Saturday, July 7, 2007

There's a fine line between heroism and insanity

[written July 1]

But then, I'm the one going to Amsterdam after sleeping less than one out of the past thirty hours. In my defense, I had three good reasons for doing so. After riding the trains from Schipol to Amsterdam to Haarlem, my five-Euro ticket had yet to be checked, so I had a free ride there. Further, everything was closed in little Haarlem, my hotel TV didn't work, and I was hungry for some Indonesian wok-fried noodles. Most importantly, I knew that going to sleep in the hotel at 4pm would mean waking up in the wee hours of the morning with nothing to do. Thus, on to Amsterdam!

I set out for the train station from my hotel. Just as I walked out into the Grote Markt, there was a big commotion and the sound of a car engine revving. A crowd of people had gathered around the front of Haarlem's ancient city hall, and I saw what had caused both the noise and the crowd: a red Ferrari, followed by a parade of other high-end and classic automobiles.

I admired the Ferrari like everyone else, and guessed that some concert or event drawing a bourgeouis crowd was about to start. Walking away, I heard a sudden cheer from the crowd, and turned around to see what I presumed to be a celebrity or dignitary getting out of the Ferrari. Figuring I was only missing some notable Dutchman whom I'd never heard of, and being adverse to celebrity-worship in general, I continued on to the train station. There were free copies of a Dutch daily tabloid on the train, and, to my great amusement, I learned that Tom Cruise was visiting the Netherlands and had made an appearance in Amsterdam the day before.

After arriving a little after 4pm, and still sour about possibly missing a chance to see the prophet of Scientology in person, I set out for a drugstore that I remembered from a few years ago. Unfortunately, Amsterdam's beautiful Centraal Station is still covered by scaffolding and surrounded by an unsightly work site. The light rain and much-colder-than-expected temperature didn't help, but the construction has been going on since at least 2004. Thankfully, the store was where I remembered, and I was able to buy all the things that I forgot or could have blown up the plane with, including nail clippers, a comb, and bottles of shampoo larger than three ounces.

My plan to buy a British newspaper and enjoy a cup of coffee in a sidewalk cafe was made impossible by the weather, so I spent a good deal of time fighting exhaustion and looking through touristy little shops for something to beat back the rain and cold. Sadly, Amsterdam is a very expensive city with little that fits my budget, except ... the Lemongrass Wok. This little place is on the Damrak (Amsterdam's main drag, perpendicular to Centraal Station) below a hotel that one of my globe-trotting friends recommends. The Indonesian people that work there make absolutely the best non-German food in Europe, and I was more than happy to wait in the small, cooktop-heated interior while my chili-pepper chicken noodles were prepared.

During my first decent meal since lunch in Orlando, Florida more than a day earlier, the city and its weather became much more pleasant. I guess that's what a full belly can do for you. After practically thirty-two hours awake, the train ride and walk back to the Hotel Amadeus seemed longer than it should have, but the TV had started working when I arrived, and was still on and working when I woke up the next day without having undressed. I guess that's what a full belly and total exhaustion can do for you.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

See Iceland in Two Hours! Only $1100!

[written June 30]

On 30 minutes' sleep, no less. I've never boarded an airplane from the tarmac. But then, I'd never been to 66 degrees north latitude, either. Iceland's airport seemed to be roughly the same size as Orlando-Sanford International, but lacked the gate tunnels that sanitize boarding a passenger jet. This meant two things, from my point of view.

First, I've actually been to Iceland, outside the airport, albeit only for 45 seconds or so. It's very cold there, about 45-50 degrees Fahrenheit. Amusingly, the locals were wearing shorts. I guess summertime is a relative thing. Second, I realized that I flew all the way across the Atlantic Ocean in what is essentially a large winged tin can with rockets hanging on the sides. It's a bit unsettling.

I have a skewed perception of Iceland, not only because of the duration of my visit, but also because I was there at 6am local time. Like most of Europe, the security personnel were not nearly as intimidating as our TSA screeners. In fact, their uniforms were a bit cartoonish and they seemed completely disinterested in looking at my bag. In general, the locals are good-looking people, mostly tall, fit, and fair-haired, but they seemed shy.

Reyjavik International has many large glass windows providing interesting views of the scenery, such as it is. There are mountains in the distance, but the terrain looked very barren, with little ground cover and no trees. Everything was brown and a bit depressing, even though it's summer.

All that said, I was running on 30 (poor) minutes' sleep when I saw the place, and my opinion should probably be taken with a grain of salt.

Wait, I thought I was leaving the country tomorrow...

[written June 29]

My day at Universal Studios with my mother and cousin was everything I expected (and more). The ExpressPass, which is included for all guests in the park-controlled hotels, was worth every penny, because it allows one to literally bypass the lines at every ride. The longest wait we had was about ten minutes, for our second turn on Revenge of the Mummy, which, incidentally, was Mom's favorite ride.

What I hadn't anticipated was the number of foreigners I'd be skipping ahead of in line. The park was full of adolescent tour groups from Brazil not staying in a park-controlled hotel, which made the express line that much sweeter. The most memorable moment with these folks was on the JAWS ride, which involves a boat tour gone horribly wrong. Our boat was about 75% Brazilian kids in identical white shirts. The actor driving our boat probably deviated from his script when he said, "The kids in the white shirts have no idea what I'm saying, but they'll cheer anyway! King Kong, woohoo!" The Brazilians did, in fact, cheer King Kong on the JAWS ride. Poor kids probably waited in line for an hour to do that.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the Universal theme parks is the quantity and quality of human actors. I thought the rides would be largely automated, with robotics and pyrotechnics the order of the day. While there were many impressive explosions and robotic sharks and dinosaurs, a majority of the rides and attractions had human talent playing an integral part in the experience. The dungeon keeper at the Shrek 4-D show summed it up well, saying, "Come on people, if I can fake this enthusiam all day, you can do it once! Flogging!" [Crowd responds, "Oh no!"].

In addition to the undiscovered thespians running the rides, I was impressed with the participation of many A-list Hollywood types in the attractions based on their movies. Steven Spielberg welcomes guests to the E.T. ride, Helen Hunt does the same for 'Twister', and, most impressively, the governor of California reprised his role from the movies in Terminator 3D. Sadly, Jeff Goldblum does not get eaten by a dinosaur on the Jurassic Park ride. Aside from that, the whole experience was great, and I heartily recommend both parks (Universal Studios and the newer Islands of Adventure). Stay in a park hotel, though, or you'll be in line with all the Brazilian kids.