All aboard! Boston to Chicago by train

No sooner had Boston cleared away some of the snow from Blizzard #1 did predictions for another heavy snowfall show up on the weather reports.  My train was supposed to be leaving shortly before noon on Monday, after the snow had started.

I realized just how quickly the snow was accumulating when I left Jane’s house:

This sidewalk was so clear the day before!

This sidewalk was so clear the day before!

I had no trouble getting downtown because the T was running normally.  The snow was plummeting from the sky and gusts of wind blew everything about, but because I was in the middle of a busy financial district with plenty of pedestrians, the sidewalks were mostly salted and clear.

I'd hate to be driving in this!

I’d hate to be driving in this!

Post Office Square, Boston

Post Office Square, Boston

CYA signs all over downtown

CYA signs all over downtown

Surprisingly, the problems came when it was time to cross the street. The roads were nearly devoid of cars, but the plows couldn’t keep up with the onslaught of snow. It felt like I was walking in quicksand while my wheeled suitcase gathered heaps of snow behind me. It was so slow going that I began laughing hysterically:  I had to stop and take a photo of the craziness of it all.

CRAZY!

My bag in the middle of the street. CRAZY!

I was able to make it to South Station with plenty of time to spare.  My friend Lynnette works nearby and was sweet enough to brave the snow in order to see me off.  I was so relieved that I had not brought a car to Boston;  otherwise, it would have been buried under several feet of snow by the time I came back!

Once aboard the train, I settled into my seat.  It looked like there were quite a few people who were taking the train because their flights had been cancelled or they didn’t think it would be safe to drive.  The fact that our vehicle was on a track was mighty reassuring in the storm :).  The jovial conductor made his way down the aisle scanning tickets.  “Ooooh!  Rebecca… Za-KEL-juh!” he proclaimed when he read my ticket.  “That’s an unusual name!  Where’s that from?”  “Slovenia,” I answered.  “Yeeahhhh, ” he joked.  “I been there.  Hung out with some VAMPIRES!”  I laughed.  Probably 75% of people I meet don’t know a thing about Slovenia, so I am used to questions and misconceptions, but being confused with Transylvania was a first.  That said, this was a much more interesting and funny comment than the typical, “Oh!  I have a good friend from Czechoslovakia!”

It felt good to be warm and cozy on the train as it chugged through the snow and left Boston.  In western Massachusetts, I gained my first and only seatmate for the entire ride: a young woman with dyed blue hair and awesome green cowboy boots.  She would only be riding as far as Rochester, New York and immediately pulled out a small piece of colored lace that she was tatting.  I then spent the next hour trying to figure out why I had the line, “And when she has got them lined up on the mat-ting/ She teaches them music, crocheting, and tat-ting” stuck in my head.  (Note:  it’s a line from “The Old Gumbie Cat” from Cats.  I have not listened to Cats in approximately 20 years.  This is how deeply this stuff gets embedded in my brain.  Sad but true).

Later in the evening, we were stalled for quite some time.  The power went off temporarily, and the cafe car had to be closed until we started again.  Hungry passengers were starting to get impatient and cranky, especially since it we weren’t getting many updates as to what was happening.  At long last, the train lurched forward again, and the cafe car attendant (a very nice lady, by the way) announced that it was happy hour.  Anyone loitering in the aisle soon moved or risked being flattenend by the stampede of people who made a beeline to the cafe car.  It was quite the line.

Discounts on wine, you say?

Discounts on wine, you say?

I prepared myself for my first overnighter on the train.  Although sleeper compartments and smaller roomettes are both available on the Lake Shore Limited, neither was in my budget for this trip, so I figured I’d suck it up and sleep in my seat overnight.  The seats are spacious and recline 40 degrees, so between that, a footrest, and a panel that swings up from beneath the seat, it feels like being in a living room recliner.  I could do alot worse.

I noticed two things fairly soon: 1) it was very cold, so even though I had brought a blanket and sleep sack, my feet were freezing.  I think I ended up taking off my boots, putting on a second pair of socks, then wrapping my lower legs in my winter coat.  This was better.  2) The recliner can provide adequate rest if and only if you do not have a seatmate.  I squirmed in my seat for hours trying to find a comfortable position without slugging my blue-haired neighbor.  When we reached Rochester in the middle of the night and she disembarked, I said a silent prayer of thanks and stretched out between the two seats.  Then tried to lie down on my right side.  Then woke up with a cramp and tried to curl up on my left.  Then stretched out diagonally.

This must have worked, because when I next awoke, I felt well-rested and the bright morning sun flooded over the lakeshore.  Yay!  We had made it all the way to- wait, what?  We’re only in Sandusky?  The train goblins had made their mischief overnight, and we were now four hours behind.  At least the weather was beautiful.image

Cedar Point from across the lake.  High five, optical zoom!

Cedar Point from across the lake. High five, optical zoom!

Thin ice

Thin ice

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As I packed away my blankets, I saw a familiar face walking down the aisle.  It was Jacob, the Amtrak conductor I had met on my previous ride to Boston, though I couldn’t quite remember his name in my morning fog.  “Hi!” I called out as I waved to him.  His face brightened in recognition.  “Hey!  You’re the traveling dentist!” he remarked.  “And you’re the elephant man!  Oh. Wait. That came out wrong,” I stuttered.  (Please refer to my Blizzard Bound post where it was established that Jacob hails from the Ohio town where the circus used to unload the animals -in particular the elephants- for a parade down the streets.  Now hopefully interpret my comment to him not as a sign of clinical insanity but of signal transmission gone haywire in a brain which direly needed caffeine).  He laughed, thank God.  🙂

In the cafe car, I enjoyed another one of my oatmeal cup breakfasts while Jacob did some work.  I had been treated to a coffee by Tom, a retiree from California whom I met while waiting in line.  Soon after, I was joined at my table by Judy, a homemaker and nature volunteer from Missouri. We talked for a good hour.  I love the variety of people that you find on trains.  It never gets boring.

Before too long, the sights of Chicago came into view.  It’s probably a little strange that I, a Midwesterner, have visited something like 40 foreign countries but have never been to Chicago!  Our train finally pulled into Union Station, and Tom gave me big hug goodbye as we went inside.

I was really looking forward to the next three days!

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Categories: amtrak, blizzard, boston, chicago | 6 Comments

Between Blizzards: My week in Boston

On Wednesday morning, we awoke to sunny skies and a well-needed reprieve from the snow.  Falling snow, that is, not the stuff on the ground, which had buried everything on the street.  John and a few others had gone out at times the day before to shovel small sections where they could, but the task remained to unearth three cars so that Jane’s sister Abby and her fiance could drive home.  Short a shovel, I pushed mounds of snow from the tops of the cars with a large broom until my fingers were frozen and I felt lightheaded.

John hard at work

John hard at work

I spent most of the afternoon visiting my old office. It was hard to believe that it has been almost an entire year since I have seen my former coworkers! It was good to get the chance to catch up with everyone. I also stopped by to say hi to my friends who work at Bob’s Pita Bakery, my favorite little grocery store in Roslindale. Later that night, I met up with some friends at The Haven, the best (um, and only) Scottish pub in Jamaica Plain.

Thursday morning, I braved the cold and headed down to the convention center for the Yankee Dental conference. Even though it was chilly, the walk from Downtown Crossing past South Station to the seaport made for some beautiful photos.

Ahh, South Station.  Now THAT'S a train station.

Ahh, South Station. Now THAT’S a train station.

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In the evening, Jane had invited me to join her at a gallery event hosted by the MFA (Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts) at the Boston Design Center, which coincidentally was only a few blocks away from the convention.  Yay for short walks in the snow!  I had never been to this place before, but it had a really fun, funky converted-warehouse feel to it.

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After my courses were over on Friday, I met up with my friend Melissa for lunch in Back Bay, then headed back to the BCEC to attend two dental receptions that I may or may not have been officially invited to :P.  I won’t get to see my former boss and colleague very often, so it was good to have some time to hang out with them.

With Dr. Novid and Dr. Paul.  N.B.,  I do not always wear après-ski gear to dental conferences.

With Dr. Novid and Dr. Paul. N.B., I do not always wear après-ski gear to dental conferences.

Friday night was a highlight, sadly without any good photos:  I met up with a group of friends to sing karaoke along with Kevin Mac Daddy, our favorite local DJ.  On Saturday, everyone slept in, then I headed out to breakfast at the Rox Diner with Jane, John, and Alora.

Jane and Alora

Jane and Alora

Cutest teddy bear ever.

Cutest teddy bear ever.

I had been on a mission to get some good Malaysian food stateside ever since I came back from Southeast Asia, so my buddy Kevin joined me for dinner on Saturday night at Penang restaurant in Chinatown.  In preparation, I skipped lunch.  We feasted accordingly.  I was pleased to recognize a lot of the wall decor as street art that I had seen and photographed when I was in Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia in November.

At Penang restaurant, holding my own photo of street art taken in Penang, Malaysia next to identical photo on the wall.

At Penang restaurant, holding a photo that I took of street art in Penang, Malaysia next to an identical photo on the wall.

On Sunday morning, I met up with a big group of friends for brunch at Canary Square in JP.  (JPers are big on brunch).  By mid-afternoon, it was time to catch up with other friends at the Galway House down the street.  How I missed visiting this JP institution during my 7.5 years of living here is beyond me.  The walls are full of traditional Boston paraphernalia, road signs, and sports posters.

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Over the phone, my mother had asked me, “Where are you going to watch the game?”  I laughed and answered, “‘Watch’ would be the operative word in that sentence.”  I have never really been excited about professional football, so any Super Bowl festivities that I have attended in the past have revolved more around chili and seven-layer dip than actual attention to the game.  So while one of the most exciting games in football history was going on in the background, I was hanging out with Jane and taking videos like this:

OK, so I actually did end up seeing the amazing final fifteen minutes of the game.  Well worth watching.  Go Pats.

The final thing I did before going to bed was check the weather forecast for the next day.  My train was scheduled to leave Boston for Chicago just before noon, but another blizzard was supposed to be rolling into town in the morning.  Here we go again.

Categories: blizzard, boston | 2 Comments

Snowmageddon!

After a chilly first night in Boston, I awoke to find the snow continuing to fall heavily outside. The best blizzard days are those that are planned for, and everyone in Jane’s house knew that we would be spending the entire day indoors. We had a very packed schedule.

1. Hearty breakfast
2. Lots of TV; play with the baby
3. Lunch
4. Lots of TV; play with the baby
5. Dinner
6. More TV
7. Bedtime

In proper Bostonian blizzard fashion, we drank Sam Adams while watching and providing commentary to Sons of Liberty, a three-part miniseries that had recently aired on the History Channel. While the show was entertaining, it was not exactly what you could call historically accurate. There were a lot of history buffs in the room, and any disputed plot points or questionable character references were quickly pointed out. There were also two people fact-checking on their phones as we watched ;). Paul Revere had somehow already developed a modern Boston accent, colonial characters said things like, “Put it on my tab,” and Sam Adams morphed from a patriot in his early 50s to a brooding, sexy 20-something. Not that I’m complaining about having to watch him for three hours. But he did look a bit too much like Bret from Flight of the Conchords for me to take him seriously as a historical figure.

I'll have a Sam Adams, please.  ('Cause he's the hiphopopotamus.  His rhymes are bottomless).

I’ll have a Sam Adams, please. (‘Cause he’s the hiphopopotamus. His rhymes are bottomless).

Eliot from ET and John Hancock

Eliot from ET and John Hancock

By the afternoon, we were onto Vikings and then ventured into some weird programs like Big Giant Swords in the evening. I think the only time that I ever watched this much TV was when I had pneumonia. A happy distraction was Alora, who is Jane and John’s baby and possibly the cutest thing in the world. Currently working on her crawling skills, she almost always has a smile on her face.

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Snow days can actually be really fun if you are stuck inside with your friends!

Categories: blizzard, boston | 2 Comments

Blizzard bound on Amtrak

It was not planning ahead but falling behind that caused me to travel to Boston by train.  My original intention was to drive to Boston just to use my time more efficiently while visiting friends in different parts of town.  As mentioned in my last post, I ran into some issues with transfering all of my auto paperwork from Massachusetts to Ohio.  Unsure whether everything would be done in time, I decided just to play it safe and book with Amtrak.  It would be a long ride, but at least I could read or take naps along the way.  Plus, I found a $6 frequent flyer flight fromo SFO back to Cleveland.  Decision made.

This proved to be the best thing that could have happened.  Several days later, I started reading forecasts for The Big Storm that would be hitting the East Coast.  When the news developed on Sunday that blizzard conditions were to start on Monday night hours before my scheduled arrival into Boston, my small-scale freakout began.  I was relieved that I wouldn’t be driving, but in the superstorm conditions that were anticipated, would train travel even be safe?  I didn’t sleep well on Sunday night.

At 3:45 Monday morning when I woke up, the Amtrak website stated that my train was neither cancelled nor  delayed.  Looks like I would be Boston bound in two hours’ time.

My dad drove me downtown to the Amtrak station, which neither of us had visited before.  I mistook the nearby glowing, white-framed RTA station for the Amtrak station, then was disappointed to return across the snowy parking lot to the actual station, which was underwhelming in comparison.  I later read that this smaller edifice was built in the late seventies to replace the original central rail station at present-day Tower City, which explains its very utilitarian appearance.  The station was clean and felt safe, which I know are the most important things, but the train geek in me had greater expectations for a train station in a mid-sized city.

Clean and functional.  But South Station it ain't.

Clean and functional. But South Station it ain’t.

As I soon found that my train was running about 40 minutes late, I asked my dad to wait with me a little while. We were seated across from a grandmother and mother of a young girl of about three.  She wore a magenta jacket with a thick grey fleece scarf coiled so high around her neck that she resembled Randy from A Christmas Story. A sock monkey hat peeked out from under the pink hood of her coat.  Obviously getting impatient with our late train, she turned her attention to me.

“Hi!  I see you!” “Do you like my hair?” “I like your glasses!”  We were comparing the qualities and colors of our winter boots when the train arrived. We all exited the station into the snowy darkness to check our tickets.

Fun times in Cleveland, yeah!  Still Cleveland!

Fun times in Cleveland, yeah! Cleveland! Come on down to Clevelandtown, everyone!

Trudging through the snow to board

Trudging through the snow to board

Once aboard, I carefully stepped down the aisle of the dimly-lit train, trying not to jostle and awaken the many sleeping passengers.  I settled into my seat as the train rolled through Euclid.  It is a bizarre experience to see your hometown (I lived in Euclid until I left for college) from the vantage point of a moving pre-dawn train when you have only previoulsy seen it by car.  Snuggled beneath my coat and fleece blanket, I promptly fell asleep.

When I awoke over two hours later, it was light outside and we were in Pennsylvania.  I bypassed the frozen car ahead (the electricity had gone out overnight but was later fixed) to reach the cafe car, which was empty save for a number of Amtrak employees.  A younger attendant, Jacob, was originally from Peninsula, Ohio, which I recognized as the town where the Ringling Bros. circus used to unload the animals and parade them down the street.  We all chatted about everything from Eva Peron to Andre the Giant as the fragrance of my coffee and oatmeal filled the car.  Budget travel breakfast tip #1:  Quaker oatmeal cups, particularly the ones that are on sale for $1.50 at CVS.  Add hot water, stir, and become the envy of everyone in the dining car who brought a granola bar or is shelling out the big bucks for a mediocre danish or croissant.  As the train crawled past barren, snow-covered vineyards, a mother and her two young sons, both clad in Spiderman pajamas, passed through the cafe car.  The cafe attendant enthusiastically began singing the old cartoon theme song (“Spiderman! Spiderman! Does whatever a spider can!”), causing the boys to cling wide-eyed to their mother’s legs and make a quick exit to the other side of the car.

And then this was stuck in my head for the next two hours:

(copyright 20th Century Fox)

Blurry vineyards.  My bad.

Blurry vineyards. My bad.

After breakfast, I spent the rest of the morning doing “work” stuff: catching up on my JADAs (that’s ten months’ worth of missed Journals of the American Dental Association from 2014) and doing my daily Spanish and German language apps.  Here’s where many people find train travel boring.  I actually love being on a train for hours on end.  I can get up, move around, eat, nap, read a book, talk to other people, or just sit and stare out the window.  I always say that if you give me my music to listen to and drive me around somewhere, I could be indefinitely happy.  Even if the scenery is somewhat dreary and snow-covered.

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For most of the day, I would obsessively check the weather reports around the east coast.  I read that Boston was instituting a driving ban after midnight and that all public transportation would also be shut down.  The train was scheduled to arrive in Boston just after 9pm, but at the time we left Albany, we were already an hour behind.  If anything happened to delay the train’s arrival until after midnight, I might not be able to get to my friends’ house.  The idea of being stuck in Back Bay station overnight in a blizzard was not appealing.

In the meantime, there were some technical issues with the train.  The heat on the train had definitely been fixed, but now there was the opposite problem.  I had stripped down to my t-shirt and yoga pants and was still burning up.  Also, the toilets weren’t flushing anymore and the sink in our car was clogged, with the turbulence of the train sending large waves of murky sink water splashing onto the floor.  Ew.   Fortunately, they were able to repair this while we were halted in Albany, at which point the New York City-bound cars of the train separated from our Boston cars.

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The arrival of snow

The arrival of snow

Other passengers were beginning to worry as about whether they would reach their destination in the storm.  One woman from Massachusetts was particularly vocal about her complaints.  “I mean, WHY are we just SITTING so long here in Albany?  They told me that they are working on the New York-bound train.” [Note: they were also fixing our toilets at this time.  Well worth the delay, if you ask me].  She continued, “I told them, I don’t CARE about the New York car, I care about ME!  What about ME?”  At least she was totally up-front about her shallowness.  Another MA father nearby was trying desperately to silence his young son, who, as 7-year-olds are wont to do, was both excited and antsy to be stuck on a train.  The dad griped to the boy in a thick Boston accent, “Ya know, you’ve been askin’ all aftahnoon, ‘When ah we goin’ on the train?’ And now we’re heah : cantcha just SIT theah and take a NAP?”  He then returned to an argument he was having with his girlfriend over the phone regarding comments made by other women on his Facebook page: “You know I doan know who half of them ah!  So freakin retahded. I love you so much.  Ahm sahry, baby girl.” It was like being on reality TV.

The snow became progressively thicker as night fell, but I noticed that we were catching up on time.  Soon, the familiar sights of Boston began to appear, and I knew that making it “home” that night wouldn’t be a problem. By the time we arrived at Boston Back Bay station, we miraculously were only about 13 minutes off schedule.  Not bad at all!  I bought a 7-day transit pass (a steal at $19) and jumped on the Orange Line.  Ten minutes later,  I was in my old neighborhood and a quick walk away from my friend Jane’s house, where I would be staying for the next week.

Blizzard conditions, but still very walkable

Blizzard conditions, but still very walkable

The neighborhood liquor store stayed open until midnight for those last-minute blizzard supplies :)

The neighborhood liquor store stayed open until midnight for those last-minute blizzard supplies 🙂

Once at Jane’s, I took my spot on the couch and joined the rest of the family (including her husband, baby daughter, two sisters, and soon-to-be brother-in-law) in hunkering down under comfy blankets for the storm. Tomorrow, Tuesday, would be a snow day.   And we weren’t going anywhere.

Categories: amtrak, blizzard, boston | 6 Comments

On the road again

Happy belated New Year, everyone!  The past month in Cleveland has been a restful one (perhaps more restful than I anticipated due to delays in getting my Ohio driver’s license!)  But at least I have had plenty of time to open my ten month’s worth of accumulated mail, find most of the important stuff (like winter clothes) that I had packed away and stored in my parents’ house after relocating, and resume my Spanish studies.

However, I can’t pass up an opportunity to squeeze in some more travel.  I’m using an upcoming dental conference in Boston as a chance to take some continuing education courses while catching up with friends the rest of the week.

And then I’m traveling coast-to-coast by train. 🙂

Starting in Boston, I’ll take Amtrak overnight to Chicago, where I’ll be visiting some friends and family.  From there, another overnight trip on the train will bring me to Denver to hang out with Megan, who studied Spanish with me in Guatemala.  A final overnight -the longest leg- will end just outside of San Francisco.  After a couple of days with friends there, I’ll take a relative shortcut and fly back to Cleveland.  Really making the most of my multiple frequent flyer accounts here!

I’m looking forward to settling back down and hopefully getting a job in Cleveland or Columbus.  But in the meantime, it will be fun to be able to say that I went around the world and coast-to-coast in the span of one year.

Updates to follow!  (And at some point, yes, I promise, I will get back to writing about Albania).

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Saranda and -why not? – Greece for a day

The slog from Berat to Saranda, a coastal city which is part of the Albanian Riviera, was hot and sticky.  (Again, transportation details in a later post).  I checked into my hotel along the water with the plan of doing next to nothing for the next few days.  It was beach time. Saranda is developing at a lightning-fast rate.  In one guidebook, I saw the buildings on the surrounding hillside described as “skeletal,” and I understood why once I got there:  the new hotels and apartments are going up so fast that at any given time, half of them are unfinished, giving the appearance of a bony framework of steel and concrete.

Saranda, part of the Albanian Riviera

Saranda, part of the Albanian Riviera

After exploring the boardwalk on my first afternoon there (and running into the two German backpackers that I had met on the furgon ride there), I decided to take a day trip on day 2.  The beaches of Ksamil are supposed to be lovely, so I caught a van ride there.  Located just down the hill from the main road, the rocky beaches were full of sunbathers, who tried to avoid the crashing waves of the Ionian Sea.  From my towel, I tried to flag down a vendor, a old woman who was selling bread twists.  As I couldn’t understand everything that she was trying to tell me, the couple next to me thankfully stepped in to translate.  For the next two hours or so, they would graciously share their food with me.  I would get a tap on the shoulder, and the girl would surprise me with something like a stick of roasted corn.  (Roasted corn is EVERYWHERE here).  They introduced themselves as Arian and Kaltrina, and they were here from Kosovo on vacation.  As a thank-you, I offered to buy them a drink at the nearby cafe.  Sipping our cocktails as the wind started to whip through the curtains of the bar, they convinced me that I would have to make a stop in Kosovo.

Wind over the Ionian Sea

Wind over the Ionian Sea

Arian and Kaltrina

Arian and Kaltrina

I caught a local minivan back to Saranda and marveled at the breathtaking views over the hills as the sun started to set.  When I returned to my hotel, the electricity was still off (it had shut down earlier in the day) but fortunately came back on before dark.

It should be mentioned at this point that my hotel stood directly next to the ferry port.  I determined that if I really wanted to, I could spit from the breakfast room of the hotel and hit the port authority (although I would  never do this 😉 ).  All over Saranda were signs from tourist agencies and ferry companies advertising ferry trips to the Greek island of Corfu.  Hmmm.  I have never been to Greece and wasn’t necessarily planning on going there on this trip… but it would be so easy to get there.  And I could go for just a day.  I felt as if all signs were pointing to a journey to Greece.

And so, early the next morning, I stamped out of Albania and was on a fast ferry bound for Corfu Town.  I sat next to a very sweet 11-year-old Albanian girl who wanted to practice her English.  We traded sticks of chewing gum and simple stories, and the ride went quickly.

The Saranda port

The Saranda port

En route to Corfu

En route to Corfu

Once in Corfu,   the drastic difference in tourism from Saranda was immediately apparent.  Signs and menus were in several different languages, travelers visited from all over the world, and prices were back to Eurozone standards.  After a brief respite from the heat with a cold juice in a fan-cooled cafe, I wandered through the old town, visiting Orthodox cathedrals and photographing the winding streets.  I also stopped for lunch at a local taverna, where the owner recommended their pastisada (meat cooked in a cinnamon-tomato sauce), which fell apart in my mouth.  Drool.  image

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Seeing as how I had decided only the previous day to visit Corfu, I was somewhat ill-prepared without a real map or Greek language guide.  I had set my sights on visiting the Temple of Artemis, because 1) my guide book described it as “serenely impressive,” and 2) I am kind of a mythology nerd.  You know how most kids might stay up late watching TV or playing video games?  I was the kid sitting up in bed poring feverishly over my copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths.  (Great book.  Still have it on my bookshelf).  I did not know exactly how to get there and missed the bus heading in that general direction, so I did what I always seem to do, which is get myself involved in a haphazard wild goose chase, this time walking in the scorching Greek midday sun. I stopped every so often to ask for directions, although half of the people I asked seemed not to have heard of it. I was on a peninsula on an island; I could only get so lost, right?

In good spirits (aka before the wild goose chase)

In good spirits (aka before the wild goose chase)

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An hour and a half later, I was no closer to finding the temple.  I had left the touristic center, and with it, much of English-speaking population of the area.  I knew I couldn’t be that far, but with my nonexistent Greek speaking skills, I couldn’t get much directional help.  A brief ray of hope appeared when I reached Mon Repos Estate and saw an arrowed sign to the Temple of Artemis… but this arrow pointed vaguely in a direction that could have indicated about three different streets.  I started along one, but it seemed far too residential;  turning back, I headed along a more prominent road.   I trudged along, frustrated and cranky.  I would ask for help, but in this heat, no one even seemed to be outside. In the distance, I saw a man about my age jogging with headphones toward me on the road. Yay! I excitedly tried to flag him down… only to have him run right past me. “Sir!!! Excuse me!! SIR!!!” I desperately shouted over his music. Without stopping, the man removed his earbuds and, out of breath and jogging backwards, yelled to me, “It come every twenty minutes!” and then turned back to continue his workout. Huh? I looked to my side, where I happened to be standing near a signpost that marked a bus stop. Well thanks. Thanks for nothing.

After eating a consolatory yogurt at a nearby convenience store (I am the personification of the word “hangry” when I get low blood sugar), I finally found someone who could point me in the right direction. Back on the road, one last local woman showed me the way. “It is out of the way and very difficult to find,” she said. “But I don’t know, maybe it is not so much to see.” Continuing far down the road (the original residential one that I had turned back on!), I gleefully approached this sign:

Yay!  I made it!

Yay! I made it!

and then walked forward to this site:

ARE YOU KIDDING ME???

ARE YOU KIDDING ME???

I hate to sound like a philistine, and I know that I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to see the magnificent ruins in places like Rome,  but this was NOT worth a three-hour march through 90+  degree weather.  Thoroughly annoyed with myself for my atrocious lack of planning, I stormed back to the waterfront and did the best things I could to improve my mood:  wade up to my knees in the clear blue water, then sit down with a Greek frappè.  Ahhh… icy cold caffeinated deliciousness.  And everything was better.

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View during my frappe-happy coma

View during my frappè-happy coma

I didn’t have much time left, so I caught a bus (ha! The bus! That would have been useful three hours ago!) back to the center.  After grabbing a kumquat ice cream, I hurried back to the port.

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Both tourists and locals use the ferries.

On the ride back to Saranda, I sat on the lower indoor deck looking out the window.  On the horizon, I saw a flash near the water that didn’t seem quite normal.  I squinted;  there it was again!  I let out a gasp of recognition, and my feet were carrying me to the deck of the boat before my brain could even register the nearby Italian passenger calling out, “Delfini!” I  peered out over the side and got one last glimpse of the dolphins before they disappeared.  I’d like to think that they wanted to personally escort us out of Greek waters ;).  I decided to stay seated on the top deck, glorying in the blue of the sea, which unfortunately soon became cold and extremely choppy for the remainder of the journey.  My stomach and my equilibrium were both overjoyed when we finally docked back at Saranda.

Happy as a clam (while waters are calm!)

Happy as a clam (while waters are calm!)

One day and four passport stamps. I consider it time well spent!

Categories: albania, balkans, Corfu, Greece, Ksamil, Saranda | 2 Comments

Hong Kong revisited

Disneyland deserved its own post, but there was quite a bit more to this second trip to Hong Kong.  The nice thing was that I didn’t repeat too much from my first visit.  This is what I love about Hong Kong:  there’s sooo much to do.

For the first five nights, I stayed with Jamie & Co. in an apartment in Discovery Bay on Lantau Island.  This neighborhood is probably the closest thing to the suburbs that you can get around Hong Kong, and it was very convenient because of 1) its proximity to Disneyland, which is also on Lantau, 2) its central shopping area with a grocery store and restaurants, and 3) its ferry, which runs 2-4 times an hour to the Central piers on Hong Kong Island.  A huge thank you to Jamie and Peter for arranging everything, as I was having a major case of what they call “decision fatigue” with all of my logistical planning over the last nine months!

Our non-Disney days were spent in the apartment relaxing.

Or climbing furniture.

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Look at that face! He totally knows he’s not supposed to be up there :).

Or playing with trains.

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Matching outfits day. I found this blouse for Eva in Penang.  If only they had my size....

Matching outfits day. I found this blouse for Eva in Penang. If only they had my size….

I was also introduced to Elf on the Shelf, whose name is Anthony (according to Theo, who named him).  Anthony found some pretty funny hiding spots.

LOL!

LOL!

On our last night together, the five of us took the ferry to Central in Hong Kong for dinner.  Theo was fascinated by the boats – we had spent some time in the afternoon watching the ferries depart at the Discovery Bay pier- and it was a beautiful ride arriving after dark to see all of Hong Kong Island lit up.

It's not too shabby a view in the daytime, either!  I will never get tired of this skyline, even on gloomy days like this one.

It’s not too shabby a view in the daytime, either! I will never get tired of this skyline, even on gloomy days like this one (through somewhat blurry windows, too).

After my friends departed for Shanghai the next day, I moved my things to a hotel in Kowloon on the mainland for one night.  I had stayed in this place back in September, but I didn’t think that it was possible to get a room smaller than the one I had before.  I was wrong.  Tiny rooms are the norm for Hong Kong, and I can’t complain because I got a great price.  But this was just too funny.

Smallest. Room. Ever!  I am squished into the far corner holding my camera over my head to take this shot.

Smallest. Room. Ever! I am squished into the far corner holding my camera over my head to take this shot.

In the early evening, I met up with Urvi and Nick for drinks and appetizers at a Thai place near Central.  Urvi is the sister of my former boss in Boston.  She and her husband had graciously hosted me at their house on the island for a few days in September.  I am glad that I finally got a photo of the three of us together!

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I wandered around Central until I came across a sight that looked somewhat unfamiliar:  the Hong Kong Observation Wheel.  I had seen this near the piers during my earlier visit, but somehow it looked different now, more… purple than I remembered.  I learned that it had just officially opened on Friday, the day that I had arrived in Hong Kong.  What a welcome!  I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to be one of its first visitors.

The area around the wheel is still under construction

The area around the wheel is still under construction

This thing is huge!

This thing is huge!

Fortunately, the line was not too long.

Fortunately, the line was not too long.

View of Kowloon from halfway up.

View of Kowloon from halfway up.

A Hong Kong Christmas

A Hong Kong Christmas

A trip on a Ferris wheel just isn't complete without an ice cream cone afterwards.

A trip on a Ferris wheel just isn’t complete without an ice cream cone afterwards.

I spent my last morning in Hong Kong finishing up some Christmas shopping before heading to the airport.  The bus ride there was an event in and of itself.  I love buses in Hong Kong.  A reminder of former British influence, there are double-decker buses and proper queues for each bus line at the roadside.  It is the most organized system of public transportation I have ever seen.  If you luck out and are able to sit in the front seat of the second deck, you can get some awesome views, too!

Heading north on Nathan Rd. in Kowloon

Heading north on Nathan Rd. in Kowloon

See how nicely everyone lines up?  Amazing.

See how nicely everyone lines up? Amazing.

A busy zebra crossing (aka crosswalk)

A busy zebra crossing (aka crosswalk)

Passing the port

Passing the port

Bilingual signs for the islands, airport, and... Mickey :)

Bilingual signs for the islands, airport, and… Mickey 🙂

The bridge to Lantau.  (I got a little camera-happy on this bus).

The bridge to Lantau. (I got a little camera-happy on this bus).

I heart HK :).

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*      *     *     *     *

So this will be my last “current” post.  Now that I have a reliable wifi connection, it’s time to rewind WAY back to where I originally stopped writing, which was (gulp) Albania.  I have my work cut out for me!

Categories: asia, hong kong | 2 Comments

Merry Christmas!

Wishing you a joyous Christmas from

Kuala Lumpur

NU Sentral tree

Singapore

Gardens by the Bay selfie

Hong Kong

Hong Kong Xmas tree

Bali

Bali Xmas bush

and Cleveland :).

Zakelj Xmas

Categories: christmas | 8 Comments

It’s a small world, after all

I spent last week back in Hong Kong. I know that I have not yet written about my first trip to Hong Kong earlier this year, so just bear with me. I also had not intended to return to Hong Kong so soon, despite my love for the place. However, my best friend Jamie and her family who live in Shanghai (um, also to be featured in a future post) suggested this as a good meetup place while I was still in Asia. Their plan? Taking the kids to Disneyland.

YES. I’m in.

While I am not a Disney fanatic and often use the word “Disney-fied” with a negative connotation (“House of Blues Boston looks a bit Disney-fied compared to the old Avalon, but I have to admit that the sound system is much better”), my family went to Disney World in Orlando several times when I was a child, and I have always had very fond memories of those trips. Seeing as it’s been close to 25 years since I’ve been there, I figured that I was due for a visit.

I met up with Jamie, her husband Peter, and their kids Theo and Eva on Friday, and we decided to visit the theme park right away on Saturday since the weather forecast seemed favorable.  I say “favorable” and not “warm” because it was chilly!!! For the first time in months, I put on my long-sleeved sweater and jeans.

The nice thing about Disneyland Hong Kong is that its transportation system is integrated with the Hong Kong MTR, so you can easily get there from anywhere in the territory via public transportation. We caught a bus from our apartment to the Sunny Bay MTR station, where the special Disney train takes you to the park.

On the Disney train

On the Disney train

I was excited to be taking my first trip to Disney with young kids.  Note that I write “with kids.”  Maybe things have changed since I was young, but it surprised me how children were somehow a minority in the Hong Kong Disney demographic.  Sure, there were a lot of kids, but there were also a TON of adult couples, many dressed in princess or Minnie gear,  clicking their iPhones with selfie sticks like it was going out of style and clogging up the “pose with your favorite character” lines.  (I am a bit out of the loop when it comes to what is happening in the US:  has the selfie stick phenomenon hit yet?  If not: oh, America.  Just you wait).

Selfies at the Disney entrance.   How many adults do you see?  Now how many children can you find?  Exactly.

Selfies at the Disney entrance. How many adults do you see? Now how many children can you find?

That said, it was so much fun seeing Disneyland through a child’s eyes.

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The professional photographers also took great photos using your own camera.  I was cracking up because one photographer kept making these loud "Ca-CAAA!" noises to coax smiles out of young ones.

The professional photographers also took great photos using your own camera. I was cracking up because one photographer kept making these loud “Ca-CAAA!” noises to coax smiles out of young ones.

While Theo is a huge fan of Donald Duck and Woody, Evie the Sockless Wonder (she likes to pull her socks off when no one is looking and thereby lost about three socks over the course of two days at the park) preferred It’s a Small World and any ride which allowed her to hold a plastic bottle.  Who needs toys?

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Shockingly, the most nausea-inducing experience during my Disney excursion was neither the spinning tea cups of the Mad Tea Party nor the roller coaster Space Mountain, but the Winnie the Pooh ride.  Doesn’t that just seem wrong?  I am so proud that I went on Space Mountain, by the way.  Ten-year-old Becky would have been in awe.  I am NOT a roller coaster enthusiast and get motion sick fairly easily, so going on this ride was sort of my way of proving my mettle to myself.  I sped through the short “single rider” line and admitted to the little girl waiting in front of me that I was terrified.  She looked at me like I was a moron.  Once aboard the car (spacecraft?), I said to the Chinese man sitting next to me something to the effect of “I’m sorry in advance if I throw up all over us.” He smiled but didn’t answer; whether or not he understood me, I will never know!

The ride was mercifully short and vomit-free.  I’m sure my co-pilot was relieved when I finally stopping screaming. I realized that the ride’s total darkness, which is supposed to make it scarier, was actually an advantage in my case because I didn’t fear what I couldn’t see.  Other than having visions that I would somehow be decapitated by the end of the ride.  My panicked and crazy thought process?  That I am taller than the average Hong Kong tourist.  This is what happens when you watch Speed on TV shortly before riding a roller coaster.

Another fun activity was watching the daily parade.  They have some pretty impressive costumes and floats: tiger-like men on pogo stilts, marching bands, and fairies riding tiny beetle-shaped cars.  My favorites were the life-sized green Army figurines bungeeing (is that a word?) from parachutes :).  My least favorite?  The Princess float.  I have nothing against Disney princesses, but there is a fine line between looking “serenely regal” and “lobotomized.”  Frozen, indeed!

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Hee hee.  Fun.

Hee hee. Fun.

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Riding on the Jungle Cruise was another blast from the past, as I do not think the scripts for the riverboat guides have changed in about 25 years!  The management smartly arranged the lines for boats by language spoken:  there were lines for English, Mandarin, and Cantonese-led boats.  While I waited in line watching boats with names like Mekong Maiden and Irrawady Irma float by, I started laughing as I recognized the comedy in what I was doing.  I was standing in line for a “boat” that travels on rails through the “jungle” past robotic “wild animals” when within the last two months, I had taken actual boat rides through the actual jungle on the Mekong and Irrawady rivers, seeing real elephants and other animals along the way!  But you know what?  The Jungle Cruise is still a lot of fun :).  In fact, I think that my childhood experiences at Disney World, from seeing an island village on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride to embarking on a Jungle Cruise to visiting “Mexico” or “Norway” or “Germany” at EPCOT, helped to instill in me a fascination with different cultures and the desire to explore the world myself someday.

At the end of our time at Disney,  I was impressed with how well Theo and Eva handled the long days, because I was exhausted.  I am so glad that I got to spend some more time playing Fun Auntie with them and hanging out with Jamie and Peter again.  image

And you can take a guess as to what my favorite ride was :).

A fitting theme for a 10-month sabbatical

A fitting theme for a 10-month sabbatical

Categories: asia, hong kong | 10 Comments

Fish spa freakout

In its spare time, Cyprinion macrostomus enjoys swimming, nibbling on dead skin, and listening to Andy Williams Christmas carols at the Kuala Lumpur central market.

Categories: kuala lumpur, Malaysia | 5 Comments

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