Weekly Photo Challenge: Above The Alps

Above The Alps

This week’s challenge is all about inspiration from stories and lyrics, and I thought of “Learn To Fly” by the Foo Fighters, one of my all-time favorite songs. Particularly this:

Make my way back home when I learn to fly high
Make my way back home when I learn to…
…fly along with me, I can’t quite make it alone

Try to make this life my own

I took this shot during near the end of my flight from Barcelona to Munich, and I’m so glad I was able to get this amazing view. You can just see the curvature of the Earth’s horizon, all the snow-encrusted imperfections in its surface, and the moon looming in the distance. A larger version is viewable here.

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Renaissance Barcelona Rooftop Terrace

Renaissance Barcelona Terrace

This week’s photo challenge is all about state of mind, so I thought I’d skip way ahead in my travel writing and give you a glimpse of my time in Spain. The Renaissance Barcelona Hotel has a stylish lookout point built into its 8th floor. It’s nice, quiet, and comfortable. If you’ve been walking around the city all day, this is the place to go; you can bring your dinner upstairs, relax on the beds, listen to the chill music (they were playing a remix of Diana Ross’s “Love Hangover” at the time), and get a decent view of downtown. That’s assuming, of course, that you’re a hotel guest; you need a room keycard to access the elevator. A larger version is viewable here.

Two Weeks In Europe: Day 2 – Boarding The Vision of the Seas

Continued from Day 1.

Thus began the most dreaded part of any lengthy trip: Disembarking, standing in line at customs, claiming luggage, and finding ground transportation. For a better part of an hour, people of all ages, genders, sexes, faiths, and countries share the same weariness. It’d be heartwarming, if it weren’t so tedious. You don’t need to share a language to communicate mutual discomfort; everyone is waiting for the person ahead of them to just move already and get off the plane. Aside from the occasional mishap with an overhead bin, physical violence is almost non-existent; people are too tired to do anything beyond clutching their carry-ons and shuffling stiffly into the airport and customs line.

The real problem, however, was with the luggage. We know the pain of misplaced bags all too well; the last time we left Spain, the airline lost Mom’s luggage – including that Moroccan rug – and it took them at least a couple of days to get it delivered. Same thing happened when we came back from Hawaii’s Big Island last December. This time, I approached the luggage carousel with apprehension; if our luggage didn’t show up here, we wouldn’t be able to take them on the cruise. They’d have to be flown, floated, or whatever else it took to catch up with the ship, and we’d be left without clothes or supplies. Yeah, that would be bad. I scanned the conveyor belt several times, but to no avail. As the minutes and bags passed by, my desperation became almost palpable. The crowd was thinning out. Did someone take our stuff off the carousel and leave it off to the side? Or worse yet, did someone steal them?

After a few more tense moments, I finally spotted Mom’s gargantuan red roller. My rolling duffel bag was right behind it. After hauling them off the carousel and rearranging our carry-ons, we trudged wearily outside. Thankfully, the transportation to the ship we’d arranged beforehand was easy to find. After waiting for a few more travelers to arrive, we piled into a van and set off for Barcelona. Mom and I had the last stop – we were the only ones going to the ship – so our ride to the docks felt more like an impromptu city tour. I wasn’t sitting by a window, so the impressions I got were fleeting: overcast skies, narrow streets crowded with cars and motorcycles, tiny alleys, worn pavement, and bustling roundabouts. It wasn’t until we drove past the Columbus Monument that I had a sense of our position.

It took about an hour for us to reach the Vision of the Seas. We hauled our luggage out of the van and headed for the registration building. Since this was my first cruise, I was surprised by how we had to leave our luggage behind with the staff outside before we could register. I’ve been robbed while on vacation before (Summer of 1999 at a certain Puerto Vallarta resort will live forever in infamy) so I’ve become quite leery of letting my possessions out of sight. But apparently, I didn’t have a choice this time; the staff quickly checked our paperwork, tagged our luggage, and promised everything would be delivered by 8 PM. As I went through another security scanner and stood in line for the umpteenth time, I took a moment to breathe. We’d traveled nearly halfway across the world for almost 36 hours, but now we were only two of thousands of people boarding the the cruise. Not just Americans, either; there were at least half a dozen languages being spoken within earshot. In front of me, a young woman wearing a hijab was poring over the latest edition of Rick Steve’s Mediterranean Cruise Ports, the very same travel guide I brought for the trip. Seeing her made me smile. No matter what differences people think they have, curiosity and fascination transcend them.

Registration was surprisingly quick and easy. Royal Caribbean assigns each passenger a special ID card that also functions as a room key and on-board credit card. The cruise operates like a cashless economy; everything from souvenirs and excursions to special food and beverage orders gets charged to the card, and then tallied up on the final statement. It’s pretty nice and efficient, so long as you don’t lose your card. I practically became surgically attached to mine as the days went by. While there was a currency exchange service on the ship, it was to ensure people had enough spending money while on land. Before all that, we had to climb up the ramp, go through another security check point, get our picture taken by the cruise’s photography staff (much more on that later), and find our room. When we originally signed up, we opted for the basic interior stateroom; though we wouldn’t have a balcony, it looked nice and decently furnished on the website. The actual stateroom, however, was…underwhelming. A small bed and couch, vanity, flat screen TV, closet, and a bathroom with a toilet, sink, and shower. That’s it. Just enough walking space and privacy for two people with some patience and creativity. I’ve spent most of my vacations in timeshares, so I was taken aback by the lack of a functioning kitchen, table, and other amenities. Mom wasn’t thrilled with the cramped space, either. Needless to say, we’d be spending as little time in the stateroom as possible.

We didn’t have time to rest, though. After the hearing the ship depart Barcelona, the mandatory lifeboat drill, and getting our luggage back, it was already time for dinner. We were assigned Table 24 in The Aquarius dining room at 6 PM sharp. The staff greeted us at the entrance to the restaurant and gave us a palmful of antibacterial gel. I’m notorious at home for being a neat freak (Hey, you try working with money in a bank vault for 12 years. You’d hate germs, too.), so I was grateful to see the cruise’s disease prevention efforts. Stepping into the The Aquarius was like watching the first half of Titanic; a seemingly endless array of tables adorned with fresh cloth and silverware, wine glasses being filled, dozens of impeccably-dressed waiters, and the noise of hundreds of conversations, and the faint sounds of a live piano. We were the last to arrive at our table; our dinner mates for the cruise were a retired couple from New Jersey, newlyweds from Maine, and two sisters from Australia. While it was kind of awkward at first – I’m shy in social situations – seeing the same people every night was a great way to build friendships and share travel experiences. I can’t remember exactly what I had that first night, but I know it involved a chicken salad, some steak, and a chocolate mousse that looked like a miniature work of modern art.

After dinner, we were too tired to do any more. We’d been on the move since before dawn the previous day; this was finally our chance to relax. We took turns enjoying a well-deserved shower, and then called it a night. I usually stay up late (and sometimes early), but I fell asleep minutes after my head hit the pillow. After all the stress, connections, and thousands of miles, we’d finally made it…and things were just getting started.

To be continued on Day 3…

Two Weeks In Europe: Day 1 – Leaving On A Train, Then Jet Plane

What would become the greatest trip of my life started as a complete coincidence. It was early in 2015, and I’d already thought my travel plans were set for the year; I’d have a week in Mexico, and that would be it. However, my mother called me unexpectedly one afternoon, saying that she’d come across a flyer for the Royal Caribbean cruise line. She’d been considering Greece – this was long before the refugee crisis became headlines here in the States – but decided on something far grander: a two week trip with stops in Spain, France, Italy, and Montenegro. We’d been to this part of Europe before (years before I owned a digital camera, sadly!), but never to Barcelona or Nice. I’ve always been a huge history and art geek, so I was immediately hooked on the prospect of seeing Rome and Venice. Mom had actually been trying for almost a decade to get a trip booked for Rome via her timeshare, but couldn’t get anything in the city itself. This cruise seemed like a feasible way for her to tackle her bucket list, and we wanted to travel together while she was still capable of doing so. So, we made arrangements and marked our calendars.

Skip forward about 6 months (the Mexico trip in June is a story for another time), to the morning of October 18th. I’d slept at Mom’s place overnight – amazing how the living room sofa felt better than my old bed – because we had to leave the house before dawn. Instead of driving to SFO, we stuck with what’s become our go-to option: taking BART train line all the way to the airport. It’s easy to navigate, cheaper than a shuttle, and you don’t have to worry about parking. Assuming there are no malfunctions, protests, or police activity (which all happened coming back from Hawaii last December), it’s a smooth, straightforward trip. It’s just a long ride from our starting point, almost from one end of the line to the other. It feels even longer when you’re still half asleep, shivering in the cold, and hauling 50 lbs of your mom’s luggage onto the platform. We took the first SFO-bound train of the day, and were surprised to find at least two dozen other travelers along for the ride. Any Bay Area commuter knows that getting a seat on BART during the busy hours is like a competitive sport; it’s all about positioning yourself in the crowd and seizing opportunities – and vacant chairs – with keen observation and timing. I usually stand during my daily commutes, but going to the airport is different. We tried getting the coveted senior priority seats (there’s more open space for our bags), but ended up sitting across the aisle from each other.

After about an hour of struggling to stay awake while keeping the bags standing and out of people’s way, we finally made it to the airport. Finding the terminal was easy, but the actual ticket counter was something else. We thought our flight was with United Airlines; it said so in nice, big letters on our printout. However, we failed to read the fine print: the plane belonged to United, but the flight itself was being operated by Air Canada. Cue us wasting about half an hour wandering through the terminal and getting incorrect directions from every information desk. Finally getting our luggage checked was a huge relief, both physically and mentally. Getting through security was surprisingly easy this time, too; I’m one of those unfortunate folks who seem to be a magnet for the TSA. It’s probably the suspiciously long, beautiful hair. Aside from her purse, Mom was toting a large bag full of food and her medications. She was diagnosed with diabetes last year – she carries around the doctor’s note to prove it to the authorities – but it always strikes me funny how she’s able to get several meals’ worth of snacks, cereal, and veggies past security. The most I bring are a couple packages of crackers and two refillable water bottles. With the hardest part out of the way, we had a little less than two hours to kick back and wait.

We weren’t flying straight to Spain, though. We had to fly to Montreal, then make a connection. It’s pretty standard fare…except that there was only 30 minutes between flights. When I wasn’t distracted by the movies (I got to watch Jurassic World, Inside Out, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Reviews coming soon!), I pondered over the logistics of our layover. 30 minutes to disembark the plane, get through customs/security, and find a gate in an airport that I’d never seen before. Yeah, it was going to be messy. Air Canada was well aware of our problem; when we landed in Montreal, they announced that the people with close connecting flights – less than a dozen of us in total – were allowed to disembark first. They were even good enough to find out what gate we needed. Mom and I bolted and got through security quickly – they have a small booth off to the side just for connections – and rushed to the next gate.

But there was no plane.

I checked my watch. No, we had at least another 15 minutes. There’s no way it could’ve left. I went to the flight listing display and searched for ours. Lo and behold, it was still at the airport, but at a different gate, in the opposite direction that we’d come. The Air Canada crew had outdated information. Because it couldn’t be that easy, right? Mom and I nearly sprinted to the correct gate, only to find that they’d been delayed and had just started boarding. We scrambled into the line and got on without any problems. As I sank wearily into my seat and buckled up, I closed my eyes and tried to rub my headache away. We’d been traveling for over 12 hours straight across multiple time zones, and we’d made a connection that, in normal circumstances, should’ve been nearly impossible. Once dinner and drinks had been served – apple juice is my beverage of choice when flying – I tried settling back and sleeping. Time passes strangely on overnight flights; with the windows shuttered and lighting inconsistent, it’s impossible to tell what time it is without looking at a phone or watch. And when you’ve been on your feet for so long, your energy and circadian rhythm are all out of sorts. I think I slept, but I’ve blacked out on flights before. I was more worried about Mom; her endurance isn’t as strong as it used to be. She spent most of the flight trying to find a good sleeping position – often using my shoulder as a pillow – but with little results.

Eventually, someone pulled up a shutter, revealing that the sun was already out. I’d lost track of the night at some point, but that didn’t matter. The captain announced that we were within an hour of Barcelona, the port where we’d board the cruise. I rubbed my eyes and shared some bread with Mom. At this point, we’d been traveling for over 24 hours straight. My head was pounding, but I had to focus on what was coming next. Disembarking. Finding our luggage. Hopefully none of it got lost in transit like the last time we were in Spain. Finding the airport-to-ship shuttle service we’d reserved in advance. We were almost an hour late, hopefully they were still waiting for us. Boarding the ship. What did that entail? So many questions, so little time.

Continued in Day 2…

Two Weeks On The Mediterranean: An Introduction

Hey, folks. I’m baaaaaaack…

*Crickets chirp*

…Ahem. If you recall, I recently left a message saying I’d be going on an epic adventure in Europe, and that I’d be gone till November. And that’s exactly what I did; I spent the latter half of October on the Vision of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. I’d never done a cruise before, so the fast pace and logistics involved were completely new for me. It was well worth the effort, though. Throughout the last two weeks, I visited Spain, France, Italy, Vatican City, and Montenegro (and Germany, but that was just a layover, so that doesn’t really count). I got to explore Barcelona, Villefranche, Nice, Pisa, Rome, St. Peter’s, Salerno, Pompeii, Venice, Kotor, Risan, and Perast. I saw tons of stuff, celebrated my birthday at St. Mark’s, and took just over 4,500 photos.

Yeah, I’ve been kind of busy.

I’m going to be sharing all of my experiences with you, but definitely not in a single huge post. This travel memoir will be written to cover one day at a time, and likely posted with the same frequency. I seriously can’t wait to show you the sheer awesomeness of the Mediterranean, and I hope it’ll inspire you to travel and seek out your own adventures!

Stay tuned, folks.

From Morocco To America: One Rug, Many Memories

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about the surreal. As in, one of the most surreal experiences you’ve ever had. I’ve had more than my share; pretty sure I’ve at least mentioned almost drowning in Thailand, fighting a house fire, sleeping overnight in a deserted LAX, going to the top of Gibraltar, and going on a 900-mile road trip around Hawaii’s Big Island. But aside from a single photo – my only functional camera back then was an iPod 4 Touch – I haven’t mentioned my brief time in Morocco.

Back in early 2011, I was lucky enough to take a trip with my mother to Málaga. Most tourists traveling to Spain would rather spend their time in Madrid, Barcelona, or Seville. While we got to see that last one, I didn’t particularly mind. It was only my second time in Europe, and it was Pablo Picasso’s home town. No way I’d turn that down. If anything, I was more concerned with Mom. Back then, she and I approached vacations quite differently; she was typically spur-of-the-moment and incessantly pestered locals with questions, while I was a methodical planner and standoffish. We’ve both mellowed over the last few years. She’s far more willing to listen to my advice and navigation, and I’m bolder and more random in my adventures. But back then? We could barely agree on where to go for dinner.

Tension mounted when Mom found and signed us on with local tour group going to Morocco. I chafed at the idea; we’d been in Spain for only a day and a half, and she already wanted to visit another country? It was a foolish sentiment in retrospect – these days I’d kill for a $50 trip to another continent – but I was more concerned with logistics. How long would it take to get there? What would we see? Can the people running this tour group be trusted? Where is the American embassy in case something happens? Our cell phones didn’t work; how would we find each other in case we got separated? These questions are kind of important. This was happening in May 2011; the Arab Spring was just getting underway in Morocco. Mom just shrugged and said to roll with whatever happens, and I inwardly cringed and prepared for the worst.

The bus arrived around dawn. Two hours later, we were on board a ferry at Tarifa – a serious contender for the Windiest Port Ever – and en route to Tangier. For all you curious San Francisco Bay Area commuters out there, it was comparable to going from the Ferry Building to Jack London Square; nice accommodations, a little crowded, and far too brief. After taking another bus into the older part the city – the protests hadn’t reached that far yet – we stopped and had lunch. Not only was there live belly dancing, but the host generously gave me a little bundle of their spices after I asked and complimented the food. Didn’t declare that when I went through customs…

Afterwards, all that was left for the afternoon was exploring the medina. Take your favorite farmer’s market, multiply it by a hundred, and you’ll get a sense of what it was like. I could spend months exploring all the nooks and crannies. Everywhere you turned, there was another ancient arch, mosaic, stairs, and art. It’s more than a shopping area; this place has survived more than 2,000 years, maintaining the heritage and culture of its people. Like any typical American kid raised on Safeway and Costco, I was pretty sheltered when it came to shopping abroad. This section of Tangier rocked my world. It seemed to stretch on infinitely, each stand and counter crammed with every food and item imaginable. To this day, I still recommend the medina for anyone looking for fresh food; it may not be shrink-wrapped, but you’ll never find such an amazing and delicious selection anywhere else. I looked at Mom to see how she was taking it.

That’s when things started getting weird.

Like I said, Mom wasn’t exactly the planning type. But I didn’t know the extent of it until I realized she’d traveled to Africa fully decked out in heels and jewelry. It was like having a big, neon, “Look at me, I’m a rich American!” sign on her back. The local peddlers certainly noticed; we had a small group of people trying to sell her stuff the moment we were outside. Unlike other tourist-driven places, these vendors didn’t give up when we walked away; they kept following us. That’s worrisome, as my mother is about 4’10” and could be easily confronted or even grabbed by an aggressive passerby. I’m normally spared that kind of attention; aside from being a guy, my olive skin tone usually lets me pretend to be a local. But not here. I was bombarded with offers, especially for cigarettes. After being turned down, one grizzled old fellow just laughed and said, “Do not worry! I know America! I come to Alabama with a banjo on me knee!

I didn’t fully appreciate how weird that moment was until later. I was halfway around the world, deep in a foreign port, trying to keep an eye on my mother, surrounded by merchants, and being heckled by an old man singing the lyrics to Oh! Susanna. It was quickly forgotten, though. Mom had to use the restroom, and the only option was to allow one of our guide’s assistants escort her to one nearby. I could only watch in silent apprehension as she disappeared around a corner, and hope I was just being paranoid. I stayed with the tour for another half an hour, but she still hadn’t returned. I was about to talk to the guide, when we entered a stylish rug showroom. The Moroccan rug industry is huge; vintage works go for thousands online. But there I was, right at the source. In middle of it all, my mother was haggling with the merchant. Apparently, she’d decided to skip ahead of the group, went shopping, and wanted to buy one of the most expensive souvenirs ever.

I understand why Mom wanted it. It was a beautiful piece of handwoven art. The intricate patterns of browns and blacks were absolutely stunning. It could’ve been put on exhibit in a museum. However, it was also bigger than any floor in her house; at best, she’d have to hang it on a wall. I briefly tried talking her out of it, but she hadn’t spent all of that time negotiating with the merchant for nothing. They offered a special shipping service to America – for an extra fee, of course – but Mom politely turned him down and said we’d take it back ourselves. And by that, she meant me. How much she spent on it was her business, but getting it back home was suddenly mine. The merchant was kind enough to get the rug bundled, but nothing else. So, I awkwardly lugged 50-plus lbs of luxurious, authentic Moroccan rug through the bustling streets of Tangier, onto the bus, across the Strait of Gibraltar via ferry, and another bus back to Málaga. It was kind of like backpacking…if your backpack was huge, off-balance, and didn’t have any practical use. I got quite a few confused stares and questions from fellow travelers, but I could only shrug wearily and say it was Mom’s idea.

Getting the rug out of Morocco was tricky enough. But getting it to America required some Tetrisstyle puzzle solving. You think getting bags checked is tedious? Try smuggling a rug sometime.The only feasible option was to somehow cram the rug in Mom’s rolling luggage bag, but there wasn’t enough room for her clothes and toiletries. I tend to pack light, so there was just enough room for her stuff in my bag. It took a few tries (and a sacrifice of two boxes of chocolates, sadly), but we got it to work. At the end of the week, we got our hidden treasure through customs in Madrid and checked in with the airline without any extra charges. We thought we were home free…until we got back to SFO and discovered that the rug had gone missing in transit. Because it just couldn’t be that easy. I think I was more livid than Mom at that point; I hadn’t hauled that thing all the way from Africa for it to simply disappear. It was eventually found and delivered the next day, and my mother finally got the rug she’d wanted.

…It’s currently sitting in storage, bundled in the same rope it came with. Four years later, and she still hasn’t touched it.

That used to annoy me, of course. But in the years since, I’ve come to appreciate that surreal, wonderful trip for the sake of experience. If it weren’t for Mom diving headlong into things, I don’t know if I’d ever set foot in Africa, let alone make such a bizarre adventure otherwise. I’m thankful for it; sometimes the greatest adventures are the ones you never expect.

A List Of Mementos: A Work In Progress

A List Of Mementos: A Work In Progress

  • A finger painting of a clown, to remind me of where I began.
  • A bachelor’s degree, to remind me of what it means to overcome.
  • A chess set, to remind me why I love strategy.
  • A Galileo thermometer, to remind me of my inspiration.
  • A bottle of sparkling cider, to remind me to appreciate family while you can.
  • A glass sailboat, to remind me that the best memories are timeless.
  • A lanyard, to remind me that honesty and persuasion can work wonders.
  • An iPod that says Non sum qualis eram, to remind me to accept change.
  • A Necronomicon, to remind me why I love horror.
  • A copy of The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, to remind me to keep dreaming.
  • A puka shell necklace, to remind me of the spirit of Aloha.
  • A cave painting charm, to remind me to keep exploring.
  • An old walking stick, to remind me of the mountains I’ve climbed.
  • A stamp from 10,000 ft. up, to remind me that the climb is just as important as the view.
  • A miniature anchor, to remind me to keep taking chances.
  • A miniature gilded elephant, to remind me to seek opportunities.
  • A miniature Eiffel Tower, to remind me that some things are worth the wait.
  • A cable car ticket stub, to remind me some things aren’t.
  • A scorpion in plexiglass, to remind me of places to which I’ll never return.
  • A wooden Mayan charm on a string, to remind me what heat and time truly feel like.
  • A pewter Majora’s Mask, to remind me why video games are art after all.
  • A set of pins, to remind me to share my passion for literature.
  • A LEGO Hamlet, to remind me why I love being a geek.
  • A Hello Kitty Chun-Li, to remind me that I should accept all aspects of myself.
  • A pair of Buddhist prayer bead bracelets, to remind me to stay curious.