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.
Once upon a time, we had travel plans. The plans took us to Shanghai, a must-see place on any journey, or so everyone says. But me, Marsha, I could do without a Shanghai. I’d just had quite a bit of wondrous travel. I was getting suspicious, because glorious, breath-taking travel is also tough and unpredictable. I figured that Shanghai – smoggy, muggy, with too-tall buildings and many fake markets – was going to be that place that would break my traveler’s good luck cycle.
That’s when the fog rolled in. We were on the ocean, so fog shouldn’t have surprised me. But this fog – yellowish even at night, warm and sticking to my skin, as unrefreshing as a hot shower on a steamy day – brought with it a torpid unease. We lolled on the open ocean, like the occasional stray barrel that floated alongside, waiting for the Chinese authorities to open the port for traffic. Twice during this 18-hour delay, the overcast lifted for just a moment and I could count dozens of other vessels waiting for clearance into this busy city. It didn’t look promising, and I hoped for an about-face and a fast run to Okinawa, our next stop. Like us, though, the fog hung around, relentless, delivering the message that the city did not want us there.
I had long come to the conclusion that we would be leaving soon, getting back on schedule, visiting those places that offered fog-free welcome. But the captain of the ship had other plans. With passengers to let off and others waiting to come aboard, we charged into Shanghai as soon as there was clearance. All I had to do was bide my time in the steam room of the ship spa, read a bit more, grab another ice cream cone. These other travelers had to change plans, re-do reservations, fret and wait around for other people to make decisions. Still, I wanted to leave them behind and get on with things.
We did get off the ship and into Shanghai for a shortened visit. The fog had lifted enough to allow us to dock, but not enough to uncover the famously high buildings. The smoky incense from all the temples – usually something that adds to the flavor of any place – mixed with the fog and the smog and the diesel. My eyes burned and blurred. I coughed throughout our visit.
Sometimes when we travel, our experiences in the best places in the world are not good. Shanghai certainly isn’t all about me. I enjoyed seeing people shop, walking in their streets, visiting their temples. But my visit there will be my only one, and I had wanted a different experience. Sometimes, when the fog of life rolls in and plans change, even really fabulous places just lose their appeal. As for me, Marsha, I’m looking forward to Okinawa.*
It wasn’t only the cleanliness of Osaka’s streets that caught our attention. It was the artistic attention to detail that graced the very sidewalks. Stanley was the first to notice, fascinated as he is by a city’s mechanics: how does the subway work, where are the utility lines, what is that beautiful manhole cover doing in the middle of the sidewalk? I might never have glanced down, and if not, I would have missed one of those items that most aptly described the place we were visiting. Manhole cover works of art – who would ever have guessed – and each one we saw was different from all the others.
That discovery led me to thinking how wonderful are those visits that are put together by a surprise of coincidence. Like this one to Osaka, starting with that rousing welcome I gratefully witnessed from the balcony. No one can plan this experience.
Close to the end of our day, we walked into a food court, expecting some food. We found colors, flags, streamers, paper kites, and outside the opposite door, a crowd of people clapping in time to a performance of some sort. We decided the food could wait; we went to see what was holding the crowd’s attention. A young juggler spun flaming batons, then tossed them into the air, catching as they came down. He spoke constantly to the crowd through a tiny microphone strapped to his ear, and they laughed and clapped in response. The music was loud, the crowd delighted, the entertainer vibrant. The flaming torches added just that touch of danger and sparkle.
It was time to return to the ship. We sailed away as the enormous ferris wheel on the wharf lit up. To predict cool weather the next day, blues would appear, warm weather would lite up with red. After a day filled with man hole cover works-of-art, an Instamatic camera buff, metropolitan young men, a geisha on the subway, a torch-swirling comedian, a slow ferris wheel softly lighting the night and predicting tomorrow’s weather should not have surprised me.
It had all started with booms from a bass drum as the band welcomed us to Osaka. If we had been in the room we paid for, we would never have seen this heart-warming welcome. Especially when we travel on cruise ship, we look for the best travel deal possible. We had reserved and paid for a cheaper interior room. We’d really only be there to sleep, so what’s the big deal? A couple weeks before we sailed, we got an email announcing an upgrade. We’d been moved to a balcony room. A day after that, we received a second email announcing another upgrade – to a mini-suite. Until we arrived in Osaka, I hadn’t been all that impressed. An interior room on a ship is nice; the mini-suite is also nice, just more spacious. But I was very happy to see the welcome that Osaka gave that morning, and I have the balcony to thank for that.
…Or so it seemed as I anticipated our arrival at Santorini, Greece. When a place is so iconic, it’s hard to have a fresh viewpoint. I imagined donkeys and white-washed trails, a sparkling see-through blue ocean, white-washed stucco houses. Townspeople might wear red kerchief scarves standing next to clean white walls. I had my sunglasses ready, because, with all the blinding white-wash, I would need them.
As our smallish ship made its way into the crater-formed harbour, we passed a tiny hillside village. From the distance, it looked like a snow storm had landed atop a parched cliff above a warm sea. On this mini island, residents can walk from one village to another. That simple fact, that you did not need a car, a bus, nor even a donkey, to visit a neighboring town made me respect the differences between where I live, and where I was visiting. An island of walkers. Maybe movies have to focus on fictional romance or adventure to keep the viewing public interested. For me, though, in real life, walking, simple walking, is all Santorini needed to offer.
And so, once we got onshore, we took a stroll: up the cliff side with the donkeys, down the narrow tourist streets, around the nearly discarded post office. A few simple blocks toward the center of the island, we found a view to the opposite shore. Small streets (because, even though there were cars, who really needed them?) and bright houses, brilliant flowers against white walls, stonework, stucco and pathways. We got away from the crowds and walked more.
Then we went shopping for ouzo. Back home, I have a Greek friend who once, for ten minutes, tried to teach me to drink alcohol. Atop her dining room cabinet, she had an array of bottles that told me how little I knew about the variety in drink choices. I begged her not to pour me ouzo. I swore to her that it would never get past my nose. She chose porto for me, so I could sip and be as responsible as she is while drinking. But I was in Greece now, not just with a Greek friend. It seemed a ritual that I should do – buy ouzo, perhaps even drink some.
Stanley was surprisingly motivated. It’s funny how vacations change you. We bellied-up to a fancy Spirits store like it wasn’t the first time in our lives we had done such a thing. The store clerk offered us tastes of several Santorini wines. How gracious she was, and what delicious wines she selected. Then she brought out the ouzo. It was what I had come for, so it shouldn’t have terrified me. But there is something about ouzo that makes me call for retreat. Its smell: that oily, too-sweet, will-clean-and-polish-your-oak-furniture aroma brings about an instinct for survival. Run away, and run fast, my instincts told me. But did I mention the clerk was also compassionate? Immediately, she switched the bottle with a coffee-and-ouzo mixture. Made only on Santorini, she said, pouring us samples. Best thing I’ve ever sipped in my life. Better even than porto. She assured us that we could order online from home, and we made plans for becoming habitual sippers. Happy with future fun, and tired from walking, we went back to the ship.
But since then, we have never been able to find to the store’s website, and never seen this elixir advertised anywhere else. I had to wonder if this coffee-ouzo was fictional like all the movies had been. We should have bought some there, and tried to smuggle it onboard our ship, hoping that it would surivive outside the island of its birth. I am very surprisingly good at smuggling things onboard, and I will prove it in Velos, Greece.
Next up: Velos, Marsha’s smuggling capital of the world