Italy by Rail and Ship: Trip Notes from the First Week

Has it really been one week ago since Lisa and I left early Monday morning?  Part of me thinks that time just flies, and the other part of me feels like it has been so long ago.  In no particular order, here are some trip notes from our first week on our big summer vacation.

  • Left behind, involuntary: the charger cord to my new Android phone, left behind at our New York hotel.  Didn’t realize it until we were at JFK and I was looking for it to plug in.  The good news is that we do have an extra cord that I can plug into a USB socket.  The bad news is that the cord I lost was especially for my new phone and it was a quick charger, meaning it could juice up an empty phone in under two hours.  Now it takes quite a bit longer to charge up my phone.
  • Left behind, voluntary and with regret:  (1) my good camera – figured I cut weight and just use my new Android phone, but I miss the features of my camera like the powerful zoom and the ability to take pictures in all types of conditions.  My smartphone is good, but not good enough.  (2) my running shoes – again, in order to cut weight, I left behind my running shoes.  Not that I would do a bunch of running, but at least I could give my feet a rest with a different pair of shoes and I’d be able to do more of a workout or even some running.  (3) a string backpack – I brought my new day pack, but sometimes I’d rather have something really really light like my string backpack that every business seems to give away at community events and what not.  I have ten of them at home so I have little excuse for not bringing one.
  • The smoking Europeans:   Nope, not talking about hot Italian women, I’m talking about the smoking in outdoor public spaces that is difficult to escape.  Twice we have had a lovely meal in an outdoor patio, and then while we are eating our neighbors light up and it just so happens that the wind direction that day is targeted right for us.  So tonight we ate inside the restaurant where smoking is not allowed.
  • Tiny coffee:   yep, like a little shot of coffee in a teeny, tiny cup.
  • Coke and other beverage sticker shock:  a small plastic bottle of coke runs around 3 Euro, which is about $3.60.  This price applies in both restaurants, fast food joints and in convenience stores.  Conversely, Lisa has had glasses of wine that go anywhere from 3.50 Euro to 4.50 Euro – that’s super cheap, yet it is not cheaply made wine!
  • Paid water:  I haven’t quite figured out how to order tap water.  I thought the secret word was “Still Water,” so the waiter will just bring me a bottle of regular water instead of fizzy or bubbly water.  Next time I will just ask for any water that is free / gratis and hope for the best.

 

  • Free water:  it has been pretty hot here and Lisa and I have done our fair share of sweating, especially with all the humidity and strong sunshine.  In every Italian town we’ve been to, a total of seven, everyone of them has a public water spigot that you can fill up your water bottle for free.  I’m not talking about a drinking fountain, but an actual spigot pipe in some town square or populated area where the water is free AND clean.  At first we were a little suspect, but we gave into thirst and (knock on wood) so far have had no negative post-water consumption issues.

 

  • Mosquitoes:  I have around ten bites, and Lisa over twice that amount.  They just love us.  We have repellent, but after slathering sun screen all over our arms and legs, we have been too lazy to apply our bug spray.  That will change tomorrow however because we will be going to Venice for a few days, and we hear that they have a lot of mosquitoes!
  • Gelato:  we’ve had a cup every day and have tried different flavors.  They are literally on every corner and they all look like high quality, specially gelato shops.  And here’s your frozen dairy dessert lesson for the day …
    • ice cream:  usually frozen (hard), made with no less than 10% milk fat,
    • gelato:  usually made with whole milk and no cream and no eggs, consistency is more like soft serve

 

  • Gelato sizing:  a small cup runs around 2 Euros, but when you see the size of the cup, you think “that’s pretty big!”  Well, here’s some news.  That “small cup” that looks big is actually a small cup because they hide the bottom of the cup halfway up.  I found out the hard way when I was eating my gelato and I finished faster than I should have.  Upon investigation, it was because of that false bottom!
  • Fill er’ up:  let’s talk about to-go (or as they call it here, “takeaway) cups of beverages.  In the States, when you order a large drink, you expect a drink to be filled up to the very top and then a nice lid placed over it for you “to-go.”  But here, they will only fill it up to about one inch from the top.  You’ll get a straw but no lid, and no discount for that empty space where you hope actual beverage product should be.  Oh, and here there is no such thing as a Super Size Large.
  • Photos:  too many thus far, and so hard to delete them because they are all “great” shots because everywhere we have been to has been worthy of photo keepsakes.  From food porn, architecture, natural landscapes and everything in between, we have not been able to say “NO” when it comes to taking pictures – except in some churches that explicitly state no cameras or photographs.  There is beauty everywhere and we just want to capture it all.  So yeah, we have a problem and it is not going away anytime soon!  But at least we don’t have any annoying selfie sticks!  Just random selfie shots at odd angles, we can live with that.
  • And that does it for this first edition of trip notes where I comment, muse and complain about anything that comes to mind, now it is time for bed because I need the sleep!

Post Cruise Tips: Carnival Inspiration Three-Day Weekend Cruise

Now that it has been ten days since we returned from our cruise, I have come up with a few tips and suggestions that would be helpful to remember if we ever took this cruise again…

  • On some previous cruises we have been able to board as early as 11:00am.  Not so with this ship.  Even though our boarding ticket said between 12:00pm – 12:30pm, the actual boarding time was after 1:00pm.  So had we arrived there early in the morning, we would have just been sitting around outside the check-in area.  Tip:  don’t bother arriving super early, hoping to board the ship because it won’t happen.
  • The Queen Mary hotel is adjacent to the pier and with your cruise ticket you can visit this tourist attraction for only $10, which might be a good way to kill your morning while you wait to board the ship.
  • Lifeboat drill:  eh, this was a waste of our time.  We got there early to get seats, but then waited over an hour for them to get their act together before they officially sounded the muster call.  In the future, we’ll just enjoy the ship and go to the life boat drill at the very last minute.
  • Adult hot tubs in ship’s aft was a winner, and there is a towel station there so you don’t need to bring your beach towels from the room.
  • Skip the opening night ‘Welcome Aboard’ show unless you want to see pre-recorded skits on the big screen and the cruise director talk talk talk
  • Sea Day Brunch:  do it.  It is only offered once and the food selections were outstanding.
  • Guy’s Burger Joint:  do it.  The toppings bar is a winner.
  • Blue Iguana Cantina:  do it.  It is next to the burger joint, and you can have them build you burritos, tacos and taco salads.  Bonus:  in the morning, they make great breakfast burritos.
  • Breakfast:  the buffet area can get pretty busy, especially the omelette station.  Fortunately there is another omelette station located in between the Blue Iguana and Guy’s Burger Joint, and not too many people know about this.
  • The men’s and women’s locker rooms have their own sauna and steam rooms which are free to use.
  • The chilled soups were amazing, and the fruit-based ones were almost dessert-like.  I even ordered the Strawberry Bisque as an after-dinner drink dessert and took it to-go.
  • At dinner you get a bread basket.  The bread isn’t that great, so only eat one if you just have to try it, otherwise just skip them altogether.
  • The water slides are not just for kids — go up and slide down for the thrilling decent!  But watch out, because the water will splash COLD on you at the bottom.
  • The live music was enjoyable and pretty good, from the solo guitar players to the piano man to the band.
  • Get your exercise by using the stairs!  Otherwise the elevators were actually all pretty quick and plentiful.
  • Don’t bother with an internet plan because the cruise is so short and your data plan should work in Ensenada.
  • Punchliner’s Comedy shows were plentiful and rated depending on the content.  Some comedians will be gold, others will suck and it all depends on the audience, so you might as well go and see if you like it.
  • Use the daily on board cruise schedule to plan out the activities that you want to try out.  We missed some activities because we were too lazy or just forgot about them, but no big deal.
  • Last tip:  no matter what happens, just be glad that you have the chance to cruise and have fun.  You have a room, all the food you can eat, new friends you haven’t met yet, naps that call and time to just enjoy your vacation!

 

Spring Break in Dubai: Initial Thoughts and Observations

Here are some random thoughts and observations after our first thirty hours here in Dubai:

  • Jet lag:  Dubai is 11 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time.  To make it easier, I use a rough estimate of 12 hours so whatever time it is here, I just reverse the AM or PM.  Therefore, when we landed at 11am, it was 11pm back home.  During our fourteen hour flight, we received intermittent sleep of around three total hours.  So we were definitely tired when we landed, but we were determined to see the day through.  After checking into our hotel, we did some sightseeing and ate a late lunch, but we definitely hit the wall around 4:00pm.  We managed to stay up until 8:30pm and then went to bed.  We woke up this morning at 6:30am, so we managed a good ten hours of sleep to get us acclimated to our new wake/sleep schedule.  After today’s adventures, we seemed to have adjusted pretty well.
  • Here’s a description from one of our guidebooks that seems fairly accurate:

    “Dubai is one of those places that polarizes opinion:  if you don’t enjoy a sanitized, somewhat artificial environment of the idea of whiling away hours hunting bargains or chasing a golf ball, Dubai may not be the place for you.  But those who appreciate extraordinary architecture, exceptional hospitality and bewildering choice of recreation will find Dubai more than meets their expectations.”

    For our travels, Lisa and I always find fun and adventure wherever we go and it is always fascinating to just take public transportation, walk around and people watch.  We have really enjoyed our first two days and we have only scratched the surface of what there is to do.

  • People –  so many nationalities here, including scores and scores of Filipinos.  I counted over ten Filipino restaurants, and that doesn’t include the chains of Chow King and Jollibee.
  • Malls – some of the largest malls in the world are located here.  We’ve been to two so far, each boasting over 300 stores, and those aren’t even the big ones.  The malls here also want you to shop.  In the States, malls encourage lounging by putting in chairs and comfy sitting areas.  Here, the only areas you’ll find seats is in the food court.  Walk around the rest of the mall, and the only other seats belong to restaurants.  Even the bookstore had no chairs!
  • Cars cars cars everywhere.  There is traffic at all hours, but it flows pretty well.  There’s also a lot of pedestrians, and while there are some pedestrian overpass bridges to get people across major thoroughfares, I’m not a huge fan of their cross walks because they seem so complicated.  It’s a little hard to explain, but basically if you want to cross the street, you’ll have to travel through at least four different crosswalks to get there.
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  • No dog sightings yet – stray or domesticated.  However, we have seen plenty of stray cats just hanging out.
  • Weather – so far, temperatures in the mid-eighties with some clouds.  Apparently just a few days ago the city was overcome with rain storms that produced flooding and over 3,500 auto accidents related to rain.  Guess we timed it just right this time around.
  • Nightlife – people are out out out at night.  Picnicking and playing in the park, window shopping (there are many stores from restaurants to pharmacies to general merchandise stores that are open 24 hours), eating, malling and going out, the streets are teeming with locals and tourists and it gives the city a buzzing vibe of activity.
  • Fliers – people line the sidewalks passing out promotional flier for just about everything:  restaurant specials, phone plans, salon services, even personal loans.
  • Money exchange – at least one on every corner it seems, especially for very well populated areas.
  • Our hotel room has an arrow on the ceiling pointing to the direction of Mecca
  • Word play.  A store will advertise their ‘Timings.”  (open hours)  A clothing store will have “Trial Rooms” (fitting rooms).  Restrooms are often just “Toilets.”
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  • Despite being a multicultural city, Dubai has open discrimination, prominently on display for employment ads. Here is one that was just posted out on a restaurant.  Our tour book states that “the open discrimination you’ll see in job ads is often reflected in pay.  A European can expect to earn more than a Filipino or Indian doing the same job.”
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  • Costs – we expected it to be a little expensive, and that certainly is the case.  The exchange rate is 3.65 Dirhams to every dollar.  To make it easier, we just think that 7 Dirhams = 2 bucks.  Eating out has been the biggest expense, and many places do not accept credit cards, they only want cash.  Unfortunately I didn’t plan on this too well because I didn’t bring enough cash to exchange.
  • To save on some money, I bought the ‘Entertainer,’ an app that costs $110 US, but will basically give us two-for-one discounts to restaurants and attractions, including admission to the Wild Wadi water park and a Desert Safari tour that we’ll take tomorrow.
  • Movie theaters have reserved seating here, which is just beginning to take hold in Portland.  What was most cool was the fact that they have a screening for Wrestlemania for next Sunday in one of their auditoriums, yes!
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  • Poor planning:  Dubai uses the British 3 pin plug and I didn’t bring an adapter.  So far we have been able to get by with a USB cord charging from the TV, but it has to be turned on to charge the electronics, even when we are sleeping (simple cure – we just turned down the brightness and contrast level to zero)
  • Finally, the hardest part so far hasn’t been the jet lag or the language barrier (ha, there is none!), it has been the fact that we can’t hold hands or kiss in public.  To be respectful to the Islamic traditions, we are reminded often that we should not engage in any public displays of affection — even holding hands is frowned upon.
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  • That’s all for now, I’ll have more random thoughts in future posts, now it is time for bed!

 

December Adventures

Wow, it’s December.  End of the year.  One of my favorite times of the year, for many reasons including:

  • Getting together with family and relatives.
  • Christmas —  the giving and of course the receiving.  Enjoying the reactions of people opening the gifts that I so-carefully planned out.  Christmas carols.  And songs such as “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and “Last Christmas.”  I grew up on those songs and especially remember that Wham song, playing in the background as I hung out at Sarah’s house when I was a sixth grader and there were no adults around, whoa!
  • Lots of good food — holiday cookies and treats.  Oh, and some to leave for Santa, too.
  • Christmas lights.  Watching “A Christmas Carol” for the umpteenth time.
  • And most of all, time off from work or school.  Seems like I have become pretty spoiled with having time off around the holidays…

I am so lucky to work for the school district.  Two weeks off in December!  Sure, I don’t get paid, but the time off is so valuable and I’m always blown away that my previous jobs pretty much just gave me two weeks off for the entire year.  How did I survive?!  Two weeks off for every fifty weeks of working?  Sheesh.  Love my time off in December.  Maybe sometime this holiday break I will be totally unproductive by binge watching Netflix shows or playing video games all day long.  Whatever I do, I am just so happy to be able to have the time off, and to have it off with Lisa so that we can hang out and be together.  Definitely counting my blessings, I am grateful for all that has happened and for how my life has turned out.

Celebration of Life: Auntie Soling 1935-2016

I attended the memorial for my Auntie Soling this evening, who passed away in hospice care this past Sunday night surrounded by her family.  Her health and her mind had been failing her for these past couple of years, but really spirit for living took a dive when she lost her husband about twelve years ago.  Together, my Uncle Benning and Auntie Soling had eleven children.  All of them are here now, and now they have children that called Auntie Soling ‘Grandma.’

I have so many relatives and cousins here in Portland – my mom was the pioneer, and she eventually brought my grandparents and then my cousin Joven, who is the eldest among the siblings that called Auntie Soling ‘Mom.’  Next came Auntie Lody, Cuya Rem, Uncle Donsing and Uncle Benning.  Then around 1985 or so is when Auntie Soling finally came.  She and Uncle Benning bounced around a few nearby apartment units before eventually living in a house right across the street from where I grew up.  And soon thereafter is when the rest of their children came to call the United States ‘Home.’

The one thing that everyone says about Auntie Soling is the joy she brought just by flashing her smile and showing genuine interest in you.  She never wanted to be the center of attention, and was content on being a wife and a mother and a homemaker.  She and my uncle raised some incredible kids.  It was definitely hard for me to hold back any tears last night.  Their family is deeply rooted in religion, and although they practice different subsets of Christianity, they all believe that she has found peace and is now happily reunited with Uncle Benning in Heaven.  Along with my Dad of course, singing songs, drinking and laughing — that is what I remember from my childhood evening weekends.  There was always so much life inside my home with all my new relatives.

She lived a full life of eighty-one years.  Had such a devoted, tight-knit family.  She was well taken care of after the death of Uncle Benning.  But she never fully recovered from his death.  And death is something that is becoming more familiar within my family circle over the last few years.  First my Dad.  Then Uncle Frank.  And Auntie Leling.  Now Auntie Soling.  Coming to these memorials always serves as either a gentle reminder or a wake up call that life is precious and the next day is never guaranteed, so we have the time of the present to live as we can.  And that is how I want to honor my Auntie Soling — by not taking life for granted, to not take things too seriously, to laugh more, forgive more, love more and just enjoy more.

Thank you Auntie Soling for your gift of joy and your ability to love and to be loved by all.  I have always loved you, admired you, respected you and always smiled when I saw you because you smiled, as you do to everyone.  I am happy that you are now reunited with Uncle Benning, and in the meantime, we will remember and celebrate your life and all of us that you have blessed with your presence in our lives.  God bless you and rest in peace.

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