"" Writer's Wanderings: July 2016

Friday, July 29, 2016

Shirt Folders

One of our favorite TV shows is The Big Bang Theory and of course we enjoy the idiosyncrasies of Sheldon. Lots of interaction in the show takes place in the laundry room of the apartment building and I've seen Sheldon using a folding board for his shirts. It seemed a very efficient and clever way to get your shirts and T-shirts folded evenly. Little did I know that they are readily available and suggested for travelers to use.

Shirt folders are sold with boards that help you fold all the shirts you need uniformly and are stacked five to eight or more deep in a folder that closes around them and keeps them neatly packed in your bag. Here is one example available at TravelSmith and another at LuggagePros. The video below gives you an idea how it works.

Ah, but if you just want help folding those shirts, there is a make-it-yourself board. The instructions are found at eHow.

Or you could buy a plastic one like Sheldon uses. FlipFold makes several sizes.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

What Would You Book - A B&B Or A Hotel?

View of Bay of Islands from Allegra House
There are times when I'd rather stay in a hotel than a B&B but so often we've had a much better stay in the latter. Why? Because the hosts are usually eager to make your stay the very best it can be. They are a valuable source of local information. Often there are things to see and do that they can suggest that are not found in your travel guide. They also know the best times to go, the great foods to order and try, the easiest ways to get somewhere.

A hotel will usually have a concierge who can do a lot to book places for you and suggest restaurants and get you transportation if you need it but somehow it just isn't quite the same as the friendly B&B hosts we've had. It is so much more businesslike rather than homey.

The B&B will also create a more intimate atmosphere for all of those staying with them and you will undoubtedly have breakfast with other travelers who seem to be a lot more friendly in that type of atmosphere. Shared adventures and information are all a part of a great travel experience.

South Wharf, Melbourne, Australia
Breakfast at a B&B can be quite exquisite or very down home. We have stayed in one where the smell of fresh baked scones woke us every morning and another where eggs were gathered from the hens in the backyard. I never knew fresh eggs could taste so good.

Often the B&B will be a less expensive way to travel but if you are looking for luxury, a hotel is not necessarily the way to go. There are some truly luxurious B&Bs. Yes, you will pay more but the experience just might be worth the price.

On the other hand, we have stayed in a couple "bare bones" B&Bs where we got the minimum and were glad to have only spent a night or two. Of course that can be said about a few hotels as well. Bottom line: DO YOUR HOMEWORK. Find the reviews and make your decision. If you are the friendly-want-to-meet-people person try the B&B.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Staying Safe In Cruise Ports

While many honest and hardworking people in cruise ports rush to entertain and provide services for visitors off a cruise ship there are also those who prepare to make money in less savory ways. It was always my assumption that if there is a dangerous area of the world that is unsettled a cruise line will pull its ships from those ports. According to a recent SmarterTravel article that is not necessarily the case. There are still cruise ships that are visiting ports considered by the US and British governments as being hazardous for travel.

The article names ten ports most of which I have never visited. It surprised me that Rio was on the list but I'm guessing in addition to the possibilities of robbery and assault the Zika virus put it on the list. We never felt afraid there but we did travel with another couple and stayed where most of the cruise visitors were. Needless to say we stayed aware of our surroundings as well.

So if your cruise ship does stop in a more dangerous than normal place what should you do? Here's a few tips:

  • Don't travel alone. As a matter of fact, this would be a good time to choose a ship's excursion rather than explore on your own.
  • Avoid isolated places but also keep in mind that you don't want to be near a demonstration, political rally and in some cases even a soccer watch party.
  • Dress modestly. No jewelry. Keep valuables hidden (don't walk around with your iPhone out looking at directions). Take only a small amount of cash and avoid the ATM machine. If you must use it, use one inside a bank and/or be very aware of those around you who may be looking to see what you are withdrawing.
  • Don't wear flip flops. If you need to run from a situation, you don't want to be running in floppy shoes.
  • Avoid being out after dark. 
In the case of Rio, the article advises that you should be sure to use DEET, pay attention to your surroundings and not go in the water. Raw sewage is known to be dumped into the water. I remember seeing all sorts of garbage in the water as we came into port but didn't realize there was sewage as well.

Rape, robbery and kidnapping are all a possibility almost anywhere in these days of uncertainty in our world but there are some countries that have more difficulty policing those things. That common sense your mom always talked about would be a good thing to tuck in your pocket along with your cruise card when you go ashore.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Through My Lens - Ephesus

Our Sunday School lessons are in the book of Revelations and we started with Ephesus. I put together a few pictures to show the class from our visit there in 2008. The original post for our visit is here if you'd like to read it. Meanwhile here are a few pictures.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Picking Your Cruise

All cruises are not created equal. They are not even equal within a specific cruise line. If you are not a seasoned cruiser I have a few things you may want to consider as you choose your next cruise.

First, is age important to you? Longer cruises and those farther away than the Caribbean will attract the over fifty crowd more likely than not. They have the time and the money for those longer more expensive cruises and can go at a shoulder season (the months just before and after summer vacations). Younger folks will take shorter cruises and more likely cruise during the summer months when kids are on vacation from school

Speaking of kids, are you planning to travel with them? Some cruise lines are a little more attractive to kids than others. Of course Disney is the obvious but that can get a bit pricey. Here's where a good travel agent can help you out. A good TA should be able to steer you to a line that is catering more to kids and has a really good program for them. A good kids' program gives you some free time to enjoy and relax as you cruise.

This year we did something a bit spontaneous and booked a four day cruise in the Caribbean. We did so knowing that this retired couple would likely be mixing with a ship full of twenty-somethings since it was spring break time. Sure enough there was a party going on at the pool 24/7, or 24/4 as the case was. We weren't interested in hanging out at the pool anyway and enjoyed our cruise mostly because we expected there would be scores of kids and energy and yes, drinking. Had we gone with the expectation of a quiet cruise ship (not that there weren't quiet areas we found) we would have been disappointed.

Again, a good TA will help you with timing, destination and the type of cruise line that will suit your expectations. Start your cruising experience by booking through an agent. Then if you want to explore options on your own, you'll have some experience and a better idea of what you like.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Authors And The Places They Write About

Midnight On The Mississippi by Mary Ellis was one of my most recent reads. It was fun to read and imagine her exploring New Orleans to gather her information for her setting. I know Mary and remember her talking about her trip. As I read, I remembered the trips we've made to the places she mentioned. A good author does her/his research for the setting of the story and the best research is done first hand when possible. Now is that an excuse to travel or not?

Our book club is meeting in a few days and we will be reporting on the travel done through the books we read for this session's assignment. (Readers had to find a book with a setting outside the USA.) I am eager to see where my friends have traveled through their reading.

If you are considering a trip somewhere out of the country, you might consider a little internet searching to discover a new-to-you author from that area or an author who has set their story in the place you are visiting.

But even if you are staying within the borders, you can find all sorts of books from authors around the country. Pick a spot. Any spot. Then travel through the pages and enjoy the scenery. A good book will do that for you and you won't even have to pack a bag!

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Happy Countries!

Each year the United Nations publishes a report of the ten happiest countries in the world. I figured it was a good bet that the US didn't make it into the top ten. So I searched around until I found a list that showed the top 50 rankings. We came in at 13. So how do they determine who's happy and who's not?

It's simple. They ask people if they are happy. Then they factor in GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom and corruption. Some of the countries that are in the top ten I expected, among them Australia, New Zealand and Canada. What surprised me is Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. Relatively cold countries at least in my imagination. Maybe struggling to stay warm takes your mind off of petty issues and puts it on survival.

In a few weeks we are off to Japan which ranked 53 followed by a trip to Iceland, the third happiest country in the world. I guess it will all be balanced by a trip to Italy (50) and Spain (37).  By the time we return election results will be in for the US. Wonder how we'll rank in 2017?

Monday, July 18, 2016

Laundry On The Road

Getting clothes cleaned while traveling can often be a challenge, a pain, or one of the fun things you do on the road. We've visited laundromats in foreign countries and had lots of fun figuring things out often with the help of the locals who I am sure we entertained. If you are planning on more than a week of travel, chances are you will want to schedule some time to wash a few items. It makes for a lighter suitcase if you don't pack clean clothes for every single day.

If you aren't up for the challenge of a local foreign laundromat, you may opt for hand washing in the sink in which case you need to plan for a couple of days in one spot so that your clothes will dry. Pack lighter weight fabrics and plan to layer if the weather is cool. The lighter fabrics will dry faster for you but still you will need a good twenty-four hours to be sure they get dry hanging in the bathroom or a closet. Be sure to pack one of those flat rubber stoppers to place over the drain. If you don't want to pack a little detergent, you can always use some shampoo if you are just trying to refresh your things and not get out mud or grease.

Or if you are really into washing your clothes you could try a new gadget I happened across called the Scrubba. It's advertised as the smallest traveling washing machine. It's a reusable pouch that has a rough texture inside (think wash board). You fill it with water and detergent, work the air out, seal it and knead it back and forth until the clothes get clean. It costs between $45-50 USD at Amazon. While it has some good reviews, I can do a lot of laundry by hand or even at the local laundromat for that much money. Plus I'd have to pack it even if it is small.

Friday, July 15, 2016

A Trip Down Memory Lane - Ocean City, MD

The early years of our marriage found us in Laurel, Maryland, a beautiful town half way between Baltimore and Washington, DC. Supposedly it was the favorite place for George Washington to stop overnight on his trips between the two cities. Our twins were born while we were there and when they were six and our younger son was three we decided to take a vacation that included a trip back to visit friends in Laurel and our favorite beach in Ocean City.

While in Laurel our friends treated us to a crab feast. In Maryland, you cover the table with newspaper, dump several dozen steamed spicy crabs in the middle and let everyone have at it. Our kids loved it and to my surprise, loved the taste of crab.

While in Ocean City, we visited our favorite seaside restaurant and ordered kids meals for the boys and lobster for ourselves. Of course the boys wanted to taste the lobster. Big mistake in letting them. They all decided they liked it. While trying to expand their culinary experience we created expensive new cravings--crab and lobster. We never ordered lobster in front of them again.

It was one of those memorable vacations and partly because of the curly haired blonde guy in the picture. He had soft big curls of almost white blonde hair and it was irresistible for passersby. Many reached out and patted his head. We joked that if we had a quarter for each pat, we'd have paid for our vacation or at least for lobster for the kids. He never would have stood for it though. He learned to scowl at anyone who reached a hand out. I couldn't blame him. It wasn't long after our trip he had a haircut that ended the curls and as he grew his hair color darkened.

Ah, a trip down memory lane. Again.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Hmmmm. What To Wear? What To Wear?

It is always interesting to return from a trip and unpack and discover how much you took along that wasn't really necessary. This last trip had us coming home with several pieces of clean clothing that we never needed. A dive trip is casual to the extreme but I hate to go to dinner in a sweaty shirt. This year though we didn't do much outside that required more than a bathing suit or dive skin so we both took too many shirts with us even though I had planned to do laundry.

So what sorts of things should you consider when you are planning what to wear as you travel? Again it boils down to homework. Find out what types of dress codes you might encounter at your destination. If you are going to Europe and plan to visit historic churches, you will find that sleeveless shirts and dresses are frowned upon. You will be asked to cover your shoulders at least. In the Middle East you will find very conservative dress codes in places even like shopping malls and of course if you visit a mosque, ladies will be asked to cover their heads with a shawl.

More times than I would like to count we have seen inappropriate shoe wear for the type of trails, sidewalks and nature walks that are part of tours and may be on your itinerary. Flip flops and sandals may be great for the beach but they provide no support and often no tread for rocky sloped terrain. And absolutely refrain from spiky heels on cobblestone streets and walks that are usually found in European historic places. An ace bandage or worse, a cast on an ankle is not your best fashion statement or a great way to travel. Avoid that with sensible shoes.

Love bright colors? Save them for the Caribbean. If you are traveling most anywhere else, stick to more subdued colors. Unless of course you want to stand out in a crowd and be easily recognizable to those who prey on tourists like pickpockets and scammers.

And while we're on the pickpocket thought, don't carry valuables in an open bag. A cross strap purse that zips is safer.

Expensive jewelry is an invitation to thievery. Opt for some nice costume jewelry if you must be adorned and if you have rings with large stones, you may want to turn them around to your palm when you are out and about. I turn my around when I'm diving too. Barracudas are attracted to shiny things whether they swim in the ocean or walk the streets of Paris.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Books For The Road - Under The Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes

Always looking for a way to create interest in reading and challenging my book club, I suggested that for our summer read we make it a book that would take us traveling. Each reader gets to choose their own whether it be a novel or a travel memoir as long as it takes place outside the USA. Since we are planning a trip that starts in the Tuscan area of Italy, I decided to choose Under The Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes.

You may remember the movie in 2003. It was based on Mayes' book from 1996. The book is about her experience in buying a home in Italy and renovating it then using it as home base to explore the country and experience the culture. The home is near Cortona, a little town in the Tuscan countryside. Mayes includes almost poetic descriptions of the home and the landscape of the area where it is located. She is enamored with the food especially what is produced in the area and used creatively in culinary delights. Many of the recipes are included in the book.

What I didn't realize when I downloaded the ebook was that this edition was revised and included her observations on the movie that was made from her memoir. The movie is a bit different in that the Mayes character played by Diane Lane is a recent divorcee who is escaping to start a new life in the Italian home she has bought. Many of the experiences she has with the contractors are based on the real life situations in the Mayes book. It parts company when the movie character takes on an Italian lover although Mayes says that might have been interesting but her husband, Ed, would probably have objected.

I enjoyed the read and the comparison to the movie. Neither is better than the other. They stand alone and are both good. Guess it's time to revisit the movie before we go especially now that I know it was shot in the same area and according to Mayes the movie home is very similar to hers. After that it's on to Tuscany!

Friday, July 08, 2016

The Lion Fish Hunters

There are several speculations on how the lion fish native to the South Pacific came to invade the warmer waters of the southern Atlantic and the Caribbean. The most commonly touted is that there were several released into the waters off the Florida shore when Hurricane Andrew moved through and destroyed an aquarium. I did find some reports of sightings though that dated back to 1985, well before Andrew in 1992. Whatever their origin, the invasion has taken place and those who care for the oceans are scrambling to try to contain it.

Why you ask? The lion fish are a spectacular fish with spiny and lacy looking adornments often colorful oranges or black and white markings. As divers know, some of the prettiest fish are the deadliest. The spines are dangerous and can inflict great pain and cause you quite an illness. To the natural marine life in these waters they are even more deadly. They have a voracious appetite and feed off of most any small fish and even some that are 2/3 their size. And in the waters of the Caribbean, they have few predators--until now.

Enter the Lion Fish Hunters. Divers are offered the opportunity to learn to spear the lion fish. Bob and our grandson took the course that is offered while we were in Grand Cayman diving. They were given instructions and then sent out in groups on a dive to locate and spear as many as they could find. It is a tedious and often unsuccessful venture and I believe it would take more practice than what they had. Out of a boat full of about ten divers, there were only eight lion fish speared but the more experienced are more successful. One report we saw said our dive operators had culled 10,000 from the area. Of course the hearty lion fish spawn every two to three days so that's barely making a dent.

The up side of this is that the lion fish are quite tasty and local restaurants are serving them in several different ways including ceviche which was made from two of the lion fish caught on the dive boat. The boys had their appetizer before they came home for dinner.

If you'd like to read more about the lion fish invasion click here for an informative article.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Grand Cayman Diving - Surface Time

Surface time when you are diving is the time you spend above the water between dives. When it is more than the forty minutes or so between two morning dives, we are always looking for something to do other than just sleep, read, or eat. We thought, after over 16 years of visiting the island,  we had possibly seen everything but no. Just when we figured we had run out of island experiences along comes a new one.

We saw the sign, CAYMAN CRYSTAL CAVES, on our way to our usual dining spot for our first night. We are not superstitious. Just call us traditional. But Over The Edge restaurant has always been our first stop for dinner on GC. Back at our condo rental, we checked the caves out on the internet and decided that would be our new adventure for this year.

After a few days of diving and finally getting our stamina back, we took an afternoon to venture out to the new tourist spot. The caves have been an on-going project for some time now. The same people who opened Harrison's Cave in Barbados have been working on these caves in GC. It has been quite an undertaking first with the purchase of the land and then finally getting a periphery property where an entrance could be made to the cave property. After that it was a matter of getting the caves ready for visitors.

We purchased tickets at the gate and then drove to a parking lot where we boarded a mini bus that took us over the "mountain" as our guide called it. Elevation was all of 62 feet. A mountain by flat Grand Cayman standards.

Our guide Andre, Mr. Personality, gave us a timeline that extended back to the late 1990s and talked of the years it took to dig out the caves that had filled with silt and soil in order to be able to walk in them standing up. There are three caves of one hundred and five that are now open and have been deemed safe enough for visitors. They are amazing.

Andre began our almost two hour tour with a walk to our first cave, the Open Ceiling Cave, stopping several times along the way to tell us about native trees and bushes and historically how they have been used by the locals. He was quite informative as well as a great story teller. I was sorry we missed some of his patter (it ran continually) because he was truly entertaining. Our group was a little larger than usual and so being on the end of it, we missed some of his stories.

The first cave was amazing. Limestone stalactites and stalagmites were huge and at times sparkled from the salt content with the lights shining upon them. After that visit, we returned to the nicely appointed deck area where there is a souvenir shop and place to purchase water and soda. We sat for a few minutes to try to cool off. The temperature was in the lower 90F and the humidity was thick making us all look like we'd been hosed down with our shirts sticking to us and drops of sweat dripping off our hair.

The next cave was a little different and had a bunch of bats in it but the best one, the Lake Cave, was saved for last.  It was also the coolest and almost felt like walking into A/C. Huge caverns opened up as we walked through. The prominent feature of course is an underground lake. The lighting was amazing in the cave and was set up in the lake to show a natural view, a view that emphasized the calcium deposits, a mirrored image view and then a dimmer view that was lit further down to show how deep the lake ran into the cave. All of which Andre demonstrated with the flick of a switch.

A few minutes later, we were walking back to the bus and being driven to our car, otherwise known as the oven on wheels. Despite the heat and humidity, we found the caves to be a wonderful diversion for our surface time. It will be interesting to see what further developments they make there.

Cayman Crystal Caves website.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Fishy Personalities

All fish are not created equal. For that matter all marine life is not the same. I suppose that's what makes movies like Finding Nemo and Dory and SpongeBob SquarePants work. Lots of characters to be had there. Our recent dives have provided lots of fishy personalities and I'm not referring to divers. That's a whole other observation. We all have our quirks.

There has not been one grouper that I've met, large or small, that looks happy. No matter the size (and we've seen some whoppers) they always have a turned down look to their mouths that look like a frown. Grumpy groupers.

The exact opposite is the colorful parrot fish. Its mouth is shaped more like a smile and it literally bounces around the reef from rock to rock gleaning what it can from each. Seemingly hyperactive they skip to another section of the reef and continue to happily scrape their favorite tidbit of vegetation from the rocks and hard corals there.

In between these two personality types are all sorts. There's the "dead-eyed" barracuda who makes you shiver with his look as he slowly circles you to see what you are up to. Then it's the trigger fish with their eternally puckered mouth as if they've eaten too many lemons. All sorts of jaw fish in the sand pop up and down and amaze me at the way they can back into their hole without looking. The puppy dog eyes of the porcupine fish make you want to cuddle them although that would not be wise.

Then there are the schools of yellow striped grunts and blue fish (whose name escapes me). When the sun lights them up it looks like a party not a school. They seem to be the more social groups.

Now you might think that the shark would have an outstanding personality but actually with all the sharks we've seen I'd have to say they were the most shy of all the sea creatures we've met. They appear quickly and disappear just as fast, rarely hanging around long enough for a picture.

It's a whole different and amazing world beneath the surface.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Two Celebrations Today!

The first Monday of July which is Constitution Day in the Cayman Islands coincides with the Independence Day celebration of the USA. They take their holidays seriously here in the islands and many places will close early or be closed all day as they celebrate. Unlike the US, the Cayman Islands are still a territory of Great Britain.

In 1670 the British took over control of the Cayman Islands which were largely uninhabited until the 1730s. In 1863 the islands became a part of Jamaica and began to be settled. Jamaica gained independence from Britain in 1952 but the Cayman Islands elected to a protectorate of the British crown. The islands officially gained status as a British overseas territory and in 1959 a constitution was adopted that gave women suffrage and defined the boundaries of self-administration of the territory.

So this year we will celebrate our country's independence and celebrate with our friends on Cayman Islands as they mark their historic event as well. What fun!

Friday, July 01, 2016

Ah, The First Day of Diving

While I might be the maid, the cook and the laundress on this trip it is Bob's job to get all our dive gear in order and he always seems to manage that with great results. Since we got Murphey off of our backs by the end of our travel day (see yesterday's post) our first day of diving was shaping up to be good.

Grandson up on time, gear in the car, breakfast eaten, we were on our way. While it is really hot and muggy we try not to complain. Hot and muggy makes the ocean waters warm and we don't like diving in cold water. The dive operation, Ocean Frontiers, that we use every year is so wonderful. It is on the East End of the island about a fifty minute trip from the airport--only five from our condo rental. Once we are helped aboard the dive boat, we are offered the opportunity to have our gear set up. Our first day we like to do it ourselves just because we don't want to forget how it's done. All dive operations do not offer that service.

Our first dive turns out to be one that we need for completion of our Green Shorts Challenge. We only need two and this one always seemed to be skipped because of its location and depth and the weather. The first dive is always one more of exercise than anything. Remembering what to do, checking out gear and getting our. . .what would you call them, dive legs?

Scuba Bowl turns out to be an interesting landscape. We have to watch our depth to keep it above 80 feet because of our grandson's age but there is still lots to see even though the sharks they see here sometimes seemed to have slept in. A short dive because of the depth and we are once again on the surface.

Our second dive site is one we have been to many times. The Dragon's Lair is called that because of a profile on the end of one of the outcroppings that resembles a dragon's head and has an outcropping of coral in its mouth like flames. We are more relaxed on this dive and find a couple of huge lobsters. The one we find is really patterned nicely. Of course there are schools of all sizes of blue fish, parrot fish and several tarpons, large fish (3-4 feet long) with great big jaws that swim slowly through the canyons. They are gentle fish with huge silvery scales. I love swimming next to them and seeing the sun penetrate the water to sparkle on their scales.
Our morning over, the boat returns to the dock and our gear is whisked away to be rinsed and set up tomorrow morning for us for another morning of diving. Our afternoon will be spent napping. For some reason, diving the first day is really tiring. Maybe it's the heat. Maybe it's our age. But then our grandson sleeps through the afternoon as well. Yup. It's the heat, the excitement of the first morning dives. Tomorrow we'll begin to hit our stride.
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