Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Algarve to Sevilla. The Bermuda Triangle of European Transportation

In their infinite wisdom, the governments of Spain and Portugal decreed that there should be no direct rail connection between the Southern Algarve region of Portugal and Sevilla, Spain. Really making it the Achilles heal of one fabulous vacation, and causing it to be the only time I have seriously thought 5 ladies with huge backpacks might potentially make a pact to eat my first born child - ha - that's not true, there have been plenty of people who have made that pact.
Ayamonte - Desolate Bus StationIt really all started with hours of careful planning to get our bodies from Lagos, Portugal to Sevilla with the goal of NOT spending a ridiculous amount of money on transportation, and NOT spending 12 hours of our precious vay-cay time making what should be a 3 hour trip. Let me first lay down some rudimentary knowledge on you, so if you should ever decide to make a similar trip (and oh for sweet baby jesus you should), there won't be any pacts made.

You might be thinking: "Molly, get a freaking rental car, and call it a day!" Wrong-o, boy-o! You will quickly find that taxes and fees for international rental car drop-offs are astronomically high (even between E.U. countries). In the spring of '08 (this year) it was going to be over $1,000 TOTAL for a four day rental of a four-door manual compact (
www.arguscarhire.com actually had the best prices I could fine for Portugal). Don't be fooled by initial costs, they will stick-it to you just as you are getting super psyched that everything is going to work out.

With both trains and rental cars out, the only other affordable option I found (via the internet) was to take a bus. Even this option provided very few bus lines, departure terminals (direct), and departure times. Here are the handful of companies who "said" they make the trip: Rede Nacional de Expresso, Linsesur and Eva Bus. I ended up selecting Eva Bus, because they had the perfect timetable, responsive email customer service, and I noticed they were mentioned in several blogs and guidebooks. So, my perfect planning in place, the only thing left to do was to call and order tickets once we arrived in Portugal - damn international phone rates, damn them to hell.

Flash forward two months to find out via the concierge at my hotel in Lagos, Portugal that in fact no buses run between the Algarve and Sevilla on Sundays (apparently "daily" in Portuguese means any day but Sunday). No matter who we called or what insane ideas we came up with, nothing seemed to work out (shuttles weren't reasonable, there weren't any accessible rental car companies across the border in Spain. NOTHING). Then, a ray of hope - a Spanish company called Alsa departing out of the Portuguese border town of Vila Real de Santo Antonio. Everything seemed legit, and ready to rumble. So, we got up at the ass crack and high tailed it down the coast to Vila Real de Santo Antonio (which I would define as potentially quaint, commercialized, touristy, and grungy). We easily found the bus terminals, but no one who had heard of an Alsa bus line (even the other ticket agents). The only information we got was that in fact NO BUSES run from Vila Real to Sevilla on FAH-REAKING Sundays.

You might be thinking: "well what now", my dear reader, and to that I say for shame. Knowing the answer to that question is rule #1 for any traveler, especially when time and $$ are concerned. Rubbing our 6 domes (brains) together, we realized some key points: 1. We still had our rental cars - they were due to be dropped off later that afternoon in Vila Real. 2. The town of Ayamonte, Spain was only a 5 min drive away. 3. We had a better chance of finding a way from Spain to Spain, than from Portugal to Spain. 4. We had at least two people that could butcher Spanish, and no one who could butcher Portuguese.

So, away we went, pedal to the metal to Spain (no border guards wahoo - smoke em if you got em). Oh, and the travel gods were smiling on us my friends, and it was in the form of a four star hotel on the edge of Ayamonte. And now begins a tutorial in one of the easiest travel scams for any 20-30 something woman. First, throw a scarf around your neck (DO IT). Next, walk into any fancy hotel (larger is better), and head straight to the bathroom - you'll blend in more easily. Next, go to the front desk and state your problem - for us it was "we need a bus TODAY from Ayamonte to Sevilla." Make eye contact and don't be too nice, the concierge will simply assume you are a guest. Finally, let the concierge do the rest, they are trained in GD high class service.
ALLAKHAZAM, you'll be sitting in a cafe in Spain, drinking a beer in the sunshine, waiting for your bus to Sevilla. No joke. Harmless scam. For you reference we ended up getting a bus via the Damas bus company from Ayamonte.

Ayamonte Fine Dining
P.s. Hotel Parador, Ayamonte- thanks for your services. No concierges were harmed in the execution of this scam.

Popular Neighborhoods in San Francisco

..and also somewhat practical. While this blog does serve to partially focus on remaining economically sound throughout your travels, San Francisco isn't exactly known for its reasonable prices. And not that I'm from or live in the area.. yet.. but I did get the scoop from a few locals on areas to explore & neighborhoods to consider if you're planning a potential west coast move. Much like myself.

Here goes, and if there are any San Franciscan natives or connoisseurs following this blog, feel free to chime in where necessary!

Marina District: A popular locale for 20 and 30 somethings, this area has been up and coming in recent years. I've heard that if you do feel a slight rumbling beneath you while in the Marina, then it's almost a guarantee that you may fall quickly into the depths of the perfect storm. Apparently everyone around here wears life jackets, helmets and floaties at all times. I hope you didn't believe that. Located approximately 10 minutes from downtown via the express bus, the Marina is quite accessible to other parts of the city. It also boasts a variety of gyms as well as an amazing running/biking route that extends down to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Nob Hill: Keyword here is 'hill'. While they're all over the city, I encountered about 3 of the steepest inclines my tiny legs have ever endured upon my walk from the BART to my friend's apartment. I felt like a baby dinosaur that couldn't regain its balance at about every step. In any case, its location is clutch. Close to downtown, a 20 minute walk to China Town / North Beach, and a 35 minute walk to the Wharf, Nob Hill is fairly central. You can also walk to AT&T Ballpark - it's just a bit longer of a journey. Many of the apartment buildings here boast roof-deck views of the city that are absolutely mesmerizing. Additionally, you won't struggle to find an eatery or social spot - I'd recommend the following:

  • Uncle Vito's: Located at Bush & Powell (Union Square / Nob Hill), fantastic pizza and a city original since 1977.
  • Cantina: Located on Sutter Street, this cocktail lounge exudes chic style. My vote is for one of its signature drinks, the Tuscan Sangria. If you want something with a lot more of a punch, then try the Laughing Buddha.. but beware, this bad larry is stronger than a bull on steroids.

North Beach: Surrounded by Chinatown and the Wharf, this area is similar to Boston's North End in that it boasts an Italian feel. Rich with history, North Beach is known for its jazz festivals, street fairs and parades. It was also the childhood home of Joe DiMaggio, and is a famous locale for movie sets as well as an area popularly frequented by writers and musicians. My two suggestions for bars of note include:

  • Mojito - Located on Grant Ave, fabulous strawberry mojitos, typically features daily/nightly live music.
  • O'Reilly's - Shocker, an Irish pub! Located on Green Street, and like I've said before, they're like mosquitoes in dark, wet, wooded areas.. yet, I'll never hesitate to enter into one.

Russian Hill / Polk Street: Located approximately 20 minutes walking distance from Nob Hill, Polk Street is known for its nightlife. Especially its section in San Francisco's affluent Russian Hill neighborhood. Nearly any night of the week, this area attracts a crowd. Do note that Polk Street does run into the Tenderloin which is a less safe environment than its Russian Hill counterpart. One bar to grab a stiff cock.. tail at:

  • Tonic: Boasting an artsy feel with velvet couches and tables that make you feel like you're a Knight of the Round Table, this bar/lounge offers a cozy, yet stylish atmosphere.

As I said before, I'm by no means a qualified expert on San Franciscan neighborhoods, but those noted above do include a handful of areas that I had the pleasure of visiting during my stay in the City by the Bay. Insight from natives is absolutely welcome!

Monday, September 29, 2008

San Francisco: Don't Call it Frisco ... Seriously

It's a good thing that I learned this very important piece of information on my final day in San Fran. Fortunately, for the sake of potentially passing as a native, I didn't utter the phrase out loud, but merely repeated it time after time in my dome. It was kind of like that part in "Elf" when Will Ferrell [i.e. Buddy the Elf] states: "Francisco, now THAT'S fun to say. Francisco, Francisco", except I imitated it internally. Huh, ironic - the name he falls in love with is one in the same with a city that I now have an affinity for.. I should also mention that I have a strange affinity for elf culture. I could reference "Elf" all day, but I'll stop for now.

Also, to mark my status as an outsider, I made sure to listen to Scott McKenzie's tribute to the city by the bay, "San Francisco". I also wore flowers in my hair, and made sure to pack enough fresh fleurs for my stay.. ok, no I didn't.. but I did listen to the ditty en route to the west coast. I swear I had my ipod on shuffle.. I just might have hit repeat a few times.. or for 2 hours straight. Don't worry, I did the same thing on my flight to Omaha - thank you, Counting Crows. I will be sure to wear a bright red target on my back for all future trips.

Not only is San Fran one of the most beautiful cities I've ever visited, but it is also one of the most expensive. While the majority of the city is walkable [if you're not in a rush, and if you're in decent enough shape to climb small mountains], my advice would be to take the BART & the MUNI instead of a cab whenever possible. I might have traveled 2.5 miles, and my cab fare came to $14.. I actually did experience pangs of pain upon transferring my cash from my pocket to the cabbie - and if you know me at all, then you know how much I HEART cabbies. I'm certainly not one to champion the public transportation system in Boston, but I do have to admit that it's a bit more straight-forward, intuitive, and reliable than what I'd experienced in San Fran. Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the transit authority is the fact that the station agents are not actually helpful. Granted I'd only been in the city for a total of 4 days, every time I visited a station, getting any assistance from an employee of the underground became more of a challenge. Your best bet is to either plan ahead and gather correct change, or carry smaller bills so that you're not fooled by the way the ticket kiosks require payment.

Additionally, be familiar with areas that are considered tourist traps. Pier 39 is an area renowned for attracting outsiders. It's right on the Wharf and offers a plethora of bay cruises, the infamous seals & sea lions lazing on the docks, and a Disney World-like atmosphere with its variety of street performers, musicians, and jugglers. I have to admit that I did take the Bay Cruise Adventure out of Pier 39 to catch an up-close glimpse of the Golden Gate as well as a 360 degree view of Alcatraz.

Another popular tourist trap is the cable car. And again, it was inevitable that I'd find my way onto one before fleeing the city. It's $5 per ride, and in my opinion, is definitely worth riding at least once!

What can I say, like Molly with souvenirs, I'm a total sucker for major tourist attractions.. they're a part of history. At least I didn't purchase the cable car ornaments or magnets that were in my face at every turn.. MOLLY.

More to come on amazing areas and local hot spots to check out!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

B-b-b-b-b-uying Spree in the Souks!

Have you ever returned from a vacation and thought: "okay, so exactly what kind of crap souvenirs did I buy?" This thought just flashed through my mind as I unpacked all of my knick knacks aka trinkets aka chachskis from Morocco. In the heat of my buying binge deep in the souks of Marrakesh, I swore those bright little special somethings seemed like they were truly one of a kind, were made of real sterling silver, had never been duplicated, and would definitely be treasured by my great, great grandchildren. Why O why was I so focused on my next purchase, and not taking the opportunity to take in the smells and sites that were all around me?

Foreign lands will do that to you. Every single object you see holds the potential of a memory. The important thing is to not become the crazy bag lady of the country you are visiting, or have nothing but tagines to cuddle on early fall evenings.

(I don't have time to go to the gym, but hugging tagines, yes)

With that in mind, here are just a few tips for keeping your vacation souvenir spending in check. Ask yourself if you could potentially find or have actually seen that very item in a cart in your local mall, or being peddled by a street vendor downtown? Be honest with yourself. It's generally not worth the money if you didn't need to leave your own zip code to buy it. Also, is there a 95% chance that the item wasn't even manufactured in the city or country you are currently visiting. Yes, you can't know for sure, but one really easy move is to turn that sucker over. Is there a stamp that says "Made in China"? While it is potentially cool if you are actually in China, it isn't if you're in say, oh I don't know, Mexico (true story, didn't realize until I got home). Finally, do you actually have a spot in your house or apartment for this souvenir (or at least a friend to pawn it off on)? I disregarded this last tip, and now my new apartment could be mistaken for a Moroccan Kasbah (note the wee little camies standing guard).

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Foodless in France

If ever traveling to a foreign continent where a foreign, and unknown to you, language is spoken, I have some advice.

1. Don't be wimpy

2. Don't assume people will have any idea what you're talking about when you use sayings from a phrase book- but still don't be afraid to use them

3. Speaking loudly in English doesn't always mean you'll be understood

If disregarding 1-3:

4. Pack food

No one enlightened me with these brilliant tips when I went to France alone (my first time in Europe!) for a work trip. Paris, I would have been fine. But I was going 3 hours west of Paris in a small city called Rennes. Now, I was on an overnight flight from Boston, so the AirFrance folk fed me extremely well. But, there's only so much food you can moosh in on a 6 hour flight, and I was trying to "eat healthy" on this trip, so a few hours after landing while I had my layover in Paris, I hungered. Knowing what I know now, I would have just pointed to food I wanted and paid with my Euros. However, I did not follow rule #1 (don't be wimpy), and I was too nervy/lazy/wimpy to go up to a cart and get a pastry. So I hungered, assuming I'd be fed on my next flight to Rennes. I assumed wrong! Well, I think I did get some sort of cracker, but not enough to sustain me, and by landing time it was mid afternoon.

Now, in Paris you can get by speaking English. In Rennes, apparently it is considered rude to assume the people speak English. Again, disregarding rule #1, I figured I could make my way to my hotel and they'd have to have some sort of restuarant (what hotel doesn't?, and I could prob get by on minimal French). Turns out, I was not staying in Rennes, but 10 miles from the city in an industrial park. Lovely, although I did love it, because, hey, I'm in France!! Not seeing a restaurant at the hotel, I decided to nap and then find food. By the time my food search came about it was 6pm France time. Not only do restaurants not typically open until 8pm, there were VERY few within walking distance. Maybe I found 2 in my hour plus journey through the industrial park. At this point, I know I'm in France and should be enjoying the culture, but I'm tired and will resort to room service. Wrong again. No room service in my hotel, although I was told they could find some ham and bring it to me. Well, I tried!

My advice for traveling alone in a country of foreign talkers:

1. Do get a phrase book, and either attempt to speak, or don't be embarrased to point!

2. Don't hunger! Don't be afraid to look stupid, because you're only there once and you will never see these people again, and at the end of the day no one cares anyway!

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Picking of Apples

I do love apple picking. I try to go every fall, since there's nothing more traditional if you live in New England than picking apples in the fall. Being that it's September, my sister and I decided we should pick. It was a nice day out, Macintosh apples (best kind ever) were said to be in season, and the only other thing we wanted to do besides pick was nap. And while napping can be quite glorious on a Saturday afternoon, we decided to motivate ourselves to be productive and pick apples. My sister took us to this amazing orchard called Lyman Orchards in Middlefield, CT. It is giant, and not only do they have apples, but they also have peaches, pears, pumpkins, variApple Pickingous other fruits, a corn maze, and frisbee golf (fun!). Though at this place you could spend all day trekking through the orchards, we were not quite so energetic. My sister manuevered us via car to where the Macintoshes grow (they have different lots close to the types of apples you want) and we parked. After grabbing a picking bag, we walked to the first tree we saw and shockingly it was a Macintosh. Yay! This tree was full of apples (see photo). Literally every apple was perfect (I don't even kid). I'd never seen Skiddies picks more applesanyth
ing like it. We ended up filling our bags at this one beautiful tree and then walked the 20 ft back to the checkout and paid (cash only fyi! (my sister didn't have enough money)). Though doing this may make you feel lazy, don't worry about it, because you've still gone apple picking! And be sure to take pictures as proof of your apple picking fun!

Here is a link to some orchards in the Boston area:

New York City: Walk Like You Own the Place

If there's one thing I've learned in my many weekend trips to the Big Apple, it's that you better walk around the city and into bars, shops, and restaurants as if you own the place. Otherwise, you risk getting eaten alive by New York natives. It has taken me a while to get the hang of this, but I've learned to march with a mission at times other than when I'm a) starving, or b) desperately in need of a porcelain God.

I tend to hang on the Upper East Side since this is the area in which many of my friends and family reside. There are a lot of great eateries and social spots between the 70s and 90s. There are also a lot of watering holes that will charge you $16+ for a standard mixed drink or traditional hamburger. JG Melon is NOT one of these places.

I'd like to think of this place as a hidden gem, but approach the corner of 73rd and 3rd and you'll realize that this is far from true. Always bustling and always delicious, JG Melon is a must if you ever find yourself on the UES. The burgers are the ideal size, juicy, flavorful and under $10! Additionally, while the inside of the joint is quite narrow and run in a typical NYC fashion - quickly and without much regard for being friendly - you won't even notice the lack of space once you sink your teeth into a good ole classic, American dish. Pair it with a side of fries, a bloody Mary, and/or a few Coronas, and you've got yourself a nice little lunch place or kickoff spot for a leisurely Saturday.

Check out other JG Melon reviews.. and if you make it there, be sure to let us know what you think!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

In Amsterdam a coffeeshop isn't a coffeeshop

In theory it was a great idea...okay, okay, in theory it was a good idea - Amsterdam for one week straight. Okay, even then maybe it's only a good idea if:
1. you have a working knowledge of a concept called "restraint"
2. you aren't a college student who has ever, ever, ever smoked weed
3. enjoy beautiful architecture
4. enjoy going to museums and looking at priceless works of art
5. love to visit historical landmarks
6. aren't a complete moron traveling with another complete moron, therefore giving you the intelligence of a helper monkey (i.e. Mojo from the Simpsons).

As a senior in college, on spring break, 1, 2 & 6 were automatically crossed off my list, which (sadly) all but renders any of the redeeming benefits of 3, 4 & 5 useless. NONETHELESS - going to Amsterdam and enjoying the coffeeshops (it's like a bar, but with weed on the menu) can be more than just a tripped out visit to the Van Gogh Museum:
A drunken stumble through the Heineken factory:
And an uncomfortable speed walk through the Sex Museum:
(**Uh - yeah, that would be the world's smallest prostitute)

First things first: Lodging. This will greatly effect the overall direction of your visit. Hostels are plentiful and are reasonably priced (the hostel system in Europe is way better than the U.S. - www.hostelworld.com is a great resource). But be prepared you could end up sleeping away
your day in a dark, dank military style bunk bed with 20 - 30 other travelers. Just make sure you take note of the room size! Another word of caution: not that young women will be sold into prostitution, but in general, try to avoid youth hostels in the red light district. You'll feel safer and happier in the long run - trust me. Going one step up to a boutique hotel is definitely the way to go. The place we picked had cool themed rooms, was clean, had a good mix of young people at the bar, and was only $15 more per night than a hostel (www.winston.nl or check out some other themed hotels in Amsterdam).
I've found really good success picking up a guidebook and using that as a starting point. These days most listings will have websites - google the junk out of the name of the hotel - it is a great way to find reviews & maps.

Second things second: don't follow the green, delicious smelling brick road the whole time you are there. My two favorite museums, aren't the best known to American tourists. The Rijksmuseum Amsterdam is located in a breathtaking gothic/renaissance building, and houses paintings from native sons Rembrandt and Vermeer. A subtle space cake will totally make it better...ahhh...kidding. The second place is definitely known, but worth the stop: The Anne Frank House - the lines can be long, but it should not be missed.

Third things third: Rent a bike. Because you should rent a freaking bike. Bikes are more prevalent than cars in Amsterdam, and they all look like they were built circa 1950. Cutting out the tooting of cars will make you brain HAPPY!

My final words of advice: feel free to ignore these tips, but then you may end up in a picture wearing denim on denim, picking the bum of a poster.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Survivors of the Sands

After everyone in our group successfully dismounted their camels, we were welcomed into our lodging for the evening by our guides. I should mention that they do not actually ride camels on the journey out to the middle of the desert, but rather lead caravans across the "desert rocks" barefoot. I'll give credit where credit's due, and in my opinion, that was certainly an appropriate occasion.

In addition to the 6 of us and our guide, Ahmed, we were joined by 2 lovely British folks, Irene & Marshall, from the farm country of Spain. The moment we sat down for tea, Irene exclaimed that her "groinsy" hurt. I conclude, Irene.. I conclude. My lady parts would have been happy to have never seen the hump of a camel again.. unfortunately, we only had hours to adjust to the notion of the return trip. In the mean time, I think we were all set to chow down on our tagine dishes.

Moroccan Tent

Note: This may come as a surprise, but there was not a water supply out in the middle of the desert. In fact, I think I might have actually seen a mirage of an over-sized Poland Spring bottle surrounded by giant cobras.. that were wading in a pool the size of the Playboy Mansion.. simply to add insult to injury. Randomly, several of us had brought what was left of our bottled waters, but it definitely wasn't enough to split and certainly did not satisfy the salivation. So- if you ever decide to do a camel trek, be prepared to pack some liquids.

The sun sets quite early in the desert, so after our attempt at climbing up a steep dune followed by our tagine snack-down, we were ready to hit the sand. Inside the tent or out under the stars? No-brainer. When else would I be snoozing in the Sahara? Probably not soon.. and if ever again, likely not by camel.. but if so, definitely with padded "ladies pants".

Sorry for exposing your rear-view, Burger.

Sahara Sleeping

Quick Desert Dos...

  • Pack liquids, i.e. water
  • Pack padded underroos
  • Bring a small sack that you can wear on your back or attach to the camel harness containing necessary belongings
  • Bring a head-scarf and clothing that will completely cover you to protect you from intrusive desert bugs
  • Remember that there are zero man-made urination stations, and plan accordingly

Quick Desert Dont...

  • Assume you've experienced something similar.. EVER

Any questions?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Dismounting a Camel

You probably can't tell in this picture, but I was flexing every muscle in my body in order to make this dismount smooth. Despite my valiant effort, it closely resembled Kerri Strug's infamous vault dismount in Atlanta at the 1996 Olympic Games. Except I didn't win any type of gold or medal. And it wasn't my ankle that was injured.

Dismounting Sammy the Camel

Additionally - I will, hopefully, shortly have a video for you demonstrating that our 5 year old selves are definitely still inside each and every one of us.

Check out all those precious, desert rocks.. Things that make you go Mmmmm.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Boulder to Boston with a kitty on my tail

*Honda CRV packed with all of your childhood friend's stuff - check

*One new stray black kitten who the boyfriend is training to be a dog - check
*One little box for said kitten to poop in during the 36 hour non-stop car trip - check

*Animosity toward your friend and her boyfriend for making you move their asses to the boyfriend's new apartment while all you wanna do is lie in a dark corner being hungover and cracked out - check

I'd heard of good ingredients for a cross-country road trip, but my deep black heart told me these weren't going to be it.

Being unemployed at the time, I had jumped at the opportunity to go to Boulder, CO for a week while my friend, Annie, finished up her summer classes. Boulder in the summer is really id
eal for anyone looking for a laid back scene, and good eats (or if you are a burnout, whatever). You've got the Flatirons for hiking, Boulder Creek for "tubing", and the Liquor Mart to help you truly enjoy the former two. It had been a relaxing week, and after the last night of hiking, tubing, and liquor marting, we spent the entire following morning bickering, bitching, and moving Annie's boyfriend Carlos' belongings into his new apartment. The entire process delayed our departure until about dusk that evening - if I had actually let people talk to me, it just may have taken a little less time.

In complete silence we headed out of Boulder on I-76 toward Nebraska. I remember initially thinking "sweet we get to drive in a straight line for 4 hours". However, thanks to the silence my mood created I was able to truly appreciate the beauty of traveling east from the Rocky Mountains at dusk toward the darkness and utter flatness of the U.S. Midwest. Looking back at the abruptness of the mountains is surreal.

The following 36 hours were a blur of greasy truck-stops (a true American tradition), smelly cat poop (and litter), crossing the Mississippi River (oops slept through that one), Little Red Corvettes (the Prince song not the car), desires to brush our teeth in a White Castle bathroom at 10am (followed by approximately 20 sliders), lots of "Kum & Go" gas marts (no, really), and even more no doze (truckers recommend). Whatever I thought driving across the U.S. was going to be - it wasn't. But there really isn't a wrong way to make the trip. The point is that it should be done, there is no better way to appreciate how massive our country really is, and to know when it really comes down to it, a truck stop is a truck stop is a truck stop.
P.S. I have the lamest sense of humor!

Camel Cruisin' Across the Sahara

Last night, in order to stimulate brain cells, I tuned into 'Exiled', a new show on MTV that revisits the families of former 'My Super Sweet 16' brats.. I mean "privileged youths". What can I say - I was still trying to calm myself down after watching another emotional episode of 'The Hills' - why can't LC & Heidi just patch things up already?!.. and someone tell Spencer that he should just dress up as a jack-o-lantern for Halloween.. his melon lends itself well, barely any money needed to fill out that costume.

Anyway, last night's episode featured spoiled teen, Bjorn, who was sent to the sweltering deserts of Morocco. The Moroccan lad that he lived with was dressed in the same garb that our camel guides had sported, including clothing color, head-scarf & all. Prior to participating in a camel trek across this magnificent desert, I had never ridden any animal [depending upon how you define it].. not even a horse. From the second we took off in Boston, I was so excited - wanted to virtually fast-forward our time in Portugal & Spain just to sacrifice more time for the camels. If I could turn back time.. I kid.. a tad.

You know how if you ride a bicycle for too long, you start to feel a bit tender and bothered in your special parts? Well, riding atop a camel hump intensifies this by about 100 times. Just mounting the cami and awaiting his 6 foot jump from lazily lying to somewhat steadily standing was more of a workout than I was prepared to endure. Courtesy of a camel-induced adrenaline rush, I think we got past this initial pleasure-pain fairly quickly. For some reason, I had envisioned a 24 hour journey to the middle of the desert.. fortunately, it was only 1.

Sahara Camel Trek

We were in a caravan of six. While riding Sammy, the creative name I dubbed my living chariot, I had the pleasure of watching Lauren's camel [I'm going to call him Pete] release feces for the next 60 minutes. Before I had laid eyes upon Pete's buttocks, I had been foolishly smiling to myself as I was mesmerized by the beautiful "desert rocks". I'm not sure if any of you have ever had the pleasure of riding a camel, but if you do in the future, my suggestion would be to request the first creature in the caravan. Not only because of the proverbial [read:literal] sh*t-storm, but also because of the fear you may experience when watching your cute cami walk. I could barely calm my anxieties once I'd convinced myself that Pete was obviously going to trip himself and take the rest of us down the desert hills, scraping us across the "desert rocks" as we hit the Sahara sands like a house of cards. If ever a nip would have come in handy..

Press on! This we did, but not without a couple of scares. Sammy & I were fifth in the caravan only to be followed by Skidz & Cam. Because I had forgotten a portable bag for our over-night in the desert, I had to resort to Lauren's hot pink sack. Note to all: Apparently, camels become hypnotized by fluorescent colors. CAM WOULD NOT STOP TRYING TO RIDE UP ON ME AND SNATCH MY BELONGINGS OUT OF MY BAG. Of course, this got Sammy all "I wanna look in the bag too, Cam. She's on my hump".. and always as we were heading downhill. I was convinced my legend would be left in the Sahara.

Needless to say, we did make it to camp that night.. stay tuned for Part II.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Morocco: Don't Drink the Water

Morocco, Morocco, Morocco.. what can I say about Morocco? Don't drink the water. Seriously. When someone of international authority instructs you not to drink foreign water, do not take this command lightly. Do not test your digestive system. If you disobey, you will pay.. for up to 2 weeks.. on an airplane, at work, watching Roseanne, and in every other once comfortable or uncomfortable place you can imagine. I would not will the illness I contracted upon my worst enemy [see Jerry*, even you're safe]. Apparently Depends do serve a legit purpose in the adult world.

Given that we were on a guided tour with a native of Marrakech back in late April, we were fairly well-informed as to foods we should probably not ingest, or at least in excess (for me this meant: meat, rice, salad, um - essentially everything.). Now, back to the water. And maybe I'm alone here, but I thought that "don't drink the water" meant not to drink pure tap water. What a silly piece of advice - I did not see anything that would have qualified as tap water. Every time we sat down for a meal, we asked for BOTTLED water. And every time we took a sip of this BOTTLED water, it was lukewarm. The brain-bell should have rung right there, but when you're in 95+ degree weather, what is the first liquid that any human naturally craves slash NEEDS? Do you see the dilemma here? I rest my case.

To this day, I still don't know what the alternative to H2O would have been, so unfortunately I cannot direct you down a different path.. I couldn't ask because of the severe dry mouth I had the pleasure of experiencing, and Coca Lights just weren't going to satisfy my hydrational demands. Although my body never fully adjusted to the African version of our aquatic necessity, my eyes were certainly able to alter to the Moroccan landscape. It was unlike anywhere I'd ever seen, and certainly had a strong influence on opening up my mind to new philosophies as well as a very different way of life.

Perhaps, my most touching personal experience in Morocco occurred during our drive down the High Atlas Mountains and back into Marrakech. As we descended into a small town, there were young children gathered in groups running alongside the road, and enticing each passing car to purchase homemade rose necklaces. When in Rome, right? Driss, our guide, pulled over and bargained with the youth of Morocco so as to successfully get each of us a lovely smelling rose necklace. I'm so short.

Morocco - Rose Necklaces Near Marrakech

*I'm sorry, Seinfeld.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

One Troopin' Traveler: Tips for Flying Solo

No, no.. I haven't assumed dictatorship over this blog, I just felt the need to address a topic that I recently came across on another travel blog about dealing with loneliness on the road.

It's inevitable that during at least one point in your life, you'll feel about the size of an ant.. as if you're the only living soul on earth.. and this can happen quite frequently to those that travel solo. Instead of wallowing in your sadness or self-pity, I'd suggest taking this as an opportunity to really get to know yourself on a deeper level. While this is, of course, easier said than done; if you're aware of your upcoming independent journey, then it should - at the very least - be a bit easier to mentally & emotionally prepare for the road that lies ahead.

During my last month in Paris, I was abruptly notified of the fact that my stay would be extended. I thought that was fantastic, until I realized that everyone else in my group would be leaving a few weeks prior. Instead of immediately embracing the opportunity, I chose to get angry and sad which helped me to successfully attract more negativity. Once I got over myself and acknowledged how childish I was acting, I decided to explore areas of the city that I'd kept putting off because of all the time I thought I still had. What fool [that was lucky enough to live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world] would consider this an unfortunate experience? While it truly may be more difficult to feel alone in today's technological world, I think that everyone can identify with that empty feeling. Surround yourself with all of the friends, family, & action you can handle, but there's still something in a Sunday.. The positive part about this empty feeling is that you can fill it! - Simply put.

How do you combat this feeling of loneliness?

  • Identify your feeling and figure out why you're feeling hollow inside
  • Embrace the feeling and channel it into a positive, rare opportunity
  • Find a sense of purpose and appreciate the beauty in the experience you've been granted

If you're truly unable to deal with the solitude, then you can always turn to:

  • Text messaging
  • Emailing
  • Telephoning
  • Reading this blog

If you're not taking a solo trip in the near future, then try these techniques on any given Sunday.. I know I'll be putting them into practice tomorrow.

Friday, September 12, 2008

An Irish Bar in Portugal

Irish bars are like mosquitoes in wet, dark wooded areas - they're everywhere. I had intended to use another analogy, but opted against it for the sake of being politically correct. Apparently I was programmed with some sort of ethical code..

On our virgin night in Lagos, we did decide to sample the local fare. The happening scene was about a 15 minute walk from Vilabranca, and we began our march to town just as the sun was going down. It was so romantic.. aside from the fact that I was with 3 of my female friends that I'm not intimately interested in.. no offense, lassies. Adega da Marina In any case, we decided to follow the native crowd and wait in line at Adega da Marina, a barn-turned-restaurant renowned for its steak & egg cuisine, reasonable prices, large portions, & keyboard player. I mean, this guy can really tickle the ivories. Following suit, I ordered the Grade A entree along with the rest of my dinner-mates, but all I could think about was Dr. Seuss, green eggs, & a juicy slice from the rump of a boar. To be honest, I expected to just go through the motions, taste the meal, despise it, and chug loads of wine.. BUT, it truly was a delectable dish with more flavor than I'd anticipated. Fast forward to the end of dinner, and picture us rollin' .. into Mullens!

Maybe it was Molly and her magnetic, Irish force or maybe it was the desire to listen to good old-fashioned Irish / American drinking songs, whilst improvising some sweet chair-dancing moves..

Mullens - I don't know?

Regardless, Mullens proved to be a place with cheaper drinks & lots of atmosphere. As we finished last call, we met a group of handsome, Portuguese men. Mom, Dad: EARMUFFS. I might have had some luck with the lads that evening - it really set the bar for the rest of the trip. Sort of.

And I'm still planning on upholding my promise of scenic Lagos pictures.. just experiencing some technical difficulties.. is this thing on? My future offspring better appreciate my sense of humor.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lagos, Portugal: McWhat?

Molly, Skidz - I wasn't going to go here so soon, but I've received so many signs either related to McDonald's or Mc-ANYTHING.. that without subliminally being sent to snack on a Big Mac, I felt that writing a small tribute to the fine establishment was quite necessary. For the good of my health, of course.

I'm going to go out on a very flimsy limb here and say that Lagos, Portugal just may be the most beautiful place on this earth. You say bold statement, I say true story. On our coastal drive from Sintra to Lagos a few months ago, in a car that made me feel like Ashton Kutcher & Brittany Murphy in "Just Married", not only did we break the travelers' code by stopping at a foreign McDonald's, but we also found a saying that would be repeated at least 4 times an hour for the next two weeks. Are you curious? Feast your eyes on this [mind the homeless girl that wouldn't get out of the way]:

Lagos McDrive Sign

McDrive turned into McWhat, McDrunk, McNO.. and my personal favorite, McHUH?.. and the list goes on - it's a fun game, I'm sure you can develop a few unique sayings of your own.

In any case, once we arrived at our hotel in Lagos, I'm pretty sure that the 4 of us just sat back for a minute in awe. For 30 euros each [per night], we were staying in what felt like the White House. Remember, everything is relative. We had just come from a much needed - but not acquired - night's sleep in an older hostel situated above a night club. Note: If I were still in my early 20s, that would have been perfectly acceptable. If you're ever in Lagos, I highly recommend staying in the Vilabranca apartments. We had more than enough room for 4 girls - a feat rarely accomplished. Our apartment was complete with 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a full kitchen, living room, and balcony overlooking the pool and the distant Portuguese landscape. See how happy [or something] we were?

Vilabranca Apartment - Lagos

Visible proof that Molly & Skidz do exist! Molly is the one with the kerchief atop her dome, and Skidz is the only individual that isn't smiling as she normally would.. catch the sarcasm. There will be more scenic images depicting the actual beauty of this resort / fishing town in the Algarve in the near future.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Canoe Trip Tips & Then Some

Or I suppose the "& then some" will actually precede the helpful tips.

Remember Splash Mountain? The ride at Disney World where you lazily float through an animated land of friendly forest creatures before you take a deep, yet exhilarating plunge down the side of the mountain? Yes.. you do? Well, my experience 2 miles in on the Saco was NOTHING like that..

To quickly relay the rest of the story, I worked out harder than I had since 1999 - literally. I could hear people yelling "JUST PUT YOUR FEET DOWN" from the sides of the river, but even with the whopping 2 feet of my condensed body rising above the water, the rapids were having their way with me. I felt like Forrest Gump - I just kept running.. yet it was far beyond my control. And did I mention that Carrie continued to battle the rapids with our canoe about another fourth of a mile down river? Thank goodness that she did.. otherwise, we would have missed out on the thunderstorm and beachside bellowing [read: sloshed singing] that our friends enjoyed later on in the day.

Anyway, as luck would have it, two of our friends were able to pull over into a cove that was being relatively unaffected by the rapids. All of the belongings that had fled our canoe ended up in this area, so they were able to recover mostly everything for us. I believe there was actually footage of our debacle captured, but that was destroyed.. or should have been. Why on earth would I want to publicize the 10 years of swimming lessons / swim team skills that were anything but obvious during this obstacle? Clearly, in the end, I was rescued. I had to grab onto another wishing tree sprouting up from the lake and was cast a rope from a kind stranger. Unfortunately, after he pulled me in, his rope remained stuck on one of the branches. I sat on my perch until he was able to make it back to the river bank, and then continued to tackle the Saco!

Canoe Trip Tips
  • Call ahead for reservations > We used Northern Extremes in North Conway for our canoe rentals & I highly recommend them.
  • Check weather forecast and the status of the river before beginning your journey > We were told that the river was running quickly that day, but clearly I had no idea as to what that actually meant.
  • Familiarize yourself with the landscape and route of your particular trip > Though we weren't white water rafting, I felt like I was in "The River Wild" at times.
  • Learn how to paddle ahead of time > I did not do this. It led to a few lovers quarrels along the way, but once we flirted with death, we swore we'd never argue again.
  • Make sure that the stronger & more experienced person is in the back of the canoe > This is ideal for the person that doesn't want to consume as many adult beverages as the other person in the canoe.
  • WEAR YOUR LIFE JACKET > Hindsight is always 20/20.

That's just a brief list and by no means authorized by any professional. If you have experienced similar situations out in the throes of nature, feel free to share your story!Saco Survivors

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Day the Saco Claimed My Soul.. Almost

How hard could it possibly be to paddle 7 miles in the dangerous depths of 3 foot water? You'd be surprised.. especially if you're a novice.

In mid-August, eleven of my friends and I traveled to North Conway, NH for a weekend [read: day] of canoeing down the Saco River. An annual "couples" tradition, I was added to the roster last minute due to the unexpected relationship circumstances of a friend of mine. I was pumped! Not for my friend's emotional woes, but for the opportunity to participate first-hand in a trip I'd been hearing about for a couple of years.

I should have known upon setting "float" in the river that I was in for something unsafe. After looking around at all of the other canoes, I took note of the fact that all of the males were planted in the rear of each vessel. We didn't have that option.. I, the one without any steering experience, led the directional charge of our canoe.
Canoeing happily - first pit stopThings seemed to be going relatively smoothly, until we got to a point in the river where the rapids became a bit more aggressive. As the current picked up, my canoeing partner and I noticed that we had about negative 5 seconds to make an imperative decision in turning ourselves left or right.. or else, we were going to land directly in the arms of a large branch that sprouted up from the bottom of the river. Guess who got rear-ended right into the branch by a rogue canoe?? It was too late to do anything, but attempt to stabilize the canoe - or ourselves.. emotionally. Well, neither of those goals were achieved. I watched my friend's white, leather handbag.. yes, I said leather.. get swallowed by the current and spit down the river.. followed by our life jackets, adult beverages, the one pair of flip flops I had foolishly packed, our paddles, and eventually my canoeing partner and her death grip on our canoe..

Now, obviously the ultimate consequence did not prevail as I'm sitting here typing this story for any interested soul to read, but if you have any guesses as to what might have happened next.. ENLIGHTEN ME.

Monday, September 8, 2008

An H2O Weekend

I would like to begin this post by reconfirming the title of my previous post. At dinner on Saturday night in Newport, there were 3 large tables occupied by all females.. and when inquiring about the occasion, each answer was the same.. including ours: BACHELORETTE PARTY.

From Poland Spring, to drops from the sky, to a coastal view and even to the site of our delicious meal on Saturday night, this weekend was all about water.. and alcohol too, of course. I was all excited on Saturday night to come back and share our experience at H20, an oceanside restaurant with a modern and contemporary edge to it. From the cocktails and appetizers through the meal, atmosphere, service & DJ, everything was exceptional. Dining with a crowd of 20+ isn't always the easiest task, especially when it comes to finalizing the check, but this experience turned out to be smooth from beginning to end.

Most of the entrees were under $30, and I can only speak for my selection specifically, but the Pan Seared Tuna was deliciously prepared and beautifully presented. Not that I'm a qualified food or restaurant critic, but I feel very comfortable recommending H2O for larger parties, fancy gatherings and even a romantic dinner for two. It seemed to cater toward a younger crowd, but was also family-friendly. In any case, we each spent well under a "benjamin" for essentially a three course meal (excluding dessert, but adding many rounds of drinks) that, in essence, extended into an all night affair.

In my opinion, dining seaside is one of the finest ways to share a meal with friends. I'm always looking for new places to try and explore, so feel free to send along one of your favorite oceanside eateries for the rest of us to enjoy!

Friday, September 5, 2008

Newport, RI: Bachelorette Heaven

I'm going to take a small break from the international travel talk, and bring it back home for a moment.. err, post. This weekend, I have the pleasure of partaking in the bachelorette festivities for a childhood friend in good ole Newport, RI.

I had not initially thought of this destination as what my title suggests, until it was brought to my attention yesterday by a couple of fellows. They claimed that every time they've gone down there, they've run into 10+ girls dressed in the same shirts & all liquored up.. I suppose there may be some truth to this theory.. and I might be living proof. I'd go so far as to say that 75% of the times that I've been to Newport have been for bachelorette parties. Either way, it's a gorgeous place.

Below is a picture of my college roommates, a.k.a the crew that I was most recently guilty of being in Newport with for Nic's bachelorette (back row, furthest left). I'm not sure why I resemble Patch Adams here, but I swear that's still better than I look on the average day.

BC Bachelorette Party - Newport 2007
Boasting a Nantucket or Cape Cod-like atmosphere, Newport is not just another coastal beach town. It's rich in history too. In different eras, it was a port for pirate activity, naval operations, and the center of slave trade in New England. While it has obviously changed in certain facets, Newport's economy is still flourishing today. Perhaps most notably associated with the Newport Mansions, the city has evolved into more of an upscale vacation spot with chic strip malls, luxurious condos, and great karaoke & beach bars!

My two hot tips on the social scene in Newport, RI:
  • The Pelham: Or as it is more formally known, One Pelham East. Great live rock bands, songs you know and love, and fine company.. or at least, it will be by the end of the night - if you hear what I'm saying. Located on Thames Street - the happening strip of Newport.
  • The Red Parrot: Restaurant spanning multiple stories and boasting multiple bars [also located] right on the heart of Thames Street. Enjoy Jazz music, food with a hint of Caribbean flavor at reasonable prices, and an overall relaxing atmosphere.

Oh, and also courtesy of The Red Parrot website, I've learned that Newport was home to the first roller rink! Rollerworld anyone?

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The Moose: A Place Where Dreams Come True

As mentioned previously - The Moose, as it has come to be known, is located near the metro stop of Odeon and specifically on Rue Quatre Vents. I guess, to ease our immersion into the French culture, Diane took us here on one of our first nights because it is indeed a Canadian bar. I keep stressing 'Canadian bar' as if I'm from the land of the loonies. I'm sorry, I found that term in Wikipedia.. I understand it's a nickname/term for the Canadian dollar? Correct me if I'm wrong.

Anyway, funnily enough, many of the bartenders at the Moose during my stint in Paris were from New Zealand. A group of us quickly befriended two in particular, Darrin & Mark. After all, a bartender is one of the most important friends that one can have. I hold many close to my heart. Now, maybe I'm referencing this local pub as an economically sound establishment because of the preferential treatment we occasionally received? Or maybe it's because there are typically weekly "happy hour" type deals, as well as meal deals. Let's just say that I think I spent more time at the Moose than any other single place in my 5 months in Paris.

If you're looking for authentic French food, then this isn't your joint. BUT, if you're in need of a little slice of home pie, then here are a few items off the Moose menu that I'd recommend:

  • Mooseburger
  • Classic Moose Poutine
  • Chicken Stir Fry Pita

The Moosehead beer should go without saying..

And of course for dessert:

Creme Brulee .. Mmm

Now, the last time I was in Paris was in 2001, so the prices and menu might have changed a bit; and of course, I don't recommend dining out for every meal.. BUT either way, you'll get the most for your money here.

If you do get a chance to swing by the Moose, please stop by and let me know if everything's still as delicious as it was 7 years ago.

The French Empire Strikes Back

Um, so I'm not sure why the Star Wars references have now made appearances in two posts, but apparently I'm an avid closet-fan. Anyway, do not fear - my intention is not to detail every day of my 5 months in Paris, but to give you a bit of a background as to how things began versus how they progressed.

P.S. Is it weird that as I was looking for my photo albums to jog my memory, I found a VHS tape titled "Bellydance: Fitness for Beginners"? Unless I subconsciously blacked out that moment of my life, then I have zero clue as to where this might have come from.. lucky for me, it was still in the plastic wrapping.

After being housed for 2 weeks, courtesy of Boston College, at the Maison de Canadiens, we were let off the leash and forced to find our own apartments. To fast forward a bit: yaddi, yaddi, yadda - I found some friends.. bla, bla, bla - I was not left in a French gutter cold and alone. Although we were definitely duped by our anything but smooth French landlord, we did find a place to sleep for the next 5 months.

Now for the good stuff..
Metro Map of Paris
Challenge #1: The metro. Initially, looking at the metro map for me was like trying to figure out a rubix cube - impossible.

Solution #1: Have some wine, loosen up, speak some French, find your way.

For a while, the only places we knew how to get to were on Line 4, which led to St. Michel, Notre Dame & the Odeon area [it helped that our apartment was also on Line 4, in Alesia]. It was the first area that our group checked out all together, and probably not surprisingly, houses the places where many of us felt most at home. The reason for this.. one bar in particular.. The Moosehead, a Canadian bar in Paris.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Paris: Where the Travel Bug Initially Struck

By the time I was a sophomore in college, I'd realized that I hadn't exactly challenged myself to do much outside of my comfort zone. Having lived in Massachusetts all my life and choosing to go to college a distant 30 minutes away in Boston, I decided that I needed to test the European waters. Because I'd taken French all my life, it seemed only right that I apply to programs in Paris to study abroad.
Signs Pointing to CitiesWell, the day I got into the University of Paris III was the day that I nearly lost control of my bowels. And believe me, I have an idea as to how uncomfortable & inconvenient that actually would be after watching a friend cradle a rope between his cheeks during a summer tubing trip in Maine a few years ago. Anyway, I digress..

After I swallowed the reality of leaving everything I'd known for a period of 5 months, I began to sob upon boarding the plane and immediately turned to an unquantifiable number of red wine medicine bottles to curb my anxiety. Luckily, I was seated next to another college student, so we proceeded to imbibe quite heavily throughout the duration of our flight to Zurich.. where I'd have to drunkenly figure out how to find my way to my transfer flight to Paris. I somehow managed, but not without a battle - thank goodness there were many English speaking folks around to comprehend my slurred attempt at French.. or mumbles.

A few hours later, we touched ground in Paris.. I had finally sobered up which was sort of positive until I remembered how anxious I was and realized that I had no idea what I was supposed to do once I got there. Our program wasn't the most organized, so I didn't travel with any other students in my program. I managed to dial out to the US on the nearest payphone and got a hold of my mother. To this day, I could swear that she thought I was being tortured as there were absolutely no actual words being generated by my mouth, but rather the sweet sounds of Chewbacca.. but I'm still too proud to ask her. I finally met up with our program coordinator, Diane, and off we went to the Maison de Canadiens..

I'm out of breath from writing so much.. Parts II thru More to come shortly. But first, a baguette & brie for lunch.. that are obviously to be washed down by a nice glass [or bottle] of Shiraz.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Let the Travels Begin!

At least 3 times a day, I ask myself: Lil' Boozie, if you could go anywhere in the world, where would your next trip take you? Of course, I never know immediately what my own response is going to be which certainly keeps it interesting.

A short story long, this blog will share the stories of 3 lassies that enjoy seeing and experiencing the world at large and all it has to offer, from local to domestic to international places, cities, and countries. Pioneered by:

  • Myself: Lil' Boozie, Suzanimal, Suz, Q - no, I'm not schizophrenic, but I am one to have acquired an encyclopedia of nicknames throughout my short 26+ years on this fine earth
  • Molly - Or Mom as she has come to be known to many of us here in Boston.. you'll have to ask her why
  • Skidz - an innocent and fun-loving scientist.. curious about the nickname? I think you can use your imaginations..

You can expect to see some special, well-traveled guest bloggers along the way - after all, although we love traveling, we're still young.. and heavily shaped by restraints of time and money.

So, I leave you with this opening thought.. and while undoubtedly difficult, I think it's safe to say that we've all had one particular experience that has made its mark on our hearts, minds, and souls.

Where is your favorite place?