Archive | January, 2006
January 27, 2006

Day Trip to Los Angeles: Soviet Submarine / Pink’s Hot Dog stand / La Brea Tar Pits

Scorpion submarine in Long Beach

Back in December, Ryan and I went to Los Angeles for a day to visit a Soviet submarine, eat some hot dogs, and admire the La Brea Tar Pits.

First stop, Long Beach – probably the last place on earth you would expect to find a Soviet submarine. Docked alongside the Queen Mary is the Soviet diesel sub B-247, which somehow acquired the nickname “Scorpion” when it landed in American hands (and is thus now referred to as the Scorpion).

Scorpion submarine in Long Beach

Before you go onto the sub, you watch this ultra-cheesy movie about the history of submarines and the role they played in the Cold War. God, it was seriously the WORST movie ever. But anyways, on to the sub…

Here I am on the deck of the submarine:

Scorpion submarine in Long Beach

There was hardly anyone on the submarine when we were there, which was great because it’s pretty tight quarters inside.

The “Secret Room”, which has a cool looking Kalashnikov:


Living on a Soviet sub sure wasn’t comfortable:

Ryan looking through the periscope:

Periscope in Scorpion submarine in Long Beach

This random Russian guy came up to us and showed us how to turn the scope around so you can get a 360 degree view. I looked on the sub’s website when I got home, and I’m pretty sure it was the former Soviet naval officer that occasionally gives tours…but I didn’t recognize him when we were on the sub because he wasn’t wearing his uniform.

Periscope view from Scorpion submarine in Long Beach

Target: Long Beach, where thousands of ships dock each year to unload cheap goods produced by our exploited comrades in Asia! Down with the capitalist pigs in LA! Workers of the world, unite…or something…

Scorpion submarine in Long Beach

Even though this sign was posted throughout the sub, Ryan insisted on playing with all the dials and switches…I half-expected to hear someone yelling “Dive! Dive!”

Torpedoes:

Torpedoes in Scorpion submarine in Long Beach

Loading torpedoes in order to sink a few ships here and there:

Torpedoes in Scorpion submarine in Long Beach

It’s literally right next to the Queen Mary:

Queen Mary and Scorpion submarine in Long Beach

After you exit the sub, you can purchase a wide variety of souvenirs. I was actually quite impressed with the selection, but didn’t buy anything because, as scary as it sounds, I already own about half of the stuff you could buy there.

We were quite hungry after our morning of loading heavy torpedoes and sinking large cargo ships carrying XBox360s to the mainland, so we decided to grab some hot dogs at Pink’s in Hollywood. Now, this isn’t any old hot dog stand…it’s pretty well-known. I kept hearing about it from friends and family, and then saw a show about it on the Travel Channel, so I suggested we go down there to see if these hot dogs were worthy of all this praise.

Pink's Hot Dogs sign

The line at Pink’s is VERY long…I think we waited something like 35 or 45 minutes…but, that’s OK, because it gives you ample time to look over the menu and decide what hot dog(s) you want. I opted for the “Ozzy Osbourne” dog (Spicy Polish dog, nacho cheese, American cheese, grilled onions, guacamole & chopped tomatoes) and onion rings, while Ryan chose the Ozzy dog and “Guadalajara” dog (relish, onions, tomatoes, topped with sour cream).

Here is our order, in all of its calorie-laden glory:

Pink's Hot Dogs

It was messy eating all of this, but yes, we managed to finish all of it:

Pink's Hot Dogs

After Pink’s, we went to the La Brea Tar Pits:

La Brea tar pits

I’ve never been to the tar pits before, and they were actually very interesting…more so than I expected.

I love the fake animals trapped in the pits:

La Brea tar pits

There’s also a museum with tons of fossils and a history of the La Brea tar pits…here I am preparing for my role as CEO of a major oil corporation:

Just a typical park in Los Angeles:

La Brea tar pits

Ohhhh, just kidding.

The rest of the photos are here. You can also read Ryan’s post here.

If you’re ever in LA and are looking for something to do, now you know where to go…come on, a Soviet sub is much more fun than a bunch of stars on a sidewalk.

January 20, 2006

Jason is back from Iraq

jason_bsm.jpg

My cousin arrived back in the Coachella Valley this week after finishing his tour of duty in Baghdad. The local paper wrote an article about him, which I’ve copied and pasted below:

Local guardsman: ‘I don’t feel I’m a hero’
Jason Fincher returns from Iraq with Bronze Star

Nicole C. Brambila
The Desert Sun
January 20, 2006

Twenty shipped out – only four came home.

“The others were killed or wounded,” Staff Sgt. Jason Fincher said from his grandmother’s Rancho Mirage home Thursday. “The fear of being hurt or killed is always there.”

For the past year, Fincher patrolled south Baghdad as a reservist with the California Army National Guard in Delta Company 1-184st Infantry. Including his Hawaiian active-duty stint, Fincher has served in the military nearly nine years.

The 26-year-old came home Monday, decorated.

“I don’t feel I’m a hero by any means,” Fincher said of the Bronze Star Award he received in December in Iraq. “It was a whole bunch of us working together to accomplish the stuff we did.”

The Bronze Star is the fourth highest award given for heroic or meritorious service.

A military narrative cites five separate occasions insurgents ambushed or hit Fincher with explosives where he protected or saved men in his platoon.

“His bravery, courage and selfless acts never faltered in the face of the enemy,” the document states.

Piecing together the story proved difficult. As with many decorated veterans, Fincher shies away from talk of heroics.

Instead, he spoke matter-of-factly, in military acronyms, about his roommate and friend, Staff Sgt. Dan Schiele, who died in his arms. Fincher wears a black metal bracelet that bears Schiele’s name on his right wrist.

“If you said, ‘Man, I wish I had a stocking for Christmas.’ He could get it for you,” Fincher said of his friend.

“That was Schiele.”

A life’s dream to serve
The war in Iraq has become muddied in politics and protest – something Fincher said he understands, but doesn’t support.

“They have the right to do that,” Fincher said of the nation’s war protestors. “And, we defend that right.”

While patrolling in an armored personnel carrier, jumpy because the next thing the squad passes along the road could be a strategically placed bomb, patriotic duty is a faraway thought.

“What you’re fighting for, when it comes down to it, is your friends,” he said.

The bloodshed in the Middle East is not for democracy in Iraq nor liberty and freedom, but, Fincher said, for a man’s friends.

“They call them insurgents,” he said. “I call them thugs.

“We suffered a lot.”

A Rest In Peace tattoo on his left arm recalls the dead: Silva, Sonoda, Neubauer, Schiele, Guy.

The worldwide attention his battalion brought to the military after nabbing headlines for torture and ill-treatment of Iraqi detainees has left Fincher wary of the press. He’s quick to clarify the scandal didn’t touch him.

“It’s the same battalion, not the same company,” he said.

Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and, in the early 1990s, Desert Storm, has made sidestepping military conflict difficult.

Fincher, though, was born for such a time.

“If you’re like me and you want to join to go play war, it’s a great time,” he said.

Dressing in military fatigues as a child and “playing Army” clued Fincher in to what he wanted to be when he grew up. He always knew, Fincher said, that he wanted to enlist.

And, he did – just as soon as he graduated from Cathedral City High School in 1997.

“I’m not surprised; he’s a tough young man,” former teacher James Johnson said. “He was just an impressive young man, even then. He had a can-do attitude.”

Johnson was one of Fincher’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps instructors in high school. The high school program prepares young men and women for the military.

Prepared or not, Fincher’s grandmother, Luella, said she never got used to him being stationed in Iraq.

“Through the whole year,” she said, “every time a soldier got killed, I just froze.”

With the war behind him, Fincher said he hopes to resume his studies, pursuing a career with the border patrol or as a game warden.

jason_bsm.jpg

Welcome home, Jason.

January 12, 2006

SuperShuttle ride from hell

I’ve safely arrived in the D.C. area, and am now ensconced in Liz and Nick’s lovely apartment in Springfield, VA.

My flight left Palm Springs at 6:30am, so I woke up at 4am and, after saying goodbye to my poor old Labrador Retriever, left my house at 4:45am to get to the airport. The flights themselves were fine…after enduring the 11 hour flights to and from London, a hop from the West to East coast is nothing to complain about.

The SuperShuttle, on the other hand, is something I will complain about. In theory, the SuperShuttle should be effective…load a bunch of passengers with nearby addresses into a large blue van, type their final destinations into the GPS unit, and off you go! Today, however, my driver got LOST EVEN THOUGH THE GPS WAS TELLING HIM WHERE TO GO. (At least I think it was…the GPS was actually speaking in French, the driver’s first language…but there were maps, too, dammit). I swear, he wandered around Springfield for 20-30 minutes trying to find my friend’s address. I knew they were located near the Springfield Mall, so I asked him if he knew where that was, and he just muttered some unintelligible French words..not that I could comprehend what he was saying anyways, though, as I don’t speak any French…but he was probably cursing me. He seemed kind of angry…and he was also driving in the middle of two lanes on the freeway…and ran a red light…and probably broke 999 other traffic rules. When we finally got to the apartment complex (after calling Nick and Liz for directions, because what’s the use of this oh so fancy GPS system, eh?) I just had him drop me off on some random corner, as I didn’t want him to go searching around for another 5 minutes…there were two other passengers in the van, and they will most likely make it home by tomorrow afternoon if they are lucky!

I think tomorrow I may take the metro into DC and wander around the city. I’m excited about being near a metro again, because that is something I really missed when I was back in California these past few months. I love throwing my mp3 player into my coat pocket and listening to The Killers and The Clash during long metro/tube rides, and then wandering aimlessly around the city streets. Don’t get much of that in the car-dependent hell that is Southern California. Thank god for the East Coast and their public transportation systems.

January 10, 2006

LSE Grad week photos

LSE graduation

I finally uploaded all the pics from Grad week in London. There are two sets…first, photos from the actual graduation ceremony:

LSE graduation
Me on stage…after shaking Howard Davies’ hand…or going to shake his hand…I’m not exactly sure

LSE graduation reception
The reception in the Hong Kong Theatre after the the ceremony

LSE graduation
A group photo of the Russian and Post-Soviet studies grads who attended the ceremony…and two of our profs

LSE graduation
Taline, Crystal, Erin, and I

LSE graduation
Me in front of the Royal Courts of Justice

The second group contains photos of everything we went to in London:




January 1, 2006

For auld lang syne, my dear, For auld lang syne

It seems like everyone is blogging about the year gone by, so it’s only fitting that I follow suit and reflect on some of my best memories of 2005.

Attending LSE

Since I was a sophomore at GWU, it has been a goal of mine to attend the London School of Economics. This goal was realized in late September 2004, when I left California to begin my MSc in Russian and Post-Soviet Studies in London. I can honestly say that my year at LSE has been one of the greatest I have experienced in my 23 years on this earth. Living in London was amazing, of course, but in particular I loved the multicultural environment of LSE. There are not many universities in the world that can top LSE in the number of foreign students on campus. Indeed, you almost forgot how horrible the food at the Bankside cafeteria was when sitting down at a table and debating politics with a Brit, Moroccan, Indian, Canadian, Jordanian, and fellow American. And having a bar with subsidised alcohol in the basement of your dorm? Well, let’s just say it made doing your laundry a lot more fun. The location of our Bankside dorm was also unbeatable: directly behind the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the River Thames, a short walk to Borough Market, and some great restaurants and pubs. So, even though the fire alarms at 3am were a constant annoyance, I really enjoyed living at Bankside.


Moving out day at Bankside

The other side of LSE, besides dorm life, was my academic program. Our RPSS group (with the addition of some friends from International Relations) became a really tight-knit bunch, and we enjoyed some great times together, from the pints inbetween classes, to the parties at Taline’s flat in Notting Hill and the BBQs on the roof of Olga’s apartment building overlooking the Thames and St. Paul’s Cathedral. And, of course, how could I fail to mention the numerous evenings spent at Churchill’s Arms, the Hillgate and Hobbit Pub, or the times we stuffed ourselves with scones and tea and laid in the grass at Kensington Gardens?


Some RPSS comrades in Covent Garden

So, to all of my friends who I met at LSE, thanks for a wonderful year…it really wouldn’t have been the same without all of you.

Travel

Another goal of mine, once reaching London, was to travel as much as possible without affecting my studies. Living in London, you literally have the world at your fingertips. I wasn’t sure when I would ever have this chance again, so I wanted to take advantage of all the low-cost airfares and accommodations throughout Europe (when else will you get to fly to Rome for $30!?) Luckily, the British academic year provides you with ample time off, including a five week spring break in March/April. Also, my boss at IT Services was really cool about letting me rearrange my work schedule, so I got some traveling in during the summer months. So, I expanded my list of countries I had previously traveled to (UK, Russia, and Mexico) to include France, Hungary, Belgium, Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Montenegro, Egypt, Italy, Ireland, and the Czech Republic. All of the countries were great, but I’ll expand on a few that I felt were particularly amazing:

Hungary: While Prague is a great city, and constantly touted as the darling of Central Europe, I think it is a bit overrated. Personally, if you have to choose between Budapest and Prague, I say go to Budapest! As a Cold War aficionado, I really enjoyed visiting Statue Park (full of old commie statues) and the House of Terror (former HQ of the secret police). In addition, I was lucky enough to experience some authentic Hungarian cooking and hospitality courtesy of Csaba and his mother, Kati.


Sunset on the Danube River


Goofing around in Statue Park

Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, and Montenegro: In April, Taline, Crystal, and I went to Dubrovnik, Croatia, a beautiful city which, only 14 years before, was the scene of massive shelling by Yugoslav artillery that destroyed many buildings withing the historic walled area. We went before the start of tourist season, and pretty much had the place to ourselves. The locals were incredibly friendly, and wanted to hear about how much you enjoyed their city, offer suggestions on the best places to eat, and talk about their relatives that lived “over there” in America.


Dubrovnik


Within the walled city of Dubrovnik. Excellent cafes and restaurants.

A big part of this trip, though, was the day Crystal and I spent wandering around Bosnia and Montenegro. Having studied the Balkans conflicts, and with a propensity for ignoring travel warnings from the State Department, Crystal and I decided to hop a decrepit bus to Trebinje, the nearest town across the Croatian-Bosnian border. After lying to to a Bosnian border guard, and passing a number of burned out houses, we finally arrived in Trebinje. Once we wandered around Trebinje for a few hours and decided there wasn’t much more to see, we hired a sketchy taxi to take us to Montenegro via a treacherous mountain road. Upon arriving in Montengro, we went down to the beach and climbed around some old fortress ruins with great views of the distant mountains and sat down to have a milkshake. We wanted to get back to Croatia for dinner, so we took a taxi to the border and walked the 100 metres of no man’s land, surrounded by signs warning us of landmines, until finally arriving in Croatia, much to the amusement of the two Croatian border guards who probably didn’t see very many American girls walking across the border. Yes, we befuddled many people that day, from Bosnian bus station attendants and taxi drivers to Montenegrin hairdressers and Croatian border guards. Building cross-cultural relations and promoting America, that’s what Crystal and I do best!


Trebinje, Bosnia


A relaxing moment in Montenegro, with a random dog that kept following us.

If you’re looking for a relaxing and inexpensive vacation by the sea, I highly recommend Croatia. Ever since I arrived back from my vacation there, I have been singing its praises (so much that the Croatian tourist board should hire me). And, surprise, surprise, CNN has reported that Croatia and Montenegro are on its list of “hot spots” for travel in 2006. Obviously, Anderson Cooper has been reading this blog.

Egypt: Well, what to say about Egypt…seeing the Pyramids was absolutely incredible, as was walking through tombs that are thousands of years old. Other highlights: Snorkeling in the Red Sea and trying not to hit cruise ships on the Nile after our boat driver handed over the controls to me. The only downside to Egypt? Constantly being harrassed by sketchy Egyptian men, and the need for a heavy police presence wherever you go.


Look Ma, I’m in Egypt, the country you desperately tried to convince me not to travel to!


The Red Sea


Beware! American tourist attempting to ride camel and take photos simultaneously

Ireland: Finally seeing the country that so many of my ancestors came from, and enjoying a pint of Guinness “from the source” at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin. I think the most interesting part of my trip to Ireland was visiting Belfast in Northern Ireland and seeing the divided Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods with their political murals. Growing up, I often saw images of the fighting in Belfast on the news, but it was really hard to comprehend until I finally saw the city for myself.


Guinness for strength!


Loyalist mural in Belfast

So, overall, I must say that 2005 was an amazing year filled with living in the greatest city in the world, visiting some incredibly interesting countries, and meeting new people from all over the world. I don’t know what 2006 will bring, but I hope that the trend will continue somehow.