A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

And then there was Anafi...

This is the Greece I dreamt about. Small idyllic island out in the middle of nowhere. No people to speak of, a population of about two hundred and only a couple dozen visitors. One port with one road leading up to one town. Beaches you discover like Cortez and can call your own. In a word, perfect.

We arrived at 8pm at night with no room but heard there was a hotel at a nearby beach so we hiked over a little mountain in the relative darkness hoping we could find a room but preparing ourselves to camp on the beach since we declined the last bus to town. There was a four room bungalow run by a guy named Artemis and as luck would have it the couple booking it were delayed by a day and we could have it for one night. We threw our stuff down and headed to Margarita’s for dinner, a great family-run restaurant about 12 steps away overlooking Klissidi Beach, and ordered chicken with roasted potatoes and fried meatballs seasoned with spearmint.

The next morning, I awoke to the window thrown open to the sea air and the sound of crashing waves only a short distance below. I found myself lulled by the tranquility of it all like I was living inside one of my meditation cd’s but this was no studio recreation. This is my actual life.

One of these days we will hike up to the monastery far up on the hillside. I will summon the rains and play the gongs loudly and see what its like to live out track 2. No pause. No rewind. Just hit play and sit back and relax for a week. At least. Or maybe forever? There’s an old hippie guy who sits at the same table everyday. Drinks beer at 10 in the morning. Looks like he showed up here one day and just never left. I can see why.

We took the bus to the hora and the driver recommended a hotel named Iliovasilema and when we saw the cute lacy room with wooden poster bed and garden patio overlooking the ocean we didn’t hesitate a second. The sweet women who runs the place even brought us fresh flowers and a bowl of apricots.

Once we settled in it was really,….quiet. No traffic, no tv, no noise, nothing. And there was nothing to do. Well not nothing exactly. That may be a little exaggeration. But nothing much. Sipping coffee on the patio overlooking the ocean. Reading. Napping. Washing clothes in the sink. Laying on the beach. Drinking beer by the sunset. Walking the MC Escher-esque alleways. Watching the kids play kickball. Saying “Yassas” to the locals passing by. Playing cards into the night. Whoever said you get bored doing nothing doesn’t deserve the luxury of nothing. Nothing sure is great. I could nothing for the rest of my life!

We went to get groceries and Ron comes up with a plastic water bottle filled with what? Raki…this from the man who won’t drink milk one second after the expiration date is now buying unmarked bottles of booze. “It’s homemade, it must be better.” Usually I concede that’s the truth but in this case it was wrong wrong Ron. Luckily we learned of an elixir called Rakomena and heated our strange brew with copious amounts of local honey, improving the taste and making a quasi-dessert too!

One night we ate at Liotrivi which serves up fresh fish everyday caught from their family boat. We had Sebring which came out as a whole grilled fish (the first whole fish I’ve ever eaten) and it was pretty delectable. We also had a traditional dish called Gemista which was zucchini and tomato stuffed with rice, that we both Loved with a capital L. Overall the food has been very good here, we tried a greek salad that came with some local caper leaves on top that was also delish. Maybe I’m just hard up for veggies, I’m used to eating greens everyday but my diet has been more of the 2 euro pie followed by the 2 euro gyro, so a fresh lively salad is a real treat.

Around day 4 of our new island life we rented an ATV for a couple days and explored the island which was much bigger than we originally thought. We drove out to the monastery (no gongs though) across the brown mountainous landscape dotted with bright purple bushes.

Then we found a totally secluded beach to spend the afternoon swimming, tanning, and reading. It was so relaxing and luxurious having our own private inlet of sand sky and water. Quite the opposite experience of glittery Santori.

The next day we went to another beach that was larger and busier (meaning maybe a dozen or so people) which as we hiked in closer turned out to be clothing optional beach (with everyone taking the option). Surprisingly I’ve been pretty comfortable going topless when socially appropriate but on this occasion, even Ron braved it without his skivvies! In times like this, you look and more personally feel far weirder all bundled up, and it is pretty liberating with nothing between you and the cool aqua ocean.

Overall, we've thoroughly relished our week in Anafi. The seclusion and slow pace of a little rock in the Aegean sea is exactly what we've craved.


Greek Ferry Follies

The boat took off like a bullet at about 35 knots an hour, skipping over the water like a smooth rock. Everyone hooted and laughed and then started to look around at each other like it’s all fun and games until you aren’t having fun anymore. Face colors drained white and then into slightly greenish hues. My eyelids fluttered and I closed my eyes…

It reminded me a bit of Crash Landing on Mars, a Disneyworld ride where you pull several G’s by spinning mercilessly in some contraption not unlike astronaut training as you are transfixed by a graphical recreation of rapidly approaching ground on a tv monitor. Starting to black-out you feel the same ground rush you get while skydiving, even though its virtual ground. And most ridiculously they have you play the part of a ship navigator, yelling at you to push buttons in sequence in front you that have no effect on the ride whatsoever but you struggle in your nausea to lift your heavy arm to do it and then wonder if the staff are watching on a hidden camera just laughing their asses off. But I digress. I wasn’t as sick as that. But half the cabin took barf bags and within 5 minutes several children had puked, the sound and worse the stench wafting through the hull of the ship made even the unqueasy of us slightly ill.

This was my recollection of the fast boat from Crete to Santorini, we had all shelled out 60 bucks each for this ride. Ron and I have had a hard time finding the slower, cheaper, local ferries of legend. They do exist but are a dying breed. Being passed up for the fast boats, catamarans, and hydrofoils. I guess when you have 10 days vacation, every hour counts and you don’t want to spend 6 hours on a ferry when you can pay double the cost for half the time. We seemingly have all the time in the world but we’ve only been able to coordinate slow ferries a couple times now, they are only once or twice a week on some routes and also leave and arrive at odd hours. Like the middle of the night.

We’ve learned a few things so far. Get the slow boat schedule in advance to help itinerary plan on the way. Don’t wait until you are ready to leave an island to find out you have to take the fast boat or wait 5 more days for the slow boat. If you are heading somewhere small get the schedule to and from the island before you arrive, which means you can’t be too spontaneous about your next destination. Otherwise, you may find yourself with a travel agent that speaks little english and has no interest in trying to figure out how to get you off the beaten path again. You go to Santorini, yes? No. Also, forget using the internet for anything shorter than 1 week advance which squashes our technological advantages like a fat mosquito that slipped through the open window when you weren’t looking. It’s more complicated than it appears to roam the world aimlessly.


Sunday, June 28, 2009

See All Our Photos

If you are interested in seeing more photos of our travels, we are posting a lot more content to Flickr which links from the section titled "Photos" that I added to the navigation bar above.

Ron is the picture taking maniac so most of the great shots are his (but not all!) I've snuck a few in too...It's a good division of labor (in the only thing that could resemble work these days) as I write the blog and he takes the pictures. As it is quite a production to sort, optimize, and upload all the shots you will notice we will usually be a few destinations behind. But fret not, more will come every couple days as we can get internet access. As I write this, I'm sitting under a shady umbrella at a little portside beach, sipping a beer and enjoying free wifi. Viva la technologie!


Saturday, June 27, 2009

Random Notes on Greece

It’s all greek to me!
All those years of math that I thought were fairly useless in my day to day life are finally paying off when trying to read (or more accurately deciper) greek signs. It’s all coming back to me in symbols: sigma, theta, pi, omega, delta. But I read as slow as a five year old, swapping the e for an s, the p for an r, an upside down v for an l, and then squeal when I have successfully unjumbled the word. It really is the little things that make us the happiest.

Feral Felines
There are stray cats everywhere. These are not, however, the plump soft furred kitties that you have seen in the pictures, scaling the whitewashed buildings. Those cats must be studio actors or body doubles flown in from the mainland. These cats are skinny with their little ribcages protruding underneath their dusty sandy fur. They are skilled scavengers and relentless beggars. But both Ron and I have succumbed and surrendered to their almost heartbreaking charm, feeding them scraps and trying to pet them as they skittishly slunk away. Afraid of people, the kids throw rocks at them. They are the unloved and unnamed kitties of Greece, and I wish I could scoop them all up in my arms and ship them back to Dad...just kidding!

The Throne Room
What’s wrong with the plumbing in Europe? There are all these no toilet paper toilets and most of the bathrooms just plain stink. Ron says they don’t have P traps (or are they pee traps?), whatever that means, you would think they would want to partake in the advantages of modern plumbing, this being the 21st century and all. Although we have remarked on the shoddy craftsmanship of many building projects, there isn’t exactly the convenience of a home depot down the road. But just like back home, there are construction sites everywhere and no construction workers anywhere.

How many times will I walk in to the bathroom and look in vain for the lightswitch? A hundred? A thousand? The lights for the bathrooms are on the wall outside of the door, which makes me think of what mischievous fun my brothers would have if they grew up here playing pranks on me and turning out the light. I bet the joke would never get old.

Ernest Hemingway
The greek men all remind me of Ernest Hemingway who reminds me of his own character the old man and the sea. Salty sandwashed faces all craggy like tanned leather. Off white mustaches frozen in another time. Cigarette smoke encircling their conversations and the ceaseless clickety clack of kompoloi beads that add the punctuation.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ode to the Gyro

O Gyro Oh
You fill me up so
French fries are so sneaky
Smothered up in tzatziki
Atop mounds of salty pork
Eaten without a fork
And a dash of paprika
Folded up in a pita

O Gyro Oh
What can I say
You are so tasty
I eat you every day


Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Perivolos Beach, Santorini

We stayed near Perivolos Beach in Santorini which is dotted by grass thatched umbrellas, sun loungers, and even pillow strewn 4 poster king sized beds atop long stretches of black sand. Parallel to the beach is a road lined with tavernas and fully decked out bars with a spring break atmosphere not shy about blaring techno from their speakers and intermingling with their neighbors soundtrack. We enjoyed the beach for several days but it is a bit busier than our tastes. Paying $10 for an umbrella and then getting the constant sales pitch. There are the Nigerians selling DVD’s and the Asian women selling pressure point massage and the one Greek native with his shoulder harnassed display case of sugared donuts. Alrite, he can stay. The water is glassy and blue and slightly colder than you would expect in the middle of summer. It is much better to jump right in and deal with the 15 seconds of exhilaration before hypothermia sets in.

Our hotel was a short walk from the beach and had everything we could have hoped for (including an ocean view balcony, kitchenette, and a nice pool) all for 25E a night. The place is supposedly called Kouklakis Villas but they must be trying to rebrand themselves or something because the only sign you will find is for Roberto’s, which has confused many a traveler, including us.

The only downside was the crazy mother running the place that speaks zero English (and I don’t kid, she is crazy) and her equally crazy daughter upselling us overpriced goods and services in our room while we are trying to cook dinner. One euro for the safe, fifteen euro for the scooter, twenty euro for the tour. Oh yes, and two euro for a bottle of water, same as the store. Uh, no it is 50 cents in the store! But I guess we all have to make a living. Santorini is the first place we haven’t been able to drink the tap water, even filtered through our pump, because the taste is just undrinkable.

On our quest for internet access one day we stumbled upon the best bakery in the world. I know that is a pretty bold statement. The place is run by a burly yet kind man named Spirro and has been in business for 70 years, once run on the same spot by his grandfather. It has every kind of phyllo stuffed pie and sweet treat your heart can imagine. We sampled the chicken parmesan pie and the ham n cheese pie and the double sausage pie and the ‘hamburger baked inside a pie’ pie. Not all in the same meal mind you! But the absolute standout was the buttery chocolate sprinkled croissant slathered with hazelnut nutella. Ron said it is the most delicious sweet he has ever eaten. Period. If you are in Santorini you should definitely head over to this holy church of baked goods. Did I mention it's also open 24 hours a day, so you can eat a pie at 3 in the morning?!


Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sunset at Oia

The town of Oia (pronounced “ee ah”) is at the Northern tip of the island of Santorini. Yesterday we took a bus to the capital city Thira and then on to Oia to catch one of their legendary sunsets. Winding up, down, and through the narrow stone walkways in this little city perched precariously on the hillside, we explored like excited little kids. This is where all the famous blue domed churches live that adorn nearly every postcard of Santorini, and I think its fair to say it’s beauty and charm is not at all exaggerated.

From an amazing vista point we noticed the cutest flower adorned restaurant clutching the cliffside and went to inquire about dinner reservations. With less than two hours before sunset we scored the last table on the balcony, and in our thrill and glee didn’t think of the cost for once. But this was only because we rationalized this as a once-in-a-lifetime dinner funded by my generous Dad who had given Ron (because apparently I’m the stingy one!) some money to ensure we didn’t have too threadbare an existence on the road. All I can say is this was a wonderfully extravagant experience,…THANKS DAD and Happy Father's Day, from both of us!

We started with fried olives stuffed with feta and a nice bottle of white wine made in none other than Santorini itself. Then I had a plate of grilled shrimp and Ron had a pork chop with the best buttery and bacony potato. It wasn’t exactly traditional greek but oh my was it delicious and miles above anything we’ve eaten on this trip. It better be for the euro we paid!

But the real draw of this restaurant was being so near the sun sinking into the ocean below. It was so romantic. To prove the point, we shared it with at least three newlywed couples in their wedding garb taking pictures in front of the view, veils blowing towards the sea.

Now, I wish I could say it was the best sunset I’ve seen, but there was this one amazing sunset we caught in Big Sur at Nepenthe that was blood orange marmalade dripping slowly into the horizon and just so jaw dropping that it may never ever be topped. Nonetheless we were happy, satiated, and just a little blessed to be where we were and to see what we saw. Then we ran hurriedly and out of breath to the catch the last bus back to Perivolos Beach.


Thursday, June 18, 2009

Samaria Gorge

We went back and forth on whether to go to the south coast of Crete for more beachcombing or to Hania to hike this famous 16km gorge, the longest in Europe. I really wanted to do the hike, I guess because it sounded scenic and we would get some exercise in the great outdoors and feel good about ourselves. Actually I’m not sure what I was thinking to be honest. Why do anything that resembles work when you are in a Mediterranean paradise? Must have been a brain lapse.

First we got up at 5am to take the 6:15am bus from Hania to Omalos to start the hike on the top of gorge in the early morning. When we arrived there were already 25 tour buses full of people crowding down the trails. In front of you, behind you, pushing past you, with loud chatter in german, french, swahili, whatever. You go down a relentlessly jagged and rocky path for miles and miles and miles. There is nothing to see. In fact if you take your eyes off the trail for a single second you will twist your ankle.

Finally you get to the bottom of the gorge, and guess what, more rocks! Now the rocks are small and loose and you walk in what might have been a riverbed for a couple more miles, now completely naked under the angry midday sun. And supposedly the highlight of this hike is the rock walls on either side of you narrow to about 5m at some point (called the Iron Gates) and you have to crisscross the river on a couple bamboo bridges. Big freakin deal! This is not an epic hike, and not even a memorable one (unless it’s a bad memory). The best part was finally shuffling in to Agia Roumeli and drinking an ice cold beer and jumping in the ocean. But even that was followed by another 5 hours before we would get back to Hania, first waiting for the ferry to Hora Sfakion and then getting a 2 hour bus back.

And that is basically it. Twisted ankles, sore knees, the danger of dying by falling rock and nothing even photo worthy in exchange for an entire day of your life and a hundred bucks. If you are ever in Crete, I recommend to skip this one. I’ll kick you in your shin for ten bucks instead and you’ll thank me for it.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Island of Crete

After a week on Crete, we are finally starting to feel a little relaxed. In hilly Agia Pelagia we enjoyed a simple and friendly town with a relatively private beach. In Rethemynos and Chania we spent time in coastal towns, a bit more developed and touristy but spent time exploring their narrow streets and venetian ports.

Not enjoying the touts so much trying to reel us in for dinners as we stroll down the waterfronts, especially as our pricy rooms leave little left to eat with, and I’ve been making most of our food out of our kitchenette. It’s pretty hard to keep walking past the smell of all the greek specialties night after night, but I keep reminding myself that all these people have to go back to work in two weeks. Besides we could always downgrade our room for more money for food but are really enjoying our private little pensions, most with two burners, fridge, tub, and air conditioning.

We did eat a proper dinner in Rethymnos, although our growling stomachs from skipping lunch made us weak and we were lured into a tourist trap, but still thankfully wolfed down the greek salad, tzatziki, and moussaka. As Ron pointed out, “It’s not as good as Myconos (a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Polk St in SF).“ So true, we were truly spoiled with the food in San Francisco. It did come with a dessert (if anyone knows of it?) that had polenta consistency but tasted like frosted shred of wheat cereal, which we both quite liked.

The next night we went to one of the only waterfront restaurants that was recommended and frequented by the locals called Samaria and enjoyed their mixed grill and our first taste of raki. They call it greek fire water and it reminds me a bit like a tequila. It was on the house with a giant bowl of cherries. Sitting outside on a warm night listening to the waves rolling softly on the beach was pure relaxation. Funny, but the best food we have had in our week in Greece has been a gyro at a tiny unmemorable shop in Agia Pelagio. Stuffed with pork, tzatziki, paprika, and a bunch of fries it was huge, simply scrumptious and maybe $3.

In Rethymnos we stayed in a funky little place called Olga’s Pension that was run by a joyous and jovial greek man named George. He was quite the character with all the local store owners and colored our experience of the town in a much brighter color. There was also a hotel cat that slept on the reception desk and gallivanted around the rooftop garden that let us give him effusive attention and made us dearly miss our kitties back home!

In Hania (or Xania or Chania, take your pick) we got a huge studio at place called Vranas for a rock bottom price and spent time lounging on the red leather sofa, reveling in the 10 o’clock movies every night, the first english language tv we’ve seen since we left. And eating out on the balcony overlooking a little square filled with restaurants, that felt like our own private taverna. And here is also where we made the discovery of frappe, a delicious sugary sweet iced coffee, that is our new favorite morning-time treat.


Monday, June 15, 2009

Don’t let the bedbugs bite

“Sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite” sounds catchy but is not really a nice nursery rhyme for little kids to ponder whilst they fall asleep. I can tell you I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, it has been causing me much distress lately. The bumps turned into larger welts and some on my neck and left arm have filled with pus. Yes, I know…gross. It got so bad that I went to a hospital in Rethymnos but it was Sunday so they told me to come back the next day to see a dermatologist. First giving me some pill to take (containing who knows what) and writing my name down in some giant dusty book of records. It seemed pretty primitive, no electronic records here, or computers no less, but they did see me immediately and didn’t charge me a dime.

We went back the next day to see what was not “a dermatologist” but what was “the dermatologist”, the only one in town, but apparently his mother had died suddenly and he would not be in (for how long, they weren‘t sure). I hope my bad luck had not somehow stricken down this poor women. I guess I’ll just keep using the cortisone and antiseptic ointments. But it is not healing very fast, and it is really tough to be on these beaches in the summer!

I’m not exactly sporting a tanned bikini body these days and now with my temporary yet still all too disgusting skin disease I’m particularly self conscious on the beach. Unlike a dodo bird, I wish I could just bury my body in the sand. In addition, I have total psychological problems, thinking things are crawling on me and neurotically examining every mattress I sleep on. However, I am trying to keep all this in perspective. I know it will pass, like all things good, bad, or indifferent, it is just weighing on me heavily at the moment.

One positive piece of news, I contacted the suspected hostel in Ireland about getting infected from their bed and they have cordoned off the room, called the pest man, and refunded my money. So we are officially back on budget! Who says bug-borne illness doesn’t pay off?


Friday, June 12, 2009

One Bad Day

It was bound to happen. A horrible travel day. Intermingled in the peaks and valleys of a backpackers life. From start to finish, I don’t wish to relive this day, but I’ll retell it to banish it from my thoughts for the time being.

Alarm goes off at 3am. Time to pack up for the airport. Leaving this early means we have to pay $35 for a taxi. Ron has lost his fleece jacket and is freaking out. Where were we last? The bar up the block. He runs up and amazingly finds the surly old bartender still there reading a book. Philosophy I presume at 3 in the morning. One piece of good news, the jacket has been recovered.

Yawning we make the flight and collect our backpacks at the other end. Walking out the sliding doors into the hot Cretan air, we unknowingly start 4 hours of being lost. First we can’t find the city bus amongst the gaggle of tour buses. Then we are dumped in downtown Iraklio and can’t find the connecting bus to where we are staying the night, Agia Pelagia a little town west of the city, pronounced “aya pelayia”. We get in a wrong line that is headed to Knossos. Then the right line behind the old lady British duo asking for a tour. They don’t get the answer they were expecting and keep asking louder. This is when I realize I’m probably this annoying too but don’t realize it. We get the bus but are warned we aren’t dropped off in the town and have to walk 15 minutes. No problem I think.

Getting off the bus I ask the driver, “This way to Agia Pelagia?“ pointing down the road. He says yes. When the bus leaves we see a sign that points to the left for the town that winds down under an underpass. Dilemma ensues. Do we trust the bus driver or the sign? We go with the sign and start walking downhill. The sun is hot. It must be 90 degrees and we are carrying our heavy packs. Down, down, down. Twenty minutes into this I spot a sign to our hotel pointing up a another road. We see a hotel on the top of hill and turn to walk up the stupidly steep incline. Huffing and puffing, the receptionist tells us no, this is not the Hotel Bellevue. And we have to go back to the main road and turn left to Iraklio to find the street. Back up the main road?!

With no other choice we head back on the road we came, sweaty now and disheartened. We reach the road but are now confused, going left is not towards Iraklio (later we found out she meant up the road we were on, not back the way we came). Again, what to do with the conflicting information? We decide to go left and another twenty minutes later happen upon a gas station and outdoor café. Light-headed and dehydrated we order some sodas and asked the clerk for directions. She says to go the other direction and take the first left. #&$%@!!

We decide to eat some phyllo stuffed ham and cheese pies to ease the pain. We are now walking on a highway, the cars veering towards us around blind corners, we were more than once 4 inches from death. But we finally find the right street and after 3 hours and change we arrive at the hotel and check in. The room is fine for 30E/night. Simple with a little balcony and kitchenette. We decide on not spending the extra 7E on AC. Big mistake. But we would only learn that later.

We get in the room and immediately take all of our luggage to the balcony. We start a blazing hot bath and throw every article of clothing into the bathtub: shirts, pants, underwear, socks, jackets, totes, sleep sacks, money belts, bandanas, neck rests, everything that can be cooked is tossed in. I woke up again with a new series of bedbug bites. I can now count 87 distinguishable bites to my body, with a particularly nasty series up my left arm and neck. Clearly we’ve carried the bugs with us and need to eradicate them. After Corrina’s comment and further research, it is absolutely true that one person can show bites and another won’t. Up to 30% never show bites (probably the ones carrying them around) but the bugs also go back to the same host over and over and won’t eat the other person. Great. Lucky me. I guess I’m tastier.

Once everything was cooking in the bath, we napped naked and exhausted on the bed for a couple hours. When we awoke we realized our blunder of not going to the ATM in the city and with 10E between us we headed to the village to get more for our stay. Again, getting directions and again not being able to follow them we went all the way down to our local beach and had to walk up over a punishingly steep hill to the village. At one point I stopped to rest behind a 3 foot bush. Heatstroke. Need water. Sun, I asked for sun?! Too much sun.

We made it to the village, got money and groceries and hopped in the ocean. The cool aqua ocean water for a few brief moments was the first optimistic turn of events for me all day in a universe certainly against me cracking a smile.

We headed for home. Of course, uphill. And then up a hundred steps painted alternating white and blue. Yay, Greece! I cooked up our dinner: some curly pasta with sauce, bread and butter, and greek wine from a plastic bottle. It was filling and passable but I really need to score a miniature salt shaker. Salt is a small, but essential bit of luxury for me.

After a day of exertion and seemingly nothing going our way, all we wanted was sleep. And all we got was “The Mosquito Hunter” for at least 3 hours. Without AC we had to close all the doors and windows so the room heated up to at least 90 degrees or more. Like a sauna I was sweating and found it hard to breath. Suffocating almost. And we killed one, then two, then three, and when we got to #6 and it was 2 in more morning I wanted to cry. My book, Michaelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (a great biopic on the Sistine Chapel) was shred to bits. The greek gods must be punishing me. I will be eaten alive by bugs. That is my fate.

Once we stopped bickering with each other about our miserable situation, we opened all the doors, slathered ourselves with insect repellent and sat on the balcony commiserating with a bottle of ouzo at 2 in the morning. Laughter (and a hug and a shot) is the best medicine in times of dire straights. At some point in the wee hours we drifted off to sleep probably too exhausted to care any longer, and woke up to a happy little boy squealing with his grandpapa in the pool outside.

Thank god for a new day.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009


We headed to the Dublin airport and bought the next reasonably priced ticket to Europe which turned out to be headed to Prague in the Czech Republic.

We got to Prague city center after midnight and had a tough time navigating to our hotel. Luckily one nice guy that was being pulled over in his car (the police were not at all helpful) directed us close enough so that a person in a bar got us all the way there. Unfortunately our hotel reception was closed and we had to go the hotel across the street to find out that our floor had a water damage problem and we would have to spend the night there. But fortunately, the next day the room was ready and we were upgraded to a suite for the same price and even allowed to book the room two extra nights. Also with free breakfast and internet thrown in we got a great deal at $44 a night! We shouldn’t get too used to this luxury…
Ron is in heaven in Prague. He is in love with the gothic architecture and historical monuments and has been taking pictures almost constantly since we got here. I can’t blame him, although a 20 min stroll turns into 2 hours, but the city is beautiful and picturesque. We spent both days walking the city and visiting the Old Town Square (Staromestske Namesti), going up into the tower of the Astronomical Clock where we got great views of the city, crossing the Charles Bridge and touring the Prague Castle.

We are staying in budget by keeping to free breakfasts, street or grocery store lunches, and café style dinners. We picked up some Balkan Bear red wine at the grocery store for 45Kc (the currency is called a crown) which was about $2.25 and for two buck chuck it was pretty decent. The bus/tram/metro is really cheap at 18Kc for a one way trip, but everyone looks at us like we are crazy to validate our ticket so we have been using the same tickets for days.

Today we decided to lounge in the room and stay in our local suburb for the day. We had dinner in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and sampled some local cuisines: beer sausage, garlic soup, and dumplings which were huge portions and reasonably priced too. We saw a free concert in a park nearby of a hardcore rockband and had a beer in a dive bar filled with old Czech men having arguments or a good time, we couldn’t really tell. The local Czech beer, Pilsner Urquell is cheap with 0.5L costing you 23Kc in an un-touristy spot, which is a little over a buck.

The Czech People: No one here is overly happy to see you, and there are no free smiles in Prague. I have found the women to be nice, and open to helping you if you look confused or directly approach them. The men seem aloof and generally don’t want to converse with you. The male waiters are worse, and one demanded a tip (almost 25%) when we stopped at an outside café for beer and sausage. I refused. The customary tips published in tourist information are 5-10% but I was flustered and ended up giving him an undeserved 15%. Wish I knew how to say jerk in Czech. Overall, we have found it difficult to meet and talk to the locals. May be the language barrier, or that we are not here long enough to learn more Czech than hello, excuse me, thank you, and where is the bathroom.

On a more personal note, I think I contracted bedbugs from the first hotel we stayed at in Dublin. That was the only room where Ron and I shared separate beds and he seems to be fine. I, on the other hand, have dozens of red welts all down my neck and one arm and sporadic bites on my legs. I hope I didn’t carry any with me but only time will tell. Apparently you have to boil all your clothes and vacuum out your luggage to combat an infestation which sounds difficult to do being on the road. The welts took several days to appear and seem to be getting worse. I got some cortisone cream from the pharmacy and I’m taking benadryl every night but they are itchy little buggers!


Monday, June 8, 2009

Traveling in Ireland

Ireland is probably best suited for those on a well funded 1-2 week vacation. Where you can rent a car, tour the countryside or pay for the full air conditioned tour to all the sites. The Irish are a friendly folk, and if you are social with a taste for beer or even better an all-out alcoholic bent, you will fit right in. Everything is expensive, however, the rooms, the food, and even the beer runs you $6.50 a pint with few specials or deals to be had in the busy summer season.

Ireland is not exactly independent traveler friendly. A dorm bed in a hostel was quoted at 32 euro a bed on the weekends making a 35 euro (or $50) daily budget virtually impossible. There are decent city on the and intra-city buses but you won’t find visiting out-of-the-way sites cheap or easy unless you are willing to hitchhike. Another option is renting a bicycle to head out on the countryside which would have been our next activity if we stayed longer.


Sunday, June 7, 2009

Galway, Ireland

We took a bus to Galway on the west coast of Ireland. John had mentioned a boat race going on but I don’t think we knew what we were getting ourselves into. The race was the Volvo Ocean Race that was pushing off on the 7th leg that weekend so the entire city was packed. We got a late start to the day and so we arrived after 6pm and were lucky to find the last opening in any hostel at Barnacles on the main pub-lined street. But it was 70 euro a night (our entire daily budget) and then we made the unfortunate mistake to retire early for a good nights rest.

On Friday. At 10pm. Above 3 giant pubs. One with a live band. And hundreds of drunken Irishmen singing at the top of their lungs under our window until 4am. And just when you thought everyone had gone home to pass out, they start cleaning the streets! The garbage man comes at 5am. And the Guiness truck comes at 6am to pick up the millions of empty kegs that were sucked dry the night before. I had used a semi-successful but not completely muffling combination of earplugs and ipod and got a little sleep. Ron tossed and turned all night and was definitely a big grump for awhile. At least until we got our free (read crappy) Nescafe coffee and buttered white toast for breakfast.

We went out to see the race and festivities which really seemed like a lot of standing around and not being sure what we were looking at. Ron’s quote at one point was, “where are the *&#$% boats?” maybe still a little grumpy. And then it started to rain. Not a nice light sprinkle but a hard sharp cold Irish rain. It was coming eventually, all this sun was pretty atypical for these parts. It was sporadic so as soon as we would bundle in our raincoats with our pant legs soaked, a magical hand in the sky would turn off the faucet and we’d be dry again a few minutes later.

That night we decided two things: we want to be where its quiet, warm and relaxing so we are heading to the Mediterranean (hopefully) tomorrow. And two: we are going to join the party and go all out Irish, ie get stumbling drunk. First, we treated ourselves to a giant dinner at a pub: irish beef stew and chicken leek pie that came with free pints (from a coupon our hostel gave us) and watched a soccer match. Then we hit the pub directly across the street. The offending pub that had so many people pouring out the night before we didn’t get a wink. The place was huge. From the outside it looked small but it went back for miles, had two floors, 3 separate bars, and hundreds of galway guys and girls out cruising for the night. Exactly the type of place Ron and I steer clear of anymore.

We had some drinks and then headed to another pub with live music. Mostly covers but the best part was meeting up with a group of older British, Scottish, and Irish buddies out for a stag weekend. They were hilarious and fun, singing along to the songs and jumping around, I just had to join in (video below). We bounced around and drank some more, lamenting to a nice fellow named Paul that we were too broke to get drunk, he bought us a round of drinks. We must have talked to more locals then we had the entire trip. This is the secret of Ireland: drink and be merry.


Friday, June 5, 2009

Dublin, Ireland

Our night at the Maple Hotel came with a full irish breakfast: eggs, beans, toast, assorted meats, and what we would later find out to be pudding. Pudding can be white or black and is actually some sort of pigs blood concoction I thought it tasted like a liverwurst pate. Maybe that is a good strategy to find out afterwards about what mystery meat you are enjoying. The meal was quite filling and we didn’t need to eat again until well after 2pm where we found our “euro saving” strategy: the local subway. When you are trying to travel on the cheap, a 2 euro ($3) 6” sub of the day is the only way to fly. Maybe we should take a few photo-ops of us eating at Subways all over Europe. Move over Jared, you have competition!

We did another walking tour of Dublin, heading to Trinity College, the oldest college in Ireland. We skipped the Book of Kells because the line (or queue as they call it) was really long but mainly because we were going to splurge on the Guiness tour later that day. We booked online to save 3 euro but it was still $38. The Guiness Storehouse is like the Disneyland of brewery tours with 7 winding levels of multimedia displays of beer facts, the life and times of Arthur Guiness the founder, and neat vintage footage of stuff like the arduous task of creating an oak barrel. But the real draw is the free pint you get when you reach the Gravity Bar at the top of the brewery. Here you get a 360 degree view of the city and a cold pint of Guiness to enjoy. Ron and I luckily scored two seats and rested for quite awhile soaking in the views of Dublin. At some point a fellow stumbled over to us to give us two more tickets for beer, having 4 pints himself already since he was in a non-drinking group (which makes you question how they happen to be in Ireland and on the Guiness tour no less!). We happily accepted and guzzled some more brew.

Later we met up with John and Peter, which are Joanna’s (my sister-in-laws) cousins. They treated us to some tasty asian fusion fare at a place called Mao, and when the food arrived (close to 10pm) I ate every single rice grain of my pumpkin curry and almost licked the plate. Afterwards we headed to a pub you just don’t find as a tourist, and enjoyed some beer and whiskey. We got the lowdown on local politics explaining the many plastered street signs for the upcoming election, tipping (never at a pub, 10-15% at a restaurant), and ideas for the rest of our stay. I think its fair to say that the conversation and good cheer we had with them was the highlight of Dublin.

John graciously offered us a spare room in his house for the night, but not before a nightcap, some Scottish whiskey LaPhroige he referred to as “peaty” which I refer to as just gross (but Ron seemed to enjoy the distinctive smell and aftertaste that stays with you long after you want it to), so I opted for good ole Jameson. Then Ron and I retired for the best night sleep imaginable, waking up to yet another gorgeously sunny day.


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

We made it!

We flew into the Dublin airport at 7:25am this morning. Bleary eyed from another night of 4 hours of sleep, this one crammed into a coach seat. But lifting the plastic airplane window and peering out to a sunrise and jagged pieces of green land dotted with sheep stretching to the horizon, was a welcome change from the rigid and perfectly square efficient plots of land in heartland America.

First impressions: Dublin is a big city busier than we thought it would be in the middle of the day on a Wednesday. And after living in San Francisco cursing tourists the tables have turned, we are now slow, awkward, lost, and seeming to get in everyones way as they barrel down the street. Everyone in Dublin walks fast. There are places to go, and beer to drink.

Crossing the street is a disorienting and perilous experience because we keep looking left instead of right and I had to pull Ron back from getting run over by a city bus on our first walk out in the Temple Bar area.

We have mainly just wandered the city today by foot: picnicking in Parnell’s Square, lounging on the grass in St. Stephen’s Green, visiting St. Patricks Cathedral, The real Irish Bank (and not one of our favorite SF bars that got sued for using its name), and of course a pub or two.

Later that night we went out for the obligatory fish and chips (with curry sauce, yum!) and I don't know how they make it so good here and not at all greasy. Then to a pub near our hotel for some local irish music, complete with a fiddling version of pachelbel canon.

Based on the first day of our trip, Ron and I feel this is going to be one tough year ahead. Yea right. We feel so lucky!


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Reading List

We both love to read and books are an absolute godsend to pass the time traveling, waiting for the train, lazing around in bed or as often as we can at the park on a blissful shady afternoon.

Ron and I usually have one or two in tow to read and then swap, the only downside is they weigh down the backpacks. Since we are on a budget, we try to peruse hotel bookswaps and used bookstores whenever we can, so you can see we get a lot of popular, mainstream fiction writers. But with Crichton or King, you can hardly go wrong.

Here's a list of all the books we read during our travels:

Naked Spirits: A Journey into Occupied Tibet (Travel) Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling Bones (Alex Delaware, No. 23)
The Burden of Proof Prey Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World
The Last Juror Airframe Triple
Stupid White Men : ...And Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation! The Scorpio Illusion Different Seasons (Signet)
Notes from a Small Island The Midnight Club On the Road (Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century)
Speaking with the Angel A Thousand Splendid Suns Annapurna
Christine The Lost Symbol (Robert Langdon, No. 3) River of Gods
The Cat Who Went into the Closet (Cat Who...) The Sanctuary Change of Heart: A Novel
Simplicity The Other Hand The Secret Purposes: A Novel
Dolores Claiborne Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill On Writing

Out of these 30 books, the following are highly recommended:
Naked Spirits: A Journey into Occupied Tibet
Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling
Stupid White Men : ...And Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation!
Different Seasons
A Thousand Splendid Suns
Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill
On Writing

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