I haven't seen that much of it, but I am amazed by what I find, and at times, amused by my amazement.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Old Russian & the Chocolate Cow

The following was written in May, 2016, remembering an event that happened when I first arrived in Vilnius. I have now been here for a year and a half and expect to be here for another year.

It was mid-October, 2014 and there was a definite chill in the air, although there wasn’t any snow on the ground yet. I had just arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania after spending a year working in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. I was staying in a hotel near the embassy district, and I had just begun to get acquainted with a new job in a new city.
I had a day off and I headed out into the bright sunshine of a Sunday afternoon, donning the light jacket I had brought from Ho Chi.
Like most European cities, Vilnius has an ‘old town’. It is full of narrow, cobblestone streets lined with ancient buildings, some older than anything the states have to offer. Oozing history, these worn stone and brick former granaries, stables and mills were now pubs, restaurants, gift shops and art galleries.

From my hotel, the shortest route into old town for someone walking ended in a footpath through a short tunnel that dumped right out into the middle of one of the main tourist streets. Stepping onto the cobbled street I was greeted by a view of a castle past the end of the street to the left. It was on my list to explore, but not that day.
From up the street to my right, a gust of frigid air made me zip up my jacket tighter around my neck.

Directly across the street from the arched tunnel was an art gallery. Out in front of the art gallery stood an old man, singing a song in a language I couldn’t follow, his hat on the ground in front of him. Several inches shorter than me and sporting a bit of belly, he had a long, yellowish tobacco-stained beard, a ragged tonsure of the same color with just a few wisps of hair on top. His pants were old and baggy, and he wore a faded jacket with an old, equally faded patch on the elbow. The sound of his singing followed me as I wandered up the street, scanning the shops and restaurants.
I finally stopped at a cafĂ© that hadn’t yet put its sidewalk tables away for the season. I ordered a beer and sat for a while. As I waited for my beer, I took in the unfamiliar scene and watched the parade of pedestrians in scarves and sweaters, bundled up against the weather. When my beer arrived I sipped on the tall mug and decided I could have ordered something warmer to drink, as the cold started to creep in through my light jacket.

The afternoon grew cooler, and the low sun cast long shadows on the sides of the buildings, having already abandoned the cobblestones. I paid for my beer, left a tip and pocketed the remaining two euro coin. After looking farther up the row of shops, I jammed my hands into my jacket pockets, turned and headed back down the street the way I came. The old man was still in the same spot. His jacket didn’t look any warmer than mine was.
I remembered the two euro coin in my jacket pocket and headed across the lane to put it in his hat. As soon as I dropped the coin, the old man grabbed my hand in both of his and thanked me with a gap-toothed grin. He said something I didn’t understand.

“I’m sorry,” I said “English?”

“Neh, Lithuanian?” he asked.
“No, sorry,” I replied.
“You speak Russian?” he asked.

“No, I’m afraid not”.
Still holding onto my hand, he said, “I don’t know any songs in English. Can I sing you a Russian song for your coin?”
“Sure”, I said.

 It was apparent I wouldn’t be going anywhere until he let go of my hand.
He began to sing one song, changed his mind after a moment and launched into what I imagined might be a Russian marching song. It sounded very patriotic, and he sang it with a fervor that made his deep-set eyes glisten.

By the third verse, I began to wonder what it would take to retrieve my hand from his grip. I noticed a man walking on the other side the street smile broadly at me, as if to say, “He’s got you now. You must be new around here.” 

It was about this time that I noticed someone dressed in a large black and white cow costume walking toward us. The costume was complete with an udder that looked like a yellow, plastic, four-legged stool glued to the shaggy stomach. The cow was carrying a basket full of purple-wrapped chocolate bars, and had been handing them out to passers-by on the street. It stopped in front of me and put a chocolate bar into my free hand. The cow then turned to the old Russian and attempted to give him a bar as well, but he waved it off and sang a bit louder. The cow turned back to me and with a shrug handed me the second bar. Somewhere in that exchange my hand came free.  Making good my chance for an exit, I backed up, smiling and bowing to each in turn. The song trailed off. The old Russian and the chocolate cow stared at me as I turned and ducked hastily back through the same archway I had emerged from earlier.
“Well,” I thought to myself as I walked back towards the hotel, unwrapping the corner of one of the chocolate bars, “That was interesting”.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Another Year-End Letter: 2015 Edition

2015 is on its way out, 2016 ready to burst onto the scene. How’d it get so late so soon? This time of year we like to take a look back at the year that was.

January 2015 – a visit to Trakai Castle – a half hour drive out of Vilnius.

Joann and I are celebrating our second Christmas in this apartment in Vilnius, Lithuania. That in itself is a bit unusual. It hasn’t been very often that we’ve been living in the same country two years in a row.

Vilnius has been great place to spend some time. Centrally located in northern Europe (the geographic center of Europe is actually in Lithuania, just 16 miles north of Vilnius), this Baltic country feels like it could be somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. The climate is similar to western Washington/British Columbia. We really haven’t needed much air-conditioning.

Having just spent two years in China and Vietnam before moving here, being back in Europe was a refreshing change for us. And bonus, we can walk down the street here and be mistaken for locals, something that never happened in Southeast Asia.
June 16 - Launching from the park by
the Neris River. The launch site depended
upon which way the wind was blowing

The Queen on her throne in the Sculpture Park
We spent the first part of the year together here in Vilnius. While John was mostly working , Joann was staying busy with Lithuanian language classes, puppy training classes, art projects and IWAV (International Womens Association of Vilnius). We managed to fit in a few local excursions together, as well: A January visit to the historic Trakai Castle, built on an island in a lake half hour drive outside of Vilnius; a May trip to the Baltic Sea coast along the Curonian Spit, a 98 km long sand dune spit where Huy set his personal land-speed record, and is home to the Juodkrante Sculpture Park; a June hot air balloon flight over the city.

Over the dunes and down to the beach

Catching Huy on the fly between supersonic laps on the Curonian Spit.
Exploring the parks, the old city, and the many different restaurants helped round out our introduction to this corner of the world.

Joann returned home in July to what turned out to be a horrible fire season in Northeast Washington. I watched events unfolding from Vilnius while Joann dealt with the smoke and approaching fire danger at home. Our log cabin, snuggled into the trees would never survive if the forest fire reached it.

What to take? What was important? In the end it was decided that very little was so important. Photos, artwork, computerized records, vehicles – all were easy to move. Everything else could be replaced. It was just stuff.  The hardest part turned out to be the smoke that filled the air for weeks at a time. The only cure for that was to leave.
Bloody Mary Breakfast with Captain Jack

We are fortunate to have good friends who extended an invitation to Joann and another neighbor to join them at their house on the Washington coast for a few days. In spite of the difficult circumstances the ladies managed to make the best of it.

With Doug and Lezli on their patio in Petruro Irpino. We would love to spend more time there!

In August Joann flew to Italy. I flew in from Vilnius at the same time and we met up in Naples for a visit with my brother Doug and his wife, Lezli at their home in Petruro Irpino. What a nice place and a great few days together. We experienced rural life in their small Italian town, toured a winery (of course!) and drove the Amalfi coast. Joann returned to Republic and I flew back to Vilnius.

In October I was able to fly home for almost three weeks of vacation time. It was another meeting up with Joann on the fly. She flew in from visiting her mother in Illinois. We met in Spokane and drove home together. We wouldn’t be there for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Halloween was our holiday event and we made the most of it.
The Queen and her Consort
Pile o' beams

I managed to get some logs cut into beams for the new front porch, and we got the cabin ready for winter. In the midst of all this activity we also found time to spend valuable time with our kids and friends. By the start of November it was time to close up the cabin, so Joann and I could fly back together to Vilnius. After being apart all summer, it was good to know we would both be together again.

Sawing beams for the new porch with a portable saw mill, thanks to neighbors for the logs.
Lithuanians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but the Americans working on the project here gathered at the Marine House and hosted the usual turkey dinner with all the fixings and good company.

The RME Crew, our family here
In some countries it is difficult to find turkeys, but not here. There were plenty of turkeys, stuffed, smoked and baked - and all the sides, as well.
In December we finally made it to Prague, Czech Republic for a four day weekend. It lived up to all our expectations - and then some.
Up in the clock tower

The Christmas Market below in Old Town Square

Huy, the Best Elf Ever (he says) waits for Santa

Right before Thanksgiving we bought an artificial Christmas tree, lights and ornaments. It sits in our front window overlooking the entrance to our apartment building. It’s a pretty tree and, who knows, we might get a chance to use it again next year if they keep adding more work to this project!

Happy New Year 2016!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Croatia Kayaking

On the 26th of June, 2011, Joann and I had a chance to take a trip from Montenegro to neighboring Croatia for six days of sea-kayaking. Lodging, equipment and guides were provided by Adria Adventure, http://www.adriaadventure.hr/dubrovnik_croatia.

Joann and Marko at the Montenegro/Bosnia border

I really only had three days off work, but by working extra days before and after, we managed to squeeze in the trip with minimal disruption to the work schedule. Marko, our driver picked us up after work and drove the 2 ½ hour trip up through Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina to Dubrovnik. We boarded the ferry and set out for Lopud Island as the sun set.

We met our guides, Radovan and Filip when we got off the ferry. Their first job was to guide us to Janja’s Guesthouse where we spent the night. The other members of our group we met at dinner that night. Andy and Deirdre were a retired couple from New Zealand; Katja and Mari from Finland.

Kayakers Joann, myself, Deirdre, Katja, Mari and Andy

John & Filip getting ready

 Everyone had some kayaking experience and all spoke English, so we had little difficulty after breakfast the next morning getting fitted out with kayaks, paddles, lifejackets, spray skirts and dry bags. heading out for the other side of the island for lunch and a bit of kayak technical training.

Another good day of kayaking

The next four days were filled with tours of all three of the Elaphite Islands: Lopud, Kolocep and Sipan. 

It was a fun group. Radovan and Filip were excellent guides and over the next few days became good friends. There was no shortage of things to see and great food to sample on each leg of the trip.  We kayaked for two hours the first day, progressing to longer trips on subsequent days.  Often the weather was perfect, but just as often the wind picked up, piling up the waves and making for a more energetic and exciting excursion.  The daily trips were planned to arrive at a beach at lunchtime, stop for a prearranged meal of whatever seafood was the catch of the day.  After a wonderful meal and a short rest, we would climb back in the kayaks to finish the trip.

Another island restaurant, another wonderful seafood lunch

The first days we returned to our rooms on Lopud for the night.  By the third day we had paddled to Sipan Island.  While we paddled, our luggage was transferred to our new lodgings on Sipan.

 We packed our own lunches for this stop on Sipan Island.  The deserted seaside restaurant hasn't been in business for many years


Joann and I inspect the coastline of Kolocep

Our last day in the kayaks we completed our circumnavigation of Sipan and, entering the bay at Sudjarej, took time at the end of the day for an eskimo roll class.  Generally, this is part of the instruction given at the start of the class, but due to the weather patterns, we waited until the end of the class and were rewarded with calmer seas.  Even so, no one mastered the technique.  I came close, and actually completed a couple of rolls, but only with a bit of assistance from Filip.  Left to my own devices, I couldn't get far enough around to balance myself.  When it comes to flipping a kayak, I will keep the "wet exit" technique on the top of my repertoire.

Filip teaches the finer points of executing an Eskimo roll.
I got the Eski- I just needed a little -mo.

Eskimo roll school. That's me in the back.
I seem to be a bit sideways at the moment

Waiting for the bus back to the other side of Sipan - the largest of 
the Elephite Islands.
L to R: Andy, Deirdre, Joann, Katja, Mari, Filip, Radovan

Sudjarej - on Sipan Island 

Sunday, July 17, 2011


Budva, Montenegro meets Photoshop

I guess I am about to make a fairly standard blogger apology:

“I can’t believe it has been a year since I last posted something on my blog!”

I have started several posts that didn’t quite make it out of my laptop. Now I am playing serious catch-up.  Not that I will catch up...

My last current post was in May, 2010. I had just gotten to South Africa for a job across the border in Lesotho. That was four jobs ago. Since that time I also worked in: Mexico City - a short side trip during my stay in South Africa, and Port Louis, Mauritius – an island nation in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar.

I am now working in Podgorica, Montenegro. It is summer, 2011 and today is the first time in a while that Joann and I haven’t used my one day off per week to pack in another activity. Today, we have opted to stay home and get caught up on more leisurely activities like sleeping in, getting up to coffee and Baileys, and perusing the internet.

Montenegro is another one of those countries that many people in the US seem to be confused about exactly where it is. That isn’t totally surprising. As an independent country it is only five years old.

A Very, Very Short History of Montenegro

Nothing on the Adriatic Sea is really new, of course. During the time of Alexander the Great the area to the north of Macedon was known as Illyria. Alexander headed east and south however, and he missed his chance to add it to his empire. Numerous ruins of castles and forts along the coast line indicate the land’s importance to the Romans, and was a part of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. Byzantine rule was followed by Venetian rule, Ottoman rule, Austro-Hungarian rule, and Italian and German occupation during WWII. All left their mark on the country. After the war, Marshall Tito declared it one of the six republics of Yugoslavia until 1992. Local people still talk about how good the economy was during the Tito years.

       During the Balkan Wars of the 1990’s, Montenegro aligned with Serbia against Croatia, Bosnia, and Albania. After the wars, with no real resources Montenegro became a hub for the smuggling of items like petrol and cigarettes. Their desire to join the European Union has apparently curtailed these activities. In 2006, a referendum passed with 56.1% of the vote to end its close association with Serbia and become a fully independent country.

At the end of March 2009, after I completed a job in Skopje, Macedonia, Joann and I rented a car and took a trip through Albania, Montenegro, and Croatia, returning to Macedonia via Serbia before flying back home to the US. We spent a night in Podgorica, but we didn’t have a chance to visit much. We did drive up the coast however, and saw what a beautiful country it was.

Pivo & Hleb (Beer & Bread)
Montenegro is a dangerous place – for weight control. The food, much of it Slavic and Italian inspired is served in huge quantities. We have been forced to order only one dinner and share it. Seafood and roasted meats accompanied by heaps of potatoes and vegetables cooked in olive oil and butter are standard. Pizzas and pastas, breads, cheeses and sausages abound. For a reason that we have been unable to understand, Montenegrins, by a large majority are tall and slender. How do they do it?

Dinner in Budva - moments before the onslaught of food
Me, Joann, Matt, Lisa, April, Ben

Podgorica is an hour from the coast and we have made several trips to the beaches. Several of my co-workers have their wives with them and a trip to the coast is often two taxis full. Budva is one of the nicest coastal towns, but with the start of the summer season the beaches are packed and we have done some searching looking for one less crowded.

The beach at Ulcinj -  not exactly less crowded.

In May, Joann and I chartered a sailboat for a day and toured Kotor Bay. The skipper we wanted turned out not to be available.  The skipper we got was proficient, but spoke no english, so we couldn't use the sailing trip as an opportunity to improve our sailing techniques with some on-board instruction.

I had only one day off work, but it was a good day and a light breeze kept us sailing along after we got out of the closest protection of the harbour.   Kotor is at the back of a fjord-like bay that takes twists and turns before opening out into the Adriatic.

Joann displays the Montenegro flag on our chartered sailboat

Saint George's in the middle of Kotor Bay

Sailing on Kotor Bay has some things in common with sailing on Lake Roosevelt, like dodging ferries for one.

The weather set in at the end of our sail, about half an hour from the dock. The skipper must have known what was coming, because we took the sails in about ten minutes before the first gusts strong enough to give us trouble hit. It brought with it a light, but driving rain that passed by the time we motored to the dock.

Storm clouds close in on our return to the harbor

My daughter Arista and friend Tony took their first international flight and came for a visit in June. We showed them a bit of Podgorica and spent a night in old-town Budva before they headed out for a whirl-wind tour of Italy.
 Arista & Tony in Budva
Update:  It is now early-August, Joann has returned home to Republic and I am just finishing this blog post.  I will most likely see October here.  Maybe I can get some more posting done...

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Pearl Diving In Bahrain - The Last Chapter

This blog was originally started in April, just before I left Bahrain to start another job in Lesotho.  Since then I have suffered through a laptop crash, and even though I had backed up my files and photos, the photos of Rob & Robin that pertain to this blog have been lost - at least for now.

When I blogged about pearl diving in Bahrain in January, 2010, I promised the next blog would be about the history of pearl diving.  That didn't happen.  I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to write this.  Originally, the blog was going to be about a story that goes back to Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, who in about 3750 BC travelled to a land called Dilmun and dove for the "flowers of immortality".  That land is now known as Bahrain. The "flowers of immortality" were of course, pearls.  At one time the waters off this island nation supplied 80 per cent of the world's pearls.

I was told about this story, and much more, by Rob Gregory.  Together with Robin Bugeja, Rob ran PearlDive, and was a tireless promoter of Bahrain's pearl beds, working to safeguard them by making the best beds part of a World Heritage site. While Robin put Joann and I through the paces of re-certifying our scuba credentials, Rob was in charge of making sure we understood that the oysters we were about meet had been cultivated by thousands of years of free divers, going all the way back to the beginning of recorded history. His class, which was supposed to last an hour, took over three hours. Even so it was a whirlwind tour. There was so much ground to cover.

 He was born in Bahrain where his British father was working there in the newly discovered oil fields.  He went England to complete his education, but he spent his summers back in Bahrain practicing his newly acquired scuba diving skills.  It was in 1969, during one of these summers that he got a job working as an underwater cinematographer for Disney studios, who were in Bahrain to film the movie, "Hamad and the Pirates".  The combination of diving, pearling and photography set him on a course that would shape his future.  Having run dive shops in New Zealand and Australia, he returned to Bahrain in 1990 and continued his diving career.  He is considered the first Westerner to dive the pearl beds of Bahrain.

Joann and I met him while he was video-editing a 12-part series for a Bahrain television station about the history, biology and conservation of the pearl beds. When he heard I had a commercial art background, we struck a deal to trade scuba diving for logo design work, to help publicize the dive business and promote his efforts to gain recognition for the pearl beds.
He never got a chance to finish that project.  Rob died of an apparent heart attack in February, while Robin was in Australia visiting family and Joann and I were home on R&R.

As I said at the beginning of this blog, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to write this.  He was a man with passion for his cause and a story to tell and I am not qualified to tell that story.  I would like to have learned so much more from him.  We knew him all too briefly. 

An excellent article about Rob and Robin can be found at:


Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Southern Cross

I have always been interested in the path of the stars through the night sky. There is something that feels inherently immense and awe-inspiring, to see the stars shine down at me. They are unimaginably distant, yet their presence reaches me so many light-years away, and fills my thoughts with distant worlds.

Growing up in the 60’s I felt like the space race was MY race. Living in the science fact and fiction that was my daily junior high and high school consciousness, I made my way through the heady days of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, culminating during my graduation year, in Neil Armstrong’s famous “One small step…” The year before, 1968, was the year Stanley Kubrick released “A Space Odyssey, 2001." A bit of calculating and I realized that when 2001 finally did roll around, I would be 50. At 17 years old it was a distant future I could hardly relate to, but it seemed like too much of a coincidence. I made my plans right there and then to spend my 50th birthday on the moon.  I would go exploring craters in a rental moon buggy and bounce around in my space suit in the 1/6th lunar gravity.  Afterwards, I would retire to one of the tourist hotels that, I was sure, would be there by then.

Well, that plan never quite worked out, did it? Still, I've never lost the kinship I feel when I gaze at the magnificent display of the night sky.

I've watched the constellation Orion march across the peak behind my house on chill winter nights, when the sky was so clear and the stars so bright and close. As night wore on and the world spun on its axis, the arc of his feet perfectly matched the silhouette of the rocky crest.

I remember picking my way through a maze of logging roads one starry night during a fire season in the Kettle Range. It was before the days of GPS and one of the rare occasions I was alone in the fire truck. Looking for a reported lightning strike, I stopped at every clearing in the forest that afforded a view of the sky to relocate the North Star, trying desperately not to get too lost.

On a long night sail down the west coast of Florida with Joann and a few new friends, I navigated a 45’ sailboat by the stars, picking one to steer by that was on my compass heading, until at last the earth rotated it out of line and I picked another star to take its place off the bow.

One thing I have never seen is the Southern Cross, the southern hemisphere’s companion to the Big Dipper and the North Star. The Southern Cross has been guiding mariners for thousands of years around the seas south of the equator. Last night, standing in front of my apartment here in South Africa, with the help of a star finder program on my laptop I confirmed that what I was looking at really was the Southern Cross. A lopsided kite, its tail always points close enough to the South Pole to be a sailor’s best friend and constant nighttime companion. When I found it, I was surprised by how high in the sky it was.

What was even more surprising was something that almost made me dizzy. It was rotating in the wrong direction! I am so used to the stars wheeling to the left in the northern sky that I wasn’t ready, the next time I went outside, to find that it had rotated to the right! Clockwise! That, of course led me to the uncomfortable conclusion that clocks must have been invented south of the equator. In the north our sky rotates counterclockwise. If clocks had been invented in the north, wouldn’t they have been fashioned to match the northern rotation and the sky at home be said to rotate clockwise? Was I missing something?

Actually, I was missing something. Before the first clock was the sundial. The sundial kept track of time by marking the passage of the sun’s shadow. It was a shadow that moved in the opposite direction of the sun. Thus clockwise began as an opposite. I have to say, I was mighty relieved. The dizzy spells have passed and everything is right between heaven and earth again…

One star finder program that I like to use is called “Stellarium", www.stellarium.org . One of the things I like about it is that it is free. After you download the program, you can enter your location by clicking on a globe of the earth. A map of the stars in the sky at your time and location appears. You can turn on or off terrain, atmosphere, polar or azimuth coordinates, constellations and nebulas. You can speed up time and watch the stars really dance to the “music of the spheres”.

Maseru, Lesotho

Maseru, Lesotho May 19, 2010

‘Lah-soo-too is how the name of this country is pronounced. I scarcely knew where it was, much less how to say the name of it .

My first impressions have been favorable. Part of that might be due to the fact that a couple weeks before I got here I spent a week in Bangui, Central African Republic. I wrote about Bangui in my last post. I can wait awhile before I go back there!

Another thing that this place has going for it is its elevation. Maseru, the capital city is in the lowlands. For Lesotho that means 4000 feet above sea level. The entire country, surrounded on all sides by South Africa, is above 3500 feet. There are hills, mountains, rocky cliffs and gorges. May is the start of the winter season and the nights cool off quickly when the sun goes down. There are few bugs and the crisp feel of the evening air reminds me of home.

Having said all that, I am actually writing this from across the border in Ladybrand, South Africa. That is where my apartment is. Maseru is right on the border and Ladybrand is about 20 KM down the road. The other two Americans working on this project live here as well and we all commute to Maseru every workday in the same rental car. Ladybrand is a quieter suburban community. I looked at apartments in Maseru that were more expensive and not as nice, although they were certainly closer to work. Now, I am becoming a twice daily visitor to the border guards on both sides. Sometimes they check our passports, but often they just wave us through. Operations at the border are bound to tighten up the closer it gets to World Soccer Cup time in June and July. This is the first time the most followed sporting event on the planet has been hosted by African nations and they are determined to keep things peaceful -- if a soccer match can be called that!

I am just about over jet lag and getting used to a more normal schedule after eight months of working nights in Bahrain. Joann will be joining me here in a couple of weeks and I am looking forward to exploring a bit of this part of the world with her.