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A Hairy Sumatran Chess Match

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View Around the World 06-07 on TulsaTrot's travel map.

Expected, but still a jolt to the senses. Five months into our trip and Nadine’s paternal grandmother has passed away. We quickly decide that Nadine should return to the States and attend the funeral with her family. This marks the midway point of our trip, but it also caps a beginning and an end. It is the end of one life and the beginning of another. When Nadine returns to Thailand two weeks later, we will learn she is pregnant.

Her departure also stirs mixed feelings. For two weeks, I am a traveler on my own without my safety net, Nadine. She is the one who remembers the names of people and streets, prices, and all of the important facts that enter and exit my memory with fluidity. She is the one who laughs at me and my stupid jokes, or odd observations of the current culture we are visiting. She is the balance in my life. I will miss her, but I also savor the opportunity to be a sole traveler with wanderlust in an exotic place. I am off to Sumatra, Indonesia.

There are only two ways to cross the Malacca Strait between Malaysia and Indonesia: fly or travel by boat. In order to receive my “real traveler” badge, I can’t take a flight to Medan, Indonesia. I must travel by boat. First, I must get to Malaysia from Thailand.

This vagabond jumped on a van the next morning that would take me back to Penang, Malaysia through southern Thailand. This is the same four-hour van ride that we took less than a week earlier in the opposite direction into Thailand. Yet this time, I am alone and carrying a hankering for a real adventure, something off the Southeastern Asia beaten path. The three seats in my row are made for three people of Thai stature, tiny and thin. As luck would have it, I am sharing my row with two really large Kazakhstan guys who probably don’t feel like sharing precious shoulder space with a Texan like me either. These Kazakhstani guys are large enough to play on the offensive line of a major college football program, and oddly enough, they live in Thailand and study Thai boxing, a sport that consists of really small Thai guys kicking the shit out of each other’s shins. They are completing their monthly border run to renew their visa, and I am continuing to port of Penang in Malaysia. My goal is to visit the orangutan sanctuary in the wild Sumatran jungle, but it appears my first struggle is wrestling for some shoulder space with some Kazakhstanis.

Indonesia happens to be the fourth-most populated country in the world with a population of 250 million people, trailing only China, India, and the U.S. Indonesia is 90% Muslim, but the island of Sumatra has a large Christian population making it a 50/50 split between Muslims and Christians. My presence shifts the balance to the Christian side. Sumatra is the largest of 17,508 islands in the Indonesian archipelago. With all of its uniqueness, the island of Sumatra has known defeat and tragedy in the last nine years.

In November 2003, a flash flood ravaged the town of Bukit Lawang. Produced by illegal logging in the mountains, a lake had formed on the Bohorok River. The water pressure from a heavy evening rain overpowered the dam of sediment and timber, and in the span of 10 minutes, that lake transformed into a destructive wall of water and rushed through the valley and swept through Bukit Lawang. It took 325 homes and 280 lives with it, 6 backpackers included, and felled their tourist economy. In December of 2004, the Christmas Day tsunami hit the northern Aceh region and killed hundreds of thousands more. Combine this with the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, and tourism had suffered dramatically on this western rim of Indonesia. As a result, the island of Sumatra was practically void of tourists and backpackers. That is what held the appeal for my visit: a lack of tourists and a visit to the largest orangutan sanctuary in the world. Nadine was never eager to visit Sumatra, thus, her visit to the States gave me the opportunity to go to this island desolate of visitors.

I walked to the jetty the following morning in Penang and purchased a roundtrip ticket to the port of Balawasi, Indonesia. The exciting prospect of being seated on a ferry for six rocking hours was a chance to travel with locals and read. I looked around and proudly noted that I was one of two tourists. Seated next to a lady who smelled like she hadn’t bathed in weeks, she found me intriguing. I was torn whether to sit and nicely listen to her explain something to me in Bahasan that I couldn’t understand, or slyly make a move to the open air on deck. My personal space and olfactory senses having been overwhelmed, I made the decision to sit on the breezy, cool, swaying deck to study the waves and clouds that stood over us and ponder life.

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As we neared the polluted Indonesian port of Balawasi, I returned to find my seat occupied by the malodorous girl from earlier. So I talked with the other tourist seated with his Indonesian girlfriend. This seems to be a hobby of many elderly or socially challenged Western men from observations in my travels; flee your home country and find yourself a local girlfriend in Southeast Asia. Finding an American on this ferry was surprising and encouraging since Nadine and I hadn't encountered many Americans in our around-the-world travels.

Arriving into the port of Belawasi, a mass of humanity quickly left the confines of our floating craft and rushed in a human traffic jam towards immigration. A customs agent noticed me and inquired if I had a visa. Upon my negative response, I was ushered, as an apparently affluent tourist, into his office to purchase my Indonesian tourist visa. Not having a visa turned out to be the only good decision I made in the next 24 hours, but also an omen of my near future. The cost of a visa was $10 or 88,000 Indonesian rupiahs. As I didn’t have either currency in my money belt, the immigration officer gladly accepted my 50 Malaysian Ringgits, or $18. For an extra $8, or four days work for the average Indonesian, I was ushered past the long immigration line with a shiny, new seven-day visa for a cool $18 that retails commercially for $10. My dear immigration officer friend could now take his family out for a nice dinner.

I was then steered into an oppressively hot bus that would carry us into the large metropolis of Medan. Any person that hadn’t traveled on the boat were pushed back by police officers at the doors of the bus, and that included any suspected touts, young entrepreneurs eagerly trying to part tourists from their tourist’s dollars by any means necessary. The bus proved to be a sweaty and sticky two-hour ride over bumpy, muddy streets while fighting Medan traffic. Those were my first two hours in Indonesia.

On the bus, I chatted with the American and his girlfriend, and Adam. Adam was a pleasant Indonesian guy with a good control of English and found my jokes to be funny. He joked with us two foreigners about orangutans, our current traffic, and Indonesians.

The combination of boat and bus travel left me feeling fatigued and exasperated, but my days was not over. I had to shore up some loose ends: find a place to sleep and transport up north to Bukit Lawang. I would overcome these feelings and keep my wits about me in this new country, because I am a seasoned traveler. Adam offered to help me out a bit as a newcomer in his country since I didn’t speak the language. It was the least he could do for a guest in his country.

Stepping off the bus, he led me directly to a hostel that he knew about. It turned out to be empty, dark, and dank, but complete with red flashing lights that lit the dual-purpose dance floor / dining hall. I chose to visit another place. He offered to continue helping. Adam was a tout, and he preyed on hapless backpackers like myself. He could try and take advantage of me all he wanted, but that would never work with me and my travel experience. He informed me of many things. There weren’t any more buses heading up to Bukit Lawang today. I should probably exchange all of my money before I headed up to Bukit Lawang since there weren’t any money exchangers there. That seems logical, so I exchanged a large amount of money with his buddy the money exchanger. He showed me a good place to eat, so I ate there. It also happened to belong to one of his friends. It seemed that anything that I needed, he knew someone who could help out. After several hours with Adam, my suspicions about him grew. After our romantic noodle dinner together, I told him I was tired and needed to go to bed. It was seven o’clock. Any hopes that he had of getting luckier flew out the door. After the coast was clear, I headed back outside to explore, buy some mosquito coils, and check e-mail. That night I also decided that I should return back to Malaysia via a quicker mode of transportation that charged the same amount, an airplane. I spent the same amount in Medan with Adam as I did on that $30 flight.

When I woke up at 7:30, Adam was patiently waiting for me in the lobby. I must have been a big fish for him. He felt it necessary to take me to buy a mosquito net in a taxi he set up for me, as they didn’t sell mosquito nets in Bukit Lawang. Any normal fool would have zigged when he zagged, but we were like a pair of synchronized swimmers in perfect unison. Even though I knew I shouldn’t be following him to a random house to buy a mosquito net, I was right there by his side. At this point, I bought the mosquito net for $15 that should have cost $2 and my level of agitation was quickly changing to fury. I was ready to rid myself of him. Like any bad date, this date continued costing me Indonesian rupiahs. I felt it was time to end our relationship, abruptly. I took off to the bus station without him, but still with a sense that he was still with me. I was in the taxi he arranged. Experienced traveler my ass. Adding insult to injury, the driver asked for an additional tip at the bus station. If you ever meet a very nice, persistent, affable Adam in Sumatra, please don't ask him about mosquito nets.

Independent of Adam and his entourage, I searched for a bus to Bukit Lawang with my traveler pride having been bitch slapped. I had to regain some amount of self-respect. When I learned there wasn’t a bus heading north for another couple of hours, I found a place where mini-vans leave when filled to capacity. Thus, I was on my first mini-van ride in Indonesia.

Let me describe Sumatran mini-vans. They stop to pick-up and drop off passengers along the route, and often. Even though Sumatra suffers from humidity, mini-vans are not air-conditioned, but heated by the sheer number of passengers they are able to cram in every space available. Each row has an extra person or two beyond the number of seats provided, hang a few from the door, and a couple more on top for safety, and now you have an accurate picture of this mini-van. At one point, on my four-and-a-half hour mini-van ride, I counted at one point a total of 25 people in, on, and hanging onto our mini-van. The road to Bukit Lawang wasn’t the worst ever, but it could give the top tier a run for their money. This road was littered with potholes that looked like bomb scars. Our van dodged them and bounced up and down to the screaming sound of pop music that is found on the Indonesian television show “Let’s Dance”.

Upon my arrival into the sleepy village of Bukit Lawang with a sore butt, I was greeted by one of Adam’s Bukit Lawang cohorts “John, remember we met on the ferry from Penang.”

My tempered response was a quick “I have never met you, so leave me alone”.

I quickly darted towards my $3 a night room located across the river. The river used to be 9 feet wide until the flash flood. Now it is 90 feet wide. In order to reach the far shore, you must cross a makeshift bridge that consists of pieces of board and small logs placed over wire connected to a top rope that sways with strong winds. With a large backpack resting on my back and a small one on my chest, I walked the 90 feet bent over at the waist, face down staring down into the brown, muddy water passing below, and crouched far enough down so as to not smack my pack against the wire and pull me into the drink 20 feet below. Safely on solid ground, I checked into my electricity-free room that provided such rare amenities as a mosquito net. Adam, you liar!

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Life in Bukit Lawang was slow. No one was around. I saw a handful of tourists. All there was to do was watch the river flow. I signed up for a morning trek with Siyan to search of Sumatran orangutans, a guide who just happened to be on the same van as me. I crossed the bridge one more time, backpack-free, to peruse the open-air market, study the rancid smelling rubber trees, and indulge in conversation over some supersized Bitang beers with a Dutch girl, Daniella, about the school she founded in Bukit Lawang, and life before and after the flood. By the end of the night, it was dark, a breeze descended from the hills along with warm rain, and I still had to traverse the river over a rickety bridge back to my room. The beer kept me warm and my headlamp lit my slippery path across the suspension bridge.

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At seven o’clock in the morning, I took off with Siyan into the jungle. We had made an agreement that if I didn't see any orangutans I didn't have to pay for his services. He guaranteed that we would see orangutans.

As we walked, I heard gibbon monkeys in the distance, saw gray mohawk monkeys passing overhead, and the calls of birds, but no orangutans. After an hour and a half up and down well-worn paths, Siyan and I hadn’t found any orangutans. We had in fact heard them in the distance, but no visual confirmation. We stopped on the jungle trail for a brief hydration break, continued a very short distance when Siyan perked up. He saw a female orangutan and ran over to confirm. It was indeed a female orangutan. To better see this animal, I followed him off the trail and tramped after him through the jungle floor. There in front of us sat Sata, a female orangutan, as she hung from a tree branch in her hairy glory. Siyan then told me he had actually seen two orangutans. The other ape was a male.

It was mating season.

After my first photo of the female was snapped, we then both saw the male orangutan, Abdul, quickly reveal himself from behind another, closer tree. He advanced us towards us quickly. Suddenly, Siyan yelled, “John, run up to the trail! He is chasing us!” My elation in seeing my first orangutan in the wild immediately expanded into alarm in having to flee from Abdul with a burdensome backpack across my chest and camera fumbling in my hands. Even on the trail, he repeatedly charged us while we repeatedly retreated towards the larger space at the fork in the trail, and Sata amused herself and watched it all transpire from afar. As we backtracked, we saw Abdul in complete form with arms hanging the full length of his torso. I have to say that I had an immediate respect for this powerful and amazing creature. It was a chess match: Abdul would charge, we drew back. We continued this cat and mouse game until Siyan took out three mangos and threw them to Abdul and Sata. This kept the male at bay for the next 20 minutes as Abdul no longer viewed us as a threat, but more like a fruit provider, and busied himself eating mangoes. This opened a window of opportunity for Sata to give us a private show.

With Abdul pacified, Sata showed off for the two hairless monkeys. She climbed up trees, swung from branches, slid down tree trunks upside down, and peed from the limbs. I just sat there and soaked it all up and tried to take a few decent photos from my camera and with my memory. That was until the female was 5 feet in front of me and hanging by one arm. Suddenly the branch broke and this female orangutan fell on her back and sulked over to the male while Siyan and I had a good laugh. Minutes later, Sata returned to exact her revenge and, dangling by one arm, took a quick swipe at my head. Fortunately she missed.

I studied their movements and mannerisms over the next 30 minutes, and their incredible physical similarities with us humans in their feet, hands, arms, head, and for a handful of humans, a body completely covered in hair. Just for good measure, during our track back towards the village, we saw another female orangutan with her two children. The adolescent felt it necessary to drop a load in front of us and not wipe. It wasn’t very hygienic.
My Indonesian experience put into perspective the negative events leading to my arrival at the orangutan preserve. Anything worth experiencing in life, it is not necessarily going to be effortless to arrive at that desired spot, may even require some danger and a few uncomfortable modes of transportation. By the end of the morning, I felt a unique connection to these apes, this battered land, and respect for what some Indonesians were doing to protect their gifts of this world.

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Waiting inside the Medan airport before my flight to Penang, Malaysia, a security guard nonchalantly walked into a lady’s souvenir shop and picked up a chess set without the slightest hesitaiton. It must have been their daily routine. When it wasn’t busy, he steals the board until people start filing in terminal B. As he walked back to his security station, I offered to play him. So he joined me at a set of chairs. I played chess with this security guard for over an hour while people passed through security undeterred, unchecked, and unfazed by the lack of security. There were more important affairs going on, a match of wits between Indonesia and the United States. In this game, Indonesia started off with a quick, strong start, but the United States finally gained the upper hand, until the end, when both sides played to a draw. Both camps left happy with the occasion to play, meet, and learn from the other. The security guard returned to insuring the safety of the Medan airport terminal, and I to the ease of traveling with a loved one. As travel and life are not always easy, at times it creates memorable snapshots, and my short excursion to the island of Sumatra did not disappoint.

Posted by TulsaTrot 20:22 Archived in Indonesia Tagged bukit_lawang_indonesia Comments (0)

The Makings of a Snow Angel

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Fifty-five years ago the western most edge of Omaha, Nebraska was the Westgate neighborhood. Now it is just a centrally located neighborhood over some rolling hills full of retired people and a spattering of young couples. Ironically, there isn’t a gate surrounding the neighborhood. On any given warm, spring day, it is rare to find more than a handful of people walking the neighborhood, and even much more rare to find someone out for a stroll after a dumping of seven inches of snow the previous night. The most common activity one is apt to see in the neighborhood on such a snowy day is the brief fuss of blowers and shovels displacing snow to make room for vehicles.

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As the family mule, I carry everything

A walk 15 years ago consisted of throwing on a pair of shoes, walking out the door, and I was gone. Seven years ago, I would throw on my shoes, check to make sure my wife Nadine was ready to go, and out the door we went. Three years ago, I would throw on my shoes, Nadine the same, and then we would change our daughter’s diaper, put on her jacket, snow pants, hat, scarf, and gloves, start to leave, realize we forgot something, go back and grab it, and then we cautiously began our walk. In life, time flies by, yet our prep time for any excursion outside the walls of our house has quadrupled. Any trip must be well planned or an extra 15 minutes could easily be added. As of ten months ago, we now multiply that child coefficient by 2.

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The joyful task of getting dressed with many layers

This morning, I opened our front door that had been frosted by the crash of freezing and warm air and stepped outside the house. I was greeted with a contradiction of the senses. In front of me stood a bright, sunny day, and the chilling backdrop of 9-degree weather that freezes your nose hair with every deep breath. As I sat perched at the top of my steps, staring off down the street, it was the perfect opportunity to undertake a peaceful walk. It was at this moment that Sophie, dressed in oversized black snow pants, a pink puffy jacket, and shin high snow boots, resembling Stay Puft marshmallow man, walked up behind me, smacked me in the derrière, and yelled, “Move over, big butt!”
There is the new reality to my travels; it’s almost always with my kids. Attached to my back in the same black, travel backpack that we used with a 10-month old Sophie in Argentina for six weeks, is now occupied with a 10-month old Domino cooing to himself. It can be interesting how history repeats itself. Nadine closes the door and we are ready for our own adventure in the little neighborhood covered by snow.

Our heavy next-door neighbor stops me, thanks me for helping him remove the snow off of his driveway earlier this morning and laments the workings of his newly acquired truck from an auction. The neighbor from across the street is attempting to climb the slippery slope of road covered with several inches of snow in his red minivan with idle results. I recommend a different, less vertically challenging route, and we descend Spring Street.

Similar to the process of readying ourselves for this walk, our progress follows a snail’s pace; slow, methodical, predictable, cold, and yet enjoyable. For every eight feet we walk down the street, it is stopped by Sophie jumping into and walking in the knee high snow of neighborhood lawns, followed by Mom pushing her over, helping her up, pushing her down again, encouraging her to make a snow angel, and everyone analyzing her subsequent piece of powdery art.

“I only have one arm.”
“My head is small like Domino’s.”
“That one is much better.”
“Help! I’m stuck now, I can’t get up.”
Oh, the joys of traveling as a group of four. Or the fleeting joys. Before long, Domino will be the three and half years old, and Sophie will be even older.

The goal of the walk is to observe my surroundings. I breathe in the cold air that is a stark contrast to the mild Texas 50-degree winters I grew up knowing. Two left-hand turns and I am briefly separated from a distracted Sophie and Nadine as they snack on snow off someone’s front lawn. I interject the importance of being a snow connoisseur, “No comamos la nieve amarilla!”

Then from the top of our neighborhood hill, I peer through the skeleton of skinny trees with their snowy backgrounds. The unperturbed snow reflects the bright light of the sun like a disco ball reflects neon light. The view is peaceful and calm, and times of tranquilness are rarities in life now. I wear a coat that was born before Justin Bieber and looks the part, but keeps me just as warm as any modern North Face coat. My gloves, on the other hand, have ripped, easily exposing every other finger to cold gusts. Snowballs prove to be a tricky endeavor, but one that must be attempted on such a walk even with shoddy gloves. The piles of fresh snow and stillness of the Westgate neighborhood grab my attention, but only briefly. The only elements that continually hold my attention were a rosy-cheeked 34-pound bundle of energy and her just as silly momma who soon throws horribly shaped snowballs in my direction. In a walk to fill my senses in nature, it was those two goofy girls that constantly infiltrate my senses and leave their imprint.

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Let's end this with a drink, cheers all

Posted by TulsaTrot 10:36 Archived in USA Tagged omaha_nebraska Comments (1)

Should chicken callers really do techno music

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View Summer and Fall 2010 on TulsaTrot's travel map.

My crazy trip to Central America with 24 students was followed by something completely different, a family trip to Hilton Head, South Carolina.

Sophie is ready for our trip

Anticipation for the flight and trip to South Carolina was a daily reminder for Sophie. In that excited voice of hers, "we are going to the beach of South Carolina". Thanks to frequent flier miles, little Domino was going to fly with Nadine in the "lap" of luxury, and Sophie was going to fly with me. As many frequent flier flights workout, Sophie and I had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to catch our flight early morning flight, while Nadine had a more convenient flight at 11:00 in the late morning.

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It is really early for this flight, but someone is excited

Our trip to South Carolina was a first in several ways, it was the first time Sophie had flown without her momma, and big daddy was in charge. From the time Sophie and I were on the plane, she constantly stated that A) we were going to South Carolina and B) how excited she was to go to the beach. I countered her youthful excitement with exhaustion. This exhaustion came from carrying all of her crap, toys, crayons, teddy bears, and books. I carried them through security, put them in just the right spot next to her seat on the plane, and then 2 minutes later, she wanted something else and it had to go somewhere else. The surprising thing is that she was really sleepy, but the thought of beautiful South Carolina was dancing around her cute little head, so no way was she going to sleep. It wasn't until the last 15 minutes of the last flight that she fell asleep, literally 15 minutes.

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Once in Hilton Head, the house where we were staying was spacious, but the most important amenity at the house, wasn't the huge living room, long driveway, but the swimming pool. Any chance that we got we were in water be it jumping in the pool or running down to the beach. I believe that Sophie lived in her little pink swimsuit with a tutu for a week. Nadine and I also took the opportunity to kayak around Hilton Head and be outside in nature and being active. The one thing that caught us off guard about Hilton Head was the incredible weight of humidity. That morning, it was in the lower 90's, but the humidity made it feel like 115. Talk about a sweaty good time.

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To celebrate Sushi's birthday (Nadine's sister), we went to a little bar to listen to some live music and have a few brewskys (beers to the lay person). We had the bar to ourselves along with the band and a couple of folks up at the bar to serve us a drink or two. Once the band started, they sounded like a normal band, talented and using lots of synthesizers. It wasn't until the third song that it took a turn for the more "alternative", i.e. strange. That's when the singer starting making chicken clucking noises and walking around the stage strutting like a chicken. It was at this point that we felt that public education had failed this guy (possibly in New Mexico) and that the DEA wasn't doing enough to cut off this guy's supply.

With a creek running right by the house, we had been warned several times about alligators and never leave your children out by the water by themselves. Good advice. No, that is great advice. But even when people tell you that there are alligators running around, there is still that part of you that wants to see one or two, from a safe distance of course. It wasn't until the last night exploring the neighborhood that I spotted my first gator sunbathing. As soon as I got out of the car to relinquish that safe distance, he became fearful of my overt masculinity and dove into the water.

Overall, our trip to Hilton Head, South Carolina surpassed our expectations, as I thought it was just going to be marshland and beach, but it turned out to be a beautiful place that had just right amount of green, water, trees, and ice cream.

The final blog entry from this summer is going to deal with 8 seconds. You may have to wait a few more until it arrives in your mailbox though.

JW

Posted by TulsaTrot 19:27 Archived in USA Tagged round_the_world Comments (2)

Sometimes Touchdown Jesus Takes a Toll

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View Summer and Fall 2010 on TulsaTrot's travel map.

Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare. They are consumed in twelve minutes. Half-times take twelve minutes. This is not coincidence. ~Erma Bombeck

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Touchdown Jesus

For the first time in a long time, Nadine and I got away for a weekend trip. Just the two of us. No kids. No car seats. Just us. October 30, 2010. This date has been on our calendar for awhile. Not because Nadine wanted to buy a really cool Halloween costume, but our alma mater, University of Tulsa, was playing the storied team of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. As far as college football goes, this was the biggest game of the year by far. I'm pretty sure that before the season started, Notre Dame had put a big circle around October 30th and their game with TU, or at least consulted a map to find where it was located.

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University of Notre Dame

Friday after school arrives, we dropped our bundles of joy off at the grandparent's house and jumped on a flight to Chicago where we were quickly introduced to the Chicago national past time, charging and paying tolls on all of its' roadways. Every 5 miles on our 40 minute drive to our hotel, we stopped at a booth and donated 80 cents to the city of Chicago. We eventually made it to our hotel with a handful of change from all of the dollar bills we had to fork over and the city of Chicago can buy some more asphalt.

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The Christian Brothers Posse

Since my volunteer experience in Perú 10 years ago (really it's been 10 years?), three former volunteers currently live in Chicago. So before departing for South Bend, we stopped by Rene's place, a Notre Dame grad herself, to hang out with her and her family, and Susan and her son Luke. It seems that since our time in South America, we have all been able to produce two offspring each. So we hung out, enjoyed some restaurant quality quiche, and shared some baby and poop stories. Those two naturally go hand in hand I would say.

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Touchdown Jesus looking over a few TU fans

From Rene's humble abode, we made our way into South Bend, after many tolls, and we set foot on the beautiful University of Notre Dame campus. It was Nadine's first visit and my third. This time there wasn't any vertically challenged New Mexicans throwing my socks out of dorm windows. Instead, we walked around campus eating some brat and randomly high fiving anyone wearing a Tulsa shirt accompanied with a dorky "Let's get 'em today!"

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The game itself was great. Our seats at the stadium were in the upper bowl, but our view was still great. During the game, we took the time to eat a few more brat, randomly high five more Tulsa fans, attempt to comprehend what Suva was yelling / mumbling, question Scuba Steve about his impending trip to Haiti, and laugh at the inability of both bands to play nice and give the other a chance to play during breaks in play. The game was a back and forth tussle until the end when Tulsa pulled ahead by one point. Finally, with 28 seconds left, Notre Dame threw an ill-advised interception that sealed our unlikely victory. In the storied history between these two teams, Tulsa has never lost to Notre Dame. I guess it was worth paying all of those tolls for a little divine interception, I mean intervention.

Amazingly enough, every Notre Dame fan that acknowledged us after the game, congratulated us on the victory and hoped we had a good time in South Bend. That we did do. Because of their kindness, there was no real opportunity to rub in the victory. No doubt anyone from New Mexico placed in that position would rub it in, if only New Mexico had an university that could win a game. Actually, are there any universities in New Mexico.

After an excellent Italian dinner at Carmela's following the game, we don't think they spit in our food, we began the journey back to Chicago. Unfortunately for us, we took a few wrong turns, prolonged our arrival to Chicago, ended up in downtown 11:00 traffic, and yes, we paid several more tolls to the city of Chicago.

Halloween morning, jumping in our rental car, we headed back to return our car. A simple typo made by the car rental company in their directions sent us on a lengthy detour, and put us into the airport late. Combine that with a very slow security checkpoint, and it forced Nadine and I to run across the airport like we were racing on the Amazing Race. Reaching the gate, the lady informed us we had missed the plane . . . by three minutes! What were we supposed to do with 5 1/2 hours to spare? I guess write the first blog entry in a long time.

Posted by TulsaTrot 21:21 Archived in USA Tagged tulsa notre_dame Comments (2)

Panamanian Morning Calls

Really, don't wake me up that early, I'm trying to sleep

sunny 93 °F
View Summer and Fall 2010 on TulsaTrot's travel map.

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People travel to faraway places to watch, in fascination, the kind of people they ignore at home

The majority agreed that our trip to the City of Panamá was a more positive experience than that of Bocas del Toro for several reasons. We saw and explored both Old Panama Cities, interacted with some of the people, and watched one of the most impressive man made inventions ever.

One of the main souvenir goals of my trip to Central America was score some Nicaraguan Flor de Caña rum. I first learned about this rum when my buddies Gonzo and Scuba Steve introduced this sweet sugar cane rum to me years ago from their times in Nicaragua. Since then, anytime I can purchase a bottle of it, I do. Flor de Caña has expanded their repertoire of rums from 4, 5, and 7 year aged rums to include 12 and 18 year aged rum. While we visited the Causeway connecting mainland Panamá with a former U.S. military base, I was able to sneak into a duty free store and check out their selection of rums. Before I considered my purchase, I ran over to a bar where I was able to sample the 18 year aged variety. The server was so eager to help expand my knowledge of rum that he let me try for free a really good Guatemalan and Colombian rum. We that liquid knowledge, I went back to the store to complete my purchase of a couple of bottles of the 12 year old rum. So if you are ever in Omaha, I would be more than willing to share a “traigo” of this sweet rum.

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The world is a small place. Leaving Panamá City on our way to the Panama Canal, we stopped at a Panamanian handicraft shop where students had another chance to part ways with their money. As we were walking around the various shops, I saw some students from another high school, so I asked them where they were from. Come to find out, they were from Texas. Where in Texas? Midland Christian High School was the school in Midland. Odessa/Midland is the Minneapolis/St. Paul of West Texas. So the lesson here is that nowhere you go in the world, you will always run into a West Texan.

Panama Canal in Action

Back in 1914, Americans finished a project that the French started and failed to complete due to a lack of availability to quality cheese and escargots, the Panama Canal. The one place that I was really excited to see on this trip was the Panama Canal. The Panama Canal is the canal connecting the Pacific Ocean with the Caribbean Sea making transport routes much more efficient for shipping companies. Seeing as different chambers of the canal filled up with water allowing ships to slowly move forward was an amazing site. It also shows the ingenuity of mankind and the things that we are able to accomplish. Several of the students were impressed with the size of the ships and the sheer number of containers each ship were holding. These ships would even make a Pepper nose look small. Not surprising, the two ships we saw passing through were Chinese. After one of the students yelled “Ning hau!”, one of the sailors looked up and waived.

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Another man-made structure that was more impressive to several of the female students on our trip was Albrook Mall. Panamá City is reputedly known as the place to go shopping for folks in Central America. This was the biggest mall that I had ever seen. It is roughly a mile long, and the Tuesday afternoon (not a weekend) that we were there, it was really full. A Peace Corp volunteer that I chatted with for a while, Flaco Bob, mentioned that the place is completely full at Christmas time and access into some stores is impossible.

This guy scored big when our group came by

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That is a real big block of ice

Finally, our flight back to the U.S. was scheduled to leave at 7:20 in the morning. As a result, we had to leave our hotel at 4:30 to get there in time to check in. Everyone was encouraged to be up and moving around by 4:00 in order to have a timely departure from our hotel. Unbeknown to everyone, we all received a wake up call at 3:00 a.m. I received the first call at 2:55 a.m. Once I received the call, I heard the phone ring in all the rooms in close proximity to me. Our guide had set up this wake up call an hour and a half without letting me know. Needless to say, I was pretty frustrated with this call.

This trip is now over and it is time to get ready for my next one, a trip to Hilton Head, South Carolina.

I have added photos and videos to the previous entries from this trip. Here are the links.
El Primer Paso
Can I Get a Dehumidifier Please
Con Boca Abierta

Posted by TulsaTrot 19:04 Archived in Panama Comments (1)

Con Boca Abierta

semi-overcast 88 °F
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Now I know why they tell you to put your head between your knees on crash landings. You think you're going to kiss your ass good-bye. ~Terry Hanson

We departed Tortuguero for the Panamanian islands of Bocas del Toro. It is a popular backpacker spot on the Latin America route, but before we could visit this often visited spot, we had to make the trip from Costa Rica.

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One of my reasons for traveling overland from Costa Rica into Panama is that my students would get to experience a unique part of travel, border crossings. Crossing borders tend to be a bit sketchy in general compared arrivals and departures in airports. I knew from prior research that this border crossing wasn’t too bad, but that it would get the kid’s attention. Upon our arrival to the Costa Rican town of Sixaola, we began the overland border crossing. After officially being stamped out (#17 on the new passport, yes I am stamp whore), we walked across the rickety bridge covered by railroad tracks and wooden planks. Large flying insects immediately greeted us on the Panamanian side of the bridge along with a run down immigration office with puddles in front of it. Students crossed the bridge timidly and several appeared a bit scared of it. They slowly handed their passports over to be examined, stamped, and then joined their classmates in a long line waiting for our bus. After their heroic border crossing, we jumped on a set of busses that safely transported us in the direction of Bocas del Toro.

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Border Crossing at Sixaola between Costa Rica and Panamá

Dancing is a cultural experience in itself, unless of course you are a New Mexican, then it can be a truly frightening occurrence. I wanted to give the students an outlet to use some of their energy from our full day of traveling, so our Tico guide and myself found the discoteca “Barco Hundido” located on the waterfront. At the discoteca, there is a dance floor next to a sunken ship. In addition, they had placed a walkway around it, diving board, and elevated platform. Being that it was a Sunday night, a handful of people were at the disco, so we basically had it all to ourselves. As songs passed, word had spread that there was a massive amount of gringas dancing at the club, so just as the word had passed, so did the outdoor club fill up with local panameños.

When it was late, we all began the return home, but as I suspected, so did a dozen male Panamanians. This is where my 007 skills kicked in. Strike up the chase scene music. We exited, so did they. We stopped just outside the entrance, they exited and as to not be obvious, they had to go either left or right, so they scattered. To shake the remaining stragglers, we headed straight to the park, and we watched them from the distance. Our final move, par excellence, was a sudden bolt, we made a dash directly to our hotel, leaving any hopeful followers far behind. As you read and you are at the edge of your seat, you can now feel free to breath a sigh of relief.

My impression of our snorkeling trip before we left was one where we jumped on a boat that lead us to a white sand beach, we pulled out our snorkels, ran out into the water and swam among colorful fish and coral, and left back to our hotel happy and salty. The reality was another thing. We jumped on two boats, started heading out aimlessly. Our guide didn’t know where we were going to snorkel. Eventually we just stopped in the middle of the islands. We anchored in open water, and from our two boats, all were instructed to jump in the water and snorkel. The boats were already a tight fit, but students did enter the water hesitantly with life jackets tied around their waists. From there, they frolicked in the water looking at fish. Students remained in the water no longer than 15 minutes before they reboarded the boat. The reality of our snorkeling experience was quite different and less picturesque than the dream of snorkeling. Our time in Bocas del Toro left much to be desired as a result of the lack of preparedness of our guide. I think that I would have taken Matthew Pepper as my guide over the lady we had in Bocas. His Spanish might have been better than her English, and she insisted in speaking English if though I asked her to speak to them in Spanish.

To add insult to injury, prior to our flight to Panama City, our rooms at the hotel had been reduced from 8 to 3, so when we returned to our hotel, all students and teachers had to share showers in a limited amount of time before we jumped on a plane. As everyone began taking their turns with the showers, we were notified by our guide that instead of having a hour for all of us to shower, we had to immediately leave the three rooms and use an outdoor shower at another location. It was a day of pure craziness. Everyone left that day frustrated and tired.

Without a doubt, Bocas del Toro is a beautiful place, but our experience was a nightmare. If I didn’t know any better, I would never return, but I do know better. I think that the next time, I will lead myself there with family to enjoy the sights and actually snorkel off of that white sand beach. I know they exist, I saw them from the plane.

Posted by TulsaTrot 14:03 Archived in Panama Comments (1)

Can I Get a Dehumidifier Please

Our arrival to humid air of Tortuguero, Costa Rica

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Welcome to Tortuguero, Costa Rica

Our departure from the central valley of Costa Rica lead us on the trek to the Caribbean coastal town of Tortuguero, the place where Nadine and I spent part of our honeymoon six and a half years ago. My arrival six years ago was on a plane on a skinny spit of land; this one was a more traditional route. We took our bus through the beautiful mountains and down towards the Caribbean coast. We passed the Del Monte and Chiquita banana plantations on a gravel road. In Tortuguero National Park, there are not any paved roads, so transport is either through the air or via the river canals. New Mexicans would recognize river canals as arroyos that are actually full of water and wide enough to fit a boat. Following our wheeled transport, we jumped on our boat destined for Tortuguero. Stepping off the boat, we all were immediately hit by the humidity and heat of the thick Tortuguero air.

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White faced spider monkey

When I last visited Tortuguero village, Nadine and I walked through the humble city center until a crocodile impeded our path. Since then, the crocodile has found another path of more resistance for visitors. In the meantime, there has definitely been a build up of small little restaurants, souvenir shops on the southern part of the island. I have to say that the majority of my students really enjoyed the chance to jump on a water taxi at our lodge, cross the river, and part with some of their colones in the village in exchange for some ice cream or souvenirs.

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How about those cool glasses

Saturday morning at the butt crack of dawn, all 27 of us jumped on two separate boats and ran around the various canals observing sloths, Jesus Christ lizards (they run across water with their webbed feet), various birds, and caimans. Back at the Picharo lodge, white-faced monkeys, howler monkeys, and spider monkeys surrounded us. We also saw a massive Pelote snake running across the walls of one of the lodges.

Our time in Tortuguero was short, hot and sweet, like some platanos fritos, and appreciated.

Next stop, Bocas del Toro in Panamá.

John

Posted by TulsaTrot 20:50 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (2)

El Primero Paso

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Let's get zipping with this blog entry

Greetings all and hope all is well, but stay away from the volcanic gasses.

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Our first stop on this Costa Rican and Panamanian excursion with 23 energy bound adolescents was a visit over the tree canopy of Costa Rica via cables and harnesses connected to some trees. A lot of the students were most looking forward to ziplining across the tree canopy and it didn't let them down. They were able to do a traditional zipline, sit down in your harness fly across the trees, then stop. We are also did the Tarzan swing, swing from the side of the mountain out over the valley and back again. Finally, some of us did the Superman/woman over a 1,000+ foot cable, head first, chest down, arms out, hopefully pants dry.

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Sarchi street signs

The first time that Nadine and I visited Costa Rica for our honeymoon back in 2003, we visited La Fortuna to see the active Volcán Arenal, but unfortunately, it was covered in clouds, so we spent our time in some hot springs. On this trip, as soon as we approached the volcano, it was covered in clouds again, bad omen. But once we got closer to the volcano, the clouds slowly started dispersing. By the time we arrived to the lookout point, all clouds were gone with a perfect view of Arenal and the surrounding lake. If this volcano had been in New Mexico, it would have been covered with advertisements for green chile or phone numbers of lawyers to call when you have been arrested for drunk driving. Thankfully, it's in Costa Rica.

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Volcán Arenal

As a result of huge storm that hit western Costa Rica on Tuesday, all of the downed trees and lack of electricity forced us to change our plans of visiting Manuel Antonio National Park. Instead we visited the surfing mecca of Jacó, but we didn't surf, just swim. We followed that swim with a boat tour through Costa Rica's most crocodile infested river where our guide fed a huge male croc raw chicken. The video is soon to come.

Finally, there has been a common occurrence the last two bus rides back to our homes in Alajuela, there has been something that I have sat in. Last night, I sat in coffee or Coke, forcing me to clean the big brown stain out of my shorts in the sink. Tonight, I returned tonight we 2 huge, round chocolate stains on my shorts. Shit, I had to clean another pair of shorts. Maybe if you didn't know better, you would thought that I couldn't make that 2 or 3 hour bus ride without crapping myself. My bladder control is still pretty strong.

Alright, heading to Tortuguero on the east Caribbean coast of Costa Rica tomorrow.

John

Posted by TulsaTrot 18:51 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (1)

¡Pura Vida!

Heading to Costa Rica and Panamá with 23 students and 3 chaperones

sunny 74 °F
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So over the next 10 days, I am going to be heading to Central America with a group of students and fellow teachers. I will try and keep this blog up to date as we travel around.

Here is our projected map.

¡Pura Vida!

Posted by TulsaTrot 08:53 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (1)

Try Not to Fart in the Local Pub

and now . . . the Rest of the Story

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  • **My account had been overtaken by a ruthless New Mexican ex pat having a hard time dealing with Texas and its great qualities. This original blog has been returned to its original state***

I was in the pub yesterday when I suddenly realized I desperately needed to fart. The music was really, really loud, so I timed my farts with the beat.

After a couple of songs, I started to feel better. I finished my pint and noticed that everybody was staring at me.

Then I suddenly remembered that I was listening to my iPod. - Joke circulating on the internet

There are lessons in life that we all learn, or at least should learn. Some are big. Some are small. Sometimes you learn from them. Sometimes you don't.

After a long, warm day of classes, I figured I owed myself a cool afternoon watching a movie. I went straight to the cinema, bought my ticket, and sat down for the movie. The movie, The Hangover, had been translated into French as Very Bad Trip. I agree, a hangover would result in a very bad trip, but I would think if you were going to translate an American English language movie title into French, you might want to use the local language, French, rather than a completely different title still in English.

The thought never crossed my mind when I bought the ticket that the movie may not be in English until the half hour of previews that were either in English with French subtitles or dubbed completely in French. Thus my chances were 50/50 I would have the chance to watch it in its original English track version. The movie started, in my mind with all neurons crossed, I'm hoping it's in English. The phone rings in the first scene, and the actress slowly picks up the phone and responds, "Allô!" Damn!!! It's dubbed in French. Fight or flight sets in as I quickly asked myself "stay? go? stay? go?" Due to the fact that it was nice and cool, and I could zone out a little, I stayed. Now I just have to see it in English in the future.

Four weeks away from home, it's inevitable that I would have to wash clothes. But when I entered the grocery store, I was posed with the dilemma of buying laundry detergent. I only needed enough detergent that would last 2 washes. Even if I bought the smallest quantity available, I would have enough for 10 washes. The result, I decided against buying it, and I spent 4 weeks with 2 washes without detergent. Don't worry, I actually did wash my clothes, twice, yet without that detergent. I think I'm becoming more and more enculturated, I'm smelling more like the French everyday.

In general, a bunch of foreigners outside of the U.S. enjoy smoking, even Americans for that matter at times, but as Western Europe becomes more and more smoke free, it's making smoking more of a challenge, especially those used to smoking wherever they want. It's common for residents in our residence to open their dorm window and smoke out the window rather than making that long walk downstairs and outside. But late one night around 2:37, someone smoked a little too much and set off the fire alarm. Everyone was in a state of confusion and staggered outside, while I thought it was part of a dream where I am somehow trapped inside the borders of that horrific state of New Mexico and trying to flee. The other international students also found out at that time that I like to wear Dora the Explorer pajamas to bed. Boy was that embarrassing.

Finally, I have found the ultimate test of balance and accuracy for males. First you drink a decent quantity of any liquid (could by H2O, beer, wine, Dr. Pepper, green chili, your choice), then you go and try to pee standing up in the toilet of a moving French train on its way to Luxembourg. If you can remain standing, accurately direct the pee into the toilet, you have quality aim and balance.

Next up - that actual trip to Luxembourg.

Posted by TulsaTrot 14:43 Archived in France Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Luxembourg, where watches are . . .

are just as big as a grandfather clock. Seriously, huge.

semi-overcast -29 °F
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Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken. - Oscar Wilde

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I originally had plans for a road trip to the breweries of Trappist monks in Belgium, enjoy that sweet nector they produce, and visit the The abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren. Due to exorbiant prices for train tickets to Belgium from eastern France, I decided on the alternative of Luxembourg, the clock and watch capital of Europe.

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In life and in travel, you learn many things. One thing you may learn is how good your balance may or may not be, and what circumstances it's as good or bad as you thought it was. Europe is full of all types of trains, fast and modern, some a little slower, and a few that have been around awhile. I took three trains to get up to Luxembourg. The first and third were smooth, modern, and comfortable. The second one wouldn't fall under that same description. This one shook and swayed a bit more. While on this train, I got a good sense of my balance. Visiting the loo, the ability to "go" was a mix of trying not to fall down, hit my head against the open window, not pee on myself, and still aim into the toilet, which eventually just fell on the train track below. Yes, I learned that I do indeed have better balance than a drunk New Mexican (wait, aren't those synonyms?)

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The view from above at Vianden

Once in Luxembourg, I noticed the well-organized city, huge bridges reaching over the long drops in the old city, a sense of safety, quality chocolate, but there was one thing that really jumped out at me. There were clocks everywhere and they were huge! Wristwatches on people's arms were just about as large as the clocks hanging on churches and government buildings themselves. Either Luxies (people from Luxembourg) have really poor eyesight, or have a really keen interest in knowing what time it is. Flavor Flav would feel right at home in Luxembourg.

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Beautiful views all around Vianden

I left the confines of the city of Luxembourg and headed out to Vianden to see some old castles looking over the countryside. As impressive and beautiful as that was, and it truly was, the other thing that was just as surprising and amazing was what I found on my walk from Vianden in search of one those rares buses actually heading towards Luxembourg was a convenience store. There sitting in the freezer were dozens of Dr. Peppers just waiting to be consumed. Thus I completed my Texas and Luxie civic duty, and I drank one. Now let me tell you what is great about Dr. Peppers outside the U.S. They are made with real sugar, and that real sugar makes a big difference in the taste. But there is still one of those things that make you scratch your head. Dr. pepper is a drink that is predominately found in the Midwest, and hard to find along the East coast of the United States or in the north. Yet in my travels, I have stumbled upon Dr. Pepper in some of the most random places. Once while riding my bicycle around the ruins of Angkor Wat, I was riding back to my hostel, stopped at a random gas station for some cool refreshment, and came across another freezer full of Dr. Pepper. Bought a dozen and enjoyed them back in my room. I wonder where the next random spot will be when I run into Dr. Pepper?

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Where is immigration?

During my visit to the eastern part of Luxembourg, I figured I would make the best of my time being close to a border, and score a couple of stamps on my passport crossing into Germany and back into Luxembourg. So I skip a bus heading directly back to the city of Luxembourg, but I make my way to the village of Bettel in the pouring rain on foot. This is when I came across the grocery store with Dr. Pepper. I finally arrived to the tiny town of Bettel soaked, but excited about the chance to have some of that fresh ink in my passport. As I walk to the bridge connecting two important countries in the European Union, instead of a formal station with guards, I am greeted with a message board hoping that I had a good time in Luxembourg. Sheesh!!! Where are the guards, dogs, body scanners? Just a message board. This message board is the type you find at an elementary school, but I can only imagine this message board was encouraging people to have their dogs sprayed and neutered or not leave their wiener schnitzel in the rain. After a short walk over the bridge, another message board welcomes me to the tiny collection of houses called Roth an der Oar, Germany. You can only imagine my disappointment and just as soon as I had entered Germany, I illegally left it to return to Luxembourg so I could wait a hour for a bus to take me back to the city of watches. If you ever need a safe way to smuggle watches into Germany and beer steins into Luxembourg, I know just the place.

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This way for the illegal clocks, watches, and beer steins

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Please submit the most appropriate quotation for this picture. Any knocks on New Mexico would greatly be appreciated

Posted by TulsaTrot 09:40 Archived in Luxembourg Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Tour de No Pants

overcast -20 °F
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Looking back at the week of the Tour de No Pants

I can now check of two events from my "life to do" list. The first being in France during Bastille Day. Second, attending a part of the Tour de France in person. Check and check.

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In front of the stage of the Tour de France

July 14th was a free day at the university, so I joined a group for a day trip to Strasbourg. The only negative was that we had to be awake and at the bus stop at 6:45. As I slept as late as I possibly could, I had to make up for those extra 3 minutes of sleep by making a cool trot to the waiting bus. A cool trot falls directly between a full spring where one looks like a dork and a leisurely walk where one seems rude.

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That is alot of beer

In Strasbourg, we dodged raindrops boarding the bateau mouche to explore Petite France, the old town center. Following the boat ride, I had a creppy lunch next to a really large keg of beer that was twice as tall as me. The creppy lunch consisted of a crêpe filled with meat and cheese, and a side plate of mozzarella and tomatoes. Actually it was delicious. The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling downtown among the German influenced architecture.

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Petite France in Strasbourg, France

The bus returned and from there I headed to downtown Besancon with classmates to celebrate Bastille Day. Like alot of national holidays, people like to go out to eat, and Besancon wasn't any different. Thus, our reservationless asses were shit out of luck trying to find a table. After our dozen attempts at various restaurants, we had to grab something from the local kabob eatery (fast food), duck into a covered alley to protect us from the rain that was falling while we waited for the next 30 minutes until the fireworks started. But as we huddled in an alley to eat our gourmet dinner, we decided to find a better place to enjoy Bastille Day, back at the dorms. As we tramped through the rain and festivities, French teens find this the time to fully express themselves, with fireworks. They find it quite funny to throw it directly at each other. One happened to be thrown directly above my head, not so funny, but no need to worry, my face is fine, or at least as fine as it's going to be.

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Notre Dame Cathedral in Strasbourg

As fate and life in general would have it, we were diverted from the dorms to another locale that exists in every corner of the globe, an Irish pub. Thus I spent the national French holiday in an Irish pub with a group of Irish students. As the ever so wise Alanis Morissette stated, quiet ironic don't ya think.

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Russian Rider that finished in first place

Fortunately for me, I didn't have to go to the Tour de France, the Tour de France came to me. This is the July event where 160 or so cyclists jump on a bicycle and race around the country trying to finish in the shortest time possible so they can sport a yellow jersey. The interesting thing is that that yellow jersey fits pretty snuggly, maybe it's the European fit for shirts.

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Waiting for the cyclists on Pont Canot

Undoubtedly, the Tour de France brings alot to the table such as lots of people, big money, and visitors and interesting from all over the world. The day of the race, I headed down to Pont Canot, a prime spot on a bridge to watch the racers fly by. People had waited 2 to 3 hours. I waited about 50 minutes. Leading up to the racers arrival, team cars, floating advertisements on passing trucks, and a couple of stores on wheels passed by us and the interesting characters.

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There was one interesting character in particular that you might expect to see in the streets of New Mexico. It was a rather rotund guy wearing a three sizes too small green Gatorade jersey with pink tights and boots. Let's call him Mathieu, because he was obviously French as he sang various chants to get everyone excited. Didn't work. He also sat on one side of the road before cyclists arrived where he laid in the middle of the road and posed for photos. Since he wasn't getting an arousal out of the crowd, he felt it would be cute to just pull his pants down and swing his little French baguette around. Unfortunately, everyone on the other side turned their heads and missed the passing cyclists. Just kidding.

Yep, there goes the Tour de France passing by

Once the Tour de France passed, it was pretty exciting to see and experience for about a minute. As long as people waited for the cyclists to pass, 1 to 3 hours, it took those guys only a minute to pass.

Alright, time for bed. Next up, the country known as the tourist magnet - Luxembourg.

John

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The finish line of this blog entry

Posted by TulsaTrot 09:50 Archived in France Tagged round_the_world Comments (2)

Don't Make Me Pull Out My Freedom Fries

Yes, 2 a.m. is a good time to be quiet

overcast 67 °F
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Bienvenu à Besancon

As my flight from Frankfurt arrived in Geneva, Switzerland at 7:30 p.m., I was mentally prepared to have to stay the night in Geneva and travel the next day on to my destination city of Besançon. The last train out of Geneva left out of Besançon at 8:30. Not alot of time for an international arrival.

Fortunately, a flight attendant told me that the train station was right next to the airport. Once I got off the plane, I ran so I could wait 10 precious minutes for my bags to come out. I grabbed those bags, ran to the train station where I found out that I would have to transfer to another station downtown to get me to France. "Merde!" After another train I was finally at the correct station. I ran up to the ticket office and with a little less than 3 minutes to spare, I bought my ticket, literally ran through customs since noone was actually there working, and jumped on the train and onto Besançon, France.

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I am taking French classes this summer at the Centre Linguistique Appliquée here in Besancon. These classes go towards my Masters Degree. I have to say that my first week of classes and living in Besançon had been really interesting. First of all, the set up. We have to attend 3 classes a day from 8:30 to 3:00 with an optional forum after these classes. My classes have either been really well organized or poorly organized along with forums consisting of a presenter reading statistics for an hour and a half in a monotone voice or interactive presentations. Classes are either right on the mark or off in left field.

One of the stereotypical qualities of France is their food, but considering that we have been eating in a school cafeteria, food hasn't been the true treat that you might imagine. On the other hand, our classes are extremely international. Compared to my classes last summer in Argentina which was comprised mostly of Americans, classes here are comprised of students from Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, El Salvador, Ireland, France, Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, Syria, Botswana, Senegal. You can definitely say it is eclectic as Crawford, Texas.

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My diverse classes

The majority of the students are staying in dorms. During the first week, I stayed in the dorm named Jérome. I soon found out that Jérome was the dorm where French students that didn't return home for their summer vacation stay to drink and talk right in front of the entrance of the building. Unfortunately, my room just happened to be situated right above the entrance. For 5 consecutive nights, they felt like sitting in front to drink, talk, sing, and yell a few times for extra flavor as it prohibited everyone trying to sleep to sleep until 3 or 4 in the morning. That's completely bollocks isn't it?

So each night, I would go down in between midnight and 3 a.m. to ask them to take their ass somewhere else. Finally, on the last night, I went down and had a heated discussion about the fact that I had to go to class the next morning while they didn't. If I had a better vocabulary in French, I would have peppered the conversation with alot more colorful words like bollocks and you smell like catfish. I changed dorms on Monday.

One of my goals on this trip was to make a side trip to Westvletern, Belgium to purchase the number one beer in the world. This beer, the Westvletern trappist beer is very scarce and tough to wrap your hands around. You process requires that you make a reservation two weeks before you plan on buying it, then two weeks later, you drive up, give them your name and your money, and then they give you best tasting beer in the world. That was my plan, BUT, what a big but, there was one big item impeding my visit. When I was looking to get a train ticket to Belgium, it was going to cost a nifty $500. I enjoy beer, but not quite that much. Maybe sometime in the future.

Enough of this negative crap. Now for the uplifting and the bit odd to make you laugh. A great way for me to integrate with locals has always been basketball. During the first week, I found a set of basketball courts where guys come and play three times a week. I quickly put myself in the mix. I have been playing basketball for a good two to three hours each time. I know that makes you feel better.

Now the school that we attend tries to provide several cultural activities within Besancon for us to take advantage of. One of the first activities was a French movie preluded with a concert from the guy that produced the music for the movie. Sounds great in theory. Two other graduate students, Norah and Sarah, both came and we were a little perturbed that we were a little late for the start. Once we entered, we were glad we were late. Up on stage was the musician making odd music with his clarinette. He reminded me of Will Ferrell in Anchorman when he starts playing his jazz flute. The French musician would play a note and then use his computer to change the sound. Basically it sounded like a whale under water in a great amount of pain from constipation. He felt the music and began to levitate using his one leg to push himself up and tucking the other one behind his other leg. It looked more like he was practicing yoga.

Finally the movie started 40 painful minutes later. This didn't mark the end of pain, just a pause, and then a continuation of another long dragged out piece of French cinema. We left early and ate some ice cream.

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Leading up to the Citadelle

Looming high over the city of Besancon is the Citadelle, a place that protected the old city below and was designed by Vauban. I took a Sunday afternoon to visit it. To my surprise as I walked across the drawbridge, underneath were a couple dozen baboons. What?!?! Baboons up in the citadel. Unknown to me, the back of the citadel is a zoo containing kangaroos, several types of monkeys, lions, tigers, fish, flamingos, and llamas.

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The funniest moment came by a few monkeys. It always has to be the monkeys. One male monkey, we'll name him Santa Fe, felt it best to swing around the cage quickly until the female, Albuquerque, was away from her baby. Santa Fe would then quickly swing over in her direction, and seemed to be trying to jump over Albuquerque. He wasn't successful since he kept trying in rapid succession to jump over her. There's nothing like humping monkeys to make you laugh.

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That was the first week of Besancon. The next week brought the Tour de France to town.

Peace
John

Posted by TulsaTrot 02:14 Archived in France Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Is that a Shamrock in My Beer?

In search of the answer to one the world's long held questions: Is Guinness really good, good for you, and helpful to your personal navigational systems?

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Welcome to Ireland Y'all

Fortunately, to get my butt over here to Europe for my month of studies, we were able to use frequent flyer miles for a free ticket. On top of that, one of the advantages of flying is that you can usually include an extra stop between your two main cities. So I decided to make my stop in Dublin, Ireland.

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I left U.S. soil July 3rd and arrived on the ever so green Irish soil on July 4th. My main goal of my stop in Dublin wasn't to find U2 playing in a local park or Pierce Brosnan prepping for his next James Bond film, but to finally decide if Guinness was a beer I really like or really just don't enjoy. Anywhere you go in the world, and I mean anywhere, you will find an Irish bar and Guinness. It is really good beer or excellent marketing. What better way to find out than going straight to the source.

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Yes, straight to the source

After a mandatory 2 hour nap to recharge my batteries from hardly sleeping on the flight over from Philadelphia (Philly should really be renamed the "We're not really that interested in your sorry ass city"), I grabbed my backpack and headed in the general direction of the brewery. After going the long way to the Guinness brewery, I was standing within the brewery that helped feed thousands of Irish during the lean and good times. There is nothing like a Guinness to chew on.

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Entrance to the Brewery

I joined all of the other enthusiasts in touring the brewery that is in the shape of a pint of the black beer. Each stage revealed the brewing process, ingredients (one Eastern European decided to eat a few of the hops that hundreds of people run their hands through everyday), and the advertising. It was at this point when I was watching an advertisement that I realized that one of the commercials they were showing was of good ol' American football. Upon closer observation, it was high school football from none other than the great city of ODESSA, TEXAS! Let me tell you, there is nothing like being abroad and being reminded of the notoriety and grandness of your home state and town. Hmmmm, I don't remember seeing any commercials about that state to our west.

Yes, that football you see in the video is from Odessa, TEXAS! All the way over in Ireland

Eventually I passed the seven levels/floors of a Guinness and arrived at the top floor, the Guinness Gravity Bar. The Gravity Bar rendered a 360 degree view of downtown Dublin. Usually when people first step into the Gravity Bar, they immediately head to the round bar for their complementary pint of Guinness. I on the other hand, realizing the magnitude of what was about to transpire, took my time, walked around, took in the view, took some photos, watched others drink their pints, and then leisurely strolled up to the bar. The moment of truth arrived, do I like Guinness that's straight from the source? I mentioned my mission to the young gal serving the pints, so she decided to make my first time special. She put the shape of a shamrock in my Guinness.

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If you look closely, you can see the shape of a shamrock in my pint

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LIterally seconds before my first drink of the day, but definitely not the last one

I grabbed my pint, kindly asked a couple to take the above photo, raised the glass up, and took my first drink. A few minutes later, several drinks later, I had came to my final decision about Guinness - I don't like it. Like any good tragedy, you'd expect me to really love the beer, but sadly, I didn't like it that much. Downstairs, I gave the Guinness family another chance at redemption with their Kilkenney beer, and I have to say that I liked that beer quite a bit more.

After another beer and a turkey sandwich, I figured I should make my first visit to Dublin more than just the Guinness brewery. The problem is, I had a hard time orientating myself on the map and walked around a good hour not seeing much of interest other than local housing. I am sure that the beverages played no part in my misdirection as much as the lousy map I was using. I am sure of it.



I eventually returned to my Four Court Hostel (great little hostel) and walked around with my roommates Christian (Spain), Kayla and Alex (California college students) through the Temple Bar area.

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I love Magnum bars. Maybe I should make a pilgramage to the Magnum ice cream factory in Great Britain

My trip to Dublin, Ireland was brief and enlightening. I think Dublin would best be experienced with my two girls and friends. So next time, I am going to bring those folks with me.

So the next morning, I jumped on a bus, the incorrect one, but fortunately it was a direct bus to the airport, and I was on a plane to Geneva, Switzerland where I hoped to catch a train to Besancon, France where I would complete my studies for the month of July.

Alright, next entry will be about my first week in Besancon.

The first person that leaves a comment on this blog entry with a special word that I have to use (ex. booger) in the next blog, I will send you a postcard from France.

John

You might enjoy this extra reading

Posted by TulsaTrot 14:11 Archived in Ireland Tagged round_the_world Comments (3)

That's Hawaiian Baby Making Music

Our first excursion away together in a long time

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We need to think about this blog entry a little bit

Since the birth of our beautiful baby daughter Sophie, Nadine and I have yet to take a real trip together without our little Thai souvenir. So shortly after our wedding five and a half years ago, we had two free airline tickets to Hawaii that were gifted to us. We decided that we should make that our 5 year anniversary trip. Mind you, that seemed like it would have taken alot longer than the five years actually felt, as It felt more like a good two years.

Once we completed our last day of school back in Omaha on June 2nd, we were at the airport the early morning of July 3rd on a plane headed for Maui. This was going to be a week away for the two of us sitting on a beach, relaxing, taking in the sights, and enjoying each other. It turned out to be a great trip.

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A little beach we like to call Big Beach, as well as everyone else

During our time in Maui, we chose a new type of lodging, not a hostel, sleeping bag, or even hotel, we went with a condo in the beach town of Kihei (almost every town on Maui is on the beach). I think that we lucked out in the fact that we found a place that wasn't incredibly expensive by Hawaii standards, was comfortable, and best of all, our place had a view of the ocean and the mountains on the other side of island.

A little tour (tore if you are from New Mexico) of our condo

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One of our first excursions in Maui was to visit the eroded crater of the Molokini Crater. This is a volcano that has eroded over several years, about 10 or so . . . thousand, and is now in the shape of a half moon. It's here you can join a couple of hundred other snorkelers and swim around reef that has grown around the crater. Before it became a popular spot to get a nice sunburn on your continental untanned skin, the US Navy used it as target practice for the Navy. You may be able to note the pot marks along the upper rim if you look closely.

From Molokini Crater, we travelled over to Turtle Beach to continue our conquest of wearing flippers and a plastic apparatus in the water, but this time in search of turtles in front of Malu'aka Beach. Initially, hand in hand, Nadine and I didn't have much luck in finding these massive creatures having their shells being cleaned all of their unneeded extra sea attachments by little fish. Within 5 minutes we saw a green sea turtle pass to our right in a lazy swim as the tide pushed him around the gentle waves. Over the next 30 minutes, we easily saw a dozen pushing around the corral and at one point being easily within 5 feet of one. We both agreed that we liked the green sea turtles more than the crater.

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The water was quite blue around Molokini Crater

One early morning, around 2:45 local time, an unmarked van stopped in front of our condo and swooped us away to the very small industrial area of Maui. We were starting our day for the sunrise at the top of Haleakala National Park. From here, the tallest point on the island of Maui, we were going to ride a bike 26 miles downhill down to the coast, a total descent of around 9,600 feet.

The most important facet of your arrival at the top of this dormant volcano is to score a position along the fence for the best spots for photos. The only hiccup with this is that at 3:30 to 4:00 in the morning, it is freezing cold at that altitude with ferocious wind hitting you in the face. Needless to say, we were quite happy to be wearing ridiculous looking blue wind suits as we stood next to teenagers in shorts. Oh teenagers, they can be so dumb. Good thing, we were never teenagers. After some time, we actually encouraged the sun to hurry up and peek its head up over the horizon, because it was incredibly cold. In the end, the sunrise was quite stunning, even if the picture below doesn't do it justice.

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House of the Sun

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Sunrise over Haleakala National Park

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This silly outfits didn't keep us as warm as we would have liked. Nadine is the one in the blue.

From the top of Haleakala, we jumped on our bikes to complete the best possible type of ride you could ask for, a ride completely down hill where you have to peddle for 200 yards out of a total of 26 miles. The ride took us down the volcano through farm land, forest, and small towns all with a big panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean.

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We need big helmets to cover our big craniums and distract you from our ugly purple jackets. I bet you didn't even notice them did you?

One of the more popular tourist attractions is to drive the way too green northern coast of Maui to the town of Hana. It is aptly named the "Road to Hana." We tackled the road one morning before the rest of the tourists got up to drink their morning brew. For those of y'all that easily get motion sickness, this is a ride to ignore as it is a constant rotation of switch backs and bridges. The reward for feeling like a race car driver is even smaller towns, black beaches, and unique rock formations. The trip was nice with all of the photo ops and scenery, but probably a one and done activity for us.

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The Road to Hana - a curvy, nauseous road of green

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An awesome black beach close to Hana

Yes, I am a professional model. It's taken years to get that "Blue Ice" pose down. That's how I got Nadine to notice me.

A common ploy while on vacation in Maui or other popular tourist destinations in the United States is for time share companies to comp part of one of your trips or excursions in exchange for your assistance at one of their spiels. Going into it, Nadine and I both knew that this wasn't going to be a winning situation for the company, but we did have to put in our time for the money that they donated to our snorkeling trip. Part of the presentation by Regina was the directive to write down 10 places we would like to visit. So we sat there and tried to think of 10 of the most random places we could think of while she tried to find a lovely time share that we would find some lovely on a lovely island where it was just lovely. How about a time share in the Maldives, Yemen, Tuvalu, or New Mexico? I am sure that most of us haven't heard of these places. She has to look it up on the map, and she was never able to find that last one. "A New Mexico? You are not talking about the old one?"

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Feeling up free time by building a rock formation

What do you do while you are on vacation?

After our quick and productive week on the island of Maui, we went straight from the beach to the shower to the plane, and back to the non-island of Omaha.

Alright, next up . . . somewhere in Europe.

Peace,
John and Nadine

Posted by TulsaTrot 14:41 Archived in USA Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

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