Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Platinum in Vegas

It's hard to believe but with this, my 278th post, I celebrate 10 year doing this blog. The first entry appeared on January 6, 2007.  In it, I vowed to write at least one post a month. That resolution held up for a couple of years, often with the help of frantic typing on the last day of the month so I could make the deadline. Then one day, I discovered the "back date" feature where I could procrastinate to my lazy heart's content, yet still make it look like I was staying up to date. The backlog that resulted from this got to be so great that I considered abandoning this project altogether.

Thankfully, I didn't. My original intent was to force myself to maintain some kind of travel journal and looking back, that's pretty much what ended up happening. When asked about what to do in city x,  I can now reference my own blog. This means I am probably giving out a lot of erroneous information but I am having fun doing it...and isn't that what really counts?

Monday, November 7, 2016

Manila : Home of Forts, Hobbits and Nuts

Me, making reservations for a dinner cruise on Manila Bay: "Hi, there will be 8 of us and I will be needing a vegetarian meal."

Manila Cruise People: "Do you eat pork?"

Me: "No, I am a vegetarian?"

MCP: "Do you eat fish?"

Me: "No. I am completely vegetarian.  No meat, no chicken, no pork and no fish"

MCP: (pause) "We checked and it is ok if you bring your own food."

Me: "Do I still need to pay the full price for the dinner cruise?"

MCP: "Yes"

Me: "Then could you please just add extra vegetarian sides? Maybe a cheese sandwich?"

MCP: "Um, ok"

Monday, October 3, 2016

Ten Reasons to Fall in Love with Gran Canaria

1.The Food.This could also be reasons 2-10 but that might make me look a bit gluttonous. I say this as someone who, ironically enough, could not eat about 70% of what was on most menus. Island cuisine=lots and lots of seafood. But the things I could eat, particularly the papas arrugadas (or wrinkled potatoes) and the tortillas Españolas were more than enough to keep me fat and happy. Add to that the tapas, usually marinated olives or homemade chips, that came with every drink and it is a miracle I did not roll off the island.

2.The Public Transit. For three days, we stayed in the capital city of Las Palmas. I briefly considered renting a car to explore the surrounding areas but once I took a look at the bus schedule, it was clear that there was no need. Public buses frequently do the loop around the island in either direction, making it easy to get to anywhere you want to go, usually without transferring.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Barcelona's Festa Gracia is Better than Your Street Fair

When the people at my hostel suggested I go check out the block party taking place in our neighborhood, I used the only frame of reference I have and imagined a couple of arepa trucks, some lukewarm beer and a bunch of stands selling random crap. Sure, I would walk over there and see what was going on but my expectations were set to low.

They handed me a map of the area with about a dozen non-connected blocks highlighted. It seemed odd to me that the party would be so spread out in what looked like a pretty haphazard way. How many arepa trucks did these people have?

I only got as far as the first block before I realized that I was dealing with a totally different animal. This was not the typical street fair, not by a long shot. This was neighbors coming together to throw one hell of a party.  And not just any neighbors, this was a decidedly local (read: no tourists except maybe the ones from my hostel), hip artsy area throwing down.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Country #104: Touring Lucky in Andorra.

T-Mobile recently up'ed their roaming game. Already my favorite for providing free 2G data and text messages in over 140 countries, they declared that all summer long, their users could access high speed data all over Europe. For someone with a very close relationship to Google maps, this was huge. As with most corporate absolutes, the announcement was then followed by an asterisk which led to a disclaimer that said "** Except Andorra. Apologies to the proud people of Andorra!"

Why the tiny 180 square mile country was singled out, while its French and Spanish neighbors were free to roam willy nilly is a mystery to me. I learned about this slight on my 2.5 hr road trip from Barcelona to Andorra la Vielle. I was using the BlaBlaCar app (think carpooling meets uber for long distance trips) and my driver, Marco, was a Spaniard who worked in a resort in Andorra but returned home every other week to see his girlfriend.

He gave me advice on what to do during this day trip, that honestly speaking, I was doing only because officially- and despite all reason- Andorra is its own country.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Girona: A girl has no guide

My first Game of Thrones fan tour led me to King's Landing and Qarth- or as nit-picking cartographers would call it "Dubrovnik". A new month meant a new destination and this time I made plans to go to Braavos. For those that do not have either (a)an HBO Go subscription or (b) way too much time on their hands, (SPOILERS APLENTY COMING UP) this was the place where that little badass Arya went to train with a cult of weirdo assassins. You might remember that most of her time was spent running through crowded markets while being chased by a crabby blonde chick with a stick. Either that or selling oysters.

I wanted to go to those markets. Turns out that all of those scenes were filmed in the Catalan city of Girona.  To get there, one could easily do a day trip from Barcelona (less than 1 hr by train) but the wee medieval town really does merit at least an overnight.  This is particularly true if you are hoping to transport yourself to Braavos (with a little bit of King's Landing thrown in). If that is your plan, you are going to need some time.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Brussels does Japan: The re-flowering

Two years ago, after a lot of planning combined with a dash of luck, I finally had a chance to see the Brussels' biennial flower carpet.  This is when the city of Brussels takes what is, in my opinion, the prettiest square in all of Europe and dolls it up with a couple million begonias.

Every two years, there is a different design.  In 2014, the theme had been a celebration of the Turkish rug. With its jewel tones and symmetrical pattern, the flower carpet was glorious.  The hotel I'd stayed in was both funky and fresh. The weather had been (mostly) good. Overall, it had been a great trip which I remembered fondly and mentioned every time someone brought up Brussels in conversation.

That is exactly what I did when a coworker told me she was thinking of going to Belgium.  Realizing that it was an even numbered year, I pulled out my phone to check for her when the carpet would be displayed.  It was that very weekend!  She was off the weekend after- too late for a carpet that is only on around for four days -but in a twist worthy of one of the crappier M Night Shyamalan films, I did have the next couple of days off.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Country #103: Speeding through Montenegro

Country #103 was a toss-up. From Dubrovnik, there are two days trips that are widely available. You can either head north to Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina or go south to Kotor and Budva in Montenegro. Both sounded promising. Mostar has the middle eastern architecture I love and one highly photogenic bridge. Montenegro has beaches and a miniature walled city version of Dubrovnik. Since a good portion of the day was going to be spent going to and from, it came down to which was the more scenic drive.

Everyone I asked had the same answer. "The one with the Bay of Kotor!!" Either this is very common knowledge or I asked some all the right people because stunning does not begin to describe the vistas around this meandering bay.

Out of practicality and because I wanted to see as much as possible in a limited amount of time, I opted to do one of the organized bus tours.  And then I remembered why I don't like them very much. If it was up to me, I would have been pulling over at every village, every overlook and every roadside cafe. The bus driver thought otherwise.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Country #102: Croatia, the search for Khal Drogo

One would think that the "sport" of counting countries would be relatively free of controversy. There are no banned enhancement-performing drugs, no need for instant replays and the balls are very rarely deflated. But this was one trip that lead to a bit of soul searching for me.

Back in 1988, I did a summer study abroad program in what was then Yugoslavia. We spend two weeks in Dubrovnik, one in Belgrade and one in Zagreb. In a probably unrelated move, not too long thereafter, the country came out from behind the iron curtain and eventually split up into seven independent countries. Although I had been in what would become Croatia and Serbia, I have always counted this as one country, placing an asterisk next to my listing of Yugoslavia.

And then Game of Thrones happened. Like everyone else who chooses to live among humankind, I'd heard about the show but it wasn't until this spring that I decided to watch the first episode.  That one episode led to another and soon I was staying up all night binge watching the series.  While in the midst of a battle with the condo association manager, I found myself asking "What would Cersei do?" and wondering if the local shelters had any pet dragons up for adoption.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Seeing Red in Cardiff

What do you do when you have just flown across the Atlantic, slept for only 3 out of the last 48 hours and then caught another flight that brings you to Cardiff, Wales. Well, if it is the day of the Wales/ Portugal Eurocup match-up, you simply keep going. Even if you are bit cross-eyed from exhaustion, are continuously reaching into your purse for pounds but pulling out euros and have often stated that soccer is athletic equivalent of Sominex (seriously, if the score is so often a tie, why even bother). You keep going because Cardiff is a place you haven't been and who knows when you will return.

So that is what I did, even if it meant risking falling asleep on the bus ride into town and ending up in a place where the language was possibly more unintelligible than Welsh. This turned out to be an unfounded fear because the people of Cardiff are one chatty, friendly people.  The bus driver told me all about his visit to Miami as his one other passenger was narrating the drive as it related to his own life (ie: And that is where I bought my car, that is the pub I go to, that is where my wife works).

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Lady on the Lake? More like the Hussy on the Huron

I don't always know where I am going. This is due to a number of reasons, foremost being my notorious lack of direction. If it were not for Google Maps, I would never make it to any destination on time ever. But there is another reason that I am often "lost". I don't bother reading my schedule as closely as I should, meaning that when work has me flying into, say, PLN airport, unless I am going to stay there for any extended period of time, I am not looking up that airport code. Therefore, when my schedule changes and I now have a full day in this PLN place, I'm at a bit of a loss.

So I look it up: Pellston, Michigan. Nope, still means nothing.  More investigation reveals that it is near Mackinaw City.  That is now two places I have never heard of.  This is where you go to take the ferry to go Mackinac Island. By this point, I am wondering if I am being trolled?  Are these real places?  And if so, why didn't they pick one spelling for this Mackinaw/ Mackinac place and stick with it? What Northern Michigan fuckery is this?

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Swimming with Shurtles

I realize that this blog is full of typos, grammatical errors and the occasional straight-up unintentional fabrication. I am not really keen on the whole 'proof-reading before hitting publish' thing and it shows. Therefore it is only reasonable to think that the title of this post is simply another one of my fuck-ups.

Swimming with shurtles? What the hell is a shurtle, you ask? Well, I'll tell you. Swimming with shurtles is simply the trendiest new multi-island activity.  It's quite simple, really. Famed nightlife and travel guru, Stefon, describes it thusly: It is when you have been in Barbados on a cruise and then a year later, you return there for work.  By virtue of having already been there, you already have the contact info for super cool man-about-town, Neville of Swimmin Wid Nevil fame.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Nine things I learned about La Paz

1. There is only one La Paz in all of Bolivia.

This one came as a shocker. I had boarded an 8pm bus from Uyuni-La Paz and was set to arrive twelve hours later, at 8am. Yet, it was 4am and I had been woken up and asked to get off the bus. It was a local bus, which makes a couple of stops so obviously there was a misunderstanding.

Me: No, I'm going to La Paz
Driver: This is La Paz
Me: (looking at my watch, then at my cell phone, confirming it is in fact 4am and thinking I may have gotten on the wrong bus). Is there another La Paz?
Driver: (getting a little exasperated) No, this is the only La Paz.
Me: (confused and certain that if I get off the bus, I will be stuck in the off-brand city of La Pez) Are you sure? I'm not supposed to be in La Paz for 4 more hours.
Driver: Señora, there was no traffic. We are early. There is only one La Paz in all of Bolivia. Please, you need to get off this bus.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Feeling a little salty (and very out of breath): The Uyuni Salt Flats Story

A $500 American Airlines voucher that was about to expire, a week off and a long-held desire to hang out in the world's largest salt flat: these were the factors that led to me standing in La Paz Int'l Airport, gasping for air at an inhumane 11,913 ft elevation. Minutes after landing, I was in line waiting to pay for my visa and ready to drop, when I noticed that the yoga instructor standing behind me had beat me to it. I bent down to help her up, so now the poor customs guy who came running over now had to help not one but two women to the nearest seats.

It was 5am, I was in Bolivia and altitude sickness was kicking my ass. This was going to be a challenge. I expected this, maybe not to this degree, but I knew that the first day was going to be rough so my plans were simple. I was catching a connecting flight to Uyuni, choosing an agency for the aforementioned salt flat sojourn and napping...or as they like to call it acclimatizing.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

What day is it again?: Going around the world in nine days and 24 time zones.

Last week was kind of special. For only the second time in my life, I went out on a trip that went full circle around the globe. This means I left Miami on April 1st and headed East towards Europe. I then continued east and then more east (and still more east) until lo and behold, April 9th I was back where I started.

In between, there was some sightseeing, plenty of sleeping on airplanes, curry galore and that giddy euphoria that comes from the coupling of seeing a new place and the certainty of oncoming exhaustion.

To give an idea of what something like that is like, here is a cliff notes version of my schedule.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Country #101 with a Bang..ladesh

It is fair to say that Dhaka, Bangladesh is not on many "Must-see" lists of tourist destinations and I sort of understand why. It is crowded, insanely so. The greater city alone has a population of 18 million people so finding a moment of peace and quiet is a near impossibility. The traffic...oh, sweet ever-loving Zeus...the traffic is unrelenting. It can (and did) take close to three hours to go the equivalent of five miles. The historic sites, despite the valiant efforts of their caretakers, are in varying states of disrepair. The mosquitos, all 5 kajillion of them, will be first to greet you at the airport en masse. At this moment, every square inch of me that was exposed at landing is more welt than skin. During the day, it is hot, humid and sticky and a true test of the whole "try to stay conservatively dressed in a Muslim country" thing. Bottom line, it is not an easy city to travel in.

Yet here I was in my first post-100 country, hoping to see as such as I could.  Our hotel was close to Mosquito International Airport, which is at the other end of the city from the historic area, a fact that led me to my first lesson in Dhaka 101.  If you think you can head into town anytime after 9am, you are wrong.  I mean, theoretically you could try, but don't expect to, you know, actually move.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Dive Bar Challenge

"We don't grow when things are easy, we grow when we faces challenges." That is a random quote I found online after googling "quotes about challenges". I am not going to bother looking up who to attribute it to because frankly, I don't think it is that great of a quote. I only bring it up as a prelude to bringing up my latest project (or if I want to sound really aspirational and stick to the theme of this post, my latest challenge).

Having put to bed the goal of reaching 100 countries, I was looking for something new to focus on. They say inspiration can come from unlikely sources and it did. This time, it arrived via the click-baity newsletter, Thrillist. For anyone unfamiliar, this is a newsletter that is mainly aimed at guys but that happens to include a lot of lists on the best restaurants, bars, architecture, etc in x city, thus my subscription. The article that caught my eye was a list, published this past January, of the 21 best dive bars in the US. As someone who (a)travels (b) likes dive bars and (c) was heading to one of the cities on the list that very same week, this seemed as good a challenge as any. Therefore, I am now going to try to hit all of the best dive bars in the US (2016 edition).

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Has anyone else noticed that Daytona Beach is a bit off?

I'm not suggesting that there is anything irreparably wrong with Daytona, after all one of my coolest friends who might be reading this, is originally from there. I'm just saying that my recent experiences during a two day visit kind of made me go "hmmmmmm".

First the 'good':  the famous boardwalk has an inherently charming old-timey look and feel to it.   Walking past the candy-colored shops and ice cream parlors feels like stepping back into a nostalgic 50's era movie set. The beach is expansive, clean and you can drive on it. The drinks are cheap and plentiful.  There is a roller coaster that appears to run on demand. If you are into black t-shirts featuring bikes, eagles, big-boobied women and/ or confederate flags, you don't have to look very far (although that last one really does not belong in the plus column).

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Xmas in Bali

It is tough to be away from family and loved ones during the holidays. I've done it before because of work and I was doing it now because of the only routing I was able to get. I spent the 24th shopping for gifts, getting a massage, attending an expat xmas eve dinner/ cocktail party and just soaking in the peacefulness that permeates Ubud. And peaceful it is. Between the many practicing Hindus placing daily offerings of fresh flowers on sidewalks, the ever-present lingering incense and the travelers trying to attain their best selves via yoga mats, this is somewhere that just feels special. There is no way for me to describe it without sounding trite or hokey but spending time, even just a couple of days there is bound to change you, for the better.

It was in this state of mind that I spent Xmas day. It was my last day in Bali and I just wanted to take it all in. After another lovingly home cooked breakfast, I decided to return to one of my favorite places on the island. It should come as zero surprise to anyone who has been following the last couple of posts that this involved monkeys. Lots of monkeys.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Bali Bliss

My second day in Bali was about as perfect as any day should be permitted to be, combining many of the things I love. Sleeping in late, check. A delicious vegetarian homemade breakfast waiting for me when I did wake up. Check. Right next to the fresh cut fruit, a binder listing all my tour options for that day. Are you kidding me?! If heaven existed, forget the fat floating babies and harp noise, this is what it would look like. And did I mention, monkeys? I probably shouldn't have to since I already stated a couple of posts ago that this Malaysia/ Bali series was going to be seriously monkey-fied but this day, this ideal day, was one of the most monkey of them all.

I signed up for an afternoon tour which visited a couple of temples, a monkey forest and culminated with sunset at Tanah Lot in the southwestern part of the island. The pickup time was 2pm so I had some free time and although I would be revisiting it during the tour, I decided to go the monkey forest.  The Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest was only a ten minute walk away and I figured this was a place best enjoyed leisurely.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Country #100: Bali, baby!!

December 21, 2015: the day I officially hit my 100th country. Or more accurately put, the evening I landed in Denpasar airport and ticked Indonesia off my list. I'll confess I hadn't really set my mind on any one country as my milestone destination, instead I'd left it up to chance. Well, chance had come through like a champ. I would now be celebrating both Xmas and my first foray into triple-digits on the idyllic island of Bali.

I arrived late at night to find a driver waiting to take me on the one hour drive to Ubud, the cultural heart of Bali.  He was a member of the family that owns the Depa Guest House, my home for the next five days.  These people were amazingly warm and gracious.  They were accommodating beyond belief, which made my entry into their peaceful little complex even more disturbing.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Pulau Langawi: Welcome to Vampire Island

During the two weeks I had been bouncing around Malaysia, one place kept coming up in conversations with fellow backpackers. It was a small island in the middle of the Andaman Sea, where the beaches are beautiful and the drinks are cheap. Everyone I met had either been or was on their way to Pulau Langkawi. I followed suit, traveling via the three hour ferry from Penang.

Upon my arrival and throughout my two day stay, I learned a couple of things that I feel I should share.

First, this is an island with no means of public transportation. They have approximately 65,000 residents, probably a couple of thousand tourists and zero buses so your best bet upon getting off the ferry is to befriend the first backpacker you see. Odds are that they too are heading to Pantai Cenang, the main strip of beach and therefore you can split an overpriced taxi.