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Finally....In Pictures

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I'm feeling way too lazy to properly format this for easier viewing...so enjoy some flicks from the game by scrolling away.

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Gorgeous stadium. I can only hope that the Chicago Firehouse in the south suburbs is as dope.

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I missed part of the pre-game show while waiting for my non-alcoholic Carlsberg (that's all they were serving), but I'm guessing that's a modern version of de Gama's ship.

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Portugalia lost the game....but they definitely have the better national anthem.

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I've got nothing for this one.

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The trophy presentation was accompanied by some Star Wars style music that only Europeans would think is a good idea.

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My Portuguese is weak, but I believe this translates roughly to "We are proud". There were versions of this poster at bus stops that had clucks like Couto on it instead of Ronaldo. Someone with Photoshop skills thankfully remedied that atrocity in this Times Square version.

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I was quietly retreating to my hotel when I came out of the subway tunnel to witness this sight. Needless to say, I spent several more hours on the streets taking this all in. Important to note that this wasn't a rowdy affair...just a bunch of folks waving their respective flags around. I got mad props from the Greeks for the India flag I was wearing as a toga.

Chobe National Park and Victoria Falls

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Due to the incompetence of a single woman with Iberia in Barcelona, we missed our planned Johannesburg to Victoria Falls connection. More on that another time as everything worked out nicely in the end…

When we finally got onto our British Airways flight to VFA the following day, it was like boarding a Southwest flight to Tampa—nothing but old Americanos on a package tour. Luckily this riff raff was behind the curtain in coach. But seriously, these people were really annoying and they were all on our return flight, too! Mucking up queues left and right and in general just talking way too much. Thankfully, aside from the airport we didn’t have any run ins with them.

Okay, so we get to Victoria Falls and a dude I arranged a pickup from grabs us and we’re on our way to Chobe Savanna Lodge (in Namibia). Serious immigration hokey pokey here. We drove an hour, checked out of Zimbabwe/into Botswana then twenty minutes later we check out of Botswana while hopping onto a little boat to cross the Chobe River into Namibia, where we made our final check in. Passport stamps galore. (Later we'll tell you about the drunk immigration officer in Kasika, Namibia...)

It was about a 40 minute boat ride to our lodge, but we went at a leisurely pace with our guide Calvin to look for some wildlife and had no idea what we were in for…

We were squinting looking down the Chobe River ahead and saw some large outlines in the water. Turns out it was four elephants swimming. We sat and watched them swim across the river and hop back onto shore.
Cruising along again, we find ourselves watching some hippos on the bank. Turns out that two of the males are squaring off. We watched an hour long show about hippos fighting on Discovery HD not too long ago, but apparently sometimes real life trumps high-def. This was a fantastic sight and sound. Even watched the dominant hippo spray his poop on the other with his wagging tail.

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Photo uploading ain’t great right now, but between this boat ride and one the following morning at 6am, we saw: 150+ elephants, a lone giraffe in the distance, oodles of birds (Lillie has turned into a birder!), three varieties of antelope (puku, impala, and bushback), 50+ hippos, crocodiles, water buffalo, warthogs, water monitor lizard, a baby crocodile, and more. Pictures of all this will be on smugmug.com when we return. But here’s one photo we’re quite fond of:

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Having conquered the water, we did an afternoon drive into Chobe National Park in search of more. Immediately upon entering the park, it poured rain. Usually when it rains, all the animals think to themselves that there must now be water everywhere so they scatter. Neither of us were very optimistic about seeing much…

But then we saw a pride of lions snacking on a baby elephant. Unreal. (this photo is kinda bad....will post better later)

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And to close the show after the sun had already set and we were just about to leave the park and head home…African Wild Dogs. We never even had any hope of seeing these as it’s such a rare sighting—our guide who is there almost every day said it’s a once in every 5-6 months sighting. The darkness combined with shaky hands made for tough photo conditions, but this is the best we got with our funsaver of two African Wild Puppies. We’re captioning it “Mickey Mouse Club”.

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Again, more photos on smugmug when we’re back. But next up was Victoria Falls. It’s low flow season for the falls, but it’s still quite impressive. But what you’re really here to see is the bungi jump…

Lillie is adamant that she will never do it again. Bottom line, here’s the video. The audio is of Zambian quality, but we did pay extra for the Kravitz at the end. (I compressed this down quite a bit to speed the uploading)

We’re at JNB finally Madagascar bound in an hour (our "taxi" driver to the airport was arrested upon dropping us off!). Tonight should present our first lemur and lizard sightings…pretty pumped…

Guayaquil Bound

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We're off to a classy start here--washing cheese spread and crackers down with water at the Continental President's Club in Houston.  Next stop is the Sheraton Guayaquil about 5.5 hours from now.  Away we go.

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But for now I have to pass the ThinkPad to Lillie for her final Facebook check-in for a bit...

Night in Guayaquil

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We cashed in 35K WorldPerks each for round trip Seattle to Ecuador.  In my opinion, this northern South America award is one of the great values in redemptions.  We flew to DFW on Alaska and then picked up Continental to Houston and onwords to Guayaquil. 

We landed around 11:30pm and were relieved to find our bags succeeded making the double connection.  The contingency plan had they not made it was pretty sketchy.  Leaving baggage claim we began to scan for signs pointing us to the hotel shuttles--unexpectedly, we instead found a guy from the Sheraton Guayaquil standing there with our name on a sign.  Nice.

Upon check-in, we got our first taste of what became a recurring theme throughout Ecuador: "So do you need two rooms?"  Either Ecuadorians are extremely unpresumptuous or there's not a lot of brown/white couples roaming around.  This happened time and again in various forms and was always amusing.

Standard Sheraton room so nothing exciting there.  Caught the end of Conan on NBC Miami, decent breakfast including in the morning, and back on the shuttle at 7:30am for the 3-minute ride back to the airport.  Next stop Galapagos...

TAME to the Galapagos

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Our boat's embarkation/debarkation is timed around specific TAME flights to Baltra, Galapagos (GPS).  If you ask your booking agent for the boat nicely, you can save a few bucks buying these airline tickets yourself through tame.com.ec.  The "tricky" part is that you must book through the Espanol portion of the site in order to receive an eticket.  Otherwise you're going to find yourself with an unpaid reservation that will require the silly extra step of paying at the airport or something.

Now there's a bit of hokey pokey you have to do here at the airport.  First head to the INGALA desk near the ticket counters to get your Galapagos Tourist Card for $10.  You can save some time on the paperwork here by completing beforehand online.  You then get an absurd little credit card like card to hang onto and flash upon arrival.  Next, you throw all your luggage through an x-ray machine (much like the checkpoints in Hawaii) and receive special tags on your bags giving you the green light to move over to the TAME counters and check in.

Plane geeks would be excited to board this TAME Boeing 727.  Enjoyed a breakfast coke and ham sandwich before landing in GPS after an hour and a half.

Upon landing, it's time to fork over $100 each for the National Park fee.  You'll need to show your INGALA card and entry stamp to Ecuador in your passport.  From here, you'll find all the guides standing around holding up signs for their respective boats.  Now it was time to Samba.

After meeting our guide for the week Juan and the first mate Camilo; we fetched our bags, gave them to Camilo, and then boarded a TAME bus with Juan to head to the port--our bags would meet us on the boat.

At the port, you're immediately greeted by these sea lions:


We hopped in the dinghys and boarded our home for the next week, the Samba.  We were joined by twelve other touristas.  We were the lone members in their 20's, but the 30's, 40's, 50's, 60's, and 70's were all represented.  Also the lone Americanos--Australia, UK, and the Netherlands rounded things off.

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This ain't the QE2, but it was perfect for our tastes.  The big winning criteria in our selecting this boat was the itinerary.  If you're looking to visit the western islands, your options are immediately narrowed down.  Cross off the uber-expensive and the mega cruise ships and you're left with the Samba and Cachalote.  Then it came down to availability and the Samba won out--we booked in January and snagged the last two spots.  If you want a good boat like this, you really have to plan ahead.  Many on the boat had booked a year in advance.

Here's the itinerary we cruised in a clockwise direction departing from Baltra.  From our research, the only big thing you won't see is the red-footed booby--you'd need to visit Genovesa for them.  Next time, I guess.

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Let's say right now that we give the Samba huge thumbs up in every regard.  Great itinerary.  Three tasty meals a day that showed incredible diversity and creativity given the conditions.  And a spectacular crew.

Now we'll single out the guide Juan.  It's safe to say that everyone aboard had crushes/man-crushes on him.  Twenty-six years old, born and raised on the Galapagos, university in Quito, speaks English like he's from California, and seems to know everything there is to know about seemingly everything.  Throw in his ability to explain things like vulcanology in a way everyone could understand, and he was a real gem.  Other groups would stop to eavesdrop, marvel, and compliment us for being so lucky to have such a great guide.

If you're interested in learning as much as possible about this archipelago (instead of just laying around in the sand), you would be well served to go through the effort of finding out Juan's guiding schedule on the Samba.  "Sadly", he has a kiddo on the way so it will be throttled back a bit.  It was awesome to hear him talk on the last day about him and the crew of the Samba doing everything they can to ensure their future generations enjoy the same Galapagos they know.

Day 1 - Galapagos Islands - Santa Cruz

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After our first lunch on board we received our first briefing from Juan on the day's agenda--in PowerPoint!  Typically, these briefings are daily after dinner so you can prep for the next day and ask any questions from the just completed day.

Day 1 Schedule:

  • 14:00 Dry landing on South Plaza
  • 2 mile walk
  • 17:00 Back on board
  • Sail to Puerto Ayora
  • 19:00 Dinner

South Plaza has some nice diversity and is a great first stop.  Sea lions, land iguanas, and all varieties of birds.  I'll say right now that photos of sea lions can get a bit gratuitous--they are adorable and seemingly posing for the camera.  A great life they have.

So first some sea lions...

 

Then we've got the land iguanas...

 

A swallow tailed gull looking back...

 

Red-billed tropicbird--these are just gorgeous in flight...

 

Nazca booby--another classy bird flying...

 

Brown pelican--these are everywhere...

 

Lava heron...

 

Yellow warbler...

 

This is actually the Galapagos shark--taken from quite a distance...

We spent the night anchored at Puerto Ayora--the largest town on the Galapagos.  This gives the boat and crew some time to restock on supplies while we check out some giant tortoises.

Day 2 Schedule:

  • 6:30 - Breakfast
  • 7:15 - Dry Landing
  • 2 km walk to the Charles Darwin Research Station
  • 10:30 - Walk back to town
  • 12:00 - Lunch at La Garrapata
  • 13:30 - 30-minute bus ride to the highlands
  • Visit to Los Gemelos
  • Visit to El Chato
  • 17:00 - Back to Puerto Ayora
  • 18:00 - Back on board
  • 18:30 - Dinner
  • 23:00 - Sail to Española

This was a bit of an odd day in that you're in a little tourist town all of a sudden.  But this gave us the chance to purchase a stuffed blue-footed booby and magnificent frigate for a certain Zizou.  A smart thing I noticed a few boatmates do here was to purchase booze for consumption on board.  While drinks on the boat are totally reasonably priced, you could save a few bucks this way.

Our afternoon schedule strayed from the above due to ridiculous rain in the highlands.  We didn't end up spending long on the hunt for tortoises in the wild and instead strolled through some lava tubes and stayed a bit more dry.

Now the big feature at the Charles Darwin Research Center is ol' Lonesome George.  He was pretty far away and not terribly exciting, but here's George:

 

We then moved to some feeding platforms where females and males were snacking on some greenery.  Hilarious to watch as they are total slobs.

 

 

So flexible...

 

 

Big yawn...

 

 

These boys are huge...

 

 

Some new birds--like the warbler finch...

 

 

Galapagos flycatcher...

 

 

We love this Galapagos dove who looks all raggedy trying to dry off from the recent downpour...

 

First stop of the day is Gardner Bay, where it is sea lions galore. 

Day 3 Schedule:

  • 7:15 - Wet landing at Gardner Bay
  • Beach walk - 1 mile
  • 9:30 - Back to the Samba
  • 10:00 - Snorkel/Kayak
  • 11:30 - Back on board
  • 12:00 - Lunch
  • 15:00 - Dry landing at Punta Suarez
  • 5 km walk
  • 18:00 - back to the boat
  • 19:00 - Dinner
  • 20:00 - Sail to Floreana (4.5 hours)

Gardner Bay littered with sea lions...

That's the Samba below in the background...

So cute, indeed.  But while the marine iguanas we saw next aren't quite as cute, they are pretty darn cool.

While sitting in the sand, this little head popped up to say hello...

Looks like a little alien gnawing on algae...

This is the ubiquitous sally lightfoot crab--amazing colors...

This was my personal favorite stop of the trip.  For many, the blue footed booby is the first animal you think of when the Galapagos comes to mind.  So to see them by the hundreds and hundreds was most excellent.  They do not disappoint.  And they are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face as you watch them do their dance.

Doing a little dance/high-stepping...

Guy and gal courting one another...

A baby booby that hasn't yet turned blue...

One of the things I was looking forward to seeing was a booby coming in for a landing.  As seen on TV it's a hilarious affair--they throw out their big feet in front of them as a brake.  I was close to capturing this, but I was just too slow with the camera...

Not a dance...just an ear scratch...

Getting ice-grilled...

Not just Blue Footed Boobies here...the Waved Albatross gets their nests on here.

While their mating dance doesn't involve the comical dancing of the boobies, the waved albatross definitely puts on a sweet show.  Our photos don't really do this justice, but there's lots of open beaks (above) and beak fencing (below) between the males and females.

Check out the slick pattern on their chest and you'll see where the name comes from...

Seven-foot wing-span...

Keeping an egg warm...

A threesome gone terribly wrong...

Amazing island. 

Day 4 AM Schedule:

  • 05:30 Wake up call
  • 06:00 Breakfast
  • 06:45 Wet landing
  • 1 mile walk over volcanic ash
  • 10:00 swim
  • 11:00 Back on board
  • 11:30 Lunch

This morning was about greater flamingos in a brackish lagoon.  You can see the specks of pink scattered out below:

This one is fun as you can see the zig-zagging trail of kicked up sand the flamingos leave behind in their search for tiny crustaceans to munch on...

My best effort capturing the colors of the sally lightfoot...

The great blue heron, or as the birders like to call it--the GBH.  Great lookin' bird.  Saw one eat a baby marine iguana later in the trip, too...

Dolphins at Sea

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This was straight out of Planet Earth--and it happened on two separate occasions in open water.  Bottlenose dolphins by the hundreds surrounding our boat and jumping about left, right, and in front.  One of the most spectacular things we've ever witnessed, especially the first time when the dolphins appeared right at sunset. 

However due to said awe, the pictures are a bit sketchy/lacking...so you'll have to take our word for it.

Underwater Fun

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Snorkeling is a big part of a Galapagos trip, so we were definitely surprised when only about half of our group decided to go for it.  After checking out pictures in advance and reading lots of trip reports, we were pretty excited and even stocked up on some gear – including a buoyancy vest for Vinod!  He hadn’t spent much time in the water previously, but the vest gave him the confidence he needed to accomplish his dream of swimming with penguins.

We had six opportunities to snorkel on our trip (three from the dinghy and three beach snorkels), and we went out for the first five.  Let me preface the snorkeling descriptions by saying how tricky it is to take shots under water!  You’re moving, the fish are moving, the display is too dark to see, and the mask eliminates the ability to look through the viewfinder.  We ended up with a lot of shots of beautiful fish tails and some fantastic memories!

Our first snorkel was at Gardner Bay, and we were excited to find a couple of sea lions who wanted to play!  We were just getting used to using the camera underwater, so no real amazing wildlife shots from this snorkel, but we did get my trip favorite of the two of us.

 

Next up was Devil’s Crown – revered as the best snorkeling in the Galapagos, and it didn’t let down.  There was a minute of panic in the beginning when another snorkeler got scared right after entering the water, and the guide went rushing off to help her.  We got through it and were once again well-rewarded.

A beautiful blue Starfish

 

Sea Lions (yep, they were that close to my leg!)

Our guide Juan swimming with a Sea Lion.

Octopus

 

White-tipped Reef Shark (we saw the full shark, but could only seem to catch half of it in our photos)

 

Our next snorkel was at Urbina Bay and was full of Sea Turtles!  This one is swimming with a pair of sergeantmajor fish.

 

This parrotfish deserves a mention as well, since it was my most photogenic underwater subject.

 

At this point we miss another snorkel full of sea turtles because we, once again, forgot to replace the memory card in the camera before heading out at Punta Morena.  It was a bit choppy there and consequently murky under the water, so it was the best day to leave it behind. 

Our last snorkel was at Puerto Egas. 

 

Scorpion Fish

 

That black missile toward the top is a penguin!!

Here he is up close and blurry.

 

Vinod’s one and only underwater photo was of a migrant sea turtle.

Day 4 afternoon schedule:

  • 15:00 Wet landing
  • Post card exchange
  • Relax on the beach/Kayak/swim
  • 17:00 Back to the Samba
  • Sail to Isabela (10 hours)
  • 19:00 Dinner

In the 1700's, whalers setup a barrel here as a mail drop for folks passing through.  Leave something for someone to pick up later...or pick up something addressed to somewhere you're heading and personally deliver it.  So the tradition continues with the touristas passing through.

We went through the stacks of postcards and found one addressed to someone in West Seattle.  Perfect--Lillie delivered it last week.  And it's totally cheating to bring home a postcard, put a stamp on it, and mail it---this happened to a card we addressed to South Haven, Michigan. 

There's a little soccer field setup here that the boat crews get together on for a bit while we roam the beach.  Great to see these guys have a bit of fun considering how hard they work for all of us.  Though there was this one dude playing who had like four intentional hand balls--I was absolutely infuriated watching from the sidelines. 

Ten hours of sailing this evening--sailing which you can expect to encounter some rough seas on...

Day 5 morning schedule:

  • 05:30 Wake up call
  • 06:00 Breakfast
  • 06:45 Dry landing
  • 2 ½ miles lava walk
  • 09:30 Back on the Samba
  • 10:00 Snorkel
  • 11:30 Back on board
  • 12:00 Lunch

Isabela Island is one that most boats don't make it out to--so we had it entirely to ourselves.  All 14 of us.  Can't beat that.

Despite traversing scorching lava rock, our guide Juan kept it real and continued to roll barefoot.  Wildlife takes a bit of a backseat this morning, while Juan drops his knowledge on vulcanology.

This is quite the change in scenery---lava rock with a volcano (Cera Azul?) in the background...

Here's a pioneer plant, the lava cactus.  Grows 1cm/year--so you can bet on this little guy being multiple hundreds of years old...

Just the two of us...

Day 5 afternoon schedule:

  • 15:30 Dinghy ride inside mangrove
  • 18:00 Back on board
  • 19:00 Dinner

No shoes necessary this afternoon.  It's a smooth paddle around the mangroves.

And this outing provided first sighting of the little dudes that I'd been especially spastic about wanting to see...the Galapagos Penguin--the world's only tropical penguin.  How can these guys not make you smile?  That guy below on the left performed the most ungraceful "dive" into the water you could possibly imagine.  It was like a face-forward trust fall/belly-flop.  Absolutely hysterical.

This sea turtle is a migrant from Indonesia...

It was at this time, that the battery on my camera started to die.  And due to an extremely unfortunate event involving a wet bathing suit and the charger, the camera was soon to enter retirement for the rest of this trip.

Of course this sputtered right when our dinghy pulled up at one of the most incredible sights of the trip--a small islet that was quite the advertisement for the Galapagos.  Side by side there were: blue footed boobies, nazca boobies, Galapagos penguins, flightless cormorants, marine iguanas, sally lightfoot crabs, and the most attention starved sea lions you could imagine.

Our guide Juan was equally delighted as he reminded us this was something that very few tourists to the islands ever get to see. 

Day 6 - Isabela – Urbina Bay

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Day 6 morning schedule:

  • 06:00 Wake up call
  • 06:30 Breakfast
  • 07:15 Wet landing
  • 1 mile walk
  • 09:00 Beach Snorkel
  • 10:00 Back on board
  • Sail to Fernandina

There's a gap in the photographic record here as for some reason we didn't bring our little point and shoot camera out with us this morning.  Had we brought the camera, you would see some photos of enormous land iguanas here.  There are also finches galore--but in all honesty, those finches are so impossible for the uneducated to tell apart it's hard to get too excited about 'em.

Day 6 - Fernandina - Punta Espinosa

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Day 6 afternoon schedule:

  • 13:00 Dry landing
  • 1 mile walk
  • 15:00 Back on the Samba
  • Sail to Ecuador Volcano
  • 18:30 Equator Cocktails!
  • 19:00 Dinner

The mission on this stop is to see the marine iguanas at their peak of activity--and it's blazing hot at this hour of day.  So plan on spending a bit of time here just sitting on the lava rocks and watching hordes of iguanas swimming back to land to warm up after some diving for food.

Babies on back...

A relatively rare sight of a Hawaiian sea turtle basking in the sun...

And an extremely rare sight of an adult marine iguana cannibalizing a baby...

Back on the boat, this is one of the few afternoons were you find yourself with a few hours to spend on deck as opposed to just eating dinner and going to bed.  There are some great views of all the volcanoes on this stretch, as well as the ceremonial equator crossing.  We all gathered on el Capitan's bridge to watch the GPS turn to 0.00--the comedy came when the GPS skipped from 0.01 South straight to 0.01 North.

Juan and el Capitan were quick to correct this as they turned the boat around to accommodate this cheap thrill.  Within a few minutes span, we crossed the Equator three times--that's some serious bang for the buck we got there.

Not that I'm keeping track or anything, but in the last year we've crossed the Equator, Tropic of Capricorn, and Arctic Circle.  Nice.

Day 7 morning schedule:

  • 06:00 Wake up call
  • 06:30 Breakfast
  • 07:15 Wet landing
  • 3 Km walk by the coast line
  • 09:00 Snorkel
  • 10:00 Back on board
  • Sail to Bartolomé → landscape
  • 12:00 Lunch

Little guy in a tuxedo was the first to greet us here...

Marine iguanas galore...

The nocturnal Galapagos fur seal...

Snorkeling post will come separately courtesy of Lillie--but this spot was good times as we saw the penguin underwater chasing/catching fish.

Galapagos Islands – Day 7 – Bartolome

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Day 7 afternoon schedule:

  • 13:30 Snorkel
  • 15:00 Back on the Samba
  • 15:30 Dry landing
  • 368 steps to the top of the Island
  • 17:00 Back to the boat
  • Sail to Santa Cruz
  • 19:15 Dinner

An American oystercatcher getting its oystercatching on...

Few photos exist of us from this trip....but here we are with an oh so sleepy sea lion...

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Apparently this is the most photographed shot in the Galapagos...it's a really cool vista where you have a 360 degree view of all the islands in the archipelago.  That's pinnacle rock on the right...the US Air Force takes some credit for that rock formation.  USA!  USA!

Day 8 schedule:

  • 05:50 Dinghy ride inside mangrove
  • 07:00 Back on board → Breakfast
  • 08:15 Bus ride to the Airport

The end is near.  This morning is just an easy going paddle around the mangroves before heading to the airport.  It was mid-tide so the viewing wasn't totally ideal.  But we saw loads of sea turtles and a few posses of golden rays.  It's kinda silly, but at day eight I found myself yelling "no mas!" to sea turtle sightings.

I forgot to put the memory card back in the point and shoot for this outing, so again we leave this segment in the dark.

During breakfast, the crew hustled our luggage to the airport where we would reunite with it.  Wished farewell to the crew and we were back on a TAME bus to the airport (but not before also saying goodbye to those sea lions snoozing on the bench that first greeted us).

The bus arrived at the Galapagos airport more than two hours before departure--not our usual style.  But there are lots of shops outside you can pick up last minute key chains and such from, so that will kill up to ten minutes.

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Back in Guayaquil and back at home

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Our 10-hour daytime layover in Guayaquil was a matter of necessity to get back home to Zizou in a timely manner.  This was especially brutal as there ain't a whole lot to do for 10-hours in this lil' town.

Walking the Malecon is good for a bit of entertainment without any fear of getting mugged or the like.  We called it the "Green Zone" as it's fenced in and just a totally sterile world compared to life on the other side.  Had some lunch at a rather expensive Basque restaurant whose name I can't recall—but it was outside of the Green Zone.  Spent 90 minutes on the internet only to find out that absolutely nothing had changed in the Democratic primaries.  And finally hopped a cab to the restaurant Lo Nuestro…

Lo Nuestro was the only restaurant I could find particularly called out as being one of Guayaquil's finest.  And we got there to find nothing but Americanos.  Buzz kill.

Our flight to IAH ended up with a 2-hour delay, but I was excited to find free wifi at GYE to help kill some of that time.  Our delay prevented us from catching a shower in IAH, but no problems catching out connecting flight back to the northwest.  The highlight was the TSA officer in Houston meeting our Guayaquil flight telling me "gracias" for taking my shoes off.

Smooth sailing on our flights and we even caught our planned two Seattle busses home.  Zizou was excited to get his mouth on his new stuffed blue footed booby.

Moral of the story: go to the Galapagos.  Worth every penny.

Our weekend trip to Honolulu in 2005 for $299/person for airfare and hotel set the benchmark for great weekend trips.  Brother/sister/friend fared even better on that trip at $99/person.  But we've got a new winner to someplace more out of the way…southwest Alaska.

  • 20K Alaska miles each sent us to King Salmon, Alaska for a three-day weekend—that's a $900+ ticket making it excellent award value.
  • We worked an overnight stopover in Anchorage into the award and spent the night at the Sheraton Anchorage.  Instead of $300+, Starwood Cash & Points are excellent value—2,800 points + $30.
  • $176 / person for the float plane from King Salmon to Brooks Camp in Katmai National Park via KatmaiAir
  • $8 / person / night for camping at Brooks Camp booked through recreation.gov.
  • $6.50 / pint of Alaskan Amber at Brooks Camp.

Point being that the guts of this trip provided ridiculous bang for the buck (save for the beer prices, of course).  Brooks Camp does require some advanced planning—July is the peak salmon run so we booked the campground back in January when the reservations opened up, and the place was totally booked within three days.

I've heard that to stay at the $700+/night lodge you need to book at least 18-months out.  But if you're comfortable camping, the campground is quite nice, so have no worries about it and save your money.

So the itinerary was:

  • Friday night: Alaska to Anchorage; pizza/beer at Moose's Tooth; overnight at Sheraton Anchorage
  • Saturday: 9am flight to King Salmon on PenAir; noon KatmaiAir to Brooks Camp on an Otter; chasing bears
  • Sunday: Valley of 10,000 Smokes tour; chasing bears
  • Monday: chasing bears; 5pm Otter back to King Salmon; 6:10pm PenAir to ANC; 8:30pm Alaska Airlines to SEA; back at home at 2am.

In no way at all are our vacations relaxing—but who needs that?  Our friends Keith and Eliza of desertminute.com fame were suckered into joining us on this—hopefully we're still friends.

The full photo galleries can be found over at http://photos.klugusamy.com, but the highlights will be in the following posts.  And if you're not hip to the geography, marker A is King Salmon and C is Brooks Camp:


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Another fun link to keep track of is a Twitter page updated by a ranger at Brooks Camp.

First day at Brooks Camp

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That's the Otter we rode in…next to the larger Beaver. 

 

The first thing on arrival is to go through the mandatory "bear etiquette" talk with the Park Service.  An hour later, after setting up camp we were walking down the road and saw this heading our way…

 

Absolutely ridiculous!  We quickly backtracked to the conveniently located viewing deck just a few yards behind us.  We spent some time at the viewing deck and during this time saw:

 

When you look in the water you can see the swarms of salmon, and these guys were all on the hunt.  This photo looks like a bunch of guys in bear suits—many of them here are employing the "dive and grab" hunting approach.  It's quite comical watching this technique…and it also seemed extremely ineffective.  The guy in the front is using the more reasonable "snorkeling" technique.

 

And that's just a taste of the first hour bear-watching.  Ridiculous.

So now it was time to brave the road/trail we were previously thwarted on to get to the upper falls where all the big boys hang out eating fish.  Walking down the trail we encounter this…

 

Oh my.  There was a whole lotta head-scratching at this point trying to decide what the next step would be (turning around was of course not an option).  Eventually, we did an end around—the main rule is to keep 50-yards away at all times.  Success.

So the upper falls are what you always see in photos and the telly.  The photo conditions were way too advanced for my skills, so these are highly mediocre shots. 

First glimpse of fishing at the falls:

 

Next thing you know, there's a wolf making a cameo appearance.  He stuck around for all of 30-seconds and we were told this was a quite rare sighting.

 

How's this one for a mug shot?

 

A sub-adult stretching out (or perhaps just walking)…

 

A pretty good start to the trip.

On the walk back to camp, we saw our one bird of the trip—the three-toed woodpecker—and they were a treat to watch.  There are actually two in the photo; the yellow crown on the bird in the back identifies the male.  They'd peck away until they'd find something tasty.  Then they'd give a little "tweet tweet" and share with their mate/kid. 

 

Dinner was dehydrated beef stroganoff.  Not bad.  Not bad, at all.

Valley of 10,000 Smokes

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Valley of 10,000 Smokes is home of the largest volcanic eruption (by volume) in the 20th century.  It's a 7-hour trip that takes you 23 miles down the road with a couple of interpretive stops along the way, another chat when you arrive, and a short hike into the valley.  It'll set you back $96 including a sandwich/chips/cookie—this is way overpriced, but when in Katmai…

I'll add that the mosquitoes were wicked—most wicked I'd ever encountered (for whatever that's worth). 

The tour bus is jacked up (off the ground).  You cross a few small rivers/streams along the way, and the bus driver claimed he could go through 5.5 feet of water no problem.  Not sold on that claim, but we'll take his word.

 

The view of the ash-filled valley from afar…

 

It's a shortish (1.5 mile?) hike downhill into the valley…

 

Our lone group shot with a self-timer…at the confluence of the Knife, Lethe, and Windy which then form the Ukak.  Don't forget that.

Late Night at Brooks Falls

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After some Hawaiian style chicken teriyaki for dinner, we left the campground at 8pm to check out some more bears--sunset is around 11:45pm.

The first obstacle every time you go out is to cross this bridge...


Bears like to hang out in this water, so anytime there is a bear within 50-yards, the bridge is closed.  And when you're on the bridge, "walk with purpose" is the motto.

Upon arrival, and after I saved a fisherman from being eaten by a bear, the bridge was closed.  No big deal.  It gave us a chance to catch this long-distance view of a momma with her three spring cubs (number three is behind mom).

 


Adorable.  We saw this crew again the next day, but mom was smart enough to keep her cubs a good distance from the annoying tourists at all times.

So at 9pm we had arrived at the upper falls--it closes at 10pm.  There were just a handful of others there at this time, and the viewing was absolutely brilliant.  At one point, we counted 22 bears in sight!  And they were feasting on salmon like we hadn't seen before.

This guy was eating fish non-stop--he had a prime spot in the "jacuzzi" where it's all foamy and the salmon like to hang out before attempting to the leap up the falls.  Check out the sad face on the salmon...

 

A mom and two yearlings then posted up right below the viewing deck.  One of them was quite the momma's boy--constantly snuggling up right on top of him mom.  Adorable, again.

 

The sad part was when a male chased the two cubs up a tree.  But the little guys survived and scurried off with mom.  Hopefully they can stay out of trouble and get some salmon in them to survive the season...

Males can be pretty mean and like to exert their dominance whenever they can.  And it's really interesting to watch this play out.  It is usually really subtle gestures and an occasional growl that will set apart theirs levels of dominance.  More rare, they might swat at each other--we were lucky to catch a 5-second exchange just like this.  Terribly sad was that I didn't have my zoom lens on at the time and couldn't get a close-up.

Two adult males on their hind legs angry is quite the sight...

 

This one is out of focus, but shows how there's sometimes a bully trying to steal what's yours...

 

There are oodles of tripods set up on the deck all looking for the classic "salmon in the mouth" shot.  While I had a tripod and shutter release cable with me, it's much too obsessive for my tastes.  So with low effort, this was the closest I got...


The salmon really do just jump into the bear's mouths, and the bear are quite patient in waiting.  Finally, this shot will give you an idea of how you're out of harm's way while watching all of this...

 

That photo was taken at 10pm--what a night.

Final day at Brooks Camp

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Pretty leisurely day, for the most part since a foggy morning kept us from a climb up to see the views.  The only logistical issue was that we had to be out of the campsite with our big backpacks delivered to the KatmaiAir office by 9am.  Since these little planes frequently head back to King Salmon empty throughout the day, they haul all the luggage over the course of the day and you meet back up with it on the other side.

Breakfast in the lodge is $15 and was the only meal we did there.  While a bit pricey, we found it worthwhile to be able to load up on eggs, bacon, and potatoes for the day.

Then it was back to the bears.

I'm not sure if Keith intended to chop of my head, or what...

 

But this is skill...

 

The highlight of the day was watching two yearling cubs down at the lower platform.

 

First they wrestled...

 

Then one of them found this little leather pouch thing on the ground and was having the time of his life with it.  Memories of Zizou with a plush toy immediately came to mind.

 

 

And our final bear sighting of the trip...mom and her three spring cubs, again!

 

We closed the day back at the lodge with beer and bloody marys--which the bartender mixes up himself and are quite spicy and delicious for $6.50.  Then we were back on an Otter for the first leg home to Seattle.

 

Amazing trip.  Hopefully Mackinac Island, Michigan next month keeps the streak alive...

Round the World in May '09

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Ten months from now, we're off on our most ridiculous trip to date.  The itinerary is dizzying, but the stops are exciting, and the airline seats in between all lay flat.  The stops are: Paris (24 hours), Amman (4 days), Tel Aviv (24 hours), Entebbe (6 days), and Osaka/Kyoto (3 days).  Why not?

And of course there aren't non-stop flights between all these cities, so the frequent flyer award looks something like this:

rtw

Quite the bargain at 130K miles each in business class on an AAdvantage oneworld Award--the finest award out there, and because of that it will be discontinued at the end of August.  So, props to big brother for spotting me some miles to get this booked before it's gone!

The on the ground itinerary is pretty well sketched out, but nothing actually booked just yet.  Gorilla tracking in both Uganda and Rwanda is no doubt the primary objective, but horseback riding in the Jordanian desert shouldn't be too shabby, either.  Topped off by some onsen in Kyoto.

And that's probably all there is to say for the next nine months or so.  As I mentioned before, all attention is on Mackinac Island next weekend...

Central Oregon -- Bachelor 'n Hood

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To celebrate the final days of Bush/MLK Day, we popped down to Bend, Oregon and looped back home through Yakima, Washington.


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First we stretched our legs at Trillium Lake Sno-Park in the shadow of Mount Hood--the snow was packed and icy, so no use for snowshoes even.  This was actually the best view we've ever had of Hood from our few trips to the Portland-area.

 

Next stop was the Holiday Inn Express in Bend where Lillie had a heart to heart with Zizou before we went to the Deschutes Brewery (the beer served at Klugusamy 07/07/07). 

 

We took a stroll around the Old Mill District--there's some nice park area/trails surrounding the shopping along the Deschutes River.  Freezing fog was the forecast.  Our first encounter with such.  And the first time we've ever seen rime ice.  Super cool stuff--all the trees and shrubs were covered with it.

 

The next morning it was 28 degrees and foggy in Bend--after a 25 mile drive to the Mount Bachelor area it was an amazing 48 degrees with sunshine and blue sky.  Short pants to play in the snow wouldn't have been that crazy. 

We used the Dutchman Flat Sno-Park as our jumping off point.  No trail to follow, we just climbed upwards until we ended up at a sunny clearing with a nice view of Bachelor.  We hung out here for awhile just soaking in all the pleasantness.   

 

 

After some Arby's we hopped on US 97 headed to Yakima where we had a free night at the Howard Johnson (just as we did on the way to Boise over Labor Day).  This stretch of US 97 is pretty desolate--but the ghost town of Shaniko was a surprise delight.

We ended the day with a perfectly fine dinner at Red Lobster in Yakima--it'll be another fifteen years before we eat at Red Lobster again, but I'll continue to endorse it as a great seafood restaurant for inland America.  Next time we'll use this weird kitchen in our room at the HoJo for dinner:

Philadelphia Mini-Day Trip

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I had a neglected voucher with Delta that was about to expire, so logically I snagged the cheapest ticket I could find for a day trip (while earning maximum mileage in the process, of course).  I hopped the redeye on Friday night to DTW and onwards to PHL—I was 2/2 on upgrades for what little it was worth on these flights.

I had about four hours to spend in Philadelphia.  Thanks to a sweet deal from Hertz, I rented a car for $5.50 (while also earning 1,700 BMI miles).  To make the deal even sweeter, when I got to my Hertz Gold spot there was a Prius waiting for me.

Hertz Prius

Then things got depressing when I couldn't figure out how to start the car.  I kept hitting the Power button and nothing would happen.  I went inside and sheepishly explained that I was clueless—the Hertz lady was all smiles: "Honey, don't even be embarrassed…nobody ever knows how to start them."  Phew.

I cruised to town and hit up a tour of Independence Hall—which is totally free and easy during these frigid months.  Saw a chair that George Washington sat in and then went to check out the Liberty Bell.

 Liberty Bell and Independence Hall

Now, it was time for a cheesesteak.  After lengthy research on Chow Hound, FlyerTalk, and Yelp, I ended up at Dalessandro's.  For $6 I got a foot-long bun overflowing with steak, cheese, and onions.  Amazing.  It also makes me thankful that I live in Seattle—there's no way I'd make it to 30 with food like this within reach every day.

And it's totally random that an identical red Prius drove by while I snapped this photo of the joint:

Dalessandro's Steaks

I transported a cheesesteak home for Lillie that hopefully survived the 12 hours between purchase and reaching the fridge.  It's currently in the oven reheating.  And Tastykakes for dessert!

Trusted Travelers go to Whistler

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We recently became Trusted Travelers in the eyes of the US/Canada border through the NEXUS program.  At $50 for five years it's sort of a "good deal".  You just cruise through the border crossing with minimal/no questions asked.  This was our first trip flexing it—while we didn't hit peak hours, pulling up to the border agent and just getting a "have a good one" was great.

Our route for the weekend:


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We bounced out of Seattle pretty late on Friday night after the Water 1st – Beer 2nd fundraiser.  We were headed to Pitt Meadows, BC for the night—a free Ramada stay in the boondocks east of Vancouver (thanks to the fantastic Wyndham BRG program frequently mentioned here).  We got extremely lost getting there, but were eventually saved by a teenager at A&W Root Beer giving us directions at 12:30am.  It was a nice and clean hotel for the middle of nowhere.

On Saturday morning, we began the drive up the Sea to Sky highway towards Whistler.  The lone stop en route was at the Sunflower Bakery Cafe in Squamish, BC for hot cocoa and pastries.

The initial plan was to do some backcountry snowshoeing north of Whistler, but the avalanche forecasts were off the charts—no thanks, we played it safe.  So our recreation destination was Callaghan Country just south of Whistler.  For $8.50/person, they have some nice snowshoe trails (that are dog friendly).  Pleasantly surprised to only bump into two other groups of people on snowshoe and loads of fresh, fresh snow to stomp around in.

 

Then we were off to check out Whistler Village and check-in to the Fairmont Chateau Whistler.  A cheap rate of $93 including taxes was the impetus for this trip—this hotel is usually well north of $350/night.  It was rather nice to stay at a posh hotel with absolutely nothing on the agenda for the night/next morning.  And it was a classy place—pulled up the Matrix, valet handed us the room keys, and we walked into the room to find a dog bed and bowl awaiting Zizou's arrival.

Zizou enjoyed watching the children at play outside:

To try to save some ducats, we grabbed some take out dinner at Pasta Lupino—quite good and only set us back $20 CAD.  Lillie then settled in for a 12-hour nap…

It was pretty nasty weather on Sunday morning, so we made a leisurely drive back south to Vancouver.  Made a stop at Murrin Provincial Park where Zizou jumped into a frozen lake for a swim.  It was painful to watch, but he sure was enjoying himself.

We had lunch at Japadog (worth clicking on this—"Our English is very poor. The followings may make mistakes. We are sorry.")  And later had dinner with our Vancouver friends at Shanghai River in Richmond—second trip and second grand slam.  A reservation or fist full of Hong Kong dollars is a must to get a table here.

A quick 2.5 hours later we were home in Seattle…will flex the NEXUS again, soon…

And Away We Go…

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The first 24 hours of the trip has involved a lot of food and flying.  Lillie and I got off to a rough start from Seattle when her upgrade to DTW cleared and mine did not.  :(  I got over it, and we are friends again now.

This whole trip is pretty silly, but this first leg is one I always hate to explain because it looks so dumb on paper.  First, we flew SEA-DTW-PHL on Northwest with little fanfare.  We hopped in our tiny Kia rental from Hertz and went to John's Roast Pork for a 9:30am cheesesteak (good, but not near as good as the Dalessandro's on my last trip).  The place has never seen so much Patagonia.  We did not blend in.

We then drove to up to NYC to catch a 5:40pm flight out of JFK (where our award ticket starts from).  Some might ask: "why wouldn't you just fly to JFK in the first place?"  Well, that would have been too easy…and through various shenanigans we saved $200 this way.

We had just a few hours to spend in New York (Lillie's first time in NYC!), so we just did the essentials.  And by that, we mean making a long anticipated visit to the Dosa Man in Washington Square Park.  We love dosa.  We love street food.  And for $5 it was all we dreamed it would be.  He was nice enough to give us two "environmental plates" for our shared dosa, so the photo shows just half of what your money gets you.

Dosa Man

Took a quick lap around Times Square in the Kia and then were off to JFK to catch our Finnair flight to Helsinki connecting onwards to Paris to visit our friends Jess and Wes.  I was a big fan of Finnair's business class—Lillie is more lukewarm (no storage space!).  It was a less than a month old A330—see the cabin here, so it was sparkling clean.  The beds are angled, but we both got some solid sleep in.  Lillie was seen crying watching Bride Wars on the IFE.

Here's what dinner looked like: cream of pumpkin soup, salad, grilled veggies, fillet of trout, julienne of vegetables, potatoes and lemon butter, and crème caramel.  All washed down with Baileys and Koff beer.  Airplane food is airplane food—but this was very much above average.

Starters Trout Baileys!

Had our flight landed on time in HEL, we had a plan to hit up a mall nearby for kicks.   But having to wait for thirty planes on the runway at JFK caused a bit of a delay so we just stuck out the layover at the IKEA-esque Silver Wings Lounge complete with little space pod chairs. 

Silver Wings Lounge

The short-haul to Paris was uneventful, but again a good performance from Finnair.  We hopped the train into Paris, where we now are and will be until noon tomorrow when we're off to Amman (via Madrid).  We'll post from Spain tomorrow should there be any excitement in France this evening.

Posts should hopefully start getting more interesting from here on…

Souffles, Souffles, Souffles

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A solid 22 hours in Paris...

After a much needed shower at Jess and Wes's, we hit the town.  Took a stroll around Luxembourg Park, drank some kir...

Lillie, Jess, and Kir

Then we had a 9pm reservation at Le Souffle, where we each had the three souffle tasting menu.  It was a lot of souffle.  Left to right you'll see the ham and cheese, blood sausage and apples, and a pistachio and chocolate dessert souffle.  Not pictured, but consumed, were cheese, spinach, wild boar, and a Grand Marnier dessert variety.  It was a lot of souffle.  But a tasty and fun experience with friends.

Ham 'n Cheez paris (3 of 4) Pistache

Next we hopped on bicycles (!!) at 11pm to cruise around the Louvre and back to Jess and Wes' 'hood.  It was a great delight to bang around on cobblestone roads and awesome to finally get some exercise.  The bikes were courtesy of the Velib' scheme.  Here are my attempts to capture the experience via iPhone while riding.

IMG_0034 photo(5) IMG_0038

After a pitcher of beer at O'Neils, Lillie and Jess headed home while Wes dragged me to his favorite haunt in all of Paris--Chez George.  You crawl down some stairs to what is quite literally a tiny cave packed with 40-ish Parisians drunkenly singing.  Wes said: "you want some wine?"  After an affirmative, he came back from the bar with a full bottle and two glasses.  Said bottle was then fully consumed.

A random dude we talked to claimed that Serge Gainsbourg used to hang out here back in the day.  We were skeptical, but that would be pretty awesome if true.  Further research must be done.

After going to bed at a very late hour, we were out the door at 9am for our next flights.  Big thanks go to Jess and Wes for their hospitality and putting up with us.  They've tempted us to maybe stay for a full day on our next trip to Paris.

We had an Iberia flight from Orly to Madrid--so we took the Metro to the RER B to the OrlyVal.  Very smooth and easy.  One lame point about Orly: the Iberia lounge is before the long security lines (and thus useless) so we didn't go in there.

IMG_0043 Short two hour flight to Madrid and it was the first Iberia flight attendant we've ever had that actually smiled and was nice.

The lunch actually really hit the spot, too.  Mesclum leaves salad with marinated king prawn, yellow cherry tomatoes, and courgette; fine herbs marinated chicken (which translated to fried dark meat and was awesome); brie/gouda; and white chocolate mousse

We're pressing the publish button on this from Madaba, Jordan right now.  Lots of missing hyperlinks in this post as Google.jo is proving to be a bit confusing.  So apologies for that.  Anyway, we got here late last night and now we're heading out to Dana Natural Reserve.  It'll be a few days until the next post, but we should hopefully have some decent material finally...

Arriving in Jordan

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(This post is pretty strictly logistics/boring)

Our Royal Jordanian flight attendants were pretty bored with us on MAD-AMM as we just weren't very demanding passengers.  They were ever vigilant and constantly waiting to get us something to drink other than water.  Even though it's a less than 5-hour flight, they treat it like a long haul--big leather reclining seats, multi-course meal service, and amenity kits.  Food was quite average, but they make up for it in every other regard.  Great airline for when you're in this region.

Chicken Vegetable Soup Penne Pasta and Veggies Almond Tart and Coffee

Upon arrival, we swapped some USD for JOD (dinars) in order to buy the 10 JOD visas for entry.  There are no ATMs at this point in the airport and you must pay in dinars.  Not a fast process, but easy.  Our bags survived yet another transit and were already on the carousel after we crossed immigration.

Booked an automatic via hertzjordan.com, and a rep from Hertz was waiting with a sign.  Signed some paperwork, and we were off to Madaba for our first night.  First song we found on the radio was Kelis' Milkshake.  Really weird.  Anyway, easy highway driving and we eventually arrived at Mariam Hotel (booked directly through their website) a bit after midnight.  For 40 JOD including a breakfast buffet, this is a perfectly fine little hotel.

We left the hotel around 9:00am, loaded up with dinars at an ATM in Madaba, and then began the 3-hour drive to Dana Nature Reserve...

Dana Nature Reserve

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After much deliberation, we decided that Wadi Rum in southern Jordan was a bit too touristy for our nature tastes.  So instead we spent a day based at Rummana Campground in Dana Nature Reserve.  The tagline for the organization running this place is "Helping Nature. Helping People."  No brainer for us.

It wasn't particularly cheap, but it was acceptable given the social project you're in turn supporting.  A night in a tent, dinner/breakfast, water, and a guided hike was 140 JOD.  This was all booked directly with them via email.  They were very prompt and helpful with their responses, too.

Upon arriving, we parked our car at the Visitor's Center and then took this shuttle down the very, very steep road to the permanent campground.

Upon arrival at the camp, we threw our stuff down and then went with a guide on the 8km White Dome trail to the village of Dana.  It was about 3.5 hours in the blazing midday sun (morning would be the ideal time to do this).  A guide is required for this hike, but there are a few shorter hikes around the camp that can be done self-guided.  Great views of the Dana Valley and Wadi, though terrible photos as it was blazing hot and hazy. 

The hike ends at Dana Village where local women grow sage, thyme, nuts, pomegranates, apricots, etc. in a large garden.  It smells wonderful and gave us access to a pool of very chilly water running down from the mountain - incredibly refreshing after hours in the sun.  Their jams and dried herbs are available for sale at the Tourist Center and were used in our meals at the Camp.

Back at camp we unpacked a little and cleaned up.  The accommodations are really quite amazing considering the harsh location.  And all sparkling clean.

You can easily stand up in the middle of the tents, and the linens are fresh and wrapped in plastic for each new arrival.

Who doesn't love open air bathrooms with trees in them?  The bathroom facilities were super impressive.

There's a little man-made pool and bird shed behind the campground to hang out in.  Sadly, we don't have good IDs on some of these, but we'll look them up when back home.  However, these guys below are the Palestine Sunbird:

Again, a very great place to spend some time.  The staff was typically Jordanian (read: amazingly nice), the views fantastic, and very quiet (only two other people there the same night as us).

Here's a candid of us:

First Day at Petra

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About 80 km south on the Kings Highway from Dana is Petra.  Along the way, we picked up a hitchhiker.  Not our usual routine, but he was standing at a police checkpoint where we stopped.  And when somebody asks you "are you going to Petra?" on the road to Petra, there aren't a whole lot of excuses.  So no big deal in the end.

Again we timed our arrival perfectly for the hottest part of the day (around 1pm).  We purchased 2-day tickets for 26 JOD each and headed for the entry gate.  Trying to keep it real, we've stuck with long pants while in Jordan.  But upon entering Petra, we quickly learned the uniform for tourists here is short shorts and long white socks.  Duly noted.

The size of Petra is really staggering.  Throw in the weather conditions, and you really need to be smart and selective about what you attempt to see and do.  We're not going to get into all the history here, as that's a bit above our pay grade.  So here's the wikipedia entry if you need a primer.  Or rent Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

You enter Petra via the Siq, a narrow gorge, and after about 30-minutes of walking you end up with this in your sights:

 

That's the peek-a-boo view of the Treasury.  After emerging from the Siq completely, here it is in all its glory:

We then went the High Place of Sacrifice route looping down into Wadi Farasa and back to the main street.  It's a pretty healthy climb to the top, where the Nabateans performed religious ceremonies--likely including human sacrifices  Here's a view down:

We bumped into a dozen or so tourists up here, but then only saw one other tourist on the rest of the loop.  There are no directional signs at Petra, so unless you have your own guide book (we were using the Rough Guide) you really don't have a prayer of finding things off the main tourist track.

Plenty of Bedouins living down in Wadi Farasa with small gift tables, though.  You can see some of their goats hanging out here:

The below triclinium was one of our favorites.  Incredibly colorful and unique in that interiors were otherwise never carved.  There was crown molding on the ceiling and totally straight etchings around the windows.  Just amazing.

 

This is the view from the triclinium across to the Roman Soldier Tomb:

The Renaissance Tomb:

The Broken Pediment Tomb:

Five plus hours later we were back in the car and headed to our hotel to check-in.  We stayed at the Golden Tulip Kings Way Petra.  I got a pretty fantastic rate of $45 here thanks to an overly generous (and now expired) promotion from hotelclub.net.  It's supposed to be one of the nicer hotels in Petra, but it's definitely getting old and tired.  Though it absolutely served it's purpose.  If you don't have a car or aren't on a tour bus, there's no reason to stay here as it's a few km away from the main gate to Petra.

We relaxed here for a bit before heading out at 7:30pm for dinner.  We went to Red Cave on the tourist road outside the entry gate, and it was surprisingly good food.  Finally got to eat some of the lamb we've seen running around everywhere.

Then we went to Petra by Night at 8:30pm.  Two days per week, they light candles all down the Siq and around the Treasury.  You are ushered to a mat and served hot tea during a short performance of Bedouin music.  It's worth going to if you're there, but it's also super corny.  It's 12 JOD per ticket and you can buy these tickets at the Petra Visitors Center--all the guide books seem to say you need to buy them from some specific tourist agencies, but that's absolutely not the case.  Plus we purchased ours right before eating dinner that same night.

Here's a long exposure of the Treasury at night:

Second Day in Petra – The Last Crusade

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No breakfast at the hotel today, so we hit up a local bakery for a plate of baklava for breakfast.  Inappropriate but delicious.

This time at Petra we switched things up by not entering via the Siq.  Right before the Siq we took a right into Wadi Muthlim, disregarding the warning sign posted that suggests you take a guide down this route.  Pshaw.  Instead of sharing the Siq with hordes of other tourists, we had this thing all to ourselves.

Of course, there proved to be a few obstacles along the route which is otherwise simple to navigate.  Take for instance this:

 

That one really wasn't a big deal, but it did crack us up when we first caught a glimpse.  The next obstacle proved to be a much better story.  This route is prone to flash floods during the spring time, so is impassable during that time.  We got to experience some of the aftermath from said floods.

Sidd Majjn is the junction where we bumped into two other pairs of tourists.  One pair threw in the towel and headed home.  Here's what we were first faced with:

If you squint a little, you can see the brown pool of water in the path ahead.  It was at this point that a random Bedouin guy came by and nicely grunted/pointed the way along.  I first attempted some Spiderman action to avoid taking the plunge in the murky water.  But in the end, we just had to suck it up.

Luckily it was only knee deep water.  The random Bedouin was clutch later when pointing us to a shortcut that helped us avoid at least 100 more feet of this wading.

Good times in the end!  And what these pictures don't capture are the rock carvings on the walls above.  This is where Lillie insisted she really felt like Indiana Jones while admiring/wading.  Then we were finally in Wadi Mataha that eventually lead us back to the main street.  This little route took us a shade under two hours while we were usually doing the Siq in 30 minutes.  A shortcut it isn't!

Back on the main drag, the Monastery was our remaining sight for the day.  It's about an hour slog up many, many steps (we've now reached mid-day again, of course, so the sun was a-blazin').  You think you're in the middle of nowhere until you arrive at this:

 

There's actually a really nice cafe up here--complete with ice cold Coke for 2 JOD.  On a scorching hot day they were doing brisk business.  Lillie made friends with some 60-something Catalan men on the trail.  She had fun name dropping things from her year in Catalunya, and these dudes loved her.  For some reason, they asked the two of us to pose for a picture.  Would love to see that slideshow.  Those guys held back our pace a bit, but otherwise we were down to the bottom in thirty minutes.

We then took off for the exit through the Siq for the last time.  Another five-hour day at Petra in the books.  Awesome stuff.

Floating in the Dead Sea

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After leaving Petra, we drove north back to Tafileh and then west towards the Dead Sea Highway.  While descending towards the Dead Sea, we watched the temperature gauge in the car climb a full ten degrees Celsius.  Things settled in the 100 to 104 F range. 

At a police checkpoint (these are all over and standard procedure), the officer was excited to hear we were Americans and invited us to join him for tea.  As mentioned above, it was over 100 degrees and we politely declined.

The Dead Sea highway is a snap to drive--you can just cruise at 100 km/h on a straight road.  After about 3 hours from Petra, we arrived at Amman Beach.  For 12 JOD/person, they provide some nice access to a beach.  The men's changing room was pretty dank, but Lillie reports the women's to not be too bad.  There are also swimming pools and a cafe, but we didn't partake in any of that.  So it's a bit pricey for just a dip in the sea, but oh well.

Anyway, we were all business from the changing rooms and raced to the water--the weather was absolutely stifling.  It was pretty much as advertised.  You bob like a cork.  This was especially weird for me as a person prone to drowning.  We both had some chapped lips which were quickly burning thanks to the salt.  But my Chacos did get nice and clean after getting super mucky at Petra.

Floating in the Dead Sea

Then back on the highway and off to live it up in our nicest hotel in Jordan (possibly nicest of the trip)--Le Meridien Amman...

Driving in Amman

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Driving had been a breeze throughout Jordan, but it was only on the last night and following day that we had to navigate the streets of downtown Amman.  Oh my.

It's kinda like New York City driving, but take away the lane lines and all the other rules of the road you take for granted.  Basically, if you see room for your car to go...ya go.  Eventually got that hang of it, but it had its hairy moments, no doubt.  The biggest trouble is that our map situation for the city was garbage, so general navigating was unnecessarily difficult.  We've always bought maps from Amazon in the past, not sure why we didn't this time.

After much nonsense driving, we finally got to the Le Meridien Amman at 8pm.  I scored a sweet rate on a Royal Club Room there that included breakfast, 4pm checkout, free internet, and free drinks in their club lounge.  Racked up lots of Starwood points for the stay in the process, too.  This proved to be a very cozy place to hang out after a few days cooking in the sun.

Le Meridien Amman

Our big project after breakfast the next morning was to find a place to do some laundry (the hotel's pricing was just off the charts silly for a big load).  After a chat with the concierge, we fast learned that Jordanians don't do self-laundromats, but he pointed us to a dry cleaner a ten minute walk away.  This all worked out quite well, albeit much more expensive than we'd have liked.  We had to pay a 50% rush charge which brought our total to 44 JOD.  But now we have non sweat and sand drenched clothing for the East Africa portion of our trip.

Hertz Jordan gets a big thumbs down for pointing out a scratch on the car and proceeding to charge me 60 JOD for it.  First time this has ever happened to us, so we'll see if our friends at Amex can help us out when we get back home.

And it was while processing this annoying paperwork at Hertz Jordan that we were about to hit another speed bump along the way...

Hot Travel Tip for the Day

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Don't arrive at 4:05pm for the flight you think leaves at 5:45pm, but in fact leaves at 4:15pm.  Ooops!

It only took a solid four hours for Team Royal Jordanian at the Amman airport to get us boarding passes for the later 10pm flight to Tel Aviv.  We dealt with no less than ten people to get this sorted out.  Early in the process a check-in agent said: "you're going to Addis Ababa, yeah?"  While Ethiopia is pretty high on our travel list, Entebbe is our actual destination this time.

We spent a little time in the "Departure Manager's office" in the back of the airport through this episode.  This is where all sorts of angry passengers stormed in yelling in Arabic while Lillie and I sat in the corner with big grins on our faces, completely amused.  The Departure Manager at one point said to Lillie in English: "This man comes to me with no passport trying to get onto his international flight.  Do you see what I have to deal with all day?"  All of the requests seemed equally ridiculous with very unrelenting hopeful passengers.  Needless to say, we didn't yell once. 

The whole episode appropriately concluded with the ticketing agent saying "what the hell is the deal with this ticket?!" while handing us our boarding passes.  Smiles all around and we shook hands with a big thank you.  The downside to missing our original flight is that we missed our reservation at Eucalyptus in Jerusalem.  We were pretty pumped about that meal, so we'll save that for next time.

The pretty new Crown Club lounge at Amman is quite nice, by the way.  Got some lentil soup and drank some 7-Up.  Nicest feature of the place are little individual TV cubicles.  There's also a snooker table if you fancy that.  Plus don't forget to check out the family portrait of King Abdullah and Queen Rania by the entrance.  Decent place to spend a few unexpected hours at ol' Queen Alia International.

Crown Club at AMM

And just to explain a bit, in order to get from Jordan to Uganda our routing was forced to be rather horrible.  So now we're at the beginning of a long trek through many airports.

Transiting Tel Aviv

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We came off our flight from Amman and followed the transit passenger signs only to end up in a completely empty baggage claim area with a security section all closed up.  There was a phone on the wall and a sign with a number for transiting passengers to dial.  I called, briefly explained where we were coming from/going, and the woman said they'd be right down. 

Next thing you know, we had seven people down there tending to the two of us: two airport employees, two baggage screeners, two security agents, and a Malev agent to check us in for our onward flight to Budapest.  The security questions were relatively tame (how long have you been married being the only personal one), and everyone seemed to get a big kick out of our trip and itinerary.

The whole process took about 70 minutes.  One upside to having not gone to Jerusalem is that now our passports do not have Israel stamps. We can keep our travel options in the Middle East open for the last 8 years of our passports' lives.  Lots of possibilities…

We spent the layover in the Dan lounge to try to get a few hours of sleep before the next flight.  Not terribly successful at that as they insisted on playing a horrible soundtrack over the loudspeaker.  Below is Lillie getting her Facebook on via iPhone.  You know we're in Israel because if you squint you can see a dude's yamika over her left shoulder.

At the Dan lounge in TLV

A Few Hours in Budapest

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If there was a flight on our itinerary that we had exceptionally low expectations for, it was Malev Hungarian from TLV-BUD.  It didn't disappoint.  I won't bag on them too much as they are essentially a bankrupt airline, but the breakfast was horrible (I don't even want to post the photo!) and the service spotty.  They got us to Budapest a few minutes early, so in the end that's all that really matters on a flight like this.  The one highlight was the flight attendant randomly talking to Lillie in Hungarian when we first got on the flight (Lillie's roots are in Hungary, or a fourth of them, at least).

With five hours before our next flight we hopped the 200E bus to Kobanya Kispest and then transferred to the M3 train to Deak Ferenc—290 Forint for each leg of the journey that took 45 minutes each way in total.  Very easy and a fraction of the price of a taxi.

At 9am the weather was absolutely beautiful and we roamed around for two hours before heading back to the airport.  Here's the first building/sign seen upon coming out of the subway station:

Ford Tough

We stopped at a small coffee shop and grabbed some snacks to eat in the park.  Lillie's parents whip up a tastier version of the bottom pastry for the Gerencser family reunion each year.

SONY DSC

Walked down to the Danube…

Danube

We saw the below street sign in several places.  Anybody have an idea what it means?  Men in top hats shouldn't solicit children to hold hands with them?

Weird Sign 

Budapest was an incredibly quiet city.  And by that we mean we saw lots of people, but nobody was talking. Or maybe they were whispering.  It was quite odd and quite pleasant at the same time.  This sense of peace could also be a result of missing the constant car horn blaring of Amman. 

Back at the Budapest airport we checked out Malev's Millennium Lounge before our British Airways flight to Heathrow.  Keeping with the Malev spirit, it was kind of terrible.  Horrible chairs and Pepsi products.  Nuff said. 

SONY DSC

The independently run Platinum Lounge across the hall is the much better option (both accessible to BA passengers in business class).

En Route to Uganda

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We're currently killing time in the Galleries Club at T5 in Heathrow (this club is top notch--just ate some ice cream).  We board our flight to Entebbe in a couple hours and then our internet access takes a nose dive for a bit.

I think our hotel in Ruhengeri, Rwanda on May 24 will have some internets.  If so, we hope to deliver a photo or two from our first visit with the mountain gorillas of Nkuringo that happens on May 23 in Uganda.

Gotta run for our massages at the Elemis Travel Spa here in the lounge, now.  Until later...

Arriving in Uganda and Driving to Kisoro

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Full house in business class on the BA flight to Entebbe.  Very good flight attendants, average food, and a decent night's sleep in the older 767 Club World seats.  So no big complaints, really.

Lamb Chops Fruit, Tea, and a Fruit Smoothie

On arrival we purchased visas for $50 USD each and were then relieved to find our bags on the carousel.  I was concerned they wouldn't do well transiting all those airports with us.  We had a bit of a snafu with our airport pickup, but we eventually got things sorted out, losing about an hour in the process.  For anyone arriving in Entebbe, there are loads of banks and cell phone shops after exiting baggage claim.

Following all these flights, we had a quite long drive to our first destination of Kisoro, Uganda.  It's about 500km and with the road conditions this was about 9 hours driving.  Ugandans are apparently quite good at cramming many people into their cars:

Full House

Two points that somewhat surprised us about Uganda initially.  (1) the main roads are in worse condition than Madagascar's.  Never thought such a thing was possible!  (2) the landscape is more stunning than we could have ever thought.  Coming out from the clouds on British Airways we were immediately taken aback by just how GREEN the land was.  Then as we started passing food stalls on the road, we realized the farms are producing a huge variety of fresh produce (everything you can imagine from pineapple to avocados to sorghum).  We'll attempt to capture these points in photos further down the road...

We made the obligatory stop en route at the Equator.  We also passed through the Equator precisely a year ago while in the Galapagos, so we're vets at that.

OMG

For lunch we stopped in Mbarara at City Top Restaurant.  I found a tip somewhere online about this Indian restaurant run by some brothers from Tamil Nadu (my family's 'hood).  Definitely recommended as a change of pace from eating at tourist hotels.  Below is what parothas (very good) and "meat roast" (turns out to be lamb gravy--my mom's is better) shakes out to.

City Top Restaurant

After lunch and many more hours, the road eventually brought us to Kisoro where we stayed at the Traveller's Rest Hotel.  Maybe a tad pricey for some at $120 USD for full board, but we loved our stay here and I can't imagine a better place in this town.  It's managed by a Dutchman and watched over be a friendly brother/sister pair of Rottweilers.  All three of them were great to spend time with.

Traveler's Rest Hotel

Nice, clean, and big room (this is the Mutanda room we stayed in).  And there's even scalding hot, solar-heated showers if you fancy.

Mutanda Room

The food was phenomenal.  The menu below might seem silly for a a small village in southwest Uganda, but consider that it's all made with very local and fresh ingredients and it was simply delicious.  Plus breakfasts feature honey made from the local bees.

Traveler's Rest Dinner Menu

So after a night's rest, the following day would be what we really came on this trip for.  Mountain Gorillas...

Nkuringo Mountain Gorillas Teaser

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Adorable Nkuringo Infant

While the photography was frustrating, the first day's gorilla tracking of the Nkuringo group in Uganda was a great success.  We even got a few keeper photographs.  Most importantly, it was just an unbelievable and memorable experience overall.  We've had some thrilling wildlife sightings the past couple years, but seeing a few of these 700 remaining beauties in their natural habitat easily takes the cake.

We're posting this from Musanze, Rwanda (formerly called Rugengeri), whereabouts today we'll spend another hour with a different group of mountain gorillas.  And it's also where the internet bandwidth is limited and thus photo uploading slow.  So this is regrettably all we will provide for now!  We'll be at the Sheraton Kampala in two days and I hear they have one of the fastest connections in East Africa.  If so, I'll be putting it to the test...

So please do check back soon!  We hope to make it worthwhile for the majority of you who don't care for airplane food photos...

Tracking the Nkuringo Mountain Gorillas

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Email and RSS subscribers will likely need to click over to klugusamy.com to view the below photos--sorry 'bout that.

We had breakfast at the dark hour of 5:30am and were in the Land Cruiser at 6:00am for the bumpy 1.5 hour drive up to Nkuringo from Kisoro.  At 7:30am we were at the Uganda Wildlife Authority's little "headquarters".  The main gorilla tracking operation in Uganda is in Buhoma, so this little outstation very much reflected that it's an outstation.

No matter, we soon found out we were the lone tourists for the day.  Nice!  (more on this lack of traffic at the bottom*)  Lillie and I each hired a porter (~10 USD) to carry our packs and we set off with our guide, the porters, and two guys with guns.  Funny that we never even wondered why these guys had guns, at the time.  Gun = African walking stick, some say.  In reality, they are to scare off angry elephants or buffalos that might be encountered along the way.

To get to the mountain gorillas at Nkuringo, it's a quite steep initial downhill climb.  Fortunately for Lillie, the Ugandan Porters feel very much so obliged to your safety throughout the trek.  Godfrey carried her backpack but also held her hand on any steep, slippery sections of the non-trail.  From there, it depends on where the gorillas are hanging out.  We've heard that it can get quite strenuous getting to this group, but we were fortunate.  Less than an hour, and we had arrived.

Just before you get to the gorillas, you meet up with the trackers and are required to drop your packs and take only what you need on your body (no food or water allowed).  This is to ensure no gorillas go running away with your lunch box (amongst other things).  Then we proceeded with two park rangers to spend an hour with these mountain gorillas.  There are 19 members of this group--including six month old twins!

Instead of the usual long scroll through inline photos, I'm giving an embedded slideshow a whirl below.  You'll need Flash, but otherwise please leave a comment if you have any troubles viewing.

 

It was still early in the morning and most of the group were just getting up and eating breakfast.  We stayed in pretty much the same position for the hour while the entire group went about their business immediately surrounding us.  Seven meters is the official line on the distance you keep.  In reality, the mountain gorillas are unaware of this rule. 

As mentioned previously, taking photos was pretty tricky.  You're in a dense jungle with low light and there is always a blade of grass or leaf in the way of your shot.  On some of the photos above you'll see what looks like lots of brown dust on the lens--those are actually dense clusters of flies.

An hour passes pretty fast.  Time flies when you're having fun, I guess.  It was hot and horribly humid (for us) on the steep climb back up.  We charged up at a very speedy pace and were back to the station in an hour.  The rangers complimented us for being "very strong".  We would have stopped for more breaks had we known that was the impression we gave.  Less than three hours roundtrip, in the end.  But that's very much a "your miles may vary" situation.

We drove back to Kisoro to eat the packed lunch we didn't get a chance to eat while tracking.  We got the "you're already back?" from everyone at Traveler's Rest Hotel.  Speaking of which, they make a very nice packed lunch for this occasion.  We sat in their garden watching the birds and Rottweilers play before retiring to our room for a nap.

Happy to say it was a tremendous experience, and worth all the money and travel required.  And it was great knowing we would give it another go in Rwanda in two days...


*Some commentary on Nkuringo.  From what we gather, this outstation is being horribly mismanaged.  There are eight permits per day available and six of the permits are allocated to Clouds Mountain Resort--a $900/night lodge nearby.  The existence of this lodge is insane.  I can't imagine anyone paying that kind of money to stay at a lodge that requires a quite bumpy road of more than three hours from Kabale to reach.  Plus, I can't imagine people paying that much money being interested in enduring what is a very strenuous trek to reach to the gorillas.

To these points, it seems nobody is staying at this lodge.  Thus partly explaining why there were only the two of us tracking the group that day.  On the flip side, I'd say this is an excellent opportunity for some travelers to take advantage of.  It was quite a luxury having the gorillas all to ourselves!  On a sad note, I think USAID was involved with funding some of this madness.  I'll do some research on that another day.

Birding on Lake Mutanda

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Email and RSS subscribers will need to click over to klugusamy.com to view the below photos--sorry 'bout that.

Baker (our fantastic driver) hooked us up with Gerald, a Kisoro resident who knows his birds.  We paid him about $40 USD for 5+ hours of hiking and birding around Lake Mutanda.  This turned out to be a really great little side trip that wasn't on our itinerary.

Lake Mutanda

We hopped out of the car and started the walk down towards the lake.  Lots of birds along the way.  Below is a selection with IDs in the captions (please post a comment if you spot any we've misidentified - certainly possible).  One bummer is that we somehow only saw Crested Cranes from a long distance on two occasions.  We went into the trip thinking we'd be tripping all over these guys.  (They are Uganda's bald eagle)

 

We also met here the Kisoro Parrots.  These were young kids yelling "How are you!" (notice the exclamation point and not question mark) and "Give me money!"  To that one, Gerald told me to respond right back with "Give me money!".  This only seemed to cause confusion, however.

We were a bit off the beaten path here, so these kids aren't seeing a whole lot of Muzungu (foreigners) and we were thus a big novelty.  Our group of three often swelled to ten or more when a troop of kids would start following.  We've got a pretty strict 'no photos of people' policy, but since these kiddos were begging to have their photos taken, we were happy to oblige. 

 

Another fun part of this side trip was riding a dug out canoe across the lake.  We paid about $5 to a local guy for a pleasant 45 minute paddle.  Even while in the middle of the lake we could hear the Kisoro Parrots yelling our direction.  Here's the chariot we cruised in:

Canoein'

Back in the car around 2:30pm, we headed back into Kisoro for a late lunch.  We gave some local food a whirl--goat (me), scrawny chicken (Lillie), with rice, matoke and ugali.  Not too shabby and only about $3.

This is the goat variety.  It was goaty.

After lunch, we made the less than two hour drive across the border down to Musanze, Rwanda.  This would be the jumping off point for our next gorilla tracking outing...

(This post is mostly about travel particulars, so likely quite boring to those not planning such a trip.  Just fair warning...)

Crossing borders by land in Africa is always a potential treasure trove of stories.  (Our highlight being an immigration official in Kasika, Namibia not being there, and having to be rounded up from the bar to come down and stamp our passports.)

This wasn't terribly exciting, but the ridiculous amount of paperwork and bureaucracy is always amusing.  We first went to a little shed with a Ugandan police officer who took down our information.  We told him our professions were "marketing" and "HR".  He didn't seem to believe that these were real jobs, but he didn't press us.  He then gave us a tiny piece of scrap paper with his initials on it to take to Immigration. 

At Ugandan Immigration we filled out our departure cards, turned in our previously acquired scraps of paper, and quickly had our exit stamps in our passport.

While Baker was handling all the paperwork to bring the car into Rwanda, we walked over to Rwanda to get our entry stamp there.  A little tip if you're making this walk: don't take a shortcut in the grass.  Stick to the road.  The Rwandan police politely summoned us to explain that the grass is not to be used for border crossing.  Lesson learned.  Americans get a free Visa on arrival in Rwanda, so we filled out our arrival cards and were quickly good to go.

As mentioned before, our driver handled all the paperwork for the car at the border.  But here are some details on that to give you an idea of the costs involved.  You need a Cart D'Entree that cost us 15,000 Rwandan Francs.  And you'll also need to buy some car insurance which set us back 10,040 Rwandan Francs.  So about $45 USD.

Money in Rwanda is sorta odd.  ATMs there don't accept foreign cards, so with Baker's assistance we did some ForEx at the border for some Rwandan Francs to last us a day.  We probably lost like $5 due to a shoddy rate, but it worked for the given situation.

The first things we noticed as we started driving in Rwanda: (1) they drive on the "right" side, (2) they have very nicely paved roads, (3) their roads are very narrow, (4) there are ditches next to the road/no sidewalks for people, and (5) the roads seem even narrower due to the hordes of people walking six abreast on them.  Baker did not seem to appreciate Rwanda giving pedestrians the right of the road.  His speed was also quite curbed from Uganda.

We elected to stay in Musanze, which is less than 30-minutes from the Parc de Volcans headquarters that is the morning meeting place for gorilla tracking in Rwanda.  There are many options closer to the park headquarters, but for $65 USD we got a brand new, clean room with a decent enough wifi connection and DSTV at the Virunga Hotel.  I painlessly booked directly with them via email.

The downsides to staying here were that street noise late at night can be a bit loud, and we also learned that since they don't really cater to gorilla tourists, their concept of a packed lunch was quite poor, but the wifi was really great!  Plus the view from the room wasn't too shabby:

View from Virunga Hotel

One quirk about the room: can anybody explain if it's possible to shower in a shower without a shower curtain and not drench the rest of the bathroom?

Wet Bathroom

We went for dinner at the Tourist Rest Hotel where we found a buffet.  It reminded me of the Vegas Vacation line: "Best buck forty-nine boofet in town."  However this buffet was closer to $2.99.

There was a menu laying on the table and Lillie for some crazy reason made the assumption that just because something was on the menu that they actually served said item.  She asked for some chocolate crepes for dessert.  After much consultation amongst the staff, they agreed they could make it.  Twenty five minutes later (after a trip to the store?) they brought out the crepes.

Can't imagine there are too many culinary gems in Musanze, so this place was definitely fine.  And the staff very nice.

We obviously would have had a more peaceful and tranquil experience staying outside of town and nearer the park.  But we found it to be a nice little change of pace staying in town.  Also the price was attractive to us. 

Tracking the Group 13 Mountain Gorillas

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Email and RSS subscribers will need to click over to klugusamy.com to view the below photos--sorry 'bout that.

After a 6am breakfast at the Virunga Hotel, we headed over to Parc des Volcans headquarters in Kinigi, the meeting place for gorilla tracking.  The facilities at this place were exactly the opposite of Nkuringo's.  This was also the first time on this portion of the trip we encountered hordes of tourists.  It was a full house for gorilla tracking here with lots of tour groups present.  We were blown away by all these folks doing 60 and 90-day overland tours through Africa.

This time we'd have a full group of eight tourists, and we'd be tracking Group 13.  Groups are assigned a bit randomly on the day of, so you have little control, but this turned out to be a great group.  There are 28 gorillas in the once more accurately named Group 13.

(Coincidentally, on a later flight this trip we watched Natalie Portman and Jack Hannah track Group 13 in Saving a Species.)

After the initial orientation with our guides we hopped back into the car for a short 20-minute drive on a horrendous road to get to our starting point.  We walked a whopping one hour through very muddy farm fields until we were told we'd arrived.  Just like in Uganda, you drop your packs and only take what you need on your body (though a small camera bag is apparently acceptable).

We hopped over a five-foot stone buffalo wall and within a few minutes of bushwhacking had met the silverback.  Whereas with Nkuringo we basically stood in one place and watched all the gorillas surround us for the hour, here we were constantly moving as everyone in the group was very active.  Lots of scrambling through freshly bushwhacked trails to keep up.

One of the most amazing sights was the silverback climbing fifteen feet in the air to sit in some trees that then collapsed to the ground under his weight.  We sat watching him up there, listening to the cracking limbs, and waiting expectantly for the tumble.  The silverback wasn't fazed by the fall one bit, though.  It's dense enough rainforest that his fall was slowed by vines, bamboo, and other trees.  It was often hard to decide where to look as we were completely surrounded - both high and low - by this family of gorillas. 

Also memorable was a little guy who was just hamming it up for us.  He'd do a somersault, thump on his chest a la King Kong, and repeat.  Occasionally he'd also engage in some roundhouse kicks while playing with another infant.  Precious stuff.

Some of the better photos from the outing:

 

We were very glad to have seen the mountain gorillas twice and in two different locations.  They were completely different experiences.  This is obviously an expensive proposition, but definitely recommended if you can make it happen.  Also regarding bush-whacking: there was some ridiculous stinging nettle here, so covering up and wearing gloves can be a very good idea.  It's not like the stinging nettle we have here in Washington, either.  These leaves are as big as your open hand.

Once again, we were done in three hours.  This worked out nicely as we were driving back up to Uganda to Lake Bunyonyi afterwards.  As we were driving out on that horrendous road, a five year old boy ran along side the Land Cruiser for a few minutes (that's how slow we were driving) while waving and singing: "Bye bye Muzungu!  Bye bye Muzungu..." over and over and over...

I Left My Glasses at Lake Bunyonyi

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As much as I had gots to get them, I did not (if you're not hip to the reference).  These specs I left behind were a solid twelve years old and no doubt still fashionable, so it was a little sad to have accidentally left them behind.  Oh well, I just got back from Costco where I ordered some hopefully equally stylish glasses.

Anyway, after leaving the gorillas behind in Rwanda we made the three plus hour drive to Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda.  For the most part, it was mission accomplished on this leg of the trip.  We just had to make the drvie back up to Kampala/Entebbe for our flight out.

Border formalities were more of the same as previously.  The only bummer being that Uganda only does single-entry visas, thus we had to drop another $50 USD each to reenter Uganda.  (The Ugandan immigration guy told me we could get multi-entry visas from the Embassy before arrival, but they cost more than $200.  Not cost-efficient for our needs.)

There's Lake Bunyonyi in the distance en route:

We spent the night at Bunyonyi Overland Resort--at about $35 USD for the night it's very good value.  The rooms are rather tired (albeit clean), but the property is just outstanding.  The gardening is really first class.  This is a pathway along the lakeshore:

The food in the restaurant and service were also top class.  I had fresh crayfish from the lake while Lillie had a Hawaiian pizza (with a chapati serving as the crust).  I was initially critical of the Hawaiian pizza selection, but the pineapple we ate every morning in Uganda was always amazing and Lillie's logic quickly made sense.

Really nothing else to report here other than that this is a nice place to stopover, and to be on the lookout for my glasses if you pass through Cottage #5.  Otherwise, the most exciting thing we did here was lay in the putting green-like grass:

The Road to Lake Mburo National Park

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We bounced out of Lake Bunyonyi at 8am to start the five hour drive up to Kampala, where we'd spend our final night in Uganda.

On the way, we made a detour onto the road that leads to Lake Mburo National Park.  The idea was to catch a glimpse of some Burchell's Zebra and Eland.  Technically, you shouldn't be driving on this road unless you plan on continuing all the way to pay the park entrance fee.  So in theory, we were breaking the law here.  The upside is that we caught a glimpse of both of these guys, albeit from a pretty decent distance.

This photo is really horrible, but it at least shows both the zebra and the eland:

This was a nice little bonus treat as we'd never seen either of these guys before.  Also along this road, we got ice grilled by a water buck:

We stopped for lunch around Masaka where we ate a "rolex"--it's a rolled up chapati with an omelet inside.  Variations of this are a very popular street food in Uganda.  Very tasty.

Soon enough, after fighting the rather terrible city traffic, we were in Kampala checking in at the Sheraton for our final night...

Back to Kampala and Out of Uganda

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We used 4K Starwood points to stay at the Sheraton Kampala (excellent value, although it now costs 7K+).  We were booked into their lowest category "Classic" room, but thanks to SPG Gold status were upgraded to a "Superior" room on an upper SPG floor.  SPG Gold is pretty easy to acquire one way or another, and these little upgrades definitely keep us loyal. 

I was pumped about the free wireless internet available here, but then was less pumped to find it running at 4 kbp/s.  A nice room on the 9th floor, though it looked a bit neater at check-in:

Sheraton Kampala Room

At the same time, this hotel is a bit ridiculous with all the NGO peeps running around fighting poverty and such.  We mingled with them at dinner, where a Korean trio with a scantly clad female member sang slow jams like Desperado, and I mistakenly ordered a Mexicana Pizza.  (The first and only time I felt ill from food on this trip...an obviously stupid decision.)

We had grand plans of cleaning some clothes in Kampala.  With our time constraints this turned into a dead end.  The Sheraton wanted $10 for a single pair of pants, so that was a no go.  However, this Kwik Wash place could be a great asset for others.  We crossed our fingers we'd be able to figure out something at our next destination.

At 6:30am we started the 30+ minute drive (with no traffic) to the Entebbe airport for our 9am BA flight back to Heathrow.  Here we said farewell to Baker.  Great guy that we would recommend without any reservations (more on this later).

Lillie and Baker

At EBB, business class passengers get access to the Karibuni lounge after security.  I had very low expectations for this place and was blown away.  Big (and clean) leather couches everywhere, computers with a reasonable internet connection, and delicious samosas that we ate too many of for 8am:

Samosas!

The BA flight was just another BA flight, which is typically a good thing for us.  The only downside being the Club World seats on the 767s they send to EBB are in really dire condition.  Though there really aren't too many glamorous options otherwise, so no big deal.  (Had we paid full price, I might not be saying that.)

Just for the sake of completeness, our BA brunch (which wasn't all that amazing):

Salad of roast tomato and peppers topped with garlic and anchovy  Grilled tilapia with lemon garlic butter Marinated grilled chicken served on pesto risotto


Notes regarding the planning of the gorilla tracking portion of the trip:  I started by creating an itinerary that would allow us to track gorillas on both sides of the border.  This was shaped by various trip reports online, the Bradt guide, and the BA flight schedules since they only fly 3x per week.  All of this to achieve a nice balance in comfort with cost

My attempt to save some money had me booking things a bit a la carte.  I wanted to have total transparency into how much everything costs--I'm not a fan of the convenience that a single package price provides.  I arranged all our accommodations directly with the hotels via email.  For a car hire with driver and gorilla permits, I exchanged emails with different tour organizers from this Association of Uganda Tour Operators (AUTO) list.

In the end, I settled on Crystal Safaris because they answered emails promptly and were a simple $100/day for Land Cruiser and driver for five days, plus actual cost of permits.  We were responsible for paying for petrol along the way--this came out to $186.75.  We prepaid for the car and permits in advance via wire.

Considering the quality of Baker, I am supremely satisfied with the value received.  He was smart, punctual, anticipated any needs, funny, and spoke perfect English.  We are very picky people, and we would recommend Baker to everyone we know. 

Onwards to Kyoto, Japan

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There were definitely a few times at the end of our stay in Uganda where we were thinking: "We're going to Japan, next?"  Indeed. 

We had a nice and relatively short layover at Heathrow this time (3 hours).  By the time we did the T5 to T3 hokey pokey this was down to 2 hours.  We passed the rest of the time in the Japan Airlines Sakura Lounge—not that great of a lounge, but it was good to start consuming some Japanese beer and snacks.

Beer Nuts

This London to Tokyo flight was our longest of the trip thus far at about 11 hours flying time.  Sadly, their Shell Flat Seat was probably the weakest seat we've encountered (relatively speaking!).  Yeah, it's flat…but at a wicked angle.  Many hours of sleep were still achieved, though. 

For the meal service, I went Japanese and Lillie was soft and went Western.  First the Western meal. The starters (picture on the left) were: chicken liver and wild mushroom pate, prawn & gravlax, and a fresh salad with olive oil and balsamic dressing.  And the main dish is a fillet of beef with red wine and herb sauce.

Amuse Bouche Organic Australian fillet of beef steak served with herb flavor rich sauce made from red wine.  Accompanied by leek and potato gratin, sauteed spinach, and carrots.

The Japanese meal was the most elaborate airplane meal I've ever had.

Left to right in the izakaya style starters (picture on the left): tofu custard with crabmeat; fillet of sea-bass sashimi style; tuna sashimi with yam sauce; fired marinated small fish; Japanese noodle somen; grilled chicken Japanese style; deep-simmered vegetable; and sake-steamed whelk.

And the main course is braised Iberico pork with tofu custard; steamed Koshihikari rice; Japanese pickles; and miso soup.

Kobachi Dainomono

Before landing, we got our snacks on.  On the left is my Chinese ramen noodles in soy sauce flavor soup with Kagoshima pork fillet.  Lillie's tray on the right has Japanese udon noodles in soup with fried bean curd.

IMG_0070 IMG_0071

One of the main reasons we were going to Japan at the end of the trip was for the food, so this was all a nice way to kick things off.  Upon landing at Tokyo-Narita, we got our first glimpse of the surgical mask craze in Japan as we went through a health screening to ease concerns we had swine flu.  It was just a few yes/no questions, so no big deal and we had our free visas soon enough.

We had a short hour and a half layover here before our connection to Osaka-Itami that we spent at another JAL Sakura Lounge.  All sorts of awkwardness here as I was trying to make some green tea for myself.  Only to have an old Japanese women push me to the side and take over.  Watching her it was very clear that I was doing many things wrong and I was thankful for her intervention.

After a completely uneventful domestic flight to ITM, we landed at 6pm.  The next step was to hop onto the Airport Limo bus to Kyoto.  Within seconds of stepping up the automated ticket kiosks, we had tickets in our hands, and marveled at how easy it was.  Our fingers were crossed that everything would be this easy in Japan…

It's a 50-minute ride on the bus to Kyoto Station and it's very nice.  You'd almost think you're riding some light rail it's so quiet and smooth.

Once at Kyoto Station, our final destination was the Westin Miyako.  Only two subway trains to go to get there!  Like our previous bus tickets, this subway ticket machine was an equally pleasurable experience.  Very quickly we had two tickets to take us to the Keage station right next to the Westin.  We high fived as we walked into the hotel less than 90-minutes after landing at ITM.

We set out by foot randomly looking for food and fast realized there isn't a whole lot in the immediate area.  Then we stumbled on a 7-11 and grabbed some (what turned out to be delicious) little packaged dinners.  I also picked up a little guy of Haagen Dazs green tea ice cream to wash it down. 

Then back at the Westin late at night we started fighting jet lag for the first time on the trip…

Big First Day Roaming Kyoto

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In pre-trip planning for Kyoto, we came up with a rough list of things we wanted to do.  It provided a nice backbone for once we are on the ground to play things by ear with some ideas in our pocket.

The forecast for the day was thunderstorms.  The actual weather was blue skies and sunshine.  Simply beautiful.  We started the day by purchasing a 2-day bus/subway pass for 2,000 yen each.  Again, we had great success purchasing this from a machine without assistance.  The rest of the day was spent ping ponging around town on public transit—which was stunningly easy to navigate.

Highlights of the day were: doing laundry (!), four different temples and gardens, kaiten-zushi for lunch, fish chewing on our feet at a spa (!!), and tonkatsu for dinner.

It was a uniquely Japanese day—a nice day it was.  I'm going to group this first day up into common themes, rather than writing totally chronological.  To be honest, we simply aren't going to be able to maintain the same level of excitement as earlier reports on baby gorillas.  Regardless, hopefully you'll stick around for these last few dispatches, and find some nugget of entertainment value in them…

Laundry in Kyoto

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We've done the washing clothes in the sink thing in the past and just aren't sold on how "clean" your clothes really get.  So on this trip we decided we'd pay to have our clothes cleaned.  Unfortunately, we had terrible difficulty finding places to clean our clothes given our travel schedule.  Then when we did have time, we were staying at swankier hotels that wanted $10/pants.  No thanks.

We asked the concierge at the Westin Kyoto about the whereabouts of a coin laundry.  Our expectations were far-exceeded when she ran into a back office and came back with a nice pre-printed map.  (See said map here)

This laundromat was a treat and weirdly a highlight.  The sign alone was welcoming:

There was just enough English signage that we had no troubles operating the machines and we were out of there in less than an hour.  The only bummer was that we didn't have a pair of shoes handy to give this guy a spin:

Temples and Gardens

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The list of potential temples and gardens to visit in Kyoto is pretty ridiculous.  On our first day, we decided on: Kodaiji, Kiyomizu, Kinkakuji, and Ryoanji.  For some reason, I didn't take any photos at Kodaiji.  As for the rest:

Kiyomizu is a zoo.  Hordes and hordes of tourists (almost all Japanese) here.  From watching others have their photos taken at the entrance, this is apparently how you are supposed to pose:

Kinkakuji, the Golden Temple Pavilion, was stunning.

Ryoanji was one of our favorites—it's a Zen rock garden.  Due to some construction of the viewing platform, it was especially difficult to get a good photo.  Sitting and looking at 15 rocks and gravel might not be for everyone, but we quite enjoyed it.

We also caught a nice glimpse of a Great Blue Heron at Ryoanji.  We see these on just about every trip we go on (in North America, South America, and Africa), so it was nice to add this trip (and Asia) to that list.  Never gets old seeing this awesome bird.

Kaiten-Zushi

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We stumbled on one of these at a perfect time when we were starving.  It's right between Ryoanji and Kinkakuji and easy to spot.  Most everything on the menu/conveyor belt is 110 yen.  The food really wasn't that great here, but the experience was what it was all about.

Here's what our little booth looked like:

There is no reason to ever deal with a waiter here.  That black spigot looking thing spits out boiling water so you can mix up your own green tea.  Then you chuck your empty plates into the metal area in the bottom of the photo—which then tallies up how many plates you ate for billing purposes.

If you don't see what you want on the belt, just hop on your little touchscreen LCD:

Select what you want (and how many) and the order is sent to the kitchen.  When your item is about five feet away on the conveyor belt, your LCD screen starts going crazy alerting you to be ready to grab it.

This was the future.

Doctor Fish in Kyoto

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I don't know whose feet these are, but it pretty clearly illustrates what we did (no photos allowed where we were):

 Doctor Fish on random feet

This was a pretty unplanned venture.  We had heard and read about Doctor Fish, so we asked the concierge if there were any places in Kyoto that offered this.  The concierge immediately started laughing and said she'd done it before.  She hopped on the computer and gave us a printout with the below map to this place:

Where to go

Yeah, not a really helpful map if you don't know Japanese.  With the assistance of seven other Kyoto maps, we were able to triangulate this place to be at the Oitaguchi stop on the #11 bus.  This was an absolute shock we successfully made it here with no issues (lots of high fives).

Thanks to the printout, we were able to match the logo on the website to the logo on the front door:

As mentioned, there's no photography allowed inside this onsen.  And there's no English going on inside this place either.  After a 1,000 yen entry fee each, we got 15 minutes of foot soaking time with these dead skin eating fish for another 500 yen each.

Hard to say if our feet were in any better shape afterwards.  Can say that it tickles like none other.  Again, an awesomely unique Japanese experience.

We ended the night with delicious tonkatsu at Katsukura on the top of Kyoto Station.  Sad to not have photos of this meal as it was one of the best of the trip.  Breaded, deep-fried pork cutlets are always pretty good, but this was next level.

This concluded a solid 13+ hour day roaming Kyoto.  We were happy to tuck ourselves into the Heavenly Bed at the Westin…

Checking Out From the Westin Miyako Kyoto

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I'm pretty loyal to the Starwood program if you can't tell, so we spent two nights at the Westin Miyako Kyoto to start the Japanese portion of our trip.  I had a pretty decent rate for the first night and a cash and points stay for the second night.  As usual, we got bumped up a room category to a much larger room thanks to SPG Gold status.

We are very messy

Nice enough view from the window:

The best part of the room was this, though:

It's very important to always know where the STOP button is…

The Heavenly Bed did it's job on our second night here—we barely made our 1pm late checkout.  The jet lag and exhaustion from the trip had finally caught up with us.  This day was pretty squandered, but our bodies weren't going to let us have it any other way.

Our only real accomplishment for the day was checking out a 100 yen shop.  It was a bit disappointing in that there was nothing "weird" there.  Just about everything was rather nice and super practical.  We came out of there with some chopsticks.

Tired from not doing anything all day, we threw in the towel at 5pm and popped over to where we'd spend our final night in Kyoto…

Kikokuso Ryokan

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Kikokuso Outside

For this last night in Kyoto, we stayed in a traditional Japanese guest house.  I can't imagine having made a better pick than Kikokuso.  This place is run by a completely adorable husband and wife team.  Up until last year you'd also be greeted by their Shiba Inu named Gonta.  There is a small memorial to Gonta when you enter, and there's no doubt that his presence would have made the place just a bit more perfect.

The courtyard garden was impressive.  This ability to turn the smallest of spaces into such beautiful gardens is just amazing.

An iPhone shot of the Japanese bath.  This bath was pretty cool—when you flipped the faucet for more water, it would come dribbling out of the rock wall.  I love a boiling hot shower, but I found myself suffocating in this total body heat.

Caliente!

The beds at these ryokans are simple futon mattresses on the floor.  After you wake up, the staff quickly rolls them back up until its bedtime again.  As a result, I missed that photo-op.  So this is what our room looked like after clean up:

Just like the Westin room, the toilet was again the star of the room.  After you flush the toilet, there's a sink on top for a quick hand wash with the water that's heading into the bowl.

Ingenius!  Don't be surprised to see this in our guest bathroom someday…

Remember how we said the owners were adorable?  They gave us this postcard when we left.  Brilliant.  Without knowing Gonta the dog…we rather miss him, too! 

Gonta's House

Kaiseki at Kikokuso

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Email and RSS subscribers will need to click over to klugusamy.com to view the below photos--sorry 'bout that.

As great as the toilet was, the kaiseki dinner and breakfast are what we were really excited (and nervous) about.  The husband half of the team does all the cooking while his wife served us in this private dining room adjacent to the garden:

Every single course of dinner was delicious and beautifully presented.  Many items were things we'd never seen or heard of before, but that didn't get in the way of the taste.  Neither of us wasted a single bite.

Here's a slideshow with the full course.  Pardon the vague captions, but it's honestly the best we know!

 

While not quite as elaborate, breakfast was a continuation of dinner.  Waffles it ain't, but delicious again.  Another slideshow:

 

As you might guess, these meals were not particularly cheap.  They were a really outstanding and classy way to wrap up our trip, though.  When in Kyoto and thereabouts, everyone should budget on a splurge like this.

Last Day in Kyoto

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We had two things left on our must see list—Nijo Castle and Fushimi Inari.  Despite them not being even close to one another, we made it happen.

First we hopped the JR West train from Kyoto Station to the Inari Station.  This drops you right off at Fushimi Inari.  Nothing but Torii (gates) and stone foxes here.  Really lovely stroll (albeit with lots of stair climbing).

We felt a little bad on occasion here as there seemed to be more people visiting here for religious purposes than for tourist purposes.  That certainly did add to the charm, though.  We really wanted to buy a stone fox from a gift shop in this town, but everyone seemed to sell the same ugly colored ceramic one.  Thus we had to settle on a stuffed one for Zizou (previously pictured).

Three trains later and we were at Nijo Castle—this was built in the 1600s.  The place was pretty well fortified with two separate moats:

What stole the show for us here was the garden.  If only we could make our backyard look a fraction like this.

There's no photography inside the buildings (which are very cool), so you'll have to see the rest in person.  You'll also need to hear for yourself the nightingale floors.

Back at Kyoto Station, we headed to the 9th floor for some ramen.  There are a whole bunch of ramen restaurants here, and we were immediately confused to see long lines at vending machines in front of each of the restaurants.  We then realized that you place and pay for your order at these machines.  Then you hand your receipt to the hostess and sit down.  Another delicious meal.

We wrapped up the meal with some ice cream cones:

Our bags were still at Kikokuso, so we made the quick 10 minute walk from Kyoto Station over there to pack our things up one final time.  We said our final goodbye to the adorable proprietors and rolled out luggage back down to Kyoto Station to start heading to the airport.

Along the way, we spent some of our last yen at one of the ubiquitous drink vending machines that are on every street corner and then some.  They can look something like this:

We had actually read about this Fanta drink in some Japanese tourist magazine I got in Seattle before the trip.  So when we saw it in a vending machine we had to get it.  It's a hyper carbonated grape soda that you shake before opening—and there are large grape jelly globs in it.  The weird part about it was that it was actually pretty good.

With the energy from this drink, we caught a train earlier than planned from Kyoto Station.  We hopped the JR West Haruka to Osaka Airport (KIX).  This is a 2,800 yen ride typically.  The trick though is to buy a one day JR West pass for 2,000 yen that covers the route.  We also used this same one-day pass to go down to Inari earlier in the day, so it was nice value.Seventy-five minutes later we were at KIX to start our long trek back home.

Sayonara, Japan.  We will definitely meet again…

The Final Slog Home

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Only a few more flights left to get home.  First up was Cathay Pacific from Osaka to Hong Kong (3 hours) and then onwards to Vancouver (another 12 hours).  One of the knocks on their business class seats is that they are terrible for couples.  And they are.

It's impossible to have a conversation with a neighbor in these little cubicles.  However, after 19 days Lillie and I had nothing left to talk about, and we enjoyed the alone time.  These seats were awesome.  Even at 6'2" I was easily able to full stretch out in the lay flat seats.

A great entertainment system with large screen to boot (watching 30 Rock episodes for the 17th time):

 

The food wasn't very memorable as we mostly slept on these flights.  But again for completeness, here are the photos.  I did learn I love Hong Kong-style milk tea, so that was probably the highlight.

Hong Kong Milk Tea and Nuts Salmon with asparagus, dill potato salad, liguarian olives, and capers.; Mixed salad with lemon myrtle dressing; Yuzu soba noodles. Stir-fried beef with assorted mushroom in oyster sauce, steamed jasmine rice, and Chinese mixed vegetables. Haggen Dasz and Hong Kong Milk Tea  Braised beef shank with dried mushrooms in oyster sauce, steamed jasmine rice, and Chinese mixed vegetables. Lemon cheesecake with mixed berry compote.

Descending into Vancouver, it was great to look out the window and see the late sunset with the water and mountains.  It really gave us the feeling we were almost home (or at least back in the Pac NW).  On landing at 9pm we got to use the Nexus iris scanning machine for the first time.  Worked like a charm and we were through customs and immigration in seconds.

We had initially planned on renting a car and driving back down to Seattle.  Instead, after some scheming it worked out cheaper and easier to spend the night and fly down the next morning.  So we enjoyed the Ramada by the airport for free, courtesy of the sadly now defunct Best Rate Guarantee program, and then Alaska Airlines down to Seattle at 6am.

Our friend Jen was kind enough to pick us up from the Vancouver airport and take us to a bubble tea joint in Richmond for some socializing.  It was good for us both to talk to someone other than one another.  Plus Jen was also kind enough to pay for us as we were loonie-less.

Happy to report that our upgrades for YVR-SEA cleared and we got to enjoy the 25-minute flight not in coach.  In the end, Lillie batted 1.000 on non-coach seating this trip while I had to suck up the very first flight SEA-DTW in the back of the bus.  Woe is me.

Thanks go out to Jimmie for the early morning pickup from Sea-Tac to get us back home to Mr. Zizou.  Once more with his new fox from Fushimi Inari:

Ziz!

Props to anyone who made it this far.  This is not a trip for everyone's tastes, but for our money it was quite fantastic.  And speaking of our money, after doing final accounting we did very well on our budget to actual.  I won't get into the line items here, but will say that it's very much possible to travel the world (in some style) for reasonable prices.  So get on out there.

Until the next trip…

  THE END

First Glimpse from Churchill

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We just got back to Winnipeg from Churchill after a day of polar bearing.  From a quick look at the photos, there are a few keepers.  But those will wait until a proper post and trip report upon return to Seattle.

In the meantime, here's some Where's Waldo? action.  It's a glimpse of what a partially frozen Hudson Bay looks like on a 4 degree cloudy day.

From a distance on Hudson Bay...

More to come soon…

Lillie is 30

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The paper shredder I got Lillie for her 28th birthday had set a pretty high bar for gifts.

So for Lillie's 30th, we're heading to Cape Town, South Africa for the next several days.  Making it all the better, we're heading there via Hong Kong in first class on Cathay Pacific--no more of this business class nonsense!

We'll be celebrating the big day with Krug champagne and caviar on the 16.5 hour flight from JFK to Hong Kong.

Stay tuned for the trip report...in the meantime, happy 30th birthday Lillie!

First Class to South Africa

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Everyone's been asking for photos of the in-flight experience over to South Africa, but nobody clamoring for actual South Africa photos.  So let's kick things off as demanded...

This photo basically sums up how completely over the top the First experience on Cathay Pacific is:

Now let me explain what you're looking at above.  I'm sitting across from Lillie in an ottoman turned buddy seat, eating caviar and salmon, while Lillie is sipping on some Krug champagne (we easily finished the bottle on this flight).  Not a bad way to occupy some time on a 16 hour flight from JFK to Hong Kong.

When it's bedtime, the flight attendants (two dedicated to the max of nine First passengers) will lay down a mattress pad, and spread out a duvet onto a now fully flat bed that easily fit my long legs (not feasible for me in most business classes).  You're also issued some Shanghai Tang brand pajamas so you don't have to wrinkle your suit/jean pants.  Also take note of the 17" TV and accompanying orchids:

For some orientation, here's a shot from my suite of Lillie in her suite (yes--the proper term is suite, not seat):

Now for food.  The brilliant part about the food service in First is that it's entirely on demand.  You get your menu at the start of the flight, and then you can order whatever you want whenever--no prescribed meal times.  Awesome on long flights that require some sleep management to combat jet lag.

The flight attendants are far from shy about trying to feed you every single thing on the menu.  I was amused at the sheer quantity of dinnerware on my tray table here.  That's some braised pork neck with jasmine rice, spring rolls, basket of assorted bread, butter, hot sauce, and a pot of Hong Kong style milk tea.  The Häagen-Dazs came later.

On our Hong Kong to Johannesburg flight, we had what I am unequivocally proclaiming to be the greatest breakfast of all time.  For me it comprised of: caviar and salmon to start things off, a collection of dim sum, a few slices of back bacon, croissants with honey, Hong Kong style milk tea, and finally a berry smoothie.

But what set this breakfast apart was the setting--Lillie and I were sitting across from one another, 40,000 feet in the air, with the glow of the sun rising over the Indian Ocean on the shore of Mozambique.  Simply unreal.

The last stop on the tour?  The WC.  Yes, there's a full length mirror to admire yourself in your airplane PJs, two windows, and a vessel sink:

We spent pretty much 48 hours in this space through the trip--flying JFK-Hong Kong-Johannesburg-Hong Kong-San Francisco.  Definitely worse places you could be for such a long haul, I reckon.

Finally, just to be crystal clear, we obviously didn't shell out the $26,000/each (not a typo) this routing would set you back on Orbitz.  This was all paid for with Alaska Airlines miles--that's how we roll.

Expect three more posts on this trip--all presumably far less interesting than this: on Cape Town and surroundings, brief stopovers in Hong Kong, and a boring/nuts and bolts post on miscellaneous trip planning minutiae.

Cape Town | Part I

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We're thankful to have traveled elsewhere in Africa previously, because Cape Town is a decidedly less African experience.  Geographically, it deserves every superlative possible—it's impossible to get away from jaw dropping vistas.

Culturally?  We found the black/white race dynamics to be too overwhelming to be really comfortable there—considering apartheid only ended in 1994, the wounds are no doubt still fresh.  But I'm not going to turn this into an inane 'how my 4-day trip to Cape Town changed my world view' college essay that my brother would scoff at.

All I'll say is that if you go to Cape Town, go there with some sense of self-awareness and perspective.  Otherwise, I reckon for some it would be a destination rated highly on a "stuff white people like" list—nice beach, good food and wineries, etc.

Now that we've got that out of the way, let me tell you about the beaches and wineries we visited…

Cape of Good Hope

We're about 10,215 miles from Seattle here.  Side note: amazingly, not the furthest we've ever been from home—Fort Dauphin, Madagascar wins that prize at 10,778 miles.  (if anyone can name a further airport from Seattle than Fort Dauphin/FTU with regular commercial air service, please drop a comment—from a quick search, I couldn't find anything).


View Larger Map

 

I love geographic extremes—so visiting the southwestern most point of the African continent at the Cape of Good Hope was a thrill.  Looking up the cliffs next to Good Hope, you see Cape Point (just a few minutes drive between the two).  There's actually some serious history behind the area, so it's a cool feeling walking out to the lighthouse on the cliffs marking this spot.

In the second photo below, the white car is our rental parked at the Cape—and that's a wild ostrich on the right stalking the parking lot!  That was a new wildlife sighting for us, but we just found them too creepy and weird looking.

The drive down is just gorgeous, to boot.  One of the highlights of the drive (other than me breaking the passenger side mirror within an hour of landing in Cape Town) was bringing the car to a near stop to yield for a baboon hanging out on the road.  Living with baboons in your neighborhood would be a total nightmare, but this was a nice tourist treat.

Boulders Beach

Along the drive between Cape Town and Cape Point is Boulders Beach—a popular hang out spot for African penguins.  We were there end of day, so they had all returned to shore to dry off for the night.  Watching these guys shuffle their feet around on the beach was still highly amusing.

This is actually a busy little waterfront town that the penguins are integrated within.  So lots of penguin crossing signs around town.

 

 

Then there was one last wildlife sighting: a Rock Hyrax aka dassie (pronounced like dussy, I think).  The scale isn't very good in this photo, but they are decent size at more than 8 lbs. 

I lied in the previous post.  There will be a couple separate posts on Cape Town.  Part II to come…

Back to Cape Town | Cruising Chapman's Peak

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Sorry to all the RSS and email subscribers who got that dumb temporary post delivered to them earlier.  I can truthfully say that it was entirely Lillie's fault.

However, we've taken this as a sign that it's time to post another update from the Cape Town trip since it's been two months since the last.  So here are some snaps from Chapman's Peak—west of Cape Town on the Atlantic Coast.  It's a 9km road boasting 114 curves hugging the ocean.  A fun drive.

Starts in Hout Bay:

And ends in the town of Noordhoek.  Sweet little beach here where we dipped our toes in the Atlantic.  With a little more time, there are some riding stables that would be well worth checking out.  Part of the charm is that you can take the horses for a spin on the beach.

 

And there's Table Mountain out in the distance:

While we didn't hop on horses in Noordhoek, we did hop on horses in Franschoek.  Lillie will tell you that tale in the next post…

Arriving in Windhoek, Namibia

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On day one within an hour’s time at Johannesburg airport, my parents arrived on South African Airways from JFK, my sister on British Airways from Heathrow, and Lillie and I on Kenya Airways from Amsterdam/Nairobi.

We then all met up in the South African Airways lounge before flying to Windhoek, Namibia together.  All of this thanks to miles from Delta, United, Continental, American, and even BMI.

We were met right on time at the Windhoek airport by Bushlore with a Land Rover Discovery LR3.  Lillie and I have experienced botched airport pick ups in Entebbe, Uganda and Antananarivo, Madagascar in the past, so this was a welcome treat.

Off to town we went.  At the Checkers grocery store in Maerua Mall we picked up some snacks for the driving ahead.  How could I resist purchasing something (sorta) named after our dog?  They were not particularly tasty, however.

Lil' Zizou

Dinner was at the much hyped Joe’s Beerhouse---nice place, glad we went, but at the end of the day nothing to get too excited about.  Lillie, however, discovered her drink for the trip. 

We spent the night at Terra Africa, which I thought was nice and a good value.

We watched our first African sunset of the trip from their back courtyard overlooking Robert Mugabe Avenue (which at one junction amazingly intersects with Nelson Mandela Avenue).

Swakopmund

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The drive from Sossus Dune Lodge to the coastal town of Swakopmund was definitely the bumpiest of the trip.


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However there was some nice and constantly changing scenery, and we picked up the obligatory Tropic of Capricorn photo.  This was the second time we've driven across this line of latitude (Madagascar the other time), so you can see I was very excited about that:

We pulled into Swakopmund right at sunset, where my sister snapped this one:

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We checked into Villa Margherita and this place was pure class.  Everything was immaculate, and the staff amazingly professional and friendly.  Sitting by the fireplace, drinking red wine, and enjoying the wifi on our iPhones (1 iPhone:1 person ratio) was a delight.

Also a delight was The Tug restaurant for dinner.  This was our opportunity to skip the red game meat and enjoy some fresh seafood, and it didn't disappoint.

But what is Swakopmund really known for?  It's the birthplace of Shiloh Jolie-Pitt.  So Lillie and Naveena posed outside this hospital. 

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However, it should be noted that a later Google search shows this hospital has absolutely nothing to do with Brangelina.

Anyway, Swakopmund was a really delightful place--we all would have loved to have lazed around Villa Margherita and the rest of town for a few days.  Next time!