Saturday, October 22, 2011

 

Our Been There Done That List is Dwindling!

Ok, not really. There are still tons of places we want to go and things we want to do, but we are for sure making a dent in our list. 

So if you haven’t heard by now, our latest adventure was this: diving with the Great White Sharks!!!! Actually, we were not really diving with them, we were in cages the whole time which was ok because these things were ginormous!!!! We have dived with some big sharks before like bull sharks and large Galapagos sharks but these Great Whites were a whole new ball game!!!

I know you don’t want to see a ton of photos of sharks but here are some great ones! Just so you know, Troy does not have a zoom on his camera. In fact the camera he used is for macro use. So yes, these sharks are this close!


There are a few places around the world where Great Whites are accessible to dive with. Off the coast of San Francisco, South Africa and then a very tiny island off the west coast of Mexico called Guadalupe Island. There were several huge benefits of why we chose Guadalupe Island:

  1. We only had to go to Mexico as opposed to South Africa
  2. Visibility was over 100’ (San Francisco, viability is only 30’ max)
  3. And the major factor was the cages we were in were lowed down to 40’ where all the other destinations kept the cage at the surface of the water, which sucks for those people because the sharks rarely went above 30’.
To catch our boat we had to fly into San Diego then take a bus down to Ensenada, Mexico. The crossing into Mexico was kind of a cluster. Considering we were going into Mexico, one would think it would be fast and easy because Mexico could care less about who came into their country. But it was not fast…nor easy.

First we got off the bus (there were about 20 of us), unloaded our luggage then pressed the notorious green light/red light button to see whether or not our luggage would be searched. Then as a group we had to go to a window and fill out an immigration form. Oh, but wait, the immigration man ran out of forms so now we have to wait for him to get more. After filling it out, we then had to go stand in line at another window and hand the form to some lady who types in all the information into the computer (using the 2 finger method as opposed to all 10 fingers). After she gives us a printed version of what we just filled out, we then go back to the first window to the same man who gave us the form to fill out. He stamps the piece of paper and our passport and THEN we are allowed to get back on the bus. If that’s not a classic cluster, I don’t know what is.

So after continuing our drive to Ensenada we caught our boat, the Natuilus Explorer, for a 22 hour boat ride out to Guadalupe Island. The crossing wasn’t so bad (if you don't mind 9 foot swells), but everyone for the most part stayed in their cabin the entire trip…although a few ventured out for cocktail hour! It was tough to sleep at night because there were intervals where the water would get really rough and would just slam against the side of the boat making a horrifying loud banging noise. Until I figured out it was the ocean I was hearing, I kept thinking to myself, “How is it that none of the crew realize that the clothes dryer on the top deck is sliding around and banging into everything?” Sometimes I’m not the brightest color in the crayon box. 

The nice thing about this trip was the only dive gear we needed was our wetsuits and masks. Nothing else was needed. We would be breathing from a hookah system so no use for BCD’s, we weren’t going to be swimming so no fins, and definitely didn't need our computers because our time and depth in the water was completely up to the people running the cages. For me personally, the only sucky thing about how this “diving” was done is that everyone was overly weighted down because the crew didn’t want us floating around the cages. They wanted us planted on the bottom. So that meant everyone, me included, got 40lbs of weight put on them. They would take a 40lbs weight belt off of a guy who weighed almost twice as much as me, turn around and put it on me! So yeah, for me it sucked considering 40lbs is close to half my weight. By the time the 45 minute dive was done, my shoulders and back were a wreck. 

Speaking of the cages…when we initially got on the boat , the very first thing I noticed were the four cages sitting on the back deck. During the day, two would be attached to the back deck and the other two would be off the port and starboard side of the boat. One of the back cages would be at the surface level (standing on the bottom of it the diver would be in about 10’ of water) the second cage was lowered to 15’ (once again, standing on the bottom the diver is at about 20’ of water) then the two off the sides would get lowered down to 40’ (bottom of the cage about 50’). I happened to make a comment to the captain that we seemed to be much deeper than 40’ and that I had read somewhere the cages were not allowed to go any deeper than 12 meters (roughly 40’). He responded “Well… the Mexican government said the cages could not go any lower than 12 meters but they were not specific as to what part of the cage had to be at 12 meters so I left it up to my discretion as to what part of the cage is at 12 meters… which is the top of the cage! So, yes, you guys are deeper than 40’”. Bonus!!!!

Before we got on our boat and saw the cages I thought, “You know what, I bet we really don’t need to be in the cages. The sharks probably don’t get anywhere near us, they’re probably not as big as they seem in photos and I doubt they have no aggressive tendencies at all.” OMG, I was wrong! When I saw them for the first time, I think I peed in my wetsuit a little – and not on purpose. I wasn’t prepared for how big they are. We named a few of them Maytag and Whirlpool because they looked like they could swallow a few washing machines. And then, of course, there is my stupidness of how close they got to the cages. They were so close that a few times fellow divers could reach out and touch the fin. Which resulted in the dive master that was standing on top of the cage to immediately pull the regulator out of the offending divers mouth! And then there are the teeth. All of the sharks we have dived with, the teeth are very non intimidating, whether because we can’t see them or because they’re small (although very sharp). But Great Whites' teeth are there, out in the open in all their glory, and they’re screaming “YOU BETTER STAY WHERE YOU ARE BECAUSE I AM GOING TO RIP YOUR ARM FROM YOUR BODY IF YOU LEAVE THAT CAGE!” So as you can see, my previous ridiculous thoughts about how small they would be and how non threatening they could be is just another example of not being the brightest crayon in the box! 

Oh, and then let’s not forget those aggressive tendencies that I thought would be non-existent. Once again, proved wrong. On one of our first dives we had about 3-4 sharks circling our cages. I happened to be watching a specific one when all of a sudden he went completely vertical, did this speed rocket thing and completely breached out of the water! I’m shouting through my regulator to my cage mates “Holy shit!!! Did you see that???” Found out later from a researcher that lives on the island that when a shark breaches he is trying to make as big a splash as possible to show the other sharks around that he is the king and to not mess with him. Even though he demonstrated his power and size there were a few other sharks from time to time that would get fairly aggressive and start darting around real fast like a crazed lunatic.

Although we were always in the cage, we had an opportunity to come out and stand on top with the dive master. For the most part it wasn’t a good place to be because you had to dodge the bubbles floating up from below. Also the sharks tended to stay either at the mid cage level or below. So being in the cage was the place to be. If the sharks came higher than mid cage level, the diver was forced back into the cage by the dive master. At one point when we had an aggressive shark swimming around us he was getting really close to our dive master above us and our dive master was using every gadget…technique…whatever available to get the shark away. The four of us below him were looking up, cameras ready, watching anxiously to see what would happen. The week before we were there, one of the divers got a photo of a shark sticking his head into a slot in the cage that is used to get the best view of the sharks. I thought the sharks heads were too big to fit, but evidently there are one or two that are just small enough and have figured out where the slot is. So aggressive tendencies…check!!!

One evening the researcher that lives on the island came aboard and gave us a short presentation about the sharks in the area. Several of us were wondering why the sharks were there and this was his answer “We used to have no idea why the sharks are here. However, I theorized they come to eat the Elephant Seals but other researches say they have never seen this. Finally, last year we got video of it!” What a cool job he has! Also, the researchers do know that during breeding season they leave, meet up out in the middle of nowhere with Great Whites that have come down from Hawaii, do their business then return to Guadalupe Island. They don’t mix and mingle and head up to Hawaii afterwards, and the Hawaiian sharks don’t go to Guadalupe Island. Interesting!

This was an amazing trip! Short, fast and expensive but definitely worth it. It has been something I have always wanted to do since becoming an avid diver. Troy was along for the ride. He didn’t have much interest in diving with Great Whites (he had no fear, he just had no interest) but he was hooked after the first shark lovingly swam by and stroked our cage with his fin and eyed us with his big, blue eye while picking his last victim out of his teeth!

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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

 

Churchill, Manitoba - Polar Bear Capital of the World


Troy got some amazing photos! We had great luck with the bears. Click here to see his pictures.

Traveling to a tiny town on the edge of the Hudson Bay far north in Manitoba, Canada just as winter is beginning is not a destination most people would choose for a vacation. But to see the largest concentration of polar bears in the world, Churchill is the place to be. And when I say tiny town, I mean tiny. Population 923 to be more exact.

Our first stop before Churchill was Winnipeg which looked like it was designed by an East Berlin architect from the 1940’s. Definitely not the most attractive town. But before we could fly out the next morning to Churchill, me, Troy and our two friends Seon and Ki first had to piss off the snotty bar waiter and pretty much half the group we would be traveling with for the next six days! Our trip had barely just begun and we were already labeled as “those people”! But honestly, if that fat, cross eyed lady had not stolen my wine, maybe I would have been nicer to her! A quick note here regarding the people in the tour groups: they were all old! I don’t know if I accidentally went to Geriatric.com to book this or what, but we were the youngest by far. We asked our guide, Elise, about it and she said that 65+ was the normal demographic for the trip. I’m guessing it’s because it’s such a sedentary trip. This was by far the least active trip Troy and I have ever done!

Churchill is something else. It is probably one of the most remote places we have ever been, which is saying something. There are literally no roads leading to this miniature town. The only way to get there is by a $1800 plane ticket, a 40+ hour train ride or by ship (notice I didn’t say cruise ship). Think about how big Canada is. It’s pretty amazing to think that Churchill is so far away from anything that there is not even a single road leading to it. That led us to all kinds of questions regarding the people who live there: Who do they date? How many kids are in the high school graduating class? What is their prom like? What do they do for fun? It’s not like there is a larger town 50 miles away that could provide solutions to these problems. There is nothing!!! We did find out that their bars, actually hotel lounges, stay open until 2am and the “lounge to be at” rotates throughout the week so they do have some sort of social action here. They even have Churchill Idol! Our last night there we found “ladies night” at the Tundra Inn which featured several female musicians as well as an Adam Lambert look a like! I guess he was the inspiration for Churchill Idol! It was a lot of fun!

We did get the opportunity one morning to do a tour of the town. It was excruciating! When we looked at our itinerary and found out it was going to be a 3 ½ hour tour, we just about choked. We thought there is no way it will be that long, the itinerary is exaggerating. We were sadly wrong. It didn't start out too bad and was almost interesting until our tour guide pointed out in detail everything including the dilapidated grain elevator, clumps of trees, the needles on the clumps of trees, ridges of dirt, unfinished hotels and the town dump. We drove up and down every single street and even made a stop at the post office. I think the most interesting thing she pointed out was the polar bear holding facility (which I’ll talk about later). We did find out that besides the polar bears being a tourist attraction for Churchill, they do have a really well kept secret: in the summer around 3000 beluga whales migrate up the Churchill river for the birthing season. We saw photos of them swimming up the river in groups of 100’s.

Their medical system was fascinating. They have three doctors full time at the hospital (which by the way is connected to the curling rink) and a dentist and vet that flies in every once in awhile. So for people who need a dental checkup and cleaning, they check the dentists schedule to find out when he is there and makes an appointment. Same thing for vets. But if you have an emergency, you’re kind of S.O.L. The doctors have books they can refer to try to help but otherwise you have to wait for the dentist or vet. So the last thing the locals want to do is get in a fight and get a tooth busted out or to drink too much and fall down and break their teeth. We thought the vet thing was sad. If a dog gets sick or hurt and the doctor can’t help them, there is nothing that can be done. Oh, and people don’t get embalmed when they die. They don’t have the equipment for it and if someone wants to be cremated, it’s very expensive because they have to be flown to Winnipeg to have this done.

Of course, like all small towns there is history behind it but it bored me so I won’t bore you with it. One interesting thing though is it had a small army base during WWII so it has a very long runway at the airport. It’s almost 9800’ long and can accommodate the space shuttle and is actually an alternate landing site if it is needed.

Like I said before, Churchill has the highest concentration of bears because of the towns’ proximity to the Hudson Bay. The bears have sight memory, which means they remember they were born here, plus they remember that this is where the ice first forms over the bay. The Hudson Bay is where they spend the winter hunting Ring Seal, their main source of food. When the hunting season ends and the ice starts to melt, they come back to land near Churchill and do a walking hibernation. They then spread out over hundreds of miles until it is time again to return to the bay to hunt. The bear population here can reach up to 900 bears as they wait for the ice to form.

Churchill is so close to the bear activity on the tundra that there are several warning systems in place to protect the people. First off there is a 10pm curfew for the kids under 18. This warning sounds like an air raid siren announcing the arrival of WWIII. It was a good thing we were told about this because we all would have thought we were under attack. Second, tourists are warned to not walk around town after dark and they are highly discouraged to walk down to the water. Of course after hitting the town on our last night there, as we’re walking to our hotel at midnight, the last thing we were concerned with was running into a polar bear. We were more concerned about making snow angels. Sometimes we’re not the smartest or the most aware! We were also told if we heard gun shots to not be alarmed. It is just the locals shooting guns to scare off the bears. If bears are seen wandering around town that can’t be scared off, they are lured into a bear trap and then taken to a bear holding facility right next to the airport. This facility is an old quonset hut leftover from the WWII. If someone volunteers up the money, the bear is flown by helicopter about 40 miles away and then released, otherwise the bear is kept in the facility until the bay freezes over then they are transported a short distance to the bay by truck and released.

The trucks we toured the tundra in are called tundra buggies. They weigh 240,000lbs and get 8mpg and the top speed is 28mph but we averaged around 7pmh. The truck has to be tall and tough enough to protect the tourists from bears. The bears get curious and stand up to get a closer look at the smells coming from the interior. Plus they are very strong (duh). The town dump is inside a facility which had to have its walls reinforced with steel because the bears were pounding down the walls trying to get inside. It wouldn’t look very good for the town if a few tourists got mauled because they were taken out to the tundra in a school bus!

We had three full days on the tundra with one day split in half. Our first full day out we had 19 bear sightings. Elise said that is the most she had seen so far that season. There were bears lounging by the side of the road, walking across ice, rolling around in the snow and also circling our buggy. I asked Elise how thick the ice needs to be for a bear to walk across. She said only 3”. I asked her if she had ever seen a bear fall in because he misjudged and she said no. Not maybe an hour later we watched a bear fall in and then pull himself out. He then dragged himself across the ice because he realized it was too thin for him to walk on. We love it when our guides get excited because it shows that we are seeing something very exceptional!

Our last day on the tundra was blizzard like conditions. Elise says the bears like the snow but not the wind and that they take cover in the willows. So we were not expecting much. But this ended up being the best day. Just by chance we came across a mother and her two cubs. These cubs were not the cute cuddly bears that crawl all over their mom. They were huge and probably weighed close to 600#’s. Elise said this would be the season they would leave their mom. For almost two hours we sat and watched while they slept, rolled and walked around, fought over seaweed and pretty much ignored us…until Elise got the smart idea of opening up a package of cookies and putting them on the radiator. As soon as Troy says “I smell caramel!” one of the bears got up to come see what the smell was. As he approached the back of the truck, everyone jumped up and ran out the back to the open viewing platform. We didn’t care that it was -15 with the wind chill, there was a huge polar bear walking straight for the back of the buggy. He was cautious at first as he approached, but he soon realized how much bigger he was then us and came right up to the back of the truck. He sat, stared at us and walked under us (the floor of the viewing platform is made out of a metal grate so we could have easily touched his nose). He then decided he was hungry because he started chewing on the tail of the buggy, tearing off chunks of the wood bumper. Elise had told us that if he started to stand up that we all needed to back up because she had no idea how tall he would be. No sooner had she said that when he decided to stand up and lean on the side of the truck to get a closer look at us. The railings of these trucks are 10’ above the ground so think about how intimidating this is to have a 600lb bear that can stand 10’ tall! In our geriatric group there was a couple named Jim and Helen. When the bear stood up Helen was standing right in front of the bear. Her instinct (which was a good instinct) was to back up. Jim was not going to let her. As he pushes her forward he yells “Helen, he’s not going to eat you, just take the damn picture!” This became the quote of the trip. Luckily for Helen the bear didn’t reach the top of the truck, but then he went around to the other side of the truck and discovered a rock he could stand on that made him about 2’ taller. As he stands up again, Elise tells Jim (that just made the quote of the trip) to get back. It was at that moment he chose to have selective hearing because he did not move. He just kept taking pictures. Well because the bear found the rock to stand on, he is now tall enough to not only reach the top of the truck railing but if he chose he could have easily reached over and grabbed the first thing which would have been Jim and his camera! Needless to say he did not like the shit we gave him for the rest of the trip! I wonder if Elise and the rest of the guides get together at the end of each trip and give out awards to which tourist did the stupidest thing? Jim would have won!

Also, Troy got this little video recorder when he worked for Qwest, so I took it to Churchill and made my first video:


Sunday, April 25, 2010

 

My, What a Big Head You Have!

Once again instead of bombarding you with all of our photos, here are the top 50!

There is one thing that I have learned about me and Troy in the past 5 years: There is no destination too far, too remote, too weird, too scary that we won’t travel to. Ok, obviously Afghanistan won’t be on that list, but you get the idea. Easter Island has always intrigued me and since there is no easy way to get there I decided to tag it onto the end of our Machu Picchu trip. Easter Island is one of the world’s most isolated inhabited island and lies 2000 miles off the west coast of Chili and over 2500 miles east of Tahiti. It is roughly 14 miles by 7 miles with a population of about 3500. What the island is famous for is the moai statues which number around 900!

I have pretty much become a travel snob and assume everyone knows as much about travel as I do. So when I get questions about Easter Island such as “Do you take a boat there? Do you just fly over it? Can you go on the island? What’s there? Do cannibals live there?” I have to stop and tell myself “Shelly, no one is as smart as you and knows as much as you! People are also not as pretty and sophisticated as you so give them a break!” Ok, back to the real world… anyways I have to remember that Easter Island is not on every ones radar and when I do run into the occasional person who knows about it (which is rare), I am pleasantly surprised!

A little background on Easter Island:
  • The island got it’s name because it was discovered on Easter Sunday (duh)
  • The Polynesian name is Rapa Nui and the Spanish name is Isla de Pascua
  • It is speculated to have been settled around 700-1000AD and was populated by Polynesians who navigated their way there by canoe from the Marquesas Islands over 2300 miles away.
  • The massive moai statues were erected by these early settlers and represented deified ancestors. It was believed that the living had a symbiotic relationship with the dead where the dead provided everything the living needed (health, fertility of land and animals, fortune, etc.,) and the living through offerings could provide the dead with a better place in the spirit world.
  • Most settlements were located on the coast and moai were erected all along the coastline, watching over their descendants in the settlements before them, with their backs toward the spirit world in the sea. As the island became overpopulated, different cults emerged which caused fighting among the people.
  • The Birdman Cult believed human beings chosen from a competition would represent the deceased ancestors and not the moai statues. Many statues around the island were toppled over by the Birdman Cult which to this day remain down.
Our first full day on the island was spent on a 13 mile hike around the island. (I guess we didn’t get enough hiking in Peru.) From town we took a taxi to Anakena beach and set out around the northwest coast of the island. Other than seeing 1 car, 2 swimmers, 2 motorcycles and 1 horseman, we saw no one for hours! There were no roads, cars, power lines, people, boats, airplanes…nothing. The only thing we came across were horses, cows and the occasional horse carcass. It gave us a feeling of being very isolated and even abandoned. As we gazed out north from the island towards the open ocean it was scary to think that if we fell in the water and were caught in a northbound current, the next land fall we would make would be, oh, I don’t know, Alaska, or maybe Russia! Or if we’re really unlucky maybe we would just shoot straight past them through the Bering Strait! Ok, I’m exaggerating, we would probably hit the Canadian coast first! Since it is a very volcanic island we were constantly stumbling over small lava rocks that threatened to trip us up at any moment. But the views and the surrounding island was amazing! It's been written that it is one of the finest coastal walks in the South Pacific and I couldn't agree more!

The next day we rented a car and headed out to see the sights. But first we needed to exchange our money since we couldn’t do it at the Santiago airport because it was closed. Pat, our B&B owner, told us to go to the gas station to do this. What? Seriously? The gas station? Ok. Sure enough, the guy pulled out a huge bag of Chilean Pesos and exchanged our USD for local currency at the best exchange rate on the island or Chile mainland.

We had no plan for the day so we first headed to Rano Raraku which is the quarry where all the moai were carved. I love having no idea what to expect because it makes the surprise so much better! As you can guess, I had no idea what to expect at Rano Raraku and was shocked when from a distance we could see all these heads sticking out of the ground. (Any minute now there is going to be a “That’s what she said!” opportunity!) In fact the quarry has almost 400 statues in various stages of completion lying scattered around the crater. We parked, paid our admission fee, looked around and realized we were the only ones there! From the side of the hill we could see for miles and there were no cars coming at all! So here is an incredible UNESCO World Heritage site…and me and Troy!

We were able to get all the photos we wanted without any other tourists in the shots! We did make sure to obey the rules and not go off the trail or touch any of the moai or step on the Ahu (platforms). There is one picture that looks like I’m touching the statue, but I’m not. I do have a few caring cells in my body! We found out a few days later that when the big tour groups show up, a ranger follows them around. If someone breaks the rule, the ranger doesn’t reprimand them there, he takes a photo of them. The photos then get hung up at the airport and upon your departure, if your photo is hung up, you get fined!

Before we left the quarry, Troy wanted to go inside the crater. I wasn’t interested because… well I wasn’t interested. But I followed him anyways and was glad I did. Inside the crater were about 30 more heads! And again, just me and Troy!

Our next stop was Tongariki which is the most famous sight because it consists of 15 standing moai with a stunning ocean view at their backs. When we got there, there were two tourists and their guide. They left shortly and once again it was me and Troy. We couldn’t figure out where all the tourists were but found out later that week we did the “tour itinerary” backwards. The tour groups leave Rono Raraku and Tongariki as the last stops.

We went back to Anakena beach for lunch before heading onwards. There was a tiny little shack open for business ran by an old woman. Her menu consisted of four items written on a piece of cardboard. We ordered the tuna and were shooed off while she started her BBQ. When we came back there were four huge pieces of tuna on the grill and I looked around thinking “Who else is she feeding here?” Before I knew it there was a huge plate of food placed in front of my face that looked like it belonged in a four star restaurant! Although I don’t think four star restaurants have enormous amounts of flies that appear out of nowhere. While we’re eating two craft ladies showed up and started to set up their booths. Our BBQ lady started telling them a story and even though we couldn’t tell what they were saying we could tell it was extraordinarily sad. We found out our BBQ ladies 2 year old granddaughter had been killed the day before. She had been accidentally ran over by her father!

We stopped at several other sights on the way back to town but none held our interest the way the quarry and Tongariki did. We visited Akivi which has 7 moai that were erected in the middle of the island and there is much speculation as to why they were built inland whereas all the rest of the moai were placed right along the islands coast. We also stopped to see the quarry where the red hats were made. I would love to know the theory behind why the moai needed hats!

The next day we went diving. We knew not to expect much but we can’t go to an island and not dive. Our dive guide was an interesting guy. His name was Henri, was French, over 60 years old and had worked closely with Jacques Cousteau on his boat the Calypso. We wish we spoke French because he would have been a very interesting person to get to know. The diving was ok. Not much fish life, visibility ok, underwater terrain very cool… but at least it was cold! On our second dive I looked at my watch and was excited to see that the dive was almost over because I was very, very cold. At this point Henri looked at everyones' air gauge and continued on. A few minutes later I looked up and thought “Woohoo, there’s the boat! Wait, where you going Henri, the boat is right above us. We’re not stopping? We’re still going? Crap!” Like I said, Henri was interesting but our boat driver was a big fat grump! He looked like the most miserable person on the island!

As we’re hanging out at the shop after the dive we notice the little girls funeral procession going through town. The bad thing about our B&B, it’s located right next to the cemetery. As we made our way back to our room, we walked fast, kept our heads down and walked on the opposite side of the dirt parking lot because we didn’t want the locals thinking we were being nosy tourists. The last thing we wanted to do was intrude on this very tragic personal time. One of the sad things about this funeral is that instead of the coffin being taken to the cemetery in a hearse, it was taken in the back of a beat up old Toyota pick up truck.

Our last day we still had not had enough of hiking as we proceeded to do a 9 mile round trip hike to the Rano Kau volcano. The dogs in this town know who the tourists are because as we walked down the street, a random dog would start to follow us. If we stopped in a store or restaurant, he would sit and wait outside until we were done. So as we headed out of town to the volcano, a dog , who we nicknamed Yellow Belly, started following us. We thought after 10 minutes he would get bored and would turn around. No, he followed us the whole way up and back down. I don't think he was used to walking that far because he started to lag as we got to the stop of the volcano. We gave him some water and cheese and then he was good to go. No wonder they follow the tourists. They know we're suckers and will fall for the "I'm so tired!" act!

I don't think Easter Island will ever make it on any of the Food Networks shows because it is not necessarily known for their food but do they make a killer ceviche. We ate so much tuna! Every day we either had tuna sashimi, tuna steaks or tuna ceviche! And believe it or not, this tiny island in the middle of nowhere brews it’s own beer! They definitely have their priorities straight!


 

We Kicked the Inca's Trail's Ass!

We whittled down the 100's of photos to the top 50 or so which you can see here.

Every so often someone will ask me “How do you decide where to travel to?” Little do they know I have a very long list of destinations! Even though we have been to a ton of places, there are still a ton more to see. I got the idea for this trip after our dive trip last summer to the Galapagos. It never occurred to me that Machu Picchu in Peru was so close and then what better time to go to Easter Island since we would be near the west coast of Chile! So off we went. The only downsize to where we travel to is how long it takes to get there. It is not a hop, skip and a jump like to Mexico. No, we’re lucky if we make it to our destination in 24 hours!

This trip almost didn’t happen though. Beginning of January, the Cusco/Machu Picchu (MP) region got an enormous amount of rain which washed out part of the Inca Trail and the rail line between MP and Ollantaytambo. Thousands of tourists were stranded and had to be air lifted out of MP. The trail was closed for the next three months while repairs were made. I had made reservations back in December and crossed my fingers the trail would be open again April 12 which was when we were to go. The trail opened no problem on April 1, but then there was the issue of getting a train ticket. Since only one train was running instead of the normal four, tickets were very hard to come by and our trekking company had to buy ours on the gray market. Normally worrying about if we had a train ticket or not would not be an issue but at the checkpoint before we began the trek, we had to show a government official we had a train ticket otherwise we were not allowed to go. But we got our tickets and were good to go!

Our trekking company required everyone to be in Cusco at least two days before departure to acclimate to the altitude, which is at 11,000 feet! I think living a mile above sea level helped us but we still felt it walking up the steep streets. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the people who came straight from sea level. Our original plan upon arriving at 7am was to go straight to bed but that is really hard to do in a foreign city when there is so much to see. So we headed out to see the town and nearby Inca sights, oh, and a really big white Jesus statue that had creepy eyes! During our roaming of Cusco we came across the local market that had everything from dozens of juice and local food stalls, to ladies selling flowers, huge round loaves of bread, raw meat and what we think were cow noses. Hmm… I wonder if a cow nose makes a good soup stock? We did discover another thing in Cusco: Alpaca meat is goooood! Cured Alpaca meat on a pizza was especially good!

A friend who recently went to Cusco told me that a festival happens every Sunday in the main square. We asked our B&B owner, Phillippe, if he knew what festival was going on that day and he says “There is not a festival today. Unless it is a holiday, but today there is nothing.” Remember that quote. So we head to the main square and guess what we came upon? Not a festival but a small parade. It was actually quite lame. It started out with school children in their uniforms marching (or trying to march) to the band. Then next came the business women of Cusco. They all had on business suits, heels and even carried their purses (I thought the purses was a nice touch!)

After watching this for 20 minutes we got bored and thought that Phillippe was right, this was no festival. Shortly after settling down at a nearby café to sample Peru’s famous coffee, we realized that yes, today there would be a festival. Starting from the opposite direction came groups of people in brilliant colored costumes and masks with trumpets, tubas, drums and dancing! Now this was a festival! And it went on for hours! It was a parade I would love to be in. At each corner the parade stopped and a kid would run out to the participants with a crate full of beer and pass them around.

Each group was introduced by a banner that said who they were, but only one group was advertising a product… diapers and toilet paper. The group started out with a large roll of toilet paper dancing down the street then followed by small children (like 4 years old) dressed as cowboys wearing masks with large noses. I’m not sure which part was weirder: the part where they had bags of diapers shoved into their pants or that they were dancing holding bottles of beer! Then these kids were followed by adults dressed the same way, diapers and all stuffed into their pants. The only difference with the adults is that they were drinking the beer they were holding. Personally if I had to go in public with diapers shoved in my pants, I would be drinking too. We tried to find out what the festival was for and after much questioning we found out it was the anniversary for the black market. What??? After we got back to our B&B we told Phillippe about the festival and he says (remember his quote from earlier?) “Oh yes, every Sunday there is a festival in the square."

Of course, going to Machu Picchu by train like everybody else just isn’t our style so we decided to do the four day trek along the Inca Trail which is about 25 miles. Even though we normally do 8-10 miles hikes throughout the summer here in Colorado we were a bit nervous about the trek since we have never done a multi-day trip carrying our own gear. Luckily since this was our first time we had it quite easy because we didn’t have to carry our food or tents, just our own personal items. We have some friends that are true mountaineers that are reading this and probably laughing their asses off thinking how easy we had it! I’ll admit, it could have been much tougher then it was, although it was still tough.

Our group was made up of people from all around the world: Germany, China, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US. The first day everyone in our group seemed to be sizing each other up: My pack is bigger than yours. I wonder if I could have brought a smaller pack? You’ve climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro? Are you going to be slow or fast? Does your ten year old daughter even want to do this? You have never heard of zip-off pants? But soon everyone fell into a groove with each other even though no one could remember the others name.

You know how in a group there is always that one annoying person? Well ours was Chuck Norris. His real name was Eric, but one of the porters named him Chuck Norris because of his hair and the name stuck. Sometime not too long ago I think he fried part of his brain on drugs because something about him just wasn’t right. He really was an idiot. He kind of made life miserable for everyone in the group, especially the guide. He would be anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours behind everyone else and would get pissed that the guide didn’t wait for him although there was a guide who was always behind him bringing up the rear.

There are a lot of trekking companies out there and we were very happy with our company, Peru Treks. Upon arrival at each stop for a meal we were greeted with juice, bowls of warm water and soap were laid out for us to wash up before eating, at the campsite our tents were set up and taken down for us by the porters and each morning coffee was brought to our tent. Oh, and the food was awesome. Speaking of the porters, they are who made the trip possible. Each trekking group had their own porters who carried the sleeping tents, food tent, collapsible stools, food, propane, eating utensils, tea kettle and whatever else was needed to make our stay comfortable. They did the same trek with us but at a much faster pace and with more weight on their backs. The government regulates it so that each porter cannot carry more than 55lbs. That is still a lot of weight but before the government got involved, each porter carried over 100lbs. One of our porters was even 66 years old! So we never once complained about the weight of our own packs.

Our first day was easy with most of the trek flat going through grass fields and passing the occasional small Inca sight. The second day was a different story, but more on that later. The first camp site was gorgeous with views of the beautiful Andes mountains surrounding us and a zillion stars after the sun set. The only bad thing about our site was the toilet. Oh, the toilet. Obviously there is no running water here, so it is a squatter toilet (toilet level with the floor) in an outhouse with a trash can in the corner for the toilet paper. We quickly found out that there were people along the trek that were having problems with their bowels and not quite making it to the toilet in time. This was evident in the outhouse because there were piles of shit on the floor that missed the toilet by 6”. And yes, this is gross, very gross, but it was a part of our everyday life on the trek!

The second day was the challenge: it was straight up from the camp and gained over 4200’ in elevation in a little over 5 miles. The pass was called Dead Woman’s Pass and Cesar, our guide, told us the story of how it got its name but it was so lame it doesn’t even deserve to be repeated - but Cesar is a great story teller. Right after breakfast Cesar gave us a demonstration on how to chew coca leaves to alleviate altitude sickness. This was quite the novelty because coca leaves is the raw form that cocaine is made of. After chewing several leaves and then spitting them out after two minutes, the tongue goes numb. The leaves made me gag and I had no desire to chew them while struggling up the steep climb so I did without. Fortunately Troy and I were fine whereas others in our group did not have such an easy time with the altitude, coca leaves or not. So backpacks on, here we go. Cesar said it would take five hours to reach the top. Troy and I did it in three! Guess all the training at the gym paid off! A lot of people in our group that day had problems whether it was dehydration, diarrhea, headaches, nausea, lost toe nails or just pure and simple struggled to get up the hill, I was happy Troy and I had no problems. Once we got to the top it was straight down to our next campsite.

The third day was the longest day. The distance covered was longer and there were more Inca sights to stop and see so it took everyone 10 hours to get to camp. That is, except for Chuck Norris and his girlfriend. They were two hours behind everyone and arrived at camp after dark. Before we arrived at our last camp everyone had to walk down Gringo Killer which was 3000’of elevation loss in the form of steps that went down, down, down. If no one was sore before this, they were sore after wards. The last camp was a very civilized with showers and a bar and restaurant. After throwing our packs in our tent and taking a quick shower we all headed to the bar. Funny thing, we drank all their beer! There were probably 30 other people in the bar before us but when a girl from our group went to buy us five beers, she was cut off. We all thought five was the limit that could be bought at one time. Ended up five was the limit because that was all that was left. But what do you know, 30 minutes later here comes a porter with a potato sack full of beer!

Our last morning we rose at 3:45am had a quick breakfast and were on the trail by 4:45. It had rained very heavily the night before but stopped by the time we got up. We have had such gorgeous weather to this point that a little rain was to be expected. There is a gated checkpoint on the Inca Trail that leads towards MP. It didn’t open until 5:30 so all the trekkers were lined up at this gate when it opened. Then it became kind of a mad dash to MP. Cesar kept warning us that there would be trekkers who would over take each other and to just let them but to stay on the mountainside. There is a very steep drop off the edge that would make the beginning of any ones day very bad! Our first meeting point as a group was at the Sun Gate. This was an Inca site that was at the top of a pass. I think we left our campsite so early so that when we got to the Sun Gate we could see the sunrise over MP. But unfortunately because of the previously nights rain, everything was shrouded in clouds and there was to be no sunrise over MP. Once everyone realized this, there was no longer a mad dash to get to MP first. So along we kept trekking, having no idea whatsoever that just beyond the clouds was MP! The first inclination I had that we were really close was when out of the clouds came this woman wearing a pink and white flowered sundress! I almost stopped in my tracks and looked around and thought “Where the hell did she come from?!?” But then more and more of these oddly dressed people who were clean and smelled good started appearing out of nowhere.

We finally arrived at MP and was a little disappointed because of the cloud cover. But slowly as the sun warmed up the air, bits and pieces of MP started revealing itself to us until finally the entire cloud cover burned away and we could see MP in all its glory! If I was a religious person I would almost think I heard angels singing! But since I’m not I’ll say I heard Metallica rocking out as the clouds disappeared!

Along the trek we did learn a few things besides the fact that large packs of dogs love to bark and chase after chickens through our camp at 3 am. For instance the Inca trail was not used by the common person, it was used by important people such as architects, astronomers, priests and the occasional king and there was more than one trail to confuse the enemies. The Inca’s were master stone builders and never used mortar of any kind to build walls and that the stones were carved and sculpted so tightly next to each other that even a blade of a knife can’t be inserted. What struck me the most was how random the Inca dwellings were built in the mountainside and how they were in the middle of nowhere, miles and miles from anything.

Because of all the photos I have seen of MP, I knew what to expect when we arrived, or at least what to expect after the clouds lifted. But after seeing it in person after the 4 day trek, it impressed me far more than I expected. Along the trek all the Inca sights were small, with maybe a few terraces for farming but MP is huge and is truly a Lost City. It was only recently discovered in 1911 and covers about 5 square miles and even though little is known about the social or religious use it is believed that it’s primary function was for astronomical observation.

This was an extraordinary journey and every single one of us in our group felt that we deserved to be there and not the people who came in by train! They should at least be required to do some jumping jacks or push ups before they get to go!

Next up, Easter Island!


Sunday, September 20, 2009

 

How To Lose Your Sanity in Italy

This is a long blog, but worth reading. I have not had this much to write about a trip in a long time! Even Galapagos was not filled with this many stories!

Before we begin, here is a cast of characters and a little background to help you along:
  • Rick: Troy’s dad
  • Pam: Troy’s step-mom
  • Ray: Troy’s uncle
  • Carol: Troy’s aunt
  • Mary: Troy’s grandma
  • Mario: Mary’s first cousin in Italy
  • Nicola: Marios son in Rome
  • Dominic: owner of B&B in Pescara

Background

During our year trip one of the incredible countries we visited was Italy. Of course we wanted to see all the amazing cities but Troy had an alternative reason for visiting. His great grandfather, who grew up in Italy, moved to the US in 1909. His grandmother, Mary and her sisters were born in the US a few years later. So Mary still has several first cousins there that she has never met since she has never been to Italy. Some US relatives of Mary had traveled to Italy several years ago and had found these first cousins and passed along information such as names, who was still alive and the name of the village, Nocciano, where most of them lived. When we decided to visit Italy, Troy said he wanted to find this village for his grandma, who he is very close to. So we booked a B&B at a major city that we knew was near Nocciano thinking that we would rent a car and drive to the village, take some photos and that be the end of it.

Some of the information that was brought back from the relatives was that Mary’s first cousin, Mario had a son, Nicola, who was a heart surgeon in Rome. Since we knew we were going to be in Rome, Troy made contact with Nicola and we ended up meeting him and his family in Rome.

So to continue with this long story, when we arrived at our B&B in Pescara, we were pleasantly surprised to find the owner, Dominic, spoke perfect English. When we told him why we were in Pescara, he told us to rent a car and he would go with us to Nocciano to find Mary’s first cousin. So Troy called Nicola in Rome and told him we were going to try to find his dad to meet him. Nicola called his dad and told him to expect us the next day. For some reason we didn’t have his address but Dominic said it wasn’t a problem. Nocciano was so small that all we needed to do was stop at the first old person we saw and ask for Mario Luciani’s house. Sure enough, the first old man we saw gave us perfect directions to his house. That afternoon we met Mario, his wife and several other family members. Mario even gave us photos to give to Mary. One photo was of her grandmother who she had never met. Since Troy was so close to his grandma he decided that before it was too late he would get her back to Italy to meet her family. She just turned 90 so we knew that the time was now or never. That is how this return trip came to be.

Onto the Story

It started out that Troy and his grandma was going to go. He wanted me to go because he knew he would need help. If anyone else wanted to go, great. Rick and Ray definitely wanted to go who in turn invited Carol and Pam to go as well. Mary soon decided that she would pay for everyone to go which meant that she wanted to invite a slew of people. Things rapidly got out of hand with how many people she wanted to invite. It was going to be hard enough as it was traveling as a group of 7 with one of them being 90 years old. But luckily the invite list got under control and I was able to start making travel plans.

I was in charge of the travel plans so my stress started long before the trip even began. It’s one thing to book a trip for just Troy and I. I don’t need to check with him on anything because I know how he likes to travel. It’s another thing to book for 5 other people I have never traveled with and who have not traveled internationally in quite some time (if at all). I had to be the travel coordinator and basically tell people what they had to do, where to be at a certain time, how to prepare for the trip, etc, without sounding like a bitch. However, it ended up that being a bitch was what got results from everyone! Anyways, I had to figure out how to get a wheelchair for Mary (she can walk fine but not for hours at a time); what was the best way to get her around Rome to see all the sights; finding flights with enough layover time to get everyone to the gate in time; etc. Booking the B&B in Pescara was easy because Dominic had 2 units we could use. He said he would help book our apartment in Rome so he became our go between for the Rome accommodations. I didn’t like that. There was an extraordinary number of e-mails that were passed back and forth to explain to him that 7 adults were not going to fit into beds that slept only 5. I don’t care what country we’re going to, it just doesn’t work.

Okay, Let's Go!!!

Troy and I knew we were going to need a lot of patience for this trip and that it would be tested over and over again but we didn’t know the testing would start so soon at DIA. We had no sooner gone through security when both Rick and Ray realize they had lost their money pouches. What??? Both of you??? You’re kidding me! Two grown men losing their money before we have even left the country. Ended up when they took their belts off to go through security, the pouches had slid down their pants leg. Or in Ray’s case got stuck in his underwear because that is where he had tucked his. But I can’t give them too much grief. I made a dumb mistake myself of booking our hotel transfer for the wrong day. Me, the world traveler who booked our year trip without a hitch! What happened was September 5 was stuck in my mind for the day we left that it never occurred to me we were arriving the next day. It only dawned on me when we were landing and Troy asked me what the date was because he was changing it on his watch. Troy had received a call at 2am from Italy the morning we were leaving . We couldn’t figure out who would be calling us. I thought it was a coincidence. Ended up being our transfer at the airport wondering where we were! Whoops!

I have to stop here for a moment and give Ray some more shit (that is the great thing about family - we can do that). One of the afternoons in Rome, him and Carol had it free to do their own thing so they went and visited the Roman Forum. This is the central area in Rome where the ancient Roman civilization developed. The oldest and most important structures of the ancient city are located here. Do you kind of have an idea of how important this site is? As they are touring the grounds, guess what Ray did? He picked up a rock from the ground and kept it!!!!!! It’s like going to the Petrified Forest and taking a piece of the forest or going to the Acropolis in Athens and taking a rock from there. You know the old saying “If everyone took one…!” You just don’t do these things! When I found out what he did I was horrified!

Our first day was a good start. After getting settled into our apartment, which was going to be cozy (to say the least) for the next 4 days, we went to lunch and then went to visit the San Giovanni in Laterano Catholic Church, of which the Pope is Bishop of and is considered the “Mother of All Churches”. This church was right by our apartment so it was an easy walk to visit. This was my favorite church when we visited in the past and still is. Stop laughing!!! I can have a favorite church if I want to! Anyways, there are all these…coves… (for lack of a better word because I have no idea what they are called) in a church where people can sit or kneel and pray. So Mary, who is very Catholic, stops and prays at the first one after putting in her 1Euro to light the electric candle. She then moves onto the next cove and sits and prays more. I turn to Troy and say “What’s she praying for now that she didn’t pray for over there?” After that we rested, walked down to the Collosseum which was very near our place, had dinner then started the vacation off with a bang by preceding to drink way too much which pretty much set the tone for the rest of the trip.

On Tuesday we had booked a tour of the Vatican Museum, which Troy and I had seen last time around, but we didn’t have a guide so we didn’t get the inside scoop on a lot of things. Such as: Michelangelo was so angry he was blackmailed into painting the Sistine Chapel, that he painted God’s Ass on the ceiling. Hmmm… do you capitalize ass since it is God’s ass we are referring to? There is also a sculpture from the Roman period that looks disturbingly too much like Bill Clinton - I mean, exactly like him! Pompous hairdo and bulbous nose and everything! Oh, and you can see his penis!

After our tour we stopped to get lunch where pretty much a full brawl broke out amongst us. There was mis-communication about who was spending the afternoon doing what, who was going off to do their own thing, etc. and the next thing I know "the adults" were yelling at each other and trying to get the last word in. Mary is sitting at the end of the table completely oblivious to this fight going on around her. She turns to Troy and says “Do you want a bite of my potatas? How about my fish?”

We knew Mary needed to see St. Peter’s Basilica regardless how tired she was, so after lunch and everyone settled down we took her back to the Vatican. We had used the wheelchair that morning for the museum tour because it was going to be 3 hours of walking. We knew she would need it because she wouldn’t be able to walk or stand for long periods. She hated it though. She gave it dirty looks every time we told her she had to use it. So upon arrival at the Vatican, I immediately went to get a place in the long line thinking Troy is bringing up the rear while pushing Mary in the wheelchair. Next thing I know, Rick is getting a phone call from Troy saying they were in already inside! Ahh… the power of a wheelchair! So the rest of us stood outside in the sweltering sun silently cursing the fact that Troy is already inside.

Troy and I had to leave early that afternoon to go pick up tickets to the Papal Audience I had reserved at a Catholic Church that I had found through the internet. Just as Troy and I are rushing out of the Vatican square to catch the subway, Rick calls to say Pam got tickets! What??? How??? It literally stopped us in our tracks because we didn’t understand how she got the tickets so easily. Long story short, the nun in the Vatican gift shop offered them to her because they were having a difficult time communicating how much something cost. Troy and I didn’t know what to do because it was made very clear to us that we needed to either pick up the tickets or cancel the reservation so someone else could get the tickets. I didn’t have the contact information with me to cancel the tickets so instead Troy and I bought a beer, sat outside the Vatican walls and contemplated that we were going to burn in hell for not picking up the tickets… oh, and the fact that we’re drinking a beer outside of the Vatican in St. Peters Square!

Wednesday morning was the day of the Papal Audience. While I was researching tours and things to take Mary to do, I kept coming across this. Since she was Roman Catholic I thought she would like the opportunity to see the Pope. I couldn’t get very detailed information about what this would entail but what my assumption was after talking to other people and what little I read on the internet, I thought we would be in St. Peter’s square with 100,000 other people and would see the Pope as a tiny little speck at his window a half mile away. Sure, he would be a tiny little speck but it would still be the Pope. So Wednesday morning we get up, put on our casual clothes, slather on the sunscreen, get Mary’s umbrella, grab the wheelchair and off we go to the Vatican again. When we arrived 2 hours early I anticipated a lot of people. There were a lot of people but not as many as I expected. After we got through security, instead of going straight into the square which is directly ahead of us, we are directed left through a gate that is guarded by the Pontifical Swiss Guard. I immediately knew something was up since the average tourist rarely sees these guards around the Vatican.

So me, Rick, Pam, Troy and Mary in her wheelchair follow the line of people away from the square towards who knows where. We are then directed into an auditorium but Troy and his grandma are told to go in a different entrance because of the wheelchair. We quickly find chairs because we were tired of fighting the crowd. We sit down, look around and see a large stage in front of us with a huge sculpture in the background with Jesus growing out of it. In the center of the stage is a lone chair and I ask Rick how far are we away from that. He quickly thinks about what golf club he would use to hit that chair and says 75 yards. As 10:30 nears the three of us are sitting trying to figure out what is about to happen. 10:30, on the dot, here comes the frickin Pope! Here we are 75 yards away from him, but guess where Troy and his grandma are? 30’ away. 30 frickin’ feet. They are in the front row barely off center stage. As soon as he walks on stage the whole audience roars to life!!!!! He stands there with his hands raised with the attitude of “I am such a rock star!!!” Afterward we asked Mary what she thought of the wheelchair and she says “Oh, I like the wheelchair now!”

The Papal Audience was the most bizarre thing. Here we are in a group of 5000 people in the presence of the Pope and people are yelling, whistling, screaming (yes, screaming at the Pope) waving their country flags, unfurling huge banners, playing trumpets, there was even a full fledge high school band complete with pom pom girls! It was by far nothing any of us expected!

Have you ever gone souvenir shopping with a 90 year old in a foreign country? Don’t do it! Rick had told Mary from day one that she needed to do her shopping. Either she kept forgetting or what I think is the real case is she wouldn’t speak up when she wanted to go into a store. So after the Papal Audience and lunch we told her it was time to do her shopping. She only wanted to spend $2US per person which in Rome is not getting you much. The stuff she picked out and how much she bought was unreal. After she bought for everyone on her list she kept buying little ceramic figurines “just in case!” When we got to Pescara she wanted to do more shopping. She said she wanted to find “tourist candy”, whatever that is. Then, when we were at the Rome airport, more shopping, then at Washington DC airport, still even more shopping. By that point we all put our foot down and said no because no one wanted to carry her stuff. I was already carrying 5 big boxes of candy for her and I was not going to carry anything else. I know I'm being hard and she’s 90 but there has to be a line drawn at some point!

When Troy and I had traveled through Italy before we were not able to experience the food like it deserves. We were on such a tight budget that we ate as cheap as we could. We made up for it on this trip! For the most part in Rome we ate pasta and pizza – nothing special. But in Pescara and the Abruzzo region we feasted. Our first full day in Pescara we rented a car, went and toured a winery then went to lunch at a place that Dominic recommended. The waiter spoke very little English but Troy was able to order for all of us. We had bruschetta, several antipasta plates, 2 pastas, rosticcini – which are small skewers of the best tasting lamb ever – pork chops and a few other plates I’m forgetting right now. It was a nice $150 lunch!

That afternoon was the first time that Mary was to meet Mario, her first cousin who is 86 and has exactly 4.5 teeth. That evening 12 of us went to dinner at this tiny, no frills, boring restaurant. It was one of those places with the plastic tables and chairs outside, stuffed animal heads on the wall, Pizza Hut table cloths and a fat old lady cooking in the kitchen. But in spite of all this, the food was phenomenal. Our anti-pasta plate consisted of boars meat, the pasta had shaved dried truffles (which evidently are common in the area) and of course copious amounts of wine.

The following day was the family reunion. This was what Troy brought Mary to Italy for: so she could meet her four first cousins and other family members she had never met. By pure coincidence, this year was the 100 year anniversary of when Mary’s father moved to the US. Pretty clever of us! We had hired three translators, one being Dominic who in turn hired two university students. Talk about a small world. One of the students, Stefano had lived in Colorado Springs, where his grandparents resided, to attend school. In the meantime his grandparents have moved to Casa Grande, AZ where my aunt and her family used to live. Anyways, there were about 40 people at this reunion, very few could speak English outside of Nicola’s family but that is why we brought three translators. I can’t imagine what was going through Mary’s mind when we arrived and she first got out of the car. I personally would have been nervous as hell and hoping I could get through the afternoon without making a fool of myself.

Through our translator, Mario told me and Troy a funny story. Two years ago when we had visited, the day after we left, Mario received a phone call from a friend that said he was on the news. Mario responded with “Go to hell,” before he let his friend continue with his story. Evidently word got out that these 2 Americans had come to Nocciano to meet their distant relatives. I guess in their very small world, this was a big deal and found it to be very news worthy. Then to top it off, the news people found it even more bizarre that these 2 Americans were traveling the world for a year. We never knew who told who what about our visit but we thought it was funny that something like this made their local news. We were celebrities and didn’t even know it!

After the reunion, Mary wanted to find the house her father grew up in. The last relatives to visit had said they had found the house. At the end of our own personal house hunt, we think somebody lied to them. Two relatives from the reunion came with us so off we went in a caravan of three cars. One of the relatives was a farmer who knew the surrounding area very well and the other one was Mario who had been to the house when he was very young. So we all thought it would be a short 15 minute drive to the house, take a few photos etc. etc, then be on our way back to our hotel after a long day. Oh no. One and a half hours later we are still searching. Troy had his GPS out because everyone wanted him to mark the spot but after the hour and a half drive, all he had to show was a spaghetti bowl of crazy driving all over the Italian countryside! So after our too long search we stop to talk to this old man at the side of the road who is in a motorized scooter. We all thought he was being asked directions, but next thing I know he is getting in one of the cars. Mary asks “Do they know him?” Me, being the smartass, couldn’t resist and said “No, they just like to pick up random old people from the side of the road!” Turns out he was a second cousin of the Luciani family. Luckily he did come with us because he took us directly to the spot where the house was. Who knows what house the last relatives saw, but what we saw was a lot of empty land with a very small dilapidated building on it. We know for a fact this building was not the house because it used to be big enough to hold 48 people. Since Mary was so excited to be here she wanted to add to her souvenir collection and collect a few rocks. These were not small rocks that would fit in your pants pocket. No, they weighed several pounds each and no one was allowed to wash off the dirt.

Sunday was our last day here so we piled into the car and took a driving tour of the castle villages in the area. The main one to visit was Rocca Calascio. This was built in the 14th century and is the tallest bastion in Italy. Isn’t Troy’s photo of it awesome? After visiting the castle we were to head onto the next village following the Tom Tom’s GPS directions. You know, the navigational device with the pleasant female voice that says “In 200 yards, bear left!” I think our Tom Tom was Satan in disguise. In fact, here on after, I am going to refer to the Tom Tom as Satan. Heading down from the castle Satan says “At the end of the road, turn right” which is taking us into the village. I’m sitting in the middle seat and I start mumbling quietly “This is not a good idea, this is not a good idea.” As Satan takes us deeper into the village my mumblings get louder and louder. Ray turns to Troy and says “Why is this not a good idea?” and Troy responds “Because Shelly is remembering the villages we walked through and how narrow the streets are. “Narrow streets” is an understatement. Sure, we’re in a car that can hold 7 people but it’s still a small car. We’re driving through alleys that are so narrow that we have to fold in the mirrors. I am getting more nervous with each block we go because I have yet to see a place for us to turn around. I start rubbing my temples thinking this can’t end up good and that there is no way Troy can back up through these narrow streets. He was barely able to navigate them going forward. So we finally come to a fork in the road and Troy says “What do I do?” Remember Satan has directed us to this point in the village and is telling us to go left - tricky f**ker. I say, “Someone needs to get out and look to see where the road going down leads to.” Ray gets out, goes and looks, comes back and says it’s tight but we can do it. When he looked at the road and the passage we had to make he was thinking of the width of the car, not the length.

So Troy proceeds down an incline that curves left then immediately cuts right between two old buildings. So Troy tries with no luck. He can get the front left bumper through the corner but that means the back right panel is going to get scrapped really, really bad. So he backs up. Tries again, no go. Backs up again, still no go. By this time the clutch is burning because it has no torque to back up this steep incline. During all of this an old man has come out of his house to see what the bad burning smell is all about. He doesn’t speak any English but tries to give us directions on what to do. Troy and I both had the same idea that he should get in a drive. At one point, Troy gives up and Ray gives it a whirl. He get’s the back right panel the clearance it needs only to have smashed the front left bumper into the wall. “Am I ok on the front left?” “No, not anymore!” He gives up so Troy jumps back in the driver seat. In the meantime an Indian has come out who speaks both English and Italian and is helping to translate what the old man is saying. He tells Troy “You can make it but it will be a small crash.” Troy responds “We have insurance” and the Indian says “Ahhh, you have insurance, big crash, no problem!” The old man has finally lost his patience and has kicked Troy out of the car and has taken over driving. Both Troy, me and Rick realize that all we need to do to make this sharp corner is to pick up the rear end and move it left 4”. That’s all we need, 4”. So me, Troy, Rick, Ray and a few locals start lifting the bumper up and down to bounce it while Troy is pushing it left. Lo and behold we moved it enough to get the car through. We found out at the end of all this Mary had her rosary out the whole time praying we would make it! And of course no one got a photo of the car stuck. Damn! I also forgot to apologize to the locals for trying to destroy their several hundred year old village.

Ok, ordeal done with, Troy’s adrenaline has subsided and his legs have stopped shaking from dealing with the stupid clutch. Onto another small village called Santo Stefano for lunch that is 2 hours overdue. First restaurant we see we stop because we are all famished. The waitress speaks very little English so Troy accidentally ends up ordering the whole menu. So $300 and 2 hours later this is what we have devoured: 2 bottles of wine, individual plates of prosciutto and pepperoni, 2 types of bruschetta, pickled zucchini , a plate of some sort of tasty sliced fat, platter of ricotta and assorted cheeses, cold green beans, lentil soup, roasted potatoes, gnocchi, pasta with red sauce, pasta with white sauce, fried cheese with honey, puffed rice, porkchops and sausages. Troy caught her in time to keep her from bringing us dessert because we had no room on the table or in our bellies for it!

Finally, we had booked a private transfer from Pescara to the Rome airport because the bus and train schedules were not going to work with our flight departure time. So I tell the driver we are on United. When we get to the airport I repeat it again. He drops us off at the airport and I’m seeing signs for multiple airlines but I’m not seeing United. I figure it would get sorted out when we get in the terminal. Shortly after we enter the terminal we quickly realize he had dropped us off at the wrong terminal and we had to catch a shuttle bus to get to the right place. There is nothing like running down the airport road to catch a bus dragging 6 people and their luggage with them with and trying to coax a 90 year old grandmother to keep up with us.

Ok, I’m done!

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