Oct 15, 10, 2:21 am
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: SF Bay Area, California
Programs: AA2MM PLT, Hilton Gold, SPG Gold
My son’s fifth grade year: 97,737 miles, 40 flights, 6 continents and 16 countries
UPDATE: Our year long journey through six continents is now complete. We had an amazing time with memories that we will never forget. It was truly a trip of a lifetime for all three of us. Never again will our son be in fifth grade. He's currently in 9th grade and I'm so happy not be spending 24 hours a day with him. His independence wings have already begun to flap. I am so happy that part of his educational foundation was this glimpse of the world that we shared together. So many of the experiences we had that year continue to mentioned around our dining room table. It was the best way to spend his fifth grade.
Here are some quick links to the parts of the report:
PLANNING FOR THE YEAR
JULY 2010: Edinburgh, Scotland
AUGUST 2010: Istanbul, Turkey
SEPTEMBER 2010: Cape Town, South Africa
OCTOBER 2010: Mahajanga, Madagascar
NOVEMBER 2010: Krabi, Thailand
DECEMBER 2010: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
JANUARY 2011: Cochin, India
FEBRUARY 2011: Melbourne Australia
MARCH 2011: Lake Tarawera, New Zealand
APRIL 2011: Buenos Aires, Argentina
MAY 2011: Valparaiso, Chile
June 2011: Cartagena, Colombia
How do two reasonably sane, normal people decide to take the year off from work and travel the world with their 11-year-old son? The answer is of course complicated. Overall, I blame Flyertalk
Before I launch into the description of our big adventure, a slight discourse will clarify how this all came about.
Sure, my parents taught me the love of travel. Since they were both teachers, we had entire summers off to go explore the world, albeit on the cheap. We flew coach. We stayed in cheap B&Bs and motels. We camped. We would buy a VW van in Europe at the beginning of the summer and then sell it at the end of the summer before we left. It was the basic see-the-world-on-a-shoestring-budget travel that enabled us to see many places.
Then I studied in Spain
for my freshman year of university. Most people would choose to take their junior year abroad. I just couldn’t wait that long. It was a wise choice because it allowed me to mature a bit before attacking my studies in earnest.
After graduating, my eyes and heart sought out more adventure and travel, so I signed up for the Peace Corps
, committing to two years of volunteer wherever they decided to send me. The call finally came and I was told I would be going to “Malawi”, but since this was before Madonna made the place famous, I misheard. I was sure the voice on the phone had said “Maui”. An unlikely place for the Peace Corps, but I started rehearsing hula dances and ironing my flowered shirts in my head. I graduated from UC Davis with two degrees and absolutely no knowledge of this little African nation just northwest of Mozambique.
Living in Africa broadened my perspective of the world. I traveled several times to the then apartheid governed South Africa and most of the nearby countries. I saw first hand the struggles people have in developing nations. I learned about the “extended family” and other social structures. Mostly importantly, I found out that teaching was my profession. I absolutely loved it. My parents had done well by it and it was making me very happy.
So at this point, you, the reader, are probably asking yourself when are we getting to the talk about the lounges, airline food and seats! Don’t worry, it’s coming.
In college my best friend was from South Africa
and his family is like my second family. My wonderful parents are now both dead and his parents were happy to step up as my surrogate parents. Because of this, I’ve been traveling annually to South Africa for over twenty years.
From California, South Africa is usually two long-haul flights, whatever way you go. You can connect through London, Paris, Frankfurt, Sao Paolo, Hong Kong and even Sydney! Some are faster than others but they all take a long time. One round trip to South Africa could give you Elite status on many airlines.
What really got me started with the miles quest
was when all the airlines went crazy and offered triple the miles in 1987 and 1988. Them was crazy times! I was a loyal Onepass-er during those years. And with triple the miles, trips to New York were almost buy one-get one free! I had caught the fever! It’s like they were PAYING you to fly. Okay, not really. But almost.
I joined most of the airline programs then even if I didn’t have plans to fly them. I will never forget when I flew to Africa with Peace Corps. A group of 22 of us flew TWA PHL-JFK-FRA with connections on Ethiopia Airways via Addis Ababa to Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital. In those days, TWA’s frequent flyer program gave you stickers with your name and number on them that you would adhere to your paper ticket. And if everything worked out right, you got credited for the flight. Another perk of being a member of TWA’s FFP was the equivalent of Book-The-Cook on SQ. Even with NO STATUS and flying in economy, you could preorder a nice meal.
Cut to me on TWA sitting in coach surrounded by Peace Corps Volunteers on our way to Frankfurt. The meal choices were lasagna or mystery beef. As the meal service began, a flight attendant brought me my lovely chilled prawn salad. All my new friends were like “Who the hell are you?” That’s when I knew that there was something to be gained from these frequent flyer programs.
I can’t quite remember how I found out about Flyertalk. It was the late-nineties and I was racking up miles and status with lots of carriers mostly due to all my flights to South Africa. Flyertalk helped me maximize my opportunities and taught me the ins and outs of international travel.
Then in 2001, Kellogg’s Nutri-grain cereal bars
set me on a new life path. Early on in the promotion, several of us on Flyertalk discussed the value of miles earned by buying the product, cutting off the 100-miles coupon and sending it in. Search out this topic for more details but it was a great offer the first year! For me, I could fly in first class on Cathay Pacific from LAX to South Africa for $1700. Compared to the $1400 I was paying for cattle-class, this seemed like a bargain.
Then the southern grocery chain Publix printed a coupon doubling the value of the 100-miles coupon thus cutting my costs in half. A FC CX flight LAX-HKG-JNB was now only $850.
At one point our garage was over half full with cartons of Nutrigrain bars. At any moment, I expected Ricky Ricardo to walk into the garage and say “Lucy, you’ve got some ‘splaning to do.”
In the end, I earned just about two million miles through this promotion. I was the Pudding Guy of Nutrigrain bars. With these miles, I earned the valuable prize of Lifetime Platinum status on American Airlines.
While you’d think that those miles might last a lifetime or at least a decade, they only lasted about five years. Flying first class is fun!
Up next was the Valuemags
promotion where I picked up another million miles. This was one much simpler and could all be done online. Here I ordered magazines and sent them to non-profit agencies around Los Angeles. Valuemags gave me Radisson points which then could be transferred to a variety of airline programs. Once again, this promotion made my trips to South Africa only $850 in first class. I also transferred some miles to BA flew the Concorde
. Good times.
But after that, the mileage promotions seemed to dry up. AA re-introduced the Nutrigrain promotion with LOTS of restrictions; the worst being an earning cap of 60,000 miles per year. I can’t help but wonder if I had something to do with that (shy grin).
My final hair-brained mileage promotion was the credit union gift cards
. I’d buy gift cards using my mileage credit cards. Then I’d go into my bank and get a “cash advance” off each gift card. It was lots of work and my checking account confusingly always had a balance of about $40,000. The total cost was close to nothing but it involved a lot of bookkeeping and work. But we liked the miles! I was collecting over 40K a month.
At this point, I should mention my husband. He is not really a traveler at least in the Flyertalk sense of the word. Yes, he’s lived in Europe a couple of times but he’s not really a planner. Never remembered to give his FF# when he flew. Always flew economy. Then he met me.
He really didn’t buy into the whole mileage program thing at all. When he couldn’t park in our garage because it was full of Nutrigrain bars, he began to question if I had picked up an addiction.
It wasn’t until he was sitting in first class on Cathay Pacific sipping a Pacific Sunrise that he finally bought into the whole mileage thing. At 6’3”, he hates flying coach and thanks to me, it’s now the exception instead of the rule.
So at this point, you are probably questioning my original claim that I am “sane”. Okay, I wrote “reasonably sane”. That does buy me a little leeway. But the point of all this is to provide a little background of how someone decides to travel the world with their kid for a year.
Last edited by olafman; Jan 3, 15 at 5:26 pm
Oct 15, 10, 2:23 am
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: SF Bay Area, California
Programs: AA2MM PLT, Hilton Gold, SPG Gold
PLANNING FOR THE YEAR:
The premise of our year is that we will be living in twelve countries for one month each
. The goal is not to be a tourist in each place but to discover how the local people live. What are their lives like? What do they eat? Where do you shop? What do they do with their free time?
I proposed this idea to my family with the carrot that each of us would pick a country that no one else could veto
. I took a globe, set in front of our son and said “Choose any country from any continent that you would like to spend a month in and we’ll go there as part of our trip.” He was nine at the time and thought long and hard about it. He finally came up with Madagascar. Of course, the animated feature probably had a lot do with that decision but also I’m sure the Discovery Channel and Animal Planet contributed too.
My husband’s “can’t veto” choice was Scotland and mine was South Africa. Since we already went there often, hubby was not thrilled about spending more time there when there is more of the world to see. So my choosing, it guaranteed South Africa a spot on our itinerary.
Next we started looking at round-the-world tickets on Star Alliance and Oneworld. Almost immediately I discovered that *A has a mileage cap at 38,000. All of our different routings were coming out much more than that. So we decided to do the Oneworld six-continent RTW ticket
. Unfortunately, this ticket has a maximum of 16 segments so we’d have to purchase all the little hop tickets separately.
Thank goodness both OW and *A have these great RTW booking applications now that help you figure out your routes. It was lots of fun to see what our options were from each city. I spent a good couple of weeks playing around with the routing until finally we had an itinerary.
Here’s the list of twelve countries that we came up with: Scotland, Turkey, South Africa, Madagascar, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile and Colombia. The list seemed massive.
In addition to the twelve countries, we also wanted to complete our tour of all the Disney parks in the world. Not only am I a travel geek, I’m a Disney geek. We had already been to all the parks in the USA and the two in Paris so sought out to visit the rest of the parks as we made our way around the world.
Also my son and I really wanted to fly on the A380
so we found a Qantas flight SIN-SYD which then required us to add on a stop in Singapore. But that would work out because Universal Studios just opened a new park there. BONUS!
The final question was do we go first or business
. Since the wonderful mileage promotions of my past seem to be gone forever, we would be paying for these tickets with cold, hard cash. There is no way my husband would have EVER agreed to this year of travel if I told him we were in coach. So it would be at least business.
The problem is that on about half our flights, first class wasn’t offered. So we’d be paying for first and flying business anyway. So I decided that it wasn’t worth the extra $5000/person. This was met with frowns by my family. I’ve created monsters. When your 4’ 3” kid complains about American’s tilted business class seats, you know you’ve made a mistake somewhere.
Right about this time, my friends at the Oneworld Alliance were celebrating their 10th anniversary and were offering 10% off all RTW tickets
! BINGO! Time to ticket.
We were living in Munich at the time and it took THREE trips to the airport to get it ticketed. The BA staff at MUC worked hard to make it happen. On the third trip, the agent finally got the tickets to pop out but they said a baggage allowance of only 1 piece! I was leaving on a LH flight and couldn’t wait around to get it changed. I had allowed two extra hours to get it ticketed. But I really wanted a ticket that said the correct THREE PIECES. She promised to get it fixed. So I went to the other terminal for my flight. About twenty minutes before my flight left, she called me on my mobile and said she’d meet me at my gate with the correct ticket. I was very impressed with this level of service.
Of course, I had to book a bunch of extra “short-hop” flights to get us exactly where we wanted to live in each country. Not surprisingly there isn’t a direct flight from Mahajanga, Madagascar to Krabi, Thailand. The problem was on these short flights, the baggage allowance was often 20kg. Ouch! That was going to be hard if not impossible.
Meanwhile we began booking vacation rentals for each of our months. This trip would have been a different experience in a pre-Internet age. Luckily we found some great places that at least looked good on the websites.
The hardest part of the planning was packing
. We had a full house in Munich and somehow had to synthesize our belongings down to SIX bags (up to 23kg each) plus three small backpacks. These numbers seemed manageable with our countless transfers. That would mean that we each get one bag for clothes. Most of our countries would be warm so we’d only need shorts and t-shirts. Then we’d need a bag for our son’s schoolbooks and toys. Another bag would be dedicated to toiletries and electronics. The final bag was totally a luxury: bedding. At 45 years of age, I like my 1000 thread count sheets. And my pillow. And my body pillow. Don’t judge me. If I’m going on a three-week vacation, I can “make do”. But for a year, I need my bedding
. Originally, my plan was to also bring some kitchen stuff like spices, knives, a nice fry plan… But when I packed and our bags were well over 120kg, the kitchen stuff all came out.
We would be home schooling
our son Corbin during the year of travel. More than one German questioned if what we were doing was legal! It is illegal to home school in Germany. Since both my husband and I are teachers, we looked forward to the challenge of creating a meaningful educational experience for Corbin. Using the California curriculum as a guide, we have blended those concepts with local activities to create a rich framework for him. Our expectation is that we would encounter things along the way that would drive the learning. Thus “Fifth Grade Around The World”
was born. We had decided that it would be fun to work with other fifth grade classes. Corbin could interact with them, be their “on the scene “ reporter. Think iReports for fifth graders.
So on June 30, 2010, we said goodbye to our beautiful home on Lake Starnberg and spent our last night in Munich at the Mandarin Oriental. You can read my full trip report here
on Flyertalk. Needless to say, it was a wonderful hotel and a perfect ending to our two years in Munich.
Let the adventure begin.
Note: Photos of the entire trip can be found at our website: http://fifthgradearoundtheworld.com
Then click on Carl’s blog to see all my photos.
Last edited by olafman; Oct 16, 10 at 3:03 am
Oct 15, 10, 2:28 am
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: SF Bay Area, California
Programs: AA2MM PLT, Hilton Gold, SPG Gold
July 2010: Edinburgh, Scotland
Our glamorous year of travel began on one of the world’s leading airlines: EasyJet
. Okay, maybe “leading” among the low-cost carriers. They are the only airline to fly MUC-EDI nonstop so it made the most sense. Check in was relatively simple. I had pre-purchased extra weight online but ended up being 19 kg over that. Nothing was said. Also it was a light load so we all had free seats next to us!
It took some explaining to my family that we didn’t have a lounge to use
at MUC and that we’d have to sit in the general airport lounge with everyone else. Frowns. For the first two weeks, my son’s friend, Chris, also from Munich would be joining us. At the airport, we handed Corbin and Chris baggies full of our left over Euro coins for them to spend. With the World Cup fever in full force at that moment, they happily purchased as many trading cards that they could buy.
Europeans love to complain about Easyjet. I’ve only flown them a couple of times but both times I was very impressed. The flight crew were polite. The plane was spotless. We purchased a nice cocktail and snacks on board at reasonable prices. And we arrived 15 minutes early!
We, our luggage, Chris and his luggage headed into Edinburgh in one very full black cab. It was well past midnight as we pulled up to our South Bridge
apartment that my husband, Terry, had organized via the Internet for us for the month. All of our windows were “ocean view” facing the Edinburgh Bay and the ocean.
Edinburgh is a wonderful city. None of us had been there before so we thought we would start off with a walking tour. In Munich, I had become a fan of the Sandemann’s New World FREE WALKING TOURS
. The guide doesn’t get paid instead relies on the tips given at the end of the tour. I would highly recommend using their services in any city around Europe. Our guide in Edinburgh, Andra, was highly energetic and knowledgeable during our three hour tour. Sandemann’s has a great website that shows the tour details.
After a couple of days, my husband’s mom flew in from Sacramento to spend three weeks with us. This was wonderful because it meant she could babysit for us once in a while! That weekend a friend came up from London so we decided to do the Sandemann’s Pub Crawl
. We visited five different places en masse throughout the evening. The three of us felt a little OLD because most of the group was in their twenties. I knew there was a cultural divide when at one bar, they were offering Jaeger/Red Bull shots and what I really wanted was a Grey Goose martini. I’m not sure that any 45 year olds drink Red Bull. We also don’t Tweet.
One of the things we were most looking forward to was visiting the Museum of Flight
. We took a local train about twenty minutes from Waverly Station out to North Berwick around the other side of the bay. From there, we took a local bus directly to an old wartime airfield that is now the home of the Museum of Flight. I, the flying buff, and my two eleven year old companions spent the next 2.5 hours exploring over fifty different aircraft. The highlight was the Concorde. The boys thought this was VERY COOL. I got to share details of my Concorde flight in March 2003
with them and they were dutifully impressed. We also watched a nice movie about the Concorde experience. Several different areas offered hands-on activities which helped the young-uns learn about flight and air travel. I would strongly recommend this place to anyone with kids or who simply likes airplanes. The whole public transport thing getting out there wasn’t too bad but the day would have been simpler if we had a car!
One of the goals of the year is to show our son how public transport works. He grew up in Los Angeles. The only bus he ever has taken was the rental car shuttle from the airport. While he can say that he has ridden some trains, I don’t think the tram at the Hilton Waikoloa Village
counts. Since most of the locals rely on public transport, it will be fun figuring it all out as part of his education.
Another highlight for the boys was Our Dynamic Earth
, a science center about the earth. The exhibits are interactive and entertaining. A global warming theme resonated strongly.
Throughout our month, we did several hikes around town. One of our favorites was above the Holyrood Palace
up to Arthur's Seat. It provided spectacular views of the entire area. And one day it provided a view of the Queen
! As we were walking back down, we noticed that a large garden party was being held at the Holyrood Palace. People had been cordoned off and something looked like it was going to happen. Next we wear a band playing “God Save the Queen” and out walks this vision of turquoise flanked by three men in suits. Hey Liz!
Our son had attended classes in Munich until June 29. So the first two weeks in Scotland were vacation days. Then on the 15th of July, our year of home schooling
began. We had three hours of formal classes each morning and then always did some kind of field trip outing in the afternoon. It was fun localizing his studies to include art, music, history and science. Edinburgh has a gruesome and murderous history that Corbin loved studying about. We even took a “Ghost Tour” we walked through cemeteries at night listening to tales of the darker past.
Instead of giving reports in front of the class, Corbin will be making “iReports”
a la CNN. Then we post these on YouTube where fifth graders around the world can watch and comment. Corbin recorded this first of these in Edinburgh. During one of our tours, he heard that JK Rolling used the Greyfriar’s Cemetery as inspiration for names to use in the Harry Potter books. Check out our website (http://fifthgradearoundtheworld.com
) to watch this great report.
Our goal with the trip is not necessarily be a tourist the entire month but instead learn how the people live. This is why we spent most of the month in Edinburgh instead of touring the highlands the whole time.
Of course, we did rent a car and did the obligatory Highlands/West Coast
tour for a couple of days. As everyone says, it is stunningly beautiful. We especially enjoyed the isles of the west coast. Our favorite was the Isle of Staffa where we saw these amazing hexagonal stone columns. We found a great castle for rent near Onich. It sleeps fourteen and would be a fun week-away destination for a group of our friends.
We loved being in a culture that embraces exotic flavors. Of course, the Indian food is outstanding. We had a tiny hole-in-the-wall right around the corner that was always jam packed with Indians. I took that as a good sign and picked up take-away one night. Outstanding. On my next visit there, I met a nice Indian guy from California who said he had read about it in the Rick Steve’s book. I simply went in because of the big crowd.
While we tried some local cuisine including haggis
, we ate mostly seafood or ethnic throughout the month. Our two favorites in Edinburgh were Dusit(Thai), Miro’s Cantina Mexicana (Mexican) and Saigon Saigon (Chinese). The Chinese restaurant offered great Dim Sum
all day. They also offer your typical Chinese buffet upstairs but the real treats are offered a-la-carte downstairs where all the Chinese locals. All three are must visit restaurants during a visit here.
We loved getting to know this city and becoming local. The Scots are fun loving people who enjoy both the outdoors in good weather and hanging with friends in the pub. The World Cup
happened during our month there which added to the fever of the city. ES-PAN-NA. ES-PA-NA. By the end, we had a good feeling for the place and would enjoying returning some day.
UP NEXT: A quick trip back to California and then on to Isanbul, Turkey
Last edited by olafman; Oct 16, 10 at 3:06 am
Oct 15, 10, 2:28 am
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: SF Bay Area, California
Programs: AA2MM PLT, Hilton Gold, SPG Gold
August 2010: Istanbul, turkey
AUGUST 2010: Istanbul, Turkey (via California)
We left Scotland by train having booked an incredible £15 one way form Edinburgh to London. From there we tubed it on the Piccadilly out to Heathrow. Using one of my favorite sites, biddingfortravel.com
, I had found out that a hotel room at Heathrow could be had for less than $100. In fact, Priceline gave me the Hilton at Terminal 4 for $50! The minimum on Hilton.com was $175. If you’ve never used biddingfortravel.com, give it a try. We’ve used it ALL over Europe with AMAZING results. People post their winning bids and that guides your bidding on Priceline.
Our room was typical Hilton with a lovely interior atrium view of the check-in desk. My son was a little saddened he couldn’t see the planes. So was I. What do you want for $50? Terry went back into London to see the musical Hair with a friend leaving Corbin and me an evening of swimming in the pool and dinner at T4 at a nice French bistro.
Unfortunately, we were leaving from T3, so that meant taking the free connection service provided by Heathrow Express trains. Oddly, the Hilton offers a free shuttle to T5 but not T1/2/3. Even with all our bags, the transfer was easy and soon we were checking in for our USA flights.
We had been living in Munich and needed actually to enter the United States as part of finishing our contracts. So a quick one week visit to California would meet that requirement and we would get to see family and friends. Unfortunately, our company only pays coach so this journey would be our last long haul for a while in the back of the bus.
One of the benefits of the journey was that both Terry and Corbin did the Platinum Challenge on AA
. If they flew over 10,000 miles at a certain fare level within three months and then get AA Platinum status (Oneworld Sapphire) for the next 18 months! Our single trip back to CA easily put them past the 10,000 mark. The best feature of platinum status is the 100% elite bonus on almost all Oneworld airlines. Considering all the flying we’re doing this year, that adds up to a lot of miles. It was definitely worth the $250 each to sign them up.
American Airlines Flight #137
London Heathrow (LHR) – Los Angeles (LAX)
Date: August 1, 2010
Miles flown since start: 6,284 mi.
Aircraft: Boeing 777
Seats: ECONOMY 38 CDE
After a quick check-in in the Platinum/Business Class line, we flew through security and headed off toward the AAdmiral’s Club. At this point I was the only Platinum with lounge privileges. But I could bring in ONE guest. Some domestic AAdmiral’s Clubs will let me bring in my son plus hubby but internationally it hasn’t worked. So my son waited outside while I dropped my husband off there. I’ve been through T3 quite a bit and know the better lounges are offered by the OW partners.
The nicest T3 lounge is the newer BA Galleries
which is spacious with nice food and beverage on offer. Sadly, I was in the mood for a mimosa but there wasn’t any sparkling wine. One of my favorite parts of the BA lounges is that they now have chilled Grey Goose hidden next to all the chilled waters. They leave the crappy Smirnoff up on the shelf. Alas, it was a bit early for vodka! My son loved the lounge especially the kid room with video games. He befriended some kids having just arrived from Hong Kong. I enjoyed the obligatory bacon roll and some fruit salad.
Since it was morning I wanted some dim sum at the new Cathay Pacific lounge
. Not all the signage was updated so it was a bit confusing finding it. I posted a photo report on Flyertalk
about the visit. We were bummed that they only had English breakfast offerings but no dim sum. I could have gotten some noodles but didn’t feel like it.
We finally picked up hubby and made our way down to the ever chaotic AA pier. I also feel like it’s a beehive there. JFK used to have the same feeling. Boarding began and we were soon in our seats. I had originally booked 38 CEG with hopes that no one would want the middle seats between us. My parents used this trick for many years. Always book the middle seat free as they will be chosen last. Then if the flight is full, the stranger in the middle will gladly swap it for the aisle then you can move over and be together. Nothing lost. Today’s flight was full so we ended up in 38CDE. Economy is nicer with our small 11 year old next to us.
I’ve flown this flight to LA many times in first and business and have always been impressed with the flight crew. This was my first time in coach though. The FAs were wonderful. Midflight I went back and chatted with them for a while. We have a friend who is quite junior and only sometimes gets the route. They all knew him and raved about him. The food was fine but I’m always surprised when they want $7 for a can of beer. Just before landing one of the flight attendants dropped off a little gift for me. We enjoyed a nice bottle of champers
at my brother’s house that evening. Thanks AA.
I always feel like we are making a bit of a political statement
every time we go through passport control as a family. The State of California recognizes my marriage to my husband but the federal government does not. Still we are both the parents of our son so that makes us a family in my mind. Needless to say, the customs official didn’t bat an eye at us. Three stamps and we were on our way. AA got our bags out fast and first and we were soon dropping them off for our next flight.
I had no problem getting my two guests into the AAdmiral’s Club in LAX. We did have to ask for the drink coupons though. None were immediately offered. I went for a shower and then we enjoyed a nice Grey Goose together while Corbin went off to play video games. I felt weird being back in the States again. It had been a year since my last visit and we were leaving again in just over a week for a year away.
American Airlines Flight #1539
Los Angeles (LAX) – San Francisco (SFO)
Date: August 1, 2010
Miles flown since start: 6,621 mi.
Aircraft: Boeing 737
Seats: First Class 2B and the other two in the first row of Y
Since I rarely fly domestically, I have lots of unused e-upgrades. Luckily I got upgraded and gladly left my family sitting two rows behind me in economy. I tried to get them upgraded too but with no luck. A nice vodka tonic and some pretzels later and we were on the ground in San Francisco. Once again the bags came out quickly and soon loaded into my brother’s mini-van at the curb.
Our week in the US seems almost a blur for us all. Family and friends threw five official come-see-the-Haleys parties, two in the Bay Area, one in Sacramento and two in Los Angeles. I felt like we were campaigning for office. It was wonderful to see so many of our loved ones. Our goal is to live there after our adventurous year is complete next summer.
Southwest Airlines Flight #743
Oakland (OAK) – Los Angeles (LAX)
Date: August 7, 2010
Miles flown since start: 6,958 mi.
Aircraft: Boeing 737
Seats: Somewhere near the front using their open seating process
We spent the last part of our visit with friends in Los Angeles. This required a short hop down to Southern California on Southwest. As one of the original low cost carriers, they offer a solid product at a competitive price. Our original flight was over a half hour late so they put us on an earlier flight. No fuss. No charge.
Having lived for the last fifteen years in Los Angeles before moving to Germany, we had lots of people to see. Forty-eight hours
there was not enough but our adventure in Turkey was calling.
American Airlines Flight #743
Los Angeles (LAX) – London (LHR)
Date: August 9, 2010
Miles flown since start: 12,414 mi.
Aircraft: Boeing 777
Seats: ECONOMY 38CEG
Since we had six bags, I drove our rental SUV to the AA curb and dropped all of the bags and my two boys. Then I returned the car on my own to save us from having to schlep all the bags more than we had to.
Check in was smooth but unfriendly. I’m always perky and friendly and she wasn’t not in the mood for any of it. Once again my family was let into the lounge on my one Platinum card. Thanks AA. This flight would be the final flight as part of their Platinum Challenge. After this, we would all be Oneworld Sapphires
My only complaint is that the American carriers don’t offer free Wifi in their lounges. Somehow the rest of the world carriers manage to. Ugh.
The frequent flyer gods smiled upon us once again and 38D and 38F were unoccupied. Life is much happier in long-haul economy when you can stretch out a bit. The flight crew was once again great and I recognized some from previous flights.
British Airways Flight #680
London (LHR) – Istanbul, Turkey (IST)
Date: August 10, 2010
Miles flown since start: 13,979 mi.
Aircraft: Boeing 737
Seats: ECONOMY 15ABC
We arrived at T3 Heathrow and followed the signs for the bus to T5. I’m always amazed how long of a ride this is. We all enjoyed plane spotting including both Qantas and Emirates A380s
. We’ll be on both of those birds later in the trip! We are especially looking forward the Emirates A380 in First so we can take our first on-board shower.
The BA Galleries agent would not let me have two guests so we walked down and dropped hubby off at the South Galleries lounge while Corbin and I used the North Galleries lounge.
BA has done a very nice job with the T5 lounges. They have ample capacity, nice hot and cold food offerings and stock my favorite Grey Goose
. I went to down a level and took a shower in the spa area. Getting clean mid-journey always makes me feel so much better. Hubby texted me because he couldn’t find the Grey Goose at his lounge. I gave him detailed instructions and then he was happy.
Our Oneworld Round The World ticket wouldn’t begin until we returned to London from Istanbul. So that meant we were in cattle class on a full flight. BA still manages to serve free drinks and present a decent hot meal. Kudos. All of us watched our own movies on our laptops. Four hours flew by.
Of all of the countries that we would be visiting, I was most concerned about Turkey. We are two gay guys with a kid
. It’s 98% Muslim. It sounds like a pitch for a bad sitcom. Hilarity ensues.
When my husband and I adopted our son at birth, we decided that it would be better if we all had the same last name. We decided to create a new name instead of hyphenating or having one of us use the other’s. We went to court to make it official and that’s how we all became the Haleys. One unanticipated result was that sometimes people sometimes mistakenly think my husband and I are brothers even though we look nothing alike. It always makes me laugh.
As we planned for our time in this Muslim country, I always knew that we could pass as brothers if necessary
. So as we queued for the passport check upon arrival in Istanbul, we decided I would present myself with Corbin and Terry would go separately. Unfortunately, after standing in our line for 15 minutes, our customs agent closed leaving our line abandoned and angry. People immediately started yelling because no solution was presented. In the end, our line zippered with the neighboring line against their wishes. Several people yelled loudly for a long time while standing there. We were definitely experiencing a different culture!
Once we got our bags, I went off to get money while Terry figured out the taxis. Unfortunately, he got bad info and said a taxi was about $130. Something was fishy. I always try to do a bit of advanced research to have an idea of what an airport transfer might cost and this was much more than expected. This quote had been for a private taxi we figured out later. I found the normal taxi queue and it only cost about $30 for the thirty minute taxi ride to the center.
Terry was in charge of planning for both Scotland and Turkey. Since I’m the consummate planner, we decided it would be better if we split the countries so that he would get to plan something too. Otherwise, I would end up doing everything. Terry had difficulty finding a short term apartment rental via the Internet. He sent out feelers through various friends and came up with someone who would rent us her flat in Besiktas
for $100/day. We saw a couple of pictures and it looked fine.
We arrived at the flat just after midnight and dragged all six big bags up the four flights to the top floor. The temperature inside the apartment was HOT. It was at this point I thought to ask Terry “Does this place have air conditioning?”
People had warned us that it would be hot during August. We’re from Los Angeles and we’re used to warm. What we weren’t used to was the humidity. Californians melt in humidity.
When you give up control of planning, you have to accept that things might be done differently than you would have done. Terry and I have been together for almost twenty years
and know each other pretty well. But details are not his strong point. He hadn’t thought to ask about air conditioning. We were all drenched in sweat and exhausted after the long journey from Los Angeles. After a good shower and some sleep, we’d be all better. I’m an optimist.
Around 2:30 am, a man started roaming the streets banging on a drum
. While annoying, we assumed this to be the drunk behavior after an evening of partying. After a while, he went away and it was quiet once again. It turns out he was waking us up for prayers that will be starting soon.
At 04:30 am, the chanting began for morning prayers
. Conveniently, we had a mosque right next to our building with strategically placed speakers directed towards our windows. As the singing started, we could hear similar a chorus of chants around town. It was actually very beautiful except that it was THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT. At this point I felt like we were in an episode of Lucille Ball goes to Istanbul.
We next woke up around 10:00 am. Terry had already been up a while and had picked up some coffee and fruit at the corner market. I spent the morning quieting thinking in my head if we could just skip Turkey and fly down to South Africa tomorrow.
Around noon, we made it out of the flat on a little walk around the neighborhood. This place felt foreign. It didn’t have the European feel of other cities to the west. We found a bigger grocery and purchased more groceries for our stay. At least we wouldn’t go hungry! We also picked up the first of what would be many take-away lambs kebabs. It’s the unofficial food of Turkey and it’s delicious.
I was surprised at how little English was spoken
around town. Taxis drivers spoke NO English and you needed to say the area where you were going with decent pronunciation. With three of us, we figured out that taking a taxi was often cheaper than taking connecting buses. Our flat was near the W Hotel but none of the taxi drivers understood what or where that was. I’d even make the “W” with my fingers to no avail. The nice thing is that this forced us to learn the names of places and some basic Turkish words.
My boys were tired later in the afternoon and we decided to just eat dinner at home. I set out walking to explore the city heading toward the center of the shopping area, Taksim
. Along the way, I looked longingly at the Ritz Carlton that I passed. This year was not going to work if we checked into a five star hotel every time I got uncomfortable. Our goal was to experience life as a local. So enduring the heat was part of that.
Taksim was vibrant area full of people. August 11th was the first day of Ramadan and the square was setting up for concert and a faire that evening. Unlike other Muslim countries, locals told with us that less than half the people in Istanbul observe Ramadan
. McDonalds was packed with locals as I walked by. The sun was setting by this point but my shirt was still soaked through with sweat. I had been hot for 24 hours straight at this point.
Branching off the main square is a fun walking street. People were already queuing for food in anticipation of the ending of the day’s fast. It was refreshing to not see the same chain stores that are ubiquitous throughout the rest of Europe. This felt like a much more localized experience. I turned off the main street and found smaller walking street of just restaurants. I’d bring Terry and Corbin here the next night for dinner.
By the time I made it back to Taksim, the concerts had begun with a good singer with backup band. Then traditional dancers peformed folk dances
. It was all colorful and entertaining. I was still soaked through so I need to go home and shower and relax.
I was experiencing an interesting mix of culture and climate shock. Communication was a huge issue for me. I speak fluent English and Spanish. I also speak French well, Chichewa (main language of Malawi), some German and some Danish. I am used to being able to communicate when I travel with one of those languages. In Turkey, these languages didn’t work for me. I was frustrated. I was definitely regretting the choice of Istanbul. It seemed like a nice place but I wasn’t connecting.
One of the problems we had during our first month of our adventure in Scotland was meeting locals
. Part of achieving our goal of discovering how locals lived involved actually meeting a local or two. We had ten friends visit us during our month there which did affect our ability to go out meet new people.
Since we had Grandma in Edinburgh, Terry and I did manage to go out to dinner a few times and then hung out at a couple of gay pubs. This just wasn’t conducive to meeting intelligent, educated, friendly people. We met drunk people, not exactly what we were looking for.
I was hoping that by the end of the month, we would have made new life-long Scottish friends that we’d stay in contact with and some day they would visit us in California. That didn’t happen. We did meet other foreigners in the bars and enjoyed chatting with them. But not a lot of Scots.
The next day in Istanbul brought up these same concerns about needing to meet local people. It was frustrating to be a big city and not know anyone. Beside hanging out at bars, we also had the iPhone app Grindr
. Leave it to the gays to make hooking up as easy as opening an app. You are presented with guys’ photos who are online and looking for fun. What makes this interesting, it uses your GPS and tells you how many feet away they are starting with the closest! Mike, 32, 5’10, 175# is only 200 feet away and just said “hi”. My friends who live in the States say that it is a wonderful blend of technologies.
The problem for us is that it is primarily about hooking up and less about finding new friends. But I’d still give it a try with a headline of “American couple in Istanbul looking for new friends”. I decided that a non-sexual picture of me in my geeky Bavarian lederhosen would be enough to let people know that I’m not looking for anything beyond friendship.
Almost instantly, guys started chatting. Sometimes it was obvious that they were looking for something else but conversations began nonetheless. About the same time I remembered a NY Times article that I read in May. It discussed a website Couchsurfing.org
whose premise is to hook travelers with local people and let them sleep on their couch. The author never slept on anyone’s couch but instead used the site as a way of meeting local people. PERFECT! I had been meaning to visit this website and all of the sudden it popped back into my head.
On the main webpage, their mission statement states it is a “worldwide network for making connections between travelers and the local communities they visit.”. I spent the next hour signing up. They have a whole process of verification that you are a real person by having you make a small donation to the site. This seemed reasonable. Then I had fun looking around the site. Thousands of locals in Istanbul were members. I joined the Istanbul General Group and also the Gay Istanbul group. In the general group I introduced ourselves saying we’re two guy guys and their son looking for a playdate at a park with other families. Then in the gay forum, I said we were looking to meet other gay people to find out what gay life is like for locals in Istanbul. I especially thought it would be fun to meet another gay couple we could go out to dinner with.
Predictable results followed. We didn’t get any responses from families wanting playdates
for our kids. Two gay guy parents might just be too much for the average Turkish family in Istanbul.
The gays on the other hand responded quickly. Within 24 hours, I had four responses of locals willing to show us around or share a meal. Terry and I decided that we would meet the locals first individually before introducing our son just as a precaution. So the next night, Terry met up with the first.
Erhan is 30 years old and had recently broken up from a seven year relationship. He said that he’s out to most of his friends and family except his parents. This proved to be a theme with other gay people that we met. His big news was that he was moving to San Francisco the week after we left. He worked there for a couple of months and made some good friends. This time he didn’t have a visa or a job but he had an airline ticket!
The next night Erhan suggested a typical Turkish restaurant Otanik
on the walking street. Having a local order the whole meal is sure the way to go. We tasted some lots of delicious treats. It was fun getting to know him and he was very sweet with Corbin.
The heat was continuing to make life difficult. The problem was that we were never cool. It’s sad when you look forward to hanging out near the refrigerator items at the grocery store. Sleep continued to be challenging between the heat and the prayers. Luckily our apartment had decent Internet so I began to look for some other options.
I thought maybe if we could swim during the day, the nights would be easier. In Turkey, swimming pools are for the rich. All the big hotels offer day guest passes for around $50/day/person. This seemed a bit excessive.
Finally I started looking at moving to another apartment or hotel
to escape the heat. We were here to live like locals and I had seen that a lot of the locals had air conditioning. So I wanted it too! Luckily I found a hotel that also had apartments just three blocks away. On my own I went by to see if the place would work for us. It was wonderful. They even gave me a special price since we would be staying so long.
I returned back to our flat and pitched the idea to Terry. He loved it and immediately went to see the room. We’d move in two days. We had already paid for our current place through then.
On our second full day, we booked a half day city tour
through an agency recommended in the Lonely Planet guide. They picked us at our place in a beautifully air conditioned bus. After picking up a few more people, we toured several mosques, the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market. The guide was informative but lacked any sparkle. The tour ended with a 1.5 hour Bosphorus river tour. In the end I could have saved us the money and done a comparable tour myself.
After breakfast on Sunday, we moved into the Housez Hotel and Apartments
. It was heavenly. We had a one bedroom, two bathroom suite with a mini-kitchen, daily maid service and organic breakfast buffet downstairs. The best part was the wonderful air conditioning
. We could finally cool down. The cold air also made school much easier. Corbin was having trouble focusing in the heat. We never once regretted the move which was only an additional $43 a day.
Every morning was full with school and then we spent the afternoons exploring the city. We did all the traditional sites like the palaces, Goleta Tower, Military Museum, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Archeological Museum
, and a great temporary exhibit entitled “8000 years in Istanbul”.
Quite quickly we figured out the buses and trams and took them when it made economic sense. They use a rechargeable fob to prepay the fare like the Oyster card in London. We even rode a funicular. City planners have found it difficult to build many metro lines because the city is so old and so hilly. For thousands of years, they simply keep building on top of the older city. Buses are plentiful and slowly they are updating them to have a/c.
One of the highlights was taking a ferry twelve kilometers to the Princes’ islands
one day. We stopped off first at Kinaliada Island. This tiny island is mostly beach apartments and houses for Istanbulers. We ate a wonderful fish lunch near the center. Next we took the ferry to the largest island Buyukada which was fun to walk around. My guidebook suggested a nice walk up to the highest point of the island which included a mule ride for the final portion. This appealed to Corbin. After walking in the heat for about 75 minutes, we arrived at the mules only to be told that only Corbin would get a mule. Terry and I had to walk. At the top the views all around were spectacular and the cold drinks refreshing. We returned to Kinaliada a few days later with a friend visiting from Los Angeles to spend time relaxing on the beach.
We were also contacted by a gay couple from CouchSurfing, Tolga and Murat, who invited me out to dinner. We met near our apartment and cabbed it to a municipal park that had a state run restaurant. Since it was Ramadan, they had a special menu prepared that would start just after sundown. Tolga and Murat have been together for three years and live together in a nice flat. Murat also spends two nights a week at his parent’s house on the Asian side of Istanbul. They still think he lives there. Neither is out to their parents but Tolga’s siblings have met Murat. No one in Murat’s family has met Tolga. It seems like Turkey is on its way to being more open and accepting of homosexuality. They are just not totally there yet.
The food throughout the evening was spectacular. They served much more than we could consume. At the end, they insisted in picking up the tab. Very sweet. We had a drink back at their place and was able to see the couch on offer for Couchsurfing. While I didn’t sleep there, I gave it a high recommendation since it had a beautiful a/c unit right above it! On a different evening, Terry went out to dinner with them and also had a great time. Since dinner is served a bit late we felt it better not to make Corbin stay up for a late dinner.
When my friend Robin visited, we went out to sample the gay scene
. It was fun but it wasn’t so easy to chat with people.
After meeting some locals, I really warmed up to Istanbul. We worked about the communication issues and really enjoyed the food. One of the highlights was when Erhan took us to Ciya
in Kadikoy on the Asian side. The food was incredible and should be on everyone’s must visit list for Istanbul. They proudly displayed articles from “Food & Wine”, “Saveur” and “NY Times” on their walls. Once again they had a special Ramadan menu that Erhan ordered from.
Corbin and I saw adverts for a waterpark
somewhere past the airport. One day we made it our goal to figure out local transport to get us there. It turns out they have a free shuttle from Taksim that takes you straight there. For about $20, we had a great day playing in the pools and going down the waterslides. It was a perfect way to take a break from all the sights and heat.
We had some wonderful interactions with other locals too that we came across. My favorite was a waiter that served us at a fish restaurant near the Golata bridge. He was chatting with us for a while in decent English when he finally asked which one of us was Corbin’s father. I replied “We both are his fathers.”
He laughed and said “No really. Which one?”
We explained that we were married and that in California, a male couple could adopt a child. His response was amazement but still very positive. He said he had never heard of that. He went on adding that Istanbul is changing and modernizing. He shared that none of his parent’s generation spoke any other languages and that he has worked hard learning several. He said the new generation is different from the older ones. As we were leaving he shook both of our hands and repeated it was a real pleasure meeting us. I think he was 100% straight but very open and optimistic about Istanbul’s future.
At the end of our second month of travel, we were once again thrilled with our experience. With 8000 years of history, Istanbul has so much to share with visitors. We look forward to future visits where we discover other parts of Turkey while also returning to the Istanbul that we have grown to love.
British Airways Flight #679
Istanbul, Turkey (IST) - London (LHR)
Date: August 27, 2010
Miles flown since start: 15,544 mi.
Aircraft: Boeing 737
Seats: ECONOMY 11C and 15AC
I was worried about our extra luggage as we approached check-in. BA offers only one 23 kg piece per person. We had six total. Our check-in agent ended up charging us €90 for two extra bags. I tried to work the Oneworld Sapphire thing but he was haven’t any of it. My Star Alliance gold
card gets me a third bag which I have used several times. Also since we made the reservation before Terry and Corbin hit Platinum, their status wasn’t coming up on their boarding pass. After several attemps including deleting their numbers and re-entering them, nothing worked.
Luckily the BA lounge lady didn’t care and welcomed us into the rather small lounge. They did have some nice sandwiches and desserts. Hopefully grandpa can send them their new cards while we’re in South Africa.
The flight back was not full. Corbin and I had a free seat between us while Terry nabbed an extra row. BA’s European economy service is perfectly fine. It was a decent value for the money.
We got our bags quickly at T5 and were on the Heathrow Express in no time. Using a promo code that I found on Flyertalk, I had booked us return HEX tickets for £40 for the three of us. We stayed with a friend in Clapham Common so I don’t have a hotel report. He does have spacious rooms with stunning bathrooms though!
While in London we attended a polo match
, saw Phantom sequel, ”Love Never Dies”
and made a literary journey to the British Museum where we viewed several items mentioned in Corbin’s book “The Red Pyramid”. Four days flew by.
Up next: South Africa and our first segment of our Oneworld DONE6 round the world ticket.
Last edited by olafman; Oct 19, 10 at 6:43 am
Oct 15, 10, 2:29 am
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: SF Bay Area, California
Programs: AA2MM PLT, Hilton Gold, SPG Gold
September 2010: Cape Town, South Africa
British Airways Flight #057
London (LHR) – Johannesburg (JNB)
Date: August 31, 2010
Miles flown since start: 21,165 mi.
Aircraft: Boeing 747-400
Seats: BUSINESS 63ABJ (Upstairs, exit row)
Finally after many preparatory flights, it was time to begin the first of sixteen segments included in our Oneworld DONE6 round-the-world ticket. The “D” stands for business class and the “6” means six continents. Sweetie (a dated AB FAB reference).
We arrived at Heathrow via the HEX and it’s quite a schlep to down to the Club/First check-in areas. Finally we arrived and we were processed quickly. Soon we were seated in the Galleries. I had promised Corbin that we’d try to book a massage at the spa. Unfortunately, they have an age requirement and he’s too young. So I booked one for myself and we went upstairs. I promised that he’d get one in Thailand. They don’t care how old you are there.
I returned to the spa and took a nice long shower. It’s always nice to start a long-haul flight feeling fresh. I finished in time for my massage. After signing my life away on the disclaimer form, I enjoyed a lovely head massage while the massage chair took care of my torso and legs.
I’ve already written about the Business Class T5 Galleries. They are lovely, perfectly fine for killing some time at the airport.
Our gate posted and the flight was leaving from the remote gates in the other terminal. Ugh. So a hop skip and a jump later and we arrived at the B gates. It was still a bit early for boarding so we went up to the Galleries lounge there. It was deserted. We should have gone over there earlier. Corbin played video games in the kid room while the adults had some soup and another cocktail. Hic.
Finally it was time to board and Corbin had the pleasure of climbing the stairs of a 747 for the first time in his life. He was very happy. We were greeted upstairs and shown to our seats.
Club World has been a competitive product since its introduction a decade ago. This current version is very comfortable. The best part is that it is truly horizontal. No tilty business class here.
The meal service began fairly quickly with cocktails first and then a lovely salmon starter. Next I had a nice filet of beef. I was exhausted so I didn’t take any pictures or make note of the menu. Sorry Carfield. I slept for a good six hours waking up just as we were flying over Malawi. I chose the English breakfast and a nice stiff cup of tea to get my body going.
Overall, it was a typically nice BA Club World flight. I spent most of the meal watching the Emmys that I had on my laptop. The flight attendant ask me what I was watching because I was laughing quite a bit! We arrived at OR Tambo refreshed and ready to go.
Our arrival in South Africa was bitter sweet. Resi, my “second” mom was dying. As I mentioned earlier in this report, Resi is the mom of my best friend who over the years has become “mom” to me. Unfortunately, she’s been battling cancer for a few years and recently her decline was picking up momentum.
When we arrived at her house, she was in her TV room dozing but quickly sat up and gave me a big hug and smile. She was very alert and sharp but the cancer has made her gaunt and brittle. Over the next 48 hours, we spent lots of time catching up when she wasn’t sleeping. At the end of my second day there, I had the “It’s time to let go and move on” talk with her. She had been on hospice care for a month but the dying process was very difficult for her. She just didn’t want to let go.
So that night, we talked about how she is worried about her son, Robert, and daughter, Ruth. I promised to continue to watch over them and that they would survive without their mama. When I said this, she simply took my hand and held it next to her cheek. I knew they were her biggest worry and what was preventing her from letting go.
The next morning she was in a lot of pain so she began taking morphine. Over the next few days she stopped wanting to get out of bed and became more aggressive to her daughter and the nurse. Everyone felt like they couldn’t make her happy. With the help of a hospice nurse, we all decided that she would be better served if we moved her to a hospice facility. They knew best how to make the dying process as comfortable as possible for her. They also thought it would help her brain to let go by leaving her house. This is exactly what happened.
Twenty four hours after arriving in hospice she was no longer conscious. At this point we decided that Robert and the Haleys would go down to Robert’s place for some R&R. Once she died there would be a lot to do so resting up a bit would be good.
On the way to OR Tembo airport, we stopped by hospice and said our final goodbye. We held her hand, told her we loved her and said goodbye. Terry and I left the room but Corbin lingered at the door. Then he called me back saying that she had quietly whispered “I love you. Goodbye.” About a day after we left she regained some consciousness enough to tell Ruth “You’ve underestimated me.” What a fighter.
She lasted seven days at the hospice facility which was much longer than expected. Ruth called us around 2 am one morning saying that she had finally died. All of us were relieved. Dying had been so hard on her and it had been so many years of fighting. At last her battle was over.
Resi had known since last November that we would be arriving on September 1. I flew down on my own last February for a couple of days and she was far from being ready to die. I think she was holding on now until her two kids and her “second son” were all with her to make this final transition.
This trip report has taken a personal and serious turn. But it’s part of our experience this year. We knew the year would be full of ups and downs. I also always knew in the back of my mind that I would be flying off to South Africa at any moment from where ever we were. She just planned it that I would already be there.
British Airways Flight #6417
Johannesburg (JNB) – Cape Town (CPT)
Date: September 7, 2010
Miles flown since start: 21,954 mi.
Aircraft: Boeing 737-300
Seats: ECONOMY 15AB, 11C
Johannesburg would be our home base from Sept. 1 though Nov. 1 when we left the African continent for Asia. This meant we didn’t have to lug all six bags around all the time. Amen! We traveled down to Cape Town with a respectable three check-in bags.
Months ago, I had pre-selected seats for us: Terry in the exit row and Corbin and me in 15AC. When I did OLCI, they had moved us all together at the back of the plane. So I chose the correct seats again and printed the boarding passes.
When we dropped off the bags, the computer had once again changed our seats to 23ABC. Ugh. The check in agent switched them back but managed to give Terry the row in FRONT of exit row: no extra legroom and seat didn’t recline.
After clearing security, we entered the beautiful oasis known as the BA Galleries in the domestic terminal. Bar none, it’s the nicest domestic lounge I’ve been too anywhere in the world. Next to the entrance check-in desk was the spa desk where you could book a variety of treatments. They weren’t complimentary but reasonably priced and convenient. From there we saw the amazing food offerings: three salads, lots of sandwiches and wraps, stacks of freshly made brownies, cheesecake, fresh fruit salad… The presentation was overwhelming for a domestic lounge. Sure, I’ve been to the Wing and EY’s First class lounge in DXB. But this lounge only serves piddley flights up to two hours with no first class! Corbin spent most of the time in the kid room which offered both Nintendo and Wii. Also on offer were a smoking room, conference rooms, showers, stunning individual restroomsm a computer area, wine bar and a well stocked bar with a real Italian coffee machine run by someone who knew how to use it. Lots of staff were around to bring drinks and clear plates too. BA really did this one right.
Our flight was slightly delayed but not more than 20 minutes. Since it was full, I scooted over to sit next to Corbin who always wants the window seat. In South Africa, BA’s flights are operated by a local company Comair. The biggest disadvantage over South Africa Airways is that they use pretty old 737s. SAA uses new 737-800s. Other than that, Comair offers a nice free beverage and meal service. Even cocktails are free! SAA doesn’t even stock spirits domestically. The meal was a Woolworth’s branded box of goodies served with a delicious hot main course. Soon enough we were in Cape Town, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
At this point I reckon I’ve visited Cape Town 30 or 40 times. It is definitely one of my second homes. The biggest reason is that my best friend Robert lives there. The second reason is that he has a stunningly beautiful house right on the Atlantic coast in Llandudno, 20 minutes south of the center of Cape Town. It has my vote for BEST SUNSETS OF THE WORLD. The Atlantic often has storms off the coast which makes for spectacular sunsets. Check out the pictures on my blog if you need convincing.
As I mentioned, by the time we sat down at Robert’s house, we were all physically and emotionally drained. It had been a difficult week since we arrived in Africa. We spent the first two days just going to the nearby beach and relaxing. My only goal every day was to be on Robert’s deck enjoying the sunset with a glass of nice South Africa red in my hand. Everything else was unimportant.
We had another friend, Chris and her boyfriend Mike arrive from California right after we got to Cape Town. Chris and I have traveled extensively together. This was our fourth time we were in Africa together. But Mike was a Cape Town virgin so we showed him our favorite highlights.
On day three, we finally decided we needed to leave Llandudno. We headed off to the wine country near Stellenbosch. We had booked into two wine farms that required reservations: Rupert & Rothschild and Stony Brook. Both were excellent experiences. The first has produced a lovely red blend that I’ve appreciated for years. There was only one other couple tasting while we were there which provided us with an intimate experience. We tasted four outstanding wines and also an olive oil that they had recently begun making. The sales lady also gave us a nice tour of the facilities and cellars. I have been to probably 20 wineries in Cape Town and this was the best experience I’d ever had. Until we went to Stony Brook. We were greeted by one of the proprietors who would be our guide throughout our visit. She was informative, honest, entertaining… and their wines were superb. Since we would be here until the end of the month, I stocked up Robert’s wine cellar with a few of our favorites.
Corbin came along for the ride and seemed to enjoy himself. He got to sample each wine by sticking his finger in my glass, something I remember doing as a kid. We learned a lot about the wine making process and how different varieties are treated.
The culinary highlight of the day was lunch at La Petite Ferme. This renowned restaurant once again offered both delicious food and one of the most beautiful views in the area. By the end of the meal, we were stuffed and full of wine. A nice siesta out in the gardens helped us regain consciousness. Our goal was to hit another wine farm on the way out of the area but we were sated.
Both Robert and I are sporty people and Cape Town is our Disneyland. Over the next few days, we hiked India Fenster up Table Mountain, hiked up Little Lion’s Head, biked down to Chapman’s Peak, kayaked off the coast near Simonstown, and rock climbed up Lion’s Head. I posted lots of pictures on my blog of our adventures.
By this point Resi had died and it was time to return to Johannesburg for the funeral.
Cape Town (CPT) - Johannesburg (JNB)
Date: September 19, 2010
Miles flown since start: 22,743 mi.
Aircraft: McDonnell-Douglas MD-83
Seats: Back of the bus
Since we booked at the last moment, we ended up on one of South Africa’s low cost carriers, 1time.co.za. They aren’t even big enough to have a real name, just a website name. A couple of years ago, another low cost carrier Nationwide had one of their engines fall off. No kidding. It was appalling. So the engines have stayed on the wings. Their planes are the oldest in South Africa but their fares are cheap! ☺ In spite of their status they managed to offer free beer and wine and a hot meal.
After 48 emotional hours celebrating Resi’s life back in Joburg, it was time to finish the rest of the month back in Cape Town.
South African Airways #333
Johannesburg (JNB) - Cape Town (CPT)
Date: September 21, 2010
Miles flown since start: 23,532 mi.
Aircraft: Airbus 340-600
Check-in was painless as we had already printed the boarding passes online. We hadn’t brought much luggage since it was just a two day trip to Joburg. We cleared security and went straight to the gate and started boarding quickly.
Once or twice a day, SAA flies a big bird between JNB and CPT to position them for all of their evening international flights. We chose the noon departure because it was serviced by their biggest Airbus. Luckily the flight was half full so we had plenty of room to stretch out. AVOD was not turned on for the flight but the tail camera and flight map could be displayed at each seat. A nice hot meal and drinks were served.
The rest of the month in Cape Town flew by. Our month in South Africa by design was a “summer vacation month”. We told Corbin that he would get eight weeks of summer vacation in total. We worked out together that the first two weeks in Scotland, the first two weeks of August and the entire month of September would make up his summer vacation. We mapped out the school calendar for the rest of the year ensuring that he has 177 school days total. We never have school on our travel days and we tried to spread some “holidays” around the year.
After we got back, Corbin’s cousins from Johannesburg joined us for the rest of our time. He loved hanging out with them since they are his age. Together we rock climbed up Lion’s Head again, snorkeled with sea lions in the Atlantic Ocean outside of Hout Bay, had lunch at the Western Cape’s best restaurant Die Strandloper, hiked/climbed up Table Mountain via Kloof Corner and rock climbed up the face of Table Mountain up Arrow Final. It was a fun month full of emotion, adventure, good food, good wine and most importantly good friends.
British Airways #6438
Cape Town (CPT) - Johannesburg (JNB)
Date: September 30, 2010
Miles flown since start: 24,321 mi.
Seats: 11C, 15AC
Based on the lounge we had in JNB, we made sure to arrive at the Cape Town airport with plenty of lounge time. Check-in was painless and soon we were nicely settled into our seats in an equally wonderful BA lounge. It was was a little smaller than its Joburg counterpart and at capacity. Still, the service was wonderful. Food wonderful. We managed to eat a fine dinner before boarding.
Once again, Corbin and I had a free seat between us as Terry sat in the exit row. They served drinks and some very nice butternut squash cannelloni or chicken with rice. We were all still pretty stuffed from the lounge.
The bags just about beat us to the baggage carousel. Some how they’ve designed the new airport that you end up walking miles to the baggage claim area and then more miles to final exit. It used to be so easy before it got so big!
I’ve rented from Thrifty the past few times that I’ve flown through Joburg and have yet to be very happy. They are SLOW checking me in and the cars always seem to have something wrong with them. I’ve chosen them based on price but think they’re not worth it. I’m giving them a final chance at the end of October. We’ll see if they can improve.
We spent the next day packing for Madagascar: sun screen, bug repellant, malaria prophylaxis, guide books and plenty of books on our Kindles/iPad. Madagascar was the one country that I was a bit nervous about. I was worried about us all staying healthy and how Terry and Corbin would deal with the poverty. But I knew that it would be an adventure that we’d never forget.
Last edited by olafman; Oct 22, 10 at 1:50 am
Oct 15, 10, 3:03 am
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: SF Bay Area, California
Programs: AA2MM PLT, Hilton Gold, SPG Gold
OCTOBER 2010: MAHAJANGA, MADAGASCAR
“I like to move it, move it!” We had finally arrived at Corbin’s choice for our year-long adventure. My only connection with Madagascar is that it arrives out my window just as Cathay Pacific is serving me dinner on the JNB-HKG flight. With a lovely glass of Krug champagne in hand, I have often stared out the window at its vastness. It’s pretty spectacular from 39,000 ft. But what would the experience be like this time without the comfortable surroundings of CX First Class as a buffer? I never had to take Larium when “visiting” Madagascar with Cathay Pacific!
Once I again, I dropped off the boys at the check-in with the bags and drove off to return the car. This method works well for us.
South African Airlink #8252
Johannesburg (JNB) – Antananarivo, Madagascar (TNR)
Date: Oct 2, 2010
Miles flown since start: 25,657 mi.
Aircraft: Avro RJ85
Seats: BUSINESS 4ACD (sort of)
Our little 3 hour hop from JNB to Madagascar was a bit expensive at $900 each in economy. Ouch. Supply and demand bit us in the butt. It was Corbin’s choice and we were going to do whatever was needed to make it happen.
Airlink is a subsidiary of South African Airways. This means that they aren’t part of the Star Alliance and don’t offer any of those benefits. I was able to check us in at the SAA website though. I snagged the first row of economy for us.
It’s a sad day when we don’t have a lounge to use before a flight. With elite status on on both Oneworld and Star Alliance, we’re usually covered. Airlink, or Bob’s Airline, as I began to call it, enabled us to experience the airport like everyone else! Luckily we arrived with enough time to have a great breakfast at the News Café. I had Eggs Benedict, Terry a great omelet and Corbin a big stack of pancakes! It was a better spread than any lounge would offer at that time of day. I hadn’t eaten Eggs Benedict since the Mandarin Orient Munich on our last day in Germany.
Flying Airlink means taking the obligatory bus to the aircraft. For our flight they only used ONE bus. So once we boarded the bus, we waited 25 minutes on it for all the passengers to board and then we traveled together to the waiting plane.
Once on board we noticed something very interesting, the Business Class curtain was placed in the row AFTER our seats. Were we in Business Class? Once boarding was completed, we were four in row 4 and three in row 2. The back of the bus looked very full. Hmm.
Finally a flight attendant came by asking “Do you have a Business Class ticket or Economy?” Her manifest told her that she only had three people in C that day. I confessed that we had booked “Y” but possibly had been upgraded? She suggested a more plausible possibility that the movable curtain had not be placed on the correct row. For the rest of the flight we received Y service in spite of being in front of the curtain.
We had downloaded the Brittany episode of Glee recently and decided that this flight would be the time that we all watched it together. Since I was on the other side of the aisle, we did a simultaneous viewing on separate laptops. We’re such Glee’ks. In Germany we used to have bi-weekly Glee Club parties and watch two episodes with a group of our friends. Now it was just the three of us on a flight to Madagascar.
Free drinks and a nice hot meal once again helped make the flight pass quickly. Soon enough, we were preparing to land in the exotic lands of Madagascar.
I’m a big fan of the Lonely Planet guides
from way back. I remember backpacking through China for three weeks in 1987 with the LP guide in my pack. It served me well then and through many other countries since. After Expedia.com failed to offer me anything reasonable, I decided to seek the advice of Lonely Planet. Their “our pick” in the moderate priced hotels was the Hotel Sakamanga. They had decent website and responded quickly to my queries. The best part is that they would send a drive to fetch us at the airport.
As we deplaned at TNR, I noticed that we were the only aircraft at the airport. This reminded me of my days in Malawi with departures at Lilongwe International Airport. We used to joke that the air traffic controllers probably freaked out when they had three aircraft on the ground. TOO much to coordinate.
The arrival cards were printed as part of a nice tourist booklet with advertisements of all the local hotels and tour operators. Our hotel even had an ad in the booklet. Somehow this felt reassuring in this foreign land. I knew that the line for tourists without a visa would be long so I ushered my family over to the correct queue quickly.
As we began the customs/visa formalities, our officer asked us for a copy of our outbound ticket. Often countries want to be sure that you are leaving. Not a problem. Then his supervisor who was standing near walked away to handle a nearby problem. As soon as he left, the officer asked me if I had a “gift” for him. Ugh.
I played dumb but was extremely uncomfortable. He kept repeating the word “gift”
. Do I pay him something and risk being seen bribing an official? Or do I just do nothing and risk having more problems?
In the end, I chose to play dumb and nothing bad happened. But it was a wake up call on how much of the world works. After collecting our bags, we were greeted by a man from our hotel holding a sign with our name. It was a welcome sight.
None of our ATM cards worked
so we left the airport with no money. Our driver said there was a bank on the way. He stopped about 15 minutes later, parked off the main road and we ran down to try our luck with another bank. Unfortunately, neither card worked there and so far we haven't been able to get any money in Madagascar. It's a bit of a pain but "TIA": This is Africa.
When we got back to the car on the main road, it was surround by police with large guns and rifles. We stayed back to not get involved. We assumed that he wasn’t supposed to park off the road. Well, it turned out that he was parked directly across the street from US Embassy! The police were called by the embassy. After the bombing of the embassy in Kenya, I think US embassies are on high alert all around the world. He didn’t get a ticket or anything but he was visibly shaken by the whole ordeal.
Tana is a modern African city set on rolling hills. The streets are vibrant and everyone is well dressed and wearing shoes. I remember arriving in Johannesburg for the first time on a flight from Malawi in 1988. I couldn’t believe how well dressed the black people were. They all had shoes! This was a huge improvement over the average Malawian.
We stayed in the Hotel Sakamanga
, a 32 room funky little place half full of French tourists and the other half mostly Europeans and some Asians. We have encountered very few Americans here. Our room had a fun loft for Corbin.
After dropping off our bags, we set out to try to get some money. The hotel didn’t have any money to swap for our dollars/euros. As soon as we set foot on the street, several men offered us “change money” in soft, hushed tones. Having just arrived we weren’t quite ready to go to the black market. We tried our ATM cards in several more banks with no luck. Finally we found a bank open and was able to change 100 euros. Interestingly, they would not except US bills $100 or greater. Some other place only want $100 bills newer than 2008. It will make me get new bills in the future before I leave.
Once we had some local Ariary in our pocket, we continued to explore the local markets and streets. Fresh produce was abundant: tomatoes, onions, garlic, pineapples, mangos, oranges, avos,.. It was going to be easy to eat local in this country.
The Lonely Planet guide also recommended the restaurant at the hotel. We had booked a table but were the only customers when we arrived at 6:30pm. I was beginning to rethink this decision. My parents taught me that you should be wary of an empty restaurant. But by the time we left, every single table was full. This Saturday night crowd just ate later.
The meal was incredible. Terry and I both had crayfish and avo starters and then swordfish and a local beef/chicken curry. Corbin had an amazing crab au gratin. With beers and drinks, the bill was just over $20. I love dining in the developing world.
The next day we woke up early and set out for a patisserie
that was recommended. The French have left a legacy of wonderful baguettes and croissants in this country. We walked for about 10 minutes before finding the Patisserie Colbert. It offered wonderful French bread products and pastries. With our chocolate au lait and café, it was a great start to the day.
We spent a few hours doing a walking tour outlined in Lonely Planet. It began at the highest point in Tana, the Rovo royal place. It was closed for renovation but was interesting to see from the exterior. We visited a museum that housed relics of previous kings and queens which was basic but interesting. Madagascar had a crazy queen in the mid 19th century that kicked out all the Christians or threw them off cliffs. We stood on the famous cliffs and thought about flying off.
We stopped at a public park for over an hour where Corbin built a mini fort and then began playing with some local kids. They invented a game of using plastic bottles and plastic bags to slide down a banister. Who needs Nintendo?
By this point we were all a bit tired so we made our way back to the hotel where they had a nice Sunday lunch buffet on offer that was hard to turn down. Everything was incredibly fresh and delicious. I spent the rest of the afternoon working on my blog while Terry and Corbin went out to the crazy, big market.
Unfortunately, Terry had his wallet taken amongst the crowd
. Luckily it just had about $30 worth of local money. The big loss was his German driver’s license. We’ll figure out how to get another.
That evening we ate at the hotel restaurant again because it was so good the night before. Once again, we loved everything we ate: bouillabaisse, grilled calamari, and a Zebu steak (an animal similar to a cow). It’s sad when you don’t have room for dessert. The restaurant is famous for their dark chocolate fondue dessert. We just couldn’t fit anymore.
Although our stay in Tana was brief, we walked around and got a good sense of the city. We look forward to another two night stay there on our departure from Madagascar.
We booked a private car and driver to take us from the capital city out to the coast where we had rented a house. The drive was about 350 miles and took 10 hours
. The two and sometimes one lane road is the biggest and best road in the country. Its windy path made us all a bit car sick for most of the journey. We did see spectacular countryside. We only made one real stop which was for lunch. I think on the way back we will remind ourselves to stop more so that it breaks up the journey. The highlight came at about 8 hours into the trip when we drove through a national park and spotted our first LEMUR
Instead of singing and dancing, they were all hanging out in trees eating leaves. Even still, it was very exciting. We will be spending the night in a bungalow there next week.
We arrived at our house on the coast
near Mahajanga around 7pm feeling relieved and tired. We all think this place is wonderful. It’s right on the beach and constantly has a nice breeze to cool things down. A covered veranda is our home during the day for school and meals. Each bedroom has an A/C unit and mosquito nets over the beds making sleep very comfortable. The cook, Lolo, had prepared a wonderful meal for us and the gardener/guard, Mafali, grilled two huge fish over a fire. It was all delicious and hit the spot.
In the morning we met the housekeeper Yvette who would be cleaning and doing laundry. The final addition to “our staff” was Zimbo, our driver. He had an older 4x4 that will be taking us to town and around the area. Have I mentioned yet this place is close to paradise?
Zimbo drove us and the cook into town to get money and do some shopping. I thought that I might have to get money wired here via Western Union since our ATM cards weren’t working. Luckily I remembered that in the olden days, I could get a “cash advance” on a credit card. This worked flawlessly and we left with ONE MILLION Ariary
($500). Corbin was impressed that I was holding one million of ANYTHING.
We picked up local SIM cards for our mobile phones. It’s the easiest way to stay in touch for emergencies. Our next stop was the supermarket. I was amazed because 95% of the products there were imported from France. Of course the difference in price between the local and imported products was HUGE. But it’s nice to have some mustard and mayo! We ended spending $100 on “the basics”. It was getting warm so the Haleys hung out at an internet café while the cook and driver did the shopping at the outdoor market for veggies and meat. The internet is cheap but VERY SLOW. Terry doesn’t think it’s worth it.
Once back at home, Corbin worked on school for three hours and then made some friends out on our beach
and didn’t come in until sunset. It was fun to seeing him playing so hard. He doesn’t do that with us!
The highlight of the evening was cooking up two lobsters
that appeared on our Home Shopping Network. Don’t think we have the TV on all day here. Instead our HSN is a series of people who come by the house selling a variety of things from lobster, prawns, shrimp, mangos, papayas, nuts... They walk down the driveway and present us with their goods. Our cook let us know that if she bargains, the price is lower. Also Terry and I have trouble saying no. This morning I turned down $0.25 cent mangos thinking it was too much. Jaded after only two days here.
The lobster was wonderful and a perfect ending to our first full day in Mahajunga.
One of Corbin’s classes is the language of the Malagasy
also called Malagasy. In 200AD a group of Indonesians and Malaysians arrived on this uninhabited island. So interestingly enough, the closest relative to the Malagasy language is in Borneo! It has also had influences from Arabic and African Bantu languages. People have responded very well to our speaking to them in Malagasy. It also gets big smiles.
After I finished working with Corbin this morning on math and Malagasy/French, I took a long jog down the beach to the north. It seems like this area has lots of expat homes. It’s a pretty idyllic place.
As we drove out to the coast from the capital city of Antananarivo, we passed through a national park and saw our first lemurs high up in a tree. They were far away but it was very exciting. Little did we know how much more we would be experiencing just a couple days later.
We have a driver Zimbo here who has a tiny four-wheel drive car. It is the smallest 4x4
I’ve ever seen. It is about 20 years old but it gets us around! Once we arrived, we sat down with Zimbo and made a plan of activities for each day. At $50 a day, we didn’t feel we could afford to use the car everyday but three or four days a week will get us out and about.
We speak to everyone here in French. It was a French colony
for about a hundred years and Madagascar gained its independence in the early sixties. Not surprisingly, the French influence remains today. Most people our age speak Malagasy and French fluently if they have been to school. Also they have a working knowledge of English but it’s nowhere near as good as their French. So we end up speaking French most of the time. It works pretty well but sometimes difficulties arise since we are all communicating in a second language.
Our first week here was a mix of getting to know the town of Mahajunga and adventures into the wild. It was the latter that gave us memories that we will never forget.
One activity that Zimbo proposed was a visit to Lac Sacré
(Sacred Lake). In his explanation, we really weren’t too sure what we were going to see but off we went. After a forty-five minute drive from our house on a pot-holed dirt road, we arrived at le Lac Sacré. It was this dammed up manmade fresh water reservoir that contained many fish and huge eels! The Malagasy come here to make wishes. Then once they come true, they return to bring food and coins to the fish as thanks. Zimbo had purchased some raw meat and bread that we offered to the lake animals. Corbin loved feeding the eels that would pop out of the water up to six inches to retrieve the meat! He made a great iReport all about it. Watch for it on YouTube.
As we walked back to the car, Zimbo told us that now we would drive five minutes and see lemurs up close! How had we missed that this was going to happen today!??!
We arrived at a lightly forested area with a tiny village nearby. One of the villagers began making a high pitched yelp to call the lemurs. His two very young sons also helped in our lemur search. Within minutes, a group of lemurs
were in the trees near where we parked our car.
They descended when they saw we had brought bananas and baguettes
. They allowed us to feed them from our hands. It was INCREDIBLE. Corbin was all smiles as he gained confidence in being near them. We spent thirty minutes hanging out with this group of five lemurs including a one month old baby. After a while, they even let Corbin pet their backs while they were eating. We had to remind ourselves that these lemurs lived in the wild and we weren’t at a zoo!
Mango season is just starting here and Zimbo told us that once they are ripe, the lemurs stuff themselves with the delicious mangos
and they don’t have any use for our bananas and bread. So we were lucky that they wanted our food.
After our visit we realized that we really hadn’t seen them walk. They jumped around a bit from tree to tree but we didn’t see the reason they are famously called “dancing lemurs”. That would come the next day.
Early Friday morning at 5:45am, Zimbo picked us up and drove to the port in Mahajunga where we queued for the ferry
to take us across the Madagascar bay. Once the car was in the queue, we took a walk to find a nice place for some chocolat et croissants for breakfast. Can I repeat that we LOVE that this used to be a French colony!
It was a 90-minute journey to traverse the bay to Katsepy. On the boat, we were the only foreigners. Walking the streets of Mahajanga, we occasionally see other Europeans, mostly French. Corbin had noticed that we were THE white guys on the boat.
Katsepy is a tiny dot of a town that is the port for a sugar refinery built by the Chinese. We drove only about twenty minutes before reaching the lighthouse at the tip of the coast. Once again, we were greeted by a local who helped us search out the lemurs in nearby trees. Almost immediately, we found a different variety than the previous day. This group of six lemurs
were noticeably more timid around us. They took a while to be comfortable to eat a banana that we were holding. We thought it was interesting that lemurs prefer that you place the banana in their month instead of them grabbing it with their hands. After they had full bellies, they walked off showing us their bouncing walk that makes it look like they are dancing. Corbin managed to record a great iReport on the lemur experience.
After 45 minutes, Corbin spotted two smaller lemurs of a different variety still. They never descended from the heights of the trees.
After the lemur experience, our local guide took us to the top of the solar powered lighthouse
. From the top, we had a spectacular view of the coastline and the Malagasy savanna.
We made it back to Katsepy by 11am but there was no ferry in sight. It runs two or three times a day normally. So we found a deserted restaurant and had a relaxed lunch of white fish and cow-like zebu. Zimbo who was waiting in the queue with the car finally called to say that he had heard the boat would be back soon. By this point we had reached the hottest point of the day and the sun beat down upon us as we walked back to the port. Corbin asked that we carry him and my response was “I need YOU to push me in a wheelchair. “ Then Terry and I invented the double wheelchair. The double stroller exists for babies. So why not the double wheelchair for a son to push his dads around!
By the time we reached Zimbo, he let us know that the ferry had not even left Mahajunga yet and it would be another one and a half or two hours! So we walked back to the restaurant that was shaded, had a nice breeze and cool drinks. A game of Scrabble filled our time nicely.
The ferry finally made it back to Katsepy around 3pm and we boarded without problems. Zimbo had been worried that we might not get on this ferry and be forced to spend the night in Katsepy! It’s all a part of the adventure of traveling in Africa. Luckily, we made it home by 6pm after a long, fun day.
As we ate our dinner, we all talked about our two amazing experiences with lemurs. I would never have guessed that we would be interacting with them so closely. They are beautiful animals with many human like traits.
After we finished, we all three crawled into our big bed, pulled down the mosquito net
, and watched the animated film, Madagascar. I hadn’t seen it since it was released. While the animated version of lemurs can sing and dance, the real ones gave us memories that we’ll never forget.
We spent the next few days just enjoying living at the beach without any big excursions. We would go into town to sit at the Internet Café to catch up on emails and post pictures to the blog. We had purchased local SIM cards for our iPhone but it took some configuration to get the Internet working. It’s amazing that we can sit here on our porch and read Facebook on our phones!
We also bought local SIM cards in South Africa and Scotland. It makes sending texts and placing local calls much simpler. The mobile company O2 in the UK had an amazing deal which gave us free Internet on the phone if we purchased $15 worth of calls! In South Africa, we could buy 250MB of data for $30 and in Madagascar the data is $50 for 250MB.
During our first days here when we didn’t have access to the Internet, we were surprised how many times we said “Oh, I’ll just look that up on the Internet.” Then we’d realize that WE HAD NO INTERNET. The horrors!!
Normally we really enjoy going out to dinner. It’s a way to sample local flavors and have new experiences. The problem is that we have Lolo
. She’s our cook and is outstanding. The couple of times we’ve been forced to eat in a restaurant, the quality of food is no where near what Lolo makes for us. This has turned us into homebodies! We taught Corbin the card game Oh Hell and he’s very good at it. We also play lots of Scrabble and Rummikub.
Our next big adventure was to the Ankarafantsika National Park
about two hours from our house. We spent two days exploring this wonderful area with our guide Olga. Zimbo had recommended her because she spoke very good English. All of the other guides only spoke Malagasy and French. She turned out to be very experienced and interesting and we booked five tours with her.
We arrived at the park around 10:30 and Olga showed us to the room that Zimbo had booked for us. It turned out to be about the size of the double bed it contained. The three Haley boys would have a hard time sleeping together in THAT! We asked if they had something bigger and we ended up with a wonderful bungalow that had three beds, en suite toilet and shower and screens on all the windows! It cost $40 a night instead of the $7 for the tiny room but he advantage was that I wouldn’t go crazy and kill my family.
We left almost immediately to visit a beautiful canyon
about a 20 minute drive from the main ranger station. Over the years, the sandstone has eroded leaving a jagged landscape of incredible colors. It was really spectacular. Even though it was only around 11:30 am at this point, the heat was very strong. We sure missed the coastal breezes of Mahajanga.
The main restaurant of the camp was beautifully situated next to a grove of trees frequented by lemurs. As we ate our lunch we saw lemurs, chameleons, zebu and lots of birds. Corbin finally took his plate and sat at the banister. All the animals were more interesting than talking to his dads.
Because it was so hot at this point, the guide said we should rest until 3:00 pm. We went back to our bungalow to read and rest. Corbin spent the time in a “hide” that was located just a few steps from our front door. It overlooked the lake which at this time of year was more a meadow. He saw lots of animals but mostly birds. I read in several places that lots of Americans and Brits come to Madagascar because of the vast number of birds. I’m not much of a bird watcher but they were impressive.
Our afternoon activity with Olga was a 1.5 hour walk through a forest looking for lemurs. We walked a long way before seeing any but enjoyed her explanation of other animals and plants. She was especially good with Corbin knowing how to keep his interest along the way. We saw three different varieties of lemurs including a mouse lemur that was sleeping a hole of a tree.
Our next little break meant a game of Scrabble
on our front porch. The setting was peaceful and enjoyable. The heat also made us lazy and relaxed. We decided to have a cool beer before rejoining Olga for our night hike
The sun has been setting well before 6:00 pm so it was already very dark as we began. Olga had a headlamp and a bright flashlight that she used to guide us along. In the pitch black darkness she was aptly skilled at spotting the smallest of creatures. This hour long walk was the highlight of our two days in the park. We really felt like we were discovering a hidden world of nocturnal creatures. The many mouse lemurs never got too close to us preferring to keep some distance unlike their larger cousins. Corbin’s favorite part was seeing a lime green chameleon that he was able to pet! I’m not sure the chameleon was getting much out of his backrub but it thrilled Corbin.
For dinner we ended up at the smaller restaurant in the park. We ordered zebu (local beef) and chicken. Unfortunately both were almost inedible because they were so tough. These chickens weren’t just free range but must have been Olympic athletes. Their toned muscles DID NOT want to leave the bones. It was our second disappointing restaurant meal of the day and really made us miss our Lolo.
After dinner, we returned to our bungalow and tucked ourselves into our mosquito nets. It was still quite warm but we had a little fan that kept the air moving. I had lots of trouble sleeping
so I kept getting up, showering and letting it dry off in bed.
In the morning we started out with a hike out to the tallest baobob tree in Madagascar. Along the way we walked through a forest and over a stream. It was really fun but the temperature was rising quickly.
Our final activity was a boat ride
on the nearby lake. Since it was the end of the dry season, the lake was half its possible size. We still managed to see lots of birds, herons and crocodiles. My favorite bird was one that would create an umbrella with its wings to shade its vision to see fish in the water. I took some great photos of this bird in action. As we tolled around the perimeter of the lake, we saw lots of locals fishing. Only the residents of villiages inside the national park’s perimeter were allowed to fish there.
Our two days at the park cost about $200 plus another $100 for the transport to the park. After exsisting on barely nothing it was an extravagant adventure but well worth it.
Our next big adventure was to a local primary school
. We met a lovely French lady Daniele who retired to Madagascar last year. Two days a week she volunteers at a school to help teach French. Her bubbly enthusiasm is enjoyed by all her students. We accompanied her one morning to experience school in Madagascar. First off we met the principal who seemed very busy dealing with students and parents. In spite of this, she brought us to a classroom of students around Corbin’s age. She introduced us and then each student stood up and introduced themselves. It was really fun. While we were there, they worked on French and Mathematics. Most of the instruction was given in French. They also have a course in Malagasy. Corbin was placed in a free seat near the front next to another student. He was able to do all the math but the French was beyond his abilities. The class had 39 students that day who were all very well behaved throughout the lessons.
Next we went to the library where Daniele’s French classes took place. That day, she was teaching them a tongue-twisting song. Corbin managed to get through it in front of the class! Bien fait!
Some of the friends that he had met on the beach in front of our house attended this school. Corbin liked seeing them there. Overall we enjoyed the visit and look forward to seeing the school on Koh Pu island in Thailand where we will be living next month.
As part of Corbin’s home schooling, he has been studying Malagasy along with me. His culminating project was to create a video of him talking to our cook Lolo. Then he edited the video adding subtitles to explain what was being said. It turned out wonderfully and can be seen on the website.
Our big adventure of our final week was a trip to Les Grottes d’Anjohibe
where we would see some amazing underground grottos that extended for over 3.5 miles. We had read in Lonely Planet that the road to get there was 40 miles of bumpy, potholed dirt road. It would take 3.5 hours to get there. We really questioned this journey because the thought of 7 hours on a bumpy dirt road just didn’t sound to appealing.
In the end, we decided we had to die trying so we set off at 7:00 am. After one hour on this unbelievable road, Terry and I were ready to kill each other. Terry’s head kept hitting the handle next to his head as our car rocked back and forth over all the bumps. The quoted 3.5 hour marker came and went and we STILL weren’t there. In the end, it took 4.5 hours to get there and might win the prize for most uncomfortable car ride EVER.
Besides the driver, a guide came along with us from Mahajanga who knew the caves very well. He also gave us flashlight which were necessary because at times it was pitch black. For over an hour, we explored these amazing caves. At one point we discovered a hippo skeleton, a remnant of the days when the caves where filled with ocean water. Openings to the outside would illuminate the grottos with beautiful light. Corbin really enjoyed swinging like Tarzan on some roots that had grown into the caves.
By this point is was after 1 pm and we were starving. Lolo had made us a delicious lunch of BBQ’ed lamb and rice salad. Our guide took us to a nice swimming hole where we ate and refreshed in the water. It felt wonderful on such a warm day.
The highlight of the entire journey was another up-close-and-personal lemur experience
. In some trees next to the lake were a fun group of lemurs who enjoyed some of our bread. It was a magical moment with them that we will never forget.
At dinner that night back home, both Terry and I thanked Corbin for choosing Madagascar. We would never have come here if it wasn’t for him. The experiences that we’ve had are unlike anything we’ve ever done.
Our final excursion was to the nearby Cirque Rouge
. All we knew was that it was a nice canyon that was only thirty minutes away. We arrived forty five minutes before sunset and the sun projected amazing colors on this Grand Canyon like mountain range. We enjoyed watching the colors change as the sun approached the horizon.
Since we arrived here, Corbin had been eyeing the quad bikes. He had heard me tell of Robert and I quad biking in the sand dunes of Namibia and wanted a similar experience. Terry seemed up for it but I was much more apprehensive. Was his too young? Would this just encourage more risky behavior that might lead to, God forbid, motorcycle riding?
In the end, we rented a quad for 4 hours and all enjoyed riding it up and down our strip of beach. At first we drove. Then Corbin drove with us sitting behind him. Soon he was ready to try driving by himself. The latter was only done briefly but of course, he thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience.
Since he’s been able to talk, Corbin has understood some basic rules of our family. He can get a tattoo and/or ride a motorcycle anytime he wants. BUT once he does either of these activities, he is telling us that he no longer wants any financial assistance from his parents and is fully prepared to be totally financially independent. The quad bike is a bit of a loophole because it’s not a motorcycle (which he quickly pointed out when trying to convince us to rent one.) Damn, these kids are smart.
So now as I sit here and write this, we are about to have our final dinner here. The sun is quickly setting marking the end of our time in Mahajanga. Tomorrow, we have the ten hour drive back to the capital Tana. After that horrible road the other day, the paved two lane road will be entirely appreciated. We will try our best not to get car sick like on the way here.
Late in the afternoon, our cook Lolo and housekeeper Yvette said their goodbyes. Both Lolo and I teared up. A lovely friend had been made. She taught me how to cook and I taught all three workers basic English that they could use with future clients. I also taught Lolo how to make Mango Chicken Lettuce Wraps and Quesadillas. She learned well how to make tortillas by hand. We enjoyed our time together and I posted three of the recipes on our website. We would love to return one day to enjoy the wonderful location and warm hospitality.
The ride back to Tana was filled with listening to Harry Potter book four. Jim Dale does an amazing job reading the book. It’s a must have for anyone who takes long trips. We left the house around 7:30 am and pulled up in front of the Hotel Sakamanga in Tana around 6:00 pm. It had been a long day but we were happy to finally have arrived. We unpacked a bit and then had dinner in the hotel’s excellent restaurant. It wasn’t as good as Lolo’s food but delicious.
This time we got a room that didn’t receive wifi. Sadness. The next morning we asked if we could change rooms and got a cute upstairs room with great wifi signal. We had been missing our GLEEs the whole month and were anxious to get a couple of episodes.
We popped into the Indian Embassy
that happened to be near our hotel to inquire about getting a visa. The consul advised us that we should wait until nearer our arrival date. Fine. We’ll get it in Ho Chi Minh City in December. Next we explored the zoo that had been recommended by one of our guides, Olga. One of the first animals that we saw was the elusive fosa, the predator of the lemurs. They had an errie look to them. I wouldn’t want them hunting me. We did see lots of lemurs but seeing them in cages was just not the same as the incredible experiences we had had in the wild. Corbin really enjoyed going around seeing all the frog, turtles, snakes and many other local animals.
Unfortunately, my first bout of “funny tummy
” hit as we were looking at the warthogs. I desperately looked for a WC. I will refrain from giving more details of this developing nation bathroom experience. BUT OH MY GOD. Let’s just say I showered immediately when we returned to the hotel after the zoo.
We schooled Corbin for the rest of the day and had quiet evening which included watching the “Grilled Cheesus” episode of GLEE. The three of us curled up on our bed was a far cry from the huge GLEE parties we used to have in Germany.
We spent the morning schooling Corbin. One of his classes for the past couple of days has been learning Mandarin Chinese from Rosetta Stone
in preparation for our visit to Hong Kong next week. I realize that they speak mostly Cantonese there but Mandarin is becoming more popular. For some reason he really wanted to learn Mandarin over Cantonese. How he forms these opinions is beyond me at times. With Rosetta Stone, he wears headphones so all we could hear was him speaking Mandarin. It was really funny. Soon it was noon and it was time to head to the airport.
South African Airlink #8253
Antananarivo, Madagascar (TNR) - Johannesburg (JNB)
Date: Oct 27, 2010
Miles flown since start: 26,993 mi.
Aircraft: Avro RJ85
Seats: ECONOMY 17ADF
We had booked a taxi through our hotel for $15. First it was 15 minutes late and then we hit gridlock traffic. I always like to leave plenty of time at the airport and my comfort zone was being pushed. Fortunately, things got better and we arrived at the airport with two hours to spare.
To say that the Antananarivo airport is small is an understatement. Air Madagascar
had three check-in desks open for Economy and one for Business. Unfortunately, SA Airlink is handled by Air Madagascar so we were forced to join their passengers in a long queue. To get around the 20K per person we had packed a 17kg “carry-on” wheelie suitcase that helped us get around the limitation.
The check-in agent was friendly and professional. I had tried to check-in online like on the outbound but had no success. I knew that all of our bags were slightly over the limit but he didn’t seem to care. What’s one or two or three kgs per person extra?
The uncomfortable moment came when he asked to weigh our carry-ons. GULP. I started with two light, small backpacks before hoisting up the 17kg wheelie. He was a bit surprised when he saw how much the little suitcase weighed. He asked me what was inside and if I needed to carry it on. I quickly just said it was my son’s school books (not mentioning the additional bags of Lego) and that we didn’t want to loose it.
He asked if we really didn’t want to check it in. So was he asking if I wanted to pay excess baggage fees? Or was he simply allowing us to check in addition bags free of charge? I finally responded with a noncommittal “Whatever you think is best!” No mention of charges was expressed. I hate flying economy. Luckily this would be the last economy flight until January. The next seven flights would be in business where I’ve never been hassled about luggage. The agent offered us two aisle and a middle seat saying that it was the best that he could do since it was a full flight. Somehow I was skeptical but didn’t fight it.
Passport control reminded us of a Mel Brooks movie
; the policeman must have stamped five pieces of paper for each of us. What was all this paperwork? The highlight of the airport experience was passing security.
Corbin instinctually removed his iPad and asked about his shoes. I didn’t think it was necessary since there were no signs and it seemed very low key. I just through my backpack (with my laptop, iPod, iPhone, iTouch, Kindle…) on the belt and hoped for the best.
Once I got to the other side, I saw that the scanner monitor was completely unmanned and the only “TSA” guy was playing with his mobile phone ignoring us completely. The thin blue line of safety was VERY THIN
at this airport.
I usually keep about $20 dollar of local currency to do some final shopping or in this case get something to drink because we didn’t have a lounge on offer to us. Surprisingly, the snack shop only accepted euros and dollars. Then everywhere else refused our Ariary. Terry went back out to the front of the airport just to change the useless currency into something they would accept. I wondered if Madagascar had any rules about entering the country twice in the same day but figured Terry would sort it out.
Back at security, the TSA guy looked up from his phone long enough to understand what he was trying to do. He got the wave through. The passport guy took a bit longer but in the end suggested that a “petit cadeaux
”, small gift, when he returned might help him through. These guys at the airport sure know how to supplement their income. Needless to say, Terry avoided that passport guy and made it through without having to give any bribes.
Once the Air Austral flight departed, it looked like just a few of us were awaiting the flight to Johannesburg. This flight didn’t look full at all. I intentionally had us board last and glanced at the gate agent’s screen and so 44 PAX. With ninety seats, I would hardly call the flight “full”.
I chose the rear stairs and, as excepted, the back few rows were empty so we chose 17ADF with lots of space to stretch out. I did check with our friendly flight attendant before plopping ourselves down. After the door were shut, she approached Terry and me about our responsibilities of opening the emergency exit door at the back since we were the closest to them. My favorite part was when she explained that if she was incapacitated, we needed to unbuckle her and push her FEET FIRST down the slide. I’ve never been given instructions on saving the flight attendant before. We assured her that her safety was our primary concern stealing a line I have often heard on US carriers. She smiled and walked off.
We left on time and soon were in the air. The pilot said that we had a strong headwind the entire way which would add a few minutes to the flight. I didn’t care because we’d be hitting the typical Joburg traffic if we got in too early.
The service began quickly and two cold entrees were on offer: meatballs with pasta salad or a veggie pasta salad. By the time the FA got back to us, all that was left were meatballs. I read an interesting Letter to the Editor in one of the African flights we took last month. It was suggesting that they load more non-beef options as the average Africa always questions “beef” and would rather have chicken. This is because “beef” could be beef, lamb, goat, mutton or venison but chicken was much harder to fake. The writer had noticed that the chicken is always the first to run out on his African flights. Our flight today was no exception even if the non-beef option was vegetarian. This definitely falls under the business advice “Know your customer.”
Immediately after the meal was served, they offered soft drinks, beer and wine. The FA ran out of apple juice when Corbin’s glass was only half full. Five minutes later she brought another whole glass for him with an apology. Lovely service.
Arrival at Johannesburg was simple and the bags popped right out. For the third time in a row, Thrifty
gave me a car whose fuel tank wasn’t quite full. This time I remembered to check BEFORE I left and they noted it on the contract. It’s such a pain to return a car 7/8 full. I actually think it’s some sort of scam since it’s happened three rentals in a row at that location. Upon our return, I went back to the office and spoke to the manager. I let her know that they lost a customer because of it.
On Thursday, we spent the day doing stuff that people normally do when they’re not on vacation. We went to the dentist to get our teeth cleaned, got our prescriptions refilled and bought some toiletries. On Friday we got up early and left to go on safari in Kruger National Park
. We were able to bring Corbin’s “cousins”, Cameron and Kyle with us. It was the first safari for all the kids. All of them took a daily dose of malarone
against the malaria that is found in the Eastern Transvaal. It’s over $300 week but very effective and far fewer side effects than larium
I had booked us into a game lodge, Mopani
, in the northern part of the park. It’s two hours further from Joburg but we had heard that it was the best inside the park. Several times, we have visited the private game reserves that border Kruger. These are all lovely but very expensive, often over $500/day/person. Our three bedroom, 2 bath bungalow cost only $200/night. It was a great deal and a perfect introduction to the African wildlife for the boys. We lucked out and they gave us bungalow #48 which overlooks the dammed lake. Throughout the weekend we saw lots of hippos, vultures, water buffalo and elephant all from our veranda!
The drive from Joburg too about eight hours including an unfortunate stop at KFC. It had been over tens years since my last “meal” there and let’s hope it’s ten more! We listened to Jim Dale reading Harry Potter Goblet of Fire for the whole journey which kept the boys entertained. We were concerned about making it into the park because they lock the park gates before sunset and also the gate to the game lodge. Luckily we made good time and arrived at the main gate with several hours to spare.
On the two hour drive to from the gate to our lodge, we saw elephants, turtles, impala, giraffes, a baboon and zebra
. The disadvantage of going on safari inside Kruger is that you are required to stay on the roads. In the private game reserves next door, they can drive anywhere they want. Fortunately, this did not deter seeing lots of animals.
Each of the bungalow had a full kitchen plus a BBQ outside. Back in Joburg I had a craving for Mexican food so I brought all the trimmings for tacos. All three of us really miss good Mexican food
from California. The boys all had several and then we enjoyed the rest of the evening by the campfire making s’mores. Life really doesn’t get any better than that!
The next morning everyone but me was up at sunrise for a morning game viewing drive. After living in Malawi and visiting South Africa often, I’ve been on safari over twenty times. The thought of a quiet house for three hours sounded like a nice option! They returned with lots of stories of their experiences in the wild.
Midday was filled with resting, swimming in the beautiful pool and playing Scrabble. At one point a herd of over twenty elephants came to the dammed lake in front of our bungalow. It was spectacular. We sure weren’t at Animal Kingdom at Disneyworld.
That evening we grilled burgers and roasted marshmallows. At 8:00pm we had booked a guided night safari
. It was lots of fun and we saw a lion, leopards and many other animals. The boys were all very excited about the sightings.
We woke up on Sunday and I made a big breakfast of bacon and eggs
. We packed up quickly and slowly made our way out of the park. Our visit was just under forty-eight hours but we all thoroughly enjoyed it.
The ride back to Johannesburg once again was filled with listening to Harry Potter book four. It’s the best was to pass the time during a long car trip.
That evening, we packed our bags in preparation for our departure from Africa
. It’s been an amazing two months filled with tears, loss, laughter, friendship and adventure. Our next stop would be living three countries in Asia.
I have decided to post the trip report on our Cathay Pacific flight from Johannesburg to Hong Kong in a separate report. It can be viewed here:
FLIGHT #15: CX748 JNB-HKG Biz Class with photos
Last edited by olafman; Nov 11, 10 at 3:21 am
Oct 15, 10, 3:05 am
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: SF Bay Area, California
Programs: AA2MM PLT, Hilton Gold, SPG Gold
November 2010: Krabi, Thailand
as always photos of the journey can be found at http://travelcarl.blogspot.com
Our bags came off quickly and soon we were out of customs. We had decided that we would leave two bags at Left Luggage instead of hauling them into town. HKIA charges a hefty fee for this: $100 USD for four days. Ouch.
Since we were three people, taking a cab costs the same as the Airport Express train. The taxi took us directly to the Cosmopolitan Hotel near Happy Valley that I had booked via Priceline.com for $100 USD/night. Trip Advisor had warned that the rooms were very small but it was fine for the two nights we were there. The location was not far from our friends, Greg and Ivan’s place in Happy Valley.
Luckily they had a room available even though we were checking in at 8:00am. We all went upstairs, took a shower and a nice four hour disco nap. Flat beds in business class are nice but they will never match a real bed.
By 1:00pm I was hitting my boys with pillows saying we needed to start moving. One nice thing about Hong Kong is the cheap cabs. With three of us public transport isn’t much cheaper. Our first stop was the Lower Peak Tram station where we quickly caught a tram to Victoria’s Peak for some outstanding views out over Hong Kong. It happened to be a very clear day so we could see far. We lunched at a great “local” HK café with some soup, noodles and beef. It was yummy. As touristy as the Peak is, I still enjoy going up there for the spectacular views. Afterwards, Corbin played in a park before we returned to Central and walked around a bit.
We were feeling adventurous so we boarded the MTR to get us within 10 minutes walking distance of our hotel. Okay, public transport isn’t that bad! One of our goals for the year is to show Corbin how local people use public transport. It’s just hard when cabs are so cheap and then bring you exactly where you want to go! Oh the dilemma.
One of the benefits of our hotel was REALLY fast Internet. That meant that we could download lots of the fall TV shows that we had been missing. In a later post, I will explain how we can LEGALLY receive all the TV from our home in California! It’s worked well for three years now! The slow Internet of South Africa and Madagascar made us get far behind!
Finally we met up with Greg at the Landmark Mandarin Oriental where he took us to a nearby rooftop bar with stunning views of HK Island. Greg and Terry have been friends for twenty-five years and it was great to see him.
His boyfriend Ivan met up with us at a wonderful restaurant known for its Peking Duck. Little did I know that Ivan ordered a five course feast. We were stuffed before the duck ever arrived at the table but managed to find room for it. The last course was some stunning dumplings that contained a broth and crab. AMAZING. During the meal, a chef came out and demonstrated how to pull dough into angel hair pasta. Greg and Ivan treated us to a wonderful culinary experience that we won’t soon forget.
The next morning we ate at the Empire Hotel in Happy Valley which Ivan, a local Chinese, said has the best Dim Sum in Hong Kong. We were the first customers at its opening at 11:00am. Corbin was a bit disappointed that they didn’t use the trolleys but instead we ordered the dim sum from a menu. I assured him that this meant it would be fresh and delicious.
Indeed, the dim sum was incredible. Being dumpling connoisseurs, we ordered our favorites and enjoyed everything. By the end, we were all stuffed and could barely move.
We spent the afternoon taking a walking tour of Hong Kong Central outlined in our Lonely Planet guide. We visited many different shops selling a variety of things including Eastern medicines, antiques and frogs. The temperature was almost cool which surprised us all.
After Greg finished work, he took us to his flat that he had totally redone a couple of years ago. We had a nice cocktail there and enjoyed seeing his hard work. It was a beautiful place. Corbin and I left Terry and Greg on their own as we quickly took a cab and the MTR over to Kowloon to watch the light show over the harbor.
I had never seen the show and thought the laser and lighting effects were great. My only complaint was the cheesy soundtrack that sounded like someone made on a $10 Casio keyboard. Corbin loved it but soon our stomachs needed attention.
He was craving Japanese food so we found a nice restaurant underground in the busy shopping area. We got very lucky because our gyoza, tempura and sushi were excellent. After dinner we walked through the Peninsula Hotel for old times sake.
No visit to Hong Kong would be complete without a trip on the Star Ferry. Corbin was only two years old the last time so it was like a new experience for him. It still stands as the world’s best (and cheapest) harbor cruise. Normally I would enjoy a drink up in Felix at the top of the Peninsula but parenthood changes things.
We checked out of our hotel early the next morning and soon were in a cab to one of the “Happiest Place[s] on Earth: Hong Kong Disneyland”. We lived in LA for fifteen years and have several friends who work for Imagineering Disney. We’re Disney geeks. Having an eleven year old kid in tow makes it seem much more acceptable! When originally planning the trip, we sought to include all the missing Disney parks in our collection which include the two parks in Tokyo and the one in Hong Kong.
Since it was off-season, I booked us a nice package at the “on-property” Disney Hollywood Hotel including entrance passes. Our goal was to be in the queue when the park opened. We checked in at the hotel at 9:00am and quickly dropped our stuff in the room before taking the bus to the park.
We had a nice room on the ground floor with two double beds. Who knew this existed in Hong Kong? We’ve stayed at a few Disney properties and this one was as good as its American counterparts. The gardens and pool were nicely designed with a fun “HOLLYWOOD HOTEL” sign in the style of the famous HOLLYWOOD sign in Los Angeles.
We got to the park at 9:45 in time to see a special ceremony where one family is chosen to “unlock” the park at 10:00am. It was fun and it made me cry. I’m a sap. It wasn’t the only time that I teared up that day. I’m just like my mom. She always cried at parades and emotional shows.
At exactly 10:00am the gates opened and we were welcomed in. In the center of Main Street Square, we took a picture with our old friends Mickey and Minnie. They seemed to be enjoying their expat lives in Hong Kong.
Corbin’s first choice was the Rocket Jets. The HKDL version of this were flying saucers. The park was relatively empty at this point so we rode them twice. The big disappointment was that Space Mountain was closed. They had installed special Halloween decorations that they were currently uninstalling. Boo hoo. This is the only roller coaster in the park so it was too bad that it was shut down.
Being Disney geeks we quickly recovered and enjoyed seeing some of our favorite rides and exploring new ones. The highlight of the day for me were the two live action shows. The first was a stunning live representation of the Lion King story. The singing and dancing soon had me balling like a little school girl. It was excellent and I tried to get the family to see it a second time. The other show was an “award show” honoring the various Disney characters. While it did not bring me to tears, it was great fun. Interestingly, the Lion King show was mostly in English while the award show was in Chinese with English subtitles.
For dinner we tried the Chinese food in Fantasyland. The locals all complain about HKDL that the food is bland and expensive. Disney tends to homogenize things so this was not surprising. For the foreigner, our meal was much healthier that what we would have eaten in Anaheim.
Our day ended with a wonderful fireworks show. Yes, more tears. Duh. Luckily it was drizzling so it wasn’t as noticeable. By the end of the day, we were tuckered out and bed felt very good.
Rather than having breakfast at our hotel, we decided to take the bus to the other “on-property” hotel, The Hong Kong Disneyland Hotel. It is designed similarly to the Grand Floridian at Disneyworld which in turn is based on the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego. It’s the fancier of the two hotels in HK. The breakfast buffet was entirely booked but we enjoyed a nice “light buffet” which included some lovely dim sum.
Unfortunately, Corbin wasn’t feeling great at this point so we opted to pack up and go to the airport early instead of returning to the park for two more hours of fun. Hong Kong Disneyland is located VERY near Chek Lap Kok airport so a short cab ride got us to the check-in counters in no time.
Once again, the trip report on the new lounge, THE CABIN, and the flight can be found here:
FLIGHT#16: THE CABIN & CX751 HKG-BKK in Biz Class with photos
I visited Thailand only once before as part of my first Round The World Tour the summer after my junior year of college. My impressions were mixed at the time. After traveling for four weeks in Europe just prior, we loved how inexpensive things were. We could get a hotel room in Bangkok cheaper than the price of a hostel in Geneva. The food was good and cheap. The thing I reacted negatively to was the abundance of bargirls. EVERYWHERE. Even though I was traveling with a woman, they still approached me all the time. It seemed like every bar in the country had bar girls. Where could a guy go to enjoy a beer without being harassed? It didn’t help that we headed out to Pattaya which seemed like bargirls on spring break. It was crazy out there. I didn’t have the nerve to try the gay bars because I really didn’t want to deal with barboys. I was young. I didn’t know much. But I was trying to learn.
This, my second visit to Thailand, would be very different. I was a middle-aged guy with husband and child. Most of the month would be spend on a tiny island near the climbing area and not in the big city. This time we would be far from the bargirls that bothered me when I was twenty-two.
By the time we landed Corbin had a decent fever. With all the concerns about SARS and H1N1, I was worried one of the health police would stop him with their infrared cameras. Luckily we were never stopped and the BKK “fast track” arrivals was quick and smooth. CX got our bags out very quickly. We need to send the crew at United at LAX to get some pointers from CX. I have waited longer for my bags on a United flight from San Francisco than it took to fly to LA from SFO!
I’m a worrier. Terry isn’t. And I am. Balance is good in any relationship. With our now five bags and three carry-ons, taking a taxi isn’t really easy. As we left customs, a AOT limo desk offered us a car big enough for all of us and our bags. We even got a 25% off for booking the return trip to the airport. I know that we overpaid but sometimes if the price seems reasonable, why fight for something cheaper? The bad part was the Bangkok traffic. It took an hour and a half to get to the Amari Watergate. The worst part was the last five blocks took thirty minutes. Corbin’s fever was getting the best of him and we were in gridlock. Finally I pulled out the laptop and turned on an episode of Friends. It really helped us not focus on the fact that we WEREN’T MOVING!
I am a big fan of Priceline.com and it’s black sheep cousin site www.biddingfortravel.com
. I saw on biddingfortravel that people had been getting the centrally located 5-star Amari Watergate for $55 a night! I bid and also got this amazing rate. After talking with Terry, we even booked another room! We had been in four countries in eight days so a quiet and separate room was an affordable luxury. The hotel was beautiful and well situated. Luckily they gave us rooms that were conveniently across the hall from each other. Terry went out to get us some pepperoni and mushroom pizza which I had been craving for three months. Corbin relaxed in bed for the rest of the evening.
Around 4:00am Corbin’s fever broke. I was beginning to worry that he had malaria in spite of the malaria prophylaxis. No fever meant no malaria. YEAH! I did a little dance in the dark once I felt his cool forehead.
In the morning we decided that it would be wise to let Corbin just relax around the hotel and maybe venture down the pool at the most. Unfortunately, I had made some plans so I went on without my family.
Back in August when we were in Istanbul, I was introduced to Couchsurfing.org where we met up with several locals. It was a great experience and really enriched our time there. I had been chatting with several Thais about our visit and it looked like we would be able to meet.
When $55 rooms exist in beautiful hotels, I don’t need to sleep on someone’s couch. Still the site allows travelers to share a meal or sightsee together. One of the highest rated locals was a wonderful Thai man named Toom. CS shows people’s reviews of various hosts and travelers. Toom’s reviews were outstanding. He phoned our hotel room on our arrival to confirm our meeting the next day. He suggested that we go to some rowing races taking place on the outskirt of town. It sounded local and fun!
Toom met me in the lobby of the hotel and, from the first instance, I could see he was a warm, gentle person. He took me on three different buses to get to the races. Along the way, he helped me understand local culture which included not talking on the bus or crossing your legs while seated. It was fascinating. The whole journey was around two dollars for the two of us. I love a country with cheap transport.
Once we arrived, we immediately met up with another local Thai Couchsurfing host, Meow. She had with her two guys that had spent the night at her place. One of the things that Toom told me was that he had TEN Couchsurfers stay at his place the night before! He doesn’t get any money for his kindness. He’s amazing. That’s a lot of sheets and towels to do out of kindness.
We looked around for a bit and then Toom found us a great little street restaurant where he ordered us all fruit smoothies and a wonderful plate of noodles with prawns. The whole bill came to 55 Baht each (less than $2 USD!) I really enjoyed talking with our hosts Toom and Meow. The other travelers also had great stories they shared. Finally we met up with other people and all found our way to the main grand stand where we could see the finish line. They had monitors set up so we could also see the competitors’ progress throughout the race. It was a fun time and the part enjoyed I enjoyed the most was the crazy announcer who seemed like he was going to have an aneurysm because he was screaming and so excited.
Finally around 5pm, we started back to my hotel. I was a bit concerned that Corbin might still be sick and maybe Terry needed some time off after having been a single dad all day. Along the way, Toom helped me buy a local SIM card for my iPhone and load some time.
Back at the hotel, Corbin was back to normal having survived his 24 hour illness. He and Terry and spent the peacefully hanging out in the room and at the pool.
Later that evening, I decided to venture out and discover Bangkok’s gay night life. I was hoping to meet up with some Americans I met on Couchsurfing but they couldn’t make it in the end. So that meant I was on my own since Terry had to stay back and hang with Corbin. He had gone out the previous night so was able to point me in the right direction.
Like a lot of people, I’m not a big fan of bars and clubs on my own. After having been in a relationship for twenty years, those skills have atrophied a bit. I simply wanted to go out, have drink and maybe talk to some of my brethren. After a really inexpensive cab ride, I located the street with many bars and clubs where I had a beer and talked to a couple of people. The problem I had was that every bar was my discomfort with the number of bar boys (the male equivalent of bar girls). I wasn’t shopping but they were very aggressive. After seeing two places I was back in a cab back to the hotel. I came Thailand when I was twenty-two in 1987. I was traveling with a woman friend of mine and remember feeling very uncomfortable going out at night.
The next day, all three of us met Toom at a western bus station about 20 minutes from our hotel. He had offered to take us to a great floating market frequented by only locals. From there we could rent a longtail boat and visit four temples along the river. At the bus station we could see that Meow was once again joining us and we were eleven people in total! He organized the group a nice minibus that took us directed to the first temple about one and a half hours away. Here Toom and Meow showed Corbin how to pray to the Budda and then get his fortune told. He shook a cylinder of numbered sticks. Finally when a stick fell out, he retrieved the corresponding written fortune to that number. Two of our group had fortune #12 which said it was a good time to seek a mate among other things! Let’s hope that Corbin puts off dating for a couple of years.
Just a short walk later, we entered an amazingly colorful floating marking. Most of the restaurant kitchens were located on longtail boats and the customers would sit on the river’s edge on tiny chairs. One of the best parts of the market was many sellers offered finger foods: satay, fried chicken, veggies, noodles, shrimp, shui mai… Usually someone in our party would buy of bag of what was on offer and share it with the rest of the group. This enabled us to try many different things. We spent the rest of the day eating like this and never sat down to a meal! We were too full!
Soon, Toom rented a longtail boat for us to visit three other temples. Our group filled the boat so we could decide where it could go. We all enjoyed motoring up the river and seeing some local sights. The temples were all interesting and offered more opportunities for finger foods. In front of two of the temples, people sold turtles and snakes. I was scared at first that they were for food but was relieved to find out they were offerings to be made to the gods.
At one stop, this group of Thai girls stopped Corbin and took their picture with him. They just thought he was cute and wanted a picture! Here’s to a winning smile!
Back at the market, Corbin enjoyed playing with a hungry elephant. He ate right out of Corbin’s hand. It was very entertaining. The markets go well on into the night but our gang was tuckered out so we took our minibus back into central Bangkok.
After spending two days with Toom and Meow, I was overwhelmed by their generosity. They simply enjoying hosting people at their homes and showing people their wonderful city. I look forward to meeting other Couchsurfers in other cities.
On Monday, we needed another relax day. Corbin and I found some great dim sum for brunch and then enjoyed a huge sundae at Swenson’s Ice Cream Parlour. Sometimes some flavors from home and make traveling easier.
That evening, we met up with another Couchsurfer that I had been chatting with for a couple of weeks. Chai is a thirty year old anthropology grad student who has decided to become a chef! He explained that this made sense since food is a large reflection on a culture. Being a foodie, he took us to this INCREDIBLE restaurant. He didn’t know its name but was famous for its good food. That’s my kind of restaurant. We had a delicious Tom Ka Gai soup and then some amazing fried chicken topped with fried lemon grass! Also had a prawn/noodle dish and some veggies. I wanted to lick the plate but a lot of cultures frown on that behavior. Once again we had a fun time with a local that we met on CouchSurfing.org.
The next morning we ate street food for breakfast again. The Amari Watergate hotel is located in a shopping area with lots of street food. I could easily piece together fresh pineapple and melon, shui mai dim sum and some fried dough ball things all for under $4 USD. Our hotel wanted 810 Baht per person for breakfast which would have cost us $75 USD. Thanks but no!
We had pre-booked our car to the airport and left early enough so that we could enjoy two hours at the airport.
An official Flyertalk Trip Report on our visit to the BKK lounge and the flight down to Krabi can be viewed at:
FLIGHT #17: TG245 BKK-KVG in Biz Class with Photos
As we landed in Krabi, I could see that the rain had begun to come down. Luckily the house manager would be meeting us and had arranged for our transfer. It would be an easy journey out to our home for the next month. Or so we thought!
Thai Airways had our bags out first so we were the first passengers to greet the throng outside the baggage area. Almost immediately we spotted a skinny, long haired guy holding a sign with my name on it. Joe, introduced himself and his wife, Olay. Immediately I could tell that they were warm and friendly.
Joe had borrowed a friend’s double cab small pickup truck to get us down the Land Grout pier. The rain turned into a downpour giving our bags in the back a nice wet shine. I was a bit worried that their contents would also get soaked but there wasn’t much we could do. Once we unpacked, quite a few things were wet but nothing was ruined. Corbin does now have a “Where’s Waldo” book that now has several pages stuck together as a souvenir of the day.
It was about a thirty minute drive down to the pier from the Krabi airport. We stopped briefly at a 7-11 to get basic supplies. We giggled as we paid for two huge shopping bags for only $12. Our final stop was local outdoor market where we picked up fruits, veggies and some precooked satay and noodles with veggies for dinner. When we got to the pier, Joe dropped us off at a restaurant and then returned the truck. The rain was still falling out of the sky and we couldn’t believe we were in the middle of it. I could see that the suitcases were very wet but hoped that the contents survived.
After ten minutes, Joe returned and we boarded a longtail boat that we had hired for the journey. Normally, there is “scheduled” longtail service four or five times a day but it was just easier with all the bags to hire our own boat. Also they told us during high tide, the boat could drop us directly at our beach.
As we departed, the rain let up a bit and we enjoyed the thirty minute journey zig-zagging around the islands. Our bags and Olay were safely protected under a covered area while “the men” all sat in the breeze and light rain. I remember thinking that this was one of those life moments that you never forget: the stunning scenery, crouching on a wooden boat in the rain, and silently staring in the eyes of Terry and Corbin. All of us were excited but our eyes said “WHAT THE HECK ARE WE GETTING INTO?!?!”
So I finally asked if they boat would be taking us directly to our house. Joe replied no. It was low tide. Of course it was.
We arrived at the pier of Koh Pu island and unloaded the bags with difficulty as the boat pushed against the pier. Finally we were all safely enjoying the dryness of the sheltered pier. Once again we all stood around with the what’s next look on our faces. Soon enough we could see this “vehicle” coming down the pier. I put “vehicle” in quotes because it was a scooter with side-car permanently welded on with a canopy cover. Corbin, Olay, I and two bags all piled into this contraption. Terry headed out with the rest of the bags in another “vehicle” that also showed up. Joe was driving his own scooter back to our place.
So let’s recap here. Our transportation for the day included a luxury van that took us from our five-star hotel in Bangkok to the airport, a business class flight to Krabi, a pickup truck drive to the pier, a wet longtail taxi boat ride and finally a scooter-mobile taxi ride to our house. We had gone the spectrum of developing national travel in just one day.
The sun was setting as we made our way from the big city of Koh Pu (population about 400 people) out to the other side of the island. Because of the rains, the scooter-mobile was having difficulty navigating the muddy road. We were slipping and sliding all over the road. We had to get out on a couple of the hills so the tiny motor could make it over the crest. Luckily, giggles filled our spirits. THIS is why we had chosen to take the year off and explore the world. You just don’t find these experiences in Toluca Lake, California or Starnberg, Germany.
About twenty-five minutes into our muddy-journey, we turned off the “main road” on to a tiny even muddier and unmanageable path which finally dropped us at our house. We had left our hotel in Bangkok at 10:30 am and now around 6:00 pm we were pulling up to our house.
Once again, we had found paradise. The house was built with Buddhist influences including a mini-temple out in the garden and a shrine in the living room. The owner, Andrew, is an Australian lawyer who works in Bangkok and built this place a couple of years ago. The main house has two bedrooms on the top floor and the living spaces on the middle floor. An additional bedroom and bathroom occupied the bottom. It had the coziness of a good friend’s cabin.
The house is located about 30m from the beach with a beautiful garden leading the way. On the beach he built a small pavilion with hammock and outdoor shower. Just like in Madagascar, we ended up spending 80% of our time out on our veranda with beautiful ocean views. This time of year, we had to venture down the beach a couple of meters to see the sun set over the water. During the summer, the sunset is visible from the veranda.
Andrew built his house on Lubo bay of Koh Pu island. The word “koh” means island in Thai. “Pu” means crab. So we were staying on crab island. Corbin and I really enjoyed eating the fresh crabs. But as we travel the world, I have to admit nothing that I have tasted including the Madagascar lobster beats our local home grown San Francisco Dungeness crab. Nevertheless, Olay’s Thai crab was tasty.
The entire beach was about 500m long. Ours was the only “house”. The rest of the beach had little grass hut bungalows that catered to tourists. The resort next to us was called Bohemia and further down was the Sunset Beach resort. The word “resort” here simply means a group of grass huts with a central hut where food is served. Imagine Gilligan’s Island for tourists including coconut shell lights. Electricity only came to the island a couple of years ago.
Joe and Olay have built a little café/bar out on the beach in front of their hut. By far it’s the nicest commercial establishment on the beach. As rainy season was just finishing, they were setting up the lights can getting the place ready for the busy “dry” season. Olay serves a nice menu of Thai dishes and Joe serves all types of drinks including tropical cocktails. Throughout the month, Joe would have me sample his latest florescent colored concoction. I’m not a fan of fruity drinks but would give him encouragement nonetheless. Since it was early in the season, we never saw the place hopping but Joe assured me that it picks up in December.
One of the other fixtures at Joe and Olay’s was Gert. This wonderfully effeminate Afrikaner guy spends all his vacations on this isolated island. He’s been coming several years and befriended Joe and Olay early on. Most of the time, you can find Gert and Joe sitting in the café smoking a variety of things, enjoying a beer or working on setting up the café. His pleasant, easy-going personality made it a nice place to hang out.
Thailand was a second month of constant mosquitos. My legs and arms were beginning to look like battlefields. They love me. They think I smell good. Terry begs to differ. I apply deet every evening and still get bit. In Madagascar, the evening winds helped keep them away but Thailand’s still air invited them to my life. At night, Andrew had mosquito nets over each bed so they weren’t a problem. But I would battle each evening until we tucked ourselves in.
Before we arrived, Andrew had mentioned that the house did not have any A/C and it didn’t need it. Most rooms had fans and each night they cooled us down enough to sleep comfortably. In the end, I would have preferred A/C but easily made do without it.
Andrew built his house using several ecological ideas. In the garden, three huge solar panels collected enough electricity that we could shut off the main supply during the day and run our lives simply on the sun. It was a good system and it worked well. It felt good to be “off the grid”. He also had huge water drums that collected the rainwater from the gutters of the house. Finally he had another water storage drum and a smaller solar panel that heated the hot water. All of these ideas have inspired me to think about going a bit greener once we return to California.
Even though we’re on an isolated island off the coast of Thailand, our house has internet thanks to a two-way satellite dish. The speed isn’t enough for Skype or streaming videos but we’ve been doing email and sending photos just fine. It is a huge luxury considering the island barely got electricity! Madagascar is still the only place where we didn’t have internet at home.
Andrew had mentioned that we could hire Olay to cook for us. So we immediately solicited her services. She turned out to be a great cook but the price was a bit high considering we were on an island full of fresh produce and seafood. Lunch was often $4 per person and dinner could get up to $7 per person. Since the food was good, we put up with it but couldn’t shake the idea that we were getting taken advantage of. We had meals with Toom in Bangkok for less than $2. We mentioned it to Andrew in the end and he agreed that they were charging too much money. This would change in the future.
Being on a quiet beach would normally mean sleeping in late. This would have happened if it weren’t for the extended family of chickens living in our garden. Starting as early as 04:30am they would begin to announce the dawning of a new day. Repeatedly. Their favorite place to hang out was along the side of our house outside our window. The symphony of their song would last about thirty minutes and we got used to falling back asleep once they finished their work. Robert was less forgiving and several times got up and threw rocks at them. I’m amazed that he thought he could win that battle. The roosters were another wonderful reminder that this was an adventure far from the normalcy of our old lives.
The beginning of November often marks the end of the rain season on Koh Pu. Unfortunately, this year November proved that the rainy season was going strong. It rained at least once a day and sometimes the entire day. One of the goals of the trip helped us cope with this: to live like a local. What do the locals do when it rains? On Koh Pu, they seek shelter and just hang out. This worked well during Corbin’s school hours but challenged us bit other times. Luckily we all embraced our Kindles/Ipads and spent a lot of time reading.
When it wasn’t raining, Corbin would play out on the beach. Often other local kids would join him and they would play football or simply explore the wildlife of the waters. One of their favorite games was to collect discarded Styrofoam can make boats they could float in the rivers that feed into the sea. I was impressed with their creations.
Our veranda served as Corbin’s schoolhouse for the month. Like in Madagascar, you’ve got to love a classroom with an ocean view. The gardens around our house were thick jungle and provided a nice environment to work in. It was definitely a living classroom. Once in a while, we’d get a glimse of a monkey swinging in the trees.
Home schooling Corbin has been interesting. I think Terry and I have been more frustrated than Corbin who tells us that it’s all going well. He definitely treats us more like parents than teachers though. He whines and moans about stuff that he’d never say to a classroom teacher. I think it is getting better as he gets used to the system. The biggest problem is that he thinks EVERYTHING is negotiable. We’ve got a great lawyer/negotiator in the making.
I am amazed how quickly he learns one on one. The math topics flow easily into his brain. He learned long division in two 30-minutes lessons. Also his number sense beats most of my high school students. He’s building good skills.
This year has been the awakening of Corbin, the reader. So we are hoping that this improves his writing skills. The first thirty minutes of each school day begin with journal writing. Most of the time he finds this VERY difficult. We have told him that spelling and grammar don’t matter. Simply write! Then Terry creates spelling words based on his journal. As difficult as he has found this, it has improved his writing.
One day while hanging out with Joe and Olay, I asked about the 2004 tsunami that hit Thailand. As you walk along the beach, many signs inform that it is a tsunami zone and show which way to run. Olay shared that on that fateful morning, she and Joe were out in front of their place when they noticed that the water went way out as if it was REALLY low tide. They knew exactly what this meant and immediately ran up a nearby hill. There they watch a 3m wave come in a douse the coast. They lost everything: their house and all their belongings. But they survived. It would have been fatal for them had it happened while they were sleeping. We read that the wave in Phuket was 10m high when it hit the shoreline. They rebuilt their house down the beach but still on next to the beach. Their long term plan is to build a house about 10 minutes away that is out of the tsunami zone.
As I have mentioned before, Terry and I agreed that we could each go off for a couple of days each month if needed to recharge our batteries. Hanging out 24/7 with ANYONE can be difficult let alone a moody, artistic type. We thought this might be good for our relationship. So far in the trip, neither of us had elected to take advantage of this. Until Thailand. Terry went met up with his friend Greg from Hong Kong in Bangkok and I went to Phuket.
The Waikiki beach of Phuket Island if not the whole of Thailand is Patong Beach on the west coast of the island. I chose to go there simply to be with my gay brethren. Part of recharging my batteries involved seeing some lip-syncing Thai drag queens. So off I set early one morning. Once again the journey started with a twenty-five minute scooter-mobile ride to the pier of Koh Poh. Joe and Olay drove their scooter since they had some shopping to do on the mainland. Next a thirty-five minute longtail ride. We were all slightly scared because they REALLY loaded up our boat with about forty people, five scooters and everyone’s stuff. The boat really listed from side to side. You have to love transport in the developing world. The good news was Joe borrowed his friend’s truck making the journey up to Krabi town painless.
Joe dropped me at a bustop and told me that Phuket buses pass every thirty minutes. Like clockwork, a bus arrived in five minutes! It was a large double-decker modern bus with very comfortable seats. My Lonely Planet guide had warned me about the arctic temperatures and blaring music that accompanied me throughout the journey. I got my fill of Thai music videos throughout the three hour journey. Luckily I kept busy watching some of the TV shows we had downloaded in Hong Kong and Bangkok. The best part was the entire bus ride cost only 150 Baht or $5.
Soon enough, we arrived at the main bus station of Phuket city. It was a much bigger city than Krabi. It took us quite a while to reach the center of town. I tried to find the buses to take me the final 25 km out to Patong beach but in the end it was just easier to take a $13 taxi.
I had reserved a room a room in a gay hotel on the “gay street” in the Paradise Complex. Normally, I am allergic to gay hotels and gay restaurants. But since I was on my own, I thought it would be easier to meet people. The Connect Guesthouse actually turned out to be perfectly fine. It’s restaurant and bar were right on the street and didn’t have any barboys! Yeah! The mini bar in the room was incredibly cheap: a beer was $2 and Pringles were $1.
I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Patong city. Just like Waikiki the streets are littered with souvenir shops and restaurants. It was a bit overwhelming after the quiet shores of Koh Pu. I stumbled on “the street of many bars” that I assumed would be hopping in just a few hours. Already plenty of Westerners were drinking and getting to know the local girls.
The beach in Patong sat in a nice bay. At 45 years old, I’m not much of a beachcomber but enjoyed seeing it all. My Scandinavian skin prefers shade to sun. I’m more the big floppy hat and large umbrella kind of guy now. Sexy, I know.
I had a craving for Italian food so I tried a little place around the corner. It’s interesting to me that I sure crave certain types of food as we travel the world. Italian food is very comforting to me. A nice pasta with a glass of red wine always make me feel good.
Around 10pm, I went downstairs to the hotel’s sidewalk bar and had a beer. Even at this late hour, it was very warm so the beer hit the spot. Almost immediately, I met this nice group of German guys. Anyone who has traveled at all, German tourists are omnipresent. With at least five weeks of paid vacation and a high standard of living, they love to travel. We have found German tourists everywhere we’ve been so far. They always like hearing about our experiences in Bavarian over the past two years.
Around 11:45pm a drag queen and a group of backup dancers performed a number out on the street as an invitation to the big show inside. It was fun and entertaining so the Germans and I went over to Kiss Club and watched the rest of the show. My favorite was the prima-drag queen who performed Shirley Bassey. There was no question that SHE was the drag queen in charge. I loved her. She was flawless and loved what she was doing.
The next day it was raining so it was a good excuse to stay in and read. I continue to love my Kindle. It’s a travelers perfect companion. I’ve become an accidental spokesman for Amazon. Many people have asked me about it at which point I launch into my super-satisfied customer spiel. I’m always pushing some gadget. First it was TiVo, then in German it was AppleTV and now it’s the Kindle.
That evening I met up with my Germans again and we enjoyed a different show at Kiss. The nightlife in Patong was definitely more exciting than Lubo Beach on Koh Pu. Maybe Joe and Olay should put together a couple of numbers. Think Sonny and Cher. But asian. And a lot shorter.
The next morning I was up and out by 11:00 so I could meet up with my best friend, Robert who was flying in from South Africa to go climbing with us. The journey back was equally easy and the bus from Phuket dropped me right in front of the Krabi airport.
I easily found Robert and soon we were back out on the main road waiting for a bus to the pier. It was blazing hot at this moment and jetlagged Robert wasn’t amused with the heat. Soon enough, a bus came and then we switched to other bus. Understand by bus I mean pickup truck with an open canopy. Robert couldn’t help buy smile at the foreignness of the situation. We arrived with lots of time to catch the 05:30 pm longtail back to Koh Pu. He had lots of room in one of his bags so we bought a few beers and a nice bottle of whiskey. He says that it helps him sleep.
Once again, they overfilled the boat. Robert’s an engineer and couldn’t not believe how they were challenging the buoyancy of the boat. Due to the extra weight the journey took just over an hour but we were treated to some amazing sunset skies along the way. We called ahead and our regular scooter-mobile driver was waiting to take us the final leg. About two kilometers into the journey, Robert turned to me with a big grin and asked “WHERE THE .... ARE YOU TAKING ME?!?!”
After a couple of days relaxing at the house, we set off to go climbing at Railay Beach. On the way we had originally planned on seeing Harry Potter 7 Part 1 in Krabi but were saddened when the ticket seller told us that it was only in Thai with no English subtitles. Damn. We had really been looking forward to it. We’d have to wait until Vietnam.
We took an easy taxi to Ao Nang where we caught a longtail to the famous Railay Beach. Most people will recognize the landscape from the Leo DiCaprio movie “The Beach”. These beautiful limestone rocks jutting out of the sea provide some wonderful rock climbing. Robert had been there twice before and was a perfect guide. We immediately dropped our stuff in our hotel room and went out to begin climbing. Our first day and a half was dry so we did some great climbs. Corbin did very well and kept up with us. Unfortunately, it rained one evening which made all routes very wet the next day. It was challenge to find routes that were climbable after that. Instead, we rented a kayak and spent three hours exploring the area. It was a great way to see all the islands and bays.
At this point, Robert announced that he was finished with “developing nation travel” and would be springing for a longtail taxi to take us directly back to our house. A four or five hour transfer was reduced to fifty minute longtail ride for $70. They picked us up almost in front of our hotel and dropped us off on Lubo Beach in front of our house. Money can make life easier.
After another couple of days at home, Robert and I headed back on our own to do more climbing. Without Corbin we could tackle some of the more difficult routes. The highlight was an incredible climb on Tonsai beach that Robert remembered from a previous trip. It was scarier than anything I had ever attempted before.
The climb starts out under a ledge which is tricky but soon you are on a nice roof. Then you traverse over to the left edge. The crux of the route comes next. You stand with your arms above you and then lean forward away from the rock about 1.5m where you will land against a stalactite that is hanging down. When we arrived, another group was on the route and I got to see a woman attempt the move. She paused for ten minutes to build up the courage to do the move. Finally with her arms in the air, she fell forward until her hands met the tip of the stalactite rock (Photo 1
). The next move is equally tricky as you need to move one of your feet over on to the stalactite (Photo 2
). Once your first foot makes it over you adjust your hands higher and bring over your other foot. Finally you can hug the stalactite, move to the other side and scream with joy that you did it! (Photo 3
I had my own question life moment before falling over and reaching the stalactite. I shouted for joy once my fingers reached the rock. Who ever first climbed this route is TWISTED. All of the photos above are of Robert and me doing the move. It’s my proudest climbing moment ever.
Robert returned to South Africa after our second Railay visit. It was great to spend time with him again. I love that he always gets me to do things that I’m not comfortable doing.
At the end of our month in Krabi, a family of Americans moved in at the Bohemia resort next door. They had two young, sweet boys that Corbin enjoyed playing with. They were currently living in India and were on a “visa run” so they could keep living there. This meant a month holiday in Thailand to make it happen! Not a bad life. We enjoyed playing cards, making tortillas and talking about India. People always say you meet the nicest people when you travel. I’d say that’s true!
Lubo beach on Koh Pu is a special place. All of us really enjoyed hanging out in this little piece of paradise. I now understand why Gert returns here every year. It’s a place where each day is simple and life moves at a livable pace.
On the day of our departure, we opted to “go local” by taking the scheduled service with all our bags to the mainland instead of booking a private longtail. We were pros by this point so 100 kg of baggage wasn’t any problem on a public boat. Joe arranged his friend’s truck once again and soon we were saying goodbye at the airport. This time our bags enjoyed a dry trip to the airport! Bonus!
Once again, our month in Krabi exceed all of our expectations. The pace of life on the beach was amazing. There was so much time for friends, Scrabble, reading… all the things that make life special.
I have posted separate Flyertalk Trip Reports of our flights from Krabi to Bangkok and Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Click on the links to see a travel-addicted view of our journey to Vietnam.
FLIGHT#18: TG242 KBV-BKK in Biz Class with photos
FLIGHT#19: BKK Royal First Lounge & LH772 BKK-SGN in First Class with photos
Last edited by olafman; Dec 27, 10 at 6:56 pm
Oct 15, 10, 3:07 am
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: SF Bay Area, California
Programs: AA2MM PLT, Hilton Gold, SPG Gold
December 2010: Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
as always photos of the journey can be found at http://travelcarl.blogspot.com
Originally, Vietnam was not included on our big round-the-world adventure. Instead this month was supposed to be China. I felt it was one of the more important countries that we would be visiting. China
is such a world power in population, economy, industry and language. So what could change my mind and make me chose Vietnam over China?
The answer is plain and simple. Good friends.
Our best friends from Munich left the school at the same time as us. We went traveling for a year and they accepted jobs in Ho Chi Minh. The thought of spending a month with them was too hard to pass up. So China out. Vietnam in.
I knew very little about Vietnam. I don’t really remember the American-Vietnam war
. I was playing with Legos when the Americans were getting their ... kicked and dying. I do have lots of memories throughout my life of seeing homeless guys on the streets of the USA with signs proclaiming their veteran status and needing money. Even to a naïve teenager, I could see that this war had done damage to a lot of people. By the end of our month there, I had a much better understanding about the “American War” as they call it.
We arrived after a great fifth-freedom flight on Lufthansa
from Bangkok. We spent five hours in the Thai Airways First Class lounge so we were well drunk and well fed before stepping on the aircraft. LH did their part to add to the situation. The full trip report and lots of photos can be seen here:
FLIGHT#19: BKK Royal First Lounge & LH772 BKK-SGN in First Class with photos
Most people in the world need a visa
for Vietnam. Tourists have two options: apply through the local embassy or use a travel agency to write you a letter of introduction. It seems like a racket to me but it was easier to use an online agency and then have them email me a PDF of the letter of introduction. It was about $80 for the three of us so didn’t seem like much. Upon arrival, the letter of intro and $25 USD per person gets translated into a visa in about 30 minutes. It wasn’t speedy but worked out just fine.
We exited customs and almost immediately saw our good friend, Daniel. Beer in hand, he didn’t mind waiting for us. He had come with a taxi and driver that he uses to get around town. Ho Chi Minh has crazy cheap taxis. While I’m not sure the local Vietnamese culture allows you to walk around drinking a beer, a feisty Venezuelan
guy can pretty much do what he wants there. We squeezed into the taxi with all our bodies and bags and fought the Friday night traffic to District Two. Immediately we could see a vibrant, alive city with more scooters on the road than cars!
situation in HCMC is unbelievable. They rule the roads. The government issued a helmet law but only for the adults. Kids don’t need to wear one! How does that make sense?? While in the western world we might see one or two people on a scooter, it is normal to see an entire family of five or six people all piled on a single scooter. Now multiply this times two thousand bikes at every intersection and you will get a sense of what life is like. Crossing any street as a pedestrian reminded me of the early eighties video game, Frogger. Because the stream of traffic is so thick and constant, you just start to cross the street into the mass of scooters and magically they start to go around you. Almost blindly, you continue to cross against all the odds and normal traffic rules. When you get to the other side, you say thanks to your favorite saint and marvel at the experience.
District One is the center of HCMC and most tourists stay in the heart when they visit. Spending a month in district one would have killed me. It’s just like NYC but more crowded and noisy. Luckily District Two
was full of wide streets, luxury apartment buildings, swimming pools, restaurants with gardens and fancy grocery stores. I was amazed we were only twenty minutes from the center of this big city. The An Phu market was similar to the SCORE market in Madagascar. They mostly carry imported products for the foreign tastes. Why we need to import Kraft Mac & Cheese to Vietnam? I’ll never know. Although the salty, bland taste of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle canned soup offered me some comfort later in the month when my tummy was giving out on me.
Daniel had rented us a three bedroom flat
. It was fairly new and in great condition. After not having air conditioning in Krabi, Thailand all last month, our apartment in Vietnam was an oasis from the perpetual heat of HCMC. I kept having to remind myself that THIS WAS THE COLD SEASON. It’s weird to wake up on Christmas morning while in the northern hemisphere and turn on the A/C at 06:30. I was so glad we weren’t visiting in July! It would be hard for me to live there simply because I enjoy doing outdoor activities which aren’t possible most months of the year there. Dan had stocked our fridge with beer and other essentials so we didn’t need to run out and do any shopping right away. The weird thing about the flat was one of the bathrooms was always full of cigarette smoke. Someone on a different floor must enjoy having a smoke while sitting on the toilet. And they sat on the toilet A LOT! At first I accused Corbin of taking up smoking but then realized that it was beyond what an eleven year old could do.
We hadn’t seen Dan, Louise and their now two year old daughter
since we all left Germany at the end of June. We were there for the birth of their daughter and also at the first birthday party. I was so happy that on our first full day, we could participate in her second birthday. It has been murder on us to be so far from them while we’ve been traveling. Luckily Baby Elena remembered us especially Corbin who is like a big brother to her. Corbin was great with her and even got her to take her nap and go to bed in the evening in a way that her parents couldn’t. We also got to hang out with Dan’s mom from Venezuela. We had met her when she visited in Germany after Elena’s birth.
We had a good friend Jay
arrive from Seattle to hang out with us for ten days. Before we left we invited all of our friends to “join the fun” and visit us along the way. We rented three bedroom flats with this purpose and it was great to have a little bit of home come to us. Having Jay around helped to get us seeing all the tourist sites: Mekong Delta, City tour of HCMC, War Remnants Museum…
On the day after Elena’s party, Dan took us all into the center for our first look at HCMC. This place had a different feeling than Bangkok. The people spoke more loudly. They seemed to live more on the streets. I loved the fact that their script was similar to English but the tone and pronunciation were well beyond my ear’s limits. We tried learning a few words but were discouraged by people who had lived in Vietnam many years. I left after a month with very good “taxi Vietnamese”. I could give directions like “right”, “left” and “straight”. Showing the maps on my iPhone was useless so guiding while they drove was the way to go.
Speaking of which, we bought local sim cards
like always and used them to power our iPhone for almost no money. We probably spent only $20 each for the whole month including using the internet all the time on them. How did we explore a foreign city before having Google Maps in the palm of our hands?
The central Ben Thanh market
was full of lots of typical tourist crap: fake Lacoste, “Hawaiian” shirts, bags, shoes… I bought a “North Face” backpack that is already showing signs of its inauthenticity. Parts of the inner metal structure are poking through to my shoulder blade and one of the straps has already worn through. What should I expect for $7 USD? I also got Terry a Prada man purse for $15 that isn’t doing so well after two months. The good news is that the man purse idea is working for him. After two lost wallets on the trip, a larger “purse” is harder to misplace.
One thing different about our Vietnam experience was we led an “expat” life. We hung out with our friends by their huge pool. We dined in “expensive” restaurants or did take away almost every evening. We took a taxi EVERYWHERE. I can’t say it was “Vietnam, up close and personal”. But it was wonderful. Last month in Thailand we were on our remote island almost living like a local. So this month it was a different approach.
Our friends really enjoy living in HCMC. They see themselves staying there for a while. The best part is that they are banking one of their salaries in spite of living very well. After five years, they will have quite a nest egg.
On one of our first days, we decided to take a one day tour of the Mekong Delta
arranged through a Lonely Planet recommended tour agency. The total cost was $23 per person for the day which seemed very reasonable. It began at 08:30 am with a one and a half hour bumpy bus ride. The road was in horrible condition and our driver drove like he was late for his wedding. Our bodies felt slightly abused by the time we got to the boat dock in the delta.
I knew that since we were on a tour, we would have lots of opportunity for shopping. I’m not really a shopper but knew that our tour was partially funded by the shops and factories. So we endured.
Our journey up this famous river at first was in a boat for about 20 people. It was similar to the long tail boats of Thailand with its screeching car motor with no muffler. At our first stop we enjoyed some fresh, sliced fruit and were serenaded by a local trio. Like much Asian music, my Western ears found the music confusing at best but could appreciate the tradition of it. No one was rushing up to buy the CD though. Just before leaving, our guide brought out a big vat of “rice whiskey”. Then he announced that this whiskey was flavored with the carcass of a dead bird
reaching in and grabbing the bird to show us all. Next he offered us all a taste of this local favorite. Thank you but no. My friend Jay was much more adventurous and tried a shot. Corbin even stuck his finger in Jay’s glass to see what it tasted like. Jay said it just tasted of whiskey with no overwhelming dead bird flavor. I’m adventurous but I too have my limits.
Next we got in a smaller long tail and stopped at a coconut candy factory
. From raw, whole coconuts to sweet candy, we saw the whole unautomated process. Corbin did convince me that we needed to buy some to eat later. I acquiesced after saying no to the dead bird whiskey.
Our next stop was lunch which was included in our tour price. We chose to upgrade to some more expensive food and a couple of beers to fight the midday heat. After lunch we had the option of biking around the island but with the heat, we strolled along some nearby roads to see the area.
After eating we took a ride on tiny boats up a very crowed jungle canal
. Our boat had no motor instead a husband and wife team that propelled us forward. They offered us the famous conical hats to keep the sun off us during our journey. It was a fun 20 minute ride through the jungle.
At another stop, we met some beekeepers
. Corbin got to touch panel of honeycombs that was covered with bees. He will remember that forever. He was amazed that he didn’t get stung.
For the journey back to town, we decided to pay a bit extra and take a speed boat back down the Mekong to a jetty in the middle of the city. Little did we know that our bumpy 1.5 hour bus ride instead turned into a four hour bumpy speed boat ride. It was long and bumpy. Next time, we choose the bus.
One of my favorite parts of the tour was meeting an older couple from Stuggart, Germany. We got talking and when I mentioned that we were spending the month in Ho Chi Minh, the woman grunted with visible disgust
in a way that only a German could. Then she added “Why would you ever want to do that?” I told her that we weren’t in District One and that we were there visiting friends but she was not convinced.
We arrived back in HCMC and soon enough were back at our place for a take-away dinner of Indian food. It had been a long day but we enjoyed everything we saw.
The next day, Jay and I had signed up for a city tour
of HCMC. Terry and Corbin opted to just relax after the long touring day before. One of our first stops was the busy Chinese Market which was a more local version of the Ban Thanh tourist market. It was fascinating to see all the products for sale. The term “Chinese plastic crap” did come to mind. I made a mental note to return to buy a fake Christmas tree.
The visit to the old South Vietnam parliament building was a bit strange. Since the north won the war, the government seat is now in Hanoi. So an old, unused sixties architecture parliament building is a stop on the tour of the city but isn’t worth much. I did like all the “retro” lighting fixtures.
The highlight of the tour was the War Remnants Museum
. Our guide warned us that it was communist government propaganda about the “American war”. It was a presentation of captured American army vehicles and planes outside with graphic photos of the atrocities committed by the Americans on the inside. The worst of which were lots of photos showing the results of Agent Orange. By no means was this an unbiased presentation of the war. I was fascinated by the whole place. About this time I began to wonder why the Vietnamese people in general don’t outwardly hate Americans. We came. We fought. We screwed up a lot of the country and we left. The results of which are still visible today.
For our visit to HCMC, I purchased the $5 Lonely Planet city guide on my Kindle
. Having read several Lonely Planet guides on my Kindle, I can now say that the electronic versions just don’t work. The maps are too small and I constantly needed to refer to other screens to figure out where we needed to go. In the future, I’m sticking to the printed guide. I think an iPad version would be better.
One of the unexpected cultural phenomenon in Vietnam was the fact we were recognized as celebrities
. While, yes, I have appeared on TV including the Matt Damon episode of “Will & Grace”. Yes, I have sung solo for a sitting US president. Yes, my wedding was covered by CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. But I didn’t think that we would get recognized in Vietnam. Three different times were out on the town and got stopped by groups of young people to take pictures. Corbin swears that it’s him. I think it’s me. Terry just rolls his eyes. Regardless, the camera phones go a-clicking when we appear. The funniest was at the movies we were about to enter and this group of kids got very excited about seeing us. They were very polite but lots of photos were taken standing with us. Why? We’ll never know.
As Christmas approached, we had to say goodbye to our friends. Louise’s mom was getting married down in New Zealand so they had to fly south. This meant that we had just over a week on our own. HOW COULD THEY LEAVE US!?!?!?
Louise did lend us her box of Christmas decorations
to help make our place feel a little more like the holiday season and a little less like a bowl of Pho. I went back and purchased my meter tall plastic tree and soon with Christmas music playing, we decorated it to Martha’s liking. I think the term is “ladened”. It did help though and soon we were wrapping gifts and humming “Mr. Hanky, the Christmas poo…” Yes, we have a wide variety of Christmas carols.
So we need to spend a few moments talking about my bowels. We were three months into our “developing nation” tour and my stomach was beginning to complain. Actually it had begun to complain back at the end of Thailand. But in Vietnam its complaining turned into nausea about two days before Christmas. So this meant a visit to the doctor. I did my online research and soon was seeing a wonderful Vietnamese doctor who asked me where I had been. I told him that we were traveling and we had been to Madagascar, Thailand and now Vietnam. I added that we were going to India next month! He smiled and said that my intestinal flora had been wiped out. He prescribed a powder that would re-grow the “flora” in my stomach to help process the food I was eating. He also gave me another powder to help “plug things up”. Two powders and twenty-four hours later, I was a new man. My whole bill for the doctor’s visit and the meds ran me about $25. Love the developing world.
Christmas morning we woke and opened all our gifts. Shopping for presents is difficult when you know you’ll be packing them up in a week into already bursting suitcases. Somehow we ended buying Corbin this huge Lego and promising that we will put the Lego in OUR suitcases. We’re pushovers.
After the pressies were opened, I somehow decided that we needed to record a little Christmas greeting movie to our family and friends. Since we had been living in Europe, we had long abandoned the whole Christmas card thing. I somehow felt moved that morning to get the family to sit down in front of the camera and share some holiday greetings. It took three takes before I gave up. In post-production (or “post” as we call it in the industry), I simply decided to include all three takes and call it a day. In the end, it turned out wonderfully it conveyed the spirit of the holiday. While not intended for public viewing, you all are family so feel free to watch it at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81DTa08LvnU
Since Mama still wasn’t feeling one hundred percent, I decided that we would let the Intercontinental Saigon
do the Christmas cooking. They offered a Christmas lunch including a visit from Santa for $70 a person. In Vietnamese Dong, this seemed a lot but can you really put a price on happiness? Also they promised that Corbin would have a special moment with “Santa”. Really! This ought to be interesting.
So the Haley boys arrived at 12:30 for the meal. It was set up in their main buffet restaurant. We immediately popped our Christmas crackers and donned the crowns. How is it that we have avoided the cracker/crown tradition in America? Who doesn’t look good in a paper crown? Oh wait, ANYONE. Looking completely dorky, we attacked the seafood bar like drag queens at the Lancome free sample give-a-way. The food was outstanding. We ate and then we ate some more. Did I mention the free flowing wine? Soon after we finished with the main courses, we were invited to visit Santa.
I was very surprised that Santa was the European version and not just a Vietnamese guy in a Santa suit. I’m not sure why Santa was European though. Had someone complained at last year’s Christmas buffet? Also who is the European living in HCMC that dresses up as Santa and hangs out at the Intercontinental hotel on Christmas day? So many questions would remain unanswered. We did get a lovely picture of all of us together.
The day after Christmas, we flew fifty minutes away to the coastal resort town of Nha Trang
. One of Dan and Louise’s neighbors had raved about a new Sheraton there. So we booked some cheap airfare (see my business class report on Vietnam Airlines) and stayed on the Club level of the Sheraton Nha Trang. The resort was great and we especially enjoyed the Club lounge. It was an extension of our room. The full Flyertalk trip report can be found at:
FLIGHT#20: SGN Domestic Sasco Lounge, VN452 SGN-NHA Business Class and Sheraton Nha Trang
One of my favorite parts of our Vietnam experience was Van. She’s is the nanny of Baby Elena. Since they were all down in New Zealand, Van came over to our house and taught me how to cook several Vietnamese dishes
. I took copious notes and shot lots of pictures of the preparation. Next I typed them all up and posted them on our website: http://fifthgradearoundtheworld.com/fgatw/Recipes.html
Van came a total of five days and we cooked up a storm. On our last day just before New Years, we met for our final lesson. Both of us wished it could continue. It was a very tearful goodbye that afternoon. She had shared so much with us that I will never forget.
So what do you do in HCMC for New Year’s when your best friends have up and left you? Luckily I had been looking on Couchsurfing.org
and noticed that a big group was going to get together for New Year’s Eve at a BBQ restaurant. A lovely Argentinean couple that we met in Bangkok would be arriving in time to attend. So that evening just over thirty CouchSurfers met for an amazing meal at a well known Vietnamese restaurant. We had a great time together. The food was delicious. The company even better. Around 11:00pm Corbin started to fade so Terry volunteered to take him home while I stayed with the Surfers. Just before midnight we spilled into the crowed HCMC streets and counted down to 2011. It was a great time. Then one of the locals dragged us to Vasco, a bar/club where we danced until the wee hours of the morning. There is nothing like dancing in a hot club on a hot night in Vietnam. I look a little shiny in all the pictures.
January 1st was our last full day in Vietnam. It was sad to be packing up and preparing to move on. It had been such a wonderful month. We met so many wonderful people along the way. Once again we said “au revoir”, until we see you again. It’s definitely a place we will return to.
Last edited by olafman; Feb 23, 11 at 3:47 am
Oct 15, 10, 3:09 am
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: SF Bay Area, California
Programs: AA2MM PLT, Hilton Gold, SPG Gold
January 2011: Cochin, India
The Haley Boys make it to India!
For the first time I have included some pictures as part of this report. Many more photos can be found on my blog: http://travelcarl.blogspot.com
One of my top picks for our one year journey was India. I spent three weeks in northern India after I finished my two years with the Peace Corps in Malawi, Africa. I flew into Delhi and met up with the guy that I was kind of seeing who happened be studying Hindi there. We had a great time together and since then it has remained a magical place in my mind. I have such vivid memories of the warm people, the amazing food and stunning sites.
Of all our countries, India was the one I was most worried about with my family. I have seen lots of poverty before. My family hadn’t. Could an eleven year old American kid understand the poverty? How would it affect him? Would my husband hate the place? Was it a bad choice to drag my family there?
These fears haunted me months before our arrival. I’m a bit of a worrier by nature. I didn’t inherit that trait from either parent. I cultivated it all on my own. Corbin has begun to pick it up also. I guess we pass the good and the bad to our kids.
Our journey to India began on the morning of January 2 in Ho Chi Minh where we flew to Bangkok and then connected on Cathay Pacific to Delhi. Trip reports can be found here:
FLIGHT#22: SGN International Sasco Lounge & TG 551 Business Class with photos
FLIGHT#23: BKK CX & QF/BA Lounges & CX 751 BKK-DEL Business Class with photos
We exited customs and tried to get a cab to our nearby hotel. This is where it all got a bit confusing. I’m used to the normal metered taxi line you find at most airports. You get in and you go.
We kept asking around with no luck but saw lots about prepaid. Another Japanese guy soon joined our confused search. Finally we found a guy that agreed to use his meter. We later learned we should have gone to the pre-paid window, stated our destination and paid ahead of time. Oh well.
The entire time we were looking for a cab, we were freezing our pajeebees off. Our shorts and t-shirts were no match for the cold winter air. Many people were wearing sweaters and big jackets with hats and gloves!
I had booked us via Expedia into an airport hotel, the Hotel Venus, because our flight to Cochin didn’t leave until the next morning. For $80, I found a hotel that had good reviews on Expedia and looked very close on the map. Unfortunately it took a while to get there because of medians in the street.
Once we got there I quickly saw the place was a dump. It was freezing and the hotel was very cold. Our room didn’t have any heating. We quickly got ready for bed. I was shocked when I pulled back the sheets and saw holes in the sheets. Yuck. Also the white towels in the bathroom had brown stains on them. Double yuck. It was only for one night but I really wasn’t happy.
In the morning they delivered Indian breakfast to our room since they didn’t have a restaurant. The food was surprisingly good. I love Indian food and the chapatis with potato curry were delicious.
FLIGHT#24 DEL- COK
Delhi, India (DEL) - Cochin, India (COK)
Date: Jan 3, 2011
Miles flown since start of trip: 42,282 mi.
Aircraft: Airbus 320
We booked a cab to take us back to the airport for our domestic flight to Cochin. I made the grave mistake of not checking which terminal. I simply assumed we needed to go to the domestic terminal. We got all the way over and never found JetLite. Soon we learned that it also left from the new Terminal 3. So we had to drive for fifteen minutes to get all the way over there. Almost all airlines now leave Delhi from T3. Only a small handful of LLCs are left at T1.
I was a bit nervous checking in with JetLite which is the low-cost version of Jet Airways. Our 120kgs of checked bags was a bit more than they were offering us. We chose to carry on Corbin’s 17kg rolling bag which left around 100kg with four bags. Gulp. Luckily the check-in agent didn’t bother looking at the weight and just kept pulling the bags through! BINGO! Soon we had our boarding passes and passed security.
India does this interesting thing where every carry-on including purses and small bags have to have a stamped tag on them once they’ve been security checked. Then this tag is checked several more times before boarding. It seems a bit like the Department of Redundancy Department if you ask me.
My family asked which lounge we got to use and had to inform them that WE DIDN’T HAVE A LOUNGE!! I did suggest that we hang out in the new food court and have some lunch. They both looked at me with suspicious eyes.
The food court was great. It’s funny to see a McDonalds that doesn’t sell hamburgers. I had a lovely plate of Masala Dosa. It was the best food court food I had ever eaten at.
Our flight left on time. We had a free seat next to us. Terry got an exit row seat. Absolutely nothing but praise for JetLite. I even got AA miles since I booked it as a Jet Airways codeshare. Who could complain?
The landing in Cochin was very dramatic. It looked liked we were landing in the middle of a jungle. As we walked down the airstairs in Cochin, a wall of heat hit us immediately. It was so nice to be hot again after the colds of Delhi.
After we left baggage claim a friendly face greeted us with a sign. At times like this, it’s nice to have someone waiting for you. Our driver had a big car but we still barely fit will all our bags. The air conditioning felt great as we made our way to Fort Cochin about an hour and a half from the Cochin airport.
Vietnam’s chaotic streets seemed tame next to India’s. Cows and goats added to the fun as we pushed through the afternoon traffic. India was definitely alive and buzzing. The car ride to our place was fascinating and a great intro for Terry and Corbin.
Terry and Corbin on the streets of Cochin
We had chosen to stay in Fort Cochin which is across the bay from the main center of Cochin, Ernakulam. Fort Cochin was much quieter with lots of restaurants and beachfront available. I found a house to rent that had a wonderful website. It turns out the owner Colbridge is a local Keralite (someone from the state of Kerala) who owns a website development business. Thus, his rental house has a nice website. He lived just a few blocks from our house and turned out to be a wonderful friend. He checked in with us often and always helped us with suggestions or advice.
Colbridge was waiting at the house when we arrived to welcome us. His English was great since he has an office for his website business in Laguna Beach in California. Unlike most men from Kerala, he always wore shorts and a t-shirt. Almost Indian men in the area wore long trousers in spite of the heat. Also Colbridge didn’t have the signature Indian man mustache like 95% of his countrymen. We could see right away, California had changed him.
The rental house at first seemed a bit dirty to me. Our place in Ho Chi Minh was spotless and had daily maid service. Here it looked like some things hadn’t been cleaned in quite some time. The bathrooms had a slight moldy smell. The kitchen looked like I needed to give it a good cleaning before attempting to cook anything there. The good news was that the bedrooms each had an air conditioning unit and he had wifi and cable available.
Over the month that we were there, we grew to love the house. Once it got a little cleaner, we found it very comfortable. We loved the location in the middle of a residential neighborhood about ten minutes walking from the tourist restaurants and shops of Fort Cochin. We got very lucky in finding the place.
We also ended up hiring a maid to come in twice a week to clean the floors, kitchen and bathrooms. It was hilarious at times because the woman didn’t speak a lick of English. We had some funny charade sessions trying to communicate. Colbridge was good for a quick translation on the phone when needed.
I saw a wash machine and decided that I could do our laundry instead of having someone else handle it. Up until this point in my life, using a washing machine was simple. You put the clothes in, turned it on and then got them out after it had washed and spun them dry. Simple. Well our washer in Cochin was not an “automatic” washer. First off you drag the machine next to the sink and then connect the water line to a faucet to fill the drum. When that is done, you have to turn off the water and turn on the agitator for fifteen minutes. Then you flick a switch and all the water drains out the back door if you have remembered to put the drain pipe there. Otherwise, your kitchen fills up with water and Corbin comes out screaming “THERE’S A FLOOD!”. Not that this every happened.
The next step is to close the drain switch and fill up the drum again with water in order to rinse the closes. Turn on the agitator. Drain. Repeat if necessary. Finally all the clothes go into a separate spinning drum like the ones at my gym for wet swim wear. I guess this was all simpler than hand washing the clothes in the dirty river. I was still surprised at how labor intensive the whole thing was! In the end we managed through this process for the month and now every time I use a real automatic washer I have a new appreciation for its abilities.
I didn’t start to cook right away because food in the restaurants was very cheap. We could easily eat dinner for $10 -$15 for all three of us in local restaurants geared for tourists. At lunch we tended to eat at hole-in-the-wall restaurants favored by the local Indians. Our favorite was a vegetarian Brahmin restaurant, Kryshna Cafe where we could eat for $0.75 each. The food was absolutely delicious and plentiful. They would come by and constantly refill your plate if you wished. Colbridge had recommended the place and it became a favorite. It seemed silly to have a hamburger in a tourist hotel for $9 when better food was available for much less.
Lucy, Tim and I enjoy our $0.75 lunch at the Kryshna Café near Fort Cochin
In every country we quickly buy local SIM cards to be able to make calls and use the internet on our iPhones. We mentioned this to Colbridge and later that night his sister, Jaya, stopped by and figured out what was best for us. We ended up with IDEA phone company and paid about $30 each for the month of cellphone use including lots of internet. This seemed like a great deal to me. I love having Google Maps always available to us.
Thailand is definitely king of street food with Vietnam in a close second. India does hold its own though. I love a drive-by samoosa. These fried triangles of dough filled with meat or veggies are the perfect snack between meals. I found a nice little shop in Fort Cochin just across from the ferry to the center that could sell me a samoosa and a can of Diet Coke for $0.75.
Speaking of the ferry, I have to share what a unique experience traveling by boat was in Cochin. Because of the many waterways around Cochin, the local government has developed a nice network of ferries. From our Fort Cochin peninsula, we had a twenty minute ride to reach Ernakulam, the center of Cochin city. The first thing that strikes you as you arrive is that women and men queue up in separate lines. India like much of the Middle East still has a great separation between men and women. At first we thought this was funny but then soon realized that the culture was that the man standing behind would stand close enough to you so that several of his body parts might be touching you. The Keralites have a very different view of personal space. I kept thinking guys were coming on to me and then I would remember that I was in India.
It was not possible to buy tickets ahead of time. Instead, you could purchase a ticket only once the boat had arrived. This then made the next few minutes insanely chaotic as everyone pushed to the small window to buy a ticket. Also each person had the right to buy two tickets so a few aggressive men would always skip to the front of the line and have a stranger buy tickets. The irony was that once the women bought their tickets, they were forced to push through the men’s line to get to the boat. So much for preventing the men and women from touching! The NBC sitcom Outsourced did an episode about catching an Indian train that reminded us about our boats.
After buying your ticket, you queued in a big group for a few moments until the gates were flung open and there was a mad rush to get a seat. Local customs prevented men and women from sitting together unless they were a couple. Strangers would leave 20 cm in between instead of the normal crushing up next to the stranger next to you.
I loved our ferry rides. Inevitably we would end up talking to the locals around us. When half my body is pressed up against a stranger, I tend to say hello. A good conversation starter was often my Kindle that I would pull out to read on the journey. Corbin’s iPad was also very interesting to all the locals. I encouraged him to show his seatmates how to play games on it.
On one bay crossing when I was alone I met two twenty-three year old networking university students. They both spoke good English and asked me many questions. As it always happens, they finally asked me if I was married. I’m at the point in my life where I don’t mind being a self-appointed gay ambassador. I don’t have much to lose and it’s good for the rest of the world to have a little exposure.
So I told these two students that yes, I am married but added that my spouse is a man. We’re gay and we are married. I wasn’t sure they understood what I was saying but the conversation continued on. Later when speaking about our son, they asked if I had any pictures of him on my phone. I brought up some pictures from our visit to Hong Kong Disneyland. I specifically pointed out that THIS one was my son and THAT one was my husband, to whom I AM MARRIED. It was at this point it all clicked in. “You’re married to man?” “Is that legal?” “Why are you married to a man?” I tried to explain that I am attracted to men and that we have been together for twenty years. They had absolutely NO EXPERIENCE to process what I was telling them. They told me that they had never heard of ANYTHING like this. It was very funny.
Now, let me put this into perspective. Throughout our entire conversation, these two guys were holding hands, touching each other’s shoulders, bodies, legs… They are the ones who looked like a couple. In Indian, non-sexual male demonstrations of affection are very common. PDA between a man and a woman is very uncommon. The same was true in Malawi when I lived there. Since it was taboo to show affection to the opposite sex, people were affectionate with members of their same sex in a non-sexual, friendly way.
So these two guys while hanging all over each other are telling me that they couldn’t understand how I had a man for a wife. It was a very funny scene. After the ferry ride, we walked together toward the Chinese nets and our conversations continued. My favorite part was about twenty-five minutes after I fully explained my relationship when one of them finally asked me “So, are you guys here in India to find wives?”
This interaction was not unique and occurred several more times before our departure. We learned through other Indians that it is absolutely unheard of to see an open homosexual relationship. The Keralites say they are the most educated in India and have the highest literacy rate. Most people in Kerala don’t get married until they are around thirty. Unfortunately, this means that a guy has to wait a long time to have sex with his wife. Like in prison, the men find other solutions to satisfy their needs. Many guys have sex with other guys until they get married and then that stops. It’s an unspoken part of their culture.
Another part of Indian culture that I discovered was that the men are VERY friendly to Westerners. Each day, I would have guys wink at me and instantly engage me in conversation. One day I was having a cold drink in a lovely air-conditioned café. A young guy was sitting nearby and smiled at me several times. I politely returned his smiles. Then he came over and asked if he could join me. Our conversation began there and continued for a long while. It turns out he thought homosexuality was wrong thus requiring me to come out to him and fight his beliefs. He was very Christian and quoted lots of text from the Bible. Ugh. I didn’t win the discussion but at least now he has a different face of homosexuality.
The Keralites in general tend to be a conservative bunch culturally. It is illegal to smoke in public or drink on the street. The police do not apply these rules to foreigners. Beer and spirits are sold from state run shops only. I found it funny that a metal wall protects the anonymity of the patrons by shielding their faces. They have created lots of shame with alcohol. Beer was cheap though about one dollar per liter. Our friends all appreciated being offered cold beer in cold mugs at our house.
One of our goals to see a school in each country we visit. Before arriving in India, Terry had contacted a local international school and they welcomed us to visit. On our fifth day in Cochin, we hired a car and driver and journeyed about forty-five minutes east to the school. We were instantly greeted by the principal Dr G. I was a bit worried about us being a gay family but she was so warm and friendly it obviously wasn’t a big deal.
The school had two hundred students with about thirty boarding students. We instantly met an American Lee who seemed to be in charge of all the logistics at the school. Another American Jim who did the financials was gone that day. Dr. G instructed Lee to give us a tour of the school. I was amazed they had a computer room with twenty computers and an LCD projector. Each class had between ten and twenty students.
Terry and I wanted to set up some kind of exchange with us training the staff about technology while Corbin gets to learn in a fifth grade class. Dr. G was very open to the idea. I was concerned because our tourist visa specifically forbade us to volunteer anywhere so this would all have to happen on the down-low.
We stopped by the fifth grade class which Corbin would be joining and Lee introduced us to his two foster kids from Nepal. They were both very friendly and I knew that Corbin would make fast friends with them.
sBoth Terry and I had our gaydar beeping loudly as we talked to Lee. Our suspicions were confirmed when he invited us to come over for Sunday lunch at his and Jim’s house. He said that they have a total of fourteen people living in their house and it was something to be seen.
Our round trip car and driver to the school and back cost us around $30. If we would be going to school all week, we would have to use the school’s buses that leave from the center of the city.
So all the next week, we left our house at 6:00am to catch an auto-rickshaw to the ferry in Fort Cochin. Then we would travel to the center where a school bus picked us up at 7:05am. From there we went around town picking up the students on the way to school and finally made it there around 8:30am. It was a long, hot, bumpy journey. It nearly killed us.
Once we got to school, we ate a wonderful Indian breakfast each morning in their cafeteria. The lunch was also amazing and we sampled many Indian dishes that were new to us. I sure wish my school in California had a cafeteria like that.
Dr. G installed us in Jim’s vacant office and we used that as our home base. Terry and I led an hour workshop before school one day for the teachers entitled “Using Technology to Enhance Your Lessons”. We gave them lots of ideas on how to use the internet and also their computer lab to improve their teaching. They loved it. Most had never used the computer lab and really didn’t know what to do there. I also managed to set up their wifi working and password protect it. I thought it was ironic that an American was in India giving the Indians tech support.
After our talk, I did smaller workshops on using Word and Powerpoint and Terry worked with the English teachers giving them lots of ideas to vary their lectures. I worked in many of the math classes showing how to use cooperative learning to improve understanding.
The students were incredible. Their friendliness and eagerness were refreshing. We got to know many of them during our week there. We met several families of Americans that had come to India because their Indian parents wanted their children to be schooled back in India. It was fascinating to hear their stories of assimilating into the Indian culture.
We just happened to see this elephant walking the streets as we took our school bus home.
The reverse journey home also took over two hours. We left around 3:15pm and would walk in our door around 5:30pm or 6:00pm. Five hours of travel time seemed a lot compared to the seven hours at school. Transport is an issue for poor people all over the world. I know that our housekeeper in Los Angeles traveled several hours by bus each time she cleaned our house. People can travel far to earn their money.
We returned to the school two days before we left Cochin. They were having a special ceremony to celebrate Indian independence and we enjoying watching all the different clubs and groups make special presentations. We made some wonderful friends at the school and Dr. G tried hard to get us to stay and teach permanently.
Our first Sunday in Cochin, we went to Jim and Lee’s for Sunday lunch. We met their whole houseful of people that had become part of their family. The two boys in the fifth grade class played football with Corbin and taught him an Indian game carrom that is a mixture of checkers and pool. Their house is like the United Nations with Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus all living together.
Jim, Lee and part of their Indian family
We went back the next weekend and I made burritos for everyone. Singh who is in charge of making their daily chapatis did very well with rolling out the tortillas. It was a nice cultural exchange. I find that cooking Mexican food is a great way to share Californian culture.
Another fun thing Corbin did during our month there was join an English book club for kids. Before our arrival I had posted on the Couchsurfing website that we were looking for other local families with kids to meet while in Cochin. A lovely woman Meena responded and mentioned that she ran a book club for kids. Our first Friday we found her house and met all the kids. It was great fun for Corbin and the kids would all play together after the book club was over. Once again Couchsurfing introduced us to some great people.
Fellow Couchsurfer leading a book club for kids
We also hosted our first Couchsurfers during our month in Cochin. A guy had posted in the Cochin forum needing information about Fort Cochin. I offered our place but mentioned our couches weren’t very comfortable for sleeping. They ended booking a $10 a night homestay near us and we all went out for a great dinner. He was Indian but was going to university in Connecticut. He and an American friend were traveling around India during their winter break. It was lots of fun hearing about their travels and getting to know them.
A couple of nights later when they were back in town, they called asking if they could sleep on our couch for a night. Sure! Corbin even volunteered to give up his double bed and take the couch himself. They were very pleased we told them what Corbin had done. The guys wrote a nice reference for us on Couchsurfing and we were officially part of the system. We would be surfing on our first couch next month in Singapore.
After the surfers left, some friends of ours, Lucy and Tim from the UK, arrived and stayed with us for a couple of nights and then moved to a great homestay around the corner. They were with us just under two weeks and we explored the area together. Lucy also joined me in my cooking lessons at the house.
One of the highlights for me throughout the trip has been the opportunity to learn local dishes. I asked Colbridge to recommend a cook we could work with and he suggested his sister Jaya who is a great cook and has a degree in English. She came by and we discussed that I wanted to learn some basic Kerala meals. I’ve cooked lots of Indian food before but wanted to witness the real thing.
She arrived for our first lesson armed with lots of fresh ingredients and spices. One of the key ingredients to all Kerala cuisine is the coconut. They use the milk, meat and the oil in most dishes. I had never really used coconut oil before and it lends an amazing flavor to any food. We cooked a fish curry and some green beans as an introduction. They were unbelievable. When we made chapatis, I never was able to get them as round as Lucy and Jaya.
Some of my non-circular chapatis. Jaya thought they were very funny!
In the future lessons we also made masala dosa and butter chicken. The latter was at my request knowing that it actually comes from the north of India but I still wanted to see it made from scratch. I’ve always used a starter packet to make my butter chicken and wanted to see the real thing. Jaya’s butter chicken was indescribable.
Corbin, Terry, Tim and Lucy enjoying our delicious Butter Chicken. We reached nirvana that day!
We still dream of it. The whole time we were cooking, I took copious notes and lots of pictures. I have posted the results on our website: http://fifthgradearoundtheworld.com/fgatw/Recipes.html
Most are easy to follow but you might need to visit your local Asian/Indian market to find all the ingredients.
Jaya and Lucy making the dosas for our Masala Dosa
At our last lesson, we were sad. It had been an amazing experience and we both teared up saying goodbye. Jaya had shared so much with me that I would cherish back in my own kitchen in California. Many of friends have now tried the recipes and love the results.
Near the end of our trip, Lucy, Tim and Lee joined us for an early morning washing of the elephants. We had heard about this fun activity from other friends and thought we would give it a try. It turned out to be our favorite thing we did all month.
We left our house very early and were at the river’s edge by 7:00am. These elephants are used to haul lumber from the forest to the road. They get a bath both in the morning and the evening. Their handlers showed us how to use a coconut shell to scrub their rough skin and coarse hair. Corbin was timid at first but then soon scrubbed like a professional. Right about this time, the sun started to peek through the trees illuminating this magical experience. After thirty minutes they were clean and headed into the forest to work for the day.
Lucy and Corbin scrub the elephants clean using their coconut shells
On our last full day, Colbridge invited us to eat at a famous Biryani rice place near to our house. It's called Kayees but the locals call the shop "Kayee Ikka's Kada". I was amazed when we entered that lots of famous newspapers and magazines had written about the place. Its chicken and lamb biryanis lived up to the fame. Colbridge ordered lots of food and we could barely walk when we left.
Almost all Indian men have a mustache. So in their honor I shaved my beard leaving only a mustache. Corbin joined in with the help of some tea grounds.
On our last night in Cochin we had Corbin’s book club and then were invited back to Lee and Jim’s place for a farewell dinner. It was sad that we had made friends from a variety of cultures and had to say goodbye. We pushed hard the idea to send their boys over for a summer visit with us in California. We’ll make that happen!
All of us quietly packed in the morning. Leaving our “one month” homes has been difficult because we have grown attached to our brief life there. Colbridge and Jaya were both there to say goodbye as our car arrived to take us to the airport. Fort Cochin was a great month and we look forward to returning to the warm-hearted state of Kerala one day.
Cochin, India (COK) – Delhi, India (DEL)
Date: Jan 29, 2011
Miles flown since start of trip: 43,550 mi.
Aircraft: Airbus 320
We arrived at the Cochin International Airport three hours before departure mostly due to the lack of traffic through Cochin city. Check-in wasn’t open for our flight yet but somehow she checked us in. With our usual 105kg of checked bags and our 41kg of carry-ons I was prepared to pay excess baggage charges. After seeing our paperwork about our connecting international flight 72 hours later, she said we didn’t owe anything! Now that’s a LCC with a heart!
With no lounge, we chose to wait in the only restaurant in the airport which also happen to serve as the premium class lounge for several airlines. Three club sandwiches later we were happily catching up on our TV programs.
The flight back to Delhi was equally good as the way down. The only difference was that we didn’t have a free seat between us this time. I wouldn’t have any problem booking on JetLite in the future.
Upon arrival in Delhi, this time we knew to pre-pay our cab to get to the Hilton Janakpuri. It cost less than $10 and took about 45 minutes to reach. Like many places in Delhi, our beautiful hotel was surrounded by trash and developing world poverty. The hotel had a beautiful high ceiling lobby and check-in happened quickly. Our executive floor upgrade had cleared but it wasn’t a suite.
The location of the hotel is a bit out of the center but luckily there is a metro station right in front of the hotel. A single train takes you to Connaught Place in about 45 minutes. The best part about this hotel was the service. OUTSTANDING. Not only was it very attentive but also extremely friendly. The staff in the Executive Lounge was eager to serve. I was making a vodka tonic for myself and a waiter came up and apologized that I was having to make it. He insisted on taking over and then asked would I like it to be a double? How did he know me so well? They also offered bring over a plate of a variety of hors d’ouerves. Lovely service! My favorite part was that we had long conversations with many of the staff members often initiated by them. Normally I’m not very chatty with servers because I know they have other things to do. But all the staff in the lounge were talkative in a very professional way. It takes a seasoned employee to know how to walk this line appropriately. I will be writing a nice letter to the GM about our experience.
On our first day I had arranged to meet up with a gay couple that I had met on Couchsurfing.org. They suggested meeting up at this nice arts & crafts center called the Dilli Haat that has food stall representing food from all the regions in India.
Corbin gets his hand painted with a henna design that lasted three weeks
Both of the guys were named Gaurav which was confusing at first. They both were very sweet and we enjoyed getting to know them over some Kashmiri food. In the end, they picked up the tab for the whole meal. Couchsurfers are so generous.
One of the Gauravs still lived at home with parents that were trying to arrange a marriage for him. The other was a bit older and lived on his own. His parents had already given up on arranging his marriage. Neither was out to any of their siblings or parents. This situation reminded us a bit of the gay couple we met in Istanbul.
They have traveled a bit since one of them works for an airline. Their issue is getting visas. They tried to come to the States but in the end were denied. It’s too bad since they have free airfare to come and visit us! They are going to try again in the future.
The crafts market had a nice variety of wares and for once we actually bought some souvenirs. We picked up a nice scarf for Terry’s mom. The Gaurav’s gave us lots of good advice on sightseeing for the next two days.
No trip to Delhi is complete with a visit down to Agra and the Taj Mahal. In 1990 my boyfriend booked us tickets on the train and we got a guide and drive once we arrived. This time I thought we’d have the driver pick us up at our hotel and drive us all the way there. This turned out to be a big mistake.
Our driver arrived at 5:30am and soon we were on our way. The problem was a dense fog limited our speed for the first two hours. In the end the whole journey took almost five hours. The train would have been MUCH faster. Once we were down in Agra, we picked up a guide who took us through the Taj Mahal and the Fort. He was almost sixty and seemed to be a seasoned guide. Everyone knew him and he was very knowledgeable.
The Taj Mahal is truly magnificent. Both Terry and Corbin were blown away. It is a beautiful tribute to the dead queen. Even though it was my second time there, I was in awe. With more time, I would strongly suggest spending the night in Agra to see the Taj in the setting and rising sun colors.
The Agra Fort was also very interesting and beautiful. I loved the views of the Taj from the Fort. The whole place seemed magical. I enjoyed trying to envision the place alive with its original inhabitants.
The drive back to Delhi was also about four and a half hours. This time it was lengthened by bad Delhi afternoon traffic. The day’s travel reminded us of our day in Madagascar when we traveled 4.5 hours each way to see an underground grotto and ran into a group of lemurs. In the end both days were worth it but the transport was a bit trying on us.
Our final day in Delhi we toured around the city and saw some of the bigger sites. Both my boys were tired after the big day to Agra so we kept it light and I didn’t push them too hard.
The details of our flight to Japan can be found in the following trip report:
FLIGHT#26: Delhi Green Lounge & JL 740 Business Class with photos
Thus our adventure to India came to a close. We had many unforgettable experiences. We managed to keep our tummies healthy. We felt safe the entire time. Most importantly we met so many wonderful people. I look forward to our next time to discover more of this world within a country.
My husband Terry also wrote a short piece about his experience in India. You can read it at:
Last edited by olafman; Mar 16, 11 at 10:10 pm
Oct 15, 10, 3:10 am
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: SF Bay Area, California
Programs: AA2MM PLT, Hilton Gold, SPG Gold
February 2011: Melbourne, Australia
We spent the month of January in Cochin, India and next needed to get to Melbourne, Australia as part of our year long adventure showing our son the world. So, of course, we flew via Delhi, Tokyo, Singapore and Sydney. I know that sounds like a “Visit Asia” itinerary but each of those cities had a purpose:
• We flew to Delhi to see the Taj Mahal
• We flew to Tokyo to visit the two Disney parks there. We’ve been to all the other nine parks worldwide so we needed just the Tokyo parks to have the complete set!
• The only Oneworld airline so far to fly the A380 is Qantas. We wanted to catch it from Singapore to Sydney as part of our round-the-world ticket!
We left Cochin on January 27 and didn’t arrive in Melbourne until February 8. These two weeks would be kind of mini-vacation in the middle of our year long vacation. Corbin would get a break from homeschooling until we were established in Melbourne. Until then, we would be tourists tackling Asia!
3 Days in Tokyo
We left India on a Japan Airlines flight (you can read the trip report here: FLIGHT#26: Delhi Green Lounge & JL 740 Business Class with photos
Three Days in Tokyo
One of the great things about the international teaching community is that people are constantly changing schools and living in different countries. After our first year in Munich, Sharon, another math teacher, moved to teach in Tokyo. Then when we left, our good friend Rebekah also left to teach at a school outside Tokyo. This meant we had two friends to see in addition to hitting the two parks.
Getting to a new city is often hectic because figuring out local transport is not easy. Sharon had given us the directions to catch the airport bus to the Tokyo City Airport Terminal where she met us and we took a short taxi ride to her flat. It was very easy and soon our jetlagged bodies and luggage were relaxing at her place.
Luckily Sharon lives with her boyfriend who is also a teacher. Putting their two housing allowances together, they can afford a stylish two bedroom place in a lovely high rise. Sharon mentioned that it would be cozy but the Haley Boys could stay with them. In fact we were the inaugural visitors for the room.
I asked about taking a well needed shower and instead she offered that we go spend the rest of the morning at her favorite onsen. For the uninitiated, an onsen is Japanese spa where you strip down naked and soak in a variety of warm and cold pools between enjoying dry and steam saunas. Sharon asked if Corbin was comfortable with being naked and he said he was unsure. The naked thing is sex segregated so at least he’d be with the guys. He wanted Disneyland and instead we were dragging him to a naked spa.
Before we left, Sharon remembered to ask if we had any tattoos. Apparently anyone with any tattoos is forbidden entry to the spa. It seemed to be based on concern for people in gangs but we weren’t really sure. Luckily all the Haleys are tattoo free and thus had no problem getting in.
Being with a local, she showed us how to buy tickets for the metro system. I was really surprised how difficult it was to figure out where we were going. Not all signs are written in anything other than Japanese.
When we arrived at the onsen, the issue we did have is that Corbin needed to be twelve and was only eleven and a half. None of the employees spoke at English so we relied on Sharon’s basic Japanese and sign language to convince them that it was fine. In the end, they made a phone call and soon we were all inside. Sharon suggested that we hang out separately for a while and then meet upstairs in the restaurant for lunch.
Terry, Corbin and I ventured off to level three which was the men’s floor and found our lockers. It was just a bit after eleven in the morning and the place was fairly empty. We all undressed and made our way into the main spa room. Sharon had instructed us that we were supposed to take a traditional Japanese seated shower before hitting any of the water therapies. It took some adjustment to shower while seated on a small stool but we simply watched the other guys and imitated them.
About a minute after we arrived, Corbin forgot about being naked and never mentioned it again. At eleven the effects of puberty are beginning to emerge in his behavior. Luckily he loved the whole experience and still talks about it today.
We rotated through the various pools until we reached one that was impossible to stay in. At this point we discovered the cold plunge pool to wake up the body and cool it down. After spending the night flat Business Class seat, our bodies were really enjoying this experience. The only annoying thing was that each of the saunas had a loud TV that showed sports channels. I usually prefer my sauna time to be quiet and reflective.
We next put on the beautiful Japanese spa bathrobes and met up with Sharon in the restaurant. It was a quiet atmosphere with tiny groups of Japanese women enjoying a day at the spa. Sharon and Rebekah have come here together several times and Sharon recommended the wonderful udon noodles. Indeed they were great and went well with the tempura veggies that I also ordered. Corbin and I are especially big fans of Japanese food and never were disappointed with any of our meals. Terry doesn’t really like the whole raw fish thing but happily eats tempura.
Terry, Corbin and Sharon went to the top floor where they got a hot rocks treatment. I had experienced this before and knew that I’d prefer to just relax in a warm pool. Corbin joined me later having thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
That day was our one day to see anything in Tokyo but we were moving slowly. Spending the middle part of the day at a spa doesn’t help energize you. I needed to hit the Apple store in the shopping district so that’s where we headed next.
My MacBook Pro power cable had developed a short somewhere and now had stopped working entirely. I started to use Terry’s cord but this was not a great solution. My Mac was only eight months old but I didn’t have any receipts with me to prove my story.
Within minutes in the store, I was explaining my problem to an Apple Genius and they happily replaced it without hesitation. That’s great customer service. Not many other companies allow you to go into a store in a foreign country and get that kind of service! Domo Arigato!
None of us are really shoppers but it was fun to look along the shopping street. Next we wanted to do something historic and headed over to the Imperial Palace. Sharon hadn’t been so it was going to be fun for all of us. Unfortunately the palace is no longer there. It’s just a park. We didn’t realize this until we had walked around the whole place looking for the palace. Instead of seeing nice pagodas and other Japanese architecture, we saw some basic buildings and lots of trees. We found the biggest Japanese gate, took our photo and moved on.
Sharon and the Haleys at the gate to the Imperial “Palace”
The only other time I had visited Japan was when I worked for the concert tour company. It was our first stop in a tour through Japan and China with a symphony and chorus. Since I was working, the whole experience is a blur for me. I just remember great food, lots of people and vending machines that sold lots of weird stuff.
Japan hasn’t changed much since my visit in 1991. It probably has but I couldn’t see much difference. Still lots of people and lots of vending machines. One difference that we got very excited about was a Krispy Kreme shop. By this time in the day, we needed a little coffee and a nibble. When Corbin saw the Krispy Kreme sign, we all rushed over to sit and taste their heavenly donuts. It was probably our first Krispy Kreme donut in over three years. Delicious.
Next Rebekah met up with us and we looked around the crazy Shibuya district. We stood at the famous intersection and watched the thousands of people cross the street at once. It was mesmerizing.
Sharon’s boyfriend also met up with us and soon we were enjoying a great sushi meal at a tiny little restaurant. It was one of those magical evenings of good food, good drink and most importantly old friends. A cloud of nostalgia set over us because we all realized how much we miss living nearer. We had shared many wonderful times together in Munich and one evening in Tokyo just wasn’t enough. Ah the plight of the international school teacher.
When I planned out our year, I intentionally picked warm countries or at least the warm season. Out of an entire year of travel, we only had six days of winter: three in Delhi and three in Tokyo. Most of the rest of the year we could get by with shorts and a t-shirt. Our friends in Tokyo laughed at us because it was unseasonable warm and our whining about the cold amused them. We had enough fleece and long pants to survive but it was hard on our tropical bodies.
As our first day in Tokyo came to a close, we realized that we probably had spent over $700 that day. Ouch. Our house in India was $1000 for the month. We couldn’t believe how expensive Tokyo was. We knew that the next two days at the Disney parks wouldn’t be cheap ones either but relief was on its way. Singapore was two days away.
We convinced our friend Rebekah to play hooky and join our trip to Tokyo Disney Sea. She had been waiting for our visit to go to Disney’s most heralded park. We took the metro out to the Disney Parks and were in line along with thousands of Japanese teens about thirty minutes before the gates opened. Being Disney geeks, we know that we could ride lots of rides during the first couple of hours before the real crowds arrive. We decided to spend the first day at Tokyo Disney Sea and then do the traditional Disneyland on Friday.
We got to the park about an hour before it opened and were surprised to see so many people in line already. Considering this was a weekday in February, I could see that the park would be full. Most of the people were 14-20 year olds. We saw signs for some discount promotion which seemed to be working well.
Tokyo Disney Sea is stunningly beautiful. A local company owns 51% of both parks and spent much more money building the parks than what Disney usually does. The surroundings are simply luxurious. This park is ten years old and I read that they paid for the park in only two years. The details in the restaurants and attractions simply put Disney’s California Adventure to shame. The building housing Tower of Terror is beautifully designed. It’s the best of all of the ones worldwide. The only thing missing is the Twilight Zone theme to the ride. Since the Japanese aren’t familiar with the TV series, they created a different story that they didn’t have to pay the rights to!
Our day at Tokyo Disney Sea with Rebekah
Most of the rides at TDS are unique to the park and not in any of the other parks. As Disney geeks, we really enjoyed seeing what was on offer. One thing the Japanese love is the flavored fresh popped popcorn including waisabi, strawberry and curry. We tried a couple but I still prefer the basic butter flavor.
The food throughout the park was fantastic. I loved doing drive by gyoza. We ate lunch at a great Italian restaurant with beautiful design. My favorite part of the day was afternoon drinks at the Teddy Roosevelt bar. The hand carved wood panels made it feel like an old gentlemen’s club.
We saw lots of shows throughout the day. They locals love shows with the characters in them. I’m just like my mother, I always cry at a nice parade or moving show. Let’s just say that Mickey and his friends got a couple of tears out of me.
The next day we were back at 8:15am standing in line Tokyo Disneyland along with thousands of young Japanese. It was absolutely chaotic. The Winnie-the-Pooh ride there has these great cars that move independently of each other. We were beginning to drag at this park but really enjoyed it. It was also our last Disney park in the world to visit of all the eleven. I expected to hear trumpets as we went through the gates but alas nothing special happened. It was still a great day.
The trip report on my visit to FIVE Oneworld lounges an our flight down to Singapore can be found here:
FLIGHT#27: Five OW Lounges & JL 719 NRT-SIN Biz Class with photos
Three Days in Singapore
We have been enjoying meeting people from CouchSurfing.org throughout our trip. I’m really impressed with the high quality of people that the site attracts. I was excited to arrive in Singapore because it would be our first experience of actually surfing on someone’s couch. Okay, it wasn’t really a couch. Instead he had two guest bedrooms with beds. I’m not sure I’ll ever surf on a couch through the site. Maybe at a friend’s house after drinking too much but I’ll never intentionally arrange to do so. Mama likes a real bed.
John answered my surfing request via the website and provided all the details to get to his house. His place was in Sembawang up on the north of the island in a beautifully wooded area that reminded me a lot of the Presidio in San Francisco. He works for the US Navy and they provide him with this huge flat that he graciously shares via CouchSurfing. After getting settled, he took us to his favorite nearby hawker stall restaurant. It was a delicious mix of Chinese and Indian. I love Singapore’s food so much. It is such a great mélange. Malay + Chinese + Indian + influences from the rest of the world = OUTSTANDING FOOD. That’s my kind of math.
We spent Sunday looking around the city. The whole Marina Bay complex was new since the last time I was there. I like the surfboard look of the Marina Bay Hotel. I read that for $30USD, you can go up on the surfboard observation deck and drink expensive coffees! That was a little out of our budget but will be fun to do some day. Chinese New Year was still going on so a festival was set up along the shores where we ate some great dim sum. Corbin tried some of the carnival games but I REALLY didn’t want him to win a HUGE stuffed animal. Luckily all he won was a key chain.
Marina Bay, Singapore
The next day Corbin and I headed out to the pleasure island Sentosa. Our original thought was to spend the day at the new Universal Studios park there. In the end we decided to explore the rest of the park and do some of the other attractions. They have a really long rip-line that we did out to a small island. Corbin loved flying over the ocean! We also did the toboggan ride a couple of times. The gardens were full of blooming flowers as the annual Flower Festival was going on. It was a fun but expensive day. The poverty of India from a week earlier was now just a memory. First world consumerism and spending were easy habits to get back into. That night we ate at another hawker stall that was recommended and enjoyed the Singapore unofficial national dish: chicken rice. This deceptively simple bowl of boiled chicken, rice and sauce is an easy addiction.
With that our short visit to Singapore came to a close. We didn’t see our host much after the first night but he was very kind and generous. We loved his American sized washer and tumble dryer. How nice to get clean clothes so quickly!
The flight down to Australia was one of the most anticipated of our journey. It was our first time on an Airbus 380. The whole trip report can be found here:
FLIGHT#28: QF32 A380 Biz Class & QF/CX SIN Lounges with photos
Qantas Airlines #497
Sydney, Australia (SYD) – Melbourne, Australia (MEL)
Date: Feb. 8, 2011
Miles flown since start of trip: 54,886 mi.
Aircraft: Boeing 767-300
After our A380 flight we connected to a domestic flight down to Melbourne. I didn’t write a separate trip report because it wasn’t very interesting. We already had our boarding passes. Our bags were checked through. The lounge was empty because it was the last flight out. The flight was half full. We all were tired by the end. Qantas did a perfectly fine job.
Our month in Melbourne
After four months in developing nations, all three of us were looking forward to a first world experience in Melbourne. For many years, I have wanted to get to Australia. I’ve always liked the Australians that I’ve met traveling around. They drink a lot, talk to loudly, enjoy a good BBQ… They seem very similar to Americans!
Our apartment in the Collingwood area of Melbourne wasn’t available for a few days so I went online and found a nice couple on CouchSurfing that lived in the ‘burbs in east Melbourne. I liked that they put in their profile that they were “gay and trans” friendly. They had great references and I knew we’d get along. Unfortunately, we arrived near midnight into Melbourne so I had booked us into the Formule 1 motel within walking distance of the airport.
As we traveled around Europe, we used ‘Formule 1’ and “Primere Classe” which are both basic motels with a cheap room rate. I think we last paid 40 euros in Lyon for a triple. The first inkling that Australia was crazy expensive was that the Formule 1 at the Melbourne Airport was $120 USD. Understand the rooms look like they were taken out of a Winnebago. Our RV back in LA had a bigger bathroom that the one in the motel room. The whole place felt very modular, a bunch of tiny boxes jammed next to each other. Normally, I accept it because you get what you pay for. But $120 later, it seemed like we were part of some laboratory experiment on exhausted travelers.
The next morning we caught the airport bus to the train station and then transferred to a regional train that took us out to Belgrave in about fifty minutes. It was a bit far from the center of Melbourne but I knew that we had the whole month to explore the city.
Our hostess, Penny offered to meet us at the train station. She was a bit surprised at the number of bags we had but gladly helped us push them up the tiny hill to their place around the corner. They set us up in their guest bedroom and Corbin got Penny’s office sofa. He was the first in our family to actually surf a couch! They host many CSers (CouchSurfers) so she had the welcome tour down pat. Their house was charming and warm. Penny was a vegetarian and Rhys is a vegan. I really enjoyed learning about both throughout our visit. I offered to make dinner the first night which set a great tone for the rest of the visit. They loved my roast veggies on the barbie, polenta and garlic bread. The next night Penny made dinner for us with a delicious tortilla pie! On our last night we took them to their favorite Indian restaurant down in the village. The best part of all these meals was that we got to talk for hours with the both of them. Like many people that we have met from CS, their kindness and hospitality to the CS community are amazing. Rhys had recently begun teaching high school English so he and Terry had lots to talk about.
Enjoying dinner in the garden at Rhys and Penny’s
During our time in Belgrave we enjoyed exploring the area. Corbin loved hanging out with about fifty wild cockatoos in a nearby park. Penny had given him some birdseed so he was very popular. I did the “1000 steps” walk but was greeted at the top by rain and 10m visibility. We also used those days to get local SIM cards and other housekeeping items. Yes Optus had a great deal for prepaid accounts: $15 a week for unlimited calls, texts and Internet! Using tethering, we downloaded lots of TV over Terry’s phone to his laptop. It was a great deal.
After three wonderful days at Penny and Rhys’s place, we took the train into the center of Melbourne and checked into the Westin. I used some Starwood points for our final night before we could move into our apartment. The hotel is definitely on the higher end of the Westin brand. The location couldn’t have been better.
The next morning a friend of ours who taught with us in Munich met us as she now lives in Melbourne. She’s not from Melbourne but took us all around the center of the city as if she was a local. We immediately fell in love with the city. It felt like home. It’s hard to say if we were just starved to be back in the first world but DAMN, we were happy. Great food, a mixture of cultures, friendly people.
Around one we headed over to our flat in Collingwood. Like many other barrios that the gays have taken over, Collingwood has a reputation of being bohemian, artsy and a little on the seedy side. PERFECT. Think Greenwich Village but a bit grittier.
Our basement apartment was owned by two fashion designers with a three year old girl, Wendy. They lived above us and Corbin loved playing with her. He’s always done well with smaller kids and Wendy was a thrill for him. They had recently finished decorating our two bedroom apartment and it was modern, clean and lovely. It was a big change from our cozy but less than spotless house in India the month before. The brick building was a converted factory and our apartment had rugged wooden floors with the occasional cement pad that obviously used to have some kind of machine on it. This gave lots of character to the place.
The unexpected benefit of renting from fashion designers was FREE CLOTHES. The wife designed clothes for teenagers and brought Corbin clothes almost everyday! Very cool, very hip, all a little baggy on his super-model body. He loved them!
State St. was the main drag through Collingwood and was dotted with many restaurants, bars (gay and straight) and clubs. Terry and I both enjoyed being back in the land of a nice gay bar with drag shows! It had been a while since I got my fix. Both Terry and I enjoyed hanging out in little coffee houses and spending time writing. It’s hard to write at our flat so it’s a good excuse to get away from the family for some alone time. Although our area was full of great restaurants, we didn’t actually eat in many because the prices were so expensive. Even grocery shopping was expensive. We just couldn’t believe it. Many people had told us that Melbourne is the most expensive in Australia and now we were experiencing this first hand. I felt poor. The first world is EXPENSIVE. Gone were the $0.75 lunches of Cochin. We decided that it was a good month to trim down a bit. Ten months of traveling was beginning to show up on our waistlines a bit.
On one of the first days, we went to the Visitor Center in Federation Square where they offered us a free walking, orientation tour. A volunteer took us around the downtown area for three hours providing his perspective of history and the architecture. He let us buy him a coffee half way through but wouldn’t accept any tips. He gave tours simply because he enjoyed it! Every city should organize this. Originally two other people we supposed to join us but they never showed so it was a private tour. I would strongly encourage all visitors to sign up for this tour. Booking is essential as they fill up every day in advance.
During our tour, I began to understand the similarities between Melbourne and San Francisco. Both showed up on the map because of the discovery of gold. This brought people and money into the area, the effects of which can still be seen today in the magnificent buildings downtown. Melbourne has a mature, well planned feeling to it.
Our guide introduced us to the public transport tram system which we ended up using heavily throughout our stay. It’s convenient and runs frequently. We bought week long passes for just under $30 each. From our area, we could travel 15 minutes to the dead center of the city.
One expression that I had never heard before Australia was CBD or Central Business District. In California we say “downtown”. In Australia and New Zealand, it’s the CBD. Collingwood was just outside the CBD with a much slower pace and more residential.
One of my favorite parts of the CBD was touring the designated graffiti lanes. The city had set aside several alleys around the center where local graffiti artists could paint to their heart’s content. Imagine an alley where EVERYTHING including the dumpsters, trash cans, windows and doors are all covered in bright colors and designs. The city managed to take an urban problem and convert it into a tourist attraction. I’m not sure the graffiti lanes cut down on graffiti in other places but they were interesting art installations.
A graffiti alley near Federation Square
Being in Australia meant that the movies were in their original English. None of us will forget traveling three hours to the movie theater in Thailand in November for the opening day of the newest Harry Potter movie only to be told that it was dubbed into Thai. This wasn’t going to happen here in Melbourne! What I didn’t expect was that the tickets were $21 each for the Green Hornet in 3D. Ouch. Luckily when we recharged our Optus SIM cards online, they sent us some 2-for-1 coupons which helped a lot. While I enjoyed the Green Hornet, I’m not sure I would have gotten $21 worth of fun out of it.
After the movie at the Crown Center, we found a great food court that offered many meals for less than $10. I can’t say I’ve ever been a food court person outside of Singapore but it would allow us to not eat all our meals at home.
A week into our Melbourne experience, I was still experiencing lots of culture shock. The juxtaposition of our life the previous month in India with our life in Melbourne was night and day. Our life in Melbourne was very similar to our life in Los Angeles. But in all honesty, I’m not sure which made me happier. Corbin did mention that he liked Melbourne because we were seeing a dead animal daily on the streets like we did in Cochin.
A view of Melbourne
Being in Melbourne was especially a treat for us because four of our friends from the Munich International School had all moved home back to Melbourne. It was great to hang out with old friends.
One of the best places I have found for finding out what’s happening in a city is the message board on CouchSurfing. Each city has its own forum and locals are constantly sharing exciting events around town. Soon after we got to Melbourne, I read that the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra was giving free concerts at Sydney Myer Amphitheater in the Botanical Gardens. For many years we loved going to concerts at the 18,000 seat Hollywood Bowl and this was simply a smaller version of that. And free! We arrived at 5:00pm with picnic baskets in hand and met up with our friends from Germany. It was a delightful afternoon of catching up, drinking Australian wine and eating good food. At 6:00pm, the youth orchestra came out and played two pieces. I thought it was such a good idea to give the youth orchestra this opportunity since the place was already full by then and the concert didn’t start until 8:00pm. They were excellent and sounded perfectly professional to me.
Janet, Karen and Domenic wait with us for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concert
By the time the MSO arrived, the amphitheater was packed and we all eagerly awaited this final concert of the season featuring Australian composers. The most moving of all the pieces was a requiem written by a composer for his young son who had died. The composer introduced the piece and I was in tears by the final note. Luckily the concert ended with a tribute to Stephen Foster including a medley of Camptown Races with the Symphony Chorus.
On the next weekend our friend Janet organized a great day of wine tasting to the east of Melbourne. Our first stop was Domaine Chandon. I have always enjoyed the French and California versions of this famous brand and was equally pleased with their Australian cousin. But at $40 a bottle, we only tasted and didn’t buy. We also enjoyed some lovely reds at the TarraWarra Estate. Our final stop was Montsalvat which is a beautiful artist community built in the style of an European village. Any visit to Melbourne should include a visit there. The restaurant looked great but we just had coffees and dessert.
The highlight for Corbin during our month in Melbourne was seeing his third grade teacher from Munich. She retired and moved back home to be with her family. He has told us many times that she is his favorite teacher ever. When we were in Thailand, he read an entire Rick Riordan book in one day. It was the first time that he had every done anything like this. After he finished, he really wanted to call Mrs. Gotts and share his feat. She spent many hours with him after school making him a fluent reader and it meant a lot to him.
Mrs. Gotts had always told Corbin that if he ever visited Australia, she would take him to a special place that she has taken all her grandchildren, the Healsville Animal Sanctuary. So one morning she showed up at our apartment and drove us about an hour out this fantastic zoo that featured all the exotic animals of the continent. Corbin loved being there with her. She even made us a picnic lunch that we enjoyed in the park there. It was a truly magical day together.
Corbin and Mrs. Gotts enjoy the kangaroos
Just before we left, Mrs. Gotts had us around to her house where she cooked us up a wonderful barbecue of shrimp and meat. Her generosity towards us and especially Corbin really touched me.
Book ‘em, Danno! Victoria Police Museum
Melbourne has many wonderful museums that we enjoyed throughout our month there. Corbin loved the Victoria Police Museum where he got his mug shot taken. He and I also enjoyed the Melbourne Museum which had great exhibits on the Aboriginal people of the area and dinosaurs. On Federation Square, the Moving Images museum was a great mix of modern and older technology in TV and movies. Corbin loved going there and playing the sample video games. He treated it like a free arcade. I really didn’t mind. I’d just bring along my Kindle while he sat and played games with other kids.
Our favorite museum of the month was Scienceworks. Adults and kids alike enjoyed many great exhibits and demonstrations. The best was an exhibit where I lied down and this flat surface and then with the push of a button, a bed of nails comes out of the surface lifting my body up 5 inches! Note that these were SHARP nails. But with the distribution of my weight over all the nails, it didn’t hurt much. Corbin and I both did this demonstration several times. It was fantastic.
Being a foodie, I have always heard that Melbourne had lots to offer. A little research soon showed me that I didn’t have to spend lots to have some amazing culinary experiences. Ever since we left Vietnam, Corbin’s been asking me to make Pho. So far it just hadn’t been possible to get all the ingredients. First on my food list was to find the best Pho shop in town. Luckily our landlady was from a Vietnamese family so she had several recommendations. We ended up at the highly praised Pho Dzung on Richmond St just a short tram ride from our flat. People online said that their Pho is even better than any Pho in Vietnam because the quality of beef is so much higher in Australia. Boy, they were correct. It was a heavenly moment. We also ordered fried spring rolls wrapped in fresh lettuce just like they serve in Ho Chi Minh. It was all fantastic and less than $18 for the two of us.
Corbin and Pho
Second on the food list was to find the best dim sum. Since Melbourne has such a large Chinese population, I know that it would not be hard. The first thing I found out is that the locals call it Yum Cha. We sampled several recommended restaurants, all of which were top notch. We also enjoyed the best Chinese noodle soup in town at Noodle Kingdom. As I sit here and write this, it’s nearing lunch time and all this talk of good food is KILLING ME.
The newest of my food passions is Italian pizza from a proper wood-burning oven. Our friends built an oven in their backyard and I really enjoyed the perfection that it cooked. I asked an Italian guy where the best pizza in town was and it happened to be right on the edge of Collingwood called Ladro Gertrude. One evening Terry, Corbin and our friend Janet went to see some Shakespeare play in the park. I’m not a big fan and looked forward to a moment on my own. I took myself to an early dinner there. I love when you show up at a place at 6:00pm and it’s fully booked for the night. Luckily I could sit at the tiny bar and still get served. The pizza and my glass of wine were spectacular making the $35 bill a little easier to pay.
Another highlight of our month was a visit from Terry’s best friend Kyle and his partner Tom. It’s been hard living away from our friends and family during the past few years and visitors from home help make it a little easier. Even though we only had forty-eight hours together, we had a great time eating, drinking and watching a great drag show! Janet had offered to babysit so we could go out on the town with them. It was a great visit and so important to keeping our traveling spirits going.
Kyle and Tom join us for a couple of days in Melbourne
One day with them we took the tram down to St. Kilda beach area. It happened to be a beautifully warm, sunny Sunday so the locals were out in force on the beach. Being an older group of guys, we watched it all from the shade of a great restaurant overlooking the beach. It’s the gay equivalent of wearing a muumuu and a big floppy hat. “Where else can you pay $26 for fish and chips and have to wait an hour for the privilege?” says Mama, the .....y queen.
Just before our departure from Melbourne, Janet loaned us her car and we drove up the Great Ocean Road. Everyone had raved about the experience saying it was a must do while in Melbourne. The weather wasn’t great but we still enjoyed the Grand Canyon-esque coastline. The colors ranging through red-orange-yellow-gray were amazing.
Carl and Corby on the Great Ocean Road
Corbin made an iReport of our experience finding a group of wild kangaroos and then some shots of the Great Ocean Road. The video can be watched on our website here
We spent the night in Warmambool and then spent the next day in Balarat at Sovereign Hill which is a gold rush “town” where you can see demonstrations of candle making, wagon wheel making, gold pouring and rifle firing. We also descended into a mine and got a sense of what it was like to work underground. Corbin got to hold a recently poured brick of gold valued at $150,000. A guard stood nearby in case he tried to pull a fast one.
Corbin holds a still warm brick of gold worth $150,000.
On our final night in Melbourne we had a dinner party and invited all our friends, old and new. It was a great time. Terry made his chicken tenders and I made gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches. Penny and Rhys even made it into town to join us. It was an evening of much laughter and friendship. I was especially touched when Rhys got a little teary-eyed saying goodbye.
Our last night in Melbourne dinner with friends
Terry and I both said it would be easy to live in Melbourne (as long as we were earning a local salary.) The people are so friendly and easy going. The food is great. The theatre/arts scene rivals most cities. It’s a highly livable city.
Qantas Airlines #428
Melbourne, Australia (MEL) - Sydney, Australia (SYD)
Date: Mar. 4, 2011
Miles flown since start of trip: 55,313 mi.
Aircraft: Boeing 767-300
We took a Maxi-cab from our flat to the Southern Cross station where we picked up the airport bus. In hindsight, it would have been cheaper to just take the cab all the way to the airport but we had purchased a round trip ticket. It wasn’t a big deal.
Our little hop back to Sydney was not included in our Round-The-World ticket. Instead I purchased a really cheap web fare in economy via the Qantas website. I didn’t write a fancy trip report since it was a short, economy flight. The Qantas lounge was fine in Melbourne but I was surprised at the limited warm food selection. The flight was full but we enjoyed the in-seat entertainment. Qantas even managed to serve us a simple meal WITHOUT AN EXTRA CHARGE!
I decided that it was better to stay out at the airport in Sydney since our flight to Auckland was at 8:45am. Corbin and I were very excited since we would be flying in First Class on the Emirates A380 and taking our first in-flight shower.
The airport hotel was absolutely unmemorable, two stars if they’re lucky. As soon as we arrived, we dropped off our bags and took the airport train into town. We got off at the Circular Quay and walked around the famous harbor. The weather was perfect. We ended up at the Lowenbrau beer hall for lunch where Terry and I each had a $21 liter of beer. How can things be more expensive in Australia than Bavaria!?!
Now I have to mention that we are aging, middle-aged gay dads. The reason I know this is that it happened to be Gay Pride Mardi-Gras weekend in Sydney. It’s the largest gay pride parade in the world. When I was booking our flights it didn’t even cross my mind that it might be gay pride. Then once someone mentioned it to me, I wasn’t at all disturbed. I think I used up all my gay pride in the 90s. I’ve marched in so many gay pride parades during my lifetime that I really don’t need to march or watch too many more.
At the visitor’s center we did find out about the Drag Races that were happening that afternoon at Bondi Beach. For the uninformed the Drag Races are a competition between drag queens out on the beach consisting of such races as “the handbag toss” and the “three high-heeled legged race”. About twenty drag queens competed and the whole thing was emceed by a very funny drag queen. While Corbin wasn’t the only kid there, the 1000+ crowd was mostly 20-40 year old gay men. The emcee had a slightly vulgar mouth which entertained Corbin greatly. After a while, a winner was announced and the event broke up and soon we were all trying to get a bus back into town. The local bus system was overloaded and we could tell this would take some time.
We thought about calling a taxi but then this big, pink bus drives up offering us all a ride into town. On the side of the bus it was literally called “The Big, Pink, Free, Gay Bus”. Once aboard, the interior was all rainbow flags and pink flamingos. A local, kind of gay, television station was sponsoring the bus for the whole weekend. They even passed out rainbow suckers as our in-flight meal service. They gay Corbin ten suckers since he was a kid! We laughed the whole way back to the CBD. There are few places in the world where a big, pink, free, gay bus will solve your transportation needs. Considering that we were in Sydney for less than twenty-four hours, we had been thoroughly entertained by the locals.
Back in town, we picked up a quick bite to eat and then took the train to our airport hotel. After our next month in New Zealand, we’ll be spending four nights back in Sydney before heading on to Buenos Aires. This was simply a transit stop.
We all went to bed early with visions of being naked on a plane in our heads. Emirates A380 here we come! Yahoo!
UP NEXT: A great month at Lake Tarawera, New Zealand with Terry’s parents
Last edited by olafman; Apr 19, 11 at 6:38 pm
Oct 15, 10, 3:15 am
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: SF Bay Area, California
Programs: AA2MM PLT, Hilton Gold, SPG Gold
March 2011: New Zealand
As each month passes, we barely have time to process one country before we are in the midst of the next. We have been anticipating New Zealand for many months because Terry’s parents would be joining us for the entire time and an extra four days in Sydney at the end. Corbin adores his grandparents so much. Both of my parents are dead and even my “second mom” died this last September. So Terry’s parents are all Corbin has in the way of grandparents. Grandma joined us month one in Scotland for three weeks but to have both of them in New Zealand was very exciting.
Another reason we were VERY excited to fly to New Zealand was that Corbin and I would be experiencing Emirates A380 First Class showers! I used miles to upgrade us to first specifically to try showering at 39,000 ft. The whole trip report can be found here:
FLIGHT#31 Emirates #412 A380 First Class SYD-AKL Shower Pics/Video
We were supposed to meet up with Grandma and Granpa at the Thrifty desk at the Auckland airport. Instead there they were holding a little sign just outside of customs welcoming the Haley Boys to New Zealand. They had just flown in on Qantas nonstop from Los Angeles. I convinced them to go business and they really enjoyed it.
Corbin had prearranged with us that he was to get the first hugs from both of them. He ran ahead and fulfilled his wish. I always love watching friends and families greet each other airports. For many years, I haven’t had anyone waiting for me except maybe the car service driver holding a sign with my name. That doesn’t count. I love the scene in the movie “Love Actually” showing many different people greeting each other at the airport. It always makes me tear up. When we lived in Munich we often would go the airport to fetch our friends visiting from the States. I loved standing outside customs watching people reunite as we waited for our friends.
Needless to say, the tears flowed as we saw the grandparents. I’m even tearing up RIGHT NOW as I write this. Damn, I ‘m a sap. It was great to see them. Coming all the way from the US, they were much more jet-lagged than us but their spirits were high.
Getting us all down to our house at Lake Tarawera was a bit complicated. Five people, seven large bags and a bunch of carry-ons weren’t going to fit in the Toyota Corolla that Terry’s dad Jon had rented. The options were a bus for half of us or renting another car. I decided in the end that another car was the way to go so that we could all stay together. It was slightly more expensive but made life easier. I had booked via Expedia with a $50 extra drop off fee. At the counter they wanted $250 extra. Luckily I had a printout of the reservation and she honored my price. As much as I would love to travel paperlessly, the world just isn’t ready for that yet. On this trip, I’ve learned to bring copies of all reservations. Terry bought us a small travel printer and it has proved to be invaluable. Okay, he was right about TiVo ten years ago and he was right about getting a travel printer. I guess that’s why partnerships are good.
The other weird thing about my Thirfty rental was that the car had a lot of dings and scratches. At the counter, the agent told me not to worry about anything less than 2cm. Of course when I got to the car, it had many scratches much larger than 2cm so I had to schlep all the way back into the terminal. In the end she marked them on the rental agreement but said they didn’t matter. I’m used to renting cars in South Africa for twenty years now and they go over their car with a fine-toothed comb. They don’t let a single nick slide by their eagle eyes. So this laid back Kiwi attitude was something altogether new for me.
New Zealand greeted us with rain for our arrival and our journey three hours south to Rotorua. We had freeway for about a third of the time but the rest was mostly country roads. I was immediately struck that NZ is not a crowed place. The roads were well maintained. There just weren’t enough people to justify a freeway. On our trip down, we were greeted with beautiful countryside and many flocks of sheep and herds of cows.
I started to get scared. New Zealand is rural. I knew that we were outside of Rotorua. I wasn’t sure how far. Terry had never confirmed with our landlord if the house had Internet. Also with five of us sharing one car out in the country, WOULD I GO STIR CRAZY AND FEEL CUT OFF FROM THE WORLD?
We knew we had arrived in Rotorua when Corbin asked if I farted. A strong smell of sulfur had filled our car. But it wasn’t my brand. We had heard from many people that Rotorua has the reputation of smelling like sulfur due to the large geo-thermal activity in the area. In fact most people questioned on why the hell we were spending the month in Rotorua. It had begun to sound like the armpit of New Zealand. We found the New World supermarket and stocked up on provisions as quickly as possible. Grandma and Grandpa were beginning to fade.
It turns out our rental house is about 25 minutes from the thriving metropolis of Rotorua. As we drove away from the city, it began to look like the backroads of Maui, lots of dense, green vegetation and palm trees. My worries increased with every kilometer that we drove. WHERE THE HELL WERE WE GOING?
We finally drove up a steep driveway to the Bowron Bach and it was stunning. As soon as Corbin’s fourth grade teacher found out we were going to New Zealand, he mentioned that his family has a bach, or weekend cabin, that sleeps sixteen on the shores of Lake Tarawera. He grew up spending his vacations and summers there. Terry immediately loved the idea and booked it.
The house had amazing views of Lake Tarawera facing the famous volcano that erupted in 1869. The top of the volcano is five miles wide always changes colors depending on the sun and the time of day. All of us loved our view especially watching the sunrise in the mornings. I’m mostly a sunset man myself but we had some outstanding sunrises. I just don’t feel like enjoying a nice glass of red wine at 6:30am.
Our bach was one house away from the shores of Lake Tarawera. The houses right on the shore looked nice but I enjoyed being up a bit. Luckily shrubs and trees blocked the view of the road and our lower neighbor’s house. We spent many hours in our living room and out on the front porch enjoying the views. The best word to describe our month there was “relaxing”.
An art lesson with Grandma at our bach on Lake Tarawera
Part of what made it relaxing was the fact that indeed, the bach didn’t have any Internet access. My iPhone didn’t even work there. If I walked out to the nearby boat launch pier, I could get enough signal to get my emails. The connection was barely enough to write a one sentence email. We purchased local SIM cards for Terry, his dad and me. There was little competition so they were fairly expensive compared to other countries. We still loved having a fully functional iPhone to help guide us around.
I would have embraced the solitude more if March wasn’t the month when we needed to begin our job search back in the Bay Area. I had recently read that 19,000 teachers had been given their pink slips by the State of California. This meant that these teachers have been warned that they MIGHT not have jobs in the fall if there wasn’t enough money. In all reality most would be kept on and very few would be let go. The job market on the other hand would be full of nervous teachers anxious to nail down a real offer of employment.
I know that I’m a very good teacher. More importantly I am bilingual in Spanish and teach math. This combination is rare. It has opened many doors for me in the past and I’m hoping that this job search will be easier for me because of this.
Not having Internet at the bach meant that pretty much everyday, I drove into town and parked myself at an Internet café to begin the process. I had decided already that I was going to focus my search to small charter schools like I taught at in Los Angeles. I really enjoyed working in a community where everyone knew each other as opposed to the 5,000+ student high schools where the members of the math department never talk. I’ve experience both and much prefer a small school.
As I began my first steps in speaking with the targeted schools, I quickly realized that these schools really aren’t prepared to have interviews over the phone or Skype. As the month wore on, my progress was slow to non-existent. The worst was the schools that wanted you to fill out a job application form and mail it to them. In this age of online application submission, this seems archaic. International schools worldwide are much more setup to hire without an in-person interview.
Soon after our arrival in New Zealand, the horrible earthquake hit Japan. Our friends in Tokyo were all shocked like the rest of the world at the intense damage. Sharon said that the tall skycrapers in Tokyo all looked liked they were made out of rubber as they swayed back and forth. Both Sharon and Rebekah’s schools were cancelled for two weeks while the nation figured out the damage. Sharon posted lots of photos on Facebook showing the EMPTY shelves in the store. Then as the days worn on, we learned about the crisis at the power plants. The whole nation was scared of the catstrophic possibilities.
We soon realized that the pace of our month in New Zealand was much slower than the other months. Grandma and Grandpa both helped out with school since they were both retired teachers. Grandpa is also a professional double bass and electric bass player. He’s taught almost every instrument over his career and was very pleased when Corbin expressed interest in learning the trumpet.
Grandpa Jon spent a few weeks looking for a good used trumpet and finally found one through a friend. He was very happy with the sound and said it would last Corbin a long time. About a month before they met us in New Zealand, they showed Corbin the trumpet via a Skype video call. He was so excited.
On the very first evening we arrived in NZ, Corbin pulled out the trumpet and tried to play a few notes. Over the rest of the month, he and Jon had two daily lessons. He picked it up quite quickly and by the end of the month, he could make it through Mary Had A Little Lamb and Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star. He was very surprised when I picked it up and played “When the Saints Go Marching In”! I played for two years in junior high school but then dropped in once I was practicing piano for two hours a day in high school. Learning two instruments was too much while trying to live my life as a stay-at-home supermodel.
A trumpet lesson in pajamas
I was a little concerned that he didn’t have anyone to play trumpet with until he starts school in the fall. Would his interest continue when he was always playing alone? We thought of having him record videos of himself playing to send to Grandpa but that has yet to happen.
Our bach was twenty-three kilometers outside of town and one of the games we liked to play on the journey was “Count The Road Kill”. One time we got up to seven! Animals of all kinds littered the Tarawera Road and we couldn’t believe how quickly other animals made them disappear. New Zealand is a very rural country. All the critters reminded us of that.
One of our first excursions was to the closest tourist attraction, The Buried Village. By the mid-nineteenth century, Rotorua had become a popular tourist attraction for Europeans. It was normally a four month excursion from Europe and back but the upper classes loved the adventure. Many had the goal of reaching Lake Tarawera and its famous hot pools at the Pink and White Terraces. A Brit even built a hotel set back from the water’s edge to house the travelers.
Soon after midnight on June 10, 1886, the ground began to shake and soon the sky was on fire with burning embers coming from the nearby volcano. The embers and ash burned and flattened the hotel and surrounding wooden buildings. The ground was covered with over ten feet of ash. The traditional Maury buildings with high pitched roofs faired much better and served as refuge for the local Maurys and the Europeans. Not many people died but Lake Tarawera rose ten feet and the shoreline got much bigger.
The worst part of the eruption was that Pink and White Terraces were entirely covered up and lost forever. They were considered by many to be a wonder of the world and now they were lost.
Many years later, a European family began the task of excavating the village that was buried that fateful night. The result of their work can be seen today as The Buried Village. The great grandson of a Maury woman who helped save many lives that night lead our tour around the ruins. He was a wonderful man who told the story with enthusiasm and passion. It is so nice to meet people who truly love their job.
New Zealand has attracted many immigrants for several centuries. While Australia’s original European immigrants were banished there by the English penal system, New Zealand’s first immigrants arrived attracted to its fertile lands and beautiful countryside. Over the years, various population waves have arrived and currently a large wave is from South Africa. As the quality of life for many plummeted in South African cities, many have decided to seek out a better life in New Zealand. Three of these people include my dear friend, Annemarie, her husband Bryan and their son Josh.
I have known Annemarie for many years since she was the first girlfriend of my best friend Robert. We all climbed Kilimanjaro together months before Corbin’s birth. At this point we’ve been friends for more than twenty years and we’re both married now with a son. After the birth of their son, Annemarie and Bryan started to discuss emigrating to a place with better schools and a higher quality of living. The end result is that they happily live in a suburb Auckland for three years now.
Spending the month in New Zealand meant that we would be hanging out with Annemarie and family. They decided to come down and stay with us the first weekend after we arrived. Corbin was really excited to have another kid to play with. They both are only children so they crave peer interaction! Rotorua is famous for its many outdoor adventure activities so now Corbin could experience them with someone other than his dads!
Annemarie, Bryan and Josh visit us at our bach
We sat down on Saturday morning with the boys to discuss the many options available to them. They decided that a sheep demonstration was first followed by a ride down a hill in a huge plastic bubble. If there was time they also wanted a luge ride at the famous Skyluge of Rotorua.
The Agradome Sheep show was surprisingly interesting. All of us really enjoyed it. Corbin was even selected to help milk a cow on stage. It was the second cow he had milked in a month. The high-speed sheep sheering amazed us all. The show ended with a demonstration of sheep herding. It was great fun to see these little dogs in charge of so many sheep. Of course Corbin reminded that we have PROMISED to get him a dog upon our return. It’s been a running theme for about five years now. While in Germany, we dog-sat for our neighbors many times. Corbin proved that he was willing and able to take the dog on several walks a day and clean up its poop along the way. He did share that “It’s disgusting!” but learned it’s part of dog ownership.
Our next stop in the day of Rotorua adventure was the Zorb. Corbin had seen many brochures for this thrill ride all over town. The idea is that you get in a huge plastic ball partially filled with water. Then they push you down a hill and you fly around inside the ball as it rolls. It looked like fun and both boys were very excited about it.
The shocker came when they told us it was $34 for each kid. We paused. We went outside to watch someone experience the thrill. I timed it. It lasted 40 seconds. That’s about a dollar a second. Luckily both boys recognized this was highway robbery and said let’s move on to the next activity. Whew! We got out of that one easily. Maybe seeing all the poverty in India has made my son economically and socially conscious. Paying $34 for less than a minute’s fun just doesn’t make sense in any culture.
Up next was the Skyluge just down the road. When we were in Singapore the month before, we did the luge at the Sentosa park. They had a nice history of luges giving credit to the Rotorua luge as the first “non snow” luge. I knew that this activity wouldn’t be cheap either but would last a bit longer.
Originally I was going to go with the boys while the other five adults stayed below. But then I simply asked if they could do it on their own. This was a big step for two boys not used to having siblings. We told them that we would meet them at the exit to the gondola once they finished their five runs. SWEET!
The adults enjoyed hanging out in the shade at the bottom while the kids had fun way up at the top of the hill. Almost immediately I regretted not giving Corbin a mobile but the only way down was the gondola. After an hour and a half of no little boys getting off the gondola, Annemarie got worried. Her son was only nine and had never even had a sleepover at a friend’s house. She decided to stand right at the exit so that she could see every person coming off the mountain.
At the two hour mark, I went over and stood with her. Part of parenting is letting go but sometimes I worry that I’ve let go too much and that something bad could happen to Corbin. It’s like standing on a scale on only one foot.
As my brain was debating approaching the customer service desk for their help, two boys came running off the gondola with stories of excitement and adventure. They had only completed four rides but had come off the mountain because they thought we might get worried! AMAZING. God, I love our kid.
Our pocketbooks were much lighter by this point and we decided that we’d go enjoy lakeside living for the rest of the day. The boys played in the water and the nearby park. They met another boy and his dog. We enjoyed NZ wine and had a great barbecue or steaks and salmon. Life simply doesn’t get much better than this.
On Sunday morning I made a huge American style breakfast and even made hash browns. Corbin was very impressed and commented “These are even better than the one’s at Bob’s Big Boy!” One of the LA institutions that we miss for big breakfasts and amazing burgers is the Bob’s Big Boy Diner in Burbank. This was high praise to be compared to Bob’s.
Our final activity as they left town was a 1.3 km shrub maze called Amazeme. It wasn’t expensive and the boys LOVED running around. It took thirty minutes for them to reach the center. They were so happy when they conquered the maze. They came out, drank some water and then did it again. Forget video games. There is nothing more fun than running around some bushes on a sunny day in New Zealand.
With the grandparents staying with us for a month, Terry and I had more opportunities to have some date nights. As we spend the year with the three of us traveling, Terry and I haven’t gotten lots of time alone. We were going to take advantage of this opportunity while we could.
For our first date night we went to the weekly nighttime farmers’ market in downtown Rotorua. Terry and I have fond memories of going to the Wednesday night summer farmer’s market in Davis, California. It was a wonderful ritual with all our friends. Going to the local Kiwi version would automatically make us feel good. With our travel Scrabble board in hand, we set off for a fun night.
The open air market had only one produce stand but we bought many things. The prices were half of the local supermarket and the quality was great. My favorite find was real, red tomatoes. I hate buying tomatoes in the grocery store.
Our neighbor at the lake owes a Central American restaurant Sabroso and was selling quesadillas at the market. We chatted with her for a bit and then decided to seek out the rest of her menu by going to the real restaurant. She mentioned something about great margaritas which I’m sure influenced our decision a bit!
It was a fun evening of great food, a pitcher of margaritas and two games of Scrabble. After twenty years together, Scrabble has become a permanent fixture in our relationship. Over time we’ve become very good players. All of our friends have stopped playing with us. Once you’ve made the word “cwm” in a friendly game, your friends simply roll their eyes and suggest a game of cards. For the uninformed a cwm is a half-open steep-sided hollow at the head of a valley in the mountains of Wales. Duh. Don’t ask me to pronounce it.
We often play in public places and often strangers will stop by to look at our board. After a few seconds of trying to understand our board, they simply smile politely and leave. One time someone told us “THOSE AREN’T WORDS.” Terry provided a suitable sesquipedalian response which confused them even more.
We had been warned by many people that the drinking and driving laws in NZ are very strict so I made sure that I was well under the limit before attempting the journey back to the bach. Sure enough, we were part of a sobriety checkpoint. I didn’t have to breath in the breathalyzer but we had a short conversation about my consumption. Even the policemen are warm and friendly in New Zealand.
One of the things that Rotorua is famous for is its geothermal pools. The best of these are in Waimangu about twenty minutes outside of Rotorua. We spent about two hours walking around the amazing thermal pools colored by the different minerals. At times the sulfur smell was overwhelming but soon a wind would come and freshen the air.
Corbin at a geothermal pool in Waimangu
The next weekend Terry and I abandoned the family again to go have a romantic weekend up in Auckland. Since the five of us have been sharing a car, Terry and I thought we’d try to take the bus. NZ doesn’t have a train system but has good system of private buses that get its inhabitants around. I was instantly drawn to nakedbus.com for some unknown reason. They offered a $40 round trip fare for the four hour journey. The best part was they offered free wifi!
Early Friday morning we boarded a brand new bus with leather seats and the promised wifi. This was a very different experience from the typical Greyhound bus of the States. Terry and I have learned how to be good travelers together. We both had several episodes of TV to catch up on so the journey flew by quickly. Riding on the NakedBus also provided lots of fun comments for my Facebook page.
We arrived just after noon and soon were at our suite at the Best Western President Hotel. It all sounds much more glamorous than it was. The key words in that name are Best Western. Nothing else really matters. It was perfectly fine for the price and the location was great. But really, a Best Western?
After lunch we explored the downtown and then went out to Karangahape Road, the “gay area”. This was simply the “gay area” simply because the city’s only two gay clubs are located there. Not much else gay there really. We found a nice pub full of people who had left work early and we managed to get in a couple of games of Scrabble. Woo hoo. Party!
I had read in the Rotorua newspaper that the Auckland Arts Festival was finishing up its two week run the weekend we were visiting. I quickly booked us a very popular cabaret/vaudeville show that seemed to be the most popular event of the festival. It was a great Australian company called Smoke and Mirrors. An ensemble of about ten people offered a mix of acts from acrobatics to moving ballads. We absolutely loved it.
That night we had a choice of two bars: bar for older gays and a club for younger gays. It was not a hard decision, old farts at Urge here we come! It was a fine crowd that was friendly and not pretentious. Soon it began to peter out and we figured out that everyone either was headed home or to the younger club for the drag show. Wanting to make the most of our big evening out, we went down and watched the show for a while. I felt like I could have been the grandfather of most of the people there. The show wasn’t great and the crowd made us feel lecherous so it was time to hit the hay.
The next morning we slept in and then enjoyed a couple of games of Scrabble in our suite before attacking the day. We ended up on a ferry over to Devonport on the peninsula. It was great to be out on the bay and get a view back to the downtown area. We found a nice French bistro where I enjoyed a large bowl of mussels for lunch. I was in heaven. I found a wonderful original Pan Am poster for New Zealand but didn’t like the $4,500 price tag. While it was in great condition, that seems a lot for a vintage, mass produced poster.
A beautiful view of Auckland from the ferry to Devonport
Back in November while we stayed in Thailand, Terry and I had our twentieth anniversary. On the actual date he was up visiting his friend Greg in Bangkok. It’s just how it worked out. We said we would celebrate later. So this weekend was designated as the official celebration of being together for two decades. Sound the trumpets. I had done my homework and decided we would eat the pinnacle meal of the weekend at the much heralded Pure restaurant in Herne Bay. The food was fantastic and our waitress from Stuttgart was delightful.
By the time we cabbed it back to the CBD, the streets were alive with drunk Kiwis. On Friday night we had noticed that many drunk people walked the CBD streets. The Saturday night crowd was even bigger and even drunker. It was a young crowd in general but really all ages joined in the fun.
We ventured out the older men’s bar for a night cap. It was much more crowed than the previous night. It seemed to be full of Americans though! We chatted with three different couples from the States. We’re everywhere!
The NakedBus experience on the way home was equally great as the ride up. Everyone still wore all their clothes but were all well behaved. It was a wonderful weekend overall and by the end we were both missing our Corbin. Our little break had recharged our batteries and were ready for the rest of the month.
Grandma and Grandpa went down on their own little romantic getaway to Wellington for a couple of days after that. I’m glad that they felt comfortable to go out on their own. I decided this would be a perfect time to do some more adventure activities with Corbin. Unfortunately, he’s really skinny and didn’t meet the weight requirements for bungee jumping and black water rafting. I did find some abseiling at night into the famous glowworm caves.
Corbin and I drove across the country to Waikomo. Okay, it’s a skinny country so it only took a couple of hours to get there. We met our guide for the evening at their office and he drove us to a private farm that just happens to have some amazing caves on it. We got outfitted in coveralls, harness, helmet and headlamp. I was very impressed that lots of detail was paid to safety. Anyone could do this activity. The hardest part came after the abseil when we had to climb some slippery ladders to get out of the cave.
All geared up and ready to abseil
We descended two times and both were absolutely amazing. When we turned off our headlamps, thousands of glowworms appeared. Each one set up tiny webs to catch their food that happened to be flying by. It was an amazing eco-system and will remain our favorite memory of NZ.
The glowworm green light and food caching threads
Back when we stayed with Rhys and Penny in Melbourne, they told us about their friends and fellow CouchSurfers Colin and Steve who lived on a farm about an hour north of Rotorua. They thought we’d have a great time with them. I gave them a call once we arrived but couldn’t find a time when we all were available until our last weekend. It was well worth the wait because we ended up having a wonderful time with them.
Colin and Steve live just outside Tauranga on a five acre farm up on a hill with views of the ocean in the distance. It’s pretty much the picture postcard of the New Zealand countryside. We arrived around 5:00 pm and our visit began with a tour of their whole place. Colin is retired so his fulltime job is to take care of the farm. Steve has a computer job but also spends most of his time helping them “live off the grid”. These are the most self-sufficient people I’ve ever met. They have chickens, sheep and rabbits that all end up on their table. Their vegetable garden is huge and they have many fruit trees of all kinds. The highlight of their garden is rows of grapevines that they make wine with. Throughout our time with them I kept discovering things they make at home: wine, schnapps, sparkling wine, sorbet, canned goods, sun-dried tomatoes… The list is almost endless. They were the pinnacle of my year of searching for local food. You can’t get any more local than your backyard!
Colin had gone through prostate cancer and colon cancer. He firmly believed that dairy products accelerated the cancer’s growth so he had given dairy up years ago. I was fascinated learn about his transition to a dairy free life. I simply can’t imagine my culinary life without butter and cheese. They are not just building blocks to my cooking, they’re the foundation.
That first evening Colin offered to make us dinner. A lovely green curry chicken and vegetables warmed us all up on that cool night. The other thing warming us up was all the alcohol. We brought a couple bottles of wine but soon learned it was like bringing a cobbler a pair of flip-flops. Colin and Steve served us some of their white wine. Then their red wine. Then their sparkling wine. Then after dinner we drank their schnapps. I’m normally fairly careful not to mix but it’s hard when everything’s made at home! Finally for dessert they had made us fresh homemade coconut sorbet served with a mix of berries from the garden. They must have sprinkled cocaine all over it because it was absolutely amazing.
The next day Steve went to work and Colin took us down to Waihi beach where he let their two wonderful dogs run around. It was drizzling but the setting was beautiful. We had missed living near the ocean. This year has been such a treat for us since so many places have been on or near the coast.
That night for dinner I bought some fresh fish from a fish market right on the pier of Tauranga. I served it with a caper and sundried tomato sauce over fresh pasta. Terry made his famous chocolate chip cookies to finish off the evening. Immediately after eating, the boys taught us a great card game called Barbu. It’s like hearts but the “bad” cards change with each round. It’s the perfect game with friends and we ended up playing it twice that night and then again the next morning after breakfast.
Colin, Steve and the dogs
Our final morning, Colin made an amazing breakfast featuring eggs that his chickens had laid that morning. When paired with his homemade bread and jams, it was a perfect start to the day.
By the end of our visit we realized that once again we had met some amazing people and this was just the beginning of our friendship. As Terry and I drove back to Rotorua, we commented on the number of wonderful people that we had met this year. We are so luckily to be having this experience.
One of the unexpected events of our month in NZ was meeting up with some friends from the Munich International School. Jim and Emily are also on a one year world tour but headed the westerly direction. I worked in the math dept with Jim and Emily was Corbin’s librarian in the junior school. We got an email from them saying they were going to be in the Rotorua area and would love to see us.
They ended up parking their mini RV on our lawn for two nights and we had a great time with them. They both even taught Corbin a class! We love our visiting professors program. We also ended up doing two great activities with them: a boat ride out on our lake and a Maury cultural center dinner and show.
After staring at Lake Tarawera for the month, we thought it would be fun to venture out on her waters. We had driven past a sign offering tours so we finally called and he said he was leaving in forty minutes! So our whole gang including Jim and Emily walked down to the jetty just in time to take a nice two hour trip around the lake. The highlight was stopping off on a beach where the hot waters were seeping up through the sand. The moment I dug my foot about an inch into the sand, it would instantly burn the bottom! Of course we all tried this several times until our feet were red. From there it was a short walk into the forest where we bathed in some wonderful natural hot springs. If you had asked me a year earlier if I would ever be almost naked in a hot spring in a forest with Jim and Emily, I would have bet good money against it. We all had a great time and the weather couldn’t have been better.
Jim and Emily join us for some hot springs
Throughout our month, I had seen lots of brochures for Maury cultural shows. Most tended to be about a hundred dollars and include dinner. The local tourist office was forbidden to recommend one over the other so we were very happy when our friends Colin and Steve recommended Te Puia just outside of Rotorua. It’s where they take all their visitors to the area. We went on our late night in the area. It was a perfect ending to a great month.
Te Puia opening dance
The show began with a brief history of the Maury people, where they came from and their early history. Then we received an official greeting from a group of Maury warriors wearing very little clothing. Soon the women joined us and the festivities began. We moved into a traditional house where the Maury sang and danced for about an hour. It was wonderful and Corbin, Terry and Jim all appeared on stage where they learned a traditional dance.
Being a foodie I’m always kind of scared of the expression “dinner show”. I worry that both the food and the show will be mediocre at best. The show far exceeded my expectations so I was hopeful the food would be something special. Unfortunately, it reminded me of why I hate most buffets. It’s sad when the Emirates Lounge buffet is the best buffet you’ve had lately.
With that our month at our bach on Lake Tarawera came to an end. It was so different than other months but rewarding nonetheless. Terry’s parents, Jim, Emily, Annemarie and Bryan and our new friends Colin and Steve all made our time in rural New Zealand a treasure.
A view from our bach of our final sunrise on Lake Tarawera
Our two last days in NZ were spent up at Annemarie and Byran’s house in Torbay, thirty minutes outside of Auckland. They have a great house on the coast in a beautiful suburb. Many people refer to this area as little South Africa since there are so many immigrants from there. Our friends aren’t the first to look for a better life there. After we arrived, Bryan and Annemarie took us on a little drive around the area. It could have easily been a suburb in California. The downtown area of the neighboring town, Browns Bay, was quaint and offered everything. Annemarie was trying to sell us on the place so that we would decide to move here too. I have to say that after our month in New Zealand, we wouldn’t mind at all to live there.
Annemarie had suggested that Corbin join Joshua at school the next day and do a presentation on the trip so far. He had been working on this presentation as part of his school for about two weeks. He put together a great PowerPoint with lots of photos. Terry and I really wanted to watch him present but the teacher thought it would be better if we weren’t there.
While Corbin and Josh were at school, Bryan and Annemarie drove us around their area. We stopped for a beautiful lunch at a restaurant overlooking a huge garden. The first world living really isn’t too hard.
They took us to a hill just above Devonport with a spectacular view of the Auckland CBD. It was a glorious day and their sales pitch on living in NZ was looking like we were going to bite.
A view of Auckland with Bryan and Annemarie
As we picked the boys up that afternoon after school, Corbin said it went very well. The presentation took forty-five minutes and then they asked lots of questions. I was really proud of him. He also seemed proud of his accomplishment. With home schooling this year, he really hasn’t gotten any opportunity to present in front of the class. Originally his iReports were supposed to replace that but they really aren’t the same thing. The day with Josh’s fourth class gave him confidence and reminded him of what school would be like next year when we weren’t traveling 100,000 miles.
Corbin and Josh had a great time together during our entire visit. Both are only children so they appreciate their time together more than others. Their play was rambunctious and definitely boy-like. All of us parents enjoyed watching them.
I told our friends that I would make dinner for us all. I noticed that Annemarie had a crepe maker so I recreated two dishes from my past. Back during my university years at UC Davis, my friends and I loved to frequent “The French Bistro”. They offered both savory and sweet crepes that you ordered from a counter. The Vietnamese owners gave you a laminated French flag with a number in the middle that you would insert into the wooden Eifel Tower at your table. Okay, it was about as French as French toast but the food was good and you could have a salad and a savory crepe for about $5 back in 1988. Often my friends and I would meet there before going off to Chamber Singers rehearsal. So many wonderful memories. It’s also the place where I came out to my mom. She had come up for one of my concerts and we went out to dinner there first. I can still remember the table we sat at, the clothes she was wearing when I finally told her I was I gay. I have the two most liberal parents in the world but it was still a momentous occasion. And The French Bistro was there right alongside me. Later when Terry was in grad school at UC Davis, we continued going there and soon it became a favorite for us and our long Scrabble games.
I had two favorite crepes: coq au vin and avocado. I decided for the first time ever to recreate both recipes for our friends. The coq au vin had slow cooked shredded chicken breast with mushrooms and Italian parsley in a delicious wine sauce. Twenty years later, I’ve learned a lot about cooking and was able to approximate the dish quiet closely. Everyone raved about it. The other crepe was much simpler: melted cheese, tomato and avocado slices inside the crepe with a HUGE dollop of sour cream on top. Annemarie made the boys some Nutella and jam crepes for dessert to round out the meal. It was a wonderful, nostalgic journey down memory lane and it was great to share with friends we’ve known so long.
While we were hanging out with our friends, Terry’s parents enjoyed exploring Auckland. It was good for them to have a little time on their own. They both have become more confident travelers this year and two days on their own provided them with a nice break from the big family travel thing. They told us later that they really enjoyed looking around the harbor and getting to know the city.
Our last morning we met up them and went together to the Auckland Museum. Terry and I had visited it on our romantic weekend away and knew they all would enjoy it. Corbin loved all the exhibits on the Kiwi’s involvement with the Boer war and the two world wars. He and Grandpa lingered while Terry and I played Scrabble in the museum’s café.
Just west of the museum is the shopping area of Parnell. I knew that we would find someplace nice for lunch over there. Corbin mentioned that he’d like some Japanese food so we found a place with a $11 lunch menu. We all ordered and couldn’t believe the quality and quantity of food that we were served. This place was a real find. Each course was beautifully presented in true Japanese style. It was a wonderful last meal in NZ.
Terry and his mom went out to the airport in the limo provided by Emirates and the rest of us went in the rental car. It all worked out perfectly. Soon we were all checked in and ready to go back to Sydney for a four day visit.
Our dedicated readers will remember that Corbin and I flew out to NZ on Emirates First class and took our first mid-flight showers. On the return, I would be alone in First Class with the others back in Economy. I almost felt guilty that Terry wasn’t getting to try Emirates First but I am the travel addict. If you are addicted to heroin and have only enough for one hit, there is no way in hell that you’re going to give that hit to your partner of twenty years. Because you’re addicted, you have to keep it all for yourself. Thus I flew back in First while the others were in economy. Hate me. Love me. It’s your choice.
FLIGHT#32 Emirates A380 First Class AKL-SYD
It was late by the time we got through customs and to the hotel. Gram and I went in the Emirates car while the others took the airport train into the Central station. Our hotel was only four blocks away. Terry decided since it wasn’t too far, they would just walk. Little did he know that it was uphill the entire way.
I had booked us into the Adina Apartment Hotel in the Surry Hills area of Sydney. I found it on hotels.com and chose it because it was a two bedroom apartment for the low price of $250 per night. We loved this place. It had a full kitchen and a decent living/dining room. The five of us fit easily. The location was wonderful on Crown St just south of Oxford St. I am amazed that more often than not we accidently book in a place in or right next to the gay area. Maybe there is some subliminal gay radar thing that I am unaware of.
Our three days in Sydney flew by. We took everyone down to the Circle Quay to see the Opera House and stop by the Symphony Office. One of Grandpa Jon’s double basses used to be owned by a member of the Sydney Symphony and he was hoping to get some more info about it. He never made the connection because our time was so short but Jon did buy us tickets to the Sydney Symphony concert the next evening. None else was interested so it was just the two of us.
I’ve always heard wonderful things about the Sydney symphony hall and the opera hall. I somehow always assumed that there was only one hall but the “opera house” is actually three separate buildings. I just had never seen the buildings from the right direction. Jon and I arrived early enough to explore the entire hall. In the back lobby area, we stumbled across a pre-concert talk. Jon purchased seats near the choir on stage left. It was great to feel like I was part of the symphony chorus.
The first act was Beethoven’s 7th and then the second act began with Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings and then John Adams’s 'Harmonium'.. The concert was especially enjoyable because the guest conductor was Edo de Waart who conducted the San Francisco Symphony for many years. It was like meeting up with an old friend. The SF Symphony under his direction had originally commissioned the Adams piece so he was very connected to the work.
The whole experience was wonderful and I’m so glad that Jon and I shared it together. Since returning to the US, Jon has decided to retire from the Sacramento Symphony and all the other shows that he plays. He said it’s time to let some of the younger guys get a chance. I think he’ll miss the interaction with his mates of many years. What he won’t miss is lugging his basses all around. I’m sure it has crossed his mind that maybe his life would have been easier if he had taken up the flute instead of the double bass.
On our next full day we decided to visit the nearby Blue Mountains. Unfortunately we happened to go on a Sunday when the direct train service was interrupted and we were forced to take a temporary bus for most of the journey. The ride was less comfortable and the route was full of Sunday traffic. Once we arrived though he whole thing was worth it.
The Blue Mountains are a beautiful rock and mountain formation somewhat like the Grand Canyon. Instead of the red rock, the mountains have a blue tint from a distance. Most of the day is spent moving around the edge to get different views.
Our friends suggested that we take the Hop-On Hop-Off bus to see most of the sights. In hindsight, we should have just grabbed a taxi for more flexibility. The highlight of the day was a cable car journey down the side of the mountain into the valley below. There we hiked around for an hour and then took another funicular up the side of the mountain. We got spectacular views and the sun even managed to come out changing all the colors.
We also really enjoyed taking another cable across a deep valley. It was amazing to look through the glass bottom to see the valley directly below. At another point we Hopped-Off and hiked down to a beautiful waterfall near the edge.
When the sun disappeared, it was very cold up in those mountains. We were experiencing a totally different climate than Sydney. By five o’clock we were ready for long journey home with tired legs and bodies.
Terry and I were able to go out at night together since Grandma and Grandpa were around to babysit. We met up with a guy we met in Melbourne and enjoyed some of Sydney’s gay bars. Some of the drag queens had such strong accents that I don’t think I got half of what they were saying! We still had a great time and were thankful that the crowds of Mardi Gras were long gone!
Our time in Sydney flew by and soon we were all on the way to the airport. All of us were dreading this day because it meant saying goodbye to Grandma and Grandpa. Our month with them had been so wonderful and it just reminded us how much we missed all our family. Luckily all of us were on Qantas so we could spend the final moments together in the lounge. Their flight would take them directly to Los Angeles and we had the nonstop on to Buenos Aires.
Month nine of our adventure came to a close. Throughout the month in New Zealand both Terry and I began the worry of finding jobs. It was proving to be difficult especially from afar. Terry decided in the end that he needed to fly up to San Francisco to attend a job faire put on by a headhunter. He had gotten his last job with this agency and was hoping they would work their magic in this tough job market. They pushed hard for him to attend this faire. It meant that after flying to Buenos Aires, he would fly up to San Francisco the next day. Sydney to Buenos Aires to Miami to Dallas to San Francisco. Not exactly the most direct route!
We knew that he would have a harder time finding a job than me so the job faire seemed to be the best way. I was still hoping that I would be able to find my job from afar. Until now, it seems to be going nowhere. A trip to California might be in my future also.
The weight of being jobless has definitely caught up with us now as we are about to enter month ten of traveling with no income. If we don’t find jobs, we won’t last through another year of no income. We also have begun to research middle schools for Corbin. Obviously it depends on where we get jobs but it looks like Corbin will be going to public school for the first time in his life. Terry and I have great reservations about this on top of all our other stress.
We’ve begun discussing cutting a week off Chile and a week off Colombia to get us home in time to visit schools before they close for the year. It would break my heart to do this but the job thing is important. Reality of life after our amazing adventure is now upon us.
The next month in Buenos Aires should be wonderful. We have our friend and her two kids visiting first and then some of our dearest friends from Los Angeles visit a week later. I hope that my job search will improve and that Terry will return to BA from the job faire with a job offer in hand.
Thus is the life of a world traveler. We asked for adventure and we’re getting it!
Last edited by olafman; May 23, 11 at 10:40 am
Oct 15, 10, 4:09 am
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: SF Bay Area, California
Programs: AA2MM PLT, Hilton Gold, SPG Gold
April 2011: Buenos Aires, Argentina
As we began to brainstorm where to go on our year of adventure, one of the first places I put on the list was Buenos Aires. I first came here in 2004 for Spring Break. A friend and I rented a great apartment in Palermo for next to nothing and had a great time exploring the city for a week. It was a wonderful experience that left me wanting more.
My next visit was in 2006 when I was on a four country concert tour of South America with the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. The whole tour is a bit of a blur but we had four days in BA and a wonderful concert..
This time we’d have a whole month to live like a Porteño, the name of someone who lives in Buenos Aires. As I began my search for a flat, I noticed that the prices had risen a bit since my first visit seven years ago. In a country that at one point had 1000% inflation, the increase was understandable. The economic history of Argentina is appalling. Its citizens have been through so much. It’s impossible to ever save money when it isn’t worth anything a month later. The dollar is still the unofficial second currency of the nation to combat the inflation problem.
We arrived at Ezeiza airport just outside the city center on April 4. We had a great Qantas flight with a wonderful flight attendant from Montevideo that now lives in Sydney. I spent much of the flight chatting with her.
Many countries worldwide are beginning to charge US passport holders a reciprocity fee of $140 to match the $140 visa fee that the US charges foreign passport holders. For our family of three, a $420 entrance fee is something to calculate into the price of travel. The confusing thing was that my credit card receipt read as $1712. OUCH! I had forgotten that they use the “$” to mean Argentine pesos. It scared the heck out of me for a second. $420 was painful but $1712 was robbery.
One nice thing about Buenos Aires is that taxis are still relatively cheap for the foreigners. Just before the exit of customs, we passed through a room lined with lots of taxi companies offering pre-paid transfers into the center of town. I had done my research and found out they were about the same price as a metered taxi but you could pay using a credit card. Also I needed a Kangoo or Berlingo sized taxi that could accommodate all our luggage. The taxi company quickly set us up with a “world traveler” sized taxi and away we went.
When I was here in 2004, I booked our flat using www.bytargentina.com
. Our two bedroom place for a week was $330. This time we needed three bedrooms and I was surprised that there was not very much availability in Palermo. We ended up in Recoleta with a great flat near the corner of Libertad and Posadas about half way between the Four Seasons and the Park Hyatt. I would have preferred to stay in Palermo because it is less fancy and has more restaurants. We stayed in Beverly Hills and I wanted West Hollywood.
The flat had two bedrooms and a maid’s room where Corbin slept. He loved being on the other side of the house from us. Thus, the independence has begun. He shared the room with his buddy Bobby when he and his family visited week two.
The day after we arrived, Terry flew off to the States to attend a job faire. Both of us have begun our job search for teaching positions in the Bay Area. With over 19,000 teachers having received their pink slips in California, we were discovering that the job market was DISMAL. We had spent the entire month of March in New Zealand trying to get some responses but so far had gotten no where. The lack was progress was beginning to take its toll on our ability to enjoy the trip. Terry signed up with a headhunter agency and they convinced him that he needed to fly up and meet some schools at their annual job faire. So Terry flew up to North America just a few short hours after having arrived in South America.
On the first night in BA while Terry was still there, I met up with an Italian CouchSurfer who had been living there for six month. He was a great resource for things a tourist needed to know. The first thing he told me when he saw my iPhone was that it will be stolen from my hands if I walk down the street playing with it! He said that pickpockets were big, especially on buses, the metro and in crowded shopping areas. Every Porteño that I met after that said exactly the same thing. I noticed that many people wore their backpacks on their fronts covering their chests instead of on their backs.
On our second afternoon Corbin and I went on a walk and ended up at one end of the shopping street Florida at 8:30pm for dinner. We chose a typical cafeteria where everyone was still having afternoon beers. Only one couple was actually having dinner and they were American. It was still a bit early for the Porteños to be eating. Argentina has adopted the Spanish eating hours. We knew about this and had already decided to change Corbin’s bedtime from 8pm to 10pm during our month there.
I had a great Argentine beef steak and Corbin had this typical cold rolled beef platter with Russian potato salad. By the time we finished, two other groups of people had arrived but we still felt like eighty year olds at the early bird special in Boca Raton.
We left the restaurant and walked down the crowed Florida walking street towards Rocoleta. I was in a great mood. My belly was fully of great, grass fed beef. My son and I had great conversation throughout dinner. I had a big beer. And now we were on our way home.
Prior to leaving the restaurant I had intentionally moved my wallet to a lower pocket on my cargo shorts because it’s very hard to get the buttons on that pocket open. My backpack was on my back but it didn’t have anything important or valuable in it.
Corbin and I were holding hands as we made it through the crowded streets. I love that age eleven he still likes to hold my hand especially in a crowd. Any day now, he’s going to wake up and decide that this is no longer cool. Every time that he grabs my hand now, I always wonder if it might be the last. Unfortunately on that night in Buenos Aires, holding hands lead to disaster.
At one point I realized that a woman had her hand inside the lower pocket on my cargo shorts where my wallet was! She even had her hand on my wallet and was trying to get it out. She was struggling since the difficult buttons were still fastened. I immediately grabbed her arm and started screaming “WHAT ARE YOU DOING? LET GO OF MY WALLET!”
In retrospect, I should have said all of this in Spanish instead of English. After living in Spain and also getting a Bachelors in Spanish at university, my Spanish is very good. In the moment of panic, my brain was stuck in English.
I’m a teacher and have a loud voice when needed. In fact I might say that I have the loudest voice of anyone that I know. It does come in handy at various times including when you are in the midst of getting pick pocketed on a busy street in South America. I might have been shouting incomprehensible English but IT WAS LOUD and stopped all the foot traffic around.
The thief was carrying some old shopping bags and immediately started talking to her accomplice who was also carrying lots of bags. Pickpockets carry bags to easily drop their acquisitions into. They stood there and looked at the screaming American like I was crazy.
I did a quick check and I seemed to have all my belongings. Luckily my iPhone was in my hand at the time against all the advice of my friends. I think had it been in one of my front pockets, I would be iPhoneless now. I did notice that the outside small pocket on my backpack was wide open. She had definitely opened it looking for treasures.
I debated grabbing her arm and dragging her around until we found a policía. But the most she would be charged with would be attempted robbery. I had all my things and decided that it wasn’t worth the time or effort especially with a very tired Corbin by my side. We simply turned away from the scene and moved on. I would soon discover that indeed we had been robbed of a valuable.
Then about four blocks later, I remembered that I had put my camera in the outside pocket of the backpack about a half hour before dinner. I quickly searched my pockets and all through my backpack but it was futile. The camera had been stolen.
Prior to beginning this trip I warned my family that we might arrive at a moment where all of our stuff was stolen. I assured them that we could recover from this. It was just stuff. The trip photos are all backed up online from our computers. All the important documents from our computer get automatically moved to the cloud somewhere in Internetland. When you travel the world with $5000 worth of electronics, you are a target.
Standing on Florida St I didn’t mind having my camera stolen. Instead I was kicking myself that I hadn’t download the photos from it since our final days in New Zealand about a week ago. All of our photos from Sydney were gone. More importantly I lost all my photos for my trip report of my Emirates First Class flight to Sydney and then Qantas Business Class to Buenos Aires. SADNESS. It was a rookie mistake made by a seasoned professional.
The incident was a big wake-up call that we weren’t in laid back New Zealand anymore. The fact is Buenos Aires is a big city that has crime like any other. From that point on if I carried any kind of wallet, it was always down in my underwear next to my crown jewels.
One of my favorite benefits of visiting Buenos Aires is el helado, the ice cream. The residents of Buenos Aires are a wonderful mix of Italian, French, Spanish and the indigenous peoples. The Italian influence is probably the largest and thus incredible gelato and fresh pasta can be found throughout the country. They are serious about their ice cream just like the Italians.
My favorite flavor is Dulce de Leche, sweet of milk. Thanks to Haagen-Dazs, it’s now a popular flavor around the world. The difference is that the Dulce de Leche ice cream you can get at a local Freddo or Persecco corner shop is night and day better than the pre-packed refrigerator case stuff. During our month, Corbin made it a daily ritual to freebase this local sweet delight. I’m not much of a sweets person but managed to eat my share.
Part of his Spanish lessons with me included learning how to ask for an ice cream. At first he REALLY didn’t want to speak Spanish with others. But I refused to order for him anymore. Thus the ice cream was a good motivator and he learned the expression “Quiero un helado de diecisiete pesos.” or “I want a 17 pesos ice-cream.”
Like much of Europe, the Porteños demand a decent cup of coffee and thus quality cafes can be found on every corner. Ironically the city has also been infected by Starbucks. Their worldwide marketing campaigns even convince picky Porteños to buy mediocre coffee. I don’t really even drink coffee but throughout this trip, I have sought out Starbucks wherever we’ve gone. Why?
The one thing I will say for Starbucks is that it’s the perfect place and go hang out for three hours where you can write your book. They have comfortable seating with lots of sofas and oversized chairs. No one pressures you to leave because they can’t see how much coffee you have left in your paper cup! In addition most have free wifi so I can make voip calls for free using my iPhone! Throughout our time in Buenos Aires, I spent many hours at the Starbucks upstairs in the chic Patio Bullrich mall located just around the corner from our house. I can’t write at home with Terry and Corbin distracting me all the time. Starbucks is a perfect office for me.
Corbin and I had four days on our own before our first set of friends arrived from Los Angeles. I really enjoyed this buddy time together. On the first day I took him through the famous Recoleta Cemetery. Because we’re home schooling, I can adapt his lessons to what we are currently visiting. That morning we spent a while studying Argentina’s history up to president Juan Peron and his wife Eva. We learned about the class issues that have long existed in Argentina and the struggles of the working classes. Visiting Evita’s grave was much more meaningful and he had lots of fun exploring the whole graveyard. One of his close friends, Don Juan, in Los Angeles is from Argentina and Don Juan’s grandfather is buried in the famous cemetery in Recoleta.
On another day we make our way to the 3rd of February park in search of rollerblades and paddleboats. We found the paddleboats first and had a nice hour of paddling around the lake. Even at eleven, Corbin’s enthusiasm to peddle diminishes quickly. I actually don’t mind because it’s a nice workout for me. We paddled all around and even safely stopped on a tiny island without ending up in the water! And it was not water you would want to fall into.
One of the families that we grew close to while living in Los Angeles was The Boones. We met them as the dad was dying of pancreatic cancer. Our kids went to the same pre-school and we stepped in to help out as Tom died. We did not know them that well but Lisa seemed relieved to have someone helping transport the kids to school or just letting the kids hang at our house after school. These were not the best circumstances to meet someone but that is how it worked out.
Corbin and Bridgette ended up at the same private, primary school and we got into the habit of picking both of them up and then Lisa would stop by later to get Bridgette. Many times, they all would end up staying for dinner and thus a lifelong friendship was born. Both kids have often given Terry and me the father’s day gifts that they made in class. Leaving them when we moved to Germany was extremely painful.
Luckily we knew that they would visit us and we would continue to visit them. They came to Germany during our first summer there. We had a great two weeks together. I couldn’t believe how much they had grown during our year apart. We traveled to Austria and northern Italy besides showing them all around southern Germany. The time flew by and they assured us that that would visit us during our round-the-world trip.
We stayed with them last August when we flew home for the brief visit to California. The two day visit was far too short but it was better than nothing. I felt much better when Lisa told me they would be joining us in Argentina for the kids’ spring break.
The days before their arrival in Buenos Aires, Corbin was beside himself. He has really missed having other kids around and now his nearest and dearest Bridgette and Bob would soon be visiting. The morning of their arrival, he wanted to get up extra early so that he was fully awake when they got to our place! This was better than Christmas!
The tears flowed when I saw Lisa and the kids. I’m even starting to cry right now as I type this. Pause. Okay, I’m better. I couldn’t see the screen there for a second. The kids were so tall. WHY DO THEY GROW UP?!?! At thirteen, Bridgette is definitely a young lady now. She hangs out more with the adults and participates in our conversations instead of playing all the time with the boys. Bob is two years younger than Corbin but is much taller than him. Lisa and her late husband Tom were both very tall and Bob seems to gotten those genes. The problem is that he still acts his age which is much younger than he looks. I kept expecting him to be as well behaved as Corbin but he just wasn’t there yet emotionally.
The three of them looked pretty good in spite of flying all night in economy class. Lisa said the kids actually slept a bit so they were ready to go. I heated up some fresh empanadas to give them a taste of the local flavors. They ate them all. It seems like your body can always eat when you are traveling. After the empanadas were gone, the kids said they were still hungry so I made a round of grilled cheese sandwiches and thus we had an early lunch. Our goal was to go walking around Recoleta in the afternoon so it is always good to fill up the kids tummies before venturing out.
Brilliant sun greeted us as we started to walk the streets of our neighborhood. It was a perfect late summer day. We walked down near the cemetery to this big huge park with great trees for climbing. The boys loved testing their limits in the trees mammoth branches. This activity soon became a daily ritual.
I strongly believe that kids need outdoor playtime everyday. I grew up on a farm and my brother and I spent so much time outside. Our favorite activity was building forts. We had a huge scrap lumber pile on the farm and thus an endless supply of building materials. We would always start out with grandiose plans that quickly got reduced as we encountered the hard work. Our property was littered with lots of forts in various states of completion. A half finished fort was perfect for playing. During construction we’d take a break and start our war reenactments and the fort would never get finished.
Corbin has often mentioned this year that he’d like a tree house in our future backyard. Bart Simpson has one and his dad’s a flake. So two dedicated gay dads should be able to come up with something. And me with all my fort building experience. The problem is that we still aren’t even sure where we are going to live. It’s hard to plan a tree house when you don’t even know if you’re going to have a backyard.
The huge trees of the Recoleta park would have to do suffice for the moment. I think Corbin climbed there every day we were in Buenos Aires. As a parent I worry a bit about him falling out of the trees and becoming paralyzed for the rest of his life. But at this point, I trust Corbin’s judgment. When we go skiing or rock climbing, I have always been impressed with the caution he shows. This seems to convert to tree climbing.
Every weekend the park outside of the Recoleta cemetery converts to an artesian market. Lisa, Brig and I enjoyed seeing all the hand made products. Bridgette bought a traditional mate cup and metal straw. Mate is the unofficial drink of Argentines. It’s a green bitter tea that is enjoyed throughout the day. The mate cup is usually carved from wood and has a metal straw that strains the tea leaves from the hot water as you drink. Brig immediately fell in love with them and even bought one for one of her girlfriends so they can drink mate together.
One of my favorite parts of visiting Buenos Aires is choripan. One of our Argentinean friends in LA was the first to introduce me to this amazing simple but delicious treat. Basically it’s a chorizo sausage cooked over a wood fire. Then it’s placed in a fresh roll and served with an array of condiments, the best being a spicy chimichurri sauce. What makes this better than any “hotdog” you’ve ever eaten is the smoky flavors that the wood gives the meat. I remember Gustavo told me that he used a mix of three different woods to give the sausage the correct flavor. Argentineans take their “pardilla” or BBQ very seriously. They raise the best beef in the world and have learned how to cook it with the best results.
At the weekend market of Recoleta, several stands were offering proper choripans cooked over wood coals. I chose the one with the best looking barbecue and bought choripans for everyone. I loved seeing the look on everyone’s faces as they tasted their first bite. I just converted three more people to the Church of Choripan.
From there I introduced them to the Porteño helado tradition. We took the three of them to Venice, Italy almost two summers ago where the local gelato was the highlight of the visit. I was happy to continue spoiling them the Argentine way.
We continued down the road a bit to the Museo de Bellas Artes (Fine Arts museum). We managed to stay for thirty minutes before the kids were pulling out their hair and making enough noise to piss of most of the patrons there.
By that point in the day, I thought it was time to get the gang back home, showered, fed and to bed. It was still early on Argentinean time but their bodies were tired and the day needed to wrap up.
I had purchased some beautiful stakes at the local Disco supermarket. Soon enough we were all enjoying the beautiful, grass fed beef. I only cooked it in my oven but it was still amazing.
Bob decided that he would sleep with Corbin in the tiny maid’s room. They finally went to bed around 9pm but continued to talk and laugh for an additional hour. I loved hearing the playful sounds coming from their room. Bob is one of a few people that Corbin considers his sibling. The plight of the only child.
Welcome champagne and pupus on the Boone’s first night
The next day was Sunday so we headed to the famous outdoor market along Defensa St in San Telmo. I originally thought that it was only around the main plaza in San Telmo but was pleasantly surprised that it went on for twenty blocks! It was very crowded and I had warned all the kids to be careful. Before we left that morning, I wrote out all our contact information for each person. I also taught them that if they got separated from the group to return to the last place that we saw them. If we didn’t show up, they were to get into a cab and tell the driver “Four Seasons Hotel”. When they would get to the Four Seasons about a block from our place, they would tell the Bellman that they got lost. Could he pay the cab and their dad would pay them when he showed up. No Four Seasons hotel is going to turn away a lost American kid even if we are not staying there.
Among all the stalls of antiques and handmade items, we saw magic shows and many other street performers. It was a great atmosphere and the kids loved seeing everything. At one point, I saw a choripan stand with about twenty people in the queue. This was my kind of place. Twenty people could not be wrong. In the end it was well worth waiting for. I was quickly becoming a choripan aficionado.
I had seen in my Lonely Planet book that the skinniest house in Buenos Aires was nearby. The whole house was only 8 ft wide and two stories tall. It would be kind of like a Dr. Seuss tale to live in such a skinny house.
Our other LA friends with us in front of the skinniest house in Buenos Aires
For lunch that day we found a local, corner restaurant that was the typical mix of Italian and Argentinean food. Our waiter was about seventy years old and was delightful. The food was delicious and much more than we could ever eat. Luckily they did not mind giving us a doggie bag. The whole experience felt very local. We looked like the only tourists in the place. One of the things we noticed in Buenos Aires was that the waiters and waitresses all seemed to be career servers. This was not just a temporary job for them. They were lifers. We all enjoyed their professionalism and knowledge.
Next we took a cab south to the famous La Boca area known for its brightly colored houses and street tango shows. Once again we were in the tourist throngs and the crowd was a bit overwhelming. This was definitely a Grey Line tourist stop. We walked quickly through the crowded area and found solace only a block away. It is actually a beautiful area and with the late afternoon sun, the colors on the houses were stunning. It would be nice to return a sunrise with similar lighting but less people.
Most of the tourist restaurants there offer a tango show to watch while dining. We stopped and watched a few of them but the boys were not that interested. They much preferred the many statues of Diego Maradona that populate the area.
As I have mentioned elsewhere in this mammoth report, I enjoy taking “free walking tours”. I figure if the guide makes all their money through the tips, they are going to try harder. Only the good guides will survive. I found two free tours in BA and used TripAdvisor to choose the one from Jonathan (http://www.buenosaireslocaltours.com/
Jonathan’s tours begin Monday through Saturday at 11am in Palermo’s Plaza Italia. From the first moments of meeting Jonathan, I was very impressed with him. He has lived in Buenos Aires for three years and obviously loves the place. His vast knowledge of the city and country added so much to the tour. Also coming from the UK, his English is very good. I have found that kids have a hard time understanding non-native speakers. For a three hour tour, I would much rather have a guide that I can fully understand instead of one that I can mostly understand.
We were the only participants on his tour that day. If we hadn’t shown up, he wouldn’t have worked that day. I asked him how often that happens and he replied once in a while. He’s only been giving the tours for three months so the momentum is still building.
My favorite part of the tour was that he taught us how to use the “Guia T” bus guide. All the local buses are private and have complicated routes. Jonathan sat us all down and showed us how to plan our route. He was especially good about including the kids and asking them questions. They really got into it. The process was complicated enough that I think you need a person to explain it to you. The worst part of the bus is that they only accept coins or a pre-paid travel card. In Argentina the coins are hardly worth anything and thus you hardly ever get any. The battle for the rest of our month in BA was collecting change to use on the buses. Getting a travel card was very complicated and after they needed to see our passports, I gave up on that.
Jonathan did a great job of introducing us to Carlos Gardel, the famous tango singer. Before his arrival on the scene, tango music was instrumental only. He totally changed tango music and since has become the face of tango and all of Argentina. Many locations around Buenos Aires celebrate him and his contribution.
Carlos Gardel, father of tango music and the most famous Porteño
We stopped for a coffee and ice cream at the big shopping mall in Abasto. The touristic highlight of this mall is they have the only Kosher McDonalds outside of Israel. Buenos Aires has a large Jewish population that is visible throughout the city. With our self-imposed lifetime boycott of McDonalds we simply looked but didn’t taste. The kids were much happier with their daily dose of Freddo ice cream.
Next Jonathan showed us how to use the metro. This was much easier because they accept peso notes and not just coins. In fact they GIVE you coins for change. As we were buying our tickets at the cashier, Jonathan warned us that you have to wait for the change because they will give it back slowly hoping at any moment you think they’re done and walk away. First they give you the coins portion. Then the smaller bills and then the larger bills. His suggestion was to not touch the money until you could see that it was all there.
Unfortunately, Lisa hadn’t heard this warning and she got ripped off about $20. The cashiers especially target tourists on this one. We were far from the cashier when she finally figured it out. Throughout the month, we noticed this happened in many different places: taxis, kiosks, stores… It’s a well know way to rip off the tourists.
The tour ended in the micro-center area with visits to the Congress and the famous Plaza de Mayo and the Pink House. The kids were fascinated in the stories about the various coups and Mother of the Disappeared who wore white scarves on their heads. The historical background made the tour very meaningful especially for the kids.
Bob, Carl, Corbin, Lisa and Bridgette in front the presidential offices, La Casa Rosada
One thing I would never have anticipated in Buenos Aires was the mosquitoes. I was there before about the same time back in 2004 and I have no memory of any mosquitoes. Every evening at dusk, the bugs would begin to bite me. For some reason, they love to bite me more than most. Watching the boys climb trees, the mosquitoes go crazy on me.
One day we decided to take the kids to the park to bike rent some bikes. It was midday and I didn’t think at all about putting repellant on. In the first fifteen minutes we were there, I got thirty bites! I left Lisa in charge and quickly retreated back to our flat. From that point forward, I always left the house fully protected.
About three days after Lisa and the kids arrived, Terry arrived back in Buenos Aires from his job hunting trip. He had interviews with many schools and was asked to visit three schools and give a sample lesson in front a classroom of kids. By the time he flew back down to Argentina, he didn’t have any job offers in hand but felt good about the three schools that showed interest in him.
One of the schools where he presented was a new charter school that was a perfect match for me. The main focus was to get kids from a lower economic community the skills needed to get into and be successful at university. Most of these kids will be the first in their family to graduate from high school, let alone college. As soon as I saw their website I needed to figure out how to get my resume in their hands.
I quickly wrote a cover letter along with my resume and sent it off to Terry. After he finished teaching his sample lesson, he gave my resume to vice principal saying that I was a great match for the school. Who knows if they will read it but at least it is better than just emailing it in.
All three Boones had really missed Terry. His homecoming was well appreciated by all of us. He still had four days with them but it killed him inside to have missed any of their visit.
Terry and I both wanted a dinner out alone with Lisa while the other hung out at home with the kids. I got my dinner on Wednesday night. We went to a great little restaurant recommended in the Lonely Planet guide, Social Paraiso. We tried first to go to La Cabrera but the wait was over an hour. We were much happier at Social Paraiso because it was a lot quieter. The food was outstanding and Lisa and I really enjoyed our alone time together. There is nothing better than hanging out with an old friend.
Lisa and I also managed to sneak off midday at one point to visit MALBA, a museum of Argentinean and other Latin American artists in Palermo. The collection is an interesting mix of artists in a great building. We treated ourselves to lunch at the posh museum restaurant after our visit. It was definitely a see and be seen place.
With three kids it is much easier to have dinner at home than wait until 10pm when the Porteños have dinner. We also taught them the card game Barbu that we learned in New Zealand and really enjoyed playing it with all the kids.
One restaurant recommendation that we wanted to try with the whole family was San Juanino. Lonely Planet billed it as the cheapest restaurant in Recoleta and it was just down the street from our flat. The place is always hopping. We booked for 9pm and it was already crowded although the Porteños consider this late afternoon. The meal was fantastic. We mostly had beef and everyone was very happy. Once again our waiter was great and added to the experience.
One thing that I knew Bridgette would love was going for High Tea at the Park Hyatt. Corbin has been wanting to experience High Tea for several countries now. I had promised him that we would go to The Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong for their High Tea but ran out of time there.
So the two kids and I walked the block and a half to the Park Hyatt to have our tea. Interestingly tea time in Buenos Aires is 4:30pm to 7:00pm. When dinner is at 10pm, tea can finish at 7:00pm. Those crazy Latinos! The tea is served out on a beautiful terrace overlooking the middle courtyard. The setting couldn’t be any better.
Bridgette and Corbin at High Tea at the Park Hyatt
The kids studied the tea menu and each chose interesting tea blends. Then the tiered rack arrived with a large variety of savory and sweet items. The best part was that the kids got to go inside and select all the sweet items from a huge buffet set up just inside from the terrace. Bridgette and Corbin loved the whole thing. I kept forgetting to use the tea strainer when I poured my tea which the kids found very amusing. Bridgette later shared that the tea was the highlight of her trip to Buenos Aires.
One day I decided that I needed to wear the kids out a bit so we walked all the way from Recoleta to the new dockside development of Puerto Madero. My friend Robin had recommended the walk through the Ecological Garden that occupies most of the island. It felt like a different world from the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires. I could not believe that we were just steps away from the center of the city. The sun was out and it was a great way to see the river.
Walking along the river at the Ecological Park
At the exit to the park, we found a row of choripan stands that are open 24 hours a day! We picked one and I had the best choripan of my entire visit. The woods that they used added an amazing flavor. I was in culinary heaven. Lisa told me that she had never seen me so happy!
On the Boone’s last day we all did some last minute shopping in the Recoleta weekend market. We have sent home souvenirs with all our guests and Lisa took home some nice wooden trays for me. I have no idea where all our stuff is at this point but it will come back to us once we are back in California.
Saying goodbye that afternoon brought more tears. We used to see each other everyday. Our week together was just a taste of our old friendship. The good news is that we would be seeing them in just two months when we return to Los Angeles.
We had a week to ourselves before our next trio of visitors arrived from Los Angeles. It had been a very busy week with the Boones so we all enjoyed some down time to recharge our batteries.
Back while we were living in Germany, I flew down to Barcelona to spend time with one of my oldest friends, Alfonso. He lives in Madrid but has a flat in Sitges, the gayest place in Europe! During my visit I met one of his friends/business partners from Argentina. Agustin worked for gay.com and was working with Alfo on getting it launched there. He also was one of the moving forces pushing for gay marriage in Argentina. They were getting close to a vote when I met him and indeed the bill ended up passing in the Argentine legislature. I was really impressed by Agus and he told me to look him up when we were in Buenos Aires.
He and Diego, his partner of seventeen years live in a great house about 20 minutes from Recoleta. The gays sure know how to decorate especially the ones that do not have kids! They invited us for 9pm on a school night! They both had just gotten home from work when we arrived. It was a wonderful evening and we did not end up leaving until 1:30am! After dinner, they invited Corbin to use their Playstation up in the family room on the third floor. It was connected to a projector with a 12 ft screen! He was in heaven. Even at 1:30am, Corbin was wide awake playing away.
I know that I have said this several times but we are so lucky to have such great people in our lives. Agus and Diego were wonderful and we will remain friends. I cannot even count the number of people that we have met on this trip that are truly wonderful people that we look forward to seeing again.
In most cities I have posted a message on CouchSurfing.org about meeting up with other coupled and single gay people to find out how life is for them there. We have met some great people and this continued in Buenos Aires. One was a young kid of twenty years, Luciano. He wrote me saying he would love to see what a gay family looks like. He has always wanted to have kids. He did not have any idea how it would work.
We decided to return to San Juanino where we met up with him and his boyfriend Diego. They both were adorable. Terry and I felt like their gay parents. Luciano spoke excellent English which made it more interesting for Corbin and Terry. His boyfriend hardly spoke any English so we spent lots of time going between the two languages.
Like in many countries that we have visited, neither was out to their parents. Luciano knew that one day he would come out but he was not quite there yet. He was an only child and thought it would kill his parents to come out. He moved to the big city to go to university which has made it easier to be gay. He asked us and Corbin lots of interesting questions about our family.
Later in the month Luciano invited me to his birthday party at a club. It was fun to meet all his friends from university. I felt like everyone’s hip gay dad. Luciano had decided that he needed to break up with his boyfriend and told me that it has been hard for him to bring it up. I convinced him that he should wait until the morning and not do it during the party. He wrote me several days later that he talked to Diego and now they are just friends. Ah, youth.
During our week of no visitors, Terry and Corbin signed up for a language school. We got Corbin a private instructor. The school sometimes has classes for kids but only during their vacation. Terry joined a class of beginners which turned out to be a mistake. The other two people in the class were Australian and on their honeymoon. They had never learned a foreign language before and did not get such concepts as masculine and feminine nouns, conjugating verbs or pronunciation that that different than English. Terry should have bolted the first day but stuck it out for the two weeks. He learned something but would have been better in a more advanced class.
Corbin on the other hand did great. His teacher was wonderful and they did well together for their two-hour sessions. I would review with Corbin and saw he was progressing. He had been doing Rosetta Stone on his own while in Australia and New Zealand. The classroom was a good change for him.
On Friday morning our dear friends, Dottie, Connie and Felipe arrived at our place. I have known Dottie and Connie for over sixteen years. We all met when I joined the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles in 1994. They had both been members for a while at that point and welcomed me in. They all came to Europe to visit us in Germany but Dottie’s dad died during their trip so he and his partner Felipe flew home before arriving at our house. We were disappointed but these things happen in life. We did have a great time with Connie and showed him a great time in Bavaria.
Exactly a year later, Dottie’s family was all healthy and it looked like we were safe for a visit. At this point I have to explain that Connie and Dottie’s names aren’t their real names. In our group of friends in the chorus, we all had girl nicknames. I am not sure how it started but for many people their names have stuck. Like tar. One of our friends even made us hats with our girl names written out in rhinestones. We are quite the sight when we all go out in public with our hats on.
One time it was June’s birthday and a large group of twenty of us all went to Six Flags Magic Mountain wearing our hats. At one point, we were in line for a rollercoaster and we saw this guy also in line with a hat that said “Janet” on it. He was obviously straight and was hanging on his girlfriend while they waited in line. The hat had probably been purchased at a Janet Jackson concert they had recently attended.
So one of the nellier queens in our group puts his hand in the air, starts waving at him yelling “Yoo hoo. Janet! Hi!!!!!!” Then the rest of us started to wave and yell “JAAAANNNEEETTT!”. At first he didn’t get it and then his girlfriend pointed to his hat while busting up.
So you’re in line at Magic Mountain with your girlfriend and you’ve got this gaggle of rhinestone wearing queens waving at you and calling you Janet. The guy visibly melted. He also took off his hat and tried to laugh it off. He took it all very well and was a very cool straight guy!
Both Connie and Dottie’s Christian names have LONG been forgotten. When introducing them to other people, we now only use their girl names. My name hasn’t stuck as well. It’s Tammy. Our friend June looked at me about ten minutes after meeting me and exclaimed “You look like a Tammy to me.” Thus I was christened. But it just never quite caught on. June and Connie are probably the only ones who still call me that today.
Since our place was not big enough for all of them, Dottie and Felipe spent their first three days at a nearby hotel and then Connie spent the last three days at the Park Hyatt. It worked out great and this gave us alone time with each.
Having just shown Lisa and the kids all around Buenos Aires, I was well prepared to be tour guide. They all told me that they had not done much research because they knew I would know exactly what to do! How well my friends know me! As we settled in the living room for champagne and empanadas soon after their arrival, I showed them a “sample schedule” that I had prepared for their visit. They were very happy. Felipe had done some reading and added to the schedule.
Dottie and Connie were with me when we came to BA four years ago on our concert tour. They both said at the time that our visit was too short and they would have to return one day. Once we announced that we’d be in BA for the month of April, they quickly bought tickets.
After a shower and short disco nap, we took them off to San Telmo to the famous restaurant, Desnivel. It’s a great pardilla with unbelievable steaks. All of us had various versions of filet mignons but struggled to finish the enormous portions. Argentinean beef is truly the best in the world. Corn fed beef just does not compare.
After lunch we waddled around San Telmo and the boys enjoyed shopping and looking at the antiques. We finally made it to the Plaza de Mayo and took the obligatory pictures in front of the Casa Rosada where Evita made her famous speech.
I knew the boys wanted to go out so I suggested that we return home for a proper nap and supper before heading out to the bars at midnight. Nightlife happens very late in Buenos Aires. When you do not eat dinner until ten or eleven at night, the bars do not open before midnight and the dance clubs around 2am. Throughout their visit, Terry and I took turns going out with them at night while the other remained home with Corbin. It actually worked out well because we got much more sleep than our LA visitors!
Around 9:00pm just before supper, we walked through Recoleta and encountered a Good Friday dying-on-the-cross presentation in the park outside Recoleta cemetery. Jesus and two others were hanging from their crosses while the crowds sang. I’m not Christian so I am not quite sure who all the players were. But at some point some soldiers removed the dead Jesus from the cross and took him away. It was very dramatic.
Good Friday reenactment in Recoleta
Around midnight we started off at Sitges, a typical low-key gay bar that has a drag show around 1am. It was popular that night because it was “all you can drink” night. After paying $8 to get in, you can have all the well drinks and beer you want. More than one person told me to stick to the beer. The spirits they offer are not of the highest quality to say the least. We had several beers while enjoying the crowd and the show.
Around 1:45am we decided to abandon the free drinks and move on to a dance club, Glam. It was just filling up and within forty-five minutes both dance floors were “nuts to butts”. We danced. We drank. We tried to ignore the fact that we are in our late forties. Felipe’s only thirty-two but I always try to ignore that! By 3:30 we were a pack of tired puppies and headed on home.
The boys rallied and were ready to go the next morning by noon so we could have lunch at Ivan and Lola’s house. We met them in Bangkok through CouchSurfing in November and then spent New Year’s Eve with them in Ho Chi Minh. We were so excited to see them again at their home in Buenos Aires.
Their house is in the Olivos suburb about an hour by bus from Recoleta. Their house is a converted garage with a huge backyard. They are both illustrators and we loved looking at their books and other merchandise. They had an impressive appetizer spread waiting for us and their offer of a glass of wine seemed a bit premature but then after the first sip, it actually made us feel a bit better. The previous night’s fun had taken its toll on our bodies! Here we were ten hours later diving in again!
Lola and her sister Claudia making us all lunch
They invited Lola’s sister and her family since they have two boys around Corbin’s age. The sister Claudia had made an amazing lentil and beef stew that was the main course to our lunch. Her kids went to an English speaking school so they boys all hit it off instantly. An impromptu football game filled their time before lunch. We all loved getting to know Ivan, Lola and Claudia and her husband Fernando. It was a great afternoon of sharing and enjoying life. By five all my boys were beginning to fade so we headed home and all took long naps.
Connie, Dottie and Felipe had booked us into a restaurant they ate at four years ago that was just two blocks away. It was what I would call a high end pardilla with excellent service and delicious food. We stuffed ourselves. That night I stayed home with Corbin while Terry and the boys went out on to a club for older guys. They did not get home until 4:30am and they said it was lots of fun.
Felipe had read about a Sunday market called the Feria de Mataderos located about thirty minutes by cab from the center. It was billed as more authentic and less touristy than the Sunday market in San Telmo. We arrived and instantly knew it was worth the trip.
Traditional dancers at the Feria de Mataderos
In the center of the market traditional dancers presented a variety of dances to the accompaniment of a live band. This was by Porteños for Porteños. The market had a nice variety of things that we had not seen in other places. One thing that the boys found was utensils made out of cow horns. They bought several sets of salad and pie servers. It was one-stop shopping for all the souvenirs for friends. This market also had a large food section with local olive oils, cheese, honey and breads.
The gang with some traditional dancers
From there we taxied it up for La Boca to have some lunch and show them this historic area. I specifically chose one of the restaurants with a tango show so Felipe could get a taste of it. He performs traditional Mexican dances so I knew he would enjoy it. Connie, Dottie and I saw a tourist dinner and tango show four years ago so we did not think we needed to do the same thing again. The La Boca tourist restaurant version was fine. The food actually turned out to be better than I expected. We all had seafood and it was quite tasty. Only in Argentina do the tourist restaurants serve GOOD food. I have yet to have a bad meal there. It embarrasses me the food that the US has exported to the rest of the world.
That night we went out again! Things are quiet at the beginning of the week so we knew that a respite was coming. On Sunday night, things were open and hopping so we had to take advantage of the opportunity. The funny things about being gay is that it seems to drastically increase your change of running into familiar faces when you go out. Terry and I went out one night together when Lisa watched the kids. We were in a gay bar for maybe ten minutes before I recognized two guys from my gym in Los Angeles. I went over and said hello and met their other friends. It turns out that I had brunch a couple of years ago with another guy that was with them. It’s a small gay world after all.
Then the first night with the LA boys, they ran into two different people they knew. None of this was pre-coordinated. It just happens. Part of the reason is that when they travel the gays do not have a lot of options for bars and clubs. So we all end up going to the same places. Thus we run into each other all over the world.
We had such a good time at Agus and Diego’s house, we decided to invite them over for dinner when the LA boys were in town. I put together one of my typical Indian meals: butter chicken, curry peas, palak paneer and homemade garlic naan. It is a pretty impressive meal to be able to cook up especially when traveling. We all ate well, drank well and really enjoyed each other’s company. We hope to see them one day up in California.
Diego and Agus come over to our flat for Indian food
The best friend of one of our friends in LA also happened to be visiting that same week so we met up with Debbie on the afternoon that we had booked High Tea at the Alvear Palace. Having already experienced the high tea the Park Hyatt, we ventured six blocks down the street to the grande dame of hotels in Buenos Aires. I read a great review of their high tea service and thought it would be a fun activity for us when the boys were visiting.
We ate in the luxurious, enclosed garden area. Our table was near a fountain in the middle of the room and we all felt like princesses (except Corbin who preferred to keep the title of Little Prince). The hotel had that old-world feel like the Peninsula in Hong Kong and the Ritz in Paris. Rooms there run about $800 a night but do include a dedicated butler. Being on the “princess-for-the-afternoon” plan, we only glimpsed the life of royalty. The Alvear had none of the corporate America feel of the Park Hyatt.
The LA boys & Debbie join us for High Tea at the Palace Alvear
We all ordered tea the High Tea for about $35 a person. Little did we realize HOW much food would be coming our way. The savory sandwiches were wonderful and then the scones and sweets. Most of us could not finish what was on our tiers. At that point, we thought it was over but then they came by with this huge cart of full sized desserts saying we each could choose one! WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?!?! I couldn’t even manage another bite let alone a full-sized dessert. Luckily they offered to wrap them up for later consumption. Finally they offered each of us a chocolate truffle to finish off the “tea”. It was a wonderful experience but we all left stuffed to the brim.
On our last night together, we booked into the much celebrated Casa Cruz restaurant in Palermo. Many people from Flyertalk recommended the place so I thought we would give a try.
Corbin sips a virgin martini at Casa Cruz
By far Casa Cruz was our largest venture that month into fine dining. The only thing I can fault them on was the VERY SLOW service. The restaurant was not full but we had a 50 minute pause between our starters and mains. At forty minutes our server came by apologizing that they had a personnel issue in the kitchen. This is the LAST THING I ever want to hear when paying fine dining prices. Please spare me the details.
At least the food was spectacular. All of us loved our choices. Everything had an international twist on local flavors. It was exactly what I was hoping for. In the end I can always forgive bad service when traveling internationally. We have the best service in the world in the United States and we pay for it. But good food always wins out. At the end of our meal, our friends Dottie and Felipe generously picked up the tab. It was not necessary so that made it all the nicer!
We had such a good time with Dot, Con and Felipe. We have had visitors fly in every month except for Madagascar. We are truly blessed with wonderful friends who will fly half way around the world to experience life with us.
After they left, we only had three days before we would be moving on. Unlike all the previous countries, I had not really done any planning for our next country, Chile. We did not have a place to stay and I was not even sure where we were going to spend the month. I can say that I was tired of planning. I never thought those words would come out of my month. I am the eternal planner. Since nothing was really planned, Terry and I debated just spending another month in Buenos Aires. We both LOVED it here. Would it hurt to stay an extra month and blow off Chile?
The purist in me did not like the idea of stealing time from Chile to enjoy ourselves in Argentina. The original goal was twelve months, twelve countries learning how the local people live in each place. Spending two months in BA would imbalance our formula. I also liked for the first time in the trip that we would be arriving with few plans. I keep telling everyone that we could not have done this trip before the invent of the internet. This is actually untrue. We would have done the trip. We would have just spent more time upon arrival in each country finding a place to live and booking flights.
After a few days of flirting with this idea, we decided that it would be better to continue on and experience Chile. We booked a hotel at the airport and a motel on Easter Island for three nights. Beyond that, we were still free to choose the rest of the month in Chile.
Our last day in Buenos Aires was spent with Claudia and Fernando’s family. When we met them at Lola and Ivan’s house, Claudia wanted to get our families together one more time before we left. Spending our last day with them was a great way to finish up Argentina.
We started the day at their place. They have a nice townhouse in a quiet suburb. Terry had decided to stay home since neither of them spoke much English. Without him, we had long chats in Spanish about our lives. It was great to get to know them better. Finally we all piled into their car and drove up to Tigre further up the river. When it’s not raining, Claudia told us that it is beautiful to sit at one of the many waterside restaurants and enjoy the views. Unfortunately, autumn had hit hard and the rain forced us inside for lunch. They insisted on picking up the tab. I have been blown away throughout our travels at the generosity of people that we’ve just met. It’s really wonderful. They did let me treat everyone to ice cream a bit later.
Tigre has many antique shops and we walked slowly as the kids ran around chasing each other. Any time I see Corbin playing with other kids, it warms my heart. He really needs that time.
After we got back to their place, Fernando opened some beers and turned on the local televised football match. It only had thirty minutes left and his team was winning. By the time it was over, it was around 6pm and I was thinking that Corbin and I should hit the road because it was school night for them.
They looked absolutely offended when I asked if we should be going. Claudia said that she was hoping we could hang out more and make some empanadas. You do not have to ask me twice! Corbin, Sebastian and Manuel happily played with Lego and their Playstation while we cooked.
She and I walked to the store to get the ingredients and soon we donned aprons and started in on our task. I was finally getting my cooking lesson in Argentina on our last evening! She showed me how to prepare the beef filling. It was actually straight forward. The hard part was filling the dough and sealing the edges.
Claudia shows me how to seal the empanadas
Claudia patiently taught me one of the nicer ways to seal the edges where you continually fold over one side on the other. Unfortunately some technique was involved. Soon she and Fernando were in stitches at my attempts. It reminded me of making our chapatis in India. Mine just never turned out round. Later at the table, Claudia made the kids identify which ones were hers and which were mine. It wasn’t a hard game.
Fernando shows off our hard work
Like many people when we first meet, they had many questions about Corbin’s adoption. Both Terry and I enjoy sharing the story but most people are hesitant to ask. Of course I arrived at the point in the story where I talked about adopting our second child. We really wanted a girl. I come from three generations of boys and in my mom and grandma’s honor, I really wanted a girl. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. We worked with ten different birth moms with no success. Every time I tell the story, I usually end up in tears. It is still painful for me. In the end, we have an amazing kid. We got lucky. I’m not sure we would have been able to afford this trip if we had another child. Kids ain’t cheap.
It was 1:30am early Monday morning once Fernando drove us back to our flat in Recoleta. Once again like so many other times this year, we had spent the day with amazing people. The good news is that I am sure that Claudia and Fernando will be visiting us in California and we can continue where we left off.
Unfortunately as we are leaving Argentina, we still don’t have jobs back in CA. None of the schools that Terry visited has actually offered a job. No one will return my phone calls. I am getting more worried with each passing day that maybe we should get home before the schools break for summer in order to meet some principals. One of our thoughts is to shave a week off of both Chile and Colombia. This would get us back mid-June with some time to speak with administrators. Since nothing is really planned for our final two months, we have some flexibility. The reality of our re-entry into our California lives after three years is quickly catching up with us.
Our flight on Monday was in the mid-afternoon so we had plenty of time to pack in the morning. All of us felt a bit sad to be leaving Argentina as our cab made its way to the international airport in Ezeiza. Buenos Aires is a great city.
Prices have definitely gone up since my first visit in 2004. Before you could take a cab anywhere in the center for two or three dollars. Now it’s more like five or six. That is still not bad compared to other international cities. Food has also increased in price but is still much cheaper than an European city.
What Buenos Aires offers is a very livable city. Porteños live wonderful lives. Good food. Good wine. Good friends. It is not a complicated formula. As we leave each country, I often think about what we have learned. Argentina taught us how to really enjoy our lives. It’s not a bad thing to learn.
The last glimpses of daylight on the Recoleta Cemetery
Last edited by olafman; Jun 3, 11 at 4:01 pm
Oct 15, 10, 4:11 am
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: SF Bay Area, California
Programs: AA2MM PLT, Hilton Gold, SPG Gold
May 2011: Chile
How did Chile end up on our round the world tour of twelve countries? The bottom line is their fruits, vegetables and seafood. During the long, cold winter of that frozen wasteland known as California, much of our produce comes from South America especially Chile. Their exports are good quality when we buy them in our local Safeway supermarket so what will it be like to eat them before they travel 5000 miles on an airplane?!?!
I actually came here four years ago when I was on my four-country concert tour of South America. A few of us came three days early so we had almost a week in Santiago. Our concert went great here and set a great tone for the rest of the tour. We performed to a packed house at the Teatro Oriente. During our week in Santiago, we had a great time exploring restaurants. I do not remember a bad meal. We ate so much seafood all over town.
My first thought though was to spend the whole month on Easter Island. I love Polynesia and this was an opportunity to spend an entire month there. In mentioning this idea to other friends, I was instantly met with apprehension. My friend Steve said that we would have trouble spending a week there let alone a month. That did not discourage me. Our goal was to live like a local. Obviously locals live on Easter Island. I wanted to find out about their lives!
The roadblock arrived when I tried to find a place for us to rent for the month. There was NOTHING listed anywhere. I looked and looked. All I could find was motels for over $100/day. I sure did not want to live in a motel for month. Finally I resigned myself that we would visit Easter Island for a couple of day but then spend the rest of the month out on the coast of Chile somewhere.
This country was the first where we really had not booked much prior to arrival. I was getting a bit tired of planning and thought we would just see what happens. We planned on doing Easter Island first thing. About a week before our arrival we finally booked into the Lonely Planet TOP PICK for moderate hotels in Rapa Nui. Beyond that we were open to an adventure.
We left Buenos Aires on the famous local South American carrier Air Canada. Price wins. They got my business. Here is the trip report of our journey over The Andes:
FLIGHT#34 Air Canada#412 Buenos Aires - Santiago 767 Biz with Pics
We and Miley Cyrus arrived in Chile in the evening. (Read the previous report to find out why we were traveling with Miley.) Because our flight to Easter Island was early the next morning, I just booked us into the Holiday Inn at the airport. We would have time to explore Santiago on our way back through later. The hotel was perfectly fine. It’s a Holiday Inn. Nothing special. Nothing bad.
The next morning we took our first of six LAN flights out to Rapa Nui. It was not a great experience. You can read about the whole thing here:
FLIGHT#35: LAN#814 Santiago-Easter Island 767 Biz with Pics
Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Chile
Our plane touched down on this tiny dot of an island in the middle of nowhere and I instantly knew that it was a magical place. As we walked down the airstairs, the warm, humid air greeted us. It reminded me of landing on some of the smaller islands in Hawaii. After five hours in the stale, dry airplane, the air felt fresh and alive.
Every day a small combo of musicians greets the Santiago flight. It is such a wonderful welcome to the island. You instantly know that you have left the continent and are someplace different. In Hawaii you instantly notice “island time”. Things move slower there. Rapa Nui is very similar.
The Dutch who “discovered” the island on behalf of all the white people of the world arrived on Easter. That is why they call it Easter Island. We were expecting lots of bunny rabbits, decorated eggs, Peeps, a nice cooked ham… We did not see any of this. It was about as Easter-like as Ramadan.
Claudio from the Vaianni Hotel was there to pick us up along with several others. He drove us just a few minutes to the hotel, which is located in the center of town. My favorite part of the hotel was that everyone hung out around a large round table in the middle of the courtyard. It was a great place to meet other travelers and hear about their experiences. This does not happen at the bar at the Four Seasons. We met people from Hong Kong, Holland, Germany, USA, Chile, Canada and so many other places. We got lots of good ideas of how to spend our time on the island.
Eating lunch at a fish shack
Claudio had recommended a little café down on the water so we headed there for lunch. It was this little hut that served a variety of sandwiches all freshly made. I had a tuna steak sandwich served with lots of mayo, guacamole and tomatoes. This combination of condiments is popular throughout Chile. We were famished and the food tasted great. From there we found a fishing port where a huge 8 ft swordfish had just been caught.
All in a day’s catch
By the end of the day we had decided to rent a car and drive ourselves around the island instead of joining the $60 a person guided tour. I much prefer to have the flexibility of our own vehicle. For the $180 guided tour cost for the three of us, we can have a much cheaper tour on our own. Also a Brazilian guy staying at our place joined us and cut our costs even more.
We walked up and down the main drag looking for a place for dinner. We learned quickly that everything was expensive on Easter Island. The issue is there is no local industry. Even the eggs are flown in from the mainland. The local Rapa Nuis are content with their lives and do not demonstrate much entrepreneurial spirit. One of the local Chileans from the mainland explained to us that even all the fishermen are from the continent. This just did not make sense to me. Chickens are the easiest thing to raise in the world. First come chickens and then come eggs. If I was a Peace Corps volunteer there, I would find SOME local who was interested in making a little money. It would not be hard to undercut the price of imported eggs from the mainland. I was beginning to think maybe we should have tried harder to spend a month here.
We ended up at a tourist fish place with excellent food. My family has always loved ceviche. Terry ordered a “trio of ceviche” that was incredible. All of us loved our food but the bill was expensive for our budget.
It rained cats and dogs for most of the night. The tin sheets on the roof amplified the sound of the pounding rain. At 8:30 am the rain had stopped and it was beginning to get light. We must be on the edge of the time zone. The sky was full of dark clouds but we decided to continue with our tour anyway.
Our rental car was $80 for the day. They did not offer any insurance instead the car was given to us with a “you break it, you buy it” plan. My credit card does usually cover me for rentals but this one was questionable.
In spite of the weather, all of us were really excited to explore the wonders of the island. The four of us decided to visit the museum first to get a better understanding of the Rapa Nui and their history. After getting really lost we finally arrived and toured the modest facility. We were surprised at the many similarities between the Rapa Nui and the Maori of New Zealand. Obviously they are cousins, descendants of the same people. They share much of the same art and symbols. They had a sample moai, the large carved bust, in the museum but I was anxious to see them in the flesh.
You can easily drive to the other side of the island on a paved roads in about thirty minutes. This is not a big place. We had a good map that showed all the moai positioned around the island. The ancient Rapa Nui carved all the moai at a central volcano and then somehow moved them all around the island. No one really knows how they moved these incredibly heavy statues. These are not light rocks. They positioned them along the coast with their faces toward the center of the island. It is believed that they pay tribute to their ancestors. That’s one hell of a tribute.
After we left the museum, we encountered our first moai a few minutes later. It was beautiful. We took lots of pictures not realizing that we would be seeing many, many more that day.
Lots of the moai that we first saw had fallen over. Large waves or tsunamis can easily topple them over. Over half around the island are lying down. My first reaction was that we should raise money and re-erect them. After talking to several locals, I now understand that they believe that they have fallen for a reason and they should be left on the ground. I tried to compare it in my mind to the Statue of Liberty. If she fell down, it would be hard for me to accept that is the way she should be. I guess the moai have a different meaning than Lady Liberty.
The weather throughout the day went from cloudy to misting to raining. Repeat. It really did not matter. We were all so happy to see these incredible monuments. Our Gore-Tex jackets were soaked through along with our shorts and shoes. It did not matter. We were having fun.
We finally arrived at Rano Raraku which is the quarry where all the moai were carved. This dormant volcano provided the rock for the carvers to work with. The side of the volcano was littered with heads in various stages of completion. It was a moai factory. Corbin and I discussed different theories on how they delivered the finished heads around the island. All of the methods involved lots of manpower.
The Haleys make it to Easter Island
The ranger at the entrance to this area and told us that it was too muddy for us to hike up into the crater. We saw several people on the path which encouraged us to give it a try. Sure it was muddy, lots of slipping and sliding but no one fell down! The crater was large and had wild horses in it. We ran across the Dutch couple from our hotel that had chosen to take the guided tour. They had thirty people on their tour and they traveled around in an old school bus. I think our decision to rent a car and go on our own was wise.
Luckily a food truck was parked in the lot nearby and provided us with beef and chicken fried empanadas. Most of the island is uninhabited so we were happy to find something to eat. Our snacks were long gone by this point.
Nearby the quarry is one of the most famous collections of moai, Tongariki. Fifteen moai are lined up in a dramatic setting on the coast. The Japanese government paid to have them all re-erected amid great controversy. Many people thought they ought to remain on the ground. I will say they are more impressive standing up. They only put the red stone hat on one of them and left the rest scattered around the nearby field. I was awestruck by this presentation of moai. In the same field we saw our first petroglyphs of the day. The Rapa Nui carved many recognizable items into the low lying rocks including fish, turtles, humans and trees.
The moai of Tongariki and my boy
On the north shore of the island Corbin found some tide pools that he enjoyed exploring. We stopped twice and found more petroglyphs and more moai. The entire island is a living museum.
The only place to find a large sandy beach on Rapa Nui is at Anakena. Just as we arrived there, the sun came out inviting us to swim in the ocean. We all stripped down to our underwear and hopped in for a dip. It was a perfect way to end our tour. I also enjoyed seeing the six moai positioned at the end of the beach.
We made it back to the hotel by 5:00 pm and rested for a bit. Then I got the idea that we should watch the sunset just north of town at Tahai. We grabbed another American woman at the hotel and spent an hour watching the incredible sky of the sunset. It will remain one of my favorite sunsets for the rest of my life.
Here’s a video of the moment:
Watching the sunset through the moai
The next morning we did not have to return the rental car until 10:00 am so I proposed that we drive back up to Tongariki to catch the sunrise. There was a good chance that the clouds would block the sun but we all were excited to give it the college try. Even Corbin said we had to do it!
Alas it was a cloudy morning but we all enjoyed getting a final look at Tongariki. Those fifteen lined up heads are truly spectacular, well worth the morning trip.
After breakfast we decided to rent some bikes and go up to Ranu Kao, the largest volcano on the island. We made a wrong turn somewhere and our biking path became a hiking path. We ditched the bikes and continued on foot to the top of the volcano’s rim. It was a long, steep hike on this path but we made it. On the top we found the ancient village of Orongo. Corbin loved their houses made out of volcanic rocks and dirt.
By the time we were walking back down, we were exhausted and really hungry. Our snacks and water were gone and we were looking forward to a nice lunch. When we got back to our bikes, I noticed that Corbin’s front tire was flat. I ended up pushing his while he tried to ride my bike. It is not exactly what I needed at the end of a long hike.
We finally arrived to a nearby fish restaurant Taki Viti that had been recommended in my guidebook. Corbin and I both had ceviche and Terry had some sea bass. The food was absolutely delicious and the two beers did not hurt either!
That evening we met up for dinner with a local Chilean that I met through CouchSurfing. He works at the airport as a meteorologist. From Santiago originally he has enjoyed living out on Rapa Nui for four years. At this point he was about done with island life and was looking forward to returning to Santiago. I really enjoyed talking to him about his experiences on the island. He was the one who helped me understand why the locals have not created any industry there. It is just not who they are.
Corbin’s shoe situation has been slowly deteriorating. All of his footwear disintegrated at the same moment leaving him barefoot. On our last morning, we finally did some shopping and bought him a new pair of flip-flops for $20. Not a bargain but he needed something.
Our journey back to Santiago is fully chronicled in a trip report:
FLIGHT#36 LAN#842 Easter Island-Santiago 767 Biz with Video & Pics
We arrived back in Santiago on a Friday evening still unsure where we were going to spend the rest of the month. Luckily we had arranged through CouchSurfing to meet up with two local Chileans. Hopefully they would help us figure out the rest of the month.
We stayed at the Ameristar Apart-Hotel in the Bellas Artes area of Santiago. Our place was perfect because it had two separate bedrooms and a nice common kitchen and living area. It was much more room and privacy than a typical hotel room.
We finally heard from one of the schools that Terry visited when he flew up to California. The principal wanted to chat with Terry again. He also wanted to have a phone interview with me! We set up these phone interviews for Saturday just before noon our time.
Terry spoke first to the principal. He had already interviewed with him in person so Terry assumed this would be a follow up interview. About five minutes into their talk, the principal offered him a job! Yeah!!! What a relief! At least we would have one salary coming in.
I was up next. I had never met anyone from the school and immediately the principal shared that he was not very comfortable doing a phone interview. We managed to have a great talk for about an hour. I have worked in a similar sized school with a comparable population. They are adding high school classes for the first time this year so I recognized this as a great opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a school. During the interview I shared several ideas that he responded “WOW. That’s a great idea that I have never thought of.” Bingo!
I would say that interview was the best interview that I have ever given in my life. We clicked. I was very happy at the end when he said that he could hear my passion for education. I am definitely passionate about learning.
One of his final questions involved working with Terry. Since it is a very small school, did I foresee any difficulties working closely with him? I mentioned that we had worked together at the same school for two years in Munich. More importantly we had worked together almost 24 hours a day this year as we home schooled our son. If we can make it though this year, we can do anything together.
At the end of the interview, the principal said he needed to chat with a few people and would get back to me in a few days. What I did not mention was that I was willing to fly up to California at any moment if they felt they needed to see me in person.
That afternoon we met up with Johan at his place who turned out to be half-American and half-Venezuelan. He had lived in Chile for several years and had lots of good information. He suggested that we go to Valparaiso because it was a city full of culture and charm. He also said the food was excellent there. I’m sold! We all started to get hungry so he took us to a Chilean pardilla where we ate so many different grilled meats, a delicious corn dish and salad. We had a great time together and once again CouchSurfing had connected us with a good guy.
I woke up on Sunday and convinced my family we should do the walking tour outlined in the Lonely Planet guide. Luckily the whole tour was in our immediate area so we did not have far to walk to the start.
Being Sunday I would have expected things to be quiet. Instead everyone was out with their families shopping in the markets and enjoying themselves. We drank some amazing fresh-squeezed orange juice and nibbled on sweet, ripe strawberries. Chile is another country where it is fun to eat on the street.
The walking tour begins at an old train station to the left of the Mercado Central. The station is now used for trade shows and conferences but today was entirely empty. Corbin enjoyed running around the cavernous space.
The Mercado Central is the local fish market representing the best of the Chilean seafood industry. We ate the Denisse Restaurant and enjoyed bouillabaisse, a seafood casserole and fried fish. Everything was wonderful except they brought a small drink that our waitress told us was “on the house”. We all tasted and were very surprised when it tasted like a mix of clam juice and rocks. The floating cilantro garnish was a nice touch but did not help the flavor at all. I finished my glass to be culturally sensitive but Terry and Corbin abandoned their drinks after the first sip. Terry thought it was a local joke they play on the tourists.
Our complimentary drink
Next we walked over to the birthplace of Santiago, Las Plaza de Armas. It is a beautiful square with the cathedral and other old buildings around it. We decided that we would pause and read for a while on a park bench. It was a nice, peaceful setting. The tour continued and took us through all the government buildings and finally finished atop the hill in the Santa Lucia park right next to our hotel. We climbed all the way to the top but were greeted with a smoggy view over Santiago. We could barely make out The Andes to the east. We all enjoyed the tour especially the lunch at Denisse’s.
That evening I met up with another CouchSurfer, Rodrigo. He is an artist and his place was a gallery of his paintings. He had another friend over and we talked for hours. His recommendation was that we stay in Viña de Mar about 4 km up the coast from Valparaiso. He said it was much nicer there, more like Miami. Valparaiso was dirtier and had more crime. Hmm. We wanted a truly local experience so maybe Johan’s recommendation of the grittier Valpo was more what we were looking for.
On Monday morning, we took a cab to the Pajaritos bus station where we purchased $8 tickets for the hour and a half journey out to Valparaiso. The buses were modern and very comfortable. I loved that the price was so low! They leave every twenty minutes or so making the connections between the two cities very convenient.
Along the way we passed though one of the wine regions around Casablanca. The area is known for its white wines. The reds come from vineyards about 200 km south of Santiago. Over the weekend we had already begun enjoying Chilean wines and knew that a month in Chile would involve a full exploration of their varieties.
As we drove into the city, we could see lots of colorful houses. Valparaiso is the sister city to San Francisco, California and we could see lots of similarities. The first is all the houses are built on impossibly steep hills. In the late nineteenth century, twenty-one “elevators” were built to help get the citizens up the hills. They reminded me of the Peak Tram in Hong Kong. They do not go perfectly vertically up. Instead the trolley hugs the mountain climbing at a very steep pitch.
The hills of Valparaiso
Typical houses in Valparaiso
Since we had not booked an apartment, I got us a room in a bed and breakfast for the night while we looked around at apartments. We took a cab from the bus station the Yellow House B&B located at the far end of the harbor. The Amazing Race television show filmed the contestants crossing a valley on high wires just a few blocks away. Corbin recognized the location instantly.
I made a couple of phone calls to people with places to rent. I was happy that I could schedule a viewing for that afternoon. Meanwhile we walked back down to the “Puerto” area and ate lunch at a wonderful seafood restaurant, Viviana. For me the highlight of the meal was the scallop and cheese fried empanada. I had never tasted anything like it.
We taxied it up to an apartment and met up with the landlady. She had lived in California for sixteen years and spoke excellent English. We were amazed many times throughout our month in Chile that many people spoke great English.
The apartment had wonderful views of the city of Valparaiso and the harbor. The three bedrooms were all tiny and it could have been better maintained but it was fine for us. Located high on a hill, we would get lots of exercise coming back and forth. We decided to take the apartment for at least one week and then decide if we would spend the rest of the month.
Next we walked down the hill a ways where we finally found the elevator that dropped us in the main square of Sotomayor. Because we had a big lunch, we decided to just pick up some snacks for dinner and stay in for the night. Transfer days are tiring so watching a movie in our flat felt good to all of us.
I have also noticed lately that Corbin is reading all the time. He flies through books on his iPad. As part of his school, Terry tests his comprehension and it is remarkably good. He has also begun reading at bedtime until he is sleepy. Terry and I are both very pleased with this.
We moved into our flat the next morning. The landlady explained how to use the microbuses and the “colectivo” shared taxis to come up the hill to our apartment. It felt good to finally unpack after traveling out to Easter Island and spending the weekend in Santiago.
The first thing I do whenever we get to a new place is to rearrange the furniture. I like a cozy feeling in the living room and often the furniture is placed by someone who has never sat there for more than ten minutes. By the end I was much happier and Terry just stood by rolling his eyes.
We had afternoon school that day because we could not afford to miss a day. We have been fairly strict about sticking to the original school schedule of 177 days of this year. Obviously things come up but then we arrange to make up the hours on a different day. I have been really impressed that Corbin has made such progress this year. It will be interesting to see how he stands up compared to the other sixth graders in Berkeley next year. He is doing seventh grade math and seems to have developed great problem solving skills which will serve him well in the future.
Moving in also means doing a big shopping trip to the local grocery store. Some things never change regardless of the country: olive oil, vinegar, rice, basic herbs, bread, peanut butter, fruits, veggies, the Haley staples. As part of our “one bag, one person” reduction after New Zealand, we just do not have the room to carry staples from one country to the next.
We took a different elevator down the hill more toward the Bellavista area where the huge Express Lider is located. Our flat was located in quiet residential neighborhood which was a big contrast to the hustle and bustle of the commercial center of Valpo. The Lider supermarket was the largest of any that we had seen in South America so far. They carried a huge variety of products. I was mostly interested in the produce and seafood which was definitely better that what we find in any supermarket in the US. Still I was looking forward to shopping at the open air markets with the freshest possible produce. Terry started to get concerned when our shopping cart was heaving. We needed to carry all the groceries that we bought. In the end we left the store fully loaded and hopped into a colectivo taxi that dropped us off in front of our apartment at the top of the hill.
All over Chile one form of transport that is available is the colectivo taxi. The idea is that they start at a central point. As soon as four people have entered, the taxi takes off on a pre-determined route dropping off people and picking up as space permitted. The price was $0.75 per person per trip. Not bad at all! It’s one heck of a walk up the hill so we gladly paid $2.25 for us and our groceries to get back home.
The sunsets from our apartment were spectacular. We had a sweeping view of much of the Valpo city and part of the harbor. Every evening the sun would set on the horizon to the west bring to life the multicolored houses. It was a great way to end the day watching the sunset and drinking a glass of Chilean red wine.
The sunset from our flat in Valparaiso, Chile
That evening I cooked steak, salad and these little frozen potato balls that I noticed in the freezer case. They turned out to be wonderful and we enjoyed them several more times during our month. The gas stove and oven were old and I always managed to singe off some body hair every time I tried to light the oven. Then later I managed to start a small fire while cooking the steaks. It takes a while to get to used to a new kitchen and I wasn’t starting off too well. The meal was delicious and I knew that we would be eating well in Chile.
I was still in bed the next morning when I picked up my iPhone and checked my email messages. The first was one from the principal of the school I interviewed with. It began “Thank you for your interest in our school…” Ugh. This sounded like a “sorry-but-no” letter. As I read into the second paragraph, he offered me a job! YAHOOOOOOO! Terry and I both got jobs! HOLY ..... I could not believe it. I really expected to be hitting the pavement in July once we were back in California. It seems a bit crazy to be teaching at the same school as Terry but we are definitely flexible. We taught together in Munich and did well together during our year of homeschooling while traveling. We were going to shine at this new school.
That morning we planned on visiting the fishing port. We took the coastal metro down a few stops and got dropped off directly at the port. We ran into groups of young school kids who were also seeing the boats and fish. One interesting fact about the port is that all the boats get lowered into the water each morning by cranes and then get raised when they are finished. The coastline here does not allow for them to be docked. We were impressed to see the boats full of fish being pulled out of the ocean. I loved to see all the varieties of fish including one that is named after Corbin, Corvina. Several people had mentioned that Corbin had his own fish in Chile and we finally found it. I did not buy any fish because I knew that we would not be home for many hours but we enjoyed looking.
At the fish port of Valparaiso
From there we continued on the metro to the center of the nearby town of Viña del Mar. Rodrigo had compared it to Miami and thought we should live there. We started in the crowed center. As we walked toward the coast, we started to see lots of white high-rise building mixed among nice shops and restaurants. This was a totally different place than Vaplo just five kilometers down the coast.
Then we found a Starbucks. It was a large two story Starbucks that felt comfortable and homey. We hung out and read our books and enjoyed ourselves. In month eleven of our journey, moments like these help us charge our batteries. From there we went to a nearby park let Corbin play for a while.
As Terry and I sat on the bench there, I started to contemplate spending the rest of the month in Viña instead of Valparaiso. For me the biggest reason was I did not feel very safe in Valpo. Several people warned us that we should not go out after dark. I did not like that. I could instantly tell that life in Viña is much safer. Also I really wanted an ocean front view from our place! IS THAT TOO MUCH TO ASK FOR?!?!
We returned to our place and I started to do some research on a place in Viña. After a couple of emails, we soon secured a flat on the coastal street Avenida San Martin. We would stick out the rest of the week in Valparaiso but then spend the final two and a half weeks on the ocean. We all were thrilled by the idea.
I abandoned Terry and Corbin on Thursday and spent the day writing in Viña del Mar’s Starbucks. I took myself to a nice Italian lunch nearby but primarily spent my time writing. Like any good Starbucks no one cared I was hanging out there for hours on end. In fact several of us were using the Starbucks as our office just like people do in the States. As I write this book, the process of writing often energizes me. It is an opportunity to process what we have experienced. I love reliving so many moments of our trip.
On Friday Terry went off on his own. Corbin and I had a great morning of school. Some days go great. I decided to reward our hard work with lunch at a restaurant just down the hill known for its inventive twists on Chilean food. We arrived at Le Filou de Montpellier and snagged the last table. The place was hopping. The food was the best that we had eaten in weeks. It was a great find.
After lunch Corbin and I headed over to the Naval Museum very near the B&B we stayed at on the first day. I personally felt there were not enough cute sailors standing around but Corbin loved seeing all canons, guns and ship models. The best part was they had the actual capsule used to rescue the Chilean miners. Both Corbin and I took our picture standing inside. I remember watching their rescue live on CNN when we were in Madagascar last October.
Corbin in the rescue capsule of the Chilean miners
The Haley Boys have a long tradition of going out to breakfast on the weekend. It is a fun way to start the weekend. We had noticed a restaurant called “El Desayunador” that sounded perfect for us. On Saturday morning we began our day with some wonderful breakfasts of pancakes, eggs and fresh breads along with fresh fruit juices. Chile in general is not a big breakfast country so we were luckily to have found this place.
We spent the rest of the day walking around Valparaiso. We found the new cultural center built in an old prison but it was still under construction. Instead we found the Museum in Open Skies (Museo a Cielo Abierto). A group of Chilean artists had been commissioned to paint a series of murals in a neighborhood of Valpo. I loved this idea. We saw probably twenty pieces as we explored the barrio. More cities should have living museums like this. It felt like art of the people.
Our visitor from California during our month of Chile was my dear friend Tom. He traveled to Munich and joined me both years for Oktoberfest. We always had a great time together. He and I have often traveled together when Terry just wanted to stay home. So far on our year of adventure, he has been working too much but found a few days in May in join us.
He flew in Sunday night to Santiago so I agreed to meet him in town and then show him how to get out to Valpo the next morning. I was back in the capital by noon on Sunday and really enjoyed exploring the city on my own. I enjoy my time with my family but also value “me time”. It was great to go to a museum without worrying about anyone else!
Tom arrived excited and raring to go. So after a quick shower and a welcome glass of wine, we headed to Azul Profundo in Bellavista for a great seafood dinner. We had so much to catch up on and the evening was accentuated with amazing ceviche and other seafood. Our plan was to seek out a gay bar but his jetlag, full bellies, a Pisco Sour and a bottle of wine told us to go back to the hotel. We are definitely getting older!
The next morning I gave him the Lonely Planet walking tour of central Santiago that Terry, Corbin and I took just a week before. We finished by 11:00 am and decided to have an early lunch at the Mercado Central before heading out to Valpo. We chose a little stall that was brimming with locals even at this early hour. The people were not wrong and we ate very well.
After a quiet journey out to Valpo, we arrived back at our flat and Tom got settled in his tiny room. He brought Corbin some chocolate and Terry and me a lovely bottle of Vodka! How well he knows us!
We managed to walk around Valpo that afternoon and have our “late lunch” at Viviana seafood. Neither of our two lunches were a full lunch so it was all right to have two. The sun was out all afternoon so we took some great photos of the colorful houses.
Viña del Mar, Chile
The next day we packed up all our stuff and moved into our flat in Viña del Mar. Located across the street from the beach our view was good but partially blocked by an apartment building located directly on the beach. Luckily the sun hit the water at the end of the day perfectly so the view was not blocked. I saw many beautiful sunsets during our time there. Unlike in Valpo, the sun sets over water, the way it is supposed to be!
A glimpse of sunset from our flat in Viña
Part of experiencing Chile is enjoying the national drink, Pisco Sour. Peruvians would argue that Pisco Sours actually come from Peru. Chileans say they created it. Who am I to say? I am just caught in the middle happy to drink one wherever I am. The problem was I wanted to learn how to make one from a local. I posted a request on the Valparaiso forum of CouchSurfing and immediately heard back from an American guy who told us that his Chilean boyfriend was an expert! Perfect! Unfortunately they were not available until Saturday. We were hoping to have our Pisco Sour class while Tom was still visiting.
In the meanwhile Terry, our family’s bartender, began his exhaustive internet research on Pisco Sours and decided to practice on Tom and me before meeting Peter and Seba on Saturday.
I would call a Pisco Sour the love child of a Gin Ramos Fiz and a magarita. Pisco is a brandy made from grapes. You mix it with lots of lime juice and some egg whites and you have the perfect aperitif. Tom and I were perfectly happy with Terry’s gringo version of the drink.
For dinner our first night in Viña, Tom and I went out and got five different varieties of empanadas. Many involved seafood and they all disappeared. Served with a green salad, we were happy campers. Most of the empanadas in Chile seem to be the deep-fat fried version. They are heavier than their baked counterpart but equally delicious.
Terry and Tom decided to head out to the famous casino that night while I stayed home with Corbin. They had a drink there and gave their slot machines part of our retirement (about $20). Then they started in on a pub crawl around the area. I was amazed that they managed to stay out until 3:00 am.
The next day we did not get up too early. Our goal was to have lunch and then see if we could go wine tasting. We finally made it out of the house at 1:30 pm and ate at the Viña institution, Samoiea. They offer a multicourse business lunch for $12 including a welcome Pisco Sour and wine. It was very good and we loved that we were the only tourists in the place. I just do not understand having a Pisco Sour and wine with lunch and then going back to work for the rest of the afternoon. My productivity level would be much lower!
The tourist office gave us a list of wineries. Unfortunately all require a reservation for tasting so it did not look like it would be happening that day. Also she could not book us a car instead just handed us a list of local agencies. Not exactly super helpful but at least we were pointed in the right direction.
Viña does not have loads of tourist sites but one is the Castle Wulff. A crazy German who bought a house on the coast decided that it needed to be a medieval castle. This happened about the same time Crazy King Ludwig was building his medieval castles in Bavaria. What were they feeding those German kids back then?
As you tour around Viña del Mar, the average tourist is surprised to see a medieval castle on the coast in town. The first response is “Why is that there?” In the foothills of the German Alps, a castle does not look entirely out of place. But the Chilean coast? Kind of weird.
The place is now a cultural central with art exhibits and concerts. My favorite part of the building is a see-through floor where you can see the sea hitting the rocks underneath.
Once we got back home, we did our research on renting a car and decided on visiting two vineyards, Casas del Bosque and Emiliano. We made our reservations including lunch at the first. It was shaping up to be a nice day.
That evening Tom and I decided we would venture out and explore Valparaiso’s largest gay club, The Pagano Club. Tom could not come all the way to South America without going to at least one gay bar. Like much of South America, NOTHING happens until after midnight even on a weekday.
We picked a nice restaurant in Valpo out of Lonely Planet, Pasta e Vino. It got a nice review and TripAdvisor really liked it. I had booked a table but the place was only 60% full when we arrived. To my dismay, it seemed to be full of mostly American tourists, never a good sign. Luckily the food was stunning. We started the meal with a Pisco Sour. Our sample set was still too small for us to have much of an opinion. The only solution to this problem was to order Pisco Sours as often as possible. The highlights of the meal were my scallop ravioli and Tom’s squid ink pasta with shellfish. The starters with good by both our mains were outstanding. We also drank a lovely Chilean white from a winery about 30 miles away.
We made it to The Pagano Club at 11:45 pm. At that early hour, we shared the huge place with about fifteen other people. Of course we needed a drink. We went up to the bar and asked for two beers. I tend to order bottles of beer in countries where I don’t feel too comfortable. Beer tends to be a safe bet. The bartender said we need to pay for them at the cashier booth to the side. We have encountered this several times in Chile. Pay first somewhere else and then pick up what you bought. It is not as bad as the USSR in the mid-eighties where you always stood in three lines for each transaction.
The cashier asked if we wanted draught or bottles. I thought bottles would be easier and possibly safer. She gave us to slips of paper and we returned to the bar. There the bartender said he does not have any bottles and we needed to go to the other bar. So we went into the other large room and asked the bartender there. He didn’t have any bottles either but said we needed to go upstairs! The only thing we could see was the cloak-check room. I went back to the cashier and asked what we were supposed to do. She confirmed that we needed to get our beer from the cloak-check room. Of course!
The cloak-check guy took our slips and grabbed two beers out of the nearby refrigerator. We figured out later that the reason we had to go to the cloak-check room was that is where the only refrigerator is located. Finally with beers in hand we gave the place a tour. During the process of buying a beer we had seen almost all of it. The tour was not long. Little by little the place began filling up and by 1:30 am, it was almost full. People were dancing and watching music videos on every wall. You’ve seen one gay club, you’ve seen them all. We chatted with a few locals but by 2:30 am, we were ready to head back home. The club was in Valpo and our flat was five kilometers away. We had asked some locals and they said many colectivos would drive us back for 3000 pesos. We found a line of them about a block away from the club and indeed it was easy to get back.
Tom and I woke up at a decent hour and were at the Alamo rental car agency by 10:30 am in spite of our late night. We had wine tasting in our future and time was a wasting. Renting a car in “developing” nations is often very different than in the US. We paid about $60 for the day for a crappy little old car. They funny was it was fairly scratched up. The agent wrote down over sixty pre-existing scratches and marks. The rental contract had so many marks on it that I could not imagine they would be able to notice if I made any new ones! Then they pulled the dirtiest trick I think a rental car company can pull. They gave me the car with an absolutely empty tank of gas and told me that I could return it empty. Ugh. It is impossible to return a car with an empty tank. Thus you end us donating gas to them. This should be illegal. I am sure that they siphon out the gas after each rental for their own use. I made it my goal to return the car on fumes.
We swung by the flat to pick up Terry and Corbin and soon we were all on our way to the Casablanca Valley. The day turned out to be the best wine tasting of our lives. And we’ve been wine tasting in California, South Africa, France, Spain and Australia.
Our first reservation was a tour and tasting at Casas del Bosque. Its tour and tasting had received high marks from several sources which made paying the $33 per person charge a little bit easier. Ouch! We could have paid only $25 but then we would not have tasted their premium wines. We had come all this way, we were going to taste their best.
The tour started with a fairly slick video of the history of wine worldwide and then in Chile. Someone must have found the video too long so it had been edited down so that the narrator NEVER paused. We all felt a bit exhausted at the end of the fifteen minutes. Luckily our tour and tasting guide proceeded with a much more sensible pace.
She walked us all around the winery giving us some great history and information on wine making. This winery began as “something fun to do” by the rich Chilean family that owns their version of Walmart. Think “Donald Trump wakes up one day and says ‘I want a winery.’” A story about a Chilean family with two hundred years of wine making would have been better. But at least they told the truth. The good news is this family hired some great, knowledgeable people and now produces amazing wines.
The tour ended in the beautiful tasting room where we watched the video. The Walmart-esque family hired a talented architect and interior designer because the main tasting building was beautiful, a wonderful showpiece for the winery.
Wine tasting at Casas del Bosque
Hands-down, the tasting at Casas del Bosque is the best tasting I have ever had. Primarily this was due to a long line of twelve red wine glasses that all contained various aromatics in the center of the table: mango, strawberries, lemon leaves, rosemary, stones, coffee beans, peppers, cinnamon sticks, vanilla… Before each tasting, our guide would pull some aromatics for us to smell and then we would taste the wine. It was amazing. Then we began to choose the aromatics after blindly tasting a wine. We pieced the flavors and smells together to match the wine. Corbin even could play along based on the smell. The aromatics enhanced the tasting so much and I will never forget the experience. In the end, Terry, Tom and I all picked a private selection they make as our favorite. Of course, it was their most expensive wine at $65 a bottle. I always knew that we had good taste. We tasted many wines and all the pours were very generous. Luckily I had booked us into their restaurant, Tanino, so we did not have far to go for lunch!
For our starters, we shared two orders of a tasting menu featuring four delicious items each with its own wine pairing. As the designated driver for the day, I started to slow down a bit on the wine so I would not be discovering the Chilean penal system. We all loved the flavors presented and it was a great culinary experience. After our mains and dessert, we could barely move. Did I mention that this was a school day for Corbin?
The signage for arriving at the next winery was non-existent. We ended up pulling a slightly-illegal u-turn on the freeway and ended up in the right place. We chose Emiliano because they have organic wines and we wanted Corbin to learn their process. In addition to the organic certification, they also employ biodynamic principles.
You are probably asking yourself right now “What the hell are biodynamics? And how does it affect wine production?” The bottom line is that the winery uses the lunar cycle to dictate production decisions. Growing chamomile and then drying it in a bladder made of a pig’s stomach to create a fertilizer that helps “calm” the vines is another biodynamic principle. Our tour guide was very good at explaining all the organic and biodynamic processes they use and why they use them. In end I fully understood all the organic ideas. They make sense. Unfortunately the scientist in me does not quite buy all the touchy-feely, moon position, making the vines feel good, biodynamic stuff. I do not want angry vines producing the grapes that will turn into my wine. Who does? But I kind of need to see some empirical data supporting these ideas. Do their vines produce more grapes? Is the wine of a higher quality? Do the vines seem happier? Our guide could not answer these questions.
During the tasting, my pallet was not convinced. The wines were only mediocre. I did enjoy their locally produced olive oil and purchase a bottle for us to enjoy the rest of the month.
The whole day was a wonderful experience. We all learned so much, including Corbin. We ate well. We drank well. I would definitely encourage any visitor to Chile to spend a day wine tasting.
Unfortunately Tom had to leave us at that point so we put him on a bus back to Santiago where he caught a flight back to California that night. His visit was short but we had a great time together like always.
We had missed some school that week so we had to make up some hours on Saturday. We love having the flexibility to move school around a bit this year. Next year class hours are going to be fixed. Corbin knew he had gotten a good deal that week! Also the promise of seeing the newest Pirates of the Caribbean movie that afternoon helped make it easier. I pulled the short straw and ended up being the dad who got to experience Pirates Part Four or whatever we are up to. I was hoping that the fact that I had not seen the last two would have excused me from seeing this one but no dice. My review of the film is “PERFECT if you are twelve and on a long-haul flight.”
That evening we were invited to Peter and Seba’s flat to learn how to make Pisco Sours and have dinner. I brought the drink makings plus a lovely pasta sauce, garlic bread and salad. Peter made some fresh noodles along with a key lime pie. It was a lovely collaboration. Peter mentioned that they had two American CouchSurfers that would be joining us to complete our merry band.
We took a microbus from Viña over to Bellavista in Valpo. We were beginning to use the transport like locals. It was a bit of a climb up the hill to their place but I kept my family moving by promising it was “just near”. They lost faith after a bit.
Peter and Seba were lovely. Both around twenty-five, they had been together for 18 months. Peter was American and was working in the local hostel. Seba is a university student nearby. Their place was tiny which made the experience even more cozy. The two CouchSurfers were both seniors at UC Berkeley, our future home!
Seba immediately began making Pisco Sours for us. He started with the basic model and then ventured into flavors including ginger and mango. Terry followed along and tried his best to pay attention while suffering the effects of the pisco.
The food was fantastic and we had a great time getting to know each other. Seba was especially interested in the story of how we adopted Corbin. He would love to be a father one day. He is out to his whole family and he and Peter often have dinner at his parent’s house. It was a great evening and we looked forward to seeing them again.
Dinner at Peter and Seba’s house
Corbin had seen some signs for a Chuck E. Cheese when we saw the Pirates movie at the mall. In the States I am allergic to Chuck E. Cheese for MANY reasons. As our dear friend Barbara always says, the kids would be better off throwing quarters into the toilet. Since we are far from the US, I think he has earned a couple of hours there. Luckily it was not as frenetic as the Burbank restaurant so I parked myself at a table and wrote while he played his games. I was hoping that he would meet some other kids but it was not their busiest day. He had a great time though and we spent three hours letting him be a kid.
Normally I am not a big germ-o-phobe but after being at an arcade like that, I feel like scrubbing Corbin with bleach. He convinced me that I did not need to give him a “Silkwood” style shower. I did tell him to use extra soap back during his shower that night.
We are starting to get into “end of trip” mode. This means that we do not rush out after school to do the next tourist attraction on the list. Terry and I are taking turns in the afternoon going off on our own. We both mostly write in cafes. All the employees know me by name at the Starbucks. Since I’ve been in South America, I always give my name as “Gustavo”. It much easier for them to write than “Carl”. And I do not have to spell it each time. So all the Starbucks employees know me as Gustavo from Spain. When I say my name is Gustavo, all the South Americans can instantly hear my accent is from Spain. They all launch into their Spanish impressions “Tío, hombre. Que ha-thes. Joder…” They think they are the only one who knows how the Spaniards speak. It happens in every store, every taxi, everywhere. If I try to explain that I was born in California, it only makes it worse. So often I just leave it at I’m Gustavo from Madrid, Spain. It is just the story that makes the most sense.
I originally found out about our place in Valpo from a very nice CouchSurfer, Cynthia. She gave me lots of good advice and got me pointed in the right direction. Now that we were settled in Viña, I decided to have her over for dinner as a thank-you. She turned out to be this bubbly Chilena that works in tourism. Her English was excellent and we all enjoyed getting to know her. I made a lovely red pepper bisque as a starter followed by American Sloppy Joes as our main. It was a great evening together. The next weekend she invited us to her place but we already had plans.
One thing that surprised us about Chile was Corbin was not allowed in most cafes because they smoke indoors. Smoking is not allowed in restaurants but only in bars and cafes. Around South America their version of Starbucks is Havanna. It is very similar to its American counterpart but you can smoke in Havanna. Because of this they restrict minors from entering. It is like they were forcing us to go to Starbucks all the time for a cup of coffee.
In the midst of our wonderful year, reality tends to strike once in a while. This month’s dose of reality was refinancing our house in Los Angeles. We had a great 30-year fixed loan that I refinanced about five years ago. My lender now offered to reduce my mortgage payment $350 a month for no fees or points. That is a decent amount of money so we decided to do it.
I knew from the start that it would not be easy. I sold a house once when I was in South Africa and it involved a couple of trips to FedEx and the consulate. Here in Chile once we received the FedEx package of 126 pages of loan docs, we made an appointment at the consulate with the notary. Unfortunately the first appointment was not for a week. Ugh. If we did not get this loan closed on time, we would lose the rate. We spent Friday that week taking the bus back to Santiago, the metro to the center and a fifteen minute walk to the Embassy. We left our house at 6:00 am and finally walked through the door of the Embassy at 9:30 am. Once inside it was a mad house but thankfully we could walk right up to a window for Consular services. The notary was very sweet and we made it through the seven documents that needed our signatures. The fee for the service was a whopping $350. Ouch!
After we left there, they told us where we could get all the documents scanned. They needed a PDF of the signed documents to get the loan closing process started. Luckily the place had a document feeder so we did not have to scan each page individually. Finally we found a FedEx office and got the documents back on their way to the US. Since it was Friday, we were worried about getting seats on the bus back to the coast so we did not have lunch in town. Instead we grabbed some sandwiches and ate them on the run as we hurried to get back. Around 3:00 pm we got back to our flat thoroughly exhausted. We felt like we had been on the Amazing Race.
Peter and Seba were joining us for dinner Saturday night. I was very excited to create a meal of all local products. This meant starting our day with a visit to the semi-weekly outdoor market located in the dry river bed near the bus terminal. It was a large market with so many options. My goal was to have a main course of “surf and turf”. The first thing we saw in the market was beautiful, fresh crab. I purchased one and a half pounds of picked crab for about $15. I am normally a crab snob because I was raised on the best crab in the world, Dungeness crab. This crab was a good alternative. I was not sure how to cook it and Corbin suggested crab cakes. PERFECT! I had not crab cakes in a long while. We bought many veggies to fill our fridge: red peppers, onions, salad, cauliflower, green onions, grapes, lemons, apples, pomegranates, clementines , apples… This was the best farmers market I had ever been to.
The Saturday market in Viña del Mar
Terry offered to make another Haley favorite, au gratin potatoes to go with the beautiful filet mignon and our main course was complete. I so enjoyed the red pepper bisque from the dinner with Cynthia, I decided to replicate that starter.
We spent the afternoon cooking and catching up with friends on Skype. Corbin spent over an hour with friends in Germany. We all felt great after talking to our loved ones.
Once Peter and Seba arrived, Terry and Seba whipped up a nice batch of ginger Pisco Sours. Terry was a good student and had learned to make them well. They loved the soup but raved about the surf and turf. The filet was perfectly cooked and I could not fault anything I did. We really enjoyed our evening that continued late into the night. By the time they left, I counted four empty wine bottles! And that was on top of the Piscos!
Seba and Terry making drinks
Throughout our time in Viña, Corbin enjoyed going down to the beach and playing in the sand. In spite of the cool weather, nothing could dissuade him from getting some fresh sea air each day. We all really liked being at the beach.
Corbin digging a hole in Viña
Just before we left Viña, we found a house to rent in North Berkeley! My dear friend Christine had just moved in with her boyfriend just a mile away. That meant her place was available. Corbin’s middle school would be only five blocks away! I have always loved Chris’s place and its location in the Gourmet Ghetto meant that we had lots of restaurants within walking distance.
Our final days in Chile were spent back exploring Santiago. We had only really had a day there after Easter Island so I felt like we needed to see more. It turned out to be a fun time for all of us.
One our first day we took the free walking tour that begins at the Plaza de Armas. Our guide was wonderful twenty-eight year old native from Santiago. Our group of fifteen were thoroughly entertained as we made our way through the historic streets. His tour was much better than the self-guided one we followed from the Lonely Planet guide. We finished up at one of Pablo Neruda’s houses. We were starving and decided to get lunch and come back the next day.
On the way home later, we stopped off for some amazing ice cream at Emporio La Rosa. Famous for their unique flavors, Corbin enjoyed a mango and green tea ice cream. I had rose flavored ice cream. Both were great!
The highlight of our three days was being invited to dinner at Rodrigo’s flat. I had met him through CouchSurfing and he was anxious to meet my family. Even I was shocked when he invited us for 10:30 pm on Friday night. Corbin normally goes to bed at 9:00 pm. It was going to be a challenge for him to stay awake for dinner. When in Rome…
Corbin was very happy when Rodrigo offered come chocolates as an appetizer! That woke him right up. Then for dinner, he cooked an amazing seafood pasta. I have eaten lots of seafood pastas in my life and this was one of the best. He made the whole meal in a very tiny kitchen. I’ll never complain about my kitchen again.
Delicious dinner at Rodrigo’s
On Saturday we all enjoyed touring the quirky house of Pablo Neruda. He had an eclectic style which felt cozy and warm. The house was actually a series of separate buildings around a central garden. My favorite was the summer bar. I love a separate place you go to have a drink and enjoy a view out above Santiago. We all need a summer bar.
That evening Rodrigo had invited me to go out on the town with him and his friends. We met for drinks at his place first around 11:00 pm and did not get to our first bar until 12:30am. We were a merry band of around ten people, half men and half women. The common factor was that almost everyone was gay. Our first club was a lesbian dance place with great music. After a while we went to another club with a few more guys in it. At some point around 5:00 am, a group of us headed back to Rodrigo’s.
The Haleys had an early morning flight to Colombia and I had mentioned to everyone that I needed to be home by 6:00 am. Somehow a bottle of wine got opened back at Rodrigo’s. We all sat around his table chatting and laughing. I finally remembered to check the time and it was 6:15! We were supposed to leave at 6:30 am! After quick goodbyes, I was in the cab and home in a jiffy.
Terry was NOT AMUSED when I walked in at 6:25 am. He had packed everything and they were debating what to do. Should they go to the airport without me? Could we change our tickets? He wanted to call me but I had intentionally left my iPhone at home so I would not loose it. He forgot that Rodrigo’s number was in our Address Book on our Macs. He had not reached the panic level yet but was very close.
At this point I had not slept yet and had been drinking for much of the night. It wasn’t my proudest moment. Luckily Terry took charge and got us in a cab, to the airport and all checked in without much help from me. It is moments like that which remind us that a partnership is a good thing. In LAN’s lounge, I was happy to find the quiet room with recliners. I slept like baby until they called our flight. Then on board I used that beautiful 180 degree bed for its intended purpose.
Chile was so different than any of the previous countries. We moved around more here than any other. Easter Island was a great start. Then our days in Santiago in the beginning and the end of the month allowed us to make some good friends. Finally the three and a half weeks on the coast were a great way to enjoy Chile’s fresh products and make more friends.
I probably should not have gone out all night on our last night in the country but it was fun send off. Like in many countries before, Terry and I said that Chile would be an easy country to live in. Who knows if we will end up here. All of us are looking forward to the summer weather of coastal Colombia. It will be the first visit to the Caribbean for all us and a great change from the cold winter weather of Chile.
This month had been good to us. We started it jobless and homeless. As we said goodbye to Chile, we were gainfully employed and had a roof to call our own back in California. Life is good to us. Most of it has to be luck though. And some good Karma too.
Last edited by olafman; Jun 19, 11 at 7:10 am
Oct 15, 10, 4:13 am
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: SF Bay Area, California
Programs: AA2MM PLT, Hilton Gold, SPG Gold
June 2011: Cartagena, Colombia
I really am not sure how we ended up in Colombia. I remember sitting in front of my laptop playing around with the Oneworld round-the-world booking tool. The first eleven months were all planned and we needed a flight from Santiago. It had to be a Spanish speaking country so Terry and Corbin could continue to learn Spanish. I wanted it to be in South America since we were already down there. Central America is fairly easy for us to get to when living in California.
I had several conversations with our Venezuelan friend Dan who lived next door to us in Munich. My guess is that he convinced us to come here over many beers together. He said Cartagena was absolutely beautiful and would be a fun place to hang out for the last month of our year long adventure.
Using the RTW booking tool, I was able to see that LAN flew a 767 with their flat beds into Bogotá which would make our journey very comfortable. Leaving Bogotá at the end of the month, we could travel on American Airlines through Miami back to Los Angeles or fly back down to Santiago and then up to Los Angeles on LAN in their comfy seat/bed. The LAN option would give us 18,000 miles versus only around 8,600 on American. The frequent flyer geek in me easily chose LAN with more miles and a fully flat bed over anything American would offer me. I did ask my family if they minded flying a “few” extra miles with the advantage of getting a LAN bed and they went for it!
So on Sunday, June 5, we flew up to Colombia. The full trip report can be found here:
FLIGHT#37 LAN#570 Santiago, Chile – Bogota, Columbia 767 Biz with Pics
After we arrived in Bogotá, we took a one hour hop on the Panama based carrier Copa Airlines. They have begun to also serve the domestic market in Colombia. Here is the brief trip report on that leg:
FLIGHT#38 Copa Airlines #7478 Bogotá – Cartagena Economy with Pics
After spending a month in Chile where the season was late fall/early winter, we were really looking forward to the summer warmth of the Caribbean in Cartagena. For almost our entire trip, we had done a fairly good job of following summer around the globe. April in Argentina was our first month where we could actually wear pants if we wanted to. May in Chile forced us to leave our shorts in the suitcase. The coast was even colder than Santiago.
The humid warmth of Cartagena hit us immediately. The last bits of daylight were leaving as we drove in the taxi to our flat in Bocagrande. We drove past the Old City with its large, protective walls. The historic buildings were lit up and I felt like we were at Epcot Center at Disneyworld. It looked too picturesque to be real.
Quiet, beautiful streets of Cartagena
In the old town of Cartagena
After the Old City we saw the white skyscrapers of Bocagrande. As we had been told, it looked a lot like Miami, Florida with its tall white apartment buildings. We spent much of the last month in the Miami of Chile, Viña del Mar. Now we were in Colombia’s version. The funny thing is that Terry and Corbin have never been to Miami. I am sure once Corbin finally visits Miami he is going to say that neither place is like Miami. Life is like that.
The porter at our building, Mar Adentro, gave us our keys and soon we were opening the door to our amazing place. The dining room and living room both directly faced the beach. This was “ocean front” at its best. Both rooms also opened up to large balconies where we loved to hang out. The ocean breezes cooled us even on the hottest days.
In addition to the wonderful living spaces, the place had three huge bedrooms and four bathrooms. It was a palace. I was especially happy with the American-sized kitchen including a huge Whirlpool refrigerator/freezer. Mama had done good. Our last month was going to be very comfortable for us.
We had missed the sunset that night but I looked forward to sipping a cold beer while watching the sun hit the water every night. When I booked the place I made sure you could see the sunset into the water. This was important to me. The owner said the view was spectacular from the apartment and he was not wrong. The next evening we saw an artist’s pallet of colors. I have always said that Cape Town has the most amazing sunsets. Cartagena seems to be giving Cape Town a run for its money.
English class at our flat in Cartagena
On our first evening, we were quite hungry by the time we arrived at our new home. We could see many restaurants on the next street over. A local fish place got our business and soon we all had full stomachs and were content. Fried plantains and arroz con coco (coconut rice) are the staples served at most restaurants. I do not like sweet things much and luckily the arroz con coco had a strong coconut flavor without being sweet. It went well with our fish and chicken main dishes.
Throughout our year, we told Corbin he had seven days off he could chose to use whenever he wanted. Even with these days off, Corbin would be completing 177 schools days with us which is the California schools requirement. Corbin does not get the option of taking time off from the family like Terry and I do. This was my way of offering him some control. The next morning after our arrival, Corbin decided to use up his last remaining day off.
Terry and I were both relieved at his decision. A day off from school for him meant his teachers also got a day off. Score! We used the day to unpack and play at the beach.
All along the beautiful, sandy beaches, little cabanas are erected each morning. For only 8,000 pesos ($4.50), we could get shelter from the sun and two plastic chairs for the day. Then as we sat there, the world came by to sell us cold drinks, shaved ice, ceviche, cut up mango, coconut sweets, jewelry, day tours and massages. The latter was the most annoying. The women would come up behind us and just start massaging our shoulders. I would politely say no but they would continue. This would turn into me asking them to stop touching me. Speaking Spanish the entire time, there was no communication difficulty here. They were aggressive. In the end they would start to yell at me as they walked away. One of them even slapped one of my friends on the shoulder when he asked her to stop! We were shocked how forceful she was.
The best part of the beach was the water. It was wonderfully warm and we enjoyed playing in the waves. At times they were just big enough to do some body surfing but nothing as big as in Hawaii or California. The beach was also very gradual so I never worried about Corbin swimming. He could always touch the bottom. We are scheduled to go to the beach over the 4th of July weekend in LA. I warned Corbin that the water was much colder and dropped off much faster there.
We went down to the beach for five days straight before the vendors drove us crazy. Corbin loved to play in the water and in the sand. Terry and I took turns watching him and reading under the shade of the cabana. Every thirty seconds someone came by wanting to sell us something. They were relentless. After the first week, people bother me less if I wear sunglasses and headphones while I read. I pretend not to hear them and then end up leaving much sooner.
Even when you are swimming in the ocean, guys approach you asking if you want to rent a jet ski or boogie board. Also they try to sell a raft ride behind a motorboat. All of these things really appealed to the eleven year old boy at my side. I managed to postpone the inevitable raft ride for a couple of days. We have great memories of rafting with our friends in Lake Tahoe. Paying $15 for ten minutes of fun in the Caribbean just could not match up.
We had no problem finding a guy with a raft. I figured out the guy with the raft is not connected to the guy with the motorboat. The boat guy is a subcontractor of the raft guy. The boat driver has learned that most clients love to be flung off the raft a couple of times during the ten minutes of fun. Corbin got thrown so hard that his lifejacket literally fell apart. The whole thing was a bit forceful for me but Corbin loved it. He could not have been happier.
Out wild raft ride
On another day, Corbin really wanted to rent a boogie board. A guy came with a boogie board and tried to get our business as we were way out swimming in the ocean. He started at 20,000 pesos for 30 minutes with the board. I was shocked it was so high. I simply said no. As with any negotiation, if the opening price is too high, the interested party might just walk away at that point. I swam away. Soon he caught up to us and the price was at 15,000 pesos. I told him that he started way too high and I was done negotiating. Quickly 10,000 pesos was offered. Corbin’s eyebrows went up at this point. In the process of negotiation, an eager young boy by your side is a liability. I told him that we were not going to do business with this guy. I wasn’t feeling it. Then the guy threw out an offer of 10,000 for an entire hour as a last ditch effort. I said “no” but knew where to start with the next guy.
Ten minutes later, the next boogie board renter came by and I offered 5,000 for thirty minutes. At first he said no but when he saw I was not budging, he agreed. Corbin played for about twenty minutes before the rash on his chest was too painful. I played for five minutes but then was finished too. We both got out of the water but the guy was no where to be seen. I simply put the board leaning against the cabana and started to read. After a half hour, he finally came by to get the board. He said I owed him 10,000 pesos since I used it for an hour. He said he’s been watching us from the side. I corrected him saying that we used it for 25 minutes and then we got out of the water.
Unfortunately, I only had a 10,000 bill to pay with. He wanted to take it to get change. My worry was I would never see him again so I asked for the board as collateral. He didn’t like this but understood. Thirty minutes later someone else brought the change and took the board.
I am not totally comfortable with this whole process of bartering. I take it very personally. It does not seem fair. The price should be the price. All over the world we have bartered. It finally is getting to me here. I’m tired of bartering. Plus it seems to be worse here since they are so aggressive. I lived for two years in Malawi and bartered almost every day. Here in Colombia I was struggling with it all. I fully understand that these people are just trying to feed their families. They are using a system that is part of their culture.
Back in Malawi, I used to joke around with the cashiers at the supermarkets. After they had rung up all my groceries, they would tell me the total in English. I would always respond in Chichewa with the phrases that you would use if you were negotiating at the open air market. “You have made the price very expensive. Come down a bit please. I don’t want the European price. I want the Malawian price.” They would always giggle and just wait for me to pay them. At least I got a giggle out of them!
June in Cartagena means that it is always hot. The temperature hangs out around ninety degrees Fahrenheit and I heard the humidity is 96%. It’s hot and it feels REALLY hot. Being on the coast helps because the breezes come in off the sea. Within the walls of the Old City, I instantly melt. Few places have air conditioning. I have decided that it is perfectly acceptable to have sweat pit stains that meet in the middle of my chest. It’s not a look that I usually go for but IT’S HOT!
With Chile being so cold, I did not do much exercise. This paired with the plentiful Chilean red wine and my midriff had taken a bit of a hit. It was time to get back to the gym. After seeing myself in a bathing suit on the beach, I found my motivation. Luckily I got several recommendations via the CouchSurfing website. The closest was a brand new gym about four blocks from our flat. At $7 a day, it seemed expensive compared to other local prices but worth it. I was really sore the first few days. My body let me know that it did not appreciate the multi-monthed hiatus I had given it. I look forward to a more disciplined life back in California where I hit the gym either every morning or every afternoon.
We found the Olympica supermarket about three blocks from our house. They stocked all the basics plus some imported foods like salsa and peanut butter. I was perfectly satisfied until I saw the Carulla supermarket a block further away. The produce was gorgeous. They mostly carried imported products both from Europe and the States. I was in heaven. The problem is that the prices were understandably high. Even the seafood was beautiful. I bought some lovely baby squid and made a delicious dinner one night.
The hardest part of our travels is cooking with a limited kitchen. My original thought was to dedicate one checked bag to kitchen items: a frying pan, sharp knives, fish sauce and spices. Unfortunately just did not have the room in our six bags. Now that we are down to three bags we REALLY do not have the room. Soon enough I will be setting up our kitchen in Berkeley and I will have all my tools at hand.
Arriving in a new city means we get to explore new restaurants. We have done very well all around the world with the recommendations from Lonely Planet. One restaurant stood out in the listings that I really wanted to try: La Mulata. After school one day, we took a nice cool taxi to this popular eatery in the Old City. It was buzzing with locals as we walked in. This is always a good sign. A very busy waiter told me that the wait should be around ten minutes. Perfect! What I did not understand at that point was we were just supposed to take the next available table. We figured out the system after watching several other groups who arrived after us just grab tables from leaving parties.
Once seated we all chose our meals from a simple menu that changes daily. Terry chose beef and Corbin and I both had shrimp. The first course was a fantastic lentil soup made with a flavorful beef broth. The mains were also wonderful leaving little room for the fruit tart for dessert. Our bill was less than $10 a person and we had eaten so well. This place receives my highest recommendation.
The Old City has many great restaurants and tourist sights. Often after school, we’d take a cab over there for lunch with some tourist activity afterwards. Once thing I could not get over was all the churches there wanted a $7.50 entrance fee to look around. I’m not Christian but I do enjoy a nice stroll through a church as we visit different cities for their historic value. There is no way I’m going to pay over $20 for my family per visit per church. We had nice tours from the outside.
We did enjoy our visits to the Museum of gold and the Naval museum. At the gold museum we saw many interesting artifacts from ancient cultures. Corbin loved the cone shaped device that was used to cover the “man bits”. They even had one for kids. A guide inside the museum was very aggressive to make us take his tour. Even after I said no, he started talking to Corbin. Instantly the tour began and he never paused so I could cut him off. I finally just interrupted him saying that we had to leave. Half of the museum was inside a vault which really impressed Corbin. I on the other hand was very impressed by the wonderful air conditioning there.
The Naval museum was a big hit with Corbin. His favorite part was being able to hold various weapons. Of course the son of a pacifist is obsessed with guns. He couldn’t believe that they let him hold them in his hands. I often try to talk to him about the non-glamorous side of guns: the killing. At one point he told me that he would like to join the army if he never had to kill anyone. I guess I should be happy about this. We’re half way there.
Walking the streets of Cartagena on a hot day, we love coming across lemonade vendors. For $0.60 you get an ice-cold glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade. It is truly one of the best things about Colombia. Others also sell a slushy version of it but they are not as common.
Buying lemonade on a hot Caribbean day
We have two favorite restaurants here that are not typical Colombian: the Hard Rock Café and Crepes and Waffles. We don’t do McDonalds so you have to give me to leeway here. Back while living in Los Angeles, we learned that the Hard Rock Café actually serves good food. It’s no TGIFridays. When traveling the world, a dose of fajitas can go a long way to help you get through the unfamiliarity of foreign travel. Corbin’s medicine is spicy chicken wings. These are flavors from home that make us and our stomachs happy. The HRC (Hard Rock Café to straight people and Human Rights Campaign to the gays) has a cheap lunch menu where we can get out of there for $8 a person including drinks. Bargain!
Crepes and Waffles is another beautifully air conditioned restaurant with excellent food. Corbin loves that the ice cream menu is actually a book with photos of each selection. Like the HRC, the quality is really good and we’ve been back several times. You cannot eat fried plantains all the time!
I do most of the cooking and Terry does not offer very often. Some mornings I’ll announce that he is in charge of dinner. Mama is taking the night off. This happened one day after we arrived. Terry found a recipe and went shopping. Just before it was ready, I popped my head into the kitchen to ask what we were having. He replied, “Mango chicken”. Delicious!
Then I asked the fateful question. “What else?”
“Nothing else. That’s it.” Really? No rice? No veggies? No salad? Just mango chicken? He added, “You can make a salad if you want.”
The last thing I want to do on one of the rare times I’m not making dinner to make a salad. Like I said before, Mama is taking the night off. I threw out “Can you least make some rice to go with it?”
It turned out very nice but that is all we got, some chicken with mango sauce over my added rice. I cannot say that I was thrilled with the whole thing but it is a start. The problem is that Terry does NOT like salad and cannot really be bothered with making a vegetable. What are we teaching our son?
The next morning we were chatting about the day and he volunteered to make dinner again tonight! I asked if he would be making an entire, balanced meal or just the parts he liked. This did not go down very well. He declared that he thinks that we only need to eat vegetables four times a week. WHAT?!?! It was not a great moment of our relationship and I ended up making dinner.
I met up with some local CouchSurfers to experience one of the gay clubs, Studio 54. We met for a pre-club beer and then headed over together. When we got there the crowd was thin still. The funniest part was the electricity went off twice while we were there. Dance clubs are not much fun without any lights and no music. After a bit I turned on some Paulina Rubio hits on my iPhone which helped fill the air. The worst part of no electricity was it meant no air conditioning.
I met a French traveler via the CouchSurfing Cartagena forum and we invited her over for dinner one warm evening. She turned out to be delightful and had even stayed with Peter and Seba, our CouchSurfing friends in Valparaiso. She was traveling on her own for a year and I enjoyed hearing her stories.
Three-quarters of my heritage is northern European. Because of this I have fair skin that is not fond of the sun. As a teenager I loved shellacking on the baby oil and bronzing my skin. Later in my thirties I saw the permanent effects of sun on my skin and began to stay out of the sun as much as possible. Now in my forties, pretty little brown spots have started to appear on my body. Neat-o. My outside wear has resorted to essentially a big, floppy hat and a mumu.
Our month in Cartagena involved daily beach time. I always rented a canopied shelter for $5 a day to help get out of the sun. In addition, I covered my body with sunscreen and even worn a long sleeved swim shirt. I still got burnt! The sun was strong there an in the end my best protection was to limit my exposure during the strongest part of the day.
Creative sand art
As the month went on, it seemed to be getting hotter. Several evenings, we were forced to eat on our balcony because the living/dining rooms were just too hot. If the evening breezes failed to come, the sweat would pour off of us. Only our bedrooms were air-conditioned which worked most of the time.
With just a few weeks left of our adventure, we all started to think a lot about our new lives back in California. We had jobs. We had a place to live. We had a school lined up for Corbin. Our brand new lives were just waiting for us as soon as we got home.
The effect of this was we all started to get restless and anxious. We really wanted to enjoy Colombia but our brains were constantly fast-forwarding to California. I’m actually surprised that it didn’t happen earlier in the trip.
Back in Germany and also before in California, our family has always enjoyed going out to breakfast on the weekends. So on our second Saturday morning, we at the nearby Isabella’s Coffee. I had smoked salmon eggs benedict while Terry and Corbin enjoyed some pancakes. It was a great way to start a weekend.
The next morning our friend Jay arrived from Seattle. He and also Terry’s mom win the award for Most Times Visited. They each visited us twice on our year of adventure: Jay in Vietnam and Colombia and Terry’s mom in Scotland and New Zealand. In addition they both also came to Germany. We were so happy to have them a part of our great adventure.
We decided to head into the old town for lunch to celebrate his arrival. I was not prepared that most of the restaurants were closed since it was Sunday. We finally ended up in a VERY hot restaurant that served up some delicious local fare. After lunch we tried walking around a bit but the heat drove us back home and out to the beach.
That evening we celebrated the 12th anniversary of CouchSurfing.org at a big dinner at Crepes & Waffles just down the street from our place in Bocagrande. We ended up being about sixteen CSers and we had a great time meeting everyone. Several had been on an organized bike ride just prior which surprised me because of the heat and humidity. Corbin was a big hit and all the local woman loved all over him!
CouchSurfing 12th Anniversary Dinner
In the final weeks of our fifth grade school year, Corbin finished up the PowerPoint presentation that he prepared for he class visit in New Zealand. He finished up all the slides from the remaining countries to complete the project. The final step was to make a video showing the slides and narrating each one. The result was a 45 minute video that he posted on YouTube as his culminating project. I am so proud of all his work and it is truly amazing what he has been able to experience. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jc-Omf0_rHk
With Jay’s arrival we had a renewed tourist spirit to go tackle the more popular tourist adventures in Cartagena. One of the first was a Chiva Bus Tour. For $8 each we got picked up in a multi-colored windowless bus full of Spanish speakers. It had not occurred to me that it would only be in Spanish. Poor Corbin and Terry just didn’t have enough Spanish to understand ANYTHING!! I translated some of the things but Corbin was having trouble connecting to the experience.
Corbin did perk up when we visited the old Spanish Fort, Over 250,000 slaves died constructing this huge fortress on the hill. Cartagena was an important entrance port to the Americas from Europe and Cartagena had the fortification to prove it.
Visiting Cartagena’s Spanish Fort with Jay
One of the culinary highlights of our month in Cartagena was our visit to the famous La Cevicheria. Not only has it achieve fame by receiving a glowing review in Lonely Planet. It also was featured on the TV travel food show “Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservation”. We worried that the modest restaurant might not be able to live up to all the hype but were willing to give it a try.
La Cevicheria – the best in town
Our gamble paid off with by far, the best ceviche I had ever eaten. We ordered two varieties served in large bowls and we ate up every morsel. I am fully aware that ceviche (raw fish) is a marginally risky food. The old myth that the lime “cooks” the food is mostly false. I read several articles while down in Chile and decided that it should not be eaten often. So I hate to admit that we returned to La Cevicheria for one of our final meals. Great is great.
On another day we tried La Cevicheria Donde Wippy. In spite of the bizarre name, it too offered some delicious food but at a higher price than its competitor. I put reviews of both places on TripAdvisor with my opinions. A few days later, I received an email from the owner Donde Wippy arguing some of the things I said. This is the first time that this has ever happened to me.
One of the highlights of our month in Cartagena was our visit to the mud volcano, El Volcán Tutumo. The French woman we met through CouchSurfing raved about the experience. So we paid our 50,000 pesos per person and booked for the next day. I had read in Lonely Planet that was possible to take public transport to reach the volcano but with the heat, we decided to go with the tour in a nice air-conditioned minibus. It was a good choice and made the day much simpler.
After about an hour, we arrived at this small volcano that rose about 25m off the horizon. We all stripped down to our bathing suits and climbed the stairs to reach the top. Indeed, the top was a circle about 5m in diameter fully of thick, bubbling mud. Our guide had warned us that the volcano has a depth of around 2000m! Our bodies were so buoyant in the mud that it was almost impossible to push our bodies in past our shoulders. Some people submerged their entire head into the mud but I made do with just painting mud on my hair and face carefully avoiding my nose, ears and mouth. I’m not a big germ-o-phobe but this looked like a lovely bacteria breeding ground.
My two boys, Jay and I had a wonderful time playing in the mud. It was a very intimate experience that we shared with twenty of our closest, new friends that we just met on the bus. We giggled and laughed because the experience was so strange. Finally our time was up and it was time to emerge from the mud. I gave my camera to a local villager who happily too pictures of us throughout the experience for a predetermined fee. We carefully made our way down the volcano which was not too easy since our entire body was caked with mud.
Getting ready to get covered in mud at Vulcano Totumo
Volcanic mud fun
After a short walk we arrived at a lake where we slowly removed the mud. Yes, it was everywhere. EVERYWHERE. Several local woman were available for hire to aide in the mud removal process and give a short massage. We all chose to handle it ourselves in spite of their many offers.
Finally our bus load of tourists were clean again and we returned to the bus for a thirty minute ride to our beach restaurant. If Gilligan, The Skipper and the rest of the castaways ever moved to Cartagena, this is the type of restaurant they would open. It’s rustic charm lasted until a huge downpour hit and we had to play the game, Find A Place Under The Tarp Roof That Wasn’t Leaking. Needless to say that we lost that game. The other interested thing about the restaurant was that it seemed like they weren’t expecting us. After thirty minutes of no drinks or food offered, we asked if we could get beers. No problem. They said that the complementary beverages would be served with the meal. We didn’t want to wait that long.
The meal choice was fish or chicken like EVERYWHERE else in Colombia. All fried and served with a simple salad and coconut rice. The kitchen seemed to be able to produce about one meal every five minutes so we soon figured out we were not leaving any time soon. As I have mentioned before, Jay and I met in the Peace Corps in Malawi. We spent many hours together waiting so this was not new for us. Luckily like in Malawi, we had brought along our cards so we filled the time playing Bardu. Jay picked it up quickly and the four of us had a great time at our Gilligan’s Island Restaurant in the pouring rain.
As the temperature rose throughout the month, we discovered a lovely air-conditioned mall with a movie theater. Back in Germany when Corbin was 10, we took him to see The Hangover. Terry and I had both seen it and decided that Corbin would enjoy it. Sure, there were adult theme involving sexual situations and drug but nothing we could explain and discuss with him. Of course, he loved it. I think he knew that he was on the younger side of being able to watch it.
Throughout our travels this year, we have often seen posters advertising the release of The Hangover 2. The best part was that much of it was film in Bangkok and Krabi WHERE WE HAD JUST SPENT A MONTH. The three of us anxiously looked forward to seeing the sequel to a movie we had so enjoyed.
I should have read a review or two of the movie before we all ended up seeing it. We made it through the first one with just a couple of explanations so this one shouldn’t be that different, RIGHT?
Things were fine the first thirty minutes. Several questionable things happened but all good. Then we arrived at the part when Ed Helms finds out he was anally penetrated by a transsexual. I was wondering if Corbin really understood what he was talking about. I assumed no.
The rest of the movie constantly walked the thin line of being kind of appropriate for an eleven year old and not appropriate at all. I was relieved when we finally made it to the credits. Whew!
What I had forgotten at this point was that in the original Hangover, the credit sequence showed a series of pictures depicting what actually happened during their forgotten night. The sequel couldn’t pass up the opportunity to do the same. The moment I will never forget is when we see pictures of the transsexual’s penis and then see Ed Helms bent over being plowed by the tranny. Great moments in parenting.
Soon we said goodbye to Jay and we were left alone for our final week of Cartagena. We watched Corbin’s final version of his forty-five minute presentation. As I said he posted it on YouTube to share with all our family and friends. He’s created quite a group of followers this past year and I was amazed how many people invested the time and watched it.
Snorkeling on Rosario Island
I also put a thirteen minute slideshow together showing what the year was like from Corbin’s perspective. It really turned out well and it’s yet another view of our adventures. I’m glad I took the time now to make it because once we return, it’s going to be crazy.
We spent a lot of time together that week enjoying the final moments of this amazing opportunity. Over the year we had learned to enjoy hanging out together. Playing cards, watching US television shows, chatting about our future. We didn’t do much touristy stuff. We relaxed and enjoyed beach living.
Cartagena was a great last month for us but by far it was the hardest because our brains were constantly thinking about our new lives in California. I wish that there was a direct San Francisco – Cartagena flight because I would easily choose it over Hawaii or Mexico for a one week family vacation in the future. Price is a key factor. It has great bang for buck. The people are all super friendly. The sellers on the beach can be annoying but like any good South American, I quickly learned how to get rid of them with the common dismissive hand gesture. There are very few places in the world where you can take a mud bath in a volcano!
We packed up our house for the last time and headed to the airport. The trip report of our flight down to Bogotá can be found here:
FLIGHT#39 Copa Airlines #7471 Cartagena - Bogotá Economy with Pics
After a nice flight we easily transferred to the Embassy Suites in North Bogotá. The hotel is located in a nice area surrounded by many good restaurants. I would definitely choose this location again! A couple of our friends had recommended that Bogotá was worth spending a couple of days when visiting Colombia.
The big gay pride parade coincidentally was being held on the afternoon of our arrival. We assumed it was in our honor. I had been communicating with some gay CouchSurfers in Bogotá who wanted to march together so we decided to join them.
We quickly dropped off our bags at the hotel and cabbed it over to the parade starting point. In countries who are just beginning to show their gay pride, the event is usually a march. From there they graduate to a parade. Then it turns into a parade and a festival. Big homo paradises like SF, NY and LA have multi-day pride events with dance tents. Bogotá was at the parade level.
Marching in the Bogotá Gay Pride Parade
The staging area for the parade was chaotic as expected but soon enough we found the CouchSurfing organizer. In all we were a group of seven who march in the parade representing CouchSurfing.com. We didn’t have a banner but marched in solidarity next to the organization “Families of 1,000 Colors”. It was a beautiful experience. I think out of the two thousand people marching in the parade, we were the only gay family. Because of this we stood out and were mini-celebrities. So many people came up to us to talk. It was a great experience for all three of us. I was even interviewed by the national newspaper. Colombia is ready for gay families. They are now where the US was in 1998. I felt privileged that we could represent gay families at the event. As I have shared several times throughout this narrative, tears are streaming down my face as I write this. It was an emotional moment in our trip. The warmth and brotherhood we experience that day will never be forgotten. I am so glad that Corbin was a part of our experience because he too will never forget what happened.
The nice thing about Embassy Suites is the big breakfast buffet in the morning and then the “all-you-can-drink” reception in the evening. That’s what I call it. They call it something less boozy like the “Manager’s Reception”. All I know is that the alcohol flows freely for two hours and I never saw any manager. A small selection of pupus is offered with the free drinks but it was not enough for a meal so we’d usually pick up something else.
One of the touristic highlights of Bogotá was the visit to the Museo Botero. Terry and I have always enjoyed his work. Corbin was a fan of his work starting at eight months old. Back when Terry was a TV writer, we would often pop over to Hawaii when he was on hiatus for some R&R. When Corbin was eight months old, we spent a week at the Grand Wailea on Maui. Their lobby garden area is decorated with nine huge bronze Botero sculptures. As dumb, young parents, we let Corbin crawl all over them. We got some amazing pictures of him with these beautiful works.
That trip was also the same trip where we forgot Corbin’s suitcase at home. We got to check-in and the agent asked “How many bags?” I replied, “Six.” She added, “Well, I only have five here.” Once I realized that Corbin’s bag wasn’t there. I turned to Terry and asked “Did you forgot to put Corbin’s bag in the car?” Terry rebuffed, “NO, did YOU?” Even a decade ago, we had our moments. Luckily there was a K-Mart next to the airport on Maui and Corbin got an entirely new wardrobe of Hawaiian outfits. We bought seven matching shirt-shorts outfits. He continued to wear them back in LA and everyone loved them. So all the Botero pictures with Corbin feature his Hawaiian theme line of clothes.
I’ve never forgotten Corbin’s suitcase ever since. Neither has Terry.
The Museo Botero was a wonderful collection of mostly his work with the addition of a couple of his contemporaries. I really like his artistic sense. We purchased a couple of posters at the end of our visit to adorn our new home.
Our final dinner of our year long adventure was spent at a great Japanese restaurant near our hotel. It was a chic, hip spot popular with the locals. It was Corbin’s choice. The three of us shared memories of the year. It’s hard to believe that it was a year since we all were sharing a meal together on the eve of our departure from Munich. We have experienced so much together this year. Our perspective of the world is forever changed. Most importantly our lives are forever touched by the many wonderful people we encountered along the way.
As I’ve written before, we decided to fly from Bogotá back down to Santiago, Chile on our way back home to California. It’s not the quickest way home but it’s how it worked out. Needless to say my tombstone will be inscribed with “I did it for the miles!” By flying Bogotá to Los Angeles via Santiago, Chile we earned 11,000 extra miles and flew the entire way in LAN’s Premium Business fully-flat seat.
The trip reports for both flights can be found here:
FLIGHT#40 LAN#570 Bogota, Columbia - Santiago, Chile 767 Biz with Pics
FLIGHT#41 LAN#600 Santiago, Chile – Los Angeles, California 767 Biz with Pics
Finally on June 30, 2011 at 6:45am, we arrived back on US soil. It was day 365 of our adventure. We made it home. We were healthy. We were well rested. And we were ready to begin the next chapter of our lives.
Day 365: We arrive back on US soil
I’m currently working on the final chapter of this chronicle reflecting a bit on the entire experience. But until that’s finished I’ll update that after being home four weeks, we flew to London for our dear friends’ wedding. Our round-the-world ticket finished there. I’ll post a short trip report on that flight also down the road. We spent a total of 40 hours in Europe but well worth the effort of traveling from the West Coast of the US.
Re-entry into the United States has been interesting. Luckily it has gone well and we are enjoying our new lives. We are working hard at our new school. Corbin is attending public school for the first time in his life. He’s in sixth grade at a middle school where all of the students came from different schools. He’s already made good friends. He’s playing his trumpet in the band. He’s made the transition from being homeschooled by his dads to middle school without big drama. Life is good for us.
We are constantly asked about our experience. It’s still hard for all three of us to process all that we experienced. That will take time. Never ever will we have that year together again. But it will always remain with us. The experience shaped our lives and will forever guide us as we move forward.
Last edited by olafman; Oct 6, 11 at 2:40 pm
Oct 15, 10, 4:18 am
Join Date: Nov 2000
Location: SF Bay Area, California
Programs: AA2MM PLT, Hilton Gold, SPG Gold
Last edited by olafman; Feb 23, 11 at 3:46 am