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 :)