A Travellerspoint blog

America Redux

Long overdue ramblings from the west coast

After a fun three weeks in Costa Rica, we had a decision to make: Did we want to go and explore South America, or go back to the USA and tour the west coast? It was a tough decision. We’d discussed the possibility of visiting Peru and Chile, and we’d heard very good things about Ecuador, but in the end the decision was made for us: Chile had just had a huge earthquake, and the British and New Zealand government international advisory services kept sendings us alerts saying, “Don’t go to South America – it’s dangerous!” We then discussed briefly popping to Ecuador (one of the few ‘safe’ places in that region), just so we could say we’d seen that part of the world, but the ridiculously expensive airfares put us off. Instead we opted for plan b) and did all the typical touristy stuff in California. You know: we walked the Golden Gate Bridge; “oohed” and “ahhed” at giant redwood trees; stared at downtown L.A. from the back of a traffic jam...

Getting there was fun – not. We had two days of 3am starts, with two flights per day, and it wasn’t long before the boredom set in. You can tell when Pete is getting antsy ‘cos he starts acting like a hyperactive five year old. If you happen to be on an American Airlines flight, flicking through the free magazine that they provide, and come across an advert for a plastic surgeon that has been ‘enhanced’ by the addition of spectacles, devil horns, fangs, a goatee beard and bunny ears... Pete woz there before ya!

Although it had only been a few months since we were last in America, there were a whole lot of things I’d forgotten. These included:

- Borders book shops, much to my delight. We’d got so used to looking for second-hand paperbacks in Mexico and Costa Rica that the existence of brand-spanking-new books was a pleasant surprise!
- How many different burger joints there are, and the amazing fact that they all stay in business.
- Over-the-top food serving sizes.
- Fabulous customer service and all-round politeness.
- The fact that pedestrians have rights and drivers will actually stop at pedestrian crossings. (Look and learn, Mexico!)
- And biscuits. How could I forget about biscuits? (When I have my inevitable heart attack, tell my cardiologist it was worth it.)

I don’t wanna blether on about food (again), but I’ve got a new version of the mystery menu game going. Across the road from our hotel was a restaurant called Mel’s Drive-in, as seen in the film American Graffitti. The film wasn't up to much (in my not-so-humble opinion), but the food was awesome. The only problem was, none of the waitstaff could understand a single word I said. “Tuna salad sandwich, please,” I’d say; “One turkey Cobb salad coming right up!” they’d reply. In the end I had to resort to the point-and-click approach I use when I don’t know the local lingo: speak slowly and loudly whilst jabbing a finger at the appropriate item on the menu. It was most embarrassing.

Still, it’s not the first time I’ve had problems with my accent. A woman on a tour bus in Costa Rica discovered we were British but living in New Zealand. “Oh,” she said. “I thought you sounded Australian!” (Note: my accent is still 100% no-quibble English. The nearest I’ve got to sounding even vaguely Antipodean is referring to a barbeque as a ‘barbie’.)

Anyhoo, because America is so horribly expensive, we decided to limit our time there to just three weeks. We know we could have spent another three months there quite happily, but our bank balance refused to cooperate. (It will insist on going in a downwards direction. Most unsporting of it, I say!) The trick, then, was to choose a few highlights. We agreed that the must-sees included San Francisco, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon; anything else was a bonus.

We started off in San Francisco, partly so Pete could attend a Flash Games Developers’ Conference that was being held there, partly so that he could catch up with an old friend who he hadn’t seen in umpteen years, and partly because I was itching to walk the Golden Gate Bridge.

We did a lot of walking in S.F., by the way, and we had the calf cramps to prove it. See, San Francisco is rather hilly. I wasn’t particularly bothered by this before I got there; I’d lived in hilly areas before and quite enjoyed the exercise I got marching up and down ‘em. Edinburgh had hills; so did Auckland. What nobody told me, however, is that San Francisco has HILLS. We stupidly decided it would be fun to walk down Lombard Street, the crookedest street in America:

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Lombard Street: gotta love those hairpin turns!

Unfortunately in order to reach the top of Lombard, we had to approach it from the other side:

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If we’d known it was gonna be this steep, we’d have taken a cab.

It took three days for my leg muscles to recover. I wouldn’t mind, but I was feeling quite fit at the time, having had three energetic weeks in Costa Rica. Now I understand why the locals use the cable cars – it’s much easier!

Anyway, the Golden Gate Bridge was advertised as being one of the attractions near our hotel, so we asked the receptionist if it was within walking distance. “Sure,” he said. “It’ll take twenty to twenty-five minutes.” This sounded good, so off we went.

Twenty-five minutes later, we could see the bridge... but it was still a long way off. We’d forgotten about estimates in America: people rarely walk anywhere, so their times are usually out by a factor of two. It took us a total of 3½ hours to do the whole trip (something else for our muscles to moan about!)

It was worth it, though. Apparently we got lucky with the weather; the usual S.F. fog had taken a hiatus, and we had gorgeous sunshine for the duration of our stay.

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The GGB was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it first opened in 1937, with a total length of 1.71 miles / 2,737 metres. It no longer holds that particular world record, but it is still the second longest suspension bridge in the United States.

The other pretty cool thing we got to do in S.F. was take a trip in a 1950s fire engine. I first saw this advertised on the Internet, immediately regressed to a mental age of four and started clamouring for a ride. It’s not like I wanted to be a fire(wo)man or anything when I was a kid – I hate heights, so would only be able to rescue people from caravans and bungalows – but I’ve always fancied the idea of riding in one of the engines (and, if I’m honest, getting to make an unholy racket with the bell).

Our hosts during this time was a husband-and-wife team called Bob and Marilyn (or, if you wanna get technical about it, Captain Bob and Co-captain Marilyn). Bob was the driver; Marilyn provided the commentary, songs, jokes and tap-dances – she really was quite a character!

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Us and the big, red, shiny Mack fire engine. I never did get to ring the bell, by the way; they only let little kids do that. Darn!

After a week in S.F. we decided another roadtrip was in order. Our first port of call was Fresno, ‘cos I was in tree-hugging mode again and wanted to see some sequoias. (“So they grow tall,” said Pete, true to form. “They’re sequoias; that’s what they do.”)

And this is the point where I wish I’d done my homework more thoroughly. I did look at the Sequoia National Park website prior to our trip, but I somehow managed to miss the bit about the place being 7000 ft up a mountain... complete with three feet of snow! (24 hours later I was also wishing I’d held onto that coat I bought in Boston last year. Sadly that got ditched in Florida, when I swore up and down that I was never going anywhere cold ever again.)

Digressionary note: I am currently typing this on a plane. The flight has been perfectly smooth so far, so why is it the second I get my laptop out we hit freaking turbulence? Sort it out, Mr. Pilot. I only have an hour left on my battery.

The national park was amazing, though. I knew sequoias were big, but the scale of the things is impossible to comprehend until you’re standing next to one:

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Little me by a great big tree.

Once I’d satisfied my tree-hugging fetish it was time to move on again. More decisions: L.A. or not L.A.? Would we be interested in the City of Angels? A quick Google soon made up our minds. Los Angeles seems to be primarily about Disney attractions and celebrities. We’d already spent time assiduously avoiding all things Mickey in Florida, and neither one of us gives two hoots what the rich and famous get up to, so we chose to bypass the whole thing and headed to San Diego instead.

It was a good choice. We spent a fabulous day at San Diego Zoo – reputedly one of the best in the world – and I was especially delighted to see this furry fella:

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Adorable sleepy panda. I want one!

Our trip to the west coast wouldn’t have been complete without dropping by Las Vegas, so off we headed to Nevada. Vegas is a strange place: tacky, touristy and not at all real. It felt like Toytown, except that everything is stupidly expensive and they won’t let you pay using Monopoly money.

That’s not to say that we didn’t enjoy it, though. We had a great time, and I got to do all the things I’d always wanted to do out there. We walked the strip during the day, and cruised down it at night to see all the lights.

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When I say we 'walked the strip', what I really mean is we did a pub crawl through the casinos. This is Pete with a ridiculously expensive beer in the Bellagio, which he had to have ‘cos he was tired and beer is a good source of energy. That's what he told me, anyway...

We booked a suite in a 5* theme hotel, the Venetian, which has a canal and gondolas running through the middle of it:

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Not quite Venice, but we really enjoyed staying in our suite. One word of warning though: every item in the minibar is placed on a pressure pad. The second you remove something, that item is charged to your credit card. (Note they charge $9 for a box of Gummi Bears, so unless you've won a fortune in the casinos I'd recommend avoiding the minibar and buying your snacks elsewhere.)

And we saw two shows, stand-up comedian David Spade (very funny and cynical), and the Blue Man Group. We weren’t too sure about the BMG at first, and were concerned that we’d just spent a silly amount of money on tickets for a show that we wouldn’t enjoy much. It’s nice when you’re proved wrong, though, isn’t it? It was a fantastic mix of comedy, great music and jaw-dropping visual effects. (For those of you who don’t mind spoilers, you can see excerpts of their show here.)

The one thing we didn’t do much was gamble. My idea of what makes a good slot machine seems to have frozen in the 1970s. (Does anybody else remember calling them ‘one-armed bandits?’) I didn’t realise how much they’d changed. Gone are the nudge and hold buttons, and the moving mechanical arm; now all you can do is decide how many lines you want and how much money you wanna waste. It was really, really boring ‘cos there's no skill involved anymore. I mean, it’s not like we expected to win anything, but we at least hoped to have fun. Las Vegas casinos made a grand total of $9 from us, so I guess we’re not getting ‘comped’ any time soon!

Anyhoo...

For the final leg of this trip we went to the Grand Canyon to see what all the fuss was about:

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Me, next to one of the most jaw-dropping views I have ever seen.

Our snapshots can never do this place justice, though. For a selection of professional photos, click here.

One word of advice: most people head for the major viewpoints, take a couple of photos and get back in their cars to drive to the next one. We decided to walk the trail, which was much nicer. The scenic viewpoints are packed and noisy: people talking loudly, kids squabbling, everybody getting in the way of everybody else’s photos... it really was quite unpleasant. The Canyon is so huge and pretty, it just felt wrong that there was so much chaos and clamouring. The trail, however, was practically deserted. There were still many places to take pictures, and you could stand and take it all in in blissful silence.

And that was the end of a pretty exhausting three weeks.

Sadly it is now time for us to leave the Americas. We've enjoyed it here, though, and have spent approximately seven months touring the USA, Mexico and Costa Rica. We'll be heading back to Europe for a while now, and we still have Africa and India to explore.

My next entry will be from the Nile, so watch this space!

Posted by Julie1972 03:18 Archived in USA Comments (2)

Underground, Overground, Wombling Free

The Highs and Lows of Costa Rica

Note:

For those of you who are unfamiliar with British children’s television series from the 1970s, the main title of this entry has been shamelessly nicked from the theme tune of a programme called The Wombles.

So, the last three weeks have been a complete contrast to the lazy month we spent on Isla Mujeres. In fact, I think we have been more active in Costa Rica than any other country so far. (I wasn't lying about the underground, overground stuff in my title!)

We started off in the capital, San Jose. It’s a modern city with a pleasant feel to it, and we were comfortable there right away. Unlike other cities we’ve visited, we spent very little time exploring the galleries and museums here (though we did enjoy the Museo del Oro which houses a seriously impressive collection of Pre-Colombian gold artefacts). We were in Costa Rica for the nature! I wanted to see rainforests and butterflies and mountains and monkeys and stuff, so we booked ourselves on a tour to the La Paz Waterfall Gardens where we got to see some stunning scenery and a few exotic creatures.

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There are actually five waterfalls in total, which are accessible via a series of staircases. It’s not so bad going down, but you get a real cardio workout on the way back up!

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La Paz has a variety of aviaries, a butterfly enclosure, a collection of frogs (including miniature poisonous ones), monkeys and jungle cats. I was absolutely thrilled to get up close and personal with the toucans and hummingbirds. They are only found in the Americas, so it was a rare privilege to see them in real life.

Of course, seeing animals in enclosures isn’t the same as seeing them in the wild, so we packed our bags and headed to Monteverde, which was approximately a four hour drive from San Jose. We were against hiring a car (anyone who has read my first Mexico entry will understand why), so booked ourselves onto a tourist bus.

This trip was interesting for a couple of reasons. First, we had to swap buses halfway. Our driver told us to find bus number 50, then disappeared to have his lunch. Unfortunately bus 50 was getting ready to leave, and our backpacks were still locked in the original bus! When our driver finally finished eating, he couldn’t get the doors open... and in the meantime, bus 50 drove off! It turns out that that wasn’t the bus we wanted after all, which was just as well.

We eventually locate the correct bus, and our new driver told us it would be a journey of about one hour and forty-five minutes. “Oh goody,” said I, and settled back with my MP3 player. Two minutes later he turned onto a road that was more of a dirt track than anything, and started up a winding path into the mountains. “Oh gods,” said I, and quickly popped another travel sickness pill. This was a sensible move, ‘cos the next hour and half was a bone-jarring, knuckle-clenching ride. I’m not saying this mountain was steep, but on the way we saw cows wearing oxygen masks. It just kept going up and up. We passed families of mountain goats that looked at us and said, “Are you mad? Even we won’t go up there; the air’s much too thin!”

The road was so narrow in places that you could look down past the edge into the valleys beyond. Call me gruesome, but I couldn’t help but panic every time I caught a glint of metal. Was that an upside-down tour bus we passed back there? I had vivid images of Michael Caine at the end of The Italian Job (the original, not the crummy remake), his truck hanging precariously over the cliff edge, and him saying, “Hang on, lads; I've got a great idea.”

We also squeezed by some humungous trucks which could never conceivably have driven up on their own. I concluded that the only way they could have got there was if an alien spacecraft abducted them and plonked ‘em back down on the mountain top, so then I started looking for signs of crop circles in the undergrowth, as well as ruined tour buses. (Travel sickness pills have a weird effect on me. I get somewhat spacey and imagine all sorts of things. I know I don’t strictly speaking have to share them with you, but what would I write about otherwise?)

To the surprise of everyone (including the mountain goats), we made it to our hotel in one piece. “No way am I doing that in reverse,” I told Pete. “When it’s time to leave, I’m gonna call Mountain Rescue and get someone to come and airlift me out!”

The hotel was amazing, though, ‘cos we were staying in a cabin in a cloud forest:

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Our cabin, and me spoiling our lovely view.

Of course, the downside to such fabulous views is the fact that we have quite a hike to reach our cabin. Happily the hotel provided Sherpas to guide us to our room.

A big part of visiting Costa Rica for us was the opportunity to walk through a rainforest (*). There were many ways to explore the forests, including train, zip lines and aerial trams, but we chose to do the Sky Walk in the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve. This consisted of a series of hanging bridges that allowed us to see the top of the forest’s canopy.

(*) Or in our case, a cloud forest, if you wanna get technical about such things! I’d never even heard of cloud forests before. They differ from rainforests in that they are cooler due to their high altitude, and contain different types of vegetation.

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Pete on a hanging bridge. We definitely made the right choice – we wouldn’t have seen half as much if we’d done the train or zip lines.

When we first arrived at Santa Elena we wondered just how much fun it was going to be. There were buses arriving left and right, and crowds of people milling about everywhere, so we assumed we were going to be part of a huge tour group. We have a talent for losing people, however, and soon managed to get separated from the rest of our bus. Instead we ended up in a party of four, with an American couple and a guide named Henry.

Henry was superb. He was knowledgeable about every aspect of the environment and was happy to explain things to us. He was in no rush, and he let us take our time and ask as many questions as we wanted. He was also determined that we were not finishing the tour until we had seen this: a quetzal bird.

Quetzals used to be found throughout Central America, but unfortunately are now only found in Costa Rica. They are rare and hard to spot, but Henry was confident that he’d find one for us. He was skilled in making bird calls, and I think my most vivid memory of that day was of him walking slowly through the forest, tracing the return calls of a quetzal, and us four tourists standing so, so still, not daring to move in case we scared it away. There was something very thrilling about that.

Henry was as good as his word; he found a pair of quetzals, and decided that we were all going to get a good look at them before we moved on. We had three pairs of binoculars between us, which was good as the birds were some distance away. Pete and the American lady saw the bird pretty much straight away; the other fella and I had a bit more trouble locating it in the tangle of branches. (Bizarrely I could see the thing with the naked eye, but couldn’t home in on it with the binoculars.) We all managed it eventually, but we were on that bridge for an hour!

We had one more memorable experience before we left Monteverde, on the way back from a cheese factory tour. (Yes, they have a cheese factory on top of a mountain! It was built by Quakers in the 1950s.) I mentioned before that we’d been a lot more physically active here, often at unexpected times. This was one of ‘em. We came across a sign for a trail to Monteverde Waterfall, and, having nothing better to do at the time, decided to give it a go.

It wasn’t a long hike by any means, but it was a tough one compared to the others we’d had so far. We’d taken a couple of walks through rainforests, but those trails were all so... paved. This was rugged. The owners had laid a few logs over streams and attached ropes to trees to help you up and down steep bits, but otherwise it was pretty much untamed woodland. I hadn’t had this much fun in ages! We scrambled up some slopes, slid down others, clambered over boulders, ducked under trees, climbed over stiles, wobbled over make-shift bridges and tried not to fall off narrow ledges that were barely wide enough to let an anorexic skeleton past. By the time we got back I was hot, tired, sweaty, dirty, aching all over from using muscles I obviously hadn’t used in years, was completely breathless and covered muddy paw prints from a friendly dog who came to say hello once we’d reached the top. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world! It’s good to be reminded what the human body is capable of sometimes.

After Monteverde we headed to Arenal, ‘cos we just couldn’t leave without at least trying to get a look at a live volcano. We thought we were gonna be out of luck, ‘cos apparently they have a long rainy season there (kind of like Scotland); but the one day the sun peeked out from behind a cloud for more than two minutes, we decided to push our luck and booked a private tour.

Our taxi driver was a character, to say the least. On the way he stopped at a mini-market so we could buy supplies (“Hooray!” said Pete. “Beer!”); Mr. Driver thought this was a good idea, too, and bought himself a can. If I ever had any doubts as to whether someone or something was looking out for me, it was confirmed that night. I shall never forget sitting in the backseat of that taxi, blasting down a dodgy road in a national park with no streetlights, and the driver in front of me with an open beer can in one hand and his mobile phone in the other. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “Live dangerously and you live right,” but I suspect he had had very little experience with homicidal taxi drivers. (They’re loco to a hombre, I swear!)

Anyway, by some miracle we made it to the volcano with all limbs attached, and joined the dozen or so other lava groupies who were hanging around the viewing area. We couldn’t see much, but we all stood there willing the clouds away. Maybe there is something to be said for telekinesis after all, ‘cos suddenly the sky cleared and we were treated to a nice little show of volcanic pyrotechnics. Our photographs didn’t turn out, sadly, but there are some impressive ones on this website.

That wasn’t the only weird and wonderful thing we did in Arenal, however...

See, I am a goal-setting kind of gal. I like making lists and ticking off completed items, and was delighted when I discovered Life Lists and 101 in 1001. Before leaving New Zealand, I wrote down 101 things I’d like to achieve on this trip. Item #37 on this list sounds harmless enough; it says simply: Explore a cave.

I really should be more careful with my choice of words. See, I’ve visited caves before – lots of them. On those occasions I’ve enjoyed a pleasant stroll in tourist-friendly caverns and grottos, with walkways and stairs and handrails. The ceilings are high, and they are generally very well lit. The Venado Caves near Arenal, however, had none of these things... and I still have the bruises to prove it!

I only suggested the caves because I thought it would be a relatively easy half-day tour. We booked in the morning, enjoyed a leisurely lunch, then strolled down to reception to await our minibus. We told the cheerful chappy behind the desk where we were going, and he immediately looked us up and down. “Do you have spare clothes?” he asked. “You will get wet.” We explained we had raincoats with us; he shook his head. “You need more clothes,” he insisted. “To get to the caves you must walk through water.” Pete and I looked at each other, a little alarmed. No one said anything about wading when we booked! Cheerful chappy grinned and added, “They provide hats and boots.”

He was so earnest that we dutifully returned to our cabin and collected more clothing, me wondering out loud what on Earth I’d let myself in for. “Don’t worry,” Pete told me. “There are probably lots of caves round here. He’s misunderstood which tour we’re booked on, that’s all.”

He hadn’t. He was right about everything: the wading, the hard hats, and the need for dry clothes at the end.

Oh dear.

We were there, however, and it was too late for me to back out, so I donned my hat and wellies, grabbed a torch, and followed our guide down a steep mudslide to the entrance of the cave. We did indeed have to walk through water, for most of the tour in fact, ‘cos a small stream ran through the caverns. Staying upright was an interesting challenge, because the bed of the stream was an uneven mess of stones.

Before entering the cave, the guide assured us that none of the bats, spiders or other creepy crawlies we would encounter inside were harmful; actually, he said, most of them are blind ‘cos it’s so dark in there.

Oh dear, oh dear.

The next hour was something new for me. Instead of high ceilings, bright lights and helpful handrails, I had to crawl through narrow passageways and rely on the too-skimpy beams from the torches to avoid touching rocks with creepy crawlies on ‘em!

Before heading out, our guide had tried to get us to pay $20 to hire a photographer to follow us around and record our adventures. We passed, mainly because $20 is a lot of dough for a few snapshots. Once in the caves, I was glad we’d declined for another reason. See, if the photography fella had been in there with us, I would have ended up with a series of pictures that showed the following:

- Me smacking my head off low ceilings (multiple times)
- Me struggling to stay upright (all of the time)
- Me trying to squeeze my way through a tiny hole that triggered a claustrophobia attack (only once; the guide avoided the narrowest trails after that)
- Me struggling to keep up with the guide as he bounced over big rocks and boulders (I think he was a mountain goat in a previous life!)
- Me trying to hide surreptitiously behind Pete when the guide was waving a ginormous spider around.
- And, most embarrassing of all, me being hoisted up a 6ft wall - pushed at one end, pulled at the other – ‘cos the guide said it provided a more interesting route back to the entrance. (Dignity, why didst thou forsake me?)

At the end of the tour, we were both soaked top to bottom, covered in dirt and clay, and aching in places we didn’t know existed before. I had bashed myself many times, so had a wonderfully colourful collection of cuts, scrapes and bruises, and was unable to sit down without wincing.

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The scruffiest, muckiest tourists in Costa Rica!

And you know what? I’d do it all again in an instant! You can keep your sanitised caves – this was the real deal! That night I happily ticked off goal #37 from my list, considering that bad boy well and truly explored.

Before I go:

I mentioned that one of the things I wanted to do in Costa Rica was to see some monkeys, and I finally got to do that – twice. The first time was somewhat unexpected. We’d booked ourselves into a hotel called Casa Lima in San Jose (very nice), and the owners had a pet monkey called Kiko. Kiko was a very cheeky chappy who enjoyed yanking the tail of the hotel’s pet iguana and teasing birds.

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Say hello to Kiko. This little fella had been attacked by another animal when he was a baby, but the hotel owner’s mother rescued him and nursed him back to health. He’s a cutie!

Just before we were due to leave, we went on a boat ride down the Rio Frio (great name or what? It means ‘cold river’), where we saw howler, spider and capuchin monkeys just hanging around in the wild. We also discovered that the thing Kiko did with the iguana is quite common: Capuchins like to pull lizard’s tails!

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A couple of wild monkeys, monkeying around!

In summary:

Costa Rica is a fabulous country and we had a whale of a time. I highly recommend it if you like nature, beautiful scenery, wild animals, extreme sports or aching muscles from over-exertion!

We’re returning to the USA for a few weeks now, so I’ll write again soon from the west coast.

‘Bye.

Posted by Julie1972 22:48 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (2)

Life on the 'Island of Women'

Doing nothing on Isla Mujeres

Happy Anniversary to us! Pete and I have now been travelling for one whole year to the day. On March 2nd last year we were just leaving Auckland, taking the Overlander train to Wellington. I can't believe how quickly the time's gone... or how soon we will have to go home again. Guess I'll have to keep looking for that money tree, eh?

Anyhoo...

Note:

I realise that, technically speaking, I should be writing about Havana, which is where we went over New Year; the thing is, we had a pretty horrible time there (including the two of us contracting a nasty case of food poisoning that made us ill for a week!), and I’m not sure I can make a decent entry out of what would essentially be a page of non-stop whinging. So, I have decided to follow that old pearl of wisdom grown-ups told me when I was a kid: If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, Don’t Say Anything At All!

Originally we had intended to stay in Cuba for a month, but soon decided that that was going to be way too long. Instead we sucked up the airline fees, changed our flights and returned to Cancun with big sighs of relief.

After celebrating the fact that we were back in the civilised world and that our food poisoning symptoms had finally disappeared, we had a question to answer:

What now?

At this point we realised that we had been on the move pretty much non-stop since the beginning of September. We’d spent three months touring the USA, then another month crashing cars in Mexico, so we both agreed that it was time to take a break. I found this quote in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View which sums up our attitudes to travelling perfectly:

"Oh, indeed," said Mr. Eager. "Are you indeed? If you will not think me rude, we residents sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little - handed about like a parcel of goods from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome, living herded together in pensions or hotels, quite unconscious of anything that is outside Baedeker (*), their one anxiety to get 'done' or 'through' and go on somewhere else. The result is, they mix up towns, rivers, palaces in one inextricable whirl. You know the American girl in Punch who says: 'Say, poppa, what did we see at Rome?' And the father replies: 'Why, guess Rome was the place where we saw the yaller dog.' There's travelling for you. Ha! ha! ha!"

(*) The travel guide du jour. I guess today’s equivalent would be the Lonely Planet series.

Pete and I are not what we call ‘route march travellers’. We’re not out to see as many things as we can in the shortest time possible – we’d much rather pick one or two sights, take our time, and enjoy them thoroughly before moving onto the next thing (usually a pub). However, at this point in time we agreed that even ‘one or two sights’ would be one or two too many, and we wanted to stay put for a while.

Next came the fun task of trying to find an apartment in Cancun during high season. We did it, though, and ended up on a sleepy little island called Isla Mujeres (Island of Women). Although it’s a popular destination for apartment rentals, I didn’t find much practical information about the place before we went there, so I’ve decided to rectify this by writing my own guide to life on the island.

About Isla Mujeres

Isla Mujeres is less than five miles (seven kilometres) long and half a mile wide, and has a population of about 14,000. It was given its name by the Spanish Conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, who, upon landing there in 1517, found many statues of goddesses. (Back in Pre-Columbian times the island was dedicated to Ix Chel, the Mayan goddess of fertility and childbirth.)

Today it is a sleepy little place where old people sit outside and watch the world go by. Everyone goes to bed early, and gets up disgustingly early (and noisily), usually around 5.30 am. If your neighbours don’t wake you, the newspaper sellers and garbage collectors will.

The locals are very friendly and welcoming, and nearly everyone speaks some English. (They are also extremely tolerant of our appalling attempts to speak Spanish!)

Getting there

There are two ways to get to Isla Mujeres from Cancun: catamaran or ferry. The catamaran is for foot passengers and takes 15 minutes; the ferry is the only option if you want to take a car to the island, and takes about 45 minutes.

catamaran.jpg
The catamaran that we caught back to the mainland at the end of our trip. (We nearly missed it, incidentally, ‘cos we were waiting at the wrong terminal!)

As we’d given up on cars in Mexico, we took the catamaran. You can buy return tickets at the port for $14.50 (see Prices below for more info), and the boats leave every hour or so. About the only thing that caught us out was the queuing system: they have two separate queues, one for locals and one for tourists. The locals get to board first, so if the boat fills up and you are at the back of the tourist queue, then tough luck!

You can also expect to be talked at by a bloke with a microphone non-stop while you are waiting. I have no idea what he was blethering about, ‘cos I soon decided that listening to thrash metal on my MP3 player was preferable to listening to Mr. Man banging on about who-knows-what for the best part of an hour, so I wasn’t paying attention when he gave his spiel in English. Given that we managed to board and disembark in one piece, I doubt it was anything important.

Prices

I must admit to having a minor heart attack when I first entered a grocery store in Mexico City (many months ago) and saw the price of a bottle of Coke:

$85

“The price is in pesos,” Pete told me. “They use the dollar symbol here, too.” (My excuse is that I had just left the USA and was still thinking in terms of American dollars.)

After that was cleared up I was happy about prices in Mexico, ‘cos they were more or less equivalent to prices in New Zealand. (It was a nice change from America where we soon stopped converting currencies, ‘cos it was disturbing how much even basic items cost.)

Apartments

We found our apartment (as seen here) through this website, where we dealt with a lovely rental agent named Gladis.

The apartment was small (*) but functional, and was in a nice area very close to the town centre. We also had a maid clean the place once a week. Bedding, towels and kitchenware was provided.

(*) It consisted of a kitchenette, bedroom and bathroom, but the landlord told us he is adding a new floor upstairs soon.

Shopping

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Supermarkets are just as boring in Mexico as they are in New Zealand. Shopping sucks!

The one thing that concerned me about living on a tiny island was whether or not we would be able to get supplies easily. While I was researching the place I saw one blog which mentioned that most people sail across to the mainland to do their grocery shopping in Cancun. That is one heck of a journey, so I was relieved to find out that it wasn’t necessary.

There were two grocery stores on our side of the island, the main one being the Xpress Super situated on the main square. This is a large store which carries a wide range of dried / packaged goods, and has small refrigerator and freezer compartments. Fresh fruit and vegetables are also available, though there is not a terribly wide range of produce to choose from, and the quality may vary depending on when they last had new stock delivered. However, we found that there was plenty for our needs, and we enjoyed the novelty of cooking for ourselves for a change.

There are also dozens of little corner shops that sell mainly junk like beer, soda and crisps. They are not as well-stocked as the Oxxo stores on the mainland, but are convenient ‘cos they are everywhere. (They will also sell alcohol on Sundays after 5pm, unlike the supermarkets!)

A note about the water:

The tap water is not purified and is not recommended for consumption, however bottled water is cheap and available pretty much everywhere.

Pharmacies

There are several pharmacies in the area, including the one attached to the main supermarket in the square. You can buy a wide variety of drugs without a prescription, which we found very handy, though we did have to try several stores before we found some of the less common items.

For people who are still in the planning stages of their trip, I would recommend that you stock up on medicine before you go. Some medication is hard to find, and can be extortionately expensive. (For example: We spent $1,300 (US) in Florida, not including the $400 it cost us to see a doctor to get our prescriptions in the first place. Ouch!)

Launderettes (lavandarias)

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The island’s noisiest, messiest launderette: they were repairing the road, which is why it looks like there’s a sandpit outside. (Great service inside, though!)

There are launderettes everywhere, but the one we used was on Avenida Abasolo. They charged $5.55 for up to 4 kilos of laundry, washed and dried in 2 hours. We thought this was great value for money, especially as our apartment had no washing line and very few places to hang wet clothes.

Souvenir shops

You can buy old tat... sorry, I mean souvenirs pretty much anywhere on the island; vendors are impossible to avoid, there are so many of them. When wandering down the street expect to be stopped every two seconds by someone inviting you into their shop for a browse. You need to either get very good at saying “No”, or expect to go home with an awful lot of souvenirs! (We’re bad tourists; we said no.)

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I wonder what Walmart would have to say about this?

A note about bookshops:

There are a couple of places on the island that sell second-hand English books, but don’t expect a huge variety. (They seem to sell a lot of crime novels and thrillers, for some reason!)

Restaurants & Bars

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A typical street full of restaurants. We particularly liked Rolandi’s (the orange building on the left); they make fabulous pizzas and have free Wi-Fi, which was a bonus. Plus they seem incapable of pouring a single glass of wine: every time I asked for one they brought me a ¼ litre carafe. It was terrible, I tell you!

Restaurants and bars are plentiful, so you’re not gonna starve. We particularly liked the places that sold fresh fish. The waiters are lovely, and quite a few of them will ask your name when you go in. We were known as Pedro and Julia (pronounced hoo-lee-a, not hoo-lee-gan, as Pete suggested).

Wi-Fi

Wi-Fi is important for us as we are a pair of hopeless Internet addicts, so we were kind of alarmed to discover that our apartment had no router. Happily our landlord and our rental agent, Gladis, spent ages arranging things so we could piggyback next door’s Wi-Fi, so we didn’t have to spend the month suffering withdrawal symptoms and wondering how our message boards would ever survive without us.

As soon as we’d sorted out the Internet at home, we searched out public places where we could use our laptops. We found three: Rolandi’s restaurant, Pinguino’s bar, and Cafe Mogagua. This last was our favourite as it actively encouraged long-term browsing (and, by association, long-term drinking!). Their Wi-Fi was high-speed and free, and they had considerately supplied electrical outlets all around the bar. We spent hours there!

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Pete at Cafe Mogagua, forcing down a bottle of local firewater. Nothing new there, then, eh?

Beaches

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We had quite a few overcast days, as you can see here, but when it was sunny the beaches were packed.

The beaches were lovely, although we didn’t spend much time on them due to stormy weather. Still, we were chuffed ‘cos we were walking around in the middle of winter wearing shorts and t-shirts. Britain can keep its snow – we don’t miss that at all!

Getting around

Watch out for red Nissan Thingamabobs (I’m a girl, so I don’t need to know model names). These belong to taxi drivers who are as mental as cabbies in the rest of the world. I swear in order to qualify as a taxi driver you only have to do one thing: score 0/10 on the Patience Quiz.

You will also get honked every five minutes walking down the road, as taxi drivers seem to take it personally when they see tourists using their legs!

Golf carts are fun, and are popular with tourists. You can hire them hourly, daily or weekly. Rates vary, so shop around. We discovered that the further you are away from the town centre, the cheaper the price.

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Pete in our golf cart, the day we decided to visit the east side of the island and see how the other half lives.

Touristy stuff

There are a few things to do on the island, apart from drinking cocktails and slobbing out on the beach. You can spend a day at Garrafon Park, swim with dolphins at Dolphin Discovery, visit a turtle farm, or choose from a wide selection of fishing, snorkelling and boat tours (which we didn’t do ‘cos I get seasick sitting in the bath!)

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There are some monster turtles at the turtle farm. It was a shame we weren’t there later in the year, ‘cos I would have loved to see the babies hatching.

And thus concludes the Mexican part of our travels. We spent way longer here than I expected to, and enjoyed it way more than I thought I would. Prices are reasonable, people are friendly and the weather is fabulous most of the time. If I get the chance, I would definitely come back here again!

Gotta go now, ‘cos the Internet is dodgy and I’m having difficulty maintaining a connection. I’ll write again soon from Costa Rica...

BYE!

Posted by Julie1972 10:33 Archived in Mexico Comments (1)

In which Mexicans danced on their hats...

And crashed into our cars

I started my last blog entry by mentioning that New Orleans was a breath of fresh air, figuratively speaking; I cannot say the same about Mexico - literally! The air is evil over here, and for the first couple of weeks we were breathless and wheezy every time we stepped outside.

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Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world, and has a population of over 8 million people. It is also one of the most polluted cities in the world, partly because of its location: it lies in a valley surrounded by mountains, which traps the smog. This causes all sorts of health problems for the locals, including reduced life expectancy.

The pollution is so bad in Mexico City that car rental agencies in other states will not allow their vehicles to be driven into the capital, and instead force you switch cars for one with M.C. plates. We found this out the hard way, of course. Pete was keen to get out of the big cities and see a bit more of rural Mexico, and to this end suggested another road trip. This sounded good to me, and we made plans to do a circuit from Mexico City to Monterrey and back again.

The guy at the car rental agency freaked me out within ten minutes of entering the place. As well as warning us against mad local drivers and listing the dangerous roads we should try to avoid, he hit my major phobia button.

“They sell snakes by the side of the road in the north,” he said, conversationally. “They kill them, take off the skin, then sell the meat for food and the skins for belts.”

I immediately think of the snakes I encountered in Louisiana and Texas, reminding myself of my pledge to go home if I have to get up close and personal with another one. Add to this the fact that we had had two close encounters of the not very pleasant kind already this trip - a hotel fire and getting stuck in a lift - and the fact that bad things tend to come in threes, I was feeling kind of antsy.

Me: Change of plans! I wanna go south now!
Pete: No.
Me: Well, where exactly are these snake people? Could we just drive through that area very quickly?
Pete: They’re where we’ll be stopping tonight.
Me: *hides in corner and whimpers quietly*

As it turned out, we didn’t see the snake vendors until several days later, and although I was alarmed by how many of them there were (and, by association, how many big snakes there must be in the area), it wasn’t so bad ‘cos all you could see were the skins hanging out to dry in the sun.

I wish the snakes had been my Bad Thing #3; instead the universe decided it would be fun to involve us in a car crash. Two, actually. I dunno what we’ve done to upset Fate, but he/she/it appears to have it in for us. (Cue Kenneth Williams in Carry On Cleo.)

The first crash was ridiculous. We were on the motorway, and had just spotted our hotel on the other side of the road so needed to find somewhere to turn round. We drove over a bridge and see a car parked in the fast lane. Pete slammed on the brakes (which were rubbish - no ABS), but didn’t have time to stop before ploughing into the back of the moron. He was moron, too. He hadn’t broken down or anything; he’d simply stopped because he was low on petrol and decided he’d like to fill a canister in the garage over the road.

The whole thing was quite a shock. Happily no one was hurt, but I didn't handle it well. I was the first one out of the car, got straight in the idiot's face and told him what I thought of him in no uncertain terms. No matter that I don’t speak Spanish and he couldn’t speak a word of English, he knew what I was saying all right! (I think I used every insult I knew, and then made up a few more for good measure. It wasn’t pretty.)

I didn’t stop there either, ‘cos I proceeded to have a go at a policeman who came over to see if I was okay. (Note to self: yelling at people with guns is really not a smart move. Don’t do it again.) Luckily the copper took one look at me, decided he didn't want to deal with a hysterical foreigner, and made himself scarce.

So, yeah, not my finest moment in hindsight. If I’d been more composed I’d have given myself a slap.

Like I say, no one was hurt, but the hire car was a mess. It took hours to sort out with the police and insurance people. Señor Moron kept changing his story, and we had to rely on a translator to argue with him. The authorities were initially going to hit us with several fines, but the Chief of Police finally decided to waive all charges, having decided that good tourist relations was more important at that point in time. (I was happy to hear that they were going to charge Señor Moron, too. I dunno if he managed to talk his way out of it or not, but I bet he’ll check his petrol gauge more carefully in future.)

The second accident was as daft as the first. Again we had almost made it to our hotel. Pete braked to let a bus in, and *crunch*... not again! The twit who was tail-gating us parked in our rear end. (At least there was no way we could be held responsible for this one.) Thing is, Mr Tailgate didn’t want to be held responsible either, and kept pushing for a deal that didn’t involve the insurance companies. We couldn’t agree to that, ours being a rental car and all, but Mr. T. really did not want to swap details. I’d stayed in the car during all this (having decided not to yell at anyone this time), but eventually I got bored with the pointless, circular conversation going on outside. I stuck my head out the window and called the guy over.

Me: Senor? Do you have insurance?
Mr. T: Insurance? Yes.
Me: Good. Let us see your papers. At the moment you are wasting our time.
Mr. T: *trots off and fetches his papers from his van, no argument*

I dunno why he responded to me and not Pete, but I have several theories:

1. He has a really bossy mother and/or wife, and is used to taking orders from women.
2. Word spread about the last driver I screeched at, and Mexican people are now wary of all English gringas.
3. I looked like an escaped lunatic.

I’m going with option 3, personally. We’d been driving for hours, and were lost, tired, hungry and completely fed up with Mexican traffic. Add the fact that I had a killer migraine, PMT and sleep deprivation from being in a horribly noisy hotel the night before, I was not a pretty sight.

Anyway, whatever the reason, he coughed up his papers and swapped details with us. To be quite honest, we were both glad to see the back of hire cars. Between crashes and corrupt traffic cops, driving in Mexico has been a royal pain in the backside. From now on we refuse to drive in countries where they clip their driver's licences from the back of cereal packets!

So, enough whinging. Mexico wasn’t all bad; we had a great time when we were off the roads.

We started off in Mexico City, which is enormous, busy, bustling and an all-out assault on the senses. It’s a bizarre mixture of modern, ancient and everything else in-between. One minute you’re wandering past skyscrapers, the next you’re looking at a 16th century cathedral, and then you unexpectedly come across a Mayan relic where you least expect it. Which brings me to the reason I wanted to visit Mexico:

Tacos.

No, wait, that can’t be right! I meant ‘temples’, not ‘tacos’, honest. Or maybe I meant both ‘temples’ and ‘tacos’... Anyway, no matter, ‘cos we’ve been indulging in both.

Mexico is full of ancient temples and pyramids, and has a fascinating history. We knew very little about these cultures, so we decided to do a bit of research before visiting the relics. To this end, we spent a day at the National Museum of Anthropology, which turned out to be one of the most impressive museums I have ever seen. The place is huge: it has 23 permanent exhibition halls, and contains the largest collection of ancient Mexican artefacts in the world.

The exhibits are arranged in a time-line from prehistoric man to modern Mexican populations, and you’d need a couple of days to examine them all in detail. We only had an afternoon so had to cherry pick, but the highlights included:

- A display dedicated to the archaeological site at Teotihuacán, including a replica of Quetzalcoatl’s temple. Quetzalcoatl was a feathered serpent deity who was worshiped throughout Mesoamerica.

- The Aztec Calendar Stone. Many believe that this calendar is due to expire in 2012, heralding the end of the world. I’m not holding my breath; I still haven’t gotten over the letdown of the non-event of the millennium. All that fuss and bother about Y2K for nothing!

- A replica of Aztec ruler Moctezuma's feather headdress.

After seeing the anthropology museum we just had to go and see Teotihuacán for ourselves. The site is about 30 miles outside Mexico City, so we decided a bus tour was the best way to get there. Of course, in typical tour guide style, they don’t just take you to the main attraction. First we we went to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe (a popular Catholic pilgrimage site), followed by a Blatant Shopping Opportunity at a place where they carve stuff out of basalt (though they did give us free tequila and alcoholic cactus liquor there, so it wasn’t a total waste of time).

Anyway, Teotihuacán, when we finally arrived, was amazing. It is a huge complex, so we didn’t have time to see all of it, but most people gravitate towards the Avenue of the Dead, the Pyramid of the Sun, and the Pyramid of the Moon.

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Me and the Pyramid of the Sun. No one is sure who built Teotihuacán, but the city is thought to have been a centre of industry in its heyday, with many tradesmen and craftsmen. Teotihuacán collapsed sometime in the 7th or 8th centuries, and again no one is sure why. Experts originally thought that invaders raided and burned the city, but others have contested this, hypothesising that the burning occurred during an internal uprising. No one knows for sure, so its destruction remains as controversial as its creation!

Of course, looking at the pretty pyramids is one thing, but it’s quite another to climb ‘em. “What a good idea!” we said, watching other tourists going up and down. “Let’s do that.” And which pyramid shall we climb? Why, the big one, of course! It's only 248 steps - how hard can it possibly be?

We never learn. This is Pete at the top:

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Pete practising being a sacrificial victim. Did the Aztecs bother cutting out the heart if the victim had a coronary after climbing all those stairs?

That wasn’t the end of our pyramid adventures, though, ‘cos we spent Christmas in the Yucatan. After several days sitting around in our resort, overeating and drinking too many cocktails, guilt got the better of us, and we decided we really ought to go out and do something. There wasn’t much of discussion about where to go: we were in the area, so we just had to see Chichen Itza.

This tour also had an extra side-trip: we got to go swimming in an underground sinkhole:

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Swimming in natural wells – way more interesting than Blatent Shopping Opportunities.

Chichen Itza is a huge ancient Mayan site with many beautifully preserved buildings. Because of its size, it is worth while taking an official tour to make sure you don’t miss anything. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable, and we felt that we got a lot more out of the tour by being part of a group.

Mayans were a bloodthirsty lot, and we heard some gruesome stories that day. The most memorable for me was about the popular sport of the time, a game which involved putting a heavy ball through a stone hoop. Use of the hands was forbidden, so the players used their hips, or sometimes bats and rackets, to manipulate the ball. Matches were between two individuals from two teams of players. The captain of the winning team was sacrificed – willingly, I might add.

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A stone ring on the Great Ballcourt. Apparently actual goals were rare events: the rings are six meters off the ground, and the balls were only slightly smaller than the hoops.

The Mayans were talented astronomers, and relied on star charts heavily to help them make day-to-day decisions. Male athletes were chosen according to the zodiac: babies born between certain dates were taken from their parents and raised to play sports. They were indoctrinated to believe that being sacrificed was a great honour. (Heh, and I thought my P.E. teachers were sadists. Suddenly double hockey first thing on a Monday morning doesn’t seem so bad.) They did a similar thing with girl children, who they sacrificed to ensure the rain would fall.

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The observatory (a.k.a. ‘the snail’, due to the spiral staircase inside the building). The observatory’s design was condemned by Mayan expert J. Eric Thompson; he described it as "hideous... a two-decker wedding cake on the square carton in which it came." Everyone’s a critic, eh?

The main attraction of Chichen Itza is El Castillo, a huge step pyramid dedicated to the god El Kukulkan, which, sadly, we weren’t allowed to climb. Our guide told us that too many little yobs had been going up there with cans of spray paint (what is the matter with people, honestly?), plus in 2006 an 80 year old woman fell from the staircase and died.

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El Castillo has a pretty cool acoustic property: if you stand parallel to a staircase and clap your hands, the echo sounds like a bird’s cry.

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Pete. (The '32' sticker on his t-shirt was our tour bus number.)

There is so much more to both Chichen Itza and Teotihuacán I can’t describe it all here. We enjoyed both trips immensely, and if you ever get the chance, we recommend that you go and see them for yourselves.

I think this entry is longer than usual, so I’ll stop now. But before I go, I just wanted to say that we didn’t actually see any Mexicans dancing on their hats... but we did see some dancing with beer bottles on their heads.

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Pete was so, so worried that someone would drop a bottle and waste precious beer!

Posted by Julie1972 17:23 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Taking it easy in the Big Easy

New Orleans is open for business!

What a breath of fresh air New Orleans was after the sterility of Florida!

Actually, before I get into that I really ought to finish talking about our Floridian visit. We spent a week or so doing a mini road trip: Kissimee to Tampa, the Tamiami Trail through the Everglades to Miami Beach (*), then a few days driving through the Florida Keys. This was the best part of the Florida by far! We had no idea how pretty it was down there, and we both loved Key West, which is pretty much an adults’ playground. We wish we had known this in advance so we could have spent some serious time there. As it was, we only went for a day trip ‘cos we had already made plans to drive to Louisiana.

(*) Pete wanted to do this in the convertible we hired, and even I had to admit it was a lot of fun. The road was pretty much empty, so we had the roof down and the rock music turned way up!

New Orleans got off to an interesting start. The day we arrived, Hurricane Ida was predicted to hit, and the following morning I nearly trod on a garter snake! Not dangerous, but I wasn’t to know that (**). This old couple stood by watching, and only told us the darn thing was there after the fact!

(**) It’s awful down in the southern states. The service stations on the highway are plastered with big posters saying: ‘Danger - Snakes of the South,’ which contain horribly realistic drawings of rattlers and other monstrosities.

Side note:

Anyone who has been reading this blog for any length of time may remember that I have a thing about snakes (see my Kuala Lumpur entry). As far as I’m concerned, there are two types of snake in the world: type 1) comes under the category of ‘Arrrrrgh!’ and type 2)... no, scratch that; there is only one type of snake in the world, and ‘Arrrrrgh!’ covers it perfectly. I think the snakes have found out I don’t like ‘em, ‘cos guess what happened to me in Texas? I nearly trod on another one, this time at the Dallas Arboretum! It was the exact same type of slithery serpent, too, so now I am all paranoid. Are snakes capable of stalking people? Did the one from New Orleans jump on a plane and follow me around? I tell ya something, if I almost tread on another one, I’m going home to New Zealand! No snakes there, none at all... that’s just part of the country’s appeal.)

Happily we managed to survive both hurricanes and snakes, and were able to get on with our intended business in New Orleans, e.g. drinking Bourbon Street dry. Well, actually, that’s not quite true: we did find other stuff to entertain us, too.

Mardi Gras World

Amongst other things, New Orleans is famous for its Mardis Gras parade. Not being February, we missed out on that, but did the next best thing: we took a tour of a workshop where many of the Mardis Gras parade floats are made. The place is really unusual in that tourists are allowed to watch the artists at work, and you get to see the float-making process pretty much beginning to end.

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This guy is making a Charlie Brown sculpture for next year’s parade. They also make sculptures for theme parks like Disney World.

The floats are paid for by organisations called ‘krewes’. Some krewes are pretty exclusive and require sponsorship to join, along with thousands of dollars in membership fees; others are less picky, and will let anyone ride on their floats for a one-off fee.

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Some of the costumes worn by the krewes are pretty elaborate. We had a chance to play dress-up at the start of the tour. This is Pete wearing a mask that we think looks like American chat show host Jay Leno.

The finished parade floats are real works of art. The dragon was my favourite:

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Some of the floats are one-offs, and the components will be broken down and reused the following year; others appear in every parade and simply go back to the workshop for touch-ups and repairs.

It is traditional for people on the floats to throw beads and other knick-knacks to spectators in the crowd. One side-effect of this practice is this:

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Walking down the street in New Orleans can be surprising. Beads appear in trees, bushes, on telephone lines and on people’s balconies.

The tour was way better than expected - the guide even offered to let us wander around the workshop on our own at the end, in case there was something else we wanted to see. It was a great way to get a feel for Mardi Gras (without having to pay extortionate February hotel rates!)

Paddle steamer

I think I must have spent too much time reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when I was a kid, ‘cos for as long as I can remember I have always wanted to ride a paddle steamer down the Mississippi. Happily for me there are two fully functional steamers in N.O., and one evening we went aboard for a jazz dinner cruise.

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The boat is named the 'Natchez,' after the indiginous people of Mississippi.

The Natchez is famous for its 32-note calliope, and there are concerts a couple of times a day.

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The calliope player is popular with everyone except the poor souls who sell the tickets. The guy who served us rolled his eyes and grimaced throughout the performance, which we thought was funny at the time. I bet we’d change our minds if we had to listen to it every day, though. It really is loud!

The cruise is worth doing, we think: we enjoyed the jazz band, and really enjoyed the buffet (don’t we always?) One word of advice, though: if you are going for an evening cruise, make sure you dress warmly. It can get pretty chilly up on the deck, and once you’ve finished your meal and left the dining room, there aren’t many indoor places to hide.

And while I’m on the subject of food...

If I had to choose a place to live solely based on the cuisine they serve there, these would be my top three choices:

1) Greece – I am addicted to moussaka, stuffed peppers, stuffed tomatoes, and their wonderful salads.
2) Turkey, or anywhere they serve falafel, kebabs and stuff like that.
3) New Orleans (and the only reason N.O. doesn’t get a higher rating is because I’m afraid that the cholesterol I’d ingest there would kill me!)

New Orleans has some of the best food in the USA! I love their Cajun cuisine, and we had some really amazing fish dishes. The one thing I’d really been hankering after, though, was grits. I had no idea what grits were, and even after I ordered ‘em I had no idea what I was eating. They look like this:

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The texture reminded me of couscous, and the taste was bland, like plain porridge. When I got home I Wiki’ed it and discovered it is made from ground corn. The locals often add salt, butter and cheese for extra flavour.

I also discovered New Orleans' local doughnut - the beignet (pronounced ben-yay) - much to the detriment of my waistline. These things are soooo good: deep-fried dough, sprinkled with a mountain of icing sugar. (The sugar gets everywhere, by the way. I wash brushing the stuff off my shirt for days!)

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Pete made me share these with him. No fair!

There is so much to see and do in New Orleans that we would need several weeks to explore it all. Other things we enjoyed were:

- Listening to jazz on Bourbon Street

- Riding the St. Charles streetcar

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Don't make the mistake of calling this a trolley or a tram. It's a streetcar - the locals are very definite about that!

- Simply walking around the French Quarter and taking in all the wonderful architecture... and a few unusual shops.

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Marie Laveau was a famous Voodoo practioner. You can learn about her and Voodoo on various walking tours.

- Exploring the Cities of the Dead - New Orleans' above-ground cemeteries.

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Space is at a premium, and some residents may end up being interred in one of these economical wall vaults.

Despite the devastation of Hurrican Katrina, New Orleans has recovered well and is welcoming tourists. It is definitely one of the places on my 'I Will Return' list.

Merry Christmas to you all! I hope to get my Mexico entry published before New Year.

From

Julie & Pete

Posted by Julie1972 08:44 Archived in USA Comments (1)

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