"" Writer's Wanderings: May 2016

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

It's Summer! Here We Go!

Well, technically it's not summer until June 1, meteorological summer, or June 21, the astronomical summer but who doesn't mark the Memorial Day weekend as the official start or at least start thinking about summer. TripAdvisor has listed the 10 top destinations for summer. I was a little surprised at some of them. Take a look and see what you think but number one was Las Vegas. Huh?

We've been to Vegas in the summer. It's hot! I mean really hot! It's even hot in the evening. Now I know some like it that way but 110 degrees was a little much for me. Of course that was when my niece asked us if we wanted to hike in Red Rock Canyon for fun. She was in Vegas for a gig in Mama Mia which is why we were in Vegas--to catch the show. Ah, youth. We politely declined the outing and just drove through the canyon, windows up and AC on.

Many of the other places on the list could be a little warm but a lot of them at least had beaches where you could loll in the sand and cool off in the water or a pool. London and Paris were interesting cities to make the list but as with many of the choices, it is more expensive in the summer time when people are taking their vacations and school is out. That's where retirement comes in handy. We can opt for the off seasons to travel for less and with less crowds.

Still, if you are a people watcher and enjoy a place for all the excitement a crowd can bring, these would be the places to go if you can afford them. TripAdvisor also adds their recommendations for saving money. Me? I'm opting for some less traveled roads and some quiet time.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Do All Cruise Extras Come At A Price?

"Nothing in life is free." It's a phrase my husband has said over and over again. It's right there on his list of best phrases with "Life isn't fair." The kids really hated that second one. So is anything on a cruise ship "free?" Perhaps the better question to ask is "What's included?"

Depending upon the cruise line you may have everything included, or most everything, or as we have found in some cases, many things are ala carte. I know as kids we hated homework but this is one time when you really do need to do it. Thanks to the internet cruise line sites and lots of forums that are available you can usually get a good idea of what to expect.

Most cruise lines today include the gratuities for your dining room staff, stateroom, and various other positions on board ship that you may not even realize get a tip. You can always add to it if you like and if you've gotten really bad service (it would be very unusual) you can ask to not have the gratuity given to that staff member. I suspect the reason gratuities are included is because too many people neglected to give any gratuities when it was not included in your cruise fare. Beverage servers however still seem to garner a 10% gratuity for each drink they bring you unless you are on a cruise where drinks are included in your fare.

Usually the more expensive smaller cruise lines are the ones who have an all inclusive price. While the price might be higher, it often includes (in addition to gratuities) all of your drinks, one or more nights at a specialty restaurant on board and in some cases excursions in ports.

Of course you can also get your airfare included with most cruise fares and that normally includes transportation from the airport to the ship. It pays to check out the cost of booking that yourself but remember that if the air booking cuts it too close to the ship's departure, it could leave without you. Usually if air passengers who booked through the cruise line have some problem caused by the airline which makes them a little late the ship will wait. We waited once on a plane full of German cruisers that arrived an hour late in Miami.

The one constant with cruise lines as it is with most anything in life is that things will change. Again, we're back to doing that homework. If it's been a while since you've cruised with a particular line be sure to check on just exactly what your cruise fare includes. Earn that A+!

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Revisiting Destinations

If you haven't guessed by now, I love looking at all the travel articles that tell me of the X number of places I should see before I die or the X number of places not to see or the X number of best places for [insert activity here]. After all I wouldn't want to miss something or waste my time on some place I shouldn't see although often times I disagree with the writer. Everyone sees things differently and some of those don't-go-there places I found interesting.

Well, here I go again. Independent Traveler published a list of twelve places you should only see once. So, have I been to any or all? I clicked on the link and here's what I discovered. I've been to seven of the twelve. Pisa was the first on the list and I might be persuaded to go back there. The tower is interesting and the surrounding buildings are nice to explore.The article complained about all the sellers hawking their wares but it is where I found my favorite travel purse for $10 (after a little bartering). I think I'd opt for a trip to Florence though if we are ever in the area again. We haven't been there yet.

Niagara Falls in the winter.
We made a brief visit to Hanoi while on a cruise. I might be persuaded to go back to Viet Nam but once in Hanoi is enough. I satisfied my look back at history. The best thing I got out of that visit was our guide's comment, "Most people say Viet Nam and think of a war. I think of Viet Nam and think of a country."

I agree. Once for the Mona Lisa is enough. It's a tiny picture in a large room full of people all struggling to get close enough to see that infamous smile. But I don't agree that once to Niagara Falls is enough and I would suggest going there at different times of the year. We once had to pass through in winter and we stopped long enough to admire the frozen trees naturally sculpted in ice.

The Kasba, Tangiers
Once in Tangiers, Morocco, and once in Guayaquil, Ecuador is probably enough. I would go back to Amsterdam again. Now Portland, Oregon, is also on the list and not highly recommended for more than a one time visit. We've been near Portland once to go to an indoor water park with our kids. Oregon is a state that we would like to explore more so I'll leave room for Portland and hope for a better experience than the writer had.

That left four other places I've not experienced yet. I don't know that I want to see the Taj Mahal at all. India is not high on the bucket list at this time. Tourist trap or not, I would like to see Pompeii once. Podgorica, Montenegro, was not highly recommended but since we've never been to Montenegro it would be good to see for ourselves.

The article's slide show ends with Nowhere--meaning there is really nowhere you wouldn't absolutely return to if it meant a chance to travel some more. I agree.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Travel Experiences - How Do You Meet The Locals?

So much of what is written about how to have the best travel experience talks about meeting the locals. We don't usually make this an intentional part of our travel adventures but if you are at all engaging with people it's hard not to get to meet the locals. They are the people who are waiting tables, serving drinks, driving taxis (even if they are from another country living in the place you are visiting), clerking in stores, etc. Here are a few incidents from our travels that I wouldn't trade for anything.

In Lichtenstein we found a small store and were exploring its contents when I noticed colored hard boiled eggs on a shelf behind the counter when it wasn't anywhere near Easter. Now my four years of high school German are just enough to get me into trouble sometimes but the lady behind the counter smiled pleasantly and in German told me that we would speak slowly. By the time we were done, I learned that the eggs were colored to distinguish them from raw eggs and I got a "Sehr gut!" from the lady. My German teacher would have been so proud.

Our trip around Ireland took us into territory (I believe we were in county Donegal) where the old Gaelic language (Gaelige) is often spoken. I remember it being a small town and my brother-and sister-in-law went shopping while we opted for a cup of tea. On a short side road was a small cafe and we purchased our tea and took the cups outside on the small porch. An older gentleman came up the steps and tipped his hat to us as he said something we didn't understand. I thought at first it was just a heavy Irish brogue but on his way out of the cafe he stopped and rattled on in a tongue we had never heard before, tipped his hat again, smiled, and moved on. We realized we had just had a lesson in Gaelic. I don't know what he said but hopefully the smile meant it was nice.

While travel books will encourage you to get off the beaten track, it isn't always a good idea in some places and really you don't have to in order to meet the locals. You just need to be pleasant. Ask a question or two. Smile. Be polite. Use all those good manners Mom taught you. Small cafes, pubs, little shops, even a picnic table or park bench are great places to start a conversation. Nature, architecture, museums, churches are all interesting but it is the people who make a country what it is.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Montezuma's Revenge?

Ever wonder about the origins of colloquialisms? I happened to be reading something about staying healthy as you travel and it mentioned Montezuma's Revenge. Now everyone knows what that means and it isn't pretty. But who was Montezuma and what revenge is he taking on innocent travelers?

The more correct term for Montezuma's Revenge is traveler's diarrhea. It usually comes from ingesting the local water. The best prevention is sticking to bottled water and soda and making sure there is no ice made from local water in your drink. It's caused by an e coli bacterial strain and is usually not serious but certainly uncomfortable.

Montezuma II was the leader of the Aztec civilization in the early 1500s when Cortes invaded and conquered the land. Montezuma was slaughtered by Cortes but whenever a white person visited Mexico and took ill, it was said to be Montezuma's revenge.

An interesting article I found on a British site said that there are lots of names associated with traveler's diarrhea depending upon where the traveler is visiting. You might hear it referred to as Ghandi's Revenge, Delhi Belly, The Cairo Two-step, or the Rangoon Runs to name a few. One of the more recent is Teheran Tummy which I assume came from troops stationed there.

So stick to bottled water. Don't eat fresh fruits or vegetables that do not get peeled. Stay away from salad greens that are washed in local water. And when you get that bottled water be sure to check that the lid was sealed (some places have been known to sell refilled bottles) and wipe the outside of the bottle if it's been sitting in ice water. Revenge is never pretty.

Friday, May 20, 2016

In My Backyard

While we have been all over the world, sometimes just traveling to my own backyard can be an adventure. All sorts of birds have taken up residence. Some are building nests, planning for families. Two morning doves this spring staked out our deck. We were sure they were looking for a place to build a nest and had perhaps tried the corner gutter above the back door since there were nest making materials scattered on the deck. When they realized it wasn't such a good place when the rains came, they moved on.

Symphonies around the globe could not be more beautiful than the songbirds that skitter from tree to tree attracting mates and friends and in my imagination, just singing for the joy of it. Flashes of red cardinals and the occasional blue jay add color and of course some of my favorites are the robins who seem to like the pine trees for their young ones.

After almost fifteen years of muck accumulating in the bottom of the pond, Bob cleaned it out and worried the whole time that our friendly frog population would desert us with all the activity. He needn't have worried. It appears most of them stayed or returned and now with a cleaner pond we can actually see where they go after we hear the plop when
they jump in the water.

This year as I was wandering around and deciding where to plant the summer blooms, I caught sight of a beautiful little cluster of white flowers. They were obviously from a bulb but I hadn't planted anything like them in my yard anywhere. Last year we had to have our brick walkway repaired from some over active chipmunks who undermined the structure. Hmmm. I wonder if perhaps the pretty white flowers were their doing? A peace offering perhaps?

You don't have to travel far sometimes to find great wonders of the world.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Look Back At Family Vacations

Recently I scrolled through an article titled, "How To Have The Worst Family Vacation Ever." It got me to thinking about the vacations we took when our kids were young and still in the nest. Disney was probably at the top of our kids' list. We did several trips when they were young and a couple with them and their own families. It's probably the one place that can satisfy all age levels.

There were several other vacations though that stand out as quite successful. How do I know? The kids still talk about them. When our family extended to five kids with the adoption of our youngest two, we resorted to a couple of vacations where we rented a house rather than tried to stuff everyone into motel rooms. Economically it actually worked out well since we could cook meals and save some money there.

The house we rented in the mountains near Gatlinberg, Tennesee, had several bedrooms so we could separate the older kids from the younger and that solved some bedtime problems. It also had the biggest hot tub I think I'd ever seen and we all enjoyed that. We hiked. We fished (in a stocked pond) and ate quite a meal of trout cooked on the grill on the deck. We explored some of the touristy places in Gatlinberg. Most of all we relaxed and enjoyed the fresh air and the outdoors.

Another summer we found a place in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Surf, sand and sea air were a wonderful escape. The national park was nearby and our older kids learned to snorkel there as well as get up close with some of the natural wonders. One of the highlights was buying a bunch of shrimp and having to pull the heads off before we cooked them. The boys loved it!

Planning your summer family vacation? Be sure to find some place that will have something that all of you are interested in. Don't plan so tightly that you leave no time for just relaxing. Be flexible. Even if the station wagon breaks down half way up the mountain to your cabin, you are making memories. Keep cool and vacation on.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Selfie Etiquette

When it comes to technology, grandkids are the best teachers. One of our granddaughters truly excels at the selfie. She's given us quite a few tips and then made sure her grandfather got a selfie stick for Christmas. Of course that made my life a little more complicated because it increased his interest in taking selfies everywhere we went. While there is a bit of art to taking selfies there is also a bit of etiquette that should be observed especially in crowded tourist places.

It should go without saying that safety should come first. Balancing acts on the edge of the Grand Canyon are not a good idea no matter how neat the angle of the selfie might seem.

There is nothing more discouraging than to try to take a picture or video of something and suddenly a phone is raised in front of your camera at just the wrong moment. If the view is too crowded, try to find a corner or less crowded place to raise your smartphone in the air. And for heaven's sake, don't knock someone out with your selfie stick!

While tablets or iPads are wonderful tools, they are not the best vehicle for taking selfies. They are even more obtrusive to someone's view when you raise it in the air to capture the moment. Be aware of those around you and if you must use a tablet for a selfie, wait for a moment when it won't be obnoxious.

Make sure you know the rules for selfie sticks. There are some places like Disney that have banned them. Dodging strollers is difficult enough without having to duck under selfie sticks as well.

Don't be obsessive with selfies. Enjoy the views. Some pictures are better without a head in them. Disconnect for a while and you will see a lot more, learn a lot more, and have a quality experience. You can always post photos later rather than stand in front of everyone at a spectacular view and thumb a Facebook post.

And then there are some places where a selfie is just not appropriate. Some war memorials, places of tragedy or historically significant human suffering are not the appropriate place for a lighthearted selfie.

Well, common sense, respect for others, and just plain good manners should keep your selfies appropriate and fun without causing selfie rage in those around you.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Hop On and Hop Off

On an upcoming cruise in the Mediterranean we will be exploring a couple of ports that are new to us in Spain. How will we explore them? Ship's excursion or on our own? Time to do a little research.

Our favorite way to get around in Barcelona which is also one of our ports on this cruise is by the Hop On Hop Off bus. The Barcelona operation has three lines of travel around the city and is easy to pick up from most any where. A running commentary is available on each bus with the ear buds provided. Just plug in and choose your language.

It turns out that there are lots of Hop On Hop Off buses available in many cities throughout the world as this popular way of getting a taste of the location in an easy and leisurely (or not so if you are short on time) way. Check out the main HOHO page for a listing of all the places they serve. From the list you can click and get an overview of the city you expect to visit.

Malaga, Spain, is a port of call we've not done before and lucky for us, they also have a HOHO bus. While we've been to Cadiz before, we didn't get much opportunity to explore. As I recall I wasn't feeling well on that day so the HOHO bus will be a good way for us to see more of the city.

The prices are always reasonable especially when compared to the cost of a ship's excursion but you do have to be careful of your time and make sure you get back to the ship before it's scheduled to pull out of port. They won't wait for you if you are not on a ship excursion.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Travel Challenges

After about six weeks of being home and looking ahead to another six weeks or so before our next big travel adventure, I begin to get a little antsy. When a travel challenge like "Nine Places You Haven't Visited--But Should" comes into my email box, I can't help but check it out. Are there really nine places I haven't been yet? Am I missing something?

The article at Independent Traveler listed these nine places: Columbia, South Korea, Oman, Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada, Singapore, Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh?), Armenia, Chan Chan in Peru and Zambia. I managed to check off three.

We've been to several places in Columbia--always with a cruise excursion or private tour. We like to have a little more assurance of safety in numbers and a guide to hopefully keep us out of trouble.

Pittsburgh is an amazing city with wonderful skyline views and a great amusement park called Kennywood. While their baseball team is not a direct rival of our Cleveland Indians, the football team, the Steelers, have been arch rivals of the Cleveland Browns as far back as I can remember. Kennywood is an amusement park in the traditional sense. It has a variety of rides, not just roller coasters, and a rich history that is recorded on signs for the visitor to read as they wait for rides.

One of the best days of our world cruise was when we teamed up with another couple from our dinner table and found our own guide when our ship docked in Salaverry, Peru. One of our stops was Chan Chan featured in the article at IT. It was a fascinating journey back in time and a glimpse of an amazing people.

So I have three out of nine. It just proves that it's a great big wonderful world and there's lots more to explore.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

How Well Do Your Table Manners Travel?

During the GOP primary this year the insults were flying but one candidate tried to stay above the fray. As a result the only insult directed at him was the way he ate a pizza.  Different parts of America have their own standards for how to eat the local delicacies but what about when you are abroad? The rules of the table can change there as well.

Thanks to our Japanese daughter-in-law we have learned several no-nos when eating in Japan. The long chopsticks are for serving food. You do not pass food to another's chopsticks using your chopsticks. Chopsticks should not be stuck in your rice while you eat something else. They should be set down parallel to each other on a holder next to your plate. One thing you can do in Japan that is not so much acceptable in the US is slurp your noodles from your bowl of broth. Eating in a noodle shop in Japan produces a lot of strange noises.

An article I found at Independent Traveler.com gave a glimpse into what could be some major faux pas in other countries. For example don't eat with a fork in Thailand but don't eat without one in Chile. Don't cut your pasta in Italy (although someone commented later that her relatives said only a peasant twirls their pasta).

When in doubt, look around you at how the locals are eating. In tourist areas, you are usually forgiven your trespasses but if you want to endear yourself, ask someone like your server or tour guide to give you proper etiquette instructions. Eating like a local is a big part of the travel adventure.

Oh, and when in Japan remember that another person will continue to refill your sake. It's a polite gesture and you are expected to do the same. Just be careful how much you sip because you will never hit bottom. Don't ask.

Monday, May 09, 2016


No doubt about it. We love Pickleball. Pickleball, you ask? Yes, one of the fastest growing sports among the growing senior population. Let me try to explain.

Pickleball is played with rackets that are like oversized table tennis paddles. While it has similarities to badminton, the shuttle cock has been replaced with a "whiffle" ball. It is played on a court that is like a tennis court and its rules are similar to tennis.

Pickleball can be as easy or as active as the players engaged in it. It's appeal to the older generation in that it is not as hard on the joints as some sports can be since there is less area to run in. But don't let that fool you. What may seem simple to some becomes a matter of strategy, placement, and response. Eye/hand coordination is intense and quick thinking often wins for those who don't run quite as fast any more.

Another advantage of Pickleball is that it can be played indoors which works for those of us who live in areas that are cold and snowy in the winter. A simple portable net and some tape to mark the court's dimensions is all you need.

So where did this all start? In Washington in 1965 at the home of Joel Pritchard. He and a group of friends were trying to get their families interested in badminton and when they couldn't find the shuttle cock, they used a whiffle ball. When that didn't work with the rackets, they made their own from wood. Then decided to lower the net. Pickleball was born. It has evolved quite a bit since then and has gained momentum especially in retirement communities like those found in Florida. But why the name, Pickleball?

According to Joan Pritchard the name came from her saying it reminded her of the pickle boats, the term given to boats with a crew that were chosen from the leftovers of other boats.

While Paddle Tennis is similar in nature, Pickleball has caught on much more rapidly. It certainly has the two of us hooked.

Friday, May 06, 2016

A Tribute to Mom

This Sunday is Mother's Day and while she's been gone for over 30 years, there's still a place in my heart where she lives on. My novel, Ruby, evolved out of stories Mom told me about growing up during the Great Depression. Of course with my novelist's mind, I took it and made it into a historical romance. I think she'd be pleased. She was, after all, my greatest cheerleader and encourager.

Here's the back cover blurb:

Secrets can be cruel especially when they span generations. What Hope Morgan learns from her mother’s love story turns her world inside out. How many secrets did Ruby keep from her daughter?

Hope Morgan has always had difficulty understanding her mother, Ruby. Now as illness threatens to take her mother’s life she discovers that her family history is not what she thought. Ruby begins to reveal secrets that have been kept for generations.

Who was Edward Fields in her mother’s life, Hope wonders, and why has she kept his letters for so many years? What was the butterfly love story they shared? And did Hope’s father, George know about it?

While Ruby weathered the Great Depression as a child and the sorrows of World War II as a young bride, her faith grew and the promises Edward shared with her gave her strength to see her through. Will she have the strength to finally reveal the last secret she holds?

(And yes, that's her on the front cover.)

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Siena, Italy - The Palio

One of our planned trips for this year is to Tuscany where we will spend a few days in Siena before we cruise the Mediterranean. I've been doing a little exploring on the internet to see what we might want to take a look at while we are there. I discovered that there is a horse race that is run twice a year that is quite historical wrapped in lots of tradition and custom.

The event takes place on August 2 and July 16. The center of the city, the Piazza del Campo, is prepared by spreading a tuff clay on the ring around the main square. The city is divided into 17 contrade, 10 of which participate in any given race. Around the city you can see which section belongs to which contrade because there are signs with the emblems and colors that signify the contrade on various signs: eagle, she-wolf, snail, goose, etc.

The Palio takes place over a four day period with the ultimate race being run on the last day. The prize is called Drappellone or drape. It is a large canvas painted by a local artist each year and is hung in the museum of the contrada that wins.

The course can be treacherous and some horses have crashed into a barrier or each other at particularly difficult point. No matter if the horse has a rider or not (did I mention they ride bareback?),the first to cross the finish line wins.

With all the energy and passion of the Italians, this must be quite an event to experience. Unfortunately our dates do not fall when either race is run but I'm sure we will see all kinds of evidence of the event and hear all sorts of tales.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Cleveland's Countdown to RNC - Sprucing Up The Zoo

Sporting a new set of antlers.
On our visit to Cleveland Metroparks Zoo last week we checked up on all the projects that were going on over our warm winter. We thought the new tiger exhibit would be done. It's close but still has a ways to go.

The Rosebrough Tiger Passage will be home to the Zoo's two Amur tigers, Dasha and Klechka. Their species of tigers is found in the Amur River region of Russia and sometimes in nearby China. The new exhibit which replaces the old 1960's one will more than double the space the tigers had. It will also allow for vertical space-areas where the tigers can climb. The vertical spaces are designed to allow the tigers to actually pass over the heads of the visitors below. Heated rocks and pools of water will provide a respite in winter although the tigers are a breed that survive the cold Russian winters. Dasha and Klechka however were born in captivity so perhaps they need a little extra pampering. Opening of the exhibit should be an exciting event for both animal and visitor. Projected finish date is in June.

The seals have a refurbished habitat with clear windows for viewing. There is a main pool and a smaller one. A hot tub? Who knows. They did look quite comfortable but then they usually do gliding through the water and turning somersaults.

One of the greenhouses has been removed and in it's place is a small 4-D theater which according to the zoo volunteer will be an immersion into the movie that will be shown. I'm guessing it will be something like an IMAX only on a much smaller scale. There will be an extra charge for it as there is for some of the other special features in the park.

Also new to the Zoo is Doc. No, he's not a new veterinarian in the animal hospital. He's a new addition to our lion pride. I thought when I looked at him he was just a teenager and the article I found in my Cleveland Zoological Society magazine confirmed it. He is a two year old male African lion which explains why his mane is not full yet. We saw several male adolescents in the pride that we followed on our Safari in 2015. He comes to Cleveland from Texas where he needed to be moved away from any conflict with his father.

The Sarah Allen Steffe Center for Zoological Medicine is always an interesting place. We have watched several procedures on animals large and small through the observation windows--even a root canal on a Mandrill monkey. This day they were set up for something and when we asked, it turned out they were offering some sort of free testing to volunteers and zoo personnel. There is always an animal or two out and about for you to get a closer look and we made friends with a kookabura. He was in the hospital to try to get his beak straightened and the point fixed. Don't know what he ran into but it had to hurt.

Amid the smell of fresh mulch, flowers and trees were blooming and budding out. When it comes time for the RNC in July it will provide a nice retreat from all the activity downtown. And if what we saw on our visit is any indication, there will be some new hatchlings and the promise of a few new animal babies in the months to come.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Through My Lens - Springtime at CleMet Zoo

Last week we had a beautiful sunny spring day and decided to take our morning walk at one of my favorite places, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. Most people go just to look at the animals but I enjoy the garden spots as well. I especially like seeing the tulips in spring. I have given up on tulips in my yard since they seem to be quite a delicacy in the local deer diet. Here's some of what we found.

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