Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Chicago Bears: 36. Minessota Vikings: 30.

Monday Night Football. National audience. Overtime. Bears win. Against the division leading Vikings. If there's any team Bears fans hate, assuming its not a game against the Packers, its the Vikings. And in Bret Favre you even have the Packers covered. Who could ask for more.

Then why am I so unhappy?

I am not exactly a huge sports fan. I don't spend much time watching sporting events on TV. I'd rather be doing than watching. Even thought in recent years the doing hasn't been much. Laziness and middle age. Still. Its the principle of the thing.

Used to think I was a basketball fan, but when Jordan finally retired for good I just stopped watching. So much for that theory. Was a huge hockey fan growing up in Latvia, but five years in Israel (no ice, therefore no hockey) and then the rest in Chicago where the brilliant owner of the Hawks at the time thought that showing games on broadcast TV hurts the fans (and where did he think new fans would come from?) took care of that itch. Tried baseball for a couple of years. Sorry. Too slow. Too boring. Not a criticism (well, maybe just a little). Grew up on soccer and couldn't really get into it either. Too slow. Too boring.

But football? Love football. Loved playing it. Love watching it. Okay. So I still need the home team to be playing for that emotional thrill, but its as close as I come to being a hardcore sports fan. I started following the Bears around 1978. Had missed maybe a handful games in all of the years since. That even includes preseason.

Saw a lot of good football. Saw Sweetness give 100% and run over the opposition no matter against whom and no matter the score. Saw Danimal and Mongo. The punky QB. Mama's boy Otis. Da Coach. The 85 Bears. Still have Super bowl XX on VHS. Then in more recent years there was the Ultraback and Urlacher.

Saw a lot of mediocre football. Saw Fencik and Plank so bored in a losing effort against Tampa Bay that they actually started a contest between themselves to see who could be the first to knock a Buc out of a game. I believe Plank won with his hit on Jimmie Giles. Saw Jim Harbaugh staring at his receivers. Saw Cade McNown bust. Salam. Enis. Colombo. Its a long list. There was the game where the Bears had to list Payton as an emergency QB. Would still be better than Rusty.

Went through quite a few head coaches. Neill Armstrong. Mike Ditka. Wanny. Dick Jauron. Same as the team. There was good and bad in coaching as with the team. Saw Da Coach bring back pride. Then saw Da Coach implode and self destruct. There's only so many times you can run the draw play to Denis Gentry on 3rd and long before it stops working. Heard Wanny tell us that all the pieces are in place and then wondered which team he was watching. Nothing memorable about Dick Jauron, but I think that's the point.

Good or bad I still watched. But even in the bad years at least the Bears were entertaining. And there was always next year. Of course as Da Coach once said: only cowards and losers live in the past.

Present day. Lovie Smith's Bears. Lovie is a nice guy. Maybe even a saint. I don't want anyone to lose their jobs under any circumstance. But Lovie has to go. I've seen bad football. I've seen bad teams. I've seen bad coaching. Will again I am sure. But this year for me has been about as bad as it gets. Lovie is like a combination of Wanny and Jauron. Jauron's personality minus Wanny's mustache.

I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I am just a fan. My football credentials are as follows:

  • No high school or college football
  • Lots of no equipment street ball on the lakefront. Being slightly faster and stronger than the average pretty much could do what I wanted against most opponents. Defense. Offense. Didn't matter. Give me the ball and I'll get you some yards. Put me on the other side and I'll get to the guy with the ball. Even played against some of the guys on Northwestern's football team once. The bad. Very, very bad period of Northwestern football.
  • A couple of seasons on various flag/touch football. Mixed results. Not so good when you take the violence out of the equation. But held my own even if I didn't exactly excel.
    3/4 of a season of semi-semi pro football. Heh ... Did great during training camp playing center. Pretty much did what I wanted against our linebackers and DB's. Held my own against the D line. Then came the season opener against the Robert Taylor Homes team. First play from scrimmage. The nose guard glares at me. I glare at him. The quarterback yells out the snap count. I snap and ... I watch the nose guard run over me from my comfortable position of being flat on my back. He sacks the QB. The QB fumbles. They recover. So ends my first play from scrimmage. I improve as the season goes on, but not by much. Finished it playing defensive tackle. The highlight of the season was our game against the Pontiac State Prison team. We weren't very good, but maybe that's a post for a different day. If nothing else it just reinforced what they say about there being a tangible difference between high school, college, and the pros. The talent level increases by an incredible factor at each level. It really does. Trust me.
  • 30 plus years of watching the Bears and the occasional Super bowl
  • I made it to the championship game (and lost) of my Fantasy Football league this year

So with the above in mind and taking into account that there's plenty of blame to go around (if Jerry Angelo leaves I won't be heart broken; if the McCaskey's want to sell I'll pitch in a few bucks) here are all of the things that are wrong with the 2009 Chicago Bears. Its the Coaching. Its the Coaching. Its the Coaching. And its the Coaching. The Head Coach specifically.

Its been a rough year for Lovie. You lose your star linebacker in the first game. Your secondary goes through more injuries than a trauma center. The defensive line has underachieved for years. The offensive line is old. Your star receiver is a former defensive back. Your GM hasn't exactly given you much talent to work with. Not many studs on the bench. Even fewer on your practice squad. You have a fairly good, if not special, running back, but there's that questionable offensive line. The GM gave you a big name QB in Jay Cutler, but there's that questionable offensive line again. And did I mention that your star receiver is a former defensive back. I know a lot of people were excited about the Cutler trade and were expecting great things from the Bears, but I wondered what team they were watching. Not denying that Cutler was an upgrade at QB, but this team had so many holes to fill and so many question marks that the price paid for Cutler could have been better used elsewhere.

And despite all of the above. Sorry. Lovie must go. Its the head coach that needs to bear the burden and pay the price. Coaches often get too much of the blame and far too much of the credit when teams lose or win. And still. Its the head coach. Consider this. What is the head coach ultimately responsible for? Basically the following:

  • Coaching: Making sure that a team has the best game plan in place for a given opponent and that the players understand that game plan
  • Discipline: Making sure that a team executes that game plan on game day
  • Personnel: Making sure that the right players are in the right positions and on the field at the right time and that they develop over the course of their careers

If you consider the above to be as important as I do then I don't see how anyone can justify keeping Lovie as head coach.

Let's start with Coaching.


Lovie took over the defensive coordinating this season. So there is no Bob Babich to blame. No Ron Rivera. The scheme gets a lot of blame, but you know what? Its not the cover 2. Other teams use the cover 2 with good effect. The problem is that the cover 2 doesn't work with the personnel the Bears have in place. The cover 2 works when you have a good to above average defensive line. The linebackers and the DBs split up the field in zones. It gives you flexibility to be a little more creative with your blitzes and stunts and coverages. You can bring up DBs to play the run and drop linebackers back into coverage. Its as good as any scheme. Perhaps better than some. The Bears certainly have some linebackers who can cover. Speed as they say kills. The Bears have some DBs who can hit. On paper it sounds good. Really good. Its like having 12 players on the field. One problem. Its all predicated on that defensive line applying pressure. As long as the defensive line applies pressure at the initial point of attack it works. It frees up the linebackers to do what they need to do and it frees up the DBs to do what they need to do. If it doesn't you have serious problems. You give any NFL quarterback and receivers the time and they'll find the holes in the zones. Its how zones work by definition. You give them time and they'll kill you. No matter how great your DBs and linebackers. You allow the offensive line to control the line scrimmage and there will be holes there that you and I could run through. And we aren't Adrian Peterson. Guess what the weakest part of the Bears defense is? Sorry Alex Brown.

Is it all Lovies fault? Is it his fault that Tommy Harris has been injured and not playing at 100%? Did he draft Marcus Harrison who had one good season and then just disappeared’? Well, maybe partially, but more on the disappearing later. Did he sign Adewale Ogunleye? Again, don't know how much input he had on that. Either way, doesn't matter. Anyone who has watched the Bears the last three years has watched the same underachieving defensive line I have. Whatever the reasons, whatever the excuses, doesn't matter. Good coaches adjust. Lovie is not the first coach to fall in love with a scheme and stuck with it no matter what. Good coaches adjust and play the hand that's dealt them. Rather than continue down the same proven unworkable path.


Okay. I guess we could blame Ron Turner and I am sure he will be the fall guy come season's end. We could blame Angelo and the Bears draft failures. But the head coach is the boss come game time. He watched the same guys we watched. He was there in preseason. He was there during training camp. He was even there during the OTAs. I wasn't. Don't know. Maybe he saw the same things we did. An aging offensive line. Lack of quality receivers. No true stud running back. Maybe he said something. Maybe no one listened. Maybe. No difference. Simple as it sounds, he is the Head coach. If no one listens to the head coach then that's a problem with the head coach. It has to do with being the Head part.

On to discipline.

Best way to judge discipline is penalties. As of December 19th the Bears were sixth in the NFL in team penalties. Sixth in bad way. Not in a good way.
Another good way is to see how the team performs through out the game. How many games this season have you seen the Bears perform throughout the entire game. Whether its falling so far behind that no one could ever come back or falling apart when the game is online?
How does the team play in big games? Whether against division arch rivals, on national TV or when the game really really matters? Do they put it all on the line or do they just show up. I think we all watched the same games this season. Sometimes it didn't even look like they showed up. Season opener Green Bay 21. Bears 15. Bears at Bengals. Bengals 45. Bears 10. This after the Bears lost to a good Falcons team. Record 3-3. They win against an awful Cleveland Browns team. The 30-6 score far better than they played. Then get demolished by the Cardinals 41-21. And so on.
No team can win every game. There are 32 teams in the NFL and only 12 of them make it to the playoffs. Life's not fair. For a team to win another has to lose. Its the nature of the beast. I still have scars on my psyche from watching the greatest Bears team ever (the 85 Bears) lose to Miami on Monday night.
Still. This Bears team is Jekyll and Hyde. Mostly Jekyll. In the football world Hyde would be good. The rage at least. Guess who is responsible to even it out? Bringing out the Hyde. Suppressing the Jekyll. None other than the head coach.

Last but not least, personnel. Blame Angelo. Blame Ted Phillips. Blame the scouting department.
Just for the Angelo tenure alone.

Bears Draft picks since 2001:

Jarron Gilbert
Juaquin Iglesias
Henry Melton
D.J. Moore
Johnny Knox
Marcus Freeman
Al Afalava
Lance Louis
Derek Kinder

Chris Williams
Matt Forte
Earl Bennett
Marcus Harrison
Craig Steltz
Zackary Bowman
Kellen Davis
Ervin Baldwin
Chester Adams
Joey LaRocque
Kirk Barton
Marcus Monk

Greg Olsen
Dan Bazuin
Garrett Wolfe
Michael Okwo
Josh Beekman
Kevin Payne
Corey Graham
Trumaine McBride
Aaron Brant

Danieal Manning
Devin Hester
Dusty Dvoracek
Jamar Williams
Mark Anderson
J.D. Runnels
Tyler Reed

Cedric Benson
Mark Bradley
Kyle Orton
Airese Currie
Chris Harris
Rodriques Wilson

Tommie Harris
Terry Johnson
Bernard Berrian
Nathan Vasher
Leon Joe
Claude Harriott
Craig Krenzel
Alfonso Marshall

Michael Haynes
Rex Grossman
Charles Tillman
Lance Briggs
Todd Johnson
Ian Scott
Bobby Wade
Justin Gage
Tron Lafavor
Joe Odom
Brock Forsey
Bryan Anderson

Marc Colombo
Roosevelt Williams
Terrence Metcalf
Alex Brown
Bobby Gray
Bryan Knight
Adrian Peterson
Jamin Elliott
Bryan Fletcher

David Terrell
Anthony Thomas
Mike Gandy
Karon Riley
Bernard Robertson
John Capel

Not very impressive. A few diamonds in the rough in the later rounds, but every team has those. The first three? Some average players. The rest? Not good. And if you don't see what's coming by now I'll say it anyway. Doesn't matter. It happens to every team. Its back to my semi-semi pro experience. Its a different game. A different level in the NFL. Its hard to predict who will make it in the pros. A lot of college can't miss studs turn out to be complete busts at the next level. Some guys who no one gave a chance come out of the blue and become stars. While not exactly throwing darts while blindfolded a great deal of luck is needed when making your picks. Good coaches find ways to make do with what they have. Great coaches make what they have better. The Bears of recent years? Sorry. No better example than Rex Grossman who showed great promise and then got worse every year.

There's more, but this post is long enough. Never thought my longest post to date would be on the Bears, but life never turns out the way you plan.

Its nothing personal and I'd hate to be in his shoes, but please, please, can the Bears put Lovie out of this misery and me out of mine? A change of scenery might do him, and me, some good. Look what it did for Wanny and Pitt.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


I love this country. Myth thought it might be in many ways my experience is that of the American Dream. My mother and I arrived on these shores in 1977 and while not exactly being huddled masses yearning to be free between the two of us we basically had $600 and the clothes on our backs. 30+ years later we are comfortably lower middle class. There's a roof over our heads and money in our bank accounts. The refrigerator is full and there's a big flat screen TV in the living room. We have cable, we have a car, a motorcycle, central air conditioning and indoor plumbing. This might seem like a very simplistic way to look at life, but basically its my way of saying our lives are good in comparison to the lives of many, many others. So are the lives of most Americans. America is not perfect, but in many ways it is unique among nations and even thought it might be slightly tarnished of late it still is a beacon for democracy and a shining example for the world.
I love this country, but I've never really been capable of loving anything or anyone blindly (which often makes life difficult for those who've had the fortune or misfortune to be loved by me), and perhaps its that simple fact, or perhaps, its just the crankiness that comes with advancing middle age, but of late the number of things to which I can't turn a blind eye to has been reaching epic proportions. All I have to do is listen to the radio, turn on the TV, or read the news and something gets my blood a boil. Here's one example.


I was born in the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic. When the Soviets invaded in the 1940s my family lost everything. My maternal grandfather was executed for the crime of being a former military officer, a member of the intelligentsia, and the crime of wealth. My grandmother, my mother, aunt and uncle were exiled to the harsh labor camps of Siberia. I am about as rabidly anti-communist as you can get. But if I hear the word socialism mentioned one more time by anyone I am afraid I might break something. If ever there was concept or an idea the meaning of which has lost any real significance its the word "socialism" as used in the American body politic.
Most people's personal politics can be complex. No one is 100% this or that. I can be very conservative on some issues (law and order issues for example) and very liberal on others (gay marriage, decriminalization of illegal substances, etc.). I can be an an extreme economic conservative (government spending) and a borderline socialist (government regulation over markets). For the record (and since we all try to pigeonhole each other anyway) I consider myself to be a liberal. Another word which has lost any significant meaning here. For the most part, all of the above have become synonyms meaning the same thing (might as well add to the list: democrat, stalinism, maoism, marxism, leninism, etc.). They are not. Not by a long shot. I am not going to waste my time or yours by pretending to be a political scientist and try to explain the difference, but just trust me on this, they are all very different things. Here's Webster's definition of liberal:

Main Entry: 2liberal
Function: noun
Date: 1820

: a person who is liberal: as a : one who is open-minded or not strict in the observance of orthodox, traditional, or established forms or ways b capitalized : a member or supporter of a liberal political party c : an advocate or adherent of liberalism especially in individual rights

I do not belong to any political party (which makes me an independent), but when all is said and done I tend to vote almost exclusively for Democrats. Now that that's out of the way, back to socialism.

Sorry. President Obama is not a Socialist. No member of Congress is a Socialist. Europe is not Socialist. Government spending is not Socialism. Taxes are not Socialism. Anyone who puts these terms together, sorry, is a raving idiot. Its an insult to reason, logic, and just plain common sense. I have no problem with anyone disagreeing with President Obama (I voted for him). I have no problem with anyone questioning the motives of members of congress (I voted for some of them). I don't like paying taxes. I don't even much like Europe. But what passes for political discourse in this country is starting to border on sheer lunacy. Again, no problem with anyone disagreeing with anyone else's ideas or policies. That's what democracy is all about. When ideas clash what remains in the shards are the shreds of truth. But if that clash starts out with lies of convenience, mischaracterizations and pandering to peoples most basest instincts (and regardless of which end of the right/left spectrum you find yourself everyone is guilty of this) the only thing that come of it is a tangled mess and a wasted fight.

One perfect example of this.

I was listening to an NPR (I told you I was a liberal) story the other day. It was all about Joe Wilson's by now infamous "You Lie!" outburst and whether or not its an indication of underlying racism (I don't think so so does this make me a conservative?). The story tried to present both sides of the issue in depth (this is why I like NPR) and interviewed who they felt could offer subjective and representative opinions. Side A was: of course its racism. Its always racism, etc. I didn't buy that argument (see, I am a conservative). Side B: of course it wasn't racism. Its about policy, etc. I didn't quite buy that argument either (the liberal is back). Then for a moment it actually got interesting. The person making the argument for side B brought up a point that I agree 100% with. Their complaint was that the charge of racism is usually politically motivated. Basically once you raise it you put your opponent on the defensive. The debate then becomes about racism and not about any policy differences you could possibly have. It stifles any kind of point you can make because all of a sudden you find yourself having to defend against a charge so heinous that it obscures anything else. Basically you just labeled every single opponent of policy X as being a RACIST and any argument they would possible make, regardless of whether it is racism or not, is now tainted. I 100% agree with this. But... and you knew there was a but coming. Then this very same person who raised that point and articulated it really well, that I 100% agree with, without nary a pause or a breath, continued with, well, the real problem with this country, the one true REAL problem that we need to look at is this country's path and turn towards SOCIALISM!

And this differs from calling someone a RACIST how? You just labeled an entire group and policy with a label that is neither accurate nor deserved. Just like labeling someone a racist pretty much eliminates any chance of real debate, labeling someone a socialist eliminates any chance of real debate. I guess its different when I do it?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

9 Hours in Shanghai

I've always wanted to visit mainland China. The closest I ever got was a month in Hong Kong and a couple of weeks in Taiwan. When this opportunity to work in Malaysia came up and I was looking at airfare one of the lower fare flights had a 9 hour layover in Shanghai so that's the one I chose reasoning that 9 hours is better than nothing. Of course I should have checked first if one needed a visa to leave the airport.

Surfing the internet after the fact wasn't much help since the information was contradictory. Some claimed that you need a visa no matter what. Others that as long as your connecting flight left withing 24 hours to third country (or 48, even there the information was kind of confusing) you didn't need a visa. I just crossed my fingers and figured I'll see what happens once I am on the ground in Shanghai.

As luck would have it (bad for most travelers, but worked out for me) the counter attendant in KL for Malaysia Airlines informed me that due to some regulations my luggage could not be checked straight through to Chicago and I would have to recheck my bags in Pudong and check in at the AA counter to get my tickets to Chicago. This of course would mean that I would have to clear Chinese customs first.

To make a long story short, after waiting in line for over an hour and being sent hitter and yon by Chinese customs officials I found myself on the other side of the Silk Curtain. Figuring valor is the better part of discretion I decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth (how's that for mixing metaphors) I found a place to keep store my luggage and followed the signs to the Maglev.

For those of you who don't know the Shanghai Maglev is the world's first commercial high speed Magnetic Levitation train capable of speeds over 500 km/h (300 mph). There are simpler and more direct ways to get to the heart of Shanghai, but the geek in me couldn't pass up the opportunity. Its around $10 for a round trip ticket and the train ride itself is only 10 minutes each way. The train runs only from Pudong Airpor to Longyang Road Station and there's not much to see of interest around Longyang itself, but the experience is definitely worth it. Its eerie to travel that fast and that quietly as you watch the world outside your window zip by. The train hits a top speed of 431 km/h (268 mph). And judging by how full the train was and how many people people were snapping pictures of the speed readout in each car I wasn't the only geek along for the ride. Once we arrived at Longyang there was a taxi stand at the bottom of the station and from there you can pretty much get to anywhere in Shanghai. Taxi prices are really, really low so its the best option for travelers pressed for time. As in Taipei, since most of the taxi drivers do not speak English or read latin alphabets, before you get into the cab a dispatcher hands you a sheet of paper with the most popular attractions listed in both English and Chinese (it also includes the prices of the ride so you don't have to worry about haggling) and you simply point at the destination you want and the taxi driver can read the Chinese characters underneath and everyone lives happily ever after. Hang on to that piece of paper since it will be handy for the return trip. I couldn't find the Maglev station on the sheet and when I hailed a cab for the return trip I had a couple of panicked moments since the driver didn't seem to understand what I meant when I said Maglev or Longyang, but I pulled out the Maglev ticket itself and that did the trick.

Shanghai is a huge city with a population of over 20 million. 9 hours isn't that much time so you have to pick and choose your spots carefully, but having read about the Bund and seen it in the movies I knew that would be my next destination.

Unfortunately turns out most of the waterfront is still undergoing renovation so the waterfront itself is hidden behind boards and it wasn't quite the experience I had hoped for, but it was still worth the trip since I got some great views of the Shanghai skyline. Chicago is no stranger to powerful skylines and KL has the Petronas towers, but this was truly something else.

I walked around the Bund a little bit, but since I didn't plan out any specific locations on the Bund that I wanted to see other than the waterfront itself I just meandered around aimlessly. This might not be everyone's cup of tea, but often when visiting a new place I just pick a direction and start walking with no specific destination in mind. Sometimes this pays off and sometimes not, but it does give one the opportunity to get a true sense of place. I did go down the Bun Sightseeing Tunnel, but judging by the quality of the Engrish signs around the entry figured it might be a better idea to spend my time elsewhere so a meandering I went.

Glad I did. Reversing direction I headed up the Bund and found myself on Fuyou Road and its mass humanity and tourist shops. I am not really a shopper, nor particularly a fan of massing humanity, but the riot of colors, goods, restaurants and people is a real experience. Its that sense of place again. Chicago isn't exactly a small provincial village, but Shanghai takes it to a different level.
9 hours is not nearly enough and eventually I had to hop a cab and head back to the Maglev and back to the airport, but I was glad I took the chance of a lengthy layover in Shanghai. While this doesn't really count as a real visit to China it certainly reinforced my desire to come back some day and truly explore the country and all it has to offer.

Friday, September 11, 2009


The slogan is everywhere. Posters on buildings. Adverts in newspapers. On the radio and TV. In the news and on the street. On the other end of the spectrum there's a crowd with a cow's head marching on a proposed Hindu temple in a majority Muslim area. Vigilante anti-alcohol activists removing beer from a Seven-Eleven. There's the caning sentence for a Muslim girl for drinking a beer in a night club.
Malaysia is a multicultural melting pot and pots are known to simmer and occasionally boil over. Malaysians make up 50.4% of the population, the Chinese around 23.7%, the indigenous Sarawak around 11%, and the Indians about 7% (for the record most of the Indians I met in Malaysia actually consider themselves to be Tamil). Almost all of the non-Malays have been on Malay soil for many generations. The Chinese came with the trade. The Indians as soldiers and labor for the plantations during the British colonial period.
The country gained its independence from Britain in 1957 and has been working hard at developing a stable identity ever since. The road hasn't always been smooth. The same party (UMNO) has been in power since independence and with the power of the ISA isn't shy about using it to retain power. While the Opposition is growing in strength its still fairly weak and fractured. Its interesting reading the newspapers here. You always read the UMNO reaction to something the Opposition has said or written, but you never actually read what the Opposition's position was. The ISA requires all newspapers and media to apply for a renewal of license once a year to the government. Connect the dots.
For the most part tensions are fairly low between the people, but there is always that under current bubbling below the surface. For the most part Malays control the political sphere, the Chinese the economics and the Indians the lower end of the labor market. The non Malays complain about the quota system (Malays and the indigenous groups get preferential treatment in eduction and housing). The Malays on the other hand are very sensitive to any slights on their identity and Islam. Rumors of corruption and political scandals abound. And now there are also tensions between Malaysia and Indonesia over, of all things, a dance used in a Discovery promotional video.
Where it will all lead to is hard to predict. The people get along and the country is relatively prosperous due to oil exports and IT outsourcing. Tensions, as I wrote are very low, but when you add to it a single political party clinging to power, religion and ethnic and national politics it can be a volatile mix. Here's hoping it all shakes itself out for the best.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The IPhone and I

I am too poor to be a true early adapter. New technology when it first hits the market tends to be expensive and only as it matures and more and more people take it up the price goes down and the rest of us get to play. Still I have had my moments. Particularly when its media related.
I started using computers around 1980. I actually owned an original Pong and I even bought one of the first Radio Shack 16k computers. Yes. That's correct. 16k. Then I moved on to the PCs and kept on moving along the PC food chain up to the present.
The Internet is an old, old friend. Again started surfing around 1980. E-mail, multi-player games, news groups, chats, are things I used long before they became indispensable to the rest of the world. Still remember sitting in a PLATO computer lab at Truman College around 1982 and talking with a bunch of friends about how wouldn't it be cool if more people knew about what we knew and how someone should build a commercial business around this. We all laughed at the absurdity of the idea since computers weren't exactly user friendly and confined to the world of geeks and nerds. A few years later, Compuserve, Prodigy, AOL, Windows, Netscape and cheap PCs changed the world. Not ignoring the contributions of Apple computers, but they were always a bit out of my price range and since my main use of computers was for gaming I never left the PC zone.
I love movies so the moment I could afford one I bought a VCR. I skipped the laser disc fad and only joined at the tail end of the DVD era, but the moment plasma screens came down in price a bit I got myself a big screen TV.
Once the Walkmen hit the market I got myself one. Same for the Discmen. Was a little late to the IPod and digital music party, but once I got one I haven't looked back. Digitized my entire LP, CD and Cassette library and haven't bought any music other than in the digital format since.
There is one area, however, that I just never ever took part in. The cellphone revolution just kept on passing me by. Part of it I guess is that I am not one of the most sociable people out there. I have and love my friends, but unless we have something to do and say I am not one for just talking for the sake of talking. Part of it is that I am of a generation and history where the phone wasn't really all that integral part of my life. We never had a phone at home until we moved to the US and I was 15 by then. To me the phone is something you use in case of emergencies or to call someone to say you are running late or to set up a face to face. Looking on the bright side, my phone bills are always very, very low.
But some things are unavoidable. My mother will soon be 79. My father soon to be 90. All three of us are in different parts of the world, so when I found out about my six week Malaysia assignment I decided to get a cellphone so that in case of an emergency I could always be reached no matter where or when.
I wouldn't know a good cellphone from a good rutabaga, but since I loved the IPod and I always admired Apple for its design, technology and innovation I settled on the IPhone. I didn't realize that I was buying into the top of the cellphone food chain, but oh my. I won't bother with a review of the IPhone (plenty of those around) nor is this meant as a plug for the brand (there are other smart phones out there that probably deliver pretty much the same) or an overview of the various features like actually using it to communicate with other humans, but as a piece of media its nothing short of incredible. Here's just a few of my IPhone Adventures:
  • Driving around the suburbs of Chicago I get slightly lost. Being a typical male I will not ask for directions. Out comes the IPhone. Click on the Compass icon, get my bearings and point the car in the general direction I need to go. Minutes later click on the Maps icon, click on the location icon, GPS gives me the exact location of where I am, type in the location I am trying to find, and up come step by step driving directions. My masculine pride is in no danger of being compromised.
  • Walking around Putrajaya, Malaysia. Same as above.
  • In Tioman Island, Malaysia, just for the heck of it use GPS to locate the island and then zoom out to settle a minor argument about how far we are from the peninsula.
  • In the middle of KLCC while trying to figure out if they will or will not have fireworks for Hari Merdeka, click on the Safari icon, go to Google and type in "hari merdeka fireworks Kuala Lumpur 2009" and surf a few forums to see if we can find any information about when and where they might have fireworks.
  • Watching TV shows on airplanes and during long layovers. Never have to worry about how to fill the time.
  • I step out to the hotel balcony to take some photos with the IPhone of the Putrajaya cityscape. Since its hot outside and the AC is running full blast inside I close the sliding door. Point, click, photo. Point, click, photo. Turn around, pull sliding door open. Ooopps. Sliding door will not open. Try again. Nope. Looks like the security bar at the bottom of the sliding door must have fallen down into the secure position when I closed it. Good to know it works as designed. Unfortunately I am on the wrong side of the security. I am on the fourth floor on the garden side in the middle of the afternoon in the heat when most other sane people are indoors. Luckily I spot a gardener walking across. I shout. I wave. He looks up. I explain my predicament. He shrugs. As luck would have it I have come across one of the few in Malaysia who do not speak English. I shrug back. Plan B. I wait a few minutes hoping that another soul will brave the heat. I briefly consider climbing down, but I am not in my 20s anymore. I consider shouting louder until someone answers, but there's that masculine pride again. And then I glance at the IPhone in my hand. Call for help. This way I can keep my voice down and salvage what pride I still have. Problem 1: I do not know the phone number for the hotel. I could try dialing information but being overseas I am not sure if its as simple as dialing 0. IPhone Solution: Click on the Safari icon, go to google, type in Putrajaya Shangri La and find number. Problem 2: For some reason Safari doesn't want to work properly and no matter what I do I can't launch google. Wait a few minutes. Consider climbing down, but I am not even in my 30s anymore. Consider shouting again, but there's still that shred of pride. Glance at the IPhone. IPhone Solution: Click on the Maps icon, locate myself, type in Putrajaya Shangri La in the directions box, up pops a box with Putrajaya Shangri La as the legend, click on it and I have the phone number and location, homepage, etc. Briefly consider memorizing the number then remembering the wonderful world of technology I now live in just click on the phone number itself and the phone dials the front desk. 5 minutes later housekeeping to the rescue.

What will they think of next?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Sipadan -- Mabul

They say that 6/7ths of the planet are covered by water. That's a lot of water. I haven't had the chance to explore all of it yet. Maybe just 1/6677 of it, but I've been fortunate to dive in some really nice portions of it. I've been to the Red Sea, Cayman Islands, Cozumel, Roatan, Belize, Tobago, Turks and Caicos, Costa Rica, Phuket and Florida. I even dove within sight of a nuclear reactor in Kenting, Taiwan. There are many places I've yet to dive, but Sipadan (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sipadan) is the second best place after the Red Sea I've ever been to and Baracuda Point (http://www.dive-the-world.com/diving-sites-malaysia-sipadan-island-barracuda-point.php) the single best dive site I've had the pleasure to dive.

Each diver has his or her own preferences. Some like the big things. Some like the little things. Some like coral. Some like rocks. Some like caves and dive throughs. Others like open water. About the only thing that can spoil even the best dives is poor visibility. The visibility in Sipadan, since this was rather late in the season, was poor to average, 5-15 meters, but even with that the Island did not disappoint.

As the name implies there are the barracudas, but that's only a small portion of the story. In my first dive I encountered turtles, white tip reef sharks (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitetip_reef_shark), bumphead parrot fish (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_humphead_parrotfish), jacks, leaf scorpion fish (http://www.advancedaquarist.com/2006/12/fish), nudi branch (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nudibranch) and on and on and on. Basically Barracuda Point is like an underwater visual buffet of almost everything Sipadan has to offer.

Sipadan is a protected area and only 120 divers are permitted on the island each day. There are no resorts on Sipadan itself so you have to stay on one of the neighboring islands. Usually either Mabul or Kapalai. I used Dive the World (http://www.dive-the-world.com/) to book the vacation and opted for Mabul (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mabul) and Borneo Divers Mabul Resort (http://www.borneodivers.info/). Good choices on all accounts. I had used Dive the World for the Phuket trip and wasn't disappointed and they delivered on all accounts on the Sipadan trip as well. The price was a little on the high end, but ultimately worth it.

This was my first exposure to BDMR, but they too delivered on all accounts. The rooms were clean, the AC worked and the food was good. Okay. So my standards might not be as high as some, but its the diving that is the star attraction and that's what BDMR is for. Besides any place with dogs is okay with me. The diving was well organized and the guides professional and knowledgeable. Dove mostly with Maadil and Lorenco and both are excellent at what they do.

The best test of any resort is how they react when things go wrong. When the scheduled divemaster for one of the dives didn't show up and the other boat left without some of us BDRM just set up another boat for us and we caught up to the boat already on its way to the island hopped on board and continued our dives without any problems.

Each resort is allotted a certain amount of permits, so with that in mind I had booked 8 days just to make sure that I get at least one day of diving in Sipadan. As luck would have it this being the low season and the one advantage of being a solo traveler I actually dove Sipadan 5 days in a row. Each day included four dives and at least one dive was to Barracuda Point and each time it was something new. Its not that the other dive sites are not worth diving, but Barracuda point is truly something special. Even the most experienced and jaded of the divers on the island all came up with big grins and excited chatter after each dive. In addition to Barracuda Point we also dove South Point, Hanging Gardens, Turtle Tomb, Dropoff, Mid Reef, White Tip Avenue and Coral Gardens. Mid Reef was probably my second favorite, but all of the other sites were quite good as well. Besides you never know what you will see on any given dive. On our dive to Coral Gardens we came across the biggest manta ray I had ever seen. Easily around 10-15 feet. It just hung there for a few minutes as we all gaped at it in amazement. The biggest problem was the visibility. I'd love to dive Mid Reef in high visibility since the amount of coral and rock formations would really be something in good light and visibility.

Eventually my Sipadan luck ran out and on the last day on Mabul we did local dives. I almost gave up after Old House Reef and was going to pass up the rest of the diving since the visibility was so poor. Maybe 3 meters at best, but the second dive was going to be to the Seaventures Rig (http://www.seaventuresdive.com/) and curiosity got the best of me. Seaventures is an old oil rig that has been turned into a dive resort just off the coast of Mabul. Glad I did. The visibility was much better, 5-10 meters, and saw some things I've never seen before like the crocodile fish (http://marinebio.org/species.asp?id=466) as well as a lot of the usual suspects like leaf scorpion fish, stone fish, nudi branch and eels. Overall, while the diving off Mabul is certainly not as spectacular as Sipadan if Sipadan is not an option then Mabul will do. As to Mabul Island itself. Really not much to do. Dive, eat, drink, repeat. I've heard of sleepy fishing villages, but that's basically what it is. Okay. Maybe not so sleepy since there are a lot kids running around doing the things that kids do.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Tioman Island & Malacca

Thanks to Nunda for first suggesting it and then Adrian, Lisa, Michael, Nesh and Tim for letting me tag along, I got a chance to visit Tioman Island (http://www.tioman.com.my/) and on the way back Malacca (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malacca). To get to Tioman you start out in the port of Mersing. We didn't really spend that much time in Mersing other than park and board the ferry, but that's the joy of traveling that even the smallest things in foreign places can be of interest. Wish I could have found a better angle, but the picture on the left is of a Hindu temple across form the gas station where we fueled up. Note the interesting iconography. The Firesign (its fairly common across Asia and not meant as reproduction of the Swastika), but also a six pointed star. Its the first time I ever seen one. Wish I had more time to see if there is a story there, but we were due for the ferry. A mystery for another day.


Tioman has multiple resorts and locations with a variety of options all the way from the high end to the low end. We stayed at the Salang Indah Resort (http://www.journeymalaysia.com/islandtiomansalangindah.htm)

in Salang at the northern most point of the Island. The resort itself is fairly basic. Like most resorts in South East Asia it covers the basics. We got one of the low end lodges. No AC, but it did have ceiling fan and since the nights were cool and during the day we didn't spend that much time in our rooms it was more than adequate.
Salang very much reminded me of the West End of Roatan. A long stretch of beach lined with bars and lodges. There's really not much to do other than beach, water and bars. Not a criticism of the Island itself since the beach and the surroundings are beautiful, but for those who aren't looking for either of the three above the options might be limited.

While the rest of the group went snorkeling I went diving. I went with Fisherman Divers (http://www.fishermandivers.com/home.html). Good guys and I'd recommend them to anyone. The diving was good, but not great. We did Labas and Salang Bay. A lot of the coral is dying due to the high volume and traffic and the marine life is relatively sparce. Still do not regret going and would definitely recommend it to those who find themselves on Tioman for reasons other and for novice divers who just need to get wet.


On the way back from Tioman we stopped in Malacca. Definitely one of the highlights of my stay in Malaysia. Tim is originally from Malacca so it was like having a native guide. (Thanks Tim. I owe you one). Malacca is an old city and you really get a sense of place that I didn't really get in KL or Putrajaya. Putrajaya is much too new and still developing and KL is a major city in many ways not unlike other major cities around the world. But in Malacca due to the mixture of cultures. The Malays, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and the Chinese all left an indelible mark on the city and it all melds into an interesting combination of the various cultures and flavors. Each retaining something unique and complimenting the others. We got into the Malacca Town fairly late on Sunday so all of the museums (and there are a lot of them) were closed, but we did walk through the center and then climbed the hill up to St. Paul's church and watched the sun set over the harbor. Our final stop was Jonker Street.
Lots of restaurants and street stalls. The street food is really, really good. I was even brave and tried some Durian Chendol (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cendol). For those of you who have never tried a Durian it is an acquired taste. The flavor is best described as a sweet onion garlic mix.

Wish we had had more time to spend in Malacca, but this will definitely give me a reason to return.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Hari Merdeka

Hari Merdeka is the Malaysian Independence Day. Thanks to Adrian, Lisa, Michael, Nunda and Nesh I got to get a little taste of Malaysia's 52nd. We originally had hoped to watch some fireworks at KLCC (http://www.suriaklcc.com.my/) but the government had decided to dial down the celebrations this year (the official reason given was due to fears of the spread of H1N1) so the fireworks at KLCC were cancelled. Instead we went to one of the local night clubs (The Beach Club) to celebrate with a different type of fireworks. Its been many a year since I had gone clubbing and probably be many a year before I do again, but the most important lesson learned was: stop after the first bottle Vodka.

Like New Year's the celebration started at midnight with a countdown and we had polished off about 3/4 of the Absolut by then. No pain and still relatively steady hands as the picture on the right proves. Then came the second bottle. My own fault. I'm the one who ordered it. Had to have a little sit down around 2am and wait for the worst of it to pass. Vaguely remember a lovely girl asking me why I wasn't dancing. Tried to explain over the din that I couldn't even stand up at that point. Alls well that ends well. The room stopped spinning around 3am and all of us made it home safely none the worse for the wear. Might not have learned much about Malaysian Independence, but did get a reminder why moderation in all things is always a good thing. No worries. I'll forget by the next time the occassion presents itself.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Malaysia--First Impressions

As some of you know I am currently in Malaysia on business. Liking the country and the people, but not liking the working hours. Malaysia is 13 hours ahead of the US and since we are supporting the US on local US time the working hours translate to 10pm-7am Malay time. I've worked the third shift from time to time in the US back in my Dominick's days, but never had to for a prolonged period. Its been 2 weeks and I thought I would adjust a little bit, but thus far no luck. And judging from comments from rest of the people at the office who have been at this for much longer than I you never really do. The hardest part is 3am-5am. No matter what you do or how much and when you slept before getting to the office you are just holding on for dear life. Then around 5am you usually start getting your second wind, but that's not saying much. But enough about me.

I am staying at the Putrajaya Shangri La (http://www.shangri-la.com/en/property/kualalumpur/putrajayashangrila) Very nice hotel. Lots of marble and plants. Good food and excellent service. Its on top of a hill affording some great views of the city. And the prices are just so ridiculously low by American standards. Those who know me know I am not much for spending cash on luxuries like room service, but due to the hours sometimes its unavoidable. Best room service (0kay I've never ordered room service before) burger I ever had. And only $9. Also, the first time I started experiencing some cultural differences.

Calling room service:

Me: Hi, I'd like the hamburger and a coke please for room 405.
Room Service: (pause) Sorry. We do not have ham burger. Only beef burger.

Some things are lost in the translation. I almost started explaining that a ham burger is a beef burger, but then thought the better of it. Malaysia is primarily a muslim country so pork is not served in most places. I say primarily muslim since there are sizeable non-muslim minorities, but more on that in a later post should I get to it. It can get pretty complicated.

Putrajaya itself is the center of the government. That's the parliament on the right. The city looks and feels spanking new. That's because it is new. Development started in 1995.
It contains mostly government offices and civil services. Its kind of a strange feeling since on some level I associate Asia and the East with the old and cultural. I expect 2000 year old temples and places that existed long before Western cultures decided that moving from tribal settings to cities would be a good thing, so to see this spanking new city built practically from scratch and considering the wealth that was needed to bring it off is quite something.
I work in Cyberjaya. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyberjaya. Another spanking new city. Its about 20 minutes away by cab from the Hotel. Yes, there I go again. The man who wouldn't dream of taking a taxi in the States being a spendthrift. But remember the prices are so low. Its about $6. In Chicago that would be the price for openning that taxi cab door.
The WK office is in the FSBM plaza which is the oldest building in Cyberjaya. Nice enough building, but the best feature is the artificial koi pond out front. Of course I didn't quite know it was a koi pond at first. I only got to see at night during my smoking breaks. And its dark outside. I just figured it was one of those artificial water architectural flourishes that most modern building like to utilize. Imagine my surprise when while walking next to the edge in my nicotine fueled sleep deprived 7am daze one of the fish jumped out of the water. I almost fell in.
The CBJ staff have all been super and very welcoming. Everyone usually goes to "lunch" around 1:30am in group so I am getting a taste of all kinds of different foods. And the food is excellent. And did I mention cheap. You could get a really good solid meal for around $3. YC and Hui Ling also took me out for some really good satay and a Thai restaurant in KL in the off hours. Thanks guys. Everyone.
I took a couple of short trips to Kuala Lumpur, but still don't have a real sense of the place. Will get more opportunities since I still have 4 weeks here. Did visit Petaling Street and Petronas Towers. Hopefully will write up my KL adventures at some later date. Thus far the only bad thing, other than the working hours, is the weather. Its hot and humid. When Aris picked me up at the airport and drove me to the hotel I noted that there doesn't seem to be much pedestrians about. Now I know why. Its just too hot and humid. Walk more than 100 meters and you are drenched in sweat. At least I am.

Next on tap is a weekend at Tioman with some of the guys from the office. And then the big trip to Sipadan from September 1 -8. Details, hopefully, to follow.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


Drama. 2007.
Written and Directed by: Janis Kalejs (segment "childhood"), Janis Putnins (segment "Adulthood"), Gatis Smits (segment "Youth"), Anna Viduleja (segment "Old").
Starring: Igors Suhoverhovs, Karlis Spravniks, Ints Teterovskis, Liubomiras Lauciavicius, Emilija Leiskalne, Irena Tjunina, Tatjana Jansone-Nazarova, Armands Reinfelds, Girts Krumins.

As a rule I am not a big fan of omnibus or anthology films (a single film where different segments are directed by different directors). Usually they are based on a single premise and you either buy the premise or you don't. They tend to be gimmicky. Often they're basically exercises in style not really concerned that much with narrative or storytelling as they are with style and technique. The director's primary goal is to set the overall tenor, mood and pacing of a film. No matter how in sync the directors you always end up with uneven segments. Some fit and some don't. Some are better and some are worse. And that's by design. Otherwise why make an omnibus film. They might be fun to make for those making them, but often not quite as much fun to watch. You either want to skip some segments or wish other segments were longer and you could see more.
The premise of Vogelfrei is fairly simple and promising, four directors tell the story of a single man as he goes through life's stages. As the man goes through life each director, in theory, would bring a slightly different view of his life. As the man changes, so will the film.
The first segment, Childhood directed by Janis Kalejs, introduces us to Teodors. Teodors is a child who seems to, as most children that age, still be finding his way around the world. He seems to be a natural leader who attracts others, but is never quite comfortable with the attention and the demands of social interaction. He doesn't shy away from contact, but it has to be on his own terms. He seems most comfortable and free when he is on his own.
The second segment, Youth directed by Gatis Smits, shows us Teodor as a young man who seems to posses all of the qualities of a young man at his prime. He is good looking and seems to attract others. He is an exceptional hockey player who seems to be flawless on the ice. But despite all of that he seems lost and alienated from everything around him. He seems unsure of himself in any social settings. Not sure of what to say or do. He longs for companionship but isn't sure of how to go about it. The only place where he seems to find himself and solace is on the ice while skating circles around his competition. As confident and skilled as he seems on the slippery ice, its the seemingly solid footing of the world outside of the skating rink that gives him the most problems.
The third segment, Adulthood directed by Janis Putnins, shows us Teodors as a successful business man. He has a fabulous apartment, a housekeeper, a successfull and beautiful girlfriend. He seems to enjoy all of the trappings of a man who has made it and lacks for nothing material, but again seems lost and unsure of his path in life. The existential void in his life is a gaping hole which no matter what he does he can't fill. No matter how many hours he spends at the gym, or at the piano, or in bars trying to pick up attractive women he hungers for something which he just can't seem to sate no matter what he tries to do. This is a man who on the surface has everything he could possible desire, but who is haunted by some unexplained demons just below the surface which drive and torment him. He is a man who should be at peace with his surroundings, but is anything but.
The last segment, Old directed by Anna Viduleja, shows us Teodor as a man finally at peace with himself. Teodors has left the trappings of the big city for the country side where he is now an organist in a small rural church and also acts as a bird guide and hunter for some well heeled big city folk. Teodors is a man of few words who doesn't seem to care what other people think of him or whether or not they need him. He seems to have finally found both himself and the path which he wants to pursue.
Overall, Vogelfrei almost works as a film. Unfortunately, the weakest segment, and the one which needed to be the strongest, is Adulthood. While the transition from Child to Youth seems seamless, the transition from Youth to Adult seems forced and not exactly clear. While you can see the Child in the Youth you can't really see the Youth in the Man. We aren't really sure of how the Youth became the Man he is. The choices seem arbitrary and forced. Yes, this is still the same alienated child/man we saw in the previous segments, but why? We know its in the script and the character has the same name, but he seems to have nothing in common with what came before. The film's saving grace, however, is the last segment. In Old we can again see the Child and Youth in the eyes of the aging Teodors. It makes sense that they would become the man we now see on the screen. Its this last segment which redeems the film and makes it worthwhile watching.


Tobago -- March 14-22, 2009

Tobago advertises itself as the Capital of Paradise and as such isn't far off in its claim. The island is a beautiful place with mountains, lush flora and varied fauna, secluded beaches and a laid back vibe. I chose Tobago for two reasons. The first being is that I needed a place to go diving and it is quickly developing a reputation as a major dive destination. The other is that as a birthday present for my Mom I decided to take her to one of Latvia's only two former colonies. For the record, Latvia's colonial past is colonial only in that Latvia was nothing more than a colony itself at the time. :) Either way, it seemed as good of an excuse as any to travel to Tobago.

The Island

Tobago reminds me the most of Roatan off the coast of Honduras. Same laid back vibe and focus on sun and sand. The smaller half of Trinidad Tobago leaves the hustle and bustle of industry and business to the larger Trinidad. Other than tourism there really isn't much of industry on Tobago. There's good and bad in that.

The good is that you end up with a lot of unspoilt beauty and plenty of time for relaxation. The island still retains its primitive charm that isn't always found in places like Cancun for example. One never gets the feeling of the cattle travel experience where one simply moves in packs from one tourist enclave and hot spot to another never really getting the sense of the land.

The bad is that there really isn't much infrastructure on the island itself. Getting around is limited to either taxis or rental cars. While I heard rumors of the existence of public transportation and certainly saw bus stops with locals standing around and waiting the actual sightings of the buses themselves were few and far in between. There really isn't any centralized shopping or entertainment areas. This is not meant as criticism. Its exactly what I was looking for. Just a warning for the traveler who was expecting Cancun or Grand Cayman or Jamaica. As one local expressed it, if you want Cancun, go to Cancun. The main problem this presents is that if you are a spur of the moment budget traveler like me who likes to explore on your own your options are limited. Taxis can get expensive after a while. We did rent a car on Saturday and explored the island a little bit and I would probably recommend that as the best option. Just make sure to pre-plan and research where you want to go and what you want to see because the lack of road signs and centralized locations makes it hit or miss. More of a miss for me, but that was no ones fault but my own.

The lodging

We stayed at the Blue Haven Hotel (http://www.bluehavenhotel.com/). While the hotel is certainly perfectly adequate and I enjoyed my stay I don't know if it quite qualifies as the five star hotel it bills itself to be. Again, this is not meant as a criticism. The service was excellent and the rooms clean. Its just that five stars sets up a different set of expectations. The hotel seems to be rebranding itself as a boutique hotel and that's a far more accurate description of what it is. The only real drawback to staying at the Blue Haven is that it was kind of out of the way. There really is not much to see in the immediate vicinity nor are there many dining options other than the hotel.

The other problem was that Mom at 78 no longer gets around as well as she could so she was kind of limited to the hotel grounds and the pool. The beach is about 200 yards down hill from the hotel. Still for those slightly more mobile and satisfied with lounging on a beach chair and basking in the sun its a perfect location. The grounds of the hotel are immaculate and the beach delivers all that you could ever want in a Caribbean beach. And for the record Mom had no complaints.

A note about the food. I've been to a few of the Caribbean Islands and the food for the most part is almost always of the same quality. As long as you stick with chicken and seafood you'll get good results. The moment you venture towards beef or lamb you are just asking for trouble. The reason for this is simple. The Islands don't exactly lend themselves to grazing lands for cattle. Also, since quite a few of the staples need to be imported meals can be quite expensive. If you are expecting gourmet meals around every corner you are sure to be disappointed.

The Diving

I can see why Tobago is starting to develop a reputation as a diving destination. It certainly doesn't lack for dive sites. We dove the Maverick wreck, Runway reef, Coral Gardens, Cove among others. Saw the usual suspects you find underwater, but a few things stand out. Saw perhaps the biggest stingray I've ever seen resting on the bottom. Easily 6 feet across. Can't think of a single dive where we didn't have a giant sea turtle or two and morays seemed to be hiding in almost every nook and cranny. Found a sleeping nurse shark hiding in a small cave. The only drawback was poor visibility. It reminded me very much of the diving off the coast of Costa Rica. Then again, the poor visibility could also have been due to the fact that it seemed to rain each night. Either way, outside of the Red Sea visibility is almost always a function of luck.

I dove with the Scarborough based World of Watersports (http://www.worldofwatersports.com/wow/default.aspx). The diving industry in Tobago is going through some rough times. The global recession has not spared Tobago and the number of tourists and divers is heavily down. Out of five days of diving, three of them were just the divemaster and myself. WOW has been hit harder than most because the shop is located on the grounds of the former Hilton Resort which at the moment lies shuttered after a dispute between Hilton and the TnT government over who should pay for renovation costs. Have nothing but good things to say about WOW. John Borrett, one of the owners, picked me up each morning and was good enough to answer all of my questions about local life during the drive to either the shop or the beach. Andre and Marvin are both excellent divemasters and I'll dive with them again anytime. Having a private chauffeur, boat captain and divemaster for most of my trip worked out great for me, but its probably not the ideal business model. For all of their sakes I hope business picks up soon. They deserve a break.

The only drawback to diving out of Scarborough is that the best dive sites are around Speyside which is on the north end of the island. Roughly an hour's ride by car. WOW does offer transfers to Speyside, but at an additional fee. If the opportunity presents itself I would definitely dive Tobago again, but this time I would base myself in Speyside. If I ever find myself in Scarborough, however, then WOW would be my first stop.

Latvian Tobago


As a small nation few in numbers most Latvians get a kick out of finding any traces of their culture or references to their nation in far off lands. Places which do provide ties can often lead to pilgrimages of sorts. In Chicago the Tribune Tower has one of the stones from Riga's Pulver Tornis (http://latviansonline.com/index.php/dyk/article/3889/) and in Lincoln, Nebraska you have the bust of Karlis Ulmanis on the grounds of the University of Nebraska (http://www.dailynebraskan.com/news/nu-graduate-went-on-to-become-president-of-latvia-1.1034370).

There really isn't much of the Latvian left on Tobago, but then again we weren't expecting much. We took the drive to Grand Courland Bay and then a little side trip to Fort Bennett. In Plymouth there is memorial for the first Latvian settlers in Tobago. Depending on your expectations it may or may not be worth the side trip. A visit to Grand Courland Bay stands on its own merits. Its a beautiful beach. The Latvian aspects of it just an added bonus for those so inclined. We didn't get a chance to get to Fort James, but we did visit Fort Bennett. While there isn't much of a Fort left other than a couple of cannons and some stones and a small sign offering some background and history describing the place it does offer a fantastic view of the Carribean Sea.

Overall, would I ever visit Tobago again. Probably, but this time I would go there strictly for the diving and the beaches.