It's News to Me

I had to switch hotels today. I didn’t want to as the Estelar Blue is wonderful and equal to what would be a four-star hotel in the U.S. And no, I’m not a rockstar who got drunk, smashed the headboard, threw a TV out the window and was banned from the place. I got a smokin’ deal on this place due to a combination of Orbitz coupons and the nights I was staying. This hotel is in a business area just around the corner from a conference center so, unlike many hotels, the Estelar Blue is less expensive on the weekends than during the week. Now that the new week is here, they have no room and, even if they did, the price would double.
I catch a cab over to my new digs at the Hotel Lomas 10. It’s not only new to me, but new this year and it seems that nobody has heard of it. This does not bode well for me. While still in the La Pablado area, it’s about 1.5 kilometers from Estelar Blue. Though not quite as high class as the last one, they are friendly as I walk in and seem incredibly eager to please. A nice lady walks me to my room, spending a few minutes to take inventory of the minibar, gives me the number to call reception should I need it, and leaves me to enjoy the city view as advertised on the website. As I open the curtains, besides a couple of nice buildings in the distance and a few somewhat run down houses below, there are two guys hanging from ropes directly outside. It seems like they’re still working on the outside of the building and, while my room in Minca had a big spider (I wonder if Tarantulina Jolie misses me), this one comes with Spiderman and guest.
I quickly head out to explore my new neighborhood, walking down the sidewalk along the steep road. Medellin is a city of hills and you don’t so much walk it as you hike it. Still, between the various means of public transportation which we spoke of in “When Good Triumphs Over Evil” and the inexpensive taxis and Uber (yup, it’s here), there’s usually an option should you become tired.
As I reach the bottom of the hill, I turn right and walk past a cigar bar (I like this neighborhood) and a bunch of restaurants before coming across what looks like the office of a newspaper. It’s called El Espectador, and the newspapers hanging in their window, one with Donald Trump on the front, catch my eye. Wanting to know more about what they’re reporting and the general feel in Colombia regarding current U.S. and Venezuelan politics, I walk in and ask the woman sitting at the desk, “Habla Ingles?” She smiles and says no, but indicates that I should walk upstairs. Upstairs I find an area with four desks and a bunch of helpful people who call over a colleague to assist.
Fabian, an energetic twenty-something gentleman comes over and I explain why I just sort of randomly showed up. (Didn’t even bring a bottle of wine.) He welcomes me and invites me downstairs to talk. Fabian works in sales and explains that El Espectador, an opinion paper, is the oldest newspaper in Colombia. He shows me some of their online stories and then tells me more of his.
He was living in Cali with his wife, who had just given birth to a baby boy, when a gang associated with Fabianthe FARC came to him, hit him with a gun, and threatened that, if he didn’t pay extortion money, they would kill his son. Wasting no time, he told his wife that she had to leave with the five-day-old baby. They came to Medellin where Fabian soon joined them. Though he had been an office worker, the only job he could get was in construction. He didn’t have the proper certificate to work in that field but was hired anyway. After a little while, the paychecks stopped coming. The owner kept telling him he would be paid the following week but, after three months without pay, and a wife and baby to support, well, he had to find something else. He eventually landed a job at El Espectador and is now one of their top sales people.
We chat for an hour and Fabian contacts his friend Marcella who agrees to show me around a bit tomorrow. He also invites me to an event honoring the 130th anniversary of the newspaper. I’ve talked about how nice the people of St. John’s, Newfoundland are, out-niced only by the Irish; Colombians give both a run for their money.
I wander around my neighborhood window-shopping and stopping in a church before walking to Parque Lleras. I have no idea what this park is like and have never heard of it but it turns out to be a great area with just a few street vendors selling artwork and jewelry, and more than a few restaurants selling food and drink. I settle in a seat at the Basílica (not another church but a restaurant and bar) where I proceed to write while getting a little tipsy on pisco sours and ceviche. I subscribe to the writer’s creed, write drunk, edit sober. As the happy-hour is 3-for-1 and I’m already a little drunk it would be shameful not to claim that third drink (mom always told me that I shouldn’t waste because children in Africa have no cocktails – or something like that)  so I order a beer and, soon enough, am on my way.
 
The following day I meet Fabian’s friend Marcela at the office of El Espectador. Our plan is to walk Me and Marcelaaround the city so she can show me some different areas but, get two women talking and, well, we drink coffee and talk in the office for an hour-or-two. Marcela is an engineer who teaches STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). As Fabian puts it, she’s beautiful and smart. Eventually, we leave the office and walk along the streets of Medellin, past Parque Lleras and over towards Oviedo Mall. In my opinion, Medellin has some things in common with Kuala Lumpur; both have wonderful and unique mass-transit systems and both have an abundance of very modern malls.
Marcella and I say goodbye in order to go back to our respective abodes in order to freshen up, Mayor of Medellinattempting to make ourselves look beautiful before catch taxis to the Museo de Antioquia where the 130th-anniversary celebration for El Espectador is being held. Traffic is terrible and I arrive forty-minutes late. Still, the presentation begins just after I arrive. First to speak is Federico Gutiérrez, the mayor of Medellin. He’s very well-respected and, oh yes, he’s easy on the eyes. He speaks in Spanish and I have no idea what he’s saying but I enjoy looking at him. Marcela eventually shows up during a question and answer session with some of the editors of the paper.StatementSoon, the official part ends and we walk across the way to a display of some of El Espectador’s covers throughout their 130-year history. They’re divided into the triumphs and tragedies of the past 130 years Tragedyand it’s riveting looking at the 100-year-old headlines and photos in Colombia. Drinking wine in the courtyard for just a few minutes before a giant thunderstorm arrives we move the party inside. We spend a few hours meeting Fabian’s workmates, some of whom are in sales, some work as assistants, and others are reporters. Oh, and FYI – they think Trump is crazy. The wine continues to flow and hors d’oeuvre are served while we laugh and sing to a violinist and saxophonist who now stroll around inside playing some familiar tunes (New York, New York anyone?).
It is a great night with locals who I now call friends.
Office Party
 
Tomorrow – leaving Medellin to find coffee.
 
 

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.

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.

An American in Cuba

StatueHola Amigos! I’ve just returned from Cuba and thought I should tell you a bit about it. I know you’re wondering, ‘Did I miss a vote?’ The answer, in Spanish, is “no.” I’ve started earning some money by getting back into a field I worked in fifteen-years ago – tour directing. It’s still one of my favorite areas of travel in which I’ve worked but the sad thing is that it pays just about what it did fifteen-years ago. Still, until I get this book finished and published (and, of course, it sells millions of copies), I’ll need to make some money somewhere, so why not enjoy the job. Also, it will, perhaps, allow me to offer up a few votes for Drop Me Anywhere locations in between.
The cool thing is that my first trip with this company was leading a tour to Cuba. While going to Cuba is no big deal to most of the rest of the world, to Americans, it’s a BIG DEAL. Though, for years, Americans have traveled to Cuba by way of Mexico, Canada, and the Bahamas, we’ve not legally been able to do so very easily. With the U.S. embargo relaxing, there are currently twelve approved visas with which Americans can legally travel to Cuba. The trip I led was called a People-to-People program. This visa requires those traveling on it to have a certain amount of, well, people-to-people interactions. This part is great for me, as Drop Me Anywhere trips generally involve bothering locals (they really should call the visa a Bothering Locals Visa) to find out interesting things to do, as well as telling their stories. Still, my trips normally involve little planning. Both tour companies and people-to-people trips generally require that pretty much every minute be planned. Is this how I personally travel? No. But it is how I travel when others are paying me to travel this way. Oh, and the hotels are generally pretty nice too.
Now that I’ve explained how Americans can currently visit Cuba, both legally, and illegally (I’m full-service here, but you didn’t hear it from me), I want to explain why things are changing now. There are a few reasons; first, Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul, took over for him a few years ago. While in America, most of us heard it was in or around 2011, Cubans tell me it was in 2006. Raul seems a bit less uptight than Fidel and, in 2011, he relaxed many rules within Cuba such as citizens being able to buy and sell houses and cars privately, and allowing most to have cell phones. This made the U.S. happy because America likes to see people be more free and, well, to be honest, America thinks the rest of the world should be just like them. In 2015, The U.S. and Cuba re-opened embassies in each other’s countries for the first time in 50 years (pretty cool).
Now for the political reason things are changing now – it’s been a long time. Remember, Cuba has always been happy to have Americans visit (as long as they’re not invading and trying to overthrow the government). The embargo was put in place by the U.S. Treasury in 1962 to protest Castro’s dictatorship and the Bay of Pigs incident, among other things. For a long time, Cubans who escaped via rafts, boats and random floating object, and settled in America – mainly Florida – (note that immigration laws say that if a Cuban makes it to U.S. soil, they get to stay), were pretty bitter and didn’t want the embargo lifted. The Latino vote is strong and to lift the embargo used to mean political suicide. As I mentioned, it’s been a while now and those Cubans who escaped on boats are dying off. The Latino vote is now made up mainly of Mexicans which makes lifting the embargo a bit less suicidal and more, ‘it’s about time.’
So, now that we’re all playing nice (I don’t care who touched who first or even who threatened the other with nuclear weapons; shake hands and say you’re sorry), travel between the two countries is getting easier. Still, the embargo is not lifted and I’m here on a proper, approved visa.

Airplane
Photo courtesy of Xtra Airways

We fly from Miami to Havana – a forty five-minute flight – on charter airline, Xtra Airways. This is, in no way, a high-cost carrier (you can tell as they couldn’t even afford the “e” in their name) and they seem to have added some after-market seats, which means that, like snowflakes, no two are alike. Okay, some are alike, but some are very different and, unless my hips have grown (a definite possibility), my seat is sort of the side-salad of the airplane’s meal as opposed to the entree. I’m not bothered as it’s such a short flight and my coworker and I have some business to take care of. (She’s with me for just a couple of days as I’m new to the company and need all the help I can get.) Upon landing (“We’re in Cuba!” I say giddily!) we step out onto the tarmac and head inside to immigration. I flash my handy tour director sign and gather my group in a couple of lines at the windows at the end.
As I wait in line, I’m approached by two officials. “Hola. What electronics are you carrying with you?”
“A computer, an iPad, a Kindle and an iPhone,” I respond (too much?).
“Do you have a camera?”
“Oh yes, I think so. Somewhere buried in all of my bags.” I smile.
“How much money do you have on you?”
I should mention that I’ve been told the amount of cash I’m allowed to bring in is approximately $4,000. As Americans can’t use credit cards here, even when traveling on approved visa’s, (word has it that the bank will put a stop on your credit cards should you attempt to use them) I’m carrying all of the program funds in cash. I do what I must to keep my pax (an abbreviated term for passengers common in the travel industry) happy, which means that, perhaps, I stretched the truth.
“$4,000. I reply.” The officials smile and welcome me to Cuba. This will be my first, but certainly not my last, taste of the friendliness and hospitality which I’ll experience over the next week in Cuba.
Next – Government hotels and restaurants versus paladars, sights to see, music, art and fancy cars.

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!
 
 
 

We Must Travel in the Direction of our Fear

Hello my Virtual Travel Buddies. This is not the article I’d planned on publishing today. I’d planned to tell you about my latest adventures in Vancouver, Canada, and maybe give you an idea of a non-traditional activity to enjoy while visiting a destination. That will have to wait. Instead, I’d like to talk about the importance of travel.
Arch de TriompheLast night, the magical city of Paris was viciously attacked. This came one day after a terrorist bombing in the city of Beirut. There is no acceptable explanation for this and any civilized society would condemn the murders. And as much as we’d like to say, “This couldn’t happen in my neighborhood,” the truth is, it could. Perhaps it will be an attack by extremists, or maybe the situation will be different. Maybe it will be a mentally disturbed kid bringing a gun to school to take his revenge against bullies, and your child is caught in the cross-fire. Or it could be someone walking into your neighborhood pharmacy and killing only two people during a robbery. I say ‘only two people’ yet, if your spouse, your sister, your child, or your parent is one of those two, it will make no difference to you whether it was a mass terrorist attack or a drug-crazed gunman. The loss is the same.
Knowing this, you have a decision to make; will you keep your child from going to school? Will you lock yourself in your house and order your prescriptions over the internet in order to avoid possible danger? Yes, doing this could save your life. But what kind of life will it be? I say the same holds true with travel.
Maya Angelou said, “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”
VietnamWhen I was heading to Vietnam this summer, I had concerns about what they might think of this American. After all, the war we Americans know as the Vietnam War, is known as the American Invasion over there. From their view, and even in many others’ opinions, this is more accurate. And, with museums and memorials telling some truth, and much propaganda, it would be surprising to me if the Vietnamese people were at all nice, let alone friendly and welcoming. Yet, for the most part, that is what I found. Sure, there were some bad apples who chose to cheat me, perhaps because I’m white and it’s assumed I’m rich, or, perhaps it’s because they’ll cheat anyone. But that’s the point. You’ll find these people everywhere. Even in your hometown.
ProtestIf you travel with an open mind, you will learn the whys behind people’s views and actions. You’ll learn that, in Germany, it’s illegal to deny the Holocaust; and the law is enforced. In Hungary, it’s illegal to show the swastika. I wouldn’t have known this if I hadn’t seen the police approach a man with the symbol (and a line drawn through it) on a sign during a protest in Budapest. Did you know that the swastika is actually an ancient Asian symbol meaning ‘well-being’ and ‘good fortune’? Sure you could Google it. But would you even think to do so if you hadn’t traveled and seen the symbol on jewelry and hotels?
Martin Yan said, “People who don’t travel cannot have a global view, all they see is what’s in front of them. Those people cannot accept new things because all they know is where they live.” Many people in India don’t travel; they simply don’t have money. All they know of America is what they see on TV. They see Donald Trump, they see Kardashians, they see reports on shootings. It’s understandable that they think Americans are all rich and everybody has a gun. Most do not have a global view as they only see what’s in front of them.
There are closed-minded Americans who might say, “Hey, if they don’t want to know about me, I don’t want to know about them.” To those people I say, grow up. You say that America is a great country so go, travel, be a positive example of what you want them to know about America. If we don’t travel, all they’ll know is what they see on TV. And, in some places, what’s shown on TV is subject to government approval. We know that we are not our government, and neither are most citizens of other countries.
Through travel, we learn about other cultures, and allow them to learn about us. We also have the great opportunity to learn about ourselves. We may even find out that we have our own prejudices and preconceptions. Just as we may think our culture, laws, or way of life is better than others, we must understand that this is what most cultures believe about their own. Only through travel can we truly understand what everyone has to contribute.
Often, I’m asked, “What did you do to prepare for this trip in terms of self-defense courses and safety?” Yet, when I was in Europe I was told by a few people that they were afraid to come to the U.S. as “everyone walks around the streets with guns.” Why do we always assume that it’s more dangerous ‘over there’?
So do not be afraid. Be aware, be open, be a good example, and be courageous. I’m not afraid of traveling. I’m more afraid of a world in which we don’t travel.
“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” — Plato.
“If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion, and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” — James Michener
“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” — Helen Keller
**Title Quote – John Berryman
 

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