African Connection links are now in the sidebar to the right, just below the My Travel section.

Click here to see a La Crosse Tribune article about the mission in Uganda.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Far Away Places #3(a)

St. Petersburg, Russia

Raise your hand if you are well-read enough to know what these students are doing:

OK, you can put your hands down now. If you said "duck and cover," then you know your 1950's history. The students are practicing getting to safety in the event of a nuclear attack from then arch-enemy, the USSR. Seriously, did we think that this would really work?

Now, if you are old enough to have actually participated in one of these drills, then you can sit back and take a nap as you are, like me, getting too old for all of this excitement.

That was the way it was during the cold war. Lots of posturing and sabre rattling. Times were tense, brinksmanship was defined in the Cuban Missile Crisis. The iron curtain went up. We knew who the enemy was. Eastern Europe was off limits.

Then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, this followed by the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. In 1996, I had a chance to make a business trip to Russia. I had met Professor Yuri G. at a conference in Hannover, Germany and he invited me to visit the St. Petersburg State Technical University for a compressor conference. Two of us from Trane made the trip to see just what we might learn. From our former enemies. I really had that thought, what with having lived for more than 45 years in the environment of duck and cover, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Berlin Wall.

We stayed not too far from the University and had planned to take the subway to the conference. However, we were met at the hotel and taken by car. It seems the subway tunnel on the line had collapsed and there was a difficult-to-negotiate switching from subway-to-bus-to-subawy to get around the impediment. Turns out someone in city government decided to save money by shutting down a big refrigeration unit that ran all of the time. What they apparently missed was that the machinery was keeping the marshy ground around a section of the subway tunnel frozen. Once the ground thawed, it wasn't long before the cave in. In any event, we missed all of that and arrived at the university in style. Here's the name badge I was given. The bold letters in the center spell out my name phonetically in the Cyrillic alphabet. The CWA at the bottom is "USA" and the words just above that say "Trane Company."

The conference was conducted in Russian and while the two students assigned to assist us during our stay – Kirill and Olga – whispered highlights during the sessions, we missed most of what was said. But, we had come to talk about work at the University and that went quite well. We met a number of people there, including an older professor (I'm that old now) who told us, among other things, how he would spend months making instruments that we could simply buy in large quantities for our work. Things were not easy for anyone we met during our visit.

When the conference was over, there was a banquet. This is apparently required of those hosting meetings in Russia. You WILL have a banquet for everyone to get together and celebrate the completion of the program. There were long tables with food and drink, lots of drink. As the meal was winding down, the president of the University got up and began to speak. Kirill told me that he didn't know much about compressors, but was hoping that we had found the conference valuable and thanked us for coming. He said more than that. A lot more. He talked long enough for most everyone at the tables to stop paying attention. But, when he was finally finished, he lifted his glass to offer a toast. Everyone in the room IMMEDIATELY stopped talking, took up their glasses drank the toast with him.

After this, Professor G. spoke. Kirill informed me that he was talking about highlights of the conference and saying how pleased he was at the quality of the papers and the interest showed by all of the attendees. And, as with the University president, he said a lot more. But he too eventually got to a stopping point and so raised his glass, a gesture that everyone had apparently been waiting for as they once again followed suit without hesitation.

A few more people, including some conference attendees, repeated this process and we were making quite a dent in the liquid refreshment that had been set out on the tables. At some point, I decided that I should get up and say a few words on behalf of the foreigners in attendance. I discussed this with Kirill who agreed it would be a fine idea. My plan was to say a few words and have Kirill translate. Then, I would bring out the full measure of my Russian vocabulary, and tell everyone in their language, "It has been very nice. Thank you very much. Cheers!" I thought it went quite well.

When I was done and I had sat back down in my seat, the professor whom I told you about earlier, the one who made the instruments, leaned over and whispered to me, "That was very good. But, it was SHORT!" Oh well, now I know. And I've been trying to make up for that too-short speech ever since.

That was a memorable moment, but it was the other things I learned about this clever man that made the greatest impression. He had, as it turns out, survived the siege of Leningrad, which lasted for 872 days. It was an event that cost 1,500,000 people their lives and those who survived did so in spite of dreadful conditions. He said that near the end of the siege, families received a daily ration of a single hunk of black bread about the size of your fist. He had a card in his wallet, certifying that he was a siege survivor.

I learned a little about how he made his special pressure transducers. He talked about how St. Petersburg (nee Leningrad) had blossomed as an educational and cultural city and we chatted about engineering stuff. He was pleasant and interesting to talk to, this "former enemy." Makes you wonder how we come to view other people that way. And how we can even get moved to lay siege to cities where people like him live and work.

As happens to me all too often, I have forgotten his name. But I remember his story, his lesson in resilience. And, how he led me to making after dinner speeches of proper length. Please, do not hold that against him.

Next, another story from my visit to St. Petersburg.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Far Away Places #2

Munich, Germany

After slicing across England, the big DC-8 bearing the name Snorri Jørgenson descended slowly, crossing into continental Europe somewhere over Belgium. Looking down on the forests below gave me a feeling I imagined must be like that which astronauts Anders, Borman and Lovell experienced when they became the first men to fly over the surface of the moon. It wasn't that the trees looked any different than if we had been flying over, say, northern Wisconsin. But I KNEW… we were flying over, and would soon be touching down in, Europe!

It was the early 70's; we were armed with little more than Icelandic Airlines tickets, Eurail Passes, copies of Cook's Continental Timetable and Europe on $10 A Day and what might have been a bit more optimism than was warranted. But, we were young and about to set off on the great adventure that would be recorded in the annals of travel history as the First Grand Tour of Europe. Or maybe it's just the second entry in the Far Away Places series. Whatever…

What a trip it was. Luxembourg, Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France. So many things we saw in those little more than two weeks. For example, late in the trip, at the train station in Brig, Switzerland, I encountered my first squat toilet. After dropping some coins into the slot on a stall door, I looked in and saw only a ceramic fixture in the floor. Thinking it must be a shower, I moved on and used my remaining coins to open another door. I saw the same fixture. Paying more attention this time, I realized I was looking at a toilet! Travel is, to be sure, an educational experience.

So many sights and stories accumulated during that trip. You might think it would be hard to pick a single, defining experience. Yet there is one that stands out, even today. We had found a room in a family-run hotel near the Munich Hauptbahnhof. It was small; the lone toilet was in a little room down the hall. Next to that was a larger room with a bathtub. It was (and still is) the biggest bathtub I have ever seen. Getting in could have been an obstacle on a Marine Corps basic training course. And there was this gas fired hot water heater, mounted on the wall next to the tub, hanging there at about eye level. It would come on suddenly with a loud "whoosh," giving you reason to want to get out of the tub in a hurry. Except you couldn't.

It was a good place for a couple of days, being near the train station and, like all of our rooms during the trip, inexpensive. We ate breakfast in a room off the kitchen, sharing the small space with a few other guests. Family members manned the desk, prepared the breakfast and cleaned up around the hotel. It was all so, well, European.

We and the staff/family had rudimentary command of each other's languages and were generally able to manage essential communication. On the evening before we left, I talked with the lady at the desk, telling her we would be leaving early to catch a 6:30 AM train to Salzburg. I knew that the daughter would go out in the morning to shop for provisions and wanted them to know that we would not be around at 7:00, the start of the breakfast hour.

We left our room the next morning at about 5:30 and moved quietly across the lobby. But, before we got to the door, the daughter came out from the kitchen and greeted us. She had paper bags and gave each of us one. Inside: bread, cheese and salami. Our breakfasts.

Of all the memories of the trip, this remains one of the most vivid. It was quite unexpected. And very much appreciated. It wasn't anything she had to do and we certainly hadn't asked. She just did it. Because, I guess, she cared enough to get up early, prepare the breakfasts and get them to us even though there wasn't much chance of us becoming repeat customers. I do not know her name nor remember what she looked like. But she provided a lesson in simple kindness. Yes, travel is an educational experience.

Coming next - behind the iron curtain.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Far Away Places #1

Bradford Island

California and Oregon can lay claim to having Bradford Islands within their boundaries. The one in Oregon has, perhaps, a more interesting history, as, according to one account, "On April 9, 1806, Lewis and Clark camped near Tanner Creek, on the Oregon shore opposite Bradford Island." It is a fascinating place. I suppose; you know, since Lewis and Clark stayed there. But I couldn’t say for sure, since I've not been there myself. Yet, Bradford Island is where I learned more than a few lessons and from which I took many memories.

It all started in April, 1945 with the Kaiser Company at Swan Island Shipyard in Portland, Oregon. The yard was one of four built to support the war effort by constructing T2 tankers. T2's, by the way, are 500 foot long ships that could carry almost 6 million gallons in their 9 cargo tanks. The 135th T2 tanker built by Kaiser at Swan Island was named Bradford Island. And, in the summer of 1968, I spent three months on her, hauling oil from ports in Texas and Louisiana to New Orleans, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Wilmington, North Carolina. It was quite the summer job for this, at the time, college sophomore.

My travels up until this time had been limited to family vacations, with a single solo trip, that a flight from Atlanta to Jacksonville, Florida to visit a friend from the few I years when I lived there. Now, I found myself alone in Houston, a card carrying member of the Seafarers Union, checking the job postings in the small office near the YMCA where I was staying. On the second day, I picked up the card for a spot on the Bradford Island, washing dishes in the galley. After that, it was a quick trip to Lake Charles, Louisiana, where I boarded what would be my floating home for the rest of the summer. The next day, we left for Tampa. On the way, I overheard the Steward say he was going to need to post for a waiter in the officer's mess. Being a quick-witted college student as I was, I volunteered to take on the waiter's duties if he would post for a dishwasher instead. We agreed to that plan and my hands were soon out of the water.

Working on a tanker is not exactly the best way to see the highlights of the U.S. Gulf Coast. We were at sea a lot, and the ship could load and unload fairly quickly so there wasn't too much time ashore. Add to that the fact that the docks were situated far from the big city sights, this due in large part to the disaster at Texas City, Texas in 1945. A fire on a ship in the harbor detonated 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate, leveling the city and killing 581 people. Hence, docks servicing tankers have tended to be a bit farther from population centers.

So, it wasn't the sights that made that summer memorable. Sailing as a merchant mariner was exotic, for sure. Well, if you are a sophomore at Georgia Tech. It was a summer of a boatload of new experiences and interactions with quite the variety of people.

One of those people was the ship's master, Captain Salinas. A trim man with olive skin and dark hair, looking every bit the Greek officer. He showed me the bridge, let me take the helm one day and gave me lessons in using the LORANCE unit for navigation. All-in-all, it did not appear to me that he had much real work to do.

But one night, as I was relaxing on deck while we were docked again at Lake Charles, one of the ship's engineering crew came stumbling up the gangplank, bleeding from a wound on his arm. When he got on board, he looked around and headed off, apparently hoping to make it to the refuge of his bunk. He had taken hardly a step when Captain Salinas called out to him, "You're drunk and you've been in a knife fight!" Before the man could respond, the captain continued, "I WILL NOT tolerate that from anyone in my crew. I will post your job at the union office in Tampa where you will get off of my ship." There was an attempt at a reply from the man, but he was obviously intimidated by the captain and when he was told to get to his cabin, he scuttled off without a second's hesitation.

I recalled this incident often and came to understand over the years that Captain Salinas did not have a soft, cushy job, standing on the bridge and ordering other people around. Rather he had the toughest job of all. He was responsible; for the functioning of the ship in pursuit of the company’s business; for the safety of the communities where the ship loaded and unloaded and for the crew of 35 men (34 men and a college-aged temp, at the time, actually).

I think he did not see a drunken, injured seaman. Rather it was the risk to all that the captain was responsible for that this man and his inability to follow the rules of the ship represented. And, as Captain, it was not his job to rehabilitate the man; it was to act positively and quickly for the benefit of the others who were relying on him.

It was a "watch the feet, not the lips" lesson. Captain Salinas could have just said he was responsible; he could have demanded at least the appearance of respect due simply to his position. Or, he could act quickly and decisively when such was called for, demonstrating responsibility and earning real respect. It was the latter I saw that night in Lake Charles.

I wish I would have put all of that together while I was on the ship, but it took me a while to absorb all of that summer's lessons. So it is quite likely too late, but, "Thank you, Captain Salinas."

Bradford Island
Polaroids from my scrapbook; mine was the top bunk, by the way.

In research for this post, I discovered that the Bradford Island was "jumboized" in 1970 with modifications to the cargo and forward sections, increasing her length from the original 500 feet to a whopping 619 feet. She was scrapped in 2000. I have to admit, it made me a little sad when I read this.

Next up, the first grand tour of Europe.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Far Away Places With Strange Sounding Names

Someone said recently that “every bucket list has a travel destination.” Who doesn’t harbor thoughts of a special place they yearn to visit? When I was at the airport in Osaka, Japan I saw a Mongolian Airlines plane named Genghis Khan. It was going to Ulan Bator. Ulan Bator made it onto my list.

This “I wonder what’s over there” thing has been with me for a long time. And far away places with strange sounding names have had a special appeal. My father worked for TACA Airlines when I was growing up in New Orleans; they flew to Central America, to places with names like Tegucigalpa. “What would a place with a name like Tegucigalpa be like?,” I’d wonder.

As it turned out, I would find opportunities to visit some far away places. A few with strange sounding names, others that everyone has heard of. Travel for work provided many opportunities, taking me to Berlin, Germany; St. Petersburg, Russia; Vienna, Austria; Stockholm, Sweden; and Pescara, Italy just to name a few. I’ve been to London more times than I can count. As far as personal trips, there have been visits to Alaska and Hawaii; Helsinki, Finland; Toronto, Canada; San Antonio and Virginia Beach. Yes, I’ve been lucky, very lucky.

As a result, I’m often asked what has been my favorite place to visit. At first, I tried to name one. But I was always aware that each city or town or village was special in its own way. And each had a special place in my memory. And that made me think; think about why I had fond memories of this place or that. What they had in common and what was unique. So I thought I’d share with you some of the reasons I came up with.

The plan is to have a series of “Far Away Places” posts, each with a story or two. Each pointing towards what is, in my opinion, at the heart of what made the places I visited special. This is a series that needs to be written. Because I want to share it with you. And because I don’t think there’s much more I can drag out of my bicycling exploits.

I’ve already gotten ideas for nine stories to share. No doubt, I'll think of a few more along the way. So, pack your bags because we'll depart in a few days. Up first will be the tale of Bradford Island, a place perhaps you have not heard of before.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Grand Slam!

I've talked about various projects we have been part of in Africa over the last several years, as you know. One of the elements of our work with primary schools has been to make sure that the teachers at the schools we partner with have bicycles. It is a good program I think. But, wait until you see this!

Grand Slam for Zambia

Kudos to the organizers and contributors...what an amazing feat they pulled off. I am blown away. And, given some ideas. Stay tuned!