Sometimes the best things were a surprise – Reno

I don’t gamble really. I dislike smoking, casinos, etc. So when we decided to fly to Reno to enjoy the Reno Jazz Festival our son was playing at I honestly had tremendously low expectations. We’d been to Reno once before – maybe 25 years ago or so. It was Vegas-lite. Except with a bunch of Harleys on the main drag. There were some good things (take your beer with you when you walked outside²) and plenty of unpleasant things (the food, the casinos, the smoking, and well… kind of everything).

Our expectations were low. We read a bit about the new riverwalk area on the Truckee. But as we approached the airport we were taken by the lovely snow-clad mountains (Tahoe region was clobbered with snow this year). On the drive into town our shuttle driver mentioned how lovely the University of Nevada/Reno was. We were skeptical especially as we hit downtown – the casinos look pretty bad, worn out, seedy. And like all American cities these days Reno has a homelessness problem.

We walked up to the UNR campus and wow! the driver was right. They’ve built a lovely campus that blends new buildings with old, sunny walking paths all over the place, and just a general sense of “yeah, this is a great place to attend college”. I don’t know if that is true or not but the kids walking around all seemed happy so that’s the only measure I went with.

The downtown riverwalk area is also lovely. There is a popup-style bar called the Eddy – cocktails, bocci, and watching the river go by (in almost overflowing flood stage). There are restaurants like Campo along the river too. There are snazzy-looking apartments downtown. With the Sierras only an hour away I can see how the recast of Reno as an outdoorsy place is gradually replacing the older, stodgier, seedier casino (getting 50k new jobs with a Tesla plant isn’t going to hurt either). Our hotel is the first non-smoking, non-casino place. It comes with a great climbing gym, an outdoor climbing wall that is scary-looking, and a nice restaurant¹

The drivers stop at crosswalks. The place is pretty clean overall. More than anything else it was so much better than our low expectations that we just spent a lovely weekend there and would go back.


 

¹ Of note is that service in Reno is generally terrible. Not mean or anything, folks are friendly. But the staff at every bar or restaurant seemed to be pretty much on their first day on the job (exception was the bartender at Whitney Peaks). Four or five waiters milling around… but no one could quite figure out why all these people were in their restaurant. At a lovely pub on the river one poor bartender was just confused with a simple drink order and stumbled back and forth asking for the directions again and again. So reset your expectations, this isn’t big-city dining. It’s honest but sort of stumbling along but with a general good will vibe about it.

² The outside beer thing is gone – they changed the law at some point so it’s pretty much like everywhere else in the US – finish your drink, then stumble on down the road.

Book – Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

I read Ghost Train to the Eastern Star a few years back. Unfortunately I couldn’t remember what exactly it was about and whether I liked it or not. Being a fan of Paul Theroux I decided that I had the time and I wouldn’t mind reading another book about trains (aside: reading travel books about trains is almost as relaxing on trains).

The book takes the reader from London to the farthest corners of Japan (north and south) largely by train. There are a few ferries in the middle and a few airplane rides when necessary but most of this book is viewed from a train. And it’s lovely. The writing is evocative and it makes the idea of sitting unwashed on a train for seven days across Russia interesting.

Highly recommended if you enjoy travel books.

My Notes

I kept more notes than usual in this book as the vocabulary was challenging at times without being overly pompous or unnecessary.

  • “Without change there can be no nostalgia”. Lovely phrase I captured in the book. We all like nostalgia but without trying new things, failing, moving, and trying again then the past will be just like today.
  • “Yes, and mainly from scholars. Scholars need to validate the status quo, or they will lose their funding.” We all need to eat of course but recent articles point out that a) not much of what is considered science is read and b) much of what is considered science is not replicable. Which means that scholars are basically validating the status quo.
  • Orotund: had to look this up. It means full, round, imposing.
  • frotteurism: doing a nasty bump-and-grind. Basically what perverts do on subways.
  • Hokkien-speaker: a Chinese dialect in wide use across Asia.
  • adumbrated: to produce a faint image or trace of something.
  • A joke about the old Soviet Union (which also works for Comcast by the way): “You know the joke?” she said. “A woman wants to buy a car. She is given a voucher and told, ‘It will be delivered in ten years.’ ‘Morning or afternoon?’ she asks. ‘Why do you want to know?’ She says, ‘Because the plumber is coming in the morning.’ It was like that.”

Interesting phrase – Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar

Source: Amazon Kindle: Ghost Train to the Eastern Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway Bazaar

I try to record interesting notes and highlights as I read. I am re-reading “Ghost Train” right now. I know I’ve read it before but for some reason Amazon pushed this book to my Kindle during a recent upgrade. As I started to skim the book it occurred to me that I truly didn’t remember anything from this book. So here I go again.

I came across this lovely sentence:

Why is the motorway culture drearier in Europe than anywhere in America? Perhaps because it is imitative and looks hackneyed and unstylish and ill fitting, the way no European looks quite right in a baseball cap.

Motorway culture, especially along an Interstate, is not all it once was in America. But the baseball cap thing… is spot on! It’s just impossible for a European to wear a baseball cap and not look ridiculous. It’s similar to an American wearing a scarf (with the caveat that an American in Europe can carry this off at times).

Books: At Home on the Kazakh Steppe: A Peace Corps Memoir ( C )

Source: Amazon Kindle: At Home on the Kazakh Steppe: A Peace Corps Memoir

I struggled with this book. I’ve read a lot of travel books lately. I go through phases like this: sci-fi and fantasy, serious books, business books, a biography or two, and then back to tales of living somewhere else. I should map this out but if I had to guess I read a lot more “living elsewhere” books during winter. If you’ve lived a winter or two in Seattle that would make sense.

This book… at the end I didn’t feel I had a good sense of Kazakhstan or even really the small town the writer lived in. I had a good sense that she was experiencing the highs and lows of moving abroad. It’s harder than you might think and yet also in some ways a very easy adventure (disclaimer: moving to Switzerland and France is no doubt less jarring than a small town in Kazakhstan). Still I felt disappointed that there was a lot of talk about marital difficulties vs. what the town and people and country are like. The entire upheaval of a nation that had formally spoken Russian for decades but could suddenly use its native Kazakh was briefly touched on but never dealt with well. I would have liked more of that.

It wasn’t bad and it took a lot of courage for the writer (and one presumes her husband while reviewing the drafts) to put this out there. But it doesn’t make up for the fact that I don’t seem to know much more about Kazakhstan today than I did before reading the book.

Pro tip: Nature Air in Costa Rica

Check your itinerary carefully. What should be a 25 minute hop from Quepos to San Jose is now a 1:25 jaunt south to drop two people off then all the way back.

The drive isn’t tremendously longer than this. Put in airport wait time and such and suddenly this flying thing makes no sense. Contrast this with the flight in: quick and simple hop over the mountains.

Frankly I’m surprised the cost of av gas warrants this. Gr… The airport is attendant is very helpful and friendly but when booking this flight they should be more clear and tell you “don’t book this flight, it makes no sense”.

Getting it wrong

I recently rented a car from Enterprise at San Jose airport. I showed up and had to wait in line even though I had reserved ahead of time. Okay, fine, first time renting from them.

I hand the counter agent my credit card and license. Then he types all my information in. Um… that’s what the web was for, right? Why did we go through all of this? The agent was friendly but this was a corporate rental, get me on the road.

Then upstairs to get the car. The car agent guy was friendly and professional. But why was he there?!? Keys in car, get me on the road! But we did an inspection, we talked again about gassing it up. Got it, that’s twice I said I’d leave it without gas.

As I finally pulled out of the lot the friendly manager-type worriedly asked me about customer service. Hey, staff was fine. But the system is wrong. At Avis I get into a car and drive away. That’s all. And how it should be.

Not a huge issue, no major hiccups, but who designs a system to require more people and be less efficient.