Thursday, April 30, 2015

Muddy-ing it up in Cartagena, Columbia

My two strongest memories of Cartagena, Columbia will be mud and super colorful architecture.  I have thoroughly enjoyed our two days here. This place is great.

But by far the most memorable experience from Cartagena was bathing in the Volcan de Totumo.  As usual, we had to no idea what to expect, but off we set as there were bonus points attached. While it does not beat the shark dive in Fiji for best scavenge of the year, this outing was definitely a close runner-up. Talk about a weird day. We arrived at this remote village (no electricity, maybe 10 homes) and discovered that they have made an entire industry out of the fact that volcanic mud pools in this weird ant-hill looking mound in the center of the village.

First you go up the very rickedy wooden stairs on the side and climb down a ladder into a pool of mud the consistency of chocolate syrup.  Not sure what is the chemical make-up but you float in it with no effort.  Yet none of the weird smells you'd expert, like the Dead Sea. Just muddy gunkiness and the illusion that you are in zero gravity.

After a quick massage, you are sat upright - suspended - in the mud with a dozen or so of your closest friends.  It has a sort of stuck-in-the-grossiness-of-life feel about it, but is also unsettlingly interesting as well.  It's like a bad dream where you are the  ingredients for a chocolate fondue scene.

Then out of the mud pool for a quick dry-off

After which you are led - by hand - by the older women of the village into a brackish pond at the end of the path.

They proceed to dump water over your head with a bucket, scrub you up and down and in-between and even have you remove all of your clothes so they can rinse out your swimsuit.  Yes, we were literally skinny dipping in a mangrove inlet with village people today.  Travel, you got to love it.

We are staying in the old, historic walled city of Cartagena.  Every building is painted a different color.  It's like a paint box exploded on the streets.

It looks like what I imagine Cuba is like (although I have never been there so I could be dead wrong).  This architecture speaks to my soul.

This year, the trip itinerary included a Seven Seas experience... where we had to swim in different oceans / seas around the world.  So, today, Rainey took a turn in the Caribbean Sea (because he always takes the hit on the swimming challenges, while I eat the yucky food).  And yes, that is my hunky Booth at 55 years old !!!

We even did the touristy carriage ride around town, because there were points for it.

We ate at a great restaurant in San Pedro square. Great because the food was good AND because it was air conditioned and Cartagena is 105 degrees in the shade.

Observation:  this is the first tourist town I have ever been to where literally NO-ONE speaks English.  The Catagena historic district is jammed with tourists, but they are all from South America (probably related to the do-not-go-to-Columbia-or-you-will-be-kidnapped-by-the-FARC-or-hooked-on-drugs scary stories that have routinely circulated in the U.S.).  So there are no Americans here.  Because of that, you cannot order coffee or even buy fruit from a sidewalk vendor without help (for me that's using my sons Ben or Jordan as translators as they both speak Spanish) as not a single service provider speaks a lick of English.  It's so unusual. Even in the most remote parts of Vietnam or Thailand, if there are tourists... there is some English.

We leave tomorrow for Miami, Florida: the last leg of the trip.  We will have one day of scavenging in Miami on Saturday and then the Farewell dinner on Saturday night.  We'll be home in Houston late on Sunday night. It's been awesome to share this adventure with my boys (who both seem to have a true affection for remarkably goofy looking hats).

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Europe Leg: French Rivieria (Ooh La La) and into Spain

And the great European migration continues .... we moved from Italy to the South of France, arriving in Nice after midnight. 

Day 2:  We woke up in Nice and spent the morning exploring the downtown area.  It was a little rainy and cold, but not unpleasant.  Nice has just finished this ambitious project to put a “green beltway ” through its town… basically a wide swath of land with gardens and fountains and walking / biking paths. It has these awesome fountains which – when not actively spouting water – mist a little and cause an eerie smoke-like atmosphere.

We then took a bus up to the village of Eze (in the hills above Nice and Monaco) for lunch at the 2-Michelin starred restaurant: Le Chevre D’Or.  When I was a teenager, my mom took me and my sister to this exact restaurant for lunch.  Not accustomed to super fancy meals, the whole experience made a lasting impression on me.  On this trip, I got to duplicate that memory with my boys.  And the Chevre D’Or is, exactly as I remembered it,  super fancy with incredible food and amazing views all down the sea coast. 

We spent almost 3 hours at lunch - with course after course - of food art.  A serving of asparagus with fancy truffle shavings:

Another example of the level of food architecture experienced:  this was my dessert, a lemon tart.  But the tart and meringue and everything is served under glass and looks exactly like an actual lemon.  Then you cut it open and inside is the tart.

After lunch, we waddled away and through the old town of Eze. There are lots of galleries and shops and the town is so pretty it drags you in and holds you hostage.

Early evening found us in the principality of Monaco. Monte Carlo is the playground of the very rich and probably famous.  Within 5 minutes of getting off the bus, we saw a Maserati (driven by a 20 year old), a Lamborghini (65+ man with 25 year old blondie) and a MacLaren. #playground-for-the-rich-kids-of-instragram.

We first toured the Monte Carlo aquarium (a very nice one but no match for Melbourne's) 

And then ... the Monte Carlo casino:  James Bond - stand back - we are now in town. Although granted, James Bond had the whole black tie, fancy car entrance and we had wrinkled and somewhat smelly travel clothes (with 2-3 days of wear), dusty tennis shoes and we arrived by foot from the train station.

But we came with great attitude and Ben gambled with as much grace - but far less cash - than the other millionaire guests.  His entire experience lasted 15 minutes, 10 hands of Black Jack.  Most importantly, he went in with 50 Euros and came out with 50 Euros.

And then, having had a Michelin starred lunch and a fancy gambling evening,we turned into Cinderella and slunk back to our ultra-humble digs in Nice.  For tonight, there are bonus points if you stay in a super cheap hotel which - in Nice - means we slept in an un-airconditioned basic room with a bathroom the size of a phone booth and sticky carpet on the floor.  Plus it's above a Thai restaurant so there's a powerful aroma of curry.

Day 3:  We left Nice before dawn and took a train to Cannes.  Our mission – during the one hour train layover – was to go to the Forville market and gather some supplies for a train picnic.  What a beautiful market: fresh fruits, cheeses, sliced meats, dozens of types of bread, baguettes and rolls (be still my carbohydrate adoring heart).  We stocked up and stocked up and stocked up.

Embarrassing scavenge… be a public performer for 15 minutes. There are 150 points for this public shaming, so I was about to start singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on a street corner when we found a for-share piano and – after much begging and whining – Rainey agreed to play.  He was GREAT. 

Next, a 4 hour lay-over in Montpellier, France, which is a lovely town but the weather was pretty awful by then (cold, rainy) so we definitely did not get to see its best side. Nevertheless, we stored our bags at the train station and set out exploring. 

Fountain of 3 Graces in town square (another topless statute of beautiful women)

Second Triumphant Arch (they are everywhere).

We ended the day in Girona, a true treasure.  I have never been there (or frankly even heard of this town) and it’s wonderful.  So wish we could have spent an entire day here.  Girona ROCKS!!!
One of the scavenges for tonight was to book a place to stay through Air BnB (or some similar website), i.e. not a traditional hotel room.  We lucked into a triplex apartment in the heart of the medieval section of town right by the Girona Cathedral.  The walk to the apartment was up a cobble-street alleyway (how cool is that?)

When welcoming us, the owner noted that one of the walls of the home is an original Roman-era wall (1200+ years old)…WOW!!!!  This was our backyard… ancient wall behind and on the left.

Look at the view from our bedroom (at the top of the house)… phenomenal.

Plus the cathedral (really - not figuratively - in our backyard) is a real sight

I was totally charmed by Girona.  We wandered in and out of the alleyways.

And found the lucky lion, whose butt you have to climb up and kiss

After dinner we walked along the river.  The houses rise directly from the river banks (hope the river never floods) are all painted slightly different colors (so cute). 

Then over the Eiffel bridge (made by Gustav Eiffel himself: of Eiffel tower fame)

Day 4: We spent most of today traveling to and from Andorra… small principality country in the Pyrenees mountains.  I’ve never been there before and, for the record, I have no need to ever go back. To be concise: Long journey, very little reward.  The main town is a nondescript village with lots of tired looking duty-free shops, a rushing river down the middle and – the only highlight – a real Saldavor Dali clock sculpture in the main square.  If you have never been to Andorra, don’t bother.

Day 5:  The last day in Europe found us up and out of the hotel by 7AM and, by check-in at 11AM, Rainey and I had walked 7.1 miles and seen all of the Gaudi houses plus cathedral as well as the entire Las Ramblas.  It was a beautiful spring morning and being able to just walk around (instead of being jammed into a taxi or rushing to catch a train or tram or bus) was awesome.

Got to love the cathedral where Gaudi gave Jesus NO face (or actually square-face) and put a creepy death image at Jesus's feet. Very dark.

This was a long, hard leg with lots of travelling, late nights, early mornings…  but what a great time we had !!!  

We head today for another Continent – Carthagena, Columbia.  Another new country.  YAY !!!!

Observation: European cities have really interesting sculptures all through their towns ... In parks and by crossroads and on street corners.  Just walking by them make you feel more cultured.  Seems like something America should adopt.


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