Saturday, January 29, 2011

X-Plane Mobile

All seven (I added one that I will probably tell you about later) of my New Year's resolutions are on track, despite all the time I used creating the ultimate spreadsheet to track my progress at each in comparison to progress through the year 2011. (Today, as I write this, it's January 14th and we're 3.56% through the year, but I have earned at least four percent of the arbitrary points available for each item). Go me!

My sim progress is in part thanks to X-Plane Mobile, recommended by a reader. I feel stupid saying this, but I am playing with a flight simulator game the size of my hand, and it's a valid simulation of a real instrument scan and some of the thought processes and multi-tasking that go with flying an actual airplane. I was looking for a clunky little app that simulated hold entries, descent profiles, or some other semi-intelligent task, just to elevate my bored moments from Pac-Man and Mahjong to something more skill-enhancing. And what I got was a full flight simulator for ten bucks.

The iPod becomes both the flight yoke and the instrument panel. You control elevator and ailerons by tilting the device, and the rudder autocoordinates, including for slips on crosswind landings, while you are airborne. There's a slider for the rudder if you want to control it, and the same slider operates rudder/nosewheel steering while you are on the ground. There are also sliders for the flaps and throttle which appear when you put your fingers on them, then fade away again once they are set. You can fly it visually--yes, it has full, realistic-looking graphics--with a simulated HUD overlay, or press an onscreen button to be in panel mode and fly by instruments. A clever feature for visual pilots is a little arrow that points to the nearest airport. I know I lose track of airports when I'm visual in a flight sim, trying to fly a circuit but there is only a forward view. There are seven different airplane model options including singles, twins, jets and props. The ones that I've flown seem reasonably modelled. All but the basic Cessna 172 panel include VORs and ILSes but not NDBs, and there are six regions to fly in, five in the United States and one crazy mountainous one in Austria. You can even set the weather, time of day and the weight and loading of the airplane.

The regions are quite small, so if you go bombing around in a fast airplane you'll scroll off the end of the screen and wrap around again, which is kind of confusing, but you can always hop out to the map to see where you are. People who use flight simulators in order to look at the pretty scenery will find it repetitive, but I say if you want to look at scenery, just cruise around Google Earth. I start it up, take off, slam it into panel mode and stay there for most of the time.

That in itself poses a little problem. The HUD screen is the hub of the simulator. You have to be in HUD mode in order to operate the landing gear, see the gear position indicator, or access the map. On the jet panel you can scroll down to find a gear button above the nav radio, but not on the King Air. The way I normally fly an instrument departure is to set the power, look out the front window until rotation then right away I'm on the instruments. I confirm a nose up attitude and a positive rate of climb, then raise the gear. With this sim I need to pause, switch to HUD mode, unpause, raise the gear, pause, switch back to panel view, and back on the instruments. The same routine applies at glideslope intercept on the ILS approach. If I do it without pausing I tend to get off track or altitude. Maybe it's just something for me to practise.

You have to get the instrument plates to fly approaches. I was sort of surprised that the app or at least the support page didn't include them. The US ones are all available easily from links on AirNav, but I had to search through a few dead links to find the Austrian ones; there's just one airport, Innsbruck LOWI, depicted for that region.

After the mobile fun got me psyched to try the Microsoft one again, I grumbled my way through loading it into memory. It actually required me to insert one of the CDs, I'm not sure if that was for copy protection or because I did a minimum install. I wish there were a "no scenery" or "wireframe scenery" option for these things. They'd be a lot faster. They don't make the Microsoft version anymore, but the full version of X-Plane runs on a PC. The Microsoft one is good enough, but I took a peek to see how much the X-Plane one goes for. It's $30. I thought a full flight sim program would cost five times that. I fell silly buying a full on simulator when I never look at the scenery, but pretty soon I'll have had $30 worth of aggravation out of this seven year old Microsoft program. If my hardware can handle it, I may have to switch. Would you believe that X-Plane even has technical support where you e-mail them questions, and a real person e-mails you back? He called me "sir" but then ATC does that sometimes too. I guess my pilot voice isn't much more girly than my typing.

If you prefer your flights of fancy to have some chance of getting you somewhere, and have some multimedia skills, check out Cathay Pacific's Around the World in Eighty Days promotion. Air tickets, hotels and spending money everywhere their network goes for eighty days. Don't forget to stop in Siem Reap and see Angkor Wat.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

So Out of Here

Saturday is another miserable weather day, unsuitable for our work, and the client hasn't given up to send us anywhere else. All evidence points to my replacement coworker having boarded the plane to here, so I pack, check out of the hotel and get a ride to the terminal. It's a wooden shack at the end of a mostly empty parking lot. The driver jokes, "Do you think this this the right concourse? I probably won't get towed if you want to go in and check." The airplane hasn't landed yet, but I'm sure it will be along shortly.

I check in, with a human, no kiosks and they're nice to me. We're too far north for security, so that's it. I sit down in the waiting area where there is a 3D jigsaw puzzle for waiting passengers to work on. It's not a 3D structure, but the picture on it is 3D, kind of disconcerting, as it's difficult to look at and hard to actually tell what matches. I and a geological engineer work on it for a bit, matching a few blue pieces, sea or sky or little wooden houses in Newfoundland, I don't remember which, then we board the flight. There isn't much space under seats and no overhead bins, so they offer to gatecheck bags, but they stipulate no computers allowed in gatecheck, so I find somewhere to stuff mine in the cabin. There's a young Chinese male FO; that's more unusual than a white female one. Considering the number of people in Canada with Chinese ancestry, there are incredibly few in aviation. I can't think that I've ever seen a Chinese female flying an airliner in Canada. I'm in an exit row and he gives me an extra exit briefing, plus I look at the card. It's the usual stuff. Obey flight attendants, ditch door, leave stuff.

We launch into the murk. In the top-of-descent briefing the captain informs us that the destination airport weather is "sunny with crazy winds." I love small airlines. They haven't had the honesty beaten and memoed out of them. The descent is predictably bumpy, and we're yawing on final, back and forth. There's no cockpit door and I can see the runway lurching back and forth through the cockpit windows.

This is where I landed after the thunderstorm. It's the same runway and the same very abrupt turn off onto the taxiway. The crew parks, we disembark, and I wait for my checked bag. I take it to security and they clear it through to be loaded on my connecting flight. It "connects" in the loosest sense of the word, in that it will be at this airport in a couple of hours, but what are you going to do. I go to security and stand behind a man who appears to be in line, but he indicates that he's not waiting, just watching "the little one" go through. I peer ahead to see the unaccompanied minor off on his or her first flight, but the man's son is a fully-grown adult of what appears to be normal physical and mental function, the sort of guy you'd have no qualms dropping off at the curb. Parents!

There's more turbulence getting out of here, but that's to be expected. The flight attendant gives me a handful of extra snacks, woo! Flight attendants always treat me well. I wonder if it's a reward for my paying rapt attention during the safety briefing. I eat my way through all the snacks and my computer battery, and then I'm home. Double woo! My stuff and car are all safe and waiting for me, and my insurance hasn't even expired yet.

I'm not using the car really, so I was just going to say "who cares" and let it lapse for a while: I don't have anywhere to go that I can't walk to, but the same insurance covers it if the parking garage burns down or it's stolen, so I'll pay up and renew it.

Dinner is NOT Boston Pizza. And the next posts will be in chronological order.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Trans-Pacific Comparative Television Watching

Americans totally have a channel for everything. There are only a few Canadian channels, and then the local area usually has one, but even in Canada we get lots of American channels on cable. You flip though and find a show you like, and if it's on a specialty channel you can go all day watching the same sort of show. I was once not really paying attention to a bad cop show and it took me hours to realize that it was several bad cop shows one after another and I wasn't noticing the difference.

I made a comment about 'the science fiction channel' in an e-mail to an Australian and got an incredulous reply. A whole channel of science fiction shows? Yeah, I think we have two or three: Space, ψφ (or however they spell it), and isn't there something called Xyzzy? Let's see what I have in this hotel ... 53 channels including:

  • A few local Canadian channels from different parts of the country
  • Four channels from the nearest big US city
  • History Channel (USA)
  • Comedy Network
  • Women's Network - lots of chick flicks
  • Spike (USA) - lots of action movies
  • Outdoor Life - Fishing and hunting and survivalism
  • The Food Network
  • Discovery Channel (USA) - wildlife documentaries & Mythbusters
  • TLC (USA) - documentaries about people having babies, and how to fix your house
  • Home & Garden (USA)
  • Teletoon
  • Real Estate
  • Knowledge Network
  • CNN
  • Country Music Television
  • Family Channel
  • YTV - cartoons and youth shows up to high school dramas
  • CBC-Francais (Canadian)
  • Canadian Learning Channel
  • Aboriginal People's Television Network (Canada)
  • Two all sports channels

There's also a channel that tells you what is on on all the other channels. It helps to have a remote with numbered buttons so you can just jump to the channel you want.

There were about ten channels where I grew up. There were 13 on the dial, but at least three of them were just static. But we had an old TV.

In case you're interested, here's the Australian equivalent.

  • ABC (taxpayer funded, runs news and current affairs, kids shows, BBC comedies and dramas, no ads)
  • ABC 2 (same deal, but has more local (ie. bad) stuff, indigenous programming and music tv and repeats of ABC 1, doesn't run overnight)
  • ABC 3 (same deal, kids shows only)
  • ABC 24 (brand new, news all the time)
  • SBS (taxpayer funded, foreign language ABC basically, foreign films, news
  • from lots of different coutries, and esoteric local stuff)
  • SBS 2 (same thing, but worse)
  • Channels 7, 9 and 10 (commercial stations with American movies and tv shows but local news, current affairs and game shows. And Home and Away)

My correspondent says that some areas have a local channel too, but those are dying out.

One last comment on television is a TV Tropes quote about the series Lost: Generally, science fiction can have an open ending as long as the fates of the most interesting characters are resolved. Unfortunately, on Lost, a large chunk thought the island was the most interesting character. Perfect summary.

I promise not to watch any more TV at you this week. My rotation is at least Tivoed, so I can fast-forward to the day I fly out.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Clichés on a Movie

On Wednesday I wake up around noon (I'm working the second shift) and eat leftover pasta for whatever meal this is called. Replacement pilots are arriving on Saturday, so I'm cleared to go home on Sunday. It turns out that I can't get out of this one-horse town on a Sunday. Unless I take the horse, I suppose. I ask the boss if I should get the Monday flight, but the weather and forecast is so terrible I'm approved to leave the same day my replacement arrives, assuming he makes my flight. I'll buy a ticket on the same airplane going back south. I hope the storm of the week doesn't mess that up for me.

The chief pilot comes by my room to borrow scissors. I'm office supplies girl, always the one with tape and glue, post-it notes and scissors. I don't have a hole punch though. The scissors are for some literal paperwork thing, and I can see a metaphorical desire to use them on someone else. Oh Chief Pilot of mine, you have my respect and admiration, and scissors. There's a disagreement going on between PRM and CP, the repercussions of which I am shielded from.

And the weather is too bad to work today, so it's a TV day.

Much of the rest of this post is in the tradition of what I term "movie reviews" but which a reader pointed out is just me recounting a movie, in the form of stream of consciousness while watching it. True, but that's what I do here. I'm saving you the trouble of watching it. And I do mean trouble.

I turned on the TV and flipped to the channel the on-screen TV guide listed for Hawaii Five-O. I'm not sure I've ever seen it, but I wanted to see if they really said, "Book 'em Dano, Murder one," as people do in the cliché. The TV guide was wrong or I misread it though, because I ended up watching Rookie Blue, a new Canadian cop show that may be a comedy or a drama, it's a little hard to tell from the episode I saw, which was pretty funny, but it may have been intended for me to take more seriously. The characters certainly comprised the most attractive, well made-up and perfectly coiffed police squadron I've ever seen. I expect that in between bungling arrests and misunderstanding orders from their superior officers they will have sex with one another in the back of patrol cars. Oh and learn Important Life Lessons.

When the credits roll for that, I shower, and then return to find the television is playing a movie I could call Ants on a Plane. I won't though, because if I did it would so perfectly explain everything about the movie that it wouldn't be worth my while to explain it while half watching the movie. I've missed the opening credits, but I eventually learn from the voiceover before a commercial break that its real title is Destination Infestation.

As I come in, there a dead guy in the aisle of a passenger jet with ants crawling all over him, possibly crawling out of him: it was a quick gross-out shot. And of course there are a bunch of screaming passengers. More ants crawl over all the interior of the airplane, streaming in and out of vents. An attractive female (human), who soon identifies herself as an entomologist specializing in ants, puts on her eyeglasses to inspect and proclaim this to be an extremely dangerous ant species. She urges the bald captain (who comes out of the flight deck to see the body) to land as soon as possible, these ants being the most vicious and venomous insect known to man. They've also been genetically modified and had their mandibles reinforced. She can tell this by looking at them. The captain goes back to the cockpit and tells the FO to "get Miami tower on the line."

The FO addresses "Miami Control" and announces "Trans-South Air 603 declaring an inflight emergency." In response to the obvious question about the nature of their emergency, he responds simply, "Ants." The captain chimes in to elaborate on the ant danger, but the controllers scoff at them. The pilots do not specifically ask for a diversion or landing clearance, and neither volunteer nor are asked for their intentions.

The Captain summons the sexy entomologist to the flight deck and she explains to the controllers how dangerous the ants are, but Miami--this time they are addressed as "Miami Tower"--responds with a slightly sarcastic "are you still requesting an emergency landing?" So apparently ATC understood the original declaration of an emergency as a landing request, but landing slots are so seriously rationed in Miami that you have to convince the controllers that you have a REAL emergency before you can land there.

"Come on McCready you know how this works," says the controller who still won't issue a descent clearance. The thing is I do know how it works: a pilot declares an emergency and tells the controller what he or she needs and then the controllers move heaven and earth to make it happen. Even when you haven't declared an emergency, just indicated that you're having a bit of trouble and are returning or diverting, you're likely to hear words like "Cleared to land, any runway," "Descent your discretion, let me know if you need below flight level 200," and "Halifax is closer, 8000 feet, CAVOK do you want vectors for Halifax?" The worst interference a controller gives an emergency aircraft is pestering the crew for souls on board, fuel on board and intentions, while the crew is still managing the emergency.

But we're in a universe where airplanes are swarming with killer ants and Miami won't allow an aircraft in distress to land. I'm thinking an island diversion might be a good idea, to contain the ants. Maybe Cape Canarval. I think it's all offshore in a swamp separated from the mainland by a salt water channel with one bridge. They can put an ant-proof barrier across the bridge and confine the ants to the rocket-fuel-infested swamp, where they can bring in squadrons of government agents and no one will be the wiser. But they continue to bicker with Miami.

Meanwhile the air marshal is fighting the ants with a fire extinguisher. Why is the captain in the passenger cabin again? Shouldn't he be landing the airplane? The suggestion is made by someone to depressurize the cabin, certainly a common movie trope for discarding contaminants (contaminants: I'm so funny) in a pressurized aircraft. That idea is rejected as dangerous to the infant on board. There's a bit of back and forth about the good of the many versus the good of the few, then the captain gets attacked by the ants and goes into shock.

It doesn't really matter, he's been pretty ineffectual anyway. Maybe the FO will now declare an emergency for an incapacitated crew member and land the plane already. The FO--wearing a full-sized green David Clark headset--instructs the FA to "tell the passengers to strap in. I have to reboot the system."

The FA gives a panic-tinged PA explaining that "the copilot" is going to do a routine inflight procedure that may cause a momentary loss of cabin pressure. The oxygen masks may drop down, but there is no need for panic. The O2 masks do drop, and no one, including the flight attendants, puts them on.

The ants have now entered an area placarded in close-up as the Hydraulic Chamber. This has resulted in, according to the dialogue, an inability to reset the pressurization system, autopilot failure, and fuel leakage at a rate such that they have to stop it in order to make Miami. Or possible Atlanta, their original destination. And then the air traffic controller (who works alone in a darkened room) is threatened by a shadowy overlord with treason charges if he discloses what is going on.

There's a subplot about the hot scientist and her attention-starved daughter, plus romantic implications between the air marshal and scientist. Passive flight attendants--identified by orange aprons: costume budget didn't stretch to real uniforms--continue serving drinks, except to the requisite drunk passenger, who yells at them.

The ant-injured captain returns to the flight deck despite his incapacitation and the FO briefs him on the situation. "No autopilot, half the system gauges are down as are the hydraulics. We've lost fire suppression." The captain assures him that they can operate the hydraulics manually. They do not appear to be straining to operate the flight controls, so they must have it trimmed out the way they want it.

The scientist and air marshal descend through a little hatch in the galley into the cargo bay, which is illuminated by a rotating amber light. However, whether it's through lack of continuity or pity for the viewer, the bulk of the scene is lit normally, not with the flashing light.

Meanwhile, the drunk passenger goes into the lavatory and is attacked by ants. He emerges into the aisle where they use the fire extinguisher on him. I think he's dead. Scene goes back to the cockpit, where they must have finally got permission to land at Miami, because the air traffic controller calls up to tell them "Diversion to Miami has been rescinded."

"Rescinded?" There's a ten dollar word not on the aviation English vocabulary list. I guess "cancelled" wasn't cool enough for them. I think I would have "misheard" or "misunderstood" that word, then said, "Roger, we'll be on the ground in fifteen minutes," and then run the emergency descent checklist.

They don't bother to ask for landing in Nassau or Port au Prince, because "word has gotten out" and everyone knows that it's a plague plane, so there's no point. The hot scientist and the air marshal are playing chemistry set with the cargo in the hold, Apparently detergent precursor chemicals can be mixed with bottled water to produce concentrated hydrochloric acid, which--I'm just going by the movie, folks--is a potent insecticide. Upstairs, hot scientist's jailbait teenage daughter is patrolling the aisles with the fire extinguisher.

Now they're asking Port-au-Prince, but yep, they're denied by a woman with an accent more authentic than I would have expected. The FO is ex Air Force and suggests diversion to a 5000' strip of unknown status at a closed air base in Mobile, Alabama. If they're going to defy the airspace closure, I'm not sure why they aren't doing it at a well-maintained airfield with emergency services available, but hey, at least they are making a decision.

The captain goes back to the cabin (doesn't he learn) to chat with the pax about his decision. He says authorities would block the runway if they tried to land at Miami. (Aha!) A passenger suggests ditching in the water and the captain tells him that's unnecessarily risky and that he came back to tell them his intentions as a courtesy, not for discussion. Hey being bitten by ants was good for this guy.

"I paid a lot of money for my ticket," says the passenger, "and that entitles me to a vote."

"That entitles you to nothing," says the captain, and threatens him with "FAA Security." He probably should have left that one to the FAs.

Meanwhile our heroes are sloshing through a room that is a centimetre of so deep in "fuel." Following instructions from the flight deck, they're going to have to patch the wires together and reboot the pump, using a blue switch labelled "system reset". It doesn't work, but the scientist hits it with a hammer and a blue light comes on in the cockpit. All is well! Well except for the ants.

Meanwhile, the shadowy folks who threatened the air traffic controller are onto the fact that they are making a run for the Alabama military base. I don't know how, since the radar track he is shown to be extrapolating from is so wiggly thay could be aiming for anywhere, but a call goes out to the Pentagon.

The cockpit goes dark. "What just happened?"

"We lost our on board computer."

"Great, now we're flying crippled and blind."

The heroes have now found a puppy in the cargo hold.

A shadowy figure reporting to "Red Leader One" is driving to Mobile. The bad guy, presumably Red Leader One, is arguing with his subordinate because she doesn't want to kill everyone. She walks out.

The disused airstrip has lights, and the view from the cockpit suggests that they are descending at about a 30 degree angle. "Initiating landing gear," says the FO, while they are over the runway lights. The gear comes down instantly and they land normally. I wish I had a manual extension system that fast and easy.

Now they are on the ground and soldiers are surrounding the plane, preparing to kill all witnesses -- except that a live TV news crew shows up and they "stand down." Passengers, ants and fuel are all escaping from the airplane. When the passengers are all off, the scientist pulls a flare gun out of her purse and explodes the whole plane and the ants. The bad government guy reports the situation contained.

They all go off happily to quarantine, where I'm sure scientist and air marshal and scientist and teenage daughter will get quality time together, but not in the same way. And then we cut back to the ants ... some of which have survived! Dun DUN DUN DUNH!

If there are any airplane disaster movie clichés missing from here, it's probably because I forgot to record them, not that they weren't in the movie.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Prophylactic Security Measures

Finally, after a string of tentative aviation but not work posts, I'm ready to finish up posts on my last shift at work. This might be a little confusing because I tried hard to get these done before I left for Cambodia, but they really take place before then. So we rejoin me during the final week of my last shift before I left Cambodia.

I'm lazing about in an anonymous hotel. 'Tis not the season for working very hard in Canada, so here is a story from someone else who was working hard at a US airline which I won't name. I have his permission to post it, properly anonymized, so if you're close enough to the story to recognize the players, please don't say anything to give it away.

We had a serious situation on our flight yesterday that resulted in a diversion to an airport where we have no base, and a full evacuation. A few passengers received minor injuries during the evacuation, but otherwise everything was fine. We had no staff based there, but another airline came to the rescue in helping us with locating buses and assisting our passengers. They even had some of their staff mobilize to get bags off the aircraft. As a result of the landing, the airport was forced to close for most of the day yesterday and into this morning because the brakes had locked and we could not move the aircraft. This airport doesn't even have a towbar appropriate for the aircraft, so we trucked one in from another city along with other ground support equipment to help with moving the aircraft.

Once our airplane was no longer impeding airport operations, the next priority was to return it to serviceability. We brought our own employees, all appropriately badged for airside access at two of our other bases, but the TSA would not permit them onto the field here, to work in a maintenance hangar. The airport authority and the airline are in agreement that this incident is an emergency situation which requires mitigative response in allowing our personnel to fix the aircraft immediately without having to go through SIDA training for the new airport. TSA maintains stoically that any staff working to get this plane operating need to go through SIDA training.

SIDA stands for Security Identification Display Area. Every airport has its own application procedure including a short training course. Presumably the training consists mainly of being told not to let anyone into a secure area, not to enter one without your badge, and not to lose your badge, plus lots of threats and scary information about what happens if you disobey. Perhaps the airport-specific part includes a map showing all the secure areas on the airport in question, and an introduction to the head of security who will kick your ass if you don't comply. That takes about 45 minutes (the training, not the ass-kicking) so the lengthy part of the application procedure is the ten day wait for a background check. You can't use the fact that you got a background check at three other airports to waive this requirement, as the airport badge must be issued right after the passed background check.

The eye-rolling frustration of this policy is evident from the quoted diversion incident and the details of the SIDA application process itself. Plus the first google hit for SIDA training TSA is a plea to standardize the training for all airports. While I'd agree that a trainee aircraft groomer at SeaTac shouldn't automatically have an all-access pass at DCA, I can't conceive of a reason why an aircraft mechanic with 20 years experience at JFK can't be issued a temporary pass to work on a company aircraft at LAX, after the validity of her JFK pass has been confirmed. Can you? It's not like it's hard to identify the secure areas at an unfamiliar airport. They have a stop sign sticker with the SIDA acronym, and they're usually locked, anyway.

I always flinch slightly when I see the SIDA sticker on airport doors, not because I've ever been badged at a US airport, but because they happen to have chosen the same acronym as the French term for AIDS, as in the HIV+ disease. Not that that's something one contracts by turning the wrong doorknob, but it is an extra deterrent to keep me out of secured areas.

It's pasta Tuesday, the highlight of the week in northern wherever we are. We all go to Boston Pizza.

Update: The missing paragraph of the post is now visible. I accidentally hid it through an html error.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Fastest Seaplane in the World

When I returned from Cambodia Elizabeth wanted to know what I thought of the most recent postcard she had sent me. I mumbled vaguely about being pretty ignorant about fighter planes because I think of them more as weapons of war than aircraft. (Not that I would turn down a ride or some stick time in one, but I'm not a high-G freak). Elizabeth was, I think, offended. "It's not a military airplane, it's a racing seaplane!" I had to admit that I really didn't remember that and she muttered darkly that my not recalling it told her all she needed to know about my reaction.

So I felt really badly, and even considered digging through the pile of mail on my desk to find the seaplane, but no, you gotta be kidding, my taxes and HST bill are in there. That's not something that even a sweet little seaplane was going to assuage. I'm not ready for that pile yet. So I felt ever so redeemed when a few days later I picked up my mail and there in the pile was the fastest seaplane of all time. Just not the fastest at getting through the mail from Victoria, B.C.

I had never even heard of racing seaplanes. Well, I knew that at the dawn of aviation runways were rare and waterways plentiful, so many aircraft, especially if they needed a long takeoff run, were built for water operation. They were slow and draggy anyway, so what difference would a couple of floats make? You say seaplane and I think of the aerodynamics of the Beaver, the old single Otter, or the Clipper. You say 1934 and I think of of the DC-3, which could go maybe 340 kilometres an hour, flat out, or stubby little conventional gear, airplanes like the Lockheed Vega, clocked at 547 km/h. But if you can read the text on the postcard you'll see that that sleek skinny red Macchi Castoldi set a world speed record in 1934, clocked at 709 km/h.

According to this website, the Great Depression kept the US out of the Schneider Cup competition, so that probably explains why a North American-centric aviation education omitted this information. The contest was established to encourage innovation in seaplane design, and seems to have stressed safety and utility at first, but the figure-eight taxi around buoys and the operation on rough water elements of the competition are overshadowed by the speed races. It took a few years to improve the engine airflow so that the speed didn't "affect the carburetion." I suspect that this refers to intake turbulence depriving the engine of a steady flow of air at high speeds.

One of the problems with trying to get high speed out of piston aircraft is that as you increase the size of the engine, you either have to increase the drag profile of the airplane, or you have a long engine with poor cooling for the rear cylinders. The Macchi Castoldi has gone the second route, with a V24 engine--twenty-four cylinders in that long, long nose--and got around the cooling problem with radiators. Lots of radiators. The yellowish strips in the picture, on the floats, the wings, and I believe also the struts are radiators. The oil cooler is wrapped around the outside of the engine, inside the cowling, and there is an additional oil cooler in the rear of the floats! This is still the fastest piston seaplane ever, and it took over twenty-five years for its record to be broken by a jet-powered seaplane.

Thank you, Elizabeth for introducing me to a chapter in aviation history that I never knew was there. Also thank you Elizabeth for providing some bonus aviation postcards to the Cambodia trip donors who requested postcards.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Jackson Hole Overrun

I referred yesterday to the American Airlines runway excursion at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. That's looks like a tough, could-happen-to-anyone situation. The high airport elevation makes your gut instincts wrong, because as a result of low density air the airplane is moving faster over the ground than the airspeed indicator shows. The visibility means that you're on the gauges until decision height, then, drifting in a crosswind, you look up, find the runways lights off to one side, and land on the pavement that you trust is outlined by the lights, with everything reflecting off the swirling snow. The snow doesn't even look like snow. It looks like some weird flashing thing, just stabbing at you. Honestly, passengers who are perfectly familiar with the terrestrial sort of snow ask "what is that?" But you can't sit there and stare mesmerized like the Enterprise bridge crew. You have to land, make sure the thrust reversers have deployed, brake, trust the antilock, keep straight with no visual references and uncertain braking conditions and by that point all the formulae and calculations and runway friction data are academic. You are doing your job and just hoping that the rate of deceleration you're getting is such that by the time vee equals zero, half eh tee squared is less than runway length minus touchdown point. The Boeing 757 is slowed after landing by thrust reversers which direct the engine thrust forward, spoilers, which both provide aerodynamic drag and reduce the lifting power of the wings, increasing the weight on the wheels so that the wheel brakes are more effective.

The chart I have for the Jackson Hole runway 19 ILS approach shows a standard 200' decision height and what Canadians call an advisory visibility of three quarters of a mile. That is, one can reasonably expect to be able to see to land on the runway with that visibility and a ceiling above 200'. Reported conditions at the airport were a ceiling of 400 feet, light snow and visibility of 1 mile. Winds were 10 knots from 240 degrees. So the pilots expected to be able to land, and they did, but what went wrong?

I don't know. It's a sexy looking airplane, but I've never flown anything remotely like it. The information I have tells me:

The FDR data indicate that the aircraft touched down at approximately 132 knots. At touchdown, the air/ground parameter changes to "ground" for approximately one second and then switches to "air" for approximately ½ second before changing back to "ground" for the remainder of the recording. The thrust reverser discrete parameters on the FDR indicate that approximately 18 seconds elapsed from the time the reversers began moving until they were fully deployed.

I don't know the recommended touchdown speed for the aircraft at its actual landing weight, but 132 knots does not seem out of line. Without more knowledge of this aircraft systems I naïvely assume the air/ground parameter information means that the aircraft bounced slightly. This appears to have reset the thrust reversers and spoilers the same way a go-around would. Both are armed on approach and then activate automatically when the airplane sensors show that the main wheels are on the ground. This discussion suggests that wheel braking is restricted to half until sensors report that there is weight on the nosewheel. More informed discussion elsewhere doesn't mention the possibility of a bounce, and it's hard to see in the video. It does show very slow deployment of reverse thrust. Perhaps it was a landing gear sensor that "bounced" rather than the physical airplane. There also seems to have been a maintenance problem with the autospeedbrake (i.e. spoiler) handle in the cockpit, something that I'm sure will be scrutinized closely.

Look in the comments for possible contributions from readers more knowledgeable about this aircraft.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Hong Kong

So you know what? We got on a plane and we flew to Hong Kong and it was just as smoggy as on the way in. We went to a mall on top of a mountain, walked around the mountain, had many opportunities to buy things, ate dinner at a restaurant on a barge, and then we flew home to Canada.

I promise I'll get back to airplanes, day after tomorrow.

Here's a last goodbye and thank you to everyone for supporting this trip. I believe this boy was going to live in the first house I helped build. I don't know his name.

And finally, here is the seven people on a motorbike with two cartons of noodles photo. Let this be inspiration for me whenever I am loading cargo.

Friday, January 14, 2011

In Search of a Cornfrog

Here are a few more pictures that trigger some stories

Above: five people on one motorbike. Below: six people on one motorbike. That's the most I ever managed to photograph, but a fellow traveller has a shot of seven people and two cases of noodles on one motorbike. Both of these motorbike pictures were taken at Wat Phnom during the Water Festival.

A broom and basket vendor. It makes me sad that this basic equipment is being replaced by Swiffers, leaf blowers, and plastic bags. Most people hate leaf blowers because of the noise, for me they subvert the whole leaf management exercise. Instead of gathering up the leaves and using them for compost or fuel or just putting them somewhere where they won't bother anyone, you blow them away onto everyone else's property? If next door neighbours have leaf blowers, so they blow the leaves back and forth all year until they rot or someone knuckles under and buys a mulcher? They really don't seem more efficient than rakes.

I turned down a plastic bag from a postcard vendor, as I was just going to put the cards in my knapsack. She seemed confused that I didn't want the bag, and spoke some English, so I tried some evangelism. If everyone that comes from a rich country is going to push their point of view on foreigners anyway, I might as well get my say. A simplification of the great plastic island: "I don't like plastic bags because they go in the water and birds and fish eat them and die." I don't know if she understood that, but she understands that they blow everywhere. This was in the jungle by Angkor Wat and she gestured at the trees and swamps around indicating that she knew they went everywhere and look bad. I nod. "Cambodia is beautiful. I like it that way."

And finally here's more food. People preparing, transporting and selling food of all kinds on the street in every makeshift container. If I go back I'll spend less time looking at things and more time eating, plus I'll refuse to eat a single boring catered-for-tourists meal.

My last day in Phnom Penh I set out around eleven am to find myself a corn frog for lunch. I asked all the food vendors I could find if they had kongkep, frog? And some pointed me to others who might, and so on. In the end, I walked all the way to the Russian Market, teeming with vendors of everything and was rewarded with directions to someone who had kongkep. He was fishing battered frogs out of a deep-fryer. I was going to surrender and have one of those, but I really wasn't in the mood for deep fried food. I should have brought the cookbook, which not only has the Khmer written out, but has a picture, useful because literacy is not high among adults here. I hadn't, but I had my terrible phrasebook, and its forté is providing phrases for whiny demanding tourists. Its menu pages do not mention such delicacies as frog-kebabs, but they did give me what I needed to produce my most complex Khmer utterance of the whole trip: this deep fry frog. I no want deep fry frog. I want barbecue frog. where I can get barbecue frog? Sadly, it was not available. I was like someone on a Thursday afternoon in November suddenly deciding that she must have a corndog. Where would you go, right now to get a corndog? As far as I know, that's a food that is only available at fairs. You can probably buy McCain's Frozen Corndogs in the grocery store, but Cambodian signature dishes have not yet been reduced to processed food. (No, it's not just a potato! Read the ingredients. It's potato plus a bunch of garbage you're trying to pretend isn't in the product. I hate that ad. Non-Canadians can look serious and nod now). I had seen cornfrogs everywhere during the water festival and had not been smart enough to get mine while the getting was good. I'll add it to the reasons to return to Cambodia.

I had instead some chive cakes, so fresh I had to line up and wait for them to come off the grill. They were cooked in a metal pan with little eggcup like depressions in it to hold the batter. I had seen the equivalent pan in terra-cotta pottery, on an ox-drawn pottery vending stall, but I imagine the metal ones are easier to transport, heat and handle without breaking.

At the end of my expedition I was ready to kill the next person who offered me a tuktuk ride. I think I'll invest in a t-shirt that says no I do not need a tuktuk! You can't walk half a block without being offered a tuktuk ride or a moto ride.

Tomorrow we fly to Hong Kong.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Don't Let It Bug You

Breakfast includes a beautiful green curry soup with bean sprouts, banana flowers and shredded green papayas, then we jump on the bus. It's a modern coach, air conditioned with good legroom. There's a jumpseat that can fold into the aisle between each pair of seats, but we're not overloaded and everyone sits in regular seats. Except for the occasional cockroach that wanders down the windowsill.

We've chartered the bus to pick us up at our hotel, but it isn't an exclusive charter for us. It stops at the depot and some other people board. The bus station looks like a bus station anywhere, quite clean and modern. Ladies with trays of baguettes on their heads mill around outside the bus selling snacks. Once we're underway again a TV on the bus plays a Bollywood style musical romance movie, or maybe it's music videos, with Khmer subtitles

I'm sitting next to a skilled photographer with an expensive camera and she is reviewing some of the pictures she has taken, to see which she will keep. I comment that the yellow rectangle the camera viewer screen puts around the images makes them look like they are from National Geographic. "The whole country looks like National Geographic!" she responds. "You just point your camera anywhere and instant interesting picture." She gives me some photography tips. It's mostly about being in the right place at the right time and looking to see what the camera will see. The human brain is so good at filtering what the eye sees, that as a beginning photographer you can fail to notice something blocking the middle of the shot, tinted windows, undesirable backgrounds, and the like.

I could describe the whole Cambodian experience in ten photographs, none of which I managed to take. At each occasion it was too dark, too quick, too far away, an impolite thing to do at that moment, my battery was dead or there was simply no vantage point for the photograph.

  • an inverted whole pig carried on the back of a motorcycle already carrying two people through the Angkor jungle
  • a woman lifting up a basket, seen just at the moment she is starting to pour freshly harvested rice onto a mat to dry
  • a hundred metres later down the road, a boy sitting in the dirt, pouring dry sand out of a container using exactly the same motion as the woman
  • the look on the woman's face as she received the quilt symbolic of her new home
  • children playing rock paper scissors to determine who goes first at hopscotch
  • two guys in old-fashioned FDR-style wheelchairs, rolling along a busy Phnom Penh street, not crossing the street, just two more wheeled vehicles in a street choked with traffic ranging from bovine to Lexus SUVs
  • A bicycle with one person riding and another sitting on the back, ponying a second bicycle alongside and holding a broken bike chain
  • boys swimming in a muddy pool on the edge of a rice field, with the water buffalo they are tending
  • a blonde woman with a backpack, just alighted from a bus in Phnom Penh, utterly besieged by tuktuk drivers, vendors, many holding signs advertising their services

We flashed passed a hundred scenes that I tried to remember or photograph or write down and then midday pulled into a little town with a café. Most people went into the café. I wasn't that hungry because I had eaten the so-so meat pastries in the lunch box they handed out on board, but I smelled something very good, a smoked fish smell and followed my nose across the street in another direction. The smoked fish were, well smoked fish, but they were dried out completely and sold in quite big bundles, so not appropriate lunch food. Then I spied something else that most people wouldn't consider appropriate lunch food, but that I knew was well into "come here, you have to see this" territory. I rushed back to the café to tell my fellow voyagers, "They're selling deep-fried tarantulas across the street!"

The same vendor has large baskets of crickets and cockroaches for sale. Someone comes up and picks out a few tarantulas while I am there and pays for them. How do you choose a good tarantula? How do you know if you got a bad one? This is an important question. My roommate and I pitch in 1000 riel (about 25 cents) each to buy one. I suspect we got ripped off big time, paying inflated tourist prices for our tarantula, but what are you going to do? After a lot of posing for photographs I got ready to eat it. The funniest photograph is the one with an intense look of concentration on my face as I hold it up to my nose to sniff it. Doesn't everyone smell unfamiliar food before tasting? It didn't smell bad, so I bit off one of the legs. There was an encouraging lack of gooey spider guts oozing out of it, so I ate the leg. It tasted like deep-fried anything.

My room mate and I shared the "drumsticks" with other brave souls and then it was time to board the buss again. I tried biting the carapace, but it was kind of hard. And it was a spider, now mostly legless, as big as my palm. I asked the bus conductor if "I eat all?" and he indicated yes, so I tried another bite. My teeth broke through the outer shell to the roasted insides of the spider. It tasted kind of like paté. I don't like paté much. I didn't finish it. I shouldn't have spoiled my appetite with the lunch box. But I can now authoritatively tell you whether any foodstuff I sample tastes better or worse than tarantula ass.

Lots of drumsticks

The conductor made an announcement on the bus PA, but between his accent and the speakers it was completely unintelligible. My seatmate got up and went to the front and next thing we know she's on the PA with a clear English translation of the first PA, historical and cultural details of the scenery we're passing. We finally made it all the way back to Phnom Penh.

I go out for dinner with a small group of interesting group members, at a restaurant where they train street kids to work in the hospitality industry. It's an adventurous menu of interesting food, including a tarantula-based appetizer. "Are you going to get that?" the table asked me, apparently the designated point person for weird food now.

"No," I said, knowing this may be the only time in my life I have a chance to use this line, "I had tarantula for lunch." I had stir fried ants for dinner instead. Really good, but I've had tangier ants. I like my ants tangy.

From the balcony of the restaurant I observed and documented this, which I presume was the electrical connection of the building to the grid. Electrical standards in Cambodia, if there were any, were low. Below is a fairly typical power pole with electrical transmission wires. There was another one down the street with a tree all stuck inside it, but I don't think that photo worked out.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Last Day in the Temples

I suspect from the lack of comments that you're all bored with my vacation slides now, so I'll wrap this up and go back to aviation posts. Thanks for putting up with my debriefing for so long. I'm almost done.

On the last day in Siem Riep I'm going out to the tuktuks at the agreed upon time and a driver I don't know approaches me. He tells me that Chan, the driver we've had for the other days can't come today, that he had to work at the soldier hospital. That's unfortunate, because while I'm sure the replacement that Chan has arranged is a competent driver who knows the temples, his English is not good enough for what I had planned. I was going to do a half day in the temples, then find a quiet café somewhere and take advantage of Cham's good English skills to work on my Khmer. I figured he'd agree: he gets the same rate as for driving and I buy him a meal, and he doesn't have to burn any gasoline. And it's nice to work with the same person. We go back to the temples.

Some of the temples are elaborately carved and some have quite rough decorations. Almost all of the temples are not quite finished, if you consider finished to mean that all the surfaces are evenly covered with a symmetrical, or at least logical density of decorations to a certain standard. One of the differences is that sandstone-faced temples can have very fine decorations, but that temple faces that are made of the red laterite stone pictured above cannot, because the laterite is coarse in texture and quickly eroded. It's easier to cut and work with for construction however. One compromise is to build with laterite and face with sandstone. I took this picture of an old staircase, because it shows the sandstone shipped away from a stair, revealing the underlying laterite construction.

At this same temple, a little quiet one, there was grass growing between the surprisingly complete outer walls and the inner structure with all the stairs and doorways. I was walking around trying to see if there was a way to get into what appeared to be a gallery between some of the walls, or if it was just a construction space, now accidentally visible because of the decay. I noticed some movement in the grass by my foot. It could have been an insect, but the plant there looked familiar. When I was a kid, someone showed me a mimosa plant that folded up when you touched the leaves. It looks a little like a fern, with delicate little leaves in pairs along the side of a stem, and now there's a plant like that by my foot. I poke it with my finger, and sure enough it folds up. I've probably poked hundreds of ferns that looked like that, but this is the first time that I've found one in the wild. It's the first time I've been in the right place to find one. The link says that it's native to Brazil but is now a "pantropical weed." I guess that means there weren't any here in the 10th century.

On the topic of things underfoot, I've been looking at the paving stones on the walkways around the temples. This one had writing on it, perhaps the signature of a builder. I forgot to ask any Khmer speaker what, if anything, it said. It would seem odd for someone to sign a paving stone. I imagine that stones that were partly broken or otherwise not appropriate for building might be repurposed for paving.

This one, with the feet, was in the walkway over the moat to Angkor Wat. Is it the 11th century equivalent of some junior stone cutter photocopying his foot? It's not like no one was going to notice that there were some feet in the stone, but it's not part of anything. It was a lot of work to make. Why did they do it? I don't know. I saw another stone that had a spiral shaped fossil in it.

The tall temple below was the most stereotypical temple. It was a simple pyramid and at the pinnacle was an open area with a Buddha and an altar for offerings. It was straightforward: you climb up the steep stairs, you pray, you leave your offering and you can go down another staircase. The tall temple was near the elephant terrace. I believe its restoration was sponsored by the Czech government. It was kind of cool how many countries had a little hand in research, preservation and restoration at the temple. Some had obvious connections of history and religion, but others seemed to be just helping to preserve something that is of interest to the world. National karma, as it were.

When I get back to the tuktuk, the driver is eating leaves from a tree. I try one. It tastes like a leaf. I hope it doesn't have some strange narcotic property that will be a problem for me. He's happily eating lots. I guess it's an acquired taste.

I'll skip now to my very favourite temple in the whole park, called East Mebor. I was there early in the morning, it was still cool, maybe only twenty-five degrees out, and it was so quiet that I could hear the whirring of the camera of the only other person there, perhaps seventy-five metres away from me. The main feature of this temple is the animal sculptures. You can see lions flanking the staircases up to this doorway, kind of different from the way western art traditionally portrays lions, sitting more upright with a more vertical mane, and with the tail more prominent, although most of the tails were broken off and gone.

There were also elephants on all the corners facing out, on the different levels, almost life-sized. It's hard to take a picture of oneself with an elephant, as I discovered last night. When you're on top of the elephant or right next to it, it's too big to get in frame, and get far enough away from it and then it's hard to get yourself in the picture and in focus. Elephants are big. You'd think I would have learned that in kindergarten, but there are lots of things one learns in school that you still need actual experience with to learn learn.

I had the driver park near Srah Srang, a water reservoir built in the 10th century. It is mostly just an artificial lake, with a viewing platform at one end, steps going down to the water and flanked by statues. I tell the driver I am going to walk around the lake. He is surprised, and I have to persuade him that this is not a problem for me. It's a good walk and I meet two kids searching for something in the water. I ask "dtrei?", which means fish and they tell me in English "frogs." I suspect that if they catch any they will end up as cornfrogs or other comestibles. There is a group of people in two old boats, wearing the uniforms of the park maintenance crew beached on the shore further down. They are resting on the shore eating lunch. I search my vocabulary for words that might help me to ask what they might be doing, and before I come up with something one of the men asks me, "Parlez vous français?" I respond in the affirmative, but that seems to startle him and I don't think he knows more than that phrase. Someone else asks if I speak English and I give him an affirmative answer, too, but neither French or English is enough for us to communicate what they are doing. I think they are gathering up loose lily pads and other floating debris, while leaving the groomed groups of lilies growing in designated places in the reservoir. I say goodbye and keep walking all the way around. The tuk tuk driver is asleep when I find him. I'm considering if there's something else I might do here rather than wake him up, when one of the other driver laughs and wakes him up for me.

We saw this scarecrow on the way home. That's what the driver called it when I asked him about it, but it's for scaring ghosts, not birds. It is a sentry to defend the house from evil spirits.

I have the driver take me downtown and then pay him for the day. Walking down the street, I often hear the word kromaa in my wake. It's the word for the red and white checked headscarf I'm wearing, a gift from the Tabitha people and a very useful garment to protect from sun, cold, dust, and bugs. I've used it to tie my hat on, too. Everyone got one, but most of the group don't wear theirs. Someone told me it made me look like a terrorist, I guess because it's a bit like the keffiyeh scarf that Arab men wear, but he was just teasing me, and it's an extremely convenient item. I imagine people are saying, "Check out that silly European in the kromaa." I would be concerned that it was associated with the Khmer Rouge, as they wore a kromaa like this as part of their uniforms, but the Tabitha project people gave us these: they wouldn't give us an oppressive political symbol and a lot of locals, male and female, wear them.

There's a street stall set up with a tank full of fish they call Doctor Fish. I've heard about this. You put your feet in the tank and the fish nibble on any dead skin, giving you a pedicure. I adore fish and I like foot massages, so I pay my three dollars and sit on the padded side to put my feet in. The price of admission allows you to stay as long as you like, and includes a cold local beer. The nibbling fish are awesome. It's like being poked gently with the tip of a chopstick. The only problem is that now I'm a sitting target for street vendors. I politely decline most of them, but then a one-legged landmine victim (he has a sign in English giving his story) holds up an English language cookbook. It's small enough to go in my luggage easily, has colour pictures and I love the food here. Sold. The fish nibble on my feet while I read about various ways to prepare their brethren.

I find cornfrogs pictured in the cookbook, called Kang-kep baob. Kang-kep means frog, I know from the pictionary session with the kids, so we should have called it a frog-kabob. According to the recipe, the frog is stuffed with chicken or pork. Now that I know it's not stuffed with frog guts, it seems much more appetizing. I set out to find one.

The first market I come to doesn't have food, but I get into a conversation with a vendor there. She speaks good English and tells me she is married with one two-month-old son. She proudly tells me that he has light skin and a "good nose." A good nose, according to her gestures is one that sticks out like mine, not one that is flat, like hers. How did my genotype get to be the definition of beauty in a land where almost everyone is light brown and flat-nosed? I have to admit to having paid no attention at all to skin colour variations here. When I arrived I did notice that people are of a darker hue than what I used to consider "Asian," but I haven't subsequently compared them to one another. Have the French, Russian and American elite redefined beauty over the last hundred and fifty years? Crazy. She directs me to another market that may have frog kebabs.

I don't find them, so lunch was a chicken coconut curry with sliced super hot peppers served on the side. I've learned how to use these now. You put a few slices in the dish, and you don't ever eat them, but their just being there heats up the flavour and leaves my lips tingling. There's French bread and good butter with the meal. I'll get my cornfrog in Phnom Penh.

Supper is a fancy affair at the hotel, apparently a freebee arranged by the travel agent in return for our business. The tables and chairs are set up outside on the lawn, where we are swarmed with insects and eat okay Khmer food. No frog-kebabs, though.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Elephants and Temples

The next day's adventures started early again, to catch the cool of the morning and avoid crowds. We visited a number of temples, including the one that was used as for some exterior shots of the Tomb Raider movie with Angelina Jolie. It's a very popular movie here, because just as Canadians all get excited when we're mentioned on US TV shows, even though it's usually just to mock us, or make us the bad guys, people from countries many Americans have never even heard of are delighted to be recognized by the steamroller cultures of rich countries. The temple is overgrown with trees, right up on top of the walls and buildings, their roots simultaneously pulling the stones apart and holding them together. A busload of Japanese tourists was taking turns posing in front of one of the root-framed doorways, all miming shimmying up ropes or dual wielding pistols. As we leave we pass more tourists from all over the world. Listening carefully I could hear the name "Lara Croft" in a dozen different languages.

The terrace below was just a walkway, probably one of hundreds in the old metropolis, but this one happened to be a stone terrace all decorated with bas reliefs of elephants. As we said in more than one temple, bas relief isn't the right word, as many of the frescoes almost amounted to half-sculptures. Look at those elephant trunks! Many of them had been repaired over the years. One of the most interesting things about the elephant terrace was that it wasn't just a raised walkway with one side holding up an embankment, but for some reason it was a series of closely-spaced walls with staircases that allowed you to go down into the little spaces between them, and then wind your way around corners. It made no sense that they were built that way, and you could barely look at the sculpted walls because they were all so close together. It felt like being in a secret passage.

My second favourite temple in the whole of the park was Bayon. It had lots of interesting climbable structures and instead of being topped by towers or pyramids, it depicted huge faces with amazing personality. It so happens that I took my favourite photograph of the trip here, too. Right inside the walls of the temple was a structure with steep steps, probably one of those not-really-a-library libraries. I climbed up it to take pictures of apsara carvings on the walls, to see what was at the top inside and just because it is fun to climb things. There wasn't much inside, but it was a terrific vantage point to look at the layout of the rest of the temple and to take pictures. While I was there a group of monks came in and took turns taking pictures of themselves in front of it, then all filed along the side to go into the main temple. I love the colour of their robes against the stone, and their forms as scale for the giant faces.

The staircases inside were also very steep, and some had "Warning! Climbing at your own risk!" signs, a rarity for Cambodia where it seems to be understood by most people that no one else takes responsibility for your actions. The terrace at the next level puts you right up eye-to-chin with the giant statues. This is lots of people's favourite temple, and it's quite crowded. I'm standing on a ledge looking at some women costumed as apsara dancers. I think you can pay money to have your photo taken with them, but what I'm trying to do is line up a photograph of a Khmer man such that you can see his face at the same angle as one of the giant heads. A monk is coming by along the same ledge and I get out of the way, pulling my headscarf out of the way so it won't brush him. He doesn't make any effort in the other direction and I'm left wondering how much of this "monks can't touch women" rule is to enforce the monk's celibacy and asceticism, and how much is just asking women to stop what they are doing and throw themselves out of the way when a monk comes by. Women in my culture yield more to other people in a crowd than men do anyway. I didn't think to try out just standing my ground like a man and making the monks go around me, but it might have been interesting. I would have felt rude doing it, though. When in Rome.

Outside the temple there was a quiet side with an amazing fresco wall covered in a story that someone could probably spend a whole PhD thesis studying. You'd have to know the whole history of the wars and military campaigns mounted by the king who built this place, and learn about the equipment and battle strategies, and possibly individual generals. The whole length of that wall in row after row was covered by the pictorial story of soldiers and horses and elephants.

Below is a detail with a war elephant and a horse and some of the fallen soldiers. I think some of the bricks have been repaired or replaced, as they don't look the same as the others. I buy a couple of small pineapples from a vendor. They are pre-peeled and cored, and cut in a kind of spiral pattern so it's still in one piece, but easy to eat. I give one to the driver and eat one myself. It's incredibly sweet, not like the pineapples that come out of cans at home. We go for lunch. The menu offers "hold chicken" but I'm full of pineapple and just order a glass of cane sugar juice and some rice. The cane sugar juice is sweet, tastes like brown sugar, with a hint of of lime and coconut. It could believably be a Starburst candy flavour. I guess it's just not a very complex combination of esters.

While we are eating some French tourists just outside the restaurant are being besieged by child trinket vendors. "Une, deux, trois, quatre, cinq, six ..." the kids demonstrate, counting the postcards and waving their coconut shell bracelets. I wonder about the whole economy of the trinket vendors. They all have such similar wooden apsaras, silk scarves and wooden flutes in palm frond cases that it's not plausible that they are the result of independent artisans, even if they are all copying one another. Someone is coordinating the design, manufacture and distribution of these things. They're so cheap even at the tourist end, that the people who make them must get next to nothing for them. It is always more fun to buy things from the actual artist or his or her family. One man is selling rubbings that I do believe he has done himself, and I really like one, so I buy it. He gives me a palm frond tube to keep it in, and it keeps it safe all the way home.

By afternoon we have had enough of temples for a while and ask the tuk tuk driver to take us for a tour of the town. He offered one on the first day, before I asked to go to the temples. He takes us to a market, and we try to explain that we really don't want to go shopping, we'd like to see other sights. He takes us to another market and we struggle to explain. We'd rather see parks, famous buildings, a view of the river? What sights are there to see? He says there is a park and as we approach I see a tourist office and ask him to stop there. It's on the edge of the park, so we will go to the tourist office and then the park. The tourism staff are helpful and give us a map of town and some suggestions. I also ask them if there is a restroom here. That's the sort of thing one expects in a tourism office, but I don't see one. "Yes," he says, "behind my office," and gives me the key.

It's on the outside of the building. The floor and the toilet seat are wet, but not with urine. I assume it's just the humidity, but when I'm done I realize that there is no toilet paper and not that they are out of toilet paper, but that this is not a toilet paper using country. There is no bracket for a toilet paper dispenser, or anything. There is however a sprayer on a flexible hose, just like the one in a shower. I noticed these in the well-equipped toilets near the temples, but there there was also toilet paper and I assumed the sprayers were for cleaning or something. Now it dawns on me that they are cleaning me, and that the sprayed water everywhere is the result of similarly clueless tourists trying to use them. I now understand the prohibition sign that was posted in the temple toilets, and I have great sympathy for people who immigrate to Canada and are forced to figure out how to clean themselves with scraps of flimsy paper. It's not like you can ask, or that anyone will be able to explain it to you. I still have no idea how to do the job with a sprayer without getting water everywhere.

We walk in the park, which is kind of an adjunct to the royal residence in Siem Riep. Workers in the park are mowing the grass with gasoline-powered weed whackers, swinging them in slowly advancing arcs across the huge expanse of lawn. Other workers with rakes are collecting the clippings. They've upgraded from scythes and rakes to powered equipment without changing the job one iota. I can see people working with exactly the same motions a thousand years ago, keeping the royal residence well groomed. The king is not here, in fact he's never here. He spends most of his time in China. "China? Why China?" I ask incredulously. China, it turns out, built a nice home for the King and it's more comfortable and convenient for him to live there. "Aren't you worried about that?" I ask. "Doesn't it seem wrong for a foreign power to have that much influence over your leader?" Suddenly our driver speaks much less English than he did earlier. Oops. Clearly he too sees the same politics in play that the ancient Angkorians tried with their gods. I find something else to talk about.

Later I ask to go to the post office. He finds it and I go in, all ready with the Khmer for "Please I would like stamps," although it should be obvious what a woman with a stack of addressed letters and postcards wants. That's not necessary as the postal worker speaks good English and sorts quickly through my stack going to New Zealand, Canada, the USA, and England, weighing the envelopes and counting the postcards. She gives me a total in riels, which I pay in US dollars and she gives me the correct change, not the street rate change, and then just keeps the letters. She's going to put the stamps on herself. I thank her and walk away. And it seems you all got your letters and postcards, which to me says that there is not much corruption in that part of the civil service. It would be easier to take a foreigner's money and postcards and throw them away, but the system is such that everyone trusts that it will be done correctly, and it was. It was a good sign. Honesty was common in Cambodia. For all the merchants' hustling, they didn't try to cheat us on change or take advantage of us misunderstanding and handing over more bills than necessary.

In the evening I walked up the hill to Banteay Phnom and watched the sunset, then rode an elephant back down the hill. I sat in an upholstered seat strapped to the back of the elephant and the mahout sat on the elephant's neck and directed it by tapping its head with his bare feet. He never stopped texting on his cellphone the whole time.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is what people call all the temples together, everything that remains of this ancient city, and the name also applies specifically to the largest temple. It's the iconic image of Cambodia, featured on the flag, the beer, the t-shirts, pretty much anything that needs to say Cambodia. We first saw it while passing by to get to other temples, and stopped by it to see inside, the first afternoon. It's hard to appreciate how big it is, because it's so big you just think each part is further away than it is.

It's accessed via a broad stone walkway over a waterway, I guess you might call it a moat. There were people in boats on the moat. I don't know if they were collecting trash, doing maintenance, hunting for frogs, or just having fun in boats. There was so much going on that I didn't think about it until now, trying to describe the experience. Once upon a time there would have been stone railings all along this walkway, but they have almost all fallen away. The walkway itself must have been a thousand years old, but it was more solid than most of the roads at home. The first set of towers, the ones you see in the photo above, are just part of an outer ring. You go up the stairs, pass though it, and follow another long stone walkway to the main building. There are more remnants of the snake-style handrail along each side and some "small" (bigger than my house) buildings in the fields either side of the walkway. They, and other buildings like this within courtyards are called "libraries," just a name some archeologist gave them, and that they were never repositories of documents.

At the end of the long walkway is Angkor Wat itself, but it's again a series of rings, kind of like cloisters at a monastery. There are roofs overhead in some places, but I note that they are very crude. Perhaps the rough stone was originally covered by carved wooden ceilings like in European cathedrals, or by silk draperies. The stone ledge around the top would easily support a ceiling. Interestingly, much of what they know today about Angkorian era woodwork comes from the apsara doors. The stonework there mimics woodworking joins so closely that it shows how they made doors. A lot of the stonework is not entirely finished. You see walls that have been partly decorated and even a few that have obviously amateur copies of the apsaras and designs, something between ancient graffiti and apprentices trying their hand at master work.

This many-armed Buddha statue was probably not representative of the original deity worshipped here, as the Angkorian kings were mostly Hindu. There seems to be a fair amount of give and take between Hinduism and Buddhism, for instance isn't it the Hindu gods, not Buddha, who are usually depicted with many arms? I thought this odd at first, and then I realized it's closer to the norm than to the exception. It's true for other combinations of religions that have existed in the same area for a long time. Christianity is so irrevocably intertwined with paganism that ancient fertility symbols like trees and rabbits are still central to Christian holidays. Judaism and Christianity have half a holy book in common. Religions branch off others and absorb pieces of others they come into contact with, like other aspects of culture.

The orange drapery on the statue is similar to a monk's robes; it's a distinctive colour that makes monks extremely photogenenic, especially against the stone, grass and sky. We see lots of monks at Angkor Wat, I think more because it's a fascinating place to visit as to worship at any particular statue. They are definitely tourists just the way we are, posing for photographs, looking at the old buildings and exchanging tips on what sights to see.

A monk is not allowed to touch a woman, not even an accidental brush between clothing. We found out that the monks weren't allowed to go to the water festival because the crowds were so dense it would be impossible not to come into contact with females. If they do accidentally touch a woman there is a purification ritual they have to go through, so I'm mindful of this and give the monks room. I am also not allowed to initiate a conversation with a monk, and presumably this includes gestural conversations, like miming, "May I take your picture?" Nevertheless, I want to take pictures of the monks so I keep watching where they are going in the hopes of setting up a good photo. I saw a group of three walking down a cloister, but the light was poor. When I got to the end of the corridor, I realized that they had gone out onto the promontory at the end of the gallery, where the sun hit them. The background was a little plain, but I might be able to get a shot from an angle, partly framed by the temple. As I'm trying to unobtrusively maneuver for this shot, the oldest of the three greets me with his palms together and the words sak sabai. It's a "how do you do" type greeting, and the response is also sak sabai. In retrospect the response is probably something different when you're talking to a monk, because the language has masses of parallel vocabulary used just for monks (and another set for royalty). How dependent on social registers is a language when I tried to work with it for two weeks and couldn't even manage to learn the pronouns? But it's incredibly obvious that I'm a foreigner, so he can't expect proper vocabulary. Actually he looks slightly surprised that I answered at all. Maybe some tourists shriek and run away. I follow up with my best Khmer for "I am from Canada," and then it's my turn to be surprised.

He responds with, "So am I. I'm from Ottawa," in perfect English.

He has a Khmer accent, and looks Khmer. When I'm done looking confused, I put it together that he emigrated to Canada and now has come back here to study as a monk. He confirms that, and we chat for a bit. I ask if I can take their picture and he says sure, don't you want to be IN the picture? He hands off my camera to the youngest monk and I come out in the sunlight to sit with them. Sorry, you only get half that picture, and the toe of my shoe as I sit crosslegged with them.

At the centre of all the rings of galleries are steep, steep, crumbling stairs up to the iconic rounded towers. One of the staircases is augmented with scaffolding supporting wooden stairs and a handrail, still steep but usable. Reaching the head of the line, visitors are assessed for the propriety of their clothing before being issued a pass to go to the top.

There's not a whole lot different at the top of the towers. It's most interesting as an opportunity to see the towers as closely as possible, and for the view of the whole complex, as you walk around and look out the different sides. You just see jungle beyond the walls now, but I suppose once wooden and palm frond houses would have surrounded it. There's no real central area or anything, just fancy decorations and vistas. It's not really intended for people to marvel at, but for the gods to be comfortable and happy. The idea is to build a fabulous residence for the gods so they will spend time near you and be avaialble to hear your prayers and well-disposed towards answering them.

Looking back toward the west you can see the outer ring, the walkway and the libraries, plus the courtyard below. The rubble was arranged in rows and catalogued with numbers. The handwriting style and the age of the markings makes me suspect that it was a French project.

This was as close as one could get to the towers at the top of the structure. I think it's interesting that the rounded shape is actually composed of straight lines and square corners. It gives a very interesting effect. I wonder who first came up with the idea and how.

This was the central exit archway from the complex to the east. When you walk right to the edge of the ledge it's just a drop off, no stairs, no ramp, no crumbled ruins, just a three metre drop to the ground. I found out later that it's the exit where you walk out to mount your elephant. Of course. I wonder where the valet elephant parking was, back in the day.

We didn't see any elephants at that temple, but there was a dog, in good condition, and a lot of monkeys sitting around nursing their babies and grooming one another.

At the end of the day we go to dinner at a huge tourist buffet restaurant and I get a chance to find out what some of the things I have been eating are called. They don't have any ngeuv though. There's also Chinese food and "spagbol". (Oh that's what I want to eat when I'm travelling, a Cambodian imitation of an Italian dish as interpreted by the British). The food is pretty good. Cambodian desserts aren't as sweet as we're used to, just slightly sweetened, but palatable. I take a sample of everything, including something that looks like green jello (hello Salt Lake City!) but turns out to be similar to Turkish delight, and my favourite of the whole selection.

The highlight of the evening is the traditional dancing. There are apsara dancers, contorting their hands and feet the way the temple carvings do, and folk dancing in other costumes, all telling traditional stories. I realize looking at the Khmer writing on the wall behind the dancers that the squiggles are becoming a little bit recognizable now. The words that means "Amazon" (shown in my apsara post yesterday) start the same way as the word for "Amok," one of my favourite dishes, that I see on bilingual menus, and the word "America" which I copied onto postcards going to the US, just for fun. I'm pretty sure the post office can handle French and English.

Sunday, January 09, 2011


This is not an account of any particular day, just a collection of images and notes on a particular type of temple carving, the apsara.

The apsara was probably the most ubiquitous image in all the temple carvings. She is a dancing woman, but not just a woman, she is half-goddess, half-woman. The guidebook calls them celestial dancers who entertain the gods and are the sensual rewards of kings and heroes who die bravely. In Hindu mythology they always performed with the celestial musicians, but in Khmer mythology they were elevated alone to special importance in temple decoration. The hand gestures represent various forms of the lotus, which in turn symbolize phases of life, seasons, etcetera. The raised hand on the one above (from the main temple at Angkor Wat) shows the blossom, and both hands on the one below (also from Angkor Wat) show the leaf. Traditional Khmer dance includes human dancers emulating these temple carvings, and they really can do the unnatural-seeming things with their hands and feet, and legs. They practice and work to enhance their flexibility from a young age

I could spend a week just going through temples here only looking at apsara carvings, learning the forms from different eras. I'm not sure now looking at the different ones, what is the choice of the individual artist, a change in fashion with the centuries, or just a different aspect of the dance being shown. I probably have a hundred photos of different apsaras (I keep wanting to make the plural "apsarae," for no good reason at all), and I haven't kept excellent records of which were on which temples or where they were on that structure, but I can work most of them out from memory or the order of photographs.

The ladies above were on the east face of Angkor Wat and the ones below were the dinner entertainment at a fancy tourist restaurant. My camera ran out of battery for the day before the dances and then at the end I managed to wring a few more photos out of it. That's why I don't have a very good shot of the dancers.

I perceive the carved apsaras as being bare-breasted, with necklaces and waist ornaments and skirts, and ancient accounts of the temple dancers describe the colour of the women's breasts, so presumably they were. I'm curious about the point when the dancers became more fully clad. They've done a good job of costumes that match the depicted dancers closely enough that I'm not absolutely certain that the originals aren't also wearing close-fitting garments. They have belly buttons but I don't have any photos where I can say for certain that they have nipples. That's not saying they never did, as they are almost all worn, from weather and handling, we'll call it worship. This lady, still an active object of worship, was in Preah Kahn.

The next one is from Angkor Wat. She, thousands of her comrades also decorating that structure, and the parade of monks moving through the temples made me think: boys enter the monastary at eight or ten and stay for a few years until they leave to get married. I seriously doubt that over the last thousand years the fundamental nature of young teenaged boys has changed any more than the appearance of beautiful young women has. And here a major, if not the major decorating element of their places of worship is a mostly naked goddess. It amuses me to think of these lovely and serene ladies fuelling the fantasies of centuries of young monks who are forbidden to touch a woman, and even supposed to avoid speaking to one.

The next apsara is from Bayon near the top level. When I spotted her, there was a large tourist sitting down for a rest in the shade provided by the same walls that seem to have sheltered her from damage over the centuries. I was scoping out how to take a clear picture of her when a tour guide came around the corner, telling his charges that she was the best preserved of any apsara in Bayon, at which point the tourist realized that he was blocking a view and got up and moved.

A lot of the images were badly damaged, many deliberately, probably in attempts to steal them. Some were repaired and in some cases blocks where their faces would have been had been replaced by plain stones, repairing the structural but not aesthetic damage done by the thieves or vandals. I concentrated on finding the best images.

I had to climb around a little ways on the structures to capture some of the images. There were hardly any restriction anywhere on touching or climbing. I never touched the stone carvings, even though they had the oil of thousands of previous touches on them, just because I'm used to not touching precious things on display. And really shouldn't I buy them dinner first?

The structure below is obviously a door, and the first time I came across one I stared and thought, "Door? how can there be a thousand year old door?" Then I realized that it was stone, just a carved representation of a door and that didn't make a lot of sense either. There was noting behind it, no way it could open, so what was it for? It's an apsara door. The apsara is a celestial being so she doesn't need a real wooden door. Khmer temples, you see, unlike religious structures in Canada, are not intended as a gathering place for worshippers. There are no concerns for access, assembly, sightlines, acoustics, public galleries or pulpits. The temples are palaces for the gods and goddesses, temporary abodes, and the aim is to build a place for them so sumptuous that they will want to come and stay a while, thus making them nearby and more likely to hear or heed your prayers. The apsara can pass through this door into whatever other part of the temple, or perhaps the universe she pleases.

It's such an exciting idea that I can't believe Tomb Raider didn't have Lara Croft press the right combination of buttons to have the ancient apsara door open on hidden springs and hinges, instead of just inelegantly hauling down the door with ropes and manual labour.