Thursday, September 30, 2004

Abrupt Awakening

Abrupt Awakening
30 September 2004

After playing Cheat the Sandman and losing yesterday, I was plenty tired last night. I got back into the rack at about 7pm right after dinner and don’t remember anything until I woke up around 3am. Thought for a minute about showering and going into the office to check email, but decided to just lay in bed for awhile longer. I did end up falling back to sleep.

At 450am, both Scott and I got shaken out of bed by a loud ba-boom. I could feel the concussion as it hit the trailer wall and it also shook the window in the frame like it usually does when the helo’s fly overhead. But there we no helo’s flying overhead. Scott and I both rolled out of bed to the floor and found our flak vest and helmet and just stayed put for a few minutes until we thought there were probably no more incoming.

I peeked out the door and around the corner and knew that the mortar or rocket had landed fairly close to us, maybe at or near the TMC (medical clinic around the corner just east of our trailer) but wanted to have a look. As I got around the corner of the trailer, I saw in the full-moon lit night black rolls of smoke rising and flames. At first I was sure it was the TMC on the northeast side that was hit, but as more of us walked closer, we saw that the impact was at the far southeast corner of Dodge North about 200 yards or so east of the TMC.

At least one trailer had taken a direct hit and was engulfed in flames. The TMC personnel were just getting the ambulances to the site just around the corner from them. With the way the trailers at that end are situated, if one trailer gets hit, probably two are going to take damage.

Couldn’t get too close because of the emergency vehicles, but at least one trailer/six occupants were impacted. I heard a group leader trying to account for lost/missing weapons and was hoping that didn’t mean lost people. He rattled off at least three names of occupants whose weapons were confirmed “lost”.

On his way over, Scott had run into someone who took some shrapnel to the foot. So he helped them over to the TMC. Other soldiers were being assisted with burns and getting over to the TMC either by ambulance or by foot, depending on their condition.

By 0530am emergency personnel were trying to get people to go back to their trailers and take precautions as necessary. They were mostly just trying to get the gawkers to go away.

Later in the chow hall when I was eating breakfast, I had heard that out of the six people in the trailer, all go out, but one didn’t make it. Found out later today that another occupant of the hit trailer passed during the day. A female Tech Sgt that was at the table was saying that she heard the “whoosh” go overhead, so it was probably a rocket. I guess that mortars don’t usually make that sound overhead. Could be wrong, but I haven’t been standing around in the middle of the night to compare the differences of either an incoming rocket or mortar.

I hear that a tarp was put over the trailer, but I am not going over there yet. I’m curious, but out of respect for the people impacted, I would rather not gawk over someone else’s misfortune. I guess people go over to see and reassure themselves that they made it through this one and that it could have been them. Saw some of the pictures tonight making the rounds of the hit trailer and the two trailers that burned up. Very little is left. One picture is very touching and has a keychain with a partially charred picture of a girlfriend on it. Next to that, an opened photo album with the edges burned. Very humbling and very sad.

Even just talking with a female civilian at the chow hall this morning, gives you a feel for how each person deals with the uneasiness of the situation. She was pretty freaked out about the situation since she had slept through the whole thing. “Nine more days and I’m going on leave,” was about all she could say.

Scott was a bit quiet about the whole thing. It can make you a bit introspective about your whole purpose here and whether it is actually worth the price that might be paid. I’m still doing alright with things myself. Scott did say one reassuring thing. At least when you work mids, which by the way is when most mortars and rockets come in, we are in block buildings which are further into the base and have more protection. Small reassurance, but better than no reassurances.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Cheating the Sandman

Cheating the Sandman
29 September 2004

My trailer-mate Scott has taught me a little game that I’m calling Cheat the Sandman. When you work midnight shift, he has convinced me that you can manage to fool yourself into thinking you get a full “two day weekend” out of a 24 hour break. We have managed that by staying up until the afternoon after getting off a mid and catching a few hours of sleep in the afternoon. Get up at about 6 and eat dinner and then go back to bed around 10pm. Get up at 8am and then stay up until about 2 or 3 pm and take a nap until dinner and then go on shift at 8pm. And there ya go…two days for the price of one!

So playing Cheat the Sandman yesterday, I rode my bike (finally) with Scott up to the big PX on North Victory and also did some shopping at the bizarre. Not a bad ride at all. They have finally partially paved the back road to North Victory (except where the old retired tank treads are still in place as speed bumps), so the trip wasn’t too bad on the backside either! Found the third season of Will and Grace on video at the PX. I have so many DVD’s stacked up to watch already, but had to have this one. Bought a few odds and ends, but mainly wanted to go to the bizarre, so we headed over there next.

I was looking for a gift for my friend Barb at the bizarre. I had seen a booth that had some great local made pottery objects that made me think of her every time I was up there, so I have been wanting to get something for her for some time now. Barb used to be a potter before she gave it up to do massage therapy.

I found a beautiful table-top clay tea lamp holder. It has a base and then a top part that has an Arabic saying on it. The words are written into the clay circling around it with the middle of the letters open to the inside of the lamp so the light will shine through the openings in no particular pattern. The woman at the booth had explained that each piece has its own story. This particular piece has a verse that say’s in Arabic, “You can love as many as you want, but you will always return to your first love. You can move from house to house, but you will always long to be home.”

I thought that the beginning part of the poem was so appropriate since I always had the impression from Barb that her skills and love of pottery will always be her “first love” and the massage is a better gig from the cash-flow side of the equation. Either way, she has a blessing for working with her hands. She is one of the people that helped me get relief from my herniated disc and back problems more than a couple of times. She practices Rolfing which is a form of very deep tissue massage. It is not for the feint of heart, but it was the only thing that gave me relief when I was twisted up like a pretzel!

Hopefully she will love it like I did. I have a knack for being a bit too artsy in my taste of modern art objects. Just ask my friend Rachel who is the keeper of the “Major Award”, a very modern interpretation of a flying fish in stainless steel that I bought at Market Days on Halsted Street a few years back. The “major award” namesake being taken from “The Christmas Story” where the father has won that goofy lamp of a flapper girl leg in the fishnet stocking that the Mom “accidentally” ends up breaking.

On the ride back, Scott wanted to take some pictures of the tank yard off to the side across from the helo pad and in front of Communications Hill here on North Victory. I think the sign said, “Hanks Gently Used Tanks.” He also wanted to get a shot of the courthouse on base where the Saddam trials have been taking place. Should also note here that we are really getting “UpTown”. They have been putting down sidewalks around here almost as fast as asphalt was being laid down the main street of the Red Light District in Santa Elena, Guatemala!! I’m waiting for the white picket fences and flower beds to go in next. What is happening to the nice country feel we used to have going on here?

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Don't Worry, Be Happy (Tomorrow's Payday)

Don't Worry, Be Happy (Tomorrow's Payday)
22 September 2004

Been back about a week now. I'm off tonight, but decided to come in and read email and waste some time. I'm winging it today--didn't write in the journal first and then transcribe as I usually do.

The weather has started to get cooler here. The day temps are staying around the upper 90's and the nights are going down in the mid 60's. The weather has been nice, but still no rain in sight. It was kind of nice getting rained on in Cologne and then getting soaked to the bone two days in London.

Bought a used bike this week for $25. Chris upgraded to a better bike and was dumping his Huffy. I have been wanting a vehicle to get me to the big PX over on North Victory since they took the (motor) vehicles away from us. Whoo-hoo, so now I can go shopping at the bizarre again. Scott made a trip over to North Victory today while I was sleeping and I had asked him to pick me up a bike helmet so that I could actually ride the bike I just bought. Don't ya just hate "helmet hair?" Rules is rules.

Started running again yesterday. I'm a bit sore, but not too bad for having been off for four weeks total. Before you know it I'll be back up to 4 miles. I did notice that since it is cooler now, I don't feel so wasted after my run. There were days that even at 830am, I would have to stop because of the heat.

The natives have been quiet lately too. A few mortars last week and over part of the weekend, but this week has been strangely quiet. Maybe it was a full-moon thing. Glad to see the moon out again. It gets so dark out here with the moon gone that you had to carry a flashlight everywhere at night over the past week.

People are already getting set to leave next month. Offer letters received and in some cases denied. A few are only extending their time, but some will do another year. I would say that in the cases of those not staying, family has been the major concern. It is hard to be away from family for that long of a time. My sister best explained it to me that for me it is easier because I am here and know what is going on with me. But then the family back home still wonders and will never truely understand what we are doing every minute, how we live here, how we tolerate the living conditions, how we tolerate the threat, how close are the threats, how often are there perceived threats and why don't we just come home.

Even though I send home pictures, the views of my still-life pictures don't mesh with the live video garbage that the news media back home are pumping into your brains at 4pm,5pm,6pm, 10pm and again at 6am and 24X7 on CNN and Fox. Blood and guts sell advertising time. Our psuedo-normal lives or existances here differ from what you see on TV. Yes, we have had some incoming mortars and rockets. Yes, there have been stray bullets and people injured. Some of the soldiers based here actually do live that TV existence when they are out and on duty in Baghdad or Tikrit or Fallujah or An Najaf. But for a contractor doing telecom support, we are more sheltered. Our mission is different. As different at every person's reason for being here and/or staying here. I guess all that I can say is, "Don't worry."

Friday, September 17, 2004

Finally Back in Baghdad

Finally Back in Baghdad
15 September 2004

Why someone would be relieved to be back in Baghdad is beyond me. It only took five days for a 1-1/2 hour flight. No mishaps and even the landing and approach into Baghdad was smooth. Maybe I was just too tired to notice if anything was amiss.

The ride back to Camp Victory was enlightening. The highway to (Saddam) Baghdad International Airport is now open, so we have a different route back to Victory. We are behind the walled section, so I didn't feel like it was dangerous, but this is the first time that we have had to clear Iraqi checkpoints. Two Iraqi checkpoints and an American checkpoint. Now the roads lead us to Camp Slayer (ISG) and then to the tunnel under the highway from Slayer to Victory. I had known there was a tunnel, but never realized how big it was. It's like a three lane viaduct and all nicely paven and lit up.

Almost all of our ITT vehicles have been taken away now and given to the multinational support people that work for ITT here in Iraq. So that means no more laundry trips to ISG, no trips to that nice big PX on North Victory unless by bus or bike. The washer is also gone from bldg 7, so now KBR will be doing my laundry. Say good bye to any whites that I had--it will all be light gray after two washings by KBR.

I'm finding out now that the probable reason for no flights out to Baghdad on the 11th was a barrage of incoming mortars. My roommate said that he heard 11 or 12 mortars whoosh overhead about 0530 on Sunday. He slept with his battle gear on the bed next to him for the past few nights. Sounds like he wasn't alone in his thinking.

Heard a few mortars last night before I fell asleep. I ended up sleeping for some 15 hours when I got back and didn't hear too much of anything once I was out. At least I'm sleeping soundly again. Still kind of catching up with life here. I've slowed down and am too relaxed still from the vacation. Also getting back into the mids schedule. So I guess it's a sort of jet lag or maybe culture-lag. Trying to get back into the Camp Victory mindset is taking me some time.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

Baghdad Bound via Kuwait...again and again and again and again

Baghdad Bound via Kuwait...again and again and again and again
13 September 2004

The flight from Frankfurt back to Kuwait City went flawless. (this should have been an omen that nothing else from here on out would go well.) I called the ITT rep once I got through customs. He said to look for some Army guys holding a sign for military members and I could catch a ride on the bus back to Doha that way. The plane arrived at Kuwait at 1930, but we didn't finally pull out of the airport until after midnight. They didn't want to go until we had a full bus. So what should have been a 45 minute ride was a 5 hour wait.

Once off the bus, I reported in to building six that I was back and then over to building ten to see if the flight manifest for Baghdad flights were posted yet. No flight availability postings until between the hours of 2 am and 5 am.

So I took my lazy body back over to the "ITT Hotel" in bldg 18, which as a matter of fact still does exist. I had bad info back in my posting on my way out. Well, who should I see sitting in front of bldg 18 but Harvey (one of my tech control coworkers) and Jeff McLellan! It was great to see familiar faces again. We spent time catching up with one another as we all just got off of leave, checking the postings for flights out. Got word of an 0830 roll call, and it was already 0300. I took the chance to wash all the dirty laundry that I've been dragging around Europe before having to go back to Baghdad.

0830 rolled around and we went over to bldg 10, but didn't get manifested on the flight. Next roll call was at 1330. I caught a few winks, but not any REM sleep, which would have been nice at this point. We made the roll for 1330 and dragged ourselves and luggage on the truck and bus and headed out to Alli Al Salem. I'll try to make this short. Finally at 0430 the next morning, the Army (in all their infinite wisdom) canceled the flight, but never told us! We sat in that damned quansit hut they were using as a terminal with everyone sprawled out on the hard wood floor because there were no sturdy chairs to sleep in and no cots and waited for the knuckleheads to let us know flight status. "Oh, we forgot you were out there!" What a way to run an operation.

I did get to eat MRE's for the first time. The Thai chicken was tolerable with the hot sauce added for flavor (which most of the food is required to have removed) and the crackers were so dry....(how dry were they?) that they could haved been used as that sawdust stuff the janitors used to throw down on vomit at school!

Each trip requires the passengers to load all luggage onto the trucks, then off of the trucks, then build the pallets-stacking all luggage on the pallets. Now let's do it in reverse. Now we're depalletizing luggage for 45, then moving luggage again from the broken down bus which broke down in the parking lot before we even got out of Alli Al Salem. Finally we arrived back at Camp Doha at around 0630am (some 14 hours after original departure).

It's now Friday the 10th and we have roll call again scheduled for 1330. Tried to catch a few winks again, but you get so wound up from all the back and forth stuff, who can sleep? It's to the point that I don't know if I'm coming or going.

1330 Roll call, only 27 of the original 45 pax (passengers) are called. Space available means if space if available you get to fly. We are cargo, sheep, things according to how the loadmaster manifests us. Our convoy leaders wait for the Balad flight so that two Humvees are needed instead of four for our convoy to the airport. Halfway to the airport, the Balad bus breaks down. About 20 people sitting in a broken down bus in 120 degree heat is not a good thing. But, not to worry. Someone has phoned ahead and they will hold the flight for us. 1-1/2 hours later, the replacement bus never arrives. The Balad pax bring all their bodies and carry on luggage onto our bus and our convoy proceeds to Kuwait Airport on the military side. The Balad people get off and we are told that we are at the wrong airport. Baghdad passengers are supposed to be at Alli Al Salem--and our flight has left already. Well, that was a nice wasted afternoon. We get back to Doha about 8 pm.

We struggle to stay up until 0200 to find out if flights are going to Baghdad on the 11th and how many seats might be available after our little snafu this afternoon. Finally about 4 am we find out that there are no flights to Baghdad for today. It's almost a relief. I go to bldg 18 after dragging my luggage 1/2 mile AGAIN from building 10 to 18 and prepare for a big sleep. I'm exhausted. Sure wish those nimrods could get their act together. When the APOD was at Camp Wolverine, we never had problems like this.

Sept 12th, Roll call at 0830. They didn't post that until about 0230am. Go back to bldg 18 and catch a few winks until 0800 and then do the bag drag AGAIN. We made the flight manifest again. Get on the bus and get out to the military side of Kuwait Intl in an hour at around noon. Palletize luggage and wait for an hour or so until we get the news that we're canceled yet again. Depalletize the luggage and load everything back onto the truck and buss to unload it again at Doha. Actually, we've become quite efficient at all this loading and unloading stuff. Line 'em up and pass 'em over. When you work as a team it goes pretty quickly.

Bag drag the 1/2 mile again to bldg 18 and try to catch some sleep before the 0200 flight postings. 0200 rolls around and nothing--0230--nothing--0300--nothing. Finally at 0330 on the 13th, roll call for Baghdad is scheduled at 0630am-45 pax available.

Drag 'em back to building 10 for the roll call. All made it again...well not all, there are still a backlog of 90 people waiting to catch flights back to Baghdad (what a shock with the efficiency this group is working at!) but all of our group made the manifest.

Load the truck, load the bus, once again departing from the military side of Kuwait Intl. It is almost like a real terminal too with seats and a TV to watch. Also has a Subway Sandwich shop and a Pizza Inn. A far cry from that waiting/staging area at Alli Al Salem.

Now we find out that the flight isn't even due in until after 12 noon and it's now 0830 am. Who the hell schedules this stuff. I could have slept in another 3 hours! Sorry, just a bit cranky. But, we made it out this time. What a process! Inefficient might describe it, but that might cause them to conclude that they've done something correctly albeit slowly. I like the German descriptive term better...abgefickt! (loosely translated and gently abbreviated...F'd up)

A Visit With A US State Dept Officer in Frankfurt

A Visit With A US State Dept Officer in Frankfurt
07 September 2004

"Hi Dave,...maybe you would like to have a T-bone steak at our house...Cheers Hal"

Hal and I go way back. He and I were in tech school together back in 1982 at Keesler AFB in Biloxi in the Air Force. We were stationed at sites in the US where we worked circuits together at our respective sites and both deployed to Germany in 1984 where we again, worked circuit issues together at times. We also paid one another visits during our time in Germany.

When we both left the AF in 1987, he went off to Kwajalein Islands and I went to Palmer Station, Antarctica in 1988. He started working for the communications support group at the State Department and I stayed home working for communications companies and worked on my degrees. We passed email every so often and kept up with one another here and there, but haven't had the chance to see each other until now.

About 18 months ago, I caught up with Hal in Virginia while he was at language school. He was getting deployed to Frankfurt with the State Dept as a Foreign Service Officer. So now that I'm finally here, we have the chance to see one another and catch up.

Just like my reunion with Roland and Angelique (who Hal also met back in 1986-87 when we went ice skating in Nijmegen (him for the first time!) with Angelique and Roland's sister) it was like no time had passed when we saw each other.

Got to meet Hal's family and as promised, we had those T-bones, along with a few liters of beer and topped off with brownies and some cognac and some great conversation. Good thing I was taking a taxi back to the hotel! It is funny how the years melt away when you are back with old friends. You wonder why you didn't go visit sooner, but then you remember how broke you were for so long and how prohibative those trips would have been even ten years ago!

This has been such a great trip. I am really glad that I made the chance to see so many old friends along the way. I tried to contact my second cousin Michael here in Frankfurt, but I couldn't get any answer at his telephone. He may be back in the States. I will have to catch up with him next time I'm out this way.

Got up at 9am on Tuesday morning and decided to make a trip back up to Cologne. I'd already seen about as much of Frankfurt as I wanted to see at Elbe Strasse, so back to the Bahnhof to catch a train to Cologne for the day. Although it is a small city, I always felt comfortable in Cologne. The people are relaxed, the city is clean, as an Ami it is easy to speak German to the people here, the food is good and the Koelsch beer is nothing short of fantastic. It is more like my German home in Kalkar about 60 km north and west of here. Frankfurt has none of that feeling for me. Just gravitating toward the familiar.

Walked around the stores again and by the Koelnische Dom (cathedral) one last time. Went over to Hard Rock Cafe for lunch and also to pick up a shot glass for my sister Debi. I had actually wanted to spend the last two days in Cologne same as how my trip started, but couldn't get a decent hotel that had any openings. It worked out alright though. Last day here and tomorrow I'm off to Kuwait and Iraq.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Cool Trip on the ICE Train (A'dam to Frankfurt)

Cool Trip on the ICE Train (A'dam to Frankfurt)
06 September 2004

The flight from London to Amsterdam was uneventful. I arrived in A'dam Schiphol and went directly to the Sheraton which is right in the airport. I had stayed there two years ago when I came up from Italy and really had a great stay. This way I didn't have to drag more luggage downtown and then to another hotel to do the bag-drag again when I left on Monday. The rooms are nice and it is quieter than you might expect it to be considering it is attached to the airport. I don't think that I ever remember hearing an airplane while I've been there.

Dropped the luggage off at the room and headed down to the train station to catch the train to Centraal Station in downtown. It's only about a 20 minute train ride. Walked from Centraal Station past Dam Square and over to Leidseplein again. I thought that the Hard Rock was there, but I was wrong. It was already too late in the afternoon to start wandering around A'dam and getting lost, so I made my way back to the station and headed back to the hotel.

Grabbed a burger and drink at Buger King at Schiphol and took it up to the room. I figured that since I had a bathtub in this room, I was going to enjoy one last bath, so I drew up a bath. Started catching up on the news again for the first time since leaving Iraq. This whole Russian school thing is unbelievable! If the Chechins think that they are furthering their cause, soliciting sympathy for their cause or gaining any respect for the Muslim causes worldwide, they might want to consult a new public relations rep at this point for some new world-friendly activities!

After speaking with any number of Europeans about the Muslim question in their countries, it seems quite the popular belief that all that is being accomplished by Europe's Muslims currently is they are segregating themselves within the European population and insuring themselves of never being fully accepted and integrated as Europeans. The appearances are that a small minority is causing problems while the silent majority doesn't stand up against the activities of the wrong-doers. Europe seems to be drawing ever-closer to a boiling point. This is where I think the U.S. has been much more tolerant. But the Europeans also subsidize their immigrants much more than we do too, so maybe that accounts for some of the frustration when you look at their tax burdens and what they get back from their governments. Enough politics for now!

Got up and out of the hotel by 930am. The Intercity Express train to Frankfurt was leaving by 10 am. These new (new since I was stationed here 17 years ago, at least) ICE (Intercity Express) trains are the bomb! At several points in the journey between Cologne and Frankfurt, this bad boy was cruising at about 310 kilometers per hour!! We're talking, screaming through the countryside. Next thing you know, the train is pulling into Frankfurt HBH (Haupt Bahnhof-Main Train Station) at 2 pm.

Got a taxi over to the Frankfurt Intercontinental, only to find out later that it was only about four blocks away. But with all the luggage and all, I wouldn't have walked it anyway. Nice hotel, but the surrounding area is a bit mmmm...Middle Eastern. But wait...I get to know the neighborhood more intimately in the following paragraphs!

So I get al checked in and settled into my room and I'm trying to log into the internet to check my mail...no connection. The front desk verified that it is available in my room, but still no go. So I'm thinking that maybe the LAN cable on their interface is messed up and maybe I just need a new LAN cable. I didn't bring one with (duh!) and so I went down to the desk to see about getting another one.

I get down there and they look at me like I've got two heads when I ask for a LAN cable. No clue! Okay, where might I find an electronics store nearby that I could buy one? Got directions and a map to Elbe Electronics on Elbe Strasse maybe .5 km away. Well, I'm walking, walking, walking down Elbe and no electronics shops. Let's see...Pawn shops, dancing girls, peep shows, sex appliance stores, prostitutes, but no electronics shops. I go a little deeper into the abyss known as Elbe Strasse and the Polizei are arresting and questioning prostitutes and johns. But wait, there's more! Three cars up from these police, I'm walking past a drug addict sitting on the curb between the cars filling his needle with some amber colored juice and then he injects himself!! Okay, Scenic Tour is over! I've seen more of Frankfurt than I wanted to see.

I get back to the hotel front desk and all of my fluent German comes back to me as I spew out in German, "Ha, Ha. I'm quite amused at the scenic tour you arranged down Elbe Strasse. Now can we get my computer connection working?" You know you only remember that much German when you are either drunk or really pissed off!

Finally, the front desk mental midgets direct me to Andreas, their in-house business center guru. He works his magic by changing an IP address number (which I would have had no idea of or access to otherwise) on my computer and in five minutes, I'm up and running. The whole meaning of getting up on email has been to check if my old Air Force buddy Hal (located here in Frankfurt) has sent me an email to meet up with him today!

Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Tot Ziens en Dank U Well, Nederlands, Hello London

Tot Ziens en Dank U Well, Nederlands, Hello London
5 September 2004

The last week and a half has flown by since leaving Netherlands and arriving here in London. I caught a train from Apeldoorn over to Amsterdam and soon enough was leaving on a British Air flight to London Gatwick. Caught the train out of Gatwick into Victoria Station, but didn't know where the hotel was at, so took a cab from there. Little did I know that the Marriott County Hall was only two tube stations away to Westminster and over the bridge. Big Ben and the Houses of Parliment were right across the River Thames from us. The view from our hotel window was the Dahli sculpture of the elephant on stilts overlooking the Thames. Just like the picture in the one tour book that I have.

I arrived a day ahead of Phil, Debi and Debra, but once they got here, we kept the schedule very busy. As expected, the first three days were cooler and rainy. Since I had wandered around the city some the day before, I had a good idea where to take the three of them for the first day. I told them that they wanted to stay up at least until 6 or 7 pm or the jet lag would kick their butts. So we headed out and ended up walking to Piccadilly Square then down to Trafalgar Square where we started to look for the restaurant that I saw the day before and had a couple of beers at. Finally, after Phil asked someone, we found it.

Our first meal in London was at the Texas Embassy Restaurant. The actual Texas Embassy building was located across the street and maintains a bit of notariety. Before Texas was admitted to the Union, they maintained an embassy which was recognized by the British Government. The food was pretty good and the margarita's really hit the spot too. Debra was a bit disappointed however since she really had her heart set on something more "British" since they can get TexMex anytime in Phoenix!

Our second day in London, we made arrangements to go see Mamma Mia! that evening, so we tried to keep the sight-seeing to a minimum so we could be back in time to get ready. We went off to see the Tower of London, the Crown Jewels and the Tower Bridge. The Tower of London was pretty interesting. Got to see the tower where Richard imprisoned and probably murdered his nephew's. Saw the rooms where Sir Walter Raliegh was imprisoned for like twenty years. Those were among the few "guests" permanently entertained at the Tower before their untimely deaths.

Of course you have to see the ravens. The rumor has it that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the country will fall. So they have clipped the wings of all the ravens as if to not tempt fate! Then onto the Crown Jewels. This room is almost rude with the wealth the Queen's Rock Collection. The number of gems in this room is unfathomable! For parts of the tour, you stand on this conveyor belt and ride past all these crowns and sceptors that are bathed in hallogen lighting to the point of blinding the crowds. It is a sight that everyone should see at least once in their lives.

As the Dutch Royals were always one with the people, this could never be said of the English Royals! The Dutch were always have had a "down-to-earth" approach whereas the English were always known for their class division. If the Dutch have those types of jewels in their collection, I'm sure that they wouldn't boast of it as such. But then again, one would never expect to see Queen Elizabeth slogging through the mud and water of a flooded countryside to console her people nor would one ever expect to see the Queen-mum riding a bike to the grocer in broad daylight! Such different people and such different cultures, the Dutch and the English.

But I digress! From the London Tower the rain finally let up some and we went over to the Tower Bridge. They showed a little film clip about the bridge's construction and history and then we went up into the top to catch a view of the river from both sides. The Tower Bridge is what most people typically remember of London. It was said that when the buyers of the old London Bridge were bidding to buy the London Bridge (now located at Lake Havasu, Arizona), they thought that they were getting the Tower Bridge. Stupid Americans! And they paid how many quid for it?

After our visit to the Tower and Bridge, we walked along and ran across the Hay's Galleria on the Thames. Stopped at Horniman's Pub for a bite and beer. Sat at a nice cafe table with a view of the Thames and the HMS Belfast. Walking further up river, we walked past the London Dungeon, but the lines were too long to visit that day. I ended up getting tickets later in the trip via internet and we skated right in.

Mamma Mia! What a show! We got great seats- second row mezzanine just off to the left of stage by the aisle. I have always liked the music of ABBA, and the way they put the story with the music was great. I guess that I have never really seen a musical, so I think that I chose a good one as an introduction. The two guys from ABBA worked with the playwright to change some of the lyrics for the musical, so the story really flows and is quite comedic along the way.

Of course, we did our obligatory trip to Harrod's. What is a trip to London without a visit to Harrod's? There was a memorial in the window as it was the anniversary of the death of Princess Di and Dodi. Flowers, stuffed animals and messages were laid on the sidewalk in front of the window display. These were all moved indoors later in the week to the lower level by the escalators near the Egyptian Room.

On Saturday, Phil decided to spoil himself at the spa in the hotel. And cousin Debra decided to give Deb and I some time to catch-up. So Deb and I ventured out on our own and went up to the Camden Markets. Shopping was one thing that we plenty of on this trip...well, shopping and eating! Wandered through a lot of interesting stores and Debi even found one Celtic store that has some beautiful silver Celtic crosses that she just couldn't pass up.

In Camden we found this interesting kite and juggling supply shop. When we went in, the guy behind the counter was playing with these orbs that were somewhat clear which we had seen before from the "singing mime" on the riverfront by the hotel the other day. I had made a comment to Deb that it looked like she was juggling implants. So when the guy asked if he could help us, Deb blurts out that we saw a singing mime juggling those very same implants the other day! Poor guy about dropped the balls he was juggling and had to have her pass that by him again. Then he says, "Oh yah, that's so-and-so. She always juggles in that area!" They did get quite a laugh at our little fau paux about the implant juggling!

While Debra was away, we made a train trip over to Windsor to see the castle. I really wasn't up for the trip,but once we got there, I was really impressed. The town of Windsor was actually quaint. The Queen was away in Scottland, but we really didn't expect to see her anyway. The castle is considered her home whereas Buckingham Palace is more considered her office. For anyone going to London, I would say that a trip to Windsor should be on the list of items to see. The countryside is beautiful and the sections of the castle are unbelievable. The cathedral is also breathtaking. The sidewalks in the town were about rolled up at 5 pm, but we went back and had dinner at this little Italian cafe on the cobblestone streets.

Finally in the few days toward the end of the trip, we worked in a few down-days to allow us to catch up on sleep. I think that towards the end, we were all just a bit burned out on the sight-seeing circuit. One shopping mecca that is worth noting is the trip to Lillywhites at Piccadilly Circus just as you come up from the tube. We had been talking with the hotel staff about how expensive shirts and clothes were and they let us in on their secret. They said that Lillywhites is where all the locals go. It is mostly sports wear and the like, but the prices on most all of their clothes are cheaper than sending laundry off to the hotel laundry service! All in all, London is extremely expensive. Just ask Amex and Visa. There we go again, Visa being everywhere that I want to be!

Now you don't think that a trip like this was without it's disasters! It's Thursday morning and two days to go. I've got about 5 pounds in my wallet. So I go over to the ATM machines at Waterloo Station where I've withdrawn cash before. Put the card in the ATM and nothing. Just a message on the screen saying that your transaction has been canceled, piss off, have a good day! But, but, but, my card. I have all this money in the bank and no way to get at it now! What am I going to do? Called the Natwest bank and they don't run the machines. Called the maintenance company that owns the machines and they can't do anything. Their answer is that they can't get the card back and it was probably shredded when the damned machine sucked up the card. Couldn't call my bank yet since it is only midnight in Chicago. Now what?

American Express to the rescue!!! Called AMEX and they were there for me. Just remember: Don't Leave Home Without It! Well, Mr. Gallas, How much do you need? What Western Union Station is near you and we will get the money transfer there within 30 minutes. A few verification questions and we will get this cash to you. I have to say that American Express saved my sanity and my vacation!! First we went over to the Amex by Harrod's, but their machine was down. So they gave us a map of locations and we took the tube over to Piccadilly Circus. Bingo! By this time, I needed lunch and a drink...not in that order! So we were right over by Friday's and I think I could have spent the whole afternoon there and I'd of been happy after all that!

So now I sit here on Sunday afternoon at Heathrow Airport awaiting my flight to Amsterdam. When Phil and Deb and Debra left yesterday, I really was ready to go back home. Can't believe that I'm already on the return journey back to Iraq. Across from my gait is a BA flight to Chicago. Hmmm...how much more would it cost to jump ship at this point? This is why I didn't take leave back in the States. I would not have wanted to return to Iraq! But, let's be realistic here. Still have bills to pay, mortgage to make and dogs to feed. Five more months to go. They're getting ready to board now.

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