Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Can We Please Jaywalk?

July 30-31,  2012
Radisson Blu Frankfurt

I made it to Frankfurt, Europe's financial hub and home to the 3rd busiest airport in Europe (behind London and Paris).  My hope was to move my flight to South Africa up a day (flying on the 30th instead of the 31st), but unfortunately there was no space available so I was afforded 24 hours in Frankfurt... .not a bad compromise I guess.

Part of me was feeling adventurous so I even considered hopping on a flight or an overnight train to London to at least say I'd been to an Olympics, but due to the tight schedule on the 31st and no other flight options I thought better of it.  Might have to wait for Rio.

So Frankfurt it was and the only reason it ever became so was because my original flight to Johannesburg on Iberia (from Madrid) was cancelled as Iberia stopped flying the route back in March.  Thus American Airlines was forced to find me another option and Frankfurt and South African Airways was the winner.

The Germans are efficient.  There is a reason why their economy is still going strong and they are ready to help on the bailout of other European nations.  Their trains run on time, everyone speaks English and plain and simple... Things Get Done!

Upon arrival at Frankfurt's massive airport I took a combination of train and tram and arrived at my hotel, the Radisson Blu which they claim is the only round hotel in Europe.  The Radisson considers this hotel a "design" hotel and thus it is very quirky with lots of interesting "design" touches.  Industrial looking in some places, futuristic in others and just weird in others you wonder where the inspiration came from.   

I finally got to my room around 9pm and I wasn't too hungry but I was road weary and thus made a trip up to the 18th floor pool and spa area.  Now I've seen some cool pools on this trip but this was one of the best.  The pool was small but it had a current that you could swim agains, but for swimmers like me and Michael Phelps since we swim too fast, the current didn't do much.  However the pool has a huge window that you can see the entire Frankfurt skyline out of... pretty cool when you are floating on your back and looking out into the Frankfurt night.   The spa area also had showers and saunas with windows looking outward... a first for me.   I was now free of the travel grime, relaxed and ready for bed.

Like many European hotels, the Radisson does not believe in the King or Queen being part of the family... instead the put two twin beds together with a connector in the middle and they think their customers will be happy.  It wasn't too bad, but still not the best as I tossed and turned not knowing what twin I should be sleeping on.

Morning came and the breakfast buffet called my name.  Included in my friends and family rate of $93 was the normally $30 breakfast buffet.  It was probably the worst buffet breakfast of the trip... but then again I've been to some amazing spreads.   It filled the void left in my stomach from no dinner the night before though and I had a couple hours of Olympics to watch before my 1pm checkout.

With my flight not scheduled until 8:45pm I had some time to kill so I stored my bags at the hotel and boarded the tram for a ride into the old city center.   This was typical Germany.   Tons of sidewalk cafes, pigeons, churches and street performers... an easy way to kill 3 hours.  I wasn't hungry so I instead opted for a $6 Starbucks Java Chip Frap and watched a musician do his thing.

I returned to the hotel, got my bags and headed to the train station for the 15 minute ride to the airport... my 24 hours in Frankfurt were about to come to an end.

Thoughts on Germany... 

The Germans all speak English however NONE of their signage is in English, not in the subways, trams or many tourist sites.  Thus it was a bit hard to figure things out.   

They don't check tickets on the tram, subway or airport train.  There are no turnstiles to put your ticket in nor any conductors checking, so maybe I wasted the $15 or so that I spent on tickets.  Must be a very honest society.

The Germans don't jaywalk.   Honest to God, the first night walking to the hotel there were 5 of us waiting for a light to turn green for at least 3 minutes without a car in sight.  I wanted to just go, but I didn't want them making a citizen's arrest on me or anything.  

That's all I learned in 24 hours... it's time to head south of the Equator... Cape Town here I come!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Saving Spain's Economy

July 27-30, 2012
Barcelona / Gava Del Mar
ME Hotel Barcelona/ AC Gava Del Mar

Barcelona is quite simply one of the best cities in the world. The sun, san, history, food and people all contribute to it's greatness and it's been a great four days here and I sad to say adios.

As you might remember, my bag didn't make it with me on my flight so I had about 24 hours minus pretty much all of my clothing and toiletries. Not a problem as there was a huge mall just 1/4 mile from my hotel so I found the cheapest clothing store possible and got 1 day's worth of gear. This set me back about $13 so as you can imagine, I wasn't buying Ralph Lauren... but I was good for a day.

My first full day in Barcelona was spent exploring. I had a subway pass, good walking shoes and 85 degree weather... what else could I ask for.

One of the great iPhone apps is the Nike Run App which measures how far you run (or walk in my case). Today I put in 11.13 miles and it was plenty! I started the day walking the 10 minutes down to the beaches of Barcelona (more on this later), then I found my lunch spot of choice, McDonald's which was huge but vastly understaffed, slow, and dirty. After a quick lunch I continued walking passing by tons of outdoor cafes, tourists galore and just basically a lot of things going on. After about 4 miles I found the subway and took a ride to La Sagrada Familia Cathedral. This is one of Gaudi's most famous works which started 100 years ago and is projected to be completed in 2026. It truly is a remarkable piece of architecture, incredibly huge and the details are amazing. I snapped by photos and was on my way.

The next stop was Las Ramblas... the pedestrian walking street.

There was a subway station right next to La Sagrada Familia but I was feeling adventurous and fancied a walk... not quite so sure I wanted such a long walk. After about 3 miles I found a few more photo ops, and finally found another subway station which I took the 3 stops to my desired destination.

Las Ramblas is your typical pedestrian street, with vendors selling everything, people everywhere and probably a few pockets being picked...not mine though! I was staying strong, the feet were happy and I was getting closer to the beach area which meant I was getting near home.

The walk continued... and continued... and continued and finally I reached my hotel. Just a tad under 5 hours and over 11 miles... I think I had my exercise for the day. But I needed dinner so the 1/4 mile walk back to the mall was in order and thus Day #1 was in the books.

Day #2 meant that my time in the city was over as I was moving out to the first little beach town south of Barcelona, Gava Del Mar. Two free nights courtesy of Marriott's summer promo were in store so I was on my way. A couple of metro stops and a train got me to the Gava Train Station about 40 minutes after departure. Being that my hotel was about 4 miles from the train station I had to break down and get a taxi... after yesterday's walk I was in no mood to pound the pavement again, especially with my bags.

Arrival at the AC Gava Del Mar was about 2:00pm and I immediately hit the beach which was just 100 yards from my room. I decided to take a short walk up and down the neverending beach front...short being about an hour and in that hour I saw some sights!

Spain is currently facing a huge financial crises. I've pegged the problem to three things:
1. People spend all of their money on cigarettes... smoking is everywhere!
2. People don't eat dinner until 9 or 10pm... I'd enter empty restaurants at 8pm and then as I was finishing up the flood of people would be entering... tough to go to work early in the morning if you don't finish dinner until midnight.
3. Swimsuit stores only sell the bikini bottoms... if they sold the tops also just think how much more money they'd make?

So during my walk it became clear that tops were indeed optional and it didn't matter if you were a beached whale or a prime catch, toplessness did not discriminate.

After about 2 hours at the beach I retired to my room and watched some Olympics in Espanol before heading down to dinner at one of the outdoor cafes. Dinner was lousy, overpriced and the waiter was indifferent... I think he wanted to be on the beach, smoking and looking at topless women instead.

My final full day in Gava Del Mar was another beach day. Today I expanded my walk to 90 minutes, thus I was able to see even more beached whales and even a few dinosaurs as well. Not a feast for the eyes, but par for the course. It was a very relaxing two days in Gava Del Mar, nothing to do but relax... the way vacations should be. The Spaniards loved being outside whether it be at a sidewalk cafe, riding a bike, just walking hand in hand or laying in the sand... I didn't mind it so much my self.

I'm reaching the home stretch with some long haul flights in the near distant future... Today I'm scheduled to fly to Franfurt where I'll stay for the night before heading to South Africa on July 31st (tomorrow)... this might change though so stay tuned!

Adios Espana!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Dios Mio !!!

July 26, 2012
Amsterdam - Madrid - Barcelona
NH Hotel Schipol - ME Hotel Barcelona

Everything happens for a reason... thus when my 5:45am wake up call didn't come I knew I was in for a long day. My flight was scheduled to leave Amsterdam at 7:30am and my eyes first opened at 7:08am. Being that I wasn't sleeping at the airport and rather a hotel 10 minutes away, I knew I had no chance to make it.

I immediately used SKYPE to call American Airlines, because as every good traveller knows, if you don't cancel your flight before departure than you may forfeit it's value. So after a nice 20 minute conversation with someone in Dallas who was working the graveyard shift, she had changed my flight... I was now scheduled to depart 36hours later at 7:15pm on the 27th arriving in Barcelona at 8:10am on the 28th... thus I'd have to spend another night in Amsterdam and then the next night in Madrid... which isn't so bad, other than I'd already booked the room in Barcelona and it was non-refundable so it would have been a $300 probem.

So I get to the airport about 8:15am and make my way to the Iberia counter... there is no American Airlines ticket office in Amsterdam and thus it takes a phone call to change anything. Luckily Amsterdam airport has WIFI but it's not strong enough to get a good connection for SKYPE so after trying about 10 times to talk to an agent to see if something else opened up I gave up and made my way over to the adjacent Sheraton Aiport Hotel to see if their WIFI was any stronger.

The Sheraton has free public WIFI in the lobby and once again I make the SKYPE call and it goes through... except American Airlines can't hear me because it keeps buffering... strike 11 !

Luckily a very nice lady at the front desk felt some compassion for me and gave me the internet code for the "high speed" internet. This enabled me to actually SKYPE with American Airlines... the only caveat is that the WIFI only lasts 30 minutes and because of American Airlines computers working slow as usual we weren't able to finish the transaction in time and I was cut off.

So with my tail between my legs, I returned to the front desk and asked for an additional 30 minutes and she obliged. I think she was really feeling sorry for me and I was starting to feel sorry for myself as well. My next 30 minute internet voucher proved to be the winning ticket as I finally got confirmation that I could fly out tonight...albeit at 7:15pm with a night in Madrid before continuing on to Barcelona tomorrow morning.

I return to the airport and checked in EARLY for my 7:15pm flight and luckily the agent told me that she could move me up to the 12:15pm departure. Amen... luck was starting to shift. I checked my bag, as the intra-european airlines don't like the size of my carry on and made my way to the lounge (which was the worst of the trip) before getting to the gate and taking my seat 1C. Iberia provided a great lunch and I was feeling energized for my return to Espana.

We arrived at Madrid at 3:45pm and I knew there were about 8 more flights from Madrid to Barcelona (similar to the LA - SF) route. I just had to go to baggage claim, scoop up my "too-big" carry on and get to an Iberia counter to change my flight.

A detour was in my future. My bag never came and thus the adventure began. After waiting in line for 20 minutes the Iberia rep, who spoke zero English, (thank goodness I always practice my Spanish) had me fill out the requested information and he told me that he'd hopefully get me my luggage tonight. Highly unlikely...

It was now time to get my onward flight and another detour was in my future. The ticket that I'm on is somewhat flexible in that I can change date and time but I can never change destinations. The only problem is that if the airline doesn't have "award seats" available then there's nothing American Airlines can do. Being that I'm on Iberia, I was forced to once again track down an American Airlines agent to see if they could assist me.

Luckily, American Airlines does have a ticket office (and flights) at the Madrid Airport. Unluckily, it's only open from 6:30am - 12:00 noon. Thus I was forced to scramble once again. I either needed good WIFI for the dreaded SKYPE call or some divine intervention...

Divine intervention tried to show his head at the Iberia Sales office. The ladies were nice, I got to practice my Spanish and they gave me the local phone number and a phone for the American Airlines office in Madrid. After being on hold for 18 minutes I finally got to speak to a real live person and she confirmed my worst fear...the first "award seat" flight available was indeed on the 28th. It looks like I have two nights in Madrid, I'll lose two nights of prepaid rooms in Barcelona ($230) and I have no clothes to wear. My own damn fault... should have double checked my alarm!

It was now 5:15pm and I thanked the ticket agent and she also felt sorry for me and told me there was one last place I could go... the "Puente " (Madrid - Barcelona Shuttle). She told me (in Spanish) that it was near the foot bridge by McDonald's. I wondered for about 10 minutes before finding what she was talking about. I went up to the ticket agent and she gave me the puppy dog eyes and said "No problema". I was in a state of shock. Today I'd spent over 2 hours on SKYPE, 2 hours with ticket agents and I just show up at her counter and she tells me it won't be a problem.

She makes one phone call and within 30 seconds she prints out my boarding pass. She points to the window, tells me the flight is currently boarding and it's time for me to go. Dios Mio !!!

So to recap... it could have been way worse. I'm on schedule to Barcelona with no extra hotel expenses. Hopefully my bag arrives soon as all I have is my backpack which contains: flip flops, a pair of shoes, IPAD, gym shorts, and my chargers. So unless I plan to head to the nude beach (which I'm NOT!) I might need to purchase an "I LOVE BARCELONA" Tshirt and a Speedo... isn't that what they wear over here?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

It Was Just A Dream...

July 22-25, 2012
Kecskemét, Hungary
Vrana House

It was nearly four years ago when I was last in Hungary and over the past few years dreams have come true. Over the past four years we've had 4 Hungarians in our program along with a sibling and a friend who used their big brother's connections to make it over to the USA. Of all of the nationalities that have represented 1 Dream, no one has done it in the classroom like the Hungarians. Intelligent, hard working and committed are the traits that all of these young men have and the reason that they will all be so successful.

On day 2 I reunited with the Lakosz family whose son Zsolt was a 1 Dreamer in Year #1... he currently is attending college in Hungary and playing in the professional league. I also had the opportunity to see his younger brother Akos, who just finished his freshman year at Salisbury University in the USA... another great family!

I arrived in Budapest around 11pm after the two hour flight from Amsterdam. The Vrana family, Charlie (father) and Mundi (son) were there to meet me with open arms. Their oldest son, Ziggy, who just graduated from Woodberry Forest (Virginia) this past June was home sleeping in preparation for his 6:30am driving lesson. We made the 45 minute drive back to their home in Kecskemet and of course I was greeted with the celebratory shot of Palinka which burns like a nice shot of Diesel fuel. We managed to stay up to about 1:30am before the day caught up to all of us and we called it a night.

Morning was met with a huge feast of Hungarian treats, meats, cheeses, breads and veggies to start the day. I was in a food coma by 10am and lounging around the pool was the ideal cure. This proved to be the theme of the next three days... eat a lot, lounge around the pool, eat some more and catch up with a great family.

Our final day was spent checking out the sights of Budapest. Truly one of Europe's most magnificent cities, the tourists were everywhere and our "locals" knowledge came in handy more than once.

Back to Ziggy... Ziggy came to the USA as a sophomore and attended one of the top boarding schools in the nation, Woodberry Forest. He left, three years later possessing a 4.5 GPA, scored 5's on all 4 AP tests he took, scored around 2200 on the SAT and received a huge scholarship to TUFTS University in Boston. He truly did make his dream come true and he's not done yet.

His younger brother Mundi... going to be a junior this fall is hopefully next... He's even smarter...so he says!

When 1 Dream started 6 years ago we knew there would be challenges. Tons of people devoted time, energy and money to give kids from around the world the opportunity to change their lives. It's so incredibly fulfilling when you see a kid who has taken advantage of everything that has been offered to him and so focused on being the best that he can be. Congrats to Ziggy Vrana and his entire family for a job well done... but the journey continues this September at Tufts.

Thanks for the great memories to all my Hungarian friends and thank you TEAM USA for making it worth while to stay up until 1:30am to watch you defeat Spain... even if all of the Vrana's fell asleep (except for Uncle Frank).

Back to Amsterdam I go for 12 hours and then on to Barcelona. Adios!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Bikes and Dikes

July 22, 2012
Renaissance Amsterdam

My flight from Amman to Amsterdam was quite nice with a 5-hour flight time and some quality breakfast items and no one sitting next to me... what else could I ask for. We arrive in Amsterdam around 11:45 and I had a quick 20 minute ride into the city on the airport train.

Amsterdam is a tourist mecca built among a series of canals which are regulated by dikes throughout the city. People of all ages and nationalities descend on this city built around hundreds of canals. Some come for the very liberal drug policies, but most come for the charm that the city offers it's visitors. Upon arriving at Centraal Station (note: Dutch spelling), I had a 1/4 mile walk to the hotel... if I follow the directions. I went north instead of south and that 1/4 mile turned into 1 1/4 miles, but after my 5 mile walk in 105 degree weather yesterday in Petra, walking in 60 degree weather didn't faze me one bit.

Amsterdam isn't easy to navigate as there are very few landmarks, other than the canals and most of the time you are in these alley ways just looking up at buildings thus you tend to get turned around quite easily and are never quite sure what direction you are heading. But I finally found my hotel, the Renaissance Amsterdam.

Although not part of my "free night" promotion that I've had this trip (I booked on Priceline), I was still eligible for my Platinum upgrades since this was a Marriott branded property. Although not as good as Beijing, Shenzhen or Amman, I did get an upgraded room (basically a nice view) and club level access where I would eat breakfast and dinner each of my two days.

After checking in and getting settled I decided to explore. It's nice arriving in a city where you don't need to rely on any taxis, trains, or boats to get around. Amsterdam is one of the most pedestrian friendly cities that I've encountered and today I just scratched the surface of what there was to offer.

Amsterdam is also ranked #1 in the world (my ranking) of most bicycle friendly cities as well. There are literally bikes everywhere, they have their own lanes, their own stoplights and they run the town. You are constantly dodging them as you walk about, but as long as you are alert you won't have any accidents... like the one I saw later in the day when an American girl ran over a local... no ambulance, but she's going to wake up sore in the morning.

I was worn our from the time change, flight, change of weather and just being on the road for 2 weeks so I went back to the room early, had my dinner in the club lounge and called it an early night. Sun doesn't set until 9:50pm, so I'm happy I at least didn't beat the sun to bed.

Day 2 started out with a continental breakfast in the lounge. No bacon here... much to my chagrin as it is my favorite food... but plenty of bread, cheese and pastries. I had my fill and then went on my super 5.2 mile walk all along the canals, alley ways and tried my best to hit up all of the touristy spots for the obligatory photos. Success was apparently in the cards today... I didn't get lost, saw everything I needed to see and survived the constant whiff of marijuana that permeates from every coffee shop in town.

Amsterdam has a huge "drug tourist" business that as of late has taken a huge hit. For many years, foreigners would descend on Amsterdam for the liberal rules on marijuana usage. "Coffee Shops" around the city could legally sell and thus people from all over the world, young and old... must mostly young would camp out, smoke out and then pig out at the various ice cream, french fry and fast food joints all over the tourist area.

This past winter however they changed the law and now foreigners are NOT legally allowed to purchase and smoke in these coffee shops and thus it's "locals only". I don't think this is really followed as I saw many non-Dutch speakers filtering in and out as the smoke did the same. The Dutch theory was that legalizing soft drugs prevents many of the problems associated with them (selling, violence, etc.). Who knows... all I know is the smell isn't on my top 10 list.

I made it back to the Renaissance, just before the sun set and called it a night... the trip is now 18 days old and I've spent the last 14 nights in hotel rooms which never gets old!

My flight to Budapest is scheduled for 8:40pm. My goal was to get to the airport early and try and fly standby on the 2:30pm flight. My walk from the hotel to the train station was much quicker than it was upon arrival. It took me 3 minutes this time and my train was boarding within 3 minutes of my arrival at the train station. Thus from the time I left my hotel to my arrival time at Schipol International Airport it was 26 minutes. Most convenient airport of the trip thus far!

I arrived and was told it would be 170 Euros to change my flight... that's over $200, so I politely told them no thanks. I now had 7 hours to kill and I'd do my best to make the most of them.

After a trip to the supermarket (that was in the airport) for a quick lunch of french bread, cheese and salami I made my way outside to the park adjacent to the airport. It was 74 degrees and I parked myself on the grass, took off my shirt and enjoyed some Dutch Sunshine... which sometimes doesn't always show itself.

After about an hour of that I headed to an airport hotel, the Sheraton, where I mooched some WIFI and had a "Heiniken Extra Cold" which is served at 0 degrees Celsius, which I didn't really like as it seemed to pull some of the carbonation out of the beer. And now I'm watching Tiger Woods try to catch Adam Scott in the British Open. Only three hours until departure and arrival in Budapest and my first hotel-free night in quite a while.

Amsterdam is a very cosmopolitan place. It seems as though everyone is there for their own reason and all parties mesh cohesively. There are tons of back packers, stoners, families and older travelers all taking advantage of all of the cities offerings. The Dutch are very friendly people, they all speak flawless English and it's one big happy family that I was happy to be apart of for the past few days...Almost 20 days on the road and I've spent less than $200 on food... gotta love those complimentary hotel lounges!

Off to Hungary I go !

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Should I Stay or Should I Go

July 19, 2012
Marriott Amman

A huge decision was on my plate today... to go or not to go. Whether tis nobler in the mind to spend $250 or to miss out on one of the 7 wonders of the world... what to do?

I did what any normal person would do... put off my decision. I started the morning at a nice breakfast buffet and followed that up with an hour at the pool, which rated an A+ for sunshine, but a C- for crap in the pool (leaves, bugs, etc).

So now it was 10am and I had to make a decision... was it worth it to take the 3 hour drive to Petra to see one the 7 Wonders of the World... the trip cost $140 for a private driver to and from (3 hours each direction) + $70 entry fee to the site, +$20 for a horse ride to save my feet from walking, + $7 for an awesome JORDAN hat (not Air Jordan, but the Kingdom of Jordan), + about $10 for waters and snacks. So my options were to either do nothing at the hotel and spend no money, or spend $250 and make some memories.

Memories were made!

My driver who I didn't even speak more than 10 words to in our 6 hours together picked me up at 10:45am. He seemed like a quality guy, he just didn't speak too much English and my Arabic skills were severely lacking as well. The trip is about 250km and took us about 3 hours to arrive. The drive was unremarkable unless you like desert, camels, goats, unfinished houses (tons of them) and roads without markings.

Driving in Jordan is quite unique. On the roads that have two lanes in each direction there are no center lines painted to keep drivers in their lanes... thus cars just do as they please, the slower people pull over to the shoulder while other cars pass... there are speed bumps every 5 miles or so to keep the highway from turning into a speedway I guess, very annoying for a rookie like me.

Once we transitioned onto the smaller two lane road (one in each direction), the line painting machine must not have been working of late. There is no center line and thus people just pass as they please. Shockingly it works and I only feared for my life about 6 times during the 6 hour journey.

We arrived in Petra about 3500 years after the first settlers did (back in 1500BC)... and a few years after Indian Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed there. Upon arrival you have the opportunity to hop on a horse for the 1 mile ride down to the "siq", narrow passageway (see pictures). This was my first horse ride since I was about 12 years old and I felt bad for my poor horse trying to lug my big old body in 105 degree weather.... at least it was downhill.

We made it to the drop off point and I was on my own, equipped with 3 bottles of water, a hat, my shades and I turned my NIKE RUN app on... it was 105 degrees at this exact moment and once my two hours were done I had walked 4.86 miles in the dust. The nike frees were not happy but I seemed to fare a lot better than most of the tourists.

I have never been to a tourist attraction that had a bigger collection of people looking like absolute crap as they walked the final 200 meters to the exit gate. Sunburned, sweat everywhere, dusty shoes and socks and just an overall look of defeat was on the face of many. You'd be amazed at some of the outfits that these people wore, sundresses, jeans, flip flops... when going to battle, you must be prepared my friends.

Another interesting thing about Petra are the local Bedouins who call this place home. Featuring a very distinct look, usually darkly complected with sometimes light eyes, they are the keepers of the land. Within the site there are 50 plus kids who are selling various trinkets, taking care of the animals, etc. The older ones run the souvenir stands, drive the horse carriages or help run the donkeys. It's an interesting and very friendly group of people... some pictures can be found here: http://digitaljournalist.org/issue0607/petra.html

The walk was worth every step as the views were unbelievable and the pictures below prove it. The ride home was a bit quicker and we arrived back at the Marriott a tad before 7pm. A successful, albeit a bit expensive day.