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.

A Princess in Search of a Crown and a Castle

CathedralHola mi amigos! I considered writing this article in Spanish but, as I’ve learned from my last few weeks in Merida, Mexico, mi español es mui mal. In fact, somehow, in the month since I’ve returned from Cuba, my Spanish has gotten much worse. I’ll need to improve on that as I consider opening a business here. More on that in un momento (hey, getting better). First, I came down here to go to the dentist. You see, when I was in Sun Valley, Idaho, I had a toothache. Due to travel, I was long-overdue for a visit to the tooth doc. When I explained to the dentist that the pain in my tooth made me want to chew my fingers off, one-by-one, every time it encountered something cold (too dramatic?), he explored and told me I’d been grinding my teeth and now needed a crown. While I’m a princess (in my own mind), and agreed that I did indeed need a crown, I assumed the price he wanted to charge me meant the crown would be similar to that of Queen Elizabeth’s, and would come with rubies, emeralds, and a few diamonds. When he explained that there would be no jewels included, I told him I’d need to find some prince to pay for that. I further explained that, “Oh, the top tooth there also has something to say when the cold hits it.”
Apparently, as I couldn’t afford a crown for tooth number one, this meant that tooth number two deserved no further exploration and was answered with a simple, “Yes, it’s probably the same thing.” Telling me it may, or may not help, Mr. Dentist then added on to a filling I already had.
Seeing I don’t really have a place to live – yes, I still have my house, but it’s empty and up for sale (want to buy it? Click contact) – and I have to pay for a place to lay my head anyway, I considered my options and did what many Arizonan’s, Californian’s, and others due to avoid the high-cost of dentistry in the U.S. I flew south.
I flew into Cancun and took a very pleasant, four-hour bus ride to Merida (at a cost of about US$20) where I have friends, and where the hotel and restaurant prices are much less expensive than the tourist areas of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen. You’ll recall that I visited Merida previously during our vote on ancient civilizations. It was on that trip that I introduced you to my friend Stewart, aka the International Man of Mystery (IMM) and his partner Jesus, aka Chucho. This time, the IMM and Chucho were kind enough to assist me with choosing a dentist and making an appointment.
The IMM E-mailed me prior to my arrival with a choice of two dentists.
“One speaks English and the other doesn’t,” he explained. “The one who speaks English is also nice looking.”
“I’ll take him, please.”
“Oh, and I have good news and bad news,” the IMM later E-mailed me. “The bad news is, Dr. Nishikawa no longer has an office near us and you’ll need to take a taxi to get there. The good news is that he also no longer has a wife, though I can’t promise he hasn’t found himself a girlfriend.”
“The again, perhaps that’s the reason he no longer has a wife,” I added.
Before you knew it, I had an appointment with Dr. Miquel Angel Josè Nishikawa (yep, Mexican-Japanese). It was during the first appointment I was told that, in fact, he didn’t believe I needed a crown at all. (I’m not sure he understood that I’m a princess.) He told me that I simply needed to brush with Sensodyne toothpaste and get some mouth guards to wear during both the day and night. He then took a mold of my top teeth and, during the second appointment, I was fitted with two mouth guards – one for day and one for night. It was somewhat disappointing not getting a gem-covered crown to wear, but to add insult to injury, I now had a less than attractive plastic mouthpiece to wear at night. Still, where one crown would have cost about US$1,100.00 in the U.S., and I might have been told I may have, in fact, needed two, in Mexico, my three visits (there was an additional follow-up), two mouth guards, a coating, as I still had some pain on my third visit, and a cleaning (because, without a crown, I had to find some sparkle somewhere), cost me about US$150.00. Add to that a ticket purchased with frequent flyer miles, plus an additional $29 for taxes and fees, along with a hotel room that I’d have to pay for anyway, but which cost me about US$32 per night, and I’m happy with my dental decision.
Now, a bit more about that hotel. While the IMM and Chucho own Casa Alux, which I’ve stayed at previously, some Canadians had beat me to it and I needed to find some alternate lodging. After searching nearly every hotel booking site I normally frequent, and scouring the reviews with the proper amount of skepticism borne from experiences in sixty countries, I settled on the Hotel MariaJose (yes, they spell it as one word). The reviews were good and, opposed to some I’d looked at, they were also recent. I booked eight nights, knowing I would stay in Merida longer, but with a fear of commitment to this yet unseen place.
Hotel RoomPriced at $690.00 Mexican Pesos per night (approximately US$ 39.67 at time of publication), and often available cheaper on online booking sites (as I said, I got it for US$32 per night including tax), this hotel provides not just great value, but a truly welcoming stay in an excellent location. While they have fifty-four rooms of various sizes and different amenities – one, two and three beds, some with kitchenettes, some with a small refrigerator and breakfast bar – I stayed in the basic single room. It was quite large with its own bathroom, flat screen television and Wifi access. The hotel, like many of buildings in the White City, as Merida is known, is colonial style, which means that the building surrounds a courtyard and many of the rooms, though they have windows, these windows look out into hallways. As I was looking at a long-term stay, I couldn’t imagine staying in a room without natural light, and they were nice enough to switch me to a room facing the pool. Oh, and as for the pool, it’s gorgeous. I was concerned about noise in a room that was literally ten-steps from the water’s edge. My concern was unfounded as, there was only one-night during, what turned out to be an eighteen-day stay, that there was noise – children laughing and music blaring – and things calmed down by 11:00pm. And there was little noise during the day.
Pool BarThe MariaJose began to feel like home. Each morning, I’d order breakfast and, while they have a restaurant, they’ll deliver your food to your room or to the pool free of charge. Just as in the restaurant, you tip the waiter. On most days, I enjoyed my breakfast and, on some nights, my dinner, sitting at the table outside my room near the pool.
Hotel PoolThe MariaJose is located on Calle 64 between 53 and 55. This places it in el Centro and just a few blocks walking distance of many of the city’s most famous sights. It’s six blocks from Paseo de Montejo, the Champs-Élysées of Merida, which, every Sunday, is closed to motorized traffic to allow time and a place for bike-riding with family and friends. (They’ve recently tried this on a Saturday night and, rumor has it, they’ll continue that once per month.) This makes for a festive atmosphere during which artists display their creations along the sidewalks, musicians play traditional Mexican music, as well as Louis Armstrong tunes and classic rock, and non-profits hold fundraising and awareness walks.
The MariaJose has great air conditioning, a pool, parking, Wifi (though sometimes spotty, it’s dependable enough for this Wifi dependent writer) and can even sell you some tours to see Merida and the surrounding ruins and cenotes. Oh, it’s absolutely non-smoking, even outside (I learned this when I tried smoking my cigar, left over from Cuba, outside on my patio by the pool. The word for “no” in Spanish is “no”.) They’re currently doing some construction to add eight more rooms (though there was no noise issue concerning this during my stay). And speaking of tours, that’s the business I’m considering opening. Merida has an up-and-coming arts and culture scene, as well as some traditional Mayan artisans. The culinary scene, while known for some very specific regional dishes, is also expanding. Still, the city maintains its colonial charm along with some stunning architecture. Stand by for what might soon become Drop Me in Merida Walking tours. Still, it’s early in the process so, ssshhh, don’t tell anybody yet.

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.

Lord Howe Island From Land and Sea

This morning I awake, hop in the shower (it’s one of the few places I’m warm), and head out through the trees to stand on Lagoon Road and wait for Peter, from Chase ‘n’ Thyme Tours, to pick me up. Though not originally an islander, Peter is married to a Thompson girl, a descendant of one of the first settlers, and has lived on the island for twenty four-years. GuideAt 9:00am on the dot, Peter’s white van pulls up, fully loaded with nine-people, none under the age of sixty. LHI is known as a place for the “newly-wed or nearly dead,” especially in the winter. And while these folks may be of the senior set, they’re raring to go and I would even describe some as a hoot. Peter takes us down south to begin the tour as, he says, he wants to give us time to prepare for the hustle and bustle of the CBD (Central Business District). He explains that today’s tour will end at about 1:00pm, which is before the 3:00pm rush-minute. Rush-minute is at 3:00pm because that’s when the one school on the island – with thirty eight-students in total – lets out. Also, the mail comes in on the once-daily flight which lands just after 2:00pm and is then brought to the post office, sorted, and ready to be claimed at 3:00pm. There is no mail delivery on LHI; if you don’t stop by the post office for a few days , if he sees you on the street, Stevie, the Post Master, will shout, “Come get your mail!” as it’s taking up too much room. airplaneAs we drive, Peter shows us the 3,000-foot-long airstrip which they’ve just spent AUD $8 million repaving. It actually only cost AUD$2 million for materials, but it cost AUD$6 million to ship them to the island. We learn that LHI has twenty-accommodations with a total of four hundred-beds, thus, the island’s tourist count is capped at four hundred per night. Still, with this limitation, tourism is the top industry on Lord Howe. glassWe then make our way to the island’s waste management facility, also known in Australia as “The Tip”. Being an island, LHI is very aware of its trash as there’s no place to store it. We see piles of old bicycles stacked to send to the mainland on the Island Trader to be recycled for kids and others, as well as aluminum cans which are crushed, packed as a cube, and also shipped off to the mainland for recycling. We also see large bags of broken glass which is crushed into tiny particles and used as the first layer when building roads. Yes, you might be bicycling over last-year’s beer bottle. It gives new meaning to “one for the road.” (Thanks for the joke, Peter.) We stop by the weather station in order to pick up the report for the next few days, as well as what is considered a “must-do” for tourists on LHI, watch the launch of the daily weather balloon. Unfortunately the weather balloon is having a wardrobe malfunction and can’t be launched today. Still, this gives us a chance to meet Bill, the Bull and some of his non-testicular cohorts. As of cowfive-years ago, cattle can’t be used for food or milk here as, while these guys look like some of the healthiest cattle I’ve ever seen, the country’s agriculture department requires very specific things for processing of meat and dairy for public consumption. They’re very conscious that, if some bad beef got out, and forty-people became ill, it would be nearly impossible to air-evac. all of them off the island. Due to the cost involved in shipping the machinery necessary to meet government processing standards, well, it’s much less expensive to ship in the meat itself. So these cattle have a nice life of grazing in their pasture and enjoying the fresh Lord Howe air. This medical issues is also a reason that they fully enforce the national bike-helmet law as, the two-bed hospital, which has a small emergency-room, is ill-equipped to deal with closed-head injuries. We continue our tour where we see a variety of wildlife including the famous Lord Howe Wood Hen. This is the only place in the world where these are found and, thirty eight-years-ago, due to rats beings brought over on ships, there were only thirty left. Thanks to a concentrated rat eradication effort, there are now 330 of them in the world, all on LHI. We also see a whale putting on a show far off shore. While it’s not unheard of to see a whale here, it’s not all that common. In fact, this is only the fifteenth whale sighting for Peter. And this whale is breaching all over the place! Well, not really all over the place; strangely enough, this whale has breached fifteen to twenty times in the same exact place. porchWe make a stop at Peter’s house where we enjoy freshly-baked jam-muffins which Peter’s wife Janine has prepared to go with tea and coffee. This is how it goes when you take a tour on a small island; you stop at the guide’s house for coffee before continuing on. We continue on to see more island views and landmarks before Peter drops us at our desired locations. This is a great way to really appreciate all of the history and intricacies of the unique place. After hanging at the museum and taking advantage of their VEW (very expensive WiFi) – I’ve used up my pre-purchased, thirty-day supply in five-days – Kongy, Farmer Jane and I head over to the golf club to enjoy their weekly fish-fry dinner. It’s a busy night with about twenty five-people inside. After a cozy-night’s sleep, I head down the path of Thornleigh and walk five-minutes to the small building housing Lord Howe Environmental Tours. This morning I’m taking one of their glass-bottom boat tours. I enter the shack and, like everyone else on today’s tour, I turn down the offered wet-suit in case I want to snorkel. (There will be no snorkeling as it’s effing freezing!). The most clothing anyone removes are their socks in order to wade through the calf-deep, cold water. GuideLord Howe Environmental Tours is owned by Dean, who used to be a Park Ranger on the island prior to starting his own business. As is common on the island, many families work in the same business and, Lord Howe Environmental Tours is no exception. Dean’s mother, Jill, and his wife Roslyn work the desk and office part, while Dean and his father, Ken, take
the tourists on the boats. We head on out and, during our excursion, we’re lucky enough to see a green turtle tURTLEresting in the rocks, as well as a stingray lying in sand. While this cold-water coral isn’t quite as colorful as bright coral of warmer climates, the underwater views are spectacular. This may just be the least polluted water I’ve seen anywhere in the world. We see underwater creatures which Dean describes as “Sequential Hermaphrodites” and things with “jeweled gonads.” (Insert your own joke here.) FatherI’ve been told one other great sight on this tour is when Dean removes his shirt and dons his wetsuit in order to snorkel under the boat and feed the fish. Apparently, Dean works-out. Sting RayUnfortunately, just as there was no weather balloon launch yesterday, there’s no seeing of the six-pack today as Ken gets the fish-feeding duties. After a few hours, we head back in to the office where Jill has prepared some wonderful tea and we gather to chat about or various adventures on this special island.

Monday in the Mérida Mercado

Today is dedicated to Mérida, with Stewart showing me around his city. Remember, Stewart is either shady or an international man of mystery (IMM) – there’s a fine line and, as it could be guilt by association, we’ll call him an IMM). He’s lived in England, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the U.S., yet he’s chosen to settle in Mérida. There must be something he loves about this place and I look forward to him showing me around. I’m driving, but it’s much easier this time with a navigator who knows his way around.

We begin by driving over to The Yucatan Times where Stewart introduces me to Alex, our editor. Stewart is a regular reporter for The Yucatan Times and I’ve written a couple of things for them. We end up sitting in on an editorial board meeting. They seem very interested in meeting me and ask me to be a regular contributor with Drop Me Anywhere articles. I let them know I may be interested but play hard to get, and tell them I’ll think about it and let them know (don’t want them to think I’m a loose woman).

Statue
Need a pirate statue? This store has them.

After leaving the office we stop at Galerias el Triunfo, a store Stewart has told me about in the past. You’ve heard the expression, “Everything but the kitchen sink?” Well, this store is where that expression came from. They pretty much sell everything that you can’t find anywhere else. Need a statue of Elvis? How about Jake and Elwood from the Blues Brothers? Got it. Perhaps a Buddha statue is more your style.

Ugly lamp
Ugly lamp on ugly chair

You can find about twenty-five different styles and sizes. Maybe you need some throwback chrome and crushed velvet kitchen chairs seemingly imported from the 1970’s. You can find them here. Christmas is coming and you may be searching for the elusive Elf on a Shelf. He’s here; in about twenty spectacular colors. Chandeliers as big as a merry-go-round at the amusement park? They’re here and they’ll light up an entire neighborhood. Ugly chandelierWant to buy a really ugly black and white checked lamp in the shape of a head? You can do so and, while you’re at it, grab the blue jean covered chair with pockets-and-all to keep track of those remote controls. Finally, before you leave, grab that giant zebra standing out front as the black and white is sure to go with everything in your house. And if it all catches fire, be sure to pick up one of their twenty-or-so fire extinguishers for sale.

ZebraNext, we head to breakfast as it’s noon and we’ve yet to eat. The place the IMM wants to take me is now seemingly permanently closed – this happens a lot in Mérida – so we settle on a place on the corner as it’s clean, close and air conditioned. I order up some Huevos Motuleños (a dish from the town of Motul made with eggs, corn tortillas, plantains, a sauce, peas and a bunch of other yummy stuff).

Tummies full, bodies cooled from the air conditioning we ditch the car (not wanting to get stuck in the traffic chaos) and head out on foot head out to explore this city of a million people. Mérida was founded in 1542 by Francisco de Montejo y León (“el Mozo”) and is the capital city of the state of Yucatán (we left the state of Quintana Roo when we departed Akumal). It’s about 331 square miles and has the highest percentage of indigenous persons of any large city in Mexico, with approximately 60% of all inhabitants being of the Maya ethnicity.

Artwork
Artwork in the Governor’s Palace

The IMM takes me to various well known landmarks in the city including the main square, which is surrounded by the Governor’s Palace (not where he lives, but where his administrative offices are), a Cathedral, the former house of Francisco de Montejo y León, (now a bank) and city hall. We pop in the Governor’s Palace to say hello and, apparently, he’s a little busy, but the building is beautiful. As with many buildings here, it’s built surrounding a courtyard and, if you pop upstairs you’ll find beautiful artwork and great views of the city.

ArtworkWe stop by the University Autonoma de Yucatan, one of a number of universities in the city, also built in a courtyard style which, while small, seems to have a very up-to-date curriculum. We also visit the Peon Contreras Theatre. Dedicated on December 21, 1908, this theatre seats over 800 people and is one of the many, and most impressive of the theatres in the city. Here, you can attend the opera, hear the symphony, watch a ballet or see live shows (there’s quite a bit of live theatre here in Mérida).

Chandelier
The impressive chandelier inside the Teatro Peon Cotreras

We only plan to explore the lobby area as there is no show going on in the middle of the afternoon, and, even if there were, well, we don’t have tickets. But we do have nice smiles and that gets the policeman who is guarding the base of the stairs to invite us upstairs for a quick private tour. He tells us about the portraits of famous Mexican actors, directors, playwrights and such which decorate the walls and then he opens the doors to the balcony of the theatre to allow us to look inside. Inspired by neoclassic French-style theatres, its European style makes for a grand theatre with boxed sections of seats throughout.

Theatre
Inside the theatre

Next, it’s time for a different kind of culture – the Mercado. We actually have the pleasure of visiting two markets – Lucas de Gálvez and San Benito markets – as they’re right next door to each other. One is old and one is a new one built about twenty years ago to replace the old one. As the vendors were quite happy staying where they were, they didn’t leave, so both are now in operation and filled with vendors. The markets are actually organized chaos in that they’re divided into sections pertaining to what each vendor is selling. We enter through the seafood section. As it’s later in the day, the fish mongers are just cleaning up but the scent of the morning is unmistakable. There’s definitely something fishy in Mérida. We quickly escape “Sea World” and head past the spice section, through the fruit and vegetable section and into the religion section where we see lots of statues of lots of virgins. We pass the shoe section as well as the bag section, where I stop to admire some purses (too concerned about the airline’s weight limit, I control myself). We then pass through the animal section, where I close my eyes in order not to be tempted to bring them all home (really, if Spirit Airlines won’t allow me to bring an extra half-pound, I imagine they won’t allow me to bring a live chicken or a small pig). The scent of this section rivals that of the seafood section (it’s different, yet just as offensive). We exit that area, pass by the taco stand that has the added scent of sewage, which the IMM assures me actually sells the best tacos in town (it’s not the tacos that smell, but the sewers in front of them. There’s no extra charge for the added fragrance), and step into the new market. Here, the floors are even, the aisles are slightly wider and the offensive smells are less apparent (I really shouldn’t talk as I’m sure, in this heat and humidity, I don’t smell like a flower). We stop at IMM’s favorite juice stand where I order a mix of fruits named a Tropicale (without ice as IMM says it could be a bit dodgy here although, as a resident, he drinks his with ice) and IMM orders a Jugo Verde. We both had the option of ordering a mixture called the Viagra, but I’m not sure how safe it is for women and IMM insists he needs no such thing. In the end, the Mercado reminds me of a mix between Reading Terminal in Philadelphia, and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, with a little of the fish throwers from Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle thrown in (and maybe a few public health rules broken).

Stewart and Chucho
My hosts and owners of the Studio at Casa Alux http://casaalux.com/

We head out to pick up a few items at the grocery store as Chucho is making us beef Carpaccio for dinner and we need a few ingredients. We have a wonderful evening with good food and good company – Chucho and IMM’s friend Leslie joins us – before ending a fantastic day in Mérida.

Tomorrow – Through rain and floods and swine. The road to Akumal.

The Pied Piper of Portland

 

Have you read Beer and Bikes?” You might want to read that first.

I wake early, ready for a big day. I’m heading into downtown Portland to explore some of the more famous locations on my own and with some help from a guide. First stop, Powell’s City of Books. Yup, that’s right, I said “City of Books!” This is nirvana for readers. They take pride in carrying both new and used books, and displaying them on shelves together. Do you really care if a book was previously read? Will that make the story any less interesting? Here are some of the City’s numbers:

–    Powell’s is 3 stories with 68,000 square feet filled with books.

–    They buy 3,000 used books per day.

–    Approximately 3,000 people visit and buy something each day, and another 3,000 just come in and browse and drink coffee (yes, there’s a coffee shop; no, it’s not Starbucks).

–    They stock more than 122 major subject areas with 3,500 subsections – subject areas are in various rooms which are designated by color. The Red Room is my favorite as it includes travel writing. I spend some time in there dreaming about next year when, hopefully, “Drop Me Anywhere – a Travel Memoir With a Twist” will be housed there.

–    There are more than a million volumes lining the shelves.

Powell's Map

Any bookstore requiring a map to find your way around means you could spend an entire day there. I have an hour-and-a-half. I head straight to the Red Room and see books on the upper shelves which I want to look at. Being only 5 foot, 3 inches tall, anything shelved above 6 feet is out of my reach (I start wondering if this is what they mean by “higher education”). I ask for assistance and am brought a stool from the next aisle. I begin noticing small, step-ladders around the place. How cool! You can actually climb up to retrieve your books on your own without having to ask someone to take down each book you might wish to browse. This small thing is, for me, a big deal.

Pioneer CourthouseAfter my ninety minutes of browsing, I head out towards Pioneer Courthouse Square. I’m taking a walking tour which a friend has recommended and it meets across the street from this historic square in front of the Pioneer Courthouse at 11:00am. The tour is called “Secrets of Portlandia” and is unique in itself as, they take no reservations – you just show up – and there is no charge. eric from Secrets of PortlandiaThe guide and owner, Eric, works for tips. It’s easy to find him as he’s wearing a “Secrets of Portlandia” T-shirt and a head microphone and is surrounded by about ten people (he’s either a tour guide or a street preacher or, perhaps, a little of both). By the time we begin, Eric has 27 people following him down the street (we kind of look like that group walking for their Mother in Pilgrimage to Portlandia) and, in my head, I’ve nicknamed him “The Pied Piper of Portland.”

We begin by walking across the street and into Pioneer Square. This is known as “Portland’s living room” where all are welcome, although there’s no Barcalounger (actually, as you never know what you’ll find here on any given day, you may show up one day to find, not only a Barcalounger, but perhaps a guy sitting in it and watching TV and smoking a cigar). Eric explains that Pioneer was meant to be a gathering place for the people of Portland and the goal Brick from Pioneer Squarewas to keep it free to all who wished to come. The way they did this is to sell bricks which could be engraved with names. There are currently 72,430 named bricks placed permanently in the ground, and bricks are still for sale. In the summer you can come to Pioneer Square and enjoy Flicks on the Bricks, join in song with Sing Portland, enjoy the floral mosaics created at the Festival of Flowers or read to your heart’s delight at the Northwest Summer Book Festival. If you’re around during Halloween you can get your Zombie on at the Giant Zombie Dance Party where you’ll dance with other non-dead to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. You can also “Run Like Hell” in the charity costume 5K, 10K and 1/2 marathon of the same name.

Pioneer Square Weather Forecaster - it's a long explanation but it will tell you what the weather will be.
Pioneer Square Weather Forecaster – it’s a long explanation but it will tell you what the weather will be.

Throughout the tour Eric does a great job of explaining the history of Portland while keeping it fun. This is not just an historical tour, but a bit of a comedy show. Let’s call it Histortainment! The jokes, both good and bad keep coming while Eric informs us of strange Portland laws. These laws include:

–    People may not whistle underwater.

–    You cannot wear roller skates/blades in the restroom.

–    Riders of sleds may not attach themselves to passing cars (takes away all the fun).

–    It’s against the law for a wedding ceremony to be performed at a skating rink (seriously, what?)

–    Oregon law – you cannot pump your own gas. A gas station worker must do this (seriously, when I tried the attendant came out and said, “Caught ya”).

Portlandia Statue

We stop buy the impressive copper statue named Portlandia which was installed in 1985 and stands (well, actually squats) 34 feet, 10 inches high. We visit Mill Ends Park, which at two feet wide (452 sq. inches), holds the title of the smallest park in the world. The park, dedicated on St. Patrick’s Day in 1948, is the only leprechaun colony west of Ireland, according to its creator, Dick Fagan. Fagan also named Patrick O’Toole as head leprechaun and guard of the park. I suddenly have a craving for some Lucky Charms cereal.

Leprechaun Park
Mill Ends Park, otherwise known as Leprechaun Park.

The tour lasts just over two hours and ends in front of the famous Voodoo Doughnut where the catchphrase is “The magic is in the hole.” Eric tells us the history of the famous doughnut stand and about the early years when the doughnuts were supposedly made with questionable ingredients including Pepto Bismol filled and some other over the counter pharmaceuticals. Nowadays, they just serve doughnuts consisting of actual food ingredients, but that doesn’t narrow down your choices one bit. They have the classic Voodoo Doughnut, which is a raspberry jelly filled doughnut topped with chocolate frosting with a pretzel stake in it (order it, think of an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend perhaps, and go to town with that pretzel. You’ll enjoy watching the raspberry jelly leak out).

Voodoo Doughnut Menu

The tour ends and Eric steps over to the corner to answer any individual questions. This would be the time to put some money in his hat, which you should. Remember, there was no charge for this tour so you can judge the value. I would put the Secrets of Portlandia tour up against any prepaid tours offered in Portland. Eric has the knack of making me love this town. He is obviously proud of his city and embraces the weirdness without feeling the need to put-down other places. You should take this tour.

As I’m across the street, it would seem a shame not to pick-up a doughnut as I have a responsibility to you, the reader, to let you know if they live up to the hype. Yes, of course, that’s exactly why I went in to order. The line is short today and, after only a five-minute wait, I step up to the counter completely overwhelmed by the options. I see something on the menu that catches my attention.

“What’s the ‘Cock-N-Balls’?” I ask. The lady at the counter shows me the one in the display case.

“Wow! That’s huge!” I exclaim.

“Well, do you really want a small one?” she responds.

“Good point! I hear a lot of people ordering an ‘Old Dirty Bastard’. What’s that?”

“It’s a doughnut filled with peanut butter and topped with chocolate frosting, Oreo’s and more peanut butter.”

Sold! “I’ll take an ‘Old Dirty Bastard’ please (that’s the first and last time I’ll be using that phrase).”

Voodoo Doughnuts

I also stop at one of the famous Portland food carts and buy some sort of chicken and potato dish from a Thai food vendor. I take it and sit down in the park across the street. When I open it, there’s enough food to feed three or four people, as well as a small cup with something pickled (I suspect it’s pickled chicken feet). I enjoy lunch while listening to a homeless guy playing ukulele and a kazoo. Again, oh so very Portland.

Tomorrow – wandering around St. Johns and The Good, the Bad and the Thank You’s.