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April 2006

Subject of the Queen

Sorry I have not posted in a while but Old Scratch's mum and 12 (going on 17) year-old niece were in town the past week. And let me tell you, it is not easy to play tour guide to your mother and a teenager.  But it was a fun visit overall.

Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her 80th birthday this weekend. In honor of Her Majesty's big day, London was awash in festivities to mark the occasion. We traveled to Windsor Castle with our visitors and walked through the Queen's private apartments and castle courtyard. Later in the week we walked to Buckingham Palace (above), where the streets were decorated with huge Union Jack flags to mark both her birthday and yesterday's London Marathon. On Friday, the Queen's guards fired 42 and 64-gun-salutes around the city.

While I'm on this "subject", I forgot to mention that I am now a subject of the Queen. My one-year temporary visa is due to expire in a few weeks. Earlier this month, I had to take a day off work to travel south to Croydon, where the British Immigration Directorate is located. After putting together my mountain of paperwork that proves I can financially sustain myself and promise not to mooch off British public funds, I received a three-year RESIDENCY PERMIT, which is much cooler and prestigious than just a visa. Even Lupe doesn't have a residency permit; she has a 3-year work visa.  So there you go folks.  I am officially living under the Queen's protection and herald in England. God Save the Queen!

P.S. Both crabs can sing all the words to "Oh Britannia", though not necessarily in tune.

Planes, trains and automobiles


Two airplanes, one car, one ferry, three taxis, several buses and a 10-hour train ride later, the Two Crabs have returned to after a week-long backpacking trip through Southern Spain and Morocco.


Our adventure began at London’s Liverpool train station, where we were planning on catching the 3:15pm train to London Stanstead airport. But instead we arrived to find hundreds of people standing around with jaws agape in front of signs that read “CANCELLED”. An announcement was made: the train has been suspended due to a FATALITY on the tracks! A bad omen? Luckily the train resumed service and we made it to the airport with about 10 minutes to spare.


Arrived in Seville at 8:30pm to find that there were NO taxis because the drivers were on strike. We had to wait more than two hours with hundreds of other passengers for a public bus into town. By the time we arrived at our hotel, it was nearly midnight. Luckily people don’t even start eating dinner until 11pm in Spain so we had no trouble finding yummy food. I also realize how bad my Spanish has become. I gotta practice more!


Img_6047 APRIL 8

This was my second time in Sevilla (the first being in 1997 with the USAW Backpackers Club). At 9am, the streets of Sevilla are deserted save for a few families enjoying cinnamon-covered churros and coffee in the outdoor cafes, enjoying something we rarely see in London: THE SUN!

We spent the day walking the city, seeing the sites including the Plaza Espana, the Cathedral, University of Sevilla (closed for spring break), the Palace Alcazar, the River Quadalquiver, enjoying pints of Spanish beer on the little floating pub in the river, the pubs on the south bank, the Plaza del Torros (there were no bullfights today, but we would not have seen one even if there was. Witnessing one bullfight was enough for my lifetime), and exploring the nooks and crannies of the Barrio Santa Cruz.



Img_6165On Easter Sunday, after a quick breakfast of coffee and Tortilla Espana (egg quiche), we took a cab to the airport and rented a car. This was the first time either of the Two Crabs have driven since SEPTEMBER! The car rental was pricey, 69 Euros for the day PLUS another 55 Euros for petrol (gasoline costs about $6.50 a gallon in Spain). Lupe drove the first half of the trip, and yours truly – whose license expired in January – drove the remainder of the journey. We decided to skip the superhighway and instead took back country roads, getting lost along the way a few times. But it was well worth it: we ended up in a little town called Villamartin, where we enjoyed some of the best tapas of the trip including my favorite, PATATAS BRAVAS, little potato pieces smothered in a tomato and cream sauce (confidential to backpackers club: remember how this was one of the few foods V the Vegetarian could eat in Spain? The others being bread and omelets!).

Our next stop was Arcos de la Frontera, which is Spanish for “where sideview mirrors go to die.” We stopped in this town because we could see a large castle on the top of the hill overlooking the village. But we never could make it to the top. We were directed into a narrow alley that was wide enough for maybe one moped or a horse until we could go no further; M had to make an 80-point turn to get us out of that hellhole. By the time we got out, we were so stressed that we just got back on the highway.

 Img_6250_1At 7pm we arrived in La Linea de Concepcion, the last Spanish town before you cross into the border of Gibraltar, a British colony located on the Rock of Gibraltar. Dropped off the car, walked past a sleepy customs officer who waved us back onto British territory and took a cab to our hotel. Here’s a weird situation: to walk from Spain into Gibraltar, you literally have to walk ACROSS THE RUNWAY of Gibraltar airport!  The runway even has railroad-like crossing gates that close when a PLANE is about to land. How cool is that?

Unfortunately, Gibraltar is not Spain.  So when we arrived at our hotel at 8pm tired and hungry, we couldn’t find any restaurant that was still serving food. After a mile walk we finally found a little bar on the marina called Charles Pub that was packed as it was the only place still serving late and then stumbled back to our room at the Queen’s Hotel, the only “budget” hotel in Gibraltar at a whopping $150 a night.


Img_6390 OMIGAWD! MONKEYS! MONKEYS RULE! OH HOW DO I LOVE MONKEYS, LET ME COUNT THE WAYS! Our primary reason for going to Gibraltar was to see the Barbary Apes, the only wild monkeys in Europe. Legend has it that if the apes disappear from Gibraltar, the British Empire will vanish.

Img_6284 Our hotel was located directly next door to the gondola that wisks passengers up to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar (which looks exactly like the logo of the Prudential insurance company…“Get a piece of the rock!”). And there they were: whole colonies of monkeys just standing around, warming their bums in the sun, eating vegetables at designated feeding points, posing for tourist photos. We spent a better part of the day making friends with the apes. Lupe even managed to step into a pile of monkey dung. If there is animal dung to be found anywhere in the world, Lupe will always step into it. In the afternoon we went to what was considered the best beach in town. Sad to say, it was disgusting, full of trash and noisy teenagers.

 Overall, we were not feeling the love for Gibraltar. Definitely a big let-down. It basically looked like a mini-version of London with the same high prices, only with palm trees and Mediterranean climate. But it is definitely worth a half-day visit just for the monkeys!

Img_6550 APRIL 11

Woke up early and got the hell outta dodge, hopping on a public bus back to the Spanish side of the border. From there we took a public bus (1.75 euros, 30 minutes) to Algeciras, where the main ferry port is located. Inside the port, dozens of ferry companies are vying for your business. We picked a high-speed hydrofoil ferry for 30 euros apiece that takes just 75 minutes to sail to Tangier. Onboard the boat, we met some American college students, including a ditzy blonde girl wearing short shorts and low-cut top who had no idea that her garments were NOT appropriate clothing for an Islamic country. She said she thought her friends were kidding when they told her to cover up. It was only when we repeated her friends suggestions that she changed into long pants and shirt.

 Tangier has a reputation of being a hideous disgusting border town not unlike Tijuana. Our Lonely Planet guide was full of horror stories involving pick-pockets, fake guides, aggressive taxi drivers, etc. Apparently Lonely Planet has not been in Tangier in a while because we had a relatively easy landing. The port station was empty and we breezed through customs. Chose a taxi and were at our hotel within 10 minutes of disembarking.

Img_6580 The Two Crabs stayed at the Hotel Continental, a gorgeous old world hotel with wrought-iron fences and green Spanish tile ceiling for just $40 a night. Dumped our bags and headed off to the medina, where unfortunately we immediately caught the attention of a fake tour guide. I had stopped to ask for directions and suddenly he thought I was his best friend. No sooner had we lost him that another Moroccan began following us. When I politely told him we were not interested in his services, he called me a few choice words in Spanish. That’s when a third idiot came to our “rescue,” (Moroccan fake touts often work in teams), urging us to hire him because it wasn’t safe for us “Spaniards.” The guy spoke perfect Spanish, French and English. But it didn’t matter because he would not take “NO” for an answer. We started walking towards the Palace Restaurant where we had planned to dine but he made up some excuse that the restaurant was closed down. He actually followed us into the restaurant apparently to confirm whether we really had planned on dining there. Dumbass. 

Img_6545 The restaurant was completely empty at 7:30pm. Odd. We then realized why. Our watch was wrong. Morocco time is on GMT, so it was really 6:30pm…or so we thought. Morocco is actually on GMT STANDARD time year round; GMT is now on daylight savings time, so it was really 5:30pm! This entire day, our watch had been two hours later. Now who’s the dumbass?

Anyway, the restaurant was beautiful and the food delicious including a chicken pie called a pastille, chicken over couscous, salad, soup, mint tea, a Fig Newton-like desert and Moroccan beer, plus live entertainment, all for $40 (pricey by local standards). Walked back to the hotel about 10pm without incident.


Img_6603 APRIL 12

At 6am, we woke up to the sound of whistles blowing below our balcony. A large group of about 20-30 men were running down the street, back and forth between the main road and the ferry port, being chased by police. They were illegals attempting to stow away on ships bound for Spain. Not wanting to spend another second in Tangier, we checked out and took a cab to the train station to get the 9am train to Marrakech. All the first class seats on the train were all booked so settled into the packed 2nd class coach ($15 per person). As we pulled out of the station, we saw a dozen men jump out of the bushes who were trying to jump ONTO the train! The train only stopped for a few seconds at each station. At one point, a child jumped off the train but began moving again before the mother could get down. She was screaming frantically before she yanked the emergency brake. That led to a 30 minute delay. Ugh. We were sitting next to some obviously-wealthy Moroccan girls carrying a laptop computer and designer clothes and glasses, playing Arabic pop music on their PC all the way to Casablanca, trying to communicate in broken French and English. Damn we have got to take up French again.

Img_6626 No sign of Humphrey Bogart or Rick’s Café in Casablanca, so we took the next train to Marrakech. What a difference, and not for the better. This train was PACKED like sardines, standing room only. We had to squeeze into an 8-passenger cabin with a family of four, two guys, and an elderly woman. The toilet on the train? Let’s just say I’d rather roll in horse manure than ever have to use that toilet again. At every stop, vendors would board the train and push candy and food before hopping off at the next station. But all the inconvenience was made up for by the scenery outside the window: green lush rolling hills, fields of red poppies, sheep and cows grazing, a full moon rising above canopies of palm trees.

Img_6632_1 Ten hours after leaving Tangier, we arrived in Marrakech about 9pm. Hot, tired, hungry, we were looking forward to our stay at the Riad Dar Mimouna, a hotel that had received rave reviews from a few websites including, where I booked the hotel. Surprise, surprise. The hotel had NO RECORD OF OUR RESERVATION. Curses to The hotel was completely booked and there was no room at the inn. The idiots at Orbitz “customer service” were zero help. Luckily the innkeeper took pity on us and found us a room at another hotel, that was decent enough but was more expensive and lower standards than the original place we booked. (Note to Orbitz: You’ll be hearing from the Better Business Bureau).

Img_6677 We ended up staying at the Riad Du Lion, located down an dicey alley filled with litter, feral cats and bums. The advantage was location, being only a block away from Djemma Al Fna, the main
square of Marrakech. We took an evening stroll through the square, watching the street performers like acrobats and drum circles, ate dinner of chicken and lamb kababs and Coke ($8 for two), just soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of Morocco.



Img_6748 After a quick breakfast, we wandered through the souks, where Lupe caught some punk-ass kid trying to reach his grubby hands into my backpack. The city was PACKED with mostly Spanish and British tourists and every restaurant was full. We got surly rude service at one restaurant (Glaces Maison). We finally got a seat on the roof-top deck of the Panorama Restaurant, but Lupe was not happy as this is a very DRY country and tough to find a cold beer (why locals would want to drink HOT tea on an 85-degree day is beyond my comprehension). When it came time to pay the bill, I later realized the waiter had ripped me off by 20 Dirhams (about $2). We finally found decent food and service at a place called Chez Chegroumi, which had a nice write-up in Lonely Planet. Excellent service and tagine, a stew-like dish of lamb and vegetables. 

Img_6728 After lunch we strolled through the Kasbah (we could not get that damn “Rockin’ the Kasbah” sound out of our heads). We hit the market to do some shopping, where apparently we had “stupid gullible American” tattooed on our foreheads. Everybody wanted a piece of us. That’s ok, because I have become quite adept at bartering. I even got a compliment from one shop-keeper: “You Mexicans are a tough bartering people.” Thanks! 

We were still determined to find a cold beer somewhere in this country, so decided to walk to Villa Nouvelle – the new city – where all the 5-star hotels that cater to tourists are located. We had read in Lonely Planet that most bars are “sausage parties” (men only), and any woman drinking at a bar is considered to be either a prostitute or tourist, which is what took us to the hotels. We read about a new club called Bodega. Took us about 45 minutes to walk there and guess what…it was CLOSED UNTIL SUMMER. (Note to Lonely Planet: time to update your guidebook). But directly next door, we finally found the sweet nectar of the Gods: BEER! And it was Casablanca Beer no less, at the Caspien Hotel next door. Woo hoo! 

Img_6780 We decided to make the evening into a sort of Marrakech pub crawl. We next stopped at Hotel le Marrakech. This is one of those places that caters to Western tour groups. We’re talking super cheesy; photographers walking around snapping photos of people swimming and drinking and dancing (available for purchase in the lobby), day trip scheduled posted on the bulletin boards, bad karaoke at one bar, and a Madonna DANCE-OFF at another bar. Get me outta here! Just across the road was another hotel called Le Saral. Now this was more like it. This was a beautiful oasis with a lovely outdoor palm garden, cool chill-out Moroccan music playing in the background, and high prices to match. But if I ever had the cash, this is where we’d stay. 

Img_6745 Overall, we weren’t overly impressed with Morocco. Maybe I was let down by high expectations; nearly all of our coworkers had been to Marrakech at least once; some Brits I know have been there 3 or 4 times. Sorry, but we just didn’t feel the love. Every time we turned around, somebody was trying to con, gouge or rob us blind. C’est la vie.


After a 3-hour flight on the damn fine Air Atlas, we were back in London in time for lunch. We have no future trips planned at the moment but open to ideas! Cheers.


Can you dig it?

When I was a kid, my favorite toys were Tonka Trucks. Like any red-blooded American boy, I loved everything about construction work: loud noises, big machines, getting dirty. I'd spend hours in the sandbox playing with my toy cranes, backhoes, bulldozers and dump trucks.  But like most kids, I outgrew it and did NOT pursue a career in construction. British kids are the same, except for one small difference: they never outgrow it.

Somebody needs to explain to me the British obsession with construction equipment, or DIGGERS as they are called here.  Diggers are a common site in London, a entire city which lately resembles  one giant construction project.  And at every construction site, you'll see them: the gawkers on foot, the rubber-neckers in passing cars and bikes and busses.   It's like Britons have never seen a digger before.

Diggerland0112 For the past six months, construction workers have been tearing up every street in our neighborhoud to replace the 150-year-old Victorian water mains with modern materials.  It's been going on so long that I don't even notice the sights or sounds anymore.  Yesterday I'm walking to the Angel tube station when I notice a small crowd at the intersection of Chapel Market. What's happening? Has somebody had a heart-attack? Is Chantelle , Kate Moss or some other Z-list celebrity in our midst?

Oh no. It's just a bulldozer going about it's business of making giant holes in the road. Yet people of all ages, kids and moms and seniors, are staring at the bulldozer as if any minute it will transform into a giant robot.  Britons are so obsessed with diggers that they even have an entire amusement park dedicated to the machines. The oh-so-original-and-clever name of this theme park? Diggerland. 

Take that, Disney.

Remember the Patriots

On Friday, April 7, the City of Fairfax and George Mason will hold a parade beginning at 11:15 a.m. to honor the outstanding success of the George Mason University Patriots men's basketball team. Alumni and guests are encouraged to attend and officially honor the team and this season's accomplishments!

The parade will start from Courthouse Plaza near the Safeway on Old Lee Highway (map) and go along University Drive to the George Mason campus. At Mason, the parade will turn left from University Drive onto Patriot Circle and go past the residence halls and the Aquatic and Fitness Center. Then the parade will turn onto Mason Pond Drive, ending at the Center for the Arts (map).

The parade is expected to end about noon, at which time the participants will go to the Johnson Center atrium for a rally and celebration.

Parking restrictions have been lifted on surface lots at Mason for Friday, so local residents can attend the parade and the Johnson Center celebration. View the parking map for available surface lots.

At the Johnson Center ceremony, City of Fairfax Mayor Robert Lederer will present the Keys of the City to Coach Larranaga, the team and President Merten; the Fairfax postmaster, Carl Karnish, will present a special postal cancellation that bears the Patriots logo; and Visit Fairfax, Fairfax County's tourism office, will present banners signed by well-wishers from throughout the county.

The parade caps a tremendously exciting season for the Patriots, who can claim an impressive list of "firsts":

  • First trip to the NCAA Final Four in school history.
  • First trip to the NCAA Elite Eight in school history.
  • First trip to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen in school history.
  • First NCAA win in school history.
  • First time the Patriots have defeated two top-10 teams, Connecticut and North Carolina.
  • First season in school history with 27 wins and 497 assists.
  • First season in school history to end with a .384 field-goal percentage defense and 58.9 scoring defense.
  • First team from the Colonial Athletic Association to reach the Final Four.

30 perky minutes with Katie Couric

Another advantage of being 3,000+ miles from home: not having to watch CBS News or Katie Couric ever again. I wonder if she will adopt a "sad voice" like Ann Curry when she delivers the day's bloody headlines from Iraq.  Oh the stories I could tell you about Ann Curry.  I'll save it for my tell-all media book.

0 Degrees West

0 degrees West
Originally uploaded by TwoCrabs.

So close yet so far from home.  This photo was taken on the Earth's Prime Meridian, which runs through the Royal Naval Observatory in Greenwich Park, south London. The line divides the Eastern and Western Hemispheres and the clock here is considered the world's timepiece, hence: Greenwich Mean Time.

And here's a photo from the Oxford-Cambridge boat race held Sunday on the Thames River. This nearly 200-year-old competition started between two college students debating through postal mail about which team had the better rowers.  On sunday, Oxford won.


Lots more photos posted on Flickr photoblog. Click on the icon to the right to see more.

Back to reality

With March Madness over, I thought we would finally blog about what the hell we're doing in London.  First, a disclaimer. A few readers have noted that Lupe -- the crab previously known as Old Speckled Hen, previously known as She-Crab --  never blogs.  This is not entirely true.  By her own admission, Lupe is a "techno-tard" and hates computers. But that gargantuan brain of hers contributes many of the ideas that you eventually read here.  So that's that.

First, the news:  Yours truly, previously known as Old Scratch, Little Joe and coutnless other nicknames, is hereby known as Old Brokebone.  Why? Becaue I broke my collar bone.  AGAIN.  Long story short: I was stumbling around the South Bank of London last week in a rainstorm and took a tumble. I caught myself with my right arm, which sent the force of the impact right into my collar bone. Actually it's not broken this time. It's more of a fracture. The bone has just slid out of place at the point of the original break. I'm going to an orthopedic surgeon on Thursday to determine what court of action to take.  It took forever just to get this apointment, you'd think it would have been an emergency when I called and said I had a fracture.  Gotta love that socialized medicine known as Britiain's NHS, or National Health System.  NOT.

On Saturday night, Lupe, Old Brokebone and a fellow GMU grad (heretoforth known as the Dutch Dame from Delaware) found ourselves at The Sports Cafe in London.  This is one of those mega theme bars like ESPN SportsZone, only 10 times cheesier.  There was another table of GMU coeds so we weren't the only Mason fans in the bar, but we were heavily outnumbered by Florida fans.  Anyway, so we're waiting for the game to start at midnight when suddenly the geniuses behind the bar decide they are going to turn down the volume of the game and instead blare hideous ly ridiculous 80s pop songs like "Wake Me Up Before Uou Go Go" and Billie Jean (which we heard twice).  Those Brits love cheezy pop music. Mason lost as the world knows now. Oh well. See you in 2006.  It was pouring rain when we walked out. It is London, after all. And the Tube had stopped running so we had to take the good old night bus, which ought to be renamed "The Drunk Tank Express".

On Sunday, Old Brokebone and Lupe made it down to Hammersmith to a friend's house to watch the Oxford-Cambridge boat race. This is one heck of a party. Basically it's a nearly 200-year-old tradition begun by two lads arguing through snail mail over which school had the better rowing team.  Today more than 250,000 people turn out along the banks of the Thames River to watch the 4-mile long race. It's a huge street party, made even better by the fantastic warm spring weather we had Sunday.  Oxford won by a boat length.

This week, it's cold again. Dammit.  The Two Crabs will soon bid adieu to this horrible English weather by going on holiday to Spain and Morocco on Friday. Photos and blog entries TK.  See ya soon!