Heidelberg

Heidelberg. The town we never would have went to had we listened to Rick Steve’s. The guy hates it thanks to all the American students, military and tourists the town gets. Normally, I’d be with him. Who needs that? Here’s I’m glad we didn’t listen to him at all.

So, Why Heidelberg?

My friend Christina has led an amazing life working, volunteering, and teaching theatre. Earlier that summer she accepted a position in Stuttgart. Since absolutely no one recommends visiting Stuttgart (Ricky, Christina, or even locals), we made plans to meet up in Heidelberg. Sure, Mr. Steve’s had his objections but our day trips book disagreed. Once we saw the photos Christina took of the city, we had to go.

So off we went. Three train connections later from Rothenberg ob Der Tauber and we were there. And Rick was right. On first impressions, the place was about as foreign to me as Epcot center. We got a taxi and made it to our hotel – a charming place overlooking the Nekar. And very close to the iconic bridge spanning it. Sadly, by that time I had received Christina’s note that she would not be able to join us due to school issues at the very last minute. No matter! After quick shower and discussion with the hotel manager on what to see and do, and we were out exploring.

Impressions

Heidelberg is immently walkable. We criss-crossed cobblestone streets traversing main venues and alleys. The customary stop at a central square and some great beer and wine provided a great spot for people watching. A trip through Germany necessitates repeated sampling beer and wine! Looming in resplendant dilapidation high on a hill above us sat a castle that I might have imagined in my lego building days. Of course we had to check it out! In short order we had found the lift and made our way up. Instead of describing it, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

After exploring for an hour or two we descended and head back to the river side. That provided even more people watching as people headed home for dinner. We spent a while snapping photos and watching long cargo ships pass through the locks of the river. While I tremendously enjoyed the atmosphere and ambiance, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the best part wasn’t when a lady stopped to ask me a question… in German!

Later that night in pursuit of dinner we explored the university grounds and the main stretch. The weather was temperate so we enjoyed ourselves, and our beer, outside.

Conclusion

I can understand the concerns Mr Steves had regarding Heidelberg. Normally I try to shun anything looking remotely like a tour bus. However, there were no tour busses. All of the people in Heidelberg visiting were there with purpose. While authentically German they might not have been. But the students – both German and American (and their visiting families) – gave the city a young sort of vibe. Something that certainly wasn’t in the Rothenberg – the touristy city that time forgot. And we would miss that energy begining the next day when we took the train again to Bacharach, another very sleepy town on the Rhine the next day.

Rio Plans

February is almost here and we’re headed to Rio de Janero! Arriving one week ahead of one of the world’s craziest parties – Carnaval – this will be a honeymoon to remember!

Brazil Currency is called the Real and roughly $1 US == 1.75 Brazillian Reals. Conversely, 1 BR == 60 cents.

Rio de Janero Itinerary

I surveyed a bunch of on-line itineraries and this rough sketch of plans is influenced by the Rio Carnival, Frommers, and Hostel World. These were helpful as they provided a good outline of events. For example, I learned that we will miss most of the racous and reknown Carnaval parades as they start the night we fly out to return home. However, we may be able to see practices.

While those sites were great for a rough itinary outline, I will get better and more complete data by reading my Lonely Planet guide on my 8 hour flight to Rio. And since nothing ever replaces ground inteligence, we’ll see what the hotel can arrange for us in the forms of helicopter rides, hang gliding, samba lessons, parade practice, etc.

Day 0 – Travel (Monday 2/8/2010)

Travel

This will be the busiest travel day I have ever had. Married less than 48 hours earlier, we will leave from our Mayan wedding adventure early in the morning to catch a 90 minue bus ride to our flight out of Cancun airport. A 3 hour flight from Cancun takes us back to Charlotte where we will have to clear US customs. From there we will re-check in for our 8 hour + flight from Charlotte to Rio de Janero just a few short hours later!

3 airports, 5 timezones, 3 countries, 2 flights, countless opportunities for fun!

My expectations for this day are merely to survive! Make our connections, find a cab, get to our hotel, don’t get abducted. Reasonable enough, right?

Day 1 – Copacabana Beach (Tuesday 2/9/2010)

Copacabana Beach

Rio is reknown for its beaches. Time to get up and go relax – recovering from the wedding and our insane travel itinerary. This should let our bodies get acclimatized to the South American summer and Rio’s timezone. Nightlife up and down Altantico avenue sounds inviting but I’m not making any promises. I just want to soak in the ambiance.

Day 2 – Christ the Redeemer Statue (Wednesday 2/10/2010)

Christ the Redeemer

This is one of the New 7 Wonders of the World and Rio’s most famous landmark.

Situated on top of Corcovado – ‘The Hunchback’ mountain – this statue overlooks the city. I’ve been seeing panoramic shots of this statue lording
over Rio for years. Now it’s time to scale the mountain and see it for ourselves.

A cogwheel train will take you up the 710 metres to the statue of Christ. The 20-minute ride gives you just enough time to prepare yourself mentally for what is waiting at the top. In the meantime, enjoy the lush scenery and take in some of that fresh mountain air of the Tijuca Forest. But keep your eyes open: every so often you can catch glimpses of Rio way below. Finally at the top of several flights of steps you are beneath the almost 40-metre
tall statue of Christ with the whole of Rio at your feet. The spectacle is truly incredible. The return journey can be combined with a visit to the
beaches at Barra da Tijuca. Mirante Dona Martha Cocktail / Helicopter flight This is another place that offers a fantastic view of Rio, located
alongside the Corcovado. Beach and beachy nightlife the rest of the day!

Day 3 – Sugar Loaf Mountain (Thursday 2/11/2010)

Sugar Loaf.

We’ll hit the beach again early morning. Later that day, we’ll hike another iconic image of Rio mid-morning. Lunch on top.

Sugar Loaf, in the Urca district, is ten minutes from Copacabana. The cable car trip is in two stages: The first goes to Urca Hill, 220 meters high, and then a short walk to the other side leads you to the second station for the next part of the ride, up to the top of Sugar Loaf itself. The top of
Sugar Loaf, 396 meters high, has been landscaped and includes several pathways and a bar. It can be visited in less than two hours. To extend
this into a half-day tour, combine visiting Sugar Loaf with a tour of the centre of Rio. In the centre you can see many beautiful historic buildings
amongst the bustle of an active business centre.

Beach and beachy nightlife the rest of the day!

Day 4 Favela Tour (Friday 2/12/2010)

Favela.

Rio is indeed called the Marvelous City. But for many, it’s not all that great. We’re going to learn more about the flip side of the beautiful people and the bright lights of the city on Marcelo Armstrong’s Favela Tour.

“In June 2002, the former President of Riotur, Jose Eduardo Guinle tried to censure FAVELA TOUR information. As operators of a very special
tour, it´s our main responsability to inform correctly and be realistic.”

Starting Time
9:00 a.m. / 2:00 p.m. Hotel pick-up in air conditioned mini van. Introduction comments about the context of favelas in Rio city and Brazilian society.

9:30 a.m. / 2:30 p.m. Arriving in Rocinha, welcoming, explanation about the architecture, public services, carnival, etc. Going to a local terrace, pause for pictures of a breathtaking view over Rio, talks about the security, local infrastructure and other aspects of favelas. Driving down through the “Estrada da Gávea”, a former F1 race track. Stop at the Rocinha Handcraft Center. Visiting the commercial area.

10:30 a.m. / 3:30 p.m. Arriving in Vila Canoas, visiting the “Para Ti” community school. This social project is financed by the tour. Besides regular classes, the school teaches local kids initial computer skills and the art of making handcrafts that can also be purchased by the visitor. Walk through the community. Optional stop for a drink in a local “buteco”. Stop at the local square. Informations about the “Favela Bairro” urbanization project.

11:30 a.m./ 4:30 p.m. Return to the hotel through all the south zone beaches. Final talks.

I’m not quite certain if we’ll do the tour in the morning or in the afternoon. I’m not sure if we’ll be feeling very much like touring after the tour. It does feel important, even for a bit, to look under the covers of Rios and gain a little more understanding of what happens beyond the glitz and glamor.

Later that day we may go hike in Tijuca – the inside-the-city rain forrest. (How many cities do you know of that have a rain forrest?) Or we may go hang gliding! Or…

In the morning we may take the old streetcar across the Arcos da Lapa to the quirky hilltop neighborhood of Santa Teresa. See the Museu Chácara do Céu. Enjoy the view at the Ruin Park, or have lunch in an outdoor café. In the afternoon, go hang gliding. Soar above the beach, feeling the wind,
admiring the mountains and the waves below. Or if that’s a bit too much, take a hike in the rainforest in Tijuca National Park, or stroll amid the
stately palm trees in the Jardim Botânico. In the evening, stroll the walkway round the edge of the Lagoa. Have a snack, a beer, or dinner at one
of the many kiosks. Find a kiosk with a band and enjoy the music and the prime people-watching.

Day 5 Carnaval Starts Today!!! (Saturday 2/13/2010)

Carnaval.

2PM – Banda de Ipanema Parade on Ipanema Beach.

Banda de Ipanema, a Rio de Janeiro cultural heritage, is one of the city’s most famous blocos (street carnivals). Attracting over 25,000 spectators
and starting around 5:00pm, the Banda de Ipanema is where you will see parades and street bands playing all over. People of all ages, outrageous
costumes and raucous behavior are all welcome.

Day 6 (Sunday 2/14/2010)

This day will be interesting. We have to check out of the hotel in the morning but our flight doesn’t leave until 10:55pm!!! Not sure if they’ll
let us extend our stay with it being Carnival….

Day 7 (Monday 2/15/2010)

Land in CLT @ 6am.
Sleep!

Any suggestions on where else we should go, what else we should do?

The Stations of the Cross

The second station of the cross was far less exciting than the first. On the site stood the Chapel of the Flagellation (where Jesus took up his cross) and in I went. Tour groups were starting up now and I was jealous for the peace and quiet that I had enjoyed earlier that morning. I saw a few things, snapped a few photos and left. My own private Jerusalem was fading now as streets swelled.

Ecce Homo Arch

I located the Ecce Homo Arch – a gate from Roman times reputed (and disputed) to be where Pontius Pilate identified Jesus to the crowd stating ‘Behold the man.’ I am uncertain to why this arch got its name as it dates from the time of Hadrian. That’s about 100 years post Jesus. If nothing else, the arch is about as old as Christianity and I have tremendous respect for anyone who built something that lasted 2 millenia in a war zone.

Next I followed the street to the intersection. Armed Israeli guards stood here monitoring the floods of people passing by. The sun had begun baking the streets below so that you could feel the difference between shade and sun. The ever-present cobble stones ran up and down hills. Water and other fluids made the rocks slippy but no one seemed to mind.

Palestinian Kabobs

At this intersection was a Swiss hospice with a Palestinian man grilling kabobs outside. They smelled delicious. An Arabic pizza parlor of all things was across the street and another church was across from that. Palestinian women sat on blankets with groupings of plants and vegetables for sale. They had sad, defeated looks in their eyes and I felt poorly for them. I had no idea on how to make their plight better (and still don’t). I made it a point to remember them if I ever do.

Feed Me

My jet lagged stomach told me it was time for lunch (or dinner, or breakfast, or whatever) and I purchased a kabob on a pita from the man in front of the Hospice. I remember thinking how few of my friends back home would chance eating anything from a street vendor. It smelled sooooo good! My rationalization was that at least here I could see the food being cooked on real flames and charcoal whereas back in the states your local McDonald’s employee can and would do anything to that beef patty behind closed doors.

That pita was the tastiest thing ever. The flavors were excellent and it hit the spot. I took my purchase through the increasingly congested pedestrian streets that comprise the Jerusalem old city and found a stoop to eat on.

I remember the smells of the pita to this day. I remember looking up and down the street marvelling at the fact that I was actually in Israel. Life was really, really good.

More Via Dolorosa

The rest of the day was spent following the rest of the Via Dolorosa. Station 3 passed at the al-Wad road junction. Station 4 was an Armenian church with a mosaic featuring the image of a pair of sandlas rumored to be those of Mary. Station 5 brought me to where Symon of Cyrenne was recruited to help Jesus carry his cross. It was at this point the road wet uphill and the markets became really busy!

The side streets were filled with markets, and the smells and flavors were some mix of east and west that I had never considered. You could really sense the cross roads of Asia, Africa, and Europe that these markets must have provided other travellers for centuries.

Along the way I discovered many different alleys. This was mostly by accident. I think it would be impossible for any cartographer to actually map the old city in Jerusalem accurately. It’s a warren of densly packed streets. Even if you had a map, there are too many people crammed in to actually read one. You just have to go with the flow.

The Italian Connection

Station 6 linked to my trip to Rome in 2003. The Church of the Holy face sits here and marks where Veronica wiped Jesus’ face as he went by. That cloth was reputed to have been imprinted with His image and may now be stored as a at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. I visited that statue when I was in Rome. Sadly, the relic was not on display. You have to love the naming convention though. Vera (true) + Icon (image) =(kinda, sorta)= Veronica.

Middle Stations

Stations 7, 8, and 9 are all kind of a blur. The route intersected with a souk – roughly translated, a market place. Now, all of the other streets and by ways were market places in their own way. The souks are larger but feel smaller, and are where the real traffic is. My photos of the soucks are all mostly blurred due to the jostling and shoving you find there. They tend to be covered from the sun as well. Later I’d figure out how to get above this claustraphobic mess. For now, I dove down a side street and to another and then to another until I ran out of side streets (and, thankfully, people!)

The Greeks

Escaping the crowds, I found the Greeks. It was amazing. I still have no good idea which chapels I went to. This may have been Station 8, the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. Charalambos. Or it may have been Station 9 at the Coptic Patriarchate. It might not have been either. All I know is that I love the architecture and everyone was friendly.

The first portion was a trip down into the dark recesses of an ancient (2,000+ years old) cistern. After a brief conversation with the father who had been manning his post in the cool, dark portions of the cave for the past 12 years, I found my way down by the light of a candle. Sadly, I cannot remember the rest of the details of our conversation. A candle purchased by a donation to his cause lit my way.

Climbing down into the dark was a surreal experience. Knowing that this passage way was hewn millenia ago was like I was delving into the heart of Jerusalem. At least 20 degrees cooler, it was a dark, slippery, ancient heart at that. How many people I wonder out of the droves of pilgrims to this city ever made it this far?

Christ the Redeemer

Next on my list, and not quite one of the stations of the cross, was an iconic tower that shoots above the landscape. Not surprisingly, another Church called Christ the Redeemer. I have some amazing photos from here.

Eithiopean Church

Eithiopians are SERIOUS about their religious ties to this region. Luckily for me, most travellers to the Holy Land skip their monastary. Not me. I was able to visit with them in a near-private audience while they explained their history and faith. Amazing experience.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher – The Final Stations

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the main attraction for Christians pilgrimaging to the Jerusalem. As such, the last 4 stations of the cross are inside this building. With this reason it is incredibly crowded. Not only do all Christians flock to this place, The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is actually administered by 4 different Christian Sects.

The Remaining Stations

Station 10 – Jesus is stripped – top of the stairs to the right outside the entrance
Station 11 – Jesus is nailed to the cross – upstairs just inside the entrance, at the Latin Calvary
Station 12 – Jesus dies on the cross – Rock of Golgotha in the Greek Orthodox Calvary
Station 13 – Jesus is taken down from the cross – statue of Our Lady of Sorrows next to the Latin Calvary
Station 14 – Jesus is laid in the tomb – in the edicule on the main floor, inside the tiny Chapel of the Holy Sepulchre

I wish I could say that this was a wonderful, transforming experience. It sounds great on paper. ‘Come see where Jesus’s cross was! Come see Jesus’s tomb.’ It was less than spectacular in person. The church is overly develoepd in a gaudy, opulent fashion. People jostle and jockey for position in a decidedly un-Christian behaviour. The actual stations have chipped away so much of the surrounding former structure that it is all but impossible to envision in your mind’s eye what the crucifixion scene may have been like.

Luckily, despite the press, that’s not where Christ was crucfied, nor is it where he was buried. I would eventually find both places with a very reasonable expectation of accuracy. But that’s one of the next stories to come.

Finding the First Station of the Cross

Being a nexus of several of the world’s most popular religions, it should come as little surprise that Jerusalem’s Old City is divided into 4 quadrants. Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. The Via Dolorosa follows the East entrance on Jerusalem’s East side, just past the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque and continues into the Christian section in the West. I followed one of the major streets inside the Old City and made my way to the beginning, or the 1st station of the cross.

The Muslim Quarter

In little time I was able to traverse most of the Muslim quarter and find a number of the stations. Most are well marked with Roman numerals set on tiles into the alley walls. These walls belong to any number of churches, mosques, temples and the like. Interestingly, shops of all kinds and residences are all mortared in together. At any time you can find stone support structures comprising of eight kinds of architecture spanning the centuries of habitation. Paying careful attention to the kind of architecture, debris walls, and masonry you can construct a time line of destruction and rebirth in your minds eye. I did this as I walked from the Dome of the Rock counting backwards from the stations I found until I located the second station.

Great, my wanderings took me to the second station. If I could only find the first station, I could travel the path in order. I walked purposefully, guide book tucked in my pants pocket but could not find the station. I passed several churches on my left headed Eastward and shops on my right. Merchants called out to me as they did everywhere ‘My friend, my friend!’ Finally one asked ‘May I help you find the first station?’ Soured on the experience of the night before I ignored him and followed the road straight through the Lion’s gate leaving the Old City and into the Kidron Valley that is the East side of Jerusalem.

Confused? Here’s a helpful map

Kidron Valley

Here I could see the great valley stretched before me. On the opposing hill I could see thousands upon thousands of Jewish graves. That must be the Mount of Olives, where I was told that people request to be buried so they might get a first hand look at the resurrection.

On my side, just outside of Suleiman the Magnificent‘s walls I found an Arab cemetery I passed several peaceful moments here reflecting on what I had seen. Graves were piled one on top of another. Instead of tombstones and green plots of earth, the ground was divided into rectangles of various sizes and caped with heavy stone lids. The graves were in various states of disrepair. What looked to be the exploded remains of fireworks littered the grounds. Some of the final resting places boasted mementos mourners had placed years ago. Surrounded by graves here and looking at graves across the valley, a morbid mentality possessed me. I wondered how these people passed. Was it through war? Noting the disrepair and lack of new mementos I wondered if the original mourners had passed, too.

Sounds of life in and around Jerusalem brought me back to the present. The solitude of the cemetery provided me the necessary camouflage to take out my guidebook. Where was that first station? The book noted it was difficult to find but the description didn’t match the area. Per the instructions, it wasn’t very far off from the 2nd station which I had found with little difficulty. I walked up the street again slowly, searching. The only thing I found was a tall, gaunt Palestinian standing in front of a shop. Before he could address me, I ducked into a nearby church.

St. Anne’s Church

St Anne’s Church (the traditional site of the birthplace of Anne [Hannah], the mother of Mary) was neat and cool and like everything in the Old City, very, very old. I checked out ruins of a previous church on the grounds and saw the limestone. I could appreciate now why modern archaeologists disputed the claim of the Via Dolorosa being the actual path Christ took; ruins erected after his death stood 30′ below the current city. The cistern of this particular set of ruins lay even deeper. For various political-religious reasons, excavating in the Old City was near impossible. How could you ever really know what lay here on the 1st century?

Aside from the ruins, there was a simple church. Wire mesh hung over the entrance to keep Jerusalem’s ubiquitous pigeons out. (Those pigeons must be what keeps the city’s impossible stray cat problem well-fed.) Inside the church were rows of simple hewn benches. The narthex lay at the front and there were no decorations in the plain, cool room. This would provide stark contrast to the over-the-top decorations nearly every other purported holy place would have.

I was joined by a German tour group shortly after entering. I could not follow the guide’s discussion (don’t speak German and this was 18 months before I would learn basics traveling in Germany!) but he seemed to be exploring the acoustics, particularly the echo of this place. They soon broke in to song. Their voices blended marvelously with the construction of the room. The acoustics wrapped the song around you in blended harmony. Happy for this bit of serendipity, I followed them out.

Back on the street I was no closer to finding the first station. As best as I could figure it should be right by where the shop was. Approaching the spot I realized that there was a car ramp that led to a set of closed wooden doors adjacent to the shops. Having learned to look through every keyhole, window, and portico in Rome for hidden treasures, I skipped past the merchant, eying me as his first customer of the day, and walked purposely up the ramp.

The First Station of the Cross

To my dismay there were no keyholes. I debated opening the heavy, 2 story painted wood doors when the merchant approached me. “My friend, let me help you find the first station.” I needed help, I wasn’t going to find it on my own, and realizing that this would eventually lead to a sell of some kind, I nodded. He smiled, opened the wooden doors and escorted me through and into what can only be described as a construction zone.

We weaved our way past heavy equipment, masonry blocks and dry bags of concrete and made our way to a heavily stylized alcove with a tremendous view of the Dome of the Rock. This was the first station, finally! Even had I mustered the nerve to open those doors (seemingly rude for a tourist to do, don’t you think?), I never would have gotten past the construction. Standing in the cool alcove taking photos on my iPhone, I was thankful. Here’s where the merchant started up his conversation.

“Do you need SIM?” “Do you need batteries?” “Do you need rugs?” Apparently he had everything in the world on sale. He asked where I was from (US?) and what I was doing here. I explained that I was a student (technically true) and that I had come to learn (very true). I hoped that this would dissuade the sale because after doing the currency conversions in my head I realized that his price range for items was far, far beyond my means. Despite my backpacker-esque looks, I was pegged as the wealthy American.

Not wanting to seem rude, but not wanting to spend a car payment on a t-shirt, I asked where he got the cigar he was smoking. His eyes lit up and he asked me if I would like to have one with him, no charge.

The Shop

I entered his shop and met his brother. Artifacts of all nature spanned the walls. Coins, jewelry, icons, statues, rugs, and artwork was everywhere. I was amazed. The taller brother went in search of a cigar for me and, on the promise of tea and because he professed that it was his culture to have tea with the first visitor that he met this morning, I sat with the older brother.

Before long the younger brother had returned with a small cigar and tea garnished with mint and sugar. I was pretty happy with myself and this was the cue for the older brother to show me exquisite and expensive rugs. He explained that they were made in Persia (Iran), Syria, and elsewhere. I told him that I thought they were beautiful but I was a poor student and that the prices of the rugs were roughly equivalent to what I had paid for my entire 2 week journey. He told me not to worry, to relax and that he was practicing for future customers.

The younger brother had disappeared after producing the cigar and tea but now re-entered the shop with two 60-something American women, both thanking him for helping them find the first station. They were obviously more affluent than I immediately received the attention of the older brother. I finished my cigar and tea and waited patiently to make my goodbyes until after the ladies left. Neither had made a purchase.

I thanked the brothers and made for the door. The older brother scowled. He intimated that it would be very rude to not make a purchase after being served tea. This reminded me of Heinlein’s TANSTAAFL -‘There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. The older brother informed me that it was his culture’s belief that if they didn’t make a sale to their first visitor of the day, the rest of the day would be awful. He went on and on and eventually I relented.

I calculated how much I would have paid a guide for the tip of how to find the first station. After all, I reasoned, how many people intent on doing the stations of the cross walk would have missed that first stop (or did these guys get them all into their shop?)

I added that sum to what I would expect to pay for the tea and the cigar and found a pendant that roughly matched that value. Refusing multiple up-sells and threatening to leave at one point, the older brother spat at the ground, muttered something in Arabic and disappeared out the door leaving the taller, younger brother to close the sale. At the register I asked what his brother had said. ‘He said you bargain like an Arab’ the shop keep told me through pursed lips. ‘And he’s not very happy with me for bringing you in.’ Whether this was a compliment, an nicety, or whatever, I’ll never know. The merchant got his sale to his first visitor of the day, I had some tea, a cigar, a lesson in marketing and cultural dynamics, and saw the first station and came away with a pendant that would make a wonderful gift. I think I got the better deal here.

As I turned to exit, the younger brother asked with a gentle face ‘You will tell your friends about us?’ “Friends?” I thought. The closest person I knew might be deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq at the moment and I supposed quite busy. Next to that were some friends in Europe before everyone else back in the States. Again a feeling of how far away I truly was coursed through me. I replied that I would of course tell my friends and family (and so I have – that’s you guys!), thanked him profusely for his hospitality and left.

Thousands of Miles from Home

Checking my watch, it was just past 9 am. I had been awake for 4 hours, seen so much of Jerusalem and still had so much left to do and see! If the rest of my trip was to be as eventful as these first few hours, I was really in for an adventure! I made my way to the second station absolutely delighted.

I was thousands of miles from home, I had no friends remotely near by, I couldn’t speak any of the native languages and I had no clear idea what I was doing. I was having the time of my life.

Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Western Wall

My alarm clock woke me early as promised. It had been a rough night of sleep.The combination of unaccustomed sounds, other hostel patrons banging their doors open and shut all night long, and my mixed up internal clock made my hard mattress even more uncomfortable. It seemed that I was only able to enter a good sleep minutes before the buzzer went off. My jet lagged body wanted noting more dearly than to sleep. But I was in Jerusalem! Remembering Conan I thought ‘There’s time enough for sleep in the grave!’ I took a hasty shower, dressed in sneakers, olive cargo pants, plain t shirt and packed. My guide book in my pants pocket, wallet, keys, and iPhone stored and my backpack empty save for a hat and long sleeve shirt, I went in search of breakfast.

Facts on the Ground

A recurring theme of my trip was ‘facts on the ground.’ This phrase can be used to refer to illegal Jewish outposts in Palestinian territory, mangled hotel reservations, or cultural issues. This morning it referred to the opening time of the breakfast hall. The facts were that breakfast was open. There was nobody around to provide instruction. Still hungry from the flights the night before, I combed the buffet for something edible.

I learned long ago that most people in the world do not believe in an American style breakfast. In Prague it was easiest just to party all night and sleep until lunch. My hotels in London, Rome, and Spain being accustomed to American clientele put on a great show for a price. My rumbling stomach was anxious to learn what was to be had hereon the edge of Western civilization.

My good friend, genius, and accomplished world traveler once told me that everyone should go places where they cannot read the signs and where they are discriminated against. In his mind this would lead towards better relations and increased compassion the world over. My breakfast reflected this. As a result, I am quite compassionate to others who become culturally confused over breakfast.

I eventually settled in on a variety of cheeses, breads, vegetables, and, what I still assume to this day to be a kind of pudding. Lactose intolerance be damned! Well fortified, I set out for adventure. My plan was, seeing how this was the Sabbath, I would go to the Western Wall to see services. From there I would try to enter the Dome of the Rock, and make my way to the points of the cross on the Via Dolorosa – what Crusader era pilgrims decided was Christ’s walk. These were my top 3 items on my visiting to-do list and I wanted to check them off immediately.

Leaving the Hostel

After breakfast I head straight for Jaffa gate. Sun was just rising and the architecture looked amazing. I had memorized the street names and city layout as best as I could. The descriptions accompanying maps in the guidebooks warned about the dizzying layout of the alleys inside the Old City. Centuries following the cycle of war, rebuilding, and more war have made the shop-lined passageways nearly indecipherable. Ounce-for-ounce Jerusalem must be the most expensive square footage in the world when You measure the cost in blood spilled through out the ages. This leads to buildings on top of buildings crowding out the sunlight and any celestial direction markers you might have. Once packed with people, claustrophobic conditions ensue.

The way to the Western Wall plaza was easy enough to follow. While I did have to double back on my tracks more than once I managed to find my destination without trouble. I made mental markers of the place in my mind that would be of great use later in the week. I hate being the prototypical tourist map in hand and of no clear direction.

Shortly I came to a checkpoint. Israeli soldiers with no-nonsense looks to match their M16s put me through a metal detector. They were much nicer than the customs official but without the language skills. They asked if I were Jewish and when I shook my head they stated ‘Christian.’ I didn’t seem to think it prudent to correct them ‘atheist’ and they waived me though. One asked ‘hat?’ and not knowing whether my VT ball cap would suffice, I shrugged my shoulders and produced it. He mimed that I put it on, which I did, and sent me on my way.

The Western Wall

The Western Wall (guidebooks told me to never refer to it as the apparently diminutive ‘Wailing Wall’) is the excavated remains of the Jewish Temple. Only a portion of what must have been the most amazing structure in the ancient world (remind me to cross check that with the pyramids) can be seen. In short, it is the foundational retaining wall on which the temple stood until the Romans declared that ‘no stone should stand on another’ after a first century Jewish revolt and destroyed the city. Today the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim holy place (I’ve read that it’s the 3rd most holy place after Mecca and Medina), stands on this ground. Jews worship the foundational wall at the bottom, Muslims worship in Mosques atop.

The Western Wall radiates holiness and sanctity even to a non-believer as myself. I entered the area from the metal detectors and found myself atop a bank of stairs looking down into the center. I tried to take a picture from the stairs only to find that my camera was non-functional. It had worked only the day before and had fully charged batteries! Maybe the x ray machine got to it, I’ll never know. Disappointed at the prospect of 16 more days in the holy land without a camera but elated to be somewhere so exciting I descended the stairs towards the Wall.

Reaching the courtyard I could see that the Wall was segregated by sex; Males could enter the much larger place on the left and women must worship on the right. Making my way to the male section, I was stopped. A very traditional Jew with long braided hair indicated that I replace my VT hat with a paper Yarmulke before entering. No problem.

I proceeded to the wall still in awe of the reverence showering the place. Men of all ages stood close to the wall, seated near by or along the sides. Some nodded and swayed while reciting scripture others prayed silently. Very few folded notes placing them in the cracks of the masonry. It was a very moving experience.

After several minutes of silent reflection I made my way to the base of the Wall. There is a popular print for sale all over Jerusalem (thankfully not at the wall itself) of Israeli soldiers, weary from the 1967 battles, placing their hands on the wall. It signifies the struggle of a people to return to their cultural roots and the deep and bitter loses they experienced making their way. It is evocative in the same way watching a Vietnam veteran approach the Vietnam memorial wall in DC. You can summon sympathy for the struggle but I hope no one reading this can or ever will be able to empathize with it.

I entered a chamber to the left of the wall, still inside the males-only worshiping section. Inside was a library of sorts and a weather protected continuation of the Wall. I had read earlier of a few places in the floor here that were covered in Plexiglas and provided a view even further down to the very base of the Western Wall. While that was neat, I felt as if I was intruding and left.

Dome of the Rock

The golden Dome of the Rock beckoned and I made my way to the covered ramp. There were all sorts of signs and I expected more guard posts. Sadly, even though the signs stated that visitors were allowed, the guards would not let me pass. The language barrier prevented further explanation but this was again another example of ‘Facts on the Ground.’

I was dejected. With my tight archaeological schedule and other unknowns, I didn’t know if or when I would be able to return. It seemed such a shame to travel all this way and then be prevented from entering the grounds.

I left the Wall and headed around to a few market side streets. I knew from the guidebook that one, if not more of these, provided access to the Dome of the Rock grounds. The caveat was that these gates were only accessible by Muslims. I didn’t intend on crashing the gates but I thought I might be able to sneak a glimpse into these forbidden grounds.

Merchants were just setting up shop. Merchant grounds here were like any others I had ever seen. There certainly were no zoning regulations as butchers set up shop next to antique stores, next to recycled appliances, next to spice shops. Colors of all types on rugs, food, spices, and ornaments breathed life into the cramped alleys. Smells of freshly baked goods and preservative spices began to flood the air and I felt at peace. I remember thinking how privileged I was to be able to see what I could and ceased focusing on what I was not allowed to view. How could I let a thing like access get me down? Here I was learning about a culture or cultures so very different from my own but yet so absolutely entwined in common actions. How many people that I saw here would ever make the reverse of the trip that I did and enjoy the activities I did in the United States?

Eventually I did find one of the gates and stood for a while gazing at the Dome of the Rock and the mosques on the premises. The view was very inspiring and calming.The lawn was meticulously cared for. Large palms and green grass gave color to the landscape. The plazas were unscrupulously clean and from this distance I could just make out the intricate patterns on the tiling of the Dome.

A Palestinian child approached me and asked if I would like to enter. I had no idea what to say. Yes! I wanted to enter. But the guidebook sternly warns you from trying. An Israeli soldier settled the internal dispute for me as the two of us walked up to the gate and prevented me from entering. A brief but passionate exchange between the Palestinian child and the Israeli guard ensued. Whether it was in Hebrew or Arabic I have no idea. What was plain after the child ran away was that I was not going to be able to go into the grounds, not today, and possibly not this trip. Nonplussed I set out for the next of my goals, the Via Dolorosa.

How to be Indiana Jones

Charlotte,NC to Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta to Tel Aviv. A few hours on a plane to go a few millennium back in time. It was March, 2008 and I had joined an archaeological expedition sponsored by the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, biblical studies expert Dr. James Tabor and famed archaeologist, Dr. Simon Gibson.

Our mission was to excavate a patch of land located on the southern wall of Jerusalem’s old city called Mount Zion. I would learn later in the trip that this wall was erected 1500 years after Christ during the reign of Suleman the magnificent and crossed through the center of a nicer section of Jesus’s Jerusalem. In fact, Dr. Gibson would tell us that we were very likely digging in the very priestly homes that Jesus may have been tried in, only footsteps away from where he would have been condemned to crucifixion but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Plane to Tel Aviv

The plane ride to Tel Aviv had been different from any I was used to. Departing in evening in Atlanta, the flight took forever and finally reached after noon Israeli time. As you might suspect, security was very tight on the entire flight. With about one hour left en route the passengers were instructed that walking about the cabin would no longer be permitted. That was fine by me. I had been trying to guess the Greek land masses and islands dotting the Mediterranean that we had been passing over the previous few hours. With the approach to Tel Aviv imminent, I didn’t want to miss a thing.

We crossed north of the city of Tel Aviv and circled over the surrounding areas. I was surprised at how much green I saw, much of it inside green houses. My seatmate, a professor from BYU on his 17th trip to Israel to lead a biblical studies tour confirmed what I had read in guidebooks; Israel had been investing heavily in bringing life to less-than-hospitable climes for decades.

Customs was a trip. I had a letter signed by Dr Gibson confirming that the reason for my stay was the archaeology trip. This was heavily examined and I was quizzed on it as I was quizzed on the dates and nature of my other passport stamps. Czech Republic, Italy, England, Spain. Yes, these were all pleasure trips I confirmed as the customs man glared at me. Just another American adventurer off to play Indiana Jones.

I also had a list of all of my hotels which was fortuitous. The customs agent recognized that I was only going to be digging for a week but my return flight wasn’t for much later. After a few minutes of being ridiculed for not being able to pronounce the names of my hotels properly he asked me what I intended on finding. I wasn’t sure if he was referring to what I might uncover on the dig or through the entire trip so I merely replied ‘Whatever is out there.’ A few minutes later I was free to go.

The BYU professor had offered to get a Sherut with me – a special taxi that runs the distance Tel Aviv to Jerusalem at just over an hour. True to his word, he was waiting for me and after I got my luggage and he got a sim card for his phone, we were off.

Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

Finding a Sherut was important. I left the states Thursday night and it was now after noon on Friday. Although I understood that the Saturday Sabbath, being a holy day, Jerusalem would be just about shut down. What I didn’t realize was that this shut down would start a half-day in advance for the Saturday sabbath. If I didn’t get a taxi I would be stranded in Tel Aviv with no hotel, no transport, and no idea how to get one.

Luckily, we filled the sherut and in short order we were off for Jerusalem.

The drive to Jerusalem was like any other filled with cars, traffic, etc. I always marvel at how different cars are overseas, different models, brands and the like. The professor filled me in about the 1967 war and the current state of tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. The route we were chauffeured lent itself to our discussion as it was a main supply line running from Jewish held Tel Aviv to Jordanian help Jerusalem. Several rusted, bombed out armored personnel carriers were left along side the road, discards of a 40 year old conflict with roots millenia ago. I tried to envision myself driving a caravan through this run. With the road passing through valleys and high terrain to fire down on, I thought that I’d much rather be the one shooting down than the ones driving through.

Our progress and my history lessons were halted mid-trip for a terrible accident that required a hospital helicopter to pick up the injured from a car wreck. This was the first of many examples of past and present existing side by side.

Reaching Jerusalem

We reached Jerusalem as dusk was setting. Jerusalem as I envisioned it, perhaps as you are currently envisioning it was really Old Jerusalem. New Jerusalem is modern if not as sleek and impressive as Madrid, London or New York. The Jewish held New Jerusalem sprawls everywhere west of Old Jerusalem. East Jerusalem, the Arab /Palestinian sections start on the north side of the Old City and continues to wrap around clockwise. The combination of flat roofs, earth toned sidings, desert interspersed with scrub brush and variety of wealthy shopping districts (The German section) and poor, patched houses (Palestinians) reminded me somewhat of Los Angeles.

Even as the sherut was dropping off all of the other passengers, the professor included, I could tell that I was not in Kansas anymore. The architecture- I wish I could convey the style – was reminiscent of70’s Miami set in desert in tan tones. Security was everywhere. There was a lot of shouting, a lot of street noise, and everyone everywhere seemed to be in various stages and intensities of arguing. This was the first time I had traveled someplace without making the slightest attempt at learning a few phrases in the local language and I really regretted it now. My Western ears couldn’t make out the difference between Hebrew and Arabic if my life depended on it. Hopefully, it wouldn’t.

My Hostel

I was one of the last dropped off at a hotel, or in my case, a hostel. More accurately described, Beit Shmeul is like a cross between a college dorm and a community center. Made from cinder block and filled with an assortment of people. Sadly, not many people were very interested in engaging those outside their cliques.

My room was very much like my college dorm except it had a shower and 3bunkbeds instead of 1. Luckily I seemed to have the room entirely to myself for my entire stay so I could afford to spread out. One upside the room had on my dorm was that I could see a section of the walls of Old Jerusalem. The professor had warned me against going inside the city walls at night but I was hungry and didn’t travel all that way to sit in a cinder block tower. I also remember getting a feeling of incredibly loneliness once I settled down and had nothing to do. It seemed the best way to combat it was to go exploring.

Night Wanderings

I set off down a few streets and wandered around until I got my bearings. Once I was certain I could get my way back to Beit Shmuel, I headed off for the city. It was night and it was hot. I had no idea as of yet how hot it could get.

The old city is framed by walls erected by Suleman the magnificent, a Turk. The combination of lighting on these walls cause them to glow in this wondrous golden hue that seemed to radiate history, import and religion. I was in awe of the place.

I walked and explored without any clear idea of what to do or where to go so I entered the first gate I found, Jaffa Gate. This is apparently the main tourist entry point and shops, money changers, and a few restaurants with menus in English on one side exist there. So do shopkeepers as keen to their environment as spiders are of flies in their web.

The first one pounced with the skill of a thousand applications. “My friend, my friend, you speak English? Can you help me?”

Can you help me?

When I am abroad I travel by and large the courtesy and grace of strangers. I am painfully aware of how poorly non-English speakers are treated in the States by the minority of ugly Americans. This said, I try to be a good ambassador for my country and citizen of the world in general while abroad. Of course I answered ‘Yes, I speak English. Happy to help.’

The shop keep led me into his store, one of the few things in the area that was opened. He showed me a bunch of his wares, typical tourist trap chotchkies and proceeded to write various sales pitches on the cardboard backings they came in. “Which sounds better?” he’d ask. “25 % off or 5 for the price of 4?” This went on for a while, each time with the prices getting better and better.

Eventually I made to leave and he grew irate. “Why did you make me show you all of this stuff if you weren’t going to buy anything?” he shouted into the street which had grown even darker. The was no one left now besides a few soldiers and other shopkeepers standing having tea together and they stared at me. I made a mental note not to come back near his shop again.

Face red from irritation and a bit of public embarrassment I quickly started walking down a very dark alley. If the rabbit’s warren of alleys, side streets, and endless shop doors that make up the center walks of the Old Jerusalem is confusing in the daylight, it is nearly impenetrable in the dark. The Professor had warned me not to walk through the old city at night unaccompanied and I suppose that stuck in my mind as I wandered alone between ancient high-walled alleys. I have difficulty describing the entire experience of arriving in Israel and Jerusalem but it was definitely like nothing i had ever experienced before. It was very old, very tense, and very foreign to me. The exotic smells left over from today’s markets, alien sounds and the dancing shadows got the better of me and I headed out back through Jaffa gate of which I came.

East Jerusalem by Night

I went north following the wall that encircles old Jerusalem marveling that I was actually half a world away from home. I felt alive with all of my senses engaged. Before going on this trip my only knowledge of Palestine was rooted through the what a good portion of the world refers to as NY Times bias. I had never met a Palestinian before and only half knew the history of the area. Admittedly, my only point of reference was the PLO and Arafat. I came to Israel to fill the gaps in my education and to form my own opinions but I will confess to being predisposed to not feeling warmly towards Palestinians. In that regard I measured my walk around the city to the north gate, what my guide book listed as the beginning of East Jerusalem, the beginning of Palestine.

There were no tourists walking about this time of night and certainly no westerners. A point underscored for me by the groups of young males that hung out together watching me silently. They would go quiet as I approached and cease whatever they were doing as I walked by. A few repetitions of this started to wear on my nerves and I returned to the west.

Eventually, not finding anything else to do, I made my way back to Beit Schmuel and went to sleep in my bunk. I set my alarm for 5:30am, 30 minutes before the kitchen opened,and made my plans for the next day. Saturday in perhaps the most religious city in the world. That should be interesting. I would have to get the bulk of my exploring done that day as Sunday I would start the dig.

Our 2008 Mayan Christmas Adventure

Here’s a quick overview of our 2008 Christmas adventure in Mexico. Since our February wedding will be held at the same hotel we stayed at during that trip – Aventura Spa Palace, I thought I’d make an overview of our last trip there. Hopefully you’ll see what made us enjoy it and want to come back.

Click on the links for more in-depth accounts of each. Click on the links by the accompanying images for our photos and descriptions of each place. More information will surely be added as I remember it! I also included the guidebook we used and some study materials I liked. If you can think of anything I left out, please add it in the comments below!

Day 1: Cancun

Jen and I flew into Cancun a day earlier than what our Aventura reservations called for. It was much cheaper to fly out of Charlotte on a Thursday night and stay in Cancun for a day than to fly out on Saturday morning. I know, I know, how stressful, right? Such a pain to have to go on vacation a day early.

Day 2: Adventura – Where James Bond Would Vacation

Mom and Dad had been telling us about this hotel for years but we never really believed them. It should have dawned on me that any place Dad chose to go to, willingly, multiple times had to have great service. I just didn’t believe them.

Why didn’t I just listen to my parents sooner?

Other Days

To be honest, the rest of my Christmas week is sort of clouded in a rum-induced haze. Here are a few of the trips we did in between sunbathing, playing poolside volleyball, kayaking, and eating ourselves silly at the hotel.

Tulum

You can about the history of Tulum here. For me, it was a great chance to wander around ruins – my first since returning from Israel in March of 2008 AND to go swimming in the Caribbean sea -something made exceedingly difficult by the hotels on the Yucatan for some reason.

Now, until the end of my days I can talk about going swimming with my brother and father alongside Mayan ruins on Christmas!

Chitzen Itza

Again, Chitzen Itza has a long and storied history. More on that here. We decided to forgo the free tourist bus and instead rent our own car and make our own way to the iconic Mayan pyramid. Like they say, getting there is half the adventure. We drove through many villages and the city of Merida along the way.

Coba

We visited Coba on the return trip from Chitzen Itza. This is a far less visited city than Chitzen Itza and on a direct path from there en route to Tulum. It gave me better insight on to what the Mayans were all about plus you could climb on things! You can really get a sense of the jungle from on top of these giant pyramids! This was my favorite site that I visited in Mexico. More on Coba’s history here.

Xpu-Ha

Xpu Ha is a jungle-themed hotel owned by the Palace group – the same people running the hotel where we stayed, Aventura. The great thing about this was that intra-hotel transfers were free as were all of our food, entertainment, activities, and of course drinks.

Stuff that Helped

I didn’t really study up on Mexico like I have done before my other trips. Still, there were a few items that helped me out along the way.

Lonely Planet Guide to the Yucatan

Lonely planet does a good job finding places for the young and adventurous. The history overviews in this book beat the hell out of what passed for education in my 8th grade American Studies book. And the cultural overviews gave me a pretty solid grounding in what was going on around me. The Yucatan (Regional Guide) really influenced our choices on going to Chitzen Itza, Tulum, and Coba and I hope to use it again this year when we visit Isla de Mujeres and any ceynotes that we decide to scuba dive in. Of course we didn’t check the hotel listings but the book gets 2 thumbs up!

The Other 1492: Ferdinand, Isabella, and the Making of an Empire

I love the Teaching Company. They just make great stuff. For those who don’t know, they get the world’s best professors teaching their favorite course and then tape them. It must be what college was like for liberal arts majors; you just sit and learn about stuff you are interested in. Awesome.

For me this course was more a bridge of our 2006 trip to Spain. There, we got a sense of Imperial Spain. This video series began with the reconquest of Spain and the discovery of the new world. Professor Ruiz does an excellent job of presenting history in an all-encompassing manner explaining how events would be seen by multiple cultural groups. Very enlightening.

Where James Bond Would Vacation

“This is where James Bond would vacation.”

That was my impression of Adventura Spa Palace my first morning there. The sun had just rise. Dawn comes at an earlier time in the Mayan Riviera than it does on the American East Coast. Lucky for me, that meant an hour or two of solitude before my fiance or most other patrons awoke. I made my way from my room (anywhere else it would be called a suite) to the rocky Caribbean shore to collect my thoughts and welcome the morning.

After snapping a few pictures of sunrises in between palm trees in my iPhone and reading a chapter or two I headed for breakfast. The morning meal was a complete extravagance. You walk up to the hostess, show your wristband of power, and are seated in a gracious setting. A waiter comes to take your order, another pulls out your chair, another lays a napkin on your lap, while another asks you if you would like a coffee, some juices, or perhaps a mimosa or a screwdriver or a bloody Mary. Yes! Yes I believe I will have all of these things! It is, after all, just past 8am and I’ve yet to have any kind of alcohol… at least since 5 hours before, that is. My vodka to blood ratio must be getting low.

This is the place James Bond would vacation.

At about this time a waiter informs you about the various cooks they have positioned on the perimeter of the restaurant. Dutiful sentinels looking out, marking that line to ensure you have quite the satisfying breakfast. They can make just about anything you wish. The waiter also mentions the various buffets… as if you hadn’t noticed the glistening tables piled high with all sorts of manner of things the wealthy must eat for breakfast. Fucking phenomenal. And it’s all paid for, courtesy of the Bracelet of Power.

As I finish a breakfast over a few more chapters of my book, my fiance arrives for her breakfast. Can I believe how awesome this place is? Yes, yes I can. Will I stay with her while she eats? Yes, yes I will. And while I’m at it, the hobbit in me demands I have a second breakfast (and then a third when the rest of my family arrives.) Damn, it’s hard work rocking a power bracelet.

This is Cancun

Day 1 Cancun

The flight to Cancun was nothing special. The same kind of boarding you expect from USAir. Just throw in some passport shenanigans for fun-ski. Total travel time is nothing at all. 3 hours for us. Write some notes, read some books, do a crossword puzzle and you’re there. The waiting room for Paradise, though we didn’t know it yet.

We had a layover day in Cancun because the cost of a hotel + a Friday morning flight was significantly less expensive than the Saturday morning version. Ho, Hum, burn another vacation day en Mexico. Que dolor!

Customs was a cinch, much more relaxed than getting back into the States. Negotiating a taxi to the hotel was a supreme pain in the ass but we managed to do it. Next stop, the Mecca of Spring Break – minus the Spring Breakers, of course. A short ride later and we’re at the hotel. It’s nice. The other guests are boorish to put it politely. Drunken mid westerners, Texas bodybuilding lesbians, and all sorts of chatty Mexicans on holiday from the capital of Mexico city. Man this would be a nice place if they all would just shut up and stop acting drunk! Ah well, at least the sun is warm (hey, there’s a snow for the record books back in the U.S. at this point) and we did prove that their drinks do have alcohol in them. The Caribbean sea is an amazing blue – or is that azul? And the sand feels wonderful between my white pasty toes. I’m a million miles away from my job. So what there were no raises this year? I have a job and I’m in Mexico while unemployment is climbing past 10% So far, so good.

It’s time for dinner once the sun sets and we stupidly opt for the buffet. We choose poorly. The buffet sucks. The dinner entertainment is billed as ‘authentic Mexi-Caribbean dance.’ Fuck. If any of these costumes were worn back in the day by real Mayans, then I’m a virginal sacrifice. Can you say ‘exploited indigenous peoples?’ This hotel sure could. While tight, tanned and toned bodies writhe and sway to the syncopated beats echoing from the ‘authentic Mayan synthesizer’ other hotel staff set up a gauntlet of mass-produced (can I say ‘authentic’ again?) tourist souvenir trinkets. Watching a gaggle of 50 and over Ohio-ans stare at the dancer’s hips, I start to get the feeling that everything is for sale here. Did I just sign up for a week of this shit? Still, it’s better than a snowstorm, and I’m lucky to be here.

What I didn’t know at the time was how amazing the next few days were about to become.

We wake up early the next day and catch a taxi back to the airport to meet my brother and his girlfriend. They just took a red eye from Los Angeles to a Mexico City layover to here. And their flight was delayed a few hours. Recounting sitting in a stinking Air Mexico flight on the tarmac in what these world travelers regard as the foulest smelling city in the whole world (yes, that beat out Staten Island by their count), they are in no mood to play. Luckily, Paradise Resorts has arranged for a free, private taxi to take the 4 of us the 90 mins south to Adventura.

Our taxista is a genial older gentleman who lets us practice our Spanish with him. He’s delighted we know so much. Actually, he’s delighted that my brother is damn near fluent in Mexican. Of the 8 or so languages his girlfriend speaks, Spanish in not one of them (so she claims). My fiance and I get along OK with our preschool-level of conversation. For the first time I feel like we are in a different culture, a different country. After getting a refresher course on the language talking about weather, time, and the location of things, the conversation really picks up. For 90 minutes we talk about how life is here, what he does, and where he has lived, and what life is like here.

Driving south away from Cancun and all of it’s Spring Break-iness, the road starts to surprise me. Our iPhone / Google maps show our road in the thickness of an Interstate. The further we get from the smell of late night hook ups, and ‘what happens in Cancun, stays in Cancun’ the more the sites begin to change. There are shops all along the side of the road. Towards the coast you can see some hotels and some, for lack of a better word, I’ll call them villages. On the Western side, you see jungle. Real !@#$ing jungle. And there are people living in it. Crazy.

Once again distance does it’s trick. I’m now a million miles away from ‘authentic Mayan’ dancers and drunk mid westerners (does that mean I’m now 2 million away from work?) and I am loving it. All of our dispositions are greatly enhanced when he tells us we are traveling to paradise in hotel form. By the time we get there it seems all possibilities are open. And indeed, they are, for as we surrender our luggage to the hotel’s foot soldiers, the concierge directs us to check in. We are about to receive the Bracelets of power and all the privileges that come with it. Life is good.

Neuschwanstein castle

Castle from last month in Germany.

Today I’m in a hotel in Durham, NC and the view is not as spectacular. But I wanted to see if I could upload a pic and a post via my trusty iPhone.