Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Andre's American Chronicles - June 2002

Somewhere over South Texas. Tuesday, February 19, 2002. Just before 5:00 PM. Central Time.

I woke up with the alarming realization that something is happening and I am not particularly fond of what is laying ahead. I knew instantly what is was.


If I have to go through one more of these airless pockets, or is it potholes in the sky, then I will have to quit flying forever. Like that’s going to happen! The plane hiccup violently again. Crashing through another cloud. These aren’t airless pockets, these pockets are charged up for action. We are entering seriously unstable airspace. Still 20 minutes of flying to Houston... and solid ground. Since take-off from Louisville and for the first 2 hours of the flight everything was normal, had a G&T, and fell asleep. The 50-odd-seater jet is getting increasingly unstable the closer we get to Houston.

"Houston, we have a problem!"

We are heading into what seems to be a massive thunderstorm. The plane crashed through a barrage of thick black clouds again. It takes another dip and it feels as if my whole torso separates from my pelvic section and move up to my throat. The tiny window next to me is streaked with rain. An airplane, especially such a smallish airplane, is not my preferred choice of location during a thunderstorm. Let me put it another way; I hate flying in airplanes that bounce around in space. At this moment I just love life more than death. OK!

“Ground control to Major Thom/Take your protein pills and put your helmet on.” David Bowie.

I wonder: “Is this the way Texas greets visitors?

George Bush Airport, Houston, TX. Same day. Some time later.
Once we got below the cloud cover, the plane stabilized a bit. Landing came soon afterwards and luckily eventless. It was no surprise that our departure to Monterrey was delayed. Waiting for the storm to pass. Luckily the delay was only 20 minutes. When we eventually boarded, Houston’s runway was a mess. Yes, only one runway was operational and I have counted 40–odd planes waiting to take-off. Those taking of in a westerly direction, like us, must wait for the storm to pass completely. Yeah, they pack you in on the runway, like clothes in an always-ready-to-go suitcase, so that they can ship you when there’s an opening in the clouds. I am heading for Mexico again.

Hello you-all (like a real Southerner already. Yeah! Right!)

2002 started and continued like 2001 ended…on the run…so much to do and so little time. Sometimes I can’t understand why it seems that I don’t get time to do things I want to do. And then when I look back a few months later and I realized how much was accomplished, I wonder how come I still have so much to do.

At work I’m chipping away at the mountainous task of implementing a new computer system, SAP’s R/3, to replace the majority of our current systems. The going is tough. I’m the MIS department manager, the day-to-day SAP project manager, and functional leader for the Business Warehouse & Change Management sub-projects. Additionally, I’m installing a temporary system for a new Microwave manufacturing operation in our Mexican plant, and we’re updating our HR systems. I feel I need to be everywhere, but I just can’t be everywhere. But I luv every minute of it. Well...most of the time.

Monica has also started to work at a national chain of realtors. But guess what? After a few days she is already bringing the frustration of working in a tough, very competitive environment home. Now it’s my time to listen. For years, periodically, she had to listen to me venting my work frustrations. So now we have two hyped-up individuals at home, not counting the boys in their teenage years. That's a complete different story by itself.

Post card picture of Monterrey with the famous hill Cerro de la Silla in the background.

Monterrey’s weather, today is 87°F/29°C, is actually very welcomed after 4 months of cold, cloudy and snowy days in Kentucky. Winter seems so long this year. Hopefully I can keep to my plan to do more things in and around the house in spring, rather than in summer, when the heat and the humidity makes outside work nearly impossible. The past two years there was so much to do I had no choice but to work in the heat. Garden projects for the year include paths leading to the garden and in the garden. I also wants to build a deck just off, but linked to the porch. The last part of the side fence must also still be completed. No extension of the actual garden space is envisaged for this year. I should also think about a portico for the front entrance to widen the steps, because the steps are a bit dangerous and someone has already fallen from the steps in the dark. Luckily no injury except a bruised ego.

Monterrey, Mexico. Friday, February 22, 2002. 7:03 AM. Central Time.
The sun is just poking its head above the horizon. I am sitting in the airport’s only restaurant, waiting for my flight back to the US, enjoying a pot of coffee, and a last cigarette or two. I’ll get to Louisville by 2:00 PM after a stopover at Houston. Then a 90-minute drive home. Best place to be on a Friday night. Home! Just kick back, relax, take a walk through the garden, sit for hours on the porch and talk to Monica, drink a few Brandy & Cokes, watch the sun go down. Why can't life always be simple? Our rocking chairs on the porch faces west. Best view to watch the sunset over the distant trees. I never seem to get tired of watch it. The colors in the sky are never the same. Blues, pinks, oranges, blacks, grays, reds, and yellows are always arranged differently from day to day.

Lift off, well, nearly, just minutes away. We are sitting on the tarmac, ready to go. Faraway on the horizon the blue-gray mountains lay silently, shrouded in a brown dustcover. Probably from last night’s strong wind that caused a dust storm just as I was heading out for dinner.

The GUYS on the edge of Chimney Rock. Bob, a friend of Giam, Myself, Giam & Lamar.

Here we go. Green and brown shrubs, dusty sandy dirt roads, and industrial warehouses near the airport are flying pass me as we are being lifted into the air. We turned north and the full expanse of the city of Monterrey; with its 3½ million inhabitants are unveiled to my eyes. Time to sit back and just take it all in.

Ten minutes after take-off breakfast arrived. It consist of fruit (tasteless green cantaloupe (melon), sweet watermelon (not bad…when last I had that?) and grapes), fresa (strawberry) yoghart, a delicious little orange muffin, and coffee. It should be enough to hold until dinnertime at home. It will have to. I don’t think I will have time to grab something to eat in Houston. Too little time between flights and I still have to clear customs as well.

After only 30 minutes into the flight, the vast expanse of the Mexican Gulf appears to the east. We flew pass Corpus Christi. All along the Texas coast, a thin strip of beach is separated from the mainland by interconnected lagoons. With so much water everywhere and the warm Gulf, high humidity is part of everyday life. Thanks, but no thanks.

Sitting on the side of the plane facing East, I am being baked like a potato, but my curiosity to learn more of the lay of the land overrules my desire to close the window shade for shade. Also, usually we cross the border into the USA inland at Laredo, TX, but today we are flying all along the coast. Thirty minutes to go and we start our slow descend to Houston. As we turn north, inland towards Houston, the water-world gives way to rectangular farms neatly laid out like a 'lappieskombers'. The landscape quilt in different shades of green, brown and gray is specked with shiny dams and interconnected dirt roads.

The family in front of Biltmore House. In the background notice the size if the people against the height of the front door.

The storm of Tuesday, when I passed through here en-route to Monterrey, has left the farmland soaked, and everywhere little lakes has formed, looking like a treasure chest as the sun reflects from the water. A wide river runs brown and to the brim towards the Gulf. Thousands and thousands of houses, neatly in rows, some with turquoise swimming pools, and some built around artificial lakes, came into view. Downtown Houston, with skyscrapers, looking like squared mountain peaks, flew past. This place is huge and stretch out as far as the eye can see. After all, it is the 4th largest city in the US and the oil capital of America.

Texas airspace. Friday, February 22, 2002. 12:30 PM. Central Time.
The switch over at Houston was nearly a problem. Initially many of the passengers on the flight, me included, could not find their luggage. What’s new! After 30 minutes we eventually found the luggage at a carousel on the other end of this huge luggage retrieval hall. Then I still had to clear customs, move from terminal D to B in a slow underground train, then again through security, which is tight and time consuming. And originally I only had 50 minutes between flights. In the end, luckily for me, the departure of my flight to Louisville was for some reason delayed by 30 minutes and I had just enough time to make the flight. I’m in the air now. On my way home. That is all that count.

Danville, Kentucky. Wednesday, February 27, 2002, 12:00 noon.
As the sun breaks through an opening in the clouds, the backyard appears calm, shining and crystal white from a “freshly fallen shroud of snow”. In stark contrast, the horizon is blue-black as the next wave of a snowstorm rolls towards us. I’m working from home today via the Internet due to a sore throat, and I will not be surprised if I get worse. The past two weeks I went from 87°F/29°C in Mexico to 32°F/0°C on Friday at home. It warmed up over the weekend to a Monday high of 60°F/15°C, but our high today is only 25°F/-2°C and with the gusty wind the wind-chill factor is down to 12°F/-10°C. My body is made for comfort, not for speed to adjust to frequent weather changes like these.

My vantage point from the kitchen table overlook the backyard and the fleeting moment of sunshine disappears as the weather god opens up its bag of snow again and let it drift down to earth, blown nearly horizontal by the wind. On the CD player George Benson and a couple of friends is freaking out quietly in the background. Back to the grind for me, I need to complete an article for our weekly newsletter at work about the SAP project. Deadline is 3 p.m. today.

Memorial Day Weekend. May 24 – 27, 2002

Monday May 27 was a holiday in the USA, and we went exploring again. This time it was Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville, surrounded by mountains and nature, specked with incredible vistas, an abundance of sulfur springs and the cool mountain climate, has been a popular tourist destination as soon as roads were built to this area. By 1850, Asheville was already famous as a health resort. Before that, long before that, in the early 1500‘s a Spanish army under Hernando de Soto already explored the area for gold. They came in contact with the Cherokee Indians who were already living in North Carolina and in the Great Smoky Mountains for ages. Enough history. We headed that way for the same reasons many others did before see something new.

We took the I-75 South, passed London, KY, drove through the Daniel Boone Forest where it is at its narrowest. At Corbin we skirted around Cumberland Lake and climbed into the high hills, the Cumberland Plateau of north-central Tennessee. At Knoxville we turned east onto the I-40, towards the Appalachian Mountain Range. More specifically, the Blue Ridge Mountains. Yes it’s the same one that John Denver sang about in Country Roads.

We passed US66, the turnoff towards Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Dollywood and the Great Smoky Mountains. Been there. Done that. After another half hour or so the road forked. The I-81 continues north to Virginia, Pennsylvania, and further north to New York. We stayed on the I-40, which turned southeast towards North Carolina. We crossed Douglas Lake and immediately started to climb into the Appalachians. Country & Western music country. Five hours after we left Danville we arrived at our hotel, just after 9:00 PM.

We decided to explore Chimney Rock Park on the Saturday and to go to Biltmore Estate the Sunday. The Monday morning we headed back to Danville again.

Chimney Rock as seen from the Opera Box, another rock formation a little higher up in the mountain.

Twenty-one miles outside of Asheville is Chimney Rock Park, named after the granite monolith high above the Hickory Nut Gorge. (Picture on the left)The day was already hot when we got to the park. To get to the top of Chimney Rock from the parking area one can either follow a trail or take an elevator. The owners of the park, which is in private hands, dug 90 feet horizontally into the granite mountain. From there they created a 26-story shaft to the top of the Chimney to install an elevator for people and goods to be transport to the top and back. As with most tourist attraction, you exit the elevator into the souvenir shop and restaurant. Buy, buy, and buy. After a short walk and a few steps, maybe a bit more than a few, we were at the top of Chimney Rock to take in the spectacular view of nature’s activities through the ages, of how the Rocky Broad River carved out the Hickory Nut Gorge. If you have seen the movie, 'The Last of the Mohicans' you will have a good impression of the nature here. It was just one of many movies through the years that were shot on location in the Asheville area. Many of the “Mohicans” scenes, especially the fighting scenes, were filmed on some of the trails.

Hickory Nut Gorge and Lake Lure from the top of Chimney Rock.

The Appalachian Mountains range is the oldest mountains in the USA and one of the oldest in the world, is overlain by foreign rock material that was pushed on top of it about 250 million years ago, when all continents came together to form the super continent "Pangea." At the suture where Africa and North America "slammed" together, the Appalachians were raised to incredible heights. The mountains one see today are only eroded remnants of this old mountain chain.

After taking pictures and taking in the scenery, we decided to walk the Forest Stroll Trail (pictured on the right) to the bottom of Hickory Nut Falls before walking all the way down to the bus station. Hickory Nut Falls, where the Fall Creek River spills over the mountain edge, is one of the highest waterfalls east of the Mississippi River, and has a vertical drop of 404 feet. We were a bit disappointed with the tiny stream of the falls, but the walk all along the mountain’s edge was rather nice. Good to be out in real nature again. We were also pretty tired and hot by the time we got down to the bottom at the parking area. All of us are out of shape. Well, Monica and I certainly. I don’t think the kids were very tired, although Lamar’s chest was a bit wheezy. But then he gets wheezy just thinking about any physical activities.

Some people’s country chalet is the stuff other people dream about.

More than a century ago, shortly after the railroad to Asheville was completed, George Vanderbilt created his larger-than-life country retreat in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Biltmore Estate with its French Renaissance chateau on 125,000 acres is today the largest private residence in America. It consists of 250 rooms, of which the banquet hall is certainly the most impressive. The vast gardens on the estate was created by America’s father of landscape architecture, Frederick Law Olmsted, the same guy that layout New York’s Central Park. Biltmore was his last project before his death.

Biltmore. In the background are the majestic Blue Ridge Mountains. On the other side of the house, and to the left of the house are huge entertainment areas with breathtaking views over miles of forest and the mountain.

We arrived there the Sunday and strolled around until 12:15 PM, when it was our time to tour the house. The house is impressive, very detailed architectural work was done inside the house. The entrance hall and the adjoining winter garden room were impressive. So too was the 90 foot long Tapestry Gallery and library with its 18th-century Pellegrini canvas ceiling painting, The Chariot of Venice. In the basement there is a ten-pin bowling alley and an indoor swimming pool. These rooms were highly unusual for a house at the turn of the century. We also strolled through the conservatory, the Italian fountain area and the rose gardens. We would have liked to explore more of the gardens, but it was simply to hot in the sun. We decided to go the winery instead. The tour exit into a sampling hall, one gigantic bar. Remember the buy, buy, buy? Very good marketing. Monica and I went to sample some wines. Yes, Monica tasted some of the white wines, to my surprise. Maybe she was just thirsty. Nevertheless, I had a drinking partner, a fellow critic, and we both liked a rather nice wooded chardonnay, Biltmore Chateau Reserve, which reminded me a lot of the Chamonix’s Chardonnay from Franschhoek. Both shared a prominent hint of butterscotch and Limosine oak, a soft velvet wine.

The Biltmore banquet hall. The openings to the fireplaces are 7 feet high. (pictured to the right).

I bought a bottle of the chardonnay and two bottles of their Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, or Cabsav as the Australians call it. It was the first time I drank wine from North Carolina. It has an earthier flavor than most California wines. Napa & Sonoma wines are the exception. After our shopping (Monica bought a present for a friend of her, and I, as usual bought postcards) we went to sit in the open-air cafĂ© area to listen to a Latino band and enjoyed a beer and soft drinks. All in all it was a very enjoyable day at Biltmore, and a very enjoyable weekend in Asheville. Biltmore Estate was very impressive. I would have loved to spent more time in the gardens, but then we would not have had time to see the winery. The next morning after breakfast at The Waffle House we headed for home again. On the way home the car’s air-conditioner blocked up and leaked water on the floor of the passenger side. I tried to dry most the water at a gas station before we traveled the last 2 hours to Danville. This is the third time that some misfortune has happened to us while away on vacation. And water is always involved. Strange!

Georgian airspace near Atlanta, Monday, June 3, 2002.
When Monica woke me at 5:00 AM I was instantly awake and realized that I probably missed my 6:20 AM flight from Lexington to Atlanta. I was supposed to get up at 4 AM, but something must have gone wrong with the alarm clock. The easy way out! I can’t remember, but what probably happened was that the radio did start playing, my sub-conscious heard it, and I stretched out a hand and switched it off. My body was probably overruling my mind due to tiredness, wanting to sleep more. I still dressed as fast as possible and was on the road by 5:20 AM for the 45 minute ride to the airport. I did not think I would get on the plane because the security clearance usually takes 20 minutes or so. But I stayed optimistic and ignored speed limits. Maybe there will be a delay. As I drove through Harrodsburg I saw police have pulled another motorist of the road. Speed fines 5:30 in the morning? I opened up again after Harrodsburg.

I got to the airport at 6 AM, pleaded my case, jump the line for a boarding pass, got a lecture that I should be at the airport at least an hour before take-off for an international flight, said I’m sorry, ask the attendant to assist me in jumping the security line too, she did, and I was onboard the aircraft 6:10 AM. I admit I was very lucky. Or was it just a positive attitude that got me through. I will never know. Sometimes there is a thing at work called luck.

The flight to Atlanta takes just over an hour. Below me the I-75 snakes its way across the Georgian landscape as we make our approach to Hartsfield International airport. The sun shines brightly through a thin morning mist over Atlanta, America’s busiest airport and hub to anywhere in the world. I would have liked to use this hub to Japan or Korea for the Soccer World Cup. Unfortunately my connection is to Monterrey, Mexico, again. The system for the Microwave business is going live today, hence my trip to Mexico.

So far I have watched most of the World Cup games, either live or on tape. For those who don’t know, I’m talking about the soccer World Cup. It is very low key here in the US. Friday night I stayed up until 6:00 AM Saturday morning to first watch Argentina beat Nigeria and then watched South Africa played Paraguay. Because of the 13-hour time difference, most of the games are being broadcasted during the night from 2:00 AM onwards. I was very disappointed with England’s second half performance in their game against Sweden. These days I shout for any good soccer match, but I’ll be shouting for England, USA and South Africa. England is a young side, and the more they work together the better and stronger they may get, but it is not a great side at all. If they reach the quarterfinals they would have done well. But they must first make it through round one. And they might not! Fading in the second half might come back and hound them. Seeing South Africa’s fighting spirit against Paraguay I have high hopes for the Bafana Bafana. (Nickname for South Africa’s soccer team, which means The Boys.) I don’t think they will make it to the second round, but they may record their first World Cup victory, after seeing the Slovenia / Spain match. Not impressed with Slovenia. The USA is a mystery to me. Very up and down. They have a good team, many good players, but consistency is what they need. They can only do better than France ’98 when they ended last in the tournament. A month of intrigue, national pride, jubilation and sorrow, luck and destiny, shocks and surprises are laying ahead. No better tournament in the world than the World Cup. France’s lost against Senegal does not mean the end of the tournament for them. Remember, World Champions Argentina lost their first match in Italy 1990 and they went through to play in the final. Good stuff, dude.

Home. Tuesday, June 25, 2002. 11:45 PM. Eastern Time.
The house has quiet down. Outside a full moon is shining so brightly it seems even the birds are fooled into thinking that the day will break soon as listen to their chirping.

During April Monica changed from one real estate company to another here in town. She was unhappy about the inconsistent office policies at the initial firm, which is really a family business, so all policies are focused on improving the family wealth and not what is necessarily fair or business orientated for the other people working there, and moved to Coldwell Banker. She is much happier now. She has recorded two sales and has listed 2 houses already. She’s actually doing very well considering the short period she has been working and the fact that the real estate business is all about how well people know your name.

At work we are going through a very tough period. The past year the price of vacuum cleaners have dropped nearly 20%, mainly due to cheap imports from China. To stay competitive cutting cost has become crucial. The company is now offering voluntary layoffs/buyouts and it seems that many people will be taking the offer. This is causing major problems for the computer projects I’m involved with. Several of the main users and many others that need to be trained will be leaving. This will cause a major reorganization and it might even cause the temporary stopping of the SAP project. I hope things will not get that drastic. Time will tell.

IBM is assisting us in implementing our SAP project and the IBM project manager is a South African that used to work for SAP SA. He said when he was still in South Africa, he worked at Plessey/Tellumat during their QM module implementation.

Home. Wednesday, June 26, 2002. 2:15 PM. Eastern Time.
This week and next week is our yearly shutdown of the factory. So things are rather quiet at work, apart from the SAP project, which is still fully staffed. I’m also kicking off a project tomorrow to upgrade our HR/Payroll systems. So no quiet time in MIS. The barbeque with the South Africans went very well and it was great sharing experiences about leaving South Africa and adapting to America in Afrikaans.

Sunday morning I’ll be up early to enjoy the World Cup final. Hopefully they will broadcast the SA vs Argentina rugby match too. We were fortunate to see both SA / Wales games. Although SA won, there is a lot of hard work ahead if they want to be competitive with New Zealand or Australia. It’s a young team and their focus should be on the Rugby World Cup next year and not on this year’s ZANZAR series.

Well, time for me to go. I hope I have brighten you day just a little bit with all the news, views, and traveling stories. Next week I will have 3 days off from work, it's the 4th of July week. I have major projects scheduled at home and Monica and a lady friend is going to Boston and Massachusetts for the long weekend.

Signing off from Danville, Kentucky…Go well and may the genie be with you. Just be careful what you wish for…It might come true.

The Baobabs in Kentucky.

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