Saturday, December 19, 2015

75 Miles from Nowhere

Da'mit the KLR650 Adventure rig left me stranded 75 miles from nowhere. 

Went for a ride in the Sam Houston National Forest north of Montgomery, Texas.

Beautiful day, dirt trails were dry after a week of rain. The sandy soil drains quickly.
Stopped now and then for a few photos.

Then, right about here......

On a dead end trail, she dies! 

No amount of cracking restarts her. 
Check gas level, plenty!
Check the spark, fine! 
Break out the tools and open things up.

Finally determine I can't fix her here. Repack everything and close it up. 

Made several calls to find someone to come rescue me. Is impossible to tell anyone where I am. The trail has no name or number. Decided to walk the couple of miles to the nearest road and hitchhike a ride into Montgomery, a small one stoplight town. 

Hiking out, met three different deer hunters entering the woods for the afternoon hunt.  Reaching the gravel county road, start walking toward town. Finally a truck comes along and stops. Ronnie and Angie agree to take me to town which was not where they were heading. Many thanks guys for the lift and a Merry Christmas to you too. 

Finally reached my wife christmas shopping at the mall. She agrees to come pick me up.
By the time she arrives at the Valero gas station in Montgomery and we return home, it is dark. Too late to pull Da'mit out of the woods. The next morning, hitch up a trailer to the truck, impose on a couple of friends and we return to the forest.  By noon, Da'mit is back in the garage. 

Time to opened her up to find what failed.
Finally determined the carburetor that I rebuild once, still has flakes and crud inside from sitting so long before I bought the bike. Ordered a new carb off eBay. Da'mit is now running fine once more. 

Moral of the story, make sure your cell phone is well charged before going into the forest. 
Or leave a trail of gingerbread crumbs. 

Merry Christmas Ya'll.
May your 2016 be full of adventure, tales, trails and travels.


Friday, December 4, 2015

Snippets from Warsaw

It's a cool morning for the drive to Warsaw.
The highway is wide, smooth, with traffic moving swiftly.

The farms here are being worked. Even spotted a farmer on his tractor plowing the field.  
The first and only person we have seen actually working the land.

Small more prosperous country village in Poland

This is an encouraging sign.  There must be a thriving agricultural class in Poland. 
They wouldn't be selling farm equipment if no one was buying.  
We learned private land ownership is allowed and encouraged. The farmers are working their own land, no communes, no forced labor, just capitalism at work. 
Work your fingers to the bone 'cause you get to keep and enjoy the fruits of your labor. 

The Fields of Weeds Question. 

The nagging question was: Why did we see mile after mile of farm land in Russia knee deep in weeds, in Belarus the land is being working but no workers in sight and in Poland, we saw farmers plowing a field on a Sunday morning. 

The answer:  Private land ownership and Government policies

Previous USSR and current Russian government policies has completely destroyed the agrarian class by not allowing private farm ownership. Even worse, at times the government allowed and encouraged farmers to work the land, said they could keep their crops, reaping the profits of their labor.  Only to change policies and re-confiscate the land again.  Now no one is willing to invest time, money and back breaking labor into cultivating the land, making it profitable, if the government is going to take it away again. The people are not stupid. They don't trust a government with a history of saying one thing and doing another.

This policy flip-flopping has created another problem. 
Today, not only is no one working the land, but with each succeeding generation, there are fewer and fewer people who know how to successfully farm. Farming is best learned by growing up on a farm. Learning the millions of little details and processes that make farm life productive takes time.  Learning by living the life style that makes a farm function can take years of experience. A young man from the city who has never seen or lived on a farm does not have the slightest idea of what to do or how to do it.  

With no incentive and no obligation to work the land, young people moved to the cities seeking work, leaving the fields to become overgrown with weeds. The sad part is the country youth are not prepared, trained or educated for the jobs available in the city. Which is why alcoholism is now a major problem in Russia today.  The governments solution?  They just announced they are going to limit the amount of Vodka a person can buy each day.... what? Russia has the farmland to feed not only their citizens but a major portion of the world's population too. 

Back in the 1950's, according to my father,  the USSR tried to lure American farmers to move to Russia as they saw Americans knew how to make a farm productive. A few even went. After several years of that, government policies changed and all the land was once again confiscated.  With no incentive to pour blood sweat and tears into making a farm productive, people abandoned the land and moved to the cities where unemployment is now rampant among the uneducated country folk. 

The Soviets are not the only world government whose policies have done more to destroy a class or group of its own people with "good intentions" that have had disastrous consequences.  The United States has destroyed the African American "family" with its War on Poverty policies that disintegrated family formation among the disadvantaged. 

Prior to the "War on Poverty", the African American community enjoyed higher than average employment, high family formation (i.e. marriage) and a low rate of out of wedlock childbirths.
After 50 years of our government spending billions of dollars "fighting poverty", those statistics are dramatically reversed to where today the African American community has the highest level of unemployment, the lowest marriage rate and the highest number of childbirths out of wedlock. Look up the writings of the Harlem-raised, Harvard-educated economist Dr. Thomas Sowell if you doubt me on this.

Back to the Poland......
Entering Warsaw, those tall skinny trams don't take up much space in the center of the streets. 
From the empty streets in Belarus and the old town charm of Viluis, now we are in the modern energetic city of Warsaw.  One can feel it in how people walk and talk here. 

Famous bronze statue of Chopin in the Lazienki Park. 
During the summer, free Chopin recitals are offered daily.

It's now Fall, so we missed any summer concert.
Not to be disappointed, we were invited to attended a private Chopin recital
with a professor from the Warsaw Conservatory. Was interesting to hear her interpretations of Chopin compositions as opposed to what we typically hear in the West.

The professor is very talented and a gifted performer.
Though she spoke no English, she offered us her interpretations of Chopin's greatest works.
This recital ranks as one of the top three highlights of our tour, along with
the Russian Ballet and Red Square. 

Here is a snippet of the recital.....  aren't iPhones great?

In front of the Warsaw Conservatory stands the Polish painter artist Jan Matejko 
and his jester honoring the Polish artistic community.

The jester and the model....

One of the last remaining old post war buildings in Warsaw, is now slated for demolition. 
The residents have been removed and relocated to newer buildings, making room for a modern apartment building, like those in the background.

Among the empty buildings set to be torn down, discovered an isolated courtyard with no church in sight. Yet there stands a solitary statue of Christ keeping watch
over his flock of dumpsters and dust bins.

There has to be a fascinating history behind this now abandoned statue. Would love to hear it.

Sweeping leaves in the Fall is a full time job for the gardeners.

Heavy chains and lock with a well scratched bike has all but eliminated the problem of 
lamp posts disappearing in Warsaw.

To walk to the Mall nearest the hotel, we had to go underground through a modern clean subway station to reach the other side of a busy thoroughfare. They did not allow pedestrian crossing at street level, too many cars, trucks and trains.

Warsaw today is bustling, modern and thriving.  Having rebuilt itself after its near total destruction during World War II and later during the Soviet domination.

Like a phoenix, it has arisen from the ashes of its past. Congratulations to the Polish people on accomplishing this rebirth.

Our farewell dinner in Warsaw before heading home.
A toast to Anna our guide and Warner our driver, we are deeply indebted to you for safely transporting us through a fascinating three weeks of discovery, learning and experiences we will always remember.

Tomorrow forty strangers who became friends will depart for different cities around the world.  


Monday, November 23, 2015

Snippets from Vilnius, Lithuania

Amparo and I fell in love with Lithuania. But first we have to leave the Soviet Bloc. 
At the Lithuanian border crossing, we surrendered our Russian Transit documents which were good for both Russia and Belarus. Then one goes through Lithuanian immigration as they are part of the European Union. Put away a few leftover Rubles and dig out the Euros.

What a quaint beautiful country Lithuania. Vilnius, the capital is small and compact with a population of only 540,000. The people are warmer and friendlier than the last two countries, still not a lot of smiles though. If you greet them on the street, they will at least acknowledge your greeting.

Downtown Vilnius is modern yet they preserved its old Old Town which lies directly across the river to the left of the white church. We stayed in the old town with its numerous narrow cobblestone streets heading off is all directions. Pick one and walk. Promise what you see and find will be gratifying.

The 13th century Gediminas Castle on the hill overlooking old and new Vilnius is now a museum,  . 

Gediminas Castle and the Church of the Holy Mother of God rise high 
above the old town neighborhoods.

Our hotel, the Radisson Blu Astoria fronted the old cobblestone Rotusesaikste plaza.
 From our warm room, we could watch townspeople scurry home crossing the open plaza holding their collars up tight against the cold night wind.

Last night's frost greets the morning sun. Fall has arrived with winter around the corner. 

Some of the old town cobblestone streets was actually wide enough for a car, 
which makes them a newer "old" street. Old old streets are only cart width.

The Vilnus Roman Catholic Cathedral and belfry. In the 13th century, the belfry was part of a defensive wall surrounding the city. When the wall came down, the tower was converted to a bell tower for the church.

St. Nicolas' Church was a Catholic church until the 18th century when a Russian General ordered it confiscated and converted to a Russian Orthodox church. 

Enough of the churches, let's explore some narrow side streets.

Here is an interesting little street. Where will it lead? 
Some might answer that with "a mugging?" No,  people still reside on these streets. Schools, shops and churches populate these areas too. They don't want crime in their neighborhoods any more than you and I want it in ours. Never once did we feel threatened or uncomfortable while wandering these little side streets. Not here in Vilnius nor in any of the countries we visited. 

A local art gallery was promoting their latest exhibit high on the walls.

Amparo stopped to admire a large street drawing on an underpass.

These little stands were throughout the city, where I could find my daily Diet Coke; 80¢ for the 20 oz bottle. The clerk inside stayed nice and warm while customers with collars flipped high bought their latte and smokes. Smoking is still quite popular across most of Europe. 

This is the third person we saw sweeping leaves.
By the looks of the tree, his work is not done.

Make that fourth... Doesn't anyone have a rake? 
What was nice? Not hearing the sound of gas powered leaf blowers.

Fashionable lady studying the latest entertainment announcements.

Just outside the old town, Vilnius has many quaint tranquil residential streets in and around the city. 
Love the fall colors, very calming.

A modern corner grocery store advertises in BIG BOLD COLORFUL IMAGES.

Like school children lined up for a class photo, all the flowers came out to soak up 
the sun before winter arrives. 

In a cafe window... can only offer a poor translation: "Big pot of boiled potatoes???"

We wanted to experience a typical Lithuanian dinner complete with folk music and games. 

To make the atmosphere feel more authentic, it was set in a cellar with vaulted brick wall/ceiling. Maybe an old wine cellar?

Some of the folk musicians were young, but they played with heart and soul.

There were two games where Kojak John from Australia and I were pitted against each other.

First,  we were each given a hammer and a nail. The contest was to see who was the fastest to drive their nail all the way into a wooden stump. Sounds simple enough. The hidden challenge arose when we started hammering. The stump was uneven on the bottom, causing it to rocked from side to side with each blow. The nail heads bobbled and flopped side to side. After many many thumps on the stump, I finally won without bending my nail.

On to the second Challenge. 
Which of us can chug a large mug of beer the fastest. Sound easy, right? 
But try it while blindfolded, AND... 
with each contestant hoisting the other guy's mug.
Good thing they draped extra large bibs over our fronts. 

While John poured beer into my mouth I did the same to him, at least... 
I think it was him, being blindfolded and all.

John beat me hands down on that one.  Or should I say, beat me bottoms up?

And now for some dancing... Lithuanian style.

Back out in the streets, rental bikes but no one using them. 
Seeing how the people in the background are bundled up, yes it was quite cool. 

Amparo haggling prices with a street vendor whose hair matched the rental bicycles. 

In many parts of Europe there is an old custom of young newlyweds placing a lock on a public fence and throwing away the key to symbolize their commitment to each other. The key is suppose to be thrown where it cannot be found... ever.  Fences near a deep river are the popular place for being 'locked'.

After the cold dehumanized feeling we felt in previous countries, Lithuania was such a joy to experience. The scale is small, the narrow streets interesting and the people are friendly. 
Highly recommend Vilnius to all. 

 We drive to Warsaw tomorrow, the last country of the tour Poland.


Sunday, November 22, 2015

Snippets from Minsk, Belarus

Crossing over the border from Russia into Belarus (after paying a US$73 VISA Fee to Belarus), noticed that the farms were not overgrown with weeds like they were in Russia. Did not actually see anyone working but the land is being tilled.

The guide told us Belarus is still run by a socialist President who believes in communal farms. When I asked about the lack of active farming in Russia, the answer was...  the land there wasn't very good.  Hmmm, more government BS.

What difference does a border make? Fallow ground becomes fertile by crossing a political line?
Not likely! Will keep pressing the question...

Though we have read and heard about Minsk many times in history, had no idea what to expect.
We were very disappointed.

Arriving in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, we see huge red and green signs and billboards everywhere. All promoting October 11th as the national election day. Since voting is mandatory of all citizens, a big turn-out is expected.  Although, everyone seems to already knows who will win... again, the current supreme ruler President Alexander Lukashenko. Who has won every election for the last twenty plus years. No term limits here...

Afterwards I read that 87% of the population voted to reelect Lukashenko.
Another article stated 85% of the population turned out to vote. 
Hmmmm... Guess he is so popular some voters were moved 
to give him an extra vote of confidence. 

Central government buildings here are cold, impersonal, uninspired monoliths.  
Maybe they should leave the election posters up to hide the boring facade, at least it would give a festive christmas feeling with the bold red and green. 

Eight thirty in the morning, a huge empty plaza in front of a huge government building. Where are all the people? Anybody....?

Amparo poses in front of another hero statue in an empty plaza.
Do their architects only have square and rectangular models to work with? To go from the overly ornate 'wedding cake' buildings of Moscow to the stark LegoLand looking buildings of Minsk is a huge shift in architectural philosophy for two countries that were both part of the Soviet Union at one time.

Another over the top monument to... something. Clean, neat, manicured landscaping,
 but void of any people.

Bold city park entry gate for at least one person. No families, no strollers, no joggers.

Finally found some people outdoors in Minsk, a grounds crew.  
In the early morning chill,  mowing and cleaning to keep the plaza spotless.

Belarusian delivery trucks on a clean streets  Orderly drivers, no loud horns, no racing or swerving from one lane to another. Not many people out either... perhaps all home studying the candidate slate, deciding for whom to vote?

On a street corner in downtown Minsk, a more modern glass topped subway entrance/exit. 

The only thing in Minsk that stopped me in my tracks, made my jaw drop,
this brass plaque above the entrance to the Roman Catholic church.
Founded in 1067. 1067..... think about it.

Nine hundred and forty-eight years ago...
To Americans anything over a hundred years old is an antique,
 over two hundred years is ancient, over five hundred is prehistoric.

The oldest Roman Catholic Church in Minsk has a slaying of a dragon statue rather than a crucifix out front. The friendly Priest personally came out to welcome us inside.

Our local guide said the Russian Orthodox Churches discourage visitors and could not get us into one?  Hmm, the Russian Orthodox Priests at the monastery in Russia didn't seems to mind visitors,
or was it because they charged us to come in and buy bottles of fountain of youth water?

Our hotel was of a Picasso inspired architectural design. Which made it stand out in stark contrast to the government's simplified geometric shapes.

The hotel may be one of a kind, but we hated our room.
There were huge spotlights outside our window to illuminate the building exterior at night,
which also illuminated our room all night.  We wore sleep masks.

Like the hotel structure itself, its desserts were over the top is design.
Overly elaborate on the outside but lacking substance or flavor on the inside.
Maybe pleasing to the eye but hard to stomach.  I know, this one I ate.

It's like socialism. Looks good, even appetizing. But really depressing
when you actually have to swallow it.

Minsk is very clean, organized yet strangely lacking of people. 
 Oddly disappointing and sad. The least inspiring country we have been in so far.

The only smile we received was from the Roman Catholic priest.

Next up, tomorrow we drive to Vilnus, Lithuania.