Sunday, December 31, 2006

L'auberge Espagnole

Updates will likely be skimpy for the coming week. It took me a couple of days to locate an internet cafe with wireless, as I'm not prone to sitting on shitty pay terminals with coin slots, and our flat here doesn't have internet access.

Our first night was mellow. After arriving from Malaga, we checked into our beautiful apartment in the Barri Gotíc and called beds and rooms, followed by the customary trip to the market to stock up on jamón and cheese. And bread. Ok, and a few other staples. Like wine.

Although it was a short flight, we were beat. So we kept things simple and stayed within a five block radius of the flat. Fortunately, there's almost everything within reach. Elena wanted new Adidas for her weary feet. Boom - Adidas store just up our street. J wanted to dig into some authentic Spanish paella. No problema - fantastic freakin' food around the corner. The restaurant happened to be near one of my favorite bars in Barcelona, Nooba, which has recently gone smoke-free, quite a revelation for a bar around here. However, my new favorite bar, is super smokey. And expensive. Sure, it lacks any sort of Spanish authenticity. It's called Manchester Bar, and they specialize in Britpop. Score!

Sarah and Spencer arrived on Saturday, and I went off to meet Jean-Michel from my company's Barcelona office for a couple of drinks. It was great to catch up with him, considering like most of my foreign counterparts, I only see them once a year. I met up with him at the market on the sea side of the gigantic Christopher Columbus statue at the end of the Ramblas. "Do you ride?" He handed me a helmet, I hopped on the back of his scooter, and had the quintessential ride through a short stretch of Barcelona. Now this is the way to get around town! Narrow streets? No problem. Gnarled traffic? What traffic?

"You might be cold on the bike..." I was wearing jeans, a shirt, and a suit jacket. Cold? By San Francisco standards, 50º heat is downright balmy! In fact, everyone around Barcelona looks at us like we're freaks. J, Elena and I have been walking around with nothing more than a couple of layers of shirts, while the locals are wearing winter coats, gloves, and ginormous scarves. I even saw one guy in ear muffs. Hell, even Sarah and Spencer, being from Los Angeles, are looking skimpy in regular autumn wear. Our heavy coats will come in handy when we get to Amsterdam, though, for sure.

In the meantime, we still have Barcelona to enjoy. It's early in the day on New Year's Eve. For the second day in a row, I've made an endive, goat cheese, and pistachio salad. I left it on the table for everyone to enjoy when they wake up, as I've stepped out to loacte this internet cafe.

Today will either involve shopping or doing touristy stuff. Shopping here is good. It isn't cheap, but there's all sorts of stuff you'll never see in the US. So I don't feel too bad about the €140 I blew on a pair of funky jeans. What I do feel bad about is that I forgot to notify my bank that I'm going overseas, and they've put a freeze on my account. I can't take out money, and it costs me a dollar a minute to call home and be on hold for hours and hours... So so far, I haven't unfrozen my account. This truly sucks.

Friday, December 29, 2006

I Like It Here, Can I Stay?

I hate it here. I hate it here. I hate it here. Those were my initial thoughts as my weary ass drove up from Gibraltar and dealt with the ungodly traffic of Sevilla. The roads were packed not only with all sorts of drivers in a Los Angeles-like logjam of fuel and steel, but also with countless student drivers, straddling lanes, blocking intersections, and generally making a mess of things. I'm not sure if we arrived on the official Adult Ed. day, or if all of a sudden, a whole throng of 30-somethings decided they needed to learn how to drive. Either way, they were all older than the usual student driver, and even worse at operating a vehicle.

Parking is a mess as well. Besides navigating impossibly narrow streets, attempting to park in them is a joke. The garage situation isn't much better, with the signs changing to say completo (full) whenever you pull up to one. We eventually found a parking garage underneath the El Corte Ingles department store and plodded our way to the city centre by foot.

Oh, what a mass of humanity. Everyone was doing their post-Christmas shopping, and the pedestrian-only thoroughfare leading to the center of town was packed. It's winter, but the crazy amount of body heat emanating from tens of thousands of Sevillian shoppers made it unbearably hot. It didn't help that I was sore and tired and pissed off to begin with.

Things subsided when we made it to the gorgeous Plaza Nueva, lit up with blue Christmas lights and embellished with an awesome exhibition of modern statues by a local artist. I was finally able to breathe and relax and take in some authentic Sevillian beauty. It also helped that we stopped by at a nearby cervezeria so I can unload some of the evening's stress in the form of beer. Mmm, beloved beer.

Feeling less grouchy and more relaxed, we pointed ourselves toward the Cathedral and the Alcazar to check out some of the finest in gothic and Moorish architecture, all beautifully lit up at night to show off the tons of history on display. By then, all stress and fatigue melted away, and I just took it in with wonder.

Despite being Andalucía's largest and most sprawling city, Sevilla is truly beautiful. At every turn, there's something gorgeous and new, and it seems every street is lined with orange trees, rife with fruit and fragrance.

WIth a penchant for avoiding the main tourist drags, we made our way to the Barrio Santa Cruz to go tapas bar hopping. A little beer here, a little jamón Iberico there, a little wine over there, and some croquetas in another place. This is living. All the while, as the hours turned late, we saw even more and more people turn up, often with their children in tow, enjoying the same late night imbibements that we were, making conversation and generally enjoying life. On a weeknight.

We may think we have it all in America, but we really don't. I'll trade our wealth and TV shows and movies for the pace of life here.

Do we really have to drive back? I really like it here. And I've been up and driving since before sunrise, anyway. We should just push all of our dates back a bit and spend a few days... maybe weeks... ok, months here.

Of course, that's all just dreamy-eyed fantasy talk. In reality, I can't do that. In reality, I go to Starbucks across from the Burger King and McDonald's to get a double espresso and use the toilet before driving over 250 km through the center of Andalucía, back to Marbella late at night.

Rock Rock 'Til You Drop

Thank goodness for the internet. Last night, I'd checked just about every tip posted about crossing into Gibraltar, and we followed the advice of the masses: Save yourself the hassle of driving across the border. Park in La Linea on the Spanish side, and walk across the border. And thus we did, enjoying the ease of the crossing and at the same time bristling at their refusal to give passport stamps. Grr.

As soon as you enter Gibraltar, it feels like you're in a different country. Because you are. Gas prices are almost as low as in the US due to their lack of tax, there are British banks everywhere, and some really, really ugly, decrepit people.

This isn't to say that Gibraltarians aren't nice. They are. And looks don't matter, right? I don't mean to be a jerk, but think about it: There are less than 30,000 inhabitants amongst 7,000 families in a country that didn't have an open border until 1984. Inbreeding, baby, inbreeding. Compound that with the fetal alcohol syndrome sure to manifest when you combine the drinking appetites of the British and the Spanish, and you're in for a freakshow.

Take, for example, the lady/gentleman bellied up to the bar at Star Bar, the oldest pub in Gibraltar. S/he was very pleasant to talk to, but I had a hard time figuring out if s/he was a tranny or a woman with a five o'clock shadow and a husky voice.

There are other oddities about Gibraltar. The money, for example, is the Gibraltar Pound Sterling, looking nearly identical to the British Pound, except opposite the queen is some freak wielding a scimitar. English is the official language, but you'll bump into as many - if not more - people speaking Spanish or Arabic as muttering in the Queen's English. If the other day's trip to Morocco didn't quite evoke my mind's eye's vision of Tatooine, Gibraltar certainly made up for it by providing its own version of the cantina scene from Star Wars.

We made our way down Calle Real (or "Main Street" as folks call it), stopping for a much-needed coffee on the way to the cable car that takes you to the top of The Rock (officially called the Upper Rock Nature Reserve). Once there, we noticed the cable car wasn't running; probably a result of the giant, threatening clouds overhead. We were offered a small group tour by van for roughly the same price, and considering our options, figured "Why the hell not?"

This tour is worth the £16. We were taken up along the roads and through the trees of the Rock in a small van, sheltered from the light drizzle from the big black cloud right above. Yes, tree-lined roads. The sheer face you see in the Prudential ads is the other side, the impression I'd always had of Gibraltar: A big, bare pointy rock sticking out of the Atlantic. We were taken up, and I couldn't have been more happy to be proven wrong. The other side of the Rock is pretty verdant, and even inhabited.

The first stop was a tacky monument comprised of a couple of pillars. You see, Gibraltar supposedly once had a counterpart rock on the opposite side of the strait in Africa, and legend has it that these were the pillars that Hercules stood between. You know this story if you remember your Greek mythology, or if you ever watch the Strongman competition on TV.

Our second stop was the St. Michael Cave, an impressive cave chock full of impressive stalactites. One area is so big, they've installed a theatre where they hold concerts and plays. Stunning, and definitely surprising.

We then made our way up to the Ape's Den, home of the Barbary apes. Named after the Berber people of North Africa who first brought them here, the rock apes are a prime attraction in Gibraltar. They do cute little monkey things like run around, hang off of things, jump on the tops of cars, and, of course, jump on your back when you're not looking. They're more than happy to sit on your head or your shoulder or hang off your arm as you mug for photos, but as the tour guide told us, "They might give you a souvenir of Gibraltar that you don't want. These monkeys aren't potty trained." Indeed, like a dumbass, I'd worn my nice suit jacket, and the rest of the day, my right shoulder smelt of monkey butt. Thank goodness for detergent and Febreeze. Still, it was worth it. The guide had me hold a piece of uncooked pasta in my hand and told me to make a fist. I then put my fist in front of a baby ape's face, and he peeled my fingers open one by one to grab the piece of macaroni and had himself a snack. Adorable and unforgettable.

Stinking of ape ass and overdosed on cute, we made our way up to the top, where we explored one of the Siege Tunnels. These are tunnels dug out by British soldiers back in whatever year they were at war with the Spanish, fighting off attempts to retake Gibraltar. It was at this time that they invented the downward facing cannon, quite a feat considering cannonballs roll and are subject to gravity.

Rising over 4,000 feet above the Mediterranean on one side and Atlantic on the other, this high point afforded us a view of the Gibraltar airport, whose runway actually crosses the one road into town from Spain. That means when you're walking or driving into Gibraltar, you actually cross a live runway. Occasionally things come to a halt for a British Airways or Iberia plane to take off or land. Crazy.

We topped our day at the Rock off with a brilliant full English breakfast at the Old Horseshoe pub and several pints along the walk back to the border. All of us were tired, but all agreed this side trip was worth the early start and the craptacular exchange rate from dollars to pounds.

Gibraltar is weird and wonderful. I'm not sure if I'd go out of my way to come back, but I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from going. Being at the crossroads of geography and history, it's both an interesting and amusing place: An odd mix of British, Spanish, and African, a perfect amalgamation of this trip so far.

Dead Tired and Destroyed

Too much stuff to digest and write about tonight, and I'm dead tired after a good few hundred miles of driving from this morning 'til.. Well, I guess tonight's the next morning.

All I have to say is that Gibraltarian border officials are doodyheads for not stamping our passports, even when asked nicely. DOODYHEADS! DOODYHEADS! DOODYHEADS!!

Ok, I need to do some laundry and SLEEP.

Updates in the morning, if time allows.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Early Riser II

I'm once again up before the sun has even dared to peek itself up over the horizon.

Where are we going today? Gibraltar.

Why? Because I'm a passport stamp whore.

(I think I may have already mentioned this...)

Man Cannot Live on Bread Alone

Nor jamón, nor cheese. Believe me, I love these things. I love them dearly. They're among my favorite food items in the world. But for the last few days, I've gotten enough sliced meat and cheese and bread to make me a case study for the American Heart Association.

Enough is enough. We had to have something different. And the menu at Orient Palace, just by our digs, seemed reasonable. Never mind that everything's in English and that every customer's a crusty old Brit on their Costa del Sol holiday. For just a few moments, I want to get away from Spanish. It's not that I don't love Spain and all things Spanish (my friends can tell you about my obsession with tapas, Rioja wines, and hot brunettes who say "Ibitha"). It's just that sometimes you need a break.

"I know you probably don't want Chinese, but I'm buying. I so need this."

Yes, I was breaking my own travelers credo of doing as the locals do, but sometimes you have to listen to your body.

And you know what? It was good. Really good. So if you're ever in Marbella, Malaga Province, Spain, go to Orient Palace. No matter how much everyone else protests.

Bummed or Stoked? Mmm, more the latter.

The drive between Malaga and Granada is beautiful. It's rural country, with dramatic, rocky mountains popping up out of the middle of rolling hills covered with olive groves as far as the eye can see. You can't help but stop at every opportunity to take in the acres upon acres of olive trees, dramatic mountainscapes, and gorgeous blue sky.

Granada itself is a bit of a clusterfuck. It took us what seemed like forever to navigate from the north of the city, from which we entered, to the vicinity of the Alhambra in the southeast, just short of the spectacularly gorgeous Sierra Nevada, covered in snow and chilling the mountainous region to a cool, enjoyable temperature, despite the abundant sunshine. Perfection. We took our time enjoying the views and even laughed about the crazy traffic, knowing that in the low season, getting into the Alhambra poses no problem. At least, that's what one of the Americans in our Morocco tour group told us yesterday.

Wrong. We queued up for tickets, and were told that there were only 100 tickets left for the day. There were at least 200 people in front of us. Fuck. I really, really, really wanted to see the Alhambra.

Next best thing: Finding the Mirador San Cristobal to get a panoramic view of the place, with a dazzling mountain backdrop and a gorgeous glow in the sunset. We'd have to wait it out to get that view, but first and foremost, we'd have to find it. The mirador isn't on any of the tourist maps, and while guidebooks mention it, they don't tell you exactly where it is.

We made our way through various plazas and tightly-jammed streets, making numerous traffic violations along the way. Taxi only street? Fuck it. Yield to people in the roundabout? Screw that, no one else is! J got us oriented on the map and Elena played lookout while I concentrated on driving through the nightmarish maze that is Granada. Finally we made our way on to an uphill cobblestone street that seemed promising, if a little narrow. Then it got narrow. And narrower. Until finally, there were mere inches between the car and the walls on either side. Not to mention pedestrians trying to make their way up the street.

"Are we even supposed to be on this??"

"I don't know, but there's a bus in front of us, so why not?"

At this point, I was thankful for Seat's German and Spanish ingenuity. Powered retracting sideview mirrors? Check. Enough power to make it up San Francisco style hills without burning the clutch? Check. The turning radius of a pygmy mouse? Hell yes. We were able not only to squeeze through the impossibly tight street, but also somehow cross what looked like a small footpath to find free parking on a residential hillside overlooking the gorge behind the Alhambra.

So we'd made it up the hill unscathed, and BOOM! There was a sign: Mirador Panoramico. This afforded us a full panoramic view of the Alhambra, up on top of its hill. Still, there was no promised backdrop of the snowy Sierra Nevada in the background, and we were hours from the sunset that would make the Moorish palace glow in all its splendor.

Still, it was magnificent. All my disappointment from not getting in started to wash away.

It didn't hurt that we found a great restaurant nearby, letting us indulge in cerveza, vino tinto, patatas, lamb skewers, braised rabbit - you name it. Beautiful Andalucían dishes called, and we answered. All in a gorgeous, quaint setting, probably the nicest Spanish eatery I've had the pleasure of sitting in.

We walked around a bit and shopped, laughed at the hippie dreads who are known to frequent this neighborhood (Albayzin), and enjoyed the charms of the small cafes, artisan shops, and magnificent views all around. Despite the traffic woes and the overcrowding of the Alhambra, Granada is sooooooo worthwhile.

Returning to the Mirador around sunset, we took in the amplified colors of the twilight sky and the glow it cast upon the Alhambra. There was a little snow on the ledge of the mirador, which made everything that much more surreal and interesting. It was the perfect environment in which to enjoy an espresso and the company of good friends.

Although we'd initially planned to drive back via the scenic, snowy Sierra Nevada route, we decided it'd probably be too icy and treacherous in the dark, and swung around to make our way home the way we came. Only minutes later, after crawling through more ridiculously tight streets (or were they walkways?) we came upon what we were looking for in the first place: The Mirador San Cristobal. While the view of the Alhambra itself was a bit obscured, right behind it were the magestic white mountains, and beneath, the enormous valley and all the glowing lights of Granada. In the distance, we could see the mountains around which we had driven in the day, crested in a dark tone of orange from the sun that was now hiding behind them. Spectacular. No crappy picture could do it justice, anyway.

Any remnants of earlier disappointment were washed away. Other than the fact that by the time we'd discovered this spot, there wasn't enough light for great photos. But who cares? In the camera of my mind, it'll be remembered as one of the most beautiful views I'd ever laid eyes upon.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Morning After Pill

Soma. Naproxen. Pseudoephedrine. All things to help me sleep, kill my pain, and clear my head.

Not because of any culture shock from yesterday's trip to Morocco. But from the transit. Hundreds of kilometers on the odometer. Hours on ferries, buses, and even the back of a camel. It was a full day. I'm beat, but I'm ready for more.

Shortly we'll be off to Granada, about 150km away, to check out the Alhambra.

Hence, I've whipped up another big breakfast, this time with a bit more Spanish flare: A fritata filled with zucchini, pancetta, salchicha de ave... you name it. I'm fueled up. Bring on the day.

Aventures en Afrique

Salaam aleykum. Alors, aujourd'hui, j'ai parlé mes troisième et quatrième langues de cette voyage. Français et un petit peu d'arabique.

Pourquoi? Because we went to Morocco, yo. Where the official languages are Arabic and French.

After arriving in Tarifa, J went in to enquire about day trips to Tangier, and we got hooked up just in time for the 11:00 am sailing on the fast ferry, as well as a full-day tour once across the Strait. Several Cruzcampo beers later, we were aboard FRS' Thundercat I, a catamaran that'd get us to Morocco in 35 minutes.

Only, thanks to all sorts of delays, it took us 3 hours. We arrived and were herded into our tour group, only to be berated by our tour guide for being late, and for not having our tickets stamped properly. I guess 90% of us on the tour were too excited to be going to Morocco and had our passports stamped instead of our ferry tickets. Oh well! I just made this trip for the stamp, anyway. Because I'm a passport stamp whore. Ok, that and we thought it'd be cool as hell to say we've been to Morocco.

Tangier isn't anything at all like I imagined. Sure, there were actual people wearing actual fez hats and actual zaytunas - the traditonal brown Moroccan cloak that looks like something a druid would wear. Or perhaps a Jawa. But no, it doesn't look like Tatooine, and there isn't even much by way of sandstone walls or round-topped minarets. If anything, it has a French or Spanish colonial look.

Our bus made its way to the Medina (the old city), and we were guided through a main street, with merchants hawking every sort of locally available vegetable and fruit. Walked into the Restaurant Hammadi, we were treated to plush seating, four live musicians, and a delicious lunch consisting of bread, soup, beef kabobs, couscous with chicken, a honey-laced dessert and mint tea. J and I opted to try the local brew, "33," which was disappointingly lacking in character. Elena, on the other hand, went for the local version of orange Fanta, which disappointedly tasted like the US version - bright orange and sickly sweet. It was an otherwise fine meal, and we had a good laugh at the expense of the vegetarians. Especially since they were served "vegetable" couscous, with the veggies obviously stewed along with the chicken like everyone else's.

We were then walked through the Souk (marketplace), being hounded by poor touts selling all kinds of useless, touristy junk. "No!" was the word of the day. Crappy little ceramic and goatskin drum? No! Wooden camels? No! Cheap metal bracelets? No! Crappy fezzes? No! Colorful leather wallets? NO! NO! NO! Luckily, our guide did his best to keep these guys off us, at one point calling the cops over to keep us (somewhat) harassment free.

This, of course, is because he wants us to save our money to spend at his friends' overpriced carpet cooperative. You know, the type of place that doesn't want Moroccan Dirhams but gladly accepts dollars and euros. Admittedly, the carpets were fine, and if you could drive a bargain, you could walk out with a decent deal. But the high pressure sales tactics were a bit off the wall. In fact, if anything, Mohammed - the man giving the presentation on carpets - was a bit scary. He'd yell, and sternly tell us of the quality of his artisans' carpets. He'd yell and expound and stress what a value he was selling us, only cracking a smile or telling a joke occasionally. Between him and the guide, it seems to me like Moroccans have this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde switch, where they can flip-flop between charming, affable fellow and crazy gangsta mothafucka in nanoseconds.

One American sucker in our group bought a carpet. Admittedly, they're very nice, but he was stuck lugging this gigantic parcel the rest of the day, which occupied his hands and prevented him from shooing off the touts. Who, by the way, started hounding us again as soon as we left the carpet shop. Elena was approach at least three times by the same guy trying to sell a shitty little drum, each time with the starting price of 20 euro, and each time lowering it to 99 cents. Each time, the answer was NO!

We were then led to a spice and herbal shop, where Ali, the modern Moroccan version of a medicine show salesman put on a highly entertaining presentation about various spices and herbal remedies. He, too, suffered from Mr. Hyde disease, interrupting the show every few minutes to furiously cuss out his brother in Arabic. Very entertaining.

Unlike the carpet gig, however, the prices were more than reasonable, so I wound up with a haul of good stuff. I bought saffron, "the king of spices" at 12 euro for 6 grams - an amazing deal if you're familiar with saffron at all. I also bought several packages of Nigella. Not only because of its anti-sinus and anti-snoring properties, but because I so lust for cooking host Nigella Lawson that I had to buy her namesake herb. Silly, I know, but now I can say I sleep with Nigella every night. I topped my shopping bag off with several bars of musk, just to see if the anti-mosquito effect really works. If not, it's only 2 euro down the drain. Deal!

Sadly, I didn't realize until well after we'd left the place that I only got 8 euro in change instead of 26. I thought the rolls of coins the cashier gave me were worth 10 each, but instead were worth 1. Oh well... I was in fucking MOROCCO!

On our way out, we were once again mobbed by the same group of touts. Elena was once again harassed a few times by the same idiot trying to sell the same shitty drum. Either he's the most persistent junk merchant on earth, or he has the memory of a goldfish. Trying to deflect the attention, when another high-pressure fez sales associate turned up, she said, "Hey J! Didn't you want a fez?"

The guy ran after J and started trying to push his cheap wares on him. Starting price: 10 euro. J wouldn't have it. He lowered his price to 3 euro. Secretly, I longed for a cheesy-ass fez, so I interjected. "How 'bout the same price for two?" The guy's eyes lit up and he gladly accepted a handful of shrapnel for a couple of shitty souvenir hats. Immediately, another guy selling fezzes jumped into the fray, insisting that he'd talked to me first. I waved him off. "Whatever, man. Yallah!" My super-limited Arabic actually came into good use. As soon as I uttered a bit of his mother tongue, the guy backed off.

Don't fuck with a polyglot.

I looked down at my new fez and realized that it's a faux Louis Vuitton. I shit you not.

We finished our walk through the Medina and hopped on the bus again. Looking at the clock, it was getting late, and we knew we were coming close to our ferry's departure time from the port. But our guide had more friends to feed, so we got a tour of the outskirts of town and ended up on the top of a hill where several men were waiting with camels for us to ride. All at the discount price of... one euro! Nope, no sarcasm here. One euro to get on the back of a cool-ass camel and take it running around a small dirt area is totally worth it. Never mind that I stepped in all sorts of camel dung, and caught a huge whiff of camel fart when my ride decided it needed to expell some gas. Ewwwww. But all was forgiven. My camel was so cute, I could hold no ill will against her.

Back on the bus, we looked at the clock and thought, "Oh shit!" It was about 30 minutes to sailing time, and we still had to go to the immigration officers to get our exit stamps sorted. We took comfort in the fact that everything runs late on Moroccan Standard Time, so we'd probably make it, no problem.

Wrong. We missed our ferry's gangway by about 30 seconds, and had to wait around for the next one. Which, of course, took nearly forever to get going, but overall it wasn't as long as the first crossing. In fact, it was pretty damn quick once it had embarked, and we had no problems getting back into Spain.

Driving in Spain is dreamy as it is. Roundabouts instead of cloverleafs, people who know the rules of passing on the left, people who don't block your way when you're going well over the speed limit - If only I could bring the country's road sensibility back to the States. What made the drive home even better was our first foray onto the Autopista Peaje - the network of toll roads that criss-cross spain. Wide, well-lit lanes, super-long tunnels that bore through the mountains, and seemingly no Guardia Civil to stop you from shattering the 120 km/h (75 mph) speed limit - all at a super-low toll. Our 120 km or so run on the AP took less than 45 minutes, which is pretty impressive, even for the middle of the night.

Overall thoughts on Tangier? Everyone says that Tangier isn't worthwhile, because it's like the Tijuana of Morocco. A port (not unlike border) town, with a culturally watered down mish-mash of people and too many beggars and touts. Personally, I thought it was fantastic. Yes, the lack of stereotypical imagery was a letdown. If anything, much of Tangier is vibrant and modern and not unlike any other European city, with cafes, young well-to-do people walking about on mobile phones, and fancy cars and suburban tract houses. Also, there wasn't an impressive amount of Arab architecture to check out on this tour. In fact, the city's old mosque seemed pretty rinky dink to me, and I thought I'd at least see some more intricate Moorish architecture. Oh well, there's always the Alhambra in Granada for that! Finally, I think J triggered the best analogy when he first mentioned that the zaytunas were similar to Jawa cloaks: steely, persistent, and annoying little bastards trying to sell you junk that probably isn't theirs to begin with. Mind you, I'm not generalizing all Moroccans in any way. Just the annoying little bastards hounding you on the street every chance they could. Even then, they're probably making a more honest living than myself or anyone else reading this. Otherwise, between my interactions with various merchants, folks at the restaurant, and our guide, the place has a surprisingly warm and friendly vibe, and I woul dlove to come back and explore both Tangier and Morocco further.

Before going on this trip, I considered the daytrip to Tangier and had read all the nightmares and horror stories from others who'd done it. These people are wussies. Yes, there are annoyances. Yes, it can seem awfully third world at times. And yes, these tour operators are in the business of making euros. But it's all worthwhile. Put your preconceived notions aside and go for the ride. It may not be everything you expect, but it certainly isn't everything you fear, either.

How Low Can You Go?

So we hopped in the Seat ass-early in the morning and headed as far south on the continent as we could: Tarifa. It's the mouth of the Strait of Gibraltar (incidentally, mere miles from the Rock itself), the point where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, and windsurfing and kitesurfing capital of Spain. And home of the most magnificent fucking sunrise ever. Ooh, and that's Africa off on the right. freakin' AFRICA!

Considering it's almost midnight and we left around 7:30 this morning, I'm exhausted. Destroyed. ¡Muy consado! Just enough energy to download photos and check email.

I'll get back on the computer after a few (or many) drinkies.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Early Bird Gets the Worm

I don't quite know what the worm is, but it's certainly early. It's not even 6:30 yet and I'm showered, have coffee in me, and I'm raring to go.

We're going to head south today, at least to Tarifa. Considering it's the southernmost point in Europe, we can't drive much further...

No Fiesta. Just Siesta.

I guess we're just getting more used to the Spanish timetable. After getting home, Elena passed out in her bed. J and I passed out on the couches. I just woke up with my face in a puddle of drool, having had the most egotistcal dream of a handful of Spanish girls competing for my *ahem* attention.

Waking up to reality wasn't so bad, though. Instead of heading out, we dove into more bread. And cheese. And wine, definitely wine. In typical Spanish fashion, we dined late on a great selection of local goods. A mellow night for sure, but a quality one nonetheless.

Tomorrow we party. After I get back to those girls in my dreams...

You Spin Me Right Ronda

So we started to make our way down the coast, stopping at the first gas station and market that we saw to fuel up and stock up on drinks and snacks. It's Christmas day in a Catholic country, after all.

Where would we go? Algeciras? Tarifa? Cadiz? We saw the signs for Ronda and made a right. Heading north from the coast, we found ourselves in some sort of post-industrial wasteland. Near a corridor of warehouse-sized furniture stores, we saw garbage and junk littering the streets. It looked like an abandoned neighborhood. Junked furniture. Old clothes. Piles of rotting food waste. A stray horse eating it. What the...?

Eventually we got on the right track, and made our way up the windy mountainous roads. The views of Andalucía from a high elevation are simply breathtaking. Big, craggy mountains, fertile valleys, verdant hillsides, sheer cliffs - this was the making of an amazing road trip, no matter what the destination was.

Of course, the best way to spoil a good drive is to get stuck behind a tiny Citroën doing half the speed limit. With very few passing opportunities, this can be extremely frustrating. And then you make the pass, only to get stuck behind another weenie Citroën minutes later. So either these cars are extremely gutless, or the drivers are idiots. Considering one of them was consistenly braking uphill, I'll go for the latter. When I finally did get an opportunity to make a 140km/h pass, I went screaming in the opposing lane and pulled back in time to avoid a head-on... right behind the Guardia Civil. Oops. I had to drive like a grandma from then on to avoid provoking the officer to avoid an on-the-spot fine. You know, special for foreigners.

I ended up avoiding the cop by taking off on a side route into Ronda, and as we made our way into the town, the crappy suburban architecture and cramped streets and general look of malaise was all a bit underwhelming. J located the old town area on the map and we made our way to it.

Wow. Now this is the type of Andalucían town we were looking for. Sweeping views of the valleys beneath, an amazing ancient bridge spanning the Tajo gorge in the middle of town, charming old architecture, and people so nice you wouldn't believe it's a tourist destination. And surprisingly, a lot was open, considering it's Christmas. We expected to stop and take a few pictures, but after finding a parking space (these come at a huge premium here), we took some good time to do a little exploring, shop for local crafts, and eat a local meal.

Ok, so the meal was less than spectacular, but I won't get into the gory details of cold calameres fritos, bland meats, or uinimaginative salad. At least the beer was ice cold. And soooooo necessary after all that driving.

The drive back was uneventful. We made a stop in Marbella proper, which partially helped shatter its image as a tacky playground for super-rich tourists. Behind the facades of bars and clubs and resorts catering to well-to-do Brits, there's an actual old town, a charming residential area, and familys playing in public spaces - the way it should be.

This hasn't stopped me for wishing we'd spent the night in Ronda, but what do I have to complain about? Perhaps tonight we'll hit up one of these cheesy bars or clubs and have our first proper fiesta.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas Morning

There's no anticipation. Everything's relaxed. No drama to deal with. No presents to open.

But there's still one thing that makes this Christmas morning. Getting up and "unwrapping" the window, to beautiful pink hues in the sky, a deep blue Mediterranean, and palm trees gently dancing around. And making a huge family brunch.

J made coffee, Elena got the bread and set the table, and I whipped up a gigantic omelette using some thick pancetta, beautiful Andalucían peppers, mushrooms, and cheese - glorious cheese! We also had some fresh fruits, a carafe of orange-carrot juice, and a little more cheese on the side. Is there anything better in this world than soft, unpasteurized cheese??? This made for a fan-fucking-tastic Christmas brunch.

Everything's closed today, except maybe the churches, so we're thinking it's time for our first aimless road trip. Where will it be? Who knows. We figured we'll just point the car south and go go go. Hopefully the gas stations are open.

Night Driver

Having familiarized myself with the Mediterraneao highway (A7) by day, it was time to take it on at night.

J's flight came in this evening, so it was the perfect opportunity to check out the autopista in darkness. And I mean darkness. In the stretch between Fuengirola and Malaga, there are no street lights and very few other cars. The lane markings have no reflectors, and most of the opposing traffic is driving with high beams. These are not the ideal conditions to be pushing 140 km/h on hilly roads.

But what the hell, I'm fully insured, right?

Picking J up in Malaga was easy and breezy enough, and the 40km drive back to Marbella just as much fun as the first leg.

We got home in time to watch some horrendously cheesy Christmas Eve programming - the host of the program looked like the Spanish version of Dick Clark, only with a little more gay flair. At midnight, I popped open a bottle of cava (that's the español version of champagne for you non-winos), toasted, and got ready to pass the fuck out.

Quiero Comprar... Todos!

We went to the nearby grocery store to stock up on supplies, considering everything's going to be closed on Christmas.

With this being Spain, we've stocked up on cheese, jamón, more cheese, more jamón, wine, wine, and more wine. We also got some other staples - including these gigantic unrefrigerated eggs. These supermarkets sell everything. I passed on the 100% Black 3-CD compilation ("¡La mejor musica negra!" WTF?), but we couldn't resist the absolute political incorrectness of Conguitos. They're chocolate covered peanuts, and the packaging looks like this. Again, WTF?

I also bought a spindle of CD-Rs so I can burn some music for the car. At the freakin' market. Awesome.

A Room With a View

We've settled into our digs at the Club Alanda Marbella. It's awful. The bedrooms are too big, the huge windows let in too much light, and the amenities are too luxurious for a minimalist traveler like me. I need squalor to be happy.

What's up with these views of the Mediterranean from every room? Is that Gibraltar I see off in the distance? I came here to see Spain, not some territory of Great Britain! Geez, what am I supposed to do here? Maybe I'll take a nap to get my mind off of these horrible circumstances.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Chaos at the Kiosk, Rockin' the Roads

J, that bastard is sleeping in.

He didn't buy his ticket to Malaga on time, so instead of being on our ass early flight, he gets to take off in the afternoon. Elena and I, on the other hand, had to deal with getting up early, hopping on the Heathrow Express, and fighting the crowd at the airport.

Luckily, we spotted some of British Airways' automated check-in kiosks. No line, no waiting. Sweet!

Yeah, that'd be great if the machine didn't jam up and eat the boarding passes. Fuck. Not this crap again.

Fortunately, while Heathrow is as much of a clusterfuck during the holidays as any other airport in the world, BA has some pretty excellent customer service, and we were re-checked in and ready to go in minutes. Disaster averted.

"Let's get some breakfast," I said.

"Dude, there's hot breakfast on the plane," Elena replied.

"I am NOT leaving London without having a full English breakfast, dammit."

And so we sat down at the airport outlet of Giraffe and ordered breakfast, waiting for our gate to come up on the departures board. Two bites in, the sign said "Now boarding." ARGH.

I scarfed like I was in some sort of competitive eating contest. I'm getting my fill of eggs, bacon, potatoes, tomato, etc. at all costs. And in time to make our flight.

We crammed into our coach seats, only to have our takeoff delayed by Heathrow's lingering fog problems. ARGH.

Eventually, we arrived in Malaga, got our luggage, only to wait in a car rental line that seemed to take hours and hours. The same crying babies from our flight all happened to be waiting for the same car rental company (Goldcar Europa). Mental note: Pay a little more for a car next time, just to avoid the hellish wait.

When we finally did get our car, it wasn't what I ordered. I had booked a Mercedes-Benz A class, and instead we got this Seat, the Spanish arm of Volkswagen Audi. It's actually not bad at all. A 5-speed diesel, super comfy, spacious, and with a kickin stereo system. Perfect for a bit of comfort on Spain's crazy autopistas.

Lanes are narrow, there are no shoulders, and you generally get only 50 metres or so to merge with traffic. On the other hand, speeding seems to be de rigeur here, and roundabouts make life so much easier. I could totally get used to this...

In n Out

We finally motivated and left the luxurious surroundings of our hotel somewhere around 8:30 tonight.

Plans to meet up with Amy (a friend from SF) were scrapped, as were my grand plans to check out the Tate Modern. But dammit, I was gonna knock off one of my must-do's. So off we went to the French House for dinner and drinks.

Of course, the French House was all booked up. No room at the inn this Christmas weekend!

But that wasn't going to stop me from introducing Elena and J to my all-time favorite pub. Surly, weird old men, elbow-to-elbow seating, enough cigarette smoke to seize the toughest of lungs. What's so great about this place? It oozes old school cool, that's what. It was Charles DeGaulle's headquarters for the French Resistance. To keep things cozy, they have a strict ban on mobile phones and flash photography. They only serve half-pints so that your beer is always fresh and cold. There's also the illusory benefit that you're only spending £1.30 a drink, which really makes sense after you've had a few, right? Drunk logic:

"Dude, that round was less than £5!"

"I know! I love this place!"

After fooling ourselves into thinking we'd gotten a bargain, and probably breathing in enough smoke to give us emphysema, we went down to Gerrard Street - London's Chinatown - in search of food. Not an issue, considering half the restaurants are open 'til 3am. Why did I not find this street on previous trips???

Walking from window to window, we settled on Luxuriances, a peking-style Chinese joint. We gorged, completely demolished the white tablecloths, and walked out full. The £10 prix fixe menu is chock full of good stuff. Spare ribs, fried seaweed, cashew chicken, sweet and sour, veggies... wow. But the real stars for me were the sweet corn soup and the aromatic crispy duck. You see, when I was a kid here in London, this sort of stuff was my first taste of Chinese food and was the standard by which we judged all other Chinese food. And since then, my parents and I have been chasing the same sort of corn soup and duck in the States, with few (if any) happy results.

I was so happy, I wanted to call my mom and gloat. I think I'll just send her a snotty email.

Alas, dinner was so big and took so long that we missed doing the bumper cars at Leicester Square. Which is a shame, because we planned on smashing into J so much that he'd puke up an entire Chinese buffet for all the little chavs and chavettes to pick through.

Now we're home, full, and ready to pass out. Of course, I'm sure we'll be hungry in 15 minutes. No matter where you are in the world, it's still Chinese food.

Off to España in the morning!

Rip Van Winkle

Umm, scrap all the plans. We all just slept much of the day away.

Why do I get the feeling this is going to be a recurring theme?

Pints, Pounds, and a Piping Hot Shower at Paddington

Ah, there's nothing like being crammed in a gigantic flying metal tube with hundreds of your closest friends. Fortunately, Virgin is among the cooler of the airlines out there, because of one thing: Scrummy flight attendants. Ok, two things: They also have on-demand entertainment. Which doesn't bode well if you want to sleep, but hey, I finally got ot catch Little Miss Sunshine. Score!

Unfortunately, I got virtually no sleep on the flight, so by the time we arrived in London, my stanky ass was about ready for a shower. That was the group concensus... but not before having some celebratory pints! Never mind that six pints cost us in the neighborhood of $70. Ouch. Note to self: Don't drink at the hotel bar. Hell, don't drink in London!

Other than steep bar prices, the Hilton Paddington is very nice. It's directly above the Paddington railway station, so that'll make our early morning escape to Heathrow that much easier in the morning. On top of that, the service is stellar, the room's nice, and were welcomed by a virtual aquarium on the TV. I know, I'm so easily impressed.

So we've each taken our hot hot HOT showers (soooo necessary after a 10 hour flight) and are ready to take on London. On the must-do list: The Tate Modern, the French House, and hitting up the bumper cars at the Bob Wilson Funfair in Leicester square. Let's hop to it!

Friday, December 22, 2006

Launch Imminent

So in a few hours, I'll be boarding a Virgin-Atlantic flight from San Fran Disco to London, my gateway to adventures in Europe.

Providing this whole fog fiasco at Heathrow doesn't throw a wrench in this finely-tuned travel machine, I'll quaff a few pints, have a Full English, explore a museum, and then be off to Malaga, Spain, and onward and upward as I loop back to London. It's gonna be 16 days of boozin', cruisin', and hopefully not losin' anything.

Although I've planned and studied somewhat furiously, nothing but transit dates between major cities have been set in stone. So who knows if I'll be writing under the influence of lager, sherry, sangria, kif, or french fry grease.

Here goes nothin'... See you on the other side.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Bend Me, Break Me

I'm going to have to re-read this blog and look at the photos really quick. Right now, I'm losing the plot. There's nothing that can erase the joy of an excellent vacation quicker than a horrible trip back (like getting home from Prague) and that's precisely what we got.

We checked in at Gregorio Luperon airport for our flight to Newark, NJ, this morning, only to find that it had been delayed for at least two hours. It took well more than 2 hours of sitting in an unconditioned hallway before we could board. At least the flight wasn't packed, and apparently ALL of Continental's flights through Newark had been delayed, so maybe we'd make our connecting flights back to SFO. Elena's was around 8:25, mine and J's slated for 7:20.

Our flight made it in at 7:45.

On the plus side, we cleared customs relatively quickly and the connectors were, indeed, delayed. On the negative, the security gate at Newark was a clusterfuck of epic proportions. I won't go into details, but I wouldn't be surprised if a riot had broken out there tonight. No control over the line whatsoever. Everyone fighting to get through because for some reason, the boards listed all the delayed flights as leaving at 8:35. TSA had no clue what to do. And these guys are charged with our safety. WTF!?

We got through and made it to our gate, only to find out that there wasn't even a plane there yet. I sat, stewing in frustration and saltiness, while J checked the boards and found out we leave at 9:10. Or so we hope. That gave us time to round up what little American cash we had to buy a Coke. With all the Brugal Extra Viejo we had on us, it was time for a goddamn cocktail.

I remarked after buying the Coke how the new-to-the-country immigrant woman - who hardly spoke English and was probably lucky to get more than minimum wage - was so courteous and nice, despite the mayhem of delayed flights, short tempers, and frustrated travelers. And here we are paying extra for federalized security workers who get higher pay, a great pension, and can't do their job to save their lives. Fuck you, TSA.

Anyway, before the jackbooted thugs come to take me away, I should get back to the story. We finally boarded our flight and were on our way home...

After the fantastically delicious (note sarcasm) "cheese steak" that resembled a high school cafeteria burger, I really had to go to the bathroom. It was when I got up that I noticed that the bug bites on my left foot had swollen my ankle to look like a giant lump of red Play-Doh. My foot could barely bend, so I limped my way to the lavatory. Once inside the tiny cubicle of stinky ass death, I noticed my face was reddened and broken out. My back was much the same, only with a bunch of miniscule whiteheads to complete the package. Again, I say, WTF!?

Between the bites, the unbearable humidity earlier, and the altitude, something was throwing my body way off. For all I know, it could've been the "cheese steak."

I spent the rest of the flight watching my clubfoot swell and redden some more. Once in SFO, I thought I might need a wheelchair, but managed to limp to the arrivals area where Ian was waiting with a car, and Elena already was. At some point, J had to support me under one arm like a human crutch, it was that bad.

But that's not the worst of it. I had to swallow some more pride and have J carry my bag up the stairs at my place for me. That wasn't so bad. What was bad was that for the first time since moving my furniture in, I cursed living in a walk-up. Especially because it became a crawl-up. That's right, I can't walk up stairs in my state.

So here I am, finally home, typing this last chapter of the trip. My foot is elevated and the swelling seems to be going down a touch, but it still hurts like hell and my skin could be mistaken for that of a 15 year-old pubescent boy.

If you put him in a deep fryer.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Dominican Observations

  • If I haven’t mentioned it enough, driving in the DR is crazy. The mortality rate on the roads should be much higher than it is. Thank goodness it isn’t.

  • People are really, really, really friendly. If you’re ever feeling like a misanthrope, visit the Caribbean for a few days and see that there is a nice side to humanity.

  • Dominicans are beautiful. Whether they’re black, white, mixed or indigenous Taino, rich, middle class or poor, there’s a certain glow and joie de vivre that really shines from behind the eyes and the smiles.

  • Politics are serious business. There are campaign posters everywhere, and almost all the graffiti is of a political nature.

  • The motorbike is king. Don’t be surprised to see someone riding down the highway, drinking a beer, smoking a cigarette, and carrying the crutches he got from his last accident. Or a family of five doing the same thing. On one bike.

  • Local TV shows baseball, baseball highlights, and baseball news. And the occasional non-baseball content.

  • Many Dominicans cut off the last consonant of words, so, for instance, Buenos dias becomes bueno dia, which sounds supiciously like the Catalan bon dia. I suspect this started because no one wants to take the time to differentiate between formal and informal. This place is anything BUT formal.

Red White and Booze

When you’re on an island with as slow a pace as this, you don’t end up doing half the things you anticipated. We were hoping to have a nice, final dinner out, maybe party it up, but instead we were caught off guard by an invitation to the resort’s VIP Fourth of July party. It was last minute in terms of us not knowing about it until late today, and also last minute because the staff just decided to do it. Our poor host Eduardo even had to scramble to put it together.

And what a fine job he did. Like the other night, libations were in full effect. An American-style barbecue was prepared for the masses. And they’d even hired a pretty decent live band. Over coco locos and Santo libres and ice cold Presidentes, we enjoyed our last night on the resort’s tab in style. There was even another full-blown fireworks display as the band played “Born in the USA.” The humidity was a killer, and things looked grim when a tropical rain started to fall during dinner, but everything went off without a hitch.

Naturally, the vacationing jingoist factor was in full effect. People in stars-and-stripes do rags; American flag and eagle shirts; even a champion Midwestern woman with a bit of a mullet, a red striped sleeveless button-up, and navy blue mom-jean shorts. Ahh, Americana! The staff were more than happy to humor everyone – after all, they know where their bread is buttered – and even I had to get choked up at the playing of the national anthem, the big flags, and the ginormous American flag cake. Ok, maybe I meant cracked up. Especially because the flag cake was drawn backwards!

Yes, even a non-flag-waving, unpatriotic curmudgeon like myself had a wonderful time, and appreciated all the hard work that went into this last minute affair. It would have been hard not to.

While I’m a backpacker at heart and don’t care much for package vacations, I have to go out of my way to acknowledge the incredible job the folks at Lifestyles do to make sure everyone has a comfortable and enjoyable time.

Scared by the prospect of bad commercial hip-hop at the onsite nightclub, J, Elena and I returned to the villa to unwind with a few more cocktails and hang out well into the night. We’d polished off all the Brugal, so it made sense to crack open the Absolut and the Beefeater and our bottles of tonic water. After all, the quinine in it will hopefully prevent any malaria that may result from the super-humid evening’s mosquito bites.

The last night is always the most bittersweet. We talked about how amazing a time we’ve had. I wasn’t allowed to mention how much I dreaded leaving tomorrow, nor regret things we didn’t do. We focused on all the great things we’d done and all the great people we’d met in such a short time. I realized that in all the traveling and adventure-seeking I’ve been doing for the past several years, this was probably the most relaxing and refreshing holiday I’ve taken in ages.

In a world full of crazy overland adventures, extreme sports, marathon journeys, solo expeditions, and punishing itineraries, sometimes a short, immersive break with your friends is all you need. Gracias, mis amigos.

Beauty and the Beach

I’m geeking out once again, tapping this out on the ol’ Powerbook while laying on Cofresi Beach. My Lonely Planet guide book says this is just an “OK” beach with little to offer, but as far as I can tell, it’s pretty damn nice, not very crowded, and the water and sun here are the same as they’d be on the supposedly better beaches many kilometers away. Meh.

In fact, despite some of the warts, the Dominican Republic experience so far has been more beautiful than I’d anticipated. The people are warm and friendly. Everyone stops and smiles and says “¡Hola!” as you pass by. This short break is almost coming to an end and I think the three of us can agree that it’s the friendliness that makes this place what it is.

Roads are shite. Cell phone service is unreliable. The humidity can be stifling. You can’t help but take things slow and easy, because there’s no other way here.

Except when attempting to pass on the highway, of course.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Servicio a Todas Horas

I woke up at 8:00 to let the maid in. Usually they come in on their own, but you have to be present when they’re coming in to make you breakfast. Yes, you read that right. They make you breakfast in your own kitchen and serve it to you in your own breakfast nook around these parts. You can call us spoiled, alright. With Angela in her little blue maid outfit cooking us up some eggs and cheese and waffles and making fresh watermelon and pineapple juices, we were really getting a taste of how the other half lives. Or perhaps, the other 1%. We have to remind ourselves not to get used to this.

At 10:00 Fausto came to pick us up in his comfy Toyota van. Sure, we were a day late, but he didn’t complain. He expertly negotiated the perilous Puerto Plata roads to take us around the town.

First stop: La Fortaleza. An old Spanish fort, La Fortaleza is a nice piece of brickwork, topped with now defunct cannons and portholes for shooting at invading enemies. While it isn’t the most impressive old fort out there, it was nice to get a chunk of history amidst all this luxuriating. Fausto warned us in Spanish quite bluntly not to buy anything from the vendors scattered about the entrance, and also covered our entry – they usually scalp tourists at US$15 a head. Yowch.

We carried on through the shanty-like surrounds of Puerto Plata. Fausto chuckled when Elena called the old area lindo (pretty). The grass is always greener on the other side. While locals will fight and scrape and ride beat-up motorbikes down shitty roads to make a few dollars a day, those of us on the über-luxury-resort side of the fence think the old, run-down part of town is charming.

To many, we have it all. And we do. But there are times when our mechanized, commercialized, same-same means of building neighborhoods are outclassed by the handiwork brought on by necessity and creativity. After all, what do you prefer? A fluorescent lit strip mall? Or an alley full of vendors adorned b torches made of old coffee cans? Something to think about on the way home, I suppose.

But first, back to commerce. Fausto took us to Larimar House, one of those joints where they hand roll cigars, press them, and box them up for your immediate enjoyment. We were welcomed not with cigars, but with Mamajuana, a Taino libation that incorporates potent herbs, honey, wine, and spirits to make a very sweet and inebriating aphrodisiac. 400 pesos scored us a bottle of the herbs, which will hopefully pass customs on the return trip.

Our main concern in pushing the bounds of customs, though, is with cigars. We figured between the three of us, we can legally bring back 150 cigars. The shopkeeps were well aware of this, so while Elena was given a lesson in rolling cigars (she got to keep the one she made!), they buttered us up with a couple of their local stogies and worked on getting us to buy our US-imposed limit of cigars.

Something to keep in mind: Good cigars aren’t cheap. They aren’t in the Dominican, and they aren’t in Cuba. When you buy a $3 Romeo y Julieta “Cuban” cigar in Mexico, congratulations, you just bought yourself a phony. So it’s easy to say that in buying our limit of the store’s own handmade cigars, a couple of boxes of Cohibas, and some Arturo Fuente Rothchild’s, we’d just invested largely in the Caribbean’s economy. But hey, as J said when we got our eye-bulging tally, “We’re only in the Dominican once, right?” They did soften the financial blow a bit by offering us a few more shots of Mamajuana for the road, as well as a couple more robusto cigars. When I told the guy I really like torpedos, he threw a few more of those into the bag. “To enjoy at your hotel!” Either they made our day, or we just made theirs.

Attached to the cigar shop is the amber and jewelry shop. We couldn’t stop for one of the DR’s signature products without picking up another. Unfortunately, the sell at the jewelry store was a little harder and insistent than with the cigars, but we all picked up some pieces that our loved ones will be quite happy with. Dominican amber is reputed to be the best in the world, so I really hope they are happy.

A couple more stops in search of local arts and crafts (I can’t go anywhere without picking up some piece of indigenous work), and it was time for Dominican specialty number three: Rum. We asked Fausto if it’s cheaper at the airport’s duty free or in the shops. It was pretty much without question that the next stop would be the supermarket. Litre bottles of Brugal Extra Viejo rum for 190 pesos. That’s just over $6. Needless to say, we explored our customs limits once again.

Bags full and wallets nearly empty, it was time for Fausto to drop us off and say goodbye. His services were much appreciated in a place with bad, unsigned roads, street hustlers, and tourist gouging. He made sure we made it through unscathed, got a fair deal, and was good company the whole way. As we said goodbye and handed him a fat tip, he asked when we’d be back in the Dominican again. J may have said “We’re only in the Dominican once,” but with great people like Fausto around, we might have to be back. “No se, pero tengo su tarjeta,” I said. I’ll be keeping that card.

Wiped Out

Sunburnt. Waterlogged. We were beat. There was no way we could go out. But we had 8:30 reservations at the fancy VIP Restaurant in the complex, and how could we turn down a full-service dinner? It was pretty fantastic, especially the lobster, but I think we were just too wiped to appreciate it. Or maybe too spoiled. Either way, we made it a quiet night at home, sipping mineral water, cooling our sunburns, and smoking Cohibas.

At some point in the middle of the night, the need to snack reared its ugly head, so J and I took the golf cart out to the all-night Beach Club to pick up some munchies. We knocked back a couple of Presidentes while waiting for our order to be ready, overhearing the conversation of a group of fratboys. We figured they’d immersed themselves in an all-inclusive stupor. J guessed they’d never “left the reservation.” Our suspicions were confirmed when they were talking about rumors of people being drugged and having their kidneys stolen after leaving the confines of the resort.

When our order was up, we giddily walked back across the beach to our golf cart with a hot stack of burgers. As we left, J wished the fratboys, “Good luck with your kidneys.”

One Dominican Minute

The pickup time was slated for 8:00 am. That gave me just enough time to shower up, get dressed, return the rental car, and head over to the main reception with the guys. Today’s fun-time activity: Catamaran sailing between Playa Dorada and Sosua. One of those rough necessities of a Caribbean holiday, I suppose.

The bus picked us up sometime closer to 8:30. About the only thing that happens on time are TV shows and maybe flights on Island Standard Time. While people in other cultures try to downplay how long things will take, i.e. “just a minute,” or “two seconds,” islanders let you know that it will take a while… “One Dominican minute,” they say. Which could be anything from one actual minute to all afternoon.

It took us one or two Dominican minutes for our little bus to round everyone up at their resorts and drop us off at the beach, where we waded into the water and climbed aboard the Freetsyle II. We were pretty much the only Americans on board, the rest being Brits with varying degrees of sunburn and dental issues. Our objective for the day: Sail fast, snorkel deep, and make fun of the boatload of Aussies on the Freestyle I. Oi! Oi! Oi!

Sometimes, there’s nothing like cat sailing. It’s relaxing and exhilarating at the same time. You have the rocking motion that can lull you to sleep or throw you off your balance. There’s plenty of room to lay out and sun yourself to a crisp, while cool water occasionally splashes up from beneath you. And when Duran Duran’s “Rio” comes on the sound system, you can hang off the bow pretending to be Simon LeBon. Which we did, and the passengers who were old enough gave an appreciative snicker.

The anchor dropped at a reef near Sosua and we jumped in for a nice snorkeling session. We fed the fish, avoided landing on any of the gigantic sea urchins, and generally had a good time of floating around with our faces buried in the water. It was a bit crowded with everyone snorkeling the same reef, so Elena and I followed J’s lead of swimming toward the outskirts. Peaceful, floating bliss.

Back aboard, the bar opened up, and Mariela did a good job making sure we were never, ever without a beer or rum drink. Sometimes we were double fisting ‘em, unable to drink them as fast as she could make them. Every few seconds, she’d shout “Who needs anodder beer!?” “Beer, rum, or sex!?” The latter part was in reference to her specialty, Sex on the Boat. A cocktail. Along the way, I met my Dominican twin, Felix. Aside from a wider nose, curlier hair, and much darker complexion, we looked like we could be brothers. Freaky.

The crew and other passengers made for quite the festive atmosphere as we made our way to Three Rocks, our next snorkeling destination. With deeper and cooler water, it was a more refreshing swim. We ended our session there in a cannonball contest, competing for a bottle of Brugal rum. Eight of us lads or so had a go of launching ourselves off the side of the boat, trying to make the biggest splash we can. Winners were chosen by applause, and with a huge Mancunian contingent, there was no way team San Francisco could win.

The way back was even more fun and drunken. The crew put on a little dance show, and then some of us were pulled up to strut our own stuff with “Follow the Leader,” some local form of line dancing with a lot of clapping, a lot of putting hands in the air, and uncomfortably strange on a rocking boat, synchronized jumping around. We had plenty more drinks, learned and forgot a few Spanish phrases, and Elena exchanged numbers with Mariela so we could party in Cofresi later.

That’d be a Dominican “later.” We never made it out again.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Party Time

The day’s driving adventures required a relaxing evening dip in the pool and a good, stiff glass of Brugal. It was the big night at the resort – the VIP World welcome party – so we had to be fresh.

Pimped out in my best island get-up, I sported linen pants, a crisp pink collared shirt (short-sleeve, of course), and my new nubuck sandals. It was time to go back into swanky island tourist mode, after all. All I needed was a panama hat and a big cigar to complete the look. But I look stupid in hats and we’re not hitting the cigar-rolling joint until tomorrow.

The party itself had far more flare than I did. Sushi with mango (excellent touch, by the way), whole pigs being spitroasted over a barbecue, freeflowing drinks, you name it. We were all seated around the pool, and the high point was the entertainment. The band was talented, but it was the singer who lived up to his reputation as a Dominican superstar. He was obnoxious, hilarious, and all around fun. And pretty drunk, too, including his ode to Jack Daniels as part of the routine. They played Latin versions of just about everything, whether it was cumbia, bachata, or Pink Floyd. The zenith was a huge fireworks display done to their cover of – get this – “Clocks” by Coldplay.

While I’m not big on these resort parties – think cruise ship dinner and entertainment – we were actually really entertained. There were also amazing dance routines, as well as another act who’s allegedly one of the best singers on the island. And while her voice was excellent, I was a bit more enthralled by her booty and attendant skimpy outfits. What can I say? I’m a pig.

But the highlight was really, truly the main singer and his band. We all agreed that they’d be the best guy to play at our respective weddings. He’ll be drunk and obnoxious, just like all the guests.

Road Rage

The other day, when we’d told of our plans, Eduardo asked who was going to drive. J and Elena pointed at me. I’m the one with third-world driving experience, and having gotten rid of my car recently, I’ve been needing a dose of spirited driving to cure the withdrawal symptoms.

“Spirited” may not be the right word for driving in the Dominican Republic. Whacked-ass-holy-shit-this-is-crazy is probably more accurate.

Our first dose of madness came at the first intersection we found with a red light. There seemed to be a lot of commotion at the intersection, and we soon found out why.

The car was immediately swarmed by a throng of teens wielding squeegees and sponges, who started washing the windshield and rear window no matter how many times we protested. “¡No gracias!” Then they begged and pleaded for money. And 50 pesos wasn’t enough. Once you pay one of them off, they work their way to the next car and another couple come and start washing your already-gleaming windshield. Madenning. The light turned green and we made our way through only after J handed the budding automotive aestheticians a handful of Marlboro Lights.

A tip for traveling: Always have cigarettes. They are both a conversation starter, and a way to cheaply deal with aggressive panhandlers in developing countries.

And by developing, I really mean it. They’re getting around to re-paving the roads in Puerto Plata and putting in some sort of subterranean piping or wiring. Which means half the road is a dug up ditch, and the rest is a pothole laden death trap for timid drivers. You have to brake, swerve, and gun it like crazy through opposing traffic to get around these things with your axels intact. Who knew you could have such white knuckle thrills in a Corolla?

Once we were on Highway 5 – the main road to Sosua and environs – it seemed like smooth sailing. If you consider dodging motorcycles and cars coming right at you from the other side smooth. It’s rare that there’s a yellow line marking the center of the road, so it appears Dominicans will use the whole road in either direction.

When there is a yellow line, it doesn’t make much of a difference. Take one blind corner. Take a hill. Take a double-yellow line to prevent any sort of passing in such an obviously no-passing situation. Now add a big ol’ box truck that doesn’t seem to care about any of the above. The sum? Swerving and avoiding being creamed at 50 mph. Literally, by several inches. If my passengers were older, they would have most certainly had heart attacks. Hell, I nearly soiled myself as well. But a little, evil, leadfoot part of me thought, “Now, this is fun!”

A hundred potholes and a handful of “That motorcyclist could’ve been dead!”s later, we were in Cabarete, a little ways past Sosua.

Cabarete is the windsurfing and kitesurfing capital of the Caribbean, and it shows. You can’t NOT notice all the boardsports going on. But that wasn’t on our agenda. After the little driving odyssey we just had, we were more than happy to chill out at a beach bar, get some sun, and do some people-watching. There were windsurfers, of course. Girls clad in bikinis, dudes with way too much hair and flab to be seen in public, naked babies, and vendors. Some were selling jewelry. Others cold drinks. One guy was hawking peanuts. But the most interesting had to be the guy carrying around a large Rubbermaid tub full of pasta. As much as I love street food and getting a really good feel for local flavor, I wasn’t about to dig into noodles that were festering in a plastic box carried on some dude’s head.

Cabarete also has a reputation as being the place to party on the north coast, but I just couldn’t see it. The main drag – ok, the only drag – is riddled with shops and bars and the occasional discoteca but it really didn’t seem much more interesting than other beach towns I’ve been to. Clogged with cars and motorcycles attempting to lane-split through non-existent lanes, it seems a place that’s more hype and crowds than anything else. To its credit, though, the EZE Bar makes one of the finest piña coladas on earth, and the view of all the surfing off in the distance is pretty awesome.

The drive back was almost as harrowing as the way in, only with fewer close calls. At least, of the traffic variety. The one serious point of “Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit” was when we stopped for gas… and the Corolla wouldn’t go into drive. I tried and tried and tried again, to no avail. The car was stuck in park and the gear wouldn’t engage! Luckily, shifting into a lower gear first and then putting it in drive worked. Disaster averted.

I always do crazy, come-close-to-killing-yourself activities on my trips. Ziplining hundreds of meters above the ground, negotiating Class IV rapids and waterfalls, jumping off perfectly good bridges… none of these made me feel my own mortality as much as driving here. Did I mention that my seatbelt was totally non-functional? Yeah, well, it was.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

¡Mas Gasolina!

We were told that the resort had car rentals on-site. We figured it would probably cost more, but it’s far more convenient than having to go into town – or worse, the airport – to go get one. This would be quick and easy.

It wasn’t. It turns out they don’t have it on site, so they had to order one for us. $55 for a ’94 Toyota Corolla. In white. Anyone who knows me knows my incredible, irrational disdain for white Corollas. Unfortunately, that’s all they had left. And it would come in about 30 minutes. Enough time to stock up on stuffed animals to put on the rear deck. Or go to the VIP bar for coco locos and beer.

We showed up at the office hoping to see our not-so-gleaming chariot waiting for us. Except for the fact that they put a hold on the order, concerned that we wouldn’t want a car without air conditioning. Now, I realize we’re at a chi chi resort where we get choppered in, fed to our hearts’ content, and waited on hand and foot. But we were renting to get away from all that. How would no A/C be a problem for us?

The order was put in again, and that gave us time to check out the buffet for lunch. And to that, all I have to say is, “Eh.” Ok, so I really dug the octopus stew. Mmm… Tentaclicious!

The ride finally did arrive, and as predicted, it was a properly ghetto-ass white Corolla, complete with hubcaps held on with zip ties, a crack in the windshield, a re-purposed Suzuki stereo, and… an empty tank? No worries. The rep from Ramos Rent-a-Car would come back into town with us – he needed to be dropped off anyway, and we’d fill the tank.

Except that the car sputtered and died out before we even left the resort. So adding to our already late start, you have to figure in another hour or so of bumming around until someone could show up with a gallon of gasolina.

Our day of daytripping finally got off to a limping start, at 2:15 in the afternoon.

Lazy Sunday

There’s a warm tropical wind blowing through right now. J’s still in bed. Elena is upstairs showering. I’m drinking a Perrier and working on my laptop as I sit on the veranda overlooking the pool. Our pool. In which we went swimming in the middle of the night.

Yeah, life is rough sometimes. When you’re at an all-inclusive resort, reality gets distorted. You have food and drink at your beck and call. You have the beach nearby. Activities. More swimming pools. More drinks. Last night, the treatment came in the form of a set dinner at the Blue Lagoon. Salad with tuna, ceviche, lobster bisque, and this huge platter of grilled seafood. This was all fantastic, but sometimes you need to escape the coddling and the luxury.

So it was off to nearby Sosua by taxi. Not that far away as the crow flies, Dominican roads aren’t exactly like American superhighways. 45 minutes, $30, and several drunken naps later, we were there, and we secured our ride back by paying our driver another 30 bones. But hey, there’s no nightlife at the compound, and Sosua’s a happenin’ place.

Perhaps not this Saturday night. In fact, it was pretty dead everywhere we went. There were tons of bars open, with gaudy neon lights to attract the non-existent masses of revelers. No matter. We went to Voodoo Lounge, where the German-speaking bartender made a mean Cuba libre and the bathrooms were clean. This latter point is important, especially after gorging yourself on seafood and taking a long, windy road trip in the back of a Toyota minivan. Just so you know.

Our next stop was the Checkpoint, where we’d meet up with my friend Brooke from TravelPunk. She was tending bar in all her Canadian finery to celebrate her country’s big day. Umm, that’d be Canada Day, eh.

Brooke whipped us up a batch of specialty drinks, some involving a blender, and we taught her a few of our own. Somehow, we always end up with a night like this. Around the bar were a couple from Boston… no, make that Bahstun – accents in full effect! As well as a 20 year-old from Tennessee, accompanied by his 34 year old friend. Before you ask the question, J already did. What was a dude in his 30’s doing hanging out with a kid who just turned 20? We never found out…

The Checkpoint eventually had to close, which is probably good since we had a waiting cab. And J’s skin was breaking out something fierce. Elena wasn’t far behind. Damn the seafood! At least we could have a nice, cooling swim when we got back.

We made our way back to Cofresi. Along the way, the driver offered to take us around Puerto Plata on Monday, so he could show us the shopping, the amber museum, the cigar factory, etc. Well now, we weren’t going to turn down adding a driver into this whole mix, were we? I negotiated a time in my so-so Spanish, and as he dropped us off, it was agreed: Lunes a las cuatro. That means Monday at 4. Or so I hope.

World Cups

Portugal beat England while we were in flight. That’s the news Eduardo gleefully told us at one of the resort’s many bars. That wasn’t happy news (England’s my #3 team, after all) so it was completely appropriate that the bartender served us some nicely blended Coco Locos to soften the blow. “You should go to your Villa, relax, have a swim, and perhaps watch the France-Brazil game,” he suggested. “I’ll see you in an hour or so.”

We did just that. Except for the game part. You see, as awesomely awesome as this resort is, our TV didn’t work, and by the time they appeared with a new one, Eduardo had another final score to report. I immediately text-messaged my French friends to congratulate them. They freakin’ beat Brazil. I filled our cups with Brugal añejo rum to celebrate.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

The Generalisimo Arrives

Our flight was late. We were all bloated from the airplane rations and sore from the inhospitable seats. The airline tortured us once again by putting on Aquamarine. The only consolation came upon descent, where the waters of the Caribbean were themselves aquamarine, and the island of Hispañola lush and green. We’ve arrived.

The authorities checked our papers and demanded a $10 fee for the pleasure of getting through customs. Once out, we were met by a cadre of uniformed men, one of whom escorted us… back to the airfield. We were corralled into security again. Our bags were taken from us as we were whisked over to a helicopter. The chopper lifted us up along the coastline, over the ramshackle tin-and-concrete huts, and down into a compound, where its director, Eduardo, would be waiting for us.

Upon arrival, we were dumped out of the helicopter, our bags in the hands of more uniformed men. Eduardo watched as we were given the wet towel treatment and subsequently fed an effervescent, yellowish-poison. “Welcome to the Lifestyle Hacienda Resort,” he said.

Alright, so perhaps I’m playing things up a bit. The uniforms are white polo shirts, the wet towels were refreshing, and the yellow-tinged poison actually champagne. And the chopper ride? Freakin’ awesome. We may be carrying nothing but backpacks, but we’re carrying them on our own golf cart, over to our own three-bedroom villa, with our own swimming pool. In case there’s any question: This is not a backpacking trip.

Puerto Plata Bound

Ah, Hispañola. The second largest island in the Caribbean. Home to the biggest mountain in the area. A farm for Major League Baseball. Half French-speaking Haiti. Half Spanish-speaking Dominican Republic. I'll be in the latter.

The first challenge is getting there. I hate flying internationally with stops. Taking domestic legs in the US is nothing short of misery, especially when you're routed through hubs like Newark. As in New Jersey. Yeah, the Garbage State.

So here I am in the terminal at Newark Liberty airport. My traveling companions, Elena and Jason, are taking taking alternate shifts with me, exploring what the vast terminal has to offer. J has located a venerable East Coast favorite - Dunkin Donuts. I'm still waiting for Elena to get back so I can take my shift.

In the meantime, I've found that there's wi-fi, playing with Photoshop, recharging my iPod, and totally geeking out over the fact that I've got my Powerbook with me.

This is probably because I'm delerious. I hardly got any sleep on the flight over from San Francisco. They were showing Aquamarine on the plane. I was busy being fascinated and appalled by a guy wearing shooting earmuff protector thingies and a hand-pumpable inflatable neck pillow. I'm surrounded by Jersey accents. 2.5 hours 'til boarding time.

See you on the other side.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Over and Out

I thought I'd be writing this yesterday, but yeah, you've seen how it goes.

I'm now finally home. Thanks to Neema and Sepideh's help, I made the first flight to San Jose this morning, dumped my stuff at my parents' place, and made it in for work.

Typically, I'd be bummed after a trip like this is over, but after the last couple of days of stress, it actually felt really damn good to be back in the office. I was running on just a few hours of sleep, but I sat at my desk wearing a broad grin, both from having had an excellent vacation, and knowing the crappy part of it was all over and done with.

While the end of this chapter of my travels has left a seriously bad taste in my mouth, I just need to think of better tastes. Like the all the fresh beer, delicious food, and fresh air. I need only to think of the 13 better days that outweigh the 2 bad.

I saw my favorite band, front row, at Wembley. I saw another favorite band at the Royal f'in Albert Hall. I danced my ass off in the biggest club in Central Europe. I drank beer from the original recipes that were created before my country was even conceived. I walked a town that has barely changed since the 1300's. I spent quality time with good friends, all the while making new friends.

Screw my wallet and screw the airlines and screw the drama. At this point, I don't want to see another airport lounge, airplane seat, check-in agent, or shuttle bus driver for a long, long time. To them I say na schledanaou.

But I'm sure I'll run into them all again soon. The travel bug is always hungry, and you never know when it's going to bite.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Crap III: In 3-D!

Ok, so maybe the final thught in the last post was too optimistic. Sure, my flight boarded on time, but it ended up taking off an hour and a half late. The flight itself was pleasant enough, and flying over Greenland with clear skies and broad daylight was soooo worth having a different flightpath. But being 90 minutes late is not cool. Add to that an extra 20 minutes of taxiing, simply because LAX is Hell on Earth.

No, really. LAX is Hades. London Heathrow and Amsterdam Schiphol are much larger and busier, but so much more manageable and easy to deal with. As far as airports go, Los Angeles International is some torture-obsessed gulag, akin to JFK in terms of pain, hassle, and general air of bad service. Largely because those airports are full of morons. Not just on the employee side, but on the passener side, as well. Nobody jams up a line better than an LAX nimrod, whether it's for passport control, customs, check-in, etc.

You all know what this is leading up to.

Correctamundo! I missed my connecting flight to San Jose. And it took so long to get through the check-in line that I also wound up missing every other flight to the Bay Area tonight. So now I'm scheduled to finally head home at around 7am tomorrow. And then go straight to work, zombie stares and all. This should be fun...

Sleeping at the airport, however, is NOT an option, and I'm so blessed that Neema and Sepideh were close enough to not have to go too far out of their way to pick me up and provide me with a bed, meal, and shower. I'm really starting to sound like a vagrant now, and I can't help but feel a bit of one. Anyway, add my cousin and his lovely wife to the earlier "Thank You" column, for helping me through this mess.

The "coming home" part of the trip is taking two days. That's usually an honor saved for Aussies or Kiwis. Or people visiting them. A trip home from Europe should never take this long. And it all started with that taxi service in Prague. I know who's ass I'm going to sue now..

Crap Part Deux

After I rushed to put up the last post and went to check the departures board, I was most unpleasantly surprised to find that my flight to Los Angeles has been delayed by an hour. That means I'll have to make an extra quick beeline through LAX to make my flight to San Jose. Though I'll still have over an hour and a half, anyone who's tried to clear customs at LAX knows that it's no walk in the park. Or even a pretty minefield at that. It's hell, as far as I'm concerned.

I'm parched and I'm hungry. But I only have £1.10 to my name. A bottle of water, or even a Fanta, costs £1.25 at the airport. The shops won't accept my credit card photocopy (and really, why should they?) and I have at least an hour before boarding.

You may be wondering how the hell I'm able to get on the internet. Well, Heathrow now has these access points that accept credit cards, not by swiping them, but by entering the info. So I've already charged 10 quid to these machines, just as a means to keep my sanity and keep my mind off my hunger and thirst for a little while longer. At least not all is lost.

Well, other than the fact that my phone is pretty much out of juice, and I need to call my dad and tell him NOT to pick me up at SFO this afternoon and to come collect me late at night at San Jose. Maybe some kind soul will lend me their phone, or at the very least, the battery from their Sony Ericsson phone.

Speaking of kind souls, I'd like to thank the three absolute, darling, beautiful angels who have been my lifeline during this final-day ordeal.

Elena: Thank you for being there in the middle of the night to check timetables, make internet bookings, and general moral support. Just don't keep using the credit card info I gave you. Please.

Sarah: Thank you, too, for your moral support and for the generous offer to wire money and get shit done from your end. I know you've had a few bumps on this trip as well, and I hope you get your luggage back soon. Bastards.

Emma: I hardly know you, but you really helped keep my sanity this morning, from the start of the drama in at the Prague Airport to those hopeful moments at the bus terminal at Stansted.

And thanks to everyone else who's made this trip the great odyssey that it's been. Amy, Eva, Briley, Jess, Mo, Carla, Pav, Jens, Mikkel, Michael, Ashley, Janelle, Rich, Mike, and countless other fellow travelers. I killed some time and reviewed all the great crap we did together over the last couple of weeks. The great times you all provided has helped put this hellaciously stressful day in perspective, reminding me that the trip as a whole, albeit bumpy in parts, has been an experience I wouldn't trade for the world.

A while back on TravelPunk someone asked the question, "Why do you travel?" I didn't put up a serious answer, because I couldn't come up with one. There are a multitude of reasons why I hop around the world at every opportunity. But just now it's hit me (yet again, as with every trip) that it's all the people. Sharing the wonders of new places with people from the world over, and getting these great glimpses of local culture that you'd never get watching the evening news or even a show on the Travel Channel. It's all about the people, and sharing the crazy nights, checking out the beautiful sights, and even toughing out the bad times.

I just looked at the departures board. It looks like my flight's going to be on time, after all.


It's 3:10 pm and I'm in London.

Never mind the fact that my flight, the last one of the day to San Francisco, was at 1:50 pm.

You want to know the story, don't you?

After we came back from our mini pubcrawl last night, I packed all my stuff laid out everything I needed for a morning departure, and tucked myself in for a few hours of sleep.

A piping hot shower at dawn, a few chugs of bottled water, and a quick collection of my belongings, and I was good to go. Except for one thing. I no longer had my wallet.

I hit panic mode, scouring the room, the bathroom, the kitchen - everywhere. Nothing. I searched the locker that I'd been using. Gone. I looked in the office where the free internet terminals are, asked the staff, and searched the whole living area again. Fuck.

I mentally retraced my steps from the previous night: Paid for the last round at the bar, put my wallet and camera away in my pockets, walked home, changed for bed, put everything in my locker, went down to the common area in my jammies, went to sleep.

I specifically put my wallet in my locker every night when I take my jeans off, so that's where it should be, right?

Wrong. I remembered that I'd already put everything away before changing for bed, and realized I never had my wallet since entering the hostel. It's a big, white, hulking affair, perfect for carrying enormous foreign currencies, and it hit me that I didn't have it in my back pocket upon returning to the hostel.

What kills me about it isn't the money. I had maybe a couple hundred crowns left, tops, which isn't more than $8. My bank card is useless since I'm broke, nor does my PIN appear anywhere in the wallet, and no Czech business accepts foreign credit cards without scrutinizing the signature, and more often than not, checking ID. So really, aside from the pain of replacing my driver's license, cards, etc., I have little to worry about.

I went downstairs to meet the driver of my 6:15am taxi service to the airport. 6:20 rolled around. Then 6:25. Then 6:30. The receptionist at the hostel called them and demanded to know what was going on - after all, this was a pre-arranged service that I paid for. Apparently, the driver got confused because there was another call to the Golden Sickle for 7:15. Well, 7:15 wasn't going to work for a 7:35 flight. I needed a ride NOW. He demanded that a driver come right away, and so I waited. At 6:45, my Skoda chariot still hadn't arrived. The receptionist called again and the taxi service said they thought he was reiterating the demand for a cab at 7:15. Fuck this, I need to go outside and catch a cab.

Three taxis went by and completely ignored me. One finally stopped and picked me up, and realizing I was in a rush, put the pedal to the metal. Luckily, the hostel had refunded me for the cancelled ride and given me my key deposit back, so I had a little cash to pay the driver. Unluckily, British Airways had closed check-in for my flight.

Jiri, the BA ticket agent, offered to put me on another flight. However, with change fees, upgrade in class, etc. it worked out to 4800 Czech Crowns. Or, in his typically Eastern Bloc style of bilking, US$476. Never mind that that was double the current exchange rate. I need to get home, and I'd have him charge me in Crowns.

Only I didn't have my wallet. And they couldn't just bill me through the card on file for my initial itinerary. He told me to go have a coffee and come back in 15-20 minutes and he'd see what he can do. And so I did. 15 minutes later, he was ready to book me on the next BA flight out of Prague, squarely in time to Heathrow to miss my flight home. Fat lot of good that does!

I went and looked at the departure board. The only flight to London was with EasyJet, and that's just to Stansted. Luckily, they accepted my credit card photocopy as long as I had a passport.

I made it to Stansted and just barely made the bus that would get me to Heathrow on time... Except traffic on the M25 fucked me and I missed check-in for the SFO flight by 10 minutes, even though I'd called BA to have the gate agents ready for my rush through the terminal.

Now I'm running out of internet time, so I'll summarize by saying I'm flying to LA, and then paying a shitload for a United flight to San Jose sometime around 11 pm.

Time to go - the internet terminal's blinking. Time's up. This day is fucked.