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T-Day Down Under (20051127)

As much as I'd like to report that the turkey swirls in the other direction here on Thanksgiving, I'm sad to say that's just not the case. Besides, it was duck, not turkey since the Financial and Menu Adviser's father dislikes The Bird What Gobbles. And just to make it a bit stranger, we did the Thankgiving dinner thing on Saturday, not Thursday. There is no Thanksgiving celebration here, of course, so I imported one. Cooked the pumpkin soup, stuffed and trussed up the duck, roasted the veggies and Executive Chef'd the homemade sweet potato ice cream. The FMA's friends couldn't come over mid-week, since they don't give random Thursdays off, and Saturday night's as good as any for a dinner party. The game on TV was cricket, not football, so we just turned the bloody box off anyway. And either because or despite the fact that the only people present who were related were the FMA and her parents, there was a minimal of squabbling. Mater Worthington got a bit tipsy on her sparkling apple juice and began relating stories of the FMA's sordid past. I found them hilarious, but everyone else seemed to know them fairly well or have lived through them. Weird, huh? All in all, cooking up T-Day in Aussieland was a fun experience, even if it felt a bit like recreating the Eiffel Tower in Tokyo.

No, the Other Blinker (20051124)

Before last weekend, the whole time I've been in Australia I'd been on the bench. The star pitcher was tossing fastballs, sharp breaks and snagging line drives to the mound and there just wasn't much for me to do. But then, a bit under two hours into the drive to Rutherglen, she began to tire. Her eyes drooped a bit, the car swerved just a hair too much to be comfortable - although not enough to be dangerous - and the call came. It was my turn to drive. Literally. My first time in the driver's seat of a car with a right-side steering wheel was thankfully uneventful. I managed to turn on the wipers when I wanted the blinkers about a half-dozen times, shooting water across the windshield - sorry, windscreen as it's called here - when I wanted to gracefully move into the left lane. Or was it the right? It gets a bit confusing, teaching yourself to be an ambidextrous driver. As much as I love driving a manual transmission, I'm glad I started this wrong-side-of-the-road business on an automatic. If I'd had to toss in an extra pedal while I was training my right hand - not left - to push up - not down - for a left signal, I'm afraid I'd have been as confused as you after reading that last sentence. Whew.

On a Mission from God (20051121)

"Surely," you might say, "there must be more to Victoria than just Melbourne's friendly denizens and their coffee-drinking ways!" "Two things," I would reply. "One, not in Melbourne. And two..." "Don't call me Shirley." Yes, yes, I know. You're all stunned by my wit and savoir faire. Anyway, it turns out not only does Melbourne remind me more of San Francisco than any other city I've been in, but Victoria (the state, not that shameless hussy down the street) reminds me more of California than any other place I've been. As I learned on last weekend's five-day excursion to one of several wine-growing areas, Victoria has quite a bit going on. There are mountains that get snow in the winter and host the usual summer mountin sports of hiking and biking. There are dry desert areas, and beautiful coastline - although I haven't seen those yet. There are man-made lakes in the same vein as Hetch Hetchy, valleys that have been dammed and filled. Although, Hetch Hetchy doesn't have leafless treetops sticking out of top like gnarled Atlantean straws. And there's the wine country. Turns out, Victoria has several wine counties. Nearly every district of the state has some form of wine growing going on, and the Financial and Menu Adviser and I decided to check out Rutherglen, three hours and 250 km or so from Melbourne. We packed up a pair of bicycles on loan from her parents, stacked up a pile of non-perishable food, and a tent with the requisite sleeping bags and headed northeast. (Yeah, not the most romantic-sounding direction, but there it is. Northeast.) Our first night, we stayed in the border town of Yarrawonga, which contained a friendly pub that served us an excellent steak with fries and salad for $11.50, but was otherwise an over-priced and useless Murray River crossing-point. We did encounter an off-road forest of red gum trees - eucalyptus and their bretheren for you non-Aussies - that was subtly beautiful. The trees were black to the point of looking burned near the bottom, with rough bark sometimes hanging loosely, and even rarer patches of red showing through. There was smooth white bark above it, and boughs heavy with green leaves swished and swooshed in the wind. Driving through while the sun was setting was even more stunning as everything was given a bit of a golden sheen. The next day we headed to Rutherglen and found a winery and a brewery so close to our caravan park (an RV park that has grass for po'-ass campers like ourselves) that we walked there. Not burdened with choosing an original-sounding name, the Rutherglen Estates nevertheless had one outstanding wine. They had made tokay that got infected with betrytis, and ceased to be a liquer and continued life as a dessert wine. (At least, that's what my memory is telling me.) Whatever the heck it was, 'roo piss for all I know, was that it was phenomenal. A sweet wine that still had other flavors in it besides the sweet. Clearly, I have no future as a wine journalist, but as sweet and flavorful as it was, it didn't prepare me for the Bintara Brewery next door. Bintara made a stout beer that overwhelms any potential bitterness from being a stout by filling your mouth with a toffee flavor that still tasted like a stout. What a beer. Sadly, although boutique beers and independent microbrews are as popular back in California as breathing, you just can't find a microbrew in Melbourne. Heck, you can't even find the equivalent of Anchor Steam or Sierra, local brews available at every good local bar but impossible to find out of state. (Although, I did find a pub in Tokyo with Anchor, but it wasn't even a well-trafficked joint.) What you can get, however, and I suspect this is a British thing, is a pot - essentially, half a pint. No, I didn't really get the point of it, either. Back to Rutherglen. The next two days saw the FMA and I getting on our bikes, going a few kilometers, and parking for an hour or more at a series of excellent wineries. Each one had at least one offering that was completely mind-blowing. All of them were nearly devoid of pretension, no mean feat for something as potentially expensive as boutique wines. Ostensibly, we were there on a mission from God - I mean, the FMA's father - to hunt down some good local dessert wines and liquers. But the free alcohol made it blatantly obvious that this was no altruistic pursuit. Our time there could be summarized as such: Wake up. Get on bike, go to winery number one. Taste everything we could. Make notes - no way we were going to carry bottles with us as we biked. Get on bike, head to winery number two. Make notes, marvel at the wonders of fermented grapeness, get on bike, head to winery number three. Fall in ditch. Although the FMA did fall, it fortunately wasn't because she was PWI (Pedalling while Intoxicated). We rode into a swarm of flies, one of which decided her eyeball made a good helipad, which caused her to flail like an electrocuted orangutan and bite the dirt. A few hard-earned bruises were all she got from the experience. Of the eight wineries we hit in just under 48 hours, the one with the best wines was also the utterly least wine-snobesque of the bunch. It was even less pretentious than Chambers Rosewood, which had a T-shirt explaining that spending money on making their grounds look as nice as some other area wineries amounted to "bullshit," self-service wine tasting complete with a note warning against turning into a drunken idiot, and even offered up one bottle with the label changed to "Cardonnay" in honor of the Aussie TV show "Kath & Kim." By the way: if you haven't seen "Kath & Kim" you're missing out. Incredibly funny. Go BitTorrent it or something now. Then come back, I'll still be here. Back? Onwards, with a lack of pretention. So, Anderson Winery, on the outskirts of Rutherglen, was barely decorated. There were some laminated news articles that made mention of them on the bar counter, and that was about it. But Mary, whose particular job at Anderson's was never fully explained to me but seemed to include sales, marketing and something that involved her wearing a heavy blue rubber apron over her clothes, more than made up for it. This saint of a gal answered all the questions that the FMA and I had for her about the wines, and for some reason that I'm attributing more to the FMA's charm than my stunning good looks, decided to start pouring us samples of the full-glass variety. The best wine we tasted there was a phenomenal blend of two of their whites, but was sadly named, "Doux blanc." Spelling errors aside, it could be labelled as distilled echidna urine if it tasted as good as that wine. Speaking of echidnas, on our last day we drove to the cheerfully-named foothill town of Bright for some bike riding sans vin. The town was indeed beautiful, with gorgeous bike paths and a river flowing near the center with shady trees on both banks. But on the way there, I saw hit breaks as a small animal waddled across the road. It looked like a cross between an anteater and a porcupine, but the size of an American football. It had a long gray snout, tiny claws, spines that looked soft but the FMA assured me were quite sharp and painful, and a propensity for curling into a tight ball and then digging its soft belly into the ground to protect it further. The little charmer did all this after I turned the car around stopped closer to it, once it had crossed the road. I figured that seeing my first live marsupial in it's natural habitat was worth a photo, so I tried not to scare it as I got out. Half an hour was wasted waiting for the bugger to show his little face. Nuthin doin. Before, however, when we first encountered him hurtling down the road, he didn't even blink let alone curl into a yellow-and-brown spiked ball. The echidna just kept plugging along, unaware of anything else - like the dangers of two tons of steel approaching him at 120 kph - except what he meant to be doing. It's hard to do anything but appreciate that kind of tenacity.

Did he ever return? No, he never returned! (20051110)

I've been in Melbourne one week, and there's not a whole heck of a lot to say. It's not like coming home, where everything is the same - strewth, mate! But then, it's absotively, posolutely not being in the chaotic kinetic energy fest that is Bangkok. Most of the past week has been spent with the Financial and Menu Adviser's friends and family, all of whom have been nothing less than the picture of kindness and generosity. Mater Worthington and Pater Bunn have fed me well, provided a very reasonable four-wheeled method of vehicular transportation (even if the steering wheel is on the wrong side) and donated to my favorite charirty a bit. The FMA's friends have, for their part, donated more than a few liters of alcohol - always a good thing for napalming those shyness barriers, on both sides of the bridge. I've seen two movies so far, the wonderful Wallace and Grommit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit. You simply can't argue with Claymation Wooster and Jeeves, although I think I prefer the 30 minute episodes to the feature-length thing. And I've also seen the Aussie classic, "The Castle," a bogan-bonanza done as a David versus Goliath tale wearing legal rags. Good fun, at a laugh-at-'em-not-with-'em kinda way. Oh, and a third film, "Evil Roy Slade," a favorite of Leigh's. It's brilliant, in the same way that "The Man with Two Heads" (starring Rosie Grier) is brilliant. So: Melbourne. Lots of coffee shops, pleasant weather, orgies in the streets - I'll leave it to you to figure out which I haven't experienced here. What I can't figure out is the public transportation payment system. Bascially, it's entirely honor-based. You can get on or off a tram from any of its doors, and you're supposed to make your way to the one ticket machine on board and buy yourself a ticket. If you already have one, you're supposed to validate it at any of six smaller machines spread throughout the car. The driver, however, is locked in his booth, and unless you're busted by the super-ninja secret plainsclothes transit police, you can ride for free. Apparently, the transit police are plentiful enough and the fines are high enough so that most people buy tickets, but I have a hard time imagining how well this works during peak commuting hours. You have to wonder if it's just cheaper to have conductors on each car who walk up and down, collecting money and issuing validations, instead of trusting the good faith of this fair town's citizens. No wonder it's A$3.10 (US$2.25) to get on, or A$5.90 for a day pass. No wonder The Age newspaper just ran a huge series on how the train and tram system is failing. I'm not transit expert, so no quick fixes have popped into my head yet. Although, making some kind of inner-suburb loop so that people don't have to spend 20 minutes going in to the city center just to go out again might be a good start, and a more logical payment system mightn't hurt, either. Let's just hope, though, that the proposal to dig a massive tunnel under the City Business District gets shot down faster than you can say, "Victoria Bitter."

“Qantas sucks” (20051104)

I was quite surprised to hear my travelling companion complain about Qantas Airlines, since their word-of-mouth reputation in America I had always thought to be positive, generally. Or at least, I imagine the average American's knowledge of Qantas is still limited to that bit from Rain Man where Dustin Hoffman freaks out about being on any other carrier than the Big Q because of Qantas' safety record. I can attest to two Qantas-related topics: one, their safety record has continued unmarred. (I arrived safely.) The second is that the service was fine, the TV sets and video games in the back of the seat in front of me made the seven-hour flight from Singapore very comfortable. (Sadly, the movie choice was limited to such Academy Award-nominees as Fantastic Four and Bewitched. Clearly there is room for improvement.) But anybody who tells you that Australia sucks is just mental. Melbourne has leapt to the top of my list of Pleasant Places to Visit and Potentially Live - English-speaking Division. The weather has been warm with occasional rain that gets wisked away quickly, the people have been friendly. And there is a preponderance, a bevvy, a veritable multitude of coffee shops that have street-side seating. Sidewalk seating is so important to Melbournians that even fast food joints like McDonald's, KFC and Burger Ki - I mean, Hungry Jack's have them. And that's another great thing about this beautiful city - there are as many coffee shops as there aren't chain stores... of any persuasion. Sure, there's 7-11's, and the aforementioned regurgiburger joints, but by and large, Melbourne seems to be chain store free. The benefits of this can't be understated. Sure, as a traveller you love those fast food joints because you're (usually) assured a clean, if not always Western-style, commode. Those're big points in places where you if your waste gets flushed, it's more often than not done with a bucket. Generally, though, and hopefully without seeming anti-globalization, commercialized shopping drains money away from an area, prevents local business from competing with each other and sucks out innovation like a motorized siphon. Aside from an initial confusion over how to order a regular coffee - long black for regular and long white for milk with your java - I think I'm acclimating quite well to a place where the Corriolis is in full (reverse) effect.

The Wheels of the Proles Go Round and Round (20051101)

Every low-budget traveller has them, those epiphanic moments where going from country to country on a miniscule budget makes perfect sense. I'm no different. My moments of travelling profundity, however, occur less often at the architectural marvels of whichever lovely land is hosting me that day (Tuesday must be Thailand) and more often at, say, the halfway point through a fiery green curry and rice. Or on the wooden floor of the non-air conditioned Bangkok public bus. The Bangkok public bus system is a creature unto itself, and what itself is happens to be fucking mystifying. Truly, and utterly, incomprehensible. It's worse than the Tokyo bus system, and at least there, there are maps at almost every stop that tell you (in Japanese, of course) what the other stops are, even if they're not laid out on a map. In Bangkok, there are no route maps. There are, much to the confusion of, oh, everybody - three kinds of buses. At least. So far, I've identified air conditioned buses, non-air conditioned buses, and non-air conditioned mini-buses that are lime green versions of the short bus given to taking the "special" kids around in the U.S. public school system. The Bangkok variety are impossible to navigate before you get on and even worse to try and get off of. Oh sure, some drivers announce the upcoming stops, but not all do. And unless you've studied Thai, my guess after being here for two weeks is even when they do announce a stop, the average Thai tourist ain't gonna get it anyway. You'd probably have an easier time trying to understand dolphins, although they probably think of English the same way. And just like the driver "sometimes" announces the stop, the bus also "sometimes" comes to a complete stop. You may have to chase after a slow-moving open door, rolling away from your outstretched arm as a crazed tuk-tuk bears down on your flank. The cost? Fugeddaboudit. Hand 'em a 20 baht note and count the change. Sometimes it's ten, sometimes six - I think six is for the non-A/C regular bus, and five and a half for the short non-A/C bus. But who knows, except that it's cheaper than a taxi, which is all that matters. The one similarity between Bangkok's buses and those found in any other major city around the world is that they are the ultimate in egalitarian transport. The Diesel-Exhaust Equalizer. Everybody pays the same price, and chances are that it won't interfere with your minimalist budget. And everybody, without exception, rides the bus. Sure, the king (who I got to stand for at the beginning of a movie as the national anthem and a photo montage were played) doesn't. And the superduper wealthy don't. But most everybody else, they probably do or did at one point. The woman who helped me and the Financial and Menu Adivisor figure out where we were going and when to get off today was a dentist. (Quiet, you, with your jokes about dentists and getting off. This is a family forum...) The kid in the uniform: a schoolboy, clearly. (Or midget fetishist, but again: Quiet, you.) The old lady with the 10 shopping bags, the men in suits, the twentysomethings, just barely over their acne scars: They all get on, at some point. In fact, looking around, the one kind of person I saw most rarely on the bus, the least likely to give the diesel dolly a whirl, was the tourist and his backpacking cousin. Maybe we can change that, because it's great fun.