Jumping Off The Rock of Gibraltar

During the final student trip to Spain that Russell and I chaperoned (yes, still in therapy), one of the day excursions was to the British territory  of Gibraltar off of southern Spain.  As we drove into Gibraltar on our coach bus I had a few words with my students to prep them for the day.  A few pieces of background information on our group—I was traveling with a dozen kids who were definitely having their ups and downs along the way, but what was most troubling to me were the chaperones of the other student group traveling with us.  Unfortunately when your group is small, the travel agency pairs you up with another school group whom you have never met.  The chaperones of this group, Amy and Linda, were part of the reason that this was my final student trip.  I made great efforts prior to and during the trip to prep my students on geography, history, culture, and not drawing attention to themselves.  I went over restaurant and tour behavior, including listening attentively to our guides at each site.

Their style of chaperoning was quite different.  Whenever we would be on a guided tour of a historical site or museum, I would be annoyed to hear people from our group talking and then turn around to find it was Amy and Linda.  This rudeness was an irritation but it got worse.  About halfway through the trip, Amy (who said she lived with her boyfriend) and our tour guide Roberto started to have what I would call “a thing”.  It was so obvious and shameless that one afternoon in the lobby of our hotel, one of my students loudly asked me within earshot of Amy, “Señora, if Russell wasn’t on this trip with us, would you be having an affair with our tour guide?”  Nice. 103_0626

Also, the day prior to our Gibraltar excursion, Amy and Linda took their group on a side trip to Morocco.  I can just imagine how that went.  I was really enjoying the day without them until I saw them return to the hotel.  Every one of the group, Amy and Linda included, had returned from Morocco sporting cornrow braids.  They had the chance to spend time in Morocco and they devoted hours of that time to having their hair braided?  This is NOT the Caribbean!  It is Spain.  No one does this.  Talk about drawing attention to yourselves!  I might as well have made all of my students change into shorts, white tennis, and I love America t-shirts.  So now we had to accompany them the rest of the trip with them looking like this.

And so we arrived in Gibraltar…………

We strolled down the streets and made our way to the most famous landmark—The Rock.  As we got to the base of The Rock, we had the option to walk up or take a cable car to the top.  About half our group walked up and the rest of us were going to take the cable car.  Russell is terrified of heights and not only was he going in the cable car, but also up to a huge cliff—way to take one for the team!  Can’t say the same for some others.  One of the kids on the trip said that she didn’t want to go up because elevation bothered her asthma.  (Side note—The Rock is under 1,400 feet above sea level and Wisconsin is 1,600 feet…..hmmm) Anyways, Linda stepped up to volunteer to stay at the bottom as well, complaining about some ailment that in fact was just her not being in shape and overweight.  Another gift—I would have an hour of relief from her.

As we got off the cable car and looked around we were greeted with beautiful views of Gibraltar, Spain, Africa, and the Atlantic and Mediterranean.  Eventually we were joined by the rest of the group, including some of my male students (one of them the kid who made the affair comment in the lobby) who were so excited to show Russell and me the video they just took of the famous Barbary Apes that live on The Rock.  I was thinking they filmed the apes being fed by one of the kids, the apes eating bugs off each other, or even an ape stealing something from one of the kids.  Oh, no.  There in front of us was a video of….well, monkey spanking!  That’s right—lovely footage of one of the Barbary Apes pleasuring himself.  Not only would I have to see this video, but I would have to hear about it for the next year or so as I overheard these students tell other kids back home how this was the highlight of their trip.  Not the museums and palace of Madrid, not the picturesque city of Toledo, not the Moorish wonders of the Alhambra or the Mezquita, no.  This ape.

103_0599As I stood on the edge of The Rock, contemplating the two hour ride back to the hotel and also the three days that remained of the trip, let’s just say it was a good thing the railing was there.

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Luck of the German in Ireland

Our arrival in Ireland was a trial by fire.  Or should I say “trial by tire?”  We got off a seven hour overnight flight, suffering seven hours of jetlag, had delayed luggage, and picked up our rental car to begin a two hour journey north to Galway.  As we pulled out of the Shannon Airport in our rental Toyota Yaris, Pic1a car that we WORE rather than DROVE, Russell got to drive “on the wrong side”, operate a stick shift with his left hand, and immediately merge into his first of many roundabouts.  Welcome to Ireland.

Two hours later we pulled into Galway and the College Crest B&B.  An early bedtime was in order with the long day and all of the St. Patrick’s Day festivities the next day.  We had planned our arrival for March 16 and wanted to be rested up for the big day.  The morning of the 17th we were getting ready in our room when my electric converter decide to act up and knock out all the power in the building.  Talk about walk of shame as I went into the breakfast room full of other guests to fess up.  The rest of the moring went better after a full Irish breakfast—blood sausage and all.  We took our spots along the parade route in downtown Galway and as I listened to the cheers for the group of bagpipers from Boston I thought, “I’m in a foreign country and they like Americans—they REALLY like us!”  This does not happen a lot unfortunately.  And what a great parade!  Nothing on the scale of Chicago or Boston, but I had heard before that the holiday was a bigger deal in the States, and it is.

Post-parade we joined the throngs of revelers in one of the pubs where Russell with his Scots/Irish rosacea cheeks fit right in with his people.  When we were offered two stools at a pub table by an older Irish gentleman, I was made aware of my lack of Irish traits as he looked at me and stated, “Yar German.”  I asked how he knew that and he replied, “Cause yar good-lookin’”.  I chuckled after that, but as I looked around the pub, it hit me.  Whereas I am usually either unnoticed or an Amazon freak when surrounded by the Latino beauties on most of my foreign trips, here in Ireland, I DID look good!  Looking at many of the local Irish women, I came to the conclusion:  hundreds of years of genes not leaving an island is not necessarily a good thing.

The day got even more interesting after that as we left the pub, grabbed some fish and chips and headed down by the docks for a stroll.  No sooner had we gotten to the waterfront when we heard yelling and saw a commotion.  We lingered around to see the scene and discovered that there was a fight and a man was stabbed in the head!  It was either extreme nosiness or the Guiness, but something made me go over and walk right past him as the paramedics treated him and news cameras arrived.  I swear I saw my shoes on Sky News that night.  Once that settled down, we did more pub crawling and finished the night with the traditional St. Patrick’s Day dinner–Chinese food at Lemongrass www.lemongrass.ie.

Pic9The next days found us outside the town of Recess in Connemara at Ballynahinch Castle www.ballynahinch-castle.com.  Wonderful days were spent here, watching fly fishermen, sitting at the onsite pub listening to trad (traditional) music, and dining in the fabulous restaurant.  We never wanted to leave!  But our next destination was calling us and so we headed south in the Yaris to the town of Dingle.  All the guidebooks told of how scary the descent into Dingle is through Conor Pass.  Luckily, or unluckily, we were surrounded by fog the entire time so who knows?  After settling in at Heaton’s Guesthouse www.heatonsdingle.com, we wandered into town, enjoying the unusually warm March temperatures.  Pic5Per a recommendation we made our way to an amazing seafood restaurant Out of the Blue www.outoftheblue.ie –a hole in the wall place with a chalkboard menu of whatever came in on the boats.  To say we ate well the entire time in Dingle is an understatement.  It was in Dingle where I had my all-time favorite breakfast: Heaton’s Breakfast Treat—a big bowl of oatmeal with brown sugar and Bailey’s Irish Cream.  Wow at 7 a.m.!  This German was slowly turning Irish………

Our time driving the Yaris around the Dingle Peninsula was memorable.  Between the winding cliff road with views of the sea and Blasket Islands and the sheep herd traffic jams, we had to be on high alert so when we saw a tiny sweater shop we decided to take a driving break and stop.  As we were browsing the sweaters and chatting, the only other customer in the shop approached us and asked where in the States we were from.  It turned out the tiny town of 2,000 in northern Wisconsin where we live was the same town where he summered as a child!  Crazy!Pic4

All the other fabulous sights we took in on our visit to western Ireland—the Cliffs of Moher, the Ring of Kerry, Mizen Head, and the trad music mecca of Doolin—wow!  Pic2

It was nine days of being rendered speechless, sipping Guiness, eating seafood, narrowly avoiding countless car wrecks, warming ourselves by the peat fires of the pubs, and seeing this beautiful piece of Earth while jammed into a thimble of a car.  Even though I wasn’t Irish, I never felt so lucky.

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Cowboying Up in Colorado

A circle tour of Rocky Mountain National Park was the perfect anniversary trip for both of us—I got my fix of cute mountain towns with great restaurants, Russell got to revisit his old elk hunting grounds, and we both got our fill of mountain hiking.  The first stop after pulling out of the Denver airport was the hipster city of Boulder.  After settling in at The Bradley Boulder Inn www.thebradleyboulder.com, just one block off Pearl Street, we headed down toward Boulder Creek, passing the masses of people jogging, biking, and shopping the farmer’s market.  Once we got to the creek and walked the adjacent trail, we were entertained by all the people coming downstream on rafts enjoying the high waters from the snow melt.  I put my foot in the water and it was like ice!  These people were crazy!  From that craziness we wandered into more as we strolled down Pearl Street.  A variety of eccentric characters roamed the area with my favorite being the owner of the “tooth car”. dscn0440 A traveling dental monument!  Gross.

Later that night we ate on the sidewalk terrace of Aji, a Latin American restaurant on Pearl www.ajirestaurant.com.   We started off with some great mojitos, with Russell opting for the seared salmon with chile and plantaindscn0446 and me trying the seafood trio special that featured some type of raw?? scallops that turned out to be amazing! dscn0448

From Boulder we headed north to Estes Park.  This ride brought us much higher and the elevation sickness started kicking in.  I was wishing I still had some of my coca tea from Peru that had made my time in the Andes so tolerable.  But I heard a rumor that since our trip to Colorado, there is now something legal there that people may be using instead to calm this and other ailments, but we had none of THAT Rocky Mountain high…..  Back to Estes Park!  We stayed in this gateway to the national park for a few nights at The Stanley Hotel www.stanleyhotel.com, famous for inspiring The Shining.  Every time we left or entered our room and passed by the visitors taking the ghost tour of the hotel, I would chuckle, but I admit I did get a little scared that first night.  But the view from the front porchdscn0522 of nearby Rocky Mountain National Park made any nightmares worthwhile.

There were so many great day hikes in the park.  We did a gorgeous hike back into Emerald Lakedscn0519 bringing us up to around 10,000 feet in places, with a very rugged stretch on the way back that turned out to be a wrong turn on a closed trail.  But the challenges and the views from the trail and the variety of landscapes were worth the efforts. dscn0500

The next stop for us was on the western entrance of the park at the Grand Lake Lodge www.grandlakelodge.com.  The main lodge has a breathtaking front porchdscn0535 and several cabins dotting the hillside.  The saddest part of area is the devastation of the pine beetle and the miles of dead evergreens that surround the Grand Lake area.  There are plenty of forest hiking trails where you can escape these depressing views, including the Continental Divide Trail that passes through this side of the park, which we walked for awhile, spotting a cow moose and her calf dscn0560in a swampy area just off the path.

The final stop of our mountain tour was my favorite city of all—Steamboat Springs.  Our days were spent exploring Rabbit Ears Pass, having to find alternate routes because of lingering June snow,dscn0511 but having a terrific picnic at 11,290 feet (per our GPS) of sandwiches from Backcountry Deli www.backcountry-deli.com.  Evenings were spent on the main drag of Steamboat.  The first night was on the patio of Mahogany Ridge www.mahoganyridgesteamboat.com, dining on their dipping entrees with choice of 17 different gourmet sauces.  The next evening was a leisurely dinner on the patio of Mambo Italiano www.mambos.com, sipping wine, eating garlic bread and calamari, and watching the Corvettes roll in for the upcoming car show.  We followed that up with a stroll down Lincoln Avenue, some Stetson shopping at F & M Light & Sons, and then off to the rodeo grounds to watch the qualifying rounds for the upcoming rodeo.  We were really getting into the cowboy vibe of this town.  It wasn’t like the make-believe ski towns like Breckenridge; this was a real working ranch town that happened to have a ski hill.  I thought to myself, “Hmm…I could live here”.  I even picked up a paper to look at the classified jobs section.  We even cruised a few residential areas.  We even started raising cattle when we got home!

Steamboat had changed us with its western vibe and cowboy attitude.  Don’t miss this town on your Rocky Mountain tour.  We will definitely be back—maybe permanently!   Yee ha…

The Honeymoon’s Over: Public Buses of Mexico

(note to readers–sorry for the lack of photos on this post, but digital pics from 1997 are not happening!)

On a sweltering Saturday morning in June, my husband Russell and I made our way down the washed out road from our beachside hotel to the Estrella de Oro bus station in Puerto Escondido, Mexico.  Puerto Escondido is a beautiful Mexican village nestled against the Pacific.  We had only spent one night in that town—using it as a stopover on our long journey from Huatulco, on the southern Oaxacan coast, all the way up to Acapulco in the state of Guerrero, hundreds of miles away.

The Pacific coastline highways were mountainous, secluded, and, most of all, treacherous.  Renting a car and driving to Acapulco was out of the question; taking a first class bus was our only option.  However, as our taxi dropped us in the front of the bus station, I began to wonder what primera clase really meant.  The station was a concrete building with chipped paint and crumbling stone.  Near the doorway, an elderly man sat on a rickety chair, tracing his cane in the dirt.  We passed him and entered the station to purchase our tickets.  All eyes were upon us; not only were we the only Caucasians, but also the tallest people in the building, if not the whole town.

I made my way to the ticket counter and requested in my best Spanish, “Dos para Acapulco—primera clase por favor.”  The somber woman nodded and slipped two small scraps of paper toward me, uttering, “doscientos cuarenta”.  I handed 240 pesos ($24) to her and looked at my watch.  We were departing in 25 minutes.

We stepped out of the station and back onto the street with all of our luggage.  I wondered aloud where the bus could be and was soon answered when the smell of exhaust and the loud noise enveloped me.  The large monster of a bus came to a stop in front of the station door.  Several local people hurriedly stepped onto the bus carrying only small bags.  My husband and I looked at each other and then at our large suitcases.

Suddenly a door opened, revealing a large compartment under the bus.  My husband smiled and hurled the suitcases into the vacant crevasse.  We offered a silent prayer that we would be reunited again with our possessions at the end of the seven-hour bus ride.  We climbed the steps of the bus and wandered back to our seats.  As we sat down, I noticed beads of sweat on my husband’s forehead.

“I’ll bet you’re glad we are on a first class, air conditioned bus, aren’t you?“ I asked.  “Are you sure this is first class?” he replied.  “Of course!” I laughed.  “Otherwise we’d be riding with a bunch of chickens!”

He flashed me one of his looks and turned to stare out the window.  I scanned the rest of the bus; it was filling fast.  I guessed that we were probably not just the only English-speakers on the bus, but also the only Americans.  I took a deep breath and hoped for the best.  My poor husband!  We had just been married a week ago and were now on our two-week honeymoon travelling throughout Mexico.  On this, his first trip to Mexico—was that look in his eyes wonder or sheer terror?  We were definitely off the beaten path.  Hopefully we would survive our adventure and have a tale to tell our future grandchildren.

The bus driver entered the bus and took his seat.  I looked at the people who surrounded us.  Across from us was a Zapotec woman holding a baby.  Directly behind us was the old man with the cane that we had seen earlier.  Judging from the ten minutes we had been on the bus, I guessed that he had some respiratory ailment topped off with the mother of all colds.  His handkerchief was already saturated; I hoped that he had another.  The last thing I noticed was the empty seat behind us to our left.  I checked my watch—8:00 a.m.—time to leave.  Just then a man hopped on the bus and the driver closed the door.  He hurried back to the empty seat, carrying a large, white box in his hand.  He took his seat, and the bus pulled out, heading on its way.

Within minutes, I became fascinated with that white box.  What was in it?  Then I noticed some holes cut into the side of the cardboard.  Just as I realized there might be something alive inside, our bus hit a large bump and a clucking noise erupted from the box.  My husband’s head whipped around, and he glared at me, only one word passing his lips: “chickens”.

As our bus pressed on northward through mountains and forests and along jagged cliffs, I became very aware of the people around us.  The ancient man behind me made his presence felt about every three minutes as his sneezes moistened the back of my seat time and time again.  The woman next to us was trying to quiet down her baby.  The little one had just eaten a bit earlier and was now very unhappy, wailing away.  I looked over at my husband.  His impatience was growing as quickly as the sweaty wetness of his shirt.  You see, this primera clase, air conditioned bus had turned out to be anything but.  Several times my husband had attempted to open the window for some relief, but was reprimanded—told he needed to close the window so that the alleged air conditioning could function.  Much to his dismay, the temperature inside the bus may have exceeded the temperature outside.

As I watched my husband melting into the seat, I noticed him looking toward the woman with her baby.  I followed his glance to see the spectacle going on before us.  The woman, discovering the problem of her crying daughter, had changed her diaper and was now opening the window.  Thank God, I thought—air!  However, ventilation was not the intention.  She took the dirty diaper, tossed it out the window, and closed it back up tightly.  My husband and I shook our heads in disbelief—could this ride get any more bizarre?  Yes.

Once the commotion of the diaper incident subsided, I was able to concentrate again on the man behind me who now seemed on the verge of death.  He must have been on the verge of dehydration as well from the loss of so much fluid via his nose.  And speaking of losing fluid, I noticed that my husband had now completely saturated his shirt with perspiration and did not look good at all.

A loud cluck broke my chain of thought, and I turned around to check on the mysterious, white chicken-box.  I tried to stare into the breathing holes to see what lay inside, but it was too black to make out.  The man holding the box began to speak to the dying man behind me.  Through subtle eavesdropping, I was able to find out the life story of the box-chicken—which was not even a chicken!  Within that white box was a living, breathing, crowing ROOSTER!  This king of beasts had earned his first class bus ticket by being a prize cockfighter.  His owner was taking him to Acapulco for yet another big fight.

I debated sharing this information with Russell, who had now almost slipped into delirium, when I felt the bus slow down.  Hmm, I thought; Acapulco was still two hours away.  The bus came to a stop, and I looked out the window.  We were in the middle of nowhere—no people or buildings in sight.  Suddenly, two men armed with machine guns stepped onto the bus and eased their way to the back–toward us.

The thought of looking at my husband to see his reaction terrified me.  Ever so slowly I glanced over at him, trying not to act panicked (so as not to draw attention to myself—a six-foot tall American woman on a bus of Mexicans).  There was my husband, wet from head to toe, eyes wide with disbelief that this ride could get any worse.  I grasped his hand tightly and observed the situation in the rest of the bus.

The people on the bus seemed rather calm.  As the machine-gun-toting men came closer row by row, the bus passengers would rise and show them documents of some sort.  Quietly I asked the woman with the baby what was going on.  “Quiénes son?” I whispered, asking her who they were.  She looked back at me amusingly, “los federales”.

Federales!  Were they after us?  Panic overtook me.  She quickly calmed me and informed me that they only needed to see our passports.  Relieved, I went into my purse and produced our two American passports.  When the two Mexican federal soldiers reached us, my shaking hand passed over our documents.  They scanned them and looked us over very carefully.  Oh no, I thought, we are going to die on our honeymoon.  The first soldier muttered something to the other, and they laughed as they handed back the passports.  At that, they turned around and marched out of the bus.

Two hours later we finally pulled into the Acapulco bus station, slightly worse for the wear, but thankfully alive.  I doubted my husband would ever forgive me for that bus ride, or for the three that would follow in the next seven days.  But I did know one thing: whenever we would speak about our marriage from that day on, the expression “the honeymoon’s over” was a GOOD thing!

 

Nothing to Do in Zihuatanejo

Everyone needs to have a do-nothing vacation at least once.  Ours was over Christmas/New Year’s in Zihuatanejo, Mexico on the southern Pacific coast.  “Zihua” is most famous here for its shout out in the movie Shawshank Redemption and once you get there, you will thank Andy Dufresne for the tip.  Whereas most American visitors opt for the twin city of Ixtapa with its high-rise beach hotels and all-inclusives, we knew we were Zihua people.  A fishing village pumped up by tourism, most of it domestic, this place is nestled between the Sierra Madre mountains and three beaches: Municipal, Madera, and La Ropa.

We wanted two different experiences during our time there so for the first part we stayed on Madera Beach at Bungalows La Madera www.bungalowslamadera.com. From our partially open-air apartment102_2245 high on a hill we were able to overlook the sea, the mountains, and the town below.  We descended a staircase from the pool area to get down to the beach and town was an easy, safe 5-10 minute stroll away.  Staying true to our do-nothing plan, we spent days by the small infinity pool overlooking the beach alternating between reading and napping.  102_2261In the course of a week we were able to read four books and several magazines.

Breakfast was normally down the hill from our apartment at La Casa Café and lunches of guacamole, ice cold Tecates, and shellfish were eaten at the many beachfront spots beneath our pool.  At night we would stroll into town, joining the other visitors and locals at the many excellent eateries there—our favorites being La Sirena Gorda and Restaurante Any.

After three days of nothing, we decided we should maybe do an excursion so we jumped on a boat at the city pier and ten minutes later we were on Las Gatas Beach.  There we rented some beach chairs, ate, drank, read, and did………………..nothing.  102_2263But it was an excursion to do nothing, so we felt less guilt.

The following day was New Year’s Eve.  As we had done nothing for days, we figured we could have a late night out.  Turns out this nothingness is exhausting and after a huge Italian dinner at La Vita ‘e Bella, we found ourselves heading back to the apartment by 11:30.  From our terrace we were able to watch the midnight fireworks and also experience a different tradition.  Zihuatanejo residents fire guns into the air at midnight on New Year’s Eve.  That’s right—random sky bullets at 12 AM.  Throughout the town, gunfire went on for a good 20 minutes at least—rifles, pistols, even machine guns.  From our terrace high in a building, high on a hill, I became understandably nervous thinking of the aim of these “marksmen” after an evening of alcohol and we decided it was best to move within the concrete walls of our bedroom, falling asleep to a lullaby of ammunition rounds.  Feliz Año Nuevo.

The next morning we were off to our final destination, the Hotel Cinco Sentidos www.hotelcincosentidos.com, tucked into a hillside overlooking Playa La Ropa.  This intimate inn of five suites, each with a sea-view balcony with plunge pool is heaven on earth.  102_2290We spent our time here doing even less than nothing—one day not even leaving our room/balcony until evening.  With these views, we couldn’t pull ourselves away.  But the dinner that night at Kau-Kan www.casakaukan.com of sting ray in black butter sauce and potato stuffed with lobster and shrimp in a garlic cream sauce was worth coming out, especially with great views from every table. 102_2331

We were so relaxed by the end of the trip.  People tend to overschedule their lives and also their vacations.  But for a real escape from the stresses of that life, everyone needs a little nothing in Zihuatanejo.102_2348