New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog): Blog https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog en-us (C) New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog) mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Mon, 27 Jun 2022 05:21:00 GMT Mon, 27 Jun 2022 05:21:00 GMT https://www.markstravelblog.com/img/s/v-12/u375557933-o228308188-50.jpg New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog): Blog https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog 120 108 Green Gables, Lobster Rolls, Live Music, and a Long Bridge: A Quick Visit to Prince Edward Island https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2022/6/green-gables-lobster-rolls-and-live-music-a-quick-visit-to-prince-edward-island Overland from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Charlottetown, Prince Edward IslandDriving route from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

Overland journey from Halifax to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

 

 

On the morning of June 11th 2022, I reluctantly crawled out of bed at an AirBnb in Elmsdale, Nova Scotia after a late evening arrival in Halifax the previous day.  The three-hour time change (from Mountain Time) didn't help.  Today, my brother and I were off on a 24-hour road trip to Prince Edward Island.  Yes, that's one of the 10 provinces of Canada.  I initially thought there were 13 provinces in Canada, but I was quickly corrected by someone we met from Yellowknife, Northwest Territories that there are 10 Provinces and 3 Territories (Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut) in Canada.  The Cliff Notes version is that the difference between a Province and a Territory is a constitutional one that impacts how they are administered.  The details are boring (unless you live there), so we'll leave it at that.

 

Prince Edward Island is the smallest province in terms of land area, and it has the smallest population (I like that!).  On the flip side, it's also the most densely populated (drat!).  Having said that, the total population is only around 165,000 people.  So, if you're used to living in a big city, Prince Edward Island will feel like an abundance of wide-open spaces.  Even the largest (and capital) city, Charlottetown, has a total population around 40,000 people.  Not exactly New York City, Tokyo, or Delhi.  As someone who generally avoids big cities like the plague, Charlottetown suited me just fine.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

 

Armed with a rental car and a not-so-healthy donut breakfast at Canadian fast food restaurant chain Tim Hortons (hey, we had to try it!), we began our 3-hour drive from the outskirts of Halifax to Charlottetown.

 

Our route took us through a small piece of New Brunswick, which my brother and I were happy about since we both have travel checklist addiction issues, particularly me.  My name is Mark and I have a problem with travel checklists. 

 

Check!
 

 

The only thing I can tell you about New Brunswick during our "limited" stay is that we upset an osprey there, and we saw a very large potato holding a vodka bottle.  As a birder (a bad one), I try to avoid stressing out birds.  So, I was a bit bummed that the remote road we pulled off on for a bio break positioned our car near a telephone pole where an osprey had decided to build a nest.  I apologized to the osprey, but it didn't seem to help.

 

As for the large potato holding a vodka bottle, that's best addressed with a photo ...

 

As described, at the Blue Roof Distillers in Maiden, New Brunswick

 

 

 

According to the Blue Roof Distillers website, it is Canada's first field to bottle distillery ... a "micro distillery built on the 6th generation Strang family farm" that uses raw materials from the farm as ingredients for its Blue Roof premium spirits.  Sounds like a fun stop!  But given that I quit drinking 10 years ago, we kept moving, stopping long enough to snap a photo of the vodka-toting potato.

 

After our enjoyable time in New Brunswick, we crossed the longest bridge in the world over ice-covered waters, The Confederation Bridge, that connects New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.  My brother asked me how long I thought the Confederation Bridge was.  Having done little to no research about this overland journey to PEI, I had no idea.  But, being an idiot, I took the bait and guessed 2 miles.  Nope.  Not even close.  The bridge is 12.9 km (aka 8 miles).  The "over ice-covered waters" caveat is an important one, since there are other bridges that are longer.  The longest bridge in the world is a mind-boggling 102 miles long ... the Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge between Shanghai and Nanjing in China.  Although, to add yet another caveat, that bridge is strictly for high-speed rail, not cars.  

 

The Confederation Bridge was completed in May 1997 at a cost of $840 million.  That's a good chunk of change.  As a result, you won't be surprised to learn that this is a toll bridge.  You don't pay anything on your journey from New Brunswick to PEI, but if you want to return ... well, that's going to set you back just over $50 Canadian for a regular car.  

 

After crossing the bridge, we were officially in Prince Edward Island.  Now that we had checked off another Province ... ahem ... let's try that again.  Now that we had arrived in PEI, it was time for the next order of business, a lobster roll.  After some quick research, we settled on the Lobster Barn in Victoria, PEI.  Victoria is a small fishing village on the south-central coast.  When I say small, I mean that the estimated population is somewhere around 100 people.  It turned out to be a nice place to visit, with quaint shops, art studios, historic buildings, blah, blah, blah.  We didn't care much about any of that.  We were there for a lobster roll.  Thankfully, it's easy to find Lobster Barn.  It's at the end of the Main Street.  Drive any further and you'll be in the water. 

 

Lobster Barn at the end of Main Street in Victoria, PEI

 

 

 

We both ordered the homemade clam chowder, which had the largest clam and potato chunks that I think I've ever had in a chowder, as well as a lobster roll.  Obviously.  Although, I always horrify restaurants by ordering lobster rolls with no mayo or butter.  Just put good pieces of lobster (not too many of those claw tips!) on a roll or piece of bread, and I'm happy.  But restaurants often struggle with this request.  It's just too simple.  Thankfully, Lobster Barn got it right, with the addition of one piece of lettuce, which works for me.  It was tasty.

 

Lobster roll in hand and life is good

 

 

After our nice lunch, our next stop was Brackley Beach, located within Prince Edward Island National Park.  It was a nice beach but sitting down on beaches is not our thing.  Instead, we drove to nearby Robinson Island Trail System to give the 5K loop a try.  It was a nice trail meandering through the forest.  I came across some birds that I don't see at my home in New Mexico such as the Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, and Yellow Warbler.  Definitely a good place to stretch your legs with some easy hiking or mountain biking.

 

Hiking the Robinson Island Trail System
 

 

 

Next, we drove to Charlottetown to check in at our AirBnb that was conveniently located within walking distance (0.75 mile) of downtown.  After unpacking and relaxing for a bit, it was once again time to find a place to eat.  We decided to call the Water Prince Corner Shop to see if we could get a reservation.  It was fully booked, unless we wanted some kind of funky seating arrangement next to the kitchen.  We'll take it!  That sounded interesting, and I'm glad we went.  Our seats actually turned out to be great.  They were barstools in the kitchen area that overlook the dining area.  And the food was excellent.  My brother ordered a lobster that came with a ginormous appetizer of PEI mussels that we shared, and I had scallops.  Both proved to be great choices, although the lobster requires a whole lot more work to eat compared to my scallops.  

 

PEI Mussels "Appetizer" at the Water Prince Corner Shop

 

 

 

After dinner, we walked around town, went past St. Dunstan's Basilica and came across The Gahan House, where we heard some live music outside on the patio.  The weather was beautiful (mid-60s) so, naturally, we grabbed seat.  It was a solo guitar player who performed a wide range of tunes, from Stevie Ray Vaughn to Audioslave, while we enjoyed some people-watching.  

 

St. Dunstan's Basilica
 

 

Outdoor music at The Gahan House
 

 

 

We only caught the tail end of his set, so we asked the waitress for other places with live music.  She suggested we try Peakes Quay, and off we went.  Our walk took us down Queen Street in downtown Charlottetown where were fortunate to catch the beginning of a terrific sunset.

 

 Sunset in Charlottetown

 

 

 

We also came across a large Great Blue Heron statue on Queen Street so I couldn't resist a photo.  The steel and stucco statue was created by local artist, Ahmon Katz, and installed on Queen Street in 2013.
 

Mark with his new pal
 

 

 

We continued to wander the streets to explore the town a bit ...

 

Downtown Charlottetown side streets

 

 

... and we finally made our way down to the Peakes Quay.  The outdoor seating looked packed, and we could hear some live music, but it seemed to be coming from somewhere else.  We located the music source even closer to the water at Nimrod's Floating Pizza Bar.  Classic name.  It's actually on the water, so it's hard to get closer to the water than that.  Nimrod's was also packed but we managed to score two barstools right on the water.  It was definitely an eclectic crowd, with my brother and I representing the "not so young" crowd.  There were a few others our age, but not many.  But we didn't care.  We parked ourselves there for about an hour, people-watching and enjoying the band that played everything from Weezer, The Ramones, Cream (Crossroads), and Rod Stewart (Stay With Me).  People seemed to be enjoying the pizza - looked tasty but we were far from hungry, so we never tried it. 

 

The band and scene at Nimrod's Floating Pizza Bar


 

 

At 10:30pm, we started our walk back to our BnB.  It looked like Peakes Quay was getting ready to transform into a night club.  There was a massive line outside of the place.  Looking at the people in line, my brother and I were DEFINITELY feeling a bit old.  I would feel about as comfortable there as I would dancing with my 17-year-old son's friends.  No thanks.  About 15 minutes later, we were back at our Bnb, the end of a great day.

 

After a good night of sleep, we checked out of our AirBnb and hit the road around 9am.  Our last stop on our way out of PEI was to visit the town of Cavendish, mecca to everything related to the book, Anne of Green Gables.  The Cavendish area served as the inspiration for the setting of the book.  I'd never read the book before so, the week prior to my trip to Canada, I decided to listen to it via Audible (I'm an audiobook junkie ... but mostly non-fiction).  I'm glad that I did, as the book gave me a lot more context behind our visit to the Green Gables Heritage Place.  We had beautiful weather again and the scenery was terrific.  We paid the reasonable $7 Canadian each to tour the exhibits about the book's author, Lucy Maud Montgomery, and tour the Green Gables House.  The entry fee also gives you access to hike two short trails, which we did.  The trails are named after trails mentioned in the book: "Lover's Lane" and "Haunted Forest".  They were very nice trails and well worth doing.  There's nothing quite like walking a trail called "Lover's Lane" with your brother.  The Haunted Forest trail felt much more appropriate.

 

Green Gables House
 

 

 

Green Gables Heritage Center Hiking Trails
 

 

 

After our short hike, we grabbed lunch at nearby restaurant, The Lost Anchor.  We managed to get a table on the upper deck outside patio, where we enjoyed the great weather while eating fish tacos with an asian pear slaw ... hold the mayo.  With they did perfectly.  A nice way to end our trip to PEI. 

 

Fish Tacos at The Lost Anchor
 

 

As we drove through Cavendish a bit more, we were surprised at just how touristy and built up it is: amusement parks, golf courses, mini-golf, laser tag, and so on.  We commented that it was hard to believe that all of this was created from a fictional book.  Then we reminded ourselves about Hobbiton, New Zealand and The Lord of the Rings.  "Yeah, but that was cool" was the best lame, guy-answer we could muster for our double-standard.  However, after reading Anne of Green Gables, I can see why Anne's character had such an impact on so many people over the years.

 

After lunch, we drove back to the Confederation bridge, paid our toll of just over $50 Canadian to cross it, and made our way to Halifax.

 

Perhaps it's appropriate to sign off with a quote from Anne of the Green Gables:

“It has always seemed to me, ever since early childhood, amid all the commonplaces of life, I was very near to a kingdom of ideal beauty.  Between it and me hung only a thin veil.  I could never draw it quite aside, but sometimes a wind fluttered it and I caught a glimpse of the enchanting realms beyond-only a glimpse-but those glimpses have always made life worthwhile.”
 

Our overnight trip to Prince Edward Island offered many glimpses of the things that make life worthwhile.

 

Thanks for reading!

Mark

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Fun things to do in Charlottetown Green Gables Heritage Place PEI Halifax to Prince Edward Island Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com New Mexico and Beyond nmbeyond.com PEI PEI Attractions PEI Tourist Attractions Places to Visit in PEI Prince Edward Island Prince Edward Island Activities Prince Edward Island Vacation Things to see in PEI Travel to Prince Edward Island Traveling to Prince Edward Island Travelling to Prince Edward Island Unique things to do in PEI https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2022/6/green-gables-lobster-rolls-and-live-music-a-quick-visit-to-prince-edward-island Mon, 27 Jun 2022 14:00:00 GMT
The Musical Road in Tijeras, New Mexico https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2022/6/the-musical-highway-of-tijeras-new-mexico---final  

The Musical Road of Tijeras, New Mexico (Route 66)

 

 

While recently driving on I-40 East from Albuquerque towards my home in the East Mountains, traffic began to slow to a crawl due to construction on the interstate.  So, I decided to get off the highway at the Carnuel exit (Exit 170) and take NM State Highway 333 (it's part of historic Route 66) East instead.  The turned out to be a great decision, and not because of the traffic.

 

I'm an audiobook junkie, so whenever I'm driving, there's usually an audiobook or podcast playing in my car.  But after a few miles, I suddenly heard a strange sound ... sort of like the song "America the Beautiful."  At first, I thought it was one of those funky horns from a truck on the interstate, but the sound seemed so much closer.  Perhaps it's some weird interference on my car stereo?  I shut off my stereo.  The sound was still there.  I could distinctly hear America the Beautiful playing from somewhere.  Am I crack?  Nope.  Am I going insane?  Don't answer that.  That's when another thought came to me.  Could it be the rumble strips of the road - you know, those grooves in the road that alert drivers when they're drifting to the edge of the road?  Then the song ended.  

 

That was strange.  I pulled off the road at the next opportunity and did a quick search on my phone for rumble strip songs.  It didn't take long before I came across some articles about musical highways, also known as musical roads or singing highways.  Apparently, I don't get out much, as I've never heard of such a thing.

 

As it turns out, there are over 40 musical roads in the world.  Japan must really like them - they have about 30 musical roads.  In the United States, there are just two.  One in Lancaster, California plays a pretty lame version of the "William Tell Overture", based on the recordings I've heard.  The musical roads we have in Tijeras, New Mexico is MUCH better ... not that I'm biased or anything. 

 

After doing some additional research, I learned that the musical road has been in Tijeras since 2014.  I've driven that road many times, but I must have been going too fast ... I mean ... too slow, to hear the song.  You need to drive at the speed limit of 45 mph in order to hear it clearly.  They were specifically designed that way!

 

Through a partnership between the National Geographic Channel and Department of Transportation, the musical rumble strips were installed to see if they would encourage drivers to drive the speed limit.  The rumble strips are precisely spaced to create the notes of the song.   Apparently, in 2014, the song played in its entirety and was significantly clearer.  Today (May 23rd, 2022), this is what you'll hear ...

 

 

The Musical Highway of Tijeras, New MexicoThe Musical Highway of Tijeras, New Mexico

 

 

It's still pretty great.

 

There used to be signs alerting drivers of the musical road.  Today, there are no signs, so here's how to find it:

  • Get off on Exit 170 (Carnuel exit) and take a left (East) on Route 333 (part of the Route 66 system)
  • Travel 3.3 miles (between mile markers 4 and 5) and you should be there. 
  • Remember to drive 45mph and ensure your right tires are positioned over the rumble strips. 
  • It only works when heading east.  There are no musical rumble strips on the other side of the road.  

 

The next time you're passing through Albuquerque and heading east on I-40, brighten your day by exiting in Carnuel, turning left, driving 3.3 miles, and then sit back and enjoy a snippet of "America the Beautiful", compliments of the road.  

 

By the time this post is published, I will be traveling in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, and St. Pierre et Miquelon.  In other words, my next series of posts will focus on the "and beyond" part of my "New Mexico & Beyond" blog.  
 

Happy travels!
Mark


 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Carnuel Carnuel New Mexico Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com Musical Highway in New Mexico Musical Road in New Mexico Musical Road in Tijeras New Mexico Musical Road of Tijeras New Mexico New Mexico and Beyond New Mexico Musical Highway nmbeyond.com singing highway singing highway of New Mexico singing road Tijeras Tijeras Musical Road New Mexico https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2022/6/the-musical-highway-of-tijeras-new-mexico---final Mon, 13 Jun 2022 14:00:00 GMT
What's the scoop on that old church in San Antonito, New Mexico? https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2022/6/san-antonito-church-new-mexico San Antonito Catholic Mission Church and Cemetery (aka Nuestro Señor de Mapimi Church)San Antonito Catholic Mission Church and Cemetery (aka Nuestro Señor de Mapimi Church)Headstone in the cemetery with the San Antonito Catholic Mission Church in the background. San Antonito Catholic Mission Church and Cemetery (aka Nuestro Señor de Mapimi Church)

 

 

There's a saying that "travel begins in your backyard".  Well, I recently decided to put that into practice by learning more about the old church and cemetery in the small town of San Antonito, New Mexico.  In the 14+ years that I've lived in Sandia Park, I've literally driven past that place over a thousand times, yet I knew absolutely nothing about it.  So, on May 27th I decided to finally learn more about the place.  Here's what I found out.  

 

First, a little about San Antonito.  San Antonito is a census-designated place in the East Mountains - the region east of the Sandia Mountains near Albuquerque.  That brought me to my first question ... what the heck is a "census-designated place"?  A census-designated place, or CDP for short, is a concentration of population that is defined by the US Census Bureau and is used for statistical purposes only.  CDPs lack a legally defined boundary and an active, functioning government.  That part about lacking an active, functioning government sounds particularly good.    

 

You can find San Antonito at the intersection of New Mexico State Road 14 (aka Turquoise Trail), Frost Road, and the Crest Road that takes you up to the summit of Sandia Peak.  Three different towns collide at that intersection.  If you're at the southeast corner of that intersection, at the landmarks of the Shell gas station and the Lazy Lizard Grill, you're standing in the town of Cedar Crest.  If you walk a few hundred yards east towards the post office, then you're in the town of Sandia Park.  If you look diagonally (northwest) across the street from the Shell gas station and Lazy Lizard Grill, then you'll see a cemetery and small church.  That's the "town" of San Antonito.  Blink and you'll miss it.  If you continue to drive a few hundred yards west past the cemetery towards Tinkertown Museum and Sandia Peak, you're back in Sandia Park. 

 

Best I can figure out, the town of San Antonito only incudes the church and cemetery.  However, various websites say that the population of San Antonito ranges from 985 people to 1150 people.  That's confusing since I can't seem to find anyone who actually uses the town of San Antonito in their mailing address.  Even if you count the 152 headstone records at the cemetery, you don't get close to 1000 people.  Heck, even the San Antonito church and San Antonito Elementary School list Sandia Park as the city in their mailing address!

 

To hopefully clear things up, I called the post office that serves Sandia Park, San Antonito, and Golden.  The verdict?  Most everyone uses Sandia Park in their mailing address, but there are rare occasions when they see someone use Golden or San Antonito.  In the end, I was told that it doesn't really matter which town you use in your mailing address since all three have the same zip code and all the mail goes to the same post office.  Ok, enough about that.  Let's talk church.  

 

 

San Antonito Catholic Mission ChurchSan Antonito Catholic Mission ChurchThe gate in front of the San Antonito Catholic Mission Church

The gate in front of the San Antonito Catholic Mission Church and Cemetery
 

 

The San Antonito Church and Cemetery are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The church is estimated to have been built in 1886 and it has clearly been renovated and modernized over the years.  The official name of the church is Nuestro Señor de Mapimi Mission Church, also known as the San Antonito Catholic Mission Church and Cemetery.  It's one of seven mission churches scattered across the East Mountains that are affiliated with the Holy Child Catholic Parish Church in Tijeras.  Señor de Mapimi refers to a statue of the crucified Jesus, the community's patron, which is believed to have come from Mapimi, Mexico.  Unfortunately, the statue was stolen in the 1970s and has been replaced with a smaller crucifix that's used in processions. 

 

 

San Antonito Catholic Mission ChurchSan Antonito Catholic Mission ChurchSan Antonito Catholic Mission Church

 

 

Speaking of processions, each year for Good Friday, the San Antonito Catholic Mission Church offers an easier pilgrimage option for Holy Child Catholic Church parishioners in Tijeras.  The Good Friday pilgrimage commemorates the walk Jesus was forced to make while carrying the cross on his way to be crucified.  Rather than join participants to walk 20 miles uphill (1,200-foot elevation gain) from the Church in Tijeras to the San Juan Nepomuceno Mission Church in Chilili, participants can choose to walk 7.5 miles downhill from the San Antonito Catholic Mission Church to the church in Tijeras.  I can see why people could view that as a mighty appealing Plan B.    

 

When I arrived at the San Antonito Catholic Mission Church to check it out, nobody was there.  However, there's a large sign indicating that they celebrate Mass at the church on the 4th Friday of each month at 6:00pm.  Now that's a Mass schedule that many people could get on board with!  The 4th Friday was just a few days away, so I decided to give it a shot.

 

 

Sign informing visitors that mass is held at the San Antonito Catholic Mission Church on the 4th Friday of each month at 6:00pmMass at the San Antonito Catholic Mission ChurchSign informing visitors that mass is held at the San Antonito Catholic Mission Church on the 4th Friday of each month at 6:00pm

Mass is held every 4th Friday at 6:00pm

 

 

On Friday, May 27th, I stopped by again and, sure enough, it was open!  I dusted the cobwebs off my Catholic credentials and decided to attend Mass.  There were about 25 people, of all ages, in attendance.  The pastor never introduced himself, so I assume the congregation must be regulars, with the notable exception of me.  I believe the pastor is from the Holy Child Parish down the road in Tijeras.  

 

 

Inside the San Antonito Catholic Mission Church

 

 

It was a very simple Mass.  At the beginning, the pastor rang a small bell to announce that he was about to walk down the aisle to get things started.  That was the only musical note we heard.  No songs or musicians.  Similarly, there were no other readers or participants in the mass other than the verbal responses from the congregation at the appropriate times.  The Pastor was a one man show. 

 

Mass is just about to begin
 

 

Communion was offered and the congregation lined up to receive the host.  For those of you who have no idea what I'm talking about, a "host" is a wafer-like bread that symbolizes the sacrifice of the Body of Christ.  It's basically a way for people to show devotion to Jesus Christ.  Everyone I saw knelt down as the pastor placed the host directly in their mouth.  I'm not used to doing that, and my mind was waffling back and forth on whether to give that a try or do what I'm accustomed to doing ... placing my cupped hands in front of me to receive the host in my hand and then put it in my mouth.  With such a small crowd, it quickly became my turn and out sprang my cupped hands to receive the host.  As for wine, that wasn't an option for anyone other than the pastor, mostly likely due to COVID precautions.  

 

And that was it!  It was, by far, the quickest mass that I've ever been to, clocking in at 28 minutes from the time the pastor rang the bell to the time I stepped back outside.  

 

After mass, everyone was invited to a potluck at the church.  Given that I had already eaten, and I had nothing to bring, I decided to make a beeline for my car and head back home.  Perhaps I'll go back sometime to join the potluck and learn more about the church and will make some updates to this post.  But for now, I'm glad I went, and I feel like I know a little bit more about the community where I live.  Time well spent.

 

Thanks for reading!

Mark

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com New Mexico and Beyond nmbeyond.com San Antonito San Antonito Catholic Mission San Antonito Church San Antonito New Mexico https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2022/6/san-antonito-church-new-mexico Mon, 06 Jun 2022 14:00:00 GMT
Meet the Mayor of Golden, New Mexico https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2022/5/meet-the-mayor-of-golden-new-mexico  

Leroy Gonzales (the Mayor of Golden), Mark Aspelin (that would be me), and a Tarantula Hawk Wasp (the photobomber)

 

 

I've driven by the town of Golden, New Mexico many times.  It's only a 25-minute drive from my house.  Usually, the town of Golden is just an inconvenience where I need to slow down on my journey to Santa Fe.  But this time, Golden was my destination.  Why, you ask?  To finally stop off at that place with the "free information" signs and lots of junk / art (depending on your perspective) in front of it.  I wanted to see what it was all about and meet the person who lived there.  So that's what I did a few days ago (Sunday, May 22nd, 2022).

 

 

The view from the road while driving by "that place" in Golden, NM

 

 

First a bit about Golden.  Golden used to be home to Native Americans and Spaniards until around 1825, when gold was first discovered at Tuerto Creek on the southwest side of the Ortiz Mountains. This triggered the first gold rush west of the Mississippi River, well before the California Gold Rush (1848) and Colorado Gold Rush (1858).  A few small mining camps were initially formed with a few hundred people living in adobe houses.  The area was pretty low-key.  Then, around 1880, several large mining companies moved in.  The name of one of the mining towns, Real de San Francisco, was changed to Golden, with high hopes that there was a lot of gold to found and riches to be made.  

 

At its peak, Golden had a post office (opened in 1880), a school, the San Francisco Catholic Church (opened in 1830), and several saloons and businesses, such as the Golden General Merchandise Store (opened in 1918) ... which is the only business in town that still operates today.  Today, it's called the Henderson General Store, a nod to the name of the owner.  That's why you'll notice that the Henderson Store website says it's been family-owned since 1918.  In the words of the website ... 

"Purchased in 1918 by Ernest & Lucy Riccon, the Golden General Store served area residents with items for their daily needs. In 1962 the store was purchased by their youngest daughter, Vera, and her husband, Bill Henderson. As demand for a general store in the area declined, Vera and Bill began to trade merchandise for Southwestern Indian crafts. Sadly, Vera passed away in 2009 and Bill in 2015.  Today, their daughter and son-in-law, Desiri and Allen, carry on the tradition of selling high quality Southwestern Indian jewelry, rugs, and pottery at reasonable, competitive prices."

 

 

The Henderson Store in Golden, New Mexico

 

 

As the Henderson Store website blurb alludes to, Golden didn't turn out to be a boom town.  It was a bust.  By 1928, the post office closed and Golden officially became a ghost town.  However, you can still see some of the original structures in Golden, such as the most photographed building in Golden today - the San Francisco Catholic Church.  The church was restored in 1960 by historian and author of 22 books, Fray Angelico Chavez.  Chavez was an interesting character, a Renaissance man of sorts.  He was a Catholic priest (Franciscan) who served as a military chaplain in the Philippines in World War II, studied at the Vatican in Rome and at Oxford, and then returned to New Mexico to become a missionary at several rural villages throughout New Mexico.  

 

Despite all that history, a case can be made that one of the most well-known landmarks in Golden today is Leroy's house ... the house with all the junk / art in front of it that I referred to at the beginning of this post.  

 

 

Entering Leroy's art gallery
 

 

When I met Leroy, he was just wrapping up a conversation with some other visitors who departed as soon as I arrived, so I had Leroy all to myself.  Leroy was very friendly, and he immediately began to give me a tour of his art.  When I told him my name, he said that he had a grandson named Mark that his family called "Markie" when he was young.  We decided to stick with "Mark" for me. 

 

Leroy told me that his Grandparents bought the land, and his mother grew up here.  Leroy has been living in Golden for about 22 years now (since ~2000), and he began his art display about 8 years ago (~2014).  I got the feeling that extra emphasis should be placed on the word "about" so don't hold me to those dates.  He started with displaying bottles and then continued to build on it over the years.  

 

Today, his art gallery includes a "cantina", a "mine shaft" ...

 

 

The Mine Shaft and Cantina from the outside, with a 200-year-old cottonwood tree that Leroy "tattooed"
 

 

... and a "Gold Mine" that he said goes all the way to the Ortiz mountains, but then smiled and clarified that it could go to the Ortiz Mountains.  He left out the "with a whole lot of digging" part.  But we had a laugh while glancing at the mirrors at the back of the Gold Mine that give the false impression of distance.  

 

 

The Gold Mine
 

 

So, what's inside the Cantina and Mine Shaft?  Glad you asked!

 

A whole lot of stuff inside the Cantina - this is just a snippet

 

 

 

An interesting photo of a soldier who may have been friends with Leroy's Grandfather
 

 

And there are plenty of outdoor exhibits ...

 

 

Leroy describes some of the art on the fence
 

 

 

 

Pointing out two birds that are painted on the green background ... adding that somebody tagged it with graffiti
 

 

 

More art to see on the way out
 

 

 

There are other things I could share about his art gallery, but I don't want to spoil all of it, so I'll leave it at that.

 

I asked Leroy if he would be willing to take a photo with me.  He said "of course, take a photo of anything you like." So, I proceeded to balance my phone on a cluttered table, set the timer, quickly hopped over to position myself next to Leroy, who was ready in his mayor pose, and the next thing we knew, a tarantula hawk wasp decided to fly right in front of us!

 

Leory glances at the tarantula hawk wasp as it does a fly-by 

 

 

Now, for those of you who aren't familiar with tarantula hawk wasps, they are amazing insects that deserve your attention, particularly due to bullet #4 below:

 

  1. Fun fact - they are the State insect of New Mexico.  Another fun fact, our state bird, the roadrunner, is one of the few animals that will attempt to eat our state insect. 

 

  1. Tarantula spiders are not big fans of tarantula hawk wasps.  This is understandable, given that female wasps sting tarantula spiders, drag the paralyzed spider to a burrow, and lay a single egg on the spider's abdomen.  You know where this going.  Once the larva hatches, it burrows into the spider's abdomen and feeds on the spider, careful to avoid vital organs to keep the spider alive as long as possible.  After several weeks, the larva enters a pupal stage.  Once it has transformed into an adult, the adult leaves the spider's abdomen and starts the cycle all over again.  That surely must be the stuff of tarantula spider nightmares.    

 

  1. Tarantula hawk wasps feed on sugar-rich nectar produced by flowers, and they are not aggressive.  However, they may defend their burrow if they feel threatened.

 

  1. You do not want a female tarantula hawk wasp to feel threatened by you (only the females sting).  After all, they are #2 on the infamous Schmidt sting pain index.  

 

 

For those not familiar with the Schmidt pain index, let me explain.  Justin Schmidt is a scientist (entomologist) at the University of Arizona and author of the book "The Sting of the Wild".  It's a fun book to read, where the author shares stories from his journey to document the relative pain experienced after being deliberately stung by over 80 species of insects.  This led to the creation of his famous (well, at least among wildlife nerds like me) Schmidt Sting Pain Index.  His index includes a quantitative rating, along with humorous descriptions of the pain he experienced after being stung by each insect.  The most painful insect sting of all is the bullet ant, described as "Pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail embedded in your heel."  The tarantula hawk wasp came in second place, described as "Blinding, fierce, shockingly electric. A running hair dryer has been dropped into your bubble bath. A bolt out of the heavens.  Lie down and scream."  Luckily, the wasp wasn't interested in us so there was no screaming required.    

 

As I began to wrap up my visit, I asked Leroy what he likes most about living in Golden.  His answer, "all of this" as he used his arms to encompass his home and art.  I then asked him to share one thing that he would like to see improved about Golden.  His answer, "the neighborhood attitude", adding that many people don't understand him and his art.  He estimated that there are about 14 people living in Golden, although some websites put that number at closer to 37.  Let's just agree to say, "not many" people live in Golden today.

 

On my way out, Leroy asked me to sign his guestbook, strategically placed right next to a tip jar.  I wrote a quick note and gave him a tip.  Leroy then gave an Elvis Presley imitation while saying, "thank you, thank you very much."  

 

Leroy's guestbook and tip jar

 

 

As we parted ways, Leroy said that the highlight of his day is to find something in his mailbox other than bills, and he encouraged me to send him something via snail mail.  Leroy doesn't have email, so he gave me his business card and encouraged me to pass it along, so here it is!

 

 

 

Since Leroy was the highlight of my day today, I decided to send him a copy of our photo together with the tarantula hawk wasp photobomber.  Perhaps you'll see it in his collection the next time you visit the Mayor of Golden, New Mexico.
 

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Golden Golden New Mexico history of Golden Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com Mayor of Golden New Mexico and Beyond nmbeyond.com Schmidt pain index Schmidt sting pain index tarantula hawk wasp tarantula hawk wasp sting https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2022/5/meet-the-mayor-of-golden-new-mexico Mon, 30 May 2022 14:00:00 GMT
How to Meet Dave Ramsey https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2022/3/how-to-meet-dave-ramsey Meeting Dave Ramsey on the Debt Free Stage

Ken Coleman, Mark Aspelin, and Dave Ramsey at Ramsey Solutions, March 7, 2022

 

 

Whenever I’m faced with use it or lose it frequent flier miles that are soon to expire and I have don’t have much vacation time, I wrack my brain for experiences I would like to have or people I would like to meet.  This can take the form of concerts, unusual experiences, catching up with friends, or meeting people who have been influential in my life.  Past examples include attending a workshop with the Dalai Lama in Boston, meeting E.O. Wilson (biologist) at Biodiversity Days in North Carolina, and flying to San Francisco to catch Paul McCartney’s “Last Pick at the Stick” … the last concert at Candlestick Park in August 2014 before plans to tear it down and convert it into office space. 

 

E.O. Wilson and Mark Aspelin, Biodiversity Days, Duke University, March 2, 2017
 

 

 

 

 

With some of my Southwest Airline miles facing imminent extinction, I recently faced that decision again.  What did I come up with this time?  I decided to try to get a photo with Dave Ramsey at his Ramsey Solutions studio in Franklin, Tennessee. 

 

In case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 30 years, Dave Ramsey is a personal finance guru who hosts “The Ramsey Show”.  According to his website, The Ramsey Show is the third largest talk radio show in America, reaching over 18 million “combined weekly listeners”.  I don’t know what that means either, but let’s just say that he’s popular.  On his show, Dave takes phone calls from people of all walks of life.  In response to their questions, Dave dishes out tough, Tennessee-accented love in the form of “sell the car” and “act your wage” advice that aligns with his 7 Baby Steps for financial peace.  Some of the show’s callers make you think, “wow, that person is an idiot … I can’t believe they made such dumb financial decisions.”  Other callers will make you think, “wow, I’m an idiot … I can’t believe I’ve made such dumb financial decisions.”  For me, it’s usually the latter. 

 

My financial idiocy brought me face-to-face with a 7-year slog to get through Baby Steps 1-3.  This translates to being debt free other than my mortgage and building up a 3-6 month emergency fund.  Unfortunately, I had to do the emergency fund step twice.  Dave’s advice played a major role in getting me to take the plunge to get started and then stick with it year after year.  The end result is that I’m on MUCH firmer financial ground compared to where I was 10 years ago.  Not that you care.  So let’s get back to the subject at hand. 

 

How exactly does one go about meeting Dave Ramsey?  Glad you asked.  Here’s everything you need to know about meeting Dave in person … as of March 2022 when I visited the studio.

 

 

Why do people want to visit Dave in the first place

Dave has literally inspired millions of people to “live like no one else so, later, you can live and give like no one else.”  After completing a significant milestone in their financial journey such as getting out of debt, paying off the house, or crossing the “millionaire” net worth threshold, many people decide to make the pilgrimage to Ramsey Studios to meet Dave in person.  For some, it's to say thank you in person to Dave.  For others, it's a “job well done” validation of sorts – a celebration after completing a difficult step of the journey.  Or it can simply be something different to do for an afternoon while visiting Nashville. 

 

Some famous "Dave-isms" showcased on a wall at Ramsey Solutions

 

 

 

Where is the studio located and what’s the parking situation?

Ramsey Solutions is located at 1011 Reams Fleming Boulevard in Franklin, Tennessee.  Franklin is about a 30-minute drive from Nashville.  Parking is abundant and free of charge.  There are a few visitor parking spots just outside of the front entrance and plenty of other spots nearby if those are taken. 

 

Front entrance to Ramsey Solutions

 

 

When can I meet Dave – any particular day or time?

The first thing you’ll want to know is that you can’t just waltz in the front door any day of the week and meet Dave.  In fact, chances are very high that Dave WON’T be at the studio to meet you if you just randomly show up.  The first step is to fill out this form to let them know when you would like to visit.  Within a day or two, you’ll receive a response confirming when Dave is scheduled to be in the studio. 

 

When I submitted the form to let them know I planned to visit in early March, they provided me with two potential dates: Monday, February 28 or Monday, March 7th between 1:00pm – 4:00pm CT.  Those were the only two options.  Needless to say, that narrowed it down fairly quickly for me.  March 7th it is.  So if you really want to meet Dave, you’ll want to confirm his availability before you start booking flights and hotels.  Even if they do confirm a date for you, they’ll add the following disclaimer: “Dave and the Ramsey Personalities schedule is not guaranteed and is subject to change at the last minute. Please feel free to call ahead a day or two before you come.”  That last sentence is highly recommended.  You’ll want to call or email a day or two ahead of time to confirm that everything is still on track. 

 

There are no tickets or reservations.  Ramsey Solutions likes to know how many visitors are arriving on a particular day so they have enough baked treats (cookies on the day I was there) on hand.  But you’re welcome to show up unannounced if that’s how you roll.    

 

I had no concept of how many people typically show up and I’m sure it varies quite a bit.  Given that Dave Ramsey has millions of listeners, I was picturing long lines.  Plus I had a flight to catch later that afternoon.  To play it safe, I decided to show up around noon – well in advance of the 1pm CT start time for The Ramsey Show.  When I walked through the front entrance doors at 12:10pm, I was the only visitor there!  Around 1:30pm, there were around 20 or 30 visitors before I left to catch my flight. 

 

 

What can I expect to find inside Ramsey Solutions?

When I stepped through the front door, I was immediately greeted by a person at the front desk.  She asked my name, where I’m from, and offered to answer any questions that I had.  She also invited me to visit the café to get a free drink and snack (cookie), walk through the bookstore, and do a self-guided “Our Story” tour about the history and progressions of The Ramsey Show over the years.  All visitors are entitled to one free drink and snack.  After the first round, you’ll need to pay for it.  As a bonus, all visitors also received a free Ramsey Solutions coffee mug.

 

The bookstore has all of the books published by the various Ramsey personalities, as well as courses, games, wallets, and purses.  Surprisingly, they didn’t have any T-shirts.  If you decide to buy something at the bookstore or café, keep in mind that Dave Ramsey doesn’t do credit cards.  You’ll need to pay cash or use a debit card. 

 

The self-guided “Our Story” tour was a good way to kill some time.  At the end of the tour, you'll find a recording booth where you can record your own story and send it to yourself.  I didn’t bother with that as I wasn’t interested in having an awkward recording of my story as a memento. 

 

Once people finish with the café, bookstore, and self-guided tour, people start to congregate in the seats in front of the two recording studios.  When I was there, the Ken Coleman Show was live from 12:00pm – 1:00PM CT so I could see Ken and his guest, John Delony, talking live.  Around 12:45pm, Dave walked into the other studio.  He was all business as he prepared for the upcoming show. 

 

 

Two recording studios 

 

 

John Delony and Ken Coleman recording the Ken Coleman Show
 

 

Baker Street Coffee Shop ...
 

 

... and Bookstore


 

 

 

More seating areas between the recording studios and coffee shop / bookstore


 

Event Stage on the lower level below the recording studios

 

 

Self-Guided Tour starts here

 

 

 

 

Booth where you can record your own story as a memento
 

 

Dave prepares for the start of the show
 

 

 

How do I get a book signed and how do I get a photo with Dave?

I lumped these two questions together as you’ll do these at the same time during your visit.  If you want to get a book signed, then you’ll need to either bring a book with you from home or buy one from the bookstore.  But you’ll need the book in your hand when you meet Dave.  Don’t bother bringing a pen.  Dave will have his own pen. 

 

Once Dave’s show starts, people start to gather in the chairs in front of that recording studio.  Dave and his co-host only come out to meet guests during the commercial breaks.  Before the first commercial break, a staff member comes out to explain how it all works.  There is a place to line up next to the Debt Free Stage.  Once a commercial break starts, Dave and his guest will take off their headphones and walk out to meet the first person in line.  While they embark on their journey through a back door of the studio to walk around to the Debt Free Stage, a staff member will direct you to stand on the stage and, if you want a photo, you’ll hand them your phone or camera. 

 

I gave the staff member my phone, stepped up on the stage, and the next think I knew, Dave was walking towards me with a big grin and an extended hand.  Before we even shook hands, he was already asking my name and where I’m from.  We shook hands and he offered to sign the book that I was holding.  As he signed, he asked what I was doing in Nashville.  I told him that I was there to meet him, but he seemed to think that I MUST be in Nashville for some other reason too.  So I muttered something about being in Nashville for fun but was really there to celebrate that I had completed Baby Steps 1-3.  Upon hearing this, they congratulated me … and that’s when it hit me.  “They”!  I had completed neglected the co-host Ken Coleman.  I had not looked at him, shook his hand, or acknowledged that he existed prior to that point.  In hindsight, I should have prepared for that – perhaps buying his book at the bookstore when I saw that he was the co-host and then having him sign his book at the same time.  But it was too late to recover from that mistake.  The three of us were already lined up on the stage, with me in the middle.  The photo was taken, and then it was time for the next visitor.   It probably took a total of about one minute.  It’s a well-oiled machine. 

 

It all happened so quickly that I never got to implement my original plan, which was to deliver some kind of quip like “I took out a payday loan in order to visit today”.  I figured he has heard “thank you” stories so many times that it would be more fun to say something different. 

 

After the meet and greet, I looked at the “photo” on my phone.  I quickly learned that multiple photos had been taken - one of the initial handshake, one of the book signing, and two on the stage.  Had I known, I would have made a better effort to look at something other than the ground in front of me.  The joys of being Finnish.  I’m half Irish too, but unfortunately my Finnish social skills won out today.  So beware that multiple photos will be taken.

 

One other helpful tidbit … as I watched Dave meet other visitors, I noticed that he never puts his arm around anyone and nobody puts their arm around him for the photo.  He quickly puts his hands in his pockets to remove that option.  So, don’t go up there thinking that you’ll be taking a photo with him with your arm around him and vice versa.  He’ll have his hands in his pockets.

 

Greeting Dave from the Debt Free Stage

 

 

My Finnish heritage on full display while regretting that I did not have a book for Ken to sign

 

 

Ken, Mark and Dave on the Debt Free Stage

 

 

 

What about the Debt Free Scream?

Just to clarify, what I did was NOT the Debt Free Scream that is featured on his show.  That is something that you need to apply for on the Ramsey Solutions website and you may or may not get selected.  However, I did get to see an official debt free scream while I was there.  This is where a person is interviewed during the live show – telling their story to Dave, answering questions, and then doing a 3, 2, 1 countdown before screaming, “I’m debt free!!”.  Raising my voice is not my specialty and the idea of screaming on air for millions of people didn’t appeal to me.  But who knows, maybe I’ll feel differently when I eventually pay off my house!
 


Seating area in front of the recording studio with a person getting ready to tell their story and deliver a "Debt Free Scream"
 

 

 

Screenshot

What the debt free scream looked like during the recorded show on YouTube 

 

 

Anything else that I should know?

That should cover it!  Just in case, here's the information you’ll receive after filling out the online form and confirming your visit:

 

YOUR REQUESTED DATE

  • Yes, Dave will be in the studio on March 7th!
  • Currently Ken Coleman will co-host The Ramsey Show with Dave

ABOUT YOUR VISIT

  • The Ken Coleman Show is live from 12:00pm - 1:00pm CST and The Ramsey Show is live from 1:00 - 4:00pm CST.
  • Ramsey Solutions headquarters is located at 1011 Reams Fleming Blvd., Franklin, TN 37064.
  • Our lobby has a large viewing area just outside the studio where you're welcome to sit and watch the shows.
  • You can come and go anytime during the show hours.  No need for "tickets" or reservations.  We just like to know you're coming so we can bake enough goodies!
  • Dave and Ramsey Personalities enjoy stepping out during some of the brief commercial breaks, so please feel free to bring a book or camera if you'd like an autograph or photo with them.
  • Ramsey Solutions Headquarters is Open Monday and Wednesday from 10:00am - 5:00pm and Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday from 8:00am - 5:00pm.  You can visit any time during the day if your schedule doesn't line up with the hour for the live shows.
  • During The Ramsey Show, we film in the lobby, cafe, and bookstore.  By entering Ramsey Solutions Headquarters, you agree to be on camera and allow us to use your image.  Thanks!
  • You're welcome to take photos - we only ask that you don't use flash, since it interferes with filming for the video channel.
  • If your children are visiting with you, we ask that you keep them with you at all times.  It helps if you have some quiet toys or books since we have periods where folks in the lobby have to be quiet during live portions of the broadcast.
  • You are welcome to view our self-guided "Our Story" timeline wall that tells the history and progressions of The Ramsey Show.

WHEN YOU ARRIVE, PLEASE CHECK IN AT THE FRONT DESK SO I CAN WELCOME YOU.

Email if you have any additional questions.  We look forward to meeting you!

PLEASE NOTE: Dave and the Ramsey Personalities schedules is not guaranteed and is subject to change at the last minute.  Please feel free to call ahead a day or two before you come.

 

 

 

Was it worth the visit?

Absolutely!  It was a fun experience.  I’m definitely glad that I did it … and I just may be back when I eventually complete Baby Step 6. 

 

Happy travels!

Mark

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

 

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Dave Ramsey How to meet Dave Ramsey Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com Meet Dave Ramsey Meeting Dave Ramsey in person Meeting Dave Ramsey in Tennessee Ramsey Solutions studio The Ramsey Show https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2022/3/how-to-meet-dave-ramsey Tue, 08 Mar 2022 00:00:00 GMT
Polar Bear Plunge, New Mexico Style, at the ABQ BioPark https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2021/8/polar-bear-plunge-new-mexico-style-abq-biopark At this evening’s volunteer dinner at the ABQ BioPark, twin polar bear brothers Kiska and Koluk entertained us during their feeding time with a real polar bear plunge.

 

The brothers are 25 years old and enjoy fetching the 10-lbs of trout that the keeper throws to them each day. Kiska and Koluk have a beautiful habitat complete with 20-foot water slide, waterfalls, a 14-foot-deep pool, an air-conditioned cave, and water that is kept cold with large chillers.

 

Enjoy the video below and some sunset photos with Kiska and Koluk!

 

Polar Bear Plunge, New Mexico Style
 

 

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).
 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) ABQ BioPark ABQ Zoo Albuquerque Albuquerque Zoo Polar Bears Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com New Mexico and Beyond NM Beyond Polar Bear Polar Bear Plunge Polar Bear Plunge at the ABQ BioPark https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2021/8/polar-bear-plunge-new-mexico-style-abq-biopark Wed, 18 Aug 2021 02:00:00 GMT
Happy COVID Christmas Greetings from New Mexico! https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2020/12/happy-holiday-greetings-from-new-mexico

 

 

Happy Holidays from New Mexico!   

 

2020 will no doubt be the year that everyone will remember as the time when my son Erik became taller than me.  Oh, and there was that COVID thing too.  I’m happy to report that I’ve been able to avoid Coronavirus so far, probably due to the fact that I’ve been aggressively pursuing a “social distancing” policy for 20+ years.  My parents and son are unscathed so far too and they are doing well.  My niece and nephew, on the other hand, both got COVID at the same time, while attending college in different states.  Thankfully, they recovered quickly, other than some lingering impact to their sense of smell and taste … but the impact was not enough to get them to try my infamous green vegetable smoothies during their visit for Thanksgiving.

 

Like many of you, I entered 2020 with big plans, including two international trips.  Instead, my most exciting trip of 2020 was a 35-minute drive to Southwest Gastroenterology Associates to experience my first colonoscopy.  They declined my request for a virtual visit.  The procedure itself was nothing compared to the “preparation” that started 18 hours earlier.  My intestines have seen some serious combat over the years with my travels to many far-flung places, but it’s not a fair fight when I’m asked to drink a “preparation formula” that I’ve heard accurately described as a collaboration between Ex-Lax and Taco Bell.  Let’s just say that by the time I arrived at the clinic for my procedure, I no longer cared what they planned to do to my body.  I was more concerned about what might happen to them, as I could tell from the unsettling gurgling in my intestines that there was more work to do, and I had front row seats for the past 18 hours to know what my body was capable of.  Fortunately, I opted for the “I don’t want to remember anything that happens during the procedure” option.  Not exactly “reason for the season” material to include in a Christmas card but, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.  And when 2020 gives you a colonoscopy … well, there you have it. 

 

So, what did I do with my treasured “use it or lose it” vacation time that I accumulated in 2020?  I partied Marie Kondo-style by immersing myself in the art of tidying.  Rather than explore the mountains and lakes of Patagonia, I dumped everything I owned into one room and spent over 10 hours each day for a week holding up every possession I own, one at a time, and asking myself “Does this spark joy?”  Instead of soaking in hot springs in Iceland, I was holding up old souvenirs and mementos and asking myself “Does this reflect who I am becoming, not who was in the past?”  On the day I should’ve been enjoying the festive atmosphere of the Euros (soccer) in Copenhagen, I was re-folding my clothes and stacking them vertically in drawers (which I now really like!).  In the end, I thanked about half of my possessions for serving their purpose (including over 600 books!) and put them to work in the circular economy, wherever that might take them.

 

Let’s see, what other boring stories can I share.  Oh yes, I dug a big hole in my backyard!  Pretty exciting, I know.  I spent many hours with a pickaxe and shovel to install a pond to support the local wildlife who frequently stop by for a drink.  I’ve even made friends with a large number of deer that regularly pass through my yard, to the point where I can now sit outside near them, as close as 10 feet away, while they take advantage of the water and corn that I provide. 

 

As for my job (Program/Project Manager at Optum Healthcare … part of United HealthGroup), everything is going well.  I’m very fortunate to be in a role that was not impacted with COVID.  I was already working 100% from home prior to COVID, so nothing really changed for me … and I still love working from home.  The only significant change from a work perspective is that I gave up my side gig as a personal trainer and substitute yoga instructor.  While I miss the people that I worked with at the gym, I do enjoy the extra free time.  

 

The only other exciting news to report is that I’m now a COVID puppy statistic.  Yes, I joined the many people out there who decided to get a dog.  On December 5th, my son and I drove to SW Missouri to pick up the new addition to our family – a 4-month-old Irish Wolfhound named Rohan.  We pronounce it “Rowan” as it’s easier to say quickly when he’s chewing things that he shouldn’t be chewing, which is often.  I’m hoping to train him to become a therapy dog and take him to hospitals, hospice, and/or retirement communities, but the jury is out on that one.  We have a long way to go before he will be ready for something like that.  I have a sneaking suspicion that hospital patients will not be eager to have an animal the size of a small pony galloping around their room, gnawing on their arms, legs, and furniture, or tearing their clothes to shreds.  Rohan blissfully ignores all commands except for “sit” or “come”.  “Come” is particularly easy as Rohan is my shadow.  I don’t have to say anything.  I can’t go anywhere in my house without him following close behind.

 

As you can probably see from Rowan’s clown feet in the card photos, he’s on track to become a very large dog.  His father is around 220-230 lbs., so chances are high that he will become a gentle giant.  Apparently, Rohan didn’t get the memo about the “gentle” part yet.  However, he’s certainly on track for “giant” status – at 17 weeks of age, he is already 60 lbs., and growing fast.  Rohan will likely be taller than both Erik and me by the time he is fully grown, although Erik might give him a run for his money.  I’m 5 ft 9 and a half, which I liberally round up to 5 foot 10 whenever asked, and it looks like Erik is at risk of breaking the 6 ft barrier at some point in the not-too-distant future.

 

Speaking of Erik, he is doing well.  He is 15 years old and is just about done with his driving permit requirements … less than 7 weeks and he will be 16.  Gulp.  Erik is still into skateboarding, doing flips and other tricks on the trampoline, and pretending like he is paying attention during his Zoom classes for school (all of his classes have been via Zoom this year).  But whatever he’s doing, it’s working.  He is doing well at school this year.  He is also really into working out … he goes to the gym nearly every day, but he knows his stuff and avoids working out the same muscle groups on consecutive days.  In short, Erik will soon be taller than me, stronger than me, and he’ll be able to kick my butt.  I’ve penciled in a New Year’s resolution to be extra nice to him moving forward.  Luckily, that will be easy to do as he is a great kid.   

 

One of the positives of being stuck at home most of the time this year is that it gave me some additional free time to keep myself fit, get back into birding (from my backyard), and I’ve finally made some progress on guitar … I’m slowly pushing past the level I’ve been stuck at for the past 20 years. 

 

That’s all the news I have for this year!

 

Wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and all the best in the New Year.

 

Happy Trails!
Mark

 

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a freelance writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to 100 countries (so far) and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

   

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Happy COVID Christmas Letter Happy COVID Holidays Happy Holiday Greetings from New Mexico Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com Rohan the Irish Wolfhound https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2020/12/happy-holiday-greetings-from-new-mexico Fri, 25 Dec 2020 15:00:00 GMT
Rohan the Irish Wolfhound - The Adventure Begins (Picking Up Our New Puppy) https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2020/12/rohan-the-irish-wolfhound---the-adventure-begins-final  

It's hard to believe, but I'm now the owner of an Irish Wolfhound puppy.  The sale and adoption of dogs has spiked along with COVID, so I suppose that makes me a COVID puppy statistic.  In truth, my decision to get a dog pre-dates COVID.  After my last Irish Wolfhound (Séamus) passed away a few years ago, I told my son that I wouldn't consider getting another large dog until I had a job that enabled me to work full-time from home.  Now that I've been working full-time from home for nearly 18 months, and I'm not exactly doing much in the way of travel these days, I was out of excuses.  My son and I agreed that the timing was right to take the plunge.   

 

After reaching out to several breeders in early November, I purchased a dog from a breeder in Missouri.  I liked the look of the dog from the photos, liked what I heard from the breeder during our telephone conversation regarding the dog's health, temperament, and parents.  The breeder said the dog looks "moosy" and will likely be very large.  Fortunately, I have plenty of indoor and outdoor space and I'm comfortable with the idea of having an animal the size of a pony running around the house. 

 

Since I had family staying at my house for Thanksgiving, the breeder agreed that it would be ok for me to pick up the puppy when he was 15.5 weeks of age (his birthday is 8/18/20) as long as I paid in full in advance.  I agreed, wired the money to the breeder's account and it was a done deal.  I was to pick up the new member of the family on the morning of Saturday, December 5th, 2020.

 

Here is a photo of the dog that we were to pick up, when the puppy was 13 weeks old. 

Our puppy at 13 weeks of age - the earliest photo I have

 

 

The Road Trip to Missouri - Day 1 (December 3rd, 2020)

As soon as my son finished school on Thursday, December 3rd, we had a quick dinner, packed up the car, and hit the road from my home in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Our destination for the night was a hotel in Shamrock, Texas.  Why Shamrock?  My original plan was to spend our first night in Amarillo, TX, but I read that the COVID was spiking in Amarillo.  As a result, I thought it was worth the extra 90 minute drive to get to the Holiday Inn Express in the small town of Shamrock, which has a population just under 2,000 people.  We had a 5 hour drive ahead of us.  Whenever my son and I go on road trips, we behave badly when it comes to food, and this was no exception.  Our first rest stop was a Dairy Queen in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.  The drive went by relatively quickly, and we spent about two of the hours listening to an audiobook about Irish Wolfhounds to prepare us for what lies ahead.  We made it to our hotel a little past 11:00pm, checked into our room, and finally went to sleep around midnight.

 

 

The Road Trip to Missouri - Day 2 (December 3rd, 2020)

The next morning we got up around 8:30am, got cleaned up and by the time we made it downstairs, we had just missed the 9:30am window for the complementary breakfast.  We decided to hit the road and see what we can find.  A short time later, we crossed the border into Oklahoma.  My son noticed a sign for a BBQ restaurant in Elk City, Oklahoma (he is a big fan of ribs... me, not so much). But I agreed, why not.  So we soon found ourselves at Billy Sims BBQ in Elk City.  The first thing that we noticed in climbing out of our car is that masks seemed to be optional.  This was quite a change from the vibe in New Mexico, where masks are mandatory these days.  We wore our masks into the restaurant, just in case, but it turned out that we were the only people in the restaurant since it was still early for lunch.  The woman at the front counter was super friendly... which seemed to be a trend in Oklahoma.  Everyone we met in Oklahoma seemed very friendly based on our limited experiences.  My son was impressed and thought that it was a big difference from New Mexico.  For me, I think people in New Mexico are very friendly compared to a lot of other places, but I had to agree that our experiences in Oklahoma were impressive. 

 

We ate the food in our car.  My son ordered a full slab of ribs... a bit overambitious, but he managed to eat about 2/3 of it.  I had some brisket, sausage, and beans... a far cry from my normal breakfast of oatmeal with blueberries and a large vegetable smoothie.  The food turned out to be good, but not great.  Overall, we gave it a 6 out of 10.

 

An hour or two later, we decided to give Braum's Ice Cream a try... it appeared to be a very popular chain.  It was a hit.  My son really liked it - he said it is now his favorite ice cream, and the prices were very cheap.  It's safe to safe that this will not be our last Braum's stop on this trip.

 

Braum's ice Cream in Oklahoma was a hit
 

 

After a few more hours on the road, we arrived at our next destination - the Holiday Inn in Joplin, Missouri.  The Holiday Inn was quite a bit nicer than where we stayed the previous night, and we were very excited to learn that they had a fitness center... and it was actually open!  We checked into our room, and immediately went downstairs to workout... it was a nice facility and we were the only ones there.  The workout felt great after spending the day in the car.  

A much-needed workout at the hotel gym
 

 

After a good workout and a refreshing shower, we decided to get a takeout pizza from Old Chicago, which was right down the street.  I'm typically a healthy eater but, like I said earlier, it's anything goes during our road trips.  For some reason I thought Old Chicago was deep dish, which Erik had never tried before, but it ended up being like a "regular pizza".  Another 6 out of 10 meal in our book.

 

We watched the end of the movie Groundhog Day (a classic!) and then the Han Solo movie came up next.  Darn.  So much for an early bedtime.  We both enjoy Star Wars movies, so we stayed up until 11pm, despite an early wake up tomorrow, and realizing that this would likely be my last night of uninterrupted sleep for a very long time.  

 

The Big Day - December 5th, 2020

I told the breeder that we would arrive around 7:30am so we had an early morning.  I stumbled out of bed around 5:45am to get a shower.  We packed, went to the Waffle House down the street to get two waffles to go, and we were back on the road.  Our destination was the small town of Granby, Missouri (population is just over 2,000 people).  We found the breeder's farm relatively easily, thanks to Waze. 

 

This was the big moment.  It was time to meet our dog.

 

We were immediately greeted by four large Irish Wolfhounds.  One of the dogs was particularly huge.  That turned out to be the father of our dog.  The breeder called him "Fire" (he has bright orange eyes, but you can't tell from the photo) and the breeder said that he weighs about 220 - 230lbs.  I was surprised at the size - definitely that biggest Irish Wolfhound that I have ever met.  I thought my last Irish Wolfhound was large, and he weighed about 150lbs.  Here is a photo of the parents (below).  The picture doesn't do justice to the size of Fire.  The mother was smaller, but still substantial.  They were both a bit scruffy after playing outside in the mud.

Meeting the parents

 

 

We had fun talking with the breeder and meeting the adult dogs.  Then it was the moment of truth.  We saw our dog tied on a leash about 100 feet away, and we walked down to say hello.  He was a bit skittish, but that is understandable given the circumstances.  We said hello and hooked him up to our leash, but he had no interest in moving.  In the end, I had to pick him up and carry him to the car.  I put him down for a minute next to the car so that I could open the back, and he immediately took a big dump ... really big.  Needless to say, I was very grateful for that!  I picked him up again and put him in the large crate that I had set up in the back of my car.

 

Did you say 11-hour drive!?  First time in a car.

 

 

We signed some paperwork, shook hands, and we were off!  About 30 minutes down the road, we found a good spot to pull over to let our new dog out to give him a short walk and some water and to start to process of bonding.  He was definitely skittish and was not a fan of me picking him up to get him in and out of the car.  We ended up stopping frequently - every 1-2 hours (at least) to let the dog out.  And I'll confess that there were two more Braum's stops along the way home.  All in all, he was a great traveler, with no accidents in the car!  

 

 

The moments we cherished during our long drive home
 

 

Talking Rohan for a sunset walk somewhere in Texas
 


 

During our drive home, we settled on the name Rohan as it is a Celtic name meaning "little red one" (he has some red color in him) and "keeper of wolves."  Of course it is also a Lord of the Rings movie reference ("land of the horse lords") and Lord of the Rings happens to be one of my favorite movies.  So it was official.  Our dog's name is Rohan, but we pronounce it "Rowan" since it rolls off the tongue a bit easier that way. 

 

The first week at home was a busy one, but I'll save that for my next post.  Let's just say that Rohan has been my shadow ever since.  Here are three photos of Rohan on his first full day at his new home.

Screenshot

Exploring the upper deck for the first time
 

 

Rohan generally stayed about this close to me for the first few days

 

 


First night on his new bed
 

 

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) First week with an Irish Wolfhound Puppy Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com picking up a new Irish Wolfhound puppy Rohan the Irish Wolfhound https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2020/12/rohan-the-irish-wolfhound---the-adventure-begins-final Mon, 14 Dec 2020 15:00:00 GMT
Thank you to Perceptive Travel Online Magazine! https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2019/12/thank-you-to-perceptive-travel-online-magazine I am writing this post as a thank you to Perceptive Travel online magazine for featuring my article "Adventures in Kenya: Visiting the Hot Zone of Kitum Cave" in this month's edition (December 2019) of "Perceptive Travel: The best travel stories from authors on the move".

 

Here is a link to the Perceptive Travel article: https://www.perceptivetravel.com/issues/1219/kenya.html and here is the article that was published:

 

Adventures in Kenya: Visiting the Hot Zone of Kitum Cave
Story and photos by Mark Aspelin


 

Near the Kenya-Uganda border lies the infamous Kitum Cave, home to bats, elephants, and perhaps a devastating virus.

 

Kenya travel story

"Gene felt a prickling sensation on his scalp. The paths of Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal had crossed at only one place on earth, and that was inside Kitum Cave. What had they done in the cave? What had they found in there? What had they touched? What had they breathed? What lived in Kitum Cave?" - Excerpt from the book The Hot Zone; The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus by Richard Preston

 

While I working as a conservation biologist in the western highlands of Kenya in the late '90s, one of the local members of the community suggested that I visit Kitum Cave, an interesting place where animals such as elephants "mine" salt from the walls of the cave by using their tusks to break off pieces of the cave and eat it. I'd never heard of the place, and it sounded pretty cool, so I said, "Sounds great—let's go!"

 

The next day, three of us drove towards the border of Uganda and entered Mount Elgon National Park, home of Kitum cave. One member of our group was a community leader responsible for managing a variety of crane and wetland conservation efforts in the community around Saiwa Swamp National Park.

 

Kenya park guards

The second was a local priest I had never met before. He had two PhDs, one in religion and one in ancient languages such as Sumerian and Aramaic. He also led efforts to bring clothes and other donated goods directly from Europe so that he could distribute them to people in need. This approach helped avoid the middleman, which often came in the form of corrupt government officials who required bribes or outright stole the donated items to sell. It was not uncommon to see donated good being sold on the streets for a profit rather than distributed to the intended communities in need.

 

The third member of the group was me, the clueless guy that didn't know what he was doing.

 

Upon entering Mount Elgon National Park, we were informed that we were not allowed to travel alone in the Park because of concerns about our safety due to wildlife. Instead, we were assigned not one, but two armed guards to pile into our small vehicle and escort us to the cave.

 

After a short, cramped drive, we parked at the Kitum Cave trailhead and were ready to begin our hike.

 

It was a relatively short walk with some nice scenery...and an occasional pile of elephant dung to add to the ambiance.

 

And as we rounded a corner, we finally spotted Kitum Cave.

 

 

First Tour Stop, a Deadly Virus Zone

Elgon National Park

Little did I know at the time that Kitum Cave was infamous for reasons that would have prevented me from ever considering this trip. I learned later that it was believed to be a possible source of the Marburg Virus, a virus similar to Ebola. I consider that to be an important little nugget of information to have prior to considering a day trip to explore a cave!

 

Apparently, two people had been killed by Marburg virus and the one thing that they both had in common was a visit to Kitum Cave. In 1980, a 56-year old Frenchman named Charles Monet explored the cave. Seven days later, the virus took its gruesome toll on him as the poor man bled out of all his orifices and died soon after entering a hospital in Nairobi.

 

Seven years later, a young Danish boy (named Peter Cardinal in Richard Preston's book, The Hot Zone) contracted Marburg after visiting Kitum Cave. He was eventually taken to Nairobi Hospital (the same hospital as Charles Monet) where the child died.

 

After the two deaths, a joint U.S. and Kenyan research investigation was formed in attempt to find Marburg Virus in Kitum Cave. The cave was closed to the public while researchers donned the highest level of protective gear as they scoured the cave walls, sampled bat and elephant poop, and captured a variety of bats, birds, and insects. According to locals that I later spoke with, they also kept cages with monkeys in the back of the cave to see if they would contract the virus. Despite these efforts, the team was not successful in locating the virus. So, a few years before my visit, the cave was opened back up to the public.

 

Instead of wearing a Biosafety Level 4 protective body suit and respirator, I entered the cave looking like this:

author w flashlight

 

Hey, at least I had a flashlight.

 

The cave is about 700 feet deep into the side of Mount Elgon, and we proceeded to go deep enough into the cave, deep enough to require the use of our flashlights.

 

After about 30 minutes of exploring the cave, we climbed back in the car and ascended the road to an overlook on Mount Elgon where we could enjoy a nice view of Uganda.

 

 

The Hot Zone Connection

After our enjoyable day trip, I was dropped back off at my tent at Sirikwa Safaris. That is where things got a bit more interesting. The owner of Sirikwa Safaris, Jane Barnley, asked how the trip was and told me about a relatively new book published two years prior that I might be interested in since it mentions Kitum Cave. "Sounds interesting, what book is that?"

Kenya Kitum Cave

That's when Jane pulled a copy of The Hot Zone from her bookshelf, handed it to me, and proceeded to give me a quick overview of the key points—featuring gruesome deaths and the belief that Kitum cave was a possible source of the Ebola or Marburg virus.

 

"What?!" I was stunned. She then went on to explain that Peter Cardinal (the boy from the book) had started feeling sick on the very couch that we were standing next to before he was evacuated by helicopter.

 

I was a bit surprised to hear this news, putting it mildly, and was thinking to myself, "Why didn't anyone tell me this before the trip?" I retired to my tent and used a headlamp to stay up most of the night while I devoured the pages of the book.

 

Then things started to get even more interesting.

 

 

The Illness Begins

A few days later, I started feeling ill. Something was off. I was experiencing weird symptoms that included muscle spasms in my chest, near my heart, so that it looked like my skin was bubbling, but it was not in synch with my heartbeat. I was getting concerned, and my recent reading of The Hot Zone didn't put my mind at ease.

 

I decided to visit a local doctor who was originally from India but trained in England. He ran the most efficient urgent care clinic I have ever been to in my life. The staff included one person at the front desk and him. That's it. I walked in and explained my symptoms to the woman at the front desk while she jotted down some notes on a small piece of paper. The doctor entered the room, she handed him the slip of paper, and we stepped back into another room. The doctor asked more questions, drew some of my blood, put it on a slide, and looked at it under a microscope that he had in the back of the room.

 

He spun his chair around and told me that everything looked okay from the perspective of the normal cast of characters such as malaria and cholera. It was probably just a virus that I picked up from the local food or water. I paid cash at the front desk and that was it. A process that would have taken months in the U.S. for the doctor visit, lab work, lab results, claims submission, claims adjudication, and final payment had all been completed in about thirty minutes and cost me about $20.

 

Kenya-Uganda border

Over the following week, my symptoms worsened though, and I ended up going to Nairobi National Hospital, the same place where Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal had been taken (and died). After more tests, the doctor couldn't figure out the cause, but he gave me a prescription that would help clear my body of any parasites to see if that would help. It didn't.

 

I eventually caught a flight to see a tropical medicine specialist in Cape Town, South Africa. By that time, the window for Marburg destruction had passed, so thankfully I could at least cross that option off the list. The doctor narrowed it down to a family of viruses that can cause muscle spasms of the intercostal muscles, among other symptoms. He said it wasn't worth spending more time and money to attempt to figure out which type of virus I had because there was nothing that could be done about it regardless.

 

In the end, I decided to return to the U.S. and recuperate at my parents' house in Colorado Springs. After about six months of clean living, while I worked temp jobs to pay the bills, I finally felt back to normal again.

 

Thankfully, I'm happy to report that I only have one thing in common with Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal: each of us visited Kitum Cave.

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer, author of two books (Profitable Conservation and How to Fail at Life: Lessons for the Next Generation) and the blog New Mexico and Beyond. He has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States. Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

 

 

 

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Adventures in Kenya: Visiting the Hot Zone of Kitum Cave Kitum Cave Perceptive Travel Perceptive Travel: The best travel stories from authors on the move Thank you Perceptive Travel https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2019/12/thank-you-to-perceptive-travel-online-magazine Mon, 02 Dec 2019 15:00:00 GMT
What is the best short hike in Albuquerque? Tree Spring Trail https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2019/6/what-is-the-best-short-hike-in-albuquerque-tree-spring-trail As an avid hiker who has lived in the Albuquerque metro area for the past 15+ years, visitors frequently ask me the question, "what is the best hike in Albuquerque?"  My answer: If you're looking for a longer, strenuous hike, then La Luz is the best trail in Albuquerque; if you're looking for a shorter hike with nice views, then my personal favorite is Tree Spring Trail. 

 

The "La Luz" answer doesn't come as a surprise to most people.  It's a classic, well known 7.5 mile trail (one-way), that climbs 3,200 feet from the trailhead to the upper terminal of the Sandia Peak Tram.  You can learn more about La Luz at the following link: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/cibola/recreation/hiking/recarea/?recid=64582&actid=50.  

 

There's even an annual La Luz Trail Run.  I've done the race several times and I highly recommend it if you don't mind some pain and suffering as you climb more than 4,000 feet over a nine mile course to the top of Sandia Peak.  It's longer than the normal hike as the race starts lower down on a road to help spread people out before they hit the actual trail.  If racing to the top of Sandia Peak sounds appealing to you, you're not alone.  The race sells out every year and you'll need to enter a lottery to get one of the coveted 400 slots that are permitted by the U.S. Forest Service. 

 

But let's get back to the topic of this post: Tree Spring Trail.  Tree Spring Trail is located in the "East Mountains of Albuquerque."  In other words, if you're in the city of Albuquerque, then you'll need to take I-40 East and drive to the other side of Sandia Peak.  It's about a 30-minute drive to the Tree Spring trailhead from downtown Albuquerque, but it's well worth it.     

 

Here are directions to the Tree Spring Trailhead:

  • Take I-40 East from Albuquerque and get off on Exit 175 toward Cedar Crest / N-14.
  • Take NM-14 North for about 6.5 miles to NM 536 (aka the Sandia Crest Scenic Byway).  You'll also see a Shell gas station on your right as you approach NM 536, as well as the Lazy Lizard Grill ... a good place to stop after your hike for pizza, beer, and other food (and Live Music if you time it right) to help ensure that you'll end up gaining weight despite going on a hike. 
  • I should also note that if you need to use your phone for any reason, do it here.  Phone service is very spotty once you get to the trailhead.
  • Take a left on NM 536 and follow it for 5.5 miles until you see the Tree Spring parking lot on your left side. 

 

Your view as you approach the parking area will look something like this:

You'll either need to pay $3 per vehicle or $10 for a high capacity vehicle (15 or more passengers).  Bring exact change as you'll be putting the money in an envelope and dropping it in a narrow slot.  Too many coins will make the envelope too thick to fit in the slot, so try to remember to bring some dollar bills.  It's a self-service pay station so there's nobody there to give you change or charge your credit card.


 

 

For the detail-oriented readers out there, you may notice that the trailhead sign calls the trail "Tree Springs Trail", while the USDA Forest Service website calls it "Tree Spring Trail".  Feel free to use whatever option sounds better to you.  I usually hear it referred to as Tree Spring Trail, without the "s".  
 

 

You can also use an annual pass if you happen to have one of the following approved passes:


 

...and you'll also find some picnic tables and a toilet near the parking area.



 

Now it's time to hit the trail.

 

As you can see from the signs below, Tree Spring is a multi-use trail and dogs are welcome if they're on a leash. Keep in mind that your dog will likely encounter quite a few other dogs during your hike so be prepared.  In addition to dogs, I've seen quite a few mountain bikers, two crazy unicyclists, horses, and several alpacas in the 25+ times that I've hiked Tree Spring.  In the winter, you may find some people snowshoeing. Yes, snow is common in the colder months since the trailhead is at 8,470 feet and the top of the trail is at 9,440 feet.  This side of Sandia Peak has much more shade and it's about 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than the west side of the mountain, which feels nice in the summer.  

 


 


 

The shade and moisture means that you'll also find different flora and fauna on the east side of the mountain, such as ponderosa pine (pictured below).


 

The trail is well-marked and easy to follow in the summer, as you can see below.

 

However, if you're hiking in the winter or spring, you may find quite a few downed trees that are blocking the trail.  You should be able to walk around or over the tree and pick up the trail again without much of a problem. Here is an example of a downed tree (a relatively small one) that is blocking the trail.

 


If you're hiking in the winter, snow may be completely covering the trail and you can quickly get off the trail without realizing it.  To help keep you on track, many of the trees are tagged with a blue spot, but it can still get confusing at times, particularly after a fresh snowfall that covers up previous tracks.

 

As you climb up the trail, you'll be rewarded with nice views to the east, such as the picture below.

 

You'll also come across two signs indicating trails that run perpendicular to Tree Spring.  In both cases, just keep going straight.  The first sign that you'll see is for the Oso Corridor Trail (pictured below).  You'll keep going straight over the rocky section of the trail in the photo below.

 

The second sign that you'll see is towards the very top of the trail - for 10K Trail.  Just keep going straight through the opening between the two fence posts ... otherwise you'll miss the best part!


 

The trail is narrower now and it can be muddy due to melting snow.


 

Finally, just 2.0 miles from the trailhead, you'll suddenly find yourself on top of a saddle of Sandia Peak, with fantastic views of Albuquerque to the west.  It's often very windy at the overlook, so you'll literally want to hold on to your hat!  

 

Here are the views from the top - a great place to snap some family photos such as the one below from a recent "Father's Day hike" with my father, brother, son, niece, and nephew (a crew ranging from 14 - 77 years old).  

 

 

After you've had a chance to enjoy the view, then you'll simply descend 2.0 miles back down the same way you came up.  It usually takes people around 45 - 90 minutes to climb up and 30 - 60 minutes to descend, depending on your fitness level and how many breaks you take.  So you can expect to finish the hike in 1.5 - 2.5 hours round trip, including some time to enjoy the views at the top.  If you're really going for it, you can do the hike much faster.  My fastest time (back in my trail running days) was 31:42 up and 20:34 down for a total round trip of 52:16, and many people can do it much faster than that.  But I recommend taking your time to enjoy the trail - it's a great hike ... my favorite short hike in Albuquerque!

 

Thanks for reading and happy trails!
 

Mark

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Albuquerque hikes best hike in Albuquerque Best hiking trails in Albuquerque best short hike in Albuquerque La Luz Trail La Luz Trail Run Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com Tree Spring Trail Tree Springs Trail https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2019/6/what-is-the-best-short-hike-in-albuquerque-tree-spring-trail Mon, 24 Jun 2019 14:00:00 GMT
Adventures in Kenya (Part 6 of 6): Racism, Africa Style https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2019/6/adventures-in-kenya-part-6-of-6-racism-africa-style unity, love, and anti-racismunity, love, and anti-racismmultiracial group with black african American Caucasian and Asian hands holding each other wrist in tolerance unity love and anti racism concept isolated on grunge background

“Racism is still with us. But it is up to us to prepare our children for what they have to meet, and, hopefully, we shall overcome.”
-- Rosa Parks



One thing that continued to surprise me during my time in Africa was how these wonderful people could be so brutally racist towards each other.  There was certainly an element of racism from whites towards blacks, and blacks towards whites, but the most hostile displays of racism that I perceived were blacks towards blacks.  It was all about tribe.


Tribal racism can take a relatively benign but annoying form, such as the time I saw a man casually walk to the front of a long line at the bank because, I was later told, he was from a particular tribe and therefore felt entitled to do so.  Then we have the horrible extreme of racism in the form of tribal genocide, like the infamous slaughter in Rwanda that was due to a tribal conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis.


One of the first questions that I was frequently asked in rural Kenya was, “What tribe are you in?” Apparently, the answer to this question would determine how that person intended to respond and interact with me. I would answer, “I’m from America,” and that usually put an end to it, although some would persist.  Surely, I must be in one of the tribes. Which one?


In Africa, tribes cross artificial boundaries, which were established during the time of colonial rule.  Many of the country borders were drawn on the basis of a geographic feature, such as a river, rather than tribal boundaries.  Many of the people whom I met considered tribe to be more important than country.  This was particularly true of nomadic tribe members, who wander across large areas of land without much thought or concern about country borders.  They simply go where they need to go to trade goods and find food and water for themselves and their livestock.


In the big cities like Nairobi, people are much more likely to identify with their country in addition to their tribe.  City dwellers whom I met were simultaneously proud to be Kenyan, proud of their home town, and proud of their tribe.  But, in the boonies, national identity takes a backseat to tribe.  In my day-to-day interactions, people were much more interested in knowing if I were Kikuyu, Kisii, Massai, Turkana, Luo, Samburu, or one of the other 42 tribes in Kenya.  In my situation, the answer probably didn’t matter much.  But, for others, it could be a very big deal.


During times of conflict, if you’re in the wrong tribe at the wrong place and the wrong time, you may be brutally killed.  Elections in Africa can be a very dangerous time as they create an opportunity for simmering tribal conflicts to explode.  It’s assumed that the elected leader’s hometown will prosper from a disproportionate share of money and resources for schools, airports, hospitals, and so on. Throughout most of Africa, political corruption and tribal racism are alive and well.

 

Decrease prejudice by increasing discrimination


To make sense of our world, we may tend to place people and things into categories, and then assign a series of traits, behaviors, and expectations to everyone or everything in that category. When we hear words like “old,” “young,” “religious,” “cancer,” “Russian,” “Japanese,” “American,” “handicapped,” and “vegan,” we may consciously (or unconsciously) associate characteristics with those labels and hold them in our mind until proven otherwise.  While this may help simplify our world, this categorization can also limit or skew our thinking and cause us to make inaccurate assumptions.


One strategy to overcome this limited thinking is to adopt the perspective that categories create a false perception of separateness, and that perception of separateness is an illusion. I’ve heard it said that, when we transcend the mind, diversity fades into unity.  We are all connected.  But, for those of us who have not yet transcended our mind to bask in the ethereal glow of unity each day, there’s another, simpler approach to consider.


An interesting alternative is to strive for more discrimination in the world.  I first heard this concept from social psychologist and Harvard University professor, Ellen Langer.  Ellen’s research suggests that the labels we attach to specific categories can dramatically influence our perceptions and actions.


Ellen cites an experiment where an ordinary man, seated in an armchair, faced another man seated in an armchair, and they talked about work.  Ellen videotaped the discussion, and then showed the videotape to two groups of psychotherapists.  For half of the psychotherapists, the man being interviewed was called a “job applicant”; for the second group, the man was referred to as a “patient.”  Each group of psychotherapists considered the job applicant to be well adjusted; when he was labeled a patient, many of the psychotherapists considered the man to have some serious psychological problems.  Same man.  Same videotape.  Very different outcome.


We all carry preconceived notions that bias our perceptions of other people based on appearance, race, sex, and so forth.  It is helpful to be aware that the labels we use impact how we perceive the world.  

 

Despite the platitudes that we sometimes hear, none of us is truly “colorblind.”  If we are looking for a terrific soul food restaurant, our gut instinct is to ask someone of African American descent rather than someone who is from Japan; if we're looking for sushi, then the reverse will probably be true.  Now that’s not very colorblind, is it?  The world is a colorful, amazing place, so let’s not pretend to be blind to it all.  However, it is useful to shed many of the biases and stereotypes that we may carry.


One of the best ways to overcome our inherent biases is to increase our discrimination.  Ellen Langer uses the following exercise to illustrate the point.  Ellen takes a group of 20 kids and divides them based on different characteristics: Males stand on one side, females stand on the other side; dark hair stands over here, light hair stands over there.  Ellen continues to split up the group based on the color of clothing and other characteristics.  This continues until every child is standing alone.  Then the children suddenly understand the lesson that everyone is unique.  When we mindlessly categorize people, we may fail to look for and recognize the individual talents and behaviors that each possesses.


Another tactic Ellen suggests is to imagine that our thoughts are totally transparent.  This tends to cleanse our mind of the not-so-nice things that we sometimes think about other people, and it can help us become more compassionate and empathetic towards others.


When we move past the categories that we've created in our mind, we may tend to like people better, develop better relationships, and appreciate why people behave the way they do.  We may make a greater effort to understand other perspectives and become more open to different ways of thinking.  Each of us behaves a certain way, at a certain time, and for a certain reason that makes sense to us at the time.  When we look at people as individuals who are going through different life events that are specific to each of them—instead of seeing a larger, stereotypical group—we may feel more connected, compassionate, and empathetic towards others.

 

Perhaps the next time I go to Africa and am asked the question, “What tribe are you in?” I will answer, “Mark Aspelin,” and see what kind of reaction I get.



 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).
 

   

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Adventures in rural Kenya Africa Style Ellen Langer Kenya Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com Racism Racism in Africa https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2019/6/adventures-in-kenya-part-6-of-6-racism-africa-style Mon, 10 Jun 2019 14:00:00 GMT
Adventures in Kenya (Part 5 of 6): Visiting the Hot Zone of Kitum Cave https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2019/6/adventures-in-kenya-part-6-of-6-visiting-the-hot-zone-of-kitum-cave "Gene felt a prickling sensation on his scalp. The paths of Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal had crossed at only one place on earth, and that was inside Kitum Cave. What had they done in the cave? What had they found in there? What had they touched? What had they breathed? What lived in Kitum Cave?"

-- Excerpt from the book "The Hot Zone; The Terrifying True Story of the Origins of the Ebola Virus" by Richard Preston

 

While working in the western highlands of Kenya in 1996, one of the local members of the community suggested that I visit Kitum Cave, an interesting place where animals such as elephants "mine" salt from the walls of the cave by using their tusks to break off pieces of the cave and eat it.  I'd never heard of the place, and it sounded pretty cool, so I said, "Sounds great - let's go!".  

 

The next day, three of us drove towards the border of Uganda and entered Mount Elgon National Park, home of Kitum cave.  One member of our group was a community leader responsible for managing a variety of crane and wetland conservation efforts in the community around Saiwa Swamp National Park.  The second was a local priest who I had never met before then.  He had two PhDs, one in religion and one in ancient languages such as Sumerian and Aramaic.  He also led efforts to bring clothes and other donated goods directly from Europe so that he could distribute them to people in need.  This approach helped avoid the middleman, which often came in the form of corrupt government officials who required bribes or just outright stole the donated items to sell.  It was not uncommon to see donated good being sold on the streets for a profit rather than distributed to the intended communities in need. The third member of the group was me, the clueless guy that didn't know what he was doing.  

 

Upon entering Mount Elgon National Park, we were informed that we were not allowed to travel alone in the Park due to concerns about our safety due to wildlife.  Instead, we were assigned not one, but two armed guards to pile into our small vehicle and escort us to the cave.  

 

We made our way to the Kitum Cave trailhead to begin our hike.

 

It was a relatively short walk with some nice scenery ... and we occasionally came across large piles of elephant dung to add to the ambiance.

 

 

 

And as we rounded a corner, we finally spotted Kitum Cave. 

 

 

Little did I know that Kitum Cave was infamous for reasons that would have prevented me from ever considering this trip.  It was believed to be a possible source of the Marburg Virus, which is a virus similar to Ebola.  Now, I don't know about you, but I consider that to be an important little nugget of information to have prior to considering a day trip to explore a cave!

 

Apparently, two people had been killed by Marburg virus (similar to Ebola) in recent years and the one thing that they both had in common was a visit to Kitum Cave.  In 1980, a 56-year old Frenchman named Charles Monet explored the cave.  Seven days later, the virus took its gruesome toll on him as the poor man bled out of all of his orifices and died soon after entering a hospital in Nairobi.  Seven years later, a young Danish boy (named Peter Cardinal in Richard Preston's book, The Hot Zone) contracted Marburg after visiting Kitum Cave.  He was eventually taken to Nairobi Hospital (same hospital as Charles Monet) where the child died.  

 

After the two deaths, a joint U.S. and Kenyan research investigation was formed (in 1988) in attempt to find the Marburg Virus in Kitum Cave.  The cave was closed to the public while researchers donned the highest level of protective gear as they scoured the cave walls, sampled bat and elephant poop, and captured a variety of bats, birds, and insects.  They also kept cages with monkeys in the back of the cave to see if they would contract the virus (according to locals I later spoke with).  However, there was no sign of the virus.  So, a few years before my visit, the cave was opened back up to the public.

 

Instead of wearing a Biosafety Level 4 protective body suit and respirator, I entered the cave looking like this:

As you can see, at least I had a flashlight.

 

The cave is about 700 feet deep into the side of Mount Elgon, and rest assured that we went deep enough into the cave that we needed to use our flashlights.  Here are some photos of us exploring the cave:

 

After about 30 minutes of exploring the cave, we got in the car and climbed up a bit to get a nice view of Uganda from Mount Elgon:


 

We had an enjoyable day and I was dropped back off at my tent at Sirikwa Safaris.  That is where things got a bit more interesting.  The owner of Sirikwa Safaris, Jane Barnley, asked how the trip was and told me about a relatively new book (published in 1994) that I might be interested in since it mentions Kitum Cave.  "Sounds interesting, what book is that?".  That's when Jane pulled a copy of The Hot Zone off of her bookshelf, handed me the book, and gave me a quick overview of some of the key points.  "What!!!"  I was stunned.  She then went on to explain that Peter Cardinal (the boy from the book) had actually started feeling sick on the very couch that we were standing next to before he was evacuated by helicopter. 

 

I was a bit "surprised" to hear this news, putting it mildly.  I was thinking to myself, "Why didn't anyone tell me this before!"  I retired to me tent and used a headlamp to stay up most of the night while I devoured the pages of the book.  

 

But it gets worse.  

 

A few days later, I started feeling ill.  Something was off.  I had some weird symptoms where I would get muscle spasms in my chest near where my heart is, so that it looked like my skin was bubbling, but it didn't correspond to my heart beat.  I was getting concerned, and my recent reading of The Hot Zone didn't exactly put my mind at ease.    

 

I decided to visit a local doctor who was originally from India but trained in England.  He ran the most efficient urgent care clinic I have ever been to in my life.  The staff included one person at the front desk and him.  That's it.  I walked in and explained my symptoms to the woman at the front desk while she jotted down some notes on a small piece of paper.  The doctor came in, she handed him the slip of paper, and we stepped back into another room.  The doctor asked more questions, drew some of my blood, put it on a slide and he looked at it under a microscope that he had in the back of the room.  Everything looked ok from the perspective of the normal cast of characters such as malaria and cholera.  Probably just a virus that I picked up from the local food or water.  I paid cash at the front desk and that was it.  A process that would have taken months in the U.S. for the doctor visit, lab work, lab results, claims submission, claims adjudication, and final payment had all been completed in about thirty minutes and cost me about $20.

 

Over the following week, my symptoms worsened, and I ended up going to Nairobi National Hospital, the same place where Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal had been taken (and died).  After more tests, the doctor couldn't figure out the cause, but he gave me a prescription that would help clear my body of any parasites to see if that would help.  It didn't.  I eventually caught a flight to see a tropical medicine specialist in Cape Town, South Africa.  By that time, the window for Marburg destruction had passed, so thankfully I could at least cross that option of the list.  The doctor narrowed it down to a family of viruses that can cause muscle spasms of the intercostal muscles as one of the symptoms.  He said it wasn't worth spending more time and money to try to figure out which type of virus I had because there was nothing that could be done about it regardless.

 

In the end, I decided to return to the U.S. and recuperate at my parents's house in Colorado Springs.  After about 6 months of clean living, while I worked temp jobs to pay the bills, I finally felt back to normal again. 

 

Thankfully, I only have one thing in common with Charles Monet and Peter Cardinal ... each of us visited Kitum Cave.   



 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Adventures in rural Kenya Ebola Kenya Kitum Cave Marburg Marburg Virus Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com Mount Elgon The Hot Zone Visiting Kitum Cave https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2019/6/adventures-in-kenya-part-6-of-6-visiting-the-hot-zone-of-kitum-cave Mon, 03 Jun 2019 14:00:00 GMT
Adventures in Kenya (Part 4 of 6): The Mzungu Has Arrived https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2019/5/adventures-in-kenya-part-4-of-6-the-mzungu-has-arrived

Mark standing next to a termite mound near Turkwel Gorge Dam, Kenya, March 3, 1996

 

 

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”
-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

When I first arrived in Kenya at the age of 27, three objectives were given to me by George Archibald of the International Crane Foundation: (1) Meet with two local conservation groups in the region around Saiwa Swamp National Park to see if their conservation work — and the location — were suitable for hosting a regional crane and wetland conservation workshop; (2) look for opportunities to promote and support crane and wetland conservation efforts in the local communities; and (3) deliver $1,000 cash to the leader of a local wetland conservation group who won a conservation grant from a U.S.-based organization.


Other than my directive from George, and 10 $100 bills folded up in a hidden pocket inside my belt, I had the names of two conservation group leaders, two pages of notes that I wrote during a phone conversation with a German scientist who had worked in the area, and a reservation to stay in a tent for a few months at Sirikwa Safaris, also known as Barnley’s Guest House. Where I was going, addresses were not helpful. My only hope was to make my way to the village, and then ask around until I found the people I hoped to meet. I packed field clothes, a water filter, a sleeping bag, hiking boots, mosquito netting, a guitar, the Lonely Planet Kenya (Travel Guide), and a copy of Blaine Harden’s Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent.


I also carried a lot of stereotypes and preconceived notions about Africa and Africans. Like so many Peace Corps volunteers and other aid workers before me, I arrived with the best intentions, but I was clueless. I had no idea what to expect or what the locals expected of me. During the long journey from Chicago–Miami–Johannesburg–Nairobi, I read most of Blaine’s book, which provided a glimmer of insight about what to expect in Africa. Thanks in part to Blaine, I didn’t arrive with the attitude of a great savior who had come to show the locals the errors of their ways. If anything, my thoughts upon touching down in Kenya were along the lines of, “How in the hell did I end up here?”


As I deplaned in Nairobi, I experienced the typical culture shock of any first-time visitor to Africa. After checking in at my basic hotel, I walked the streets in search of a bus terminal where I could purchase a ticket to Kitale for the next morning. The next day, I had my first taste of African roads. The 238-mile journey took over 12 hours to complete—and that was just to Kitale! Next, I had to track down the correct matatu in a chaotic sea of trucks, cars, and people. There were no signs or anything to put my mind at ease. As I climbed into the covered truck bed of an unmarked pickup truck, I had to rely on blind faith that the matatu directors understood where I was trying to go. My first matatu didn’t disappoint. It was a real eye-opener.


Finally, 14 hours after leaving the bus terminal in Nairobi, I was deposited with my luggage at the end of the long driveway that enters the little oasis of Sirikwa Safaris. It was a relief—not only because I had arrived at my destination but because I had not taken the opportunity to pee since I left Nairobi. (I was too afraid to separate from my luggage.) I was feeling ill by the time I climbed off the matatu. As soon as the truck pulled away, I found a bush and gave my bladder a chance to experience the feeling of heavenly bliss.


I gathered my belongings and lumbered down the road until I was greeted by the owner Jane Barnley, along with her three Jack Russell terriers—Pip, Wig, and Dick. After a few minutes of saying hello, I staggered to my tent and was out like a light.


There are many stories I could tell about my mishaps while trying to assess and implement conservation projects in rural Africa. One of the best examples of “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity,” as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, can be found in Blaine Harden’s book.


Blaine describes a well-intentioned Norwegian project to construct a frozen-fish plant on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya to help the local Turkana people survive through the inevitable cycles of drought. The Turkana people primarily herd cattle, goats, sheep, and camels in an extremely hot and desolate semi-desert region. It’s a tough gig, particularly during periods of drought, which are common in the region.


The Norwegian plan was to take advantage of the natural resources within Lake Turkana and build a frozen-fish plant on its shore. The assumption was that a shift towards fishing would help the stressed soil and vegetation regenerate from excessive grazing, and the Turkana people would earn an income from the abundant perch and tilapia resources in the lake. This line of thinking was bolstered by a Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ study that concluded, “No solution of the Turkana problem is possible by which all the people can continue their traditional way of life.” In other words, fish were the solution to the Turkana problem.

 

Since Norway was experienced in commercial fishing, the Kenyan government asked Norway to help the Turkana become fisherman. Norway’s development agency agreed, and volunteers started to arrive in Kenya in the early 1970s.


The Norwegians brought 20 fishing boats and a team of consultants to determine the best way to maximize fish profits. The consultant team concluded that the best option was to spend $2.2 million to build a facility on Lake Turkana, which would produce frozen-fish fillets that the Turkana people could sell in Kenya and abroad. The Norwegians built the facility and helped construct a $20.8 million road that connected the frozen-fish plant with Kenya’s highway system.


The project failed spectacularly for several reasons. First, the cost to chill the fish in the furnace-like heat of the region was higher than the value of the fish fillets. Second, there wasn’t enough clean water in the area to support the operation. And then there’s the minor detail that the Turkana don’t like fishing. For the Turkana, livestock are everything. They have a deep-rooted belief that they are born to tend livestock. The Turkana live off the blood, milk, and meat of cows, goats, camels, and donkeys. They don’t have a taste for fish. From the perspective of the Turkana, to become a fisherman is to become an outcast from the tribe.


Whoops. This kind of thing happens when modern Western thinking clashes with different perceptions held in remote corners of the world. Well-intentioned people from developed nations often carry an assumption that the locals in these remote areas are uneducated and don’t know what’s best for them. From my travels to remote parts of the world, I have learned again and again that “uneducated” does not mean “stupid.”


For the Lake Turkana project, the assumption was that the Turkana people would unwittingly destroy the rangelands they depend upon since they didn’t know any better. In addition, there was the incorrect assumption that, once fishing became a viable option, the locals would be eager to abandon the lowly, nomadic life of shepherding cattle. This perspective was incorrect.


After the failed fish-plant project, experts have come to recognize that livestock shepherds like the Turkana use sophisticated techniques to conserve their land. The nomadic Turkana quickly move to areas with fresh, green grass. As a result, studies found that African herdsmen can extract four times as much protein and six times as much food energy per hectare from dry rangelands compared to modern commercial ranches in places like the arid regions of Australia.


Rangeland practices aside, the most obvious failure was that the well-intentioned aid groups didn’t take enough time to understand and empathize with the people they were trying to help. After the failed project, the aid workers finally asked the Turkana what they knew and what they wanted. It quickly became clear that livestock were the key to survival for the Turkana people. The aid groups accepted that reality, switched gears, and came up with a new strategy to hire a livestock adviser and an arid-land forestry expert, and invest in initiatives to prevent animal disease. This was a much better approach. The hardscrabble life of a nomadic cattle shepherd may sound unappealing to most of us, but that’s the life the Turkana people wanted to pursue.


Having read this case study before I stepped off the plane in Nairobi, this lesson was firmly etched in my mind. I was ready to observe, listen, and learn from the local population before offering any suggestions about the best path forward for crane and wetland conservation in the region.

 

In practice, I was far from perfect in adhering to this philosophy. My experiences with myths about cameras and bleeding didn’t inspire my confidence in the levels of scientific and technical knowledge of the local community. But, when it came to farming and knowledge of the local environment, the local people were the experts and I was the student.


During that time, I made a conscious decision to “lead from the back.” This phrase comes from a quote from Nelson Mandela: “Lead from the back—and let others believe they are in front.” There are times when it makes sense to lead from the front, and there are times when it makes sense to lead from the back. In this case, the others were already so far in front of me that leading from the back sounded like a darn good idea. I wasn’t completely worthless out there, but it sure felt like it at times.


I added value by creating formal project plans and proposals that caught the eye of Western donors, and I had a few helpful conservation ideas as well. But I always did my best to ensure that any proposed solution would come from the mouth of a local Kenyan and not my own. I also did my best to avoid implementing anything that would cut into the meager salary of the local population. Many of the people I met and worked with were subsistence farmers, scraping by on a salary of around $250 ... per year.


Towards the end of my stay in the boonies of Kenya, I had the unusual opportunity to visit a Turkana market that forms each month in the middle of nowhere on a desolate patch of ground in northwest Kenya. Jane Barnley wanted to show me the market since it was like going to a living museum. Pip, Wig, and Dick hopped in the back, and I hopped in the passenger seat for the three-hour journey (each way) to the site of the market, somewhere between Kitale and Lodwar.

Pip, Wig, and Dick are ready for a road trip to somewhere between Kitale and Lodwar.

Pip, Wig, and Dick are ready for a road trip to somewhere between Kitale and Lodwar
 

 

We drove through some of the most spectacularly desolate landscapes that I’ve ever seen. There were very few signs of life other than desert plants and massive termite mounds that towered over my head (see cover photo for this post).  Occasionally a person or two would seemingly pop out of nowhere, such as children tending to their goats (pictured below). Here are a few photos of the region.


Eventually we made our way to the area where Jane believed the market would form, but we started to doubt ourselves given the lack of any signs of life.  We continued down the road and all of a sudden we found ourselves in the middle of hundreds of people who looked as if they had just hopped off the pages of National Geographic magazine. This was the Turkana market. The Turkana people were dressed in traditional clothing and animal skins with lots of colorful beads, bracelets, and ear plugs. They carried spears, knives, bows and arrows, stools, woven baskets, and staves. I desperately wanted to take photos but felt uneasy about it. I wasn’t sure how the Turkana perceived photo-taking. To this day, it’s the #1 moment that I regret not capturing on film. But, given all of the visible weapons that were on display, I’m okay with my decision. Jane and I were the only mzungus in sight, and we received plenty of curious glances; there was no need to attract more attention.


The market formed in an area with no buildings or infrastructure other than the road. Jane explained that the market forms for a day or two, and then vanishes as the nomadic Turkana disappear back into the desert.


It was an amazing sight that I’ll never forget. As I scanned the area, I could see a lot of cattle and goats that the Turkana use for milk, blood, meat, and currency. There were no fishing poles or fish products in sight.

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   


 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Kenya Kitale Lake Turkana Fish Plant Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com Turkana Turkana market Turkwel Gorge Dam https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2019/5/adventures-in-kenya-part-4-of-6-the-mzungu-has-arrived Mon, 27 May 2019 14:00:00 GMT
Adventures in Kenya (Part 3 of 6): "Photos Take Away Your Soul" https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2019/5/adventures-in-kenya-part-3-of-5-mythbusting-in-kenya---photos-take-away-your-soul Photo Day in Kipsaina, Kenya

The bleeding myth that I shared in my previous post was one of many misconceptions that the local population had about white people, Western culture, and technology.  Another myth held in some of the more remote villages (which I only encountered a few times in very small communities such as the photo below) was the idea that, if someone takes a photo of you, it takes away your soul or some variant of that belief.

 

 


For this Mythbusters episode, a community leader asked me to come to the church in the village of Kipsaina the following Sunday and take photos of anyone who was interested.  I assumed that 10 or 20 people might show up.  I was wrong.  Well over 100 people showed up, dressed in their Sunday best.  Entire classes of schoolchildren lined up, according to their grade or age, to take class photos.

Group photo in Kipsaina, Kenya

 

Families and friends assembled for small group photos.

Small group photo in the church of Kipsaina, Kenya

 

Someone had even set up a motorcycle as a prop for people to sit on and look cool as I took their picture.

Motorcycle for photos

 

Fortunately, I brought many rolls of film.  I had an old-school camera at the time (1996), so I had to send in the rolls of film to get them developed.  To be safe, I shipped all of the rolls to my parents back in the United States.  About a month later, I received a box full of photos.

 

As I distributed the pictures, it was clear that many of the people had never seen themselves in a photo ... which was really the main reason why the community leader had organized a photo day in the first place.  There was a lot of laughter, pointing, and smiles.  It was a blast and well worth the effort.

 


 

Another stereotype that pervades Africa is the previously mentioned idea that, if you’re white, you’re rich.  I once asked someone why they believed that to be true.  The answer caught me by surprise: He had seen the TV show Beverly Hills, 90210.  What more evidence do you need?  Case closed.


My heart sank when I heard that people had actually seen Beverly Hills, 90210 in rural Africa.  Why did that show have to be the baseline for U.S. wealth?  So I asked the next logical question: “How in the heck did you manage to see that?”  Well, one of the local outdoor “cinemas” showed it on occasion.  By cinema, you should not be envisioning red velvet curtains, large buckets of popcorn, and comfy chairs with cup holders for your giant fountain drink.  Instead, think of a small TV, propped up on crates and attached to what looks like a car battery, with a bunch of old patio chairs scattered in front of it.  The cinema owner or renter charges admission to anyone who wants to gather around to watch whatever show or soccer game finds its way to the TV after manipulating
the rabbit ears.  Apparently, the stars aligned so that Beverly Hills, 90210 found its way to rural Kenya.  I also learned that The Dukes of Hazzard had been seen by quite a few people.  You can decide if that’s good or bad.


Of course, the long list of misconceptions and stereotypes worked both ways.  When I arrived in Kenya, I was armed with an extensive arsenal of preconceived notions and stereotypes about the local population that I believed to be true, based on Beverly Hills, 90210-like evidence.  Once I actually met people and gained firsthand experience of the local culture, many of my misconceptions were obliterated.  More on that topic in next week's post.
 

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries (so far) and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

   

 

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Adventures in rural Kenya Kenya Kipsaina Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com photos take away your soul Saiwa Swamp National Park https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2019/5/adventures-in-kenya-part-3-of-5-mythbusting-in-kenya---photos-take-away-your-soul Mon, 20 May 2019 14:00:00 GMT
Adventures in Kenya (Part 2 of 6): Wear Thick Socks https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2019/5/adventures-in-kenya-wear-thick-socks Wear Thick SocksWear Thick SocksProtecting Against Ticks by Tucking Pants into Socks
 

In my last post I shared with you the surreal experience of having a long line of schoolchildren waiting to shake my hand as I would be the first white person that many of them had ever touched.  It was a great experience that I'll never forget.  But I should confess that there's a backstory to that experience that you probably won't find all that impressive.  

 

Many people find it helpful to go through life with a daily mantra to guide them and keep them on track.  Mantras like "Om," "Thy will be done," and "Be the change you wish to see in the world" are common examples.  My mantra in rural Africa was often an inspiring "Don't touch your face."  This was the lofty thought that often crossed my mind while shaking the hands of children who had never touched a white person.  I know ... I'm truly an inspiration.

 

Why did that thought cross my mind?  Because I'd seen the local toilets - think ramshackle outhouse with a hole in the ground, two well-worn spots for your feet, and a questionable bucket of water to clean your butt afterwards ... with your hand.

 

 

Before I entered one of those outhouses, I always did a quick scan of the floor, walls, and ceiling to look for snakes, spiders, and other unmentionables before committing to the journey to enter. Once my feet were in place, my goal was to not look too closely at anything at all and get out of there as quickly as possible.

 

Toilet paper did not exist in these remote outhouses. For that matter, neither did sinks, running water, or electricity. Your choice was to either use the perilous water bucket or skip the cleaning part altogether. The latter seemed to be a popular choice among many of the young children. Heck, many of the kids didn’t even bother using the outhouse! On plenty of occasions, I had the joy of witnessing young children on the path in front of me suddenly stop, squat down to do their business, pull up their pants, and merrily carry on as if nothing had happened, leaving little landmines to dodge.

 

Faced with this stark reality, I always carried a stash of toilet paper in my pocket. (Well, almost always.) I remember two notable instances where I forgot this prized possession. One instance forced me to use the dreaded bucket. The second instance warrants a story.

 

I woke up one morning with some “intestinal distress,” which didn’t surprise me given the risky food and water that I was exposed to on a regular basis. But, on this particular day, I had plans to meet with two community leaders to get a tour of some local conservation projects. Since there were no phones (this was 1996), and the people I intended to meet were several miles away on foot, I had no easy way to reschedule.

 

I reluctantly put on my hiking boots, made the trek to the neighboring village, and met my colleagues as planned. As we made our way to one of the conservation project sites, I really had to go the bathroom. There were no public facilities in the area and no easy place to squat down in private, so they took me to a nearby farm and asked the owner if I could use their outhouse.


Relieved to receive the green light, I told my colleagues, “Go ahead, and I’ll catch up with you.”  Their response was a distressing, “No, no. We will wait for you here.”


Great.


I felt like I was about to burst, so I accepted my impending humiliation and stepped inside. What followed was a classic bout of explosive diarrhea, and the community leaders enjoyed front-row seats for the fireworks. Still, I felt relieved … until I realized that I didn’t have any toilet paper with me. My eyes darted to the water bucket in the corner, and my heart sank when I realized that it was empty. Not good. In desperation, I took off my underwear and used it to wipe.


Unfortunately, there was no garbage can or easy place to hide or bury the evidence. I felt that it would be rude to throw it in the toilet for someone else to fish out later, while also realizing that it’s generally considered uncool to emerge from an outhouse with a pair of filthy underwear in your hand. I decided that the only way to escape with a tiny shred of dignity was to hike up one of my pant legs and stuff it in my hiking sock.


I emerged with my best poker face and said, “Okay, thanks for waiting. Let’s go.”

 

So, what's the moral of this life-changing story?  Whenever you're traveling in remote parts of the world, always care spare toilet paper or, at the very least, wear thick socks!

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Adventures in rural Kenya Kenya Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com outhouse toilets in rural Africa traveling to europe with a child Wear thick socks https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2019/5/adventures-in-kenya-wear-thick-socks Mon, 13 May 2019 14:00:00 GMT
Adventures in Rural Kenya (Part 1 of 6): "Touch me. I won't bleed." https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2019/5/adventures-in-kenya-mythbusting-in-kenya

A line of young children waited outside of the doorway of a mud hut with a thatched roof. With bare feet, dirty clothes, and school-issued bright-blue sweaters, the children smiled and laughed as they anxiously fidgeted. What was the occasion? These kids were lined up for the opportunity to touch a white person for the first time, and I was that white person in the hut.

 

The year was 1996, and I was in a remote part of the Western Highlands of Kenya, near the border with Uganda. I was working as a representative of the International Crane Foundation (as in birds, not machinery). The International Crane Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of cranes and the wetlands that cranes depend on. I had just completed an internship as an aviculturist at the organization’s captive breeding facility in Baraboo, Wisconsin, when I received an unexpected phone call from George Archibald, co-founder and chief executive officer. George asked me if I would be interested in working on a project in Kenya. After picking my jaw off the floor, I thought about it for two seconds and accepted; a few weeks later, I was on a plane to Africa.


My work in rural Kenya gave me the opportunity to meet many wonderful people who live under challenging circumstances, far off the grid. One day, while walking along a dusty trail with a community leader, a woman passed by with a baby dangling from a colorful sling on her back. As soon as the baby saw me, he let out a shriek and started to cry from his perch.

 

I laughed and wondered aloud what that was all about. My colleague smiled and explained that it was very unusual to see a white person in that part of Kenya, so it was probably the first time that the young child had seen such a creature. He then went on to tell me that some of the young children in the village believed that, if they touched a white person, the white person would bleed. It certainly wasn’t a widely held belief, but it was still out there.

 

That last bit of information explained a few of my experiences while riding in those death traps known as “matatus.” A matatu is a privately owned vehicle that functions as a bus of sorts. Matatus come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. The only things that all matatus have in common are faulty brakes, reckless drivers, full loads, and loud horns. Where I worked, most of the matatus came in the form of small, beat-up pickup trucks with shells that covered the truck bed.  Aside from walking on foot or riding a bike, matatus were the most common form of transportation in the area.

 

The goal of the matatu owner is, of course, to make money. And the best way to make money is to pack the vehicle with as many people as possible on three long benches, which run along the three walls inside the shell. Next, the center aisle would be filled with people who had to stand with their back hunched under the low ceiling of the shell. Small animals were welcome in this area too. Luggage generally went on top of the matatu along with a few more people. Any remaining stragglers would climb up to form a row along the back bumper of the truck and hang on to the outside of the shell. The combination of faulty brakes, fast driving, and heavy loads predictably resulted in a lot of accidents and fatalities.

 


A typical matutu in the Western Highlands of Kenya

 

I was staying in a fantastic tent at Sirikwa Safaris, near Saiwa Swamp National Park, hosted by Jane Barnley.  There were no phones in the area (in 1996), so if I wanted to make a phone call or pick up mail, I had to squeeze into one of these matatus for the 30- to 60-minute drive to the nearest town called Kitale. This was before the days of widespread smart phones. To make a call, I would get in line at the post office to use one of a handful of phones—a process that could take another hour or two, depending on the line—so I didn’t make many calls.

 

My awesome tent at Sirikwa Safaris

 

The local matatus didn’t operate on a set schedule. When they were “full,” they departed, and “full” was determined by an aggressive matatu director who evaluated the amount of cash collected, the number of people clinging to some part of the vehicle, and the potential for more customers to arrive anytime soon. (“Soon” is a loosely defined word in Africa.)

 

If you paid the matatu director enough money, he could persuade the driver to depart, despite a relatively empty load. After collecting your payment, the director and driver would still try to pick up as many people as possible along the way, but at least the payment got the vehicle rolling towards your destination. Former aviculture interns who work in rural Africa aren’t high up on the salary ladder (I’m not sure the pay even qualifies you to be in the same room as the ladder), so I never paid the premium to get the vehicle rolling.

 

When I first arrived, the matatu directors usually tried to charge me a higher mzungu—“white-person” rate—compared to the other passengers, despite the fact that I looked anything but rich. In my dirty jeans, hiking boots, a well-worn shirt that was stained with daily applications of mosquito repellent, and with a hairstyle created after eight hours in a sleeping bag, my looks didn’t scream money. But I was white, and that’s all that matters in many parts of Africa. White equals rich. End of story.

 

My typical work outfit

 

After a few weeks, the matatu directors and drivers figured that I must be staying awhile, and they routinely greeted me with a local handshake and abandoned further attempts at price gouging. I paid the normal rate, climbed in, and waited for the matatu to be considered full. This could take five minutes, an hour, or more. You could only predict your arrival with a margin of error of one or two hours, assuming that you are traveling a short distance; the margin of error for long journeys was measured in days, not hours.

 

This was quite a change from where I had been living the previous year: Switzerland. In the land of mountains, chocolate, and fancy watchmakers, I could set my watch based on the arrival and departure of trains. In Africa, time is just a suggestion. If you arrived at your destination within a few hours of the estimated time, then you were on time.

 

As you may have gathered, seat selection was important in the world of matatus. The worst spots were usually the two corners where the benches met. If it was a busy day, you were virtually guaranteed to be smashed on both sides by the people seated next to you. Plus there was the bonus of having a few armpits stuck in your face from the people standing in the aisle, with their arms reaching up to the ceiling for balance. Seatbelts and air conditioning did not exist. It was hot, it was crowded, and the smell of body odor was strong. If someone coughed or sneezed, you would invariably wear and inhale whatever came out. Feeling lucky?

 

The best strategy that I could determine, other than walking, was to find a seat where I could stick my face as close as possible to an open window. But not all matatus had windows, let alone open ones. This is why I earned the local nickname “the mzungu who walks.” But, on rainy days or on journeys that were more than 6 miles roundtrip, I rolled the dice and hopped on a matatu.

 

Given that I was naïve, kind, and polite, I often found myself in one of the two undesirable corner spots, which should have guaranteed some serious body smashing. However, on several occasions, and particularly when children were seated next to me, I found that there was no body contact at all. It appeared as if the kids were contorting their bodies to avoid touching me. I couldn’t tell if they were just being polite or if I smelled bad, or both. But, after my colleague’s disclosure during that walk along the dusty trail, I now had a hunch that these kids didn’t want me to start bleeding in the matatu.

 

So there I was, standing in a mud hut, ready to shake hands with a long line of children to put the myth to rest. Most of the kids didn’t believe in the bleeding myth. They just wanted to shake hands with a mzungu for the first time. As the children entered the hut, they became quiet. Once they were at the front of the line, they looked up at me and smiled broadly. Some eagerly said hello and extended their hand while others waited for me to act first. Many of the kids were fascinated by my blue eyes and thick blond hair, which resembled a rat’s nest. I would smile and say “Jambo” or “Habari” as I reached out to shake hands. Each child’s smile would widen after hearing my terrible Swahili, and then we would shake hands.

 

Local schoolchildren in their blue uniforms

 

 

It wasn’t one of those elaborate, 30-second handshakes that you encounter in many parts of Africa, which include intricate hand maneuvers that end with a finger snap produced by using the other person’s finger. This was just a simple handshake. But it did the trick, and I didn’t bleed.



 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).
 

   

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Kenya Kitale Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com mythbusting in rural Kenya Saiwa Swamp National Park Western Highlands of Kenya https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2019/5/adventures-in-kenya-mythbusting-in-kenya Mon, 06 May 2019 14:00:00 GMT
Very Early Retirement https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2019/4/very-early-retirement “Not all those who wander are lost.”  

-- J.R.R. Tolkien

 

I’m a big fan of early retirement, just not in the normal way of thinking about it.  In my early 20s, I made a conscious decision to switch the order of my career and my retirement. I figured there was a good chance that I would work until the day I died, hopefully doing work I enjoy, so I might as well retire for a few years at age 23, and then focus on my career after my retirement.  In that way, I could do all of the crazy things I wanted to do while I was still healthy, single, and tolerant of long, uncomfortable bus rides with farm animals.

 

I learned this approach from a few Aussies and Kiwis whom I met when I was on my first backpacking trip in Europe. They convinced me of the wisdom of doing a long walkabout after graduating from school and before starting a family or career, for a duration of about six months to two years. (Not that I needed much convincing at the time.) It sounded like a solid plan to me.  Okay, maybe it wasn’t solid, but it was very appealing nonetheless. So that’s what I did, although my journey ended up taking three years to complete.

 

As soon as I passed my comprehensive exams to earn a Master of Science degree in biology from Creighton University, I was on a plane from Omaha, Nebraska, to Geneva, Switzerland. I didn’t even wait the extra few days to attend my graduation.

 

Why Switzerland? I wanted to be able to speak French, and I heard that people speak the language slower in Switzerland compared to France. That was a good enough reason for me. Plus, I was an avid hiker and mountain climber; in my mind, Switzerland was synonymous with mountains. So Switzerland it was.

 

My parents were a bit reluctant to support my idea at first, but as long as I was able to support myself financially while I traveled, they agreed. With their blessing, I was ready to start the “deliberate wandering” phase of my life. 

 

Even during these walkabout years, I had an agenda—albeit a vague one.  My goal was to visit 100 countries by the time I was 50 years old.  There was no magic in those numbers; 100 sounded like an impressive number, and 50 sounded old at the time. I figured that, if I visited 100 countries, I would have some good stories to tell, and I would hopefully acquire some nuggets of wisdom about myself and the world. Most importantly, I would have an opportunity to meet foreign women and drink exotic beer.

 

Later in life, I heard this concept articulated by Jim Rohn from a slightly different angle. (The women and beer parts were notably absent.) Jim had a mentor, John Earl Shoaff, who suggested that Jim set a goal of becoming a millionaire.  The reason?  For what it will make of him to achieve it.  The money part was irrelevant.

 

The greatest value in life is what you become, not what you get.  Set goals that will make something of you to achieve them. That’s solid advice, and I shamelessly use that line to justify my crazy trips.

 

At age 23, my plan was simple: Travel until I run out of money, find a random job abroad to save up for the next trip, and then repeat the process. I had no idea where I was going, and I didn’t care.  I just went with the flow and capitalized on opportunities as they came up.  I did that from May 1993 through August 1996.

 

What kind of work did I end up doing during that time?  Well, here’s the basic outline:

• Biology, math, and geography teacher for five months at the Gstaad International School in Gstaad, Switzerland—the most expensive school in the world at the time.

• Bartender for four months at The Boater, a rugby pub in Bath, England.

• Aviculturist at the captive breeding program at the International Crane Foundation to help raise all species of endangered cranes, including the whooping crane. This turned into an opportunity to go to Kenya and live in a tent for several months in the western highlands, where I worked on wetland conservation projects in and around Saiwa Swamp National Park.

 

You get the idea. These were great experiences, and I found it to be a priceless education. While I did a lot of wandering over those three years, I never felt lost.  I sometimes wonder why I ever stopped living that way. (Oh, yeah. Now I remember: family and debt.)

 

Fortunately, you can apply the “early retirement” concept to your life, and it doesn’t have to be anything extreme. Write down the things that you dream of doing or learning when you retire. Then make some changes in your schedule so you can start doing those things today, without dropping the ball on your commitments to your family, job, and so on.

 

Why wait until retirement to do the things you love to do? Set aside a few hours each week, and gradually increase the amount of time you spend “in retirement” throughout your life. When I reach the normal retirement age, I want to write, play music, exercise, enjoy quality time with my family, spend time in nature, and travel. And that’s precisely what I do today, just in smaller doses. I hope to allocate more time to do these things as I get older.

 

Start your early retirement today.

 

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

 

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com New Mexico and Beyond very early retirement https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2019/4/very-early-retirement Mon, 29 Apr 2019 14:00:00 GMT
How to visit 15 countries in 20 days with a 10-year-old (Day 11): Monaco https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2016/1/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-day-11-monaco  

 

 

An hour before the ferry arrived back in Toulon after our overnight journey from Bastia (Corsica), we were jarred awake by a deafening announcement alerting us that it was time for everyone to get out of our private cabins and leave the key in the door.  This was the same announcement that we encountered yesterday when we arrived in Bastia.  But this time, we decided to ignore the announcement since the only purpose we could determine was that it is intended to get people to spend money on breakfast and last-minute shopping.  We stayed in our room.  It proved to be a wise choice.  Once we could see from our window that land was approaching, we exited our room and joined the line of people gathering to exit the boat.  It was 8am and we were back in Toulon, France.  Once on land, we found our rental car, paid 53 Euro for the 1.5 days of parking, and were back on the road.  Our destination for today: Monaco.

 

The 2.5-hour drive to our hotel in Monaco took us through some nice scenery that included snow covered peaks on one side of the car and coastal views of Cannes, Nice, Antibes, and Cap D'Ail on the other.  We had great weather and it was an easy drive to get to Monaco.  

 

Home to about 40,000 residents, Monaco is the second smallest (by area) sovereign state in the world.  Only the Vatican is smaller.  In case you're wondering, Monte Carlo is one of the "administrative areas" of the Principality of Monaco and it's where the Monte Carlo Casino (of James Bond fame) is located.  Monaco is also home to the Monaco Grand Prix Formula One race.  And lots of money.  Monaco is one of the wealthiest and most expensive places in the world. 

 

As we weaved our way through the streets of Monaco, we eventually found our way to our hotel for the night: The Monte Carlo Bay Hotel and Resort.  It was an amazing place.  Erik was already in a state of shock by the quality of cars that he saw during the drive to the hotel, which including a drive by the McLaren showroom ... which was now on his list of top priority stops during our stay.  But the quality of the hotel just added to his state of bliss.  We checked in and were given room 731 - with nice views of the ocean and town.  Erik said it was the best hotel that he has ever been in.  I have to admit it was high up on my list too.  We were lucky to get a very good deal on the hotel, given that it was after the Holidays.  

 

Checking out our room upon arrival

Erik approves of our room

 

 

View from our balcony

 

 

After a refreshing shower with one of those nice rain shower heads that we've already enjoyed several times on this trip so far, we started walking into town to find that McLaren dealer.  It was pretty easy to find.  It was next to the Bentley, Ferrari, and Rolls Royce dealers.  Erik was in heaven. 

 

Which amazing car dealership to visit first?  Decisions, decisions ... 

 

 

Decision made - McLaren!

 

 

Even I was impressed, and I'm definitely not a car person, putting it mildly.  As a teenager I bought a very used VW Rabbit (white) as my first car.  I had a different car in college, but I don't even remember what kind of it was.  Let's just say it was a junker, putting it mildly.  By the end of my junior year it was missing a door handle on the driver's side so I had to enter through the passenger door.  And it stalled when I took right hand turns.  My fix was to put it in neutral, take the turn and then restart the car.  In my senior year, I got a good deal to buy my parents' used Chrysler LeBaron.  

 

As for the first new car that I ever bought ... my purchasing criteria was that I wanted something that I could sleep in and had a decent stereo.  I ended up with a Mercury Tracer station wagon - I didn't even see the car before buying it.  I was living in Switzerland at the time, and my parents found it for me.  At the dealer, the salesman demonstrated to my parents that he could lie down flat in the back.  Sold.  I bought that car and drove it into the ground.  Even today, I drive a Honda CRV.  Not exactly McLaren material.  

 

My 1994 Mercury Tracer station wagon in action ... every car lover's dream

 

 

Erik, on the other hand, is a car fanatic and seems to be able to identify the make and model of cars within a fraction of a second, with his eyes closed.  Ok, maybe he needs to see the car.  Regardless, he was a kid in a candy store in Monte Carlo ... a very expensive candy store.  I can't even afford to replace a side mirror on those cars.  But it was fun to see him run from one car to the next, in disbelief of what he was seeing.  It's sort of like me with rare birds.

 

I suggested that we have lunch outside on that street so that he could be on the lookout for cars.  We found the Song Qi Chinese Restaurant that ended up being way more "high-end" than I was used to for Chinese food.  Erik ordered sweet and sour chicken ... for 29 Euros, and I had a bento box type of thing that was top quality ... a type of roll with shrimp, sea bass, salad, and rooibos tea.  But the food was irrelevant to Erik.  He couldn't take his eyes off the cars on the road. 

 

A very distracted diner at Song Qi Restaurant

 

 

 

As for me, I had trouble taking my eyes off the menu cover.  Why, you ask?

  

The menu cover at the Song Qi Restaurant ... I told you.

 

 

Then it happened.  The moment Erik had been dreaming of before the trip ... he spotted a Lamborghini driving along the road.  It appeared to be an Aventador.  Erik was in shock.  About 20 minutes later, Erik spotted another bright orange Lamborghini Aventador.  He mentioned to me that his legs were shaking and his heart was racing.  He was so excited.  He said that it was the best sweet and sour chicken meal he'd ever had, all while spotting Lamborghinis and other fancy cars on the road.  It was a lot of fun to watch.  

 

Erik is in heaven with another Lamborghini siting

 

 

After lunch, we walked to the Japanese Garden across the street, but not for long.  Walking around a garden was of interest to me but was far down Erik's list of activities given the car situation on the street.  We exited the garden and walked along the street instead. 

 

A quick visit to the Japanese Garden 

 

 

We went inside a souvenir shop that had car logos on the window.  A minute later, Erik had found his dream iPhone case – a Lamborghini phone case that included a strip of carbon fiber.  It was 49 Euros, but he was happy to consider that to be his main souvenir from the trip, so I bought it.  After that purchase, he wanted to make a beeline to the room so that he could put his phone in the new case.  


 

Erik is very happy with his new Lamborghini phone case, but getting smile-fatigue after being in too many photos

 

 

 

After getting his phone safely ensconced in his new case, we decided to go downstairs to swim laps in the awesome indoor/outdoor pool. 

 

Sunset from our hotel, with a view of the expansive indoor-outdoor pool ... oh, and the Mediterranean Sea

 

 

After getting cleaned up, we walked back into town to see the harbor and walked up to the Fairmont Hotel, Hotel de Paris, and the Monte Carlo Casino.  There was an amazing Christmas display outside of the casino, along with more awesome cars parked outside, including a few Rolls-Royces and red Ferraris that had Erik's attention.  There are some mighty wealthy people in this city. 

 

Me looking robotic in front of a nice car and an amazing Christmas display

 

 

 

We decided that we weren’t really that hungry after our lunch at the Chinese restaurant.  Instead, we found a bakery and bought a loaf of bread, along with a profiterole for Erik (with chocolate rather than ice cream) and a vanilla éclair and a vanilla mille feuille for me.  We found a bench and sat outside, splitting a loaf of bread as our main course and then enjoying our tasty desserts.  It was certainly one of the cheapest dinners available in Monte Carlo. 

 

Our extravagant dinner in Monaco ... only missing a "Will work for food" sign.  Next time.

 

 

After that, we walked back to the room where I typed up this summary and downloaded the latest batch of photos from my camera, while Erik spent an hour giggling while looking at Pinterest pics that show silly text exchanges, and sharing the best ones with me.  

 

The end of a great day in Monaco.  The only bad part is that now Erik wants to move here.

 

Next up: San Marino

 

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) corsica ferries corsica ferry how to visit 15 countries in 20 days how to visit 15 countries in 20 days with a 10-year-old and enjoy it mark aspelin Mark's Travel Blog markstravelblog Monaco Monte Carlo Monte Carlo Bay Hotel and Resort travelers century club travelers' century club traveling through europe with a child traveling to europe with a child https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2016/1/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-day-11-monaco Wed, 06 Jan 2016 15:00:00 GMT
How to visit 15 countries in 20 days with a 10-year-old (Day 10): Bastia, Corsica https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2016/1/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-day-10-bastia-corsica  

 

 

Today's destination is Bastia.  Bastia is a city located in the northeastern part of the French island of Corsica.  With a population of about 45,000 people, Bastia is the second largest city on the island.  The most populated city on Corsica is Ajaccio (~72,000 people).  Even though it's a French island, the Traveler's Century Club considers Corsica to be a separate "country" on its list, which explains why my son and I went out of our way to be here.
 

 

We arrived in Bastia, Corsica at 7am, although a loud announcement on the ship's PA system said that we needed to be out of our rooms at 6am.  From what we could tell after exiting our room, there wasn't any good reason for this.  People were just leaning against the wall outside of their room rather than being comfortable seated (or sleeping) inside of their room.  Our guess is that it was just a ploy to get people to spend money on breakfast.  We didn’t eat. 

 

As soon as we got off the boat, we looked for a taxi … and it was a long search.  The usual drill when disembarking off a large boat in a port town is to act like you know what you're doing so that you can avoid being pestered by throngs of taxis and touts.  But not in Bastia, Corsica.  There wasn't a taxi to be found.  I attempted to look as clueless and helpless as possible at the disembarkation point ... red meat in most port towns. 

 

Nada.  

 

If it was 4am on a Sunday morning, I could understand.  But this was Tuesday at 7am.  One taxi finally pulled up and parked in front us, turned off his taxi light, and started walking into a cafe.  I asked him where I can find a taxi and he said I was at the right place.  And then he proceeded to walk into the cafe.  Apparently, taxi drivers in Bastia are not exactly desperate for passengers.  About 20 minutes later (around 8:15am ... more than an hour after leaving the boat), we finally found a taxi who would acknowledge our existence.  He took us to an ATM and then to our hotel.  Only 14 Euro…not bad. 

 

 

We arrived at 9am at the Ostella Hotel and asked if we could get a room that would include access to the spa and fitness center.  They offered us a room for 80 Euro (same price I saw online) vs. the 35 euro per person for just spa access.  I accepted.  Erik and I then proceeded to enjoy a leisurely day.  We had breakfast and lunch at the hotel.  For lunch, I opted for risotto fruits de mer and Erik chose the ever-popular spaghetti with tomato sauce.  We went to the pool but found that the water was much colder than expected and it was taken by a class.  We went in the hot tub instead. 

 


Lunch at the Ostella Hotel

 

 


The view from our balcony at the hotel

 

 


Relaxing in the room
 

 

 

In the afternoon, we walked down to the street to the "Hyper U" mall to get Erik a haircut.  I found the experience to be much more amusing than Erik did, since he was the one that walked away with very short hair.  22 Euro for his haircut and my entertainment.  Money well spent.

 

Erik is trying not to laugh while giving me the evil eye
 

 



Resigned to his fate
 

 


Clean cut Erik (with some ice cream on order to soften the blow)

 

 

After that, Erik and I went to our room to finish our “living your best year ever” planning and I typed 5 days' worth of trip summary details.  We were happy to hang out at the hotel and enjoy a leisurely day rather than drive all over the place again.  We needed the break from driving.  Around 6:30pm, we were back in a taxi headed for Corsica Ferries, feeling as if we had been at the hotel overnight, even though it had just been for the day.  A good call, thanks to the coin flip on the boat last night.

 

 


A view of the Tyrrhenian Sea from our balcony

 

 


Sunset from our balcony 
 

 


Sunset from our balcony, part 2
 

 

We made it to the ferry and had some time to spare so we walked down to Saint Nicholas Square and found a pizzeria.  Erik and I split a Pizza Margherita and a chocolate fondant cake with whipped cream.  Pretty tasty.  Thanks to dessert (but worth it), we were running a bit late, so we had to hurry during our long walk (with our bags) to the boat.  It turned out to be a "hurry up and wait" situation.  Our boat was delayed.  After 40 minutes of standing, it was finally time to board. 

 

This time, our room had 3 beds, including one bunk bed that we didn't bother unfolding.  It seemed to be a handicapped room as it was a bit more spacious than our room on the journey to Bastia.  Overall, the boat seemed a bit seedy - nothing special.  We tried to go to bed early but were thwarted by very loud announcements through the speaker in our room, encouraging us to go to the restaurant and bar ... in other words, to spend more money.  

 

Getting ready for bed ... if the announcements would stop coming through the PA system
 

 

Close quarters but grateful to have our own room

 

 

When we wake up early tomorrow, we should be back in Toulon, France.

 

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) corsica ferries corsica ferry how to visit 15 countries in 20 days how to visit 15 countries in 20 days with a 10-year-old and enjoy it Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com Ostella Hotel toulon travelers century club travelers' century club traveling through europe with a child traveling to europe with a child https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2016/1/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-day-10-bastia-corsica Tue, 05 Jan 2016 15:00:00 GMT
How to visit 15 countries in 20 days with a 10-year-old (Day 9): Aix-en-Provence to Corsica https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2016/1/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-aix-en-provence-to-corsica

 

Last night we made the drive from La Cadiere et Cambo to Aix-en-Provence and checked into our hotel - a fancy 5-star hotel called Le Pigonnet.  We stumbled to our rooms, checking out some interesting animal pictures on the walls along the way.

 

 

We were very excited to get to a comfy bed as it had certainly been a full day.  The subtle wallpaper (made of fabric) matched the drapes and screamed "this is going to be expensive".  I don't stay in fancy 5-star hotels very often, but I got a good deal on this hotel since it was off-season.

 

 

Believe it or not, we finally had a chance to sleep in for change ... until 8:45am ... and it felt decadent.  We made our way to breakfast and it turned out to be excellent.  Even Erik was impressed, and that's saying something.

 

 

Our clothes were pretty ripe at this point, so I decided to drop a bag of laundry at the front desk at 9:30am and they said that it would be ready in about 3 hours ... I thought - wow that is great!  What I didn't ask was the all-important "how much will that cost? question" - a rookie move that ended up costing me dearly.  More on that in a minute.

 

Erik and I walked into town to explore the city center of Aix-en-Provence, a well-known university town of ~150,000 people.  We walked non-stop for about two hours as we explored the city and took photos ... much to my son's dismay since he knows that means he will be in them.  

 

 

It felt good to stretch our legs, but after quite a few miles of exploring on foot, we were ready to eat.  We spotted a Japanese restaurant, which sounded good to us, despite the fact that we were in France.  We both ordered a Teriyaki chicken bento box ... deciding to play it safe since we would be spending the night on a boat.  We also spotted a sign for tempura ice cream.  Erik had never heard of tempura ice cream but was interested in giving it a shot.  It turned out to be a good call, as it was very tasty.

 

 

 

After lunch, we made our way back to the hotel since it was time to check out.  Our laundry wasn't ready yet, so we checked out of our room and spent the next 90 minutes wandering around the beautiful grounds of the hotel (not your ordinary hotel garden) and doing a short workout at the hotel gym.  Erik enjoyed checking out some of the fancy cars parked at the hotel.

 

We walked back to the lobby and learned that our laundry was ready ... for the low cost of $165.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Robbery.  I couldn't believe it.  I was tempted to tell them that the clothes we washed were probably not even worth $165 so the idea of cleaning them at that price was insane.  Keep in mind that we only gave them one laundry bag ... we travel light and all of our luggage is carry-on.  They must have been charging us $5 per sock.  It was frustrating, but that's what I get for not asking for the price up front.  Yes, I am an idiot.  

 

Well, it was time to hit the road.  It was only an hour drive to our destination - Toulon, where we were going to catch an overnight ferry to Corsica.  We found the parking lot for Corsica Ferries.  I asked if we could bring our car on the boat but the answer was a firm "non".  The boat was already full.  Bummer. 

 

We had a few hours to kill, so we walked around the city center of Toulon near the port and had dinner at a restaurant called Padre Mio, as Erik was craving pasta ... again.  He opted for spaghetti bolognaise with an Orangina and I had penne arribiata with a bottle of water.  Livin' on the edge.

 

 

After dinner, we meandered back to the boarding area for Corsica Ferries and eventually received the green light to board the boat.  The boat was nothing special and we were very grateful to have our own cabin.  We had a bunk bed in our cabin, which Erik thought was cool.  Of course, he chose the top bunk.  We also had a window, so that was a bonus.  Granted, we couldn't open the window, but at least we could see outside.  

 

 

Now we had an important decision to make for tomorrow when we arrive in Corsica.  Should we rent a car and explore Corsica or should we just go to a hotel with a spa to relax.  It was a tough call, so we decided to flip a coin.  Spa it was.  We were both happy with that option as the idea of a day without driving sounded great. 

 

I did some research online and found a place in the outskirts of Bastia that had availability and looked like a good candidate ... the Hotel Ostella, a 3-star hotel with a pool and fitness room.  The cost was significantly less than my laundry bill earlier today.  I booked it and then we went to bed around 10pm.  We could definitely feel the waves, but it wasn't bad.  Erik slept soundly ... better than I did. 
 

Next stop, Bastia, Corsica.

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Aix-en-Provence Corsica Ferries Corsica Ferry how to visit 15 countries in 20 days how to visit 15 countries in 20 days with a 10-year-old and enjoy it Le Pigonnet Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com Toulon travelers century club travelers' century club traveling through europe with a child traveling to europe with a child https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2016/1/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-aix-en-provence-to-corsica Mon, 04 Jan 2016 15:00:00 GMT
How to visit 15 countries in 20 days, with a 10-year-old (Day 8): Argelès to La Cadière-et-Cambo https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2016/1/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-day-8-cadi-re-et-cambo

 

We woke up early at the L'Hostalet bed and breakfast in Argelès-sur-Mer and had breakfast before the other guests arrived.  Erik had fun hanging out with the resident cat who was enjoying a relaxing morning by the fire.

 

 

We checked out around 9am and the host was nice enough to put our luggage in a cool luggage cart on his bike and join us for the walk to our car which was parked down the road.  We talked along the way and he said that his parents used to have an Inn so he eventually decided to do the same and he enjoys it.

 

 

After saying our goodbyes, Erik and I hopped in our car and began the 2.5 hour drive to the small town of La Cadière-et-Cambo, where we would meet Elsa, an old friend of mine from the days when we worked at The Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta.  I hadn't seen her in nearly fifteen years and I was looking forward to catching up with her.  Erik and I didn't realize it, but we were in for a special treat with her family.  

 

We made good time to the place where we would meet - in front of the church in La Cadière-et-Cambo.  Given that the town has a population around 200 people, it wasn't very hard to locate.  Erik burned some energy by running around the town and then pretending that the ledge around the church was on Mt. Everest as he tried to keep his balance.  We are easily entertained.

 

Elsa arrived right on time and we then followed her car on the short drive to her parents' house.  It was a nice house in a beautiful setting, with an olive tree orchard and great views of the surrounding mountains where a rare species of eagle nests.  The house was built of stone and her dad built most of it himself, gradually adding more rooms, a playhouse, and greenhouse to the original one room house.

 

We entered the house and met Elsa's parents and her sister's family which included 4 girls who had never met an American boy before.  The girls were a bit anxious and Erik was too, so he immediately gravitated towards the family pets.

 

The girls didn't speak much English and Erik doesn't speak any French, but it didn't matter.  After breaking the ice with a game of cards, the kids ended up having a great time playing together outside on the swings, playing badminton, and drawing. 

 

 

After a few hours it was time for lunch.  Elsa’s parents used to own a restaurant and they are excellent cooks.  We had enjoyed a very fresh and tasty salad, and a lemon chicken tajine (Moroccan dish) that includes lemons that are cooked for a very long time and become soft.  And of course, some great bread.  It was a terrific lunch.

 

After lunch came the cheese platter.  Erik was laughing as he knows that I'm generally not a fan of cheese.  But hey, we were in France, so I gave it a shot.  I was encouraged to pick multiple slabs of cheese from the 6 - 8 options that were presented to me.  The portions I chose were considered tiny by French standards, but huge for me, and I not so subtly avoided Roquefort and other more adventurous, heavy -duty cheeses. 
 

 

Next was dessert, which included homemade profiteroles for the kids and a "dessert made for Kings" for the adults.  It was a whole pear covered in chocolate, with fresh whipped cream on the side and a sprinkle of almonds.  As you can see, this was no ordinary lunch!  

 

 

After lunch, we had some sparkling apple cider and were then invited to participate in a family tradition that only happens once a year.  The mother of the family has a dough recipe that is kept secret and is passed down through the generations.  The dough is brought out once per year for the New Year and the family makes beignets together.  The kids, including Erik, were put to work, flattening the dough with rollers before placing it in oil and handing it off to the father to cook.  Once the beignets cool, they are placed in a bowl of sugar and then it's time to eat, which Erik and I were happy to do!  

 

 

 

We had a great time and were very grateful for the glimpse into this special occasion for the family.  Around 8:30pm it was time for Erik and I to hit the road as we still had a two-hour drive ahead of us to our hotel in Aix-en-Provence.  We gathered for some group photos, said our goodbyes, and thanked everyone for a terrific evening that we won't forget.

 

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Argeles Sur Mer Argelès sur Mer Argeles-Sur-Mer Argelès-sur-Mer Cadière-et-Cambo how to visit 15 countries in 20 days how to visit 15 countries in 20 days with a 10-year-old and enjoy it La Cadière-et-Cambo L'Hostalet Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com travelers century club travelers' century club traveling through europe with a child traveling to europe with a child https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2016/1/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-day-8-cadi-re-et-cambo Sun, 03 Jan 2016 15:00:00 GMT
How to visit 15 countries in 20 days, with a 10-year-old (Day 7): Mallorca - Argelès-sur-Mer https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2016/1/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-day-7-mallorca-argeles-sur-mer

 

We had yet another early morning so that we could eat breakfast at our the hotel before making our way to the Mallorca airport to catch our flight back to Barcelona.  I'm happy to report that Erik is adapting to typical European breakfasts and it starting to like it!

 

We arrived at our gate at the airport much faster than we expected, so we ended up having two hours to kill at the airport.  We meandered around and eventually settled into two isolated chairs in front of a large window for a few more rounds of Soccer Physics.  The flight back to Barcelona was uneventful, and soon we were back on the ground, ready to attempt to locate our rental car that we had parked ... not an easy task.  Thankfully, I had taken a photo of our parking spot so that helped our task immensely.  After paying 35 euro for parking, less than I expected given that we had mistakenly parked in short-term parking, we were back on the road.

 

Our plan for the day included a 2.5 hour drive to Argelès-sur-Mer, and spending some time roaming around this small town on France's Mediterranean coast.  But it didn't quite work out that way.  Apparently a good chunk of France goes to Barcelona to party for New Year's Eve, and then everyone decides to drive back to France ... around the same time that we were on the road.  The traffic was hideous ... it actually made Los Angeles rush hour look speedy.  It literally took us 4.5 hours to go about 20 miles.  It was a massive parking lot - the worst traffic that I can ever remember. 

After many hours, we FINALLY made our way to the border with France where the highway was reduced to just one lane, thanks to security concerns that were due to the recent tragedy in Paris where gunmen and suicide bombers attacked a concert hall, stadium, restaurants, and bars, leaving 130 people dead and hundreds injured. 

 

Once we made it into France, it was just a 35-minute drive in the dark to the town of Argelès-sur-Mer, with a population just over 10,000 people.  We had to navigate some very narrow streets before locating our destination - L’Hostelet” bed and breakfast. 


 


 

The owner was a young guy who was very kind and and polite.  We spoke a combination of French and English to sort out the logistics and he showed us to our room at the very top of the stairs (room to the right).  Certain parts of the room had a low ceiling that made us feel like Hobbits.  We liked the room and the view of the courtyard below.

 

Here is a photo of the courtyard the next morning.

 

We drove down the street to find an official parking spot, and then walked to one of the restaurants that our host recommended - La Gamate.  I ending up opting for entrecôte and pommes frites, while Erik had spaghetti bolognaise ... not exactly our most adventurous menu selections.  It turned out that Erik was in store for more of an adventure than he anticipated.  His spaghetti arrived with a sauce that was more brown than red (was more of a meaty sauce with vegetables).  This unexpected difference was cause for concern.  Then he spotted some cheese sprinkled on top of the food ... that was a deal breaker.  But to his credit, he chipped away on part his meal, with a precision that resembled a highly trained surgeon.   


 

After dinner, we walked back to our room and ended up going to bed right away as we both felt tired after a long day on the road.  It wasn't the type of day that we had expected, but at least we did enjoy walking around the streets of Argelès-sur-Mer after such an unexpectedly long day in the car.

 

Tomorrow we're off to visit an old friend of mine whose family lives near the small commune of La Cadière-et-Cambo, France.

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Argeles Sur Mer Argelès sur Mer Argeles-Sur-Mer Argelès-sur-Mer how to visit 15 countries in 20 days how to visit 15 countries in 20 days with a 10-year-old and enjoy it L'Hostalet Mallorca Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com travelers century club travelers' century club traveling through europe with a child traveling to europe with a child https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2016/1/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-day-7-mallorca-argeles-sur-mer Sat, 02 Jan 2016 15:00:00 GMT
How to visit 15 countries in 20 days, with a 10-year-old (Day 6): Andorra - Mallorca https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2016/1/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-day-6-andorra---mallorca

 

It was New Year's Day and my son and I were up early ... early enough to catch people in the elevator who were still on a roll from partying all night.  With high octane fuel in their blood, they smiled, shook our hands, and heartily wished us a Happy New Year. 

 

The elevator deposited our contrasting group of sober and hammered individuals into the lobby and Erik and I made our way to the hotel restaurant to grab a quick breakfast before hitting the road.  Wrong again.  The restaurant was closed ... everything was closed.  So we went back upstairs to get our things and check out at 7am.  We had a plane to catch in Barcelona.  

 

The streets of Andorra la Vella were deserted so it was a relaxing drive out of town.  After a few minutes, we passed through a DUI checkpoint and then descended down, down, down through some beautiful scenery.  Everything along the way appeared to be closed until we reached the outskirts of Barcelona.  

 

Three hours later after leaving our hotel in Andorra, we arrived at the Barcelona airport ... thanks to GPS.  It saved us as usual.  We weren’t sure where to park and we ended up in short term parking, hoping we wouldn’t regret that later when we received the bill.  

 

Although I had purchased our airline tickets through Iberia, it turned out that we would be flying on Vueling Airlines, which I had never heard of before.  There were no issues getting through security and catching our flight.  Once aboard, Erik busted out his iPhone so that we could play a game called "Soccer Physics" which kept us entertained during the short 20-minute flight to Mallorca, the largest of Spain's Balearic Islands.

 

As we exited the Palma de Mallorca airport, we grabbed a taxi to our hotel.  The capital city of Palma was bigger than I expected, with more than 400,000 residents.  During our drive we had a nice view of the The Royal Palace of La Almudaina. 
 


 

 

Eventually, we were deposited at the front entrance of Hotel Isla de Mallorca ... "an Urban Hotel and Spa."    


 

It was a decent hotel, but our nonsmoking room had a strong smell of smoke ... like some very recent New Year's Eve celebrations that involved smoking cigarettes or cigars in our room.  I rarely complain about anything, but the smell was strong enough that I was inspired to call the front desk to see if we could change rooms.  We couldn't.  Instead, they asked a member of the cleaning staff to stop by to attempt to improve the smell.  It didn't help at all, so I opened the windows as wide as I could and we left the room, hoping it would be better after a few hours of fresh air.

 

 

We went to the hotel gym for a strength training workout ... which felt great.  After the gym, we walked into town to explore the city.  After an hour or two of walking along the streets, we found ourselves getting hungry at the ridiculously early (by local standards) hour of 5pm.  Of course, most places don't open for dinner until 8pm. 

 

Around 6pm we came across a pizza place on the main street next to the ocean.  Erik had Pizza Margherita and I had Pizza Salami (it supposed to be spicy but it didn’t taste spicy to me ... granted I'm used to very spicy food).  The food was decent and we enjoyed some quality people watching from our outdoor table.  Lots of dog walkers, a few people whizzing by on Segway-types of transport, and one older guy who was singing opera-style at the top of his lungs as he passed the restaurant on what appeared to be his daily evening walk. 

 

 

After dinner, we walked along the waterfront and explored more city streets as we gradually made our way back to the hotel, ready to call it a night.

 

 

 

I'm embarrassed to say that tomorrow we're already leaving Mallorca to make our way back to France, recognizing that we didn't even scratch the surface of experiencing Mallorca.  That's one of the obvious drawbacks of "checklist travel" ... you only get a snapshot of life in the places you pass through.  But, we're still enjoying our trip so far.    

 

If everything goes as planned, tomorrow night we'll be sleeping in Argelès-sur-Mer on France's Mediterranean coast.


 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

 

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) andorra andorra la vella how to visit 15 countries in 20 days how to visit 15 countries in 20 days with a 10-year-old and enjoy it Mallorca Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com new year's eve in andorra Palma de Mallorca travelers century club travelers' century club traveling through europe with a child traveling to europe with a child https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2016/1/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-day-6-andorra---mallorca Fri, 01 Jan 2016 15:00:00 GMT
How to visit 15 countries in 20 days, with a 10-year-old (Day 5): New Year's Eve in Andorra https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2015/12/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-day-5-royan-france---andorra

 

It was New Year's Eve and after enjoying breakfast at our hotel in Royan, France, it was time to hit the road.  Our destination was a new country for me ... Andorra!  

 

On New Year's Eve / Day, I like to set aside time to evaluate the year that's coming to an end, and set new goals and plans for the year to come.  Unfortunately for my son Erik, we had a 6.5 hour drive ahead of us and he would be a captive audience for this ritual.  To get the creative juices flowing, I played the audio portion of "Living Your Best Year Ever" and part of the "Entrepreneur Rollercoaster" audio book (both are written by Darren Hardy) during our long drive.  To my astonishment, Erik actually seemed interested in the entrepreneur stuff and stunned me at one point when he asked, after I was taking a break from the audiobooks, if we could start the next section.  I somehow managed to keep the car on the road despite the shock. 


As we started to approach Andorra, the road started to wind its way up through the mountains.  We stopped to get some gas and I asked (in French) if the person spoke French.  He said "No".  I then asked (in Spanish) if he spoke Spanish and he said "No ... Catalan!".  Whoops, I forgot.  Rest assured, after his rebuke, I won't forget that Catalan is the official language of Andorra.    

 

The fog and traffic made for some slow driving, but we finally made it to the semi-chaotic streets of the city center of Andorra La Vella. 

 

Andorra la Vella is a city of about 22,000 people in the Pyrenees mountains (between France and Spain) at an elevation of 3,356 feet, making it the highest capital city in Europe.  That latter factoid surprised me as it sounded awfully low to me.  Heck, my house in New Mexico is at an altitude of 7,000 feet.  But I reminded myself that Kathmandu was a similar experience for me ... surrounded by spectacular mountains while the city itself was at a humble 4,593 feet.  The setting of Andorra la Vella makes you feel like you are high up in the mountains, even if you're not.  Here's a photo from the Andorra tourism site.


 

We found a place to park on the street and checked into the Acta Art Hotel – a 4 star hotel and spa in the the heart of Andorra la Vella.  Our room had a modern feel with wood floors and furnishings.  All of the photos below are from the hotel website ... with the exception of one relatively lame photo that I took from the window of our room.  

 

 

 

 

After our long drive, the hotel spa sounded mighty appealing so we decided to check it out.  There was a large, shallow, rectangular hot tub (not very hot, but comfortable), with 3 silver strips underwater that you sit on to make the jets turn on.  Outside of the water, there was a chair made of heated tile, along with other non-heated chairs, in addition to a sauna and steam room with marble tile and eucalyptus.  Though he's just a youngster, Erik seems to enjoy the spa experience.  We had the place all to ourselves, so that certainly helped.  Here are some photos of the spa from the hotel website:

 


 

 

 

After the spa, we got cleaned up and ready to hit the streets of Andorra la Vella ... and hopefully find a good restaurant for an excellent New Year's Eve dinner.  The streets of Andorra la Vella were hopping - lots of activity this evening, and it felt great to stretch our legs. 

 

 

Eventually we started to pop our head into restaurants to inquire about dinner.  We gradually started to figure out that no restaurants were open for a "normal meal" ... each restaurant had a special set menu with at least five courses that would take multiple hours.  On top of that, everything was already booked.  The idea of sitting down for several hours was not an appealing option for a 10-year old, so I asked about a simple meal ... or even takeout if necessary.  Nope, that's not an option.  We couldn't even get a slice of pizza.  Every seat in Andorra la Vella appeared to be fully booked.

 

We circled back to our hotel to try our luck there but it was the same story.  After LOTS of walking all over town, we finally found a person who offered to let us reserve two seats for a fancy meal (65 euro per person) as long as we were ok with sitting on bar stools for several hours.  After seeing the look of horror on Erik's face, I politely declined.   

 

The look of horror soon shifted to my face once I realized where we would be eating our New Year's Eve meal in Andorra.  Our only viable option was ... 

 

... McDonald's.  It was hilarious.  I never eat McDonald's at home, let alone on trips abroad, so Erik couldn't stop laughing at his good fortune (he loves McDonald's) and the fact that I would have to join him. 

 

 

Our New Year's Eve meal consisted of sharing an order of 20-piece chicken McNuggets, fries, and a Kit Kat sundae (Erik got chocolate and I got caramel).  Total cost 14 euro …  which I admit was a nice contrast to our other option of 130 euro. 

 

Another young couple was also there so I asked if one of them could take a photo for us to capture this classic moment.  Funny enough, they were from Finland!  Once they learned that I am half Finnish and my dad was born in Finland, we had a fun conversation.  It turned out that they had the same problem of finding a place to eat before they drive back to Barcelona (where the woman currently lives) to catch the fireworks. 

 

All in all, it turned out to be a fun and memorable meal for us ... and I have to confess that this McDonald's was pretty nice.  

 

 

 

After dinner, Erik and I walked around town a bit more before making our way back to the room, where we spent an hour talking about our previous year and our goals and plans for next year (do we know how to party or what!).  I was impressed that he took such an interest in it. 

 

We never made it to midnight, and had no intention of trying.  Around 10pm we killed the lights and called it a year after a fun evening in Andorra la Vella ... and McDonald's. 

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Andorra Andorra la Vella how to visit 15 countries in 20 days how to visit 15 countries in 20 days with a 10-year-old and enjoy it Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com New Year's Eve in Andorra travelers century club travelers' century club traveling through Europe with a child traveling to Europe with a child https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2015/12/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-day-5-royan-france---andorra Thu, 31 Dec 2015 15:00:00 GMT
How to visit 15 countries in 20 days, with a 10-year-old (Day 4): St. Malo - Royan, France https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2015/12/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-day-3-namur---st-malo-france

 

After a decent night of sleep (finally getting over jet lag) in St. Malo, followed by a big breakfast, we were ready to hit the road.  Next stop: Royan, France.

 

It was an uneventful drive to Royan, other than issues getting access to cash.  ATMs were nowhere to be found in the gas stations we visited along the way.  This didn't bother me until I discovered that my old-school credit card (without a chip) wasn't working on any of the credit card terminals.  Thankfully, on the fifth try, the cashier managed to get my card to work by swiping it on an older credit card terminal that they kept in the back.  I made a mental note to carry extra cash so that my son and I wouldn't have to spend a day washing dishes.           

After a nice drive through rural parts of France, and passing through the cheese mecca of Roquefort, we made it to our destination: Hôtel Cordouan Thalassothérapie et Spa in Royan.  Hôtel Cordouan is a 4-star hotel with an excellent restaurant, spa, and nice location on the Bay of Biscay.  Here are some photos of the hotel and room:

 

 

 

 

Of course, I had some explaining to do when Erik viewed the scene below ... the first bidet that he'd ever seen.

  

 

 

But there was one thing that caught Erik's attention more than anything else ... something that made him resemble a sled dog eager that was eager to run ... grass, and lots of it!

 

 

He couldn't believe how much grass there was all around us.  It's not exactly a common site in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  I turned him loose and off he went.  He ran up hills, slid down hills, did parkour rolls, and basically ran around the area like a mad man ... which was just what the doctor ordered after spending so much time in the car.  I could only get him to stop briefly to take a quick photo for me, and then he was off again.  But then he suddenly stopped in his tracks.  He had spotted a nice-looking Samoyed dog ... which of course we went over to see.

 

 

 

After a short break to visit the dog, we then went for a jog along the trails that lined the coast, stopping to use the exercise stations of the parcourse (fitness trail) along the way.  It felt great. 

 

A War Memorial along the trail

 

 

 

After that healthy dose of exercise, we decided to check out the spa that adjoined our hotel. 

 

We weren't really sure what we were getting ourselves into, but we put on our swimsuits and hotel bathrobes that were in our room and made our way to the spa.   

 

We quickly learned that this wasn't just any spa, this was thalassothérapie ... which I had to look up to figure out what the heck that meant.  I learned that it refers to saltwater therapy.  There was a pool (not the kind for swimming laps) with hot tubs, underwater stationary bikes, and various stretching bars in the water.  They required us to wear sandals, so we purchased simple sandals for 3 euro each.  These sandals came in handy during our trip.  After that, we just imitated the locals and enjoyed the experience of trying out the different water therapy options and going into the steam room with lots of eucalyptus in the air. 
 

Here's a photo from the spa website, since I didn't carry a camera to the spa. 

 

After our spa experience, we made our way back to our room to get cleaned up and ready for our 7pm dinner reservation in the hotel restaurant.  It was an interesting, expensive menu, and the food turned out to be excellent.  I chose the Special of the Day, which featured something that I don't see every day in New Mexico ... stingray.  It was a first for me.  The stingray was served with vegetables and a salad that included dried apricots rolled inside ham.  For dessert, I had crème brulée with vanilla from Madagascar.  Erik opted for the filet mignon, pommes frites, and a smarties ice cream pushup for dessert.  As you can tell, we weren't exactly slumming it that night.


After a great meal, where Erik's lack of knowledge of fine dining etiquette both amused and horrified me, we went back to our room to relax.  A short time later, as the active, decadent afternoon and evening hit us, we were off to bed, glad that we made the choice to come here.  

 

Tomorrow morning, we're off to Andorra. 

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) how to visit 15 countries in 20 days how to visit 15 countries in 20 days with a 10-year-old and enjoy it Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com Royan Royan France St. Malo travelers century club travelers' century club traveling through europe with a child traveling to europe with a child https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2015/12/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-day-3-namur---st-malo-france Wed, 30 Dec 2015 15:00:00 GMT
How to visit 15 countries in 20 days, with a 10-year-old (Day 3): Namur - St. Malo - Jersey https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2015/12/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-day-3-namur---st-malo---jersey

 

My son and I both woke up in our hotel room feeling tired thanks to a combination of travel and jet lag.  But there was no time to waste ... we were in Namur, Belgium and we had a boat to catch later that day in St. Malo, France! 

 

We enjoyed a nice sunrise from our hotel window (see below), followed by an outstanding breakfast at the restaurant in our hotel, Château de Namur.  Amazing croissants along with fruit, hot chocolate, salmon, fresh bread/rolls, local strawberry jam, cured meats, and some fresh squeezed orange juice that tasted awesome.  With all of those great options, Erik chose to have cereal (chocos and corn flakes) and a few sausages, along with some hot chocolate and a glass of orange juice.    

 


 

After breakfast, Erik and I packed and took some photos of the hotel before making our way into the city of Namur.

 

We found a place to park near a medical school and walked to our target destination - La Maison des Desserts … well known for its pastries and chocolates.  Erik had a blue macaron, which looked tiny compared the monstrosity that I ordered (see photo below) - a mille feuille (Napolean) that was large, messy, and tasty.  It hit the spot. 

 

We enjoyed hanging out at La Maison des Desserts and made friends with a long-haired dachshund that immediately rolled on his back to let us pet him.  The owners were a older couple who just smiled as we pet their dog.  We're both suckers for dogs and Erik is a big fan of long-haired dachshunds.

 

The two photos below are from the website of La Maison des Desserts. 

 


After our "second breakfast", which was really dessert for us, we walked the city streets of Namur, the capital of French-speaking Wallonia, with a population of about 110,000 people.  It's a picturesque city with a laid back vibe and we both enjoyed our short stay.  I was a slacker in taking photos while in Namur, so here are three photos (with credits) that capture the scene:

Photo from www.creationearth.com/photography/namur

 

 

 

Photo from Wikipedia (how's that for unoriginal!)

 

 

Photo from https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Namur_(city)
 

 

Eventually we made our way to our car.  We had a 6.5 hour journey ahead of us to St. Malo, France where we planned to catch a 6:30pm boat bound for Jersey and Guernsey.  St. Malo is a port town with about 50,000 people in Brittany - the northwest region of France.  The city of St. Malo was pummeled by the U.S. and Britain during World War II when Germany occupied the city.  The rebuilt city of St. Malo is now a popular tourist destination and serves as a ferry terminal for boats headed to the U.K., including Jersey and Guernsey.  The city was also featured in a popular book called "All the Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr.  Unfortunately, I didn't read the book until after my visit!  

 

It was a long, easy drive, with the notable exception of me being clueless at our first gas station of the trip.  First, I couldn't figure out where to pay, and second I couldn't figure out how to get my car key back out of the gas cap.  I finally figured out that I needed to place the cap back into the gas tank before I could pull the key out.  I'll let you use your imagination when it comes to all of the different strategies (and accompanying commentary) that I used in my attempt to free the key from the gas cap while the cap was in my hand.  Let's just say that it was an education ... and a 25-minute stop.

 

We finally made it to St. Malo, France at 5:50pm … just in time for our 6:30pm boat departure with the Condor Ferry.  But as I checked in at the Condor Ferry reservation desk, I received some bad news.  Tomorrow's boat from Guernsey to St. Malo was canceled.  That left us with two options: I could stay in Guernsey for 2 nights or 0 nights.  I already had a room booked at the Farmhouse Hotel (pre-paid and non-refundable) in Guernsey.  In the end, I decided to cancel, which was a bummer since I was really looking forward to that part of the trip.  

 

Next was the matter of our boat reservations.  I checked online for available lodgings in Jersey but everything seemed to be booked.  So we decided to simply take the boat to Jersey, go through customs, catch a glimpse of Jersey, get a shameless checkoff (as a fallback plan in case other parts of the trip fall apart too), and then get back on the same boat for the return trip to St. Malo. 

 

We boarded the hydrofoil for the 1 hour 5 minute journey from St. Malo to Jersey.  As advertised, we got off the boat in Jersey, went through customers, got our passport stamped, and then hopped back on the boat.  Not my proudest moment, but desperate times call for desperate measures.  The closest thing that we did to honor our "visit" to Jersey / UK was order fish and chips on the boat ride back to St. Malo.  Erik doesn't like fish so he opted for breaded chicken and fries.  Here's a photo of Erik and I on the hydrofoil as proof of our insanity.

 

 

We made it back to St. Malo and now we needed to find a place to stay.  We drove to the Kyriad Prestige Saint-Malo hotel that I had already booked for the following night.  The person working at the front desk, Claire, was friendly and spoke some English so we each traded off in French in English to better understand the situation.  To make a long story short, the hotel was fully booked for the night so she called another Kyriad property nearby, and we stayed there instead.  Unfortunately, there was no refund for the date change and the payment was non-transferable ... so I had to lose that payment as well.   The joys of pre-paid, non-refundable reservations.  

 

After a 15-minute drive, we arrived at the Hotel Kyriad Saint-Malo Ouest - Dinardand checked into our room on the 2nd floor, which seemed like an attic with funky wall angles and two bedrooms.  It was a pretty cool room and the hotel had nice views overlooking the Rance Estuary.  We were happy to arrive in our room and were asleep soon after our arrival.    

 

 

 

Tomorrow morning we're off to Royan, France.    

 

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) How to visit 15 countries in 20 days How to visit 15 countries in 20 days with a 10-year-old and enjoy it Jersey Jersey Ferry Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com Namur Namur Belgium St. Malo Travelers Century Club Travelers' Century Club Traveling through Europe with a child Traveling to Europe with a Child https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2015/12/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-day-3-namur---st-malo---jersey Tue, 29 Dec 2015 15:00:00 GMT
How to visit 15 countries in 20 days, with a 10-year-old (Day 2): Frankfurt - LUX - Namur, Belgium https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2015/12/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-day-2---texas

 

Our plane touched down in Frankfurt, Germany at 11:50am and it felt great to walk after so much sitting the past two days.  Our first line of business: standing in a long line to book our return flight from Frankfurt - Houston - Albuquerque.  United Airlines had canceled our return reservation given that we skipped the initial ABQ - Houston flight segment.  You can read the previous posts if you want to learn more about that adventure.  After about a 30-minute wait, and another round of explanations, they finally agreed to issue us our original return tickets and we were on our way.

 

Next stop was the rental car pickup.  Even though the price of renting a GPS unit for 18 days was ridiculously high, I knew it would be priceless in helping us navigate our way around Europe, so I agreed.  We located our white Peugeot stick shift car, set our destination on the GPS for the center of Luxembourg City, and we were on our way.

 

About 2.5 hours later, we arrived in the city center of Luxembourg City.  Luxembourg City, also known as Luxembourg, is the capital city of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, which is also known as Luxembourg.  So I guess it's ok to answer a geography trivia question by saying that Luxembourg is the capital of Luxembourg and get away with it.  Luxembourg has a total population of about 600,000 people, with 116,000 of those people residing in the capital city. 

 

Three languages are spoken in Luxembourg: Luxembourgish, French, and German.  I would be clinging to French, which I speak at an intermediate level.  In other words, I know enough French to ask for anything I need and I can have a choppy conversation on a wide variety of topics, with occasional "franglais" thrown into the mix.  But I can't understand everything that is being said in a movie, the news, or a song.  If you use lots of slang and speak quickly then you can probably insult me in a hundred different ways and accuse me of obscene acts with barnyard animals and I'll just stand there smiling, dumb as a rock, and nodding my head encouragingly to tell me more.      

 

It was around 5:00pm by now and we were ready to eat.  The only catch was that no restaurants were open for dinner as this "early hour".  The only place we could find that was open was a Turkish kebab place, so that's where we went.  Not exactly the type of meal that I had envisioned for Erik's first dinner in Europe.  After explaining the menu to Erik, he settled on lamb, rice, fries, and Orangina ... and I decided to join him.  Erik was pretty shocked at my ability to speak French: "I didn't know you were fluent in French!".  Which, or course, I'm not, but apparently it sounded like it to him.  I responded, "yes, I know enough to get by"... and was tempted to add "... and that's why you should take your Spanish language classes more seriously!".  But I restrained myself.  My son hates his required language classes in school and he only puts in the minimum amount of effort possible to pass his class.  

 

Our food arrived and I immediately saw that the our meals were covered in the dreaded white sauce.  I missed that part when trying to translate the menu.  I'm not a fan of the white sauce, but this would pretty much kill any chance of Erik touching his meal.  They might as well cover his food in a layer of cow dung.  To my astonishment, he actually did eat some of it, focusing on relatively dry pieces, with substantial scraping with his knife.  I was impressed.  Of course he loved the Orangina.  I'm one of those "mean dads" who doesn't allow sodas (except on special occasions) but Orangina and other variations of sparking lemonade became a regular thing for us during the trip.  It was the first use of what would become a well-worn phrase to justify bad behavior during our trip: "we're on vacation".  

 

 

 

After our meal, we walked around the city streets and parks.  Luxembourg City is a small city that seemed to have a laid back vibe and friendly people ... based on our very limited experience.  We both liked it.  

 

Lux 0244 Luxembourg City, Grund, bridge over Alzette riverLux 0244 Luxembourg City, Grund, bridge over Alzette riverLuxembourg City, Grund, bridge over Alzette river

Photo above is from https://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/15/76/d1/d9/private-tour-luxembourg.jpg
 

 

After a few hours of walking and exploring, it was back in the car for another 2.5 hours of driving.  Our final destination was Namur, Belgium.  

 

Around 10:00pm, we weaved our way up some windy streets to our final destination, Le Château de Namur (a 4-star hotel), and it was quite an impressive place.  Here's a photo of the hotel from the outside as we walked in for the first time.

 


We entered the lobby (it was December 28th, so it was still decorated with a Christmas Tree), and checked into our room. 

 

 

I think we had room #206.  Whatever room it was, we had nice views of the city below.  Here are two photos of our room.

 

We decided to meander around the hotel grounds a bit to stretch our legs.  After that, we each took a shower to wipe away all the travel, and then it was off to bed.  There would be no exploring of Namur tonight.  All we cared about at this point was sleep.  

 

A few hours later, around 1:30am, a spam phone call woke me up.  Another rookie move.  I forgot to turn off my phone ringer at night.  Jet lag then kicked in to keep me awake for a few more hours before I finally drifted back to sleep. 

 

Using our embarrassing, "checklist travel" approach to this trip, Erik had already visited 3 new countries (Germany, Luxembourg, and Belgium), and Luxembourg was a new country for me as well. 

 

Tomorrow morning, we'll explore Namur, Belgium. 


 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) How to visit 15 countries in 20 days How to visit 15 countries in 20 days with a 10-year-old and enjoy it Luxembourg Luxembourg City Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com Namur Namur Belgium Travelers Century Club Travelers' Century Club Traveling through Europe with a child Traveling to Europe with a Child https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2015/12/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-day-2---texas Mon, 28 Dec 2015 15:00:00 GMT
How to visit 15 countries in 20 days, with a 10-year-old, and enjoy it! (Day 1): Texas https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2015/12/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-and-enjoy-it-day-1---texas

 

After about 5 ½ hours of sleep, the unwelcome sound of my alarm went off in our Sonora, Texas hotel room.  No time for alarm games with the snooze button today ... my son and I had a plane to Germany to catch!  After quick showers and a light breakfast, we were back in our Hyundai rental car and on the road for the 380 mile drive to George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas.    

 

There were some snow flurries in the air, but nothing compared to what we'd experienced the day before.  Click here to read more about that.  Snow wasn't sticking to the ground, but the roads were very slippery thanks to freezing rain.  As were made our way down the highway we saw quite a few cars that had slid off the road.  Thankfully, we were continuing to descend in elevation and the temperature was climbing up to a few degrees above freezing ... things were looking up.  

 

That's when I noticed that the gas light was flashing on my dashboard ... "25 miles remaining".  The next town was over 100 miles away.  My heart sank.  What a rookie move.  We had no option but to turn around and drive 22 miles back to the gas station that was across the street from the hotel we stayed in last night.  The last few miles were particularly "interesting" since the fuel display was telling us "0 miles remaining".  Thankfully, we made it.  I felt relieved and stupid at the same time ... fully recognizing that this 45-minute setback could easily cause us to miss our flight.

 

We retraced our slippery path down the highway and gradually descended into warmer temperatures.  At that point, we enjoyed several hours of driving the 80 mph speed limit on relatively dry roads.  We were making good time.

 

Then it started to rain ... a lot.  It was such a heavy rain that it became difficult to see through the windshield so we had to slow down yet again.  We took a quick pit stop in San Antonio to empty our bladders and refuel on an unhealthy takeout order of chicken strips and a Dairy Queen Blizzard.  

 

The rain was so heavy at this point that traffic on I-10 had slowed to a crawl, and many cars had pulled over to the side of the road to wait for it to subside.  We kept going, albeit slowly.

 

As we approached the outskirts of Houston, the rain was unbelievable and we crawled our way through the last 20 miles before the airport exit.  Our gas tank wasn't completely full, but given the circumstances I didn't care about paying a fee for not returning the car with a full tank.

 

With an incredible sense of relief, we pulled into the covered rental car parking area.  We had been driving for 21 of the past 28 hours (a new record for me ... and one I hope to never repeat) but we made it ... and our Hyundai miraculously drove threw it all unscathed.  It was pretty amazing. 

 

The feeling of relaxation was short-lived as it was 5:10pm ... 10 minutes later than what I estimated would be our cutoff time to have any chance of catching our flight.  

 

We ran to the rental car shuttle (which actually felt great after all that time in the car) and eventually made our way to the correct terminal for United Airlines.  I found the nearest self-check kiosk but it didn't recognize that I had a reservation.  Instead, we had to wait in a line for assistance.  The line didn't appear to be too long, but there were only two people working behind the counter and it was taking forever to move forward.  Finally, a third employee decided to get behind the counter to help and she called us up.  I handed her my flight details and she blandly told me that my reservation had been canceled. 

 

What!!!?? 

 

I'm a calm, easy-going guy, but not this time.  I proceeded to explain that there should be a record of my conversation with the customer service agent telling us that it was ok to skip our flight from Albuquerque to Houston.  "Nope, I don't see any record of that."

 

I then told her about the hellacious drive from Albuquerque for the past 28 hours, told her we only have carry-on luggage, and begged and pleaded for her to issue us a ticket for our original flight.  

 

She was pretty impressed that she drove through that storm that she had seen on the news.  She agreed to call the gate to see if they would let us on, adding that it was probably too late to get on the flight as it is now considered closed. 

 

After an agonizing 30 seconds, where she explained our situation and explained that we had drove through the storm from Albuquerque to get here, she put down the phone and gave us the verdict: "That must have been Santa Claus on the other line because they agreed to issue you a ticket."  Whew.

 

But, there was a catch.  Our flight was in a different terminal and they would not be holding the plane for us.  We would have to hope that we could get through security and make our way to the other terminal before they closed the gate.  The odds didn't sound great, but I thanked her profusely and said that we'll give it a shot.

 

Thankfully, I have TSA pre-check and was able to dodge the long line.  We would have been doomed at the back of that line.  A few people overhead that we had driven from Albuquerque and they were kind enough to let us cut in front of them.  I gratefully accepted the offer.  

 

We made it through the metal detectors, but then the security pulled my son's backpack off for additional screening.  Erik had left unopened drinks in his backpack.  Great.  Another few precious minutes wasted. 

 

As soon as the backpack was in my son's arms, we ran at full speed all the way to Gate C-16.  Miraculously, the gate door was still open.  We breathlessly explained our situation to the agent at the ticket counter and she smiled - "Are you the ones who drove from Albuquerque?"  Yep, that's us.  She laughed and said that she couldn't believe that we had made it through that storm.  I told her that it took us 21 hours to cover what should have been a 14-hour drive.  She smiled and said that she would take care of us, and gave up an upgrade to Economy Plus so that we would have plenty of room.  We both said a heartfelt thank you and we boarded the plane.

 

I could now see what the agent met about giving us plenty of room.  Virtually nobody was in our section of Economy Plus, so Erik and I could each have our own row.  That sounded like paradise to us.  

 

I called my parents to tell them our story and put their mind at ease.  I also sent along this selfie of Erik and I safely in our seats, after an adrenaline-filled 28 hours. 

 

I then checked my phone to see if our original flight from Albuquerque took off on time ... very much hoping that it did not!  I didn't want all that effort to be for nothing.  It turned out that our original flight from Albuquerque was on its way ... but it was running a few hours late. 

 

The gamble had worked ... with literally only minutes to spare.  

 

We were now back on track for our European adventure.  In hindsight, I should have given us a day of slack upon arrival in Frankfurt, rather than make a string of non-refundable hotel and boat reservations for our tightly planned (unfortunately) trip.  Lesson learned. 

 

As soon as our plane took off,  Erik and I each grabbed our own row of seats and we each slept all the way through until the flight crew started serving breakfast about an hour before our arrival in Frankfurt.

 

Now the adventure really begins.  

 

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) How to visit 15 countries in 20 days How to visit 15 countries in 20 days with a 10-year-old and enjoy it Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com Travelers Century Club Travelers' Century Club Traveling through Europe with a child Traveling to Europe with a Child https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2015/12/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-10-year-old-and-enjoy-it-day-1---texas Sun, 27 Dec 2015 15:00:00 GMT
How to visit 15 countries in 20 days, with a 10-year old, and enjoy it! (Day 0): A Blizzard https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2015/12/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-12-year-old-and-enjoy-it---day-0 We've all heard the famous quote from Chapter 64 of the Tao Te Ching that "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."  Well this journey was well over a thousand miles, and it began with a major snowstorm. 

 

It was the morning of December 26, 2015, the day after Christmas, and I just heard the news that blizzard conditions, with up to a foot of snow, were expected where I live, and Albuquerque Airport was expecting 5-7 inches of snow.  Given that City of Albuquerque seems to cancel school if there's even an inch of snow on the ground, I didn't have warm, fuzzy feelings that my 11:00am flight to Houston the next day would depart on time.  We only had a 90-minute layover in Houston before our flight departed for Frankfurt, Germany. 

 

I called United Airlines to explore our options and it didn't sound good.  The most likely result would be an overnight in Houston.  After studying the weather patterns a bit more closely, it looked like our best option was to rent a car and try to beat the storm by taking a southern route through Las Cruces, El Paso, and on to Houston ... and estimated 14-hour drive.  After another 20-minute call with the United Airlines agent, the agent gave us the ok to drive to Houston, skip our ABQ - Houston flight segment, and catch our original Houston - Frankfurt flight. 

 

As soon as I got off the phone with United, I told my son to get packed as we're hitting the road.  We went over to my parents' house to inhale a lunch that my mom thoughtfully offered to prepare.  Then we put our things in my dad's truck, and he drove us to the Albuquerque airport to pick up a one-way rental car that I just reserved.  It was about 12:30pm and the snow was already starting to fall at our house.  

 

After a 35-minute drive to the airport, we picked up our rental car key, shook hands with my dad as he wished us luck on our trip, and we were off in a white, Hyundai Elantra.  I was hoping for a 4-wheel drive vehicle but unfortunately that wasn't an option given the short notice.     

 

Picking up our rental car in Albuquerque as the snow begins to fall

 

 

The snow was starting to fall in Albuquerque as we made our way south on I-25 towards Las Cruces.  The snow started to thicken as we made our way through Belen and Socorro.  That's when we got stuck behind two large trucks that were dumping dirt on the highway.  It took a full thirty minutes of driving at 25 - 35 mph before the trucks finally pulled over to let traffic pass.

 

 

The highways start to get sketchy, and we have a long way to go

 

 

After an hour of white-knuckle driving in slippery conditions, we descended past Truth or Consequences and the roads started to clear up.  I felt vindicated in my decision to drive south and try to beat the storm.  Looks like it worked!  

 

Wow, was I ever wrong.

 

Once we arrived in Las Cruces, we stopped off for a quick bite to eat at Panda Express (at Erik's request) near New Mexico State University.  We ordered our food to-go as it was getting dark and snow was beginning to fall again ... and now it was starting to thicken and stick to the roads.      

 

We got on the highway, making our way East towards El Paso, and that's when things started to get intense.  The snow was so thick that traffic on I-10 was reduced to one lane.  Still, I felt like it was safe enough to continue.  I told Erik that he can recline his seat and get some sleep if he wants to.  He looked at me with a stunned look and said "these seats recline?".  I told him about the lever on the side of the seat and that most passenger seats in cars recline.  He was very excited about this discovery and he immediately put that knowledge to work as he reclined the seat and closed his eyes to get some sleep.  I put on some Pink Floyd to add to the ambiance of having thick flakes of snow melt on my windshield.  

 

The weather continued to decline as we drove through the pass from Las Cruces to El Paso.  It was a bit scary at times, but our Hyundai was doing surprisingly well in the snow, so we pushed on.  Little did I know, this was child's play compared to what was to come.      

 

Driving through West Texas became borderline terrifying.  I made it over one pass, only to find myself climbing another mountain pass.  I couldn’t see anything outside other than the two tracks in front of me, along with heavy blowing snow.  We made it down what seemed like very long descent, and somehow, things get even worse.  

 

My windshield wipers had so much ice on them at this point that they were barely functional.  The ice crusted wipers thwacked the windshield hard with each swipe, to the point that I was concerned that the windshield might crack. 

 

The following three hours were a blur, as if I was in a dream.  My view during this time was a variation of the photo below, although I never took a photo during the really bad parts because I was too focused on keeping our car on the road.  

 

 

We climbed up yet another pass where the snow was very thick.  There were many accidents, with cars stuck in snow banks on the side of the road.  Given the chance, I would have definitely pulled over myself, but there were no buildings, exits, or safe spots on the shoulder of the road to pull into.  All I could do was peer through a small sliver of the front windshield that was not covered in ice and stare determinedly at the two faint lines ahead of me that were slightly darker than the rest of the road.  At this point, Metallica was on the play list in a desperate attempt to stay alert and focused. 

 

Erik was sleeping peacefully through all of this, reclining comfortably in the passenger seat.  

 

I finally got to what seemed like the summit of whatever mountain we were climbing and began what seemed like an endless 15 mph crawl down the backside of the mountain.  There were very few cars on the road and my Hyundai was often the one blazing fresh tracks through many inches of snow as we continued to descend.  It was hideous. 

 

After what seemed like an eternity, the road started to get a tiny bit better and the snow was easing up a bit.  Phone reception was back and I started to look for the next town with available lodging that would have a low temperature above freezing so that I wouldn't wake up in snow.  Ft. Stockton and Ozona were both expecting snow in the morning so those weren't options.  After some additional research, Sonora, Texas become my target destination.  Sonora was expecting a low temperature of 35 degrees Fahrenheit.  I looked up hotels in Sonora, found a Comfort Inn, and was able to book the last available room.  It only had one king-sized bed, but at that point I didn't care if we had to sleep in a bathtub or on the floor.  I was exhausted.  

 

I continued to blast my music in a semi-possessed state as the conditions gradually eased from snow to freezing rain to a regular, moderate rain.  I could finally go the speed limit (70 mph) for the first time in ages.  Finally, at 2:23am local time (13 hours after my departure from my house), we arrived at the Comfort Inn in Sonora, Texas.  What a relief.  I was so happy to see the hotel and I was completely amazed that our Hyundai Elantra was able to drive through that blizzard. 

 

We stumbled into the hotel, checked in, got our key, and dragged ourselves to our room.  No tooth-brushing, no nothing.  It was straight to bed and we were out like a light.    

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).

   


 

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) How to visit 15 countries in 20 days How to visit 15 countries in 20 days with a 10-year-old and enjoy it Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com New Mexico & Beyond New Mexico and Beyond nmbeyond.com Travelers Century Club Travelers' Century Club Traveling through Europe with a child Traveling to Europe with a Child https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2015/12/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-12-year-old-and-enjoy-it---day-0 Sat, 26 Dec 2015 15:00:00 GMT
How to visit 15 countries in 20 days, with a 10-year-old, and enjoy it! (Introduction) https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2015/12/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-12-year-old-and-enjoy-it---introduction

 

In the winter of 2015, I decided to take advantage of the discounts that were available for traveling with a "child" (who thinks he is thirty) by taking my ten-year-old son, Erik, on an epic adventure in Europe from December 26, 2015 - January 16, 2016.  

 

I had three goals for the trip:

1) Finally accomplish my goal of visiting 100 countries before the age of 50 (I was 47 at the time);

2) Provide Erik with some exposure to what life is like in Europe, and hopefully kindle some interest in other cultures and reinforce the importance of learning a second language, and;

3) Spend quality bonding time with my son and actually have a fun trip!

 

Looking back on it now (3+ years later), I can say that our trip was mostly successful:   

- I did manage to visit my 100th country (yay!).

- My son still has no interest in learning another language (boo!).  However, he does have some interest in travel and experiencing other cultures, so we made some progress towards accomplishing the second goal. 

- While the travel was a bit of a slog at times, we had a lot of laughs and many great adventures together. 

 

As for why (back in my college days) I set a goal of visiting 100 countries by the time I was 50, I'll refer you to an earlier post called "A Very Early Retirement". 

 

Before this trip, I had visited 91 countries, so I had to visit nine more countries to achieve my goal.  I was using the country list developed by the Travelers' Century Club, which has a liberal definition of what constitutes a "country".  The TCC's official list has a total of 327 countries and territories (as of January 1, 2018).  How is this possible, given that the United Nations only recognizes a total of 195 countries?  As TCC puts it "Although some are not actually countries in their own right, they have been included because they are removed from the parent country." So the TCC list includes places that are geographically and/or culturally distinct from the parent country. 

 

If you think about it, this makes sense.  After all, a visit to Tahiti is quite a bit different than visiting its parent country, France.  Similarly, places like Tibet, Greenland, Easter Island, British Virgin Islands, (and the list goes on and on) are all considered distinct "countries".  I like this approach.  Not only does it make it much easier to accomplish the daunting goal of visiting 100 countries, the expansive list gives you an opportunity to visit many fascinating, remote places around the world that you might not otherwise visit.

 

Prior to this trip, I had already been to most of the big countries in Europe.  So my focus on this trip was to visit some of the smaller countries and destinations on the TCC list such as Luxembourg, Jersey, Guernsey, Andorra, San Marino, Corsica, Mallorca, and Malta, in addition to visiting Romania and Bulgaria.  My plan was to rent a car in Germany and drive through Luxembourg, Belgium, France, Andorra, Spain, Monaco, San Marino, and Italy as we made our way to boat ports and airports to reach destinations such as Jersey/Guernsey (boat), Corsica (boat), Malta (flight), Sicily (boat), Romania (flight), and Bulgaria (flight). 

 

Such an overloaded itinerary may sound as appealing as root canal work without anesthesia, but I was pretty excited about it.  My son had no clue what was in store for him.  I figured he wouldn't remember the trip anyway in a few years so it didn't really matter where I took him.  In hindsight, I turned out to be right about that!

 

Given how ambitious my itinerary was, with very tight timelines, it was highly likely that some of my plans would fall apart.  But as long as I could visit 9 of the 10 new countries (for me) on our list, then I would meet my 100 country goal.  In the process, my son would rack up an impressive 15 new countries (best case scenario), since he had never been to Europe before.  That would bring his total to 33 countries that he doesn't remember.

 

I could easily subtitle this series of blog posts, "How not to travel" as traveling to check off a list of countries in quick succession is not how I prefer to travel.  I much prefer spending some time in a country to get to know the place, meet local people, and settle into the scene.  But what can I say, trips are expensive and I didn't have a lot of free time left to accomplish my goal of visiting 100 countries before the age of 50, so I pursued "checklist travel" with reckless abandon.  I also justified this crazy itinerary by reminding myself that I had already spent over 1.5 years of my life exploring Europe.  

 

In this series of blog posts, I'll share the highs and lows of this European adventure with you, along with some recommendations on places to visit, trip segments that proved to be enjoyable, trip segments that were more of a slog, and some travel advice for anyone planning a similar trip.  Yes, believe it or not, there are other people out there who are similarly warped and would enjoy taking such a trip.

 

Rest assured, we'll be covering a lot of ground in these twenty posts.  I hope you enjoy it! 

 

Happy travels,

Mark

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries (so far) and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

   

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) How to visit 15 countries in 20 days How to visit 15 countries in 20 days with a 10-year-old and enjoy it Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com New Mexico & Beyond New Mexico and Beyond nmbeyond.com Travelers Century Club Travelers' Century Club Traveling through Europe with a child Traveling to Europe with a Child https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2015/12/how-to-visit-15-countries-in-20-days-with-a-12-year-old-and-enjoy-it---introduction Thu, 24 Dec 2015 15:00:00 GMT
Crossing Into Togo - The Difference a Line in the Sand Can Make (August 2012) https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2012/8/togo---august-2012 Welcome to Togo! August 2012

 

I couldn't resist the temptation of trying to cross the border into Togo.  My friend Paul (after just finishing a Peace Corps gig in Liberia) was a good sport and agreed to join met.  Togo is one of those faraway places that many people in the United States have never even heard of.  I knew where Togo was on a world map, I knew that the capital was Lomé, and I had heard of the 2010 attack on the Togo national soccer team bus as it drove through Angola, resulting in three dead and nine wounded.  Being a soccer fanatic, I was also familiar with the Togolese player Emmanuel Adebayor.  But that about covers the extent of my prior knowledge of Togo.

 

Togo is a narrow country that is wedged between Ghana and Benin.  It has a population of about 7 million people, with 1.5 million people living in and around the capital and largest city, Lomé.  Lomé is located on the Gulf of Guinea.

 

 

 

Paul and I met our driver at 7:30am at our hotel in Accra.  It took about 3.5 hours to drive from Accra to Aflao - the busy border town where we needed to leave our driver and proceed on foot into Togo.  Of course, we first had to deal with customs, and that had the potential to be a difficult proposition given our situation.  Why?  Because we did not have multiple entry visas for Ghana.  We were able to secure a visa from the Togolese embassy in Accra, but we did not have time to secure a multiple entry visa for Ghana.  In other words, we could get into Togo, but we had no visa to get us back into Ghana. 

 

We decided to roll the dice and give it a try.  Both of us had spent time in different parts of Africa and found that almost anything is negotiable in Africa...for the right price.  We walked into the customs office at the Ghana-Togo border, explained what we wanted to do, and then we waited.  A long time.  Finally, we were invited into the office of the customs officer to discuss the possibility of securing a visa for us to get back into Ghana if we cross the border into Togo.  The officer explained the difficulty of getting a visa on such short notice, and finally said that he could arrange for us to receive an "emergency visa" for the price of US$150 each.  Cash of course.  That was a deal breaker for us and we explained that it was too much money.  After further consideration, the customs officer revised his approach and said that he would give us a tourist visa for US$50 each, instead of an emergency visa.  We agreed.  The only catch was that we would need to find this officer again once we were ready to cross back into Ghana.  Feeling lucky?  Well, we must have felt lucky because we said ok. 

 

Two minutes later, we were walking across the line the separates Ghana from Togo. 

 

There were two major changes from Ghana that we noticed immediately.  First, English was now useless.  In Togo, you speak French.   Thankfully, I studied French for quite a few years and had lived in a French-speaking part of Switzerland for a short time.  More importantly, I actually still remembered enough French to get by.  It is not pretty, but its enough to get around. 

 

The second major change that we noticed...motorcycles.  A lot of them.  In Ghana, motorcycles are banned, but in Togo, pas de problème!

 

Motorcycles are allowed in Togo! ...banned in Ghana

 

 

Here are a few photos of Lomé.

The Coast of Lome, Togo

 

 

Beach soccer anyone?  Apparently not today.

Soccer field on the beach, Lome, Togo

 

 

Lunch at Le Galion - a very French restaurant that appeared to be popular with expats from France.

The Menu at Le Galion, Lome, Togo

 

 

I opted for entrecôte and pommes frites (peppersteak and fries)....still feeling lucky.

Entrecote et pommes frites (Peppersteak and Fries)...in Lome, Togo!

 

 

We spent the day exploring Lomé, with a good chunk of it dealing with a "diabetic" guy who needed money for an insulin shot.  This was a new one to add to the long list of scams that I have encountered in different parts of the world.  However, I have to say it was a very convincing performance.  We both bought into it at first.  We walked with the man while he went to a police station to ask where there was a Pharmacy that was open today.  Next we walked into the Pharmacy where he bought a "temporary insulin" shot that would keep him going for a few hours until he was able to get enough money to buy better insulin shots that would keep him going for the next few days.  He grabbed the temporary insulin syringe from the pharmacist, stuck it in his side, and injected the insulin.  Like I said, this was not your average scam.  So then we started reaching for our wallets to buy him the shots that he would need to keep him going for awhile...thinking that $10 should cover anything that he would need.  The pharmacist said a number in French, but I assumed that I wasn't understanding properly because it sounded like a big number.  He punched the keys on a calculator and showed it to us.  The total cost would be 124,131 West African CFA Franc.  We borrowed the calculator to convert the number from West African CFA Francs to US Dollars, and then our jaws dropped.  US$250. 

 

Now, we both knew that US$250 was a LOT of money in most of Africa.  That is more money than many families earn in a year.  And of course, it would need to be paid in cash.  Credit card were not accepted at the pharmacy.  Now we didn't have that kind of cash with us, even if we wanted to pay that much money.  Of course, our friend didn't hesitate.  Let's go to an ATM to get some cash.  At this point, Paul and I were very reluctant to continue.  As we walked along the streets, our friend was starting to "feel sick"...must...get...more...insulin...kind of routine.  We were now 99% sure that this was a scam...but that 1% chance of not helping a person in need can sometimes be enough to cave in and give money.  We did go with him to an ATM but thankfully, very few ATMs in Ghana and Togo accept MasterCard (the only credit card that I had with me) so we were not able to withdraw any money even if we wanted to.  We gave our friend a small amount of cash (US$10), wished him well, and hailed a taxi to get out of there.

 

As for getting back into Ghana, we were lucky...very lucky.  The customs officer who was bribing us...I mean...arranging for our tourist visa back into Ghana, was not in the office when we returned.  He had been called into the street to deal with a fist fight at the border.  We waited for over an hour until finally, an Assistant was able to make contact by cell phone with the customs officer to get the scoop on what to do with us.  The Assistant was directed via cell phone to provide us with a tourist visa.  The Assistant hung up the phone and told us that the total would be 35 Cedi for the two of us.  Cedi is the currency of Ghana.  At the time, 35 Cedi was equivalent to about US$17.  We quickly paid, and eagerly walked back into Ghana before being spotted by the Customs Officer. 

 

We found our driver, hopped in his car, and made our way back to Accra.

 

Our Togo adventure was a success...at least in terms of having a memorable experience!   Plus Togo was my 84th country that I have visited...not that I am keeping track.  Ahem.  Ok, I confess.  I am trying to visit over 100 countries, and that is why I end up having some of these crazy travel stories.  It really was a fun trip, though - a lot laughs...particularly after it was over.

 

Here is a photo that I took on the drive back from Togo to Accra.

        Starting the journey back from Togo border to Accra, Ghana

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).
 

   

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Ghana Border Ghana-Togo Border Lome Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com Togo Togo Border https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2012/8/togo---august-2012 Sat, 11 Aug 2012 14:00:00 GMT
Ghana Part 3 - The Streets and Markets of Ghana https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2012/8/ghana-part-3---the-streets-and-markets-of-ghana Typical scenes while driving from Accra to the Gold Coast (Videos)

While there are plenty of bustling markets and busy roads in Ghana, thankfully I did not experience as many "white-knuckle" taxi rides or chaotic markets with relentless touts compared to other parts of Africa and India.  Don't get me wrong, there were still plenty of close calls on the roads of Ghana.  People tend to drive very fast, but they are forced to slow down due to the many speed bumps on the roads.  To make it interesting at night, some vehicles had lights that were very dim and some vehicles didn't appear to have any lights at all.  There weren't many animals on the roads...and there were no motorcycles on the road since they are banned.  Just lots of honking cars and trucks, diesel fumes, dust, and smoke from the fires in the villages.  By the time I got back to my room, I was pretty ripe from sweat, smoke, diesel, and dust.

 

Rest assured, the streets and markets are a feast for your senses if you are visiting from the United States.  These short videos of typical street and market scenes will give you a taste.  

 

Typical market scene on the drive from Accra to Cape Coast

 

 

Another market scene on the way to Cape Coast

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).
 

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) "Gold Coast" Ghana markets Ghana streets Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2012/8/ghana-part-3---the-streets-and-markets-of-ghana Wed, 08 Aug 2012 15:00:00 GMT
Ghana Part 2 - Slave Castles, Canopy Walkways, and a President's Funeral https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2012/8/ghana-part-2---slave-castles-canopy-walkways-and-a-presidents-funeral Red and Black 

President John Evans Atta Mills died just before I arrived in Accra.  The people of Ghana were in mourning, and everyone was wearing red and black to signify the occasion for the entire week that I was in Accra.  The funeral was held just down the street from where I was staying.

 

Mourners walk by "Large Tax Payer's Office" on way to President's funeral

 

Ghana is an easy country to visit for many reasons.  For starters, I only had a take two planes from Albuquerque to get there!  It was amazing to hop on a plane in Albuquerque, change planes in Atlanta, and then wake up to find myself in Accra, Ghana.  I found that Accra was a relatively easy and safe city to navigate, and the people we met were terrific.  And to top it all off, English is the official language of Ghana, so it doesn't get much easier than that!   

 

Here is a map of Ghana to help you get oriented - not a map that many of us are familiar with in Albuquerque.

 

 

 

We used Accra as a base to explore the Cape Coast and Kakum National Park to the West, and then cross overland into Togo to the East.

 

 

Cape Coast Castle

Cape Coast Castle is a World Heritage Site that used to be one of the largest slave-holding sites in the world during the colonial era, just a few hundred years ago.  Slaves were crammed into hot, dark, and oppressive dungeons before crossing the "Gate of No Return" and being stuffed into merchant ships and deported to a life of slave labor.  It is estimated that tens of thousands of slaves were incarcerated in this place over the years. 

 

We joined one of the group tours.  Our guide took us down to the dungeons and turned off the flashlight.  It was very dark - very difficult to see anything.  The only light and fresh air came from a small porthole high up on the wall.  It was hot and sweaty in the dungeon, and of course this was nothing compared to what the slaves experienced.  They were locked up with about 200 other people in each of the cells.  Since everyone was shackled together, it was not easy to move in the cramped quarters.  People had to defecate, vomit, and sleep where they were.  Food would be thrown to them from above...and it would land in the feces, blood, and vomit. 

 

Needless to say, it is an intense, depressing, yet very worthwhile stop in Ghana.  Plan on ~2 hours to tour the site and be sure to go on one of the guided tours.  The experience of descending into those dark dungeons, and then hearing about the deplorable conditions that these poor souls had to endure, is something that will stick with me forever.

 

Cape Coast Castle - one of the largest salve holding sites in the World in the colonial era

 

 

Kakum National Park and the Canopy Walkway

Kakum National Park protects one of the most extensive rainforests in Ghana.  It is a good spot for birding (with over 265 species of birds) and it also contains ~100 species of mammals, including forest elephant, giant forest hog, flying squirrels, leopard, spot-nosed monkey, bushbuck, bongo, and duiker.  The main attraction for visitors is the canopy walk - a 1,155 foot-long wood walkway that is suspended by rope and weaves through the forest canopy at a height of 92 - 132 feet above the ground.  If you are scared of heights, then you might want to stick to the trails and skip the canopy walk.  Given that we did not arrive until late morning (well past peak wildlife activity), and it was raining (hey, it's a rainforest, what do you expect!), we did not see much in the way of wildlife.  But it was still fun to walk along the canopy of the rainforest, and see the excitement in the faces of Ghanaian children walking on the suspended trail - apparently it is a popular field trip for local schools. 

 

Logistics: It took about 3.5 hours to drive to Kakum National Park from Accra.  Cost: US$30 to do the canopy walk. 

 

Kakum National Park - canopy walkway iv

 

 

Kakum National Park - canopy walkway iii

 

 

Rest in Peace, President John Evans Atta Mills

Rest in Peace - President John Evans Atta Mills

 

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).
 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Accra canopy walkway Cape Coast Castle Ghana Kakum National Park Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com Slave Castles https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2012/8/ghana-part-2---slave-castles-canopy-walkways-and-a-presidents-funeral Wed, 08 Aug 2012 14:00:00 GMT
Djembe Drumming in Ghana https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2012/8/djembe-drumming-in-ghana-august-2012 Djembe drummers at a studio in Accra, Ghana.Djembe Drumming in GhanaI captured this photo at one of the workshops where djembe drums are made in Accra, Ghana.

In August 2012, I took a trip to Ghana for fun.  Why?  Five reasons. 

 

1)  I had never been to West Africa

 

2) I had heard good things about Ghana as a place to visit.

 

3) There was a chance I could cross the border into Togo or Ivory Coast, depending on the stability of the neighboring countries at the time, and the associated cost and hassle of securing a visa while in Ghana.

 

4) I have a Djembe drum that was made in Ghana, and I thought it would be great to experience djembe drumming from the source.

 

5) A friend of mind (Paul) just finished a Peace Corps stint in Liberia and was ready for a break in Ghana before returning to the US.

 

It turned out to be a great decision.  The people were friendly, I felt safe walking the streets of Accra, I was able to cross the border (overland) into Togo without too much trouble ... and I came home with a new Djembe drum that was custom carved for my son!

 

 

Here is a video of Paul and I test driving some djembe drums...

 

Two beginners learn a riff on the djembe drum in Accra, Ghana.We learned this djembe drumming pattern while visiting a djembe drum maker in Accra, Ghana.

 

 

And then the pros show us how it is really done...

A djembe drumming demonstration from a drum maker's studio in Accra, Ghana.An impromptu djembe drumming performance at a drum maker's studio in Accra, Ghana.

 

 

 

Paul (a banjo player) was eyeing an "African banjo"...you don't see those every day.  Moses was happy to give us a demo - here is a video.

 

African banjo demonstrationMoses gives a demo of his African banjo

 

 

Here is the market in Accra where djembe drums are made.

Market for drums - Accra

 

 

The workshop for custom carving of the drums - Paul ended up buying a drum too.

 

Made-to-order Djembe Drums - Accra

 

 

When the drums were ready to be picked up, the carvers and shop owner gave us an impromptu performance using our new drums...probably to give us a lasting impression of what it is supposed to sound like if we ever get good at playing djembe!  Click on the video below.

 

One last jam session with our new djembe drums

 

 

And the final product...one for my son Erik and one for Paul.

 

Our hotel room in Accra - displaying our new djembe drums

 

 

 

Mark Aspelin is a travel writer and author of two books who has enjoyed a wide variety of adventures in his travels to over 100 countries and all 50 U.S. States.  Mark lives in the mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, which serves as a great home base for his blog, New Mexico & Beyond (www.nmbeyond.com or www.markstravelblog.com).
 

 

 

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mark@markstravelblog.com (New Mexico & Beyond (aka Mark's Travel Blog)) Accra African banjo African Drumming Djembe Djembe Drum Djembe Drumming Ghana Mark Aspelin Mark's Travel Blog MarksTravelBlog.com New Mexico & Beyond New Mexico and Beyond nmbeyond.com https://www.markstravelblog.com/blog/2012/8/djembe-drumming-in-ghana-august-2012 Tue, 07 Aug 2012 14:00:00 GMT