PRK…or how I became better…faster…stronger Friday, Mar 9 2012 

So since my move to Texas I really haven’t traveled as much as I’m accustomed. It’s been an interesting transition from Europe but it’s important to grow where you’re planted…or something. I’ve worked on some personal growth items on my bucket list like…

Taking care of another living creature by getting a dog!

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Winning hearts and minds!

Becoming a firearm owner and learning to hit what I aim at consistently (mostly for home defense, and fun at the range!

When all else fails...two in the heart, one in the mind!

I want to write about all the nuances and eccentricies of Abilene that I’ve come across in my few months here but I figured I’d throw in an informational piece about my eye surgery. PRK…better…faster…stronger…mostly…

My eyesight has never been perfect but in law school its efficacy plummeted. I’m talking really bad. When I finally sucked it up and went to a Chicago optometrist to get glasses mid way through my 1L year, the optometrist stopped the eye exam half way through and said, “So…did you drive here today?”. When I told her I’d taken the train she just said, “Oh…good” and continued with the exam. I think this was when it really dawned on me that my vision was borderline abysmal. But alls well that ends well and I bought glasses and somehow made it through law school.

This happily ever after ended shortly after I decided to join the Air Force. Not that I couldn’t join with abysmal eyesight. You can get a waiver for pretty much anything depending on your career field. I remember going through MEPS (the assembly line like medical exam you have to go through before any branch of the military will actually take you). As part of MEPS I had to do an eye exam complete with colorblind test and depth perception test. The colorblind test was super easy…mostly because I’m not color blind. Feeling very pleased with myself for picking out colored numbers on a different colored background, I proceeded to the depth perception test, which I’m pretty sure I failed. It went something like this:

Examiner: Ok take your glasses off and look through those lenses at a row of circles and tell me which one stands out to you.

Me (looking at the circles): Trick question! None of them stand out!

Examiner: Umm…nope one of them should be more prominent…just take a guess.

Me: Two? Is it the second one? I think it’s the second one…

Examiner: Nope guess again.

Me: Six? Is it the sixth one?

Examiner: There’s only five circles, keep guessing.

Anyway my poor eyesight didn’t preclude me from joining the military but really made it difficult as I was going through Commissioned Officer Training. COT is an effort to make the professional types of the military more military-esque. Regular line officers train lawyers, doctors, biomedical engineers and chaplains on how to comport themselves in the military. This includes obstacle courses, ropes courses, and team building exercises that resemble the MOST EXTREME ELIMINATION CHALLENGE!!!

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My army training is telling me this is a hot mission.

 

Unfortunately anytime you’re doing anything the least bit tactical, the AF really doesn’t want you to wear your contacts and mandates you wear your glasses. I’m not sure why. They say it’s because you could injure your eyes by potentially getting an infection. In my mind, wearing metal-framed plates of glass flush against your face/eyes while climbing/jumping/falling…mostly falling for me, seems a little more dangerous but what do I know. Pretty sure my COT instructors had perfect vision and really didn’t feel the pain of having to wear glasses while being even the least bit active. It was while trying to scale a 6ft wall over a water obstacle in 45 degree weather that I finally decided that glasses just weren’t for me. When I heard that the AF would correct my vision for free, I put it on my bucket list!

Fast forward to post-Italy (where the optometry department does not evaluate for PRK or Lasik) to Dyess where I finally begged/pleaded/cajoled the optometry department to evaluate my sight for any kind of corrective procedure. The process went fairly quickly as my eyesight hadn’t fluctuated overmuch since my previous year’s checkup. After a small waiting period, a test on some fancy schmancy machine the optometry department has (that also unfortunately breaks a lot causing a vast back log), and about a hundred or so calls checking the status of said machine and afterwards the package they sent to Lackland Medical Center, and I was approved!

FINALLY! I finally felt like a fat girl picked up at rush by her favorite sorority.

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ME?!? YOU PROMISE?!? REALLY?!?!!!

 I was scheduled for the week after Thanksgiving. All I had to do is drive to San Antonio and procure lodging and a ride to and from the clinic. The corrective eye surgery is permissive TDY for most active duty members. This just means that your boss gives you free time off but they won’t pay for you to travel down to have surgery or for a hotel while you’re there. Luckily San Antonio isn’t too terribly far and I had some amazingly benevolent friends that agreed to babysit me for a week.

You can read about one of these wonderfully giving friends here:

http://annarehder.wordpress.com/

Since both of them had courts and related justice activities scattered throughout the week, they shared custody depending on their schedules but they both took a lot of time to make sure I was doing ok and got where I needed to go. AND Anna let me recover the week in her spare bedroom which made her cats insanely jealous.

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I'm in ur bed, taking ur snooze!...I can haz Percocet?

My pre-op checkup was the day before the surgery and only lasted an hour or so. When I first sat down in the waiting room the secretary called me up to the desk to finish filling out the things I left blank on my form. I was confused as I thought I’d been incredibly thorough when I sent up all of my information. The blank I left was the box that asked “what do you hope to achieve from this surgery?”

Me: Do I have to fill this out?

Her: Oh yes, you’re not allowed to leave anything blank.

Me: Ok, well I kind of just want to be able to see without wearing contacts or glasses. Her (scoffing at my reply): That’s not something we can guarantee.

Me: Right I understand that, but that’s kind of my end goal with this whole eye lasering thing.

Her (pushing a pen towards me): Well I wouldn’t bother putting it down.

I stared at the paper somewhat perplexed at this seemingly inane question that, for reasons beyond my comprehension, was oh so important to my surgery. I started writing… “I want to be better…faster…stronger.  I want amazing eye, hand coordination. I want to be better at team sports where throwing and catching objects are involved, I want to leap tall buildings…” she just sighed and took back the paper. I wasn’t really trying to make her job harder but I did give myself a small pat on the back for using sarcasm to make a point (it so rarely works like I want it to). After that the pre-op went quickly. Some crazy machines mapping my eyes in a hundred different ways. I was out of there and making the most of San Antonio by lunchtime…albeit with massively dilated pupils. It’s probably a good thing I was never subjected to a random traffic stop as I probably looked like I was on meth. I met up with Anna for dinner and we went to the grocery to plan my meals for the next week since I would be at the house recovering (and blindish) and needed some easy things to make.

I was actually a little nervous when Kurt dropped me off at the clinic the next day. The last time I’d actually had any sort of medical procedure done was when I had my tonsils out in fourth grade. I sat down in the waiting room with around twenty other people. It was clear that this was old hat for the staff who do this on a weekly basis. The procedure was assembly line to them: paperwork, pre-surgery prep, surgery, post-surgery review, out the door. They were relaxed and doing their respective parts like they’d done hundreds of times before. For the rest of us, there was a kind of somber quiet that settled over the waiting area.  It was a palpable bundle of nerves which only got worse as individuals started disappearing through the doors in the back. And finally it was my turn.

Lasik v. PRK

I’d like to break for a second to discuss the difference between PRK and Lasik.

I was under the mistaken impression that the AF would only allow its members to get PRK rather than Lasik. This isn’t true. SOME career fields with accompanying hazards do not have the Lasik option due to the healing process of the procedure (discussed later). Funny enough JAGs don’t usually encounter these same hazards…like pulling Gs, defusing bombs, or engaging in hand to hand combat. Therefore I had the option to choose either.

Johnny Utah convinced me to go the PRK route. He had it done a few years ago and sang its praises ever since. My doctor also recommended it, despite the longer healing process saying that, in the long run, PRK is preferable to Lasik. If you get a little squeamish regarding eyes or surgeries generally you can skip the next few paragraphs and just chalk the entire thing up to the ocular fairy.

Ok for those of you that had the balls to keep reading:

PRK and Lasik are the same in essence, at least the end goals are the same. For both procedures, you have lasers shot in your eye which reshapes your cornea to correct your vision. The difference lies mainly in how they move or remove the outer layer (epithelium) of skin cells on your eyes in order for the laser to really penetrate. With Lasik, the doctor uses a laser (this used to be done with a thin metal blade) to cut a flap on the surface of your eye in the tissue. This flap is folded back on itself which opens up the part of the eye so the laser can go in and correct your vision. (all based on the maps of your eye and vision tests you’ve been subjected to for the past year or so). Once the laser is done reshaping your cornea, and fixing your vision (this only lasts a few minutes), the doctor folds the flap back down to where it fits back onto your eye and seals it back. However, despite the seal, the flap is always a weak spot on your eye. This procedure leaves the small chance that, if hit in the face in just the right spot, the flap may come undone again, causing serious damage to your eye and necessitating further procedure. However, the plus side is that the improvement to your vision is almost instantaneous.  The healing time is much faster and you’re able to see/drive almost the same day.

PRK or photorefractive keratectomy involves brushing away the skin cells or epithelial of your corneal tissue rather than cutting the flap. This opens up the eye and leaves it open for the laser to go in and correct your vision. Once that’s done (same amount of time as Lasik) the doctors put contact lenses that act as bandages in your eyes. These lenses act as a shield so your corneal tissue can regrow and reform over the next week while you are recovering. Long term this is supposedly better as it does not leave a weak point in your eye. It just takes much longer to heal as your vision stays cloudy while your epithelium is growing back and filling in. 

When my time came to start on the assembly line, I sat down in a chair next to the surgery suite. As the tech was briefing me on the procedure and putting a multitude of drops in my eyes, I watched those that had just completed their surgery being led out of the suite by the arms. Their eyes looked unfocused and puffy and mostly they looked confused (but at least not in any noticeable pain). Then it was my turn to walk in.

The nurse led me to a narrow bed where I laid down. In order to keep me from freaking out they kindly gave me two stress balls to squeeze, which wasn’t nearly as helpful as they may have thought. I focused on my breathing and went to my happy place as they started the procedure. They started with my right eye and inserted what’s called a “lid retainer” in order to keep me from blinking and to keep my eyelashes out of the way. This piece of equipment keeps my eye lid pried open which also happens to be incredibly uncomfortable. At this point my cornea was already numb from the drops the techs previously gave me. Step two: the optometry surgeon took what resembled a rotating toothbrush and started brushing away the layers of my epithelium (the thin protective layer covering the cornea). It wasn’t painful, just incredibly discomforting. I saw it as the doctor started closing in and felt it rotating on my eye but it didn’t actually hurt. I did start utilizing the stress balls. He would brush for a few seconds then take what can only be described as a tiny mini squeegee to wipe the epithelium cells away from the hole he was making on my eye. This continued for about a minute and a half until enough of the epithelium was worn away in order for the laser to reshape the cornea. That’s when they set the laser and began to shoot it into my eye in order to actually correct my vision. I didn’t feel anything at all while this was occurring but I did see bright flashes and smelled the ozone which was also discomforting. When the doc was done lasering my eye he put some more drops on there and placed a protective contact lens (which fit just like a normal contact) to cover my eye while my epithelium grew back. These contacts stayed in until my final appointment with the clinic five days later. He then rinsed and repeated for the left eye.

Here’s a youtube video I found with a real eye surgery:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEYGoVcQvCw

Again, not me…and not for you squeamish folks.  But that’s pretty much what I went through.

I actually wasn’t feeling that bad when all was said and done. My eyes just felt dry and everything was incredibly blurry but for the most part I could see macro shapes. The techs handed me my post-op bag containing all the mandatory eye drops as well as some sleep and pain meds (Percocet actually). I called Kurt and he drove me back to Anna’s to convalesce.  The best recovery strategy is to just sleep through the fist day of your post-op. I, in my ultimate wisdom, and upon a recommendation that I “keep ahead of the pain” decided to take two of the Percocet (which comported with my prescription just FYI). Honestly, I never take pain meds. I never even take Tylenol or advil unless I’m prohibitively hungover. I should have probably taken that into account when I started popping narcotics. I slept most of the afternoon, got up in time to put Anna’s and my pre-made dinner in the oven (I didn’t want to be a complete freeloader) and lay on the couch waiting for her to get home. As soon as dinner was ready, I hopped off the couch and the room immediately started spinning. At first I thought I’d simply gotten up too quickly. Soon after I realized 10mg of Percocet was not only “keeping me ahead of my pain” as I really felt no pain at all, but also throwing off my equilibrium and normal physiology. The end result was throwing up dinner and falling back asleep. Afterwards I decided to chance the pain.

Honestly compared to other stories I’d read online, I was never really in much pain at all. My eyes felt incredibly dry, scratchy, and generally uncomfortable but they never actually hurt. My eyesight that first five days did not have marked improvement. This is where my frustration actually started. My eyes refused to focus. I was used to not being able to see things far away without glasses or contacts but because my corneal tissue was regrowing, I couldn’t see anything up close either. The clinic explained the healing process and told me that I should be able to drive by day five. When I heard that, I expected to be able to see really well by the time they removed my bandage contacts. Turns out I couldn’t. My eyes continued to be the same level of blurriness for the rest of the week. I tried to spend most of my time sleeping and laying on the couch listening to the TV. My two biggest concerns for my five days of recovery were that 1) my eyes didn’t seem to be getting ANY better and 2) to a lesser degree I was a little concerned that Anna’s cats would suffocate me in my sleep.

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Rawr!

Kurt drove me to my last follow up appointment where in theory, they would clear me to leave and go back home to go forth and do great things. I’d left my car in the parking lot of the clinic because I’d assumed they would remove the contact bandages and my eyes would be miraculously better. They weren’t. While doing my vision tests I couldn’t make ANY of the letters out until the elderly gentleman that was doing my tests gave me some weird glasses to look through. According to him, they displaced the light and improved my vision. I could actually see better but only with the glasses (which they were not going to let me leave or travel with). According to the old optometry doctor, I had 20/30 vision which was on par with the recovery process timing. Even still I really wasn’t comfortable driving and when I voiced my concerns this is what he said:

Me: Look I know these glasses make me see better but my vision is still REALLY blurry.

Old doc: Well your are testing at 20/30. Technically that’s really good and is standard with the recovery process.

Me: Ok I know I’m technically ok by your charts but I don’t know how comfortable I am driving out of here. You guys said I would be able to drive.

Old doc: Well you’re legally able to drive.

Me (ignoring the fact that this old ass doctor shouldn’t be giving legal advice): At this point I’m really not comfortable driving.

Old doc: Huhuhu…well It’s a loooooong walk back to Abilene.

Me (grumbling under my breath): God you’re old but I want to punch you in the face right now.

Him: What was that?

Me: You’re not being very helpful.

In the end, I realized they were just going to release me despite my protests. At this point I was incredibly frustrated by my lack of excellent vision…or really lack of clear vision…and every tiny annoying thing was just pinging off my psyche. I won’t go into detail about my trip home but suffice to say that I made it back without hitting anything and really wasn’t feeling better, faster, or stronger for that matter. Honestly I was just tired of not being self-sufficient even though Anna and her kitties would have suffered another night with me. I did finally make it to my house despite my issues. Whatever…my dog was happy to see me…even if I couldn’t really see her.

My frustration lasted about a month until my vision finally started to clear up. During that time, Johnny Utah, the same person that convinced me to go PRK in the first place, kept trying to tell me that I hadn’t made a mistake and that I just needed to be patient…that having lasers shot into my eye to correct my vision is a miraculous work of science in and of itself and that I should stop being so negative. Patience isn’t really a virtue I hold near and dear… Ultimately, a couple months later, my vision is actually doing well. I just needed to suck it up that first month or so. The bottom line is, if you have the patience and roughly a month of total recovery time PRK is definitely the way to go. However, if you’re like me and have this Type A, control freak, why the hell is my body not just fixing itself attitude…maybe you should consider Lasik. But at this point I wouldn’t change my decision. =] …and despite being obstinate with the obnoxious secretary, I can actually see without contacts or glasses!

Adventures on the Amalfi Friday, Jul 29 2011 

In honor of my pending PCS back to the motherland, I’ve decided to actually devote some time to my blog that I’ve all but abandoned over the last few months. I’ve been both busy and have had a major case of writer’s block. Every time I sit down to write anything I immediately become ashamed about how long it’s been since I’ve drafted anything decent so instead of actually being productive, I deflect and start surfing youtube and lose all motivation in a quiet penitent avoidance. However, as this is my only creative outlet in a world full of stifling contract and fiscal law punctuated by the occasional foray into the courtroom (where I do get to be somewhat creative) I’ve decided that it’s really in my best interest to keep it up. I initially started the blog so my parents could keep up with what I was doing and where I was going when I didn’t have time to call but I really do enjoy writing so, sorry mom and dad, the website is now for me. =] So here it is that I’ve come crawling back to my poor mistreated and deserted blog with flowers, gifts, promises to change, and, most importantly, some interesting stories…which you’re going to get in phases…seriously don’t judge me.

First up – girls’ trip to Capri

Last summer some girlfriends (3 others) and I decided to jaunt down to Capri for the weekend. This jaunt actually involved an 8 hour drive. One of the ladies (who was about to deploy and not drive her car for 6 mos) graciously offered up her Jeep. The brilliant master plan was to leave work at a decent hour on Friday, nap for a few hours, then wake up at 0100 to drive down to Sorrento, find a parking spot on the Amalfi, and take the ferry over to bella Capri. In preparation for the massive drive, I bought an energy drink. For most of you, buying an energy drink is nbd right? Well my roots (protective parents) really frowned on drinking energy drinks. So I really missed the whole redbull for redbull’s sake generation. I mean yeah, all the jager bombs in college/law school were in a totally different category. They weren’t just energy drinks, they were a cultural experience. Plus all the RBGGs (sounds like a weapon but means Red Bull-Grey Goose…so yeah kind of a weapon) I drank at Gitmo, inducted me into this energy drinking lifestyle. However, I subsisted mostly off Dunkin Donuts coffee in law school so before this moment, I never actually bought an energy drink for its intended purpose…to stay awake. However, I felt this eight-hour excursion starting from my home at 1am warranted an energy drink. As I walked through the base shoppette scouring my options I was really at a loss. I settled on the low carb monster option, mostly because I suspect I still had that hold over warning from my parents (YOUR HEART WILL EXPLODE) and I was also hoping to be healthy. That and the label was blue and that’s my favorite color.

So at 0100 we loaded all of our gear…girls pack more when we’re not flying and have space in a trunk…and we set off in the Jeep. The owner drove first and headed due south. I ingeniously called shotgun. I think it was my competitive attitude and not forward thinking that lead me to this decision. Fearless jeep owner took off and immediately took over the cd player. When I think 1am road trip I think Rise Against or hard Linkin Park or MCR…or really anything other than what she picked. She put in a cd that I can only describe as meditation/yoga-esque. It involved a man talking peacefully about trees. She said it kept her calm while driving. As rightful winner of shotgun I felt that it was my duty to stay awake and navigate/talk to the driver. However, this cd put me to sleep on its second rendition which was about 25 mins into the trip (she played it multiple times). I was in my happy place with gentle tree man talking to me when I was suddenly jolted forward with Jeep owner slamming on the brakes and grabbing my arm. I’M FALLING ASLEEP, SOMEONE ELSE NEEDS TO DRIVE. When I opened my eyes I realized we were still on the autostrade (interstate), but just pulled slightly over into the shoulder where construction was occurring. The next thing I realized was that the driver had hopped out and was walking around the car to my side. I guess it was my turn to drive so I did the heroic thing, announced I was taking over (a little too loudly for those sleeping soundly in the back seat), crawled over the cup holders and arm rests, and buckled myself in. I made sure Jeep owner was sitting soundly in the passenger seat before putting it in drive. I was ready to go. On the ball. Moving us safely from stationary road work. We were going to Capri! I don’t even care if it’s pitch black at night with concrete pylons scattered randomly on the construction road. We were on our way! This driving zeal lasted about 25 feet when I realized a few things were hampering my euphoria. 1) The gentle tree man was still talking on the cd and I really needed some angry music to drive, 2) I am a few inches shorter than jeep owner which made reaching the pedals difficult, 3) my right contact was dried (and in danger of falling out) from falling asleep, 4) I was F***ING tired. I solved a lot of these things by moving the seat forward myself and yelling absurdly and people in my vicinity. Jeep owner found a cd (some hip hop, not angry but it would do) and one of my other girlfriends grabbed my contact solution from my bag buried in the back. I moved the seat forward while simultaneously drowning my eyes in solution and was back on track. Everything was almost zen again. I was singing some Jay-Z song feeling like the leader of my wolf pack when I decided that it was time to open that energy drink. I cracked open my trusty Low Carb cute blue label Monster drink so I could conquer Sorrento…and that’s when I realized it tasted absolutely AWFUL. Maybe I’m not good with words but the only way I can describe it is 80s neon cardboard. I refused to accept my failure. It sat in the cup holder next to me for hours. Every five minutes or so I would think, oh maybe it wasn’t that bad, or, maybe I’m over reacting. At the ten minute mark I would re-try the energy drink and immediately determine: Nope…still tastes gross.

I’m not sure how I made it the few hours I drove but I was still driving when someone pointed out we needed gas. I pulled over and someone else offered to drive. There was part of me that wanted to be the bad ass and offer to drive the rest of the way. My dear friends saw through the sleepy façade and insisted that I get in the back seat, for which we’re all grateful I’m sure. I was in and out of consciousness but at some point that next morning we reached Sorrento.

We were all a little punchy from the drive...

We were all a little punchy from the drive...

We found a sketchy parking garage (thanks southern Italy), meandered down to the docks, bought tickets to the ferry, and had mimosas while we patiently waited the boat’s arrival. One fairly quick (and much more nicer than Gitmo) ferry ride later, we landed on Capri. We took a cab with all of our luggage to AnaCapri. This means super uber top of Capri (the top of the rockface over the water), which also means a cab ride clutching to hand rails, looking/leaning over cliff faces, meeting busses coming the opposite way whereby we’re sure to fall into the beautiful blue depths of the gorgeous bay. We somehow made it to our hotel, unpacked our bags, and wandered.

After our nightmarish traveling, the sites of Capri were absolutely breathtaking. I don’t know how anyone could not fall in love with this place. Every place we walked was beautiful and clean and spectacular. The skies were blue, the plants were vibrant, the sea air was extremely refreshing. We eventually found a crowded bus headed back down the island. At this point we just wanted to settle down for a quick drink. We found a nice bar randomly down some stairs but it had a great view. (everything in Capri is built into the hillside so everything is tiered). On the walk down, the walls had posters which featured some hard body in a pool (named Matteo). We gaped and judged and talked about the poster for a good minute and a half before proceeding to the actual bar area. It was still early in Capri so we were one of the first groups there. That, combined with the fact that four girls in sun dresses just walked into the bar lead the staff to give us VIP treatment. None of us knew or cared about whatever festivities were happening. We just wanted to hang out and have a few drinks and possibly dinner. The wait staff was nice and offered us food and beverages.

Reeeeal classy...thanks wait staff!

Reeeeal classy...thanks wait staff!

Not wanting to lose our VIP seats, the wait staff brought a table out to us and served us dinner at the bar (which was absolutely delicious). I’m not sure if this was because they wanted to keep girls in the VIP section or because they didn’t want loud Americans near the respectable Italian tourists, but it was convenient nonetheless. During after dinner cocktails we noticed a very attractive Italian man flanked by skinny Italian women in our immediate vicinity. This man looked not only incredibly delectable but also familiar. A few minutes later it dawned on one of the girls that this was none other than THE Matteo from hard body stair poster. What we didn’t realize at the time was that Matteo was the Italian version of the bachelor and was at the club promoting himself and some kind of golden drink. Yes, we were in the presence of Italian B-list greatness! After a couple more cocktails, attempts at conversation in broken English and Italian, and a few snapshots we decided to call it a night in anticipation of our nautical adventure the next day.

MATTEO!!!

MATTEO!!!

Generally it is much easier to get things done quickly in the US, to include leisure/vacation type activities. I attribute this mostly to our capitalistic/Veruca Salt-esque (the character not the band) “I want it now” kind of culture. However, the US is also a litigious society requiring disclaimers, signatures in blood, exorbitant deposits, and promises of arbitration instead of the dreaded court appearances that would besmirch any company’s good name and bottom line. This means doing anything remotely dangerous in the US is kind of a pain. Yeah, yeah, blame the lawyers. However, tort law does not exist in Italy. I think it was mainly this reason that four girls with no real boating experience were able to rent a RIB with an outboard motor exchanging nothing more than a wink, a smile, a small deposit, and someone’s driver’s license as collateral. It was a much simpler transaction than any of us expected and we didn’t have a real plan other than we wanted to go out on the water.

Step 1 of acquiring a boat was complete. Step 2 of grabbing snacks and prosecco from the local corner store was also complete. Now we just had to determine who was actually going to captain the vessel. One of the other girls had driven a boat twice in her life, which made her senior most qualified. As I had driven a boat once before, I was a close second most qualified and determined that I should navigate and be back up driver. (I conveniently left out the story about my previous navigating experience while scuba diving wherein I not only couldn’t find the things the instructors left for us to find, but I also lost my dive buddy). The other two girls had never driven a boat so obviously they were in no way qualified to take us under way. (enjoy the nautical jargon?) The boat owners grabbed a map of the island and pointed out some of the best sites and at that point we were ready to set sail so to speak. The owners waved goodbye, told us to have fun and not run out of gas and with that we were on our way! Getting out of the dock area was a little dramatic but once we hit open water things went much more smoothly. I was in charge of navigating and pointing out all the cool stuff on the map so I was careful to stow it away where it wouldn’t get wet on the initial part of our voyage. Once we were out of the bay I decided it was time to break out the trusty old map and start navigating like a pro. Unfortunately the weather gods picked that exact time to throw in an awesome crosswind and the map suddenly disappeared from my hands. At first I didn’t realize what happened until one of the girls brilliantly asked “Uhhh did you just lose the map?” Since the owners had written on it we did try to go back and pick it up but apparently boating etiquette in Capri dictates that you can only drive one way around the island…not counter clockwise. The RIB wasn’t a large boat by any means and we were like salmon swimming upstream meeting much larger salmon with angry salmon drivers who yelled in Italian a lot. We found the map but it had started to sink into the abyss and we all watched despondent as it disappeared. At that point everyone just sort of looked at me so I felt the need to save a modicum of face and declared “WHAT?!? It’s a freaking island, just drive around it til you see the bay again…Oh look there’s a grotto…pretty sure that was on the map.” I think maybe at some point I should accept the fact that navigation really isn’t my thing. Lack of map was a bummer but the day was far from over. We continued to boat around the island, drink prosecco, sun ourselves and swim.

Not a bad life

Not a bad life


I remembered most of (some of) what was drawn on the map and I’d researched a little before we left for Capri so I was able to point out some of the major sites. Everything else was a grotto and really, once you’ve seen one hole in a Mediterranean cliff face, you’ve seen them all. When our time was up we pulled back into the bay and docked (much more smoothly than when we left). That night we had a delicious seafood dinner and left the island the next morning rested, content, albeit a little sun burned. Thanks Capri for beautiful scenery, B-list eye candy, and nautical misadventures.

45 degrees from reality. Sunday, Apr 17 2011 

So I started out today with grandiose plans of heading to a casino in Slovenia tonight. Unfortunately I forgot that starting at noon, I have the dreaded “on-call” phone. With issues we’ve been having lately around here, if I don’t have service or miss a call my boss would end me. Not admonish, not reprimand, just end. I would cease to exist. *poof* So out of respect for my own safety and, of course, for the good of Aviano Air Base, I’ve decided to make it a quiet night. So here I am, 1835, pjs on, making pesto rotini (yes it DOES sound delicious, thank you), MST3K in the background and updating my blog.

That being said I realize I haven’t updated in a looong time. I do actually have a number of trips I want to write about but wanted to start with the most recent and go back a little further to explain why I needed to take some time off. I’ve been assigned this120 case with ancillary other charges since I came back from my deployment almost a year ago. For those of you that don’t know, Article 120 is all manner of sex assaults codified in the MCM. These typically go to general court martial and are absurdly difficult to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. This was a particularly complex one and I’ve absolutely lost count of all the ways this thing was delayed. At the beginning of March the trial team, judge, and defense counsel flew from Italy to Charleston AFB to do a deposition of a key witness. Unlike in the civilian world, depositions in the military are exceedingly rare and there are very few ways they are admissible in court over the defense’s objection. This is basically because most witnesses are military members and can be ordered to testify wherever and whenever necessary. I won’t into detail as to why this particular deposition was necessary, just trust that it was and I had to do a quick turn and burn (three days) in Charleston to film this witness’s testimony.

Due to the trans-continental nature of this venture I was jet lagged the entire time only to hop on a plane three days later, lose a day in flight, and land on a Sunday to 24 hour operations on base. Gee thanks Libya… I wasn’t paying super close attention to the news so it did come as somewhat of a surprise when I called to check in with my SJA and was informed 1) Congrats on the deposition and 2) be prepared at a moments notice to go brief incoming operators.


This is one of the F-15s typically at Lakenheath but visiting Aviano for the foreseeable future.

So I went into the office, checked my email, and the other captains were kind enough to let me go home and cover the briefings while I slept a little Sunday. Monday it was back to business as usual, only I had a general court martial scheduled the next week, motions hearings in two days that would completely shape the court, and oh yeah, we were launching aircraft left and right to fight an air war in support of a NATO resolution…thanks again Libya. Monday was my longest day, 15 hours, but it didn’t compare to some of my friends in other jobs that were working non-stop. Motions hearings happened Thursday. Basically in order to use the deposition at trial I had to argue that the witness we deposed (a mere week before) was “unavailable” under the law such that she couldn’t testify at trial. No small feat but my senior trial counsel (STC) found this great case I used. If you don’t know, STCs and SDCs (defense side) are like the roving Yodas of the judiciary. Their entire job is to travel in a circuit and either prosecute or defend complex cases with junior counsel at base legal offices. I was absolutely giddy when my young JAG ears learned this position existed. You basically just travel around from case to case prosecuting “bad guys.” I’ve since learned its not so glamorous as it was originally in my mind. You’re constantly away from your family (if you have one that is), if you do a good job and get a conviction you’re congratulated as just doing your job, and if you lose then its your fault because you’re the one with all the experience. I don’t care…I’d still take it. =P Anyway, I argued my motion brilliantly and the judge promptly pointed out every distinguishing factor and denied it. This meant two things 1) we couldn’t use the deposition at trial over defense’s objection (and of course they were going to object) and 2) this case was going nowhere unless we uprooted everyone and moved it to Charleston…which is what we ended up doing. I flew out 48 hours later. This took an obscene amount of coordination and I’m grateful for the awesome paralegals that fought to get witness funding, travel arrangements, lodging arrangements, and basically moved all the logistical pieces and people while STC and I worked with our expert to prepare for trial. The end result was a conviction, confinement, and a dishonorable discharge (the harshest punitive discharge one can receive). I’d finally gotten over my jet lag in Charleston that next Friday and for the first time that week slept through the night…only to fly out Saturday, land Sunday, and go back to work Monday. We were greeted as returning heroes and I was rewarded with an armload of work to finish up since I’d planned leave for Tuesday.

THE LEAVE

Since my arrival in Italy, I’ve begged, pleaded, and cajoled my friends to come visit me and take advantage of the fact I live in one of the most beautiful and historical places in the world. A handful complied and this past week I was visited by none other than THE Johnny Utah.

Who isn't jealous of this Gitmo tan?
Who isn’t jealous of this Gitmo tan?

Upon arrival, I made him hit the ground running. JET LAG IS FOR THE WEAK. We started at La Favole for wine tasting, let him unpack for a solid 5 mins, then toured around the beautiful Sacile, dinner with friends then bar hopping which prompted the deep, meaningful infamous rickshaw debate. Which is better for my future company “Joni Tours” – a fleet of bicycle rickshaws or fleet of foot powered rickshaws? Feel free to vote in the comment section below for which you think would be more beneficial. I, of course, will not influence you one way or another…


The next day we hit up bella Lake Como. Yes this is the same lake in which George Clooney makes his home and portions of some Ocean’s movie were filmed.
It is pretty impossible to describe how beautiful this place is so I’ll just post some pics and hope you’re as in awe as I was. My whole idea behind this portion of the trip was to pretend I’m a baller for a night and just relax in style after an arduous three weeks. Hence the lakeview from the room:

View from the room!

The weather was absolutely perfect and remained so for the entire trip. To me this was just serendipity telling me that nothing I did could be wrong and that someone was smiling down on my vacation and life choices generally. After checking in we went walking/hiking around the town. It was off season so there was virtually no one else around. The town was built into a hill with roads weaving up and around it. You had to not only use your sense of cardinal direction but also had to figure out on what tier which road would empty or connect. The result was a lot of mediocre navigation and hiking but it was too beautiful to matter. The energy expenditure was directly proportional to the awesome public napping available on a grassy area behind a church.

Is this a Green? Sward? Paddock? Only lawyers squabble over semantics.
Is this area a Green? Sward? Paddock? Only lawyers would squabble over such semantics

Walking around the area also made me want to plan my vacation home. If I stay in the Air Force it’s a given that I will move every 2 years. At some point I imagine I will want some place to call my own so I’ve decided I want to buy a vacation home somewhere. At first I was content with the thought of just a small cabin by a lake but these homes inspired a whole new set of ideas. The cabin quickly turned into a palatial estate with wrought iron gates, stone lions to guard said gates, gazebos full of stray animals I pick up, and bridges…bridges to more rich stuff like yachts and helicopter pads…oh and no less than three swards and two greens and possibly and obelisk (this was inspired by Rome…see below). How is a mere JAG going to afford such opulence you ask? Well I was going to woo George Clooney but unfortunately he was nowhere to be found. Our back up plan was for Utah to seduce Prime Minister Berlusconi…it almost worked:
http://www.theonion.com/articles/silvio-berlusconi-gets-penis-stuck-in-wine-bottle,19709/

Whatever, it’s a work in progress.

After the hike, nap, hike, we found an absolutely adorable mom and pop store where we bought a nice bottle of wine, some cheese, and strawberries for a pre-dinner cigar session in the garden. They did not sell wine openers but luckily I had one in my car (DON’T JUDGE ME).

I feel like we're bordering on decadent here...
I feel like we’re bordering on decadent here

After dinner we went to a local bar and made friends with some of our servers. I also made another friend:

Render unto Cesar
Render unto Cesar

After they kicked us out we really wanted to explore some more and I personally wanted to sit on the beach near the lake and just contemplate life, especially since tourist season hadn’t started and no one was around. It was blocked off…mostly.

Oh gosh...look at this nigh impassible gate...
Oh gosh…look at this nigh impassible gate…

The next day, the drive back traversed through Verona. Fair Verona? Kind of. Parts of it were definitely fair. Relying on my wits, amazing sense of direction, and GPS that was more of a pain in the ass than an actual help, I finally found parking. Kudos to me for not maiming anyone with my car. Seriously those streets are super narrow and no one seems to care that you’re aiming a car at them. I do give myself a small pat on the back. We stopped by Juliette’s house. Not her real house but a tourist trap Italy made in response to the Shakespearean play. Rumor has it that if you touch the statue’s right breast, you’ll have good luck in your love life. Ridiculous…

…but it couldn’t hurt.

The next day before 0500, we left my house to get to the train to Rome. One four-hour train ride (where I almost strangled a small obnoxious Italian child) later we arrived in Roma! Checked into the hotel room and immediately started exploring! First up – the coliseum, obviously. One recommendation I will note is that if you plan on going to Rome, you need to get a Roma Pass at the train station (or airport). It costs 25 euro, provides free public transportation for three days, gives free access to two monuments/museums such that you don’t have to wait in line for tickets, and provides for discounts at other places. This continued our baller status as we skipped the looong line at the Coliseum and walked right in. Its just absolutely amazing that such a structure was built so long ago and still exists today in such good condition.

It was a little crowded with tourists but we cleared the crowd when we decided to reenact the second fall of Carthage, Russell Crowe style. After the Coliseum we decided to hop across the street to the ruins of ancient Rome. It actually took about an hour to negotiate the different gates/boundaries to get into Palatine Hill and the actual Roman Forum…no wonder it was so hard to conquer Rome. The entry attempts were so tiring another public nap was required on an ancient roman green/sward.

When in Rome...
When in Rome…

After the ruins we wandered over to the Pantheon which was incredibly crowded and impassable (more so than the Como beach gate) as Mass was ongoing.

Pantheon box still unchecked the Trevi fountain was next on the list. It was crowded and I was disappointed I didn’t get a better picture. =[ Unknown to me, serendipity would continue to play a role in this trip. Finally we decided to head to dinner and plan the rest of the night. I received some bad intel on which districts to head to so we floundered for a bit before we found a pizza joint. It was a little hole in the wall full of only Italians, which means the food was amazing but non-Italians were not quite welcome. We were obviously tourists and thus treated with mild derision by the staff but not so much so that they wouldn’t serve us. And the pizza was awesome!

On nom nom

From there we had to break out the iPhone to find a place for after dinner drinks. The result was the most AMAZING cocktail bar. The ingredients were all made in house, the bartender loved her job and loved serving us, the drinks were delicious, and the music was fun. It was the first Manhattan I’ve had in Italy that was not only palatable but something Don Draper could get emotional over.

Isn't that right Don?
Isn’t that right Don?

Well amazing cocktail bar closed at 0200 and unfortunately we’d just been served new drinks. Awesome bartender’s response was to give us to-go cups and shoo us out the door. I’m not completely confident to-go cups are legit in Rome but we met no resistance. Upon leaving the bar Utah became once again nostalgic for ancient Rome and gushed over the fact we were drinking in front of columns!

COLUMNS!!!COLUMNS!

On the way to find a cab we were wandering through cobblestone streets, alley-ways and piazzas and stumbled upon the Trevi Fountain at night. It was so amazing! No one else there. Another perfect photo op delivered to me!

Finally we were forced to call it a night because, lets face it, at some point it becomes day again. Slept in. And decided to visit the Vatican. The Vatican does not take Roma Pass in any form just FYI. We wandered into St. Peter’s Square, which was absolutely massive. Fountains, an obelisk (like most of Rome) and the sheer quantity of this place is breathtaking. I read Angles and Demons and my brain tried to conjure how Dan Brown described the place. I’m actually glad I couldn’t remember his formulaic inanity and just experienced the place for myself.

After the square, head towards the basilica. Now, I realize I’ve become a super travel snob in Europe. You see one church, you’ve seen them all. Architecturally it all becomes kind of meh after a while. This was not the case with St. Peter’s Basilica. It was beyond intricate, beyond lavish, it was just sheer extravagance. Marble everywhere, statues everywhere, cleverly placed windows streaming perfect beams of light. You can’t really tour the place so much as meander about in awe. Unfortunately we meandered too long and it cut into our Vatican Museum/Sistine Chapel time. Now, most tour guides tell you, you should take 3-5 hours in the Vatican Museum. We had to do it in an hour and a half. Did we miss some things? Sure. Did we hit the most amazing highlights? Yes. The Sistine Chapel honestly took my breath away. We sat on a bench on the side of the wall and just looked up for a good 15 minutes. Before you go, research exactly what you’re looking at. You should understand each panel and piece because there’s just so much going on you’ll miss out if you don’t.

After Vatican absolution we rinsed and repeated the night life. Revisited the amazing cocktail bar with the amazing bartender and gushed over more columns before hopping in a cab.

We didn’t have a solid plan for the next day so we decided to check out some out of the way monuments. Exhausted after two days of amazing cocktail experience, I was sort of underwhelmed by the Spanish steps. I tried to find some meaning in them other than…oh this is kind of neat. Honestly they’re like the Kim Kardashian of Roman monuments…famous but no one really knows why.

I started picking up souvenirs for people in the office. Most everyone got a statuette of some monument. However, I bought some of the captains small stress ball squishy pigs that are filled with some kind of liquid. You throw them and they flatten completely out then just reform in seconds. I thought this was just hilarious and wonderful so I bought four. Unfortunately they turned out to be mildly toxic and mostly flammable. After about 5 hours of use they start to either leak the liquid, which smells like gasoline or if you give it a good throw it will just explode. Whatever, it’s the thought that counts. No one got seriously hurt.

Once we had our share of souvenirs, we went back to the hotel, grabbed our bags, and hopped a train back to Sacile (without screaming children thank god). The train stopped at the Sacile station at 2230 and we had one last day to recover before it was back to reality. Utah and I said our tearful goodbyes and promised to re-hash our trip over bud heavies and mozz sticks at Applebees when we move to Texas. While the whirlwind trip wasn’t exactly relaxing, it was definitely a lot of fun and in the end that’s all that really matters.

Climbing the Dolomites Wednesday, Nov 3 2010 

I know…a long overdue update. So I started writing this when I was sitting in the New Orleans airport waiting for my flight back from my TDY. I’d actually been there a while as Delta decided to cancel my flight to Venice via Atlanta and re-routed me some convoluted way around the world which gave me a little extra time in the airport. This also continues my journeys home saga where my ability to just get home from a trip can only be described as epic fail. As I’d exhausted all of my food options (which are sparse in terminal C in the New Orleans airport) and was tired of walking around, I figured I’d sit down and be productive while waiting oh-so patiently for my flight.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine talked me into going on a via ferrata. For those of you who do not know what a via ferrata is, it is Italian for “iron road.” These routes are mountain passes with fixed cables that you can use to climb and a number of routes that are located all around the Dolomites. During WWI, there were a number of battles that occurred in those mountains. To help troops to move around on high altitudes in difficult conditions (especially in the winter), permanent lines were fixed to the rock faces. Eye bolts were bolted into the rock faces anywhere from 5-10 feet apart and attached with metal cables to make movement of troops and equipment easier. These were the first vie ferrate. The wartime network of vie ferrate has been restored and new routes added for recreational climbers. So in essence, we set out one Sunday to go climb a mountain, specifically Via Ferrata Strobel.

The beginning. Look how happy and naive we are!

Given my fear of heights, I told my friend that I wanted to do an easy one. The routes are graded 1-5 for difficulty and A-C for commitment. Of course he promised, “Sure! Absolutely! I’ve done this one before. It’s totally easy. We’ll be up and down in five or six hours. It’s practically a hike, not a climb.” This was, of course, absolutely false. Unfortunately I would not find this out until much later when it was too late to turn back. We’d borrowed gear from outdoor rec (helmets, harnesses, and the “rabbit-ears” that comprised our safety ropes. Since the route is already set in stone so to speak, there’s no need to belay a rope for climbing. For the ferrata, you have a rope that connects to your harness with two ends about five feet long and a carabiner at each end of both ropes. So two pieces of rope coming out from your harness with two abilities to connect to the steel cables embedded in the rock face.

Rabbit ears...

The climb did start out relatively easy. It was just a hike up the foothills which lasted about an hour and a half. I was about to start complaining that this was way to easy when we stopped for our last break before we started the actual climb. At this point we donned our gear and I felt serious! After we put our gear on, we walked a little farther and I continued to be unabashedly bored until I saw the first (of MANY) cables… It was located in a crevice and I could see both the first and second eyebolts going straight up with third, presumably, roughly 20 ft from the ground but just out of eye’s view as the rock jutted out and sloped back in making it impossible to see above the second bolt. …and I was supposed to climb it. I’m not entirely sure why but my friend encouraged me to go first. I had both ropes in my hand and felt that familiar feeling…the clammy palms, rubbery legs, heart in the throat, the labored breathing…and I realized it was going to be a long climb.

Much like the bungee jump, peer pressure is a wonderful thing to force you to overcome your fears. Realistically, I could either move my ass and just climb the mountain with my friends behind me OR I could do the hour and a half walk of shame back down the mountain and wait in the car for them to come back with epic tales of a climb I missed out on because I couldn’t make my legs move. We were already 1/8th of the way up…how bad could it be? So I took a deep breath and clipped in. The first eyebolt was unnerving. Hanging in a crevice, wedging myself in the rock so I could move the first carabiner then the second over the bolt. That was when I first realized there was nothing helping me hang on that rock except the two ropes attached to the cable in the mountain. Trying to both hang on and maneuver the carabiner off the cable so I could attach it above the second bolt and climb forward was rough but I got the hang of it eventually. Really the key for me was to just focus on the climb above me. To look up and find how many eyebolts I had in view and just find the hold to get myself there. I had a few snags (literally) where my carabiner would catch between the cable and rock and I would kindly request help from my dear friend behind me in the form of curses and pleas…mostly curses.

The climb was truly exhausting. When you look at a mountain from street level and can see the top, it doesn’t look so arduous. It’s not until you’re halfway up and your legs and arms feel like jelly and you just want the climb to be over do you truly understand that maybe you shouldn’t have picked the Italian alps as your first climbing experience. Honestly it was the iron ladders affixed to the rock that made me more scared than the cables. With the ladders, you’re not actually attached to anything as you climb up the rungs unless you hook in at every rung. The ladders are also located at very steep parts of the climb so its just one foot in front of the other until you’ve passed it. The ladders did well to remind me that there was absolutely no turning back. It would have been impossible to ferrata back down. You had to press on, get to the top, and hike down the other side. My friend did give me props on my speed though. I didn’t want to admit that the only reason I was going so fast was because I was too afraid to climb slowly or look down. I figured the faster I could get to a safe footing/ledge to sit on, the safer I would be from falling into the abyss. So Abyss may be overstating my situation a bit but it was a looooong way down.

Less than half way up

This was my climb. One safe spot to the next. I would just keep hooking in and climbing and moving until I found a spot on a rock where I was comfortable enough to sit down and take a breath and not freak out about how high I actually was. On the particularly flat places I did find enjoyment in the climb. I could take a deep breath and smile and my accomplishment. Look out and around and realize, that while I was ridiculously far off the ground, I was in control of the situation and just had a little more to go. A little more to go…or so I thought.

Every time I thought we were getting close to the top, we’d find another set of cables to climb and I would get increasingly more frustrated. When you’re actually on the mountain and on the last 1/3rd of it, it’s hard to see the top so of course I was assuming it couldn’t be THAT much farther. After all, we’d been climbing for longer than my friend said we’d have to climb… this was the same friend that told me this would be easy. We kept pressing but it was becoming increasingly discouraging to keep finding cables to climb and more paths to take. I was tired. The climb was no longer enjoyable. I just wanted to be off the mountain and drinking a beer in Cortina with normal people who don’t decide to climb a mountain on a random Sunday. Of course my fantasies of sitting in a comfy, warm pub with food and beer were completely wanton as I still had more to climb.

The three of us were on a particularly tiresome cable where I was about to hit the top of the rock face and crawl over to lay down to catch my breath while my companions caught up when my friend, who’d done this climb before, and the one that brought us here did mention he thought we were getting “close” to the top. His close and MY close were completely different concepts sadly. We were sort of close comparatively. I mean, we were closer to the top than if we’d started at ground level or even at half way. But I was expecting to round the rock face and see a meadow through which I could prance to the top of the mountain. This is what I actually saw:

Seriously?

I wish I could have thought or said something meaningful or insightful…unfortunately the only thing that went through my head was “Are you f**king kidding me.” I should have known better really. Again, this was the same friend that told me this would be an easy climb. So this was it. A crawl across a vertical ledge with a pseudo rock bridge and narrow 3 ft passage leading to an iron ladder (did I mention I hate ladders) which lead up to one of the last three cables that were bolted into completely exposed rock. And by completely exposed, I mean, if one of the cables didn’t hold for some reason…I would have been back at the car much faster than I thought possible…

So for the last 30 mins of the climb I pressed. I put one hand in front of the other, one foot in front of the other, tried to regulate my breathing, tried to keep my hands from shaking as I moved the carabiner from one cable to the next, and refused to look down until I felt safe. I just made my way upwards. I wont lie. After all that awesome climbing beforehand I felt like the guru of rock climbing. This last rock face which was entire exposure, made me feel incredibly out matched. Finally we got there. There wasn’t a meadow I could prance around in. There was just loose rock until I found my way to the top and sat on the rock and just looked around. To be honest I didn’t feel like I was at the top of the world. I felt tired. I felt like I wanted a beer. I felt like I was at the top of a very high carnival attraction which, at any point, someone would push me off of. What really hit home was the birds perched on those rocks. The birds that looked at you for a split second like “WTF are you doing here?” and just hopped a little off the ledge and took off soaring from the precipice I sat on. Honestly I’m not sure how to describe it. I was exceedingly high up sitting on a rock an staring at my feet trying to get my bearings. I was roughly 7400ft off the ground and the only thing I could focus on was the fact that the birds that hung out at that point could just come and go as they please and seemed entirely confused that I couldn’t just spread my arms and take off. I did sit and find some solace in the fact I had water and was at the top of a mountain and worked really hard to get there. The view as gorgeous.

The birds soaring around me was liberating. Of course, in the very back of my mind, was that ever so helpful yet persistent voice that said, “LOL you idiot…you still have to get down.”

So I would like to say that was the end to my via ferrata story but there’s always the trip back down. Not so much climbing as skreeing down the mountain trying not to fall and just wanting the end in sight. It was a long process but I dont particularly want to re-live it even through blog drafting so you’ll just have to take my word for it that the last 3 hours of the trip was even more painful than the first 4. It was miserable and horrible but we eventually made it back down with more scratches and bruises than before.

In the end we made it down, scratched and bruised and sore but we made it. This was one of my proudest moments I’d had in a while. When I saw the car I just wanted to run and hug it. Given the fact my legs refused to respond to my commands after hour 7, I gave in and just limped until I fell across the hood exhausted. We drove back to Cortina to get a pizza and the much deserved beer then went home. The next day, I wore my blues to work and hobbled around in my heels trying to just sit at my desk and not draw attention to myself. Everyone usually talks about what they did the weekend before. However, when anyone asked, “Hey, what did you do this weekend?” Saying, “Yeah, I climbed a mountain.” just didn’t seem to really cut it…

The Eastern European Experience Saturday, Aug 7 2010 

Ok I know I’m overdue for an update. Work has been crazy busy this summer as we’re incredibly understaffed. However, I did manage to squeeze in a trip to Bucharest Romania for a three day weekend! I’ve always wanted to visit Eastern Europe and Romania seemed as good a place as any. Budapest and Prague are still on my list but at least I got my feet wet here.

The trip started out like most of my other vacation plans…everyone was running late. The trip was planned the weekend in prior and in order to save the most money on airfare, we decided to fly out of Bergamo, Milan which is the farthest airport in Milan (about a three hour drive from Sacile). Despite our late start due to Drew locking himself out of his apartment, we started on the road in plenty of time. Unfortunately we hit traffic about an hour out. Not just slow traffic, but stand still, Italians getting out of their cars to smoke and chat kind of traffic. As we sat in the car, we watched the destination arrival time on the gps continue to rise which gave everyone in the car that uncomfortable feeling that we may not actually make our flight… Every few minutes I would do the math trying to count up exactly how much time we would have to park the car, find the check in point as Bergamo is a relatively large airport with a number of parking hubs, actually check in, get through security, find our gate, and board. Math isn’t a skill I’ve really developed but it was pretty clear that we would be pushing to get to the gate before it closed. Finally the cars started to move and we continued our slow trek to Bergamo. When we finally got there we had about half an hour to park the car, make it to the checkin point, check in, get through security, and find our gate. We did the parking rather quickly only to find out we had to catch a bus to our terminal…*sigh* We waited for five minutes for the bus, which, under normal circumstances would not have been an exceedingly long time to wait. In this case it was agony watching the clocks and looking for the bus. It arrived and made its slow way across the airport. We hopped off the bus and jogged to the check in counter which, not surprisingly, was uncrowded as everyone in their right mind had already checked in and were waiting like good little travelers at the gate. We checked in and made it through security with a few minutes to spare. At this point we decided to sprint through the terminal to our gate to ensure timely arrival. If you’ve read any of the previous entries, you may have discovered a theme of my choice in shoes. I tend to choose the most impractical shoes to wear for any occasion. On this occasion I decided on flip flops which are awesome for both riding in a car or a plane. Horrible for sprinting… One of the guys grabbed my carry on (which I’m amazed they allowed to be a carry on as it was incredibly full) and we booked it all the way to the gate only to find that the plane was somewhat delayed. This was good as we were technically late and it made me feel a little sorry for the suckers that got there on time or even early. This pity would be very short lived due to our experience on the return trip. More on that later.

One uneventful plane ride later we landed in Romania. Our plan was to meet a friend coming from Germany at the airport as his flight was due to land an hour later than ours. Unfortunately the airport we landed at in Romania offered nothing but a tiny snack bar and an ATM to lean up against once we crossed the point of no return that every airport now has. So we waited patiently…and continued to wait…and kept waiting… I was the POC for this guy and he had emailed me all his flight information. I had, of course, forgotten to print it out and was relying completely on my memory to guide us. Big mistake. While I had roughly yet correctly remembered the time and the place he was flying out of, I had actually forgotten to double check that we were meeting in the same airport. Apparently we were not. How was I supposed to know that Bucharest has multiple airports?!?! As an aside, he had let his phone run out of minutes so we couldn’t get in touch with one another. I blame that entirely on him. Finally we got tired of waiting and thought that maybe I had forgotten some vital piece of information (I had) and grabbed a cab to the hotel. Once we arrived and checked in, the pleasant front desk lady informed us that our friend had checked in and was waiting for us. We did a quick introduction/AAR on how we were separated…blah blah blah everyone blame Joni for not realizing a poor Eastern European country has multiple airports…whatever. Time to explore!

Bucharest is a really interesting city. The hotel we stayed at advertised that it was “close” to the main downtown area. It was actually a pretty far walk but we were able to really see the city’s dichotomy as we explored the area. There were modern and ornate buildings immediately adjacent to dilapidated ones. You could tell the city is really struggling to get on its feet but that it has pockets of wealth in certain areas. We walked around taking in the sites of gothic buildings and trash ridden sheets. We finally wandered onto a side street that was really not much more than rubble but was lined with shops containing designer gowns and clothes. After the travel ordeal we’d become pretty hungry so we ate at “Probably the best restaurant in town.”

The advertising left something to be desired but the food in Romania is actually really good. I think it has a lot of German/Hungarian influence. Also, lots of minced meats, spices, and sour cream, all of which I love. After a long relaxing dinner (which was really cheap), we walked back to the hotel and got ready to go out to a club. I’ve always been interested in going to an Eastern European club ever since I saw the movie Eurotrip. It was not as crazy wild as the movie depicted but it was really fun! I do have to comment on one thing I noticed on my travels through Eastern Europe. It’s something of a genetic anomaly really. All the women are really gorgeous. All the men are are not really attractive at all. It’s completely bizarre. You would think that generations of unattractive men marrying and having kids with attractive women would even out the gene pool. Not the case. The women remain beautiful, the men remain underwhelming. Which brings me to my next point. If you’re a single male, Eastern Europe is a great place. You’ll be good looking by default and they assume every American has money. Just a suggestion… Anyway, here’s pics from the club:

The next day we woke up a little late but decided to go on a road trip. We wanted to find Dracula’s castle. There are technically two Dracula’s castles in Romania. The one that Bram Stoker modeled his novels off of and the one that Vlad the Impaler lived and tortured people in. First thing’s first! Step 1, rent a car. We found a lovely van/car-ish crossover type thing. After some haggling with the car rental lady we ended up paying full price and not the price that was quoted to us on EasyJet. Despite the sales associate’s complete indifference to our quote and general antipathy we put a credit card down and were on our way!

First up was the Stoker castle which was really not as ominous or sinister as I was expecting. In all actuality it was quite pleasant. It was a beautiful sunny day with lush green surroundings on our short stroll up the hill where the castle was located.


Even inside, the castle looked like a great place to live. We didn’t find any coffins or skulls or torture chambers. Honestly the most offensive part of the castle was some mediocre decorating. Maybe it turns scary at night. We didn’t get the chance to wait around for it because we were on a mission! We also wanted to check out Vlad’s castle, which, according to my guidebook, was pretty much just ruins. At some point, the majority of it broke off the base and slid down into the ravine it overlooked. Also, it happened to be on the other side of Transylvania. It didn’t matter though. We wanted to see it! We took some final photos at the Stoker castle, and accepted the fact that we were not going to see vampires at this location…or so we thought…

After my quick encounter with the undead, we decided to hop back in the car and press. We didn’t have a GPS but did have the forethought to buy a map at the gas station we stopped at during the beginning stages of the drive. When we looked at the map we found a highway that wound around some mountains and got us to the town we needed. We also found some smaller roads that appeared more direct but went straight through middle of nowhere. We figured the highway would be quicker… However, part of the charm and allure of renting a random car is going off the beaten path to see the real country side and culture of a place. Highways are for suckers! So off we went and boy did we see country! Unlike the more urban areas, the rural areas are still decades from modernization. We were immediately recognized as outsiders and promptly stared down at every town we passed through. It could have been the new car or the fact that we all had cameras plastered to our faces and were gawking at what they considered normal.

But seriously…what American wouldn’t gawk? Is she wearing Crocs?!?! Anyway, we continued on. We weaved through the countryside going from small town to small town. Eventually we ran out of what could loosely be described as civilization and went straight into the backwoods, gravel roads of Romania passing only the occasional barn here and there. It was quite a lovely and peaceful drive until we hit the most bizarre sight I’ve seen in a while.
The backstory: From 1945-1989 the Soviets occupied Romania implementing a communist government. In 1947 Russia declared Romania a people’s republic. Romania remained under the direct military and economic control of the USSR until the late 1950s. During this period, Romania’s vast natural resources were continuously drained by mixed Soviet-Romanian companies set up for exploitative purposes. And that’s what we came across. As we drove out from the the wooded surroundings into a road running between grassy fields we suddenly saw old abandoned buildings. Rising randomly out from a Romanian field we found this old abandoned Soviet era industrial town. It was straight out of a bad horror movie. I was just waiting for our car to break down and our phones to lose service prompting us to separate to find some kind of help then be picked off one by one by “The Hills Have Eyes” style mutants in old soviet uniforms… This didn’t happen and we actually made it through the town without incident. It was still incredibly creepy. Imagine an entire town with no people. Just homes, business, warehouses, factories, all somewhat boarded up and entirely abandoned. All the homes looked the same, businesses and other buildings built in an economical and functional fashion. No frills or interesting decor. What made it even more weird (if that’s possible) were the signs that advertised a place called “Vacation Land” We came to a four way stop which showed us that vacation land was behind us.

As we crossed the street we saw more dilapidated old stuff,

and when we finally got to the other side of the four way stop, we found a sign that told us vacation land was, in fact, in front of us rather than behind.

As an aside, we never actually found Vacation Land…or maybe we did and just didn’t understand what the Romanians meant when they described a vacation… Regardless, soviet town wasn’t it. Anyway, it was getting late in the day and we were concerned that we were going to lose the light necessary to check out Vlad’s ruins. We checked the map again when we came to the base of a mountain pass and found that the town we were looking for was just on the other side of the mountains! Not big deal, right? The road, which could be better described as a goat path, took a little longer to get over than we thought but we did find some time to hop out of our awesomemobile and take some pictures of the mountains.


I was actually concerned about our gas situation since we hadn’t stopped for gas since the very beginning of the trip and we’d been driving all day. The car actually lasted the entire road trip without a refill which amazed me, yet foreshadowed future problems which will be discussed later. A storm did roll in over the mountains which made our slow going even slower and we did not hit the town until after dark. We weren’t able to go up and hang out in Vlad’s ruins but were able to see them from a distance, perched on the side of the mountain. While it was pitch dark and we were looking up from the ground, we were able to see the ruins by virtue of the flashes of lightning from the storm. Given the macabre scene it was actually perfect. The way back to Bucharest was marred by a storm but we eventually made it back to the hotel early in the morning to get a few hours sleep before flying back to Bergamo.

In true fashion, we were running late to the Romanian airport and were concerned were were going to miss our flight…again. We turned in the car as quickly as possible, got lost trying to find the check-in desk, and finally arrived only to be told that the flight was delayed. Instead of flying out at 1300, it would leave at 1500. The check in lady for EasyJet delighted in telling us that this was great news as we were running late anyway. I kind of figured we’d make our flight even if it was on time but we decided not to argue and wandered around the airport until they let us check in. After waiting in a monstrously long line, we finally got our boarding tickets and sat down at the gate. We were all exhausted and nodding off until one of us opened our eyes and realized that the flight to Bergamo had disappeared from our gate monitor and was replaced by a flight to Prague. We checked the departure screens and it showed that our flight had disappeared entirely. Weird. Unsure what to do, we started asking around and got completely conflicting information regarding a bird strike, plane repair, plane swap out, etc. It was about that time that I started having bad flashbacks of the trip back from Malta. How is it absolutely impossible for me to make a simple trip home? I seem to be entirely incapable of just hopping on plane and landing at my destination at the time originally planned on the tickets I buy. Turns out an EasyJet plane from the night before was cancelled due to bird strike, EasyJet decided to give those poor souls our plane, and were attempting to fix the damaged plane for our flight. We were getting all of this information second hand as there was absolutely no EasyJet representative in the airport at that time…at all… *sigh* No one really offers good customer service these days. So we waited patiently, waited some more, and when we were considering finding alternate routes home, were finally informed that our flight would leave at 1900, putting us in Milan at 2100 which made our arrival time at home around midnight. It would suck as we all had to work in the morning but it was our best option at this point. So we waited some more and our plane from Romania finally took off around 2000. Woo! I couldn’t wait to just crawl into bed for a good couple hours of sleep. Starting out the work week like that wouldn’t be too horrible.

The plane landed around 2200 and we paid our exorbitant parking fee and were on our way home. In an effort to keep the driver awake we engaged in a lively debate about college sports. We were about 30 minutes outside of Venice (a little over an hour home) when the car started slowing down. Apparently we’d done such a good job of distracting the driver from being sleepy that we’d distracted him from everything else as well. The next words out of his mouth were something along the lines of “Uhhh guys…I think we’re out of gas…” In America, when you run out of gas at 1 in the morning, you call AAA or call a taxi to a 24 hour walmart where you can buy gas canisters and gas in bulk. In Italy when you run out of gas at 1am…you’re screwed. We successfully maneuvered to the side of the road which was not lit or marked. I watched the car (and did a damn good job of it) while the guys split up walked opposite directions in the rain to find a roadside phone. I stayed behind to watch the car in case someone stopped. Horror film in the making? Our one saving grace was that the driver spoke pretty good Italian. He came back to the car and told us not to worry, that he had gotten in touch with a tow company, to hang tight and that they were going to bring us gas in about 45 minutes. Brava! If only it were that easy. We did get a nice 45 minute nap in while we waited for the tow truck which pulled up, flat bed and all, around 2am. The tow driver informed us, and by us I mean our Italian speaking driver (the english speakers were entirely ignored), that it was against Italian law to transport gas on the autostrade. Of course it is! Why wouldn’t it be! Why would anything go right on this trip home! The bottom line was, whether the law existed or not, this guy wanted the tow fee and was going to tow us to the closest gas station. Ironically we only flew out of Bergamo because of the cheap fares… Anyway, as I mentioned, this driver ignored Drew and I entirely. We tried to engage, albeit halfheartedly/sleepily, to ask if they needed help moving the car on the flat bed. The guy didn’t even acknowledge our presence. We didn’t think anything about it until we felt the car start to move on its own volition. They’d gone so far in ignoring us that they left us in the car when they pulled it onto the flat bed to tow! Then they started driving!


View from the backseat of the car on the tow truck driving down the autostrade. It's a good thing his flashers were on or this would have been unsafe!


Drew and I were convinced we’d died on the autostrade and became ghosts no one could see.

We were in a car, on a flat bed, riding on the autostrade to get gas. This was probably the most bizarre thing that had happened to me since encountering abandoned soviet town… Finally we were dropped off at a gas station, emptied our wallets of whatever cash we had left so that the guy would move the car off the truck, and bought just enough overpriced gas to make it back to Sacile…which we did…at 4am. I was able to log a solid two hours of sleep before waking up to start my week…but I wouldn’t have traded any of it. =]

Verzasca Dam – or how I overcame my very rational fear of heights Sunday, May 23 2010 

This past weekend, I forced myself to face one of my biggest fears. No, not zombies…heights! I spent about 26 years of my life happily going about my business not realizing that I had a deep seeded fear of heights. Not the kind of heights where I’m afraid to fly in a plane or take elevators. I generally trust mechanical engineering enough to keep me from plummeting to my death (or at least know too little about it to really understand the danger I’m in). I’m more referring to the kind of heights where I’m the sole entity responsible for keeping myself up in the air.

The perfect example of this, and on a wholly related note, the first time I realized I had issues was at COT. Don’t get me wrong. COT was easy. Getting up early and being yelled at was annoying but there was nothing super hard about it. You just learned what you needed to do and got by without overtly falling asleep in the middle of seminars. Then the COT trainers, in their infinite wisdom, decided to run us through an obstacle course. The course itself was frustrating because whoever built it did NOT have anyone under 5’5″ in mind. Whatever, I mostly got through it. The next day we had to climb on a ropes course. The course itself is hard to describe so I’ll just illustrate:

So the ropes course doesn’t start out so bad. You just climb up a cargo net with two little ropes attached to your harness to hook into the cables for safety. The climb up the cargo net was only about ten feet up…but once you start on that platform you realize that a fall from ten feet could really actually be quite uncomfortable, and naturally the course only goes up from there… The course is divided up into different legs separated by ropes attached to telephone poles at different heights. Once you end each let at a platform you have to hook your ropes onto the cables on the other side of the pole and keep moving up from there till you reach the end and repel down.

It was awful. From the very first step off the first platform my legs and arms were shaking, they wouldn’t move immediately at my commands, and my stomach felt like it was constantly invading my throat. It was as if some part of my brain just said f**k it, you’re insane, go back to the ground where you belong. Shaking and cursing (not so silently) I got through it. I landed without incident back on mother earth and was so happy it was over…it wasn’t. I then had to face the toothpick. The name “toothpick” really doesn’t do this thing justice. It sounds inane and tedious. It was terrifying. The basic premise is to just scare the living bejesus out of anyone with height issues. You walk up a ton of stairs to the top of this tower, hook yourself into cables strung above and parallel to a telephone pole. This pole is also parallel to the ground…which was about 50ft below… The goal? Walk one foot in front of the other (because there wasn’t enough room to put them side by side and shuffle as I desperately wanted to do) and touch the telephone pole perpendicular to your walkway. This walk of shame was approximately 30ft.

As I started to hook myself in I thought I was getting dizzy as things seemed to be moving in an awkward way, but in actuality the poles were just swaying in the breeze. I’m still not sure which was worse. I got through the toothpick much like I got through the ropes course: trembling, cursing, and yelling at my flight mates to stop screaming encouragement because I just wanted silence so I could go to my happy place. I don’t know how this was supposed to make me a better officer. When I face job stressors I don’t typically shudder/curse/fight the urge to throw up…not usually anyway. Regardless, I made it past these events, buried the embarrassing fears deep in my subconscious, and haven’t revisited them since…until very recently.

When a friend of mine told me he was going the 007 Goldeneye bungy jump, I leapt at the opportunity (horrible pun intended). If you don’t remember the jump here’s a refresher:

1) This would allow me to again face my, and in my mind a very rational, fear of being in high places with nothing but myself and a flimsy piece of wood and some cord for support. 2) My friends were doing it and I’m a sucker for peer pressure. 3) I used to have a HUGE crush on Pierce Brosnan as James Bond. I think it had something to do with British accents seeming exotic/sexy to a country girl from TN. But then I watched Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace and Daniel Craig makes Brosnan look like a total pansy tool so I figure, if Brosnan can jump off a dam, so can I. This jump from a wooden platform attached to the dam is around 700ft high. It’s the tallest in Europe and the second tallest in the world, missing the mark by only around 10ft.

I was already nervous about the trip before we even arrived at the dam. I kept justifying my decision to go by thinking of all the people that do this every day at theme parks, beaches, carnivals, etc. Those places seem inherently unsafe to me, yet statistically speaking they, for the most part, survive unscathed. (side note: this also reminded me of the time my parents took me to Dollywood at 11 years of age and I begged to do the bungy jump there. They wisely told me “No”…or “Shut up and get in the car or you’re not getting any rock candy”…I don’t remember which). But we weren’t going to a carnival or theme park. We were headed to a famous jump in Switzerland! I’d put my stock in Swiss engineering over a southern fried carnival jump any day. The Swiss just make everything better: watches, clocks, chocolates. They probably make bungy jumps better too!

Feeling entirely justified I hopped out of the car with a modicum of confidence. This immediately faded when we heard this horrific male shriek echoing through the valley from someone that had just jumped. It could have been a cry of exhilaration…but it could have just as easily been a cry of terror and immediate regret. It was hard to tell but I was definitely picturing the latter. It also didn’t help that as we rounded the corner to head to the dam we saw this:

My stomach felt like it was making its way slowly up into my throat. The only thing that kept me walking was the fact that Kim had a very similar expression on her face and she kept moving so there was no way I was backing out now. The three of us walked up to the trailer where we paid to plummet and then proceeded to wait in line. The line was taking a little longer than normal since there was a BBC reporter who was ironically doing some piece on the thin line between pleasure and terror/pain. He stood on the platform for a good bit as a helicopter was flying around getting different shots. The roving helo was definitely making me nauseous and I was getting really irritated at this guy’s inability to take a decent shot so we could be on our merry way. Finally he left and the line started moving again. The three of us, being the raging narcissists we are, made a plan to switch out cameras. While one person jumped, the other two would take continuous photo and video and we would switch out duties as we all too turns jumping. While this was a great idea, I realized very early into our wait in queue that I needed to go first. Standing around and waiting while we watched other people disappear over the edge and more often than not hear them shriek on their way down was bad enough. I realized that if I had to film one of my friends jump and watch them go all the way down I would probably lose my nerve so I asked to go first while Kim and Drew took pictures and filmed. Standing in line was becoming nerve-wracking and too soon it came time for me to hop on the chair and get a quick tutorial for how things were going to work on the platform and very shortly after when I stopped bouncing (theoretically).

The physics of this whole scenario is pretty simple. You wear a harness with a rope attached to both my ankle and the waist of the harness. The bungy cord attaches to your ankle (at least it was in the ankle area…I never looked closely enough because I was at the point where I refused to look anywhere but either straight ahead or up) and when you jump you’re supposed to dive such that you fall head first until the cord contracts, bounce for a little while upside down, then when you’re done bouncing reel in the cord between your waist and ankle such that you are in sort of a sitting position rather than upside down. Once you’re in the sitting position they lower a crane that you hook into your harness and they pull you back up on the platform. While everything was incredibly straight forward it didn’t make me any less nervous and I was suddenly hoping BBC guy would show up and delay us a bit more… About two minutes after my tutorial, standing in my padded ankle shackles with the harness firmly set, it was suddenly my turn. I walked up the steps slowly like I was headed to the gallows. I gripped the hand rail like the whole apparatus was about to tumble into the abyss and I desperately tried to regulate my breathing. I was actually much calmer than I thought I would be. I held onto the railing (I don’t think it served any purpose but to make me feel better) while the platform leader hooked me in and told me how it was going to work. Basically I would walk to the edge of the platform with my toes hanging off and wait for him to count down from 3 to 1. On 1 I would jump. If I didn’t jump, they’d give me three minutes to make up my mind then pull me off the platform. Thank you Swiss efficiency! Much like my friend Julia who jumped months ago, I knew two things. 1) I couldn’t look down so platform guy would have to tell me when my toes were hanging over and 2) if I didn’t jump when he said 1 I wasn’t going to do it. So finally it was my turn. Platform guy graciously held onto my harness and guided me to the edge. Despite only looking up, I was very much so aware of the nothing that surrounded me. My mind did a kind of retreat where it started digging through my subconscious trying to find something interesting to think about other than the fact I was about to fall 700ft. All I could come up with was something along the lines of “did I unplug my crockpot before I left this morning?” I did chance a glance down to the dam where Kim and Drew were yelling encouragement and poised ready to document my awesomeness. I also noticed them chatting with BBC guy who had made his return and was filming me. The only encouragement he gave was “Give us a good scream!” Well I was on TV with my peers filming as well so there was absolutely no way I could back out now. Again, peer pressure is a wonderful thing. I raised up my arms to prep for the swan dive and was still thinking about my crock pot when I heard the dulcet tones of platform guy from behind me:

3

Oh s**t.

2

OMG I HAVE TO JUMP REALLY REALLY SOON! OMG!

1

I would like to think that it was through some conscious effort that I decided to jump but in reality I have to thank whatever synapses decided to fire at the right moment such that my legs thrust me off the platform because I don’t really recall doing it on my own. 700ft is a really long way down so I had a lot of time to think. My thought process went a little something like: “Oh wow I just jumped!….OMG I’m falling, Oh hell I see the ground……Oh wow I’m still falling. Oh god!….OMG I’m STILL falling…ahhh there it is.” I felt the tension in the cord and it was not as jerky/sudden as I expected. I bounced for a surprisingly long time and just stared at the ground and swinging for a while. I was getting dizzy with all the blood rushing to my head before I realized I had forgotten to reel myself into the sitting position. Oops. I looked up and finally realized how far I’d fallen. Everyone looking over the dam looked like little dots on the horizon. It made me feel incredibly small. They lowered the crane to me and pulled me up pretty quickly. The ride up, much like the fall down, was kind of a blur. The platform guy and assistant hoisted me up and helped unhook me. Once I took the gear off and left the platform I felt both liberated and still a little shaky. Whatever. I conquered my fear and had a relatively good time. I didn’t pee myself. I didn’t throw up. I didn’t die. It was an excellent Saturday afternoon. Here’s the video to prove it…as an aside, I may be depicted shrieking like a five year old girl on the BBC.

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=748&id=100000078041783#!/profile.php?id=513240671

Escape from Malta! Friday, Apr 30 2010 

Operation Escape from Malta began at 1100 on Saturday morning when we realized flights to and from the island were indefinitely cancelled. The only information Ryanair could give us was that maybe possibly they would be moving planes on Tuesday if the Volcano stopped erupting and the moons aligned just right…

If you’re up to date on the posts, you’ll know that I recently spent six months trapped on an island. I’m very much so well aware of the fact that, if you can’t fly off it, you’re pretty limited in how you can escape. Since my scuba gear was still in transit, I had to get pretty creative. We went down to the lobby as a group and bought minutes for internet use. Wireless internet is not as readily available in Europe as it is in the states. Everyone got on separate terminals and started doing research. Between four of us, the best plan we could come up with was a ferry to Sicily followed by a ridiculously long train ride up through the entirety of Italy. Around 1230 we decided to commit to this plan as no one could come up with any other ideas, and despite the fact I was traveling with two maintainers, neither developed the ability to conjure an ash proof air craft. *sigh* To congratulate ourselves on committing to a plan, we got lunch at one of the English pubs in the area and ordered comfort food and beer. We had to check out of our hotel room regardless since they decided to jack the room price up to 300+euro in light of the fact that a number of tourists were stranded. Thus began our downward spiral into the realm of the dirty backpackers. As we were thoroughly enjoying our food/drinks (while surrounded by our luggage) and patting ourselves on the back for the well thought out plan, we overheard a couple of British tourists complaining about the ferry schedule. As this was our only way off the island and therefore integral to our plans, we asked them to clarify. Apparently there was no ferry leaving that day and the very next ferry was at 0430 Sunday morning. Awesome!

We ran to the hotel across the street to call a cab to get to the ferry landing area and get tickets. No, we didn’t volunteer the fact that we weren’t actually staying at said hotel… We were quickly turning into travelers, living off the land, salt of the earth backpackers. We did what we had to do to survive even if it was ethically a little grey! Whatever… The cab arrived about 5 minutes later and we told him to take us to the ferry area in Valletta. So far, every cab experience in Malta had been decent. Cabbies were engaging, informative, genuinely nice people. I think it was indicative of our vacation’s nose dive when this particular driver was the worst. If I haven’t noted before, most cabs in Malta aren’t really marked. They just look like the drivers’ normal cars, which they probably are… So for starters, this guy’s car was falling apart. His tires were squealing around curves even when we were going slow. He said it was because the road was hot. Now, I don’t know a lot about cars but I DO know that tires make that sound when they’re bald and are having problems with traction, not just because the road is hot. I wouldn’t have necessarily been pissed at his disregard for our safety by encasing us in a metal death trap driving 90km/hr on Maltese back roads…but don’t lie about it! Also, he was incredibly negative the entire 20 minute trip. At this point we were still optimistic about our chances of leaving the island with relative ease but anytime anyone in the car made some kind of comment he automatically tried to rain on our parade by making some antagonistic response. It could have been something as simple as “Oh the sky is really blue today.” He would have interjected with something along the lines of “No, the sky isn’t blue. In point of fact the sky is a colorless dark void of humanity that will crush your soul.” Needless to say, we spent the last half of the ride in silence…except the tires. I do have to say that he gave us one good nugget of information buried in his dissentient rants: that Malta was going to close off the roads soon because the Pope was flying in that day. What this meant for devout Maltese catholics was that their ultimate spiritual guide was going to literally bless them with his presence. What this meant for us was that we were now stuck in a town with no chance of finding a place to sleep as the hotels would undoubtedly be full and no chance of leaving by automobile which is the only feasible transportation in Malta. So…not only were we stuck on this island, we were now trapped in its capital.

Did we allow the claustrophobic situation get us down! NO! We pressed like the good air force officers we were! We got out of the cab with our heads held high and walked into…an empty ferry office… We scrounged around for about five minutes until we found a brochure with a phone number on it. Called the number, which happened to be the correct one, then proceeded to spend an exorbitant amount of euro on an hour ferry ride to another island. *sigh again* Since we were stuck in Valletta for the next twelve hours we decided to find an internet cafe and look for train tickets from Sicilian towns to Sacile in northern Italy. A lot of businesses were closed for the pope’s arrival but after walking around for a bit we found one. After divvying up the research beforehand (still having to pay for computer use) we hopped on different terminals and our best route ended up being a cab from Pazzollo to Siracusa and a train from Siracusa to Bologna to Mestre to Sacile. The train left at 0800 Sunday morning and arrived in Sacile at 0100 on Monday morning. Every other train arrived mid-day Monday and some of our crew (not me of course) had to get to work so we really needed this particular train. This also meant our ferry had to be perfectly timed as it was supposed to arrive at 0600 and the cab ride between cities was an hour giving us an hour buffer. Ugh I’m exhausted just typing this.

Anyway, we decide to commit to this plan of action so we pull out our credit cards and go to order our tickets online at Trenitalia…and were denied. So we keep trying…and keep getting denied. What we didn’t know at the time was that, due to the Volcano and thus the influx of people buying train tickets, trenitalia had stopped accepting foreign cards and would only accept cards from Italian bank accounts. Of course, they didn’t put this on their website. They did offer a helpful customer service line but every time I tried to call the listed number, I would get an answering machine. I figured the Italians saw what was going on and just took the day off. I wont judge them. We’ve all been there. So we decide to take a break and come back to try later. We wander outside and bump into a mass of people on a blocked off street. OH YEAH! We forgot the pope was coming. We were hungry but decided to wait around for half an hour to see him drive by and wave at us from his popemobile, which is made by Mercedes FYI.

They looked bored to me...

He had his bullet proof windows down which I thought was odd but hey, I guess he was relying heavily on both God and the rooftop snipers, who, from my vantage point, seemed to be chatting and smoking cigarettes during the entire entourage. It was actually pretty cool to see such an internationally influential figure on a random trip. The only other time this has happened to me was when I was in NY as a youngster and saw the, then president of Gabon. Consequently it was also the same time I learned Gabon was a real place. Regardless, the pope was much cooler.

After seeing his Holiness we decide that maybe we’d attained some good luck by being in proximity so we tried the internet cafe again, only to be thwarted yet again. Since we’d committed to the ferry, we decided to lock in a cab (which also charged a ridiculous fee) from the Sicilian ferry landing to Siracusa and just hoped we could buy tickets at the counter there. After our third major group decision for the day we decide to grab some dinner and figure out what to do with ourselves for the next six hours. We tried to stretch dinner out as long as possible but it only lasted two hours…the staff was giving us the evil eye for keeping them there. Finally we just meandered back to the ferry area which wasn’t as sketchy as you might think. There were a few nice bars and restaurants a block over. Drew and friend decided to stay in the deserted ferry check-in area and nap in shifts. Julia and I decided that, despite looking like hobos at this point, we would go share a bottle of wine and read our books at an outdoor cafe. Besides, the ferry office only had bevelled wooden seats so I really needed a night cap to help me sleep. We eventually went back to the ferry office for a few hours before our check-in time and laid down for a little nap. I was dozing for about fifteen minutes when I heard the most annoying sound in the world. Giggling female middle-schoolers…only they were speaking French! I opened my eyes and realized that we’d quickly been surrounded. A group of roughly seventy-five middle/high school French kids, who, I can only assume were stuck on a school trip when the Volcano happened, had filtered into the ferry landing area (which wasn’t that big and the acoustics made everything really echo). The chaperone to student ratio sucked as there were about three adults in the entire crowd. This was highlighted by the fact that after trudging through a dozen groupings of them to get to the bathroom I found that a number of them were using the public restroom to make out. What I wouldn’t give to have known the French version of the phrase “GROW UP AND GET AN APARTMENT YOU BANAL JUVENILES!” This simultaneously made me feel old. Whatever, I was tired and cranky and surrounded by chatty French kids while stuck in a space the size of a double wide. This gives me a new appreciation for teachers. My mom is a teacher, and the fact that she leaves work every day without killing a student is really commendable. Thanks mom and all other teachers for allowing the youth of the world to thrive at that strange stage in life. This also makes me realize why I hate the French. Before that night it had really only been theoretical conjecture. Now I have proof.

Our happy little band of travelers spent the next hour staring at each other while making uncouth comments under our breath and imagining the floor opening up to devour everyone that wasn’t us. This didn’t happen sadly. Oh and before you judge me, keep in mind that it was 0300 on Sunday morning and we hadn’t slept since our San Julian’s party night, Friday night… I’m not a morning person, but when I don’t really know what morning is I get both frustrated and ornery. Anyway, 0400 rolls around and we start lining up, only to get put in another holding pen in the next building (Militarily, I should be used to this). Finally we boarded what was honestly a phenomenal boat. It was incredibly spacious which allowed me to find a place to lay down far away from the children. Unfortunately about five minutes into my nap a stewardess (not really sure what you call a boat’s “flight attendant”) woke me up to tell me that laying down on the seats was not permissible. I just stared at her with a dumbfounded expression while she glared back with what I could only describe as antipathy. I sat up for a few minutes so she would leave me alone. Then promptly laid back down. Another, much more pleasant yet still irksome stewardess woke me five minutes later to remind me of the ferry’s policy of sitting up-right. Now, I don’t know if it was my desperate need for sleep or that I’m quick witted (probably the former) but I convinced her that if I sat upright I would get horribly seasick and throw up on everything and oh gosh I would hate for anyone of her staff, including her, to have to clean that up… I’ve never gotten seasick in my life but it could happen. I guess my disheveled appearance lent credence to this little white deception. She left me alone and I slept for a solid 45 minutes!

Of course the ferry was late pulling into port. It was about 0630 when we pulled in which left us an hour and a half to drive an the hour journey and hopefully buy tickets at a tiny station in Siracusa providing there were tickets left and that someone was manning the counter. We started getting a little pushy on our way off the boat and were somewhat scolded as we were pushing through groups of slow moving kids… Honestly my sleep deprived thought at the time was: WHAT? Women and children first?!?! This isn’t the effing Titanic, we have a train to catch!

The cab was there, which was a small miracle as the email correspondence the company wrote in broken English was less than comforting. I was too wired to sleep so I did get to see some of the orange/lemon groves in Sicily and do think I want to make a legitimate trip back down there. We finally arrived at the station and hopped in line for tickets. There was a small group in front of us. They were having what I can only assume was a thrilling conversation in Italian, however, they were moving slow and our train was actually at the station waiting to go. Finally they left and we were able to buy tickets…the only problem was that our seat numbers were missing. The person at the counter did not speak English so by our powers combined we pulled together enough of or Italian knowledge to figure out the gist of what he was explaining: because of the influx of train riders, we had tickets on the trains…we just didn’t have guaranteed seats. This meant that we could have spent the next 17 hours on our feet. Whatever, we got on the train and grabbed four open seats. We did luck out and during the trip through Sicily we weren’t ousted by people with legit tickets. Sicily was genuinely beautiful and I really want to go back down there and see the sights from something other than a dirty train window. Towards the end I did nod off (still sleep deprived) and apparently most of my other travel companions did as well. It wasn’t real sleep of course. I would sort of lose unconsciousness when we stopped at every station. I did wake up at one point to note that we had been stopped at this one station for much longer than normal but promptly fell back asleep. At this same “station” Drew ran back into the train car (I had no idea he’d even left the proximity) and exclaimed like a kid at Christmas “GUYS WE’RE ON A BOAT!!!” I woke up enough to inform him that “No, we are on a train.” and started to doze back off. However, he kept insisting for some reason that we were actually on a boat. Julia, who was picking up on things much more quickly than I was tried to clarify: “Wait…we’re on a train on a boat?” This captured my attention.

When we were googling how to get from Sicily to northern Italy, mapquest and google just had lines spanning the blue parts of the map between Sicily and the mainland. I assumed these lines were bridges. I was wrong. We wandered out of the train at this “station” and realized we were stopped because the train had pulled into the bottom of a giant ferry (train track included obviously). Anyway, we were able to wander around the top deck, see both pieces of land, get some snacks at the ferry snack bar, and secure ourselves for the rest of the trip. Unfortunately the “securing ourselves” didn’t work out as we kept getting ousted from our seats at every stop. Inevitably someone would stop by and have a ticket with the seat number we happened to be sitting in. Julia’s and my solution to this unfortunate turn of events was to invade first class, sit down like we owned the cabin, and just rack out till we had to depart for another train at Bologna. It actually and unexpectedly worked. No one bothered us and we slept for another solid 45 minutes. I should note that on this leg of the journey we were able to see some of the Amalfi Coat, Naples, Rome, and Florence from our dirtied train window…whatever, it was better than nothing!

The Bologna to Mestre leg of the journey was pretty uneventful except for the fact that there were no open seats period. We were on one of the nicer trains so we stood in the bar car for a few hours chatting with Australian steel traders. The train attendant that checked our tickets was nice enough to inform us that seats were available in one of the farthest cars…but we’d already ordered Heinekens at that point so why bother?

Finally we landed at Mestre only to wait another 45 minutes for our train to Sacile. We decided to pass our time with the only thing that was open: McDonalds…this was a gross mistake but we were starving, tired, and quite grungy at this point. The train came and we arrived in Sacile around 0100 on Monday morning and all we had to do was make the 10 minute walk back to our respective homes. I made it. I hadn’t had real sleep, despite my attempts, since I had woken up 40 hours prior. No shower for almost two days. I wanted to curse the volcanic ash which I ironically never saw. And I still had animosity towards French children. Yet, somehow, all of this paled in comparison that I was able to fall asleep in my own bed.

And I slept…forever…

Madrid/Malta…or how I spent my R&R Sunday, Apr 25 2010 

Last week I tagged along on a friend’s trip to Madrid and Malta. He actually went to Dublin first and a group of us sort of convened in Madrid last Tuesday. The cheapest flight I could find last minute was out of Marco Polo (Venice), however, our return flight was Ryanair to a different airport near Treviso. This meant I wasn’t able to drive my car and leave it the few days I was gone, which ended up being cheaper but a bigger hassle in the long run. The first leg of my journey to Madrid was a train to a bus to the airport.

Italian mass transit is always an adventure. Trenitalia is a decent website but not necessarily reliable in a pinch (as you’ll read later). The train schedules are consistent but so is the fact that train workers consistently strike which throws everything off. Coincidentally so do the bus workers. Those wild cards combined with the fact that a train on the same line I was taking had jumped the tracks and crashed the day before made me a little nervous about time so I left quite early. I wasn’t incredibly worried about the safety of the train situation since the crash the day before made it statistically unlikely mine would crash as well. We’re probably due another one in the next few months though…

Other than initial concern, the trip to Madrid was otherwise uneventful. One of my friends had been there for a few days and the Dublin group was flying in around the same time. After blundering around the terminals for half and hour trying to find one another then the metra we were on our way to the hostel. Madrid’s train system is pretty easy to use if you’re used to any sort of train system. All stops are both numbered and color coded and the stops in the area we were in were all close together. After we reached our hostel and met up with Julia, the last of our party, we decided to go for tapas. It was only 1800 and dinners in Spain, much like dinners in Italy, are late night affairs lasting usually until at least midnight with parties to follow. Tapas sounded like a good tide-over and Julia had found a great market with booths that specialized in different types of tapas, cheeses, and wines.

I tried some of the more adventurous seafood ones, immediately regretted my decision, and opted for the safer empanadas. We actually spent a few hours at the market, decided we weren’t hungry enough for dinner, and wandered out to find a Flamenco show. I’d like to note that tapas are not enough food to counteract a long night of drinking in Spain, which we learned the hard way. We did find a Flamenco show around 10pm but it was sold out with the next show starting at midnight. The bouncers kindly pointed us to a local bar where we waited for the next show. The show was absolutely amazing. Unfortunately I didn’t bring my camera and will have to upload pictures later when I get them from everyone else. It was a small venue, 3 member band, and 3 dancers that took turns. That combined with copious amounts of sangria made for an enchanting evening. So enchanting in fact, that we traversed the time/space continuum when the cab driver dropped us off around the corner from our apartment yet we somehow wandered around for half an hour before we found our door.

The next day we woke up around 1300. I blame the fact that we were staying in the hostel basement with no windows to let us know it was morning. We hopped on the train to Plaza Mayor and decided to tour on foot.

We found a castle, a cathedral that was completed in the 1900s (you know you’ve become a travel snob when you are no longer impressed with structures built a mere century ago), and eventually made our way to the Museo de Arte Reina Sofia.
http://www.spanisharts.com/reinasofia/reinasofia.htm
I spent most of my time staring at a couple of Dali’s paintings. To be honest, I know very little about art. So I can stand in front of a painting and truly appreciate how much I probably dont really appreciate it enough… Dali’s, however, are kind of like a scavenger hunt through your consciousness.

Just one of many Dalis that I stared at thinking...weird...

While I would never hang one in my house, I do like looking at them. Is that too pedestrian? Maybe. Whatever, this is a travel blog, not an art blog! Don’t judge me! We also were able to see the Picasso exhibit. It was huge!

After the museum, we went to dinner then napped. Around 2300, we went back out to a club. I’m not usually big in to the club scene but it was fun. What surprised me the most was that the crowd was definitely older, seemingly accomplished business people. I definitely preferred this crowd to the 17 year olds we found in San Julian’s. We didn’t stay out too late as our plane out was leaving at 0900 the next morning. After the club, we went home, got a few hours sleep, then it was off to Malta!

Malta is a small island off Italy but doesn’t have as much Italian influence as you might think…or really any at all. Malta was controlled by a number of nations in its long history and the line of dominance went something like: Phoenicians –> Greeks –> Romans –> Arabs –> Sicilians –> French –> Brits until they eventually received their independence in 1964. Since the Brits held on to the island the longest, their modern culture is heavily influenced by them including driving on the other side of the road and pubs that heavily cater to British tourists.

After we departed the plane and located luggage, we hopped in a cab rather than renting a car. This was fortuitous since there are no highways in Malta and a lot of main roads were closed off due to the Pope’s arrival that weekend. Also, the Maltese drive about as crazily as Italians and when you have no idea how to get from point A to point B, driving on a different side of the road in an unfamiliar car would be stressful at best. The cab literally wove its way through the streets of Malta before dropping us off at our seaside hotel where we had a suite for 15 euro a night per person. We of course bragged about this to each other throughout the course of our vacation and this bit of hubris may have come back to bite us in the ass when we tried to leave…more on that to come.

View from the hotel!

We stayed 2 nights in Malta. The first night we went to the capital, Valletta. The cab dropped us off and we walked down the street, running straight into a marching band in old school military uniforms. The music they were playing was strikingly familiar. I suppose this makes sense as America and Malta have strong English roots. We decided to follow this random event to the town square where a group of people performed a re-enactment of Malta’s heroism during the WWII bombings which led to the award of the King George cross. http://flagspot.net/flags/mt%29gc.html
Neat! Half of the re-enactment was in Maltese (none of which I could comprehend) and half was in English. After that, we wandered around the city for a while and noted that it was surprisingly subdued for a capital. We decided to head back to the hotel and hopped in with another cab driver. He was apparently unfamiliar with exactly where our hotel was located and had to stop at his office for directions. Apparently there’s no GPS in Malta… Oddly enough he just stopped the car in front of a random building, got out of the car, and left us alone with the keys in the ignition. He came back 5 minutes later with directions and bananas for the four of us. I’ve never had a cab driver offer produce to me before…really random. While I thought it was a nice gesture, I waited to make sure the others didn’t get sick before eating mine. It was a delicious addition to my breakfast yogurt!

Waiting patiently for the driver...

Yum...mostly

The next day we took a bus tour around the island. I normally abhor guided tours but this seemed the cheapest way to put eyes on most of the island while getting some of the history. We started with the arts and crafts part of the island. The glassblowing was neat but spending an hour at the jewelry department was extremely tedious. Other parts of the tour were much more interesting and they included a guided boat tour of some of the water caves as well as a trip to the largest church/dome made entirely out of stone! The trip did serve to help us get our bearings.

We arrived back at our hotel and decided to get dinner before going to San Julians. Up until this point we actually had a hard time finding authentic Mediterranean food. Most places were over-catering to the British tourists and nothing we ate had a distinctly Mediterranean feel. On a tip from one of our guided tour friends we stopped by a place called Ta’Pawla and finally got our Mediterranean fix. I took a chance and ordered rabbit against my better judgment. Last time I ordered rabbit was in Vallencia and the cooks kindly left the rabbit face in my paella. This was a little better but I still had to pick around bunny organs trying to find viable meat. Really glad we ordered the appetizer platter…

After dinner we cabbed it to San Julians which is Malta’s party hub. It was vibrant, full of people, and fun for about the first hour and a half. All the bars/clubs had different themes and were all very open. You could just wander in and out of wherever you felt like exploring, no cover, no hassle. Unfortunately it took about twenty minutes in to realize we were the oldest people there by far. In Malta, 17 year olds are allowed to drink and boy did they! The entire strip was crawling with teenagers giving the entire experience a feel of some bizzaro high school field trip of insipid youths. I dont think anyone in our merry party was ready for this level of awkward debauchery so we decided to be the adults we are and went home much earlier than expected. Plus the drinks, while cheap, were incredibly watered down. I give San Julians a solid meh. But hey, if hanging out with a bunch of kids with outrageous senses of entitlement is your thing I recommend just getting bottle service.

After our great night’s sleep we awoke the next day feeling refreshed, ready to pack for our trip home, and excited to hop on a tour to Gozo! Julia and I were leisurely packing up while still remarking how we basically got our rooms for a steal and how inexpensive this trip was in general. A few minutes later Drew walked in with some interesting news. Due to Volcanic ash that had drifted its way from Iceland, all flights were canceled indefinitely…including ours. Gozo was cancelled. Operation ESCAPE FROM MALTA commenced!

A tribute to Gitmo! Monday, Apr 12 2010 

So I’m back in Bella Italia and am excited to hit up some new travel locations. On the agenda in the near future: Cinqueterre, Madrid, and Malta, all of which I hope to capture and discuss later. Now, however, I would like to do a Gitmo tribute. I figure I owe it to the people and the island since I was there for the past six months of my life. I really lucked out on this deployment. I made great friends/contacts and had experiences that I would never have gotten otherwise. This post is actually more informational for the Air Force members that will be working with other services in the near future.

The work:
I can’t talk about it in detail as it is all classified. Thanks to my opsec debrief there are a few things I can mention. I worked at the Joint Task Force (JTF) legal office doing lots of random things. Yes I went into the camps often. Yes I interacted with detainees. No I didn’t get poo thrown on me. I think that’s pretty much all I can write about. Oh, and I don’t have any pictures because we weren’t allowed to take cameras over to the JTF side. But I really did work there…trust me, I’m a lawyer.

The JTF:
Working in a joint environment was a truly great experience. Every service is represented there with the Navy and Army being the most prevalent. There were actually much fewer Marines than I expected but they were there, on that wall, vigilant as ever. As you can expect, there were a number of Col Jessep quotes thrown around for good measure. Mostly they involved one’s ability to handle the truth as well as the luxury of knowledge or lack thereof. And last but not least the Air Force was represented but very sparsely in comparison to the other branches. Since there were so few of us, it was really important to learn to thrive in a joint command.

I did want to throw out a few tips regarding interaction with other services. I really should have kept a running list. There are so many little things that I’m aware of now that I had to pick up quickly while there. If you’re going to a joint command, definitely learn the Navy enlisted ranks. I still have problems with some of them and I’ve been at a NAVSTA for six months. The first and most obvious of my problems stems from the cosmetics of their ranking system. AF is easy…count stripes/bars. Naval petty officers (E4-E6) wear crows on their collars. When you’re not used to seeing crows, these crows look a lot like eagles from a distance… This is important to note if you’re new and trying to show the world that the AF does indeed have impeccable military bearing by saluting a group of O6s (they were actually E4s) from 15 ft away. This site was actually pretty helpful:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_Navy_enlisted_rates#E-4_to_E-6

Thanks wikipedia! It should also be noted that Navy petty officers merge their MOSs with their titles. So while it is technically correct to refer to someone as Petty Officer 1st, 2nd, or 3rd class, it’s more common to use their job specific title. For example, paralegals are “legalmen” so the E6 I worked with was LN1. Confused yet? Yeah it took me a while…

On a related note, Army enlisted wear their ranks on their covers. When you’re used to AF enlisted covers being without rank, an army specialist’s insignia looks surprisingly like a Lt Col oak leaf from a distance…just saying.

Regarding E7-E9, you should realize that they are all variations of a chief going from Chief Petty Officer (CPO) –> Senior Chief –> Master Chief. So calling an E9 simply “chief” is actually insulting. Same with Army NCOs and their variations of Sergeant.

Officer ranks are actually pretty similar throughout the branches. My only recommendation is to check the global to see if you’re dealing with an AF/Army Capt (O3) vs. a Navy CAPT (O6). Important to keep in mind when you’re replying to emails or making phone calls.

What this cross-service interaction really did was to bolster my appreciation for JAX (the AF JAG and paralegal handlers that coordinate our assignments/deployments/TDYs). When it came time to leave Gitmo, servicemembers from ALL other branches bemoaned their placement process. Navy had to stop in at some other base for post deployment, Army officer and enlisted were constantly having issues with orders. The AF didn’t seem to have any of these problems. We knew when we were leaving, where we were going, and why.❤ the AF!

Other quick tips: Coast Guard refer to their officers as "Mister [last name]" rather than their actual rank. Naval vessels are ships not boats. And the pipe used for Naval change of command ceremonies is a bosun pipe, not bosun whistle (despite the fact it makes a high pitched whistling sound).

Honestly what helped me learn the different services' decorum was making friends among the services. This was my first deployment so I don't know if this is the case everywhere we go, but everyone was so friendly and inclusive at Gitmo. Maybe it was because we were all stuck on a small piece of land and the JTF officers all lived in the same neighborhood, but I never met anyone that wasn't friendly and open. I do feel somewhat chagrined by the fact that it took me four months to realize that the coast guard has a pretty awesome mission. They're not part of the DoD so we rarely interact with them or hear anything about what they do, but they're constant enforcers. My short time in the AF has shown me that we do a lot of preparation/exercises to make sure that when the time comes we can execute our mission. The CG live their mission every day and it really seems fun. I made a few good friends in the unit there and they let me tag along for some of their training. On slow days at the office, I asked my SJA if I could do some "extra military training" in the form of going under way on/driving small boats and/or going to the CG range. He allowed it with the caveat that I not hurt myself or anyone else. Thanks sir!

On the Coast Guard range wearing a friend's gear

As an aside, the CG do have JAG placement options, however, they are very few and the JAGs get little court room experience from my understanding. They pull Navy JAGs for defense purposes. They mostly focus on the enforcement/operational side of the law, which is actually good if you want to eventually move to another govt agency like the DEA or FBI.

Another person I made friends with was the Marine officer who let me tag along for a fence line tour. Every couple of hours he went to check on his guys in the towers and he let me go with! The fence line drive was long but I recommend doing it at least once. I was able to go up in the towers and see what the marines actually do, how we were being protected, and I was able to look out into Cuba! While I found this all to be novel and exciting, I don’t think I would want to stand watch on a daily basis. Apparently the only exciting thing that happens is when an iguana or other small animal plows over an old Cuban ordnance and blows up.

The everything else:
As you can probably tell from the informational post, this wasn’t a typical hardship deployment. I actually had very little hardships other than the fact that I was away from my family, but even then, I was allowed to sponsor people onto the base as long as they obtained a clearance. Honestly this felt more like being PCS’d to a Naval station for 6 months rather than a deployment. The living conditions are very cushy; I wasn’t working long days like I had expected; and we had so many amenities that I wouldn’t have had in Iraq or Afghanistan. When I was going through JASOC, I really expected to go to TF134 or some other OPs related deployment during my second assignment…Gitmo was a pleasant surprise as far as location goes… The job was less responsibility than I had expected but I was the most Jr attorney so I really can’t complain. This resulted in me filling in for everyone else on busy days and me having more extra time there than I could ever hope for in Aviano. How did I fill this extra time? Well I already discussed the extra military training, but Gitmo also happens to be in the Caribbean. Pretty much every island themed recreation was available and we took advantage of that. My favorite past time was the diving. When I first decided to take up diving, I was dead set on buying a spear gun for fishing. Then I thought about the likelihood of me actually shooting something legitimate and not either myself, a dive buddy, or something endangered…so I bought a camera instead:

This turtle circled me for like 10 minutes

Nurse shark - doesn't eat people...which is the only reason I took a pic this close

The legal office also had a number of going away parties on the beach the last two months I was there.

Going away at Pebble Beach

I really will miss everyone in the office as well as the close friends I made there. The day before I flew out, we held an awards ceremony for six of us in the office that were leaving. Most all of my friends took a half day and came out in support. It was such a wonderful send off topped only by the next day’s pier jumping as I rode off on the ferry to catch my plane. I do feel really blessed to have had such a wonderful experience.

Lt McMahon and I just before the awards ceremony

The admiral giving me my award

Friends gathered to jump off the pier and swim after the ferry while yelling for those leaving to come back!

Aww I'll miss you guys

Reaction to Action Saturday, Mar 27 2010 

So I intend to write a tribute to Gitmo at some point since I will be departing this place soon but tonight I just wanted to write something about the distant past rather than the present.

I watched Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland last night and can say that I was definitely entertained if not overly impressed. Burton’s rendition of Caroll’s story was very visually pretty but I honestly thought it would be a lot darker for a Burton film. This lead me to start comparing it other renditions like the 1985 live action movie as well as the well-known Disney flick. On further reflection, it really made me start to think about movies of my childhood (hence the distant past). There were actually some pretty dark children’s movies, or at least dark parts of children’s movies. Like any good southern church-going parents, my parents never let me watch R rated movies when I was young, however some of the flicks I did get to watch had some really scary parts. And I think that’s what made them scary, the fact that because it they were kids’ movies, you didn’t see it coming. Here’s a few bits that scared me personally:

Pinocchio

Yes I know it’s a Disney movie but I can’t think of a better movie to start off the frightening trip down memory lane. The really scary stuff starts to happen when the Coachman shows up and basically buys Pinocchio into slavery. Welcome to Pleasure Island! The Coachman runs an amusement park that encourages misbehavior when his end game is to really turn the boys into donkeys and sell them for profit! (not entirely sure how financially sound this plan is…I mean think of the overhead).

Anyway, as a young child this is completely damaging. Just imagine you’re a kid and you’ve lost all ability to communicate, call for help, bad men are taking you away to a hard life of labor and suffering and you’re never going to see your family again. Even if you did see your family again they wouldn’t recognize you. No one knows where you are and no one can help you. Life as you know it is over and you’ll never see home again. Really Disney? Really?? This is the cartoon equivalent of human trafficking. Horrifying! I think I watched this movie when I was 5…

Next up – Sleeping Beauty

Yep another Disney flick. I really do like this movie but there’s one scene that I could never watch alone as a kid. When Sleeping Beauty is left alone to cry, and the camera pans to the fireplace, cuing the creepy music, I always begged my cousins to come stay in the room with me. The creepy music combined with the creepy green ball that materializes to lead the princess to her doom. The music really makes it worse. Then that slow zombie walk to the tower with the spinning wheel. I just wanted to scream at the TV and tell her not to go in there! She never listened… This scene always sealed the deal on the creepiness factor when, at the very end, Maleficent throws back her cape and shows the princess laying on the ground looking like her neck is broken.

Thanks again for more childhood nightmares Disney!

The last movie I clearly remember that was just completely macabre, yet aimed at kiddies, is The Brave Little Toaster.

This movie is about household appliances on a journey to find their owner. Heart-warming isn’t it? The merry band overcomes great obstacles and is perfectly appropriate for small children until the appliances camp out and the Toaster has a nightmare (didn’t know toasters could dream did you?) The nightmare starts out with smoke pouring out of the toaster and picking up the kid they’re looking for. Then it just gets creepier.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Where there’s fire, there’s a pseudo fire-fighting clown?!?!? WTF! Smokey the clown then leans in for a super close up and whispers one word in malevolent glee: “Run.”

I hate clowns…really really hate them. This stupid toaster’s nightmare caused me no end of my own nightmares. But while this scene is scary, the one that really scared me the most in this movie was in the junkyard. The appliances end up at a junkyard where a vicious looking magnet scoops up metal to be crushed into little cubes. The cars in the yard break out into song and start singing about their life stories and impending deaths:

This is the most nihilistic and depressing song I’ve ever heard in a cartoon ever. Cars singing about how worthless, unloved, and abandoned they are until the end when one drives himself into the crusher. Awesome! Anguish-induced suicide in a children’s movie. And people complain about how violent and unsettling movies and video games are nowadays. Any parent that misses the good old days should do well to remember how easily their childhood movies can unhinge young minds.

So there you have it. A trip down my own little terrifying/nostalgia filled memory lane as prompted by watching Alice in Wonderland.

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