ISLES OF SCOTLAND

Isle of Mull, Iona and Staffa

 

Care to see dolphins, puffins and other sea life? Care to explore beautiful islands one of which is uninhabited and boasts a hidden cave? Care to learn about an abbey from 600 AD which is apparently where Christianity originated for the Scots and ironically the first monastery in the U.K. to be pillaged by the Norsemen as shown in the TV series Vikings? Well get up very early (4:00 a.m. for us) and head to Oban for a 7:15 a.m. Caledonian ship to tour the Isles of Mull, Iona and Staffa. As it’s difficult to find parking and to find the terminal building in Oban, give yourself some extra time as this trip you are NOT going to want to miss.

Continue reading “ISLES OF SCOTLAND”

HAUNTING GLENCOE

  1.  Ballachulish

You know it’s gonna be a good day when Papa puts on his sunglasses and we take off all our sweaters. 64 degrees on the  drive to Glencoe.  Home base for the week was in the charming town of Ballachulish (bal-ah-cool-ish) – once the slate manufacturing capital of Scotland.  We checked into the cutest cottage tucked in the Glencoe mountains. The cottage was surrounded by trees and at the top of a steep drive and it certainly put you in the “highlands” mood immediately. On our way to Ballachulish, we stopped in Fort William for groceries and at the train station for train tickets for the Jacobite Steam Train used for filming Harry Potter. But know this, as we learned the hard way, you can’t buy them there. You have to purchase them online or via telephone in advance and waaaay in advance I would recommend as we weren’t able to get 3 seats on the same train despite a ton of begging.

Continue reading “HAUNTING GLENCOE”

LEAVE THE RESORT FOR DOWNTOWN NASSAU AND ARAWAK CAY

Wrench yourself from the beaches for a half or full day and meander around the small downtown of Nassau. Finish the day at Arawak Cay a/k/a Fish Fry and you will see the pastel colored buildings which decorate this souvenir filled corner of the world and you will take notice of how the kindness and charm of the locals will refresh you in the heat. Be aware though that here in Nassau there are a number of dilapidated properties as of late.  Admittedly, it made me a little sad to see them looking so forlorn and lonely until I saw what some of the locals want to do with the buildings 😉 (See below.)

So without further ado, stop in the following few places on your day into town and you will get a much better feel for what Bahamian life is all about and pick up a little history lesson or two.

Continue reading “LEAVE THE RESORT FOR DOWNTOWN NASSAU AND ARAWAK CAY”

DOES HISTORY LOVE COMPANY IN CUENCA ECUADOR?

Cuenca is a charming colonial city made up of cobblestone one way streets, geranium-filled balconies and imposing churches like nowhere else. No wonder it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.

And don’t forget that unbeknownst to most, including me, the Panama hat comes from Ecuador and most of them are woven right here in Cuenca. The Panama hat is also UNESCO listed as an intangible cultural heritage so you get two UNESCOs for the price of one here.

If you love architecture and history Cuenca is for you. You will find yourself on every corner with camera in hand. In fact, your lazy saunter through this little pueblo might prevent you from seeing all the landmarks which is what happened to me. Having said that; however, it turns out that my addiction to Red Bull can’t be all bad as this bebida energìa is difficult to find in central Cuenca but my day long search for it led me down streets I wouldn’t have otherwise traversed and I met locals I wouldn’t have otherwise met.

Honestly, however, I felt a bit separated from people in this place almost as if it was intended to be viewed from afar. The people were going about their business to work, the children skipping past you in route to school and the grandiosity of the churches and their ever looming doors felt more like a sacred “no entry” zone where I wasn’t welcome rather than an invitation. It felt like you had to be a part of their past to be included here (even though it is a high priority place for tourists which is probably the reason for this). It’s hard to explain and it is not a complaint about this place or the people here but unlike other places in the world I’ve been I felt invisible here. Even at night I witnessed the parties, the singing, the marching and fireworks throughout the town but from my hotel window. Not one person, not even Fernanda or Jose from the front desk at the Hotel Conquistador, told me about the festivities. By the time I ran down, the procession had moved on. If I have any travel complaint, it is this one thing. Hotels, hostels, etc should know what’s happening in their town and should share it with their guests. Believe it or not this is a worldwide phenomenon – where the place you are staying doesn’t say “hey make sure you go to XXX today for the XXX”. Us travelers can agree on one thing for sure (aside from the obvious which is that there is nothing more important than seeing and connecting with this world (yes you can take your family and your God with you!)) and that one thing is that we want to participate! So tell us where, when and how local folks! We beg you!

Anyway, this separation feeling was only in my mind and probably due to the inordinate amount of time I spent in the hotel room trying to close two transactions in the states as once I was departing I marveled at the ease of the connection with Fabiano during my taxi ride and again at the send off I received from LATAM. No kidding I was only asked a few questions about my travels and word spread like wildfire through LATAM staff and the airport and I actually got a big send off to Country 82 while boarding my flight. Bien viaje from everyone and people saying “it’s you…you’re her…the blessed one” well actually it was “la bendita” and Yes that’s definitely me! Why you might wondering?  I have found lately that somehow when you cross over into country 80 plus people really start to take notice and be interested.

It was at this time it occurred to me that this thing I’m doing is a very BIG deal. I know I’m not the first (lots of people remind me of the girl who touched the soil in every country in a mere 18 months) and I know I won’t be the last or at least I HOPE not, but spending time in another country, connecting with the people, learning about their history and culture, trying their food (and ESPECIALLY natural fruit ice cream and dulce in Ecuador), climbing and bike riding or horseback riding in their mountains, swimming in their seas, rafting in their rivers, hiking through their jungles, viewing their flora and fauna and their wildlife and even experiencing their catastrophes side by side whether natural such as mudslides or monsoons or man made like bombings and shootings – ALL of this has made me a part of this world. I have touched the lives of other people whether with a smile when they were having a bad day, or whether through a lollipop given to a village child who had never had one before or whether asking their name and remembering it regardless of whether they drove my taxi to the airport or served me my food or cleaned my hotel room or guided me to safety up and back down a 6,000 meter mountain or off a 40 meter dive into a waterfall. I have left a footprint in this world – the good kind. I was reminded of this at the last second as I climbed those stairs to my departing plane in Cuenca despite having felt a little distant and apart from the world and the people in it in this gem of a town in the south of Ecuador.

Okay Travelirvana, you may be thinking, that’s touching and all but what do we need to see in this gem of a town called Cuenca, where do we stay and what’s it going to cost us to include this in our itinerary?

Stay in central Cuenca so you can walk anywhere. You don’t need a lush extravagant place to stay here as you’ll only be sleeping so save your money for extravagant places somewhere else (like Lima) and grab a $33 USD plus tax per night perfectly comfortable room with great WiFi like me at the El Conquistador which is right where you need to be location wise. There are plenty of places just like it and on the same street even or within blocks so just find the place that is cheapest and will serve you a good breakfast and where you get free WiFi like El Conquistador.

WALK – walk everywhere, walk everyday, walk all day. It’s free. And take it all in and leave that camera around your neck and not in your backpack. It will be safe and you are going to need it. Walk to the same places multiple times throughout the day like the park, the new church, the old church and other landmarks because the lighting changes and it is remarkable and different each time you look especially the grand churches I’ve been telling you about and then go again at night. Every time I turned a corner I thought I was seeing some new and startling architectural wonder but it was just a different angle and different lighting. It was simply miraculous how that happened. You will understand when you get here. Given these architectural wonders were churches, it shouldn’t have been all that surprising especially in South America knowing the strength of the faith the people have here especially in the historically Catholic town of Cuenca.

Here is the list of landmarks you can see:

1.  Parque Calederon

2.  Catedral Vieja

3.  Catedral Nueva

4.  Plaza de las Flores

5. Mercado de San Francisco

6.  Museo de Arte Moderno

7.  Museo de las Conceptas

8.  Museo del CIDAP

9.  Puente Roto

10. Museo de Culturas Aborigenes

11.  Ruinas de Todos Santos

12. Parque Arquelogico Pumapungo

13. Imanti Handicrafts

14.  Planetario

15. Ceramica Eduardo Vega

16. Sucursal Homero Ortega Panama Hats

Below are some restaurants I went to that I enjoyed:

1. Raymipamba

2. Fillippo

3.  Subway (una broma or in English Just Kidding Folks)

If you have any questions or comments, submit them below and then go Unlock the Travelirvana in you.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Day 4

There is the Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana side of Rio – the side where all the tourists and wealthier locals go to eat fine foods, relax on the beautiful beaches, play volleyball, drink, shop and, for the most part, remain safe and then there is the real Rio. It is just as important, if not more so, to visit the favelas (meaning “little farms”) in Rio also commonly referred to as shanty town i.e. the urbanized slum. Of course, tourists must not go to the favelas without a local chaperone and even when you do go with a chaperone you do not really see the true part of the favela – just a little scratch on the surface – but it should be visited nonetheless. I took a tour with Alfredo to see Rocinha la Favela – the largest favela in all of Brazil with a population approximated at 100,000 people living pretty much on top of each other. My hope was to learn something new and to do something I promised my niece and nephew I would do for them when I was home last which I will explain later.

Prior to five years ago I probably would not have been able to even peek in the favela much less enter one without risking a bullet but I was informed that it was safer now as the Bope (special police tactical battalions) came in about 5 years ago to clean up the favelas with the use of armored cars, brutal tactics and more powerful weapons and equipment than traditional civilian law enforcement. The Bope were trained in urban warfare as well as fighting in confined spaces like those in the favelas. The UPP (Unidad de Policia) were also sent in after the more savage Bope cleaned out the favelas a bit to assist in the pacification of these areas and to implement social welfare policies hence the reason it was safer to visit but note I said “safer” not safe. Think civil war on the streets (the few actual streets there are in the favelas), gangs and drug dealers, crime at its worst (murder, rape, theft) and now imagine children as young as 7 years old high on drugs carrying machine guns and shooting you just because they know no difference. Now, you have a tiny glimpse of life in a favela. I learned the reason children were used is because Brazilian law protects children from harsh penalties for such crimes as these but it begs the question – which came first the chicken or the egg? Did reducing the penalty for minors who committed outright murder encourage the drug dealers to use children or did using children who don’t know what they are doing cause Brazilian leaders to reduce the penalties for minors?  Either way, the favela is considered the most dangerous place I have visited to date. You are just as likely to get shot in the head as you are to be offered some gum or a souvenir to purchase while in a favela…at least that was the way it was a mere five years ago.  Luckily for me, I only heard one gunshot while in Rio which I’m told is evidence that change for the good is on the horizon.

Having said all that, none of this is surprising given the illiteracy rates, the 40% tax rate (which is not money that generally goes back into the health, education and well being of the people due to corruption), the requirements to get documented and the associated fees at 18 years of age, and the typical salary of the people which is the equivalent of $300 USD per month. Brazil has made strides though, as aforementioned, over the last five years. The residents of Rocinha have better infrastructure than before, live in concrete housing which they built themselves, have recently obtained cable TV and utilities (most of these services are actually stolen though hence the exorbitant number of wires tied together throughout the favela), some healthcare facilities, a tennis court which Djokovic himself attended the grand opening of and even a fitness center or two. They have not, however, remedied the sewage problem which was supposed to be rectified back in 2014 I’m told. But the government and/or donations from the people are benefitting the situation with the public schools. The purpose, other than education and reduction of illiteracy rates, is to give young children a place to go when parents are working so they don’t end up murderers or being murdered. In fact, I was blessed to visit a very special school in the favela that housed children from the ages of 5 to 7. As aforementioned, it was a request from my niece and nephew (Aiden and Izzy) who are about the same age. The request was that instead of buying them presents on this leg of my trip they would rather me give the money I was going to spend on them to children who had real needs – perhaps children who didn’t have what they needed for school or children that had never received a Christmas present before from Santa Claus – their words not mine. As such, I honored their wishes and deposited a sizeable amount of cash with Angelica (appropriately named) at the school in Rocinha on behalf of Izzy and Aiden.

You have to give it to the Brazilians though because when they seek change in government they let the politicians know in a way like no other. In 1998, Macaco Tião won the mayoral election in Rio by a landslide. The problem was that the new mayor of Rio was none other than a monkey domiciled at the Rio zoo. While I believe the Brazilians certainly made their point in that election, I do hope the Americans didn’t just do the same thing!

That’s all for now. With love, a little joke and a whole lot of gratitude for my own blessings from Rocinha la Favela.

São Paulo, Brazil: Day 5

Rain rain go away come again some other day! I have been chanting this over and over in my head for days! Suffice it to say, sometimes things just don’t go our way and my father always says thats okay as it’s just another adventure. I say “God’s will not my will” but I love my dad’s upbeat take on life hence the name of the blog. But, as I am human, I get disappointed too sometimes – not very often – but every now and then. Between the constant rain, suspension of the Grand Prix race and closed temples, things haven’t gone my way the last few days but repeat after me the more appropriate chant, it’s just another adventure, it’s just another adventure, it’s just another adventure.

Today I was disappointed once again by the non-stop rain but also because I so wanted to visit the two temples Leonardo suggested (Templo Espirita Kardecista and Templo Espirita Umbanda) and participate in the rituals that are alleged to take place there so I could share my experience with all of you. Leonardo told me stories about how  the masters, as they are often referred to, can evoke good spirits during the rituals and I could possibly talk to someone on the other side if the master could incorporate one i.e. if one possessed him or her.  Unfortunately, they were closed yet again during the day today and the masters couldn’t see me until 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., respectively but my flight was leaving at 8:00 p.m. for Rio. I might have extended my stay again for this but honestly I was ready to leave São Paulo as it was a difficult city to maneuver in, expensive, wet and its charm, I’m told, is overshadowed by that of Rio de Janeiro’s. But, I must say, I was highly intrigued by participating in one or both of the rituals and experiencing the religious, spiritual and cultural nuisances of the area. This is especially the case since the third temple and ritual I was specifically warned against going to is said to have masters who conjure up both good spirits and evil ones and the practice includes sacrifices of animals and sometimes humans and is illegal. This warning  made the first 2 sound incredibly enlightening but in a conscionable way. I, of course, would never want to participate in or witness anything like human or animal sacrifice or risk the entry of evil spirits into my world but between the descriptions of the first two rituals, the earthquakes rocking New Zealand and Argentina on completely opposite sides of the world at the exact same time and the super moon tonight which was last seen this close to the earth 69 years ago and won’t come this close again until 2054 the experts say, today seemed like the perfect day to do some spirit seeking. I have, however, been told there will be an opportunity at a temple here in Rio this week so we shall see. Having said all that, unlike in May 2012 when a version of a super moon (not nearly this close) did appear behind the Christ Redeemer, tonight the Brazilians and I would miss such an auspicious event as the clouds and rain again had their way in as disruptive a fashion as they interfered with the Grand Prix yesterday.

I did, however, get an opportunity to visit São Paulo Catedral and Praça da Sè (the square) before catching my $87 USD flight on GOL to Rio. The walk up to the cathedral in São Paulo is lined with large palm trees that swayed slightly seemingly beckoning you to enter. The neo gothic cathedral with is its matching St. Patrick-like spires took 4 decades to build which is not astounding given its size i.e. allegedly the largest cathedral in Latin America and the 4th largest in the world seating over 8,000 people. The height of the ceilings and wall to wall stained glass is worth a visit to the inside if you are in the area. I, myself, like to step inside and kneel in prayer (especially given the many hours wasted attempting to be introduced to another form of spirituality or religion depending on who you ask) just so I could spend a few moments giving thanks for all my blessings. I do this each time I visit a church despite the fact that I know God is everywhere and hears all my prayers regardless of where I am when I say them and he’s not just in churches, temples, mosques and other infrastructure built for homage and prayer. I do it because I like to soak up the history and feel the energy of all the people who kneeled in that spot before me reaching for their own higher power.

I also learned a few new things today as well as I always do which I like to share with everyone. While Uber is in Brazil, there is also a competitor which may have even better rates and gives many promotional discounts rather than just the first ride free and it is called Cabify. I tried it today on the way to the airport and it was significantly cheaper than Uber at 29 reales rather than the 150 I paid coming in. I also learned how incredibly helpful and kind the staff are at Royal Jardins Hotel in São Paulo when I had difficulty booking my flight online as despite my advanced years the online booking site repeatedly indicated that I couldn’t fly alone as I wasn’t twelve years of age. This made me laugh. I also learned that sometimes, especially when you use Claro as your internet provider, you get spotty wifi down here so be prepared for that. Moreover, GOL appears to be not only an affordable airline that flys throughout Sude America, it has a lot of leg room even in economy, is on time for the most part and has some incredibly kind and helpful people working there.  Finally, I learned that day after day of the rain impeding my plans can cause a slight depression as my expectations about beautiful Brazil may have been too high as I expected only sunshine. Remember expectations lead to resentments so clear your mind of them and just go with the flow. We do have the capacity to change our thinking by staying in gratitude rather than sinking into the downward spiral caused by dashed hopes. Alternatively, check the season’s weather before making any plans. I thought I was coming here at the right time i.e. summer but so far I have been wrong about that. Now I’m focused on accepting things and the weather as they are because, well, it’s just another adventure.

So that’s all for now with love and gratitude from my bed in Rio and obrigada to São Paulo for hosting me this past week.

Hungary: Day 3

It is certainly difficult to “one up” a day like yesterday given the sites that I saw but I did try. I took a bit of a different approach today though. I focused more on the tumultuous history of the last century history as I am in Eastern Europe after all and it wasn’t all that long ago that the people of Hungary like so many others suffered at the hands of the Soviet Communist Regime and that of the Nazi Fascists not to mention the outright murdering of 80,000 Jews and Romanians residing in Hungary when the Arrow Cross Militiamen were in control during 1944 to 1945. As such, I went to the House of Terror dedicated to those who suffered at the hands of these violent regimes. The faces and names of some of those who died decorate the exterior of this museum. Then I proceeded to the Holocaust Memorial by Imre Varga called the Weeping Willow Tree at the Jewish Synagogue on Dohany Street (the 2nd largest synagogue in the world). The tree was erected in 1989 above the mass graves of the Hungarian Jewish martyrs and on each leaf of the weeping willow you can see the name of one of the martyrs. And, of course, the Shoes on the Danube is a must see if for no other reason than to remember these atrocities and do what we can to prevent them from happening again. The Shoes on the Danube is an exhibition of 60 pairs of sculpted historically accurate shoes lined up sporadically on the Danube River across from Parliament and represents the time when the anti-Semitic Arrow Cross Socialist Party lined up Hungarian Jews, forced them to remove their shoes and then shot them so they fell into the Danube and the river swept their bodies away. Sometimes the Arrow Cross would use the shoestrings to tie two or three people together and only shoot one and as they were lined up on the Danube all three would fall into the freezing water the dead body pulling the still living victims with it and the living would either sink or freeze to death but, if not, the militiamen used the living as target practice. As a result of this practice, the Danube became known at that time as the Jewish Cemetery.
Of course, those times were undeniably horrific and it’s hard to imagine that things like this happen and that evil like this exists in the world but it does. In fact, we are watching these same kind of things occur today or, more literally, just two days ago when someone threw a homemade bomb filled with nails into a crowd targeting Hungarian police officers just a mile away from where I was. It makes you wonder sometimes whether we can ever overcome hatred and discrimination or whether we as a species will ever learn from our past but I must believe if we stand together we can and we will.
To soften the blow of the more emotional morning, I took part in the most famous of Hungarian pastimes and headed in the afternoon to the Gellert Thermal Baths for thermal therapy and a massage. It is alleged that the waters are rich in minerals and have medicinal qualities. As the thermal baths throughout Budapest are fed by over 120 hot springs, there has developed somewhat of a spa culture here that must be experienced by every visitor to this country. As such, I took part. After 2 hours, my mind, body and spirit were renewed which is good given I’m off to the train station to catch yet another overnight train to Country No. 52 – Serbia.
So that’s all for now. Lots of love from Hungary.