Friday, December 9, 2011

Around the World in a Single Blog, Part I

"Minds are like parachutes.
They only function when they are open."

~Sir James Dewar, Scientist (1877-1925)
2011 Thailand Writers Retreat in Chiang Mai, Thailand
I'm no stranger to airplanes. By my best count, I've been on 14 this year, starting with a 17+-hour KLM jaunt from Arctic-like Amsterdam to sun-baked Bangkok on New Year's Day 2011. 

After that, I could hardly stop moving. Rather than settle down in frigid North Europe to write the memoir I started at Wendy Goldman Rohm's inspired Thailand Writers Retreat in Chiang Mai, I flew off to California in February for the Bicycle Club of Irvine Banquet and daunting task of cleaning out my Sunset Beach studio. You'd be amazed how many tschotskes, love letters and can't-part-with miscellany a girl can collect in 29 years!

With Brooke in A'dam
March brought sunshine (and Brooke) to Amsterdam and there was no reason to leave town during glorious tulip season. By May, I was off to South Africa to ride with the rhinos—a feat that cost me three front teeth after a freak accident on the Savannah Wildlife Preserve. Humbled, I flew home toothless from Johannesburg and licked my wounds (and gums) for a few months.

Man meets beast on the Savannah Wildlife Preserve
By October, I had something to smile about: Biking Through the Legends of Colonial Villages based at stunning Hacienda las Trancas in colonial Mexico. Lovingly restored by a North Carolina couple who gave new meaning to "early retirement" when they purchased the 450-year-old presidio in 2003 (after googling "haciendas for sale"), the once crumbling property now resembles one of Mexico's great castles. Visit over Presidents Day Weekend 2012 and enjoy exclusive use of the premises!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Nature's Miracle at the Top of Italy

Balcony view: Lagació Mountain Residence, Alta Badia

"Our happiest moments as tourists always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else." — Lawrence Block
My eyes were open but could I still be dreaming? Shuffling sleepy-eyed onto my balcony at lovely Lagació Mountain Residence in Alta Badia, armed with a cup of steaming latte, I found an electric-green carpet spread before me. Plush with pines and dotted with medieval churches and tiny rifugi (mountain huts) clustered in fairytale villages, it was something out of a Disney flick—Pinocchio meets The Sound of Music—or a postcard from a tiny alpine hamlet. The crystalline air slipped down my lungs like cool refreshment as I wondered at snow-laced vertical reefs glowing pink and golden in the morning light.

Lagació Mountain Residence
Legendary Olympic town
Cortina d'Ampezzo
I'd come to the Monti Pallidi, the Pale Mountains  as they were originally called after the limestone like-rock that forms their spires, for outdoor adventure and respite from the hubbub of international capitals. What I found was a pristine mountain playground and 2009 UNESCO World Heritage site that hides secrets for those fortunate enough to visit.

Giro d'Italia, May 2010
Agustina Lagos Marmol,
Dolomite Mountains founder
Dolomites Tip 1: Find a reputable company, e.g. Dolomite Mountains, to custom-tailor your trip based on interests, fitness, budget and time. Whether you're a foodie craving rich venison and soft polenta at a Michelin-star restaurant, an athlete stalking bragging rights for climbing a via ferrata (iron path, one of the man-made narrow climbing routes between Italy and Austria used to navigate this treacherous borderland during World War I) or someone just lusting after alpine serenity, you'll find it in a melting pot of Tyrolean, Ladin and Italian cultures. A knowledgeable guide will help you choose from infinite possibilities while getting the best value for your time and money.

A culturally diverse landscape
encompasses Italian Gothic towers
and Tyrolean steeples
Dolomites Tip 2: Pick a season that suits your interests. With their network of trails and scenic passes, The Dolomites draw hikers, climbers and cyclists in spring and summer, when pink rhododendron and creamy edelweiss dress the mountains. In colder months, when snow blankets jagged peaks and roaring fireplaces warm welcoming hostelries, skiers and snowboarders descend, drawn by more than 5,000 vertical feet of ideal ski terrain and miles of back-country trails.

Regional specialties are served in local
inns and Michelin-star restaurants.
Dolomites Tip 3: Discover ancient Ladin (pronounced lah-deen) traditions, reflected in a language, cuisine and culture unique to the Dolomites. Locals speak Ladin, a language descended from Latin, preserved by isolation and protected by nationalistic pride. The culturally diverse landscape encompasses Italian Gothic towers, onion-domed Tyrolean steeples and signs written in Ladin, German and Italian. Local gastronomy includes such specialties as game marinated in wine and juniper, canederli (dumplings made with salami, served with a rich sauce), turtres (spinach pancakes), strudel da pom (apple strudel) and speck, the flavorful cured, smoked ham often served with indigenous cheeses and a glass of local Teroldego or Marzemino red. Prost!

Please vote for my iExplore entry about The Dolomites!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Seductive Spring

Lovely Claire @ Rokerij on Elansgracht;
does she want a kiss or a tip?
Spring in bloom on my terrace
Spring is surely a woman, for she is flirtatious, seductive and capricious in A'dam. When I returned to my new hometown in March, she was flitting about, here one day, gone the next. This, of course, makes her more desirable when she comes around. Like Shakespeare's Hal, who tells his drunken pal Falstaff how he'll imitate the sun covered by "base contagious clouds" so people who miss its light will rejoice when it reappears, Nature creates desire through elusiveness:
...being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wished-for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
—1 Henry IV, I.ii.173–195
Overlooking Prinsengracht
Touring with Brooke
Although this transitional season is neither here nor there, my boxes of clothes, books, recipes, docs and other California treasures were HERE when I returned to my apartment on Groenmarktkade, so I had lots to unpack before my daughter Brooke visited from Chicago. She brought a warm spell with her, inspiring Amsterdammers to shed mittens, scarves and jackets for the first time since last November.

On bright spring days, party boats float down the sparkling canals, people flock to sidewalk cafes and everyone smiles about the end of the long, cold winter. Dutchies love to complain about the weather, but for a few days in March, they had nothing to complain about. My new HTC Android phone (which offers Internet access via a portable WiFi hotspot), tells me today will be partly sunny with a high of 14⁰C/57⁰F, dipping to 44⁰ by dusk, around 21:00.

We still have blustery days when the wind whips my patio lanterns against the windows overlooking Nassaukade Canal and the old merchant

houses seem to tilt a little further to one side or another with every blast. Those are perfect times to stay in for gezellig (cozy) moments with friends like my British pal Gareth or PoPaul from Montreal, who travels the world on a Greenpeace research vessel that docks serendipitously in A'dam.

Keukenhof near Lisse

Tulip season is now in full tilt, with gorgeous blooms spilling out of window boxes and flowers of all hues available for a few euros in shops around town. Although Brooke was early for the blooms, she vows to return to visit Keukenhof near Lisse, where seven million bulbs bloom in neon splendor each spring. For a native California who's never lived with seasons, it's magical to witness the reappearance of colors after months of gray.

Sightseeing via canal boat
On Brooke's visit, we packed in city and canal tours, a pasta soiree in my apartment and a traditional Dutch dinner with 5th floor neighbors Hank and Gary at kitschy Moeder's (Mother's) Cafe on Rozengracht. While Dutch cuisine is far less haute than that of many other cultures, this popular bistro turns slow-cooked comfort food, e.g. traditional stampot (potatoes mashed with carrots, kale or endive, usually served with a smoked sausage and dollop of rich gravy), into delectable fare. 

Victoria and Alfred Wharf
I'll be heading to South Africa on a Beyond Boundaries cycling press tour in May, right after Queensday 2011 (April 30, when A'dam goes berserk in a sea of orange*). South Africa is of special interest to me, not only because I've never visited, but also because it was settled by the Dutch. To solve a labor shortage, Cape Commander Jan van Riebeeck imported slaves from West Africa, Madagascar, India, Ceylon, Malaya and Indonesia in the 17th century, setting the stage for today's racial melting pot.

Gospel music tells stories about
South Africa's troubled past
Our adventure will immerse us in Cape Town's gospel music scene and impoverished townships, created as living areas for non-whites under the old political system of Apartheid, where much of the Mother City's population still lives. We'll visit the Victoria and Alfred Wharf and ride a cable car to cloud-shrouded Table Mountain.

Cape Point
In Table Mountain Nat'l Park, South Africa's floral bounty will welcome us to Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, where the original almond hedge boundary for the Dutch outpost still stands. At the Cape of Good Hope, we'll spy on elands and zebras, then snap photos at Africa's most southwesterly point. 

Jackass penguins at Boulders Beach
More photos will follow at Boulders Beach, home to the only penguin colony outside Antarctica. Of course, no visit to Cape Town is complete without a pilgrimage to Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island** or a trip to Constantia Valley Winelands, oldest of South Africa's wine-growing regions.

Savannah Game Preserve
In Johannesburg we'll peddle around the Vaal River to Parys Game Lodge, where we'll sleep in tents on the Savannah Game Preserve, hoping no cheetah or rhino eats us for breakfast. Berry-picking, Zulu dancing, a bonfire BBQ and visits to Jo'burg's Apartheid Museum and flea market will complete our cycling safari.

Savannah Game Preserve, home
of some 27 species
I'll be in Cape Town for several days prior to the press tour and in Jo'burg and environs for two weeks following, hoping to visit Kruger Nat'l Park and other must-see sights. I welcome itinerary suggestions from anyone familiar with South Africa.

I hope you all are enjoying spring as much as I am, wherever you are. Please stay in touch via email, Skype, Facebook and/or landline! 

*Although the Dutch flag is red, white and blue like the American and French flags, orange is the color of the Dutch Royal Family, which hails from Huis van Oranje-Nassau, The House of Orange.

**In 1961, South Africa's most notorious prison was established on Robben Island. Political prisoners of the anti-apartheid movement were kept here together with hardened criminals. The most prominent inmate was Nelson Mandela, who later became the first President of the new democratic South Africa. Here Mandela spent 27 years of his life in a tiny cell of 5 square metres. Today it i s a World Heritage Site, a poignant reminder to the newly democratic South Africa of the price paid for freedom.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Traveling the World with No GPS

“Tourists don't know where they've been, travelers don't know where they're going.” —Paul Theroux

At the oldest of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World
I was born with no sense of direction. What I did enter the world with is a whole lot of wanderlust. It was hardly in my DNA; my doting parents were middle-class folks whose idea of foreign travel was a jaunt up the California coast, say from L.A. to San Fran.

My plan to backpack around the Continent midway through my quest for a college degree came as a shock to my father. “If you can afford to go to Europe, you can afford to pay for your college education,” he raved. 

Rather than counter with something like, “No one will believe I went to college if I didn't backpack across one continent or another,” I called on St Augustine. “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page,” I told my dad. He continued to fund my higher education until I earned a degree that led to a career as a travel writer.

Beautiful Budapest
In the decades since that parental debate, I've learned an important distinction. There are two kinds of people in the world: tourists and travelers. “Tourists don’t know where they’ve been,” explains Paul Theroux, “Travelers don’t know where they’re going.”

I like to think I´m one of the latter. After all, even without a GPS, what tourist would wind up in New Orleans after boarding a train bound for Mexico? Armed with a boyfriend and $500, I´d headed south in my 20s, clueless we'd wind up in the Big Easy after a dispute in Guatemala landed us in jail. Our best option, after a friend made bail, was to fly due north, to the closest U.S. city, we figured.

And so began my love affair with the world. I lost the boyfriend but remained enthralled with the planet. As in any romance, we've hit some bumpy patches. But like John Steinbeck, who took the pulse of the country he wrote about by driving across it with his French poodle, I realized, “A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” Having ditched the road to marital bliss after 23 years of fruitless trekking, I had no delusions about control. So I let the universe—and a few Dutch con men—take over when I set off down a warren of post-divorce trails.

Crazy Bangkok
These journeys have cost me more than a few unanticipated bucks. And a lot of embarrassment. Indeed, those slanty-eyed stares virtually screamed “crazy farang” when I overturned a trash bin in a Bangkok hotel, sending eggshells, food wrappers and Hong Thong whiskey bottle shards across the room. But how else could I prove my innocence to a hotel clerk who tried to convince me I'd consumed mineral water (60 baht), not drinking water (15 baht), from the mini-bar—an attempted 45 baht ($1.50 or 1) heist?

Thai snacks; do they bug you?
While contemplating bins of fried insects in Chaing Mai or haggling over bejeweled camels in Cairo's Khan al Khalili, I swear I heard James Michener whispering in my ear, “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.” Although I never tasted any of the crunchy arthropods, I did buy a few golden dromedaries.

Overlooking Jerusalem
Hardly the reluctant traveler, I've always wanted to stray far from home, to learn and grow from globetrotting, taking risks and embracing the unknown beyond the land of ubiquitous Starbucks and McDonald’s. I've found plenty of American fast-food joints along the way, but I try to resist their lure until only a big gulp or a giant burger can satisfy my appetite for Yankee fare.

Even with such indulgences, I've lost inches while broadening my world perspective, for independent travel entails a lot of work. And a lot of decisions. You walk a lot and talk a lot. You call on resources you never knew you had. But it all makes you smarter and sharper, even while you're flailing about, trying to communicate with folks who speak Arabic. Or Italian. Anything but English. And engaging in commerce with cents that make no sense in a wallet familiar with American dollars. On such occasions, I remember Henry Miller´s point, “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” And hearing things, I might add.

Yup, IAmsterdam!
When I finally landed in a city that made my soul sing, I pulled up my California roots for good and bought an apartment in Amsterdam. Asked why I traded sunny SoCal for a soggy patch on the European continent that might be underwater were it not for Dutch ingenuity, I quiz back, “Have you been outside today? Met any people in this chilly lowland or lost yourself along its twisting canals?”

The real Dam Square
Watching the tourists roll down Damrak in those climate-controlled coaches, I marvel at the comfort they enjoy in their plush seats, taking in the world through giant panes of glass. Escorted by a tour guide who explains, in their native language, what time the bus will depart after their prescribed visit to Anne Frank's hideaway or the stately Rijksmuseum, they hold no scrunched maps or Lonely Planet guides—reminders of confused meanders in search of must-see piazzas or must-have falafel.

Then I return to my computer and gaze at photos posted by a friend who spent three days with me on an “If this is Tuesday, it must be Belgium``-style romp. “Dam Square,” the caption reads below an image I recognize as A'dam's Central Station. Damn! I love my friend dearly and we had loads of fun when she visited. But now I know how different we are. At least when it comes to travel.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

My Thai: A Month in New Siam

A'dam welcomed 2011 with a bang

"Tourists don't know where they've been, travelers don't know where they're going.”  ~Paul Theroux

On the first day of 2011, while frigid A'dam recouped from a night of neon, I slipped through Little Beirut bound for The Land of Smiles.

Landing at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport in aptly named Nong Ngu Hao (cobra swamp), I headed for the laid-back North, where  Thailand's marketing tagline materialized: smiling Thais, bowing in prayer-like wais were everywhere, chirping sawat dii KAH (greetings) and khawp khun KAH (thank you). So this was the copywriters' message: serenity, spirituality, respect and humor are the foundation of Thai culture. In this gracious land, harsh words and boisterous behavior are unknown.
Tea at the upscale Veranda
Watch for Barbara's Ceiling People

First stop: Chiang Mai Writers Retreat orchestrated by Wendy Goldman Rohm (the writer who blew the whistle on Bill Gates with The Microsoft File). At the lovely Nugent Waterside, the bestselling author and literary agent held nine writers captive.

For five days we peered at laptops, unraveling the manuscripts
Honing our craft over a catfish pond

in our heads. Among us: a gentle monk from Cambodia, a South African woman railing against post-Apartheid racism, a Thai widow/single mother (happily remarried) who recouped a $4 million debt with an inspirational bestseller and a Kentucky Wild Cat who regaled us with tales of his three-year stint training Afghan militia. What a page-turner Dave Kaelin's book will be! 

Oxcart riding in North Thailand
Mae Sa Elephant Camp
I can't forget American expat Barbara Franklin, whose generous spirit shone at both the retreat and her Chaing Mai home, where her househould includes an adopted Thai orphan, a physically-challenged teen with a prosthetic leg. Over spring rolls and Chang beer, Sean charmed us all.

Bamboo rafting in the Thai jungle
My head reeling, I did what any sane writer (no, that is not an oxymoron) would do faced with developing a manuscript or exploring a foreign land: let the former marinate while wat touring, elephant trekking, oxcart riding, bamboo rafting and shopping for handicrafts in villages inhabited by long-necked women who lead simpler lives than my own. 

Ever the hedonist, I indulged in a few Thai massages (a sometimes brutal combination of yoga and acupressure) in my room at the Sakulshai Court—a bargain by Western standards at 300 baht (about $10) for two hours of prodding. Revived, I was ready for cooking and carving at Pad Thai Cooking School.

Pad Thai Cooking School
Alas, my honeymoon with Thailand ended when I returned to Bangkok. While the chaotic capital was no surprise, its residents made me eager to depart shortly after I arrived at Best Bangkok House. Here's what went down in 20 hours: 

Doi Inthanon Nat'l Park
  • First sign I've arrived at Worst Bangkok House: elevator to 6th floor room is broken and advertised WiFi is nonexistent. Welcome drink is ½ glass of Fanta; complimentary slippers are cardboard. OK, I'm only paying 850 baht (about $27), but palatial spreads in Chaing Mai ran me under 600 baht.

Ubiquitous tuk-tuks and scooters
Grand Palace, Bangkok
  • Tuk-tuk drivers descend, offering rides to MBK Shopping Center. Do I look like I need new clothes that badly? Squeezing past street stalls and masked Thais shielding themselves from city fumes, I wander into a Siam Square mall. Child pinches me, I whirl around and slap her, Mom returns the slap, then shoves me into adjoining stall. "Insane farang," Thai stares scream.
Alcazar Cabaret, Pattaya
  • I find an interesting blouse. When I ask to try it on, wondering if I can squeeze into a garment meant for tiny Thais, shopkeeper looks at me as if I'm crazy. “No try on,” he says. I walk.
  • No Bangkok visitor should miss Wat Phra Kaeo, holiest Buddhist site in Thailand, advises Rough Guide to Thailand. I negotiate 100 baht for 5km ride, but tuk-tuk driver arrives at his “sponsor,” NOT the Grand Palace. Here he wants me to buy new duds. For him. I refuse. At MY destination, he demands a tip.
  • Tour buses stretch for blocks, disgorging tourists herded by sign-toting guides. With four inches of leg exposed, I must secure a wrap to cover offending skin. In the mid-day heat, lunch suddenly seems more interesting than a palace visit.
  • Girl or boy? Hard to tell in Thailand.
  • I dine on dragon fruit and saté sticks from the pushcart queue, then negotiate a 150 baht return fare. On the road, rate changes to 200 baht. “Rush hour traffic,” tuk-tuk driver explains. Come on, it's rush hour 24/7 in Bangkok! But I'm in no position to argue; I've booked a minibus to Pataya.
  • Final outrage: check-out clerk asks if I've consumed anything from the mini-bar. Yes, one bottle of drinking water, 15 baht. Apparently the customer is not always right in Thailand, so clerk checks, then wants 60 baht for mineral water. Incensed at attempted heist of 45 baht ($1.50), I sprint up six flights, overturn trash and produce drinking water bottle. Not sure how long it took staff to mop up eggshells, food wrappers and Hong Thong whiskey bottle shards, but I suspect the rape of unsuspecting tourists' wallets will continue at Worst Bangkok House. 
  • Of course, this all could have been avoided on an organized tour, but did I really want to hide from the real face of southern Thailand?

Ladyboys with show-stopping looks
I head south for party town, aka Pattaya. An outgrowth of the Vietnam War, when American servicemen transformed a tiny fishing village 150km southeast of Bangkok into Sin City, this poster child of tourism gone mad is now a modern-day Sodom and Gomorah strewn with go-go bars, transvestite cabarets and happy-handed masseuses. No one minds the glammed-down Riviera vibe...WASPS and Asians flock here for the SEX, not the palm-fringed beaches. There's plenty to go around, whatever you like, and it's common to see fat old guys with Thai wisps on their arms"rentals" for the night...or the week!
  • Needing a taste of the islands, I journey to Ko Samet on Thailand's East Coast. Known for its ivory beaches and crystalline sea, the 6km island was declared a National Park in 1981. 
Diamond Beach, Ko Samet
So here I sit at a beach bungalow, watching the snorklers and decompressing as the end of my Far East adventure. Tomorrow I return to Bangkok, where I'll take a second stab at a Grand Palace visit. Will I make it this time? Who knows...the quote at the beginning of this post says it all.

I return to my beloved Amsterdam for a single night, then on to Chicago to visit my kids and SoCal for the BCI banquet and my February 23 general meeting presentation: Over the Hump: Egypt by Bike

I look forward to seeing all my OC friends on the flip side!