Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Trip Report: Guyana

One of the beautiful things about mile running is the adventure that awaits when you open yourself up to traveling wherever the sales lead you. Out of the more than 80 countries pinned to my wish list board, Guyana, a small country in northeast South America, has never figured in at all. And yet when Delta dangled an unbelievable sale to the country I didn’t hesitate to book a flight for myself and the dear husband for a September 2012 weekend getaway.

Once the tickets were purchased and I started to complete the preliminary research for the trip I was taken aback. Typhoid risk: palpable. Yellow Fever risk: moderate. Malaria preventatives: required. Ahh well, all in the name of adventure right? So hubby and I endured the shots, ordered the preventatives and steeled ourselves for the unknown.  We also put up with a lot of good natured ribbing from coworkers and friends who questioned our judgment on selecting Guyana as a destination. Sale or no sale, they couldn’t see the appeal.

Making advanced travel arrangements isn’t easy for Guyana. There aren’t a lot of tourists and so a lot of the tour companies on the ground don’t man their phones regularly and even when they do, they are reluctant to pre-arrange sightseeing without confirmation of a large party. It’s pretty much the norm for them to take the wait-and-see approach for excursions- if they have enough interest on a certain day they will make the trip, if not they won’t. I like to have all my loose ends pinned down in advance so that was a bit maddening for me. Because of this, only our first day (Friday) was mapped out. I planned to lead Jonathan around Georgetown (capital city of Guyana), pointing out the rich British history that is still evident today in the architecture. The rest of the weekend was up in the air, to be decided upon arrival.

As soon as our plane touched down in Georgetown and we walked off the plane I questioned my decision to book the trip. It was very hot. It was very sticky. Even Thailand wasn’t as steamy as this place. I really hate sweating. And the malaria risk means you can’t get away with wearing shorts and exposing yourself to mosquitos. We took a taxi to our hotel and found it wasn’t much cooler in our room either, even with the air conditioner cranked up. We were staying at the Herdmanston Lodge and the staff was nice enough to allow us a very early check in which gave us a chance to freshen up and change into not-sweaty clothes before we ventured out for our city tour.

Georgetown was explored by the Spanish and settled by early South American tribesman. It was eventually taken over by the Dutch and served as a lovely little Dutch colony back in the day, circa 1700s. Taken by the British in 1781, taken by the French in 1782, restored to the Dutch in 1784,  taken by the British again in 1796, given back to the Dutch in 1802, and taken by the British once more in 1803 (which controlled the city until Guyana gained independence in 1966), there’s a rich multicultural history to the city and beyond into the countryside.

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Under British control, thousands of Africans were brought in as slaves and then indentured laborers from India were also sailed in to work as a stop-gap measure for the lost productivity once slavery of Africans was abolished. This created two distinct underclasses of ethnic groups in the community and precipitated racial discord that persists to this day. Because many Indians look to their heritage as that of a proud working class people who saved and scrimped to get ahead and buy themselves out from indentured servitude they see themselves as above those whose ancestors were mere property. Reinforcing their prejudice, when the British and other Europeans departed en masse following the 1966 independence, those of Indian ancestry captured most of the governing positions across every community, overseeing those they believe to be beneath them. There wasn’t one person we came across in Guyana who didn’t have a laundry list of complaints about the competing ethnic group they share their community with. Those of African descent accuse the Indians of conspiring to keep them down, of nepotism on a large scale, of corruption, and of hateful prejudice. Indians meanwhile accuse Africans of theft, idleness, envy, and ignorance.

Walking around Georgetown on foot from beautiful English era building to building, we were introduced firsthand to politics in Guyana: trash overflowing from every dumpster, strewn across every public surface, and littering even the beaches. I’ve never seen so much filth in all my life. Why  it is this way: in an effort to extract greater taxes from the residents, the city mayor halted trash pick up, claiming there wasn’t enough money in the treasury to pay for it until the community agreed to a tax increase. The community refused to consent to more taxes and so the trash piled up over many months with both sides at a stand off. We passed people dropping their trash in the street, in the parks, on the sidewalks. When asked why not just clean up their own trash they replied it’s the mayor’s job and they won’t give in and let him win. So they live in their once beautiful city with the trash piling up day by day. As I alluded to, there are a handful of beautiful old historic buildings but I couldn’t bring myself to snap any pictures with the trash desecrating their exteriors. Here’s a shot another visitor took in cleaner times of St. George’s Cathedral, which boasts bragging rights as the tallest wooden structure in the world.

Photo Credit: Dmitri Allicock

After a sticky, steamy, sweaty, rather depressing day walking around Georgetown I hoped that I could find a way to salvage our weekend and squeeze something amazing out of it. As luck would have it, I came across Baganara Island Resort online and they had a vacancy. The price was very very affordable and best of all it meant an escape from Georgetown and it’s trash problem. Most guests at Baganara book the private speedboat or charter plane direct from Georgetown but hubby and I are a special kind of cheap so we opted to piecemeal our way there with public transportation supplemented by the minimum private speedboat trip required to transfer us from the closest public terminal to the island. This meant a long taxi ride from our hotel in Georgetown Saturday morning to a public dock a few towns over, a grueling public speedboat ride (DO NOT SIT IN THE FRONT OF THE BOAT! DO NOT SIT IN THE FRONT OF THE BOAT! Vagina bruising is a real thing, people!) from the public dock in that town to a public dock in another town further up the river, and then finally a quick private speedboat ride from that dock to the island. A couple of hours overall to get there and quite the hassle.

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Fresh picked bananas waiting on the public dock to be transferred via speedboat to a nearby town up the river.

While it would take a few days for my pelvic bruising to subside (DO NOT SIT IN THE FRONT OF THE BOAT!), as soon as we stepped off the boat onto Baganara Island all of our stresses and angst just melted away. And while we were still melting too (so so so hot outside), hubby and I each had a nice glass of fresh made lime crush placed in our hands to cool us down and welcome us to the resort. The resort maintains a staff to cater to dozens of guests and yet we were blessed to discover we were the sole clients that weekend. An entire private island to ourselves! A entire team of people at our beck and call! With the currency exchange rates as they were, our nightly stay ($200/night USD) when priced in Guyana dollars appeared outrageous. Admittedly, it was a bit of a thrill to leave a status update on Facebook noting we were renting a private island with staff in South America for $40,000 a night.

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View from the outdoor terrace at Baganara

The food at Baganara was excellent, the staff provided top notch service, and the grounds were lovely. There was a jungle for hiking, a spacious outdoor terrace for playing games or reading, a small beach on the river for swimming, and a comfy hammock. Give me a hammock and I’m content.

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Hiking Baganara: a spectacular tree

 

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Hammock= Jenni bliss

We spent the next 24 hours relaxing and feeling great about our lives and then it got even better: we opted for the excursion from the island to Kaieteur Falls, which is one of the most powerful waterfalls in the world. At five times the height of Niagara Falls, it’s also quite tall. An adorable little Cessna style plane came to pick us up (the island has a private runway) and away we went on an adventure. One at the top of the falls, there was a meandering scenic hike to the water’s edge and wildlife viewing with our expert guide (tiny tiny tiny poison dart frogs) before we flew back to Baganara for lunch and a bit more relaxing.

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Afternoon ride

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Approaching the waterfall

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Up close and personal

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Don’t step back too far…

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From the top of the falls looking into the distance, following the river with our eyes

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Looking straight down over the very edge of the waterfall

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Final shot of Kaieteur Falls as we traveled away by plane

We opted to take the charter plane from Baganara back to Georgetown and then it was a quick taxi back to the Herdmanston for our final night in Guyana. The next morning we paid our taxi driver a little something extra to swing by an unlicensed liquor store (Guyana produces some fabulous dark rums) en route to the airport for our return flight to the States.

In retrospect, I’m really glad we took a chance on Guyana. I’d recommend it to anyone, with some caveats. Namely, little to no time in Georgetown (unless they clean up the city) and more time in Baganara. Make sure to ask for Kurt Jordan when you call the resort (From the US: 011-592-222-8055); he’s the manager and he will get you set up perfectly. Definitely schedule an excursion to Kaieteur Falls – it’s breathtaking. Oh and I’d recommend splurging and taking the private motorboat or charter plane from Georgetown. The public transportation is not something I’d ever care to replicate.

Happy adventures!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Book Review: Stick With It

Reviewing business books has mostly been depressing as I’ve found so many of them directly contradict my values and theological understandings as a Christian and prescribe strategies for “success” wholly incompatible with the Christian walk. So I was particularly pleased with the themes Lee Colan advanced in his new book, Stick With It as they avoided such deficits. Colan reminds us (or informs those who weren’t already aware) that perseverance is the hinge on which the doors of success are opened. While strategic planning is necessary for success it is never sufficient; follow through is key.

Colan breaks down perseverance (or adherence as he refers to it) into three essential components:

1. Focus (on our mission)

2. Competence (to complete necessary actions derived from our mission)

3. Passion (for the whole of the work before us and what it stands for)

For each component, Colan provides a detailed blueprint for building and sustaining the intensity necessary to succeed. He includes useful little strategies such as relying on create once- run many times routines, and tracking leading AND lagging indicators of success to verify we are on track.

Perseverance is a lost virtue in American society, that much is clear. So many (myself included) get excited about a shiny new plan and throw ourselves into things with gusto only to slowly fade in enthusiasm and effort a few days or weeks down the line. 21 days to form a habit and all that right? But how many of us actually make it to day 22? Very few I’m afraid. It’s theoretically simple but never easy in practice: plan to stick to the plan! Keep on keeping on. Have the wise been reminding the young, the weak in discipline, the slaves to quick fixes of this key principle for centuries? YES. Nevertheless, Colan’s voice adding to the great chorus of the wise over the millennia on this matter is a welcome one; one more person reminding us of the importance in seeing things through can only help shape our character.

Anyone who has struggled with self-discipline and found that there is a part of himself that has trouble following through with the well intentioned plans the other part of himself drafts in earnest will find value in Stick With It. Hint: that means everyone. Romans chapter 7 reminds us, “21So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. 22 For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; 23 but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me.” Colan provides some clear and useful techniques for stepping on the neck of that slothful sinful nature within us. For those readers who do not subscribe to Christianity, you needn’t worry – Colan never actually references scripture or religion  - he simply reaffirms the value of adherence to our mission, be it corporate or personal, and provides practical methods for achieving adherence. But his counsel overlaps so beautifully with scriptural principles that the faithful will easily recognize the wisdom in his understandings and prescriptions whether he intended to present a case for discipleship or not.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Ducks with Hats

Suzanne reminded me of one of the best parts of our Pacific Coast Highway trip last year that I forgot to share with you readers. And it would be such a tragedy if you didn’t get to share in this joy.

Presenting ducks with bad toupees.

Yes, ducks with bad toupees. Or perhaps ducks with fascinators if you prefer to imagine they’re wearing little hats. These fellas lived at one of the hotels we stayed at and wandered inside our room one morning.

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Trip Report: Pacific Coast Highway

Almost one year ago, three of my favorite people and I flew across the country, crammed ourselves into a convertible and drove the Pacific Coast Highway from San Diego to Santa Cruz. We lifted our itinerary from my dog-eared copy of National Geographic Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Greatest Trips. Both the book and numerous other guides online recommend driving from south to north for the best views, so that’s just what we did.

Our first night we stopped in Santa Monica to enjoy dinner with my Uncle Lucien at a seaside restaurant before settling in Santa Barbara for the evening. Traffic was pretty bad from San Diego onward but given the mess that Washington, DC metro traffic always is, it was not more than we could handle.

The next morning we were up early and ready to take on the Pacific Coast. We spent a bit of time touring the Santa Barbara Mission (known as the Queen of the Missions) in the morning before heading out onto Highway 101 and it was a great little start to our morning. The Mission features a beautiful expansive courtyard (perfect for weddings!) and some fantastic murals and tile inside the buildings.

View of the Santa Barbara Mission 

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I’d read a lot about Lompoc and it’s abundant flower fields. I got everyone on the trip (Jonathan and our friends Suzanne and Penny) excited about the flowers and giddy with anticipation over the amazing floral displays that were sure to come. So of course when we got there nobody local (we asked several people) seemed to even know what the “famous 19 mile flower drive” was and our efforts to find the fields on our own were finally rewarded with just a few patches of color. I don’t know why, but my flower viewing excursions are ALWAYS disappointments. Granted some of it comes down to not passing through at the scheduled peak flower time (we were at Keukenhof three weeks before the main tulip blooms and at the Portland rose garden one month before the roses appeared) but even when we come in the “right” season we seem to have problems. I once arranged an entire itinerary for Mt. Rainier around peak wildflower bloom only to have a freak cold winter delay the flowers to a week past our visit; likewise a bitter cold winter last year kept the Going to the Sun Road closed 10 days beyond our visit. Is this me complaining that God doesn’t bend nature to my travel schedule? Yeah, I guess it is.

Lompoc Flower Fields

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Most unusual stop on our trip? Definitely the Madonna Inn. This place is unbelievable in its décor and as a bonus it serves up fantastic cake. There is a waterfall in the men’s bathroom and of course we all snuck in to take a look at it once Jonathan gave us the all clear.

Madonna Inn

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We made a pit stop stop in Morro Bay for lunch and ate at Rocca's Surf Shack which was really really good. From the restaurant we had a great view of Morro Rock – the sad crumbling remains of a massive ancient volcanic.

I was very surprised as we drove through this part of California to find the landscape is very southwestern in appearance - think NM with parched brown fields of grass, sparse trees, and high heat. I guess I was expecting it to be green and beautiful like San Francisco. 

We drove through the cozy little town of Cambria before our afternoon excursion to Hearst Castle. Everything I know of the Castle – the beautiful pools at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas modeled after the originals at the Castle, the glimpses of the gardens on television documentaries, etc – promised a breathtaking residence. The gardens, pools, and exterior architecture of the Castle are in fact just as amazing as the hype. You can even see all the way to the sea from the hillside. But the interior of house? It’s awful – a garish mishmash of clashing art and cultural artifacts that have no business being curated together. It’s tacky, it’s dark, it’s depressing. I was so disappointed in the interior design.

Hearst Castle Exterior

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That evening we stayed at a roadside motel in San Simeon  and one of the best parts of our stay was the chance to run early the next morning along the Pacific Coast Highway before returning to the motel for breakfast. It was quiet, peaceful, and the views of the ocean were lovely (just don’t look the other way or you’re staring once again at the ugly brown barren grassland).

After breakfast we climbed back in the car (we were pretty good about rotating drivers every 4 hours and man was it ever windy in the backseat with the top down) and headed for the Piedras Blancas elephant seal rookery, the largest elephant seal rookery on the West Coast. Here I was in heaven. I could have stayed for hours just watching the seals play but we had more sights waiting for us further up the road.

The seals! The seals!

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We stopped at Ragged Point Scenic View before arriving at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park to take a closer look at McWay Falls (it’s the only waterfall that drops straight into the Pacific Ocean).

Scenes along the Pacific Coast Highway

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Further up the road, the Carmel Mission was waiting. I was so lucky here at the Mission to catch the end of a wedding and get a great shot of the bride and groom for my bridal collection (I collect pictures of brides that we’ve captured in the moment from our travels around the world). The Mission is a lovely attraction in its own right, with gardens in the courtyard and a historic interior. It was dedicated in 1770 and served as the headquarters for Northern California.

Carmel Mission

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Our next stop was a little town I fell head over heels in love with: Carmel-by-the-Sea. So many adorable boutique culinary shops, so many great restaurants. Trivia: Clint Eastwood served a term as mayor here. 

We took a vote and unanimously decided to drive the Pebble Beach scenic road before packing up and heading to Santa Cruz for our final stop on our Pacific Coast Highway Tour. It’s a $10 toll to drive the road but well worth the fee as stretches of it run right through pine and cypress forests and then along the shoreline where sea lions and otters are abundant.

The Lone Cypress Tree

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We got into Santa Cruz pretty late in the evening and met up with my friend Asher for dinner and a tour of the Beach Boardwalk. We had so much fun and the highlight of the evening was riding the Giant Dipper, a wooden roller coaster built in 1924 and now a designated National Historic Landmark. It was a fantastic ride and I can’t wait to go back to Santa Cruz and ride it again.

We spent the night in nearby Milpitas and then zoomed back down to San Diego via I5 the next morning in time to catch our flight home. If you get a chance to drive the Pacific Coast Highway, here’s my advice:

1. Give yourself at least 2 days to drive it as we did (even more if you’d like more time to see the Monterey aquarium or head up further to San Francisco).

2. Hearst Castle - it’s still worth a visit for the gardens, but skip the house and save your money.

3. Make sure to make time for Carmel by the Sea. Absolutely the perfect little village.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Trip Report: Alaska 2012

Every few years my best friend and I try to get our families together for a summer vacation. LiteraryEllyMay and her husband had expressed interest in taking a cruise so Jon and I invited them to join us on a Celebrity cruise to Alaska in July (2012). We’d previously cruised with Carnival as well as Costa but this time we wanted to do something a bit more upscale; the kind of cruise with enrichment programs and gourmet food. Celebrity came highly recommended to us and so we booked passage on a one week Alaska sailing leaving from the Port of Seattle. Departing from Seattle was an added bonus because it allowed us to show our friends around the city and spend time with Jonathan’s brother Joel and his family who live out there.

We arrived into Seattle on the fourth of July and spent two days sightseeing before boarding our cruise ship to set sail for Alaska. Another happy coincidence was that Jonathan’s younger brother Jerry (lives in Chicago) and his family happened to be in Seattle visiting family at the same time, so we were all able to get together for a lazy afternoon on a boat in Puget Sound that Jerry’s in-laws own. One of the most interesting things we did in Seattle was to visit the salmon locks and watch the salmon swim upstream through the glass fronted wildlife exhibit. LiteraryEllyMay had me in stitches as she narrated for this one poor ragged salmon who must have taken a half an hour just to progress six feet upstream.

Seattle skyline, view from Puget Sound

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Jon and I were both very impressed with Celebrity. The rooms were lovely, the staff was always gracious, and the food was fantastic. We had such a good time that we booked our next cruise (a three week sail through the South Pacific from Australia to Hawaii in April 2014) while still on board. In addition to the usual games, nightly shows, bars, dancing, and karaoke, Celebrity featured lectures, lessons, a Top Chef style cooking competition (I was a participant!), and fantastic little boutique eateries like a patisserie and a gelato shop. Really cannot overstate how great the amenities and service were. Additionally, every Celebrity cruise has a regional expert on board to provide information (and often entertainment) about the areas the ship is visiting. For our Alaska cruise the featured guest was Brent Nixon and he provided a wealth of information on Alaskan wildlife and habitat. Everyone who attended his talks can tell you the difference between a black bear, brown, bear, and a Grizzly and also expound on the beauty of killer wales. Just absolutely engaging and wonderful.

A very dapper Jon dancing in the hallway

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I anxiously await the judges’ decisions during the Celebrity cooking competition

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We clean up pretty good for the ship’s formal evening

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Off the ship, we enjoyed many excursions as we sailed up and down the coast of Alaska. We had a half day to explore Ketchikan (home of abundant salmon and historic whorehouses) by foot and by float plane, a few hours in Juneau to hike a mountain top and a full day in the Yukon by way of Skagway (we took a narrow gauge train ride, saw an impressive suspension bridge, and had a fabulous time). We also enjoyed breathtaking views just off the ship’s bow as we passed through the very narrow Tracy Arm fjord one morning on the ship. It was so cold outside but everyone donned coats and blankets and braved the wind to take in the scenery.

We look forward to heading back to Alaska in the next few years to explore more of the interior. I’d love to visit Denali National Park, the arctic circle, and a handful of other places. In fact, I am headed to Anchorage for a weekend in September with a friend of mine for a little bit of a preview of the the Alaskan frontier.

 

Ketchikan and our float plane ride over the Misty fjord

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Passage through the Tracy Arm fjord – both waterfalls and glaciers descend to the ocean

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Views from our hike in Juneau

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Our trip into the Yukon on rail via Skagway

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