Driving Abroad

More from Mar De Plata

Endless Ocean!Good morning again from beautiful Mar Del Plata, Argentina! We could rave at length about the endless amount of great features of this beautiful seaside city. But one thing particularly worth noting is just how relaxing it has been. Our time in this rented apartment has given us some of the best sleep we’ve gotten on this trip. Ranks way above the unbearable discomfort of the Reino Inn in Hiroshima and about on par with our time at the Hanoi Moment in Vietnam. All kinds of sleep from sun drenched naps on the couch with a subtle sea breeze or a long night in an oh-so-comfortable bed punctuated with the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks fourteen stories below. Probably sounds odd that I’m boasting about how rested we are, but we’ve spent so much of our travels up early, running around all day and then worn out by nightfall, that this is a good way to wind down the trip.

Cuidado!All of this makes it even more striking that we were woken yesterday morning by the booming sound of shattering glass. A quick look out the window confirmed that a car had sped directly into the glass bus stop directly across the street. No one was hurt, but that’s a hell of a way to start your day. Later when walking along the main road, we observed that a highly suspicious number of bus stops no longer seemed to have their glass siding. Driving and, for that matter, riding in cars down here tends to be a guaranteed white knuckle adventure. Given the examples of bad driving we’ve seen again and again down here, I’m going to start referring to waking up in that manner as an Argentine Alarm Clock.

Lovely Seaside Brooke!

Reckless motoring aside, it’s not hard to see why Mar Del Plata is a booming vacation spot during the summer. Even though its early in the season, the main walkway along the beach is teeming with joggers, casual walkers, groups sipping maté, rollerbladers and more. I’ll make the bold leap and say that you could draw comparisons between this town and parts of Florida. Seaside walks, hundreds of hotels and compact blocks loaded with shops, storefronts and charming homes. We’ve had a couple of surprisingly windy days and nights, so the beaches are somewhat empty but there is a steady crowd of aspiring surfers just off the coast. As Brooke mentioned, the view from our window brings us the ocean falling over the horizon during the day, the unfamiliar stars of the southern window at night and everything ranging from large group of bicyclists to racing cars a la Fast and The Furious on the street below. It’s been fun just to watch out the window.

Brooke and I have also been using some of this time prepping for re-entry back into a day-to-day life in the states and, more importantly, taking some early steps to settle into our new city of Louisville, KY. There is much to be done and much of it is exciting. Its easy to frame our next steps as a completely new type of adventure. In upcoming weeks, we need to find a car, a place to live and, probably most importantly, jobs. Between a slew of e-mails to potential Jefferson County school employers and some buffering and polishing of LinkedIn profiles, we feel proud of the head start we’ve gotten. Never under estimate the power of a strong WiFi connection. We plan to hit the ground running when we get back, but a little work in advance goes a long way. Once again, having our ASUS Tablet and keyboard on this trip has been a lifesaver.

Or Lobo Del Marina is you so choseBut don’t be fooled. We’re spending a lot of time enjoying all the Mar Del Plata has to offer. This city and weather combine to provide the perfect atmosphere for long walks. We’ve headed north, south and west outside our front door and found worthwhile treks in each direction. Throughout this trip, I’ve always enjoyed venturing down a new street for the first time. I dig the initial voyage combined with the exciting philosophy of “who knows what we’ll see!” Occasionally, you discover zip but other times you see Sea Lions. As was the case yesterday when we walked down to the main port. Sure enough, at the edge of the docks mingling among fishing boats, was a large pack of Sea Lions. A few were somewhat active almost clamoring for attention from camera-toting human guests, while others were just lazy bastards. If I didn’t know better, I would presume I was looking at two dozen beached Sea Lions. It was quite cool to see and hear these giant creatures up close; when they “bark”, they actually sound a bit like lions. Fun fact: Argentines calls Sea Lions “Lobos Del Mar” which actually translates as “WOLVES of the sea.” Along with serving as a vacation sport, this city has a very active port including scores of small fishing boats. I don’t think Brooke ever has to worry about losing me to the sea; days on a fishing boat looks like a rough way to make a living.  After a long walk out, we ended with a small victory as a local bus and the equivalent of 75 cents gave us a ride back directly to the aforementioned smashed bus stop just outside our building.

On another walk, we discovered the closest thing to a diner that we’ve seen in a long time. Manolo restaurant is apparently a Mar Del Plata institution and was recommended highly by our Air BnB host. Complete with massive menu, indifferent waiters and reasonable prices, it was a place where the selection is endless want but it’s unlikely that any of it is going to be outstanding. Following the “When in Rome” ideology, I ordered the house chicken burger which came with a ham, cheese, egg, olives, tomatoes and lettuce. Oh my. On the taste scale, it fell somewhere between interesting and delicious. Also, since every single person in the joint had at least one churro on the plate in front of them, I ordered one as well. I’m sure its part of a relatively small universe, but that was hands down the best churro I’ve had in my life.

Brooke and I have also spent some time in front of the boob tube. The best part? The commercials. I leave you with this strange, gem that had us bewildered when we first saw it. I’ve watched it 15 times since but I’m still scratching my head. Trust us, this is worth clicking on link to see this strange mishmash:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_sfTz2BTfY

-Phil

Another car that ran off the road. Keep in mind this is different than the one that ran into the bus stop- same day, 2 KM down the road. Yikes.

Sea Lions hanging out under the pier. There were tons of them! They sometimes fought and they reeked.

We’ve seen tons of these “Living Statues” street performers all around the world. This Angel outside a church in Mar Del Plata was hands down the best. He went all out! Click to enlarge to see the detail.

Good living in Mar Del Plata

Good living in Mar Del Plata

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Categories: Argentina, Beach, Diversions, Driving Abroad, Eating, Mar Del Plata, Random Thoughts, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Mendoza and the 14-Hour Bus Ride

Phil's long, gangly arms go a long wayAfter spending a few days in Buenos Aires, we were really ready to get out of the bustling city and into another region of Argentina. So, we boarded the 14-hour bus to the Mendoza province – wine country!

Now, you may be thinking that a 14-hour bus ride sounds like pure torture, and generally speaking, I would agree. But the coach buses here run the gamut from your basic Greyhound style (complete with 50 people crammed together and a smelly bathroom) to luxury coaches fit for a rock star. We found ourselves somewhere in the middle of the spectrum having chosen the Andesmar Ejecutivo class of service. We boarded a double decker bus and headed to our assigned seats on the top floor. Immediately impressed by their size, we found them to be more comfortable and spacious than Business Class Seats on an airplane. Because we were traveling overnight, it was important to us that we get some decent sleep. This was part of the reason for choosing this bus–the Ejecutivo seats recline to a 160 degree angle, so they lie almost completely flat. They come with a footrest, a small blanket and a pillow. Overall, they were quite comfortable. However, it wasn’t only the seats that made this bus ride bearable. We also had the luxury of having an on-board attendant, much like an airplane. He served us both dinner and breakfast, made sure the bathroom was clean and generally ensured everyone was comfortable. But the best part? Bingo! That’s right. Our trip had only just begun when he offered us all bingo cards and began calling out numbers. Phil was only one number away from winning, but the man seated in front of us beat him to it. The prize? What else on a bus to Mendoza but a bottle of wine. Overall, the whole trip was really easy and definitely the way to go when taking such a long ride. We think the U.S. could really benefit from these types of buses. If we can’t convince people to expand the rail network in our country, maybe we can encourage public transportation in this way. I doubt it will happen anytime soon, but you never know.

Once we arrived in Mendoza, we had a bit of a misadventure finding our latest Air BnB stay. The bus we were told to take kicked us off at the last stop and we seemed to be nowhere on the map which was given to us. After being reassured that we were on the correct bus, we waited and boarded it going the other direction. This did not look promising either, as we appeared to simply be headed back to the place we started. We finally decided to jump off and ask someone for directions. We found some very nice people in a party supply store and managed through our broken Spanish to determine that we were far off the map and about six kilometers from where we needed to be. This was way too far to walk with luggage. Not to mention, this journey had already taken us about an hour, it was hot and we were tired from our 14-hour bus ride. After warning us to be careful of a taxi scamming us, our helpers sent us on our way. Luckily, we got an honest, albeit reckless, driver. He barely missed sideswiping another car in an intersection, though in retrospect we realize it wasn’t entirely his fault. Many of the intersections here have no stop lights or street signs. Nothing to indicate who should give way to whom. I imagine that could be quite confusing (and dangerous) for drivers. It is hard enough as pedestrians.

Once we got settled in, we decided to take a stroll through Mendoza. We were happy to see that this town is vastly different from Buenos Aires. A surprisingly big city in its own right, Mendoza has none of the broken sidewalks, graffiti and overall downtrodden feel of Buenos Aires. The streets were bustling with activity, sidewalk cafes were teeming with people sipping espresso and the air was actually fresh. They should rechristen Buenos Aires to “Malo Aires”and rename Mendoza to the more fitting “Buenos Aires”. The downtown area has a number of vibrant public squares with five right in the center of town. They are set up with the giant, most central square, Plaza Independencia, in the middle complete with fountain, green space, vendors and four satellite neighboring squares equidistant from one another. The happy-go-lucky vibe of Plaza Independencia reinforced that we were not in Buenos Aires anymore. Shanty towns and homeless people had been replaced by families playing soccer, lovers cuddling in the grass, and skateboarders attempting new tricks.

For dinner, we looked over the wide variety of dining options available around town and decided the Ocho Cepas (translated as eight strains) was the place for us. Set slightly apart from the main touristy streets, it boasts a large menu with several wine options. Phil was experiencing almost immediate order envy with he tasted my delicious filet mignon. While it might not take top honors for the best meal of the trip, the romantic atmosphere, tasty dishes and friendly staff made it a wonderful evening out. Now off to more rural wine country so we can see the vineyards up close!

-Brooke

Notice anything odd about this busy Mendoza intersection? There isn’t a single stoplight, stop sign, yield sign or cross walk on any corner! This is (amazingly) somewhat common.

Phil smiling because we’re lost once again on a city bus. Not the first time it’s happened this trip and likely won’t be the last.

In the rooms in Argentina where we have cable television, this is how we’ve been polishing up on our Spanish! Ah, gustamos Los Dos y Medio Hombres

Quilmes – The major local brew in Argentina. While be trading these in for bottles of Malbecs for a while…

Categories: Argentina, Destinations, Driving Abroad, Hotels, Mendoza | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Rabbie’s Tour of the Highlands–Day 1

Today began our adventure to the Highlands and the Isle of Skye with Rabbie’s Trail Burners. After loading up the van, 14 excited passengers led by our driver/guide Doug, left Edinburgh to explore the vast Highlands. Much of our day was dedicated to actually getting to the Isle of Skye, though we did stop several times along the way to appreciate the scenery and take in some local sights.

When we arrived in Scotland, we knew that we wanted to see the Highlands. After all, we wouldn’t really be seeing the country without making this part of the journey. We briefly considered renting a car and driving ourselves. We did this in New Zealand, and while that was fun, it was also tiring and involved some harrowing driving in the rain (on the wrong side of the road). Worried we might be in for something similar here in Scotland, we decided to go with a guided tour instead, accepting that it would be a bit pricier. Within 30 minutes of beginning the tour, I knew we had made the right decision. Our guide, Doug, immediately started telling us stories about the history of Edinburgh as we pulled out of the city. One story I loved takes place at the Edinburgh Zoo. They have had a penguin colony since the early days of the zoo and once, over 50 years ago, the penguins accidentally got out of their enclosure. However, they didn’t run wild or get out of the park. Instead, they walked in a single file line around the park and then right back into their pen. The interesting part? They’ve been doing it every day since then. That’s right. Each day at 2:15 pm the zoo keepers open the door and the penguins commence their parade. Apparently it is quite the spectacle and an attraction for many tourists. It is these kinds of stories which Doug has been sharing with us all day. We are so filled with information and our tour has only just begun!

Aside from the fact that they are said to have awesome guides, one of the reasons we chose Rabbie’s tours is because it caps the number of participants at sixteen. This allows for more interaction among the people and also more flexibility. This flexibility proved useful when we drove past our first loch. The water looked like glass with the trees and mountains reflecting off it. Doug thought it was too beautiful to pass up, so we pulled over for a few minutes to take in the scenery and snap a few pictures. If we had been on a bus with 45 tourists, we probably wouldn’t have stopped and it certainly would have taken more than 5 minutes. We appreciate that Doug takes advantage of the small size of the group to take engage in these kinds of experiences.

As we made our way into the Highlands, Doug regaled us with stories of clans and chieftains, marriages and murders. One of the most gruesome occurred in Glen Coe when the Campbells took advantage of the kindness of the MacDonalds and killed them in cold blood while they were sleeping. Thirty-seven MacDonalds died including their chief. There are still pubs in Glen Coe today who will deny service to those with the name Campbell. Historical tales like these captivated us throughout the long drive. Doug has amassed an amazing wealth of knowledge and he is such a wonderful story teller, as so many Scots are. Not only did he entertaining us as we drove, he also played DJ by sharing music from Scottish artists both old and new. I think the more scenic the landscape, the more traditional the music became. This was fine by me. What could be more perfect than driving through the Highlands, gazing at the mountains, glens and lochs, and hearing the Scottish pipes playing on the radio? Absolutely wonderful.

We made several stops for photos, but the main attraction we visited before arriving in Portree, on the Isle of Skye, was Eilean Donan Castle. This much loved, photographed and filmed castle is set on the side of a Loch Duich at the base of a mountain. It couldn’t be more picturesque and it could have been really awesome. If it was the original castle. Which it isn’t. The original one was destroyed during the Jacobite uprising in 1745. The one which stands in its place is a recreation from the 1920’s. Still very cool. All based on the original plans. But honestly, seeing modern wedding photos and decorations was a bit of a letdown. In fact, part of the castle is still kept by the McRae family for private apartments where they take vacations. It’s no wonder this picturesque castle has been used in films such as Highlander, James Bond and Brave (in animated form). It is in such great shape because it isn’t actually very old!

After the castle, we drove toward Portree. With a population of 5,000, it is the largest town on the Isle of Skye whose total population is approximately 10,000. Still, this is by no means a large town. We managed to walk around and check it out in about 10 minutes. Of course our walk was made quicker because it was after 6pm therefore everything was closed. After all, it is Saturday night. God forbid something should be open until 8pm. We managed to scrounge up some fish and chips for dinner before heading back to our hostel for the night. We are exhausted. Even though we weren’t traipsing around all day, like we will be tomorrow, the drive was a bit mentally exhausting. Doug has shared so much history and many great stories. I’m grateful Phil and I have each other to help us remember it all…well, at least most of it!

–Brooke

In front of Eilean Donan Castle. See, we bought jackets!

The views are just stunning! We won’t be hurting for beautiful pictures over the next couple of days.

In front of the foothills near Glen Coe.

Our transportation for the next few days. Pretty stylish, right?

Categories: Driving Abroad, Europe, Exploring, Landmarks, Scotland, Tours, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

It’s always a good time

Greetings from the YHA Hostel in Taupo, New Zealand. Brooke and I just wrapped up a home made dinner and some time in the community lounge watching, of all things, Adam Sandler’s “Grown Ups” with some fellow travelers. Taupo brings us the smallest room stay to date (you might have to step outside to change your mind), but it is clean, cozy, comfortable and friendly so it will work out nicely. We are learning that we prefer hostels and services like AirBnB to hotels since they have kitchens, community areas and a more unique atmosphere. Besides, when you’ve seen one Hampton Inn room, you’ve probably seen them all.

Maps getting us from place to placeToday was mainly a travel day which meant a day of Vela trekking through some towns and some more windy roads in a bit of unrelenting rain past plenty of contented sheep. Driving in the rain makes us sleepy, but State Route 1 took us through plenty of small interesting towns. For example, we drove through a town called Bulls which has a sign welcoming us to (this is true): “Bulls – A town like no udder.” They also had garbage cans that said “Be Responsi-bull.” Hah! You know I love a good pun. The time in the car is always scenic since the terrain changes every 150 miles. Today, we drove through the “desert road” section of the North Island, which was mostly just brown. Not so much with sand. Our spaceship also took us past Mt. Tongariro which had erupted last week but is quiet now. Hoping to avoid a bunch of that. As Brooke keeps saying, while it would make for a good travel story, we don’t need a story that good!

The Silver Fern -Painted on the table at our Hostel

The Silver Fern -Painted on the table at our Hostel

Our New Zealand discoveries continue. This week, we’ve happened across Vogel bread and Vogel cereals which is the pride of the Kiwis. Native to New Zealand, it is beloved and delicious. We also learned that “Old Blighty” is an excellent slang term for England. Yup, when we come home, we’re going to be those people who refer to garbage as rubbish, calling someone as ringing someone and England as Old Blighty. Oh, and from now on, a Zip Line is a Flying Fox. That’s right. I’m also learning about rocker Johnny Devlin – New Zealand’s hip-swinging answer to Elvis Presley in he 1960’s.

Look! A Gum named after me!

Check it out! The kind people of New Zealand and Wrigley’s have named a chewing gum after me!

Wanted to end the post today with something a little bit different. Below are some YouTube videos (sorry e-mail subscribers–you’ll have to go to http://www.luggagetagtravels.com to view these) of sites we’ve seen in New Zealand that just quite weren’t the same in photos. Something to mark our second to last night in New Zealand!

-Phil

Categories: Driving Abroad, Eating, Exploring, Hotels, New Zealand, Random Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Napier – On The East Coast of New Zealand

Welcome to NapierSalutations from another locale in New Zealand- Napier. Today, we made thee short hop out of Rotorua and smack dab on to the west coast of the North Island. We packed up our Spaceship, stopped at the local post office to mail some postcards home to friends & family and began our trek fairly early. Our roads today were marked as the Thermal Explorer Highway which logically would qualify us as documented Thermal Explorers. Hmmm…I better get that on my LinkedIn profile ASAP.

Amazing Views continueAs with other drives we’ve conquered, today was a bit of Adventure Driving. Two lane divided highways through sharp curves and up and down mountains makes for some serious head’s-up motoring. But the stunning views through dramatic changes in topography over the course of just a couple hundred kilometers make up for it. Scenic? Not even close. The sites of mountains, sloping hills and more are the very definition of majestic. We now have had a chance to drive through both the east coast and west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. Both are relatively different with the east coast delivering more mountain ranges. However, no matter where you drive, you’re sure to see lots of grazing sheep happily gallivanting and lots of roundabout traffic circles. Yup. Sheep and roundabouts. Just make it the New Zealand motto.

The Criterion HostelBefore long, we were cruising into Napier and stumbling across the western edge of New Zealand. Nothing but ocean in front of us. Napier sits right on the coast and is chic, sunny and warm. The town has a very different vibe than Rotorua and is laced with endless charming cafes downtown. As with each town before it, Napier is already different from each town we have already visited. We quickly found a hostel (with the help of Lonely Planet) that was centrally located and was just what we were looking for. The Criterion Hostel offers a solid deal, free breakfast and oozes a bit of charm in an art deco style building.

Some Prime Art DecoA bit about Napier: The town is best known for a horrific 1931 earthquake that was New Zealand’s worst natural disaster and the corresponding rebuilding that established the town as the Art Deco capital of the world. There are markers and tributes to the earthquake everywhere and the art deco style is universal. What’s truly fascinating is that the earthquake ADDED almost 40 sq km of NEW land to the city that had previously been swamp land. When the city rebuilt, a very deliberate decision was made to create almost everything in the style of the day: Art Deco. In fact, it’s hard to spend an afternoon in Napier without being constantly reminded of the towns two claims to fame. They are touted heavily everywhere. Even more recent construction keeps with the Art Deco theme and while I don’t know I.M. Pei from I.B.M. the buildings really do standout and have a great look to them. The hilly residential section near downtown reminded me a lot of San Francisco. We’re glad to be here, even if its just for a day. It’s been fun to kick around the town for a while.

View from the bluffsAfter arriving, we discovered that the bluff overlooking the shore was the perfect place to munch on a sack lunch while enjoying the view and watch a large container ship ease into the Napier Port. Later, we stumbled across the Art Deco Trust Centre (where we did our best to sit through an only slighlty mind-numbing 24 minute video) and embarked on a self-guided walking tour of the Art Deco buildings throughout town. Good times overall, but Brooke and I struggled a bit with the self-guided tour. In part because the guide was less than stellar with the information and in part because architectural beauty isn’t completely our cup of tea. We became more adept at self guiding when we started wandering into buildings and asking questions. In one top hotel, several old built-in-wall vaults now double as high end liquor storage. It was a quality crash course in the overall building style. Brooke and I can now speak knowledgeably to zigzags, sunbursts, ziggurats, facades and more.

We ended our day with drinks and dinner at the Brazen Head down the street from our hostel after abandoning plans to visit an upscale winery. While watching music videos in the bar, it looked for a minute that Ron Weasley had embarked on a pop career. Turns out, wait, he’s just acting in a somewhat hilarious music video. Well played, Ron Weasley! We even were able to enjoy a new local beer called Rooster Lager. Tomorrow: Windy Welly (that’s Wellington) and checking into our first AirBnB stay!

-Phil

 PS- Note that you can always make photos from the blog bigger/see them in more detail by clicking on the photos. We know that sometimes they appear kind of small and clicking on the photos will give ya the full experience!

Categories: City Visits, Communication, Diversions, Driving Abroad, Exploring, New Zealand, Self Guided Tours, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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