99 Miles From L.A.

If this title does not evoke a melody in your head, well, then thank your lucky stars you missed the schmaltzy tunes of the ’70s. The only thing worse than Art Garfunkel chirping away at this song is having it on auto-replay in your brain as you are crawling through the megalopolis of greater Los Angeles.

We thought — foolishly — that Saturday would afford us the luxury of a late start on our journey south from La La Land. No commute traffic. Just casual weekend drivers. How wrong we were.

Work commuters are replaced by beach goers of every type: surfers, tanners, swimmers, picnickers. And they are hauling trailers and boats and campers and every type of motorized and unmotorized accessory, piled up high, protruding from windows, strapped haplessly on roofs, or hitched to their tailgates. More than that, they are deadly serious about getting to their favorite spot in the sand to have some fun.

As far as we know, no one succeeded in making that pun a reality and actually killing themselves on this particular day, but it was not for lack of trying.

When you see an SUV hung vertically on the concrete barrier, with another vehicle underneath the SUV’s wheels, you can appreciate how crazy things get here.

As a result of the overzealous weekend goers, The 405, The 5, The 110 (all freeways here start with the definitive article for some reason) were either orange or red on the GPS for our entire trip.

You know you are in L.A. when your Google Map’s ETA goes up the farther you drive.

So I had to get that cheesy song out of my head, which was already buzzing with sinus congestion from all the pollen in the air. Unfortunately, the only replacement was just as much an ear worm, with lyrics coincidentally coined by the very same Hal David and made famous by the inimitable Dionne Warwick.

L.A.’s a great big freeway

Put a hundred down and buy a car

In a week or two they’ll make you a star

Weeks turn into days, how quick they pass

And all the stars that never were

Are parking cars and pumping gas

Much catchier tune and so apropos for the superficialities that pervade the area’s vibe.

But, after crawling another few miles and engaging in the occasional rubbernecking to dispel the boredom, I needed to advance the playlist. James Taylor came to the rescue:

Damn, this traffic jam

How I hate to be late

Hurts my motor to go so slow

Time I get home my supper be cold

Damn, this traffic jam.

And so our leisurely weekend drive, which Google promised would get us to our desired destination in 90 minutes, clocked in at over three hours. 99 miles from L.A., indeed. 99 miles isn’t far enough.


Water Sports


Every morning and even some evenings, unsuspecting travelers are involved in an activity of high risk. It is a game that has reached epidemic proportions. It must be stopped.

It is a game I call: “Shower Roulette.”

Perhaps even you, dear reader, have unwittingly participated in this endeavor.

You step into a shower at a hotel or AirBnB. If it is a combination tub and shower, there will be the bath faucet and then, of course, some kind of shower head. There will be a lever somewhere that diverts the water to one or the other. How that lever works is never clear. Perhaps it twists clockwise to channel the stream to the shower, or perhaps it twists counterclockwise.

In the good old days, there would be two other handles, one on the left for hot water and one on the right for cold. The degree to which you opened the valves also controlled the volume, or water pressure. With these handles you could dip your toe in the water, so to speak. When it reached a temperature and a pressure you found satisfactory, well then let it rip out of the shower head.

But just to make things interesting, the water fixture designers (and who are they, anyway?) decided that we might just as well combine the hot and cold water valves with the lever diverting water up or down. Again, no clear convention on which direction to turn these things. And how is the pressure of the liquid controlled? Anybody’s guess, because none of this is standardized among the manufacturers of these contraptions.

(We have a Geneva Convention so that the world can agree on war crimes. But the shower roulette atrocity? No one seems to care.)

But wait, this apparently wasn’t enough of a challenge for the designer gods. They decided that what would be really cool is to go over the top — literally — and add another dimension for water flow to be dumped right on the top of your head.

So now we have three potential ways to spray the water, which undoubtedly will come with the force of a fire hose and at a temperature reminiscent of a melting glacier. Will the icy water attack your toes? Will it spray directly into your face? Or will it just act as a proxy for the “bucket challenge” that was so fashionable a few years ago, and dump directly on your noggin.

Good luck figuring it out.


When a Paradise Was Nearly Lost, Then Saved by a Forbidden Fruit

This is a story about a Garden of Eden run by a supreme ruler. It also involves a forbidden fruit. This tale is a bit more recent than the biblical version. And it has a happier ending.

The year was 1981. The Cold War was raging. A man by the name of Albert Rene was running a tiny nation called the Seychelles, an archipelago of 115 separate islands scattered in the Indian Ocean, just below the equator.

It is a beautiful place, maybe one of the most idyllic I have had the good fortune to visit. The islands are unique in that they are carved out of granite. The only ones in the world. Where other islands are borne of volcanic lava or from coral reefs, these came to life as remnants of a great continental split of a land mass known as Gondwana that was an aggregate of what is now Africa, South America, Australia and India. About 140 millions years ago (give or take a few months), things started splitting apart. India did a 90-degree turn, headed northeast and eventually crashed into Asia with enough force to create the Himalayas.

Remnants of India were littered (and maybe loitered?) in the Indian Ocean of today to become the Seychelles. They couldn’t have picked a better place. Temperatures in the region — on both land and in the sea — hover around the 80-degree mark Fahrenheit, all year long. Unlike other tropical paradises, it is free from typhoons, cyclones and other stormy phenomena.

Now, back (or maybe ahead, geologically speaking) to the Cold War days. The United States, which had a satellite tracking station on the island of Mahe, the main island in the Seychelles, apparently wasn’t too fond of Rene, a benign dictator who favored socialism.

The U.S. government, always interested in protecting its property and often all too eager to conflate social democracy with outright communism to justify its interests, decided Rene had to go.

And so, with the help of the United Kingdom and South Africa, the U.S. put together a rag tag team of mercenaries to oust the Seychellois leader.

(In the grand scheme of clandestine operations in the Indian Ocean, this was small potatoes when compared with what the U.S. and the U.K. did to the peoples and island of Diego Garcia.)

The plan was simple. The mercenaries would pose as some sort of fraternal organization out on a goodwill tour. They would be bringing gifts for the little Seychellois children. In the bottom of their bags would be gifts of another kind: Kalishnikov automatics and other weaponry.

Getting through customs would be a breeze. Then they would wait a day or two and take over the key government buildings, the airport and the radio station to announce the coup d’etat. They aspired to use as little force as necessary and figured that would not be a problem, given the meager defenses in the country.

But they would be armed and would do what was necessary, even if that meant lethal force, including assassinating Rene.

Now, about that fruit.

Lychees are an Asian delicacy that are part of the soapberry family of fruits, which includes Longans. These fleshy morsels are about the size of a walnut. They have a rather hard, spiky shell that, when peeled, reveals a fleshy texture that tastes, to me anyway, like a cross between a peach and pear. The flesh hugs a pitted seed like a peach, too.

One of the mercenaries, the story goes, was very fond of lychees. He had a bag of them on the commercial flight that he was taking into Mahe. He was advised — strongly — that he should not attempt to bring the fruit through customs.

The Seychellois culture, like many tropical island paradises, is somewhat laissez-faire about a lot of rules and regulations, but when it comes to protecting its indigenous flora and fauna, it is a zero-tolerance kind of place.

Apparently, the mercenary really, really liked this fruit. And so he went rogue (a rogue mercenary is an oxymoron if ever there was one). He was caught at customs. And once the customs officer discovered the fruit, he decided to do a more thorough examination of the soldier’s belongings.

It didn’t take long for the customs agent to find the AK-47 hidden in the bottom of the bag of toys. Ironically, the agent didn’t know it was an automatic weapon. He thought it was something worse: a spear-gun. If the agent didn’t like the fruit, he was apoplectic about an illegal fishing device. Flora and fauna first.

The mercenary panicked, grabbed the weapon and — as they say — shots were fired. It was mayhem for a few days. Some of soldiers managed to escape by hijacking a commercial jet to South Africa. Others were caught and imprisoned.

For those incarcerated, it was not a pleasant time. They were beaten and tortured for months and then put on trial. They were convicted, and sentenced to death.

The story got out and became something of an international sensation. Then, one day, the prisoners were summoned and sent to a rather grand home in the hills of Mahe. There, they were greeted by none other than President Rene. They figured this was the last gesture before execution, but they were (no doubt, pleasantly) surprised to learn they were wrong.

Rene told them he was commuting their sentences. He didn’t need the bad publicity. They were to serve out some time on a remote island — under much more gentile conditions — until the story subsided. Then they would be released.

Before sending them to the island, though, Rene delivered a little lecture to the soldiers, explaining the difference between socialism and communism, and providing examples of the work he and his government had done in building schools, hospitals and roads and bridges.

(This story is laid out in the book: Deathrow in Paradise by Aubrey Brooks, one of the mercenaries who understandably had a political change of heart right there and then.)

Rene ruled the Seychelles until 2004. It has been one of the fastest growing countries in the Indian Ocean and African regions. He did build a solid infrastructure of schools, hospitals and government programs for the people of the Seychelles. How benign a dictator he actually was is open to interpretation. There are allegations of civil rights abuses.

Rene died this week after a long career in shaping his country’s future.

Things might have turned out quite differently, had it not been for that little piece of forbidden fruit.


Keep the customer satisfied

“Is your last name Italian?” says the amiable tech support guy, whose youthful intonation leads me to believe he might be still be in high school.

Look, kid, I’m thinking to myself, I have been on the phone with umpteen of your colleagues today trying to solve this Internet problem. I don’t at the moment care to engage in idle chit chat.

“Yes,” I say.

“That’s really cool,” he says, with infectious enthusiasm. “I thought it looked Italian, but I can’t tell why.”

“A lot of vowels,” I volunteer, half sardonically.

“Oh, wow!” he says, as though he has just discovered a solution to global warming.

“How much longer?” I inquire, in my best baritone radio voice to indicate, not so subtly, that I am still irritated.

TomTom Go Confidently

He explains that he needs to text me a file for me to approve and we’ll be up and running in no time.

I wait, with as much patience as I can muster at this point. But he will not allow the wait go in silence.

“So, have you been to Italy?” he asked.

I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. But before I can even muster an answer, he is rambling.

“I’ve been watching all these documentaries,” he says. “It looks so cool. I’m saving up. It’s on my bucket list. I live in Portland. It looks like the weather is really different there. I was thinking of Venice but maybe Rome?”

A lot of thoughts are going through my head. Is this a new training technique for tech support people? Is this really a kid who wants to go to Italy or a trained actor of some sort? Is he really in Portland or is he in Bangalore?

The text file comes through and I click the approvals.

“I see it on my end and you’re good to go!” he says.

“OK,” I respond. “And good luck with your trip to Italy. I highly recommend going. It’s a beautiful place.”

“Oh, hey, thanks a lot!” he says, as though as he has made a new best friend for life.

And we disconnect.

I shake my head, wondering if that conversation really just happened. Maybe the kid is high-fiving his colleagues, having pulled it off again: turning a disgruntled customer into a satisfied one with an Oscar-worthy performance.

On the other hand, if I get a postcard of the Basilica di San Marco one of these days, I will not be surprised.


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