Sunday, November 22, 2015

Caretaker - Memories In A Bottle

I lived in California for a bit less than twenty years and, since leaving for a "six-month trip" almost six years ago, I've only been back a handful of times. Of course, I have a ton of great memories. During the last trip in March, Diana and I went with Gail and Chuck to visit Gail's long-time friend Trish and her husband, Randy.

Randy's quite the wine connoisseur and was nice enough to lead us through some of his collection. It's not often I've sat down with an expert to talk about and try various wines. One of the things that gave me a charge was how Randy (and Trish) often combine travel with his (their?) love of wine, be it in California, Europe, or some other place. We all talked about some of our favorites and why and I mentioned that one of mine when I lived in San Diego was Caretaker, which comes from Trader Joe's.

Caretaker's a Pinot Noir from California's central coast, which is the area between Los Angeles and San Francisco. From what I understand, it's made for Trader Joe's from multiple growers' grapes. For me, it's a pretty good, easy-to-drink wine.

I found it by "starting at the bottom", which I've used in both Germany and Spain with good results. Since I already know that price is, for the most part, what someone else thinks something's worth (read: "somewhat arbitrary"), I do a little basic research about local wines then start with the lowest-priced bottle for each grape/type I want to try and begin working my way "up" until I find something I really like. From there, I try a bunch of each of that type of grape/wine until I find a favorite. At that point, I have an intersection of price and (one) wine type from which I'll maybe try something like 50% more expensive - just to see if there's a difference worth the premium. I can then repeat this for each type of wine someone recommends and/or I want to try.

Now, granted, I have to work my way through some crappy wines but I learn a lot about what's grown locally and at low cost. (Don't worry, if the wine's really crap, it gets tossed out.) This is the way I found Spatebergunder while in Germany, Granatxa in Spain, and Caretaker Pinot Noir in California. And, as people who are into wine already know, they have commonalities.

During our visit that evening, someone asked me if I had Caretaker recently and if I still liked it as much now that I've tried so many others. I hadn't but, as you can see, the local Trader Joe's had it in stock so I picked up a bottle to take back to Barcelona.

Vladimir was over one afternoon and we decided to open the bottle to see what we all thought. As I transferred it to the decanter, I immediately had memories pour into my head. The smell alone reminded me of so many good times in California. Sort of like hearing an old song, truly amazing. And surprising. I also remembered that Randy said something similar; about how different wines triggered different memories for him.

So, what's the verdict?

Over the past few years, I've found wines I'm not a fan of and others I've enjoyed a bunch. There are certain characteristics I like more than others. Mostly, I've enjoyed the process and experience. The taste? Yeah, I was a bit surprised, it's still one of my favorites. But, in terms of memories-per-bottle, Caretaker wins hands down!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Saint Augustine Florida

I'm not sure if it's a window into my soul but, for me, life is a series of paths crossing, choices, luck (good and bad), and experiences. Part of my life goal, to learn something new every day, is trying to get to know as many people, places, and cultures as possible and to try to never say no to an opportunity.

Sometimes all of those things happen at the same time in the same place and the results are pretty amazing. For example, you randomly cross paths with a new person (or maybe happen upon a new place, etc.) and getting to know that person changes you and/or makes you learn something new about yourself. These chance encounters are the chips in the chocolate chip cookies of life. Yummy delicious!

On our last full day in Florida, Diana and I, on the recommendation of her friend, drove up to Saint Augustine, which is a small coastal town about two hours or so north of Orlando:

In a sort of life's random-paths-crossing, we were surprised to see the whole town decked out with Spanish flags and red-and-yellow banners. Look again at that photo above. We knew before going that it was founded by the Spanish in the 1500s but, wow, they seem to be a bit Spain addicted or something.

Well, it turns out that Saint Augustine played a major role in the Americas for Spain for hundreds of years. Oh yeah, and the king and queen of Spain happened to visit on the same day we were there. Small details...

Oops. Little did we know when we set out that the whole city was celebrating 500 years since its founding with a big party, which the king and queen would attend. Had we arrived like 20 minutes earlier, we would have seen them on the balcony below. Argh, no wonder there was so much traffic getting into town!

Talk about coincidences. It'd be like you live in the United States and you come to Barcelona randomly one day and the president's there. It made for good photos around town with all the bright colors, cool flags, and all.

A fairly empty, non-peak-season look down Saint George (Sant Jordi, en Catala) Street, which is the main tourist shopping district:

Saint Augustine reminded me, for some reason, of Cape May, New Jersey, which is near Wildwood. Well, and I guess, in a way, La Jolla too. There are lots of cool old buildings, the beach is right there, and it's a lovely place to spend the day.

After some time trying unsuccessfully to meet up with the king and queen and then eating a fabulous southern-style lunch, we walked over to the San Marcos fort. Just two weeks earlier(!!!), we were at the beach in Porto, Portugal, sticking our feet in the other side of the Atlantic!

Yes, (we're aware) life's pretty good for this world-traveling duo! But, after all, that's a part of the goal, right? At least for me it is.  How to learn and squeeze in as much life as possible into our precious-few trips around the sun?

Thanks to everyone who I've met along the route. Yes, the places are great. The food and wine are good too. But, really, at the end of the day, it's the people who make it. Thanks sharing the ride!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Kennedy Space Center

Diana and I are very fortunate that we have friends from all over the world and seem to make more all the time. It can make coordinating Saturday-night pintxos gatherings tough but it sure does make traveling fun. We laugh out loud every time someone tells us that we should come visit them because, inevitably, we end up darkening their doorstep. So, take that as a warning if you ever offer.

After my family left Disney World to go back to Philadelphia, Diana and I went to stay with a friend of hers from growing up in Colombia. We saw the friend last time we were in Bogota just as she was getting ready to move to the United States with her new husband. She casually mentioned, probably without much thought, that we should come stay with her if we're ever in central Florida...

Ha! Guess whose lovely backyard view this is!

Staying with Diana's friend was especially fun for me because I got to watch Diana's take on suburban-American life with a family who's is not my own. Everything from the big-to-Diana house, the pick-up in the driveway, to having to drive every time we left the house (it took probably almost five minutes just to drive out of the massive development). We even went one night for, surprise, water ice!

Their house provided a great base to check out two relatively nearby places. The first is the topic of this story, the Kennedy Space Center:

I really can't remember if I've ever been to Kennedy before. I think I may have gone the last time I was at Disney World years ago but I'm still not sure. Anyway, it doesn't matter because it was all new to me.

The Kennedy Space Center's Rocket Garden:

We were both very impressed with the Center. We had only planned on spending a couple of hours there but basically ran out of time after about five. First off, it's really big, with multiple museum-style buildings and launch facilities spread out over probably thousands of coastal central-Florida acres.

Kennedy's old Launch Control Center where the missions were managed until the craft left the launch pad at which time control transferred to Houston:

It's all pretty impressive when you think about it. The amount of work and coordination involved in, for example, getting people to the moon and back. I know how hard it can be to get teams I work with to agree on processes to do their jobs much less have some guy survive in a tin can for weeks or months at a time. After all, in this case, it may not be brain surgery but it's definitely rocket science!

Like I said, we could have easily spent more time at Kennedy. There are multiple options and tours to choose from. We stayed at the main visitor center for a couple of hours before taking a bus tour, which goes past things like the iconic Vehicle Assembly Building below, out to the Apollo/Saturn V Center:

Oh, and a pro tip, sit on the right side of the tour bus, which we didn't do. The route is such that most of the things you'll see are on that side.

The scale of everything on the tour is hard to comprehend. The Mobile Launcher Platform below is a good example. This giant Sand-Crawler-like platform carried the Space Shuttle from the Vehicle Assembly Building out to the launch platform. If you look towards the bottom right of the platform, just above and to the right of the tank tread, you'll see the driver's booth!

It's funny, but there's space-launch-related stuff laying everywhere you go on the bus tour. If you look at the photo above again, you'll see some examples just behind the fence. I'd imagine everything related to the space program has got to cost a fortune and to see it spread around makes me laugh. Not very 5S NASA!

The bus tour also goes by the SpaceX building and launch pad. SpaceX, if you're not familiar, is the Google of the space industry where companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin are considered old school. It was started by the Iron-Man-like Elon Musk who also started some other unknown companies like PayPal and Tesla. Yeah, I'd imagine it'd be an amazing place to play work.

Over at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, the scale of what they're sending up to space is astonishing. If you think of traveling in an airplane as "flying through the air at 550 miles per hour in a hollow metal tube", going to space in one of these things must be like sitting on top of the world's largest bottle rocket!

The one thing we saw that really makes me think I've been to the Kennedy Space Center before is a display where you are able to touch a rock that came from the moon during one of the Apollo Missions. Hmm... Who knows, right?

I think for both of us the highlight of the visit was the Space Shuttle Atlantis Exhibit. The four surviving shuttles are now on display around the country and Kennedy has one of them. I remember watching on the internet the day they flew the Endeavor around California and the very cool images of it winding its way through the streets of Los Angeles. I couldn't wait to finally get to see one in person. (By the way, you really should check out those videos!)

Space Shuttle external fuel tank and booster rockets, which are actually replicas, outside the Atlantis Exhibit building:

The exhibit starts with two videos each in its own theater. As the second video ends, the wall along the left side appears to light up with an image of a Shuttle with the Earth behind. It's only when a dark-out curtain rises, which you can see below, that you realize you're looking at the actual shuttle on display in the museum. Whoever came up with this one deserves a bonus!

The Shuttle itself is both bigger and smaller than I expected. Smaller in the sense that, like when I first saw the pyramids in Egypt, it could never match the size I had in my mind. But bigger than you think is possible to send up into space. Think something bigger than a boxcar!

The Atlantis is far enough away where its just out of arm's reach but close enough where you can see that every single heat-shield tile is individually numbered and that Shuttle's skin isn't (as I expected) smooth but rather like it's covered with fabric, which it might be.

Getting to see a Space Shuttle up close was definitely an experience I won't forget. The size, history, and the work it represents is truly awe inspiring. I can't recommend enough going to see one when you get the chance.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Walt Disney World Family Vacation - PhotoPass

This post is Part 3 of our family's trip to Disney World. Here are Part 1 and Part 2.

As a brief recap, my dad's crazy generous and my sister has organizational OCD.

And, with a couple of more details, my dad decided about a year ago to take the whole family to Disney World for a family vacation. He asked my sister to look into what that would involve and gave her free rein to set everything up, which she did - down to the very last detail. But, the combination made for a truly amazing trip.

Anyway, as part of the planning, my sister bought a whole-family PhotoPass package, which includes all-you-can-eat-style photos anywhere there's a photographer throughout Disney's property. It's something I would have never chosen if I were planning the trip but it ended up being a great extra.

Our first (and arguably one of the best) PhotoPass family photo right after we entered the Magic Kingdom on our first day:

The deal is that you pay one all-inclusive fee and there are photographers spread out at scenic locations throughout the parks as well at character meet and greets. It also includes those photos they take when you're on the rides.

Entering Epcot Center on our second day:

Whenever you see a Disney photographer anywhere, you can ask them to take your photo. They then scan your Disney MagicBand (or photo card). A little while later, you can see the photos on the Disney app on your phone (yes, they've got it all pretty much covered) and it's all downloadable when you get home.

With all the family photos, individual-ish photos, and ride photos, we ended up with over 350 between us. Even though the crappy web interface (not everything Disney does is perfect) made me spend a few hours downloading (three times!), unzipping, and comparing everything before realizing I had three (ugh!!!, differently named) sets of the same photos, it was still worth it.

Epcot Center character meet and greet:

Speaking of the Disney MagicBand (yes, Disney really likes CamelCase), when you stay at a Disney property, they give you a radio-frequency bracelet to wear. This bracelet gives you an easy way to open your hotel room, use FastPass (see - more CamelCase), pay for your purchases, and use PhotoPass (argh...maybe it should be called WaltDisneyWorld?). And, in addition to making your visit easier, it gives Disney's database geeks a treasure-trove of data to play with!

Seriously though, I really liked the convenience. Paying for everything was as easy as touching your bracelet to a terminal and entering a PIN. FastPass was simple. And no hotel key to keep track of! Actually, it's just like how people were paying for things in Japan when I lived there FIVE YEARS AGO! If you can't tell, I'm very much waiting for Apple and Android Pay to be widely accepted enough that I can get rid of my wallet for good... Helllllo! What's taking sooooo long???

Day three at Animal Kingdom:

...and day four at Hollywood Studios:

So, anyway, time for me to share a few selected-by-me favorites. Dad and Ginny... brother's family... sister's family...

...and, finally, Diana and me:

I know I already mentioned this in both of the other two posts but I'll say it again. We had a great time. It was a lot of fun to be able to stay and hang out together for such an extended period.

Thanks to my sister for planning everything and a giant thanks to my dad for making it all possible! We should do it again soon... :)