You practice-packed and repacked last week. You printed out and saved to your phone or e-pad all your travel information. Your passports and health screening is up-to-date.
You made sure your neighbors knew you’d be gone. You made arrangements for pets, gave loved ones your itinerary.
everything but the coconut
The Truly Best Sandwich
The refrigerator has been culled, the bread box is empty. The patio plants will survive on their own, you hope.
The time is here. Lift-off. Sail-away. Engine warmed-up. Doors closed. All those elements of a vacation’s beginning announce new steps in your journey. It’s a delicious feast of anticipation. What will the next adventure hold? Perhaps Norway, Sweden and Finland, and maybe some more.
Just don’t forget to stash away -somewhere safe in the travel gear – the most important stuff.
When we had begun traveling as a couple waaaaay back in our twenties, we were happily living in South America, learning Spanish and planning one day to visit Spain. Stanley’s maternal grandparents grew up there. His mother had cousins there. Spain had always been the one place we wanted to go. But we simply didn’t.
Nearly forty years later, our Spanish is no longer fluent, we’ve lost contact with cousins and wonder how we could have neglected that glorious country for so long. Poor Spain. It kept getting put off as other, more immediate locales replaced it. How did this happen? I hadn’t a clue and needed to make good on this long-lost promise. We had better hurry before our language skills disappeared completely, like our ability to make good decisions.
We needed to get to Spain. But Stanley wanted to visit the Baltics. Costs, preferences, time: travel planning can be a bit like finger-painting – it’s messy and you never know how it’s going to turn out. I have figured a way to do everything we wanted, but it might just be a bit of tangled finger-painting on a broad canvas of travel.
2016 will be the year of dual transatlantic cruises as I finally found a way to avoid the costs of expensive one-way airfare: ignore the one-way ticket, buy the usual round trip and go twice to Europe from the west coast of the USA. Take an extra vacation as a way of avoiding high costs in the first vacation? You may ask if that’s really a good idea. I refer you back to the implication in the paragraph above – perhaps we are not making good decisions at all. We’ll see. Here’s how the planning went:
The one-way transatlantic cruise to the Baltics was reserved for April. I knew I could avoid an expensive one-way return airfare by purchasing round trips. The round trips would take us back to Europe sometime within a six-month period. I found another even cheaper and much shorter transatlantic cruise back to the states in October. Voila! A trip to Spain emerged between the second stage of the round-trip airfare and the second transatlantic cruise.
We will be making good on a promise that we made nearly 40 years ago. We can postpone building our view deck, as we have been for two years already, save wildly between now and then, and all should stay within the new, improved travel budget for 2016. 2017 might suffer a bit (a lot), but there’s no worry in that until next year.
Good decision? We’ll see. Next year, we’ll spend 40 days on cruise ship travel, 40 days on land travel. For someone who swore never to cruise again after the first one, it’s a bold choice. But perhaps a nice way to celebrate a 40th anniversary all year long.
May we all live long enough and be so fortunate to make plans, and perhaps, to follow-through on those designs. In attempting some travel plans for this new year, I had taken to counting out some of our past journeys – usually a Stanley-type thing.
Together, we’d traveled by air back and forth from home in the USA’s west coast to Europe (east and west) four times in the past six years, to and from Asia/Australia twice. Stanley’s list is longer, but he – for once – wasn’t the one counting.
We traveled as frugally as possible, watching prices, flying on off-days and times, comparing near-by airports, and always choosing economy. We tried to reserve aisle seats for a bit more comfort. Frequently, though, flight delays, reschedules, and rerouting knocked us off our reserved spots. On each of my last three trips back from Europe, I swore I would never fly those long-haul flights again. I would find another way that didn’t include knocking knees for 11 hours with perfectly nice people whose charm waned after a second missed night of sleep.
But Stanley is not done with Europe, and I am willing to tag along, just not happy with all that time in the air. Hop-skip-and-jumping our way there proved only to prolong our travel in places we really did not want to see. It also added far too much to our expenses. We had cruised before with some success, and I knew that deals could be found with trans-Atlantic ships. But those one-way return flights are inexplicably pricey. I decided to buy round-trip tickets and use just one portion. Then I undecided. Turns out that the airlines can charge you for those one-way tickets if you try to deceive them. They probably won’t, but I am not a lucky sort.
Add to all this malarkey that next on Stanley’s list is the most expensive area in the world to travel – the Baltic. I ignored my growing dilemma about how to get there, and focused on the prices of being there. Staying in hotels, we could afford a week, maybe two – not enough time for a visit that is so far away from where we live that we probably would never return. Air B&B was more affordable, but mostly when I looked at places located away from the city centers, not where we wanted to be. Long-term apartments might work, but we wouldn’t be staying that long in each place.
Sometimes the trip planning can wear me down, especially when what I really want to do is just get up and go (it’s not a wise option, just what I would prefer.) That’s when I started looking into food prices. Unbelievable.
Okay, all this travel planning was getting to me. This was Stanley’s list, after all. Where were his travel plans? (This is a strictly rhetorical question, because Marsha knows that Stanley would gladly travel 4th class overnight last-century school bus with no bathroom stops – not an option for Marsha. You can’t do that from west coast USA to Europe, you say? Stanley would find a way, and kill himself getting there. Gleefully.)
Then I eye-balled a month-long trans-Atlantic cruise that stopped in all the cities that were on Stanley’s list. And I would have to unpack once. I checked the price, didn’t quite believe it. Checked my figures for a month of air and land travel with lodging and food estimated. The cruise was less. By a lot.
Now, what can I do about that un-affordable one-way airfare?
How not to visit Hong Kong: Don’t enter the city from the re-purposed airport, now a cruise terminal. Its clean, organised, friendly atmosphere will take the worry away, and you will feel relaxed like travelers should never feel. You will enter this city, a new one to you, and feel you have stepped into the arena of a welcoming travel agent who has just the right cab waiting to navigate the busy streets and take you with confidence any where you like.
Don’t sit back in that cab, take a long sigh, and let the sights around envelope you as the buildings and people and entire cityscape give you a thorough introduction to everything you want to see.
Don’t check into a high-rise hotel where there is a view onto the city in any direction. Don’t become interested in the roof-top life of the people living in the middle of this crowded city. It is here people seek the quiet, tend their pets, raise some greenery, exercise, hang their wash. You may fall in love with that city-top lifestyle; private, except for a glimpse or two from you in the tall hotel.
Don’t venture out from that hotel and immediately get lost on your way to the tourist mall, turning left instead of right, perhaps, so that you find yourself in that fabulous food court, used not by the tourists, but by the people who work in the tourist industry. There, you can breathe in the aroma of the pungent herb you can’t identify. You can see the busy lunch breaks unfold, the workers becoming customers, resting for a moment, joining already full tables. They choose today’s meal not from slick mall-front brand names, but from one indistinguishable stall or the next, choosing by scent or history or this day’s personal taste.
Don’t then take a stroll on the streets that lasts hours. There is so much to see, and you can walk as long and as far as you like. After your walk, don’t rest on the ferry, then walk again along the harbor on the facing shore, realizing that you could do this every day and see something different.
Don’t offer a candy from the pack you just bought to a young man who is sitting in the restaurant booth next to you. He tells you the history of that candy. It is really an herbal remedy for sore throats, and he has been using them since he was a little boy. You couldn’t read anything on the pack when you bought it, and so relied on the mint leaf picture. He unwraps the mystery for you in English, and says ‘Chiao’ when he leaves.
Don’t stop when the schoolgirls in matching uniforms run up to you and ask you to answer a ‘few questions’ from a printed paper attached to their clipboard. They really will be just a few, and you will want the conversation to continue when they are finished, give their thanks and run off to their next conquest.
Don’t do any of these things, and you will save yourself the expense of a future return trip. I wasn’t so lucky. I did all this, and will have to bear that expense someday. One visit to Hong Kong is simply not enough. Drat.
Back on schedule, we made for our second stop in Taiwan – Kaohsiung. Entering the harbour, we passed an impressive selection of modern buildings, businesses, seafaring traffic. We would be docking near the older section of the city, in easy walking distance to several notable temples, neighborhoods and markets.
Outside, I noticed the swelter. It wasn’t enough that the air was thick with moisture, there was also no breeze and the sun’s intense glare promised the day would be hotter than any day should be. Greeting our ship were four dancers wearing eight-foot tall costumes that, while bright and cheerful-looking, must have weighed a great deal. I pitied the dancers, and worried that they would sweat themselves into an ambulance. Then I pitied myself. I was going to wade into the heaviness of that heat in the middle of day to try to see as much as I could of this city. I filled my pack with water bottles and begged from Stanley one of his practical moisture-wicking shirts.
Temples, birds in cages, TinPan Alley, a garment district, old re-purposed warehouses now art galleries, cartoon-like sculptures, a fisherman’s wharf with no fish or men: these are what I saw. Sometimes, the weather removes opportunity from a place, and the visitor simply can’t see a new location with a favorable eye.
On this day, I learned that no 61-year old woman should be walking about in the heat, trying to fit in two weeks of experiences into a half-day jaunt. The local women who I judged to be roughly my age were wisely sitting on up-turned crates in the shade of an alleyway. Whatever cross-breeze was available came to them and never reached me struggling on the sidewalk. I was sure they would stay put until the relative cool of the evening, but I didn’t have that luxury.
I had the luxury of air conditioning on the ship, and went back gratefully to use it.
It seemed to take forever to drift down the long approach to Keelung. Even our enormous cruise ship was reduced to just one more piece of transport in a busy waterway. The Buddhist shrine, with its mile-high Guanyin statue, watched us enter its territory with a peaceful expression of mercy: on this stop, finally, we were going to be allowed off the ship. We parked right at the end of the harbour, nudging ourselves into a spot of comfort against an old pier. Crew members assured us it would be an easy 20 minute walk into downtown. We started out.
Forty minutes later, we were waved on by a resident who seemed to understand our worried expressions: he pointed down the road, saying “Keelung” in encouragement. Glad that we hadn’t by mistake taken the wrong turn, we waved our thanks. Pretty fast walkers, we couldn’t imagine even the young crew members managing it in twenty minutes. No matter – we enjoyed the ramble. It led us past an enthusiastic sidewalk garden, vines and ferns growing out of the hillside at the edge of the street, an abandoned train station, a burned-out city block in the middle of sidewalk vendors and food stalls. We reached the city center, walked the twisting alleyway markets, inspected all the remarkable raw foods waiting to be cooked. My favorite were the open baskets of dismembered claws.
We had seen as much as our limited time allowed, but hadn’t yet experienced the best of travel. We hadn’t gotten truly lost in Keelung. The walk into town had been longer than we thought it would be, but we had been always heading in the right direction. I couldn’t count it as being off-trail. I thought we’d briefly try again. We headed up a side-street towards what looked like a secondary retail area. Bright lights were strung across the street, traffic came into the intersection from five different directions, electrical wires framed every view. Motorcycles were parked on the sidewalk in front of businesses. A group of men gathered on a corner and watched our slow walk up the hillside street. We window-shopped a second-hand store. Stanley may have wanted to look at the knife with the pearly decor, and pick through the old coins, but the store was not open. We continued, crossed the street, looked through the window dust of another closed variety store.
Then we found a tiny staircase up an alley onto an entrance to apartments. Up we walked, the steps slick with humidity, old-age and grime. We reached the top of the stairs, wondering where to go next. The men had been tracking us, looking at our progress. We decided getting lost was perhaps not the best of ideas. We retraced our progress back to the business street, back toward the gathering of men and the main avenue of the harbor. As we passed the group, several pointed the long road back to the ship. “Cruise ship” they said, smiling. We once again waved our thanks, and were on our way.
I had never set my foot in Asia before the cruise, never been to Keelung. But this was to me a comfortable place, like other places I had lived outside the US. Slightly tarnished one hundred years ago, it had never been renovated. A cell phone store opened up in a burned-out building that had electricity strung in from a series of oddly connected and tangled cords. There was grit from half a century of someone living in a place I would never have given a thought to if I had just stayed home. I may not ever choose to return, but in that moment when I was there, I loved it.
So we got on our way, sailing out through Shanghai’s harbour with inland lights blurred through the fog. The Captain of the Ship gave us periodic up-dates of our progress through the PA system. I doubt that he showed up at anyone’s dinner table that night, however, because the news was not good. We would be pulling alongside Okinawa the next day to ‘fulfill immigration formalities’, but not getting off.
Our table mates at dinner, like us, had signed on to this cruise largely because of the glorious itinerary. Unlike us, the two husbands had a history with Okinawa, and were eager to return and see it again without the stress of military service during the Korean War. With our schedule drastically cut short by the foggy lull, our stops would all be effected.
But the brou-ha-ha in Okinawa became nearly a tease. We sailed into the harbour in the late afternoon. The onshore teams fastened the ropes, and there we stayed on-board, watching the lights emerge into nighttime, a literal footstep away. My disappointment was minimal. I roamed the ship, seeing the area from every perspective, watching the harbour traffic and the business day wrap up and the traffic flow home. I rather enjoyed my quiet observer’s viewpoint from far away. But for my table mates, the disappointment must have cut deep. For me, it was just one more city in the world to almost-visit. For them, it was a lost chance to replace memories with a renewed feet-on-the-ground experience.
On we sailed, with a shortened day in Keelung, Taiwan next.