Sunday, October 23, 2011


When I was in my twenties I decided that I did not want to wait until I was middle aged or older to travel and I tried to get to a few places. My list pales, is probably embarrassing, in comparison to some other people, but I still consider myself very lucky. Although I still love to travel, I managed to satisfy the real itch long ago and if I get to go somewhere every few years now, or even not, that’s fine. I can go on to the Great Adventure* without a pang of regret about what I might have missed.

*I stole that description of the afterlife from the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

A few months ago I wrote about my first trip abroad (11/18/10 - Knockdown, drag out vacation) and want to pick up the topic again, if not in such painstaking detail. I am not much of a memoirist, I’m afraid, as I can’t even remember what year I went to all of these places. My initial thought was to cover some 20 countries I’ve been to, but after the last post, I know that this is a laughable goal, as I’m way too verbose. But, I’ll cram in what I can. As usual, I note that this isn’t Wikipedia and you can go there for the Baedeker treatment.

Mexico – I can’t remember what year I went exactly, but it had to be sometime between 1993 and 1996. In case they quiz me in the afterlife, I’m going with 1995. It amazed me that, in an effort to promote Cancun, it was actually cheaper to fly there and stay in a hotel there for a week than it was to just fly there. Perhaps it is still the same. I had no intention of staying in Cancun if I could help it. My belief was that it was more for kids than adults and too crowded for my blood (though many other people prefer the action) and my brief visit confirmed that for me. I’m not saying that it wasn’t beautiful and the hotels weren’t great, but it's definitely not for me. I am informed that a Cancun like sprawl now travels far down the Yucatan Peninsula. But, I did use it as a base to travel to two islands and then to an inland archaeological site before I left.

The Island of Women (Isla Mujeres) was small and quite poor. I didn’t notice a lot of women either, but, from the little I know, it was given this name from the fact that the island was a center of a Mayan fertility cult and they found many female figures there. The woman I refer to sometimes in this blog as my Insignificant Other (“IO”) and I stayed in a great little hotel on a peninsula with water views on three sides. The water was brilliant blue (as is true many places) and we could walk out into it for about a half mile and it was still not up to our waists. It was also the warmest water I have ever been in my life outside of a hot tub. Actually, in the heat of the day, that wasn't always refreshing. We had dinner one night with a sunset I still remember (and have a so so picture of – mostly clouds that doesn’t do justice to the actual view). IO wasn’t too happy with the iguanas that had the run of the island. I thought they were cool. There may be a little Mars/Venus going on there.

After a night stay in Cancun where I believe I picked up Montezuma’s Revenge we went to Cozumel and stayed in a condo with 4 guest rooms but only we inhabited. There was a net hammock stretched across the living room.  A large patio stretched to the water, but there was no beach there. You climbed down a ladder at the edge of the limestone shelf that the island is made of into the ocean. It feels like you are in a giant aquarium. I saw exotic fish (they are all goldfish to me) twice the size of a basketball. A large eel, maybe a foot long in my memory, lived under the ladder.  The waves at the beaches on Cozumel were too rough to wade, but I took an excursion miles offshore to snorkel and they took us to the place they filmed the opening scene to the movie Splash, a coral garden good enough for a Disney film. While snorkeling there, with hundreds of square miles of water around me, I managed to bang my head on the underside of the boat. It hurt enough that I fed the fish on the way back, if you get my meaning. I also saw a barracuda while down there, which did not please me much. Getting sick on that little adventure was not my first stomach problem there. Our first night there IO and I went into a restaurant in we which were the only customers. After ordering, IO casually stirred the tomato and onion salsa with a spoon, the aroma of which traveled to my nose, and triggered a reaction which this blog is too effete to describe. But, let’s just say I felt it necessary to profusely apologize to the non-plussed manager about his bathroom and then waited outside while IO finished her dinner. The nauseau lasted until morning after which it was like it never happened.

I also saw a coatimundi there. It’s a strange if attractive animal in the raccoon family, but with a prehensile tail. Have a picture of it somewhere.

Before returning home we went to see Chichen Itza on the mainland, probably the best Mayan ruin. At that time you could still climb the incredibly steep steps of the Temple of Kukulcan, the Mayan Indian feathered serpent God. Chichen Itza is one of those places where, if not for the thousands of tourists, you would really feel as if you were transported back in time. Even looking down from the top of the steps was an eerie and exciting experience. Climbing down, you are aided by a metal chain due to the steepness, but I saw little old ladies doing it. Nevertheless, IO panicked a few feet from the bottom, to my great amusement, and was stuck there. She literally couldn’t move. I said, “Look, I can touch your ankle. Even if you fell, you wouldn't be all that injured.” At some point an impatient but ancient woman climbed around her to the ground and she soon got her nerve back. When we were leaving, I had an arm full of handicrafts that locals make right there and sell. My favorite was a miniature Chac Mool, reclining temple guards which reminded me a bit of myself. As we were exiting the area, one of the artisans followed me, ridiculously lowering his price as I walked away. I started to feel guilty, but IO kept saying that we couldn’t afford it. Finally, I stopped and did a quick calculation from pesos to dollars. It would cost something like another 30 cents. I caved.

Austria – I went there alone during my second trip to Europe in 1997. I wanted to avoid meeting anyone this trip, as they slowed you down, and I really just wanted to see stuff. That meant no more staying in hostels, although some were quite nice. I was just too old for the commotion there anyway. I also decided not to take public transportation in favor of a car until I got to Serbia, where it was just too difficult to arrange for one. My boss at the time, who was about the same age that I am now a quarter century later, was tickled at my travel stories from the first trip and gave me an extended vacation this time so I could cover a lot of ground. I started off in Germany and entered Austria, the home of Mozart and Hitler, intending to see three cities, and also spend some time in the mountains. I started with Salzburg and Innsbruck, two fairy tale like towns marred only by ubiquitous electric trolley lines.

While there, it started to rain heavily, and I spent a day in a condo/hotel where I looked out the window at the mountains and read Will Durant. It was actually not a bad vacation day, as I was exhausted from my week's travel thus far and it was a welcome break. But the next day, with no relief in sight, I took off for Italy for four days, before returning through a mountain pass and heading to Vienna.

On my way there I passed the Abbey at Melk, but did not stop there. However, I could see it for a long time high up on a hill and it gave me a profound feeling. For centuries, the folk who lived around there would never see a bigger or more prominent building and it must have been even more awe inspiring than it was to me. The actual abbey there now is only a little over three centuries old though, which, in Europe time, is practically infantile.

A little later I passed a tiny road that seemed like it went on for ever with tall vegetation on both sides. I pulled into it and headed down. I was just really into the adventure. After quite a while I could see that the fields of grain on both sides of me ended in the distance at what looked like a wood. I kept on going and finally could make out what looked like a metal gate that you could easily climb over or through. When I got there, I saw the sign on it. I don’t speak or read more than a few German words which I picked up, like most people my age, from WWII movies and Hogan’s Heroes. But, I recognized two words on the small sign:

Wehrmacht, which are the armed forces (Wikipedia says it technically means “defensive might") and Verboten, meaning forbidden.

I like adventure, but I’m not crazy. I made a ten or twelve point turn on that tight little roadway, and headed back the way I had come. A few minutes later I saw in the distance what looked like a little jeep heading my way. There was not room for two vehicles on this road, which was my main concern. As I approached the jeep (I bet it was built in America from the look of it), we both came to a stop. There were two young men in it, probably around my age, but possibly younger. One had flaming red hair and reminded me of the great German tennis player, Boris Becker. They both got out of the car. In those days, if not still, European military carried around very big guns with them and they both had one slung around their shoulders. I’ve seen enough movies and it was disquieting, to say the least. Boris approached me and I tried to speak with him, showing him my passport. He didn’t speak English very well, but we could communicate a little.

I tried to explain that I was a tourist. I did this by picking up my camera and mimicking taking pictures.

“Oh,” he said, “James Bond. A spy,” or something like that (it’s been a long time, folks). I didn’t like it, and realized a little later when I was on my way that he was just having fun with me. It didn’t feel like fun at the moment, but it was exhilarating. I headed into Vienna.

Vienna is a magnificent city and the four days I spent there were nowhere near enough. I did see the great Opera house, but not enough of it as I had not registered for a tour. I saw a performance of the Lippizaner Stallions, magnificent show horses descended from a breed brought to Spain by the Moors. Even if you think it might not be your thing (and that would describe me), you would probably enjoy it. I did. And there were extraordinary museums and castles. I'm pretty sure I went to Sigmund Freud's home, but I just can't pull it out of my memory (uh oh - what if that's a Freudian memory lapse?)

I also saw the opening of an American play by the playwright Edward Albee, whose first effort, The Zoo Story, was so funny, that when a friend and I had to read it to a class in high school, we laughed so hard that we literally could not speak for a long time (another one of my great triumphs in high school). His biggest success though was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which I did not see. The play I saw was Marriage Play, which made it to Broadway eventually, but was not a big success. I thought it was pretty good, even if it was just a middle aged couple contemplating divorce and their history.

I also went to a concert of Johann Strauss music (you know - The Blue Danube, Tales from the Vienna Wood, Die Fledermaus). I don’t play an instrument, but my musical tastes are fairly eclectic and include some classical. I like Strauss and despite the fact that I had nothing with me but shorts and sleeveless tee shirts, I asked if that would be okay, and was told it was. Still I had front row seats, and to tell the truth, I was kind of underdressed. Okay, really underdressed. Normally, I'd say, who really cares, but just this year, almost a quarter century later, a relatively uptight friend scolded me for it. Now I'll say who cares? It was a great concert.

There is another memory I have of Vienna which is a little different than the previous. Other than Scandinavians, I was a little disappointed with the looks of the European women I had seen so far in my two trips. One day I was heading up one of Vienna’s incredibly deep subway escalators. There were people above and below me all in a line. In between the two sets of escalators was a conventional staircase. Coming bouncing down the stairs was a beautiful blond girl. She was probably around 20 year old or so.

As I traveled up the escalator and she was flying down it, I could see the head of every male in front of me turn to watch her pass, and she definately knew it. Maybe that’s why she took the stairs. Big smile on her face the whole way. As she got closer to me, all the men right in front of me were looking too. And as she passed, someone leaned back.  . .

. . . a little too far. Boomboomboomboom, down we went all in a row like hormonal dominoes, all men fortunately, because a woman might not have found it as funny as we all did. I’m not saying it was me who fell first. I’m not saying it wasn’t me. I really don’t think I ever knew, and I can’t tell you how many of us fell down backwards, but I think it was around 6 or 7 of us.  No one got hurt and everyone laughed. I didn't see her after, of course, but I’m sure she is still laughing about it somewhere, now in her mid-40s, remembering the days when all the boys couldn’t help but look. Ah, memories.

Turkey – One more for today. My friend Fred and I went to Turkey and Greece in 1990. It was the first time I traveled with anyone else. Our first stop was in the ancient city of Istanbul, once Constantinople. Turkey is, of course, a Muslim country, still the most secular of them all (though that may be slowly changing). It is also spectacular, filled with exotic mosques, and an underground water filled cistern that was featured in my favorite James Bond film, From Russia with Love.

We checked into an old looking, if respectable looking hotel. We tried the water. It was cold. Fred went down to ask if anything could be done about it. No, the concierge explained. The delivery of hot water would not be until tomorrow. Wow.

I don’t know how to explain what happened next, but, I think it is best if I just keep it short and say – the toilet seat bit me on the ass. You see, there was a big crack in the seat and . . . It really hurt though. A lot. I hurt myself quite a bit this trip, actually much worse than on the toilet seat, but, that was in Greece, and to be told another day.

We went out that night. First, we stopped in on the concierge and asked him if he had a recommendation for where we should go to eat.  He in turn had a question – “Do you like dog meat?”

I can’t remember exactly the order of which days we did what, but like Vienna, it is a very hard city to do everything in four days. One night we took a tour. Of course, we stopped at the tour guide's relative’s carpet store, and his relative’s restaurant and I’m pretty sure it was a relative’s bus too. At the restaurant, I had some dish or another, but didn’t enjoy the meat in it so much. It tasted kind of funny and I’m fairly certain it was – yeah. The next day was the first of many with stomach trouble.

But, that night my stomach was still fine. At the restaurant, everyone on the tour had to get up with their countrymen and women and sing some song from home, and we would vote for the winner. This is the only time in my life that I ever really sang in public. The problem was that neither Fred nor I thought we knew the words of any songs other than Happy Birthday. But, perhaps a miracle happened because suddenly I remembered Barbara Ann, the Beach Boys' classic. How easy was that? Ba-ba-ba, baba baran. So, we sang it together badly while everyone else looked on blankly, wondering what bizarre song the Americans were singing (we called it singing). Every group sang for their country – that is, except the French. I hate to badmouth the French (no I don’t) but they just wouldn’t sing – except for one of them, a nice guy who did his best alone. Anyway, we didn’t win. They didn't vote for a loser, but I'm pretty sure we would have won that. Two cute little sisters from Indonesia sang their national anthem in beautiful harmony and with great passion. Everyone voted for them. They reminded me of the two little girls in the Mothra movies - but, I'm dating myself.

After dinner, we were left off to fend for ourselves and Fred and I walked through the city. We found ourselves going downhill and eventually, down by the water we came to what I thought was a fair, with a police guard at the bottom. It wasn’t a fair, but, in fact an outdoor brothel, with little ramshackle buildings set up for the girls. Did I say girls? I mean women. I mean middle aged, haggard, homely women. One of them looked like a grandmother. I was horrified. Of course, you couldn’t tell by the looks on the faces of the men, who seemed very taken with them. They cheered whenever someone went into the little rooms.

Needless to say, we didn’t participate in the festivities. Ycccch.

When we were leaving the hotel after four days to travel down the coast, I went outside a minute before Fred. Seeing the bellhop, I gave him a tip, an amount I thought reasonable and he seemed to appreciate. Tipping – baksheesh – is a very big thing there. I was waiting on the sidewalk when Fred came out, about 50 feet away. He walked up to the same bellhop and with a big smile on his face gave him a tip. Fred walked towards me grinning ear to ear, pleased at his generosity. The bellhop looked at Fred’s back and sneered. Maybe sneer is too generous. When Fred got to me I had an even bigger smile on my face. I said “How much did you give him?” It turned out it was a fraction of what I had given. I gleefully told Fred about the glare he had just gotten. And, naturally, Fred blamed me – I had given too much. Maybe I had. But, it was so worth it to see the contrast of Fred's smile and the bellhop's snarl.

I always feel when I tell tales from my life like this that I should add I’m not making stuff up. Some of them sound a little unbelievable to me too. I just have a strange life.  More tales from my trips in the future.


  1. Anonymous8:57 AM

    Dave, I went to Cancun last June with my wife and some friends. Agree with you completely. Probably more crowded than when you were there. Not a fun trip.


  2. I try to warn everyone if t hey haven't booked it yt, but don't say anything if they already have. But, Cancun is so well known that many people just pick it as a given once they've decided on Mexico. Thanks for the comment.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .