Friday, January 20, 2012

Christmas in America

There is far, far too much to write about in one blog post about What I Did Over Christmas, so I’ve split it into chapters.

Beloved Wife and Goat definitely wanted to travel away from the middle east over Christmas, and certainly wanted to be together for at least part of the time. The selection process finally boiled down to her family for Christmas, and meeting ex-Dubai refugees for the New Year.

Having more leave than the Goat, Madame set off a week earlier from Dubai, only to be bumped off the Emirates flight. How is it that the punter complies with every crossed T and dotted I of Emirates’ terms and conditions, turns up at the airport in good time to use her non-refundable, non-changeable ticket, only to be told that they’ve sold about 50 seats twice and no you don’t get to travel today? Compensation offered was a future free cattle class flight from Dubai to New York (and presumably back again). I’d have held out for business class and probably ended up with nothing more than a flea in my ear.

The Goat travelled a week later, ostensibly via United but actually by Qatar Airways, United and some minuscule jet-powered cigar tube that was late because of snow in Denver. The return journey involved larger aircraft and a whole different selection of airports.

Delays meant that the Goat was finally collected by Beloved Wife at 03:30 on Christmas Eve. He collapsed unconscious chez in-laws an hour or so later, but was up again a couple of hours later. Curse you, jet lag! You confuse the body and the mind. Beloved Wife suggested an early morning snoop around the local McMansions to see the festive bling adorning the houses.

From the sublime... the hilariously ludicrous

Christmas was a fairly low-key family affair, with stockings, presents, food and drink. There were some splendid gifts that Beloved Wife had obtained during her recent trip to Kathmandu, including scarves and carpets. And this goes part way to explaining these three wise men.


Also books and booze. The Goat was going to be unable to bring the splendid bottle of vintage port from his brother-in-law back to Qatar. It would have to be consumed on American territory. Oh lackaday.

The rainy weather cleared up over Christmas and the temperature dropped. The numbers don’t look very scary, but 26 is frighteningly cold for Gulf residents when it’s in Fahrenheit.

Pre-arranged plans for after Christmas involved a road trip south, ultimately to Key West, which is about as far south as it’s possible to drive within mainland USA. Father-in-law said that we should borrow his car, a Toyota Avalon, mostly on the basis that it was big enough for the luggage and the passengers CJ and J that we’d be meeting in Miami, and it might even be reasonably economical unless the 3-litre V6 engine were thrashed. Like with rigidly-enforced 55, 65 or 70mph speed limits that was ever going to happen. As it turned out, the 22 miles per gallon on the car’s computer soon rose to 25, then 28 and more. At one point it even got to 31mpg, and remember these are those titchy American gallons.

The GPS was already pre-programmed with south-east USA, and as for voice prompts, Clarissa explains it all.

The non-negotiable appointments were to drop off Christmas presents with relatives in Jacksonville and meet CJ and J in Miami at a particular hotel near the airport and travel with them to Key West.

Orlando is halfway down Florida, so it seemed sensible to drop in there. A trip to Universal Studios seemed to be in order.

It was surprising to note how much warmer the daytime temperatures were than even north Florida. 70F/21C. Cold at night, though, dropping to around 45F/8C.

Near Orlando is Cape Canaveral, so that’s a also a good place to visit.

Onwards, southwards and westwards. Key West is very much the End of the Road. Actually, Mile Zero of US Route 1 is in Key West, and is something of a tourist attraction. It’s right next to Ernest Hemingway’s house.

An uneventful yet picturesque trip back to Miami followed, including stops for shopping and photos. CJ was desirous of paddling in the ocean, so we all did this in the freezing cold water near Seven Mile Bridge. The one thing that we didn’t find time to do was dive. Beloved Wife and I had packed our qualifications, dive computers, swimmies and masks, but the ferocious itinerary simply didn’t allow a day of diving. Some other time, then. This despite the mid-winter temperature ranging from 80F/25C during the day to 60F/16C at night. No need for coats, then, although wetsuits would have been needed in the sea.

It’s quite a long way from Key West to Miami, but we found the airport and dropped off CJ and J without incident or hassle. Thank you Clarissa. Then immediately another 350 miles to the frozen north of Jacksonville to Beloved Wife’s relatives. Clearly we’d not misbehaved, and had been invited back. The following morning we drove the 450 miles back to North Carolina.

The trip ended up being some 2000 miles, and was faultless except for when the keyless ignition fob failed. Fortunately, it’s familiar technology to the Goat (who has a similar device on his motorbike) and was a simple fix with a new button battery. It would not do to be stranded in the back of beyond and unable to start the car.

A couple of days chilling, relaxing and running errands, before the great air-travel onslaught. Beloved Wife’s arrangement started two hours after the Goat’s, but we both arrived at our respective destinations within an hour of each other. And so did all our luggage, which was a bonus.

Now, about the next trip. Japan, perhaps?


What-ho, chaps

Beloved wife had finally decided that I needed a Nespresso machine for my birthday when it occurred to me that such a device would be so much scrap metal if I couldn’t find a local source of coffee capsules. It further occurred to me that I actually rather enjoy the ritual of grinding my own beans before firing up a moka pot. So despite Doha’s emporium of the Designer and Expensive, Blue Salon carrying Nespresso, I declared that I didn’t want one.

That was August. Beloved Wife says she still owes me a birthday present.

I came up with the brilliant idea of getting some motorcycle leathers. My old ones would now not fit me, even if they were available and not missing presumed stolen. Leather biking gear is extremely rare in Qatar, even in off-the-peg sizes. Personally I need to be sure that any leathers I own will actually fit my unorthodox body shape. When I put on a one-piece suit, it usually appears to have been designed to fit Igor: “Have you finished the stitching?” “Yeth, marthter!”

There are many more motorcycles in the USA than in Qatar. Surely during the Christmas visit I can find a shop selling a selection of leathers and try them on? Surely they’ll be realistically sized for the middle-aged biker.

And this is what we tried to do on our new year road trip. The signs looked promising. Huge roadside signs, in fact, promising motorcycle hypermarkets not one mile from the next exit on the interstate. So we turned off and, indeed, found huge motorcycle hypermarkets full of huge motorcycles and plenty of leather and chrome.

If I’d wanted a jacket with fringed sleeves, a black leather waistcoat, fingerless gloves, or some chaps I would have been very much in Hog heaven. But I want racing or touring leathers, preferably two-piece, zip-together with body armour, and perforated for warm weather. Not Coming In South Carolina, sir. And Not Coming In Georgia or Florida either, as we were soon to discover.

The sales assistant suggested that we might have better luck in the famously petrolhead town of Daytona Beach, so that’s where we headed next. Indeed, the town was full of motorcycles and shops selling riding apparel. Again, waistcoats and chaps. I protested about the preponderance of assless chaps until someone pointed out to me that all chaps are, by definition, assless. Or ‘arseless’ in British English. The idea of someone wanting racing leathers was entirely alien to everybody in Daytona Beach except one. The woman in the BMW shop knew what I wanted, but had none in stock.

Elsewhere on our trip we dropped into various random motorbike shops. I’ve learned that it was a total waste of time trying anywhere marked ‘Harley-Davidson’. Quite a lot of those only sold tee shirts and wallets on chains. I eventually found one set of leathers, stuffed full of old newspapers and perched atop a sports bike in a Kawasaki shop window. But if I wanted to buy my own they’d have to be ordered from Illinois.

So I still don’t have a leather riding suit. No track days for me. It looks very much as if mail order is the only option. If so, I’ll probably bespeak a made-to-measure suit.

Back to the main post.


Queue to pay to queue

I guess it’d be rude to go to Florida without visiting at least one of the world-famous tourist sites. I was put off Disney in Orlando partly because I’ve no real desire to meet a seven-foot mouse, and so Beloved Wife and I settled on Universal Studios.

We arrived in Orlando having failed to locate any suitable motorcycle gear for Muggins, and descended upon a ginormous outlet mall. Most of the population of Florida had seemingly decided to do the exact same thing, so around and around we drove until we found the empty parking space. Beloved Wife was desirous of purchasing shoes. And ships and sealing-wax? No, but if there were blue jeans… I must say that the delights of clothes shopping began to pale after two hours or so, which I think is pretty good going for someone with a Y chromosome.

The shops, seething with bargain hunters, still had their Christmas decorations on display. Such decorations included life-size versions of what happens if you cross anthropomorphic reindeer with Christmas trees.


The mall was close to Universal Studios, so after exhausting the delights of crowded shopping – it’s like Dubai Mall on a Friday evening – we drove around the block to check where the main entrance to the theme park was, and then sought accommodation nearby.

This is one of the problems of simply turning up at a holiday destination during holiday season. No room at the inn. The problem was compounded by a Hand-Egg match: The Cotton Bowl, or Citrus  Bowl, or some such. We drove in ever increasing circles, accidentally finding ourselves on a toll motorway, before locating an expensive flea-pit Motel 6 in Kissimmee. Beloved Wife had already rejected the Bates Motel lookalikes. Grotty it might have been, but the guy on the front desk was very helpful in that he overheard our plans to go to the cinema and called the room after about ten minutes to say that he’d printed off the movie schedules for the local multiplex.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was huge fun, and not just for the “I can see my house from here.”  We had also learned our lesson, and got online to book the following night’s accommodation.

Arrival at Universal Studios was very well organized. Having paid our $15 to park the car, we joined the influx and were marshalled into a generous parking space in ‘Cat in the Hat 2’. The pedestrian slidewalks propelled the multitude towards the main entrance. Do words like ‘tourist sites’, ‘crowded’, ‘holiday season’, and ‘multitude’ appear to be building up to a perfect storm?

Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure are two adjacent theme parks with a single one-day admission to both of $120. As it’s $90 each if bought separately, and as we both wanted to see stuff in both parks, we bought the $120 tickets. The complicated fare structure included priority passes to jump queues for certain rides, which is something I regard as shockingly unfair. It’s easily possible for a family to lash out $1000 for a day’s entertainment, and then spend two hours queuing for a ninety-second rollercoaster ride. And that family has to wait while a similar family essentially pushes in front having paid a further $500. What they need is a system like getting served in a bank. Take a timed ticket and then come back at the correct time. That way the punter can have fun and spend money elsewhere in the park.

Fairly hairy

The much-publicised “Magical World of Harry Potter” was so popular that punters were queuing for three or four hours just to get into that particular Island of Adventure. Many were outraged that their expensive priority passes didn’t work. The queue wound its way back from the entrance to Hogsmeade back and forth in front of Jurassic Park. I was outraged that nobody was told at the entrance that “You do realize that you’ll have to waste half your day queuing just to get into Harry Potter, don’t you?”

So Beloved Wife and I checked out the rather tame Jurassic Park instead, which was more like a downmarket natural history museum than a theme park. Then we took in a live show. “The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad” was a rollicking pantomime of swinging from the rigging, swordfights, pyrotechnics, water, a hero, a damsel in distress, a comedy sidekick, and a villainous sorceress. Huge fun, however cheesy.

Heroic entrance

All together now: "Bwahahahaha!"

After accidentally finding the exit from Harry Potter, Beloved Wife bewailed to a park employee how we’d travelled from the middle east just to see this…etc, and his colleague turned to me with an, “Excuse me, sir. I think you just dropped this.” It was a re-admission ticket. Result! We were in. I took photos, and even persuaded Madame on to a small and innocuous rollercoaster. Neither of us are rollercoaster junkies, so we found no need to queue to ride on the “awesome” big ride.


Tame ride

Hogsmeade, seething with happy Muggles


Food time, and green eggs and ham in the Dr Seuss area didn’t appeal. The restaurant where we ended up served the usual burgers and fries, but also did fajitas. And the big jug of sangria set us both up to leave Islands of Adventure and go next door to Universal Studios.

I do not like green eggs and ham

The latter’s conceit is that, unlike Islands of Adventure that is mostly thrill rides, Universal Studios consists of movie lots. Shrek was a 3D short film, but with cinema seats that vibrated and squirted water mist and air blasts in time with the film, to startling effect. ‘Disaster Movie’ took the audience through how a film is made, and then put us in an underground metro train during earthquake and flood. We the punters were extolled to act for hidden cameras. At the end of all this, we got to see the finished disaster (or possibly disastrous) movie that we’d watched being made.

We waited for the next show and killed time looking at exhibits from Ye Olde Frankenstein films, The Wolfman, and Norman Bates’ mum. ‘Horror Makeup’ was essentially a lighthearted lecture with props and effects that included the animatronic werewolf head from An American Werewolf in London and some trick knives. An audience volunteer put on a motion-capture suit, and her movements were duplicated by a seven-foot tall version of Wile E. Coyote. The poor volunteer jumped out of her skin when Wile E. turned out not to be quite as he appeared.

Marvellous teeth you have there, Mrs Bates

That's gotta smart!

Animatronic Wile E. Coyote

Animatronic werewolf head

We had little desire to go on the thrill rides owing to the typical 60 to 90 minute wait for each. And I was particularly insulted at being unable to get the mock-up safety harness for one of the rides to close. I’m fat, but not THAT fat! Obviously only beanpole-thin yoofs are s’posed to go on the rollercoaster with the combined loop-de-loop, barrel roll, and loss-de-lunch.

Rollercoaster by night

Exhaustion finally set in after dark, and we wended our weary way back to the car park. Plans for tomorrow involved a whole different genre of theme park. Our hotel was forty miles away in Titusville.

Back to the main post.

More pictures here.


Rocket science

The Kennedy Space Center isn’t a theme park as such. But there is a thrill ride, and even a lighthearted performance aimed at the young (and young at heart) in which NASA meets Star Trek. I was unable to obtain a tribble, although there were many being bombarded at the audience.

The format at the KSC started much the same as in Orlando, where we were marshalled into a space in one of the huge car parks near the Space Center. Free parking this time, so that was a bonus. Then we queued and were relieved of our cash. The place was a lot less crowded than Universal Studios. Fantasy, it seems, puts more bums on seats than reality.

Follow the, erm, Starfleet arrows

Our first port of call was the Shuttle simulator.

Just what it says on the box

I’d heard about this from a couple of years ago when my good friend and drinking buddy Mr Lawful Good of Cowplain visited the exact same spot. A mercifully short queue preceded a mission briefing. Unlike most thrill rides, in this one we were all told exactly what would happen, and we then filed into seats in the space shuttle cargo bay and were tipped backwards for the eight-minute trip into low earth orbit. On an absolute scale of thrill, the shuttle simulator wasn’t gut-wrenchin’, breakfast-losin’. However, it most certainly did give an extremely plausible impression of being launched upwards at enormous acceleration On the way up, there was even a minor malfunction to put the shits up the excessively suggestible.

Then the motors were killed, and we were dumped into the zero gravity of orbit. Not real zero-gee, obviously, and we were strapped into our seats so floating around would have been impossible anyway, but anyone with imagination should certainly get the effect when the bay doors open to reveal the Earth.

Very much as advertised, the Rocket Garden was a garden full of, well, rockets. Also a mockup of the walk from the tower to the White Room, from which an astronaut steps into the launch position. And the adjacent Saturn IIB is about half the size of the rocket designed and built for putting Mankind on the moon, with an added bonus for Mr Gorsky.

Rocket garden

Admission to the KSC includes a bus trip over to near the launch pads.

Where not to stand

We were regaled by a variety of garrulous bus drivers, who were determined to test us on the edu part of the KSC’s edutainment. Replying “Yuri Gagarin” when asked about the identity of the first Americans into space, into orbit or to do a spacewalk is probably not wise. Neither, incidentally, is it wise to suggest that the recent “Apollo 18” film is anything other than utter tripe. And even hinting to anyone that any part the Apollo program was faked on a sound stage in Nevada is tantamount to walking up to a Southern Gentleman and demanding satisfaction.

The actual Apollo 18 rocket, the gargantuan Saturn V, is in an enormous barn along with displays summarising brief histories of the Apollo programme, and even experts on hand to answer questions. I had a fascinating brief discussion about breathing gas, nitrox and carbon dioxide, with their particular relevance to Apollo 13.

Saturn V: The pointy end

As we left the Kennedy Space Center and headed back to the car park, we passed posters depicting satellite images of various parts of Earth. One of them did include Dubai and the northern emirates. An actual “I can see my house from here” moment.

More pictures here.


Conch Republic

In the context of the Florida Keys, it’s pronounced ‘Konk’. Apparently, back in 1982 the American authorities took it into their heads to stop and search every vehicle leaving the Keys, just in case someone was importing illegal immigrants or drugs to mainland USA. Seventeen miles of traffic jam on the only road ensued, and residents of the Keys were obliged to carry their passports. Obviously, then, the Florida Keys were being regarded by the US as a separate country, and so independence was declared. Hence the Conch Republic.

There were no such problems when we headed south from Miami. The toll roads in and around Miami have all been converted to SunPass or License Plate recognition only. Either buy a pre-paid smart card, or pay when the bill drops on your doormat in due course. The latter is insidious: a 25c toll plus the $1.50 admin charge is going to mount up. I instructed Clarissa to “Avoid Toll Roads” and this she did, even though we ended up driving through some less salubrious neighbourhoods.

US Route 1 is a single carriageway that threads the length of the Florida Keys. Each island has its own collection of roadside dive shops and boatyards, and bridges connects adjacent islands. Speed limits are low and variable, but that doesn’t matter because it gives tourist motorists plenty of opportunity to take in the views of blue water, small islands and the myriad of people fishing.

The various bridges have been replaced over the years, and most of the old bridges remain in place, which afford plenty of places to toss a fishing line into the oggin. Seven Mile Bridge is exactly as advertised, with another slightly broken version running parallel and slightly to the north.

Having found our hotel on Key West, we checked in and then headed into town to explore. It was clear that New Year’s Eve was going to be pandemonium so, after checking out the jugglers, fire eaters and escapologist, we watched the last sunset of the year, retrieved the car from its expensive parking space and returned to the hotel. The plan was to get washed and changed, take a hotel bus to the northern end of Duval Street, and then commence a Duval Street pub crawl.

The last sunset of 2011

The correct answer to “Whatcha wearing under yer kilt?” appears to be: “Lipstick!” 

Kilted Pirate

The Brazilian restaurant, purveyor of unlimited meat, more or less filled us up, and the beer and G&T filled any spaces.

There’s something of a tradition, dating back to the early days of rail when a big ball was dropped to indicate the precise hour, to have a similar thing happen at the stroke of midnight. A famous one is in New York’s Times Square; in Key West a giant red shoe containing a bloke in a frock (Transvestite? Drag act? Pantomime dame? We never got close enough to tell) drops to the ground. The crowd of people was crushing, and we withdrew before someone got hurt. So we never actually saw the Dropping of the Red Shoe. In fact, our party saw in the new year in a quiet street, greeting the locals who were sitting on their verandas watching the world go by.

Somewhat surprisingly, everything was open on 1st January. Also a pleasant surprise was finding a free car parking space. We visited the Hemingway home and the 44 polydactyl cats that live there, purchased hot sauces from a specialist shop that bans the word ‘T@basco’, ate out, and the ladies purchased shoes.

Polydactyl cat

The Hemingway house

Ernest Hemingway wrote here

Apparently, he used to get up at 6am, write between 300 and 500 words, and then spend the rest of the day fishing. Good work if you can find it. Of course, the correct words help, as does getting them in the right order.

Spider in the garden
This shopper has no need for shoes

It's either a special tool for removing the last olive from the jar, or else a witty response to anyone asking for some Tabasco

Following the New Year celebrations and allowing a day to clear up the mess and return to some semblance of normality, we had a vast breakfast at the hotel and checked out. It occurred to me that the American southern tradition of biscuits and sausage gravy meant that there were scones, or at least scone-like products to eat. Over at the waffle station there were various sweet sauces, syrups and – crucially – strawberries and cream. Yes folks: scones with strawberries and cream for breakfast. Decadent or what?

Instead of simply heading in the generally eastbound direction, we first drove down to Mile Zero for pictures, and then pointed the car up the road at Miami. “Engage!” 

More pictures here.


Monday, January 09, 2012

New Year's Resolutions

In short, I haven't made any.


And my abysmal recent record in posting is the sorry state of affairs resulting from a fortnight's holiday in America, or "Two weeks vacationing" in the vernacular tongue, followed by a return to work to find a couple of Sherpas scaling the north face of my inbox.

I'm also acutely aware of a need to be word-perfect for the Doha Players' forthcoming pantomime. Wednesday 25th to Saturday 28th January. Once there's a set, I'll also have furniture not to bump into. So three evenings a week are committed to rehearsals.

The holidays have produced plenty of things to write about. There are even photographs that, having been downloaded from the camera, need to be edited and some Photoshopped. The edited highlights will appear in a series of blogs over the coming days. Or weeks.

Please come back and see when I've posted something.


The opinions expressed in this weblog are the works of the Grumpy Goat, and are not necessarily the opinions shared by any person or organisation who may be referenced. Come to that, the opinions may not even be those of the Grumpy Goat, who could just be playing Devil's Advocate. Some posts may be of parody or satyrical [sic] nature. Nothing herein should be taken too seriously. The Grumpy Goat would prefer that offensive language or opinions not be posted in the comments. Offensive comments may be subject to deletion at the Grumpy Goat's sole discretion. The Grumpy Goat is not responsible for the content of other blogs or websites that are linked from this weblog. No goats were harmed in the making of this blog. Any resemblance to individuals or organisations mentioned herein and those that actually exist may or may not be intentional. May contain nuts.