Skating on Thin Ice-land


Everyone is talking about the new “latest and greatest” place to travel to – Iceland!  Gorgeous waterfalls, geysers, geo thermal hot springs and it’s become well known that Iceland is actually green whereas Greenland is actually icy.  Looking at the temperatures and the weather data that proves Iceland is actually warmer than the East Coast of the United States thanks to the geo-thermal and volcanic activity and the jet stream that dips down by my lovely state of Florida and back up just in front of the little island.  Okay, maybe we ignored the fact that it was in fact still located within the polar cap but that was the whole reason for going during the frigid winter was to catch the phenomenon known as the Arora Borealis or Northern Lights.  My friend Margaret and I booked the five day tour through Gate 1 Travel and then I let my friend Katrina know.  She had been talking about going as well.  Later that day, I get a text that Katrina and her husband Wendell and my best friend Iesha and her husband Jason are booked for the same week for six days.  I wasn’t excited about being cold for five days but Margaret and I decided to adjust our trip to the six day tour as well.  An extra day to catch the lights.  Then we see on TV that the famous rap mogul Jay-Z and his even more famous wife, Beyoncé spent his birthday in Iceland.  I told my friend about it and Katrina says, “Those fools beat us there!”  I told her that I wasn’t sure if I was more upset about them beating me to Iceland or the fact that I’m older than Jay-Z!??

The trip was booked back in August, 2014 and in October, my lovely adopted child Jessica from Bermuda decides she wants to come on the trip.  I make the phone call to get her squeezed in and Gate 1 pulled it off.  So now that makes 7 of us.  Margaret, Jessica and I were going to fly from Boston to Iceland and the rest were going to fly from New York.  We left about the same time and arrived within a half hour of each other.  I love that my friends were found in the Duty Free shop stocking up on liquor and wine.  Great minds think alike.  We had been told that everything is so expensive due to it all being imported so we decided we would turn our hotel into a lounge/bar each night.  

It’s hard to prepare yourself for the cold as is but then to also prepare for the fact that the sun will not come up until 11:00 am and then will barely scoot across the sky only to set at 4:15 pm was a challenge for my circadian rhythm.   I’m a thin blooded, solar powered, bikini wearing girl.  Those Northern Lights better be there!!!  Step off the plane wearing fleece leggings, fleece pants over top, a thermal shirt with a sweater over it, wool socks, a three-in-one ski jacket and FLAT SNOW BOOTS.  (my feet are still not speaking to me)  As we step out of the airport to board the bus to Reykjavik, the wind literally blows us sideways!  We lost Iesha as she wasn’t wearing her jacket yet.  She had to run back inside to put it on.  They had put a large pink X on our vouchers and sent us out to the bus.  Of course, juggling luggage (and the four bottles of wine from Duty Free), all of us put our papers away and then couldn’t find them once on the bus.  All digging in our carryons, luggage, checking with spouses to see who has the papers!  I boarded the bus after pointing out my name and Margaret’s name on the list and promised the lady I would find it, which I did 10 minutes later in the Duty Free bag.  Wendell walked up between the two buses and one driver said something to him with such a thick Icelandic accent that Wendell said, “What?”  He repeated it a couple more times until the other driver translated it and realized he belonged to the bus on the right.  We all loaded our luggage into the belly of the bus and got on the bus where we had to take off gloves, scarves, jackets, hats and the process begins….  It was an hour drive to the city and it was pitch black at 8:30 am.   We got to the Grey Line Tour parking lot where they were going to reload us on other smaller buses due to the narrow city streets.  The driver announces who is supposed to be heading to which shuttle bus.  After the third attempt and the driver changing his mind twice, we send Jason out to get the scoop.  Once we found which bus we belonged to, we had to redress, drag our luggage through about six inches of slush, load up, undress and drove literally three blocks to our hotel, the Center Hotel Klopp. IMG_4463

It was too early to check in but we met our guide and they opened a large room for us to put our luggage in until the rooms were ready.  All of us were digging through our luggage looking for toiletries and a change of clothes since we flew overnight from the States.  We managed to sneak into the complimentary breakfast and load up before heading out on a City Tour of Reykjavik.  We had to walk to the end of the hill (back the three blocks) to get the large coach bus and all the fresh snow was too much for some folks.  Jason smacks Wendell in the back with a snowball and it’s P1180222on.  Margaret and I are trying to not slip and fall on the ice – at least not on the first day.  Load up on the bus and off we go into the darkness at 10:00 am.  They took us around the marina where the Whale Watching Tours start from but warned us that there are no whales right now so save your money (Whales are actually smarter than us).  There is a beautiful city mountain across the bay covered in snow but you only see the outline since it’s so dark.  We stop at the former French consulate building that was a location where Reagan and Gorbachev met up for the Reykjavík Summit in 1986.  More snowball fights.  Next up, at daybreak, we stop at the Perlan or The Pearl which basically is a fancy building that they plopped on top of old unsightly hot water pipes.  They have an observation deck on the top floor that has a beautiful panoramic view of Reykjavik but the wind was really blowing and my eyes were watering from the cold.  I have never been a fan of “drive-by” photos but it was entirely too cold to be lingering so I ran to one section, point and shoot, ran to the next, and so on.  Back inside, they have a beautiful royal palm tree in the lobby and I ran over and thIMG_4476rew my arms around it (carefully), closed my eyes and said, “There’s no place like home!”  Finally the sun is trying to make its brief appearance but the cloud cover is still pretty heavy.  We get to the famous Lutheran church that towers over the city called Hallgrimskirkja (yes, I had to look it up).  None of us could spell it or say it for that matter but it’s a very cool architectural piece.  Reminds me of an airplane.  There was a funeral scheduled for noon so we had to run in and look around and run out.  The church organ was magnificent.  (Side note:  They said that the doctors recently went on strike and the strike had just ended that past Sunday.  They’ve had a funeral every day that week.  That might have encouraged the strike to end.  Just saying.)  Out front of the church courtyard is a statue of Leif Eriksson that was a gift from the United States on the 1000th anniversary of Parliament.  We didn’t have time but you could go to the top of the church’s observation tower to get another view of the city.  Last stop was The National Museum of Iceland.  It was very interesting with the various Viking cultures and British influence.  But, alas, we were all exhausted and couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel to check in.

We each got our room assignment and we were all next to each other.  I wanted to follow my overseas traveling protocol and grab a one or two hour nap to kill off the jet lag.  Margaret and Katrina decided they wanted to get something to eat.  So I went with them and we hit up an Italian restaurant on the popular shopping street Laugavegur.  So expensive!!!  I had a bowl of asparagus soup for $11 and a wine for more than that.  After we ate, I was excited to get back to my planned nap.  As soon as I reached the hotel, Jessica wanted to go try the Icelandic National Food – hot dogs.  Okay.  So we walked the five blocks to Bæjarins beztu pylsur, the little kiosk that has been there serving lamb hot dogs since 1937.  We bought one IMG_4639IMG_4640each for 380 Kronas which is about $3.00 USD.  I got through ½ of mine and not being a huge fan of hot dogs and the fact that I already had soup, I gave the other half to Jessica who finished it and ordered a third.  She loved them.  While she was devouring the last one, I tried to capture the beauty that is the Harpa, the Icelandic Concert Hall just across from the hot dog stand.  It’s prism glass architecture was well designed to capture the light.  While walking back to the hotelHarpa, we decided to take Laugavegur Street and hit some of the shops along the way.  In one of the squares at the base of the street I see a sign that catches my eye.  “The Icelandic Penis Museum”  Naturally I’m wondering if this is a joke so I walk closer and read the fine prints that says, “No pornographic or sexual displays”  I showed Jessica and said, “We’re putting that on our list for this week.”   We went in and out of some shops and then finally made it back to the hotel.  I laid down for a 30 minute nap which did help some but when traveling in a pack of 7, you have to compromise.

We wanted to get up and go get dinner before meeting up for the Northern Lights Tour.  They were planning on taking us out each night until we saw them.  Each day you would wait until about 4:00 to hear if they were going based on the weather.  Our guide said we were going for sure so we grabbed dinner at the Big Lebowski.  The place was decorated like a 50s American Bar wallpapered with old Playboy magazine covers and even had an old jukebox.  My favorite was the sign at the front door stating “If you are racist, sexist, homophobic or an a**hole, don’t come in!”  Pretty clear instructions.  I had a burger that had béarnaise sauce on it which I loved.  Mind you we wanted to try the local food but they said that you could find only one or two places that carried Hakarl, fermented (aka rotten) shark meat.  And being that it was our first day, we didn’t want to ruin our Northern Lights Tour clinging to a toilet bowl.  This is supposed to be so bad that Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern both ranked it as the worst thing they have ever eaten which says a lot. 

Back to the hotel, layered up, looking like the Michelin Man, off we go for the 45 minute ride out of the city to see the Northern Lights.  At one point the bus pulled over because they spotted them faintly.  We all got out and the wind just shoved you over three feet.  We could see the stripe of green but it was so cold.  So they loaded us back on the bus and took us to another location down the road.  This time the wind either died down or was being blocked but regardless, it was so beautiful watching the green move across the sky.  It was nothing like you see in the movies or the post cards but it was still the Northern Lights.  I was trying so hard to capture it with my camera by slowing down the shutter speed, setting up the tripod and getting frustrated each time the picture didn’t come out.  Wendell finally said, “Helene, put the camera down and just look up and enjoy it!”  He was right.  Most people don’t get a chance to see this natural wonder so I put the camera down, grabbed some snow and hit him with a snowball.  Some others on our small tour group were able to grab great pictures and they shared them with us.  I got to see it with my own eyes and can definitely check it off my bucket list.  (Thanks Carlos Artavia from Costa Rica for sharing your beautiful pictures!!!)  










Back to the hotel, I grabbed one of the wines and my wineglasses and we hit the lobby for Night #1 of “Klopp Lounge”.  The night receptionist was not pleasant but loaned us the bottle opener and allowed us to stay in the lobby cutting up.  I couldn’t wait to get to sleep that night as we didn’t have to get up too early the next day.  Margaret’s and my bed were so close together that I had a nightmare and reached over and grabbed her!  Of course, she shot straight up, we couldn’t hear anything because we both had earplugs in.  She was smart and moved the bedside table between our beds for the rest of the stay.

Day two in Iceland and we are heading to the Blue Lagoon, the geothermal hot springs/spa.  Could not wait to bIMG_4729e floating in 110 degree water in spite of the outside conditions of 26 degrees!  Margaret and I walked down to the local coffee shop after breakfast and I had a hot chocolate.  We met the rest of the group in the lobby and started our one hour drive to the springs.  The sun popping up at 11:00 am, hitting the white snowcapped mountains and turning them pink was breathtaking.   When we arrived at the Blue Lagoon, I felt like a kid on their first visit to Disney World.  We ran in with our guide to get our tickets and hit the locker room.  They told us to put conditioner in our hair because the minerals in the water dry it out really bad.  I was more concerned about putting my hair in a bun and having it freeze and snap off.  There were two ways you could enter the pool.  Straight out the doors and down the steps into the open pool or you could wimp out like I did and go into the inside pool that has a door that leads to the outside pool without leIMG_4768aving the water.  We were all in the lagoon and watched Jessica do this bouncy number into the pool from the outside entrance.  We gave her the “best entrance” award.  Next, we all lined up for the bar and got a wine or beer and then headed over to the mud bath station.  Wendell said he has always wanted to do “white face”.  We each spread the grey mud on each other’s face until we all had a mask.  Jessica actually bought the mud mask from the bar that’s a different type.  ThIMAG0012e sun was out, the skies were clear and the water was heaven.  1:00 pm rolled around too fast because I didn’t want to get out or leave.  The bus was leaving at 2:00 back to the hotel and I was going to just stay and take one of the later shuttle buses back but Wendell told me to “not ruin a good thing by overdoing it”.  He doesn’t know me very well.  HA!  So I got out, showered, changed and walked out with the Blue Lagoon towel by accident.  So I can add kleptomaniac to my resume.  

Once bacIMG_4749k to the hotel, we all, minus Jessica, walked down to the Lobster Hut (near the hot dog stand).  It’s a food truck and Margaret and I split a hoagie that was overflowing with lobster.  Katrina had the lobster soup which she raved about.   Then we hit the hot dog place for the others to try it.  My spoiled Hebrew National friends didn’t dig the lamb dog.  So next on the tour of food was the pizzeria.  Guy from Italy marries a woman from Spain and they move to Iceland to sell pizza.  WeIMG_4751 ordered a Reykjavik Pizza which had pepperoni, ham and bacon.  While they were making it, Katrina, Iesha and I walked over to the Harpa to get better pictures.  It was about 4:00 and the sun was setting and reflecting in the glass.  We walked back to the hotel and I found Jessica so she could have some of the pizza.  She had gone shopping and bought a plastic Viking helmet and a long horn that you can use as a cup.  I had to try it on and take a picture.  Jessica told me I looked likeIMG_4943 the girl in the movie “How To Train Your Dragon”.  I love the tag that came with the helmet that said, “Warning! This is a toy.  Does not provide protection!” Jessica had told us about a noodle place that she found so we decided to head there for dinner before it closes at 10:00 pm.  It’s called the Noodle Station just down the street from the church.  We grabbed the last bowls of the night.  I had the chicken bowl and Jessica had the beef bowl.  It was so good.  Wendell ended up grabbing another one that we split.  Literally ate all day and went home to bed for an early start the next day.

P1180320Day three in Iceland was our Golden Circle Tour.  We started early in the morning at 8:30 and drove out to the Geo-Thermal Energy Exhibition at the Hellisheidi Power Plant.   I’m not sure what I loved more, the tour which was way cool or the fact that they sold alcohol in the lobby/gift shop of a power plant.  They had a glass walkway that let you look over the active turbine (you could eat off the floor it was so clean) and then they showed us a movie that explained the process of geo-thermal energy.  But our favorite part of the tour was the earthquake room.  They had an interactive earthquake simulator with simulations of the 3 major earthquakes that hit Iceland in the last 10 years.  You would push a button and it would imitate the actual earthquake with the noise level and show the vibration level on the screen.  The tour guide showed us how it worked and then Jason must have pushed the button about four or five times until the guide shot him a dirty look.  He looked like a bad kid smiling while pushing the button.  He’s so funny.  Next we went to Skálholt church, the ancient seat of the Icelandic bishops.  The coolest part for me was walking around to the side and finding a tunnel that lead to the church.  The organist was practicing and Jessica asked if he knew any non-church songs which would explain why I heard while walking outside Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and had to laugh. 

Next stop was to the spouting hot springs of Geysir (or geezer as our guide kept calling it) and Strokkur.   We hopped off the bus and the wind cut right through you.  I was triple layered but forgot my snow pants so my legs were colder than I wanted to be.  There was a walking patIMG_4803h and I literally bolted straight for the geyser to take pictures.  Wendell and Jason decided to hike up the hill a bit but then Jason slipped and fell and was all tangled up like a puppet who’s strings were cut.  The geyser goes off on average every six minutes.  I waited shivering and finally the water gushed up about 100 feet.  The sun was behind it and it was glorious.  But being a perfectionist, I wanted a better picture.  It was the longest six minutes of my life!  I lost feeling in my butt at one point.  Finally, the geyser erupts and I have the iPhone on burst and take about 20 continuous pictures and then my phone shuts off.  It actually got so cold that the phone froze.  That can’t be good when your iPhone is smarter than you are.  So I gingerly walk the icy pathway trying not to bite it along the way heading towards the cafeteria.  A few wildly waving arm moves saved me a couple times.  Once inside the building, I literally had to rub my backside to defrost it.  Wendell was giving me crap because he said I was so busy trying to look cute that I was going to freeze.  Jessica and I decided to go to the sit down restaurant and have a nice hot meal.  She had the lamb P1180649chop and I had the cod and both were delicious.  I also grabbed a miniature Brennivin’s schnapps to try out and then fill with Icelandic sand for my collection.  We all took a hit of it on the bus heading to the next stop which was the Gullfoss Waterfall.  The schnapps wasn’t as disgusting as we thought it would be and it warmed us up a bit before hiking out to the waterfall.  The wind died down and going up the stairs warmed me up some.  The view is gorgeous but it was odd to see a waterfall partially frozen.  After posting a picture on Facebook, one of my friends said she was there in the summer and it was super green and the waterfall was actually spraying them.  Another friend asked why I didn’t swim at the top of THIS waterfall. Yeah, right.

Last stop was to the Þingvellir National Park, where the Icelandic parliament was founded in 930 AD.   This is also where the tectonic plates meet up for North America and Europe.  And they filmed the behind the wall scenes for Game of ThronesIMG_4864 there so they actually have a Game of Thrones tour.  Of course, everything was covered in snow but it was cool knowing you were crossing one tectonic plate to another.  Iesha and I were walking and I saw all this beautiful snow. I had made a snow angel earlier in the trip so I told Iesha it was her turn.  She said, “What do I do?”  So I told her to just fall back into the snow and then move your arms and legs.  As she fell backwards, you heard a loud thud all the way through her chest.  Wendell was walking up and he just busted out laughing.  Poor thing laid there and I couldn’t breathe for her.  I was mortified that I hurt my best friend.   She started laughing and even tried to break the icy snow to make the snow angel never giving up but it was solid.  Needless to say, she’s slightly more guarded now when I ask her to try something. 

We returned to the hotel at 5:00 and headed to Islenski Barinn or the Icelandic Bar for dinner.  We were told we could try local authentic food IMG_4918there.  When we arrived we were told there was no shark or whale available.  Not too upset about that.  Jessica ordered theIMG_4920 puffin and a couple of us tried a bite.  Tasted like chicken liver but didn’t make me gag.  I ordered the fish and chips and stuck with the famous North Atlantic Cod with waffle fries – delicious.  The girls from Ohio were at another table and they tried to order Whale.  The menu says that if they don’t have whale, then they will substitute it with another meat.  Turns out that the other meat was pony – yep, Icelandic horse.  Now I want to lose my lunch.  Jessica was not amused as she loves horses and was scheduled to go riding the next day.  One of the other girls managed to try the shark and Erika says “Kristin died a little that day”.  None of us felt too bad about not giving it a go. 

Margaret, Jessica and I had to get back to the hotel because we had signed up for a Northern Lights Tour through Reykjavik Experience. The hotel signed us up so I didn’t think anything of it.  When they arrived to pick us up, they didn’t have our name on the list. They let us board anyway and took us to a bus terminal where we were assigned to a cattle haul bus of about 55 people.  As we walked on the bus, the guy hands us this ruler looking thing.  Margaret had no idea what it was and when she asked, the guy grabbed it and slapped it around her wrist as a bracelet.  We then drove about 30 minutes until we came to a church that was all lit up by floodlights.  We were told to walk away from the church into the field and look North.  North was a city that’s lights were filling the sky and reflecting off the heavy cloud cover.  There were six buses there.  The wind was blowing so badly that it looked like it was snowing sideways.  I had my layers on and wasn’t cold but was more annoyed because of this “cash grab” of a tour.  We stayed until 11:20 and saw nothing.  On the return, they tried driving to another location but there was nothing.  Their policy is if you pay for the tour, you keep going until you see them but I had no intention of spending another evening with Reykjavik Experience.  Of all the tours I’ve been in all over the world, this was by far one of the worst.  When we returned to the hotel, the gang was up and drinking in the lobby.  I was happy to see them and have a glass of wine and some Woodford Reserve whiskey to warm up before bed.  You are right Wendell.  You can overdo some things.  LOL!

Day four in Iceland was a free day.  We wanted to sign up for dogsledding or another tour like it but those were booked up and the others wereIMG_4950 ridiculously expensive.  The helicopter tour to the volcano was $685.00 per person.  We thought it was for the whole plane and were ready to make a reservation.  I know Jay-Z and Beyoncé can afford that but I thought $285 in Zimbabwe was expensive!   Jessica got up early and went horseback riding and had the best time.  I slept in.  So late that I missed breakfast.  So Margaret and I walked down to the Kaffe Shop where I had the hot chocolate the day before and I had another one and waffles.  It was the sweetest breakfast I’ve had in a long time and my teeth are still cringing.  We had gone by Wendell and Katrina’s room and their key was in the door so we assumed one of them was out.  We texted them that the key was in the door and they thought I left my key in their room.  They checked – no key and went back to sleep.  They didn’t realize it was their own key actually in the door itself.  I felt bad for waking them up.  Wendell, Jessica, Margaret and I decided to walk back to the Noodle Station.  Wendell and I agreed that if we had that place in downtown St. Pete, we would eat it every day.  Iesha and Katrina and Jason grabbed a coffee and we all met back up to do some shopping.  Walking up the main shopping street we come upon The Icelandic Phallological Museum (aka Penis Museum).  Why not. Only one in the world.  The man who woIMG_4964rked there is the grandson of the man who started the museum.  They were whalers and decided to start a collection of various animal members.  The sperm whale wins all things, every time.  I had Iesha stand next to it to take a picture for perspective.  The funniest part of the museum was where they had a picture of the 2008 Icelandic Handball Team when they won the silver medal in Beijing, China.   They actually made silver casts of each of their members and had them on display. 

We did more shopping and ended up back to the hotel.  Not sure why because I wasn’t hungry at all but I went with Jason and Iesha and Margaret to the Chuck Norris Grill and had another béarnaise burger and fries (no wonder I gained five pounds on this trip).  They had a sign on the wall that says, “Chuck Norris has a grizzly bear carpet in his room.  The bear isn’t dead.  It’s just afraid to move.”  Another one was “Chuck Norris can slam a revolving door.”  It was so stupid it was hilarious.  Back to the hotel, packed and ready for the last day in Iceland and going home.  We also met up one more time in the lobby to finish off our wines.  The liquor wasn’t moving that fast so Katrina put it in a flask and in her luggage. 

Day five in Iceland (day six of our tour since we left on a Monday).  After returning from the Blue Lagoon earlier in the week, I decided that I had toIMG_5007 go back.  Talking to the lovely lady that worked the desk during the day of our hotel, she told me of a tour that picks you and your luggage up from the hotel at 8:30 am, drives to the Blue Lagoon, you put your luggage in storage, entrance is included to the Blue Lagoon for the day and then you can take the 12:00 IMG_5031noon, 2:00 pm or 4:00 pm shuttle to the airport.  We all signed up for this tour and registered for the 2:00 pm shuttle back to the airport, dumped our luggage in storage and hopped into the Lagoon.  Had a wine (or two or three – three is the most they allow you to have in the hot springs), put the mud mask on mostly to keep my face warm since when we arrived it was snowing and about 25 degrees.  After floating around in the beautiful mineral water for a couple hours, we had time to shower and change into our clothes for the plane ride, grab some lunch in the cafeteria overlooking the Lagoon and even do some shopping in the gift shop.  I found a silver necklace that I liked.  I usually only buy stones or materials that are from that region but the volcanic black rock just looked dirty so I opted for a silver ball with cutouts and a zirconia stone inside hanging on a long chain that was hand crafted there and 9.25 silver.  It’s a different piece and I think the zirconia in the middle will remind me of how ICE cold Iceland was for me!  Grabbed some volcanic sand for my empty Brennivin’s bottle quickly and jumped on the bus.  It was a short 20 minute ride to the airport.  Went through security easily enough.  It was funny because they had a poster up by security that said, “We eat rotten shark meat so we don’t care how smelly your toes are.  Take off your shoes!”  I got through quickly and then when the rest joined me, they yelled at me because security had found Katrina’s flask and they all had to finish it and needed my help!  Poor Margaret even took a couple swigs.  Good girl!

We hugged goodbye (even though we would see each other a week later at home) and Katrina, Wendell, Jason and Iesha headed for their gate to New York.  Margaret, Jessica and I headed for ours to Boston.  The plane was quite full but Margaret and I were fortunate enough on the way over to Iceland to have an empty seat between us since she had the aisle and I had the window.  We were hoping we would be just as fortunate going home but karma caught up with us!  This shaggy haired, rough beard, sloppy sweater, sure he was drunk, man comes up and informs us he has the middle seat.  Great.  Well, I’m sure he was a nice man but the smell that came off of him would curl your toes.  He leaned forward and I just stared with big eyes at Margaret who was trying not to laugh.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, he would lift his right arm up over his head and rest it on the seat and basically his armpit was right in my face.  Occasionally he would switch sides to give Margaret a whiff.  Then the passing of gas which smelled like rotten eggs.  I had my ski jacket with me and just held it to my face.  Trying to breathe through your mouth for 5 hours and 40 minutes is painful.  At one point, I had to get up to use the bathroom and made Margaret come with me.  We get to the back of the plane and ask the flight attendants if we can loiter in their galley and they laughed.  They felt bad because they saw him get on and also thought he was drunk.  I told them that he pulled out a sandwich that smelled terrible and it must have been rotten shark.  They quickly informed me he was not Icelandic (protecting their own country and not claiming the man).  They said if they had any open seats they would have moved him and then gave us each a free drink on Icelandic air for the inconvenience.  Finally had to return to the seats.  As we get closer to our row, he is literally sleeping leaning into my seat.  All of my mineral good vibe, freshly showered, bathed and pampered feeling went out the window. 

Finally we landed at Boston Logan Airport and as soon as the door opened, some people from the back came rushing up the aisle trying to get off the plane faster.  Well, I had sat next to sasquatch long enough so I asked the two Swedish looking guys if they would let Margaret out and they ignored me.  So she basically stood up and squeezed herself into the aisle in front of a rather large woman who proceeded to push her.  I announced that I have to use the bathroom and I’ll crawl over the seats if I have to but we will be NEXT getting off the plane.  People!  Disembarking a plane – one row at a time.  I’ve been in the very back of the plane and in spite of connecting flights, have never pushed my way past others.  Margaret held her ground (I was so proud) while the big lady mumbled under her breathe and I managed to shoo the missing link into the aisle and then squeeze out myself.  Was happy to be back in the States but even happier when we flew into Tampa International Airport the next day and had to strip down to practically my underwear.  I was convinced that if my luggage never showed up, I wouldn’t mind because I have no intention of wearing any of that crap again.   I spent the next week, dining out on various restaurant patios thanking my family over and over for moving me to St. Petersburg, Florida in 1977.IMG_4471


South Africa – Death Defying Feats Around Every Corner!!!

groupThe planet is getting smaller for me and a tad more pricey to travel. I had my heart set on going to South Africa and Victoria Falls in 2014. So sometime back in 2013, I was doing my traditional research into who’s going to offer the best tour and at the best price (because, I have no money and am close to selling a kidney). Looking at the various tour companies we have used in the past, we settled on Smartours South Africa & Victoria Falls extension for 17 days. The whole thing was just over $4200 including airfare from New York, bus, tour guide, fabulous hotels, all breakfasts, some lunches and dinners and entrance to most attractions on the tour. My friend Beverly and I put down the $300 deposit and were jumping up and down in my office for joy at the thought of our upcoming trip. Then Mariela and Tony jumped on board. Finally, Big Shawn joined the team as a fifth wheel (fifth and sixth if you count his 6’7”, 280 lb. frame). Naturally, just after we locked it down, Beverly’s landlord decided to sell her condo that she had been renting. She had no choice but to do the financially smart thing and buy her condo which meant backing out of the trip. We were sad but completely understood. I promised to tag her on the butt of every animal we came across to her amusement.

So now that the trip is reserved, I start sending emails to the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge that we will be staying at during our extension requesting information about swimming in the Devil’s Pool. I’d seen a picture of it online and immediately knew I had to do it! Colette with the Safari Lodge replied back with the prices and informed us that we had to get a Yellow Fever vaccination because we were crossing into Zambia and it’s a prerequisite if we want to come back across the border into Zimbabwe. I start calling around to health departments and doctor’s offices and no one has the vaccine on the shelf because it only keeps for about 4 days. We end up going to Passport Health Services in Tampa to get the shot and pay $195.00 per person! This cost more than the actual excursion to Devil’s Pool for the record. We all get our shots, everything is great! Or not. . .   Tiny (Shawn’s nickname I provided him) has a bad reaction to the shot and ends up with chills and a rash and generally feeling like crap one week before the trip. Thankfully, he recovered and no one else had any problems. Other than the fact that there was an Ebola outbreak in WEST AFRICA (over 3,000 miles away) and everyone told me that they would hug me goodbye but wouldn’t touch me when I returned. Thanks guys! Never mind that they flew the Americans home to USA and found a cure for it. Everyone expected me to cancel my trip and hide under my bed which you know is not my style.

August 17, 2014 – Shawn and I fly on Jet Blue to New York and grab our rooms at the hotel. Tony and Mariela came on another flight and were already checked into their room. We stayed at the Lexington Hotel right by Jamaica Van Wyke subway stop for convenience and it had some decent ratings on   Walking in, I was nervous because it looked like they were shooting a rap/porn video in the lobby. Shawn, who’s head is on a permanent swivel and I say that his safari started when we landed in NYC, enjoyed the scenery. The hotel turned out to be great though. We dumped our luggage and headed to Grand Central Station to grab a train to Pleasantville where Tony’s sister JoAnne lives. When we hopped off the train, there are no taxis in Pleasantville and the one car to hire was obviously busy. No worries! We walked to JoAnne’s house which was less than a mile. Pretty houses along this surreal street in a very small town. We ended up having dinner delivered from an Italian place down the way and the eating begins… After stuffing ourselves and harassing JoAnne, we call for a car to return us to the train station. A guy shows up in an old Honda Accord and the front passenger seat is broken. He takes one look at Shawn and starts throwing his stuff from the front seat isinging.pngnto the trunk and figuring out how to load us. Back to the station, back on the subway to the hotel and this lovely little girl starts singing at the top of her lungs (incorrectly), “this girl is walking on fire!!!!!” It went on for about 15 minutes and Shawn made a video of it just in case any of us managed to get it out of our heads. The mom was just sitting quietly while her six year old daughter pole danced on the subway screaming out the song for us. The mom said she was a rapper and trying to tire out her daughter. Thanks for making us suffer!

August 18, 2014 – Up in time to grab the included “eh” breakfast and take the train into the city to the 9/11 Memorial and the new One World Trade Center. The Freedom Tower is gorgeous and there was some other construction going on around it but the city is bustling as always. After taking pictures from every angle we headed toward the two memorial pools that are placed at the footprint where the foundation for the 911 memorialtwo towers stood originally. The pools have all the names of those who perished and they have an interactive map so if you wanted to look up someone’s name, it would give you the coordinates Freedom Towerto find them. I typed in Helene just out of curiosity and found Karen Helene Schmidt. It showed her picture, where she was born and when, where she lived and who she worked for. I looked at the coordinates and then headed toward the South Pool. I found her name inscribed and it was a very surreal moment putting a name with a face and feeling like you met them.

We left there and proceeded to walk around Manhattan and I realized my travel wedges were starting to come apart! I found a shoe store and ran in for a quick repair. After the little man came back with the shoes all patched up and brand new, he says, “We need to try these out to make sure they are okay.” He takes my hand and we start dancing salsa with turns, spins and dips to the other patrons amusement. Mariela was snapping photos the whole time trying to catch me in a dip. Satisfied with his work (and my following ability), I paid the man and off we went into the city again. Shawn wanted to hit the Apple Store which was a zoo. I just walked around and kept loading different stories from my travel blog ( on all the computers.   We ended up meeting my friends Anusha and Sudeip (I met them in Easter Island) and my friend Sandra and her boyfriend at a Flamenco Tapas restaurant called Sala One Nine.   It was great catching up and enjoying good food and sangria and dancing. I was determined to go to a rooftop bar in NYC to see the skyline. My friends told us to go to PhD at the top of the Dream Hotel. Get to the 12th floor and it’s a beautiful nighttime view of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building and the rest of the city in between. We had very expensive drinks but worth the price for the view. Tired and wanting to get a good night sleep before the agonizing 16 hour flight to Johannesburg the next day, we headed for the subway and back to the hotel.

August 19, 2014 – Luggage ready, ate breakfast, taxi here, ready for the airport. Where’s Shawn? Every time the elevator opened, we would glance and it wouldn’t be him. Finally he showed up and we loaded into the taxi for JFK. (In Shawn’s defense, he’s not a morning person. For the 19 days with us, he never slept passed 7:00 am.)   At the airport, Shawn checked in and then I checked in and along the way, we would see the ones with the orange Smartours luggage tags. Then I hear someone calling my name and I look and it’s Tony. He’s not happy. They just informed him that they both need 4 blank visa pages before they can let them on the plane. They can get on but they will turn them around and send them back on the next flight. They had blank amendment pages in the back of the passport but didn’t realize those can’t be used according to South African Airways. We call Smartours and they tell him to go to the city and get additional pages and they will put him and Mariela on the next day’s flight so they will only miss one day. So bummed! It was strange leaving my travel partners.

Shawn and I headed for the gate and boarded the plane. We verified that he had an aisle seat and I had the window but I was afraid of the 16 hour flight and what it would do to him. He was a trooper the whole way shoe horning himself into every seat and smacking his head on everything he came across. Luckily for him, when he gets to the back of the plane where our seats are, there is a row two from the back that is missing a seat in front of it so he talks the attendant into letting him sit there and stretch out his legs, threw his sweatshirt over his head and went to sleep. I woke him up in time to have dinner. He came to sit with me for dinner and that was fun. The tray table couldn’t even sit flat because of his legs but he made it work and we ate dinner together. Back he went to his stretched out seat and I started chatting with Katia and Jake from Montreal who are on our tour for the first 14 days. Jake is 14 and his grandmother, Katia, took him on this trip for his Bar mitzvah. Then the Duty Free cart comes around and Katia buys a pretty bracelet. I see that they have a pendant of Africa with three giraffes cut into it and small diamond chip. I thought about all the times I didn’t buy something because I thought I could find something better or cheaper elsewhere and went home disappointed. So I say to the attendant, “Today I turned 45 years old. I’m going to buy this for myself!” She gets the necklace for me and I put it on and then she hands me a bottle of Champagne wishing me a wonderful trip from South African Airways! Yeah!!!! Free booze!

August 20, 2014 – Two movies, one Xanax, four hours of sleep, one dinner and a breakfast, we arrive in Johannesburg, South Africa. I had managed to eat junk food on the plane so I was feeling funky. I actually had to use the airsick bag as we landed. Nothing like looking out the window, taking pictures of Johannesburg as we land and tossing your cookies in a bag. Finally get off the plane, get our luggage, go through customs and they have the NERVE to stamp the last page in Shawn’s passport! I kept thinking that Tony would have been so mad if he knew. Recheck the bags, go get some SAR or South African Rand (10 to 1 pretty much so adding was easy) and then head for the flight to Cape Town. We met a flight attendant named Marsha on the shuttle bus that takes you to the plane who just came from vacation in Germany and was heading back to work. Shawn is his own circus act because he’s tall and funny and okay looking I suppose (my friends said he looks like Gerard Butler – don’t tell him that or his head won’t fit through the door). He was like my brother on this trip and made me laugh the whole time. Marsha found him amusing and that’s how the conversation started. She asked if we were a couple and I said “NO” quickly. Shawn says, “Honey, this will never work if you keep denying us!” Isn’t he funny? And then he would check out the girl next to us from top to bottom in such an obvious way that she should have slapped him.

Once we arrive in Cape Town, we get our luggage and head for the bus. We met our guide, Ron McGregor and he started the “herding of cats” getting us all together and organized. Stefan, our rugby playing bus driver was hilarious and had no end to the jokes he would whisper to us as we walked by. We get on the bus and start checking out the tour group. Every tour group has it’s “special people”. This one was no exception. We had people from Canada, Florida, New York, Austin, and Los Angeles. Many retired folks thanks to the fact that most Americans can’t take vacation for three weeks. We immediately spotted Miriam. She’s a single lady from New York and wore a blue and white headband the whole trip. We nicknamed her Karate Kid because of the headband and her spunk. She was traveling with Linda, a Jewish woman whose accent and mannerisms reminds you of Sofia from Golden Girls. There was the Taiwanese group who were the nicest people but had to be at the front of everything and we laughed because the ladies and I would always pass each other in every bathroom along the way. Same nervous bladders. I joke that I am on a tour of toilets when I travel. We loved Frank and David from New York, Selma and Jeri from New York, Elizabeth and Suzanne from Trinidad, Tom and Helen from Austin and of course Katia and her grandson Jake who was almost as tall as Shawn at 14 and followed him around like a younger brother. Tom would linger behind us and between Ron’s commentary on the tour, he would throw out these zingers and sexual innuendos. You had to laugh. His wife Helen found him amusing and they were a great couple. Every time he would call his wife (Helen), I would shout, “It’s Helene!”

We get to the hotel in Cape Town and it’s about 4:00 pm. Shawn and I find our rooms and check in (they are lovely and Shawn finds out that even though the price was cheap, the rooms are not! We either had a view of the waterfront or Table Mountain from the 15th floor.) The only problem was of all the electric plug attachments I brought, not one of them fit the South African wall socket. I got an adapter from the front desk but when I plugged in my power strip that I brought, I took out the power to the whole room. Oopsie. Shawn found the main breaker for the room and reset it and I kept blowing it until I just threw the power strip away and borrowed more adapters to charge everything. We hit the bar and start joking with the bartenders. They keep asking me why I won’t date Shawn. Then Shawn asks if they have Tinder in South Africa which makes them both laugh. We had read in the paper how Tinder had become popular in South Africa. Basically it’s an app that shows who of the opposite sex is around and within how many miles and their photo – I call it the “hook up app”. I started drinking Pinotage on the plane and loved it. So thankful that South Africa has decent local wines. I suffered so in China and India. We went to the little store across the street to get water and by the time we came out, everything was closed. It was 6:00 pm. Most people that work in Cape Town live outside the city so at 6:00, they all literally run for the train/bus and head home to their families. I like the concept but it was just odd seeing a major city shut down like that in the downtown district. We were too tired to head to the V&A Waterfront that night and wanted to wait for Mariela and Tony anyway. There was a welcome dinner that was included and that’s where the buffet and my expanding waistline started. Everyone introduced themselves and where they were from and it looked like it would be a fun group. We were hoping that Mariela and Tony had their passport sorted and were on the plane heading to South Africa. We actually were able to Skype with them while they were sitting on the plane ready to take off out of New York so that was a relief!

August 21, 2014 – Got to bed at a decent hour from exhaustion and popped up early to get breakfast and be on the bus by 7:30 am. For the next 17 days, this was how our day started: “Shawn, come on! You will miss breakfast!” “Shawn, we have to get on the bus! We are going to be the last ones again!” I nicknamed him Snuffelupagus from Sesame Street. The elephant that moves super slowly. Due to the fog covering Table Mountain, Ron, the guide, decided to change up the tour a bit which was great because that means that Tony and Mariela would be able to go. We went to the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens which were beautiful. Lots of flowers and greenery. Ron would point out the plants that were native to South Africa. Ron says, “Look around you! There are NO trees in South Africa!” and of course there were trees everywhere. He says, “Wait a minute! Oh, that’s right, White-y likes to plant trees!” So basically, when the white man arrived, they brought trees from their native land and they have covered the land with them. He also showed us the Acacia Tree and said that this tree is the one that giraffes love. The giraffe comes upon the tree and starts stripping the tree of its tasty leaves. When it gets to the second tree, it doesn’t taste as good. By the time it’s to the third tree, it tastes terrible! It’s because the Acacia Tree when its being attacked (leaves eaten), it starts emitting a toxin to defend itself that actually spreads through the air and roots to other trees to warn them. Amazing! We finished walking through the gardens and I hit the bathroom and the gift shop. I collect wine toppers and the first thing I see when I walk in the shop is a set of five wine toppers of the Big Five animals in Africa. I laughed thinking I can completely relax now and not have to shop for the rest of the trip but every day I found another wine cork at another stop along our tour until I came home with about 25 of them. Hi, my name is Helene and I have a wine topper addiction.

We did a small city tour of Cape Town and ended up at the South African Jewish Museum. Obviously because of Apartheid and the Nazi’s, South Africans and the Jews had much intablemountain common. Both were ostracized by ridiculously stupid white people. Ron told a story about when the Apartheid laws were put in place, they didn’t count on the fact that the large business they were doing with Japan would be affected. The Japanese were not allowed to stay in the White hotels, eat in the White restaurants, or live in the White neighborhoods. When the White South Africans realized this, they actually nominated the Japanese as “Honorary White People”! Then the Chinese said, “These stupid white people are so dumb that they do not know the difference between Japanese and Chinese.” So the Chinese would get all dressed up and head out to dinner at a White restaurant and all the people would whisper, “Hey, those must be the Japanese investors!” When that worked, the Chinese bought houses in the White neighborhoods. White-y never knew better. Superior? I think not. After touring the Jewish Museum, we also went through the Holocaust Museum, which is always very hard for me – too emotional.

Shawn and I signed up for a Cultural Tour of Khayelitsha. The migrant workers that were brought in to work for the city were made to live in barracks outside of the city. When they had saved up enough money, they would put Shanty houses together and bring their families in from the outlaying bush regions to be together. Our guide kept saying “Don’t feel sorry for the Shanty dwellers! They were happy to have employment and most importantly, their family together!” Mind you, they lived in mud huts out in the bush so the Shanty was an improvement. We drove through District 6 which the white man decided to force out the blacks (indigenous Africans) and colored people (Chinese, Indian, mixed, etc.) and they wanted this prime real estate for themselves. Well, businessmen who know that those people are customers too refused to build on that property out of embarrassment and economical reasoning so the land was vacant for years. One man used to come back to the steps that once belonged to his house and sit every day even though his house had been bulldozed down. Then they took us to the Philani Woman and Children Nutritional Development Center. Basically, these woman are grandmothers who have inherited their grandchildren because of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and losing their children. They learn to weave and paint t-shirts and other crafts that they sell and get 50% of the profit. I found a purple, pink and black throw rug that I wanted. They found the woman who made it and we took a photo together and I thanked her for her work. The ladies in the t-shirt painting room started singing a song while they worked and were dancing and it turned into a real party! Of course, everyone one of the small ladies wanted a photo with Shawn.

schoolchoirLast stop on the tour was to the Intlanganiso Secondary School where a choir of school kids sang for us. These kids made a CD and were invited to Germany to a college to perform in October. Many of them have only seen the planes flying overhead let alone had a passport, been inside the airport, or gone anywhere outside of their neighborhood. I was so excited for them that as we left, I hugged each of them and told them to have the best time ever. We all donated money for their trip and it just makes you realize how well we have it most times. Housing, color of our skin, access to jobs, malls, clothes, shoes, travel. Trips like this help you to never take anything for granted. (Of course, I was embarrassed to be white so I started telling people that I was colored.)

Back to the hotel and Mama and Papa are there!!! We ordered drinks and ran to their room to welcome them. They had jet lag like we did but were ready to catch up. The day Shawn and I left for South Africa, they turned around and re-checked into the Lexington Hotel and went straight to the city to the Passport Office. Both passports were set to expire in 2016 so instead of paying $100 for extra pages to be added, they just paid $150 for new passports with additional pages so this never happens again. They said the Passport Office had tons of people in line for the same reason. But now they are here, we caught them up on what they missed that day which they were okay with and then took the shuttle to the V&A Waterfront. They have a massive mall there and five minutes in the building and I bought a silver charm bracelet with a lion charm and a giraffe charm. Then we headed to Baia for dinner. Sat outside on a patio that was enclosed (it was cool at night) and the server was cute and had us laughing. He was panicked that we didn’t order our main course because it would take a while. I told him, “We aren’t THOSE Americans who want their food in 45 minutes or less. We want to just relax. The relief on his face told us that he’s FAMILIAR with those Americans. We started with some shrimp and escargot appetizers and then I had the curried crawfish that were huge and tasty. Shawn had the game trio which was Ostrich, Kudu (like a large buck) and Springbok (like a small deer). We all sampled each other’s food and it was so good! We were able to sample their Amarillo which is the South African liquor and it was delicious. Full and tired, we head back in the shuttle to the hotel and crash.

August 22, 2014 – Up at it early, we are heading to the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic Ocean. My “big brother” Wendell Hepson made me promise that I wouldn’t do a Shark Tank Dive after everyone watched Shark Week and saw “Submarine” who is supposed to be a 38 foot great white shark that eats small boats and people in them. Well, the spotting of Submarine was in Hout Bay and we noticed there wasn’t anyone swimming at all as we passed through and stopped at an overlook to take pictures. We get to the Cape of Good Hope and there is a sign with the longitude/latitude markings and I want a picture before it gets crowded. As I run up to get behind the sign, Karate Kid says, “You should do that as we leave because we don’t have a lot of time.” I replied, “Well, I’d rather do it when no one is here so I don’t miss my chance.” She insists that I wait until after. I immediately felt like my parent was on this trip. Annoyed I shrugged it off and up the hill we all climbed, including Karate who was not having a good time of it. She had her headband on her head and a cloth bag hanging off her shoulder trying to climb the rock made stairway to the top. Shawn offered to help her and we all lent a hand. At the top we found an ostrich hanging off the side ofcape of good hope the cliff and a beautiful shot of the ocean point. We were taking pictures and some of us wanted to climb up higher but Karate said, “We need to start heading back.” Knowing she would need help, I agreed and we started down. When I looked back, Tony, Mariela and Shawn were climbing higher (thanks Shawn!). Back to the bottom, Karate was sweating pretty good and so was I nervous she might fall but she hung in there and earned her name. Naturally there is a queue to get a photo with the sign. (Not happy). I love the Chinese but they don’t think twice about just stepping into your photo and then they all take turns handing the camera off to each other and stepping into your photo. There was a teacher named Cheryl on our trip who was a real free spirited, curly long blonde hair, fun accounting teacher. People were trying to get pictures and she decides to just stand on the side of the sign to get her picture instead of waiting so she’s in half of the others photos. I made them all move and took my picture happily and we loaded back on the bus.

Off to the Cape Point lookout. We took a funicular to the top where there is a lighthouse and the scenery was breathtaking. We loved the “Don’t Feed the Baboons” signs everywhere. They actually had to engineer a trashcan with locking lid to keep the baboons out except the only problem was the humans couldn’t figure it out but the baboons did. I picked up more wine corks (ridiculous) and Tony bought a beautifully decorated Ostrich egg (which was twice what they were charging everywhere else).   We ended up at Boulders Beach for a lovely lunch and I was able to go stick my feet in the water and collect my sand for my collection. Someone spotted whales off in the distance. Shawn swears they were just rocks. I was hoping they weren’t referring to me after day two of Buffet Eating. After a beautiful fish lunch we made a short walk to the Boulders African Penguin Reserve. They were so cute and everywhere. I had to laugh in the gift shop when we asked what the staff thought of them and the woman rolled her eyes and said, “They are so noisy that they keep you up all night with their squawking!”

Finally we head to Table Mountain and there is a little bit of cloud hooked on the edge of the mountain like a beard. We took the funicular to the top and it was soupy. We walked around and kept seeing signs about the Dassie which is an animal on this mountain that looks like a giant hamster. After walking more away from the entrance we started seeing these guys everywhere. We took pictures of them thinking they were so elusive and by the time we were leaving, it was like, “Uh, another Dassie…” A lot of cool birds were at the top and we snapped pics of them, grabbed a hot chocolate and the clouds cleared just enough for us to grab some shots of Cape Town down below. Seen enough and decided to take the funicular down. marielastuckAs we exited the funicular vestibule, Mariela decides to stop and take a photo of the funicular car. I walked into the gift shop and the automatic door closed right behind me locking her in the vestibule. She couldn’t open it and we just laughed and took pictures of her in her prison. Tony tells the clerk, “Hey, my wife is stuck in the funicular!” Turns out, if she backed up just a bit, a sensor goes off and opens the doors. We enjoyed it. We loaded back on the bus and they took us through this colorful Indian neighborhood called Bo Kaap where all of the houses were painted pretty bright pastel colors and then back to the hotel. We took the shuttle back down to the waterfront and ate at an outside waterfront restaurant called Tasca. It was Portuguese but it was a typical touristy restaurant. Atmosphere and location were fabulous but the food was less than and they had heaters spread out to warm the customers but if that didn’t work, they brought us blankets to wrap ourselves in. We had some nice entertainment from these men who sang African songs for us and Tony bought their CD. Mostly because some jerk behind us wanted them to leave and was calling the manager so we wanted them to know that we enjoyed it. Some people will never be happy in life.

August 23, 2014 – We signed up for the optional excursion to Stellenbosch Wine Country. Ron made it very, very clear that this WAS NOT a wine tour. He said it was a tour to the beautiful countryside where they grow the wine and that it would include a wine tasting but was more than that. Nothing was stopping me from drinking all day anyways and I wanted to see more country. The town of Stellenbosch was a lovely unexpected college town. We drove through the mountains and hills to the countryside and found this quaint little town and were able to walk through the main streets to shop. We had just gotten off the bus and Ron was going through details of how this town was founded. I look over and Karate is squirming and her face is pinched and after watching her for a few minutes, I whispered, “Are you okay?” and she replied that she had to go to the bathroom really bad. She looked like a four year old trying to hold it poor thing. When Ron was done, she shot off to the bathroom and we headed for Church Street to do some shopping. Everyone mentioned that you need a hat for the hot sun in Africa (Ron says that they are located right underneath the hole in the ozone). Shawn came with his safari hat that he paid an arm and a leg for (along with his mosquito repellent clothing – he looked straight out of Adventurer’s Monthly). Strolling through the shops, I find a bright red safari hat with the chin string to keep it from flying off and talked him down to 100 SAR or $10 USD. Selma, one of the lovely ladies on our trip says that if I find another red one, I need to get her one. Her and Jeri were fun to have on our tour. They always had something funny to say. Ron had labeled them “bad walkers” so they could get to the front of lines and not have to stand long or walk far. Jeri brought her own cane/seat with her and when we stopped, she would pop the seat out and sit down. Nothing was slowing her down. Shawn and Jake were great about helping them on and off the bus and snapping pictures for them. Jeri heard me talking about being single and loving it and whispered to me, “You know Helene, I’ve been married five times, lost four to death, one to divorce and currently have a boyfriend. I love that you are single and enjoying yourself! You are a smart girl!” And we were attached forever after that.   Jeri was also taking pictures with her iPhone and one of the African kids said, “You are too old to know how to use a cellphone.” And she replied, “I guess not! I’m using it, aren’t I?” and she would snap another great picture. Love them.

We stopped for a hot chocolate in this restaurant called Helena’s. Just before we walked in I asked Shawn to take my photo with my restaurant and there was a cool lady standing on the sidewalk with these fabulous shoes on and she says, “That’s my name too!” Needless to say, her and I had to get a photo together. After a quick snack, Shawn smacking his head on another doorway and a bit more shopping, we ended up taking the bus to this winery called Boshendal and Ron showed us the main house and how it was only one room but then how they expanded it until it’s the house we see today. The wines were lovely but I learned a long time ago not to try to schlep wines from other countries. (I brought seven bottles from Santorini, Greece only to find I could find it locally at Acropolis Restaurant in St. Petersburg, Florida.) Most times you can find something in your local wine store very similar. If not, you can go online and order wine from the place you visited and have it shipped. After the wine plantation tour and tasting, we stopped at the statue of Nelson Mandela that marks the entrance to the Drakenstein Correctional Center, formerly known as the Victor Verster Prison, where Mandela spent the last three years of his incarceration after being moved from Robben Island.   v&a waterfrontOnce back to the hotel, we shuttled back to the V&A Waterfront for a late lunch/early dinner and had ribs and burgers at a place I can only call a Wild West Chuckie Cheese. Every 20 minutes, they would pipe the “Happy Birthday” song through the restaurant and there was a game room for the kids and it was just odd but the food was good. Did some walking through the mall and Shawn picked up some binoculars that he found paid for themselves quickly. Then we headed back to the hotel to pack and be ready for a 4:30 am wake up call. Blah!

August 24, 2014 – Headed to the lobby with bags at 5:15 am to a bunch of other sleepy folks. They had coffee, juice and some pastries for us since the dining room was not open yet. Loaded on the bus and headed to Cape Town airport for our 7:30 am flight to Johannesburg and then our connecting flight to Durban. Only negative side of the transportation on the trip since there was a direct flight to Durban arriving the same time but Smartours already had a deal through JoBurg. We get on the plane and Jeri is sitting in Shawn’s aisle seat because she’s traveling with Selma. I had the other aisle seat but moved over one seat to give Shawn the aisle seat and Mariela and Tony were behind us. Poor Karate had requested a kosher meal and the airline brought her fruit which she explained later would go right through her so she couldn’t eat it which meant she couldn’t take her medicine, etc.   It was only an hour flight but she wasn’t having it. She stormed up to the front cabin and gave them what for and came back and was bouncing madly in her seat which kept smacking Shawn’s knees. Of course, when we told her he was behind her and barely fit without her moving, she felt bad. As soon as we landed, off she went to put in a written complaint to South African Airways. She was not happy.

Finally in Durban, we pick up our bus that we would have for the rest of the trip in South Africa. We head immediately to the beach on the Indian Ocean in Durban. The sand was soft and tan and I managed to snatch up a bottle of it for my collection. Ron had warned us that the waves were deceiving and regardless if we get wet or not, there would be no going in the belly of the bus to get our luggage to change. Whatever! I’m a beach bunny. I know waves! dubanbeachThe four of us go racing out to take pictures by the water and one by one we all get soaked unexpectedly when a wave comes crashing in farther than we thought. Wet with sand everywhere from our waist down, Ron just shakes his head. Tony had to dry off his camera. Mariela’s pants were wet and so were Tony’s jeans. Shawn’s running pants were wet. I had yoga pants on and they were soaked. Oh well, we kept walking and playing on the beach. There were squid washed up on the beach and when I picked one up, it was still alive and I could feel it moving. Tried to throw it back but it kept washing up. Tony said I was lucky I didn’t get inked. Back on the bus, I go to the back where we sat most of the trip and grabbed my carry on with a pair of dry pants inside and had them stand guard for me while I yanked off the wet pants and put on the dry ones.

We drove to the Bushlands to the Emdoneni Lodge where we would stay for the next two nights. The little bungalows were decorated so nice and they even provided bug repellant lotion, which just freaked Shawn out all the more. He had already brought long sleeve pants and shirts that had repellent built in and was putting bug spray on every night on his neck, hands and feet and had even brought blue painters tape to tape up the bottom of his pants so no mosquitos could get up inside his clothes. Paranoid? Slightly. Others on the trip were taking Malaria tablets even though our doctors and the tour guides told us we didn’t need it since it is Winter in August/September! We load up with bug spray and head off to the dining room for our included buffet dinner. The food was great all along the trip. We loved the Boboti, a Malay dish which is like meatloaf with raisins and with baked egg on top, and is often served with rice and chutney and of course the sausage made from kudu or springbok. I continued to eat too much every day. We would just buy the entire bottle of wine wherever we went for cost and convenience. As I’m ordering my bottle at the lodge bar, I hear a familiar song and realize it’s the African version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”. I asked the bartender if they ever get sick of that song and he said no which was good because I love that song and it was my dad’s favorite song and I proceeded to sing along which made the bartender laugh.   After dinner, a group of us sat outside where they made a fire and we had drinks and chatted and watched as Trevor, the lodge housecat would walk by, fall on his back and wait for you to pet him out of obligation.

August 25, 2014 – No wakeup call! What! Seriously? Well, I set my own because I wanted to enjoy a calm breakfast without rushing my food down and ending up with esophageal spasms like the past four mornings. That and at 9:00 am, we paid $16 USD to do a “Cat Walk”. Wasn’t sure what to expect but why not. Pieter met us and had us rub some sanitizer on our hands before letting us into the compound. They only let you go in when the cats are just waking up or later in the day when they are tired/hot. We see African Wild Cats which look harmless but aren’t and they are disappearing. We also saw the Caracal which is one bad kitty! They had to put it behind two different fences because it managed to jump the one fence and killed 50 of the neighboring farmers sheep in 30 minutes. It’s got the best ears though with these long hairs that look like feathers hanging off of them. Looks sweet but Pieter said it would disembowel you with its back claws in 10 seconds. Then we walked to the Cheetah section. This was what I was looking forward to. When we go in, Pieter tells everyone that they should only approach the cheetah from the back, if it looks at you, look away and most importantly, don’t smile or show your teeth because that’s an aggression. Lastly, don’t run because unless you can get to the gate in 4.5 seconds, you won’t make it. Everyone lines up and Pieter lets Juba, the male cheetah smell his hand and then he pets him and gets him ready for the group. One at a time our group goes up to get a picture petting the cheetah. When I went, Juba decided he was too tired for this so he put his head down flat and went to sleep. After everyone had gone, I had asked if I could go one more time to get a better picture. Pieter said it was no problem so as I walked toward the cheetah, Juba sat up and looked straight at me withjuba the most beautiful golden eyes I’ve ever seen.   So naturally, I stared at him and smiled big! Pieter jumped down and started wrestling with Juba trying to distract him. Whenever I would look over at Juba, he would look right back at me and I would turn away quickly. I hear Pieter say, “You like her hair, don’t you?” realizing my hair is the best cat toy ever. Finally he has him calmed down and tells me to come sit behind him. I do and get some great pictures. I look down and Juba is stretching and his front paw extends a 3” claw that looked deadly. As I’m pointing at the claw and slightly freaking out, Pieter says, “He’s gonna flip over. Just let him.” I put my hands up and was like, “What?” and Juba rolled over towards me and started snuggling in my lap. I was near tears from excitement and emotional attachment and just started petting him like it was my Persian Angora cat Sasha that I had when I was a kid. Everyone was taking pictures and shooting video (maybe in case Juba decided to eat me…). They started calling me the Cat Whisperer. It was hard to walk away but at some point we had to leave. Mariela and I both had to take a Benadryl because we are allergic to short haired cats and never thought of the cheetah being included in that. It didn’t matter because I was in love with Juba. We went to some other cats but my head was still swirling thinking of my experience.

Next we went to a Zulu Warrior Tribe Cultural Experience. They have a village set up to show what tribal life is like. We were greeted at the entrance by a Zulu Chief who tried to make Suzanne from Trinidad his 6th wife for 11 cows. After a ceremonial “knock on the door” by beating a drum, they replied with beating a drum to say “come in”. There were villagers showing how spears are made and the woman are weaving baskets. It was interesting because two woman had red hats on and a poncho of sorts and the guide tells us they are married. The other two women are single and the guide says, “And now we will show you how the single women act during the dating ceremony.” And one woman stands up, takes off her sarong, puts a basket on top of her head and stands there in just a beaded skirt. All the guys start taking pictures. That’s one way to date. So I wanted to take a picture with her and as I walked up, I took off my sling-pack, my light sweater and started to remove my tank top shirt. Half way up, I smiled and said, “Just kidding!” The tour group laughed but so did the Zulu woman. Then one of them had me sit down with them and started braiding my hair. zulu2We move on to the tribal dance demonstration and the drinking of the home made beer (double yuk!). Watching them strain whatever it was out of the beer and then passing the coconut around for each of us to drink out of was not appetizing at all but we all tried it. It’s alcohol! Can’t hurt. Can it? Then the dancing started and we were all clapping and getting into it. Finally the one warrior comes up close in my camera and I thought he was just posing but he took my camera and handed it to Suzanne and then brought me out to the middle of the area and had me follow his lead. At one point, maybe out of sheer nerves, I did the “butterfly” move to my tour groups amusement but then when he had me doing the high kicks, I knew I was in trouble. A lot of bootie shaking and a video I’m sure I’ll want to burn but I had a blast and my group was proud. So far, it was panning out to be a great day! We had another included buffet lunch and more shopping (i.e., wine corks).

Next we were off to the Hluhluwe Game Reserve. Every time someone would ask where we were going on our tour, when I would get to this name, I did my best making it up. Finally I looked it up and the Wikipedia says: pronounced SLOO SLOO WE. Naturally! This was our first game drive and we grabbed a hold of Pieter quickly when we found out he was driving one of the jeeps. They hold 8 people. Our truck had Pieter driving and Tony in the front passenger seat. Then Mariela, Karate and Linda in the 1st row. Suzanne and Elizabeth in the 2nd row and Shawn and I in the 3rd row. It was tiered so we could see easily. We enter the park and find warthogs immediately.   warthog runningThen Pieter gets all excited because he’s looking off in the distance and thinks he sees lions (which are difficult to see there). Tony follows Pieter’s direction and zooms in and Shawn is looking through his binoculars and sure enough, there is a lion! I had to zoom in with my camera, take a photo and then zoom in on the photo to get a glimpse.   Of course, Karate has a 20X optical zoom lens on her point and shoot camera and can’t get a picture. So she’s asking Pieter to stop and fix her camera or take the picture for her. We finally figured out that she would zoom in to 20X and then couldn’t find the animal when actually she was looking at the fleas on the animal. We helped her back out of the zoom, find the animal and then zoom in. It was a great camera, she just needed a quick lesson on it. We got to see rhinos, baby rhinos which were the cutest ever!, buffalo, kudu, springbok, and African geese. Pieter was really wanting to see the elephants because they had been gone for a couple days. rhinoandbabyWe finally stopped for a potty break at this little resting point by the river. Pieter went to use the park bathroom and Shawn and I walked down to the riverbed. Just looking around and then I hear Shawn say, “Crap! That’s an elephant!” Sure enough, on the other side of the river was an elephant drinking water at the edge. I ran up to get Pieter and he ran down with us and brought us to a safe spot to look at them (we didn’t think about thehluhluwe elephants crocodiles that like to hang out in the river – duh!). As we watched, a second elephant came out of the trees down to the river and started bathing the first one. It was great! Back in the jeep after our break and off to find more animals. We saw Guinea fouls, monkeys, zebras and finally had to head to the exit of the park. It was funny because we were walking around the parking lot waiting for the bus and a warthog with long tusks came running out of the bushes. A guy that was the closest was trying to get a picture and Shawn reminded him that the King in Game of Thrones was killed by a warthog and we all laughed. Still better to stay at a distance. Back to the lodge, we zebraborrowed four glasses from the bar and popped open my SAA Champagne and toasted to our great game drive day! A great dinner and then drinks by the fireplace, hanging out with Pieter, David and Frank and laughing ourselves sick. Karate came in just long enough to tell us she felt sick to her stomach and was going to throw up. We got her laughing a bit and I think she forgot about it.   On the way back to our rooms, we saw a bunch of impalas grazing through the lodge grass area. Great day!

August 26, 2014 – Checked out of our lovely lodge, said goodbye to Pieter and boarded the bus to Swaziland. I had forgotten that Swaziland is a completely different country smack in the middle of South Africa’s territory. We had to cross the border and get our passports stamped (yeah!!!). The people everywhere we went were so friendly. People would wave at us as our bus went by. I loved looking out the window and waving at everyone and seeing their big smiles. We stopped just inside Swaziland’s border at the Sambane Restaurant and Craft Market. We watched the people carving the giraffes out of wood right in front of us. We all ordered burgers for lunch and then went shopping. I found my sister a soapstone turtle even though I promised not to get her one but it had the big five carved into the back of the turtle’s shell so I had to. Finally we get to the hotel where we are just staying one night while passing through Swaziland heading to Kruger National Park. It was a nice hotel and we found the gift shop quickly. Mariela bought me this beautiful African woman ceramic that I was staring at for a long time. She said she knew I loved it and had to have it for my non-birthday. I was just hoping she would make it home in one piece. We decided to take the shuttle to another sister hotel that had a casino and better restaurants. The casino was full of smoke and I don’t gamble anyway so we opted for the outside pool and funky drinks. Abby, one of the ladies on our trip was sitting by herself at the bar and when we invited her to join us she politely declined with that look on her face that we all had at one point in our trip – I just want to be alone for five minutes! We headed to the restaurant for dinner and ran into Frank and David. Ron also stopped in to say hello. He had previously mentioned that the next day we had options of riding on the bus through Kruger Park to our hotel which was included or we could pay $75.00 per person to go by open jeep. Well most of us wanted to go by jeep but Tony and I thought the same thing at the same time – “How much for just the four of us to have a jeep?” We weren’t trying to be antisocial or avoid anyone. We just wanted the opportunity to spread out and take pictures and spend time together. Ron found out that it was $100 per person and we were sold! I know some of the others wanted to be on our jeep because we were “the cool kids” or the “Fab 4” as Ron called us. Dinner was great and I went back and hugged the chef and told her I was taking her to America so she grabbed her hat and was ready to leave! Time to pull out the fat pants!

krugar giraffeAugust 27, 2014 – On the bus and heading to Kruger National Park. We had to go through the border crossing out of Swaziland and back into South Africa and then when we reached the park, everyone was heading to their jeeps. As we stepped off the bus, I see this driver standing there and I said, “Okay, who wants me?!” and he laughed and said, “Are you with the four?” I said yes and hugged him. We got in our jeep with Dawson our driver and you could tell the rest of the group was slightly jealous especially every time we passed them during the drive. It was worth every penny because we were sliding back and forth across the seat to either side without blocking anyone else’s pictures.   We got to see lots of giraffes and other animals but were hunting our leopard. Very difficult to find and Dawson said it’s been a couple of days that they hadn’t seen one. We stopped for lunch at this park restaurant and shops. We find a table on the patio overlooking the river and eat lunch while elephants and hippos swim in the water. After lunch we hopped back into the jeep with Dawson and off on safari again. We finally come upon some lions sleeping in the sun up on some rocks (which Shawn kept calling “Pride Rock” after the Lion King – he’s so silly). Much closer but not close enough for Dawson. Finally we come upon a pride of lions where they had just eaten. You could see the dried blood around their mouth and they were sitting under a tree. Three of them. Then he inched a few yards forward and found more under another tree and a male laying out in the sun on his back, stretched out like Al Bundy on the sofa with one leg in the air. I laughed and said, “Buddy, I know how you feel after the buffets here!” Beautiful big lion looking like a big baby. full lionThis trip keeps getting better! We kept looking but no leopard. We knew we still had one more day but Dawson was disappointed he didn’t find us one. Finally we leave the park and enter the Kruger Park Protea Hotel and it’s beautiful! It’s an eco-lodge built up off the ground so that the game reserve is protected.Dawson Said goodbye to Dawson and told him to save us four seats the next day on his jeep for us. He was a great driver and personality and we didn’t want to lose him. Off to change and get ready for dinner. Dinner was another buffet but they had an Asian pasta bar which Shawn basically moved into. I was trying hard to cut back my portions before having to just buy a moo-moo and call it a day.

August 28, 2014 – I popped up early to grab my relaxed breakfast for the day and on my way to the dining area, I was able to watch the sunrise over the river running behind our lodge. I met some guys who were filming a documentary about endangered animals in Kruger. He said they went to a crime scene of a rhino that was slaughtered and it’s horn removed. So sad. I got his card and can’t wait to see their final product. Off to breakfast and meet up with the group. We had made arrangements with some of the others to join our jeep which Ron loved because it was less dividing and conquering he had to do. He basically said, “Tony and his group, head to this jeep.” And pointed at baboonsDawson. Tony had invited Frank and David and Suzanne and Elizabeth to go with us. I didn’t know that so Karate was upset when she found out she couldn’t go with us. I felt bad. I told her we would grab her another time. So Frank and David have these matching safari jackets on and are looking “fab-u-lous!” Then Frank goes to Shawn and says, “You know Shawn, it takes a real man to rock a pink camera.”   We all fell out laughing. Shawn bought his mom a hot pink Cannon point and shoot camera and decided to bring that on the trip but I guess at 6’7”, it doesn’t matter what color it is. The first half of our game drive was mostly cool birds which Dawson would pull out his book and show us the name of it.   turtlehippoWe come upon a watering hole and Dawson parks the truck and hops out. I spot a turtle sitting on a rock in the middle of the water and as Dawson walks toward a sign that he wants to get a better look at, five turtles appear on top of a hippo that they were sitting on that I mistook for a rock! We all whispered loudly to him to get back in the truck. He didn’t seem to be too worried as he calmly walked back to the truck and got in. I’m not saying we would have left him but he is the one who told us that the hippos are the most dangerous.

Rolling along, we heard Shawn shout, “Cheetah!” but meant “Leopard!” Dawson backs up quickly and we all get to see the leopard walking into the bush and snapped pics of him. Dawson cheetahstarted dancing in the jeep in his own celebration. We were all high-fiving each other. It was great. Later in the afternoon we came upon a bunch of jeeps and cars parked on a bridcheetah2ge and found out there were leopards in the tree so Dawson maneuvered the jeep and basically squeezed us in to the exact middle of the pack so we could see. They were beautiful just relaxing on a limb over the river. We were still happy to have found the one earlier all by ourselves. At the end of the game drive, Dawson dropped us back at our lodge and we decided to grab some time by the pool and just relax before dinner. Stuck one toe in the water and decided I would watch from a pool chair. Shawn jumps in like a lunatic. After dinner, we checked the “spotty” internet and called it a night as we had to leave early again the next morning for Johannesburg.

August 29, 2014 – My alarm goes off on my phone and I try to drag myself out of bed. When I went to turn on the lights, they didn’t come on. gods windowI called the front desk and they said they lost electric to the entire lodge. So I pulled back the curtains to my room and was thankful I packed the night before. Stuck my bag outside for them to grab, got dressed and headed for breakfast. Thank goodness for a gas kitchen. Loaded up on the bus and start the very long drive to Johannesburg. We made multiple stops to stretch our legs and break up the trip. The first was God’s Window which was a beautiful view and appropriately named. Then we stopped at Kolkgate Potholes potholeswhich was a canyon that had these round holes carved out by water. Jake decides he wants to run to the very top of the hill and starts his climb with Shawn encouraging him. I’m thanking God I don’t have children and remind him that we have to be back on the bus in 20 minutes. Continuing on our journey, we stopped at another overlook into Blyde River Canyon and there were loads of school children on a field trip at the same stop. When I was taking my pictures, I happened to notice a little girl standing close to me and an older man (maybe her father) trying to take a school field trippicture of me and her. So I asked if he could take our picture together and with my camera too. He smiled big and so did the little girl. So we got our picture and then I asked if the class wanted to take a photo with me. Before I knew it, I had 30- 40 kids in yellow and green school uniforms surrounding me for our group photo. The teacher’s name was Maria and her and I took a picture by ourselves and exchanged emails. She told me how her dream was to come to the United States. (And again, I realize just how easy we have it in the USA.) After many hugs, we have to head back to the bus.

At the bathroom and coffee stop earlier, and after Ron, our guide, was staring at me and then his watch to indicate that we were always last, I said, “You know Ron, we are always in the back of the bus and when you stop and give us 15 minutes to use the bathroom and get a coffee, and then it takes a good five minutes to get off theron bus, now we are last in line at the bathrooms and then the coffee line, naturally, we will be the last ones BACK on the bus.” He laughed and said, “I’ve never heard that excuse before!” So when it was time to stop for lunch, Ron says, “Okay, we have 30 minutes here and need to grab a quick lunch since we are not stopping again. I’d like for the entire bus to remain seated and let Helene and Shawn off the bus first.” Everyone laughed and clapped as Shawn and I made our way to the exit of the bus. I told Shawn, “You know this means we CANNOT be the last ones on the bus or we’ll never hear the end of it.” We weren’t. I think we were second to last. Mariela and I ran to the bathroom to find out that it has no lights. There are two candles stuck on the sink to light the room but not very successfully. Mariela pulls out her trusted flashlight and guides her way to the bathroom. I used my iPhone flashlight and that got the job done. We found a knock off KFC and ate some fried chicken and fries and Shawn ordered a giant McRib wannabe to go. Once back on the bus, Jake was staring at the sandwich so Shawn decided to split it down the middle and then have a rib sandwich eating contest. Of which Shawn won.

We pull into Sandton around sunset which is the city we are actually spending the night in because we found out Johannesburg is so dangerous, Ron doesn’t plan on letting us even off the bus when we do our tour the next day. Our hotel is right across the street from the Nelson Mandela Square and we made dinner reservations at an Italian place – I was over the buffet already. We checked in, I got dolled up with some decent shoes, jeans (which barely fit me), a sweater, scarf and jacket because the elevation and location makes it a cooler climate. Happy to be in heels, we head to dinner, grab some sangria for the table, escargot as an appetizer and I decided I would just get a personal pizza. The group wanted to order a bunch of stuff and just share but that was too buffet like for me. I ended up getting the Sorrento which was mozzarella, Parma ham, basil and pesto and it was SUPERB! Tony also got that and said it was the best pizza he’d ever had. I shared some of mine with Shawn because I still didn’t want to overeat. After dinner, we briefly walked in the square (too cold out) and then headed back to the hotel. Shawn and I decided to grab a drink in the hotel bar. Ron had warned us that he didn’t like the bar so much because there is an entrance from the street but we didn’t listen. Shawn and I sat at the bar entrance off the lobby in these two oversized chairs and had our drinks and chatted about his love life – because since I don’t have one, I’m the best consultant because I have so much clarity! While we are talking, they mention that it’s last call. So we get our check. As we are finishing our drinks, two young ladies dressed in thigh high boots and high blinged out heels come in and sit at a table behind us. After waiting a few minutes, one of them goes to the bar. I’m assuming she will get drinks for her and her friend. Nope! She orders one drink, sits down and starts chatting up the guy next to her. Meanwhile, her friend is sitting, waiting, without a drink and watching Shawn and I. Now that we’ve realized that they are Last Call Girls, we finish our drinks and head to our rooms shaking our heads.

August 30, 2014 – Up and at ‘em and on the bus early for our tour of Johannesburg, Soweto and Pretoria. It was so sad to ride through Johannesburg and realize that the crime was so bad, it literally took over the city. When a store would go out of business, they would completely brick up the entrance to keep the squatters out. The Carlton Centre Hotel used to be the top hotel and is the tallest building in Johannesburg at 50 stories. But in 1997 it closed its doors due to lack of business because it was too dangerous to stay in the city. People started moving out to Sandton as the business district. The barbed wire and bars on the balconies said it all. There is a statue to Gandhi in the middle of a square but we were only able to zoom in from the street corner as we went by because it wasn’t safe to let us off the bus. Ron told us of a business man who flew into town and asked for a taxi to Johannesburg but the driver tried to take him to Sandton. When the business man demanded to be brought to Johannesburg, the driver did as told. Ron says that later when the business man woke up in a hospital with a stab wound and all of his belongings gone did he realize why the taxi driver did not want to bring him there. Sad state of this city.

coal stacksWe then headed out to Soweto (South Western Township). Basically this is where all of the colored and black people had to move as they weren’t allowed to live inside the city. On our way to Mandela’s house, there are two coal smoke stacks that were out of commission and they had them painted with murals and put a bungee jumping platform between the two of them. I asked Tony can we do that with our stacks? We arrive at Mandela’s house and it’s become a museum of pictures and items given to Mandemandela housela and you can still see bullet holes and charred brick where fires were set. Seeing the movies and then seeing the house itself was very chilling. After we went to the Apartheid Museum. The museum was interesting but as Ron said, very one sided which was somewhat understandable but not what a true museum is about.   Walking through the museum, I came upon a video montage they showed of Mandela after he was freed with various famous people. He was shown hugging Princess Diana, standing with Michael mandela artJackson, wiping tears off of Whitney Houston’s face from her overwhelming emotion of meeting him. It was emotional for me to remember them in the good days. As you exit the museum, there is an art installation that looks like a bunch of black sticks just sticking out of a podium. But then when you go and stand in a specific spot, you realize it’s Nelson Mandela’s face. It was very well done. We decided to grab lunch at the Truth Café at the museum. I ordered the Ostrich burger and the Bobatie for Shawn and I to split. The burger was okay but the Bobatie was the bomb!  

Next we were off to a craft market that Ron kept telling us to wait and buy all of our souvenirs there because it’s the best prices. They were but I was happy to buy my individual little items along the way, remembering what I bought and where and knowing I was supporting the local economy directly. I found a tiger eye bracelet that I fell in love with and made the guy behind the counter hide it until I looked around so no one else would buy it. I also found this picture of an African woman with a baby strapped to her back carrying a basket on her head all made from butterfly wings. At first, I was mortified and then flipping it over saw that at a butterfly farm, they allow the butterflies to have a natural death (which is generally after 48 hours which is the normal life span of a butterfly) and then they use their wings to create these beautiful pieces. (One of my friends mentioned that this is what they tell all the tourists.) I had to have one. After our shopping, we got on the bus to head off to Pretoria on a tour with Albert – accountant by day, tour guide by weekend! He took us to a hilltop viewpoint called Schanskop Museum to give a great vantage point of Pretoria down below. There was a wedding about to kick off so Albert gave us the short version so we could get out of the way before being trapped during the ceremony. Next was the Voortrekker Monument which has a unique marble Frieze on the inside of 27 marble panels wrapped on the four walls that depict the story of the Great Trek from 1835 to 1852 to get away from the British (no offense to my Brit friends – they didn’t know you cool folks!). When we arrived at the monument, there were 100 plus stairs and so Shawn and Jake raced to the top continuing the Tall Man Competition. When Shawn won, he did a little Rocky impersonation which made everyone present laugh. Except Jake. Albert took us inside and went panel by panel describing the trek of the people. There was also a marble tomb that didn’t have anyone buried there but represented all of those willing to die for South Africa.

When Albert first joined us, he told us what we could expect on our tour as included but then says, “If the gods allow, I will see about getting us into the courtroom and jail that Mandela was tried and held in with the other 11.” After a couple times repeating that, we realized, due to his strong accent, that he was saying “guards” – not “gods”. He happens to know some of the guards and with it being a weekend, could get us in possibly. Well, he was successful and that was an amazing moment. Albert stood in the defense box and played a video with the actual audio of Nelson’s defense. Then afterwards, we took the stairs down to the jail cell and faintly on the wall, you can see The Freedom Charter that they penned while being held during the trial. It’s amazing to see history in its exact place. Then as we left the courthouse, Albert pointed out the new courthouse where Oscar Pistorius, the famous Blade Runner, will have had his verdict read on September 11, 2014 on whether or not he is guilty of murdering his girlfriend.   Our last stop was Union Park which again has a great view of the city and a beautiful Mandela statue with his arms spread wide. I’m hoping it was a prom because we kept finding girls in over the top dresses the past day or two but one young lady stole the show at this park with the pink tutu she was rocking. It was great to see another city in South Africa and Albert was a great guide.albert mandela courthousemandela statue

freedom charter



Back at our hotel, it was the farewell dinner since not everyone was going to the Victoria Falls extension. We all got dressed up and headed to the dining room. The hotel donated bottles of wine which somehow I managed to end up with the leftovers on our table. We all took pictures and exchanged emails and Ron was signing the copies of his book that different ones bought. I knew luggage weight would be a problem so I’ll see about having him sign a copy and mail it to me. He was one of the best guides I ever had. Took care of everything without missing a beat. He has an American account set up in Orlando, Florida strictly to mail items people have left behind or replacement gifts that might have broken so you don’t have to worry about wiring him money. He also knew the money situation in Zimbabwe is less than pleasing so he pre-arranged all of our tours so that we could pre-pay them and not worry about individual charges or overcharges, etc.   His stories were great and informative and you knew he loved his job but he’d also still tell you so.

August 31, 2014 – Up early, heading to the airport, tearfully hugging Ron goodbye. About 30 of us take the flight to Zimbabwe for the extension tour. We land and go through the border entry. There are two lines. One for Single Entry Visas and one for Double Entry Visas. We spoke with Ron and he said to just ask for a multiple entry visa because we are going to Zambia and will need to enter Zimbabwe three times total. The line barely moved. When Shawn and I get to the front, I tell the officer that we need multiple. He said we can only get double. As I explain why we need multiple, he shoves my passport to the side and motions for the next person to come to the counter. So I shove my passport back and hand him the money and say, “Two double entry visas!” Smiling through my teeth the whole time. He was so irritated that he screwed up and they had to hand write our receipts which made him more irritated. All along the customs and border patrol have been friendly but this guy was obviously having a bad day. After we get the stamps and visa required (which take up an entire page), we have to put our bags through an x-ray machine. As I’m loading my bag, I look over and the customs officer is sleeping. I look at Shawn and then another lady working at the airport and she just laughs. Finally, the group gets through and load on our bus with Mike, the guide and bus driver. He takes us to the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge and it’s gorgeous. I get to my room and it has the mosquito netting around the bed and sliding glass doors leading out to the balcony. Built up on a watering hole and there are animals passing through right off your balcony down below.  

zambezi pink sunsetWe get to relax for a bit before our sunset cruise on the Zambezi River. We saw lots of hippos and Tony got a great shot of a hippo with his mouth wide open. I was too late trying to turn my camera on and switch off playback mode. I’ll steal his photo when he’s not looking. The sun set over the river and it was a bright pink color. At one point, you couldn’t see the actual sun unless you were looking through a camera lens which caught the pink hue perfectly. We ate and drank and drank. Then it was back to the lodge. Mariela was struggling with a sinus infection for the past couple days and being out on the water did her in so she went to bed and Tony, Shawn and I went to dinner at the lodge. We noticed immediately that the prices were higher and much more like resort prices. It didn’t help that Zimbabwe’s dollar was worth nothing and they used American dollars. They actually had money printed that was 100 Trillion Dollars which by the time they were printed, barely could buy a loaf of bread. We already missed the very inexpensive South African restaurants and bars but the resort feel warthog dinnerwas relaxing. We sat on an open patio restaurant overlooking the watering hole and watched the animals pass through. Some we heard and didn’t see. We each tried the cauliflower and blue cheese soup which was heavenly. I also ordered a bottle of the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge Cabernet/Shiraz and found out that $10 of every bottle goes to the preservation of the game reserve. Shawn decided to have the warthog with black cherry sauce but that seemed too daring for me. Again, tired of too much food, I opted for the Thai pasta which was delicious but then I tried some of the warthog and that was fabulous! I never had game meat taste so good. Tony had a filet. He ended up bringing Mariela some bread and the soup to the room which she loved.

Finally I had to get to bed. I was excited and yet nervous about the next day. When we arrived, I told Mike, our guide, that we had arranged for September 1st in the afternoon for the High Tea Devil’s Pool tour. He said, “I don’t think it’s opened yet. The water level has to come down farther. They may take you to Livingston Island but most likely not to Devil’s Pool.” I felt myself fill with disappointment but kept saying that being that close to the edge of a waterfall still must be the coolest so I tried to not build up my hopes any more than they already were.

September 1, 2014 – We got up and had breakfast at the patio overlooking the reserve. We had been eating omelets for 14 days and it was a nice surprise to find pancakes today! We load up on the bus and head to the Victoria Falls tour from the Zimbabwe side. We entered the park with our ponchos on and hike to our first vantage point. Seeing it in pictures is one thing but to zimbabwe victoria fallssee, hear and feel it in person takes it to another entire level. There were rainbows in every direction. The waterfall was at a perfect level as it wasn’t falling too heavy as it would during the rainy season and Mike says that you would have only seen the mist and then again it wasn’t the dry season either where the waterfall isn’t as impressive. We walked along looking at the Devil’s Cataract and then came to the Mpreview devils poolain Falls. This is where the falls were the heaviest and there was a lot of mist. So much that you could barely get a photo. Then I saw something across the way and grabbed a guide who was pushing Selma’s wheelchair and said, “What is that?!” He says, “That’s Devil’s Pool. It just opened yesterday.” I grabbed him and hugged him which scared him at first but then he went with it. I explained that we were going there that afternoon and apologized for hugging him to which he replied, “It’s no problem. You will have a great time!” Like a four year old, I skipped over to Tony, Mariela and Shawn and pointed out the pool. Now, I’m excited! We finished the tour taking pictures of Horseshoe Falls, Rainbow Falls and the Eastern Cataract and all but ran back to the bus. What’s interesting is along the walkway, there would be signs telling people to watch their step because there was no railing in some areas and people would go out as far as the edge to take pictures. Remember this for later.

helicopter victoria fallsNext we had a helicopter tour scheduled for 11:30 am. They have to weigh you and then strategically place you in the helicopter to balance the load out (us being the load). Of course, with Shawn’s height and by now 300 pounds thanks to the buffets, the guy had his work cut out for him. Shawn and I ended up facing each other, Tony and Linda faced each other on the other side and Mariela got to sit up front with the pilot. Unfortunately, at the last minute, a very tall guy comes running up and ends up sitting in the middle between Tony and I and there is no leg room anywhere. Shawn had never been in a helicopter before and I’m claustrophobic but we made it work. Once in the air and over the falls, you forgot about the uncomfortableness and stared at the mouth-dropping view below us. Again, more rainbows and watching the curtain of water dropping off the edge was so impressive. The pilot made a few circle 8’s so we could all get a good view and pictures and then we flew over the game reserve and found a herd of elephants (Shawn counted over 40) walking in line through the trees. We also saw hippos and giraffes. By the time we landed, my legs and Shawn’s legs were soaked from sweat. We are still not sure which one of us was responsible or it could have been both but it was worth it!

We had enough time to return to the hotel and grab lunch. We split a burger and then changed into our swimsuits. We were picked up at 2:10 pm and taken to the Zambia border. All along the trip, there were signs at airports and border crossings concerning Ebola not being a threat to South Africa which was very reassuring and funny. Until we entered the Zambia Border and a man in a white coat asked us to put out our hands which he scanned with a thermometer. We found out that if we had a fever, he would have known it and taken us for more tests. Thankfully none of us had a fever. He said it was not a threat at all in Zambia but they would like to keep it that way. Makes sense. We cross the border to Zambia and get on another bus to the Zambezi Sun Resort where we will catch our boat to Livingstone Island. Of course, the guide asks us where our vouchers are and I was so excited, I completely forgot to stop at the tour desk and pick them up. He made a few phone calls and they faxed over copies and we were on our way.

We were the last ones which was good because it ended up just being the four of us. We walked to a viewpoint of Rainbow Falls right in front of us and I just kept giggling from excitement. After some pictures, we went to the edge of Livingstone Island and got down to our bathing suits, linked hands with our guide in front and walked across some not so smooth rocks to the river. There was another guide who we gave all of our cameras to and he walked along the waterfall’s edge so he could take photos for us. He looked like he was on just an average every day walk. Then Alex tells us that we are going to swim across to the next set of rocks. Right! Your brain is telling you that the current is flowing and going to take you over the edge. So when Shawn and I started to swim, we immediately swim diagonally sort of against the current just in case. The reality is the current wasn’t strong enough to push you and swimming across the current was easier than against it. Mariela and Tony are not strong swimmers so the guide went with them. Other than a few bumps and bruises from the rocks, we all made it safely.

Now, we climb over the last set of rocks and there is the Devil’s Pool! Alex informs us that he will go into the pool first and guide us in one at a time. He then says, back flip devils pool“But don’t do this.” and then does a backflip off the rock into the pool. He then shows us that the water is not rushing hard and he actually slowly drifts back and stops at a four foot wide natural made pool ledge that he then climbs on to be on the waterfall edge. He says, “Okay Helene! You can do this!” and coaches me down the rocks and I scoot into the water and then slowly drift towards him. He has me sit up on the edge and then calls to Shawn to join us. Shawn does the same thing. Now we are both sitting there. I have a smile so wide I fear it will break my face. At one point I had to put my face in my hands and just cry. I don’t know if it was the near disappointment or the actual event being realized that made me so emotional but I can honestly say, I’ve never been happier in my life than I was at that moment. I keep reminding myself of who I am and where I come from and it still feels so surreal sometimes. Alex has Shawn move away from the edge and has me crawl onto the 4’ ledge while he’s holding my ankles. I never felt like I was going to fall over but it was precautionary. (Remember our walk on the Zimbabwe side with no railings. This is why I said to remember that part! The level of safety was better at the top of the waterfall than it was on the other side!) I posed for my pics and just laughed. He had me with the waterfall behind me doing a superman pose and then I shot out the peace symbol which ended up being my favorite. The photographer then moved to the other side of me so he could get a great shot with a rainbow as bright as could be framing me. When I was done, they threw a blue thick rope to me that I grabbed onto and was pulled back to the rock to climb up. Later I also found out that there were two other blue ropes stretched across the river where we swam in case someone stopped swimming. A lot of safety to make for a fabulous event!peace devils pool

Next it was Shawn’s turn. Because he’s so tall, Alex knew he couldn’t hold him so they only let him lean over the 4’ ledge but his pictures still came out fabulousmariela tony devils pool!   When he was done, he crawled out and Mariela and Tony went in. Tony had gotten a Go-Pro for his birthday from Mariela and was making a video. He held the camera over the edge of the waterfall. (The video was super clear and you could see all the way to the bottom of the 350 foot drop!) They took turns with their individual pictures and then it was back to Livingstone Island for High Tea. The shawn devils poolswim back was still nerve wracking (again, your brain is messing with your reality) and the rocks were painful but I was shaking like a leaf, not from the swim or the rocks or the cool water – it was from the exhilaration of participating in the coolest event of my life ever. We get toweled off and they seat us in this dining tent that looks over the waterfall. They brought us drinks and food and all of us just looked at each other like, “Did that just happen?!” We weren’t even hungry but the drinks were good! Finally we have to leave and as we go, there is a building with a sign on it that says, “LOO with a View”. It’s the bathroom. There is one toilet and when you go in, close the door and sit down, there is nothing in front of you loo with a viewexcept the waterfall.   I made Shawn go pose for a picture because it was hilarious! We loaded onto the boat, said goodbye to Livingstone Island and back to the Zambezi Sun Hotel. Then it was back through the border to Zimbabwe. The whole way we are looking at the pictures they took with our cameras in complete disbelief. Once back to the lodge, I grab Shawn’s laptop, download all my pictures, pull up Facebook and immediately change my cover photo and my profile pic. I think by morning I had over 100 likes and people were freaking out in the comments. We change and head to dinner. No one is really hungry but we couldn’t sleep if we tried. Plus, it was Mariela’s turn to have warthog. Sitting at the table, Shawn says, “I know it’s been like four hours but I still have that funny feeling in my stomach.” I know exactly what you mean! Absolute BEST DAY OF MY LIFE!

September 2, 2014 – Today we hop on the bus and head to Botswana and the Chobe National Park. We started with a boat ride down the Chobe River which is a natural boundary for Botswana and Namibia. I kept asking the captain of the boat if he could pull up and let me hop off on Namibia soil so I can count that country. He said, “Sure, how about now?” and I look crocodileover to the shore where there is a crocodile looking right at me. I’ll pass this time. He did tell me that Namibia’s boundary is in the middle of the river but I felt like I would be cheating to count it. As of today, I have 57 countries including the five we visited and actually got stamped in our passports. We saw lots of animals and birds. elephant fifth legThere was an elephant on the river’s edge and we asked the captain if it was male or female. The captain said it was female. Someone said it was so big that they should call it Shawn (which can be a male or female name). We were waiting for it to get into the water and swim across to the little island and out of nowhere someone says, “Hey captain! Your elephant just grew a fifth leg!” I wish my Jessica was with me because she’s my perverted animal lover and usually finds this stuff hilarious. This MALE elephant seriously looked as though he had another leg coming down. When it hit the water, Shawn says, “Well, you did call it Shawn!” and the whole boat cracked up.   Later we found a giraffe trying to get a drink of water. It was funny because it had to bend its long legs inward and then lower its neck to grab a quick drink. The whole thing looked so uncomfortable. We also got to see a young giraffe with his momma and she gave him a kiss on the top of his head. Very sweet!giraffe kissinggiraffe drinking

After the boat ride, we returned to the Chobe Resort and had a lovely buffet lunch. I was able to get some Botswana money and then we hopped on jeeps for our last game drive. We had Karate and Sofia and a Chinese couple in our jeep with us. Karate says to the driver as we are entering the park, “What’s the temperature in the park?” He looked at us as if togame drive jeep say, “Is she serious?” and we nodded. We drove along the Chobe River and at a point we came back the same way but on a road higher up the side of the hill. Sofia says, “What elevation are we at?” and chobe elepahntsthe driver says, “Well, we were down there (and points at the river) and now we are up here (and points right in front of him). We were hysterical. She was a good sport about it. Finally the jeeps finish the game drive by taking us back to the border for Zimbabwe where we cross and get on our bus. Once back at the hotel, it was time for our last dinner together in Africa. We decided we would hit our hotel restaurant and I wanted the warthog this time. We had to have the soup as well and the bottle of wine of course. We sat there remembering the trip and the one liners from those on the bus. Shawn would say “Karate said, ‘Do all the elephants know how to swim or just these?’” and we would laugh. Then Tony says, “This may be a stupid question, but are there tsetse flies here?” and we would laugh. Tony also said that Ron commented that normally there is always drama on a tour but this one was exceptional.   Someone remembered one of the girls saying, “I don’t see any snakes. When do the snakes come out?” and the driver answered, “zimbabwe sunsetWhen they are hungry.” Shawn said that Karate was boarding the plane for Zimbabwe and was told they wouldn’t let her board until the plane landed. Shawn said, “Yeah, usually the plane has to be on the ground to get on it.” Sofia said, “They must think we are all black because they put us in the back of the plane.” Finally, Shawn quotes Karate as saying, “The big animals are easy to spot.” And that’s when Tony laughed and had water coming out of his mouth and nose. We lost it. When they brought dessert, Tony mentioned that he couldn’t cut the chocolate flower so Shawn just picked it up and started chewing on it. Half way through he starts spitting it out because he realized it was plastic. That was it. We were crying. We laughed so hard that the servers were laughing. They had no idea what was so funny but just watching us, it was contagious. We asked if we could get some of the chocolate flowers to go and they laughed even harder when they saw the chewed up one on Shawn’s plate. We walked back to our rooms holding our sides. This group has been so entertaining!

September 3, 2014 – We packed the night before and put our clothes out that won’t fit for the 50 pound limit ride home. Our guide Mike was going to collect the clothing and shoes for local families who need it the most. The alarm went off early and we were off to have Breakfast with Lions. We were picked up at 6:15 am and taken to a game reserve called Walking With the lions kissingLions. We watched an educational video about the endangered lions and how their numbers have gone from 300,000 20 years ago to only 30,000. So this company was created and they are breeding lions and then releasing them as teenagers into the wild. From their birth, they have the lions go for a walk with the handlers every day and let them stretch and exercise and play. The handlers have sticks that they walk with helene and lionsand that is an extension of their hands so that if the lion turns towards them aggressive, they put the stick out and the lion grabs that and they redirect their attention. Lions also don’t feed themselves until after 3 years of age. This is a good time to be able to walk safely with these younger animals and interact. So there were about 8 of us and we meet the two female 17 month old lions and they start walking into the bush with us following behind them. We would take turns walking next to them and they took pictures with our cameras and were taking a video of the entire excursion. Besides two or three handlers, there was also a guy walking with a rifle with a 3 inch bullet that he would use if needed should the lions become aggressive but he said he’s never had to use it. All for safety. Finally we get to some rocks out in the morning sun and the two lions pick a rock, climb up and sprawl out. You could tell they were as sleepy as we were because they kept yawning but the pictures look like they are growling and ready to eat someone. One guy had my iPhone and the other had my camera and so when it was my turn to sit behind the lion and pet him only from the middle of her back to her hind legs (they made sure you stayed away from their face again for safety), I jumped right in and was able to spend a good five minutes petting the lion. We all went twice and they are just beautiful animals. After they turn 3, the lions are released into a semi-wild game reserve to mate with the other lions and their babies are born completely wild. We finished taking our pics and then started walking back to the camp. They had two baby lion cubs that were about four months old and were hanging under a tree. We weren’t allowed to touch them but they were so cute. When back to the camp, they showed us our video which we purchased and then fed us a great breakfast before bringing us back to the hotel. On the way to the hotel, the driver stopped at one of the oldest Baobab trees in Zimbabwe. It’s over 1500 years old and people have been carving their name and date in it for years. We found an Austin who carved his name in 1935. We took some pictures and then I was ready to go home.

We had about 45 minutes to shower and get changed for our flight to Johannesburg. I bagged up my clothes and the ones that Shawn was leaving behind. When the porter came to pick up our bags, he saw Shawn’s size 15 dress shoes that he was going to leave behind and his eyes went wide! He says, “Are you throwing those away?” We explained that we were donating them and asked if he knew someone who could wear them. He said yes excitedly and told us that the dress shoes they get are from China and fall apart quickly. So Shawn gave him the shoes and we had to write a note saying that we were giving John these shoes as a gift from Shawn Old in Room 19 so no one would stop him and/or accuse him of stealing them. Shawn left half of his clothes in Zimbabwe to make room for his gifts. He had a hand held scale that we all put to work in the airport of Zimbabwe because they are very serious about the weight and make no exceptions.  

Upon arriving at the airport, it was absolute chaos. Mariela smartly and stealth like stepped into the business class line and they took her immediately. So Shawn and I jumped in that line too. Through security, a little last minute shopping and on the plane we go. It was a short flight to Johannesburg but we had a seven hour layover. We hit all the African shops and managed to wipe out all of our left over Rand (heaven forbid we actually exchange it back for USD!). We found a nice spot to sit and eat something little and grab a drink before getting on the plane because we knew we would be fed dinner. The girl had nothing but attitude and she so reminded me of home and the ungrateful servers in South St. Pete with the eyes rolling and the teeth sucking. I had no patience so I handed Tony money and went and found a table. We head to the gate and drop all of our stuff with Tony who just wants to sit and the rest of us hit the shops for one last round. I found a beautiful purple amethyst necklace and some shot glasses. While I was browsing, someone called my name and when I looked, Tony was trying to drag all of our luggage out of the gate. I handed my stuff to Shawn, asked him to take care of it and ran to help Tony. Even though we had all been through security, they have you completely evacuate the gate before boarding and separated us into lines for men only and women only for a final security check. What’s funny is our bags were overflowing literally so when I get to the bag check table, she opens it and realizes it’s too much and just waves me through. Tony and Mariela did some heavy shopping (literally) and when we got to the plane door, the flight attendant would not let them on because they had three carry-ons and two personal items. We all drop to the ground and start rearranging our bags until we get them down to two carry-ons and he lets us on the plane. Mariela was not amused.  

While the plane is loading, Marsha, the flight attendant we met earlier in Cape Town comes walking down the aisle! We were all excited to see each other. Every time she walked by, she would toss another miniature liquor bottle or wine bottle at us.   The plane was full so there isn’t much room and this time Shawn and I have to sit together for the entire flight. It’s funny how comfortable you can get with people after 19 days. Nothing romantic between us but after dinner, we cuddled up and passed out (as best as we could). His legs were stretched into my leg room area because there was nowhere else to go. I draped my legs over top of his. It was like 16 hours of twister but we made it work. We actually would start a movie at the same time and watch it together laughing hysterically. Almost time to land and Marsha runs by and hands me a bottle of South African wine and says it’s a present to remember her. I love these people on South African Airways! It was a great airline and the staff were fabulous – except for the flight attendant/bag police guy according to Mariela.

September 4, 2014 – We arrive in JFK, and I see the sign for Global Entry! It’s so early in the morning that Mariela and Shawn go through regular border patrol and come out right behind us but I have to say that I love using the kiosk, not filling out that stupid paper and walking to the front of the line to get out, even if we did have to wait on the others. Now, I have to open my checked bag and hide the wine since I can’t carry it on. I wrap it in something and zip it up crossing my fingers that it makes it. I know the weight is a bit over now so when we get to the Jet Blue counter, I start sharing our story of Victoria Falls and sharing pictures with the bag handler and the ticket agent. They are so excited about the pictures that they don’t pay much attention to the bag weight and off it goes. Wink! Wink! We had originally booked a flight for 2:45 pm that afternoon because Smartours told us we wouldn’t arrive until 8:30 am and we knew we wouldn’t make the 10:10 am flight. But we actually arrived at 6:40 am and had plenty of time. We lost Tony and Mariela when we were heading to the domestic terminal because they were on US Airways. I love Jet Blue because when we got to the counter and explained that we had a later flight, they said, “No problem, there is room on the 10:10 am so we’ll just check your bags on that flight and have you go standby but you will get on no problem!” I almost hugged her. No change fees, no list fees, no price change fees. We grabbed our carry-ons and headed to the gate. Again, I had the TSA pre-check and the line was actually longer than the regular TSA line but it was worth it not to take off my shoes! Shawn and I hit the Starbucks first and then went to get some breakfast somewhere. We found this Philly Cheesesteak place but they were only serving breakfast. When the guy saw how big Shawn was he said, “Don’t worry. Order whatever you want and I’ll make it happen!” So Shawn gets a Philly Cheesesteak and I get Cheese and Eggs and we pull up to the bar and have our last Mimosa and Bloody Mary to wrap up the trip.

Once back in Florida, Sidney picks me up in my car which I’m very happy to see is still in one lovely brand new piece. Shawn had offers from friends to pick him up but he was like me – just wanted to get home and sleep. So I drove him home, hugged him goodbye and headed straight for my condo and my bed. I did try to hang a bit on the sofa and catch up with all the news that I had missed but around 7:30, I fell asleep holding my wine glass and knew it was time to go to bed. It’s been so much fun sharing the pictures of the waterfall and the cheetah and the lion and getting the same reaction – “What! Are you crazy? You could have been killed!” I love life and have no intention of leaving it and anything that I sign up for has to be fun but safe. MAN! What an exciting trip this was!!!! I’m so thankful for these experiences. I hope you enjoyed them too.boabab tree

Eating My Way Through Chile

pil pilIn my conquest of world wonders, I knew I had to get to Easter Island (Rapa Nui which means “ Navel of the World”) to see the giant stone statues. You couldn’t pick a farther place maybe besides Antarctica (which is coming in the next year hopefully). No one else wanted or could go with me so I bit the bullet and paid the $1500.00 round trip from Tampa to Miami to Santiago for 12/28/13 to 1/9/2014. I had enough points on my credit card that I was able to pay for the flight from Santiago to Rapa Nui ($761.00 which was the lowest I could find over the past two years) and get that money redeemed to make it a free flight. Lan Airlines is the only game in town and they only have one or two flights a day. It’s also 5 ½ hours off the coast of Chile, thus its name.

You know it’s bad when you tell people you are going to Easter Island and they look at you wondering why. I finally gave up and just started with “You remember the movie ‘Night at the Museum’ and the giant stone statue that says ‘dumb dumb want gum gum?’” and then they get it. I know that most people’s idea of a vacation is Europe or Mexico but we all know I’m not in that box. Then they wonder why I’m going by myself and I explain that I have to see it and if no one wants to go, I won’t wait. It couldn’t have come at a better time because my beautiful Nana passed at 100 years of age at Christmas time and this trip was good for me to just walk and think and cry when I wanted to without explaining myself to anyone. I literally flew back from Atlanta Christmas morning and was heading to Chile that Saturday.

I love the South American flights leaving in the afternoon. I was able to sleep in that morning, get a pedicure, meet my guys (Jason and Shawn) for brunch at Red Mesa Cantina and then my lovely friend Margaret (who should have gone with me) took me to the airport for a 3:45 pm flight. I had gotten my Global Entry card so it was great just blowing through the TSA Pre-Check and then sitting for a Mimosa waiting for my short flight to Miami. When I arrived in Miami (hate that airport), we pulled into Concourse D and I had to go to Concourse J which was at the exact opposite side of the airport. Once I arrived at my gate, there was a bar just across from it so I grabbed some chips and guacamole and a few wines and then boarded the plane. No one was next to me which was great and I had my headphones with me so I just curled up with my neck pillow and passed out for the overnight flight to Santiago.

I literally slept right up until we touched down. When I’m traveling, I love that I have myself together and know what I’m doing. Unfortunately, this wasn’t one of those times. I get my one checked bag that American Airlines forced me to check, head to Passport Control and while standing in line realized that the airline did not give me the form to complete for entry into Chile. When it’s my turn at the counter, the very nice man says to go to the side counter, fill out the form and come straight back to his window so I don’t have to stand in line again. I go over, rip off a paper, fill it out and rush back. He then tells me it’s a carbon form so there should be two papers. He steps out of the booth and goes and gets me what I need and then asked me if I had paid my visa. DOH! He laughs (which is odd at Passport Control) and points to the direction that I came from and says to go back and pay the visa and come back to him with everything completed.

Backtracking to pay the $160.00 visa, now I run back and there is someone at his window but another man waved me over and very nicely processes my documents, stamps my passport and off I go to get a taxi to my hotel.

I pre-paid for the taxi and then when exiting the airport, I tell the guy that I need to get money from the ATM which he didn’t understand. So then I said “Pesos? Bank Machine?” and then he got it. He takes me to an ATM which usually has an English option out the gate but not this one. He has to help me walk through about three screens before I can ask for Foreign Currency which is odd because I need the local currency. Moving on. Finally get my 150,000 pesos (about $280 USD), securely stuff it into my shoulder bag and off we go to Galarias Hotel.

Naturally when I get to the hotel at 9:00 am, they do not have a room ready for me so I put mygalarais luggage in storage and in a long black cotton dress and 6 inch wedge sandals, I stomp out into the city on a Sunday with everything closed until at least 10:00. I walked in circles using my GPS trying to find the closest Starbucks and when I finally found it, it was closed on Sundays. WTH? So I stopped into a little store and in my worst Spanish asked for an empanada con carne. The guy asked me something and I realized he wanted to know if I wanted it warmed up. Si. Then he points to a register where I have to go pay for it, get a receipt and then bring it back to him. Ten minutes later, I walk out to a government building, sit on a park bench in front of a fountain, no idea where I am and eat my empanada that ends up with beef, a hardboiled egg, a black olive WITH the pit which I found the hard way and some delicious sauce. It was yummy but not what I was expecting.

I decide to head back to my hotel and there is an older couple from Australia asking about the on/off bus for the city. I eavesdrop and then ask if I can walk with them to catch the bus. They said, “Sure, as long as you could understand the directions he just gave us!” So we walk about five blocks and meet up with some others waiting for the on/off bus. I’ve taken these in many cities and usually you just buy the ticket on the bus but the girl said we had to ride about four stops and then we could pay and get our headphones. So one or two stops later, I realize that we are missing the information along the way so she finally understands and gives us some headphones.

Santiago surprised me at all of its modern new age buildings. I found out that it’s become the financial capital of South America and thus the booming economy. I decided I would ride the bus until I got to the Barrio Bellavista where you can take a funicular to the San Cristobal Hill at the top of the Parque Metropolitano to get an awesome view of the city. (Before I left, I went to my trusted site and used the Suggested Itinerary for one week in Chile. Always a reliable source and this location is where they suggested you start.) Waiting in line in the sun I realize just how strong it is and realize that I will be needing sunblock and a hat quickly if I want to save my face. I walked around the park with its giant Statue of Mary at its peak and then took the funicular back down to the bottom.

I loved the Bellavista area. Lots of restaurants and bars and they have very artistic graffiti on pretty much every open surface. As I walked I came upon Patio Bellavista. I was trying to find some place to have something to eat but it was almost overwhelming with too many choices. I came across this small shop in the courtyard of this restaurant / mall type place and struck up a conversation with the sales clerk, Joanna. I ended up buying two pendants made with lapis (a material that can only be found in Chile and Afghanistan of which I most likely won’t be visiting…) One pendant has other minerals to make it look like a crescent moon in the dark sky and the other was the one I was waiting for. A small round lapis ball with a map of the earth. Joanna and I talked about dancing salsa and she told me of a club just around the corner called Maestra Vida that was really popular on Saturday and Sunday but since I had an early flight the next morning I told her we would go when I returned.

I ended up walking down another busy street full of restaurants called Constitution. As I walked, this young lady says to me “Are you traveling by yourself?” and when I said yes, she invited me to join her for a drink because she was also traveling alone. She was funny because while I didn’t look lost she says she knows the feeling of traveling solo and sometimes wanting some company. Her name is Claire and she’s a British accountant who does contract work around the world. She is currently between jobs and decided to travel South America and New Zealand for three months. (See America, you just don’t get it. It’s normal to just travel and backpack the world…) She was finishing her meal and oddly enough I just wasn’t that hungry so I just had a couple wines.

I finally had to say goodbye because the last bus for the tour to finish up the rest of the on/off bus route was going to be at 4:30. We exchanged information and off I went. I ended up waiting for almost a half hour for the bus but it finally came and I was able to give my feet a rest. They were smart enough to have a canopy top instead of just an open top bus so I was given a reprieve from the sun as well. Once back to my original stop, I walked back to the hotel, checked into my lovely room and took a hot shower and a nap. It felt good to just relax for a bit and not go, go, go all day. I ordered room service instead of going out. I was too excited about heading to Easter Island the next morning. I ordered a glass of wine and the Chilean Empanadas (same concept as earlier). I relaxed and caught a movie while I watched the sun set on Santiago from my hotel room. I did head down to the bar for another glass of wine and to check in on Facebook so all knew I was still alive. I loved the hotel I chose because it was like a mini museum of Chilean Mapuche artwork on display and I walked from the lobby to the restaurant to the bar taking pictures.

The next morning, I took a taxi to the airport and jumped on my 5 ½ hour domestic flight to Rapa Nui / Easter Island. I had a window seat and it was great to see the Andes Mountains and the South American coastline to the Pacific and then it just turned into five hours of blue water. I watched a couple of movies to pass the time. We finally descended into Rapa Nui and the airport is so small. As we come off the plane and walk down the jetway staircase, I’m literally giggling. A lady welcomes us with a yellow flower and then I jumped in the line quickly for the $60 park entry fee as the manager of my hotel told me to. I grabbed my checked luggage (which was the last piece of luggage off of the plane I’m thinking and it freaked me out) and walked out to the transportation. There is Alvaro, holding a white board with my name on it. He laughed because he thought I was Chinese or Japanese because of my last name.

Alvaro puts a lei around my neck and takes my things to his jeep. He drives in a small circle around this little town of Hanga Roa giving me my bearings and showing how easy it is to walk through the town. Once we get to the hotel and I’m checked in, we sit outside in the lovely garden with beautiful landscaping and a covered picnic table and he starts dissecting the island and offering suggestions. Since it was almost 2:00 pm, he suggested that I take the “very easy” 1 ½ hour hike to the Rano Kau crater lake which is at the top of the inactive volcano just outside the town. He also suggests that I have one of the fabulous empanadas just down the road first to fuel up. So I change into a pair of shorts, my sketchers (my version of hiking shoes), a tank top and a long sleeve cotton shirt to cover my shoulders and arms and then head down the street.

I first stop at this gift shop and buy a hat because no matter how much I hate hats, I knew my face wouldn’t make it in this hot sun. Then I went to a grocery store and bought two bottles of water (note to self – the blue cap is CON GAS so I bought two bottles of seltzer water. Always look for the red caps for bottled water.) Then I hit the empanada restaurant and ordered a tuna and cheese empanada to go. Possibly the best empanada I’ve ever eaten. So delicious. I devoured it as I walked to the base of the volcano and then started my trek upwards.

Now, there is a road that you can take to the top but Alvaro made the hike sound so inviting. This girl from flat Florida almost didn’t make it. I literally had to stop multiple times to just sit down until my heart stopped beating out of my chest. I would take a swig of the water con gas and burped my way up the mountain – very sexy. I passed these two girl hikers coming down and with all the breath left in me, asked how much further and they said about ten minutes. There were times when I just thought I should turn around and head back but I pressed on not wanting to be beaten on the first day. As I get to the top, I come upon this group of tourists that arrived in five minutes in an air conditioned bus and thought “you didn’t earn it!” not even knowing what “it” was. Then I peered over the rim into this crater lake and my mouth dropped open. It’s gorgeous! Blue, blue water with green moss growing inside this giant crater. It was so worth it – even though my feet are now black and I look like I live outside. I just sat for a while looking at the lake and then decided to trek around the rim to the visitor center.orongo

As I approach the Orongo visitor center, I remember that I emptied out my backpack for this trek and possibly left my $60 park entry fee and was hoping to God that no one asked me for it. I passed a ranger at one point who had a whole bunch of papers in her hand and thought that would be the end of it – me arrested in the state park. But she just said hi and I kept on walking. It was a great hike and then I started to walk down the trail. At one point, there was some people with a red truck that I almost asked for a ride but I sucked it up and just started walking. I had my Fitbit on (counts your steps) and it freaked out on the way up because I had hit 10,000 steps which is my daily goal. By the end of the day, I didn’t realize I would have over 26,000 steps but they were well earned. The angle was so steep that a couple times I was literally running down the hill from the gravity pulling me.
Finally at the bottom of the volcano and I see a sign for Ana Kai Tangata and remember Alvaro tellingwaves crashing me to check that out too. So I wandered with achy feet through the little trail that took me to the edge of the island and a half man made half erosion made staircase that led down to a cove with caves and the tide was bringing the water crashing in on the rocks. I just sat and watched it for about a half hour. I couldn’t stop trying to take a perfect shot of black lava rock, blue and white water crashing up with a blue sky above. I finally took a video and posted it on Facebook to show people just how powerful it was and my awe of it all. Finally dragged myself away and headed back to town.

After a well needed showe1st moair to wash the hike off of me, I got dressed and decided that I would rent a car and just drive myself around the island for the next two days especially since I realized quickly that NO ONE was going to be working on New Year’s Day. I picked up a 4 wheel drive jeep for about $100 a day and drove the short distance to the town’s cove. They have a Moai statue at the cove which was the first one I saw. There is a very small man made beach that some kids were playing in. It was great to just sit and watch the sunset and a bunch of surfers out catching the last waves of the day. For me, the sunset never gets old and as it disappeared into the Pacific, I clapped. The lady next to me laughed and said she does that too as if it’s the best performance of the day.1st sunsetsurfer

sunset surferI saw some people sitting on a balcony looking over the cove and decided I would go up there to get something to eat. Andres, a very cute French guy was my server and he found me a table in the cornersteak looking out over the cove. I ordered a filet mignon because after all that exertion, I needed meat! It was delicious with a creamy mushroom sauce and a side of au gratin potatoes. When I finished my meal, Andres told me that he was closing up but would I like to join him for a drink at this local Dominican Bar and I told him yes because it was right across from my hotel. I meet him there and have another glass of wine.

I was feeling exhausted from the day but super satisfied. I knew I didn’t want to be out late because Alvaro suggested that I drive to Tongariki in the morning which is about a half hour away to watch the sunrise over 15 Moai. Naturally, Andres had other plans but I explained that wasn’t part of my itinerary. Said goodnight to him and went to bed. Of course, I was so afraid I would oversleep that I kept waking up all through the night. The roosters on Rapa Nui are broken because they were cock-a-doodle-dooing all night long. Finally I just get up, grab some layer clothes, my bottle of water (without gas) and head out in the dark on the only road the island seems to have.

The jeep they gave me was beyond beat up. I had to laugh when I saw it because it had a dent in the front bumper, scratches all over it and the back cover for the spare tire had a rip in it. I was not happy to pay that much for such a beat up car. That is until I started driving around the island and realized I was glad it was so beaten up. No one would ever notice anything I added to it. But it had great gas mileage and handled perfectly on and off road!

I found myself speeding trying to beat the sun because I didn’t want to miss it. I was talking to it as if it would listen. I knew that sunrise was not until 7:24 am but wanted to see the entire event. As I come around the corner of the road hugging the coastline, I see the 15 giant Moai and start laughing. Seriously! I’m obviously the last one to the party as there are a bunch of cars in the parking lot. I parked quickly and ran out into the open field where people dotted it waiting for that moment. There are wild horses all over the island and a pack of them were grazing nearby.

Finally the sun starts peaking up and I must have taken 100 pictures looking for that perfect shot. As the sun came up, it made giant shadows of the Moai along the field and I would run back and forth taking different angles. When it was just light enough, I saw this couple and I asked if I could borrow15 moai 2 one of them to take my picture. The husband takes my camera and starts taking pictures and I loved his perfectionism. His wife also takes a picture for me with my IPhone. I was trying to get it to look like the statue was sitting on my shoulder. She pulled it off. We walked back to the parking lot and introduced ourselves and exchanged information. Sudeip and anushaAnusha from New Jersey. They met through work and just got married five months ago. Great couple. Sudeip offered me Chips A Hoy which I couldn’t turn down because I didn’t have breakfast and forgot to pack something. They had rented a four wheeler and so they put on their helmets and off they went to another part of the island.

My next stop was going to be Rano Raraku which is the mountain where they quarried the statues from. When I pulled up, it said that the park was not open until 9:00 am so I went back to the nearby coastline, parked and went exploring the caves there. Unfortunately, even though I saw another car there, I didn’t expect to come around the corner and find a couple “busy” in the cave. Embarrassed I flipped around and pretended I was taking pictures of the coastline. Back to Rano Raraku and the gift shop and cafeteria were just opening. I sat down and had a hot chocolate and a biscotti and waited for the park rangers to open the park. When they did, I started my hike through this amazing site!maoi mountain
The ground is littered with these giant statues. Some standing upright, some laying down, others somewhat in between. I followed the trail and it takes you around the mountain where you can see the 15 Moai off in the distance. I saw my shadow in the ground and laughed. I looked very Indiana Jones-ish. They have a couple statues that are so large, they never even lifted them up but they are still laying right where they were carved.

the kissA tour group passed by and one of the guys asked if I wanted a photo of me with the statue. Being vain, I decided to take off my hideous hat and in the process managed to slide the push button that holds the hat underneath my chin right off the string. So the guy who is from Moscow, Russia and his mate both took turns trying to fix it. After a few minutes, I said, “It might be better to just go buy another hat.” But my Russian wasn’t going to give up! Finally he got it straight and I snapped a picture of us and his proud accomplishment.

I took another trail that went to the left around the hill and came upon another crater lake. There was a young horse that was grazing in the grass and I went a little closer to get a picture of him but being cautious as I knew he was wild. As I got closer I realized that he was hurt. The poor thing had wire wrapped around his back leg and it cut deep into his skin. You could tell the leg was broken and there were flies all over it. I hate to watch any animal suffer and for a brief moment I thought I would try to help but when I saw how serious it was and the fact that I didn’t want to be kicked by a horse in pain not knowing I was only wanting to help, I decided the best thing was to go find a ranger. Back to the front of the park, I tell the woman in the ticket booth and she immediately calls for help. I was torn mentioning it because I didn’t want it to suffer but the fact that they might put the horse down because of the injury made me sad. The ranger said that they are always finding these horses in the lake but she was glad that I didn’t try to help it other than reporting it to them.

I decide to head back to town and get some lunch. I went straight to the empanada restaurant and sattuna empanada and had the tuna and cheese empanada and a small bottle of wine. Then I drove to another site called Tahai. I was looking for the Ahu Nau Nau statues but kept getting turned around. I was hoping to find a tour on horseback up to Maunga Terevaka but no luck. I tried driving a road to the location but when the pavement ran out and the red clay rocky dirt road began to shake up my insides, I turned around. I went back to Tahai where there are some statues with painted eyes and topknot hats. I walked down to the shoreline and stuck my very tired feet into the cool water to soak. I found it relaxing to just sit there and watch the waves crash. I found some cute little kids running in a sprinkler trying to cool off from the heat. The park next to Tahai was setting up for the New Year’s Eve celebration and I started to consider my options for the night. I knew I didn’t want to spend $100 for a dinner party when it was just me.

I decided to go home and get cleaned up for dinner. I watched the sunset from Tahai park and then went back to see Andres. They were having a buffet dinner but it was too expensive. So I walked a bit bobfurther up and found this guy dressed in a loin cloth, with face and body paint and palm leaves around his legs, wrists and ankles. He’s the cook for the Maori Tapuna dance show. He asked me my name and I told him and when I asked his, he said, “My name is Bob”. I was like, “you don’t look like a Bob and that doesn’t sound Spanish or Islander-like.” He said that his name is Roberto but Americans say Bob. I laughed. He takes me to the receptionist and they try to figure out a way to get me in. Finally we decide that I’ll pay 25,000 pesos for the show and party only. I buy my ticket and then knowing I have only a ½ hour before the show starts, I decide to pull up to a little street vendor and have something to eat there.

The lady says, “We have something called ass which is a hot dog bun, beef, avocado and mayo.” I laughed and said, “I think your ass sounds perfect.” She laughed too and said, “It’s spelled AS but she loves the American translation too. I went and sat outside at a card table watching a guy poking the fire of his grill just next to me. She comes out and says, “Madam, your ass.” This went on for a few moments of laughing and then I bit into it. It was like a Philly Steak with avocado and it was perfect. After I finished, I walked back to the show and grabbed a seat to the right of the stage.

It was a traditional Polynesian show and I was so glad I could get into it. I was sitting next to one of theshow mothers of the girl dancers and when the show finished, the girl came flying off the stage, handed her fresh flower wreath headpiece to her mom who turned to me, placed it on my head and kissed me on the cheek wishing me a happy new year. They were obviously trying to make a party themselves as they ran out. I grabbed a glass of wine and Bob ushered me and the other guests up to the rooftop to watch the fireworks at midnight. Once upstairs, he guided me past all the other guests and we ended up with the family from the show all hanging out and drinking. There was a middle aged couple who kept kissing on each other very romantically and I told them how sweet they looked. They ended up with a bottle of champagne and three glasses so I could join them at midnight.

bob and me

 The fireworks went off at midnight and Bob was howling at the sky so impressed by the show. He turned to me and said “That was at least 15 minutes!” and I thought of our almost monthly displays of fireworks in downtown St. Pete and realized that we are spoiled. Of course, Bob came straight at me at midnight with all of his facial hair and facepaint and kissed me. I looked at the pictures later and laughed because I have soot on my face after the attack.

Now the party was started. We head back downstairs where the DJ is playing music. Lots of cumbia (Colombian style salsa) but we danced for about an hour and a half. He had excused himself to go wash his face and change into real people clothes. When he came back with an AC/DC shirt on, I couldn’t help but laugh. Then this lady passed by and took a polaroid of us and handed it to me. I put it in my backpack because it was taking a while to develop. (The next day at dinner, I was looking in my bag and found the picture. It was great!) Finally I had enough and walked back to the hotel to get some sleep. That was stupid because people were partying and drinking until all hours of the morning but it was a fabulous way to wrap up 2013!

New Year’s Day 2014! Woke up and grabbed my water and the jeep and headed off to the other side of the island. I had finally found out that the Ahu Nau Nau were near the beach that I wanted to go to. As I was driving, I see a grocery store open and pop in to buy some snacks. I bought some goat cheese and some Parma ham and more water.

First stop was the Puna Pau which is the red rock quarry for where the topknots or hats come from. Then I stopped at the Ahu Akivi site with another set of seven Moai. I was searching for the next site but ran out of road. I decided to follow the road for a little bit because I saw a little car go down it. If they can do it, so can I. Rough road! But when I parked I realized I was at the Ana Te Pahu site which is the underground lava tubes and caves where the natives lived. The cute little car was two German couples and their local guide who was walking them through it. The guide told me it was okay if I joined them because there is no light in the tubes and she has the only flashlight. So glad I did because I was able to enjoy the entire site and learn more of the history of the island. I tried to tip the guide when we came out but she wouldn’t have it.

Back in the car, I head to the north of the island to Anakena. I arrive to find most of the island is there relaxing on their day off. I snapped pictures of the cool statues with topknots with the ocean and palm beach moaitree background. It looked like a postcard. I was surprised to find that there were some food and drink vendors but I just took my snacks and headed down to the beach. It was such a relaxing day and the water was perfect. After I soaked a bit, I went and found a grassy place (because like an idiot I forgot my towel) and snacked on my cheese and ham and then decided I would scout out a wine from someplace. One of the kiosks had a bottle of chardonnay and so I bought that and sat with my glass in the shade and just looked out over the beach. I was trying to dry off and finally when no one was looking, I slipped out of my bathing suit and quickly into my dry clothes before anyone knew it.

I ended up driving the coastline back to town. I passed a couple more sites, took more pictures and 15 moai lastpassed my 15 Moai once more before rounding the southern coast line back to the town. I took a shower and got ready for dinner. Not much was open on the holiday so I found one place that snuck me in without a reservation called Kanahau. The waiter suggested I try the spicy Shrimp Pil Pil so I went with that option. As I’m sitting there eating my dinner, I hear, “Helene?” I flipped around and Anusha, her husband and their two friends are sitting right behind me. We chatted all through dinner. I ended up taking a picture with the waiter and then he kissed me to their delight. Anusha loved how red my face got. He wanted us to wait for him so we could all grab a drink after but we all decided how tired we were and we found out that we were all on the same flight back to Santiago the next morning so we called it a night.

The next morning, I got up and walked to the post office to mail my postcard. (This was hard because I used to mail one to myself at work and one to Nana.) Then I walked to the cove and had a hot chocolate while watching jealously a dive class get ready. I wasn’t able to pull off diving or horseback riding but I have no regrets on this leg of my trip. It was exactly how I wanted it to be!

While walking back to the hotel, I run into Anusha and we go shopping at the town market. I found a nice slider necklace with a stone that looked like stars in the night sky. We walked back to our hotels and I grabbed my things, checked out and Alvaro Sr. (the dad) was taking me to the airport. I was trying to speak in Spanish and he was very impressed while I was super embarrassed.

Once at the airport, the lines are slow but we are the only flight so it’s okay. I loved watching all the people coming in and leaving the country with giant coolers. Heaven knows what was in them but it was the most normal thing if you looked at the people checking them. I found Anusha and the gang and did some last minute shopping.

We get on the plane and I have a window seat. Anusha had mentioned that they flew over in the middle last time so I gave her my seat and sat in the middle. Her and Sudeip enjoyed the takeoff leaving Easter Island and later that night could watch the sunset over the Andes as we arrived into Santiago. We decided to split a taxi five ways into the city and they were dropped off first and then me. After I got checked into my single room at the Hostel Forestal, I got a message that they were going to dinner in Bellavista.

galindoI took the very short walk to Bellavista and ran into them on the street. The place they originally wanted was closed so we went to Galindo instead. The waiter was Peruvian and every time he would take your order, when he got to me, he would pause and just stare at me. I love a good flirt so I just handed it back to him. Unfortunately, he got the wrong message because he whispered for me to join him in the bathroom. Not thinking, I got up later to use the bathroom and he came flying around the corner at me and kissed me (that’s three for those counting). I thanked him for his interest but declined letting him join me in the bathroom. Of course, when I get back to the table, the group is all laughing at me and the rest of the staff in the restaurant know what’s going on too.

We all ordered different appetizers and split them and I ate until I couldn’t move. I also decided to try the Pisco Sour but had too many memories of the one that I got sick from in Peru. I’ll stick with wine please. After dinner, we head down the street looking for a place to have one more drink. I hear asudeip guitar being played at this one place called La Otra Puerto and know that Sudeip plays so talked the group into going inside. When the guy finishes, I tell him that Sudeip plays and the guy hands him the guitar. Next thing you know, he’s up there playing a ZZ Top song and then Back To Black. It was a great impromptu concert. He looked super happy to be playing. They walked me back to my hostel and we all hugged goodbye. I had hoped to catch them the next day but it didn’t happen. No worries because now I have great new friends to visit and to have visit me.

I was thinking how nice it was that I would be able to sleep in the next morning. That is until I had a knock on my door saying my wine tour was ready! I had emailed Hostel Forestal asking if they could set something up so that my first day back in Santiago, I had something planned. When I checked in, they said that there was no reservation but turns out there was. Michael, this super lovely Brazilian knocks on my door to let me know. When he sees that I literally just woke up, he says, “no problem!” and goes to tell them we are rescheduling it. About an hour later, I come downstairs and apologize to him and he’s not even concerned. So I decide I would head to Starbucks and check the internet, Facebook, etc. and enjoy my hot chocolate.

I had messaged Anusha but her and her husband slept in. It was their last day before flying home through Panama so they were just relaxing and I don’t blame them. I walked around the Parque Forestal and took some pictures and decided to join the free walking tour at 3:00 in front of the Museum of Fine Arts. The guide was nice enough but the group was large. I couldn’t hear him that well but it was a decent walk through the city. We ended up at the Plaza de las Armas. The guide took us to the top floor of this one building that was a hostel and you had a great view of the city. We all tipped him from there and he suggested I try Bocanariz Wine Bar. There was a Russian girl traveling on her own named Elena so we both decided to hit the wine bar.

We found it easy enough but were greeted by a very handsome young man in a grey suit and his first question was did we have a reservation. I was dusty from the tour and my feet hurt but I decided I really wanted to stay so the batting of the eyelashes began and we talked him into letting us have a corner table out of the way and only for one glass of wine. Everywhere you looked there were these super young lovely looking sommeliers. Juan Pablo was ours. I could have given birth to him. 23. Yikes. So he very intelligently finds out what we like and starts building our suggested flights of wine. candiesThen he asks if we want something to eat. I found this one item called Prosciutto and Salmon candies. He recommended them and I decided to get that as my meal. They brought these individual bits of prosciutto wrapped mozzarella and salmon wrapped cream cheese wrapped in wax paper just like taffy candies! I hate cooking but I’m so trying this when I get home! They were delicious and so was the wine. Elena and I talked about our various travels and had a great evening.

Elena ended up heading back to her apartment and I went to get changed to go to the salsa club. I felt very safe in the city but didn’t want to push it so I just put on a pair of shorts and a nice top and my dance shoes. I figured if I needed to, I would grab a cab for the short ride but never felt like it was necessary. Once at the club I was standing to the side moving a bit to the music and this guy asked me to dance. After one dance, I didn’t get a break. They all saw I could dance. I loved the dancing but the music reminded me of a social back home. I hardly recognized any of the songs. But I had a good time and then decided around 1:30 am that I would go home.

I had signed up for a tour of Valparaiso, Vina Del Mar and a winery the next day. They picked me up at 9:30 in a small bus and it was just a group of about 12 of us. The guide was super cute but was frustrating me because while I don’t speak Spanish or understand all of it, I get the general idea and he was going into great detail in Spanish and then giving short facts in English. I just had to work harder at understanding Spanish.

The town of Valparaiso was really cute. All different color row houses and many with a nautical themeknife to the outward design. We stopped in a shop and I bought a pendant that I really liked and some seasoned oil. While waiting for the bus to come get us, we hear this man whistling coming down the street with a cart. People were coming out of their houses with knives. He would spin this wheel and sharpen the knives. Back on vina del marthe bus, we head to Vina Del Mar and get a chance to walk on the boardwalk above the beach of the Pacific. I would have loved to had lunch on one of the outdoor cafes but we didn’t have time.

Next was going to the Casablanca Valley to a winery called Indomita. This area is known for its white wines and Pinot Noirs. We arrived at the winery and sat down immediately to a lunch we had to pay for. Since none of us tried any of the wines yet, we had to guess at what to order. There were three girls on our tour on business from Under Armor and they were able to scoot away for the day so they took this tour. They didn’t speak Spanish either. The server, bless her heart, couldn’t speak English and our handsome guide was nowhere to be found. We put one of the Brazilians to work at the table helping us out.

I ended up with a beef and goat cheese gnocchi that was delicious and a decent glass of Pinot Noir.gnocciThere was floor to ceiling windows looking out over the vineyard and a handsome saxophone player moving about the room. We each paid our bill and then were informed that we are going on a tour. Slightly backwards? Four of us English had our own tour in the lobby of the winery while the ones who spoke Spanish had a nice room to sit in with a great presentation. Not my best wine tour but it was still a good time.

I had gotten an email earlier that day from Elena wanting to know if we could meet up for dinner. We decided we would head back to Bocanariz. We were greeted with large smiles still wanting to know if we had a reservation. Nope. But they sat us anyway. I got a different flight selection of wines and the shrimp and calamari plate. She told me of her travels and I shared some of mine and I look forward to keeping in touch with her. She was heading off to the South of Chile for the next week. I was jealous.

Sunday I just walked around the Plaza de las Armas and that area for a while and checked out the National Historic Museum. I went to Emporio La Rosa, the famous Santiago ice cream shop and got an ice cream cone. It was super confusing because I was standing in a long line and then I would see people going inside and then coming back out and getting in line. They I found out you had to go in and pay for what you want first and then get in line. What if I change my mind? Plus, I hadn’t even sampled anything yet. Not efficient. But the ice cream was good. (Nothing compares to Pacuigo Gelato in downtown St. Pete – just saying). I went for a walk in the park eating my ice cream and watching all the couples making out in the grass. Turns out that people live with their parents until they are married or out of college and so they have nowhere to go to be together. The park of public display of affection is what the tour guide called it.

fotografiaThen I ended up at an outdoor café across from the Fine Arts Museum because there were a bunch of jugglers practicing in the front park. I wanted to sit and have a wine and watch but I found out quickly in Santiago that people either have wine or beer licenses but not both. So I ordered the one beer that I can tolerate, a Michelada, and they were out. So I picked up and headed to Lasterria where Bocanariz is but went to the roof top restaurant bar across from them called El Biografo. It sits over top of a theater and has movie theme decorations and I managed to find a table for one to have some more shrimp pil pil and a bottle of wine. I went to the salsa club one more time and found my first dance partner from the other night. I just wasn’t into the music at all so after about an hour I left.

The next morning I was getting up early to join the Concha Y Toro wine tour. Again, my little bus withdiablo Sergio the driver was there to get me. Not Andres the cute guide but Sabastian was very nice and helpful. We drive north into the mountains to get to my mecca – my winery. The Miapo Valley is known for its red wines and they were delicious. Concha Y Toro is also home to my Casillero de Diablo wine. The moment we arrived, I went into the gift shop to look around because our tour wasn’t starting for 20 minutes. I knew I wasn’t bringing any wine back because I can buy it in the stores at home but I found a wine topper that was a Moai statue and a warm scarf that says Concha Y Toro Chile on it. I came out from the store and the tour had already left without me so I ran literally to catch up with them.

We walked through the vineyards and the guide told us about the grapes and history. I found it amazing that Chile is the only country to currently have Carmenere because a worm killed the vines in the rest of the world. They are very serious about keeping their country free of bugs because when I was flying back from Easter Island, after the door was shut, they announced first in Spanish and then in English that they were going to spray a pesticide throughout the cabin. I barely had time to cover my mouth before they sprayed us with this mist. All I could imagine was thinking of the Jews being told to go take a shower and collect their clothes on the other side. Not funny but funny at the same time. After the wine tasting, I went into their restaurant and ordered an empanada and a glass of wine to go. We got to keep our wine tasting glasses.

conger eelI went to my lovely little Lastarria neighborhood and ate dinner at Sur Patagonico. I was told I had to try the Conger Eel which tastes like a tuna steak. The one I had was in a shrimp cream sauce with orzo and it was delicious. (I made the mistake later of looking it up on Wikipedia to see what the fish looked like and it looks like a monster eel and the second picture was of a man with his cheek missing after he was bit by one. Nice.) While eating, I’m enjoying the various street performers coming up and down.                                                                                        
I loved dinner but I had to stop at my Bocanariz to have a glass of wine. When I showed up, Lautauro, the super cute host was more than happy to seat me salmon cevicheoutside and get me a fabulous wine. The others came by to greet me and hug me. I felt like I was home. I managed to stay and close the place. As I was leaving, Lautauro said he bought a bottle of sparkling wine and wanted to share it with me. He walked me to the hostel and we sat down in the lobby and drank the wine and chatted but then I had to throw him out because I had a tour to the Andes in the morning.

So I didn’t sleep well thanks to the sparkling wine (sweet wine – yuk! Stick with what you know!) and then I got up and got ready for the Andes mountain tour. A small bus picked me up deceivingly and dropped me at a place with larger buses to go on tours. The good news is I ran into a couple that was at the wine tour the day before.

andesI managed to forget my sunglasses and hat and it couldn’t have been a brighter day. My stomach was also not settled. We stopped to use the bathroom and get some water so I grabbed some water with gas on purpose to try to settle it down. It would have been fine except the bus started up the mountains and it’s 40 switchbacks to the top. We managed to stop at a viewpoint and I bought some sunglasses. Alan and his wife, Latricia, and I ran around taking pictures and swapping cameras. The scenery was beautiful and it was hard to imagine that in January, it was summer in the Andes.

We get to the Valle Nevado Ski Lodge Resort and there isn’t one square inch of snow at over 10,000ski lift feet. We have two hours and decided that the three of us would buy the lift ticket to the top of the mountain and lunch option. We hike down to the chair lift and take the 15 minute or so ride to the top. It’s a beautiful view and then we decide we will get back for lunch. The ride down took longer than we thought and then we had to hike a steep slope up to the lodge and we were at a high altitude so all of us were panting hard.

When we make it to the lodge restaurant, we explain that we only have 30 minutes but the staff was taking a long time to get our order, bring our drinks and appetizer. We got our main course just before 2:00 pm which was the deadline to be back on the bus. We were panicking and finally got them to wrap our leftovers and bring the dessert to go with the bill. We get back on the bus at 2:15 pm and immediately apologize as we walk towards our seats. There was an older German couple and the husband says “I hope you get sick from your food!” and I said, “Really?” and he said, “You are a terrible person!” and then I said, “Wow, you are serious! Okay then!” The bus was mortified. The guide came running back and apologized to me saying “What can you say? They are German!” I was so shocked but then I had to laugh when the entire bus came to our rescue. There were some Americans from Utah in the back and they all went out of their way to make us feel better. It was now a mission for me to not get sick on the 40 switchbacks down the mountain just to spite that nasty old man. One of the Americans said right in front of them as they were leaving the bus, “When you get off the bus, you will be a nice person still. When they get off the bus, they will still be old and miserably unhappy.”

When I returned to my hostel, I had a message from Lautauro saying he wanted to get together since it was his day off. I agreed to meet him and we went to the ice cream shop and sat in the park eating it and watching the people go by. He had a big lunch earlier with his friends trying different wines so he showed up slightly drunk and laughing a lot. I kept thinking that the good news is young hot guys are still hitting on you and the bad news is . . . young hot guys are still hitting on you.

I went back to the hostel because they were having a free beer party at 8:00 and I wanted to say goodbye to some of those that I met that week. I tried one of the beers and it was super gross so I went and got the remainder of my leftover bottle of wine from the other night. I enjoyed just relaxing at the hostel and went up to my room, put on my Trio and played music. It was good to do nothing. I also needed to get my stuff straightened out and packed since I had to check out in the morning.

The next morning I slept in . . . until Michael knocked on my door telling me my taxi was there to the airport. “No Michael! My taxi is at 9:30 PM!”  Ah, I love him anywastarbucks mugy. I had looked over my Santiago On/Off Bus tour brochure and mapped out a plan to knock off what I hadn’t seen yet. I stopped into Starbucks and the lovely barista behind the counter says, “Elena! Grande chocolate caliente con crema?” Si! That proves that a good wine bar and a Starbucks can make you feel home anywhere in the world.

Then I trekked to Pablo Neruda’s house which was turned into a museum. He has a great sense of humor and a great collection of things from around the world. He named his house Chascona for his third wife because she had crazy hair like Medusa. My favorite part of his house was in the china cabinet, he had a salt and pepper shaker marked Morphine and Marijuana. It was very cool to see his Nobel Peace Prize in person.

After that, I walked to the Santa Lucia Hill to climb to the top of the castle for another great view of thelucia hill city. Took some pictures and then headed toward the Mercado Central which I managed to find closed or not find at all the other days. Along the way, I managed to find about 30 shoe stores and I couldn’t help myself. I stopped in each one along the four block route to the fish market. I managed to come out with three pairs of shoes. I felt very Carrie Bradshaw walking down the street with my shopping bags holding my new shoes. Finally I come upon the fish market. It smelled so bad that I wondered why I worked so hard to find it.

As I walked down the first row of stalls selling fish, different ones would try to get my attention. Finally mercadoone guy tells me to come behind the counter and take a picture holding the fish. The other guy takes my camera (I’m watching him the whole time thinking if he runs with my camera, I’m going to take him out with this fish!). So I’m posing with this smelly nasty fish and taking pictures. Finally, I wash my hands and go get my camera. I look back at the photos and the guy actually took a picture of my butt while I was washing my hands.

mercado foodI end up at the Donde Augusto and had a table in the corner with a view of the entire market. I ordered a ton of food and a bottle of wine. It was fun just watching everyone around me and talking to the lovely couple next to me. I never ate so much seafood in my lmozzarellaife. I finally had to walk it off and head back to my hotel to drop off my bags. I got fixed up a bit and headed to see my family at Bocanariz this time with a 7:00 pm reservation! I loved getting hugs as I walked in. I had my lovely little prosciutto and salmon candies and some mozzarella, zucchini and tomato on toast. It was a great last supper in Santiago.

I returned to the hostel, hugged the staff goodbye and grabbed my taxi for the flight back to Miami. I was ready to go home. Overall, it was a very relaxing vacation. Before I left, my great friend Susan had given me a newspaper article featuring Easter Island and a book of poetry by Pablo Neruda “The Separate Rose”. She noted inside “Helene – I hope you always pursue your wanderlust.” Well Susan, I can’t imagine living any other way.

wine tasting

Margaret, Queen of the Roundabouts!

Margaret, Queen of the Roundabouts!


I had heard so many times how beautiful Ireland and Scotland are and how nice the people are and how because they speak English (says who?!), it would be an easy country to drive around.  Of course, they failed to focus on the fact that the roads are glorified bike paths and the steering wheel is on the opposite side, it’s a manual stick shift using your left hand, and you drive on the left.

I’m known for joining group tours that are super inexpensive (oh, how I missed you Gate1Travel . . . snif) but this time I decided that I would put my big girl travel pants on and wing it.  I was also told that bed and breakfasts are abundant and it’s easy to just show up in a town and get a room.  That’s great unless there is something called “The Gathering” going on where every person with any Irish roots decides to travel home to Ireland for festivals in each and every city.

Now, enters Margaret Fox.  Most who know me know that Margaret is 100% responsible for getting me into Florida Power in 1987.  I had dated her son for a year or more while in high school and Margaret and I became great friends and she’s been like a mom to me (yes, I’m very adoptable – you’ve heard it takes a village; I have like 5 mothers including the real one Elena.)   After her mentoring me for most of my 26 years, Margaret is now retired, traveling the world and decides that she wants to go with me to Ireland.  Silly woman.  I explain that I was intending on using a buddy pass on Delta which means standby traveling which I told her is the equivalent of being on the Amazing Race and part of the adventure.

Dear Anna from Delta gets our passes in order flying from Tampa to Atlanta to Dublin on August 6th and back on August 22nd.  She knows to put us on the earliest flight to Atlanta for two reasons – 1) to give us enough time/options to make the flight from Atlanta to Dublin and 2) to give me a chance to drop in on my Nana and family!  We made the 8:20 am flight (coach) and rented a car at the Atlanta airport, heading to see the family in Douglasville.  Nana was doing okay but hadn’t gotten out of bed yet so I just crawled into bed with her.  I was so happy that everyone got to meet Margaret and she was able to meet them.  They had all heard about each other for so long so it was about time.  Around 3:00 pm, I hugged and kissed Nana and the family and we headed back to the airport.

Margaret and I get our standby seat request boarding cards and head for the gate.  I’m truly proud of her because I talked her into only two carry-on bags for 16 days.  One that rolls and a duffle bag.   The duffle bag she cursed the entire trip because it was heavy but she made it work.  (Along the way she wanted to buy a bigger rolling bag and I would say “Mar-gar-et”) Arriving at the gate and they aren’t showing the standby passengers yet.  So naturally we went to the closest bar.  We met Katie who was also flying on a buddy pass to visit her son who lives in Ireland down by Waterford.  She used my phone to log in and check the standby list.  A bit later, we were just cashing out from the bar and Katie comes by and tells us that the standby list is up and head to the gate.  When they called us to the desk and handed us the first class seats, Margaret did a little hip shaking dance and high-fived me.  See how easy that was!

We managed to stuff ourselves with all the food in first class.  Too much of a good thing is a bad thing sometimes.  I didn’t sleep very well but it was a short flight compared to most trips I’ve taken.  Only 7 ½ hours.  There was a little girl flying with her parents and her nanny who was sitting next to me who wanted to play all night.  She was too funny.  What a life though!  She was telling me that they have a driver meeting them at the airport who will be taking them around the country.  Looking back, that didn’t sound like a bad idea.

We get to Dublin on the 7th and the sun is shining bright.  I’ve always heard stories of how much rain Ireland gets which keeps it so green but lucky us to arrive in the warmest summer on record which also means we can’t use half of what’s in our luggage.  (My dad used to always say that when he was in Ireland and Scotland, it rained non-stop.  When the sun came out for one day, the photographers came out and snapped all the postcards.)  We hop on the bus to City Centre which drops us right in front of Trinity College and drag the luggage about two blocks to the Blooms Hotel in Temple Bar.  The reviews for this place were great but all warned about the party noise each night.  I told Margaret that I sleep with ear plugs and due to my snoring, so will she, so we ended up never hearing the party that was happening outside on a Wednesday night.

Ireland doesn’t have A/C since they generally never get over 70 degrees so arriving to our room and realizing how hot it was, we called the front desk to see what they could do and they immediately ran up an osculating fan which would we could have never made it without.  The two of us agreed that a nap was in order so we put in a wakeup call for noon and got in our beds.  Then it was time to get something to eat and check out Dublin City.

Walked a bit and found the famous O’Neill’s and split a pork steak and some potatoes.  They had the little single serving size bottles of wine all over Ireland which was great because you never worried about the wine being bad from sitting in the bottle.  I was thrilled to see that they had Shiraz and Malbec and Rioja.  So I grab a little Rioja.  We sat next to a nice British man and were talking about our trip.  I was so exhausted that instead of grabbing the Worchester sauce to sprinkle on my food, I grabbed my little bottle of red wine and proceeded to dump it all over my pork chop.  Margaret didn’t even blink so I think she was tired too.  The guy next to us of course thought we were three sheets to the wind already.  Lovely.

After lunch, we picked up the On/Off Bus Tour of Dublin.  We decided to ride the bus around the entire circuit once to see what our options were and then go from there.  The weather would go from hot to cold and we’d bundle up.  We heard the famous phrase which states “If you don’t like the weather, stick around for ten minutes and it will get better.”  They weren’t kidding.

On our second lap of the city we decide to hop off the bus and go to the Dublin Castle.  Just before the entrance gates is a little French restaurant called Chez Max so we stop to sit and grab a drink.  Margaret had the Irish coffee and I had the house wine and we split a meat and cheese tray which was divine.  When finished, we walked to the castle and found out that it closed at 4:00 so we toured the courtyard and found some fabulous sand sculptures on display.  Then we went to the castle gardens and just relaxed for a bit.  Margaret was in love with all the flowers all over the city.

We decided to walk off our little snack from the French restaurant by walking down Grafton Street.  Besides being lined with souvenir and other shops, there are all these street artists performing along the way straight down to St. Stephen’s Green. IMG_0097

Not wanting to overdo it on our first night, we decide to head back to the hotel, change and eat in the pub attached to our hotel called The Vat House.  We pull up to the bar where Dominick is tending poorly to us (something about the cook going awol but other people placing orders around us?).  We decide to try Guinness for the first time.   Margaret got the small portion and I went aggressively for the pint.  First sip, I knew I was in trouble.  It was like eating a loaf of bread from a glass.  The aftertaste was so bitter.  Margaret gave up about three sips in and switched to Bailey’s.  That a girl!  I hate being beat by the boys so I stuck with it.  We order some dinner which was huge and we decide we need to start splitting meals going forward.  Margaret finished hers and then headed for bed.  I was still suffering through my beer.  Finally I polished it off and head upstairs for the night.  What’s funnier than two women known for talking too much?  Two women who talk too much with ear plugs in and can’t hear each other.

Thursday, August 8th – Set the wakeup call for 8:00 but both of us were up before that.  Decided to head to Starbucks just around the corner for breakfast because Margaret loves me and knows I need my Starbucks hot chocolate.  Then we decide, just like everyone else in the city it seems, to head to Trinity College and line up for the Book of Kells.  The line wrapped around the courtyard of the campus but we had excellent company.  We managed to get into the middle of a tour from Italy.  We met Daniela, Alice and Fabio from Sicily.  Margaret was chatting with a couple in front of us from Baltimore.  Helped the time pass and before we knew it, we were quickly exchanging emails before splitting off.  The Book of Kells was amazing and we had to fight through the crowds to be able to get a glimpse of it.  One tour would leave and another would come rushing in.  I grabbed Margaret’s hand and pulled her to the case so we could see it before being pushed out.  The color is amazing.  Such detail.  But for me, that wasn’t the best part.  It was walking into the Library.  Absolutely beautiful architecture and original books dating back a couple hundred years.   The Library also held Ireland’s oldest harp.

In true Disney World style, as we exit the Book of Kells / Library tour, it dumps us right into the gift shop.  Margaret was looking for bookmarks for her boyfriend, Murphy and I was looking for wine toppers.  In the college courtyard there was an art piece that I actually saw in 2002 when I was in Rome, Italy.  It’s a sphere with another sphere looking mechanical coming out from the center.P1090620

We bought some post cards and then head for the Post Office.  The directions were “just across the bridge to the right”.  Of course, there are five bridges I think so we crossed one and then followed some signs.  We finally had to stop and ask and it was a massive government building just down O’Connell Street (across the O’Connell Bridge which would have been good to know).   While we were on the bus on day one, we passed St. Patrick’s Cathedral and there was a lovely park just next to it so Margaret suggested that we grab some lunch and picnic in the park.  Just off O’Connell Street we found a Deli and grabbed a couple roast beef sandwiches and some waters and hopped on the On/Off bus heading for St. Patrick’s.  When we got there, the sun was out and people were lying out in the park enjoying the day.  We found a park bench and sat there eating our lunch watching the soccer match of all time.  Four boys had used empty bottles and shoes to mark off the goals on either side and were playing an innocent game of soccer.  That is until we clapped for a goal.  Then it was on.  They had an audience.  It was funny watching them shoot for a goal, score and turn to us to see if we were watching.

After lunch we went to St. Patrick’s for a tour of the cathedral.  I love the history and architecture.  It’s so funny the stories that come out.  My favorite is in one of the arches, there was carved a “hooligan” or as we know it, a leprechaun.  Mischievous little character.  It proves that pagan stories still find their way into churches (like gargoyles).   They had a display case with publications from the famous writer Jonathan Swift including his face mold and a cast of his skull.  We left the tour a bit early because we wanted to make it to the Dublin Castle for the inside tour which was definitely worthwhile.

While walking to our hotel from the tour, we came across the Arlington Temple Hotel which we had tried to buy tickets for the dinner and Irish show but it claimed was sold out on-line.  We stopped in at the front desk and they sold us two tickets and we went to the bar to have a drink and wait for the show.  I noticed they had a showcase full of miniature cool liquor bottles from all over the world.  The more I looked, the more I saw.  I laughed at my small collection of bottles from around the world full of sand home in my living room.

While at the bar we met this interesting woman who turns out to be a writer and a Reverend.  She was meeting a guy who is a publisher and when he arrived, I was trying to be cool and pimp out my own writing but before I could say anything, Margaret, “my new publicist” starts bragging my stories.  They joined us at dinner.  A 3 piece band came out singing classic Irish tunes and in between songs they would take pieces of paper with either requests or birthday/anniversary wishes.  The leader mentioned that the young cute guy who plays the accordion was going to be heading to Somerville, Massachusetts in a couple weeks which is exactly where my mom’s family grew up.  Talking with him later, he was going to a friend’s wedding.  The music, dancing and food were fabulous.  I loved that lamb was cheaper in Ireland and Great Britain so I ordered it as often as I could.  We met a couple from Australia celebrating their anniversary that was very nice but my book agent got away without my details. (sigh)

We started walking home and about half way to the hotel Margaret had to pee so we slipped into the first bar we saw thinking we could just use the bathroom and scoot out.  We did successfully but after the emergency potty visit was over, we realized we were in a gay bar – wall to wall boys and one beautiful blonde girl who we assured that Margaret and I were not a couple – no matter how cute Margaret is.

We decided to walk to the River Liffey, cross the bridge and walk down to the modern section of Dublin’s waterfront.  Fabulous modern buildings of glass with fluorescent lights lining the waterfront.  It was much farther than we thought it was so by the time we got to the buildings to take pictures, I had convinced Margaret to take a taxi back to Temple Bar.  Two days in Dublin down and tomorrow . . . the fear that is driving on the opposite side of the road!

Friday, August 9th – Check out of Blooms Hotel and head to Starbucks for breakfast and then to take a taxi to the rental car agency.  Margaret had done a bunch of research and even called Travelocity to get more information.  Finally she gets a quote for a car in the City Centre for 277€ (Euros).  When we tell the taxi driver where we were going, he laughed because it’s just on the other side of Trinity College which I pointed out was a huge campus and we both had two pieces of luggage and no intention of dragging it through the city.

We get to Europcar and to the counter.  The lovely young lady behind the counter was so friendly and couldn’t wait to help us.  So she pulls up our reservation, adds an additional driver, a GPS rental, upgrade to Diesel “to save you money in the long run on gas”, full coverage since NO credit card in the planet offers coverage in Israel, Jamaica and Ireland (lovely – that doesn’t scare anyone) and finally, the total is . . . . 974.  Mouth drops to the counter.  What can you do?  So off we go and pile our luggage into our little white Hyundai Blue.  I snapped pictures of all sides for insurance (that seemed foolish later).  Margaret wins the coin toss to drive first.  Plug in the GPS and it has no idea where Newgrange is.  We are convinced that no tourist had our GPS before us.  It was more like a Tupperware salesman had it.  Not one helpful place loaded.  Finally find something close and off we go.  Margaret does a great job getting us out of the city, working the clutch and staying on the left side.  Then we hear those famous words with a British accent – “enter the roundabout and take the 2nd exit”  People warned us and we were terrified of getting stuck but straight through we went, yielding along the way and popping out at the exit our little voice instructed us to take.

P1090863Along our way, I pull out the rental car receipt because it dawns on me in a very scary way that the lady said 974 and was speaking of Euros.  We thought she meant US Dollars.  Reviewing the receipt, I almost passed out!  It was $1334.00 USD!  I told Margaret, “We didn’t rent a car!  We bought one!”  That’s when I had the idea to take the car straight off the Cliffs of Moher very “Thelma and Louise” style and call the agency and tell them where it landed but Margaret wasn’t having any of that.

As we get to the countryside it becomes a bit more hairy.  The curbs seem much closer, the shrubs on the side of the road brushing the car lightly.  I was literally pulling my entire frame of my body in each time we got close to the left side thinking I could will the car smaller and away from the scratches and dents.  I would calmly (on the outside) say, “Right, right, right” and motion to move over more to the center but Margaret was looking straight at the double lines explaining that she couldn’t go over any further.  We both laughed at the idea that we were doing Abs exercises the entire trip from holding our breath and sucking our tummies in due to the stress of watching the other one drive.  When it was my turn to drive, Margaret (who is very expressive – she’s hilarious at movies when she starts flailing her arms about during the action scenes) starts grabbing the side door with one hand and the dash with the other.  I explained that I knew it was close since I was sitting there earlier and she needed to show a bit more confidence and not use the “mom arms and feet” when I drove – you know, when the mom is bracing herself and pushing the make believe brake pedal on her side.

Finally we arrive at Newgrange thanks partially to the GPS and also to the lovely brown information signs along the way.  Now, the night before we left for our trip, I was lying in bed, not able to sleep like always before I travel and I remembered my favorite coffee table book that I “borrowed permanently” from Charlie and Rene Meade.  It’s Charlie’s dad’s book but he knew how much I fell in love with it because it’s a book of World Wonders.  So I jump out of bed, crack it open and look for wonders in England, Wales and Scotland and stumble right across Newgrange, located just 30 miles north of Dublin in Ireland.  Older than the pyramids in Egypt at over 5,000 years old, it’s a gigantic tomb passageway built up from the ground with heaps of stones and earth and then faced with quartz pebbles surrounded by a circle of tall stones and then covered with grass.  At the solstice, the sun shines into the chamber doorway and into the tomb.  Cremated ashes were found here and dating showing the tomb being used back to 3200 B.C.E.P1090967

Once at the World Heritage Site, we find out that there are actually two tombs we can tour.  One called Knowth and the other Newgrange.  I was hoping to swing in, take a photo and head on our counter clockwise tour of Southern Ireland.  We ended up buying tour tickets for both locations and it was very cool.  Along the way, we met a lovely family from England????  Mom, Dad, two daughters and one of the daughter’s boyfriend.  As we finished the tour we took a group picture together and then exchanged emails.  As we were doing so, I hear someone call my name.  I looked around and a lovely young lady that I used to work with was standing there with her brother and family ready to take the tour of Newgrange.  I was so freaked out that I literally forgot her name.  When she reminded me it was Annie, I just laughed in shock.  No one believed that we ran into each other.  I had to take a picture and post it on Facebook.  It took a while for the excitement to settle down but then back in the car we go heading to Galway.

We get about 15 miles from Galway and decide to pull off, find a restaurant/bar with internet and look for a hotel or bed & breakfast in Galway.  The place we stopped had terrible reception but the bartender kept going to a back room and coming back.  He said his wife was looking up hotels and B&B’s in the area but none were available.  Galway was having a Poker Tournament as well as a Triathlon of some sort and most places were booked.  So then they tried the next town closest and nothing.  Finally, they called locally in Athenry where we were standing and found us one B&B just down the road with a room for only one night (we were needing two nights but we would deal with that later since we were tired and hungry and desperately needing a drink after the day’s drive).   After they confirmed the room for us, they walked us down to the B&B (New Park Hotel) where we checked into a lovely room with one double bed and one single bed and pictures of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe decorated the wall.  We dumped our bags and headed down for dinner.  I was already over Fish & Chips and decided to go with the Chicken Curry which was delicious.  Margaret had the pasta which I also sampled and loved.   We loved the little hotel but they were all booked up for the next night.  The lovely blonde waitress offers to call around and find us a place and ends up getting us a room at the Raheem Hotel just outside Athenry that includes breakfast.  We couldn’t get over how helpful the people were in Ireland!

Then we tell her about our drive to Clifton the next day and she double checked with a man who must have been a regular there.  He said we were wasting our time heading all the way to Clifton and suggested a few other places.  While we were talking, Margaret shoots straight up and says, “I don’t feel well.  I’m going to head to the room.”  It caught me so off guard.  She was trying to insist that I stay and talk to the man but I reminded her that we were poking fun at him earlier because he waltzed in and sat down with his shirt unbuttoned to his bellybutton looking ridiculous.  I was ready for bed myself so we said goodnight and went up to bed.  Margaret had a bit of a sore throat from the beginning of the trip and would be fine until the evening.  Next morning she was great.

Saturday, August 10th – We go down for breakfast and the owner is a lovely lady who is preparing our breakfast and telling us about beating cancer and running the hotel.  She was so nice.  She brings our breakfast and there are two large sausage links, bacon looking like a slice of ham, eggs, toast and white and black pudding.  I knew something was up with the black pudding and didn’t know what it was made of but I avoided it because I was full mostly but knew there was blood involved to make it that color.  The white pudding was kind of bland so I just avoided them both.

Now, we check out and load up in the car and head to Clifton anyway.  We decided to check into our next hotel first since we weren’t sure how late we were going to be out and didn’t want to lose the reservation.  The GPS starts taking us one way and the brown information signs are pointing another way so I tell Margaret to just follow the brown signs.  Finally we come upon a closed road.  There is a red and white gate blocking us and then we realize there are train tracks.  I get out of the car and look way down the tracks and there is a train coming alright.  We wait for it to pass and then a man walks out of a little shed and manually swings the gate to open the road.  Can you imagine that job?  Off to the hotel to check in and it’s gorgeous.  Can’t wait to get back later that night.

We figured we’ll drive as far as we can and then turn around and come back the coast to Galway.  Using the GPS and the map Europcar provided us, we start driving to the Connemara National Park towards Kylemore Abbey.  I had mirrored a tour that Gate 1 Travel had as a template and was so glad I did. The scenery along the way was gorgeous in spite of it raining off and on.  The hills dotted with sheep spray painted on the butt with red or blue or green to identify the owner’s sheep.  Then we found some sheep that obviously belonged to an Indianapolis Colts fan.  They had blue horseshoes spray painted on each of them.  I made Margaret stop so I could run up and grab a picture of them.

When we arrived at Kylemore, the sun was out and the abbey and grounds were stunning.  I took pictures of the abbey reflecting in the lake in front and theP1100097n we bought our ticket to tour the grounds and inside the abbey.  They sent us first to the Chapel because there was a group from USA performing inside.  They said it was at 12:15 but when we arrived, we caught the last two songs and it finished at 12:15 (oops).  We were glad to catch some.  The group was from New Jersey.  I thought it odd though that they would come all the way from the States and be dressed like a bunch of tourists while performing.  I would have worn something nicer but they sounded good.  While touring inside, we came upon an English tour in progress and I heard the guide say that just behind the double doors from the dining room was the Turkish bath!  I asked if we could see it but she said there was a fire that destroyed the bath and they are still renovating parts of the abbey.  Drats!

We decide to make Kylemore Abbey our turn around point and head back towards Galway.  There was a bicycle race going on and as if it wasn’t bad enough that we were driving on the left on these awfully narrow roads, it was raining off and on, and now there are bicyclists we were terrified to pass.  If we never saw another bicyclist again, we would be happy.

Heading back to Galway to check out the city and have dinner and the GPS couldn’t find it.  We ended up in the middle of a neighborhood on a street when we put in the Salt Hill Oyster Festival that popped up when we typed Galway as the city.  So we decided to try to find something else and literally popped out a block later to the waterfront of Galway.  Managed to find a car park and jumped on a train tour of Galway city.  Did one lap around and then on the next lap had the driver drop us in the city center on a pedestrian street full of restaurants.  Margaret stopped in a pharmacy that was literally just closing but we talked them into getting her something for her throat – some antiseptic throat lozenges.  I made a deal with the owners that I would stand guard at the door and turn people away while they rung Margaret up.  (The owner had a ton of makeup on and a dress so I asked if she had a hot date and she laughed.)

We walked up and down the street looking for a place to grab a wine and something light to eat.  I stopped in a shop that had the Irish Claddagh rings and found fireman patches on the wall.  I asked the guy about it and he’s a councilman for the city and supports the local fire department.   He didn’t have any patches to trade but I gave him one EMT patch with the state of Florida on it and one St. Petersburg Fire Dept patch with a pelican on it which he pinned to the wall.

Continued walking and we came upon Murphy’s Bar. Margaret got a picture in front of it smiling big and missing her man Murphy.  We went inside to have a drink but there were a bunch of guys sitting around and we felt like we just walked into a boy’s club uninvited.  Took a few pics and decided to find something were we could sit outside and watch the people.  We ran into a guy carrying a giant cake with aluminum foil.  He stopped and told me to check out the cake he just made for a friend and it was a giant remote control!  Loved it.  We covered it back up and off he went.

We ended up sitting outside at a wine bar restaurant and ordered a cheese tray and the crab spread with crackers and some wines.  It was good to relax but Galway was overcrowded with a foot race and tours walking through.  Some drunk guy walked by and picked up a guy’s beer on the other side and started walking off drinking it.  The guys went after him and he slammed it down onto the ground and then the police showed up.  Time to go.  We walked to the fire station and no one was home so we hailed a taxi and headed for the car back on the other side of the bridge to Salt Hill.

All along the trip, every other day or so, I would say to Margaret, “Do you still love me?” and she would laugh and say “Yes.”  Some days she wouldn’t laugh but just say “Yes.”  I had to make sure because the driving was so stressful and spending that much time together, I would die if we irritated each other and ruined our 30 year friendship.

We drove to the hotel and ran into some folks all dressed up for their daughter’s wedding.  They kept insisting that we join the party but we declined as we weren’t dressed for a wedding.  Margaret and I went to the bar to grab another drink and there was a bunch of folks from the wedding at the bar too.  Margaret decided to head to bed and I stayed to listen to the guy singing for a bit.  He even performed a song about Athenry for me.  Next thing I know, one of the wedding party comes over and drags me off to the reception.  Green linen slacks, a grey tank top and my paisley scarf.  People were looking funny at me as I walked in until the mom and dad see me and throw their arms up in celebration that I made it.  Before I know it, I’m dancing to the live band with a 9 year old I found sitting by herself.  I loved when they started playing “Rock the Boat” and all the guests and the bride got on the floor in a chain like rowboats swaying front to back.  We had a great time and finally I had to say goodnight at around 3:00 am and head to bed.  I was the first to leave the party.

Sunday, August 11th – Sunday morning came way too quickly.  When the alarm went off, I hit the dismiss button and went back to bed.  At around 8:00 am, Margaret was getting up and moving around so I figured I would to.  I was slow moving.  We head to breakfast and I’m trying to keep my stomach from churning from the excess wine I drank the night before.  We found some of the wedding guests sleeping on sofas in the 2nd floor lobby area and the server at breakfast said they didn’t finish until 5:00 am.  Ick!

We got on the road heading for the Cliffs of Moher.  I had heard about a 17th century castle called Dunguaire that has a banquet each night but we couldn’t get tickets for it.  While driving south, we passed by and at least got to take a few pictures of it before continuing on.  Also along the way, we came across the Burren which is a rocky wasteland that they actually put seaweed on to give some soil so that something could grow.  It has a very moon-esque look to it.

Finally we get to the Cliffs of Moher visitor center and parking.  The wind is really blowing off the Atlantic and it forces us into our luggage to layer up with some warmer cloP1100345thes.  I changed into a pair of jeans and put a sweater on over my tank top and put my pullover on top of that and finally wrapped my scarf around my neck.  It started sprinkling as we walked up to the center.  The cliffs were amazing but the rain drove Margaret inside.  I decided I would walk up a little ways north.  You finally come upon a sign that says, “Warning!  The Cliffs of Moher Visitor Center ends here!”  In other words, once over the fence, if you fell off the unprotected cliffs to your death it was on you.  So naturally, wearing my 3″ heel black wedge sneakers, I jump the fence and walk along this very precarious ledge.  I made sure to at least stay on the small path that had been worn and not go too close to the edge.  At one point, a beam of sunlight poked out from the clouds and me and some other travelers watched it drift across the cliffs like a flashlight lighting up brilliant patches of green.  Too scary for me, I headed back to the actual visitor center and waited patiently for the clouds to fly by and the sky to open up and shine down for my photo ops.  I found a patch of yellow flowers that I could squeeze into the right corner and then the sun popped out.  I took too many pictures of course but don’t fret, I’ll pick the best ones and can the others.

Margaret had told me she would meet me in the cafeteria but then when I was walking to the visitor center, she was waiting at the front.  Turns out there were two cafeterias.  She’s so smart that she sent me an email just in case I came in a different entrance and couldn’t find her.  Cliffs of Moher – check!  On to Bunratty Castle!

We decided we were hungry so we pulled off just to this little town south of the Cliffs right on the Atlantic with a beach.  We had a wonderful lunch at Waves Restaurant in spite of the twin kids sitting next to us.  Now, during this trip, anytime there was a baby or toddler, Margaret was immediately grandma.  They were just attracted to her.  So this little blonde girl (her twin sister was a brunette) twisted around in her chair and just started at Margaret.  She had food everywhere including her face which was slightly grossing this non-mother out.  The only kids I ever picked food off their face were Dana and Jessica and Nicholas.  Everyone else was handed to their mother.

I ordered the crab pasta which was delicious and Margaret ordered the mussels of which they brought her every muscle ever found in the ocean so she was happy to share with me.  We ate while looking out over the ocean watching the surfers and kite surfers.  After lunch I ran down to the beach and collected some sand to fill up the miniature bottle of Jameson that I bought in Dublin.  I had to empty the bottle first and dry out the rain drenched sand.  Will work on that later.  On to the next stop.

I must be too used to Disney World hours because we arrive at Bunratty and its closing.  We had found the friendliest of friendly people in Ireland . . . with the exception of the lady at the Bunratty Castle Admissions Desk.  She shortly told us that they had to close at 4:00 to get ready for the evening performance/dinner held in the castle.  So we asked about tickets for that and they were sold out.  She did say, “You can each pay 7€ to walk around the outside park but you only have 45 minutes.”  No thank you.  So we blew that one.  Trust me; by the end of the trip, there were no shortage of castles.

Off we go to Killarney.  We had found on a B&B called Victoria House just outside of the city centre of Killarney and it was lovely.  It had a huge Jacuzzi tub in the room which I made use of happily the first night.  My back was one big knot from driving or watching Margaret drive.  Before that, we decided to have dinner at the hotel there.  We were going to split something but then I saw they had lamb which I love and Margaret doesn’t.  I almost hugged the waitress when she informed me that I could get a half portion for half the price!  Yeah!  Margaret also got a half portion of what she wanted.  I posted on Facebook that I was having lamb again and my uncle Paul commented “Mary had a little lamb”.  I replied, “SHE DID!”   (Insert evil grin here)

Monday, August 12th – The tour groups all get up early on this day and head for the Ring of Kerry.  My friends Karl & Carolyn Wieland told me that it wasn’t that big of a deal and the roads are crowded with tourists and buses.  So Margaret and I decide that we will do a circle of the Dingle Peninsula since everyone raved about it along the way that lives there.  We start off and come across the most beautiful countryside meeting up with the beach and the Atlantic Ocean.  The sun came out and made for gorgeous pictures.  We found people riding horseback on the beach, campers and tons of cattle and sheep.  We stopped for a cup of hot chocolate and coffee at a pottery place and then continued around the loop.  There were so many scenic overlook stop points that we took longer than we thought we would.  At one point, I saw all these lovely little purple flowers in the bed of green grass so I, the genius, thought I would lie down and have Margaret take my photo.  Unfortunately, the grass was full of thistles and with each movement, I was literally being stabbed all over.  Margaret was trying to take the picture and was laughing at me.

Continuing along, we came upon this lovely restaurant called the Seven Hogs named for the island chain just off the coast.  I had a burger with brie that almost made me cry.  Margaret had one too.  They love their brie over there.  Finished with lunch and decide to take a faster route back to Kerry because we actually decided we would do the Ring of Kerry in the late afternoon without all the traffic.  We plug in Ring of Kerry on the GPS and it tells us to take a right turn onto this non-existent dirt road.  As we drove along, we literally had to pull over and stop a couple times just to let someone by.  One time I had to get out and back Margaret up to a wider part of the road because a truck pulling a horse or cattle trailer was face to face with us.  The best one was when we were driving down this steep slope on the other side of the mountain with the ocean right in front of us and a car with a women driving, her Chihuahua in the passenger seat and two kids in the back.  I had to get out and guide Margaret over to the side as far as she could go so the lady could pass.  Naturally she wanted to know if we were lost and we told her no . . . or were we?  I think that’s about the time we might have put the lovely scratch in the front left bumper.  But hey, we have full coverage.

While we were driving, the display showed that we had a certain amount of kilometers to go before we needed diesel gas.  The lady at the rental car counter wasn’t kidding because we drove this car forever it seemed and it barely used any.  So now we are getting to the 200 kilometer range and decide we need to get gas soon.  Driving along we don’t see any gas stations so finally the display says 58 km and then a second later, it drops to zero and starts flashing!  We plug in nearest gas stations in the GPS and it’s five miles.  We have to get off the interstate, take this side road for what seems forever and finally end up in this little town in the middle of nowhere.  It’s so out of the way that we had to drive 5 miles back to the interstate.  We were sure we were going to run out.  Stress!

P1100580Finally getting close to the Ring of Kerry and traffic comes to a stop.  Turns out the Annual Puck Fair is going on in Killorglin.  We inched our way around it and headed for Kerry.  It was a pretty drive but after the Dingle Peninsula, Kerry didn’t really match up.  I did love that we found on the map an abandoned 16th century castle called the Ballycarberry Castle and I went into full out kid mode and started climbing all through it.  The floors and roof were missing but the stairwells were mostly there and it was four stories.  I stuck my head out of a window near the top and screamed “Romeo, Romeo, where for art thou Romeo” and Margaret took my picture.  My friend Russ McIntyre asked on Facebook if I was Rappunzel.

We continued around the ring at a pretty quick pace and passed through the Killarney National Forest and found the Torc Waterfall.  We had to walk about 10 minutes but it was worth it.  I would have gotten a great shot of it but these college guys from Saudi Arabia decided to make it their own personal photo shoot.  They would pose on the rocks right in the middle, then examine carefully the shot and then queue up for another one.  So I finally just took a picture and we left.  We made it back to Killarney Town and decided to try one of the other B&B’s restaurants.  We pulled into one but there was only one parking spot and there was a bicycle blocking us.  So I hopped out and moved the bike so Margaret could back in and we went inside for dinner.  Just before we left, we watched a rather scraggly looking man walk through the bar with a traffic vest on.  He obviously had a bit too much.  I said to Margaret “How much you want to bet that guy gets on the bicycle?”  We walk outside and sure enough, he’s on the bike.  We are trying to not laugh too loud and Margaret had a couple glasses of wine so I told her to watch herself or I was going to get her a vest.  We followed him a bit while he weaved down the road on his bike.

When we stopped for gas earlier that day, we bought a bottle of Coke Zero because we had to empty my little Jameson Whiskey bottle (smile).  So we asked for two glasses with ice and split the whiskey with coke and went to the parlor area to check emails.  There was a nice man sitting there with his young son and he was checking emails too.  He explained that they were waiting for the annual meteor-shower hoping it would be dark enough and not cloudy.  He and his family live in Saudi Arabia for his work and were there on vacation since his wife is Irish.  It was good to relax, chat and drink whiskey!

Tuesday, August 13th – Checked out of our hotel and headed for the Blarney Castle just 45 minutes away.  We both joked that we already have the gift of gab so kissing thP1100743e Blarney Stone wasn’t going to happen.  We also heard that they have really long lines and that the Irish do nasty things to the stone when the tourists aren’t looking like pee on it.  When we get to the castle itself, the line is pretty short so I decide we’ll go check it out.  Winding up 100 or so stairs with both of us being super claustrophobic, we finally pop out at the top and there is an older man who has you lie down next to him and he holds your arms until you get a hold of the bars they put in place to keep you from falling 50 feet to your death and you arch way back and kiss this large rectangular overly polished stone.  Just before it was my turn, I overheard the guy say that they clean it every morning, afternoon and evening and that the only nasty thing they find on the stone is the color stay lipstick that they can never get off the dang stone.

Before we made it to the castle, we decided to walk through the gardens and we came across this lovely British mom and her daughter and the mom’s sister.  The daughter was priceless.  Chatty!  They said they were keeping her far away from the Blarney Stone.  She was going on and on about the witch that lived in the garden with her cute accent.   After we went through the castle we walked through the Poison Garden which was interesting – especially the pot plant.  Someone said “that’s not poisonous” and I replied, “It ruined my brother’s life”.

We finished up with the castle and started driving to Waterford.  We would just get to the main town and grab a B&B.  Nope!  The main town didn’t have any and the directions we got to the Waterford Crystal Factory took us to a place that had been closed down for two years.  We finally got to the river water front and stopped at an Australian restaurant kind of like an Outback.  The waitress there let us user her phone and had us call the Woodlands Hotel which just happened to have one room available that night – their last room.  By then, my perfectionist nerves were shot.  I’ m so used to an organized trip and no worry vacations that the hunt for hotel eating up our evening was taking a toll on me.  I handed the keys to Margaret and ordered a wine.  We tried to give the lady a tip and she wouldn’t take it.  We kept inviting all those who helped us along the way to come to Florida.  I can’t wait when they take us up on it.  She being one of them.

Four roundabouts later, we are at our hotel.  It’s lovely.  Check in, dump the luggage and go catch a taxi.  Turns out that on a Tuesday night in Waterford, Ireland, the entire place shuts down at 6:00 pm?  The driver takes us to this pub called Geoff’s and tells us it’s the best food which he was right.  Just as he dropped us though, he mentions that within walking distance of our hotel is another great place.  GRRR!  But we had Chicken Madras (Indian) and it was delicious.  Of course I mentioned to the waiter that if he brought me any “chips” I was going to punch him in the face and he laughed.  I told Margaret about a drink I had in Bermuda called a Shandy.  Its half beer and half sprite or lemonade.  So we tried one and she liked it.  She was thrilled that she found a beer she could drink.  A guy next to us mentioned that he can’t drink Guinness plain but has to put the British black currant drink Ribena in his Guinness.

When we were finished, we called the taxi driver and he came back for us.  He dropped us at Beckett’s, the bar just near the hotel.  I had a glass of wine but Margaret was not having anymore.  I told the bartender about the Guinness with Ribena that they guy told us about and the bartender says, “Were you in a gay bar?”  I had to laugh.  We chatted with some of the locals and finally walked back to our hotel.

Wednesday, August 14th – The taxi driver showed us how easy it was to get to the Waterford Crystal House while taking us to Geoff’s.  Naturally, we check out the next morning and head the direction he tells us and can’t find it.  Finally we get something on the GPS that brings us to the factory.  There is also the Hibernian House which sells Waterford Crystal cheaper and has food being served so we decide to have breakfast there.  After we eat, I look around the shop to get a price comparison if I find what I’m looking for.  I wanted a Waterford Crystal shoe.  They had one but it was a large glass slipper and not from Waterford.  We go into the actual factory store and I’m looking at these pricey wine glasses and realize I don’t trust myself or my friends with this glass and decide to pass on buying one.  Head back to the Hibernian House and find a few trinkets there and then the sales girl asks if we’ve seen the magic clothes?  She brings us to these tiny little plastic wrapped boxer shorts and matching t-shirt that has been severely shrink wrapped to this 3″ by 1 1/2″ size.  I bought one for me and one for my dear friend Iesha.  Can’t wait to try them out!

Back on the road and now heading to the Kilkenny Castle.  We pull into the town and follow the signs for parking which seems to be only on the street.  One block, two blocks,  . . . finally we turnP1100835 right on a side street and go a couple blocks and find a spot.  No big deal – we could use the walking after all the “chips” we have been eating.  We did a tour of the castle and then hunted for the Italian Restaurant that one of the young ladies at Hibernian House recommended.  It was a great place but we sat inside and it was really warm.  We had a glass of wine and some pasta and then started the walk to our car.  It was the first time that it started raining heavy so we pulled out our umbrellas and kept walking.  Along the way, we found a cool stone building looking like the castle guest quarters or something and upon closer look, it was an Insane Asylum.  So naturally I made Margaret go inside and get behind the bars.  Then the wind picked up as we walked the last couple blocks.  I looked over and Margaret’s umbrella suddenly flipped completely inside out.  She turned into the wind so the umbrella would right itself and sure enough it did but while doing so, all the water that it had collected was dumped on her as the umbrella popped back into place soaking her.  I held my breath watching all of this until she looked at me and we both busted out laughing.

After lunch we start cruising towards the Wicklow Mountains and Glendalough “glen of the two lakes”.  We were thinking of finding a bed and breakfast in the mountains but decided we would get back to Dublin a day earlier, turn in the rental car and get the ferry to United Kingdom a day early.  The drive through the mountains was very pretty though and we ended up getting stuck behind a cattle herder, his dog and his cattle.  It was fun watching the dog nip at the heels of the cattle and get them running.  A couple times the cows would kick back at the dog who dodged each kick.  Margaret was more worried about running over the dog than hitting any cows.  Dumb dog kept running in front of the car as it snuck along behind the procession.  Finally, she lowered the window and asked the guy how far he had to go and he said, “Just about a ½ mile up the road.”  So we patiently followed him until they made their turn into the fenced in area and on our way we went.

We made it into Dublin and to the rental car agency about 5:30 pm (it closed at 6:00).  Started cleaning out the car from the mess we created of living out of two different suitcases for nine days.  We had bought a 24 pack of bottled water and didn’t want to leave it so Margaret and I shoved about  10 bottles each into our bags which made them even heavier.  The guy from the agency came out and was inspecting the car.  He says, “Was that scratch on the front right bumper there when you took it out?”  I looked at him like, “Are you serious?” and then said, “I have no idea but we have full coverage so it doesn’t matter.”  He just laughed.  We got one day refunded which brought the grand total from $1337.54 to $1151.73.  We took pretty good care of the car in spite of the fact that we didn’t have to.

We had them call a taxi to take us to our hotel close to the Dublin Ferry in Clontarf.  We booked a hotel on called the Brahm Stoker Hotel & Bar.  Brahm Stoker was a Dublin native and the hotel had a mini museum to him.  We get to the cute little hotel and it has all this Dracula paraphernalia on the wall.  I thought it was funny because the On/Off bus tour took us past the church where he was baptized and married so I guess his faith didn’t find his love of the occult inappropriate?

We get to the room and it’s pretty decent and then head down to grab a bite to eat.  Margaret and I decide to sit out on the patio since the hotel/restaurant is right across the street from a waterfront park.  We could actually see the Ferry we would be getting on the next day.  We order and get a couple wines.  The internet was sketchy so I stepped inside for a moment to post a photo.  There was a couple sitting in the side of the bar in a booth and they were looking at me and laughing.  I walked back to the table and a bit later when I went back inside, they are all smiles and I finally say, “So what’s so funny?” and they proceed to tell me I look just like one of their friends and they can’t get over it.  Before we know it, Frank and Tina are joining us at the patio table outside until we finish dinner and then we join them back inside when it starts to cool down.  Frank reminds me too much of my father.  I was telling them stories about my dad while he was in Ireland and the crazy stuff he says now living in Florida and we were all laughing hysterically.  Margaret ended up heading upstairs to the room to pack and I hung out with the couple for a bit longer.  Frank kept buying me wines and finally I had to decline because we had to get up at 6:00 am to make our ferry the next morning.  Hugged them goodbye and headed to bed.

Along the way, since I picked up the wet sand from the beach by the Cliffs of Moher, I had been spreading it out at night in each hotel along the way and in the car while we were driving in a Ziploc trying to get it to dry but the humidity must have been too much because it was still wet lumps of sand four days later.  So I finally just pushed the air out, zipped it up and threw it in my luggage.  I tried putting wet sand in a bottle once that I thought was mostly dry and it mildewed which was not nice so I learned that lesson.

Thursday, August 15th – We got up early, packed our overly heavy carryon bags and took a taxi to the ferry terminal.  No security.  Just buy a ticket and get on the boat.  They handed us bag tags which we managed to put on the luggage and send on the conveyer belt until we realized that we forgot to tear off the matching ticket that we are supposed to keep.  Panic ensued and we looked like an “I Love Lucy” episode trying to rush up the conveyer belt after our bags.   Finally, the guy motioned to us to go through this side door and the belt literally took the luggage into the next room where it sat.  I was prepared to crawl on the conveyer belt to get it back.  We grabbed our claim tags and got on the ferry.  Straight for the dining room because we needed breakfast.  These people eat too much food.  We asked how it worked and they said you could have 5 items, 4 items or 3 items.  I opted for the 3 items and they rang it up as a Child’s plate.   Margaret and I grabbed a seat by the window, ate breakfast and I started to doze off.  I ended up laying down taking a nap and Margaret went to find a paper and walk around the ferry a bit – it looked like a mini cruise ship.  When I woke up, there was a little old man sitting in Margaret’s chair.  Okay…  So when she came back she looked at me kind of funny and I just laughed.  She grabbed one of the other chairs away from the window and just let him slide.

Before the boat docked, we decided to look in the Duty Free shops a bit.  I found my Jean Paul Gautier perfume with a new bottle.  He’s getting lazy in the USA because I can’t find the new bottles anywhere.  They had a green bottle for men with a silver breastplate that I loved but it was 75€.  The one I got was a bottle with a sailor style dress.  The good news is as expensive as it is, I use that perfume.   But now, I will definitely have to check a bag home as it’s more than 3 ounces.

The ferry lands in Holyhead, Wales around 11:30 pm.  When we were in Waterford and realized we would be getting to Holyhead on the 15th, I went ahead and tried to reserve a car but it kept saying that the cars were all gone in that entire area.  The only thing that saved me was I had earlier in the trip put in a request for a quote for a car on the 15th but assuming we would be arriving later in the afternoon.  When I couldn’t get them to find me a car, I pulled up that email and hit submit for the quote to be saved as a reservation.  It was the longest five minutes waiting for a confirmation response.  Finally it came in and I told Margaret that the worst we would have to do is wait around for a car to be turned in if they didn’t have one available when we arrived.  But getting to the Hertz window, she says she has one car left.  Unfortunately, it’s Petrol; not diesel so it would require more fill ups (they were not lying!).  Then we added the additional driver.  No problem.  Then we requested the GPS device.  Problem.  They were out.  So she gives us verbal directions for a mile away to an electronics store to buy a GPS which turned out to be cheaper than the one we rented in Ireland and the one we would have rented in UK.

There is no ATM in the Ferry terminal (what?) so we figured we would just stop and get pounds when getting the GPS.  (We were pounded by the pound!!!!  England!?  What makes you so expensive!!!?)  Purchase the unit for about 49£ ($71) and ask about ATM’s and the sales clerk isn’t sure if they have any.  Then we realize that Hertz didn’t even give us a map of UK so we stop at a gas station to pick one up.  They don’t have any.  A lovely young lady overhears Margaret asking about exchanging money and maps and instead of giving directions, tells us to follow her and takes us around the way to a post office because it was closing for lunch soon and she didn’t want us to miss it.  The post office exchanges some money for Margaret but doesn’t have maps so they sent us to a newsstand.  They had a huge atlas of UK that we found out later, was the only map of Wales, England and Scotland.  We passed two ATMs but I had left my ATM card in the car so we just went with Margaret’s money for now.

I plug into the GPS – Pont Cysyllte Aqueduct.  Nothing.  I plug in Froncysyllte which is the town it belongs in.  Nothing.  So then I put Llangollen in and find it.  My book of Wonders gave directions that it was east of Llangollen (however the hell you say that).  We were both hungry so we decided to drive until we saw a cute café to have lunch.  It was too cool to eat outside so we went inside.  You could tell it was a local’s café for the town.  I ordered a hot chocolate and Margaret ordered a Cappuccino.  The son was making the drinks while the mom made our Brie and Black Olive Panini’s (yum).  He turned the steam up too high and scalded his hand.  I think it would have taken a half hour to get our food whether he scalded himself or not but after he put ice water on it and attended to it, he got us our drinks (mine had whipped cream and marshmallows on it) which we finished before our food showed up.  We ended up being there for about an hour and a half which was really cutting into our schedule.  I asked the guy if he knew where the aqueduct was and he never heard of it.  Wales is about the size of Rhode Island.  How do you not know about the only World Wonder you have?  Moving on…

We finally pass Llangollen and the GPS is repeating over and over “You have arrived at your destination.”  We shut that thing off and start looking for signs.  Finally Margaret see’s an arch bridge across a valley that looks just like the picture.  I stop and take a few pics not really impressed until I find out that is the train bridge and not the aqueduct.  So we finally see a sign and follow it to a park and it starts to rain.  Margaret and I start following the signs and asking folks along the way how far to the aqueduct and this one boy says “it’s at least a mile and a half.”  We assume he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and for young people it must seem far.  We start hiking this trail past horses and cows and pigs and off into this giant field that follows a river.  Not manyP1100945 people around.  After about a mile walking we realize the kid was right.  Finally we see it and it’s off in the distance but we can see the boats moving back and forth across the valley in this aqueduct.  I zoom in and take a couple pics and we decide to hoof it back to the car because it’s getting late.  Once to the car, I tell Margaret, “There has to be some entrance to that aqueduct more than walking to it for a mile and a half.  Let’s go left for a bit and see what we find before heading to Bath.”  We go left, through a residential area and come upon this park with the brown information sign Pont Cysyllte.  Park quickly and run up to the docked boats and find out that they just ran their last boat across.  (snif)  There is a walkway though across the whole aqueduct so I start walking to the middle to snap a picture looking down 175 feet to the river below.  Margaret struck up a conversation with a guy who was struggling to walk and told her that he has blown out discs in his back and is only 37 years old.  His name is Gavin and he was there with his wife and daughter.  We chatted with them for a while and finally said goodbye and headed for Bath.  We didn’t book a hotel because we weren’t sure if we would make it that far so we wanted the option of booking along the way.

Around 7:00 pm, we stop for dinner.  The stupid GPS said there was a Thai restaurant just off the interstate so we hopped off only to find out that it was now a Chinese restaurant (ick).  We asked at the pub next door and they sent us to this Indian restaurant just around the corner that everyone loves.  It was beautiful when we walked in and they asked if we had a reservation.  Nope.  So the ended up seating us at a table anyway.  I love Indian food and the hotter the better usually but the menu was a little different than I’m used to and we were traveling so I didn’t want to overdo it.  I got medium and Margaret got mild and we tried each other’s which both were delicious.  They didn’t have free wi-fi  so trying to book a room for the evening didn’t work.  We just got back on the road and figured we would look for a Starbucks or McDonald’s at a service station that has internet always.  Get to a truck stop and get internet.  Mind you, we had just checked out of Brahm Stoker’s Hotel that morning.  The hotels in Bath were not available and if they were, they were super expensive.  Then we found a B&B in Bristol just west of Bath for a great price.  I looked at the details and started laughing.  It’s called the Old Court House and the room that was available was called the Jack the Ripper jail cell.  Why not!  So we booked it and plugged in the address heading that way.

Heading south on the M6 coming to Bristol, there is a sign that says Bristol exits closed.  So we end up passing the exit and the GPS takes us off the motorway, through a roundabout and back on the motorway going back north to the exit for Bristol.  That one is closed to.  Nice, you idiots.  Close both exits why don’t you!  Finally realizing that British Mary is going to have us loop the interstate until they reopen the exit, we stop and find a gas station.  Margaret buys and Atlas and the guy helps give us directions to Avonmouth which will then let us follow the coast down to Bristol.  We had the guy call the hotel to let them know we were coming and why we would be late and the number was wrong on  Lovely.

We are following the kid’s directions, in the middle of nowhere, thankful for the Atlas that at least is giving us a clue.  Finally we get to Bristol and plug in the GPS.  The thing takes us through Bristol City Centre, out the other side, up a dark mountain into nothing.  Isn’t this how scary movies start…?  We are questioning the GPS all the way and it’s now almost midnight.  Finally the GPS says that we have arrived at our location but we don’t see anything.  (Side note – House numbers are very useful people of Ireland/UK – give it a shot.  Don’t just put your damn street and city and make us find it like “where’s Waldo”.) We overshoot it according to Mary so we turn around and see a young kid walking down the street at midnight.  We pull over and I stick my arm out the window to wave him down and say “We are trying to find the Old Court House Inn.”  He says he doesn’t know that place.  So I show him a picture and he says, “Oh! That place!  Yeah, it’s right up the end of this block, turn right and its right there.  They have two huge dogs but they are very friendly.”  Great.   We thank him and tell him to not talk to strangers and he laughs.  Get to the end of the block, nothing.  Turn right, finally see a dark sign barely lit up by our headlights.  We pull into the driveway and there is no place to park.  There is a note on the door welcoming us and to call when we arrive.  Margaret pulls out her global phone and calls waking this woman up.  When we get to the door, there is a man (her husband) and a teen (her son) who were both up and didn’t answer the phone.  They didn’t help with the luggage but watched us struggle with it to the room.  Finally, the man who has white hair and vampire-like pointed teeth on either side smiles strangely and says, “Are you ready to go to jail?”  I’m like, “Mister, its midnight, the interstate was closed, your phone doesn’t work, and you have no light on to identify your place!  Get away from me!”  But I smile nicely and we follow him through the house.  He opens the door labeled “Jack the Ripper” and it was hard not to laugh out loud.  There were two single beds with maybe a foot between them leading to a partition behind each bed.  One portion blocked the toilet with no door and the other blocked the shower with no door.  I looked at Margaret and said, “Well, I guess I shouldn’t have had Indian food tonight.  Sorry.”   She laughed.

We were like a couple of kids at camp after he left and we closed the door.  We were looking around at the room and giggling uncontrollably.  The floor boards weren’t tight together so you could see through them – well into a dark space.  Margaret says, “Did you see that guy how weird he looked?”  I said, “Did you see the fangs?  Nice.”  We couldn’t get over the fact that they let the wife who was sleeping answer the phone and then not help us.

Ear plugs in, we crawl into the surprisingly comfortable beds.  Five minutes in and Margaret hops up jumping around the room.  I flipped on the light and she explains that something crawled down her night shirt.  I’m trying desperately not to laugh and sweeping the back of her shirt making sure whatever it was, it was just passing through.  Now, no one will sleep.  Back in bed, lights off.  I had some weird dream that Margaret was gone so I literally got up from my bed and reached over to where she was and felt her leg which reassured me but woke her up.  I said, “Sorry, sorry, go back to sleep.” And she did.

Friday, August 16th – All along the trip, I would let Margaret get up and take a shower and that would give me an extra 15 minutes of sleep since it took me only about 30 minutes to get ready.  This morning was no different but also more of a necessity because there was no room for two people to move.  Margaret gets up and I close my eyes so she can get undressed and slip into the shower stall.  After she’s in, I’m sitting on my bed leaning against the shower wall and I stuck my hand back behind me and said, “Hey, do you want me to get your back?”  We were laughing so hard that I’m sure we woke someone.  She comes out and it’s my turn.  Claustrophobic so I barely rinsed off.  As we were getting dressed, I confess to Margaret that I woke her up in the night because I had the dream that she went missing.  She is laughing even harder now because she had a dream that I touched her leg.  I said, “Nope, it wasn’t a dream.  Sorry.”  She said that she went right back to sleep and didn’t even realize it.

As we are heading to breakfast, we notice that the door to our room has a 2″ x 4″ hole cut out of it and a metal plate that swings to the side FROM THE OUTSIDE so that you can look in the room.  Now we have visions of the creepy hotel owner staring at us while we slept.  We pack our stuff for a quick get-a-way after breakfast.  The guy told us that his wife was American from Tennessee so we were looking forward to meeting her at breakfast.  We walk through the house until we find her in the kitchen.  She pours Margaret a cup of coffee and is working on breakfast.  Outside you see these giant white and grey dogs walking through the courtyard.  They did look like they would lick you to death but we didn’t want to find out.  I stepped towards the back of the kitchen mainly to get out of the way and saw a room with a dining table and two fluffy Persian cats sitting on the table with cat food all over in front of them just starting at me.  Maybe we’ll get breakfast on the road?

She then shows us the dining room where there is another couple sitting already.  She says, “If you want a tour of the house, you better do it now because I don’t have time to show you.”  Okay.  So we walk around the house which used to be an old courthouse.  It’s done up lovely.  We get back to the dining room and she says, “Well, you lost your space at this dining table so you’ll have to eat upstairs.”  I felt like we were being punished for not sitting down.

Then she asks us what we are going to do that day.  I said, “We are going to drive through Bath (which was on the way), head to Stonehenge, Windsor Castle and up to Manchester.”  She freaked.  “You can’t do all that!  It takes a whole day to see Bath!  You need to stay here another night.  I mean, I don’t need the money but you guys really are doing too much!”  So I said, “Our main goal is Stonehenge.  Everything else is on the way and extra and if we don’t make it to Manchester, Bristol is too far out of our way to come back so we’ll just find a place along the way.”  She wasn’t having it.  She shows us to this large dining room on the 2nd floor where we sat by ourselves and waited for her to bring the food.  She took forever and when she shows up, she says, “I told the others what you were planning and they laughed at you!”  I said, “Well, then it’s a good thing I’m not still in high school or I’d be really upset about that.”  I looked at Margaret like, “put the food in your purse and let’s go!”  We finished, grabbed our luggage and ran out the door.  Kooks!

So just because she made fun of me, we were going to make my schedule.  (Insert crazy laughter here)  We set the GPS for Bath City Centre and drove through.  Nice town but nothing that made us want to stop.  Saw they had the On/Off Buses but we have no plans or time for that.  Once through Bath, we set the GPS for Stonehenge which SURPRISE, SURPRISE was listed!  Of course just 3 miles to Stonehenge, the motorway backed up forever it seemed.  The GPS was telling us to go through the roundabout and continue straight on this roadway that was backed up but as we got to the roundabout, we see a brown sign shooting off to the left that says Stonehenge.  We turn and thank goodness we did.  The exit that the GPS wanted us to take was closed and they were making a new entrance.  So we followed the signs and came to a temporary parking lot that was set up.  Parked, used the bathroom (common occurrence every stop we made) and went to get our ticket.  When we got up to the window, we realized the line was heading off behind some bushes so we had to walk to the end of the line which was almost where we started.  Sigh.  Finally get our tickets.  Margaret was so excited to have exact change until they lady at the ticket booth informed her they don’t take Euros.  One slipped in.  Of course I had a 5€ and she shot me a dirty look (missing the Irish!).

I was shocked to see that they had free audio tour guides that you could just pick up and take.  So I grabbed one and started my way around the site.  I loved seeing Stonehenge but the traditionalP1110069 expected British weather was cloudy and grey.  I had made it half way around the site when I saw a beam of light peak out.  I looked at the sky and sure enough there was a big patch of blue coming through.  I ran like a salmon back through the crowd to get to the beginning which I felt was the best shot.  I sat there with my camera and people were wondering why I wasn’t moving along.  So I would just point at the sky and they would laugh.  Finally, the clouds broke and the sun lit Stonehenge up.  I took 100 more pictures and then continued around the site taking other angles.  I’ve had some people say to me that there isn’t much to see at Stonehenge but they are missing the point that these rocks are over 5,000 years old and not from that location and oh, by the way, they are set up perfectly for the solstice – all done without cranes or computers.  (See Eddie Izzard “Dressed To Kill” – hilarious!)  Stonehenge – Check!

That out of the way, we set the GPS for Windsor Castle.  Naturally when we get to the city, the brown information signs take us another way so we follow those.  It’s kind of hard to miss the castle.  We arrive at 4:00 and I nab a parking space right near the castle!  I needed a shoe horn to get the car into that space but by God I was doing it!  Very proud until I went to get the pay for parking receipt and it only let me do one hour.  So I bought two and displayed them both hoping the traffic cops would give us a break.

We run up to the castle, pay the 17£ entrance fee.  They inform us that St. George’s Chapel is closing at 4:30 so we need to run to see it.  Margaret and I are literally running through the castle grounds and come to a door for the chapel that says EXIT.  GRRR!  So I run to the next exit and the guy just lets her and I in and then puts the red rope up signifying it’s now closed.  We were able to walk through the chapel and see all the tombs.  They have various royalty buried there but what I found interesting was King Henry VIII,  Lady Jane Seymour (Henry VIII’s 3rd wife), Anne Bolin’s still born son and Charles Brandon (Henry Cavil plays him in the Tudors – yum yum!).

Finally we make it through the chapel and as we exit, the lovely lady in the courtyard who works there says, “Didn’t you love it!?” to which we said yes.  Then she says that we need to run to catch the staterooms before they close next.  So off we go (Amazing Race).  Poor Margaret has to pee but I tell her “No time for peeing!!!” and try not to make her laugh.  We get inside and see the doll room which has a huge doll house completed in 1924 that Queen Mary played with and all of her dolls and clothes.  I loved that the doll house had a garage for the fancy cars and also a crown jewels’ room.  We managed to work our way through and as promised got Margaret to the bathroom.  We walked around the courtyard of the castle after that and relaxed a bit more.  We stopped in the Starbucks there and I bought some little demitasse mugs of London and England for my collection.  Back on the road, no parking ticket on the car, heading for Manchester.

In 2005, I was in Havana, Cuba (shhh, don’t tell anyone) and met Dave and Colin from England.  We became friends and Dave came to visit me in St. Petersburg, Florida in 2006.  When I checked with him recently telling him we were coming to England, he informed me that he was married and living in Manchester.  So we asked if we could stop and see him along the way and meet his new family.  So now we are on route to Manchester to see Dave and his wife, Michelle, who were waiting for us to go to dinner.  He wanted to take us to Curry Mile which I couldn’t wait – as long as they had a door on their bathroom. We get in around 8:30 and they say that they have shipped Michelle’s kids off to their grandmother’s for the night so Margaret and I had a place to sleep.

As soon as we arrived, we piled in Dave’s truck and headed to Shah Khan for dinner.  Dave told them he wanted a reservation at nine.  The guy understood the he wanted a reservation FOR nine.    Nope, just us.  We ordered our favorites and the manager decided he wanted us to try something else so he sent that to us on the house.  We caught up and got to know Michelle a bit more and her us.  By the time dinner was finished, we were exhausted.  Back to their house and I forced myself to stay up a bit longer because I wanted to see their wedding pictures and Dave showed me and Margaret the pictures from his trip to Florida.  I had forgotten how funny they were.  Finally, completely wrecked, we head to our rooms.  I took Holly’s room with the Hello Kitty design and Margaret took Jordan’s room – teenager style.  I pulled the sand out of my bag, opened the Ziploc and stuck it on the window sill to continue the drying process, washed my face and crashed.

Saturday, August 17th – woke up around 8:00ish and headed to say good morning.  Dave had gotten Margaret a cup of coffee and then told us (which Margaret loved) that he was going to “nip up and get the kids”.  We wanted to meet them and spend some time with them.  So he went to get them and we chatted with Michelle.  When he returned, Holly, the seven year old performer that we had seen multiple videos of her singing and dancing, was hiding behind Dave.  Jordan came across shy too but we were going to fix that.  We were going to head to breakfast at this little place near them but when we got there, no seats were available.  There was one lady sitting by herself at a large table and I was tempted to ask her to move but didn’t.  Then they mentioned McDonalds to Holly’s delight!  So off we go to McDonalds.  I’m up at the counter ordering my breakfast and then we realized Holly didn’t have a drink so I took her back up with me to get one.  She was so funny and started getting comfortable with us.

After breakfast, we went to Manchester United’s Stadium at Old Trafford.  We didn’t do a tour inside the stadium but did walk around the outside taking pictures and walked the Munich Tunnel which was a memorial from the plane crash that killed eight players in 1958 (23 fatalities overall).  Very impressive stadium.  I promised to pick my dear friend Luis up a soccer ball and scarf from there.  Margaret wanted to get jerseys for her grandsons but they were so expensive at the stadium.  Dave took us running around to other sports stores and she was able to find one for each of the boys.  It was funny after we left the mall because I looked at Margaret and said, “I must really like Dave and his family because I’ve been two places that I hate today just so I can spend time with them – McDonalds and the Mall.”  (smile)

Of course by the end of the afternoon, Holly was holding my hand and chatting up a storm with me and Margaret was asking Jordan about school (he’s a genius) and we had a great afternoon with them.  We stopped and picked up some KFC to bring to the house and have a late lunch before getting on the road to Scotland.  Dave helped us located a hotel in Gretna just across the border of Scotland.  Gretna is famous for couples getting married.  Turns out that in the old days, English folks had to be 21 to be married and Scottish folks could get married at 16.  So, many English would come across the border and stay for the designated 28 days to be considered Scottish citizens and they would get married.

P1110167We piled all the luggage in the car including the newly laundered clothes Michelle did for us (thank you!).  We hugged them all and as we were leaving, Holly would say, “Goodbye Margaret!  Goodbye Helene!” and a few seconds later she would repeat it.  And again.  You had to laugh at how cute she was.  We made them promise to come visit us and we’ll take them to Disney World.  Hopefully soon.

Now, on the road and heading north.  We cross the border into Scotland and then through some crazy countryside and dirt roads and finally come upon our hotel – the Surrone Guest House.  Of course, we passed the entrance and I told Margaret to just pull into this driveway and back out.  That is until we realize it’s a police station and there was an officer standing there watching us who shook his finger “no” and motioned to come into the lot and turn around.  “Yes sir!”  Back to the entrance and the place is lovely.  The husband and wife team that run it are wonderful.  The husband greets us at the door and helps with our luggage and then asks if we’d like to eat dinner there.  We decide that’s a great idea.  After we settle into our lovely room we head downstairs and the wife meets us, gets us a glass of wine and shows us to the living room with a fireplace and TV and tons of books.  The carpet was a little crazy but it was super cozy.  We checked emails and drank our wine and waited to be called for dinner.

Once in the dining room, we saw there was just one other couple.  They were sitting without speaking to each other and I think one if not both had some kind of disability or issue but they just sat there quietly eating.  Maybe it was the stress of driving, booking hotels last minute, the weirdoes we met along the way. . . I don’t know but Margaret and I started talking about the trip up until now and couldn’t stop laughing.  I finally confessed that the night at the “jail cell” the Indian food was getting to me so I had to run to the car and get something I forgot.  Once outside the house, I sounded like a motorcycle going through the parking lot.  That was it.  Couldn’t breathe from laughing, tears running down our face, holding our sides.  Margaret said she doesn’t remember ever laughing that hard.  I slowly turned to see if we were bothering the couple and they didn’t even look up.  Okay.  We finally stopped laughing in time to enjoy our dinner.  I never eat dessert but when they brought the menu and I saw Pear Helene listed, I had to have it.  It was delicious.  Pears, vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce.  Perfect!

After dinner, we head to the room and I decide I want to take a bubble bath.  They had a gorgeous marble bathroom with a big tub and purple bath gel like they knew I was coming.  I grabbed a glass of wine (I bought a bottle at dinner which could explain some of the laughter) and soaked in the tub for about 40 minutes.  When I came out Margaret was watching a movie but we both ended up falling asleep before it ended.  Man we have been running.

Sunday, August 18th – got up and went down for a lovely breakfast.  The older couple showed up again – still barely said a word which is why I almost jumped when the man said, “The fortnight went to fast.”  Luggage back in the car and we head to the Barony Castle and Spa to check in for the 18th and 19th.  I had booked it ahead of time for a great price and knew we were going to be driving a bunch this day and didn’t want to lose the room because of late check in.  Put the address in the GPS, more back roads, beautiful scenery and finally we come upon these black wrought iron gates that we pass through and there is our castle.  16th century tower house.  I was so excited.  We checked in and I asked about a massage the next day but she said the spa wasn’t open yet.  So they had me call and leave a message and wished me luck.

Now we plug in Loch Ness, Inverness, Highlands, Scotland to the GPS.  It was going to be a long drive but the scenery was so worth it.  I had the atlas and Margaret was driving.  Along the road P1110226you would see these little reds marks on the atlas indicating something of interest.  I was watching the road signs and matching them up to the map so we knew how far we had gone.  I almost spit my water into the windshield when I saw the sign for the town of Atholl.  I had watched the movie “Maid of Honor” with Patrick Dempsey and I love the part where they are at the rehearsal dinner and the future Scottish groom tells his fiancée Hannah that they have to name their first son Atholl.  I couldn’t believe they had an actual town named that.  So I giggled for the rest of the afternoon.  We found the Blair Atholl Castle which had this very long road lined with beautiful trees leading up to it.  When we got to the end there was someone taking money for the entrance.  We were about four cars back so I jumped out of the car, walked up a bit and snapped a photo of the castle and then jumped back into the car and had Margaret do a U-turn quickly and get us out before they charged us.

It was cooler in the Highlands so we decided to stop in the town of Atholl and have a bite to eat.  We mostly had to use the bathroom so after we did that, we sat down in this old restaurant boothP1110223 looking right out of medieval times.  We looked over the menu and saw Haggis Nachos.  Sounded good so why not.  Ordered a wine for each of us and the nachos.  When it arrived, I took my traditional picture and Margaret and I dove in.  It was delicious!  It was haggis (whatever that is), cheese, salsa, sour cream, guacamole and jalapenos.  We ate every piece and cleaned the bowl.  Full up, I tell Margaret that we need to get out of Atholl and giggle and start driving north to Inverness and Loch Ness.

Finally we arrive in Inverness and it’s a cute town but we decide to just drive through and go see Loch Ness.  There were the little brown information signs with Loch Ness and a picture of a Loch Ness Monster which was just funny.  We come upon the lake and it’s really windy and cold outside.  After we pulled up to a scenic point that had a staircase leading down to the lakes edge, I grabbed a water bottle, dumped the water and ran down to pick up some sand/rocks.  Margaret took a few pictures and before we froze, we ran back to the car.  And of course, we had to pee so we find a restaurant, sneak in and out and get back on the road heading back to Edinburgh and our hotel.

Because we haven’t driven enough, Margaret had mentioned that someone asked her if we got near St. Andrews, to grab him a golf tee so we thought, “why not, it’s sort of on the way home”.  Tried to put it in GPS and nothing.  Finally I grab the map and find a town near St. Andrews and type that in.  It finds it and then had the nerve to pull up St. Andrews Golf Club.  It’s about an hour out of the way so we decide that we’ll head that way and grab dinner and then return to our hotel.

Now we’ve filled up the petrol gas tank already like four times but it’s getting low again.  So I say that we’ll stop when it gets down to ¼ tank and refill it.  Driving on the motorway, we don’t see any service stops.  Get off on the road leading to St. Andrews – nothing.  Finally we are down to one block in the display for the gas.  Definitely interested in finding gas.  Every little town we would go through wouldn’t have a station.  How do you people exist?  Now the little block is blinking.  Uh-oh!  Each little town we pulled into disappointed us with no stations.  We finally found one and it was closed.  We continued along and were driving through farmlands as far as you could see.  Now, the little last block is gone and the entire gas display including the gas icon is flashing.  Thank you because we weren’t panicked enough.  We roll into this town and there are a few people walking about and we stop to ask this one guy.  He says, “Well, it’s not close but it’s the closest one.  Drive to the end of this street and take a right.  Follow the iron fence until it ends and then you will see a gas station on your left.”  If you could will a car to continue without gas, we did it that day.  Finally we see the station but I managed to miss the entrance so I pulled into the next street (hoping I don’t have to push this car).  I was so focused on the gas icon blinking that when I pulled back out into the street, it was in the right lane looking right at a car.  I corrected quickly and we coasted into the station.  Not cool.  Filled up the tank and continued to St. Andrews.

When we arrive, Margaret keeps saying how everything is closed because it’s Sunday.  I said, “Margaret, if you say that one more time, I’m dropping you off” and she laughed.  The town was beautiful.  We found some golfers who were coming from a driving range and asked directions. The pro shop was closed (because it was late – not because it was Sunday).  We decided to pull down this little side street and grab dinner at this cute Italian restaurant.

The waitress was from Pittsburgh but had come to St. Andrews to attend college and then met her husband who is Scottish and never went back.  We told her of our plight of trying to find a golf tee but everything was closed.  A man at the table next to us got up and walked over and handed us a bright lime green tee that said St. Andrews on it.  (Later we heard they litter the city with them.)  We ordered dinner which was fabulous.  Had a glass of wine to calm our nerves after the no-gas scare.  The waitress heard that my birthday was the 19th and brought me a brownie.  Just before then, six handsome guys walked in and sat down right next to us.  I didn’t know if I was tired or just getting old but I told Margaret that there was a time when she and I would have been sitting right in the middle of those guys.  I think I’m losing it.  Thanked our waitress for the wonderful surprise evening and we headed to our Barony Castle in Eddleston just south of Edinburgh.  This was the first time we were really driving in the dark with no street lights in very narrow roads.  But the moon was full and sitting low in the sky to help us out and when that didn’t work, the high beams did.

When we arrived at the hotel, we were greeted by Rudy from the desk and Ian helping with the bags.  My wi-fi on my cell phone stopped working so I had to use the computer at the hotel.  I was complaining to Rudy and he had them bring me a glass of wine.  Then he said, “It could be worse.  You could have a tour showing 24 people arriving tonight and have 34 show up!”  You win!  Now I’m really glad we checked in early that morning.   And then Rudy handed me a note from the Spa saying that I had a 9:30 am  massage scheduled for the next morning!!!!!  Yeah!!!  Checked emails and there was an email from Dave asking if I “left a zippy with sand or something in it in Holly’s room on the window sill?”  DAMNIT!!!  I told him it was sand (not drugs) and that I would try to swing by and get it on the way back to the ferry or have him mail it.   I updated Facebook and went to bed for the last day as a 43 year old.

Monday, August 19th – So thanks to the massage I have pending, I pop up at 8:00 and get myself showered and ready so we can grab breakfast first.  We head down to breakfast and there is a buffet but I’m not in the mood for all you can eat.  I’m already feeling pudgy enough in all my photos – the 40’s haven’t been kind – so I decide to order off the menu.  They had Eggs Benedict which is my favorite.  When it arrived, it had pesto sauce with it and was definitely the best Eggs Benedict I’ve ever had.  Now, 9:30, off for my massage.  I get to the spa and meet Noreen who is going to take care of me.  She asks if there is anything she should focus on.  I say, “Yes, I’m normally this wide (and I stretch out my shoulders proper) but thanks to driving on the left in narrow roads, I’m currently this wide (and I scrunch up as small as possible).”  She laughed and said she would fix that.

When finished, we exchanged emails and I met up with Margaret to get ready to head to Edinburgh.  Rudy had warned us about the parking and driving situation in the city.  He told us about a park and ride option.  When we got to the parking lot (not so bad no thanks to the GPS), we went to catch the bus and the wind was howling and super cold.  We decided to grab our jackets and scarves.  While waiting for the bus, there was a family with two young teen daughters.  Both had pin-up makeup on to the 10th power, high knee socks, low plunging necklines and cutoff shorts with their behind hanging way out the back.  If they were my kids, I wasn’t sure which part I would have beaten them for first.  Finally the bus comes and the driver (Mr. Pleasant) is of no help so I take pictures of some signs around us to show the next driver where we need to get off.

The bus gets to the city and there was a nice blonde lady who was helping all visitors on the bus so she guided us in the right direction.  We found a Starbucks and I saw my cute little Demitasse mugs with Edinburgh and Scotland on each but decided I would grab them on my way out so I didn’t have to carry them.  A little farther down we found a souvenir shop and I found a wine stopper, some post cards and the only Scottish thing I could afford – plaid tights.  The kilt that I wanted was almost 70£.  I’ll buy a knock off in the States.

P1110328We then went to the On/Off bus for the city and bought a ticket for the bus and the entrance to the castle.  We were hungry so we decided to grab a bite to eat before getting into the castle or on the bus.  Along the way we found a bagpiper and I went up to take a photo with him.  He asked what my favorite song was and I said “surprise me with something”.  He started playing and I laughed so hard.  It was “Yankee Doodle Dandy!”  Now, off to lunch.  We found this cute pub and went upstairs to have a bit of a view of the city.  When they brought the menu, we saw haggis.  So I said, “Ooh, Haggis. What meat is that anyway?” and the server laughed as she said “sheep innards”.    I thought it was sheep but didn’t think it was guts.  Gross!  Margaret and I laughed thinking about how we scarfed down the plate the day before.  So we went with the burger with brie to split and the caprese salad.

Now full (and completely grossed out about what we ate the day before), we take the on/off bus to the castle.  As we pulled up to the front, I saw a place called Thai Orchid to the right of the entrance and told Margaret that I wanted to eat dinner there.  Now, walking into the castle entrance, there are stands set up on either side.  A day or two before someone asked if we were going to the Tattoo.  I told them I’m not interested in tattoos and they said, “No, it’s a bagpiper performance that they do in the castle every year in August for 3 weeks during festival.”  Oh.  That Tattoo.  We looked into getting tickets but they were expensive and even if we could afford it, it was sold out.

P1110309There was a sign saying “Tour begins at” and it was ten minutes away.  We waited and David, an Irishman, showed up plaid pants to lead our tour.  Looking from the castle walls you could see land off in the distance and it was funny when said some tourists have asked if it was 1) United States, 2) France, 3) Ireland, or 4) Sarah Palin’s Russia.  He had great stories he told along the way and made for a fabulous tour.  We walked around by ourselves after for a bit and then went to catch the bus.

Margaret’s feet started hurting her so I had her sit down while I looked for the best route to the bus.  Normally you would just pick it up where it dropped you off but they closed off the street for the Tattoo.  What a mess.  So I found some stairs straight down the hillside to the bus where we first picked it up.  Get on the bus and finish the tour of the city.  We went around twice trying to figure out the best way to get back to the Thai restaurant.  Finally the driver helped us and had us get off at one stop, walk a block or two and then we’d be at the restaurant.  Found it!  As we walked in, they said we needed a reservation.  I stuck my lip out as far as I could and told her we would wait.  Finally she told us to come back in 20 minutes.  Across the street was a tiny narrow shop built right into the castle wall selling scarves.  I found one that looked most Scottish and then I found one that was tan and the owner told me that the scarf was Clan Thompson.  Perfect!  Iesha’s (Thompson’s) present for helping my roommate move in while I was away!   Back to the restaurant and they sat us pretty quick.  The food was exactly what I wanted.  I had a glass of wine and Chicken Penang Curry but this one had pears, peaches and pineapple instead of peppers which I can’t eat anyway.

Full and satisfied we head back to the Starbucks to get my mugs and head home.  As we walk Princes Street, we can hear the Tattoo and see the colors lighting up the castle from green to blue to purple.  We took some pictures as we walked and finally come to Starbucks . . . and it’s closed.  I looked like a kid with my face pressed against the window hoping they would open back up but they didn’t.  I was upset.  We get to the bus stop and I remember there is another Starbucks a couple blocks away and so I let Margaret sit for a minute and I run down there.  Nope.  Closed.  Finally the bus arrives and we head back to the car park and then drive to our hotel again in the dark. We both crashed as soon as we got there.  The trip is finally taking a toll.  Did I mention Margaret will be 68 in September?  That woman can hang!!!

Tuesday, August 20th – Wake up at the Barony Castle and I insist before we start our drive that we have those eggs Benedict once more!  Rudy was working that morning so I explained my dilemma of Starbucks being closed and said, “Here’s $60USD.  If you can get someone to pick up my two little mugs and ship it to this address, they can keep the change.”  He said, “I’ll be glad to do that for you and will even stick whatever is left over inside the mugs when I send it.”  Love that guy!  The funnier part is when he was running my credit card for the breakfast charges, he says, “Do you guys have chips in America?”  I said, “Yes, but we call them fries.”  So he looked at me oddly and said, “Fries?”  And then I realized he was talking about in the credit card and we both laughed hysterically.  I was so embarrassed.

After that, we loaded up and headed for our longest ride of the trip.  We decided that we would swing through Manchester which was only about 30 minutes out of our way to pick up my bag of Irish beach sand from Dave and have lunch if we had time and then cruise casually to the rental car place, drop the car off and start drinking heavily because we wouldn’t be driving the rest of the trip.   We left a little later than planned but were making good time . . .until . . . we get to a spot that has come to a complete standstill.  Parking lot.  There was a sign that said congestion between Exit 27 and 28 but no one was moving.  So, me reading the map and Margaret driving, I talk her into getting off at the next exit and we’ll try to go around it.  No good.  It was city driving and tons of traffic through this little town.  We finally decided to get back on the interstate and just see what happened.

As we got on the entrance ramp, it did manage to pass many of the cars and then we just drove in the emergency lane for a bit, went as far as we could go and then just when Margaret could get over, I held up the map with my staged “we’re not from here and so lost” look on my face which worked fabulously because the guy next to us took pity on us and let us in.  Margaret and I were thinking about how much we hate when people are driving across the Howard Franklin Bridge from St. Pete to Tampa and they cut in at the last minute for the Airport exit but this was an emergency.  Crept along with the others and finally it broke up (it was just two interstates merging very unsuccessfully).  We finally found a service station and let Dave know that we were super late and had to grab the sand and run.  We also had to fill up again (stupid petrol car!).  It didn’t take us that long to get to Dave’s but when we pulled up to his house, we both ran passed him for the bathrooms and then grabbed the sand, hugged him and ran back into the car like a Chinese fire drill.  We barely had time to take a picture of the guy riding his bike in front of us with his whole butt crack showing! Too funny to let slide.

Back on the interstate and moving along.  The GPS is telling us that it will be 2 hours and 30 minutes.  I said, “Margaret, screw the speed cameras!  We aren’t missing that ferry.  The next guy that flies past us, we are going to get right behind him and make up time!”  Every time she would slow up, I would say, “Faster, faster!” After about 1 ½ hours of that, I promised her that she could punch me in the mouth the minute we dropped off the car for pushing her to speed but we needed to move.  I also promised to pay any speeding tickets that were sent to us lovingly by the United Kingdom Government.  The more she sped, the less time was showing on the GPS so it was working.  I had bought a Cadbury Fruit and Nut Chocolate bar earlier in the trip and when we saw we didn’t have time to stop for lunch, Margaret and I split that candy bar.  It must have worked and given her a good sugar high.  When we started out, we were going to have 15 minutes to drop the car, get our boarding tickets, check luggage and get on the ferry.    As we got to Holyhead, we ended up with 45 minutes!  Go Margaret!!!!

We even had time to stop to fill the tank and then when we followed the signs for the rental car, it took us the wrong way but this lovely man Peter from Hertz told us to jump in the back of the car and he drove us to the curbside, helped us unload our bags and took the car for us.  What a guy!  We asked if they wanted to buy the GPS and they declined so I threw it in my bag thinking I’ll keep it for home or sell it on eBay.  Margaret checked in the car with the Hertz counter while I was getting the tickets at the Irish Ferries counter.

P1110678We dumped the luggage with this funny guy loading the bags.  He says to me, “Do you know what you give a girl who has everything?”  I said “No”.  He says, “Penicillin!”  I laughed so hard and just shook my head as I walked away.  While waiting on the bus to shuttle us to the ferry, I pulled out this bottle of wine I had from a day or two before and just started drinking right from the bottle.  Stress!    Margaret and I got on the ferry and found a chair.  This ferry was the Jonathan Swift and much faster than the cruise style ferry we had coming over.  Unfortunately, small and faster meant it was rocking pretty well.  I made the mistake of going to check out the Duty Free gift shop.  You had to dive from one display to the other and grab on.  I found a 20th Anniversary bottle of Jean Paul Gautier so I went ahead and picked that up.  Margaret was not loving the rocking so she had to go sit down.  When I joined her, I thought it was crazy how many older people were trying to walk around.  We had to almost catch them as they came by.

IMG_0285Arrive back in our new home town of Dublin, Ireland and grab a taxi to the Clontarf Castle.  The driver said he was dating a girl once that he took her to this hotel for a weekend and it was the most he ever spent on one woman.  Walking in to check in and the place is gorgeous!  The pictures didn’t lie.  I tried not to hop up and down in the lobby.  They gave us our keys and we went up to our room.  As soon as I walked into the room, the phone was ringing.  It was Marton!  My dear Marton and his wife Kate and their daughter Leila just happened to be in Ireland for their honeymoon (they never really had a chance until then with their schedules).  They arrived on the 19th and were going to drive around Ireland until the 27th and return to Boston.  Mama and baby were in for the night but Marton had called me to see if I could meet him in town for dinner.  He had rented a car but was afraid to drive in the city by himself which I don’t blame him.  As we are talking, there is a knock at the door and someone from the hotel is standing there with a dessert on a plate with “Happy Birthday!” written in chocolate.  I had a bit of sensory overload going on. Finally Marton and I decide to meet at the Starbucks in Temple Bar area.

Margaret was going to order dinner in and just relax but was afraid they wouldn’t let her order any wine because it wasn’t on the menu.  I grabbed the GPS (for United Kingdom and Ireland!), an unnecessary jacket since it was beautiful out and ran to the hotel desk to get a taxi.  I said to them, “Can you do me a favor and send a glass of Sauvignon Blanc to room 218 and get me a taxi?”  She smiled and got right on it.  The driver dropped me right at Starbucks the same time Marton was being dropped.  It’s been exactly a year since I’ve seen him since I spent my 43rd birthday in Boston with him and Kate (and the poppy seed was still in the belly).

P1110699We walked around trying to find a place that we could talk but that area has a lot of live music so we finally settled on an Italian restaurant where we could actually hear each other.  I ordered a glass of wine and a pizza that I made him share with me even though he already ate dinner.  He said he wanted to buy dinner since he might miss our anniversary this year.  (I love this man because even though he’s married to a beautiful, smart, funny – tolerable – woman with a fabulous new baby girl, he still remembers our anniversary of when he moved in as my roommate in October, 2004.  Two years ago, he and Kate took me out for our anniversary.  Good man!)  We talked about the baby and how much she’s grown and work and our friends and then I remembered the GPS!  I whipped it out and told him it was his honeymoon present.  At least we’ll get more use out of the money we spent on that dumb thing and it truly saved us along the way.  We were both so tired so we hugged and said goodbye and took our taxis in separate directions.  I was so glad to see him.  We still can’t believe we pulled that off.

Back to the hotel, there is a high school prom of sorts going on except all the kids are drunk.  One girl was wearing these huge platform stiletto chunky shoes and her date was trying to hold her up but was unsuccessful.  When she fell, her shoe came off and watching her trying to put the oversized shoe back on and get up in a beautiful ball gown just made me sad.  “Ladies!  If you can’t walk in them drunk or not, don’t wear them!”  Up to the room and Margaret is still up.  I filled her in on the evening with Marton and when I went to get into my single bed, it shot across the room.  Margaret and I were laughing because she had to push hers back against the wall too.  When she needed something, I would scoot the bed across the floor towards her and then scoot it back.  The room was great though and we looked forward to just sleeping in the next day with no agenda at all!

Wednesday, August 21st – Slept until 9:17 am.  It was great!  We got up, dressed and decided to take the city bus into the city centre and go walk through St. Stephen’s Green.  There was a cute family from Ireland that was on vacation in Dublin because they didn’t realize their daughter’s passport was expired and couldn’t do the vacation they planned.  We chatted with them and their two cute kids.  The daughter was very chatty and the father kept repeating “shhhh” in a very low voice to no avail.  We all hopped off in town and went our separate ways.  Margaret and I decided to hit Starbucks for a quick breakfast and then walk a bit.  We walked Grafton Street and this time I was in and out of shoe stores but I didn’t find anything that fit and was in my price range or that jumped out and screamed at me to come home.  At the end of the street is St. Stephen’s Green and it’s a beautiful park that takes up a couple city blocks.  We walked the entire outside of it and then relaxed for a bit at the center admiring all of the flowers.  Potty break needed so we pop into a Pub, use the facilities and then ask the server to bring us a Guinness and Champagne which we heard was called a Velvet Elvis or Black Velvet.  Margaret says, “I don’t think she understood us.”  Sure enough.  She walks up with a full pint of Guinness and a bottle of champagne and a glass.  So I took a few gulps of the Guinness for the team and then poured the champagne in.  It was actually pretty good and Margaret agreed that we could indeed drink this!

Leaving the pub, we start walking down other streets we hadn’t walked before and came upon this Thai restaurant and decided we would eat there.  I ordered my chicken Penang medium hot.  Even adding the rice to it, it was by far the hottest Thai I’ve ever had.  My face was sweating and my tongue was burning but it tasted good so I finished it like an idiot.  For the first time in 44 years of life I experienced that what goes in that hot and burning will also exit in the same fashion.  Not enjoyable.  But the food was great and the owner talked with us for a bit and invited us to come back soon (which each day doesn’t seem like such a bad idea).

We decide that we’ll head back to the bus, get back to the hotel, pack and just relax in the castle and maybe eat dinner in the bar.  Seemed like such a nice plan to end our trip.  When we get to the bus stop, the family from that morning was there waiting!  We asked them about their day and chatted the entire ride back to the castle.

The bus lets us off right around the corner from the castle but the family decides to go into a cemetery that is right there.  We think they were imagining that the cemetery would lead to the castle or something so Margaret and I followed them.  She and I stopped to check out some of the tombstone names and dates.  It looked just like a scene out of the Haunted Mansion at Disney World.  As we walked, we noticed that the family must have just walked through since we didn’t see them up ahead but didn’t think anything of it.

Finally we end up circling the cemetery and come back upon the wrought iron gate to find it chained tight with a deadbolt lock!  Margaret was sure that wasn’t where we came in but the more I looked at the tombstones around us, it WAS the entrance!  I started looking around super confused as to why someone would just lock up and leave like that without calling out to us and then looking to find another exit but there were 6’ castle stone walls all around the cemetery.  Panicking on the inside and staying calm on the outside, I call out from the gate and a man walks up.  He’s a bus driver and said he saw the guy lock it and leave.  Then he tries calling the number on the sign for the cemetery and it doesn’t go through.

A woman on a bike had stopped to get directions and was talking to another bus driver when they realized we were locked in the cemetery.  The first  bus driver had to leave so we started strategizing with the 2nd driver and the woman on how to get out.  The driver pushed the gates as far as he could which provided about a 2″ opening and I looked at him like, “Yeah, that’s not going to happen!”  Finally I see towards one corner that the grass is a bit higher so I run there (in my fabulous orange wedges), hand Margaret my stuff to hold because I want to see if I can at least get up on the top of the wall.  I manage to step on a broken tombstone leaning against the stone wall and lift myself up to the top of the wall which is about 2 feet thick.  The bus driver and woman were on the other side and said that if I could swing my legs around, each of them would grab a foot with their hands interlocked and lower me down which worked.  I hugged them both and then had Margaret throw my stuff over the wall to prepare to do the same thing.

Let me remind you that she is 67 (although no one believes her) and I’m sure her boyfriend and her son are going to kill me when we get home for trying this.  So Margaret steps on the broken tombstone (and I took her picture), lifts herself on top of the wall (and I took her picture), swings her legs over (and I took her picture) and then I got behind the other two as they lowered her down.  I said, “NO ONE IS GOING TO BELIEVE THIS!    YOU ARE A NINJA MARGARET!     I’M SO PROUD OF YOU!”P1110812



We introduced ourselves to Peter the bus driver and Dragana the bicyclist, and then took our heros’ pictures.  Dragana was laughing because as she hugged me, she could feel me shaking.  I was trying to calm down and finally said, “Margaret, you just can’t make this stuff up!”  We exchanged emails with the two rescuers and invited them to the castle for a drink.  Peter had to work or he would have joined us.  Dragana was visiting a friend at the nearby hospital so she said she would come by after.  Margaret and I walked up to the castle just shaking our heads and laughing.  How on earth did we get locked in a cemetery?!  The caretaker for the cemetery even came a half hour early because it was supposed to close at 7:00.  Closing early and YOU CAN’T CALL OUT TO SEE IF ANYONE IS INSIDE!  (The next day, Peter confronted the retired man in charge of the cemetery and told him “Two American women, guests in our country were terrified that they would have to spend a night in a cemetery, all because whoever was locking up, never bothered their barney – as we say here – to check if there was anyone in the graveyard.  Oh, rest assured Helene I sent the old guy away with a flea in his ear!  Now he did apologize and asked me how I rescued ye from your imprisonment and said he’d make sure to check in the future.”  Turns out that the old man was away that day and had asked his son to lock up for him.  Peter, on his route the next day took a picture of the wide open gates, posted them on Facebook renaming them the Margaret and Helene Gates.

Seriously though, Margaret is my hero and made 1,000 cool points.  For anyone sitting close to us, we would show them the pictures and they just laughed in shock at our feat.  The front desk, the bartender, a random man sitting next to us in the lobby.  We decided to post the picture of Margaret lying on the wall and ask “Just guess what’s happening. . . ”  The replies were hilarious. “Planking”, “Kissing the Blarney Stone”, “She’d fallen and can’t get up”, “Too much to drink and hoped her clothes weren’t dirty (thanks Janel!)”  We didn’t tell anyone because we wanted them to read it in this story.  Hope it was worth the wait!

P1110831Now we are drinking in the bar and Dragana shows up.  There was a small room with three big chairs and a table and the lady sitting there left so we grabbed it.  Margaret took our orders to the bar and the lady said, “Oh, you are in the dungeon.  No problem.”  We ordered a bottle of wine and Margaret and I split some Fish and Chips.  Dragana is from Serbia, married an Irishman and even though she’s no longer married, she still lives in Dublin.  She and I started to plan our future travels together.  She would tell me about her recent trip to Italy and I would tell her about Turkey.  She had the best laugh and we were all a bit slap happy anyway.  After we finished dinner, we said goodbye and Margaret and I headed upstairs to pack.  We would just keep looking at each other and laughing.  What a funny day.

Thursday, August 22nd – Up early and get a taxi to the airport.  We are going to fly standby to Atlanta and then on to Tampa.  Well, that was the plan.  There were plenty of seats originally but the day before, a JFK flight coming in had a jet engine on fire so they naturally didn’t load it up and send it back.  Understandable.  But that caused Delta to cancel the flight and stick the full roster of passengers on the other flights.  And in Dublin, you go through security, US Customs, security again and then go to the gate so they hold the standby passengers until they are sure they have a seat.  We watch every paid passenger go through the line, drop their luggage and head to the gate.  Finally there is a list of standby passengers and this lovely Delta employee named Vivian.  Vivian asked us to wait by the window away from the counter and when she confirmed a seat was open, she would run up to us, call the passenger and rush them through.  It wasn’t looking good because there were a bunch of us standing there.

With 40 minutes before the plane departs, Vivian comes up and asks for Mako/Fox and then says, “Will you be willing to split up?”  Before she finishes I say “YES! Fox, Margaret” and push Margaret towards her.  Margaret starts to cry and I tell her that I’m a professional standby passenger and at this point we just need to get back to the states.  There were two JFK flights that afternoon so I would try to make one of those and then buy a ticket if I couldn’t.   Vivian grabs her and brings her to the counter, processes her ticket and then hands her a FAST TRACK pass for security and customs.  I hug her and tell her to run and then they close the flight.

The others who didn’t make it start talking and some have been waiting a couple days and others came from Heathrow because they couldn’t get out there.  One guy was traveling with his mother and his brother who is an employee and was able to get on.  The reason Margaret was able to get on was because the first brother (non-employee) didn’t want to leave his mother but then he realized he could have just sent her by herself.  Oops.

One couple, Bob and Lucy, and I decided to grab breakfast and wait for the next two flights.  Around 11:00 we went back down to the gate area and watched as Vivian ran back and forth clearing the revenue passengers and then she started calling the standby and only the one brother and his mom were called and the flight was closed.   The next flight was leaving later that day but she told us it was very oversold and the next day didn’t look good either.  I spoke up for the group and said, “Vivian, whether any of us get on a plane today or not, we just wanted to thank you for the way you treated us today.”  We actually watched her realize that the bag conveyor belt had stopped working and ran someone’s luggage to the back.  All agreed that she was the best example of customer service even toward non-revenue standby passengers.

So realizing I wasn’t getting on, I tried to use the airport internet computers which were useless and book a flight using Travelocity.  They wouldn’t take my credit card so I had to convert a $20 to Euros and use those.  The flight price from Dublin to USA to Tampa jumped considerably and I realized it would be much cheaper to just hang overnight in Dublin and buy a ticket for the next day home.  It was only $1180 but when I hit submit, the wrong dates were chosen.  I was so busy looking at the time left on the internet and trying to finish the ticket that I didn’t notice I grabbed the wrong times.  I got another Euro and went back in trying to change the flight but it said to call Travelocity.  I emailed Jeffrey and asked him to help but then the computer shut off.  GRRR!  Finally Aer Lingus gave me a toll free number and let me use their phone.  I was able to completely cancel the reservation and then booked direct with Aer Lingus.  I went online and found a hostel in the city centre called SkyBackpakers just off O’Connell Street Bridge for 15€.

Very annoyed and then proud that I pulled it off, I exchanged another US $20 for 12.50€ and I had a few Euros left from the last $20 I exchanged, and then I headed for the bus to city centre.  Only had to walk about three blocks until I found the hostel but I was on the 4th floor with no elevator.  I had them lock up my larger carryon bag in storage and carried my other bag upstairs.  When I get to the room, there is a guy sleeping in one bunk bed and a girl sleeping in another across from the one I had.  I’m used to having girls’ only dorms.  Oh well.  Locked my bag and stuck it on my bed and headed downstairs.

The girl at the front desk tells me about the internet I can rent which is much cheaper than the airport and then says that they have free phone calls to the USA.  Great!  I grab the phone and Skype Call Jeffrey.  He tells me that he cancelled my reservation and rebooked it.  WHAT!?  Crap.  So I ask him to call back and cancel the second reservation since I already booked direct through Aer Lingus.  He wanted me to cancel mine because his was cheaper but at this point, I would rather pay the extra $60.  He also checked and saw Margaret on the flight to Atlanta and said that the next flight at 1:43 looked good but not the one at 2:50 that she was scheduled to take.  He said that he had to pick up some friends flying in from Bermuda later that night so if Margaret didn’t make it, he would bring her to the house to spend the night.  (I love my friends/family!)

After we hung up I sent an email to Margaret saying “READ ME FIRST” and told her about the flight.  She was scheduled to land at 12:30 and didn’t have a lot of time.  When it was about 1:30 EST, I used the Skype phone and called her.  She was standing at the gate for the 1:43 and was #13 on standby.  I told her to stay close to the counter in case they called her and watch the screen and if they called her to just hang up on me because I didn’t want her trying to say goodbye and miss the seat.  As we talked, she tells me that they moved her to #8 and then #3 and then the phone goes dead. LOL!  I guess she got a seat but I love that she listened to me.

She sent me a message that she was on the plane and I told her I was going to go out and grab a wine and dinner.  She was worried about me being alone but you guys know better than that!  I love the adventure of walking around a city by myself.  I loved being with Margaret but was actually thrilled to have one day to myself and relaxed knowing she would make it home safe and sound.

I walked to the Arlington Hotel O’Connell Street (the sister hotel to the Temple Bar hotel that we watched the show at in the beginning of our trip), sat in the open window café/bar watching people walk past drinking a wine and eating cheese.  After that, I walked the bridge over to Temple Bar area.  I ended up sitting at Arlington Temple Bar wanting to order a wine and the show had started.  The bartender says, “Weren’t you here last week with your mom?”  I laughed, “My friend Margaret!  How did you remember us?” and he just smiled and got me my wine.  I listened to the band and had a liver pate with crackers.  Then the server we had that first night comes by and says, “HEY!”  I loved it.  How do they remember when they get new people every night?  Margaret and I must be one of a kind.

Finally I went to Fitzpatrick’s and there were Irish dancers and a two man band playing music.  I found a seat by the window so I could listen and watch the crowds outside.   I ordered a wine and some chicken wings (no more chips or breaded fish or haggis!).  There were these two guys with an older woman sitting next to me and we started talking.  Johan and Martin were there with their mom for her 60th birthday and they were having a blast.  I took pictures of them and we exchanged emails and I warned them that they would be in the story.  Johan said he would dance salsa with me but needed a few more lessons.  I was willing to give him a couple but he declined.  I invited them to Florida and they invited me to Sweden.  Mom lives in Southern Sweden and the boys live in the middle.  I said, “Do we have any family in the north?!”  I also told them to never invite me unless you really mean it because I show up.

We hugged and they left since they were also flying out early the next day.  As I was finishing up my wine, the Irish band left and a solo guitarist came in singing popular American songs.  I was somewhat disappointed because I loved the Irish music but then I figured I would make the best of it and requested him to play Bryan Adams “The Summer of 69”, my song since I was born August 19, 1969.  He did a great job and all in the bar were singing along with it.  Finally I was tired from the stressful day.  I walked back across the bridge stopping half way to watch the moon over the River Liffey and dropped all my remaining coins in a cup for a homeless guy sitting on the bridge.  Back to my hostel thriving with kids in their early 20’s maybe all hanging out in the common area and I headed up to bed.  I stuck in my ear plugs and fell asleep with a 7:00 am wakeup call coming.

Friday, August 23rd – I never sleep before I fly so naturally I woke before my alarm probably to the liking of my roommates.  Headed to the bus for the return trip to the airport, dropped off one bag at the counter check in, wheeled the other through security once, US Customs and then security again.  There was an older couple in the line next to me and their bag fell over and a bottle of liquor broke.  The poor man picked it up as the liquor was slowly pouring out of the corner of the bag.  He wasn’t sure what to do with it so I suggested passing the bag around to everyone’s amusement.  He ended up throwing it away and a man behind me said “I liked your idea better.”  I tried.

Waiting near the gate, I was charging my phone and borrowed the phone of a sweet young lady next to me because my stupid wi-fi still isn’t working (APPLE!).  We are chatting away and checking emails and then I see that it’s 11:05 and my flight is supposed to leave at 11:25.  I thanked her and tossed her the phone, grabbed my stuff and ran across to the gate apologizing for being late as I see “Final Boarding” flashing on the display at the gate.  I slammed a glass of wine I bought (yes, it’s 11:05 am – don’t judge me!) and the agents say “No worries.  We are still missing almost 100 people who are stuck in US Customs.”  Great.  So I cruise back, get in my seat in the last row of the first section of the aircraft right next to the toilet but I’m on.  Some 45 minutes later, we finally take off and Aer Lingus informs me that the wine is FOR SALE!  International flights are always free.  WTH!  Like Ireland doesn’t have enough of my money!  So I bought two for the 7 ½ hour flight and watched three movies and kept my mouth shut.

I end up with a five hour layover in Chicago so I grab a bite to eat and a mimosa at a bar watching Little League World Series (I don’t have kids so you know how I feel about this).  Finally, at the gate for our flight, board and they explain that we will wait for one person who is coming from the other end of the airport.  Is this new?  This whole “waiting” for passengers thing.  Seems very kind except for all the others being delayed.   Not joking – 40 minutes later, this lady walks on and says, “Sorry, not my fault!”  Sit down.  We land in Tampa at 11:30 pm and Margaret is coming to pick me up.  I call her and she tells me Murphy is with her.  I say, “Crud!  Is he going to kill me?”   She says, “Why?” and I remind her that I had her locked in a cemetery and scaling walls at 67.  She laughed.   And then I said, “Do you still love me?” and she said, “Yes.”

My name is Helene and I’m addicted to Turkish Baths . . .

P1060815“Who wants to go to Turkey?!”  No one?  Again, people would ask me, “Why Turkey?” and I would say the same thing: “Haven’t been yet.”  Technically I haven’t.  Way back in 1998 just after my separation (thank you God), I went on my first international trip (Bermuda doesn’t count as that’s family) with my lovely friend Janice McIntyre (also known as AJ).  We did Athens and then a cruise through the Greek Islands which also brought us to Ephesus for the day.  The ruins were magnificent.  The vendors at the port – not so much.  We felt sort of molested and ended up racing back to the ship for safety.  So naturally, AJ reminds me of the “great fun” that was our impression of Turkey at that time.  15 years later, the government puts some lovely laws in place that forbid that kind of sales and marketing approach. 

I book the trip through Gate 1 Travel for the land only ($1,029 for 12 days).  I’m determined to do the Hot Air Balloon ride in Cappadocia so I commit in advance to get a discount on the price and guarantee my spot ($200).  Then I call the best Delta employee ever (sorry Jeff – you are out of passes), my dear friend Anna Seay and she sets up my Delta Buddy Pass for Tampa to JFK to Istanbul and back (and wishes me luck).   One day, a week or two before my trip, I looked up Pamukkale Hot Springs and Cappadocia Hot Air Balloon pictures on the internet.  That was a mistake!  I was so excited, my smile wrapped all the way around my head until my face hurt.  Then, my pal Gary Ross shows me how to download an app for my IPhone 4S that uses GPS and is a interactive map of the city of Istanbul.  I plugged in all of these locations and pinned them on my map.  I couldn’t wait. 

Sunday, May 19th – Margaret Fox (my future travel buddy) drops me at the airport shaking her head at my luggage.  Maybe because I’m stubborn or just like the idea that I can pack so well, I resolved to travel for two weeks through Turkey with a carry on suitcase (four pairs of shoes) and a red duffle bag for souvenirs.  I get my standby boarding pass, head to the gate.  The flight is scheduled to leave at 12:10 pm and I’m showing as #9 on standby (always the last one) and the monitor says there are only 3 seats left.  Thus the amazing race begins.  At about 11:45, getting more nervous, and noticing that they are not clearing passengers in standby at all, I over hear an announcement of a final boarding call to LaGuardia.  I look at the departure monitor and it shows the gate is two over (I love Tampa International Airport).  I decide to go to the gate and check.  The agent says, “We have one seat left.  Get on!”  Turns out a pilot was sitting in that seat but they moved him up to the cockpit in the jump seat (even though I begged to let me sit up there).   I rush on the plane, throw my luggage in the overhead and buckle up.  We landed 15 minutes before the flight that was going to JFK but now I have to run with my carryons to the taxi stand, wait in a very long line, it’s raining, finally get into a taxi heading to JFK.  Naturally due to the rain, the traffic is heavy.  I get to JFK-Delta international and make a run for the security line.  The line isn’t that bad but there is a TSA agent checking for flights that will be leaving in the next hour.  I batted my eyelashes and explained that my flight to Istanbul will be leaving in 40 minutes.  He motions me to follow him and we cut the line.  Now, through security, running like OJ Simpson through the airport, I get to the gate, look at the monitor and burst out laughing.  I’ve been assigned seat 6G (window seat, first class).  Whoo hoo!

Once on the plane, the attendant asks if I want champagne or orange juice to which I just answered, “yes!”  She laughed and handed me the mimosa.  I was sitting next to a guy going to Ankara, Turkey (the Capital) for business.  He happens to work in the power plant business.  He was super funny.  Travels to Turkey a lot and is not as excited as I was going.  He kept making fun of me for taking pictures of clouds out the window.  He said, “I love this flight because the women get on dressed in regular clothes and about 30 minutes prior to landing, they put on the ‘tent’”.  Coming back he says that they wait for the seat belt sign to go off and change into western clothes for the rest of the flight.  I guess “out of sight – out of mind”? 

Watched a few movies, ate a lovely dinner and a hot fudge sundae just because I can, and drank mine and two others share of the Tuscan red wine.   Slept like a brick (thanks to the wine I’m sure).  At one point, I opened the window shade while we were across the Atlantic and I have to say that the stars are so taken for granted.  The sky was so full of them and it was beyond beautiful.  I closed my eyes and said a little prayer thanking God for my eyes because I’ve seen the most beautiful things in the world and haven’t seen the half of it yet.

We landed around 10:00 am on Monday, the 20th.  It took about 10 minutes to get my visa for Turkey ($20 USD) and then made it quickly through passport control.  I went straight to the ATM, got some Turkish Liras (TL 1.80 = $1 USD).  Now, even though I had already looked at a map and determined for about 3TL, I could take the metro to a tram stop and then to my hotel in about 50 minutes, I had promised my friends who were worried I would get kidnapped that I would just spring for the $25 shuttle to the doorstep of my hotel.  While making the shuttle reservation, I asked the guy how to say “thank you” in Turkish.  He said “teşekkür ederim” and I looked at him like, “what?”  I’m sorry but if you want people to be polite, you need to make it easier.  So he says, “Try this.  Say ‘Tea Sugar A Dream’”.   For the next two weeks, I would say “tea sugar a dream” and people would laugh at me.  But they got what I meant.  (Americans!) 

The next thing I asked about was the famous Turkish Baths or Hammam.   He gave me two names on a piece of paper and then sent me with the driver.  Because I was flying standby, I went ahead and booked a hotel for the 20th and 21st on for $57 a night.  The hotel was called Seres Hotel and was located in the Old City very close to the Blue Mosque and right on the tramline.  The people at the hotel were fabulous and so helpful.  The hotel itself was very nice.  My room was facing inside (no view) and the bed was like sleeping on a cement floor but it was clean and safe and the hotel had a rooftop terrace for dining that looked over the Golden Horn waterway and the city.  I dropped my bags in my room and went back to the front desk to inquire about the Turkish baths.  He recommended the second one on my list from the Shuttle guy which was only two tram stops away called Cemberlitas.  I grabbed my bathing suit and headed for the tram.  Found the tram but couldn’t figure out how to get on so a lovely man pointed at the token machine across the street and I bought two tokens.  Read the map (just like NYC) and hopped on. The next stop up was Sultanamet which I had no idea was the real name of the Blue Mosque so as we cruised by and I look over and see the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia right across from it, I just giggled like a kid.  Next stop was mine.  Hopped off and see the bathhouse.  I’m starving which is funny because I ate like I was going off to war on the plane…  I stood between two vendors on the street looking back and forth.  One had beef/lamb and the other had chicken on a spit.  Thinking nutrition, I went for the chicken.  Unfortunately, he stuffed it into a pita pocket with a bunch of French fries and tossed some garlic mayo on it.  I won’t lie.  It was delicious.   

P1060749I enter the bath and have absolutely no idea what I’m doing.  The young lady behind the counter points at some picture options so I decide to go for the Traditional Turkish Massage bath and follow it up with a Hot Oil Massage.  Don’t I sound like a regular princess!  I paid 117 TL which is about $65 USD.  They hand me a little draw string bag with some items in it and point to the women’s side of the bath (separate baths).  I walk down the hallway and people keep pointing in the direction I need to continue (thank you) until I’m finally handed a red and white cloth a bit smaller/thinner than a bath towel and shown the lockers.  She points at the locker and the non-slip sandals.  After dumping my personal belongings into the locker, I change into my two piece blue and purple stripped bathing suit.  Then I take my little cloth and the pouch and head to the bath.  (I had been to a Turkish bath in Budapest and remember borrowing my friend Marton’s mother’s bathing suit.  So I mistakenly thought I knew what I was doing.)  When I go through the door to the bath, I find a sauna room in a circle with little alcoves coming off in each corner with fountains of waters and one has a hot pool and a jacuzzi of sorts.  In the middle is a large marble slab and there are women wearing only the black bottoms (that they provided in the pouch – oops) lying on their red/white clothes enjoying the sauna and waiting their turn for the Turkish massage.   There are these chubby Turkish women wearing the black bottoms and black bras leading the women around the spa area scrubbing them, soaping them up and rinsing them down.  I felt like an idiot in my two piece bikini so I lost the top at least so I didn’t look too much like and American prude.  I hit the hot pool first and then rinsed myself with the cooler water from the fountain and crawled up on the slab to wait my turn. 

These women might not speak English but if they see you have a yellow chip in your pouch, they grab you.  That’s for the Traditional Massage.  So my little chubby lady grabs me and has me lie down in front of her face down.  It’s crowded today so I have one woman whose head is near my feet and I have another woman who has her feet in my hair.  Finally I just let it go and relaxed.  I had on the previous weekend gotten too much sun so my shoulders and back were peeling.  She took one look at that and grabbed the little hand mitt in my pouch and started scrubbing.  When done on that side, she kindly, yet firmly, said, “over” and I flipped like a pancake.  She scrubbed my front side and then had me sit up in front of her.  After scrubbing my arms and neck and face, she had me lay down again and repeated the whole process with a bunch of suds. Then she grabbed a bowl and water from the fountain and rinsed me off.  Finally, she takes my hand and walks me to the fountain, says “sit” and points to my hair.  I had it in a tight bun so I let it loose and her eyes got really wide.  I said, “I know.”  She pours water over my head and then shampoos my hair, rinses and then smiling points me towards the pool again.  I go dip in the warm water for about 10 minutes and then head out to the waiting area greeted with hot fluffy towels to queue up for the next treatment.  Again, they see the different color chips and saw my red Oil Massage chip.  A younger lady grabs my hand and leads me upstairs to an alcove in one of the domes with nice sunlight dimly coming through and has me hop on the table for the oil massage.   40 minutes later as she finishes my face massage, she taps me with her pointer finger on the nose, smiles and says, “Finished”.  I almost hugged her.  I went slowly to the showers and rinsed off, back to the dressing room to change and they even had a station with hair dryers so I managed to dry my hair a bit, put it back in a knot and head out.  I had the dumbest smile on my face and felt like a wet noodle.  Best possible treatment for travel anxiety (buddy passes/amazing race) and jet lag.  What could possibly welcome you to the country better!? 

So now, I’m refreshed, feel like a million dollars and I decided to scope out the city a bit more.  With every block I walked, I felt more and more safe.  I’m a big landmark person so once I recognize something, I know I’m on the right track.  I made a turn to check out a local mosque (they are everywhere!) and before I knew it, I was in the Grand Bazaar (missing my girl Mariela.  She would have been in heaven).    I walked up and down the aisles that seemed to never end.  And then I stumbled across a little shoe just like the ones I collect.  They had three of them so I chose the pretty light blue one that would remind me of the Blue Mosque.  I found a necklace pendant and had a nice conversation with a guy from Pakistan.  I’m telling you that we are very fortunate to live in the USA.  What other people go through is crazy.  And remember, you don’t get to pick where you are born. 

After my stroll, I decided to head towards the Blue Mosque.  I wanted to get pictures on the outside in case it rained the day we were going with the tour group.  As I approached the mosque (still giggling from excitement) a man approached me in the Hippodrome telling me where the best photo of the mosque can be taken.  I remember guys like him at the Taj Mahal and they usually wanted tips for helping but this guy (like 100 more I realized during my stay in Istanbul) wanted to sell me a carpet.  So after he showed me the picture, he points to his carpet store and insists I come look.  They offered me a Fanta orange soda and started throwing 100 carpets at me.  I just laughed because anyone who knows me knows I wouldn’t spend a dime on a carpet for my house mostly since I’M NEVER HOME!  It was even funnier when he says that since I’m his first customer of the day (at 6:00 pm), he will cut the price down to $4,000.  Really?  I guess in some people’s worlds, that’s a good price but it’s not going to happen.  So I take his card and tell him I’m meeting friends for dinner (1, to get away from him and 2, to let him know someone is expecting me so I’m not kidnapped – I hate for my friends/family to be right.)  I scoot out, take more pictures from every angle (including lying on the ground in the archway getting THE perfect shot, meet another nine men wanting to show me their carpets and then I head back to my hotel to get ready for dinner.  I showered, did my hair and headed up stairs to have dinner on the roof top terrace.  The view was gorgeous.  The waiter was an older man who decided he wanted to spoil me further so I kept getting extra things.  I ordered a glass of wine and he brought me a ½ bottle.  I wasn’t sure what to order first from the menu so he brought me a little of everything.  I did order the cheese filled fried dough and remembered my lovely student Meriç from Turkey used to make me that.   

I know I promised that I wouldn’t head out on my own at night but everyone told me how safe it was and to stay on the tram line.  So I decided to walk to the Blue Mosque and get some night pictures.  IMG_0322It was a beautiful evening and the stores were open until midnight so the street was lit up and I felt very safe.  I finally came upon the Mosque and Hagia Sofia lit up and it was well worth the 15 minute walk.  There were people everywhere.  I took pictures and walked around until I found some live music.  I asked the waiter if they had wine and he said, “Madam, we are located right in the area of the Mosque so we do not serve alcohol but we have fabulous tea.”  I passed because I didn’t want the caffeine to keep me up.   Listened to the band for a bit and then walked back to the hotel.  Finally tired, I went to my room and went to sleep (on the slab they called a bed – it’s a mistake to buy a fancy comfy mattress at home and then travel to third world countries…)

Tuesday, May 21 – Remember my lovely prayer to God about my eyes?  Well, I woke up and my left eye was all red and junky.  Nice.  There is a lot of dust in Istanbul and I’m definitely allergic to something because I sneezed a dozen times when I arrived.  I had brought a backup pair of contacts and glasses but wasn’t digging wearing them yet.  So I rinsed it as much as I could with my saline solution and headed out for the day.  Had breakfast at the roof top terrace taking in the scenery and then headed out looking for a post office to get stamps and mail my post card to Nana.  Everything is 100 meters when you ask.  So the post office was supposed to be 100 meters on the left.  I get there and don’t see it.  Ask again.  100 meters up and then take a right.  Nothing.  Just a big glorious building with columns and a bunch of kids on a field trip passing by.  Ask again, and they point at this building.  I found the grand-daddy of post offices.  Mailed the post card, said “hello” to all the kids as they passed by me on their tour of how the mail works. 

I ended up just walking and came out by the Golden Horn which branches off from the Bosphorous Straight (not River, thank you Cem!).  I decided since I was going to see the city with the tour that I would try to hit some other places.  Took the tram to the end which is Kabatas and checked out the ferry times to Princes’ Island.  I also decided to grab a sandwich to take with me because I wasn’t sure what was available on the island.  When I picked up the sandwich at a shop near the ferry, the young lady smiled when I did my best Turkish “thank you” and handed me a piece of baklava.  If that’s not encouragement, I don’t know what is. 

The info I read said that Princes’ Island was not to be missed.  These islands were once used as a place to exile princes and other royalty but are now a popular resort/vacation place to get away from the busy city.  There are no cars on the island but you can rent bicycles or horse drawn carriages.  But I didn’t realize it was more than one island.  When an Irish girl next to me asked which island I was going to, I had to go into my IPhone guide and look.   P1060971Her and a friend said because they just wanted to lie at the beach, they were going to hop off on the first island to maximize their time.  As I read, I decided to go to the fourth/last island which is the largest and just take the horse drawn carriage to the top, have a wine and come back.  While cruising the Bosphorous towards the islands (entire trip was 1 hour 45 minutes total including four stops), a man stands up and starts doing a demonstration/sales pitch like an infomercial on a tool that you punch down into the top of a fruit (he had a lemon), screw it in and squeeze the lemon.  All of the juice goes up the tool into a little cup with a lid.  He pops the lid and pours the lemon juice into a glass and hands to the man next to him.  Everyone clapped and he proceeded through the ferry selling them left and right.  Half an hour later you hear, “Ladies and gentleman!”  Here we go again.  This guy had a vegetable peeler.  The Dutch couple across from me shook their heads.  Yet people bought it!  You never know when you are going to need a peeler.

Finally arrive to Buyukada, the largest and last of the Princes’ Islands.  As I get off, there is a swarm of people and the island is very crowded.  I work my way through to the beginning of the town and there is a Starbucks right on the corner.  Yes, I laughed.  Bikes were flying in all directions and I figured that wasn’t a wise way to go.  So I started walking and found the horse drawn carriages.  There was a handsome guy in line and I mentioned that I would like to share a carriage with someone to which the guy organizing said, “NO!” and sent the man off by himself.  A German family of three in front of me turned and said, “You can come with us?”  Great!  The attendant didn’t think so but he’ll live.  Up in the carriage with Thomas, Petra and their 10 year old daughter Isabella.  Both parents spoke great English but Isabella would just laugh at my accent.  We rode passed all these beautiful houses and I kept making a note of all the stopped bicycles with people nursing wounds and realized I am getting smarter in my old age.  I told the family about the top of the hill where there is supposed to be a place to have wine/beer and Thomas was all for it.  So when we came to the stop at the top, the driver said we had five minutes.  We asked for ten and he insisted five.  Thomas and I ran for the restaurant to get our drinks.  He got a beer for him and Petra and a juice for their daughter.  I got my wine.  While I sipped it, I see a man doing calligraphy on plates and ask him how much for a plate with my name.  He went through all the prices and options and I choose a small plate.  He did a beautiful job and marked it Istanbul, 21/05/2013.  The carriage driver came by and we bought him a Turkish tea and I batted my eyelashes in order to buy ourselves some more time.  Finally, he’s ready to go.  Thomas and Petra finished their beer quickly but red wine cannot be slammed.  So I asked for a plastic cup, poured the wine in and headed to the carriage with them laughing behind me.  Wine is very expensive in Turkey which is odd since they have great wineries there???  Muslim country – not many drinkers I suppose? 

P1070069When we arrive back to the bottom, the family and I were going to split the ride but they decided to only charge me 20 TL instead of 30 since I was a party of one.  They asked what I was going to do and I said, “Well, I was going to walk around a bit and didn’t know if you guys wanted some quiet family time.”  They laughed and said they’ve had plenty and to join them.  While walking, Petra found a bakery and went in to get some baklava.  She bought about six pieces and they wrapped it up for her.  I decided I wanted one to eat then and the guy started to put it in a box and I told him that I wanted it just on a napkin.  When he handed it to me, I asked how much and he smiled and said it was a gift.  I thanked him and started nibbling on it.  Thomas said, “Wow!  That eyelash thing really works!”  We walked up and down the boardwalk checking out the expensive seafood and finally sat down at a water front table and order some meze (tapas) which included octopus, dill yogurt, spicy salsa and bread.  Time to get back on the ferry.   We decided to take the 6:00 ferry instead of the 8:00 since it’s a 1 ½ hour ride and we didn’t want to risk a full boat and not getting on.  No sooner had we sat down when we hear, “Ladies and Gentleman!”  Petra and I looked at each other and started laughing.  The peeler salesman was back.  At one point, Petra and were laughing about the peeler and bringing it home to someone saying “Hey, look what I got you in Turkey!”.  We laughed until we cried. 

I had heard that two Brazilian tourists died in a hot air balloon ride in Cappadocia just after I arrived in Turkey.  Petra and I were talking about the story and how people don’t want me to do the balloon ride.  I finally said that I’d rather go doing something I love instead of a dumb accident at home.  She told me that her mother always says, “It’s better to die in New York City than in my hometown in Germany.”  I like her mother.  I finally said that people die in car accidents every day all over the world and yet people get in their car and drive without blinking.  I’ll take my chances on the hot air balloon ride.   

Back to Kabatas, the family and I took the tram back to the old city.  I was getting off one stop before them.  It was probably rush hour and the tram was packed.  Nothing like standing in a packed tram on a hot day, hanging onto the loops with some smelly guy’s armpit in your face.  Thomas and I kept laughing to ourselves as we looked around.  Finally, this one guy gets right up against me and there is more room than he’d like to believe so I finally at a stop just took my hands and gentle pushed his hips back away from my pelvis.  I thought Thomas would cry.  Finally get to my stop, hugged the family goodbye and jumped off.  They really made my day.  I love meeting wonderful people.  Went back to my hotel, cleaned up and decided to try one of the side street cafes before calling it a night.  You are never alone in Istanbul.  There are CATS EVERYWHERE.  No wonder my allergies were killing me.

Wednesday, May 22 – Today I leave Seres hotel and head for the Grand Gulsoy to meet up with my tour.  The helpful staff at Seres told me that I could easily take the tram and it would be much cheaper so they mapped out my route and off I went.  When I got to the turnstiles for the tram, the nice tram attendant opened a side gate.  I had to go four stops and then walk down a side street.  As I walked, I stopped to ask a man for directions and he waved his hands and said, “No!” so I kept on and found the street I needed to turn on anyway.  (Later as I walked by and he beckoned me into his shop I said, “No because you wouldn’t help me earlier.”   And then he remembered me.) 

I get to the Gulsoy and its right across from a beautiful mosque and it’s a very nice hotel.    They let me check in early and I get a room with a view of the alley on the 5th floor (not the lovely mosque).   But the bed was softer and the room was nice.  Dumped the luggage and headed out to take the tram to the Dolmabahce Palace per my lovely salsa dancing Turkish friend Cem (who also yelled at me for calling the Bosphorous a river…).  Completed in 1856 and the location where Ataturk died.  This palace has a very European design and the most beautiful chandeliers.  One of them weighs 4.5 tons and hangs in the main banquet hall.  I took the tour of the palace and the harem which is the private quarters of the Sultan, the Queen Mother and the women who bore the Sultan a son.  Ataturk made Turkey a democracy in 1924 and the palace was a summer home and also where he died of cirrhosis.  (My friend Eric C. tells me that Ataturk was quite the drinker with his government board and they would supposedly enact all these laws in the middle of the night after heavy drinking and then wake up the next day and have to repeal them.  Love it!).   

After the tour, I looked at Cem’s other suggestions, one being Ortakoy.  It’s a beautiful waterfront district with shopping and dining.  I had to take a taxi because the tram stops just before the place.  It was about 15 TL because he dropped me 800 meters from the location due to traffic.  Once I walked to the scenic waterfront, I see a four story Starbucks.  I was hungry and hadn’t had lunch yet but I was hoping to find this restaurant/bar Cem told me about called Angelique’s but it was closed.  I had to be back to the Gulsoy for the Gate 1 tour welcome dinner so I settled for a hot chocolate.  (Eating at American chains in Turkey is severely overcharged.  I think I paid $6 USD for my drink.  I heard the same about McDonalds which I wouldn’t be caught dead eating.)  I walked to each level and there were students studying and friends chatting over coffee.  The top level looked out over the Bosphorous so I sat there for a bit and enjoyed my treasure in a cup.  I walked around for a bit but decided I needed to start making my way back to the old city.  I saw a ferry pull up and went to inquire about it.  There were two Turkish college girls also wanting to board the ferry.  It took us to Eminonu (which I called M&M the whole trip) which is in the old city but the guy said it was 10 TL.  He ran back to the boat and the one girl pulled out her transport pass, placed it on the reader and went through and then told me to come through and put the pass on the reader again.  Her friend came through as well but then the guy came back to us insisting it was 10 TL and by then the boat was leaving.  I felt so bad that they paid for themselves and me (even if it was a discount) so I offered to share a taxi with them to Kabatas where I can catch the tram.  They agreed and we went to get the taxi.  P1070145The driver looked at all three of us and was trying to figure out how we were traveling together as they both had head coverings on and I was obviously not Turkish in a pair of Capri pants and a tank top.  While in the taxi, we all start introducing ourselves but the driver doesn’t speak English.  The one young lady who paid for me at the ferry is called Gulnazli and she has these beautiful long eyelashes and is studying theology at Marmara University.  She was born in Canada and speaks English, French and Turkish but now lives in Istanbul going to school.  Her friend, Selvihan, is Canadian as well but only spoke French.  I gave them my email and phone number to keep in touch while still in the taxi.  Once we got to Kabatas, Gulnazli spoke with the driver and ended up giving him 10 TL as he wanted more.  Once out of the car, I tried to give her the lira back and she wouldn’t take it.  I hugged them both and got a picture of them.  Gulnazli asked someone else to take all of our picture.  Later that night, she sent me a friend request on Facebook and made sure I made it to my hotel with no problem.  So happy to have met them!!!

Once at Kabatas, I took the tram to Galata Tower, which looks over the entire city and I got some great pictures.  (This is also near Taxim Square where the protests turned into riots and where we all avoided later in the trip.)  There was a couple there and I asked them to take my photo for me and then I took theirs.  (Later Vlad and Anna ended up walking into the welcome dinner and we laughed when we saw each other.)  After, I was walking back down to the tram and hear some salsa music and saw some incredible funky shoes.  It was a sign.  So I went in and there was a nice lady working who showed me the different shoes (very expensive).  I was dancing as I walked through the store and she caught me and asked me to do more.  Being the shy person that I am I danced.   Then I bought a pair of earrings that I could afford and she thanked me for the entertainment.  Finally back on the tram and it’s like sardines!  When I got to my stop, I had to push my way through to the door and I shot out like a baby being born.  Crazy.  I get to the hotel, dress for dinner and head to the welcome meeting/dinner.  I was starving since I only had the hot chocolate but we couldn’t eat yet.  So I snuck into the dining area and wiggled my finger at the head server and explained that I wanted red wine.  He brought me a ½ bottle and a glass which I charged to my room and then walked into the meeting and sat down.  I’ve officially become the tour wino.   People trickled in and sat down and introduced themselves.  We met our guide Ibrahim who seemed very nice.  There were two Gate 1 tour groups and we were bus 2.  About 40 of us. 

After a brief introduction and some instructions (my favorite being that we will rotate on the bus so everyone has a chance to sit in the front, we went for dinner.  I joined two couples traveling together, the husbands being cousins who grew up together.  George and Christina and Mike and Diane.  Also Barbara and Charles sat with us.  Barbara shocked us all by saying that she and Charles have six kids.  I was surprised they could afford to travel!  George immediately became the character of the tour and my future accomplice along the way.   We had a lovely buffet dinner and I finished my little bottle of wine.  The foursome decided to go out for a drink in the city and I joined them.  We ended up at a street café.  Once we were sat, the server brought the menu for drinks.  I ordered red wine, the others ordered water or tea and George orders a Gin Martini.  And that’s when it started . . .

Server: “You want gin?” 

George:  “Gin Martini”

Server:  “So you want a Martini”

George:  “Yes, with Gin”

Server:  “So you want Gin?”

George:  “Yes, in the martini.  No vodka.  Gin!”

Server:  “I don’t understand which one you want?”

George: “Come with me…”

And George walks the server off to the kitchen and proceeds to do a class on how to make a gin martini.  It was hilarious.    We enjoyed the drink and split some dessert and headed back to the hotel.  I knew this trip would be fun.

Thursday, May 23 – First day of the tour.  We load up on the bus and head to the Blue Mosque.  First we toured the Hippodrome where they used to do chariot racing and they have obelisks depicting different battles/events.  Then we went to the Blue Mosque.  The morning started clouding up and sure enough, when we get to the mosque, it starts to sprinkle.  I was so happy to have taken decent shots the days before!  Once inside, we were able to take pictures and walk around.  P1070250I started working on my artistic shots using the wrought iron and the beautiful ceilings.  I took one picture that looks like an eye.    Next we went inside the Hagia (St.) Sophia.  Beautiful marble decor.  I love seeing how they alter the church/mosque/church to conform to the religious teachings.    After the tour of St. Sophia, there was a free lunch and then an optional tour of Topkapi Palace and the Underground Basilica Cistern.   I decided to go on my own for two reasons.  1)  I’ve been running around the city by myself for three days and knew the layout pretty well and 2) I would be stuck with 40 people on a bus touring for the next week and a half and wanted some “Helene time”.  So off I went.  I needed to hit the ATM again but I was dying of thirst.  I had 10 TL and went to buy a bottle of water.  The owner handed me the water and said he didn’t have change so just come back later.  🙂  Okay.  Found the ATM and the Basilica Cistern which was from the 2nd and 3rd centuries.  Paid the small entrance fee and once inside bought the audio tour.  P1070328As you go down the stairs and see the columns coming out of the water with dim lighting, it was so beautiful I gasped.  Walking along, you can see the koi fish swimming below the walkway.  At the end, two of the pillars were found to have the head of medusa (one of my favorite mythological characters) carved into the stone.  One was upside down and the other was sideways.  I took some great pictures.  Next it was off to Topkapi Palace.  Was the Sultan’s palace for over 400 years (1465 – 1856) and is a museum now.  They had a treasury room with beautiful thrones covered with jewels and a diamond that was 56 carats.  Also the famous Topkapi dagger made in 1747 is on display.  Covered in gold with three large emeralds and on the top of the dagger is a watch with an emerald lid.  Then the sheath for the dagger is covered with diamonds and enamel.   The last room I went through was the Relic Room.  I found it hard to believe that they had the following on display and claimed it to be original???:  Cloak of Muhammad, one tooth, a hair of his beard, the staff of Moses, Joseph’s turban and a crown that the apostle John had.  My religious readings tell me that John was exiled to Patmos and never made royal headwear but we’ll let it slide today…

I’m definitely allergic to the palace trees or something.  I was sneezing and my eye wasn’t getting any better and in fact was looking worse so I walked into a pharmacy and pointed at my eye.  The Pharmacists grabbed two boxes.  One an eye drop and she wrote “3 x 2” meaning three times a day, two drops and then the other box which contained an ointment tube and she wrote “1 x 1” or once a day.  She made a circle motion on her eyes asking in general if I wore contacts.  I nodded yes.  She made the motion to take the contacts out and I nodded yes.  I went to pay and it was 10 TL; basically $6 USD.  No offense Dr. Marantz.  My eyes mean the world to me and you take fabulous care of them but I think I would have paid a LOT more than $6 USD.  I figured I would wait until bedtime and start the whole treatment shebang. 

So now, I have just enough time to grab some lunch and then head off to TURKISH BATH #2!!!!!.  I found this cute restaurant that has an open window with a lovely young lady sitting at a round table.  She would roll the thin dough out and then fill it with potatoes or cheese and spinach, fold it in half and place on a hot dome pan just like the nomads of Abraham’s day.  I had to try it.  (It became my favorite food on the trip quickly).  I sat inside on these lovely pillows at a low table and had a glass of wine and one of those Gozleme with cheese and spinach dipped in garlic yogurt.  Heavenly.  Then I see on the menu that they have a dessert one.  The menu showed halva, chocolate, honey and raspberry.  I ordered that and the waiter asked which one.  I laughed and said, “All of them!”  The girl making them saw my order and smiled at me.  I’m not a huge dessert fan but that was possibly one of the best ethnic desserts I’ve ever had.  I finished it and looked at the cook, smiled huge and rubbed my belly and she laughed and nodded her head as if to say “You’re welcome.”    Now, completely satisfied from lunch, I head back to Cemberlitas Hamami.  This time, I walk in, order the same treatments, take the pouch, change into the black bottoms, grab a bottle of water (I was dying of thirst last time) and headed for the traditional bath.  Along the way, I would see people walking, looking around and looking lost.  So naturally I would ask them if they needed help or direct them.  I’m the guru of Turkish Baths now!  It felt good saving people from themselves (unlike me).   As I walked in, my chubby little Turkish lady grabbed my hand and got right to work.  Scrubbed me liked I’ve lived outside for 10 years.  Soaped me down.  Rinsed me off.  Washed my hair.  Sent me to the pool.  After, I just sat on the marble of the sauna for a bit and watched the other ladies being scrubbed.  I kept thinking, “Who on earth came up with this?  I’d love to high five them!”  Next off to the oil massage.  Perfect.  I’m heading on the bus the next day for the land tour of Turkey and I couldn’t think of a better way to wrap up the solo leg of my trip.  I felt like a new born baby.  NO ONE felt better than I did.  Back to the hotel and met the group for dinner.  My little head waiter guy sees me and does the finger to the mouth shush symbol and grabbed a ½ bottle of wine and handed it to me.  I love this guy.  I head up to my room, take out my contacts and toss them in the trash, put in the eye drops and then the nasty gross ointment and crawled into bed.  

Friday, May 24th – We get up early and have breakfast before getting on the bus to head for Troy.  I decided that today I would wear my glasses only and no makeup so that my eye would heal faster in time for the hot springs and balloon ride.  Vanity aside.  Priorities!  We start our drive and head for the ferry that will take us and our bus across the Dardanelles which connect the Sea of Marmara with the Aegean Sea.  We cross from Europe into Asia.  Just before we cross, we have time to stop for lunch so I decide that I would run to the other side of the marina port to try something else since the entire tour is taking over one restaurant.  I love people and I love the tour group but I love to not be cattle as much as possible.  Stan and Chris have the same idea and we end up having lunch together at a small little place right on the water.  Stan ordered the sardines (icky – I tried it), Chris ordered the calamari (fabulous) and I ordered the grilled octopus (again, fabulous!).  I asked for a glass of wine.  The server brought it and it was bad.  I asked if he could bring me a different fresher one.  He ends up bringing me a tiny bottle of Turkish Dry Red wine.  It was great and I got to keep the bottle to fill up with my sand (or rocks as it turned out).  A cat joined us at the table begging so I shared a sardine with him before we rushed off to meet the group.  There was a storm so the wind had picked up. No clouds or rain but the seas were very rough.  The ferry plowed through no problem but the wind on the top desk would blow you over.  Finally we land on the other side and head to our first stop which is Troy (Troia).  I joked that I wanted to finally confirm if the ships were really coming for Helena or did they take one look at her and launch in the other direction…

We get to the site and there is a very plastic looking wood Trojan horse sitting at the entrance.  Someone in our group asked if that was the original to a great deal of snickering.  The city has been ruined and built six times so as far as restoration, there isn’t much there but to me the significance of the place and my love for Homer’s Iliad made it a highlight for sure.  As we walked through the ruins, I saw a turtle crawling through the grass and thought of my sister but was sure I would never get him through customs.  (I try to bring her one from every place but this would have been too much I’m sure.)     

P1070594After touring the ruins, we hopped back on the bus and headed into Cannakkale to our hotel.  Driving along the waterfront, I see out of the bus the Trojan horse used in the recent movie Troy.  They should have put it at the site but it made for lovely pictures on the water.  We checked into the hotel and pretty much everyone had a waterfront view.  Me, the solo traveler, they shoved into a closet overlooking an empty pool.  Not happy.  I went downstairs and found our guide, Ibrahim and he explained that he doesn’t arrange the rooms – just hands out the keys.  When I talked to the front desk, they were full so there was nothing they could do.  Mostly unhappy because I paid the single supplement of $400 and was in fear of them sticking the single girl in a closet at every stop.  I’m not sure, but I think Ibrahim made a phone call to the next location to make sure they didn’t do that again.  Just as I was leaving, I heard one of the other couples (Jim and Gigi) complaining as I think they got the same view.  So I guess I wasn’t alone. 

P1070624I headed out to take some pictures of the horse.  I laugh because I handed my camera to this girl and asked her to take my picture.  When she went to take it, I took off my glasses (still vain) and she took the picture but I couldn’t see.  When she handed me the camera and I checked the photo, she had taken a picture of just me and you could see the legs of the horse behind me.  Nice.  So I stopped another young lady and she managed to figure it out.  We had dinner with the group which was included and then after dinner, I took my wine down to the hotel’s outdoor patio facing the water and watched the sunset.  It actually got cool quickly once the sun went down.  We had internet access at each hotel so I just checked in on Facebook, sent a few emails so people continuing knowing I was alive.  I wanted to send an email from a strange address that said “Send us $500 or you’ll never see her again!” but I was afraid no one would reply.  And in spite of there being a bar attached to the hotel called The Hangover (tempting), I decided to head to my room and take a bubble bath.  No good view but a decent tub.  I also ended up watching the movie “Outlander” – gruesome but the lead actor was hot.  Good enough.  I also started to fill my little Turkish wine bottle up with rocks I collected from Troy.  Leave it to me to get the fourth rock stuck in the neck of the bottle and couldn’t get it out.  I looked around the room for anything I could use to pry it out – nothing.  So I looked over at the nightstand and the knob and a light bulb went on over my head.  I unscrewed the knob and used the screw and my giant black wedge sandal and managed to push the rock into the bottle without breaking it miraculously.  Happy with my accomplishment, I went to put the screw back and couldn’t thread the knob for the life of me.  I tried for like ½ hour and finally gave up and left the knob on top of the nightstand.  The next morning, as I checked out, I confessed by telling them that the knob came off and I was unable to put it back.  You’re welcome.

Saturday – May 25th – Check out of the hotel, back on the bus, grabbed lunch on route (more kabobs!) and headed toward Pergamum (a powerful kingdom during the ancient Hellenistic period [289-129 B.C.]) and visited the Asclepion, or ancient Roman spa center (MORE SPAS!!!!).  Modern treatments that have been used for centuries such as psychotherapy, massage, mud bathing, and herbal medicine were practiced here.   It’s funny because if you were sick, you were supposed to walk like 1.4 miles to get to the main center for treatment and they wouldn’t take you if you were too far gone.  Kept their statistics up.  After we continued on to Izmir which was formally known as Smyrna in bible times.  Arrived at the hotel and I see a nightclub next door called Malaga Club (Spanish??).  The hotel room is much better (thank you Ibrahim) and he even stops me to double check that room is nice.   Turns out that this hotel is full because there is a football (soccer) tournament and there are three teams staying there!  Yee haw!  (Of course, I find out later that its high school football teams and I decided I wasn’t going to get my cougar card punched anytime soon.)

I dumped my stuff and went exploring.  (I loved our tour group but there were some moments when I really enjoyed being adventurous solo.)  I went to the Malaga Club to check it out and it turns out it is a strip club. Nice.  Found an ATM.  (I find it interesting how people in other countries will literally stand RIGHT behind you when at the ATM.  I don’t like coming across paranoid but when you have to hug the ATM to keep people from seeing your code, that’s a problem with personal space people!!!)  I had gone to the roof top of the hotel and snuck out onto the balcony for a fabulous view of the city earlier and heard music like a concert coming from somewhere so I set out to find it.  Izmir is the third largest city in Turkey and crossing the street was more dangerous than the hot air balloon ride I scheduled for later that week.  In spite of traffic lights and crosswalk signals, there is a traffic cop blowing a whistle, screaming at people, cars running the lights and being stranded in the middle of the intersection being lectured by the cop.  Finally get literally to the opposite corner of where I was and I see a banner hanging with something about Germany??  I walk in and no one stops me.  P1070761It’s a courtyard with lots of vendors and food and a live band.  The band is fabulous.  I stroll around (starving) and find the Gozleme again!  Score!  But then realize that people are paying with tokens.  Back to the front I go and try to explain that I need 3 tokens and finally decide to hand the young lady a 10TL and she gives me 10 tokens.  I ask what’s going on and they explain that it’s a Turkish/German Friendship Day celebration.  Ah!  That explains all the blonde white people and why people were speaking to me in German.  Ran (literally) back to the Gozleme stand and order the spinach and feta.  Hand them my 3 tokens ($1.60) and grabbed my deliciousness wrapped in paper.  Extra tokens??  What to do?  So I went to the EFES Beer vendor and bought a beer.  It’s for a good cause.   We can’t have Turkey and Germany not getting along.  I asked the EFES girls if I could get their photo (you’re welcome my dude friends), got the beer for 5TL ($2.63), drank half and threw the rest away.  Not a beer drinker.  I handed my 2TL left over to this nice kid who helped translate when I was getting my food and thanked him for his English.  I sat in the courtyard listening to the band, eating my snack and drinking my beer for a bit and finally decided to go walk a little more.  Nothing was open so I headed back to the hotel and got ready for dinner. 

After dinner, I was in the lobby with Nainy and Bart and asked Nainy to take a picture of the two handsome BOYS on the sofa and she just walked up and takes their picture.  I’m hiding behind her like a teenager.  We wished them well the next day for the match and then a small group of kids comes in and stands with us at the elevator.  I ask if they are there for the football match and they explain that they are a debate team.  I said, “You are all two pretty and handsome to be on a debate team!” and they all laughed.  Then I pointed out the “hotties” on the sofa in the lobby and told the girls that they need to get their autograph before they become famous.  More giggling.  Then the elevator arrived, Nainy, Bart and I jumped in and I said, “Let the old people go first.  You are young.  You can afford to wait for the next one.”  More giggling.  Ah, teenagers…

Sunday – May 26th – signed up for the optional tour to Ephesus.  Ephesus is famous throughout history for its temple of Artemis, one of the seven ancient wonders of the world of which only one pillar is left remaining (but still very exciting!!).  The rest of the ruins are in the British Museum so at least they are somewhere.  Our first stop on the way was to the house of Virgin Mary.   According to the guide, Mary accompanied the Apostle John to Ephesus, where she spent her last years living near a grove of olive trees close by to Ephesus.  They had a spring that people lined up to drink, splash on them and collect some to keep as holy water.    Because it was Sunday, they were holding a mass at the site which I guess they do every Sunday.  After, we went to the Basilica of St. John who came here and wrote his gospel.  It also turned out to be St. John Day so we only toured part of the ruins so as not to interrupt the mass being held.  There were nests all over the ruins with Storks and I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Who brings a stork its baby?” 

Next we are off to the ruined city of Ephesus.  I remember it well from the first time but decided I wanted to see it again.  Still one of my favorite cities!  The mosaic tile floor is beautiful and survived 2000 years in spite of earthquakes.  The statues and the facades of the buildings are gorgeous.  So much detail and work.  I stopped to take a picture of the temple of Hadrian with a medusa carving on the front (love her) and this family decided to park and do their home photo shoot right in front of it.  My pal Joe, Mr. Deaf, had the same dilemma.  (Joe was part of our group and was traveling with the nicest couple from Vermont, Mary & Louie Giancola.  Joe lives in Tanzania teaching the deaf and/or blind and is the most interesting man.  He also rocked the best Tanzanian shirts every day.  Such a kind man with a kind face and big long eyelashes.  I warned him that I would come visit him and then he told me that he sees Kilimanjaro out his front porch.  Yeah, I’m going!)  We finally shooed the family out of the way and got the perfect shot but at the perfect price . . . we lost the tour group.  While on our own, Joe and I found a rock carving of a shield, sword and shin guards that we wanted a picture of but there was a rope right in front of it to keep people from touching it.  Being the bad influence that I am, Joe ended up unhooking the rope, laying it down quietly so we could take a picture and then resetting it.  We laughed that we would be arrested and hopefully someone on the tour would bail us out.   Joe and I looked around and walked up and down different passage ways and finally I said, “Let’s go back and get pictures of the library of Celsus as I’m sure they would not have rushed that fast past this point.”  (There was a lovely couple on our tour, Arvina and Bot, and Bot had surgery on his leg recently and was on crutches the entire time.  He never held the group up once or complained but I know they wouldn’t have rushed that quickly with him.) 

I had the headset whisperer on and finally I heard Ibrahim’s voice breakup which meant he was close by.  Those things have a 50 foot range or something.  They were heading right for us to take pics of the library.  I pulled out my IPhone 4S and figured I would give the panoramic a shot.  It came out phenomenal!  I showed Arvina the picture and she wanted me to show her how to do it.  Then Ying and Lebbing tried it.  I had an informal photography class on the spot.  Free of charge.  Then, I had someone get down on the ground the in the farthest corner of shade possible because of the sun directly behind it glaring down to grab a photo of me.  Glasses off.  Smile!  Came out great.  I got down to take other’s pictures and couldn’t get back up.  My knee started acting funny but it wasn’t funny.  (This is also why I’m feverishly traveling the globe.  There might come a time where I can’t crawl all over ruins in five inch wedges.)  Back with the group, we head off to the theater which gets its fame from the Apostle Paul’s speech.  And then we visited the prison they put Paul in for his famous speech.  That’s what happens when you tell a bunch of iron idol workers that they shouldn’t be worshiping idols, a.k.a. there goes their livelihood. 


Finished the tour very grateful to have seen it again and we went off to lunch in the mountains.  A beautiful place with great food, scenery and all open air.  I sat with Joe, Mary and Louie and we had the best time sharing stories.  After lunch, we loaded up on the bus and headed back to the hotel.  I decided to join Nainy and Bart and walk down to the waterfront.  Bart is obsessed with boats and the water.  Nainy is not.  But being the good wife that she is, she agrees to check on how much the ferry would cost to go across to the other side and back.  We stared at the time tables for a bit, asked three times at the ticket window and still had no idea where we were and where we were going.  Finally, the ticket agent took pity and got someone who spoke English.  We buy six tickets (one for each way) and hop on the 7:30 ferry.  Dinner is at 8:30 and the English speaking agent tells us that we will land on the other side in 15 minutes and can jump on the 8:05 ferry back.  Sounds too simple (because it wasn’t).  The ferry ride over was nice.  The sun was coming down in the sky, the water was blue and you could see all of Izmir along the waterfront bay.  We land on the other side, take a few pictures and queue up for the ride back.  8:00, 8:05, 8:10, no boat.  Nainy is not impressed.  We confirm with this nice guy from New York who is doing an art exhibit in Izmir that the boat will be at 8:20.  While waiting, a man and his wife and three boys were standing next to us.  I start making faces at the one boy who hides behind his father shyly.  Then the father says, “I’m from Syria!  I’m here now and free!”  Congrats!  I ask if this was his wife and children.  He says, “Yes!  I have three more in Syria.”  I smiled and then Bart tells me he is referring to wives.  Nice.  Bart gave me a hard time saying I could be wife #5.  I don’t think so.  Boat finally showed up, we hopped on and watched the sunset over the mountains in Izmir heading back to our stop.  Ran back to the hotel in time for dinner.  The lobby fills with young boys chanting in victory.  A kid walks by in a uniform and I ask if he won and he says no.  Sorry, my bad.  We were in fear that they would be up partying all night but they didn’t bother me at all. 

Monday – May 27 – Woke up with lovely white eyes.  All the red gone.  Religiously using the drops and ointment.  Rinsed my eyes really well and popped in my contacts.  We are heading to Pamukkale!!!  The hot springs.  I put on a bathing suit and shorts and tank top.  Tony Salvarezza gave me a waterproof IPhone4 case so I could take pictures in the springs.  As we drove nearer to the site, you could see a field of what looked like snow and ice coming down the mountain in one spot.  That’s Pamukkale (near biblical Laodicea which is currently being excavated).  The hot springs and minerals that come out with the water have calcified the rock and made beautiful white landscape with turquoise pools.  I jumped off the bus like a kid’s first time to Disney World to Ibrahim’s amusement.  We had to walk through some ruins and finally came to the pools.  P1080013They have served as a thermal bath since the 2nd century B.C., primarily for the ailing and elderly and many have retired there for that reason.  (We call it Florida.)  Along with the Necropolis and the ancient city of Hierapolis (“Holy City”), situated atop the Pamukkale hot springs, they together constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site.   I feel like I’m personally pushing Ibrahim through the tour and then I hear him say, “You have 2 ½ hours to yourselves if you want to meet the group and continue the tour through the Necropolis.  If not, then meet at the North Gate by 3:00.”  He barely finished and Ying, who decided to come with me for the afternoon, and I took off.  We ran to the hot springs, bought a ticket (optional), flung our stuff in a locker and bikini and sandal clad, we ran for the terrace pools.  There is one side that they let you walk in and hang out (super crowded) and then another side that is off limits but a photographers dream come true.  No one in your photo.  It’s perfect.  The rocks were a bit hard on the feet and you weren’t allowed to bring your shoes in the pools but we suffered through it.  Ping has a fancy camera but when she realized that I had the waterproof case and could take photos, she put hers in the locker and we took turns for our “2013 Swimsuit Photo Shoot”.   It was funny because she kept mentioning that she needed a tan but is allergic to the sun and I kept mentioning that I had to suck in my stomach because I’m allergic to dieting. 


The sun was so bright and the reflection of the white rock and blue water made it difficult to see the pictures so we just took 50 of them and figured we would sort through them later.  At one point, I found this little dip in the rock so I went down and stuck my backside in it and laid back on the rock with a light stream of water running down to the beautiful pools below me.  Ying took the picture and I have to say, it’s the best bikini shot of me ever.  I actually posted it on Facebook and sent it out to people.   It’s one of those photos that you can’t wait to show to your grandkids . . . er, someone else’s grandkids.  After a bit, we headed back to the hot springs that you can swim in.  As we walked through their version of a lazy river, we’d stop for waterfall pics, ruins in the water pics, hot handsome dude walking by pics and then we met up with Christine, Mike and Diane and grabbed some of them.  I’m thinking my drinking partner George had gone on without me :-).   After exploring the springs (that had pillars and other ruins littering the bottom – crazy!), we went in to shower and get changed to meet up with the 2:30 tour.  I had spent the entire day with this lovely young lady and realized then when I wasn’t sure if she was still in the locker area changing, that I completely had forgotten her name from the first day of the tour when we all met.  I was like, “Hey, you still changing?”  Nothing.  Finally she pops out.  Neither of us had towels so while we stood there dripping dry I saw some towels just sitting on some patio chairs and looked at Ying who shook her head “No”.  Finally dry enough to change and we decide to grab a kabob sandwich or something.  Paid the guy and then watched the chef make everyone’s lunch except ours.  I started flirting and my sandwich popped out right away.  He put onions on it and when he saw me picking them out, he grabbed my sandwich, opened it, took off the onions and then I asked him to dump some chili peppers on it and garlic mayo.  It was finally perfect, Ying got her sandwich and we ran to meet the group.  We were too late.  So we started walking the direction of the gate and eating our sandwiches.  We stumbled across some more beautiful pools and the wind was whipping a bit and lifting the cascading water back up in an arch. Yes, I took too many pictures and posted them all on Shutterfly but when have you seen anything like it so you’ll live.  As we caught up to the group, we came to the Necropolis which is a very ornate cemetery.  Walked through to the end and the gift shop.  They didn’t have wine so I grabbed a cold Efes beer (drank half and tossed) and stumbled upon a beautiful pendant (those who know me, know I collect them from all over the world).  Its wire and amethyst shaped like a purple tree and I loved it.  Poor Nainy was trying to get me to negotiate a better price but once I got her to 40 TL ($21.00) for that and a dragonfly piece, I took the offer!  She rolled her eyes and walked away.  That’s a seriously tough bargaining woman and I pity the poor vendor that gets in her way.  Considering I spent $200 on a piece of amber wrapped in silver in St. Petersburg, Russia, I think I did rather well.  Now off to Antalya, the Mediterranean resort. 

We arrive a little later than planned into Antalya but it’s lovely.  The rooms are great.  I have a room with a view of the Mediterranean and the mountains and the sunset.  Some of us wanted to go swimming as soon as we arrived but we ended up checking in and going straight to dinner.  The buffet was endless and so good that you almost didn’t know where to start.  Nainy hit the desserts and brought back a beautiful plate of anything you could imagine, which then Bart attacked immediately.  In spite of not being a “sweets person”, I still managed to stuff myself beyond full.  After dinner, Arlene invited Bart, Nainy and I up to their room because they had a view of the pool and there was going to be a Brazilian show on a stage built over the pool and all the seats were already taken.  And Arlene sealed the deal saying she bought a bottle of wine.  I’m in!  Then she turned around and said, “Mike, I’m inviting people to the room.”  He just smiled.  The show was nice (albeit confusing since we were in Turkey?) but the company was better.  Poor Mike wasn’t counting on having another Arlene on the trip but he claims I was welcome anytime.  Arlene introduces herself as Maniac because she’s from Maine, . . . I hope.   Traveling with her was like traveling with Mary Poppins.  Anything you needed, she pulled out of her bag.  I needed a contacts case.  She had it.  I needed a wine opener.  She had two and gave me one that doubles as a stopper.    On one of the days that we were stuck traveling on the bus, Arlene was showing some of the others a video that she put together from her trip to Africa.  It had music so she would bring the earphones and different ones would watch it.  Finally, it was my turn to watch the 15 minute clip and the pictures and videos were amazing.  At the end, the Africans surprised her with a birthday song and a cake with a candle.  I am not sure what came over me but when I went to hand the IPad back to her, I was in tears.  It was beautiful.  I don’t know who was more surprised – me or her.

After the show, we all said goodnight and headed off to bed.  I went to my room and decided that I wasn’t ready for bed so I crossed the street to the beach and was thoroughly surprised to find a gorgeous full moon sitting right over the water.  The moonlight shone like a spotlight across the Mediterranean and I was disoriented slightly since I’m used to watching the sunset over the water.  I just sat and watched it for a bit and then found this little restaurant/bar on the beach and grabbed a wine.  It was a great way to wrap up such an amazing day.  Some of us decided to not take the optional tour the next day but just enjoy the city and beach.  It was nice thinking of sleeping in. 

Tuesday, May 28 – Sleeping in sounded great but I didn’t want to miss a thing.  I’ll sleep when I’m dead.  So around 8:00 am I jumped in the shower.  Nainy and Bart knocked on my door around 8:30 and I met them down for breakfast.  Nainy was up early but Bart wouldn’t budge.  After a breakfast for kings, we joined Mike and Arlene and headed to the Old City for some shopping.  The taxi was 30TL.  We were dropped right in front of a guy who immediately escorted us to his leather shop.  When we didn’t see anything we liked there, he brought us to his FRIEND’S leather shop.  They really rally the tourists, don’t they.  I wasn’t in the mood for shopping but I loved hanging with these folks so I just sat back and watched Nainy work.  She’d get such good deals that the people would be cross when she left.  Hilarious.  She found some nice leather purses and got a great deal.  Bart and I hit every tea sampling we could find.  The tea displays were so beautifully done and each tasted more interesting than the next.  I loved the Cactus Tea and the Raspberry Tea.  I bought the raspberry tea and then I bought another one that helps open your sinuses.  The salesman said he would give me a great price if I would take him with me to USA as my husband.  I think Nainy got the same price or better and didn’t have to marry anyone.   After a little bit, Mike returned to the hotel.  He likes the excitement of navigating the new location but shopping is not his thing.  I think Bart would have gone with him but he was worried what Nainy would do in his absence. 

We passed a super cute red headed Turkish kid with freckles who had me before he stretched out the batch of ice cream he was mixing.  He pulled it like taffy.  P1080247I decided to have a cone.  The show that came after was worth the price of the ice cream cone and more.  He grabbed a cone and put his paddle in the ice cream, pulled the entire batch out and placed it on top of my cone.  Then he puts it all back, scoops out one scoop, places it on the cone and holds it out for me.  I take the cone and when I pull my hand back, there is no ice cream.  This game went on for a bit with Arlene videotaping it.   We each got a cone and continued shopping.  Bart and I decided we wanted to see the bay and boats (they were calling him) but the town is very smart.  The road down to the waterfront is loaded with shops on both sides so the trek to the bottom was a very distracting one.   Finally made it and they check to see how much a boat ride would be.  We negotiate a decent price and tell them to throw in a glass of wine.  He agreed and we climbed aboard thinking we were all alone for this trip.  He comes running with a glass of wine for each of us and it tastes like lighter fluid.  Then a group of three teens get on board, a woman and man who look like they have their grandchildren, a little boy and girl.   The man we agreed looks just like Zorba the Great.  He’s on the top holding the boy in his arms.  The grandmother is holding the girl.  P1080269Nainy and Bart are up top as well.  I’m hanging on the lower level with the teens until we got out to open water.  The boat was riding up and down the waves and they would crash over the front and soak the teens.  After about 10 minutes, my common sense of a 43 year old decided to climb to safety.  Nainy can’t swim so naturally she’s convinced that her husband is trying to drown her.   We all were trying not to think about how rough it was.  Zorba decided to bring his grandson closer to the front and watching this elderly man navigate a rocking boat with a child was scary.  He gave the boy a peach juice box.  I’ll never forget it because I was thinking, “As rough as this water is, I don’t know that sweet juice is a good plan…”  I looked over at the child, his eyes slowly narrowed and just as I moved back about a foot, the kid went into his best exorcist routine ever.  Peach juice box – everywhere.  I had some baby wipes with me (you never know what European toilets are supplied with or not) so I handed them to him to clean himself down and the kid and he even cleaned the deck in the middle of the rocking boat.  All of us were very relieved when they turned the boat around and brought us back.  It was a beautiful view but I’ll stick to dry land for a bit.

We grabbed lunch in town at a place called Miami Dooner.  I had a chicken kabob wrap and it was yummy.  Then we let Nainy negotiate the taxi and we got back to the hotel for 25TL.  Arlene and I had the same plan.  All of us went and changed into our bathing suits and I grabbed the glasses, Arlene grabbed the opener and the wine and we hit the beach.  Regardless of how lovely the view is in the Mediterranean, those damn rocks kill your feet!  No sand.  So we walk to the water’s edge with our sandals, kick them off and stumble rather ungracefully towards the water.  It doesn’t help that the waves are crashing and trying to knock us over.  I finally just lay down flat on the rocks, wait for the next wave and let it drag me out to sea.  Once in the water, I was like a kid again.  Swimming, playing in the waves.  Nainy had my camera and got some shots of me and that was when the jellyfish stung me.  I felt my arm go on fire and thinking, “great, now I have to get someone to pee on my arm…” Thankfully, it was just a brush with one or something but the sting calmed down and I continued my swim.  P1080332Finally tired, I start my ascent out of the water.  Crawling on all fours to keep the pain from the bottoms of me feet to a minimum.  Not pretty.  Back in shoes and on a safe beach chair, poured a glass of wine and took in the view.  I’m having the best time.  Off to graze at dinner again.  The hotel even made up my room with the towels in a heart shape on my bed with flower petals like they do on cruise ships.   After dinner, Nainy, Bart and I just sat outside by the pool and had a coffee/wine.  Barts eyes were closing and I wasn’t far behind him.  I’ve grown so fond of them both and Arlene and Mike.  I told Bart when he called home to tell his family they have a new sister!

Wednesday, May 29 – We have an early departure.  Back on the bus.  It’s a long ride to Cappadocia but we get to stop and visit the 13th-century Caravanserai of Sultanhan en route, a large abandoned city and shelter in Cappadocia, built on the Silk Road, whose main portal gate is a fine example of Turkish Seljuk art. During the Seljuk period, trade flourished, requiring roads for caravan transport and inns for the traveling traders. The Caravanserai provided these traders, both foreign and native, with heated rooms, food, medical attention, equipment repair and many other conveniences. There was even a small mosque, known as “Kosk Mescid,” in the courtyard’s center for travelers.  We toured with Ibrahim and then had free time to run about.  Nainy is already climbing the staircase of the mosque and peeping out the window.  We ran up to take a look as well.  On the way out we found some puppies all curled up sleeping avoiding the hot day.  Moments later we found mama running off some other stray dog (could have been the babies’ daddy?).   Next stop was for lunch at a roadside / bus stop kind of place.  Ibrahim was mentioning that they have their version of fast food which is GOZLEME!!!!  I’m thrilled and as we exit the bus, a lot of folks stop to take pictures of the Turkish woman rolling out the dough and filling it with seasoned potatoes or my favorite, cheese and spinach.  I find out that we need to go inside and buy a ticket and come back so I do so.  When I get back, I join the unorganized crowd waiting for my turn.  There was a second Gate 1 tour that we would run into at each stop and there was a group of Chinese ladies who seemed pushier than they needed to be.  We were slightly grateful that they weren’t on our tour each time we encountered them.  Well, this time, they shoved their way in front of our group and insisted that they were next and had been waiting.  One of our little ladies stood up to them and mentioned we were there first.  I saw it getting ugly quickly so I put my logistics work hat on and said, “Okay, I have a ticket and the time stamp is on it.  Mine says 11:37 am.  Who has earlier than that?”  Different ones would hold up their ticket (from our bus) and I started to line them up in time order.  I realized I was even in front of one of my folks.  The very sheepish embarrassed ladies from the other tour got in line towards the back quietly and waited their turn.  As I get on the bus, I get accolades from my tour team for organizing chaos and I said, “I do it all day at work and can’t turn it off. . . and I was hungry!”  After lunch I wandered around a bit and just before getting on the bus, I found a beautiful wrap that is purple with black design and reversible.  When I asked the price, I was shocked that it was 24TL ($12.60).  I grabbed it.  It’s holding nicely waiting to be given to my dear Nana who will be 100 on June 19th!  She’ll look beautiful in it and there are no arms so she can just throw it around herself when she gets cold in her chair.  Beautiful cape for a beautiful woman.

The trip through the mountains and countryside to Cappadocia was so scenic.   We finally arrive in the early evening and I have a room with a view of the parking lot.  I don’t think so.  As I walk around, everyone from my tour was waving at me from balconies or windows looking out over the pool.  So I went to the desk and told the guy that it wasn’t good.  He said they were full up but to leave my luggage packed and locked in the morning and while I was on my tour, he would move me to a better room.  Good enough.  Dumped my stuff and headed out for a walk with my adopted parents.  P1080514They are so funny.  Nainy does Zumba and claims Bart does to.  I wanted to see that actually.  She says he’s been doing it for two years and still can’t get it.  It’s a rhythm thing.  They are all about fitness though and each place they didn’t like or there wasn’t a gym.  We found this child’s playground and it had a few spots to do exercise so they hopped on it.  Even though I had eaten very well only five hours earlier, I was famished so I didn’t dare try to work out.  I might not have lived.  Back to the hotel and it’s madness in the dining room.  Line out the door for the hot buffet, people going in all directions.  Alas, I took on lunch but dinner was too much.  So I took my plate and hopped in line.  The food was good and worth the wait.  We didn’t stay up late because the next day was the hot air balloon ride and we had a 4:30 am wakeup call with a 5:00 am departure.  I was so excited, I could hardly sleep.

Thursday, May 30 – The hot air balloon ride was a big discussion on the bus.  A third person from Brazil died in the hospital from wounds in the accident earlier in the week.  Arlene happened to know someone who’s mother was one of those who died (Arlene and Mike used to live in Brazil).  Arlene even offered to go to the hospital to visit those still there but was told that they transported the stable injured to the city for better care.  Nainy knew someone who fell out of a balloon and landed in a tree piercing her hip.  So the night before, I googled “Hot Air Balloon death”.  One person died in Egypt just a few weeks before when the balloon caught on fire.  Three in Cappadocia last week.  Not much else.  It’s such a random thing but since it just happened there, I figured, as I always do, that I’ll play the odds. 

Jumped out of bed and was in the lobby by 4:50 am.  There were 17 of us and a van picked us up and took us out to this field.  There were two balloons right next to each other and they pointed towards ours which was blue and yellow.  We met Mustafa, the pilot and another gentleman who was riding along since he was new to this company but had flown for a long time.  So we have a pilot and a back up pilot.  Good.  Next I’m watching them fill the balloon with the hot air wondering how it doesn’t catch on fire but it didn’t.  Finally the balloon is up and they start to load us in.  The basket looks like a picnic silver wear tray.  I was a fork.  After we were all in, Mustafa explains that when we land, we have to put all cameras away and grab onto the rope handles so that when the basket is laying down, we’ll all be facing the same direction which hopefully will be up.  Okay, got it.  They dump the counterweight and up we go.  It went up so smoothly and floated so easily that I wasn’t afraid at all.  The wind was perfect.  As we ascended, there were balloons everywhere dotting the sky.  The pilot said that everyday about 75 balloons are up.  At one point, a balloon was very close to us and Bot says, “Mustafa!  That balloon is very close!  Mustafa!” and he slowly descended and moved away which he was doing already but I was with Bot!  I know I said that if I was going to die, it should be in hot air balloon accident and not run over by a little old lady at home but I really didn’t want to go now.  We took a ton of pictures and they really can’t convey the feeling that we had.  I loved it.  After 40 minutes or so of moving across Cappadocia’s terrain which is crazy (looks like another planet with all of these teeth like mountains with mushroom caps on them), we start our descent.  P1080575P1080660P1080617

As we flew, we could see the vans and balloon trailers driving in a train following the balloons for pick up at the end.  So now we have been told that we will be landing.  I quickly shove my camera into my shoulder bag and grab on for dear life and Mustafa laughs at me and says, “We aren’t crash landing.  You don’t have to worry.  That training is just in case we do.”  Relieved (sort of, I think crashing might have been fun), I pulled my camera back out and watched as Mustafa lowered the balloon to about 4 feet off the ground and then his crew grabbed the lines and walked the balloon over to the trailer where it settled exactly where it should have.  Impressive to say the least.  So now, still alive, we climb one by one out of the basket.  While one part of the crew is deflating the balloon and packing it, another part is decorating the basket with fresh flowers and setting up a small table with a bouquet in the middle and wine glasses.  They pour cherry juice (cherry farms in the area) and then popped two bottles of champagne and made cherry mimosas and handed out chocolate cakes.  We made a toast and it was only 7:30 am!  (Have I mentioned how much I love my life yet…)  Next thing I know, one of the crew comes up to me, takes my champagne glass, my camera, my purse and I am standing there looking really confused.  One of the other guys scoops me up and tosses me on top of the deflating balloon to deflate it farther.  Then they threw two other girls.  We were laughing so hard.  Finally crawled out and they grabbed Jim (Gigi’s husband) and tossed him in the balloon.  No one was exempt.  As they were cleaning up, I noticed that a half full bottle of champagne was still there.  I asked Mustafa what they were going to do with it and he handed it to me.  Ying, who I’d like to take full accountability for in saying that when I met her on the trip, she didn’t drink, is handed the other bottle and the two of us are drinking straight from the bottle.    Every day should start like this.

Back to the hotel, we grab breakfast.  Along the way, I started making for my breakfast every day eggs, salty cheese and green olives all mixed together.  Either scrambled eggs if they weren’t too runny or a hardboiled egg.  It was called the Helene Breakfast and Arlene says, “Hey Helene, I’m having your breakfast!”  She wants to be just like me when she grows up.  I had my breakfast but I also snuck in the bottle of champagne in my shoulder bag.  I whispered to Arlene, “go get some orange juice”.   We both got half glasses and I secretly poured champagne in each glass and we had mimosas.  We are supposed to be on the bus at 9:00 am and I’m already tired.    Off we go for our optional tour of Cappadocia.  We start with the Open Air Museum in Goreme Valley to see the early Christian churches decorated with unique frescos depicting various scenes from the Bible.  We had to pay 8TL extra to go inside one church, Karanlik or the Dark Church.  The frescos were amazing.  One of the ladies from the trip was asking me if I knew what they were portraying so I started going through the ones I knew until we were thrown out for taking too long.  I wanted my 8TL worth!  Next stop was to take pictures from a high point over a valley of formations.  The day was quite hazy but I was happy since the haze didn’t float in until after the balloon ride.  P1080800P1080799There was a spot that you could walk out on and look like you were going to fall over the cliff.  I talked Nainy into going out with Bart to take a photo. She’s afraid of heights but I promised her it looked worse than it actually was.  The pictures still came out great in spite of the haze.  The rock formations are fabulous and are referred to as “fairy chimneys”.  P1080845The entire trip, that’s what they were called.  I would look around and no one said anything.  So later, hanging with my man George, I said, “Is it just me or do these formations look phallic?”  He laughed out loud and said in all the guidebooks, they call it the “land of love” because when he wants to have sex, that’s exactly what he’s feeling – love. 

I bought a bottle of Cappadocia wine and hopped on the bus.  Bart walks by and hands me a bottle of Cappadocia wine that he got for me.  Thanks to Arlene, I popped that sucker open, grabbed some plastic cups from the vendor and passed the bottle around.  So it’s not even lunch and I’ve had champagne and now wine.  I might not make 3:30.  Next, we visited a carpet atelier and had a demonstration of carpet weaving along with lunch and drinks.  I stuck to the wine but Bart and Gigi on either side of me had the Raki, the Turkish liquor.  Reminds me of Ouzo and just as gross.  So Bart (who doesn’t drink that much at all) is sipping on Raki and they are throwing $5K carpets at his wife.  Brilliant.  I actually started looking at some and found one terracotta color one that I really liked.  They started at $1600 and before I walked out with checkbook safely tucked away, I got them down to $800.  I had told him if I got it for $700 shipped to my house, I would consider it.  What am I going to do with a carpet?  They said it would last a 100 years or more but I probably only have 50 left.  The dealer did say, “Everyone is buying the Turkish Evil Eyes but you don’t need to.  You have two.” And he points at my blue eyes.  Smooth.  I still don’t get the concept that having this blue Turkish evil eye brings you luck.  I kept saying that I trust common sense – not luck.

Later, we went to the Ozkonak Underground City, an ancient city built on the northern slopes of Mt. Idis.  Its larger areas are connected to each other by tunnels. Ozkonak had a built-in communication system of pipes on each of its levels. Each carved out room had ventilation provided by holes when the city was closed against enemies. I found the wine room most interesting. The Christians would hide in these cities and when the eneP1080912mies would come down one hole (if they found it), the Christians would just run out of another one.  There were multiple levels even and had large stones carved from the inside that they could roll over a doorway to protect themselves.  None of us could move the stone.  Maybe those Christians were stronger than we were.  Throughout the trip, in my old age, whenever I could find a place to sit, I would grab it.  So I’m sitting under a tree on a bench minding my own business when something taps me on my shoulder.  I scream and flip around and it’s a grey and white cat.  The sucker just snuck up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder like, “Hey, what’s up?”  Everyone laughed including me once my nerves settled down.

Lastly, we hit the village of Avanos that is famous for its beautiful old houses, pottery and onyx.  Went in to the pottery demonstration and a couple different styles were shown to us.  P1080935Then they asked for a volunteer.  I suggested Arlene because she’s an actual potter.  She declined but then my loving Gate 1 Tour group volunteered me.  I dumped all my stuff on the chair and walked up, put on these crazy clown pants to cover my clothes, and sat at the potter’s wheel.  The guy gave me some clay and put my hands in the water and started spinning the wheel with his foot.  I said, “So where’s Patrick Swayze?”   I started working on it but it’s definitely not as easy as it looks.  When it started to literally go left, the guy jumped in and fixed it.  At the end, he handed me my little bowl and I got a round of applause.  Everyone asked if I bought my own pot.  Not my talent forte so I let it go to the next bidder. 

P1080927They did have my attention when the guy showed us this beautiful Hittite vase that is designed for your arm to go through the middle, hold it on your shoulder and in the past, the servants would bow to the king and pour a glass of wine.  The decorations were beautiful.  I decided that I wanted one!  I went into the shop and picked one up (they had many different designs) and looked at the bottom for the price – $1,500!  So I ask the guy, “What can I get for this much?” and type out something on a calculator.  He smiles so nicely and hands me this 8” version that holds one glass and you won’t be putting it on your arm.  I loved it and so after some discussion and wine, I bought one for $130 and it’s sitting pretty with my chachka collection at home.  Of course, I can never let anyone in my house again because the person who breaks it will die.    We head back to the hotel to grab dinner and relax.  It was a great day, I’m still alive but then we hear of reports of rioting in Istanbul.  Dang it people!  You know it’s not smart to throw rocks at police!  They must have been wearing their Turkish Evil Eyes…

Friday, May 31 – Get up and run out for breakfast.  I run into my pal Joe who decided to not go on our tour the day before and he says, “We had a lovely day.  We went to a winery and explored the town and oh, I bought you this.”  He hands me a Cappadocia wine cork with the rock formations and purple grapes surrounding the bottom.  I had mentioned that I was looking for one so if anyone saw one to let me know.  I threw my arms around him and gave him a hug and had tears in my eyes.  I love nice people.  The world needs more Joe’s in it.  So I get on the bus and I have the second bottle of wine on me and my new cork.  I wanted to show it to everyone but didn’t want to embarrass Joe since he’s kind of quiet (unlike me). 

Today we head for Ankara, the capital of Turkey and the second largest city.  First stop was a visit to the Mausoleum of Kemal Ataturk, founder and first president of the Turkish Republic. Leading up to the Mausoleum, also known as the Anitkabir, was a vast brick courtyard and monumental avenue lined with NeoHittite stone lion statues and cenotaphs beneath its colonnades. The most noted cenotaphs within the complex are those of General Ismet Inonu, a close comrade of Ataturk’s and his successor, and that of Ataturk himself, a large and highly decorative marble cenotaph, beneath which lies his tomb.  We toured the museum so quickly that you had to run to keep up. 

Next was the Anatolian Civlizations Museum.  The Museum has Anatolian archaeological artifacts from the Paleolithic Age to the present exhibited. It was elected as the first “Museum of the Year” in Switzerland on April 19, 1997.  Unfortunately when we arrived we found out that the museum is going through a renovation and only one wing was open.  The exhibits were amazing.  I prefer the stone reliefs and statues and artifacts over paintings and things like that.  There were a pair of gold leaf dangling earrings from Troy that were on display and Nainy told Bart that she wanted them.  We tried the gift shop to see if they had a replica set but no luck.  After we finished with the museum, we were waiting for the rest of the group outside in the courtyard.  There was a man on the phone and I stopped him from crossing in front of a statue someone was taking a picture of.  He smiled and when he finished his conversation, he asked me where I was from.  His name is Halil Demirdelen and it turns out he’s an archeologist who gives private tours and also travels the world doing presentations on Anatolian history.  We snapped a picture together and exchanged emails.  I love when people say, “I’ll be going to Philadelphia in July.  We should get together!”  It’s not close but you never know.  He was a nice guy and Ibrahim even introduced him to the group and they started snapping pictures of him. 

We pull in to our hotel and it’s beyond lovely.  5-star and the rooms are magnificent.  I had a huge king bed with a study area and my favorite, the largest bathroom with a picture window so I could take a bubble bath and watch TV.  Nainy and Bart ended up with a room with two single beds pushed together.  I told them we could switch but they said they were okay.  Then I said, “Well, Nainy can stay with me and we’ll have a slumber party and Bart, you can have the room to yourself.”  He was like, “Where is the fun in that?  What am I supposed to do by myself?”  He didn’t like my idea at all.  After check in, we all discovered that the internet wasn’t working.  They didn’t have a very strong signal which was shocking for such a nice hotel.  Everyone at home had seen the riots in Istanbul and started emailing or Facebooking concerns.  I’m worried that my friends think that I would participate in a protest.  I know I’m usually in the middle of everything but come on!  I told them that I was going straight to the protests when we arrived the next day in Istanbul and hold up a sign saying “Free Justin Bieber’s monkey!” hoping CNN would catch it.  Really people? 

Arlene, Mike, Nainy, Bart and I started to walk to find dinner.  We ended up at this little outdoor place but no one was there except the staff.  We took a shot and sat down anyway.  Then we found out that they don’t have wine or beer.  Arlene and I frowned.  Bart had a great idea to just sample a few things and that’s what we did.  We had these little pizza things with meat and chicken kabobs.  It was delicious.  The whole dinner for all five of us cost 75TL with a tip ($40).   As we ate, one by one, the rest of the tour group showed up and ate there.  By the time we left, the place was full and so were we.  Walking back to the hotel, we found a sweet bakery shop.  Grabbed some baklava and sat outside with our dessert.  Once back to the hotel, no internet, I decided to take a bubble bath.  I put on the music videos that seemed to be the only channel not talking about the riots, filled the huge tub and climbed in with a glass of wine.  The only problem was the tub was so big that I kept sliding down in it.  I’m used to propping my feet against the one end but couldn’t reach.  I sat there laughing to myself every time I slipped further and further down to the point that I couldn’t see the TV.  Still not terrible.  After, I threw on the plush bathrobe and watched some more videos finishing off my bottle of wine. 

Saturday, June 1 – Met the group for breakfast and then we started our long drive back to Istanbul.  We stopped along the way for lunch and they had internet access so I checked in and calmed my friends’ fears about the riots/protests.  We found out later that there were protests in Ankara that morning after we left but it’s such a large city you could avoid it easily.  Coming from the Asia side back to the Europe side of Istanbul, we were told that there are protests on the bridge we were planning on crossing so instead, we’ll take the other bridge which puts us out of our way by like 20 minutes.  No problem.  Except the clearance for the bus.  As we went under an overpass, you could see the ceiling of the bus shaking and hear the scrapping of the roof.  The poor driver cringed and once we parked, he jumped out to check out the damage.  See, they would rather wreck their own bus than take us through an unsafe area. 

There was an optional tour to take a private boat up the Bosphorous and then go to the Spice Market but some of us planned on just going ourselves.  We decided to jump off at the river tP1090260hough and let the bus bring our luggage back to the hotel for us.  Our group of five and Ying decided to take a boat tour.  Nainy went to work and got us a great deal and we hopped on.   We look next to us and there is our group.  The two Gate 1 tour companies were going out together.  It was a nice relaxing boat ride up to the second bridge and we were taking pictures along the way.  On the boat with us was a girl’s high school volleyball team.  A bunch of 14 year olds giggling in a corner.  The boat turns around and starts making its way back to the port and they start playing music.  Some Serbian guys on vacation start dancing and before you know it (you knew it was coming), I jumped up and got in line with them.  Bart and Arlene joined in as well.  The 14 year old Turkish girls joined in and we all started dancing.  We danced the entire way back to the dock and I had a hard time keeping up with them.  There was one girl, Busra, who understood and spoke a little English and she helped me translate.  Another girl who was a ball of fire reminded me of a younger Turkish version of me.  I must have hugged her 20 times before leaving.  I gave Busra my email and she found me on Facebook and then one of the other girls, Seyda, also requested me. 

After the boat ride, we started walking through the thick crowd following Nainy.  We were going towards the Galata Bridge that has all the restaurants underneath.  I laughed because I know I’m really good about being aware of my surroundings and in spite of the tons of people and traffic, I watch Nainy and Bart walk right in front of a parked Police water cannon vehicle.  I called her name to catch her because I wanted to assess the situation more.  Why was it sitting there?  Should we go somewhere different?  Well, it was parked, no one in it, blocked in by buses and taxis so all clear, let’s move on.  After walking the bridge to the middle on one side and back on the other, we headed for the Spice Market.  As we came to it, the call to prayer started.  Ying did a video recording showing the market and the mosque and the call to prayer.  As she scanned around and came to me, I had both hands outstretched in front of me and my mouth wide open like I was singing the call to prayer.  We giggled and I hope I didn’t offend anyone but the people there were really laid back.  Into the Spice Market we go and I’ll be honest – my shopping days were over.  I did promise to get Jenile some curry and saffron.  She said she would pay me back and I was like, “no problem”.  Well, who knew Iranian saffron was more expensive than gold.  I found her 2 grams for $30 (ick) and got some curry for her.  After I paid for it, the guy hands me the little bottle of saffron like we were part of a drug deal and tells me to put it in my shoulder bag.  I comply now nervous I’m carrying this contraband.  As I walk out, the other guy says that I smell nice.  I said, “It’s not me, it’s all of these spices.” But they are convinced it’s my shampoo so I thank them and off we go. 

I convinced Ying to go to the Turkish bath with me.  My last day in Turkey and I had to go!  She had never been and claims she is very ticklish.  We take the tram to Cemberlitas.  I walk in like a professional Turkish bather tour guide.  We both purchase the traditional bath and the hot oil massage.  Hit the lockers, the ladies room, grabbed a bottle of water and in we go.  It must have been a slow day because as we walked in, the ladies see the yellow token and one grabs me and the other Ying.  Ying’s lady has her lie down on the marble and the poor thing barely has room.  She has feet in her head and her feet in someone else’s.  So when her bather lady wasn’t looking, I had Ying come over by me.  That lady wasn’t having it.  She calls her back and so off Ying goes.  By now, my third trip to the bath, I’m on a completely new layer of skin.  After the bath, we hit the warm pool for a bit and then head out for the oil massage.  I get the same lovely blonde woman I had both times before.  40 minutes later, body feeling like jello, she taps me on my nose and says “finished”.   After we both rinsed off, we got dressed and headed for the tram.  It’s packed so when the doors open, I jump in and pull Ying with me.  We are all up in someone’s armpit and I managed to pop some guy in the face with my elbow (sorry).  Four stops later we are at the hotel.  Time to get ready for the goodbye dinner.  I get my hotel key and run upstairs to get showered, dry my hair and get fixed up.  When I get to my room, my red bag is missing.  I immediately knew what happened.  I ran downstairs to the lobby and found Ibrahim.  The whole trip, the driver was kindly putting my bag in his storage compartment because of my breakable plate.  When they brought the luggage to the hotel for us, they unloaded the luggage but forgot mine stored away safely.  Ibrahim called the driver and he was going to be passing through the city in one hour and would bring my bag to me.  Dinner was in 30 minutes.  Dilemma. 

I figured these fine people had seen me every day for two weeks so they won’t care if I have no makeup on and my hair in a bun.  I had white shorts and an orange cute halter top on (and fabulous wedge shoes with ribbons tied around my ankles naturally).  Since I came from the bath, I couldn’t be any cleaner.  So off to meet the group I head.  Earlier in the trip, I was talking with Diane and Mike and they told me about their son, David.  Naturally proud of their child, Diane pulls out this article from American Lawyer for me to read.  First, I step back because he’s gorgeous.  Then I read the article and I’m just fascinated with the guy.  He’s a partner in a law firm in Washington D.C. and worked in Iraq in the Green Zone with full military escort at all times helping the Iraqis set up their democratic laws.  While he had all this protection, he mentioned that he felt for the judges who would have to sleep in their offices at night because it wasn’t safe to go home.  I finish the article, walk back to Diane with my mouth open completely impressed.  I said, “Does he have a family?” and his dad replies, “Yes, he has us.”  I laughed and said, “I know that but I mean a wife and kids because this has to be hard for that situation.”  His mom says that he’s not married and has no kids but has mentioned he might be looking to settle down soon.  I replied, “Well, I’d like to throw my name into the hat.  I mean, I already like his parents and he’s fascinating and not terrible to look at.”  The bus laughed and we moved on. 

Fast forward to the goodbye dinner and when I walk in, all are dressed so nice, I explain that my luggage is coming but not in time for dinner and then Diane, glowing like the sun, informs me that her son David is coming to dinner!  What?  How?  Turns out he is flying to Libya for another assignment and was able to book his ticket through Istanbul with a long layover so he’s coming to dinner.    Yeah!  I look positively gross!  I mention to Bart and Nainy who of course tell me I look beautiful.  Hmmm.  Sitting down to dinner and in walks David.  Hair was longer and shaggy, a bit of a beard going on, tan jacket (looking very Indiana Jones adventurous or maybe after reading the article, that’s how I pictured him).  He looks great.  Politely he comes around and shakes hands with each of us at the table.  After sitting with his parents and watching his mom stroking his hair and commenting on how long it is and the beard (he was attempting to blend more in Libya), I finally ask him about Iraq and if he was able to see the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.  He says, “Funny story.  During the first Bush war, our troops were deployed there and when they arrived at the site of the ruins of the gardens, one soldier wrote ‘DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS!” in spray paint across the ruins.”  I said I would have killed him.  So irritated.  But he did get to see it and I asked him for a picture some day since I know I’ll never make it there.  Then I finally just spilled it.  I said, “I just want you to know that I tend to be a little more exciting and outgoing than most people and because of that, a lot of men just bore me but after reading the article your proud mother shared, I just found you fascinating and wanted to thank you for that.”  I hoped at that point my face didn’t flash red like it does (I’m a blusher).   He gave a beautiful smile and the table continued with the conversation.  I asked him about his taped up finger and he said he broke it playing soccer and then George mentioned that he also plays polo very well.  So he’s also very athletic.  Nice.  

Then David excused himself to take a call just in time.  George decided “WE” were going to make a speech.  He comes around the table, pulls my chair out with me in it, takes my hand and walks us to the middle of the group.  He makes an elegant speech about the tour, the people in our group, our guide Ibrahim, and the wonderful friendly people of turkey and then throws me under the bus.  He says, “I’d just like to recognize Helene (said with a French accent) for her entertainment, her wine and her pottery skills and mostly for recognizing the rock formations in Cappadocia as phallic symbols.  I put my very red face in my hands and doubled over laughing the whole time.  When he was done, everyone clapped and then I said, “Well, I’d like to say something.”  And no one was shocked.  I said, “First, thank you George for outing me about the rocks.  I was shocked when no one else said anything but since I was already the trip wino, I didn’t want to be the trip pervert as well!  Seriously though, I want to thank all of you because I came on this trip by myself and my friends and family were so worried at home but you made me feel safe and secure and I found a lot of great friends and wonderful memories so thank you!”  Arlene’s Mike also got up and said a few words and we all clapped for Bot who never missed a step along the way or complained once while on his crutches.    P1090297And then David walked back in.  I told him, “Oh, good, you missed your uncle George embarrassing me.” and he replied, “Oh, really, what did he say?” and smiled.  I’m not telling him.  Then he was leaving with his parents and George and Christina because he lived in Turkey before and wanted to take them to a restaurant for drinks before boarding his flight to Libya.  He said goodbye to each of us and when he came to me, he put his arms out to give me a hug.  No problem for me.  I told him to be careful and asked him for a card to keep in touch and hear about more activities.  He gave me his card and asked for mine.  I said, “I have my name and email address written on a piece of paper.”  I had made some up to hand out to the group so was glad to have one handy.  Whether I ever see him again didn’t matter because I just loved the idea that there was a man with a pulse out there somewhere.  But I hope I do.

After dinner, my bag showed up and I just tossed it in the room.  No point getting fixed up now.  I took Nainy, Bart, Ying and Lebbing in a taxi to my first hotel, Seres, to show them the beautiful view from the top terrace overlooking the golden horn.  There was supposed to be a second taxi with Mike, Arlene, Bot and his wife but the taxi driver we had barely found the hotel even having the address.  Their taxi couldn’t find it so they just returned back to the hotel.  I waited about 15 minutes downstairs in case they showed but the others got a chance to check out the view.  Ying claimed she owed me from paying for her Bosphorous boat ride so she bought me a ½ bottle of wine which I stuck in my shoulder bag and we headed towards the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia to see it lit up at night.  The walk was nice and the shops were all open.  While at the mosque, Bart sees the vendor selling these spinning lit up plastic things and says he’s going to go take a look.  He comes back with 10 of them.  He tried one out and it was cool until it landed and broke.  So Nainy took him back over and they traded out the broken one and tested all the others.  I think she even got some money back.  I love that lady!  We took a taxi back to the hotel for cheaper and the guy was practicing for the next Fast and Furious movie.  He was blowing his horn at people while running red lights.  We made it back in record time.  I get up to my room, dump everything out of my bag and repack for the trip home while drinking the wine Ying bought me.  I will say I still impress myself with my packing.  My red duffle bag was only ½ full of my trinkets from the trip. 

Sunday, June 2 – The next morning, I saw some of the folks at breakfast and we were able to say goodbye.  Joe decides that although his flight is later in the day that he will share a taxi with me to the airport.  We leave together at 9:30 and we chat the whole way.  When we arrive he refuses to let me pay because he’s trying to get rid of his lira.  We check his bag in first and then check on some flight info for him.  Then we cross over to security and head to my gate.  I had already told Nainy and Bart that if I didn’t get out on the flight to New York, I would be meeting them for dinner.  When I get to the gate, there is no info screen so I just have to wait until they call me.  One hour prior to the flight, they call my name and I have 6A!!!  Whoo hoo times 2!  I run over and hug Joe goodbye and he heads for his gate.  I jump on the plane, store my stuff away and get my mimosa.  As the different ones from the trip walk by, they say hi and are glad to see that I made it.  The flight attendant says, “Are you famous or something?  How does everyone know you?”  I just laughed and told him we were on a tour but that I was standby and very happy to have a seat.   Half way through the flight I strolled back to coach to say hi to Arlene and Mike.  Mike says they were just talking about me.  Hmmm?  I wonder. 

Once I landed at JFK, I raced through the line and even got an express pass because my flight was connecting within two hours.  After clearing immigration and customs, I go to the counter to see my gate for the Tampa flight and it’s been cancelled due to weather.  I look outside . . .sunny.  Ok?  So I stand in line and the Delta agent says it’s not looking good today and lists me for the flight on the 3rd.  With all the people being bumped, standby becomes quite sketchy so I call Jeffrey (my brother from another mother) and he says the LaGuardia flight looks good.  Here we go.  I run out and the shuttle is just there heading to LaGuardia.  I jump in the front passenger seat and 30 minutes later am at LaGuardia.  Ran inside to get a boarding pass and the line is NOT moving.  I have to see an agent because the first lady listed me for the next day.  Finally after waiting 40 minutes, I call the number for Delta and the sweet agent relists me for the flight to Tampa leaving in 40 minutes.  Print off my boarding pass, race through security and run for the gate.  There is one couple that are listed in front of me as I am the last, of course.   She’s an employee and her husband tells me he was there to see his kids but he didn’t want to come.  His wife made him come.  I started looking at direct flights purchased from NYC to Tampa the next morning and it was about $300 plus hotel for the night.  They start calling the plane and the standby.  They called the couple just in front of me and I heard them say that they only have one seat so the wife took it and the husband called his kids to come get him.  He didn’t look happy.  Oh well, this is the fun of the pass.  So I walk to the Delta counter and the young lady says, “I wish you were here a minute ago.  There is a flight to Miami that is wide open but I think it left.”   She checks and realizes that the flight was delayed arriving and it is still at the gate.  She re-tickets me and off I go running to the next terminal over.  There are 26 seats available but they are not calling the standby passengers.  When I asked the desk, they explained that they had to do a payload optimization balancing or some other.  I said, “Look at me!  I’m little!”  The guy laughed but I stood back and waited patiently.  I had my finger poised ready to hit submit on a Travelocity one way ticket from Miami to Tampa the next morning at 7:55 am.  Soon as they called me, I pushed the button and got the confirmation.  By the time I got to my seat, I had reserved a hotel through for the night.  $99 for the flight.  $98 for the hotel.  $500 for the buddy pass.  I think that was a very economical two week trip!

P.S.  I’m looking for investors to open a Turkish bath in downtown St. Petersburg. . .

Thai Hot (and Humid)

People asked me, “Why Thailand and Cambodia?” and my response was, “I haven’t been there yet.” It really is as simple as that. The list is definitely shortening in my quest to see the entire world. I knew I wanted to see Angkor Wat but I didn’t want to travel literally half way around the world just to see that. After our Russia trip and forking over $1200 per person for a one way plane ticket out (which was $1200 more than I planned to spend that year), money was definitely tight. Also having the opportunity to visit Dominican Republic with friends in a family style was great but I remember thanking the Lord that I had the family to stay with and drive around with because I was down to $0 in my travel fund.

It’s now November, 2011, and I’m itching to find some place to go to in 2012. The deals are rolling daily but many are places I’ve already been. Finally the deal comes through for Friendly Planet’s Taste of Thailand. It’s a 9 day trip leaving from Los Angeles. They also offer two different extensions. One to Cambodia (Angkor Wat) and one to Phuket. Well, I wanted to see them both and as I usually tell people, I seldom go back to a country just because I want to save my money for some place I’ve not been.

I call Friendly Planet and ask them if it’s possible to do both extensions and she says yes. The trip would be 15 days just for the tour. Flying from Florida, I knew I would try to get a Delta Buddy Pass and stop in to see the one and only Nana in Atlanta, spend the night and then head to Los Angeles a day early, spend the night and be ready for the trip departing on Sunday, May 6th. I reached out to Delta’s angel Anna and she was happy to let me use one of her passes. $330.00 later, I have my ticket for Tampa to Atlanta (see the family) and then Atlanta to LAX. My trip would be a total of 17 days traveling with a rolling red duffle bag and my new carryon luggage that expanded as needed. (The last small carryon I used was purchased in Australia to help carry back souvenirs in 2000 and it’s been around the world and back with me. It definitely put in its time. My dear friends Marton and Kate gave me a fabulous gift before moving away to Boston – they gave me a luggage tag that had a picture of me, Marton and the boys at his wedding. I was ready to go.

I would have booked the trip and gone on my own because I knew it would be a long trip. Our company was going through a merger that should have been finished at the beginning of 2012 but was then delayed to mid-2012. In my world, I know I’m a hard worker but I refuse to put life on hold for a merger that I have absolutely no say in. My friends, on the other hand, are in higher positions in the company and it was going to be a task to get them to come.

You know how you have a mom and a dad and when you want something, you always go to the one who you know will give you the answer you are looking for. Naturally, I called dad, Tony Salvarezza and said, “Taste of Thailand, 9 days, you coming?” I explained that I was going to do the extensions but that he and momma (Mariela) didn’t have to. They could just go for the 9 days. He wanted to go but needed to speak with the Mrs. first. Smart man.

Then my friend Marla says that she was always wanting to go to Thailand and that her classes finish on April 30th and this would be a perfect graduation present for her.  I was thrilled that she was interested so we talked about it and she also agreed to do the entire 15 days. It was settled! We called from my office on our break and booked the trip. When we hung up, Marla says, “We are going to have more fun than a drunken monkey!” Marla is from Waynesville, North Carolina and has a fabulous accent but more importantly, she comes up with these quips quick and out of nowhere that make you spit your drink across the room.

Next, Tony and Mariela book their 9 days and the agent tells them that they can extend their trip up to 90 days before we leave when we have to make our final payment.

Marla is so excited that she calls her bud Kristie who lives up in Asheville and tells her all about it. Kristie thinks the trip sounds great and asks if she can come. Marla tells me that she manages a wine bar. Sounds like my kind of people! The more the merrier. She calls Friendly Planet and they add her to our room. My only comment was, “I’ve been looking on line for decent trips and saving up my money for a couple months now. The only thing I ask is if we get to a room in any of our travels and there is a cot, I’m not sleeping on it.” (I fondly remember the army cot they brought me when we were in Jerusalem…not!)

So the easy part is done. Trip paid for, money being saved, but it was still six months away. Every time someone saw me in the elevator or on the street in passing, they would ask, “Where have you been recently?” or “What trip is next?” I would excitedly reply that we were going to Thailand, Cambodia and Phuket. After three or four months, people were like, “I thought you already went.” I’m sure when I finally left, they were just happy I was gone so I would shut up about it.

Friday, May 4th, I planned on flying up in the mid-morning flight so I didn’t have to get up so early to head to Atlanta. The day before, talking with my big brother Jeff ( Delta employee) and his wife Jenile, they tell me that flight doesn’t look as open as the 7:00 am flight. Ugh. Okay, so my girlfriend Iesha (long suffering Iesha) comes and gets me super early and off we go to the airport. No problem getting on the flight.

When I land, Jenile drove out to get me and Jeff (who works near the airport) came and we all went to lunch. It was early but we were all hungry. The restaurant was like a Chipolte or Moe’s where you told them what topping you wanted on your Mexican food. It was empty except for us and the family from hell in front of us. The wife was on the phone and the husband was ordering and the kids were screaming. When it was her turn to order, she screamed at her husband that she wasn’t ready yet which made the kids scream even louder. I asked Jeff, “I wonder if Birth Control is a topping?” and we both laughed.

After lunch, back at the ranch, Nana is off with her daughter Langre (Vovo) getting her “hair did” so I just have to wait patiently for her to come home. Also, waiting on the kids to get out of school. At 3:00, the house filled up with the family, the cousins and my Nana (who’s hair looked smashing!). Nana and I sat and talked while she ate her lunch and she always says the same thing to me. “Have a wonderful trip, be safe, but more importantly, remember who you are!” a.k.a. “behave yourself”.

It was wonderful visiting with her and seeing all the kids. I got to see my wooks Dana briefly before she went to work but I’ll take what I can get. Then I had the dumb idea to have the family go see The Avengers which was just released that Friday. Jenile bought the tickets online and we left an hour ahead of time but arriving at the theater, none of us were really prepared. Lines snaking in and out, kids running everywhere, none of us had eaten dinner. I jumped in line to get some popcorn and candy and we miraculously were able to get seats together. The movie was hilarious but the kid sitting on his father’s lap next to me who couldn’t have been more than five years old had me cracking up. He knew every character and his commentary during the movie was spot on. He explained that he watches the cartoons. Oh, okay.

After the movie, I get home, pack and get ready to get up super early to head to LAX. Again the mid-day non-stop flight to LAX was looking full so they suggested I go on either the 7:00 or the 8:30 am. 7:00 wasn’t going to happen but we shot for the 8:30. My Dana wanted to take me to the airport so bless her heart, she got to the house at 5:30 and off we went.

When I got to the airport, I was informed that the 7:00 flight was cancelled so anyone who was flying on that flight is now on my flight at 8:30. (Hello Stand by!) I was 24th on the list for standby and there were 15 seats available. Just as I was about to give up and start rerouting myself across the country, the gate agent told me to hang in for a bit. Ten minutes before the flight is supposed to leave, they start calling the stand by passengers. I’m moving slowly up the list but the left over seats are dwindling fast. The agent then announces, “I will call your name once. If you are not at this podium, I will move on.” He starts calling names and I felt bad thinking of tripping anyone who might go past but realized that wasn’t very Christian. Down to two seats and he’s calling names and people aren’t going. Finally he says my name and I literally dove at him. I got the absolute last seat on the plane. When I sat down, my hands were shaking like leaves. By the time the drink cart came around, I (with no shame whatsoever) ordered two mini-bottles of red wine and it was only 9:30 am.

Arrived in LAX and it was colder than I thought it would be. Took the shuttle to the hotel and waited for Tony and Mariela to arrive on their direct flight from Tampa. Marla and Kristie were coming in on two separate flights within 10 minutes of each other but later that night. When Tony and Mariela arrived, I was in the lobby bar (yes, another wine). We checked in, got changed and headed out to see what we could get into with the short time we had. There was a tour we ended up getting that left at 2:30 and got back at 8:00 pm. The guide took us to Rodeo Drive, The Grove (Farmer’s Market), Sunset Blvd, Kodak Theater (now the Dolby Theater) and the Walk of Fame in front of the Chinese Theater, caught the Hollywood sign out in the distance, then headed to Santa Monica where we cruised the beach until we stopped at Venice Beach and were able to watch the sunset while kids were doing tricks on their skateboards in this skate park.

Headed back, got ready for bed and waited on Marla and Kristie. I was so tired when they arrived that I just introduced myself to Kristie, hugged Marla and head for bed. (Not before Marla had me in stitches talking about how her new hair cut made her look like Sandy Duncan.) The next morning, we agreed we would sleep in. At 8:30, our room was wide awake. Tony called Marla’s room and said, “Good morning, this is Mark with your wake up call. Your friends are waiting for you.” Then we went across the hallway to their room and knocked. With one eye open, and her cute blond hair in every direction, Marla opens the door. We didn’t realize that they went to get something to eat after arriving and were up late catching up and talking. Oopsie!

Sunday, May 6th, we decided to just have breakfast and relax at the hotel for the morning and head to the airport for our very long flight to Bangkok which includes crossing the international date line and losing May 7th altogether. We all meet officially and get checked in for the 14.5 hour flight to Taipei and then the 3.5 hour flight to Bangkok. We all wrestled with sleep on the plane (except Mariela of course who can sleep anywhere). On the plane we hear others talking about the Friendly Planet tour and so we tell them we are also on that tour. Julia, this super model that was on our trip, comes walking down the aisle and stops to tell us that we are going to have to do a Girls Night Out. Sounds fun to me.

Arrived in Taipei, changed planes and then off to Bangkok. We arrived at about 1:00 am on Tuesday May 8th. We look around to identify the others who might be with our group. The poor guy with the crutches and the air boot on his leg was there.  The Spanish guy with the porn mustache.  There was a fun older lady with a tube top on the plane who was with us. And there were a handful of others which brought our total to 31 on the tour.

Tuesday, May 8th, everyone is exhausted. We get our luggage; meet our lovely guide Patty who escorts us to the bus which can only be described as a gay party bus on crack. Fluorescent lighting in pink and blue down the middle which matched the curtains and the ceiling was hideous which unfortunately matched the seats. I climb on, head to the back where seats are available and immediately managed to gash my big toe on the foot rest (nice metal ends without any kind of cover or protection). They handed us a cold wet wipe which was nice since at 1:00 am it was about 90 degrees outside. Yikes. I wiped my face and hands and then held it on my bleeding toe hoping I didn’t need to go and get a tetanus shot now.  The good news was I didn’t mess up my pedicure.

We arrive at our hotel (The Rembrandt Hotel) and it’s really beautiful. Because our bus is so big, we have to come in the back and walk about a block to get to the lobby. (I think it’s because the bus was so hideous, they didn’t want to see us come in the front.) Checked in, get our keys, grab our luggage and off we go to the 6th floor with everyone. Arrive in our room and it smells like a chain smoker lived there. They had three single beds set up but my allergies are already a mess and Marla is allergic to smoke so we called the front desk and they immediately came and got us and moved us to the 8th floor (non-smoking). There was a king sized bed and they rolled in a single bed. Ear plugs and Breath-rights were handed to all and we crashed for a couple hours.

Woke up later that morning and head down for breakfast and I always find it interesting that I eat so little for breakfast at home but when I’m traveling, I eat like its my last meal.  I grabbed an omelet full of ham, cheese and mushrooms, grabbed some buttered toast but then being brave, went to the Thai soup/noodle bar. The lady had me point out what I wanted and I had no idea what I wanted. I went safe and then threw some spices in. Back at the table, I start eating the soup and sweat is running down my face. It was fabulous but spicy. Tummy full, headed to the lobby to meet with Patty.

Patty gave us two options when she first picked us up.  One, we could sleep in and do our own thing and meet her at 2:30 pm for the afternoon tour scheduled or we could meet her at 10:30 am and she would take us on the Sky Train that runs over Bangkok and get us familiar with the city so we could run around on our own as we had time. We opted for the Sky Train. We had gotten Thai Bahts (their dollar) at the airport and broke them down to small bills at the hotel but now we needed 15 TBH or about 50 cents (coins only) to get our train ticket. After 20 minutes of screwing around, we finally all got our tickets and off we went. It was easy just like New York or Paris metro. We rode a couple stops, changed trains and then rode back.

After, Patty took us to the Terminal 21 Mall which is about 6 levels and each level has a different location theme. Getting to the food court area, it was a San Francisco theme with a trolley suspended from the ceiling and a golden gate bridge spanning the food court. Kristie and Marla began their “Tour of Thai Bathrooms” as they had to stop. I wasn’t sure where Patty and the group were going so I kept close watch on them and kept turning around to check the bathroom exit so the girls wouldn’t get lost. Patty suggested places to eat and then left us on our own. I headed back to the bathroom and the girls came out. I figured I would go too. I get to the stall and there is a panel hanging on the side of the toilet with all these buttons and numbers. I figure out that it’s set up to be a seat warmer, bidet with wash and dry settings, etc. Twenty minutes later, I left the bathroom and found Kristie and Marla.  We all split up and I of course, find the shoe floor. Slight overload for me since I only had 45 minutes. But sitting in the middle of the rack screaming my name was this fabulous red shoe with black pipe trimming it and with a four inch heel. How much? 590 THB. My brain starts adding, multiplying, carry the 1 . . . $19 USD! I’ll take them! This is how I was in Thailand for less than 24 hours and bought a pair of red shoes.

Back to the hotel, we get ready for the afternoon tour which involves Julia and I shopping for beverages for the bus. We end up buying a bottle of wine each. They also had whiskey called Hong Thong and a pre-mixed Jack and Coke but we passed. The bus takes us down to the River City Shopping Complex before boarding our canal boat. I find a shop selling silk scarves and start working on the price. I found a beautiful one for Nana and a couple of others. Patty grabs us since we are the last and we run for the boat. The canal boat takes us on the Chao Phraya River that has all of these canals branching off from it. You can see the housing and the different water levels from their flooding. Their houses are built on stilts but still were affected.

Our first stop was the Royal Barge Museum where they held the King’s beautiful canoe barges used for various ceremonies and state occasions. We toured up and down the canal and then headed for the Wat Arun temple (Temple of Dawn) which has a 79 meter pagoda and it’s built in Khmer style. The Thai are very serious about their temples so we would have to check with Patty if we needed to wear long pants or shirt with capped sleeves or they wouldn’t let you in the temple or maybe not let you climb the temple. I wore Capri pants every day and capped sleeve shirts because I didn’t want to chance not being allowed to see the whole site. The stone steps leading up the temple face were very steep and you almost had to climb with hands and feet to get up the stairs. The view from the top was worth it though. I ran all over the temple grounds snapping pictures, zooming in on the amazing carvings or the yellow draped Buddha’s. Loved it. My first post card sent home was of this temple.

Back on our boat and we head for dinner at the Supatra River House Restaurant. Located on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, this beautiful two-storey traditional Thai house is the former home of Khunying Supatra Singholaga, a leading advocate of women’s rights in Thailand.  The servers kept bringing beautiful plates of food and covered the table until we had no room. Marla reminded Patty that she was vegetarian and so were Julia and her husband Roger. The staff reacted quickly and brought vegetarian meals out to each of them which were delicious. I stuffed myself – I found I loved the Thai food more than I thought. Sun sets and we board a ferry boat to cross the river where our bus is waiting to bring us back to the hotel.

On the way to the hotel, we decided we would try a Thai massage. In the lobby, Mariela wants to go to the room for a second and us girls decide to go too and we thought we would meet back up in the lobby. Get down there and no Tony or Mariela. We call the room, go to the room. Nothing. So we decide to just go across the street to the Lean on Tree Thai Massage Salon. I had gone over earlier and requested massages for five and they were going to call someone in to accommodate us. When we arrive, they are turning people away because the schedule is full but the lady remembers me and sets Marla and I up for our Thai massage and Kristie for a foot massage. As we walk through the dark, peaceful room, I see Mariela sitting in the dang chair getting a foot massage. Almost killed her. (smile) I heard Tony grunting in one of the curtained off rooms as they worked on him. Tony thought we were supposed to meet there so it didn’t matter since they fit us all in. Running with five in our group made planning a bit hairy. They hand me some pajamas which was new to me. I always got down to my undergarments for massages so how are they going to apply the oil?? Before I know it, the woman is walking on me, flipping me around like a pancake and tying me into a pretzel trying to crack my back. I was slightly worried but at the end, I felt fabulous, especially after the long plane ride and more importantly, it was only $8.00 for one hour. Might have to try that again…

We grabbed a drink in the lobby bar and these two guys (Jeremy and Jim) come up to us and say, “Are you with the Friendly Tours?” We said yes and they explained that they were also but we literally saw them at the airport and they showed back up three days later to get on the bus to the next stop. They saw a slightly different view of Bangkok. They told us about the trani-shows, women playing ping pong without paddles and odd smoking tricks. They skipped most of the tours but they had a great vacation – their way. I’ll pass on that.

Wednesday, May 9th, breakfast (more hot soup!) and then on the bus heading to Wat Trimitr which houses the 700 year old Golden Buddha, the largest in the world weighing approximately 5 tons. Nice way to start the day. After we went to Wat Po, which is from the 17th Century and the oldest temple in Bangkok. More importantly, it houses the gold overlaid Reclining Buddha (that sounds funny). One of the largest in the world and his feet were inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Trying to get a shot of this guy was difficult to say the least.  (Here’s a picture of me being a reclining Buddha.)

There was an optional tour in the afternoon that would take you to the Grand Palace which served as the home of the King, the court and government. Some of us decided to take this tour while the others wanted to go to a place called MBK for shopping. I’m not a big mall person so I took the optional tour and so did Mariela and Tony. We had lunch at an Au Bon (like Panara Bread) because it was air-conditioned! Then we went through some of the shops and I found a beautiful blue blouse which Patty helped me barter down to all of $5.00. I also found this cool tube top dress and some white cotton pants with a dragon down the leg. Off to the tour.

The palace was beautiful but the highlight was going to the Wat Phra Kaew which was built to house the large Buddha carved from a solid piece of green jadite (jasper). It was so hot walking around the palace grounds and the humidity was at least 150%. I was drenched in my clothes. After we left the palace grounds, back on the bus, I couldn’t take the sweat anymore so I grabbed my new little tube top dress and went to the back of the bus. I peeled off my shirt and pants and went to pull the dress over my head and realized it was a pants jumper. So I scooted into the legs and pulled the dress up and walked back down the aisle to my seat. Patty saw me walking with a change of clothes on and said, “Oh! We have a new passenger!”

We went to a market where I found some chicken panang off the street. The lady put some white rice in a bowl and poured the panang over it. I jumped in immediately and it was delicious. I even shared with others in the group that were interested. Then Patty takes us through China Town. I’m a big fan of food and markets but I always get turned off with China Towns. The smells are terrible, the visuals aren’t any better and it’s just over crowded always. As we walked through the stalls with pig faces displayed like masks, some items we could not identify and the fish hanging by hooks. We weren’t sure just how fresh the fish was until a guy chopped the tail of a fish off, hung it on a hook and the fish’s mouth was still moving trying to breathe. Gross! A couple on the trip with us, Ron and Jodi were on their honeymoon. One look at Jodi’s face and I knew that she wasn’t going to feel well. After that, we walked through the Flower Market which was really pretty but by then I was sweating my butt off in my new dress/jumpsuit.

Back at the hotel, going in for $8.00 Thai Massage #2. I got a different woman this time and she was adamant about cracking my back. The more adamant she was, the more I stiffened up. So at one point, she sat me up like a doll, from behind me, she threw one leg around me, grabbed my shoulders and twisted me like an ice tray. Thankfully my back cracked or I would be afraid of what she was going to do next.

After that, us girls decided to head out to find dinner. We went to this place called Koi. Beautiful place with a DJ. We must have gotten there in time for Ladies Night drink specials but we still ordered a bottle of wine instead. All of these young girls came flooding in the place, had a drink or two and then bailed as fast as they came in. We went back and found Mariela and Tony and returned to Koi. Kristie and I decided to go dance and once I was up, there was no sitting down. The DJ was playing all kinds of fun songs and the staff were dancing with me. I came out only long enough to grab a glass of wine from my group and ask where my camera was. No one saw it. Someone mentioned I probably left it in the room but on vacation, my camera is my right hand and I don’t leave without it. But, a few wines in me, music calling, I went back to dance. Finally one of the girls came in and said they were closing and we had to go. When I get outside and realize my camera isn’t there, I storm back to the room to check and it’s not there either. So I fly back to Koi and when I walk in the bar, they all cheered because I was back. I told the manager that I couldn’t find my camera and he went looking for it and found it at our table outside underneath. THANK YOU!!!! I was so happy and relieved. Then the DJ played a bachata and I danced with one of the guys, we all took a group picture and the manager gave me his card and told me I had to come back.

Back at the hotel, happy with my camera, we celebrated with more wine. Yikes! We ended up talking to a bunch of people in town from all over the world for a Rotary Club Convention. We were even invited to Kenya by one lady. I talked to this nice Indian man for a bit at the bar and finally we went to bed. (The next day, the Indian guy kept calling my room looking for me and leaving messages about having dinner. No more drinking….)

Thursday, May 10th – It’s a free day for us and we actually get to sleep in which helps when severely hung over. Blah. We get up just in time for breakfast and then the five of us head on the Sky Train to the famous MBK. It was like a five story flea market. Crazy. Walked around inside shopping, checking out the shoes but ended up buying more scarves. One of the girls had thrown her flip flops away because they must have gotten wet and smelled pretty bad.  It wouldn’t have been as bad except the new sandals were bought during the first day while we were still getting a grip on the exchange rate and she ended up overpaying way too much for them. She cursed them for the rest of the trip.

Grabbed a coffee/hot chocolate and then decided to head back to the Terminal 21 Mall with the fancy bathrooms. I went immediately to the shoe floor and took my time looking in each and every shop. I would find a beautiful shoe but they wouldn’t have my size and I would tell them, “That’s God’s way of telling me I shouldn’t be buying that shoe.” I still managed to come out with three more pairs.

Tony, Mariela and I grabbed dinner at a restaurant on the way back. The wine was so expensive but I couldn’t drink the Chang or Singha beer. Don’t like beer. The curry was wonderful though. Tony ordered shrimp fried rice and it came in a halved pineapple. We also ordered chicken wings as an appetizer and those showed up at the end – translation?

Finally, with a full belly, I decide I want a hot oil Thai Massage. Lean on Tree, here I come! I get a third woman who recognizes me and seems very excited that I came back. I head upstairs and they have the traditional massage table so I figure this will be more normal for me. Within five minutes, the woman was up on the table, straddling me, tying me into a pretzel. Oh well, there was oil and I did feel fabulous afterwards. I’m going to miss those prices.

Friday, May 11th – We had to say goodbye to Bangkok for now and we boarded the bus to head to Ayutthaya which is north. Founded by King U-Thong in 1350 (hee hee), it was a capital of Siam  (Thailand’s name before). We stopped first at the Summer Palace of King Rama IV – Bang Po. Beautiful grounds with flowers and small canals running through it and small decorative bridges. I was dying from the heat so I bought a bamboo umbrella with hand painted birds on it. I didn’t even barter but when I told Patty how much I had paid, she was surprised as it was cheaper than in Bangkok. We walked through the grounds and Julia had this multi-colored umbrella and was skipping ahead of her husband Roger while he followed her with the camera. It was like a professional photo shoot.  We came across a monitor lizard just swimming through the middle of the lake.  The best part of the grounds was the shrubs shaped like animals. In one area, they had a herd of elephant bushes. We went to the gift shop/restaurant, grabbed a shake and sucked up the a/c for a bit. 

We went to Wat Yai Chaimongkol, a temple best known for its enormous plaster statue of the Reclining Buddha.  The people were placing gold flakes on the white plaster.

The bus then took us to Wat Chai Watanaram which was a monastery commissioned by King Prassathhong in 1630 in honor of his mother. It looks just like Angkor Wat so some think the king had it build to commemorate his victory over Cambodia. Unfortunately, recently there was heavy flooding in this area and the temple was closed off while they assess the water damage. I was able to run down to the river and get a great picture of the entire temple. We walked around the perimeter briefly and then back on the bus heading to our hotel. We get to the Kantary Hotel and its set up like apartments. They give us our keys and us girls head up to our floor. There is a king sized bed in one room and two single beds in the other. I said to Marla, “You’ve suffered with my snoring enough and as a present for graduating with a 4.0 (she had just received word of her grade), you can have this king sized bed to yourself and Kristie and I will take the other room.

Marla had brought laundry sheets and there was a washing machine in our room so we all grabbed our sweaty smelly dirty temple clothes and threw them in and then strung them around the room to dry. We decided to have a snack in our hotel at the restaurant and I had the Hawaiian pizza because I had to give my system a break from the spicy Thai food. After that, we changed into our swimsuits and hit the rooftop pool just in time for sunset. A bartender took our drink orders and it was funny when he returned with a tray full of Chang beer, everyone in the pool flocked to him like Koi fish wanting to be fed. Oddly enough, in spite of the maddening heat, I chose to relax in the hot tub with my wine. We really got to know some of the others on the tour and we had a pretty good group. Forcing ourselves out of the pool we went back downstairs to dinner in the restaurant and then headed to bed.

Saturday, May 12th – checked out of the hotel and we were now heading to Kanchanaburi or more famously known as River Kwai. We stopped at the cemetery first that held the Australian, British and Dutch POWs who died while building the Death Railway through Thailand for the Japanese. After walking through the cemetery, we went to the museum which showed how the camps looked and about the building of the bridge and talked about the more than 8,000 POWs who died during the construction.

After that we headed towards the historic bridge over the River Kwai. Before coming to the bridge, there were all kinds of shops and one shop had a guy holding a young leopard. Julia and Mariela got to hold it and take pictures. My allergies had gotten to me enough so I didn’t touch it. Then I walked up to the bridge and crossed over remembering what happened there. I had rented the movie so I would understand the history better. When I got to the other side of the bridge, there was a Thai man playing a violin. I stopped and listened to him for a bit. He played an Argentine tango song and I started trying to dance Tango (Luis, you would have been proud). He loved it. I gave him a tip and he started showing me all the markings on the bridge from bullet holes to where a bomb exploded to dates on steel rails. We said goodbye and as I walked away, he started playing Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”. I flipped around surprised and we both laughed.

Then the best part of the day. We went to the Elephant Camp and they had so many elephants walking around including babies. First we loaded up into a truck that took us upstream on the river and we got our life jackets and boarded bamboo rafts. The five of us and Mark (the dentist) got on one raft and the young boy with well defined biceps (cougar alert) was directing us through the current with a paddle. I took my sandals off and stuck my feet in the water. I wanted to dive in as it was so cool and refreshing from the god-awful heat. The sun didn’t let up the entire trip and it was supposed to be the rainy season. The mountains and the river scenery were beautiful. It was a nice long ride and relaxing. At the end, they let us off and there is a stand selling drinks. Kristie decides to buy us each a giant cold beer. Not a beer drinker but it hit the spot. I got about half way through mine and then handed it to Gaston (the 19 year old on the trip) who downed it before his mother saw him. Contributing to a minor. Back in the truck and heading back to the elephant camp.

Patty had us gather to watch the show and they had the elephants dancing, swinging hula hoops, playing soccer, basketball and throwing darts. They were so smart. You could buy small bananas and feed them. The guide had two people from another tour come out and lay down in front of the elephants and they put a blanket over them and the elephant would spank them with their trunk. Their guide spoke Russian so when I said my few words I knew in Russian, he was surprised and asked if I wanted to let the elephant step on me.  Well, you know I had to. I laughed the whole time. But it was even funnier when Tony went out because they made him lay on his back and when the baby elephant would drop his trunk right on Tony’s shorts, all the men in the crowd groaned and then laughed. After that, we all took turns being picked up in the trunk of the elephant for a photo. We all got “elephant rash” since their hair was really scratchy. Finally, we went by twos and got to ride the elephant all around the park with their individual caretakers. I rode with this lady traveling by herself (Diane from DC) and our guide was nuts. He kept saying “OH MY GOD!!!!” so we taught him to say “OMG”. He told us that our elephant was a 40 year old girl. I said, “So am I.” The ride must have been 30 minutes or more. The final part takes you down a hill into the river and as the elephant is walking through the river, it draws up water in their trunk and blows it on us. I have to admit, it felt great. I told him to keep going and she did about four more times. So now, I’m soaked. When we get off, they hand us fresh cut pineapple. I sat down to eat it and when I got up, one of the guys starts laughing because there is the perfect impression of my rear on the wood swing seat. It was the best elephant ride/experience I’ve ever had.

We drove to the pier where we boarded motorized canoes that took us to our hotel on an island – River Kwai Resotel. Beautiful bungalows and the set up reminded me of Ecuador in the Amazon Forest. We checked into our rooms and we had a lovely room with three single beds. Changed into swimsuits and headed to the pool. After swimming a bit, we went to the rooms, changed and went to dinner which was a buffet. It was good but the food was more western. The funny part was the Thai one man band / Karaoke. He was singing country songs and Elvis and the Beatles with a guitar and sound machine. Patty couldn’t wait to get up and dance so we joined her. It was fun watching her loosen up.

The heat was really getting to me and I decided I was going to go swim. Some of the others came too but the pool was closed then. I sat on the edge in my sundress and put my legs in the water and it felt great. Then one of the other guys on the tour came flying around the corner, stripped naked and hopped in. Some went in with nothing. Others went in with their underwear/bras on (my choice) but it was cool and refreshing . . . and dark. One of the skinny dippers tried to swim up and grab my leg but I explained that his big glowing white butt gave him away in the moonlight. (Blue Moon!) The stars were really bright and we kept hearing some critters making noise which turned out to be a gecko mating call. I thought it was a frog for sure. Finally refreshed, I got out, dried off and went to bed.

Sunday, May 13th – We had decided the night before that we did NOT want to go to the Hellfire Pass Museum and the train ride. We were slightly over depressed from the cemetery and bridge / museum visit from the day before. So 17 of us, thank you Mark for organizing, hired two vans and two drivers to take us to the Erawan (three elephant) waterfall and the Tiger Temple. We get to the waterfall and after hiking a little ways in, we come upon the 2nd of 7 steps of the waterfall (going up) and there are tons of people swimming or sitting in the small falls and there are monkeys jumping around (stealing people’s food) and fighting. Julia told me that two monkeys were fighting and one fell out of the tree into the water. There were also tons of fish that were nibbling on people sitting in the water. We heard about the Thai foot baths that have the fish eating the dead skin but this was ridiculous.

We kept climbing until we came to the 3rd step and the waterfall there was beautiful. So we decided to jump in as it wasn’t crowded either. As I am climbing carefully into the water over the slippery roots and rocks, I start feeling something nibbling on me and I screamed. It was those damn cleaner fish. Then I realize the only way into the water is past them. Many screams later, I made it through and it was worth every bit because when we climbed up on that giant rock at the base of the waterfall, it was gorgeous scenery and the water was the perfect temperature. Marla and some others didn’t want to swim so they kept climbing up to other levels but they said that the one we were at was the best. We stayed there about an hour and then dried off, changed and went to grab lunch. I ate more spicy Thai food.

Off to the Tiger Temple. We were told to go in the afternoon because you can have interaction with the animals then. They feed the tigers and the late sun makes them lethargic (almost drugged looking) and you can hold them and pet them. I couldn’t see USA having anything close to this. The tigers were well taken care of and they told us there were 106 of them in the park. The original story was that an injured tiger walked into the temple and the monks took care of it so it went back into the jungle and told others so now they all come there. There was a sectioned off area where they let the tigers run and you can look down from the sides. There were three tigers playing, jumping in the water, tackling each other, crouching up behind and attacking. It was beautiful. There was another section where you could pay money and the trainer takes your camera and walks you by the hand around to different tigers and lets you sit with them and hold their head in your laps and pet them while they take your pictures. When I went, most of the tigers were sleeping but when Marla went they were just waking up and her pictures came out great. It was a great experience though and I’m so glad we decided to do these options on our own. The funniest part was when Mark said we should all plan a trip and go paddling down a river. Tony said, “Can I pay someone to paddle for me? I don’t paddle.” No part of Tony said he wanted to be an adventure traveler. Mariela was right there with him. I would but I hate to do that much work on my vacations!

Back to the island resort, we get cleaned up for dinner. The Karaoke guy is back. I ate but I wasn’t in the mood for dancing. I heard about a show that is put on in the back of the resort so I wandered back and sat down just as it started. The costumes and dancing were really nice and I enjoyed the little ones dancing in full costume. I walked around a bit by myself and then headed back to the pool to go swimming (with suit this time).

Monday, May 14th – We had a very long drive back to Bangkok. Half of those on the trip were heading home. Some were going to Phuket and then home. There were 8 of us that were heading to Cambodia. Personally, this was what I was looking forward to the most. Unfortunately, because others had earlier flights, Patty had to take all of us to the airport early. We said goodbye to those heading different ways and then Jodi told us that there was a sky lounge that Bangkok Air would let us sit in with snacks and free internet. We checked in for our flight and headed to the lounge and relaxed. I went and found a Starbucks for my dosage of hot chocolate and I bought a Thailand Mug and a Phuket Demitasse mug.

Time for our flight. We walk down the gate to a bus that takes us out to the runway and our prop plane is sitting waiting for us. It was only an hour and a half flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. We landed about 5:00 pm, handed over our passport photos and $20 to get our visa stamp processed at the airport. Much better than sending passports away. Our guide Sam meets us and takes us in a nice little bus to our hotel. The hotel is beautiful and the people are so nice. Check in and we have three single beds and three robes and the bathroom has a claw foot giant white tub and stone containers full of bath soap and shampoo. Beautiful set up.

By now, my stomach had finally gotten to me with all the spicy food and eating so much more than normal. I wasn’t even hungry and was taking Imodium just to be safe.  We all changed and went down to the pool patio for dinner and drinks. A storm rolled in and we just watched it rain and it really brought down the temperature. I ended up ordering a margarita pizza even though I wasn’t hungry. I ate all the cheese off the top and that didn’t help anything. I decided to go back to the room and take advantage of the bath tub. The minute I walked in the door of my room I got sick. I wasn’t nauseous. I just ate too much.

So now that was over, the hot bath with my glass of wine I brought back was going to be very comforting. Filled the tub and placed the wine on the ledge. The bath soap didn’t make bubbles so I flipped the lever from the spout to the hand held shower head sitting in the cradle and put the nozzle in the water with the water on and that made bubbles. Everything was perfect. And then the power went out. The bathroom was pitch black. I was afraid to move for fear of knocking the wine over and breaking the glass. I firmly grabbed the side of the deep tub and slowly stepped out of it holding on for dear life in case I was going to slip. Reached and found the towel, dried off, wrapped it around me and opened the door to my room.

The staff were running up and down the hall way and the door across from me opened. A nice British middle-aged lady was in her nightgown and her phone had a flashlight so we used that to see each other and struck up a conversation. She decided she needed some time off so she’s traveling solo through Asia for a couple months. She has been renting a bicycle wherever she goes and uses that to get around. Very cool woman. We giggled as the staff would go by and try to not notice our attire. The funnier part was when three Chinese men passed us and went into the room next door. They looked super uncomfortable which just made us laugh. Finally, the power came back on and we said good night and back into the bath I went. The water had cooled off so I decided to run the hot water briefly except I forgot that I had flipped the lever to the handset in the cradle. It looked like a funny movie when the handset started flying around, shooting water everywhere with me trying to grab hold of it. And of course, I managed to save the glass of wine. I finished my bath listening to music on my phone, drinking the wine and settling my stomach down from all the food and drama.

Tuesday, May 15th – Sam asked us what time to meet in the lobby; 8:30 or 9:00, and we voted for 9:00. So naturally we were all together and ready by 9:15. I was going to exchange American dollars to Cambodian Riel which are 1 USD to 4,000 Riel. Bartering should be fun. Sam told us that Cambodians take American dollars so instead, I had the front desk break my money down to $1 increments.

Off we go on our tour. The first place we visited was called Angkor Thom which was one of the largest preindustrial cities in the world from about 1,000 A.D. and it was abandoned in the 15th century and left unfound until the late 19th century. It had 54 towers in the temple but only about 35 are left intact. The top of each tower has four giant, barely smiling faces, staring out in the directions of north, south, east and west. Sam told us that one of the directions was death and one of the other directions was wealth. I asked which one was which because I wanted a photo with wealth (more so than death).

Walking through the temple, I saw this handsome guy standing looking at a map. I snapped a picture when he wasn’t looking but then later I managed to start a conversation with him. Man he looked younger up close. (Cougar alert!) His name is Scott and he’s from Virginia. He just graduated high school and is backpacking through Asia and Europe for six months. (Man if I was 140 years younger…) He had this super cool miniature camera that he called his James Bond camera. It was waterproof and had different settings including fisheye and black and white and also can take pictures every 5 seconds. I took it and grabbed a couple of shots of him. It’s hard not having a display or view to look through but I hope they came out well. He was lost and so our wonderful guide Sam told him we were heading the same way and let him tag along and then directed him from there.

We loaded up on the bus. The driver handed us cold wet wipes and bottles of water and we headed back to the hotel to freshen up. (I have always been proud of my traveling skills and made sure to not pack too many clothes but unfortunately, when you are sweating your butt off within an hour and changing twice a day, our room started looking like a Chinese laundry blew up.) We had 45 minutes so we all jumped into our swimsuits, ran (literally) to the pool, ordered a mango shake/smoothie which was sinful and soaked in the pool. With 5 minutes left, we ran back, changed into dry clothes (not really knowing the point) and met Sam for our lunch and afternoon tour. They took us to this beautiful restaurant called Viroth’s that had a planned lunch menu. Again, they looked out for our vegetarian with some yummy options and brought the rest of us the scheduled lunch. They say it’s polite to leave some left on the plate. I’m not polite.

Well fed, we head to Ta Prohm temple which is more widely known as the Tomb Raider Temple. Used in the movie and made famous by Angelina Jolie’s over accentuated shape. Built in the 12th century, the founders decided to leave this section of temple as found. It’s completely overgrown by large jungle trees and huge vines that have pushed their way through the rock and it’s amazing that they rooted and grew so tall. At one time I posed in front of this ridiculously large tree sprawling over the ruins and when Sam was going to take my picture, I shoved my chest out as far as I could and asked, “Do I look like Angelina Jolie?” to everyone’s amusement including a Spanish couple who barely spoke English from Mexico.

Next – Angkor Wat. I was so excited. We parked and had to walk through this long garden area and finally come upon the temple. The sun is so bright that the temple is hard to photograph from this side. Unfortunately, behind us is a storm rolling in that won’t help taking pictures either. I wanted to just run through the temple to the other side but Sam had so many interesting things to tell us about the temple. Where we entered, there are steps leading up but the main entrance is very high off the ground and Sam told us it was because they would arrive on large elephants – you could picture them coming in and stepping off on this elevated platform.

We get to the middle of the temple where you can climb the large stone steps to visit the inner temple and the storm is quickly coming in. Lightning flashing and we just made the entrance to the stairs before they closed it. The clouds were so dark but it actually made for some great shots from the top. Still nervous because I didn’t get my “money shot” for my wall. Just coming out the other side of the temple and the rain comes down. I pulled out my umbrella but the temple was emptying fast and everyone was moving towards the other side where the parking lot and our bus was. On the walk to the bus, it was sad to see a mother begging holding a child in her lap whose head was twice the size it should be. She had another young child who was naked and running around playing in the dirty rain water.

Back on the bus, heading to the hotel, I ask Sam if it’s possible for me to come back the next day and get my photos. He promises that he will bring us all back. I was fully prepared to skip the next day’s tour but he told me to trust him. Get to the room, shower and clean up, the rains come through and cool the day off once again. We go to the patio and order some food. I decide to go into the gift shop for a bit. Kristie isn’t feeling well so she decides to go to the room and rest. Mariela, Tony, Marla and I decide to go to get a massage at a place called Heavenly Hands. It was $20 for the massage but still cheaper than the USA. When we get to the salon, it’s almost 10:30/11:00 and there are a bunch of masseuses sitting in the lobby waiting. The girls opt for a traditional Thai massage but Tony goes for the Four Hand Massage (which turned out to be Six Hands and he was on sensory overload). When they brought us to the room, there were cots down on the floor but it was definitely not Lean on Tree! What the heck?! Had the massage and it was relaxing enough. Still not a bad way to end the day.

Wednesday, May 16th – Sam was smart enough to tell us to meet him at 8:30 so we would be on the bus by 9:00 today. Kristie still wasn’t feeling well so she slept in and relaxed and was going to join us for the afternoon tour. We visited Preah Ko, Bakong and Lolei temples which were built in the 9th centurythat that were made from brick so they didn’t stand the test of time as well.  As we walked through the temples, there were all these children begging. “Pretty lady! One dollar!” If you didn’t respond they would use another language. I heard French, Chinese, Japanese and more. I bought some postcards I didn’t want just so I wasn’t giving them money for nothing. One little girl had postcards and I asked her to hold my umbrella so I could get my money out.  She was so cute.  The Cambodian government doesn’t want the children to use begging as a way to earn a living which I agree with.  At the Lolei temple, there was an early teen girl whose face was disfigured. We asked Sam if it was a land mine since the country used to be covered with them and there are many amputees in the country. Unfortunately, he told us a story that still makes me cry even now writing this. The parents were not making much money so they disfigured their young child and send her to the temple to beg. You can only ask “How?”

While walking through one of the temples, I was climbing up the stone stairs and asked Tony to take my picture. We had been handing the cameras back and forth to each other for over a week and a half now. This time was no different except when I thought Tony had it, he didn’t and he made such a gallant effort to save it by popping it up in the air with his hands like a juggler but finally it got away from him and landed on the stone. I knew it was an accident and wasn’t mad at him but it’s like watching my child fall. I scooped it up, walked around the corner of the temple, sat down fighting back the tears trying to get it to work. It wouldn’t. The auto focus was stuck because the lens was bent. I had just bought it – beautiful red Panasonic with 12X optical zoom and now it’s chipped and not working. So I accepted that fact, stuck it in my bag and took out my camera phone and started snapping photos. Tony has a fabulous camera but I want my own pictures.

We get on the bus and Tony asks if he can see it. He ends up getting the camera to turn on and take pictures but it won’t zoom. I’ll take it! We go on an ox-cart ride and I’m sitting with Sam. I’d forget the zoom didn’t work and when I would try it, the camera would shut off. I still got great shots. Along the way on the cart ride you would see houses with signs from different countries. Sam told us that families and organizations would donate water wells to these poor farmers for about $200. Everyone on the tour immediately made a note as it was something we were all interested in doing. Hands on helping people. There were also these plastic sheets hung up from clothes lines and they would stretch down into a box of water. Sam said that bugs would fly into the plastic and fall into the water where they would be collected as food. EWWWW!  I’ll pass.

Again we head back to the hotel to relax and freshen up before lunch. On the way, Tony asks to see my camera again and this time he has my zoom working again! Is there ANYTHING that that man can’t do? We were going to stay on the bus and some of us were going to skip the intermission and go to the Artisan Market that Diane had told us about. Unfortunately, the bus we were on had other plans. While Marla went to get Kristie to join us for the market, our A/C on the bus decided to quit. Sam decided to let us all rest and we would do the market after lunch. I changed into my swimsuit, went to the pool, ordered a mango shake and then a wine and just relaxed by the pool solo. A week and a half into the trip, tired and hot, we all started getting on each other’s nerves and I for one needed a break and the others appreciated it as well.

Changed to a clean and dry outfit and back on the bus heading to lunch. Sam took us to a place called Nest and the food there was fabulous too! The bathroom was beautiful and cool. The toilets had clear tanks with LCD lights that changed from red to blue to green. It was funny as each of us had to go in and check it out. Full and ready for the afternoon.

We stopped at the Artisan’s Market which was a one block area that had stone work, wood work, bamboo crafts, etc. You could go through each of the areas watching them do the work. The stone workshop was interesting because these are the people in charge of re-creating the statues that have been destroyed in the temples. At the end, you could go into a shop that had all of what we had seen for sale. I bought a bunch of colored bamboo drink coasters and some bath salts.

We went to a temple called Banteay Srei (Citadel of Women) which was supposed to be where the Khmer (Cambodian) classical architecture was born. While walking through the temple, I looked over and realized Tony wasn’t wearing any shoes. I asked him what happened and he pointed to Mariela who along the way blew out a flip flop and borrowed one shoe and then blew out the other so ended up with both of his shoes. (That’s a gentleman.)

We are driving back through the countryside and come upon yet another temple. Its nice but when Sam says to the group, “Would you want to watch the sunset here and see this temple or go to Angkor Wat again?” before he could finish his sentence I squealed “Angkor Wat! . . .or whatever the group wants to do.” Thankfully the group decided to go to Angkor Wat.

This time, the driver takes us to the parking lot area first. I was worried we would have to walk through the garden area and the entire temple again and wasn’t sure what the weather would do. We park and Sam and a handful of us that wanted to go back in get off the bus. As we walk along the moat that surrounds Angkor Wat, you see it come into sight and with the time of day, there is a perfect reflection in the water of the complex. I took one hundred pictures (yes, I published them all, I’m not sorry, I love it.). Then we walked down the long walkway leading up to the temple. There was some renovations going on so there was a green tarp over the front center of the temple. I joked with Sam since he’s such a wonderful guide, would he be able to get rid of that tarp. As we walked, he went down a side staircase and told me to follow him. He says, “Helene, look, your tarp is gone!” I looked and there were three palm trees perfectly hiding the tarp. Man he is good! There was a side building/temple in the courtyard and I decided to climb up those stairs and get a shot from there. There were two monks also watching the sunset over the temple but they seemed happy to share the view with me.

It just kept getting better and better. When I walked down the stairs and kept walking to the main temple, there was a pond which reflected the temple even more than the moat. 100 more pictures taken (all in an attempt to get the best shot for my wall). There were four children playing in the water. I asked one of them to take a picture with me which she was very happy to do. I reached in my backpack and pulled out a $1 USD and handed it to her, gave her a little hug and off she ran. Her three friends saw it and immediately came at me. Slowly I pulled out $1 and handed it to each of them and then I asked to take all of their picture with the temple. Each of them put their two fingers for the peace sign up. Universal.

It was such a great day and I was truly happy that we returned. Sam loaded us back on the bus and we returned to the hotel. My stomach was still not fabulous but I was also full from lunch still and the heat was getting to me. (Never complain about Florida heat again!) We sat inside the lobby bar and had dinner. I didn’t order anything but nibbled off the others who also couldn’t eat that much.

Marla, Kristie, Tony and Mariela were wanting to take Tuk Tuks into the downtown market but I was shopped out. They went and I decided to just have a wine and relax. I heard there was a rooftop bar so I went to check that out and then just go to the room. When I walked in, it was empty except for one bartender named Sokman. I thought he would want to clean up and go home but he was very happy to get me a wine and then offered to teach me to play Snooker. First I noticed that the pool table was unusually huge and the pool balls were red. Sokman cleaned the white board and wrote our names and then the points for the non-red different colored balls and started showing me how to play. The poor thing would literally set a shot up with a ball right in front of the pocket and then say “Good luck Helen” and I would blow it miserably. (Maybe it was because he kept calling me Helen…)  It took us almost an hour to finish the game. He friended me on Facebook and I will never forget my lesson. I walked down to the room and was shocked to see the girls were back. I guess the market wasn’t that great after all. They should have come with me.

Thursday, May 17th – We are not happy about saying goodbye to Cambodia or their people. Most of us are ready to go home. The 8 of us head back to Bangkok and Diane heads back to the USA. So now there are 7 of us; our group plus Ron and Jodi. We try to find a sky lounge but no good. So we end up eating at a pizza place (you would have thought we were in Italy with all the pizza we ate). We are templed out and looking forward to heading to Phuket for the last four relaxing days of our trip.

When we arrive in Phuket, it’s raining. The guide greets us, quickly throws our luggage in a different truck and off we go to our hotel. I was surprised at how touristy Phuket looked but oh well. We arrive at the Novotel Hotel sitting up on a hillside overlooking the Andaman Sea. The lobby is beautiful and so is the view. En route to the hotel, the guide tells us that we should take a taxi to a different beach and I asked her about diving which she said was not possible. She barely gave us any information and said that tours could be taken from the hotel (which naturally were overpriced even for US Dollar standards).

As we walk into the lobby, we are greeted by the site of a very large overweight Buddha belly looking French man who is slouched over dead asleep in the lobby chair. Nice. Then the staff rushes as us with a gross welcome drink and hands us a cold wet nap which we are juggling with our bags and now our drink. The guide tells us she needs a credit card on file and has her hand out. We were told originally that Thai people always smile and never lose their temper. So as politely as I could maintain, I said, “If you would give me a minute to put this stuff down I’ll get the card for you.” I put the glass down, the still not used towel, dug in my bag, found my credit card and handed it to her. It was like she couldn’t get rid of us fast enough.

We get our keys and they take us and our luggage farther up the hill to building 5 where we have to climb three flights of stairs still. The view is amazing but the room is odd. There is one king bed and a roll-a-way cot thin as a pancake. I called the front desk and asked them to bring an extra mattress. When the two guys showed up with the mattress, they looked at me as if to say, “We understand. We wouldn’t sleep on that either.” Once the additional mattress was in place, it was fine. There was an odd pass thru window from the room to the bathroom that we weren’t sure what that was about. When we looked at Tony and Mariela’s room, their toilet was at a 17 degree tilt so we joked that they needed a seat belt for their toilet. The rooms smelled funny but it was a beach resort and they did have a tsunami that devastated the island but not up this high. As we checked out later, the manager informed us that our building was scheduled to be renovated later this year. Thanks!

Unpacked, showered and got fixed up a bit. We were all exhausted and just decided to eat at the hotel, sleep in the next day and go from there. We went to the restaurant and they were having a Mexican buffet for $21.00. I wanted to stay with the Thai cuisine because I loved it. So I had my Chicken Panang mild (ha! – I sweated my rear off eating that stuff. I would eat a bite and then wipe the sweat off my brow and lip. Unfortunately, the very over starched white linen napkin scratched the heck out of my face.) Mariela had the buffet but didn’t love it. Marla said she doesn’t trust our French chef to do Mexican so she went with the Vegetarian lasagna which consisted of a noodle, 4” of spinach and an overdoes of powdered cheese layering the top. Turns out she doesn’t trust the chef to do Italian now either. Kristie ordered something Thai as well and liked it. Tony ordered the lobster which was about $30. We all got our food except Tony. We joked that they were down the hill looking for it in the sea. It was good when it came but too pricey for me. (Later we found them giving lobster away in the market place. Always the case.) We hit the bar for a drink but most of us couldn’t keep our eyes open and in spite of the fan they moved over to blow on us, we needed A/C so we called it a night and went to our rooms.

Friday, May 18th – It was nice to just sleep. None of us slept great but just not having to get up and get on a bus was nice. Woke up around 8:30 and I went for a walk before breakfast to explore. I walked down the hill to the rocks with the water crashing that I saw from my room. I was so disappointed to see all the trash everywhere. It was disgusting. You would think the hotel would make the effort to clean it up for their guests. Then I walked down the way a bit to the beach and there were Thai out there setting up the beach chairs and the vendor stands and I saw one guy picking up trash on the beach. I took some pictures but I laughed that my camera lens was fogging up so bad from going from the cool room to the humid beach. I walked back to the hotel and up the 200+ stairs. Man I missed flat Florida! I thought I would need CPR by level 3 of 5.

Met the girls for breakfast and it was good. Next it was putting on our swimsuits and settling into the pool. The view was great except Big Boy from the lobby was there chain smoking. Turns out he only wakes up long enough to smoke. He waddled like a weeble around the pool almost chasing us with his nasty cigarette. We almost went to the next level down but there were kids running amuck so we took the lesser of the two evils. At least Pierre (as we nicknamed him) would pass out occasionally.  At one point, this young couple showed up at the pool and “Pierre” approached them asking if they speak French.  When they responded that they did, he had a long conversaton with them.  Then he walked to his pool chair, got his sun tan lotion, walked back to the couple and proceeded to ask the man to apply lotion to his back.  He did and then after, the couple decided to leave.  As the man walked by, he gave me the universal “that was odd” look and I smiled.   As if “Pierre” wasn’t a sight in his yellow giant shorts, he stripped down to a pair of tight black shorts and just as we absorbed that view, he managed to drop down to a speedo which did it’s best to cover him but failed.

Tony ordered us strawberry and mango daiquiris and we just bobbed in the pool in the shaded areas looking out over the sea and beach below. It was nice just sitting and doing nothing. Finally we decided to get cleaned up and go into town to get lunch. It was about 2:00 pm. No schedule. We took the free shuttle to the Town Center. They had a mall and a bunch of restaurants. We pulled up to a place that had pizza, Thai food, everything. I had my Thai and the others ordered pizza. The wine was good.

I decided that I was done shopping for life and wanted to find “the secret beach” a friend told me about. I was in D.C. for the Army Navy game the previous December and met this guy Aaron standing watching the game with his friends inside (it was freezing out in the actual stadium so we all had the same idea). When I told him that I was going to Thailand, he was telling me about his time there recently. So he got my email and sent me directions to this private beach that he managed to find.

I had the email with his directions and was going to run off on my own but Kristie decided she wanted to go with me. We went out and found a Tuk Tuk and started negotiating a price to go to a place that we didn’t know where it was. We got him down to 500 baht. All I told him was head to the south of the island to the Yacht Club. Once we arrived there, he looked at us puzzled. I showed him the next set of directions and he said, “Get in.” He wasn’t going to let us walk looking for it. So he drove through the parking garage for the Yacht Club and then down a winding dirt road until he found a parking lot and a sign that said “Ao Sane”.  He agreed to wait for us while we went and checked it out. As we climb down the hill to the beach, there is one couple who are just leaving so we take a picture of them and they get one of us and then they leave.

Kristie and I literally had this beautiful beach to ourselves. There were two golden labs that were running on the beach playing and they would come play with us and then run off. Most of the animals you saw in Thailand were pitiful, skinny and looked like they had a few close calls with Tuk Tuks but these two were well fed, well groomed and well loved. They acted like the caretakers of the beach. There was a restaurant and some bungalows there but we didn’t see another person. We walked on the sand, played in the water and took a bunch of photos. There were crabs running all over the place in their cool shells. I grabbed my water bottle and Kristie took a picture of me filling it up with beach sand. It was perfect. We stayed for about 40 minutes and then went back to find our driver waiting patiently for us.

We get in the Tuk Tuk and mention it would be good to catch the sunset at the point so our driver takes off and madly drives us through the mountain coast to catch the sunset. We pull up and he throws it in park and we jump out running. He points and we follow. We come out to this scenic overlook with the sun setting and it’s absolutely gorgeous. As we are taking pictures, there is this rasta-Thai man with serious long dreads smoking a cigarette and talking on the phone. We asked him to take a picture of us and he did while he was smoking so the shot came out pretty cool with smoke coming up in front of us. He realized what he did and took another one without the cigarette. We thanked him and then ran back to our driver who had picked flowers and laid them in the seat. Awww! So now he’s driving us back to the market place where he picked us up. As we take off, these fluorescent lights come on and it looks like a disco Tuk Tuk. We both laughed. Mind you we only negotiated the one way trip to the secret beach so we didn’t know what the cost was going to be. As we drove, we looked through the laminated flyers for things to do in Phuket. One was a flyer for Katherine – Escort. She was in lingerie and pictures of her touching herself and the massage tables were set up really crazy. Nice.  When we get to the market, our driver tells us we owe him 1,000 baht. We give him 1,200 because he went above and beyond.

Now we are going to get a drink and we find this place called Hemmingway’s. We are sitting there watching the Thai locals coming in and out of the market. There was a scooter with two guys and a fluffed up poodle sitting on the handlebars. They stopped to let us take a picture. The dog posed. I loved seeing all the high heels on scooters. Good girls. Then this tall non-Thai man comes up and asks where we are from and we tell him USA and he says he is from New Zealand. We were making small talk and then he asks if we can break a 1,000 baht. I try but can’t so he thanks us and walks away with a woman. After our drink we start to walk back to the hotel and he comes up again and asks where we are going and can he come. He asks if we are lesbian swingers. I couldn’t keep from laughing. I said, “She’s cute but I like men thank you.” Then he continues to invite himself back to our hotel. We decline and I say, “Isn’t that your wife?” and point at the woman I saw earlier. He says, “No, that’s my brother’s wife and I don’t know where he is.” Nice.

Off we go and decide to walk the 20 minutes or so back to the hotel. The girls kept pestering us about coming to see a Ping Pong Show. There was an entire street dedicated to seediness which is not my cup of tea. I was disappointed to see the Thai woman so exploited. Mostly by the white men of the world (Aussie’s, Brits, Americans). You’d see an older white guy with some super young Thai girl hanging off of him. That’s how they make their money. Sad. Typical tourist party city. So we kept walking and even managed to climb the stairs up the hill to our place. We stopped and bought a bottle of wine and brought that back to share. Found Marla in Mariela and Tony’s room and they had the same idea and bought a bottle of white wine. As a group, we decided we would get up early the next day and go to the pier and get a ferry to the Phi Phi islands. Off to bed.

Saturday, May 19th – We got up early, had breakfast and grabbed a tuk tuk to the Pier. We negotiated the rate to something decent. The guy drove fast but we almost missed the ferry. When we arrived, we were met by a guy who offered us various tours. Just to take the ferry was cheap but if we took the tour for 1500 Baht, it would include lunch and snorkeling and the return trip to the hotel. Done. We ran to the ATM, bought our tickets and jumped on the overcrowded ferry. Barely any room to sit. Tony, Marla and Kristie climbed to the second level and stood most of the trip. Mariela and I found space down on the main deck. Marla decided to go for a walk and as she went to go down the steps, she slipped and her bottom bounced all the way down the stairs. The rest of the trip she kept saying, “Did you see that donkey kick me?!” Poor thing had a bruise on her thigh but she took an Aleve right away. Very prepared girl.

On the way to the Phi Phi Islands, they take us to the island where the movie The Beach with Leonardo DeCaprio was filmed. It was over-run with tourists and boats and we couldn’t get off even if we wanted. We kept going past these beautiful green covered mountains shooting up out of the turquoise blue water. We ended up at Phi Phi Island resort where they asked the ones with stickers to go to the right of the boat and the rest to go to the left. The madness that ensued was a joke. No organization at all. Those of us with stickers were moving to another smaller boat that would take us snorkeling. Once on the boat, they told us to come up, sign our name and get a mask and snorkel. That didn’t happen. People rushed the snorkels and masks. I finally pushed my way through, wrote my name, grabbed a mask and snorkel and ran for the back of the boat. The second they threw anchor, I was in the water. I snorkeled immediately away from the boat and found this beautiful reef with giant brain coral and large clams in all colors. The fish followed me like I was in an acquarium and I was going to feed them. There was no one around me. It was great. I could see the divers occassionally below me. I would swim down to touch the giant clams and they would close up. I finally snorkeled back to the boat which was mass chaos. People hitting you with their flippers. I dove down and swum underneath them and came up at the back of the boat. It was perfect. I was annoyed that I could have gone diving but our guide made no effort to help me with that. The snorkeling was great so I won’t complain. I didn’t have to spend any time with the equipment.

After that, the boat took us back to the island and we went to the Phi Phi hotel for lunch. There were us five and five Thai people. We ended up taking pictures of each other and laughing over a lazy susan – Chinese style lunch. They had chicken wings and spaghetti? I was starved from snorkeling so I ate it all.

We were able to tour the island on our own shopping. I found a spot where there was a couple sitting with their feet in a tank of water with the fish eating the dead skin. It just looks gross but they enjoyed it. I walked about ten minutes and then saw a clearing up ahead with blue water. It was a beautiful beach with hardly anyone on it. I put my feet in the water. A guy asked if I wanted to rent a paddleboard and I explained that I had about 10 minutes and he smiled.

Headed back to the boat for the ride home. I was so tired that the minute we got underway, I laid my head down and went to sleep. When we arrived, we had to find our shuttle to the hotel. There was a French couple waiting as well and we ended up chatting. When we got back to the hotel, the woman, Sofie, came up to my room and gave me her email, address and number in Paris and the note says that if I’m ever in Paris, I need to look her and her husband up. I told her the same goes for Florida.

We got cleaned up and headed back to the market. Our last night in Thailand and I wanted Thai food. We ended up at a wine bar (not terrible but no Thai). I decided to not eat and just grab a wine and eat something later. Kristie and Marla headed off to get a Japanese facial. Mariela, Tony and I walked around the mall a bit and then they joined me for my Thai food. We all but fell asleep at the table. We headed back to the hotel and packed up for the trip home. I was ready to go. 17 days was a long time to be gone.

Sunday, May 20th – The guide (I use the world loosely) picked us up and brought us to the airport. We were going to do the 1.5 hour flight to Bangkok, then the 3.5 hour flight to Taipei, then only 10 hours to Los Angeles (less time going back with the jet stream), and the 4.5 hours to Tampa.

On the Taipei to LA trip, I sat with a mother and her daughter from Lafayette but who are now living in Singapore. The girl Haley is seven and was very entertaining. When we all went to go to sleep, she was all crunched up so I said, “You can put your legs on me if you want.” She’s just a seven year old. How heavy can they be? HA! A few hours later, I lost feeling in my legs. I tried to move them around and not wake her but she looked so sweet sleeping.

We arrived in LA, I did the mad dash to Passport Control, grabbed my luggage, cleared customs and ran in 4” wedge heels two terminals away to the Delta Domestic terminal. I checked my one bag, got through security just in enough time to make the gate. The monitor indicated that there were only two seats left on the plane and I was listed second on standby. I was waiting patiently.  Marla was scheduled to fly at 1:45 am through Memphis but figured she would try to get on my flight. She paid the idiot at the counter who was super rude to her $50 to switch over to our flight. Now, I’m 2nd on standby and there is only 1 seat left according to the screen. Finally they announce that all standby passengers have been cleared and I jump on the plane. Whew!

Direct flight to Tampa. As I got on the plane, I didn’t make first class but I saw the flight attendant guy trying to serve drinks to those who did make first class. I asked if he wanted to go ahead of me and he thanked me. I said, “I learned to never prevent a bartender from serving drinks.” He laughed and then I scooted back to my seat. I had a nice guy from New Zealand sitting next to me and we chatted the whole time while others probably were trying to sleep. I got up to use the bathroom and the flight attendant from 1st class asked what I was drinking. I told him red wine. When I came out, he handed me a full glass of red wine and winked. It’s good to be social.

I landed at 5:30 am, booked a Super Shuttle and was the only one the driver was delivering. Got to my office, picked up my car and headed home. I couldn’t wait to do laundry with a washer AND a dryer and get into my own bed. It was a great trip and I checked two more countries off my list. Up to 47 now and still going. Hope you enjoyed the story. Khob-kun-Krub – thank you in Thai.

No Monkey Bites

May, 2007 – In my conquest of world wonders and monuments, I had my heart set on going to India only to see the Taj Mahal. Looking at various guided tours, I found Friendly Planet to be the best priced and it included a side trip to Katmandu, Nepal which is where Mount Everest and the Himalayas are. Then I started checking to see who wanted to go. I checked with Mariela, my original travel partner, and she definitely wanted to go. She was disappointed that she didn’t get to go to China with me the year before and wasn’t going to miss this opportunity. Unfortunately, Tony, her boyfriend, not wanting to be left out, decides he wants to go as well. Mind you Tony has never left the USA so I’m thinking this is a bad idea all the way around; not to mention the three of us would have had to share a room for two weeks. So I email Veronica, the girl that I went to Australia with. Without hesitation, she jumps on board to go. So it’s set, the four of us will leave May 7 for India and Nepal returning on May 18th.

I start doing my research on India and find that May is one of the hottest months in the year but there is no rain. We were looking forward to 110 degree weather like going to the dentist for a root canal. No idea what the hotels will be like or the bus we will be traveling on so the assumption is we will bake like chickens. The other concern was eating Indian food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The guys at Tony’s job in Crystal River asked me to put a web cam on him so they could watch from home like “Survivor – India”!

Veronica meets the three of us in New York on the 7th and informs us that in a one hour flight from Philadelphia to JFK, Delta managed to lose her luggage. We are hoping it might show up at least a day or two into our trip in India (how hopeful was that?!). We fly out of JFK at 8:00 pm on Monday and into London Heathrow Tuesday Morning. They have us deplane, run around the entire airport, through security and then back to the same gate and same plane to reboard for Delhi. Welcome to London. Eight hours later, we arrive in Delhi, India around 10:30 pm Tuesday night. Now, I knew it would be hot during the day but when we walked off that plane, it felt like we stepped into an oven. I was terrified. If it’s this hot NOW, what’s it going to be like at noon tomorrow? We met up with our group which turned out to be a total of 24 of us. Some nice, some quiet, some crazy. We hung with the crazy folks.

We head to our hotel, The Claridges, which is right next to the Prime Minister’s house, so I’m assuming it’s a good neighborhood. The hotel was absolutely beautiful. The beds were heavenly, they had bathrobes and slippers and the A/C was FREEZING. Things are looking up. Woke up the next morning to a buffet breakfast with an omelet station. I figured I would stick to Continental Cuisine for breakfast and then do Indian for lunch and dinner. The waiter got me a hot chocolate, brought me my omelet and basically followed me around getting my food. I almost brought him home.

We left for Agra which was a six hour trip across some really interesting country. Leaving New Delhi and we started to see trucks, cars, motorcycles with five people, camels, cows, tractors, elephants, etc. all jockeying for pole position at the one traffic light or intersection. It was nothing to see a three lane highway with all the above mentioned lined up in a row like a race at the Kentucky Derby. Our driver was amazing. I would have wrecked the bus five minutes after starting the engine. Watching the people along the side of the road was the most enjoyable. You would see a boy sitting in a chair under a tree getting a haircut with a mirror hanging on the tree. Then you see a bunch of women in multi-colored saris carrying twice their weight on their head down the street. My favorite was seeing people riding a camel talking on a CELL PHONE! We also saw houses that basically consisted of two side walls and a thatched roof with a man laying on a cot inside talking on his cell phone. It was surreal.

We arrived in Agra, checked into the hotel room and had a rest. The guide was brilliant because he would have us touring in the morning and late afternoon evening, saving the hottest part of the day for our lunch in the hotel with plenty of air conditioning. That afternoon we headed to the Taj Mahal. Agra was a very industrial city but the government actually banned all factories because the pollution was taking a toll on their most prized monument. We rode Tuk Tuks up to the gate of the Taj. Couldn’t see it yet. Then we walked through one gate only to find another Red Sandstone gate. Still couldn’t see it. Finally our group walked through the second gate and there it was . . . Absolutely magnificent. The architecture is perfect. 16th Century. Built for the king’s wife as a tomb. Made entirely of marble and it has semi-precious stones inlayed in the shape of flowers and leaves that are red, green, blue, orange, etc. No picture does it justice. We stayed there until sunset on the Taj and then headed back to the hotel. At this point I thought I could go home as I saw what I came for but actually was very glad to continue learning about this great country.

I’d heard that the people were really poor and unsanitary and it would be so hot so I was expecting the worse. The reality was the people lived so simply and work hard and do not seem to be missing anything looking at the smiles on their faces. They waved at us everywhere we went and some sheepishly looked at us wanting to take pictures which we were happy to do. The children loved when we would take their pictures and then show them the digital display. I really loved these people and how welcoming they were to us.

Our guide was hilarious. Vishal is Punjabi and a little chubby. He would get so into telling you the history of a fort, palace, or tomb that you hung on the edge of your seat as if you were right there. He would ask you to imagine going through the main gates of the palace and listen for the musicians playing their instruments announcing the king’s arrival. “Here comes the king, riding on a huge elephant decorated with fabrics and paint, surrounded by soldiers and entertainers and more musicians…” You swear you saw the king.

And then to make it just that much easier on all of us, Vishal would tell us to enjoy the tour and then get right back on the bus. He would bring the different crafts that the hawkers were shoving in our face for ridiculous prices along the way and he would tell us what the fair price was. We bought everything not tied down. Very smart. If left to our own, we might have paid too much. This way, we paid a good price to help the hawkers without all the pressure while sitting on an air conditioned bus.

In the meantime, everyone on the tour found out that Veronica was missing her luggage. The Canadian girls were very nice and offered clothes to squirt (she’s a tiny thing) if she needed it. Also, Vishal took her and I out shopping one night. He took her to this local store to buy pants and shirts and then dropped us “in front” of the undergarment place and took a 15 minute walk. She also bought a pair of sandals. The best part was when one Japanese lady on our tour from California offered Veronica a tank top that was stretched out, faded and stained to wear if she needed it. We called her Crazy Lady or C.L. for short. Later she hung little bells from her backpack which I thought made it very easy to find her.

Some other folks of interest were Carol and her mom Aurora from New York. The first day Carol literally said she was already regretting bringing her mom on this trip. We all sat back and watched them fight the whole time. You could hear the mom screaming for Carol from across the way wanting a picture taken of her in front of something. Look, it was so bad, we all wanted to do away with the mom too. Then there were my new friends Minta and Victoria, sisters from California who reminded me way to much of my Nana. Older than me, but much cooler than I’ll ever be. Minta had us rolling when she asked to look through the Kamasutra book we bought. We were nervous giving it to her until she started thumbing through it saying, “Uh, huh, been there; done that.” We died. We also like Mardi and Allen from Texas. Allen was the jokester and his wife rolled her eyes the whole trip yet smiled the whole time as well (enjoying his humor in spite of 37 years of marriage). Everyone else on the trip was pretty calm and normal.

We stayed in Agra for two days visiting various locations of interest, taking lots of pictures and eating great spicy food (washing it down with Pepto-Bismol or Imodium AD to be safe.) Then we left for Jaipur which is known for it’s semi-precious stones and textiles (carpets, saris, etc.) We took a rickshaw through the streets which was like the never ending ride at Disney World. So many times we thought we would die but saw absolutely NO accidents. The next day we were able to take an elephant ride up to this great fort. The elephant had blue and pink and orange paint on her trunk and they were treated very well. Most of us loved the ride even though Tony and Mariela’s elephant sneezed on them (hahahahaha). 

After a couple days in Jaipur, we returned to Delhi for a tour of the Old and New Delhi as well as a stop at Gandhi’s house. It was very interesting and sad at the same time. A man that wanted peace so badly was shot to death by a 19 year old boy who felt he was responsible for the revolts in the country.

We woke up on Monday, the 14th and headed to breakfast at the Claridges. There was my waiter. He brought me to a reserved table, sat me down, ran and got my hot chocolate (I wish I could train one of my co-workers this way . . .) and insisted that instead of an omelet, he would bring me a surprise. It was an Indian breakfast called Masala Dusi (spelling?) Basically it was a thin pancake with potatoes and spices rolled inside and you put this creamy green sauce that looked like it had poppy seeds in it on the top. It was delicious and the waiter was so proud of himself. Of course, I grabbed a banana on the way out for substance as my system would try to revolt after that. I can’t eat Corn Flakes without upsetting my stomach. My Starbucks hot chocolate is like a peace offering each morning. I was surprised at how well I did though while there. Mind over matter, I tell ya.

After breakfast, we headed for the airport to fly to Katmandu, Nepal. We used Jet Airways. Now, it’s not that I don’t find Indian men attractive, it’s just they aren’t usually my type. We saw 1,000’s of people but no one caught my eye until I sat on the plane. By now, all 23 other guests on the tour had gotten to see that I was a little crazy and always looking for a giggle. Minta and Victoria sat a few rows up from me. Behind me was Mardi and Allen. So down the aisle comes this very cute flight attendant with the most beautiful smile and dimples to die for. He looks down to get my drink order and I can’t help but stare at him. He comments on how beautiful my eyes are and I told him I was thinking the same thing about him.

By now, the whole tour is giving me crap for flirting with this guy to which I inform them that I haven’t flirted since New York City, May 7th and I think I’ve done pretty well. Later, the attendant comes by and I ask his name which he tells me it’s Vikas (Vik-s). He says Americans pronounce it Vick-Ass. I told him I wouldn’t say it that way. Allen leans forward and says, “I don’t like men but that guy is awfully cute! Hey Mardi, what do you think of the attendant?!” She gives a big thumbs up. Then I mention that according to Vishal, birth signs play a huge roll. Next time he passes, I ask, “So I’m a Leo, what sign are you?” He says he’s a Libra. I ask if that’s a good thing and he says, “Yes, it’s a very good thing.” So the arranged marriage is underway. Of course when I ask how old he is and find out he’s 22 and we all know that I’m NOT 22, I thought it would be a problem. Until my tour group cheered me on. Something about Kamasutra, get it if you can, you only live once, etc., etc., etc.

He asked for my email address and I gave it to him along with a comment card I had to complete (all excellent of course). On the way out of the plane in Nepal, I ask Minta what she thinks and she says, “Go ahead girl!” I tell Vikas, “Mom approves” which confused him a bit because Minta is African American 🙂 I get to the Hyatt Regency, five star hotel, check in, log into email and there is a message already from him. He also calls the hotel from Delhi and leaves me a message. I call him back not knowing the cost per minute. The next morning, I check with the front desk and find out my 30 minute phone call was $71.00 US dollars. For the next three days, I was mercilessly persecuted by my co-tourists. They managed to find a way to use $71 in every sentence.

Then I find out that Vikas made arrangements to be on my return flight to Delhi. That was fun. He and I couldn’t look at each other. Everyone on the plane was watching his every move. Tony said, “It feels like 71 degrees on this plane.” Then he said a bit later, “Hey Helene, where is that Kamasutra book you bought.” My face was beyond red. I’m too old to be blushing this badly. Minta and Vicky were calling me Stella (How Stella Got Her Groove Back) and loving it. Then the song came over the intercom, “You make the earth, move, under my feet . . .” by Carol King and the whole plane started laughing hysterically saying it was dedicated to 25D (my seat). Nice. I couldn’t get off the plane fast enough.

When we arrived back in Delhi at the hotel, I had a message that Vikas called and was on his way to the hotel to see me and say goodbye. When he arrived, we went for coffee, where the whole tour was sitting in the café. Oh well, he was so nice and gentlemanly and sweet . . . And hot according to Mardi.

Back in Nepal, we enjoyed the tour but our guide wasn’t very exciting. He figured if he just repeated everything twice, we would be more engaged. We weren’t. Nepal has a more chinese/tibetian influence and after my tour of China last year, I was over it. We did do an aerial tour of the Himalayas including Mt. Everest and our favorite tour was the one that took us into the countryside and let us walk down hill through the localvillage. The “low” light would have to be going to the cremation sight and seeing a dead body laying there on the side of the river waiting to be cremated (wrapped in a sheet but still a dead person nonetheless). Then seeing a women with an urn of ashes pouring them into the river and sending them downstream hoping the person will get to heaven. Worse yet, was downstream about ten feet, there was a man bent over the river, drawing up the same nasty water and drinking it. The dead people in the river were bad enough but then there were cows and monkeys playing (and doing other things) in the water that just added to the unsanitary conditions. That water would have killed me but these people have grown up with it, so it doesn’t affect them at all. Maybe that’s why all the spice! Kills everything.

It was difficult to leave the five star hotel. Even more so when we met Ahmed from Dubai. That guy was a stand up comedian. The stories he told us had us holding our sides laughing so hard. Every time he goes through an airport, something goes wrong and listening to his side of the story is priceless. I loved the story he told about buying a live sheep and planning on killing it and cooking it in front of his guests he wanted to impress in Rochester, New York. He didn’t understand why all the women were screaming and crying. “Don’t they eat meat? Where do they think it comes from?” I would have loved to have been there.

The tour was truly amazing. Watching people live so simple and yet happy. Trying food that we probably would never have tried in the States. Most of us made it through our tour unscathed including Tony. I was very proud of him for hanging so well. Even at the end of the tour, I told him how impressed I was and his answer made me want to get up and hug him. He said that this was a great experience and he learned so much and more importantly was able to see a completely different culture that he could never have imagined. Ladies and gentlemen, my work here is done. Oh, and one more thing, Veronica’s luggage arrived the day before we left India. Thanks Delta!