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When You Want to Travel Solo, But Not Alone

Well, hello there. Contrary to what you may have thought, I’m still here lurking about. So much has happened since we last spoke. I’ve felt a bit like a bride who has neglected to send out her thank-you notes for a year and feels guilty while trying to ignore it, thinking it’s too late and maybe people will have forgotten. They haven’t and they’re talking behind your back. Even if it’s your tenth anniversary, send the damn note.
As for me, I’m not hiding, but I won’t even attempt to catch you up on all that’s happened because, well, that would be boring. Let’s start with now, as there are some exciting things happening which you might actually find interesting.
CafeCurrent position: sitting in a coffee shop (or is it a café, I really don’t know what the difference is) in Budapest. Yup, back to my favorite city, which you helped me to discover (if you’re new here, read this). I’ve rented the same apartment which I rented for a month last year, only this year I’m staying for two months. I’ve also applied for a one-year Hungarian Resident visa in order to stay and write some more about the country because, quick, name a city in Hungary which isn’t Budapest? Unless you’re Hungarian, I bet you can’t. Why is that? There are wine regions, historical cities, lavender farms, and the picturesque Lake Balaton region. If I snag the visa, you may read about this in some travel magazines or websites.
But here’s the big news (talk about burying the lede) – I’m opening a tour company. Not a million-dollar money-making machine. These tours will be offered for two reasons: my love of sharing travel with people and helping them realize the empowerment in getting out of their comfort zone, and my need to actually make a buck to support myself, as writing, even for other people, pays crap.
So, welcome to Drop Me Anywhere Tours for Women! What? Women? Gentlemen, it’s not that you’re not invited but, well, yeh it is. I love you guys; in fact, I’ve loved more than one of you guys (not at the same time). But solo female travel is growing in popularity each year and, as I’m sort of an expert on this, who better to introduce other women to it? Women have often been held down (literally and figuratively) by men, and even by other women. No more. Also, I‘ve found an abundance of “How to Stay Safe When Traveling Solo” articles targeted at women, often implying that the minute you step out of your neighborhood alone you have a target on your back (or other body part). Why is Budapest more dangerous than my home city of Detroit? Why is Medellin more dangerous than Chicago? They’re not. Finally, any married woman who has traveled solo has been asked, “Your husband allows you to travel without him?” Aw, isn’t that precious.
Still, traveling with others can give one a sense of security, as well as a sense of fraternity, or maybe sorority? Ok, it’s just fun to share some experiences. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to go somewhere but your husband, boyfriend, girlfriends, whoever, either doesn’t want to go, can’t go, or simply has commitment issues. (If it’s your husband you may have a problem there.) Drop Me Anywhere’s motto is, When you want to travel solo, but not alone. And, as I’ve been a tour guide for 20 years and have traveled to 64 countries, maybe you think about coming with me as I’ll be guiding at least the first trips. And you also get to travel with a travel writer.
Speaking of those trips, the first two will be in the US as it’s a market I know well and easier for me as a start-up company. Let me tell you about the Wine Region trip which will include:

  • Four nights in Sonoma (hotel TBD)
  • Two nights in Calistoga at the incredible Indian Springs Resort (can you say mineral pools and mud baths?).
    Hotel
    Grounds of Indian Springs Resort, Calistoga

A big part of this company will be to support female-owned business so we will use those as local suppliers whenever possible. These will be some of the included activities:
Wine

  • In Sonoma, we’ll tour some wineries with one of the first female winemakers in the region. We may even do a bike ride through some of the vineyards (still working on that part).
  • We’ll spend a day at nearby Tomales Bay and Point Reyes Station where we’ll learn about different kinds of wheat, processing, and breadmaking from Celine Underwood, the owner Brickmaiden Breads, whose employees are nearly all women.
  • Across the street, we’ll participate in a cheesemaking demonstration at Cowgirl Creamery.
    Kayak
    Kayak on Tomales Bay
  • Then, we’ll hop in kayaks for our self-propelled, tour of Tomales Bay guided by Point Reyes Outdoors, owned by Laurie Manarik.
  • Perhaps we’ll shuck our own oysters which we’ll pick up from Hog Island Oyster Company for lunch or dinner, accompanied by our yummy bread, cheese, and wine (of course).
  • We’ll visit Jack London State Park where we’ll learn about Oyster MenuJack’s bold wife, Charmian, who hated riding girly side-saddle so she cut her skirts down the middle and sewed the pieces together to create legs so she could gallop like the men.
  • A highlight of this trip will be an evening with actress and playwright, Terry Baum, who will provide a talk about two ballsy women, Nellie Bly and either Ida B Wells or Lorena Hickok. Terry performs as these characters in order to give the audience a deeper understanding of their personal and professional struggles and triumphs.
  • Of course, we’ll have free time in downtown Sonoma and, hopefully, enjoy the Tuesday Night Farmer’s Market with music, dancing, and wine.Trees
  • Also, downtown, we’ll have a class at Abbot’s Passage, a small shop owned by winemaker Katie Bundschu, where we’ll learn how to make perfume, living jewelry, or some other creative endeavor.
  • On our way to Calistoga, we’ll do some forest bathing (look it up) with a hike in the Redwoods.

 
The other trip I’ll be offering involves one of my passions; western US National Parks. I’ve led countless tours to this region and am still excited each time I go. While this is at the beginning of the planning stage, my goal is to offer it in October, as I was there last fall and the beauty of the fall colors set against red rocks, majestic mountains, and commanding cliffs was beyond spectacular. We’ll hike (there will be options for all levels), swim, meet cowboys and Native Americans, enjoy a boat on Lake Powell, and maybe horseback ride. Plans are to visit:

  • The Grand Canyon National Park (not only a national park but one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World)
  • Bryce Canyon National Park (which is not technically a canyon, but I’ll explain that as we enjoy the beautiful hoodoos. I’ll explain those too)Mountain
  • Zion National Park (oh, my favorite!)
  • Arches National Park
  • Deadhorse State Park (no better place for a picnic)Hike
  • Lake Powell National Recreation Area
  • Monument Valley Tribal Park (an unforgettable place which will reach deep into your soul)

If either of these trips sounds interesting, click on the contact page and let me know your thoughts. Perhaps you already have a group of women who would like to go. While I will take no more than 20 people at one time, I aim to go much smaller to start so perhaps your book club, wine group, alumni association, or group of friends or relatives have something in mind. I’d be happy to design and lead the trip for you. Or you could take one of these two and let me know what dates work best for your group so I can design it from there.

Monument Valley
Monument Valley

The Wine Country trip would be a great bonding experience for mothers and adult daughters. (Trying to keep the little ones out of the wine barrel.) If it’s just you, hell, that’s what I’m all about. Fill out that contact form and let me know what you’re interested in and maybe when. I can’t yet supply pricing as I need to reach out to my suppliers with specific dates, so I’ll get back to you. I’ll try to keep prices as low as possible as I really want these trips to be available to a variety of women of different ages, experience, and means.
Oh, yeh, and as far as the book, Drop Me Anywhere – one woman, two suitcases, and absolutely no plan, goes, I’ve been hunkering down and working on that also. 42,000 words so far. Writing a book is really hard. I may not be moving fast, but I am moving forward.

When Good Triumphs Over Evil

Today I finally get to know Medellin. I’m taking a walking tour of Comuna 13, notorious in Medellin’s recent history and the center of the Medellin Drug Cartel headed by Pablo Escobar.
RunnersI walk down to the meeting point at the Poblado Metro Station via Carrera 43A, a main boulevard here in Medellin. Opened in 1995, the Medellin Metro is the only metro system in Colombia. It’s Sunday, which means half of the boulevard is closed to motorized traffic so people can walk, run, bike, rollerblade or use any other Healthmeans of non-motorized transportation they wish to enjoy a healthy Sunday in Medellin. Hell, I see one woman running and juggling (obviously training for the new Olympic event similar to cross-country skiing and shooting). These Sunday closures are all about health and I see signs of that all around. Besides the runners, walkers, bikers, and rollerbladers, I encounter a couple of medical type people set up on the sidewalk taking people’s blood pressure, as well as a fitness trainer holding a class involving jump ropes.
Mass TransitArriving at the Poblado Metro Station just before 10:00 am, I easily find the meeting point for Comuna 13 Tours. Twenty-or-so people are gathered and within a few minutes, we have at least thirty. Our guide, Oscar, introduces himself and shows us the metro map indicating where we’ll be visiting during our four-hour-tour.
We enter the metro station and walk through the turn style, following Oscar’s direction. We’ll be taking public transportation on this tour, all of which is included in our COP70,000 fee Medellin Subway Car(US$23.47). This is a great introduction to the city’s public transportation system and will help when I‘m taking it on my own. Our train soon arrives and we all follow closely, fearing we’ll get separated from our group. The trains here are wide, much wider than any other city’s public transportation I’ve taken, and very clean.
While on board I meet two twenty-somethings from the U.S. They’re very nice but exhausted and a bit hungover from a long night of drinking and dancing. While they say it was a great night, perhaps today’s plan should have simply been a late breakfast of pancakes while wearing sunglasses. (Unfortunately for them, there’s no Denny’s here.)
Stopping at the San Antonio station, we switch trains and, 25-minutes later, exit at the San Javier station where Oscar gives us some information about the neighborhood, before taking us to eat some typical Colombian street food; empanadas and arenas de choclo con queso (flat corn cakes with fresh cheese). The French people in front of me order seconds before I order my first and are totally “me chiant” (pissing me off, in French, according to Google Translate).
From here, we board a private bus (remember I told you about these when we were in Cartagena?) and, as I board, an old man sitting in a seat by the door takes my water bottle from me. As it’s not my reusable bottle, but one supplied by Oscar, I don’t fight him and think, though strange, well, who am I to deny a thirsty person water? The bus is crowded and I’m standing when we not so much depart, as enter a race through the street of Medellin. The trip is mostly uphill and the bus, being a manual shift, with the driver apparently been trained on an automatic, we jolt, bounce, thump and bounce up the hill, while careening around corners, my hands gripping the above bars and feet swinging like an Olympic parallel bar champion. By the time we arrive at our destination, I feel as if I’ve just completed a gym boot camp (I need a drink). As we exit, the old man who stole my water hands it back to me. It turns out he knew what the ride would be like and that I’d need both hands to hold on.
Cable CarWe step out and head up the cable car. The cable cars were installed in the aughts (mid-2000’s) as an official part of the Metro, or mass transit system. Medellin is a city of hills and mountains and, before the cable cars were installed, it could take up to three hours and a variety of buses, to commute to work. Now it takes an average of 25 minutes. And while the original idea was simply another form of commuting, the cable cars have become a major tourist attraction.
ElevatorsNext, Oscar introduces us to the Escalator Project. This series of five escalators covere in distinct orange and glass coverings, opened in 2011 and was designed by Carlos Escobar (no relation Pablo). Prior to its installation, the citizens of Comuna 13 had to climb the equivalent of 28 stories when commuting from the city to their homes in this poor neighborhood. And these people had surely been through enough.
In the early 1990’s and into 2000 this neighborhood experienced 8,000-10,000 murders per year. Think about that for a moment; not a city, but a neighborhod. Comuna 13 was controlled by the infamous drug-kingpin Pablo Escobar. People here wouldn’t dare exit their homes after 5:00 pm and friends and family wouldn’t think about visiting. Guerrillas stationed themselves in houses high on the hill and fired bullets at anyone who might be outside. Many innocents were killed as targets on the streets and

House
Houses where guerillas stationed themselves to shoot at people below.

bystanders in their homes.  In addition, anyone who the guerrillas felt might be speaking up against them, or even family members of those, Escobar ordered killed at a cement wall which came to be known as the Wall of Execution.
 
Escobar was caught and imprisoned in 1991. The prison wasn’t so bad though as he built it himself. Oh, and he went home on the weekends to visit his family. In 1992, he “escaped” as extradition to the US was being negotiated. He had plastic surgery and, when he was hunted down and killed in 1993, many weren’t convinced it was actually him. (Side note: you can now go to the former prison as part of Pablo’s Paintball Tours to shoot paintballs at each other.)
MuralsFollowing Escobar’s apprehension, imprisonment, and ultimate death, things didn’t immediately change. Now that Escobar was dead, various drug cartels and gangs fought for control of Comuna 13. Finally, in 2002, the government led an operation to take back the barrio. The rebels were so heavily armed that a police car was destroyed by a grenade. Over the three days of the operation, 400 people were killed.Finally, the citizens of Comuna 13 felt as if they’d escaped from prison as things began to turn around with the help of Mayor Alonzo Salazar and his efforts to enact change. Comuna 13 is now full of life. Graffiti decorates walls throughout the barrio. This is not gang tagging, it’s art expressing the history and voices of this community. And though these murals are up for interpretation, some of the artists have spoken out explaining the meaning of their murals. Elephants can be found on some walls. Oscar explains that elephants have long memories and, while the people here have chosen to forgive in order to move on, they say they will never forget the horror which happened here. Some other paintings depict scenes from nature signifying that we take from Mother Nature but give nothing back.
Dog and Cat
Everyone gets along now.

Today, the streets are filled with the sounds of music, the smells of home-cooked meals, and the bustle of people working and children playing. On our arrival in Comuna 13, a woman walking up the street tells us, “Bienvenido a mi comunidad!” (Welcome to my community!) The people of Comuna 13 are very proud of the revitalization of their community.
At the top of the last escalator we come to a staircase, next to which is a three-lane slide. Fifteen years-ago parents would hardly allow their children to leave home. Now there’s a built-in slide for them to play on. I, of course, can’t resist playing and take a trip down the slide.
We enjoy some more street food – yummy churros (fried doe with a choice of sweet syrups) and paletas (fruit-filled popsicles made in a cup with a wooden stick in them) before heading back down the escalators, where we’re picked up by our bus, along with its crazy driver. I rush on to grab a seat this time and we’re taken to the Metro. After just over four hours, we’re back, almost to where we began.
Oh, and the two tired and hungover American girls? They disappeared somewhere during the tour. When traveling, it’s difficult to be both a night and a day person for very long.
This tour is a must-do in Medellin in order to know the city and appreciate what they’ve been through and why they seem so joyful. I am now in love with this city and considering staying longer than planned.
Note – While Comuna 13 Tours was nice enough to host me on this tour, this did not sway my opinion at all. And, at COP70,000 (about US$23.50), this four-hour tour which includes some local street food, is a bargain.

Moving to Minca

It’s my last day in Cartagena, a city I’ve come to love. The people are friendly, the food is good, and just walking around the streets is entertaining. The only problem is the damn tourists. Wait, perhaps I’m one of them. Well then, it’s most of the other damn tourists. With the exception of a some whose company I’ve enjoyed.
I walk the twenty-or-so minutes to the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas fortress, also known to locals as the castle. (I’ve discovered that Cartagena is a very walkable city.) While waiting in the ticket line I meet Charlotte, a twenty-something American who has just left her job in New York to return to school to get her Master’s Degree. She’s traveling alone through parts of South America and often gets the same reaction to this as I – “You’re so brave.” Neither of us considers it so unusual but, if it inspires more people to do it – or even to do something else which they find scary, hell, I’m happy.
Charlotte and I walk throughout the fortress, listening to the audio tours we’ve purchased and trying to figure out if we’re in the corresponding place. After an hour-or-so, we both lose interest as it’s difficult to figure out where we are in relation to the audio tour and everything sort of looks the same. We decide to leave and grab some lunch.
SlothThis evening I take one last walk around this wonderful city. I keep discovering new areas and tonight is no different. I find in a beautiful park with fountains and a pond and a sloth. A sloth? Yup, while guiding tours this year in Yellowstone National Park I always told my clients that, when you see people gathering, it probably means there’s wildlife around. Colombia is no different. I see people gathered around a tree and make my way over. Looking up, I see it moving slowly (well, perhaps not for a sloth) up a tree. Someone points out that a baby (a baby sloth, that is) has its limbs wrapped around momma (or daddy – we get into a big discussion about sloth parenting responsibilities) and we all begin to film. It’s not exactly action-packed as the sloth moves at, well, a sloth’s pace. Still, it’s entrancing.
While watching the sloth, I meet an American couple and, after some discussion, we head to the square in Getsemani as they tell me it was rocking with jugglers, mimes, and Cooksmore last night. I plan to have an early night but stay long enough to share some dinner from a street vendor they’d heard was good. While food trucks have become a craze in the U.S., here in Colombia no truck is needed. Simply set your barbecue grill out on Church Servicethe sidewalk, maybe some plastic chairs, create a menu and you’ve got a pop-up restaurant. We enjoy some nice Carne Asada (yup, steaks on the street) and conversation while sitting on plastic chairs lining the sidewalk (who needs a table?).
After finishing our meal, we say our goodbyes to go and explore on our own. I head into the church across the way. It’s Sunday night before some holiday and a service is happening. While nobody seems to be able to explain what the holiday is, the doors are open and the priest singing has a beautiful voice so I take a seat and enjoy it. The service ends and the couple-hundred people inside joyfully head out while I joyfully head to the bar next door where I meet an American woman who just arrived on vacation. Marni needed to get away to someplace warm and, remembering the film Romancing the Stone, she thought Colombia might work for her, though it’s doubtful that, staying at the Sofitel, a four-to-five-star hotel, she’ll have a similar experience as Kathleen Turner.
While enjoying our drinks, we hear the sounds of Michael Jackson coming from outside and spot a lot of group movement. I step outside to see what’s happening and it seems an impromptu evening aerobics class has broken out. dozens of people are doing the same moves to Mama Se Mama Sa Mamacoosa. Ah, Cartagena, there’s always something fun happening. I leave the party/workout and, it’s back to my hotel to pack my bags and catch a bus in the morning.
 
I awake having not slept well. I had to change hotels two nights ago as my previous one didn’t have room for me to extend my stay as a French family had rented out the place. This happens a lot in Cartagena. Many of the hotels have somewhere around five-rooms; perfect for a family, bachelor/bachelorette party/vacation or group of friends. You can rent the whole place (many are listed on Airbnb or VRBO) and include a cook, assistant, housekeeper, or whatever you require. It’s a nice and economical idea for a group.
I catch some breakfast and a taxi to the bus station to board the bus to Santa Marta. The bus could have picked me up at the hotel but then we’d spend the next hour driving around the city collecting people at various hotels before we got underway. Santa Marta is a beach town about four hours from Cartagena. I heard about it while here and thought of going but, after some investigation, it seemed like a Colombian Cancun (party city), which I try to avoid at all costs. Still, while investigating I came across the town of Minca. About forty minutes from Santa Marta, it’s in the jungle of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and, after the heat of Cartagena, the elevation of 2,100 feet (615 meters) it seemed the cooler mountain air might be a welcome relief.
As instructed, I arrive at the bus station fifteen-minutes prior to my reserved 10:00am bus. The owner of my hotel supposedly reserved it for me. She also got me the taxi and told the taxi driver where to take me. When I walk into the office, they have no reservation for me. I give the name of my hotel which booked it and still nothing. The woman I’m speaking to says, “un momento” and disappears in the back. I don’t see her again. I begin chatting with two American women who have no reservation but are hoping to get seats on the bus. As we all wait, two other employees, one after the other, ask who made my reservation. They shake their heads, the looks on their faces give me no hope. Just then, someone enters and shouts, “Dos personas, Santa Marta!” The two women shout and are given tickets.
“Wait!” I protest. “They don’t even have reservations!” Nobody seems to care.

Bus driving
Traffic lanes mean little

Eventually, I’m awarded a seat on the bus (really an oversized van) so, to make myself feel superior to the women who claimed those seats and now sit in the back, I take that seat up front on the passenger side next to the driver who introduces himself at Martin. It isn’t long before I find out that this isn’t so much of a transfer as it is a race. Many buses are on the road doing this route (I’m on one of the many MarSol buses) and they all seem to be racing; weaving in and out of traffic, coming within inches of cars they follow and oncoming ones as well. We pass an 80-kilometer per-hour speed limit sign going 110. Just like on the motorbike, I’m wishing I had a helmet.
After two hours, we stop for a bathroom and snack break. I buy Martin a coke and, once on the road again, he and I share Oreos and Pringles (the diet of a Colombian road trip). Another hour-and-forty-minutes and we arrive in Santa Marta. Martin has flirted with me most of the way asking if I have a husband.
Book
The book Martin says he’s reading. It’s in English. He speaks no English.

“No.” I respond.
“Children?”
“No.”
He gasps in surprise exclaiming, “Por qué?” (why?)
This seems a common question and reaction here in Colombia. I ask if he’s married and has kids; no to both. This isn’t the first time this same thing has happened this week. Both times this conversation has been with men. And then they say, “You’re very pretty, so why are you not married?” Guys, if this is a pick-up line, you really need to do better.
After dropping everyone off at their respective stops, Martin drops me at the Mercado where I drag my bags into the collectivo office. You’ll find collectivos in many Latin American countries. They’re kind of like Uber Pool only less expensive and often more dependable. There are already two young women waiting to go to Minca and now we just need a few more people to join us before they’ll send the van. After a twenty-five-minute wait, we’ve got enough people and they grab our luggage and throw it on top of the van while inviting us inside. I not-so-much sit down as fall down as this van’s doors are much lower than ones in the states and I gracefully slam my head on the doorway while entering. Finding little padding from my hat, I’m fairly sure I’ve not only concussed myself but compressed some neck vertebrae.
Minca ViewWe spend the next half-hour driving around town picking up and dropping off more people before finally heading to Santa Marta. The driver pulls to the side, unloads our bags from the top of the van and points out where my hotel is. It begins to rain as I’m walking up the hill around the corner, dragging my bags behind. Ah, Kathleen Turner would be proud. Just as the drizzle turns into a downpour, a man appears and helps me drag my bags the last fifty feet into the Hotel Minca La Casona. One look out the back of the lobby and I know I’ve made a good choice.
Tomorrow – It’s a Jungle Out There.
 
 
 
 

The Bizarre Bazurto

I’m excited about today’s plan of a more local experience as I’ve found Cartagena’s concentration on tourists overwhelming. Each time I ask a local what I should do and where I should go in Colombia, everyone lists the same activities and offers to book them for me. It’s nice and helpful yet clear that they’re what the think all travelers want (and there’s certainly a commission for the recommendation). And when I speak with other travelers, they tell me they’ve just done it, are about to do it, or have been told by locals to do it. The suggestions are to take a boat to one or two islands to enjoy private beaches, go to a mud bath inside a volcano (which I’ve already read involves spending a few minutes in the mud before being rushed out to the clear water and put in a van and driven back to Cartagena), or go to Santa Marta and do a four-day hike through the jungle to meet local tribes. These may be great experiences but, as they are recommended to every tourist, they feel less than authentic. In fact, I’ve run into six people who have done the jungle hike, and two more who are planning to, so I’m guessing that I would not only meet local tribes, but many, many tourists. While I decide what to do and where to go next, I plan on enjoying this great city of Cartagena in my own way. Today, I’m spending the day with Kristy, from Cartagena Connections, a local company which takes people on off-the-beaten-path adventures.
At 10:30, Kristy arrives at my hotel aboard her bike. Everyone here is so friendly that they invite her to bring it inside the hotel and park it inside. Kristi speaks excellent English yet with an accent. But it isn’t a Colombian accent. It turns out she’s an Australian who, five years ago on a six-month South American travel adventure decided she like Cartagena so much, she stayed. She saw potential in tourism and opened a company offering travelers more authentic experiences than most companies. Instead of taking a boat to an island and hanging on a private beach, you can visit a Palenque (a village where freed or escaped slaves settled and their descendants still live and keep the culture alive), take a cooking class or, as was our plan, visit the Mercado Bazurto.
We first walk through Getsemani (pronounced Hetsemani). While the area of the city I’m staying in was known as Kalamari (yup, like the squid only with a “k”), this area was (and mostly is) a lower-income area. It’s where former slaves and others who weren’t respectable Christians settled. Areas of Cartagena are divided into strata, basically income levels and values ranging from 1-6 (simply put, it’s a class system). The lower the strata, the lower the value and the lower the prices for services. Getsemani has always been considered a lower strata but is now an up-and-coming area (a Four Seasons Hotel is soon to open) and many residents are not happy that the plan is now to raise the strata as, not only will prices go up, but they’re proud of their heritage and the melting pot of culture and are concerned about losing that identity.GetsemaniWe walk through some of the shop areas which are booming with life. Horns beep around us, music plays from stalls where vendors sell random household needs while others offer up bread, fried plantain, and fruit. Kristy buys some Mamonchillo, a sweet fruit which looks like tiny limes and teaches me how to eat them. While the peel looks like a lime, its texture is more shell-like. We insert out thumbnails and crack it open which reveals an eyeball. Well, it looks like an eyeball, similar to a lychee, yet I bravely pop it into my mouth. I then suck on it, scraping the sides with my teeth until I’ve eaten most of the yummy, somewhat sweet and a little bit tangy fruit and all that’s left is a hard pit. These might be my new addiction.
Kristy offers me a choice of two transportation options to get to the Bazurto Market – a taxi or a private bus. Of course, I choose the public bus as they’re always more interesting. We wait on the side of the Busstreet and, before long a somewhat dirty, less-than-modern bus approaches and Kristy holds out her hand. We climb up the high step onto the crowded, non-airconditioned bus. During the ride, Kristy explains that, until two years ago, there was no public transportation in Cartagena. These private buses made it so people had some sort of transportation besides their own personal vehicle. They’re privately-owned and, though each follows a specific route, there are no proper bus stops for them. You simply hold up your hand as the bus approaches and, for the price of COP$2,200 (about US$0.74) you can go as far as you want on the route. For the same price, you can get the two-year-old public bus, but you’ll have to go a proper bus stop. The public buses are certainly more modern and you’ll probably get to your destination quicker as they don’t just stop willy-nilly wherever one wants to get on or off so are much better for longer distances.
We soon arrive at our stop and Kristy signals the bus driver by shouting for him to stop. We exit the bus and step into another world. Well, not quite another world, but definitely an area filled with unforgettable sounds, sights, and scents. The market is mainly food and we enter in the fruit section. Wooden booths form aisles on the sidewalk with various materials – tin, wood, cardboard covering the concrete they’re set on. Customers inspect the fruit, taking only what they need for a day. It’s quite orderly with no pushing, shouting or waving money in the air. In fact, this is more tame than most Saturdays at Walmart.
Vendor Selling PeppersKristy explains that, in markets like this and Getsemani, you don’t have to buy bulk or even enough for a week. If you want one egg, you buy one egg. The pricing is still the same so people generally buy only what they need for a day. This is partially due to available funds, but also ensures freshness of the food.

Woman grinding corn
Woman grounding corn.

We continue through the vegetable section and meat area (every single part of the animal is on display and for sale) and into the fish section. This section is nearest to the waterfront where the fishermen enter through the gates in the morning to either sell their fish to vendors at the market or directly to customers. Needless to say, this section has the most distinct smell of the market; it’s fish mixed with smoke as, while you can bring your fish home to cook, you can also eat it there. Vendors sell all kinds of fish cooked in a variety of ways. Kristy and I grab some lunch here ordering up some fried fish with yucca on the side as well as some Aqua de Panela, a drink made from sugar cane juice and lime. It tastes like neither. I also order a Costeñita, a beer which comes in little bottles so the last bit isn’t warm by the time you get to it. Brilliant! The meal and all drinks cost a total of COP$8,000 (about US$2.70).FishTummies full, we continue to a slightly more modern area where we pick up some baseball caps from Kristy’s staff before heading, once again, to a wooden-shack area where Kristy knows an artist whom she’s hired in the past to paint her company name on items before. Unlike in the U.S., you don’t necessarily take things to the print shop or order from Vistaprint to get swag made. Here, you go to the marketplace, tell an artist what you need, and in a day-or-two, you’ve got artisanal swag.
We head on back, this time taking the public bus. After paying our fee at the bus stop, security lets us
Sleeping man
How I felt after a day in the mercado.

through the turnstile where we wait on the platform. We wait. . . and wait. Buses pass, but none stop. Finally, after about twenty minutes, a bus pulls up. The people are packed in as tight as a pair of skinny jeans on a plus-sized woman. They’re so tight that we don’t stand a chance of entering. The doors close and we wait for the next bus which, thankfully, appears within another five minutes. This one is tight, but we manage to squeeze our way on. About ten-minutes later, we arrive at our stop and Kristy takes me to the Volunteer Hostel where I find my volunteer activity for this trip. Tune in tomorrow to hear about that adventure.
 
 
Big thanks to Kristy at Cartagena Connections for hosting me on this tour. While I appreciate that, it does not sway my opinions here – my Virtual Travel Buddies know how honest I can be – and I recommend you do this tour. And maybe one of the other unique ones they offer.
 
 
 

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition

Are you awake yet? Yeh, me neither. I didn’t sleep well for an unexpected reason. I was freezing. Luis got the air conditioning working in my room so well that, save for turning it off, I couldn’t figure out how to make it warmer. And when I turned it off, within five minutes I was dripping with sweat. Yup, just call me Goldilocks. Or perhaps, due to my Jewish heritage, you can call me Golda Lox.
Well, today’s plan for Golda Lox is to take a walking tour. As I’ve done in the past, I choose a free walking tour as I’ve had generally good luck with them. (You may remember that I took them in Ireland, Portland, and Mexico, which was only free because my friend Stewart took me on one.) These aren’t exactly free as a tip for what you think the tour was worth is expected. Still, because the guide is actually working for their pay, these tend to be very good.
Natalia at my bed and breakfast booked this for me through Free Tour Cartagena and I walk the fifteen-minutes to Santa Theresa Square where I meet my guide, Edgar and about twenty-five other tourists from different countries (though at least half of the group seem to be from The Netherlands).
We begin with Edgar having everyone introduce themselves and say where they’re from. This question gets more and more difficult for me with my most common answer being, “Everywhere.” This tends to either confuse or lead to more questions yet, when I say the U.S. – I don’t say America as some in other parts of North America take offense saying, “I’m American too. North American!” (whatever) – I’m then asked where. As each of us answer, Edgar names the capital of each country or state we’re from. Impressive.We begin walking to our first stop, the statue of India Catalina. An indigenous woman, she was abducted by the Spanish in the 1500’s and, after learning Spanish and converting to Catholicism, forced to become an interpreter for the native tribes. Her figure is now a symbol of Colombia and her statuette is awarded each year at the Colombian Film Festival. As Edgar explains, she’s basically a cross between the Oscar and Pocahontas.StatueWe continue on to various sites including the statue of Pedro Cabrera, a Jesuit priest who made many Priest Scultureenemies due to his stand against slavery, and to the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, also known as the San Pedro Church. An impressive structure, it’s made more impressive by the seven-or-so sculptures depicting the everyday lives of Colombians getting haircuts and playing games.
Chess PlayersWe then stop by the Customs House where we see a loud gathering of men with motorcycle helmets and police standing around. The men are motorcycle taxi drivers who have recently been prevented from working in certain neighborhoods as motorcycle thievery has been on the rise there. Motorcycles speed past people walking on the sidewalk and grab their bags off their shoulders before speeding away. The drivers argue that their work should have to suffer due to criminals who drive the same type of vehicles. The protest is peaceful and the drivers eventually disperse.

Slave Ship
Slave Ship model from Historical Museum

 
Another stop is the Plaza de los Coches, an important location of the slave trade. This is where slaves brought from Africa would be offloaded from the ships and sold often brought to other countries in the Americas.
Slave Sale
Slave sales as depicted in model at Historical Museum

 
I’ve learned some things about Colombia on this tour including that there was once one once one country named Grand Colombia which consisted of Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, but I learned more about other countries and other participants. There were a lot of questions on this tour but less answers.
After the tour ends, I grab some lunch at a local healthy fast food restaurant before trying to increase my understanding of Cartagena and Colombia by visiting the Palace of the Inquisition and Historical Museum. As I enter, I witness another protest, this time a silent one in the form of signs. It seems the Museum is now offering a self-guided tour in the form of an app for your phone for which they supply headphones (or use your own). They’ve also written some (not all) of the commentary on signs. This means there’s no need for guides and the signs covering the sidewalk outside the museum are in Spanish and English and make clear the guides’ viewpoint. When I ask the museum staff about it, they explain that the guides were always paid directly by the tourists but never had a fixed price so it changed depending on what the guides felt they could get and taxes paid were questionable. I understand that I’m only hearing one side of the argument but, as the guides aren’t here to ask, I’ll go with that story.
The museum is not the best and not the worst historical museum I’ve visited. In fact, I finally start to understand more of the history of this place; from the indigenous tribes to the inquisition (those were some crazy times) to the slave trade, it’s all here.
As I find out more, I’m becoming fascinated by the inquisition and how so much of what’s happening today is relatable. No, we’re not torturing people with iron pieces which dig into one’s collarbone and chin if one moves. Or developing tools to tear off a woman’s breasts (I can’t even) –  at least in the U.S., but we are judging people based on their ethnicity, heritage, and religion.
I leave the museum finally feeling like I understand a bit more of Cartagena, and I head back to shower the layers of sunscreen, sweat, dirt, and more sweat off of me (feeling very attractive).
I stop to enjoy some street musicians in Simon Bolivar Square. A little girl stands in front, entranced by the musicians and I’m entranced by her.
Street MusiciansAfter a cool shower (the hotel says they have hot water and I experienced it for two-full-minutes last night. None today) I head out to one of the many squares to have dinner outside in the breezy night air. Though there are no available tables, the restaurant manager, eager to please, quickly takes care of that as I soon see him carrying a square, four-seater table outside and setting it beside other tables. A chair appears and voila, I now have a seat.
I order a Carne Asada (a delicious marinated flank steak) and some wine, when a street vendor approaches. He sells beaded necklaces and bracelets and, though I tell him I’m not interested, he sits on the ledge next to me and strings a variety of small, colorful stones onto a nylon wire. He then offers it to me for no charge which I politely decline as I understand that it’s expected that I’ll purchase one of his others. He insists, telling me it’s from his “Corazon.” After much declining and insisting, I gratefully accept it. Using my crappy Spanish, we speak about Colombia and just generally chit-chat. As a police officer strolls by – the police act as security guards for many public areas like the many squares – he tells me he’ll return shortly. True to his word, he comes back with a supply of very pretty necklaces and bracelets for sale which, true to my word, I decline.
BikerFull or beef and wine, I take the short walk, about five minutes, back to my hotel. On the way, I purchase two Cohiba cigars from a street vendor. I began to enjoy a good Cuban cigar during my first visit to Cuba and enjoy one every once in a while when I can find them. When I arrive at the hotel, I offer Luis, the night desk guy one to smoke with me. He explains that he doesn’t smoke, but we stand outside the door (no smoking anywhere on property) and chat while I smoke. After a while, he goes inside and a man rides up on his bicycle carrying a chair on his head. He places the chair on the sidewalk in front of the next door and asks, in Spanish, if I’m smoking a cigar.
“Yes,” I answer.
“It reminds me of my grandfather,” he says in Spanish.
He tells me that his grandfather used to smoke them and it smelling it gives him a good memory. I offer him my extra cigar and he declines. “My grandfather smoked them but if I picked on up, he would take off his belt and whip me. He didn’t want me to smoke.”
I soon extinguish what’s left of my cigar and head up to bed.
 
Tomorrow – The Bizarre Bazurto
 

Cuban Culture – Music, Art and Tobacco

The following is a condensed commentary of the rest of the week in Cuba. Please don’t get the impression that you can do all of this in one day because, well, that’s just silly talk.

We spend our first full day in Havana exploring some of the streets with a local architect. Yup, many jobs, such as architects, pay so poorly that they take high-paying jobs in tourism. (Hmmm, perhaps I’m living in Architecturethe wrong country.) From Spanish-Moorish, to Baroque (which I tend to be), to Gallic, to Art Deco, Cuba’s architecture is as interesting as its people. Daniel, our guide, who bears a striking resemblance to Javier Bardem, is obviously passionate about the architecture, and his opinions, which makes for a great couple of hours. He shows a bit of disgust when pointing out one of the modern buildings which includes one large level of floor-to-ceiling windows. “With Havana’s sunny climate, this makes no sense,” he tells us. Oh, but even worse is the stairway he points out. It leads from street-level to the entrance of the building. The issue is, there are double glass doors at the building’s entrance, but the metal rail lining the stairway ends in the middle of the second door, rendering it useless. I wonder if this was a mistake or, perhaps, done purposely by the architects to express their dissatisfaction with the pay.

CarsAlso in Havana, we take advantage of a beautifully sunny day and enjoy a ride through the bustling city in gumball colored, antique cars. It feels a bit like Isadora Duncan meets of American Graffiti. Thankful I left my scarf back at the hotel, we stop at the house/studio of Jose Rodriguez Fuster. Fuster is known as the Picasso of the Caribbean, and his place is in an artists’ community which resembles all of the great Gaudi works spread throughout Barcelona, condensed in a one-block area. Between the cars in which we arrive and the brightly colored mosaics throughout, it’s as if Rainbow Bright vomited over the entire area.

MosaicYes, Cuba is full of art, music, and color and we see it all. While in Havana, we pay a visit to the Muraleando Community Project. In this formerly crime-ridden community, two artists began teaching workshops. When people had something Mosaicto do other than commit crimes, well, the crime rate dropped. Where once was graffiti, there are now beautiful murals. And where once the youth created a crime problem, they now create art. The community meets every few weeks to share new and creative ideas. Oh, and there’s music. I find it impossible to sit still when the fantastic singer, accompanied by a four-piece band, begins singing classic and modern Cuban songs, and my entire group is up dancing with me.

We’re lucky enough to enjoy a variety of Cuban music, including a wonderful classical music performance by a full orchestra at the Ermita de Montserrate, a former church, now a concert hall, located on top of a hill with beautiful views over the city of Matanzas. While in Matanzas, we also visit a school of music and art with students are chosen to attend due to a recognized ability in dance, singing or playing an instrument. Former students often go on to careers in the arts and we’re lucky enough to enjoy a performance by these up-and-coming artists. On the other end of the spectrum, we visit a senior center which provides us with, not only an insight into the Cuban social welfare system but some more music and dancing.Cuba - Tobacco drying

Perhaps my favorite day is one which brings us out of the city and into the tobacco fields. No, we don’t pick tobacco, but we do smoke a lot of it. We meet the ninety-year-old owner (“The same age as Fidel,” he says), see how the famous Cuban tobacco is grown as well as the drying and rolling process. I learn how to properly smoke a cigar (for god sakes, don’t inhale) and, even better, how to dip it in Cuban coffee and rum. Yes, we smoke our drinks. We then proceed to the organic farm where we enjoy a lunch of freshly picked. . . everything. . . while sitting on the porch overlooking the fields. This area, the Viñales Valley, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and shows the diversity between the busy Cuban cities, the small, traditional towns, and the escapes to nature.

Organic FarmAfter our day visiting Santa Clara, we’re scheduled to stay in Remedios, a town about forty-five minutes away, but with a slightly better selection of group accommodations. This is new to my company as, while they’d previously stayed in Santa Clara, the one hotel available for groups was, well, somewhere I might have stayed in Asia during my budget crunch. Still, being Cuba, the only thing you can count on is uncertainty. While Jorge, the guide, had tried to confirm which hotel we’ll be staying in, this proves more difficult than putting on your skinny jeans after you’ve been on a cruise and they’ve been washed. Finally, at 11:00am the morning of our stay, we received our hotel confirmation.

After a long day of touring, we arrive at the hotel in Remedios only to be told there’s no room at the inn (Jesus Christ!). We’re told to proceed to the hotel at the other end of the square. When we arrive at the Hotel Barcelona, they welcome us with Mojitos (the tradition continues) and collect everybody’s passports. While other hotels accepted my passport list, this one makes copies of everybody’s passports, which takes some time. As I’m traveling with such a great group of people, they don’t seem to mind the delay and sit on the sofas and barstools in the small lobby and bar enjoying some more cocktails during the wait. Finally, rooms are issued and the two porters work very hard to carry everyone’s bags to their rooms. (This hotel has four floors and no elevators.)

After freshening up, I meet the group in the hotel courtyard, just off the lobby, for dinner. Everyone received a welcome bottle of wine in Havana and most bring their bottles down to dinner with them. The band is playing (there’s always a band in Cuba), the wine and mojitos are flowing, cigars are burning, and we seem to be the only ones in the hotel. We enjoy a nice combo. Buffet & served dinner and, before you know it, most of my group, along with the hotel staff, are dancing a conga-line through the courtyard and into the lobby. By 1:00am there are empty wine bottles and half-smoked cigars scattered throughout. This was one of the more memorable nights of the trip in, what would become known as, “The Frat House.”

The next night we stay at the beautiful beach resort town of Varadero. Varadero is not a place where Cubans live. It’s strictly a resort town where Canadians and Europeans (and soon to be many Americans) vacation. Sure, I have a one-bedroom suite overlooking the ocean, yet I still miss the energy and traditional feel that was Remedios. And I’m not alone. This great group of people I’m traveling with express their preference for our “Frat House.” Still, this Varadero hotel is quite lovely and we enjoy a nice evening of drinks and dinner.

Revolutionaries

Hemingway
Papa’s Typewriter

We head back to Havana seeing more monuments to Che and the Revolutionaries (yes, definitely the name of my band should I ever form one) and have a few more Cuban experiences. We take a bit of time visiting Ernest Hemingway’s House. Hemingway lived in Cuba, on and off, from 1939 to 1960, and it’ where he did some of his finest writing, including The Old Man and the Sea. While you can’t actually enter the house, you can look through the wide doors and large windows to see life through “Papa’s” eyes. The air seems fresher in this house on a hilltop and this writer is inspired.

Hemingway's House

One of our final visits is to a community project for children and young people with Down Syndrome. There is, of course, music and dancing, always with my group joining in. But these are some amazing artists too. They’ve developed a specific style of art using carved printing plates. Their artwork has been featured at international showings and won awards. One of the artists is a former Olympic gold medal winner and we have an emotional surprise moment as he shakes hands with a gentleman in my group who is also a former Olympian. (Both are runners.)

DancersI’m honored to be one who experienced Cuba before, as most expect, it changes completely due to America opening the doors. Again, Cuba never closed its doors and the expected changes do not mean that Cuba will no longer be a Communist nation. It’s simply that, perhaps, America has decided to accept communism in other countries. Whatever the case, I hope Cuba doesn’t change everything. They must concentrate hard on retaining their rich culture and friendly, welcoming attitude.

I’ll be taking just a bit of time off to explore Canada with a new company and to sit in one of my favorite places, St. John’s, Newfoundland (aka, the first Drop Me Anywhere location. You can read about it here), to do some work on my book. I look forward to telling you a bit about where I’ve been staying for the last 3 weeks (another revisit) and explaining the challenges of getting even the simplest of things done while being location independent.

Viva La Revolucion

Immediately after landing at José Martí Airport, the main international airport in Cuba, and after waiting in the VIP lounge while are bags are loaded onto carts by porters – it sounds fancier than it is as the VIP lounge only really offers a place for the group to stay together, have a somewhat cleaner bathroom experience than the main airport bathrooms (not saying much) and munch on some dry small sandwiches and drink a little booze (ok, it might be worth it) – we head out to the bus. We meet our guide Jorge Jorge; yup, that’s his first and his last name (so nice they named him twice). Jorge Jorge will be with us for the next week, as will our driver Osmani, who we’ll pick up later. (No, I’m not driving; until then we’ll have a temporary driver for half the day.) Jorge, Osmani and I will be a team and will collaborate to make this a memorable trip (in a good way) for our passengers, who have paid good money to be here.

Che Guevara
Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

We drive directly to Revolution Square, the location of Fidel Castro’s lengthy speeches – the longest one lasted seven-hours and ten-minutes minutes – (random fact – Fidel holds the Guinness World Record for giving the longest speech ever before the United Nations – four-hours and twenty-nine minutes) – where we see large installations of the outlines of the portraits of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, heroes of the revolution. We will see many more statues, portraits, photos and monuments dedicated to Che Guevara yet, as many of us will notice, few such monuments for Fidel Castro. Our guide explains that Che is held as such a hero in Cuba for a few reasons. First, he died young, which gave him martyr status. Second, he wasn’t from Cuba. Che was born in Argentina and joined Cuban revolutionaries, including Fidel Castro, to fight to get out from under the control of the dictator Fulgencio Batista (aah, the irony). Finally, we’re told that Fidel doesn’t particularly like having his image plastered everywhere. I will leave the believability of this up to you. (He seemed to enjoy his long speeches with tens-of-thousands in attendance).
CarIt’s in Revolution Square where we get our first view of the 1950’s cars which have become synonymous with transportation in Cuba. There are two different kinds of these cars here; there are the old beaters which are in definite need of a good paint job, a la Greased Lightning. The other kind, which, at least at this location, outnumber the beaters, are the bright-colored, polished to a near mirror sparkling shine, classics. These shiny ones usually double as taxis for hire. There is one thing the two kinds have in common; while they’re distinctly American on the outside, they’re pure Russian on the inside, with most sporting Soviet-made engines from the good old days.
Another note in the rough political history of U.S.-Cuba relations: Cuba wasn’t all that bothered when America first enacted the embargo – note that it’s officially an economic embargo placed on Cuba by the U.S Treasury Dept. – as the Soviet Union, their communist friend, supported them, both militarily and financially. This was during the cold war and it fell under the enemy of my enemy is my friend. That worked out fine for Cuba. That is until 1991, when the Soviet Union fell. Russia could barely support itself and, therefore, Cuba was left in the lurch. This is the period which Cubans call the “Special Period.” Special meaning, ‘Oh my goodness, what happened to all the toilet paper’ amongst other things. While most other counties have continued to have fine relations with Cuba, and Canadians and Europeans travel there regularly for vacation, it is still a communist country and there is still food rationing. Citizens receive tickets which allow them to stock up once a month. If, as expected, the U.S. continues to relax and even eliminate the embargo, Cuba will remain communist and, while the extra tourism and trade money, and the mass exposure to its democratic neighbors who live only ninety-miles away (think about that – it’s around the same distance from Manhattan to Poughkeepsie, and less than the distance from LA to Santa Barbara or Bakersfield) will certainly change things, for the immediate future, and for the average citizen, there will be much which remains the same.
MuseumWe spend the next forty-minutes checking out the Museum of the Revolution where we see old photos, guns, uniforms and other personal items belonging to the revolutionaries. The museum is
Bullet Holes
Notice the bullet holes.

housed in the old palace, which the revolutionaries attacked on July 26, 1953, and where bullet holes can still be seen along the stairway.
We depart the museum for the Hotel Nacional de Cuba to grab a welcome cocktail (there will be many welcome cocktails on this trip) and raise our fists declaring “Viva la revolucion!” The Nacional is the one of the most famous and historic properties in Havana. Opened in 1930, it has hosted Eva Gardner, Errol Flynn, Nelson Rockefeller, Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg, Benicio del Toro, mafia king Meyer Lansky, and more. In 1957 Nat King Cole stayed there after first being denied a room, along with Josephine Baker, due to race issues. Oh, and, our hero, Che Guevara also stayed here. Viva la Revolucion!
I stay behind to the check group into the hotel and catch up on paperwork while the group stops at the cemetery (they saw dead people). On returning, everyone has a chance to stop by their rooms and Restaurantfreshen-up before meeting for some more welcome cocktails in the beautiful garden area. We head into our first group dinner in Comedor de Aguiar, the hotel restaurant, which is beautiful to look at and makes me feel as if I’m sitting in 1940’s Cuba and almost any one of the above- mentioned celebrities might, at any moment, walk past (please let it be Errol Flynn). Still, this is a government hotel which means a government restaurant. While workers at government restaurants are government employees (just as if they worked at the social security office or the DMV), Paladars are private restaurants. Most government restaurants aren’t known for the food quality and our dry chicken breast proves this to be true. Still, this is a great group who appreciates that we’ll be experiencing the many varieties of food, accommodations, transportation and cultural experiences which Cuba has to offer.
Coming next – sites, sounds, and people of Cuba.

Sun Valley Lodge – More than just a cabin in the woods (review)

During my stay in Sun Valley, Idaho, I decided to check out the newly remodeled Sun Valley Lodge. I couldn’t afford to stay there, hell I can barely afford to stay in my completely empty house in Phoenix, (Remember, I sold everything else to do this project.) My only reason for coming to Sun Valley is because my friend offered me a couple of weeks in her timeshare condo and there’s a bed here. While that might have been my reason for coming, there are many reasons to stay, and I’m considering selling my house in the Valley of the Sun and moving to Sun Valley. (It’s pretty much the same if you’re dyslexic.) And while I might not have the need, or the current bank balance, to stay at the Sun Valley Lodge, It would be a shame not to at least check it out as it’s just a mile down the road.
As I mentioned in The Importance of Being Ernest, development of Sun Valley was the idea of railroad magnate Averell Harriman. Less of an explorer than simply a rich guy, Harriman hired Count Felix Schaffgotsch to explore a variety of possible locations for his hoped for destination ski resort. Up to that task, Schaffgotsch, hopped into his sleigh (that was his main mode of transportation for much of the exploration and, might I say, Santa Claus would be proud) and visited Mt. Hood, the San Bernadino Mountains, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, and other snowy, mountainous areas before recommending Ketchum, Idaho as the location for Harriman’s dream. The Sun Valley Lodge opened in the mid-1930’s with much of Hollywood enjoying “roughing it in luxury.”
lightsToday, the Sun Valley Lodge offers more luxury than roughing it and people come, and return, to enjoy the deluxe services and spaces inside, and the adventures outside in the breathtaking scenery. The lodge closed for nearly a year during 2014-2015 for its most extensive renovation since it was opened and now boasts 108-sleeping rooms, 65 of which have fireplaces. While I didn’t actually get to experience one due to my lack of an extra $200-$2,000 or, as I’ve mentioned before, my lack of a Sugar Daddy (feel free to apply by using the contact link at the top), they sure sound a bit better than your average Airbnb.
Swimming poolFor outdoor fun, skiers will find 17 chairlifts and a gondola to transport them up to some of the best powder in the world. Winter activities include downhill skiing (no, really?), cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing (really, it’s like walking with fisherman’s nets on your feet), heli-skiing (no need for a chairlift, just have the helicopter drop you at the top). Oh, and want to channel your inner Dorothy Hamill? Just off the lobby you’ll find an outdoor skating rink Sleigh Crossingwhere they also hold ice shows on certain evenings. Of course, there’s a steaming swimming pool and hot-tub to relax your overused muscles. You might even want to go over the river and through the woods – in a sleigh! – to the Trail Creek Cabin for a four-course dinner with musical entertainment.
Summer activities include hiking, mountain biking, golf, horseback riding and more. There’s even paragliding!
The spa (appropriately named The Spa at Sun Valley), is all you would expect with massages, facials, manicures, pedicures, and packages catering to bridal parties, kids and pre-teens and couples. (Dear Sugar Daddy applicants, this would impress me at your interview.)
The Lodge boasts a variety restaurants, snack bars, and bars scattered throughout, some with fireside eating, televisions to cheer for your favorite football team, and views, oh, spectacular views everywhere.
Opera HouseShould you have had enough of the great outdoors, perhaps you’d like to visit the Sun Valley Village for a little shopping spree. In the Village, you’ll find winter sports clothing shops, high-end apparel, a jewelry store (hear that Sugar Daddy?), chocolate and ice cream shops, and even a Wells Fargo bank on property in order to pay for it all. The Village is also a great place to catch a flick. Built right around the time the Lodge was built, the Opera House was originally a concert hall and is now used to show first-run movies every night. (Now playing, Star Wars, The Force Awakens.)
If the movie isn’t interesting, there’s always bowling; yes, I said bowling. BowlingLocated in the basement of the main lodge building is a six-lane bowling alley. This is also where I found foosball, a snack bar and a few video games.
The Sun Valley Lodge definitely lives up to its goal as a destination resort and, if I ever find enough money in my bank account (or a sugar daddy), I think I’ll spend about a week or two luxuriating in, well luxury.
To check out more of Sun Valley Lodge, or to buy me a suite there, go to https://www.sunvalley.com/lodging/sun-valley-lodge/
***I’m heading off to Cuba tomorrow and look forward to telling you about it when I return in ten days.
Hasta la luego!
 
 
 

Kangaroos, Colds and Computers

After a day out drinking rum. . . um. . . touring the rum distillery, Thelma and I return to Rosie’s house just outside of Hervey Bay. Throughout the day, my allergies, which have been bad on this side of the world due to different plant-life than I’m used to, have steadily worsened. My nose is stuffed and I’m feeling lethargic. While the tiredness could be due to the mid-afternoon rum break, as well as travel catching up with me, I’m pretty sure I have the answer. Ms. “I don’t think I’m contagious any more” was so incredibly wrong. Yup, she breathed her germy-germs over my shoulder while she was busy looking at my iPad and they flew right up my nose. I’m not sure which is worse; the stuffy head, runny-nose and hacking cough I develop throughout the night, or the anger I feel towards this woman. While I normally assume someone doesn’t actually want to pass on their germs, due to our interaction (read it here), I’m not so sure.
When we arrive back at the house, I give my computer a disgusted look and decide to, once again, try removing the battery. Today I’d remembered that, a few months after I’d first bought it, it wouldn’t turn on. I took the battery out and put it back in, pushed the power key countless times, and plugged it into various outlets, to no avail. Back then, I called the place where I’d purchased it and told them what was happening in hopes that it happens often and is easily fixed. Though it was under warranty, I was told that, unless I paid $150, they would need to keep it for two-weeks. This all happened in an airport so, I did what any sane person would do, I went to the bar. While sucking up my Bloody Mary (why do I only crave these when flying?) I mentioned my computer frustration to the bartender who told me to remove the battery and (if I remember correctly) wave it around in the air in a figure-eight motion. Really? First, I explained that, even while plugged in, the computer didn’t work, so the battery would have nothing to do with it and, secondly, well, really? Wave it like a magic wand?
I was desperate and, as I’d just disembarked the Disney cruise ship I’d been working on, well, I removed the battery, said the magic words, “Bibbidy, Bobbidy, Boo!” while waving around the battery and placed it back into its spot. I pushed the power button and, lo-and-behold, my computer came to life. The bartender received a two hundred-percent tip as she doubled as my IT department.
Today, I try this magical method and, yup, you guessed it, my computer came to life. I have no idea of the actual computer scientific reason, except that it really is magic. With my computer screen lit, I can see that my battery charging seems to be going on and off. There seems to be a problem with the power connection and, as the charger connection to the computer became loose last month, I have a feeling I still need a repairman. Still, I’m thrilled to know approximately where the problem lies.
After a fabulous seafood dinner (thanks Rosie!), a glass of wine, and another of fine single malt scotch (I may have been too stressed for scotch yesterday, but I’m not too sick for it tonight) I head off to bed feeling pitiful.
GingerI awake in the morning not feeling much better and, after a cup of coffee and a goodbye to Rosie, Thelma and I are back on the road. Our first stop is back at Retro Espresso for a cup of coffee and a peek at the Hippie Shop across the road. Next, we head over to the Ginger Factory where they manufacture redheads . . . wait, no, they make ginger. Well, actually, god makes ginger, but they make most things that come from ginger. Unfortunately, the next factory tour doesn’t depart for forty-five minutes, and the Super Bee tour, which shows the honey-making process, is done for the day (not interested anyway). This leaves us with the other options of taking the Ginger Train around the gardens, or the Overboard boat tour which will have us chasing after the Gingerbread Man. I have no desire to be the Gingerbread Man’s stalker so and the train isn’t very appealing so we sit and have a ginger tea and a scone.
Ginger Bread ManWe drive a bit more before stopping for a quick look at Matilda, the eighteen-meter tall Kangaroo, who made her first appearance at the 1982 Commonwealth Games and now stands watch behind a gas station.
KangarooFollowing our photo opportunity, we’re back on the road and headed back towards Thelma’s house in Brisbane. We make a stop at a computer store where the man tells me he’ll have to send my computer out, and it could take a week to repair. He insists that my power cord is not the correct one for my computer while I repeatedly tell him that it came with the computer when I bought it new four-years ago. Besides that, it’s a Sony, as is my computer, and it is, in fact, the correct cord for my computer. I thank him and we head over to another computer repair place which Thelma knows. These guys seem to know a bit more and, after a moment of saying that this doesn’t look like the correct cord, the owner of the place wanders over and realizes that there’s an attachment to the motherboard which seems to have come unattached and disappeared. They’re convinced they can get the part. The question becomes how long it will take to get, as they can repair it within about an hour after receiving the part.
I get a call the following morning saying the computer repair shop can get the part the next day so, there’s hope that I’ll be renting a camper van the day after tomorrow. I think I’ll head north as, well, the further north I go, the warmer it becomes. Brisbane is fine but, in a camper van, any further south might be a bit chilly and I’m over the cold (both in my nose and in the air).
Next up – A working computer (hopefully) and a do-over in a camper van.
 
 

A Big Drink

After much fussing about, searching for CD’s (never to be found), I teach Janette about placing your iPod in a cup-holder for instant speakers the MacGyver way. We decide which one of us will be Thelma (Janette) and which is Louise (me, as I’m the redhead), and get on the road. Our first stop is a kitschy pub which used to be named the Ettamogah, after a famous Aussie cartoon but, due to a buy-out and, as the waitress puts it, “a whole story behind it” is currently named the Pub. It’s a play on the typical Dinkum Aussie which is your Crocodile Dundee/Throw another shrimp on the barbie, stereotypical, caricature Australian. We sit and enjoy a nice lunch outside on this beautiful day (I’m finally warm!). 
We get back on the road where, after just fifteen-minutes or so, we find ourselves at the Big Pineapple. It’s on the edge of some pineapple fields and, as a bonus, you can climb up to the top.  On the way, there’s a whole display of pineapple history and statistics on pineapple production. We climb the two somewhat circular staircases to the top (a much easier climb than what I did all those months ago with the Tümerin von Münster in what is still one of the best travel experiences of my life. Read No Fires, No Foes.) Big PineappleAfter a quick lookout and a short climb down, we go hunting for the Big Cow but she seems to have escaped the pasture, so we head out to go see Matilda, the Big Kangaroo. After a bit of a drive, it looks as if Matilda has hopped away as we don’t find her either. We do, however, find a great little coffee shop in Tiaro called Retro Espresso. It’s been a long day so far and I need some caffeine and Vince, the owner, is just the man I need. While Thelma orders a half-shot latte (I mean, why even bother?) I order a double-shot one and ask for her extra 1/2 shot. Besides coffee, Retro Espresso has some heavenly looking (and I’m sure tasting) gooey treats as well as some kitschy (second-time I’ve used the word here but it’s so fitting) metal signs, some with Route 66 themes. This is a great stop when driving through the Hinterlands. (An area that’s not quite inland and not quite the coast – the Hinterlands.)
Australia - Big Ned KellyWe continue on, with a quick stop at the Big Ned Kelly and drive past sunset (remember, it’s still winter here so the sun sets early) until we arrive in Riverheads, the town where Rosie (Thelma’s old school friend) lives. We’re staying with Rosie for two-nights which gives the old friends a chance to catch up and puts us in close proximity (about 120 km) to Bundaberg, the location of The Big Rum Bottle. After being introduced to Rosie, her daughter Tash, and their dog Honey, we sit down for a glass of wine. I drag out my computer as I want to get some writing and publishing done before I absorb more wine (and, perhaps, some of the scotch we stopped and bought). While I want to work, apparently my computer has other ideas and chooses not to work. There are no lights and it won’t even turn on. I try all night to no avail. Rosie lends me a computer (luckily I’ve save most essential things to a zip drive I purchased after the great computer crash in March in Kuala Lumpur) which allows me to get work done but does little to alleviate my stress. This morning I was irritated that I couldn’t find my $5 sunglasses. I’ve now forgotten about that. Perspective.
We enjoy a nice dinner and some wine before heading to bed. The scotch I bought remains unopened. (Who knew you could be too stressed to drink scotch?) After some stress induced insomnia I wake up and glance at my computer while praying to literally “see the light.” Apparently, this is only a philosophical answer as the computer and all of its power lights remain dark. After a coffee (Thelma is a bubbly person, even in the morning. Louise, well, she needs her coffee) we get ready and head over to Bundaberg to see The Big Rum Bottle.
Bundaberg is about a ninety-minute drive from Riverheads (right near Hervey Bay) and, on the way, we pass the small town of Childers. It’s a cute town with pubs and shops lining the streets and signs directing people to the wineries in the area. I make note as I think I might want to return here for a visit.
We continue our pilgrimage to Bundaberg along the ISIS Highway. Yup, it’s an unfortunate name for a highway these days. Perhaps they should think about renaming it. This area is all about sugar cane and fields are everywhere. At about 12:30, we pull up to our Mecca for the day – The Big Rum Bottle. And, even better, the Big Rum Bottle is strategically placed directly in front of the Bundaberg Rum Distillery. I’m stressed-out from my broken computer and standing in a rum distillery; this could be dangerous.
Rum Bottle
After taking the token photos standing with The Big Rum Bottle, we head inside where there’s a museum and tours. We sign up for the 1:00 tour, which a sign out front tells us, “Grown men have been known to walk away from the BDC Distillery Experience shedding tears of enlightenment” (a bit dramatic perhaps). We stroll through the museum for a bit, learning about how the distillery came to be as well as the great fires of 1907 and 1933.  We stop to read a sign which tells us, “The Bundaberg Distilling Company was born in 1888, when a band of ingenious sugar millers turned a horrendous molasses surplus into a fine rum.” Sort of like making wine from water.
Just after 1:00, Angus, one of our guides walks through the museum collecting us and leading us into a small theatre where he gives us a brief description of what we’ll be seeing as well as introducing us to our other guide, Adam. We’re told that when we walk outside, we’ll be asked to place all battery-powered devices onto shelves which will be locked up for safekeeping. This includes all cell phones, watches and electric car-lock openers. Apparently, the fires scared the bejesus out of them and, due to the alcohol content in the air, one spark from a malfunctioning battery could cause the whole place to go up in a ball of flames. I fully expect to get drunk simply from breathing.
We head into the factory and are led through various areas, including a huge warehouse with a molasses lake covering the entire floor. The scent is strong and sweet. We continue on into a barrel room, as well as areas to see the metal vats which make the yeast used in the distilling process.
BarFinally, we end up in a room where Adam describes each of the many bottles of rum in front of us and the various tastes and development processes of each. We’re then invited into the bar (finally!) where we get to taste two glasses of our choice from the many different types of rum offered. While my first drink of their black label is a fine rum, my second choice, their chocolate one mixed with cream sends me over the moon. Being the designated driver, Thelma only has a half-shot and, by the time we leave, I’m a little more liquored-up and less stressed than when we entered.
We head off, make a quick stop at the Big Barrel, and drive on in search of the Cordalba Pub, which Rosie has told us is a nice, historic place. After a longer than expected ride and some amount of Kettle on Floorsearching, we finally pull up in front of the 122 year-old building. It’s just after 4:00 and we’re the only ones here. After Anthony, the bartender, cook, and everything else, takes our orders we head onto the back porch to sit in the waning sun overlooking the sugarcane fields. We ask if they make coffee and he says you can serve yourself. He shows us to a dining area where, on a table are bottles filled with Nescafe instant coffee, tea bags, sugar and other paraphernalia. He bends down and turns on the kettle which is sitting on the floor. Yup, it’s an interesting place. After thirty-minutes-or-so, Thelma’s pizza and my burger arrive and we each scarf down half, knowing that Rosie has gone shopping and plans to cook us a nice salmon dinner. 
Back on the road, we hunt for a bottle shop (liquor store) as Rosie’s asked us to pick-up a bottle of white wine for the salmon. Thelma’s bottle shop locating abilities are amazing and she can spot one as quickly as a birdwatcher spots a red-bellied, white crested, blackbird hiding in the trees. Bottle of wine in hand, we finally arrive in Riverheads at 7:15pm.
Tomorrow – Back to Brisbane