Friday, July 31, 2009

First Class Travel

When I booked my latest flight to America a few days ago, I used up some of my airmiles to lower the price and this was the first time in 20 years that I did that.

I was a late starter with airmiles and I've never accumulated enough for a free flight as I switch airlines just about every time to get the best price. I've flown with US Airways, American, Continental, Delta, Virgin, Air Lingus and even BMI and if Jet2 ever add flights from Leeds to Florida, I'll probably go with them ! Definitely not Ryanair though. I have my standards.

But on their booking web site, Virgin had a box to tick if you wanted to use 2,000 airmiles to lower the price, so I decided to take that option as I'm sure I'll never accumulate the 50,000 needed for a free flight.

I did once get a free flight to America. I was part of the great British Hoover fiasco in the mid 90's when Hoover offered free tickets to the US for anyone spending over £100 on any of their products. As flights cost a lot more than that, the offer was happily taken up by many thousands and almost bankrupted Hoover. Although the company tried to worm out of paying up, I got my tickets and was off. Bless you, Hoover.

I've only ever been bumped up to 1st class once and that was back in 2003 when I flew to Philadelphia with US Airways and as usual I asked if there was any chance of an upgrade and amazingly, it worked.

These are all unedited photos from back then and first up is me all on my own as there were so few people in this Envoy class section that the seat beside me and those behind and in front were empty too.

The trouble was, I'm an Economy class kinda guy and when it comes to plane food, I prefer plain food ! I didn't fancy any of the Envoy food on offer but picked at as much of it as I could. I did like the dessert though. Look, proper plates and a napkin even if the cutlery was still plastic.

A few others had been upgraded as well and without being nasty, I think you can tell these ladies across from me weren't typical Envoy class passengers either. Maiow !!

Check out that leg room !!

As we approached the East coast of the US, I took this photo out the window.


And finally as we came in to land at Pittsburgh, this was the view of their football stadium......I assume. Maybe it's a WalMart.

Sometimes the views coming in to land can be amazing but these days I prefer an aisle seat to a window seat as I need to get up a lot and walk about. I've picked an aisle seat again this time so probably won't see much at landing time but then it's only Orlando.

The space shuttle has just landed safe and sound about 45 miles from Orlando at the Kennedy Space Centre and an hour ago they were in orbit. As it'll take me over 9 hours just to fly there from England, I can't wait to swap from Virgin Atlantic to Virgin Galactic.

When that happens, I'll definitely be asking for an upgrade AND I'll be taking a window seat.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Visa Has Landed

Ok I promise this will be the last post...hehe....about my visa. I hate blowing my own trumpet anyway.

Last post.....trumpet.....oh suit yourselves !!

Well it was delivered a few minutes ago and I'm really not sure I got my £14.60 worth. No posh car/van arrived and the guy was a typical UPS type with his electronic signature device and regulation chewing gum. And no eye contact at all. I talked to the top of his head while he entered data into his device and he kept his head down as I signed it.

I think I should ask for a £14 refund. Or maybe I should stop answering the door in the nude !

What did annoy the hell out of me was that the embassy had stuck a label on the cover of my passport that covered the whole...ah....cover. It had obviously got some sort of super Homeland Security type glue on it as it was a bugger to get off and kept tearing. Once off, I noticed that the crest and a lot of the writing on the passport cover had gone with it. Yes folks, the US Embassy has permanently 'damaged' my passport and have been well embursed by me for the privilage.

I think an email to the Queen or the PM is in order.....I feel an international incident coming on and the 'special relationship' between our two countries could be at an end.

Then again my passport expires in 2011 so it's probably not worth it and I'll just give the embassy a very large British 'tut' instead. There, just did it. Consider yourselves well and truely 'tutted.'

Of course if the NSA, CIA or FBI have people constantly searching for bloggers who type "US Embassy" and "tut" in the same sentence, I can expect someone with more than a signature device to be coming up my driveway any time now.

If you don't hear from me for a while, it may be down to me spending the winter in Guantanamo Bay rather than Buttonwood Bay.

If so, there will be some SERIOUS tutting from me !!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Brit Is Coming....Again !

Carried away with getting my B-2 tourist visa renewed last Thursday, I've totally ignored the advice on the US Embassy site and have booked my flights to America before having my passport (with visa) in my sticky fingers. If it doesn't arrive this coming week, I'll feel free to have a mild panic attack.

The airline companies may be in a bit of a mess at the moment but their woe became my joy when I found that prices were substantially lower than last year...or any year this century as far as my flights to America are concerned.

First things first though and given my medical history and the fact that according to those in the insurance community I have an ongoing medical condition, that needed to be sorted out before booking the flights. Getting insurance for 177 days in America with enough medical cover to ensure that needing to see a doctor doesn't bankrupt me, doesn't come cheap. Now I've the sort of cover that would pay for a new wing at my local hospital.

$10m in fact. Sounds like a lot but I've paid for a doctors visit in America and believe me, I might need to top that up with some cash of my own.

The good news was that the cost of insurance plus the cost of the flights came to a lot less than the cost of the flights alone for last year. And for the first time in 50 flights across the pond, I'll be going non stop. Manchester to Orlando in fact. That'll be a treat as the less takeoffs and landings I have to survive, the better I like it.

Hang on, that doesn't sound right. I think I want to survive them all ! Well you know what I mean.

Just one thing though. I'll be over there for Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter so not much chance of losing weight !

Friday, July 24, 2009

Veni, Vidi, Visa At The US Embassy

With apologies to Mr. Caesar of Rome (47BC), yesterday those famous words, or my adaptation of them, rang true for me when I successfully renewed my US B2 Visitors Visa and so can continue wintering in Florida for the next 10 years at least. Wooohoooo.

I thought I'd post about the interview in case anyone else wanting to apply for a visa does a google search and finds this post - as I'm sure my experience was typical and thus, relevant.

And what an experience it was.

We (my fellow [non fellow] blogger Daphne was with me as my twitter secretary !) set off at 6am to get the 6:40am coach from Leeds to London which dropped us off at Marble Arch at 11am. That was a bit of a shock as our tickets were to Victoria Coach Station so I guess Daphne's constant descriptions of the trees and flowers along the M1 had annoyed even the driver !

No but seriously, we'd asked to be let off at Marble Arch as it was much closer to the US Embassy than Victoria but to be honest, with 2.5 hours to spare until my interview time, distance didn't really matter that much.

So we walked along Oxford Street for a while as it was a lovely morning with blue skies and a few fluffy white clouds. We stopped off at a McDonalds for coffee and when we came out, it was raining ! We went across the road into a Debenhams store to pass the time and when we came out reeking of perfume and after shave testers, it was sunny again. After walking almost to the end of Oxford Street, we turned round and walked back and got a light snack (see later) and then headed down to the Embassy.

I went in at 1pm (appointment was for 1:30pm) and after passing through stations where my paperwork was given a quick check and then through security, I was in the foyer of the huge building. My appointment letter with it's barcode was scanned by the quietly efficient receptionist and I was allocated a number, 449, and sent upstairs to the visa section.

I entered a large rectangular room with about 200 people already waiting for their visas !!

This was not a good sign. At one end was an area being run by the company who post passports/visas back to applicants. Then there were rows of 100 people seated facing 4 raised plasma tv monitors and on the other side of these monitors were 4 more monitors and rows of 100 more people facing them. In other words there were 100 people facing 100 people with raised monitors in between. Two of these screens were showing a series of numbers and which consular agent's windows were currently dealing with these numbers. The other two screens were showing scrolling information about the interview process.

Every so often these info screens would display a ticket number and a window number and a voice would say..........number 434 to window 12 please and the relevant applicant would trot off and be dealt with. I'd no sooner sat down than my number was called. Hurrah, I was jumping the line to my interview, I thought. I'd be out in no time, I thought.

Sadly when I got to the window I realised that this was only part 1 of the process. My compulsary documents were checked and scanned again, my passports were taken (I have 2 as my current visa in in an old expired passport) and I was asked if I had any other documents that would help 'my case' so I handed them all over......utility bills and bank statements to try and prove I actually have a life here in the UK to leave America for at the end of every trip ! Then I rejoined the 200 others and waited.....and waited. All the time that people were being called to have their interviews, others were coming in to replace them. I think new people stopped coming at 3pm.

The numbers being called out to 'invite' applicants to the next part of the process were in no particular order which meant we had no idea how long we'd have to wait. Speaking with those around me, some had been waiting since 10am (admittedly they HAD just arrived very early for their appointments) but the average was 3 hrs !!

At one point the numbers being called included 440, then 441 and so on. As I was 449 I got ready to go and when it got to 448, I picked up my jacket and remaining paperwork and started saying goodbye to my new found friends. After 448 the next number was....380. Damn and blast.

45 minutes later 449 was finally announced and I started the stopwatch function on my watch. Still thinking I'd be off to a room with a desk and a proper interview session, I went down a corridor and came to another bank of windows like in a post office ! I went to the one for me and there was a young chap already looking through my pile of bills and statements and he told me he'd never seen so many potential proofs of residency and that I'd definitely erred on the side of 'taking no chances'. He asked why I want to spend long holidays in Amerca so I said I am retired and like to winter in Florida. He said golf or tennis and I said golf.

After I was asked to submit my right hand for another 5 digit fingerprint deal, he voided my current visa and gave me back that passport, told me my new visa application was granted and to have a nice time in America. The interview was over, I stopped the stopwatch and the time elapsed from my number being called was......2 mins and 44 secs.

I'd waited almost 4 hrs in a room with 200 others for a session lasting 2m 44s. Mind you, as Daphne later reminded me, that was much better than waiting for 2m 44s and having an interview lasting 4 hrs. She's a glass half full type of person.

Finally I had to take a form with my name and address on it to that service desk within the waiting room where I arranged to have my visa stamped passport posted back to me within 3-5 working days.

"And how would you like to pay, sir?"

PAY !!! Hadn't they taken $131 off me for the interview process ? Couldn't they take the postage out of that ?

I guess not as I had to stump up another £14.60 to have my passport returned to me via courier. For £14.60 I hope they drive it up the M1 in a Rolls Royce and leave it in a gold plated box at my feet ! Jeez.

And that was it. All done. And here are a couple of photos taken by Daphne on the day.

First up is me in front of the US Embassy, or as close as you can get to it what with the tight security and the trees that they've allowed to grow to mask the building from prying eyes like Google Street View.

And the last one is of me sitting outside the Embassy trying to eat a KFC meal in a hurry as it was 1pm and I needed to be getting inside for my appointment. Guess I could've taken my time, eh ?

I wasn't stuffing the chicken in my mouth there but biting my nails to show how nervous I was at the time.

Now it's time to sort out travel insurance and then book my flight (return of course) to Florida for late October to late April.

Sorry Britain but you'll have to survive the Christmas musical efforts of Slade, Shakin' Stevens, Wizzard, Wham, Band Aid and worst of the lot, The Pogues, without me again.

Cause I plan to work off my Christmas meal lying on a beach.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

I'm Just A Tourist- Let Me In.

Well the big day has finally arrived.

Ok the day BEFORE the big day has finally arrived but as I won't be here to blog on the big day, this will have to do.

My wart has gone, my photo has been taken, my paperwork is complete (I hope) and I'm off down to the US Embassy in London tomorrow to renew my tourist visa. Yes I know it should be no big deal and I should be in and out in no time but.............

My last interview of any kind was in 1973 when I came to Leeds to apply for an IT job with ASDA so I'm not exactly used to this kind of thing. Hey it's STILL an interview ok ! I'll be nervous. The outcome is pretty vital to me as without my winters in Florida, I'll wither and die. Or just be very cold like everyone else in the UK from Nov - April. I'll also have to endure the Christmas No.1. and reruns of the Only Fools & Horses Christmas special.

No, I MUST get that visa !!

So I got up at the crack of 7:30am to get my body used to this time of day and it doesn't like it. I'm not that impressed with it myself. I have to get up at an even crackier 5am tomorrow to get a 6am taxi to Leeds Coach Station to catch the 6:40am coach to London. That should get me (well us really as the very kind Daphne is going with me so that I can be naked going into the embassy) to London with plenty of time to walk the 300 yds to the embassy ! I'm NOT risking being late due to roadwords or leaves on the road.

Going naked might be slightly exaggerating things a bit but they really tell you that to get into the embassy, you must almost BE naked. No bags or backpacks or even slightly baggy trousers. No sharp toffees, ingrowing toenails or pointy teeth. No electronic devices like an mp3, a gps, a phone, a remote entry key fob or a pace maker. Not even a Harrod's bag.

Like I said, naked.

As the coach home doesn't leave till 7pm, potentially giving us several hours in the big city, I will be taking my camera. And that's where Daphne comes in. As well as providing non stop commentary on every tree, shrub and flower we pass on the way there and back, she'll be my wing man......or woman and hold my bits and pieces, so to speak, so that I can enter the embassy sans everything except my paperwork.

Visiting America for longer than 3 months at a time is a costly and time consuming business. Over £100 already and I've not left the house. Despite having half a rain forest of paperwork as proof of who I am (having a Twitter account now should help enormously) and that I'll really be coming back to the UK each time, they could still refuse my application for any number of reasons, none of which I have any power over.

The agent conducting the interview may have swine flu and be feeling miserable. He/she might not like people with beards. My aunt Mary failed that way. In my nervousness I might talk too much and admit I have a secret wife and 5 children in El Paso. They might just not like the fact that I can go for 6 months every year even though that's exactly what the visa allows me to do.

I can't do anything about these things. The kids need me after all.

I'll probably not sleep a wink tonight. I certainly won't sleep a wink on the coach with Daphne rabbiting on about wild lupins and the liklihood of seeing a palm tree in Leicestershire. Oh great. I'll probably be fast asleep just as my name is called for the interview and as Daphne will be outside holding my junk (cough, cough), I'll still be in there when they come to lock up for the day.

Then I'll be arrested for being on US soil without a visa !! Jeez.

So fingers crossed that the nice friendly people at the embassy will realise I'm a nice friendly Brit who just wants to be a warm tourist in Florida every winter. It's not much to ask for and our countries do have a 'special relationship' after all.

I'm hoping for some sign of it tomorrow but just in case, I've kept the receipt for the sun cream.
And if my next blog comes from Guantanamo, you'll know that I've spoken out of turn during the interview and it's not because I've gone there using my nice new visa.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I'm All A Twitter

I finally gave in to peer pressure and joined Twitter at the weekend.

I should say I rejoined as it seems I joined before but never went back in to do much about it and lost interest. But with every celeb man and his celeb dog now twittering like talking had never been invented, I thought I'd better join in or miss out on personal photos and stories from these people. When you have over a million followers, what better way to tell them that you've had marmalade on your toast in the morning ! If that can be called news.

Nowadays, many 'proper' news stories break first on twitter so all in all, I felt it time to give it another try. I mean, as I'm already on Facebook, My Space, Skype and every IM program on the internet, why not add another application ?! Don't want to be a recluse after all.

My first celeb to follow was Stephen Fry as lets face it, he is Mr. Twitter if you're a Brit. He's forgotten more words than I know and even his updates are like thesaurus words strung into sentences. Wonderful. Prof Stephen Hawking had to be next as who knows what amazing updates he might give me. This is his bio on Twitter. "Theoretical physicist and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics At The University of Cambridge."

Well damn, he's gotta be worth following ! Actually I was glad to read on an update of his that he was watching Scrubs. Good man. Even a genius needs to relax now and then. I think that's what I'm going to like about Twitter. Reading about extraordinary people (??) doing ordinary things. We shall see.

Buzz Aldrin has just posted an update......Velocity vectors, gravity-assist trajectories, conic asimtotes -- that's what's on my mind the day after our 40th Apollo anniversary..

Oh I can see this is going to be a laugh a minute ! Maybe I need to follow a few comedians to balance the books, so to speak. Come on Eddie Izzard, make me laugh.

Given my plethera of internet communication methods, I risk becoming more and more like the Sandra Bullock character on The Net when, as part of the plot, she realises that she has spent so much of her life on the internet that when her identity is stolen, no one in the real world knows her enough to verify who she says she is !

As old Rene once said......"Cogito, Ergo Sum".

Well maybe not. Not unless he had a twitter account.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Also On This Day In History..............

History and a Google search both agree that 40 years ago today men landed on the moon. That's all well and good but my history of this day only has to go back 4 years to remind me that July 20th 2005 was when I had a heart attack.

Bet you won't hear about that on News At 10 today !

Yes, my brush with death will not get the same coverage as a couple of guys in a powered tin can 'picking up some dust', 'drifting to the right a little' and when finally seeing the contact light come on, switching off the engines and dropping the last few inches to the lunar surface.

I guess I can give them their moment of glory and thank them for making it easy for me to remember the date of my heart attack. Due to the time difference between our two countries, I can't use the date of the first moonwalk as a reference as they did that on 21st July from OUR reckoning. Still, as it was their show and they paid for it, it's only right and proper that history records today as the day man first stepped foot on the moon.

Naturally there have been numerous tv shows recalling this great event over the last few days and plenty more today. Yesterday the crew of Apollo 11 were at the Air & Space Museum in Washington and this was an historic event in its own right as it's very rare to see the reclusive Neil Armstrong at all these days.

What gets me is how alike they all look now. By the way, the guy on the right is Chris Kraft, the man mostly responsible for creating NASA Mission Control. He just wanted in on the photo.

As usual, Neil looks SO happy. Trust NASA to pick the American equivalent of Victor Meldrew to be the first man on the moon.

So where were you when this all took place back in 1969 ? And don't say 'not born yet' you young whipper snappers. I was just 17 and home from boarding school with one year of my sentence left to go. I was in front of the tv, as excited as an MP looking at his expenses cheque and had settled in for a long night. Thankfully for us all, Armstrong and Aldrin were excited too and brought forward their moonwalk rather than taking a planned sleep period. Can you imagine reading the flight plan and seeing that they'd got you down for a nap between landing and walking on the moon !!

Apollo 11 : "The Eagle has landed."

Mission Control : "F.A.B Neil. About to go blue, breathing again, blah blah blah."

Apollo 11 : "Can't see any cheese, lots of big holes and can't wait to get outside and play."

Mission control : "Well hang on there guys. Just put her in park and have a nap first. You've had a long trip after all."

Apollo 11 : "You CANNOT be serious. Buzz, crack open that door, I'm outa here. Now then, is it A man or just man ? Oh sod it, I'll just wing it, nobody will remember anyway."

And so it was written, so it was done. Man had landed on the moon - or on a movie set in Arizona if you're a few crystals short of a chandelier.

But back to me as, after all, I'm the important one on this blog. In 1969 I was a spotty faced, greasy haired teenager who wanted to be there with Neil and Buzz as it was all so glamorous and exciting to me then. In 2005 I was a scared shitless middle aged man lying in a hospital bed waiting for the results of the blood test that would show I really had had a heart attack. The two scenarios couldn't have been much more different.

Obviously I survived both. Tired but excited, I fell soundly asleep in the early hours of July 21st 1969 but tired and terrified, I didn't sleep a wink in the early hours of July 21st 2005.

Up on the moon, I doubt if either Neil or Buzz were terrified. I'm not sure Neil knew the meaning of the word. It seems the only time his heart rate went above 100 was when trying to get out through the hatch to start down the ladder. It was a very tight squeeze when wearing the bulky environmental backpack needed to breath of the moon. So when you hear his slightly breathless words, he wasn't pausing for effect. The poor guy really was breathless !

I love that they felt the need to leave a plaque (We Came In Peace For All Mankind) to show others (??) that man had been on the moon. By the time the Apollo 17 crew left the place 3 years later, it was pretty obvious man had been to the moon. Half a dozen non flutering flags, a similar number of descent stages, 3 lunar rovers, and God only knows how many bits and pieces of very expensive...bits and pieces. Probably a few fast food cartons too. Oh and a golf ball somewhere. Can you imagine what a future alien visitor will make of that ?!

Never mind returning in 2020; NASA needs to send Wall-E there first to do a clean up job.

"That's one small step by man, one giant rubbish tip by mankind"

Saturday, July 18, 2009

I Knew It - TV Is Educational !!

Bare statement : Most of what I've learned about life has come from television.

I know I may be trivialising the role played by my parents, family, friends and even school teachers, but I really think that statment is true. Remember I watch A LOT of television.

And I had pretty crap school teachers !

The only reason to amend the statement would be say that since I got my broadband internet connection, the World Wide Web has somewhat taken over as my comforting source of all knowledge. And porn.

So with both at my fingertips even away from home, they continue to drip feed me information about important news events, vital sporting results and, naturally, porn. For that last one, television isn't really much good but that's mostly down to me fiddling with the parential control on my cable box and now I can't undo the bloody thing. T'internet more than makes up for that of course but means I can NEVER leave my laptop in for repairs !!

Anyway now it's official. Television is educational and we're not talking Natl Geographic or Discovery channels here (or the Food Network in the US). Oh no.

Although a harrowing basic news story, the following report in my local paper (found online of course as I've not bought a newspaper for over 20 years) did contain the not (to me) surprising fact that someone used information gained from a tv series to help them in the darkest moment of their life. And an American tv show at that !!

In brief, a defenseless 89 year old woman was attacked and twice raped in her own home by a 20 stone Leeds doorman who had come from Angola on a false passport in 2002 and was then granted asylum. To all law abiding and 'normal' people, this was a despicable act and I was glad to read that after this animal serves his 9 year jail sentence, he will be deported from the UK.

And good riddance.

The positive part of the story was how the rapist was caught. The little old lady did it !

It seems she was a fan and regular watcher of the tv show CSI, about the the forensic team from a crime lab set in Las Vegas. One of my favs too. It seems that even in the middle of this shattering and deeply personal attack, she had the presence of mind to remember that criminals can be traced by their DNA and so she scratched the face of her attacker to get some of his skin under her fingernails !

Ok no matter what your age, to think to do that while being raped is something almost beyond belief. To do it at 89 is mind blowing to me.

The perp's DNA was on file thanks to a prior conviction and so he was picked up 2 days after the attack and I'm sure the scratches on his face were still there for all to see and would've sealed the case against him with the DNA results as the clincher.


Sadly, but not suprisingly, the poor woman was badly shocked by the attack and has had to leave her home and go into a care facility. There is something to be said for the punishment fitting the crime and maybe if Mr. Angola had his bits chopped off, he'd think twice about a repeat offence. Actually 'thinking' about it would be all he'd be capable of doing and that would be the point of the punishment. Seems we're more civilized than he was.

So there we have it. The internet has given me evidence that television is educational.

Even though I knew it already, that's a win/win in my book.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Apollo 11....We Have Liftoff

I realise that the current glut of tv programs about the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11's historic mission to the moon might be regarded as overkill to many people but, except for those who still claim it never happened, watching those events unfold have to constitute the most exciting, and terrifying, tv moments ever watched. They certainly were to my youthful eyes.

It's not overstating things to say that the goings on at NASA in the early to late 60's influenced my entire life. For a start, watching that first lunar footstep kept me up into the wee small hours of the morning and set a pattern that would live with me to this day as I rarely go to bed before 1am or 2am even now !!

It gave me a fascination with America that 20 years later would start me on a journey taking me to every state in the Union apart from Alaska. It gave me a love of all things space and technology and as I knew I could never be an astronaut, I made the decision to go completely against my 'artistic' nature and make my career working with computers. My naive teenage thinking was that if I couldn't actually go into space, I'd at least try and help and be around those who did.

Sadly after 25 years working in the IT dept at ASDA, the closest I got to being a part of NASA was having 3 of the 4 letters of their name !

But back on this day, 40 years ago, I, with millions of others, was glued to our tv set watching the launch of Apollo 11. This upset my mother, I can tell you, who wasn't used to making sandwiches for so many people and kept going on about the mess in her living room.

As we all know, only 12 men have ever walked on the moon and the subsequent choices made by the first of them, Neil Armstrong, may seem to have been a PR disaster but probably kept him sane. He eventually followed the advice and actions of a previous aeronautical hero, Charles Lindbergh, as he stopped giving autographs and interviews and to all intents and purposes retired from public life.

A brilliant pilot but a very private man, Armstrong decided that not even being the first man on the moon was adequate compensation for having to live the rest of his life being known as the first man on the moon. Just being an astronaunt affected so many in a negative way that I can't imagine the pressures on being Neil Armstrong. Although disappointed that we don't have more media footage of the man and thus a better insight into his unique experiences, I respect his decision for privacy and can accept what he did as his enduring legacy.

I've been fortunate enough to have seen 6 of the 12 Apollo Command Modules. This includes the only one on display outside America, Apollo 10 in the Science Museum in London. The others were Apollo 8 in the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, Apollo 11 in the National Air & Space Museum, Washington D.C., Apollo 14 in the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Titusville, Florida, Apollo 16 in the US Space & Rocket Centre, Huntsville, Alabama and Apollo 17 in the NASA Johnson Space Centre, Houston, Texas.

I'm still kicking myself for 'missing' the Apollo 13 CM which is on display in the little known Kansas Cosmosphere & Space Centre in Hutchinson, Kansas.

Yes, I'd never heard of it either !!

I never met an Apollo astronaut or watched a live Apollo launch and watching a few Space Shuttle launches and talking and being photographed with a shuttle astronaut, although exciting, has been scant compensation. Seeing and feeling a Saturn V taking off would've been an event to live long in the memory.

But being alive to experience the Apollo missions in the television era is, for me, something to savour and be grateful for. Although many may regard the whole exercise as a huge waste of money, time and effort, even they can't deny the historical significance (Apollo 11), the life threatening drama (Apollo 13) and the technological brilliance of the entire Apollo project. There may have been a large slice of luck involved in getting to the moon and back using all the computing power of a modern day calculator but you have to stand back and admire the single mindedness of the team responsible and the outstanding bravery of the men who sat 363 feet above enough explosive power to send bits of them to the moon and beyond without the need for the rocket if things went wrong.

As a teenager I may have wanted to be an astronaunt, but if given the opportunity, I'm not sure I'd have been brave enough. I'm not even comfortable on a plane. Hell I'm not even keen going up a ladder !!

So in a couple of hours time, at 14:32 BST, I'll be thinking back to 1969 when most of the world was united as never before. Wars still went on, people still died and Annie Walker still ruled over The Rovers Return but for a few minutes at least, all eyes and ears were turned to launch pad 39a at Cape Kennedy on the East Florida coast to witness the start of the greatest journey in history.

Two little seen photographs sum it up for me. For anyone who has seen the Vehicle Assembly Building up close (back then known as the Vertical Assembly Building), this first photo shows perfectly just how huge and impressive the Saturn V rocket really was. This is Apollo 11 starting its long journey to the moon by going the first 3 miles to the launch pad.

And finally here is a photo of the launch itself. A moment when millions of us held our collective breaths, marvelled at what we were seeing and wished God speed to the 3 men we couldn't see but hoped would take us on the adventure of a lifetime, an adventure we could tell our grandchildren about 40 years later.

Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins. Thanks for the ride.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

High Flying Adored ?

Speaking of riddles (see previous post), what about this one.

When did tossing the bride's bouquet at a wedding cause a plane to crash ?

I know, it's a pretty unlikely scenario and before you read the news article to find out how it happened, just think about it. I mean how could this possibly happen ? Did the flowers get caught by a sudden updraft and smack into the windscreen of a low flying 747 ? Hardly !

I couldn't figure it out either but as the article explains, the bouquet tossing wasn't quite done in classic style and when you know that, then the rest seems quite plausable. It would certainly be one wedding video I'd love to see and it also explains why bombs are released from UNDER planes !!

So the moral has to be, leave bouquet tossing to the bride and even then, check with air traffic control first.

Sweet Smelling Monks

A short ferry ride from Tenby lies Caldey Island, a small outcrop of rock, grass and Cistercian monks. Caldey, from the Viking word "Keld-Eye" meaning "cold island" has had some sort of religious building on it since the 6th century but the current monks only arrived in 1929, from Belgium of all places.

I only saw one monk and as he was pretty sprightly for an 80 year old, I think I'd be more accurate in saying that 'the order' came to Caldey in 1929 !

As I said in a previous post, they make their financial living from manufacturing and selling perfume and chocolate so if you want chocolate smelling perfume or perfume tasting chocolate, then Caldey Island is the place for you. They have lots of both. Typical Belgians !

Actually the chocolate is yummy and although basic, they do sell it in plain, milk, white and dark varieties. The simple gold wrapped bars, when stacked for sale, look like a small display from Fort Knox. I expected to find a Willy Wonka winning ticket inside mine ! I didn't.

As well as monks, the island has a lighthouse, an abbey, an old priory, a church and various other semi ruined buildings which can all be walked around to offset the effects of too much chocolate. On the commercial and tourist side, there is a gift shop, a perfume shop, a post office and of course, a cafe.

My mum, bless her, would've spent her entire pocket money buying up all the religious trinkets on sale from miraculous medals and rosery beads to statues of the Virgin Mary and more crosses and crucifixes than you could get in a Vatican City souvenir shop.

We also walked along the island paths and came upon some bizarre signs to guide our steps.

I was just glad that the little man icon wasn't wearing a robe !! It can get very lonely there after the visitors have gone home.

Actually the first sign to greet visitors once they have walked up the steep path from the ferry dock, is a bit more practical and gets to the point right away. No one could accuse these monks of not knowing their market !

Once the visitors leave each day, the island returns to it's religious and contemplatory roots. There are various places for private prayer and there is even a calvary up on a hill overlooking Caldey Sound with wonderful panoramic views back to Tenby. Inside the small church, visitors have left prayer requests on scraps of paper and cardboard, anything they have to write on.

I was especially taken with the slightly more secular request, presumably from a child, seen here in the bottom left corner of the photo.

I'd like to think the parents took care of that particular request even if God didn't. But how would we know?!

It's a riddle, wrapped in an enigma, shrouded in mystery. A bit like a Caldey Island bar of chocolate.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Resizing Tenby

A panorama photo is a good way to get across a particularly spectacular view spread out before your eyes and from our hotel in Tenby, we had just such a view.

Sadly I only thought to take the panorama on the penultimate day when the weather was a bit overcast. Still, you get the idea, and the view.

Because I took the original panorama photo using the dSLR, the size is 23mbs and so a little bit too big for blog purposes. I normally use a simple but very effective image resizer which once installed, becomes an extra option when you right click on any photo. It's done in seconds and on the usual setting I use for my blog photos, it reduced the panorama photo from 23mb to 58kb !

Pretty impressive.

The downside was that if you clicked on the photo to enlarge it, it became very grainy right away. So for this post, I just used a different setting and now it's a much better reduction, is still only 4mb and yet can be enlarged a bit before the 'grainyness' kicks in too much.

So please click on it to get the full effect (and then enlarge it again if you can) and then move it across your screens as if you were scanning the view in real life. It's almost like being there !

Sunday, July 12, 2009

I Spy.............

I know, I know. Not the most exciting of photos. But all will be revealed so keep reading.

Oi you, don't leave. I said keep reading !!!

Last Wednesday evening we were strolling along the beach at Tenby, partly to walk off the excellent meal we'd just had at The Park Hotel and partly to enjoy the view, when I thought of something Gareth, Daphne's son-in-law, had done earlier. He'd used binoculars in front of his camera to take a photograph.

Having now got binoculars, thanks to a lovely birthday pressie from Daphne and Stephen, I decided to give it a go. It wasn't easy but at least I had the compact Nikon rather than the Canon dSLR and so the tiny lens did neatly fit onto one of the binocular eye pieces. It was still hard to line both up to get an image on the viewing screen and then press the shutter but my first attempt wasn't half bad.

So we're back to the photo at the top of the post. That was the view of the boats out on the water with the Nikon on full zoom. See the black hulled boat in the middle ?

Well here it is through one eye piece of my binoculars.

Not bad eh ? I can't see it replacing my dSLR zoom lens but if I'm ever out and about with the binoculars and my Nikon and see something interesting at a distance, at least I'll have an option.

Next up will be to use the camera's movie mode and then whole new experiences could open up !

I feel a trip to the local multiplex coming on.

Ice Age 3 dvd anyone ?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Base Jumping Not Allowed.

I'm back from the land of sheep, choirs and men with lamps on their heads and a wonderful time I had there. I'd recommend Tenby to anyone, especially if they like any of the above.

But exploring that town will take it out of you and after all, I'm not as fit as Daphne's mum, Joan, who went most places with us. She might be 85 but no one has told her that and after starting every day by swimming numerous lengths of the hotel pool, she ended most days by dancing away the evening in the hotel ballroom. Amazing woman.

Anyway I walked up and down more hills over the last 6 days than I did in 6 months in Florida. Ok that was easy as of course we all know there ARE no hills in Florida. Hardly a speed bump in fact. So now I'm worn out and after the 5 hour drive home, I need an early night and a good long sleep.

But here is a photo to be going on with.

We'd taken the boat across to Caldey Island which is a lovely island, inhabited by perfume and chocolate making monks who sell both in vast quantities to visitors. We explored the island by climbing more hills and once beyond the lighthouse, we approached the cliff edge where about a dozen seals were basking on the rocks below. Part of the path took us to a gate with a sign on it which left little to our imagination but a lot to our intuition.

What exactly did the upwards pointing arrow mean ? If we jumped up beyond the gate, we risked falling to our deaths ? If we simply passed beyond the gate, we'd risk the same fate ?

I guess the idea was to let us know that beyond the gate, there was a risk of falling over the cliff edge. But the gate wasn't particularly near the cliff edge and anyway, I think most of us know that cliff edges and falling go hand in hand.

At least it was one of the few signs we saw last week that didn't come with Welsh and English descriptions.

I guess falling over a cliff is the same in any language.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Having Fun In Tenby

This morning, after going on a very tiring boat trip around the local islands (not quite the same as around The Caribbean but still.......), we decided to stop for a bite to eat back in town.

If it's one thing Tenby is not short of, it's places to eat. This is despite the wonderful fact that there are no fast food outlets like McDonalds, Burger King and KFC as the town fathers obviously decided that they weren't welcome here and jolly good for them, I say.

Walk up any of the narrow, delightful Tenby streets and you get the distinct impression that there would be no room for them anyway as pubs, restaurants and cafes all rub neighbourly shoulders with each other, each vying for customer attention by listing on chalk boards every food item they serve. This is all well and good but it means it takes forever to pass one of these establishments as there are a LOT of food items listed.

The one in the photograph below was typical and I suggested to Daphne and Stephen that I should go in and ask if they served food !! I suspect I might have been treated to a few choice Welsh expletives not to be found in any guide book.

After our snack we walked back to the hotel for a bit of a rest as we'd walked for miles on the beach last night until it got too dark so see where we were going. Thankfully we used a nearby lighthouse as a guide to staying off the rocks and made it back safe and sound, if very tired.

As part of our day out yesterday, we'd been to a lovely beach called Freshwater West, only to be told later that they had filmed scenes for the next Harry Potter movie there a few weeks ago (Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows - Part 1) and on that lovely beach they had constructed a shell house belonging to Dobby, the house elf. Never ones to miss out on a potential money spinning idea, the local gift shops here are already selling cards with a photo of the shell house on them and 'AS SEEN IN THE HARRY POTTER FILM' emblazoned all over them just in case an unwary buyer would confuse it with some other house made of shells. With or without an elf in residence.

Anyway now we're back in the hotel and Daphne and Stephen are getting on with the business of relaxing in their own ways......Daphne with her Blackberry and Stephen with.......well the photo says it all. We think we may see even less of Stephen in the coming months as he will be upstairs building his own moon rocket and we will only know he's ready for a test firing when there is suddenly no cheese or crackers left in the kitchen.

I've already advised Daphne to hide the matches !!

Monday, July 06, 2009

Tenby Is Like A Box Of Chocolates......

Now that I've spent 24 hrs here, I can say that Tenby is a lovely place. It's also much bigger than I thought it would be and we seemed to walk round most of it today. There is more clean sand here than in a Saudi prince's back yard and even with my binoculars, I couldn't see the end of the beach. It was like Daytona but without the heat....and the cars.......and the sunshine.

We did get some sunshine as well as a few showers so as the forecast had mentioned scattered thunderstorms, I felt we got off easy.

Anyway as typing is a bit of a pain on this little Eee, I'll just put up some photos and let them do the talking, so to speak.

The town has many steep streets and there are steps everywhere. It's like snakes and ladders in real life and it makes getting around the place totally exhausting. I added a photo of one set of steps to let you see what I mean.

I was taking a photo of the harbour and was being deafened by the song of a sparrow close by. I finally looked it's way and it was so close that the binoculars couldn't focus on it - so I took a photo instead and it's up there somewhere too.

Many parts of the town are like looking at the lid of a jigsaw puzzle or a fancy box of chocolates and it was tempting to snap hundreds of photos tosday. I did take about 50 just in case this is the best weather we get this week but I only had my dSLR with the zoom lens with me so many views couldn't be taken as I needed a wider lens. Guess I'll just have to go out and about again with my Nikon, although tomorrow we're off to see a nearby castle and if it's one thing Wales has plenty of, it's a castle every few miles. Fingers crossed this will be a good one.

To be continued.........

Sunday, July 05, 2009

I'm In Wales, Look You.

I'm sitting here with an Eee on my knee, complete with dongle for t'internet access.

I may have lost most of you already but stick with me as that's the end of the techno babble.

I set off from sunny Leeds at 10am and arrived in not quite so sunny Tenby at 8pm. It's only 250 miles from one t'other but I stopped off near Wrexham to meet up with fellow blogger Jenny who didn't turn out to be a fellow at all. Well who'd have thunk it ???

After a drink and a lovely pub meal, I set off on my way to the deep south again and as I passed right by my brother's house near Aberangell, I popped in for a visit. As he runs the place as an excellent b&b, I encourage you all to 'pop in' any time you are in the area. Unlike me, you'll be asked to pay. Most likely.

The sun shone and we had tea out in their substantial garden and with the Welsh mountains providing the backdrop, it was simply gorgeous.

A few hours later and I was on my way again for the last leg of the trip to Tenby. And it poured down. It wasn't drizzling. It wasn't mizzling. It was pouring with biblical amount of rain. The sort that gets you really very wet indeed.

I think God knew I was on holiday.

I've only had a brief glance of Tenby but I feel like I know it so well. That's because the view from the hotel is just about the same as the view from the Tenby webcam (a link that seems to work best with IE) which I've looked at hundreds of times since finding out that Daphne and Stephen have been coming here every year for the last 94 years. Or so.

Anyway the hotel is grand and now I'm ready for bed after all that driving and excitement. There is no internet available, hence the dongle. So you'll be getting text updates from time to time over the next few days. Photos might be another matter but we have the technology.

Tomorrow it's to be 85F and humid. Somewhere.

Sadly here in Tenby it's to be wet and pretty cool. Gotta love a British holiday.

G'night from Welsh Wales.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Up Close And Personal

I'm just back from my daily walk and today it was in some sweltering late afternoon heat which registered 82F in the shade. Hopefully all my personal sweltering will have helped to dribble off a few pounds !

Today I took my new binoculars with me, a wonderful pressie from Daphne & Stephen for my birthday last week. Thank you guys. I've never had a decent pair of binoculars before - apart from a cheap plastic pair I got in a lucky dip bag when I was a kid.

I got more use out of the bag.

For those in the know, these are Opticron Taiga 8x25 binoculars which means little to me except that they are fabby dabby. That's technical speak for very good. I can spot planes landing at Manchester airport from my back garden - in Leeds.

They really do start their descent far too early in my opinion.

So there I was, walking along in the sunshine and looking for anything moving in the distance. The thing is, the countryside here isn't exactly teeming with worthy wildlife of the sort I see in central Florida but I did see enough to justify taking the bins with me.

I spotted several birds but of course I don't know a crow from a bald eagle and so an unknown bird in the distance is still an unknown bird with the binoculars, only much closer. I may have to dust off my Ladybird Book Of British Birds that I was given as a teenager. Back then I remember being distinctly upset when it didn't turn out to be a book with photos of Sun Page 3 girls and so it may be more useful to me now !

I saw a few wabbits and where the path crossed a golf course I used the binoculars to get upclose views of some golfers trying to get their balls out of the heavy rough. That was fun.

I just don't know if I should take them to Italy next month. I mean I could see the Pope up close when he's on his balcony after all. The real benefit will be when I return to Florida and get to see the wildlife there up close.

Although when it comes to the gators, I'll be happy enough to see them from a distance.

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