Tuesday, September 28, 2010

How the greedy bastards of Major League Baseball are screwing an entire state.

Those of us privileged to live in Hawaii seldom get any sympathy from mainland folks when we complain about the occasional downside. For instance, when a mail order company whacks us a $20 or $30 surcharge to send something here and Sheila-the-Mail-Lady delivers it for the same six bucks it would have cost someone in Des Moines, we know how to deal with that: never order from that company again.

But when it comes to Major League Baseball, there is no choice. We have our favorite big league teams and there is no alternative. And that’s why it's so damn frustrating that Major League Baseball and the people who broadcast their games are screwing baseball fans in Hawaii.

It’s complicated, and I won’t bore you with all the fine points, but the short version is that most of the games played by West Coast teams are blacked out in Hawaii. Why? Because those teams – in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland – all claim Hawaii as part of their “home territory”. That means they have control over who broadcasts their games here.

(As an aside, how the hell can they claim us as “home territory” if we’re more than 2,000 miles away? We can’t receive TV signals from their local stations and we certainly can’t just pop on over there to catch this afternoon’s game and be home in time for dinner. Worse, how can all of them claim us?)

At any rate, for more than two years the team owners have been unable to agree with the cable companies on the financial terms that would permit the games to be carried here. Apparently they’re no longer even trying. And – what the hell – the season’s almost over anyway, so why bother?

Why bother? Well, for one thing, because we’re not able to watch the concluding games of the season being played by the San Francisco Giants who are in the thick of the pennant race with a skinny one-game lead over the San Diego Padres.

For three years, a handful of baseball fans in Hawaii have been pleading our case … to team owners, to broadcasters, and to Major League Baseball. You know what the bottom line is here? No one gives a rat's ass – not the ball clubs, not the broadcasters, and most especially not Major League Baseball. No one.

So, instead of watching the Giants-Diamondbacks game this afternoon – it’s blacked out here, you see – I’ll put on my authentic $35 Boston Red Sox baseball cap and spend that time spreading horse poop on our pasture. And isn’t that just perfect!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Well! Cooler (and Wiser) Heads May Prevail

It now appears that the cancellation of Amtrak's second daily Cascades train between Seattle and Vancouver may be averted after all. (See previous post for details.) Politicians in Vancouver, which has been gaining all kinds of additional dollars from the tourists coming to their town on the train from Seattle and environs, have stepped up to the plate and essentially promised to cover the cost of the customs and immigration people needed to clear the two trains each day.

One of them pointed out, quite accurately, that if those rail passengers chose to visit Vancouver by plane or by driving, the Canadian government would still have to provide the personnel to process them.

All this foolishness does strike a familiar chord, doesn't it ... a conservative federal government singling out and applying stricter financial restrictions on rail transportation than those on other modes.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Amtrak Had A Good Idea? Well, Cancel It!

A year or so back, to coincide with the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, Amtrak began a second daily round trip for their Cascades service between Portland, Oregon and Vancouver by way of Seattle.

Any increase in rail service is a good idea, of course, but this one proved to be an instant success that is continuing long after the Olympics have ended.

In fact, as is so often the case, the second train seems to have increased ridership on the first one because the twice-daily schedule now permits people in both Vancouver and Seattle to visit the other city and return home the same day.

City officials in Vancouver love it, too, because the additional visitors means almost $12 million more dollars brought into the local economy every year.

So … everybody’s happy, right?

Well … uh … no. The Canadian government way back east in Ottawa doesn’t want to keep on paying their customs and immigration people to process all those people bringing dollars into Canada. After all, the estimated cost for those border officials is just over half a million dollars a year.

You got that? The Ottawa politicians aren’t willing to invest $500,000 to make sure $12 million U.S. dollars keep on flowing into one of their major cities?

As our local expression goes, How you figgah??

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Big Brother Comes Knocking … Even on Amtrak.

Imagine, if you will, that you’re a U.S. citizen – born and raised – traveling on the Lake Shore Limited from Chicago to visit your ailing mother in Boston. After a so-so night’s sleep in your coach seat, you’re just about ready to head for the lounge car and a cup of coffee. Suddenly, two uniformed members of the U.S. Border Patrol enter the car. They stop at your seat, look you up and down, and one of them demands that you produce proof of your U.S. citizenship.

How many of us could do that? I’m not sure I could. As far as I know, a driver’s license doesn’t constitute proof of citizenship. Perhaps, if I dug out all the plastic in my wallet – discount cards from Safeway and the local Ace Hardware – they would be satisfied. And I suppose my Medicare card would work.

But what if, for instance, I was in my 30’s and didn’t have a Medicare card? Or if my complexion were just a bit on the dusky side, giving me a Latino look? Or – God forbid – a middle-eastern look? Could I be removed from the train and interrogated and investigated for hours? These days, the answer is, yes.

Sound far-fetched? It isn’t. Over the past several weeks, there have been a number of news reports and blogs about what are apparently random appearances by the Border Patrol on some of the Amtrak trains that run near – but do not cross – the Canadian border.

We all know there are people in the world who would do us harm and, as a consequence, there is the need for appropriate security measures. But it sure seems to me that this is overkill … and even unconstitutional, if someone were to press the issue in court.

Legal questions aside, it would certainly be interesting to see what the results of this activity might be … and if those results could possibly be worth the time and money it took to achieve them.

Do you suppose the powers-that-be would produce that information if we asked for it? Of course not … it’s a matter of national security, you know.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Another Rail Journey To Be Crossed Off My List

For years, I’ve had a dozen or so of the world’s more interesting or exotic train trips on my bucket list. So far I’ve managed to cross off several, marking them “done”. These include the Glacier Express and the Bernina Express in Switzerland, the two trans-continental trains in Australia, the Indian Pacific and the Ghan, and, of course, the wonderful trans-Canada ride on VIA Rail’s train # 1, the Canadian.

The Canadian, which runs three days a week between Toronto and Vancouver, is truly among the great train rides in the world, and I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I have actually done it three times, with a fourth one coming up next month.

This time, however, I’ll be interrupting the four-night journey in the middle, leaving the train in Winnipeg to take yet another of the trains on my list … this one, also operated by VIA, is the two-night journey some 1050 miles due north to the little town of Churchill on the shores of Hudson Bay.

I booked this trip well in advance -- and a good thing, too! -- because all sleeping car accommodations have been sold out for months. That’s because the latter part of October is about the time every year when polar bears start showing up in and around the town, waiting for the bay to freeze over. That’s when to go out onto the ice where they spend the winter hunting seals.
I’m also looking forward to talking to some of the locals in Churchill to get their take on the whole global warming issue. That idea occurred to me because I’ll be staying with Jenafor and Gerald Azure who maintain a pack of something like 18 sled dogs. Gerald goes mushing around the countryside with folks like me hanging onto the sled for dear life … only, these days, many of the rides are on wheeled carts. No snow, you see.

As usual, I’ll be taking photos along the way and in Churchill and will post a description of the entire trip here soon after my return around the first week of November.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

An Amtrak Innovation Whose Time Has Come.

A few years back, a trip from Paris to London on the Eurostar was all but spoiled by a 40ish Brit yammering away about some business deal for the better part of an hour on his cell phone. That happens everywhere these days … but not in one of Amtrak’s quiet cars.

One or two cars on many of Amtrak’s eastern trains – and some in the Midwest, too – are so designated and they are an absolute delight. Quiet means exactly that: no cell phone calls permitted and only very quiet conversations between passengers. And those rules are ruthlessly enforced by regular quiet car passengers, who will shush! any violators and, if ignored, will quickly seek out a conductor to crack down on inconsiderate offenders with real authority.

If you’re going to be traveling on one of Amtrak’s short-haul trains, ask if the consist will include a quiet car when you book. But remember that seats there are first-come-first-served. My advice? Grab one of those seats even if it means running over little old ladies on the platform to do it!

By the way, I note that Google says this is my 600th post on this site. Whew!!

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Fabulous Road to Hana - and Peddling There

Visitors to Maui – well, the more adventurous ones, anyway – take the long drive to the far end of the island to the little town of Hana.

The road along the windward coastline is quite good and the scenery is truly breathtaking, but there are a lot of twists and turns and there are somewhere between 40 and 50 little, narrow one-lane bridges along the way.

The other way, around the south side of Maui, takes longer. It’s certainly passable, but it’s a greater distance and the road is rutted and there are patches on patches. A lot of people opt out of going this direction because the rental car companies discourage them from taking the southern route. And that’s too bad, because the scenery is very different from the tropical, lush vistas of the windward road.

The last time we took the trip, we went around the leeward way to Hana, had lunch at the Hotel Hana Maui, then returned along the windward coast. Just before we reached Hana, after more than two hours of driving on a hot day, we came upon a small roadside building with a colorful, hand-painted sign out front advertising “ice-cold fresh fruit smoothies”. That sounded perfect!

We stopped, went in, and I ordered my smoothie. The young lady scooped out the delicious ingredients and stuffed them all into the blender, then added juice and some crushed ice.

The she looked at me. “OK,” she said, “Up you go.”

She was pointing at the frame of a vintage racing bicycle which, I now noticed, was bolted firmly to the floor. The little house had no electricity, you see, and the blender would work only when someone climbed up onto the bike and peddled furiously.

The smoothie was delicious, but I sure as hell earned it.