Saturday, October 15, 2011

Diving Turks & Caicos

Diving in Turks & Caicos was fabulous! I just got back from a week there on the Turks & Caicos Aggressor. Turks & Caicos lays at the far southern end of the Bahamas chain, just before you get to Hispañola, where the Dominican Republic is located. The islands are pinnacles rising up from great depths, so all the dives are wall dives. I love diving on walls because it's nearly impossible to get lost, although I did manage to do that, too.

Diving a live aboard at Turks & Caicos is great because we got away from the inhabited islands, and even visited a sand bar that only exists at low tide. I saw lots of sharks and rays, including a huge Southern ray that was about 5 1/2 feet across. I played with a 2'-long baby nurse shark, and swam with sea turtles. The boat always moored above a coral garden, which made for great fun at the end of the dives. I'd poke around under the boat until I used up all my air, and observed many eels, filter feeders, lobsters, and other small creatures including Flamingo Tongues. These last things are small spotted animals that fasten themselves to th coral, looking like oddly shaped colored shellfish.

I even made friends with a grouper, my favorite fish. Groupers are territorial, and will hang out in the same area. Our diver master took us to see Bob, who was quite friendly and let me scratch his chin. Another posed while I fiddled with the flash strobe to get his picture. I was having difficulties with the flash, and he just sat there calmly while I tried and tried again to get a decent photo. Other exciting moments included swimming with five reef sharks, and launching myself out over an underwater precipice that dropped 100's of feet. I'm pretty sure I saw at least one shark on every dive.

Things I learned:

  • Sponges are great to take pictures of because they don't move.
  • Lobsters are way huger in marine preserves than they are in the supermarket. They flaunt their untouchable deliciousness.
  • Lionfish are an invasive species that is decent as cerviche.
  • Pretty much any dive is a good dive!


I made my 100th dive on this trip, and was properly hazed :) I finally feel like a "real" diver now, especially since my dive buddy and I did all our own navigation. We only got lost once. It was a very grey overcast day. We were coming back from the wall and could hear the boat but didn't see it. We ended up swimming quite far past the boat toward shore, so we surfaced for a "spy hop" and realized we had probably swum practically under the boat. As far as getting lost goes that is quite mild, it's not like the "dingy of shame" had to come pick us up.  All told, I spent over 18 hours under water on that trip. I really enjoyed it and want to come back some day.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Gee It's Good to be Back Home Again

I'm back home form the first time in 29 days. I've gone all the way around the world!

Kona has a very petty, outdoor airport. There are tropical green plantings, and statues of Hawaiian dancers. The waiting area reminds me of a hotel or a shopping center courtyard. I heard they might get rid of the open-air gates and build a "real" airport with jetways, though :( After the usual boarding rituals, I settled in for the final flight of my odyssey. I arrived back at SFO at sunset. I feel like a new part of my life is beginning.

Travel Statistics:

  • Geopolitical Entities == Northern Ireland, England, Japan, Oahu, Hawai'i (the Big Island)
  • Miles Flown == ~20,311
  • Fight Segments == 12
  • Airlines Flown == United, Continental, Jet2.com, Lufthansa, ANA, Hawaiian
  • Hotels == Radisson Blu, Coast Apartments, Beach House Tower, Ilikai
  • Loads of Laundry == 2
  • Favorite Alcoholic Beverage == Mai Tai

Friday, June 17, 2011

That's All, Ears

When I woke up this morning I knew my ears not good. I don't have any pain right now, but I can tell they're blocked. No more diving for me this week. We're moored in a spot that is supposed to have a lot of sea turtles. I love sea turtles--but fortunately I have an *amazing* sea turtle dive in my memories so I don't really feel sad about missing out.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Solace of the Sea

Woke up with my right ear not so great today. I applied Advil and ear drops, and hoped it would feel less achey so I could dive in the afternoon. I pushed things yesterday so I could see the manta rays, so needed to take it easy this morning. Now that I'm not distracted by the amazing underwater world, I suddenly feel like crap both emotionally and physically.

After lunch I went diving. I saw a mid-sized free-swimming eel, a huge moray under a rock, a rare kind of box fish, and generally had a pleasant time. I love being in the water, and find when I'm down there it's a form of meditation. I've tried sitting meditation, and even took classes, but it's just not for me. Diving, however, is different. You have to be in the moment and mindful of what's around you or else (at the least) you'll miss seeing great things or (at the most) you could die. The hour I spend under water is all about being present. It's calming, makes me tired, and gives me lovely dreams. I've been dreaming vividly about diving all week, so much so that I feel like I've made more dives than I really have.

One of the dive masters, Brandi, is a marine biologist and a great underwater photographer. She teaches a course on board about native Hawaiian species. We basically talk about fish, dive and look at fish, and then get out of the water and talk about fish some more. I heard about a dive master game where people try to trump each other with certification cards: whoever doesn't have a certain card has to buy everyone a drink. I decided to take Brandi's "Hawaiian Naturalist" course because it's only taught by her on the Kona Aggressor, which means I'll always have a winning card in my pocket :)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Manta Rave!

My ear was a little wonky this morning so I sat out the first dive. I wanted to make sure I could make it to tonight's dive, the famous manta ray night dive. After some Advil and Sudafed I felt much better, and when I tried diving the ear seemed good. We have been making our way north along the west coast of the big island of Hawai'i, and are nearly back to our starting point in Kona. Currently we are moored in front of the Sheraton hotel, site of tonight's dive.

The hotel has a patio bar overlooking the water, and many many years ago people realized that the lights from the patio attracted creatures to the area to feed at night. The lights bring the plankton closer to the surface, and the easily caught plankton attracts manta rays. It's become quite the attraction: boats full of divers show up, and the divers sit on the sandy bottom pointing lights up toward the surface. A couple of dive boats bring bins full of lights, making a sort of campfire in the middle. Snorkelers float above, holding on to rafts with more lights pointing down. The mantas come and feed off the plankton that gathers between all these lights. The mantas can start gathering in the late afternoon, and although sometimes they don't show up, sometimes there can be several dozen feeding in the lights.

Our afternoon dive was where the lights would be later, and sure enough we saw three mantas. They were just cruising around, and we were able to follow them from a distance. On my safety stop, one manta slowly swam back and forth at the same depth as me. I watched him while he watched me. These rays are so beautiful, graceful, and peaceful. They have huge mouths, but they only eat plankton which they catch by filtering. The weird fins on their head help to channel the plankton toward their mouth.

Finally it was time for the highlight of the day! I was a bit nervous because I didn't know what to expect. We jumped in and started swimming toward the light campfire, and when we arrived there were already rays turning loop-the-loops to feed. It was visually fantastic, like a rave! A manta rave! Really, there were glowsticks, a light show, and breathing of compressed gasses. A half-dozen feeding manta rays, swooped about overhead. One swam continuous loop-de-loops for a few minutes. Several passed by inches from my head.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Back from the South

We're back from South Point. The captain told us that the winds and currents had been such that they hadn't been able to get down there for a few weeks. The sites down there were very interesting from a geological standpoint, as it is the endpoint for many old lava flows. We swam in, around, and under arches, through lava tubes, and past twisty rock formations. There isn't much coral down here, but I've been having fun looking in nooks and crannies for animals and testing my swimming and buoyancy skills. The hot lava from Kilauea is miles away, so no worries about that.

On one dive I encountered the most beautiful crabs. They were about 4" across, gorgeous, brightly multi-colored, and scuttled away when I shined my light on them. Remember the Scintillating Jeweled Scuttling Crabs from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? These were just how I imagined them!

Scuba makes me ravenous. Partly from thermal-loss calorie burn, partly from seeing shrimp, lobster, snapper, and other delicious critters. The food has been pleasant, very homey. After dinner we often hang out as a group in the salon, looking at photos taken during the day. There's a huge bowl full of chocolate on the coffee table, which mysteriously refills itself each night. We've taken to calling it the miraculous chocolate bowl.

After dinner we had a nice night dive. Night dives used to freak me out, but tonight was fun! Saw MASSIVELY HUGE LOBSTERS, slipper lobsters, shrimp, nudibranchs, a "gumdrop," two Spanish Dancers (they look like oversized nudibranchs), a snake eel, several eels, and generally just enjoyed swimming around.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Eat, Sleep, Dive

What a schedule: dive before breakfast, breakfast, dive before lunch, lunch, dive before snack, dive, dive before dinner, dinner. There's a night dive to cap off the day, then it's time for sleep and the cycle repeats itself. I'm diving in a new wet suit, and am getting used to wiggling into it and peeling it off again. So far I've seen lots of pretty reef fish, and am so hungry I could eat the huge lobster I saw on the third dive today. The other women on the boat are nice, and not having a dive buddy hasn't been a problem. Sometimes I dive with one of the other women, and sometimes with the dive guide. It hasn't been a big deal. Diving here in Hawaii is a lot more relaxing than it was in Okinawa, partly because the weather is better this week. Tomorrow we are heading to South Point, the southernmost dive site in the US.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

I'm on a BOAT!

Flew down to Kona on Hawaiian Airlines today. I have to admit that their check-in process confused me: they make you weigh and tag your own luggage. I got it figured out and got mistaken for a college student on the quick flight. I am old enough to have a college student child, so I guess my heavy cares are starting to drop away. It took me a while to find the Aggressor agent on arrival in Kona, but eventually we met up. He loaded my bags into their van and drove me into the cute old part of town. They were turning the boat around from the previous week's trip, so I had some lunch and strolled around looking for shave ice. I had a pedicure at a tiny nail salon along the waterfront while dolphins frolicked in the cove outside the the salon's back window.

After what seemed like forever, I was finally able to get on the boat. This is the first live-aboard dive trip I've taken. I'm looking forward to a lot of diving, but don't really know what to expect. Will the people be nice? Will it be a problem that I don't have a dive buddy? Will the food be ok? Will my bunk be comfortable? Who will my roommate be? I was excited and a bit anxious. The boat itself is quite nice, and I learned that I am the lucky odd woman out so I get my own cabin for the week. I like it: it's high enough above the water that it has a real screened window that opens, and a tiny attached bathroom. The lower bunk is like a double bed, and there are plenty of electrical outlets. Diving happens off the back deck, and each person has a little locker to keep their small gear in. Wet suits get hung up above the locker, and the tank/BC fits in a rack behind the locker. It's all so convenient!

The other guests this week are all women. There's someone from New York, someone from Brazil, and a group of women from the St. Louis area. The crew is all male except for one instructor/photographer. The chef this week is a newbie, basically auditioning for the job. We got our welcome aboard orientation, and the boat headed out away from the pier. Dinner is decent, and since most people are jet lagged things got very quiet and we all went to bed shortly thereafter. I didn't end up sleeping well, I was suffering from bad-relationship-flashback agony. I've not talked about it here, but I've recently gotten out of a really bad marriage. The night I passed that kidney stone in Honolulu was supposed to be our first anniversary. I had to end the relationship because my husband had been abusing me. I keep having flashbacks to things he said or did, I hate that these memories keep coming up and feel like my mind has been poisoned. I've been up for hours trying to remain calm but it's not really working. I'll try a dive after breakfast and see if looking at pretty fish while breathing enriched air helps.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Aloha Waikiki

Last night I slept for 18 hours. Although I woke up sleepy and afraid of sunburn, I felt like I "should" go climb Diamond Head. I took DaBus (city bus) over, and discovered that it's a hike just to get from the main road to the visitors' center in the crater. The Waikiki Trolley goes directly to the visitors' center, though, so I was able to save myself some walking in the afternoon and took that back to the hotel.

Anyway, that hike up Diamond Head is a doozy. It starts out with a paved footpath, which gives way to dirt and gravel, and eventually turns into a mule track capped off by sets of stairs tunneling through the rock. I emerged in a concrete bunker on rim of the extinct caldera, then clambered through a window. The reward is cool breezes and an iconic view of Waikiki. My timing was lucky because as I looked out over the Pacific, the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson was heading east to San Diego. I chatted with a kid from Texas who proposed that we build a water slide along the inside of the crater to save us the hike back down.

I ended my day, and my stay in Waikiki, by snacking on Lilo & Stitch-branded Hawaiian Host chocolate-covered macadamia nuts from the ABC Store, while watching "Lilo & Stitch." After sunset there were fireworks next door at the Hilton Hawaiian Village (every Friday night at 7:45).

Ah dear Waikiki How I have come to love thee.

What a Day!

Last night at 2am I rushed to the ER due to a kidney stone. And this morning at 9am I went surfing. I rode a 6' wave! Well,  it was only 3' the way the Hawaiians count it, BUT STILL! My instructor, from Girls Who Surf, was a PhD student in Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii. He took me to the same break off Ala Wai that I could see from my hotel room's lanai. I didn't have any problem getting up, and once I was up it was pretty easy for me to balance and ride on the wave. It was really fun and I'm looking forward to doing it again. The most amazing thing is the sound of the water. Usually when you're playing in the water you hear the swooshing sound of a wave pass by you: swish swooosh then quiet, then another wave comes with its own swishing sand swooshing. When you surf, you stay with the wave, so the sound is constant! We also saw a monk seal chilling on the beach. Monk seals are endangered and shy, so it was pretty much a miracle that one was there at Ala Mona. I'm taking it as a good omen.

After surfing I was tired from being up half the night, and settled down for a nap. I started feeling the beginnings of pain in that kidney again, so I took a bunch of Motrin and drank a lot of water. Not too much later the stone came out. Too bad I took all that Motrin--I can't have a drink to celebrate until that's worked through my system. Also, I didn't put enough sunblock on, and appear to have crisp-fried the backsides of my legs at my surfing lesson, so I guess the Motrin is also helping with that.

Evenings at The Ilikai begin with a man in red and gold Hawaiian robe blowing a conch shell while tiki torches are lit. Lovely.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Pearl Harbor

After spending a week in the water off Okinawa, I wanted to stay dry so I headed out to Pearl Harbor to visit the Arizona Memorial. On the advice of the hotel's concierge, I booked an early morning bus tour. Entrance to the memorial is by timed ticket only, and tickets are handed out first-come/first served. The tour bus companies send people down there right when the center opens so that their clients don't have to wait around all day to get out to the Arizona. It sounds like a bit of a scam, but is worth it on a long hot day.

I really got a lot out of the museum, as you walk through it traces what is going on in the US on one side, and what is happening in Japan on the other. It gives a lot of historical and cultural context to that part of World War II--not in the sense of what general was doing what when, but rather about daily life in Japan as it it was changing from a feudal agrarian society to a modern more urban one, and about Hawaii under basically martial law.

Before boarding the launch to the memorial they showed a film describing the attack, including footage from survivors. Then we motored out to the memorial itself, where people looked around and quietly digested everything they had just learned. There is a lot to see in the area, including the battleship Missouri and Bowfin submarine, but I didn't want to spend the whole day so I headed back to Waikiki to do my laundry. While I was waiting for it to dry I watched outrigger racing canoes practicing on the Ala Wai Canal, and surfers on the break just off the Marina. I think I am coming to like Waikiki a lot--it's not just a shopping mall with a beach.

After a couple of Mai Tais and some appetizers at Sarento's at the Top of the Ilikai, I went to bed early and relaxed with a book. I'm still jet-lagged from Okinawa, and I fell asleep with the lights on...and then woke up after midnight feeling like someone was ripping my right leg out of its socket from the inside. It was so painful that the instant the pain let up and I could breathe, I fell asleep again, only to be jolted awake again around 2am writhing in the worst pain I've ever experienced. I called the front desk, got a taxi, and headed to the emergency room. Turns out I have kidney stones. They gave me an IV of fluids, pain meds, and anti-nausea meds, plus took a CT scan of the affected area. Once all the drugs kicked in the doctor explained how passing the stone would work, and sent me to an all-night Walgreens to get prescription-strength Motrin and anti-nausea meds. I got back to my room early enough that I could catch a few hours of sleep before going to my first-ever surfing lesson. I had been thinking about trying surfing for a long time and did NOT want to miss it!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hawaii Five-Oh!

My next stop after Okinawa is Hawaii! I'm catching the Kona Aggressor in a few days, so am killing the in-between time in Waikiki. I've only ever been here before for ballroom dancing competitions, and didn't particularly like it, but I thought I might as well go again for pure relaxation and give it another chance. There are zillions of hotels and I was having a difficult time deciding where to stay until I found out that the helicopter scene in the opening credits to "Hawaii Five-0" was filmed at The Ilikai. I'm strangely caught up in that show, not because it's great TV, but because I'm transfixed by the beauty shots of Hawaii.

After traveling all day and all night from Okinawa, I arrived in Honolulu the morning of the same day I left Japan. Thank you, International Date Line! I couldn't check in until the afternoon, so I walked over to the huge Ala Moana Center mall for some shopping and lunch. Once I got into my room I was very happy with my choice: it's huge, and looks out over Ala Moana Park, the marina, and the ocean. I'll go to sleep tonight with the a/c off and the lanai doors wide open so I can hear the ever-rolling waves.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Singing Pineapples not Under the Sea

We spent the day on a Japanese tour bus with a non-English speaking guide. At several points the guide and the Japanese guests broke into song. We have no idea why. There was a lot of driving and singing, and we ended up at a butterfly farm. After yet more driving and singing, we got to Okinawa's amazing aquarium where we saw three whale sharks. Yes, whale sharks. There were also rays, and manatees.

For some reason Stitch (of the super Disney movie, "Lilo and Stitch") is popular in Okinawa. I bought a Stitch Okinawan bath bomb, a phone frob of Stitch riding a whale shark, and a rather psychedelic Stitch post card. On the way home we stopped at some fruit palace/wine making place where we could learn the history of wine making in Okinawa and sample the vintages. I'm pretty sure that there was a singing pineapple somewhere, and that it wasn't just the incredibly sweet fruit wines.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pit Viper Sake and a Cure for Jet Lag

Everywhere we dive has shown some sort of damage or disturbance from the typhoons this season. We came across a young green turtle who was violently munching on coral. He had probably been blown off the reef in the storm and was just getting back home, and was obviously starving. The reef in his area was mostly elk horn coral, and looked as if it had been run over with a lawn mower. The storm surge was so powerful that car-sized boulders rolled around under water. I had never really considered what kind of devastation happens under water during a major cyclonic storm, and am stunned by the waste laid to some of these reefs. Dive master Doug tells us that before the most recent storm these sites were vigorous and healthy. I'm now concerned that climate-change enhanced storms will destroy all the coral reefs in the Caribbean.

It's not all bad, though. On our final day in the water we had some awesome dives in areas that had been in the lee of the storm. There were huge coral formations teeming with fish, eels, an octopus, and gemstone-like nudibranchs. I got over my clown fish bite but still carefully harass them from time to time. The weather has become sunny, and it appears that a couple of days of three-tank dives on 33% oxygen-enriched air is a GREAT cure for jet lag.

We went out to dinner with the dive masters tonight, to one of those Brazilian beef places where they just keep giving you meat until you cry. It was my first time. ProTip: Don't eat the salad, it's just there to fill you up so you don't eat all the beef! Afterwards we stopped at the hotel's bar for an Okinawan specialty: sake with a pit viper drowned in it. The venom is supposed to be a bit of a hallucinogen. It tasted weird, like bad bananas and Everclear. I didn't hallucinate but I am drunk! Thank the Universe for good friends, good diving, and good weather.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Clown Fish are Not Funny

Dive masters, not just in Japan, have a habit of harassing wildlife -- even though we're taught to never touch or disturb anything. I have seen dive masters try to get octopuses out of holes, or clown fish to leave anemones. I think clown fish are completely grumpy, and started using the dive master trick of wiggling my finger to get it to swim out of its anemone. I found it hilarious, and then I got bitten by one of the little buggers. Lesson learned.

Tonight we went out for sushi to a place recommended by the dive masters. The people working there didn't speak much English, and we don't speak any Japanese, but we have an iPhone app that lists different sushis in both languages. It shows what is in season, and we used it to pick interesting things. The chef was really in to it, we'd point to something and ask about it, and either he'd have it or he'd get excited that we had asked and then apologize that there wasn't any that day. Once they realized that we weren't just California-roll eating gaijin we got some great stuff. I can't even remember it all, but I've developed a new appreciation for mackerel, both saba and aji, tonight.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Okinawa Diving

We're diving with an operation owned by an American guy, ex-Special Ops, who has been living in Okinawa for decades. Although we're on an island, the dive sites are off smaller islands about an hour or two by boat from Chatan. While I don't mind being on a boat at all, one of my dive buddies gets sea sick very easily. During one of our surface intervals he yuked up breakfast and lunch, attracting a hoard of fish. Not wanting to pass up a chance to see colorful critters, I grabbed my snorkel and jumped in. Once his stomach was empty, he was good to keep diving. We competed three dives and saw a fish feeding frenzy and a couple of sleeping sharks. The water clarity is not so great and parts of the reef are beaten up from the typhoon that passed through just before we arrived in Japan.

Part of the fun of traveling to a new place is trying the local snacks. After our first day of diving, we went to a local supermarket where I picked up an Okinawan pastry that was basically the outer covering of a fig newton filled with a slightly smoky-tasting purple yam filling. I should have taken a picture of it before consuming. It was...okay. The purple yam is native to Okinawa and very popular here, it even comes as a special KitKat flavor! I also tried small crunchy waffle cookie fish filled with Aero chocolate. I'm not sure why chocolate filled with air bubbles is so popular here, but this treat tasted great.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

No Sleep Till Naha

My gear and I made it all the way to Nagoya, in central Japan. I got stuck in Frankfurt for a few hours because there were extremely high crosswinds blowing at the airport. I was really worried that they would cancel our flight, but a short lull opened a window and since we were loaded up and just sitting on the tarmac waiting to go, we got up and went. I knew I was going to miss my connection between Lufthansa and ANA at Nagoya, and tried not to worry too much about it. I had ponied up for business class for precisely this reason: the airlines tend to take decent care of the premium cabin passengers. Sure enough when I got off the plane in Nagoya I was met at the gate by an ANA agent carrying a sign with my name. She explained to me that I had been rebooked on a later flight to Naha, and gave me a form printed in both Japanese and English that outlined the changes. I had to exit security, collect my bags, and then check in with ANA. I presented the form, and everything was taken care of.  Interestingly enough, they scan the bags right by the check-in line, and I was made to remove all the batteries from my dive lights.  Soon enough I was sitting at my gate waiting to board for Okinawa. I hadn't really slept on the flight from Frankfurt because I was worried about making the connection, and because I was feeling sore and crampy from Lufthansa's angled lay-flay seats. I didn't realize how awful these things are, a friend calls them "Frankenstein slabs" because while the surface is flat, the whole seat in "bed" mode tilts at an angle. I kept sliding down and couldn't fall asleep.

The flight from Nagoya to Naha was full of Japanese school girls. Yes, there was lots of giggling. Once I arrived in Naha I found the shuttle bus that was to make the hour+ drive to my final destination of Chatan, near Kadena (a major American military installation). It was dark and cloudy, a typhoon had recently passed through and the weather was unsettled. The bus driver was listening to Japanese talk radio, and in my over-tired state I started hallucinating that I could actually understand Japanese. The area around Naha is very urban, and as we headed south toward Chatan it stayed urban. Even my "resort" was in an urban area. Imagine if Oakland had a beach resort: that is what it is like at the Beach Tower in Chatan. Looking out I see cargo ships, cranes, fuel tanks, and piers.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Long Way Around

After watching all this fabulous dancing, it's time for me to make a major shift in gears. I'm leaving this morning to meet up with my Geek Divers posse in Okinawa. Two of them have some business in Japan, and two others are visiting in friends in Hong Kong, so we decided a while ago that we'd converge on Japan's tropical paradise. Since I'm already in England, I have to travel a long way. Today I'm flying Manchester-Frankfurt-Nagoya-Okinawa. Don't even ask me how many hours this is going to take. I just hope my gear makes it all the way!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Big Day for US Amateur Couples in Blackpool!


Today's dance contests at the Blackpool Dance Festival were the Amateur Rising Star events. "Rising Star" competitions are for up-and-comers. If you get a certain placing in that division, you become ineligible for it. So, dancing in a Rising Star event is a great way to get noticed, because the established top couples aren't competing. Three US couples got a lot of notice today. Igor Mikushov & Margaretta Midura (pictured) came in 6th out of 249 in the Ballroom dances. The Rising Star Latin was won by Denys Drozdyuk & Antonina Skobina, and US 10-Dance Champions Pasha Pashkov & Daniella Karagach were runners-up. The Latin event was particularly tough: nearly 400 couples entered!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Typical Day in Blackpool

LOONNNGGGG day is over. Saw men dressed like Baywatch lifeguards pub-hopping in the cold and wind, marching English neo-Nazis, teenage Latin dancers in dresses that hookers might turn down, and some very nice ballroom and Latin dancing. Going to try to sleep, I'll rant on about it all tomorrow. With pictures! (Of the nice dresses, I won't embarrass minors who make poor fashion choices.)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Blackpool: First Night

If you're a competitive ballroom dancer, "Blackpool" means one thing: The British Open Dance Championships, also known as the Blackpool Dance Festival. It is arguably the world's most prestigious dance competition -- a bigger deal than the World Championships. The World Championships only allows two couples per country, but some countries have such a strong depth of talent that more than two couples rank amongst the tops in the world. (Recent politics in the dance world are dulling Blackpool's luster, but that's a long story I won't even try to relate.) If this were tennis, it would be Wimbledon. You get the idea.

Today the Senior (Over-35) Amateur Ballroom and the Professional "Rising Star" Latin were contested. I missed the early rounds, but got to see plenty of fine dancing as the field was winnowed down to the top couples in each division. The USA had a very strong showing, with three out of twelve couples in the semi-finals in both divisions. My friends Andreas & Jody Meijer were one of the Ballroom semi-finalists, they danced wonderfully and I'm so happy for them for this great result. Pictured here is another US semi-finalist couple, David & Liva Wright.

Unfortunately I'm adjusting to my "new" camera, which really isn't so great for this kind of work, so I don't have decent pictures to share like I did in 2009. I'm heading back tomorrow afternoon to watch the Under-21 Amateur Latin Championship, and will see if I start to get the hang of things then. Most people shooting here have awesome set-ups with super fast long lenses. I used to shoot with a Nikon digital SLR with a slow-ish zoom, but that camera got lost at San Francisco Airport on a trip to Seattle in 2009. It was replaced with a compact point-and-shoot Leica with an F2 lens, but there's no real telephoto so that makes taking dance pictures difficult. Oh well. I'm going to have to replace the lost Nikon this summer or fall because I want to have something decent to use when I go to the US National Figure Skating Championships next January.

On the other hand, the rest of my set-up is kind of fun: between competitive rounds I can upload pictures to my iPad via the Apple camera connection kit, and then edit them in Photogene. My iPhone is unlocked, and I've put a UK SIM card in it. I use PhotoShare+ to bluetooth the edited photos over to the iPhone, and then can post to Twitter or Facebook from there. Pretty fun -- I just need to work on the source material :)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Going from Point B(FS) to B(LK)

Travel day today. I took British low-cost carrier Jet2.com from Belfast International to Blackpool, and I must say it was a very pleasant experience. So pleasant, in fact, that I'm seriously considering using them to tack a Red Sea diving trip to Sharm el-Sheikh or Hurghada on to next year's Blackpool pilgrimage. The planes are spiffy, with "trimline" leather seats in grey and red, and the flight attendants were very cheerful. Two young boys traveling on the plane whooped with delight during take off. I smiled and wondered if it was their first flight.

A couple of notes about Jet2.com: although they are low-fare, they are not low-service. Rather, all the services are offered a la carte. If you want to check a bag (up to 22kg, which is generous), you have to pay. If you want to check in at the airport, you have to pay. If you want a pre-assigned seat, you have to pay. If you pay for all these features in advance, they cost MUCH less than if you purchase them at the airport. However, and this is the most important point, if you decide to go for "airport" check-in you still have to print out and bring your confirmation notice. It's not all paperless like in the US. When I got to the check-in counter I didn't have the paper and the agent sent me to the ticketing counter where a supervisor had to verify that I had in fact paid for airport check-in. This seemed totally weird to me -- why couldn't the check-in agent see that when she looked up my Passenger Name Record? The supervisor was super-nice, but apparently there wasn't a way for her to just look this kind of thing up in the computer. Fortunately I had the original confirmation email from Jet2.com in my iPhone, which indicated that I had prepaid for my features. The supervisor walked me to the front of the very long queue (a planeload of people were heading off to Murcia, in Spain), and I got checked in and bag-tagged with no further problems.

Once in Blackpool I headed to my home-away-from-home and base of operations for the next week, the comfortable and modern (modern is VERY important in Blackpool) Coast Apartments. The owners, Karen & Steve, greeted me warmly. This is my second year here and I feel like a long-lost friend. I was also delighted to find that two friends of mine from California, who will be dancing tomorrow in the Senior (Over-35) Standard Ballroom Championship, are also staying here. I've got a new camera with a faster lens than I had on my last visit, so I'm hoping I'll manage to get a nice picture of Jody & Andreas dancing. Other friends from California are arriving in the morning, it will be a sort of reunion for me. When I quit competitive ballroom dancing in October of 2009 I stopped seeing my dancing friends as much, and I must say that I do think about them a lot and miss them. So here's to a week of great dancing and lovely friends!

Travel Statistics:
  • Countries == The United Kingdom (Northern Ireland, England)
  • Miles Flown Thus Far == 5870
  • Fight Segments == 4
  • Airlines Flown == United, Continental, Jet2.com
  • Hotels == Radisson Blu, Coast Apartments
  • Loads of Laundry == 2
  • Favorite Alcoholic Beverage == Magner's Irish Cider

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Oysters and Art

In the UK, T.J. Maxx is called T.K. Maxx. I don't know why but I bet the answer is sitting somewhere on the Internet. Potato chips are what we call french fries, and potato crisps are what we call potato chips. I've developed a strong love for red leicester (a cheddar-like cheese) & chive potato crisps. I've been getting a small packet (bag) of them every day at Marks & Spencer. I adore Marks & Spencer, it's sort of a mash-up of a low-to-mid range department store (think of JC Penney in their heyday) with Trader Joe's. If you're visiting the UK and need sandwiches, snacks, or booze for your hotel room, the M&S "Food Hall" is your best bet. If you need underwear, t-shirts, umbrellas or other basics, then head upstairs for decent stuff at decent prices.

Today was a bit about shopping and a bit about sightseeing. I began at the Ormeau Baths Gallery, billed as the leading contemporary art gallery in Northern Ireland. When I was younger I hated modern art and really only was interested in seeing works by famous artists. I guess this was because I didn't have my own sense if what art "is," and figured if it was famous then it was "real" and I could enjoy it and learn from it. My opinion changed drastically in Paris in 2002, when I was confronted by a giant technicolor rhinoceros at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris. It stood there at the top of a long escalator, and I burst out laughing when I saw it. I got the idea that art wasn't just tied to art history. I started visiting modern galleries, and noticed the term "Contemporary Art" used to describe recent works. Contemporary art was alive, and "present" in the real world that I lived in. Some of it expressed a great sense of humor. I started to see that art is simply the artist getting something in their mind's eye out into the physical world. I decided that anyone with a vision can be an artist. Since then I've made a point of visiting contemporary art exhibitions, which lead me to the OBG. Contemporary artists work in a variety of media, across a gamut of styles. I saw trompe l'oeil, watercolors, woodblock prints, and still lives. The painting that stood out for me had a sort of 40's-50's propaganda look, and featured two hulking shifty-eyed bankers stuffing money into their breast pockets.

From there I walked across town to Belfast Cathedral, also known as St. Anne's. Even though the church is over 100 years old, it does not have a traditional steeple. Instead there is a modern slim stainless steel spire, nicknamed "the toothpick." The spire was installed in 2007, and dedicated to hope and the memory of the victims of the 9/11 attacks.

The one awkward thing for me about traveling alone is eating out. I love trying new restaurants, but going out for dinner alone is just sad to me. Lunch, however, is a different story, so I headed over to Belfast's best seafood restaurant, the Mourne Seafood Bar. My waiter was very knowledgeable and friendly, and set me up with a tasty local (hard) apple cider. We chatted about the source for the various fish, and he explained at one of the owners is a marine biologist who farms Pacific oysters up the coast from Belfast. I love oysters, so I ordered a plateful as well as a small portion of Queen scallops that were sauteed with greens, linguine, and finished with a light saffron cream sauce. Everything was delicious!

One of the most famous pubs in Belfast is the Crown Liquor Saloon. It's known for its ornate Victorian interior, and for being across the street from The Europa -- the most bombed hotel in Europe. I meant to drop in and have a pint of cider (I've developed a strong admiration for Irish apple cider), but when I walked in I did not like the vibe of the place. I had heard that it is a big draw for tourists and for locals having lunch, but I didn't think it would be so completely crowded at 2:30 in the afternoon. So, after admiring the chandeliers and the mirrors behind the bar, I wended my way back to my hotel, making a few shopping stops for shoes and those delicious potato crisps.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

One Giant Step for a Causeway

Despite insomnia and jet lag, I managed to drag myself awake at 8am to prepare for my full-day trip out into the Irish countryside. My destination was to be the UNESCO World Heritage site, The Giant's Causeway. Years ago in China I met two young archeologists from Belfast, and they both told me that if I ever went to Northern Ireland I should make sure I head up the wild and windy coast of Country Antrim to see this interesting natural basalt rock formation. But first, breakfast, or lack thereof. I'm not usually one to complain about this sort of thing, but I was stunned when I found out that the continental breakfast at my hotel was priced at the equivalent of $22 US. For that kind of money I want a French baker to personally make me the croissant while I watch. I skipped the breakfast and grabbed something at a corner store.

The countryside was beautiful, windy and green with crashing waves on the shore. Sheep, cows, horses, and goats grazed placidly. Little villages dotted the coastline. We stopped at a couple of ruined castles, and a pretty fishing village in one of the Nine Glens of Antrim. OK, I'll admit it: it was pretty but I was so tired that I kept falling asleep. There were a few highlights, though. We stopped at the Old Bushmills distillery, long enough for a free tasting but not long enough for a tour. I drank their 10-year-old whiskey with a tiny splash of water and tried not to giggle while another tourist went on about how he had no idea that whiskey could taste so good, and how different it was from "downing" rum & coke. As the bartender said "it's about quality, it's not a volume drink."

After Bushmills we wended our way to the Giant's Causeway itself. I took a ninety minute walk along the shoreline, marveling at the basalt rock formations that were created by an ancient volcano. I also thought about my life a lot, and frankly hit a low point and the thought of throwing myself into the sea crossed my mind. I kept walking, though. I am, after all, on a trip around the world. It would be stupid to give up now.

On the way back from the Causeway we stopped at the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. It was originally built so that salmon fishermen could cross to a rocky islet from which they spread their nets. Nowadays it's there as an attraction along a particularly lovely stretch of coastline. I took a 45-minute round-trip walk to the bridge but did not actually cross it. Along the way I saw the fattest and furriest caterpillar ever, with two-tone brown stripes. I tried to take his picture but I messed up the macro settings on my camera.

The outbound trip had been along the coast road, so we took the Motorway back to save time. I napped, and when I arrived back at the hotel I decided another Magner's was in order.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Belfast-Go-Round

I tried to get up this morning, but jet lag kept me asleep until my "emergency" alarm set for 10am went off. Fortunately I woke to a lovely day: the forecast had said rain, but it was sunny-interspersed-with-showers. If you've ever wondered why people in the UK and Ireland talk about the weather so much -- it's because there's always something to talk about! After dragging myself out of my comfy and stylish bed at the Radisson Blu, I made the 10-minute walk into the center of town. There I picked up a double-decker tourist bus, as previously recommended by my cab driver.

The tour took us all over town, most interestingly through the Shankill Road, Falls, and Sandy Row sections. These are the neighborhoods that outsiders think of when they think of Belfast: violent, sectarian, and separated by gated "Peace Walls" erected to prevent cross-border car bombings. Fortunately this is all in the past, as "most sensible" Belfasters just want to live in peace. At this point in time, with so much political and economic progress made, it's considered to be just a radical fringe that keeps any problems going. Heck, the 2002-2003 Lord Mayor of Belfast was a member of the Sinn Féin party -- now that's saying something for political progress. The bus driver gave us a brief history of the conflicts, and as usual they are much more longer-lived and complex than someone who grew up outside of Northern Ireland would immediately imagine. Hundreds of years ago, Catholics and non-Conformists (i.e., non Church of England) were economically and politically persecuted. For instance, they couldn't own land, and they weren't allowed to hold public office. The story is long and involved and as it evolved it wasn't simply a matter of Catholics and Protestants killing each other over religious beliefs. I'm not going to go into it here, though, until I've read a good book on the subject. I will say that it's painful to look at a neat and tidy working-class neighborhood, made up of buildings that have been standing for about 100 years, and thinking that within my lifetime it was a war zone. People were living and working and shopping there then, as they are today. There but for the grace of god go I. If sectarian violence could happen in a place like this, among otherwise normal people, then where else could it happen? The USA, as a country, must continually find ways to take care of each other and get along.

After the bus tour, which also wended its way past what the bus driver claimed that Prince Charles said was the ugliest building in Belfast, I paid a visit to a far prettier edifice. Belfast's City Hall has a lovely rotunda and lots of interesting glass, and we even got to sit in the City Council chambers. A big conference was going on in the Great Hall, a bunch of technology/manufacturing companies were in town discussing doing business in the Belfast area.

I got caught in an intermittent rain shower and returned, soaked, to the Radisson. There I sat in their comfy bar listening to excellent tunes (it's as if they had Groove Salad on) and drank some delicious Magner's Irish Cider.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Belfast (Arrival)

So after taking the long and winding flights, and not being Raptured along the way (I was in the air between O'Hare and Newark at the time), I arrived to a lovely morning in Belfast. The weather had said it would be rainy, but it was breaking up. Ireland is such a green and pretty place. Lush gentle hills, cows and sheep everywhere, red brick houses and farms.

Belfast International Airport is a tiny affair. The sheep and cow pastures go right up to the runway, and the animals placidly grazed as the planes roared overhead. We were the only international flight to arrive, and were a mere 757 at that, so there were no snaking hoards for UK Immigration like at Heathrow. I grabbed a cab for a scenic 20-minute ride to Belfast city center, my cabbie Dixie giving me a running commentary on the sights and geography of Northern Ireland. I'm usually pretty good with accents, but sometimes Dixie lost me. Maybe I was just tired from not sleeping two nights in a row.

Dixie deposited me at my hotel, the Radisson Blu, where I was delighted to find that I could get into my room right away. I guess that's the advantage of arriving in a business hotel on a weekend morning. Belfast is very quiet on Sundays, shops and restaurants open up after lunch at 1pm, so I took a very long nap and then headed out for a walk in the warm sunshine.

My first impression of Belfast is that it's very compact, clean, and pretty. I grew up hearing about all the bombings and protests and fighting here, but that's been gone for a good long time now. Now it's a lovely small city with a compact walkable center, with branches of all my favorite shopping stops: Vodaphone, Monsoon, Boots, Marks & Spencer. I think there's even a Primark (affectionately called "Primani"), which means there's an adventure in fighting crowds for cheap underwear and t-shirts in my future.

Tomorrow my sight-seeing starts in earnest. Dixie-the-cabbie told me that the best things to do are to take a tour of City Hall, ride the double-deck tourist bus around the city, go out to Giant's Causeway, and in general just walk around and have a pint of beer or a glass of whisky every now and then. I aim to heed his advice!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Around the World in 29 Days

My trip from San Francisco to Belfast was about as boring as could be. I flew from San Francisco to Chicago on United, then to Belfast via Newark on Continental. I chose this rather grueling milk run because I have more time than money and it saved me over $400 to make the extra stop. The trip was tiresome because I had to leave for the departure airport at 5:00am. Twenty hours later I arrived in Belfast. Absolutely nothing interesting happened, even my 40+ pounds of scuba gear arrived as planned.

I did watch one movie on the way over, The Green Hornet. I was surprised at how stupid it was. Yes, Josh Rogan's character was supposed to be dumb, but the whole thing was just a little too dopey. Kato was the bomb, though -- and the character made me think a lot about awesome Mythbuster Grant Imahara. I have no idea if Grant can do martial arts, but he can build stuff!

To read more from this 29 day long journey, keep hitting "Newer Post," below.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Night Swimming

Since I first started diving in October of 2009, I've made a total of fifty dives. Tonight was my 51st, and my third night dive ever. I'm up in the small town of Hoodsport, on the lovely Hood Canal in Washington, taking some specialty training classes so I can improve my skills. What was weird about tonight was just how bad it was. I saw very clearly how a few small things can rapidly snowball into the kinds of diving problems that could result in serious injuries.

It all started simply enough: we were going to swim around the training course in the cove across from The Yellow House, a lovely 100-year-old farmhouse owned by Don Kinney of Edmonds Technical Diving Services. I dove the site several times in the daylight past March, and thought it would be easy and even a little boring. What I ended up with was a lot of bouyancy issues which resulted in a runaway ascent from 24 feet of water to the surface. In between I experienced mounting frustrations. The major lesson I learned is that its very easy to get complacent. A few good dives in a row and I feel like I can take on the undersea world. But little things really do matter, like how I changed the distribution of four out of 34 pounds of weight I was carrying, or what side of my body I attached my dive light to. Dry suit diving is a little like going on a space walk, astronauts have a methodical checklist for everything, and a plan for every contingency. I need to think more like an astronaut to keep the good dives coming.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The A380 is Coming! The A380 is Coming!


I'm not quite sure why I'm so excited, but I do have a fascination for huge things that fly. I adore the Boeing 747, it's an icon of style that still looks fresh and elegant today. The A380, however, looks like a flying railroad boxcar to me. But then I've never seen one in person, so I'm willing to keep my mind open. Lufthansa is landing an A380 at San Francisco International for the first time on May 10th, and I plan to go down and watch. Actually what I really want to see is it take off, so I'll probably head back a second time when it starts its return trip to Frankfurt.

Lufthansa and San Francisco International are having a plane watching party at Bayfront Park in Millbrae on May 10th. I'll be there with my camera and sunscreen!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Laura's Big Adventure


I'm sure I've told this story before. When I was in grade school I used to read the New York Times travel section every Sunday, and dream about all the awesome places there are in the world to see. There once was an interview with actress/model Lauren Hutton, who was on vacation in Africa. She said the reason why she worked was so she could earn the time and money to go on trips. This inspired me immensely, and to this day I remember thinking "Yes, that's what I want to do, too!" I'm not a model or an actress, but I did work for over a decade as a computer programmer, including a run of five Silicon Valley start-ups that left me burnt-out but in a good position to have adventures from time to time.

I'm about to embark on a Big Adventure. I'm going to go around the world! There's something magical about being able to say that, it puts me in mind of the greatest traveler of all, Magellan. Anyway, I'm firing up "One Reader Per Blog" again to track my adventure.

It will be a short trip, and I'm only stopping in a few places, but hey it's MY trip and I'm excited about it. Here's the basic itinerary:

Belfast, Northern Ireland -- I've long had the goal of visiting every state- or country-level geo-political entity that ends in LAND in English. So far I've been to England, Scotland, Ireland, Maryland, Queensland, Thailand, New Zealand, Finland, and the Netherlands. Visiting Belfast will knock another -LAND off the list.

Blackpool, England -- For the past few years I've met a bunch of ballroom dancing friends there to watch the biggest most prestigious ballroom dancing competition of all. If it were Tennis, the British Open Dancing Championships would be the equivalent of Wimbledon.

Okinawa, Japan -- I have two diving buddies that like to tack on diving expeditions to business trips. They needed to go to Japan for something, and decided to dive Okinawa. When they suggested the trip, the rest of us in our little dive group said HELL YEAH. Why? I'm not really sure, I never thought of Okinawa as a famous diving destination. I think we all said yes because we all love diving, like diving together, and pretty much will take anything as an excuse to take a cool trip that includes diving. What more could one ask for from a group of friends?

Honolulu, Hawaii -- I've been to Honolulu a few times, but only "on business" for a ballroom dancing competition. I'd fly in, go to the hotel, dance my events, and fly home again as soon as possible. (I'd also kick ass, for some reason Hawaii Star Ball was always awesome for me.) Anyway, I've never done any of the tourist stuff on Oahu, like visit the Arizona memorial or Diamond Head. I'm glad to finally take the time to do this.

Kona, Hawaii -- In truth, though, the real reason for the stop in Honolulu was that I needed to kill a few days between Okinawa and the departure date for the live-aboard dive yacht, Kona Aggressor II. I'll be spending a week sharing a quad-bunked cabin with any other single women who book the trip, diving off the west and south coasts of the Big Island of Hawaii. The highlight of this may be seeing huge manta rays feeding at night. I now have an underwater camera, maybe if I can figure out how to use it I'll get a decent picture.

More later as I prepare for this grand excursion :)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Youthful Dreams Becoming Reality


The things you dream about as a kid don't necessarily go away when you grow up. I was a child during the glory days of manned space flight, although despite my mother's best efforts my four-year-old-self fell asleep during Neil Armstrong's "one giant step." It was also during these years, the late 1960's through the 1970's, that undersea exploration was popularized to the world via Jacques Cousteau. This combination of influences made very interested in NASA's activities, while also wanting to be a marine biologist (rather than an astronaut) when I grew up.

I got distracted along the way, though, and ended up studying computer science in college. I thought about learning to scuba dive, but never got around to it until 2009 when my boyfriend Dale talked me into taking a "resort course" during a trip to Bali. At first I resisted, but then all those memories of the Rod Serling-narrated Cousteau TV specials came flooding back. And once I was in the water with my gear on, I was hooked.

This weekend I'm going to experience dry suit diving for the first time. Aside from opening up the possibilities for where and when I can dive, it's also the closest I can come to being an astronaut!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Interview: Dave Minion at the Space Shuttle Launch


NASA is winding down their Shuttle program, and today is the (delayed) final launch of Discovery. Discovery is heading to the International Space Station (ISS). It is the US government's plan to have NASA shift orbital flights to private-sector space companies, with the possibility of NASA then having resources to mount a manned expedition to Mars.

Dave Minion has traveled to Kennedy Space Center for the NASATweetUp, and will be viewing the launch from the Press Center near the famous Countdown Clock. This is the closest that non-mission personnel can get to the pad for a launch. Dave has ties to the civilian-commercial space industry, most recently working on the nefarious yet successful project staged by Dr. Gru to launch a rocket to steal the Moon. I caught up Dave by phone as he watched the RSS retraction (when the large protective structure is moved away from the shuttle) at Kennedy on Wednesday night.

Laura: Hi Dave, and thanks for taking the time to talk to me. How does Discovery look?

Dave: She looks great, it's really majestic seeing her sitting on the pad with all her fuel tanks, and realizing that humans built her.

Laura: Yes, what an achievement for science and technology, and for human creativity and ingenuity!

Dave: Well, what I was really getting at was that this was not a Minion-assisted project. When I was working for Dr. Gru we built an entire manned rocket with what we could raise by emptying our piggy banks and pawning our watches. We successfully launched a manned rocket to the Moon, carrying a Chinese-designed shrink ray. Furthermore we were able to shrink the Moon and bring it back to Earth. This Shuttle is beautiful, it looks like a graceful bird strapped to a Harley-Davidson, but really besides looks, what does it have going for it? The Shuttle program is vastly expensive, and its goal seems to be to build a tree-house in Earth orbit. It's kind of a yawner, frankly, after the work I've done with Gru and Nefario. [Dave is referring to Dr. Nefario, the well-known "black market" rocket scientist who designed Gru's Moon-stealing vehicle].

Laura: Well, there are all the great experiments that have taken place on the shuttles and on the ISS, bringing about advancements in medicine, metallurgy, and on living in zero-g.

Dave: Of course of course. It's just not as glamorous or attention-getting as actually stealing the Moon.

Laura: Umm, okay...so how is the launch countdown going? Any signs of the kinds of issues that plagued the launch window back in late October/early November?


Dave: Everything looks great. NASA engineers spent a lot of time working on the external fuel tank problem. They have confidence that the tank is in working order. The final proof of that will be during the actual tanking of fuel tomorrow morning, but at this point so much thorough analysis has gone into the repairs that NASA is ready to go.

Laura: For many people, it's a bittersweet day that Discovery is being retired. However, there is a future with private-sector launches and commercial-NASA cooperations. What do you think about the growing private-sector space industry?

Dave: If the companies can make money sending people and payloads up, then it will be great for them. It will also help maintain the aerospace jobs that are being lost due to the downsizing of NASA's programs, and might even become a growth industry. However, I must say that it also will make space flight more mundane. It used to be that you had to be a major government, or a major villain, to get a rocket into orbit. There was a certain cachet of seeing the rocket go up with the NASA or Gru logo on it. You would be on the news everywhere. You knew you were one of a very few organizations who could do what you do. Now that space flight is opening up, it will someday be like the airline industry. Rockets won't grab the headlines they used to. And on a more personal note, Dr. Gru's mother will be even less impressed than ever.

Laura: How is she and the girls, by the way?

Dave: Oh they're all doing great, although I must say that Gru and Nefario have really slowed down their operations lately. We've been having a lot of fun, especially watching little Agnes grow up, but sometimes I miss the exciting times, like when we flew to China and broke into that secret research facility to steal the shrink-ray.

Laura: Well Dave, thanks very much for your time. Enjoy the launch!

Dave: Eeeeep!