Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Wednesday Wonder

One of the many colorful streets of Bisbee, Arizona.


Sunday, June 23, 2013

What I Would Do in Five Days in Queensland

This blog post differs from my others in one simple way: this trip hasn’t actually happened.  It is instead a summary of my dream trip to Queensland, Australia for a contest hosted by Johnny Jet, Tourism and Events Queensland, and Delta.  If I win the trip you’ll get a recap of the dream come true!

No one ever asks “why?” when you state your desire to visit Queensland, Australia.  There’s no need – everyone, whether or not they like to travel, has something they want to do in this unique part of the world.  While many go for the spas and beaches, my five-day trip would be action-packed, filled with history and hiking.

To start, I’d grab my camera and become a part of the Walker Family, close-knit women who are members of the Kuku Yalanji tribe that has lived in Queensland far longer than I can imagine.  There are many aboriginal tours but this one interests me most because it shares the women’s insights and experiences, detailing life as they’ve known it for generations.  I’d see the impressive Bloomfield Falls waterfall through their eyes, taking a moment to listen to the roar of the water that has always accompanied all of their days.

I’d spend every moment that I could in the Wildlife Habitat animal encounters, feeding kangaroos and wallabies and cuddling with koala bears as much as they’d let me.  I’d learn about the animal rescue efforts that save Australian wildlife every day, and I’d experience the Wetlands by watching the birds and wildlife that dwell in the Australian ecosystem that is so different from Arizona’s.

When time required me to leave my furry friends at the Wildlife Habitat, I’d jump into a kayak and cruise down the Noosa River, looking for pelicans and quietly soaking in the experience as I paddled past slow cruise boats and fishermen.

I would tour the many islands of the Great Barrier Reef, stopping to stay the night at the quiet resort on the banks of the elegantly-named Lady Elliot Island.

Tanned and relaxed from my time near the water, I’d spend the remainder of my time in Queensland exploring the Australian outback.  I would gaze at wildflowers, take photographs of dinosaur footprints for my nephew, and after long days of exploration I would eat with locals at restaurants that proved the American Outback Steakhouse restaurant chain does not know real Australian food at all.  I’d rest at a sheep farm, waking up early to try my hand at herding sheep or making wool.

My trip to Queensland would end far too soon, but I would return home with memories to last a lifetime.  And with any luck, I’d pick up an accent while I was there.


Friday, June 21, 2013

Travel Tips: Santa Fe

One of the best parts about evolving into a traveler in others' eyes is the chance to provide travel tips and guidance from what I've learned.  So here's my first attempt to share warnings and wonders from my experience in Santa Fe:


Avoid Albuquerque.

 

I'm sure there are many lovely things to see and do in Albuquerque, but the airport isn't one of them. I spent many more hours there than I needed to because of the time cushion necessary for the shuttle trip to and from the airport.  Great Lakes Airlines offers flights into Santa Fe from several cities - you'll pay about $100 each way, but you'll save the cost of a shuttle (Sandia Shuttle was $48 for a round-trip reservation) and the time needed to drive to Santa Fe.

Have a car, but don't have a car.

As much as I loved the area surrounding the Plaza in downtown Santa Fe, after 24 hours I would have enjoyed wandering a little outside of the city center.  Hiking, eating and even just driving through non-touristy neighborhoods would have all been enjoyable but weren't possible without a car.  I learned that I need a balance between the avoidance of downtown parking nightmares and the freedom to flee when desired.


Take time to listen.

The sounds in downtown Santa Fe were consistently amusing and informative.  Diverse languages and outlooks, overheard suggestions of activities and insights from locals - all floated through the air while I sat in the Plaza or walked the streets.  But most of all, there was music.  The balloon artist who always carried an old-school boombox, an old man with a beat up guitar, and the young girl who was an amazing cellist...they were all much better than stuffing earphones in and ignoring the world around me.



Take time to watch.

The sights of Santa Fe are as notable as the sounds, though not as harmonious.  I never knew what I would see - from colorful posts across windows to inspiring/confusing Collections of Things on a street corner.

Carry dollar bills.

I will forever carry guilt that I didn't contribute to the fund in that cellist's music case.  She played some of the most beautiful music I have heard in a very long time and clearly poured her heart into the effort whether or not anyone was listening.  I was rooted to the spot for an hour and if I'd had some dollars in my purse I would have felt more comfortable openly turning the performance into my own personal concert.

Buy a newspaper.

I traveled to Santa Fe armed with years-old clippings from newspapers that a dear friend loaned me.  They were helpful but even more accurate was the entertainment section in the Friday paper.  Buy a copy on the street or sweet talk one from the concierge at the La Fonda hotel (you can guess which one I did) - it's a priceless addition to planning a weekend itinerary, or spontaneously delving into Santa Fe's arts and music scene.  It allowed me to find a free bell choir concert at a local church, country music in a restaurant and breathtaking flamenco dancing, all in a 24-hour timeframe.



Visit the train.

I wasn't lucky enough to take the Railrunner from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, but I spent a lot of time alongside it.  The Station coffee shop became my favorite place in the city - it made me feel both like a cherished visitor and an average local, which I consider to be an irreplaceable quality in any good coffee shop.  I basked in the sun one morning, watching residents with puppies and tourists with cameras walk to the nearby farmers' market, and I hid inside to avoid the blistering winds that arrived the next day.  Both were wonderful experiences and, combined with the thoughtful ability to both buy and mail postcards from The Station, it was the perfect Santa Fe hangout.

Read Willa Cather.

The churches of downtown Santa Fe are beautiful even to a newcomer, but my love for Death Comes to the Archbishop made me feel as if I was treading on sacred historical ground.  Befriend Jean Marie Latour and you'll have a much deeper, more personal connection to the cathedral loving overseen by the real-life Jean-Baptiste Lamy.


Order it "for here."

There were plenty of tourists grabbing food quickly or to go in between sightseeing stops, but my favorite times were in the uncomfortable table-for-one setting.  Whether over a meal or a refreshing cup of tea, from there I watched countless nationalities absorb the southwest, separated the best art galleries and the ones that people quickly left, and shamelessly eavesdropped on other visitors' thoughts of the town we visited.


Move in.
The downtown Santa Fe hotels all looked lovely, though I was partial to La Fonda because of the great location and that friendly concierge who gave me his newspaper.  But if you're trying to save money or want to find a home away from home, try one of the many home/apartment short-term rentals listed on sites like VRBO.com.  It's where I found my little Santa Fe haven and while the process of renting it was slightly more difficult than online hotel reservations, I really enjoyed having my own space at the end of the day.  And even in just three days, I felt like a part of the neighborhood - one neighbor moved out across the street and I learned which dogs to admire and which to avoid just like I was putting down roots.  Stability without roots: every nomad's dream.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Wednesday Wonder

In honor of the Washington, DC travel tip published today by Weekend Trips (check it out here), today's Wednesday Wonder photo is from my trip to DC in 2011. 
 
 

Monday, June 17, 2013

Tapas, Tea and Tempos

My last 24 hours in Santa Fe were filled with lots of my favorite things.  Since writing about the many hours I spent lazily watching House Hunters International in my rented guesthouse isn't very exciting (I never get to do that when I'm home!), I'll focus on the dancing and eating.

Flamenco dancing was the second dance I ever truly loved.  My first love was square dancing, due to my grandfather's regular performances when I was growing up.  He and his girlfriend would spend hours spinning around other couples at both inside and outside dances, and for most of my life when I thought of dance, it was the rhythmic swirl of multi-colored skirts and twirling couples that immediately came to mind.  While I'm sure dance aficionados will cringe when I say this, I see many similarities between square dance and flamenco.  The full, layered skirts designed to flare just the right amount. The stomping feet, the varied tempos.  Now that I've seen more of the world I definitely prefer flamenco, though I will always love those memories of Grandpa.  I love flamenco because of its solitude.  The dancer relies heavily on the musician(s), but really good flamenco dancers seem able to shut out absolutely everything except the music, the pounding of their feet, the movements that seem to be almost out of their control.

There are some chances to watch flamenco dancing in Phoenix but I don't pursue them often enough, so I was delighted to learn that I was in Santa Fe for the one night a month that El Mesón hosts a flamenco show.    With $10 for the entrance fee and some lucky timing, I managed to get a reservation at the "non-bar bar," a counter that ran along one wall near the stage.  The angle posed significant danger to my neck, which was twisted throughout the entire evening to watch the show, but it was definitely better than taking up one of the few tables while dining alone.  I have no problem dining alone - most of the time I really enjoy it.  It's a confidence-building exercise that sometimes leads to new friends and always causes deeper appreciation of the food in front of me.  But I'd never eaten tapas alone, an activity that suddenly felt like an extreme sport when I opened the menu and saw this introduction.


I laughed, then promptly ordered enough food for me, myself and I.  And we ate every bit of it.

The only thing better than the patatas dos salsas was the dancing.  Three dancers, one singer, one guitarist - all wonderful.  I learned that I much prefer flamenco without the singing - the drama of a diva clashed with the simple passion of the dancers - but it was easy to tune out the voice when the walls echoed with the pounding of feet and clapping of hands as the dancers cheered each other on.





Since Saturday included such memorable Spanish food, it seemed only natural that Sunday begin with a sinfully good French breakfast.  I braced myself for an inevitable touristy experience and entered The French Pastry Shop inside La Fonda hotel.  The aura was disappointing and not at all French.  Sleepy-eyed tourists were crowded around small tables served by waitresses who offered the bare minimum of care for the diners.  A radio station played Spanish music quietly between lengthy advertisements.  A pleasant bell rang whenever someone entered the shop, which I enjoyed until I realized it just meant more people crammed into the space around my table.  But while the shop didn't exude the relaxed yet fervent feeling I love about Parisian dining, the food was delightful.  I didn't even pretend to aim for health or balance, and enjoyed every bite of the overpriced whipped cream and raspberry crêpe.


I'm glad I gave the pastry shop a chance, but I much preferred the breakfasts I got at The Station.  A coffee shop located (obviously) in an old train station next to the still-operational train tracks, The Station became my favorite place in Santa Fe as soon as I stepped inside.  It's one of those perfect places that has a spot for everything: on a windy day I enjoyed a corner surrounded by windows and comfy seats, on a sunny morning I read a paper on the patio and eavesdropped on the baristas enthusiastically welcoming the locals who stopped by every morning.  There's a comforting familiarity in the sudden whoosh of a milk steamer and the clunk of an espresso machine, especially when joined with an aptly-timed soundtrack of "Hopeless Wanderer" by Mumford and Sons.
 
 
I loved the details of my last day in Santa Fe.  The cold wind that whipped around but allowed me to wear one of my treasured scarves that must remain hidden in the closet during Phoenix's blistering summers.  The solitude of being the only passenger of a quiet shuttle driver on the way back to the airport.  The admirable attempt at a Cinco de Mayo celebration with old cars (five  of them, appropriately) cruising the streets of the Plaza bedecked in paper flowers and overflowing with Mexican beats and enthusiastic shouts from passengers.  And the knowledge that even a short airplane ride still excites my sense of travel and adventure.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Wednesday Wonder

I'm very excited about my first travel tip published by WeekendTrips.com!  Check it out here.

And since we're on the topic of Boston, here's your Wednesday Wonder photo from my trip to Massachusetts in 2007.



Friday, June 7, 2013

Cellos, Chapels and Chemistry

My Santa Fe Saturday got off to a rare but welcome slow start - partly because it had become a late night the day before when I discovered there was no hot water in the guesthouse and I had to wait while the owner rushed over to relight the pilot light in the house.  (Okay so maybe there are some advantages to staying in a hotel instead...) 
 
There was no doubt where my first stop of the day would be - it was Farmer's Market Day at the Railyard!


This market was such an entertaining mix of locals and tourists.  I bought an apple cider icee (which turned out to be an enjoyable but very overpriced plastic cup with a small amount of apple cider and a large amount of crushed ice) and wandered through the crowd.  I stopped to appreciate the really beautiful music that came in many forms along the walkway.




The market had everything you could need whether you were in Santa Fe for a day or a lifetime.


And I do mean everything.


I didn't have a clear plan but I didn't want one - it was 75 degrees and sunny, a perfect day to unwind and just stroll. I was in search of the Georgia O'Keefe Museum when I accidentally stumbled into the Andrew Smith Gallery.  I am not typically an art person - I try, I really do, but if left to my own devices I usually go through art galleries at the speed of someone on their way to a big sale at a favorite store.  I'm a glance-and-check-the-box kind of art aficionado, but this gallery made me actually stay awhile and look appreciatively at  the collection.  It was largely made up of Ansel Adams photographs - he's one of my all-time favorites, and I've never quite gotten over the disappointment I felt when I learned the University of Arizona's  Ansel collection is almost entirely locked up in dark rooms somewhere.  Add in an old house with perfectly squeaky wood floors and some overwhelming Annie Leibovitz shots of naked celebrities, and you've got yourself a gallery.

After such a surprisingly pleasant art experience, the Georgia O'Keefe Museum was quite a disappointment. Note to self: when you're paying $10 to get into a gallery and everyone walking to the exit is confusedly saying "that's it?" you should put away your hard-earned cash and just go to the gift shop.  But I did love this quote above the entryway.


The Museum was a part of Santa Fe I had wanted to experience, so I ignored the complaining visitors, made the most of the very small collection of little-known paintings (not a flower painting in sight?!), and headed back downtown to see the Loretto, the other famous chapel near the Plaza.

The Loretto is no longer an operational church, a fact that gave the beautiful building a much more commercial feel.  The $3 required to get in was perhaps a silly use of cash but I did want to be able to say I'd seen the famous spiral wood staircase prominently located inside the chapel.  What I did not know was that the $3 would create an experience worth much more, merging me into a culture I love and seek out every chance I get.  Once inside the church I was completely surrounded by Hispanic families, pretending not to eavesdrop while picking out phrases and words from the too-small amount of Spanish I've learned since I fell in love with Cuba and appreciating the culture of the chapel more than I ever could have by reading a guidebook. 


Hunger finally drove me out of my happy companionship inside the chapel and back into the sunlight...once I finally found the exit that was located on the other side of a gift shop cluttered with cheap trinkets and overpriced candles.  When churches go commercial they really do it wholeheartedly. Lunch occurred at The Shed, a hopping joint that apparently is Santa Fe to both locals and visitors.  The 30-minute wait in the restaurant courtyard was entertaining due to the conversations and shoppers surrounding me, and though I ordered something that is apparently only semi-good off the otherwise great menu (note to self: order something more bold than red sauce enchiladas next time), I enjoyed the experience.  Now I am among those who knowingly nod and advise when The Shed is mentioned.

My enchilada-induced lazy afternoon in the Plaza was one of the highlights of my trip.  The live music was almost overwhelming due to the number of participants.  Instruments tuned as if an orchestra was preparing for a show, but without the unified effort or even a unified location.  Sounds came from many corners of the plaza and some musicians were invisible - I heard many but saw only a solo banjo player, plucking a happy tune, and a really beautiful young woman playing even more beautiful cello music.  I chose a bench nearby and listened raptly until she finished her repertoire and carried away her bulky instrument.


I pretended to read a book, but was happily distracted by the many sights the Plaza offered.  Colorful balloon sculptures had invaded a lamp post, tied there by the happy but likely insane man who created his inflated friends at an impressively pace.  A man did tai chi so quickly that it looked almost like karate.  Teenagers gathered, flirted.  The boys practiced skateboard jumps, perhaps even more socially awkward than the biochemistry professors who strolled by in groups when released from their conference being held in a hotel nearby. 

This pigeon and I spent time contemplating the scientific message on the sidewalk.

As I sat in the Plaza I was reminded of the first time I delved into writing about my travels.  It was in another neighborhood park, near Seattle's University of Washington.  I poured the details of each day's activities into e-mails to family.  I was in Washington seeking rest from a job that had zapped both my strength and my soul, and I had a willing audience in my grandmother, who assured me she loved every word I wrote and asked for more.  It has been years since she was with us but I could easily imagine her on the bench near me in Santa Fe, repeating her assurances that she couldn't wait to see what I'd write and experience next.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Wednesday Wonder

Paris traffic jams in March 2003, caused by groups protesting the U.S. bombing of Iraq.


Monday, June 3, 2013

Wandering Across the Border

Real Life has trimmed my travel wings for too long, but last month I got a weekend for a long-overdue and much-welcomed chance to get back on an airplane.  The adventure was more domestic than I like, but since weekend trips to Thailand just aren't practical I settled for a new destination close to home: Santa Fe.

The weekend began with a trip to the airport on the new Sky Train.  I'll provide more details and amusing observations on my soon-to-be-live blog about life in downtown Phoenix, but here's a quick tip to anyone going to or from the Phoenix airport: do it!  The train was practical, fast and enjoyable and the whole thing made my trip much easier.


A train, plane and shuttle ride later, I began my pursuit of new experiences in a state I'd only seen from an Interstate. I normally over-research my trips but I'm ashamed to admit that I failed to find the airline that provides Phoenix-to-Santa Fe direct flights - my time in New Mexico included hour-long shuttle rides both ways between the Albuquerque airport and downtown Santa Fe.  It was interesting to see so much of northern New Mexico, though - it made me appreciate the amazing diversity Arizona has when you travel north or south of Phoenix.  The area around Albuquerque wasn't too different from Phoenix - I haven't seen that much dusty land since the trip across Namibia.

I started my time in Santa Fe with the top priority on my list: adding to my collection of state Capitol photos.  I got a photo of the lovely building but did not capture the most interesting Capitol sight: an insane man rampaging about his plans to shut down the government with "insider information" he wanted to pass on to the Governor.  The building may look better than Arizona's Capitol, but apparently we all have our share of entertainment. 


The Capitol building is round and the House and Senate are round inside of the round building - I got lost in the intersecting, unfolding spirals within 30 seconds, but enjoyed the walk through the art-filled hallways and abandoned office buildings.  If I spent much time at the New Mexico Capitol building, this is where you would find me every. single. day:


I spent a moment imagining the fast-paced walk-and-talks that must happen in these hallways, thought of the sharp crack of the wood gavel as the legislature came to action...and then I realized my stress level was increasing and I was not escaping from work like I'd planned, so I wandered to sights less directly connected to my day-to-day life.

The enjoyable thing about exploring close to home is the similar tourist touches.  I saw many street markets in Santa Fe, but this first one in the heart of downtown had all the offerings that make east coast guests feel like they're in the Wild West.




As I paused to process all my thoughts on that "homeland security" t-shirt, I realized that it was late afternoon and I hadn't eaten anything except the croissant in the airport.  (A good croissant, however, since Phoenix's Terminal 4 now has outstanding local restaurants rather than the typical Starbucks and Carl's Jr.!)  I avoided the long lines outside the famous/infamous places on the Plaza and went in search of a restaurant with a patio.  When a Phoenix girl finds herself in 77-degree weather, going inside is just not an option.  The quiet sidewalk patio of Palacino Café was the perfect stop (and yes, I also liked it because "palacino" reminded me of Cuba's "paladars" - at least I'm consistent in my obsession).  I didn't know it at the time, but this would be my best dining experience in Santa Fe.  The shy, friendly owner was delightful and the food was yummy.  And yes, I did take a picture.


Armed with an entertainment guide I'd received from the thoughtful concierge at La Fonda hotel, I planned my Friday evening.  I quickly got to know the downtown area as I mapped out where the events were occurring - several were within easy walking distance but before I started my evening entertainment I visited another site at the top of my list: the St. Francis Cathedral.


I've seen grander cathedrals but this one was special and I'd visit it often during my time in Santa Fe.  I developed something of a crush on the fictional Jean Marie Latour when my book club read Death Comes to the Archbishop last year (not as serious as the crush I still have on Tarzan, of course, but the dear Archbishop provided good balance to my literary love life).  Latour's kindness and generosity blended with other fictional characters I loved - in particular, to my imagination he was a southwestern version of Victor Hugo's Bishop Myriel, with perhaps a little more human wit thrown in for survival.  Cather was inspired to write the book while standing under the statue of Archbishop Jean-Baptiste Lamy, so I delighted in standing in the same spot. 

I didn't feel any lightning bolts of literary inspiration but I really did like the church.  And of course I paid a loving visit to St. Francis and his animals.  This statute is one of my all-time favorites - I love the friendly face and the bare feet,and the wary, watchful look on that wolf's face.


I photographed the evidence that not all animals respect St. Francis as they should - check out the extravagant measures taken to keep pigeons from polluting the stone at the top of the cathedral.


I left the Catholic church and wandered down the street to pay a visit to the Presbyterians.  Their bell choir apparently performs somewhat regularly and the church offers frequent free concerts.  It's a beautiful building and there was no pressure to contribute the voluntary donation...but the acoustics are excellent and there's no way to quietly extricate yourself until the end of the show, so be sure you get a seat if you attend.  My seat was unfortunately not comfortable. The setting sun shone brilliantly through a window just below the elevated roof of the building, resting solidly in my left eye no matter which way I shifted in my seat.  The music was lovely, though I apparently don't know as many hymns as I thought I did.  The bell choir was a fascinating mix of people: men and women, and even a very young man who played the difficult bass notes.  I enjoyed the hour-long concert both for the music and for the freedom it gave me from my long-held desire to be in a bell choir.  Every Christmas I pledge I will buy white gloves and learn to appropriately bang out a designated bell note...but after watching the lengthy concert, I was forever cured.  It's fun to watch but doesn't look like much fun to do, when you consider all the hours of standing around practicing and attempting to keep those gloves perfectly white while the person standing next to you mumbles the musical count under her breath.


I surrendered my earlier intentions of checking out live country music and opted instead for a rare and treasured evening of reading in a quiet home away from home. Thanks to my mom's VRBO.com search I'd moved into a tiny but cozy little guesthouse about a 10-minute walk from the Plaza downtown.  So I escaped the tourists, blended with residents out walking their dogs before settling in for the evening and curled up with one of the five books I'd brought with me.  It was only a weekend but I always overestimate my reading needs on trips.