KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA

We survived Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam remarkably unscathed and have now landed in the markedly more civilized city of Kuala Lumpur  (at least, in my humble opinion). The capital of Malaysia and home to almost 8 million people in the greater metropolitan area. The first impression that struck me was how clean and modern everything was from the airport to the highways. The road signs even looked distinctly ‘western’ in appearance. Our Airbnb dwelling was described as a ‘zen garden’ getaway from the hectic city center on the website. There may be a hint of hyperbole in this description since the dwelling is a small very sparsely furnished apartment on the 19th floor of a 40 story high rise. Geographically, we are in the Soho 2 Tower in Damansara Perdana in Petaling Jaya which is about 7km from the city center and about 75km from the airport. Our exploration of the immediate surrounding neighborhood (on foot) revealed this area to be very much an ‘urban jungle’. It is a time worn phrase to be sure but when you are surrounded by tall concrete buildings and overlapping multi-level freeways and few pedestrian  friendly walkways it is an accurate description.  To be fair, there are some ‘created’ green spaces amidst the office and hotel towers but by and large, there is nothing very ‘zen’ about this particular location. The local restaurants are ok, some featuring local cuisine and some with a decidedly western slant, but certainly nothing to write home about.

 

We had a very hectic travel schedule over the holiday season and managed to visit Egypt, Hong Kong and Vietnam in the space of one month. We needed a place to settle down for awhile, catch our breath and get the girls back on schedule with our travel-home schooling. I admit that I did not know much about Malaysia before coming here. One of our good friends on Maui and well known take-away Indian food purveyors at the local farmers’  markets, Uma Dugied is from Malaysia. Uma would often mention returning periodically to visit her family here and replenish her famous spices from her family’s spice mill business in Malaysia.

As a structural engineer, I have also been intrigued by the famous Petronas Twin Towers for many years. The project was designed by Cesar Pelli Architects in 1992 and completed in 1998. The identical towers at 452 meters (88 stories) places them at about 13th highest in the current listing of the world’s tallest buildings. The tours of the tower cost approximately $20 USD for adults and $8 for children. The tour groups are relatively small, spaced about 45 minutes apart and very well staffed and organized. We opted for an early evening appointment at 7:15 so that we could see the city lights. The tour starts at the 41st floor skyway that connects the two towers. We had pre-arranged for a taxi to take us to the towers in the afternoon to avoid rush hour traffic. Our taxi driver, Jason (bluecabmalaysiavip@gmail.com) told us that the skyway floor was originally transparent glass but that there were too many visitors reluctant to venture out onto the glass floor which is 175 meters (570 feet) above the street level and the skyway floor was later changed to a non-transparent floor. Of course, there are still floor to ceiling expanses of glass for the full length of the skyway. The second stop of the building tour is the 82 floor observation deck which has incredible 360 degree views of the city. I thanked my girls for indulging me since the tower tour was my idea but I think that they all enjoyed the experience of visiting one of the world’s tallest buildings.

There have been some outstanding taxi drivers that we have met in the course of our international travels this year and Jason from Blue Cab Malaysia was one of these individuals. We called on him many times during our stay in Malaysia and he was always prompt and courteous. His English was quite good and I really enjoyed talking to him while he transported our troupe across the city and I learned a lot about Malaysia including his political views. I always find this topic to be quite interesting and am always surprised at how open some of the people are that I’ve met even when talking to a foreigner (ie., me). I expressed to him some of my skepticism about politicians and government ‘doublespeak’ in attempts to brainwash the masses and I found him to be a kindred spirit in this regard.

When we first met Jason, we had not done our homework yet about Malaysia and asked him for a recommendation as to what we should see and do. He recommended the Batu Caves and famous Hindu Shrine & Temple which was nearby. The Hindu Shrine and Temple caves are located in a limestone formation accessible only by climbing 272 stairs which was a good cardio workout for all of us. There are hundreds of wild monkeys that live and frolic in the surrounding caves. Our taxi driver suggested that we purchase some peanuts to feed the monkeys. Of course, the girls loved tossing peanuts to the monkeys as they approached us. One particularly brave fellow snatched a whole bag right from Grace’s hands to her surprise. The cave temple contained many intricately carved statues and altars to the various well-known Hindu deities.

 

We also spent the better part of a day at the Zoo Negara in Kuala Lumpur. The zoo boasts a wide array of the usual popular animals featuring giraffes, elephants, camels, hippos, lions and tigers, etc. even a Giant Panda on tour (on loan from China). There were so few visitors on the day that we attended (Monday) that it was practically deserted. The zoo opened in 1963 and is badly in need of infrastructure repairs and updating. I assume that modernization of this zoo is low on the governments priority list. The admission price for adult ‘foreigners’ at 85rm is almost double that of local residents. To be fair, the price was a bit lower for children but it was still twice the rate that residents paid. All things considered, we would not rate this zoo very highly compared to the Madrid zoo that we visited in Europe.

One of our priorities on our travels has always been to try to find playgrounds for our children. Our taxi driver directed us to a very large park and playground near the Petronas Towers in the city center. We found the playground and off our girls went to explore and run around for awhile. Tiffany and I found a nearby park bench close enough to keep an eye on the girls . Before long, Eleanore came back crying and told us that she had fallen down and hurt her right wrist. She was cradling her wrist and we knew that she was not exaggerating (since she is usually very stoic and won’t readily admit if something is wrong with her). Tiffany decided that the prudent thing to do would be to take Eleanore to a clinic or hospital to have here injury checked out. We contacted our taxi driver, Jason and told him what had happened. He knew immediately where to take us which was a local hospital within about a 20 minute drive. He dropped us off right at the emergency room wing of the hospital and told us to contact him when we were finished. The hospital appeared to be a well-staffed, modern facility with a friendly staff. We were not required to fill out any paperwork. The initial exam fee was 50 Malaysian ringgit (about $12 USD). After a relatively short wait, Tiffany and Eleanore went to see the doctor and her wrist was x-rayed. Tiffany’s instincts were proven correct since Eleanore had indeed partially fractured the radius bone above her wrist. The doctor applied a temporary cast and we scheduled a follow-up visit within a few days with a pediatric doctor at the same hospital. The total hospital bill for this day  including the doctors consultation, x-ray and temporary cast and sling was 80 Malaysian ringgit ($20 USD). Eleanore told us that she was not in any pain but we took it easy for the next couple of days and returned for a follow-up visit. The initial diagnosis was confirmed by the pediatric doctor (who specializes in orthopedic injuries).  To immobilize the arm and facilitate healing, the doctor applied a fiberglass partial cast. He informed us that the fracture that Eleanore had incurred was very common and that she would normally fully heal in 3 to 4 weeks. Eleanore was a trooper thru the whole ordeal. The final bill for the follow up visit with the specialist was 800 Malaysian ringgits (under $200 USD).

Our trip to Malaysia ended with a whimper and not a bang. We called our favorite taxi driver, Jason who cheerfully drove us to the airport. Bernie had a lively conversation with Jason enroute to the airport and they both had an opportunity to rant a bit about politics and the economy and taxes (all very universal topics of discontentment) in this modern globalist world that we all share.

Onward and upward, back to the islands!

 

 

 

 

HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM

Greetings from Vietnam! A year ago, it never even crossed my mind that I would utter those words in my lifetime, much less a year later. Our flight from Hong Kong was pleasant and uneventful but the long queue for the visa application at Tan Son Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City was a bit of a pain. Even though we had applied on-line and brought the ‘official paperwork’ and the tiny little (2″x 3″) photos that were requested for everyone in our family; the process still took about an hour and a half to complete including payment in new US dollars only for the fees ($25 per person for the normal single entry visa). While we were waiting for our turn at the counter, I heard a bit of grumbling from some of the more experienced fellow travelers (on the same plane) that many Asian countries have switched to on-line visa applications including pre-payment of fees or have dropped visa requirements entirely (Malaysia). We patiently completed the visa application process, checked in with Passport Control, retrieved our baggage (already having been unloaded from the conveyors), exchanged some dollars for the local currency ($1 US dollar is about 23,000 Vietnamese Dong). Then we found our driver (actually, two vehicles) and were on our way into the city. The driver that Devin, Scarlet and I were riding with got lost and stopped to ask for directions several times. The roads were clogged (it might have been rush hour!). I tried to communicate with the driver but he ignored me. I reasoned that he knew as much English as I knew Vietnamese (none) and I did not hold it against him. We did make it to the apartment finally, albeit 30 minutes or so after Tiffany, Eleanore and Grace had been dropped off. Thankfully, Devin recalled what the exterior of the building looked like and also spotted the girls at the same time from about half a block away. We motioned to our driver and he silently pulled over and dropped us off.

So here we are in the thick of the chaos that is called Ho Chi Minh City (aka, Saigon). Officially, the population is 13 million strong. Our Airbnb apartment is smack in the middle of it all in District 1. Maybe it’s just me, but a numbering system for urban areas (instead of names) has always bothered me. Tiffany explained to me that Paris also uses a numbering system. Since this was formerly a French colony, the numbers may be a hold-over from a bygone era.  I don’t know exactly how ‘big’ our district is geographically or even how many ‘districts’ there are currently. I have never been in a country where it seems that the number of motor scooters outnumbers the population but I swear that is what it feels like here! There are few pedestrians here (except for unwary tourists)! Based on my observations and first hand experience, pedestrians have no ‘right of way’ here, not even on the sidewalks, which are merely another drive lane or a place to ‘park’ hundreds of motor scooters on any given block, after block, after block. We have been honked at by motor scooter riders while walking on the sidewalks as they attempted to pass us (on the sidewalk) or to get to a parking spot on the sidewalk. There is constant honking from the incessant traffic from about 6:30 am until well past midnight. I am sure that the countryside is a bit more tranquil but we won’t get a chance to find out on this trip to Vietnam.IMG_0551

In my observation, as ubiquitous as coffee shops and cafés are in Europe, that is the case with repair shops for motor scooters and tire shops here. Except for some major roads, there are no stop signs or yield signs at intersections. I don’t even know how to describe the phenomenon. The traffic including motor scooters, buses, taxis and trucks, pedal-powered carriages transporting tourists and (occasionally brave bicyclists) flows each way into any given intersection and somehow miraculously meshes and sorts itself out with a cacophony of horns. This is repeated over and over again. The discordant nature of it all defies western logic and certainly urban traffic planning. I can honestly say that I could not drive one block in this city without having a nervous breakdown.  Even the mundane action of crossing a normal city street requires a bit of bravado since crosswalks (if there are any) are routinely ignored by all the motorists.  One must step into traffic (literally) and begin the dance anticipating a small gap between the motor scooters that are coming towards you (usually from each direction at the same time), then advancing, then pausing momentarily again waiting for the next gap, of course all the while being honked at for having the audacity to cross a city street on foot (and not two wheels). If anyone recalls the popular video arcade game of “Frogger” (way back in the early 1980’s). This game would be an apt description of a pedestrian crossing a street in Ho Chi Minh City. These streets would be fertile testing ground for the ‘driverless’ AI vehicles that are in the process of being foisted upon us by the ‘powers that be’. Good luck with that!

We read on a travel website that a ‘must see’ for any visit to Ho Chi Minh City is the Ben Thanh market and so we went. It was located about 6 blocks from our apartment, so we walked. The infamous enclosed market itself covers a city block but the streets on all sides of the market are also teeming with vendors and sidewalk shops. There are literally hundreds of vendors squeezed into tiny spaces and very narrow aisles. There seemed to be a lot of repitition of merchandise from one vendor to the next. Some of the stalls have signs posted stating that the ‘prices are fixed’ and prices cannot be negotiated. Grace spied an overpriced plastic toy kitchen set. I knew that it was overpriced since plastic childrens’ toys mass produced for pennies in China generally are overpriced. I figured the fair cost should have been about $2. The sticker price was 244,000 VND (slightly more than $10). The proprietor would not budge on the price claiming that the ‘company’ sets the fixed prices. We walked away. No sale. The next day we came back to the area since Tiffany and the girls wanted manicures & pedicures. We went back to the Ben Thanh market and surprised Grace with the toy that she wanted from the day before along with something that Eleanore had spotted as well. No sense in haggling this time. Tiffany just paid the sticker price for the plastic toys but caught an error that the shopkeeper had made by almost overcharging her for the already overpriced items. Judging from the duplicitous merchandise selection in this market, I suspect that this is market is likely a corporate enterprise set up to look like a hodge-podge collection of hard-working mom and pop proprietors and shop keepers. Honestly, we were underwhelmed by the Ben Thanh market and had higher expectations. I guess we just aren’t ‘typical’ tourists.

Ho Chi Minh City does boast some spectacular historic architecture including the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral (completed sometime between 1860 & 1880 by French colonialists) and the 800 seat, Saigon City Opera House (built in 1897 by a French architect). We observed both of these buildings from the street during one of our self-guided walking & shopping trips thru District 1.

We also enjoyed some excellent, modestly priced restaurants in our ‘district’ featuring authentic Vietnamese home cooking and ‘street’ food. We also frequented the local Starbucks which is very popular with locals and tourists. (Sometimes, you just need to go someplace that reminds you of home to ground yourself.)  

As a child growing up in the 60’s, I still have a very strong recollection of the Vietnam War which seemed to be in the news headlines almost every day. I had to go back to Wikipedia to get the dates right. The United States involvement in the war officially ended in January 1973 (45 years ago this month!). I was 20 years old. My draft number was 239. The last draft number called was 215. I was lucky. Some of my friends and cousins were drafted. Some enlisted. By the grace of God most of them made it back alive and in one piece. I admit that I had some trepidation about visiting Vietnam but I am not exactly sure why. We had done our homework and read that there are pickpockets working the crowded market areas and thieves waiting to snatch purses and cell phones from naive tourists even walking on the sidewalks. The local residents that we encountered at the restaurants and shops and around our Airbnb neighborhood were really very nice to us and we had no problems in this regard.

 

Searching the internet, I learned that tourism was only a trickle starting in the late 1980’s and has since become a huge component of modern Vietnam’s economy with many millions of visitors every year. Well, the Stroh Ohana made their contribution this year.

Fini. On to Kuala Lumpur!

Bernie

 

HONG KONG (China?)

During the ‘unplanning’ of our international journey last spring, my daughter, Scarlet, expressed a desire to see a Giant Panda preferably in China. We had seen the documentary ‘Born in China’ and this no doubt piqued her curiosity a bit. Wow, I thought. How are we going to accomplish that feat? Tiffany researched Giant Pandas and found  several (expensive) guided tours and zoos that featured Giant Panda exhibits in mainland China. Hong Kong also boasted a theme park with Giant Pandas. The visa requirements seemed daunting for mainland China and we opted for Hong Kong instead where (Americans are allowed to stay in Hong Kong for up to 3 months.). The Asian continent was always on our watch list but now we had our first destination booked for Christmas week.  Scarlet actually got part of her wish granted since we unexpectedly saw a wonderful Giant Panda exhibit at the Madrid Zoo.

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Mini Hotel Causeway Bay Lobby

We arrived in Hong Kong without incident on December 20, 2017 after a 13 hour trip from Cairo on ETIHAD AIRLINES. Our trip had a 3 hour layover in Abu Dhabi which definitely helped to break up the long flight. We were flying east and the time difference between Cairo, Egypt and Hong Kong is 6 hours which we knew was going to mess with our circadian sleep rhythm once again. Tiffany had found a mini hotel for our Christmas week stay in Hong Kong. It literally is called the Causeway Bay Mini Hotel. For our party of 6 (including Devin), we had to book 3 rooms. I am sure that everyone has heard of the ridiculously tiny apartments and dwellings that are quite common in Asian countries due to the overcrowding and congestion in urban areas. Well, we got to experience this phenomenon first hand at the Mini Hotel. The width of the rooms was exactly equal to the width of the bed (either a single queen or two (side by side) single beds), not an inch wider. There was about 5 feet of ‘free floor space’ between the end of the bed and the bathroom. The beds were built on a platform with a hollow storage space below for mini suitcase storage. The bathrooms even had small hot showers. Not much wiggle room but functional!  (Note: if you have any ‘claustrophobic’ tendencies, this hotel may not be your ‘cup of tea.’) Our rooms were on the 16th floor of the 19 story hotel and of course our girls loved riding the elevator. The check-in desk (literally a desk) was in the basement level of the building. There was no ‘wasted space’ in this operation. No extravagant lobby with high ceilings and fancy décor but it was elegant in its simplicity.  There was an eclectic mix of photographs and artwork on the walls and comfortable chairs and couches. An ‘Andy Warhol style’ poster of Chairman Mao adorned one of the walls. And did I mention the ‘curious but pleasant’ French music that was always playing in the background? The staff was hard working and always amiable (especially the room maids).

Our slated arrival in Hong Kong was on Christmas week after all and the girls wondered (prior to our arrival) if there would be any holiday decorations? They were not disappointed! There were Christmas decorations  everywhere. Trees, lights, tinsel, bows, wreaths, candles, ornaments, Santa, reindeer, etc. You get the picture. We were surprised to learn that the Causeway Bay area is considered one of the ‘snazziest’ shopping zones in Hong Kong. (Great, I thought, just what we need…you didn’t detect any cynicism in my tone did you?) There were several 16 story shopping malls within minutes walking distance from our hotel. The girls were delighted of course and so we joined the hordes of shoppers trying to ‘blend in’ as much as possible. Our shopping forays were successful and Santa was able to find our Mini Hotel in the middle of Hong Kong. Our children experienced the ‘magic of Christmas’ once again and Tiffany and I breathed a sigh of relief (or exasperation, I am not sure which is more apt?). And to top it all off, we all got a bit of culture and went to see the Hong Kong Ballet performance of The Nutcracker (Tchaikovsky). The ballet was at the Hong Kong Cultural Center. We took a 15 minute ferry ride across the harbor to Kowloon and then had a quick lunch at McDonalds (yes, they have McDonalds here!) and then walked to the Cultural Center. We took a taxi back home (under the harbor by tunnel this time) and had a delightful Christmas Day dinner at our favorite restaurant ‘Brick Lane’. We actually managed to visit this particular restaurant which featured ‘full English breakfasts’ five times and became somewhat attached to one of the waitresses, Jodie, a native of Hong Kong who served us every time. (I think that she kind of liked our family too!) One day when we were just passing by the restaurant she rushed out to greet us on the sidewalk.

What about the Giant Pandas? Well, we did make it to Ocean Park (a relatively short, inexpensive taxi ride from our hotel). Ocean Park is a aquarium, zoo,  and amusement park all rolled into one. The park is located on a fantastic site on the shores of the South China Sea that is partly valley and partly mountainous. There are aerial cable cars that transport patrons from one side of the park to the other in very efficient fashion (Note: the cable cars do not cost extra and are a bonus to the reasonable admission price (average $50/ person). The all glass cars offer incredible panoramic views of Hong Kong and the deep water harbor. The park also boasts some fantastic stomach churning roller coasters which Scarlet and her sister Devin really enjoyed! And yes, we did see the Giant Pandas, but it was mid-day and they were ‘napping’ during our visit. Oh well. We even managed to ride one roller coaster all together as a family, since Grace was tall enough to ride with an adult. Ocean Park in Hong Kong was an enjoyable and especially memorable day for our whole family!

You may be wondering why I wrote the title of this blog with a question mark next to China. I had always assumed that Hong Kong was in China, right? While we were in the long queue for the family roller coaster and having a conversation about one thing or another related to China; someone ahead of us impudently interjected himself into our conversation and stated emphatically that we were not in China, but in Hong Kong! We just smiled and gave tacit acknowledgement to his remark. But it got me wondering. I later posed the question on the internet and got some surprising answers to the question. For history buffs (and maybe a Trivial Pursuit answer); Hong Kong was always a British colony until 1997 when it was officially ‘turned over’ to China. Hong Kong has its own currency, legal system, language, culture, etc., and operates more or less autonomously as an independent entity. Technically, Beijing controls all of China but I think that because of the huge economic clout that Hong Kong has, I think that Hong Kong essentially does what it wants.

What else is there to say about Hong Kong? I struck up a short conversation with a university student who is studying to be a Civil Engineer. My girls and I shared a table with him at a shopping center food court. (He seemed pleased to meet an American that held the same degree.) He told me that the city is undergoing phenomenal growth and urban development and was eager to complete his studies and start his career. The impressive world class architecture is second to none that I have seen so far in my world travels. And as a working structural engineer, I have a whole new appreciation for bamboo since I saw many ‘under construction’ high rise towers wrapped with sturdy bamboo scaffolding. The traffic is insane (and the residents and taxi drivers that I talked to agree with me). The narrow streets and sidewalks are teeming with people constantly from early morning until very late at  night. Elderly women pushing two wheeled carts overflowing with (you name it) alongside endless buses, taxis and delivery trucks seemingly oblivious to the danger.

The laundry service at the hotel was $9 US for one pair of jeans and $4 US for a pair of underwear a rate we could not afford with 5 little women dirtying laundry. We found an inexpensive laundry service (in an alleyway)  that charges by weight. The first time that we found this place (somewhat by accident) we had a bag of clothes that probably weighed between 15 and 20 lbs. We were instructed to place our bag of clothes on an old fashioned mechanical scale and the proprietor took out her calculator and handed us a piece of paper with a number scribbled on it. When I was handed the invoice for $64, I was sticker shocked. The proprietor laughed and explained that the price was in Hong Kong dollars (equivalent to approximately $8 US dollars). OK, I agreed to the price. Their service was very good and we ended up going back there several times within the week.

I appreciate and admire the tenacity of the residents that make this city work so efficiently. The short week that we spent here was only enough to whet our appetite as the saying goes and we would definitely plan a future  visit to Mainland China.

Bernie & Tiffany

EGYPT: TOMBS, TEMPLES & TUTANKHAMUN

IMG_0236 2Our visit to Egypt was like a whirlwind. Three days in Cairo at Le Meridien to get acclimated, 12 days in the South Sinai Peninsula (Dahab) at the Red C Villas, 3 days in Luxor at Mara House and 3 final days in Cairo at Giza. Our Giza Airbnb dwelling was literally a few blocks away from and faced the pyramids! On our first day back in Cairo, we rode horses (even Grace had her own horse) around the pyramids and drank Bedouin tea at sunset marveling at the incredible desert landscape all arranged by our Airbnb host (Ashi) he even joined us on the ride. We hired 6 horses and there was a surprise guest a four month old colt. Nearing the end of the ride the girls asked the colt’s name and the owner said he hadn’t named it and would they like to chose a name.  The name chosen was Charlie after our friends’ Great Dane  they are about the same size. The girls had fun posing for photographs against the awesome pyramids in the background with our horseback guide who also joked that he was a ‘professional photographer’.

We spent three very full days with an excellent tour guide visiting the temples and tombs in and around Luxor. The tour guide was arranged thru Mara House where we stayed in Luxor (maraegypt@gmail.com). We met an interesting pair of fervent travelers from Melbourne, Australia that were also staying in the guesthouse (John and Nicole).  They are teachers on an extended summer vacation leave. We found them to be very pleasant and interesting people.  They also have a travel blog (a bit more polished than ours that you may want to check out (bontakstravels.com). We had many interesting conversations with John & Nicole enroute to our ancient destinations in and around Luxor which also included a relaxing evening short felucca (boat) trip on the Nile. The first day of the tour was to the Valley of Kings. A very desolate but strangely peaceful place where 64 tombs have been discovered to date, including the tomb of probably the best known pharaoh (at least to westerners) of Tutankahmun. This tomb was discovered with all of the pharaohs afterlife treasures intact. Our tour guide, Mohammed, explained that the tomb was actually dug into the rock below another tomb and went undiscovered by the looters who managed to plunder the treasures in most of the other tombs thru the ages.  The fascination maybe even obsession that the ancient Egyptians had with the afterlife is hard to put into words. The dedication to their task of recording every detail about their beloved pharoahs lives and preparation for the ‘afterlife’ in hieroglyphics meticulously carved into granite is certainly remarkable. Every surface of the massive stone columns and walls in the temples even the ceilings are covered with hieroglyphics. I asked our tour guide if he was able to ‘read’ hieroglyphics and he explained that it was indeed part of their extensive study to become a tour guide. I asked Mohammed if he worked any other jobs when he does not have any bookings for his services as a tour guide (I ask a lot of questions). He explained that working multiple jobs is strictly forbidden in Egypt. A tour guide can only be a tour guide. Opting for another career or occupation would require him to relinquish his license. Egypt has high unemployment and I assume this is the reason for such a draconian law.

One can certainly read about all of the enigmatic places in ancient Egypt and watch documentaries but they really are worth experiencing in person. As a structural engineer, I admit that I was awestruck at the sheer magnitude of these architectural works that have survived for over 4000 years and marvel at their construction. How did they quarry the massive stones from Aswan (some 200 kilometers away) and send them down the Nile? I am sure that they didn’t have carbide drill bits, diamond tipped bandsaws or dynamite which are commonly used in modern quarrying operations. Ok, somehow the massive blocks made it to the temple (or tomb) site. How did they stack, align and level the stones so precisely? I looked but could find virtually no gaps in the stone joints (and no mortar). I also couldn’t help but imagine just the logistical challenge of directing the craftsman who were charged with the arduous task of carving the thousands upon thousands of complicated hieroglyphics into the hard stone to complete the project.

 

I am certainly grateful to the people of Egypt who have become such good caretakers of their ancient archeological wonders. At the same time, I have to admit that it was a bit unnerving to see so many armed military personnel at practically every one of the sites that we visited in Luxor and Cairo.  There were armed guards at numerous check points on the roads and at every monument entrance. I was wondering if their presence was really to thwart any potential attacks on tourists or just to keep unruly tourists in line (I did not see any). I sensed that Egyptians are very much used to the overbearing military presence and consider it normal to their way of life in the 21st century.

I also did not understand the ban on cameras in many of the temples and tombs. These are 5000 year old carved stone edifices which I don’t think would be harmed in the least by a cellphone camera. I asked our tour guide about this policy, I did not receive a satisfactory answer.

I have had a long fascination with the pyramids that probably started when I first read the book ‘Pyramid Power’ (published in 1973). I was 20 when I read it along with several other books that were published shortly after. I built scale model pyramids out of glass, metal and wood so that I could do some of the ‘pyramid power experiments’ outlined in the book. I have always been interested in the esoteric subject of ‘sacred geometry’ and for me, the pyramids  belong in this category at well.

Our ‘Pyramid and Sphinx’ day was spectacular. The weather was perfect, a dappled partly cloudy sky and very agreeable temperature. Our Airbnb host had just acquired his guide license’ a week ago and offered to arrange transportation and to accompany us this day. Fatma also accompanied us. (Tiffany and Scarlet first met Fatma last March on their previous mother-daughter trip to Egypt). We were unrushed and spent several hours at the pyramid. We all went inside the Kings Chamber (even Grace) in the largest pyramid at Giza (which requires an extra ticket in addition to the general entrance admission). (Although other rooms have been found, I think that the Kings Chamber is the only area accessible to the public.). If you are claustrophobic, I probably would not recommend this. We were fortunate enough to be in the Kings Chamber alone with our family and just one friendly security guard. I can’t say that I had any visions or other paranormal experience while in the solitude of the massive stone crypt but it was an amazing experience nonetheless.

IMG_0251We ended the day with a tour of the Sphinx. A very strange creature carved out of one gigantic block of sandstone that to me seems strangely out of place here. Our tour guide explained that the Sphinx is much older than the pyramids. (I have read that there is a no clear consensus by the ‘experts’ as to when the pyramids were built, much less as to how they were built.). 

We decided to leave our Airbnb early and spend the last day in a hotel nearer to the airport. Our next big trip is to Hong Kong and we wanted to get plenty of rest for the almost 13 hours of travel ahead! Stay tuned for more travel adventure updates.

A special thanks and mahalo to all of our dear friends and family and the new friends that we have made along the way that are keeping up with us on our journey.

Bernie & Tiffany

 

 

Dahab, Egypt on the Red Sea

IMG_8555As we continue eastward on our year of adventure; we have now left behind the part of the world that we are the most familiar with in terms of family history, culture, language, food, religion, etc. Our first destination in these stranger waters is Egypt.  For the record, Tiffany and Scarlet did travel to Egypt this past spring. Scarlet chose Egypt as the place that she wanted to visit for a 10 day mother-daughter bonding on her 10th birthday. The girls were with a pre-arranged tour group run by an Irish woman (who goes by the nickname Mara) and her very capable assistant, Fatma. By all accounts, their trip was an incredible adventure that created indelible memories. Tiffany decided then and there that she had to return to this fascinating place with her whole family and so here we are.

What comes to mind when you say that you will be visiting Egypt? Pyramids, pharaohs, King Tut, hieroglyphics, the Nile River, Cleopatra, Moses, the Red Sea. Of course, all of these things and much more! The largely desert country straddles the Middle East and Northern Africa. My knowledge of bible history is a bit rusty but I vaguely recall that Egypt is the land where the Israelites where held in captivity and servitude by the pharaohs for many years. The ‘Exodus’ from Egypt of God’s chosen people was a 40 year arduous trek thru the desert until they reached the Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea. Moses ‘parted’ the Red Sea (with a little help from above no doubt) and the Israelites crossed into the ‘promised land’ of Israel. This is my very much abridged version of the famous bible story and I am sure that I have left out many important details.

We arrived in Cairo very late on December 28 (3:00 am in the morning) and booked the first few nights in the Le Meridien Hotel which is connected directly to Terminal 3 at the airport (there are 3 terminals). We had promised our girls a swimming pool and room service (a welcome change from our austere Airbnb’s). Le Meridien was great and we enjoyed a relaxing few days as we eased into our Egypt experience. I was able to get some work done as we allowed our girls a small break from homeschool as well and the girls (especially Scarlet) enjoyed the large outdoor heated pool.

It was time to move on to the Airbnb that Tiffany had found for us. The residence is located on the shore of the Red Sea in the town of Dahab (in the Sinai Peninsula). The trip required a short plane ride from Cairo to Sharm El Sheik and then a 55 minute drive by car to Dahab. The house had an idyllic location literally on the shores of the Red Sea but as it turned out, it did not have much else going for it! The online photos (and description) did not seem to match the house much. We had expected that ‘the beach house’ would be quaint but also comfortable. The water stopped working after a few hours and the internet connection which I need for work was very poor. The kitchen area also had a nauseating sewer smell that we tried to air out by opening the front and back door. But our efforts did not seem to help matters much. It was already dark but we needed to be able to at least flush the toilets (we had some drinking water). We called the property manager who initially greeted us at the house when we arrived. About 10 minutes later, a truck pulled up to the house and a man jumped out and pulled a hose into the yard, opened a wood door and proceeded to fill the water tank that was buried in the front yard. Apparently the tank had run dry. (We did not even know that there was a buried water tank in the first place.) After the tank fill-up, the water was working again and we went to bed. The next morning, we discovered that the water had stopped working again! We waited until about 8:00 am and called the property manager but could not reach him. About an hour later, we finally got thru to his cell phone and he came over to the house. He did not come inside but simply turned on an outside spigot and water gushed out. He looked at me somewhat puzzled and left. I went back inside the house and sure enough the water was working again for about 20 minutes and then it quit again. The internet still was not working very well and the odor in the kitchen still hung in the air. The water shutting off again was the last straw for me and Tiffany proceeded to find us another rental in the area. She cancelled our reservation at the ‘beach house’ and found a vacancy at the Red C Villas literally about a 1 km away. (FYI…for anyone booking thru Airbnb, a decision to leave a rental should be made within 24 hours of arrival but the decision should not be made lightly as many Airbnb owners have a strict policy of no refunds for cancellations. We assume that Airbnb owners do not want to risk getting a bad review and will often offer a partial refund to unsatisfied tenants). We had not completely unpacked so it was no big deal to pack up, find a taxi and head to our new temporary home in Dahab. We knew that we could not check in until later in the afternoon but we counted on at least being able to drop our luggage and perhaps hang out at the outdoor pool. When we arrived a the Red C Villas, we met the owner, an English gentleman formerly from London. He graciously allowed us to store our luggage on the premises. We also upgraded our booking to a 2-level unit that was just being vacated by a Russian couple who had spent 2 months in the villa. The owner (Stephen) is a very pleasant fellow and we got to know him quite well.

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Red C Villas, Dahab

Dahab, Egypt is an interesting place indeed. I looked up the meaning in arabic which is ‘gold’ or ‘golden sand’.  Islam is the dominant religion in Egypt. Five times a day (starting at sunrise) we heard the ‘call to prayer’ from the mosques. The ‘call to prayer’ is a deeply moving and melodic chant if you have never heard it before. We walked the dusty streets of the town near Asala Square. This is what all the locals were doing since there were no ‘walkable’ sidewalks as such. There were roving packs of goats wandering the streets in search of food oblivious to the human and vehicle traffic. We were informed that it was ok to feed the goats any food scraps and leftovers. And so we did…several times. One morning when I was headed out to find ‘Ralphs’ German Bakery’ in our neighborhood (an authentic ethnic bakery and cafe) started by an expat from Munich in 2009. I saw a small pickup truck drive by with four camels sitting into the back, calmly looking around – probably happy to be riding for a change instead of lugging a saddle pack and tourists around on their humps! Definitely something you don’t see everyday in the states especially on Maui!

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Mostafa Mahmood

There is not a single vehicle stop sign, yield sign or any street sign for that matter. There is honking (of course). It seems that everyone and his brother is a ‘taxi cab’ driver and they will honk at anyone walking down the street to pick up a fare. This was the only place in our travels so far thru Europe where the ‘taxi’ drivers hail you instead of the other way around. We had done our homework in advance and somewhat knew what to pay for taxi rides (very inexpensive, usually 10 to 20 Egyptian pounds which is roughly 50 cents to a $1.00).  We really liked one of the taxi drivers that we met, Mostafa Mahmood. Mostafa is 23 and moved to Dahab with his mother and father about 5 years ago from Luxor. He speaks a little bit of English and always had a great smile and disposition. We called on him whenever we needed a taxi to go somewhere that was too far to walk. Mostafa also arranged a special trip for us to “the blue hole” which is a well know diving and snorkeling spot about 5 kilometers from Dahab. The trip also included a long camel ride for all of us which was quite the experience. This is what ‘tourists’ do in Egypt and the camels for the most part seem pretty agreeable. The use of camels by the nomadic Bedouin tribes for travel across the desert goes back centuries.

We spent a lot of time at an area in Dahab known as ‘the lighthouse’. The area is popular with expats and travelers primarily for the diving and snorkeling. There are many seaside restaurants, all very affordable and friendly. The total bill for a satisfying meal for all five of us (including milkshakes or ice cream and Turkish coffee or Bedouin Tea) was always less than $25 USD (500 Egyptian pounds). One can find pretty much any kind of food (Russian stuffed cabbage rolls, pizza, fresh fish, vegan, Thai curry, baba ganoush, shish kebab and everything in between).  We had a late dinner at one of the restaurants that we especially liked (Jays) and we noticed the lights in the distance across the water. I asked our server about the lights and he told us very matter of factly, ‘that is Saudi Arabia’. I must admit that hearing this from the server was kind of ‘mind blowing’ as to exactly where we were. Saudi Arabia was literally 14 kilometers away (less than 10 miles) from where we were having dinner. All of the restaurant proprietors were extremely friendly and made us feel very welcome. We were always greeted with ‘you are welcome’ . Whenever anyone anywhere meets us we hear a minimum of three ‘you are welcome’, ‘you are most welcome’, ‘first time in Egypt?…Welcome’. The Egyptian people are not only very hospitable, but it is apparent that they sincerely want us to be pleased by the food, service, camel ride, and will go to any length to ensure this.  We were always asked where we were from. While Dahab seems to be popular with tourists from Russia, Germany and Japan, American tourists are apparently rare in this part of Egypt. The food staples at the small local markets (no supermarkets in Dahab!) were also very inexpensive. There are also inexpensive fruit and vegetable markets as well that we frequented to keep our ‘seemingly always eating’ children and the neighborhood goats well fed.

I even got bold enough to get a haircut in Dahab as I was starting to look a bit like a mad scientist with my crazy hair. My ‘barber’ spoke no English but the proprietor of the ‘spa’ which offered the ‘mens haircut’ and a full menu of every other type of facial and massage that you can imagine translated for me.

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We were pleased with our visit to Dahab in the Sinai Peninsula and the friendly people that we met. We are excited that Devin (Tiffany’s oldest daughter) on break from college is rejoining us on Saturday and will be spending the next month traveling with us. We are off to Luxor in a few days and then back to Cairo for the next leg of our Egyptian travels. There will be much to report about in the coming posts!

Bernie

 

 

88 days in Europe

I started to write this post on the 88th day of our European adventure but Tiffany & I did not get to finish it until we were already 5 days into our Egypt trip. I am amazed at how quickly the first three months of our trip abroad has elapsed. In our ‘unplanning’ of this adventure before we left Maui, we had anticipated spending the allowed 90 days in the EU – Schengen Area with the normal visa. We booked our first destination on the Azores Island of Ponta Delgada in Portugal.  Practically every onward destination from there has been made without any premeditation or planning! In our 87 days, I estimate that we have traveled approximately 12750 miles (20400 km) by planes, trains, cars, subways, electric trams, taxi cabs, buses, tuk-tuks, cable cars and horse drawn carriages. I am not including the many hours (and distance) that we covered on foot exploring our surroundings whenever we landed in a new destination. I am pleased to report that there were relatively few complaints from our three girls (10,7,6) when we went on our many self-guided walking tours whether it was thru narrow city streets or nature trails. We often went on these walks with no particular agenda, purpose or map (not even ‘smartphones’!).  Our EU adventure included 5 countries (Portugal, Spain, Germany, Italy and Malta). We stayed in Ponta Delgada (Azores Islands of Portugal), Lisbon (capital of Portugal), Sintra (Portugal), Porto (Portugal), Madrid (capital of Spain), Barcelona (capital of the Catelonia Region of Spain), Vallirana (Spain), Vilanova i la Geltru (Spain), Nuremburg (Germany), Rostal (Germany), Palermo (capital of Sicily, Italy) and the Island of Malta.

 

We have lived in 10 residences (houses and apartments) that we booked thru Airbnb or Booking.com for usually one to two week stints. The rent varied considerably from $47 per day to $167 per day. Occasionally we have also stayed in hotels for a few days usually on impromptu extracurricular adventures. We have rented cars in Portugal, Spain and Italy. The renting part is easy and fairly inexpensive. It’s the driving part that was occasionally very challenging! Some of us have shopped (of course!). Shopping for clothes and other must have ‘treasures’ (and sometimes homeschool supplies or art projects) requires creative repacking of the suitcases each time that we move on to the next destination. It has also required us to mail packages home in every country. This seemingly simple task has been challenging in some countries (and expensive). We have posted some of these stories in our blog. Since I have to work at my consulting structural engineering practice while traveling to pay for our life abroad this year, I rely on the internet to communicate with my clients (most of whom are located in Minnesota). The reliability of the internet and WiFi systems in the residences and even hotels where we have stayed has been very poor to very good.  We have become quite comfortable using local public transportation (buses, trains & subways). Deciphering the schedules has been challenging at times but we have managed to not get ‘too lost’. Since we have been living in houses and apartments, we have shopped in the local grocery stores and street markets (which seem to be everywhere in Europe). By and large, we have found that prices for food staples, cosmetics and toiletries are significantly less than in U.S. stores for similar or the same items (we are getting majorly ripped off in the states!) For example: Byly natural effective deodorant $15 US (amazon) €1.67 in Spain, Baguette  $4.99 (Whole Foods) €0 .65 any country we’ve been). The same can generally be said for normal restaurant prices across Europe. All in all, we have found Europe to be a relatively good bargain for international travel.

We interviewed our girls Scarlet 10½, Eleanore 7, and Grace 6 to get their views on our travels thru Europe. Here are their words (mostly unedited):

Questions:

  • What was your favorite Airline?

Scarlet: Nile Air (fast service gave you food on a 40min flight)

Elle: WOW ( I like how it sounds, purple plane), Delta (Maui airport because it has a Starbucks)

Grace: Night Flights because its dark and you can see out the widows and it looks pretty

  • What has been your favorite place we have stayed?

Scarlet: Nuremburg Apartment…why? cozy, warm, good beds and good places to walk to (Hot Tacos)

Elle: Lisbon Apartment, Madrid Apartment (4bedroom), Le Meridien Hotel (Cairo, room service and a heated pool)

Grace: Sintra House (with the musty cups, because I could watch the trains go by) and our current villa in Dahab

side note: I find that small children tend to remember the most recent things best.  There fore including some things that were not technically part of Europe.

  • What was the thing you enjoyed most that we have done?

Scarlet: Shopping with family, Lion King in Madrid, Madrid Zoo

Eleanore: Bird Show at Madrid Zoo

Grace: Feeding the Cats in Sicily, being chased around by a little Spanish boy at the Airbnb in Vallirana, Spain, Lion King Madrid, Aquarium Malta, Esplora (Malta)*

*If you get a chance, Esplora in Malta is an incredible interactive children’s science museum and Planetarium. The best we’ve seen anywhere in Europe or even in the states!

  • What was the most boring thing that we have done so far?

Scarlet: Cleaning

Eleanore: Post Office

Grace: Prado Museum, Madrid

  • What was your favorite mode of Transportation?

Scarlet: U-bahn Germany (took only a few minutes to get somewhere)

Eleanore: Tuk Tuk, Portugal

Grace: U-Bahn (subway, big tunnels, underground, cool)

  • What was your favorite food experience?

Scarlet: Hot Pot, Madrid (where you cook your own food at the table in a boiling cauldron called a Hot Pot, we were hoping for familiar Chinese dishes and instead had platter and platters of uncooked unidentifiable food brought to us and had no idea what to do with it. Tiffany’s Comment)

Eleanore: Wendy’s pancakes in Minnesota (my mom’s best friend) “Wendy’s pancakes are so good”

Grace: All you can eat Sushi in Sintra, Portugal and 3 course menu in Spain

  • What was your worst food experience?

Scarlet: Hot Pot, Madrid “It was fun cooking it, but not fun eating it”

Eleanore: Popeye’s Village Hamburger, Malta

Grace: couldn’t come up with any

  • What was the best dessert you had on this trip?

Scarlet: anything chocolate

Eleanore: Plain Mango ice cream, Nuremburg

Grace: “I don’t know because there are so many to choose from.” Store bought Neapolitan   and Stracciatella Ice Cream, (Lidl Grocery, Sicily)

  • What was the worst dessert that you had on this trip?

Scarlet: Yogurt flavored ice cream, Madrid

Eleanore: Nutella Street Crepe, Dahab Egypt (again most recent not Europe)

Grace: Banana Street Crepe, Dahab Egypt

  • What was your favorite purchase?

Scarlet: “I like it all”

Eleanore: Stuffed Cat Steiff Germany

Grace: Snow Dog stuffed animal in Barcelona Airport and Penguin stuffed animal at Malta, Aquarium

  • What was your favorite animal encounter?

Scarlet: Pandas, Madrid Zoo

Eleanore: baby twin goats, streets of Dahab Egypt

Grace: Cats at the Baglio in Sicily

  • What was the best park that we played at?

Scarlet: German Park next to Norma Grocery Store

Eleanore: German Park next to Norma Grocery Store

Grace: Sea Park, Aquarium Malta

  • Where was your favorite place that we visited?

Scarlet: Germany the house, temperature (coming home to a warm house), people were nice and it was pretty

Eleanore: Minnesota (to see Wendy and Cash and the uncles John and Pete) North Dakota (to see Grandma Stroh and Zoe)

Grace: Minnesota (Wendy and Cash, good food, good pool, good waterslide), North Dakota

  • What was the most beautiful thing you saw in nature?

Scarlet: Falling leaves in Germany, Rocky formations in Sicily

Eleanore: São Miguel Island, Portugal, overlooking the Atlantic and  beautiful Islands

Grace: Porto Beaches

  • What  language have you heard that you are interested in learning?

Scarlet: Spanish, because I am already learning it

Eleanore: Germany

Grace: Gracias (Spanish)

And that’s all for now folks. Stay tuned for the next exciting chapter!

Tiffany & Bernie

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arrivederci to Sicily, Italy…for now

Thursday, November 17, is our last day in Balestrate, Sicily which is located in the Palermo Provinciale. We have spent 15 days in the ‘baglio’ (Italian courtyard farmhouse) which is surprisingly the longest that we have stayed in one place since starting our journey 2-1/2 months ago. We now have visited 4 countries (Portugal, Spain, Germany & Italy). Living out of suitcases with a relatively small allowance of space for each of us + school supplies has been challenging and exacerbated by the fact that we are acquiring more things to pack every time we visit a new place. Girls like to shop after all! As many of you know who have traveled, there are certainly no shortage of places to spend your money wherever you find yourself in the world. In order to maintain the delicate ‘balance’ and to avoid buying more suitcases to ‘lug’ our stuff around we have had to send items back home in every country so far. This would seem to be an easy task, right? Just go to the local post office, get some boxes, paste an address label on the box and off it goes! Not quite so simple as we have found out. The post office in Italy (Poste Italiane) has not been an exception and was actually the most challenging so far. We originally set out to find the nearest DHL service center after using the website ‘store finder’. In Germany, DHL (international package courier service) is now aligned with the German post office (Deutsche Post DHL) and we found it very easy and affordable to mail several packages. So we figured that DHL would be our best option in Italy as well.  We were unsuccessful in finding any of the DHL stores in the addresses listed on the website (which I suspect has outdated information).  On one of these adventures (yes, every simple outing is an adventure when you are a ‘stranger in a strange land’), we stopped at a neighborhood café in the local

village of Alcamo to use the WC (toilette) and to get a snack. The proprietor had not heard of DHL (at least not in the vicinity) of the café but offered to check on his smartphone. Everyone in Sicily (or so it seems) has a smartphone. He found a ‘pack and ship’ nearby – about 600m. He tried his best to give us directions but our limited Italian and his limited English was just not enough. Meanwhile, the girls who were eating on one of the café’s outdoor tables spied a playground across the street.  I accompanied the girls across the street to the playground while Tiffany continued the ‘conversation’ with the friendly café proprietor. A couple of local residents stopped in at the café and had an animated conversation about the ‘pack and ship’ store. The cafe’ proprietor then offered his companion (compagno) Louis to us, he would ride in our “macchina” (car) and walk back. A series of complicated directions with many hand gestures were offered on how to get to the nearby ‘pack and ship’ store. We were not parked nearby so we felt that this was not our best option. Notwithstanding the fact that our car only had room for five and Louis looked like he had just walked off the set of the Sopranos. I came back to extricate Tiffany from this exchange and was relieved to find that she wasn’t being held for ransom.

It has been our experience thus far that when asking for help from the locals, one needs to exercise the necessary patience and see the process through to avoid being labeled a “rude American”.  We graciously thanked everyone for their help and left the establishment still unsure as to our next move. I decided to walk the entire surrounding neighborhood determined to find the ‘non-existent’ DHL store while the girls played at the park. I was unsuccessful. Meanwhile Tiffany had struck up a conversation with a mother in the park on the topics of homeschool and world travel they were conversing with limited Italian and English. After a few minutes it was established that both women spoke Spanish. She and her 5 year old son, Christiano were playing at the park as well. Tiffany explained our dilemma and failed attempt to find the DHL center. The woman Liliana had not heard of DHL either which really puzzled me. She suggested using the Poste Italiane (Italian Post Office) to ship the packages. The local post office was only a few blocks away. We had actually been there a couple of hours earlier to mail some postcards. We incorrectly assumed that we could just go the counter and buy stamps (like we have done in every other country so far). Not the case in Italy.  The post cards are weighed and stamps electronically applied. The cost was €2.20 per post card. Not cheap compared to the states!. At this point, we kind of dismissed the idea of using the post office to ship anything home since we figured the cost would be exorbitant and communication impossible. Liliana convinced us that the post office was our best option and offered to take us and translate, to inquire about pricing, boxes, form, etc.  Tiffany while extremely grateful for this offer felt like this was an imposition on her time. Liliana thought nothing of helping us and spending whatever time necessary to help us accomplish our task. So off we went.  Tiffany went inside with her new friend, Liliana  and came out over an hour later with several bright yellow boxes and a fistful of forms (€14.50 for 3 boxes) to fill out (all in Italian, of course) while the children played outside on the Lion Statue.

Girls and Christian in Front of Poste

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Liliana and Tiffany in Front of Poste

Tiffany thanked our new friend for her gracious and unsolicited help which required her to translate from Italian to Spanish (which Tiffany could understand) and then to English (for me to understand it). It was not done…yet but we were making progress. We headed back to the car and Tiffany proceeded to fill the yellow boxes and to fill out all the paperwork for shipping from Italy. I headed across the street to get a couple of cappuccino’s to go and a potty break (in Europe, the expression is take-away). We have made many improptu stops at countless cafes in every country whenever we hear “I have to go the bathroom” to use the WC (toilette). Most cafe’s don’t post that the bathrooms are for customers only, but we always tried to be respectful and usually ordered an espresso or a pastry. At the café while waiting for my coffee, a gentlemen at the counter engaged me in conversation. Between his English, Italian and a bit of German, I figured out that he was offering to buy me a drink (a local specialty?). I thanked him politely and declined. He gave me a few lessons in Italian anyway and 20 minutes later I was on my way with the cappuccinos. Tiffany was in the car because it was raining still working on the shipping paperwork. She had a fierce determined look on her face. We waited for a break in the weather and trudged back to the post office with the boxes filled but not taped as the might require inspection. The Poste Italiane uses a queue numbering system similar to the DMV where you have to wait…patiently. As this was our third trip that day we were ushered to the appropriate line.  Soon it was our turn at the counter. Some of forms had not been filled out correctly and the very helpful postal clerk also opined that the value for the enclosed items was too high which would be a high VAT tax in addition to the shipping cost. So, Tiffany diligently filled out the forms again, again, and once again. After about 2 hours +, all the packages finally had been weighed and the shipping forms affixed. We paid the fee (€165 euro) for three packages and just to be clear, these packages are not filled with foreign treasure rather miscellaneous crap. I was satisfied that this was a fair amount all things considered and actually less than I had expected. Tiffany was unexpectedy presented with a signature yellow Poste Italiane coffee mug after she explained (not complained) that we had spent ‘all day’ in the post office. The mug was given to her by a very helpful gentleman who appeared to be a supervisor who must have appreciated her determination in successfully navigating the bureaucratic morass.

We left the post office without any packages and felt very good about our accomplishment. Earlier, Tiffany’s new friend had suggested that we try to visit the thermal hot springs (Terme Segestane) which were near Castellmmare del Golfo, not far from Alcamo. She explained that she spent a lot of time there with friends and family members and was going the following day. We parted company and hoped that we would perhaps run into each other at the hot springs.  The thermal hot springs are reportedly very therapeutic and relaxing. It was raining the next day and it did not look like it would be a good idea to visit the Terme Segestane. However, after a few hours of schoolwork, the weather improved and we decided to set out to find the hot springs. The road is definitely off the beaten tourist path and was a precarious drive down a seriously eroded and rutted dirt road (we were following directions that we had gotten off a website post!). At the bottom of the dubious ‘road’, we found a clearing where there were several cars parked. As we parked, an elderly gentleman acknowledged us and told us that we were at the right place. I picked up a German accent in his speech as he spoke Italian to us and soon found myself engaged in somewhat of a conversation with him in my limited German. He was from Wurzburg, Germany and had been coming here for 10 years to the hot springs. I am not sure what ailment he claimed he had cured but it sounded convincing to me. From where we parked, it was a short hike across a rock filled stream to reach the hot springs. The natural ‘pool’ was actually quite small but it was definitely hot and there was a pervading odor of sulphur which was not entirely unobjectionable (surprisingly). We all really enjoyed the hot springs. The weather turned again and once we heard thunder we knew that it was time to leave. The road was so steep that any rain at all would make it too slick to drive. We got out just in time and were followed by three other cars who also prudently left when we did.DSCN0096

The trip to the Terme Segestane was a good ending to our Sicily adventure. We returned our rental car (intact) and we promised ourselves that we would return to Sicily and Italy as there is so much more that we would like to see and experience in this amazing country.

Onward and upward.

Bernie

 

You can see Liliana’s Art @ http://www.lilianacoppolatrame.com

 

 

Germany’s not so final… resting place

As some of you may know who read my recent blog post, I intended to take my family and visit the local village of Roβtal (Rosstal) which is located very near to Nuremburg (about 20 minutes by train). There is a cemetery in Roβtal where my grandfather (my father’s dad) is buried. Before I left for my German high school trip in 1971, my father gave me a little hand-drawn map that showed where the headstone was located within the cemetery. My German host family (their last name was Schwarzbach – I can’t believe that I remember it after all these years!), was kind enough to drive me to the cemetery. From my father’s map, I was able to readily locate the headstone of my grandfather.

We decided to travel to Roβtal for our little pilgrimage on an overcast gray day (perfect, I thought for a visit to a graveyard) the day before Halloween. I had pre-planned our outing to Roβtal a couple of days ahead and thought I knew which subway and bus lines we would need to take. We took the subway (U-bahn) to the Hauptbahnhof (main train and bus station) where we would catch the “S4” bus directly to Roβtal. After 20 minutes of looking in vain for the right bus stop, we finally asked for directions and I was told that the “S4” is actually a train (not a bus). We were directed back to the train station (across the street) and located the right train platform 22 (there are 23) just minutes after the train had left the station. Since the next train was over two hours later, we decided to go back to the Altstadt to do a bit more shopping to kill time. The next two days (October 31 – Reformation Day and November 1 – All Saints Day) are both German holidays where all stores and many restaurants are closed and this would be our last opportunity to do any ‘real (Tiffany) shopping’. After the successful shopping trip (including pillows and jewelry) and a stop at a sumptuous ice cream parlor, we headed back to the subway station and were again distracted by a street musician. After a few minutes we realized that we were cutting it very close if we wanted to catch the next train to Roβtal. We ran thru the train station (no exaggeration) and got on the train as the doors where closing. We were headed to Roβtal.

I briefly looked at a map of the village (online) before we left and was sure that I could locate the cemetery from memory. We headed toward a church (kirche) where I assumed we would find a cemetery in the vicinity (which is often the case). We found the church and a school with noisy children playing in the yard but no cemetery. Tiffany coaxed me to ask someone for directions.  We found a gentleman who was picking his child up from Kindergarten who spoke enough English to point us in the right direction. So we headed off in the general direction that he gave us. A couple of minutes later, a car pulled over on the road and the same gentlemen gave us a bit more specific instructions (he must have assumed and rightfully so that we could not find it on our own).  We finally found a small church and cemetery after an arduous trek up several narrow winding streets. The cemetery looked vaguely familiar to me and actually wrapped around the church. We headed off to find the headstone of my grandfather (Wendelin Stroh). To our surprise, virtually all of the headstones in this cemetery were almost new and the dates inscribed were all fairly recent and most of them were family burial plots. There were no headstones dating back to the time period (early 1900’s) when my grandfather would have lived and died in this village. I was disappointed and confused as to where the old headstones would be. I asked a middle-aged woman that was walking thru the cemetery if there were any other cemeteries in Roβtal. Her English was not very good (about as good as my German), but I was able to learn that there was another small cemetery near the train station stop. So after a quick stop for a bite to eat at a local bakery, off we trekked to find the ‘other cemetery’. We walked and walked and finally found the other cemetery. It happened to be across the street from a pleasant little florist shop. The girls wanted to buy some flowers to place on the grave of their great-grandfather and they each picked out a single rose that they thought to be special.

The experience at this cemetery was the same as the first one that we found. All of the headstones were very new. I even approached a gentleman that was working in the cemetery and specifically asked about my grandfathers headstone but had no luck. As it was getting late in the day and we were all very tired of walking (cumulatively  – almost 3 hours), we decided to head back to our apartment in Nuremburg. Needless to say, I was sad and disappointed that we had failed to find my grandfathers gravesite. It certainly was not for lack of trying! When we got back our apartment, I went back on-line determined to try to find out what happened to the old cemetery that I had visited almost 46 years go. I must admit that what I discovered next really surprised me! By German law, cemetery plots are actually leased for a period of 15 to 30 years. The fee varies from town to town and is approximately €1,000-3,000 there may be a possibility to renew the lease. Many plots are reused after the lease expiration and the remains along with headstones and any markers are removed.  This is apparently a very common cycle in Germany due to limited space. Basically, it is impossible to find any gravesites that are older than 25 to 30 years since they have been ‘reused’ for the more recently deceased souls. It is very likely that during our arduous search of the cemeteries in Roβtal and reading all the names that we did happen upon the ‘former’ gravesite of my grandfather and were just unaware of it at the time. Learning that the burial plots in Germany are ‘reused’ did offer me some consolation that our search was not in vain.

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Digital Screen Albrecht Dürer

On the German holiday of Reformation (think of the famous Martin Luther and the 95 theses – basically propositions for changing the Catholic Church doctrines that Luther disagreed with), we went to visit the Albrecht Dürer Haus (House) and museum. The house is where Durer lived and worked with his wife almost 600 years ago. The museum does not actually have much of his original artwork since his coveted drawings, woodcarvings and paintings are in permanent collections all over the world. Instead it contains digital screens with images of his art and reproductions made by  German artists. I have personally had a fascination with some of his art work (especially the fine line drawings) since I was in high school and first visited Germany on the 500 year anniversary of his life.

We feel as though this trip has been a success as we shipped back two large boxes via DHL filled with Chocolates, Lebkuchen and Sausage for my mother.  My mother said to me during our summer visit to North Dakota “If I could I would fly to Nuremburg buy Lebkuchen and get on the plane and go back home again.”  I must admit this was largely part of our decision to fly into Nuremburg specifically, to fulfill this wish. We have already decided to come back and see more of the country, we hope on our next visit to Germany we will persuade (kidnap) my mother to accompany us.

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photo credit: Grace Stroh

 

Bernie

 

Nuremburg, Germany…my return to the Fatherland

My deep roots are German on both sides of my family so this country understandably has a familiar and comfortable ‘feel’ to me personally. I last visited Nuremburg when I was a senior in high school (way back in the time machine in the year 1975). I was a regional winner in a national high school German language contest and the prize was a trip to Germany along with several dozen other high school students from all over the country. Each student was placed with a German host family where we ‘lived’ for several weeks and also attended school for a brief period. There were special bus trips arranged to Munich and Berlin (at that time there was still an East Berlin under Russian occupation and West Berlin). I recall that we were even briefly allowed to cross the check-point into East Berlin as part of the trip! Of course, there were also a few visits to some famous medieval castles. After countless years of  ‘not using it and losing it’, my German is now very rusty to say the least and I now wish that I had the time to ‘relearn’ German again before embarking on this admittedly impulsive world travel adventure with my family. But we have not had any real communication problems since most of the locals that we have interacted with speak at least a little bit of English.

My father’s family hails from the Nuremburg area and I recall him telling me about one of his first jobs as a youth working for Grundig. I miss my father very much and some days it is hard to believe that it has been almost 18 years since his passing in 1999. In a couple of days we plan to take a short bus trip to the neighboring village of Rostal where my grandfather on my father’s side is  buried in a church cemetery. I recall my father telling me that his father was somewhat of a dissident and frequently got into trouble with the authorities. I regrettably never met my grandfather since he died in his 50’s and never made it to America with the rest of his family that emigrated after WWII ended. I see this as a rare opportunity for our girls to visit the cemetery of their great-grandfather and to learn a bit of their ancestry.

Emboldened by our experience with the public transportation system in Barcelona, we decided to take the subway (U-bahn) to explore the Altstadt (literal translation: old city) a couple of days ago. There is an intriguing mixture of very old and very new buildings. One building in particular caught my eye; the Neues Museum (literal translation: new museum). It was a museum of contemporary-modern art. No old masters adorning the walls of this museum and frankly, while quite interesting nonetheless, the interpretation of the artists’ intent is usually a bit of a head scratcher. You can decide for yourself from some of the photos attached to this blog. Even if the art exhibits failed to inspire me, the buildings’ architecture and helical stair did impress me.

 

On Friday, we visited the Rudolph Steiner-Schule (Waldorf School) in Nuremburg. We contacted the schools’ secretary thru their website (all in German of course) and requested permission to visit the school with our three children who attend the Haleakala Waldorf School on Maui. The secretary was very accommodating and arranged for one of the schools’ teachers (Julia Schlagbaum) to greet us and give us a private tour of the campus and to answer any questions. Julia teaches French and English at this school (which are the two languages that are taught at this Waldorf School as part of the curriculum). We learned from her that the Nuremburg Waldorf School is one of the largest in Germany with approximately 950 students in grades K, 1-13. It was raining pretty hard the day that we visited the school so we only got a quick tour of the grounds but enough to recognize the Waldorf gardening area and extensive playground areas. We also got to visit the 4th grade classroom and noted the familiar artwork on the walls and chalkboard (celtic knots) and the kindergarten classroom. A large addition was constructed about 17 years ago that included a ‘bistro’ gathering area at the main level which appeared to be very popular with the staff and older students. We also saw the impressive kitchen which prepares the hot lunches daily (3.75 Euros). The tuition is a surprising 350 Euros per month with even lower rates for siblings…..hmm. All in all, it was a good experience for all of us (even our youngest girls, Eleanore-2nd Grade and Grace-Kindergarten) to see and connect with another Waldorf School on the other side of the world! As we were leaving, the schools’ secretary surprised us by giving us a copy of the book “Der Sonne Licht” (translation: The Sun’s Light), which is a wonderful compilation of poems and stories used as a textbook by Waldorf teachers.

 

Saturday we started out with the intent of visiting a popular Toy Museum (Spielzeugmuseum) which displays over 600 years of German toy history and instead ended up at a Kindermuseum (Children’s Museum) instead (I misread the city map!) We decided to check it out since our children were already familiar with similar museums in other cities (St. Paul, Minnesota and Chicago). The very interactive museum was a big hit and we spent several hours on the three floors of the building which covered everything from life at the turn of the century to organic farming, sustainable development and greenhouse gases (ie., global warming – of course).

We also managed to get a ‘bit of shopping’ in as well! More posts to come. Stay tuned.

Bernie

 

BARCELONA (capital of CATALONIA)

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Park Güell

We have now made our way to the other side of Spain to the coastal city of Barcelona. This very large urban area is home to almost 5 million people. Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia and has been in the world news recently due to the populist ‘separatist’ movement that is seeking to declare independence for this region from Spain. Our Airbnb host (who is from this region) patiently explained the history of Catalonia and the uneasy ‘marriage’ of this region to Spain starting in the 1400’s thru the present day. The region of Catalonia has it’s own language (Catalan) which is similar to Spanish but no more so than French and Portuguese which are all ‘romance’ languages. In my brief conversations with two taxi drivers in Madrid and Barcelona respectively, who are on opposing sides of the issue; I have learned that this issue is a big deal, primarily because of the economic implications. In a nutshell, Spain (ie., Madrid) has borrowed a lot of money from Germany . Barcelona (representing Catalonia) objected to the financial bailout of Spain. Germany wants their money back with interest (of course) and is very concerned that the breakup of Spain and Catalonia will have a de-stabilizing impact on the country (and it certainly will!) and their ability to pay their debts. If the independence for Catalonia succeeds, it will also shake up the entire EU which has other member countries with similar internal problems.

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Girls enjoying a panoramic view of Barcelona from Güell Monumental Plaza (La Sagrada Familia can be seen in the background to the left of center)

Our Airbnb is located in a small hilltop village (Vallirana), which is located about 30km or so from Barcelona. We were advised to avoid Barcelona last Sunday due to the demonstrations that were expected in the city but we did manage to make our way into the city’s main commercial district on Tuesday (October 10, 2017) mostly for shopping. After my horrible driving experience in Madrid, there was no way that I was going to drive in Barcelona so we left the car parked and took a city bus instead. The next day was a homeschool day for the girls and we decided to return to Barcelona to do a bit of sightseeing. The famous basilica La Sagrada Familia (sacred family) and Park Güell were on our agenda. Unbeknownst to us, the day we picked to go back to Barcelona was a national holiday ‘Fiesta Nacional de España’ which has a historic connection to Columbus Day (now celebrated in the US as Discoverer’s Day).

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Waiting for the Bus 

We waited and waited at the bus stop for the ‘express bus’ that we had taken into the city a couple of days earlier but because of the ‘holiday’, there was no express bus and only a few other buses on routes that we were not familiar with. After an hour and half wait, we decided to take the next bus that stopped. We knew that all the buses were headed to Barcelona from our location. After all, how far could it be from the city centre? Well, this particular bus dropped us quite far from La Sagrada Familia. Tiffany managed to get directions and we soon found ourselves riding on a subway below the city which literally dropped us across the street from our destination, the very imposing basilica designed by the famous Spanish architect, Antoni Gaudi (God’s architect). Gaudí died in 1926 after having spent 43 years working on the basilica. The structure has several tower cranes amidst the churches very tall towers which are being used to hasten the completion now scheduled for 2026 on the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death. Short Video clip below:

From the basilica, we walked approximately 2 miles (uphill) to Park Güell. This park was originally a residential development also designed by Gaudí that failed as a business venture since the homes were located too far away from the much smaller Barcelona city center. The park offers stunning views of Barcelona and the Balearic Sea. We took a bus back to the commercial shopping district that we were already somewhat familiar with hoping that we could then catch a bus back to our Airbnb in Vallirana. Because of the national holiday, there were no buses heading in our direction. By now it was getting dark and not only where there no buses, there were very few taxis. The girls were tired from being on their feet literally all day. I estimate that we probably walked roughly 4 miles that day. We gave up trying to get back to Vallirana and spent the night in a Marriot Hotel in the area. They required us to book two rooms since there were five of us. The clerk insisted that it was hotel policy and we relented rather than argue. We got a good nights sleep and finally made our way back to our Airbnb on Friday (by bus of course).

With only a couple of days left in Vallirana, we spent Friday and Saturday exploring the village and the neighboring town of Cervelló. There is a castle in ruins (which appears to be undergoing a very slow restoration) Castello de Cervelló high in the hills above Cervelló that the girls & I had a lot of fun exploring.

Tomorrow (Sunday) we head back down the hill to the village of Vilanova I La Geltru which is located on the beaches of the Balearic south about 45km south of Barcelona. More fun in the sun!