Sunday, January 30, 2011

Light fingers

"Where are you from?" The stall keeper addressed us in English as he stepped away from his small display of fruit and vegetables to intercept to us as we walked towards the exit of Santiago's Central Market.

America, my friend replied in Spanish.

"And you too?" The man turned to me.


It was a terse answer and one which the stall owner responded to by turning back to my friend and bombarding him with questions: What was he doing in Chile? Had he travelled around much? Did he like it? Did he know what all the fruits at his stall all were? Had he pushed to know my own origins, he might have realised that I was liable to possess an innately suspicious nature of any stranger talking to me that meant while he was busy distracting my friend, my own attention had remained firmly fixed on his friend.  

While Santiago is considered a very safe city in terms of violent crime, pick-pocketing is rife. Two of my friends had previously had possessions depart their person via the aid of light fingered passers-by, while another had worked in a store where even the close circuit TV cameras had not been able to halt the shop lifting. The Central Market, with its close packed stalls and narrow lanes, had to be a prime pick-pocketing location.

The market itself had been quite something. Fruits and vegetables poured from boxes stacked in stalls that had included chunks of pumpkin, cactus fruit, corn the width of your bicep, multiple types of avocado and small orange potatoes. Next door to the produce was the meat market; a long covered alleyway where you could buy raw chicken hearts by the scoop. At the far end of this, we had ducked past two workers man-handling a cow carcass to enter the fish market where open containers now displayed octopus, huge flaps from the top of squid and shrimp between a further 80 stands offering seafood dishes to the public.

Photographs were frowned upon in the meat market, possibly over concerns surrounding hygiene standards, although it had all appeared clean and fresh to me. Cats and dogs did wander freely through the produce aisles though, in the hope of a treat or comfortable resting spot.

Chileans, I discovered, love dogs. However, they don't seem keen in caring for them long-term, resulting in a large stray population of canines in every place I visited. Neutering your pet is also apparently an appalling concept, so inevitably the problem is self-perpetuating. At first I found this slightly alarming. If necessary, kicking off a vicious feral cat would not be too hard a task but an attacking dog is quite another matter. The animals though, seem to be friendly and well fed with decent looking coats implying a fairly high standard of living despite their owner-less status.

And thinking of owner-less statuses, back at the market stall my wallet was apparently considering another home. My eyes followed the red-shirted young man who had previously been talking with the stall keeper before the latter had leaped to engage us in conversation. He appeared seemingly uninterested in our chat, but casually stepped away in a path that would take him right behind us and close to the rucksack I had on my back.

As it happened, he was going to be disappointed however this went down. My wallet and phone were in a zipped compartment within the bag, so dipping one hand into the main pouch would cause me to part with nothing other than my sun screen.

I needed my sun screen :|

Turning, I kept the man in view as he sauntered across the aisle to start talking to the opposite stall owner. We didn't make eye contact, but my gaze remained pinned on his person. Eventually, my friend managed to disengage himself from the conversation and we left the market.

"I don't know what that was about," he said to me as we went to find a freshly squeezed juice. "The questions were very random."

Humph. I should have stolen a melon.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Conceptions and misconceptions

"Guess what? I'm going to be on the news!"

I felt this was a surprising statement, seeing as I'd only been left to my own devices for about 10 minutes at the stop for the tour bus I was taking around Santiago. The fact neither of my friends showed any great astonishment was either a reflection on my ability to cause enough trouble to hit the headlines in a very short amount of time or an insiders knowledge of Chilean reporters love of Gringos.

'Gringo', incidentally, is a Spanish term for 'foreigner' and, as an accurate description, is of course not insulting. In exactly the same way that 'gaijin' isn't in Japanese. Yes. >.>

My appearance on channel 11's news that night, however, was not for any nefarious dealings in the Chilean capitol but rather due to a roving reporter looking for visitors' views on the city. While slightly taken aback to have a camera suddenly focussed on me, I happily waxed lyrical about how great I'd found Santiago and how I'd recommend this clean, blooming city to everyone back home.

It was true too. Santiago is blooming, both in its glass tower high rises, the swaths of flowers in their summer glory and the people; a surprising number of which seemed to be pregnant. Chile's money comes primarily from copper which appears to have suffered less in the current economic down turn that other commodities. The previous president, Michelle Bachelet, was also allegedly careful with funds, putting aside a pillow for difficult times that had clearly paid dividends now. If it wasn't for the palm trees (some of which were actually disguised cell phone signal transmitters) and the mountainous backdrop, I could have convinced myself I was in any exceptionally wealthy western capital city.

I attempted to convey my enjoyment to the reporter without sounding flat-out astonished. Possibly I failed. Before coming here, my previous knowledge of South America was ... um ... the presence of a bunch of telescopes, the fact that Santiago could be full of smog, that a friend had spent a summer building ovens in rural Peru and an Oxfam alpaca another friend has adopted on my behalf as a birthday gift. I therefore naturally concluded that ALL of South America consisted of oven-less huts where people rode around on alpacas which appeared as two giant eyes in the fog filled landscape.

The fact that I had six friends all living in Chile for the last few years had not over ridden these assertions. They were observational astronomers; obviously they knew nothing. Also, they probably spent all their time at the telescopes. Which they reached via mountain-climbing alpacas. Yes.

I'd like to point out that NONE OF THEM had expressly told me I was wrong.

Santiago's impressive facade had therefore been rather unexpected. Nor was this attractiveness only skin-deep. Only last year, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake had hit the region, causing my friend's apartment on the 23rd floor to swing by over 1m and the roof-top pool spew its contents over the side of the building (apparently an intentional design, since it's preferable to having the weight of the displaced water elsewhere on the structure). The visible damage to the neighbourhood though, was a few tiny cracks in the plaster work and a single pane of cracked glass in an area packed with transparent buildings. The market downtown had taken more of a battering, but it was being replaced with something stronger and better. This infrastructure was for keeps.

All of this I had been admiring from my tour bus which was one of the ones that zoom around London. No really; it was a expatriated London bus, in the traditional brilliant red. The only difference was the enthusiasm for passengers to sit on the open top deck; a position rather better suited to the Santiago summer. From my view point, I could see the alpacas were sadly lacking from the paved streets, although I did see a mobile information booth attached to a Segway which was rather pleasing. The smog turned out to be more factual than the camelids, but only occurs in winter when the mountains trap the air over the city.

I had disembarked my British ride just outside ESO: the European Southern Observatory campus. Currently, I was just after lunch, but the following day I would be giving a talk. The buildings were decked with photographs of the telescopes they ran. I thought that possibly, like the smog, their presence was a fact I had not made up about South America. Then I saw a large photograph of an instrument not in existence and decided to group them in the same class an alpacas for now.

'Gaijin' translates to 'foreigner' in Japanese and, likewise, is not technically insulting, but the way it emphasises your difference leaves the point rather clear when liberally used.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Close encounters

"Ah, excuse me?"

I was sitting in the airport food court in Atlanta, checking my email on my iPad before my connecting flight to Santiago. As I had looked up to gaze across the bustling space, a man had caught my eye and now made his way over. He got out his boarding pass.

"I'm traveling to Arizona, the mountains, you know?"

Uh. Ok. I arranged my face into an expression of polite interest in an attempt to mask my growing discomfort as he came to stand RIGHT UP BESIDE ME. My hands tightened on my iPad.

"Could you tell me what the time is?"

... Because there are no clocks at the airport? But, to be fair, I'd been confused myself before when connecting through a location on a different timezone. I looked down at my iPad screen.

"6:48," I told him, wishing I was standing so I could take a step backwards.

"6.....48." He proceeded to write this on his boarding pass. I wondered if he realized it would be out of date in like ... a minute.

"People here are so rude," he continued. "I couldn't find anyone to tell me."

Yeah, well, buddy, if you went and stood THIS CLOSE TO THEM I'm not surprised they ran. The fact you ended up picking one of the few Brits in the airport to crush the personal space out of is particularly unfortunate. For me.

"I've just flown in from New Zealand."

Why were we still having a conversation?

"But I'm actually Italian. Most people can tell from the shoes!" He tapped me on the arm.

Forcing a smile, I looked down at the polished black footwear. I guessed it must be something notable and fashionable. I took the opportunity to move my bag under my table. Possibly his romantic-nation origins were an explanation for his extrovert behavior. My origins, however, dictated that I was sure such proximity meant he was about to rob me.

He looked down at the time scrawled on his boarding pass again. "And is this central time or ....?"

Why does that matter?

"It's east-coast time," I said uncomfortably. "EST."

He added this to his note. "E...S...T. How different is that from New York time?"

".... It's the same." I wrapped my legs around my bag, surreptitiously checked my pockets were zipped up and gripped my iPad harder.

"The same?!"

Longitude, dude.

"I'm going to the mountains in Arizona." He caught my arm again.

.... You mentioned and more to the point, you're totally creeping me out.

"Have a good trip." I made a show of turning back to my --tightly clutched-- iPad.

A hand was thrust in front of my face. My left hand tightened while I reluctantly reassigned my right to shaking the proffered paw.

"Goodbye!" The man walked a few steps back, repeated himself when I looked away so I could turn and see him salute me.

Then he was gone. I double checked my pockets and bag and resolutely refused to make eye contact for the rest of the trip.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Bumble bugs

"One good thing about this cold weather: if you flooded your backyard rink last night, it's looking pretty good this morning!"

One hand emerged from the pile of bedding to switch off the radio before I tumbled onto the floor. It was cold, but what did I care? I was going to Santiago where the temperature was in the 30s (that's in centigrade for all you snow-bound East Coasters).

I was packed ... well, mainly. My seminar talk was complete... or at least, most of the graphs were done. The apartment was sorted.... actually, it was in complete disarray, but that was the task for the morning, before dropping the cat at the boarding kennel and heading to the airport.

Look for me, it really was quite organized.

In fact, it was so organized that I found myself digging my car out of the snow an hour and a half before I had to leave. I put the key in the ignition to start the air flows and set about scraping the ice off the rear windscreen. Once done, I was grabbing the keys from the ignition when I decided to turn the engine on.

This was a random, yet fortunate, decision since the car made a loud clicking sound, flashed a random collection of dashboard lights and failed to start.

..... Unfortunate.

I tried again. It couldn't be the battery because the lights and air worked fine. That was a pity because I knew jump-starting a dead battery was potentially a fast fix. I turned everything off and then back on again. Hey, if it works for a computer....

Apparently, Volkswagens are not based on Microsoft Windows.

So on the day I was traversing the length of the globe, my car had broken down. I couldn't even give it up as a bad job until I returned and take an airport shuttle because I had to take the cat to the kennels first.

Calm. Calm.

This was why I was a member of CAA (the sister of the USA's AAA and equivalent to the AA in the UK). I dug out my membership card and called the number listed under 'Emergency roadside assistance', which seemed rather extreme for a breakdown on your own driveway. Still, I certainly didn't want their Monday-Friday membership services number. I explained to the operator that while I was not trapped on a lone highway surrounded by ravenous coyotes, I did have a flight to catch and I'd really appreciate someone coming round in the next hour. Then, my head full of images of my yellow bug being towed away down the snowy road to be hijacked and devoured by said rampant coyotes, I started hunting for a back-up plan.

My first idea of such a contingency operation was to phone a friend who didn't have a car, but might be able to magically make one appear. He was British; I had complete faith in my countrymen. Anyway, I was panicked and rambling, so he was possibly one of the few who would still understand me in such a state.

While refusing to convert my car into a pumpkin and back into airport-bound Cinderella carriage, he did suggest a couple of our friends who he knew had cars and gave me their numbers. Meanwhile, CAA called back to say roadside assistance would be with me in 10 minutes.

I confess to being pretty impressed by this.

I went back out to the car and dully turned the key in the ignition again. The car promptly started.


In disbelieve, I drove up and down my driveway, almost crashing into the CAA van that had just pulled up.

"It's starting now?" The guy from the CAA seemed unphased by this development as he stepped out of his vehicle, the smoke from his cigarette barely curling past his fingers in the cold air.

"Yeah." I gazed at my car in a mixture of relief and confusion. "Is it possible for fuel to freeze?" It was the only idea that occurred to me that would allow to the car to recover on its own.

I knew that fuel freezing must happen, since I'd heard that elsewhere in Canada it was common practice to plug your car into the mains over night to keep it warm. Yet, surely the freezing temperature for petrol was well below water and it wasn't all that cold.

"Oh, yeah." The CAA guy nodded. "The fuel is mixed with a lot of water and that freezes. You should add fuel-line antifreeze to your tank."

I should?! Why did not one mention this before?! Like when I bought the car .... in Florida. Ah.

Left on my own once again, I took my car for a spin around town to check it was serious about moving. There were a few things that didn't add up about the frozen-fuel theory; in particular, my clock had mysteriously reset and my radio had lost it's pre-tuned stations. Still, I stopped at a gas station and bought a bottle of the suggested anti-freeze to add into the tank. It was covered with toxic warnings. I hope my car enjoyed it.

A few hours later saw me parking at one of the airport satellite 'park n' fly' car parks. I pulled into a space that had become a deep snow drift. What could possibly go wrong?

Friday, January 21, 2011

Angels and Evas

"Random street fighter pose!"

The command came from several rows behind me. I turned to raise an eyebrow at my companion, a friend who lived in the upstairs apartment of the house I rented. It was entirely at her suggestion that we had come to see this film. Not that I had needed much in the way of encouragement; it was a showing of a movie from the anime series Evangelion and I was steadily falling in love with that entire Japanese genre.

We were however, possibly the only two girls in the theatre who were here voluntarily. The other two, possibly three, in the room seem to be there under duress.

Filling up the aisles were mullet cut males in stretched XXL tee-shirts with words such as "zombie" written across the back. The guy in front of us even sported a 'Nerv' cap; the principal organisation in the movie we were about to watch.

I briefly contemplated stealing it.

"I totally didn't forsee this," my friend admitted.

"Yeah." I looked around the room again. "I thought anime was mainly a girls thing."

"You did?" An eyebrow was raised in turn at me, followed by a pause to enable me to think that statement through more carefully.

I was basing my assertion primarily on the fact that all the people I role-played with in my anime-based game were girls. They were the ones who introduced me to other series and often mentioned anime clubs they had been in at college. Then I remembered the store in Osaka I had walked into accidentally because it was beside the manga-related retail store, Animate. It was also full of manga (hence the confusion) but a closer inspection revealed the characters to be primarily female, naked and with huge ... personalities. My thoughts then drifted to how I had first perceived typical anime drawings of people, with their ridiculously short skirts, long hair, huge eyes and and heaving shirts.

"Oh. Right," I said feebly. "I like it for the imaginative plots lines and character development." Apparently to the extent that I had forgotten the most obvious appeal.

"Well, so do I." My friend sat back in her seat. "And the fact there are literally hundreds of episodes, followed by live-action movies and musicals."

Really, the West just don't know how to feed an obsession well.

We listened to the raucous chatter around us. Apparently, the guy four rows back and to my left had stolen the gun of another individual on the same row. Somehow, I didn't think this was a firearm that required a licence. Or killed anything besides orcs and the undead.

The movie did not disappoint. Like seemingly most manga-based films, it was not designed to stand alone from the series, but rather act as fuel to an unhealthily dedicated fan base. It was therefore largely incomprehensible, even though I had seen the first half-dozen episodes of the anime. People died, then apparently didn't die. New characters appeared randomly in side plots that never succeeded in joining to the main thread. All personal relationships would be described as destructive by a psychologist.  Everyone was a victim of the secret agendas of shadowy organisations who may or may not know about the secret agendas within their agendas controlled by even more insubstantial bodies. At the end, everyone died. Or maybe not. Who could tell?

I loved it.

Though in case you think I'm exaggerating, Wikipedia tells me that one of the directors' comment regarding the series in general was: "It's strange that 'Evangelion' has become such a hit - all the characters are so sick!"

At the end the credits rolled and people started to move. I proceeded to attempt to extract a modicum of sense from the proceedings from my friend who was more familiar with the whole series. It wasn't particularly successful. As the last few names scrolled by on the screen a great 'Ssshhhh'-ing sound went through the room. There was a final few minutes to the movie designed to mock anyone who had made sense of the events up until that point. It even introduced a new character.

Frankly, I felt the people who all knew that was coming up had seen this movie too many times.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ice breakers

The pavement sparkled like shattered diamonds in the neon glow of the street lamps. I admired its beauty, which was pretty much the only thing I could do since it was as deadly as hell. In one day, the temperature had gone from -18 C to around freezing, bringing with it a thaw that left a sheet of ice over all the surfaces. As I tremulously picked my way along the path, a car pulled out of its driveways and promptly slid to bump into the curb on the far side of the road. It flashed its lights in confusion before cautiously reversing and creeping off down the street.

I looked back the way I had come. It was late and I was trying to go home. I'd been walking for about half an hour and had managed the same distance I had covered in five minutes that morning. At each intersection, the path was so icy I had to drop into a crab position and crawl off the paved edge onto the tarmac. It would have been quite funny if I didn't think I might be squished like a crab as well. Eventually, I reached a bus stop --a whole one stop down from the University-- and admitted defeat. At this time of night it would be a wait for the next bus, but doubtless the wait at ER for broken bones was longer.

I parked myself by the pole and watched passers-by for tips as to how to walk on ice. Since a significant percentage ended up on their rear ends, it wasn't an overly useful exercise. I would be lying if I said it wasn't an overly entertaining one. There was one patch of cobble stones just past where I stood that was particularly deadly, causing walkers to either fall or barrel into their friends.

A boy approached me along the path.

"Careful," I cautioned, gesturing to the path ahead. "That area is seriously slippy."

He gave his thanks and joined me at the bus stop. It turned out he lived not far from where I did and had also realised the probability of falling to a horrific death while crossing the bridge over the highway was rather high at present. We bemoaned the situation, agreed that at least it was warmer for standing outside and that this was actually the problem.

A girl came by next and I warned her about the slippery pavement. She also thanked me and carefully stepped around that region before heading off down the road. My new companion chattered cheerfully and babbled about his classes which seemed to be in business. I tried to recall what I have learned from North American daytime dramas about 'mid-terms'.

Two other students approached us. One was skipping and sliding across the ice. "I have the sure-footedness of a lynx!" he declared confidently, bouncing towards the icy cobbles.

My eyes met my companion's. Neither of us said anything.

With a slight whoop of surprise, said lynx-boy skidded into his friend who narrowly succeeded in holding him up.

"It really would have served him right if he'd fallen," my companion remarked once they'd staggered out of earshot.

I didn't even try to cover my smile as I agreed. We talked more about classes. It occurred to me that my new friend assumed I was an undergraduate. I wondered how I was going to break it to him that I'd finished grad school six years ago.

"Hey, do you ever go to the Starbucks on Locke?"

I looked surprised. "Yeah, often." Studying him more closely, I realised he was one of the barristers who often worked there at weekends.

"I recognised your accent and your face," he told me, pleased. "What is it you normally order?"

A scene flashed before my eyes of ordering the most complicated drink on the menu due to a story written by a friend about an anime character I role-play. I could see the conversation unfolding:

"Why did you order that?"

"Oh, well, I spend most of my free-time pretending that I'm a Japanese teenage boy. My friend --who incidentally plays another boy who my character is OBSESSED with-- wrote this story where he orders that drink. So of course, I HAD to try it. In the actual TV serious, our characters are middle school tennis players, but in her fiction they are all customers and barristers in Starbucks like you. That's why I go; I sit there and pretend all the staff are in complex love pentagons with one another."

Suddenly, the revelation about my age seemed to matter a lot less.

"You often get tea, right?"

"Oh. Ah, yes!" Quickly I clung to this suggestion. Tea. British. Likely. Safer. Yes.

The bus rolled up and we both got on. During the short journey home, my new undergraduate-barrister-friend asked me what I did and I explained I was a post-doc researcher. His jaw fell open.

Seriously, kiddo, you don't know how lucky you got.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Probity Probes

Today I was anally penetrated by a laser.

Well, I exaggerate.


I have been thinking about laser hair removal for several years. The expense, the rumoured pain, the scary sounding name, the fact it's permanent and I might yet want to audition for a role in 'Planet of the Apes', all delayed this decision.

Shaving my bikini line, however, is a pain in the .... yes exactly. I get ingrowing hairs, red blisters, bumps and soreness whenever I even wave a razor below my navel. The local pool or beach inhabitants have the choice of their companion looking like she lost her cat in her swim suit or she has some terrible highly infectious disease. Take your pick.

All of this sent me to a clinic downtown for a free consultation. The cost --for those interested-- is $200 a session for this area of your body and you need 4-5 sessions for permanency, approximately two months apart.  There's no denying it's a hefty sum to put down, especially for something that is fundamentally a cosmetic procedure. This was the key reason I'd waited several years. On a plus point, you pay per session and each time you go, the hair re-growth is less. So if I had to stop for financial reasons, I'd still get some benefit.

Feeling brave for 2011, I made my first appointment for today after work. The clinic was a small place that doubled as a doctor's surgery (always reassuring). I went into the consultation room and ... well, dropped my pants. Both the American and British kind. My socks were long ones that came up to my knees with silver stars on them. I kept them on. The ridiculousness of this amused me.

The laser is actually not a laser at all but an intense pulse of (full spectrum) light that destroys the roots of the hair below the surface. It's a hand-held device that looks a lot like a supermarket barcode reader. Before we started, I had to read the obligatory safety warnings which frankly scared the hell out of me, rather like they do before I ride simulators at theme parks. It was the usual; I understand that I can expect soreness / the treatment might not be effective / it might be painful / I might spontaneously combust or turn into a giant cabbage etc etc.

Completely spooked, I asked to have the laser tried first on my leg since that seemed a far less scary area. In that region, I barely felt it and hesitantly agreed to continue. After all, I reasoned, if it was too painful I could just run away... screaming, half-naked, down the snow-packed street. No problem.

I was told it would feel like a snap from an elastic band and that wasn't a bad description. It actually sounds quite like that, but I would suggest an analogy with a pin prick or a pinch. While not agonising by any means, it wasn't pleasant. I think part of the issue is that discomfort in that bodily area is sufficiently uncommon it sends off a chorus of alarm bells. Still, the woman doing this was very nice and stopped whenever I said I wanted a break. In total, it took about half an hour, and would have been quicker if I'd just shut up and played 'Plants vs Zombies' on my iPhone and let her get on with it.

If anyone does think of following in my footsteps here, my only advice is to shave/wax well before hand. If the laser hits a hair, it does give you a zap that stings.



As I got dressed, I was given advice about aloe and ice.

"Don't use a solid ice pack." I was instructed. "It numbs all sensation so you can't feel anything."

.... Numbs all sensation in an area that's sore? I really had no problem with this at all.

"Then you can't feel when it gets too cold. A previous client of mine did this and got frost bite. She had to go to the hospital."

Eeeeeeeeek! Eek.

"So just use a bag of frozen vegetables."

Noted. In fact, I have to say, it's not at all bad. I walked half-way home (about 1 km) before a convenient looking bus appeared without being particularly bothered. Now I'm just sitting as instructed with a bag of frozen peas between my legs thinking...

I am never eating these.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Doctor, doctor

The zombies were advancing. I planted a pea shooter which smacked the head off the nearest advancing brain eater. Six more were behind it, some with protective cones and buckets over their decaying heads. Swiftly, I slammed down an evil looking chilli plant which exploded to leave blinking columns of ash in its wake. The final wave was on the march and ....

... was rudely interrupted by the sound of bawling in my left ear.

I looked up from my iPhone. Seriously, kid, I get you're sick, but scream any more and I'll destroy your brains myself. Possibly Saturday afternoon was not the best of times to go to the walk-in health clinic[*]. I sighed and flicked out of the 'Plants vs Zombies' game on my phone to check the time. In truth, I wasn't sick --although that might be about to change given the state of people I was sitting beside-- but I wanted a prescription for ...

Look, I should probably mention now that this post might be too-much-information for some of you here. Just sayin'

... for the pill. This was to be the first time I'd seen a doctor in Canada and I'd taken great satisfaction in passing over my socialised medicine card, rather than my visa, when I walked through the door. Glee at that had gotten me through the first half hour, 'Plants vs Zombies' through the second and now .... now I was remembering I didn't like kids. All the more reason to get the pill.


W00t. We were rolling. I stuffed my phone into my pocket and followed the nurse out of the waiting room. The first step transpired to be a standard pregnancy test; the urine sample pots for this were in the washroom, the pen for labelling them afterwards was on the desk beside which was the counter where the sample should be left and after doing so, I should return to the consultation room. Then the nurse was gone in a whisk of crazy-time-at-the-clinic efficiency. I uncrossed my eyes and went into the single washroom to discover...

I really can't piss on demand.

I'd like to point out that the whole business of aiming into a small container is hard for a woman too. Possibly it was stress at this that caused my bladder to become drier than the Sahara desert. After what seemed like an obscene amount of time both for me and the mother of the crying boy outside who had seemingly decided that his rear-end needed to run as well as his nose, I managed something that I hoped would be sufficient.

Returning to the consultation room, I tried to remember whether I was told to keep the door open or closed. Fortunately, my choice (closed) worked and a doctor appeared. I showed him the brand of pill I used to take and he promptly whisked out a prescription pad. Gratuitously quick but ...

"I actually don't want the pill for contraception," I injected hurriedly, before he dashed out as quickly as he came in. "I want it because I get a ton of pain every month that's been getting worse since I came off the pill last year."

"Understandable." The doctor pulled off the top layer of his pad.

Understandable .... and .... worrying?

"Um. Should I be concerned?"

"Well, it could be due to a variety of things." This statement was followed by a reel of conditions that all sounded faintly life threatening.

".... Uh." What does one even say to that?!

"We could do blood works, an ultra-sound and then refer you to a specialist if that doesn't show the problem." The doctor continued when it appeared more input from him was necessary.

"..... Should we?"

I really didn't feel this was my call. I mean, I also wanted out of here and on the road but I didn't want to die horribly and prematurely either. I felt this was not an unreasonable standpoint.

"I used to have problems when I was in my teens." I volunteered the snippet of medical history, even though no one seemed interested. "But the pill sorted them out. I'd rather go back on the pill and forget all about it, but I don't want to cover up a more serious problem by doing so."

"Well, if the pill cures it, then it's probably nothing serious." The doctor concluded. He passed me the prescription. "If it doesn't, come back." He walked to the door. "And get a PAP done."

The door closed. I saluted it. If I have to come back, I'm totally going mid-week or finding a family doctor with appointments. Leaving the clinic, I set off at a brisk jog back home. It was necessary; I was desperate for the toilet.

[*] The reason for the long line; I didn't have an appointment.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New year, old romance

My flight from London had touched down in Detroit at 11:45am EST. It was now past 2pm and I had spent the last two hours of this fresh new year standing in the line before American border control.

For me, the standard question of "Why do you want to visit the United States of America?" had the simple -- if slightly obnoxious -- answer of "I don't." My intention was to take a connecting flight to Buffalo, collect my car and scoot over the border back to Canada. Because of this audacious plan, I had struggled with my customs form which demanded to know the full street address of where you would be staying while in the USA. After a moments consideration, I had scrawled 'Canada' in that box with the idea that this was either an issue they dealt with frequently, or they just wouldn't notice that Canada wasn't part of America. Of course, this did require me making my connecting flight. The 3.5 hour layover was starting to look woefully inadequate.

As I looked down the snake-like line of people waiting with me, I realized I was probably sharing these dilemmas with a sizable fraction of the room. American security demands that incoming international flights go through US customs, even if you are simply connecting through the airport to leave the country directly again.

I idled away the time imagining all the irritating answers I'd like to give to the humorless border control guards if I had less sense and a taste for prison food, and watched while a couple of students were carted away for forgetting their I-20 work permits.

Finally, after another 20 minutes of waiting, I was third from the front of the queue. Another student was taken away, probably to be sent to the modern equivalent of hard labor in Detroit's failing automobile industry. Second in line...

Due to a nation-wide error, we are have a problem with our computers and cannot process passengers at this time.

I raised my head slowly to look up at the intercom that just broadcast this announcement. It appeared the USA border control and I would be starting 2011 as we undoubtedly intended to continue.