It's that time of year when many of our comrades are packing up and heading into the dusty abyss that is Burning Man. We're not going this year (see below for links to our past adventures) but this is a good reminder to finally post the last bit of content from our 2012 trip to Africa.
Relaxing, not-so-much. The conditions were incredibly stressful, with vomit-inducing waves and strong frigid currents. But we did see some amazing stuff, including giant manta rays and a hammerhead shark. It was one of those "makes you wish you were dead/makes you glad to be alive" kinda things. 'Twas a bit early in the season for whale sharks, as it happened. I'm still glad we did it.
OK, so what does this have to do with The Burn? Oddly enough, the place we stayed reminded me a lot of Burning Man. Mozambeat Motel had just opened a few months before and was still working out the kinks. But it was the perfect funky home-away-from-home to allow us to chillax and unwind from our Habitat work. Before we even got there, the person from the diveshop who gave us a ride up to Mozambeat warned us that we were heading into a huge party. Perfect! As we rolled up, colored lights flashed and the familiar loungey refrains of Thievery Corporation, our favorite DC band, wafted out from within.
As they say on the Playa, Welcome Home!
Brazilian acrobats and musicians
That particular night was atypical for Mozambeat, as they'd planned a huge celebration for guests, staff, and the neighborhood. Brazilian acrobats performed, there was an open mic jam, and the normally chill vibe was kicked up several notches. We loved it.
Jimi oversees the beverage selection
The rest of our time at Mozambeat was a lot more mellow.
outdoor shower? yes please!
colorful cabins with musically-themed names? oh yeah!
what's not to love about a swim-up Esco Bar?
We lounged by the pool, taking in the gorgeous landscaping and enjoying the funktastic decor. In between our harrowing dive adventures, we chatted with the friendly staff and guests from all over the world. It was delicious.
15-minute roadside friendship
To cap off the experience, on our last day we encountered a random stranger on a fairly deserted road into town. He was carrying a guitar and sporting a huge grin. In true "This One Time at Burning Man" fashion, he proceeded to play us a song, Mark tuned his guitar for him, and we conversed for a while. He wasn't trying to sell us anything, other than maybe coming back to his country sometime for another visit. We left our new 15-minute friend with our own huge smiles.
oktapodi LOVES to rock the boat
The Man Burns in 4 days! Wishing dusty bliss to all those at this year's burn. We look forward to hearing your stories when you return to the Default World.
After our Jordan adventures, we took a quick side trip to Beirut to visit our Habitat teammate Hanine. We were treated to an amazing whirlwind tour through an amazing city by an amazing friend, who reinforced the notion of Arab hospitality through force-feeding. After stuffing our faces at breakfast the first day, Hanine and her boyfriend Hadi drove us out to the town of Byblos for a late afternoon meal of seafood treats.
It's "breathtaking." Might even be "nestled" into the hillside.
And, as we were about to find out, it "boasts" phenomenal seafood.
Hanine and Hadi took us to Bab El Mina, a lovely restaurant in the heart of Byblos's fishing port. Since we're total omnivores, we let our friends order whatever struck their fancy. While they assured us it'd just be a few small plates to sample, in true Arab fashion the ensuing cavalcade of deliciousness was a wonder to behold.
and so it begins
shrimp and calamari
just a few nibblies
crispy salty goodness
a spot of dessert
Hanine entertained us with some coffee ground fortune-telling, and Mark got in on the act.
apparently we're all destined for a long, happy life...
...or maybe a mudslide
After all that pigging out (yet again) we needed to walk it off a bit, so we took a stroll through the historic quarter of Byblos. Lots of cool stuff to explore... medieval buildings, an adorable little souk, a funky Maronite Catholic church.
Crusader Fort (unfortunately not open so this was as close as we got)
love this cobbled courtyard
Eglise Saint Jean-Marc
Not a bad way to spend an afternoon/evening.
If you find yourself in Beirut with a hankering for fresh seafood, it's worth the drive out to Byblos.
As I've hinted at in past posts, there's a very good reason Petra is a World Heritage Site. UNESCO goes into great detail on Petra's "Outstanding Universal Value." Personally, I was just glad it was as amazing in person as the photos and movie footage it's featured in.
The pleasant walk into The Rose-Red City first provides a view of ancient silica quarries, partially-carved tombs (which we jokingly referring to as "art school"), and Djinn blocks. The latter, freestanding cube-shaped monuments to spirits from Arab folklore, give the site a Flintstonian feel.
the walk in
the Marriott crew poses at "art school"
Rawan does her best Wilma Flintstone impression
The next section is The Siq, a narrow passage through the mountains leading to the carved city of Petra. Exploring the colors and textures of the sandstone canyon was one of my favorite parts of the visit. You can see my full homage to this natural wonder in my last post "Pet Rock."
entering The Siq
One hazard was the horse-drawn buggies designed for those unwilling or unable to make the walk. They'd come zooming by with little warning, although after a while we began listening for thundering hooves echoing off the canyon walls.
don´t get trampled by lazy tourists in buggies
At the end of The Siq, the carved facade of The Treasure emerges. This is the iconic view you see most often, but is no less spectacular to behold.
Cue the Indiana Jones theme song!
oktapodi often gets mistaken for Indiana Jones
Unfortunately you can't go inside The Treasury, known in Arabic as Al-Khazna, but you can wander around and admire the carved facade. Crafted by the Nabatean civilization in 60BC, the structure is actually a gigantic tomb, covered in Greek-influenced columns and carvings.
loving how the light moves across Al-Khazna
The scene in the Treasury plaza is a chaotic pastiche of camera-wielding tourists, camel-wielding touts, and wheelbarrow-wielding maintenance men.
Captain Jack Sparrow working the Petra crowd
in front of The Treasury
Lindsay, Rawan, oktapodi, Mark, Aftab
obligatory cheesy tourist shot with fake guards
We continued down the Street of Facades towards the Theater, which was also under renovation. Plenty of cool stuff to see along the way, though.
Rawan photographs Lindsay
Street of Facades
The fact that the Theater was off-limits didn't stop Aftab, who hopped the fence to take a better picture. I'm happy to note he didn't end up on an episode of "Locked Up Abroad."
renovations at The Theater
Aftab behind bars
There was no shortage of touts trying to sell us camel rides or trinkets, but they weren't nearly as aggressive as I'd expected. Some of them, like this young girl who approached us with an armful of necklaces, were surprisingly friendly.
touts awaiting their next customers
hey, shouldn't you be in school?
We weren't able to stick around for the hike up to the Monastery, as a member of our troupe had to get back to Amman for a flight. (A handy excuse just as the heat was starting to crank up.) But the stroll back through the Siq rewarded us with a delicious color show.
more spectacular lighting changes on the walk back
"a rose-red city half as old as time"
Then, sadly, back to reality.
annnnnnd back to the cheese!
time for souvenirs
And thus concludes the lengthy curation of my many-many Petra pics. Check out the links below for other posts and allllll the photos uploaded from our Jordan travels. Next up, our side trip to Beirut!
[Hey, waitaminute, it's not Wednesday! Le sigh. Some of you may have noticed that the site's been down for over a week. Massive server issues last week. Special shoutout to my crack tech team -- ehm, that would be Mark -- for pulling some incredibly long hours and working tirelessly to get everything restored. I'd say we're about 95% back on track but there's still a few bumps to work out. Thanks for your patience! And now, only a week plus one day later than I'd intended to post, it, onward to the latest Wanderfood Wednesday...]
Before coming to Jordan, I was aware of -- and, I thought, prepared for -- legendary Arabic hospitality. Boy was I wrong! The food was amazing, without exception. And even an allegedly small snack got turned into a copious multi-course feast. These people don't mess around. And they don't take no for an answer.
Y'all know I suffer for my art, but the dinner that capped off our team outing in Amman tested even my limits. It was redonkulous.
I blame these two:
Adnan, our gracious host
the lovely and talented Rawan, our handler
After a brief tour of Amman, the team got dropped off at the Amman Marriott. Apparently the restaurant we were headed to didn't serve alcohol, so we were instructed to get liquored up at the piano bar. Amidst the snark teambuilding banter, the strains of various showtunes floated up from the lounge. Also a little Metallica. Lemme tell ya, you just haven't lived until you've heard "Nothing Else Matters" as interpreted by a Jordanian piano player in a long red dress.
Onward to the restaurant! Rajeen is a phenomenal Armenian restaurant located in the heart of Amman's entertainment district. Siderant: Why are there no Armenian restaurants in DC?? In a town that has more Ethiopian joints than Addis, and even covers cuisines like Burmese and Afghan, why no Armenian? That's just criminal.
As with most meals in Jordan, the feast started with a number of small plates, dips, and awesome bread.
We didn't order off the menu, so I must confess that I have no idea what most of this stuff was. It was just om-nom-nommy. And the dishes kept on coming!
With a brief stop for this digestive...
Annnnnnd then a whole batch of desserts. Ooof.
Bonus points to any foodies out there who can correctly identify any of these dishes. All I know is that we ate till we nearly exploded. It was deliciously grueling.
Overheard on the ride back from our team dinner in Amman: "There's no democracy when it comes to food in Jordan!"
Epicurean despot. It's not only a great name for a band (or maybe a Food Network show) it's also how they do things in Jordan.
Need to expunge the sins and excesses of Carnaval? Climb the mount and visit O Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer). The Big J can be seen from nearly all areas of Rio, and is supposedly one of the "New Seven Wonders of the World." Whatever that means. As with most tourist attractions, it's popular for a reason, and was one of the first non-Carnaval items we decided to visit.
at the foot of The Big Jesus
The enormous Jesus statue is perched atop Corcovado mountain, at an elevation of 2300 feet, amid the Tijuca Forest National Park. So the first big decision is how to get up there. We were hoping to catch the train, supposedly a marvel of engineering itself as it goes nearly straight up the mountain. But when we hopped off the bus, there was a 3+ hourlong wait for the next train due to the crush of tourists. So we grabbed a van, which was nearly the same price, and up we went.
journey up Corcovado mountain
oktapodi has a Come-to-Jesus moment
In typical Brazilian fashion (something else to file away under "This Country Needs an Easy Button"), it was explained in broken English that we'd need to pick up another van partway up, but we'd purchased a roundtrip ticket and could come back at any time. What this actually meant was that the "hired car" shuttles only take you to a certain point -- which you could also drive up to yourself, theoretically -- and then you have to get out and buy a ticket for entrance into the park. From there the park shuttles bring you up to the summit. This involves a good bit of standing in perhaps-pointless lines and not being entirely sure what the heck is going on. But you will eventually get there. And so we did. Along with several hundred camera-clicking visitors.
hundreds seeking the perfect shot
just a leeeeetle bit creeeeepy
I found The Big Jesus statue pretty creepy up close. Unless you go for a helicopter tour, it's not possible to enjoy the iconic view over the shoulder of Cristo beaming benevolently down on the city. So we ended up circling the base, looking up at the vacuous blank eyes, searching for the "perfect" photo op. Along with several hundred other tourists doing exactly the same thing.
for the record, I did NOT do this!
your own Impersonal Jesus
There's not really much else to do atop the mountain with Our Lord and Savior, but we'd shelled out the bucks and waited in lines and crammed ourselves in with our fellow man, so we hung out for a while, trying to appreciate the overcast view. The breeze was delightful. And we were able to spot a few familiar landmarks. But after a while all the shoving and jostling for space got to be a bit much. Did I mention there were several hundred people up there at the same time? Whew. We stretched it out a bit by having an overpriced beer at the cafe, but it was eventually time to call it a day and queue up for the ear-popping ride back down.
Jesus in the cafe, serving beer
Worth it? Definitely. Frustrating? A tad. Completely Brazilian? You bet. Stay tuned for our counterpoint experience at Pão de Açúcar.
Upstate New York hadn't been on our short list of weekend getaways, but we sucked it up, Did The Needful, and drove up to Wayland, NY, for a family wedding in June. Honestly, we went under protest. So it was an extra-pleasant surprise to spend a few delightful hours on Sunday afternoon, soaking in the fresh lake air and listening to the grapes grow. I might actually consider going back sometime soon!
overlooking Keuka Lake
If you happen to find yourself with a spare afternoon in the Finger Lakes region, here are a few recommendations:
1) Stay Because of its proximity to the wedding festivities, we wound up staying at the kooky Cohocton Valley Inn. Somewhat reminiscent of the Bates Motel, this family-run B&B is in a great location right off I-390/Route 15 . Kim, its friendly if somewhat xenophobic proprietor knows all the goings-on in the region and can recommend four regional festivals at the drop of a hat. (Just don't get her started on all the "foreigners" overtaking nearby Niagara Falls!) Our room was clean and comfy, albeit somewhat antiquated. The old-school plumbing fixtures and fussy bedspreads reminded me of a visit with a favorite maiden aunt. For around $60 a night per double, including free wifi and excellent coffee, we would definitely stay there again on a Finger Lakes redux.
2) Eat We decided to spend our free afternoon doing some winery-hopping. En route to the wine trail, we made a random stop at a Mexican restaurant along Highway 54 in Bath. San Carlos prides itself on locally-sourced ingredients, and the slogan on the servers' tshirts proclaims "Cocinamos con pasion!" They have excellent housemade salsa and even better guac, the kind where you just can't stop munching even though you know you should save your appetite for the main dish. It turned out to be a great place to chase away the wedding hangover and prepare for an afternoon of more drinking!
3) Drink (and chillllllllax...) We had one false start at Pleasant Valley Wine Company, which just happened to be the closest winery to where we started. The wines were sickly sweet enough to cause cavities and the weird little museum next to the tasting was fusty-dusty. After this less-than-auspicious beginning we headed to the next winery, which had been recommended by our server at San Carlos. A subsequent road closure and scenic detour later, we finally ended up at our destination, which was worth the work: Bully Hill Vineyards, where the staff are cheeky and the wines are actually worth drinking. Even the corks are sassy, emblazoned with slogans like "Wine with laughter" and "Wine with honesty." A festive gent named Woody poured our wines, cracking goofy jokes the whole time, clearly having a blast and loving his job. We splurged on the a la carte tasting menu, where you can have your choice of wines at a buck a taste, rather than go with the standard $5 tasting lineup. I highly recommend this, as you get to taste some of their premium wines like the St Croix red. (Yum!) Afterwards, we ended up at the winery restaurant, with a fantastic view overlooking Keuka Lake. Baked brie + a glass of tart green apple Verdelet = a sublime way to end a surprisingly excellent day.
After this lovely afternoon, I realized I hadn't given the Finger Lakes region its due. According to our Finger Lakes Wineries map, there's not only a wine trail but a cheese trail as well! And supposedly a new Finger Lakes Wine Map app is coming soon. We'll definitely need to go back for a full weekend of fun.
If you have limited time in DC, and haven't visited since your 8th grade Social Studies trip, by all means check out the museums and monuments and the National Mall. They are mostly free, after all. But if you're able to plan ahead a bit, and have a hankering to hang with locals, I invite you to check out two DC musical venues that are nowhere near the tourist trail.
Seeing a show at WolfTrap is one of my all-time favorite summer activities. They have concerts in The Barn over the winter, but there's something magical about wining & dining & spectating alfresco at the magnificent Filene Center. It doesn't matter whether your tastes run to opera, Elvis Costello, or Bugs Bunny cartoons with live orchestral accompaniment, I dare you to have a bad time at WolfTrap. You just haven't lived until you've heard the 1812 Overture with live canon fire.
We typically grab a bottle of wine (or ten) and some picnic snacks (the prepared foods bar at Whole Paycheck is right on the way), and try to arrive early to stake out a good spot on the lawn. Actual seats in the pavillion are also available, but then you can't self-cater, and that's at least half the fun.
Filene Center, photo by Robert Llewellyn
Besides a full cadre of kickass shows, WolfTrap offers summer programs for kids, places professional artists in classrooms, and administers performing arts scholarships through its Foundation. But my favorite WolfTrap factoid is that it's part of the National Park System, and the National Park Service maintains the grounds and helps with theater tech. If you look carefully you just might spot Ranger Smith in his green khakis running lights behind the scenes.
Summer would just not be summer without at least one trip out to WolfTrap. Yes, it's a bit of a hike outside the city, but completely worth it. Hey, if you buy me an extra lawn seat, I'll happily give you a ride out there!
Originally housed in a sketchy location downtown where rats were commonly seen running along the ceiling beams, and now in a slightly-more-upscale neighborhood off the hipster U Street corridor, Nightclub 9:30 has been *the* go-to spot for live music in DC since 1980. With capacity for about 1200, this midsized venue is a great place to get up close and personal with the band, provided you get there well before the opening act starts and are willing to stand around. We tend to prefer to perch on the third floor, which has a separate bar and offers a great view of the performers as well as the crowd.
According to the Washington Post, the old club on F street was known as "a station of the cross for ascending bands working outside of music's mainstream." While the "new" 9:30 Club pulls in a more conventional roster, owner Seth Hurwitz prides himself on a diverse lineup. We always get tickets to see hometown favorite Thievery Corporation when they're in town. Also Ozomatli, who take advantage of the lack of seating to perform a conga line through the crowd at the end of their set. Other recent excellent shows have included The Shpongletron Experience, GWAR, and Richard Cheese.
photo courtesy Consequence of Sound
Watch for 9:30 mainstay Josh Burdette, aka the scary-looking bouncer with the wicked piercings, and don't get on his bad side!
How to do it right
Both venues regularly sell out, so it does pay to plan a bit and get your tickets ahead of time. To plan the perfect musical interlude, figure out your transportation situation, cross reference your genre preferences, and pick a venue.
If heading to the 9:30 Club, hop on Metro's Green Line to U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo and pick one of the many excellent Ethiopian restaurants along 9th Street. Or stop at Dickson Wine Bar for wines by the glass and a huge front window for peoplewatching. Head over to the club when doors open (or before, if it's a popular show) and stake out a spot on whichever of the three levels suits your fancy. Earplugs are available for a buck a pair at the tshirt stand on the ground floor. Don't forget to tip your bartender well and prepare to have your world rocked.
If you're going to WolfTrap, pick up a few bottles of wine or six packs of beer, and score some picnic snacks at your supplier of choice. Whole Foods? Gas station convenience store? Whatever floats your boat. Food & drink is available for purchase onsite but of course it's much more expensive. You can get to WolfTrap via the Dulles Toll Road or Route 7, both of which can get jammed during rush hour, so plan accordingly. The parking situation can be a bit bewildering, but just go where you're directed; there's no such thing as a good space and you'll be walking uphill to get to the Filene Center no matter what. (Consider it pre-justifying the calories you're about to intake!) Bring a blanket or two, and try to get there well before the doors open so you can participate in the mad rush for the perfect spot on the lawn. Secure your location, crack open your beverages, spread out your treats, and prepare to make friends with your neighbors, especially if they've brought something even yummier! By the time the sun goes down and the show starts, all will be right with the world.
On a recent trip to upstate New York for a family wedding, we took a brief side trip to the Finger Lakes wine trail. I'm working up a whole post about that, but in the meantime here's a quick tease... a few snaps from our afternoon snack at Bully Hill Vineyards in Hammondsport.
baked brie with an accompaniment of house wines
We went in with the intention of ordering a small snack, but the allure of baked brie was impossible to ignore.
Bully Hill Vineyards overlooks Keuka Lake
I had the chard (butterific!) but Mark took a walk on the wild side and tried the daily special, a tart and tasty Verdelet with the crisp tang of green apples. Only slightly less green was the waitress, who was working her way through her first day on the job and was impressed when we mentioned how this wine reminded us of a Portuguese Vinho Verde. We're such winos.
Earlier this month we spent a quick weekend in the City of Brotherly Love, and got to check out two fantastic restaurants in South Philly:
Fish 1708 Lombard St
Philadelphia, PA 19146
Fish serves up amazing seafood (I know, shocking!) in a cozy neighborhood setting. We ate at the bar and had some of the freshest mussels I've ever tasted, awesome octopus, and halibut to die for. Plus anyplace that has such an extensive selection of bitters is all good in my book. Even more exciting, the wine list included a bottle of Verdicchio from Jesi. It wasn't from one of the wineries we'd visited, but of course we had to give it a try, and had a fun conversation with the sommalier about agriturismos and lesser-known Italian varietals.
Cochon 801 East Passyunk Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19147
Our truth-in-naming tour continued the next night with a visit to Cochon, which specializes in -- you guessed it -- all things piggy! And pig out we did. I channeled my inner Tony Bourdain and ordered the pork trio, figuring this was a rare chance to try grilled cheek (along with some scrumptious sausage and braised bacon). Om nom nom! Cochon is one of many BYOB restaurants in Philly, where bizarre liquor laws make it easier for eateries to thrive when patrons bring their own booze. Just be sure to stock up before you cross the PA state line, as wine can only be purchased at state stores and from what I understand the selection tends to be less than stellar.
I highly recommend both of these restaurants as a way to sample the best of Philly's burgeoning foodie scene.
I'm thrilled to announce that once again I'll be hosting the DC location of Meet, Plan, Go! We had so much fun last year that we're coming back, bigger and better than ever.
On October 18, 2011, dreamers and experienced travel veterans alike will gather in 17 cities across North America to learn more about career breaks and extended travel. The idea is to:
* MEET inspirational speakers and like-minded travelers in your area.
* Get motivation, contacts and resources necessary to PLAN the trip of a lifetime.
* And start taking concrete steps forward to get ready to GO!
I'll admit it, I love it when travelers get together to swap stories. It's exhilarating and motivating, and it's the main reason I help organize monthly #DCTravelTweetup events and try to attend TBEX each year. Travelers have an infectious enthusiasm and we love to share tips on how to get the best deals, give advice on finding the best-kept secret spots, and inspire others to get out and go.
But what do you do with all that excitement when you're not sure how to make your travel dreams a reality?
If you've been bitten by the travel bug but remain in a state of overwhelm about how to make it happen, do we have the event for you. It doesn't matter whether you want to ditch it all and become a digital nomad, take a career sabbatical to recharge your batteries, or just find a way to work more travel into your existing lifestyle. You'll get valuable advice at Meet, Plan, Go! At every event will be individuals who have fulfilled their own dreams of traveling around the world, or are currently in the planning stages. Their real-life stories include an understanding of the unique challenges that all long-term travelers must overcome in order to claim their freedom on the road. They want to share their experiences and inspire you to live your dream.
There's nothing like a well-produced video to inspire you to really get to know a destination. Guidebooks have their place, but they’re a bear to carry around, and by the time they’re published, half the information’s out of date anyway. Blogs and other user-generated content are more timely, but might not cover the subject matter you’re looking for. And while there's a lot of free videos out there on YouTube, chances are your cousin Nellie's shaky muffled Flipcam movies of her trip to Amsterdam won’t make you jump up and say “I have GOT to go there!” But Career Break Secrets video guides just might.
Disclosure: I was offered a free pass to the CBS Spain series, and two South Africa episodes, in exchange for this review. Host Jeff Jung is one of my fellow Meet, Plan, Go! hosts and we met last summer at TBEX '10. That said, the opinions expressed here are purely my own, as always! Jeff was kind enough to answer a few questions and provide some background information, and I've tried to make it clear which comments are his and which are mine. Because this is a product I highly recommend, I’ve joined the CBS affiliate program, so if any of you make a purchase, I’ll get a spiff.
What I liked I really enjoyed this video series. For starters, the episodes are well-organized without seeming overproduced. Jeff says about 2-3 weeks’ worth of work goes into the planning, shooting, and post-production of each episode, and it shows. Key information is communicated in a clear and concise manner. The music is complementary without being distracting. And I thought the videos were just about the right length, offering the opportunity to dig into the subject matter and providing some juicy details without losing my attention. From the opening credits to fun extras like the "monkeyrama" montage, CBS keeps it light and lively. The overall tone is accessible and approachable, like getting trusted advice from your best friend.
Where the series really goes beyond the basic highlights is in the interviews. Jeff says, “I wanted to create a guide where I could tell the story of the travel experiences through the eyes of the people on the ground actually doing those experiences. I wanted the audience to learn from them, not just from me.” These interviews provide a personal connection to the activity, and often a poetic insight into why these folks are doing what they're doing. It provides an engaging aspect to the story that transcends the who-what-where, and, as Jeff puts it, allows the viewers to “go deep on a single experience.” Part of what makes travel really fun for me is the opportunity to pick up a new skill or give back to the community, and the way CBS delves into those topics is appealing. In some cases, the series covered activities I’d normally gravitate towards, such as winetasting or cooking classes. But in the other cases, I was pleasantly surprised to have my interest piqued for experiences I’d never considered. Walking the Camino de Santiago or volunteering at an orphanage in South Africa had never made it to my short list. But listening to Noemi, a pilgrim from Barcelona, wax philosophical about the Camino’s meditative/therapeutic effects, how the silence gives her a sense of peace and serenity, inspired me to think “hey, that might be cool to try!” I don't think I'd have had the same reaction from reading a guidebook with glossy photos or even a firsthand account in a blog post.
What could be improved There were a few small areas for improvement, but it seems like these are being addressed. The earlier episodes featured interviewees speaking at a sideways angle rather than into the camera. I noticed a lot less of this in the later episodes, so I think the interview techniques are improving. Each video features a “5Ws and 1H” recap at the end, which is a great way to summarize and include key information that might otherwise have been missed. However, when this was paired with a set of “Top Secret Tips,” the end of the segment got to be a bit overly list-y. Again, I think some of this has been addressed in later episodes, as the information onslaught seems to have been pared down. Finally, I’d like to see a list of resources on the CBS web site, in case I didn’t take detailed enough notes or wanted to find a specific tidbit of info. Jeff says they’re working on this.
Who should buy this product So why should you shell out your hard-earned money to buy these video guides, when the internet is rife with free info? Well, we all know you get what you pay for. Additionally, if you’re looking to get beyond the "see this, go there" information you might find in a guidebook, and you want solid advice on how to plan activities that will enrich your understanding of a particular city or country, Career Break Secrets is for you. Jeff summarizes it nicely:
“We go deep on the subject and give you real, usable advice and information. Some of that comes from me, but most of it comes from the travelers and organizations on the ground. You want to volunteer? Great. Hear from them directly what it's like. Not sure what questions to ask before you go on a long hike like the Camino de Santiago or Torres del Paine park? Great. Let's find out what the people in those places packed and what they advise for others. Compare us to The Travel Channel. They are in the entertainment business and provide travel-related entertainment. But at the end, you aren't necessarily a smarter traveler. We give you the information to help make you a smarter traveler and plan better by entertaining you. It's a subtle but important difference. Entertainment is what The Travel Channel provides. Entertainment is how we deliver information.”
Anything that entertains as well as makes me a smarter traveler sounds like a winner in my book. And that, in a nutshell, is why I highly recommend Career Break Secrets video guides. Because life is out there!TM
The detes Currently Career Break Secrets offers video travel guides for the following locations: South Africa, Spain, New Zealand, Patagonia, Colombia. Each country pass is available for $17.99, or you can order the entire season for $49.99. Details about the episodes/topics covered for each country are available on the site. You can also get a taste of the CBS guides via the free Coffee Break podcast, and the “Because Life Is Out ThereTM” video vignettes.
Today’s guest post is by Sherry Ott (bio below) and provides some info about the upcoming Career Break Boot Camp. You may recall that I helped host one of the inaugural Meet, Plan, Go! events in September. In the interest of full disclosure, please note that I’m part of the Boot Camp affiliate program, so if any of you sign up, I get a spiff. Regardless, this is something I heartily believe in and would encourage folks to do, no matter what!
Sometimes preparing to leave is the hardest part when it comes to extended travel. The to-do lists, the questions, packing, itineraries, and insurance decisions…it’s hard to know where to start. However, I think more people struggle with the hidden ‘monsters’…the ones that question your motives and moves. The little guy that sits on your shoulder and whispers in your ear, “Are you crazy, what are you doing this for? Why are you causing yourself all of this stress? Are you REALLY going to do this?”
Even more important than the planning details, you should ask yourself: why are you doing this? What is it that you want to really get out of your extended travels?
These are all the typical hurdles a career breaker or extended traveler goes through. It’s amazing any of them actually leave at all as it sometimes feels like the bricks of societal pressure and doubt are stacked against you.
For those seeking a career break or sabbatical, it’s not just about the trip planning – it’s about the life planning. Boot Camp is an online course and social learning platform where people with the dreams of taking a career break or sabbatical to do extended travel can come together in a community learning environment. Michaela Potter and myself, the founders of Briefcase to Backpack , teamed up with certified travel coach Tara Russell to design this one-of-a-kind 8-week course. These travel experts will provide inspiration, structure, community, resources, tools and motivation.
Registration for our Inaugural Course starts on December 8, 2010 and class begins on January 9, 2011. Because we believe so much in the community aspect, spaces are limited. As an added incentive, the first 20 people who register will receive a $100 gift certificate towards the Unconventional Guides by Chris Guillebeau and every person who registers will receive a free copy of his book, The Art of Non-Conformity.
To learn more about the course, community, curriculum, and instructors, go to Meet Plan Go Boot Camp and report for duty!
Sherry Ott is a refugee from corporate IT who is now a long term traveler, blogger, and photographer. She’s a co-founder of Briefcase to Backpack, a website offering career break travel inspiration and advice. She also runs an around the world travel blog writing about her travel and expat experiences at Ottsworld. She is one of the driving forces behind Meet, Plan, Go! events across the country to inspire more people to get out and travel.
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We certainly hadn't gone to Aruba looking for Cuban cuisine. So it was a pleasant surprise to stumble across Cuba's Cookin', a charming little restaurant just a short walk from our hotel. Not only was the food amazing (note the marked absence of "food porn" shots? we scarfed it down too fast to capture any snaps) but the exuberant atmosphere made it impossible to leave without huge smiles on our faces.
live and lively
DC in the hizzouse!
We visited Cuba's Cookin' with Beth and Robert, a newlywed couple from the DC area we'd randomly met at our hotel. After admiring the eclectic artwork collection and wolfing down our scrumptious meals, we sat back to enjoy the live entertainment. The fun combination of traditional Cuban boleros, Buena Vista Social Club tunes, and Beatles & Stones covers in Spanish eventually gave way to a round of zesty audience participation.
it's way more fun to say "schenk stroop!" than "syrup"
We took a last-minute trip to Aruba last week, with very little on the agenda except diving and enjoying some beachy goodness. And, of course, we managed to find a number of great places to eat!
Like most Caribbean destinations, Aruba has the full spectrum of culinary options, catering to the cruising daytrippers, families with finicky kids, and those with more discerning palates. On this WanderFood Wednesday, I present to you two very different places we greatly enjoyed. Both happened to be recommended by @mariesworlds when I put the request out to the Twitterverse, so thanks Marie!
oktapodi <3s poffertjes
Humbertus crepe...pot roast for breakfast!
Dutch Pancake House (Pannekoekhuis) Slightly cheesy, definitely frequented more by tourists than locals, but we loved it enough to go back twice. The range of sweet and savory crepes will make your head spin, and the silver dollar "poffertjes" pancakes come with a range of delicious toppings too. I couldn't resist trying the "Humbertus" crepe on our second visit, which turned out to be more like a pot roast with its ragu sauce and deer + rabbit meat. Om nom nom!
Papiamento This restaurant is nothing short of stunning. Housed in a historic Aruban farmhouse from the nineteenth century, the alfresco setting among the foliage was absolutely dazzling. We didn't even get a chance to tour the inside because we were so stuffed from dinner. The attention to detail and nearly-clairvoyant service reminded us a lot of The Inn at Little Washington, where the waiter fills your wine glass before you even realize it's empty. Once again the extensive menu was a bit overwhelming, ranging from traditional Dutch favorites like keshi yena to the full cadre of grilled land air & sea options. We both opted for items served "on the stone," which provided an additional auditory treat as the sizzling dishes came to our table. Mark said it was one of the best steaks he's ever had. I was too full to speak.
I dunno about you, but I associate Manhattan with the world of "clackers" and carb-avoidant anorexic supermodel types. Well, our June weekend spent in NYC — I will post a TBEX recap one of these days, I swear! — proved that starchy goodness is alive and well in the City That Never Sleeps. The above photo was taken at after heading home from one of the TBEX afterparties. I'm not sure if you can quite tell from the photo, but it's a SLICE OF PIZZA WITH ZITI ON TOP. ZOMG, carb catatonia, anyone?
Chocolate-Chocolate at DBGB's
Just to clinch it, we spent Sunday night noshing with our DC friends Wil & Sherri, who are in New York for the summer. Apparently, despite an onslaught of visitors, they'd been experiencing a dearth of hardcore foodie goodness, and gleefully took us to DBGB's for a splurge-tastic meal. This fabulous restaurant specializes in delectable small plates and to-die-for desserts. Their notorious "Chocolate Chocolate" sundae was recommended by our waitress and did not disappoint.
And, by the by, we also visited this charming wine bar, although I have no photographic evidence of that portion of the program.
I took a llllllllllot of pictures during our recent visit to San Diego, indeed I did. (Hey, it's not my fault everything is so damn gorgeous everywhere you look!) You're going to have to wait a bit longer while I process all those photos, gentle reader. But in the meantime I have a delicious teaser, just in time for WanderFood Wednesday.
Oh, how did I love our lunch at George's at the Cove in La Jolla? Let me count the ways.
well, there's the ridiculously amazing view
the wonderful beer & wine list
pasta with clam sauce
mmmmm, fish tacos
um, yeah, a good time was had by all
and here's a view looking up at George's from down in the Cove
If you find yourself in La Jolla, you just gotta check out George's. Be sure to head to the "Ocean Terrace" on the top level, where you get the best views. The food is amazing on all three levels; you just can't go wrong. The ceviche was so good I couldn't even get a picture of it before we scarfed it down. And you can walk off all those delicious calories afterwards by taking a nice stroll down to the Cove to admire the birds, seals, and oceany goodness.
Hop on over to Wanderlust & Lipstick's WanderFood Wednesday for more mouth-watering travel foodie posts.
Day 2 of our long weekend in San Diego kicked off with a leisurely breakfast and chillaxification at the homestead. Since the whole point of coming out to the Left Coast was to spend time with my new nephew, it was nice to hang with him in his natural habitat. We'd met him a few weeks before at Nana Z's funeral, but there was just too much hustle & bustle to truly appreciate The Jack Attack in full form. Plus he'd almost doubled in size since we last saw him! (Many Cartman jokes ensued, through the course of the weekend.) It was fun to see my brother in dad mode; Eric and Dey are clearly relishing their new role, even if they're not getting much sleep.
The afternoon's activities centered around a hike to Torrey Pines National Reserve, a true So Cal experience. While some people (you know who you are!) hear Torrey Pines and think world-class golf, those less inclined to chase after a little white ball come to Torrey Pines for the dazzling coastal desert landscape and friendly hiking paths along the beach. There are several trails to follow, all of them fairly accessible even to pallid TPS reportjockeys. It was delicious to be out in the fresh air and exercise our floppy appendages!
the gang at Torrey Pines
We took the beach path back to the car, watching with some bemusement as the entire beach patrol and several emergency vehicles were called in to rescue some dumbass twentysomethings who'd ignored the huge PLEASE DO NOT CLIMB THE BLUFFS signs. Sheesh. After a quick lunch in Del Mar (swank!) we headed to the supermarket to get supplies for the evening's festivities.
chillaxed and garlicrific dinner party
A perfect California day was topped off by a perfect California BBQ at Eric & Dey's place. With the addition of Dey's sister and nephew, Eric's chum from high school, and a vendor-turned-comrade whom I rarely get to see, we grilled up a bunch of kebobs and had a garlic-laden Mediterranean meal. Good friends, good food, and good weather. What more could you ask?
Tahitian Vanilla Bean, Hazelnut, and 64% Bittersweet chocolates
You can keep your raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens... Two of *my* favorite things are red wine and chocolate. And clearly I'm not the only one who feels this way, as evidenced by the near-maximum-capacity crowd at DC Foodies Do Good's April Tweetup: What a Pair! A Blind Red Wine and Chocolate Tasting at Carafe Winemakers in Alexandria.
Tanisha pours mystery wine #3
Wine educator Tanisha Townsend of The GrapeVine set the stage by explaining that we'd be served three wines in a double-blind tasting. This meant that we would need to pair the wines with both the correct varietal and the correct description on the sheets in front of us. Whew! Fortunately the DC Foodies crew was up to the task, and we diligently set about identifying the merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and grenache (which, craftily, was a fortified wine similar to a port).
handmade baked goodies
Meanwhile we were treated to chocolates by Artisan Confections and some handmade baked goods from Cakes by the Pound. Heaven! Tanisha explained the difference between “dark fruits” prominent in a cabernet sauvignon and “red fruits” that typically dominate merlot. Darker chocolates, with deep-roasted flavors, pair well with wines having dark, toasty, or chocolatey notes themselves. And the less-sweet the chocolate -- typically those with a higher cacao percentage-- the more likely it will play nice with red wine.
Jennifer, Amy, and Mark do their homework, while Fox 5's Gwen Tolbart supervises
But, let's face it, you can dutifully listen to all the wine education your little pea brain can hold and it still comes down to this: Drink What You Like. Break the rules, it's more fun that way! And I can say without hesitation: red wine & chocolate, me likey! Very erudite, eh?
more fabulous Artisan chocolates
This post is part of Wanderlust & Lipstick's WanderFood Wednesday series. Head on over there for more delicious foodie travel posts!
And if you're a DC-area foodie do-gooder, please join us for one or both of our May events:
* May 6 - Tweetup #5: Stout & Stilton, An Extraordinary Night of Beer and Cheese Pairing
* May 22 - Do-Good Event: breakfast service at Carpenter’s Shelter
Last night the DC Foodies Do Good group gathered at Biagio Fine Chocolate for an exquisite tasting and education in the art and science of chocolate. Can't have much more fun than that... not with your clothes on, anyway. ;)
Biagio explains the difference between cocoa butter and cocoa solids
Owner Biagio Abbatiello gave us a quick overview on the history of cacao, from the Mayans all the way through the latest renaissance of artisanal chocolates. He also walked us through the complex process of growing beans and producing chocolate, and how many potential points of failure there are along the way. Whew. Don't try this at home!
We learned some fun facts like...
* the Mayans greeted the Spaniards with prized cacao beans, who in turn completely misconstrued this revered gift as lowly almonds
* chocolate played an important role in ancient Mesoamerican culture and great rulers were said to drink up to 50 cups of it per day to increase their potency
* in Dickensian times, all sorts of additives (like brick dust, ew!) were mixed into commercial chocolate, prompting some of the first regulatory measures
* if a chocolate bar has a strong vanilla aroma, it probably means the beans were over-roasted and vanilla was added to cover this flaw
* the percentage of total cacao you see on artisanal chocolates includes cocoa butter as well as cocoa solids, so two 70% bars can have completely different flavors & textures
* there are three types of cacao beans: forastero, trinitario, and criollo; the first is the most common and used in your M&Ms and other "supermarket" chocolate, and you're more likely to see the other two listed on more expensive artisanal chocolates
* listen to your chocolate! good quality chocolate should have a nice crisp snap when you break it, and if you're lucky you and your chocolate might even engage in a conversation
guide to tasting fine chocs
And then, of course, the really fun part... the tasting! Biagio provided 8 different dark chocolate samples and one milk chocolate, ranging from 63% to 75% cacao (and 32% for the milk choc). We nibbled treats from Madagascar to Venezuela and many points in between. As with a wine tasting, there is a distinct multi-step process to allow one to truly appreciate fine artisanal chocolate with all the senses. And indeed we did. I think my favorite was the Hispaniola 70% bar from Rogue Chocolatier, with a surprising burst of burnt orange and hints of cherry. It definitely spoke to me, which was no small feat given that all the arrayed chocs were stellar in their own way.
Bolivia Cru Sauvage 68%
Divine 70% from Ghana
Hispaniola 70% from the Dominican Republic
Biagio generously provided a gift basket door prize -- as if all that free chocolate wasn't enough! -- and newcomer Amanda was the lucky winner of a sampling of delectable treats from the shop. She promises to return the favor by participating in the next DCFDG, a volunteer session at Miriam's Kitchen.
Amanda and her prize
For those in the DC area, I highly recommend a visit to Biagio Fine Chocolate. The staff is wonderfully knowledgeable, and they're committed to a mission of introducing the best chocolate the world has to offer. And if you're a DC-area foodie, come join the DC Foodies Do Good crew! The group's monthly tweet-ups alternate between educational tastings and community service projects, providing the perfect mix of gustatory comradery and do-goodery.
mmm, ravioli with duck ragu (Taverna della Rocca, Frontone)
This is the fourth and final installment in a four-part series of my favorite Italian food porn from our recent trip. The other three parts are linked below.
Part four: small-town restaurants
One could argue whether or not some of these sites are actually small towns... it's all relative once you start traveling through the Italian countryside. All of these sites were reached via daytrip from our agriturismo in Le Marche, and each had its own distinct charm. In contrast with our culinary adventures in Florence and Venice, visiting these smaller cities was much more about slow food and slow travel, sampling the local fare, and taking a deep-deep-deep breath to soak it all in. In some cases, we had a recommendation for a specific restaurant. More often than not, we followed our nose and found a place that suited our needs in the moment. Regardless, each of these towns had their own stories to tell; links and recommendations are provided below.
cantucci e vinsanto (Vineria PerBacco, Anghiari)
heart attack on a plate, om nom nom (Agriturismo Olivetano, Perugia)
panini-licious (Caffe Duomo, Assisi)
Zuppa della Luna (Osteria Della Luna, Gradara)
sadly, not the mixed grill… awesome piadine tho (Taverna della Rocca, Frontone)
Part one: iconic meals in big-city restaurants We noshed at many wonderful ristoranti, osterie, enoteche, and assorted charming spots during our monthlong gastronomic tour through Italy. Finding affordable food in the major cities was sometimes a challenge, but we ate quite well in both Florence and Venice, as well as nearby cities Murano and Treviso.
patate arroste, Dante, Florence
lardo! il Santino, Florence
spaghetti al nero di seppia, Trattoria alla Madonna, Venice
penne al salmone, Trattoria Busa alla Torre, Murano
spritz and penne rosate, Piola, Treviso
Most of these dishes came from some of our favorite restaurants, which are highly recommended if you find yourself in any of these cities (or suburbs).
There's a good reason Anghiari has been labeled "one of the most beautiful villages in Italy." This picturesque hilltown, another convenient daytrip from La Tavola Marche, is absolutely stunning from all angles.
We also found an amazing vineria called Per Bacco, just off one of the main squares. Stunning local dishes, amazing wine list, and friendly service that was superlative even by Italian standards. (And that's saying something!) We finished off the meal with cantucci dipped in vinsanto that was simply to die for. If you're in the neighborhood, you must check this place out!
We got off to a bit of a rough start for our winery tour, still not grasping the concept that EVERYTHING in Italy closes from 1-4pm. (We're slow learners.) We arrived at the first winery at about 12:30, but just missed getting in before they closed for lunch. Dagger! So we killed a few hours wandering around the nearby town of Jesi, trying to find internet access. As usual, easier said than done. We did eventually find a cafe in the main square with free access, but not before traipsing through a really creepy deserted rundown part of town. Here's a tip: if you find yourself in Jesi, maintain the high ground and don't explore downhill.
Attempt #2 at visiting the Montecappone vineyard was substantially more enjoyable. Not only do they have gas pumps dispensing wine by the gallon (schweeeeet!), but there are a ton of wines to taste. The woman in the tasting room asked us which of their wines we'd like to try. Not knowing any better, we answered "Tutti!" So she poured us very generous tastes of about a dozen wines. Boof! I tried to explain that I was driving and only needed a very small taste. No dice. We often complain about the "Virginia pour" which might as well be dispensed with an eyedropper. After visiting wineries in Napa, Sonoma, and Monterey, we thought that a "California pour" was the way to go. But this day we learned that an "Italian pour" is the ultimate! At Montecappone they gave us almost a third of a glass of each wine to taste. I wound up either pouring most of mine out -- the horror! -- or giving it to Mark. Who drank a LOT of wine before the day was through. He suffers for his art.
Next stop was the nearest winery according to the map, although each item on said map was displayed with a gigantic circle, so it was a little tricky to discern exactly where everything was located. Where there's a will, however, there's a way! And thus we found our way to Tenuta di Tavignano, a beautiful winery located on a hilltop overlooking the Esino Valley. The winemaker there didn't speak a word of English, but he was so passionate about describing his product that we all seemed to be fluent in the language of wine. Or maybe that was just the result of all those generous pours...
Rather than continuing on to the next closest winery, we asked the winemaker for his opinion of which he thought we should visit. He pointed to one on our map that wasn't particularly close, and required a bit of a wild goose chase up and down some windy mountain roads, but was ultimately worth the effort. Bonci produces award-winning Verdicchio wines, the region's most famous varietal. We were somewhat familiar with this crisp white, but got to taste the full range of flavors the Verdicchio grape has to offer, including some stunningly rich 10-year-old bottles. Yum! Plus oktapodi made a new friend in Valentina Bonci, who volunteered to pose for a picture and declared, "Look, we have the same face!"
We made it back to La Tavola Marche with almost a case of wine from these three producers. Which gave us quite a goal to accomplish, as we were due to return home in just a few days! Fortunately, we like a challenge. (Unlike another pair of LTM guests, who returned empty-handed the next day, unable to find a single winery on the map! Amateurs.) We even managed to spirit one bottle of Verdicchio home to DC, where it sits in the fridge awaiting just the right occasion. Cin-cin!
Part one: Fossombrone
It started out harmlessly enough.
One of our many maps helpfully pointed out all the castles in the area. We'd seen the remains of a castle high atop a hill each time we passed by the town of Fossombrone. So it seemed a reasonable enough quest to try to get to the top of the hill and check out the castle, right?
But, let's face it, one doesn't seek out the offbeat in Italy in an attempt to be reasonable.
Here's how it actually went down: We drove to Fossombrone, less than half an hour from our agriturismo in Piobbico. We stopped for a quick bite, figuring we had a bit of a climb ahead of us, and poked around town for some signage to indicate which way to the castle. None to be found. So we headed up the first staircase we could find. Which took us to yet another set of steep stairs. Which led to, as best we could fathom, someone's front yard. Still no signage, and no visual indication that we were heading in anything remotely resembling the right direction. So what else was there to do but keep going up?
It was at this point in the program that I miiiiiiiiight have gotten a little cranky, perhaps a tad petulant, maybe even just the slightest bit whiny.
Now, faithful readers, you all know how much I like going off the beaten path, yes? But I'm not a big fan of trudging around with no payoff. And this was threatening to be a deadend, with an excellent Stairmaster workout thrown in to boot. We stopped to ask a denizen of Fossombrone, in our broken Italian, where's the castle? She paused from her stair-sweeping for a moment, considered the request, and pointed skyward. Right. Keep going up.
Long story short, we did eventually reach something vaguely resembling a castle, but only after climbing about a trillion stairs and crossing through a yard with goats in it. Yes, goats. I was sure we were about two steps away from encountering an angry farmer with a shotgun, but no other human creatures appeared on the hilltop. Apparently we were the only ones silly enough to be up there. And it soon became obvious why, as the "castle" turned out to be a private residence constructed among the ruins of some former castle-type structure. Bummer! There were some lovely views of Le Marche atop the hill, and a delicious breeze. But other than the satisfaction of completing what we started, the Great Fossombrone Castle Caper turned out to be a bit of a bust.
there's the, ehm, castle
It did set the tone for the rest of the day, though: expect the unexpected.
Part two: Cartoceto & Mombaroccio Our next stop was Cartoceto. One of the items on our short list was a visit to an olive grove, to see how Italian olive oil is made. And according to Ashley, Cartoceto is one of the premier producers of olive oil in the region. So we set off there next, and arrived in town in the early afternoon. After stopping for a couple of ridiculously overpriced sodas (ouch! you expect that in a place like Venice, but not in this nondescript town in the middle of nowhere!) we poked around looking for the tourist information office. Which turned out to be closed. Of course. Foolish mortals, it's the afternoon! Why would anything actually be OPEN? There was nobody else around town, save for the overpriced soda vendor who could only shrug and tell us it wasn't olive season. So once again we took a moment to gaze at the scenic hillside, olive groves gleaming just out of reach in the sun, and got back in the car.
Cartoceto olive groves
There was another town along the way called Mombaroccio that had seemed promising. The map promised another castle, as did the roadside signs. And indeed it was a cute little walled city, but there was nothing else to see and nothing going on in town. Another strikeout!
Part three: at long last, Mondavio!
Just as things were looking bleak, we found ourselves in Mondavio, a town known for its gigantic medieval trebuchets. Our only prior experience with trebuchets had been the kind that fling flaming upright pianos at Burning Man, so we were intrigued.
And, for the first time all day, we were NOT disappointed! Mondavio's trebuchet collection stands in a courtyard under the watchful eye of the Rocca Roveresca. The trebuchets themselves are fun to check out, and pretty unique even in a country that's chock-full of cool medieval/renaissance sites. But the Rocca Roveresca was an unexpected treat. We were prepared for it to be closed for the day or for the season, but the helpful lady at this tourist info office whipped out a set of keys and let us in. Schweet!
It was worth every bit of the eight-euro admission price for two tickets. A masterpiece of the Tuscan architect Francesco Giorgio di Martini, Mondavio's Rocca Roveresca houses a collection of weaponry and armor, sports fabulous views of the Metauro Valley, and has lots of fun passageways to explore. OK, some of the wax dummy scenes were a little cheesy, but there's nothing wrong with a little cheese from time to time.
We practically had the place to ourselves, so we took our time wandering the halls, checking out the refurbished dining rooms and creepy torture chamber. From the windows at the very top, we got some magnificent vistas of the surrounding countryside. And one last glance at those kickass trebuchets in the courtyard below.
To top it off, as we were heading out, another splendiferous sunset was about to begin. We were treated to a golden departure from Mondavio, and a dazzling drive home, as the sun painted the hills impossible shades of purple and red. Ahhhhhhh, that's the stuff! Sometimes going off the path is rewarded, after all.
We were a little unsure about visiting Assisi, hometown of Saint Francis and focal point for religious tourism. Would they even let us in? What would two heathens do all day in this super-Catholic town? Bolstered by A&J's recommendation and some other positive reports, we decided to make a go of it.
Assisi is a drive-able daytrip from Piobbico, over the mountains and into Umbria's Spoleto Valley. This was our first real experience with the Italian Autostrada, the national highway system. I gotta say, after winding our way back and forth on tiny mountain passes, it was pretty nice to open up and haul ass on some nice straight roads. Everything you've heard about Italians driving maniacally is true. We had to speed up to keep up.
We knew we'd made the right choice the first moment we spotted Assisi from the road. Carved into the Umbrian hillside, this fabulous medieval city does have its fair share of churchy sights, but it's also got cool castles with lots of nooks and crannies to explore. As with many Italian hilltowns, it's a little tricky to get your bearings, and it took us a while to find what we were looking for. But everyone knows that getting lost and wandering around is half the fun!
Our first stop was the Rocca Maggiore, the enormous 13th century fortress perched high atop the city. This place spoiled us for all future castle exploration! There is an entrance fee, but it's worth every penny. There are not one but TWO towers to climb, affording magnificent views of Umbria in all directions. The main fortress building has some marvelous displays of weapons, armor, and even a room re-enacting a famous medieval painting. (OK, I'll admit, those faceless mannequins were a little creepy.) Everything is well-labeled in English and several other languages. There's a really cool tunnel joining the fortress with the keep, which you can walk through and peek out the tiny windows, pretending you're a knight defending the castle from invading forces. Just watch your head; they were a lot shorter in those days! We also enjoyed the displays and photos from Calendimaggiore, a huge festival that takes place in May and looks like a cross between a Renaissance Faire and Burning Man. We just might have to come back for that!
Franciscan monk on an errand
The remainder of our Assisi explorations included wandering around the piazza in front of the Basilica di Santa Chiara, a peek inside the Duomo di San Rufino (with a somewhat surreal exhibit of JP2-inspired Pope-art), the Temple of Minerva, and of course a visit to the Basilica di San Francesco. As it happened, our visit coincided with the Feast of Saint Francis, so the catacombs beneath the lower church were packed with people streaming in to pay their respects to Assisi's patron saint. The air was thick with incense as pilgrims of all shapes and sizes lined up in hushed tones to circle the crypt containing the remains of Saint Francis. It was yet another occasion for some excellent people-watching. Tiny Italian nuns knelt and wept with outstretched hands. Familes with matching rosaries reverently touched a cornerstone and made the sign of the cross. An entire football team got their picture taken in front of the crypt. And somehow Mark and I made it out of there without being hit by lightning, which to my mind seemed the real miracle.
awesome Assisi sunset
We emerged to find a stupendous sunset, followed by an enormous full moon rising over Assisi. Gorgeous. Who knew we'd have such a great time in this sacred city?
Alas, apparently we'd pushed our heathen luck a bit too far. As most of you already know, we returned to the agriturismo that night to find that our laptop had inexplicably died. I would've preferred a lightning hit! No matter, not even this technological catastrophe could marr an otherwise delightful day exploring Assisi. We highly recommend this town to anyone visiting Umbria, saints and sinners alike.
On recommendation from the LTM blog we decided to drive to nearby Frontone to check out the castle. It looked like an excellent place to check out the sunset, and indeed it was!
The castle itself is not open in low season (September-May), except for weekends. So we weren't able to climb to the very tippy-top of the mountain, but we got pretty close. Frontone is located in the Cesano Valley, less than an hour's drive from LTM. I couldn't say whether or not there's anything worth seeing in the town proper, because we headed straight for the castle, which is perched atop a singular hill and surrounded by an ancient medieval hamlet. Coolness!
We wandered around a bit, admiring the back alleys and as much of the castle as we could see. The astounding views were nearly 360°, with Umbria just off to the southwest, and the hills & villages of Le Marche in all other directions. And then the sun began to set. It was one of those jaw-dropping sunsets where the light just keeps getting more and more gorgeous. Where you can't decide whether to sit and drool, or take *one more* beautiful picture. (So, of course, we did some of both.) We enjoyed a front-row seat to nature's spectacular lightshow at Ristorante Amabile, over limoncellos and a plate of formaggio misto. Very civilized, indeed.
Dinner was just up the "street" at Taverna della Rocca, former stables carved into the side of the mountain. What a show! The dining room centered around an enormous wood-burning grill, with ladies in white uniforms tossing huge logs into the fire and jostling beds of coals on which they grilled sausages and other meaty goodness. We couldn't tell under the long sleeves, but guessed these gals must've had huge guns from endless hours of cooking. The smells coming from the grill were tantalizing to the max.
We started off with a lovely plate of ravioli with duck ragu, plus some house wine, of course. But then, for the next course, we made a fatal blunder. We saw cinghale (wild boar) on the menu and were immediately intrigued, but mixed up salsicce (sausage) with salumi (thin-sliced cured salami) and wound up with something more akin to an antipasto plate. Rookie mistake! In our defense, this particular item was mixed in with the main courses, on a totally different page from the antipasti. But it was still a crushing defeat after sitting next to the grill all evening and watching plate after plate of meat go by. In retrospect, we could probably have asked for just one or two sausages, but instead we opted for a decadent dessert of profiteroles. And vowed to come back the next day, perhaps for lunch, to avenge our error.
Once upon a time, a brown-eyed girl who worked for a hospitality company, and a blue-eyed boy who loved to cook visited Italy for a month. They had such a gorgeous time that almost immediately upon returning home they began to scheme of how to move back to Italy for good. Perhaps they'd combine their passion for travel with their love of slow food and wine, and show other travelers how best to enjoy all the bounties that Italy has to offer...?
Well, as it turns out, the girl in this story is named Ashley, and the boy's name is Jason, and they are our most-gracious hosts here at La Tavola Marche. But the similarities to a certain other pair of intrepid travelers *are* striking, are they not?
As predicted, these are our people. We have very much been enjoying getting to know Ashley & Jason and the rest of the guests at this lovely agriturismo, housed in a 300-year-old farmhouse in the rolling hills of the Le Marche region. Our first few minutes here, after driving several hours from Treviso, involved launching headfirst into a sumptuous multi-course meal, populated with local treats and loot from the LTM garden out back. We hadn't even seen our room yet, but Ashley made sure we finished off the meal with a cherry liqueur she made by hand alongside the mayor's mother. They surely do have their priorities straight in these parts!
La Tavola Marche garden
We look forward to more philosophical chats with A&J, hearing the story of how such a young couple made such a successful transition to this lifestyle, and exploring the local delicacies of the region. (Supposedly there's a mushroom festival in a nearby town. Rock on!) We're here for a short two weeks and I suspect we'll not want to leave. This place already feels like "happily ever after."
On a wonderful tip from the Journeywoman site, we had dinner at Trattoria alla Madonna, just off the Ponte Rialto. Couldn't recommend this place more highly! To say the waiters are friendly is a vast understatement. (Ours was like an Italian version of Kramer from Seinfeld.) And I absolutely had to try the spaghetti con nero di seppie -- squid ink! -- which is definitely not for the faint of heart. But I loved it! My one recommendation, if you're going to try this dish, is to be sure to wear black, as it is a messy mofo.
Supposedly 9/9/09 was the most auspcious day this year, but for us it was all about 9/19/09. It was one of those picture-perfect days that started out great and kept getting better.
Thanks to @italylogue's fantastic tip, we found the last-minute ticket window to get our Uffizi tickets. True to the article's description, it was a bit tricky to find, and so nondescript that the uninformed would likely pass right by. But we had the inside scoop! It's located on the busy Via dei Calzaiuoli, embedded in the Orsanmichele church. We got same-day tickets to the Uffizi, no waiting in line, no fuss. It is cash-only, though, so be prepared for that. And there's a €4 fee. Totally worth it!
We had plenty of time before our 3:30 museum reservations to check out the Duomo complex. The outside of the church is spectacular, although the inside wasn't all that impressive. We debated whether to climb to the top of the dome or the belltower. At €6,50 each, not to mention all those stairs, it was an either/or scenario. Both afford awesome views, but if you go up the Campanile di Giotto, you also get the iconic dome in your pics. So that's what we did. The reward for hoofing it up all those steps, in increasingly tighter spaces, is a stunning view of Florence's red tile rooftops, Tuscan hills in the distance, and an impossibly blue sky with fluffy white clouds. Che bella!
After a few scoops of gelato to undo any good we'd just done by climbing all those stairs, we headed to the Uffizi. Neither of us is really a museum person, but we spent almost three hours viewing a staggering array of art (and dodging huge Asian tour groups). We finished up on the outdoor patio with yet more gorgeous views of the Palazzo and Duomo.
Our first real Moment of Zen that day came when we bought the Italian version of Two-buck Chuck at a tiny snack stand outside the Uffizi. I LOVE this country! We sat on the edge of the Loggia, sipped our €2,20 bottle of wine, ate some snacks, and watched the world go by. Students sketched the marble statues, a nearby busker performed on guitar, and tourists streamed past this historic corner en route to or from the Piazza della Signoria. Life did not suck.
Moment of Zen #2 happened shortly thereafter, as we strolled across the Ponte Vecchio into the Oltrarno neighborhood and found the most perfect wine bar. Il Santino Gastronomia, which is next door to Il Santino Ristorante, is a tiny little shop with gorgeous lighting and exposed brick. The cheese dude behind the counter sliced up paper-thin strips of lardo on crostini to start us off, while an adorable waitress brought a fabulous bottle of wine (which was only slightly pricier than the last one, at a whopping €9) and delectable piatto di formaggio. The whole scene was so magical that we got another round, and sat mulling over plans to open up a place like this in DC. It was perfection. And they invited us to come back the next night for their anniversary celebration. Sold!
Moment of Zen #3: just when the day couldn't get any more fabulous, we got back to our locanda to find that our bags had arrived! And we didn't even have to schlep to the airport to get them; someone had delivered them right to our room. It was a poetic ending to a perfect day. We may never come home.
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!
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Soy un perdedor.
I'm a loser baby,
So why don't you kill me?
(get crazy with the cheese whiz)
After several Photo Fridays spent whining about wanting to hit the beach, it was time to make it a reality. The original plan was to visit the Chincoteague Blueberry Festival. But we talked through the options and decided that this would be our only scuba opportunity for the year. There's some excellent wreck diving in North Carolina, but that's a bit too far to drive for a short weekend. Mark researched it further, and discovered that there's some scuba options in Virginia Beach, which is less than four hours from our house. Meanwhile, I reached out to the Twitterverse and got some great recommendations for local restaurants from @vatourismpr and @VaBeachCVB, not to mention an excellent beach tip from my grrl @raelinn_wine. We got a spot on a Saturday dive trip, used my Marriott employee discount to book a room in nearby Norfolk, and we were off!
Episode One: in which our intrepid heroes hit the beach
Friday was beachalicious perfection. Quite by chance, our DC friends Tony & Christina were in VA Beach at the same time, so we spent the day at the beach with their family. Sandbridge, a quieter, less-crowded alternative south of the main drag, had been recommended several times by locals and visitors alike. We actually wound up a bit further south in Little Island Beach, where there was more parking. It was heavenly. No boardwalk, plenty of space to spread out, and some decent waves to jump around in. The kids spent the day digging holes to China and burying each other in the sand, while the grownups plastered their pasty selves with sunscreen and bodysurfed in the waves.
That evening, we met up for a fantastic meal at Croc's 19th Street Bistro, an ecobistro that features fresh local foods. This was another recommendation from my tweeps, and it was a winner! The menu is enormous, with lots of excellent sustainable seafood options plus a generous sprinkling of Lebanese flavors. Plus the happy hour specials are stellar. We commandeered a table on the patio and our wonderful waitress good-naturedly put up with our loud storytelling and silly jokes. She even posed for a pic with oktapodi. Croc's is the first "Virginia Green"-certified restaurant, and they are proud of the SOL (sustainable, organic, local) menu as well as the many green improvements to the building itself. We really enjoyed ourselves and highly recommend this place!
OK, so that was the good part, now for the downer part...
Episode Two: in which our intrepid heroine has a total scuba meltdown
And I didn't even get crazy with the cheese whiz.
In retrospect, it should have been obvious from the start. (But isn't that always the case?) I have about 50 dives under my belt, Mark just slightly less, but in the 8 or so years we've been diving it's always been outside the US. It's always been in a warm-water location, typically in a spot where people arrive there specifically to dive. We figured this would be a slightly different scenario, but had no idea what an alien experience we were in for.
My spider-senses were tingling from about the first moment we walked into the dive shop. We'd made arrangements to rent some of the necessary gear, including -gasp- 6ml full-body wetsuits. Yuck! We hadn't worn wetsuits since our certification dive all those years ago. Wearing a wetsuit is a lot like putting on pantyhose, but much thicker and covering your entire body. You feel like a neoprene sausage. It's way unfun. But, when the water's 60 degrees or less, plus thermocline, it's a necessary evil. Anyway, with all that extra buoyancy, you need more weight on your belt to keep you down. But for some reason this shop refused to rent us weights. Moreover, the guy behind the desk acted like we were complete idiots for not having our own weights. Excuse me? What's with the attitude, buddy? Why on earth would we tote an extra 10-20lbs each around the world with us whenever we want to dive? And now you're telling us we have to BUY these weights from you at nearly $5 a pound? Weights we'll never ever use again? No chance, lance.
At that point, I was ready to pack it in and spend another pleasant day at the beach. Never mind that this scuba trip was the whole reason we'd come down here. I was just not comfortable entrusting our lives to these a**holes. Granted, your average dive is not a life-and-death situation, but when you're 70+ feet underwater you do want to feel as though an experienced professional team's got your back in case something does happen to go wrong. Especially when you're paying through the nose for the priviledge. Well, for better or for worse, Mark talked me down off the ledge, and with the help of a much cuter and significantly less-surly dive shop staffer named Samantha we were able to rent the necessary weights. For an additional fee, of course.
On Saturday, things quickly went from bad to worse. Even though we showed up on time (early, even!) after being told several times that the boat would leave *promptly* at 8am, we didn't actually shove off till close to 9. And we didn't find out till we'd left that the boat wouldn't return to the dock until about 3pm, which would necessitate another night's stay at the hotel. (Fine, OK, that one was our fault.) I tried to be radically self-reliant on the trip out, drinking plenty of water, taking Dramamine as a precaution against seasickness, and trying to stay out of the sun. When it came time to put on the dreaded neoprene sausage suit, I made sure to leave plenty of time (and do it in a private spot) so I wasn't rushed or stressed. Things were looking good until we actually hit the water. I'm not sure exactly how to describe what happened, because I've never experienced this before. But something about the combination of the tight wetsuit, some other problems with ill-fitting rental gear, the huge ocean swells, and an almost complete lack of visibility... it just pushed me over the aforementioned ledge. I couldn't breathe. I couldn't get my bearings. I just completely freaked out. Panic attack, maybe? Who knows... all I knew was that I was *not* going beneath the surface in this condition. And nobody around us had any interest in helping out, not the divemasters, not the other divers, nobody.
My only choice was to slink back onto the boat, peel off the horrid suit, and attempt to regain my composure. Mark continued the dive on his own, sans buddy. This is a ginormous dive no-no, but god forbid the so-called professional staff offer to help out or pair him up with another diver or group. I spent the rest of the afternoon sipping water and quietly trying to get my s**t back together. Unfortunately I neglected to pop another Dramamine until it was a bit too late, so on top of everything else I was pretty seasick too. Didn't manage to "feed the fish" over the side of the boat or anything, but suffice it to say I was miserable, humiliated, and frustrated as hell.
Wow. Good times.
We managed to salvage the day by staying an extra night (since we had to pay for it, regardless) and going out to a nice seafood restaurant. Mahi Mah was also recommended by my tweeps, and although it paled in comparison to the previous night's dinner, it made for a fun night out and some decent peoplewatching on the boardwalk. We wandered the main drag, watched a wedding on the beach, and marveled at the "no cursing" signs sprinkled about town. (Which only made me want to get as lewd & rude as possible, right there on the street.) Between the greasy fast-food joints, the sidewalk preachers, and the portly folks squeezed into improbably tight clothing, it was a slice of Americana at its finest.
So, kiddies, what have we learned? No more cold-water diving, to be sure! Always leave plenty of time to suss out the dive shop and its staff. As with many other situations, TRUST YOUR INSTINCTS. And there is no such thing as too much Dramamine.
All in all, it was a nice getaway. Any opportunity to hang out in the sun and check out a new green/locavore restaurant is a good time in my book.
It's simply not summer in the US until Memorial Weekend, the official inauguration of the season of grillin, chillin, and overconsumption of the vice of your choosing. This year we decided to start our summer off right with a trip to Osyrusfest 2009 in Coatesville, PA.
We'd attended this event two years ago, and it was great to see how it's grown. Started a few years back by the illustrious Preston and Paul Hoffman as a way to celebrate jam bands (and an excuse to drag millions of dollars of lighting equipment to the quarry outside their old family homestead), Osyrusfest has evolved into one of the premiere small music festivals in North America. The schedule was jam-packed full of excellent bands from all over the country. Even for someone who gets easily bored with the never-ending wiffly-wafty nature of jam music -- ehm, that would be me -- the jaw-dropping lights and striking Ofest setting kicks the whole thing up a notch or ten.
Learning from past mistakes with leaky tents, this year we decided to rent a big honkin' RV and drive up from DC. Several participants flaked out at the last minute, which just left more room in the RV of Love & Justice for me, Mark, and our friend Josh (better known in some circles as The Minister of Intoxication). We got the exact same model we'd rented last year for Burning Man, and the minute I stepped inside to load up our gear I had a huge flashback to our dusty, surreal adventures on The Playa. And, sniff, I missed Crystal and Foreward and the rest of the GBOF crew! Nevermind, we were about to create a whole set of new memories with a new cast of characters.
We finally hit the road around 8:30pm on Friday, which meant missing most of the hideous weekend traffic, but it also meant arriving just before midnight. After taking a wrong turn at Gum Tree and almost taking out their neighbor's mailbox, we rolled into the Hoffman Estates just as the Mobias Project set was ending. I wiggled the Mothership into position, and we cracked open a frosty beverage to celebrate our successful arrival. The party raged deep into the night, complete with a DJ set and a neverending supply of Fisherman's Brew beer. (Sponsorship is goooooood!)
The rest of the weekend was somewhat of a blur, albeit a totally mellow and relaxing one. Daytime consisted of parking ourselves in the shade outside the RV and interacting with our neighbors, sharing beverages and tasty treats. If we were so inclined, there were several sporting options to partake in... everything from whiffle ball to bocce. Mostly we just sat around chatting and enjoying the continuous current of music from the DJ tent, live guitar and drum circles, or our own RV sound system. It was chillaxed to the max!
The highlight of the weekend was indisputably the stellar set by Eclipse, a Pink Floyd tribute band from Nashville. They totally stole the show. Mere words can't quite convey the exhilaration of standing on the overgrown quarry floor, surrounded by lights and fog, listening to this band belt out Pink Floyd favorites like "Comfortably Numb" and "Wish You Were Here." If I closed my eyes, I coulda sworn I was actually seeing the Floyd live and in the flesh. It was truly breathtaking. The band has seven members, including one vocalist who sounds more like Roger Waters and one with more of a David Gilmour sound, plus a hot female saxophonist/keyboardist, and another hot female vocalist who can belt out "Great Gig in the Sky" like nothing I've ever heard. So they can really cover the full gamut. If you are the least bit fan of the Floyd, make it your business to see these guys in concert. They blew us all away.
And then, the icing on the cake: we got to hang out with most of Eclipse after the show. Such is the benefit of having a ginormous mothership of a vehicle... you get to host the best parties at the festival! We never quite matched the 20-person pileup of BM 2008, but we certainly did circulate a lot of folks through the RV of Love & Justice on Saturday night. And I have to say, in addition to being a phenomenally talented bunch, Eclipse are also outstanding peeps to hang out with. It was a pleasure getting to know them. The absinthe was flowing, the hookah was fired up, and the steady stream of innnnnnnnnteresting people kept the conversation lively, to say the least. Good times.
By the time Monday rolled around and it was time to roll on home, everyone was a bit rough around the edges, as you can imagine. Preston was overhead to say something to the effect of "I can *feel* how much fun I had this weekend. Even my teeth hurt!" Amen, brother. We were all using our inside voices the following week at work. No matter, it was completely worth it! Kudos to Preston and Paul for a tremendously successful Osyrusfest 2009. Oh, and on top of all the fun, we raised a bunch of money to help provide clean drinking water to Varkhadiya Village in Gujarat, India, via the fabulous folks at 1Well. Gotta love fun that benefits a great cause. Summer 2009, here we come!
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I arrived at the Ambassador's residence around 9am for orientation. Stepping inside this oasis of lush style, you'd never know you're just a few steps from the Dupont Circle Metro Station. From the stunning entryway leading to a jaw-dropping wooden staircase, to the dining room with Elizabethan wainscoting, to the skylight in the Edwardian ballroom, the Thomas Gaff house is a true DC landmark. It's a few blocks from the actual Embassy of Colombia. But it was no surprise that this was the chosen site to host the Embassy's open house. The place is sa-weeeeeet!
This was Cultural Tourism DC's second year organizing Passport DC, a series of 30+ embassy open houses all occurring on the same Saturday in May. The event provided a unique opportunity to visit some of the most gorgeous properties DC has to offer. Embassies from Australia to Zambia opened their doors to the public, offering cultural programs, food tasting, and a rare glimpse inside buildings that are not often open for walk-ins by the Average Joe. I'd heard about the event from the volunteer coordinators at the Cherry Blossom Festival, and it sounded like a great opportunity to give back. I received two assignments: morning shift at the Embassy of Colombia, and afternoon shift outside the Embassy of Ukraine.
Last year's event drew over 50,000 people, and this year they expected even greater numbers. In preparation for a day of directing the masses, Denisse Yanovich, Cultural Attaché at the embassy, gathered up a group of Passport volunteers and embassy staff to dole out assignments. As any good volunteer knows, there's nothing better than knowing exactly what you're supposed to be doing, so it was a great relief to see the shifts planned out in precise detail. Denisse explained that some of us would be tasked with crowd control, making sure that nobody brushed up against the priceless Botero painting in the foyer or wandered upstairs to Ambassador Carolina Barco Isakson's private residence, and some of us would be serving treats or handing out literature in the main ballrom. I ended up at the passport stamp station. The event program guide featured a "passport" section in the middle, where visitors could collect a stamp for each embassy visited. My very important job was to offer an official stamp to those who wanted to commemorate their visit to Colombian soil. Most embassies used standard ink stamps, or stickers, but at the Embassy of Colombia we didn't mess around. I got to use an ancient metal seal to emboss page after page. After a few hours the muscles on my right side started to feel like jelly, but it was worth it for the excited reactions. "Oooooo! It's so *official*!" and "Coooooooool!" and "Wow, that's awesome!" were just a few of the standard responses. People really dug it. And as any good volunteer knows, there's nothing better than recognition of a job well done.
Last year, the Embassy saw about 2,000 visitors. I don't know what the final count was for this year, but I'm guessing we surpassed last year's benchmark by about midday. The line stretched out the door and around the block. People were almost as excited to see the exquisite artwork as they were to enter the raffle to win a free tshirt emblazoned with the "Colombia es pasión!" tagline. Visitors were also treated to videos extolling Colombia's tourist attractions, free Juan Valdez coffee, and bocadillos with guava and queso. I didn't see the Couchsurfing group who met up for the day, but did run into a random friend who was surprised to see me wielding an official Colombian seal. It was a great morning.
My shift was over around 1pm, when I was relieved by the afternoon volunteer. Denisse directed me to the kitchen in the bowels of the residence for a spot of lunch. (As any good volunteer knows, there's nothing better than a free lunch! Especially one awarded in recognition of a job well done.) I was a bit sad to leave, but my next shift awaited. I ate as quickly as I could, and caught the Route 3 shuttle bus to my next destination in Georgetown.
On the shuttle, I sat next to a woman who had just come from the Embassy of Uzbekistan, and was en route to Saudi Arabia. She and I marveled at the fact that when you've lived somewhere for a while, you tend to take for granted the goodies that are available in your backyard. When else do you get a chance to see what the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia has to offer? Legally, Embassy grounds *are* officially the soil of that particular country, so it's probably the only chance someone like me might get to "visit" Saudi Arabia. Alas, today it wasn't meant to be, as I needed to continue on to my next shift at the Embassy of Ukraine.
Long story short, I got redirected to help out at the main information booth back at Dupont Circle. I spent the rest of the afternoon directing folks to the appropriate shuttle lines, explaining that although the Embassy of Australia closed at 3pm there were still plenty of embassies open until 4, and handing out program guides until they ran out. While not nearly as organized as my time in Colombia that morning, it was nonetheless energizing. By the time my afternoon shift ended around 4:30, I was exhausted and more than ready to head for home.
It's too bad Passport DC is only once a year... so many fabulous embassies, so little time! But for those who are looking for a second chance, the European Union countries are doing their own open house events next weekend:
We opted to spend our time in Kuching (on the Sarawak side of Malaysian Borneo) visiting slightly touristy spots: Sarawak cultural village, two caves, and orangutans. After a few stressful travel days getting here from Sabah, we were kinda worn out and needed a few days of mellowness. Fortunately our CouchSurfing host, Barry, provided a comfy place for us to crash. And we enjoyed meeting Bruno, a fellow CSer from Paris who happened to be surfing with Barry at the same time we were there. Barry, another chef, took us to some awesome off-the-beaten path Chinese restaurants in Kuching that were definitely not listed in Lonely Planet. So despite the organized tours, we felt vindicated that our Kuching stay was sufficiently authentic.
Day One was spent at Sarawak Cultural Village, which reminded me of Colonial Willamsburg. Composed of several different tribal longhouses clustered at the foothills of Mount Santubong, SCV is a great way to get a sampling of Sarawak's ethnic diversity. There's a cultural performance in the welcome center -- yes, it ranks pretty high on the cheese-o-meter, but it's also a handy way to check out the beautiful fabrics and distinct dances of each of the tribes represented in the village. And then you can wander through half a dozen different longhouses to see how each tribe lives. My favorites were the Penan longhouse, where Mark practiced shooting a blowpipe, and the Orang-ulu longhouse, which featured a little dude playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" in a fornlorn minor key on both a sape and a saron.
Day Two took us to the nearby Wind and Fairy Caves, which may not be as extraordinary as World Heritage-ranking Gunung Mulu, but have the benefit of being easily-reachable via daytrip from Kuching. Wind Cave, the smaller of the two, hosts lots of bats and swiftlets. Swiftlet nests, made from bird spit and random detritus, are used to make the infamous Chinese soup (and other dubious delicacies). Fairy cave features an enormous cavern, views across the border into Indonesian Borneo, and some mildly strenuous climbs into some limestone nooks and crannies.
We also spent some time exploring Kuching, the Cat City. (Ten points if you can read the name Kuching and not automatically shout out "Ka-CHING!" which is what most people have done when we've told them about this part of the trip.) Nobody seems entirely sure why Kuching is called the Cat City, but the result is that there are myriad kitschy cat statues all over town. Fantastic Chinese restaurants as well, whether of the sit-down or street stall variety.
We couldn't leave Borneo without seeing some orangutans, aka the "Wild Man of Borneo." There are two major orangutan rehab centers in Borneo... and no, neither of them remotely resemble the Betty Ford Clinic. We missed seeing Sepilok, which is near Sandakan in Sabah. So we wanted to make sure we visited Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, just outside Kuching. There are two main viewing platforms where orangutans gather to be fed by the Malaysian equivalent of Ranger Smith. Personally I found the ranger's splendid mullet almost as fascinating as the antics of the orangutans he was feeding. Even though it was a sanitized environment, it was still pretty cool to see these fascinating creatures at close range.
We spent our Thanksgiving in a slightly non-traditional way. After rising early to catch the only bus out of Semporna, and enjoying an uneventful 4.5-hour bus ride through eastern Borneo, we got dumped off at the side of the road next to the Medan Selera Coffeehouse in Bukit Garam. This was the appointed rendezvous spot where the good folks at Nature Lodge Kinabatangan had promised to pick us up. One problem: this might have been the former location of said coffee shop, but it was clearly closed due to construction. And none of the locals hanging around the disheveled strip mall had any idea what we were talking about. So we hung out at the one open restaurant across the street and hoped for the best. Along the way, we picked up a trio of confused-looking Swedes, who'd just gotten off the bus from Kota Kinabalu and had received the same enigmatic instructions from the lodge. Happily, misery (aka confusion plus stultifying heat) loves company. It's always better to be lost with someone else!
Fortunately, the Nature Lodge folks did eventually happen along, and whisked us away for an hourlong journey to the lodge that included off-roading over a bumpy dirt path and then a quick boat ride across the mighty Kinabatangan river. And, finally, we'd arrived!
Nature Lodge Kinabatangan is a pleasant, rustic cluster of buildings along the banks of the river. There's a main lodge that houses the kitchen and open-air dining room, a dorm cabin, shared toilets, and several smaller cabins sprinkled throughout the property. The staff are friendly (like almost all Malays, if you don't count cabbies) and energetic. We'd signed up for the two-day package, which turned out to be a highly-structured series of morning boat rides, midday hikes, and a night walk or two. Normally such precise agendas are not the way we prefer to experience a place, but trekking with professional guides seemed like the best option for wildlife-spotting. So, after a quick moment to freshen up and dump our bags, we trooped back to the boat dock for our first guided boat ride. Our crew consisted of "Jungle Jay," our sprightly and knowledgeable guide; Carolina, Josefin, and Emma, the three jovial 20something Swedes; a sardonic German woman named Yvonne; and a pungent Czech dude called something like Hamze or Janze. (I never did quite catch his name. He'd been traveling for the better part of two years and clearly relished hanging out with wildlife much more than conversation with other people.) We piled into the boat and set off down the mighty, muddy Sungai Kinabatangan.
At first we didn't see anything besides a few other resorts, tastefully set back from the shoreline. But eventually long-tailed macaques and proboscis monkeys availed themselves. Many brown-blob-in-a-tree photos were snapped. Jay proved adept at spotting hornbills and other birds, as well as monkeys and the occasional lizard along the river banks. I have to admit, after three days of diving in the world's most stunning aquarium, and seeing all manner of sea creatures at arm's length, it was a bit anticlimactic to have to pull out a pair of binoculars to see the jungle wildlife. We'd clearly been spoiled.
After another quick break and a surprisingly tasty dinner of fresh fish, it was time for the night hike. We donned some nasty rubber boots -- the jungle equivalent of bowling shoes, bleccch -- and our best long pants/long sleeves garb to discourage leeches. Bug spray, check. Flashlights, check. OK, let's go see some nightlife! Mostly we saw some bigass bugs -- scorpions, enormous grasshoppers, a shaggy caterpillar -- but we also lucked into a tarsier spotting. Feet like a frog, 180-degree turning head like an owl, giant creepy eyes like a space alien, tarsiers are funky little nocturnal primates. They jump between trees to catch bugs and sometimes even birds. We were fortunate enough to surprise one with a high-powered flashlight and it stayed in one place long enough for everyone to snap some great photos. And then, in a flash, it bounced away without touching the ground once. Freaky-deaky.
No leeches spotted on this trip, despite everyone's paranoia. Really, the most disturbing part of the night hike was the hideous slurping sucking sound our boots made in the ever-present jungle slurm. Lovely. The fact that we couldn't see much made it even worse. Plus it was hot and mercilessly humid. By the end of the hourlong hike, we were well ready for bed. 'Twas an interesting alternative to overeating turkey and carbs with some inane football game in the background, I tell ya what. Happy Thanksgiving!
We started our last day in Bangkok the same way we started our first one: with 2-hour his & hers Thai massages. Seemed like an appropriate way to end this week of ridiculous self-indulgence.
After our final "just appeared magically outta thin air" brekkie -- sigh, I will miss those! -- a van appeared to take us on a day trip to Samut Prakan. Apparently we'd raved so much about going to Nong Nooch the other day, that Ma Tuk had decided we should visit the crocodile farm, as well as something called the Ancient City, or Ancient Siam. We weren't entirely sure what we were in for. Which is always an interesting place to start from.
We picked up Bruce & Anne at a nearby spot (and by "we" I mean the dude driving the van Ma Tuk had arranged for us), and headed out to Samut Prakan, the small town where the croc farm is located. It turned out to be a mildly interesting stop, but high on the depressing/cheesy scale. There were literally thousands of crocodiles in fetid breeding tanks, with swarms of mozzies lovin' on the foul still water. It was intriguing to see all the different shapes and sizes -- and there's something surreal about crocodiles, especially close-up -- plus there was some educational material on hand so you could feel like you was learnin' and not just gawkin'. The "crocodile wrestling" show was super-campy, and there was a ratty zoo on the other side of the facility. By that point I was just about over seeing animals in cages, so I encouraged our motley crew to push onward towards the next stop.
Ancient Siam was really cool. I'm pathologically unable to resist comparisons with major US attractions, so I'd liken it to Epcot Center but with a much higher level of detail. (Please don't tell The Mouse that I said someone else had more attention to detail... they may send someone out to silence me...) The park is an enormous complex of historical replicas and reconstructions from various points in Thai history, with a beautifully-maintained garden and floating market winding through the center. It's quite impressive, and we could have easily spent the entire day there. As it was, by the time we'd eaten lunch there were only a few hours left before we needed to return the van, so we probably saw about a quarter of the place. But I definitely enjoyed what we were able to see. Wandering around in the striking late afternoon sunlight was the perfect time to see the temples and ruins and gardens in all their glory. Definitely a photographer's paradise!
As we were nearing the end, a call came in from Ma Tuk informing us that the appointed restaurant had experienced some flooding. No worries, we'd had a late lunch and were really only interested in a parting drink with our friends. Khao San Road was recommended -- and what a relief, I'd been worried my card would be revoked if I didn't visit this mandatory stop on the backpacker trail! No need to lose any further sleep, as we headed into the heart of KSR to enjoy a drink at Suzie Bar. The drinks were weak and overpriced, and the service was glacial, but the peoplewatching was rockin'. It was amusing to see how the other half lives... how we *would* have lived for the past week without our fabulous hookup from Zoe. The street was filled with farangs humping dirty backpacks, and vendors trying to sell them stuff. No time to be smug, that'll be us starting tomorrow.
We said goodbye to Bruce & Anne, who were returning to Perth the next day, and headed home to pack. Yuck! Definitely my least favorite part of travel. But we managed to cram everything back into our bags, including some last-minute clothing gifts from Ma Tuk. We went over to the main house, gave Ma Tuk a nice bottle of wine as a token of our deep appreciation, tipped the maids for doing our laundry and bringing us breakfast each day, and said our goodbyes. It's definitely going to be sad to leave this wonderful place, but it's time to move on.
Another mostly-veg day, with a stellar Vietnamese lunch at Winner House, and then a home-cooked dinner with a tableful of traditional regional Thai delicacies. The food itself was phenomenal, but just to kick it up a notch we ate in the party room, an enormous suite with a bar, huge dining table, karaoke area, and of course a metric ton of antiques. We're not worthy!
On to Siam Niramit, the show at the Thai Cultural Centre. It was an *amazing* performance; highest production values I've seen outside of Cirque du Soleil. The show was broken into three acts: history, mythology, and festivals/celebrations. The stage was immense -- there were boats floating by, explosions, flying creatures, rain onstage -- and of course the costumes were phenomenal. Oh, and also elephants, chickens, and a few goats. They did a pretty good job of explaining what was going on, in several different languages. Wrapped around the theater was a replica of an ancient Thai village, something akin to Colonial Willamsburg... thatched huts, women doing traditional craft work, a few snacks to sample, and even a canoe to ride through the center. At 1,500 Baht the tickets weren't cheap, but it was totally worth it.
We managed to miss a huge rainstorm while inside watching the show, so afterwards it was the perfect time to meet up with Bruce (Anne wasn't feeling well) to check out what we lovingly refer to as "The Seedy Underbelly." We'd gotten some recommendations from a friend who used to live in Bangkok, and grabbed a cab to Soi Cowboy. This turned out to be a densely-packed one-block strip of neon-encrusted clubs designed especially to separate bloated pasty farangs from their cash. After hearing stories about the ping-pong shows and other aspects of Bangkok's notorious nightlife scene, I was a bit disappointed at how tame it all was. Probably the combination of a Sunday night plus the whole town being in low-gear out of deference to the Princess. But there wasn't much going on in any of the four strip clubs we checked out. Great people-watching, and interesting to note that most of the girls seemed to be fresh off the bus from Laos. But not nearly as saucy as I was expecting.
Winner House Vietnamese Cuisine
(there are actually several locations but this is the one we ate at)
68/5-6 Lertubon Village Sukhapibal 1 Road Latphrao
Bangkok, Thailand 10310
Tel/Hp : 662-5708923 662-5708567
On the advice of Ma Tuk, we set out on a day trip to Pattaya, a town about an hour from Bangkok that's famous for its nightlife and its ladyboy shows. We'd made arrangements the night before with the concierge at Baiyoke Sky (Bruce & Anne's hotel) to hire a van for the day, and got a bilingual list of recommended stops from Ma Tuk. The first clue that this would be a challenging day came when the van showed up an hour early. Yikes! Mai ben rai (the Thai version of "no worries, mon") we quickly scrambled on some clothes and got underway to pick up Bruce & Anne. The second clue should have been when the daytime concierge at Baiyoke Sky asked us which hotel we wanted to be dropped off at. Huh? We showed him the same list we'd presented to the nighttime concierge, explaining that these were the places we wished to see, and could he please make sure the driver understood these instructions? That seemingly taken care of, we grabbed a quick cup of coffee and hit the road.
We were well into catching up with our friends, whom we hadn't seen since they moved from DC to Perth over a year ago, when our borrowed cell phone rang. It was Alex, the night concierge with whom we'd made the original arrangements. Long story short, he thought we'd only wanted the driver to take us to Pattaya and drop us off somewhere. No, we'd like to come back to Bangkok, please and thank you! Not sure how those wires got crossed, but we managed to smooth it all out en route to our first stop. The cost of the van was probably much higher that what Ma Tuk could have arranged for us, but we certainly got our money's worth.
After ensuring that our driver would, in fact, be bringing us back to Bangkok at the end of the day, our first stop was Wat Yansangwararam (and if you think that's a mouthful, you should see it written out in swirly Thai letters!). This enclave of several temple styles plus a lovely garden had very few visitors and little instructional signage, but was a cool place to wander around and snap some pics. At the upper end of the compound sits a neat white chedi with a huge gold altar in the center. It's clearly a very sacred place (no shoes, cover up any exposed limbs, no photos) but the gigantic "Engrish" sign at the entrance made us giggle a bit. If the day we were there was any indicator, they don't get a lot of farang visitors. But, to me, being totally out of place somewhere is a sign of great success. The other noteworthy area was a long hall with exceedingly creepy and very lifelike wax statues of famous monks. You almost expected one of them to blink, and the rest would come alive like something out of a Stephen King novel. Creepalicious!
The next stop was simply listed on the paper as "Nong Nooch Garden," so we were expecting maybe a quick walk through a botanical garden before lunch. Couldn't have been more wrong! We spent the next four hours traipsing around something akin to Thai Disneyland meets Wild Kingdom. The place was enormous. It had a zoo area, several manicured gardens, a skywalk, and two shows. The first, billed as a "Thai Cultural Show," was actually a pleasant surprise and not nearly as cheesy as expected. It had pretty high production values, and provided a sampling of several different Thai dance styles and other cultural snippets. If the fake muay thai fight scene was any indicator, it probably was a pretty campy affair, but it was most entertaining. The "Elephant Show," however, was downright depressing. It was cool to see elephants close-up, but we all agreed that we'd rather see them doing elephant things, not dressed up in ridiculous flouncy costumes playing basketball or dancing with hula hoops. Oh well, at least they seemed to be well fed.
Right then, on to the kathoey (ladyboy) show at the Alcazar Theater! Once again we weren't quite sure what to expect. Thailand, and Pattya in particular, is known for its kathoeys, graceful and convincing transvestites that are not only tolerated but often revered in Thai society. Personally, I was expecting a small cabaret bar/restaurant setup a la Perry's Drag Brunch in Adams Morgan. Oh no, friends and neighbors, this was a full-on Vegas-style production, with elaborate sets, complex lighting design, and incredible costumes. It was hard to believe that some of the performers had (or used to have) penises. There was clearly a lot of plastic surgery in evidence, and some of the transitions were a bit more obvious than others. But it was a fabulous show. And it was pretty impressive how they catered to their audience. The busful of Indian tourists totally ate up the Bollywood number. The Japanese group clapped extra hard for the kimono-and-cherry-blossom act. And the Russians sang along to what was clearly a pop tune from their part of the world. The Belinda Carlyle song and the theme from Dreamgirls were both a bit surreal for me. But they definitely covered their bases!
After the show would have been the ideal time to go out and explore Pattaya's notorious nightlife, but we were concerned about getting the van back in a timely manner, and we figured it was easier to have the driver take us to the restaurant recommended on Ma Tuk's instruction sheet. So we hopped back into the van, but it turned out the place was right next door to the theater. As we sat down, the phone rang. It was Ma Tuk checking in on us, asking how we liked the show and if we'd found the restaurant. And then she asked to speak with the waiter, whose theatrically quizzical look when we handed him the phone was worth the price of admission. He spoke with her for a few minutes, nodding, and then handed the phone back, saying that our dinner had been ordered for us. Bruce & Anne were a bit incredulous at that, but we assured them that this had pretty much been the MO for the week, and it was just better to sit back and let the food be ordered for us. Sure enough, everything was delicious, and we got the "friend" discount because Ma Tuk knew the owners. Sweeeeet.
15 km south of Pattaya City, off Sukhumvit Road
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.
We made it through the gauntlet of flights and timezones with very little drama, albeit very little sleep. Tuesday night was a blur of election celebrations -- people, the state of Virginia went BLUE for the first time in over four decades, can you gimme hallelujiah? -- and last-minute packing and prep. We had to leave at the butt-crack of dawn for our 7am flight on Wednesday, so you can imagine how much fun that was. But we managed to make it on our flight to Chicago, connecting flight to Hong Kong, and layover to Singapore, with nary a hiccup. We even lucked out and sat behind a deadheading flight attendant who kept passing us surreptitious snacks from the depths of the plane's galley. And in a bizarre twist, seated in front of us on the airport shuttle to our hostel in Singapore was a guy named Joel from Arlington, who'd just taken the same series of flights and would be in Southeast Asia for the exact same amount of time as us. If we see him on the flight back I'll have to buy him a drink.
Got in late on Thursday night, checked into Fern Loft Backpackers on East Coast Road, and tried to get some sleep. Unfortunately we only booked one night, and they're full tonight, but David the owner is an extremely friendly and helpful guy and got us a spot at their other location downtown. We grabbed some lunch at a nearby Vietnamese place, and had a lovely conversation with manager Priscilla over a delicious claypot meal. If you're ever in Singapore, definitely seek this place out! Details below. Unfortunately we didn't take the camera with us (blame the jetlag!) so there are no pics of this delightful woman, but she was great fun to chat with. And the food was deeeeeeelish! Not just because it was our first real meal in about three days, either.
David gave us a ride over to Fern Loft River Valley, where they checked us into another nice room and booked our bus ride to Malacca tomorrow. We had some vague notion of wandering around town, but opted for a nap instead. And now, if we can rouse ourselves, it's out for some more of Singapore's legendary chow! We had a brief debate earlier about whether or not there really is any "Singapore" cuisine, but it seems as though the endless choices of Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, Vietnamese, and other Asian fare *is* the native nosh. Multiculturalism is what it's all about in this incredibly neat and orderly town. It's a nice unchallenging place to land and shake off the jetlag for a bit.
Fern Loft Backpacker Hostel, East Coast Road
693A East Coast Road, Singapore 459058
tel: +65 6449 9066
* near the airport and lots of restaurants
* friendly staff, especially the owner
* reasonably-priced, by Singapore standards ($40 for a private room/$14 per dorm bed)
* free internet/wifi, and there's a pub downstairs so it's a pretty social place
Claypot Cuisine 723 East Coast Road, Singapore 459071
Tel: 6444 5546
delicious Vietnamese food, extensive menu (with pictures!); and be sure to seek out Priscilla, the gregarious manager who loves to make everyone feel at home
Fern Loft River Valley 301 River Valley Road, Singapore
* walking distance to Clarke Quay and not far from Orchard Road
* same friendly staff
* a bit pricier than the other location, but roomier and sunnier
Another great day of adventures! I decided to visit the Friday market in San Francisco el Alto, supposedly the largest in the country and not as touristy as the one in Chichi. The book made it sound like it would be tricky to find a bus there, but I had no trouble whatsoever and hopped aboard one that left a few minutes later. Good timing! Sometimes you wind up sitting and waiting a while until the bus fills up. I was so inspired by this triumph that I wrote a double-haiku in honor of chickenbuses. (OK, so it´s not completely thematically correct, but bear with me...)
Four to a seat, minimum
Vendors come with snacks.
¡Dios nos bendiga!
Driver´s a mental patient
Vamos a morir.
::: gonnnnnnng :::
Right then, on to the day´s journeys! The market was indeed massive, and wound up a huge hill for more blocks than I could count. And it did seem to be geared more towards locals, with imported American clothing, cheap hair trinkets, plastic buckets, and cell phones on display for sale. I did manage to practice my haggling skills a bit for some traditional wares, and was rather pleased to be one of the few gringos around. At the very top of the hill was the animal market. What a show! All manner of pigs, cows, sheep, cats, dogs, rabbits, turkeys, chickens, goats, and god knows what else were on sale. Locals were haggling madly. The animals seemed a bit disenchanted by the whole affair.
Next stop, Momostenango, aka Momo or Momos for short. This required finding the correct bus and squishing into a seat with an entire Guatemalan family, hanging on for dear life as we rocked through the pine forests, and watching with amusement as the driver got into a fistfight with his ayudante. Never a dull moment.
When we got to Momo, there seemed to be some big gathering in the main square. Turned out to be a rally for Mario Estrada, the UCN candidate for president. (The one I thought looked like JR Ewing on his campaign posters, with a big cowboy hat and everything.) He schmoozed the crowd with ease, saying the usual "I´m one of you" and "Together we can make the world a better place" kinda things you hear politicians everywhere spouting off about. The crowd was enthusiastic and everyone from small children to elderlies waved banners and clapped loudly.
I headed off to find Los Riscos, mentioned in my guidebook as a set of bizarre sandstone pillars on the north edge of town. Well, they turned out to be more east than north, and after several wrong turns I just stopped and asked a random local for directions. To my surprise, he escorted me all the way there! (Which was great because I never would have found it on my own.) And he didn´t even ask for money or try to sell me anything! Way to restore my faith in humanity. Los Riscos were indeed a bizarre set of Grand Canyon-looking pillars, made of crumbly sand and just sorta plunked by the side of the road. Something interesting to see, especially when you have a new friend to chat with along the way.