Sunday, August 10, 2014

Feeling Stranded in Osaka

Well it's been ages and I've done many things in the mean time.  I want to re-purpose this blog to be more about some of the stories of my life, so I don't forget and my kids will remember.  And since re-purposing is all the rage these days, I figured it would be a great way to go.

When I was sent to Tokyo for a work assignment at the end of 2011, I was sent for two weeks.  The people I associated with in Japan were very friendly at work, but I was totally on my own for the weekend (unlike being in Brazil).

The Shinkansen
I planned a trip for Saturday to take the Shinkansen bullet train to Osaka.  The plan was that I would be in Osaka for the morning and then take another bullet train back towards Tokyo, stopping off in Kyoto.  Then take a night bus (not like the knight bus in Harry Potter) back to Tokyo.  The night bus was much cheaper, and although my per diem in Japan was over $240 daily, I didn't want to spend all my money on another bullet train back to Tokyo for $180 per ticket.

The plan started off just fine.  I thought about getting cash out in Tokyo before I left, because most ATMs and vendors don't accept US credit cards.  After a short internal debate, I decided to forgo going out of my way to use the ATM I knew would work, and instead find one in Osaka.

I went to the train station and bought my ticket to Osaka.  Three hours later after travelling an average of 150 miles per hour, we reached Osaka and I got off.

I generally don't do maps when I travel.  I spend hours figuring out where I want to go and then commit the map to memory.  The only problem with this is that sometimes when getting out of a subway stop or train station, there isn't much I can do until I get my bearings.

So in Osaka, I started off going the wrong direction.  After about fifteen minutes of walking, I realized this, but do I back track?  No way.  I turn left and just keep walking.  Another fifteen minutes later, I pop into the park where the Osaka Castle replica is located.  I made it.  Not only did I make it, but my odd detour sent me right to one of the main gates.

Osaka Castle
The view from Osaka Castle

One of the castle walls and moats
The Osaka Castle was fascinating.  I walked around for a couple hours and really enjoyed the views of the castle and from the castle grounds.  The foundations of the castle have been around for hundreds of years, even if the castle was only rebuilt after WWII.

After spending my last Yen on admission to the castle itself, I realized that I would need to find an ATM soon.  I figured I had plenty of time on my long walk back to the train station, going a much more direct route this time.  However, each ATM I tried wouldn't take my card.  I couldn't find a single ATM that would accept a US debit card.

After searching for about twenty minutes, I begin to panic.  I start asking locals, who just stare at me because they don't speak any English.   I found one very nice man with his wife walking around, who could speak English.  He helped me translate the screen prompts on two different ATMs, but to no avail.

Japanese ATM
I'm now really freaking out.  "Why didn't I just get cash in Tokyo where I knew I could?"  "How am I going to contact my office to let them know I won't be at work on Monday, because I've become a bum in Osaka?"  "Will a search party go out for me?"  "Why do US cards have to be difficult to work with?"

This is unfamiliar territory for me.  I've traveled around the world, from Turkey, Guam, England, and Spain.  I've been "lost" before in unknown places, but I've never felt stranded.  I always knew I could find something familiar and get my bearings.  The difference this time, was that I had my bearings.  I knew exactly where I was, but I had no idea how to get back to where I was supposed to be.

Just when I was beginning to really stress that I might be stranded in Osaka, I found a Seven Eleven, where the ATMs are known to work with US cards.  At last!  I'm saved from being stranded.

I put my card in and followed the on screen prompts (in English this time) and it failed...

I sank.  I tried again, and it failed again.  The one ATM that was supposed to work, didn't.  Now it's really hopeless.

Just I start to sink back into despair again, I notice the phone attached to the ATM.  Yes a Phone.  Figuring it can't hurt to try, I pick it up.

Immediately it starts to ring and then a girl answers in Japanese.  I ask (in English) if she speaks English and sure enough she does.  She switches over to English without the slightest hesitation.  I tell her that I'm having a hard time getting the ATM machine to work.  She simply says, "Turn your card over."

Annoyed that it can't possibly be that simple, I tell her that I followed the diagram that shows me which way to put my card.  She says again, "Turn your card over and try it."

I flip my card over, contrary to the diagram's instructions, and proceed to get Yen out of the machine without any further glitches.  I thank her profusely, hang up and go get lunch.

After eating some fantastic takoyaki for lunch I head to the train station to buy my ticket to go to Kyoto.  On a whim, I try to use my credit card to buy my ticket.  It works maybe 20% of the time in Japan, and this time was one of the few places that worked.  So, to my embarrassment, I was never stranded at all.  At any point I could have just walked up and purchased a ticket back to Tokyo without ever finding an ATM.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Amsterdam & the Netherlands 2012 Part 1

In the April of 2012, I was sent to Amsterdam for a work assignment. This was initial testing and training for Paramount's SAP installation in Germany, France, and Spain. Because of the large number of users effected by this change (6 offices total), my trip to Amsterdam was going to be a two week trip.

I arrived in Amsterdam very early on Monday morning. I went to the hotel and after checking in early, showering, and getting ready to go to work, I grabbed my camera and took my first stroll along the canals of Amsterdam.

After work, although it was cold and rainy, I went with a coworker to see the April fair set up in the Dam Square only five minutes from our hotel.

It was also on this first day that I learned the Paramount office in Amsterdam would be closed on Friday.  Not only was I in Amsterdam, I was going to have a three day weekend there! I spent the week planning out my activities.

On Friday I was going to rent a car and drive all over the place. My aim was to see Muiderslot Castle, Kasteel de Haar, and the Keukenhof gardens. For Saturday I bought a train ticket to Brussels, Belgium.  And on Sunday I was going to relax, go to church, and sight see in Amsterdam proper.  In this post and the one following, I'm going to talk about my agenda on Friday and Sunday.  I'll leave Belgium for another time.

Friday came and I picked up my rental car. I was able to connect with some friends from Cincinnati who were living and going to school in Amsterdam, so the agenda was to pick them up at 10:00.

Knowing that I was only going to have one chance to have a car in Amsterdam I picked up the car at 7:00 and started driving to some predefined stops.

Stop number one was Castle Brederode. This old ruins seemed intriguing to me and although I knew I couldn't actually tour it a 7:30 AM, I was still able to walk around and get a few pictures.

The next stop was the series of locks and dams that keep the North Sea from engulfing Amsterdam which sits roughly 15 feet below sea level.

This is the industrial center of Amsterdam.  Although completely different from the city, castles, and gardens I was visiting, I thought it was just as fascinating.

After driving across the locks, I made my way to go pick up Dave and Abby, my partners for my trip across Amsterdam.

Our first stop together was Muiderslot Castle. Both Dave and Abby had been before and decided to walk around the town's 17th century fortifications while I checked out the castle.

Muiderslot was a fairly interesting castle. It was nearly completely medieval with few updates in the past two hundred years. With its close proximity to Amsterdam, it seemed a bit too touristy for my tastes generally. One of the tourist attractions was a falconry.  The garden needed some work, but probably would have been incredible in another week or two.

The weather so far was pretty cloudy and gray.  The forecast was for rain and all three of us hoped the weather would stay away for the rest of the days schedule.  As we got into the car after Muiderslot, it started to rain.

We had two more stops before reaching Kasteel de Haar.  Naarden looked incredible from Google Earth and I had to check it out.  Up close and in person, there wasn't much to see.  It's hard to get the floral pattern of the battlements without having the aerial view.  I was however glad I stopped by.
The next stop was the city of Utrecht.  The Kasteel De Haar was close to the city and Dave recommended we stop by to see the cathedral there.  The interesting thing about the cathedral in Utrecht is that the bell tower is no longer connected to the cathedral building.  During a storm in the late 1600's, the central nave collapsed separating the tower from the rest of the cathedral.  We walked through the streets above the canals (every city in the Netherlands has canals) before heading over to Kasteel De Haar.

Part 2 will discuss the remaining trip to Kasteel De Haar, the Keukenhof, and my tour around Amsterdam.
For the complete photos of part 1, click here.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Travel Lottery

As I was looking through some of my pictures of the past year, I can't help but feel that I won the travel lottery starting in July 2011.  That's when I was put on a project that had an international travel component with it.  That International travel component has taken me to London, Sydney, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Madrid, Munich, Paris, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro, Sau Paulo and Gothenburg.

On most of these trips, I've had a chance to go sight see.  Consequently, I was also able to go to Brussels, drive through the Austrian Alps, and take the bullet train to Osaka.  Adding these trips to my previous military travel to Guam, eastern Turkey, and southern Spain, I've seen a decent bit of the world.

Over the next several weeks, I will be doing a series of my various trips and the best photos I have from those places.

Here's a collage of my favorite bridges of the past two years.  There are other cool bridges beyond this, but these aren't just the coolest bridges, but the best photos too.  So I've narrowed it down to these six.  Click to see a larger image.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

I'm a Mormon...

Last general conference, there was a talk by Sister Ann M. Dibb called "I Know It. I Live It. I Love It."  This talk caused quite a bit of Facebook buzz with several memes being created with that theme.  The talk was good, but I thought the phrase was cheesy.  So I posted on my wall, "I am a Mormon. If you would like to know what that means and how it affects the way I live my life, send me a message."

One response I received was, "I want to know how being a Mormon affects the way you live your life."  I realized pretty quick that I didn't have an immediate response, although the seed for my eventual response was quick.  After a long delay, I wrote the following.  Let me know what you think.

So I believe that being a Mormon has greatly influenced my life. Primarily in the form of benefits I receive from membership, but also in the way that is helps focus my attention on more worthwhile activities.
In my opinion, for religion to be useful and worth my time, it needs to provide some tangible benefits here and now. I think it's a hard sell to say, "buy this now and when you die, you'l be happy." Although I do believe in a heaven and, to an extent, hell, those are secondary benefits that come as a result of the benefits I receive here and now.
To say I've gained financial stability from practicing my religion is hard to prove. Although I'm not wealthy by US standards, I'm happy and in decent shape financially. To prove that it has stemmed from religious practice, someone could argue about all of the money I've saved by not drinking, not smoking, as well as those $4 Lattes at Starbucks because I don't drink coffee. I'm saved from spending my money on a coffee machine, a home brew kit (I would so totally do that if I were a drinker), and countless bottles of wine on business trips. Thats not even thinking about the binge drinking all my air force buddies participated in.
The reason why that's a bogus argument, is because out Church asks us to donate 10% of our income to the Church, to pay for the building, for new worship houses around the world, and to assist with tuition at BYU for faithful members. It's not a requirement to go to BYU and I never really wanted to attend, but tithing does help support the school among many other things.
On top of that, we are asked to donate generously to those in need. Sort of a local charity run by the congregation to help those members of the congregation going through a rough time. We are also asked to serve in the church in things such as boy scouts, church administration, sunday school, etc. Some of those positions may ask for willing donations to help the program run more smoothly.
So if you add up all that I have saved and compare it with all that I've donated, it's probably an overall negative. But when I think of all the opportunities I've received from God for donating my time, money, and effort to his Church, I would whole heartedly say that it's because of him, I am as successful as I am now. This has to be taken on faith.
One real tangible benefit that is less regarded as something that has to be taken on faith is the camaraderie and fellowship provided by being a member. Sometimes people consider us a cult, but we prefer the term family. We strongly believe that every soul on earth is a spiritual child of God and therefore we are all literal brothers and sisters spiritually. So we call each other such. I'm often referred to as Brother Brooks at church. Although I would prefer to be just called Brandon, there is a sense of belonging and affection that is given to it, that I enjoy having the privilege of being called that way.
Also with being part of a global religion, I can travel to nearly any country and receive the same warm welcome as if I was home in my own congregation. I've felt that warmth in London, Amsterdam, Seville, Melbourne, Tokyo, and Adana, Turkey. Not to mention hundreds of places across the US.
Although it could be argued that there can be a sense of belonging given to other world wide organizations (Rotary, the military, Lions Club, etc.) The believed eternal nature of our literal brotherhood transcends the quality of other organizations in a way that I would find hard to live without.
This eternal perspective on life provides many more perceived life blessings that even if I were to die and find no after-life, I will have been so happy during my existence that it would be of little use to complain that I wasted my life in a nonsense belief of something beyond the grave.
My Dad told me once that he believes that what we are taught at church is true. However, if we're wrong, big deal. We're happy. I agree. So I don't focus on what I should receive as a reward in heaven for the things I do now. I try to find happiness here and now. Not the fleeting sense of happiness from binge drinking with people who may or may not be true friends, or the perceived "fun" that can come from sleeping with as many girls as possible before getting married. Nor even trying to find peace by spending my Sundays in bed or lounging around my house.
I find peace, joy, happiness and contentment in being a Mormon. In showing up to Church every Sunday with my three hopefully cooperative children. Donating my time and money to some causes that at times may seem futile and useless. In extending a hand of fellowship and brotherhood to someone who would prefer to have my belief banished from existence because of some perceived wrong that happened long before. That is what being a Mormon is. It's challenging, it's hard work, but it is the most worthwhile goal I have ever set my aim to, and the only one I have ever been able to consistently work towards.
Working on the goal of being a good Mormon helps me focus on what's most important to me. My family. Both my family here in my house, and my literal spiritual family that includes you.
Please feel welcome to ask any questions you may have. Because in addition to all the responsibilities and opportunities mentioned above, we are also asked to share our beliefs openly, so that others may enjoy the blessings and joy we have.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Thoughts on Tolerance

These are some excellent thoughts about tolerance written and shared by my friend Isaac Livingston.  Enjoy.

In today's world, there is a huge misunderstanding of what both tolerance and intolerance really are. Disagreeing with something or someone is NOT intolerance. People have agency to make decisions for themselves, and the point at which it becomes intolerance is when you attempt to keep people from having their r
ight to a certain belief or opinion.

It is judgmental and narrow-minded to say, "If people disagree with me, or with this or that, then they are prideful, rebellious, discriminatory, bigoted, etc." You can insert pretty much any common stereotype into this example. The point is that if you simply condemn others out of hand for not believing as you, and call them intolerant, then it's actually YOU who is really being intolerant.

As with all other things, Jesus Christ is the perfect example. Let me first be clear that Christ did not tolerate sin. The scriptures are pretty clear on that. This doesn't make Him intolerant. He allowed and still allows people to choose paths that are contrary to what He and His disciples taught. See the difference? We also know from scripture that the Savior was tolerant of people who, in their weakness, accepted sin as part of their lives. Remember the story of the woman taken in adultery? The Savior did not condemn her for her sin, but DID exhort her to go and sin no more. She had violated one of His commandments, yes, but He also made it very clear to the Pharisees, and to all of us, that only He had the right to judge her for her actions: 'He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.'

I now turn to James E. Talmage for a great explanation on the subject of tolerance versus intolerance:

"In the state of divided opinion then existing among the people concerning Jesus, it was fair to say that all who were not opposed to Him were at least tentatively on His side. On other occasions He asserted that those who were not with Him were against Him.

Even John, traditionally known as the Apostle of Love, was intolerant and resentful toward those who followed not his path, and more than once had to be rebuked by his Master. And again, while traveling with their Lord through Samaria, the apostles James and John were incensed at the Samaritans' lack of respect toward the Master, and craved permission to call fire from heaven to consume the unbelievers; but their revengeful desire was promptly rebuked by the Lord, who said: 'Ye know not what manner of Spirit ye are of. For the Son of Man is not come to destroy men's lives but to save them.'

Intolerance is Unscriptural---The teachings of our Lord breathe the Spirit of forbearance and love even to enemies. He tolerated, though He could not approve, the practices of the heathen in their idolatry, the Samaritans with their degenerate customs of worship, the luxury-loving Sadducees, and the law-bound Pharisees. Hatred was not countenanced even toward foes. His instructions were: 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.' The Twelve were commanded to salute with their blessing every house at which they applied for hospitality. In the Parable of the Tares, Christ taught the same lesson of forbearance; the hasty servants wanted to pluck out the weeds straightway, but were forbidden lest they root up the wheat also, and were assured that a separation would be effected in the time of harvest.

In spite of the prevailing Spirit of toleration and love pervading the teachings of the Savior and the apostles, attempts have been made to draw from the scriptures justification for intolerance and persecution. Paul leaves us not in doubt as to the character of the Gospel he so forcefully defended, as his later words show: 'But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man. For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.' Let it be remembered that vengeance and recompense belong to the Lord."

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Thoughts from General Conference

Since we just had General Conference last week, I thought I would share some of my favorite moments with you.  The personal inspiration that my wife and I received from this General Conference is that just as the bar was raised for missionary service in 2002, the bar is being raised for parents today.  Enjoy these quotes that I found inspiring.

“When it comes to living the gospel, we should not be like the boy who dipped his toe in the water and then claimed he went swimming. As sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, we are capable of so much more. For that, good intentions are not enough. We must do. Even more important, we must become what Heavenly Father wants us to be…

“The more we devote ourselves to the pursuit of holiness and happiness, the less likely we will be on a path to regrets. The more we rely on the Savior’s grace, the more we will feel that we are on the track our Father in Heaven has intended for us.”
– President Dieter F. Uchtdorf

“It is not enough to avoid evil; we must ‘suffer his cross’ (Jacob 1:8) and ‘be anxiously engaged,’ (D&C 58:27) helping others to conversion. With compassion and love we embrace the prodigal (Luke 15:11-32), answer the cries of orphans in hysteria, the pleas of those in darkness and despair (Joseph Smith History 1:15-16), and the distress calls of family in need. ‘Satan need not get everyone to be like Cain or Judas … ,’ said Elder Neal A. Maxwell. ‘He needs only to get able men … to see themselves as sophisticated neutrals.’”
– Elder Robert C. Gay

“Every person is different and has a different contribution to make. No one is destined to fail. As you seek revelation to see gifts God sees in those you lead in the priesthood—particularly the young—you will be blessed to lift their sights to the service they can perform. With your guidance, those you lead will be able to see, want, and believe they can achieve their full potential for service in God’s kingdom.

“God knows our gifts. My challenge to you and to me is to pray to know the gifts we have been given, to know how to develop them, and to recognize the opportunities to serve others that God provides us. But most of all, I pray that you will be inspired to help others discover their special gifts from God to serve.”
– President Henry B. Eyring

“I never cease to be amazed by how the Lord can motivate and direct the length and breadth of His kingdom and yet have time to provide inspiration concerning one individual… The fact that He can, that He does, is a testimony to me… the Lord is in all of our lives. He loves us. He wants to bless us. He wants us to seek His help. As He guides us and directs us and as He hears and answers our prayers, we will find the happiness here and now that He desires for us.”
– President Thomas S. Monson

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Ten Coolest Things I've Seen from the Air

Since I became a road warrior over a year ago, I've taken over 120 flights. For some road warriors, flying is a necessary evil. I don't look at flying that way. Although I feel that landing safely is the best part, I do love to fly.

Part of the reason why I enjoy flying so much is because I get to see this beautiful world from a different angle. The following list are the most amazing things I've seen from the air.

10.  Chicago

Flying into Chicago with a view of downtown is a cool experience, and one I had on only my third flight way back in 2001.  Unfortunately, this happens so frequently, it tends to lose some of it's appeal.

9.  The Stars

The stars aren't hard to see when flying at night, so this isn't exactly a rare event, but there's something about being higher up than Mount Everest when viewing the stars that makes this special.

The flashing lights from the wingtips can however create enough light pollution to block out some of the view.

8. Sunrises and Sunsets

The amazing colors of a sunrise and sunset are somehow magnified when you're in the air.  On one flight, I saw both a sunset and sunrise on the same side of the aircraft.  That was cool.

7. Dams

I've always been fascinated by man made engineering marvels, and none are easier to spot from the sky than dams.  Probably the most impressive that I've seen from above is Navajo Dam in New Mexico.

6. The Rocky Mountains and the Grand Canyon

One of the things I love about flying out west is being able to see the Rocky Mountains.  They are simply beautiful.  On one trip I even flew over the Grand Canyon.

Nothing helps to understand the sheer magnitude of the Grand Canyon like flying the entire length of it at 450+ miles per hour and watching it go by for a full 30 minutes.

5. Greenland

Last September I was taking the long flight from London to Chicago and noticed we would be flying over Greenland.

As we approached Greenland, I started taking picture after picture.  Along the coast there were mountains and glaciers that were flowing into the ocean.  There was also snow.  Lots and lots of snow.

After passing the coastline, I had to close the window because the snow was too bright.  At one point in the middle of Greenland, I opened the window just to see what there was in the middle.  All I could see in all directions was pristine white snow.  It was the most deserted place on land I've ever seen.

4.  Passing Airplanes

If you fly as much as I do, you will notice another airplane in the sky at some point in time.  This is common as you approach very busy airports and you join the crowd of aircraft in a holding pattern waiting for their turn to land.

Although this is common near landing, I have found it to be rather rare to see another aircraft at a relatively close altitude, because when both planes are flying at about 500 mph you get very little time to see the other plane.

You have roughly two seconds to see the other plane zip by and I feel very fortunate to have looked out my window at just the right moment each time I witness it. Truly incredible.

3. Thunder Storms From Above

There are few sights from an airplane that beat a thunderstorm.  I've been fortunate to fly over two.  Each time the clouds are brilliantly lit as the lightning races through them.

The best time to view a thundering cloud is when it's dark outside.  On one such occasion, I saw a lightning storm as I flew over the rocky mountains.  What an incredible sight.

2. London.

I've had the good fortune to fly to London multiple times over the past year.  The flight pattern as you approach Heathrow takes you right over some of the most famous landmarks in the world.

From above I've seen Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, Canary Wharf, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and Hampton Court Palace.

Also, around London, in the English countryside there are numerous grand estates and country manors, which can be just as amazing as the famous landmarks.

1. The Reflection of the Moon in the Florida Everglades

Recently I flew into Miami from Mexico City. I was looking out my window at the beautiful western coast of Florida as the sun was setting. My heart was full of gratitude for this beautiful world when something caught my eye.

There was a well lit spot on the ground following our plane. After a bit of head scratching, I realized it was the moon's reflection in the water of the Florida everglades.  I tilted my head upward and sure enough there was the moon.

It's hard to express what delight I felt for seeing the beauty of the everglades in such a unique way.  I was impressed and awe struck.

The feeling that I had that night is the one I hope to have every time I fly when I open my window and look out at this amazing planet.