Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Noel's Solo Trip to Switzerland and Greece

I'm off feeding my vagabondness with a 24 day trip equally split between southern Switzerland (the Italian speaking canton Ticino where my paternal ancestors are from, where I continue to stay in touch with cousins there, and where I have visited many times) and Greece (first time).

The trip started as many do -- with me finding an incredibly cheap airline ticket flying roundtrip from Los Angeles to Zurich -- for $316 cash value of Chase credit card points.  The flights from Zurich to/from Greece were $119 and $134, respectively.

August 28/29 - comfortable Delta flights from Los Angeles with a connection in Atlanta - departing 8:45am on August 28 and arriving Zurich at 8:45am on August 29.  I then picked up a rental car at the Zurich airport and drove 3 hours over (and through - many tunnels) the Swiss Alps to Gordevio -- a still small village within a dead-end valley known as Valle Maggia.  I've written before about my roots here in Gordevio - here is a good overview.  I've posted photos from today on Instagram here.

I'll be staying at a cousin's home here in Gordevio until September 9 when I'll fly to Athens.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Am I Addicted To The Vagabond Life?

It's true - sometimes it seems that in my retirement I have become increasingly addicted to a vagabond ("having an irregular course") life.  But, like all things, it's way more complicated than any single word might express.  Let me try to explain.

It has been my observation that if you ask anyone fortunate enough to even be contemplating retirement about their plans -- among the first answers you get will be "travel."  But I've also observed that most just say it wistfully as they really have chosen to occupy their lives with commitments (houses, gardens, lawns, pets, activities and routines) that discourage more than short holidays much like they took while working.  And, some of those further limit their "travel" interests to specific, expensive destinations (only western Europe, for example) or to managed travel (cruises, tours, groups).  All have their place and purpose -- but I think my addiction is, therefore, not just to "travel," but rather to an "irregular" course of life.

I'm a little different.  I tend to love everything about the kind of travel that I undertake -- independent adventure traveling -- from the finding, booking, planning - to the in-country execution (navigating, exploring, learning) - to the satisfaction I get from completing my plans.  I never was a fisherman or a hunter -- but I suspect that my addiction to traveling as I do -- is similar to the fisherman/hunter.  Great satisfaction is gained from all aspects from anticipation/preparation to reflecting on the trophy photo/memory.

I'm addicted to the gambling-like rush that I get when I find the incredibly low air fare, when I score a superb accommodation at a reasonable price, when I successfully find great local foods, when I navigate in lands where I am sometimes forced to meet my daily needs without an ability to understand the spoken word, speak the language or read the signage -- where I must rely on my own ingenuity (and increasingly travel/translation apps).  I'm also addicted to what I call "senior backpacking" (NO - not actual backpacking - I need a comfortable bed and daily shower) - but where I make choices that keep me staying among fellow interesting and interested travelers - focused on local culture and cuisine rather than trying to recreate their USA life in a foreign land (sure there is western food and Starbucks everywhere - but I'll never understand why wealthy, often snooty, Americans travel just to experience what they do and eat at home!) Similarly, I refuse to buy any souvenir or trinket or gift (carry on luggage only).  I try to keep the focus on the experience - my photos provide adequate reminders of the trip.
So, yes -- I am addicted to the vagabond life.  It's not for everyone -- and I don't know how long my addiction will last -- but for now I'm having a blast.  If I never mow another lawn again in my life -- that'll be fine by me.

Santiago and Buenos Aires - Until Next Time

After 7 nights in wonderful Buenos Aires, I flew back to Santiago -- moved into yet another Airbnb - super nice in different location - and set about another couple days touring Santiago.

Tonight - May 3 - I catch Latam Airlines (the largest Latin American Airline) to Lima, Peru with a connection to Los Angeles - arriving Friday, May 4 at 8:00am.

Another wonderful and satisfying adventure complete!

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A Week in Buenos Aires

Well, once again - as sometimes happens - my blogging spirit has diminished -- as I reflect happily on my amazingly fun week in Buenos Aires.  It seems an insurmountable task to try to capture the many contacts, conversations, tours, meals, walks, vistas, impressions, thoughts, and feelings that I experienced.  Even my photos seem incomplete and inadequate to explain the visit.

Suffice to say, as I did on Facebook:  
Just wrapping up a week in beautiful Buenos Aires with great thanks to my Great Barrier Reef dive partner who graciously gave me her apartment to stay in and shared her family, friends, and time with me.

And if you want to see some of the photos that will help me remember my friends and activities, I've linked them in this album.
I definitely want to return to Buenos Aires -- and travel farther and longer in Argentina -- and keep in touch with my friends there!  What a great week!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Valparaiso - April 21-23, 2018

I still rely heavily on Lonely Planet guide books when planning my trips -- and my reading encouraged a 1 1/2 bus-ride side trip to the coastal of Valparaiso, home to 300,000 - where I arranged a two-bedroom, two-bath Airbnb so that Marta could accompany me.  I love the way Lonely Planet describes Valparaiso: "Syncopated, dilapidated, colorful and poetic, Valpara√≠so is a wonderful mess. Pablo Neruda, who drew much inspiration from this hard-working port town, said it best: 'Valpara√≠so, how absurd you are…you haven't combed your hair, you've never had time to get dressed, life has always surprised you."
Marta and I enjoyed two wonderful days being tourists in this city "widely known for its bohemian culture, brightly coloured houses, and beautiful seaside views."  The city is known for its many "Ascensores" - funiculars that run between the coastal area to the nearby hill tops, and offer gorgeous views of the cityscape, port, and the Pacific Ocean.

To be sure, no amount of my photos can match the beauty of the many photos available on Google here.

The weekend passed quickly and in a blink we were back on the bus to Santiago where I stayed in yet another Airbnb near the airport - got some laundry done and a home-cooked meal by the Bolivian owner - and readied for my departure the next day (April 24) for Buenos Aires.

Santiago - April 18-21, 2018

In 1978 - the last and only time I had previously visited Santiago, I was working in Washington, DC which had just gotten its light rail metro a few years earlier - and I was fascinated to see Santiago's metro propelled on rubber tires.  So I snapped a photo and was immediately detained by local police -- and taken to an interview room where, thankfully, my boss, fluent in Spanish, explained my innocent photo intent.  That 40-year old lesson - during the rule of the repressive dictatorship of Pinochet (1976-83) - quickly reminded me that dictators don't take kindly to the photography of public facilties.  I'm pleased to tell you that I ran into no problems recreating that 40-year old "mistake" - in a Santiago that is a very different place - a thriving home to 7 million that transitioned to democracy in 1990.

And Santiago's metro, the 3rd largest in Latin America, still uses the French-designed, metro cars with rubber tires (though some of it now runs on steel wheels).

Getting pesos (about $600 Chilean Pesos to $1 USD), finding the inexpensive bus to downtown, and arranging the Uber ride were superbly easy and comfortable -- but because it was still early in the day, I proceeded to the home of the "mother of a friend of a cousin" who I had only briefly met when we were both visiting Switzerland last August.  I had kept up texting-correspondence with "Marta" since our meeting in the hopes of crossing paths in Santiago.  She had explained that she didn't have a large enough apartment to host me -- but that we could share meals and tourist activities.  From our short visit in Switzerland I could tell that she was a very youthful 83 year old -- and spoke perfect English.

Her apartment - like the nice Airbnb I stayed at - is located in the thriving downtown -- so we immediately set out on her introducing me to the local area and food - and later a delicious salmon lunch at her apartment.

For the next 3 days Marta was my tour guide in visiting some of the sites/neighborhoods - including the impressive Cerro San Cristobal with expansive views of the city.

And on one of the days, Marta's friend took us on a driving tour of the city with a lunch time stop for a massive hot dog loaded with avocado - at the local, long time favorite cafe Fuente Alemana (Trip Advisor rated #33 of 4,450 restaurants in Santiago).

I also did some afternoon sightseeing on my own - including visiting the very interesting Museum of Memory and Human Rights which provided a close examination of the horrors of the Pinochet rule.

I didn't write about everything I saw, did, and ate -- but it was a wonderful visit to Santiago -- followed by my pre-planned trip to the beautiful, coastal city of Valparaiso (next posting).

Saturday, April 21, 2018

A New Wanderlust Fix - South America: Santiago & Buenos Aires - April/May 2018

My addiction to wanderlusting cheaply was excited again in January when I was alerted to an affordable fare to Santiago, Chile - $629 round trip plus a $25 airline ticketing charge -- flying out of Portland and returning to Los Angeles (ticketed by Latam Airlines).  Why Santiago?  Well, why not?  After all, I have wanted to continue my exploration of South America ever since a 1978 (40 years ago) business trip from Chile to Panama (and places in between).  And, in the past year I had the opportunity to meet and add friendships in both Santiago and Buenos Aires that added current inspiration to the long-held goal.  So, I proceeded to buy the tickets to Santiago -- and added a round trip from Santiago to Buenos Aires for $165 in credit card points.

As I went about my trip planning, I was super pleased to learn how affordable complete Airbnb apartments are in Santiago ($45 to $55 a night for a fully equipped, downtown condo) and to have my dive partner from my Australian trip (an Argentinian living in downtown Buenos Aires - posted about here) offer me her apartment for my time there.

The trip got underway on April 17 - when I flew from Portland to Dallas/Ft. Worth (Alaska Airlines) and then direct to Santiago on American.  American even gave me a complimentary upgrade (no, I don't know why) to their spacious premium economy seats on the new 787 aircraft - complete with an empty seat next to me.  It would have been more comfortable journey if I hadn't been fighting a head cold -- but the medication and complimentary wine did provide some needed sleep on the overnight 9+ hour flight from Dallas/Ft. Worth to Santiago.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

So Long New Zealand - I'll Be Back

And in what seemed like the blink of an eye, my 16 days in the north island of New Zealand are over.  Since I last wrote, I stayed two nights south of Auckland - one in the bush of the Hunua mountain ranges and one in a coastal village of Whakatiwai -- at two more unique and special Airbnbs.

Tonight I am at an airport motel -- having turned in my car with 845 more miles (well, officially 1360 more kilometers!) on it than when I started (about 40 miles more than a 14 hour journey from Seattle to San Francisco.)  I've become so accustomed to driving on the left side of the road, that I may be in for a learning curve when I get back to the states.

My return flights begin at 8:00am in the morning (Feb 15 here) and will take me 3:45 hours to Sydney, 1:30 hour layover, and 13:50 hour flight Sydney to Los Angeles - landing two hours before I leave Auckland (landing at 6am on Feb 15 in Los Angeles) - thereby returning the day that was robbed from me during the journey here!

And, once again for readers who like hearing about the mishaps -- I ended up having to get roadside service for a bad battery -- which became an adventure all its own as I had reserved through a budget provider.  Suffice to say -- I got to know the owner better than I might have preferred to get the battery replaced.  The battery failed to start the car once prior on the trip -- but I had arranged to get a jump on my own fearing that an expensive call out might be blamed on me leaving lights on or some such.  The battery lasted several more days before quitting again (after a long, motorway run).  Thankfully, I was only insignificantly inconvenienced by the hassle, but it was a hassle -- and the owner claims he will reimburse me for the first jump I had paid for out of pocket.  The owner actually delivered and installed the replacement battery!  But like I always maintain -- if I wanted easy routines, I'd just stay home!

An unscheduled dip in the ocean, a couple of jump starts, arranging a battery replacement, and more rain than sunshine, but nothing that really detracted from a truly fun and interesting trip. I  met some wonderful Kiwi's, stayed at some amazing places -- and paid as little as $41 for an Airbnb (not counting the free stay with friends!) and as much as $96 - with an average of $71, and all but one of those AirBnB's were private spaces with my own private bath/toilet.

Summary:  a beautiful country with super friendly people where travel is easy.  Diving at Poor Knights Marine Reserve and boating/"catching" with my new friends will remain the highlights - and I'm already thinking about when I can return -- not only to the North Island but to explore the North Island city I didn't get to: Wellington; and to visit the South Island, its cities and mountains!

"I'll be back."

Monday, February 12, 2018

New Friends and A Fishing Adventure

On February 11 I continued down the west coast of New Zealand's Northlands in more Portland-like weather and scenery to include New Zealand's largest tree - the Tane Mauta. Of course, the photo on the linked wiki page is more impressive, but this one shows that I was there:
But the highlight of the 3+ hour day of travel was arriving at the beautiful, waterfront home of a couple I had just started corresponding with since arriving in NZ -- with an email introduction by a childhood friend of mine.  The warm welcoming, a delicious home cooked meal,  lots of wonderful conversation, and superb accommodations, made it easy to quickly add these lifelong Kiwi's as my friends as well! And, thanks to them, my knowledge of Kiwi life (geography, health care, education, retirement, etc) increased immensely.       

In the morning I joined in a 3 mile hike/walk with neighbors that gave me even more opportunity to meet/interact with even more locals -- and enjoy an overview of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula I was on, about 25km north of Auckland.
And just when I thought I would be saying my goodbye's, the couple invited me to join them on their 45 foot yacht for a few hours cruising Hauraki Gulf  (click the link to see this massive gulf that includes the waters surrounding the east coast of Auckland).  However, what started as just a cruise - became an exciting day of fishing (well, catching!) -- complete with my little, unplanned dip in the ocean.  For those of you that enjoy the mishaps I sometimes write about in my blogs (like this one of surfacing from Scuba to the wrong boat) -- you'll love this tale.  And, as I have pointed out before -- consistent with my enjoyment of telling such stories, it will be among my most talked about adventures from this trip:

We began our fishing near a surface marker for Shearer Rock (topo map here) and when a lure became snagged on the metal grill of the hazard buoy there, I jumped from the rear deck of the yacht to the buoy -- and easily retrieved the stuck lure.  My timing in my jump to return to the rear deck was not so perfectly timed with the swell -- and in I went - with pocketed cell phone and passport.  My shoulders never went under water -- and I was able to quickly get myself to the deck -- with no damage done.  And thankfully, the iPhone 7's water resistance (rated for 1 meter for 30 minutes) held and I had the lucky foresight to have put my passport in a zip lock baggy.  So, the only real damage was to my ego -- which, as you might guess by the fact that I'm retelling the story -- it'll take a little more than a quick misjudged jump to damage my ego!

Back to the truly exciting and fun part -- I had a blast catching.  If "fishing" was always like this -- fun and exciting "catching," I'd take up the sport regularly.  

A superb day "catching" on the water with new Kiwi friends -- truly a perfect day.  I'm already scheming as to when I might be able to return to New Zealand!

Friday, February 9, 2018

Traveling: Every Day Isn't Postcard Perfect...

"Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference!" (Winston Churchill)

The heavy rain/overcast/fog returned before I left the Bay of Islands and headed to the most northern tip of New Zealand - Cape Reinga (route shown here).  Thankfully it's summer warm -- in the low 70's -- and I'm told by all the locals that this much rain/overcast is unseasonable -- but it doesn't dissuade me from enjoying the journey.  But to be sure, it's only the rain and driving on the left (and sitting on the opposite side of the car) that make this "adventure" travel.  This is easy traveling -- and I'm loving it even if the scenery is somewhat muted by the overcast and rain.  Everything is in English, food is familiar, people are friendly, there is a general absence of other traffic -- and it was easy to get lulled into thinking I was traveling through Northwest USA.  Even the rain made it feel like Portland-home!

I made it to the Cape Reinga lighthouse and enjoyed thinking that it was days like the day I was there that made the lighthouse so essential.  After all, if it had been a beautiful, sunny day -- arriving ships would be able to see the land mass ahead of them.  This was my view:

And, here is where attitude matters -- I wasn't bothered a bit.  I was delighted to be visiting this spot in New Zealand -- happy that I'm here in good health -- and getting to "experience" New Zealand. (Here is a 16 second video I took of my visit.)

If I just wanted to see the lighthouse in picture postcard glory -- I need only do a Google images search - which I've linked here for your (and my) viewing pleasure!  For as long as the brisk/cool wind would allow me -- I relished in thinking about the boat travel of my ancestors as they traveled from southern Switzerland to Australia in the 1850's and from Australia to the USA in 1888 (when my grandfather was 8).  It's likely he saw more days like this, as they passed through the waters around New Zealand, than postcard days!

About an hour south of Cape Reinga, I stayed at another fun and interesting AirBnB (owned by a farming couple) -- and awoke to the same weather for my 3 hour journey on Saturday, February 9.  My destination today was another AirBnb on the west coast of the Northlands of New Zealand (routing here).  I let Google Maps lead me and was pleased to find a half hour car-ferry ride on my journey.  And even though it rained the entire way -- I had great fun enjoying another "flat white," visiting with a French "Woofer" (a one year work/stay program for 20's and early 30's travelers which I've learned about from many other traveler contacts), and visiting with two older couples (one guy was 90 - living in New Zealand since I was 1) while enjoying fish and chips at a local place.  I do love the people contacts and they abound in all weather!

So tonight as I write this, I'm in another wonderful AirBnb with this 7:47pm view:
More rain is forecast for tomorrow -- but it makes little difference to me.  I'm enjoying every breath and delighted that I'm still healthy enough to make these trips.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Diving Video

So my assigned diving partner sent me all the GoPro videos she took -- and I put together this 1:44 minute video (starring me of course!).  This short video tries to capture and share some of the feeling and sights of the diving at the Poor Knights Marine Reserve on February 5, 2018. (Thanks Ariane!)

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Lucky or Brilliant - Revisited!

Ah!  A topic I've written about before.  For those who haven't read that prior post, a summary is that I have decided that my "brilliant" travel choices/decisions are really just "lucky" choices that appear brilliant in hindsight. And this trip has already served up plenty, including every AirBnB, the choice of dive company, and the happenstance routing that brought me to the heart of the celebration of a National holiday.  All lucky - ahem! brilliant choices!

One of the things I love about AirBnb is the personal contact with the hosts and their own stories.  On this trip alone my hosts have included a PhD in Psychology who is a lecturer at the University of Auckland, born in Santiago, Chile (my destination in April); a practitioner of Kinesiology and believer in the power of Neo-Life supplements; and, a proposal writer who is a strong adherent to the  studies of "mBraining" - using your head brain, heart brain, and gut brain for wisdom and success.

Of course, my luck with choosing AirBnb's is greatly served by ratings and reviews -- and my practiced understanding of how to read the reviews knowing that the personal contact between host and guest most often leaves the guest only writing about the positive stuff.  So, it is essential to read what the reviewers don't comment on -- with the knowledge that the personal contact tends to bias the review.  I'm no different -- it is far easier to write a critical review of a company or product where I have had no personal contact.  But, nonetheless -- in 3 places I've stayed so far -- there really hasn't been anything to be critical about and each have been hosted by intensely interesting individuals.

Each a "brilliant" choice!

Tutukaka Dive
Just as I did when I first decided to try Scuba, I relied entirely on the ratings of the TripAdvisor.Com website once I decided "where" I wanted to dive.  Here in the north island of New Zealand, I easily picked out the Poor Knights Islands - a world ranked dive site, and then just followed the ratings to Tutukaka Dive.  I was not disappointed.  Certainly, as with all TripAdvisor reviews, there are plenty of negative reviews to slog though -- but I also read such reviews cautiously -- knowing that a person's attitude before and during the experience can greatly alter the experience.

Another "brilliant" choice!

Waitangi Day
When I booked this trip -- and decided on the routing -- I decided I wanted to visit the first European  settlement/original capital of New Zealand in the "Bay of Islands."  So, I picked an Airbnb in he coastal resort town of Paihia for a three night stay.  What I didn't know is that I would be arriving on the New Zealand National Holiday of Waitangi Day - a celebration of an 1840 treaty between the Europeans and the local indigenous Polynesian "Maori" people.

My AirBnb host was kind enough to leave a program in my room -- so upon arrival on February 6, I proceeded to the nearby Waitangi Treaty Grounds and enjoyed the local festival of music, food, dancing demonstrations, capped off by a ceremony that included the New Zealand Royal Navy Band.

Another "brilliant" choice!

This Blog - Falling Behind; Me - Having Fun

Wow!  I've been a blogging slacker this trip.  Let me do a quick update of my first 6 days in country.

January 31 - arrival, picked up rental car and made my way (about 40 minutes) to my first Airbnb -- a wonderfully convenient spot located next to the campus of the University of Auckland.

February 1 - Awoke refreshed - and noted that common Portland weather had followed me with rain forecast for the day.  I decided to make it a museum day and was able to hike about a mile to the Auckland War Memorial Museum - but while it is that, it contains so much more on the natural history, population, demographics, settlement, and indigenous treasures.

By the time I was feeling like I'd seen it all, the rain was heavy -- so I grabbed an Uber and headed off to the Auckland waterfront to visit New Zealand Maritime Museum.  This place was well done -- including reconstructions of steam ship cabins and an excellent exhibit on GPS - which I found fascinating because of my own early interest in GPS technology.

February 2 - This day was mostly rain free, allowing me to take in a "free" walking tour of Auckland which was superb.

February 3 - An easy travel day out of Auckland to my next Airbnb destination in "Ngunruru" -- just a few minutes from the dive center in "Tutukaka," launch point to the world class diving sites at the Poor Knights Islands -- about an hour boat ride from shore.  I took time to visit the nearby beach town of Orewa and get my first experience with a New Zealand "flat white" coffee.  Superb!  For Americans, it can best be described as the way a great coffee shop (not Starbucks!) makes a latte in the USA -- it's all about the micro-bubbles that form the cream.

February 4 - This had been scheduled as my day to dive Poor Knights -- but the weather and ocean swells were so intense that all diving was cancelled.  I made good use of the time exploring the coast line in the area -- and when the weather allowed -- doing some hiking.

February 5 - The weather turned wonderful and the diving trip with 27 others was perfect.  I was joined up with a partner in a group of 4 (all advanced divers) with a guide for two dives at Poor Knights.  So many fish -- such beauty.  As I posted on Facebook -- these dives brought me to 41 dives since I first dove 28 months ago -- and added a 4th country (previous dives in Indonesia, Australia, and Mexico).

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Enroute - January 29-31, 2018

This next adventure started with a $21 Amtrak ride from Ventura to LA Union station - where the LAX Flyaway bus ($9.75 from Union station to LAX) connected me to my 11:20pm - 14 hour flight to Sydney - connecting to another 3 hour flight to Auckland.  For inquiring minds - from getting onto Amtrak to deplaning in Auckland, the journey takes 25 hours. And this is my first ever trip to New Zealand.

Of course, somewhere along the way, as I struggled to get some sleep in the rock-hard seats, even I wondered why I choose to endure these long, uncomfortable flights for a few days (in this case 16) of adventure.  Easy answer:  ‘Cause I can and I love it — living an unconventional life where I value life “experiences” now that my babies are raising their own, and I’m fortunate enough to not be beholden to an employers’ demands/schedule.

For those who wonder why I make such a long journey for only 16 days in country — I’ve long-ago learned that it’s easier to make excuses NOT to make a journey.  And yes, 16 days for New Zealand is ridiculously short — but like all my trips I just approach it as just one of many trips.  Sometimes the duration is dictated by the affordability of the air fare — and that was a driving factor in this prime-summer season to New Zealand.  Just a few weeks after I grabbed this ticket for equivalent of $595 in credit card points - the price of the same flights were in excess of $2200.

So, as with most of my trips — I grabbed the cheap flights and thereafter decided how much of NZ I would be able/want to see.  And, opting for having a leisurely trip — I decided just to take in Auckland and the area north of there called Northland and the Bay of Islands (a world-regarded SCUBA destination).  Other parts of the north island, including the highly regarded Wellington, will have to await the next journey here.  And just in my preparations for this trip, I learned of an annual buskers’ festival in Christchurch - a January event that I’m already using when looking for cheap air fares to New Zealand next year!

Wanderlusting cheaply is greatly served by AirBnB accommodations — and this trip was organized around such AirBnb locations not only keeping the costs down but also commonly adding to the fun of the trip by interacting with hosts.

So, upon arrival in Auckland — I pick up a rental car ($350 for 2 weeks) and head to a well-located Airbnb in the central area of Auckland - staying 3 nights to give me a chance to explore Auckland.