Friday, December 27, 2013

Warm in Guam

I like to think that I am a person of simple wants and desires. I am fortunate to have good health, a job I thoroughly enjoy and friends that fill my life with love and laughter. What else could I want? Well, for starters, this year I was hoping for a winter that was not quite so wintery.

I know that everybody raves about the "seasons" and I get it. Growing up in South Florida, I did not have a chance to experience snow until late into my teens and once I did I thought it was the most beautiful thing ever. For each and every one of the past twenty years or so, my travels both professional and personal, have allowed me to revel in the childlike wonder inherent in seeing fluffy flakes drifting down around me. That first snowfall is always magical. I get it. It's great. It's photogenic. So pretty. I'm over it.

I'm over having to spend half my day getting dressed and undressed...because "layering". I'm over stepping on what appears to be solid ground and pulling out a leg soaked to the knee. I'm really over trying to figure which icy patch is the one that is going to take me down in the least graceful way possible. Screw winter and the numb extremities it brings.I'm a Floridian and I believe flip-flops should be year-round footwear.

So far this year, through some planning and a lot of luck, I have managed to accomplish this goal. As I write this, there are 4 days remaining in 2013, and I have yet to see the first flake. The last couple of months I managed this by staying in Florida or venturing towards northern Africa and S. America. This month, I headed westward, towards the Pacific US territory of Guam.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Country #93: Nigeria. It counts.

As both of my regular blog readers know, I am a stickler for the rules in this lifelong game of Count the Countries. Merely landing in an airport doesn't count; a territory and its motherland only count as one and I don't care if a country is barely larger than the average shopping mall (I'm looking at you Vatican and Monaco, little commercial enterprises that you are), if the UN recognizes it as a country, it counts.

The fact that my latest conquest, the Federal Republic of Nigeria, fell within this very specific set of criteria was probably the best thing about my less-than-ideal visit to this north African nation. However, before anyone gets the wrong idea, I should mention that it wasn't the oft-mentioned threats of crime or flesh-eating bacteria that dropped the turd in the proverbial traveling punch bowl. It was a pair of much more intractable foes that thoroughly and mercilessly stymied our every attempt at proper sightseeing.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Heading to the Punta of the Este.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that it’s summertime in the southern hemisphere and you are a wealthy Argentinian. In order to keep up your social standing, you want to go somewhere where you can both see and be seen. What do you do? Easy, you take a jaunt across the Rio de la Plata to Uruguay and find yourself a posh spot at the “it” seaside resort of Punta del Este. You then discuss these plans with everyone you know, doing so in a sing-song accent that strives to be as pleasant as nails on a chalkboard.

New hypothetical, your work has you hanging out in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, for four days. It is springtime and Punta del Este is a bit on the dead side. You will soon take to Montevideo’s town square to cheer their soccer team as they qualify for the World Cup. You will roam up and down the colonial streets and learn that beer is only served in magnum-sized bottles (which you will carry with you during your roaming, because soccer hooliganism requires it). You will marvel at how people who seem to eat nothing but meat 24/7 are not succumbing to cardiovascular disease on every corner.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Visiting the Creatures and Coasters of Tampa

This past Thursday, I did something I had not done in close to twenty years. I went to a theme park. More specifically, I went to Busch Gardens in Tampa, FL. The reasons for this suddenly renewed interest were pretty simple: I had a day off in Lakeland, FL, a place where there is absolutely nothing to do, and I found discounted passes for FL residents online. And the roller coasters. Let's not forget the roller coasters.

But to be fair, they have always had those.  That is what I remember most from my long ago visits.  The down side is that everyone else wants onto those coasters, too, meaning that in order to go on a one minute long ride, you have to invest an hour or more waiting in line, usually while being forced to listen to some hyperactive, overly chatty child.

In the cost/ benefit analysis that goes into making such choices, Lakeland's Lakeland-ness, its over-saturation of strip malls and retirees, tipped the scales. We were doing the 30 minute road trip to Busch Gardens and hoping that a well-timed evil eye was enough to shut up those little chatterboxes.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Honolulu sailing: Better late than Never.

With an average rainfall of 18.29 inches per year, it is unlikely that you will get rained out in Honolulu. For comparison's sake, my hometown of Miami clocks in at 58.53. This was repeatedly pointed out to me, a couple of years ago, as I sat indoors watching it pour during the time that I should have been sipping mai tai's on a sunset sail.

I had done all of the the research before arriving on the island and had sold about a dozen people on the idea. Based on both their price ($30 including unlimited drinks) and excellent reviews, I had booked all of us aboard the Na Hoku II. On the given day, I had taken "it's only a passing cloud" as my infallible mantra. I may have done an anti-rain dance.  It did no good. In the end, we were all left sodden and minus one dazzling sunset (but not exactly thirsty, luckily, you can still get those mai tai's on land).

Monday, August 26, 2013

Ketchikan, Alaska: It sucks to be a salmon

Last Tuesday, I was relaxing at home.  I had just popped in a yoga dvd and was about to go into downward facing dog, when suddenly the phone rang.  It was work.  They wanted to know if I could be at the airport in an hour and the only info they could provide was that I was going somewhere with the airport code KTN.  It was google that told me I was going to Ketchikan, Alaska. Out went the dvd as I quickly tossed a couple of sweaters into my bag.

By early evening, I was on the ferry that connects the Ketchikan airport to the mainland.  It was dark so I could not fully appreciate the vista before me, but having been here once before, over a decade ago, I knew it was going to be good.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Puerto Rico: Not too shabby

This summer presented a new and unwelcome challenge. For the first time in seven years, I would not be spending July and August in Amsterdam. The sweltering corollary to this fact was that I would be spending those months at home. In Miami. Where the climate is only a few degrees cooler than that of the sun and the humidity is such that it has been known to provoke a man into trying to chew off a stranger's faces.

Seeing as I have been a vegetarian for over twenty years, chances are good that I would have trouble digesting human flesh so an immediate solution was necessary. That's where the opportunity to go to San Juan, Puerto Rico for three weeks came in quite handy.  Sure, it is still hot as a mofo down there, they have no canals, tulips or quality cheeses to speak of and the opportunities for international weekend getaways are non-existent but we were walking distance to a beach (as opposed to the onerous 15 minute drive I would have to undertake at home), cold Medallas were easier to find then water and a rental car could be had for less than $20 a day.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Martha's Vineyards: Do's and Don'ts

A couple of things I learned during a recent extended stay in Boston:

DO:  Get the hell out of Boston. There are only so many times you can do the Freedom Trail and all 99 flavors of Sam Adams beer start to taste the same after a while.

DON'T:  If you're Bostonian escape plan involves Martha's Vineyard, don't assume you can just show up and get on the next ferry. This applies even if you have researched the itinerary (and printed it out), mapquested the route and timed it just so in order to arrive with sufficient time to purchase the tickets. You (or more precisely whoever is driving the car) will get hosed. The reason for said hosing is that the parking for the ferry is nowhere near the actual ferry, a fact that is conveniently omitted from most travel sites. Therefore the driver will have to drive back from whence they came to park the car (or seeing as we are in Massachusetts to "pahk da cah") in a remote lot and board a bus that will return them to the spot where a ferry once stood.

DON'T: Leave your friends behind at the ferry terminal with the assumption that they could not possibly leave without you. We could and we did.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Tehran: the Final Chapter

Fourteen days and seven cities later, I was back where I started, in Tehran. Only now, I had vanished most of the preconceived notions I had arrived with. I no longer expected authorities to check my paperwork on every corner. I did not stress over whether or not my head scarf remained firmly in place. If it fell off, I simply replaced it, no harm, no foul. I had grown comfortable enough with navigating the streets and bazaars (even the treacherous crossing of major streets) that I no longer felt the need to have a guide around to keep me out of trouble.

This last one came in the most handy as Yasna was now scheduled to do another tour and I was assigned to a local guide. The new guide, who shall remain nameless, seemed like a nice enough guy and he was certainly trying. Unfortunately, as good a person as he may have been, as a guide, he was worth 0 riyals. He spoke next to no English, had no sense of direction and had the uncanny ability to answer each and every question that he actually understood incorrectly. It was not long before I politely ditched him and spent my final days in Tehran on my own.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Kashan: Mansions and Mosques

FAQ #9: You're a vegetarian. Will there be anything for you to eat?

A: According to Lonely Planet and many of the sites I visited, not really. According to my own experience, yes, but (there is always a but) it helps if you like eggplants. Most restaurants, even in the more remote villages, have large multi-item salad bars, which are intended as starters, but usually have a sufficient variety to allow you to make a substantial meal out of just the salads. If you want a hot meal, then a penchant for that omnipresent purple vegetable does come in handy. There must be a hundred different stews devised around the eggplant and I believe I tried most of them.

One myth that was quickly vanished for me was that I was going to have no trouble finding falafel, hummus, tabouli and other foods that I routinely associate with the Middle East. Apparently, these things never really made their way onto the Persian table. The one exception was in the bazaar in Tehran, where one lone vendor sold falafel sandwiches (served not in a pita but on French bread) commonly referred to by Iranians as a "dirty sandwich" for its inherent messiness (as in "Are you really going to eat a dirty sandwich from a street vendor?" A: Yes)

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Ishafahan/ Eshfahan

FAQ #8: Will you be able to access your email? Do they even have Facebook?

A: I am noticing that none of the questions I am presenting here have a straight-forward answer. It is always "Yes/ No but..." This was not by design. I think it is more a result of the complicated reality for the Persian people. Their lives are lived with an asterisk. There is the official line and then there is the reality and the two can vary wildly.

With regards to the internet, it is available (except for when its not) but many sites, Facebook included, are restricted. One of the most baffling things for me was the capriciousness of the restrictions.  I expected social media sites (ie Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) to be blocked, particularly a month before a presidential election, and they were.  However, Whatsapp and Skype were available.  I was sure the NY Times would be blocked.  Yet as I sipped my morning tea, I was able to read an article about the clerics' marginalization of President Ahmadinajad.  When I tried to access ESPN to check on the Heat playoffs, it was blocked.  I could go to the Miami Herald site to get the scores, but if I wanted to read the neighboring publication, the Sun-Sentinal, that was blocked.  This blog right here- the one you are reading at this very moment- blocked. Hotmail-not blocked.

BUT,  none of this means a whole lot since everyone has found their way to a proxy server, which essentially makes it appear that they are logging on from somewhere other than Iran (don't ask me how this works, I don't know and I don't care.  We can chalk it up to magic and I'm ok with that). All I know is that I went to an internet cafe and had the guy that worked there log me onto Facebook.  Judging by the pop-up ads and the weather reports I was getting, this computer thought that I was in Santa Barbara, CA. The end result is that through a proxy server, you can log on to any site you'd like to. Although the connections were painfully slow, I was still able to periodically check in and see what my friends had eaten for lunch and who had reached what level on Candy Crush. Priorities are important.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Expecting the unexpected: Meybod, Chak Chak and Kharanaq

One of my best days in Iran was not even supposed to happen. As mandated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I was in the country as part of a tour. A detailed itinerary of this tour had been submitted to and approved by the MoFA (not to be confused with the mofo's) and Yasna was required to periodically check in with them to assure them that we were sticking to the plan. Day 9 read as follows: Day at Leisure. In other words, there was nothing planned for this day. I was free to wander around and do as I pleased (although as a US citizen, I was supposed to be closely supervised, so the whole 'wander around' thing is rather open to interpretation). I had already determined that there was not much to do in Yazd, so I decided to book a visit to three nearby towns.

I am still not clear on what happened next. As I was trying to arrange the day tour, there was a sudden bureaucratic flare-up with no one sure whether it was ok for me to take off with another agency's guide and calls coming in from Tehran trying to figure out what was going on with the rogue American. (How they found out remains a mystery). I suspect that what I was encountering was a brief glimpse into the typical life of an Iranian, living somewhere between what is "legally prohibited" and what is "not exactly legal but tolerated". In the end, not wanting to make waves, we hit upon a new plan. I would forego the tour and Yasna her day off. Together, we would hire a driver and go visit the three nearby towns I had hoped to see.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Yazd's Earth, Wind and Fire

FAQ #6: Is it a dry country?!! They do have alcohol, don't they? (This question came primarily from my bar buddies.)

A: I'm sure they do.  They tell me they do. I heard many a story about house parties where contraband spirits flow, but with the exception of some homemade hooch that a local guide offered me early in the trip, the ban of all things alcoholic appears to be working all too well (at least for the non-connected visitor).  I went to veg restaurants, art galleries and every other place I could think of where a non-religious drinking-type person would hang out (in other words, my usual scene) but did not encounter anything stronger than near beer.

In lieu of actual ales, most stores and restaurants sell something called "Islamic beer" ( aka 0% alcohol near beer), which is essentially a malt soda.  A quick tip: when someone points to a particular brand and tries to tell you that it tastes like real beer, be assured that this person has not had beer in a very long time.  But if you want a golden-colored beverage, served in a frosty glass, it will do the trick and thus, it became my go-to beverage for those 17 days of forced sobriety.

That is not to say that I abandoned hope on finding an underground speakeasy right around the corner.  I thought that the isolated, relatively liberal no-head-scarf requiring caravanserai might be willing to break a rule or two, but I was wrong.  My expectations then turned to our next stop, the quiet desert town of Yazd.  That was a (dry) wash as well but it compensated by providing a great base for exploring some really cool nearby sights.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Topless in Zeinnoddin

FAQ #5: Will you have to wear a burqa?

A: No. As a matter of fact, you are unlikely to even see anyone wearing a burqa, as that is more of an Afghani/ Pakistani thing. The more religious Persian women wear a chador, which is kind of like a big black sheet, worn over the head and covering the body (but not the face). The majority of women just wear a head scarf, often worn as loosely as legally possible, a long-ish fitted top and jeans.

It is mandatory to wear a head covering, as well as a top that conceals the hips and arms, but lest anyone think that Persian women are unfashionable, they would be sorely mistaken.  These ladies rock the head scarf.

There is even an odd fashion trend that has emerged.  I first noticed it on my Tehran-Shiraz flight.  The flight attendant had either an unnaturally elongated head or a mass of hair under that scarf to rival Rapunzel's.  Picture the creature from the movie Alien, that kind of shape.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Swinging to Rayen, Mahan and the Kaluts

FAQ #4 (and 5 and 6 and 7...): But don't they hate Americans?

A: NO, NO, NO!! A thousand times no. Listen to me, hypothetical questioner, of all the major misconceptions about Iran, this has to be the #1 (and 2 and 3 and 4..). Never will you go to another country where the people go so far out of their way to welcome you. Nowhere else will you be granted near-celebrity status based on the mere fact that you reside in the US. In no other place you ever visit will you find the arms to be as wide-open, the smiles to be as genuine and the hugs to be as warm.  In other words, no, they do not hate Americans.

The first line from my travel journal on day #5:  "Couple things: Best day yet.  Lonely Planet sucks.  Coming here was a great decision."

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Kerman: Home of Bazaars, Hammans, Teahouses and 0 postcards

FAQ# 3:  Isn't there an embargo?  Are you going to go to jail?

Answer:  Yes, there have been sanctions going back to 1979, but unlike the stupidity that is the US policy prohibiting Americans from visiting Cuba, these sanctions do not preclude travel to Iran.  There are travel warnings galore, but no actual prohibition exists, so practically speaking, you are not risking any jail time. For the tourist, the most obvious effect of the sanctions is the money problem.  As in the "What do you mean my ATM card won't work?!  How am I going to get money?" problem.

The only solution I found was to do something I normally try to avoid doing, carry dollars and lots of them. Normally, I will wait until I get to wherever I am going and take out small amounts of the local currency, minimizing my risk in the event that I unexpectedly become separated from my wallet, but due to the fact that western banks are prohibited from doing business in Iran, this was not an option. For all the concern that people expressed about my visiting Iran, one of my biggest worries was how I was going to manage for 12 in London with a purseful of cash just waiting to be snatched.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

The Persepolis Day

FAQ if you are going to Iran #2: Why Iran?

There really is no one simple answer. There are however a number of not very complicated ones. For starters, I had not been there, a fact which by itself, is not enough. There are a lot of countries I have not been to, 104 of them to be precise. Although there is the fact that during my visit to India, it seemed like every time I liked a work of art, building or garden, I would learn that it was actually Persian.

But there were 2 factors that swayed me more then any others. One was the absolutely fabulous Mezrab cafe in Amsterdam. Many summers ago, I stumbled across their former space in the Joordan and decided to go inside for a bite to eat. I was greeted by this kind and wonderfully gracious woman, whom I would later dub Mama Mezrab. She told me about her musician son, who was on tour, and suggested I stay for the musical jam session that evening. One bite of the heavenly ash-e-reste soup and one note of her even more heavenly singing voice and I was hooked. I began to hang out at the Mezrab every chance I got, eventually meeting her husband, her ridiculously talented son and the majority of Amsterdam's Persian community. It was always an oasis of warmth, kindness and creativity that made me long to visit this place this they spoke of.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Country #92: The Islamic Republic of Iran

As the title of this post suggests, I have just returned from a 17 day journey of Iran. Well, not just.  I have been home for 3 weeks now.  Normally, by this time, I would have added at least a half dozen posts (along with an exaggerated number of photos) to this blog.  But the truth is, I have no clue where to begin.  There is the Iran that we constantly hear about, the Iran of our imagination...and then there is the place that I visited.  I don't know how to reconcile the two.  I feel that I am lacking the proper tools to convey the kindnesses I experienced when contrasted with the images of  burning flags and "Death to America" that come so easily to people's minds.  I know that my photos do little in capturing the beauty of this nation when juxtaposed with the misguided expectation of a third world war zone.  Never have I been to a place where the perception vs. the reality have been so starkly opposed.  I am going into this endeavor knowing that I will fall short.  

I am also going into it with the knowledge that there is woefully little travel information out there when it comes to Iran, so in the words of underachievers everywhere "something is better than nothing".  Hopefully these posts will help someone planning their own Iranian adventure or maybe even inspire someone else's.  If that turns out to be the case, let be known, I will happily accept repayment in the form of Kermani Gaz.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

What to do with a 9 hour layover at Heathrow Airport (in 10 easy steps)

1. Try to change your flights. Nobody wants a 9 hour layover, no matter where it is. If your dream was to see London, you would not be on your way somewhere else.

2. Failing #1, if you have not yet been to London, take the train into the city, jump on the double-decker sightseeing bus and have at it, after all, you have a lot of time to kill. If you have already done that, say at least a half dozen times, see #3

3. Get thyself to Terminal 5. Once there, go outside and board either Bus #71 or #77. These are the buses that will take you to nearby Windsor Castle. If you ask at the information counter, they will try to put you in an expensive private car or taxi. Ignore them. Sneer at them. Continue to Terminal 5.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Irish (as in one Irish lady with a cello) take Bucharest

Conversation between myself and Laura, my Romanian friend, earlier this month:

Me: Guess what? I'm going to be in Bucharest for St. Patrick's. I'm bringing green stuff.
Her: What? St Patrick's?? What is that? I don't think we celebrate this day here.
Me: I think I will bring a green wig.
Her: No. This is not a thing here. Do not bring the wig.
Me: How about a shamrock tiara? I saw it at Target. I'll bring you the tiara and we will drink green beer.
Her: Green beer?! Huh? No, we do not have green beer here. And don't bring the tiara.
Me: Do you think there will be a parade?
Her: Why would we have a parade? We have no Irish people here.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Mogosoaia, Brancovenesc and other spelling bee challenges I've enjoyed

A couple of months ago, I partook in an architectural walking tour throughout the city of Bucharest.  I came away from it knowing two things for certain.

1. A ten minute explanation in Romanian can be boiled down to a one minute one in English. As the only foreigner in the group, I was grateful to have the guide translate his explanations for me but couldn't shake the lingering doubt that the soliloquy he had just given in his native language included more than just "This building was built in the 18th century. It is an example of the classic Brancovenesc style of architecture."- which brings me to the second thing...

2. There is such a thing as a Brancovenesc style of architecture and it is pretty spectacular. Particular to Romania, it is a mix of Italian and Ottoman styles and is named after Constantin Brancoveanu, the prince of Wallachia from 1688-1714.  Consequently, it is not surprising that one of the best examples of this style can be found at Mogosoaia Palace, Brancoveanu's summer home, just a short distance outside of the city. Recently, I had a chance to return to this most picturesque place.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Dropping in on some old friends

Like most wandering folk, I have certain cities where I have absolute non-negotiable must-do's.  Sometimes it is a restaurant that I crave, a bar where I always have a good time or a museum that consistently surprises me. Other times, it is much louder and dynamic than that.  Such is the case with San Francisco.

Every since I first visited in my early teens, Fisherman's Wharf has held a compelling fascination for me.  And it shouldn't. It is unapologetically touristy, has an abhorrent collection of chain restaurants and souvenir stores, shares none of the abundant charm possessed by its host city and is often overrun  by clowns and the metallic statue people that I always feel a yearning desire to knock over.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

New Year, New Adventures, Old Trees

This year, 2013, I have vowed to myself to be more adventurous than the one prior.  This is not an unusual resolution for me.  Like any good addict, I always long for more, more, more.  But this year, I can totally see myself besting the one that preceded it.  In 2012, I bought a condo.  I had a wonderful time converting it from a beige land of blah to a multi-hued place that I now call home, but in the interim I found myself more drawn to websites devoted to decor and design than to those touting the latest hostels.

Now, I am ready to revert my old wandering self.  So where to start?  What exciting destination should I head to first? Well, let's see I have a couple of days off in Oakland.  Of course, I will be going across the bay to San Francisco, but that is terrain that I have covered often.  Yosemite?  Too far. Wine country?  Not so much fun when you are driving. How about the Muir Woods?  I have never been, it is only 45 minutes away and there are some big ass trees.