Sorry I disappeared

I hate that I haven’t finished the story of our cruise. I just wanted you to know that I will finish it as soon as possible. We are still in the midst of our move, Kathleen’s broken arm needs surgery and by the end of the day, when I usually write, I am beyond tired. Saturday morning is my no-workout, so I have a few minutes to leave this note.

I still have a lot to say about the cruise…A LOT. I promise to come back and say it. I have been writing notes; I just need to put them all together.

I kept a diary right after I was born. Day 1: Tired from the move. Day 2: Everyone thinks I’m an idiot.  —Steven Wright

I thought it was bad before

So if you follow my posts, you know I just did one about our day in Santa Barbara, and I promised the next one would be about Catalina Island. We had a great time, but I need to update you on something that happened yesterday in San Francisco that will change what I can write about and take photos of.

We were on a food tour in the North Beach/Little Italy section of San Francisco. I will report on it later because it was superb until about three-quarters of the way through. That’s when my wonderful bride Kathleen caught her foot on a metal piece in the old sidewalk, took a fall and wound up with a broken arm. After six+ hours in the hospital ER, we made it back to the ship around 10:00 pm. Not the most fun day of vacation we have ever had. But we are very happy it happened on a day when the ship was staying in port overnight, or we would have been in a hotel last night and flying home to Seattle today.

We will tough it out until at least Wednesday when we get to Seattle. If she is in a lot of pain or wants to get off, we will take an Uber/Lyft home.

I just wanted to keep you updated. Today, we planned to head to Sausalito on the ferry, but that isn’t going to happen. She is just not up for it. And I have been having painful problems with my back and legs, so it isn’t all her. We are just two old people getting older.

Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.    —Mark Twain

Colorful Curacao

Usually my headlines are written just for the alliteration but this one really is true.  We thought things were pretty colorful the day before in Bonaire, but Curacao really takes the colorful cake. It appears that this town loves color. We took a short tour on the town’s trolley and our guide told us the real reason that Curacao’s capital Willemstad has so many colorful buildings is that about 100 years ago, the governor of the island decreed that houses could no longer be white. That they had to be painted one of a set number of colors. After he left office it was found that not only was he the governor but he was also part owner of the only paint supplier on the island 😂.

But it has served Curacao well as you will see from my photos. It’s a photographer’s paradise. Besides all the colorful buildings my photos benefited from one of the bluest skies I have ever seen.

But before I show you the photos I want to tell you what we did to tour. First, when the ship arrived there was quite a bit of discussion between the ship and the port. It went on for a while. So long that many people were waiting for the Captain to announce we were going to have to skip the port. But finally, almost an hour later, the port allowed us to disembark. There was one big change though. We were originally scheduled not to leave the port until 11;00 pm but because Willemstad had a 9:00 pm curfew for everyone in the town they moved up our all-aboard time to match up with the curfew and let us off.

Our included (in our Have It All promotion) shore excursion for this port was the aforementioned Old Town Trolley Tour. We were actually picked up by taxis (vans) and driven across the Queen Juliana Bridge to meet up with the trolley and our guide in downtown. Our tour was in a three car trolley pulled by a gas-powered engine that looked like a train engine (bell included). We saw lots of colorful architecture on our about 90 minute tour which started and ended at the old town fort. Our guide was good, the driver a great guy but I can’t recommend this tour. The fumes from the engine were horrible. By about halfway through we were either nauseous or getting there or we had a horrible headache. This trolley engine needs a tune up or a replacement before anyone should try and take that tour again. But it was interesting (when you could breathe). What we saw is in the photo captions. Funny but it was one of the few times we were thrilled to be wearing masks. Can’t imagine how bad it would have been without them.

After we were done they gave us the option of either walking back to the ship or taking the taxi back. Kathleen had a bad headache from the fumes so she headed back. I wanted to take more pics of downtown so I elected to stay and walk back across the fabulous floating bridge.

So here’s the pics that explain everything else. Remember, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

That was about it for downtown Willemstad. From the bridge it was about a ten minute walk back to the ship, back aboard and after a nice evening (more about entertainment and food coming soon) we went to bed and woke up sailing into Oranjestad, Aruba. More about that tomorrow.

What makes things memorable is that they are meaningful, significant, colorful.   —Joshua Foer

Beautiful Bonaire—I’m impressed

Yesterday (Friday January 28th) we were in beautiful Bonaire. One of the three ABC islands, the island is predominately known for its diving—both scuba and snorkeling. I could go on and on about their politics, their industry and the rest of it but if you really want to know—click here—for a link to the Wikipedia page for Bonaire.

What I will tell you about is the two (yes 2) excursions we took and how impressed I am with the island. First let me say that we are NOT divers of any kind. We leave that to our friends Mike and Cathy. They do the snorkel thing and the scuba thing. They live in Florida so they have warm water. We live in Washington where if you go in the water, you freeze to death in less time than you can say, “GET ME THE HELL OUT OF HERE!”

So we started off the morning with a ship’s excursion called “The Best of Bonaire.” There were three groups of about 12 people in three different vans. We had settled into one of the vans when the head of shore excursions asked for volunteers to move to another van because they had miscalculated the numbers on ours. We were in the front so we said we would switch. Best decision of the day. I have nothing against the guide and driver on the original van but the new van had a guide that made our day—Gladys. Now we really doubt Gladys is her real name because she acted like it was a joke all day long but if you are in Bonaire doing this tour, get Gladys. The woman is a HOOT! Not to mention an excellent guide and you could tell how much she loves her adopted island—Bonaire. She is originally from Wisconsin but has been on Bonaire off and on since 1963 so she knows her stuff. Her driver was a guy she called Cheech because of his past life as a cop confiscating marijuana and being in charge of burning it after the perpetrators were caught.

These two took us all over the island and while Gladys regaled us with stories, history, geography, science, nature and local customs, Cheech kept a VERY sharp eye out for the best flora and fauna he could find. And find it he did, time and time again. Check out my pics to see what I mean. He found parrots, parrot fish (he was good at parrot stuff 😜), lizards and all kinds of other stuff. Then he would slow down or stop so that us photographers could get the pics we were after. (BTW: I am so sorry I did not get a photo of Gladys or Cheech—my bad.)

We were out touring with Gladys and Cheech for 3.5 hours and other than my knees giving me problems from sitting for so long we had a great time and saw a bunch of great stuff as you will see in the photos. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

Our second excursion a little later in the day was a short but very nice trip on a glass-bottom boat. Having never been on a glass-bottom boat before I thought maybe I could get some great underwater photos without going underwater. And our guide and skipper Kim took us out to the coral reef around a large island called Little Bonaire that is just off the main port. While we were able to see some very pretty fish, the only photo I could even slightly make work is the one of the turtle you see below. The other pics are from the boat ride but just not the underwater parts.

To sum all this up, I would say the one thing that most impressed me about Bonaire is that they have not succumbed to the usual cruise-type shops. No Diamonds International, etc. Also, both guides we had were so in love with their island and the things their government (which is funded and supervised by Amsterdam—Bonaire being a Dutch protectorate) is doing for their people, their environment and the flora and fauna of the island. It I also impressive that 70% of the island’s power (even powering their desalinization plants) is from wind. And they hope to be 100% renewable within 5 years. Not only that but everyone there has health care, an education, a guaranteed retirement…all things that every human should have a right to.

I sometimes detect that a type of regional divide is setting in, and there is a lack of real Caribbean connection among the islands, and I am concerned about this.  —Anthony Carmona

Puerto Plata…was really hotta and other things

Can’t remember the last time I wrote two posts in one day but I thought that since we are on a sea day (for the non-cruisers that means no stops today) and have three ports in the next three days (Bonaire, Curacao and Aruba), I would get yesterday’s stop out of the way today, while I have some time to write. But I don’t want to overload you so I will post it tomorrow (which for you might be today).

Yesterday we were in beautiful Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic (DR). Kathleen and I have always been under the impression that we had been to the DR two other times because we had stopped at a small port called Labadie while on a Celebrity ship. Turns out we had the island (Hispaniola) right but the country wrong. Labadie is in Haiti so this was our second visit to the DR. But we had never been to this side of the country before.

The ship actually docks at Amber Cove which is just 13 kilometers west of the city of Puerto Plata. Amber Cove is a port developed by the Carnival Corp for all the ships under that umbrella to dock for this city. Imagine if Disney created the Caribbean without rides…you get Amber Cove. Lots of shops, pretty grass, clean and spic and span surroundings.

We were only in Amber Cove long enough to jump on a bus with our guide Rrrrafael 😜. He really, really rolled that first R. We were doing a tour (along with the Sail with Seth crowd) called “Flavors and Traditions of Puerto Plata: In partnership with Food and Wine magazine.” I am not sure why it has this title because we saw no one or heard nothing from Food and Wine magazine. What we did do was:

  1. Took the bus into Puerto Plata while Rrrrafel told us all about the city and the Dominican Republic.
  2. Stopped at the town square and walked around while Rrrrafel told us about the buildings and traditions of Puerto Plata.
  3. Went to a cigar factory/showroom where I was told that one person got to roll and smoke his own cigar. Being highly allergic to cigar and cigarette smoke/smell, I (and the rest of our pod of four) stayed outside while this part of the tour took place so I can’t say for certain that’s what happened.
  4. Went to a chocolate factory to see how chocolate was made and taste hot chocolate (like we were cold 😜) and a tiny brownie. Personally I consumed neither. Not a big chocolate guy. But I was told both were great.
  5. Had lunch at an outdoor restaurant where they had set up a buffet of rice, beans, chicken, tortilla chips, salad and your choice of water or soft drink. It was very “nice.” Not bad, not great. just “nice.”
  6. Toured the grounds of the restaurant where there were koi ponds, artwork and a variety of flora including orchids.
  7. Went to a rum distillery where we saw a film about how rum is made and how great that distillery is and then we got to taste some rum. Eight different kinds but if you poured them all in the same glass, you might have an ounce.

That was the tour folks. To me it was a typical overview of a city tour, Rrrrafel did a great job and because we were with Seth, we had some good old fashioned fun. And I loved it because I got to do my second favorite kind of photography (after general travel photo), street photography. I love taking pictures of interesting people with interesting faces or doing interesting things. I think I like to do this because I spent more than 50 years doing high school and college yearbooks as a student, a teacher and a rep for Jostens Yearbooks. I can’t sell them or use the ones I take in any commercial way because I would need a release from the people I shot. Still, I love taking them. My daughter tells me, “Dad, when you die I will look at these and wonder who the heck they are and should I save them because they might be family?” So I also take them to bamboozle her.

Here are some quick examples of what I mean. The captions will tell you a little more about street photography.  Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

After people see my street photography stuff, they often ask if I ask permission before I take the picture. I don’t. Mostly because they have no idea I took their photo. In all the pics above I was more than 100 feet away using a very long (300mm) zoom lens so they had no clue I was taking any photos of them. I do have a rule that if there are street performers and I shoot their picture, I always tip them. It’s the right thing to do. If I don’t have money for tips, I don’t take the picture.

Here are the rest of my Puerto Plata pics. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my photography on a phone. Please…

When you see a panoramic photo in my shots, it is actually not done with my iPhone set on Pano. I take these with my Nikon. When I say I take “them” with my Nikon, the photo above that shows two ships (Nieuw Statendam and Rotterdam) on opposite sides of the pier is actually made up of 26 individual photos I took while standing in the same spot and turning my body almost 360 degrees. The two ships were actually parked at the pier right next to each other like you can see in the next shot. Then I open those 26 pictures (most of my panos are much less photos–the last one only has 16 photos) in Photoshop and merge them together. They create huge pictures that I could print up to billboard size. I have always loved taking them.

PS: Sorry about the headline. I couldn’t resist.

Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.  —Dorothea Lange

 

Surprising Grand Turk and some other stuff

After missing our first port (which should have been HAL’s private island, Half Moon Cay) due to weather conditions and not COVID, our first stop became Grand Turk Island. Grand Turk is the Turk part of Turks and Caicos. This was our first time on this island so we had no clue what we were in for.

On past cruises we hardly ever do ship’s shore excursions but using HAL’s Have It All program, we not only received a drinks package, two nights in specialty restaurants and complimentary Wifi but we were able to sign up for some HAL shore excursions for free. With that said, we chose “Charming Grand Turk by Open Air Tram.” This was just one of those overview tours where we would see the island and hear from a guide who would tell us a little about the island, their country and its history.

Sometimes things go wrong on a cruise and you just hope it’s not a big deal. This turned out to be one of those times. We had arrived at the correct time for the afternoon tram ride and after they signed us in they told us that the morning tram group had not come back yet and we would have to wait 15 minutes. No biggie. But the 15 minutes turned into 30 and then almost an hour. The shore excursion team offered us a full refund or we could wait another 15 minutes. In fact the tram never showed up (they might still be there 😜). Some people chose to take refunds and headed back to the ship. We had decided to wait the full hour and then take the refund.

But when an open air bus (not our tram) came in after their second tour, the HAL shore excursion people asked the guide if he would take us. We were totally impressed with their efforts and he agreed to tour us around. We were thrilled because he had a higher and larger open air bus than the tram would have been, which made it much easier for me to get the photos I ended up with (that I am thrilled about). The shore excursion manager did her job that day, totally coming through for us. Not only that, when we got back to the ship and checked our accounts we found that she had reimbursed us for the entire tour because it was late and we handled it so well. Going above and beyond—HAL’s service is blowing us away.

Once we got out on the road with our guide Nate we knew we were in a very fun tour. He was hilarious. He had two teenage girls working with him and they took great care of us as we drove all over the island. We learned a lot about Grand Turk and its history (for instance, did you know this where John Glenn landed after his first orbit of the earth?). Nate was also great about stopping for photos. I am going to tell you a little more about Grand Turk in the captions of the photos below. Don’t forget, if you click the first shot, you can then scroll through with your arrow keys or by swiping…and PLEASE…don’t look at my pictures on a phone. Please…

Not sure what more I can tell you about Grand Turk but I will say that this cruise is almost making me like the Caribbean. (For those new to this blog, this has NEVER been one of my favorite places—too warm, not a beach person, etc.) We loved Grand Turk, we had a great day in Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic yesterday that I will write about later this afternoon or later this week and the weather has been near perfect. Yes, it has been hot when we are out and about and I think wearing a mask makes it about 10 degrees warmer but I am writing this on a sea day, sitting outside on our verandah. The temperature is 79 degrees Fahrenheit, the seas are flat as a lake and the breeze is awesome. I could get real used to this, really fast. We are already talking with our buddy Seth about doing another Sail with Seth in a warm climate. We will keep you updated in case you want to join us.

One more thing to mention about the Sail with Seth part of our cruise. This morning he arranged a special Coffee with the Captain just for the group and the captain verified that there are 895 passengers on board and a little more than 800 crew members. That means we have almost one crew member per passenger. No wonder the service is so awesome!

There’s definitely healing properties to being in proximity to the ocean and that breeze. There’s something about that Caribbean climate and humidity.   —Johnny Depp

2021 Top Ten (could be anything)

Over the last few days I have written about my five best food experiences of 2021, my 10 best photos I took in 2021 and my five biggest downers of 2021 so today, let’s get to the good stuff to close out the year. So here are the 10 best things I loved in 2021. BTW: Unlike my photos which I numbered, this group is in no particular order (except the NUMBER ONE which is down at the bottom).

Walking all year

It’s funny that I am choosing to write about this first. I guess it’s because I haven’t been able to do it for a week (as of today) and that’s killing me. Too much ice and snow outside keeps me indoors. I am going stir-crazy but I know if I slip and fall then I might not be able to walk for weeks. It has been a big part of my life this year. So far in 2021, I have walked 1,466 miles (that’s 2,359 kilometer for our Canadian viewers). If I had just kept going and not come home I could have walked to my childhood home in Palm Springs and then to my brother’s place in San Juan Capistrano. Or I could have walked back and forth to our friends in Chilliwack, BC almost six times. Can you tell I love my walks? (BTW: I know how far I have gone because I use the wonderful app, Map My Walk from Under Armour. )

Going to Southern California twice to see Jamie and Steve

This was supposed to have been the year that the four of us went to Europe (for the third time) together and did a bunch of other stuff. But we “made do” with visiting my brother and sister-in-law in Southern California…twice. Great weather, lots of fun, family, food and superb activities organized by Jamie made these visits at least a good substitute for Europe. Not really, but we did have fun. We even went to the historic Musso and Frank Grille in Hollywood for dinner.

Stopping to see Mike and Meeting Cathy in June

We had so many schedule changes for our Galapagos trip in July that we were thrilled when it all finally worked out and we ended up  flying through South Florida to get to Ecuador. Thrilled because this gave us a chance to add on a couple of days to see one of our best friends and fellow Martini Mate Mike and to meet the new love of his life, Cathy, in person. We had an outstanding time, Mike even got up at 2:00 am to take us all the way to the Miami airport (WHAT A FRIEND!) and we LOVED Cathy. So it really stands out as a highlight for us. Even better, we get to see them again (I really hope) in three weeks.

Getting to go back to Canada in September

Over the last 15 years we have spent a lot of time in British Columbia. Specifically Chilliwack, BC. That’s because that’s where our friends Bob and Judy live. And in case you missed it, since the start of the pandemic, Canada had closed their border. That meant that even though we could FaceTime to talk, we hadn’t seen them in person from the day we got back from our Mardi Gras cruise (March 2o, 2020) until we finally got to get tested, get the Canadian entry app, show our Nexus cards and get in to see them in September. That’s a long time not to see someone you are used to seeing at least every other month. If all works out and it doesn’t snow again, we may go up again next weekend!

Going to Seaside with family in August

Every summer (or at least three of them) we have rented an AirBnB type place with our grandkids (and their parents). This year we went to Seaside, Oregon. I can’t tell you how much I cherish that week with them. We play games, go to the beach, local attractions, make meals together and watch special movies in the evenings (Star Wars!!!). Can’t wait until August 2022 to do this again.

Ted Lasso–forever

I know. It’s a television show. But I love television and it is the best television show ever made—in my somewhat humble opinion 😜. There is not a single episode where I don’t laugh, cry and exult in these glorious characters. I have watched each and every episode at least four times and some even more. We watched their Christmas show on Christmas Eve and will every Christmas Eve from now on. I listen to two podcasts about the show every week during the season. I still listen to Brett Goldstein’s “Films to Be Buried With” podcast every week.  I follow all the actors on Instagram. I have downloaded every song Hannah Waddingham has recorded that wasn’t from a West End musical. I watch every YouTube video about the show that YouTube throws at me—and that’s a lot. I have my Richmond FC scarf and I am ready to root for Ted and the Greyhounds again next summer. I am a total fanboy and completely obsessed. The show just speaks to me. When it comes to Ted Lasso, I am never a goldfish (you only get this if you have seen the show—go watch it!).

Getting fully vaccinated and staying that way with boosters

This isn’t the highlight of the year but it led to everything else we did. Do you remember when the vaccine was first introduced and so many people (like us) were clamoring to get our hands on our first shot…and then our second. We got our first one at the end of January and our second in mid-February. Then in mid-July I was in our local Kaiser (our HMO) clinic and they said they were throwing away vaccine every day because it was defrosted and people weren’t showing up to get it. I just don’t understand the anti-vaccination crowd. We know friends and relatives of friends who are part of that group and they are normally intelligent people. Please explain this because I can’t. I just know that I have had three, full potency shots (I take an injected auto-immune drug weekly so I got a full shot for my third and not a booster) and Kathleen is boosted.

Storyworth–all year long

I think have mentioned Storyworth on this site before but here’s a quick explanation if I haven’t. For Christmas 2020 my daughter gave me a one-year subscription to Storyworth. Since then I get an e-mail every week with a single question about my life. Either my past, my opinions or my relationships. Each week I answer the question and they keep them and at the end of the year (now) I order a pre-paid, printed book of all of the stories so that my grandkids can know about their Grandpa and how he got this way 😜.

I am currently in the process of editing my book (that’s the cover above) and I will order the printed version for myself next week. Once I see my printed copy, I will order two more, one for each of the grandkids. This has been a wonderful experience. I have learned so much. Over my lifetime I have been in therapy a quite a few times, but writing these stories had been more therapeutic than any of that. It does get a little dark sometimes but it’s really brought back some good and not-so-good memories. And yes, I guess I am verbose. The average Storyworth book is about 250 pages. I am over 450 at this point. Can you tell I have loved the experience?

Retiring from Jostens Yearbooks after 39 years last June

To be completely honest, this was not supposed to happen until 2022. I love even numbers and I really wanted to get to 40 years with Jostens and my own company, Koobraey Productions. But COVID did this in as well. Yearbooks have been changing every year of those 40 years and I still found things to write and teach about but when the pandemic hit and things were NOTHING like they have ever been before, it was just enough to push me to walk away. Jostens and Koobraey have been a great place to be self-employed for those 39 years and there isn’t much I would trade for the friendships I have made during that time.

It was a career I never expected (I was supposed to be a history teacher) but loved and did quite well with. From the day I started in 1982 until last June 14, I loved a lot of it. The six months since retiring (I am still in my “funtirement” job booking travel with Expedia Cruises) have been so busy I can’t figure out where I used to fit this job into my life.

Going to the Galapagos on Celebrity’s Flora in July

Being honest, this is number one. I mean not only was it the BEST thing we did in 2021 it may be one of the 10 best experiences I have ever had in my life. It is definitely the best trip/cruise/adventure we have ever done. We loved it so much we are going to do it again in 2024 to see the Inner Loop islands. I find it very hard to put into words what this adventure meant to us. Not only was it the first time we got to really travel after the shutdown, it was so much more than I ever thought it would be.

For me, the biggest excitement was the photography. The Galapagos are a photographer’s heaven. After a year of not shooting much of anything other than grandkids (which I love shooting) it was like I got all caught up in a week. Certainly equal to the photography were the amazing people we met on Celebrity’s Flora. There is no way I would go again and not go aboard that ship. It made the trip so very easy not to mention being the best place ever to come back to at night. Every single crew member we met was amazing. The guides, the crew in the dining room, the chef who made me sango, the officers and we were especially lucky to have been sailing the week that Celebrity’s resident scientist, Ellen Prager was onboard. I was never much for science but going to this incredible place and talking to Ellen and the guides she trains really got me excited about it. I leave you with a special gift to close out 2021, a slide show of my best photos from the islands. Happy New Year!

 

Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times, it’s the only time we’ve got.

Art Buchwald

My End of the Year Lists Begin Today with Food and Drink

With the end of this mixed bag of a year, I am seeing all the Top Ten/Bottom Ten of 2021 lists in every part of the news. I usually read the ones about movies and photos (there are lots about the latest music but it makes me sad when I have never heard of anyone on those lists 😂). If you have been following me for a while you know I love lists. I even have a page of nothing but lists I have made. Most were posts first and then added to the list page. Check them out sometime if you are new to the blog. You can expect these new ones to be added to that page as well.

This year I have decided to do my own set of Top Ten Lists. I am already doing my Top Ten Photos I Took in 2021 on Facebook and Instagram (I will post them here tomorrow). In that spirit I have decided to do a post about my Top Ten Things That I Loved About 2021. Then, when I started listing that Top Ten, I also thought about a bottom 10…or maybe 5. Then I started thinking about other lists from 2021 like my favorite meals or my favorite just about anything. But I decided that this could just go on forever. So I decided to do four lists (including my photos). First, the aforementioned Top Ten and then a Bottom Five of 2021. That leads us to this post,  The Top 5 things I ate or drank in 2021. And I was going to do them all in one post but I knew that would get too long so I broke them into four posts (for today the next three days) so I hope you enjoy them.

Food, Glorious Food!
My top five things I ate or drank in 2021

You know I love food and drink so here they are in no particular order. I had two of them in one meal and three of them within two days and the other two in the same week (Did you get all that?).

  1. Chicken Sandwich with slaw (Houstons restaurant in Irvine, CA)
  2. Wood-fire grilled artichokes (Houstons restaurant in Irvine, CA)
  3. Blue Coyote’s margaritas (Blue Coyote Grille–Palm Springs, CA)
  4. Sango De Camarón (onboard Celebrity Flora in the Galapagos)
  5. Fritada and Llapingachos (EB Hotel—Quito, Ecuador)

As you can see the first two things come from the same restaurant, Houstons. This is a small chain (11 outlets) of restaurants located across the US. I had first heard about them while listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Armchair Expert. The expert himself, Dax Shepherd, raves about them and my brother and his bride had been wanting to take us to the Irvine, California location for a while but we didn’t have a reservation the first time we went. But in April when we went to visit them for a few days, we stopped there for lunch right after we got off the airplane and based on the recommendation from Dax, we ordered the chicken sandwich.

Then, based on the menu description, we ordered the artichoke appetizer as well. Suffice it to say, these were both AWESOME! How much did we like them? Well, six days later when they took us back to the airport we had an early dinner ordered the same thing and when we went down to see them in October, we had lunch when they picked us up and dinner when they took us back to the airport and we ordered the same thing all over again. Yes, they do have other things on their menu but when something is this good and you don’t live nearby, get it! If you are ever in a place with a Houstons, go have these two dishes. You won’t be sorry.

I mentioned that I had three of my top five things within just a few days time. Well the first two were at Houstons and the third was the next day after both our visits to Houstons. We stopped by the Blue Coyote for margaritas. Blue Coyote is a restaurant in Palm Springs (my and my brother’s hometown) and we first discovered it years ago and then took Steve and Jamie a few years later. When I was a kid if you wanted Mexican food in Palm Springs, you went to Las Casuelas. They are still there but the tourists have taken over the place and it just isn’t as great as it used to be…so now we go to Blue Coyote.

We used to just order a round of margaritas but the last few times when we have been there with Jamie and Steve we have started getting a pitcher…they are that good. I do feel a little sorry for Steve because he is always driving and that means he only gets one (but not too sorry 😜).

The last two items in my list of food are both from our trip to the Galapagos in July. I had the Fritada and Llapingachos at the EB Hotel in Quito where we spent the night both before and after our visit to the islands. I ordered this the night before because it sounded good (it is a pork dish with potatoes and lots of other stuff) but it was so good, when we came back a week later I ordered it again—yup, still just as good and since I don’t know of anyplace to get it besides Quito, ordering it again was a no-brainer.

Lastly, Sango De Camarón is a traditional seafood stew with a plantain base and I ate that onboard the amazing Celebrity Flora while we were cruising through the islands. One afternoon Kathleen and I were looking at the menu for that evening outside the dining room and I told her I was sad because there were no real Ecuadorian dishes on the menu that night. I had learned on the four previous nights (plus the night at the hotel) that I LOVE Ecuadorian food. The maitre’d overheard me saying this and asked if I really liked the food from Ecuador. I said, “Yes I do!” So he said he would see what he could do. That night when we went to dinner—still no Ecuadorian food on the menu 😔. But the next night…I had already told our waiter what I wanted when the maitre’d walked up and said he was cancelling our order (of an octopus dish I knew I would love) and the chef had made a wonderful surprise for me. Being an idiot and looking a gift horse in the mouth, I told him that this sounded great but I loved octopus and I really wanted to have that entrée. He said to wait a few minutes and he would see what he could do.

About five minutes later he was back with an appetizer that was not on the menu. It was a big salad with a HUGE portion of braised and broiled octopus on top and tons of avocado (the avocado in Ecuador is amazing!). After eating that he brought me the regular octopus entrée I had ordered and set it down in front of me and then brought a huge bowl of something that smelled amazing. He set that down in the middle of our table (there were four of us) and said, “This is sango. It is a traditional Ecuadorian dish that is a seafood stew with a plantain and rice base.” So I had to taste it and it was AMAZING. If there was a kind of local seafood that was NOT in there, I would like to know what had been left out. There was shrimp, clams, mussels, different kinds of white fish, calamari, scallops and…octopus. The stew/sauce part reminded me of a very good risotto.

Sadly, because of Kathleen’s allergy to shellfish, she couldn’t eat any of it. And the better half of the couple we were eating with (Jamie and Catherine) said she couldn’t eat anything with tentacles. So it was up to Jamie and I do make that chef happy…and we did. We ate it all.

One of the main reasons I want to go back in 2024 is to have this dish again. The taste and texture were delicious but I think the thing that really made it special was the fact that just because someone had overheard me talking about my new love for Ecuadorian food, the chef had made me this wonderful dish that represented his homeland. Food experiences don’t get any better than that.

Eating is not merely a material pleasure. Eating well gives a spectacular joy to life and contributes immensely to goodwill and happy companionship. It is of great importance to the morale.

Elsa Schiaparelli

 

 

 

Cancelling A Trip–What I Learned in the Process

First, I know that I promised this post almost three weeks ago when we cancelled our three week trip to Europe. I really was going to write it fairly quickly after that, but I got so depressed about not going, the state of the world and the pandemic, that I just kept putting it off. But since I know that many of you may have to do some cancelling of your own someday I wanted to show you how, as of today we have cancelled four flights, one cruise, three tours, lots of land transport and event tickets. In all cases we have either received refunds or vouchers for another trip at another time within a certain time frame so I feel I really have a handle on this. That means we had already paid for this and they had our money. If it says No then we had not paid anything but they had our credit card they could charge if we didn’t cancel.

Things to CancelAt RiskAmount at RiskOutcome
Viking Christmas Market River CruiseYes$15,000Cancelled and voucher/rebooked 2023
Car Service to SEANo$0.00 paid in advanceCancelled
British Air Flight to Lisbon, PortugalYes$1,500 plus 120K milesCancelled and Refunded
British Air seat reservationsYes$785Cancelled and Refunded
Talixo Limo Airport to Hotel in LisbonNo$0.00 paid in advanceCancelled
Hotel Portugal, LisbonNo$0.00 paid in advanceCancelled
Lisbon Food Tour with Eating EuropeYes$150Cancelled and Refunded
Sintra TourYes$200Cancelled and Refunded
TAPP flight Lisbon to AMSYes$325Cancelled and voucher
Talixo Limo Airport to Banks MansionNo$0.00 paid in advanceCancelled
Banks Mansion hotel in AMSNo$0.00 paid in advanceCancelled
Reservation at Pantry RestaurantYes$100Cancelled and Refunded
Reservations at Restaurant ZazaYes$100Cancelled and Refunded
Boom Chicago TicketsYes$75Cancelled and Refunded
Tour with Tours by Locals around AMSYes$420Cancelled and Refunded
Van Gogh museum ticketsYes$80Cancelled and Refunded
KLM flight from AMS to PragueYes$720Cancelled and voucher
Delta flight from Budapest to SEAYes$3782Cancelled and voucher
Car Service home from SEANo$0.00 paid in advanceCancelled

As you can see we were not able to get all our money refunded but we were able to get vouchers that we could use on future travel. Some of that future travel has expiration dates but as much as we travel we have been or will be able to use it.

For instance, we have already rebooked the Viking River Christmas Market Cruise. We really do want to go on this cruise but we had to push it off to 2023 because we will already be in Europe in fall of 2022 and we really can’t afford to get home in September and then go back in November.

I also need to point out that we got really lucky with the British Air seats. Normally we would have had more of a problem with them. They were for a one-way ticket from Seattle to Lisbon, Portugal via London Heathrow. Our original flight left here at 6:45 pm, arrived at Heathrow at noon the next day and then we had a 2.5 hour layover before our flight to Lisbon. About two weeks before we were scheduled to go we got a note from British Air (and Alaska Air—we booked the tickets through them using miles) that they had cancelled our Lisbon flight and moved us to one that didn’t leave Heathrow until almost 8:00 pm and did not arrive in Lisbon until close to midnight.

When they move you that much you can cancel and rebook elsewhere at no cost…so when we cancelled with them, we just cited the change of schedule as the reason and Alaska Air cheerfully handed us back the miles and the taxes (Heathrow taxes are outrageous—$750 each)and British finally (last week) refunded our seat reservations. We have hopefully taken our last flight on British Air. We love everything about them except for the high taxes at Heathrow and the fact that even though you have Business Class seats, you still have to pay $750 each to choose your seat prior to check in the day before the flight. That’s just wrong.

Some of the other expenses we were pleasantly surprised to get back were the Boom Chicago (an improv show in Amsterdam, done in English, where Jason Sudekis, Seth Myers and other US comedy folks got their start) and the Van Gogh museum. Both state on their websites that there will be “NO REFUNDS.” But when I wrote them both a nice e-mail explaining that we just had to cancel due to COVID, they both said they understood and gave us full refunds. It should be noted that both of those are in Amsterdam and Amsterdam is locked down today so there is a good chance we might not have been able to go to either anyway.

Other tours (Sintra and the food tour in Lisbon or the Tours by Local tour in Amsterdam) we knew in advance were refundable right up to a few days before the tour. The same with the restaurants. I should note that this was the first time I did restaurant reservations that I had to provide a credit card and they charged me a refundable (up to 24 hours before) deposit of $25 per guest. And this happened at all three places we were going to eat in AMS.

Almost everything was completely cancelled and refunded within…3 days. The only things that we waited on were the British Air seat reservations and the Boom Chicago and Van Gogh museum tickets. And I only had to make a single phone call. All of the rest were either cancelled with an e-mail or by filling out a web form, except for my calling Alaska Air—which was super easy.

All-in-all I am VERY pleased at how easy this was to do. But even saying that, I would NEVER want to do it again. When you are a travel freak like I am, there is no bigger downer than cancelling a major trip like this. It put me in such a rotten mood that we had to quickly (like within three days) get refunded and get something booked for January. Now if Omicron would just get over itself so that doesn’t get cancelled, we are all set. I promise to come back and tell you all about it soon.

One last note about a date I missed. Last Thursday, December 16, was the third anniversary of this travel blog. The post you are reading is my 199th so I think I have done just a “fair job” of writing an average of two posts a month. If we had been traveling like we normally do (damn you pandemic) then it would have been a lot more. With three major trips planned in 2022 I truly believe that there will be a lot more in the year to come. Stick with me.

Cancelled isn’t a bad word because it happens everyday.

Wayne Brady

Mixed Emotions

If you are here because you like reading about travel, skip this post. Come back in 18 days when I will give you an early morning tour of Lisbon, Portugal…if all goes well. This post is personal. It is kind of about travel because we went someplace so I could experience it but it isn’t about travel, it’s about me.

Two weeks ago tonight was my 50th high school reunion. I graduated from Palm Springs High School in Palm Springs, California in June 1971 and with COVID we finally got around to holding the reunion. Also, because of COVID this reunion included the class before ours (1970) as they had missed theirs.

As you may have seen from earlier posts, I was really looking forward to going to the reunion and to spending a few days with my brother and his family as well. BTW: That part of the trip was great. We had our usually awesome time with Steve and Jamie.

But the reunion itself wasn’t that great. Or maybe I should say that the reunion (the event) was just fine. It was just not great for me. For a lot of reasons. Some external and some internal. I have been trying to decide if I wanted to write about it for the last two weeks. Each day when I walk I kind of plan out my posts in my head before I write them. Never had one perplex me more about how I feel about it.

Things I had almost no control over

One of the big things we (Kathleen and I) were really looking forward to was seeing my best friend from high school, Randy. She and I have known each other since elementary school and we became very close in high school. We were never boyfriend/girlfriend, just really close friends. I spent some of the best times of my life with her. We lost track of each other after our third year of college but we reconnected when I met Kathleen (my first wife did not like her) and we have been rebuilding our friendship ever since. Kathleen and I have visited Randy in Arizona and she and I communicate via e-mail, text, Instagram and FaceBook on a pretty regular basis.

Kathleen was only going to come to the reunion if Randy was going to be there because she wanted to at least know one person. I didn’t blame her. I doubt I would have really wanted to go if I didn’t know anyone. Especially being married to Mr. Extrovert who would be running around talking to everyone else.

On the day before the reunion we had planned to get together with Randy for lunch but early that day she texted that due to a medical problem she was headed home to AZ and would miss the reunion. She was crushed. We had been talking about doing this for more than a year. I was sad (more than sad) because when I look back on it now, I really only had only two or three people who I knew were going to be there that I really wanted to see. And she was definitely one of them.

When Randy let me know she wasn’t going to be there, I let Kathleen off the hook and told her to go have dinner with Steve and Jamie. They would drop me off at the reunion site and go get dinner and pick me up on their way back to our vacation rental, two hours later. I figured that with Randy not there, I could easily see the two or three other people I wanted to see, say hi to others and be ready to go. The reunion did include a BBQ dinner and a single drink ticket for everyone attending but food was not why I was still going.

When the family dropped me off I have to say I was not impressed with the site. I fully get that this is what the group could afford and still keep it affordable for everyone. It was held at a stables that is within a couple of miles of downtown. The place has a clubhouse kind of building and patio behind it where there were tables set up. Inside the building a lot of people were congregating and there was a bar, a place to take pics and some old high school photo stuff including a display honoring those in our class that had passed away. Guess what comes with a stables…horses (they were a pretty long way away) but that means they also bring…horseflies…and they were pretty close. So was that wonderful aroma that cowboys know well.

Now let’s get to something I was really uncomfortable with. I know I am partly to blame for my being uncomfortable and to be honest, I can’t believe I did what I did. When I got out of my brother’s truck, I had a mask on but when I walked up to the registration table that was in front of the building, I took it off because not a single person had one on. Yes, we were outside, but people were close together. Yes, I am vaccinated (three shots) but still, for the safety of myself and my family, I should have kept mine on. But I bowed to the unspoken peer pressure and shoved mine in my pocket.

After checking in, I immediately ran into someone who I had been friends with more in elementary school than in high school but our mothers had been VERY close. It was great seeing her and that was nice. But it was pretty much downhill from there until about 90 minutes later.

I headed into the building so I could get out onto the large porch area in the back. As I went in, I noticed a big sign stating, “By order of the City of Palm Springs, only vaccinated guests may be inside these premises and all must be masked.” Of course not a soul was…wearing a mask. Not sure about the vaccination status but of course after I got through the building and wound up outside in the back the first group of people I ran into was four men (I didn’t know any of them so I am assuming they were from the class of 1970) who were talking about “all those sheep who are vaccinated.” Needless to say I avoided those folks like the plague (no joke intended). Most of the rest of the time I was there was spent outside and trying as hard as I could to socially distance.

Internal stuff that I should have controlled

Looking back on the experience of that night, I have come to some sad truths about myself. The first being I realized I was neither liked nor disliked in high school. Most of my classmates, other than my closest friends, didn’t care one way or the other about me. Sadly, it took me going back to this reunion to realize that. I blame my job of 39 years in the yearbook industry for this. Writing, speaking, teaching yearbook advisers and staffers how to preserve memories for all those years has made me romanticize how “great” high school was. But to be honest, it really wasn’t. I, like most people, had a few close friends (some of those were in the class of 1972 and not there) and everyone else was just an acquaintance. Someone who had passed through my life for a few years.

So this led me to ask myself, why had I wanted to go if I really was only hoping to run into two or three people who I really wanted to see? Here’s my second hard truth: vanity. When I was in high school, I was a pudgy guy (to be real–I was fat). And I was a little nerdy. I was president of the Forensics Club for god’s sake. I wasn’t in sports. I was on the student council and I did help out with the yearbook (but wasn’t on the staff) because Randy was the editor but I wasn’t one of the “in”crowd.

Today I weigh about 15 lbs less than I did when I graduated. I am in so much better shape today than then and I work hard to get that way. And unlike about 65% of the guys in my class, I still have hair on my head as well as on my face, in my nose and my ears😜. To be honest, I look a lot better than I did in high school and I really wanted to have someone who knew me then be impressed. Talk about a bad reason to go and setting myself up for failure. Yes, I guess I am that shallow. The entire night, one person (just one) mentioned how “young” I looked. That’s it. And how sad am I that I feel this way.

Once I got past my motives for going, my other reason this was not the best reunion ever was my interaction with people. In all but three instances seeing someone I had known in high school went like this:

Me: “Hi (their name here)! I’m Jim Bellomo Remember me?”

So all I am saying is that it would have been nice if someone had asked me anything about what I had been up to in the last 50 years. I mean after just being there for two hours I can tell you about a guy who was a flight attendant for TWA and he quit when they were bought by AA and that he hates AA but his wife still works there. Or another person who owned a pool cleaning business for years and was now working in construction (I can even tell you about his truck and the people he works with). And someone who was a graphic artist and worked at Disney Animation in the 80s and 90s. Or someone who worked for a transportation company in a far off state. I know so much about so many others but was most impressed about how long they could talk about themselves without ever taking a second to ask a question.

It wasn’t all bad

Enough boo-hooing, I do want to make it very clear that the reunion wasn’t all bad. I did catch up with an old friend from elementary school who has had quite the life and wanted to know about mine as well. And someone who I had known in high school but we really hadn’t been friends then who I now hear from all the time on Facebook. She is a traveler like me and we have been corresponding about travel, so it was good to see her in the flesh, so to speak (that’s her on the left at the top of this post).

I was also thrilled to see one of the other three people I had been really close to in high school–Teresa (that’s her on the right at the top of this post). She and I were always great friends (she was my Senior Prom date–as a friend) but had completely lost track of each other after high school. The last time I had seen her was on the morning my son was born in 1979 when the doctor kicked me out of the delivery room (after my wife had been in labor for more than 14 hours and he wanted her to try and rest) and I went to find something to eat. Teresa was working in Palm Springs then as a letter carrier and happened to walk in the door of the restaurant to deliver her mail as I was standing there. 

She got to the reunion late so we didn’t have as much time as we would have liked before the family was picking me up and she too was crushed that Randy hadn’t made it but it was great catching up with her. In communicating with Randy and Teresa post reunion, I realized that we three  should have just had our own reunion. Those were really the only people coming who I had really wanted to see. Not that I didn’t enjoy seeing some of the other people who were there, but deep in my heart, I wish I had skipped it. 

When you have expectations, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. —Ryan Reynolds