Sunday, May 8, 2016

GE 2016: So Long, Farewell... End of 2016 Great Escape

We arrived in Washington DC on Friday night for the last leg of this event.  A simple Par 1 (after the very difficult Par 6 of Europe) ... which means we had from 7:00AM until 4:00PM to do a series of challenges in the nation's capital and then a final check-in.  Since Rainey and I have seen the monuments and landmarks several times, we decided to do the unusual scavenges (i.e. the ones that involved new stuff). Just a few examples:

- Photograph the 75 steps where the priest falls to his death in The Exorcist.

- Have a drink at Martin's Tavern and explain its fame: In the heart of Georgetown, this old pub is where John F. Kennedy proposed to Jackie O.

- On Embassy Row, find three embassies for countries we visited on this trip.  In Washington, all of the embassies are concentrated in one general area. Since it was "Open Embassy Day," many of them were open to the public and playing music from their country, handing out samples of local food, giving trinkets, etc. The whole area was packed and full of excitement.

This is the Mexican embassy, the country where we started this event 23 days ago.

-Protest outside of the White House:  We joined a rowdy protest for release of the redacted 28 pages of the 9/11 report (supposedly the pages that directly implicate the Saudi royal family in the attack).  Not the cause closest to my heart, but why not?  Transparency is always preferable to secrecy.

And then the saddest part of every year ... the final check-in which marks the END of that year's event.  This means it's 365 days from the next Great Escape event.  So awful to say goodbye to everyone and close out this year.

But the Littlepage Booth teams ROCKED the 2016 event and came in first, second, third and fifth (Chloe and Chris - even though they missed the last week of the event).  So proud of us all. Getting a medal in this event involves a lot of hard work, long hours, late nights, dawn excursions and 14+ mile days of walking (per my fit bit). But our teams did it.

Medal ceremony:  First place - Lawyers Without Borders

Second Place:  Two Traveling Texans (T3)

Third Place: Soca Warriors (minus one warrior)

Heading home now.  So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu ... until next year.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

GE 2016: Blasting Through Baltic Europe

Finally back on internet and with 5 seconds to spare.  We have been on the road for 5 days straight now... hitting 4 new countries for me along the way (Woohoo). Bill dropped us in Warsaw, Poland and we had to travel through Lithuania (Vilnius), Latvia (Ryga) and Estonia (Tallinn) and end up in Finland (Helsinki).  It has been a wild ride. Everything I brought with me is filthy and smelly and, when I open my suitcase, there is an odor like a sewage pit.  I have cursed every extra bra and pair of socks in my suitcase as I've lugged it through the countries (although Booth has helped out quite a bit).  But we had some truly WOW moments.  Who knew that these old Soviet bloc countries are so nice?

We traveled with Savannah and Bop as well as Wendy and Georgia for this leg but we split up during the days - when we got to the various cities - so people could chose the scavenges they most wanted to do in each place. But we did get to spend some time with everyone, especially eating together.

Rainey and I have been running hard and have completed over 125 scavenges so I am only going to hit the true highlights:

We landed in Warsaw and got to spend almost a full day there before we headed out on an overnight bus to Lithuania

- Get close to the heart of Chopin
Believe it or not, Chopin decreed that when he died his heart should be cut from his body and returned to his homeland of Poland.  So his heart was removed and stuffed into a wall in a church in Warsaw. You can't make this stuff up.

- Find the narrowest house in the world
It is called the Keret House and it is probably 6 feet wide and looks like an AC vent... not a house.  We walked by it 2 or 3 times before we figured out we had found it.

- Visit the statue of the child soldier
Very cute statute dedicated to the youths who helped during the Polish Uprising in 1944 by relaying messages, starting fires etc.

- The Invisible Experience
Although it was not in the scavenge book, this place seemed too interesting to miss... so we signed up for an hour long experience simulating being blind.  We were led into 5 separate pitch black rooms where we had to negotiate, walk through and describe an apartment, a city street, a jungle, coffee shop and an art museum. The art was all sculptures that we had to identify through touch alone:  Atlas with the world on his shoulders, replica of Michelangelo's David, a seated buddha... you get the picture. Really gives you a new perspective of how incredibly difficult it is to be blind.  Our guide was blind and freely answered questions about his own trials and tribulations. This event got an easy A+.

We arrived in Vilnius at 6:30AM after a long, hard night on a bus. The bonus scavenge for this day was to sleep in an AirBnB place and, after many false starts, I found a place that could hold all six of us near to the main city center. I've never used AirBnB before so I probably missed the part of the listing where it told me that we would be sharing the house with the owner (an older man who did not speak a word of English and who we promptly nicknamed "Daddy") and that there were no actual beds in the house, only couches.  Daddy met us the front door at 7AM with wild hair and fuzzy slippers, freshly awakened.  He has clearly not cleaned the one and only bathroom in several years.  The whole house smelled of moth balls and damp.  It was extremely "modest" accommodations ... to say the least... but it did provide a flat surface for all 6 of us to sleep and it was in a good location. Plus we laughed ourselves silly about where we found ourselves (at Daddy's in Vilnius... no place we ever expected to be).

Rainey and my bed ... a fold-down couch with no sheets and only a musty blanket.

- Climb to the Three Crosses
You could see the crosses on the hill overlooking town.  So hike uphill we did... in the rain

Note to self.  The people in Lithuania are INCREDIBLY unpleasant.  They seem to get true enjoyment from being as rude and unhelpful as possible.  So while the town of Vilnuis was nice, I am fairly sure this is the one and only time I ever need to be in Lithuania. I have no idea what caused the bees in their bonnets, or if they only hate Americans, but the country has a permanent scowl.

After sleeping at Daddy's,we took a bus early the next day to Ryga and spend five hours racing around the town before heading on to Estonia. It was Independence Day in Ryga so the town was celebrating with parades and speeches and lots of activities.  Great energy.

- Rent a bike to do scavenges
This is my favorite scavenge as having bikes makes everything closer and quicker. Rainey and I found a place to rent bicycles pretty close to the bus station, the weather was sunny and cool and the day in Ryga turned out really fun.

-What was Central Market originally?  Assemble a travel picnic.
This market is in an old Zeppelin hangar (how cool is that?).

We arrived in Tallinn late on Wednesday night .. via an evening bus from Ryga.  We got a hotel on the edge of the Old Town and woke up this morning to find that Tallinn is surprisingly nice.  It's an old walled city with towers every half mile or so... and they have maintained most of the ancient walls and cobbled streets.  Very quaint and some great architecture.

-Visit the Continent's oldest continuously running pharmacy.
It is in the town square and it's been open since 1422 (Yikes).

- Visit Alexander Nevsky Cathedral
I've just about had enough of temples, cathedrals and churches... but this one was a particular beauty.

- Locate a secret building that says, "There is nothing here."
Turns out that a section of a hotel in town was used by the KGB for interrogations (a/k/a tortures) and surveillance.  The door leading to that area has a sign on it denouncing that anything exists beyond the door (in Russian and Estonian).

- Take a dip in the Baltic
Since I am the designated eat-all-of-the-gross food scavenger, Rainey has to do the awful swim-in-cold-water challenges.  And he got flat down and neck dip in the freezing Baltic this morning.  What a good team mate he is.

We took an afternoon ferry from Ryga to Helsinki.  Check-in for this leg is at 11:30AM tomorrow so we're going to get up early again and try to see some of Helsinki.  The trip is almost over, which SUCKS.  In fact, Savannah leaves us at 6AM tomorrow morning to fly home.  She is skipping the last leg in Washington, DC.  When we met everyone for dinner tonight the mood was pretty somber.  "Ending" is always so much less fun than "starting."  But it has been a great Europe leg.

Sadly, the one consistent conversation theme that we've encountered on this trip, is people asking us whether all Americans are crazy since the US has nominated Donald Trump as a presidential candidate.  In fact, a repeated question was:  "This is a joke, right?" Frankly I may starting claiming to be from Canada, just to avoid the hot embarrassment.  

Saturday, April 30, 2016

GE 2016: Out of Africa

We have spent the last 4 days in the world of Karen Blixen (author of "Out of Africa" and yes, visiting her house was a scavenge).  I've never been to Kenya before and I thoroughly enjoyed our time here (minus the HORRIFIC traffic in Nairobi... which makes you tear your hair out).

The worst part was that - because Wendy and Georgia have knocked it out of the park with their travel skills and are now competitive for the first place - we had to split from them for most of this leg.  And Bill put a new rule in place that we could only do one bonus scavenge with any team, so we had to pick wisely which one we did with Chris, Chloe, Savannah and Bop. We chose a two day trip on safari in the Masai Mara reserve ... very wise selection. We also added another team (Slo Folks) to our group for some of the trip.

We started out early because it was a 6 1/2 hour long ride to the safari camp and more than half of the time was on "jumpy-jumpy road" which describes precisely the level of pot-holes on the mud paths.  But we arrived in time for a late lunch at our tented camp.

And then straight out to an afternoon / dusk safari

We saw so many animals.  It was incredible.

Aren't zebra butts so cute?

The elusive cheetah

And stand back National Geographic... look at the shot I got of the lions.

Herds of white-tail-bobbing Impalas

Mommy and cuddly baby baboon

At the end of the safari, we visited a Masai Mara village and danced with the women, got to see inside their stick-and-cow-dung houses and learned about their traditions.  Fascinating.  And what we really learned is that virtually all of the jobs are done by the women. The men go out into the fields every day and gossip and watch over the cows and sheep, while the women do all of the chores.

Their houses have no windows, just a few small holes poked in the wall, so they are dark, filled with smoke from the fire and smell of cow manure.  Makes you really consider : "There but for the grace of God go I."

Masai warriors showed us how they start a fire using two sticks and a handful of twigs.  These men would be true stars on "Naked and Afraid." They had flames within 30 seconds flat.

They even brought out their ceremonial lion mane headdress... for us to admire and touch. Creepy. And yet you feel compelled to stroke it.

Plus goat milking for dinner

We had an early supper at the lodge and turned in because we had a 5AM wake-call for a balloon ride over the Serengetti / Masai Mara reserve plain.

Seeing everything from the balloon changes your perspective as you realize the true vastness of the plains.

Once we landed, we got a full champagne breakfast, cooked and enjoyed on the plains.

On our way back to town we very politely "invited" ourselves to our driver's home for dinner.  Actually, we started talking about where we might stop to eat and Simon asked us if we'd like to eat at his house.  For 200 points we said "Heck Yes."  Simon has 4 kids, 3 older girls and a 3 1/2 year old son called Troy.  Simon's wife is a journalist and travels all the time so we only got to meet Troy and Simon's maid / babysitter. But Troy made the whole trip to Kenya. What a character.  As Simon opened the door to his apartment, Troy started dancing and he did not stop until we told him we were leaving (when he promptly started crying).

Troy has charisma aplenty and is smart as heck.  Wouldn't be surprised if he grows up to be the next president of Kenya.

The second day, we mapped out a whole set of things to do.  Since we could only complete five scavenges with the Bajan teams we decided to do those first and then split up.  Because Simon had asked us to his house for dinner the night before, we invited Troy to come with us to visit an elephant orphanage and feed giraffes.  Here is Troy's face when we told him we were taking him to see elephants and giraffes:

The baby elephants at the conservatory were cute and naughty and learn quickly how to hold their own bottle of formula.

At the Giraffe Center, you could feed and pet the giraffes.

Bop got "intimate" with one.

We split up from the Bajans just as the skies opened and a thunderstorm started.  Rainey and I spent the second half of the day working hard,seeing stuff and laughing our butts off in the pouring rain.  We were quite the spectacle.

Here is an interesting scavenger:  Talk to young women about the traditions of dowry.  I spoke to a Masai woman (wife of the village spokesperson), a Kikuyu girl and these two Banta teenagers.  Dowry is still measured in the price of cows and goats.  The Masai wife had been bought for 7 cows.  The girl on the left below told me she was only worth 3 cows and 2 goats because her family was modest.  What a world we still live in!!

Last scavenge of the night, after a 3 hour drive in traffic to cover maybe ten miles (so frustrating), we ate at Carnivore restaurant. Carnivore is similar to a Brazilian churrascaria except it also offers game meats such as crocodile and ox balls.

This is the last leg with Chloe and Chris as they have to leave early to go back to work (sad face).  The trip will not be the same without them.  Not sure where we are going next as Bill has given us a few hours off before our next check-in.  So packing up now... but where are we heading??? Stay tuned.

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