May 01

The ATM is hungry

While in Egypt I learned about the hazards of ATM machines. I arrived on a weekend and the ATM at my hotel was mostly empty, I managed to get about 70 pounds out of it. I also came home to find a $50 withdrawl from my bank account on the same day when I tried to get more money out but when no money actually came out. My bank did reimburse me for that money. I was thankful that I had brought a fair amount of cash with me as well as some travelers cheques. My roommate Tara (not the one that I’m going to Hawaii with) had much bigger problems…

The day she left she notified her bank that she was going to Egypt so that they wouldn’t block her ATM card, they failed to mention to her that they already had a fraud alert on the card and the card was already blocked, opps! She came to Egypt and couldn’t get money out of the ATM, at first she thought it was just the 1 or 2 ATM’s, but finally in Aswan she checked the internet and realized that she had this block on her account.

 I went with her to get a phone card to call the bank and we tried to figure out how to work the thing, but it wasn’t happening. Then we tried Ed’s cell phone, that didn’t work either. Finally she as able to get through using my international phone – the 20 minute conversation only cost $60. The bank straightened it out and assured her that her ATM card would work, though there would be a lower then usual daily limit. We waited a few hours and went to the ATM machine – it ate her card – it went in but it didn’t come out and neither did money.

 Tara took it like a trooper and after figuring out the hours of the bank we went shopping. Back on our ship a little while later we ran into our Tour Manager and one of the ships crew. We were told that “the ATM was hungry,” not an uncommon thing at night in Egypt – ouch! The next day we used our little bit of free time before our ship left Aswan to get the ATM card back. We seemed to be interrupting the bank guy who was counting piles of cash, but we kept nagging him and finally got it back – but not before he made us walk across the street twice for photocopies. But Tara got her ATM card back and the next time she used it she actually got money out, she also got reimbursed for the cell phone call to the bank.

The lesson: don’t count only on ATM machines.

Apr 29

Bethpage Restoration, Long Island

Old Bethpage Village Restoration is an outdoor museum type of place on Long Island, think of visiting Walnut Grove from Little House on the Prairie. The village offers a variety of buildings where you can learn about mid-19th century village life – like running a local store, hat making, or running a farm.

It’s a nice place, but I’m not in love with it. I liked it more the first time I visited. There was talk of closing it because of budget issues. As a history buff, I think that would be a shame. Here is what I don’t like about it – it’s a village which means it’s quite spread out. It’s a long walk to the village from the entrance and then everything there is fairly spread out. While I understand that this is a part of village life, it’s a lot of walking in the direct sunlight and on a hot day it makes it a long day. I’ve been there twice and felt drained when I left both times. What is good about it is seeing how people lived 100+ years ago. Also, they have a lot of nice events – period baseball games, civil war battlefield reenactments, and other period things. If you’re interested in going I would highly suggest going on a day when there is an event scheduled as it will make your visit worth while. I do see some more promise at the village, there are quite a few buildings that haven’t been developed yet. Unfortunately, I wonder if they will ever have the money to actually develop them.

It’s a nice quaint place, good for children and families. Once you pay for admission their are little costs inside the village – unless you want to buy a drink, cookies, or candies in the period shops. I suggest wearing sneakers as the paths are dirt, apparently they didn’t pave them in the 1800’s.

Apr 27

Getting ready for Hawaii

With Hawaii less then 3 weeks away I thought it was time to start checking on some things.

I went to book the final excursion Tara and I are going to take while in Hawaii, the Helicopter tour of Kauai. I was debating between a 9:30 am and a 10:30 am flight, and decided to go with the 10:30 flight. It will be one of our only “late” mornings of the trip. When I went into the booking system it showed that Tara and I were scheduled for the Wailua River and Fern Grotto on Thursday, I was sure I booked that for Friday. I scrambled through my papers and found that I did book it for Friday. A bit nervous I called Norwegian to check on this, apparently there was a problem with the website and I was booked on that excursion on Friday. The girl then booked Tara and I on the Heli tour and emailed me a confirmation of everything.

I also called Continental to find out if it would be an issue for Tara and I to arrive at the airport at different times. While speaking to the woman from Continental I realized that we would actually be checking in online from home. We just have to make sure that we each end up with the correct boarding passes so we can get through security and check our bags.

Apr 24

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

The Berlin Wall…

I heard something recently that I thought was quite ironic, they’re fixing the Berlin Wall. I wonder what Ronald Reagan would think? The restoration is scheduled to finish before the 20th anniversary in November. Has it really been that long? I vaguely remember it happening, I was barely a teenager at the time, I certainly didn’t understand it. But I do now, or at least I like to think that I do.

In 2006 I had an opportunity to visit the Berlin Wall, I must admit that our stop there was overshadowed a bit by the World Cup which was in Berlin. About the same time we arrived at the East Side Gallery fans were getting out of the Germany vs somebody game and Germany won, the city was celebrating, the city was electric that day. We only had a few minutes to visit the Eastside Gallery of The Wall and if not for the fact that we were told the history of the wall before arriving, it might have just been a photo op. As a group I think we all looked at it as a symbol of the Cold War, and the evils of Communism.
 The following morning we took a tour of the city and visited the Checkpoint Charlie museum which brought it home. A saw a poster there which I think epitomizes the Berlin Wall, I’ve included a picture, but it has the Berlin Wall in the middle. On one side is green grass, a tree, happy people, people playing ball, flowers. On the other side there is no grass and dead people. Whether it was drawn by a child from the East or West does not matter, the sentiment is there, the wall was bad and it divided people and countries. The world and Germany is better for its fall. I think the world is also better for having kept part of the wall as a reminder of what it symbolized.

The Checkpoint Charlie Museum was very good. The layout of the museum isn’t the best, but it’s filled with so much good stuff that it makes up for it. It tells the story of the wall and the story of those who tried to cross it, these were people who were thinking outside the box.

While doing research for this post I ran across an interesting article, and something totally up my alley. An apt was just opened that had been abandoned just a few months before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and has been left as it was left almost 20 years. Do I smell a museum opening? Or maybe just some things that can be taken to a museum.

Apr 22

One Night in Trondheim

On my tour through Scandinavia we had a 1 day and night stop in Trondheim, the 3rd largest city in Norway, and a quaint one at that. The day was nice, but the night was quite interesting…

We arrived at a bar at 10pm and it was dead, people didn’t start showing up until 11:30 – 12:00. I’m used to bars starting late, but there was no one at this bar, except us until 11:30, that was the first sign that this was going to be an interesting evening. I had even considered leaving since it was so slow. There was a piano player who started around midnight and the locals danced, it was nice. But there was also 2 business men who were accompanied by a girl in pink who had to be a prostitute. She would dance with one guy, practically having sex on the dance floor. Then she would go to the other guy who was sitting at the bar and pretty much give him a lap dance, and he was enjoying it. This went on for a while, then she would leave for a few minutes with one guy and come back, then leave again. It provided us with a lot of entertainment. Once they left we concentrated on some other people in the crowd. Like the girl who flashed the piano player. Later on in the night some of the guys from the tour tried to meet some of the locals. 3 of the guys did get to know the locals a little better… Tom, an 18 year old, met an older woman. She said she was 30, he said he was 25 – she had to have been in her mid 30’s. But they had a good night and Tom didn’t get home until 6am. We sang Mrs. Robinson to him, but the humor was lost on him since he doesn’t know the movie The Graduate.

It was an interesting night, and I can’t help but wonder if we happened to have picked the right bar, or if this is part of the affect of having the sun up all the time. The vibe was more of a casual local bar, not the type where you brought a prostitute and flashed people. I can’t imagine in the dead of winter when there is no sun out that the locals are just starting to hit the town at midnight, and really hitting the town. The sun really does disorient you as to what time of day it is, and makes you want to stay up a little later and live a little more.

Apr 20

Evolution of a Traveler, Part 4

In 2007 I ventured off to Egypt, I wanted to see the pyramids. I found something much different when I was there. I liked seeing the pyramids and all the ancient stuff, but the difference in the culture was so dramatic, and often in a good way. The other thing I liked was that on this tour, which was with Contiki, we only had 20 people on it, the smaller tour size made a big difference. I should also mention that our tour guide was an Egyptian and he was amazing, really made us Westerners understand life in Egypt.

While cruising on the Nile we stopped in some smaller towns/cities. These places gave a glimpse of what life was like thousands of years ago. While technology has come here, there are satellite dishes everywhere, it’s obvious some things have changed very little. I guess when you live in a small town and have little need to travel a donkey is just as good as a car. Also, if you live in a mud brick house you don’t really need an air conditioner. Life seemed simpler. Even in Cairo things seemed simpler. Just build a building anywhere and don’t finish it, then you don’t have to pay taxes on it. It was pretty bizarre but it made sense once I had this conversation with Sherif, my Tour Manager:
Sherif: Poor people at home don’t do that?
Me: No, you have to get a permit to do work. If you don’t get a permit when you build you have to get it when you sell the house.
Sherif: Well here we just pass it down through the family, they don’t sell it.
Me: Well then the neighbors might call and report you.
Sherif: That’s not very nice.
I’m not ready to move to Egypt just yet, but I can appreciate keeping things simple. It seems that things just get more and more complicated here at home, and the more complicated things get the more there is a need to make new rules and regulations, making things more complicated.

My tour only had 20 people on it and we really jelled as a group. I wont tell you that everyone liked each other and that we were all one big happy family. But we were all friendly and everyone got along and many of us have continued to keep in contact in the past 2 years. I also felt like everyone in the group was always willing and able to help each other out. I think part of it had to do with being in Egypt, but also I felt that since we were a smaller group we got to know each other well and also had to count on each other a bit more. When I did my tours with groups of 50 people I did have good groups, but with the size it can be hard to get to know everyone (or easy to never get to know people), and even with a great group it’s hard to really jell as an entire group, you’re more likely to get cliques and they’re more likely to isolate themselves from the group. After this tour I’m more interested in trying to do things with smaller groups. A friend of mine did a 38 day tour of SE Asia in 2006 with Intrepid Travel, which has small group tours, from his writing I like Intripid. Groups max out at 12 or 16 and the tour company tries to help you get to know the communities more then Contiki does, both pluses.

In my future travel I’m looking to either tour with smaller groups or to spend more time in one place. I think if my tour had rushed through Egypt more then it did (I was there 10 days), then I wouldn’t have had a chance to get to know Egypt and the culture. Unfortunately, I have to work and I’m not rich in money so sometimes I have to compromise and that’s why I like tours. They get you to see several different places in a short amount of time without wasting a lot of time.

Apr 17

Hawaii by cruise

My trip to Hawaii is barely a month away so I thought I would give an update on my plans there. Tara and I will be sailing with NCL America on the Pride of America on May 16.

We’re flying out on May 15 to Honolulu and will be spending the night on Waikiki Beach. The following day we will try to spend a little time at Waikiki and then head back over to Honolulu to drop our luggage off at the ship and take a little time to explore downtown Honolulu. If we can we would both like to do a tour of the only palace on US Soil, Iolanai Palace. Then we’ll go back and board the ship, hopefully our luggage will have made it to our room by then.

May 17th and May 18th we’ll be in Maui where we’ll be doing excursions for the Road to Hana and to Haleakala Crater for sunrise. If we’re still awake after that then we’ll probably go to a beach for a while, or maybe some shopping. You can sleep when you get home, right?

May 19th we’ll be in Hilo and are renting a convertible to go see Volcano’s National Park.

May 20th is Kona where we plan on taking a glass bottom boat and hitting the beach.

May 21st and 22nd we’ll be in Kauai. Here we’ll do an excursion to Wailua River and Fern Grotto and also a helicopter tour of the island – Tara refers to that as the day she is going to die. She’s very excited she just has trouble expressing herself.

May 23rd they kick us off the ship. Since our flight isn’t until 8pm we will go see Pearl Harbor on this day.

Apr 15

Pearl Harbor

I was recently watching a documentary about the Pearl Harbor attack, it was called Tora Tora Tora, not to be confused with the movie of the same name. It was really good, it went over the history of the relationship between the United States and Japan prior to Pearl Harbor and why the Japanese attacked. It closed with a segment about the 50th Anniversary. They had a memorial event there and Japanese veterans were invited to the event. It was interesting to hear the American survivors of the attack speak about meeting the Japanese. The Japanese who were interviewed were ones who had actively participated in the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Many of the American veterans seem to have forgiven them, I was a little surprised. There were also some veterans who have not been able to forgive these Japanese veterans. As a nation we have moved past the events, as we should, though as individuals we all deal with these things differently. I started to think about Pearl Harbor and the memorial that I am going to see in a few weeks a little differently.

I’ve been to many similar types of places in the world – Gettysburg, Dachau Concentration Camp, WWI Trenches, Khatyn Village and the the World Trade Center site. These are great places that help you remember those have fallen before us, but I think sometimes we forget about those who live on with the scars of those events, that was one of the things I got out of this documentary. These are the people who live with the violence of the event, remember their friends who did not survive, and ultimately must find peace with the event and maybe or maybe not find forgiveness for those who perpetrated those acts. The survivors are the ones who keep the history alive for the rest of us, so we can can remember those who were lost, but we can’t forget to remember those who have survived. That’s something I’ll remember when I’m in Pearl Harbor.

Apr 13

Buying groceries

One great piece of advice I’ve always heard is to shop where the locals do. It’s something kind of subtle, but can tell you about how others live and how it’s different from how you live.

When I was in Scandinavia we went to a lot of grocery stores. Many were pretty typical – food, fruits, veggies, drinks, snacks. Then every now and then we would end up in a massive grocery store ya know the ones with lumber departments, clothing and all sorts of non-grocery stuff for sale. Wow, lumber, that was pretty impressive. It was so bizarre, if we had more time I probably could have done a lot of damage there, not on the lumber but on the myriad of other offerings. It threw me off a bit too, I would have expected Scandinavia to be more of a local store kinda place, not the type of place with big giant huge super stores.

Here in the US the closest thing to that would be a Wal-Mart – but groceries are just a section, it’s not a grocery stores. Long Island and NYC don’t have great Wal-Mart stores though. I hear in the mid-west they are HUGE and have pretty much anything you could ever need in them. I’m going to have to see one of these places one of these days.

Russia was totally different though. We didn’t stop at many grocery stores, and I’m not totally sure if the grocery type places were typical grocery stores or just strange left overs from Communism. Everything in the store is behind a glass case and one of the workers gets each item that you need. The selection in the stores was poor, and the girl who I saw doing her nails behind the counter made me wonder about the sanitary issues. I opted to just get candy at that store. I guess when your country has communism and you need to create jobs for everyone, a labor intensive grocery store makes sense.

Belarus was a little different. The grocery store where I went reminded me of what a grocery store in the 70’s or 80’s in the US would have been like. It just didn’t seem as sophisticated as grocery stores are today. The produce was weighed by a person in the produce section, then she would put a little sticker with the price on it on the produce. At the check out the person entered the prices for each item manually. I had exchanged 5 euro, but the prices were so cheap that I couldn’t spend that much even when trying to spend the money. I probably spent about 2 euro worth on food and had a large bill, probably the equivalent of 3.50 euro. The girl could barely give me change, and I screwed up her drawer so much that she couldn’t give change to my friend behind me. I was with 2 other girls and we played shuffle the money around so that we could each get our change for the groceries.

Shopping can be a great way to see how people really live, and it can help you eat on the cheap too. Next time you’re away from home do some shopping with the locals, you might be surprised at what you find.

Apr 10

Returning to The West

Whenever traveling, no matter how far away, there are always cultural differences. It’s always nice to come home to your bed, shower, your couch, English but the more dramatic the differences the nicer it can be to return home, or even just to The West.

My first experience with this was when I did my first trip to Europe. I traveled, in this order, to Amsterdam, the Rhine Valley, Munich, Austria, Venice, Rome, Florence, Lucerne, and Paris. At first I didn’t mind learning different languages, and paying for bathrooms (some of which were a little sketchy) weren’t so bad. But after speaking German for a couple days, then going to Italian, going back to German threw me off. By the time I had to learn a couple words of French I was totally thrown off, I had to resort to point and smile. Ahhh, the English language, it’s a beautiful thing.

My next experience was going to Russia, there were a couple issues here. First, the salad… At home a salad has lettuce, tomato, cucumber, carrots and salad dressing give or take a few things. In Russia it was more like cucumber, tomato and dill – huh? What is that? Everyone tried to convince me “it’s not wrong, it’s just different.” It was bad and I couldn’t get over it. Next was the water… Rumor has it the water is “safe” in Moscow, but everywhere else it clearly wasn’t. In St. Petersburg it had an odor to it. Is it worth it to take a shower when the water is dirtier then you? Ok, maybe it wasn’t quite that bad, but we do think that one of the guys got an infection in his throat from brushing his teeth with the water there. In one “city” I didn’t even bother with the shower, there was nothing promising about the place. And a piece of wood with a hole in the middle does not a toilet make, but then how do you get to it when their is a toxic scent around it? Poland is one of my favorite countries, it was “The West,” my first stop after Belarus and Russia. There was fresh fruit, a really nice hotel, lettuce in my salad, safe water, proper bathrooms, and even though they spoke another language, most people spoke some English – it was almost as good as home – it was The West.

Fortunately, Egypt wasn’t quite as bad, or maybe I was learning to appreciate the differences. The water, although questionable, at least seemed to be clean. Brushing your teeth with bottled water was a precaution not a health issue. They had proper salads along with different types of salads (with pastas and veggies), normal bathrooms were accessible. Egyptians generally spoke a good amount of English, especially when they were trying to sell you stuff at markets, not always a good thing. But Egypt was also dirty and sometimes looks strange since you often found buildings half built. It was nice to go home and see grass, not have everything covered in a layer of dirt and sand, and just know that you could go to the store and not be hounded to buy stuff by REALLY pushy people.

But what does it all come down to? Why travel to a place where you’re uncomfortable and wishing for things from home? Without seeing these places you don’t get to truly appreciate the things you have. How do you learn other ways of living without seeing them and digesting them. For all the things that may be uncomfortable you might find something that is better then you have it at home. How do you find out why people might want to go back to Communism without seeing how foreign Capitalism is to them?