Author Archives: Phil

About Phil

Blogging daily about the biggest Brooke and Phil Adventure yet: our four month trip around the world! We're a pair of ex-Harlem Globetrotters.

Discovering Maipu

Brooke Vs Malbec (spoiler alert: Brooke wines...er...Wins!)Buenos tardes from the heart and soul of the Mendoza, Argentina – Wine country! We’re continuing to slowly make our way across the country enjoying cafes, wine and seemingly endless amounts of empanadas. In fact, I believe we’ve eaten at least one empanada every day since we arrived. It is with a great reluctance that I have to admit that each individual empanada has been tastier and more satisfying than those found in Empanada Mama– my beloved NYC lunch spot. (Sorry to break the news, former WebMD colleagues.)

Brooke, who most certainly has earned her merit badge in securing wonderful accommodations for us throughout this trip, booked a stay for us at the Tikay Killay Lodge in the Maipu area of Mendoza. When you think about a wine country visit, Maipu may not fit the traditional vision. This area is loaded with beautiful and sensational wineries including a few that date back to the late 19th century, however the region is served by just a single main road. Large trucks stacked with pallets of wine bottles rumble down the road beside modern sedans and beat up 1960s American junkers as they all cruise past a background of expansive vineyards and olive tree groves. Aside from the accommodations, activities and food offered by the wineries and related stores, there is not much else in this quiet part of Argentina. All of that suits me just fine. It’s a nice, easy going, relaxing place with sensational late spring weather. The combination of a dry, arid climate, a dose of steady wind and water supplied by mountain ice melt and delivered in a complex aqueduct system makes for ideal conditions for growing grapes, olives and more. Apparently, everyone here was surprised to discover just how well some grapes perform in this unique climate.

Tikay Killa Lodge!

Unique wine country makes for unique hotels. Tikay Killa Lodge is made up of only four rooms plus a central building. Situated about a mile long walk or bike ride from the main road, it’s a fairly isolated location. A nice outdoor area surrounds the buildings and behind the rooms we found a large back yard that doubles as a refuge for busy gophers. During our stay, each room has been booked by like-minded travelers from Australia and Great Brittain who are just as eager as we area to explore the area. The vibe here it makes it easy to make new friends over afternoon conversations in the courtyard or while splitting the deliciousness of the “day’s catch” of bottle purchases from the local vineyards. Elena, the do-it-all innkeeper, has been a wealth of information and does a fantastic job of taking care of everything. From making breakfast to helping book tours and bikes, someone like her is a mandatory asset since it is really easy to get lost and confused in your plans. Plus, the lodge comes complete with the world’s most friendly dog. I’m pretty sure that Suki is the luckiest dog on earth– he has new strangers petting and playing with him daily.

While there is certainly a visible number of visitors in the area – they are easy to spot riding from winery to winery on rented bikes and helmets – it would be a stretch to call Maipu a top tourist destination. This region is among those where we’ve encountered the least amount of English spoken. Lucky for us, we speak just enough Spanish to order cheese at the grocery stores and ask for directions to the next winery. And for every seven wineries you pass, only one has opened their doors to visitors for tastings and tours. That still leaves plenty of wineries to go around with more and more buildings sprouting up to match the Mendoza wine region’s recent boom of international popularity from Malbec and other varietals of wines. Given our propensity to visit capital and metropolitan areas, Maipu is one of the more rural and remote areas we’ve visited on this trip.

As we get closer to reaching the end of our trip, people often ask how we’re feeling about that. For me, that answer is mostly sad. There are a lot of elements about this trip I’m going to miss. But I’m also looking forward to basic tasks becoming a bit easier. Our biggest challenge in Maipu has been trying to find a place- any place! – to eat dinner. It wasn’t until about 8:30 PM last night that it dawned on us that finding food might be a real challenge. Our innkeeper was out and there isn’t exactly delivery around here. After a long walk to the main road and discovering exactly one restaruant in walking distance, we decided to hop on a city bus bound for central Maipu and crossed our fingers for success. Before long, we found ourselves at a nice outdoor cafe on a city square enjoying food. On a trip around the world, simply securing a decent dinner can be the hardest part of the day. However, one thing we can be proud of is that even in our darkest moments, we’ve never had to resort to a KFC, Mickey D’s or Pizza Hut.

After dinner, we took a cab back to the hotel where we found the five other hotel guests sitting outside enjoying a drink and recounting the day. We joined them for what ended up being a long evening of conversation, guitar playing and fun spread out over several, several bottles of wine. We talked about everything from United States politics to everyone’s first and favorite concert. Brooke and I explained how citizenship works for residents of Washington, DC and we had our minds blown a bit when learned that everyone in the world calls the mark that ends a sentence a “full stop” and mocks Americans for referring to it as a period. But mostly we talked a lot about what travelers talk to one other about – traveling and our experiences in various places. After two days of stumbling through broken Spanish, exchanging in dept conversations with a group of Aussies and Brits was a pleasure. It was a great way to spend an evening that went long into the night. Good times, indeed. Some days on this trip can be exhausting, but they almost all usually end quite well. As always, we can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!

-Phil

 

How garbage is collected in Mendoza! Nifty!

The view of the front of our relaxing, quality hotel in the middle of wine country.

Hauling Wine down the street of Maipu

Dan playing some tunes for the crowd

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Categories: Argentina, Mendoza, Reflections, Relaxing, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Last Impressions of Buenos Aires

We’re wrapping up our time in Buenos Aires and getting ready to head out to the Argentine countryside as our trip around the world enters November. November? That amazes and delights me. Have we really been traveling for that long? The calendar does not lie. Our first stop after Buenos Aires is the popular wine region of Mendoza. We’re not entirely sure what we’ll get up to in Mendoza and nearby Maipu, but rest assured that it includes drinking lots of wine. With any luck, well also get Brooke riding a horse for the first time in her life. Man, plans that can be best described as a few days of drinking wine in Argentina is the epitome of why we decided to embark on this RTW adventure in the first place. From Mendoza we may take a bus west to Chile or just had directly to the beach in Mar Del Plata.

Wherever we end up, I’m having no trouble getting behind this lovely spring weather. Our Spanish is holding up okay around the Buenos Aires. When people ask us where we’re from and after we respond “Nuevo York, Estados Unidos” we’ve been getting a lot of comments and questions about Sandy. Our friends and family in New York and the Northeast have been on our mind and in our thoughts over the last few days. It’s been nice that coverage of the storm has been widely available down here. Judging by social media and e-mail, luckily it looks like everyone we know made it through the storm of the century okay. So, good news there.

We only managed to kick around a few neighborhoods during our time in Buenos Aires, but it was interesting to see the stark differences in an area like San Telmo compared to that of an area such as Palermo. We spent our first two days in San Telmo at a quirky but lovely hotel called the Ayres Porteno Tango Hotel. Complete with life-size mannequins of Argentine greats such as Eva Peron (it’s hard to convey how much they love this woman), Diego Mardona and Carlos Gardel.  Like many buildings in the neighborhoods, the hotel was likely once a grand, old 19th century mansion broken up and converted into a small hotel after an outbreak of Yellow Fever. San Telmo was made up of beautiful doors and facades scattered across a sort of beat up, mostly unremarkable neighborhood. The notable exception were some playhouses and hidden dinner spots. However, you also get the impression that there are some real gems hidden behind these outer walls.

Balconies and homes typical of San Telmo

We also spent time staying at the awesome Tango Lodge  in the Palermo section of town. We discovered the cute storefronts and cafes of the fancy upscale neighborhood of Palermo Viejo. Graffiti and homelessness found in other areas was replaced by quirky and stylish high end shops with outdoor street fairs and vendors on the weekends. Palermo, which has become incredibly popular in recent years, has been subdivided by real estate developers into Palermo Soho, Palermo Hollywood and more. The area is packed with cute stores selling everything from Tango Shoes to designer toddler t-shirts. While I have a slightly better overall impression of Buenos Aires than Brooke does, I do agree that I would have liked the city even more if we began our stay in Palermo. That being said, I’m glad that we stayed in and explored both areas. No matter where we were, it was hard to ignore the native love for Dulce De Leche. I’m pretty sure a healthy heaping of Dulce De Leche factored into just about every breakfast we had. One change I would suggest to the government of Buenos Aires is that I might not hurt to add cross walk lights for pedestrians on all FOUR corners of an intersection. When you only have walk/don’t walk signs on two corners, it can make it incredibly confusing for those determining when the safe time is to cross the street. Just a suggestion.

Brooke checking out clothes at a shop in Palermo

We’ve found Buenos Aires to be a bit of an ironic name for this city. With unregulated emissions from both cars and an infinite number of city buses, the air in this metropolis is anything but good. In some areas, the city’s solution to congestion has been to build roads that are eight to twelve lanes wide which, surprise surprise, only generates more pollution and smog. One frustrating element of the city is that B.A. is too vast and spread out to be considered walkable and too poorly served by public transportation to be able to move from neighborhood to neighborhood quickly or easily. While buses criss cross the city, the Subte shuts down around the shockingly early hour of around 11:00 PM. This is both baffling and counter intuitive in a city where dinner often begins around 10:00 PM and bars are hopping till 4:00 AM. To be fair, the system starts up again around 5:00 AM and the fare to ride the relatively reliable system is only about fifty cents. And since Brooke and I have become mavens of Public Transportation during our travels, our new Kollineiser motto may be that there are no buses nor trains nor taxis we cannot conquer.

Brooke and I have fun on this trip. We really do. Many days are full, enjoyable, involved busy and memorable. Other days you just hang out or perhaps ride a bus for 14 hours and then plan to siesta for another three. Ah, it’s hard to believe that it’s officially winding down. But we’re going to make the most of our next few weeks! We still have a lot more of Argentina to see! As always, more tomorrow.

-Phil

Flowers for sale outside a giant Buenos Aires cemetary

Another picture of the colorful things you find in the Boca area of town!

This is Floralis Generica- a large, metal flower statue in the middle of one of BA’s most popular parks. Complete with gears, it is supposed to open at sunrise and close at sunset just like a real flower. Currently it is stuck in the open position.

This claim can be found on the marque of a popular convenience store across town. It left us wondering if the math regarding the number of hours in a day works differently in Buenos Aires.

Categories: Argentina, At Night, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Voting, Bus Stations and The Argentina Reciprocity Fee

Hello again from Buenos Aires! We’re continuing to explore the expansive Argentine capital as we spend time in neighborhoods like San Telmo and Palermo. We’ve traded in one comfortable hotel for another across town in order to check out another section of the city and we’re quickly mastering the Subte (Subway) system. Our plans were thwarted a bit when had some big rain roll through the other night which ended up causing some flooding throughout town. But the storms really just made for a good excuse to stay in, order delivery empanadas and watch Three Amigos and Shawn of The Dead on television. Yesterday, however, we packed in a full day that included everything from Tango Classes to a visit to the US Embassy.

A real highlight of the day was that we managed to take part in one of the most patriotic actions an American citizen can do: We voted in the 2012 United States presidential election! Hell yeah. Brooke and I have never missed a big election but we were fairly certain that our four month trip around the world was going to cause us to forfeit our votes for this one. Bummed about potentially missing out on our chance to be part of the democratic process, we had looked into the possibility of voting absentee before we departed NYC. But since our departure date was so far in advance of the election, absentee voting was a difficult, unlikely and cumbersome proposition. The woman at the board of elections seemed to have no clue as to how we should proceed.  At that point, we gave up and figured we would probably have to miss out on voting.  Not willing to settle for this, we took a long walk down to the United States Embassy of Argentina to see what could be done.

The expansive US Embassy was more like an administrative compound than the lovely, grand mansions we’ve seen in some of the smaller European capitals. The guards directed us to a bank telleresque window where we were quickly assisted. To our surprise, it turned out to be an incredibly simples process for us to vote in the 2012 election! A pair of passports, two registration forms and a blank ballot for writing in choices were all we needed. High fives commenced! It felt like an awesome win and left us with a strong dose of American pride. I’m ready for my screaming American Eagle tattoo on my bicep. In retrospect, we should done a little bit of research on our local New York ballot in order to be more informed about local and state issues, but we were honestly so pessimistic about actually being able to vote that we never took the time. Our embassy guide told us that we just missed out on “Voting Day” a few weeks earlier that was made up of giveaways from American companies and a speech from the ambassador. I think for years we’ll remember how for this particular election our ballots were cast in the middle of Buenos Aires at the US Embassy.

From the Embassy, we made our way over to the central Buenos Aires bus station – La Terminal De Omnibus – to secure our bus tickets for our travel to Mendoza. Ever since Argentina’s government dramatically cut back on train subsidies in the 1990s, buses have been the preferred method of traveling from city to city across South America’s second largest country. Knowing all that, we weren’t surprised to find that the main bus station is absolutely massive. We’ve seen plenty of airports in our travels that are much smaller than this behemoth three-story station. Our first mission was to determine which of the 100+ ticketing windows best suited our needs. Once at the correct set of windows, we were able to adeptly apply our very broken Spanish to determine bus times, cost, service class, arrival and more. Brooke and I are actually feeling pretty strong about our abilities to hammer out the basics in conversation using the little Spanish that we know. For these long haul bus rides, there are several different classes of service. We decided on “Ejecutivos” which is somewhere between Semi-Cama, Cama or Suite. If we’re understanding the counter people correctly (fingers crossed), our ride should be in seats equivalent to Airline Business Class seats that lay at a 160 degree angle complete with in-seat meal service from a bus attendant. Snazzy. In short, it ain’t Greyhound. I’m a little apprehensive about doing a fourteen hour overnight bus ride to Mendoza. But then I remember some longer journeys in the states in which I’ve been in much less comfortable seats. And then Brooke stated that she didn’t realize she had married such a wimp when it comes to riding on a bus. So, I  got over my concerns pretty quickly.

Brooke celebrates after successfully securing our bus tickets….all by using our Espanol!

Speaking of traveling, we wanted to mention the dreaded Argentine Reciprocity Fee that we had to pay when entered Argentine the other day. Fellow travelers we talk to are always a bit amazed by this, so we thought we would share our experience. In order to enter Argentina, citizens of America, Canada and Australia have to pay an entry fee which is in place as an equivalent “payback” for the cost of a visa application that an Argentine citizen is charged to enter those three countries. The cost? $160 per person (recently increased by $20 a pop). Not a small amount when you’re circumnavigating the world on a budget.

When we landed at EZE, the imigration lines quickly diverged for visitors like ourselves. A friendly cashier soon invited us to pay the fee using cash or a credit card. Lucky for us, We had been aware of the fee long in advance and had budgeted for it accordingly. But there certainly seemed to be some people stumbling off a 10-hour overnight flight who received a rude awakening when they learned that they have to fork over the cash before getting any further. The real pain of it is that this relatively new fee is ONLY enforced at the two Buenos Aires airports; the fee is not collected at any other entry point in the country. For what it’s worth, the fee is good for ten years which I guess might be beneficial somewhere down the line. Brazil and Chile also have similar policies. We’ve also read that by the end of 2012, all visitors must pay the fee online in advance of your arrival rather than at the airport. Good times.

Somewhere along the way between trips to the bus station in the rain and voting, we managed to cram in an amazing Wine Tasting, Tango Lessons and drinks with fellow ex-pats in a pub San Telmo – all which Brooke will write more about. All in all, today was a great day to be traveling around the world.

-Phil

Brooke enjoying a legendary South American treat: Buenos Aires Ice Cream!

Our swanky room at The Tango Hotel

Categories: Argentina, Destinations, Self Guided Tours, Surprises, Tango, Uncategorized, Voting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Continuing to Explore Buenos Aires

Greetings again from Buenos Aires! It took a day of resting, but we’ve both recovered from the lingering effects of a long couple days of travel. It’s easy to pick up a nasty case of jet lag and a general rundown feeling after traveling on three buses and two 8+ hour intercontinental flights. Now, we’re ready to hit the streets running! We started yesterday with an excellent, free walking tour of the downtown area of Buenos Aires. Our guide Virigina was animated, informative, opinionated (in a good way!) and lively. It’s not the first time we’ve stumbled across a free walking or biking tour that has been simply exceptional. Given Virginia’s enthusiasm, amount of information delivered and the fact that the tour was was entirely in English, the Free Buenos Aires Walking Tour was exponentially superior to the Tangol van tour we took the day before. Although central Buenos Aires is considerably sleepier on a Saturday, we still managed to enjoy the sites and cover a good chunk of the area on foot.

Virginia – our awesome Buenos Aires Free Walking Tour Guide!

The first thing we quickly learned on our tour is that Portenos – residents of Buenos Aires- absolutely love protests, marches and demonstrations. The protests are almost always peaceful and somewhat well organized, but they are also nearly non-stop. Brooke and I have already seen half a dozen different groups in action since our arrival and that doesn’t include the permanent encampment of Falkland Island War veterans rooted right next door to the Casa Rosada (the central government’s “Pink House”). We’re likely seeing more protests since our hotel is close to the city center, but were also told that as many as 20 loud, vocal gatherings like these happen each week. What are they protesting? It ranges, but just about every conceivable topic is covered. Yesterday, a large crew was gathering in remembrance of the two year anniversary of the death of former Argentinian President Nestor Kirchner. Given their propensity for protests and their insane devotion to football, I think that the next time Argentina wins (or loses) the World Cup, the only calm place to be around here is Uruguay. Speaking of football, there is a “Superclassic” match today between the city’s two top teams that is the biggest thing happening in town. Every television in town seems to be tuned to the game.

Over the course of the walking tour we were able to take in some of the Bueno Aires architecture which is a blend of Italian, Spanish and French influences. The city, which just celebrated its bicentennial, has tons of grand 19th century buildings and homes, many with grand balconies. Our tour led us through some of the small green spaces that are scattered throughout town with adjoining fountains which only function sporadically. BA even has its own, iconic towering “oblesico” monument built in the 1930’s that does a good impression of a mini Washington Monument.

Sadly, the Obelisk, like several of Bueno Aires’ old, grand moments and statues, is placed well behind fences. It’s a shame, but given the excessive graffiti found throughout the city and the number of homeless looking for a place to sleep, it’s clear why they are there. So far. we’re actually seeing more graffiti in Buenos Aires than we’ve seen in almost any other city. Everything from banks to subway cars to historic buildings are tagged. What makes the vandalism unique is that it is often comprised of phrases rather than images and it is almost always political in nature. Another way to protest? Perhaps, but it is ugly. Yesterday we saw a cross walk where even the white painted strips were hit. From city to city, we’ve seen so many otherwise nice buildings ruined by spray paint. About three percent of it is captivating, quality art, but the rest just makes a place look trashy. We’ve come to the conclusion that whomever invented spray paint should be strung up by their toes and whacked by pillows repeatedly.

Overall, it was a great tour of the area. Virgina even told us why the Pink House is painted pink. (Spoiler: no one really knows why). The tour did end on a bit of a uncomfortable note as a creepy, drooling homeless dude followed closely behind members of our tour group at the obelisk plaza. It’s hard to ignore the significant homeless and poverty issues prevalent throughout the city. Traffic and Congestion also seem to be a persistent issue all over town. In fact, we learned during our tour that due to the lousy traffic, the president flies into the city by helicopter every day from her house outside of town. Brooke then pointed out that she could just live in the city, but I seemed to be the only one to think that was a good idea.

After the tour, Brooke and I found ourselves meandering down one of the pedestrian streets looking for lunch. Along the way, we bypassed a surprisingly large number of Burger King’s and McDonald’s. In fact, I’ve been so seeing many Mickey D’s and BKs that I’m starting to think I’m seeing the same location twice. Later, we took the free tour of the Casa Rosada. Lovely building, but most of it was partitioned off since it’s a functional government building. We spent about 15 minutes trying our best to translate the biographies under the portraits for famous Central and South American leaders.

But enough sight seeing! Later last evening, the time had come do to what everyone who visits Argentina must do: Tango! Well, we’re not actually going to Tango (classes come later this week), but we did attend one of the iconic shows and dinners at El QuerandiEl Querandi – one of many old Tango Halls in the city. It was a great experience and a rare treat to have a nice, full night out. Over a tasty dinner of empanadas (I just can’t get enough empanadas), steak and flan, Brooke and I marveled that after all this time traveling, we still haven’t run out of things to talk about or gotten tired of each other’s company. I’d say that bodes well for our life together.

The show itself was entertaining and fun. A live four piece band walked us through the history of tango while the numbers alternated between traditional tango singers and impressive tango dancers. Taking in a dance performance isn’t usually on the top of my list, but these guys were good. We preferred the dancing to the singing, but it was a wonderful show all around. The meal came with a couple of bottles of wine which also were rather wonderful. We’re getting a head start on our guidebooks advice to enjoy at least one bottle of wine per day while in Argentina!

-Phil

Categories: Argentina, At Night, City Visits, Destinations, Tango, Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Interesting Signs photographed along the way

As we travel between Scotland and Argentina, we thought we’d take a break from chronicling our travels and do something a little different with the blog today. As you might expect, we’ve taken thousands of photos on our trip so far. Along the way, we’ve seen some hilarious, curious and confusing signs. We wanted to share ten amusing photos that we’ve seen from New Zealand to London.

Really, really a place that serves food

We saw this marquee in Kyoto, Japan and it has since become one of my favorite photos from the trip. Hey, if you don’t know what beef is, I’m probably not going to eat at your restaurant. Every time we look at this photo, we come up with more questions than answers.

THAT's a Camera?

This unmarked sign could be found everywhere on highways and major roads throughout Asia and in parts of Europe. It wasn’t until we arrived in Scotland did another adjoining sign give us a clue on its meaning “Cameras being used to check speed.” In what century is THAT the image you use to indicate camera? Should we be on the look out for a photographer on the side of the road with his head behind a hood and holding up an old-timey flash? If you’re speeding, will he chase you down in a horseless carriage? Good Goulash, that sign is outdated.

Don't go chasing after your hat!

This one can be found at Tokyo regional rail stations. I love it because it’s such a remarkably specific sign. Although I can’t read any of the Japanese, I’m going to go ahead and translate this as “If you’re a young girl who has dropped her cute hat on the subway track, please wait for the transit worker with the long stick clamp thing to retrieve it.”

This one is just so simple its genius. Several locations in Eastern Europe have a very simple designation to let you know when you’re entering or leaving a city, area or region. It’s actually one of those things that is so basic, it took us a while to figure it out. The first sign means that you’re entering this area and the second sign means you’re leaving this area. No knowledge of the local language needed!

Aye! Breakfast!

This package in a Highlands grocery store had me in stitches because I don’t think you could put a larger, more outlandish Scottish Stereotype on a box of Oatmeal. Its like having Uncle Same bursting out a box of Rice Krispies. The only thing that’s missing is the tagline: “Before you go shot putting in the Highlands with your kilt and chiseled, model good looks, make sure you down some Oats!”

Brooke has never been so confused

Every now and then, Brooke and I revisit this photo taken at Tokyo’s SkyTree Tower. We’re like scientists reworking an experimental theorem hoping to find something we missed the first time. To this day, we still don’t know what in Godzilla’s name is happening on the front of this package. Or even what is inside the package. Odder still? We found this in a toy store.

Old City, Bucharest

Clever bar owners know how to attract attention. And in Bucharest’s Old City you have tough competition with bars that have clever names like Beer O’Clock. But this entrance to a themed bar wins the award for best bar entrance we’ve seen. No, we didn’t go in. Yes, I went ahead and looked up here skirt. No, I’m not telling you what I saw.

Well, THAT'S not the tower

Fair enough: The Military Museum in Belgrade only has a bit English on the displays, but they really got this one wrong! Not many people mistake the Arc De Triumph for the Eifel Tower! You have to look closely at this one or click to blow it up, but the caption says “Victory Parade of the German Army at the Eifel Tower.” Man, The Eifel Tower sure looked different in 1939. You can see some visitor was kind enough to pencil in the correct building name.

I roared with laughter when I read the name of this Edinburgh furniture store aloud. Who doesn’t love a good pun? But judging by the “To Let” sign, I don’t think things were “so good” for very long.

Want to end this post by showing that the amazing stuff we’ve seen outweighs our snarky nitpicky take on signs. Here is a great image I just rediscovered from the early days of our trip on a New Zealand beach outside of Raglan. This trip has been made of amazing moments from the hilariously surreal to the sublimely beautiful. I can’t wait to see what’s waiting for us in Argentina!

-Phil

Categories: City Visits, Europe, Exploring, Landmarks, New Zealand, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Farewell Scotland, Buenos Dias Argentina!

Before the clouds, anywayOur time in Europe is coming to a quick close. Brooke and I spent one last quiet day in Edinburgh today before we shut the door on Scotland and set our sights on our next and (can it be?) final leg of our Round The World Trip: Argentina and possibly Chile. I’ve enjoyed being in the same country for more than just a handful of days. It’s allowed us to see more, do more and offers a nice change of pace. There is less debating nightly lodging choices, zero sweating inter-country transportation details and no need to work our key phrases in new languages. One big lesson learned on this trip: longer stays over fewer stops has its benefits! Of course, the other side of the coin is that you see a smaller number of places in the end. At this point, I wouldn’t trade any city visit for more time in any other city. Okay, maybe less or zero time in Guangzhou. Sorry, Guangzhou.

Last night, for our last evening in Edinburgh, we enjoyed a quiet dinner at a cozy pub called the Green Mantle. If there is one thing that Scotland isn’t hurting for, it’s cozy pubs. We were first lured in by the rare promise of dinner being served after 7:00 PM and it turned out to be the perfect place for a meal and drinks. Intended or otherwise, our meals keep coming with potatoes served in one form or another. Chips, jacketed, crisps, boiled and more. Looking back, I’m pretty sure I’ve consumed at least one potato every day since I landed in Scotland. Each one was exceedingly delicious so I’m not complaining, just pointing out that this might be a terrible place to visit if you have some strange, unique potato allergy. To our dismay, the bartender at the Green Mantle told us that we missed the ubiquitous Pub Quiz evening be one day.  Probably for the best since our skills at American Bar Trivia probably don’t quite translate directly into British Pub Quizzes. Questions like “Which footy forward kicked the equalizing point for France in the 2006 World Cup” would sabotage me.

Over buffalo burgers and tasty Tennet’s lager, Brooke and I mulled over some final reflections on our time in this part of the world. I know we’ve said it before, but it bares repeating: The Rabbie’s three day tour was outstanding and we can’t recommend it enough. Some of our most exceptional experiences abroad have been with knowledgable, passionate locals who have led walking, biking and bus tours. That includes our time with a lively guide at the Edinbugh Castle Tour and the extraordinaire Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour. A plan to do more of these tours moving forward is now part of our agenda. We were introduced to a great website named Viator.com that aggregates tours. Kind of like a Kayak.com for sight seeing. The tours left me with more stories, facts and impressions on Scotland and The Highlands than my wee brain can possibly remember. Local Scots are such a proud people who wear their Scottish Pride and passion for history right on the hem of their kilt. It tends to rub off; we feel like we’re leaving Scotland beaming with pride even though we’re just visitors. In the end, we’re both so glad that we included Scotland on our itinerary. Aye, a great visit.

This morning, we decided to take the day to regroup and relax. There was sleeping in. There was a postcard writing blitz. There was window shopping. There was time in a coffee shop. When you travel for four months, we’ve found that you need these kind of days to keep you sane. We did stumble across a unique store called “Americandy” that left us rolling our eyes. The theme of the store is that they stock all of the incredibly bad-for-you, over-the-top candy that’s popular in the states, but harder to find in Europe. We’re talking NERDS, GummyWorms, and Twinkies. So, to be clear, the one store we saw that boasts selling American goods is peddling the worst junk you can imagine. The kicker? They also sell boxes of cereals such as Fruit Loops and Lucky Charms but no other breakfast foods. A bit eye opening that a stores that sells novelty candy has kid’s breakfast cereal bunched in.

And, yeah, they even have the Blues Brothers out front.

Soon the time came to leave Edinburgh. The bus ride out made me a bit sad, but the unrelenting fog that blocked the usually stunning view of the Edinbugh castle made leaving a little bit more palatable. Actually, we split town just in time as the forecast calls for snow on Thursday. (Go ahead. Ask me about the Buenos Aires forecast. That’s right. 75 degrees and sunny!) Brooke and I were kind enough to leave Edinburgh just the way found it – in the rain! Our bus ride out of town gave us one last lovely view- rows and rows of captivating, old, giant homes made from stone that have been turned into B&Bs and small hotels.

Stop! Time is getting away!Right now, we find ourselves back in Glasgow while we wait for the overnight Megabus to speed us down to London. We’re downing just a touch of whisky (the true Scottish way is to spell it without the “e”!) and killing some time at a bar. Now that I’m back in Glasgow, I can say that Edinburgh feeels much bigger and more cosmopolitan even though it is the smaller town of the two. I’m also clearly hearing now how the accents vary so dramatically in this country. Man, I can’t believe I missed it before. Speech patterns change even over just a few miles. Most of the time I have no trouble understanding the locals, but other times I struggle to pick up every third word. Hell, it might very well be like this in every country we’ve visited, but since we actually speak the English language, here it is much more noticeable. We’re told that every little region of Scotland has its own accent. But the important thing is that apparently absolutely no one speaks with the strange brogue that Sean Connery invokes.

What's a sheep's favorite song? Ba-ba-ba-Babara Ann.So, we find ourselves changing gears again. Time to break out the Lonely Planet book on Argentina and brush up on the little Spanish we know. (“Donde esta la biblioteca?”) We’re not just leaving the United Kingdom, we’re leaving Europe where we’ve been hanging out since early August. It always takes a little adjusting mentally to go from one region of the world to another. But, as always, we’re ready to discover and absorb a new place. It’s another chapter closed on our RTW trip as we say goodbye to lovely Scotland (and Europe for that matter!) and head west.

-Phil

A much quieter High Street in Edinbugh at night!

Just your average pub lined street in Edinburgh!

Categories: Beer, Exploring, Scotland, Self Guided Tours, Tours, Transportation, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Rabbie’s Highland’s Tour- Day 2

Living it up on the Isle of SkyeI would be lying if I told you that all days on this trip were created equal. Some days are just simply better -more enjoyable, more interesting – than others. Today was one of those fantastic gems of a day. Brooke and I are on our second day of a three day tour of the Scottish Highlands through the impeccable Rabbie’s tour company. It was an extensive, full day of tramping around the Isle of Skye in our comfortable tour van. Traveling among the company of a small, but enthusiastic group of fellow explorers, we managed to hit all of the highlights of Skye by crisscrossing the island over the course of the day. We accomplished it all while enjoying a soundtrack provided by an animated guide (and top notch storyteller) who delivered memorable, captivating stories on topics ranging from Scottish folklore, sports, history, clan chieftains and more. The accompaniment for the ride was a solid playlist of tunes by Scottish artists and beyond which played between the commentary. And that’s all of the good stuff before we get into the amazing landscapes and dazzling vistas. Not too mention dinner, drinks and live music at the pub. And then evening pub hopping in the sleepy town of Portree. It was the perfect way to spend any Sunday. The sights here are largely made up of the natural beauty of glens, lochs, hills and rolling valleys. All combined, they make up some of the most beautiful views we’ve seen on the trip. And we don’t toss out such accolades lightly; beneath clouds or under bright sunshine, it is friggin’ gorgeous here. The Isle of Skye is remote and sparsely populated but has a more diverse topography than you might find over three states back home. Thankfully, our venerable guide Doug made plenty of stops so we could enjoy every photo opportunity that ranged from an old brock to a waterfall stepped in superstition.

Glen of the Faeries!

Our first stop today was at a 2,000 year old brock (an old stone tower) just off the side of the road. I’m sure everyone has their own benchmark, but I know I’m in middle of a good day when I’m conquering ancient castle remains all before 10:00 AM. After dodging both loose rocks and sheep droppings, we climbed our way to the top to soak in the first of several stunning views of the day. A short drive down the road took us to the seaside cliffs of the Neist Point Lighthouse on the Western Coast of the island. We all shrugged off the winds and clouds to meander down the walkway and up a steep hill. Again, amazing view. Woooo.... After another quick stop, we enjoyed a quick rest and tasty lunch in Uig. Before long, the sun was out and we were off to my favorite stop of the day: The Faeries Glen. Doug gave us three strict rules when visiting the fabled land of the mythical Scottish faeries: We were warned not to whistle, not to leave any gifts made of iron and not to remove anything from the glen or else we might risk a curse. I was just afraid that Brooke might fall somewhere through time after entering a stone circle. Legends and fairies aside, the place was relatively magical in its setting alone. Green as far as they eye can see and steep, sloping grassy hills punctuated with a towering stone formation. Amazing landscapes are tricky because short of an IMAX camera, words and a few photos really fall short. Serene, beautiful and solitary (aside from the loud group of student tourists), I could have spent another hour there. By the by, this is like the third bridal veil falls we've seen in this tripThe day only got better from there. Our van made it’s next stop at an overlook with an astounding view of the east coast of Skye. Looking down into the valley and beyond, we where able to catch a glimpse of the mainland. The steep cliffs als would have doubled for a terrific golf driving range or hang gliding starting point. From there, it was on to see Kilt Rock, The Old Man Of Storr (complete with its own amazing story) and then Bride’s Veil Falls. It was there that Doug convinced a handful of us that an old legend states that dipping your head into the falls is certain to gaurantee…hmm…satisfying romantic encounters for seven years for every second you can stand the cold water. Not wanting to take any changes, Brooke and I both drenched our heads in the water. We ended our tour day with live music and drinks in a neighboring pub.A great day from start to finish. We really can’t say enough great stuff about Doug and Rabbies. It’s safe to say that I’ve absorbed more quality, wonderful information about Scotland in the last few days than I learned in some college courses. Next time we meet up, ask me to tell you the tale of the shirtless clan battle or the Archie Gemmel’s legendary 3rd goal against Holland during the 1978 World Cup. I can know speak in depth to the Scottish origin of the phrases “To tie the knot” and “armed to the teeth.” Under pressure, I could even draw a realistic looking dirk and tell you why it’s best not to hit on the girl at the bar whom your Scottish friend are calling a Minger. I’m loving this exposure to every single ounce of trivia and new vocabulary. Odds are strong that I’m going to bursting with Scotitsh pride by the time we blow town on Tuesday evening. Just like New Zealand, we’re back to seeing sheep every time we turn our head. We’ve been told that the sheep outnumber the human residents eight to in Skye. Contented, slow moving sheep certainly have the run of the place and, thanks to Scottish law, the right of way in the roads. There is no shortage of gentle honking to prod them to move on but since all of the other wildlife (bears, wolfs and more) are long gone from this area, the sheep don’t have a lot to sweat. Thier only threat is blank stares from the occasional neighboring cow. To top it off, this visit has had a bit of special significance because I’ve wanted to visit the Scottish Highlands for as long as I can remember. After all of the photos I’ve seen and all the stories I’ve heard from those who had visited, it’s been a wish of min to see this part of the world in person. Today, I’m able to write about it from a table in a hostel in the middle of Portree. Pretty dang cool. It doesn’t hurt that we’ve met some awesome people during our trip to the Highlands. I look forward to tomorrow: another day in the tour van and a chance to see Loch Ness up close and personal. As we wind down our time in Sottland, I think it’s time to start downing some prime Scotch Whisky and sample the Hagis, but we’ll cross that particular bridge tomorrow. -Phil

Categories: Exploring, Hiking, Music, Reflections, Scotland, Self Guided Tours, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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