creek. Try the beef wellington and the spinach salad with warm bacon dressing.

5) Enjoyed the amenities (pool, bar and restaurant) at where I was staying, the Landmark Resort in Egg Harbor.

6) Took a boat tour via Fish Creek Scenic Boat tours. Well worth the money.

The weather was great. Saturday, Sunday and Monday were cool, although each day got warmer. Tuesday thru Thursday were perfect, and Friday got hot. I also got the only rain of the week, late Friday night. So, I am officially rested and recharged.

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The Urge to Create

As you may have heard here, I recently visited The Old Soil, AKA Lithuania. It's a cute country in Eastern Europe with a bad history of getting absorbed by Russia. It's also a small country, with around 2.8 million people, roughly the same population as Kansas.

Lithuania never built any overseas empires, so other than those 2.8 million Lithuanians, there aren't very many people who speak Lithuanian. If you want to get ahead in Lithuania, you learn English, something that's helped by the fact that there's an FM radio station in Kaunas that plays American Top 40 music. (My cab driver was listening to it.)

But people have a strong urge to create. So strong that the Lithuanian folk restaurant I ate at was able to create a several-hour-long mix tape of songs in Lithuanian, including rock-and-roll. The people who recorded those songs couldn't have made a lot of money off of the recordings, but the urge to create was strong enough that they did it anyway.

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Thursday

I'm back home in the USA and back in the saddle at work. The past few days have involved:

1) Waiting for Air France to deliver my luggage. When I had to clear customs and take a bus an mile at de Gaulle airport to catch my second flight, I had suspicions my bag would be MIA. What was irritating was, when it didn't show, there was an Air France agent standing at the luggage carousel with a clipboard with my name on it. They knew my luggage didn't make it, but made me wait to ask about it! Not happy.

2) Got the first real American steak in 19 days. It was delicious.

3) Got the first real American hamburger in 19 days. It was also delicious. The place I visited for the burger, Shanahan's, also installed a piano bar. I sat and partook for a while.

Now home and thence to my first personal training session in three weeks.

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