With Jeff's job at Northwest Airlines, we are traveling a lot.
Jeff's brother Pete suggested that our travels have their own page.
Jeffrey started working at Northwest in October of 1998. Below is a
listing of all the trips we've taken so far. Some were just day trips,
others weekend trips, and a few were vacations. We've been able to "hop
up" to see our parents and go to concerts, all because we can fly for
free. Pretty nice, huh?
Each adventure has its own page for pictures. Just click on the
city/state/country to be taken to the picture page.
Trips from 2014
With Jeff's job at Northwest Airlines, we are traveling a lot. Jeff's brother Pete suggested that our travels have their own page.
Jeffrey started working at Northwest in October of 1998. Below is a listing of all the trips we've taken so far. Some were just day trips, others weekend trips, and a few were vacations. We've been able to "hop up" to see our parents and go to concerts, all because we can fly for free. Pretty nice, huh?
Each adventure has its own page for pictures. Just click on the
city/state/country to be taken to the picture page.
Trips from 2014
Trips from 2014
Jeff had a meeting in Nairobi, Kenya and when I heard that, I told him that I was tagging along. It would be my first trip to the continent of Africa and I wasn't going to pass that up.
Before we left for Kenya, we had to get shots. This is a first for us. We got vaccinations for typhoid and hepatitis A as well as pills to prevent malaria.
It took about 24 hours to get from Minneapolis to Nairobi, with a five hour layover in Amsterdam. We stayed overnight in Nairobi before getting back on a 10 seater plane headed for Masai Mara (the “outback” or bush or wilderness of Kenya). We made a couple of stops to pick up other passengers before landing at our little airstrip. The temperature was about 80-90 degrees with about 50% humidity; at night there was practically no humidity as the temps dropped to about 50 degrees. In a tent with screens on the window, that made for some chilly nights.
Our guides Lucas and Rakita met us at the airstrip. Rakita was a native Masai and dressed in traditional attire. We would later find out that Rakita was at least 79 years old. The Masai don’t keep track of birthdates or even years so they have to guess ages based on events.
From the airstrip, we drove back to Naboisho Camp, getting a mini safari along the way. We encountered zebras and an elephant with her baby and giraffe and gazelles. We would quickly learn that Lucas knew everything there is to know about the local animals. And he spoke at least three languages. Rakita and Lucas would be our private guides for the three nights we stayed at the camp. We would learn that this is how the camp likes to operate - to give their guests private guides (but some excursions occasionally get combined with other guests; we had private the entire time).
We stayed at Naboisho Camp, which is right inside the conservancy of the Masai Mara. This means that there are no houses/villages inside the conservancy (a few resort camps are allowed inside the conservancy). The animals are free to wander around. We chose this camp because it is inside the conservancy and because the trucks can go right up to the animals (instead of staying back on the “road”). There are no roads within the conservancy per se. Not things Westerners would consider a road. Obviously, the roads aren’t paved. They’re not even dirt roads. They’re simply tracks through the wilderness, trampled down grass from trucks driving over them. None of them were straight. Often times, there were multiple sets of tracks. I never knew which one Lucas would take. There didn’t seem to be rhyme or reason to these paths. I finally asked Lucas how on earth he found his way around, particularly in the dark on a cloudy night without stars. He couldn’t really articulate how he found his way (or at least give me an answer that I could understand in my limited knowledge about navigation). He said he used the mountains and various landscape landmarks as well as the lights of the other camps to guide his way. All I know is that I certainly couldn’t have found my way back to the camp. Heck, I was five blocks past my house once before I realized I had missed the turn.
As we pulled into camp, on the side of the path was a dead zebra, killed by a pride of lions the night before but not consumed because they killed it right as it was starting to get light out and the lions feared detection in the daylight. The interesting thing is that this kill happened about 10-15 feet from a tent and the occupants did not hear the kill at all. They slept right through the lions growling and the zebra crying. Wow.
We were greeted right away by a couple of Masai (natives) and one of the managers from the camp - Helen, from South Africa. Wonderful lady. She was very nice. We liked her a lot. She ran the camp with her husband Ruloph, who was another expert of all things wild. The Masai handed us cold towels and drinks made with honey. A gal can get used to people handing her drinks as soon as she steps out of a vehicle. All of the Masai workers were incredibly sweet. Even though they all told us their names, Jeff and I had a lot of issues trying to remember who was who. They, on the other hand, learned our names right away and any time they saw us, they addressed us by name.
We had a lovely lunch talking with Helen. Then it was off to see our tent, get settled in, and then back out for our afternoon drive.
Although we were staying in a tent, it surely cannot be called camping. The term "glamping" is appropriate - glamor camping. There was a big, cushy bed, a sink, toilet, shower, and even real lights inside the tent. It was quite spacious. It didn't really feel like camping (although I'm sure for some people, this was roughing it). We were instructed about various things throughout the tent - like that any bottle with a beaded top contained drinking water, how to order a shower, and what to do if something got IN the tent. We were told not to worry if something was outside the tent. If something did get into the tent, we were to grab the air pump horn, twist off the bottom, and then pump the air horn. And then turn on all the lights so that they could figure out which tent was in trouble. It seemed like simple instructions... until I got to thinking about it later. So, if something bad managed to get into the tent, we needed to be able to get to the horn across the tent, unscrew the bottom of it, and then pump the horn, and then turn on the lights. That's four steps. Keep in mind that we would also be scared out of our minds AND trying to not get eaten in the process. I’m pretty sure we would shun manipulating the air horn and resort to screaming our fool heads off, should there be an unwanted guest in our tent.
On our afternoon drive we saw eland (a big type of antelope), buffalo, birds, and the best part - a pride of lions. I was in love with the male lion. What a mane! I sat in the truck snapping photo after photo after photo of him. He was gorgeous. And the best part was that this sighting was at sundown and at sundown, the guides turn off the engines and pull out a bottle of wine (for us). I got to watch a lion just be a lion as the sun set with a glass of wine in my hand. How wonderful is that?
Dinner at the camp is communal - eaten at a large dining table with the rest of the campers. Most people were quite nice. The camp had seven tents all together (which means about 14 people at the camp at one time). I don't think all tents were occupied. And not everyone came to dinner each night as they could have been out on a night drive. The first night, there were two other couples as well as the other camp manager (Helen's husband Ruloph). Each night we'd get to hear about what everyone else did and saw.
After the sun goes down, you need to have a guide walk you back to your tent (because there are no fences separating you and the animals so there's a good chance you may run into something that doesn't want to be run into). If you needed to leave the tent when it was dark after the guide dropped you off, you had to signal them with the flashlight. During the day, you were free to leave your tent by yourself.
We had ordered our showers for after dinner and got to experience showering under the stars. The shower is completely enclosed on all four sides but there’s no roof. The water gets pumped into bags that hang above and are filled with warm water. You have to tell the staff when you want to take a shower – before dinner, after dinner, in the morning before your drive, etc, so that they can fill the water bag with hot water. The shower stall is lighted with a gas lamp, which gives you just enough light to find your shampoo. The air at night is a little chilly but the water is quite warm. Unfortunately, the water supply is limited, which means there’s no time to stop and stare at the stars while dancing under the water. Turn on the water. Get a little wet. Turn off the water. Stumble around and find your shampoo and soap. Lather up. Turn on the water again and rinse off. Dart back into the warmer tent. That’s a shower out at the camp. I would usually marvel at the stars before I turned on the water. One night, it was raining while we took our showers. The staff was a little shocked that we still wanted to shower while it was raining. I explained, “More water!” But rain water is at a slightly different temperature than shower water and combined with the night breeze made for a chilly shower. But there was more water.
Our first night sleeping in the tent was quite interesting. You never realize just how dark the world is until you're in the middle of no civilization. When the sun goes down, you can't see two feet in front of your face (and inside the tent, you have no idea if something is lurking about outside the tent). Although we didn't fully appreciate the turn-down service with hot water bottles tucked into the sheets when we climbed into bed that first night, we would very quickly come to love this. At 10:00pm, there's still a bit of heat and humidity to the night. At 3:00am, there is absolutely no heat or humidity. Those hot water bottles lasted all night long.
I was quite certain in the middle of the night that something WAS inside the tent with us but I didn't want to freak out or wake up Jeffrey so I simply lay there, heart beating as though I had run some sprints, trying to decipher the noises. The next morning, there was nothing inside the tent - nor any evidence - so I'm pretty sure it was all my imagination. Jeff was not happy that I did not wake him up nor that I did not turn on the lights to check it all out in the middle of the night. I was pretty sure that while I was able to hold it together while trying to decide if we were alone in our tent, Jeff would not be so calm... or quiet. I think I made the right decision not waking him up.
The next morning as the sun started to rise, we took a walking tour with Ruloph, the other camp manager. There's something not at all comforting about walking with a man with a rifle. At one point, as a mangy jackal took one too many steps in our direction, Ruloph cocked the gun up ever so slightly. The jackal was quite sick and definitely not right in the head. Ruloph watched him carefully but the jackal did not advance. A day later, another couple who did the walking tour had a couple of fearful moments that caused Ruloph to pull his gun a little higher up and order them to get behind him. We had no drama in comparison (darnit!). We saw mainly birds and insects. We learned all about termites and how fascinating the mounds really are. We walked for about three and a half hours (slowly, with many breaks as Ruloph talked about stuff around us).
For our afternoon excursion, we stopped at a local village. A village is one family (usually). The Masai men marry several women and a village consists of a house for each wife. This village had five wives with five houses. It was explained to us that the first wife usually asks the husband to marry a second wife because she needs the help with chores. I'm just going to skip that remark... We got to meet the wives (and have everything translated). They were shocked to find that we didn't have any children. There were easily 15 children in this village. We toured one house. There's a room in the front where the cows sleep (teeny tiny room) and then there's a small kitchen with fire pit, a room for the wife and children to sleep, and a room for the husband to sleep. The entire space was smaller than my kitchen. At least four people and a half dozen cows lived in this house. And even though the fire was not roaring at the time, the smoke was quite tough on the eyes. There was no electricity. There was no window. It was quite dark in there, even in the day time.
Jeff had read about Pack with a Purpose, which talks about bringing things that the locals need. In this case, the women make jewelry to sell, which is the only way the women can earn money. Jeff brought them jewelry making supplies - wire, beads, hooks for earrings. Quite an enormous pack of things. Unfortunately, we gave it to the eldest son and he promised to give it to the women. Hopefully he did.
We went on our typical afternoon drive after we left the village. We encountered a different pride of lions, fresh from their afternoon meal, with fully extended bellies. This pride had several adult females and about ten babies.
That night, our meal did not agree with me (possibly not everything was entirely vegetarian) and I had a lovely night being sick. If you remember from my earlier description, the toilet in the tent was IN the tent. No walls (there was a screen) so you can hear everything that goes on at that toilet. Jeffrey didn't quite believe I was sick at first as we walked back to our tent. He then heard how sick I was. Being sick in a third world country is not entirely fun.
The next morning, I opted to stay as close to a bathroom as I could get. Jeff went on the excursion by himself while I stayed in the tent and watched the sun rise. It was QUITE a chilly morning. I shivered under a mound of blankets. But I enjoyed my time reading. Helen (one of the camp managers) stopped by to see how I was doing and sent one of the workers up with breakfast and a liter of water with electrolytes. She was quite nice and I felt bad about being sick. Word spread quickly throughout the camp that I wasn’t feeling well. When I went up to the main area for lunch, each of the Masai apologized to me because I was sick (I think they thought it was something they did) - and the rest of the time would greet me with "How are you feeling?" I felt so bad!
Jeff's solo tour took him to a school. He met the teacher and some of the kids (from several villages). He got to deliver another package - one filled with flash cards, paint brushes, crayons, and a bunch of other school supplies. He also got to see a lioness drag her kill back to her babies (but not at the school).
The final afternoon excursion took us to find the hippo pool. We also got to see monkeys and a baboon!
That night in our tent in the pitch black, I swear something else got into our tent. I was awakened by something quite heavy dropping into the bed - and then I felt my pillow compress as something walked across it. I lay there in the dark, trying to hear its footsteps or feel it move in the bed but did not. I did hear something walking around in the dirt outside the tent. It was too dark to see what it was. Again, come morning, there was nothing in our tent.
As we drove to the airstrip, we encountered a cheetah, eating its fresh kill - a baby gazelle. I wouldn't have noticed that or thought much about it if it weren't for the fact that our guide Lucas pointed out the momma gazelle standing off in the distance, watching as the cheetah ate her baby. She didn't want to leave - and wouldn't leave - until the last piece was gone. I felt so bad for her. Surely she knew that her baby wasn't going to walk away from that. But perhaps it was her way of paying respect to her fallen child, properly mourning the loss. So heartbreaking.
Remember that I called it an "airstrip"? See the picture. The runway was just a strip of dirt, unpaved. It was a little rough. We had two landings before we reached Nairobi as we picked up other passengers. It was quite a windy day. Our first landing was quite... interesting. The wings were never level. They dipped back and forth. And not in a gentle sort of way. It was definitely the roughest landing I've been in, probably made more scary by the openness of the cockpit. We could see everything the pilot saw... and we saw the ground rising up to each wing. Jeff thought that it was probably worse for the people waiting for the plane to land, watching that landing. I strongly disagree. It was definitely worse to be in that plane as it landed. Screw the people watching!
We made it back to Nairobi without incident. Jeff went off to his meetings while I entertained myself. I sat on the deck at the bar hotel, reading, soaking up the sun, having some beers, and watching the world go by.
On our very last afternoon in Kenya, we joined some of Jeff's Delta and KLM co-workers and took a tour of the Nairobi National Park. We saw some animals we didn't see in the Masai Mara but I am very glad we experienced our own safaris in Masai Mara (rather than have this be our only safari on the trip). It was definitely different with five other people in the car... and a guide that didn't say a word. We also went to an elephant orphanage. While I liked knowing that orphaned elephants had a haven to go to, it was more of a glorified zoo. I didn't care for it as much. The babies came running in at exactly 11:00 for their feeding. They drank their milk; they played in the mud; they went back out. The next crew came in at 11:30 and did the same thing.
All in all, we had a very good time in Kenya. I loved our time in the Masai Mara and our "glamping" experience. We saw lions, cheetah, elephant, baboons, monkeys, zebra, giraffe, hippo, gazelles, buffalo, eland, topi, wildebeest, and a variety of colorful birds. We even saw a bat back at camp one night as well as the eyes of a bush baby as it hopped from tree to tree.
When we got home, the animal adventure continued. Our petsitter left a note that explained that she walked in on Baloo eating a mouse he caught. My little lion.
Trips from 2012
We landed at 10:00 at night. It was dark as we flew over the ocean, where we got to see dozens of lighted ships waiting to cross the canal. It was a very pretty sight! The ships were waiting because their shipping company hadn't paid the crossing fee yet. When I asked how long they would wait, the flight attendant told me, forever. Ooph!
We stayed close to the airport the night we landed and then drove to Canopy Tower the following day. Although our Google directions gave us street turns, there were no road signs confirming what street we were on. Thank goodness for GPS! With a teensy bit of difficulty, we did manage to make it to our hotel (after crossing a canal bridge that we did not have to). The Canopy Tower is a former US military radar tower. They left the military sign on the gate, warning those without a US military ID to turn back. To a military child, that was a scary sign! I think they left it up for nostalgia and to scare some people away. At night, we were locked in the tower. Our room was on the third floor - with no elevator. The dining room was on the floor above us and the outside 360 deck was on the floor above that. One of the other guests told us that he counted the stairs from the ground floor to the dining room and it was 72 stairs! We definitely felt it in our legs!
The Canopy Tower is surrounded by trees in the middle of the rainforest. The tower is geered towards birds - bird watchers. At sunrise, birds flock to the trees and since the tower is above tree level, it delivers a pretty good view. The tower also provides guided tours into the rainforest to bird watch. The ironic thing about our expedition into the birding world is that the movie on the flight down was The Big Year, (which stars Jack Black, Owen Wilson, and Steve Martin) which is based on a book, which is based on real events, about birding. I did not watch it but Jeff did. Apparently one of the other visitors knew the Owen Wilson character and another had gone out on an expedition with the Angelica Houston character. Small world... but probably not for birders.
One free guided tour is included with your stay at the Canopy Tower. A couple of hours after we arrived, we set out on our guided tour. The rest of the guests had been on the same expedition in the morning (and thus went on a different one in the afternoon) so we ended up having a private tour. In a way, this was a great thing because we were free to learn on our own without holding back the experienced birders. The first thing I had to learn was how to spot something through the binoculars that you've found without them. Quite a challenge, let me tell you! We saw about 20 different birds, a couple of iguanas and a squirrel (which was a deep chocolate brown color). I was more excited about the iguanas and the squirrel than the birds. The one thing I would find interesting is that a bird could be 40 or so feet away and look brownish/underwhelming but seeing it through a scope/up close brought out the incredible details- the color distinctions and wonderful markings. There were several times where we'd see a bird and I wouldn't bother to look further but the guide would pull me over to the scope so I could see its colorings. He was very excited about each bird he saw and wanted to share - force - me to enjoy them, too. It was wonderful having a guide, although I was a bit bored after about 30 minutes.
All meals at the Canopy Tower are served family/buffet style, which means you serve yourself and sit in a group. All of the other guests, save two that came our last night, were incredibly friendly, nice, and interesting. We met a couple from Atlanta, a family from London, and an elderly woman and her two grown daughters. We would later find out that this woman was almost 90 years old! She looked fabulous for her age and didn't let a simple thing like heat and a mountain of stairs hold her back. We were all impressed, greatly impressed. Turns out one of her daughters was a yoga instructor who now lives in Guatemala and the elderly woman also did yoga. I told her daughter that she absolutely needed to use her mother in her advertising because she was a fabulous endorsement of the power of yoga. Wow. The british family were quite cute. The father was the avid birder; the poor 10 year old daughter was forced into all these family trips to go birdwatching. She herself was a pretty good (knowledgable) birder but had the attention span of a child, indeed. Se seemed fairly good natured. She went on a hike with us and it only seemed she turned back because her mother kept asking her if she wanted to. If her mother didn't offer so often, I'm sure the little girl would have kept on hiking. On our second expedition (that included the British mother and daughter) we saw howler monkeys, a sloth, and a night monkey sleeping in a tree. The scope on him was wonderful! We got to see the details of his fingernails! So cool. And we saw absolutely beautiful bright blue butterflies. Very pretty. My pictures of all these animals did not turn out. Although they werent that far away from us, we don't have a zoom camera lens so they looked really far away, darn it.
Staying up in the Canopy Tower, because we were above the trees, wasn't that hot. Down on the ground in Panama City the temperature was at least 10 degrees hotter; at the top of the rainforest there was a nice breeze, particularly at night. I did opt to take sleeping pills at night because it was still quite warm in the room while we slept. Taking a cue from st. Lucia, where it was so incredibly hot and humid that I didn't sleep for three nights, the sleeping pills put me right out, so much so that we didn't even hear the howler monkeys at 5:30 any of the mornings.
The last night we talked the guides into giving us a night tour. Since they need two of them to do it, one to drive and the other to spot the animals, it takes a bit to get two of them to agree to it and have the interest. I'm really glad we did! We saw a two toed sloth. He moved so unbelievable slowly! We saw an anteater - in a tree. I just assumed all anteaters were on the ground. We saw an aardvark. We saw a screech owl. The guides were disappointed that we didn't see more birds but I was happier seeing all these cool mammals. It was really nice to hear how interested the guides were in all of these animals. They thought they were all beautiful, too.
The biggest adventure of the trip came when we went to the Panama Canal. I found the site to a be bit boring, mainly because it was so hot under that blazing sun and the ships move so darn slow! Of course, that seemed to be an optical illusion. The ship didn't seem to be moving at all when it was coming at us but once the body of it floated in front of us, it moves rather quickly. There's a lot of history behind the Canals and they're widening a couple paths to accommodate fatter ships and allow two to pass at once. I was amazed at how little they talked about how many people died making the canal. I don't think they even posted the total. There was a computer kiosk where you'd could type in a name to see the history on that person, find out what they did on the canal. That waS kind of neat. Lots of Hollands worked on the canal. 79 of them. The adventure came when we tried to leave. Our rental car wouldn't start. Battery was dead. Jeff tried calling Hertz to send us a new car but no one would take his call. Finally, because the museum was closing, we had to find a taxi to take us back to the hotel and arrange transportation to the airport bright and early the next day. As far was I know, the car still is sitting in the Miraflores parking lot.
We did drive by the prison where Noriega was being held. That was kind of cool, in an eerie notorious way.
Panama was very nice. We saw lots of birds, lots of monkeys, and had a rather enjoyable time.
Trips from 2011
Berlin is a very big city. It does not look like what you think a German city might look like. No building is older than 100 and those that are about 100 years old on the outside are completely new on the inside. Berlin was bombed to smithereens in World War II. Although there are some grey cinder block buildings in the former East Berlin, the two once divided cities blend seamlessly together now. It looks like a very prosperous city.
Although weather.com said that it would be low to mid 60s, it was not. It was sunny and 75 every day we were there. Beautiful weather... if you packed for it. I packed for cold (because I was unprepared for the chill last year when we were in Copenhagen). I had long sleeved shirts and sweaters and a light jacket with me. We had to buy me some short sleeved shirts. I think that was a first. Normally I have to buy a sweatshirt because I'm too cold. It did get cool in the evening, so the sweaters did come in handy.
Jeff was in Amsterdam at the beginning of the week so I flew by myself to Amsterdam to meet up with him. From there we flew to Berlin. As always, I did not sleep on the flight down (although I did really try). We landed in Berlin in the early afternoon. I actually opted not to nap so we set out immediately to explore. Jeff took his Rick Steve's guidebook and played tour guide as he read aloud while we walked through the streets. I'm not sure if Jeff knew that we were seeing the exact same sights we would see on our walking tour the next day...
Jeff likes to take public transportation when we go to other cities. For the first time ever, we saw dogs riding the subway! Apparently in Berlin, you can ride the subway with your dog. No other city that we've been to has allowed animals on the trains. One of the dogs was actually pan handling. He walked through the cars with a sign in his mouth. Jeff asked me what it said and I replied, "I can't read German but I know that dog is begging!" It was another first.
We had dinner at a Turkish restaurant on the banks of the Spree River. Berlin has a high number of Turkish immigrants. I do have to wonder about Berliner's palettes. We had the blandest hummus ever - no garlic or lemon juice or salt whatsoever. After dinner, I gave Jeff the twenty minute warning. I had about 20 minutes left in me before I would curl up in a ball and fall asleep. Unfortunately, the train was about 20 minutes so I did end up falling asleep on the subway for a minute or two.
The next day we embarked on a four hour walking tour... which turned out to be almost a five hour walking tour. This walking tour was in English and was led by one of the most energetic guides ever. Arja was a pistol! She had her opinions. She was animated. She was gregarious. She was fun. And I think I remember some of what she said, which is a rarity for me. I never remember anything after a tour. We explored the former East Berlin. We saw Museum Island (which is actually an island in the middle of the Spree River with museums on it), the Brandenburg Gate, the Hotel Avalon (where Michael Jackson famously dangled his baby from the window), the Memorial for Murdered Jews, the spot where the bunker used to be where Adolf Hitler committed suicide, the "Mother with Dead Son" memorial in the former guard house, a portion of the Berlin Wall, and Checkpoint Charlie.
As our tour guide put it, "There are tons of memorials in Berlin. You're going to get sick of hearing me say, 'And here's another memorial.'" The Memorial for Murdered Jews is a fascinating, overwhelming, and haunting sight. As we walked up to it, I muttered under my breath, "Wow." It's hundreds of grey coffin-like blocks growing out of the ground. Some are a few inches high; others well over 8 feet, rows and rows and rows of blocks. Some of the ground is angled or hilly. The guide said that the unexpected curves in the ground is to give you a sense of the unknown, to never know what to expect around the next turn, to feel overwhelmed and lost, just like the Jews would have felt. It's powerful stuff. The small ones made me think about the babies and children that died in the Holocaust. The blocks are painted grey with a type of paint that prevents graffiti. Berlin is infamous for graffiti. Tons of graffiti everywhere. Sadly, the paint is made by the same company that made the gas for the gas chambers. I think this was the company's way of making amends but it was a little creepy to hear that fact.
The impact of seeing a portion of the Berlin Wall was lost because there are holes in the wall. I giggled to myself thinking, "Why didn't they just escape through those holes? Doesn't seem like a very foreboding wall." Checkpoint Charlie also didn't have much impact. It was a zoo. It's in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in Berlin. And there's a McDonald's ten feet away. That, too, made me giggle. What would the Communists have thought about that? But I did enjoy seeing those spots. I just can't imagine what life must have been like for them.
Oooh! One way to tell you're in the former East Berlin - the walk sign symbols. If the go signal is a funky green man with a deep stride wearing a big hat, you're on the east side. They're noticeably different between the east and west.
One thing I thought was interesting about our trip to Berlin was how much apologizing Berliners do about the war. There are so many memorials. I also thought about how much they have to talk about the time when the city was divided. At what point do people get to move on?
After our tour, we met up with Linda, one of Jeff's former foreign exchange students that he worked with. She's a Berliner. She walked around with us and then we went back to her house, which was about 45 minutes away by subway from our hotel. Berlin is huge! We met her parents, little sister, and cat. Her parents made an absolutely wonderful dinner (grilled carrots and salad for me and lots of sausage for Jeff) and were sweet with great conversation. It was a simple night but a lot of fun. We rather enjoyed ourselves. Both of Linda's parents were born in Berlin and told interesting stories about life with the wall and both remembered the night it came down. And even more interesting - their house is about 500 meters from where the wall once stood. There was a lot of traffic on the road in front of their house that wasn't there 20 years ago. Interesting how life changes in little ways as a result of big things.
The next day Jeff and I took another tour - this time by boat to view the bridges of Berlin. There are a lot of them! This tour was in German so we sprung for a ear piece translator. It was a bit dry so as a result, I remember pretty much nothing of that tour. We saw a lot of the same sights we saw the day before but from a different angle (from the river).
After the tour, we wandered around the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum). For the first time, we saw a history of Berlin that pre-dated WWII. With aching feet, we found an outdoor cafe and sat for over two hours outside, watching people and the traffic roll by during our final moments in Berlin.
And although I never got a picture of it (it was too elusive), I saw German Pip three times! And thus concludes our trip to Berlin.
We had a wonderful lunch at Anse Chastanet. I had a local food - vegetable roti, which turns out to be a wrap filled with veggies in a curry sauce. It was quite tasty.
So now that I've told you about the good part of the trip, let me tell you about the rest.
After landing in St. Lucia, we headed out of the airport only to be bombarded by people wanting to give us a ride, for a price, of course. Jeff was determined to take the local bus to our hotel 20 miles away. A taxi would cost about $65; the bus would cost $4 total (for the two of us). The only problem was that the bus didn't stop at the airport. Bear in mind that when I say "bus" I mean a small van where they pack 14 people into it (not including driver). So we began walking off the airport. Bear in mind that the airport isn't designed for pedestrians walking off the property. There are no sidewalks. After about 5-10 minute walk with our luggage, we were at the bus stop. The problem with St. Lucia buses is that if they're full, they don't stop. They may have had room for one or possibly both of us but they certainly didn't have room for us and our luggage. After 4 or 5 of them went by without stopping, two ladies in a small SUV did. The driver wasn't a taxi or bus driver but rather a B&B owner who was picking up a guest, who happened to sit behind us on the plane. She drove us to the bus stop in town. There was a bus there and we quickly climbed aboard. We waited for 15-20 minutes before the bus was full. The bus zipped over a very windy road, stopping a couple of times to let people on and off. Forty-five minutes later, we arrived in Soufriere, the town we'd be staying in. We climbed out of the bus and started walking. Since our hotel is on the beach, we started walking towards the beach. Apparently you can't get to the hotel from the beach but a very nice water taxi driver took us in a boat over to the hotel. It took two minutes and I think Jeff paid him $5 (US).
So now we're at our hotel - only the receptionist/maid/waitress was not there to show us to our room. So we sat on the deck to wait for her. And waited. And waited. Although our hotel is on the beach, it's an incredibly small beach with tons of locals running around. There are no chairs to sit on our towels to dry ourselves on should we go swimming. So instead of enjoying the water (and cooling off), we waited on the deck. For 2 1/2 hours. Apparently the woman who was supposed to work that shift couldn't so they called the woman whose shifted had just ended and asked her to come back. She was at home already. We were totally fine sitting in the sun waiting. It was a vacation - what else did we have to do but sit in the sun and relax? When she finally showed us to our room, she entered ahead of us and said weirdly, "Oh, um, it looks as though I still need to clean the room." So after waiting for 2 1/2 hours, we still wouldn't be able to enjoy our room. We noticed the unmade bed and towels on the floor... and clothes in the closet. We dropped off our suitcases and walked into town. We half expected that upon our return to be told that we had a new room (one that wasn't occupied) but the initial room turned out to be ours.
For our wait, our dinner was comped. Very nice. We had a local vegetable we had never heard of before - dasheen. The waitress said it was like a green potato. It was quite tasty as was the rest of the dinner.
It was so incredibly hot and humid that I didn't sleep much, if any, that night. The next morning I would discover a series of disturbing things - brown water in the toilet filled with mosquitoes that swarmed out when I walked into the bathroom, brown water in the shower (it would be the quickest shower of my life), little red dots on various parts of my body presumably from some mysterious bug bites, and some stranger's clothes still hanging in the closet (plus a bunch of other personal effects). And the most disturbing thing of all - I don't think they changed the sheets from the previous visitor (the one whose clothes were still hanging in the closet)! I'm still trying to figure out what happened to that person. I found her boarding pass in the closet. She arrived on the 23rd of March; we took her room on the 26th. She had arrived just three days ago. Where did she go for the two days we were in her room? Do other people hop around as much as we do? It seemed quite odd that someone would stay at a hotel for just two days and then leave... without their clothes, books, and other things. I invented some horrible tales in my head. I do hope she's alright.
Jeff decided over breakfast that morning that we shouldn't stay the full three days we had planned. I was hot, sticky, and miserable. St. Lucia was about 85 degrees with about 80% humidity. I can't be in the sun. I get sun poisoning. I can't be in the humidity and sweat. I get heat rash from that. There was no relief from the heat and humidity at night (it did NOT cool down). As I write my trip tale, it's the second night of our stay. Jeff's been asleep for a good two hours while I'm awake, hotter than ever, and counting the new bug bites from some invisible bug that keeps biting me and not Jeff. Guess the mosquito netting really isn't helping.
The next morning we took at taxi to the airport with a stop at Sulfur Springs. We opted for a taxi over the local bus because we wanted someplace safe to stow our luggage while we toured the springs and we could also make the taxi wait for us. Jeff wanted to take a mud bath. The taxi driver talked him out of it because he didn't think we had enough time. I decided not to bathe in the springs or a mud bath. It's hot mud and for someone who's already hot, that didn't seem like fun. And Sulfur Springs is VERY smelly. It turned my stomach. At that moment, if someone had offered me scrambled eggs, I would have lost it. The smell is a good thing, however. If the odor disappears, a deadly gas is forming. That's what may have killed the people of Pompeii - the sulfuric gas levels spiked quickly and the air became poisonous. The springs are located in what used to be the crater of the volcano. Hundreds of years ago, the volcano erupted and blew out one wall of the volcano, thus opening the mountain side up. Soufriere was built on the wallless side of the volcano. The volcano hasn't erupted in over 250 years. Since volcanos apparently erupt every 100 years or so, the stretch is odd. Scientists believe that because the volcano sits on top of the ocean, the water cools it down enough to keep it from erupting.
Our trip back to the airport in Vieux Fort was uneventful. The taxi was well air conditioned so for the first time in three days, I was cool. Lovely. We flew back to Atlanta without any problems. We spent the night. Jeff wanted to show me his home-away-from-home. Atlanta was about 40 degrees and I certainly didn't bring that warm of clothing. Since I had spent the last three days sweating my tuckus off, I was forbidden from complaining. It was chilly but I'm pretty sure there weren't any bugs that would bite me. That night I actually slept. The next day Jeff took me to Coca Cola World. Some people may say it's just a giant Coca Cola ad and to skip it, but I rather enjoyed myself. The movies (there were two) were over the top hokey but fun. The history walls were interesting (this coming from someone who doesn't like "museums"). The Coca Cola themed art was very neat. The best part was the around-the-world Coke product tastings. We tasted ALL of them. Everything from Europe, everything from Asia, everything from Africa, everything from Latin America. There are about eight selections per section. We did not try the North America offerings. We've had them all before. There were some very tasty selections and some absolutely horrendous choices. Beverly from Italy was horribly bitter. Pineapple Fanta from Greece was one of my favorites. As we walked back to the MARTA (subway) station, I realized that perhaps downing 50 different types of carbonated beverages in about 10 minutes wasn't the wisest thing to do. I was a little queasy.
And thus concludes our trip to St. Lucia. Jeff thinks my bug bites are bedbugs. Once we walked through the door to our home, we immediately took everything out of our suitcases and washed those that could be washed in hot water; those things that can't be washed are sitting in the cold garage for a few days. I'm not convinced it was bedbugs. My spots aren't itchy. There weren't little red smudges on the sheets (from rolling over and squishing them). But they did seem to just appear, which is one sign. We did read after we got home other tales of trips to St. Lucia. A lot of people report that they've never had so many bug bites in their lives. But a lot of people also say they didn't get bitten at all. It is a hot, humid, tropical country. There are bugs. Something bit me... 86 times (I counted all the little red dots). It happens. Particularly to me.
There is one highway that crosses the islands. One highway. Can't imagine what that's like when people are evacuating during a hurricane. For the most part, you don't even realize you're crossing water. The bridges are short - you blink and you're on the other side... with the exception of the Seven Mile Bridge. I have issues driving through tunnels, particularly tunnels that go underwater. I don't have issues with bridges but just before we were about to attempt the crossing, we stopped at a roadside bar for a beer to make sure my nerves were calm. Eh, it was an excuse to have a drink.
We stayed at a motel on Big Pine Key, home to the key deer. There are only 500 of them left in the world; 300 of them are on Big Pine Key. We saw one almost immediately after we turned more inland. And since it - and several others we would later encounter - came running right up to me when I approached it, I kinda understand why they're on the verge of extinction. No fear of humans. Sure, there's no reason to fear me but they don't know that (because I hadn't told them that yet).
The next day we took a trolley tour of Key West. We saw Mile 0 of Highway 1 (it's where the road begins). We saw the Southernmost point. Cuba is a mere 80 miles away (and the Key West people love to boast that the nearest Walmart is a 100 miles away - they're closer to Cuba than Walmart. Who else can say that?). We also saw the Hemmingway House. This house a special significance for us because that was where we almost got married. It was our second choice. I'm actually happy we chose the Bahamas. So much prettier. The Hemmingway House is home to over 40 cats, many of whom are polydactyly (six toed). Hemmingway loved the six toed cats and some of these are direct descendants of his own cats (although the tour guide at the house would have you believe all of them are descendants). We also had a drink at Sloppy Joe's, which is one of Hemmingway's old haunts.
Monday was the nicest weather day of them all. Saturday and Sunday were cloudy and cold (okay, so they were mid-60s but that's still cold to just sit outside). Monday was low 70s. We got up "early" to go kayaking around Big Pine Key. Please note that February is low tide month and certain times of day also are low tide times. Combine low tide month with low tide hour and you get VERY low tide. We meandered down a very small creek (so tight you couldn't paddle - you had to pull yourself along the banks). At one point we would have turn around (and Mother Nature obliged us with a kayak wide pool) because the water would be too low to continue. If we had been able to keep going, the creek would have lead us to a wonderful pond filled with interesting creatures. Once back out in the ocean, we would have to change course many times because our guide would decide that the water in front of us was too low to navigate. We were signed up for a three hour tour (sing the theme to Gilligan's Island in your head - we did) but we were only out for two and a half hours. Why? Because I was done. At some point, I managed to kayak into incredibly low waters, which meant I had to push myself out. Unfortunately, the low waters stretched for quite a wide area and no direction I turned yielded relief. After about 20 minutes of pushing, pushing, pushing myself, my shoulders screamed in pain and I had had it. Done. I paddled back to shore, with Jeff and the guide in tow. We didn't see much wildlife, in the air or in the sea. We encountered way too much low tide. The area was pretty. The excursion was beautiful. It was a fun and interesting way to tour the water.
Lunch was at another roadside bar. I was rewarded with my only tinge of color as we sat outside, basking in the warmth of the sun.
Trips from 2010
We stayed at the Great Parnassus (which makes me think of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnasses which is an absolutely horrible movie). It's a family friendly all-inclusive resort (complete with mini golf course and waterslides). Jeff thought the inside of the hotel looked like a cruise ship. It was gigantic, although despite the number of rooms, it wasn't that crowded.
True to his request, as soon as we got to the hotel, we changed into our bathing suits and camped out on the beach. And there we sat, occasionally running into the ocean to brave the waves, sometimes leaving for food, often getting up to go to the bar to get a beer or a margarita. Oh, and once we left to see some ruins - El Rey. It's a rather small layout of ruins and is crawling with hundreds of iguanas. If you have a fear of lizards - and some of them are QUITE large - stay away. Jeff thought it would be fun to bring food (fruits and veggies) to feed them. The first half dozen were appreciative and some even had a bit of a tiff with others who tried to steal their food. All was good until we were almost out of food. Apparently word got out that we were feeding the lizards and we discovered ourselves surrounded - and I do mean surrounded - by lizards. There were at least eight of them. They move fast. I'm not one to be afraid of lizards but I am one to be afraid of being outnumbered - and surrounded - by anything. We sneaked around the back. The lizards were not fooled. They waited for us. We backed up down the path and did not look back.
After that, we sat on the beach, braved the waves occasionally, and drank lots of margaritas. I did not get sunburned, sun poisoning, or heat rash. We did get to enjoy an extra hour in Mexico because their Daylight Saving Time occurred while we were there. Awesome!
We all flew into Seattle on Friday, landing within a few hours of each other. Kim and I were the first to arrive (after we took a lovely 7am flight out of Minneapolis). Jen flew in a bit later and finally Fran arrived. We had a bit of an adventure at the car rental place - the size we booked was no longer available. Finally, we were on our way to Leavenworth - a three hour drive east through the mountains.
We stayed in Wenatchee, which proved to be a bit of a blessing. Oktoberfest drew a huge, somewhat "rowdy" crowd and the small town of Leavenworth bulged at the seams with the extra tourists. The tiny town wasn't really equipped to handle the explosion of leiderhosen-clad people. It was a bit loud and very crowded. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Wenatchee and Leavenworth are about 20 minutes apart by car. There's one main road into Leavenworth. We checked into our Wenatchee hotel (the Comfort Suites) and attacked the tourist brochure stand. We assembled a game plan. Late Friday afternoon, we drove to Leavenworth and had dinner at King Ludwig, which is a very German restaurant (translation: a lot of meat and beer, very little vegetarian). I had kase spaetzel, which is a German pasta with cheese melted on top. The rest of the gang split a platter of assorted meats - schnitzels and sausages. It did come with sauerkraut and pickled beets but no one ate those (or those that tried did not enjoy).
After dinner, we hit Oktoberfest just as the gates opened. There were many stands selling things we couldn't quite figure out where the "Bavarian" connection was. After purchasing a beer and an odd tasting pretzel from a Boy Scout (they were hocking pretzels like a grizzled seasoned stadium vendor), we wandered into a tent playing music. Before venturing into Oktoberfest, we stopped by the tourism office and were handed a list of activities within the festival. It noted the bands that would be playing - all polka bands. This particular tent we found ourselves in was playing rock music... on accordions. They were actually pretty good. The band definitely enjoyed themselves and didn't take things too seriously. They were magnificent showmen. It was a lot of fun. After they took a break over an hour later, we wandered into a couple of other tents... and silently backed out (silently so we didn't wake the members of the audience). The other polka bands catered to the older crowd. No one was dancing. People were barely moving. It did not look like fun. We considered ourselves very lucky to have stumbled into the correct tent of the evening. We so would have had such a different opinion of Oktoberfest if we hadn't gone into the right tent.
The next morning, the alarm went off at 8am and I jumped out of bed. We wanted to be down to breakfast around 9am so that we could be out the door around 10am. Halfway through my shower, the power went off in the whole hotel. The bathroom did not have a window, which meant there was no light coming in at all into the bathroom. As it so happens, when the power first went out, I was washing my face and had my eyes shut. When I opened them and saw the darkness, I wondered to myself, "How hard was I rubbing my eyes?" And then the lights flickered on. And off. And on. And off again. At first I thought that the bathroom lights were on a timer... but then I couldn't see a timer (and I wondered how on earth it would have gotten set). From outside the door, Fran called out to me and informed me that there was no power in the hotel. I finished my shower in the darkness. The others took their showers in darkness (although they left the door partially open so that they had some light). Finally, the power came back on. We went down and enjoyed breakfast (although we were really wondering how the electric crockpots had kept the eggs warm during the hour long power outage). Because the power had been out for so long, the waffle makers were not hot... so our waffle batter stuck like the dickens in the waffle irons with no hope of ever coming out. We would have no waffles for breakfast.
Our first adventure was to the Aplets and Cotlets candy shop/factory in Cashmere. What are aplets and cotlets? That's exactly what we wanted to know. We had seen signs on the highway and read that it was the official Washington state candy. But what was it? Fran would later describe it as Turkish Delight... with walnuts and an apple taste. For those of you unfamiliar with Turkish Delight, it's basically a gummy/jelly candy with powered sugar sprinkled on top (and then add either apple juice or apricot juice and walnuts for the aplet or cotlet). Unfortunately, they don't make candy on the weekends so although they'd be happy to give a tour of the candy making area, you'd just be looking at big ol' machines not doing anything. So... if you go, be sure to go during the week for the tour of the candy factory. They still had free samples so we were able to taste for ourselves what an aplet and a cotlet really is.
From there we walked to Pioneer Village for Apple Days. There are no apples at Apple Days. There were plenty of costumed people in the Pioneer Village (which, although sported period buildings, they were transformed into the displayed buildings - like the "general store" was actually someone's house from the 1800s and wasn't - or ever was - a store. But it was mocked up to look like what the general store would have looked like. I liked the printing building. Kim liked the school house. The dentist's office made us all glad we weren't born in the 1800s. Even the chair looked like some sort of torture device. There was actually a bottle labeled "placebos."
For lunch, we drove to Leavenworth and ate at Sandy's Waffle and Dinner (which, interestingly enough isn't open for dinner). I had a pumpkin waffle, which was quite tasty. Finally, I got a waffle (see the paragraph about the power shortage affecting the waffle iron).
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering in and out of the many, many, many shops of Leavenworth. We all found our vices for distraction - Kim shopped and shopped and shopped, Jen took many photos, I sashed into many, many, many wine tasting rooms, and Fran met a woman in her predicament - married to a Dutchman. Upon reaching the end of town, we tried to hike along the river in Leavenworth Riverfront Park. We met up with a family who informed us the park was closed due to bear sightings. They knew of this firsthand - they encountered one of the bears.
We did not go to Oktoberfest that night. The town, as I mentioned earlier, was incredibly packed with festive celebrators (translation: there were thousands of people dressed in leiderhosen and Bavarian dresses that were a bit too short to be authentic). We stopped at pretty much every single restaurant only to find the wait incredibly long. Finally, we decided to go back to Wenatchee to try our luck at a restaurant there. Later, we would find that the tone of Saturday night's Oktoberfest was completely different from the one we experienced on Friday night. There were a ton of arrests, lots of drunk, unruly attendees. Friday night was fun; Saturday was chaotic.
Sunday morning the power stayed on through everyone's shower! After breakfast (where we did not attempt a waffle) we wandered around Ohme Gardens. The map the ticket booth lady gave was NOT to scale... either that or we're really fast walkers. "Steep" slope really does mean steep; Easy slope actually means kinda steep. It was an enjoyable hike; just make sure to wear comfortable shoes. Some of the "scenic" overlook sites weren't that glamorous, particularly if you couldn't overlook (ha!) the foreground - the highway and a warehouse. The gardens were very green. A very friendly cat found me.
Lunch was taken at Tom, Dick, and Harry's Durn Good Burgers, a restaurant that had a sign boasting of "24 soft serve flavors." It caught our attention and lured us in. Sure, anyone can have 24 flavors if you mix it into vanilla... They had 24 bottles of syrup that they mixed into vanilla soft serve. I had peanut butter. It was tasty. I also had a veggie burger that rocked. Who knew you could find a decent veggie burger at a truck-like stop off the highway?
Cheesemaking was our next stop. You read that right. We took a class on cheesemaking. Our teacher was incredibly friendly and personable. She loved cheese - and could teach well, too. I like teachers that explain why something is done - and don't just say, "Because that's the way it's always been done." We made cheese from sheep's milk. We made a hard cheese, a soft cheese, and a raw cheese... although we didn't get to actually eat the cheese we made. We ate many other cheeses that had been made in her kitchen, but not ours. We got to brush the fuzzies off aging cheese. We got to add the rennet and bacteria into the cheese we made. We got to cut the curds and place the curds into molds for the soft cheese. We got to stick our arm into a giant pot and stir the cheese for 30 minutes with our hands. No wait. Only I did that. What a sucker. When a teacher asks, "Who wants to stick their hands into the cheese?" don't be the first to volunteer. As soon as I stuck my arm - almost up to my armpit - into the pot of hot milk, it was then that the teacher gave up the caveat, "Did I mention you have to stir it with your hand for a half hour?" The bottom of the pot got a little toasty to my fingertips but the manual attention was necessary to keep the whey from scorching. After the 30 minutes, the curds sunk to the bottom. The whey was poured off. I plopped the curds into a mold and we pressed the heck of out them. We met the sheep that gave us the milk. We left our cheese and our cheesemaking class after three hours, not fully cheese. Everything would sit out overnight, draining, curing, aging. We made cheese. We ate cheese. They were not the same events.
Our cheese teacher turned us South, which is a latin restaurant in Leavenworth. It was tasty. We ate enchiladas, nachos, and tacos.
The next morning we drove to Seattle along a very windy mountainous road. It took us about three hours, no stops, to arrive in Seattle. We found our hotel with very little trouble. Realizing that there was mandatory valet parking, was another story.
After some initial debate about where to start, we finally decided to head to the Public Market (also known as Pike's Market, also known as the fish market). The market is one very long strip of stalls selling everything - not just fish - from flowers to fresh fruit to jewelry and clothes. We walked the entire length of it. I decided that I could live in Seattle after visiting one stall - it was a hotdog standing selling tofu dogs! I've never even seen that in New York City. Even though I was full from my stop at the Indian food stand (I had a veggie samosa), I absolutely had to have the veggie dog. It was spicy. I topped it with mustard and sauerkraut (to pay homage to the Leavenworth experience). So good.
After wandering around the Public Market, we walked to the Space Needle. You'd think you could see it for miles but we were apparently walking downhill with tall buildings blocking it. We didn't see it until we were a few blocks away.
Our rather friendly and incredibly talkative bellman at the hotel gave us a tip about the Space Needle. The cost of traveling to the observation deck was $18; the cost of a meal on the level just below the observation deck was $35. Since most people probably get bored on the observation deck after 20 minutes, having a meal at the Space Needle seemed to be the best bang for your buck. We were there for almost two hours! It's a revolving floor so we were treated to all views. The food was quite decent, too. Fran and I opted for dessert to go but then never really ate it. Oh well.
After the Space Needle, we took the monorail back towards our hotel. We were scheduled to meet up with Pete Wilsnack, another high school friend/alumni who was now living in the Seattle area. We arrived a half hour late (whoops) and almost missed him. We talked for almost five hours - well after 1am - and had many drinks. I often wondered if I really went to school with everyone because a lot of the stories - and people - they mentioned, I had no recollection of. Talk about a bad memory! Or maybe I was more of a loner than I thought. Who knows? It was wonderful seeing him. We all had a good time.
Getting up the next morning, after getting a mere five hours of sleep, was tough. Very tough. We all had flights out that morning. Jen's flight was in a different terminal from the rest of us. Kim and I left first on the same flight. We all managed to get home safely. Our next trip takes us to Myrtle Beach! Here's to 2011.
For years I've wanted to go to Iceland, ever since I read about puffin tossing. Before you get some vision of animal cruelty in your head, remember that I'm a vegetarian. I wouldn't hurt an animal. Puffin tossing is actually a very helpful thing. It also seems like a lot of fun. When a baby puffin is ready to leave the nest, they're supposed to fly towards the moon. With the explosion of light pollution, baby puffins are getting lost and flying into town toward the lights. The townspeople run around at midnight, collecting lost baby puffins, bring them to the edge of the cliff, and then toss them off... Okay, so that last part sounds a bit cruel and you can bet I'd be pulling out my hair until my baby puffin pulled up and flew off into the night (I've also read that the do dip down into the water first... so I'd be unbelievably freaked that I sent my baby puffin to its watery grave). Baby puffins tend to take flight around the middle of August. We were all set to go until Jeff learned that Delta will be starting a direct flight to Reykjavik next year. Seemed logical to wait. Sigh. So now where to?
Iceland, in the middle of August, was supposed to hit a balmy 55 degrees during the day. Copenhagen, at the beginning of September, was supposed to be high 60s, low 70s. Wow. Fifteen degrees warmer. Seemed like an immense draw. Unfortunately, I forgot that it's a costal city, which means cold winds blowing off the water. High 60s is not warm in summer. I froze.
We landed in Copenhagen in the early afternoon. As always, I did not sleep on the plane. Jeff allowed me an hour long nap after we checked into our hotel - the Hilton at the airport. Fresh from my nap, we took the train into the city and began to walk around. There was a lot of traffic - both bikes and cars and buses. We had read that there are more bikes in Copenhagen than people (a lot of people have more than one bike) so I was expecting a ton of cyclists. They move really quickly and there are a lot of unexpected bike lanes (unexpected in the sense that when you cross the street, you're trained to watch for cars... and here you also really have to watch out for bikes). After walking around for a good half hour, we took a water taxi, which is more like a bus than a private vehicle on the water. Part of the reason we took it was for the adventure, another part for the speed of the trip, and a final part so that we could get over the channel.
We wandered up what appeared to be restaurant row, with dozens of outdoor seating areas for each restaurant. We finally stopped at one that had blankets on the chairs. It was a bit crisp out just walking; the blankets would be definitely needed for outdoor eating in 65 degree temps (and dropping as night approached). I had a plate of mushrooms sauteed in butter (yum) and Jeff had some fish (skate, I think) sauteed in butter. Butter seemed to be very Danish. We also tried the local (alcohol) drink Akvavit. It was... potent.
With our meal not quite filling our bellies (but definitely emptying our wallets - it was almost $100... and I only had an appetizer and dessert), we drooled when we saw a crepe stand. I think Jeff was admiring the fact that it was a bicycle crepe stand (the guy had to peddle his cart to his location every day). We split one with nutella. So warm. So gooey. So yummy. And then it was back on the train to the hotel.
The next morning we took a tour of the city... on bikes. We cycled around with a tour guide called Bike with Mike (our tour guide was named Mike). We had a small group (about a dozen) with all levels of biking experience (which means I think I had been on a bike more times than most of these people). My strategy was to try to keep as close to the tour guide as possible during the ride times in order to avoid a collision with the other riders. Unfortunately, the slowpokes and the weavers tended to pull out ahead of me after our stops so I rarely had the chance to zip around them (because you take your life in your own hands to pull around someone who can't ride in a straight line and is incredibly unpredictable). As a result, the ride was more leisurely than I like. When we stopped at a couple dozen different locations and our tour guide gave us history, insight, and commentary about each place. We zipped all over the city, criss-crossing the channel. We covered a lot more ground than we ever could have if we had walked. It was fun. It was interesting. It was good exercise. And I didn't crash once. I did bump into another rider... but that was because she decided to stop in the middle of the road as I was trying to accelerate in order to avoid the bus that was coming right at us.
After the amazing bike tour, we went to the Hans Christian Andersen "museum." I had read that there was a museum... but apparently I read it in "tourist trap weekly." It is not a museum. It's a side show for children. I liked it! There were display windows - much like the department store windows in New York City at Christmas time - that featured a scene from many of his books. Some had audio features that read a couple of pages from the featured book. All had descriptions, a bit of history or background, of the story next to the displays. It was actually very interesting... kind of my level of museum information. There were a little more than a dozen books depicted in the window displays, some of which I had never heard of, some I had forgotten he had written, and several favorites. If you do happen to look for the "museum," you may overlook it because there's not much of a marquee. It looks more like a teeny shop. It's a couple doors down from Oscar, the gay bar we had lunch at.
Hungry from our bike ride, we walked along a series of restaurants. I was searching for one more Danish than any other food type. I was really hankering to try smørrebrød, the Danish sandwich, which is only served at lunchtime. We sat in the outdoor seating area (tables on the sidewalk). Jeff went in to place our orders. When he came back out, he said quietly, "Did you know this was a gay bar?" I laughed at him. No, it wasn't! There were a couple of male-female couples... but then most of the other tables were all filled with men... The food was still good. The beer was still drinkable. In fact, after I had consumed about a third of my beer, Jeff noticed that my glass was chipped. He took it to the bar to point out the chip (he doesn't like chipped glasses). The bartender explained that all the glasses were like that because at night, when it turns into a nightclub, things get a little rowdy. Regardless, he replaced my glass... and filled the new one completely up. Woo-hoo! A free 1/3 beer! Considering how incredibly expensive food was in Denmark, that was definitely a bonus.
Later that evening, we went to Christiana. Christiana is a hippie commune. It used to be a military base. In the late 60s, the military consolidated. They packed up from Copenhagen and moved to another base. The place was abandoned. In came the hippies. Since the Danish government is not known for their conflicts, they let the hippies stay. A few years later, they asked them to leave. They refused. According to our tour guide from earlier, every 10 years or so, the government asks the people to leave. They refuse. Drugs used to be rampant - there's even a street called Pusher's Alley - which is what Christiana is known for to many people. It's fairly safe now. It reminded me a bit of Hampshire. We ate dinner at a veggie restaurant. It was the cheapest meal we would have in Denmark.
From the hippie commune to the amusement park. We walked around Trivoli as the sun set. The park and all the rides are lit up at night. It was very pretty. My eight ounce Diet Coke (excuse me, Coke Light) cost $4 (US). It was not good and had no ice. We did not ride any of the rides. We just walked around, taking in the scenery. It's pretty.
The next day we took the train to Rondskile. There we were put to work on a Viking ship. We had to row out to sea. I was a little nervous before we began to row because I wasn't sure how far we'd have to row - and how sore I'd be afterwards. I was thankful that there was no whipping involved... which was rather a good thing because our side sucked at rowing. I don't think you're supposed to bang your oar into other people's oars as much as our side of the boat did. Afterwards we wandered around an old church, probably to give thanks for the lack of whipping. In the evening, we went to a very affluent seaport town of Klum. It was pretty...but a little dead. We walked around. I froze.
I like to go to McDonald's in foreign countries, not because I love McDonald's but because I like to see what's different. Thailand had wonderful pineapple pies (like the apple pies here but with pineapple). Peru had McQueso (grilled cheese) in the Fiesta Meals (Happy Meals). England had veggie burgers and fried cheese. Greece had a cheesy salad. Denmark also had fried cheese... but it was different from England. It was tasty. I often wonder why the American McDonald's can't have these tasty little treats and then I realize that if it did, I'd be huge. So thank you, American McDonald's, for not having anything vegetarian (even the fries aren't - they have beef marrow in the oil).
The next day was supposed to be the day when I finally had Wienerbrød (the Danish) for breakfast and smørrebrød for lunch. As I was finishing getting ready in the morning and just about to join Jeff for breakfast, he came back into the room. He had been on the computer checking our flight, which was scheduled to leave in five hours. He announced that he had good news and bad news. What was the bad news? That our flight was delayed until the following morning. What was the good news? That the flight from yesterday still hadn't left yet... and was scheduled to take off at 11am, a mere two hours from now. We hustled to the airport (which was three minutes away). There we sat for eight hours. Our plane had a mechanical issue - the engine wouldn't start. After much drama, we finally boarded the plane and made it home safely.
So... Denmark in summer is pretty darned cold. I froze. But at least it was 15 degrees colder. Copenhagen is incredibly expensive. We had a few near $100 dinners (US dollars). I didn't get to eat the main local food. I didn't get crushed by a bike. I got to row a boat. It was fun. Cold, but fun.
My birthday adventure became an adventure before we even took off. Just as our plane was about to push back from the gate, lightening filled the sky. It's apparently some FAA rule that the ground crew can't be out during lightening so we had to sit on the plane until the storm passed. It was a doozy of a storm with winds that rocked the plane and hail that pelted the plane ping ping ping. Two and a half hours after we boarded, we were finally allowed to take off. We landed in NYC at midnight and when I couldn't find enough change for Metro tickets, Jeff opted to take a taxi to our hotel - the first time he's ever taken a taxi from the airport to a hotel in NYC.
The next morning we went to a branch of the Met to walk around the gardens of the Cloisters. We wandered through Fort Tryon Park first. I was amazed at the size of some of the plants. The Cloisters was more of a museum than I wanted (well, it was my birthday weekend). I expected more gardens, more cloisters (columns), less on the artsy-fartsy stuff that I'll never remember seeing. Still, it was an enjoyable excursion, culture and all.
While walking around the museum, my cell phone rang. My cell phone never rings. I was pounced on by several guards, all shushing me and asking me to take my call outside. I wanted to tell them that I never talk on the cell phone so if I am, it must be an emergency (and to leave me the bleep alone). It was my pet sitter telling me our beautiful 150 year old oak tree had fallen down during the storm the night before (the storm we sat on the plane through). Lovely. At least no one was hurt... and it didn't fall on the house.
After the museum, we headed for the theater district to see Kristin Chenowith and Sean Hayes in Promises, Promises. It's about a single woman who is being pursued by two different men - one's a wallflower who admires her from afar; the other (whom she's actually dating) is a married man. The wallflower works his way up the corporate ladder by lending out his apartment to married executives who want to cheat on their wives but don't want to take their mistresses to a hotel... It takes place in the 60s. Tony Goldwyn (whose grandfather is one of the founders of MGM pictures - Metro, Goldwyn, and Mayer) played the married man. That was a delightful surprise to me. We had fabulous seats! Of course, they cost a not-so-fabulous price but it's not every day I get to go to the theater... We sat in the first mezzanine, first row. Plenty of legroom, comfortable seats, fabulous view. The stage was probably only 50 feet away. Gotta like that. Kristin Chenowith has an amazing voice and I got to hear it from 50 feet away.
We ate dinner in Chelsea at Blossom, a vegan restaurant. I could actually sample what Jeff was eating (which very rarely happens)! I had Seitan Scaloppini. Very good. Hadn't had scaloppini (white wine sauce) in a good 15 years!
We walked along the Highline Park after dinner. Highline Park is an elevated walkway, built on/over an old raised (and now abandoned) subway line. You should see the pictures. It's quite pretty. They planted flowers along the walkway and left parts of the old railroad ties. There were some street musicians playing every other bend in the walkway. We had some awesome ginger gelato, sure to cure an upset tummy (well, if you had an upset tummy but I didn't).
While looking through guidebooks for fun things to do in NYC, I came across a listing for King Cole Bar in the St. Regis hotel. The bloody mary was apparently invented here. Since I like to try alcoholic drinks in the bar of origin, I was all excited for this endeavor. Jeff read some reviews that said the drink was incredibly expensive and quite horrible (and they called it the Red Snapper). After having consumed the drink, um, yeah, I concur. I strongly concur. It was horrible. It was potent (heavy on the vodka) with watery tomato juice. And it was twentysome dollars. As was the case in New Orleans where I was drinking a Hurricane and was bested by a 70 year old woman (she downed hers in just a few minutes), the same happened at the King Cole Bar. A couple (probably in their early 50s) sat down well after us, each ordered a Red Snapper, and both were on their second before I was even halfway done with my first. Make all the jokes you want but I'm apparently not a drinker. Jeff also made me steal everything that wasn't nailed down, just to compensate for the $20+ drink (I took a swizzle stick and the post card they left in the payment binder).
And finally, we were off to the reason we were in NYC - Alan Cumming. Our table was smack up against the stage. We were two feet away from Alan. He told lots of interesting stories about being an actor/"celebrity" and sang songs I didn't know (except one from Cabaret... that is sung by the character Sally Bowles). He was a pretty good showman and gave a pretty good show. He was funny and charming and can sing. It was a good evening!
The next morning we headed off to Queens. We walked around Socrates Sculpture Garden in 90 degree heat without any shade. It was hot. And either most of the installments had been removed... or it's rather sparse on the sculpture. My advice: skip it. From there we enjoyed the Beer Garden of Queens. I always think that beer gardens are lush green beautiful parks and in the center there's a fountain that spews beer. They're not. At least not this one. I don't remember trees but Jeff says there were big ones. The ground is covered in gravel. And the beer does not bubble over chiseled marble. But there is beer. And soccer on big screen TVs.
Getting home was a bit of an adventure, too. A couple of flights before ours to different locations were cancelled or minimized into a smaller aircraft so the stand-by list for all later flights was growing exponentially. We flew to DC and then flew to MSP. We got home. My birthday dinner, at Reagan Airport, was a bagel. Jeff gave me the one first class seat so I then had a birthday glass of wine. All was good.
We arrived Friday afternoon but didn't do much. We wandered around downtown Ottawa looking for a place to eat. I wanted Canadian food, but aside from Canadian bacon, neither of us could really think of what Canadian food would be. We heard a joke just before leaving about how unexciting Canada seems to be, "Honey, when was the last time you heard someone say, 'Let's stay in tonight and order Canadian food'?" We settled on a sports bar called Don Cherry's, who was a hockey player, coach, and commentator from canada. Not sure if he owns it or if it's just a name. The food was nothing special. After dinner, we had dessert at a little street stand. We had a maple butter beaver tail, which is a big long plank of fried dough. Holy cow! That was good. Of course, pretty much anything deep fried with sugar on it has to be good.
About an hour later, we headed to the bar for the concert. Although the doors opened at 9:00, there was still a huge line at 9:30. The line moved slowly, which was painful in the cold. There were three bands. We left at 2:00am!!
The next day we skated on the Rideau Canal, which is the world's longest skating rink. It goes 4.5 miles. We did not skate all of the canal. I learned that just because they're Canadians, does not mean they can skate. I had a couple of people run into me because they couldn't stop or turn. I, myself, didn't do too bad. Shaky at first but I didn't fall (or even come close). After that, we headed for home.
We ate lunch at the Flying Star Cafe in Nob Hill. I had the Fiesta Morning Sandwich, which was excellent. And after I ate my lunch, I decided my goal for the weekend was to have green chiles on every meal. In Albuquerque, you have a choice of red or green chiles and they put it on pretty much everything. Even though we didn't go to McDonald's to prove it, we heard that even they serve a cheeseburger with green chiles on it.
After lunch we went to the Rio Grande. Either it's not a big river or the part we saw was very narrow. Eh, I've seen bigger. Jeff dared to touch it (the bank is high and since I only had one pair of pants with me - the pair I was wearing - falling into the river, particularly in 45 degree temps, ruined the appeal of touching it.
I thought that Old Town would be cooler than it was. It was just a bunch of shops. Yes, many of them featured the wares of local artists (carvings, paintings, photography, etc) but it was essentially a strip mall... and I don't think it really was old.
Route 66 runs through Albuquerque. We followed the old route and the new route (which is straighter). Jeff liked all the 50s motels, many of which are now abandoned (they heyday of the motel long since gone).
At night, we watched our first movie of 2010. It was not a new release. It was It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, a movie from the 60s starring a bunch of comedians and stars like Mickey Rooney, Spencer Tracy, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Jonathan Winters, Milton Berle, etc. It's a very long movie. Jeff laughed a lot. I thought it was in desperate need of editing. I did find it fun to see the original of a Simpsons parody (which also meant I knew how it was going to end).
The next morning we ate breakfast at the Frontier. It's a well-known and very popular restaurant. The line was long but it went quickly. I kept my streak alive by eating a breakfast burrito with green chiles (for dinner the night before, I also ate green chiles).
We drove the Turquoise Trail up to Santa Fe. We stopped at Golden, Madrid, and Cerrillos. Madrid is an artist colony. Cerrillos was once a contender for the state capital. The roads in Cerrillos are not paved.
We took the Sandia Peak Tramway, timing it so that we'd be on the peak for sundown. They packed about 30 of us into the tram, which made viewing the sites of the journey upwards a bit obstructed for those of us who are five foot two. I did see some from my middle of the pack vantage point. Although it was 45 degrees in Albuquerque, it was about 20 degrees on top of the peak, covered in several inches of snow, with 15-20 mile an hour winds. Can you say brrr??? I couldn't. My teeth were chattering too much. We walked around... for about five minutes, and then headed for cover in the only restaurant - High Finance. It's supposed to be expensive and not very good so we opted to have a glass of wine in the bar (with everyone else).
We rode the tram down in the pitch black, admiring the lights of the city of Albuquerque below. It was a bit unnerving being so high up on a little wire and not actually being able to see the mountains we were passing through.
We ate dinner at yet another well-known, popular restaurant called Sadies. It serves Mexican food so keeping my green chile goal was easy. Jeff laughed at me because it looked as though I barely touched my heaping plate of food (I did and I was full). Way too much food!
Sunday morning we ate at Murphy's Mule Barn. They don't serve mule. It's just a good, cheap diner. I had green chiles in my omelette. After stuffing myself for the last time with green chiles, we toured the Balloon Museum. Albuquerque is home to the hot air balloon festival in October. This museum goes through the history of hot air balloons and the balloon festival. It was very interesting. I had fun playing with the kids exhibits (filling a balloon with hot air and releasing it, tugging on the balloon silk to test its durability).
At that was our Albuquerque experience. Green chiles. Hot air balloons. Route 66. And the Rio Grande (which wasn't too grand).
Trips from 2009
The weather in Athens was mid-sixties. I wore a warm sweater every day and that was comfortable enough (not too hot, not too cold). We walked everywhere. One thing we quickly observed about Athens was the plethora of stray cats and dogs. We brought a bottle of treats for the cats. Every time we saw a herd of them, we stopped to feed them. I did observe that boots are must for women in Greek. I think 95% of them were wearing boots. They wore high boots, calf-high boots (not ankle ones). Many were even over the knee. All of them were over the pants (their pants were tucked into their boots).
We ate lunch at an outdoor cafe. When the waiter realized that we didn't read Greek, he insisted we follow him into the kitchen to view the various dishes (despite the fact that the menu was in English, too). We pointed to what we wanted. Jeff got fish stew and I got spanikopita (spinach and cheese pie) and a greek salad. Note: A greek salad in Greece does not contain lettuce. It consists of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, green peppers, olives, olive oil, and a huge slab of feta on top of it all. It was very good.
We walked up to Lycabettus Hill. And when I say, "walked up," I mean we walked to the cable car entrance. THAT was a steep enough climb that kept going and going and going. I'm not sure after not sleeping for almost 24 hours if I could have walked up the actual hill. The cable car ride took just a few minutes (if that) but was well worth the euros spent. Lycabettus Hill is the "other" hill in Athens (Acropolis is the first). From the top of the hill, you can see for miles and miles. It was there that I realized just how huge Athens really is. I think there must be a billion people living just in Athens. It was really sprawling! It was there that I also realized just how tired I was. I think I actually dozed off for a minute or two (thank goodness for railings!). Jeff took pity on me and after the steep climb down the hill (we did actually walk it), he let me take a nap back at the hotel.
We ate dinner a few feet off Syntagma square (technically still in the square, I reckon). There weren't many vegetarian options on the menu. Since I had already had a greek salad for lunch, I opted for a cheese salad... which turned out to actually be a spicy cheese dip. I also ordered fries. When the "salad" came out and I realized I had nothing to really accompany the dip, I then asked for some pita. It was seriously the best pita I had ever eaten! Jeff laughed at my dinner - cheese dip, fries, bread, and a beer (and what a huge beer, indeed!) but I liked it.
Tuesday was the hike up to the Acropolis to see the Parthenon. First stop on the way up there Ancient Agora, which served as the city's marketplace from 6th century BC to the 6th century AD. Socrates spent a good deal of time in the center. The highpoint of Agora is the Temple of Hephaestus (Hephaistos) and Athena Ergane, which is the best-preserved ancient Greek temple in the world. Hephaestus was the patron-god of metal working. Athena Ergane was the patron-goddess of pottery and crafts in general. Construction started in 449 BC, but the temple was not completed until 415 BC.
Acropolis, also known as the Sacred Rock, contains several temples, all of which start to blend in together when looking back through pictures. "Which temple does this photo of a column belong to?" We would soon come to discover my descriptive statement of the trip - "Hey, look. Another column." The most prominent and biggest temple on Acropolis is the Parthenon (also known as Temple of Athena Parthenos). The name "parthenon" means "virgin's apartment." Athena Parthenos goddess of wisdom, war, strategy, industry, justice and skill. She is the virgin patron (protector) of Athens. Construction of the temple began in 447BC and was completed in 432BC. Also on top of the hill (Acropolis) is the tiny Temple of Athena Nike, who is the goddess of victory. Odd how the temple to the goddess of victory was the smallest... Next, we have the temple known as the Erechtheum, which gets its name from a shrine dedicated to the legendary Greek hero Erichthonius... or his grandson Erectheus. One of them was raised by the goddess Athena. Hey, if the Greeks don't know who the temple is named for, then how am I expected to know which one was Athena's kid? There are also the remains of an outdoor theatre called Theatre of Dionysus. Finally, there is the now partially reconstructed Theatre of Herodes Atticus where they now hold concerts.
After all that, we went to Acropolis Museum to have lunch... and to view the statues and other artifacts that were removed for preservation/safety. I had a great olive and tomato sandwich with a lovely cheap glass of wine.
From the museum, we went to the Temple of Olympian Zeus... only it was closed. We got to peek at it through the gates. Since it consists only of 15 standing columns (although originally there were 104 Corinthian columns), I think we got the full effect. Zeus was the king of the gods and the temple was built in 470-456 BC, although it was never finished because the Greeks believed it was too big and symbolized the arrogance of people who believed they were equal to the Gods. A few steps away from the temple is the Arch of Hadrian, built in 132 AD as a gate between the ancient city and the Roman city of Athens.
We had dinner at yet another outdoor cafe. I saved the scraps from Jeff's dinner (some pork, a hunk of cheese, and some fries) and fed them to the first stray dog who approached me. He ate the pork and cheese but refused to eat the fries. He cast a hopeful look... at my gelato. He was right. I didn't need it. I felt pretty silly as I held the cup while he ate my gelato as Athenians walked by. He still wouldn't eat the fries.
Wednesday was our first cloudy day. We chose this day to walk through the markets. First stop was... the meat market. I'm sure Jeff didn't think it was going to be as bad as it was but halfway through the market, I started to freak out and almost punched a few people who wouldn't get out of my way as I dashed down the street out of the market. I couldn't get out of there fast enough. The smell was horrible. The sights were even worse (I think even non-vegetarians would have a tough time, too). I was prepared for rows of half a cow dangling from the ceiling and ample cuts of bright red, bleeding meats. I was not prepared for the intestines hanging from a hook, dripping whatever it was onto the floor. I was definitely not prepared for the mound of sheeps' heads, sans hides but still with eyeballs. I also was not prepared for the pile of rabbits, fully intact except for their fur (oh, wait, they still had fur on their legs). Although that may not sound like much carnage, it was all I glimpsed. The rest of the market went by in a whir as I dashed out of there. Why is it when you're on the verge of a panic attack, everybody and their brother feels the need to step in front of you? Thank goodness the market finally ended or a punch (or two) may have been thrown in desperation.
Almost as soon as I reached the end of the market of death (as it shall be referred to from here on), the skies opened up and the rain poured down. I think someone was trying to wash the blood away. Even though I had a rain coat on, my pants and shoes were soaked by the time we got back to the hotel. This is why it's always a good idea to pack two pairs of pants (ehem, Jeff). Jeff had to go buy another pair of pants. He got Greek jeans. They're pretty much like regular jeans except there's a "GR" somewhere on the label.
After the rains stopped, we went to a local art exhibit and then to McDonalds (opposite ends of the culture spectrum). I like to go to McDonalds in foreign countries, just to see what's different on the menu. In Athens, two different items are the "Toast Cheese" (which is a grilled cheese sandwich built on hamburger buns) and French Cheese Salad, which I had. I think the salad is mis-named since the cheeses in the salad weren't french (they were italian - mozzarella and loads of parmesan). I also think Coke Light, which is what Diet Coke is called everywhere outside of the US, is just watery Coke. It doesn't taste like Diet Coke at all (and actually tastes like watery Coke).
Thursday was island day. We took the train to a ferry called "Poseidon" to the island of Aegina. The adventure to the ferry port was a bit interesting as it involved a train that suddenly ended ("Termino" as one local would tell me as she motioned for us to get off the train along with everyone else). We then boarded a bus. By the time the bus reached the port, we had two minutes (no exaggeration) before the ferry departed. After wolfing down my breakfast consisting of a cheese pie purchased on the boat, I promptly fell asleep. I hadn't slept one wink the night before. I also get sea sick just looking at pictures of boats. Sleeping while on a boat combats sea sickness. Plus, everyone else was doing it so I wanted to blend in.
Once on Aegina, we took a bus to the Temple of Aphaea, which is located halfway around the island. We had the ruins all to ourselves. We closed out the place (the grounds keeper actually waited until the local bus finally came to pick us up before he left for the day). Aphaea is the Greek goddess of fertility and the agriculture.
Lunch was eaten at yet another outdoor cafe. Our table was right along the ocean. We had the place to ourselves. Jeff's boiled octopus garnered some attention from a couple of stray cats. Jeff shared his lunch with them and they all enjoyed the tentacles (you have to look at the picture of his lunch). I shared my cheese with them.
Dinner was eaten back on the mainland, at an outdoor cafe right across from the place where we ate dinner the first night. I reprised my meal (fries, pita, and cheese dip) but it wasn't nearly as good as the dinner at the original place. I was a little disappointed, mostly because it was my last meal in Greece (although it was still quite good).
I learned a couple of things while in Athens. First, boots are very fashionable. I'm going to have to start wearing mine more. Second, feta is a generic term. There are many different types of feta - they don't all taste the same. I don't like warm feta. I don't like goat cheese feta, either. Third, the Parthenon wasn't in the ruin state until about 1650. It had a rough and most of its columns until then. I just assumed it's been in a dilapidated state for a lot longer.
And thus concludes our trip to Greece. We flew business class back home to JFK and then first (which was quite a shocker) to Minneapolis. Jeff was a little concerned about clearing Customs in JFK (so many people!) but the US only line moved quite fast (the tourist lines were the biggest I've ever seen). We made all of the flights we wanted to take both on the way to Greece and home (woo-hoo)! I got to enjoy a couple of good movies on the way home (500 Days of Summer and a british film Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging), both of which made up for the stinker I endured on the way there (Funny People). I also watched Elf again... twice.
There were many things we didn't get to see in Athens. We'll definitely be going back to tour more Greek islands. If we do go back, we will have to learn how to say please and thank you in Greek. We both felt bad that we didn't even know that. We always try to learn some words, just so we don't appear to be the ugly American tourist. Odd how they can spot me anyway by my blonde hair (or that's what I tell myself is the identifying trait).
Incidentally, we were told by many to be sure to take pictures. We took 290 (although I'm only posting 68 of them)! I hope that was enough.
We saw the play at night. Before we went to that, we went to a matinee of Hair. We got "rush" seats. For this theater, rush seats are standing room only... which translates straight into standing at the back of the theater. Since they were $25, standing was just fine (particularly when seats are $120). After intermission, the ushers let us sit in unsold seats. If you're thinking of seeing this musical, be prepared. The actors use the whole theater as part of the set - and audience members become subjected to their antics. I myself got kissed on the top of my head by one of the leads. Of course, that was really tame compared to what others experienced...
NYC was about the theater. We ate dinner at an Italian restaurant. We stayed at the Hilton near Times Square. We were there a little over 24 hours. And then it was off to Athens!
Jeff likes to spend his birthday lying on a beach and this is exactly what we did. We stayed at two different all inclusive hotels. The first two nights were spent at the Hilton. Yes, we stayed somewhere nice! With all of Jeff's travels to Atlanta, he has become accustomed to staying at the Hilton, where he racks up points. He's very proud of his Diamond level status. Our stay at the Hilton in Jamaica racked up more points and we got to use his prestigious status to upgrade to an ocean view room. The next two nights were spent at Sunset Beach Resort. We didn't get an upgrades. Our view was of the parking lot.
The food at the Hilton was better (but not by leaps and bounds) and the room was a bit nicer (flat screen TV). I thought that the vibe at the Hilton was more relaxed and I didn't get the sense that we were in the middle of hundreds of others, particularly during meals. At Sunset Beach, I felt crowded. You saw all of the people, all of the time. I did find it interesting that Sunset Beach used glasses for the unlimited beverages (even on the beach or in the pool) whereas the Hilton used disposable (which, of course, then ends up just tossed on the beach or in the water). Jeff was smart enough to bring our own travel mugs so we didn't have to add to the landfill (because I certainly did drink up a storm!). Red Stripe Light (Jamacian beer) replaced water for me.
I much prefer the ocean to a pool. Pools remind me too much of human soup (particularly hot tubs). I like fighting waves (there weren't any worthy opponents this trip) and looking at the oceanlife. As soon as we got to our hotel, we changed into our bathing suits and dove into the ocean (well, tentatively tiptoed in because it was a bit chilly). A few minutes later, something stung my legs. I assumed it was either my imagination or perhaps some seaweed or some sort of sea nettle. There wasn't any mark but it definitely didn't feel fun. Twenty minutes later, something stung my arm. I left the water. My attacker was invisible and until I developed a superpower of my own, the battle wasn't worth fighting. I insisted that I had been stung by a jellyfish but Jeff wouldn't believe me. As we walked along the beach a little while later, we saw a sign warning of jellyfish in the water. I felt vindicated; Jeff thought it was just a coincidence. He must have been in cohoots with the jellyfish.
Basically, all we did on our vacation (besides debate the presence of jellyfish) is eat, drink (well, that was mostly my task), sit on the beach, snorkel, and try not to get sunburned. I definitely didn't exercise and I didn't gain as much weight as Howard the cat (who, left with a bowl full of food and nothing but time gained two pounds - TWO pounds - in five days). I also didn't get sunburned OR (and this is the main feat) get sun poisoning (well, not much).
We got the last two seats on the plane to Cancun. Once we arrived in Mexico, it would be several hours until we actually left the airport. Jeff needed to get his return tickets (he was going to Atlanta; I back to MSP) and we needed to find a hotel (the internet is a wonderful thing). One of the cheapest and easiest things to do was to find an all-inclusive on the beach. When we arrived at our hotel, Jeff asked the clerk if the rate we found on the internet was a good deal. Our rate per night was a hundred dollars less than their normal rate. Woo-hoo!
When the sun goes down in Cancun, it gets cold. We got into our bathing suits as soon as we were shown our rooms but since the sun was setting, it was too cold to sit out by the pool.
The next day was 85 degrees and very sunny. Although there was a red flag on the beach (no swimming), we braved the waters but didn't wade too far out. The waves were rough. Several knocked me down. One stole my sunglasses! A few waves later, we found my sunglasses... only to have them stolen right back on the very next wave that sent me head over heals rolling under water. I did a couple of involuntary sommersaults. We got out of the water after that. I bought new sunglasses.
After less than an hour (perhaps a half hour) of sitting in the sun, I noticed that my arms were turning a pale shade of pink. We had to get out of the sun or risk me turning puffy. We found the jacuzzi bar and sat on some underwater stools, drinking blue drinks in the shade.
Later that evening, after I changed for dinner, we noticed that I apparently had troubles applying my suntan lotion. I didn't get it right up to the swimsuit line, which meant I had a sunburn outline. It was quite commical. Jeff found it funnier than I (see the pictures).
That was pretty much our adventure for Valentine's Day. Nothing bad happened. We got on the first flight to Cancun. Both of us got out on the first flight we wanted to take on Monday. I arrived in Minnesota; Jeff in Atlanta. This was the first time we left the new cats by themselves (they had a sitter). They were very happy to see me when I got home, which made me feel better. They knew who I was - and they liked me.
Trips from 2008
We arrived at London's Heathrow Airport at 7am. We rode the Tube for 45 minutes during morning rush hour travel using our freshly purchased Oyster passes. When we arrived at the Parkcity Hotel in Kensington, we discovered we were a wee bit early to check into our room. There would be no nap for me, something I was looking forward to after not having slept on the seven hour plane ride. We then hopped back on the Tube, grabbed some breakfast, and then wandered around Kew Gardens for a couple of hours. I was amazed that so many flowers were still in bloom - and not even ultra frost hardy flowers, either. I was also amazed at how different London's growing zone must be from Minnesota as many of the flowers in the gardens were not ones that would survive in my garden. It was at Kew Gardens that we got our first glimpse of the Thames River.
McDonald's in London actually has vegetarian options! Since I only wanted a snack, I didn't get to partake in the Spicy Veggie sandwich. I did get to eat some Melty Cheese Wedges, which were basically mozzarella sticks... although I'm not quite sure what the cheese was. The caramelized onion dip that accompanies the wedges was disgusting but the wedges themselves were pretty tasty.
One of things I would find most memorable about London was the number of Mini Coopers we saw. It seemed like every other car was Pip (my Mini)'s cousin! Yes, they're made in England and they're just so darned cute, but it was still amazing how many there were. And probably the most amazing thing about that is that about 70% of the Minis we saw were convertibles. There were A LOT of convertibles in London. Wasn't expecting that. When you're currently freezing your tushy off, a convertible seems like an odd sight.
Once we were able to check into our hotel, I did enjoy a brief nap. After that, we were off to tour Harrods, which is a huge posh department store in Knightsbridge, London (about 20 or so blocks from our hotel). Harrods is indeed enormous - and absolutely packed with Christmas shoppers. There were at least 5 floors and on every level, we were flabbergasted by at least one thing we encountered. The first floor contains the market - a deli, a wine shop, a cigar shop, a pastry counter, and ice cream counter, a seafood emporium (it was stinky). We bought a dish of ice cream, a flavor we had never heard of, and stood outside to eat it (there was a seal on the cup preventing/discouraging us from consuming it in the store). Once home, I googled the ice cream flavor to find out what we ate. It was "rocher," which is the ice cream version of the candy Ferrero Rocher, which is chocolate and hazelnuts). Back inside Harrods, we wandered to all the floors. There was another floor that housed designer kid clothes - and when I say designer, I mean high-end designers like Prada. A lot of the baby clothes were several hundred pounds (British dollars... not the heavy kind of pounds). One dress we saw, although quite beautiful, was 500 pounds (which is like $800!)! Another floor had animals for sale - kittens, puppies, hamsters ($100 hamsters), and an absolutely beautiful angora bunny (Rufus would have loved her).
After regaining consciousness from sticker shock, we walked down the street to the Winter Wonderland, a Bavarian carnival. There were rides and Christmas decorations everywhere. We stopped at one stand and had mulled wine as they blew man-made snow over the crowd. It was pretty.
We ate dinner at a vegan restaurant called 222. My tofu medallions over wheat pasta with tomato sauce was basically spaghetti with tofu chunks. I guess my wording wouldn't sell as much as theirs suckered me in. All that way for spaghetti with tofu.
The next day was ultra touristy day. We saw Big Ben, the clock tower of Parliament. There are two different stories that suggest where the nickname "Big Ben" came from. Benjamin Hall, a member of Parliament and known in the House as "Big Ben" due to his great girth, gave an incredibly long speech on the subject of naming the new structure. After he finished, another member of Parliament shouted, "Aw, let's just name it Big Ben." The second possibility of the name association comes from a famous heavyweight boxer of the time known as "Big Ben." Parliament was closed for the season so we couldn't do much more than talk to a cop stationed outside the gates. He was an incredibly friendly guy who was well versed in a myriad of subjects, including why hot water turns to snow when thrown into the cold Minnesota sub-zero air. After walking around the outside of Parliament, we toured Westminster Abbey. Included in the price of admission is self-guided personal audio tour, narrated by Jeremy Irons. All of the information was quite interesting (at the time) but my memory skills are non-existent so I retained nothing. A lot of kings, queens, monks, and a whole lot of other people are buried inside. I did find some damage to the building from one of the wars fascinating. There's a baseball-sized hole in the wall that they left but covered over with glass.
After spending well over an hour (if not two) at the Abbey, we walked through St. James Park where we met some incredibly friendly animals - birds and squirrels. The animals were so used to people that they not only didn't run away, they came right up to people (I like to think they were greeting me; in reality, they just wanted food). The Queen was not in residence at Buckingham Palace and there were no tours so we were, yet again, reduced to wandering outside the palace. On our way to the Tube, we walked through Green Park, which is one of the Royal Parks of London. Our next stop was the Sherlock Holmes Museum. Although it says it's located at 221b Baker Street, it's actually located at 239 Baker Street, which is the first of many inaccuracies for the museum. The museum is supposed to be where Holmes and Watson lived. It's an actual house, complete with living room and bedrooms. Jeff, who is currently reading a bunch of Sherlock Holmes' stories, pointed out that in the books, Holmes and Watson's living quarters consisted of JUST a living room and two bedrooms. This "home" had four floors (okay, so two had a bunch of props) and the main level only had one bedroom on it. As Jeff pointed out again, it's not really a museum since Sherlock Holmes wasn't a real person... But we did get to talk with Watson, who was very friendly.
Soho is the theater/nightclub district and the Tube ride there was jam packed. The streets of Soho were even more packed. I wasn't a fan. We were there for the discount ticket booth but by the time we got there, the available tickets were for shows I didn't have interest in seeing. We went to a movie instead. I like going to movies in foreign countries because it can be such a different experience (the hot sauce on the popcorn and intermission in Mexico). We saw Flawless, which is a movie I meant to see in the States so many months ago. After we got home, I discovered that it's out on DVD here. Flawless stars Demi Moore and Michael Caine and is about stealing diamonds from London Diamond in the 60s. The tickets were $20 EACH! And there was a choice of popcorn - sweet or salted. I opted for salted because I didn't think I could sit through an entire movie with sweet popcorn. Apparently sweet popcorn is the norm because as the clerk was asking my preference, she was starting to dish out the sweet popcorn and then had to stop after hearing my choice. It was fun watching a movie in London that takes place in London, although I did spend a lot of time diverting my brain cells from the plot to figure out if I had been or even knew the place the scene was in.
London is a town of diverse cultures. Every nationality (probably) can be found there. As a result, the cuisine is also diverse. We had falafel for dinner at a shop where all sandwiches were falafel, topped with lots of different things.
Saturday was our last full day in London. We started the day off by taking a taxi to Buckingham Palace to watch the changing of the guards. Turns out, we weren't the only ones who wanted to see this. We arrived seconds before the band walked through the gates. I stood on tiptoe to catch a glimpse of the festivities over the crowd. It's basically just a band that plays for 20 minutes while some other people march back and forth and back and forth. Well, that's all I got out of it from my position.
Our Tube ride would take us to Little Venice, where we would meet up with a guide for a group walking tour. Little Venice has canals and white buildings reminiscent of Venice. With the temperature rapidly dropping, this walking tour would make my feet turn numb. The guide was funny and had lots of interesting side stories. We saw where Jackie Collins lives and walked along the street where Kate Moss just bought a house. We'd also see two teenage boys beating up a guy and running off with his money.
The cold wasn't over. After discovering that the Old Vic was sold out of tickets for the evening's performance, we stood outside in the "returns queue," hoping that at least two people wouldn't show up for the show. About an hour later, a man walked by offering to sell his tickets to us since he couldn't attend himself. Jeff was very leery of the validity of the tickets and kept thinking that we'd see the inside of a jail cell rather than the theater. All turned out well. We saw the second installment of the Norman Chronicles called Living Together. We recognized none of the actors. The Old Vic's stage is a round. We sat in the balcony that hovered almost directly over the stage. The acting was a bit forced. It was ACTING (perhaps a one step up from a high school production) where all of the lines are shouted because no one is miked. It was a very funny play, once you got past the "I'm a theater actor" performance (which was a tough thing to forget). My fascination with the Old Vic theater stems from Kevin Spacey as the Artistic Director. I had wanted to pop over to London for years to see him in some performance (he's been in quite a few) but we never managed it. I kept hoping that he'd be there for some reason. We would leave the Old Vic Spacey-less.
Jeff was pretty amazed that we took almost every Tube line. The only ones we didn't take weren't running (construction/improvements) during our time in London. Our last dinner was at an Indian restaurant.
Our plane trip home was relatively uneventful, which was a welcome relief from a potential problem. We got the last two seats on the direct flight home to Minneapolis (although only one of us was in Business Class...).
Since we didn't get to see everything (Jeff kept marveling at how huge London is), we will have to go back some day. We didn't get to ride on the Eye, see the Tate Museum, the Tower of London, or the Gherkin (or find out if they like it when you call it the Pickle) nor did we actually get to go in Buckingham Palace or Parliament. Another time.
Since I planned this trip all by myself, I was a little anxious to pull it off. First, there was keeping the surprise (he was surprised, mission accomplished). Second, there was the small task of actually getting to Puerto Vallarta using employee travel. Since I got my feet wet planning a weekend trip to Boston (another surprise trip), I was a bit versed at navigating the Northwest Airlines employee travel... but this was international travel, and one of the legs was on another airline. To make a long story short (too late), I booked us successfully on three segments that eventually did get us to Puerto Vallarta. We flew from MSP to Detroit to Mexico City. Once in Mexico, we flew AeroMexico to Puerto Vallarta. That flight was overbooked so we were very lucky to get seats (and we had to find those ourselves - we were told to just board the plane and find an empty seat. After a few attempts, we finally managed to find ones that truly were unoccupied).
When we left Minnesota, it was forty-some degrees (mind you, it wasn't even 5am when the taxi picked us up). When we arrived in Puerto Vallarta, it was 90-something degrees and very humid. Quite a change.
If you've never driven in Mexico, it is definitely an experience. It was difficult to tell if a street was one way only because cars were parked both facing and away from you. We rented a car and after a bit of trial and error, we found our hotel. We figured the big "Thrifty Car" sticker on the back gave us our excuse to turn when you weren't supposed to, drive the wrong way down a one way street, and take up two lanes of traffic. We stayed at the Blue Seas Resort and Spa for one night because the other hotel I booked was completely full for our first night. As we drove through the neighborhood, Jeff commented to me that I was the only female around. Unbeknownst to me when I booked the hotel, this particular section of Puerto Vallarta is "gay friendly." Apparently everybody knew that but me. People were enjoying themselves and I enjoyed being the minority. Our hotel room was bigger than our house. It was nice. And if you stepped out on right side of the balcony, you could see the ocean.
The first night we acclimated to our surroundings and the humidity. Since Puerto Vallarta is touristy, there are a lot of chain stores/restaurants and English is pretty prevalent. Before venturing to Mexico, I went to both Burger King's and McDonald's websites to see what culinary attractions there were. Foreign countries always have something unique at these American fast food places so it's pretty interesting to try what's different. In Thailand, instead of apple pies at McDonald's, they had pineapple pies. In Peru, McDonald's serves McQuesos (which is a grilled cheese). In England, they have vegetarian options (wow!). At Mexican Burger King's, they have Banana Bites, which are bananas topped with custard, breaded and deep fried. Oh, so healthy. But tasty. We had those soon after we landed. None of the food we ate during our 5 day stay was really note-worthy.
Puerto Vallarta is one of two cities in Mexico where it's safe to drink the water. We still drank bottled water and beer (plenty of beer) but weren't so strict that we couldn't enjoy ice in our beverages. Jeff wouldn't let me eat many vegetables, particularly greens, because of the pesticides they use. Spinach would be the first thing I would eat once home!
The hotel we stayed at for the rest of our trip was the Hotel Playa Conchas Chinas, which is on the Conchas Chinas Beach (which is what playa means). This beach is at the southernmost end of Puerto Vallarta, just a few minutes from the town Mismaloya. This area is pretty and pretty rocky. The water has huge rocks in it, which made swimming a bit of a challenge (Jeff kept one eye on me to make sure the waves didn't smash me into a boulder). The beach is littered with rocks and shells. Pretty, but treacherous. Once again, we were the minority at this hotel. Even though Jeff was turning 40, we were the youngest people there by at least 20 years (but more like 35). At one point, there were about 10 people in the ocean, treading water and talking in a circle. Jeff turned to me and whispered, "It's like Cocoon."
We snorkeled a bit and sat on the beach, but not too long or too much for fear that I might puff up (I have a tendency to get poisoned by the sun). We walked through the downtown. At one point, an annoyed shop clerk (annoyed because we wouldn't stop at his shop) yelled at us, "You look like tourists!" To which I replied, "I'm a blonde in Mexico. How can I not look like a tourist?" We walked along the river. We went to a beach in Mismaloya, where the wildlife are more abundant. We saw lots of pelicans. We took a tour boat out to snorkel in the middle of the ocean. The tour guide baited the fish with some bread (I got to feed them, too), which meant we got to swim through a ton of fish. None of the fishies wanted to touch me, despite how desperately I tried to reach out to them. Of course, every time I turned around, they were following me (and then acted like they weren't).
On Saturday, we decided to do canopy. Well, we decided I do the canopy while Jeff stayed behind at the restaurant. And what is canopy? It's zip-lining across a cable through the jungle. Basically, you hold on to a pulley that propels you along a wire to the end of the wire really, really fast. The longest stretch was 1650 feet; the highest line was 350 feet up in the air. Our group did a dozen different wires and to get to each wire, you had to hike up and up and up a steep mountain. It's a good thing it wasn't that hot that day or else we all would have been dying. I can't imagine how fun that it when it's really hot. And I also can't imagine how people who aren't in shape can do that climb (the brochure says they take all body types). It was intense. On the longest stretch, we propelled at 60 miles an hour! Talk about intense. People with contacts probably couldn't have done that one since I could feel my eyelids flapping ferociously (not to mention my shirt, which luckily, although very roomy, had been gathered at the side and tied in a knot to fit more snuggly). And since I was the only one in the group on my own, I think the tour guides decided to mess with me because there was no one to defend me. They wouldn't tell me to brake so I'd come flying into the end of the line where they'd have to catch me to stop me. I think they thought that speed and then such an abrupt stop would freak me out but it didn't. The only part that made me nervous was the safety talk beforehand. When they mention all the things that could go wrong, why is it I can see all of them happening to me? I almost backed out at that point. After my second line, I realized there was nothing to this canopy thing. It wasn't scary. It was fun. And the sights were so pretty (what little I did manage to see as I zipped through the trees and over a river at 60 miles an hour). The tour guides had ample senses of humor. On one stretch that went over a river, they told us if the line should happen to break on that stretch, to aim for the dark part of the river. Uh, yeah.
My plan had been that Jeff could spend his 40th birthday like he says he always wants to spend his birthdays - lying on a beach. Unfortunately, our dinner Saturday night prevented that from actually happening. We went to a Chinese restaurant. I decided to be daring and ordered something I hadn't ever tried before (it was under the Vegetariano section). It was like egg foo young... if egg foo young was 6 inches high, four inches wide and covered in brown gravy. It was either not vegetarian (usually I can tell after a few bites) or... Perhaps we should have known something was up when we were the only ones in the restaurant... Jeff isn't sure the food was bad since he had a bite. I told him that if he got sick after eating just one bite, then I should be dead right now after the amount I consumed. Regardless, it made for quite an interesting night. Jeff was impressed that I didn't wake him. He slept through my night of torture.
We spent Sunday night in Mexico City (which was planned). We landed in Minnesota Monday evening (which was planned). Everything went as planned... except for the upset tummy. Other than that, nothing bad happened. Jeff enjoyed his days in the sun (and I think he liked being surprised with a birthday trip).
We left for NYC Tuesday evening, landing at La Guardia airport about 9pm. From there, we took a bus to Queens. At the last stop, we got off and walked a dozen blocks to our hotel. Jeff told me we were staying at the YMCA in Queens. Okay. No big deal. The YMCA in Hong Kong was one of the nicer hotels we've stayed at. Of course, this wasn't Hong Kong, or so I quickly found out. Out of my top 5 crappiest hotel rooms we've stayed at, the Queens YMCA is number 4. I'm not quite certain a US hotel should be next in line after three third world country entries.... I haven't quite decided which should get the top honors between the hotel in Peru where I had to dry myself with a pillow case because they didn't have any towels and the lock on our room was a padlock and the hotel in Mexico where it smelled so bad I had to douse my travel blankie with perfume and wrap it around my nose just so the room was tolerable and the shower water was ice cold. Number three would be Puerto Rico where I had to wear shoes in the shower because the tub floor was nothing but rust and when I woke up in the morning, there were a hundred dead bugs on my pillow... Number 4 on the list is the Queens YMCA. By the time we got to the place, there apparently weren't any doubles left. We got two singles. Picture dorm rooms... but the lowest end dorm room you can imagine where no one has bothered to maintain it for years and the cheapest, ricketiest furniture that someone probably threw out. And the bathroom... was down one floor. Communal bathrooms and showers, just like in college. I DID NOT take a shower because the sight of the floors around the toilets gave me the heebie jeebies. Couldn't imagine what the showers looked like if that's the condition the rest of the bathroom was in...
I didn't sleep at all during the night. All by myself in my tiny, stinky room with an incredibly loud (I've heard quieter jet engines - and that ain't no exaggeration) air conditioner. I wrapped myself in my travel blankie (good blankie - well worth the purchase price) because the sheets were questionable. I couldn't even watch TV because the AC was too loud to hear over. I could have turned the AC off but that was the only comfort factor - a bit of cool and enough noise to drown out anything going on outside (well, except the plethora of sirens). At one point, I did dose off. Long enough to have a dream that Jeff crawled into bed with me. When I asked him how he got in, he said the door wasn't locked (even though when I looked at it in my dream, it was). I then woke up. I had a hard time figuring out if that was a dream or if it actually happened. There was no sleeping after that.
And then came the US Open. Supposedly only 76 degrees. Yeah, right. In the shade, perhaps, which there was none of while watching any of the matches. Direct sunlight only. I do not have sun poisoning but it's not from a lack of trying. I forgot to put sunblock on my back and wouldn't ya know it? That's where the sun was all day - on my back. I wasn't exactly purple but that may just be because I only compared it to a box of 16 crayons. Jeff decided we should take a break and we left to walk to a museum but before we really got off the grounds, I had to sit down. I think I was moments away from passing out. So then Jeff put me on the 6pm flight (instead of the 8pm flight). Although I had my verification card in my hand, apparently I wasn't listed on that flight, a fact I found out after they closed the flight and it took off. THAT's why my name wasn't called - and it should have been. Argh. No big deal. The 8pm flight had 100 open seats. Cool. About a half hour before the flight, Jeff called and asked why I hadn't verified. I had the gate agent do that. I looked at the card in my hand. She verified me for the 6pm flight AFTER it had taken off. Um, yeah. Good thing he called me because I never would have figured that out. Anyway, got 1st class. Woo-hoo. Or so I thought. We sat on the tarmac for an hour, with 30 planes in front of us. Finally, we get airborne. We're supposedly only going to be about 10 minutes late. Just before we made our descent, we encountered a lot of turbulence. Huge storm in MSP. After about 20 minutes of violent bouncing, we pulled back up and diverted to Rochester. We sat on the ground for over three hours. I think some guy got arrested on the flight, too, because he was quite angry about the delay. The air marshall had to intervene.
I finally landed in MSP at 2:20am; I WOULD have been home at 2:45 but I sat in my car waiting for a stupid train to pass. I was supposed to arrive home around 10:15. I ended up walking through the door at 3am.
So... 48 hours without sleep. 36 hours without showering. 6 hours in the sun. What a glorious 24 hours in NYC. I think I'm excused from next year's US Open excursion.
The title of this vacation is a bit misleading. Before we ventured to Venice, we had a 24 hour stop in Holland - Lisse, Holland (just outside of Amsterdam) to see the tulips in bloom.
Fresh off our flight from Minneapolis, we took a bus to our hotel. As usual, I didn't sleep a wink on the flight. I watched movie after movie, as usual. Chicken Little is fast becoming my favorite overseas distraction. Weird how Northwest has it on every flight...
After chucking our bags at the hotel, we walked about a mile to Keukenhof, which is a massive former estate now filled with thousands of gardens (more about that later), to rent bikes. Jeffrey asked the bike rental guy about some good places to eat along the bike route we were going to take and was told that the closest place was about 20 minutes away.
An hour later, a once pretty darned hungry Robin was now a very famished Robin and a restaurant - any restaurant - was no where in sight. Did I mention it was Queens Day in Holland? This is a day to pay tribute to the Queen and wear the country's color (orange) and, apparently, close all of the restaurants on the bike route. The one or two places we did find were closed. Finally, almost three hours later, we stumbled upon a roadside fries stand. We had fries with mayonnaise (a must in Holland or Belgium) and a kass kroketten (cheese croquette - yes, it was so bad for me as it was breaded and fried but it was soooo good!). A few minutes later, we found an actual restaurant that was open. And so would begin my alcoholic beverage consumption for the trip. With no fountain sodie around, beer and wine make a wonderful replacement.
It was a cold and rather windy day in Holland. Occasionally, icy pellets of rain would pummel my face for 20 minutes or so and then suddenly become a wonderfully sunny day only to be chased away by dark clouds producing more shockingly cold rain. Everywhere you turned, there was a field of bulbs - hyacinths and tulips were the most prevalent. Hyacinths smell absolutely wonderful. There were colorful seas of pink, yellow, red, purple, and orange tulips. Each color is planted in mass, sometimes there's an entire field of one color. Most of the time, each color had several rows to itself. Occasionally, a random bulb that was missed from last season's harvest protruded into the row. You could tell it was a bulb from last season because in the middle of a sea of red tulips poked up a purple hyacinth, or in the middle of a mass of yellow tulips, a lone red one bloomed. Those little diversions of color were very pretty.
Although we're not quite exactly sure why, as soon as the tulips bloomed, before they had a chance to be spent, their heads were lopped off and collected in a pile at the front of the rows. I could understand lopping off the blooms when they had passed their prime, when their petals were falling off but they seemed to be cutting down perfectly fine tulips. Don't want them to be too pretty, I guess.
Holland is known for easy biking. The land is relatively flat. I had the misfortune of being on a route that was a bit hilly. Even though I kept muttering under my breath, "There are no hills in Holland" (as Jeff has mentioned many, many times), that didn't seem to make them go away. And in addition to the sudden emergence of hills, I also had the misfortune of pedaling straight into the wind... no matter what direction I turned. Our bike route was a complete 10 mile loop. Eventually you'd think the wind would be at my back but with a cruel twist on nature, the wind blew straight into my face regardless of what direction we were going. The wind, coupled with the chilly temperatures, coupled with the hills, made the 5 hour bike ride a bit aggravating. As soon as we got to the hotel, I ditched the bike. Jeff generously offered to take my bike back that extra mile to the bike rental place. I was through riding for the day. My butt hurt. I was cold. I was sleepy. And I was cranky.
Dinner was at a Middle Eastern restaurant, where everyone eating there knew everyone else. It was a very loud restaurant, filled with boisterous, happy, friendly patrons.
The next morning, I enjoyed what Fran (friend from high school who married a Dutchmen) has told me is a traditional Dutch breakfast - chocolate sprinkles on toast. It was actually quite good. Really. Particularly when the chocolate melts.
After my nutritious breakfast, we walked back to Keukenhof, this time to tour the gardens. There were thousands upon thousands of bulbs blooming everywhere. The gardens were absolutely beautiful - and very simple. Most plots only had two different types of flowers planted en mass - a hundred red tulips and a hundred purple hyacinths. It made me realize that this is what my bulb garden should have looked like, could have looked like, but don't even come close.
The weather was still in the upper 40s, which was a bit chilly to be immersed in for hours. We stopped at a waffle stand and ordered one with Grand Marnier poured on top. That shot of alcohol really warmed me up. It was amazing how hot my insides felt after eating that waffle.
We walked around the gardens for a couple of hours, then hopped on a bus to the airport. Once in Venice, we took a bus from the airport to the island.
Jeff's parents arrived in Venice hours before we did. After finding our hotel, which was about a 5 minute walk from where the bus dropped us off, we met up with his parents for dinner. Rosemary and the waitress immediately hit it off... but not in a good direction. The restaurant didn't open until 7:00 and although it was only a few minutes until 7:00, the waitress wouldn't allow Rosemary to use the bathroom until the restaurant was officially open. The food was good (I had gnocchi with tomatoes); the service was a bit curt.
Our hotel room had a cute little balcony that overlooked the sidewalk below. There's one amenity I insist upon for a hotel - a bathroom in the room. Most European hotels have shared bathrooms. The toilet for our room was shared. It was one flight up. The shower was in the room. And when I say in the room, I mean IN the room. There was no door, no offset. It was a tiny shower so every time you bent down to pick up the shampoo bottle or conditioner or washcloth, your butt poked into the room. It was an interesting experience. Good thing I'm not shy!
The next morning, the four of us headed off in search of the Fish Market. On our way there, we stumbled upon several little churches, many, many squares, and a McDonalds. It's always interesting to see what is different about the menu in another country. In Venice, McDonald's offers chicken wings, breaded fried shrimp, and beer.
By the time we finally managed to get to the Fish Market, most of the stands had closed. Seagulls were aplenty, scavenging the remains. The Fruit Market was still open and was full of the "normal" fruits and veggies - plums, tomatoes, lettuce, strawberries, etc. It's always interesting to see things you don't quite recognize. You'd think you've seen every fruit and veggie there possibly is in your life, but there are apparently different things in different countries. Who knew?
After the Fish Market, we split up into separate groups. Jeff and I went to lunch while Clint and Rosemary went to tour St. Mark's Square. Our lunch consisted of pizza (wonderful, yummy pizza) and prosseco, the wine of Venice. We sat outside, enjoying the view of the small square while soaking up the sun. It was much warmer in Venice then in Lisse! Although it was supposed to rain every day while we were there, it was sunny and in the 70s without too many clouds in the sky.
In the evening, Rosemary and Clint took us to a vegetarian-friendly restaurant called Zucca (which means pumpkin, I believe). I had a plate of many different veggies, all quite good. It would be my first and last meal that even had an inkling of veggies for the entire trip. My meals in Venice consisted of pasta, gnocchi, bread, pizza, beer or wine, and gelato, always gelato. So much for sticking to my diet!
After our wonderful dinner, we all took a nighttime gondola ride. It was eerily quiet through the canals. We didn't encounter any other gondolas and only a few other boats. Jeffrey had read that you should instruct your gondolier to stay off the Grand Canal and just take side canals. The Grand Canal is always busy and while it may seem like an interesting site bustling with activity, the other boats are bigger and faster, which make for rough waters (and if you get seasick easily like I do, rough seas make for a queasy tummy). Evening gondola rides are a bit more expensive than daytime ones but the tranquility of ours was worth the extra dollars.
Saturday was excursion day. We took a water bus (which is public transportation and much, much cheaper than a water taxi) to San Michele, which is the cemetery island of Venice. I believe there is nothing on this island but dead people, and even they don't stay very long. Because space on the island is limited and since Venetians continue to die, actual earthen burial plots are limited. The bodies remain buried for only twelve years. The families of the deceased who can pay for re-interment are transferred to small crypt boxes for permanent storage in smaller quarters. Others who are not as well funded get tossed into a nearby boneyard.
After trying not to wake the dead, we took the vaporetto (water bus) to Murano, the glass making island. Since it was a Saturday, there didn't seem to be any tours of the glass factories. Instead, we ate lunch and wandered through the glass shops. When we got to the island, we were immediately handed a pamphlet warning us of how to spot the fake glass. A lot of what's for sale on the island was not made on the island - not the glass or the craftsmanship. It was made in China. If the item seems to be priced cheaply, you're probably looking at a fake. I saw lots of cool necklaces with a price tag of $5. The real ones were starting at $15 (American). Of course, price is not the only tell-tale sign - there should be a sign in the store stating that the glass is authentic Murano glass. Rosemary bought me two pairs of earrings and a hair clip as early birthday presents. I also bought myself a necklace.
That evening we went to an opera - the Barber of Seville. It was a small production with a simple set, almost like community theater. While the acting was a bit shaky, the voices were quite wonderful.
On Sunday, Jeff and I went to Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square). This is the prime tourist spot of Venice. If you added up all of the tourists we encountered the previous three days, it would not even come close to a fourth of what we saw at Saint Mark's. There were thousands of people. I can't imagine how packed this square would be or how long the lines would be at the height of the tourist season.
On our way to the piazza, our water bus navigated through the start of the La Sensa festival. We asked our hotel desk clerk (who I think is the owner - a very sweet, friendly, and helpful guy) if the festival was worth seeing. He matter-of-factly said "no," particularly if you don't have a boat. The La Sensa festival is a ceremony that is designed to appease the gods of the sea. The festival highlights the ancient bond shared between the sea and the land. Venice is re-claimed land, a man made island built as a haven for those fleeing the terror of the Huns. Venice is slowing sinking into the sea. The La Sensa festival takes place every year on Ascension Day (in May) and is essentially a ceremony which symbolizes the marriage of Venice and the sea. The mayor of the city head to the Port of S. Nicolo where a ring is thrown into the sea.
There were hundreds of boats surrounding the mayor's totally decked out boat. At one point, all of the people in the boats raised their oars into the air at the exact same time in salute. It was pretty cool. Our water bus departed the scene before it finished but the part we did get to see - and hear (there was a band on the mayor's boat - was pretty cool. I'm really glad we stumlbed on the festival, regardless of what the hotel guy said. The part we saw was really pretty. I loved all the colorful boats!
The day before our travels to St. Mark's, Jeffrey booked a tour of the Doge's Palace. He had read in Rick Steves' book about the Secret Tour of the Doge Palace, which takes you into rooms that you wouldn't see on any other tour - like the cell where Valentino was imprisoned and the torture chamber. Valentino and his friend were the only two to ever escape from the prison. One other reason to take this tour - making the reservation allows you to bypass the incredibly long line of people waiting to buy tickets.
The Doge's Palace and was the residence of the Doge (Duke) of Venice as well as the offices of the Republic of Venice. The palace is linked to the prison by the Bridge of Sighs. I don't know why it's called that. You'd think would do more than sigh on their way to the prison...
After the Doge Palace tour, we toured the Basilica. One interesting tidbit I learned on this tour - a lot of the amazing items in the church were stolen from other churches in Italy. That tidbit struck me as funny because stealing artifacts from one church for another church didn't seem too Christian to me... And the only reason we toured the Basilica was because the line wasn't very long. A hour prior to this, the line was enormous. An hour after our tour, again, the line was incredibly long. We lucked out with a short line.
Across from the Basilica is St Mark's Campanile, a bell tower. Again, the line was really short so we opted to take the elevator (stairs were not even an option) to the top for an amazing view of Venice. The tower is not the original tower built in 1514. It collapsed in 1902 and was rebuilt ten years later. It's still old, just not as old as it should be.
We went to lunch at another Rick Steves' recommendations. It was a little hole in the wall restaurant that is patroned by many, many gondoliers. Apparently you have to figure that if the natives like the food, it must be good. We were seated at a long table with two lovely older ladies who didn't speak a lick of English but didn't let that part stop them from trying to make conversation with us. They were funny. They were very nice. While we lucked out with friendly tablemates, two Japanese tourists were not so lucky. They were surrounded by boisterous gondoliers who ignored them but were incredibly loud. Our table was right next to a window. Just outside was a canal. Every five seconds a gondola cruised by. It was astounding how many gondolas went by. You'd just see the butt of one boat as the tip of the front of another boat came into view. Note: If you're going to take a gondola, DO NOT get one in St. Mark's. There's no possible way these people enjoyed their ride as much as we did. They were but one in a huge conga line.
I'm not one for pizza. I ate pizza several times in Italy because it's absolutely wonderful here. I'm not one for ice cream. I ate gelato pretty much at least once a day in Italy because it's absolutely fabulous. And I'm also not one for tiramisu. After polishing off our lunch, we decided to get dessert. We asked the waiter to bring us what our tablemates were eating. It looked wonderful. It was tiramisu like I've never seen it - or tasted - before. It was insanely fabulous.
After eating our fill, we decided to find Harry's Bar and drink our fill. Harry's Bar is where the bellini was invented (champagne and peach nectar). It was also frequented by Hemingway. Harry's is just off the square, tucked around the corner in a very quiet alley. For the first time since arriving at the very touristy piazza, we found ourselves alone on this street. Rosemary had tried to find it when she and Clint had visited the square the day before but was unsuccessful in locating it - with good reason. Although the doors to the bar brandish the words "Harry's Bar" in fairly big letters, it's still quite easy to miss. The doors are tiny and set back a bit from the street.
Harry's Bar was an interesting place. It's a very tiny restaurant. There weren't many tables. And there were about a dozen waitstaff milling about in white jackets. Since the drink costs 15 euro (which is about $24 US dollars), I was the only one drinking and I was allowed only one drink. It was a quite good drink. Probably not worth $24 but it was an experience. I'm sure they used really good champagne.
One incredibly touristy thing to do in St. Mark's Square is to feed the pigeons. There are thousands of pigeons and the instant you have food in your hands, you're swarmed by the birds. You become a human perch. Unfortunately, bird seed vendors had been banned from selling food for the pigeons just a few days before we went to the square. Apparently pigeon poo is destroying the marble on the buildings. Even though we had just eaten lunch that had a basket of bread, I didn't think to bring any. As a result, I only had a few birds who were interested in making me their statue. I must confess, although I absolutely insisted I do this, I was a bit apprehensive to let the birds overtake me. I was fine allowing them to perch on my arms, however, the birds thought my hair looked more interesting to play with. It freaked me out and my nerves made the birds fly away.
Our final dinner in Venice would be the most expensive dinner I've ever had. I believe the total bill for four people came to $300 US dollars. Yes, we did have a bottle of wine. Yes, we did have an appetizer. Yes, we did have dessert. But $300??? Everyone loved their dinner.... except me. It was good (just pasta) but not the best thing I've ever had (and certainly not three hundred dollars worth). Oh, the bain of being a vegetarian, darnit.
Our trip home was dragged out twelve hours longer than it should have taken. After we left Venice, we missed every single next flight we tried to take. We flew from Venice to Paris and landed 10 minutes later than we should have. That ten minutes caused us not to be able to make the direct flight from Paris to Minneapolis. We flew to Detroit. Once in Detroit, we cleared Customs and ran to the gate for our flight to Minneapolis. The gate attendant closed the door just as we reached the counter. When Jeff asked if the flight had been full, the attendant said nastily, "Nope. There were lots of empty seats." She wouldn't let us just board the flight and look for the open ones. The next flight to Minneapolis was overbooked. When we finally managed to get on a plane, we sat on the tarmac for almost an hour. Air Traffic Control lost power. With no way to communicate with the planes, no planes in Detroit could take off. The pilot figured out a way to get us into the air (fly low until we reached Chicago's airspace). Eventually we made it home.
We arrived in New Orleans late Friday afternoon. Kim, Jen, and I were all on the same flight. Fran arrived about an hour before us and greeted us just outside security. We then took a taxi to our hotel - the Royal St. Charles. Although the room was quite small, the location of the hotel was perfect. It was on the cusp of the business district and the French Quarter. The French Quarter is enclosed by Canal Street, which was a mere one block away from our hotel, well within comfortable walking distance and yet away from the noise and people. We could enjoy the French Quarter when we wanted to and then quickly get away from it all.
Being slightly out of the French Quarter was a boon to our sanity. Keeping sane was only accomplished by getting away from the sea of red shirts and purple shirts. With this contrasting attire came the incessant taunts of "Tiger Bait" and the greetings of "O. H." and "I. O." For those of you who weren't inundated with this scene, I'll explain. The weekend we arbitrarily picked to visit New Orleans was also the weekend of the BCS championship game - a football game that pitted Ohio State University against Louisiana State University. Fans of the Ohio Buckeyes wore red; fans of LSU Tigers wore purple. And when a group of Ohio fans encountered another group of Ohio fans, they greeted them by shouting, "O. H." which was quickly met by the return greeting "I. O." Put them together and you get the spelling of "Ohio." After four days, it got a little old. They were a very rowdy bunch. Polite, but rowdy. My favorite salutation (overheard on our streetcar ride) was delivered by an LSU fan saying good-bye to an OSU fan. He said politely to the visitor, "May you enjoy everything about New Orleans except the final score." Ha! Incidentally, LSU beat OSU.
During our walk around the Central Business District Friday night, we stumbled upon a little restaurant called Mother's. We hadn't planned on finding it but once we encountered it, I remembered it had been noted in my guide book. It's claim to fame is the best blackened ham in the world and it's renowned dish is the Ferdi Special, which is a po' boy filled with roast beef, baked ham, gravy, and debris (which is the bits of roast beef that fall off when cooking). And no, I didn't chuck my vegetarian diet for this sandwich. Fran enjoyed it thoroughly enough for the both of us. I had grits and an egg biscuit sandwich. Very yummy.
Another note from my guide book was a drink called the sazerac, which is a local drink. If you want to be a tourist, you drink a hurricane. If you want to be a traveler, you drink a sazerac. We went to the Carousel Bar and Lounge to brave this drink. And when I say brave, I really mean it! It's a drink concocted from rye whiskey, Peychaud's Bitters, Herbsaint anise liqueur, a bit of lemon oil, and a touch of sugar (a very small touch of sugar). Since I do not like whiskey, this was a tough drink for me. Everyone had a sip. No one else liked it, either. Since it was a $10 drink, I endured it to the last drop and then promptly ordered my reward - a Kir Royal (champagne and Chambourd). The fun thing about the Carousel Bar is that it really does revolve! The actual stools and counter rotate around the center of the bar. It's quite interesting to have a different view of the bar every few seconds.
We started Saturday off right - with caffeine and sugar (and plenty of it). Our breakfast at Cafe du Monde consisted of beignets and chicory coffee, both of which they're known for. Chicory coffee is a New Orleans thing, developed by the French during their civil war. Coffee was scarce during those times, and they found that chicory added body and flavor to the brew. Fran and I found that if you have it as Cafe Au Lait (half coffee, half milk), it ain't bad. Not an avid coffee drinker, I couldn't really taste the chicory so I can't even begin to tell you what it to the taste of coffee. It was drinkable. Beignets are the french version of donuts except much more light and fluffy (and yummy, for those of us who don't like donuts) and topped with a mountain of powered sugar.
After consuming more sugar than I have had in months, we walked around the French Quarter. With the toe-tapping sounds of jazz music filling the air, we were drawn to the Jazz History Center where an elementary school band was playing. They were quite wonderful. We listened to a couple of numbers and then moseyed over to the Central Grocery to split a muffuletta, which is the sandwich normally piled with Italian sausage, deli meats, cheese, oil and vinegar, and olive salad (which is pickled olives, carrots, cauliflower, celery, and capers). Our version was veggie, omitting the meats. It was very good. Fran and I ordered the half size, split that, with bites to Jen and Kim, and had more than what we needed (of course, being stuffed didn't prevent us from finishing the sandwich).
Since our guide books told us not to go to cemeteries by ourselves, we hired a mule drawn carriage to take us there. Tip: If you go to St. Louis Cemetery #1 (which is on the outskirts of the French Quarter) during the day with a group of people, you can save yourself $30 each. The carriage ride itself was quaint; our driver was charming and nice, but we would have been in no danger to visit this cemetery without a tour. We also couldn't hear a word he said for most of the tour. We started on Decataur Street (which is in the French Quarter) and rode through the heart of the French Quarter. It's way too noisy, crowded, and discombobulated to hear anything from a driver seated 5 feet away. His name was Prime Time; the mule's name was Boscoe. Both Prime Time and Boscoe showed unmistakable signs of repetition - the thrill of showing tourists around their city had definitely worn off years ago. Prime Time was very knowledgeable about the city and had some interesting facts (when we could hear him) but his cadence resembled that of a 5th grader - the facts were memorized and said with little passion, just wishing for the bell to ring.
New Orleans is 8 feet below sea level. This is the catalyst for their mausoleum cemeteries. All of the deceased need to be buried above ground in order to keep them from decaying into their water supply. These tombs are the reason to tour a cemetery in New Orleans. They're pretty cool. It was hard to tell if the delapitated tombs were a result of vandals, old age, humidity, or Katrina.
After our cemetery tour, it was now time to stuff ourselves with alcohol since we had spent the day stuffing ourselves with food. We wandered around the French Quarter before stopping in at Pat O'Brien's. Since they are the originators of the hurricane, that is the drink I tried. This is another local drink, primarily consumed by tourists, that is made up of rum and passion fruit punch. Not my favorite drink, but certainly better than the sazerac. Unfortunately for me, I was bested by an elderly lady. Served at about the same time I was, she downed her drink and had left the bar before I had even consumed half of my beverage. That was insane! And a tip about the drinks: they're not as expensive as you think. The price of the drink includes the souvenir glass. If you return the glass before you leave (you have to walk up to the bar yourself to do it), you'll get a $3 per glass deposit back.
Lunch would be at the Gumbo Shop, where Fran had gumbo (and said it was pretty good). I had a Cajun Bloody Mary (plus beans and rice but that wasn't as good as the drink). We learned from Prime Time that the difference between Cajun and Creole is that Cajun is spicy.
Dinner that night was at Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse. As the name suggests, steaks are their speciality and as Fran will tell you, it was the second best steak she's ever had in her life. I had the best creamed spinach I had ever had in my life.
Sunday afternoon, we had brunch at Brennan's. Fran couldn't get mid-morning reservations, but since we weren't ones for early rising, our 1:00pm table was just fine. Brennan's invented bananas Foster. We ate our breakfast (our Christmas present from Fran) and enjoyed table side bananas Foster (they flambed the bananas right next to our table). My drink was another local one - invented at this very restaurant. Mr. Funk is a mix of champagne, cranberry juice, and peach schnapps. Very wonderful.
The St. Charles Avenue Streetcar had a stop right outside our hotel. We hopped onto the trolley and rode it to the Garden District, which is filled with elegant old houses. It was originally a plantation that was divided up and developed into a residential neighborhood for wealthy Americans, comprised of Italianate, Victorian, and Greek Revival homes. It was also once called the American District. While the French Quarter is bustling with people and noise, the Garden District is quiet and practically deserted (aside from the people who live there). The exteriors of the homes in the Garden District cannot be altered and thus lull you into a time-warp sensation.
I played tour guide and, with the aid of my Frommer's guide book, was able to spew some educational soundbites for each of the houses we encountered on our self-guided walking tour. After much backtracking (I was in charge of the map and since I have no direction sense, it was a challenge), we finally found the house Anne Rice once lived in. She has since moved but the house is still pretty and definitely whisks you into one of her novels. We also overheard a tour guide pointing out John Goodman's house. His beautiful dogs were lounging on the porch steps (secure by a wrought iron fence). After marveling at the old beautiful houses, we popped into Commander's Palace. Fran had tried to get us dinner reservations but was not successful. We opted for a drink on the patio.
We started Monday off by eating breakfast at Cafe Beignet (not to be confused with Cafe du Monde, where beignets are famous). We then hopped onto the free ferry that took us across the Mississippi River to Algiers, where we toured Mardi Gras World, the place where 80% of the floats used in the Mardi Gras parades are made. The old props (the things sticking out of the floats) were made from paper machier. The modern props are made from styrofoam or fiberglass. Props and floats are reused. They're simply repainted. We got to watch some of them being refurbished for this year's parade. We learned that the floats are owned by non-profit clubs. The people who ride on the floats during the parade pay to ride on them - between $500 and several thousand dollars! They also must buy their own trinkets (beads, doubloons, stuffed animals, etc) to throw. Walking through the warehouse of floats was pretty cool. It was interesting to see the tricks behind the magic.
Upon returning to the French Quarter, it was Kim's turn to shine. She loves to shop, and shop the French Market we did. Fran and I sought out the best pralines (note: in New Orleans, they're pronounced prawleens, not prayleens). Ya gotta love the free samples! Aunt Sally's, housed in the French Market, is probably one of the best known candy makers (most likely because it has the biggest shop). It is NOT the best. We found theirs to be too chewy, borderlining on gross. Southern Candymakers is the best. While I was waiting for the others to make their own candy purchase (which probably only took a couple of minutes), I wolfed down both pralines I had just purchased without even realizing I had eaten them both. Whoops.
After hunting a bit, we finally found William Faulkner's house where he wrote his first novel. The row house is tucked away on a street called Pirate's Alley. It was tough to find. Although we may have passed by it, we never did acknowledge Tennessee Williams' house. I was deprived of my chance to yell, "Stella!" I'll just have to be content with yelling "Forrest!" at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.
Dinner was another veggie muffuletta at Cafe Maspero. The highlight of this place was the $1.00 glass of house wine. Okay, so the wine wasn't that spectacular, but ya gotta love the price! A carafe was only $5.00! Finally, cheap alcohol in New Orleans. I was getting a bit annoyed with $10.00 drinks. Not annoyed enough to stop drinking, but there was a soft grumbling each time I paid the bill.
Monday night was the BCS championship game. The streets were much emptier (although there still were a fair number of fans without tickets wandering about). We braved Bourbon Street FINALLY! No one would go with me any other night. We encountered lots of drunk people wearing beads that were thrown from people staying in hotels on Bourbon Street that had balconies. We marveled at the hordes of drunk people, watched a guy pee in the street, and then absorbed some culture at Preservation Hall. Sadly, there were only a few people there. Of the measly half dozen patrons, none of them were from Ohio or Louisiana (the jazz man asked everyone where they were from) because anyone from those two states were at neighboring bars watching the game. Kim and Fran bought CDs and chatted with the jazz man (a trumpet player named Jamil Sharif) during a performance break. Fran had made friends with him moments prior, so much so that he shared his potato chips with her (and then with the rest of us).
Since we were leaving on Tuesday, we only had time for a bit of shopping at lunch at Johnny's Po' Boys. We had po'boys cuz that's all they really serve (although mine technically wasn't a po'boy - it was just a grilled cheese). After that, it was off to the airport.
You may find it interesting to observe that I spent a lot of time chronicling my culinary excursions. This is because New Orleans is a food town (in addition to a drinking town). It's known for its culinary feats and treats. Unfortunately, New Orleans is first and foremost a southern town. I mention this because, as any vegetarian can lament, the south is not known for its non-meat embracing. It was a bit tough to find restaurants with anything on the menu - even a salad - that didn't have meat. The things I did have were quite good - especially the vegetarian muffuletta.
And that was it. We had a wonderful time (or at least I did). We accomplished lots of touristy things. I ate a lot. I drank a lot (but not a lot, a lot). The weather was nice (70s). Nothing bad happened. Repeat: nothing bad happened! How amazing is that? We had a great time hanging out, being together, and catching up on events, thoughts, and everything else that had happened since we last got to together almost a year and a half ago. Our next trip will take us to Montreal, our first "international" destination. Should be fun!
Trips from 2007
Trips from 2007
After debating which delayed plane would get us to our destination the fastest and most reliable way, we landed in Newark on Friday afternoon and hopped onto the train to NYC. Turns out, the La Guardia flight, which was delayed indefinitely, landed 1 minute before our Newark plane, which had to circle the airport for a half hour before being permitted to land. Jeff was not amused with his choice, mostly because the trip into the city on the train would cost us a total of $30, in addition to our $14 unlimited subway ride card. That unlimited subway card would have been included in our fare out of La Guardia. In addition to the extra expense, our train ride from NJ also forced us to change trains at Penn Station, on the Friday afternoon before Christmas. To say it was packed is a gross understatement. If we had landed at La Guardia, we would have bypassed Penn Station. Trudging through Penn Station was an experience.
For the first time ever on a trip to NYC, we actually stayed in the city! Our hotel was at Central Park South - Leona Hemsley's Park Lane. It was nice. Not extravagant, but decent. It was in the city, which was truly the nice part about it. And it was free. Jeffrey had hotel vouchers.
Jeffrey likes to research beforehand for vegetarian restaurants. The one we went to Friday night was actually vegan - which means no dairy, eggs, nothing derived from an animal source (like honey). I had grilled herbed tempeh - very good! Jeff actually ate pecan encrusted tofu. For one of the few times ever, I was able to reach my fork over and sample his dinner.
On our way to dinner, we admired the Macy's Christmas window displays. This year's theme was Christmas stories written by local elementary classes. Most were quite wonderful and creative! After dinner, we went for drinks at Tavern on the Green. It was eerie walking through Central Park. Although it was only 7:30, we were basically alone in the park, save a few joggers and dog walkers. Tavern on the Green, on the other hand, was packed. We sat upstairs in the lounge and enjoyed our $16 drinks (each). I had cider. Jeff had eggnog. Ya gotta savor it at those prices.
Several hours later (note: I was still awake!!), we ventured out for a late night snack. We finally found something open (I suppose everything closed early on the Friday before Christmas). It was a funky burger joint called Pop. Jeff had a Pop Burger, which were two mini burgers. I had the Invisible Burger, which was a breaded and deep-fried portabello mushroom burger. Quite tasty, even if it wasn't good for me. Sadly, the place will not have a spot in my heart. They had canned sodie. Canned! The horror.
On Saturday, we wandered around Central Park Zoo. It's a small zoo but the polar bears were cute (they were sleeping so we only saw their butts), and so were the red pandas (also sleeping and also only showing their butts). We had fun watching the seals play with a seagull. The seagull kept stealing the seals' fish from a bucket. The seals kept bullying the bird to give it back. Sometimes the bird relented. Other times, he ate the fish himself. It's obviously something they do every day. It was funny.
Later, we ate lunch at a tiny coffee shop and sat at the lunch counter. It was a small counter, about a foot wide (but the entire length of the restaurant), and on the other side of the counter was the kitchen and cooks. It was quite fun to watch them prepare the orders. This shop was a typical New York diner, so much so that it was a parody of itself. It was loud. It was hectic. It was rude. The waiters were constantly shouting commands to the cook staff and leaning over me to put their orders through to the kitchen, to grab meals, to get plates, coffee, etc. They made no apologies about bumping into the patrons seated at the counter and I doubt the rest of the diners even noticed. It was hilarious and definitely an experience.
Later on Saturday, we went to the matinee of Curtains, a musical murder mystery starring David Hyde Pierce (Niles from Frasier). It's a throw-back to Philip Marlow, but with singing and dancing. I really liked it. It was funny. It was well performed. I didn't buy a CD, though. None of the numbers really stuck in my mind. But they were fun and well performed!
As we left the performance, Jeff decided we should see another show that night. On our way to Times Square to buy discounted tickets, we passed the marquee for November. While the title didn't ring a bell, the main actor did. It was starring Nathan Lane. We decided that was the show to see! For anyone who goes to NYC and opts to buy the discounted tickets, note that plays (non-musicals) are much cheaper than musicals and you also don't have to wait in an incredibly long line. The long line that snakes block after block is for those wanting to see a musical. The line for non-musicals is about 6 people long.
Our half-priced tickets for November put us in the second row (but well off to the side at a funny angle). Since there's no orchestra pit at a play, second row puts you right by the stage. A little too close. I kept threatening to reach up and touch Nathan Lane's foot. Jeffrey forbade me from doing so. November is a political comedy written by David Mamet about the desperate things one president (played by Lane) does knowing he won't win the upcoming election. It also starred Laurie Metcalf (from Roseanne) and Dylan Baker. It was quite funny. Oh, and the reason the show didn't ring a bell is because it was still in previews. In fact, the performance we saw was the third performance before an audience. It was quite good, even green.
Ooh, incidentally, one of the actors who was in Curtains was Ernie Sabella (Pumbaa from The Lion King). And who starred along with Pumbaa? Timon, voiced by Nathan Lane. Unfortunately, I did not get to enjoy a day with Pumbaa and Timon. Ernie Sabella's part in Curtains was played by his understudy on the day I saw it, darnit. And how funny would it have been to have coincidentally watched performances by both of them on the same day? Double darnit.
Between Broadway viewings, we stopped backstage at Wicked. Jeff's cousin is Alyce Gilbert, wardrobe supervisor for Wicked. She was quite lovely. Very warm and friendly and down to earth. She obviously loves what she does. She showed us Elphaba's dress and explained the significance of the details. She also very simply showed us her Tony award, which was casually displayed on a table that was covered with sewing supplies. Very cool!
On Sunday, we took a culinary tour of Greenwich Village (or rather, "The Village"). Our tour guide Ed was raised in the Bronx but loves the Village - and eating out. The tour is designed to highlight local restaurants and food shops and Ed certainly knew everything about the places we walked by. He quite eloquently described various meals he recommended at numerous restaurants. He was fun. He was knowledgeable. And he was very entertaining. We walked for three hours. We only sampled food at eight different places, but we were stuffed nonetheless afterwards. We had a slice of thin crust cheese pizza at Joe's (and Ed told us about the scandalous move from its home of 30 years at the end of the block to its current location), sampled some French pesto and olive oil at an olive oil shop (I won't bother with the name since this was one of the only stops on the tour not indigenous to New York City - it was a chain store!), a rice ball at Faicco's (well, the vegetarian had toasted cheese ravioli), a fabulous chocolate chip cookie at Milk and Cookies (probably the best chocolate chip cookie I've ever had), another slice of pizza at John's (this time a Sicilian style), gelato at Cones, sampled various cheeses and olives at Murray's Cheese Shop, and a mini cannoli at Rocco's Pastries. All of it was wonderful!
After our tour, we walked to Washington Square. There were no old men sitting out playing chess but there were some dogs in the dog park. The rest of the square was closed off due to renovations. We weren't there for the square but rather to find 11 Washington Square. This is the house Will Smith's character lives in for I Am Legend. As usual, another movie has lied to me. The scene where the Dark Seekers run across the square, through the arch, towards Will Smith's house cannot possibly have been viewed as depicted. The arch is parallel and off to the side from the house. Darnit.
We then hopped onto the subway and, with a thousand other people, marveled at the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Square and watched the skaters zip around the ice.
From there we clamored onto a bus to take us to La Guardia. Once through security (which, surprisingly, didn't take that long), we waited almost 6 hours before our flights took off. And yes, I said flights. Although we had confirmed tickets, due to a lovely snafu, we ended up on two different flights. We spent hours crammed into the waiting area, watching our flights departure time change over and over and over again. Weather from MSP and an overcrowded sky about New York caused hundreds of delays. The people kept piling up. Eventually, we got to MSP. But we wanted to go to Grand Forks. We landed around midnight, instead of 9pm, and missed our connection. Good thing we call MSP home! We slept in our bed that night. And the next day, Christmas Eve, too, due to more cancellations. MSP had a foot of snow to contend with. We managed to spend just a few hours on Christmas Day with my parents, instead of two and a half days.
And in keeping with Christmas tradition, I now have a lovely cold. I am coughing and sneezing and achy and all stuffed up. Jeff says I must be allergic to Santa because this happens every year.
I was expecting Guam to be a bit like Puerto Rico in the sense that it would retain its individuality, its culture, its charm. Guam was incredibly beautiful. It has wonderful beaches. But it is just like being in the US. I was not prepared for that. English is the main language, but it is spoken without any accent. The island people, for the most part, were speaking as if they lived in Florida or California. And the island looked like it was Florida or California - 70% of the businesses on the island are American chains - KMart, Burger King, Taco Bell, Walgreens, McDonald's. There was very little that distinguished this island from a US state.
I had no trouble finding food to eat, which is VERY unusual for me in Asia. Not that vegetarianism is prevalent. But it was easy to communicate what I wanted (and didn't want). On one hand, that's nice. I like eating! On the other hand, I want a challenge when I travel. That's what makes travel interesting, right? There was very little "Guamanian" on the island. We tried to find the non-chains, the non-tourist traps. It was hard. There wasn't much local fare. We had Jamaican, Italian, Thai, Indian, American, and a few "local" places (one was a pub; the other served Denny's-type food). We had Burger King for lunch (veggie burgers), Denny's and McDonalds for breakfast. You just couldn't get around it.
If someone were to ask me if it was worth the trip, I'd have to say no. I would definitely not do it again (but that's not saying much as I rarely want to go back to a country once I've visited it; there are far too many places in the world to see so no repeats really are necessary) nor would I really recommend it for a real traveler. Why would you travel 15,000 miles (which is a 24 hour day) to go to the US? It was odd. Beautiful, but just too easy and waaay too familiar. It was spooky how easy it was to get around the island.
Getting past the food and the language, we did have a good time. And, just to spice it up, I had to hurt myself several times during the week.
The first injury came Monday morning (note: we left MSP Saturday afternoon; with the time zone change - I believe they're 15 hours ahead - and the 24 hour travel day, we arrived at 2am Monday morning). As I stepped out of the shower, the towel mat on the floor slipped out from under my foot. As my legs flew over my head, my right tushy cheek greeted the edge of the tub at a painfully blinding speed. A bruise the size of a large orange and the color of an eggplant took a few days to form. Good thing I didn't bring a thong bikini! No one needed to see that owie. Bleh.
Since I'm not a stranger to bruises, boo-boos, and pain, I shrugged off my new injury and we headed to a dive shop to rent snorkeling gear - masks, snorkel, booties, and flippers. Although flippers are incredibly hard to walk in, they do make swimming so much easier. One tip: If you choose to put your flippers on while standing on the beach (instead of in the water - they do float, which makes it both nice and difficult to put them on in the water), walk backwards into the water.
We've tried snorkeling before (in Jamaica, I think) but I wasn't a fan of it. That was before I had Lasik so I think the fear of losing a contact (even when my eyes were secure inside an airtight mask) hindered my enjoyment. Our first time out in Guam wasn't much better. The fun of seeing schools of fish swim by is overshadowed by water seeping into a supposedly airtight mask. It creeped me out. And the mouth piece on the snorkel was too wide for my lips to seal around. I apparently have a small mouth! Who knew? As a result, I drank an awful lot of seawater. Mmm, salty! We then went to KMArt (it's supposed to be the largest KMart in the world but it didn't seem that big to me), which was right across the street from our hotel. I bought me a kid's size mask and snorkel. Laugh all you want (Jeff certainly did) but it actually did the trick! It fit. No more water in my snorkel. No more water in my mask. I could see and breath underwater! Snorkeling's fun when you can do it right!
The next day we drove around most of the island. We had lunch at a tourist trap called Jeff's Pirate Cove. Hee hee. We did not stop at Yokoi Cave. This is the cave that a Japanese solider defected from the army and hid out in for 30 years. He didn't know the war had ended. The actual cave collapsed and what you can actually tour is a replica... for $30 a person. I didn't think it was worth the money (and the hike) to see a replica.
We stopped at a couple of beaches and attempted to snorkel (with my new kids mask). It had rained the night before (it was the tail-end of monsoon season), which had disturbed the sediment too much to see anything. Family Beach was too populated by Japanese tourists riding banana boats and Jet-Skis (and we were a little nervous about getting run over).
On Halloween morning, I woke up wearing my costume. I apparently had too much sun the day before and was experiencing sun poisoning. It wasn't my first bout. Since I had been privy to sun poisoning before, I knew what it was. It can be a little scary waking up with your eyes almost puffed shut. Puffy cheeks I can take (and am a bit used to) but puffy eyes is scary (and funny) looking. I took heavy doses of Claritin and Benadryl. Jeff brought me breakfast in bed (it was too early to go out scaring people with my looks). By noon, most of the puffiness had gone down and I was suitable for the outdoors (behind sunglasses). For those keeping score, this was my second ailment of the trip. Oh, the things I can get myself into without really trying.
Behind dark sunglasses, we looked over the view at Two Lover's Point. This cliffline could be seen from our hotel beach (about a couple of miles away) and overlooks the Philippine Sea. The legend tells of two lovers who, forbidden from being together in life, leaped to their deaths from the cliffside so they could be together in eternity. It's quite a long ways down into a sea filled with sharp coral. A very tragic and pointed end.
We spent another day driving around the island. On Tuesday (the day before), we drove past the Navy base. On this day (Wednesday), we drove past the Air Force base. Just on the civilian side of the Navy base, there's a Taco Bell/Long John Silver's (it's a combo). Just on the civilian side of the Air Force gate, there's a McDonald's. Odd, huh? :-)
On our drives, we noticed that although Guam is almost completely devoid of birds (the over-abundance of snakes on the island has done away with the bird population), there is a plethora - more than a plethora - of butterflies. We saw hundreds every day.
That night, amid a wicked downpour, we braved the rain and went to the Chamorro Village fair. The Chamorros are the island's native (which amounts for about 25% of the population). It was filled mostly with food stalls, smoking with local food. Sadly, what little local food there is apparently is non-vegetarian. Jeff had some interesting looking fried things (squid and beef, I think). The shops were, unfortunately, tourist traps. Nothing appears to be made on the island. There are no crops on the island (that we saw). Everything is shipped in. Nothing is native/home grown. It was fun dodging the rain drops but after about a half hour, we left.
The next day, I was still a bit puffy (new puffiness, I suspect) but was determined not to let it stop me. We went snorkeling on Gun Beach, named for artillery placed there during World War II. During this snorkeling outing, we were privy to an awesome sight - a blue starfish. I wish we had an underwater camera so that you all could truly appreciate how beautiful this creature was! When I say "blue" it really is a deep, bright, true blue (not like a baby blue). It was shocking how blue this guy was! He was so marvelous. And we got to see all of him, too. His friend, a few rocks away, was only partially visible, but this guy was fully exposed. So magnificent. I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to find him again (I don't think he left; I just couldn't remember what underwater rock out of a hundred I had seen him on). We saw a ton of fish. One little fella even took a shine to me... or he was trying to attack me. I wasn't brave enough to find out which it was. As he first swam by me, I stuck my finger out to touch him. He then turned around and darted at my finger. At first, I thought, "Cool! A friend" but then fear spread over me. What if he bit me? I certainly didn't need to go to the hospital with a weird fish disease. I tried swimming away but the darned thing kept chasing me. Not really chasing, but lunging and darting at me. He would not leave me alone. In a desperate attempt to flee the scene (those darn flippers don't let you go in reverse too easily), I crashed into some coral and skinned my knee. Boo-boos in salt water hurt. And they keep hurting every time you go back in the water. Darn fish. Bizarre injury number three.
Friday was our last day on the island. We boarded the ultra-touristy submarine that dove down about 115 feet and meandered around a coral reef. We saw tons of fish! Sadly, the only reason these fish were there was because they had bait barrels all over the reef. But the coral was there on its own free will. :-) We saw sponge, tons of different types of coral, bluefins, angelfish (he was really yellow). It was cool. And you do feel the pressure going down that far under sea level. The excursion lasted about 55 minutes; 35 minutes underwater, 10 minutes each getting to and going from the submarine via a different boat. Although definitely for show, the submarine went topside as we approached it from our transport boat. It was very cool to watch it emerge!
After the submarine, we walked around a "zoo." It was very small, had about 20 or so different animals (but basically only one animal of each species), smelled really bad, and we were the only ones there. The animals were a bit too tame. I had a running tally of the animals that came to me when I called to them versus the ones that favored Jeff. It was 11 to 3 by the time we left. Of course, one of the llamas only came to me because I brought food (gotta love llama kibble).
It was then time to begin our adventure home (which luckily was not an adventure). Since the flights didn't line up correctly, we flew from Guam to Narita, overnighted in Narita, and on Saturday, I flew home - my first international flight by myself! I even filled out the Customs form correctly. Jeff flew on to Hong Kong for a couple of days.
Guam was a lovely 85-90 degrees each day we were there. It rained almost every night, but the weather was gracious enough to hold until the sun went down. The beaches were beautiful. I finally got the hang of snorkeling (and who cares if my mask is technically for 5 year olds?). I saw lots of pretty and interesting creatures. I only hurt myself three times in a week! It was an experience. I wouldn't travel 24 hours again to only end up in US, but it was a good time on a beautiful island.
We stayed at the Doctor's Beach Cave Hotel on the main strip of Montego Bay. It's not on the beach. It's not all inclusive, either. But it was a clean room with a relatively working air conditioner so that's all that matters. We did find out from an Australian tourist that the actual Doctor's Beach was about a block down and costs about $5 a person to get in.
We got to our hotel about 1:30. We ate lunch at a Denny's-type restaurant at the far end of the strip. I got the vegetable platter, which consisted of rice and peas, mashed potatoes, and calaloo. Rice and peas is a misnomer. It's red beans and rice. And calaloo is a Caribbean dish that's basically stewed leafy greens (like spinach) and okra. It was really good!
From there, we didn't know what to do. It was almost 90 degrees with about 90% humidity. I didn't want to do much of anything. Not wanting to spend $10 to sit on a beach for only a couple of hours, we opted to sit on the deck of Margaritaville (yes, named after the Jimmy Buffet song... and all they play is Jimmy Buffet tunes) and have a beer. We would later have dinner there. We walked the strip a little bit but since it was the end of the season, we were pretty much the only tourists there. We got accosted by the shop keepers and the street peddlers ("Hey, buddy, do you smoke?" "Can I braid your hair?").
The next day was beach day. We sat on the beach pretty much all day long. We rented chairs and an umbrella. I played in the water. And at the end of the day, I was a little pink. And by night time, I was red. And by the next morning, I was dark red. And I DID put sunblock on!
That's all there is to tell of our Jamaican jaunt. We sat on the beach. I got sunburned. We drank a lot of Red Stripe (Jamaican) beer. We sat coach for the flight out and the flight home. Nothing attacked me. Nothing bad happened... except my sunburn. Owie!
We landed in Cancun on Thursday afternoon, greeted by the stifling humidity and hot temperatures. We flew Click Mexicana airlines from Cancun to Merida. We rented a car and drove to our hotel. Since it was well into the evening, we opted to merely have dinner at a nearby restaurant (it was vegetarian) and call it a night. Ooh, one interesting moment of the night: As we were walking through a crowd of people, one of the men who passed by me called me "Bonita" which I think means pretty lady. Hee hee hee.
The next day, we hopped into the rental car and drove to many small towns in search of old churches and Mayan ruins. Being a blonde, I attracted many staring eyes. I doubt these towns see many tourists and rarely see a blonde. After three whole days in Mexico, I didn't quite get used to the stares. It's kinda creepy...
We drove to Acanceh and saw an interesting combination of a Mayan pyramid, colonial church, and a modern church all on the same plaza. After that, we stopped in Tecoh and viewed the temple of Candelaria. This temple, although you wouldn't have known it just by looking at it, was built on top of a Mayan pyramid. We also saw churches in Tekit, Mama, Tipikal, and Mani. We probably stopped in a few more towns but they all seemed to blend together after awhile... We saw many animals - cows, goats, chickens, turkeys, and dogs. We saw lots of interesting modes of transportation - bikes, bikes with front rider car, tuk tuks (motorbikes with passenger room), cars, trucks filled with workers, buses, and probably many others.
Our major stop for the day was the ruins of Mayapan. There were a dozen or so ruins, none of which were really climbable (or so Jeffrey would tell me). One question I had while walking around - What's the difference between Incan and Mayan ruins? It looked pretty similar to Macchu Picchu. After not climbing the ruins, we headed to Santa Elena for the night. There we stayed at a very quiet bed and breakfast called the Flycatcher. In the morning the B&B would serve us the best orange juice ever - and this is coming from a person who doesn't like orange juice at all!!
Before we would have fresh mandarin orange juice, we went to the light show at Uxmal (note: this happened the night before the orange juice). Uxmal contains more Mayan ruins - lots of buildings, big buildings. It's not as large as Chichen Itza, but there are significantly less people at Uxmal for basically the same thing (or so I'm told). The light show was... interesting. It was in Spanish (which is natural) so I understood nothing. Not a word. Nada (and they didn't use that word). I did catch on that the presentation was a campy depiction of life when the ruins were new and was actually glad I didn't understand it. I do have in my mind the incessant chanting "Chac" (pronounced like a cross between chalk and chuck), which is the Mayan rain god. They said that many, many, many times in a row. Quite tedious, even if I didn't understand what they were saying.
We sat in the Nunnery Quadrangle (or rather, that's what the Spanish called it; it was actually the university). Lights illuminated several buildings across the way. We would later find them to be the Governor's Palace, the House of the Tortugas (turtles, one word Jeff would understand), and the Ball Court. Lights also shone on certain architectural aspects of the Nunnery. We made a mental note to have a closer look in the day.
When we got back to our B&B, we turned on the light only to discover something zip lickety-split across the wall. My heart quickly calmed down as I realized it was only a gecko (but being in the middle of rural Mexico, the sight of speedy movement did give me quite a scare).
The next morning, we drove back to Uxmal (after we had the fresh orange juice) to tour it in the daytime. We latched on to a foursome of Americans who opted for an English speaking tour guide. Although our guide was quite knowledgeable and very funny and informative, practically everything he said went in one ear and out the other. I never remember much from tours, so they might was well be in another language. I remember that he mentioned that games played in the Ball Court were tough. Players couldn't use their hands or feet, only elbows and knees to hit the ball. And the captain of the winning team was beheaded. Luckily for players, most games never ended in a winner because the ball had to go through a precariously positioned hoop in order to win the game.
Jeff wouldn't let me climb the Great Pyramid. Our instructor didn't climb it either, and ended our tour to let us do what we wished. As he explained, he didn't have health insurance. The steps up any of the ruins were steep and tiny and very treacherous. There were numerous huge iguanas hanging out on rocks all over the grounds. They were very cool! The funny thing is that iguana is the same in any language. One tourist was hanging over the edge of some ruins snapping pictures away like crazy. When I bent over to see what he was looking at, he informed me in a thick Slavic accent, "Iguana." He didn't speak English; I don't think he spoke Spanish, but I understood him perfectly.
I finally answered my own initial question - what the difference between Incan and Mayan ruins were. The Mayan ruins had absolutely wonderful carvings in rock all over their buildings. The Incan ones may have had them when they were original, but the ruins certainly didn't have any (or many).
After climbing, or rather, not really climbing Uxmal, we drove back to Merida. It was Carnivale week in Merida, which meant a parade every night. This wasn't your typical parade - there were elaborate costumes, music, dancing, bright colors, illuminated floats. It was loud and a lot of commotion for several hours.
Getting "tickets" to the parade was a small adventure. We ate dinner just a few feet from the parade route. We didn't want to be far away and have to worm through crowds just to get there, but we also didn't want to be on the parade street too far in advance. It was dark out, which meant the sun wasn't around to keep us slightly warm (read: it was a touch on the cool side to be sitting out for hours). About a half hour before the parade was to start, we wandered over to the bleachers and tried to get a ticket to that section. We were told, or at least we assumed this is what the man was trying to tell us, that the tickets needed to be purchased elsewhere. We went in the general direction of where he pointed and met up with the ticket seller, only to be waved away. After several attempts, we were finally physically led to a position in line. We had no idea what line we were in or what the hold up was, but we stood there with about 30 others for well over a half hour. I surmised that the regular bleacher seats must have been sold out and the line we were in was the line for the seats they'd put up after they fully closed off the street. I was right.
Purchasing the tickets was another small adventure. The total for two was 52 pesos. Jeff only had a 500 peso bill. The ticket seller wasn't happy about this and wouldn't - or couldn't - make change (although if you figure there were at least 30 other people in front of us, she had to have enough to make change). Jeff tried to get her to take a US ten dollar bill. She wouldn't do that either. Jeff kept trying to tell her that he didn't want any change. About 10 minutes later, and several ticket staff members intervening, we finally paid for our tickets (with the $10 bill) and sat down. We then waited and waited. And waited some more. The parade route was over 2 miles long and we were at the end of the route. The first float didn't pass by until 8:30. The second float was a half hour after that. After the second float, the parade really picked up and turned into quite an experience. About two hours later, the parade finally ended. Ooh, and the teenage boy sitting in front of us gave me a rose. He had several, won them in some sort of carnival game, and wanted to give the flowers to pretty girls... and me.
Up until this point, our trip had gone fairly smoothly, despite my lack of Spanish speaking abilities and getting stared at everywhere we went. We checked into our hotel - the Hotel Caribe - which was right near the parade route. It seemed to be quite nice and very hopping. The lobby was quaint - complete with a lovely courtyard. Our hotel room, however, was not fabulous. It wasn't even nice. Forget the fact that there were no blankets on the bed (and it was quite cool at night) and the bathroom was rusty, moldy, and just plain dirty. The main horror of the room - it was incredibly stinky. Now, understand that while I do have a sensitive nose, I am quite used to foul smells (Sirbie sees to that on a nightly basis). When I say "stinky," I mean almost unbearably smelly. On the second evening of our stay there, we completely avoided the bathroom, which seemed to be the main cause of the stench (I think sewer gases were spewing out from the pipes). It was gag inducing. We cleverly found other sources for our bathroom needs - "Hey, let's go to that cafe across the street for a beer... and to use their bathroom!" I sprayed my travel blanket with perfume and wrapped it around my face while I slept (see photo). Yes, the perfume was strong, but I'll take that any day over the foul rotting stench that consumed our hotel room. Ugh. Just thinking back to that smell makes my stomach heave. Bleh!
The next day, we drove to the coast. Celestun is known for their flamingo habitats. The beach, although incredibly pretty, was completely devoid of people. Why? Because of cold, gusty winds. It was pretty darned freezing on the beach! We rented a boat and a guide took us, and a family of Dutch (or was it German... or Austrian...) tourists to view the flamingos and pelicans. The boat ride was fast, incredibly windy, and very cold. Most excursions last about an hour and a half; ours was only 35 minutes. We got taken! Jeff was very sad as most excursions also go to caves to view cenotes (which, as far as I can tell, are like stalagmites). We saw a few flamingos (very cool up close) and some bubbling underground springs. That was it.
Later that evening, we decided to go see Ghost Rider, a film with Nicholas Cage. It was playing at a theater right next to our hotel (and we had to get away from the stink). It was in English with Spanish subtitles. Go to Movie Valley to read the review of the movie. Just watching the movie in Mexico was an adventure in itself. First, instead of butter on the popcorn, people douse the corn with hot sauce. Jeff put some on half our our popcorn, just so we could try it. It was very good although not very practical. It was messy and if left on too long would make the popcorn soggy. Bleh. But without the hot sauce, the popcorn was wonderful - so salty I didn't even miss my salt shaker. People strolled in and out of the movie continuously. And they talked. A lot. The real interesting moment - intermission. My thought was that their projector didn't have a big enough reel to accommodate all the reels (typically 4-5) of film a normal movie has so they had to break it up. We were pleasantly watching along and then all of a sudden - sudden being the key word because there was no warning, nor was there a decent pause in the movie - the movie stopped. About 10 minutes later, the viewing continued. Jeff thinks they did it to sell more popcorn.
Finally, the food summary: Finding vegetarian food in Mexico is a bit difficult, particularly if you want to go authentic and native (which we like to do). We ate at many non-Mexican restaurants as well as some Mexican ones. For those, I had to use my growing food vocabularly to indicate what I want and what I don't want made for me. At several restaurants, we had salsa. We were surprised how different they were at each one. The first one was way too hot for Jeff (although just fine for me). The others must have sensed "gringo" and those were fine. The chips and tortillas were freshly made. The chips had a lovely layer of hot grease on them, too (mmmmmm). The guacamole was the second best I ever had (the first best being at a Mexican restaurant in the Del Sol neighborhood in St. Paul). I did convince Jeff to stop at a street vendor after Carnivale to get me some churros. Mmmm, greasy fried dough sprinkled with sugar. Yum. We also try to have McDonald's or Burger King in a foreign country, just to see what's different. In Peru, there was the Fiesta Meal (Happy Meal) with a McQueso (grilled cheese). In Thailand, there was no Diet Coke (or what everyone else calls Coke Light). But they did have pineapple pie (just like McDonald's apple pie but with pineapple). That was tasty. In Mexico, Burger King's breakfast croissant sandwich comes with refried beans slathered all over it. It was... slimey. And apple Fanta. That was good! I ate a lot of cheese this trip. A lot of rice. And a lot of grease. But I helped cut all that down with a lot of beer (cervasa). Now that's healthy eating.
That's pretty much it for the Mexico adventure. I'm really starting to pick up on this Spanish thing. I can order pretty confidently at a restaurant. Confident that the waiter understood me that I didn't want any meat in whatever I was ordering. And I can read road signs fairly well, too. Of course, Jeff knows firsthand that I have a ways to go before being fluent. Any time he wanted me to ask for directions, I refused. Even if I could convey where I wanted to go, there was no guarantee that I would understand what they were telling me. I made him do it.
Ooh - one last small adventure. I got up around 6am on the morning we left. I went into the overwhelmingly ripe bathroom to take my shower. I turned on the water before I got in and let it run. After letting it run for a good five minutes (and completely shutting off the cold water), there was absolutely no hot water coming out. I shut off the shower. There would be no cleanliness in my future. Jeff braved the water and said after about 4 more minutes, the water did turn warm. By that time, I was ready to go. The poor passengers who sat next to me on our journey home would just have to understand - no hot water, no shower. By the end of the day (over 14 hours of travel), there was definitely no mistaking the fact that I didn't shower that morning.
We flew AirMexico from Merida to Mexico City; NWA from Mexico City to Detroit. Jeff got stuck in Detroit one flight longer than I did. I got home about 9:30 in the evening on Monday; he finally made it home about 11:30. And after all the food I consumed in Mexico, I ended up getting dreadfully sick the day after we got home.
Trips from 2006
Trips from 2006
Flying standby can be an adventure in itself. We had originally planned to leave on Thursday but when the flights began filling up, we opted to leave a day earlier AND we flew to Detroit (instead of flying straight out of Minneapolis). This would add about 4 more hours to our traveling time (although only about two of those hours were in the air). From Detroit we flew to Tokyo on a 12 hour flight. And after already 16 hours of traveling, we would still have a five and a half hour flight to Hong Kong (and then Immigration, Customs, and a bus ride to our hotel). We did get business class for both international legs (which made it easier to stand - ha!).
One interesting side note: In the past I have relished the international flight for one reason: a chance to catch up on all the movies I missed when they were out in theaters. I have recently resumed my hobby of going out to movies. I see a new release in a theater once a week. As a result, I had actually seen most of the movies being shown on the flight. It was incredibly disappointing to flip through the movie listings only to note "Saw it. Seen it. Seen it, saw it. Saw this one, too. And this one. And this one, too." Of the 10 new release movies, I had been to 8 of them already. It was going to be a long flight.
We arrived at our hotel in Hong Kong a little after midnight Thursday local time. Since I had not slept the entire 24 hours of traveling, I was tired but hungry. We set off to fill our bellies before finally calling it a night. We ended up at a noodle shop just a block from our hotel. I picked the place because it had English translations on the menu, which is always helpful when you don't speak Chinese. I had a simple noodle and bok choy dish. It would turn out to be the best food I would have for several days.
Friday morning started off leisurely. The first stop - and only real agenda for our Hong Kong portion of our trip - tailored clothing. Jeffrey had been to Hong Kong before and had several shirts made for him. This time, he wanted more shirts and finally decided to get rid of the hand-me-down suit from his little brother, replacing it with a new tailored suit. After losing 50 pounds, I, too, was in the mood to get new clothes that actually fit. I wanted to get "duplicates" made of a dress that I really like. We stopped at William Cheng (a wonderful tailor), picked out material for 3 new shirts for Jeff. He was also measured for his new suit.
Our next stop was The Peak. We took a ferry over to the Hong Kong side of the harbour and then rode the tram up to the top of the Peak. It had fantastic views of the Kowloon side. We then decided to walk down the mountain, a task Jeff would come to regret. The climb back down the mountain was incredibly steep and winding as we circled our way down. After only a few steps, our calf muscles would ache under the strain of acting as our only form of brakes. By the time we got down the mountain, our legs were rubber. I could feel my knees wobble over the last few steps. We were happy we chose this particular schedule - walking down the mountain instead of up, a decision that was compounded with each person we passed who was on his/her way up. The expression on their faces was not of joy. Of course, part of their happiness could have been diminished by what they encountered on their walk. It definitely put a damper on Jeff's enthusiasm. Half way down the mountain, I spied a three foot snake slithering a few feet in front of us. Jeff refused to walk any further until the snake was completely out of sight (and then made me scout ahead of him to make sure the snake was gone).
We then found a tailor for me. We went to the Western Market, a place filled with teeny tiny fabric shops. One of the stalls had some fabric I liked. We asked the shop keeper if it were possible to get some clothing made there (we wondered if they just sold fabric). I had packed the dress I wanted replicated, but that was back in the hotel. Luckily, I had taken photos of the dress and those photos were still on my digital camera, which I had with me. Straight from the view screen of my digital camera, the tailor was able to look at this tiny rendering and sketch up a dress. The tailor didn't speak English but the shop keeper did. The tailor asked questions that the shop keeper interpreted, which I answered, which were in turn interpreted back to the tailor. It was quite an interesting process. I picked out some material for the dress. Excited by all the lovely choices, I picked out more material and asked for two A-line skirts. This prompted more questions from the tailor - did I want lining under the skirt, where did the I want the zipper - which the shop keeper interpreted, which I answered, and in turn was interpreted back to the tailor. It was amazing how little I had to describe about what I wanted and even more amazing were the questions I never thought would be asked. We were assured that the items would be ready by our departure. It was currently Friday; we needed the clothing finished by Monday evening.
I would have had more skirts and more replicated dresses made, but Jeff wanted to see the finished product before I ordered more. I could live with one goofy dress and two goofed up skirts; it would be wasteful to get a ton of poorly made clothes. As Jeff reminded me, we could always come back to Hong Kong.
Northwest has an affiliate office in Hong Kong and through that, he met and befriended a woman named Loretta. She's a native to Hong Kong and was happy to play tour guide for a couple of days. We met up with her for dinner later that evening. She was instrumental in making sure I got pure vegetarian food for my dinner. As we discovered in Japan last year, fish is in every dish. It may not say that in the English translation but it's implied anyway. I would show Loretta what I was interested in ordering. She would read the Chinese version and either steer me away from it or instruct the waitress what to leave out.
The next day, we took Loretta to a part of Hong Kong she had never been to before. We went to Sai Kung, rented a boat, and ferried to a couple of different islands. Loretta negotiated the fare and the number of stops with ease. During the boat ride (it was just us on the boat), Loretta chatted away with the boat driver. It wasn't until after our first stop that I discovered she wasn't arguing with the boat driver. In fact, the boat driver turned out to be rather friendly and entertaining to Loretta. Their language is very verbose and the tone can be sharp and loud, all of which I took to be heated arguments. I kept thinking, "Sheesh! What is she yelling about?" In reality, she was regaling Loretta with stories about the islands. One was abandoned and the other had an enormous mansion where a hundred stray dogs roamed around the grounds.
That evening we attended the Celebration of Lights in Tsim Sha Tsui. It originally was a celebration for the millennium but the tourism board made it a permanent event. It starts about 8:00 (in the winter) and lasts for about 20 minutes. Lights on the buildings across the harbour dance to the synchronization of piped in music. It was definitely a big spectacle. I was expecting more colors and more dancing lights than what it really was. It was pretty. I guess I was just expecting it to be dazzling.
Later, we strolled through the Goldfish Market and the Flower Market. Basically, these "markets" are a block or two of shops all selling very similar products (fish and flowers, go figure). The streets are crammed with people. It was interesting to tour the flower markets. I was expecting to see things I have never seen - tropical and exotic looking contortions of color - but they were familiar roses and impatiens and daisies, with a few new things here and there. Or maybe my gardening knowledge is so broad, everything looks familiar to me now. :-) The fish market contained the familiar fishies - with the exception of tattooed and dyed fish. Seriously - some of the fish had bright tattoos inked into their scales.
Sunday morning, we hit the Jade Market. I bought a ring and some necklaces while discovering I wasn't that good at negotiating. Jeff talked the peddlers down easier and quicker than I did. The jewelry was very cheap to begin with so it was hard to know just how low you could actually go with the price.
We met up with Loretta in the afternoon at her apartment. I was expecting a bread-box but it was actually quite spacious... for an apartment in Hong Kong. I got to meet her three cats and even got to be one of the few who saw the one who doesn't venture out when anyone else is in the apartment.
The "largest outdoor seated Buddha made of bronze" (that seriously is its claim to famme) was our afternoon romp. We took the Ngong Ping 360, which is like a sky lift gondola, up to the mountain. The ride lasted about 25 minutes and every time I thought we could go no higher and surely would stop any second, I was proven wrong. We drifted up, up, up into the sky. The clouds were unbelievably low that day, hanging well below the peak of the mountain. As the gondola climbed up higher, we floated into the clouds. We all had a good laugh at the view. The gondolas in front of us drifted away into the clouds, almost as if they were passing into Heaven. At one point we were so heavily immersed in the clouds we could see nothing around us. It was very eerie... and yet strangely calming.
Once on top of the mountain (and back on actual ground), we were amazed at how packed the temple was. Thousands of people milled around the grounds. One of the reasons we came to the temple was to dine at the Buddhist's vegetarian restaurant. With the energy from the lunch, we climbed the hundreds of stairs up, up, up, up, up to the giant Buddha. After we wandered back down the hundreds of stairs, Jeff bought me some gelato. I got green tea (bleh - way too green tasting) and black sesame (very interesting nutty taste).
It was then that we realized we weren't the only people who wanted to leave the mountain. The line for the return gondola ride snaked for at least a half mile - thousands of people. Once again, Loretta proved invaluable. Bus was another return option, and that option had no line. The gondola ride was 25 minutes of quiet celestial gliding; the bus ride was 45 minutes of snaking down the mountain on a lane that seemed to be wide enough for only one vehicle. It was harrowing to greet oncoming traffic. We survived, though, without incident and that's only what matters.
We pulled out the big guns of Loretta's negotiating skills at the Night Market. I bought more jewelry and a Burberry (fake) purse. I don't think we spent more than $15 total US there but came away with a good haul.
The next day was our last day in Hong Kong. We kept it simple by merely wandering around the city until it was time to pick up our tailored items. The shop keeper had expressly told us my clothes wouldn't be ready until 5:00 and he was pretty darned correct about that. We pressed to get them earlier and managed to shave off an hour of the delivery time. The poor tailor was frazzled and out of breath when he finally arrived at the shop with my dress and skirts. The items looked wonderful. I will definitely be back to get more made!
We flew to Bangkok that night for just the night. It is here that I must interject some info about the weather: It was about 80-85 degrees in Hong Kong with noticeable but not unbearable humidity. I was comfortable wearing my sleeveless shirts during our walks, but it was not weather I would like to run in. The evenings and mornings were quite pleasant and I even had to put on my jacket when the sun went down. Thailand, on the other hand, was not pleasant at dark. It was hot and impossibly humid, even at 11:00 at night.
The next day we flew an Asian airline to Chang Mai. It was a 45 minute flight. We took a tuk tuk (a motor bike with a covered back seat for 2 attached to it) into the city. It was too hot to walk around, or so I told Jeffrey, so we negotiated a tour with a taxi (which is a pickup truck with a covered flatbed equipped with benches). Jeff gave him a list of things we wanted to see and we hopped into the covered wagon.
The driver took us to Monkey School. There I was greeted by a monkey who held my hand as soon as I walked through the entrance. It was a fantastic feeling to hold a monkey's hand. It was so human like. Now, I know we're just hairless monkeys so the fact that his hand was just like ours shouldn't have come as a surprise to me but feeling the hand was something you have to experience. He grabbed onto my hand and just would not let go. Eventually he climbed onto my lap... and then promptly bit me. I actually didn't even realize he was biting me. One minute his hand was holding mine as he sat on my lap, the next thing I knew, his hands were wrapped around my wrist. I looked down to see if he was trying to play with my ring when I realized his mouth was around my arm. I don't think he had any teeth. I surely didn't feel as though he was biting me. He played with me a bit more and when he grew frustrated that I wouldn't let him sit on my head (I have a thing against animals peeing on my head), he hopped off my lap and onto Jeff's, where he promptly devoured one of our admission tickets.
Before we travelled to Asia, I gave Jeff a list of things I wanted to do and see. We had just watched a documentary about coconut picking monkeys in Thailand so I was jonesing to see one of these monkeys. I told him I wanted my picture taken of me with my arm around a monkey. I believe I also told him to make sure he got a picture of the monkey slapping me. I had a feeling the monkey would do this. Spookily enough, I foretold the future. The school we visited had a two month old monkey running around. He was your typical toddler - not quite used to how the whole jumping thing works. He had trouble with his jumps. Feeling bad for the poor little guy, I picked him up. He ate some of the food we had purchased and when he realized he didn't like being held anymore, he promptly slapped me in the face and darted off. I knew a monkey was going to slap me and that's exactly what happened.
The monkeys demonstrated how they pick coconuts (which is what the school trains them to do) and why they pick coconuts - efficiency. Monkeys can climb trees faster, easier, and safer than humans. After the show we were off to tour an orchid nursery. After that, our driver took us to several tourist trap markets. They were interesting and cheesy all in one. These markets were also factories. We learned how silk is made, watched wood being carved, learned the process paper umbrellas go through, and learned how silver jewelry is smelted and carved.
The next day marked our excursion into elephant world. We left the comfort of our hotel in a bustling city for a rustic hut in a small mountain village. When deciding what to do and see in Thailand, elephants made the top of my list. I had seen shows about elephant rides in Thailand and knew that these elephants painted pictures and played instruments (and even recorded a CD). But all my enthusiasm for elephants was being weighted down with my animal rights side. Was it really okay to ride an elephant? What kind of living conditions were in store for the elephants? Were they treated well by their handlers? Did they like giving rides? Jeff initially assured me that since the elephant was the livelihood for these people, they had to be treated well. Still, I hemmed and hawed. Jeff did some research and decided that the best place to go was the Elephant Nature Park, a refuge for neglected/abused/abandoned/sick/injured/unwanted elephants. We would get to feed the elephants and bathe them in the river. It sounded a little rustic and a bit out of my comfort zone but I had Jeff make the reservations.
On our ride up to the park, the guide gave us a few instructions. Her last warning was, "If a baby elephant pushes you, get out of the way and do not push back. He'll think you're playing with him." I leaned over to Jeff and said, "If a baby elephant pushes me, you better believe I'm pushing back." He shook his head and laughed at me. We stopped at a local market to pick up bananas for the elephants. They were pre-packaged in huge heavy bundles for us. We all picked up a bag and placed it into the back of a pickup truck that had been following our van. We assumed that was it until we saw the guide throwing bundle after bundle into the truck. The shop keepers were used to this drill and had pre-packed about a hundred packs. All of these were meant for the elephants because, after all, we were feeding elephants. Upon realizing this, we all stepped into high gear to load up the truck. There were about 15 of us and it took about fifteen minutes to load the truck. This should tell you how many bananas we packed!
Asian elephants aren't as big as I expected. In fact, they're quite small. Of course, they weigh tons more than we do, but they just don't seem that big up close. We were instructed to walk only on the deck. The elephants surrounded it, sticking their trunks onto the gangways, almost tripping people as they passed by. They were waiting for feeding time. They wouldn't get fed until we had endured a lecture about elephants - how they came to the park, and a crash course in all you ever wanted to know about elephants. Each elephant had his/her own handler which was called a mahout. The elephants responded better than most dogs to the calls of their mahout.
Our first feeding time was quite interesting. It was a bit intimidating to place fruit on an elephant's trunk. The trunk is amazingly strong and agile, not to mention tough, rough, and hairy. They whipped their trunks around, searching for the food. If you weren't fast enough, they pushed you out of the way with their trunks in hopes of reaching their food basket without you. Oh, and trunks are also dripping with slime each time the elephants snort. And that slime ends up all over you as you wrap food into their trunks.
Once the elephants were feed, it was time for our own feeding. The food was amazing - and most of it was real vegetarian food, too. After spending two days at the park, I realized that a lot of their clientele were probably animal rights/vegetarians, which is why they had a lot of veggie food. We were expecting a choice of two dishes - one veggie, one meat - but there were easily 12 different things on the buffet line. All of them were extraordinary.
Upon finishing our lunch, we were treated to a showing of a documentary that involved the woman who founded the park. Our guide had watched the raw, unedited version of the footage and she told us it made her so sick she had to leave the room. This version was rated PG but was awfully tough to take. ALL elephants go through a brutal ritual that breaks their spirit, which enables them to be domesticated/trained to give rides, haul logs, paint pictures. When the Thai government saw this documentary, which simply shows the process, they banned it from Thailand rather than address the issue it was depicting. I was glad there was something inside me that was skeptical about the ethical background of riding an elephant and that I didn't opt to go that route.
The documentary would be the only downer for the trip. The bitter was soon wiped away with the sweet of trekking down to the river to bathe the elephants. It is at this point in the story that I must highlight yet another foreshadowing: Our guide warned us about how baby elephants play. Our instructor, with the hopes to warn and reassure us, also shared a story involving baby elephants. She reminded us that we were going to be face to face with big animals but then reassured us that no one at the park had ever been injured by an elephant, although one lady had a close encounter with two baby elephants. One baby elephant knocked her down as they waded into the river and moments later, another baby elephant knocked her down again. She was bruised with a few scrapes but nothing serious, although her sides probably hurt from all the laughing. As we all headed down to the river, the elephants and their mahouts sauntered alongside us. Jeff marveled at how cool the sight was as we veered off the elephant path and opted for the higher human trail a few feet away from the enormous footsteps of the elephants. I walked a bit in front of Jeff. All of a sudden, I was thrown foreword several feet as something rammed into me from behind. I quickly scrambled out of the way, not knowing which elephant it was, how many more were coming, or how fast. As soon as I skeedaddled from the path, I heard laughter. Everyone behind me saw the show. A baby elephant head-butted me from behind and then darted in front of me. It must have been a sight! The funniest part of the whole episode was that I could not believe I didn't hear him coming! You would think 600 pounds coming at you would be noisy - whether you hear it or feel it as the ground rumbled - but there was not a sound.
Washing them was an event. We were reminded to scrub hard. There was nothing dainty about an elephant! The water was cold. The current was strong (trying to wade upstream was nearly impossible). Elephants are very dirty. I could go on and on about the elephants. I will summarize the rest of the elephant experience by saying it was incredibly cool to just hang with the elephants. Jeff has decided that this is how he wants to retire - watching elephants play all day long.
We were one of the few who stayed at the park overnight. We met another couple who were traveling with their two little boys. They were on month 2 of a 10 month trip around the world. Jeff made instant friends with the 4 year old and quickly bonded with the 7 year old. We went on an elephant hike with them and a trek through the village across a rickety suspension bridge. Our lodging for the night was essentially a tree fort. It did have four walls and a roof but it was not at all sound proof or wind proof. I thought the hut would come crashing down from the gusting winds during the night. The bathrooms were... rustic (see the photo page). We opted not to take showers in the morning. It was basically an outdoor faucet in the middle of the rustic bathroom (no stall, no shower curtain, no enclosure). The drain was a hole in the floor that went straight to the ground below. And there was no hot water. Plus, a spider the size of my hand was lingering on the wall near the toilet (which was essentially where the shower was) and I didn't feel I could share my shower with a strange spider.
Elephants are very dirty creatures. They use dirt as sun screen. As soon as we were done washing them (we did this twice a day), they moseyed out of the river and promptly flung dirt all over themselves. If you were anywhere within a ten foot radius, you, too, got showered with dirt. When you hang with elephants, you soon become as dirty as one, too (and smell them them). And, as I found out, dirt is not a sun screen for humans. Even though I was covered in grime for two days, I still got a little pink.
And that pretty much sums up our trip to Hong Kong and Thailand. There were a few more things that happened that are somewhat interesting but not worth the effort to type up. Plus, I'm pretty sure most people have read all they need to read about this trip. It was uneventful (meaning nothing bad happened). We saw a lot of animals. I learned I don't like Chinese food (too bland). I got slapped by a monkey. I got pushed by a baby elephant. It was hot. It was humid. Elephants are cool. The end.
My adventure was shared by Dawn, Joel, and Jeff (although perhaps they should be call the kidnappers). Jeffrey actually bought tickets for this trip (on Northwest, of course). We got to fly like real people! Of course, in Coach with no chance of upgrade, but we did get to board when everyone else boarded. I haven't done that in years! We flew out early Sunday morning. From O'Hare, we took the train into the city. Jeffrey found a condo that rented out a two bedroom unit for a couple of nights in the neighborhood of Near North. We stayed on the 48th floor, overlooking the city. We got to our condo just in time for lunch. On one of his business trips, Joel had eaten at Giordano's Pizza and wanted to go back. Turns out it was a mere two blocks from our condo. Everyone else had pizza. I did not. :-)
We spent the evening wandering around the neighborhood. We were close to Navy Pier. Even though I had been to Chicago many times before, I had never been to the pier or Magnificent Mile. Since this was my birthday trip, we got to do what I wanted to do. We ate Dippin' Dots on the pier. We watched boats go by. And if you squinted, you could see Gary, Indiana across the lake. From there we went to Millennium Park. We played under "the Bean," a giant, shiny jelly bean-type sculpture. We stuck our feet in the Crown Fountain. Tons of kids splashed around (many wearing bathing suits) so it seemed like it would be fun. The water was very cold. No other body part would find its way into that water.
The next day (Monday), we received a tour of Chicago by one of the Chicago Greeters. This is a free service staffed by volunteers. You sign up for a private tour, pick a topic, and a Chicago native leads you around the city. We chose a garden theme. Since our guide wasn't heavily into gardens, she pointed out many other sights (which was just fine). She knew a lot about the history of the town and gave us a very unique and entertaining tour. One thing Dawn and I liked was that she pointed out the building where our grandfather once worked (okay, so she didn't know he worked there; we just figured it out when she said it was the old Standard Oil building).
We ate lunch at the original Marshall Field's building (which will soon become Macy's). Later, we took an architectural tour on a boat through the Chicago River. Later that evening, we went our separate ways. Jeff took me to my first Cubs game (at Wrigley Field)!! We were Bleacher Bums (which means we sat in the bleachers). We sat in center field. Although it threatened to rain, it remained nice all evening (albeit cold). And I'd like to say there was at least one other person wrapped in a blankey in the bleachers (and it was an adult). And I learned something being at the game. Although I want to, I probably shouldn't make a dinner out of nachos, cotton candy, and a beer.
My birthday present from Dawn and Joel was tickets to Wicked. We went that night. The play is the back story of the Wizard of Oz, focusing on the two main witches - Glinda (good witch of the north) and the wicked witch of the west. I read on-line that Elphaba (the wicked witch of the west), although not named in the Wizard of Oz, was named by the person who wrote the book Wicked as a play on the Wizard of Oz's author (L. Frank Baum = El-Fa-Ba). Anyway, basically the musical is about the relationship Elphaba and Glinda have (and that in a different light, you realize that Elphaba is actually a good witch). Anyway, it was absolutely wonderful. The songs were quite catchy. The characters were most compelling. It was a fabulous birthday present.
And that was pretty much my Chicago adventure. We walked a lot. We saw a lot of Chicago we had never seen before. I got to see a great musical. I got to see A musical. It was great birthday, surrounded by great people. :-)
Fran flew into Minneapolis on the morning of Saturday, June 10th. Jen and Kim were driving from Jen's family's lake cabin and were due to arrive sometime in the mid-afternoon. Poor Jen had awakened that morning to what she thought was food poisoning. Kim drove them to my house. Once all together in my little house and upon surveying the amount of luggage we had, it became clear that two cars were going to be needed for this road trip. Little Pip would get his first big drive of his little Mini life. We jammed our luggage into our cars, squeezing a couple of things into Pip and piling most of it into Jen's car. And then we took off like a flash. Well, a small flash. Well, a turtle flash. We quickly met up with construction that took a 4 lane highway down to 1 lane through St. Paul. It took us about 45 minutes to get east of the city. But then we were off like a flash!
Fran had printed off maps and was my navigator. Since she knew the way, we got to be lead car. Our maps were taking us clear straight across the middle of Wisconsin and then up a very windy road along the bay to St. Ignace, MI. The part across the middle of Wisconsin would be boring. The part of the windy road along the bay would be excruciatingly long.
And even though it was June, it was unseasonably cold so Pip's top stayed up. Our trip began with one party down with a bout of food poisoning, ridiculous traffic, and a convertible stymied by cold temperatures.
We drove for about 4 and a half hours. When darkness hit, we stopped at Shawano, which is about 2/3 of the way through the middle part of Wisconsin. In the morning, we discovered that our room overlooked the race track below. If we had only checked into our hotel an hour sooner, we would have had a prime viewing of the races that night.
The six hour drive to St. Ignace (our ferry point) was pretty uneventful. Fran and I wondered how Wisconsin came to name their county roads. They were letters - County Road A, County Road Q - but they were not in alphabetical order nor did they represent all of the letters. And for no imaginable reason, the letters were doubled or tripled - County Road MMM or Country Road RR. Where was County Road AA? Surely, before you could have County Road RR, you must have County Road AA, right? And Fran and I also wondered how expensive speed signs must be because once we entered Michigan, there were none to be seen. We assumed the speed on this single lane, windy bay road was 55 but we were never told. There was a sign telling us that we had entered the Eastern time zone, but our cell phones told us that 20 minutes prior to that sign.
Once in St. Ignace, Pip was left alone in a dusty parking lot for the week. No cars were allowed on Mackinac Island, no matter how small and cute. The island is known for two things - a car ban and fudge. Not that those two have anything in common (although I suppose if you eat as much fudge as the island produces, you probably should walk or bike everywhere). There are no cars, no motorcycles, no scooters - no motorized vehicles of any sort. Nothing that goes vroom vroom. And there are fudge shops every two feet on the main strip of the island.
We took the ferry over to the island, where we'd be staying for the next four nights. We opted not to sit on top. It was already a bit cold for me and we weren't even on a boat in the middle of a lake going 40 miles an hour. Once off the ferry, we walked onto the main street of the town. In wafts, fresh horse manure filled our nostrils. Since it was the height of the lilac festival, I was hoping the perfume of the purple and pink and white flowers would overwhelm the stench of the horses, but sadly, that was not the case. We walked to our hotel. Despite the absence of motorized vehicles, walking across the streets on the island was a bit more challenging than one would expect. While there are no cars, there are plenty of bikes that go zipping by, forgetting the pedestrians have the right of way. And if speeding bikes don't scare ya, the girth and cantor of horse drawn carts will. Those horses would sooner plow through you, if you got in their way, than go around. Dinner that evening would be the event for the night.
The next morning (Monday), we spent several hours touring Fort Mackinac. We had a lovely hike up to the fort (no stairs, just a gradual incline that seemed to never end). From the top, we looked down on the main square of the island, filled with blooming lilacs. We ate lunch at the Tea Room, which overlooked the square and harbor. Our ticket to the fort also got us admission to a number of other historical buildings around the island. We wandered to the Biddle House, the McGulpin house, and the American Fur Company Store. The Dr. Beaumont Museum was quite interesting. Dr. Beaumont did a lot of digestive experiments, mostly on a man who was shot in the stomach and the wound never healed. He was able to then drop food on a string directly into the man's stomach and pull the string out to analyze the contents on the string. He recorded how long various food items took to digest. Kinda creepy and cool at the same time.
On Tuesday we took a horse drawn taxi (the only kind of taxis on the island) up to the Grand Hotel. Once on the grounds, you must pay an admission fee (if you're not staying at the hotel) - an admission fee just to look around! We ate lunch at the Grand Hotel buffet ($35 each). I filled myself up with all sorts of cheeses and veggies... and desserts, of course. Probably not $35 worth, but it was an experience! Later, we toured the various gardens around the hotel. The map makes the grounds look far more expansive than they really are. We kept getting lost because it appeared to be a long walk between gardens (so we passed them and had to turn around) when they were really right on top of each other. We walked by several thinking, "That looks like XYZ, but it can't be so close!" The Labyrinth Garden was a cool concept. We expected it to be somewhat of a hedge maze. There wasn't much of a puzzle to it, however. A circular path rock garden is really what it amounted to be.
After our garden wanderings, we split into separate groups. Fran wanted to rent a "drive your own horse and buggy" but Jen wasn't too fond of big animals. She and Kim went on a bike ride around the island while Fran and I drove around the island... with a horse and cart. I got to "drive" the horse. I was a bit hesitant but the horse knew exactly what to do. She basically did what she wanted, because that's what she had been trained to do. At one point, I believe the horse scoffed at me. At one intersection, she stopped and looked directly back at me. I wanted to go straight. Apparently she had been trained to turn right at this intersection. She looked at me as if to say, "Seriously? Are you sure?"
Jen and I decided to be a bit daring on Wednesday. We got up bright and early, taking the ferry from the island to Mackinaw City. That's not the daring part. The daring part was when we paid a man to take us out on a perfectly good boat and then hoist us high in the sky, hovering over the boat and water. Six hundred feet above the boat and water. Jen and I went parasailing.
We hadn't planned on parasailing (well, that day we did, but when I packed in Minnesota, I packed nothing, no outfit, that would prove useful when parasailing). I wore regular pants, regular shirt (and a sweatshirt over that), and flip flops. Just before we left the hotel that morning, I plopped an extra pair of pants into my backpack, in case my pants got wet. I didn't know what to expect with takeoff and landings and I wasn't sure if I would get wet.
Our boat went out with another family - two brothers and their father. They, from their stories, had done a ton of daredevilish acts (sky diving, scuba diving, hang gliding). They were old hat at this sort of thing. They offered to let us, the ladies, go first, but thankfully the first mate had rigged the tandem pole to the parachute first. This meant that the boys, who were going up together, had to go first. Jen and I were going separately from each other, which was a different setup. I say thankfully because Jen and I were a bit confused by the captain's instructions. He made it seem like there were several things we needed to do in order to get ourselves up in the air. When the guys went up, we saw that there was nothing to it. And once we, too, were strapped in, it became very apparent that the parachute did all the work.
We decided (or perhaps I decided and Jen just went along with my wishes) to go up together. The equipment was all set up for two riders anyway, so why make more work for the crew? We sat down on the back of the boat (I'm sure there's some nautical term for it, but you get the idea), got strapped to a bar that was strapped to a parachute, and when the boat picked up some speed, the parachute dragged us off the boat and up, up, up into the air.
So how was it? Absolutely freezing. I shivered and shivered and shivered. This was northern Michigan in early June in the morning in the middle of Lake Michigan (actually, we were on the dividing line between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, I believe). It was cold. But it was also quite cool. Quite tranquil. And I'm glad I went up with someone else. We laughed, talked, pointed out things to each other, and took pictures of our chattering faces. Fran, 6 and a half months pregnant, was forced to remain in the boat. She took pictures. And then paid the captain to try to dunk us. Well, her story later was that she paid him to make it look like we were going to get dunked. It worked. It definitely looked like we were going to hit the water. I remember saying to Jen, "Hey, aren't we getting a little too close to the water?" They did it twice, once when we were a long ways from the boat (with the sinking feeling filling my stomach that we would have a long way to swim to the boat), and another when we were a few feet from the boat, presumably so they could see our expressions better and hear our concerned tones in our voices. :-)
We spent the rest of the day wandering around Mackinaw Island - touring the shops, playing on the beach.
Thursday wrapped up our stay on the island. Fran and I hit many of the different fudge shops. Jeff asked me to bring back fudge and bring back fudge I did. I got him many funky different kinds.
We took the ferry back from the island to St. Ignace. We stopped at the Mystery Spot, a few miles away. Unless you have small children and have good balance, I'd say skip it. The folklore of the site is much better than the actual site itself, and the folklore is much cheaper. It cost us $7 each to be swindled. Basically, it's a shack built on a 45 degree angle. Funky things happen to inertia, gravity, and all those other scientific terms when a body is forced to stand tilted. The folklore is that in the 1950s, some surveyors had trouble leveling their equipment on a plot of land due to some magnetic force field around the area. Okay, well, that doesn't sound too appealing either, but you two would be drawn in by the giant MYSTERY SPOT sign on the side of the road. Who doesn't love a good mystery? Particularly one that's a tourist trap...
We took Thursday afternoon and most of Friday to drive back to Minnesota. Jen and Kim would go on to Jen's lake cabin some three hours north of the Twin Cities while Fran would crash at my place until her flight Saturday afternoon. As Fran and I drove through Wisconsin (finally with the top down), we decided to keep a list of all the county road signs we saw. I don't think we saw every letter of the alphabet. We did, however, invent a game. When we saw a county road sign, we had to alternate naming words that began with that letter until we saw the next county road sign. For example, if we saw a sign for County Road F, I would say something that began with the letter F - like Frankenfurter. Fran's turn would be next. She would have to say another word that began with the letter F. Fruit Loops. Fool's Gold (me). Fossils (Fran). Flippers (me). Foccacia (Fran). Fabric softener (me). Facade (Fran). Fortitude (me). And that didn't change until we drove past the next county road. County Road M. Monkeys (Fran). Maniacal (me). Mayhem (Fran). What fun. :-)
So, that was our road trip to an island that didn't allow cars. We rode in horse drawn carriage. We ate fudge. Some of us froze.
Our next trip was decided Thursday night. We each wrote down names of places we'd like to visit on tiny pieces of paper. We placed these pieces of paper in my veggie burger's basket (sans veggie burger). We shuffled the basket until a piece of paper came flying out. We kept a tally of which ones flew out of the basket. The first one to two (best two out of three) won. We picked an alternate place, too. We learned that this was a must, after our last trip. We had originally picked New Orleans but when the hurricane hit, we had to choose another location (that was Savannah). The winner for next year - New Orleans. The alternate - Montreal. Both of these were Fran's ideas. Neither of mine (Cape Cod & Key West) EVER jumped out the basket. Hmph.
Have you ever gone over 36 hours without a shower? For those stinky few who have, I ask you this follow-up question: When you finally did get to shower, did you take one in a bathroom so small that the toilet, which was about a foot away from the shower space, got soaking wet because there was no defined shower stall - just a head and a drain in the middle of a three feet by four feet bathroom? For the one odd person who nodded yes, I pose this question: Did you dry yourself off with a pillowcase because there wasn't one single clean towel in the entire hotel? Ha! Top that!
Sigh. Yes, it's true. That little story sums up the first very long day of our adventure to Peru. But I get ahead of myself. The events leading up to that story are just as outlandish. I must confess that this is an incredibly long story (as you will read) but we had a lot happen to us. And, for the first time, my story isn't punched up with adjectives and adverbs. The prose may be a bit boring but the adventures were not. They speak for themselves!
My first college roommate Vanessa was and still is from Peru. When she invited us to her wedding, Jeff and I leaped at the chance to attend it. After much debate, we decided to forego our usual style of traveling 10,000 miles for a 24 or 48 hour stay. It was going to be our first time in South America. We wanted to explore Peru and to do that, you actually need some time. We ended up stretching the adventure into 8 days. And since Peru is the land of 87 different climates (out of a possible 103), we realized we had to pack for rainy, windy, cold, hot, AND humid. We had to pack layers of hiking clothes as well as skimpy beachy attire. And since Vanessa's wedding was formal, we also had to pack a long formal dress and a suit. And shoes. Hiking shoes, walking shoes, and formal shoes. In addition to the mountain of clothes, we had to bring Vanessa's wedding present, trinkets and toys for village children, stuff to do on the 10 hour plane ride (and for hotels without TVs), and leave room to bring back souvenirs. Peru is the land of alpaca sweaters and Minnesota is the land to wear them!
For the first time in a VERY long time, we had a lot of luggage, a lot of luggage to check. At the last minute, I convinced Jeff not to check his roller bag (which is carry-on size). It contained two bottles of wine for Vanessa and I was afraid they might break in the hands of the baggage handlers. Jeff didn't want to attempt to carry it on the plane because he feared it would have to be gate checked anyway because the flight was so packed.
We left the house at 7:15am Saturday. We boarded a plane for Dallas at 9:30am. From there, we hopped on an American Airlines plane to Lima. It left around 1:30. We got Coach. We landed in Lima at 9:30pm Peru time. We went through Customs just fine. We waited for our luggage to appear on the merry-go-round in baggage claim. We waited. And we waited. And then we waited some more. There were a couple of occasions where I shouted excitedly, "Ooh, ooh! I think I see one!" only to send Jeff on a wild goose chase. Our baggage never found its way around the baggage belt.
Jeff went to the lost luggage line to file a claim. This took well over an hour. We were informed that our luggage never made it on the flight from Dallas. When this was discovered, it was then transferred over to a flight from Dallas to Miami. The flight from Miami to Lima would land at 5:30 the next morning. Fine. Since we wanted to take a 7:20am flight from Lima to Cusco the next morning, we would pick up our lost bags then. We took a taxi to our hotel, checking in around midnight.
Do you remember the part of my story where I told you that I convinced Jeff to NOT check one of the bags? This was, currently, our only bag. Its contents were two bottles of wine, the trinkets for the village children ... and Jeff's clothes. HIS inconvenience: his toiletry bag was in one of the checked pieces. This carry on bag did not contain one single thing for me.
Since I had no clothes to change into nor any toiletries to shower with, it seemed silly to shower at all when we woke up at 4:30 the next morning. At 5am, we were back in a taxi, heading for the Lima airport, a place we had left a mere 6 hours ago. Once at the airport, Jeff toddled off to claim our freshly arrived baggage while I waited. Forty-five minutes later, Jeff returned, sans luggage. The bags never made it on the Miami to Lima flight and were still in Miami.
Our flight to Cusco was delayed, which gave us time to think about how we wanted to handle the no bags situation. We could stay in Lima until the bags arrived. We could go to Cusco and have the bags sent there. Jeff wanted to go to Cusco. I wanted to stay in Lima. I figured if the airline couldn't get our bags to Lima, what were the chances they could get it to Cusco? In the end, Jeff won out. We had to get to Cusco by noon that day or we'd lose our train tickets that were being held at the train station ticket counter, tickets we had already paid for and were nonrefundable. Money won out over comfort.
After many delays due to weather, we finally boarded the plane to Cusco. We landed at 11:45 and immediately headed to the train station to pick up our tickets. The odd thing is that these train tickets were not going to be used in the town we picked them up at. These tickets were from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Caliente (the Machu Picchu stop). You can't buy tickets at Ollantaytambo. You have to get them at Cusco. Ollantaytambo is 2 hours away by bus so if we arrived at the Cusco train station after the ticket window closed, we would either have to take a bus back from Ollantaytambo to buy another set of tickets or spend the night in Cusco. Cusco is a much smaller, more rural town than Lima (and Ollantaytambo is much, much, much smaller than Cusco). It's also at 11,000 feet. Many people get altitude sickness from the high elevation of the town. Knowing this, Jeff opted to not spend the night there on the first part of our voyage. He wanted to get us acclimated to the altitude at a lower level in Ollantaytambo. It's at a mere 7,000 feet.
With that knowledge, you understand why it was important and necessary for us to get to the train station before it closed. Our taxi pulled up to the train station door at 11:58. We got our train tickets!
And thus another adventure began. Our taxi driver waited patiently outside the train station while Jeff picked up the tickets. We were going to take a bus to Ollantaytambo but our taxi driver offered to take us there in the "comfort" of his taxi. He explained that the public buses were so small and very packed with people. He would take us there for 70 soles (or roughly 22 US dollars). It seemed like an okay thing to accept. We were wrong.
My Spanish is pretty non-existent. Jeff can converse so that his main thoughts can be expressed (I was always impressed with how long he could carry on the conversation) but he's definitely not fluent. Somewhere along the way, the driver asked for 80 soles. Jeff reminded him that his offer was 70 soles. The driver countered that it was a 10 sole side to the train station, plus the 70 sole ride to Ollantaytambo. Jeff explained that it was only a 3 sole fare to the station, according to every site he came across on the Internet. After much arguing, the driver parked, got out of the car, and didn't return for 10 minutes. Jeff said he mentioned something about getting another car for the trip.
When the taxi driver returned, he drove a couple of blocks and then let us out in a bus yard. He handed us bus tickets and then ushered us on to the bus. Jeff protested. The bus to Ollantaytambo was only 6 soles (total) and he had paid the driver 70 soles. Where was the difference? Annoyed, we were handed back some money. When all was said and done, we paid about 35 soles for a taxi and bus ride that should have only cost 10 soles tops for the both of us. We were taken! It was a first for us.
I really had to go to the bathroom at this point. We had a few minutes before the bus was scheduled to leave so we asked our well paid taxi driver to tell us where it was. When I saw the men's bathroom (or lack thereof), I opted to hold it. The men's bathroom was outside. And before you say, "That's not so bad," let me explain HOW outside it was. It was a stall that consisted of a three foot wall over a pit. That's it. No door. No roof. No privacy. People were hustling about left and right. I did not want the adventure of discovering what the women's bathroom was like.
The public bus had seats for about 45 people. Children had to sit on their parents laps. At one point, there was easily 70 people on this bus. It stopped every 5 minutes or so, picking up more people, and rarely letting anyone off. The fun thing about this experience was that occasionally vendors would hop on to sell candy, books, and food. We bought some homemade bread. When Jeff didn't finish his, he caught the little boy sitting next to him eyeing his leftovers. Jeff handed him the remnants and the little boy's eyes lit up as he wolfed it down.
An hour and a half later, we arrived in a little town called Urubamba. From there, we switched from our spacious public bus to a local van. Before hopping on to the 10 seater that would be crammed with 25 people, I used the bus station's bathroom. It was then that I was glad that Jeff read the paragraph on Peru's public restrooms. Toilet paper is not provided. We had brought our own. Another thing about Peruvian bathrooms - you cannot flush toilet paper. This tidbit that would prove useful in knowing AHEAD of time (which was reinforced when Debby flooded her hotel bathroom and had to switch rooms).
A half hour local van ride later, we reached our final destination - Ollantaytambo. Just before we left Minnesota, we watched a show called The Thirsty Traveller. It's a travel show that throws the host into various countries around the world just so he can drink the local spirit. The episode we watched was about Peru. From there, we learned that houses that have a red plastic bag wrapped around a pole sticking out over their doorway are houses where "chicha" (the local spirit) can be purchased. Luckily, we watched a second episode of the show, a behind-the-scenes episode, that coincidentally was also about Peru. The first episode made chicha sound wonderful. The behind-the-scenes episode revealed the reality - the host was deathly sick after his chicha experience for the entire week he was in Peru. As the local van meandered its way through the tiny but back-breaking Ollantaytambo cobblestone streets, we saw many, many red plastic bag poles. We knew what they meant and we knew we were going to avoid them.
Jeff called American Airlines and were informed that our bags would arrive in Cusco Monday afternoon. It was currently Sunday afternoon in a town 2 hours away. Our train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu would leave about the time our bags would arrive in Cusco. Facing the reality that I wouldn't see my clothes and toiletries until after hiking all over Machu Picchu, I convinced Jeff to go back to Urubamba to purchase some clothes in the "market."
I have recently lost 35 pounds. I mention this in connection to our Peruvian market shopping experience because if I hadn't lost this weight, I would have been forced to wear the same outfit I had already worn for 36 hours for another two days. The clothes in this market had no sizes sewn into them, which made finding a reference point useless. The clothes were also pretty darned tiny. The slimmer me could wear these clothes (and not explode the seams). The fatter me could not have. We bought me 3 pairs of tiny underwear, two tiny shirts, a tiny sweater jacket, and two pairs of socks (my feet are already tiny so there's no point in mentioning tiny socks). We spent 17 US dollars TOTAL. We then went back to Ollantaytambo and purchased shampoo and other toiletries, including aspirin (or, in Jeff's Spanish, "por la cavesa mallo").
After checking into our hotel around 7pm, I eagerly awaited my shower. One thing was missing - where were the towels? Jeff asked the very helpful boy at the counter and after much searching, was informed that there was no clean towel in the hotel. We were told, "Maybe tomorrow morning." I couldn't wait that long. I improvised and grabbed a pillowcase off the third cot in the room. That would serve as a starting point. Losing 35 pounds was helpful once again. A bigger me could not have been adequately dried off with one measly pillowcase. :-)
Monday morning (after a shower which forced Jeff to dry himself off with his bedsheet), we climbed the ruins of Ollantaytambo, a precursor to Machu Picchu. The hill looks daunting, but it took no time at all to get up to the top. Well, no time after we caught our breath. We went up a few steps and suddenly felt the effects of the 7,000 foot elevation. We rested a minute. We climbed another few steps and rested. After climbing halfway up the ruins, we acclimated. The rest of the hike wasn't bad at all.
As we were sitting in an outdoor cafe, Debby and Marc arrived in town and instantly found us. It's a very small town. We ate lunch with them and then climbed the ruins for the second time. Shortly thereafter, we boarded the train to Aguas Caliente.
At one point, the train had to stop. The reason? The tracks were barely there. It was the rainy season in Peru and the river that followed the tracks and crossed it several times had eaten away at the earth surrounding the tracks. Several planks had been wedged under the tracks to support them but even from the train, you could see the rushing waters below the tracks. We wondered if, even though the train managed to escape plunging into the incredibly rapid waters below, we'd be able to make the voyage back the next day.
Once at Aguas Caliente, Debby and I went our separate ways. Her hotel hovered above the swollen, ferocious river. Ours was the only one at Machu Picchu and was one of the most expensive hotels we would ever stay at in our lives.
We were supposed to take a tourist bus up the mountain but the last one had already left. The porter from the hotel put us in an incredibly old bus, each seat ripped up to expose the stuffing and coils. Some didn't even look like they could be sat on. This was the bus that would take the hotel workers up to Machu Picchu. It would leave in an hour.
An hour later, the porter came back and transferred us from the comfort of the old rickety ripped up bus to a cargo truck... We were ushered into the cab while the workers climbed into the cargo hold with our luggage. It took a half hour for the truck to meander up the mountain, twisting around 11 narrow switchbacks in the dark of night.
Tuesday morning, Jeff awoke before sunrise with the hopes of climbing Machu Picchu and watching the sun rise in the sky over the mountains. Since it was raining, I opted to sleep in. There would be no visible sunrise. Jeff explored on his own, in the fog and rain, one of five other people on the mountain. After breakfast, I joined him, along with a bigger crowd, in the rain and fog. Halfway up the mountain, we ran into Debby and Marc.
Machu Picchu was spectacular, despite the poor visibility caused by the fog. It was simply amazing to see something so old but still almost intact. And the size was amazing. So big! And the incline of the slopes they built upon was incredible. They obviously had no help from me, as I would have fallen off the mountain (and miraculously not killed myself). We hiked through the rain and fog. Our perseverance paid off as there were fleeting moments of clear, sunny skies and we were able to look around at the valleys, river, and countryside that stretched for miles and miles below.
After spending hours climbing over the ruins, we boarded the train at Aguas Caliente and headed to the higher altitude of Cusco. As the train chugged its way up the la