Tag Archives: travel

Stranded on an Undeserted Island

What is it that inspires us to travel? What motivates us to leave our comfortably routine workaday life, cast off the lines and sail toward some unknown horizon? What far-off call beckons so loudly that we can’t quiet it without further investigating its source? How bright does the sunset at the end of the distant road or just over the farthest mountain have to be before we drive towards it in an attempt to make it last just a moment longer?

Perhaps we derive inspiration from colorful words arranged on a page in such a way that our wanderlust is aroused. We simply can’t live without seeing if the vision our mind created matches the scene the author describes. Perhaps the smell or taste of some exotic food carefully prepared in an ancient way by a well-practiced chef inspires us to follow our hunger toward the simmering pot of goodness that waits to be sampled in a faraway kitchen. Perhaps we harbor a secret doubt that the combination of colors captured in a photograph of a rainbow filled sky could actually exist in a distant land just beyond our own?

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Procida, Italy

 

How intense does our minds creation need to be before we decide to find out if there could be a reality that lives up to our imagination? How vivid do the colors, smells and sounds in our head need to be for us to cast care to the wind and follow that vision, no matter how long it may take to find? What do we need to visualize before we are motivated enough to deviate from our normal path?

What did we imagine?

Did we imagine crowded ferries quickly loading and unloading impatient passengers at busy terminals? Ferries that ride on choppy, aqua water destined for tiny islands with famous names. Islands that appear on horizons as small dots under large, darkening clouds. Larger ferries for cars and fare conscious passengers. Fast moving hydrofoils that carry tourists and those who think time is money. A group of skyscraper teenage models drink espresso and pick at pastries at a large table. Anxious photographers hover nearby, obviously having noticed the clouds that threaten their productivity and pocketbooks. A burning smell of your carelessly prepared panini drifts from the toaster as the indifferent young cook pays more attention to the models than your first food of the day.

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Santa Margherita Church

 

Did we imagine being greeted on arrival by a blinding rainstorm so strong that it didn’t seem possible that amount of water could be held in a cloud? Water that seemed to come from every direction, including up. Wind howled hard through nearby sailboat masts creating a dreadful moaning sound that seemed frighteningly human. A race with heavy bags to a nearby fisherman bar filled with a rough cast of characters straight from a Hollywood movie. Enjoying a well-earned beer from the self- serve cooler next to the bar. Listening to the sailors tell stories you knew were bawdy even though you couldn’t understand even one word.

Did we imagine cobbled roads that wind through peeling stucco buildings designed centuries before there were thoughts of modern transportation? Roads designed to carry wares between the two main marinas of the island. Tiny streets filled with pedestrians, scooters and cars competing for space at speeds that don’t feel comfortable to newcomers. The cars with side mirrors turned back or broken off entirely, surely from earlier battles with the well scuffed walls. The sides of the cars show scratches of many colors, no doubt matching a scratch on another car, somewhere else on the island. Feeling like you should be wearing white clothes and red bandanas in Pamplona as you hurry from tiny doorway to doorway to avoid the honking metal bulls. Your fear turns to embarrassment as you hurry past two young mothers with carriages casually having a conversation knowing that the cars have just enough room to pass.

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Marina Corricella

 

Did we imagine views of secret courtyards behind ornate wrought iron gates with designs of centuries past? Grassy yards behind 10 foot walls that surely keep the road noise at bay. Untended grape vines beneath waxy green trees with lemons so large they could be grapefruit. The fruit has wrinkled skin, thick pith and a sweet taste that is rightfully famous. Developed to keep the islands sailors healthy on long sea journeys of the past. A delicious lemon salad is served in most restaurants and homemade limoncello is popular at any local gathering.

Did we imagine living in a house on the highest point of the island? A terrace that sits above every other building on the island and provides 360 degree views of the entire 4 square kilometers of volcanic land below. Taking in distant views of Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri and Vesuvius as your laundry dries in the warm breeze of a late October afternoon. A nearby church that was founded 1000 years ago by monks and now has beautiful bells that sound perfectly throughout the day. A house that sits inside the oldest settlement on the island, surrounded by ancient walls. Walls built first to protect the religious and the wealthy from far away intruders. Later the walls held prisoners in the classic punishment of seeing all the lights of civilization from behind the bars of your drafty island cell.

Did we imagine strolling along the marina amongst the tiny houses built in a way that no mad architect could ever have imagined? Houses with such a vast pastel palette they appear to rise from the sea like scoops of fruit flavored summer gelato piled one on top of another. Ancient fisherman mending nets in the afternoon sun. A man, perhaps channeling his own Pablo Neruda, writing in a journal while sitting in the dockside inn made famous in the movie “Il Postino”. Stairways climb steeply from the harbor to the church above. Stairs so steep that they take your breath in equal parts from exertion and from witnessing the beauty of the view they provide over the tranquil harbor.

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Terra Murata

 

Did we imagine the everyday sunsets and sunrises so intense that it sometimes appeared the sky was on fire? Viewed from the lookout high above Marina Corricella or from the belvedere in Terra Murata the brightly colored clouds made each morning and evening something to look forward to.

Did we imagine the spine jolting bus ride through the narrow streets and up the imposing hill to our walled mountaintop villa? Cursing the rattling and bouncing ride we memorized each bump along the way. Climbing the steep hill to our house twice daily while the bus was being repaired for several days, making trips to the market into grueling, lung busting marches. Being ever thankful and promising never to criticize the bus again as it carried us up the hill after its return from repairs.

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La Corricella Sunset

 

It’s difficult to say if our month long journey to our tiny island in a faraway sea lived up to the vision we created in our imagination. This was never going to be the classic trip to the deserted island in an endless sea that many dream of. Far from that, it was a month spent in a place far from tourism. We lived as locals on a tiny island in the middle of an ancient land far away from our own home. While not everything we imagined, it will still be remembered as more than we should have hoped for.

 

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Amazing Red Rock Country

From Billy the Kid to Wyatt Earp, General Custer to Geronimo, the American West was filled with legendary characters. Novelists and short story writers blended fact and fiction to create bigger than life characters and made them famous in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Thousands of young and old readers living on the East Coast of the United States followed the stories of the daring men and women who tamed a frontier seemingly filled with danger and adventure around every corner.
The cattle ranches were immense, the women were beautiful and the native people were both respected for their traditions and feared for their warrior-like aggression. According to the writers, the men who settled the west had to be brave, strong, wise and probably quick with a gun. They walked a little taller and talked a little louder than normal men and inspired generations to travel west seeking their own adventure.

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Monument Valley

Eventually Hollywood took over where the writers left off. Directors and Cinematographers needed to find filming locations that were as big as the stories they were going to tell. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper filled the screen and demanded landscapes that were as big as the legends they were portraying
It led them directly to the iconic mountains, valleys, canyons and plains of Northern Arizona. Hollywood found the Monument Valley on the Arizona/Utah border. The canyons formed by the Colorado River over the millennium provided the perfect backdrop for these epic stories. The windblown, water eroded and nearly treeless terrain which changed color hourly with the angle of the sun proved to be exactly what they needed for their movies. They came and made themselves, the western legends and Arizona famous.
Just like those who came before, we were drawn to this area ourselves. Seeing the iconic photographs of the area as we have travelled around the Southwestern US over the last few months created a desire to see it, too. We left our harbor side condo in San Carlos, Mexico where we had spent the last month and headed north.

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Seven Sacred Pools

After an easy border crossing and a night in a Phoenix hotel, we arrived at our new home of Sedona, Arizona. Sedona is a small town about 1 ½ hours north of Phoenix in the beautiful Red Rock area of Arizona. The main reason for most to visit Sedona is the heart-stopping, breathtaking scenery. Entering the area from the south was amazing. The road winds through a valley surrounded by dramatic buttes, cliffs and unusually shaped peaks. While predominantly red in color they can also be white, black, purple, orange or yellow. It is absolutely gorgeous and ranks with any natural scenery we have witnessed anywhere in the world.
Over millions of years, layers of sandstone and limestone were left in the area by a receding ocean. Iron oxide eventually covered the grains of sandstone and, in a natural process, rust formed. The stunningly beautiful red rocks of Sedona are the result of this process.

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Juniper and Red Rock

We spent our first couple of weeks exploring the local area. Sedona has more than 300 miles of trails crisscrossing the area. The trails are used by hikers, equestrians and mountain bikers to gain access to perfect views over the best rock formations. We quickly learned the names of the most famous formations as most hikers give directions using their creative and descriptive names. Coffee Pot Rock, Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, Devil’s Bridge, the Sphinx, Snoopy Rock and Courthouse Rock are just a few.
Oak Creek runs through the center of town. It is lined by wonderful Cottonwood trees that had just finished changing colors when we arrived. The beautiful yellow color of the leaves mixed colorfully with the green of Ponderosa Pines and giant Oaks that line the banks. Against the background of the red rock the colors were stunningly gorgeous. We took several long walks along the river and enjoyed the sounds of the rushing stream passing through the canyons.
Many know Sedona as a destination to find spiritual enrichment. They believe that Sedona contains many active vortex sites. Vortexes are points at which the earth emits swirling waves of energy. The energy interacts with all living things near the vortex location. It is believed that the earth’s energy strengthens ones inner energy core and provides renewed clarity and focus. It is common to follow a trail to a vortex site and find people doing yoga or just meditating quietly. Small rock pillars are found everywhere marking these energy emitting points.

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Horseshoe Bend

We to quick journeys outward from Sedona to nearby small towns that were predominately founded by miners to exploit the surrounding areas mineral wealth. The town of Jerome is high on a mountain overlooking the area and is filled with galleries, saloons, restaurants and haunted hotels. The nearby towns of Clarkdale and Cottonwood have restored downtown areas which give an excellent glimpse into the rural Arizona lifestyle of the recent past.
Before miners arrived to the area, Native Americans settled here for thousands of years. The Sinagua tribe built cliffside dwellings and farmed the area. Abundant water and game made for the perfect place to build permanent housing on hilltops and near the streams. The strangely named Montezuma’s Castle, Montezuma’s Well and Tuzigoot are National Monuments that preserve the ruins of these settlements and provide a glimpse into how these ancient people lived.

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Highway 163

We expanded our surroundings farther and decided to travel north to the famous Monument Valley. The area was made famous by actor John Wayne and director John Ford who filmed some of the greatest western movies ever made amongst the dramatic scenery. Giant, eroded sandstone formations stand against enormous buttes. A seventeen mile loop road travels between the monuments and leads to overlooks that provide breathtaking views across the scarred plateau. A balloon festival had been scheduled for the day, but was cancelled early due to fog. While unfortunate for the balloonists, not many people were visiting the valley while we were there. It made for a surreal adventure as we slowly drove through the unforgettable landscape which was nearly deserted except for us.
Another road trip north led us to one of Arizona’s most photogenic locations. We travelled to the small town of Page, Arizona which is located near the massive Glen Canyon dam. The dam was built to provide power generation for much of Arizona. The building of the dam created a gigantic Lake Powell, which has become a popular destination for boaters from all over the Western United States.

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Monument Valley

A popular activity when visiting Page is touring the unique slot canyons located on the Navajo reservation. The most famous slot canyons are the Navajo run Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons. The water carved canyons are a twisted, time worn reminder of nature’s power to overcome the rugged earth. Our guide led us through the labyrinth of sculpted sandstone. The narrowly visible light from above the narrow canyon made for unique and changing colors as we made our way through the tiny underground passageways.

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Lower Antelope Canyon

Our final adventure in the Page area was to the often photographed Horseshoe Bend. Over the millennia the Colorado River has worn a canyon through the red rock landscape. A short trail leads to an overlook of a huge bend in the river from the rim above. Brave photographers perch precariously at the top to capture the unique view of the river more than 1000 feet below. There are no platforms or railings present and it is quite frightening on normal days. On the day we visited, a large windstorm had kicked up and literally 50 mile per hour gusts filled with sand and pebbles were blowing on our backs as we leaned precariously over the edge to capture our photo remembrance of the view. It was quite frightening with nothing but certain death between us and the surrealistically beautiful river below.
We have plans to visit the Grand Canyon before we leave next week for further adventures north. We have enjoyed our time in Red Rock Country. This is a unique and truly breathtaking area of the world that everyone should visit at least once.
We hope all of our readers and friends have an enjoyable holiday season. Thanks for following along on our travels this year and we hope to see you soon in the coming year.

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Cathedral Rock

 

Better than Rome and Paris?

We were standing on La Rambla, the wide, tree lined, main promenade through the oldest section of Barcelona, Spain on our second day in town. We got in a little late from Paris the night before and didn’t have time to do much except unpack and fill the refrigerator with groceries and spend a little time getting familiar with our new neighborhood.
La Rambla is the most famous street in Barcelona and perhaps all of Spain. It runs for about 1 kilometer from the Columbus statue that overlooks the old harbor to Placa Catalunya, the central plaza that serves as the hub for all the spoke-like streets of Barcelona. On this day, La Rambla was crowded with a huge number of vendors, all of which are selling either roses or books. Women are standing in long lines at many of the booths to buy signed copies of books from the authors who are doing a brisk business. Men are waiting in line to buy roses, most of which are red, although some are white or blue.
It’s still quite early in the afternoon, but the crowd seems to have doubled since we arrived an hour before. Within another 30 minutes it has doubled again. The lines are long at all the vendors and it is getting quite difficult to make our way down the street. We have heard that La Rambla is always busy but this is really crazy. We look down the streets that run perpendicular to La Rambla and they are now jammed also. It seems like it must be a major holiday, but it’s April 23rd and a Wednesday afternoon and this seems more like New Year’s Eve. This can’t be normal!

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Palau Nacional at Night

We finally find out that this is Sant Jordi’s Day (St. George’s Day in English). Not celebrated in America, but easily the most romantic day in Barcelona. The legend is that St. George slayed a dragon for a fair maiden and in commemoration, men in Barcelona now give their best girl a rose. Women give men a book. The book has less to do with St. George and more to do with the fact that the romantic writers William Shakespeare and Cervantes died on April 23rd. More than half of the books sold in Barcelona are sold on Sant Jordi’s Day.
One of the fun things about travel is discovering holidays celebrated in other countries that are different than your own. This holiday took us by surprise and even though it was quite crowded, it made our first day out in Barcelona very interesting.

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Sagrada Familia

We have a small apartment in a very nice part of town just a short walk from Placa Espanya. The Placa Espanya area was developed around the time of the 1929 Exposition (like a World’s Fair). The area was further developed during the Olympics in 1992 and is very nice. The old bullfighting ring (bullfighting is illegal in Catalonia now) that dominates the plaza has been re-purposed into a nice shopping plaza with many restaurants on the roof. We are walking distance to the national art museum of Catalonia (Palau Nacional), the Magic Fountains of Montjuic and the main area that hosted the Olympics in the Montjuic area of town.

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Catalonia Colors

Barcelona has kind of taken us by surprise. Having just come from Rome and Paris, we expected to have a bit of a letdown in the beauty department. Too be honest, we are a little shocked at how beautiful this city is. The streets are clean, well lit and tree-lined. Sidewalks are wide and bicycle paths are everywhere. Benches are plentiful and placed in prime locations to view the springtime gardens, fountains and statues located nearby. The architecture of the buildings is incredible with ornate balconies and grand entranceways. In the old parts of town (Barri Gotic, El Raval, La Ribera and El Born) the narrow alleys lead past ancient churches and under low arches. Quiet plazas seem to be around every corner. Small restaurants place tables in the plazas and serve delicious Tapas, red wine or Sangria to well-dressed international and local travelers.
Getting around town is a breeze with plentiful busses and an excellent Metro. We have a bus stop outside our apartment and a Metro stop a block away. There are large grocery markets in town but most fun are the excellent bakeries, butchers or vegetable markets in every neighborhood. Like Paris and Rome, Barcelona has many unique neighborhoods. You can easily trace the development of the city, literally from the Roman era through the Renaissance and up until today.

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Barceloneta Beach

It doesn’t take long to find out that while you may have arrived in Spain, you are most definitely in Catalonia. Flags and banners are present in most squares and from many balconies. After struggling with language somewhat in Italy and France, we were excited to be able to use our poor Spanish and at least be able to read signs and find directions again. While everyone here speaks Spanish, most signage is in Catalan not Spanish. Catalan is a unique language that is somewhat a cross between French and Spanish. Luckily most signs around tourist sites are in Catalan, Spanish and English and most people speak some English too.
Unlike some of the other popular European cities, Barcelona has 5 km of wonderful beaches. The old seaport village of Barceloneta is located just off of La Rambla and is host to one of the most popular beaches in town. A wide walkway runs along the beach all the way from Barceloneta to the area where the Olympic Village was located. The beaches are filled with volleyball players, bicycle riders, sun worshippers and many people just enjoying the many seafood restaurants along the way. Benches line the walkway and provide excellent views of the sunny Mediterranean Sea.

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La Boqueria

The arts are not forgotten here either. Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro spent significant amounts of time here and both have museums dedicated to them. Long lines can be found on Carrer Montcado in the La Ribera neighborhood every day waiting to get into the Picasso Museum. The National Art Museum of Catalonia is located in the palatial Palau Nacional located in Montjuic. The museum was built for the 1929 Exposition and is a work of art in itself especially when lit at night. It is located just uphill from the Magic Fountains of Montjuic which feature colorful fountain displays nightly in summer that are choreographed to music. This is by far our favorite thing we have seen in Barcelona.
Music is everywhere, from musicians playing in the metro and tiny alleyways for free all the way to wonderful concerts played in the stunningly ornate Palau de la Musica Catalanya. Even jazz clubs can be found near Placa Reial not far from La Rambla.

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Parc Guell- Gaudi Design

Architecture reached new heights in Barcelona also. Antoni Gaudi designed many fantastical buildings in Barcelona and helped create the modernist style he is famous for. We visited Casa Batllo close to town and took a short Metro ride to Parc Guell to view his interesting designs. Of course his most famous work is the gigantic, unfinished basilica called Sagrada Familia in the La Eixample neighborhood. All of these are jammed packed with visitors and have long lines. We have of course seen Sagrada Familia from the outside (it would be impossible to not see!), but have yet to brave the long wait times to get inside.
Barcelona has so far proved to be a wonderful surprise. It is truly a beautiful city that should be high on anyone’s list of places to visit soon. We still have a couple of more weeks here and look forward to seeing more of this great city.

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Palau Nacional

 

Checking out the B side in Paris

I suppose I’m somehow dating myself here, but I can’t help thinking back to the days when you would buy a 45 or an album because you liked a particular song you heard on the radio. Invariably you took it home and played it a million times. It was your favorite song and you felt as though you were the one who had discovered it.
Of course, as time went on, you noticed more and more people were also enjoying “your” song. It actually became popular and it seemed everywhere you went people were humming the song or talking about how great the band was. It was still the same song you discovered, but in some way it seemed different now that so many other people liked it. Other people were interpreting the meaning of the song and it didn’t seem as personal as it had.

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Paris Sky

Luckily enough there was a side B or other songs on the album. While everyone else was learning the song you originally liked, you found new subjects and meanings on side B. It was almost as if you had discovered your favorite band again.
Because we usually stay for at least a month in each place we visit, we have a similar thing happen when we travel. We arrive in our new city and madly run around visiting all the big name places. It’s exciting and it seems like we are the first people to ever visit. It doesn’t take long to see everything and then we usually slow down. As we pass back through the places we earlier saw, they seem to be filled with huge crowds of people who are now acting as excited we once were. They are making the same comments and jokes as we did and seem to be claiming the places for themselves. How dare they!

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Paris Night

Luckily we have learned to turn the record over to side B.
Tired of endless lines to climb or visit Notre Dame? No problem. Head over to Saint Eustache near Les Halles. I thought it was just as impressive as Notre Dame. The arches tower amazingly high over beautiful stained glass windows. The church was having a pipe organ concert that night and we were able to hear the sound checks for the show during our visit. We have been in hundreds of churches over the last few years but have never experienced the full power of the pipe organ played by a master.
Perhaps you are dreading the massive crowds at Versailles (they are huge!!!). Just check out the equally impressive and much less visited Chateau Fontainebleau. We easily caught the train there a few days ago and absolutely enjoyed it. The architecture and gardens are just as amazing and we virtually had the entire place to ourselves. Standing alone for 15 minutes in the royal apartments where Henry IV, Louis XIV, Napoleon I and III and even Marie Antoinette had spent their time was amazing. It was so quiet we could almost hear their ghosts. You won’t get that at Versailles!

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Chateau Fontainebleau

Enjoy following the trail of the famous artists that left their mark in beautiful Montmartre? Maybe there are a few too many others taking the same picture as you are? Just head out to the Belleville neighborhood. The starving artists of Montmartre moved out long ago and with the costs of rents I doubt they will be back any time soon. Belleville is a working class neighborhood filled with cheap restaurants, cafes and bars intermixed with loads of art galleries with real working artists. Many walls are covered with graffiti and it doesn’t take long to find a future Hemingway or Toulouse-Lautrec sitting at a corner table scribbling away in their journal. You can even have a conversation with them if you like. It’s half the price and twice the fun.

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Belleville Alley

Paris has literally hundreds of art museums. One look at the 2 hour line at the Louvre or Musee d’Orsay may have you second guessing your idea of taking a selfie with the Mona Lisa. While not as famous, you can avoid the lines easily by spending an evening with art students pondering the photography exhibits at the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie , a photography museum displaying some thought provoking work by some of the great photographers working today. Or perhaps visit some of the less known museums like the Petit Palais across the river from Invalides. The permanent gallery is free and pretty stunning.

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Chateau Fontainebleau

The famous cafes along Saint-Germain or Montparnasse boulevards are stunning and have a past clientele that probably couldn’t be matched by many other restaurants in the world. I wouldn’t tell anyone not to go there because having a meal in the Paris springtime sunshine won’t be forgotten. However I heard a lot of languages other than French being spoken and sometimes it seems like perhaps there might have been a tourist bus parked somewhere nearby. You can enjoy an equally authentic meal on one of the market streets like Rue Mouffetard near the Latin Quarter or Rue Montorgueil in the Marais. When you order the café owners even run down the street to a vendor to get the freshest ingredients. Maybe even select your own picnic at the markets along the streets. Be assured that all those famous people probably shopped here along with going to the famous cafes on the Boulevards.

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Montmartre Cemetery

Maybe you are headed out to the Pere Lachaise cemetery to see Jim Morrison’s grave. It won’t be hard to find because there are plenty of people with flash cameras posing in front of it. Maybe pass on Jim and visit the French singer Edith Piaf’s grave on the other side of the cemetery. She has an interesting history also and you can visit her birthplace while you’re in Belleville. The place where she was supposedly born on the street is marked with a plaque. Perhaps you could visit Dalida’s grave in the Montmarte cemetery. While not famous in America, everyone in France knows this famous singer. Another interesting personal history and when you see all the people, young and old, posing in front of her mansion in Montmarte, you’ll know who she is. You might even pose for a picture yourself.

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Champs Elysees Sunset

I am not in any way saying that you should not see some of the more famous places of Paris. We went to them all. Just be aware that others will be “discovering” them along with you. I know that not everyone has as much time to spend in one place as we do. Perhaps you have already been to Paris and think you have already seen “everything”. Be aware that there is always a B side to be checked out. You may even find that it is just as good, if not better, than the A side everyone else knows about.

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Place Concorde Sunset

 

140 Square Feet of Springtime in Paris

It was the last day of winter when I left her. It wasn’t anything she did; I just needed to move along. She was everything you could want and was easy to love. She kept me warm on many a winter night. She was beautiful, passionate and very romantic. The long nights on the river are unforgettable. And the food! I never ate so well in my life. A real Renaissance kind of girl you could say. I guess I don’t have to feel too bad. She has lots of other admirers and I know she won’t lack attention for long after I’m gone.
It wasn’t her, it was me. I wanted something new. Maybe a little more refined and complicated. I needed knowledge to go with the looks. You know the type. Studious, businesslike. All work and politics during the day, but once the lights go out at night… the party starts. There is a reason that all the artists, authors and celebrities love her and seem to be pulled toward her. I wasn’t going to give up on the food or the long walks by the river either. This time I wanted it all. Spring was here and it was time for a change. Riding the bus wasn’t good enough anymore. I wanted to move up to the metro.
Yeah, we left Rome and went to Paris…..

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Le Consulat

It was a bit of a sad ride to the Fiumicino Airport on the outskirts of Rome. We had a great time in Rome, but were excited to be off to Paris. Neither of us had been to Paris in the past and had been studying like crazy for the last couple of days so we could hit the ground running.
It was a quick 2 hour flight and we moved through Orly airport easily. No need for immigration. Once you’re in the EU you’re good to go. We allowed 3 hours after arriving to meet our new landlord at our Montmartre apartment. It turned out we could have made it easy in 2.

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Paris Sunset

The cab was almost as expensive as the budget airline ticket that got us to Paris. We could have taken the Metro, but with heavy bags we decided it was just too hard. We had toured lots of our new neighborhood on Googlemaps before arriving and it was exciting to start seeing places we recognized.

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Eiffel Tower

We took the tiny, rickety elevator up the 6 floors to our new apartment. Even though the 3 of us barely fit in the elevator, I have to admit it was nice to be riding upstairs after living in a 5th floor walkup in Rome for a month. Paris is quite expensive and we went for about the cheapest place we could find. It was kind of hard to picture what 140 square feet would look like. 5 steps that way by 3 steps that way. Didn’t seem possible to fit everything we needed into such a small package.

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Sacre Coeur

The apartment was a little shocking at first. It is really small. After the landlady wished us luck, we started to look around and actually discovered it was well appointed. We had plenty of dishes and satellite TV. The internet was pretty good. If we leaned out our floor to ceiling window at just the right angle, we could see out over the roofs of Paris. The wooden floors were creaky and the walls were paper thin, but we look out over a courtyard and you know, it’s Paris. The fold out sofa bed is unbelievably comfortable. The stores and laundry are virtually next door and it’s a block to the Metro. Perfect!

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Paris Metro

We spent a couple of days getting used to the Metro (which is excellent). Everyone rides it and it goes everywhere. We enjoy attempting to pronounce the names of the upcoming stations and comparing our guess with the automated ladies voice that announces on the train. After 10 days we’re at least getting a little closer. There are lots of unnecessary letters in French.
We live in the Montmartre neighborhood, just down the hill a little from the famous Sacre Coeur church that overlooks all of Paris. It is a wonderful neighborhood at night filled with cafes and restaurants. Montmartre drew all the famous artists before the First World War Picasso, Monet, Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec all roamed these streets at one time. Now the streets and alleys surrounding the church are generally filled with tourists, but a little down the hill, where we live, it is a little quieter and more local oriented.

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Moulin Rouge

Like New York, Paris is filled with iconic names and places that don’t need a lot of study. The Latin Quarter, Left Bank and Saint Germain des Pres are all well-known artist and author locales. Montparnasse is beautiful and filled with the most beautiful cafes. Luxembourg Gardens and the islands in the middle of the Seine are classic. Hemingway lived or drank here; Julia Child learned to cook there, even a café where Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had coffee with their morning omelet. The Marais and Grand Boulevards are filled with wonderful shops and grand mansions from many eras. The opera house is indeed Grand. Looking over the entire area is, of course, Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower.

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Montmartre Night

When the lights come on at night the city changes completely and justifies the nickname “City of Light”. Carousels turn and spotlights come on to light the Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur and the Eiffel Tower. The alleys take on a beautiful glow from the abundant neon and streetlights. Cafes bustle and the fashionable people walk everywhere.

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Au Lapin Agile

The food is to die for. Pastries, bread, produce and meat markets are everywhere. The smells from the bakeries are hard to resist. The condiments look delicious even if you don’t know what they are. The vendors all seem to wear aprons and have characteristic faces from the movies. The cafes are filled with well-dressed patrons enjoying small plates of food or tiny, steaming cups of light brown coffee. We love looking in the windows of the ornate Brasseries, imagining the diners having intimate conversations over glasses of wonderful wine.

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Notre Dame

Paris is beautiful and we are happy to be here. I hated to leave my first love in Rome and although I really can’t afford my new girlfriend, some things may be worth going into debt for. Turn the lights on bright, I’m ready for my walk by the river now….

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Cafe de Flore

 

Just a Couple of Tourists living like Locals

We were sitting in the midst of the ruins of the ancient Trajan Market in downtown Rome on a recent sunny day, when a young lady approached us and asked us if we spoke English. She looked a little frazzled and seemed to be nervous about talking to us. We assumed she needed directions and noticed that we seemed to be kindly old people who probably spoke English and knew our way around town.
When we told her that we indeed did speak English, she began to tell us of a new tour company she had started that specialized in “seeing Rome like a local”. The tour involved taking a bus out into the country and tasting olive oil and sharing a pasta lunch and wine with a local family on their farm. The price, while probably fair, was way above our budget. We got a brochure and shook hands and said perhaps we might be interested later in our visit.

View from the Vatican Dome

After she left, we began to think about what had just happened. We had gone from thinking that we appeared to be wily veteran travelers who knew their way around to tourists who might be interested in getting off of the normal tourist route in the central city and actually meeting a “real” Italian. In some way it kind of hurt our feelings and made us feel as if we had been demoted to nothing more than a “normal” tourist.
I know that I can’t be the only one who has contemplated their rank amongst fellow travelers. At one end of the spectrum are the package tour folks, usually seen in groups of 40, anxiously following a fast talking guide with a 5 foot stick with some sort flag or pom-pom attached to the top so they can be easily spotted in a crowd of other tourist groups. They seem more worried about getting lost than actually learning or understanding anything about what they are being shown. They take pictures of things because everyone else is taking a picture and don’t want to think they won’t be able to show their friends at home something important. You see these groups mostly near large churches, squares and well-advertised landmarks (think Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps in Rome).

Trevi Fountain

At the other end of spectrum are the independent travelers, usually travelling in pairs, dressed in some sort of odd looking attire (pajama pants, excessive scarves and some form of odd shaped straw hat) that seem to be abnormally obsessed with fruit markets and music from strange instruments not found in other countries. We usually see them walking down the other side of the street in countries where we haven’t seen a white person (think El Salvador or Myanmar) for a week and would really like to speak English for a couple of minutes. We see them notice us and then look away as if they didn’t. Perhaps admitting that there are others travelers around might ruin their ability to brag to their friends at home that they only encountered locals and really “pushed the limits” this time. I don’t know why they look away, but I do know they saw me.

Rome Metro

Anyway, I guess we are really all just tourists of one sort or the other. Most of the locals I have met are usually just about like we are. They all work, spend time with their family, and struggle to make ends meet. They mostly shop in regular markets and watch lots of TV when they aren’t working or raising their families. They like sports and don’t care for their politicians. The biggest difference between “us” and “them” is language and that is what keeps us from knowing more about them.

Roman Aqueduct

Meeting the young lady made me think about how well we were seeing the “real” Rome. We live in a normal apartment building with only Italian neighbors. There are old people and couples with small children. No one speaks English. We shop in local grocery stores, wash our own clothes and cook most of our meals in the house. We cook and eat mostly Italian food (it’s cheap and delicious!). We take public transportation or walk everywhere. Basically with the exception of language, I guess we pretty much live like locals.

Isola Tiberina

We saw a good portion of the “must see” sights in our first 10 days in Rome. We began to think of things uniquely Italian that we could visit. Everyone here has a favorite deli, gelateria, or local pizza place. We had an opportunity to finally ride the Metro (very nice!) as we spent a long afternoon visiting the top ranked favorites according to Yelp. We first traveled to have Pizza al Taglio (by the slice) at a place called Pizzarium. It was ranked high on Yelp and was recommended by Tony Bourdain on his visit. We each ordered a slice that looked good and then shared bites. Pizza is in two types here, Roman style and Naples style. Surprisingly most people seem to prefer the Naples variety. Yum!

Pizza a Taglio

Then it was off to have a gelato. A highly recommended place was a metro ride away at Gelateria dei Gracchi near the Vatican. Made in house, no additive gelato of unique flavors. We enjoyed classic Pistachio and a more unique Creamy Pear. Both excellent and we could see why it was popular.
Our last gourmet day stop was Volpetti’s Deli in the Testaccio neighborhood south of town. There is a story of a young man who returns to Italy after some time and stops at Volpetti’s before home because that is what he misses the most while out of the country. I don’t know if the story is true, but it IS that good. We had slices of ham that were the most delicious thing I have ever eaten. It actually melted in your mouth. We made a few purchases and had a picnic in a nearby small park. Delicious.

Delivery Bike

We have also been watching quite a few old Italian films. La Strada, Bicycle Thief, Rome-Open City and La Dolce Vita are all famous and fun to watch. Most were shot on the streets of Rome long ago and it is fun to see Rome as it was generations ago. We spent one day touring some of the locations of La Dolce Vita which was mostly filmed along Via Veneto. Via Veneto is a large boulevard that was once the most popular location in Europe for the rich and famous. It was daytime and the famous have probably moved on to new locations, but the hotels and restaurants were still beautiful and VERY expensive.
In the opening scene of La Dolce Vita, a helicopter carries a giant statue past the famous aqueducts south of town toward the Vatican. The movie inspired us to spend a day visiting the aqueducts and the beautiful, non-touristy park called Parco degli Acquedotti where many of the best ruins are. The park was huge and full of families having picnics and playing sports. The aqueducts are enormous and as impressive as any ancient sites to remind us of what great engineering feats were accomplished by the ancient Romans. Unfortunately the weather turned and got quite stormy, but the park still made for an enjoyable day.

Via Veneto

We spent another day visiting a couple of less visited neighborhoods of Testaccio and the old Jewish Ghetto located near the river. Testaccio is a working class neighborhood full of interesting graffiti and the old Protestant Cemetery where many famous non-Catholics are buried. We saw famous poets Keats, Goethe and Shelley’s graves, all overlooked by the strange Egyptian pyramid located nearby. The old Jewish Ghetto had a fascinating history and is located just across the Tiber River from the more famous Trastevere area. It is artichoke season and a huge tradition in Rome to make your way to the Ghetto and enjoy one of their unique preparations. It was certainly different that my idea of a ghetto. It did not seem bad to live there anymore and certainly wasn’t the poor area of town.

Roman Forum

We have enjoyed our time of “living like locals”. I suppose in reality, like all of us, we are now and always will be just a couple of tourists, but for a short period of time it’s been fun to pretend for a while.

Palatine Hill

Up the Ayerwaddy without a Paddle

Rudyard Kipling wrote many years ago, “This is Burma, It is quite unlike any place you know about”. With the lack of accurate information available today, we wished that he had of been a little less vague. Myanmar is changing rapidly and nearly anything you read may no longer be accurate. Usually reliable Lonely Planet was last updated in 2011 and is hopelessly outdated. Prices seem to have doubled and many restaurants are no longer open. Making independent travel even more difficult is lack of access to the internet once you arrive in the country. Most all hotels have Wi-Fi access, but the speeds, which often reminded us of the dial-up days, are uniformly so slow that making reservations on airlines, future hotels or any transportation virtually useless.
We spent four days in Bangkok planning our trip. We were exhausted from 5 months in the heat of Asia and in some ways would have liked to visit Myanmar at some other time. After changing hotels throughout Indonesia, Northern Thailand and Laos every few days for the last couple of months, just hanging out in the hotel in Thailand was a welcome change of pace. We spent our days planning the trip as best we could and unfortunately catching a cold. We were told that what ATM machines were available in Myanmar rarely worked and we made daily trips to the ATM in Bangkok to withdraw our 400 dollar limit. We weren’t sure how long we would be in the country and we would only be able to withdraw 1600 dollars and didn’t know how long that would last.

Yangon Streets
Yangon Streets

We planned to move into a hostel on the last day in Bangkok that offered bag storage. We had decided to travel with fewer things than normal (60 pound bags each plus cameras and computers). We arrived at the hostel only to be told that they didn’t accept anyone older than 49 years old. Maybe Nanci could have faked it but after 5 months on the road, I looked and felt older than I am. They also offered washing machines and we had been saving dirty clothes for a week. Seemed we were going to Myanmar fully loaded and with a pile of dirty clothes.
We left early from our hotel to head to the Don Maung airport in Bangkok. The driver said he knew a shortcut to avoid the tolls on the freeway. Seemed like a good idea and after about 40 minutes of back streets we started seeing signs to the airport. Unfortunately the signs were for BKK, the huge international airport in Bangkok and not the one we wanted to go to. We were farther from the correct airport than when we started from our hotel. Luckily we had plenty of time to catch our flight. This journey already seemed to be cursed and we hadn’t even left yet.

Myanmar Fisherwoman
Myanmar Fisherwoman

Our AirAsia flight to Yangon took just a little more than an hour. We love AirAsia. They are cheap and the service is great. We had not been able to make reservations for a hotel prior to arrival, so we headed toward our best choice from our outdated Lonely Planet. No luck, they were fully booked. Our cab driver, who spoke perfect English, recommended a nearby hotel. We decided to try it. It was now dark and we needed to get something quick. The new hotel had a couple of rooms left, so we got one without much inspection. It was OK, but doubly expensive by SE Asia standards. The funny part was the ceiling in the room was barely 5 ½ feet tall and even less in the bathrooms. Not good if your 6’ 4”. We arranged with our cab driver to take us on a tour of the city the next day. He had some good plans for us and not having access to buses made having an English speaking driver for the day sound wonderful. Monsoon season was in full force in Yangon and riding all day in a cab sounded like the best plan.
We spent the next day touring Yangon visiting the colonial downtown, multiple Buddhist temples containing Buddha relics (hair, teeth), giant reclining Buddhas, White Elephants and Aung Sang Suu Kyi’s house on Inya Lake. The highlight of the day was Shwedagon Pagoda, the most famous site in all of Myanmar. We have seen hundreds of temples in our travels of SE Asia and to be honest have become a little jaded. We didn’t think we could be amazed anymore but Shwedagon proved to be far beyond our imagination. It was absolutely stunning and one of the highlights of our entire trip so far. It is located on top of a hill in the center of town with wonderful views of the entire city. Overall an exhausting, but wonderful tour and enjoyable day.

U Bein Bridge
U Bein Bridge

We spent the next morning walking through downtown Yangon. I love classic old hotels and could hardly wait until a decent hour (it must be noon somewhere!) so I could get a beer in the famous Strand Hotel which is located on the waterfront. It felt like stepping back in time as we ordered our drinks from the stoic Indian bartender. Downtown Yangon really shows the effects of 50 years of neglect by the military government that has been in power for so long.
We wanted to visit Golden Rock which is located near Kindun about a 6 hour bus ride southeast of Yangon. With no access to internet we had trouble getting info about schedules. We found that every hotel in Myanmar can make flight or bus arrangements much easier than we could independently. There is usually a small service charge which was well worth the lack of aggravation. We got our bus tickets from the attendant at the front desk who also arranged for a taxi. The ticket was totally in Burmese and we were glad that the cab driver helped so much getting us to the correct bus. Yangon’s bus station is the most unorganized place we have ever travelled. There must be 100 bus companies all located in small sheds around a multi-acre gravel lot. No signs in English and not much to assist in getting on the correct bus. We were booked for a 9 AM bus but ended up leaving on a 7:30 bus that was late leaving the terminal. The buses were cramped and while air conditioned the drivers did not seem to want to turn it on. All the drivers chewed betel and preferred to leave the doors and windows open so they could continually spit the red juice while driving.

Novice Monks-Inle Lake
We got dropped off from the bus on the main road and needed to catch a small truck to the town of Kindun. It was nice to be off the uncomfortable bus and we enjoyed talking to a young couple from France who were going to Golden Rock also. They planned to make their way up the hill to the rock and return to Yangon on the same day. Must be nice to be young.
We got up early the next day to catch the truck up the hill to Golden Rock. It is about a 45 minute ride in the back of a 5 ton dump truck completely loaded with pilgrims. The trucks don’t leave until they are completely packed to the brim with about 45 people sitting on narrow padded boards arranged uncomfortably in the back. After getting all the people loaded it took another 10 minutes to load vegetables, meat and assorted other smelly items into any spot that was available. There is a small town located near the top and everything needs to be trucked in. Half way up one of the vendor ladies dropped her hat and we had to wait about 15 minutes while the lady made her way back to pick it up. The driver decided to have a bowl of soup in one of the roadside stands further slowing our ride.

Ayerwaddy River
Ayerwaddy River-Mandalay

We arrived at the top and were surprised that it was quite the amusement park setting with many hotels, restaurants, temples and other services located near the rock. The weather was extremely foggy at the top and to be honest the rock was a little underwhelming as far as famous tourist sites go.
I started feeling incredibly sick while walking through the maze of buildings. I have struggled with a recurring sickness since we were in Mexico 2 years ago. I have had 3 episodes where I get extremely tired and have chills, fever, joint and muscle aches which completely make travel very uncomfortable. I’m not sure if it is caused by Malaria, Dengue or just some kind of food poisoning. Anyway, it hit like a ton of bricks and we only stayed for about an hour before heading back down the hill to the hotel. I basically hit the bed by noon and slept until the next morning.
We got up the next morning needing a good hotel to rest in for a couple of days while I recovered. We had to go back towards Yangon and we weren’t sure what to do after getting off the bus. It was my hardest day of travel ever repeating our crappy ride on the un-air conditioned bus back to Yangon. We didn’t want to sit in Yangon for more days and decided to catch a cab from the bus station to the Yangon airport. We didn’t have a reservation but found a quick flight on Air Bagan to Mandalay. An hour later we were in Mandalay and heading toward an expensive hotel right on the Ayerwaddy River. It was 100 dollars a night but it was new and had an excellent bed and a nice restaurant so Nanci could get meals without much effort. We made arrangements for 3 days and I did nothing much but sleep.

Temples of Bagan
Temples of Bagan

We were able to get out one afternoon for an uncomfortable tour to the famous U Bein Bridge which is supposedly the world’s longest teak bridge at 1 ½ kilometers. We walked across the bridge and took a small boat back to take pictures of the bridge. We were also short of money having not been able to find a working ATM since we had been in the country. We paid a cab driver to take us to several and on the 3rd try we found one to replenish our money supply.
I have always wanted to take a riverboat down the Ayerwaddy from Mandalay to Bagan. We asked about the ride and we could only get on the government boat which doesn’t have very good accommodations and while scheduled for 10 hours could take much longer. I really was still feeling weak from being sick and basically not eating for 3 days. I just didn’t think I could do it and opted for a quick 45 minute flight. Disappointing but probably the right decision.
We arrived in Bagan and checked into an expensive but beautiful resort hotel located just outside the gates to the walled city of Old Bagan where most of the famous temples are located. The hotel was well above our budget but we needed something to improve our luck. We took a short walking tour of the temples visiting the nicest of the 3000 temples located on the plain and also one of the only ones that are climbable so we could get an elevated view of the entire area.

Old Bagan City Gate
Old Bagan City Gate

We arranged a half day tour the next morning which took us to the Nyaung U local market as well as several beautiful temples out of walking distance from our hotel. One of the best things we did was take a break in one of the coffee shops frequented by locals. It gave us a good chance to discuss the military ruled past of Myanmar as well as what people thought the future would be like. We were pleased that people see improvements but are still cautiously aware that things could go backwards at any time. There is still a noticeable wariness about discussing politics with strangers.
We had one more place to visit and were glad we had saved it for last as it was the highlight of our trip to Myanmar. We booked plane tickets through our hotel to Inle Lake for the next morning and after a quick flight back through Mandalay arrived in our last stop. We stayed in the small town of Nyuang Shwe on the north end of the lake.
Inle Lake is full of very nice guesthouses and we had a beautiful cabin-like hotel room with a lovely wooden porch. The air was cool and good restaurants were easy to find. The next morning we booked a full day tour of the lake. We were surprised to find that the waiter from our hotel was also our boat driver for the day. Many locals have switched from being farmers and boatmen to the more lucrative tourist trade.
We loved being on the water and the overcast skies kept it very cool all day. We enjoyed seeing the hydroponic farms on the lake, the houses on stilts, the leg rowing fisherman and the cat filled monastery. It was by far the best day we had in Myanmar and should not be missed by anyone visiting the country.
We were able to easily book flights from Inle back to Yangon but found it impossible to get from Yangon back to Bangkok without buying tickets at the airport. We were lucky that we only had to wait about 2 hours for a flight. By early evening we were back in Bangkok after 13 days in Myanmar.

Temple Workers-Inle Lake
Temple Workers-Inle Lake

I was glad to have had the opportunity to visit Myanmar. The people are unique and unbelievably friendly. The country is surely difficult to travel in and twice as expensive as other destinations in Southeast Asia. I think the country is changing rapidly and I hope people find the changes they certainly deserve. Even though this was the most uncomfortable part of our visit to Asia, mostly because of being sick, I enjoyed our chance to see the country before it changes too much. I will never forget the painted faces of the people, the long skirts worn by both men and women and the upbeat attitude that the people of Myanmar have despite years of repression.
We are headed back to the US to rest up for a couple of weeks before continuing our journey. We have been on the road non-stop for over two years and have discovered that moving too quickly is not for us. The heat has been oppressive and excessive walking has taken a toll on us. We both started with new shoes for our six month journey in SE Asia and have both worn holes in the bottoms of our shoes. It’s time to kick back and get a little bit of regular life mixed in with our travels. We are looking forward to getting back in a car and having a few meals that aren’t in restaurants. We really need some time to reflect on our recent journeys and have confidence that with time the good times will far outweigh the struggles of this portion of our trip.

You’re the Only One Moving Fast in Laos

You’re sitting in the Bar Ponnyang, 4 stories above the Mekong, gazing across the marshy sand bar that separates you from the river. Across the river is Thailand, greener and obviously more developed. The river here is wider and slower than the fast moving muddy channel you left a week ago in Luang Prabang. It’s only 2 and you’re a couple of beers ahead of where you should be. The map says the hotel is 2 blocks away so it shouldn’t be too hard to find your way. You’ve had a good day touring Vientiane and you don’t want to mess it up now by getting lost. You’re reflecting back on your busy week following the Mekong River south to Vientiane. It doesn’t seem possible it’s only been a week; you’ve made 3 moves and probably won’t be here long either.

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Mekong River

It’s a hazy day, thank goodness. Yesterday was crazy hot with no breeze to help. You arrived in Vientiane a little after noon, the tuk-tuk driver laughing when you approached him for a ride and explained where you wanted to go. It’s only a block to the hotel from the minibus drop-off and he says you should save some money and walk. Maybe the only honest driver in Southeast Asia. You check into the hotel and turn the air conditioner to 16, hoping for the best. The heat quickly overcomes and you fall asleep quickly without even unpacking. You wake 2 hours later feeling disoriented and dehydrated. In 2 hours the thermometer says it’s dropped from 31 to 30. The guesthouse roof is made of tin and 10 feet above your head. It’s never going to cool off and you realize you’ve made a mistake. You tried to save a few dollars on the hotel, but it’s the capital and the backpacker prices of the north aren’t going to be found here. You tell the teenage clerk you want to find a new place. He’s got a huge scar on his leg from the surgery to repair his knee, trashed from playing soccer. He tells you there is nothing he can do; you have to pay for a half days rate for your bad dream nap. You want to argue but its Laos and no one does that here.

 

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Luang Prabang

You left Luang Prabang, a week ago, early in the morning, a bit sad to be leaving the warmth of the home-like atmosphere of your guesthouse, but happy to be making your way to new adventures. You don’t really have set plans anymore and made a quick decision on where to go next. The friends you made around the breakfast table had good ideas. You listened and took good notes. Everyone seemed 20 years younger than you (at least) and maybe they weren’t quite where you were in life, but they had some good ideas. You weren’t ready to head to Vientiane yet but didn’t know where to go next.
Phonsavan is a small town in the highlands of Central Laos. The town is famous for 2 things, the Plain of Jars and for being ground zero for secret U.S. bombing during the Vietnam War. It is in a southeast direction from Luang Prabang and would be your next destination.

 

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Vang Vieng

Along with 13 others, you crowd into the waiting 10 person minivan, destination Phonsavan. The road climbs quickly into the hills surrounding Luang Prabang. The road is an amazing achievement, winding its way up the lush green hillsides. The recent rain dislodged many rocks from the steep roadside, which now litter the roadway intermittently. The first hour of the 6 hour ride is the worst, switchbacks and hairpins pushing the driver to his limits. The steep climb necessitates turning off the air conditioning and the heat and lack of air quickly takes its effect on the sardine-like passengers. The westerners seem to fair better than the locals, perhaps just covering their car sickness better. Luckily the windows are open as people start to throw up. The ones that aren’t spending time at the window have their heads down and have taken on a noticeable shade of green. As you reach the top of the first set of hills, you make a welcome stop at a well-placed roadhouse with unbelievable views over the valley and road you have recently traversed. Passengers stock up on crackers and chips to help their queasy stomachs. Only the brave or foolhardy grab a bowl of the delicious soup or a plate of spicy Laap, the Lao specialty food.

 

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Near Luang Prabang

You arrive in Phonsavan, happy to be done with the ride. There is not much selection to the hotels that line the one main road through town. The town has a look of a dusty border town in any third world country, flashes of wealth and business nestled close to many others just trying to make ends meet. One main street lined with the necessities of travelers, tiny restaurants and small, cheap hotels. You get your hotel for the night, no AC but you don’t need it up this high anyway. You’re starving and you get Indian across the street. The hostess is also the waitress as well as the cook. Her two daughters help serve. It’s surprising good and as authentic as it gets. Phonsavan is your kind of town. Back in the hotel, you find blurry CNN and semi-hot water showers. Despite the long ride, it’s been a good day.

 

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Near Luang Prabang

The travel agencies want too much money for a tour of all the Jar sites. You arrange a tuk-tuk to take you to Site 1. It’s the best one and you heard from other travelers that the other sites were hard to get to because of mud caused by the recent rain. The tuk-tuk driver stops at a government agency on the way. No one speaks English and everyone has military type uniforms on. You’re not really sure why you’re here. They ask for your passport and fill out several pieces of paper. An official from the back comes out of his office and asks you where you are from and what your birthday is. He seems satisfied and relates that he has relatives in California. We always say we’re from California; it seems everyone has a relative there. He stamps several pieces of paper and gives them to the driver. No charge, so maybe all is well.

 

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On the Mekong

The Plain of Jars is a collection of stone containers of unknown origin spread in different areas in the green hills surrounding the high plain area around Phonsavan. Probably burial containers from an earlier civilization. Perhaps celebratory wine jugs of some giant warriors who ruled the area in the past, if you believe the legends. The jars are strewn in many locations across the plains, most areas off limits due to un-exploded ordinance (UXO) still active more than 40 years after the war, known as the American War locally. America dropped more bombs over a 9 year period on this area of Laos than they did on Japan and Germany combined during World War II.

 

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Vang Vieng

Back in town that night, you find a bar to watch a video about the Secret War in Laos. The video is banned in Laos and the bar owners late father is a featured interviewee. The U.S. secretly bombed Laos from 1964 to 1973. Half way through the movie the power in the town goes out. Candles get lit and the guitars come out and no one seems to miss a beat. The guitar gets passed between the Lao’s. Everyone seems to be able to play something, mostly American songs. The beer starts flowing pretty well and someone has just lit a joint. There’s not a light lit in town, but the party is going good where you are and you’re happy you found the right place to be when the lights went out. You’ve got a bus to catch in the morning and you head back to the hotel before it gets too crazy.

 

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Luang Prabang

The next morning, you’re back on the bus again. This time destined for Vang Vieng. Backpacker Central for Laos. You pass through several small villages not far out of town. It’s the poorest towns you’ve seen in Asia so far. Woven palm sides on the houses. The houses are braced by wobbly pilings driven in to the steep cliffs along the roadside. Outdoor shower areas from the one water source in town. Chickens, dogs and pigs running loose everywhere. The driver uses his horn to clear the way as best as he can. Lots of little kids playing on the road, women with tiny babies watching from wooden steps nearby. Everyone seems to be smiling and happy despite the situation. Some houses have outdoor toilets and a satellite dish on the tin roof. It makes you think a lot.

 

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On the Mekong

The bus ride seems easier today. Perhaps you’re just used to it or maybe everyone is distracted by the stunning scenery. Once you begin the decent from the plains the road gets faster. The van is less full today and the driver turns the AC on, now that you’re heading downhill. Stunning limestone karsts rise from the valley you are descending in to. Rising perhaps thousands of feet from the valley floor, some have rock faces and some have tall trees somehow clinging to the few outcrops. It’s stunning and you wish the driver would stop so you could take a picture, but he seems to be in a hurry now. You stop for a quick bite to eat in Kasi at the bottom of the hill, where all the other buses stop.

 

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Enter a caption

An hour later you arrive in Vang Vieng. The town is a little rough looking but the scenery is breathtaking. The town is situated on one side of the Nam Song River. Huge mountains line the opposite bank as far as the eye can see. Young people come here to tube the river or explore some of the local caves. They stay closer to the cheaper guesthouses and Don Khang Island where the party goes late every night. The package tourists and older crowd stay at the quieter end of town closer to the old bridge that leads to the cave. The hotels here have manicured lawns and views overlooking the river towards the mountains.
Mostly you stay around the hotel during the hot part of the day, gazing at the misty mountains that don’t clear until mid-afternoon this time of year. Just before the sun drops behind the mountains you cross the old bridge. You get a sense of what the town probably looked like 20 years ago when people first started coming here. You meet Kaz, the owner/chef of the elevated bamboo shack-like restaurant with wooden floors that shake when you walk on them. He strikes up a conversation, telling you about being born in Thailand and growing up in Germany. His restaurant serves both Lao, German and Thai food. It’s a combination that is hard to resist and you decide to combine cultures and order a plate of Schnitzel to go along with another plate of Lapp. A spicy papaya salad sounds strangely complimentary. He brews his own lemon flavored beer which comes frothy and oddly delicious.

 

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Luang Prabang

Kaz heads to the garden to pick fresh lemongrass, mint, cilantro and other herbs. Green papayas are picked for your early dinner. He brings them by the table to let you smell. The combination is wonderfully fragrant and you’re appetite increases. A few minutes later he returns with the most tender Schnitzel you’ve ever had. No two Laap dishes are the same in Laos, but Kaz’s is unique and perhaps the best you’ve tasted. He tells you his recipe, but swears you to secrecy. More people start to show up and it’s soon time to head back across the bridge toward town.
You hang around Vang Vieng for a couple of days enjoying the view when it’s not raining. Mostly just making your way into town for a bite to eat. It’s fun to listen to the backpackers swapping stories about river adventures or just trying to clear their heads from a late night. You make easy reservations for an onward bus to Vientiane the next day. The road will be flat and fast and should only take a few hours in the morning.
You arrive before noon the next day in Vientiane. After checking out of the hot hotel, you did some quick shuffling and grabbed a tuk-tuk to a nice remodeled Colonial Hotel in the center of town. It’s all dark wood, black and white tiled floors and ceiling fans. It nicely creates the French ambience that you were hoping more of the town would look like. The old days are certainly gone from Vientiane, though. The stores look modern. The people dress western and you realize the old days are probably gone now. It’s a nice town filled with young educated people. There are a few temples to see and some beautiful wide boulevards just off downtown that lead past the government offices, around a small version of the Arc de Triomphe and finally ending up at the Pha That Luang, the national symbol of Laos.

 

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On the Mekong

As you gaze across the Mekong, you realize it’s time to head home and end your day. You’ve been in Laos for 17 days, but it seems a lot longer. Everything slows down in Laos. Perhaps you cross the river back to Thailand soon. Perhaps you use the remaining time on your visa to spend a little time in Southern Laos. You already have a visa for the one country you haven’t visited in Southeast Asia. It’s kind of burning a hole in your passport. Maybe for today you just want to finish your beer and enjoy the sunset over the Mekong. It’s Laos and decisions don’t have to be made quickly here.

 

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Fictional Bars in Factual Places

Maybe it’s the heaviness of the wood, the solidness of the brass. Perhaps it’s the feel of the glass in your hand, the smoke of the mirror or the muffled corner conversations that you can only hear the good parts of. Perhaps it’s the smell of the liquor itself, faintly sweet, or the salty sea breeze that floats casually through the curtained window somewhere near the door. Perhaps it’s the way the bar stool fits you just right, shaped by some chair artist fifty years ago when they knew how to build them right. Perhaps it’s the light cast by the globed lamps, mounted correctly on the wall next to the mirror behind the bar so the light is reflected from the smoky glass and doesn’t hit you straight in the face or maybe it’s the soft warmth of the fire that burns just right in the hearth, the light softly changing from yellows to oranges and soft reds. Maybe it’s none of these, or all of these.

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You always remember the first one you found. After crossing the Atlantic for the first time, on your first ship, you wandered the streets of Rota, dark except for the neon signs, quiet except for faint music from the jukeboxes playing inside the row of bars. You didn’t have the money then, but you had the thirst, both for the adventure and the drink. You saw the sign, carved a hundred years ago above the door. Muscatel, simple and descriptive and you knew that was the one. You went in and it was warm. There were only a few people, all men of course. Most with beards, some with berets.Despite the wood stove burning in the corner, they keep their coats on, as if they might need to make a hasty retreat. No bottles in this place, only two huge kegs sticking through the wall behind the bar. You were nervous when you approached the bar; you hadn’t earned your spot yet. You want to be accepted but you know that takes time. It helps when the bartender nods at you from the other end of the bar before he makes his way towards you. You didn’t know a word of Spanish then, you didn’t have to. There is only one thing served here and it comes in shot glasses for a nickel each. The stool fits perfect, made for sitting in for a few hours or until your troubles are gone. The wooden rail is the perfect height, forcing you to lean into the curved, worn edge of the bar. Besides the stove, the only light was filtered through the blue haze from cigars or pipes that hung just below the yellowed ceiling. You watched the men drink, not wanting to look foolish or weak. This isn’t a place for the weak. They sip slowly and that’s how you need to do it. You take your first drink. It was strong, bitter, don’t make a face, they’ll know you don’t belong. Finish one before you make eye contact and then only in the mirror. They see you without looking at you. After you have a second, another comes quickly. The guy at the table salutes you with his glass. You’re accepted and it feels good and you’re never going back to the way it was before.

10

You read fiction about the great bars and at some point you go to find them. You followed Hemingway to Key West first at Sloppy Joe’s and then to Bimini and the Compleat Angler before it burned. He showed you that corner bars were good at El Floridita but bars in the middle of the street were better at La Bodeguita del Medio. You went with Tennessee Williams and Faulkner to New Orleans and even Kerouac to La Cucaracha in San Miguel de Allende and Vesuvio in North Beach. You drank with Jack London in Oakland and Alaska. They found some good ones and described them well, but ruined them for everyone after. They owned these bars and you needed one for yourself.

2

You liked the beach bars for a while. A cold beer with your feet in the sand fit just right then. You drank with the fisherman in Louisiana. You learned what you like and how to order it. Cooling Gin and Rum in the summer.Warming Whiskey and Scotch when it’s cold. They take it straight or mixed with water or Coke. No extras necessary and anything in a blender is a seen as frivolous.

You got older and settled down. You travelled to beat the boredom now. You had more money, but less freedom, and certainly less time. The destinations become more expensive, more exotic. Get in quick, get out quicker. You have places to be and you have to leave before you want to. Memories are etched in photo albums instead of your soul like they should be. You still have the thirst, but could only quench it for short periods.

3

You found the classics in the hotels built for the British in the hot countries. Proper waiters who appear when necessary and stay out of the way when they’re not. Crisp linen and dark wood. The Sarkie Brothers did it best. The Eastern and Oriental in Penang, the Strand in Rangoon or Raffles in Singapore. They knew their clientele and how to attract them. They came by train or ship and stayed for more than a night. They created a world that wasn’t like home, but certainly wasn’t like where they were.Raj bars in India designed in another era when bars were clubs and made a statement to anyone watching that they would last 100 years. White marble floors and shiny brass fittings and plenty of palms.Always a fan over every table.Expensive glass and wide doorways and awnings to keep the breeze flowing and the heat out.

9

You travel full time now. You sit in a corner café in Melaka watching the backpackers share a bowl of some cheap curry. You listen to the table of men talking politics or money moving their share of the common soup to their smaller bowl. They eat with chopsticks in one hand and a spoon in the other. They put ice in their beer and laugh at you because you don’t. Two old men sit at separate tables staring out at the world with tired eyes. They see what was and not what is. It’s been hot all day and all week and probably all year. Two weeks is too long in Melaka and you are just passing time until you move on. You realize that no one is watching you and you are accepted here. It’s what you were looking for when you began your journey long ago. Perhaps this is the perfect place or perhaps this will become a distant memory soon. Always searching for new adventures and trying to fit in in some new place. You realize that is what the best bars are and why this one, at least for today, is yours.

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