Tuesday, November 15, 2011

This Week: Around the World

Airports of the world

Airports have recently become things to dread. Between security lines and underwhelming food, most people just want to get to where they are going while spending as little time in the airport as possible. Airports can be interesting places if one takes the time to look at them. In the last 10 years, most every major airport in the world has undergone or is undergoing refurbishment and part of the goal of these projects is to not just handle more passengers, but to make airports esthetically pleasing as well. So why am I telling you this?
You may have noticed I haven’t posted anything to the travel blog in over a month. There is a good reason for that. I had a PAID writing assignment and it took the entire month of October to finish. My task? To write a 110-word paragraph about the world’s major airports, 182 airports in all. For the assignment, I was to merely provide factual and statistical information, such as the number of passengers per year, the number of non-stop destinations, how many concourses, etc. However, during the course of this work I learned way more about these airports than just facts and figures. Some airports are quite interesting. Some have artwork on display. And others are just downright dangerous (Tripoli anyone?) So for fun I thought I would compile some interesting airport information just in time for you to use to impress people at upcoming holiday parties. Your welcome!
The world’s largest building is Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3 in the United Arab Emirates at 1.5 million square meters (16,137,600 sq ft). The world’s second largest building is also an airport terminal. Beijing Capital International Airport Terminal 3 is No. 2 and was built to handle the passenger traffic for the 2008 Olympic Games.
King Abdulaziz International Airport in the city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, has a special terminal called the Hajj Terminal. This terminal is specifically designed to handle Muslim travelers entering the country for their pilgrimages, or Hajj, to Mecca/Makkah. What’s interesting is that many Middle Eastern airports have expanded in recent years to accommodate the millions of pilgrims that make the Hajj every year, however, this airport, which is the closest airport to Mecca, is the only one that has a specific Hajj Terminal with its own masque inside. The airport masque can accommodate 80,000 travelers.

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) recently reopened their Observation Deck, located on that cool Jetson’s type spaceship-like building. The official name of the building is the Theme Building. Closed after 9/11, the airport completely remodeled the deck and restaurant and it is now open to the public for viewing airplanes as they take-off and land. To visit the deck is FREE. However, patrons have to pay for airport parking and if they eat in the restaurant.

As a side note – dozens of airports in the US and around the world have Sky Decks or Observation Decks and most are free to use with paid airport parking. So if you like airplanes or your kids like airplanes, see if the airport nearest you has a sky deck and take a camera or binoculars, some will even allow guests to bring their own food and have a picnic.
For those of you who play golf, Huntsville International Airport in northern Alabama has an 18-hole par-72 golf course attached to it. Called Sunset Landing Golf Course, the course is open year around. On the flipside, Munich International Airport in Munich, Germany, features an 18-hole MINI-golf course on-site at the airport’s Visitor’s Park.
Many major airports, mostly in Europe, but also Sydney, Australia, and San Jose, California, feature bike paths and bike parking at their airports. Now I can’t image taking luggage for a week’s vacation on a bike, but when you consider that Denver International Airport is 23 MILES away from the city, having a bike trail to and from the airport sounds like a good idea. Think of the gas and money airport employees would save. Think of all the people who like to ride bikes. Denver, are you listening? All that open space with beautiful views of the mountains on the horizon? Who wouldn’t want to ride a bike on that?
By the way, at 23 miles, Denver Airport is one of the farthest airports away from the city it is supposed to serve. London Gatwick Airport is 28 miles away from central London, but it has a Metro. Orlando Airport is 20 miles away from downtown Orlando and has a Disney Shuttle. The airport that is farthest away, of the airports I researched, is Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 35 miles south of the city, however, they have a high-speed rail line that takes travelers from airport to downtown in 28 minutes. Denver has no such thing, yet.
And one final note on Denver. As you enter or exit the airport, you see a sculpture of a blue mustang. The horse has red lights for eyes. Looks evil, especially at night. Many people in Denver don’t like it and there is even a Facebook page asking for the airport powers that be to remove it. Those of you from other parts of the country might be thinking, what’s the big deal. What if it told you the artist who created the piece, Luis Jimenez, was killed during instillation when a section of the sculpture fell from hoist on top of him. Creepy.
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, Texas, one of the coolest music cities in the US, right up there with, Nashville, Seattle and New Orleans, features live music from local bands in their airport every afternoon.
Daytona Beach, Florida, is one of the world’s first runways. Not airport, runway. In 1906, boys flying their new toys would land their “flying machines” on the beach because the beach was long and wide and the sand was hard packed and smooth. After a while they thought it would be a good idea to build a facility next to it and the rest is history.
Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport has several miles of horse riding trails surrounding the airport. In order to use the trails, you have to fill out an application and undergo a background check by the airport. Once accepted, you and your horse have access to the wide open spaces that surround the airport.

Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, California, has been featured in two movies, Giant, from 1956 featuring Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, from 1989 featuring Harrison Ford and Sean Connery.
All airports have some sort of dog park or pet relief area for passengers traveling with pets or service dogs. However, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, is so proud of their pet area, they have a video of it on You Tube.
Check out the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7QStxuI-9qI
Punta Cana International Airport in the Dominican Republic has three terminals, all three featuring palm frond thatched roofs. They also have live merengue music. I want to go there.
Speaking of airports I’d like to visit, the top of that list is Princess Juliana International Airport on the island of Sint Maarten/St. Martin in the Caribbean. Those of you that have seen the St. Martin episode of Three Sheets know what I’m talking about. Not the easiest airport to land at, the runway begins over Maho Beach. Maho is a public beach and next to it is the world famous Beach Bar. Imagine drinking a rum punch while a jumbo jet flies mere feet above your head? I must go there so I can write about it someday.

Antalya, Turkey – Considered the gateway to the Turkish Riviera. I had no idea there was a Turkish Riviera. According to Frommers online guide, this is a place where you can hike through ancient ruins in the morning and sit on the beach and drink mai tais in the afternoon. My kinda place.

Tenerife, Canary Island – I knew about the Canary Islands, but I never would have guessed the airport on Tenerife receives over 7 million passengers each year. Although temperate year around, their main tourist season is from May to September, so that means a lot of people are going through that airport in a short amount of time. For those who are geographically impaired, the Canary Islands are considered a nationality of Spain, but are only a few hundred miles from Morocco on the West Coast of Africa. To get there from the US, one must fly to Europe first.
Here are some airports I recommend you NOT visit.
There is a subtle warning on the website for Mexico City’s airport telling passengers to be sure to use the “official” Taxi Autorizado (government run taxis), which are distinguished by their bright yellow cars and drivers’ vest. However, on Frommer’s travel guide for Mexico City, they are much more explicit. They warned against travelers arriving at Mexico City after 8 p.m. because that is when the official taxis are done for the day and travelers are left to the mercy of “private” taxis drivers who may not be on the up and up.
On the subject of taxis, for women traveling alone in Hurghada, Egypt, sitting in the front passenger seat of a taxi cab is considered an open invitation for sex, as is shaking hands with a man, waving hello to a man or even making eye-contact with a man. Please note this is NOT the case in Cairo. I do not want to discourage anyone from seeing the Great Pyramids (in fact now is a good time to go, Cairo is in desperate need of tourists for income and several magazines articles including Frommer’s own Budget Travel say it is safe). For more information on Hurghada, follow this link from Frommers.
I mentioned Saudi Arabia earlier. What I didn’t mention before is that Saudi Arabia has strict guidelines on travelers entering the country. You cannot enter the country if:
·         You have an Israeli passport or have an Israeli stamp in your passport

·         You are intoxicated

·         You do not respect Muslim traditions

·         Visitors not of the Muslim faith are not allowed in the holy cities of Mecca/Medina

·         Women traveling alone (unless you have a male “sponsor” to meet you at the airport and drive you around, then you might be allowed)

·         If you overstay your tourist visa (usually 30 days), there is $2,667 US fine and possible jail time

·         Chances are if you are a US citizen or of the Jewish faith, you will not be issued a tourist visa and thus not allowed in the country

(all information provided from Frommers.com and Budget Travel Magazine)
Tehran, Iran – Most of us here in the US don’t think about traveling to Iran. And those of my generation remember in great detail the Iran hostage crisis. However, this is one of the world’s major airports with 12 million passengers each year. Most travelers are coming from Europe or the Middle East and few from East Asia. You can’t get there directly from the US, but a hop to Paris, London or Berlin and you can be in Tehran about 12 hours. Those of us in Colorado are familiar with the Dizin Ski Resort located about 43 miles north of Tehran. We’ve seen it in Warren Miller movies. You’d be surprised at how many North American skiers have been there.
Havana and Varadero, Cuba – Fidel Castro has been running Cuba my entire life. US citizens have not been allowed direct access to Cuba in that time. However, with Fidel’s health failing and the government considering more of a free market atmosphere, the US has eased some of these travel restrictions. More and more US travelers are finding out what the Canadians already know:  Cuba is a spectacular vacation destination - Beautiful beaches, good food, classic architecture, fun street festivals. From what I have read about Cuba, it’s not an easy place to visit or get around in, but those that have been there treasure the experience. Sadly, I’ve read that the airports are crowded and difficult to get around in and known for taxi and baggage claim scams.
Tripoli, Libya – I was quite surprised to see this airport on my list. Especially since it’s only been a few weeks since Qaddafi was killed. The airport ceased commercial operations when the civil war started last spring so how it made the list I have no idea. There is no website for this airport at this time. It was very tough to find any information about it at all. I did find out that commercial flights are expected to resume December 1, 2011, from countries such as France and Turkey. Book your holiday flights now.
Airports with the coolest names:
Warsaw Chopin Airport is located in Warsaw, Poland. The prolific pianist, Fryderyk Chopin is a native son and the Poles are quite proud, as they should be. The airport along with the city hosts the National Fryderyk Chopin Institute and “Chopin and his Europe” Festival every year. Chopin was a child-prodigy and well known as a pianist and composer, however, he lived his adult life mostly in Paris after the Russian suppression of Poland. Having suffered health issues most of his life, he died in 1849. He was only 39 years old.  
Suvarnabhumi International Airport is located in Bangkok, Thailand. Pronounced su-wan-na-pum, the name was chosen by HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej and means “Golden Land” in Sanskrit. It refers to the region formerly known as Indochina. Indochina includes the countries of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. It’s also one of the newest airports in the world opening in 2006.
Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is named for New Orleans native and jazz legend Louis Armstrong. New Orleans is known for its music so what a great tribute, not just to Armstrong, but the city as well. Beside music, the airport is home to an art collection valued at close to $1 million.
O. R. Tambo International Airport is located in Johannesburg, South Africa. Formerly called Johannesburg Airport, the name was changed in 2006 and is now named after a South African liberation leader and former president of the African National Congress.
Airports with names that are lame:
Omaha Epply Airfield – Airfield? Really? Makes it sound like the place is just a dirt runway with a barn next to it. This is a metropolitan city and the airport has over 4 million passengers a year. I had many small market airports on my list that called themselves “International” and they didn’t have any commercial international flights (that’s right, Amarillo, Texas, and Green Bay, Wisconsin, I’m talkin’ ‘bout you!).
Albuquerque International Sunport – What were they thinking? Sunport? Sounds like a child’s playground rather than an airport.
Portland International Jetport – Located in Portland, Maine, this is not necessarily a bad name, but it does sound like it was left over from the 60’s.
And here are some interesting facts:
1)      Cincinnati Airport is actually in Northern Kentucky. Hebron to be exact. After many years of confusion they finally renamed it Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

2)      Denver International Airport has a passenger bridge between Jeppeson Terminal and Concourse A that is high enough for planes to taxi under.

3)      The Tropic of Capricorn intersects the southern tip of Guarulhos International Airport outside of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

4)      The world’s longest commercial flight is a Singapore Airlines flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Singapore and runs 18 hours and 50 minutes. The second-longest flight is an Emirate Airlines flight from Dubai to Houston.

5)      The world’s busiest airport is Atlanta’s Hartfield-Jackson International Airport followed by Beijing Capital International Airport in China and London’s Heathrow Airport.

6)      LaGuardia Airport in Queens, New York, is so close to Citi Field (Mets) and USTA Tennis Center (US Open) you could actually walk to them.

7)      McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, Nevada, has 1300 slot machines.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

This Week: Esslingen, Germany

20€ Lunch

I walked out into the cool, but sunny morning with purpose and direction. I was on my own in Esslingen today as my husband had already left for his training seminar. This was not my first time alone in a foreign country, but it was my first time in a country whose main language was not English and that would pose some challenges. Undaunted, I made my way down the sidewalks of this German town.

The castle, or burg as it was called, was visible from just about any street in the village, including the window of our hotel room. Finding a way to the top was first on my agenda. I caught glimpses of the hilltop burg between buildings as I walked through the old town plaza, or Rathausplatz. Ducking through an alley, I ended up below the road that encircled the old village. Just as I wondered how I was going to get up there, some young French-speaking girls passed holding digital cameras. Guessing that they were also visitors, I followed them. They walked over to a bus stop that was next to a walkway going below the street. Aha! I followed the girls through the walkway and up the other side. At this point, the girls decided to take some photos and I continued my way up the street. The hillside started here and the road became unbelievably steep. The homes clung precariously to each side. These small, but sturdy structures were beautiful - tiny little garages with steep steps up to the front doors, windows with shutters that weren’t just decoration, all painted bright colors without being gaudy.

A drop of sweat ran down the side of my face as I realized I wasn’t sure where I was going. Then I noticed a path through some shrubbery. Curious, I walked through the bushes and came out into a park. In front of me was the back of the castle. How did I end up behind it? But I chose not to question how, only to be grateful to have found it as I walked through the tunnel in the castle wall.

The Esslingen Burg was not a tradition castle and it never housed nobility. It was actually a fortified wall the citizens built to protect themselves from attack from above. The smaller tower, or hochwacht, is from the 14th Century. The larger Dicker Turm (big tower) that loomed over the town was built in the 16th Century and housed large cannons. The cannons were now displayed in the upper courtyard. From the walls of the Burg, I could see the entire town, including tall smoke stacks in the hazy distance from the factories that surrounded the village.

I kept calling Esslingen a village, but it was actually a suburb of Stuttgart and held 93,000 residents. In the shade of the tiny shops and ancient churches of the old town, the fact that I was in one of Germany’s major industrial capitals (perhaps you’ve heard of Mercedes Benz, Porche or Balluff?) was lost on me. On top of the fortress walls, however, I could see all of Esslingen and into Stuttgart and it was definitely a robust city.

The perfectly coiffed Burg grounds were a vivid green from the bushes and grass on the ground to the trees around the edges and the vines climbing the fortress walls. A grounds crew prepped a series of large round planters for spring with colorful flowers. In a wooden building at the back of the fortress was a restaurant, although it was too early for it to be open. Outdoor tables and chairs sat in dewy anticipation of the day’s visitors. The Dicker Turm was the site of a pub with sweeping views of the city, but was also closed at this early hour. As I walked down from the top of the Burg, the French girls came in from below, laughing and taking photos of each other. I wondered how they came in from there.

Crossing the lawn, I walked up a flight of wooden steps to the front passageway of the fortress near where the girls had entered. I was now overlooking old town Esslingen. I could see the old plaza and many clock towers; I could even see our hotel. Directly below me were rows of grapevines, some of the oldest in the region. These vines produced the sweet red wine I had at dinner last night. A road cut through the vineyard and exited somewhere below, but I wouldn’t be leaving that way. I would take a more difficult return path…the steps. The passageway of the fortress turned into a long set of stairs leading back down to the street. They were steep and they were many and they were the perfect challenge for this mountain hiker. With each step the rooftops disappeared as I descended back into town. Openings cut into the fortress wall that once served as lookouts for approaching invaders now looked into private back yards. Approaching the bottom, I walked out of the stairway and into the street I had walked up earlier. What? I looked back at the stairway wondering how I could have missed it. There were two signs marking each side of the narrow entrance, but they weren’t much bigger than license plates. Oh well.

With my morning hike behind me, it was time for some lunch. I made my way back to the Rathausplatz. The plaza had several cafes, however, the one simply called Café am Rathaus had tables in the sunshine.

Still a little early for lunch, the café was quiet. I would now be able to test my one year of college German on the waitress, poor girl. We had spent the previous week in the metropolis of Stuttgart and one thing we learned was that in the big city, most everyone spoke English and restaurants had English menus. Not so in Esslingen. When the waitress approached I simply shrugged, “English?” She shook her head while handing me a German menu.

In the 20 years since I took that German class, one thing I can do is barely, barely read German. I often read the headlines of German newspapers in airport kiosks while traveling. I won’t be reading any German novels anytime soon, but something like a menu or a billboard, I can figure out. Speaking German is a whole other story. I could never get the articles right. Was it die, der or das? Formal or familiar? However, I was determined to make an effort to order in what little German I could muster. Now I had heard that iced tea was extremely difficult to get in Europe, but I was told the same thing about Australia and yet found iced tea most places I went. I found it in Stuttgart, so why not Esslingen? I practiced the question in my head, “Haben sie ‘ice tay’?” It was a simple question and the waitress already knew I was American so how bad could I mess it up? The waitress approached.

“Sie haben ‘iced tay’,” I said. She said yah and in German continued to tell me they had three different kinds of iced tea to choose from.

Not understanding the barrage of German thrown at me, I again shrugged, “English?” She laughed. She repeated in broken English they had three kinds of iced tea; green, peach (which sounded like ‘patch’ to me) and lemon. I chose peach. As she walked away I realized I made a critical mistake. I didn’t say my request in the form of a question. I said it as a statement. Haben sie – Have you – would have been proper, like I had practiced in my head. The waitress was probably thinking what a goofy American, if there is a German word for goofy.

I studied the menu carefully. I felt like a salad or sandwich, something light and simple. I scanned the ingredients listed by each numbered item. Item No. 8 had weissbrot – white bread - with salami, tomaten – tomatoes - and käse, which was cheese. I scanned the rest of the menu and saw hähnchen or chicken and there were about a dozen dishes of wurst, or sausage. I wasn’t interested since we would be having that for dinner.

The waitress returned with my iceless glass of peach tea. I pointed at the menu item and said, “Acht.” She nodded and walked away. Feeling more relaxed I pulled out my novel and picked up where I left off. I had barely gotten into the chapter before my meal arrived. How fantastic it looked! It was a toasted Kaiser roll with salami, tomato, avocado and melted white cheese. Before she left I asked the waitress for another glass of tea.

We had had so many great meals since arriving in southern Germany a few days earlier. We had a wonderful garlic weissewurst at Frühlingsfest; Swabian ravioli in an onion broth in downtown Stuttgart and we had steak here in Esslingen the night before. But what I had in front of me was completely different. It was colorful, lightly toasted and delicious! Knowing I didn’t have to be back at the hotel for several hours, I took my time.

As I ate, the glockenspiel above me on the Rathaus began to chime noon. The café tables quickly filled up. I went back to reading my book while taking occasional bites of lunch and sips of tea. The shadows of the table umbrellas moved across the stones.

Eventually two women sat a table in front of me chatting away. Very well dressed in high heels and skirts, their hands swayed over the table in elaborate gestures as they talked loudly in German. I wondered how they navigated the cobblestone streets in those shoes. Then my waitress brought the women two giant slices of cake. Now I had the urge to have dessert and with all the walking I did earlier, felt it was justified. I caught my waitress and asked her what the women were having. All she could manage was cake. Her limited English vocabulary couldn’t tell me the flavors. She instead tugged my arm and motioned me inside to look at the pastry display. I was immediately overwhelmed by the choices, with no idea what all they were. I tried to read the little placards, but knowing that my waitress was the only server for the outside tables, I needed to act fast. Some large strawberries caught my eye so I pointed at them and said, “That und Latte Macchiato…bitte?” She smiled and I went back outside.

In a matter of minutes, the waitress came back with a plate of strawberries blanketing a moist chocolate cake and a tall mug of steamed milk with some coffee in it. I was going all out on my day in Esslingen. By the time I finished dessert another hour of the afternoon had passed. Still reading my novel, the glockenspiel chimed three and I figured it was time to go. I asked the waitress for a check. She brought me a slip of notepaper in which she had handwritten my order:

1 tea = 1,50€
1 #8 = 7,50€
1 tea = 1,50€
1 latte = 3,50€
1 cake – 4,50€
Total = 18,50€

I gave her the 20€ bill I had in my camera bag and waved her off when she tried to hand me change.

“Danke,” she said and walked away. I may not be a math genius, but I did know this: 20€ was approximately converted to $30 US. Holy crap that was an expensive lunch! But there were a few things to keep in mind: Not my fault that Europe charges for drink refills; I took up a table for three and half hours; and most importantly, the food and service were fantastic. To me, it was money well spent.

Useful Links:

Esslingen, Germany

Previous food/travel blogs:

Sydney, Australia
Treasure Island, Florida

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

This Week: Hol Chan Marine Reserve, Belize


(The views expressed in the following piece are purely speculation and should not be taken as fact.)

The boat from Discovery Expeditions was drifting into the dock to pick us up. We were heading to Hol-Chan Marine Reserve for a snorkel outing off the southern tip of Ambergris Caye, Belize. There were already several people on board. The driver, Richard introduced himself and his partner, Edwin. We took some seats next to another couple and stowed our gear under the seat. We introduced ourselves to the couple next to us. They were on their honeymoon from South Dakota. The bride prefaced her introduction with “I’ve been drinkin’ all morning!” Great, I could imagine her puking over the side of the boat later. Then we were introduced to Mike, who was solo and another Mike, who was not. Both Mikes, who had not met before, were also military; solo Mike was Army and coupled Mike was Marine. As they joked about their tattoos, I noticed the young woman sitting next to Marine Mike. She was quiet, wore a pink tank top with jean shorts. She was obviously cold as the wind whipped around us on the boat. She had her arms wrapped around her and her feet up on the seat. Then I got caught up with the conversation on the boat.

When Edwin asked how he would tell both Mikes apart, Army Mike replied, “I’m the good-looking one!” Then both Mikes started talking about where they were stationed. I heard something about Tokyo and Bangkok, but with the engine of the boat roaring in my ear, I couldn’t get every word.

As we made our way out to the reef, I enjoyed watching the boat wake and the island of Ambergris getting smaller behind us. Then I overhead Marine Mike answering a question Edwin had asked him.

“Yeah, she’ll take a life jacket. Her name’s Adelia. Last time I took her snorkeling she sunk like a rock. And she gets real cold too. I bought her this cute little snorkel outfit to wear so she’ll stay warm.”

I found this conversation interesting because Mike and Edwin were talking like Adelia wasn’t actually there. Since I had my sunglasses on, I figured no one could tell if I were looking at them so I took a good long look at Adelia. I realized she was much younger than I first thought…18 possibly 16? As the boat pulled into position at the reef, Mike handed her the snorkel shirt, also pink with a black logo on it and long sleeves. Her face looked - in a word my husband and I came up with over dinner that night - “third-world.” She had cocoa-colored skin with almond eyes and a few freckles. She had tiny earrings in each ear.

There were two groups of people on the boat, snorkelers and Snubas. Snuba was a way for non-dive people to breathe underwater. We, the South Dakota couple and solo Mike were snorkeling. Mike and Adelia and two college girls from the states were doing the Snuba. In Snuba the air tank floats on the surface so you don’t have to carry it on your back. Then you breathe through a regulator just like a scuba. People only go down 10 feet or so. Adelia didn’t look all that happy to Snuba. The way she clung to Mike, I’d say she was not at all happy to be in the water. Can she even swim?

We snorkelers went first since we didn’t need as much instruction as the Snuba people. With all the beautiful marine life at Hol-Chan to look at I forgot all about Mike and Adelia We saw turtles, rays, groupers, and the beautiful blue tang. The water was warm and perfectly clear.

When I got back to the boat, Adelia was already in and wrapped up in a towel. Mike was still snuba-ing, which I found funny to watch. The two college girls spent a good 10 minutes trying to get their air tubes untangle instead of looking around at the beautiful scenery. By the time everyone got back on board, Mike had given Adelia his shirt.

After snorkeling the reef, Edwin said it was time to head the boat to Shark-Ray Alley. During this short ride, Marine Mike offered up more information about himself. He said he was an experienced boater and offered to drive the boat for Edwin. He had a tattoo of Popeye (“I am what I am”) on his right arm and a tattoo of spinach on his left. He said his son had a tattoo of Sweet Pea on his arm and managed to make it through the Marines without so much as a comment. Mike was an older man, mid-60’s I guessed, short grey hair, unshaven white scruff on his chin. He was holding hands with Adelia at the front of the boat. She was quiet and looked out to sea. Between her shivering and nervous facial expression, I was convinced she couldn’t swim.

As we slowly motored between several other boats, I was beginning to wonder about this couple. By this time, Christian had struck up a conversation with the couple next to us. They were from Aberdeen. I have family in Sioux Falls so we were talking about how cold it was there (29 degrees). We told them we were from Colorado and they laughed because they heard on their hotel TV it was 70 degrees and sunny in Denver.

“Why are you here?” they asked us laughing. During this conversation, I kept looking at the young woman on Mike’s arm. She had high-arched and thin dark eyebrows, perfect little nose and shiny black hair. When Mike talked about their previous snorkels, I assumed they had traveled together, but upon closer inspection, she looked like one of the schoolgirls we saw walking along the road. Did he pluck her out of the jungle? He did talk about a trip through Guatemala earlier. Did she even speak English? I caught her staring back at me and even thought I had my sunglasses on, I glanced away. Did she know I was looking at her? Was I making her uncomfortable? Did she know what I was thinking? Was she looking for help?

Wait a minute. Maybe she’s playing him. A ticket to the US is what she’s after. He buys her things and maybe takes her back to the States. She offers to cook and clean for him, take care of him so they can get married and she gets a green card. If they did go back to the States, would Mike let her go out of the house or would he keep her locked away?

We arrived at Shark-Ray Alley. Adelia didn’t get in the water at all here, which was too bad because the fish were large and everywhere. Stingrays all over the place, hence the name and we all got to pet one. I felt Adelia was missing out.

Now that I’m back in the States, I still wonder about Adelia. Are she and Mike still together? Or did he find another, even younger girl. Should I have spoken to her? Was it my place to do so? Too many questions and not enough answers.


Writer’s notes – I’ve had this story on the back burner for a while now. It wasn’t until hearing about CNN’s Freedom Project that I decided to put it out on the web for all to see. CNN’s Freedom Project is an attempt to show the plight of modern-day slavery and sex trafficking around the world, even here in the US, and to highlight those who are trying to make a difference. For more information, visit the CNN Freedom Project website. Mike and Adeila are on the bottom left of the boat photo above.

Discovery Expeditions
Ambergris Caye, Belize
Hol Chan Marine Reserve

Thursday, June 2, 2011

This Week: Esslingen, Germany

Art Depreciation

When artists go out of their way to create something ugly, how can you appreciate it? That is the question I am left with as I exit the Villa Merkel Stadt Gallerie in Esslingen, Germany. This morning’s visit pretty much confirmed all my stereotypes about German modern art. I’ve seen art shows on TV showing skinny German artists with prominent cheekbones wearing black turtlenecks discussing how art is like a paper cut in the soul. Colored me bored.

I was wandering the walking path that follows the Neckar River. Taking the path toward Old Town I found the Villa Merkel building, a building that was originally built in 1873 by textile industrialist Oskar Merkel, maker of the famed “Esslingen Wool.” It was built in the neo-renaissance style by Stuttgart architect Otto Tafel. This information came from my tourist map. What is unclear to me is when the building went from someone’s house to city art gallery. I thought it might be enlightening to look at some artwork, expand my mind a little. For 1.50€ I would be perusing the latest in German/European contemporary art. I want you to know I went into this with an open mind. I was going to do my best to appreciate what the artists created.

A friendly woman greeted me at the entrance and told me in broken English the names of the two main artists featured on the main floor. As we spoke I could hear the sound of wind rushing somewhere in the building. The building was near the train tracks, but the sound was coming from inside. Then the sound got really loud it was difficult for us to hear each other, but suddenly it stopped. She handed me a map with the artwork titles and a brochure.

The first exhibit was right in the main chamber. The grand hall was open to the second floor with a lovely chandelier at the top. The hall was painted in soft yellows and creams. Soothing. The artwork on display, not so much. The exhibit was called, I kid you not, K-Hole (Frogs) by Michael Bauer. Black temporary walls were set up in a pinwheel fashion dividing the area into four sections. On the far wall were several mixed-media pieces of oil and fabric and I’m not sure what else. I like pieces with texture and these did appeal to me, except they were all black, dark and gray, no color at all. Almost like someone put clay and soot together with a little tar thrown in. Around the main room were statues, two of which were nothing more than white blobs and one that appeared to be a head and shoulders bust made entirely with tiny black tiles. While I was impressed with the tilework, which had to be painstaking, the bust had no discernable features - no face, or eyes, or ears.

I saw an open door and walked in not really knowing where I should go next. This was actually a different exhibit called Contremouvements by Alexandra Mauer. The room was bare except for two TV’s stacked on top of each other in the corner. On the walls were three large, bright paintings. They were mostly red and looked to me like girls dancing. They were definitely girls and each painting had two figures, which could have been two views of the same person. The girl had her arms in the air, head turned up, which is why I saw dancing. Again I couldn’t make out a discernable face, but there was definitely a head, blonde hair, arms and one painting had legs. The body was covered in various shades of bright red, with the brush strokes in long lines, not quite stripes, but close. I liked the bright red and yellow in the piece. I tried to read the info cards on the wall, but they were in German. Finally I turned my attention to the TV’s in the corner. They flashed various images of faces, but they didn’t appear real. They almost looked like doll or wax faces. They were shiny and sometimes had a melting effect, like mascara running down them. The only thing they had in common with the paintings on the wall was the color red, either in the background or shades of red shown between images.

I went into the next room and this one has three TVs stacked in the middle of the room. The paintings and TV images looked exactly like the first room except the dominant color was blue instead. My brain was trying to turn the paintings on the wall into images, but it couldn’t. I didn’t get the images of arms and legs and heads and torsos like I did in the first room. And the TV…it was worse. The images flashed by even faster. There will still faces on them, some looked very real while others looked like wax dolls. In this room, a set of small speakers were blaring a noise that sounded like the clacking of horse hooves. What the noise had to do with the art in the room, I’ve no idea.

I entered the corner room, which was actually two rooms with a large archway separating the spaces. As I entered the whooshing sounds I’d heard earlier got louder. That’s because of two large speakers on the floor in the far corner. This first section was dimly lit by shaded windows and had a projector mounted on the ceiling that shined a large image on the wall. There were two screens of the same image side by side. However, the images from the projector were so faint that they were just white squares. I focused my attention on the three large screens next me. There weren’t really screens. They were three self-standing walls about ten feet tall covered in white cloth. The images on them disappeared as soon as I looked at it. The noise from the speakers also stopped. Poor timing I guess. I entered the second part of this split room and it was completely dark. This room contained one full screen, there was a second screen that straddled the two spaces and the third screen in the space I just came from. I waited for the images to start up again. I’m sure it was on some sort of loop. Ten seconds went by. I could hear the hum of the projectors above my head. Another ten seconds. This was starting to get uncomfortable. Another 10 seconds. Finally I pick up my left foot to turn and leave when the sound of a wave crashing filled the space. Scared the crap outta me. On the far screen images of people being knocked down by water cannons appeared. On the middle screen flashed images that looked to me like the paintings I’d just walked by, only devoid of color. I recognized the striped brush strokes from the other paintings, but they were gray. The third screen was blank. The whooshing sound was all around me and quite annoying. I left the room.

I made my way back to the atrium space and crossed it to the stairway. I took a moment to overlook the atrium from the second floor railing. It was a beautiful space: Elaborate crown molding, classical columns on all four sides and a beautiful iron railing. Too bad the space was filled with such horrible art. I was directly above the black tile head sculpture. It looked like a big black chunk of ceramic from here. The big white chunk next to it didn’t look any better.

The title of the upstairs exhibit was painted in black letters on a white wall – The Keno Twins 4. I followed the map into Raum I. The walls were painted gray. Not all the lights in the ceiling were on and I wondered if this was on purpose. Most of the pictures in this room were abstracts. Unless they have bold, bright colors, I’m not interested. The first artwork I looked at was a black fabric, like felt, and to me it looked like it was covered in lint, just like the black sweater I have at home in a house with two dogs. A pink string in the shape of a Y was in the middle. According to the map it was called “Hidden Toil (Sweat painting #2) by Charlie Hammond. Where was the sweat part? It looked like someone rolled a piece of felt on an un-vacuumed floor. The next piece was a large, vertical rectangle. It was what we in the framing business call a ‘wrap’; a cloth wrapped around a frame. An old fashioned, thick rope and fishing net covered that. Jutting out from the middle of the piece were five or six jagged cut minerals. The minerals were polished showing all the colors in the rocks. The rocks themselves were interesting. The piece was called “Mr. Doerrupper viewed through the net” also by Charlie Hammond.

The next piece was an actual picture with definable images so I decided to examine it closely. It was called “Gegefou1” by Chris Hipkiss and was a Mischtechnik auf Papier (mixed media on paper). Center was a woman who looked to be kneeling in a garden, fenced in. She had four arms, one holding a garden implement, or it could have been a dagger. Hard to tell which, but I was trying to stick with the gardening theme. Her fingers, which were gloved, came to points. I’m guessing the tall structure on the left is a tree and the one on the right is a windmill. Then something catches my eye and I lean in to get a good look. Next to the path, at what first glance looked like rows of bricks, are really dragon flies. In between the insects are WORDS. Very tiny, bordering microscopic, hand-written words. There’s more writing next to the tree. A whole passage was written there, all of it so small I can’t read it. Why would the artist take the time to write such elaborate phrases into the piece? Especially since it can’t be read? From a distance it looked like shading. I was floored. Think of the time it took. Hours, days, weeks, months…

I skipped the rest of the work in the room and went into the next one. Immediately I was greeted by a gaping head sculpture colored brown, like mud, with blue lips. With a sigh I went to the paintings on the wall. In the midst of some larger works was a small Polaroid picture surrounded by a large white mat in a white frame. It was called 3662 by Horst Ademeit. The Polaroid was of a garden. It was on an angle. I could see an iron gate and lots of greenery. Coming into the picture was a large white blob in one corner. What’s with the blobs? Here are my guesses as to what the blob could be: A wedding dress; a white horse, a cotton cloud, a fog, a moving swan. I was just about to move away when something in the edge of the pic caught my eye. The artist had written notes in the Polaroid margins in very tiny handwriting. Again with the tiny! There was a date written at the bottom, either June or July ’98. Around the sides and top there were arrows pointing to the photo with words written next to them. I couldn’t read them.

I moved my attention to the next room and where I saw two large paintings on the far wall. They were Pon Farr a and Pon Farr b by Stefanie Popp. The A painting was the outline of a man, anatomically correct, and the B painting was a woman. At least she wore white panties. Both were cartoonish figures, like sidewalk chalk drawings, and a little chubby. What cracked me up was that both figures wore high heeled pumps each a different color. The man’s were yellow and red while the woman’s were white and blue.

Walking into Raum V I finally saw a painting I could understand. It was an oil painting in a plain maple frame. A landscape. I smiled. Flowers were in the corner. Clouds in the sky. I guessed it was either just before or just after a storm. There was a whitish circle in the sky. That must be the moon, I thought. The sky was blue, the hills were green and the flowers were yellow. Finally some color! Then I looked at my map to find out what it was called. The title was “Dawn firth with daffodils” by Alasdair Gray. Wait a minute. Dawn? I looked at the white circle again and notice it had a twinge of yellow around the edges. What I thought was the moon was really the sun. My happiness faded away as I looked at the picture in a new way. This picture wasn’t nighttime at all. It’s daylight. Then I noticed that the blue sky was a bluish gray and the green hills were really a greenish gray. Each daffodil was only three or four brush strokes. Add to this the picture was hanging on a gray wall and it looked like the all the color was getting sucked out of it as I watched.

Finally I entered the last room, Raum VI. More of the same dreary artwork hung on the walls. Another Polaroid was there. I can’t remember the photo because for a third time my focus was on the tiny handwritten notes in the Polaroid margins. The margins are completely filled with blue ink. Each line is perfectly straight and distinct and impossibly small. I needed a magnifying glass to see each letter. I attempt to read the print. I see a date (Mar 2010). I can’t even tell if it’s in German or English. I still don’t understand why anyone would spend the time writing something that meticulous, yet unreadable.

As I left the upstairs space to make my exit, I was going to wave to the woman at the entrance, but she was on the phone. If she had asked me what I thought of the artworks, I would have told her I could sum up my views with one word: Creepy. I wonder how creepy translated in German.

Post-trip Notes – Photos were not allowed, however, some of the works I mentioned were shown in the brochure. I may have broken several copyright laws by scanning and posting them here. However, since so few people read actually read this blog, I’m not all that worried. So take a look at the artwork and tell me what you think. After returning home, I visited the Villa Merkel website which amazingly had an English translation. I actually wasn’t that far off. The Frogs exhibit was described as “Colour fields looking like patches of dirt,” the Contremouvements was about human movement be it “happy or rage” and did include some “dance-like movements.” As for the Keno Twins 4, well, I will quote this verbatim from their website: “But despite the manner of an antiques dealer, an art collector, indeed almost an art historian, it really is an artist who is assembling things that move him. Michael Bauer’s view of art is refreshingly free from stereotyped thinking.” Whatever! It was still creepy.

Villa Merkel Stadt Gallerie
Esslingen, Germany (a suburb of Stuttgart)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

This Week: Ponca State Park, Nebraska

Volleyball has always been a HUGE part of my life. My biggest heartbreak was losing in the semi-finals of the Nebraska State Volleyball tournament in 1985. I met the man of my dreams on a volleyball court in Aspen, Colorado (see January 2010 post). I still play. I’ve been playing on a city-rec women’s indoor team every Wednesday night for the last 16 YEARS and across two states no less. I even have a quirky volleyball hobby. When I travel, I’m always looking for outdoor volleyball nets, even if I have no intention of playing. I’ve turned this hobby into a collection of photos called Ugly Volleyball Nets posted on Facebook. The start of this obsession can be traced back to Labor Day weekend 1980.

My mom took my brother and I on a camping weekend with about several other families to Ponca State Park, Nebraska, on the Nebraska-South Dakota boarder. Ponca State Park was right on the Missouri River. We traveled there in the giant black pickup truck owned by a friend of my mom’s along with her 10-year old-son. My mom and her friend worked together and we were joining several other families that make an annual pilgrimage to Ponca on their powerboats. By highway, our trip was only one hour, however, the boat travelers would be on the river between four to five hours. We met another family that had driven to the state park with their boat and we all motored down river to the campsite together.

When we got there, a little before noon Saturday, the other families who had come by boat were also just arriving. The water travelers had left in the wee hours of the morning and formed quite a caravan up the Missouri river with seven or eight motorboats. Now those boats were lined neatly in row tethered to trees on the shore. Families set up their tents and some men built a brick fire pit. The campsite was sandy earth with skinny Aspen trees everywhere, but not so thick you couldn’t put up your tent. The trees grew right up to the edge of the river. All the kids ran around, in and out of the water and underfoot. Some of the campers were working on the most important part of the campsite, the outhouse! One of the things the regular campers had learned was the forest at Ponca wasn’t very thick so you had to wander quite a distance to get some privacy. The campers created an outhouse by wrapping several nearby trees in black plastic complete with a door flap, then placing a large plastic bucket lined with a trash bag inside and several rolls of toilet paper. They even made two, men’s and women’s. Not exactly the Ritz, but it beat the alternative.

The five of us, mom, me, my brother, her friend and her son shared one large tent and after setting it up, we kids set out to play. Some adults had discovered a large sandbar a few feet from shore and they put a volleyball net on it. A bunch of us, including my friend Anne, set up on one side and the two adults on the other and we batted that ball back and forth for the rest of the day. Because we were in ankle-deep water, Anne and I flung ourselves after the ball and didn’t worry about getting hurt. We played until the sun went down. The only breaks we took were for dinner or when a barge went by. The adults told us the barges created undertows on the river that could suck people under without warning so we had to get out of the river completely until they were gone.

On Sunday, I played volleyball some more. I was digging volleyballs left and right and my mom’s friend, said, “Hey, she’s really good.” And I was; I can’t explain it, but I just knew where the ball was going to be before it got there. My mom’s friend said I should try out for the volleyball team and with school starting next week and I would. But for now, it was fun just running around the sandbar. While some of the other kids went swimming, waterskiing or tubing, I just kept playing volleyball. An occasional parent who got tired of sitting around would come down and play for a while and the kids came and went every five minutes, so sometimes we had ten people on a side, but other times we only had two or three. I was the constant. I don’t remember doing anything else the whole weekend.

By Sunday evening, we had worn that sandbar so far down the water flowed past our knees and it was too difficult to run so the adults took the net down. By dusk those of us still awake sat around the camp fire listening to the adults tell stories and jokes. Most of the families that took this trip were members of the Tekamah Volunteer Fire Department and it was quite the fraternity. They had interesting stories to tell, like the dangerous stunts they pulled when they were young followed by “don’t you try that, kids.” Most of their stories were too raunchy for this 12-year-old to hear or understand, but I still enjoyed it. I remembered them as fun-loving, drink-beer-until-you-fall-asleep-not-fall-down people just happy to be together with their families on a warm Labor Day weekend. Soon all of the younger kids and a few of their parents had turned in. Those that camped in their motorboats had zipped up their canvas covers for the night. My brother and my mom’s friend’s son had already gone to sleep in our tent.

Once the twilight was gone, I lost all track of time. It seemed later than it actually was because the sky was so dark. I heard crickets in the woods and smelled the Off bug repellent people had sprayed for the mosquitoes. I remember this one fireman we had dubbed “Keeper of the Fire” because he never left his folding chair by the fire pit that whole weekend. With a Schlitz beer in one hand and fire stoker in the other, he made it his job to look after the campfire. He enlisted the help of all of us kids to gather wood for him so he wouldn’t have to leave that chair. Our other chore was to hand him a full Schiltz and recycle the empty when he asked. He had the funniest stories. At what seemed to me the middle of the night my mom said it was time for me to go to sleep. I didn’t want to because when I woke up, the three-day weekend would be over. As I lay in my sleeping bag at the other end of camp, I couldn’t hear the Keeper of the Fire’s voice anymore, but every time I drifted off to sleep I was re-awakened by uproarious laughter.

On Monday, it was a quiet drive home and a little sad. School started tomorrow. I didn’t want to go. I wanted one more day on the sandbar.

Ponca State Park
Missouri River Relief - This Saturday, April 30, is the Omaha/Council Bluffs Clean Up and the following Saturday, May 7, is the Siouxland Clean Up encompassing three states, South Dakota, Nebraska and Iowa, in South Sioux City, Nebraska.
Schlitz - I couldn't resist.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

This Week: Tortola, BVI - Part Two

It gets better – Part Two

Monday was a holiday in the British Virgin Islands, Commonwealth Day to be exact. School was out, but a drum corps of school children pounded out marches in the schoolyard. Woke us up. It was also cruise ship day. Something the retirees mentioned with disdain. We wanted to visit the National Park but there wasn’t a taxi in site because they were all in Road Town picking up cruisers. About noon, the taxis and buses returned to CGB full of tourists and they packed the beach in minutes. We snuck up to the solitude of Rhymer’s deck. Amazingly no one else ventured up here the entire day. We felt like royalty standing at the railing passing judgment on all the tourists below - Old guy in Speedo, bad; Children playing limbo with broom, good; Women with giftshop bags sitting under palm tree, in-between. A group of local children arrived having finished with their holiday festivities. From the balcony at Rhymer’s we watched them build a sand castle and then dig a giant moat around it. By late afternoon all were gone. The sand castle was in shambles. Only the moat remained.

We were contemplating what to do for dinner when the solitude of the balcony was broken. A man and woman were entering the hotel room across the hall from us. We watched them enter and sadly realized we were about to have company. Shortly after their entrance they came out on the balcony. We all said hi. They asked us if we had been to Rhymer’s before. We said no and the husband told us they had been coming to this particular hotel for 16 years. Then the wife chimed in that they first came here on their honeymoon, when the pink hotel was the only one on the beach.

“There used to be no carpet, just miss-matched tile,” she told us, “and cockroaches! And this deck wasn’t here, nor the restaurant. When they first put the restaurant in it use to have a canvas roof, remember?”

The husband continued, “Yeah, they finally made a permanent structure and created this deck.” With a smile they said goodbye and went back to their room. We went into ours and changed for dinner.

So Elm’s was the place to eat dinner today. The sun was finally setting and the cruisers were gone. Elm’s restaurant and mini-suites were right next door to Rhymer’s, however, it was hidden by palm trees. As far as we could tell, it was never open, at least we hadn’t seen any people in it yet. We were curious about this place too, because of the wooden swings all around the bar.

Dinner at Elm’s was once again grilled fish and chicken, our third day in a row. However, the chef, who was standing in the sand next to a giant grill made out bricks, outdid all the previous meals. I don’t know what he did differently, but this was by far the best fish we had eaten. And instead of just beans and rice, grilled vegetables were available. We ate at a picnic table near the grill. In the warm evening we enjoyed some liquored up ice cream drinks for dessert. Around 8 o’clock the chef and the wait staff began cleaning up the grill and the serving table. Some of the customers left as well. Just few people sat inside. We moved to one of the swings that faced the water and swung for several minutes too busy slurping our drinks to speak. A guitar strum broke the silence.

“Good evening, everyone,” someone behind us said through a microphone. “My name is Steve.” Then he began to sing.

Don’t worry…about a ting…every little ting…gonna be all right. Baby don’t worry…about a ting…every little ting…gonna be all right…

On cue, all of us in the bar all joined in.

Rise up this morning…smiled with the rising sun…three little birds…pitch by my doorstep…singing sweet songs…of melodies pure and true…singing this is my message to you, ou, ou….baby don’t worry…

The next day I woke up early and sneaked out to the beach. It was daylight, but the sun had yet to clear the hill behind the bay. Three young men were raking the beach in front of Rhymer’s. After raking leaves, removing the debris and dusting off beach chairs, they moved to the front of Elm’s and raked that section of beach. They continued this all the way down to the cemetery. I followed them taking some photos, trying not to look like a stalker. Then they walked around the cemetery and to the school building across the street. I returned to Rhymer’s.

Rhymer’s restaurant was open for breakfast. I was so happy to see the breakfast menu; French toast, bacon, scrambled eggs, oatmeal even. After three days of grilled fish, I was desperate for some “ordinary” food. I ordered the French toast with a side of bacon and glass of OJ. Cost for this simple meal was $9 ($3.75 was just for the OJ!), but I didn’t care. I missed the food I normally ate back home. The French toast may have been Wonderbread, but the sugar cinnamon made it sweet, the bacon was not as crispy as I prefer and the OJ was pulpy, but it was the best money I spent on Tortola.

Later that morning, Christian found me lounging on one of Rhymer’s signature blue beach chairs enjoying a rum punch. Considering we still had rum and Coke back in the room, I had wasted money ordering a rum drink, but I was too lazy to get up. Saying it looked good, Christian ordered himself one. I told Christian about my fish revolt at breakfast and he decided we should do the same for lunch. Conveniently the café next door had a pizza special. We were so happy to not be eating fish that we didn’t care how fattening the cheese and pepperoni pizza was.

As we wiped the grease off our hands, a young couple took the chairs next to Christian and waved hello to us. We asked them if they just arrived and they said they had early that morning. He introduced himself as Ed and his girlfriend Kelly. They had also come after spending a few days on St. John and were going to spend the rest of the week on Tortola. Ed said they had been camping on St. John and that after a week of sleeping on cots and taking cold showers, Rhymer’s was a palace. We told them about our St. John “Scooter of Death” and how the roads were so bad in Tortola that we decided to just spend our time here and hoped we weren’t missing anything. Ed said they had arrived by ferry in the island’s main port of Road Town (we had arrived in West End) and spent the morning walking around town looking for a place to eat. However, they were not impressed - old buildings, crowded streets and pestering sales people. Ed said the reason he started talking to us was jealousy over our pizza. Unfortunately they had already eaten in Road Town, burnt fish and sticky rice. Happy to oblige a fellow traveler we pointed to the café next door.

This quiet day was our last on Tortola. I spent it looking at the bay, listening to the sounds around me and writing notes in my journal in between naps. Every now and then I could hear the shouts of the retirees playing dominoes at Elm’s. We had some afternoon entertainment in the form of a coconut vendor. “Cooooooo-conuts,” he yelled in a deep baritone. He pushed a wheel barrel with one hand and wielded a machete with the other. Intimidating enough that no one would approach him. Then a local boy ran up and the man opened a coconut for him. Watching him whack away with his machete at the coconut with the precision of a surgeon, a crowd of people quickly gathered. He would spin the coconut around in one hand while hacking the machete with the other. After a few spins, he put a straw in the hole he made at the top and handed it over to people for which they gladly gave him $5. After serving everyone in the crowd, he continue down the beach yelling, “Coooooooooo-conuts!” Soon the sun was in front of us announcing the approaching happy hour.

We could hear the patrons singing before we could see Myett’s bar sign. Cap’ Eye was entertaining again. We got our Presidentes from the bar and took our seats behind Cap Eye, the same seats we had on our first day. The retirees were living it up dancing and singing and hugging each other. Before Cap’ Eye ended with his signature song, Brown Eyed Girl, he asked for volunteers to play some percussion instruments. Tucked safety behind Cap’ Eye we were not worried at all about having to join in. That was until a woman wearing a black and white swimsuit cover up dress grabbed some maracas and stumbled over to us.

“Here,” she said handing me a maraca. Then she grabbed my arm and pulled me over to Cap’ Eye. Then a guy with a Jimmy Buffett Tunes in the Dunes t-shirt grabbed a couple of tambourines and went and grabbed Christian. Along with two other guys, one with a cabasa and another with a cow bell (I need more cowbell!), we shook and banged with the beat, not at all embarrassed in any way. After Cap’ Eye’s set was done, all of us percussionists posed for a group photo for the tipsy woman who started it all.

After the happy hour, we returned to our bar stools overlooking the water to watch the sun set. We still had one more Presidente to drink. Hurray two-fer-one! With each sip we reflected on what we had discovered the last few days. We discovered you get what you pay for and that can be a good thing; that the party doesn’t end with retirement; that no mattered how well it’s prepared we can only eat so much fish; that we can go with the flow…if we have to. Most importantly we discovered that being a traveler didn’t mean turning over every single rock on the island. Cane Garden Bay had everything we needed. Jimmy B was right; it does get better.

Please don’t say Manana if you don’t mean it;
I have heard those words for so very long,
Don’t try to describe the ocean if you’ve never seen it;
Don’t forget that you just may wind up being wrong.
– Jimmy B

Useful Links:
Rhymer's Beach Hotel
Myett's Garden and Grill
Elm's Beach Suites

Sunday, February 6, 2011

This Week: Tortola, British Virgin Islands

It gets better – Part One

Cane Garden Bay is mentioned in a Jimmy Buffet song: “I hear it gets better, that’s what they say, as soon as we sail into Cane Garden Bay.” – Manana He was right.

It was time for our biennial visit to St. John in the US Virgin Islands and we tacked on a few extra days to visit another island while we were there. Remembering the song, I looked up Cane Garden Bay on the Internet. CGB is part of the largest British Virgin Island of Tortola and because it’s British, we needed our passports to stay. But it would only be a short ferry ride from St. John and all the Virgin Islands, both US and British took US currency. The bright pink building in a website photo caught my eye. What reeled me in was the $80/night price tag. With tax it was around $100/night. You just don’t find those kinds of rates on a Caribbean island so I booked a few days.

We didn’t know what to expect when we arrived on Tortola. After a week on St. John in the very cushy Westin resort, we were a tad nervous about what $100/night would get us. The first thing we noticed about the island was how bad the roads were. We had rented a single scooter on St. John for the week and managed to tool around without killing ourselves (we had nicknamed the red UM the “Scooter of Death”). We had talked about renting a scooter, perhaps for the day, to explore Tortola, but the taxi ride from the ferry terminal revealed not only steeper and more narrow roads than St. John, but hairpin turns, pots holes, and giant ruts, which put an immediate end to our scooter idea. Without transportation we were stuck in the bay. Would there be food? Would we be bored? Would we drive each other crazy?

Our questions were answered as the taxi dropped us off at Rhymer’s Beach Hotel. The pink building stood out from all the tropical greenery surrounding it. In the small parking lot we saw the entrance to a convenience store and farther down was a sign for the hotel’s restaurant. Relived to know food and supplies were near, we entered. After checking in the desk attended led us to our room. We walked up a flight of stairs and down a long hall. A doorway at the end of the hall glowed in sunlight. Just like in that ghost movie we kept walking closer and closer to the light. The woman stopped at the last door in the hallway.

She opened the door for us with the room key. It was an actual key, bronze with a large plastic tag that had our room number on it. After using electronic card keys for a week this was quite a throwback. We entered the room. It was…underwhelming. The biggest shock was seeing two twin beds. My husband, Christian, was thrilled. “Woo hoo! I get my own bed!”

There was a small TV with cable on a dresser. There was a small kitchen nook with a sink, stove, cupboards and a mini-refrigerator. Next to that was the bathroom. Small also described the bathroom, but it was clean. No tub, just a shower. The shower had a window at the top that let light in from the outside. From it I could also hear the sounds of the bay. It wasn’t much, but it would do. We dropped our bags on the beds and walked out through the light that had blinded us earlier. Our jaws dropped.

We stood on a rooftop deck filled with all kinds of lounge chairs, tables and upright chairs all bright white plastic. Two giant palm trees shaded the south side. Before us was the beach that made up CGB and beyond that the bay itself. Jost van Dyke was so close I could swim to it. In the distance was the faint outline of St. Thomas. The brown sugar sand beach stretched for over a mile. Below us people relaxed in blue lounge chairs. We could hear reggae music coming from somewhere. Our tiny hotel room was next to this? Sweet!

We spent the afternoon wandering the beach, getting to know our new home. The three buildings to the south of us were all restaurants, some with mini-suites attached. After that were some souvenir shops. After that some private homes painted bright blues, yellows and greens. After the last house was a bit of a gap that led to a graveyard, creepy yet cool, and after that was a small lodge with a series of cabins. Our hotel was a long way away at this point, but we kept walking. Toward the end of the bay was another restaurant perched above the rocks with a wooden staircase that led to it. The sign said “Gone Fishin’.” Hungry we decided to stop. We saw no customers, but it was two in the afternoon, a bit late for lunch, too early for dinner. A tanned young man told us to sit anywhere we liked. We chose a place in the shade, but facing the water. The young man said that they still had some of the fish remaining that the owner had caught that morning if we wanted a sandwich.

“He catches his own fish?” my husband asked.

“Yes, almost everyday, depending on the weather. He doesn’t always catch anything, but today was a good day.” We couldn’t resist fresh caught fish. It was perfectly grilled, just a little crispy, with only some lettuce and mayo added to the bun. With all those Caribbean spices, it didn’t need anything else. Some potato salad finished off our hunger.

The long walk back to the hotel helped us burn off lunch. We chose to walk on the road so we could see what else CGB had to offer. After walking past the graveyard we were rewarded – with a grocery store! We were so excited to find a store we bought a week’s worth of food for a four day stay. We bought some melons and bananas, potato chips, some bagels and jam and, most importantly, two six-packs of Coke and a bottle of rum.

Just before sunset we again ventured along the beach wondering what to do for dinner. We could hear an electric guitar and people applauding ahead of us. The music was coming from a place called Myett’s that we had walked by earlier. Upon entering we were treated to the musical stylings of local Cap’ Eye. Cap’ Eye was an old white guy in a t-shirt and Khaki shorts strumming a guitar. He also had a keyboard/drum machine keeping the beat. We were surrounded by people as we walked up the steps and toward the bar. Christian ordered two bottles of beer and the waitress asked if we wanted Presidentes? He yelled over the music, “Why?”

“Because it’s happy hour and Presidente’s are two for one!” she answered. Well, that was a no-brainer. We managed to find two bar stools on the far end of the room. This was behind Cap' Eye’s make-shift stage, which was really just a small section of floor. No one else was behind him, but as soon we found some seats, a few other people followed us.

“Havin’ a good time?” a gentleman with white hair and beard asked us.
“Yes!” we shouted and tipped our bottles to his. For his finale, Cap' Eye broke into Brown Eyed Girl and the entire bar, including us, were shouting, “la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, tee da!” I was out of breath by the end of the song. Then happy hour was over.

“Cap' Eye is great!” the gentleman told us after he finished his set. “He sings here every Saturday, Tuesday and Thursday” He then introduced us to his wife (of 30-some years) and asked if we had been on Tortola before. When we told him no, he went into a whirlwind of words telling us how wonderful the island was.

“We’ve been coming here for 19 years,” he said. He knew most of the crowd at Myett’s and introduced us to more people than I can remember. Most were retired or semi-retired people from the East Coast, from Maine to Florida, who saved just enough money to spend two to three months of the year in Cane Garden Bay. None were especially wealthy. They were brick layers, accountants, sales people, teachers, mail carriers and the occasional lawyer. They stayed in the mini-suites of Myett’s and Elm’s and the various other small hotels in CGB priced not much more than the Rhymer’s. They had potluck meals once a week and spent their days reading books, playing dominoes and singing at happy hour.

“You have to come back here for dinner in a few hours, about 8 o’clock,” he said. He told us that they had a fish grill every Saturday and that for $35 each we’d get our choice of fresh caught fish, plus steak or chicken and two sides and it was the best on the island.

“The host will give you a tour of the grill and you pick your meat and fish before you even sit down.”

Later that night when hungry for dinner, we wandered back down to Myett’s, but checked out all the other restaurants we had seen earlier in the day. Oddly, none were open. The fish and steak were everything the gentleman had said they would be and served with beans and rice. We enjoyed a steel drum player tapping out island tunes in the corner. After all the beer we drank earlier, we were fine with couple of cokes. The evening breeze gently blew through the restaurant and the waves could barely be heard above the music, a great end to the first day.

We spent the next morning snorkeling the coral reef that ran under CGB. The best access was the far west end of the beach, near the rocks. I was amazed to find such a large and beautiful reef full of fish in such a busy bay, another pleasant surprise. After a morning of swimming, we returned to Rhymer’s to lounge on the beach for the rest of the day. The only mentally challenging thing we had to do was find dinner.

On this particular evening, only Stanley’s next to Rhymer’s was open. Stanley’s was serving a fish and chicken buffet. Delicious, but it was our third straight meal of fish with a side of rice and beans. We asked our server why they were the only place open and he let us in on a secret. Each restaurant had its own special buffet night. Myett’s was Saturday. Stanley’s was tonight. That way each restaurant in the bay was guaranteed a full house at least once a week. Our server said that tomorrow night would be Elm’s turn.

We were looking for something to do the rest of the evening, but being a Sunday, there wasn’t much. We ventured over to Quito’s Gazebo because we could hear music. Quito Rymer was Tortola’s most famous reggae musician and the Gazebo was his nightclub. As we approached people spilled out of the doors onto the beach and crowded the second floor balcony. Reggae music blared from inside. Excited to see such a happening place, we approached expecting to do a little dancing. Unfortunately we neglected to notice how dressed up the patrons were; men in suits and ties and women in dresses and high heels. Turned out we had just missed a local island wedding. The floral wedding canopy was still in the sand in front of the building, ribbons blowing in the wind. Some gentlemen at the door turned us away saying the entire building was rented out for the reception. Disappointed we returned to Rhymer’s and drank rum and cokes on the balcony. Although we never made it in, we could still hear the music from Quito’s while we watched the stars.

End of Part 1

Useful Links:
Myett's Garden & Grill
Rhymer's Beach Hotel
Quito's Gazebo
Tortola, BVI