Saturday, December 30, 2017

Country #106: New Zealand. The Auckland Bookends

My plans for this year's vacation went through some changes. Initially, I devised an itinerary that would take me to Cyprus, Lebanon and Iraq. Yes, that Iraq.All my research pointed to the Northern Kurdish portion being quite safe, welcoming to visitors and easy to get to. I could just fly into Erbil, no visa required. And then the push for Kurdish independence starting gaining steam and the Iraqi government shut down the Erbil airport, meaning I would have to enter via the more treacherous land crossing through Turkey.

Time for a plan B. This consisted of randomly plugging in multiple countries into search engines and trying to see where airlines miles could take me. After plenty of false starts, I hit upon one that would work. I had just enough miles to get me to New Zealand if I went from Dec 6- Dec 25. Taking into account the day you lose going over, this would only leave me with 18 days in a country with over 1000 days worth of things to see. It wasn't ideal but it was better than making headlines as that idiot tourist who was captured taking selfies in Baghdad.

I needed a plan to maximize my time so I looked into all the bus services that cover both the north and south islands- Kiwi Experience, Naked Bus and Intercity- and compared the prices and services offered.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Kingston: land of multi-tasking

In the 90's, the sketch comedy show In Living Color  had a recurring sketch about a Jamaican family. The central premise was that they all had upwards of a dozen jobs and would loudly deride any lazy lima bean who had the nerve to only have one job.

This skit came back to me this week during a visit to Kingston. I was staying at the Eden Gardens Wellness Resort and Spa, which as the name suggests had a gym, sauna and all those other healthy things I hear exist. It was a rambling complex that eschewed room numbers for names, meaning if anyone had asked me what room I was in, my response would have been Sage. Having no room numbers to guide you makes locating your room a bit challenging so as I roamed around trying to find an herb, I instead came across a family counselor, a bridal salon, a clothing store, a nutritionist's office, 2 restaurants, a pool bar and an erotic toy shop. No, for real. It would appear that even my hotel had multiple jobs!

Monday, October 16, 2017

A Tale of Two Walking Tours

Many years back, I spent a month working in Manchester, England. During that time, I had a Brit Rail pass, meaning that any minute I wasn't working was spent on a train heading somewhere else. I treated Manchester's attractions the way I would those at home. Since I could go anytime, I felt free to ignore them altogether.

It is only recently that I realized what a mistake that was. Last week, I was back for a couple of days with no rail pass to speak of. Another key difference- it was not raining. My one prevailing memory from that first visit was how stinking persistent the rain was. We were there for 28 days and got drenched each and every one of those days.

The day we just arrived, it wasn't exactly sunny but it wasn't pouring down either so we were off to a good start. We took the train from the airport right into town and commenced exploring.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Getting High in Amsterdam

All combined, I have lived in Amsterdam for two years- mostly in two month increments. I know the city well and love how much it has to offer yet I am aware that when most people think of Amsterdam, their thoughts turn to just two things- hookers and weed. This is understandable as this is home to the world's most famous red light district and finding glassy-eyed tourists coming out of coffee shops is as omnipresent as the relentless ringing of bike bells. Hookers and weed are no question a "thing" here, they are just not the only thing.

It is because of this that when friends come to visit, the first thing I do is take them past the girls in the windows and if they are so inclined to procure some of the best weed in town. Once this is out of the way, then I feel free to take them boating on the canals, to world-class museums and to the many hidden spots that make this city so wonderful.

One of the newest attractions, having opened in late 2016, is the A'dam Tower. This former Shell office building was re-designed to house a lookout tower, rotating restaurant and most importantly for my purposes, Europe's highest swing.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Timeless Sicily

Four days is not enough time to see Sicily. A week wouldn't have sufficed either. Two weeks might have been a good start but it would probably fall short. I am going to guess you need a minimum of one month to do this island justice and I suspect I am way undershooting the mark. 

Point being, we only had four days. Four wonderful sun-filled days that left me wanting more. I mean, I always want more, that's just how I am wired. I have never left a place and thought to myself "Yeah, I've had about enough of this". There is always more to see but Sicily brings it to a whole other level.

 On our first day, we flew into Catania, Sicily's second largest city, joined by my friend, Kevin, who was as keen as I was to hit the ground running. We checked into the perfectly situated Ostello degli Elefanti and discussed hopping on the first bus to Siracusa for a walk free walking tour.  The woman at the hostel, who could easily make a living as the top Sicilian Celine Dion look-a-like, put the kibosh on the idea. Her exact words were "Oh, you're one of those.", said in a less than complimentary tone. She suggested we instead settle in and spend the day getting to know Catania and go on a tour to Mt Etna to watch the sunset.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Cinque Terre: Nature's photogenic answer to Cross-Fit

Whenever I go to local art fairs, I always pay special attention to the travel photographers. I count on them to provide me with inspiration in choosing my next destination and with ideas I can "borrow" when photographing said locales. Over the years, the main thing I have learned is that if you want to take art festival level pics, you need to go to Venice, meet a yogi in India and get yourself on the water somewhere in the vicinity of Cinque Terre. Either that or just apply a black and white filter to a photograph of a barren tree and presto chango, you can now call yourself Yansel Yadams.

I have been to Venice numerous times. Although I can not vouch for their authenticity, I have photographed a number of men dressed as yogis in India. Yet no Cinque Terre. Two weeks ago, that changed. I had four days off in Europe and no set plan so I let chance (and Euros) be my guide. I looked for the cheapest fares from Amsterdam and hit upon Pisa. You can never go wrong with a country that has so brilliantly mastered pasta, gelato and vino. Credit is also due for turning a jacked up leaning tower into a world famous attraction but the strongest selling point was that Cinque Terre is less than an hour's train ride away. I could finally get that artsy pic.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Urban Bourbon Trail: Because it's not day-drinking if you are working towards a goal.

Louisville, Kentucky has a lot going for it. If you are fan of baseball bats, boxing or Bourbon, you're in luck. I hear there is also some minor event for horse racing fans but why ruin perfectly good alliteration. Of the available options, the one that really catches my fancy is boxing. It was the only sport my father was into so, growing up, fight nights were a big deal at my house. That is why on my first visit to Louisville (pronounced as if you are in the act of hurling...Lou-uh-vul), I spent the entire day at the Mohammed Ali Center, completely enthralled. The museum is fantastic! It does a spectacular job capturing his life, not only as an athlete but also as someone willing to risk it all for his beliefs. On my most recent visit, I had hoped to go back but was thwarted by one small problem. It was Monday and the museum was closed.

That left me with the other three to choose from. Horse racing- or more realistically- going to Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby is run to see a museum on horse racing sounds like the opposite of fun to me. Ditto on going to the Louisville Slugger plant to watch bats being made (although it does sound slightly more interesting than watching an actual baseball game). So this left bourbon. I don't really drink it but there were two tour options that sounded intriguing enough. The first is a bus tour that takes you to a number of distilleries where I imagine you spend a lot of time sampling whiskey and hearing about wood barrels and rye. The other is a more of a do it yourself approach.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Robots and Poppies, Oh My...

Have you been to the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo? If the answer is no, you probably should stop reading this right now. This show, like most things in life, is best experienced with minimal expectations. Seeing photos or reading my feeble attempts to explain what I witnessed would adversely affect your ability to be a blank slate and I don't want that. You don't want that. Trust me. Go away. Shoo!!!

Still here? Ok, then you must have been to the show. It was pretty nuts, right? I mean, going in...a restaurant featuring robots...I was already expecting something kind of kitschy or techy or who really knows what I was expecting, but wowza, it was beyond all of that. All I knew was that it was best to book beforehand, both because the show sells out and because you can get tickets cheaper online . Also, I'd read that restaurant part of The Robot Restaurant is kind of a farce and it is best to book just the show without the bento box but that was the extent of my research.

I am convinced that this naïveté was one of the reasons I enjoyed the show as much as I did.  So, if you are only pretending that you have been to the show, this is your last chance to turn away. If you click "read more", there will be pictures. And video.  The web is a giant place. You could simply go elsewhere. Did you know that goat yoga is a thing? Have you ever seen hamsters eating teeny tiny burritos? Vaya con robots and come back once you have seen the show.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Day 3 in Seoul: Gangnam Meerkats!!!

Remember the song "Gangnam Style"? It was that impossibly catchy tune that came with its own little horsey dance; the one whose video still holds the title for most watched on YouTube. That song, penned by S Korean rapper Psy, is about Seoul's ritziest neighborhood and the trendy folks who hang there. That alone is not enough for me to want to visit Gangnam. Streets lined with all the high end stores-the ones I can not afford but would not shop at even if I could- don't really call my attention either. But you know what does peak my interest? A giant Gangnam Style monument, that's what. 

Built at a cost of $366,000, the 27x17 foot bronze monument is supposed to have a motion detector that flashes lights and plays the song whenever anyone approaches. Its location, in front of the heavily trafficked COEX convention center, where parts of the video were filmed, means that this thing must be going off constantly. Alas, during my visit, the crossed fists were the very picture of silence. I imagine this came about as a result of (a) tearful pleas from local residents (b) a mild-mannered man pushed beyond his limits, wielding a hammer while yelling "Oppan Gangnam this, motherfuckers!" or (c) it was unplugged for the prior day's Cultural Festival. Based on the number of workers removing tents and banners,  I'm leaning towards C.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Day 2: Reventada en Seoul

Whenever I tell my friend, Ivon, about one of my latest escapades- how I managed to snag the last tickets to a concert; got bumped off a flight for big $$; ran into a celebrity while walking down the street- her response is always the same. "Que clase de reventada eres, coño", meaning that I am lucky AF.

At least, I think that is what she means. I have exhaustively googled this phrase, even focusing on Cuban slang dictionaries, in search of that definition and nada. I found sites that translate it to busted, tired or even slutty...nothing about lucky. Still, she is a good friend so I am choosing to believe her.

The truth is she might be right. While I do try to research my travels and do my best to be at the right place and the right time, I have to admit that a lot of my coolest experiences have happened as total flukes. Take for example, my second day in Seoul. I had already done the DMZ tour, so my plan was to get a 24 hr ticket on the Hop-On/ Hop-Off tour and explore some of the neighborhoods a friend had recommended.

I was staying in the Pangyo district, south of the city so Sunday morning, I boarded a bus to Gwanghwamun Square, where the tour would originate. For reasons I did not understand, the bus stopped several blocks short of my destination and the driver explained that I would have to walk the rest of the way. No problem, I had time.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Country #105*: N. Korea. Sort of.

Before my most recent trip, I reached out to a friend with a pressing question.

 Since you are my arbiter of what counts and doesn't count in the country list, here's a question for you. My next trip goes to China, S. Korea and Japan. I've been to all of those so no new countries there but- there is a DMZ tour from Seoul that takes you into a building that straddles the border. After signing all kinds of releases, you can go and stand on the N Korean side of the building. From the pictures I have seen, it looks pretty identical to the S Korean side but I imagine there is a line of some kind painted on the ground. While technically you are in N Korea, I'm not sure that this should count because you are not really stepping onto N Korean soil. It feels more akin to stopping in an airport. Then again, unless I buddy up to Dennis Rodman, this is probably the closest I'll be able to get to N Korea. Question: Does it count?

I felt that my friend, the person who got me started counting countries, was best suited to resolving this conundrum.

His response: If this were, say, Hungary and Slovakia, I would say no way.  But it is REALLY unlikely that you will ever have a better chance to go to North Korea… so I vote YES that counts.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Beijing Revisited: Wait, What Exactly Is This We Are Breathing??

February 2008

The scene: Around 20 of us are taking part in an escorted tour through China. In the span of seven days, we are whisked through Beijing, Xian and Shanghai. It is very much a checklist tour. Great Wall: check. Terracotta Warriors: check. Endless shopping stops: checkity check check. For the most part, we are subjecting ourselves to this style of travel because of the unbeatably low price. While lamenting this rushed presentation, a philosopher amongst us says something along the lines of:' Let's look at this as a highlights tour. There is no way we are going to appreciate anything in depth so let's see this as a way of figuring out where we want to spend more time when we come back.' This made a lot of sense to me and became the mindset I used to stop myself from flattening the tires on our tour bus.

Fast forward to May 2017
Almost a decade later, I am finally back in China. It is an even shorter stay, two days in Beijing, but at least it is a chance to finally enjoy the city at a slower pace. My plan was to return to the two places where I had most wanted to linger, the Wall (of course) and the Hutongs, as well as  check out some places I hadn't had a chance to see the first time around.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

One Rainy Day in Rio

Ten years ago, a list of the new Seven World Wonders was announced. The process was gimmicky as hell- 7 year voting period, winners announced on 7/7/07- and skewed towards countries with large populations and readily available internet access. (Sorry mud mosques of Mali, better luck next time!) but considering only one of the original world wonders remained standing, we were due for an update. The new list includes the Great Wall of China, Petra, Machu Pichu, the Colosseum, Chichen Itza, the Taj Mahal and Christ the Redeemer. The Pyramids of Giza- the lone holdout from the original version got an honorary status but are not always mentioned because announcing the Eight World Wonders would have totally thrown off their marketing scheme. I have been to six of these babies (7 if you count the pyramids).

Last Saturday, I had the chance to cross the last one off my list. I got into Rio in the middle of the night and had most of the afternoon before having to board my return flight. All I had to do was forego sleep, hire a driver and get to the big ass Jesus and I'd be 7 for 7. The first two parts were easy. The eight hour flight home would provide all the sleep I needed. And as for getting around, I considered Uber'ing throughout the city but with a group of six, it was going to be tricky logistically so we hired two taxis for the day. Our driver, the wonderful Jerusa Silva, quickly drew up an an itinerary for us.

Monday, April 24, 2017

What to do when you end up in the wrong Ontario.

Imagine hearing that you are going to spend a week in Manhattan and Ontario. That's great news! Springtime in NYC is like no other. Anytime spent in Canada with it's friendly people, hot Prime Minister and abundance of vegetarian restaurants (even the hot dog cart vendors always have veggie dogs!) is always a pleasure. Hell yeah! Now imagine you take a closer look at the fine print and things are not as they seem. You are actually going to Manhattan, Kansas and Ontario, California. Not so great. This was my life.  I was on a tour of places named after much cooler places.  To quote a friend "Where next? Paris, Texas?"

I tried to make the best of the situation. I found out that the next town over from Manhattan, Wamego, had a Wizard of Oz museum and winery. Even better, there was a silo that the military had build for missile testing which had gone on to become the site of the country's preeminent LSD manufacturing lab and now accepted visitors. Score, score and score!! Rental cars were prohibitively expensive so I looked into public transportation. Here is where the plans derailed fabulously. After calling the museum, I learned that there was indeed a shuttle that runs from Manhattan to Wamego. The catch is that you need to call at least 24 hours before to reserve this public bus (?!). The catch to the catch, try and find a reservation link or phone number on their site ...I dare you. I eventually found a number, called on Saturday to make a reservation for Monday and was told that I was too late because they do not take reservations on the weekend. I needed to reserve for Monday on Friday. I was told this by a person, not an automated system. The person who spent ten minutes explaining this bizzaro system to me could have probably jotted down my reservation in two minutes tops. Long story short, Kansas is weird and no matter how hard I tried, I could not get to Wamego. Part one of this journey was a bust.

Next up, Ontario, which is essentially a strip-mall laden suburb of LA. Options: I could take an hour long commute into LA and hit up my usual spots or I could look for something new to salvage this boondoggle. Option 2 sounded better. I stumbled across the idea of visiting Joshua Tree National Park and a plan was born.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Batter up in Old Town Scottsdale

I did not know that Spring Training was a thing. I mean I have always understood that baseball teams go to warm places and practice before the season begins. It is not like I thought that they just all met up on opening day, chose positions and hoped for the best. I just was unaware that it was something that people, other than those contractually obligated to be there, would care about.  I certainly never imagined that it was such a thing that it would fill up all the hotels in the greater Phoenix area.  But apparently it is as I just found out when my usual hotel in Tempe, along with all its neighbors, was booked up and I was relocated to an office park somewhere on the north side of the city.

Someone mentioned that our new location was close to Old Town Scottsdale. I looked it up, liked what I saw and decided that this was how I would spend my free day in Phoenix. Then I got to the Middle of Nowhere Motel 8, opened up Google Maps and discovered that I was nowhere close to Old, New or even Middle-aged Scottsdale.  We weren't close to downtown Phoenix either. I feel like this location may have been the result of a practical joke that got out of hand. This was maddening. How many fricking people had come to watch men not compete at a sport that on its best day is boring af and why had they taken all the good hotel rooms?

Friday, March 10, 2017

Getting artsy in Detroit

I won't lie. I was not exactly thrilled to have a recent day off in Detroit. It's cold, it's not particularly pretty and my fuzzy recollection of 8 Mile informs me that it's a dangerous place, especially if you are a white man of limited talent trying to become a rapper. Also, did I mention it was a bitter 20-ish degree cold?

Yet, this was my reality last Friday. I could either risk freezing and/or getting shiv'ed for referring to myself as Slim Berti or I could sit in a hotel room all day. We all know which one I chose.

I rented a car, called a friend and told him I had a great day planned for us. That may have been a slight exaggeration but I'm pretty sure that I did reveal- in a mumble and under my breath- that we were going to the hood. That is probably something that he'd want to know. But I had a good reason, nay a great reason, to visit this particular economically depressed neighborhood. I wanted to see Tyree Guyton's work before it was all reduced to ashes.

Friday, February 24, 2017

The things that happen when you go looking for humpbacks.

It really could have gone wither way.  Back in 2010, I flew to Seattle, drove 3 hrs to Anacortes and took a 2 hour ferry to the San Juan islands, all with the goal of kayaking with orcas.  It is a beautiful part of the world and I'm so glad I got to see it and would go so far as to call the trip a rousing success but for one noteworthy fact. We saw zero orcas. Not a one- ok, well, maybe one if you count the one we saw on the ferry back to Anacortes but that was not the point.  Afterwards, I continued to exchange emails with the owner of Seaquest, the kayaking outfit we used and eventually learned that ours was the only trip all season that saw no orcas.

My fortunes improved the next year when I flew to Cancun, drove 3 hours to Chiquila and took a 30 minute ferry to Holbox in the hope of swimming with whale sharks. This one was a slam dunk. I was able to swim with 3 whale sharks, saw countless others from the boat and enjoyed three days of stress-free island living at its best.

Monday, February 13, 2017

That Day When You Pretty Much Have Knossos to Yourself...

Look up the TripAdvisor reviews for the Palace of Knossos and three themes prevail. 1) Fascinating archeological site. A must see. 2) Phooey, not authentic enough. Arthur Evans used concrete in his restoration and we hate him. 3)Sweet baby Zeus, why are there so many people here?! So very many people!

To be fair, the majority of the assessments fell squarely into the first category and rightfully so. The complex, located 8km outside of Heraklion, is what remains of Europe's oldest city and is pretty darned impressive. Of course, I can say this as someone who had the chance to visit on a cool sunny day in February, when we encountered  maybe a half dozen other visitors, tops. If I were to attempt the same thing on a sweltering summer day while 3 cruise ships are in port and a mob of sun worshippers from the nearby resorts are itching to get cultural, I might not find the experience quite so magical. I suspect that if I had to stand five people deep to get a better look at the throne room, a common complaint for the category three people,  I too might be cursing the mother of all Minoans by day's end.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Rethymnon/ Rethimno/ Rethymno/ that city between Chania and Heraklion

Last month, I was in Chania with plans to visit nearby Rethymnon and Heraklion. It was the lowest of the low season and I figured it was a good time to take advantage of the sparsely crowded streets before the tourists returned. Sure, the skies were a bit gray and the temperature was hovering in the 40's but the idea of potentially having the ruins at Knossos to myself more than made up for it. And then I woke up. Like literally. I had set an alarm to catch an early bus but as soon as I shut it off, my phone mocked me with the day's weather forecast. All I saw before pulling the blankets over my head and going right back to sleep were the words "snow and sleet".  Forget that noise. I wanted some Greek history, not an Arctic expedition.

Now it was February and I was back in Chania. The sky was blue, the temperature had inched up into the 50's and that highly unwelcome snow (the first since 2004) was a distant memory. I finally hopped on  that bus to Rethymnon. Or Rethimno. Or all depends on whom you ask. Since there is no direct transliteration of the Greek to Roman alphabet, the phonetic translations are all over the place.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Viva la Resistance

I began this blog as a way of documenting my wanderings and sharing with friends my experiences traveling around this wonderful globe. As such, this was never intended as a place to discuss politics or current affairs. However. The country where I was born, whose passport I must show when entering foreign lands has gone ahead and elected a boorish, mentally unsound geriatric prone to childish temper tantrums. Or let me clarify, a bunch of racist self-defeating fools who happen to live in states whose "electoral votes" are grievously over-represented voted in this global nightmare. (Note: For me the line between racists and those who don't identify as racists but were wholly undisturbed by the racist statements that defined his campaign is too fine to matter. They are racists just the same). The majority of us, nearly 66 million voters, did not vote for this dumbass.

I am disgusted. I am outraged. With every passing day and every small-minded tweet, I am more embarrassed by the actions of this vulgar, self-serving con artist. So when I heard about the protests planned for the day after the inauguration, I knew this was something I needed to be a part of.  I grabbed my knitting needles and started churning out pink pussyhats for friends marching throughout the country. I would not be going to DC. I was there for the last two inaugurations, memories that I will always cherish and that I refuse to taint with this sad spectacle. Also, I fucking hate the cold. I mean, I'll endure it to be there to see President Obama sworn in (twice) but for Cheetolini? Fuhgeddaboudit!!