Oktapodi seems to be in a cruising state of mind lately, so here are a few boat-related images to take us into the weekend...
For more fabulous travel snaps, check out Delicious Baby's Photo Friday blog carnival.
Oktapodi seems to be in a cruising state of mind lately, so here are a few boat-related images to take us into the weekend...
For more fabulous travel snaps, check out Delicious Baby's Photo Friday blog carnival.
A continuing exploration of how to get around the Playa in style. Last week's part one is here.
stellar use of a golfcart
Art cars come into their own at nighttime. The visual and auditory splendor will stop you in your tracks, yet they're infinitely harder to capture on camera. Especially without a tripod. In fact, any crisp shots here can probably be attributed to Mark, who has a much steadier hand than I.
Hopping a ride on the bigger art cars, as previously mentioned, is a tricky endeavor. We did manage to climb aboard a few of the smaller ones, and even hitched an illicit ride on the back of the big pirate bus, at least until a disembodied voice ordered us off. Good call, as we would likely have tumbled off on our own after breathing exhaust fumes straight from the source.
we actually got a ride on this one
badass poultrymobile - the base was a funky Cadillac
the Holy Grail of art cars - we hopped a short ride on the very back
a perennial favorite. the wings flap!
pure tikilicious genius
Check out more fabulous travel photos at Delicious Baby's Photo Friday.
* Photo Friday: Burning Man art cars, part one
* Photo Friday: ab-fab, sweetie-dahling
* Photo Friday: my night with oktapodi
* Photo Friday: this is your brain on Burning Man
* browse all 2008 Burning Man pics
* read all Burning Man blog posts
* check out the Burning Man website
ET's not phoning home, he's driving home
Part transportation, part artistic statement, the art cars at Burning Man never fail to amaze and amuse me. On one level, they are a symbol of the immense, far-reaching, yet totally cooperative organization behind the event: one can not drive an art car on the Playa without first registering one's car at the DMV (Department of Mutant Vehicles) in order to preserve the pedestrian-centric nature of Black Rock City. On a totally different level, art cars are a status symbol just like regular cars are in the default world. Getting a ride on one of the bigger art cars takes a combination of persistence, luck, and knowing the right person. Art cars are a way to attract chicks, especially the big rolling party buses with huge sound systems. Large as a double-decker bus or small as a dune buggy, art cars are a way to make a statement *and* travel in style.
But enough of my yammering. Without further ado, I present a selection of Burning Man art cars, part one.*
permission to fondle the vehicle, granted!
who moved my cheese?
a rolling stereotype, embraced
oktapodi's favorite art car
makes me want to talk in a Grover voice, for some reason
where's Yogi Bear?
gets trippier the more you look at it
who doesn't love a mobile party?
* There were so many fabulous pictures to choose from that I decided to split this into two parts: daytime shots and nighttime shots.
Check out more fabulous travel photos at Delicious Baby's Photo Friday.
* Photo Friday: ab-fab, sweetie-dahling
* Photo Friday: my night with oktapodi
* Photo Friday: this is your brain on Burning Man
* browse all 2008 Burning Man pics
* read all Burning Man blog posts
* check out the Burning Man website
oktapodi is glad to be home, but not-so-glad to be sorting through a mountain of junk mail
After a lonnnnnng drive to Rome, followed by a short night's sleep and then a long flight, an irritating layover in JFK, and then another hour drive to our house, we were pretty ready to be home. We arrived back to find the usual metric ton of mail, plus the unexpected surprise of no heat! Nice. Still, it's good to be in our own bed again. We have much catching up to do after being so delinquent on blog and photo entries for most of this trip. (Gotta admit, that hard drive failure really took the wind out of my sails.) But, rest assured, we are up to the task! Expect to see many more stories and pics from our astoundingly fabulous -- and occasionally fraught-with-peril -- monthlong jaunt through central Italy. Thanks for your patience, faithful readers. And thanks, as always, for playing along at home!
So far, the count is Mark & Sonia 2, airlines 1.
You may recall that back in June I scored an amazing fare from DC - Rome. It required a quick stop in JFK, which seemed totally worth it at the time.
The commuter flight left Dulles on time, and even arrived in New York a bit early. Then we got to our departure gate at JFK and found that the Rome segment had been totally oversold. They were looking for volunteers to give up their seat in exchange for a $600 voucher. Sweet! I'd always wanted to do that. And the voucher was worth $200 more than we'd paid for the original flight. They would re-route us through Venice to Rome, and we'd only arrive 2 hours later, coming away with $1200 to use for our next trip. Seemed like a win-win situation.
Well, we all know there's no such thing as a free lunch. Or a free flight.
Getting to Rome was a breeze, but when we arrived and asked for the Delta baggage counter (since our bags had come over on the original flight), they told us to go to Terminal C. And of course when we got there, no bags. And they told us we had to go back to Terminal A to file a claim with Alitalia, the SkyTeam partner airline that had flown us from Venice to Rome. So we trooped back to the original terminal, irrationally hoping that perhaps our bags were sitting over there somewhere and we'd be able to go on our merry way. Foolish mortals.
The Alitalia lady was quite pleasant, but since at least two systems were down she had no way of telling us where our bags had ended up. Lovely. We filed a claim and continued to Florence as planned, since we'd already booked our stay there and there was no way to know when our stuff would show up.
Here's where things really got interesting. There's a small railway station in the airport that connects you to the main Rome Termini, the departure point for trains heading all over the country. You can buy your tickets at a kiosk or at a window. We decided to avoid the throngs of Japanese tour groups at the window and use the machine. Fatal flaw! While it happily spit out our two tickets (one to Rome Termini, one to Florence) and charged about the amount I'd been expecting based on advice from my tweeps, it said the next train would be leaving in about half an hour. Turns out that was the departure for the train from Rome Termini to Florence! But we didn't realize that at the time, and hopped the Leonardo Express to head downtown. The train was incredibly hot, and the jetlag was catching up, so we dozed a bit. Groggily stepping off the train in Rome Termini about an hour later, everything came crashing down. The "Express" had spit us out at the far end of the station, so just getting to the main area with all the connecting train info had a bit of a Spinal Tap feel to it. When we finally found an information booth, the grumpy little man told us we'd missed our train, and we'd need to find a Trenitalia office to exchange the tickets. This turned into about an hourlong ordeal, as we managed to find every OTHER kiosk where you could buy tickets, but not the official Trenitalia counter which is literally on the farmost opposite end of the station from where we started. (It's right inside the door if you're coming in from the street though.) Long story short, we exchanged our tix, found the track for the departing train, and quite exhaustedly flopped aboard.
And reminded ourselves that even the most irritating day of travel is better than a day at work.
After a gorgeous 90-minute train ride through breathtaking Tuscan landscape (we'll see you later, hill towns and wineries!) we arrived in Florence and easily found our hostel. Soggiorno Prestipino is a five-minute walk from the Santa Maria Novella train station, so the location can't be beat. It's small but clean, well-priced (especially for Florence), and the management are a friendly bunch. Highly recommended!
We scraped off some of the road grime and wandered out for a late meal. With plenty of options to choose from, we tried to find something on a small side street that didn't look too touristy or too expensive (these are actually one and the same in Italy). We picked a charming little trattoria and had the first of no doubt many fabulous meals: a steaming bowl of Pappa al Pomodoro, glistening with fresh olive oil, and some house wine that utterly hit the spot. Topped off with a tiramisu so good it brings tears of gratitude to your eyes. Ahhhhh, yes! That's the stuff!
With any luck they'll track down our bags soon, and settle the final score at 3-1 in our favor. But in the meantime it's not going to stop us from enjoying the best that Italy has to offer!
We're en route back home today, via Singapore, with a brief stop in Tokyo's Narita Airport. After a month on the road, with the occasional questionable toilet facilities, I have to admit a certain jubilance at the high-tech Japanese commodes at the airport. For the uninitiated, toilets in Japan are not only spotlessly clean but also feature state-of-the-art features such as heated seats, bidet spigots, and even a faux flushing sound to cover any undue bodily noises. They're not terribly exciting in and of themselves, but again, after a month of Asian squat toilets (with mandatory swarms of mosquitoes) and other sketchy plumbing adventures, it was a welcome change.
There will be lots of catch-up over the next month or so as we process the four DVDs full of pics and videos, and convert journal entries into engaging blog entries. So be sure to watch this space in the weeks to come!
But first, a glass of red wine and a visit to our nice soft bed.
We spent our Thanksgiving in the Bornean jungle on the banks of the river Kinabatangan. After two days of mucking around in mud up to our knees, with ants in our pants, amidst many monkeys, we're pretty happy to return to (relative) civilization here in Kota Kinabalu. Yesterday we spent the day on a 10-hour bus ride from Sandakan to KK. The scenery was amazing, but as you can imagine it was a long journey. Today we're catching a flight to Sarawak state, the other half of Malaysian Borneo, to couchsurf in Kuching for the last few days of our trip.
At the moment, we're pretty glad to *not* be in Bangkok or Mumbai! Things are pretty mellow in Malaysia (fingers crossed) and we wish safe passage to our fellow travelers in these troubled areas.
Our time in Kuala Lumpur, or "K-L" as it's known locally, was a series of great travel lessons. We got to meet lots of fellow travelers, had an amazing local dinner, and saw some spectacular sites. But overall, our time in the Malaysian capital left a bad taste in my mouth.
We arrived early on Friday, Nov 21, via the shiny happy Aeroline bus from Penang. As before, it dropped us off a few blocks from KL's main attraction, the Petronas Towers. We stashed our bags at a nearby hotel concierge desk, and trudged over in the blazing midday heat to see about some free tickets to the top of the Towers. Oops, turns out that in order to get one of the allotted free tickets, you have to show up at the crack of dawn. Not the crack of 1:30pm. Oh well. What about Menara KL, the other big tower in town? It didn't seem to be within walking distance, plus we also wanted to check out Batu Caves. So we decided to visit the tourism bureau, located nearby and recommended by the folks at Petronas. Once we finally found the place, we were doubly pleased to find both AC and free internet. The headscarved woman behind the desk cheerfully told us there was a bus heading to the caves in about 20 minutes. Perfect! Just enough time to check some email and cool down a bit.
Hey friends and neighbors, what's that I hear? It must be time for another Travel Lesson Learned the Hard Way! This one can be spun in two versions...
1) Don't bother with tourism bureaus! Indie travelers should find their own way around.
2) Always ask lots of stupid questions, like "exactly where does this bus go, and how many obnoxious tourist stops will there be along the way before we reached our desired destination?"
We should have just taken a bus, or even a cab, straight to the caves. Instead we got loaded into a stifling mini bus with five other people, and schlepped to not one but two shopping stops! First the stupid pewter factor (and wouldn't you love to buy a big heavy useless somethingorother from the lovely gift shop?) and then the only slightly more interesting batik shop (and how 'bout a lovely silk scarf or ten?). ::: sigh ::: By the time we reached Batu Caves, we only had about 45 minutes to explore. Right. Got it. Lessons. Learned.
The caves *were* very cool, and just about worth the headaches to get there. Guarded by an enormous gold statue, 272 steps take pilgrims to the caverns at the top. Two Hindu shrines, tons of monkeys, it's quite a spectacle. Once you reach the top you cross an enormous chamber to get to another opening with sunlight streaming in. There were some Hindu ceremonies taking place, but it was hard to take them seriously with people crawling over each other to snap pics and monkeys running through the proceedings. Monkeys drinking leftover soda from Coke cans. Ah, Western culture rears its ugly head yet again!
We got dropped off back at the tourist bureau, after sitting through about an hour of KL's gnarliest rush hour traffic. It turns out the KL Tower (Menara KL) was within walking distance after all. Armed with several maps and somewhat-explicit instructions from the van driver, we walked about 20 minutes to the base of the tower. Fortunately there's a shuttle to take weary visitors to the tower entrance. It was a pretty well-organized place, with audio headsets and numbered viewing stations to explain the vistas in each direction. Through a murky sunset, we watched the lights come on at the nearby Petronas Towers and across town.
Touristy items crossed off the list, it was time to rendezvous with Ken, our CouchSurfing host for the next two nights. We tried the public phones, but couldn't find one that actually worked. No wireless around. Hmm... we decided to ask if we could use the phone at one of the nicer restaurants at the base of the tower. Scoping out an Indian place that looked decent, we asked if we could make a local call, and fortunately the cheery manager agreed. We called Ken and got his address, which turned out to be a mind-boggling page of complex catenations of words and numbers and more words. Oh boy. He recommended taking the train out to a nearby MRT stop and grabbing a cab from there.
In retrospect, this is really what we should have done. But we were pretty pooped from a day of humid siteseeing, and thought it would be easier to grab a cab out there.
Uh-oh, do you hear that? It's the sound of another Travel Lesson Learned, boys and girls! Strap in for this ride!
We started at the first taxi stand, a respectable-looking kiosk that turned out to be run by the Malaysian version of The Three Stooges. Not only did they have no idea where Ken's place was (despite the reference point of a nearby MRT stop... that only seemed to confuse them more...) but they also wanted to charge us a small fortune to get there! No way, man. The second taxi stand quoted us about a third of the price, and the dispatcher seemed to think it would be no trouble for the driver to find the place. So we paid the dispatcher, got a receipt, and hopped into the next available cab. The driver first took us to the hotel where our bags had been stashed for the day, and while Mark was inside collecting our stuff, I asked if he knew how to get where we needed to go. He waved the receipt in the air and muttered "airport, airport." No, I insisted, we weren't going to the airport, we needed to be taken to a specific address, as agreed upon! I showed him the address, and he snarled something about not knowing where that was. Great. Well *I* sure as hell don't know how to get there! I offered him Ken's phone number to get the directions, and he insisted we'd need to use a pay phone to make the call. Lovely. So we got to see firsthand the legendary surliness of KL cabbies, how delightful.
When Mark got back in the cab, we took off. With no idea of where we were going, or how we'd get to Ken's place from the airport, it was a somewhat tense ride. At some point the cabbie's cell phone rang, so he was totally busted about not having a phone to call for directions. Ha! As we started to get a little closer (maybe?) to Ken's neighborhood, the cabbie pulled over and went into a gas station to get some smokes. Great, now what? When he came back we gave him Ken's number and he got more explicit directions. OK, now we're getting somewhere we want to be! But when we got to the apartment complex, the security guard said we were at the wrong end. Too late, the cantankerous f'er dumped us out on the curb and sped off. We had to walk about another half mile to get to Ken's place. *&#^! I haven't been so furious at a random stranger since... well, maybe never.
We did finally make it to Ken's apartment, about a half hour later, bedraggled and fairly surly ourselves. Ever the gracious host, Ken got us situated in our room and we were able to shower and calm down. He cooked us a fantastic homemade Cantonese dinner, and we got to chat with him a bit. A sociology professor who once worked for an airline and used to live in Europe, Ken also happens to be a great cook and an active participant in the KL couchsurfing scene. We enjoyed a lively conversation and were able to bring this frustrating day to a pleasant close.
The next day, after sleeping late and getting some laundry done, we helped Ken prepare for a couchsurfing dinner party. We were expecting a potluck-style meal where everyone brought a dish of some sort. Instead, it turned into a showcase of Baba-Nyonya cuisine, all cooked by our host! Whew. The party itself was an international melange of about 20 locals and surfers from all over the globe. As usual, we were the only Americans. We got to meet a French-Canadian divemaster living in Vietnam, a funky little British dude who sells lap pools in Thailand, a twitchy German who seemed to hate everything, and many vivacious and friendly Malays.
All in all, our time in KL was pretty challenging. We saw some cool stuff and met some cool people, but I was pretty happy to wrap up our visit to Peninsular Malaysia and cross KL off the list. Next stop: Malaysian Borneo!
Today was a travel day of exhaustion, unlike any I've lived through since my Red Umbrella travel day in Costa Rica. We started off with a spot of brekkie, confident in our revised booking on a long-haul bus to Kuala Lumpur. Sam, the Fern Loft manager whom you may recall from such misadventures as yesterday's Oopsie, That Wasn't a Real Reservation After All -- had assured us several times yesterday that we were to catch the bus "right out front!" By the third or fourth time, we asked, "Really? Just right out there on the sidewalk?" I started to feel like an idiot. I tromped out to street level about an hour before the bus was scheduled to arrive, to wait for... something... to show up. Meanwhile, scores of old people disembarked from city buses and made their way painstakingly up the sidewalk to the temple next door, staring suspiciously at the strange farang sitting there looking completely outta place.
The longer I sat, the more nervous I got. Of course Sam wasn't due in till 11am, a good two hours after we were scheduled to depart, so there was nobody around to query as to the status of our transport. Meanwhile, more than an hour had passed, and nothing resembling a long-haul bus had come anywhere nearby. Thanks for nothing, Sam! Before I continue on with our tale, allow me to pause and demarcate two important Travel Lessons Learned:
1) Never trust the Gen Y staff at a hostel to book your travel for you. The owner, perhaps. But only if you've got his cell phone number as a backup.
2) Always get a confirmation number, in writing, as well as a phone number for the transport company. This is not failsafe, as many of them don't bother to answer the phone, but at least you can call them later and demand your reservation fee back.
Right. Seems pretty obvious in retrospect, but not necessarily when you're in the thick of it.
Despairing of ever leaving Singapore, we decided to take matters into our own hands and go down to the bus station and get our own damn tickets our own damn selves. Which is what we should've done in the first place. ::: sigh ::: We got in a cab and headed down to the Harbourfront Centre, where we were to find the Aeroline bus office. Aeroline had been recommended by Ken, our couchsurfing host in KL who was already planning for our visit in two weeks, so we figured it was a solid pick. Finding the office, however, took some doing. The "bus station" was also an enormous cruise ship port. Busload after busload of Asian tourists streamed endlessly through the parking lot, but there was no obvious bus office. After a few wrong turns, Mark found the counter inside a huge warehouse, and meanwhile the 11am to KL pulled up outside, where I was standing guard over our stuff. I did a few quick calculations in my head and determined that this bus was probably our last chance to make our flight to BKK. Typically, Mark was nowhere to be found. He finally reappeared, but sans tickets since the money was with me. I dashed up to the second-floor ticket counter, only to have the nice headscarved lady pleasantly tell me there were no seats left on the bus. What?!?!? You've got to be kidding me. Apparently she was, because when she looked again, two seats had magically appeared. OK, 94 Singapore dollars please. Cash only. Ehm. I only had 70 (which was the price of the nonexistent bus booked by that no-good Sam)... how 'bout some greenbacks? I keep a fistful of USD around for just such purposes. No dice, Singapore dollars only. Somehow I managed to dash downstairs to the exchange desk, back up to the ticket counter, and out to the bus with a handful of seconds to spare before it departed.
Sweaty, frustrated, and exhausted, we flopped into a pair of seats at the back of the bus. And we hadn't even left Singapore yet. Oh, it was definitely gonna be One of Those Days.
After all that, our bus ride to KL was actually quite pleasant. We met several friendly denizens of the bus, including a Filipino restaurant owner who said he wept tears of joy when he heard of Obama's victory, and a Malaysian guy who warned us of the pitfalls of the area's budget airlines. The bus itself was a nice cushy double-decker with meal service, reclining seats, and movies on the big screen. Although I probably could've lived without seeing "Alvin and the Chipmunks," and their version of "Bad Day" will be haunting me for the forseeable future. Even the border crossing between Singapore and Malaysia wasn't all that bad, even though we had to go through twice (once on the Singaporean side and once on the Malaysian side). The one stop, at a Malay rest stop about halfway, was an interesting forshadowing of things to come after our Bangkok sojourn. The place was swarming with flies, peopled with many women in headscarves, and as the only farangs we got lots of stares. I did take the opportunity to pick up some random Malay snacks, though. You just never can get enough fish-flavored chips, is what I always say.
We arrived in KL with plenty of time to catch our Air Asia flight, which was handy because getting to the gate was a whole other adventure. We got detailed directions to the airport from the bus attendant, strapped on our bags, and made our way through the rain to the LRT, Singapore's light rail. We just missed the train to KL Sentral, and by the time the next one appeared, a huge crowd had amassed on the platform. Well, this should be interesting! I guess it is rush hour, after all. We crammed onto the already-full train, as usual the only whiteys aboard, while the locals had a good stare. Fortunately it was only a few stops. After asking a few different places, we found the counter for the KLIA Ekspress, a swanky nonstop train that would take us right to the airport. It was lovely, air-conditioned, with padded seats, and unfortunately it took us to the wrong place! Which leads me to...
Another Important Travel Lesson Learned:
3) Always double-check to see if the low-cost carrier flies from the same terminal as the regular flights. Often it does not! And sometimes the other terminal is nowhere near the main one!
Ah. Right. Thought that whole KLIA Ekspress thing was too easy. So we grabbed a cab for the 30-minute journey to the LCC (as in "Low-Cost Carrier," ah yes! I get it now!) Terminal. To get there by public transport, I think we would've had to catch a bus at KL Sentral. Anyway, we had some time to spare, and it was only a $10 cab ride, so no harm no foul. We checked into our flight to BKK and even had time to grab our first taste of cheap Malay fast food: chicken and mee hoon. A bit greasy, but not bad. We even found a WiFi hotspot, one that actually worked! Things were looking up.
Air Asia has no assigned seating, so people tend to line up at the gate like sheep a good while before the flight is called. Which is a bit silly, because typically you have to walk outside and around the block to get to the plane anyway (or sometimes they send a shuttle bus for you). It didn't matter in this case because the flight wasn't nearly full. What a refreshing change! Air Asia gets top marks in my book. The web site is user-friendly and it's easy as pie to book online. I don't know how they keep the fares so low -- and no fuel surcharges either -- but the experience was consistently pleasant and the flights were on time throughout our entire SE Asia junket. Oh, and they didn't lose our bags once. Remarkable! (And, no, they're not paying me to say this. I'm just so shocked to be so pleased with an airline that I had to share the love.)
We arrived at BKK about two hours later. Finally! Got through immigrations and customs, hit an ATM for some Baht, and found our way to the appointed Starbucks on the third floor to wait for Zoe to show up. Actually, her family got there first: mom Tuk, brother Ja, and son Ben. We chatted with her mom for a bit while Ja went to find Zoe. Ms Thing showed up a short while later, looking all put-together and fabulous, while the two of us were totally bedraggled and scuzzy. Figures! That's OK, we're not here to impress anyone with our fashion sense. (And thank god for that.) We all piled into the minivan -- complete with *driver* -- and headed for home. As expected, the place is absolutely gorgeous, even in the dark. We have a beautiful 5-star suite in a separate building by the pool. Everything is decked out to the max with all manner of antiques. It's a bit insane. Fluffy towels, a stash of bottled water and sodas in the fridge, really nicely-appointed bathroom, great bed with tons of pillows. We didn't have a whole lot of time to take it all in before crashing, but it was a happy ending to a very stressful day.
Whew, what a long day! Things eventually came together, but it took a while. Nothing having to do with Burning Man happens quickly or efficiently, so we might as well get used to it. We're on Playa Time now, baby!
The morning consisted of various errands and coordinations, including:
* hooking up with Andre, a fellow CouchSurfer who rideshared our RV
* going to pick up the RV
* meeting "the Bike Lady" who sold us our bikes on Sac Craigslist
* doing an alcohol run
* stopping at Spencer's to replace Keith's confiscated lava lamp
* not one, not two, but THREE Wal-Mart trips (which is about three more than my typical limit)
Fortunately, Andre turned out to be not only a cool guy, but a very helpful little Burnmonkey as well. Since he had a car in Sac, we were able to split up some of the tasks a bit, so we left Sac by about 4pm instead of three days later. ;) Four of us went in Andre's Mini to get the RV, and Crystal waited behind with the gear at the hotel. I agreed to be one of the designated drivers of The Mothership, as long as I didn't have to drive at night or in any tight spaces. The thing's humungous! But it should be a comfortable living space for the four of us.
While at the RV place, we met up with three friendly docs who were also headed to the Burn. (What gave it away? The huge skull perched atop a walking staff, maybe?) Dr Lothario, Dr Dre, and Dr Dominico were part of a camp called Prescription Burn. In exchange for some lovely temporary tatoos they made me pinky-swear to bring all my friends out to their pancake brunch on Wednesday at noon. Sold!
Once we finally got started, the drive was pretty uneventful. Mark drove the first shift: two hours to Reno on Rt 80, through the mountains with lots of ups and downs and pressure changes that were tough on the ears. Moment of Zen: entering the state of Nevada with "Black Hole Sun" playing at full blast. You can almost smell the Playa dust!
Keith took the next shift, another 2.5 hours of driving. Around 1am, we approached Gerlach, the last town before Black Rock City, and I swapped in for the last stretch. It wasn't nearly as bad as I'd expected, at least not on the straight two-lane road. We arrived at the gate and sat in line for a while, as an ocean of dust blew past us in horizontal waves. At the greeters' stand, Andre and I had to get out for the traditional Virgin ritual of rolling in the dust and then ringing the bell. We did this as quickly as possible as it was absolutely freezing outside, not to mention windy and dusty. Welcome home! What the hell have I gotten myself into??
Finding CouchSurfing Camp to drop off Andre proved to be quite a challenge. Black Rock City is laid out like a clock face: the Man's in the center, "time" streets radiate out like spokes from that center, and alphabetical car-themed streets are arranged in concentric circles. So, theoretically, finding 6:00 and Dart should be pretty simple. Hah! Except that half the street signs were missing or turned around, and the few that were in the right place/orientation were almost impossible to read in the dark. And did I mention the dust blowing at us in thick horizontal sheets? We stopped and asked about six different people, but everyone else seemed to be just as lost as we were. Finally a charming Brit named Emma hopped in the passenger seat of the RV and took us there. Ah, the Burner spirit, *there* it is! Once we dropped Andre off (in the frigid dark, to set up his poor lil' tent) we had to find Great Balls of Fire camp, which was supposed to be just a few blocks away at 8:00 and Bonneville. Despite one truly turned-around a moment where we found ourselves driving on the Esplanade (oops! look kids, it's Big Ben!) we managed to get to the intersection in question. At that point the other three got out and walked around to find camp, while I stayed in the RV trying to make sense of what I was seeing outside. People passed by on bikes and on foot, in various stages of costumery, some with the requisite glowsticks or other lights, and others just darkwad blobs in the gloomy lunar landscape. With no street lights, and almost no moon, it was truly pitch black out there. Fortunately the trio was able to find GBOF camp, and with the three of them waving like the ground crew on an airport tarmac, I parallel parked the mothership into our spot. so much for not driving at night in tight spaces! Never mind, the eagle had landed, at around 3am. We cleared out just enough space in the RV to find the beds, and sacked out.
Any day that requires getting up before the sun rises is off to a bad start, in my book at least. But I have to say that despite the usual hassles and heartaches of air travel, we managed to get to the opposite side of the country with a minimum of drama. Today's Moment of Zen came during our long layover in Denver, when I spotted Everclear frontman Art Alexakis standing in front of us, waiting to board a flight to Portland. I was too groggy to go up and say anything to him. But I will say this: seeing him close-up and in person, you can clearly tell he's lived a hard-charging life! The other fun moment was hearing two podcast shout-outs (one to me personally, and one to the Pulpology site) from our online friends Craig and Linda of The Indie Travel Podcast. Thanks, guys!
We arrived at Sacramento's "The SMurF" airport and called for a hotel shuttle. Happily, our three boxes arrived at the hotel a few days earlier. Keith & Crystal checked in a few hours later, and we even heard briefly from Tony & Christina. OK peeps, tomorrow: to the Playa!
Got a leisurely start to the day, and decided to visit the Chico market with Donna. It was small but lively, offering up lots of tasty treats (mmmm, breakfast burrito, how I love you), fresh produce, and funky crafts. Alas, we were unable to stay long, as we needed to hit the road and reach our next destination: San Jose, to visit our friend Jeannette and her family. Armed with some snacks from the Indian stand, we hopped back into the car and headed south.
We made it to Jeannette and Henry's house in time for some catch-up conversation before heading to an authentic Cantonese dinner. Jeannette and Mark have a long history of playful antagonism each other, particularly when it comes to trying new foods, and when Mark mentioned he didn't think he'd like to try jellyfish, Jeannette jumped at the chance. Archly stating that they had a policy with Hadley, their 5-year-old, that you have to try something at least *once* before deciding you don't like it, Jeannette instructed Henry to order up some jellyfish for Mark to taste. Meanwhile she mentioned that Hadley loves jellyfish... would Mark be outdone by a preschooler? Certainly not! Not that Hadley is just any run-of-the-mill 5-year-old. First of all, his parents are brilliant, so he's won the genetic lottery. Second, Jeannette speaks Fukien and Henry speaks Cantonese (two Chinese dialects), so their favorite game to play with Hadley is "translate what Daddy just said so Mommy can understand it" or vice versa. Wow. In spite of it all, Hadley *is* a normal five-year-old kid, who just happens to love jellyfish as well as fire trucks.
Long story short, the jellyfish was actually pretty good! Somewhat reminiscent of seaweed salad in texture, and flavored with a soy mixture. I had a second helping. Never say never when it comes to trying new foods... at least once!
Another day of driving! But we were only about four hours away from our destination: Carlton, OR, and The Carlton Inn. We even managed to get in a wine tasting before heading to the B&B to see our long-lost wanderlust friends Edward & Heidi. These two sold everything and set out in early 2006 in an RV with their two dogs, and spent almost a year traveling the US before they unexpectedly found a B&B for sale in a small town along Oregon's wine trail. So you can imagine we had lots to talk about with them!
It was really interesting to see them transplanted from their stressful inside-the-Beltway lives and happily making it work in a totally different environment. They've done a lot of work on the property, which is absolutely gorgeous. And due to some crafty marketing and networking in the community, they were booked solid through almost all of October. So we felt very fortunate they could squeeze us in for two nights! Wednesday night we ate at the French restaurant up the street, where Edward helps out a few nights a week. In addition to the fabulous food, we got to meet the very charismatic Gilbert, who came out of the kitchen to chat with us until the restaurant got busy. I have to admit, it was great to be able to roll two blocks down the street and back to the B&B! Although we could have walked all the way back to DC on all the calories in the marvelous pate and tagine and puff pastry! Boo-ya!
(Apologies to anyone who checked in to find a blank entry! I thought I was so clever by blogging from my PDA, except it wouldn't let me enter any text. Dagger.)
Quick shout-out from Chico, CA! Mark and I spent last weekend in Stinson Beach at the last family wedding of the season. (Whew, thank gawd. My liver can't handle much more of this!) And now we're driving up to Oregon to visit our friends' B&B. We couchsurfed last night in Chico and made a lovely mostly-vegan dinner for our friendly hostesses. And tonight we're stopping in Grants Pass to stay with another couchsurfer named Rainbow. I LOVE this part of the country!!
If anyone has any particular suggestions about offbeat stuff to stop and see along the way, do let me know. We're taking our time getting up to Carlton, and our trusty lil' GPS hasn't let us down so far.
Today involved a leisurely drive from Chico to Grants Pass, Oregon. We had a bit of brekkie and said goodbye to Michelle, and set out in search of some free wireless. Chico is such a cute town, totally Cali and a uni town to boot, so there's great people-watching and some very fun free newspapers. Good coffee, too.
The drive up I-5 got much more scenic as we headed into the mountains. The road gets curvier, there are some major hills, and all of a sudden Mt Shasta pops up in the distance, majestic and snow-capped. Nice! We also made a pitstop in Weed (heh-heh, hm-hm, settle down Beavis) to refuel and admire the really weird clouds forming over the mountains as the winds picked up. We heard later that some areas of Northern California and Southern Oregon experienced power outages due to the abnormally strong winds, so I guess we should be glad our little orange buggy wasn't blown off the road!
We arrived in Grants Pass a bit late to catch our CouchSurfing host, Rainbow (yes, that's his real name, and yes, he is a dude), before he had to leave for a bartending shift at the local martini bar. So we hit a movie: The Kingdom, starring Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner. First movie I'd seen in a lonnnnnnng time! And it was a good one! I wasn't too thrilled with the "reality cam" style that made me carsick after an hour or so -- guess I'm getting old -- but the story was engrossing and it was the kind of movie to make you go hmmmmm. Dunno if it's still playing anywhere or if it's been edged out by the next movie about Middle East tensions, but I highly recommend checking it out if you get the chance.
OK, on to our next 'surfing destination, which was a very different experience than staying with Michelle and Threnody! To be fair, it was Rainbow's first time hosting, so we took his CS cherry. And I guess sitting around watching TV and eating pizza is what most people *do* on your average Tuesday night. We did manage to have some interesting and spirited enough conversation to piss off Rainbow's roommate, who was squirreled away upstairs playing "World of Warcraft." (Never did see her, but you can imagine the mental image that developed in my little brain.) Mark and I weren't sure both of us would fit comfortably on the red couch-lounge-contraption, but somehow we managed to make it work, and got at least a partial night's sleep.
It was a bit sad to leave Stinson Beach today. We survived the various wedding festivities and brunch the following day. The wedding, was, of course, lovely. It was hard not to make comparisons to Dave & Meghan's fabulous soiree, although the bride's arrival on a horse was pretty unique. Once again, we danced our asses off at the reception! In addition to Sunday morning brunch we also had a farewell dinner with the Krakowskis. Happily, nothing was lit on fire, although the conversation was pretty fierce despite everyone's somewhat-fried state. I may in fact need to check myself into detox after all this partying.
After much strategerizing, we came up with the following plan to retrieve the rental car: I would ride to SFO with Dave & Meghan, who were returning their car to the same company but didn't have any space in their car for luggage or many passengers. I picked up our car, a funky little orange boxy thing, and drove back to the beach house one last time. Oy, I'm just about over this twisty vomitocious road!
Unfortunately it was necessary to drive it one last time as we headed up to Chico for our first couchsurfing destination. We plugged in our various devices (GPS, satellite radio, iPod) and set off. A somewhat different experience than taking chickenbuses and pickup trucks! But it was nice to travel in luxury, and we easily reached Chico in just over three hours.
Our first US CouchSurfing hosts were a mother-daughter team named Michelle and Threnody. We didn't get to spend as much time with them as we'd have liked, since Chico was just a stopover to break up the drive to Carlton. But we did manage to whip up a nice meal in their small kitchen, and had some fabulous conversation as well. I'd met Michelle on the "Independent Women" group on CS, and it was great fun to meet one of my favorite IWers in person. And the precocious 12-year-old Threnody was a trip, announcing to a friend on the phone: "We have an Independent Woman staying with us! And Mark!" Good times.
After a surprisingly stress-free flight from DC, we landed in San Francisco and caught a ride to Stinson Beach with my dad. For those who are unfamiliar with the infamous stretch of Highway 1 just north of SF, mere words can't quite describe it. The scenery is gorgeous, with mountains and rugged coastline and sparkling ocean views. But it's hard to appreciate a beautiful vista when you're struggling not to toss your cookies! That twisty road is something else. So we were glad to arrive in Stinson Beach (population 400-something) and spend some time unwinding at our fabulous beach house. Known locally simply as "The Red House," it's right on the beach and was once occupied for entire summers by Steve Miller. Sweeeeet. More importantly, it had enough space for me & Mark, my dad, my sister Laura and her dog, my brother Dave and his new wife Meghan, and my brother Eric and his fiancee Dey. A full house, indeed! But most of the rest of the crew wasn't arriving till tomorrow, so Mark and I took the opportunity to snag the good bedroom, with a gorgeous view of the beach and a deck. Not bad at all. We enjoyed a lovely, if chilly, sunset on the aforementioned deck, and crashed early.
I knew I was officially back in the States when I paid nearly two whole dollars for a pack of gum. Yikes!
My day started out with an early departure from Tina's Backpacker Hostel, where I was only too happy to leave behind my butthead bunkmates who insisted on drinking till all hours (which I have no problem with) and then noisily coming back to the room and flipping on all the lights and having a loud drunken conversation (which I especially have a problem with when I am scheduled to depart early the next morning). I was grumpy and groggy when I slung my pack on for the last time and trudged out to the dock. So it was a pleasant surprise when I ran into Russell, my divemaster buddy from the Blue Hole trip, who was at the end of the dock with a full dive boat awaiting a spare BCD. He offered me a lovely cup of coffee and we had a quick chat before he sailed off to face the Blue Hole and I hopped into the ferry to Belize City.
The rest of my journey was straightforward enough: nice breezy ferry trip to the BC dock, few blocks' walk to the bus station through beautiful (not!) downtown Belize City, hop a bus heading north and ask to stop near the airport, quick taxi ride the remaining 2.5 miles into the actual airport, and wait around for the American Airlines counter to open. I cashed my last traveler's check to pay the gringo fee -- ehm, excuse me, departure tax -- and my flight to Miami left on time and with no drama whatsoever.
It was a nice feeling to return to American soil... until I had to face the horror of the Miami airport. Ten weeks of turbo-chill were handily undone in less than an hour as I was fed through the ugly meat grinder of Passport Control, Baggage Claim, Customs, re-entry through Security, and a mad dash to my gate on the complete opposite side of the airport. Sweaty and exhausted, I somehow managed to make it to my final flight and crammed into a plane full of inside-the-Beltway types with their cell phones glued to their ears and Blackberries clicking away madly. I have to admit that I fit right in, as I was so excited to have my cellie working again that I promptly texted and called a whole bunch of people in the spare five minutes before the flight took off. Which actually turned into a spare hour because -- get this, I couldn't make this s**t up if I tried -- the plane had a SCREW LOOSE. How apropos.
So, I'm back, glad to be home and reconnected with my sweetie, and am looking forward to seeing friends and family in the coming weeks. This week will be a maelstrom of family shenanigans in preparation for Dave and Meghan's wedding in DC on Saturday, followed closely by Drew and Carlisle's wedding in San Francisco on Oct 6, and then a trip out to see Edward & Heidi's B&B in Oregon. No rest for the wicked! I have loads and loads of site updates to do, so watch for more juicy tidbits coming as soon as I can carve out some time. And feel free to queue up for some time on my social schedule, as I would love to catch up with everyone in person!
In the meantime, I'm enjoying some of the simple pleasures of being back in civilization, including:
* internet that doesn't cost $7 an hour!
* a clean kitchen I don't have to share with a dozen other grubby backpackers!
* fluffy towels!
* water that can be drunk right from the tap (and it's hot on demand, too!)
* school buses that actually have school children on board as passengers! and no mounds of luggage perched precariously on top, either!
I'm sure these small fascinations will wear off soon, so I'm reveling in them while I can. Life is good!
I was really glad we'd agreed to push all the way to La Ceiba, instead of stopping someplace earlier along the way. That put us close to the ferry, so it was easy to make the 9:30am to Utila. We did have to find some breakfast, and reluctantly stopped at a Dunkin Donuts as it seemed to be the only place open. A guilty pleasure involving air conditioning, decent coffee, and some grease & sugar. Breakfast of champions!
The ferry ride to Utila was quite pleasant, although there were lots of people yarking over the side and in the one functioning bathroom. We arrived at the dock and walked into a sea of touts promoting the various dive shops and hotels on the island. I'd pretty much decided on Alton's, after some really strong recommendations from my Guatemalan CS host Percy and a few other travelers. Matt wanted to check out Captain Morgan's, so we did that as well. They didn't have good answers to a few of Matt's tough questions, while the Alton's rep did (good job, Jim!), plus Alton's offered accommodations as well. OK, Alton's it is!
It was a bit of a hike to Alton's with our bags, but it turned out to be an absolutely perfect choice. Rooms right on the dock where the dive boats left from, shop and office right there, small bar/snack shack on the dock as well. And such cool fabulous people! Staff and fellow divers alike. Good peeps, great vibe. The rooms were your typical dorm jobbers, and I got bunked with two friendly German girls named Julia and Sara. Matt & Helen got a double right next door, and Evan was in the next door down. The neighborhood is complete! Once we settled in and did all our paperwork and chose our various dive packages, courses, etc, it was time to hop off the dock and go for a quick swim. Then a nice cold beverage as the sun set. Ahhhhhh, life is good, indeed!
A fairly straightforward travel day. I finally got to take one of the funky little tuk-tuks that are so pervasive throughout Guatemala. (Never expected to see those outside SE Asia, but they are a cheap way to get around!) Took a long, hot bus trip to Rio Dulce, and grabbed a boat along with a French foursome for the ride up the river to Livingston.
You can only get to Livingston, on the Caribbean Coast, by boat. The trip up the Rio Dulce is a nice one, about an hour of scenic travel past green cliff walls and the occasional fishing canoe. Our driver stopped a kid in a canoe who'd just caught a huge fish, and purchased his dinner for about 75Q. Nicely done!
We arrived at the dock and were greeted by a funky Rasta dude who offered to find us a hotel. I had already chosen a place based on a recommendation on the boards at Black Cat Antigua, so the dude walked me over there and we dropped off the French folks along the way. I don't know what this guy'd been smoking, but he kept up all kinds of crazy chatter about being 63 years old and living in New York before it was called that and hanging out with the Beatles. I was worried he was leading me off to someplace sketchy -- I'd heard some sketchy things about Livingston, a key stop on the drug trail -- but he did in fact take me to Casa de la Iguana as I'd requested.
The place was great. Beautiful gardens, wooden bungalows and dorms with hammocks everywhere. The staff are about as friendly as you could ask, and I got a nice introduction to Iguana and Livingston by the lovely Allie. She gestured to a pile of bodies hanging out in front of the TV and mentioned that folks were still recovering from last night's drinking games. Good times.
Happy hour started around 6pm, and it was a bit mellow due to last night's craziness, but still quite festive. Everyone ate dinner together at 7pm, which was really nice, and very convenient, and then the drinking resumed afterwards. It was something of an early night, but still a nice introduction to what seems to be a great place to spend a few days.
(With apologies to Tim Cahill...)
Another long, hot, dusty travel day. It turns out that the Israeli families from yesterday's outing were also in my shuttle to Flores, the closest major city to the site of Tikal Mayan ruins and one of the most popular spots in Guatemala. No great surprise there. We are back on the Gringo Trail, after all. What made it exhausting was that the two moms from the two families had been chatting nonstop the entire trip yesterday, apparently hadn't stopped for a breath all night, and continued to chat away the entire five-hour shuttle ride to Flores. Now, Jewish Moms (and Bubbes everywhere), you know I love ya. But two days straight of listening to these women chatter away in Hebrew, a challenging language to listen to even on a good day, was almost more than I could take.
I was more than a little relieved when we arrived in Flores.
Turns out my first choice of a hotel no longer existed. (Another email update to the folks at Rough Guide!) And by the time I found a place it was pouring cats and dogs. Despite a desperate need to do laundry, I booked a spot on the sunrise tour of Tikal and tried to get an early night's sleep. Tomorrow would be another exhausting day!
Oh, Faithful Readers, you would not believe the day I had today! I can´t quite believe it myself. What an adventure.
I started with a fairly leisurely rise in Nebaj, around 7:30 I´d checked the previous day, at a travel agency, and the woman had assured me that there were plenty of buses to Cobán leaving throughout the day. I had originally planned to head to Antigua to catch a shuttle tour to Semuc Champey, but looking at it on the map it seemed silly to go five hours south only to head another five or six hours north, with an overnight stay in Antigua necessary in the middle. So I headed off to the terminal to find out when the next bus to Cobán might be leaving.
And here is where I had to learn again the lesson I should have heeded in San Pedro la Laguna: when dealing with Guatemalan travel agents, always ask for a second opinion! There was in fact only one direct bus to Cobán and it left at 5am. Right. I checked with another agency to see if there was a more expensive shuttle option, and they said no. Lovely. So this left several options, but the most appealing seemed to be to try for a less direct route to Cobán rather than waiting around here or in Antigua. So I headed back into the agency, and a different person outlined the route I´d have to take:
1. Micro from Nebaj towards Quiché, but ask to be let out in Entronque
2. Catch a bus to Uspantán
3. Bus from Uspantán to Cobán
OK, now we´re getting somewhere. I can handle that! Especially with the route written out on a scrap of paper that I could point to if necessary.
I found a microbus crammed full of people. Cool, that means it´s about to leave. The driver agreed that he would be passing by Entronque, but seemed reluctant to stop there. Never mind, I had to trust that he would, otherwise I´d need to go all the way to Quiché and backtrack. So I was somewhat relieved and somewhat anxious when the bus stopped by the side of the road seemingly in the middle of nowhere and the ayudante shouted out "Entronque!" Guess this is my stop. But where the hell are we? Fortunately three other people got off at the same stop, and one other guy said he was going to Uspantán and that I could just follow him.
We waited by the side of the road, looking down on clouds to a beautiful valley below, until a pickup truck pulled up and someone shouted "Uspantán!" This was apparently our next mode of transport. I hopped in with my pack, and began the second and most fabulous part of the day´s journey. Fantastic! Screw chickenbuses, you haven´t really traveled until you´ve bounced along in the open bed of a pickup truck with a few piles of random goods, three farmers, two old ladies, the farmer´s wife with a papoose strapped to her back, and a 10-year-old girl. The scenery was breathtaking. I know I keep saying that, but this was the most incredible so far. Bright blue sky, fluffy white clouds, eye-popping (and ear-popping!) mountains splashed with every possible shade of green and brown. Really, truly splendid. Made the Monteverde scenery look like child´s play. I would´ve taken a million pics but I was too busy hanging on for my life as we dipped and swung around curves at breakneck speed. At one point we stopped to deposit some of the stuff (and one of the chickens) at someone´s house, and the driver caught my eye with a smile that said "Hey, you won´t get this kind of ride on the Gringo Trail, sister!" Damn straight. Once again, I was so glad not to have taken the packaged convenient way out.
I was almost sad when the ride ended -- and for 10Q, this was the best bargain ride indeed -- and we arrived in Uspantán. I easily found another micro headed for Cobán, and settled in for the long drive. The first half was nice enough, with the same beautiful scenery (not quite as stupendous from inside a closed vehicle, though) and decent paved roads. Then the road got seriously bumpy -- oh, I see, they´re still in the process of paving it! -- and at one point we had to stop for nearly an hour on the hot dusty road, for seemingly no point at all. I guess it had something to do with the big contruction trucks schlepping huge piles of rock up the hill. My brain was too fried to care much.
We eventually arrived in Cobán, a nice enough place with not much going for it besides being the gateway to nearby Semuc Champey and Lanquín caves. The recommended hotel, Casa d´Acuña, was quite nice and had decent dorm rooms for a good price. Huzzah, the book redeems itself after that awful Nebaj recommendation! Tomorrow, a tour to Semuc Champey.
Happy Birthday to Richard (who has the honor of posting the first comment to this blog, thanks!) and Fidel Castro! Didn´t realize you guys shared the same birthday.
OK, I know I said I wasn´t going to add anything new till I got caught up with previous entries, but I didn´t want y´all to think I´d fallen off the face of the earth. (I did come close, a few times! The mountains in this region are FIERCE!) I´ve spent the past week based out of Xela, exploring the various towns of the western highlands region of Guatemala, hiking and checking out the markets and enjoying the traditional culture. Today I´m off to Nebaj for one final day of highlands, then I´m going back to Antigua to catch a shuttle to Samuc Champey to visit the waterfalls and caves.
I have been updating the previous month´s worth of adventures, so don´t forget to scroll down to past dates (or click a topic or date at left) to get the detes. And feel free to enter comments! You´ll need to "subscribe" to this blog, but don´t worry, I promise not to send you any spam. ;)
Another travel day, and also an uprooting from the Black Cat Xela, my home away from home for nearly the past week. Surprisingly, I will miss this offbeat place... my odd chats with Joanne, the bizarre Claire (whom I have forgiven for her past transgressions), and most especially the breakfasts! Mmmmm, desayuno típico, with your eggs, beans, friend plantains, tomato, avocado, toast, and weird crumbly tasteless cheese, I shall miss you the most!
Anyway, I grabbed the now-familiar micro/camioneta combo and headed to Chichicastenango, which on Thursdays and Sundays hosts the most famous market in all of Guatemala. Found a nice room with a spectacular view of the town and the church, and set off to see about getting a guided tour to the Pascual Abaj shrine, a Mayan altar perched high in the hills above town.
I wandered down the street, and sure enough one of the "licensed" guides approached me. Not learning from my Santiago Atitlán experience, I failed to pre-negotiate a price, but decided that 20Q should be adequate. We headed up a really steep hill -- curse this frickin country where everything is up-frickin-hill -- and had a pleasant enough conversation in Spanish. And when we reached the top of the hill he had lots of good information about the various Mayan altars and rituals. We´d obviously just missed seeing an actual ceremony, though. But he went through a litany of info about what each altar is for (requests for a good marriage, healthy pregnancy, end to vices, peace in the country, good harvests, etc) and some information about Mayan shamans (there are equal numberes of men and women in each village, as guys have to go to a male shaman and women to a female. And then he offered to take me to the local weaving cooperative where I could buy a mask or a hand-made blanket, and everything was authentic, and he´d make sure I got a good price, yada yada yada. I tried getting him to tell me what a decent price might be, as it´s hard to haggle when you´re not sure what your goal is, but he deflected with the old "don´t worry, I´m your guide, I´m here to guide you!" Right.
Long story short, I wound up spending more than I´d intended, albeit on a very nice piece of tapestry that may make a lovely wedding present for a certain brother and future sister-in-law. Once again I felt somewhat used and abused, but I guess that´s what we gringo tourists are here for. To make matters worse, I had trouble finding the right change, and had to stop at like three stores before I found a shopkeeper who would break a 100Q bill. (It started to feel ridiculously like that South Park episode where zombies wander around asking for chaaaaaaaaange, doesn´t anybody have any chaaaaaaange?) And then the coup-de-grace, when I offered the guide his 20Q he was incredbily offended and demanded 50. No way, man, not after you just helped fleece me outta my hard-earned cash for that weaving! I reminded him that it was supposed to be a voluntary thing, and he snarled and wished me Bad Luck and stalked off. Great, that was a stellar start to my Chichi visit.
After cooling down a bit (literally and figuratively) I wandered around the plaza area and watched the vendors set up for the next day´s event. I also took a look at the church, which is on one side of the plaza, and the smaller Calvario Chapel, which is on the other side. The chapel was pretty interesting, with Mayan copal offerings out front, and dark spooky saints on the inside. The attendant suggested I contribute some "alms" and then seemed disappointed when I only tossed in a few coins. Cram it, sister, I´m not in the mood.
Outside, I sat on the steps and watched as the setup continued. I was relentlessly pestered by some persistent urchins trying to sell fridge magnets. A foreshadowing of Sunday´s activities! The second one actually gave me some rap about Baby Needs a New Pair of Shoes, waggling his dirty sandals in my face. And when I declined he was like "How ´bout you just give me a Quetzal, then?" How ´bout you give me a frickin break?? I know I look like a walking dollar sign to you, but for just five minutes can I sit here in peace? Clearly not.
I did manage to get a good deal on dinner at a local comedor, and was amused at the WWF entertainment on TV. They love the fake wrestling in this country! Wandered back to my hotel, and decided to get a good night´s sleep in preparation for the assault tomorrow.
My first chickenbus experience! Not nearly as traumatic as I´d been led to expect -- once again, don´t believe everything you read -- or maybe I´m getting better at this travel thing. Percy helped me find the right bus, headed to Antigua, and I squeezed on with my huge pack. For the uninitiated, chickenbuses are old US schoolbuses, tricked out in bright colors outside and many "God Bless" statements inside. You soon realize why all the god-fearing rhetoric is necessary once the bus starts moving. The driver barrels forward like a mental patient, stopping random to pick up anyone who flags the bus down, even if the vehicle already seems packed to capacity. There´s a minimum of three to a seat -- sometimes four -- and keep in mind that these are seats outfitted for 9-year-old schoolchildren, not full-grown adults and their entire families. The aisles are so narrow that people actually sit suspended *in* them, that is, if the crowd isn´t standing packed into that same aisle. The real fun starts when the bus rockets up the side of a mountain, swinging left to right along violent curves. Everyone hangs on for their lives. And if the bus happens to stop at an intersection, vendors climb aboard offering everything from the daily newspaper to bible stories to "chuchitas." (Never did find out what those were, since nobody ever seems to buy them...)
Good times! Seriously, the most fun you can have for about 50 cents. I think this is a brilliant form of transportation and fully endorse bringing this system to the States. Provided someone can come up with a way for these hulking vehicles to run on some sort of clean-burning renewable fuel.
Anyway, the ride into Antigua was an adventure, and so was getting to my chosen hostel, The Black Cat. Apparently I´d written down the wrong address (I´d spotted a flyer for this place on the board at Gringo Pete´s) and went to the completely opposite side of town. Fortunately Antigua´s not that big, and I eventually found my way to the right place. After settling into my room, a stuffy dorm crammed with four other people, I decided to go out and explore a bit.
There seemed to be only a handful of things to see in town, most of them ruins of some sort. Working my way through the ones closest to the hostel, I ended up at Las Capuchinas, a well-preserved convent previously inhabited by Capuchin nuns. The gardens are beautiful, and they´re in the process of restoring parts of it, including the creepy "cells" where the nuns used to live. Parts are blocked off by sinister-looking iron bars, and there are creepalicious mannequin nuns praying in dark corners. Good stuff.
I went back to the Black Cat and planned out my next few days´ activities for a while, and when it got too dark to read (the place was curiously lacking in well-lit nooks, and there was someone sleeping in my room) I went down to the lounge to hang out. Met a interesting quartet of folks -- two Lucys and their friend Dan (all Brits) and a Peace Corps dude named Kody. Funny, funny folks. The Lucys picked Dan up on a bus somewhere in Nicaragua, had been traveling together for several weeks, and had tons of great stories to share. Including the time in Belize when an entire golf cart full of beauty queens rolled by, and Dan insisted they stop so he could have his picture taken with them. And apparently Miss Honduras grabbed his bum. We all had a lot of laughs comparing British and American slang, and learned that there is a series of hand signals to convey the derisive phrase "Whatever, minger, your mom works at McDonalds." Remind me to show you sometime.
We all went out to dinner, and were joined somewhere along the way by some other random Brit named Tristan. Grabbing a big table at Cafe No Sé, we managed to be the loudest group in the place. Kody entertained us with Guatemalan trivia about the upcoming elections, the fact that a mullet is referred to as a "Quetzal," and various hand signals to convey the size of one´s member. And we´ve all learned something today!
Y´know, I figured it was gonna be a *long* day, I just didn´t realize it was gonna be one of THOSE days...
Up and at ´em at the butt-crack of dawn, I made my way down to the dock to catch my 6am water taxi to Moín. I was dismayed (but not entirely surprised) to hear that there weren´t enough passengers for the early run, and we´d be leaving at 10am instead. Dagger! Not fatal, but it does severely muck up my plans for the day. Not only will I not get to run my various errands in San Jose as planned, but I will be arriving into San Jose just as it´s getting dark. Something I was trying to avoid. Well, there´s nothing I can do about it, and no sense worrying. Might as well make the most of the extra time this morning.
So, with four hours to kill, I scoped out some breakfast, and the only good deal in the otherwise very expensive Tortuguero: bottomless cups of coffee for less than a dollar! Sweeet, things were looking up a tad. Despite the horrendous Muzak offerings in the cafe -- Celine Dion (twice!), Lionel Ritchie, Knights in White Satin, god help us -- I spent some time catching up on my journal and catching a serious caffeine buzz. Next stop, the internet cafe, where I informed Bronwen of my slight change of plans and let her know I´d find an i-caf as soon as I got to San Jose. She was supposed to arrive before me and would be online after 4pm, so everything should fall into place eventually.
While waiting for the 10am boat to depart, I learned that there was a better way to get to San Jose, via another connection through another town. Which of course nobody had told me about. Grrrrrr. Once again, live and learn, there´s nothing much to do about it now. The boat trip back to Moín was unremarkable, although I did strike up a conversation with a friendly Canadian couple who were heading to Puerto Viejo. I managed to put in a plug for Margarita´s Guesthouse, and we had a good laugh about the David Hasselhoff thing.
we arrived at the lovely scenic port of Moín (love the smell of oil refineries in the afternoon! smells like victory!) and just about everyone from the boat hopped into a tourist shuttle headed for Cahuita and Puerto Viejo. The Canadians (never did get their names!) and another girl and I decided to grab a cab into Limón, where we would connect to our respective buses. Only one problem... no cabs to be found. Apparently if you didn´t choose the expensive tourist shuttle, you were on your own. No worries, our intrepid band of four trooped out to the main road and eventually flagged down a cab. It was just the sort of thing one might feel nervous about if one were all alone, but in an impromptu posse, it was an adventure rife with possibility!
I got dropped off first, and, dodging a crumbly-looking homeless woman, made my way into the terminal to buy my bus ticket to San Jose. With fifteen minutes to spare (sweet, again!) I glanced around at the denizens of the terminal. It was mostly the usual suspects -- women with little kids in tow, old guys selling stuff, an Artie Lange lookalike shoveling chips into his sweaty gullet -- nothing too scary. But I was glad not to have to spend any further time in Limón, and I was glad to be leaving the unrelentingly hot and humid and sketchy Caribbean Coast behind.
Got on the bus, and oh look! My assigned seat was next to the Spanish Artie Lange. Fantastic. His terrible aftershave only faintly covered his funk, and the combined smells resembled something like the inside of a rancid paper grocery sack that´s been filled with cheese and left in the sun. Charming accompaniment for the next three hours.
After a quick pitstop in Guápiles, leaving just enough time for the resourceful snack vendors to hop aboard chanting "MangoMangoMango! Jugosaguafríasodaplátanos! Mangomangomango!" we headed up into the mountains, signaling the return to San Jose. And, despite my best intentions to keep it all together, I started to freak myself out with "What´s the Worst Thing That Can Happen?" scenarios. Apparently my little brain can generate LOTS of appalling worst-case scenarios! I´ll spare you the details.
And then we crested the hill and started down into San Jose amid quite possibly the most brilliant sunset yet. The entire sky ws splashed with shades of pink, purple, and orange, and the hills seemed to be on fire in the glow of the setting sun. Truly the best Costa Rica had to offer, even in this most ugly and dangerous of places.
OK, to bring this long story a bit closer to its end... I hopped a cab, found an internet cafe that was still open, got the address to Bronwen´s place, and had the same cab take me there. We hung out for a few hours with her roommate -- both of them were in Costa Rica for a three-month internship at a human rights org -- and tried valiantly to stay awake until our 3am bus left. The next 25+ hours on the Ticabus were spent attempting to sleep, stay warm in the frigid chill, and occasionally hop off and back on the bus at border crossings. The worse was the Costa Rica-Nicaraguan border, where we sat in the bus for about three hours, then waited in line to get our bags checked. When you reach the front of the line you have to hit a button attached to a big stoplight. If it´s green, you can get back on the bus, if it´s red... well, fortunately neither of us had to find out as we both got green. But how frickin´ random is that?!?!
There was also a somewhat scary moment on the border between Honduras and El Salvador, when the immigration officials couldn´t find the correct stamp in my passport. Now, my passport happens to have a lot of stamps and even some extra pages, but I *know* the guy stamped it at the Nicaraguan border, I saw him do it and so did Bronwen! But they kept flipping around and shaking their heads and saying "This is a big problem!" I thought for sure they were going to ditch me on the El Salvadorean border in the middle of the night. Turns out the miscreant had put a fifth stamp on an already crowded page -- hereinafter known as the Dreaded Page 11 -- which it took three officials to eventually find and not until after several long moments of intense sweating on my part. Never a dull moment! It was small comfort to have a CouchSurfing compatriot along for the ride, if only to tell my story if I never returned to civilzation...
Yes, boys and girls, it´s time for another stressful travel day! It didn´t help that I got barely any sleep due to an incessantly barking dog yapping all night long. I´m completely over the hammock thing, too. I said goodbye to Jules and Tony and happily left Puerto Viejo for Tortuguero, further north on the Caribbean coast. It´s only accessible by boat, and you have to go through Limón, which is a total pit, but Tortuguero is a protected turtle sanctuary so it seemed unique and worth the trouble.
Heh. Famous last words.
The bus to Limón was no big deal, although we did have to stop for another of those police searches where they made us whip out our ID. At least we didn´t have to get off the bus. Got to Limón and there was a cab driver offering rides to Moín, the port where you catch the bus to Tortuguero. Perfect! Wouldn´t have to spend a minute more than necessary in Limón, a place where most guidebooks strongly recommend against female travelers staying the night lest you be swept up into a prostitution ring. Lovely. The driver turned out to be quite a chatty fellow, and offered me his opinions on everything from curvy women to the Israeli-Palestinian situation.
He dropped me off at some random restaurant on the edge of the canal in Moín and said the boat to Tortuguero would be $35. Yikes! That´s $15 more than they said it would be at Rockin J´s... but then again those folks tended to have less-than-reliable information. Well, let´s face it, it doesn´t make sense to argue over a measly fifteen bucks. Maybe it´s possible to get a better deal on the ride back. I paid the fare, got a receipt, and was told that the boat would be coming by around 3pm. Ehm, what? It´s like 11:30 now! What the hell am I supposed to do for almost four hours in this dump?
Answer: sit by myself (or occasionally with the proprietors of the restaurant) and watch bad Spanish game shows that favor the sound effect BOIIIIIINNNNNNNG. Midgets, too! (Bruce, you woulda loved it.) Then the situation went from bad to worse when they turned on this awful music that sounded something like a twisted Spanish polka, blasted at ear-shattering volume. Just what the flock is going on here? Does this guy just REALLY like this music? Does he think I might like it? Does he think it might attract other patrons?? The only other living thing on this block is an irritating squawking turkey-type bird across the street. Maybe the bad mariachi music is meant to drown out the turkey? DAGGER that there´s no one else here to appreciate the sublime weirdness of this situation...
Just as I was sure the godawful mariachi music was going to drive me insane, 3:00 rolled around and the "Bananero" boat showed up. Ohthankheavens. On the boat were a few other gringos and a handful of locals. Where had they come from and why had they not been subjected to the Mariachi Torture Machine? Life is not fair sometimes. Anyway, after the usual Tico pickups and dropoffs, we cruised out to the canal and cranked northwards. The scenery was absolutely stunning. Lots of birds, flowers, trees, you could hear the howler monkeys off in the distance, and we saw an *enormous* crocodile on the riverbank. Got right up close to him, and he struck a menacing pose, and then slunk into the water. Kickass.
We stopped at some random bar for a pitstop. There was a garden with beautiful tropical flowers and two kids playing with their pet parrot. Much nicer than any reststop along I-95! And the sunset was spectacular as well. Serene and beautiful. This boat trip was the perfect reminder that it´s GREAT to be alive. Mariachi music notwitstanding.
I have to say, I am pretty glad to be leaving this place. It´s not just the sweltering humidity, ants everywhere (I don´t think I´ve ever seen ants in a microwave before), or the strange geisha-like relationship grumpy Gringo Pete has with his Tica helpers. Nor the fact that Julia has headed off in a different direction, and after traveling with her for about a week I will definitely miss her stellar company. No, the worst thing about this place is that the mosquitoes are absolutely VICIOUS!!! And thanks to those hearty Zamborsky genes I seem to attract every bug in the country, no matter where I go. I´ve noticed that the skeeters are different in different parts of Costa Rica... on the Pacific Coast, they left little red bumps that only started itching a few days later... blessedly there weren´t any in Monteverde... and here in La Fortuna they actually create a puncture wound. I nailed one of ´em in the shower yesterday and it left a nasty bloody splat on the wall. No amount of bug spray seems to help, either. Thank goodness for chloroquinine! Maybe I should take up drinking gin & tonics...
Anyway... as glad as I am to be heading out, I´m a bit nervous about hitting San Jose. It´s supposed to be a pretty nasty place, especially after dark. There´s a direct shuttle there from La Fortuna, but it was full today, so I´m taking the public bus and from there will need to find my way to Alajuela, a suburb of San Jose where a recommended guesthouse is located. I was prepared for a series of misadventures.
However, it went much better than expected! Sometimes that happens, and you just have to be glad for it. For starters, I had a companion on the trip, a German girl named Kathrin who also found us a faster bus into San Jose. The "directo" was scheduled to leave around 12:30 and get into San Jose around 6pm. However, she discovered a not-so-directo bus that went to San Rámon, at which point we´d switch buses and the one I took passed right through Alajuela. So not only did I get into Alajuela about an hour earlier, I didn´t even need to set foot in San Jose. Sweeeet!
I arrived at Casita Margarita by taxi from the Alajuela bus station, and was ferried into the house by a very sweet 50-something woman, none other than Margarita herself. She was surprised to see me so early, as I´d told her the previous day over the phone that I didn´t expect to be there much before 7pm. She poured me a cup of coffee in her kitchen, and I chatted with her for a few minutes before her 86-year-old mother shuffled in. We continued to have a pleasant conversation, during which Abuelita was duly impressed that I had a 96-year-old grandmother. Hearty peasant stock strikes again!
I also met Steffi and Fabian, two German students who were studying Spanish and working at the bird sanctuary next door. But the highlight of the tour of the house was the signed photo of David Hasselhoff, who apparently stayed at the guesthouse a short while ago. Not sure what he was doing at a $20/night guesthouse in the suburbs of San Jose... maybe it was Margarita´s excellent cooking that brought him there. Who knows? Anyway, it was a source of amusement for all, and many Baywatch jokes were bandied about.
This place rocks. The $20 price tag was a bit steeper than I´d been used to, but when you consider that three stellar homecooked meals and laundry were included, not to mention a private bedroom & bathroom with the hottest shower I´ve encountered yet, it´s actually a bargain. And it´s nice to be in a home where you are treated as part of the family.
Another series of bus adventures. Up early and outta Quepos around 7:30 am, and it was a pretty unremarkable journey back into Puntarenas, dreadful bus music notwithstanding. If I hear the Spanish version of "Gloria" one more time... well, I´d better just grin and bear it because apparently Ticos just LOVE this song. Bleccccccch. At least I had a seat, even if it was next to a young pregnant woman who would occasionally sing along with the bad Muzak and weep a tear or two.
We got into Puntarenas around 11am, and I took up residence on a bench near the Monteverde bus, which wasn´t scheduled to leave until 2pm. Lovely. The rumpled man who had been sleeping on the other side of the bench woke up and asked me where I was headed. When I told him, he mumbled something about leaving my bags behind so I could walk around for a while. Um, I don´t THINK so, mister! First of all, there´s no way I´m leaving my bag with some random homeless guy on a bench. Second, why would I want to wander around Puntarenas and probably get mugged? No thank you, I´ll just stay right here. Turns out he was the bus driver. D´oh! But how was I supposed to know that? Before he put his little uniform on he was just another sketchy dude in a sketchy town.
My 3ish hours in Puntarenas were spent catching up on my journal entries and familiarizing myself with Monteverde/Santa Elena. At one point this super-creepy old lady sat down next to me and started hacking up a lung. Nice. I amused the two boys waiting with their mom by taking some digipics of them and showing them the results. And I made friends with the local snack vendor who joked that he was going to make my boyfriend very jealous by spiriting me away to his Costa Rican love shack. Or something like that. He did buy me a slice of watermelon, which may mean that we´re married now. Good times!
The ride to Monteverde was absolutely stunning, especially after we passed Las Juntas. We started up this tiny winding uphill path that just seemed to keep going up, up, up... And the most amazing part was that people kept getting ON the bus, even as we approached what seemed to be the top of the world. Astonishing views of hills, valleys, mountains piercing the clouds, cows, horses, the occasional shack, and ever upward. Best ride yet, for a mere two bucks.
We begin with a ridiculously early departure from Tamarindo, on a bus that was supposedly oversold so I didn´t have an actual seat. And it didn´t even really stop where I needed to catch my next bus, but according to Carol´s Spanish teacher the common thing was to hop off at a nearby town and take a taxi. OK, fine. I wound up with a seat for the first hour, then had to stand for the next three. Not as bad as it sounds, except when people wanted to get on or off the bus and everyone standing got shoved around a bit. The bus was full of workers heading to Liberia and San Jose, as well as women with two or three children in tow. No chickens, though! At one point a woman with a small child in the seat next to her shoved part of the way over and offered me half a seat, which was very sweet but I had to decline. My big fat American butt would have never fit in that tiny space. And standing, while a bit tiring, wasn´t really all that bad.
Enlisting the help of the bus driver and fellow passengers, I managed to get off at "Las Cruces de Barranca," which despite the name was not much of a crossroads, just a small bend in the road with a ramshackle bus stop. I caught a taxi into Puntarenas, and waited around for my CouchSurfing friend Julia to arrive from Sámara. We´d never met in person before, but figured it should be easy to spot the gringas at the bus station. Unfortunately the place where the buses left for Quepos was across the street from the actual terminal, so I wasn´t sure of the best place to stake out a spot. In the process of moving from one place to another, I witnessed a woman getting her purse stolen -- several nearby young men joined in the chase, but I didn´t stick around to see how it ended -- and decided that it would be best to get the hell outta Puntarenas ASAP. I did try calling Julia´s cell to let her know I´d be taking the earlier bus than the one we´d agreed to, but I could only get through to her voicemail, so I left a message and hoped we´d meet up in Quepos.
The second ride was quite pleasant -- oh, what a difference a seat makes! -- and I arrived in Quepos around 4pm. My first attempt at finding a hotel based on a recommendation in my guide was wildly unsuccessful. There are no actual street names in Quepos, and after the third person I asked had never even heard of this particular place, I settled for the second choice which was a block from the bus station. Not glamorous, but it was clean. I tried leaving another message for Julia, and explained my situation as best I could to the kind woman at the front desk, but otherwise there wasn´t much more to do. So I grabbed a quick snack from the nearby convenience store, and went to bed early. Hopefully, somehow, I´d find Julia tomorrow.
The flight to Tamarindo was a breeze... thanks to last year's Caribbean junket, I have become a seasoned veteran passenger of micro-aircraft! And fortunately I was warned about the 30lb weight limit for checked baggage, unlike the four whiny American girls ahead of me in line who had to ship their luggage on the next day's flight and hope for the best.
This shot just about sums it up:
Nature Air: on the tarmac - First of all, how the heck are they going to fit all that luggage into that tiny little airplane??? Second, do you really think the plane's going to be able to fly through all those dense thunderclouds? Obviously since I'm here to write this, the flight made it safely to Tamarindo quite smoothly. And I was pleased to see that Nature Air is the world's first carbon neutral airline. Go Ticos!
Jeff and Carol's rental place is fabulous, but when they finish construction on their new home they'll really be living large. I got a tour of the various plots they're developing in Tamarindo Heights. Verrrrry nice. Spent the rest of the day hanging out and taking a quick walk around Langosta (croissants and all) with Jeff, Andrew, and Babee the Israeli wondermutt.
This morning was rough, as i expected it would be. Didn't get a lot of sleep and I was really nervous as Mark drove me to the airport. I hate goodbyes! But it's only 10 weeks... And I did get a few last-minute phone calls in while I waited for my flight to depart. (The Corky Buchek tune was a niiiiiiice touch!)
The flight started out very promisingly, with an exit row seat next to a cute couple, he with a bit of an Adrian Grenier thing goin' on. But major thunderstorms in Miami completely FUBAR'd up the entire airport. Many verklempt people, and delayed flights, and gate changes. Blecccch. Ultimately, it worked out fine, and I got to the San Jose airport only a bit later than expected but verrrrrrry tired. Caught the free shuttle, and checked into a ridiculously nice room at the San Jose Marriott to get a good night's sleep. Tomorrow, the journey continues as I head to Tamarindo to hook up with Jeff & Carol.