Archives for March 2015

AZ to Amsterdam Chapter One: Phoenix to The Grand Canyon

We were living in Arizona when we decided to move to Amsterdam. Our flight to Amsterdam left from Boston, so we had to drive clear ‘cross the United States in the space of a few days. This is the story of those few days.

Reasonable people may think that we were nutty for driving from Arizona to Boston in the space of a few days. I have news for reasonable people, it could have been much nuttier. As with a rental car secured and unlimited miles part of the package, I was actually scheming for something a little more certifiably crazy.

The way I figured it, if you are going to drive from Arizona all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, you might as well just start on the shores of the Pacific Ocean and make that bad boy a full-on ocean-to-ocean odyssey. I proceeded to excitedly informed Julia and Holly that we should leave a day early and head to California.

“You know, we could dip our paws in the Pacific, have some fish tacos, maybe even kick a Kardashian or two in the shins on behalf of all humanity. Come on, it’ll be fun!” I said.

Phoenix to The Grand Canyon

Luckily, they never really considered this latest hair-brained scheme of mine and we set off from Arizona bright and early in the morning of the pre-arranged departure date. We had to make one quick stop before we left town though, and that was at the cable company equipment return office, or as they prefer to be called nowadays, the “solutions store”.

We pulled up, parked, and then I went in and chucked our modem to the first warm body I encountered, quickly turning toward the door and the direction of Boston and Amsterdam.

“But sir, don’t you need a receipt?” responded the warm body in a curious, half-inquisitive, half-cryptic tone that inspired an exchange between us straight from the gift wrap scene in Love Actually.

“Um, no, I’m moving to the Netherlands, I think I’ll be ok.” I replied.

“But sir, what if we lose the modem?” he volleyed back to me.

“What if you lose it? Should you really be throwing that out there? Anyway, naah, I’m good, you seem like you know what you are doing.” I lobbed back to him thinking it was pretty weird he would suggest they may lose it, but hey, I guess anything could happen in a solutions store at night.

He then approached the conversational net and smashed this one down on me:

“If it gets lost and you don’t have proof you returned it, you’re looking at a few hundred dollars.”

With that it was game, set, match, and took my place in line to see a solution specialist while Holly and Julia stayed in the running car. In about the time it takes to call and have a pizza delivered, I was summoned, dealt with accordingly, and then handed my paper solution, which ended up finding a nice home in my wallet for the next few months.

It was time to head east, by way of a slight detour to the northwest part of Arizona.

Phoenix to The Grand Canyon

You see, my crazy little scheme about California wasn’t just about the whole coast-to-coast thing or even drop-kicking celebrities, it was mostly about having a good excuse to stop at the Grand Canyon. I had never been to the Grand Canyon, and since we had lived in Arizona a few months, I wasn’t going to leave the state without laying eyes upon it.

We entered Interstate 17  headed north from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon area, turned on the cruise control, and then set our sights on the splendors speeding by us.

The run of Interstate 17 between Phoenix and Flagstaff is one of my all-time favorite drives. They journey begins on the dusty desert floor of Phoenix surrounded by palm trees and suburban sprawl, scales hills full of cactus and places with names like Bloody Basin and Rabid Badger Springs, skirts the red rocks of Sedona, and then finishes 6,000 feet higher than when you started in the cool air and pine-laden terrain of Flagstaff.

All in only about two hours.

phoenix to the grand canyon

If there was any part of this entire AZ to Amsterdam adventure where I got a little sentimental about leaving America for for the foreseeable future, it was on this stretch of Interstate 17.  And I’m not even from Arizona! It’s just that cool of a drive for me.

Once in Flagstaff, we hooked a left and followed the signs to the grandest canyon of them all.

Our time at the Grand Canyon was a rush-job, no question, as we only ended up spending an hour-and-a-half or so total in Grand Canyon National Park. We truly only had time to meander around the South Rim, pose for a few pictures, and badger a park ranger about how long a drive he thought it was from the Grand Canyon to Albuquerque, where we planned to stay the night.

The Grand Canyon was as gorgeous as advertised and made me really want to come back one day and spend a few days exploring the park. I’d love to walk on paths, look at rocks and rivers, and maybe even see something called wildlife that the free magazine we got with our admission fee was going on about.

Phoenix to The Grand Canyon

We weren’t the only ones inspired by the grandeur of the Grand Canyon, either.

While we were shuffling along the South Rim with Holly, there was a commotion behind us and a gaggle of awestruck Italian tourists started yelling “Bella!” “Bella!” “Bellissima!”. Being from the land of Michelangelo, Bernini, and the hills of Tuscany, they obviously know beauty when they see it, and while they were a bit boisterous, I couldn’t blame them for being overcome.

They then approached us, knelt down and … starting petting Holly. It turns out that she had been the object of their attention all along and Holly accepted their pets and ear rubs with the dignity and poise you’d expect from a graceful world wonder.

With that, we were back in the car and finally really heading east.

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

 

Photo Credit

Travelly Picture: Amasya, Turkey

Amasya ended up being our last stop in Turkey, and it was a great way to go out. Amasya had all the things I like in a travelly town: scenic river, mountains, sunny weather, people.  Amasya also has these cave things above the river that hold something ancient in them, but we never bothered to go up and check them out.

Oh yeah, if you click on the picture, I think it gets bigger.

Amasya Turkey

Travelly Picture: Isla de Janitzio, Mexico

We spent a few weeks in the beautiful colonial town of Patzuaro, Mexico and since Lake Patzcuaro is right nearby, we figured we’d go out on the lake for the day and visit Isla de Janitzio. The island is regarded as sacred by someone or another and if that’s not enough for you, they even let you climb the statue on top.

Oh yeah, if you click on the picture, I think it gets bigger.

Isla de Janitzio

Best Oktoberfest Beer Tents

The great thing about Oktoberfest beer tents is that no matter which one you stumble into, you are going to have the time of your life. Well, assuming you don’t lose your phone, your friends, or fall face-first onto a hot grill full of bratwursts.

So, it’s not worth losing too much sleep over which one to go to. With that being said though, not all tents are created equal and picking the right one can absolutely make your day.

The most important thing to remember when choosing between Oktoberfest beer tents is that there are two types of tents in Munich: big ones and small ones. The big Oktoberfest beer tents are called “fest halls”, and these are the ones you have probably seen on TV that are home to thousands of guys wearing lederhosen and girls wearing German dirndls toasting, singing, dancing,  and going berserk, um, in a good way. The smaller tents are a bit more laid back and relaxed, but they are also still home to bands and all kinds of good times, so I think hitting at least one smaller tent gives you a more well-rounded Oktoberfest experience.

After four trips, I definitely have my favorites, so here are my picks for best Oktoberfest beer tents, both big and small.

oktoberfest beer tents

Schottenhamel

I will start with this one as it is hands down my favorite and it is the tent where Oktoberfest is officially kicked off every year by the mayor of Munich. The mayor taps the very first keg and then fittingly declares ‘it’s tapped!” to the masses, ushering in a new year of sudsy fun and frolicking. This tent is absolutely perfect in my opinion, and if you could only go to one of the 14 big Oktoberfest beer tents, this is the one. Schottenhamel is very popular among the younger set, and that creates a fun and friendly atmosphere throughout that I just haven’t experienced in as much abundance at the other tents. In contrast to some other tents where almost all of the people around you will be tourists, in Schottenhamel you will be outnumbered by locals, who will almost all be the utmost of friendly and fun.

Basically, go here or you will regret it for the rest of your life.

Oktoberfest beer tents

Hacker

Billed as “Bavarian Heaven”, this one makes my list based mostly on the interior design of the tent. The sky and clouds that are painted on the ceiling here create a fantastic atmosphere, and even if the weather outside is a bit sketchy, sitting here always feels light, sunny, and the epitome of what Oktoberfest is all about. The music here is more rock-n-roll than traditional and it is a great spot for late night fun as it seems to get a perfect mix of tourists and locals. I never regret a stop here.

Oktoberfest beer tents

Café Kaiserschmarrn

Looking like something straight off the board game Candy Land, Café Kaiserschmarrnk is a sight for sore eyes, and that’s perfect because your eyes are going to be soar in the morning after the previous day’s festivities. Café Kaiserschmarrn is one of the smaller Oktoberfest tents, but what it lacks in size it makes up for with pastries and is hands down the best place to start your day off at Oktoberfest. Café Kaiserschmarrn opens early for breakfast and serves a fanciful assortment of coffee drinks and wholesome German breakfast treats. If you are in the mood to get your beer drinking started early though, they have that too. Music starts here in the afternoon and a slightly subdued party atmosphere soon follows.

oktoberfest beer tents

Augustiner

Augustiner is the last of the big six Munich breweries to be independently owned, and as a result, has a beloved place in almost all Munich-resident’s hearts. A stop here is always one of my favorite moves and while the Augustiner beer tent isn’t quite as aesthetically charming on the interior as some of the others, it’s relatively calm and peaceful atmosphere more than makes up for it. Augustiner is the perfect big tent to balance out an earlier stop at a rowdy and tourist-heavy tent like Hofbrau.

Oktoberfest beer tents

Weinzelt

This one is for the classy people, but despite this fact, they let us in for a couple hours. As you may have guessed from the name, this is the wine tent at Oktoberfest, and while you could certainly go for one of their fine varieties of wine, I stuck to the only beer they serve and coincidentally my favorite type, weiss beer. What makes this place great though is the calm, chill, and dare I say elegant atmosphere that makes you feel like you are in the great hall of a Bavarian castle. Just like the Café Kaiserschmarrn tent, it’s a perfect first stop of the day or a perfect spot to catch your breath in the middle of the afternoon while you make your game plan for the the rest of the day.

Oktoberfest beer tents

Lowenbrau

As far as the big tents run by world-famous breweries (Hofbrau, Paulaner) are concerned, Lowenbrau is definitely my favorite. First off, the big lion out front is pretty cool and the atmosphere in here is always fun without being too rowdy. The band here is without a doubt one of the best at Oktoberfest, and on balance, you might just get the most well rounded experience at Lowenbrau. With nearly 3,000 outside seats, it’s a great place to go on a nice day too.

 

For all things Oktoberfest, check out my post on how to do Oktoberfest right and you could even always check out the official Oktoberfest website, too.

Photo Credits: 1,2,3,

Travelly Picture: Ko Yao Yai, Thailand

We only spent a week in Thailand, and our time was a bit of a mixed bag. We were there during rainy season and the weather was generally iffy featuring mostly grey skies with only short sunny spells. On the flip side, since it was rainy season, we were able to score a fantastic last minute deal at a sweet resort on the island of Ko Yao Yai, and as you can see, the view from the pool was fantastic.

Oh yeah, if you click on the picture, I think it gets bigger.

Ko Yao Yai

Around Asia Chapter 2: Arriving in Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur Batu caves

Was Malaysia a bit of an unusual place to start an Asian adventure? Maybe.

Most people do tend to say that Thailand and Singapore are the best places to get your feet wet in Asia, but we had it on very good authority that Malaysia was home to a spellbinding combination of arts, culture, and history. Oh, who do I think I’m kidding, it was the food.

Being a melting pot of Malays, Chinese, and Indians, Malaysian cuisine is regarded as one of the most tantalizing in the world according to at least two slideshows that we had seen online.

We had arrived at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in the wee hours of the morning and as thus had to wait for the first train of the day from the airport into the city. I was really hoping to see some monkeys swinging from trees or better yet, throwing coconuts at the train, but since it was still dark out, there was no funny business. Instead, we were treated to an unending loop of the trailer for the latest Let’s Step Up And Do Dance Moves movie and by time we reached our end destination could recite it word-for-word. Incidentally, we never ended up seeing the film, so if anyone out there knows if those kids ended up winning the big Las Vegas competition, please get in touch.

Eventually, we arrived at our station and emerged into the muggy Malaysian morning. In keeping with local custom, we each made an obligatory observation about the humidity level and how you could cut it with a knife, then slashed our way through the steam to our guesthouse.

Kuala Lumpur Explorers Guesthouse

We had chosen to stay at Explorers Guesthouse, and it was a stylish little place that immediately showed us how much further our money was going to stretch in Asia compared to Australasia. We took off our shoes upon entering, checked in, scurried to the room, then slept the flight off for a few hours in air conditioned and humidity-free comfort.

Consequently, when I woke up, it all felt like a bit of a dream.

I knew I was really in Asia, but it just didn’t feel real, and the following hours were filled with fits of what I would call culture “surprise”. No extreme culture shock or anything, just a bit of awkwardness getting used to being on the eastern side of the world for the very first time.

Kuala Lumpur was pretty loud, smelled strong, and had the most garbage strewn streets I had seen since college. Most of my culture surprise though had to do with what we had come there for in the first place: food.

I’ve always been a bit of a worrywart when it comes to whether or not dishes have been cleaned properly, and I knew that was going to have to go out of the window when eating Asian street food. I just wasn’t ready to toss it out yet. So that first day, we went to a touristy food court near the guesthouse and I just ordered Chicken Rice, which while revered by many in Malaysia and beyond as a real delicacy, is essentially just chicken, rice, and a tasty little sugary-spicy side sauce. It helped ease me in. I had another plain meal for dinner and then was almost all the way there.

Kuala Lumpur chicken rice

Later that night, we took a scenic stroll around town looking at things called buildings, admiring the strands of lights hanging from trees, and finalizing our acclimation to the climate and to the city. I was so enthralled by the buzz of the city above me and my eyes so transfixed on some shimmering something or another that I violently tripped over something pretty big on the sidewalk.

After looking like a fool, I gathered my wits about me and whipped around to shower the thing I just tripped over in scorn and the universal “how in the hell did that get there?” look.

That’s when the thing I tripped over decided to scurry off. You see, the thing I tripped over was a rat. Seemed like a nice rat though, for the record.

So say what you want about Singapore and Bangkok being better places to get your feet wet in Asia, I can personally attest that Kuala Lumpur is the finest place on the continent to get your feet, well, whatever kicking a rat qualifies for.

Travelly Picture: York Castle, England

You know how they call New York New York? Well, the original York is in England and I went there once. In York, there is this thing called Clifford’s Tower, which is the last little nub left standing of the once great York Castle. The weather was sunny and the grass was green and so I whipped out my digital camera and took a picture.

Oh yeah, if you click on the picture, I think it gets bigger.

York castle Clifford's tower

Around Asia Chapter 1: Down and Out Down Under

 

I’m going to be starting this new thing called “Around Asia” where I will be recounting some of the adventures we’ve had, um, around Asia. Any proper account of our Asian adventures would be incomplete though without a mention of what directly preceded them at the airport in Australia. 

Just a night before it all went terribly wrong, all was right in the world.

We had just arrived in Australia feeling like jetsetters ready for a one night fling with the Super Sexy Siren of the Southern Hemisphere.

People do call Sydney that, right?

The reason we were only in Sydney for a solitary night wasn’t really the type of thing that most jetsetters would get mixed up with, but we hadn’t let that spoil our spirits one bit. Unlike most jetsetters who just fly into places for a night or two at the drop of their golden hat, we were actually forced to buy a flight to Australia at gunpoint by an airport check-in desk employee in Fiji.

Okay, okay, maybe she didn’t have a gun and maybe it was more of a counter than a desk. But she did speak to us in a very stern manner.

IMG_20120216_122324

Why had she treated us this way? Well, we had shown up at the airport in Fiji to fly to New Zealand with a one way ticket and it turns out that countries and airline check-in desk employees really hate that move. As it was explained to us, flying in to a country on a one way flight is essentially the same as walking around like a loose cannon yelling “I might just stay in your country forever because I’ve got no ticket out, baby!”

We weren’t planning on staying anywhere forever or anything like that, we just didn’t know where we wanted to go after New Zealand yet. So I suppose I can see where they could take our lack of planning the wrong way and want us to have a flight out before we boarded our flight in. Only maybe, because the elephant in the room of course being that just because you have a flight out of the country doesn’t mean you have to actually board it, so there’s just a tiny loophole in their policy.

We were forced to buy a ticket out of New Zealand to Australia on the spot at the aforementioned Fiji airport, and then a few weeks later bought our flight on to Asia from Sydney, thus leaving us with one random night in Sydney.

In addition to arriving in Sydney feeling like jetsetters, we were also riding high as the world’s newest booze barons because we had just bought one of those “big ‘ol” bottles of vodka they’re always selling at the airport Duty Free shops.

Not the one that’s as big as a fire extinguisher, the next one down.

DSC00637

The original plan was to open that Russian beauty up in Sydney and toast to the good life on the roof terrace of the joint we were staying, as it had a marvelous view of the Opera House (see image above). For reasons that probably involved something called fatigue after a long day of sightseeing in the sun, we never got around to toasting. We ended up spending a sober night in Sydney just gawking at that view, bothering a few people to take pictures of us while gawking at that view, chasing down a great burger, and safely packing the bottle away in preparation for the flight the next day.

As thus, we arrived at Sydney Airport the next night with plenty of time to spare for our flight to to Asia and on cloud nine. We couldn’t believe our luck to have been “forced” to stay in Sydney for a night and had bees buzzing in our belly for all the tasty Asian food that we would soon be devouring. We assumed our place in a slow moving check-in line, and waited our turn.  Eventually, we approached the check-in desk as proud travelers about to set off another leg of an epic journey.

We lugged our backpacks on to the conveyor belt, exchanged pleasantries, and leaned up against the check-in counter. The airline check-in desk employee went down the familiar line of questioning regarding whether or not someone had asked us to smuggle an Australian bush ferret for them on the flight and even offered some advice to me to turn my cap around, because the Malaysians apparently don’t like backwards hats.

She closed her questioning with this beauty: “Do you have a flight out of Malaysia?”

We had assumed that an Asian nation wouldn’t be as hard on us as the Antipodean ones had been because, after all, free spirits fly their way into Asia every day with the goal of doing nothing but wandering around the continent wearing hippie pants and finding themselves, don’t they? And all those goofballs certainly don’t book return tickets, do they? Plus, everyone knows that lightning doesn’t strike twice, does it?

We explained that we did not have a flight out but had no plans on moving to Malaysia and then were subsequently told that we couldn’t board the plane unless we bought a flight in the next 20 minutes.

Again.

We were then politely shuffled off to a penned-in area in order to book our flights on the faintest of faint WiFi signals.

It was a race against time and the reload button and it was definitely touch-and-go there for a minute, but somehow we managed to pull it off. We bought a flight from Malaysia to Singapore for six weeks into the future and once we showed them the e-mail confirmation, we were whisked by a walkie-talkie wielding supervisor straight to the front of the security line.

We were in the clear, but our clear booze wasn’t going to be with us much longer. That’s right, I had dumbly decided to put the bottle of vodka in my carry on bag thinking that since it was purchased at the airport it could be carried on the plane. Total bonehead move, I know, I know.

It all happened so fast that we didn’t have time to muster any tears or even attempt to put the whole bottle down in one fell swill like you see in the movies. We were forced to simply just wave it goodbye. From what I heard though, that bottle of vodka was the life of a raucous airport Christmas party later that year and was even blamed for one man using the boarding pass printing machine for, well, let’s not worry about what he did to that poor machine.

We still had to sprint through the terminal to make the flight and made it we did, just in the nick of time and a little sweatier for wear.

It was time to move on to Asia, a place like nowhere.