Sunday, November 8, 2015

Five People You Do NOT Want to Sit Next to on an Airplane

Let me begin this post by saying that I am known as a tolerant person.  In college, the resident assistant would always assign the "problem" roomies to me - the snotty girl no one got along with, the slob, the nudist who ran around in the buff. I could always manage to empathize with people's differences and accommodate or compromise.  So, in a discussion of airplane seat mates I'm not going to rant about crying babies (little ones cannot regulate their ear pressure).  My heart goes out to those who have to fly with infants in order to visit grandma for the holidays.
On the other hand, taking a three year old to Disney is unforgiveable. The kid isn't going to remember a thing, jackass.

But I digress...


Airline travel is intrinsically uncomfortable.  (Not talking to you, First Class.  Talking to my buddies over here in Screw You Cheap Seats.)  Seats are shrinking, amenities disappearing, the list goes on.  Sitting next to someone annoying adds insult to injury.  Over the years I've had some rather unique seat-mate experiences.  I share these with you now, not so much to warn you - you may never come across any of these in your flying lifetime - but so that if you are one of the potential offenders you might think a moment before you put another person through in-flight hell.

1.  The Malodorous.  I once sat next to a man whose breath smelled as if he had chewed a raw onion before boarding.  (The martini kind are pickled; this was the real deal.)  That in itself would be offensive, but he fell asleep and was an open-mouth breather who leaned his head - you guessed it - right in my direction.  A scenario like this is entirely avoidable.  (It's called mouth wash.  Sheesh.)  Now I get that the odors of some foods just leak through your pores.  You might not want to give up that garlic pizza the night before a flight, but I implore you, do give it a second thought.  And speaking of pores, as a member of the first world I'm assuming deodorant is ubiquitous.  I could be wrong.  But unless you live a nomadic life in a remote part of the Sahara, I'm pretty sure you've got access to soap and water.  There's no excuse for subjecting folks to your acrid stench.  Unless, of course, it's against your religion.  I've been told there are religious groups that conscript bathing at certain times.  Next time you fly, please ask your God to make sure you do not get a seat near me.

2.  The missionary.  I'm extremely tolerant of religious faiths.  I am extremely intolerant of public proselytizing.  Also not terribly interested in being a captive audience in a Billy Graham revival.  I once sat next to a sweet Filipino nun who told me all about her life, her convent, her mission to God.  For six hours.  You are a dear.  I applaud your faith and your sincere belief that you are helping feed people's souls.  Me?  I'd rather feed people physically (I'm a Born Again Italian Mother).  Stop.  Just stop.  Or next time I will pretend to be asleep and then you will personally be responsible for having damned my soul to hell with a lie.

3.  The smoker.  Smoking is prohibited in flight.  That doesn't mean I don't smell your nicotine reek if you've blown through a whole pack of Marlboros before you boarded.  I once sat BEHIND someone like this.  Until I figured out who/what it was I kept looking around to see if someone was disobeying the no-smoking signs.  It was that bad.

4. The author of In-flight Yoga  Oh, THIS is a good one.  This just happened to me recently and was the inspiration for this blog post.  A young Asian gal with bleached blonde hair, two-tone green nails, and expensive boots sat next to me on my flight from San Francisco.  I saw the boots clearly because she proceeded to take them off with her legs up in the air against the back of the seat in front of her.  She had no socks on.  I got a clear look at that because at one point she placed her bare feet inside the back of my seat pocket!  This is close quarters, sweetie, I don't want your tootsies near my magazines or snacks.  To make matters worse, she went into a FULL LOTUS on top of her tray table.  I don't like to curse on my blog, not even in acronyms, but WTF?  Her right foot was inches from my coffee cup.  Blech!  During the flight she had her feet shoved between the seats in front of her, up in the air, on the seat back again.  I didn't know if she was trying to get comfortable or practicing asanas.

Me practicing yoga.  NOT on a flight.
5. The poker.  Aside from my annoyance with yoga gal, I wondered how her postures were affecting the person who sat in front of her.  Certainly some of the positions she took put pressure on the back of their seats.  News flash!  The person who sits in front of you on an airplane can FEEL what you do to their seat.  I've spent flights with people who JABBED the entertainment console behind me over and over.  (Make up your mind about the movie, people! And if you're gaming, tread lightly because - after three hours -  I am wadding up that airline magazine and getting ready to go postal over the back of my seat!)  I've sat in front of kids who repeatedly kicked the back of my seat in restless movement.  (One time it was so bad I "monster glared" at the kid when his mother made no attempt to stop him.)

I'm sure you may have had your own seat-mate nightmares.  Please share them in the comments below!


Friday, November 6, 2015

Melting in Malta

(Please allow me to offer the following quote as an explanation of why I haven't blogged about my August trip sooner: "Life is what happens while you're busy making other plans." - John Lennon)

Malta - August, 2015

To begin with, Malta was never on my bucket list.  But when a neighbor found one of those Godfather "offer you can't refuse" deals, and my son mentioned that Game of Thrones was filmed there, I decided to go for it and try traveling with a companion for a change.

I've always said that I love warm climates.  I will happily visit Florida in July and have booked trips to Disney in August.  Southeast Asia, Costa Rica, the south of France?.  Love, love, love.  But Malta in August?  How can I compare it? The dry sauna at the Y with no water scoop for the rocks?  The Sahara with really interesting architecture?

It's probably unfair to start the discussion of such a fascinating country with a negative but, I was melting in Malta.  A shady spot always seemed to be in short supply.

On the other hand, the UP side of going in August is that there are a bajillion summer street festivals.  Every town has its saint that it parades under the colorful banners festooned across the streets. 


Or, in this case, Pope Francis.


Nearly every night - somewhere - everywhere - there's music and food, lights, color, and fireworks. 

 


And heat.

Okay.  I'll stop now.  You want to hear about Malta.

The country is about 122 square miles (including Gozo and Comino).  I visited all three islands but reviewing all of them would require a book instead of a blog.

(Side note: Don't believe people who tell you that, because of its compact size, you can see most of what Malta has to offer in three or four days - my companion believed that and rushed me through the country at break-neck speed, making the executive decision that we should skip lunch in order to see most of what was on our list in five).

In spite of its relatively small size, somehow, the Maltese manage to pack about 359 Catholic churches into that area.  I stopped in as many as I could.  Perhaps the most famous is St. John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta's lovely Baroque capital.  The original home of the Knights of Malta, Valletta is an absolute must-see.


I would definitely recommend a visit to St. John's.


The Knights of Malta were noblemen from the most important families of Europe, and their mission was to protect the Catholic faith from the attacks of the Ottoman Turks. After defending the island from the Ottomans in the Great Siege of 1565, they turned Malta into a fortress and built Valletta, their new capital city. The center of the city was reserved for their Church.  Each country (or "langue") built their own chapel and, trying to rival each other in their contributions, each one is more elaborate, gold-encrusted, and jaw-dropping than the next.


The church also houses Caravaggio's The Beheading of John the Baptist.  The painting, worthy of a blog in itself, is housed in a separate installation where photography was strictly forbidden.  I might have chanced a sneaky, flash-free shot if it weren't for the fact that it was well-guarded.  I wasn't in the mood for the adventure of an international incident.  You'll just have to go see it in person.

Valletta is only one of the many cities that stand in Malta like monuments to the past. Mdina and Mosta are also noteworthy.

There seems to be nothing that smacks of the current century in Mdina. It is easy for one to be completely transported as you wind your way down narrow streets of medieval architecture (later infused with Baroque elements after a great earthquake destroyed many buildings in 1693.)


Mosta is another must-see.  One of its most notable attractions is the Rotunda of Mosta, Europe's third largest unsupported dome.  On April 9, 1942, during an afternoon air-raid, a SC500 kg general purpose Luftwaffe bomb pierced the dome (one 50 kg bomb bounced off) and fell among a congregation of more than 300 people awaiting early evening mass. It did not explode. The same type of bomb as the one that pierced the dome is now on display at the back of the church under the words Il-Miraklu tal-Bomba, 9 ta' April 1942 (The Bomb Miracle, April 9, 1942).  If you're traveling alone and not, as I was, with a companion who tears through sites like The Flash, you can see it.  Unfortunately, I missed that, but I got good shots of the church and the interior dome.




Lastly, even though this is a cursory examination of all Malta has to offer, I can't fail to mention the ancient Neolithic sites.  I wasn't able to see the Hypogeum (which evidently requires reservations months in advance and signing away your first born child) but I was able to visit two other sites.  First, the temple of Hagar Qim (c. 3600 - 3200 BC), a UNESCO World Heritage site which stands on a hilltop overlooking the islet of Filfla. 


Nearby are the temples of Mnajdra, a complex site consisting of three temples overlooking an oval forecourt. The first and oldest temple dates back to 3600-3200 BC, while the most impressive of the temples is the third, constructed between 3150-2500 BC. This temple is considered to be one of the finest surviving on the islands. The Lower Temple has an astronomical alignment which permits the rays of the sun to pass strategically through specific areas at the Equinox.


 Unfortunately, to get to either site requires  a long walk.


A veeeeeeery long walk in the open with the sun beating down on you.



Did I mention it's really REALLY hot in Malta?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

My Latest Travel Adventure: Getting Mugged


After years of incident free travel, it has finally happened.  I can now be counted among those who are crime victims.

It was a six and a half hour flight from Newark airport, not counting the twenty or so minutes sitting on the tarmac.  Although United's service definitely lived up to it's "Friendly Skies" motto much more so than usual (Thank-you for the smiles, crew of flight 1647 from Newark on November 1st.  Thumbs up!), I was still cranky from hunger when I deplaned (Not even a teeny tiny bag of pretzels in six and a half hours?  Thumbs down, corporate headquarters!  Smelling the bacon from first class breakfast = adding insult to injury.)

I'd been up since 2 am - nearly 12 hours - when I arrived in San Francisco.  It was another two hours before I arrived at my friend's home.  She had errands so I was happy to take a nap almost as soon as I arrived.  I asked her to wake me up when she took her daily walk.  Good to get some exercise after a long flight.

Now, when I travel, I never, ever bring valuable jewelry.  I don't own any valuable jewelry that hasn't been ensconced in the recesses of a safety deposit box and hasn't seen the light of day for years.  The only thing I ever wear is a gold chain with three gold charms on it - a puffed heart given to me by my parents when I was about thirteen, a mermaid charm from my niece, and a gold and crystal sailboat from my cousin.  All three things are (spoiler alert - were) very precious to me because I love the people who gave them to me, and I love the ocean and mermaids.  I viewed the necklace as somewhat iconic, and considered it a good luck charm of sorts.

Why I brought it with me is moot.  Poor decision but not, of itself, negligent.  I might have easily hidden it somewhere in my friend's home.  Instead I went walking with it on the streets of Oakland, California.  I know better.  Why I wore it can only be explained by the fact that I was jet-lagged and out of sorts.  It never even crossed my mind.

We'd walked about four blocks when my friend noticed a young man coming towards us on my left.  She thought he looked suspicious but didn't mention it to me.  I didn't even notice him because my head was turned towards her.  Again, under normal circumstances, I'm much more aware of my surroundings.  I knew I was walking in a city that ranks third in the nation for violent crime but somehow my groggy brain didn't correlate a gold necklace as an invitation.  But there it was, glittering against a red turtle neck like a neon sign for thieves.

The young man passed us.  As we neared the corner I heard three running steps behind me.  Again, if I'd been alert, I could have tried to cross the street after the first two.  But until he grabbed my left shoulder, yanked me back, and ran his hand down from my neck to my breasts, I wasn't aware of the danger in the sound. He broke the gold chain, carrying it and the charms along with him as he continued to run away from us.

For a few seconds I just stood there in surprise.  I realized what he had done but I was in a sort of state of disbelief.   It wasn't "What has happened to me?".  It was more like, "Really?  Not again."

I've been through a lot in life.  I lived in an apartment that was robbed.  Twice.  I chased the guy who tried the third time.  Years ago, my car was broken into in Manhattan.  As a high school teacher, I was sometimes exposed to gang members and teenage offenders who came to class with ankle monitors.  I was also exposed to slashed tires and ink spilled on my car.  Even though I have a great deal of empathy for others, I can be a little thick-skinned when it comes to my own victimization.  Been there, done that.  What else is new?  And I was fully aware that it could have been worse.  The kid got a necklace and a little feel.  I wasn't stabbed or shot.  Just another day in Oakland.

After he tore off the necklace, he turned the corner.  I ran after him for three steps (unwise move) until my friend stopped me (wise move.)  I watched as he made his way towards a brand new red Toyota Corolla with dealer plates.  I didn't yell any of the things I've been told to yell - Thief! or Fire!  Instead, I yelled:  "Oh, please!  That was my mother's!"  Not because of the sentimental value of the items, but because I wanted to leave that thief with some sense of my humanity.  Not that my experience with people who commit crimes gives me any faith that they care about such things, but because it is my fervent hope that, someday, this young man might hear my voice in his ears and have changed into the sort of person who might.


Friday, September 18, 2015

Loving Lufthansa: Wherein I Bitch About Domestic Airlines So Don't Read This If It's Going To Get Your Shorts In A Bunch

 One of the ways I rack up miles is by maintaining loyalty to one or two airlines. Over the years, factors of price, location, and itinerary resulted in United becoming my first choice for almost all of my flights.

DISCLAIMER:  I have an absolutely darling friend who works for United.  She has one of the most indomitable, smiling spirits of anyone I've ever known.  She'd bend over backwards to help anyone and, from stories I hear, I know she manifests this demeanor at work in spite of many irascible, irritating, and unreasonable customers. She is a stellar employee, so allow me to say that NOTHING IN THE NEXT PARAGRAPH PERTAINS TO HER, and I hope she isn't reading this now because I'm going to bitch.

I might not be so put out by United if it weren't the airline that purports to have "Friendly Skies".   I know they've had a TON of issues since the Continental merger but, may I humbly request, "Don't take it out on me!"  Evidently, the discontent is directly affecting the employees on all levels from dress to demeanor because, over the past few years, I've seen several slightly unkempt and surly attendants.  Don't think we don't notice hair that looks like you just got out of bed in Denmark (maybe you did - comb it!), smudged make-up (mile-high club?), or wrinkled clothing (they sell travel irons, guys).  I've seen it all.  And if commenting on less-than-perfect appearance is nit-picky, let's get to the real raison d'etre for you being there - service.  Sarcasm and grouchiness do not translate as "friendly".  I was once refused a blanket because I was snippily informed "They're only for first class."  I get it.  I'm not one of the Kardashians.  But you don't have to look down your nose at me when you remind me that I'm sitting in the cheap seats.  I've had minor requests like a broken headset ignored and forgotten by a "busy" attendant only to find her chatting it up in the galley on a trip to the restroom.  In general, nearly every time I've flown, I've gotten the impression that I'm annoying these people merely by breathing.

And, personnel issues aside, my flights have gotten less and less comfortable over the years.  I'm 4'11" and when MY knees are almost up against the seat in front of me, it makes me feel slightly envious of the Yorkie being carried in a crate two rows up.

But discomfort has gone viral.  I don't know if this has caught on with international carriers but domestic airlines are doing something called "upgauging".  They're increasing their sales by throwing more seats into their planes even if it means that coach passengers are getting squeezed.

I feel disrespected.

But, seriously, I am only mentioning these things to compare and contrast with my experience on my flight to Malta this past August.

Because I'm not one to pass up a great deal, I flew on Lufthansa airlines to Malta.  It's a United partner so I still accrued miles, albeit at a reduced rate.

It was worth it.

To be honest, I wasn't expecting to enjoy the flight.  Unable to choose a seat beforehand, I was assigned a K seat when I got to the airport.  The plane was an Airbus 340-600 with a 2-4-2 configuration, and that meant I was next to a window.  Not my preferred spot. Furthermore, a quick check on SeatGuru.com informed me: "In economy class, A, D, G, and K all have limited underseat leg and storage room due to the presence of the entertainment equipment box."

Sigh.  Eight hours of cramps, coming up.

But I was in for a pleasant surprise.

Have you ever paid for "Economy Plus" to get more leg room?  Well, my seat had that.  For free.  I could not believe how roomy my seat was.  And while that entertainment equipment box did make it a little more difficult to store my (admittedly overstuffed) tote under the seat, there was still plenty of room for my (admittedly Hobbitt-sized) legs to stretch out.  Even my much taller neighbor commented that she was not grazing the back of the seat in front of her.  I was pleased to think the trip was starting off on the right foot, or knee as it were.

And it just kept getting better.  Impeccably groomed (and flawlessly made up) Stepford Wives (and husbands) in crisp uniforms who actually seemed to care about my comfort were there to serve.  My neighbor's headset didn't work.  Twice.   The flight attendant replaced it quickly and cheerfully.  Twice.  After my neighbor finished her tea she asked if drink service was over because she wanted another.  The attendant smiled and replied, "Yes, it's over, but I can get you another tea.  Cream or lemon?"  The woman turned to me and said, "If this was American Airlines they'd tell me to drink water or choke."

And then there was the food.

Now airline food will never be The French Laundry in Napa Valley, but my meal was definitely above average.  Especially considering that I got a mild case of food poisoning on my last domestic airline flight.

But what really impressed me was the lovely lady who came down the aisles with a plate of HOT TOWELS, one of which was handed to me with a flourish of tongs so that I might wash my hands before my meal.  IN COACH!

Lufthansa, you had me at hot towels.







Sunday, July 12, 2015

A short, damp post from not-so-sunny Florida

What is it lately?  I don't seem to have much luck.  After having suffered through seventeen winter snow storms, a rainy spring, and some of what might dubiously be called "summer" in New Jersey, I traveled to visit a friend in Tampa.  Only to discover that rain is predicted for at least the next ten days.

Don't get me wrong.  Muggy, wet weather in Florida still trumps damp, cold weather in New Jersey.  I'm not griping.  But I'm starting to feel like Joe Btfsplk again.

For those of you who don't know who Joe Btfsplk is, he is a cartoon character from an old comic called L'il Abner.  Joe had a perpetual cloud of gloom over his head that followed him wherever he went.  The reference seems both literal and figurative with regards to my current situation.

Joe Btfsplk.  Do not ask me how to pronounce his name.
So, what to do here while it's raining seems to be the question of the day.  Well, as my readers may know, my enjoyment of a place is not exclusively dependent on typical tourist activities.  I've been to the Tampa area several times and have seen many of the gardens, museums, beaches, etc.  I'm staying with my friend, Sylvia, a gracious hostess, terrific cook, and all-around fun person to hang around with.

The weather is not a tragedy.

I merely feel that Florida has lied to me.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Getting Intimate with the TSA

Okay, TSA, what's going on?  I thought we were cool.  Really I did.  I mean, I'm all TSA Pre-check on every flight.  I go through the special short line every time.  WITHOUT taking my shoes off or removing my lap top.  (Follow this link if you've never committed a crime and want the same privileges.)

So why are you picking on me lately?

On my last trip to Kauai, I got one of your cute, little "love notes" in my luggage informing me that you had inspected it.  Why?  Was it the swords on my Khal Drogo doll?  Hellooooo!  They're plastic and about an eighth of an inch wide. (I'll have you know that I hold you responsible for the breakage that occurred when you dislodged Khal from his bubble wrap!  Hadn't he suffered enough in Kauai?)

Khal Drogo, having suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands - er, beak - of a chicken on a beach in Kauai.
Perhaps your doggies sniffed the Mac and Cheese dinners I had brought with me because food is so expensive in Hawaiian supermarkets.


Okay, TSA.  I'm a big girl.  I understand you are just trying to protect other travelers from dangerous senior citizens like myself who might have swapped the denture cream for nitroglycerin or the Preparation-H for peroxide based liquid explosives.

Really?  What could I POSSIBLY have been carrying that made you so suspicious you had to GO THROUGH MY UNDIES?

(Readers, please take note.  I do NOT wear Grannie panties so it was especially embarrassing to have my lacy underthings exposed to God-knows-who.  Hmmmm.  Come to think of it, Grannie panties would have been even more embarrassing.)

Well, I got over all of this (after working through the self-blaming in a structured thematic psychotherapy group) only to suffer yet another indignation today as I went through check in for my Tampa flight.

I must have appeared tense, I'll admit it.  My son had thrown my sweater in the back seat of the car on our way to the airport where it was forgotten until I'd gone through the first part of the short-wait TSA pre-check line.  All I could think of was my rare allergy to cold temperatures exacerbating the discomforts one is already subjected to on airline flights.  Three hours of hives on top of sitting in a cramped seat with a headrest that's too tall for me and pushes my chin into my chest.  It seemed too much to bear.

So I held back.  Let a man in a tweed suit pass in front of me.  Called my son.

No answer.   

Of course not, I thought, he's driving your car and doesn't have Bluetooth.  Grrrrr.

Disgruntled and already having displayed suspicious behavior in New Jersey by letting someone go ahead of me, I approached the luggage x-ray conveyor and walked through the metal detector.

"Go back!"  Said the nice-looking young man waiting on the other side of the machine.

"Oh!  I have keys in my pocket.  That must be it."

"No," he replied.  "We're just doing random inspections, that's all.  Go through the scanner, please."

Now I KNOW the scanners are not supposed to be dangerous. I also know margarine was once  supposed to be good for you and women once happily painted their faces with lead.

I just don't trust the scanners. They swear there is no radiation involved but I don't believe it.  And as a senior citizen, I'm x-rayed enough.  Furthermore, air travel intrinsically exposes you to radiation.  (Thank you to the TSA attendant who once pointed out that every time I fly I'm getting the EQUIVALENT OF A CHEST X-RAY on the plane!  Yeah.  Thanks a LOT!)

So, I asked for a pat down.

I figured I'd just pretend I was an extra in "Orange is the New Black".

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Eat, Pray, Itch

After my brief criticism of folks who don't consider the cultural norms and social mores of places they visit, I managed to put my foot in my mouth today while in the lotus position.

But I get ahead of myself.

The boat tour of the Na Pali coast was to be the highlight of this trip.  (If it does, indeed, beat the amazing sights I've already seen, I'm really going to be impressed.)  I'd hoped to do this first but I didn't pre-book* so I had to settle for a trip on Monday, two days before my flight home.

After several calls and confirmation e mails, the tour company contacted me last minute to say they "forgot" that the entire boat had been booked by one party and there was no room for me.

Hmmmm.....   I suspect that one of the rich and famous who are fortunate enough to populate this island made them some kind of last minute offer they couldn't refuse.  Since Ben Stiller, Pierce Brosnan, Michael Crichton, Natalie Merchant, and Bette Midler all own homes in Kauai, this is not an impossibility.  Word has it that Mark Zuckerberg recently purchased as well.  Sigh.  No wonder I can't afford a shack on this island.

But I digress.

I was re-booked for Tuesday with a discount that assuaged my indignance.  But this change of plans left me with a free Monday. 

Enter Kerry.  A gal from North Carolina working her last day at Orchid Alley, a store in Kapaa that I visited on Sunday.



Kerry suggested that I visit the Hindu temple and monastery nearby, touting it's lush gardens and idyllic setting.  Checking it out online, the temple's website emphasized that parking was limited so, very early this morning, I set out along the back roads of Kauai with my trusty GPS**, arriving nearly an hour before opening.

The entrance was paradisaic.  Imagine every tropical house plant you've ever fussed over - philodendron, bromeliads, croton, pilea, orchids, etc.  Now imagine them on steroids.  The monks have tended the garden with an eye for design and color.  Hibiscus, ginger, anthurium, and more were arranged and orchestrated into a garden that sings to the eyes.


At the entrance is a six-sided gazebo where you may wait for the monks to open the gate - the latter wrought with lotus leaves and framed by a carved arch. Inside the gazebo sits a rose granite cauldron.  A sign on one of the support posts encourages you to write your challenges, confessions, and problems on a slip of paper and burn it in the cauldron.  A nearby plastic container provides all you need for this purpose.





I haven't been thinking of problems during my visit to this over-the-top beautiful island, but I found myself tearing up as I wrote down some concerns I have for our planet and my place in it. 


Soon, however, I had a more visceral problem.  It rained last night.  And I forgot the bug spray.  In the moist, dense air, with no one else in sight, I was the only show in town for hordes of mosquitoes. 

Mosquitoes love me anyway.  I think it's all the pasta sauce.  I've always felt they drank my blood thinking "Mmm!  Marinara!".  Whatever the attraction, I had to take shelter in the car.


At nine, I was surprised to see the gate opened by a female volunteer dressed in a sari (the monastery is all male).  It was time for puja, the Hindu worship service, and I could choose to join or miss seeing the temple interior.

A side note:  I took so may courses in eastern religion in college that I graduated a semester late.  I know about dharma, karma, moksha and reincarnation.   I've been in numerous Hindu temples in my travels.   

But I've never been to a Hindu service.

My son has tried to get me to meditate numerous times, but I stink at quiet.  My mental wheels are in perpetual motion.  But how could I refuse the opportunity to attend a peaceful Hindu service in such mystical surroundings?  Surely even I would find some enlightenment on the meditative process. Especially during a service that was going to last - gasp! - an hour and a half.

When I read Eat, Pray, Love, I chuckled at Elizabeth Gilbert's cramping from maintaining the lotus position, a posture that has always been easy for me.  But how was I going to fare for an hour and a half?   Was I going to be humbled in my smug flexibility?  

But I was not under the auspices of a guru's discipline and, observing some of the early devotees inside the temple, I noted more fidgeting than my bum knee was going to cause.  I felt confident that I would be inconspicuous despite my lack of experience.  After all, when you go to a new church you just follow what everyone else is doing, right?

The guru who was leading the prayers inside the sanctum had a wonderful, rich, hypnotic voice.  I was immediately happy that I'd decided to attend.  The symmetry and muted light of the room with its gleaming, black marble columns, side altars to Ganesha and Lord Karttikeya, and glowing crystal lingam in the center before the sanctum, put me in a relaxed state of awe and wonder.   The right and left walls of the room boasted three long shelves each, upon which rested 108 gold statues of Siva in various poses.  I was able to count and multiply to arrive at their number but it was impossible to be discreet about examining them to determine if any of their positions were repeated.  I doubted it and, considering the various contortions that a four-armed deity is capable of, I could easily see why Siva is Lord of the Dance. 

Everything went well for the first ten minutes or so.  Until I became aware that a mosquito had bitten the bottom of my foot.

If meditation is focus, then I was mediating on the burning, itching sensation emanating from my sole.   This was not the soul I'd hoped to inspire but, suddenly, the entire world was the bottom of my foot. The bottom of my foot was the Blue Light, it was the eighth chakra, it was the fiery red heart of a lotus blossom.  I wanted to scream. 

My mind raced.  I'm in a temple.  Is it inappropriate to touch my foot?  Is it considered disrespectful to the devas?  Crap!  I don't want to scratch my foot in public ANYWHERE.

WHY DID I FORGET THE BUG SPRAY?


As if the gods had answered my cry, the man in front of me started to play with his toes.  Only briefly, but enough to give me leave to scratch the hideous irritation that emanated from the welt on my sole.

This was not, however, to be my only conundrum.

After the guru finished chanting, he closed the sanctum curtains.  There were more songs and chants.  The curtain reopened.  He chanted and sang again.  And then - oh, no! - he came down from the sanctum with a container and offered it to the devotees.

Here it might be appropriate to tell you how SHORT I am.  The "follow what the guy in front of you is doing" method of not embarrassing yourself does not work if you can't see over that guy's shoulder.  Seriously, despite the long line of people in front of me, I had no idea what was going on.

When the monk reached me, I saw he was spooning out some sort of material.  I offered my hands and received a white, chalky substance.  I stalled, turned around to the guy behind me, and followed his lead.

Whew!


No.  Relief was not yet in sight.  The monk returned from the altar THREE MORE TIMES with other liquids and substances.  Fie on my college professors!  All theory; no practice! Why had I never been required to go to a temple for a class assignment?  What was I supposed to do with this sweet smelling liquid?  What was this ochre colored paste for?  How much of this red stuff do I take?

I DO NOT WANT TO EMBARRASS MYSELF IN FRONT OF ALL THESE GOOD PEOPLE AND THE GODS!

I clumsily accepted the gifts and did my best.

Afterwards, I had a long conversation with the volunteer and learned more about the service, the purpose of the gifts, and the meaning of the chants and prayers.  

Hopefully, there will be other chances to visit this mystical space and redeem myself, other chances to see my beautiful Kauai.

And that was part of the prayer I offered in the temple when I followed the lead of others who were writing their petitions.

I got that part right.

View of the Wailua River and falls on the right from the back of the monastery.  This doesn't begin to demonstrate the scope.  I will zoom in on this photo hundreds of times in the future.


Monastery pond.


Absolutely magical meditation spot under and within a massive banyan tree.



*Note to Kauai travelers:  Book tours ahead.
** Note to travelers in general: You can often save money by renting a more simply appointed car if you bring your own GPS.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Culture, King Kamehameha, and the REAL Khal Drogo...

I've always approached travel with an anthropological perspective.  Of course I enjoy many of the tourist attractions.  After all, typically, they are remarkable experiences and fascinating sights that stand out about the destination.  But I also enjoy experiencing things from a local perspective.  I want to see what people eat, how they worship, how they live their everyday lives. I've never been a big fan of resorts because they are too isolating.  And I've never understood the traveler who needs to have the comfort level of  "just like home".  To my mind, traveling this way misses the point.  Travel is supposed to broaden a person, and I don't mean the waistline from eating "foreign" McDonald's meals.

Likewise, travelers who make no effort to understand or participate in local culture are irksome to me. Here in Kauai, a woman made fun of the local street names, even though there are any number of free publications scattered in news bins all over the island that contain pronunciation keys.  Another woman bitched to me about being asked to pay an admission for the Kauai museum. 

If the reluctant museum goer had paid the measly $6 entrance fee, she might have watched the video about the Hawaiian people and seen their love for their land, their generous spirit, their respect for and cooperation with nature.  She might have learned how this respect was undermined - and is undermined to this day - by an accession that was largely forced by American and European businessmen who had money and sugar on their minds, not ancient Hawaiian traditions.

The Hawaiians I met struck me as good, proud Americans.  If there is any bitterness over the overthrow of the monarchy so long ago, it isn't evident.

But they haven't forgotten their history

King Kamehameha, (b. circa 1736), united the Hawaiian islands and formally established the Kingdom of Hawi'i in 1810. 


By developing alliances with the major Pacific colonial powers, he preserved Hawaiʻi's independence.  King Kamehameha Day is commemorated yearly in his honor, and I felt fortunate to be in town for this event.

The festivities - a parade, crafts, food, and entertainment -  started at nine in Lihue, about an hour's drive from the condo where I was staying.


I got up at the crack of dawn, worried about getting a parking space and a good vantage point.  I forgot about "island time".  I was sitting in the shade waiting for over an hour before the parade began.

The main focus of the event was Hawaiian royalty.  The honorary princesses of each island, preceded by a page with a banner announcing their provenance, passed on flower-bedecked horses.  The Big Island; Mau; Kaho'olawe; Lanai; Molokai; Oahu; Kauai; and Ni'ihau were all represented.  In between, various civic and community organizations passed by, in cars, jeeps, pick ups and ATVs festooned with flowers, .

The Princess of Oahu
The feel was definitely hometown; people clapped, cheered, and waved to their neighbors. No oversized balloons, and only two or three attractions that might actually be termed "floats".  Certainly not the extravaganza the Macy's parade is every year, but it was wonderful in the way it showcased Hawaiian pride. 

Without a doubt, the crowd-pleasing favorite was the appearance of "King Kamehameha" himself.   Feather torches, flowers, leaves, hula girls, a royal court - Kamehameha definitely got the royal treatment.



Plus, the guys - in their traditional Hawaiian malo (loincloths) - were hunky.

After the parade, I perused the stands to choose lunch.  Lau lau (pork cooked in taro leaves), chicken teriyaki, chicken long rice (a noodle dish), poke (a fish salad similar to ceviche), and other dishes were available.  Marlene from Da Imu Hut, a restauranteur I'd met during the week, recognized me when I decided to purchase at her booth. We had a brief discussion about her amazing berry cheese pie. I felt like a local.

And then, to top off the day, I got to take a picture with the King himself.


As you know, I've been traveling with a plastic doll with tribal tattoos modeled after a Hawaiian actor.  

This was SOOOOOO much better.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Waimea Canyon

Waimea Canyon.  Urban legend has it that Mark Twain called it the "Grand Canyon of the Pacifc". Unfortunately, Twain never visited Kauai. 

But I did.  Up at my usual five am.  Jet lag?  Excitement?  No AC in the condo?  You pick.  I'm never up that early at home and, if I'm on that time frame when I return, I'll be sleeping in until one in the afternoon every day.

I was out the door for the long ride by seven and arrived at the entrance to the canyon by a bit after eight.  Missed the turn initially because I was talking to a real estate agent about the cost of property in Kauai.  I think I was in shock.  A $60K leasehold with fees of around $1700 a month?  A one bedroom studio for $369K?  Not happening unless Publisher's Clearing House knocks on this girl's door.

Once I found the road, I began the circuitous ascent in my trusty little rental car (nicknamed "Old Betsy") that immediately reminded me why folks rent four wheels out here.  It did not gracefully ascend.  It chugged.  But I dealt with it.

The difficulty presented itself in the numerous stops I made. There seemed to be a vista or sight every few minutes, and I wasn't going to miss one no matter how the vehicle complained about starting up the mountain again.

The next photo is just a taste of the canyon; it does not begin to give a true perspective on the vastness of this place. 


Lets try this next one where you can see the teeny-tiny people at the top of the waterfall.  If you are standing there with the sound of the birds and the power of the water rushing down...


around....

and into an undercut that causes the it to disappear into the earth....

The water thunders here as it disappears.  All I could think of was where I might wind up if I fell in.
...it's absolutely awe-inspiring.

Don't ask how long the drive is to the last scenic view because I stopped so long at every one of them that it took me hours.

I stopped at scenes like this....


....and hiked up hills like this....


....for views like this.


I am in love with this island from the mountains, to the valleys, to the oceans white with foam.

Sorry, didn't mean to plagiarize but - God bless Kauai!  If that real estate agent can work some magic, it just might be home, sweet home.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Meet Larry Rivera....

A considerable number  of movies filmed have been filmed on Kauai - Jurassic Park, Tropic Thunder, South Pacific, just to name a few.  Since I'm somewhat of a movie buff, and since my Kauai trip was inspired by a childhood viewing of South Pacific, it was only appropriate to choose an island movie tour for the corny-tourist portion of my trip.

As we neared one of our last stops, the Coco Palms Hotel, the tour guide told us there was special surprise waiting for us there.

The Coco Palms has a long and fascinating history - from sacred ground owned by Hawaiian royalty, to popular hotel for the rich and famous, to a mismanaged venue abandoned after hurricane Iniki.  I had to sign a waiver to visit the place since its current state of disrepair poses some dangers.  Just to be able to walk there was special.

When we arrived, we were greeted by an older gentleman in a Hawaiian shirt carrying a ukulele.


Meet Larry Rivera, one of Kauai's treasures.  Larry worked for sixty-four years at the Coco Palms, announcing its famous torch-lighting ceremony (the original that was copied by the other island hotels) and performing his own songs nightly.  He appeared in Blue Hawaii with Elvis.  He is of Hawaiian, Spanish, and Filipino origin.  He has six children, seventeen grandchildren, eighteen great-grandchildren, and he can name ALL of them in under a minute.

Larry is still performing two shows weekly, plus stops at local markets and the Coco Palms.  In a former life, I sang professionally for over twenty years, so this really impressed me because HE IS EIGHTY-FIVE YEARS OLD!

You may not have heard of him, but I'd much rather be standing with Larry than Kanye.
Larry was warm, funny, and sweet as he told us his story and sang a song he wrote about Mount Waialeale.  Shrouded in clouds, this central peak is part of a blown out caldera.  Waialeale is one of the world’s wettest spots, streaming with waterfalls. It is also inaccessible. If yours truly wasn't so chicken (and cheap) when it comes to flying in a helicopter (the only way to see it), I might have been able to tell you about its beauty first hand.  But I felt that Larry's song, sung at the edge of a lagoon that's protected to this day by its rich Hawaiian history as a sacred spot, told me everything I needed to know about this magical place.

To hear this eighty-five year old patriarch sing with so much love for his island was truly the highlight of the tour.

Larry was a true inspiration.  I may take up singing again.


 See Larry singing at the lagoon on YouTube:
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nuMV9moaoo

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Food Fight!

When I travel, I'll often find a library, a craft fair, or a street fair.  It's a great way to meet people and get tips about bargains and places to eat.  Here in Kauai, a free local paper tipped me off to the weekly farmer's markets on the island and, since I had time at the end of my day, I decided to hit one.

I arrived right before it was supposed to close.  The lot and most of the vendor's tables were empty.  Figuring I'd have less than twenty minutes to peruse what was left, I rushed into the lot, only to be stopped by a husky security guard who told me to wait by the curb because it wasn't open yet.

So much for accurate island journalism.

Three women were already sitting on the curb, conversing rapidly in Hawaiian.  I was encouraged by the lack of a crowd.  But within ten minutes it looked more like Macy's during the Christmas holidays.


As opening time approached, a woman came to warn the crowd about running, pushing, shoving, and taking care with children and the elderly.  I braced myself for Black Friday with mangoes.

When the whistle blew I realized that my laid-back vacation mode was going to put me at a disadvantage vis-a-vis produce.  There were so many unfamiliar varieties to gawk at, so many appealing colors and textures.  "Can I take a photo of your vegetables?" was a sentence that often followed my polite greetings.

  

And the tables were indeed crowded.  My dawdling meant I missed some of the choicest selections.  My stash consisted of soursop, mountain apples, tomatoes, passion fruit,  finger-sized eggplants, sweet onions, lychee, wormy squash blossoms (I did not know they were wormy), and wing beans.  


 Really, would you have guessed those squash blossoms were wormy?
The seaweed-y things on the right are the wing beans. (I thought they looked a bit prehistoric and fit the Jurassic Park feel here.)   I threw them in the with the eggplant, onions, and greenish tomatoes for a makeshift ratatouille.

I cooked the squash blossoms after a thorough cleaning.  An old, tasty family recipe.  Still, I could not forget the worms that had died a watery death in my sink.  I had to remind myself with every squeamish mouthful that I'd boiled the blossoms first and that worms are a protein staple in many places.

As for the rest, the apples were unripe,  the sour sop was (surprise!) sour, and the passion fruits incited puckering, not passion.

The lychee, however, were more than worth fighting for.
 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Advice from the road...

I got in so late on Sunday that I drove to the North Shore in blackness.  The irony is that the North Shore of Kauai is the wealthy side of the island, yet they have no street lamps.  It was so dark that I barely found my turn off.  So you can imagine my surprise when I woke up in the morning to find THIS out my front door:


Yeah.  I felt like I had awakened in Jurassic Park.

Motivated to see more of what I'd missed in the blackness, I was out the door before seven a.m. and on my way to find Tunnels Beach, Bali H'ai, and the Kalalau Trail.

My guidebook had warned me that people post "No Trespassing.  Private Property." signs to all the side roads leading to the beach, whether the road was private or not.  I don't know whether I would have risked ignoring any of those signs since the roads where they were posted were already filled with law breakers by the time I'd stopped for breakfast.  I found one road that was unmarked. It had one squeezy space left - filled by a cart full of scuba supplies.  I waited patiently while the divers put suits on, figuring they'd wheel the cart down the path and finish at the shore.  When they went for their BCDs, I knew it was time to back up down the long lane (the only way to get out), and try another tack.

It was a fairly long walk across a stream and down the beach in thick, sinking sand and areas of tiny, pedicure-callous-removal shell bits, but I parked my car down the road so I could realize my dream of seeing this:


It may just look like another tropical beach scene to you, but this was my childhood vision of Bali H'ai.  Did I sing the theme song as I've always promised?  By the time I had slogged across the sand in the steamy, mid-morning heat I didn't have enough breath left to belt it out.

OK.  Let's be real.  I chickened out because there were way too many people around.  I sang it softly to myself.  It made me just as happy, like my little, private song.

After this I was off to find the Kalalau Trail. 

There is a "parking lot" at the head of the trail.  Picture the parking lot for the Renaissance Faire on the only sunny day in a wet summer.  Now add boulders.  I kid you not.  I was almost sorry I'd gotten a gas-saving, mid-sized rental instead of a Jeep.  One shock-breaking go round and I was out of there.

All along the road, cars were parked on either side.  I managed to get a spot some distance from the trail head and got out.  As I walked, I think I passed two couples who were older than their thirties.  This did not bode well.

I saw a young girl returning from the trail, carrying a pack and a look of exhaustion.  Her gear looked like it weighed more than she did.  When I said hello she breathed a reply that sounded more like an exhalation than a word.   I felt sorry for her.  If this was what the trail did to a vital young person...hmmm.

A few distracting photo ops later, I was heading back for my car, deciding to return very early another day for a cooler, more prepared, and possibly closer start.

On my way back, I saw the same girl hitch-hiking along the road.

I was once young and nuts.  Well, more nuts.  I hitch-hiked all over California in my hippy days.  I hitch-hiked in Europe with my ex.  But now the mother in me said: "What the %$&$% is she doing?" and picked her up.

When I told her that I was going to try the first two miles of the trail.  Her reply was:  "The first two miles of the trail SUCK.  It's all uphill followed by all down hill.  It's the worst part of the trail."


Thanks for the advice, Alicia from Seattle.  It was fun talking with you!  Here's to both of us having more safe adventures!