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Riding an Elephant in Laos

There IS a reason I nicknamed him Bronco

sunny 90 °F

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I was thinking that I'd see all the temples on Day 2 in Luang Prabang, and take an excursion out of town my last day there. Even though it did not get to all of the temple I wanted, I decided to go ahead and do the Elephant excursion, anyway. There would be more temples in Vientiane. A chance to ride an elephant through the jungle, and into the Mekong River, was something I didn't want to pass up.

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me and Bronco

The van picked the eight of us from various hotels, but luckily I was last. As it was, it was about a 45-minute to an hour ride to the tiny hamlet in the jungle where the elephants were kept. Along the way, I saw Laotian village life -- rice paddies, Asian cattle, goats, and tradition homes on stilts. What I'd read about Laos' roads was true. They were windy, in poor repair, and only got worse when we turned off the main highway. Scooters, tuk-tuks, and automobiles jockeyed for position on the roads, all in a hurry to get to the magical, mythical place at the head of the column of traffic.

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When we arrived, the elephant mahouts quickly started rounding our mounts up in line. They placed a cloth over their backs to cushion the howdah -- a bamboo construction wide enough for two to sit side by side. One couple insisted on riding bareback astride the elephant. They accommodated them, but we'd find out that all of us would eventually ride astride when we took our elephants down to the Mekong to bathe them. They lined them up next to a two-story building where we would mount them. I initially nicknamed my elephant "Buddy," but would later change it to Bronco -- for reasons that will be clear soon. Our's was the lead elephant, and we led the string of four. I shared the howdah with a teacher from the Philippines named Carol. She was a good sport and enjoyed the ride, plus was much better at elephant selfies than I was!

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We trekked for just under an hour through steep jungle pathways. It was easy to get used to Bronco's swaying gait. The cushioned howdah was comfortable, and I could imagine myself in India hunting tigers on elephant-back. Bronco had an uncanny ability to know which pair of trees he and the howdah could fit between and which he could not. He would resist our guide's lead from time to time, indicating which path he preferred. An elephant's skin is very rough, like sandpaper. Sparse black hairs stick straight up, like a fly's. Bronco flapped his ears back and forth repeatedly, probably to shoo off any insects. I nudged off a huge, black fly a few times with my sandals.

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After our ride, we lined up next to the second story of the building and clambered off. It was at this point when I should have taken the guide's suggestion and changed into a bathing suit. A few of the group had better advance information and did so. Instead, I took some pictures of Bronco and the other elephants. They stripped off the howdahs and we remounted bareback. Oblivious, my Spidey sense was not tingling. We slowly made our way down to the mighty, mighty Mekong River. Elephants do not like descending stone steps, by the way. Bronco tried to talk our guide into detouring through a thicket, but his barking commands convinced our mount otherwise. We continued on towards the muddy brown water.

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Once we entered the water, each guide began to smile mischievously. Uh-oh, I thought. Thank god I'd left the camera bag in the van and had given one of the guides my phone to take pictures. I performed a mental checklist. What was I wearing? Wallet in pocket with tons of low-value Lao bills. Money belt, with a handful of US 20's. Hmmm. This could be bad. Riding bareback on an elephant, by the way, is much more precarious than in a howdah. Several times I was sure I was going to lean too far one direction and be pitched into the mud to my undying shame. I held on....for now. Eventually, my guide could not contain his mischievous streak any longer. He stood up on the back of the elephant, encouraging me to do the same. Like a good dupe, I did. At his point he barked out a command to Bronco, who began to shake like a wet dog. I was unceremoniously tossed into the water, as was Carol. The shock of the cool water, along with the realization everything I wore was now soaked, took a few seconds. Finally grieving to a fault, I helped Carol clamber back astride, and then pulled myself up. Fools. Twice more, we were pitched into the water by Bronco's skilled bucking. A few of the other tourists declined to get back atop their elephants. I was a good sport, and forgave our guide every time. Soon, the guides grew bored of our incompetence, and used Bronco to stage a Mekong rodeo. Our elephant was the best bronco, thus I gave him his name. It was fun to watch our tormentors get tossed unceremoniously into the muddy, brown water.

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Eventually, we remounts for the ride back up from the riverbank. The lunch was a bit of a surprise to all of us. My regular readers know that I can in no way be confused with Anthony Bourdain. Still, it is always good to eat local food prepared by locals. I befriended the village puppies and shooed off the village cats...surprise, surprise! Soon it was time for the ride back home. As a group, we voted to skip the Lao whiskey tasting and power on through. It was undoubtedly a good excursion. It was fun talking to the other travelers, especially the French couple on an 11-month, round the world trip. One day, I tell myself: when I retire, I will take an around the world cruise and finally do my circumnavigation.

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Once back in my hotel, I carefully separated every bill in my wallet and set them in between the slats of the chairs on my deck. The rest of my damp clothes were likewise set outside, quickly drying in the intense! Lao heat. I changed into my bathing suit -- hours later than I should have, obviously -- and jumped into the hotel pool. It felt great to cool down and unwind in the perfect temperatures of the pool. I couldn't resist ordering a big Lao beer (things are cheap here), and savoring the sunshine, warmth, and chance to just sit and let Southeast Asia drift by.

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After dinner -- okay, I broke down and had a pizza -- I shopped at the Night Market. I'd been tempted by the gorgeous fabrics, but ended up buying a paper lamp with scenes of Laos village life on its four sides. Luang Prabang was a great stop. There are lots of travelers, so all the amenities are there. It still has that backpacker vibe, I feel. So. It was neat to return to my traveling roots, so to speak. If I were to come here again, I would definitely stay I town. I loved my hotel and it's genuine and unending graciousness. However, there are simply so many hotels in town there is really no reason to stay a 15-minute walk out of town.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 16:37 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

What Wat?

Temples abound in Vientiane

rain 93 °F

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I landed in Vientiane in early afternoon. It was sunny and hot. Vientiane looked more like a city to me than Luang Prabang, which had the feel of a small, provincial town. Here there was traffic, street lights, horribly-complex looking strands of electrical wires overhead, and the feel of a rushing city street. Luckily, most of the sights are concentrated in a central area, so I could walk virtually everywhere I wanted to go.

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Just two blocks away was my first sight, the Lao National Museum. It had a few of the jars from Laos' famous archeological site, the Plain of Jars. These massive stone jars were used for ceremonial burials more than a thousand years ago. I really wanted to visit the site, but it was far away from both Vientiane and Luang Prabang. Too far for a day excursion, it would have required at least one, probably two, overnights. I did not want to take time away from either of the other destinations, so I would have to settle for the museum's examples. The museum had a number of other artifacts, too. There were a few nice statues from the ancient and medieval cultures -- including Khmer style temple carvings. One of the jars was there, plus two were in the garden outside. I have to admit they weren't much to look at individually. An entire plain covered with them would have been an interesting sight, though. The museum had no air conditioning, and was fairly stifling inside. Once I reached the colonial and more modern era sights, I whipped through them more quickly. The communist propaganda on the signs showed through fairly overtly, all but calling the French and Americans "foreign devils."

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A curious thing about sights in Vientiane is how early everything closes in the afternoon. Checking my guidebook, there was only one temple I'd be able to get to in time. I was able to navigate Vientiane's grid pattern easier than Luang Prabang's curving street layout. However, once to the right place, I ran into a new problem: which temple was the one I was looking for? Yes, it was a case of What Wat? Almost none of the signs are in English, and the Lao script is unique. There are so many temples, or wats, on Vientiane's streets that you could spend months examining them all. They are very colorfully decorated, and have similar architectural features and styles. I think I found the one I was looking for, but couldn't really be sure. Since Imahd arrived in Laos, I had been amused by the sight of monks on their cell phones, playing games or goofing around. I was happy to finally get a good picture of one doing so. I always try to be respectful and ask before I take pictures of people, and this group of four boys were happy to be photographed.

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In general, there were fewer sights in Vientiane than Luang Prabang. I should have probably shifted a day between them, making it four in Luang Prabang and two here. The next morning, it was raining fairly steadily, so I delayed my sightseeing for an hour or so. My fist stop was a fascinating temple, Wat Si Saket. The inside walls were covered in medieval frescoes that were being restored by a team of specialists. It was interesting to examine the ones they'd already restored and compare them to the salt and water damaged originals. One showed a scene of battle between two kingdoms, with spearman, swordsman, and a number of war elephants. I recognized the Burmese style of elephant soldiers, with four platforms (one above each leg) and a central howdah. Multiple signs prohibited photography, unfortunately. Humorously, there were even signs prohibiting photographing from outside the temple looking in. I would really have liked to had pictures of the frescoes, but had to settle with taking a picture of a page in a book they had onsite. An interesting feature of Wat Si Saket is its cloister, a covered gallery surrounding the temple on all four sides. Along the outer wall of the cloister are thousands of niches, each with a small, bronze Buddha. Larger statues sat, cross-legged in a row in front of the niches. It was probably the nicest Wat in Vientiane -- or at least the most historically interesting.

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Laos' sights close down for an hourlong siesta at noon, so I found an air-conditioned restaurant to relax with a cold drink. I was in my usual travel mode of skipping lunch. Next, it was about half a mile walk to the city's most bustling Wat. Here, monks accepted donations inside the temple and would, in turn, perform a blessing on the donor. I saw gifts of food, decorative baskets, even a flower-like arrangement of 1,000 Kip bills (about 13 cents in Lao currency). The streets surrounding the Wat were full of vendors selling potential gifts to temple visitors. Outside the temple, colorfully-painted, larger than life statues of deities and mythical animals were spaced within the temple compound's walls. Behind the main temple were the crumbled ruins of a 5th century temple, still venerated by a golden sash wound around its fire-darkened stones.

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The last two sights of the day had to be reached by tuk-tuk. These come in various sizes, and are essentially a small passenger trailer welded onto a motor scooter. The first stop was That Luang, or the Great Stupa. This is a stupa rather than a temple, so it is a solid monument, not something you can go inside. It was huge and painted in gold. This meant it was not as impressive as Myanmar's Schwegedon Pagoda, which is actually gold plated. Nevertheless, it is a venerated sight, and actually appears on the Lao currency. Visitors and worshippers circled its expanse, taking pictures or leaving offerings.

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From there, it was a dusty, 45-minute ride to the Buddha Park on the outskirts of town. Although a modern construction, this collection of dozens and dozens of varying sizes of statues from Buddhist mythology was a treat for the eyes. Some were massive, multi-level ones that you could climb inside. Some were gigantic Buddhas or creatures, others were man-sized, or smaller. They are arranged in groupings, and it was fun to wander amidst them taking photos. The gray or white stone from which they were carved was weathering aesthetically in the damp climate, giving them an ancient appearance. Although 45 minutes in tuk-tuk, sucking in dust and exhaust is not a pleasant time, the park was one of the highlights of Vientiane, I felt. I had originally planned on taking a taxi there, but sightings of these are rare in Vientiane. So, I had to settle for a tuk-tuk.

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By the time I arrived back in town, all of the tour offices were closed for the day. I had planned on booking an excursion for Day 3, but got back too late. This meant my final day of sightseeing in Vientiane would be relaxed, and less intense. It included a quick perusal of the Morning Market (nowhere as impressive as Luang Prabang's Night Market). I followed this up walking to the Victory Monument, a towering pagoda-like construction that brings to mind France's Arc di Triomph. Much to my surprise, you can climb to the top of it for a view of Vientiane. There was a nice panoram of the city from atop it. I checked out a centuries-old, brick and stone stupa, That Dam. I also wandered along the riverfront, which Laos is slowly developing as more tourists come to Vientiane. I was thinking that it was a low-key way to end my sightseeing in Laos. So, just to make things interesting, a torrential downpour hit Vientiane as I wanted to venture out for dinner. Riding a tuk-tuk through flooding streets was a thrilling and humorous way to end the visit. I think I will remember Laos' wats the most, even after the name of what wat disappears from my memory.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 15:52 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Hiking in Singapore's Garden

A selection of canopy walks

sunny 91 °F

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I had a bonus day of sightseeing when I returned from Laos, and before my next flight out. I'd seen quite a bit so far, but one thing I hadn't gotten to yet were any of its parks. Singapore is supposed to have quite a bit of forest and hiking trails, including walks in the tree canopy. My guidebook had a great day's of walking mapped out, so I decided to follow its lead.

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I took the subway to the Pasit Panjang stop -- at more than a half hour, easily the longest ride I'd taken on the city's metro. From there, I followed by smartphone's map app up a forested hill to Reflections at Bukit Chandu. This tiny museum tells the story of the Malay regiment that defended this ground tenaciously against the overwhelming Japanese advance in WW II. There were two audio-visual presentations, one a standard overview of the battle and another a mildly cheesy narrative by a dramatized Malay soldier. It was neat to see a couple examples of the bicycles that Japanese troops used in WW II to advance quickly down the Malay peninsula. There was an attempt to personalize the stories of the soldiers, but it was not nearly as extensive or emotional as the Changi Chapel Museum I'd visited last week.

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I had to read between the guidebook's lines to interpret how to get to the canopy walk at Kent Ridge park. It was a short walk on a wooden platform that ranged in height above the ground. Of the three canopy walks I'd do today, it was probably the least impressive. The different types of trees were signposted, but the views of the forest and city beyond were mediocre. However, the walk was the beginning of a string of hiking trails that thread their way across the spine of Singapore, so things would go up from here. The walk through Holtz Park would be very interesting if I was into the different types of plants that grow here. It is a series of gardens that are well documented for visitors, but I was looking for elevation. I kept following the signs to the Alexandra Arch Bridge, and eventually arrived.

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The bridge itself is just the beginning of a spiderweb of metal walkways high above sprawling forest. It is really cool how these parks thread their way through the concrete jungle of the metropolitan area. Singapore's government has stated that it wants to transform itself from a "garden city" to a city inside a garden. The view out over the city kept getting better as I followed the aluminum skyways ever upwards. The signs pointed towards my next goal, Henderson Waves, but I was enjoying my journey there. The walkway zigzags back and forth, with the way ahead hidden by the trees. Strangely, I thought this would make a great setting for a Jurassic Park movie, with the characters being chased along the metal walkways.

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No dinosaurs appeared, but I eventually came to Henderson Waves. This is a clever, architectural bridge that has a series of arches undulating high above the city. The tops of the arches are converted into shaded alcoves where residents were picnicking and enjoying the view. The surface of the bridge itself is teak planks, and it curves both side to side and ripples up and down. It is much shorter than the Alexandra walkways, but easily had the best views of Singapore, so far. The pedestrian bridge leads to Mt. Faber Park -- Singapore's highest point. There are restaurants and a cable car at the peak, and I'd planned to relax and cool off there after my hike, and maybe spare my feet with a ride down.

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The view continued to improve, and from the top of the hill, were simply spectacular. I found a breezy cafe to rest from the muggy, 91 degree heat. A pint of cold Tiger beer help refresh me, as well. A fan blew on me as I admired the view of the city spread out beneath me. I read some review online about the cable car, and decided to take it. Touristy, yes, but at just over $20, it was reasonably priced for this relatively expensive city. After finishing my beer I walked to the cable car. Singapore is a clean, efficient, and well-run city. I'd rarely felt overwhelmed anywhere by hordes of tourists. All bets were off here, though. It was a mob scene. No signs pointed towards a counter to buy tickets, and the line to ride snaked back and forth like an amusement park. The crowd clamored loudly as it waited its turn to be stuffed, eight at a time, inside the black plastic shells. When I finally did find the ticket counter, both positions were marked "Closed," despite a bored-looking attendant seated at each. There was one self-service kiosk, and a line of people trying to get it to scan and approve their preprinted vouchers. Was it worth it? Would I really enjoy being completely enclosed inside a cable car with seven strangers? Would I even get any good pictures through the tinted windows? There WAS a pathway down the hill. If I took that, I would enjoy the view in silence and not have to jostle strangers for photographs.

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I decided to go with nature and hiked down the hill. It took a surprisingly short amount of time, and the views in the first five minutes alone made me happy I chose that path. In fact, most of the way down was stone steps, which meant I did not envy those I passed toiling their way up. It was getting late in the afternoon by the time I arrived at the metro station at the bottom of Mt. Faber. I made my way back to my hotel, a bit sore from the hiking, but pleased with my sunny walk in Singapore's garden.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 05:15 Archived in Singapore Comments (1)

Manil-hell?

Mother Nature does not add to Philippines' capital's sparse charms

storm 92 °F

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The Philippines were a late addition to my SE Asian adventure I'd planned for the summer. Singapore was my first destination of choice, and a travel friend's recent pictures from Laos convinced me to make it part two. However, once I'd counted up the days, I still had a little less than a week before I had to be back in the states. So, where to? I'd seen photos of the beauty of the various islands of the Philippines, so did some research. I decided to do a four-night stop on the island of Palawan, which was supposed to be a lot like Vietnam's Halong Bay, as far as natural scenery goes.

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Manila's town walls

First impressions can be misleading sometimes, but other times they are good omens. Or bad omens -- depending on the impression in question! I'd read to avoid the taxi touts at Manila airport, and my hotel confirmed the advice. They said to make sure I took a metered taxi from the official taxi stand. I brushed past all of the ride solicitations (probably several dozen) to join the long line of people waiting. Every two to three minutes or so, a single, sometimes two, cab would pull up and the line would inch forward. A full 50 minutes I waited, but my frustrations with Manila public transit had only begun. I'd pulled my IPhone maps app up, and entered my hotel. Turns out that it was only 4.6 miles away, which in Manila traffic means, oh, 45 minutes, at least! Seriously! We inched along, changing lanes, tooting horns, merging, re-merging, and in general, getting nowhere fast.

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Cannons on one of the town wall batteries

I'd landed in mid-afternoon and thought that I'd be able to get in some sightseeing that day. Wrong! Another feature of Manila is that most sights close by 5 pm. Plus, the rain let loose soon after I arrived. The only thing I did that evening was walk to the local mall which had dozens of restaurants to choose from. I was staying in the Ermita district because it was close to the sights I wanted to see in Manila, but my guidebook said it was a tourist-friendly area with lots of amenities. Except that Lonely Planet forgot to mention the war zone look to the neighborhood, and the thick, overlaying patina of seediness. The Philippines is my 83rd country, so I am no casual traveler. I have to say Manila is the seediest looking city I've visited, beating out Guatemala City and Tegucigalpa. I returned relatively quickly to my poor stepsister of a Best Western hotel that I'd booked on hotels.com.

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The next morning was sunny, so I set out with the hope last night's impressions had been soured by the transportation frustrations. It was easy to navigate my way with my guidebook and IPhone maps to the walled city part of the Old Town known as Intramuros. I'd originally planned to stay there instead of Ermita, but a review saying there were no restaurants or services in the area open in the evening dissuaded me. I had to fend off regular and repeated solicitations of a bicycle pedicab tour of Intramuros from the moment I got within a few blocks of it. I walked around a bit before I got my bearings, then headed to the Visitors Center for one of their free maps. The black and white line drawing of the outline was not the most impressive I'd seen, but it did the job.

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Fort Santiago in Manila

I began with Fort Santiago, built by the in the 16th/17th century by the Spanish, it is currently undergoing renovation. Sections of are completed and look nice, with access to the battlements, which held batteries of cannons. You can walk a good portion of its walls -- just like with the Old Town itself. Fort Santiago is the tip of the Old Town, guarding the port. After leaving the fort, I found steps leading up to the town walls and walked a little less than a quarter of their circuit. My view from atop confirmed what I'd suspected as I was circling the town looking for the entrance. The green area outside the walls -- likely the former moat -- has been turned into a golf course! I saw pairs of golf carts buzzing along, and groups of golfers teeing up next to blackened stone fortifications. I couldn't decide if it was an ingenious use of city green space or somehow wrong. Nevertheless, it was a way to keep the area surrounding the town walls green and pristine -- a problem Manila obviously suffers in most of the city.

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Golfing next to History

I checked out the Manila Cathedral and San Agustin Church -- the oldest in the Philippines. Manila Cathedral has been rebuilt many times over, the latest following the almost complete leveling of the city in WW II. The cathedral is venerable looking on the outside, but more modern on the inside. Unfortunately, I saw only the outside of San Agustin. I arrived at "siesta time" --when it closed down for an hour and a half at lunch -- a cultural adaption from the Spanish colonizers. I loved its decoration, from the ornate wooden doors to the stone carvings of saints and Chinese temple dogs. I made plans to come back, but Mother Nature would have other ideas.

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Manila Cathedral

I continued my way on towards the San Diego gardens, which had access to an interesting section of the town walls. Some were in ruined state, while others were in better shape. I watched as golfers finished off a hole which lay just a handful of yards away, beneath me. I spent awhile exploring the fortifications, then returned and check out the gardens. By this time, I was really sweating in the 90 degree heat and humidity. I needed to cool off in some air conditioning. I remembered the hotel I was planning on staying at in Intramuros had a rooftop bar. I checked my map and walked the short distance there, all but sighing audibly when I entered its air conditioned lobby. Although the bar wasn't open yet, the gracious reception urged me to take the elevator up and check it out. The view was fantastic, and I could easily see myself relaxing in my evenings there. The restaurant was the next floor down, and I checked out its menu and decided to splurge on a pizza and San Miguel Negra. While enjoying the view, the food, and the four star ambience, I decided to cancel my reservation at the Best Western for return stay in Manila, and book the Bayleaf, as it was called. The price was only about $10 more, and I figured it would be worth it. I logged on to hotels.com and took care of it there and then.

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While eating lunch, I'd noticed a section of the battlements that was more complete and with numerous cannons. I headed down to investigate. While checking it out, raindrops began to fall. I debated between returning to San Agustin or heading over the Museum of the Philippine People, whose description sounded interesting in my guidebook. In view of the increasing rain, I chose museum, planning to spend an hour or so there, during which time the rain would hopefully stop. And then the Heavens opened up. I pulled on my rain jacket, but my legs were soon soaked to the skin. What's more, drainage had apparently not been discovered in Manila, and I was soon wading through lakes as I navigated my way (poorly) towards the museum. My frustration mounted as each entrance I discovered shooed me on the the "main" one, on the opposite side of the sprawling, gated complex. I finally arrived, dripping, to find the most air conditioned public space I'd encountered, yet.

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San Agustin

So poorly did I navigate that I actually ended up at the wrong, but similarly named (and adjacent!) museum. I wanted to see the National Museum of the Philippine people, which is essentially a history museum. I ended up at the National Gallery of the Philippine People -- which is an art gallery, as it sounds. Nothing against art, but History's my passion. I was quite bored as I dripped, cold and damp, through the various rooms looking at painting and sculptures by people I'd never heard of. By the time I was done, the rain had dialed back from Epic Biblical scale to a normal rain. I decided to take a cab back to the hotel to avoid wading through any more lakes, er, streets. However, everyone wants a cab when it rains in Manila, and there are none to be had. Praising Manila every step of the way back to my hotel (okay, maybe not), I returned to dry out my clothes.

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Painting of Japanese WW II prison camp scene in the National Gallery

If I thought my frustrations were at an end, I was mistaken. I'd made plans to meet up with Ian -- an Australian history buff and gamer who I've known through the years. He'd picked out a bar 3.7 miles away (according to my iPhone maps app). My hotel said they'd get me a cab, and Ian said to leave at 6:30 pm, and that he'd be there at 7 pm. Guess how long the ride took? Two hours. Yes, to go less than four miles! Apparently, this is normal for Manila. Though I had a great time talking to Ian and his friend Colin, I could not fathom how anyone could live in this and stay sane. Apparently, the subway and train are equally useless (unless you ride when no one else wants). Manila's streets of pedal cabs, motorbikes, motor tricycles, jeepneys (exhaust spewing monstrosities that most citizens use), cabs, trucks, and people hawking wares in the road combine to create the modern world's worst example of an urban Hell that I've encountered. When you must budget an hour to go 4 miles...really?? If the new Philippine president truly wants to better his country in a significant way, he'd fix this monster that urban overcrowding has created. That said, it is amazing how friendly and upbeat most Philippinos remain. My hat is off to them for smiling through what to me was torture. Honestly, I have no intention of returning and spending time in Manila. It is just my opinion, but it was truly the seediest, most broken-down city I've visited to this point.

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Have I been unfair to Manila in this blog entry? Let me know yes or no...!

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:47 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Rain Out in Palawan

Charms of Philippine island washed out by typhoon

storm 81 °F

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So, here it was, an island of natural beauty and stunning seascapes. After the urban ugliness of Manila, I was really looking forward to this part of the trip. My AirSwift flight on a 40-seat propeller plane went smoothly. The tiny airline flies three times a day to El Nido, the town in the Bacuit Archipelago where I'd be staying. After a puzzling pause upon arrival, a fleet of tricycles arrived to pick up the passengers and distribute them to various hotels. A tricycle is a motorbike with a two wheeled, covered sidecar seating 2-3 people. It is the taxi of El Nido. The road was dirt -- well, mud, actually -- with a large number of standing puddles my driver had to slow down to splash through or detour around.

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That should have been my first clue as to what awaited me on my four nights on Palawan. In one word: rain. To give it a name, Typhoon Butchoy was currently cruising past the north end of the Philippines, pulling in torrential thunderstorms and scattering them in an arc across the country. My first brush with Butchoy was the previous afternoon when I went walking, then wading, in Manila. My second brush was on the tricycle ride to my hotel, when a driving rain partially soaked me despite pulling out my ran jacket and cowering behind it. After transferring from one tricycle to my hotel's private one in town, I arrived after about 30 minutes at the Golden Monkey Inn -- a small resort located a mile from or so out of town on a similarly muddy, rutted road.

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I had reserved a Seaview Suite, and my private balcony did indeed look out on a lovely view of El Nido's bay. The next day, I discovered it looked out upon the construction of a new hotel building going on about 15 yards beneath me. The sounds of hammering, sawing, and pounding nails into the tin roofs killed any relaxation I might have felt looking out at rain falling upon the jungle and sea. My island tour of various scenic spots had been cancelled for the day due to the typhoon's after effects. The rain hammered down every hour or so from the relentless gray skies. I retreated inside to read some, but what's the point of visiting an idyllic, tropical location if you're going to spend it in your air conditioned hotel room? Eventually, the rains let up enough for me to explore the resort a little. I noticed the beachfront cabins that I thought I had rented were unoccupied. In fact, other than me, the entire resort was empty of guests. The staff let me switch to one of the cabins, which were identical in amenities, but a tad smaller. The construction was going on behind me, now, and my balcony looked out directly onto the ocean with nothing intervening. Even more gorgeous...well, except for the gray skies and driving rain every couple hours!

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View from the private balcony of my beachfront cabin

Eventually, the rain seemed to let up enough for me to take a chance and explore along the ocean front a little. I ended up walking all the way into town along the rocks and beach. It was a much better and more scenic walk than yesterday's plod along the muddy, jungle path. I was able to take some really nice photos of the sun peaking out and shining upon the water. The tide was out, and locals were wading ankle deep more than a hundred yards from the shoreline, foraging among the tide pools. Once in town, I confirmed my reservation for the island tour -- what I was hoping wold be the highlight of the trip -- had been pushed back till tomorrow. El Nido has a definite backpacker vibe, with most of the visitors in their 20s or 30s. Families are sprinkled in here and there, too. It seemed about half Asian and half Western visitors, with the locals nearly outnumbered by the travelers.

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The beach is lined with restaurants and bars advertising happy hour, many with rooms for rent, as well. Reggae blared out of more than one bar, and there was a lot of San Miguel (Philippine's national brewery) being consumed. I had dinner, and of course, just as I began the walk back to my resort, the rains came down again. It was too dark for walking amidst the rocks of the shoreline, so I squished along on the muddy jungle path again, illuminating my way with the flashlight app on my phone. My reasons for staying outside of town were looking less and less sound, now, especially in the rainy season. Internet is weak to nonexistent on Palawan, so I couldn't upload photos or update my blog -- my usual evening activities when I travel. As I climbed into bed, the rains came down harder and the wind began to howl. I immediately noticed one huge difference between the suite (which was in a multistory building) and the cabin (which had its own tin roof). The cacophony of rain, branches, and coconuts hammering on the roof made it difficult to fall asleep. It was a new experience, for sure, but one that made a light sleeper like me wake up numerous times during the night.

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Checking with the tour company the next morning, the island hopping tour was canceled yet again. So, what to do today? While the thunderstorms lashed the island, I read some. After a few hours, the weather broke a little. I could use the 3G on my Philippine SIM card intermittently. The forecast was for three hours of clouds before the next aquatic lashing by Typhoon Butchoy. My guidebook recommended Las Cabanas Beach, a short 15-minute tricycle ride from El Nido. It was a good choice, and the sun actually came out for a bit while I was there. The beach had too many huge rocks mixed in here and there for me to really spend a lot of time wading in the water. Plus the waves churned up the seaweed and floor to make the water more muddy-colored than crystal blue. However, the jungle-clad slopes all around, the palm trees leaning over the beach, and the sound of the surf was just what my spirits needed. I craved a burger at a tiki bar overlooking the beach, but the wait was long, and the skies began to darken as it neared the three hour window between thunderstorms. I decided to postpone it for an early dinner in town, and beat the rush the ensuing rain would likely bring for the waiting tricycles. It was a good call. About halfway back into town, the wind picked up, locals began to scurry, and finally the skies opened up and whipped bucket loads of rain. I found a second story restaurant overlooking the street, and watched locals, travelers, and traffic dodge the rain beneath me. This was definitely not the nature I'd come to Palawan to admire. But as I fell asleep that night listening to what sounded like a hurricane roaring, it was impressive nonetheless.

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Las Cabanas Beach

My last morning began as the other three, with news that the Coast Guard had again cancelled the island tours for today. So, it was official. I would not see the beauty of the Bacuit Archipelago, and I'd spent my airfare and hotel money to see an extremely watered down version of Palawan's sights. So, what to do on my final full day? I chose to rent a kayak from my resort. My guidebook said that many travelers paddle across the bay to the giant green hump of Cadlao Island on their own. I asked, and they said it was an hour's paddle. If I were an experienced kayaker, or had the company of others or guides, I might have risked it. However, the idea of getting halfway across and having a storm blow in was too scary for me. My friend Keith would probably have done it, but despite my boldness in exploring countries off the beaten path of most travelers, I am too cautious at heart. I'm not an adrenaline junkie. I'm also flat-out terrified of sharks. And I'd probably have a heart attack if I was out on the open water and saw a fin slicing the water. So, instead I paddled along the coastline for about an hour and a half -- never more than about 100 yards offshore. It was a scenic vantage point, and I'm glad I did it. The only sea life I saw were a half dozen flying fish startled by my paddling. The skies remained overcast, and no gray clouds threatened. My butt soaked, my back and arms a bit sore, I happily pulled into my hotel and surrendered the kayak, vest, and paddle.

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Worldwidemike takes to the sea and is NOT eaten by sharks!

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering El Nido, enjoying some San Miguel's, and waiting for the Altrove -- the best meal on Palawan to open up at 5 pm. In retrospect, I would discourage anyone from visiting Palawan during its rainy season. You essentially miss the whole reason for coming. It would be like visiting Vatican City when St. Peter's was closed. Come during its dry season or don't come at all. I spent a lot of time in my hotel room in Palawan -- more than I ever had on previous vacations. I wanted a vacation amidst nature's beauty, not a "stay-cation" reading books in a hotel room. Typhoon Butchoy saw that I spent more time with my feet propped up on the balcony than hiking, swimming, or snorkeling in a tropical paradise.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 13:03 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

Bueno Day in Buenos Aires

Sunny and warm greeting in Argentina

sunny 75 °F

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As I stepped out of the car ar John Glenn Airport in Columbus, a cold, wintry rain sent its icy tentacles down my neck. Remind me never to confidently sneer that we are done with Winter. Ever. However, when I landed in Buenos Aires 15 hours later, I discovered where the sun had been hiding since teasing us with a mild winter early. Setting out from my hotel in Centro district, the warm sun bathed refreshed me with its golden light. I had slept more than I expected on the plane last night, but was still a little groggy. The brilliant blue, cloudless sky helped wake me up, too.
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I ducked inside the Teatro Colon, but decided to save touring its lavish interior for a day when it wasn't so gorgeous out. Instead, I worked my way steadily downtown, drawn downhill towards the waterfront. The Obelisk was a quick photo stop, then a short walk later, I arrived at Plaza Mayor. This is Centro's main square, and a festival was in full swing with a choir serenading a bustling crowd and teams of traditionally garbed dancer performing. I watched a few teams perform, then circled the area, taking pictures of its historic buildings gleaming in the sunlight.

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I was disappointed I couldn't visit the Casa Rosata -- the centuries old Presidential Palace. This pastel pink building is where the President works, where Evita Peron addressed adoring crowds from the balcony, and where Madonna belted out her rendition of Argentina's famous First Lady. The tours were booked solid for the week, unfortunately. I compensated by taking a leisurely circuit of the classical, columned National Cathedral. Gold and stained glass shone in the afternoon sunlight. One interesting touch were the two Grenadiers in 1800s, Napoleonic-style uniforms guarding the tomb of one of Argentina's beloved generals. Drawn swords and martial attire usually aren't found in Catholic Churches!
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Nest up was the Casa Rosata Musuem. There are lots of pictures of Plaza Mayor through the years, as well as Presidential relics through the years. Everything was in Spanish, but it seemed to do a relatively honest job of portraying Argentina's less-than-democratic past as it was. The displays were not thrilling, but it was a fee museum, and a change of pace from walking around downtown. The funniest part was what the ladies working there were most enthusiastic about -- a bizarre, nude mural in a small building constructed inside the museum for it. Apparently it is the first mural ever painted in the country. We had to put cloth boots on over our shoes and then entered a small antechamber where the enthusiastic tour guide rambled on in Spanish for more than 20 minutes about it. She knew I did not speak Spanish, but I had to sit there and endure her lecture for me and the dozen other people. I fought doIng off several times, then chuckled when I thought, "It took the dude less time to paint it than it is for her to explain it!" Once permitted in the mural room, I shook my head and left with a few minutes. Sorry, I am not a fan of modern nude art with distorted female body parts overwhelming a painting. I'd rather look at street graffiti than this overrated crap...ha,ha!
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From there, I worked my way down to the seaside. There us a bird sanctuary on an island protecting the waterfront. The shore facing the city looks more like a marsh than a coastal scene, and egrets and parrots flapped above or in its waters. I sat, drank a cold soft drink, and caught up on some email and Facebook, enjoying the feels of the 70+ degree heat and the sun warming my back. On the way back, I stopped by and explored an 1890s era frigate docked along the waterfront. It was cool to see that transition period from sailpower to electric and steam. Then, it was back to my hotel. It had been a good first day. Dinner a bit later was an amazing finish, too - incredible Italian food, with great bread and olive oil beforehand. I had followed my typical plan after an over-night, overseas flight. Do outdoor stuff. Minimize or cut out any museum visits. And Argentina had cooperated, giving me sunny, blue skies and warm weather to welcome me.
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Posted by world_wide_mike 18:31 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Feeling Like an Antique After Shopping Day

Exploring the San Telmo Market

sunny 78 °F

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All the guidebooks recommended visiting the Sunday Antique Market in San Telmo, a gentrified neighborhood with interesting architecture and quaint cobblestoned streets. Since this was the only Sunday of my visit, it was off to San Telmo via Buenos Aires' "Subte", or metro. The subway was easy to navigate, and stacked up well against other world metro systems I've taken (except for Singapore, which is almost obsessive-compulsive about its cleanliness and comfort). A half-mile walk from the metro station led to the main drag of San Telmo, Defensa, which was bustling with crowds in the late morning sun.
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Some vendors had their wares set up on various sizes and shapes of tables, while others on blankets on the ground. The variety of items for sale ran the gamut from clothing, antiques, pottery, music, books, and interesting gifts. My favorite were the two vendors I saw that had taken various coins from around the world and converted them to interesting pendants. They cut out the background of the coin, leaving the face, animal, or whatever the raised surface was inside the ring of the coin's rim. I would have bought one but I rarely wear jewelry. The crowds grew steadily as morning turned to noon and then afternoon.
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One break from shopping was the National History Museum. It focused mostly on the colonial past, but had some displays on the various aspects indigenous cultures of Argentina. All signs and placards were in Spanish and there was no English language literature to go with it. On the positive side, the museum was free because it was National Culture Day, I overhearid another visitor say. There were various weapons and uniforms used by soldiers and leaders. There was even another grenadier uniformed in 19th century costume with drawn sword guarding a display. All in all, though, the museum was unsatisfying for this history buff. Perhaps if I'd been able to read the signs and descriptions I would have enjoyed it more.
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There were two more interesting sounding museums in the area, so I dove back into the surging crowd shopping at the market. The tables filled with wares ran for nearly a dozen city blocks. Off to the side, covered markets and indoor antique markets tempted shoppers off the main drag. The array of things offered for sale was bewildering. A WW I gas mask? Figureheads from wooden sailing vessels? More weapons and knives and odds and ends than you would think possible crammed table after table.
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Despite backtracking twice, I could not find the second museum, and the third ended up being closed. After hours of walking on irregular cobble stones, my feet were aching. I could feels myself tottering a bit as I walked, and I began to feel like one of the antiques lining the store windows behind the market tables. A cold drink and a place to stretch out my legs sounded too good. I decided to stop at a cafe on the way back to the Subte, but on the route I chose everything was shuttered and closed, it being Sunday. It wasn't until I returned to the neighborhood of my hotel that I finally found one open. By then, I was exhausted, and as it turned out, done for the day. It was nearly 4 pm when I collapsed on the bed of my hotel room. An hour-plus nap was obviously in order, as I was out shortly after I took off my shoes. I woke up later and had an awesome pizza dinner, but Sunday -- shopping day in Buenos Aires-- turned out to be a relatively light one as far as sightseeing went.
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Posted by world_wide_mike 17:22 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Admiring the Houses of the Dead

Wandering the La Recoleta Cemetery

sunny 77 °F

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I had read that the La Recoleta Cemetery was an atmospheric place to wander on your visit to Buenos Aires, so that was the destination for Day 3. Another short subway ride and a nice walk led to its gates. Even though there were a few tour buses parked outside, the vastness of the cemetery swallows up visitors. It seems most groups make a beeline for the family tomb of Evita Peron, so I set off in the opposite direction. There is no way to check out every single tomb, so I would wander the aisles making my way through each area, hoping to spot the most interesting ones.
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The mausoleums that the Argentine families have constructed here range from simple to massive and elaborate. Some are done in a Graeco-Roman style, others in 18th or 19th century fashion. Statues of angels, soldiers, and the deceased look out serenely over the packed rows. One even showed a naked Classical Greek man wrestling a female centaur. I would be VERY interested to hear the story behind that symbolism! Some statues feature family members somberly mourning the departed. Others have beautiful stained glass windows that burst into color in the bright sunlight.
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The really cool part of exploring La Recoleta Cemetery is the sheer variety of mausoleums. You thread your way through row after row, investigating spires, statues, or the tops of tombs that caught your eye. There are more than 6,000 of them, and many contain Argentina's formerly rich and famous. Hundreds have been declared historic monuments. It reminded me a lot of a cemetery I visited in Ukraine, Lychakivske, in Lviv. However, that one had more of an outdoor feel. With all the stone and marble and paved walkways, this had a very "city" feel to it.
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After more than two hours of prowling the cemetery, my feet and back had enough. It was time for a break, and the brewpub just outside the entrance sounded perfect. I learned later that evening from an Argentine friend, Florencia, that microbreweries are becoming quite the craze of late. Refreshed, I headed out again to check out a church that overlooked the cemetery. The Basilica del Pilar was first built in the 1700s, and you can tour its whitewashed interior. Gregoria's chant wafted through the stone interior, and numerous signs explained the relics and artifacts along the walls. Disappointingly, there was no place to get a good picture of its tiled belltower, which I'd seen while touring the cemetery.
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A final stop was the 66-foot tall aluminum Floralis Generica. It is a giant flower whose petals used to open and close every day. Now, apparently , it is stuck in the open position. Its brightly reflective surface brought to mind Chicago's "bean." It was another gorgeous, sunny day, and the sun shone off its metal surface. As it was heading on to late afternoon, it was time to go back before rush hour jammed the subway cars. Once in my hotel room, I downloaded my pictures onto my iPad, picked out my favorites, then took a quick nap.
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I ended the evening meeting Florencia and her husband. They were great hosts, and we swapped travel stories and they told me more about life in Argentina. Both are well travelled, and Florencia has lived in the U.S. and even Syria, years ago. We'd met years ago through an online travel forum, Travelpunk, but had never met in person before. She'd been ribbing me for years about not visiting Argentina. I had a great time chatting with her and Pablo. I think getting to know locals on a visit to a new country provides a new depth and dimension to learning about a place. It was great to get to know both them and Argentina more.
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Posted by world_wide_mike 09:15 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Uruguay For One Day

Trip across Rio De La Plata to Colonia

sunny 76 °F

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Okay, I admit one of the primary attractions of the day trip from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, was the fact it would be yet another country I've visited. Guidebooks praised it as a cobblestoned gem, and UNESCO had named it a World Heritage site. So, I wasn't being totally cheesy in going for country #85! Plus, it meant a boat trip across the famous Rio de la Plata that separates the two countries (and incidentally, is near where the British finally cornered and sank the German battle cruiser, the Bismarck).
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I was in Buenos Aires for just over a week, and looking for interesting sights to fill my schedule, so I booked a one day return on the Buquebus -- which is a fast ship making the crossing in about an hour. I left on the 9 am departure, scheduling the 7:45 pm return. Colonia is a former Portuguese colony town that is a popular weekend or day trip for Portenos (as residents of Buenos Aires are called). It has a number of tiny museums, but the main attraction is the historic Old Quarter. I am a sucker for historic towns -- the more atmospheric, the better.
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Some guidebooks recommend an overnight to truly experience the town. After spending a day there, I would say that is a mistake. My ship docked at shortly after 10 am, giving me a good 8+ hours to see Colonia's sights. That is way, way more than enough, in my opinion. In fact, around 4 pm, I began to wonder if there was an earlier departure I could change my ticket to, possibly. There was. At 4 pm - so much for that idea!
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I had seen pretty much all of the Old Quarter's sights by then. I had climbed the lighthouse for a view of the town bathed in the late morning sun. I had threaded my way through all of its streets, stopping at each numbered spot on the map the tourist information agency had given me. I had seen all four of the museums that were open on a Tuesday -- several were closed. I had taken pictures of the historic buildings, some framed by bright bougainvillea. I had enjoyed a lunch in a streetside cafe, and dozed on a bench by the shore, as the afternoon sun made my eyelids heavy.
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Whenever I encounter this feeling of "Is this it?", I begin to wonder if I am the victim of my own experience. I know I am comparing Colonia in my mind to, say, last Spring Break's destination of Dubrovnik. Or the walled town of Obidos, Portugal, or Segovia, Spain, or Assisi, Italy. But is it fair to every new destination to judge it by the standards of all the other historic towns I've visited? Colonia definitely pales in comparison to those sights. I worry about this feeling. Will it crop up more and more as I've visited a higher percentage of sights around the world?
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I noticed that Colonia has more than its share of dogs wandering its cobblestoned streets. Most of them seemed to spend the day napping in the sun. I managed to befriend one at lunch. They were well behaved, and did not beg for food like most dogs in the U.S. would have. Most seemed indifferent to visitors, and would only come to be petted with coaxing. If I needed a relaxing day after the hectic 2-3 weeks at school, leading up to spring break, I received it today.
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Eventually, it was time to walk back to the port and check in for the ride back to Buenos Aires. The customs officials for Argentina and Uruguay sit side by side. Crossing this border is a breeze, and took less time than the last time I drove from Canada into the U.S. Was Colonia the highlight of my spring break? No. Was it an interesting way to spend the day -- and a simple way to chalk up country #85? Absolutely! So, I recommend it if you have an extra day to spend while in Buenos Aires -- or need to rack up another country!
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Posted by world_wide_mike 18:15 Archived in Uruguay Comments (0)

Art Taking the High Road, and Low Road

Teatro Colon and La Bocca

overcast 74 °F

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The day I arrived, I'd made a short stop at Buenos Aires' world famous Teatro Colon. Known throughout the world for its acoustics and gorgeous interior, I planned to come back for one of their English language tours. The overcast morning was starting to show signs of sun when I arrived in time for the 11 am tour. There were about two dozen people in the group, and everyone was polite and well mannered. Out tour guide was a young, Argentine lady who was charming and honest. She talked about the problems they had building the theater, its mishmash of styles, and how it's acoustics were poor when it opened. She kept us moving without being demanding, and politely ignored it when we wandered a bit off to rake photos.
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The theater was built in the late 1800s in a mix of Italian and French styles. The statues, gold leaf paint, columns, and other classical decoration were stunning. The glass windows with their colorful, floral decorations were beautiful. Our guide pointed out the columns decorated with stucco to look like marble and the parts that were genuine marble. She explained the purpose of each of the chambers, and brought to life what attending the theater as a social event would be like back then.
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When we moved into the theater itself, she pointed out each area and level of balcony, and explained what its purpose was back then and now. It was interesting to hear about how each social class had their own area, and how in some levels men were even segregated from women because the seating was too close together. She pointed out the Presidential box, as well as that of the mayor. My favorite story was about the secret area at the top of the ceiling, next to the great bronze lamp fixture. There was a tiny area where musicians or other performers could hide to create special effects like thunder coming from above, or angels or birds singing. The acoustics were indeed perfect -- it was voted #1 in the world awhile back -- as she barely had to raise her voice and all of us could hear clearly.
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I was glad I visited, and it was worth the $16 or so that I paid. The guide also told us about practices that people can buy tickets for, if they can't afford the actual performances. I probably won't do that, but others may be interested. I have to admit that I'm not a fan of either the symphony, theater plays, and definitely NOT opera! Still, it is a beautiful building and deserves its acclaim.
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Next was a subway ride to the stop closest to the La Bocca (which was still almost a mile from the part of the neighborhood I was heading). I probably should have taken a taxi, but I figured I would see more walking. As it turned out, I took a taxi back, but for different reasons! La Bocca is where many European -- especially Italian -- immigrants first settled. Bocca means mouth, which stands for the river mouth where many of the port facilities were located.
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The homes in La Bocca are garishly painted in a wide variety of colors. The story is that they used the paint from ships, thus the non-matching colors. They also moved several families into the sprawling mansions that had been abandoned by the wealthy during the yellow fever epidemic. Nowadays, many of these century-old buildings have been haphazardly repaired with corrugated steel, wood, or whatever materials were on hand. They are still brightly colored. What's more, murals and carvings decorate the walls depicting families, ordinary people, tango dancers, and more. These are brought into 3-D by larger than life statues of Argentinians such as Pope Francis, soccer star Maradonna, and caricatures of everyday life in La Bocca along the streets or projecting from facades of buildings.
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It is a bit touristy, of course. You can tell that by the touts trying to talk you into their cafe (with musical performance or tango dancing). Also, every other building appears to be a souvenir shop or gift store. It is a colorful visit, though. I stopped to photograph buildings repeatedly, and enjoyed the artistic effort taken by the residents to make their surroundings beautiful. I saw more than one house being spruced up with a fresh coat of paint. Of course, the residents are no longer limited to the paint they can scrounge from incoming ships. They use the full pallet -- so I saw lavender walls, bright green, yellows, and more.
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After lunch, I took taxi back because of the demonstration going on downtown (where my subway route would have to pass through). On the walk to La Bocca from the subway, I'd seen hundreds of demonstrators carrying signs and chanting slogans marching down one of the main thoroughfares. At lunch, I saw television coverage showing thousands packing the Plaza Mayor, where I'd done my sightseeing on Saturday when I arrived. That explained why all the subway cars had been packed going towards downtown! I never did find out what the demonstration was about. Maybe I'll ask Florencia when we meet later this week.
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It had been good, art-filled day. The first part had been high brow art, and the second definitely low brow. Both had been beautiful, though, in their own way.
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Posted by world_wide_mike 14:56 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

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