Sunday, May 4, 2014

End of 2014 Great Escape Trip: Finale in Chicago

We lucked into a beautiful day in Chicago (sunny and crisp) for our last day of the trip.  Emily and Ugs shot out of the hotel like jackrabbits, as soon as Bill opened the leg, as they were sitting in second place after the Europe leg and wanted to secure the spot.  Angel and Jordan abandoned us because they wanted to leisurely choose only a few scavenges and do them at a slow pace.  So Bettina and Johnathan came with Rainey and I to rent bicycles and explore the Windy City.  We had such a great day.

Took a ride on the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier

Reflected ourselves on “the Bean”

And photographed interesting outdoor art throughout the city …

Often starring Johnathan’s interactions with the art

Including a modern rendition of Rodin’s “The Thinker”

 Check in was 4PM. Followed by the award ceremony.  
AND THE WINNERS ARE… drum roll.  Rainey and I came in first ... YAY. 

And for the first time ever, there was a complete tie for second place.  So Ugs and Emily – as well as - Kim and Maria (The Retired Traveling Chicks) were all awarded second place.

Last event of the trip… the farewell dinner. Always such a bittersweet event.  

Based largely on the charitable contributions raised by this event each year, the Great Escape foundation now funds 10 schools (all co-ed - so girls have the same opportunities as boys) in six of the most impoverished countries in the world. They also fund a clinic for a nomadic tribe in Northern Africa which provides basic medical care, vaccinations etc.  Plus they have funded hundreds of micro-loans: all to women trying to better their financial situation. Not only is the trip a powerful life-changing experience, it also raises money to change the lives of so many other people around the world.

I'm glad to be going home tomorrow (I've missed my eldest son Ben so much) but I'm very sad that another Great Escape scavenger hunt is over.  It has been truly amazing 3 weeks.  
Signing off until our next adventure..... 

Friday, May 2, 2014

End of Europe Leg: Mummies, May Day and Memorials

Traveling across Europe, we went from Hungary to Austria to the 
Czech Republic to Poland.  May 1 is "May Day" here - similar to our labor day - so we saw lots of parades and festivals in town squares.  It also made travel a little more challenging as trains and buses did not run on their regular schedules. 

Brno: On the way to Prague, we stopped in the town of Brno.  Stopping is a bigger deal than it sounds as, once you get off the train for an hour or two, you then have to find a “left luggage” office or lockers, store your suitcases, find some type of map for the town (amazingly, there is little or no ability to buy guide books any more as everyone – except us – just uses the internet to look everything up), navigate the town and complete the required scavenges in time to run (at a full gallop) back to the train station and hop on the next train to your destination.  Logistics are tough on this leg.

Mummies and Daddies:  The scavenge clue was to find the mummies and the daddies in the town of Brno. And we did… in the crypt below the church there is a wide selection of mummy preserved bodies from the 1700s.  It was fascinating and creepy: like a train wreck you just could not stop looking at .

At the foot of one of the corpses was even a mummified rat!!!!

Also in Brno… this interesting statue of a bishop’s hat with freaky hands scampering out from underneath.  These people have a somewhat peculiar sense of art.

Prague: In Prague, we had to walk across the Charles Bridge and have our likeness drawn.  We got there at sunset. WOW. 

Rainey was the guinea pig for the caricature portrait

And then find and photograph the "dancing" building: interesting architecture.

And learn a drinking song in a beer hall

Prague at night is spectacular

Katowice:  In Katowice, we got off the train again to see a very bland, very architecturally uncool former communist town.  Block after block of communist regime housing: square, concrete, unimaginative, totally devoid of flair.  Compared to the beautiful cities we have been in like Budapest and Prague, the event producer obviously sent us to Katowice for a powerful comparison. 

And yet they have a UFO styled sports arena called the Spodek

Krakow:  We reached Krakow in the early evening.  Bettina and Johnathan had decided to leave us when we got off the train in Brno.  They wanted to go directly to Prague so they’d have more time there.  We did not see them again - for 2 days - until we met up in Krakow and had a fun dinner together.  They did great on their own… following the scavenge breadcrumbs across Europe. So proud of them.

Auschwitz:  The final morning of the Europe leg, we were up at 5:30AM so we could be at Auschwitz when it opened. 

There are no words to describe that place.  It makes you truly ashamed to be human

This is a pile of eyeglasses removed from the prisoners. A sobering way to end the Europe leg.

What sights we have seen, what places we have been, what wonders we have observed…

Even got a photo of soon-to-be-a-Gator Ugs (University of Florida Law School here he comes) in Brno.

Heading now for Chicago for the last leg of the trip.  Can't believe it's over.  This is the saddest part. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Beautiful Budapest: You win the prize this year

The world has apparently been conspiring to keep Budapest a secret from me all these years.  Who knew it was so beautiful? Who knew it was so great that it would beat even India (my true love) for my favorite place this year.

Stunning buildings along the river.. artfully lit up at night.

A quick fun fact:   Budapest is actually two cities: Buda on the left of the river and Pest on the right.  Together, the map reads "Budapest."  Where we were staying - on the Buda side - the roads cobbled and there are cafes on every corner.

Catching up on the competition: This leg will involve us traveling from Budapest to Gyor to Vienna to Bruno to Prague to Olomauc to Krakow … on our own … completing scavenges along the way … and all by Friday morning.  This part of the trip is a real test of navigation, puzzle solving and sheer stamina.

Going into the Europe leg, Rainey and I are in first place and “The Retired Traveling Chicks” (the powerhouse team of Kim and Maria – second timers to the trip) are in second place. Ugs and Emily worked their butt off in Dubai and WON the Dubai leg.  That puts them just 5 points away from second place.  If they can beat Kim and Maria in Europe they could bring home the silver medal. They are on the hunt....

Segways: First scavenge of the day for us in Budapest was to rent Segways for a tour of the Buda side (by the castle). It was the first time on Segways for several of the group and there was only limited instruction.  Plus the roads are cobblestones and very uneven.  But we were all optimistic – and everything was going great – when Bettina hit a bump and her Segway started spinning and twirling and literally hurdled her off… complete with screaming.  None of us knew how to hop off a Segway so we could only watch her tumble.  Nothing more serious that bumps and scratches but it was both scary … and hysterical !!!

Labyrinth:  We had to explore the labyrinth below the town square.  The fable goes that Dracula was trapped in this very labyrinth for 3 years by some king. The tunnels were creepy and dank and consistently ended up in dead ends.  If you really got stuck down there without any light, it would be downright petrifying.  Plus, unexpectedly, opera blared from the walls at different times: an odd and almost sinister atmospheric touch.

We figured out the metro system and the tram system and the bus system and scurried around the whole town.

Silver Tree:  Under the rules, we can only do five scavenges together – with other teams - each day (not including traveling and eating).  So by midday in Budapest, we had to split up and go our separate ways as we wanted to do a Danube river cruise together later that evening.  Right as we split, it started to pour with rain.  Rainey and I trekked on to get extra points while Bettina and Johnathan and Jordan took refuge in a coffee shop.  First stop – in the rain – Europe’s largest synagogue.  It has a giant silver tree in the middle courtyard (that’s right, a tree made entirely of silver – branches, leaves everything).  Every leaf is engraved with either a saying from the Torah or the name of a prominent Hungarian Jew killed in the Holocaust.

Hourglass: World’s tallest hourglass … just another statue in a line of cool statues in the park… but this one was worth points so we had to find it and photograph it. It takes a year for the sand to fall - grain by grain - to the bottom. And then the whole statue turns upside down and starts again.

Dinner Cruise: Early evening scavenge was a dinner cruise down the Danube.  Great opportunity for some sunset shots of the city.  And Budapest is one heck of a city.  One of the most beautiful in the world. Definitely a keeper.

Sunset from the top deck of the boat .... beautiful

Heroes Square:  Favorite scavenge of the day:  we had to visit Heroes square. We did not get there until late evening so everything was lit up. WOW. But isn't is disconcerting that some of the prettiest squares in every city around the world are dedicated to men who died in a war that no-one remembers? Awful statement about man's repetitive ability to harm each other. 

Every statue in Heroes square is unusual… with antler bridals for the horses and unique warrior helmets for the soldiers. 

Ark of the Covenant:  On the way from Budapest to Vienna we had to stop in the town of Gyor and find the “Ark of the Covenant.”  I’m pretty sure this isn’t the real one, but that’s the claim.  Big problem with this scavenge were the logistics. We had to get off the train, find left luggage lockers to store our suitcases (as we are traveling like pack mules this leg, hauling everything we have with us around), walk across town to the statue, find it, photograph it and then hustle back to the station before the next train came through so we could get back on our route to Vienna.

And yet we still found time to dance to the music of a Gyor street performer (for points, of course).

Vienna:  Vienna was a struggle.  We got in later than we wanted. We were TOTALLY sick of going up and down stairs in train stations with our luggage (this part is when you start cursing every extra pair of socks you “threw” into your suitcase at the last moment).  We had a hard time finding a hotel - for less than 90 Euros - that had 4 rooms available. (A bonus scavenge for this leg was to spend Tuesday night in a cheap hotel and we could not afford to drop those points).  Finally we got a hostel…tiny, no AC, lots and lots of teenagers and gap year kids hanging out in the lobby but clean and each room had its own bathroom. What a relief to dump the bags.  We immediately rented bikes and headed to the museum to see Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss”…. Amazing.  No photos allowed in the museum so I’m using a photo from the poster outside. It's so fantastic in real life ... bigger than you would think and the colors of the flowers and the golds are vibrant.

In the evening, we went to a summer concert in the Music Hall. I expected to hate.  I expected to count down the minutes until it was over. I expected to sit there and concentrate on the fact that I was getting points, to overcome my boredom. But instead – I loved it. The symphony played basically the greatest hits of the composers, opera singers sang solos and duets from some of the great operas and there was even two ballet numbers.  And all in a posh concert hall in the middle of the Vienna state park. Great evening.

This is a tough leg with lots of walking (while you haul your luggage with you) and jump on and off of trains.  It just plain wears you out.....
We are now on to Prague…. Stay tuned.

Jordan trying on post-communist gear


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