Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Root Beer and Tornados

I had high hopes tonight of coming home and getting a few posts written, as I have quite a few things to catch up on since my trip to China.  The chicks are no longer chicks, their chickens.  The guineas are getting big and part ugly (their neck and head) and part pretty (their spotted feathers).  I took a beginner hang gliding class.  But there was another distraction that took my attention.

I dropped the boys off at church for their youth group meeting and then went home.  I had hoped to mow the lawn along the road, as it is our yard that all the neighbors behind us have to drive past, and I try to keep it looking nice for them, and I haven't mowed it yet this year!  But storm clouds were around and it was starting to sprinkle, so I grabbed the weed-eater and trimmed the grass around the house instead, since I haven't done that this year even though I (oldest son would say "we") have mowed the yard around the house a couple times.  I got it all done right when the rain really let loose.

I stood in the garage with the garage door open watching the clouds.  It was starting to get dark, but there were multiple levels of clouds, heading every which direction.  The sky was a dark green tint.  By this point, I was looking up at the sky so I didn't get surprised.  If anything was coming, I wanted to see it before it found me.

It was time to pick up the boys and bring them home.  I went inside and grabbed a Sprecher's Root Beer from the fridge and headed out into the garage.  This is incredible root beer that my parents bring down from Wisconsin when they visit.  It is made with honey as a sweetener and has a really unique taste.  I figured I should grab my rain jacket since it was raining so hard, so I went back in to get it, then came out and got in the truck.  I started to back up and realized I had left my Sprecher's Root Beer on the seat of the mower in the garage.  I pulled back in, opened the garage,  jumped out and got the root beer, then hopped back into the truck.  Probably took me about an additional minute.  Then I started to drive towards the church.

I got about a quarter mile from the house and saw it.

A white tornado crossing in front of me.  I stopped on the road, put on my hazard lights, and grabbed my iPhone to get a video.  Unfortunately, it was getting pretty dark, so it isn't the best video.

As I was watching the tornado go across in front of me, I looked to my right and saw this tiny house and through the screen door two elderly people sitting in the living room watching tv.  I pulled into their driveway and ran up to the house to tell them there was a tornado going by.  I thought that if the tornado changed direction, I could at least give them a warning.  After telling me that they knew (apparently they were warning about it on the tv) and telling me to be safe, I ran back to the truck.  Once there, I realized I had left the video running.  I edited this portion out of the above video because it is a lot of noise and video of my hand holding my iPhone as I ran to their door and back.  And I sounded a bit frantic as I was yelling through their screen door that a tornado was going by.  I'm guessing they thought I was crazy and just wanted me to leave.

I continued to record the tornado until it dissipated into the sky.  At that point I went on to pick up the boys.  They were safe and unaware of the tornado.  I drove through where the tornado went, and there were trees down, but not that much damage.  I don't know if going back to get my Sprecher's Root Beer kept me from the path of the tornado or not, and I don't care to dwell too much on that.  But the thought has crossed my mind.

We told them before moving to Virginia that they didn't have tornados in Virginia.  We really didn't know, and figured that hurricanes would be more of an issue.  This spring has been a crazy spring full of tornados across the country, with our fair share here in the commonwealth.

I mentioned to the CEO of the company I work for that we told the boys before we moved here that there weren't tornados in Virginia.  He said we should probably admit that there are tornados here at this point.  The tornado drills the boys have been doing at school haven't helped.  He did mention though that there aren't any volcanos in Virginia, so we would be safe to make that guarantee!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Pizza Hut, Pizza and Expectations in China

I am a little past half way through a 2-week trip to China for work as this is written. (I can't upload it until I get back out of Communist China as they block blogs, etc. for political reasons.)  This isn’t my first time to China, somewhere in the low 20’s I believe.  The first time, it was really neat, to travel to a far exotic country and see a different culture, although the part of culture I got to see was factories and hotels.  Not a good representation of China at all.

Several years ago, I got to take the good wife, and we did a whirlwind tour.  We traveled through Japan to Beijing and got to see all the typical tourist sites in that area, The Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square and took a Hutong tour on a bicycle among other things. 

Tiananmen Square
The Great Wall of China

Then it was down to Shanghai for a couple days.  The highlights there were getting to go skiing/snowboarding indoors and the Maglev train ride to the airport, hitting 430 km/h or 268 mph! 

Indoor Skiing in Shanghai
Speed of the Maglev Train

The main part of the journey was down in the Dongguan area, working in the factories.  The highlight there was a foot massage which lasts over an hour and costs about $10 USD.  Not a bad deal.  The good wife also got a scalp massage for over an hour, while I slaved away at the factories.

Foot Massage

We had a couple days in Hong Kong before heading back to Tokyo, Japan.

Hong Kong from Victoria's Peak

In Japan we did a walking tour of the area around Shibuya, which is famous for its 6-way scramble intersection. 

Tokyo from our Hotel Room
Shibuya 6-way Intersection in Tokyo

By then our trip had come to an end and it was time to head home.  The good wife questioned why I always complained about my 2-week trips to China, that she had so much fun and got to see so many things.  I explained that my trips did not consist of galavanting around Southeast Asia, and that I spend my 2-weeks in the Dongguan area in the factories and hotels.  Then she understood, as that was the least favorite part of the trip for her.

Over the course of all my trips to China, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and Indonesia, I have taken hundreds, if not thousands of pictures.  Things that used to amaze and amuse me, now seem common place and I don’t even look twice.   From driving down the wrong side of the road or on the sidewalk, to five people jammed on a motorcycle.

But there are still a few things that annoy me when traveling in China.  One of them is pizza.  After eating Chinese food (real Chinese food, not the breaded and fried American version of Chinese food) for a week, I need a break.  Pizza is a perfect relief, usually.  If you can find the Pizza Hut, you will get a very accurate copy of the pizza you will find at your local Pizza Hut, although the menu is substantially different.  It is seafood pizza, and all sorts of other odds and ends, more like a full restaurant, than the pizza joint in America.  I happened to visit a Pizza Hut in Dongguan on the first week it had opened.  The pizza was spot on.  However, a few years later, and all the pizza has a funny fishy taste.  Since they don’t wash their seasoned pans, and just wipe them clean, they have taken on the flavor of all those seafood toppings the locals enjoy.  And if you need the bathroom, you better hope it is for a quick relief and not a time to ponder, because you will be squatting and not sitting.

However, last week I went to lunch with a supplier to the Tianmu Blue Bird Café Western Restaurant, also just known as the Blue Bird Café.  After looking at the pizza menu for a bit, the only safe pizza seemed to be the Hawaiian.  The traditional ham and pineapple toppings.  Seemed like a safe choice.   My host ordered the seafood pizza, which I wasn’t going to get near.  When the pizza came, I took a long hard stare at them.  I couldn’t tell which was which.  I saw squid circles (calamari) on one, I saw shrimp on the other.  After my host had a brief consultation with the waitress, it was determined that the one with shrimp was mine.  Apparently the standard pizza comes with shrimp topping, free of charge.  It is as though the shrimp is in the sauce.  Not big shrimp, but not small either.  Kernels of corn were also a standard topping on all pizzas, along with green peppers and a few olives here and there.  Under the cheese was a bit of ham and some small pieces of pineapple.  I was hungry enough that I figured I could choke it down, although in my mind I had pictures a Pizza Hut quality pizza.  That was OK, I would get it down with my Taiwanese iced lemon tea that I had ordered.  I took a big gulp and then held it in my mouth.  What else was in there?  I looked at the glass.  All I saw was ice at the top and some slices of lemons floating in the tea.  But there was definitely something of substance in my mouth, and it wasn’t ice or lemons.  I swallowed.  I looked back at the glass of tea.  I stirred it a bit and saw clear gelatinous lumps turning over and over.  I took a sip through the straw, and I felt some slimy lumps come through.  It felt as though I had a mouth full of lemon flavored lugies.  Aargh!  Another choking swallow.  I ate a little over half my shrimp laden Hawaiian pizza, took a few more sips of my iced lemon lugie tea and I was done.  My appetite had been satisfied (as much as it was going to be satisfied at this meal).

It wasn’t that the meal was that bad.  The pizza tasted alright, and iced lemon tea had ice, lemon and tea.  It’s just that what you have in mind of a meal when ordering and what you receive, is not usually the same thing in China.  You think I would know that much by now!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Toronto Pearson Airport High-Speed Walkway

Every now and then when I travel I stumble upon something unique that catches my eye.  Being a mechanical engineer (at least that is what my diploma says), I tend to look at technological items with a  curious fascination. 

On my way to China, I went through Toronto Pearson International Airport.  Unfortunately, because I fly into Toronto from Richmond, VA, which isn’t a very large airport, I don’t get to fly on a big jet into Toronto and as you know, the small planes don’t park close to the airport Terminal.

In fact, it was on one of these small planes into Toronto that I first “lost it” on a commercial airline, but that is another story.  As a piece of advice though, if you happen to fly on a Beech 1900D, don’t take seat 1A.  Although you may think you are getting the best seat in the plane with the most legroom, you aren’t getting a window.  And when flying through a thunderstorm in a tin can without a window to look out and get your bearings, and all you see ahead of you is the cockpit and flashes of light from lightning through the front window (because there is no cockpit door or even a curtain), you will be wishing you were on solid ground while you fumble for the air sickness bag.

On the journey to the terminal from the gate, because it was more than just a walk, I came across a high-speed walkway.  It was the coolest thing I had seen in an airport.  As I stepped on, the walkway panels below me started to expand and speed up, as did the handrail.  Soon I was flying past the people walking both on the regular floor and the normal moving escalator. 

At the end, it worked in reverse and the platforms started to move together, closing up the platform underneath, and slowing down at the same time.  At the end, I stepped off as though I was walking off an ordinary moving walkway.  The statistics say that a commuter using a walkway like this twice a day would save 15 minutes a week and 10 hours a year.  But this is in an airport, and it saved me maybe 30-40 seconds overall.  Not sure the overall benefits are there for how much I am assuming it might have cost, but overall, it was pretty cool!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sick in China and McDonald's Delivery Service

Being sick isn’t any fun, but being sick in a foreign country by yourself is horrible.  I landed in China on Sunday night with a slight sore throat.  By Monday night I was aching all over and my head was congested and draining constantly.  Monday night I had fever and chills and didn’t sleep too well.  The good part was that Tuesday was Tomb Sweeping Festival, so all the factories were closed and there was no work to be done.  I got to lay around my hotel room and try to get better for Wednesday.

Not being hungry in the morning, I didn’t go down for the included breakfast buffet in the lobby.  It is pretty good with the usual western items including omelets made to order.  They also have a selection of Chinese food, including the steamed esophagus that the good wife tried on her visit to China.  I’m not sure what animal it came from, but she did take a couple bites and then chewed and chewed and chewed.

By the afternoon, I was feeling a bit better, but even more, I was hungry.  I hadn’t changed out of my PJ’s and didn’t feel like getting cleaned up to go out and get some food.  And when ordering the hotel food you have to manage your expectations, because it usually isn’t how you would imagine it to be. 

McDonald’s to the rescue!  Nothing tastes better when getting better from being sick than a cheeseburger and some french fries.  You wonder how McDonald’s could be my solution?  In China, McDonald’s delivers, 24 hours a day, within 30 minutes.

A simple call the the McDonald’s “800” number in China, 4008-517-517, and you reach the McDonald’s delivery call center.  After a message in Chinese, in English they tell you to push #2 for English.  Then an “English speaking” person gets on the phone to take your order.  After giving them your address, they determine if there is a McDonald’s in your area, and then they ask for your order and give you a total.  The service cost is ¥7, about $1 USD.  There is no minimum order and they will deliver 24 hours a day.

About 30 minutes later, they knocked on my hotel room door and there was my food.  The delivery person rides a bike and carries a large plastic insulated chest on their back like a backpack.  (I got the picture below a few days later after I was feeling slightly better.) 

It has a hot compartment and a cold compartment.  My double cheeseburger was still hot, the fries were warm and my Oreo McFlurry was cold, although slightly melted.  The way I was feeling, it was just perfect.

Good American comfort food in China.  It’s as good as a spoon full of sugar helping the medicine go down!

Monday, April 11, 2011

White Hawk Music Cafe

Middle son is taking piano lessons down in Goochland.  He takes them at a place called White Hawk Music Cafe.  It is a cross between a coffee house, restaurant, performance hall and music school.

The have the standard coffee options, although it appeared that they may have had a few more options when it comes to flavorings.  I had a very nice Non-fat White Mocha.  You know, one of those fufu drinks that girls usually have.  They also serve breakfast as the sign outside states.

Inside the people were real friendly and polite.  Although I think that is more a general trait of rural Virginia overall.  The interesting thing is that they have music lessons in the back.  They have about four or five rooms for lessons.  They have a list of teachers that come in and teach piano, guitar and voice lessons.  It is more of a connection point where the lessons are between the student and teacher, but the nice thing is that you pay for your lessons at the cafe, so you can add a nice latte on when you pay the bill.

There is also a stage inside for performances which they have regularly on the weekends.  You can see some of the performances in the gallery on their website.   They also have guitars for sale.  It is a one stop shop to get caffeinated, buy a guitar, learn to jam and then perform.

I like the White Hawk Music Cafe not only because it is the only place in Goochland to get a gourmet coffee, but it is a great environment with friendly people that would be a success no matter where it was located.  If you find yourself in the town of Goochland, VA be sure to stop in and say hi.  You won't be disappointed.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Bees and the Quest for Honey

The last few years I have had an interest in bees and beekeeping.  However, until this past summer I lived in Phoenix, AZ.  That means two things when it comes to bees: 1 - Most of the orange groves are gone and they are replaced with houses (remember the housing boom of 2004-2006?); and 2 - Africanized bees. I figured that this was one hobby that would be best learned from an actual person, not just reading about it on the internet and then going to do it.  There weren't many recreational beekeepers left in Phoenix.  I had a lead on an uncle of a friend, but he hadn't been active in years.

My move to Goochland County in Virginia last summer was just what was needed to get the bee buzz going again.  In Powhatan, VA, the county just south of Goochland, the extension office was having a bee class for beginners.  Seemed like no time better than the present, so I signed up.  It was interesting and fascinating and got me even more excited about this hobby.   This spring the group formed the Huguenot Bee Club with members from brand new (of which I am one) to very experienced.

After going to meetings once a month since last September, the time has come to actually start working the bees.  We placed orders this past fall for nucs this spring.  They are similar to a regular hive, but are only four frames.  They will have a queen, nurse bees and brood on these frames.  These frames will be inserted into my hive bodies once I receive them.  The bees will then be fed a sugar water mixture to help them build out the comb on the frames.

But before I could do that, I needed the equipment.  I went online and ordered every catalog I could find, from Brushy Mountain Bee Farm to Dadant to Mann Lake Ltd. After ordering some from all of them along with a local Brushy Mountain distributor, I had all the parts, but I still needed to assemble.

My dad helped me assemble the hive bodies and the good wife painted them the usual white.  Since the good wife is the main user of honey in our house, it seemed appropriate that she participate in some form or fashion in this hobby.  The last step is to make up the frames.

All the equipment ended up in the basement, since the chicks and guineas are finally outside in their coops, so that seemed like the best place to start.  I got the air compressor along with the nail gun and setup a small assembly shop in the basement.

Unassembled frames on the table and empty hive bodies on the floor.

I assembled a few frames to get a feel for it and called Doug from Buffalo Bee Farm, one of the other Huguenot Bee Club members, for advice about the wax foundation installation.  The one thing I have found, is that beekeepers in general are really friendly and anxious to share their knowledge with anyone else.

Extra hive bodies on the left, and unassembled frames on the table.

After less than an hour of work, I had 23 frames built and installed into two hive bodies.  That was my goal for the evening.  I am going to be out of town for a couple weeks right before the nucs are to arrive, so I wanted to make sure I would be ready to go when I got back.  Looking at the filled hive bodies gave me a sense of pride and accomplishment.  It also let me know that there is no turning back now!

My first two hive bodies with frames.  

Although I don't need ten frames per hive since each nuc will come with four frames, they just looked so good all filled up.  It will still be a year or two until I will get any honey for myself, but the good wife and I are excited.  We are both looking forward to our first spoon of honey from our own hives.  And just in case any friends and family are wondering, you can guess what you will be getting for Christmas 2012 if everything goes as planned!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Getting the garden going early.

The good wife and I were cruising the Home Depot one evening, having a nice date out on the town, and we came across a kit for a grow light that was made by one of the employees named Kevin.  He had set up a cart showing all the parts that would be needed, and had sheets printed out showing how to build it and what to do to start your garden indoors.  Kevin was there this night and was more than happy and willing to help out some naive transplants, I mean customers.  We picked his brain for about an hour about what we should be doing with our yard, what we should do with our shrubs, our trees, what grows here and when.  He even told us about his blog about his gardening called KevInTheGarden.  But the big discussion was about the garden. Since we moved here in June last year, we were a little late getting started, but we were still able to get a few raised beds made and got a few items planted.

First year raised beds.

But this year was going to be different.  We got another volunteer neighbor of ours to come and rototill a small portion of our yard next to the raised beds for an in-ground garden.  Then we went to another neighbors house just down the road for some composted horse manure.  She puts all the horse manure from her horses into small piles just inside the woods next to her barn.  When we told her we were working on a garden, she offered all the manure we could want.  We got our buckets and shovels and headed over to her piles.  It was amazing!  Push the shovel into a pile covered with leaves and a nice dark rich compost comes up, light and fluffy, just what our garden needs.  We added a couple bags of lime to help break up the clay, and then one more tilling of the soil by our volunteer neighbor to blend it all together.  Our garden was ready to go!

The section of our yard that we call "The Garden."

But the weather wasn't.  We were still a bit early.  So off I went to the Home Depot to buy the grow light kit.  Basically a two bulb shop light and some PVC pipe.  It was a really simple assembly and we were off and growing in our basement.

The grow light in action, helping the seedlings reach to the sky in the basement.

Our volunteer neighbor's wife is an avid gardener, so she pointed us towards a local seed company called Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.  The package came the next week and the seeds were planted.  It only took a couple days to get the seeds germinating and the seedlings were on their way.

It has continued to be cold here in Goochland, VA the last week or two.  The good wife was able to get the peas planted outside in the garden since they are more cold hardy and will tolerate a good frost.

First row of peas planted and ready to grow.

It's been a long, long time since I have had home grown peas.  My mouth is watering thinking how they will taste like little bits of candy.  (Can't we all hear our parents saying that their vegetables taste "as sweet as candy" from when we were kids?  Now I know what they meant!)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Local BBQ is so good.

I like to find local restaurants whenever possible instead of eating at the major national chain restaurants.  Don't get me wrong, I love a Chick-Fil-A sandwich and their lemonade is incredible.  But when I can find a locally owned and operated restaurant, I like to support it, especially if they have good food.  This is a trait that was learned from my good friend Dave.

I kept seeing this one restaurant (shack) whenever I would run errands during lunch at work.  It was called Phat Boyz BBQ.   It is a really tiny joint.  Only seven bar stools and three tables that seated four people each.  They had an outside sitting area, but it was chilly and no one was outside, so I sat up at the bar.

I took a look at the menu and it seemed for the most part like the good southern BBQ selection of main dishes and sides.  But there was one side item that caught my eye.  Sweet potato fries with marshmallows and caramel drizzle.  I had to try it, so I ordered a BBQ sandwich of pulled pork and my side of sweet potato fries with marshmallows and caramel drizzle.

Doesn't that look good!  Once they cook the sweet potato fries, they put a layer of marshmallows onto it and then heat it somehow just to get them to start to melt, then put a generous drizzle of caramel.  They were as good as it looks.

The BBQ was really good too.  You could get it plain or with slaw.  I opted for plain as I am not a big slaw fan. There was a bit of red pepper mixed into the meat and sauce, so it had a little bite.  Not too much, just enough to add some zip.  They also had a tray of different sauces you could add on top.  As served it had just enough sauce to hold it together, so adding more sauce was mandatory.  They had everything from a sweet sauce, to spicy to knock your socks off.  Both tomato based and vinegar based.

Every weekday they offer a special that is not on the menu.  The best deal is their Tuesday-Thursday lunch special, which is a BBQ sandwich, chips and a drink for $5.25.  Or for the same price you can go with a loaded hot dog, chips and a drink, but with the BBQ as good as it was, I can't imagine too many people go for the dog.

If you find yourself up on Route 1 in Glen Allen, VA be sure to stop in to Phat Boyz BBQ and have yourself a treat.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Popcorn Trees

It must be that I have lived the last 19 years of my life in the Sonoran desert, but I have just been in awe of all the trees that are starting to bloom in the last week or two.  I'm not sure what type of trees they are, but they look like they have big popcorn balls all over them.

Most of the other trees have started budding now, but they are just going right to green leaves and skipping this most enjoyable transformation.  Our fruit trees (a topic for separate post at some point) have just a few itty-bitty buds on them.  At least most of them look like they have buds, but they pretty much look like sticks in the ground right now, but I digress.

Don't get me wrong, the Sonoran desert blooms in the spring too, and the saguaro cactus has some really amazing blooms on them, but it is different.

I guess I have just missed this change of the seasons and expression of spring time.  The one thing I have realized is that there isn't another place, other than the Sonoran desert, that can create sunsets that make you stop in your tracks.

If you live in a northern clime and get to enjoy this change, soak it in and enjoy it.  If you live in the Sonoran desert, look around you and enjoy it's unique beauty.  Either way, I wonder if over time, these spring blooms will just become ordinary to me?  Will I even look twice at them and enjoy them like I am now?  Only time will tell.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Settling In

It appears that everyone is settling into their new accommodations now.  The guineas seem to be OK with their ghetto coop, and the chickens like their condo.  The dogs (both ours and the neighbor's yellow lab) seem less and less interested in the chickens and guineas whenever they are out in the run.

Fenix checking out the guineas.

I added straw into the run where it was dirt to hopefully keep the mud down a bit.  I also put some on the ramps for the coops in the hopes that it would give them a little traction to get up and down.  Not sure it worked too well because the birds picked it all off the ramp and had no problems going in and out.

The only issue I have been having now is when I open both the chicken coop and guinea coop doors at the same time.  After a little while, everyone ends up in the chicken coop.  Apparently the guineas like to go uptown and hang out in the nice digs.  The chickens don't seem to mind right now, but once everyone gets a little bigger, it is going to be a tighter fit in there.

Two Barred Rocks and an Ameraucana venturing out of the coop.

The only chickens that have been adventurous enough to go outside the coop are the Barred Rocks and Ameraucanas.  The Barred Rock are the friendliest and will come right up to us and let us hold them.  The rest are a bit shy, so we need to pick them up more and get them used to us touching them.

As soon as the guineas get bigger, I think they will be able to defend themselves from the dogs.  Hopefully by then everyone will be used to each other and it won't be a big deal, otherwise we may be fertilizing our yard with feathers once the dogs are done with them.

In case you were wondering, we never did catch the seventh guinea.  We have been letting the remaining six loose in the run every day hoping that they will make some noise and attract their brother back to the pen, but we haven't seen or heard from him.  We may have chased him into the next county and is now living happily on some other farm.  Unless we see him again, we are going to stick with that story.  It makes for a happier ending!