Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The (not-so) Endless Summer

Wow!  Seems I managed to live through an entire summer without a blog post.  In truth, as far as summers go, this one has been remarkable in it's unremarkableness.  Normally there's some fantastic voyage or a momentous life altering event to remark on.  Instead this summer was marked by only very good voyages and multiple small life altering events.  Also, I've noticed an historical trend of me complaining about a lot of things in blogs, so either I've ran out of new things to complain about (doubtful) or it's just not worth the effort. 

Dragon*Con 2013 at the Marriott Marquis
Since last I wrote, I've ventured to San Diego (which we all know is German for a"whale's vagina"), Minneapolis, Atlanta a few times for a few minutes, Sint Maarten, Boston, Indianapolis, and Seattle.  Pretty much a domestic summer with the one exception.  And all but the the aforementioned exception were mostly friend driven.  And it was a better summer because of it.  I'm not going to lie though, it was pretty freaking cool chilling on Maho Beach and be blasted by jet wash.

KLM B747-400 "The City of Atlanta" arriving at SXM shortly before the massive wake turbulence that almsot knocked me down
 However, it was still the summer of friendly fun.  Cali with Maggie, Minneapolis to see the always entertaining Chandra (with Angel accompaniment) and just relaxing with a campfire by the lake, then a quick trip to the ATL to make the rounds with the Lewii and TanJoe and celebrate the birth of Yinyer in true Sunday-Funday style (and also perhaps frightening the poor bartender).  Back to Boston for another Red Sox game with Jersey, this time in sweltering heat.  I can't win with the the weather there.  Up to Indianapolis for a day trip for Drum Corps Int'l finals, but mostly to see Shelley. Finally back around to ATL again for a long visit and indulgence in fantasy, this time crisscrossing the northern half of the state to spend time with friends and family, and made a couple new pals.  And finally closed the Summer season with an adventure to Seattle with Heidi and a visit with a pal (thanx for the city tour Anna). 

A brief synopsis of some of the travels:

Sint Maarten:  The aerosexuals "Mecca".  The legendary airport's runway is so close to the runway you feel like you can grab on the landing gear when the planes pass over you on final.  I think in the past perhaps some one might have.  Add Caribbean Island time mixed with some Dutch flavor and you have good idea of what fun can be had there.  Lots of beach time, lots of Corona, lots of rum drinks, and lots of girls in bikinis (or less, remember it is a Dutch posession).  And if you can handle the summer heat (which honestly isn't any worse than Louisville, and you have a sea breeze) there's good deals to be had in the summer off season.  I found a room that I was frankly weary of because it was so cheap, but turned out to be clean and more than I needed for a few days.  It wasn't the Ritz but it did the trick.
Air France A340... little blurry trying to catch on the fly by 

Boston:  In addition the fabulousness that is Jersey and the history that is baseball at Fenway, I had a chance to hang out at the Harpoon Brewery (practically Jersey's next door neighbor).  I'm not normally a giant Harpoon fan, but I found some of their seasonals and small batch brews very tasty. 

Fenway Park Sox vs Yankees
Seattle:  What a nice city.  This is my second visit to the Emerald city (the last one consisting of spending enough tme to see a baseball game, sleep, and fly out after a DMB weekend at Gorge).  For some reason I never pictured Seattle as hilly as it is.  It's a bit like San Francisco.  Of course we did all the tourist stuff; Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, and by far the most interesting to me part, the Boeing tour.  Boeing's Everett plant, being another Aerosexual holy temple, was incredible. Not to mention the fun of seeing them assemble life size airplanes like toy models and looking on in amazement, evening knowing how the science says it works, that those beautiful machines make it into the air.

Seattle from Queen Anne hill
ATLizzle... and back again.  Labor day weekend brings the annual nerd pilgrimage to Atlanta for the Dragon*Con.  Since we first discovered this event about 5 years ago, it's become a mainstay for my yearly schedule.  This year I went all in with a room at "geek ground zero", the Marriott Marquis, and full costume.  it was even more fun than the past.  Late nights at raves with light saber wielding dancers to seeing the childhood TV heroes live and in person.  It's all about living in the fantasy for a while, and a good distraction from real life.  The only downside, extensive lines and standing, which took it's toll (more later).  It was good to spend time with Maggie, Kara, Charity, and Darci (and her  friends.. who were great roommates for the weekend).  After the con and recuperation and a side trip to Seattle, I was back in town for Mumford and Sons!  They are one of those rare bands that sound much better live than on the albums.

Jedi Life.
In between I spent the time working (more than I care to) and adjusting to living in the new place.  I've discovered I have some very friendly and entertaining neighbors who also enjoy huddling behind our fence (that keeps the 99% out) and watching the late night goings on outside the bars across the way.  Is it wrong of us to encourage the drunks to not take any crap from the bouncers.... just to see them laid out?  Seems kind of mean.

On the downside, a few  (so far small) health issues threw a crimp in the summer fun.  From a flare up of gout (first one in several years) to what I think is a recurrence of a back/leg issue from a few years ago.  Turns out I can't apparently rock all night and stand in uncomfortable boots for hours on end without consequence.  I'm hoping it turns out like last time, in that the body heals itself and everything returns to normal.  But only the impending doctor visits will tell.  In the mean time I'm walking with a little bit of a limp and there'll be no 5k's for the time being. 

So, that to me is an average summer.  I've come to realize I tend to live in what others possibly think is an alternate reality from the rest of the world.  I'm ok with that, since it makes me happy (for the most part).  I will acknowledge by bar tabs have become both more frequent and more expensive, given the ease of "walking" home from across the street.  But I do really like the new place, and it is set up for visitors (HINT!).  Well, nto exactly right now, due to shoddy original construction the balconies are being enclosed.  And that is a real pain in my arse... it's very hard to day sleep with walls being removed above your head.  But it is temporary.  Now, I need tog et back to living this charmed life.  Trivia tonight I think, followed by doctor ordered "taking it easy" time with Netflix or a book (since I learned at Dragon*Con there's a lot of TV and literature I need to catch up to be well versed in the costumes). 

Well, that was summer, bring on the Fall!
Sint Maarten Sunset

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Chasing Sunsets (part: the second part)

Back to the jelly state, I arrived on too little sleep and having the feeling the day was going to be annoying.  I had to deal yet again with the bed people.  They managed to get delivery too me by the evening.  And I managed to ignore it until later that night.  I fetched Yinyer and her 60 lbs of baggage, all matching black with pink polka-dots.  After the delivery, Yinyer and I walked across the street for dinner and few cocktails.  I then decided it was a good idea to put the bed together.  Amazingly it hasn't fallen apart yet, and I only had one extra screw left over.

Thursday we had decided to do some Bourbon trail riding.  After a lunch of gourmet grilled cheese, we headed off to the Woodford Reserve distillery.  Of the distilleries I've been to, Woodford is probably the most scenic.  You drive through some rolling hills of picturesque horse farms to find the distillery down in the hollar (that's southern for "down in the small valley by the creek or the hollow").  Unlike some of the bigger distilleries, Woodford doesn't look like a small oil refinery.  We waited for our tour group to be called and headed off down to the operation.  Woodford has upgraded since the last time I was there and now gives everyone a headset to hear the guide, which is nice since in the past it's been hard to hear over the noise.  As usual the air is scented with the sweet aroma fermentation and the Angel's taking their share.  After the sampling, it was back to Louisville to obtain some souvenirs for Yinyer.  O'shea's offered official Derby glasses dipped in red wax from Maker's Mark, while Flanigan's offered Stella Artois chalices etched with the 139th Kentucky Derby logo.  All that was required was a purchase of the appropriate beverage.  Joining us was Kelle, and between the three of us we loaded Yinyer up with glassware aplenty.
Woodford Reserve
At one point I walked back to O'shea's to see if I could win the raffle for Oaks tickets.  I didn't, but while there an officer of the law escorted 4 young ladies in, one of which was some one of notoriety.  I had no idea who until informed that one Ms. Miranda Lambert was dining there that evening.  I still didn't know who she was.  I relayed this information to the ladiess back at Flanigans, who immediately tore off to check if indeed one Miranda Lambert was in the establishment.  I still have no idea who she is other than short and cute and apparently some form of country musician.

Friday we headed to Oaks.  My $50 suit accented with pink shirt and bow tie fit in nicely.  The Oaks day at Churchill can be more fun than Derby day.  There's all the pageantry and half the crowd.  We had also decided to spend the money for club level seats that included all you could eat food and drink.  I expected the standard track fare of hot dogs or chicken fingers.  I was mistaken.  It was a full catered spread of brats, BBQ pulled pork, and Buffalo chicken with sides and desserts.  The drinks were served in real glasses (while supplies lasted) and we obtained some more glassware for Yinyer.  The two fillies I bet paid off and I was up for the day, though I was unable to pull down the superfecta.  It was a beautiful day at the track.

Upon departing, I returned home and walked across the street to attempt to win Derby tickets.  TUrns out they weren't winning, but the manager gave me her tickets since she couldn't make it.  Score, free grandstand seats.  Saturday found us heading again to the track, again in my stylish $50 suit with purple accents.  This time, we parked much closer (and it was the best money spent all weekend I think) in some ones yard.  It was a cold, rainy day and promised to stay that way.  Yinyer picked up some ponchos for us, which were used all day until the rain stopped (just in time for the Derby).  We were tempted to split early, but hung in there to experience the most exciting 2 minutes in sports live and in person.  Afterwards, back home for dry clothes and dinner and evening cocktails.  In a fluke, I won money on the Derby.  I had bet the the #6 horse across the board.  Turns out the lady working the booth heard the 16 horse.  And number 16, Orb, won the race.  Woohoo!!!
Turn 4 of the 139th Kentucky Derby
Sunday was spent chillaxing and with movie time.  After Iron Man 3 (see it!!), we went for Mexican to celebrate Cinco De Mayo.  Later I met up with Courtney and was amazed that there were still roaming bands of partiers out going bar to bar doing shots.  I was personally spent and looked forward to having nothing to do for a day.  Monday, Yinyer managed to pack a full set of Stella Chalices, Derby glasses, and Oaks glasses in her bag... how I'm not sure, and we headed to the airport.  SHe to head back to ATL, me off to do my annual FAA required familiarization trip.  This year, the training manual says it's an ETOPS ride (ETOPS used to stand for Extended Twin engine OPerationS but can be more accurately described as  Engines Turn Or People Swim).  I'm given 4 days to accomplish this trip, and with the blessing of management I scheduled my fam ride to OGG and HNL.  So off to Maui I go.  The sacrifices I make for my job. 

While I've been to Honolulu several times over the years, I've never made it to any of the other islands.  I realize after a visit to Maui this has been a great oversight.  Honolulu, and Oahu, is very developed and very crowded.  Maui is not as developed and much less crowded.  I, at one point, had a whole beach almost to myself.  I like that.  No high rise hotels in sight, just sand, surf, and an extinct volcano.  So, I endured the two days there before heading over to Honolulu to endure another day there.  It was very trying times.  I did manage to almost kill myself on Maui.

I spent the first day driving around, initially up to the north side of the island to Paia, a small village with some quaintless and good coffee.  The I thought I'd take a quick drive up to Haleakala, the dormant volcano on the eastern side of the island.  Well, I thought it was a quick drive.  turns out the 32 miles of winding roads actually takes about an hour and a half.  And then theres the fun of driving through the clouds.  Not fog, actual clouds.  But once you punch through, it's beautiful clear skies and cool temps.  I wish I had brought appropriate shoes, as the trails didn't look particularly inviting for flip flop clad hikers.  But it was still an experience to stand above the clouds looking down into the crater.  And props to the over achievers who bike UP the mountain.  Thanx for making me feel real lazy.
Haleakala crater
Now to the part where I nearly died...  not really, but it was pretty sporting.  After the much longer than anticipated drive down Haleakala, I thought it would be nice to head to the HRC and pick up the obligatory guitar pin.  The Maui HRC is located in the town of Lahaina on the west coast, and the map form the rental agency showed a road around the north side of the island from Kaluhui.  The map didn't show that this road was actually a treacherous cliff side path that, for the most part, was one lane only.  So, again, my anticipated 30 minute drive turned out to be an hour and half of white knuckled gripping of the steering wheel with the occasional reversing course to a spot where the oncoming traffic could pass by.  It vaguely reminded me of the roads you see on the shows that specialize about dangerous roads in the Andes or some other third world country.  But other than the potential falling off the sheer cliff onto the jagged volcanic rocks part, it was a very scenic drive with lots of hidden bays and coves.  I did run across the visualization of the dream I'm going to start chasing.
The Dream
 When I finally arrived in Lahaina, I took the time to get a calming beverage and my souvenir before heading back to the hotel.  I arrived back at my room just in time to walk across the street and enjoy the sunset from the beach.  For some reason, I love sunsets over the ocean.  Especially if the clouds at scattered just right to cause the pastels to come aline in the sky.  And it's something I can just sit and enjoy without feeling the need to be rushed or be doing "something".  I don't think I'm alone in this, and I base that on the number of people that were sitting on the beach doing the same thing.

Maui Sunset
 The next morning, I woke earlyish and headed to the beach.  The beach choice for the day was a short drive south from the hotel to Makena State Park, also know as Big Beach.  It's not just a cleaver name.  The beach is wide and plenty long, and that day it was almost empty.  The drive down to Makena took me through the "town" of Wailea and Makena, both well developed into high priced hotels, condos and golf courses.  Then the manicured lawns stop suddenly when you cross into the park and the natural vegetation, or lack there of, takes hold.  I like the natural look better really.  After a few hours on the beach, I headed back up to get a Cheeseburger in Paradise before turning in the rental car.  I finished the day early after catching another beautiful sunset and getting some sleep before the 3 AM flight to Honolulu via Kona. 

Arrived in HNL early in the morning, just after sunrise, and was whisked away to the crew hotel.  Located by Ala Moana park, the hotel has a great view of the homeless population of Honolulu setting up camp.  Apparently they're not allowed to sleep there overnight, so they show up during day light hours and sleep there then.  I guess if you have to be homeless that Hawaii is one of the better places.

After grabbing a nap, i took a walk to find lunch at Duke's on Waikiki Beach.  I love Duke's and go there every time I'm on the island.  The staff is friendly and patrons are all happy.  I mean, it is Hawaii after all, you have to really work at being miserable.  I spent the afternoon meandering with no real plan, other than send a couple post cards and obtain a new iPhone cover (mine had disintegrated over the last couple days).  I spent a fair amount of time traversing Waikiki Beach from Duke's to Margaritaville to The Beach Bar.  Finally catching the sunset (yup, love them) before ending the day with a self cooked steak dinner at The Shore Bird. 

Again, early to bed to ensure being awake for the early shuttle to the airport and back to the mainland.  I left out all the flying around parts to keep the non airline types from being overly bored.  There was actually a good bit of knowledge obtained, more so than most my recent rides.  So it wasn't all beaches and Hawaiian Iced Teas.

I returned to Louisville to find a cool rain falling.  I was actually looking forward to being home for a bit and just crashing with nothing much to do.  The new apartment is still fairly clean, now that most the empty boxes have been sent to recycling, so there's no real bad feeling about about just lounging thinking I have so much to do.  Though, now that my phone just alerted me of the frost advisory (it's freakin May already!!!  seriously!) I'm wishing I was back in the tropics, the sunsets are much nicer.
Waikiki Sunset

Chasing Sunsets (part 1)

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity.  So much so, it's nice to be at home alone with nothing to do but hang pictures on the wall.  Of course, when that's done I'll be bored and ready to go again.  A brief summary: New apartment, saga of the new bed, BoSox game with Jersey, caught a cold, weekend in Hilton Head with many of my favorite people, Matt and Val's wedding, "Icing" in Savannah with my accomplice Joe, back to the ATL for Monday with Maggie, Tuesday afternoon with G-Ho and AXL, Tuesday evening with Yinyer and Jimmy Buffett, Woodford with Yinyer, Oaks with Yinyer and all you can drink seats, Derby with Yinyer and all you can get rained on seats, Off to Maui on a Monday, Arrive in Maui on a Tuesday...  beaches and sun, day tripping to Waikiki, back home.

Any questions? What??  You'd like some elaboration???  Well I'd be happy to:

My last posting was about the move into a new place.  It still feels like it's 90% there.  Though I do have new "art" on the walls, which consists of canvas prints I had made from pictures I've taken on various continents.   The biggest issue was getting a bed delivered.  It took almost 2 weeks to get it to my place.  Mainly because the discount place, American Freight Furniture, doesn't seem to be able to handle logistics.  Keep that in mind if you are looking for a good deal.  But finally arriving just in time for Derby weekend.  Luckily I didn't have to sleep on the couch.

But now for fun stuff, finally made it to see Jersey in Boston.  Unfortunately Spring weather had yet to arrive to meet Jersey in Boston and I spent the day meandering around the city (from Irish pub to Irish pub) in the rain.  Then it was off to Fenway (woohoo!!) for a Red Sox game in the rain and cold, but at least we had covered seats.  I was able to get a cold beer and a Fenway frank and watch the Red Sox thoroughly blow it against the A's.  I've never seen a balk called live at a game, but now I have... twice... in the same inning.. with 2 errors.... and 8 runs scored.  But hey, at least I was at Fenway (woohoo!!).
Fenway, circa 2013 (or 1913?)
The next day I woke up and discovered on the climb out from Boston I had caught a cold.  Nothing like flying with a head cold and the feeling of ice picks being jabbed into your ears during the pressurizing of the cabin.  Arriving back at home for a couple days I commenced to medicating heavily and overdosing on vitamin C, having to be back on my game for the coming weekend.  Unfortunately i picked up a persistent cough.  I got bronchitis... ain't nobody got time for that!

So, Friday morning rolled around and it was time again to fly.  I still had the cold going but at least this time I wasn't in agonizing pain on the flight to ATL.  I just felt like I was underwater for a day or so.  I arrived  early and enjoyd some lovely airport appreciation time before being fetched by TanJoe for the road trip to HHI.  Way back in the day, not too long after I had purchased my Accord in the late 90's, I was having trouble sleeping (as I worked nights then too) and decided to road trip it to Tybee for sunrise.  Seemed reasonable at the time.  While down there I drove to Hilton Head... and got a speeding ticket in a small speed trap known as Bluffton, SC.  I got a lecture from the small town sheriff about how people come speeding through his town (probably because the speed limit drops from 45 to 25 in distance of about 5 yards) and nearly run over a kid last week (to which i wanted to respond they should teach their kids not to play in the damn road... but i didn't).  But that's ancient history.

Back to present day, Hilton Head reminds me of Stepford by the beach.  I don't think I could live there, mainly due to a lack of financial resources or golfing interest.  But it was a nice place to visit.  It became a great place to visit once all the friends arrived and set up in our various "villas".  And there's a beach.  Unfortunately spring has barely arrived in South Carolina and it was a bit cool.  During check in, the front desk lady was running through the rules when she added, almost as an after thought, that we should not feed the alligators.  Now, the three of us (TanJoe and myself) were all kind of half listening to the rules until she said that... when we all 3 both were suddenly attentive and simultaneously went "What?? Alligators?!".  No where on the resorts website did it mention the possibility of death by gator.
The villa's Ocean View
The rest of the weekend passed in a relaxing haze of beer and laughter.  There was a short meeting of the board of the Black Sheep Brewery and Maple Syrup company.. where we sampled more products from competitors to get an idea what direction we wanted to brew in.  At some point during the getting dressed process for the wedding, some one thought it was a good idea to let Jamie be incharge of the two little ones in our midst.  For a period of 20 minutes or so, AXL and Gabe (both about 1 year old) enjoyed pressing every button on the 90's era boombox and combo DVD/VCR that were part of our rental unit.  Of course, they both felt the need to whack the electronics as hard as they could.  It's not our crap, so I just let them go at it.  In the drinking contest that followed, Gabe took first in the beer chugging event but AXL totally dominated the shots portion.  Then we settled in to watch some porn... until a real adult came and took charge of the children.  After that we were off to the most entertaining wedding ceremony in history (Marwaige.... Marwaige is what bwings us togewher) and a fun reception that followed.  It was great to see Matt and Val again after so long, and hope to see them more frequently in the future.

After the nights of hanging around with all the fun people, we bid adieu to Gracethon, AXL, the Berardii, and the rest of the clan Sunday morning for a day in Savannah.... since we were in the neighborhood.  Tanjoe, Adri, Michael, and I were spending the night there but were joined for lunch by Charity and Glenn  (Glarity anyone?) to celebrate Charity's birthday on the riverfront.  After wards, we checked in, and some of the less tired of us (ie Joe and I) decided to go back to River street and enjoy the lack of open container laws.  We were quickly recruited by our first bartender to go an "ice" his buddy who was tending bar a couple doors down.  "Icing" involves purchasing a Smirnoff Ice for another person, and then that person is required by some law to sink to their knees and chug the entire thing.  Well, it didn't go as planned, the second bar was no longer carrying Smirnoff Ice (due to a high incidence of "icing" amongst the local bartender community).  We came clean to our plan to the second bartender (who informed us he had been "iced" earlier that day by the first bartender), and he decided we should return to the first establishment to "ice" the other bartender.  Being down to do anything for a free beer, we accepted.  A quick trip to a gas station yielded us the required 22oz bottle of Sour Apple Smirnoff.  Back to the first pub, we informed the bartender there of our unsuccessful mission and returned his $5 ordered another round.  While pouring our two Black Smith's, I placed the Ice in front of us which elicited a serious of explicatives when the bartender turned back around.  By this time Tanya had found us and decreed that Joe was never to hang out with me alone again... it's not my fault we had scored 2 beers and a shot a piece for our activities.  The bartender did his ice, we took the picture and texted it to his friend, and enjoyed anohter beverage before heading down the street... drinks in hand.
Vinnie the Bartender getting "Iced".. I almost feel bad for having him drink such a vile beverage
That evening we found dinner with Adri and Michael and Tanya's local cousin Kara.  Followed by some more boozing down river street and a slight altercation with some shop owners (they shouldn't cry over spilt beer).  Monday, we bid adieu to Adri and Michael as they flew back to Boston (and made $250 in bumped passenger compensation plus an upgrade in seats...  NICE!) and Tanjoe, Kara, and I met for coffee then a trip to Ft Pulaski.  We toured the fort in the style of people in an episode of House Hunters.  I'm seriously considering putting an offer in, even thought he property is a real fixer-upper, but it's contingent on installing a "lazy river" in the moat. 
Dinner in Savannah
That afternoon we made it back to ATL, and I was able to spend the evening with the CEO and CFO of MaggieJack, Inc, (as the minority shareholder I occasionally get to spend some time with the executives consulting on fiduciary and operational issues for the organization) and we put to good use the bottle of wine pilfered from the wedding reception leftovers table. 

The following day found me stopping in for a visit to the Lewii to go over strategies with AXL for her next drinking contest.  Then I was off to attempt to locate some Oaks/Derby wear.  Mission accomplished at the JC Penney Outlet in Forest Park.  I got a fabulous tan suit and hat for under $50.  Score!!!

That evening I met up with Yinyer and we were off to St. Somwhere with Jimmy Buffett.  Unlike the last Buffett concert I went to, I made a point to remain lucid and ale to remember the entire concert.  Mission Accomplished.  I enjoy Buffett for his promotion of the beach lifestyle, and giving me ideas for my retirement.  We enjoyed the drunk people watching and hula skirts aplenty, and the general funness of the atmosphere.  The next morning I awoke to head back to KY for the second act of the vacation.
Lakewood is renamed St Somewhere
I suppose I should break this up, and this seems like a good place to stop the carnival for a moment.  Part deux to follow shortly.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Movin's on up to a deluxe apartment in the ... Highlands

Every now and again I need to take inventory of the things I've accumulated over time, then throw all that shit out.  This usually happens when one of two events happen; the clutter in my life has reached suffocating levels or I move residences. This past couple of weeks it's been the latter.  It was time for a change.

As many of you are aware, I had been recently attempting to purchase a place in Atlanta and have a sort of commuting life. Through a multitude of reasons my attempts were continually thwarted. Feeling frustrated with the whole process and continuing set backs, I threw in the towel and took my money and ran...  All the way to the bank where I paid off most of the debt I have accumulated. Which, as it turns out, was probably a smarter thing to do anyway.

But it didn't solve my problem, the need to shake somethings up and find a new abode.  My current louisville residence has been adequate for the past 5 years, and the price was right.  But as anyone who's visited knows, the place had issues... Or "character" as I preferred to say. These are things that come with a century old house that hasn't really been brought into the modern world.  I can't fault my landlords (a couple of twin brothers named Nick and Mick... I never could tell which was which). They bought the house while I was living there, and then proceeded to gut and remodel the unoccupied downstairs apartment.  And any issue I ever had with the residence (leaking roof, non functioning AC during the hottest parts of the year, sudden lack of electricity, etc..) has been resolved much quicker than I would have expected.  They even cut me breaks on rent when I thought I was taking a pay cut. (Apparently renters who pay on time and don't get complaints form the neighbors are rare these days).

When I sent the notice, we had what amounted to an exit interview.  They acknowledge that since I came with the house, they never really went through the upstairs apartment to see what was needed and asked what I kind of work needs to be done.  It was a long list.  I the end I expect they will remodel the place and double the rent.

My search for a new home in town started with Craigslist, and I found a couple possibilities.  The problem, none would be available before Derby.  I wanted to be in and mostly settled before receiving guests (Yinyer will be the first guest in a couple weeks). I found a condo for rent (and had actually thought of buying one in this complex at one point) just down the road from where I was currently residing.  The rent was significantly higher, but I expected that to get the kind of place I wanted.

I set up a viewing and asked about getting the rent down a little (since the place had been listed for a while it couldn't hurt right? ). It worked, they dropped it enough to get me to sign on the line.  I had a month to prepare for the move.

I hate moving, it's one of the most annoying and pain in the arse events of modern life. But it's also a great time to throw shit out.  And I had a ton of stuff to unload. Clothes that no longer fit (which makes me a little sad) or just never make it into the wardrobe rotation.  Some stuff that's just been sitting around providing no function other dust collecting.  So my burden was lightened with three trips to goodwill and several bags to the garbage. The hardest stuff to get rid of are those items people have given me.  Gifts from long long ago from people I really never talk to any more.  But there's an emotional reminder of good times in the past.  Do you toss it or keep lugging it form place to place?  Sometimes the answer is easier that you may think.  Some little trinket that's in the back of the closet the ex-significan other gave is a no brainer.  The card on the mantle your best friend sent that always brings a smile to your face is a keeper... Doesn't take up much space anyways.

After a few days of purging and packing, I had everything I could boxed up or taken out to the garbage.  This move, I decided to spend money on the luxury of movers.   Best.  Move.  Ever!  My previous moves have always been supported by friends in return for pizza and beer.  And I have supported friends moving for payment in the firm of pizza and beer.  But here, not many pizza and beer friends are about and it was just easier to let some one else do all the work.  In what in the past was an all day event was reduced to two hours before lunch.  They managed to get the couch out (anyone familiar with my old apartment knows this is an accomplishment...  the narrow stair case with a 90 degree turn in the middle required a multi-angular feat of strength) and since i bought the couch already in the place, I was a little worried about that. 

That was Monday.  By Friday, almost everything is in the new apartment (i have 2 weeks overlap of residing in two places) and arranged to my satisfaction.  Well for the moment.  There's still "art" to be assigned to a wall, but that will come in due time.  I was a little disappointed that the built in shelves were too small to accommodate the TV, but I'm managing.  Most of all, I'm ecstatic to have an efficient heating and cooling system and a dishwasher.  Oh the modern conveniences!!!!  I'm thinking this will encourage more eating at home, if only to dirty dishes and not feel guilty about the water waste that comes with running a half full (or half empty) dishwasher. 

The place isn't "there" yet, but 90% is done.  Some new furniture is being delivered tomorrow, and Ikea will be providing some cheap lighting soon.  And I've yet to figure out the gas fireplace, given one attempt.  But I suppose that can wait till winter returns.  But once again, the move has both lightened my burden of "stuff" but required the acquisition of more "stuff".  At least the new "stuff" is dust free... for now. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Strollin down the avenue that's known as A1A

After my 24 hour transit home from the dark heart of Africa. Well, ok, the slightly shaded shoulder of Africa, I was faced to a monumental decision...  what to do for the rest of the vacation time.  I had almost a week left before I had to return to work and the thought of sluffing about Louisville was unappealing.  I had a plan but it was getting more and more complex by the minute.

Part of the problem was I had no desire to jump back on an airplane after a 10 hour hiatus from being in transit. The other part of the problem was just getting to my intended destination, the Corn Islands of Nicaragua.  TO get there cheaply, it involved an all night jaunt from Louisville to Managua, via Miami.  The on arrival, purchasing a ticket on a local puddle jumper out to the island.  The thought of another 20 hour travel day really didn't appeal... and that was just to get there. SO deciding to delay my trip to those particular islands (because they are definitely on a must visit list... a warm tropical Caribbean island that's not yet overrun with mega resorts and cruise ships...  Sign me up!

But still wanted to get away from it all... and quick.  After a full nights sleep and excavation of a mountain of dirty laundry, I decided on a course of action.  I'm going out Buffett style.  It was likely going to cost me more than I wanted to pay out, but I was heading to the Keys.  I formulated a plan, and then a back up plan.  There was a browntail jet heading to Miami that afternoon.  Once there, I would find a place to hole up for the night before striking out to Key West first thing in the morning.  Not really sure if I was driving or flying down to the islands...  and I'd yet to find a place in the islands that fit my budget for sleeping, but i won't be deterred by such minor things. 

After carrying the big pack around Europe and Spain, I was motivated to keep it light, so a small back pack was all I took.  How much space do a pair of thongs take up anyway?   Before leaving Louisville, I booked a room in an airport hotel for convenience.  There was the South Beach option available of course (for a fee). But with the plans of a short night and a quick escape, proximity to the airport mattered.  I had put a couple requests out on VRBO (which if you ever need a place and hotels don't fit the need/price, look there.  I've found good deals in Europe and the US).  Unfortunately, none of the owners responded (in all fairness, I'd only really given them about a 12 hour window on a Sunday for a Monday arrival).  Looking at flights from MIA to Key West, I found that I could either take the 6 AM flight or risk not making it at all.  And the flights leaving looked even worse (Airplane geek info, Key West  has quite a short runway for large jets to use, which result in restrictions on the number of people they can take...and all looked to be full)... so time for plan B... Priceline!

I'll admit my snobbery when it comes to a few things, one being domestic hotels.  Overseas, a $5 hostel or guesthouse will do for some reason.  But not in the US.  It's weird I know.  So I started naming my own price, and got a good deal on 4-start property on Mallory Square.  Add a rental car and the plan's complete. 

Other thing with this trip, it was fairly unadvertised.  I didn't really tell anyone where I was off to or for how long.  I kind of was wanting to disconnect from life for a minute.  When I was asked (or in one case when the iLoJack app gave away my current position), I was forthcoming of y plans.  But for the most part I was just going to be warm and buzzed for a few days.  I'm happy to say Mission Accomplished. 
Everyone stops to watch the sunsets

I struck out early for the islands.  I would have loved a convertible, or better yet my bike, but I made do with the sunroof and windows down.  The three hour cruise down the Overseas Highway was nice.  It's a non hurried drive, and the further from Miami you get the less hurried life seems to get.  Sure I wanted to get there, but I also enjoyed the drive from island to island.  I was initially a little disappointed when crossing from Boca Chica Key into Key West proper.  Not at all what I had imagined, or remembered from my last brief visit there (a few years back I was on a cruise that stopped in for a few hours and I barely got any island time in).  But it looked like anytown Amurrica with strip malls and fast food a plenty.  Then, as if crossing into another country, the scenery changed and suddenly I was in the Key West of lore.  Once I found the hotel (which, according to Apple Maps required a drive down a permanently closed road), I was told my room wasn't yet available (it was early), so I checked my belongings with the bell desk (the whole small backpack) and was off to work on part 2 of the plan... being buzzed. 

As far as actual Key West Activities, I didn't do enough.  I made a point to walk down to Hemingway's place, and made it by the southernmost point.  I walked on a beach, but didn't take the boat out to the Dry Tortugas or do a jet ski tour.  Next time i will, but this trip I managed to entertain myself (and a few bartenders) with my scheming to steal the old wooden propeller hanging above the bar in Sloppy Joe's (off one of the first Pan Am flights between Key West and Havana... the first Pan Am route).  I'm almost done with the plan, and I may need some accomplices to help me make it work.  There was also the flip cup competition at Coyote Ugly (I lost) and the continuing Irish Pub Tour to keep me amused. 

The propeller at Sloppy Joe's...  it will be mine
I really enjoyed the all day live music available about the town.  And more so enjoyed the not having to run to a cruise ship just when things were getting fun on Duval.  I met a few interesting people, some just visiting... some were just visiting years ago and never managed to leave.  I'm thinking that's a good idea. 

When my days on the island were drawing to a close and no more sunsets would be watched, I sobered up and headed back to the mainland.  I felt rested and recharged, and amazingly not at all hungover, and looked forward to the drive back.  Even though i wasn't looking forward to the destination.  I"m thinking a return to the Keys for some rum drinks and conch salad should be an annual thing.  Anyone wanna go with?
Wearing the thongs in the Keys
So home I came, with a day to spare to get re adjusted to real life, stepping off the airplane into the falling snow.... ugh.  But it gives a goal to work toward.. early retirement.  So that's the end of the "big trip" for 2013.  A little sad it happened so early, but then again I know I'll be jaunting off hear and there through out the year.  There's weddings and birthday parties to attend.

The beginning of the long road ahead

Saturday, March 9, 2013

'The crowd caught a whiff of the crazy Casbah jive'

One of the things I touched on earlier involved the need to be a little on guard in the developing world for those trying to extort money from the rich American.  Marrakech, having a firmly establish tourist trade, is no different.  And it's not usually done with a high level of malice, but just the way things are done.  Anyone who's been in a souk or an Asian market knows that capitalism is alive and well regardless of the "official" national economy and every price is negotiable, and should be negotiated.  It's an adjustment one has to make when venturing about, and no amount of research you do prior to putting boots on the ground will really get you an accurate price list for goods and services.  That being said, there have been times were I know, in retrospect, I was "taken".  I felt my second full day in Marrakech was one such event. 

I had made arrangements with an individual (named Abdul, go figure) for a day trip to the Ourika Valley just outside of Marrakech.  The valley itself is dotted with villages and ends at a climb up the hill to the falls.  The price I had agreed to paid, with no research, was 600 Dirham for the trip out.  This got me a driver, a guide, and private van.  Oh well, it's done and paid for so I might as well enjoy it, and leave behind the slightly paranoid feeling that soon I could be a feature on a Al Jazeera video in the near future.  Getting an early start, we rolled out of the Medina at 8 AM. 

On the drive out, new developments and housing starts were pointed out.  New Riads being built outside the bustle of the city where for a few thousand dollars a night you to can live like a sultan.  Where the old city behind the ancient walls seems to be a destination for the slightly more adventurous, developers are building more upscale accomodation for the well heeled traveler.  These places were huge.  There are also multimillion dollar private residences dotting the landscape.

Driving on, the full impact of the tourist trade is evident. Any scenic pull off comes with a group of people trying to sell you some trinket (according to the guide, most of these "authentic" Berber goods come directly from China).  Usually a polite "No" or "La Shakra" disperses the hawkers.  Being a good tour guide they have places of prearranged stops... such as a Berber house where the women have foregone their traditional Islamic ways to invite tourists in... for a small donation of course.  But there was a breakfast of traditionally made bread with honey and olive oil.  And of course the ever present mint tea (which if I haven't mentioned it prior, is yummy).  As we were finishing up our bread, a busload (literally) of French tourists roll in.  Perfect time to leave. 

Driving on, I did elect to forgo the camel ride (been there, done that, not a fan of camels) and we headed on to another stop of local ingenuity to see how Argan oil is made (traditionally).  It's an involved process that results in an oil coveted both for skin care as much as for flavor.  I do wish I had brought more cash, I probably would have picked up something to bring home with... and not cook with. 

Before I get too negative sounding here, let me state that the scenery was beautiful and there was an occasionaly tidbit offered about the history and the demographics of the area.  For instance, each village was a single extended family.  Each has a mosque and a madrasa, except one village... which is Jewish.  There were, according to the guide, once about 27 Jewish villages in the valley, now only one or 2 families remain.  The Jews have been in the area long before Islam came.  Amazingly, for the most  it seems like a peaceful coexistence.  If a male family member gets fed up living with the family, and he has the money, he can take his wife and kids and start a new village.  When women marry, they leave their family village and move in with their husbands family.  Usually married couples get at least a private room in a house (isn't that convenient) where as unmarried family members (of the same sex) share a large room.  Nothing like sharing sleeping quarters with 12 of your favorite uncles, brothers and cousins.
Ourika Valley VIllage
After the argan oil stop and sampling (an now with softer, more fragrant hands), we moved on farther up the valley.   I've found in my years of globetrotting I'm not a big fan of the "organized" tour precisely because they involve stops I don't care to make at shops and food stalls that the tour guide pre arranges, for a little baksheesh.  It's just not my kind of thing, but suppose it beats getting lost in the Atlas mountains never to be seen again. 

All along the road into the valley, there are numerous guesthouses, hotels, restaurants, stores, etc... catering to the trekking crowd.  In the summer, there is a draw to the hiking in the mountains and the cooler temperatures (Marrakech routinely gets up to over 50C).  At the end of the road, I decided to take a short (hour) hike up to the falls.  This requires a guide (and payment) to get up there.  There's a reason.  It's not the Western style walk up a well beaten path complete with handrails, but instead good old school walking through the woods hopping from rock to rock trying not to fall, with one exception.  Along the way there are several shops and stalls, some perched precariously on the side of the ravines.  Of course, the guide had the one he preferred to make into a rest stop.
Ouirka Valley, near the end of the road
And so, we pressed on.  There are seven separate "falls" to see.  To hike all of them, it's a 3 to 4 hour journey up the hill.  I wasn't up for that.  So we made it to the second falls and I was pretty much done.   Being out of shape and of bad knee, I felt it was better to stop now and head down.  But I'm definitely glad I made the climb I did (originally i wasn't going to do any hiking).  So back down the hill we went and heading back down the valley toward Marrakech.  On the way, we passed flocks of school kids on their lunch break walking home.  It looks oddly like school kids everywhere.  Hrrmm..  People are kinda the same almost everywhere... who knew?? 

A couple hours later I'm back in Marrakech and stop by the Jardin Majorelle.  These gardens were designed by the artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and 1930s, and later owned partly by Yves Saint-Laurent who's ashes were scattered here.  Made up of mostly desert type flora around bright blue fountains, it's very subdued and relaxing to walk about the garden, like walking through a lifesize work of art. 
Jardin Majorelles
After the Jardin, the last stop was an art gallery (where it seems everything was for sale and "original".. ugh).  I did see a couple metal astrological globes (that may one day find their way to a future abode), but not having the cash or a credit card on me, no purchases were made.  I felt almost bad for the guys trying to sell me a Berber rug (after I reiterated I'm not buying) who spent lots of time and energy laying out rug after rug.  In truth, had I not been on a budget and had a place I felt worthy of a new rug, I'd probably own one now. 

Thus ended my day trip.  I know it comes off slightly negative above, but I was really happy I took the excursion.  It just reminds me how much I don't like being herded into stores, but at least the herding came with amazing scenery and a little bit of imparted knowledge.

Sunset over Marrakeh from La Salama
Being late afternoon when I returned to the Riad, I grabbed some dirham I had stashed there and headed off again.  As I came out of the passage into the Njemaa El Fnaa, the screaming from the minarets kicked off again.  Answering the call to prayer, I headed into Le Salama for a cold beer.  Having been here the day before, I really liked the view (this day there was no rain and the snow covered Atlas mountains were clear in the distance) and the two for one all day happy hour.  The spring rolls appetizer was delicious, even if I'm not exactly sure what was in them.  La Salama, atmosphere wise, is a little reminiscent of Rick's cafe from the movie, which they seem to be going for based on the decor of Bogey pictures on the wall.   I sat down and before I knew it I was in a conversation with the neighboring tables.  Turns out the British couple to my right had been up at the falls earlier that day and had actually seen me coming down form the hike.  They too made all the same stops, but for 250 dirham more than I paid.  So maybe I wasn't "taken" as much as I thought.  The next few hours were spent talking to amongst ourselves (along with a a couple from Belfast and another couple who live in London, but went to school in the US). 

After an evening of comparing travels and tales with citizens of the world with a spectacular sunset, and of course enjoying the happy hour special, it was down from the roof terrace for the belly dancing show.  Which may or may not have involved select audience members from the table I was sitting being pulled out to join the dancers.  From there it was back out to the square for another delicious street tagine and on to listen to some of the musicians playing in the square.  As the drumming and singing moved late into the night, it was time to head to sleep after a long, but very satisfying, day of natural beauty, meeting fellow travelers, and belly dancing.

Belly Dancer, La Salama in Marrakech
The next day it was time to start the journey back home.  After spending the morning relocating a shop in the souk to pick up a painting I saw when hiding from the rain a couple days earlier (Success! and I even got the "first customer" special pricing... which was then negotiated down about 50%) and a final cappuccino overlooking the Djemaa, I headed off to the airport. 

A couple side stories, one night while perusing the souks I saw what looked to be an Arab beatdown in progress.  A teen had apparently stolen or just pissed off an older (maybe in his 20's) guy who proceeded smack him around for good measure.  And while sitting in the airport waiting for check in, a man was being led around by a helper (the kind of helper that in US pushes the wheelchairs) while being followed by a woman.  I'm thinking the man was blind, because he would turn in the general direction of the woman and say something very animated with much hand gesturing and flailing.  This went on for a few minutes, they would move in and out of my view.  Each time the blind man would stop and turn toward the woman (but not always facing her directly), he help would try and pull him on.  At one point, the blind man managed to get his pimp hand in contact with the woman in a classic "bitch slap" before they all exited the terminal.  I do so enjoy people watching. 

From there it was check in, then through security and a non working metal detector (why they didn't use one of the other 3 I have no idea... maybe they enjoyed the patdowns???),  And onto Madrid via the airline the really gives you no frills... RyanAir.  Connecting up in Madrid after a couple hours with a browntail, it was off to Louisville via Cologne and Philadelphia.  This time I remember to get the correct passport stamps so hopefully the future will be free of Customs harassment.  Almost exactly 24 hours after leaving Marrakech, I walked into my apartment, dumped my pack out onto the floor and started doing two weeks worth of laundry.  Still having a week left before needing to be back at work, i started looking for some place to head to pass the time.

Morocco Souvenir... soon to be framed
All in all, though there were unexpected costs and annoyances, and the occasional slight detour, it was a great trip.  I had a blast and would be interested in returning both to Southern Spain and Morocco.   For some reason, maybe it comes with age, these kind of trips are as easily undertaken as they were a decade ago.  Then again, 10 years ago it was only Europe and Australia that I seemed to head to and those destinations seem more comfortable than say North Africa or Cambodia.  But once I get going, it gets easier and I tend to relax a little and start to enjoy the actual journey more than stressing about what might happen.   Perhaps next time seeing different cities (that haven't yet become tourist meccas) and a trip out to the desert (I'll again take the organized tour...  I don't want to be lost wondering the desert for the rest of what will surely be a short life) and push the comfort level a little more.   Anyone interested in going with??

Monday, March 4, 2013

Take the train from Casablanca going south Blowing smoke rings from the corners of my mouth

Morning came to find me heading to Casa Voyageurs train station to move on to Marrakech, once again traveling in first class style for the total for $14.  I was a little early so I grabbed a quick baguette with fromage and cafe creme (fancy french for cheese sammich and a coffee).  When you passed from the lobby of the station to the platforms, there's a couple guards checking tickets, but while waiting I noticed that one could seemingly just walk from the other side of the tracks and not even be bothered.  Other amusing observations, if your late for your train and it's about to pull out, it's perfectly acceptable to, instead of taking the stairs and walkway under tracks, to just down off the platform and run in front of the soon to depart train, even if your a middle aged woman carry a couple bags.

A little description of the Moroccan train lay out, at least the first class:  There is one car, usually the first one, with an aisl down one side and 9 or 10 compartments.  Each compartment has 6 seats, 3 on each side and face each other.  On the side against the window, there's a small table that the two people sitting in the window seats can use.  This time, I was assigned the middle seat between an older woman who spoke Arabic and some French (and often loudly into her phone) and a younger Moroccan woman who did speak English.  Later in the ride I learned she was traveling with her sister to school to take Exams.  It was amusing to hear their conversation switch from Arabic to French to English without pause.  They were coming from Rabat, and based on the appearance were part of the wealthier side of Morocco.  But still very nice and provided some good info on Marrakech.

Rounding out the compartment was a couple from Canadia.  They had just flown in from Montreal via Paris and were on the last leg for the day.  They were both very nice, though the wife preferred to nap while the husband preferred to chat.  But it made the ride pass.  Funny enough, the next day, in a city of 3 million, I happened to duck under an awning to get out of a heavy downpour, and we met up again. 

The scenery on this ride was much nicer than the train ride from Tangier.  There seemed be a lot less in the way of random garbage strown about, and general lack of people about.  It was a bit of a barren landscape, but not really desert.  There was ample vegetation to be round, but still very rocky and looked like would become very arid if the rain went away for a while.

Koutoubia Mosque, tallest structure in Marrakech and he landmark used for navigation
Then out of nowhere, Marrakech!  The city is basically split into the medina (the ancient walled city) and Ville Nouveau (the new city outside the walls).  In a credit to the French occupiers, they ordered that all new construction of the European style city be made outside the walls preserving the ancient parts.  That being said, the Medina hasn't been left as it was in 1500 or so.  All the modern trappings of civilization have been installed... power, sewer, drainage, etc.   They have an ordinance in the city that no building can be taller than 4 or 5 (i can't remember exactly) floors, excluding minarets.  The rule causes some sprawl, but keeps you from feeling like you're in a big city.

After disembarking, I made my way to the riad I had booked for the next few nights.  After finding a ride to the medina (which i overpaid) and a person to take me to the riad (who I also ended up overpaying) I found the place.  Even though I spent more than I should have to get there, it was nice not to wander around the alleys and passages carrying my pack. Anyways, I arrived at my riad to dine it little more than a heavy wooden door from the outside.  However, once inside, it was more than I had expected.  The pictures online didn't do the place justice.  I was met by Muhammed (fyi, everyone in Morocco is named Muhammed or Abdul I think), who handed me aint tea and checked me in.  Unlike a hotel, it was all very informal and relaxed and he was quite helpful for getting around the area.
Riad Casa Lalla Courtyard
Side note:  a riad is a traditional townhouse in the medina that is built around a courtyard.  The one I chose, Casa Lalla, has been redone with about 10 rooms or so.  It is owned by a french couple who are famous for the restaurant they run out of the riad.  Because it was winter, and there was rain about, the courtyard was covered by a plastic roof.  There were 2 floors of rooms and a terrace on the roof with tables, couches, and hammocks where you could see the Atlas mountains in the distance.  My room, one of the smallest offered, on the ground floor with a window that opened up onto the courtyard.  The bed was on a loft about the bathroom/sitting area.  And all for a reasonable price!  If the reader should ever make it to Marrakesh (or Fez or Menkes) I highly suggest skipping the international chain hotels and finding a nice riad.  The only downside was the 5:30 "wake up call" that really can't be avoided.

After checking and getting settled, I headed up to the Djemaa El-Fna, the main square of the medina.  Billed as the longest continuously running entertainment venue in the world, the square is packed in the morning with carts selling fresh orange juice and other various trinkets.  As the day goes on, more and more street perfomers begin to show up, form henta tattoo artists to snake charmers to male belly dancers until night when traditional Gnaoua drum circles, story tellers, and Berber musicians begin their performances.  There also rows of food stalls serving traditional meals, though I'd been told to avoid the couscous there (wasn't properly prepared) and also don't have the fish (could kill you).  The square took on a bit of a life of its own, and there was plenty of amusement to be had.

Djemaa el-Fnaa from a cafe terrace

After getting my bearings (and a cappuccino) on a terrace overlooking the Djemaa, i dove in and walked around.  It's been a while since I've been in an Arabian bazaar environment.  Everyone is trying to sell you something, or asking more dirham to show you around someplace.  It tends to get annoying everyone hawking things at you, but it is part of the experience.  Andafter a few hours you acclimate.  It's hard to do any real "browsing" of any of the shops, as the salesman is on you, and if you don't see something you like he'll look in the back and surely find something to spend money on.  I'd also been warned that there's an influx of "traditonal" Moroccan goods for sale that have been imported from China.  I didn't get a picture, but the most amusing store along the Djemaa was selling kids shirts and souveners, which they had cleverly displayed on child size mannequins and hung them, by the neck, above the entrance.  At first it looked like a gallows for toddlers.

I found dinner at a stall in the square (the "no.1 rated" one according to some guide book I've never heard of... so their menu said).  Street food in the third world can be an adventure.  Avoiding the fish, I went for a "meat" tagine.  Basically it was type of stew cooked in a clay pot with a coned top (which is actually what a "tagine" is).  It's considered sort of a bachelors stew and generally cooked all day.  It was very tasty and came with traditional bread.  After meandering about the square for a couple hours I headed up for another mocha from the top terrace of a cafe overlooking the square.  And then the rain started.  Time to call it a night.  Back to the riad (which i found with only 2 wrong turns), where I purchased a bottle of local red wine (I didn't drink the whole thing but they kindly stored it for me until I did) and planned the next day.

The next morning I woke up to rain.  It wasn't particularly steady or heavy, just annoying really.  But would dampen (ha) my plans for walking around all day.  My expert weather opinion said it would clear up by afternoon (it didn't, not until about 8 PM), so for the morning I bought a ticket on the big red tourist bus. It took around most the new city, and some of the old city that has streets that are wide enough for a bus.  It worked well that i could hop on and hop off when I wanted, so i road the whole route, found lunch (in the new town... pizza and beer) and watched a downpour.  The hopped back on the bus, luckily timing my time off the bus when the rains seemed to abate and back on during downpours.   Worked out well and i was able to walk around a few of the gardens and other sights.  I finally alighted near the Jewish quarter of the medina and took in a couple museums, one of artifacts from desert tribes from around Northwest Africa.  it was interesting, if a bit unorganized but for the approximate $1 entry fee it was entertaining (and dry).  Next I walked over to the Bahia Palace.

Bahia Palace
They spent a lot of time making this place all fancy for the Sultan.  It's beautiful tile work and carving was really inspiring.  I meandered through the building snapping pictures and getting ideas for the dream house i plan to build.. someday.  After the Bahia palace I headed for another museum...  at which point I got turned around in the narrow allyways and arrived at their door 4 minutes after they closed.  The the rains came!  So far that day I had dodged downpours but this time, I was caught.  I finally found an awning to duck under to try to dry out a little... and bumped into (literally) the Canadians I met on the train.  The rest of the evening I served as their guide about the souks (as they were totally lost but in a fun way and I had  map on the phone that showed me exactly where I was without incurring roaming charges (thank you Lonely Planet).  After some haggling, we found a terrace bar with two for one happy hour and took refuge inside.  We ended up staying longer than planned due to a heavy downpour.

Medina Passage
 We split ways later and i headed  off to fine some dinner.  A nearby hotel rated pretty good (if pricey) on the couscous meter so I stopped in.  Yes it was pricey, but the couscous was tasty so I though OK... it's bad really.  Then the belly dancers started.  Suddenly the prices seemed reasonable.  I also started wondering, how in a Muslim country where woemn are generally required to be covered head to toe does a belly dancer get away with being nearly naked and gyrating about?  Are these shunned women (which would be sad for the one dancing about while i dined.. she seemed kind of young to be shunned already) or is it just a little bit of allowed historical hypocrasy.

By this time the rains had stopped and the stars were out.  I took a few more ot the perfromances around the square before heading back.  I had an early wake up to take a trip out the Ourika Valley the next day...  which wasn't without some apprehension.  More on that in the next installment. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Of all the gin joins in all the towns in all the world

Moving on after Gibraltar was tough.  I woke up early and took off for the ferry terminal to catch the boat to Africa.  And more so this morning I had a hard time dealing with the lack of a second language.  It may have been a side effect of tiredness or just general apprehensiveness about the whole day.  It was going to be a lot of moving about.  So shortly before 8 AM I boarded a bus to Talifa.  From there it was on to Tangier via the FRS high speed ferry.  Little note, apprently there are two ferry ports in Tangier... Tangier Ville, the one right by the town, and Tangier Med, one about 45 minutes or so out of town... which seems kind of a misnomer to call it Tangier anything. 

Since the plan involved a tight connection with a train, I took the ferry to Ville, which required the bus ride to Tarifa.  At any rate, I finally managed to get the first stamp in my new passport, a Spanish exit stamp.  Seemingly an easy task for most, not so much really for me.  Without getting into details, the way I entered the EU didn't involve an entry stamp, and I had to explain this to the Customs officer in Spain when I went to leave.  Luckily, I had kept some supporting documentation and along with my work ID i convinced her I had not snuck in nefariously. 

Well, I was finally leaving Europe for the African portion of the adventure.  It's amazing how different the world is a short distance across the straits.  From the European/western way of just paying the price listed and a normal up and up  manner of doing things, it's back to the haggle and harass mentality.  So fresh off the boat, I started looking for a way to obtain the coin of the realm.  I didn't see an ATM or change desk.  I didn't see one when I left that gave out Dirhams.  I found a cafe and asked about a money exchange.  The guy behind the counter said hold on, went and got his buddy and asked how much I wanted to exchange, I told him he whipped out his wallet and that was that.  I don't think I got the best exchange rate possible, but I also didn't have to pay a transaction fee.  So I'll take it. 

And it was off in a taxi to the train station.  Again, price negotiation and  here I am in a "grand taxi", or a worn out old Mercedes.  Once at the train station I realized I had wrote down the wrong departure time for the the next train to Casablanca.  And barely made it.  Approximately $18 later i settled into my first class seat for the next 4 and half hours to watch the scenery go by.  Travel advice, splurge for first class on Moroccan trains.  Its a small upcharge (relatively speaking) and worth for assigned, big comfy seats.

Pulling out of Tangier
Surprise number one:  The place was green!  I was expecting desert and sand.  Nope, grass and some trees and plants in every direction.  I was informed that the coastal area had been receiving a lot of rain of late, so it was particularly lush.  As far as northern Morocco goes, they could use a trash plan.  Seems the current plan is to throw it all in piles near the train tracks.  The farther out of Tangiers the better, but still kind of spoiled the scenery.  I was amused to see people pulling to stops along the way with mules and carts to pick up those disembarking.  And despite the ramshackle appearance of some houses whisking by, they all had satellite dishes on the top which also amused me. 

As we pulled into Casablanca, it had the appearance that everyone said it does, a busy big port city. Not particularly scenic.  There are some nice parts, an ancient medina, some nice art deco buildings, and a big mosque.  That's about it really.  Though the NY Times says it's a place to go in 2013, i may have missed out on what they were so fond of.  Of course, he Times tends to cater towards... wealthier travelers. 

At any rate, made it to my hotel and settled in for a bit.  Then out to explore.  The biggest attraction in town is the Hassan II Mosque.  It looked close outside the window, so I'll walk it.  Yeah, I need to quit doing that, it's never that close.  On the walk, i thought the shortcut I took would be fine, turns out it was through a rather... unscenic neighborhood.  Oops.  But the plaza and gardens around the mosque were lovely.  The place was huge, though I'm not allowed in.

Hassan II Mosque
On the walk back, I had planned to stop by Rick's.  Denied!! They were closed for a couple hours between lunch and dinner.  Not to be deterred, I returned later to experience the reproduction.

"Casablanca" is a favorite film of mine, and I pretty much decided to stop in Casablanca just to go to Rick's.  Owned by an American expat, she's gone to extreme lengths to reproduce as much as possible from the movie (there was never a "Rick's" in Casablanca).  And done a fine job.  It was well worth the stop to dine with the essence of Bogey and Bergman.  A few cocktails, and a jazz quartet (though I was hoping for Sam to play it again) made for a lovely night.  It was very hard to resist the urge to spout movie quotes.   Calling it a night, I was thanked by "Madame Rick" (the owner) for coming in and I headed back for a nice sleep.  The next morning, it was off to Marrakech.
Rick's Cafe

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Rockin' Around the Rock

The last two travelogues I wrote while still in Spain, so things were kind of fresh.  The next ones will be recollections composed sitting back in Louisville... 

After the short but impressionable stay in Cordoba, it was time to move on to the the coast.  Again, the chosen form of transit being the train.  This time it was nott he super high speed train but a slower, more mundane train.  Still, the scenery was great and since I was well rested I actually stayed awake for the ride.  Pulling out of Cordoba, the train had to stop and change gauge.  Apparently the rails in Spain for "local" service are a different width than the "international" service lines.  I've never experienced this, and while sitting on the side track all i could think was some poor pit crew is underneath change the wheels on a train. 

At any rate, I was off.  Destination was Algeciras.  The only reqgrent I have about this whole trip is not getting off the train in Ronda and spending an afternoon walking around what everyone tells me (in retrospect) is an amazing little town.  Made famous by Hemingway in "For Whom the Bell Tolls", the ancient town is set high on a gorge and is said to be just beautiful.  It did look lovely out the window, and after pulling out of Ronda, the rails wound down through the valley and gorges passing in and out of tunnels.  Quite surreal really.

outside of Ronda, Spain
Pulling into Algeciras, I was a little disappointed.  This was a modern spanish port town.  In other words dirty and industrial.  No wonder the guidebooks all said to spend as little time here as possible before moving on.  Algeciras does have a couple redeeming qualities, it's across a harbor from Gibraltar and the main jumping off point for ferries to Morocco.  I arrived in the early afternoon, and made my way to the hotel.  I splurged on this "4 Star" property, the Reina Cristina.  And I suppose, judging from the surrounding city, it was the best there is in town, and for only about €40 it was a good deal.  The hotel is actually a beautiful historic property opened in 1902 and has hosted numerous famous people from Winston Churchill to Sir Author Conan Doyle to Rock Hudson.  You may notice none of these are recently famous people. 

The hotel was fine enough and did harken back to a bygone era of travel, and the price was more than reasonable.  But it was not enough to amuse me for the afternoon, so off to the bus station and ride over to Tarifa to see what the was to see.  Tarifa is just over the hill so to speak from Algeciras, and is known as the Southernmost point of Continental Europe (and is actually further south than the cities of Tunis and Algiers in North Africa).  From the south end of town, you stand and look ahead 14 km and see Morocco, then look left at the Mediterranean and right at the Atlantic.

Looking across the straight of Gibraltar at (i believe) is Jebel Musa in Morocco, on the way to Tarifa

Tarifa is a beach town and popular with surfers, both kite and regular variety.  However this being middle of winter and a chill in the air, most the shops were closed for the season.  Still, i was able to walk down the Paseo Alameda and find a cafe and a cerveza, or pass through the old walled city.  I did notice that I was, by far, the person on the tourist office guest list that week that was the furthest from home.  I then caught the evening bus back to Algeciras as the sun set over the Atlantic.

The next morning I was up early and back to the bus station for the ride to La Linea.  From the La Linea station, i followed the herd the 300 meters to the border with Gibraltar.  The whole ride over "the rock" loomed out the window with the sun just coming up burning off the morning fog. (Yes I was that early, of course sunrise wasn't till like 830 too).  After "clearing" immigration into Gibraltar (which basically consisted of showing them I had a passport in my possession, but they couldn't be bothered to look past the cover or look in.  I was a little disheartened since I had now been in three countries and yet to get a stamp).  And then, one of the top things I really was looking forward to on this whole trip....

The nation of Gibraltar basically sits on a  peninsular, much of which is reclaimed land or the famous rock.  So due to this goegraphy, the widest point was chosen to for the airport.  And it's right by the border with the runway running the full length, and then some, from east to west.  Famous amongst us aviation nerds, because it's one of the few places in the world where you can easily and regularly walk right across and active runway.  When a plane is coming in, the shut the gates and hold the traffic, both pedestrian and vehicle (since the road bisects the runway) until the plane has landed and taxied back to the gate.  Yes, i really was excited to walk across the runway.

Why did the airplane cross the road?

Being early on a Saturday morning, most the shops in the town were yet to open.  Gibraltar is a tax free shopping area, so a lot of people come across to buy booze and other luxuries.  I found a pub that was open and had a fine full English breakfast.  Having skipped dinner the night before I may have inhaled the whole thing in one breath.  The old city looks like it was transported out of an English port town (for obvious reasons) and has the similar vibe, except the residents may suddenly without warning switch from the Queen's English to Spanish mid thought.  I left breakfast and walked toward the cable car station for a ride to the top of the rock, passing the Trafalgar Cemetery, where many of Lord Nelsons casualties reside after the Battle of Trafalgar.  I kept moving on, and passed a tour guide touting his drive around the rock tour.  Being cheap, and not wanting to wait for him to collect 3 more passengers, I declined and decided to take the cable car up, (it was £4 cheaper).  And up to the top I went.

Trafalgar Cemetery

The rock has been the scene of tons of military sieges and battles due to the uber-strategic location, so lot's or tunnels and embattlements dot the landscape.  There's also the natural formations and the monkeys (the only native primates in Europe live there, and no one is really sure how they got there).  So, from the top of the rock, I thought I'd just walk down and see some of the sights it being a beautiful sunny day, and about 60 degrees.  Yeah, not my best plan.  By the time I got about 2/3's down I was really wishing I had spent that £4.  I did stop at a few of the historical spots, and watched the monkeys scurry about. Then I staggered into the first pub at the bottom I could find, and downed 2 bottles of water and a pint of ale (not in that order).  By this time, the sun was shining bright and the streets were full of shoppers.  There was even a parade of redcoats through town, and I'm sure why.  After some meandering about seeing various monuments and shops, it was off to a different pub for a steak and ale pie for lunch.  A few more pub stops and it was time to head back to Algeciras for the night.  If i thought the immigration procedures getting into Gibraltar were slack, i discovered getting back into Spain was even less formal...  i didn't even see a customs agent.  I'd like to stay longer in Gibraltar sometime, but it's pricey and will have to wait for a future stop.  The next day was going to be busy, up early and off to Africa. 

And that'll be in the next installment.