Saturday, January 31, 2015

San Marino: Kingdom in the Clouds - November 2014

We were on a mission to explore the tiny, landlocked country of San Marino: only 24 square miles and nestled in the hills of the Italian countryside. As we approached, the fog was fierce and we were climbing in elevation. We turned a corner and I caught a glimpse of the three towering structures atop the mountain.

We parked the car and I jumped out to take pictures. The fog made it impossible to see the mountaintop so we chose to dart into a little café for some wine. We waited for a while and the fog wasn't lifting. Not knowing what else to do, we decided to embark on the white-knuckled drive up the mountain with near zero visibility.

Moments from the top we broke through the fog and the sun shone. It looked as if we were on top of the clouds. With only a couple hours left of daylight we raced to the top and climbed the Guaita Tower. From there, we had a lovely view of the other two towers, Cesta and Montale, built to defend the city during the Crusades.

Malta: Our Perfect Island - November 2014

Maybe it was because the sun was shining and the temperature hovered in the high 70s? Or because English is the native language? Possibly because the small country is a collection of beautiful islands lined with beaches and marinas and dotted with colorful boats ... or because their 'typical' dish is ravioli. Maybe it is because all we did there was cast our eyes on beautiful sights, shop in glass stores and drink wine. Maybe that's why we left thinking Malta is our perfect island and we must return again soon.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Albuquerque, New Mexico: Hot Air Balloon Fiesta - October 2014

I love color. Bright, vivid color. In line with this fact, the annual Hot Air Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, New Mexico served as the perfect backdrop for our family vacation in October 2014. We joined my parents, uncle, sisters and brother-in-law in Denver, Colorado to kick-off the festivities.

We drove south, stopping at Garden of the Gods Park, before crossing over the New Mexico border. We spent the next several days based in Indian resort and casino while we explored the rocky desert terrain.

Apart from the day spent walking through the shops and churches of Santa Fe, the Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival was by far the highlight. We all woke before dawn and piled into the car for the drive. The traffic mounted long before we could see the city lights. Thanks to one of James' shifty maneuvers, we found ourselves ahead of the crowd and entering the park grounds just before day break as the first few balloons were rising.

For the next several hours, we watched as one colorful balloon after another inflated and took off into the sky. There were all shapes and sizes: cartoon characters, boats, whales, chariots, butterflies ... and even Cinderella. Both the land and the sky were flooded with color. It was one of those experiences where photographs just couldn't do justice but we all kept clicking away with every sight being more captivating than the last.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Rhine River Cruise with Family - May 2014

In the spring of 2014 our family spent eight days sailing down the Rhine River in Western Europe. My parents had generously gifted us with a Viking River Cruise with ports of call in The Netherlands, Germany and France, and a wonderful opportunity to spend time together and enjoy somewhere new.

While it was new to most of us, the cruise took us to region frequented many times by my parents when they lived in Germany decades prior while my Dad was serving in the Air Force.

The Viking Ship was smaller than a typical ocean cruise liner, but very luxurious. We each had a comfortable room with a balcony, with all meals and drinks included and access to the ship's numerous amenities. We explored the cities of Amsterdam, Kinderdijk, Cologne, Koblenz, Rudesheim, Speyer, Heidelberg, Strasbourg and Breisach before debarking in Basel.

One of the highlights of the cruise for me was sitting on the upper deck of the boat and slowly drifting down the river watching the castles, vineyards and small towns pass by on the land. We spotted castle after castle tucked high above in the hillside surrounded by lush, green, rows of grapes. I also loved the bold colors of the architecture in Strasbourg and Colmar, France. We drank our weight in wine that week and also shared memories that will last a lifetime.


Monday, January 26, 2015

Amsterdam, The Netherlands: The Hub of Europe - May 2014

All flights lead to Amsterdam ... or at least that's what it feels like. Both James and I have navigated through Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport numerous times over the last 18 months and will surely be through it many more in the upcoming years.

If one is fortunate enough to leave the massive fortress that is the Amsterdam airport, the city is a delight. Amsterdam boasts a number of attractions including its historic canals, the Van Gogh Museum, Anne Frank House ... and, of course, it would be a sin to visit the city without checking out the Red Light District and its many unique coffee shops.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Victoria Falls, Zambia/Zimbabwe: Flashback - February 2013

I traveled to Zimbabwe for the sole purpose of seeing Victoria Falls, "The Smoke that Thunders." The waterfalls make the World Heritage List and are considered the largest in the world. I flew into Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe and had less than 24 hours until I would be boarding a plane back to Johannesburg.

Upon arrival I learned that you could view the falls from either the Zimbabwe or Zambia side, much like how the U.S. and Canada share Niagara Falls. My sources told me that traveling to the Zambia side provided a more panoramic view.

I flagged down a taxi who took me to the border and I jumped out at passport control. After waiting nearly an hour to get my passport stamped and meeting some new friends, I left Zimbabwe and stepped into the no man's land. Crossing the bridge over the Zambezi River was a breath-taking sight; I saw my first glimpse of the falls and was bombarded by three-foot tall monkeys and tour operators trying to convince me to bungee jump off the bridge.

Only slightly fearful of the large, pink-bottomed monkeys that seemed to be eyeing my every move, I proceeded to the Zambia border office to pay a sizeable fee for my one-day tourist visa.

A while later I finally reached the viewing area for the Zambia side of Victoria Falls. Given a map and a rain poncho, I trekked all over the area taking photos from every vantage point and getting drenched by the incredible mist coming from the falls. It was beautiful!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Delhi/Agra, India: Flashback - August 2007

I arrived into Delhi two weeks late and on a budget. I chose a cheap hotel near the train station. When I arrived, tired and sweaty, it only took a moment to notice I was the only woman in the hotel. Guests and staff included. I was shown to my second-floor room by a handful of men. The men lingered for some time in my room peering around like it was the first time they had seen the dirty, white box, but after twenty minutes passed, one man remained. I asked him to leave and instead he dropped to the floor and began scrubbing at the tiles. Although the whole room was filthy, it was apparent he was clawing at the floor just to stay in the room. I got scared of the closed door and repeatedly asked him to leave. He remained fixated on the tiles and didn’t look up. I ran to the entrance, opened the door and  began screaming over the staircase for him to leave. He left. I went back to my room and began unpacking. Upon investigating my bed, the sheets were covered with dirt and stains and it was obvious they hadn’t been washed in several uses. I repacked my belongings and slept on top of a tattered blanket.

The following day was a Thursday. My only objective was to buy shampoo and conditioner which was confiscated at the Bangkok airport and to purchase tickets to Agra for the following day to see the Taj Mahal. Not nearly as simple of a task as I had hoped. I left the hotel and headed out into the street. The narrow city street was flooded with dirty men, women in saris, cows, beggars and tuk tuks. I saw men getting their beards shaved on the curb, fruit and snacks being pedaled to passersby, animals walking about aimlessly, and assorted vendors selling their wares. I wasn’t two steps out of the door when two elderly women began pulling at my hair and a young man grabbed me by the arm. I lasted about eight minutes outside of the hotel before I turned around and went back to the men’s only hotel reception to ask for help. The receptionist on the scene volunteered a bell boy to escort me to get my toiletries. He accompanied me down the street several yards to a wooden chart where I purchased small packets of shampoo then scurried back to my room.
After the hour or two it took regain my courage, I left my dark and dirty hotel room again to try to secure tickets for the train ride to Agra the following day. The reception clerk took me by the hand to the basement where he repeatedly assured me that the Taj Mahal was closed to non-Muslims on Fridays. I was in disbelief. I had planned this whole visit around going to see the palace tomorrow and flying south to Chennai on Saturday. There was no way I was going to leave India without seeing the Taj Mahal. I chose not to believe him. I argued and got directions to the nearest internet café. I did about thirty minutes of research before I realized the sad truth, he was right - the Taj was closed on Friday to me.

It was past noon and I found myself with very few options. There were no trains leaving for Agra again that day. I had no other choice but to shell out a ridiculous number of rupees and hire a non-English speaking 'driver' to deliver me to the Taj Mahal in his beat-up 1960s Buick. It was an extremely uncomfortable five hour drive, bouncing up and down on the torn-up, leather seats as we navigated the dirt roads in the 100 plus degree heat. We dodged camels and cows and monkeys and tuk tuks. Beggars and children beat on the car windows when we would brake and the heavy aroma of garbage and spices infiltrated our car.

We arrived in Agra with less than thirty minutes before the Taj Mahal closed at sunset. The driver stopped in the middle of a crowded street and pointed to where I should go. I left the car not knowing how in the world he would find me again to drive me back to the hotel in Delhi that night, but I was on a mission so I left and didn't look back.

On the long walk to the Taj Mahal I literally had to shake off beggars and children at every step - sometimes running and sometimes shouting for them to stop. I finally reached the entrance to the Taj and had but a few moments to enjoy its awesomeness. I will return.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Dahab, Egypt: Flashback - October 2007

I was terrifyingly close to dying in Egypt.

About six months prior to my visit to Dahab, Egypt I had certified to scuba dive in Phuket, Thailand. Since my certification I had gone on nearly a dozen dives throughout Thailand thoroughly enjoying the underwater world of coral and fish.

Dahab is a small beach town on the southeast coast of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. To reach this isolated dive destination, I traveled by bus for more than nine hours crossing the Suez canal and enduring no less than ten checkpoints where uniformed men with machine guns boarded our bus and demanded money and to see passports. Upon arrival to town, we quickly learned that the thing to do there along with lounging at the sand cafes and smoking shisha, was to dive the blue hole. Being overly confident and incredibly naïve, I signed up for the dive, also known at the Diver's Cemetery, which is a 80 meter wide and 100+ meter deep hole situated right off the shoreline.

When I signed up for this adventure, I wasn't aware that this was considered a 'deep dive' and that my qualifications were not adequate, nor did I know it is considered the most deadly dive site on Earth claiming the lives of more than 150 divers within the last ten years. I also didn't know until afterwards that there were still several bodies at varying levels of depth within the hole because the recovery mission was deemed too dangerous.

Ignorance is bliss so I stepped into my wet suit, mounted my oxygen tank on my back, and walked into the water with my dive group. We were a small group of about eight divers led by a young Australian woman. The plan was to descend down in the water to about 56 meters and then travel through an archway before entering into the wide open space that is the blue hole.

Things did not go as planned. Once in the water, I was in the front of my dive group. We began descending and somehow a Japanese group intermingled with ours and divided our group. Three of us from the group made it 56 meters down to the base of the archway. Coincidently 56 meters is also when nitrogen narcosis and oxygen toxicity can begin to set in to divers which impairs their ability to make decisions.

The dive leader, concerned that our group had been separated, instructed us to kneel on the sea floor and wait for her to bring the rest of the divers down. We knelt on the sea floor in the dark for what seemed like twenty minutes. I panicked. It was very difficult for me to control my buoyancy while at the same time sitting on the sea floor in the dark knowing if needed I couldn't swim up to safety without getting the bends. I was in Egypt, in the middle of the desert, and if I were to get the bends the nearest recompression chamber is more than ten miles away down a dirt road.

My breathing picked up and I started to shake. I was about to begin upward when I saw the other divers in my group coming towards us. More than a bit rattled, I grabbed the dive leader's arm and pointed at my air gauge. I was out of air.

Visibly concerned she handed me her secondary respirator so that I could begin drawing her air supply. We hadn't even entered the blue hole yet.

We swam through the archway and into the hole. It was massive. It was a hole. Once in the center of the hole, there were no ledges visible. No fish. No coral. Why do divers think this is cool? I descended deeper with the dive group thinking that this was surely the end for me. The thought of being unable to swim to the surface if I needed to was a suffocating thought along with the fact that I was trailing this woman with a hose and depending on her to keep me breathing. With those thoughts clouding my head, I didn't last much longer before I sucked through her air supply, too, and we both were forced to make our tiered ascent to the surface.

I walked out of the water that day thankful to be alive but with tears running down my cheeks and badly shaken. It would be a long while before I had the courage to dive again.