Waikiki Sunset

Waikiki Sunset

Settings: Nikon D3300 – 18mm – f/10 – 1/2500s – ISO 200

Hey, folks. If you’re into photography, you’ve probably heard of the golden hour. It’s those fleeting moments just after sunrise or before sunset in which light is seemingly redder, casting everything in a wonderful, warm glow. This effect is a combination of how human eyes perceive the visible light spectrum, and how sunlight is filtered through Earth’s atmosphere based on its location relative to a given latitude. It’s pretty awesome when you take a step back and think about it. So many aspects of our world come together just long enough to produce something so brilliant every day. As a science, astronomy, and geography geek, I understand and appreciate this phenomenon in terms of the sheer mechanics involved.

As a world traveler, however…

One of my longstanding travel habits is photographing sunsets. Beaches, bridges, piers, etc. Whatever it takes, I will capture at least one before I leave. I could wax poetic about the virtues of enjoying a sunset: basking in the dying warmth, the slight breeze on your neck, the hum of a street lamp turning on, everything seemingly slows and quiets down, and that unspoken understanding that you’re one day older. But I’m sure you already get it. Sunsets are among those few, great experiences that transcend language and culture. That’s not just some cheesy sentiment, by the way. If you don’t believe me, try visiting a major tourist destination or beach during the golden hour.

I did exactly that during my recent trip to Oahu. Waikiki is one of the most famous beaches in the world, and for good reason; it’s got excellent water, sand, and skyline, all just across the street from the amenities of a major city. On the other hand, it’s horrendously crowded and noisy. It’s not the kind of place I’d normally stay. But I found myself there on what would be the most beautiful evening of the entire week. I and about a couple dozen other photographers crowded onto Waikiki’s iconic Kapahulu Groin, then eagerly waited for the inevitable.

I crouched on part of the ledge, wary of the waves thundering just a few feet below. I browsed through my camera’s options and set them to capture more reds at a higher speed. If I timed it perfectly, I’d be able to get both the sunset and a wave just as it would crash into the wall. Silently, I regretted leaving my tripod back at the hotel. I hadn’t planned to be in Waikiki when I had left that morning. Looking back, I now wish I’d known about Light, a new company that have designed a new compact camera that excels in low-light conditions, has adjustable field depth, and built-in editing features. As much as I love my DSLR, crouching precariously over a sea wall while holding a huge camera to your face isn’t easy.

It was worth the effort, of course.The images I captured were gorgeous, though they came at a cost; just after the last glimmer of sun vanished over the horizon, an especially large wave swept up to the pier and drenched several of us. We all exchanged a few sheepish glances and a laugh. For that brief stretch of time, we left the rest of the world and its problems behind. There were only us and that pier. When it was over, we looked over each others’ shots, did a little networking, and parted ways. One by one, our shared experience ended, each person walking off into the night. Yes, it felt a little tragic. But thanks to my camera, the memory of that golden hour will never be forgotten.

Early Summer In Oahu

Hey, folks! I’m baaaaack!

*Cue crickets chirping*

Ahem. Sorry I’ve been gone so long. Aside from being on the trip, my “vintage” 2011 laptop finally died on me a while ago. I didn’t lose anything incredibly important, but finding a new, affordable machine and starting over after so long has been rather time-consuming. Between that and the work schedule, I haven’t had much free computer time lately. Anyways. As mentioned a little while ago, I got the opportunity to visit Oahu. It was my third time in Hawaii (longtime readers will recall my trips in 2014), but this was first time visiting this particular island. I went in almost completely blind; the only thing I knew was that people surfed at Waikiki, Pearl Harbor was there, Honolulu was a major city, and the name “Diamond Head.” Unlike the last two islands, Oahu was supposedly ultra modern and lacked their wonderfully epic natural landscapes. As someone who likes adventuring on vacations, I went into this ready for disappointment.

Man, was I wrong.

Getting to Oahu was mostly uneventful. Just another lengthy ride to the far end of the BART system, and then checking out luggage. The security lines were thankfully brief – only about 30 minutes – despite numerous warnings about increasing wait times on the news. However, I didn’t get past the TSA entirely unscathed; a young lady patted down my hair! Seriously, I’ve had my pants and shoes checked. But my hair? Well, I suppose it is thick and long enough to conceal a knife, but that would’ve been picked up by the metal detectors. Guess I should just be glad security was on point, and leave it at that.

The first thing that struck me was how much Oahu was like to the Bay Area. Not in terms of scale or weather, but something far more mundane: traffic. Seriously, the drive out of Honolulu was like getting through Interstate 80 on an average weekend. Six lanes, countless speeders, and hilly terrain could’ve easily been mistaken for parts of the East Bay. I knew it would be busier than the Big Island (easily the most relaxing driving in Hawaii), but this felt like I’d never left California. The local amenities probably had something to do with it; before heading to the hotel, we stopped at a nearby shopping area and had Panda Express for lunch. Because nothing says exotic vacation meals like eating Asian fast food that you could easily get back at home. It makes sense; Hawaii is an American state, so of course it would have common fast food and grocery franchises. Given that our room didn’t come with a kitchen this time (we only got a studio as opposed to a villa) shopping for cheap and easy meals became a running theme for the week.

Much like our last venture to Hawaii, this one essentially became a road trip. Choose a destination the night before, sleep, wake up, get ready, stay out all day, eat dinner, come back, wash up, choose the next destination, rinse and repeat. I was once again the navigator of our group – the old GPS couldn’t handle Hawaiian address numbering – eternally tasked with riding shotgun, reading the map, and improvising routes whenever necessary. Our first stop was Manoa Falls, the highest waterfall on Oahu. Getting there involved a drive past most of Honolulu, stopping at a farmer’s market (paltry compared to that of Hilo), stumbling across the local Safeway, and wandering around a few residential streets. We nearly turned back due to the rainy weather, then realized how pointless that would’ve been; the trail to the falls is a 1.5-mile trek through the rainforest. It’s called such for a reason. We weren’t going to stay dry, no matter what day we hiked. It’s not like this was our first time, either; after hiking similar terrain on Maui and the Big Island, we came prepared with long sleeves, ponchos, insect repellent, etc.

What we weren’t prepared for was the mud.

Under normal circumstances, 1.5 miles is nothing to me. I walk more than that on my daily commute. The hill I live on is steeper than anything that was on that trail. But when it’s pouring rain, all bets are off. I saw able-bodied people of all ages – including small children – slip and slide multiple times, and I managed to utterly wreck my cargo pants along the way. It was worth the effort, though; the Manoa Falls Trail is absolutely brimming with beautiful scenery. Lush vegetation on all sides, a stream drifting through crowds of mossy rocks, and even a huge bamboo thicket. Manoa Falls itself was rather underwhelming; yes, it was tall and had a pool at its base, but that’s a far cry from the majestic scale of Akaka Falls and other natural wonders of the Big Island. Nevertheless, it was a unique – if messy – experience. If you have any interest in hiking and want something relatively easy, definitely give this a try.

That goes double for Pearl Harbor. It’s common understanding that when you go to Oahu, you visit Pearl Harbor. It’s like visiting the Statue of Liberty in New York, Alcatraz in San Francisco, etc. It’s what you do. We decided to tackle this part of the trip as soon as we could. Like on most parts of Hawaii, weather is inconsistent at best. Since part of the Pearl Harbor tour includes a boat ride out to the USS Arizona Memorial, the weather could make or break the trip. Monday morning was hot and sunny, so we immediately hopped in the car and sped back into the city. The place was packed, of course; people come from all over the world to see these remnants of the old war. Parking wasn’t horrendous, but the prospect of theft certainly was. Despite having cops on patrol and being well-maintained, there were multiple signs warning tourists of car break-ins. We brought everything we could and hoped the rest would remain there.

Before taking the boat out to the USS Arizona, tourists have to get tickets, stand in line, and sit in an auditorium. The staff turns on a short film that gives an abridged version of the events leading up to and the attack on Pearl Harbor itself. It’s a nice, brief piece of educational programming (I’m fairly certain it was narrated by Oprah), especially for children or people not well-versed in 20th century history. The ride to the Arizona was crowded, but organized. The memorial itself was almost elegant in its simplicity: a large, curved, white rectangular walkway that stood just over the sunken ship, with multiple open-air arches for people to gaze at the wreckage. Hunks of rusted metal jutted a few feet above the waterline, a stark contrast to the otherwise gorgeous scenery. 75 years later, oil still occasionally leaks to the surface. The wall at the far end of the memorial was actually a massive shrine that listed the names of dead. Despite having so many visitors, the memorial was surprisingly quiet. When it was time to get back on the ferry, I made sure to sit at the very back and take a few more fleeting photos of American history.

The rest of the visit was relatively unremarkable. We didn’t bother taking any more tours. I took a few exterior shots of the USS Bowfin, as well as a torpedoes, propellers, an antiaircraft assembly, and other artifacts. One of the more interesting exhibits was the conning tower from the USS Parche; you could climb inside, look at all the little buttons and gauges, all while trying to ignore the thick, oily stench. After stocking up on souvenirs and some free guidebooks, we left Pearl Harbor and headed for downtown Honolulu. Our next stop was Iolani Palace, former residence of Hawaii’s royal family. Getting there was a little tricky, though. Aside from road construction, traffic, and parking, we tried using the GPS navigator and ended up driving into the United States Pacific Command by mistake. The armed guard at the entrance was very understanding, though he held onto our IDs until we did a U-turn. Now we’re probably on some list!

Despite its historical significance, Iolani Palace was far less crowded than Pearl Harbor. There were about 20 people in our group, and we were given a self-guided tour via portable headsets and digital maps. By no means was this the most extravagant building I’ve ever visited – nothing will ever beat Versailles in terms in sheer opulence – but Iolani Palace was a work of art in of itself. Its building materials were mostly imported: slate from Pennsylvania, wood from the Pacific Northwest, and metalwork and engraved glass windows from San Francisco. The grand staircase at the entrance and much of the interior was made of koa, a Hawaiian tree species. Artifacts on display spanned multiple countries, most notably sets of vases, paintings, and statues from the English, French, Indian, and Chinese governments. Much of the furniture is still in great condition; the old throne room practically glitters, and everything in the aptly-named Blue Room is cast in a rich, dark shade. The palace used to be lit by gas chandeliers, until King Kalakaua met Thomas Edison and saw electrical lights in Paris. When combined with the in-house telephone, heated water, personal library, and other amenities, it’s clear that the king enjoyed the elegance, but was striving for modernity as well. While he must have made quite an impression with the outside world, his success didn’t last. After he died, his sister was imprisoned, overthrown, and replaced by a provisional government in 1893. Despite the political fallout (President Cleveland was anti-imperialist), Hawaii was eventually annexed five years later. Needless to say, the road to Hawaii’s inclusion into the United States was far from perfect.

What was perfect, however, was the evening we later spent at Waikiki. It was late in the day, and we didn’t want to have to deal with Oahu’s infamous rush hour, so we decided to wait it out at the island’s most popular beach. Looking back, I get why Waikiki is so famous; the waves are big, the sand is decent, and the sunsets are spectacular. The problem is that it’s too popular. The streets are congested with traffic and pedestrians for several blocks, it’s noisy, cluttered, and seemingly every inch of beach is covered with a towel, sunbather, or surfboard. It’s nearly impossible to walk along parts of that beach without accidentally stepping on someone. Also, the parking is atrocious; even if you find a public parking spot, it’ll cost you a 25 cents for every 10 minutes. Even if you max out the meter, you’ll still only get 2 hours. Imagine going to one of the coolest beaches on Earth, but having to constantly check your watch to ensure you’ll make it back in time. We walked on the paved sidewalk running parallel to the beach for a few blocks, then stopping for dinner at the local McDonald’s (Fun fact: the Waikiki branch gives you free pineapple slices with their Extra Value Meals), before making a run back to the car. After buying a few more minutes, I walked to the tip of the Kapahulu Groin (AKA Waikiki’s famous pier) and stayed long enough to photograph a few surfers and an absolutely gorgeous sunset. Waikiki was definitely worth the headache of getting there!

The next day, we decided to keep things a little more low-key. No major tourist attractions, just a good, old-fashioned road trip around Oahu’s eastern tip. Interstate H-3 is by far the most beautiful freeway on the island. Incredible landscapes, relatively simple navigation (it’s essentially a huge circle), far less traffic. It also has some of the most underrated beaches in Hawaii. With its white sands and bright blue water, Kailua Beach Park was almost blinding under the midday sun. While there were plenty of picnickers and sunbathers, it was a far cry from the hordes of tourists at Waikiki. Waimanalo Beach Park down the road had even fewer people, just a couple of families enjoying a beach that looked more like a water color painting. Makapu’u Beach had slightly more visitors, just some tourists and photographers enjoying the crashing waves and extensive tide pools. That’s aside from the iconic lighthouse nearby, which also serves as a landmark and trail marker.

Traffic started picking up around Halona Blowhole; dozens of people eagerly flocked to the observation deck, only to discover the tide was out. There was a beach hidden beneath the cliffs next to the lookout, and several people climbed down despite the warning signs. Our last – and arguably best – stop was the Lanai Lookout. It wasn’t anything special at first glance, just a parking lot overlooking some cliffs. But if you climb over the concrete and down the cliff, you’ll see some of Oahu’s most beautiful natural wonders. It’s as if someone had carved the cliffs into jagged layers of cooled lava, then completely covered them with splashes and swirls of paint. When you go down far enough, you’ll realize that one whole section of the cliff is obscured from the roadside view; you can slowly, carefully make your way all the way down to the rocky shoreline, inhabited only by a handful of fishermen and massive, thundering waves. Had it not been so late in the day, I would’ve sat on those cliffs for hours.

Unfortunately, we were on a schedule that evening. Our resort was showing its weekly luau, and we’ve kind of made a tradition of going to one every time we visit Hawaii. Unlike the last two times, however, we didn’t have tickets. Luaus – especially those run by hotels – are usually pretty expensive and time consuming. Yes, the food and performances are amazing, but that may not be what you want after being out adventuring all day. Instead, we got back to our rooms, dropped our stuff, and tried to see what we could of the festivities. The luau was being performed near the pool area, which was almost directly beneath the balcony at the resort’s lobby. It wasn’t the perfect view, but we and a few others enjoyed the show. Once the sun set – making it easier for us to sneak around in the dark – we went downstairs and stood at the fringes of the luau. Everyone was done eating and too distracted by the performances to notice us. When the fire dancers came on for the finale, I put my camera’s rapid shot functions to good use. Stay tuned for some awesome fire photos!

After spending all day in the southeast, we decided to go in almost the opposite direction the next day. Compared to the previous freeway, Interstate H-2 was pretty unremarkable; narrower roads, more traffic, and farmland that stretched for miles. However, said farmland was owned by one of the biggest tourist attractions in Hawaii: the Dole Plantation. If you’ve ever eaten a pineapple in America, it’s probably come from this place. Their products are admittedly delicious, though I never imagined the plantation being so popular. Stepping inside the shop was like visiting a Disney store, except everything is white and yellow, and there are no creepy mascots. Any memorabilia remotely related to pineapples was contained in this one building. Sauces, dips, jams, shirts, stuffed animals, beer, key chains, magnets, coffee, water bottles, ice cream, chocolate, candy, knives, tacky magnets, Christmas ornaments…It was all there, overpriced and ripe for eager tourists’ picking. The line for the ice cream was ridiculous, but I managed to watch and partake in a live pineapple dessert demonstration. Fresh, diced pineapple sprinkled with plum extract tastes even better than it sounds.

We spent a little time roaming the grounds, looking at the various pineapple species growing on display. I never knew there were so many different types; the red-tinged ananas comosus looked especially fascinating. We didn’t bother taking the famed Pineapple Express; it was far too expensive, and we had plenty left on our schedule. We picnicked near the plantation’s parking lot, then headed for the next major stop of the day: Waimea Valley, a tropical park filled with unusual plants, ruins, hiking trails, birds, and a waterfall. By the time we got there, the skies were an ominous gray. That’s the thing about traveling to Hawaii; you can never be quite sure when those looming clouds will turn on you. Sure enough, it started pouring when we’d completed about 90% of the walk to Waimea Falls. We tried waiting out the rain by seeking shelter and having some snacks – this was my first time trying shaved ice – but it was to no avail. I covered my camera and made a break for the falls. Much like Manoa Falls a few days prior, this was kind of underwhelming. It didn’t have the height or splendor to make it really stand out, but it did have a massive swimming area. Several tourists ignored the rain, stripped down, and jumped in. I finally got a chance to make use of my new tripod as well; expect a lovely water-in-motion shot in the near future.

The return walk was mostly uneventful. Waimea Valley’s main walking area is actually paved and mostly flat, making it an easy trip back to the entrance. You can even take a shuttle to and from both ends, though it costs extra. Instead, we took our time wandering the branching paths, enjoying the exotic flowers and numerous bird species. Fun fact: peacocks generally have no problem being photographed. It’s almost as if they enjoy showing off for the camera. But if you hang around too long or close, they’ll lose their patience and honk until you go away. You’d never expect anything so beautiful to be so headache-inducingly loud.

By the time we left, it was already late in the afternoon. We had a couple of options: We could 1) keep driving north and swing around Kawela Bay, Laie, and eventually loop onto H-3 on the far side of the island or 2) Head back southwest the way we came and have dinner in Haleiwa. At that point we were pretty well worn out, so we decided to play it safe with the second option. This also had an important side benefit; we’d be driving by Laniakea Beach, homeland of Oahu’s famous turtle population. However, the exact location is kept secret; it’s not precisely pinpointed on Google maps, and most people we asked were rather reticent. At one point we pulled over at a lookout, and I walked almost a mile alongside the highway (with no sidewalks, in the rain), before realizing we were still too far off. Once we finally narrowed the location down, we found that there was no parking. Instead, there were construction signs and cones everywhere (though no workers), no place to pull over, and two police squad cars guarding the area. I guess the Hawaiian government really doesn’t want people messing with their turtles. Which is understandable; they are an endangered species, and people could mess up their habitat. I just wish there was an easier, but still legal way to get them on film.

We gave up on the turtles and drove into Haleiwa. We went in almost completely blind; all we knew was that it was a smaller town with a lot of local restaurants. After watching the rain pour into the mountains west of Haleiwa Beach Park (which was far less scenic than those on the eastern side of the island), we came across the Kua Aina Sandwich Shop, a famous – but relatively small – Americana food chain. Though they started in Hawaii, they spread to London and Tokyo. Their success was no coincidence; their dishes are made with fresh ingredients, from the mahi-mahi to the roasted peppers. After having their pineapple/tomato/lettuce/grilled onion burger, I can safely say that Kua Aina trounces every fast food place here in California. Sorry In & Out, but you’ve been outdone. We finished out meal and spent a few minutes exploring the area (including the Rainbow Bridge, the historical importance of which I didn’t know of at the time), then made the long drive back down south.

The next day, we decided to keep things a little closer to home. Our first destination was the Wahiawa Botanical Garden, which we passed beforehand en route to the Dole Plantation. After enjoying Waimea Valley so much, visiting another nature reserve seemed like a good idea. And it was…for the most part. It felt far smaller and more claustrophobic; exhibits seemed to be more clumped together instead of having a sleeker presentation. On the other hand, this felt more like a hike; the trails weren’t paved, the vegetation was thicker, and it actually felt like we were hiking in the rainforest again, even though city streets and houses were just beyond the tree line. It was also incredibly quiet; aside from us, the only other visitors were a small Japanese tour group. After getting our fill of unusual plants (including a yellow bamboo thicket and a multi-colored Mindanao gum tree), we had to decide on our next destination. We could try heading back up north go past where we went yesterday, or we could go back towards Kapolei and drive up the west coast of the island. Since it was raining all over the island that day, we decided not to press our luck and went with the latter.

Now, you might be wondering why we had to drive back down to Kapolei to reach the west coast. Couldn’t we have just driven northwest, then through Haleiwa, and go back down? Here’s the thing: the northwestern tip of Oahu is called Kaena Point, and it’s not a paved road. You either have to hike it or have an authorized vehicle to make it around the bend. Instead, we took the long way by driving from the southeast, all the way up to the very end of Highway 93. It was a lovely drive, even if it was fraught with rain and local traffic. The lush mountain landscapes on this side of the island were absolutely gorgeous, even with the overcast sky. As we neared the end of the road, we didn’t expect to find anything or be able to enjoy the beach. However, Mother Nature decided to cut us a break; when we rolled into Yokohama Bay, we discovered that it was the only sunny spot in Oahu for several miles. Several others had caught on, too. We saw the locals setting up picnics, fishing, surfing, and just enjoying the scenery. I didn’t bother with the Kaena Point Trail; the recent downpour had left it thick with fresh mud. Instead, I spent time walking along the coastline, capturing the huge waves as they crashed into the nearby tide pools. We stayed their until dinnertime, then reluctantly headed back south. We’d taken a chance driving up here, and it paid off immensely.

On our final full day in Oahu, we decided to cram in as many last minute things as we feasibly could. The weather was on our side; not only was it a clear day, but it was brutally hot. It’s as if Mother Nature was trying to make up for lost time. We set off early, spending a short while at Aulani, the famous Disney resort next door. The hotel people have this thing down to a science: Non-guests are permitted 30 minutes to park in the garage and explore the grounds. You’re given a ticket stub programmed with the time you’re supposed to leave. If you stay too long, you’ll need to shell out $12. However, if you stay and have a meal (minimum $35), you’re allowed to stay as long as you want. We practically sprinted through the main area, just long enough to snag photos of the famous lobby (you know exactly what I’m talking about if you watch Wheel of Fortune), the koi pond, pool area, and even with Mickey Mouse himself. We dashed back to the car and tried to exit…but the automated ticket machine at the exit wouldn’t let us out. After trying multiple times to get through, I buzzed the staff on the machine’s intercom and not-quite shouted until they opened up. That was by far the most stressful Disney-related experience I’ve ever had.

Our next stop was Hanauma Bay, which was in the far southeast. We’d have to drive from one end of Interstate H-1 to the other, slogging through traffic and praying that we’d be able to get in. See, Hanauma Bay isn’t just another beach; it was recently voted as the #1 Beach in America. No, seriously. That really happened. It’s got got a beautiful – if relatively narrow – stretch of white sand, clear water, coral reefs, and epic cliff landscapes overlooking on both sides. It’s also an excellent marine nature preserve; you have to watch an educational video about interacting with animals and preserving their habitats. Needless to say, this place is very popular. In fact, we weren’t able to get inside the first time; we were turned away by a staff member who blandly waved us past and back onto the highway.

Feeling defeated, I took out the map and began scouring for places to visit so the drive out there wouldn’t become a total waste. I ended up settling on the Koko Crater Stairs, a nearby hike infamous for its simple, but grueling workout. The trail is comprised of a single, straight line made up of an old rail road track. You just have to keep walking forward, and you’ll reach the end eventually. However, said ending is over 1,200 feet above sea level. Each railroad tie is like an old, dusty step on a staircase that stretches almost to the horizon. I felt confident in tackling it…only to realize that the narrow path was jammed with weekend athletes, tourists, and children. By the time I made it halfway up, I realized it’d take too long to get back down. Then the midday heat set in, and I knew this hike wasn’t going to happen. This was my last day on Oahu; did I really want to spend it suffering from heat exhaustion? I promptly turned around, snapped a few landscape shots, and climbed down.

Turns out my timing was impeccable; when we returned to Hanauma Bay, there was more than enough parking available. The trip from the entrance down to the beach was a small hike in itself; the trail was paved, but pretty steep. People could even pay extra and have a cart drive them down, though most went on foot. Hanauma Bay reminded me of Waikiki, just with smaller waves and less people. More animals, too; parts of the beach are home to stray cats and even a few mongooses. While I didn’t go snorkeling – you have to pay extra for the gear, of course – I spent most of the time wading into the beautiful, clear water and getting some great photos. It felt like I was living in the cover of Final Fantasy X. I walked from one of the beach to the other, enjoying what little time I had left in Hawaii.

It was so good, we actually lost track of time. When we climbed back up to the parking lot, it was already in the late afternoon. We had originally planned to save Diamond Head for our very last hike, but there would be no way to reach it before the trail closed for the night. Also, a massive rain cloud was looming right over the area, which would’ve spoiled the view regardless. This was another lesson that I still constantly need to remind myself: It’s impossible to see and do everything in one go. Even with all the planning, even with being in perfect health, sometimes things just don’t work out, and you need to save it for next time. Whenever I travel, I always assume that I’ll never make it back on another trip; it keeps me motivated and busy. But it also leaves me frustrated when I can’t quite pull off everything I plan. Call it a character flaw, hubris, whatever. I spent my last night on the island satisfied, but still wishing to see so much more.

The trip back to California was uneventful, for which I am very grateful. Lost luggage, local protests, and other problems are recurring issues on our Hawaii trips, but this one went almost perfectly. The only snag was getting through security; there was only one aged, lethargic fellow looking at everyone’s paperwork for Hawaiian Airlines, which dragged the wait time to a grueling 45-minute crawl. We made it to the terminal with enough time to refill water bottles and use the restroom, but nothing else. I had a window seat, and I fully intended to take plenty of awesome skyscape shots during the flight back. I didn’t realize how exhausted I was; less than an hour in, and I was deep in sleep. I woke up just in time to take a few unsatisfying night shots of the Bay Area, then resigned myself to the baggage claim, chilly air, and train commute back into San Francisco.

I was finally back, just in time for summer.

BRB, Going To Hawaii Again…Again!

Hey, folks. If you’ve been following me on social media, you might have noticed I’ve been hinting at my next trip. By the time this posts, I’ll be on a plane headed for Oahu. Yeah, you might recall that I’ve been to Hawaii a couple of times, but this will be my first visit to this particular island. I’m definitely excited for it; it may not be the grand, epic quest that was the Mediterranean (which I’m still writing about, don’t worry!), but I’m immensely grateful to go on another adventure out in the Pacific. Each island is different, after all. Judging from what I’ve read thus far, there is going to be a lot of hiking this time around, which is right up my alley. I’m also taking a new lens, tripod, and a few filters along this time. Expect some awesome photos when I get back.

See you in June!

The Grand Reopening Of SFMOMA

It finally happened. After years of renovations, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) reopened to the public on May 14th, 2016. To call the event “highly-anticipated” would be a huge understatement. When their new website went live and offered free, exclusive tickets for the reopening, thousands of potential visitors flooded and completely overwhelmed its database. And I was one of them; I spent two hours navigating the perpetually-crashing site, hoping that my clicks would finally register and get me into the event. I wasn’t the only one, either. After I live-tweeted this 21st century exercise in futility, the museum’s staff actually reached out to me and offered tickets as an apology. A month and some a few emails later (thank you very much to Christopher at Visitor Experiences, and the unnamed hero running the SFMOMA Twitter), I finally got the go-ahead to come to the event.

Upon entering, I was immediately struck by the sheer size. The lobby and staircase have long been a staple of the museum, but they’ve been revamped in order to keep the flow of visitors steady and focused. Aside from the gift shop (which is more than double the size than that of the Exploratorium), much of the entrance hall is free space for people to either stand, sit, or walk to the elevators. Or you could be like me and spend several minutes gaping up at the massive, cylindrical atrium that cuts through the first four floors of the building. It’s beautiful from the bottom, but it looks much better once you get up to the suspended walkway overhead. The ground floor isn’t the only part with huge floor space; the museum now has additional 235,000 square feet with which to accommodate visitors. As someone who despises crowds, I was quite grateful for the extra space. I’ll admit that I’m more of a classic art and history kind of person; The Legion of Honor has a special place in my heart, but SFMOMA does spacing and crowd control so much better. Despite being incredibly busy, it always felt like there was enough room to breathe.

Assuming, of course, that the exhibits don’t leave you breathless. There are well over 10,000 works of art at SFMOMA, in all shapes and sizes. It was good to revisit works like Ruth Asawa’s metal wire sculptures, the dramatic brush strokes of Jay DeFeo’s The Verónica, and the massive prayer beads that comprise Zarina’s Tasbih. It felt great to come across familiar names like Diego Rivera’s The Flower Carrier, Henri Matisse’s Le serf, Bentley’s Snowflakes, as well as works from pop culture giants like Andy Warhol. There was also a surprising amount of photography on display. Most of it depicted local histories, like the view from the top of partially constructed Golden Gate Bridge circa 1935, the twisted routes of Los Angeles freeway system, and some fascinating portraits of Patty Hearst.

What I found most interesting were the works that implemented modern technologies. Richard Serra’s Sequence is a two-story labyrinth that absolutely dominates one corner of the museum, and it was crafted with weatherproof steel at German fabrication plant. Anthony McCall’s Slit-Scan uses a rapidly-shifting slide projector to convey his message. The cafe on one of the upper floors has selfie booths, but you have to put objects on the machine’s illuminated surface to create the necessary contrast. There’s also a whole gallery devoted to the development of type settings, including old typewriters, posters, and keyboard technologies. One particularly stylish display was the Computer House of Cards, which utilizes some old IBM tech from the 1970 World’s Fair in Osaka. I’ve got to admit, it was pretty baffling to see a vintage ’76 Apple computer on display; I remember using one years ago in grade school! That also goes for the Palm Pilot, one of which I happened to own. My personal favorite, however, is Takeshi Murata’s Melter 3-D, which uses flashing strobe lights to create an illusion of a constantly churning and flowing ball of metal. Seriously, it looks like something out of Terminator 2!

If you’re getting overwhelmed by the sheer awesomeness of such exhibits, catch your breath at the outdoor Living Wall and Sculpture Garden. Imagine a forest floor, dense with flowers, plants, moss, and grass. Take that image and graft it onto the side of a two-story building, and you’ve got the Living Wall. It’s as pleasant as it is unusual; no one expects to find a miniature forest in the middle of downtown San Francisco. It’s reminiscent of the Living Roof at the California Academy of Sciences, but this is far more spacious and relaxing. It’s so easy to just sit down for few minutes and watch the leaves in the breeze. I you want something a little more urban, try the balcony up on the seventh floor. The view isn’t quite as grand as those of the Exploratorium or the Legion of Honor, but the skyscrapers and offices in the area make for some interesting architecture photography.

There’s plenty more to write about, but I don’t want to spoil everything. If you’re in San Francisco and have any interest in art, design, technology, and 20th century history whatsoever, you should absolutely visit this place. The variety and creativity of these thousands of works are nothing short of amazing. A lot of work went into revamping the building, and it’s now arguably the finest museum in the city. I’m incredibly grateful to have been able to come to the grand reopening, and I hope to do so again soon. Glad to have you back, SFMOMA. It’s been far too long.

Hiking In Bernal Heights, San Francisco

Bernal Heights, San Francisco

I kicked off May 2016 by doing something a little different: I went on a group hike with Hike It Up SF. If you’ve followed my blog for the last couple of years, you know I’ve hiked about half of the city by now. But I’d never been to Bernal Heights, and I’d always do my adventuring alone. These folks organize awesome urban hikes at the end of every month, and I had just stumbled across their listing on SF Funcheap the night before. I’m not much of a people person, but I was determined to see a new area and meet others who shared at least one interest. Besides, the weather was gorgeous; I wasn’t going to spend such a wonderful spring weekend stuck in the house.

Judging by that photo, I’d say the decision paid off.

Did you know that there’s a canyon in San Francisco? I certainly didn’t. Especially one so close to a BART station. It’s located within the vicinity of Sutro Tower (AKA That Big Pointy Antennae looming over the city’s southern skyline) and hidden behind the hills. The climb itself was nothing crazy – I visited Mount Diablo multiple times as a kid – but I managed to get a little scraped up while taking one of the higher, rocky trails. I brought along my hiking stick just in case (man, was that a conversation-starter on BART!), but I never needed it. The pace wasn’t grueling, though I often let myself fall behind the pack (there were about 30 of us, a relatively small group by some accounts) in order to take more photos. Surprisingly, there were only two or three others that brought DSLRs. The trail was pretty busy even without us; I saw several joggers, a rock climber, and in one memorable instance, a man pushing a large stroller down a hill.

The hike was fraught with twists and turns. At a couple of points, we had to turn around and take another path. We climbed hills, stumbled across abandoned homeless camps, took in the scenery, and eventually emerged at the end of a cul-de-sac in some forgotten nook in the city. While I attempted to keep track of our exact route, I eventually gave up and just followed the group’s lead. I occasionally snapped photos of the street signs to give myself a visual record, but I’m still piecing it together. I do know that we climbed/descended at least three hills after leaving the canyon. We passed Saint Paul’s Catholic Church, the slide near the Esmeralda Stairs, gorgeous houses, and several kids eating ice cream.

Just as exhaustion was starting to pull me under, we reached the hike’s culmination: the peak of Bernal Heights Park. San Francisco spread out before us like a ludicrously detailed miniature. Before this, the highest point I’d visited was Coit Tower. But this was different. I could see Japantown, the Bay Bridge, just a glimmer of the Golden Gate on the distant horizon…All of these places I’d walked and seen before dozens of times, but on a scale unlike any seen. And all because I decided to take a chance and do something a little different with my routine. You’ll see the photo of it soon; I took a lot of shots while I was up there, and I’m still sorting through the best of them.

The trip back down was relatively easy. Much like the neighborhood surrounding Coit Tower, there were narrow stairways built into the hillside. Go down a flight of steps, land on someone’s doorstep, go down more stairs, rinse and repeat until the street reappears. The hike ended at the Wild Side West, where we could finally sit and relax in the shade of the beer garden downstairs. I was apprehensive at first; I don’t drink or party, and crowded places feel claustrophobic to me. I was the only one not drinking or speaking; what could I add to this mix of far more interesting people?

After a view quiet, awkward moments, I sat down at one of the big stone tables, sipped my tea, and just rolled with it. I showed off my photos and talked about some of my more bizarre adventures in the city. I met a young Bulgarian woman currently working in the Bay Area for the next couple of months, a mother with an unbridled passion for the Golden States Warriors, and a published entomologist who may be naming his own spider species in the near future. When it was time to go, the latter offered to split a Lyft back to Glen Park BART. Then we discovered that we were a mere 15 minute walk away from the station, so we decided to seize the spirit of the day and finish things off with a little mini hike along the highway. We parted ways at a burrito shop nearby, and I made the long commute back home. I managed to get home just in time to heat up some leftovers, and collapse into bed.

Not bad way to start the month.

A larger version of this photo is viewable here.

Weekly Photo Challenge: The Pantheon

The Pantheon

This week’s photo challenge is alphabet themed, and I was reminded of my time spent at the Pantheon in Rome. The Latin inscription reads:

M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIVM·FECIT

According to Wikipedia, the full message is, “”M[arcus] Agrippa L[ucii] f[ilius] co[n]s[ul] tertium fecit,” which translates to “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, made [this building] when consul for the third time.” Unlike a lot of messages these days, this one is literally set in stone! A larger version is viewable here.

Two Weeks In Europe: Day 5 – When In Rome (And The Vatican!)

Continued from Day 4…

Our wakeup call came at 5:30, but I was already awake. Today was the big one. We’d be in Rome this morning. Rome, The Eternal City. Rome, one of the crowning achievements of human ingenuity and creativity. Rome, one of the most important places in the history of Western civilization. After years of reading books and articles, seeing movies and documentaries, I’d finally get to see it with my own eyes.

Yeah, I was excited.

I wasn’t the only one, either. Though we’d planned to get up earlier to beat the morning crowd at the Windjammer, we found that every else had the same idea. Every table on Deck 9 – even the ones outside – was packed. It took a couple of laps around the restaurant before I found a couple of unattended seats. We ended up sharing space with a family from the Philippines. Unlike us, they were taking their time to enjoy their food; this wasn’t their first time to Rome, so they knew what pace to set. After exchanging contact information and business cards, we gathered lunch supplies, packed up, and waited at the designated meeting point for our tour. Our group gradually grew to a few dozen, and we shuffled off the ship within the hour.

As soon as I disembarked, I was struck by how cold it was outside. I’d anticipated the chilly temperatures – I’d gotten used to it after a couple of mornings – but the wind felt like a knife on my cheeks. Our guide’s voice was lost on the breeze, but he kept waving and beckoning us toward the small fleet of buses nearby. A massive sea wall loomed across the road from us, “WELCOME TO CIVITAVECCHIA” painted in letters two stories high. After being assigned our tour number (a little sticker that seemed perpetually on the verge of falling off), we climbed aboard. We were each handed a fold-out map of Rome. I compared it with the my travel guidebook and realized the unfortunate truth: There was too much to see. Even if we stuck to the most famous and touristy areas, there was no way we’d be able to see everything in one day.

The tour guide explained the choices in simple terms: we could either spend the day exploring Rome, or in the lines and crowds of the Vatican. Like a travel-themed Highlander show, there could be only one. We’d be dropped off in front of St. Peter’s Square in the morning, and we’d have until the late afternoon to get back. As the guide went around selling Vatican Museum tickets in advance, Mom and I quietly debated our options. Vatican City is self-explanatory; the sheer amount of history and culture would be mind-boggling. We’d get to see the Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, and some of the most famous works of art in the world. But that would also mean being stuck in the seemingly endless horde of tourists for the entire day. If we wandered through Rome, we’d get to see more sites at our own pace. That meant improvising an itinerary in an unfamiliar city and somehow getting back to the meetup point on time. When we asked the guide, he recommended the latter; it was our first time in the city, so we should get as much out of it as possible.

I leaned back and grumbled, but I knew he was right. The Vatican would have to wait. When I asked Mom what she wanted to see, she immediately chose the Colosseum. Which, to be fair, was at the top of my Things To See In Italy list. Of course we’d visit it, just had to find it. How hard could it be?

…It was on the opposite end of the map.

Okay, so obviously we’d be saving that for last. We’d have to start at St. Peter’s, then walk across town to the Colosseum. No problem, I’d done literally three times the amount of city hiking in a day. But that was in San Francisco, on my home turf, and without a time limit. On this trip, both endpoints and hours were established; all that was left was to find a walking route that was not only efficient, but maximized the amount of sites we could visit. After staring at the map for several minutes, I had it all planned. We’d walk from the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo, cross the Tiber via Ponte Umberto, follow the street to Piazza Navona, then turn left and head to the Pantheon, continue on to Trevi Fountain, take a slight detour north to the Spanish Steps, and then head south for the Colosseum. Getting back to the Vatican from there would have to be improvised depending on how much time we had left. It would be a little rushed, but doable.

After getting through the Vatican’s parking garage – a concrete monstrosity apparently capable of handling dozens of tour buses at once – our group trudged out of a tunnel and and stopped right in front of St. Peter’s Square. Like any piece of history, it was so much grander than anything seen in a book or painting. The sheer size amount of open space, the way the rows of columns curved like cupped hands, the gargantuan fountains, the Egyptian obelisk that has lasted since the Roman Empire…This place had seen – and survived – so much. I’m pretty sure I spent that first half hour awestruck, gaping and drooling over every last detail. Mom and I walked around the square and took photos, but we knew we couldn’t stay long. The tour guide wasn’t kidding; the line to get into the Basilica wrapped around the perimeter of St. Peter’s, and the constant influx of visitors made it hard to tell where it ended. Remembering the choice we’d made, we left the Vatican behind.

Our quest for the Colosseum started off relatively smoothly. Castel Sant’Angelo is right next to the Vatican, so finding both it and the bridge was easy. I’d also read and watched Angels and Demons years ago, so I my inner bookworm was geeking out. In retrospect, I wish I’d spent more time there; the museum lines were too long, and the bridge (and its wonderful statues) was too crowded for decent photography. When we crossed Ponte Umberto, I took a few minutes to enjoy the silence and view. The Tiber was almost serene; there were only a few joggers and bicyclists on its banks, and only one tour boat chugging upriver. We waved at the tourists as they passed underneath, then continued to Piazza Navona.

Fun fact: Like most ancient cities, Rome’s layout is pretty unusual. The narrow alleys, twisted, interconnected thoroughfares, and clustered buildings make navigating it a daunting task. Which makes sense, given how it’d be a massive obstacle for invading armies. But for modern visitors, it just required more time with the map. I’d started second-guessing myself when we emerged onto Piazza Navona and a whole new crowd of tourists. They were there for good reason; the fountains and architecture here are among Rome’s finest. The piazza was practically overshadowed by the Sant’Agnese in Agone, but everyone’s attention was focused on the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (AKA the Four Rivers Fountain). Originally designed by Bernini in the 1650s, it featured another obelisk supported by four gigantic statues. They represented the Nile, Danube, Ganges, and Rio de la Plata, the four major rivers in which continents the Vatican had authority. It was meant to represent the power and influence of the church, but I was more impressed by how lively they looked; like all of Bernini’s sculptures, these were incredibly detailed and seemed to capture the human form in motion. Just look at the way Ganges is posing in style, or how Rio de la Plata is stumbling back in fear. You wish you could make something that cool.

On our way to the Pantheon, we wandered past Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, a masterpiece of Roman Baroque architecture. It was relatively deserted, but about half a dozen art or design students were hunched over their sketchbooks, trying to capture the building’s perfect arches and hallways. A couple of alleys later, we reached out next stop. That feeling of awe consumed me again. St. Peter’s Square is incredible, but the origins of the Pantheon predate Christianity itself. Just stop and think about that. It was rebuilt – the timeline is still debatable – but still. This architectural relic, standing tall and proud in the modern world, was already old when Vatican City came to be. As I walked past the front columns and into the building itself, I was struck by its unbelievable scale. The Pantheon is topped by the world’s largest unreinforced dome; I had to nearly bend over backwards to see all of its intricate designs. Even with a wide-angle lens, I’d have to lie down on the floor to even attempt photographing it. The oculus at its center loomed overhead, casting the afternoon sun on the walls like a gigantic spotlight. I tried taking a panorama (never thought I’d do that inside a building), but I could only record about half of it. We spent nearly an hour wandering around the Pantheon, looking at wonderful artwork, and the tombs of King Victor Emmanuel II, Umberto I, and (most famously) Raphael.

I was still reeling from the history overload when we stepped outside for a much-needed break. While it was cold in Rome, we were wearing three layers of clothes each, I was carrying our food, guidebook, and camera, and we hadn’t stopped since we’d left the Vatican. There was an open spot right in front of the Fontana del Pantheon, so we sat down for a few minutes, snacked on our sandwiches, and watched the ebb and flow of people. I wandered around for a bit and took a few more photos of the building, though it was nowhere near as fascinating outside. I also noticed people walking up to a small fountain nearby, refilling their empty water bottles or just getting a palmful of refreshment. I’m normally concerned about germs and contaminated drinking water – I avoid the tap at home whenever feasible – but I remembered the old adage: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I threw caution to the wind, restocked my supply, and silently prayed I wouldn’t get sick.

Next stop: Trevi Fountain. In a city full of fountains, this was supposed to be the grandest of them all. It wasn’t that far away, either; according to the map, it was just a couple of streets away. We quickly set off…

…And immediately got lost.

It was then I realized the problem with our little map: it didn’t present the landmarks just by name, but by small, caricatured drawings of them as well. The little cartoon versions of the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain partially obscured the streets necessary to reach them, and names of those streets weren’t even listed. Also, the drawings were facing in incorrect directions, which made them far less useful as reference points. In retrospect, I was being an idiot; Trevi Fountain was to the slight northeast. All I needed was the position of the sun, and I could’ve figured it out instantly. But when you’re tired, cold, and stuck in a huge crowd, it’s easy to get distracted. We wasted about fifteen minutes walking in a circle before another traveler pointed us in the right direction. Pro-Tip: the alley to Trevi Fountain is to your left when you’re facing the front of the Pantheon, no matter what your cruddy tourist map says. There’s also a “This way to Trevi Fountain” sign to guide the way, which of course we missed on our first run.

Now going the correct way, we took a few minutes to get souvenirs. I added another keychain to my collection, and Mom got on another magnet for her fridge. The shopkeeper was Filipina, which was somehow surprising; she and Mom chatted in Tagalog while I finished shopping. By that point, however, we both needed a restroom. There happened to be a McDonald’s along the way, which proved to be the absolute worst part of the trip. Like any McDonald’s in Europe, the place was overrun with tourists; the line was nearly out the door, and the roar of hungry patrons was deafening. We squeezed through the horde and went upstairs to the restrooms, only to find there were more than a dozen women already lined up against the wall. I got my business done mercifully quickly, but the single-toilet men’s room was horrendously smelly, dirty, and rancid. Seriously, you could smell the filth even behind the door. I was in there for barely a minute, and I felt sick when I left. Come to think of it, I should probably report them to whatever health inspectors Rome has…Anyway, Mom saw how absurdly disgusting the place was and decided to leave.

We kept walking until we came to Trevi Fountain itself. Mom made a beeline for the Melograno restaurant nearby, which was far more sanitary and less crowded than McDonald’s. No bathroom lines, either; she was back in fifteen minutes wish some gelato for the both of us. In the meantime, I pushed through the crowds and attempted to get a look at the fountain. I was disappointed to discover that it had been closed off for restoration; the entire area was surrounded by plastic, transparent barricades. While it was possible to see the fountain, it was drained of its water, and construction crews were hard at work. It ended up reopening just days after our trip ended. No use crying about it now. As I finished my gelato, I looked at my watch and considered our options. If we picked up the pace just a little bit, we’d still have time to see the Spanish Steps.

At that point, however, I hadn’t learned my lesson about using the map’s landmarks as reference points. The Spanish Steps were less than a ten minute walk away; we just had to go north and follow the street. But of course, I had to follow the map. A few minutes later, we’d mistakenly climbed up to the Quirinal Palace. Fun fact: The Spanish Steps were also closed for restoration, but I didn’t know that at the time. Feeling rushed, angry at myself, and utterly tired (hauling all that stuff wasn’t helping), I took a moment to sit down and regain my bearings. The front of the palace doubles as an elevated lookout point; the rooftops of Rome spread out as far I could see, and I could just make out the top of St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance. We had only a couple of hours to make it back there. How much more could we possibly see?

Our problems were partially solved when we started climbing back down and came across a Carabinieri. He was incredibly nice and gracious enough to point us in the right direction; I’m sure he’s probably sick of answering tourists’ questions countless times every day, but the effort was very much appreciated. Just a short walk down to the Piazza Venezia, and then past it via the street to the left. It was a simple as it sounded…for the most part. Crossing a street in the heart of Rome, even with the pedestrian signal, felt like the parting of the Red Sea; a narrow path with potential death bearing down on you from all sides.

Once we made it past the piazza, the rest of the walk was breeze. The Colosseum loomed high in the distance, and the road to it was a straight line. Our only obstacles were the thick, impassable throngs of fellow tourists, and our own exhaustion. I was still doing fairly well, but Mom kept falling back repeatedly. When we reached the Roman Forum, I gave her a chance to rest. As we looked over the railing, I took a few photos and gave her a brief history of the location and its importance. I was sorely tempted to go down and explore, but there was precious little time left. By the time we reached the Colosseum, it became clear that we wouldn’t be able to go inside; the lines were huge, and we’d basically have to run through the tour. Instead, we settled for walking around the entire perimeter and peeking in where we could. It wasn’t nearly as much as it could’ve been, but it worked with our time constraints. Mom was happy that she finally got to see something she’d read about as a child, and that’s what really mattered.

As the wonder and awe of the Colosseum faded, reality started sinking in. We were about an hour’s walk away from St. Peter’s. We could totally do it, assuming that we didn’t get lost on the way back. We briefly considered taking the subway, but I don’t think either of us had the energy left to learn another map system. We’d trudged all the way back to Piazza Venezia when I realized that we couldn’t make it back on foot in time. Mom was going far too slow, and I’d lost faith in my navigational skills. After walking and debating for a few more minutes, and we finally settled on a taxi. I collapsed into the front seat, told the driver where to go, and turned on my camera. If I was going to be leaving Rome, I wanted one last, unique memory: I recorded the entire taxi ride from the piazza back to Vatican City. The drive took less than ten minutes, but it felt so much longer.

After paying up and thanking the driver (Keep being chill and awesome, Alessandro!), we were back where we started. Aside from the position of the sun, nothing had really changed; the line to get into the Basilica was still endless. We had 45 minutes left. Not enough time to see a museum, but just enough to do some shopping and find the Vatican’s exclusive post office. Seriously, the Vatican Post Office! It’s hidden behind the pillars to the right, within shouting distance of the Sistine Chapel. I bought a postcard, addressed it to the family back in California, and handed it off to the worker inside. Said worker was a big, burly fellow who was probably making fun of my inability to speak Italian. Anyway, that postcard is currently stuck to my fridge (it arrived two days before I returned home), and I got a Vatican-exclusive euro as part of my change from the transaction. At that point, Mom got tired of me dragging her around to take photos. She left in an exasperated huff without warning, so I spent a few minutes in a near-panic trying to find her in the crowd. She’s a fighter, but she’s not quite as resilient as she used to be. She knew where the meet-up location was; I just hoped no one tried to mug or pickpocket her while I wasn’t around.

She was fine, thankfully. We met up shortly before the designated time, still annoyed with the other. I spent the last few minutes taking photos; it took me several tries, but I managed to get a panorama of St. Peter’s Square from the front. I ducked into the Vatican gift shop and quickly searched for a decent souvenir. I didn’t want to get a cross – I’m not particularly religious – and I didn’t want to bother with overpriced jewelry that I’d never wear. Instead, I opted for something a little bizarre, but a uniquely perfect keepsake: holy water. That’s right, I have a vial of holy water from the Vatican on my shelf now. In terms of unusual travel trinkets I’ve gained over the years, that tops them all. I’m glad I was able to hold onto it; according to our tour guide, the short walk back down to the Vatican parking garage is a haven for pickpocketers. He even had us carry our backpacks in front of us. Aside from a couple of missing group members (who ended up getting back on the ship late), the trip back was uneventful.

When we piled back onto the tour bus, I felt weariness wash over me like a tidal wave. We’d been up before dawn, explored one of the greatest cities on Earth, seen so much art and history…and that was just a taste of Rome. We’d have to go back there someday. I don’t remember falling asleep, but I was woken up by the tour guide explaining the importance of Civitavecchia. Fishermen in ancient times would go to the port at the end of the day to sell their catches, and the tradition is still alive today; dozens of boats were docked nearby, silhouetted against the sunset, crates of fish already being sold. Had we not been on a fully-catered cruise, Mom and I probably would’ve gotten something. Instead, we staggered back onto the ship, traded travel stories at dinner, and called it an early night. After all we’d done, we’d earned a great night’s sleep.

To be continued…

Weekly Photo Challenge: St. Peter’s Square Panorama

St Peter's Square Panorama

This week’s challenge is all about gatherings, so I thought I’d jump slightly ahead of my travel writing and give you guys the first glimpse my time in Europe. St. Peter’s Square sees thousands of visitors every day. It’s designed for people to gather and feel embraced; the columns look like open arms, beckoning you to come closer. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the intricate architecture and sense of scale. This place is much, much bigger than it looks; it took about a dozen tries to get this panorama to work. Just imagine how many people have been here…

Larger version is viewable here.

Two Weeks In Europe: Day 4 – The Leaning Tower Of Pisa

Continued from Day 3…

The front desk gave us a wake up call at 8 AM. I’d learned from the mistakes of the previous day. It still involved me stumbling around in the dark to reach the state room’s phone, but at least I had a better sense of time. While Mom got up, I quickly dressed, grabbed my camera, and climbed up to the Windjammer. As the doors automatically whooshed open to let me onto Deck 9, I immediately regretted not bringing a coat. The sun was out, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. I shuddered against the breeze and headed straight for the restaurant. I munched on pineapple chunks and gazed out at our latest port. We’d left France behind in the night, and were now docked in Livorno, Italy. The sleepy little town and sweeping cliffs were replaced with a harbor crowded with cargo boxes, cranes, rusty warehouses, deserted parking lots, and about half a dozen other cruise ships. One was inexplicably painted with Looney Tunes characters; a four-story portrait of Bugs Bunny was the last thing I’d expect to see on this trip.

I squinted past the harbor and tried to get a glimpse of Livorno itself. The terrain was mostly flat, curving upwards into the hills near the horizon. The buildings closest to the water were each only a few stories tall (most likely hotels or apartments), with the occasional church bell tower looming in the background. Maybe it was due to my sleepiness or the morning sun glaring in my eyes, but nothing about this port jumped out at me. Villefranche had been like a mysterious, alluring lover that practically begged me to explore every inch of it. Livorno was drab and impersonal; it was there to do its job, nothing more or less.

And the worst part? I wouldn’t get the chance to be proven wrong. We weren’t going to be spending any time in town. This port gave travelers access to Florence and Pisa, and we’d already scheduled an excursion for the latter. That had been Mom’s choice; while I’d been keen on visiting Florence ever since hearing Hannibal Lecter talk about it in The Silence of the Lambs, she’d been fascinated with the Leaning Tower of Pisa since she was a child. I wasn’t going to deny her a chance to cross off a decades-old bucket list entry. Besides, I was interested as well; the unique combination of history, architecture, art, and physics made it too cool to pass up.

The bus ride to Pisa was uneventful. 40 minutes on the highway, with the occasional view of open fields and small towns. The tour guide had given each of us a small map that displayed the general layout of the area. It wasn’t necessary, though; we were just going to visit the Piazza dei Miracoli, not explore the city proper. Getting that far, however, required a little more effort. As soon as we got off the bus, we were bombarded with offers for knockoff designer bags, watches, and sunglasses. I immediately flashed back to our trip to Morocco, in which vendors stalked Mom for hours because she showed off her jewelry and heels and tried haggling with everyone. I inwardly cringed and waited for an inevitable repeat.

However, she seemed to have learned from the experience. She’d dressed plainly, stashed her money in a lanyard hidden under her arm and coat, and didn’t spare even a glance at the vendors. She and everyone else in the group crowded around the tour guide and fixated the numbered placard held above his head. We obediently followed him out of the parking lot, across a few streets, past some train tracks, and through a residential neighborhood. Most tourists have this romanticized view of Pisa (and Tuscany by extension), but it has the same aspects common to any busy area: noisy traffic, litter, graffiti, worn buildings, restaurants, children, beggars, pickpockets, crowded souvenir markets, etc. The chaos was kind of refreshing in a way; this wasn’t just some fancy, polished tourist trap. People lived here. Can you imagine owning a house next to one of the most famous landmarks on Earth?

Yeah, it wouldn’t be pleasant.

After leaving the meeting point – a local restaurant advertising pizza and gelato – we made the short walk through the souvenir market and through an old archway. The bustling, tourist-choked shops gave way to Piazza dei Miracoli’s massive expanse of grass and architecture. Whenever I see these ancient places, I’m always struck with the sense of scale upon which they’re designed. I’d been to bigger churches (the Seville Cathedral comes to mind), but this seemed different because the landmark was in an open field instead of a city. This place housed only three main buildings – the tower, cathedral, and baptistery – but they completely dominated the landscape. The tower is only about 60 meters high (and yes, it visibly leans), but the people milling around its sunken base looked like insects. And man, were there a lot of people. Thousands of travelers, mostly armed with DSLRs or selfie sticks, gaped at the architectural masterpiece/disaster and spent several minutes trying to shoot the perfect angle. This usually involved someone pretending to hold the tower up in an epic feat of strength, poking it with a finger, or holding up an object to manipulate perspective and size comparison. Is it tacky? Yes. Did I do my own version? Yes. I have no idea if I’ll ever see this place again, so I can afford to indulge in a little shamelessness.

Getting inside was another story. See, our excursion was to the Piazza dei Miracoli, but not within the Leaning Tower itself. That was a whole separate thing, which necessitated finding the tourism office, buying tickets, standing in line behind hundreds of people, and waiting for the guards posted at the entrance to let us pass. That’s a lot to take on normally, but our severe time limit made it impossible. I’m the kind of traveler who loves climbing and exploring far-flung areas, so the inability to get inside was incredibly annoying. Instead, we spent the hour wandering around the field and checking out the architecture. When I tried going into the cathedral, I was turned away by the authorities. Turns out our visit coincided with an incredibly high-profile funeral service. I don’t know who died, but I glimpsed a few dozen mourners exiting the building later on.

I headed back to the base of the tower – snapping a few photos of the horse-drawn carriages along the way – and headed to the cafe area nearby. After a few seconds of trying to navigate the crowds, I remembered that I’d brought lunch with me. I turned around and nearly collided with a man dressed as a Subway mascot. Unlike many places in Italy, this blend of ancient and modern did not go well together. Feeling defeated, I spent the rest of the time walking around the perimeter of the field. While everyone was clamoring for photos in the distance, the Camposanto Monumentale was particularly quiet and peaceful. It’s amazing how long those walls have stood. How many people walked there? How many died there? How many more centuries would it last? I was torn out my reverie when I passed a flustered young woman. She was looking wildly in every direction, on the verge of sheer panic. Turns out my paranoia was justified; she’d been pickpocketed within seconds of putting her bag down to take a photo. Not just her wallet or her passport, but her entire bag. She wasn’t going to get any of it back. As I watched her being escorted away to the authorities, I shoved my hands into my pockets and made sure Mom still had all of her stuff.

It was at that moment that we decided to go back. There were only about ten minutes left until the group had to meet up again, the cathedral was still closed, and there wasn’t anything else left to explore. Seeing that poor woman had killed what interest I had in staying. The feeling of dissatisfaction finally overtook me as we left the field and saw a McDonalds overflowing with tourists. Historical places normally fascinate me, but by then I felt tired and dejected. We made it back to the meeting point with time to spare, so I drifted back to a souvenir stand and picked out a key chain for myself, and a stylish Pisa-themed bag for one of my relatives. Of course, I was immediately swarmed by other vendors. Most took the hint right away, but one fellow was particularly desperate. When I refused his regular goods, he took a small elephant statue out of his pocket and tried to sell it to me for a euro. It took about a minute of one-sided haggling before he finally gave up. I quickly shoved my trinkets into my backpack, lest I get blindsided on the walk back to the bus.

During that walk, I made sure to take a few shots of the urban areas outside of the field. A glimpse of an abandoned, dilapidated house. Train tracks slightly overgrown with weeds. Old walls with cracks wide enough to expose the bricks underneath. I wanted to show others that there was more to Pisa than just the tower and the field. I wanted proof that life in Europe isn’t always as glamorous as we think it is. I spent the ride back to Livorno staring numbly out the window. The countryside was gorgeous; if I had more time, I’d have liked to hike it. But not on this trip. Mom later asked me to rank all of the places we’d seen from best to worst. Needless to say, Pisa was dead last. I’m immensely grateful to have been there, of course – it’s famous for good reason – but the entire experience felt rushed, and incomplete. On the bright side, the next day would prove to be far, far more epic.

To be continued on Day 5…

Two Weeks In Europe: Day 3 – Villefranche, Nice, and James Bond

Continued from Day 2…

I was woken up by a voice blaring over the ship’s intercom. For a brief moment, I thought there was some kind of an emergency. Why else would they making announcements? Then I heard the words, “We will arrive in Villefranche within the hour.” I sat up with a jolt and fumbled for my phone. Man, I really must’ve had some serious jetlag; I’d slept from about 9 PM – something unheard of for a night owl like me – all the way to almost 10 in the morning. As the announcement continued, I awkwardly stood up and nearly stumbled over my duffel bag. In my stupor last night, I’d overlooked an obvious consequence of having an interior state room: there were no windows, which meant no light. Aside from the tiny dot glowing from the eye hole on the door, we were in complete darkness. And with no clock aside from our phones or turning on the TV, our sense of time was effectively shot.

Also, my phone was displaying the wrong time. It was set to change automatically, but it always reverted to Greenwich Mean Time whenever I was in the room. I didn’t want to connect to the ship’s network – the roaming and data usage costs would’ve been horrendous – which meant my phone couldn’t be used in the room for accurate timekeeping, let alone messaging or Internet access. My old iPod Touch became an unexpectedly useful replacement; I couldn’t get online (which is a blessing in disguise), but I could change the time manually without having to worry about network issues. Besides, that little music player did everything I needed; I can estimate time based on the position of the sun, but taking a cruise requires much more precision. After a few days of excursions and scheduled dinners, and everything else, you will learn effective time management.

I shook off my grogginess and got dressed. No time left to shower. Not now, so close to our first stop already. We still had to get tickets for the tenders, the smaller boats that would transfer us from the ship to the shore. While Mom was still getting ready, I quickly went up a couple of decks and found the ticket counter. We hadn’t scheduled any excursions, which meant getting to town after most of the other passengers had left. We’d be on Tender #8. Another hour’s wait, but was fine. More time to get prepped and eat. After meeting with Mom, we headed to the Windjammer buffet for breakfast. Getting their required a little effort: Taking the stairs from Deck 3 to 9, then walking around the open-air swimming pool. It seemed like a tall order at first – most passengers simply took the elevators, which was slower, crowded, but far less physically demanding – but it eventually became my daily warm-up routine. It paid off, too. I’m already in decent shape thanks to all the hiking I do throughout San Francisco, but I spent almost every waking moment of this trip either climbing stairs, walking, or simply being on my feet. I actually lost a belt notch.

It definitely wasn’t for lack of food, either; the Windjammer was equipped with nearly everything you could want for breakfast. Cereals, fruits, vegetables, bread, bacon and other meat, sandwiches, little cakes, all kinds of juices, teas, and coffee…Yeah, I ate like a king. The buffet also served as our daily supermarket; we didn’t want to spend too much money on food while at port, so we simply brought an insulated bag with us each morning and stocked up. I think I had a turkey breast and Swiss cheese sandwich every lunch until we got back to Barcelona. After watching me practically inhale a couple of bread rolls and several watermelon and pineapple slices, and downing three glasses of apple juice (I was going to be walking all day, after all), Mom told me that we still had time to kill, and that I needed to slow down. She was right, too. Getting such a rough wake up call had left me feeling rushed and stressed, which is no way to start a vacation. I took a deep breath and sat back, finally taking a moment to enjoy the scenery.

I’d seen photos of the French Riviera before. I knew what to expect; the brightly-colored buildings clustered atop sparkling water and rocky outcroppings, with hills looming in the background. But like any great place, seeing it in person was a completely different experience. What struck me most about Villefranche-sur-Mer wasn’t its beautiful architecture, or even its surprisingly quiet waters. I was much more interested in how the land itself was formed; everything seemed to stem from only a couple of lush hills, creating mini-ridges that spread off in every direction. Steep cliff faces loomed down the coast to the right, dwarfing the buildings lining the waterfront. To the left, the hotels, houses, and roads twisted and stretched further inland, tempting people to come upslope and explore. Citadelle Saint-Elme stood nearby, keeping watch over a city that no longer needed its protection. How much history had happened in just this harbor? How many ships had sailed here? How many people wandered up those hills and into France? No idea. I grabbed my camera and spent the rest of the waiting time on Deck 10, taking photos and ignoring the morning chill. When I finally boarded Tender #8, I made sure to get one of the drop seats next to the open-air doorway. Taking good photos from a moving boat is pretty difficult; I have reasonably steady hands, but a lot of my shots didn’t turn out well. After a few failed attempts, I decided to just sit back and enjoy the ride with my own eyes. Villefranche was someplace new, and I didn’t want to miss it.

The trip to the dock took only a few minutes. As we navigated around a rocky outcropping and a couple of sailboats, I was surprised by how quiet and relaxed the place seemed. Unlike most of the ports I’ve visited – especially the United States – everything looked clean and fresh. The waterfront was decorated with a row of gorgeous, multicolored hotels and cafes. No litter, no dull roar of the tourist crowd. Just quiet, paved streets winding up the hill, the occasional moped parked in the shade of a tree, the faint clatter of a kitchen prepping for lunch, and a few pedestrians. The kind of sleepy little place you’d visit on a visit on a Sunday morning for a leisurely walk, or maybe to enjoy breakfast while watching the ships go by…In retrospect, maybe it was better that we left later than the rest. We disembarked and headed to the tourist information center nearby. We didn’t have an scheduled excursion, which meant we’d have to figure out how to get around ourselves. Also, that night would be the cruise’s first formal night; since our dinner was at 6 PM, we’d have to be back on the boat by 5 in order to wash up and prep. That meant catching a tender by 4:45. After getting a map and consulting a very patient attendant, we narrowed our options to two:

1) Climb up the hill and take the local bus to Nice, or

2) Take the bus or train to Monaco.

Mom’s been obsessed with the latter for years, and I’ve seen enough James Bond movies to recognize the location of the Monte Carlo. However, Mom pointed out that we could use timeshare in Monaco at a later date (and could explore more of the coast with less of a time limit), while Nice was a complete unknown. So, we followed the winding street up the hill, past Passage St. Elme – which has an absolutely gorgeous view of the harbor and clock tower – and deeper into town. The French have a bad rap when it comes to Americans (or maybe it’s the other way around), but the few locals we met along the way were kind enough to provide directions and a smile, even if we didn’t speak the language. I focused on studying Italian for this trip, so I was immensely grateful for the help.

After a couple of switchbacks and a street narrow enough to be an alley, we finally came upon the Octroi bus stop and waited for the #100. That route is popular for a reason; its final stop is the Nice marina, which makes it easy for tourists to find. It also runs frequently and only costs 1.50 Euros, which is still cheaper than most of the buses here in the Bay Area. The fact that I didn’t need exact change instantly made it better for me than MUNI. After finding a seat, I studied the route map. Nice, Villefranche, Beaulieu, Eze, Cap D’Ail, Monaco, Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, and Menton. All of these beautiful, luxurious places synonymous with the French Riviera…listed as mere bus stops. Perspective is funny like that.

After reaching the end of the line, Mom and I found an unattended café table and spread the map out. We settled on exploring the Old Town area; lots of historical landmarks, restaurants, and shops crammed into tiny alleys. Aside from the hordes of fellow tourists, what’s not to love? Getting that far required a little educated guesswork, though. Our map used a simple grid layout, which didn’t help once we reached Place Massena, with its massive expanse of chessboard-patterned pavement, Fontaine du Soleil, and crossroads in seemingly every direction. We’d walked past most of the Old Town’s border before we realized where we were. We dove headlong into the surge of visitors, edging our way through shady corridors and souvenir shops. I picked up a keychain – the first of many mementos on this trip – crossed a square, and came across a wall finely etched with a list of World War I casualties. Looking back, those memorials were everywhere; they were in remembrance of people who helped shape our present, yet they were overlooked by so many a century later.

Irony tastes bitter.

I took a step back and realized the list was part of the front wall of the Nice Cathedral, one of the most famous landmarks in the city. We didn’t go in, though; it was closed for the lunch hour, and we weren’t exactly dressed for the occasion. Instead, we found an empty table in front of the church and took a moment to rest, eat some food, and plan our next move. That brief respite ended when a polite-but-firm waitress came over and informed us that we’d taken one of the cafe’s tables, and that we’d have to leave if we weren’t going to buy anything. We sheepishly packed up and ate the rest of our sandwiches as we walked out of Old Town. We didn’t have a particular destination in mind; we’d have to turn back for the ship in a couple of hours, so we needed to keep things simple. We found the waterfront and walked on it for as long as we could, passing by a park, carousel, McDonald’s (Seriously, who goes to France to eat fast food?!), Hard Rock Café, the Centennial Monument, the closed Massena Museum, and the Hotel Negresco. We also snuck into another hotel to use its lobby bathrooms, but the attendants either didn’t notice or care.

When it came time to turn back, Mom suddenly realized she had no idea where we were or how to get back the way we came. I pointed out that the bus stop was at the marina; all we had to do was follow the coastline, and we’d get back to the starting point eventually. Besides, why go back the same way, when we could see more of the city by taking a different route? Mom reluctantly followed my lead (she tends to panic whenever she thinks she’s lost and conveniently forgets that I’ve been a reliable navigator on, you know, every trip we’ve taken together), and spent next half hour trying to find a shortcut back through Old Town.

Eventually, we hit a curve in the road: a small but steep hill jutting out from the rows of buildings, hiding the rest of Nice behind the bend. I looked closer and noticed the stairway heading up from street level. I immediately decided to climb, time limit and Mom’s protests notwithstanding. The sign at the bottom said it was only 90 meters, which is adorable compared to some of San Francisco’s hills. I went up quickly, not knowing what to expect. And man, did it pay off; Castle Hill is topped with a designated lookout point that displays Nice’s coastline, curving far into the horizon. I stood there, gaping and taking photos, while an old man with an accordion played for tourists’ pocket change. Mom made it up a few minutes later, and was astounded at the sight. In our random wandering, we’d stumbled across the best view in the city!

Time was running short, however. We descended Castle Hill and walked around it (and the Monument Aux Morts built into the other side), finally coming back to the marina. With almost perfect timing, too; we had to jog a little bit to meet the bus as it pulled up. There weren’t as many seats this time – we were far from the only tourists going back to the ship – and I ended up standing for the ride back. I also gave directions to quite a few fellow cruise-goers; they were confused about which stop they needed to use to get back, and were surprised to find out I wasn’t French. Hooray for blending in! After getting off at Octroi, Mom and I retraced our steps back to the waterfront. We didn’t go straight for the tender, though; as we walked passed the entrance to Citadelle Saint-Elme, we realized that we still had just under an hour left to kill. We decided to take a chance and made a detour into the monument. Much like the area it overlooked, the citadel was surprisingly quiet and empty. The interior buildings had several works of art on display, mostly medieval paintings and miniature figurines, as well a large collection of sculptures. Centuries-old cannons lay rusting in the ramparts, providing a nice view of Villefranche’s bay. Eventually, we finally ran out of time. The 4:45 tender was a double-decker, so I took the opportunity to climb upstairs and ride back on one of the open-air chairs. A few tourists still lingering in a nearby café watched us depart and waved. I waved back, wondering if I’d ever get to see this place again.

After getting back to our stateroom, I wearily shrugged off my backpack and sat down on the end of the bed. I closed my eyes and waited for my turn in the shower. It doesn’t matter how in shape you are; walking all day in the sun while lugging around a pack with a DSLR, travel guidebook, lunches. and water for two people is enough to make anyone tired. After getting washed up, it was already time for the formal dinner. I normally pack light when I travel, so bringing a suit was something new for me. Dressing up for the cruise wasn’t mandatory – I could’ve just gone to the Windjammer – but I didn’t want to miss such a unique experience. I wasn’t the only one, either; when we went upstairs an hour later, the halls were bustling with guests decked out in their finest. Mom and I waited in line to have our portraits taken, then headed for Aquarius. The dinner itself was uneventful, though eating ice cream in a suit proved a little tricky.

With the meal out of the way, the cruise scheduled a couple hours’ worth of live music and acrobatic stunts in the ship’s central hub. Huge crowds and I do not get along, so I grabbed my camera and decided to explore the ship while everyone was distracted. I wandered up and down each deck and took photos, from the empty movie theater and casino on Deck 5, to the neon-illuminated pool and the rock wall on Deck 9, to the quiet lounge and lonely dance floor on Deck 6, to the dead-end exterior stairs that led to the top of the ship on Deck 11, and back down again.

And yes, I did it all in a suit.

I didn’t feel like changing so quickly, and I liked the attention I was getting from the onlookers. It’s amazing how much leeway and manners people give when you look like a million bucks and act like you’re supposed to be there. Forget going to Monaco to get a taste of James Bond; this was one of the few moments where I could order a “vodka martini, shaken, not stirred” and gotten away with it! I did my share of people-watching, too; while everyone else was craning their necks upward to see the acrobats, I was peering down at the show from the railing next to the Deck 11 elevators. I also came across a lovely young woman who looked like what can only be described as a princess. Elegant, covered with jewelry, and a huge, white ball gown that trailed out for a few feet behind her. There were whispers from the onlookers, that she must be a newlywed or royalty; she certainly seemed beautiful and lively enough to draw everyone’s focus. I later found out that she was celebrating her quinceañera with her family, and immediately felt like a creepy old man. Ugh. What a way to end the night.

To be continued on Day 4…