Archive | May, 2010
May 30, 2010

HEADING HOME . . . And Not Wanting it to End.

Munich airport, terminal one.  It’s early, cold, and pouring rain under an overcast and bleary sky.  Somehow fitting, it seems.  After two glorious months galavanting across Europe, we’re headed home.  Dusseldorf.  LA. And finally,  Honolulu.

No one’s saying much.  Rather quiet bunch.  All thinking the same – yet different — thoughts.  For me, it’s a time to reflect, ponder.  What are the “take-aways” from the experience?  After all the trains, cabs, buses, museums, ferries, funiculars, sights and subways,  how’ve we changed?  What goes home with us, becomes part of our fabric?

We’re travelers.  Unique, marching to the beat we’ve found to fit.  I marvel at the confident gait and stride these young vagabonders have cultivated.  Ipods, passports, paperbacks slung over their shoulder, they find their corner of the terminal the way their friends settle into their living room.

For Columbus and me, the business beckons. Payables, receivables, clients, marketing problem-solving.  We’ve been plugged in from afar – technology is an amazing thing – but it’s time to be back “in the office” actually touching it up close and personal.   And it’s summer – paddle season, sleep-away camps, hanging out with friends, summer programs . . . a whole sub culture to potentially get the kids plugged into, bringing order, purpose, and over-scheduling to the time traditionally reserved (at least in my day) for doing nothing at all.   We’ll find our way, I’m sure, but in our own time.  At the moment, all that activity feels like organized chaos (or “cha-chos” as Sacagawea calls it).  We’ll ease back in, one day at a time, until we find our step.  Reconnect with friends.  Weave the fibers of the experiences into our own fabrics.  Unpack.  Pay some bills. Do some writing.  It’s a clean slate, summer, and a chance to fill the palate as we want.  Don’t rush.  Get it right.

Then we’ll be off again to another part of the globe, our little family exploring the planet one place at a time.

May 10, 2010

Finding Our Juju in Italy

It’s probably the gelato.  Or the romantic language.  Or perhaps it’s simply the sheer silliness of the national stubbornness, particularly when it makes the least sense.  Somehow, we believe we might have been Italian in another life.  Never mind the freckles, fair skin and red hair.  It just feels like we belong here.  Not at first, of course.  Home isn’t always home right away.  But it happens.   It’s Italian we keep defaulting to, forgetting it’s not the language of Croatia, or Greece, or Turkey, or that we really don’t know Italian in the first place.NAPLES ITALY

We flex our vagabonding muscles in Italy. It’s where we exhale, eat well, devour gelato, and kick back.  We revel in the confusion.  We laugh at ourselves and the awkwardness of global travel.  We find our spirit, our juju, alive and well and looking for adventure.

When befuddled shipmates almost stumbled onto a train bound to Pisa instead of Rome, Dundee jumped in, gently guiding them to the correct platform.  When a wheelchair-bound passenger had trouble making it across the tracks, it was Sacagawea and Dundee who nudged fellow passengers to help the guy hoist his chair (and himself) into the train as the heavy doors clanked closed.   I watch and learn, sheepishly recalling how many times I’ve stood silent in similar moments.

Making our way from Naples to Pompei by train and bus,  it’s clear we’re being followed.   A heavy-set Hispanic kid — early 20’s in baggy jeans, t-shirt and hip white sneakers, new and expensive — kept a steady pace, far enough back to not engage, but always just there, all the same.  We got off the bus at the wrong stop, so did he.  We crossed the street unnecessarily – and crossed back – so did he. I checked my money belt, confirming it was secure, and pulled the kids a bit closer.

We asked directions, and he stopped, loitering aimlessly until we moved on..  He shuffled when he walked, head down, as though trying to hide, be absorbed by the sidewalk.  His soulful brown eyes darted away, but always kept us in sight.

“Excuse me,” I said, suddenly turning to face him.  He jumped back, surprised.  “Do you know the best way to get to the train station for Pompeii?”

“No,” he replied sheepishly, staring at his shuffling feet.  I let the silence hang, staring at him.   “It’s my first time here and I don’t know how to get there.  I only have a few hours before I have to be back onboard, and want to see it, Pompeii.  I’m following you, hoping you’ll lead the way.”

POMPEII SCAVIAt least I got part of it right.   Hispanic, from Guatemala.   A shy kid, determined to see the world.   We reminded him of his family back home,  he said.  Thought he’d just tag along.  My money belt, quite safe, seemed we’d picked up another kid for the day.  A global “play date” of sorts, a new buddy for Dundee (and the rest of us.)  And together, we found Pompeii.

May 7, 2010

HALF A WORLD AWAY — LOST IN VENICE

“Let yourself get lost in Venice,” everyone suggests.  “Walk. Wander. Discover.” Sailing past St. Marks and up the Giudecca by cruise ship is like taking a hot air balloon ride over the city.  It unfolds from above,  the Grand Canal giving way to back canals teeming with gondolas, vaparettos, and water taxis.; grand decaying palaces, small markets, church towers rising from the water.  Like falling down the rabbit hole with Alice, it’s a step back in time.

Columbus was right there, on cue, waiting on the pier as planned.   I know it’s the 21st century and all, but I still find it rather amazing – and terribly romantic – to rendezvous half a word from home, on a tiny sliver of dock.   Us on the ship’s high observation deck, him waving from the guard post at the dock, very cool indeed.

Sacagawea and Dundee were thrilled to show him the ropes, introducing him to our many new sailing buddies and sharing stories of our adventures.  Alan and Noemi, the delightful couple who make marital bickering a conversational art form (think Archie & Edith); Colleen, who’s been homeschooling her kids for 25 years, and her mom, Betty, who clearly planted the adventurous seed years ago; Don, the WWII vet who saw action around the globe – the guy Tom Brokaw wrote about in The Greatest Generation – and now holds a crowd with that mischievous  twinkle in his eye.  Tom, the ship’s destination guru, who’d spent the past 72 hours patiently repeating directions to Piazzale de Roma to worried and confused travelers (forget about the Doge’s Palace, St. Marks, or Peggy Geggenheim’s collection; it’s all about the luggage.)   And so many more…all our new posse from our trek across the sea.  Thanks to the great crew aboard our ship, Columbus got to spend the last night with us onboard, docked in Venice, just a quick glance at the world we’d called home for the past three weeks.

VENICE ITALYBack on terra firma and away from the ship, we settled into the Venetian beat.  From the tiny terrace of our creaky old hotel room , strategically located halfway between St. Marks and the Rialto Bridge, we watched gondolas glide and jostle through the canal sliver below.  Diners lingered over wine in the flower bedecked terraces of the trattoria across the canal, while visitors jammed the footbridges to capture photos of the magic. It’s just as we imagined, yet nothing like we expected.

Chatting up gondoliers until we found just the right one – seasoned (not too old and not too young), promising song, history, and stories – we became part of the scene.  He delivered brilliantly, gliding us under impossibly low bridges at high tide, telling tales of Casanova, Marco Polo and old Venetian families.  Down the Grand Canal at sunset, this old, creaky, smelly decaying city – no bigger than New York’s Central Park – simply shimmered as it’s done for hundreds of years.  The stories from its past — Carnivals of yesteryear, wealthy shipping magnates and scandalous explorers, Peggy Guggenheim and her dogs, Ezra Pound, his wife, mistress and the whole lot – all seem to whisper secrets from the waters lapping the boat’s edge.

We joined the Venetian scene, sidling up to the bar with the locals in a crowded osteria, ordering cichettia and prosecco  as the throngs of day-tourists give way to locals and die-hards here for the night.   We scored that flower bedecked table in the trattoria window, savoring our over-priced pasta and waving to the gondoliers as they glided by.

By day, we discovered the secrets of Doge’s Palace, wandering behind the locked doors and gilded halls into the prisons and torture chambers of another era.  We ducked down to pass through the tiny doorways into Casanova’s cell, peered through the windows high above the canal, and walked the path across the Bridge of Sighs.  Having walked the prisoners’ death path above, we carefully navigated around the two pillars in the Square, heeding the Venetian belief that it’s bad luck to walk between them, the spot of so many executions long ago.  (Ironic, we thought, that it’s between those pillars that the most entrepreneurial souvenir vendors choose to hawk their wares.)

Half a world away, a magical, decaying, delightful place.  It spoke to me, one of those spots a notch above all the other magical, wonderful places we’re lucky enough to visit.   In a crazy, chaotic world – one currently struggling with bomb plots in Times Square, volcanic ash spreading across Europe, and economic collapse around the globe – Venice holds fast.  Carnival masks, Murano’s blown glass, gondolier families, secrets from the past all woven together in a tiny little city confidently shimmering in its own demise.   Perhaps they know something we don’t.

May 1, 2010

SELF SUFFICIENCY – AND REMEMBERING TO KEEP MY MOUTH SHUT

Seems that along with passport proficiency and multi-lingual communications, extended travel – particularly when traveling with all your stuff in one small bag on your back — creates some other basic life skills.  Sacagawea and Dundee cut a deal at lunch a few days ago.

“Ugh!  Stains on my favorite shirt again.  I gotta get ‘em out,” Dundee whined, exasperated, since laundry day wasn’t even on the horizon.

“Well.   My favorite shirt needs fixing,” Sacagawea retorted, “the one that’s ripped and I haven’t been able to wear for weeks.” (An exaggeration, I’m pretty sure, but she had to make a point.)  I figured that was my cue, the point where Mom parachutes in with the solution and all’s well.  Fortunately, I was chewing, so my parachute jump would have to wait  just a few more seconds.

“Tell you what,” she said.  “I’ll spot treat your shirt if you’ll sew up mine.”

“Deal!”  he replied. Seems we’ve developed specialties – niche skills for which we’re appreciated.  His, sewing  repairs.  Hers, laundry and spot treating.  Not bad.

Issue resolved. Smiles all around.   And I had absolutely nothing to do with it.  Note to self:  Remember to keep my mouth shut more often.

May 1, 2010

SARANDE ALBANIA — OFF THE BEATEN PATH & WORTH A CLOSER LOOK

SARANDE ALBANIAChatting with our fellow cruisers back onboard at the end of the day in Sarande, it was hard to believe we’d been in the same spot.  “Poor . . .not much to see . . . horrible roads . . .” were the reports we heard from fellow travelers.  We were confounded.    For us, it was something else entirely.  A new frontier, not yet “discovered” by the hordes of Med visitors, a raw country, finding its way into the 21st century amidst its history of bomb shelters and spectacular scenery.   Having a chance to explore it was one of the highlights of this itinerary — a place where we’re not jaundiced with preconceived notions, stories from other travelers, and endless websites touting various must-do-must-see sites and activities.   Just us, and a country we knew almost nothing about.  Until today.

For me, Albania is one of those places I’ve heard about for years, but never really knew where it was, much less what it was like.  It was a bit embarrassing to realize my images of babushkas and cold climate were trumped by stunning Mediterranean vistas and a warm-but-cautious people.  There are almost as many bunkers as people in Albania, a visible reminder of its paranoid past.  School holidays were set aside so children could help build the bunkers, our driver explained, “to protect us from the enemy.”  It wasn’t lost on me that we were the enemies he’d been warned about.

While most of our fellow travelers opted to stay on the ship, or perhaps venture out on a sanitized bus tour, we opted instead to spend the day with Durim, a local cab driver we found near the port.  His perfectly detailed Mercedes minivan stood in stark contrast to the abandoned construction and work-in-progress that defines Sarande.   He spoke halting English, but bragged that his daughters speak perfect English.  It’s taught in schools now, and children learn it early, then teach their parents, he explained.

From the hillside castle, we enjoyed captivating vistas across farmland and beyond, to the Greek Isles of the Med.  The brilliant blue sky against the sparkling water and lush islands created a computer wallpaper type scene, almost too beautiful to comprehend, particularly enchanting since we were the only people in sight, save the caretaker slowly sweeping the decks.  Then that diesel roar groaned, a caravan of buses careening up the hill, “sticker people” as the kids call them, ready to descend on this quaint little castle.  But wait!  As the hoards descend, Sacagawea and Dundee spot their shipboard buddies, Morgan and Theo (parents in tow) stumbling off the bus.  Their faces tell the story . . . the bus ride is miserable.  Details follow:  the stench of carsick travelers, AC that’s not quite working,  two boys who want to be anywhere but there.  “Join us!” the kids plea, and without hesitation, our friends ditch the bus for Durim’s Mercedes, and our own version of touring.

We hiked through the Butrint ruins, a UNESCO site of dating back to 6th century BC.  Nestled in a wooded forest of sorts, the ruins meet nature’s strength, half covered in vines, trees and overgrowth.  A small museum is tucked in one corner, locked until the caretaker saw us try the door.  He opened just for us, where we saw carefully preserved pottery, urns, and a burial vase with the remains of a newborn.  Our arrival at Butrint was newsworthy in itself, crossing a small river on a single vehicle ferry raft, loosely following an aging track while two boatsmen guide us into place.  For four children (two of whom had just escaped a bus prison), this ferry was something from an Indiana Jones adventure.ALBANIA

Blue Eye (or Syri Kalter as it’s known in Albania) was, without question, the highlight of the day.  A breathtakingly beautiful natural preserve, the area was once reserved for the communist elite of the country — Albania’s Camp David of sorts.  Small cabins and a restaurant remain, evidence of it’s former life.  The starring attraction is the natural spring,  The Blue Eye, a 45-metre deep water spring set amid a forest of hazelnuts, walnuts, cherries, pines and fir trees.  The water in the inner part of the spring appears very dark blue, like the pupil of an eye, while a lighter blue defines an outer ring, the iris, thus creating the eye illusion.  Insanely beautiful, captivating . . . hard to believe its here, tucked away in a small corner of this emerging country.

Back in Sarande and not quite ready to leave this place, we bid farewell to Durim and walk the streets, peeking in on a wedding reception in a waterfront restaurant.  A car suddenly pulled up next to us, honking to get our attention.  Jarred a bit, and almost frightened, I turned quickly and immediately relaxed.  It was Durim, with his family in tow.  He’d gone to find them, to introduce them to us, so his daughters could practice their English.  He came bearing gifts, a bottle of Albanian wine for us to take back onboard.  We’d explored a country forgotten, and in the process, found a friend.  Very cool, indeed.