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Friday, August 31, 2012

Carnival Miracle, Legends

 

As I get ready for my almost 1000th cruise, this time on NCL, I am reminded of why I and probably a few others enjoy cruising. It is because in one way or another, whichever cruise line you chose, you get the chance to be treated like a Superstar or even pretend to be one.

Last March, we took a cruise on Carnival Miracle to the Southern Caribbean and although I have participated in many other cruise programs this cruise was special. Traveling with friends that share the same zest for life and cruising as we do, eight days on the high seas was just not enough.

 

 

RJ MIRACLE 022One of the reasons I prefer Carnival Cruise Lines over others is because they have many guest participation programs and entertainment that truly can make your cruise vacation fun. One such program is Carnival Legends.

 

 

 

Legends is a tribute show to various entertainers over the years, from James Brown, to Madonna, Garth and one of my favorites, “The Chairman Of The Board”, Mr. Frank Sinatra. Get involved and you get to be in a theater production show on the last night of the cruise pretending to be one of your favorite Superstars.

After many days in the Caribbean sun, I don't quite make the transition but I give “Old Blue Eyes” a shot. I do it “My Way” and have a lot of fun.

Thanks, Carnival!

 

 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Laos, A Mekong River Village

 

 

038Climbing up a steep set of dirt stairs, we are welcomed to our Mekong River Village stop with an almost unfriendly and loud:

“Cock-a-doodle-do”

 

 

 

The ear piercing sound is soon ignored by the smiling faces behind rows and rows of interestingly packaged alcohol. We are at one of the most advertised reason for making this stop. Here is where we can get a free sampling of Lao whiskey and a quick education on how it is made.

 

 

030Cobra In A Bottle

 

 

032However, a language barrier issue prevents me from learning about what I think is most intriguing, the bottling of some of the products.

 

 

 

 

After two different samplings, first a rice wine with 15% alcohol and then the whiskey with 50% alcohol, I decide I will save my throat and just stick with the rice wine. Conveniently available in a 3-4oz bottle, I promise the young smiling and cheerful salesgirl that I would return to buy one.

A stroll through one area of the village and I come across one of the joys and reasons I love traveling, meeting locals especially kids who seem happy without a care in the world. I remember those days as a kid when you just saw people as people, you were happy, life was fun and you knew nothing about the sometimes unpleasantries of humanity.

 

 

037Not surprising this village also has a Buddhist community with unique buildings, temples and various statues.

A brief pause and I watch some of the daily activities of the Buddhist monks.

 

 

On the grounds nearby, vendors sell different handcrafted items from the village. For me, it is amazing to see one lady demonstrating her skills on an old fashioned weaving machine. The finished products are fascinating.

 

 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Laos, A Mekong River Cruise

 

It is not even 8 am and we have already had an almost full day of activities. The only thing this morning that has officially been missing so far has been breakfast.

 

003For about US$4, two orders of fresh Laos crepes filled with fresh mango and bananas are served.

Enjoyed with a glass of fresh papaya juice and the most important meal of the day is complete.

 

 

 

 

005

 

 

A quick walk from our breakfast restaurant and we wait along a street with others to board boats for a cruise along the Mekong River. Following an airline type boarding process, we descend a steep hillside down to the Mekong Riverfront.

 

019With about ten passengers on board, we have first class seats as we set off down the Mekong River.

 

 

 

 

 

 

025Mekong River Boat Views

 

In the early morning sun, the views are visually stunning. It is as if we are traveling back in time across undeveloped lands. Areas along the river are sparsely populated and my mind wanders to a time when this land was untouched.

 

014In this area, on both sides of the river the landscape is covered with a thick rich green vegetation and in the distance towering weird shaped mountains touch the skies.

 

 

 

We are on our way to visit Buddha Caves but our first stop is at a local Mekong River village where we can get a free sampling of Lao whiskey.

 

 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Laos, Luang Prabang Morning Market

 

 

A detour back to our hotel after experiencing the giving of alms and we find ourselves walking the morning market of Luang Prabang. Unlike the morning market in Vang Vieng, here the market is spread out along the sidewalks of a few of the cities streets.

 

120In the early morning, from fresh pineapples, eggplants and ginger to mounds of hot peppers that I am sure would make you sweat like being in a Virginia tobacco barn, you can see and buy the taste and flavors of Laos.

 

 

You can even do some early morning clothes shopping if it suits your heart's desire. There are also fresh meat and fish vendors with some interesting selections in the offering. We buy some fresh small tomatoes then I sample some mini coconut pancakes, mushy but delicious.

 

 

124Mini Coconut Pancakes

 

Leaving the market is when we come across some unique items for sale.

 

123Pink eggs, that I assume are from “Happy Pink” chickens and a pair hooves that I am still not sure about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

122Certainly, they are not “Happy Feet”.

 

 

 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Laos, A Few Fun Days In Luang Prabang

 

Our second day in Luang Prabang begins much earlier than most of our vacation days. I am up before the local rooster has given his first cock-a-doodle-do. However, I know our early rising will be worthwhile.

We are up to experience a very cool morning happening here, the giving of alms, a religious ceremony involving the town's famous monks.

 

130As a religious ceremony there are rules regarding the giving of alms.

One interesting rule is that women must be seated to make an offering although men can do so while standing.

 

 

Although there are more popular areas to witness this tradition, our first experience occurs along a main street less than five minutes from our hotel. Here, sticky rice vendors provide for a small price the food we can offer as the monks pass by.

It is unfortunate that the noise of the street, even at 6 am, takes away from the experience but I am still glad we got up early to participate in it.

 

 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

UK, London Bridge Is …

 

It seems only fitting that my last evening should be spent walking along The Thames to visit the place that was a part of one of my childhood games and British schooling experience.

 

LHRCAN 127At the end of my “Jack The Ripper” tour, I am back at the Tower of London and start walking towards Big Ben and Westminster.

 

 

 

The night air is wonderful and the sky is clear as lights from various buildings and bridges reflect magnificently off the rapidly flowing river.

 

 

 

LHRCAN 147Tower Bridge

 

 

To my left, is Tower Bridge with the lighted and colorful Olympic Rings hanging in the center. To my right, is The London Bridge not falling down but all lit up in a brilliant orange accented with white trim lights above it and nice neon blue lights below.

 

 

LHRSAM 062London Bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next along the path is The Millennium Bridge. From here, a glimpse of the lighted dome of St. Paul's Cathedral can be easily seen. In the spirit of the Olympic games, there is another lighted display of the Olympic rings on The Thames that changes from one Olympic color to another.

 

 

LHRCAN 152St Paul’s Cathedral

All soothing and relaxing to watch from one of the many benches along The River Walk. A fine and memorable end to my visit to London 2012.

 

 

 

 

LHRCAN 171

 

 

 

LHRCAN 176Thanks Londoners for making it fun and enjoyable experience.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

UK Jack The Ripper

 

Emerging from the bowels of “The Tube” at Tower Hill, my visit to London hits a wall and takes a serious turn. At 6:40pm, I am on the trail of a serial killer in the Whitechapel district of London.

It is the late 1800's and this impoverished area of London is under the grip of the worst and most brutal murderer the country has ever seen. Victims primarily prostitutes, had their throats slit twice and internal organs removed in what some believe was very similar to a Free Mason ritual.

 

LHRCAN 132One by one we visit the various murder scenes, from a church where prostitutes circled to pick up customers, to a pub where the media named “Jack The Ripper” and most of his victims drank, we recall the events of those terrible nights.

 

 

 

 

LHRSAM 055The Ten Bells A Jack The Ripper Pub

 

In all there were believed to be five victims and numerous suspects including a member of the Royal Family. One of the interesting aspects of the case was a writing found at one of the crime scenes which stated:

“The Juwes are the men that will not be blame for nothing”.

Surprisingly a policeman investigating the case erased this off the wall where it was found which in of itself was suspicious. His actions lead to an early retirement and it was later reveal that he was a Free Mason.

 

Untitled 0 00 00-01After what is believe to be the last victim of “Jack The Ripper” is killed, a local businessman receives a letter along with pieces of human tissues.

 

 

In the letter the writer states that it is part of the victim's kidney which he ate and found to be very tasty.

 

 

Untitled 0 00 00-08Last Believed Victim Of Jack The Ripper

 

Even today suspicion remains as to the true identity of “Jack The Ripper”. However, our investigation and sources tells us it was a Polish Jew that lived in Whitechapel. One Mr. Aaron Kosminski who was committed to an insane asylum in 1891 where he died several days later.

 

 

Monday, August 13, 2012

UK, Hanging In Earls Court, Men's Volleyball

 

 

LHRCAN 001Using the information I have gathered so far, my second day holds great promise of fulfilling one of the reasons I am in London.

 

 

 

From the previous night, I have discovered that tickets are being released on CoSports and London 2012 websites.

However, they are being disproportionately distributed. Nonetheless, I am told the plan I am about to execute has a good chance of producing favorable results. With four different events selected, I repeatedly press enter on my “Toshiba” netbook.

The disappointment continues and lasts for about 45 minutes. At 45 minutes and 10 seconds, as if the London 2012 Gods smiled on me I am given 2 minutes to purchase tickets for Men's Volleyball.

 

LHRSAM 034I am ecstatic.

Without much trial and tribulations, I am going to see a London 2012 Olympic Event.

Fortunately, I am staying just about a 15 minute walk from Earls Court.

 

 

I arrive there in plenty of time to join the Will Call queue for tickets. In a few minutes, I will be hanging in Earl's Court. This afternoon the first match is Brazil versus Argentina followed by the United States versus Italy. Both matches I am sure will not disappoint.

Entering the venue early, we are not allowed into the seating area so I stroll around and come across an area where there is free face painting.

 

LHRSAM 043It's a first for me and although not American born, I am proud to have “The Stars And Stripes” painted on my face.

 

 

 

About an hour before the matches are scheduled to begin we are allowed into the seating area. I almost feel like Jack Nicholson at a Los Angeles Lakers game. Our seats are on Level 0, only 13 rows up from court side. Although some say it could not be done, I feel like a Rock Star!

 

 

LHRCAN 094Playing Conga Drums In Earls Court

 

The air in the arena is charged with fun and excitement as the emcee and performers entertain the crowd. The entertainment is not only fun but also educational as we learn about the history and fundamentals of volleyball along with learning to play conga drums.

Soon it's match time and the crowd really comes alive as the players from Brazil and Argentina are introduced. Although Brazil wins 3-0, the game has been more than fun and exciting to watch. The choreography and execution of some of the plays were just amazing.

As the next set of players are introduced I am even more excited to watch the sets. Team USA, USA, USA! In a first set that is about as exciting a volleyball match that you could ever hope to witness, Team USA loses 26-28 to Italy. I am not discouraged but after a second lost I know Team USA chances are dim.

As the Italian fans celebrate their 3-0 victory over Team USA, I am still proud to show my support and wear “The Stars & Stripes”. Leaving Earls Court I am following a young Team USA supporter who shows some disappointment on his face but on his back I can tell he is also proud of The Land of The Free and The Home of The Brave.

 

Saturday, August 11, 2012

UK, BT London Live

 

The day takes an exciting turn as I can hear and feel the energy of The Olympic Games within touching distance.

 

LHRSAM 012Minutes later, I am entering the grounds of “BT London Live”.

BT London Live is a free venue located at Hyde Park that turns out to be a lot of fun.

 

 

 

With huge television screens at different locations broadcasting different Olympic events, it is almost the best of both worlds. I can enjoy more than one event at a time, with the excitement of different audiences, all for free while maybe a concert is going on in the background.

 

 

LHRSAM 011Mansfield University Marching Band From USA

 

 

Watching Men's then Women's Volleyball, I discover one important and fun thing that is missing when watching the games on an American network, the lively and entertaining British commentary. With references to school masters and words like “squared up” and “squeeze out”, just listening to the action turns out to be very entertaining.

A light rain begins to fall but it does not last too long and open umbrellas quickly fold. Although the day has been beautiful the evening air begins to take on a chill. Something I gather most of the locals prefer instead of the recent blast of summer heat. It is not too long a walk from Hyde Park to San Simeon Hotel and with nice weather I start a pleasant journey.

 

 

LHRSAM 021I am surprised to still find “Red Telephone” booths along the streets and decide to be a pretend customer. In the age of cellphones, I don't imagine they do a brisk business.

I do know one place in London that does well in business, Harrods.

Fortunate or unfortunate depending on how you look at it, they were in the process of closing for the evening as I make my brief visit.

 

 

 

 

LHRSAM 026I think I saved me-self a few quids with me impeccable timing.

However, I think Her Majesty may favor some American Red Cherries, that I might just spring 40 quids or so for a kilogram. If only I could get one or two of her guards to wink at me.

 

Now I have heard about a “hot head” and I have heard about “tooting your own horn” but I never imagined I would come across a hot head tooting his own horn.

 

LHRSAM 029However, just outside of Kensington South Underground, I do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Friday, August 10, 2012

UK On A Mission, London 2012

 

LHRSAM 015About two hours after landing at London Heathrow, I arrive at my hotel, San Simeon, too early to check in.

However, I do receive some encouraging news.

 

 

I am told by the check-in clerk that everyday some guests have gotten up early to go to Olympic Park and have been lucky to get tickets to various venues.

 

LHRSAM 002With bags secured, it is back to “The Tube”. About 40 minutes later I am exiting Stratford Station like a cow going on a cattle drive.

However, I feel like I am in good company as I am sure there are a few other cows like myself looking to graze the same pasture.

 

 

 

 

LHRCAN 001The Olympic Park

 

 

The area around Olympic Park is a little more crowded than expected and that makes my mission a bit more challenging. I cruise through the Westfield Mall, up and down escalators, in and outside of doors, just looking at my dream destination but not being able to get there.

Where are the entrepreneurs that often makes this mission a breeze for me in other cities at similar venues?

With no luck so far, it's time to do some real grazing and I head to a grocery store located on the lower floor of the mall. A wide selection of nicely packaged sandwiches, salads along with other foods and my eyes begin to grow. This is before I get my normal British fix of scones, “biscuits” and chocolate covered “digestives”.

Turn outs this location is a favorite for those wanting an inexpensive meal with fine dining done on the floor just outside the main door. In chatting with another cement floor diner, I discover another tip to accomplishing my mission although I am missing the tools required to carry it out. However, this still lifts my spirits.

 

LHRCAN 018I rejoin the herd this time headed for Buckingham Palace. I am hoping for a possible afternoon tea sitting with Her Majesty.

 

 

 

Although the area around Buckingham is nicely decorated in Olympic flair, the palace itself retains it's sense of royalty as it “properly” should.

 

 

LHRCAN 020Buckingham Palace

 

Arriving at the Palace entrance, I quickly realize that the only way I am going to get in is if I can get the guard's attention to show him my collection of American tea's I have brought to share with Her Majesty. I can imagine nothing more royally pleasing than a tall Long Island Ice Tea on a hot afternoon like this or a nice cold glass of the Southern Sweet Tea.

 

LHRCAN 015Try as I might, I cannot even get the guard to blink. Like a Toy Soldier, he just looks at me with a blank stare.

Guess, I am going to have to drink my Long Island Ice Tea all by myself.

 

 

 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Laos, Fresh Papaya Salad

 

Although this is not my first time having papaya salad in Laos, this is the first time I get an education on how it is made.

 

2012-06-27 20 31 33At the night market in Luang Prabang, I chose peppers from a trusting local that tells me they are not too hot.

 

 

 

From my earlier sampling of papaya salad, I know it is traditionally made hot and while I like my food with a kick, I don't want to set off a 5 Alarm fire on top of my head.

Using some shrimp sauce, eggplant, tomatoes, lime juice and other secret ingredients that are ground up in a ceramic bowl, I watch as this wonderful salad comes together.

 

2012-06-27 20 31 50For about US$1.50, it is a nice and delicious treat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Laos, To Luang Prabang By Bus

 

For some strange reason, probably associated with drinking Beer Lao on ice, I am having a hard time pronouncing the names of the cities around Laos which itself is pronounced “Lao” not “Laos”as it is spelt.

Not that my lack of correct Lao will get me into too much trouble, I still take a stab at it by practicing with the desk clerk before leaving Manay Villa. For now, all I need to know is for us to wait outside and a bus will take us somewhere five hours from here, Luang Prabang.

 

 

017Already impressed with the beautiful and stunning landscape here, the bus ride just adds an E-Ticket experience to it.

 

 

 

 

 

001For about US$13 per person we are on a VIP Bus that if we could we would at times raise our hands and scream as if we were riding Space Mountain at Disneyland.

 

 

 

At about the mid-point of our journey we stop for a bathroom break and lunch. After enjoying white rice covered with steamed green leafy vegetables, I am touched in a way that fills my heart with joy. At a table across from us sits a little girl eating and doing school work.

 

 

003 (2)

 

 

As we are being rounded up back onto the bus, leaving my table she flashes us what I have always known as the peace sign. I confess to not knowing the meaning or significance of it in Laos but her gesture makes me smile. I wish for her that her life will only know peace and the joy it can bring.

 

 

012 (2)Our E-Ticket ride continues as an occasional light rain dampens the snaking mountainous road we must continue to travel.

 

 

 

 

 

The low hanging gray clouds that produces the rain gives the landscape an ominous beauty which does not last too long as the sun gradually reshapes it in its own way.

 

 

014 (2)

 

 

 

026Sitting at the back of the bus, I can smell the burning brakes and rubber as the bus driver maneuvers us down one more of hopefully not too many downhill portions of this long road. At times, I peek out my open window and lose sight of the road below us.

 

 

 

It is a road with many a winding turn that leads us to we know where but I just cannot say it.

I admire the driver's skills even more and feel like he is not heavy but my brother especially when he safely brings the bus to stop just outside of the town I am still having a hard time pronouncing.

Time for another Beer Lao on ice, maybe that will help.

 

 

 

China, A New Wall Discovered

 

 

Great Wall 076One of my main reasons for visiting China is to hike a portion of the over 4,000 mile long “Great Wall” that is in some areas at least 700 years old.

 

 

 

 

Settling into Chinese Box Hostel after an almost midnight arrival, I am surprised to hear a few of the guests talking about a new wall discovered here. Turning on my notebook, I am interested to research if their discovery is true.

I have just lost contact with my 1865.75 friends. OMG, what I am going to do? How am I going to survive the next 5 days in China? I have just clashed into something more intimidating and technologically advanced than what was built here almost 700 years ago.

I have encountered, “The Great Facebook Firewall”. But have no fear, Captain Facebook, a fellow guest comes to the rescue with a little program that conquers this wall like the Mongolians could not do hundreds of years ago.

I am LLMAO as the wall comes crumbling down right before my eyes. A moment later, I realize that conquering this wall may not have been a good thing. Now I have to once again defend myself from banner ads, spam and possibly 1.3 billion friend requests. OMG.

China, The Kindest Of Strangers

 

NRT D3 050With a bit of firmness our flight touches down in Beijing around 9:30pm. After what was almost a lengthy Immigration and Customs process, we are on the Beijing Airport Express headed to our hostel accommodations for the next four nights.

 

 

Our route to Chinese Box Hostel should have been a relatively easy one except we are told that due to the recent flooding some of the subway stations are closed and we must exit the system early.

On the train, a conversation is struck up with a local passenger and he offers his help. It is very cool as we watch him write portions of our instructions to the hotel in Chinese.

 

PEK D1 001What an art form!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, his stop approaches but before he leaves the train he gives us a smile of confidence and then waves us goodbye as the train departs the station. At Jishuitan, all passengers exit the train and our plan to catch a taxi begins. As we surface from the subway into the poorly lit streets of this area of Beijing, we are engulfed by what for now I will say is fog.

From our earlier conversation, I am aware that our destination is not that far away.

I begin to inquire about a taxi and sense that a passenger off the train is listening in on my conversation with the taxi driver. This gives me a bit of an uneasy feeling and my guard goes up. A fare of $100 Yuan is offered but I know it is too expensive and we walk away down a poorly lit busy street.

I know from experience that in this situation better taxi fares will be found away from the subway station. Walking towards a more well lit area of the street, I can hear a phone conversation going on behind me. My son and I are thinking alike as we formulate a defensive plan if this situation turns out to be what we both are thinking it might me.

At a bus stop we are approached by the gentlemen still talking on the phone who has been following us since we left the subway station. He gestures towards the paper I am holding and I give it to him. He continues talking on his cellphone as he studies a posted bus schedule. A few minutes later although I speak no Chinese, he points us back in the direction we came from.

I gather from him we should pay no more than $30 Yuan to get to our destination. We offer our appreciation and walk away thankful that we did not have to execute our Red-26 defensive plan.

We are about 50 yards away from the bus stop when Red-26 is again activated as the gentleman that earlier helped comes running towards us trying to get our attention. This time he points to a car that is stopped at the bus stop and is showing me about $35 in Yuan notes.

I quickly gather what is going on. He has found us a cab that will take us to Chinese Box for $35 Yuan. However, approaching the bus stop I can see there is only one slight problem, this is not a cab, it is a regular car.

Back on alert, a portion of Red-26 is activated. Kai is going to sit in the front passenger seat and I will sit behind the driver. A surprising thing happens as we climb in the car, the gentleman that had followed us from the subway station hands the driver the $35 Yuan he had earlier showed me.

Although we are still on guard, I cannot believe a total stranger has just paid for our taxi cab fare.

With the driver navigating the poorly lit streets, I soon have a sense of my bearing although I have never been here before. Before long, we pass a recognizable sign from our earlier written instructions.

 

PEK D1 003It is the sign to XiSi Station which is where we were suppose to initially exit the subway system but were unable to because we could not make a transfer to Line 4.

 

 

 

 

At almost midnight the car comes to a stop and we are pointed in the direction of an alley before exiting. Red-26 is taken down a notch as going down an alley was a part of our instructions had we been able to use the subway all the way to XiSi Station. Headed down the alley a car passes us and then stops.

In a recognizable accent a passenger in the car sticks his head out of the window and shouts, “Hey, are you guys going to the hostel?, we'll get out here and join you.”

With that Red-26 is canceled as we meet a couple from Texas who have been teaching English in China and are also staying at Chinese Box Hostel.

 

NRT D3 053Pulling on a free and cold welcome Yanjing beer, I reflect on our journey in getting here and I think “Oh, what a night”.

Not for the ordinary traveler or those who might use a guidebook or seek sage advice or do careful research before traveling.

 

 

 

 

No, this type of experience is for those that as some would put it, “Have no common sense and are crazy because they can be robbed or beaten”.

Yes, not for some but for those that have a sense of adventure with guarded fear.

Y.O.L.O