Monthly Archives: June 2019

Dear Ambassador, I’ve been eaten alive!

“Dear Ambassador,

can I call you Ambo for short? Good.

Now look here, when we booked tickets to Florida for travel in June we did so in good faith and are quite cross about a couple of things. Now you seem like a reasonable chap in the pictures on the website and I am sure it’s not your fault about this frightful Brexit omnishambles and all, but could you at least have a word with the Federal Reserve about the exchange rate. America is meant to be a cheap destination and it just isn’t at £1 buying $1.27. This is unacceptable: how am I going to buy branded gaudy golf clothing at discount prices when it’s not at discount prices? How?

My first complaint is that it rained a lot for the first few days of our tour in the afternoons. Now my son is a big fan of thunderstorms, but I had left the brolly at home because hell-oh:  summer holiday. If I want rain I’ll go to Wales. All the brochures show sunkissed beaches, not a bally deluge. All the car number-plates – that are not the right size and shape by the way – say “Sunshine State” on them. Quite simply it shouldn’t rain on summer hols. My shoes got wet and we have wasted money on a convertible.

One of your advisors on the phone was impertinent in tone, tenor and tack. But it took the biscuit when they pointed out that this is the “wet season”. How ridiculous. It’s summer and that’s that.

My second complaint is about biting insects.

The Everglades is billed as a PARK. I ask you Ambo, do you get eaten alive at a park? No, no you don’t. You eat ice-creams and sit by the band-stand like a sensible person. And there weren’t any of those either. On our fifteen mile bicycle route there were no park benches, no concession stands, only one loo and lots of buzzy bugs.

It is now the next day and I am covered in insect bites. I am all itchy and cross, I look foolish and all blotchy. It is no laughing matter.

I know my rights and demand you mobilise the Consular Crisis Team to come here and make it all better. But not right away as we are going to Universal Studios tomorrow. About tea time will be fine.

Oh and that’s another thing. Tell them to bring proper tea because I’ve asked for it twice now and it’s been served COLD. They think I’m an idiot for pointing this out. Cold!

Savages.

Love to Mrs Ambo by the way.

Ian & Mog”

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Everglades National Park by bike

In a fresh instalment of what is only loosely described as an occasional series of blog posts from US national parks, we turn to the Everglades and the Shark Valley visitor centre.

Spoilers: it’s hardly a valley and it’s got no sharks in it.

Peril alert: it does have gators. And a least seven million biting insects by the look of my normally pristine – ha! – skin this morning.

Yesterday.

Dragging a teen out of bed for early breakfast is eased by the temptation of sugary calories in the US. Using this tooth rotting momentum we bundled into the car and presently – 45 miles later – are first to arrive at the ‘Park entrance and first to hire bikes. By now the teen was almost awake.

Asked to sign a disclaimer by the bike hire attendant I cheerily quip “does it matter if the teen gets eaten by a gator?”

“You’ll be lucky to see anything.”

Oh.

Let’s recap.

  • We’ve come to the famous Everglades National Park from a land far across the sea.
  • We’re at the visitor centre festooned with pictures of dramatic local wildlife.
  • We have been charged $30 entrance fee.
  • We’re hiring bicycles for a 15 mile wilderness trail which is best tackled early when animals “are more active”.
  • We’ll likely not see anything (delivered with a world weary sub-sigh).

My experience of US Park Rangers is they are fit to burst with childlike enthusiasm*. However, the park ancillary staff…? This one had the demeanour of someone who works for Dudley council answering the stoopid questions hotline and was having a worse-than-usual morning in ill fitting shoes. It’s almost a dark-superpower to have a day job at a world famous park and simultaneously make it the worst one in the world. (The job, not the park. In fairness, she was super hot on the finer points of the un-funny disclaimer form. Yay bureaucracy!)

Unbowed, we pedal off along the path. Whilst we are intrepid of spirit our riskiest encounter is likely to be a tourist trolley ambling toward us. Once per hour.

The stakes were low.

To up the ante, a $10 cash reward was offered – bank of Dad – to the first person to spot a gator. We’d been in Florida for 5 days by now and nothing more reptilian than an iguana spied. I was beginning to calm my fiscal nerves and keep the bounty. We stopped off at a point of interest – hardwood hammocks and otter caves, which were underwhelming -when he everso quietly intones “dad.”

I freeze and turn. I am $10 poorer.

We are being watched. (Shades of the late Bob Peck in Jurrasic Park: “No, we’re being hunted.”) All but submerged with slowly blinking assassin’s eyes was our first gator. The first of 10 of these ancient beasts it turns out ranging from (I estimate) 6 feet to over 10. Personally, I shudder when encountering them: this is their manor, they blend in perfectly and strike at will. Himself? A little more cavalier until the big one basking on the trail dead ahead spooked and bolted for the water: when they want to they move like lightning. Impressive.

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It ain’t no airboat

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“I’ve seen a gator”

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There is a gator in this picture.

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Here he is. (Gator #3)

The concrete observation tower at the southernmost point of the trail was deserted and surely a semi-ruin from a dystopian sci-fi movie. It gave great views of the expanse, while Turkey Vultures circled above. Our early start was worth it. On the whole 15 mile loop we met two trams, four cyclists. It was hot, humid, peaceful and gave a real sense of wilderness. Contrary to grumpykins of Shark Valley bike rentals, besides our magnificent gators, we saw heaps of wildlife in this epic slow moving river of grass. Fish, turtles and an impressive array of birds.

Writing this I am imagining all the gators we didn’t see, silently concealed alongside the trail. As we drove to our next destination – Naples beach for a swim in the Gulf of Mexico – we passed mile-upon-mile of Everglade containing deer, otters, panthers even. Didn’t see one. Bloody mammals. Fickle.

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Gator tacos to celebrate

* Ranger enthusiasm: On the Big Island of Hawaii we encountered Ranger Travis who took us on an accidentally exclusive walking tour regaled us with tails of Pele: Goddess of Fire and Volcanos. He played traditional nose flute to accompany his epic story. Utterly priceless for fans of Little Britain.

(Did you spot it? I smuggled in exercise in the form of the bike ride. $10 poorer but still winning at parenting.)

 

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Toot toot. All aboard the tourist train.

A pestering, repetitive thought wanders across my consciousness from time to time: was I born too late? Golden ages apparently abound in the past and I seemed to have missed all the good ones. (Bad ones too: how fortunate not to have been caught up in/called up for war for starters.)

It was deja vu all over again when I headed out for an early morning run in the most honeyed of tourist pots: Key West. The strip-mall nature of the Highway 1 roadside as it joins the dots of the Florida Keys is a visual appetiser for how the terminus at Key West will tap into your wallet (if you are minded to let it. This road-trip is with a mid-teenage son who is immune to the draw of expensive restaurants and – thankfully – barred from the bars).

On my run I paused to stretch out in the dawn and spotted a cast-metal sign that the Americans utilise to commemorate their “history”. To my surprise and chagrin I learned that until 1925 there was a daily rail service from this very spot to New York! And that the trains connected to daily ferries to Cuba. I spin around, a few homeless folk, early morning traffic but no sign of trains.

The jolt of recognition was not for the tourism but for the pre-cursor to Highway 1. I write with further reading to be done, but have subsequently used our trip north retracing our route to pick out the clues to the original road: the Overseas Railroad. We know the west was won by the iron horse, but I confess to a gap in my knowledge that between 1912 and 1935 the railway was the golden thread connecting the islands known as the Florida Keys

If you look around the Key there are name-checks for the famous and one for Flagler is present. As in Henry. As in Standard Oil. The Elon Musk/Jeff Bezos of his day? He spotted that a newly dug Panama Canal would need coal to fuel it’s ships who dock at Key West. What vision! What ambition! What wealth! Of course, by the time the rail-head was built, ship efficiency had moved on annnd stopping at Key West was no longer mandatory.

Ah well. Not to worry.

These days, railhead has been left behind and there are precious few clues to it’s ever having been there. (Seven Mile (road) Bridge runs parallel to a dilapidated rail crossing. While at Bahia Honda Key there’s a 5,000′ rusty meccano bridge that is largely ignored by the tourists frolicking on the beach of the state park. (Although to be fair there are manatees in the warm shallow waters, which are totally adorable.)

If you peer beyond the tacky stuff there are a few faded reminders of the trains. But time has not been kind. In 1935 a cat’ 5 hurricane devastated the Keys and with it the (already bankrupt) railway. With no money to rebuild the broken bridges the state stepped in and converted the tracks to road and the relentless march of the automobile. Bringing the tourist dollar by the carload.

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Seven Mile Bridge (with the disused rail line on left)

A century or so later and nobody give a monkeys about Flaglers trains.

Like I say, I was born in the wrong era.


Florida East Coast Railway: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florida_East_Coast_Railway

Henry Flagler https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Flagler

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Here’s to Alcock and Brown

15th June 2019
It’s six hours and three minutes to our destination. We’ve just had an unremarkable lunch that was served while we watched our choice of popcorn movie. We are a touch over 10K above the Atlantic: a more impressive sounding 36,000′ in old money. We’ve covered 2180km/1352miles with 4923/3059 left to run. By the time I finish this sentence we’ve covered another ten miles. (That’s 580mph for you although to be fair I am a slow typist.)
We are en route to a roadtrip: reward for youngest offspring in completing GCSE exams. He put down pen for final time yesterday morning and around 24hours later we thunder into the Sussex sky heading WSW. We booked online, we checked in online, we scanned the boarding passes through the airport using the airline app. Everyone around us is relaxed – headphones on, snoozing, reading, me typing – with the crew quietly going about their business in shirtsleeves.
A shuffle of the Weekend i and on page 12 is a story I’d forgotten about. Growing up in a house shared with Grandparents I guess I have a better working knowledge of 20th century popular culture British characters and heroes. That said, it took me a minute to spot the symmetry and appreciate the moment.
One hundred years ago to this day – 15th June 1919 – Captain John Alcock and RAF Lieutenant Arthur Whitten Brown successfully completed the first non-stop Transatlantic flight (upon landing unceremoniously in a bog in Connemara). Their converted Vickers Vimy bomber – bombs replaced with auxiliary fuel tanks – was open cockpit. The duo flew a mere 1,860 miles(!) from Newfoundland whilst today we are going all the way from London to Miami. No one had flown further than 600 miles before that day less than a year after the Great War finished.
In the century since their uber-brave feat, we’ve come a long way. I mean, M & I have already flown almost as far this morning. I wonder what the post-war heroes would make of this common-or-garden Boeing Triple-Seven. Its tech’, its capacity, scale, range, comfort, speed and sheer ubiquity. They’d be uncomprehending. No one around me would bat an eyelid. Of the hundreds of fellow passengers I’d wager I’m the only one to have noticed the anniversary. And that by happy accident of reading a paper. At 36,000′.
Indeed, what might the pair make of the demonisation of air travel with it’s role in climate change? Less than their disdain for our lack of style in 2019. On emerging from their crash-landed machine Captain Alcock took the opportunity to change into a lounge suit…
Lest we forget the level of risk involved. To whit there are two facts which bring this into focus. Firstly, such was the peril inherent in their journey it was undertaken in the spirit of adventure and reward (not to mention ginormous cojones). The prize for the first aircrew to achieve the journey was a massive ten grand. In today’s money that’s around a million quid. Secondly, Alcock was to perish six months later in – any guesses? – a plane crash. Flying was not a pastime paired with long life-expectancy.
The prize was funded by the owner of the Daily Mail. (Since I make a point to never knowingly read that title, perhaps someone can inform me if they run a story on it today?) Despite it’s momentous, planet changing significance, it was an event from around eight years later that are higher in the public memory: Charles Lindburgh and his solo flight. Better PR optics for some reason I guess?
Another reflection on how times have changed. Few will remark to my son or I about our journey today. Partly because it’s had a century to normalise and because there is an wholesale lack of curiosity it these self-absorbed times. Back then, Alcock & Brown reportedly didn’t say so much because they were modest. (Of course they were feted by society but I have a sense that one simply didn’t make a fuss.)
Pausing for a peek out of the window of seat 28A  I can see the cloud-base far below us and although the plastic of the window is warm to the touch I know the outside air temperature is well below zero. Without this pressurised cabin we’d suffocate before we froze. Those boys flew blind in thick fog oft below 300′. We are a multiple 120 times their altitude and infinitely less brave.

The mind boggles.

(Well, it does if you are curious to notice what’s actually going on in modern life).

2,648 miles to go then. This 411 mile blog made possible by two who had, well, balls.

Time for a snooze before we reach Florida. Might I dream of Alcock & Brown?
Further reading: Brendan Lynch: Yesterday we were in America.

BBC Article: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/extra/bM5diyl48K/alcock

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The ParkRun riots

Why are the mainstream media not reporting this?

My blog posts have been sparse this spring and for good reason. I can now reveal that I have been deep cover infiltrating a shadowy cabal of wellness extremists known collectively as ParkRun. A volunteer run organisation who seem to be able to successfully blossom with no cash money being required to take part and where people are forced to run, jog, walk five kilometers of their own free will.

If that’s not totally, like, well-dodgy, I don’t know what is.

This past weekend a heavily disguised younger offspring and I made the perilous seventeen mile journey across the county line to the lawless town of Andover. Our aim: risking life and limb bravely exposing their local event for the world to read about in a blog post*. To blow wide open the greatest oxymoronical term of the modern world: fun-run.

This is our story.

By dint of bad luck – without which we’d have no luck at all – our mission coincided with the bi-annual British sunny Saturday morning.  It was also  – as if it could’ve been worse – the GP Pledge Day where upwards of 800 GP practices have linked themselves to ParkRun to focus on so-called “wellness”. Ha. Drawbacks like this weren’t to defeat us. We’d trained, we’d taken two bottles of water, we’d committed: we we’re ready-ish.

By ten-past-nine some 400 runners and walkers had amassed with the atmosphere best described as powder keg-y with the seconds clicking by. No oh-nine-hundred-on-the-dot start for these Hampshire badasses: they ratchet up the tension here until something has to give.

And give it did.

The Andover course is two deceptively pancake-flat and therefore torturous laps a round a clearly dangerous park punctuated by intimidating so-called Marshals. This was I suppose some grudging relief: our “home” event at Marlborough Common is characterised by every step being uphill and into the wind with a finish gradient that would give a mountain goat bad dreams for a week and a half. It is at the very limit of what the human body can withstand on a weekend.

Since 2004 this secretive, underground collective have been globally spreading it’s tentacles by hiding in plain sight every Saturday morning across the world at public, easily accessible, well signposted, cheerfully volunteered, open venues where people are often sickeningly healthy.

It gnaws at my very soul: we are forced to share Planet Earth with these people.

Back at Andover the event exploded into life. Elbows flew as 400 vividly keen, tunnel-vision-y joggers made ruthless steps for the first corner. The carnage I witnessed that morning will – I fear – never leave me. Left and right, back and forth we were surrounded by those kind of smiles that mask darkly sinister intent. Within seconds I lost sight of Morgan. Son! Let me tell you, the thirty-seven minutes we were apart were the longest of my life. (Even longer than that time my luggage didn’t appear on the carousel that time at Geneva airport after changing planes that time at Charles De Gaulle.)

Surrounded by Lycra! I did the only thing a man could do. In the thick of this pack of wheezing jackals, their eyes laser focused as assassins on the path ahead, their supportive-yet-breathable technical running gear and excellent quality trainers bright in flattering intentionally-faded-dayglo designs: I put one foot in front of the other. I ran.

I wanted to stop. I wanted to collapse. But somehow I couldn’t. The proximity of others, some offering frankly terrifying encouraging words carried me. Some used the clandestine spoken ParkRun code to the gilet-jaune de le jardin public: “thanks Marshal.” Kids waving to the runners. Kids who were runners waving back. (Kids! Have they no shame, does no one think of the children!?) For those truly on the “inside” it is possible to elicit the highest order faux-Masonic response from some Marshals: the “high five”.

Galling.

Passing the final Marshal he chilled the very fire of my heightened respiration with the brutal words “Final kilometre.” I trudged on heart bursting, sweat pouring whereupon – six and a bit eternal minutes later  – I crossed the line ahead of a terrifying group of so-called “fun running” ladies who were determined to chase me down over the last twenty metres.

Seeing I feared the worst, the officials played mind games with me. Mercilessly I was handed a tag.

As if being forced to run five kilometers in sunny, dry weather wasn’t bad enough, now I was coerced into being “scanned”. This ultimate violation wreaks of Big Brother. Of data mining and probably deffo an exploitation of my human rights yeah? “Beeeep” went the scanner my bar-code sending bits of information into “the cloud.” (Even that was hiding as the sky was clear blue).

Long minutes later Morgan appeared and it was clear from the look on his face that the 5K had taken its toll. His lungs heaved, his muscles burned, he craved water. (The poor lad has shed 5 kilos and counting since Christmas such is the stress of a bit of exercise.)

We hydrated wordlessly.

Silently checking left and right, we made a break ambling to the car. Executing a well drilled escape routine, we put on fresh tee shirts, climbed aboard, belted up, started the engine and eased into the traffic so as not to attract attention.

Fifteen minutes later we were dead eyed, ordering a full English at Choppers cafe in the lay-by just south of Burbage where the A346 mysteriously becomes the A338.

But that’s another story.

We live to jog another day, wellness be damned.

Click here to support ParkRun.

*aka Mum & Hilda because no one else reads this.
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