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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Fly the friendly skies

I love flying. My dad has piloted various small planes since some time in the 70's. Cessnas, Piper Dakotas, Cirrus SR's, and more have carried his aviator glasses and flight logs around most of the US. A regular Saturday ritual would be a brunch flight with my brothers to ports around southern California. We'd pile in the Piper Dakota and take off, and take turns holding the yoke before Dad would land us in some remote outpost that was probably barely more than a hangar and a grease joint. We'd get a meal there, then return to Van Nuys airport then do whatever for the rest of the weekend before going back to my mom's. I've carried the ease of getting into a plane and enjoying the ride with me on my post-college career - I've logged commercial flights to over 40 cities in most states (a good number of 'em being in the great state of California). However, for my trip to Kenya, this would be a marathon of a trip - 17 hours of flying over 24 hours of traveling. I would leave my home airport on a jet plane and land in a 3rd plane almost 24 hours later. I'd better get comfortable. August 17 rolls around. My girlfriend's parents are awesome to give me a ride to the airport (thank you, guys!) and so I start the trip with no way to contact anyone once I got there. Let me back up - in all the packing and all the planning, one thing was apparent - either I'd have to get an international phone or just do without a phone for the trip. Heck, I'm going somewhere rather unconventional, so let's do the unconventional thing - do without! So I took off with only a few devices that needed electronics - my cochlear implant, and a brand new Motorola Android tablet filled with movies, music and eBooks. My entertainment center, if you will. The rest of my pack was clothes and things to give to my girlfriend when I arrived. Special things, actually. Picking mid-August to fly out was not a mere coincidence. International flying is no straightforward matter. When I landed in Chicago to change planes, I was also changing airlines from American Airlines to British Airlines. That necessitated changing airport terminals - going from Terminal 3 to Terminal 5 - and trying to find out if I need to take my bags with me. Luckily, I had a pretty good amount of time reserved for the layover, so after straightening things out, I hopped over to the International Terminal and went through security... again. At every airport I switched planes, I had to go through another layer of security. I won't get up on my soapbox this time, but really this needs to be changed. While waiting for the British Airlines flight to arrive and board, I figured out a way to get internet access for my tablet while I'm traveling, and for a fairly reasonable rate. BOINGO internet access has WiFi at many many airports internationally so I could get on the 'net and send messages and travel status updates without having to go to a insecure internet cafe (more on this later). British Airways is FABOO. Blows the pants off of any airline experience I've ever had. Even flying coach, the food was fantastic, the seating was comfortable for me, the in-seat entertainment satisfactory (no captioned movies, but I had a lot of choices and ended up watching some English subtitled foreign films). I slept most of the flight from Chicago to London, pretty uneventful. I requested the gluten-free meal in adavance of my flight, and they served me first - so nice to be able to eat, finish, get it out of the way and onward to sleeping. Oh, yeah, did I forget to mention that I hadn't slept the night before so I could avoid jet lag on this trip? I highly recommend it if you can swing it! In London, I got to see a GOREGEOUS sunrise as we descended over the city to Heathrow. London Tower bridges? Check. The London Eye? Check. The 2012 London Olympic stadiums? Check! After bustling from the plane and through security (again!!) I found out that they don't announce which gate your plane will be at until about 40 minutes before departure. Yikes. I got on the tablet and BOINGO and found out even in London I'm still some 5 hours behind Kenya time. With yet another 8 hour flight ahead of me, I made the most of my time in the airport by checking out the 2012 Olympics souvenirs - the Olympics closing ceremony had been just a few days ago and the Paraolympics were ramping up in a few days - nice timing to be between events! Next up, arriving in Kenya.....

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Kenya, kenya, kenyaaaaaaa

I took a trip to Kenya, Africa, 3rd planet from the Sun, Sol, Milky Way Galaxy, the Universe earlier this year. My favorite song about the trip: ;-) Actually, let me back up. This trip took a lot of work to plan and execute. I've been overseas off the continental United States two times prior to this - both were very straightforward, short trips to touristy destinations. My passport is pretty underused, and I've always been itching for a reason to use it. Heck I got it more than half a decade ago on the chance I would be just off the coast of America in the Island of Bermuda (assuming I didn't get lost in the Bermuda Triangle, of course). With my girlfriend there, I now had a reason to go exploring Africa. So time to dive into planning! It took several weeks of dialogue just to even nail down a couple of weeks when to be there. Apparently, no one in Kenya follows any kind of schedule or clock, so stuff seems to run on "someday" and "whenever." We took some good guesses and figured with some leeway, I could get into Kenya by August 17th and out on the 31st. This was maybe January or February and even then it felt like I was late actually ordering my flights out there and back. The cornerstone of the trip was to climb Mt Kenya, the 2nd highest mountain in the continent. This beast is nearly 5000 meters above sea level (that's some 16,300+ feet to us Yanks) and has to be summited over a number of days. The highest I've gone is 14,200 feet (Mt Lincoln in the continental United States) and even that only took most of a day to get up and down. So with that set, now we had to figure out what else we wanted to do. See the lions? Safari tours are quite a time commitment. Hit the Indian Ocean and the beach? It'll take a few days on some dangerous roads to make our way to the coast and back. Just hole up in a hotel and catch up? Romantic, but why come 8,000+ miles just to see the inside of a hotel room? We settled on at least heading to the beach for a few days after we summit, to celebrate our heady accomplishment. This still took several months of discussion and price shopping and collaborating online, but once we figured out what to do and what to pack, it was now just a matter of catching the right flights and heading to the dark continent! Next: The long flights....

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Volleyball can be maddening

Some days are sooooo great - I smash the ball down with impunity, I block the unblockable guys on the other team, I serve the sliciest spinning serves that the other team can't figure out how to return, and pass the smoothest passes to our setter. Other days I'm shanking easy serves, faced with terrible off-sets that I can't slam, serves that are supposed to float just over the net instead get caught up, and guys dink perfectly over me all day long. Gah. Today was the former day. :-D Yay for a great night!

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Needs more taste - Gluten Free Ugali and Kale

So I'm adventurous in cooking.  I'll try anything (gluten-free) once.  Maybe.  I'm not gonna end up like the girl who has only practically eaten McDonalds Chicken McNuggets since she was 2 years old.  I'm gonna have a balanced, tasty diet of mostly food I cook and know what goes into it.  To that end, I'm interested in trying my hand at staple African foods.  My first adventure was last night, in an attempt to make ugali (African polenta) and kale.

Now, I've had kale before - once I've made this awesome awesome cream of potato soup and some barbecued meat with my buddy Charlie, but it didn't tickle my taste buds when it was a part of the soup.  It was kind of an added filler to it, which was fine, but it didn't make me want more.  The steak, however, was fabooooooooo.

African polenta, or ugali as they call it in the Swahili language in Kenya, is basically mush from corn, and the ingredients made me go "well, that's basically grits..." which are okay and somewhat even tasty when buttered and salted.  Not the healthiest of meals, mind you, but edible and filling on cold days.  Now, I grew up in a rather warm climate, so even during the winter I rarely had hot food.  Most of the time it would be some kind of toasted waffle that I ate on the bus to school, or a bowl of sugared oatmeal with fruit (Quaker Oats Instant Oatmeal was the BEST).  Grits weren't on my meal list.  Once I moved to St. Louis, I started looking for more, ah, temperature appropriate meals to make at home on cold days.  Freeeezing days.  Brrrrrr.  So out came pop tarts and toasted bagels and stuff like that.  When I went gluten free, meal choices became a bit harder to find.  So grits made my list, as well as home made pancakes with chocolate chips... mmmmm! :-D

Anyway, so ugali sounds like butterless grits.  Ehhhhh.  Let's give it a whirl anyway!

Ingredients: (serves 6)

4 cups of water
2 cups of Gluten Free Red Mills Cornmeal from Hyvee

2 tsp of salt (I didn't have plain salt, so I left this out)

Stirfry Kale:
There are a bunch of different stir fry kale recipes out there, but I opted to just do olive oil and kale for this round:
3 tbs of Veggie oil
3 bunches of kale (I didn't want a lot of kale, so I only used one bunch of kale.  I also got it from California! ;-) ).

2 medium size bowls (bigger than 4 qts)
1 pot (4-6 qts)
1 stirfry pan (10-12 inches)
1 wooden stirrer
1 wooden flat headed stirrer
1 cup measurer
chopping block

The ugali takes a while to cook and cool, so I recommend you cook the ugali first then cook the kale.

1) Measure 4 cups of water, put in pot.  Turn on the stove heat for that pot to HIGH
2) Measure 2 cups of cornmeal, set aside.
3) When water reaches a boil, turn the heat down to medium or medium low.
4) Start slowly adding the cornmeal into the boiling water while stirring.  Some instructions say to add slowly by hand, letting it slip through your fingers into the water.  You can also put the cornmeal into the bowl and slowly sift it into the pot.
5) Stir while adding, making sure you eliminate lumps ASAP.  If you don't, the cornmeal starts bubbling and splashing hot cornmeal all over.  It BURNS!
6) Stir for 10 minutes, eliminating lumps, scraping the bottom of the pot and the sides.  You'll get a workout. Trust me, your arms WILL get tired.
7) 10 minutes are up!  By now, the mixture should be very thick, and might not be sticking to the side of the pot anymore.  Take it off the stove, Get that bowl, and scrape out the mixture into the bowl.  Let it cool off a bit, maybe 10 minutes, you don't want to burn yourself when you start handling it.

Now that the ugali is done, let's do the kale.

1) Get your pan, put on the veggie oil, turn pan heat on stove to medium
2) Using the knife and chopping block, chop the kale up into bite size chunks.  The kale reduces a lot, so you don't need them to be small chunks.
3) The oil should be hot by now - you can check by holding your hand up over the pot and feeling the warmth, or by dropping a few droplets of water in the pan in the oil - they should immediately sizzle and evaporate.
4) Drop in your kale.  The oil may get absorbed quickly, that's okay, the kale is very dry.  Cook for about 10 minutes, or until the kale is withered.  Kale is normally a very light color, and when it's withered it's very dark.
5) Take out kale, put into another bowl.

Hopefully the ugali has cooled by this point.  If you're able to handle the temperature of the ugali, I suggest you wet your hands, grab some, form into a ball, then put onto a plate to serve.  Add the kale to the plate.

The idea is to use your hands to get a bite-size chunk of ugali, form into a flat shape, get some kale on it, fold it up, then eat it.  Sound good?

It was edible, but very very very chewy - I almost didn't want to finish my plate.  It was extremely close in taste to grits, and since this was without butter, it was quite bland.  The kale was okay, but there is a bit of an acrid taste to kale that I can taste, so it's okay tasting while plain but it could definitely be tastier.

I was able to finish the last of my ugali by adding some bacon salt to it in the end.  Much better! :-)

Oh, yeah - if you're like me and eating for one, this recipe serves 6 - I cut down on the kale, but I didn't know how to scale down the ugali.  Next time I'll scale that down too so there's less waste. Experimenting!  Also helps to have a chip clip for the cornmeal bag... until next time!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


I like to absorb stuff.  Garbage in, no garbage out, sometimes is how I feel.  I love to read and pick up mundane new tidbits of information, remain ahead of the game or the curve or the pack or whatever have you on tons of different things, be it the news or technical stuff or sports or art or geography or history.  It's like I have a bottomless pit that I need to fill up with knowledge, stat!

Be that as it may, I do like to engage in battles of wordsmithing.  Not so much that I would hold up an airplane by playing "Words with Friends," but I could dig a sit down session of Scrabble and see how many points I can score with the dictionary in my brain.

Funny thing is, I clearly remember which game got me into wanting to know more words to use and put together and have fun doing so.  Boggle, which was a fantastic game for me at 5 or 6, was a blast to play, making a ton of noise while shaking up the word blocks (drove my parents NUTS) and then competing against my big brother to put words together.  I don't know why, but not too many other people liked playing that game with me, opting for the more mainstream Scrabble.  I can definitely remember a few nights at CSUN playing against my roommate Kyle and my buddy Charlie and Kyle would almost always win, it was sooooo infuriating!  Stuff like that kept my brain fresh as we studied to compete in the National Association for the Deaf College Bowl which is held every two years at the NAD conference, alongside events such as the Miss Deaf America (now the Miss Deaf America Ambassador contest).

So, I really started drooling when I saw this over at the rather ridiculous portion of Hammacher Schlemmer's catalog - Hammacher Schlemmer, for those of you who don't know them, have been around for more than 150 years and have offered some oddball things in their catalogs, and this one takes the cake... and I want it!  Scrabble on my basement wall!

Edit: Bah, the college bowl link has zero, zilch, nada information as of this posting.  I'll link to the 2012 NAD conference program page for some information, at least.