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TravelYear 2014

The year 2014 was my busiest travel season ever. Time away from home resulted in some nice status-levels with my rewards program accounts.


Here is a summary of how the year turned out. More blog posts about each place will be coming soon.

Cruising for work

Dates: 1/9 to 1/12 = 5 days

The year opened with a cruise. A “working cruise”.

My company had chartered a ship for a conference for it’s sales partners and I was one of the staff working behind the scenes to make the magic happen. It marked my first visit to Florida, as the boat set off from Tampa Bay, and my first visit to Cozumel.

My enduring memory of this Mayan Riviera destination will be my first stick-shift drive in almost 14 years. My department took some well deserved, but brief, R&R on the island in the form of a “Jeep tour”. We rented a bunch of jeeps for a guided perusal of tourist traps around the island and took turns driving. I pity the clutch on our vehicle.

I’m glad I went, but I’m not itching to go back. At least not with that itinerary.

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 End of a floating working day Stick shift

Trips to the “Polar Vortex”

The weather channel catch-phrase for the winter of 2013-2014 was the “Polar Vortex” a weather system that brought arctic temperatures to much of North America and resulting in an unusually long winter. I caught the opening act of this drama when I was deployed to Lincolnshire, IL, and had my very first taste of winter driving. It was there in an empty parking lot not far from the National rental office near the O’Hare airport that I learned the value of the Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS), and why you really can accelerate or decelerate too rapidly on ice.

I knew it was a half-hour’s worth of practice driving well spent, but I didn’t realize how much, till a few weeks after. At the time I figured “surely they’re not sending the tropical guy to snow-bound engagements”. I was wrong.

Edmonton, Alberta: 1/29 to 1/31 = 4 days
Cleveland, OH: 2/10 to 2/14 = 5 days
Toronto, ON: 3/10 to 3/14 = 6 days
Ottawa, ON: 3/24 to 3/28 = 6 days

From a visual perspective, two of these places stood out.

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 Edmonton Parliament Hill from the Quebec

This batch of trips provided material for a whole bunch of still in-process blog posts. Among them:

Parking-lot fun

cleveland toronto

Gloves and mits

My wife and close friends won’t let this story go. Might as well put it in writing . . . soon.

edmonton edmonton2

Orange County

Santa Ana, CA: 5/20 to 5/22 = 4

Folks familiar with the take-off profile out of the airport in Metro Manila will be familiar with the John Wayne Airport.

NC barbecue

Durham, NC - 6/9 to 6/13 = 6

A trip to Durham introduced me to North Carolinian barbecue. With vinegar rather than salt or sugar as the star of the flavor profile. Pretty fascinating experience if your not expecting it. Not quite ready to call it a favorite at this point.

The humidity of the region was another surprise. Most of my past trips to the south east were either in Winter or Fall. Had never been there during the Spring – Summer transition. The place is warm.

On the tail end of the trip, I experienced my first thunderstorm in a looong time. Happily no twisters.

Downtown Durham had a number of nice public events on my one free day. The more lively one was at the old Lucky Strike Factory. My impression of the place is that it isn’t really a place you’d schedule a vacation to visit, but is a pleasant place to be if your path does take you there.


Seattle is not WA

Dates: Wenatchee, WA: 7/7 to 7/11 = 6

I had already been to the state of Washington three times before this visit: twice to Seattle, and once to Olympia. But this was the first time I traveled east beyond the Cascadian Mountains, and past the micro-climate that was stereotypical of the state and into the more arid central portion: Wenatchee, WA.

The surprises that this small town offered all deserve their own future blog posts.

Atlanta’s 2-inch-of-snow apocalypse: Their side of the story

Alpharetta, GA - 8/4 to 8/8 = 6

I was in Alberta when Atlanta’s snow shutdown the top story. There it had been snowing there since October, with snow measured in feet, and they had just come off a week that was in -40Cs. The Canadian reaction was understandably similar to that of this Daily Show skit

Seven months later, I got to see the other side of the story. Given my own difficulties during my snow-bound trips earlier in the year, I could relate. Details about that, and how runway-go-arounds in ATL are common, in future blog posts.

NASA by the mall

Dates: 10/27 to 10/31 = 6

When I was sent on assignment to Houston, TX, there was one place I would never forgive myself for not even trying to visit.


Didn’t expect it to be opposite a strip mall

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 View from Talon Park

Key lesson-learned on this trip: Can’t cancel lowest-fare flights. More on that soon.


Although insanely brief, the trip to Japan had enough material for multiple blog posts. So I will reserve most of thoughts for those articles. But here are a few highlights.Japan

 Mt. Fuji as seen from Tokyo Tower

I had the great fortune of being taken around by my co-workers who took me to restaurants that foreigners, on a brief visit, would be hard pressed to find on their own. End result was an amazing food trip. I WILL come back to this place.

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 Tonkotsu ramen

Thanksgiving in Santa Barbara

If location for employment were not an issue . . . I wouldn’t mind moving here.


Ending the year in NYC

This was the only flight that didn’t involve work. My wife and son visited my brother’s family in New Jersey. Most of the stay was spent catching up. But we did find time to visit the tree at Rockefeller Center. My son’s reaction to all the lights all over the place made the challenge of the crowds all worthwhile.


In retrospect, 56 days away from home — 56 missed opportunities to watch my son add to his repertoire of mischief — is measly in comparison to other road warriors. I’ve met folks with jobs that were 100% travel. I keep that in mind on the days when Facetime and/or Skype just aren’t enough.

The 2015 TravelYear has already started, and this early blog worthy experiences have already come up. Stay tuned.

A checklist for a newbie international traveler

A relative is going on a two-stage trip to the US sometime between October and December and sought advice about how to prepare for it. It was going to be her first trip outside the Philippines, and at 25 hours would be the longest she’s ever been on an airplane . She was understandably apprehensive.

Her itinerary was going to to take her to New Jersey, where she was going to stay with my brother for a few weeks. Then it was off to San Francisco to visit my family for the rest of her vacation. Therefore she didn’t only need to prepare for the flight, but also for two different climates both of which were very different from the typical Filipino experience.

Here is what my wife and I put together her. We’re sharing the list here for the benefit of other first-time travelers who may be looking for similar information. Male travelers should adjust clothing recommendations accordingly.


Before the flight

There are a number of things that you need to take care of before starting the trip.

Accounts, credit cards, and cash If you plan to use your Philippine debit account or credit card, notify your bank prior to your trip so that they grant you international access. This is not enabled for all accounts by default. Verify how much that international access will cost you. They typically charge per transaction. Note that credit cards offer fraud protection that debit cards don’t. So consider using your credit card for most transactions.Credit cards will work for pretty much everything on your trip. Keeping $40 dollars handy will be more than enough for the duration of the trip. Besides . . . the hospitality of your hosts should cover most things.
Prepare your phone If are thinking of using your smart phone periodically during the trip, remember to turn “data roaming” off. Otherwise you will receive a pretty nasty — expensive — surprise on your phone bill when you get back. Some applications connect to the Internet automatically, and unless you reconfigure each individually to turn this off, the easiest solution is to simply deny these applications access to the network.
Travel insurance Travel insurance covers all manner of unforeseen events from unexpected travel cancellations to medical emergencies. Insurance minimizes the budgetary impact of such situations, and I would seriously consider getting it.If you buy your ticket with a credit card, travel insurance my already be included. Best to verify with your credit card provider. If your card doesn’t have it, or you didn’t use a credit card for the ticket, then consider buying insurance directly from a provider. Make inquiries with your travel agent, or your preferred insurance provider.

For the flight (Estimated time: 22 to 25 hours)

What to bring

The following are items that you keep on your person when you board the aircraft. Put these in a small tote bag, hand bag, or very small knapsack that you can either insert into the pocket of the seat in front of you, or beneath it. Note that you will not be allowed to keep anything on your lap.

Passport You will be asked to identify yourself at different points in the boarding process and to fill out various immigration and customs forms before the plane lands. So you will always need to have your passport handy.
Ballpoint pen (preferably blue or black) Since you need to fill out forms . . . you’ll need something to fill it out with. I’ve seen the mad scramble for pens often enough to know that you don’t want that hassle. Not after countless hours sitting in one place
Headphones Airlines will issue you headphones to access the inflight entertainment system (e.g., movies, TV shows, music, even games on some flights). The vast majority provide this for free. Some domestic US carriers, however, will actually charge you. The quality of these headphones is understandably mediocre. If you want to block out noises, bring your own that fit your ears best.
Underwear As a first time traveller . . . it can’t hurt to be safe
Toiletries Some airlines will give you a toothbrush and toothpaste. Others won’t. So if you need to have that minty-fresh feeling when you wake up after extended sleep, keep these in a small ziplock bag. Other items to keep in that bag: lip balm, and facial moisturizers. Cabin air is very dry so you need to moisturize face and lips.Bring the travel-sized versions (1-2oz), which are the only ones allowed in by airport security. Here is a useful site for additional details about this restriction:
Entertainment options On the off-chance that the movie and music offerings in the in-flight entertainment system aren’t to your liking, bring a book or music on your smart phone or MP3 player. US domestic flights don’t always provide too many options.
Credit card This may be useful for the US-leg of your travel if you aren’t able to buy food at your lay-over airports. Unlike international flights, domestic travel in the US doesn’t offer substantial meals.

What to wear

Shoes Wear flat and relatively loose shoes that can be easily slipped on and off — preferably without having to tie shoelaces, eg., Crocs. This will make clearing security lines, where you will be asked to take your shoes off, much easier. Not too crazy about being barefoot on an airport floor where who-knows-what has gone over? Wear socks.Loose footwear will also help if you are one of those people whose feet swell when in the air (this is completely normal by-the-way).Note, however, when making your selection don’t choose footwear so loose that they’ll fall off if you ever need to go to a place in a hurry. Slippers or flip-flops . . . not advisable
Clothing Avoid clothes that are tight fitting. You’ll be sitting down for most of that 22 to 25-hour flight. We’re all getting older and we need to do all that we can to avoid impairing blood circulation anymore than our seats (and dietary choices) already do. Leggings, for example, are a popular choice for female travelers. Jogging pants work well for all genders. Airconditioning on the flight can get cold, but most airlines do provide blankets for these long haul flights.
Belts Avoid wearing them if you can. These have to be removed during pre-boarding inspection anyway and may be constricting on the flight. If you do need to use one, don’t wear it before clearing the security line. Put it on once in the pre-departure area.

For the rest of the trip

The coldest part of this vacation will be the New Jersey leg. Accuweather predicts October temperatures there this year to range from 17 to 22 Celsius. Pretty cold by Philippine standards, and things will only get colder from there. Gloves shouldn’t be necessary initially, but a scarf will keep you nice and toasty whenever the wind picks up. Northern California can still go down to 0 Celsuis in December, but hasn’t snowed at ground-level in decades.

Tops “Layering” is the key to staying warm. So while it’s a good idea to bring sweaters and the like, you have to bear in mind that most places you will go to will be heated. So you have to be able to take your warm clothing off while your in there. Otherwise you will sweat, and then when you go back outside, you will be both cold and wet. Bring a combination of sweaters and your normal tropical clothing. This will allow you to add layers as it gets cold, and remove them as your surroundings heat up.
Pants Most of your regular tropical jeans, slacks, etc. will be fine. However, bring ones that are loose enough to accommodate thermal underwear. We don’t really notice it much back home, but wind can permeate jeans.
Shoes Bring comfortable walking shoes that are closed, don’t let the wind in (e.g., rubber shoes with fabric covers that actually let you see your socks), are preferably water-resistant, and are loose enough to accommodate thermal socks. Favor shoes that cover your ankles (e.g. high-cut boots) because they will keep your toes nice and toasty. Otherwise, you will need those thermal socks sooner than later.

Planespotting: KC-135 tankers @ BHM

I took these photos last March. The USAF base for these planes was in full view of the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport (BHM), in Alabama. Been reading about KC-135 tankers all my life. Finally got to see them in real-life albeit from afar.

IMG_2829  IMG_2830  IMG_2831

Planespotting: Airbus A380 @ SFO

Couldn’t get an aisle seat for my Chicago – San Francisco flight. But I was rewarded with the following views of the largest of today’s jumbo jets.

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Need flexibility? Get your name on two flights

I had always thought that the standby list was primarily for folks who didn’t hear their alarm clocks in the morning and missed their flights. A symptom of travel plans gone terribly wrong. That was, apparently, an unfairly dismissive generalization.

On a recent trip to Dallas TX, I booked my return flight to San Francisco via United Airlines (UA) flight 6220 which was set to depart at 7:13 pm. It was my first time teaching a particular class format for my new company. So erring on the side of caution, I booked an evening flight to make sure there was enough time to get everything done.

However by 10:30 am that day, the work day was over. So I hustled to the airport and sought an earlier flight. There was a 30-day old baby waiting for me back home and an SR-71 Blackbird travelling at Mach 3 couldn’t me get out of there fast enough.

Walking to the bag drop-off counter, I braced my self for a hefty cancellation fee and fare-difference charge. To my surprise, the UA attendant at the counter informed me that flight cancellation wasn’t necessary.

She instead advised me to sign up to be a standby passenger on an earlier flight. If a seat became available, I would be accommodated. If none were to be had, my confirmed seat on my original flight would still be available. There was still a $75 charge, but only if I actually managed to get a flight. My misconceptions about the list were obliterated completely.

Getting on the list was easy. It’s part of the normal bag drop / check-in process and could be initiated from any self-service kiosk. By the time I was done, this is what the kiosk screen looked like, and the kiosk issued me a boarding pass with the word “Standby” lieu of a seat assignment.

kiosk  pass-stdby

The first available flight was UA 6291, which was due to depart on 1:39 pm. PERFECT!!!!

I had been the first to sign up for the San Francisco standby list, so the first slot was mine.


For privacy reasons, passenger names aren’t completely displayed on the list. So for example, if your name were “Cornelius Manswolfenstein”, you will appear on the list as “Man C”.

UA 6291, however, was a disappointment. All passengers made it to the door on time. The fact that they asked for volunteers to take a later flight should have given me a clue about my chances. But I tried staying optimistic . . . to no avail. The ramp door closed and it was “goodbye plane”.

By then, I vaguely recalled that the attendant at the bag drop-off had said that my standby status would be automatically carried over to next flight. That sounded waaay too convenient so I stayed on my toes and kept an eye on my check-in status on my United mobile app on my phone. Most gate attendants had left by the time the plane was pulling away from the gate, and the lone remaining attendant was escorted a passenger with an issue to his alternate gate. But with my trusty app . . . what could go wrong? Right? By the time the 1:39 flight was out of sight, both flight records disappeared from the app!!! Not only was I no longer on the flight that had just left, there was no record of my original flight either. Cue claxons.

By then there was nobody at the gate. Air travel in the US was so routine, the airlines seem to assume that everybody knew how everything — like the standby list — worked, right? Umm . . . no.

So off I went to pester United gate attendants at two other gates, as well as the customer service desk, for information about how to make sure I was still in the running for the next seat on the next flight. It turns out that once you’re on the list you stay on the list. My standby status was automatically transferred to the next flight and stayed in the same spot on the queue.

As for the disappearing mobile app record. It re-appeared several minutes later. This time with the next flight appeared in place of the previous 1:39 flight. Apparently the app discards the entire old record before it displays the updated information.

app2 app1

The next opportunity was UA5591, set to depart at 3:28pm. It was the last flight before my original flight. So the wait for the final scheduled passenger to board the plane was nail biting. After the boarding line was exhausted, and a quick head count on the plane to ensure seat availability was completed, the gate attendant called me over and handed me my boarding pass. I was going home!!!


It wasn’t until I got to San Francisco that it occurred to me to ask “what about my checked-in bag?” Although I couldn’t get on to the 1:39 plane, my bag apparently did. Note the flight number on the baggage claim tag: UA 6291. It was waiting for me at the customer service desk at the baggage claim area, and I didn’t have to wait for it on the baggage carousel.

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All in all, it was trouble-free experience. I got home 4-hours ahead of schedule . . . in time for the next diaper change.


Expedia and business travel don’t mix

I recently joined a company that didn’t retain the services of a travel agency, and let their employees book their own travel. So long as our travel arrangements were within the company’s guidelines, we could setup our trips however we wanted.

Having gotten used to the structure of an agency, for my first two company trips I fell back to a familiar service that I had used for personal travel in the past: As I would later find, this wasn’t a particularly good idea.

The site, and presumably similar sites, were designed for vacationers whose travel plans were fixed. Travelers who knew where they wanted to go, and precisely how long they intended to stay. When you travel for work, however, you typically ONLY want to stay at your destination for as long as you need to. You give yourself extra time to cover all the tasks you need to do at your destination. But when you find yourself with a surplus of time, you scramble for the next available flight.

With a travel agency, changes were as easy as calling the travel agent. If you book your travel directly with vendors, just show up at the customer service desk and they’ll help you out. With a travel site like Expedia, you have to go through them . . . and then they have to deal with the airlines and the hotels.

Two weeks ago, I overestimated the amount of time needed for an engagement in Chicago. So I ended up leaving a day early. My first sign of trouble came when I called the airline to change my flight. Customer support notified me that normally I would have to go through Expedia to make a change. However in this particular case, since the first part of the round trip had already been taken (my inbound flight) they had wiggle room to help me out. They cancelled the rest of my Expedia booking and started from scratch.

Early check-out from the hotel, however, was little more complicated. Once you book a hotel via a travel site, the local hotel doesn’t actually know how much you paid for the room. You still have to provide the hotel a credit card when you check-in, but that’s just for incidental expenses. All billing goes through Expedia. So when you leave early, it sets off the following not-so-convenient process:

  1. Notify Expedia of intent to leave early, so they can re-calculate your bill
  2. Check-out from the hotel
  3. Expedia confirms check-out with the hotel front desk
  4. Expedia sends you an updated bill (subject to any charges the hotel may impose)

Eventually, the difference is returned to your credit card.

The additional steps above would have been enough to make me avoid Expedia from future trips. But the real kicker for me was the lack of transparency in charges when you book travel details as a package.

If you book a combined flight-hotel-car package, the receipt you receive will only show the package price. Good luck taking a receipt like that to your accounting department for reimbursement. I initially sent Expedia a request for a breakdown via email on their Website. The response took longer than I liked, so I gave them a call, an a customer support representative gave me an rough breakdown that sounded as though she just divided the total amount by the number of days. I received the response via email — showing the source of the information — and then used it in my reimbursement request.

A day later, I found out why it took Expedia so long to respond to my query . . . and why I’m not using them for business again. Here is an excerpt from their email.

Thank you for contacting us about obtaining an itemized summary of your flight, hotel and car reservation.

. . .

Expedia has negotiated with the major hotel chains, car rental agencies and vendors in order to offer our members incredible savings for packages. However, we will not be able to provide a detailed breakdown of rates and taxes applied to this type of reservation. Taxes and service fees are displayed together, to allow our partners to keep their net rates private. This means we can negotiate great rates with the hotels, and offer the savings to our customers.

. . .

We do apologize if we are unable to reply more in accordance to your wishes on this occasion.

From here on out, Expedia will only be for personal trips, as well as a means to compare prices. When I book my flights, I go straight to the airlines. Same goes to for my hotel and car arrangements.

Why all the funny airport codes?

If you travel often enough, you will run into airport codes that make sense:

DVO = Davao International Airport (shameless plug for the hometown)

SFO = San Francisco Airport

SJC = San Jose Airport

The “O” in these codes were still mysterious, but at least the first two letters matched up with the host city. Then you have codes that that just come out of nowhere:

YOW = Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport

SNA = John Wayne Airport (Orange County)

ORD = Chicago O’Hare Airport

Shouldn’t Chicago be  “COH” or something?

I had just gotten back from a trip to Chicago, so its ORD was top of mind when I did a casual search of the answer. It was a fortunate choice, because it was one of the samples in the following 1994 Airline Pilot’s Association magazine article. The rest of the article is available here. The relevant portion has been reproduced below, in accordance with fair use principles.

Oh, still wondering about the world’s busiest airport, O’Hare International, and its ORD code? Well once upon a time, before the editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune, Colonel Robert McCormick suggested a name change as tribute to pilot Lt. Cmdr. Edward “Butch” O’Hare, United States Navy, there was an airstrip well to the northwest of Chicago with a quaint, peaceful name—Orchard Field

Now to find out what “MPH” means.

2013: The year for tracking Philippine-made goods

For reasons best kept out of a light-hearted blog, I’ve gotten into the habit of finding out the countries of origin of the items that I buy. As this flip-the-product-read-the-label exercise went on, it started getting a little depressing. Scented candles from India. Shirts from Guatemala. Furniture from Vietnam. There were products from everywhere else except the Philippines.

Filipino goods are readily available at specifically-Filipino or Asian stores. But products of other nations were present everywhere. Have we really stopped producing goods that are worth exporting? Was this because these other countries simply marketed their wares better? Or was it because immigrants from these countries demanded access to their goods?

There really isn’t much ordinary folks can do about production. Demand, however, was another matter.

So for this year, partly to get over export-envy, and partly to do my part to drum up awareness and interest, a portion of this blog will be devoted to Filipino-goods that I find in my travels. I’ll take a photo, note where it was sold, and when. I created an album for this on my Facebook account — which is great for location-sharing — but haven’t quite worked out how to tie it in with the blog just yet. More on that later.

It’s the time for New Year’s resolutions . . . might as well add this to that list. Happy New Year everyone.

Fleet Week @ SF 2012

Airshows are one of the many fun things about our stay in the US thus far. One particular display of military hardware that we frequent is the San Francisco Fleet Week. I’ve been going to this event annually since 2005, with the exception of two years were business trips got in the way. In previous years, my wife and I picked a spot on Pier 39 and watched the boats and planes go by. This year, we decided to try out the paid box seats at the Marina Green. The music and the narration from the event organizers definitely provided a dimension that had been missing in previous years. But am not entirely convinced that it was worth the ticket price, especially since one could simply sit on the ground, in the vicinity of the seats, and still get the benefit of added information.

Here are some photos of the event. This album will grow slowly as I prep my photos for posting.

The birds of San Francisco

There is a small park beside the Embarcadero Center, on the corner of Clay and Drumm Sts., that the casual bird-watcher in me wants to visit whenever I can. The cluster of trees there hosts a sizable population of green parrots that have made the city their home. Presumably this is part of the flock that roosts in nearby Telegraph Hill. This flying community has been featured on a number of TV programs, to include the following.

City residents apparently love their birds. Which appears to give rise to an interesting . . . culture . . . among the city’s avian residents.

Aggressive . . . relentless . . . self-entitled.

We discovered these facets of San Franciso’s bird population first hand a few years ago when my wife and I took her parents around the touristy part of the city’s waterfront. We bought hotdogs from a street vendor and were enjoying an afternoon stroll by the water. As we moved from one photo-op site to another, muching on our meals, Seagulls were circling overhead. We had apparently wandered into their domain, and we would soon find out that they expected a toll in exchange for passage. While posing for a photo, my father-in-law held his sandwich off to one side. That became the toll collector’s cue and a large grey-white mass of feathers swooped in and halved what was left of dad’s dog. The hotdog wasn’t on the ground, or left on the table unattended. It was in a live person’s hand — within throat-grabbing distance.

Shock came first, followed immediately thereafter with laughter and amusement, as well as begrudging admiration at a display of audacity. It was an unexpected novelty that added another fun dimension to the day. Since then, when my wife and I find ourselves in SF, we’re on the lookout for unsuspecting tourists that find themselves in a similar situation. This experience apparently wasn’t unique to us.

Gulls are not alone in their belief that people exist to feed them. The other week, while enjoying a beautiful sunny day at the Ferry Building, we ran into the following bird that expected a culinary tribute for allowing us to sit at its table.

Perched on the back rest of the chair beside me, this bird had an unflinching laser-like focus on our french fries. We tried shooing it away and only stopped short of actually touching it it wouldn’t budge. There was no breaking its concentration, or shaking its belief that “Puny land-bound human, where’s my share?!!!”

We were all more accustomed to birds that were fearful of people. Back home, these creatures understood that most humans either viewed them as sport . . . or even in some circumstances, as snacks. San Franciscans are apparently a kinder lot, to whom these feathered flying appetites have grown accustomed. These KFC-ingredient-candidates are lucky to live where they do. They arguably wouldn’t survive long back home.

These birds are as much a part the city as the fog that obscures the Golden Gate bridge on what would otherwise be a clear day, or the local micro-climate that simulate different seasons in a single day. They are part of the quirkiness of the city, and I really wouldn’t have it any other way.

Besides . . . its fun watching dumbfounded tourists watching their hotdogs plucked from their hands and carried aloft. Schadenfreude!!!