Sunday, February 28, 2016

#5: Holland. The Layover.

I will keep my Holland post about as short as my time spent here. Here it goes: 

The passport gets stamped and I walk on through,
Pondering what in just a single day, one can really do. 

Amsterdam! The Venice of the north some say. 
With my map and a Lonely Planet, we get on along our way. 

The district of red lights, I hear is popular for instance,
But since this is a missions trip, perhaps I'll keep my distance. 

Some of that green stuff, maybe? After all, 'When in Rome' that's the motto; 
Well, no. That's not that special, I can get it in Colorado.  

Wooden shoes how about? Well.. that seems pretty dandy.
I'm really just not sure though, when those would come in handy.

With all this to see, and all this to purchase, 
Finally, as I walk through the Museumplein, my decision emerges:

Not a Euro I'll spend, or a vice i'll indulge
Unless you count pickled herring, of that I'll divulge. 

The birds, the canals, the bikes and big churches
All make for a stroll, which is pleasant under the birches. 

Europe at its best, of Amsterdam I thought.
But back to my flight; I wonder what more time could have brought. 

Monday, February 22, 2016

#4: Costa Rica


a strong, innate desire to rove or travel about

By the summer of 2006, I had caught the disease, if one could call it that.  I didn't know there was a term for it... But wanderlust I suppose some say. I have my Delta employed brothers in part to thank for this: they gave me the ability to hop on a flight to virtually anywhere in the world at a moment's notice on a standby seat. There's something indescribably romantic and adventurous about putting your finger a spot on the globe on a Friday night and being there on Saturday afternoon - all the while not knowing how you'll get there, what connections you may make, where you'll leave from or even if you'll get there (and all this basically for free). But for 4 years that's how I was able to travel. If there ever was truth to the saying "the world is your oyster", this is how I felt for this happy and carefree period of life. Not saying that this didn't have its drawbacks: checking and rechecking seat availabilities online, anxiously pacing back and forth as a flight boarded and watching as my name slowly crept to the top of the standby list, making the call to leave a friend behind in a foreign city because only one seat remained, driving three hours to the second closet airport after finding your flight booked up.... Just a few of the joys of being a standby flier. But when it worked... boy did it work. Nothing's quite like having your ticket printed at the loading gate for a long haul international flight and seeing it say "2A"... those are the seats that the airlines make you shuffle by on your way in just to wish you had a better life. That was my life if ever so shortly...maybe it has cost me in the long run, as now I feel all the more deprived returning to normal routine of coach flying with the other 98%... but better to have loved and lost right?

But I digress... in the summer of '06, my bags were packed for Costa Rica. No tour group, no parents, no guidebooks, just a rough idea in our heads and a few tickets to San Jose. Costa Rica got into the tourist game before much of Latin America, and as a result, is now far ahead. Most hotels in San Jose can arrange to have you picked up in the morning and taken away to do rafting, climbing a volcano, ziplining, or any other outdoorsy thing you could imagine. Roads are pretty good, flights around the country are easy and cheap, and parks are well maintained. If you can risk a little rain, everything is dirt cheap in the rainy season too. My two brothers and I booked the honeymoon suite at a 4 star hotel overlooking the pacific in Quepos for what was probably around 100 bucks a night. Other than having a bathroom which was completely open to the rest of the room (which to me does not seem romantic under any scenario), it was fantastic. The rain never came and we enjoyed many sunny days drinking cafe milagro, fresh squeezed juices, and passing time in a bar that was in the fuselage of a crashed US cargo plane (maybe I should have objected to this one on nationalistic grounds... But how often do you get a chance to do that?).

I started with a quick story of how great standby flying could be, so I'll end with a story of how horrible it can be. At this time, Delta had two flights out of Costa Rica: San Jose (the capital) and Liberia, a non-descript town in the northwest corner of the country that barely makes it into guidebooks it is so uninteresting. But flights are easier to catch here as no one seems to be using the airport. So off to Liberia it was:  a nice an easy 3 PM flight, with the only catch being it was a 9 hour bus ride away. So we crammed into the back of a bus at 4 in the morning which stopped at every little town along the way, and with a driver who was not afraid to grab smoke breaks by the side of the road while the whole bus got to sit patiently and watch. We checked our watches over and over as the plan seemed to unravel.  A transfer in Puntarenas and another few smoke breaks later, we finally pulled into Libera shortly after 2, grabbed a cab to the airport, and rushed to check in as we watched our plane (the only one at the airport) waiting on the Tarmac.  After this entire day long rat race across half of Costa Rica, we were politely informed that the gates had closed and that we'd have to catch tomorrow's flight. Exhausted and disappointed, we headed back into Liberia, a town with little charm and was memorable only insomuch as there was a national bike competition going on that weekend meaning every decent hotel was booked. We settled into a room with no window, no hot water, and no AC and watched the clock as the hours went by while we waited for the next day's flight. I wish I could say that I enjoyed my stay in Liberia, but the events which brought me there and reasons I stayed overnight here amounted to me pretty much loathing the place. Costa Rica was definitely a trip of a lifetime... But Liberia... Well, they have a KFC.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

#3: Morocco

Morocco has the distinction of being the only country to which I've arrived by sea. It was just a short jaunt out of Algeciras, Spain to Tangier, the ancient Phoenician trading port turned crowded a,nd polluted mess that it is today. I did not see the side of Morocco featured in Casablanca, a place of romance and luxury frequented by celebrities and rich Europeans, or the sweeping dunes of the northern Sahara, or even the peaks of the Atlas Mountains looming to the south. No, my experience here on a fogged in spring day in May was one of impoverished children begging for money, bazaars filled with noisy merchants and peddlers,  leather factories of a scent so offensive you had to hold mint to your face. Our group was whisked from place to place, spending just enough time in each to allow us North Americans to check the box on each our limited North African stereotypes: Moroccan rug factory? Sure! Want to ride a camel? When in Rome! Belly dancing? Cous cous? Fez hats? Yep. Yep. Yep.

I certainly don't regret my experience here, and unlike my time in the DR where being a tourist meant separation from culture, one cannot escape being fully immersed in Moroccan culture from their first step into Tangier.  Case in point: the Adhan.  At first it's subtle... A farwaway droning that you think may just be a figment of your imagination. But then as more and more speakers join in it's unmistakable: the Islamic call to prayer. Raising up from the bowels of the city in a slow and almost ominous crescendo, being a westerner while this ancient and sacred ritual happened made me feel as if I were in another world.  The city stopped. The noisy merchants, the businessmen, the kids even.... Faced east towards Mecca while "Allahu Akbar" was slowly chanted over and over again from the rooftops of the city. That's when I knew I was truly experiencing different culture:  in contrast to America, where we argue about whether it's appropriate or offensive to pray to yourself in a public space...  Moroccans publically  broadcast "God is good" on loudspeakers loud enough to be heard for miles. Even though I was only a few miles from Europe, Morocco made me feel as if I was completely detached from "the west".  And for a moment, maybe I really was... Oh how I now truly felt like a world traveler. Gripping my souvenir Fez hat and hand crafted tom tom drum, I boarded the bus and headed back down to the harbor to brave the straights of Gibraltar and join back up with the West.

The sail back to Algeciras turned out to be slightly more harrowing than most of us had bargained for. The wind had picked up that evening, and as it happens a sluggish ferry designed to shuttle cars a distance of 15 miles each way seems barely seaworthy when confronted with 20 foot swells. Combined with a poor ventilation system and the chain reaction effect, there were not many who did not part with their cous cous dinner on the sail home. For my part, climbing to the top deck of the boat and keeping my eye fixed on the horizon saved me from nausea. As the lights on the rock of Gibraltar began to appear in the distance, relief began to set in. 

The next few days back in Spain felt like returning home after having been in Morocco. For just a day, I knew that I had been as far from home as I'd ever been... And the feeling gave me a desire to experience more: the need to get lost, feel out of place, but be on an adventure. Unfortunately, my wife took a similar trip into Morocco a while back and was considerably less enamored by its leather factories, public baths and not quite pristine streets than I apparently was. So I am not sure when we'll be back together to this charming and exotic land... until next time Morocco: Here's looking at you, kid. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

#2 of 20 something. Spain.

"I have long believed that any man interested in either mystic or romantic aspects of life must sooner or later define his attitude concerning Spain." James Michener. Iberia. 

Among all of the countries of the world, Spain stands for me altogether separate. The affections and thoughts stirred in me when I think of Spain are bigger than just travel: they are about the beginnings of relationships, questions of politics and good government, adventures worth remembering.  A country that was the spark of conversations that found common interests with a young lady and courtship that eventually led to my marriage.... It was where I first left the streets of America without my family; the setting of classic stories of romance and adventure of which I often daydream when life at home seems dull: the land of Matadors, flamenco, Cervantes.

I now have an impossible task: what can I say about Spain in a few paragraphs? 

It's a good steak seared on a hot stone and very decent Rioja, taken at an outdoor table on Plaza de la Laguna in the unassuming town of Ayamonte on a weekday night - the plaza crowded with school kids, their parents looking on as several impromptu soccer games filled the square. Even as the street lamps came on and dinner ended, these kids were still at it late into the evening. Laughing, arguing, subtly taking notice of whether the groups of mujeres gathered on the outside of the plaza were admiring their athleticism. We walked around Ayamonte's lit up streets in search of a nightcap, but instead found the town itself to be enough: the laughter, the chatter in the cafes, the quiet and serene alleyways. This is Spain. 

Maybe I'm drawn to Spain in part because of the stamp that it's left my home, the American west. The whitewashed Spanish missions now so linked in Americas memory to the Wild West and the high desert of Arizona and New Mexico are but shadows of the empire which planted them: the great cathedrals of Toledo, Seville, Madrid.  The same cathedrals today that tourists shuffle through disinterested in their tour groups were the ones where 450 years before men like Coronado, Cortes and Pizarro knelt before the altar and beseeched Gods blessing before setting out on their famous journeys across the ocean to the Americas. This is Spain.

When I think of Spain, so many places, people and things come to mind: San Sebastián, the fishing village of the northern Pyrenees turned vacation spot by the kings and queens of centuries ago for its crescent white sand beaches and incredible mountain vistas. Barcelona, with its gothic old town of meandering stone alleyways and mountaintop fortresses that even today fly the Catalonian flag in defiance of the crown. And of the verdant countryside, passing quickly through a train window, its rolling hills, the seemingly endless olive groves and windmills of La Mancha.

For thousands of years Spain has been the frontier of Europe. Once literally: home of the farthest western expanse of the Roman Empire; in more modern times the point where Christendom shared its borders with the moorish emirate of Granada.  And now, for its customs and culture... a little too uncivilized for an Englishman, its people just slightly too racy for a proper German. Such is the romance of Spain.  As Michener put it, Spain is a place where when one has penetrated its borders, he must be fully aware that he runs the risk of being made prisoner. I'll forever be a prisoner to Spain.

What preferences put Spain at or near the top of my bucket list?

Affordability: 30/100
Architecture: 80/100
Cities 20/100
Culture: 65/100
Food: 27/100
History: 40/100
Nature: 40/100
Outdoor Adventure: 30/100
Relaxation: 1/100
Safety: 25/100

(this leaves Greece and Malta at #1 and #2 in the Bucket List. Who wants gyros?)