Buying the best, when good enough will do

May 30, 2013

One of my challenges is the desire to buy the best when good enough will do.  I’m fairly analytical by nature, so I’m a thoughtful shopper for most items of consequence.  Like most people, the more costly or important the item, the more effort I put in to making the acquisition.  My level of effort may be more or less than yours for the same purchase, but I suspect that I’m closer to the detailed-oriented end of the shopping spectrum than most.

Note that I’m not talking here about buying something that isn’t really required.  That’s a different issue (see My Struggle with Stuff).  I’m referring to buying something that is required, but buying it bigger, better, or otherwise greater than I really need.  I can think of many cases when I’ve done this, though there are perhaps more that I’m not yet prepared to admit to myself.  e.g. Buying a 60-inch television when a 50-inch television would have been more than sufficient.  Buying a new washer and dryer both with the latest and greatest steam feature, something that I don’t fully understand and to the best of my knowledge that we’ve never used.  Buying a triathlon-specific bike when a road bike would probably have been adequate.  There are many other examples.

When it’s happening, I am usually aware that I am choosing the deluxe option, but I somehow find it difficult to resist.  It is far too easy to rationalize my choice at the time of purchase and characterize it as being justified under the circumstances.  For example, ‘This item is better quality and will last longer’ or ‘It’s something that I’ll use frequently’ or ‘I don’t buy this item very often so paying a little extra isn’t an issue’.  It is impressive what hoops of dubious logic I can leap through in these situations.

Occasionally I’ll get feedback about my extravagant purchase decision.  Sometimes it comes from my wife.  Other times it arrives as a result of natural consequences.  In 2009 my wife and I trekked for 3 weeks in Nepal.  We purchased some high quality, expensive outdoor gear specifically for this trip, though we also intended to use it later.  Due to a delay in shipping our gear failed to arrive in Nepal in time so we were faced with outfitting ourselves in a single day with duplicate (and therefore redundant) equipment.  Through a combination of rentals and purchases, we obtained the minimum kit that we thought was required to complete the trek.  This last minute gear was more than sufficient and was superior to what many others (and specifically the Nepalese porters) wore on the same trek.  It demonstrated very clearly how our original purchases were more than was really required.  Now some of this might be attributed to hindsight (which is 20-20), but it made it apparent that we could have saved money by buying less costly items in the first place.

When I think about it rationally, not during buying fever, I believe that there are a few instances where ‘buying the best’ (or better than the minimum requirements) is justified:

  • where the additional features or quality are absolutely essential (e.g. any lesser item cannot satisfy the primary requirement that the item is intended to fulfill)
  • when safety of life and limb are at stake (e.g. a good rope for rock climbing)
  • when there is a real financial payback for the additional features  (i.e. one’s benefits are increased or costs reduced sufficiently to pay for the extra expense of the item over its life)
  • when there is a real financial payback for the additional quality (e.g. the item will last longer and delay the cost of purchasing a replacement long enough to lower the average usage cost per time period)

It is common to try to cast a non-qualifying purchase to fit one of these, or to justify it with convoluted but invalid rationalizations.

The book The Millionaire Next Door highlights the fact that most self-made, financially successful people understand these principles.  They typically buy high quality items, maintain them properly, and use them for a long period of time, resulting in a low usage cost per period of time (often lower than items with a lesser initial purchase price).

Of course, what one actually purchases (as opposed to what one desires to purchase) is partly impacted by how much money one has.  Everyone, including those afflicted with my condition, are limited by what we can afford or can finance.  Although this may put an upper ceiling on purchasing, it does not limit overspending on particular items.

Note that this challenge is worsened in those areas where items become obsolete quickly.  The latest gadget is almost always better, but it comes at a premium price and loses value quickly.  In these cases, buying more than is necessary comes at a high cost.

So, what are some of the things I do to try to tackle this challenge?

  • Don’t rush major purchases.  Like the old adage ‘sleep on it’, take time to confirm that the item is really required and that the purchase is justified.  Today’s must have items, if not purchased immediately, often turn out to be less than essential.
  • Learn to delay gratification (no, this is not a sex manual).  Often another solution to the requirement will develop.  e.g. I find that sharing my desire with friends will often result in a creative alternative solution being suggested.
  • Evaluate my purchases carefully.  Differentiate between needs and wants (more information on this in My Struggle With Stuff).  Satisfy the real needs and be thrifty when spending on wants.
  • Consider price in the evaluation.  Feature for feature, the most expensive item will often win out, but not when the extra cost is considered.  Benefits-for-the-price should be evaluated instead.
  • Do those things that can result in avoiding the purchase in the first place (see Some Things I’m Doing About My Struggle With Stuff).
  • Save money on inconsequential purchases so as to be able to afford (with full consciousness) the occasional splurge purchase.  Note that there needs to be some hard limit on this loophole as I can always justify why I need to splurge ‘this time’.

Do you share my challenge of buying something better, when something good enough will do?  What do you do about it?

The Derby

May 29, 2013

Diane and I went to The Derby.  Not the Kentucky Derby, but Derby Lane in Saint Petersburg, Florida.

The exterior of a large white building with palm trees in front, and large lettering "Greyhound Racing.  Derby Lane"

Derby Lane Entrance

Derby Lane is a racetrack too, and we were there on the same day as the other derby in Kentucky.

A sign on the side of the racetrack encouraging people to come to Derby Lane on Kentucky Derby day

Kentucky Derby Day Advertisement

But there weren’t any horses present.  Derby Lane is a greyhound racing track.  Opening in 1925, it was the first commercial greyhound racetrack in the United States.

Dog racing isn’t something I’ve ever been exposed to, another experience I’ve only seen in movies and on television.  In most regards, it is similar to horse racing.   The  greyhounds parade to the post with their handlers.

Greyhounds being led down the track by their handlers

Parade to the post

Each fit, beautiful dog walks up the track wearing coloured race silks and a muzzle.

A grey greyhound walking with a handler

Greyhound walking

Spectators get a good look at each dog, and have a last chance to place their bets.

Patrons lining up to place bets at the gambling windows

Place your bets!

The dogs are loaded into starting traps and wait, trembling with excitement, for the doors to open.  The dog handlers run back down the track.

The dog handlers run back down the track to the place where the dogs will finish

The running of the dog handlers

And they’re off!

Greyhounds released from the starting gate

And they’re off!

The greyhounds chase a mechanical lure known as a ‘rabbit’ around the track.

5 dogs chasing a white lure extended on a pole out onto the track

Chasing the rabbit around the final turn

The dogs are extremely fast.  Greyhounds can reach up to 70 kilometers per hour (43.5 mph) within their first 6 strides, and accelerate faster than any other land animal on the planet except the cheetah.  The fastest dogs win and place, and the rest of the pack follows.

2 greyhounds crossing the finish line

The finish

Greyhound racing is a controversial form of entertainment.  The number of states that allow greyhound racing is declining; several states instituted specific bans in the 1990s.  Florida has about half of the 30-40 commercial greyhound race tracks remaining in the United States.

According to the Human Society of the United States, greyhound racing is considered inhumane because of the industry’s excessive breeding practices, the sometimes cruel methods by which unwanted dogs are destroyed, the conditions in which some dogs are forced to live, and the killing and maiming of bait animals (like rabbits) during training exercises.  The Greyhound Racing Association of America counters that excess dogs are humanely euthanized by licensed veterinarians under American Veterinary Medical Association guidelines, that the greyhounds are well treated, and the use of live lures in training and racing is prohibited.   Recently doping has also emerged as a problem, which the industry is actively working to prevent by introducing urine testing.  Attempts are made to recover urine samples from all greyhounds in a race (there’s a job I don’t want), not just the winners.

A sign on the racetrack fench saying, "Adopt a Fast Friend..."

Adopt a greyhound

A racing greyhound’s career begins at about 18 months of age, and ends some time before they reach 6 years of age.    Prior to the formation of adoption groups, thousands of retired greyhounds were killed each year in America.  Today, thanks to the efforts of greyhound adoption groups, the majority of retired greyhounds are adopted, but many are still destroyed because there are not enough homes to accept them.  In addition, many greyhound puppies that won’t be competitive are ‘culled’ at a young age.

I was surprised to learn that greyhound racing is legal in Canada.  Dog racing is unregulated in Canada, except for the general animal protection legislation that applies more broadly.  Only horse racing and the parimutuel betting associated with it are legislated in Canada.  There is only one permanent greyhound racing facility in Canada, the Calida Greyhound Race Track in Sylvan Lake, Alberta.  Only pool betting is allowed there, which means that the track makes no money from the gambling, so it is not subject to gaming legislation.

Lure coursing and sighthound racing are also practiced as an amateur sport across Canada and the United States. Oval, straight, and track racing are popular (apparently particularly in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia where I’m from) for all sighthound breeds, not just greyhounds.  Canada also has a small greyhound adoption association, the Northwest Canadian Greyhound League located in Grande Prairie, Alberta.

Diane didn’t enjoy the dog track.  I saw and learned what I wanted and we left.

Diane sitting in the stands, not looking very happy

Diane wasn’t impressed

Parking and entrance to The Derby greyhound track are both free.  Those of you who believe that greyhound racing is a violation of animal rights can rest comfortably knowing that Diane and I didn’t leave any of our money there.

New Friends in Dunnellon, Florida

May 28, 2013

On our first night in Crystal River, we met locals Kyle and James at Burkes of Ireland, a neighborhood pub.  The next night, we met Kyle’s wife Heidi.  Kyle, a wise-cracking beer lover, and Heidi are regulars at Burke’s (not sure about James whose wife was out of town), and they made us feel right at home.  We made Burkes our Crystal River base of operations when not snorkeling or diving.

The storefront of a pub painted green with a door, 2 windows, and a sign, 'Burkes of Irleland'

Burkes Again

Kyle invited us, complete strangers (attractive and charming though we are), to spend the evening at his place the following night.  He lives in nearby Dunnellon, just down the road from the soon-to-be-closed nuclear power plant.

A road flanked by green trees with a nuclear power plant cooling towers in the distance

Just like Springfield

Kyle has a totally cool ‘man cave’ in his covered carport.  It comes complete with a red Mustang, pontoon boat, pool table, bar, and live music.  Kyle and his friends are talented musicians, and most Saturday nights there is a jam session in progress.  Kyle plays guitar, bass, and drums.  That’s him on the drums…

Kyle in a yellow T-shirt sitting at the drums

Kyle on the drums

And yes, that’s me sitting in on the bass.

Patrick playing the bass guitar seated

Me on the bass

We had a great evening, drinking a lot of unusual beers and eating bar-b-que, and spent the night in the Dream Machine on Kyle and Heidi’s large property.  Here we are posing behind the bar the next day.

Kyle, Heidi, and James standing behind the bar with lot of signs and photos on the wall behind

Kyle (left), Heidi, and James (right)

Patrick and Diane hugging behind the bar

Diane groping me

The next day Kyle and James invited me to join them fishing.

Patrick and James standing on a pier.  James in orange shirt showing Patrick how to bait a hook with live shrimp

James showing me how to bait a hook with shrimp

Patrick in a grey t-shirt and beige brimmed hat baiting a hook with live shrimp

Me giving it a go

There was a lot of casting…

Patrick casting off of a pier with Kyle in the background

Patrick casting…

And a lot of waiting…

Patrick sitting on a rock and holding a fishing rod

Patrick waiting…

But not a lot of catching.

Kyle standing in the shallow water in beige shorts and an orang et-shirt

Kyle waiting too…

Although the fish eluded us, I had a great time.  It’s terrific to meet interesting people on the road, especially when they are as generous and welcoming as Kyle, Heidi, and James.

Feeling the need to correct a seafood deficiency, we stopped at the Blue Gator (recommended by our new friends) on the way out of town.

Wooden sign with a small carved gator and the words "Welcome to the Blue Gator, Come On Over"

Diane seating at the counter looking at the menu with iced tea in a plastic cup

Diane drinking half-and-half tea

We shared the crab cakes…

Basket of fried crab cakes, french fries, and hushpuppies

Crab cakes, hush puppies, and fries

And the amazing peel-and-eat shrimp…

A basket of tail-on shrimp with melted butter and coleslaw

Awesome Shrimp

Thanks to Kyle, Heidi, and James, we enjoyed a terrific weekend in Dunnellon, Florida.

Diving the Rainbow River

May 27, 2013

When I turned 16, the first two things I did were get my driver’s license and my scuba diving certification. Years of Jacques Cousteau as a child (I was even a member of the Cousteau society at one point) had me thinking that I might want to be a marine biologist.  That passed, but the desire to dive and explore remained.  In the many years since, I have dived (dove?) in British Columbia, Hawaii, and Thailand but always with years passing in between outings.

I wanted to take a scuba refresher class with hopes of doing some diving down in the Florida Keys.  The manager at the American Pro Dive shop in Crystal River asked Diane if she would like to try diving.  At first she said no, but apparently she enjoyed snorkeling with the manatee enough to consider it.  After a retreat to the RV for lunch to consider it, she returned to the shop the same afternoon.  We made arrangements to do a combined class, a refresher for me, and Discover Scuba Diving (DSD) for Diane.  Win-win.

Diane at the counter in the dive shop

Diane signing up

We arrived at the dive shop just after lunch the following day.  Our very young instructor Rich wore a beanie but was very professional.  After getting geared up, Diane watched a short video while I tried to figure out the cheap underwater camera that I’d purchased to record the event.  We also met our captain Zac who ate his lunch while the video played.

Diane standing on 1 foot putting on a wetsuit in a room full of wetsuits and diving gear

Diane getting geared up

We both took the short Discover Scuba Diving quiz.  I kept thinking that since I was doing a refresher course, that I should have received something more or different, and a record for my log book (which I don’t have with me anyway), but I basically did the same as Diane.

Driving the Dream Machine, we followed them and our dive boat about 20 miles to K.P. Hole Park in nearby Dunnellon.  The park charges $5 admission per person which is common in American state and some county parks.

A pontoon boat with cover being pulled by a white pickup truck

Chasing our dive boat

The very clean Rainbow River is fed only by underground springs.  It is very popular with kayakers and inner tubers, who float down the river enjoying the water, the wildlife, and the sunshine.  The county helps to keep it clean by banning disposable drink containers of any kind on the river (a $75 fine).

Diane sitting on a bench on the pontoon boat while the captain stands at the helm at the rear

Heading up river

We headed up river, enjoying the scenery, while Captain Zac gave us the safety lecture.  We put on our wet suits and got ready to go.  Diane was nervous.

Diane standing beside Rich in their wetsuits while Patrick completes putting his on

Getting ready

Zac anchored our boat near the river bank and took pictures while we were in the water.

Diane, Patrick, and instructor Rich standing in shallow water in full scuba gear

Class in session

Rich led us through the basic scuba drills starting from the beginning…

Diane and Patrick with faces in the water while instructor looks on

Breathing with only your face under water

Patrick, Diane, and instructor just below the surface of the water

Breathing while sitting on the bottom

We then progressed through other skills like using the buoyancy compensator, regulator remove and replace, mask clearing, and equalizing the pressure in one’s ears.  The pace was fine for me, but I thought rushed for Diane or anyone who hadn’t done this before.  Diane had to try the full mask clear twice and seemed a little apprehensive, but did well.

Diane, Patrick, and Rich posing for a photo just before heading downstream

Posing (Patrick on left, Diane on right)

After a quick photo op, we headed down river.  Rainbow River is a drift dive, where for the most part you can just let the current carry you along.  Very relaxing.  The river is shallow, varying from 3 to 23 feet deep, which is great for a beginner.  Plenty of opportunity to practice ascending and descending.

Sign with words "Shallow Area" with a bird sitting on top


The river bottom is sandy and mostly covered in long grass, which bends gracefully downstream.  The visibility is amazing.  Crystal clear water allows you to see over 100 feet (30 meters).  There are lots of fish and turtles.

We drifted down 1 mile of beautiful river for about 40 minutes.  I took pictures of Diane to record the event.

Diane diving just above gras with a blue water background

Diane in the grass

Diane scuba diving and pinching her nose to equalize her ears, with only blue water in the background

Diane equalizing her ears

Diane with black wetsuit and yellow framed mask with a blue water background

Diane looking like a pro

Closeup of Diane's face wearing a scuba mask with bubbles

Diane — It’s time for my close-up Mr. DeMille

Diane asked to come up at one point, “just so I knew I could”.  Despite the wet suits, we both got a bit cold by the time we were ready to board the boat.

Diane, Patrick, and Rich floating on the surface just behind the pontton boat

Fun’s Over – Ready to board

Diane was happy.

Diane sitting on a bench on the pontoon boar wrapped in a multi-coloured towel

Diane smiling

Until she saw the alligators.  You see, there are almost no bodies of fresh water in Florida that don’t have alligators.  And snakes.  We passed 2 alligators on the way back, both about 4 feet long.

Alligator floating on the surface in the weeds

Let’s go swimming!

Alligator head among the weeds

Time for his close-up!

Diane said that if she had known about the alligators in advance, she wouldn’t have done it.  Perhaps that’s why Zac and Rich didn’t point them out until after her first scuba dive.

Oh, and I had a great time too.  Now I have visions of Diane and I scuba diving together in exotic, crocodile-free waters around the world.  Diane’s not so sure.

Patrick on the pontoon boat wearing black swim trunks

This guy needs a tan!

Swimming with Manatee

May 21, 2013

Crystal River, a small town (3,500 people) in Citrus County, Florida, is the self-professed ‘Home of the Manatee’.  The city is situated around Kings Bay, a coastal waterway which is fed by over 60 natural springs, keeping the water a constant 22 degrees Celsius (72 degrees Fahrenheit) year round.    During the winter, when temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico are lower, Kings Bay is home to over 400 manatees, who can’t tolerate water below 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit).  It is also the only place in the United States where people can legally interact with manatees in the water.Manatees are large, herbivorous marine mammals sometimes called ‘sea cows’.  They measure up to 12 feet (3.6 m) long and weigh as much as 3,900 pounds (1775 kg).

We were excited about the opportunity to see a manatee up close in the wild, but hadn’t made any plans yet to do this.  When in doubt, have a beer and think about it.  Over a beverage (or 2) at Burkes of Ireland, a small local pub with good beer on tap, we met 2 guides from  American Pro Dive Center who said that if we showed up at their shop the next morning around 8 AM, we could join their guided tour, which at that time was very undersubscribed.  We also met a nice accountant named Phillip who let us park The Dream Machine at his office overnight, so everything was working out great.

The next morning we arrived at American Pro, got outfitted with snorkeling gear (wet suit, fins, mask and snorkel), and followed our young captain Deanna down to the marina where she launched the pontoon boat we’d be using.

A pontoon boat with sun cover moore at the dock

Our pontoon boat

After Diane grabbed her last cup of coffee at the floating bait shop, we idled out into the marina. The only other clients on the boat were a young girl and her “mother’s partner” (she corrected me when I incorrectly assumed that he was her father).  Not having done my usual amount of research (due to the Irish pub and the beer and the early start), I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I knew that because we had arrived around the end of April, most of the manatees that spend the winter had headed back out into the warming waters of the gulf.  But I learned that there was a resident population of about 20 manatees that spend all year in King’s Bay.  We didn’t have to go far find one.

A view of the rear of the boat with captain Deanna at the helm, Diane, and 2 other participants

On the boat

Manatees spend a lot of time sleeping in the water, surfacing for air periodically.  They spend the rest of their time grazing in shallow waters at depths of 1–2 meters (3 – 7 feet).  Although they have a large, powerful tail, when feeding they tend to use their stubby front flippers like legs, to anchor and pull themselves along the bottom.

A manatee area warning signKing’s Bay is shallow but the water is dark and murky unless you’re very close to the vent of an underwater spring.  It is sometimes possible to spot a manatee’s grey colour in the water (polarized sunglasses help), but normally they are noticed when they surface to breath, when the water roils from their swimming near the surface, or from their fart bubbles (apparently manatees are quite flatulent, but I suppose I would be too if I ate what they do).

We spotted our first manatee in about 10 minutes.  Deanna anchored the boat and we donned our snorkeling gear as she got into the water. The visibility was terrible, the worst I’ve ever experienced in any water. I could literally ‘barely see my hand in front of my face’ with my arm outstretched.  If anyone touched the bottom, stirring up muddy silt, the visibility dropped to zero.  In the very shallow water, the less experienced snorkelers were encouraged to float on lifejackets to avoid stirring up the bottom.

Finding a manatee in the water under these conditions is difficult.  It’s a bit like looking for a black rhino in the tall grass, you don’t realize you’ve found it until you run into it.  We tracked our guide on the surface, swimming toward her snorkel, until a manatee suddenly emerged from the murk.  With limited visibility, we could only see part of it at a time.  Its head, munching through the weeds like a underwater mower.  Its tail, broad and paddle shaped, not fluked like other marine mammals or its closest relative the dugong.  Its back, scared by deep parallel cuts from a propeller.

The head and face of a grey manatee in the water

Crystal River Manatee

There are an estimated 2000 to 5000 West Indian manatees in Florida (one of the 3 known species of manatee).  They don’t have any natural predators, but they are threatened due to boating and human development in their coastal habitat   It is illegal under Florida law to injure or harm a manatee, but their slow-moving, curious nature and preference for shallow water results in many collisions with boat propellers, leading to maiming, disfigurement, and even death. A large proportion of manatees have propeller scars on their backs.

A sign saying, "Manatee zone.  Idle Speed.  No Wake"

Speed Sign to help protect manatees

Manatees are very peaceful, and generally oblivious to their observers..  We could get close enough to touch our manatee gently on the back, which feels like the rough skin of an elephant, complete with the stiff hairs that extend a couple of inches.  He or she didn’t seem to mind this at all, and kept eating calmly.  After about 10 minutes, our manatee swam away with powerful strokes of its tail.  Manatees can swim up to 30 kph (20 mph) in short bursts.

Patrick and Diane in wetsuits

Patrick and Diane in wetsuits

And that was it.  Although we spotted one other manatee, we couldn’t get close in the water.  If they don’t want visitors, they won’t stick around.  Except for nursing mothers and during breeding, manatees are generally solitary creatures, except when they’re sharing the warm spring waters of Florida each winter.

Baby manatee with her head up against a femaile manatee's right front flipper

Baby manatee nursing from mother’s mammary glands located under her flippers

Even though we only saw one manatee, we enjoyed ourselves.  We were glad to have observed (and felt) a wild manatee in its natural habitat.  And, I was proud of Diane for snorkeling in such challenging conditions.  Perhaps she’ll try scuba diving one day?

My Run with the Bulls

May 17, 2013

After 2 previous flashbacks about the Festival of San Fermin and The Running of the Bulls, I finally get to the meat of the matter.  Did I run with the bulls?  I wrote the following on Sunday, July 9th, 2012 as the adrenaline rushed through me…

Patrick in white pants and shirt with red scarf and red sash in fron tof the Pamplona town hall

My traditional Encierro clothes

I put on the white pants and shirt, red sash and scarf traditionally worn by Encierro runners and jogged over to the starting corral just before 7 AM.  It was filled mostly with men and a few women, many of whom had been drinking and some who hadn’t slept.  I was more worried about them than the bulls.  The runners were packed in so tightly that I was sweating, pressed up against a set of short, bearded identical twins, a dead ringer for Avril Lavigne, two bankers from London, and a drunk guy from New York.  They were all Australian.

Minutes before the start, they asked me if I was nervous, because they said I didn’t look it.  I wasn’t particularly worried, partly due to the false sense of security created by a festive crowd, but more likely a result of the focus that comes from the need for self-preservation.

I chose to start on a part of the course known as Telefonica, just past Dead Man’s Corner, to increase my chances of making it to the Plaza de Toros, the bull fighting arena where the run finishes.  At 10 minutes to 8, the gates holding us in were opened, and we could disperse along the route.  I waited on the right side of a straightaway with a lot of other nervous looking people. The cobbled street is narrow, about 5 meters wide (16 feet), with both sides lined with shops and nowhere to hide.The people around me were nervous.  They were stretching cold muscles, and hopping up and down, trying to see what was coming.  Several Spanish men were down on their knees praying.  Perhaps they knew something I didn’t.

At 8 AM the bulls were released.  I didn’t hear any rockets, so t wasn’t clear when to start running.  A first wave of people ran by and I was drawn along for a bit, but there were no bulls in sight so I stopped.  When the bulls got close it became obvious.  People were yelling and running towards me fast, with fear in their eyes.  I started running.  Hard.

The first animal went by me like I was barely moving.  I had started running on the right side but was now on the left.  There were bulls running to my right.  The runners ahead of me went down, and I vaulted over two piles of bodies.  Simultaneously looking behind to gauge the bulls and ahead to watch for hazards is impossible.  Forced to choose, I looked forward so I could stay on my feet.

As I approached the tunnel leading into the bull ring, I looked behind and to my right to see if there were any bulls on my heels.  I didn’t want to be trapped in the narrow concrete passageway with tonnes of angry, barbed muscle.  It seemed clear, but everything was happening so fast, it was hard to tell.  I sprinted forward, but was hit very hard on my left side and thrown towards the fence.  I barely stayed on my feet, didn’t dare look behind again, and raced through the tunnel into the bright light and thousands of cheering fans.

I was ecstatic.  I looked for the bulls, worried that they might still be loose.  They must all have just passed me, as they were exiting the arena on the far side.  I circled around euphorically and in shock.  Guys were hugging and high-fiving, glad to be alive.  Some fell to their knees on the sand, crossing themselves.

Suddenly a cry rang out and 3 steers burst into the arena.  I was standing near the center of the ring and they were heading straight for me at full speed.  I started to run to my left but was hit hard in the jaw and fell to the sand on my side.  I glanced up and the cattle were bearing down on me.  I was alone in the middle of the arena.  I pulled my feet under me and pushed off hard with my right leg, getting out of the way just before being trampled.

The bull fighting arena is circular, about 30 meters (95 feet) across.  It is surrounded by about 50 rows of tiered seats filled with spectators.  The ground is hand-packed, covered with a couple of inches of sand.  There were probably three hundred people in the ring, mostly young men, all high on adrenaline.  I felt the rush of emotion, but couldn’t rest for long.

Young bulls were released into the arena one-by-one, their horns covered in a thin layer of black tape which doesn’t look like it would make much difference. Each one charges into the ring trying to kill whoever is closest.  The runners try to avoid this, dodging the bull as best they can in the fracas.  This is a challenge because it is hard to see the bull until the people ahead of you split open like a school of moving fish.  Unfortunately, they don’t all shift in the same direction, making it a challenge to stay on your feet.  I moved with my arms out like a linebacker.  Twice I was almost caught by the bull, once running across its path and curling around its shoulder to avoid being skewered.

The runners attempt to touch the bull, preferably on the blunt end, in an intense free-for-all.  The people in the stands egg them on.  One brave young guy vaulted over the haunches of the bull, much to their delight.  They roar louder when someone is trampled or thrown by the bull.  After a few minutes the bull begins to tire, and a giant ox is lead into the ring by handlers for the bull to follow back to its pen.  This massive creature scared the hell out of more than one unsuspecting runner.  It would have been virtually impossible to avoid two bulls in the commotion.  After a stressful 20 minutes, the melee was finished, and we filed out of the arena.  As I write this hours later, I can still feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins.

Patrick in Encierro Costume with a dog dresseds similarly

Me with a fellow San Fermin participant

My friend Julia asked me why I wanted to run with the bulls, and I didn’t have what I consider to be a good answer at the time.  One runner I read said that people risk death here to more fully experience life.  I did it for at least two reasons…  I had set this as a goal, and I feel a sense of accomplishment when I achieve an objective, more so if it is something difficult.  Another dream fulfilled.  Dream Big.  Also, it scared the crap out of me, and I find that I grow a lot when I face my fears.  Live Boldly.  Even more so when I face them knowingly, so I ran with the bulls again the next day.

Flashback Friday — this is another in a series of posts about memorable events from recent travels.  They are a collection of writings that didn’t quite get published while we were on the road.

Impressions of Louisiana

May 14, 2013

Louisiana has a very different feel from Texas, even though they’re adjacent. Sometimes the things I notice the most are those that contrast with the place I’ve just been.

• Louisiana is very flat and swampy. The ground underfoot even feels softer than Texas. As a result, there are a lot of raised roadways and bridges.

Patrick pulling a thick rope to pull a ferry across the water

Ferry crossing, the old-fashioned way

• The music is zydeco and jazz, with a lot less country. There are hardly any hats, boots, or buckles.
• Bar-b-que is replaced by Cajun food like boiled crawfish and shrimp, étouffée, gumbo, jambalaya, rice and beans, and beignets. But they’re not the only kind of food here:

Diane eating a slice of pizza off a white paper plate

Pizza near Bourbon Street

• There are more African-Americans, and a lot fewer Hispanics than Texas. Louisiana has no common border with Mexico.
• Louisiana has a laid-back, convivial atmosphere, living their common expression Laissez les bons temps rouler! (Let the good times roll!)
• Like Texas, people here like to dance. The dance floor is always full, even outdoors on sunny afternoons.
• Louisiana has visible French roots. It was named after French King Louis XIV. It is the only state in the union to have parishes rather than counties. The Fleur-de-lis is everywhere. Most streets and places have French names.

A gold fleur-de-lis on a blue fabric background with a gold border


• The United States paid $15 million to France in 1803 to purchase the Louisiana Territory, 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River. These lands stretched from the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. Thirteen states were carved from the Louisiana Territory, and the Louisiana purchase almost doubled the size of the United States at the time.

A white cathedral with three pointy towers fiewed form the Mississippi River

The Saint Louis Cathedral, the oldest in North America, from the Mississippi River

• Louisiana has a vibrant Cajun culture. Cajuns are an ethnic group, descendants of Acadians, French-speakers who came primarily from the Canadian maritime provinces in the mid-1700’s because they refused to swear allegiance to the King of England.
• Cajuns speak their own dialect of French which evolved from 18th-Century French.
• The Creoles are another ethic group in Louisiana. They are descendants of African, West Indian, and European pioneers.
• Tabasco sauce has been made by generations of the McIhenny family on Avery Island, Louisiana since 1968. It’s ingredients are tabasco peppers (Capsicum frutescens var. tabasco), vinegar, and salt.
• Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana on the morning of August 29, 2005. The eye of the storm hit St. Tammany Parish as a Category 3 hurricane at 9:45 AM, causing massive flooding that extended over 6 miles inland, from 7 to 16 feet deep plus wave action. By August 31st, 80% of New Orleans was flooded. The historical French Quarter, the highest part of the city, was spared.

A reddish corner building with 2 white metal balconies over a street full of people

French Quarter Spanish-style Building

• Louisiana appears to have a lot of obese people (perhaps too much bons temps), many of which seem to be African-American.
• There is still a cotton and sugar cane industry here.
• There are alligators in most of Louisiana’s bodies of fresh water. They can run up to 40 mph (60 kph) on land over short distances.

A yellow sign showing a black alligator and the words "No Swimming" against a white sky background

Alligator warning sign

Alligators are hunted and eaten here. Like Diane, they also love cats.

2 large alligators lifted by a backhoe with 2 men posing beside them