Monday, April 21, 2014

So. Caribbean Cruise Day 2 - Dominica! Champagne Reef, Titou Gorge & Trafalgar Falls

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     Mom and I had an awesome day on Dominica! It really made up for yesterday (St. Thomas USVI). We booked our day-long excursion through ShipExcursionsgroup.com, who put us with a tour group called "Bumpiing Tours" and our awesome guide, Gary. We started our day snorkeling at Champagne Reef, which is rated really high on the scale for really good snorkeling and I could see why! Finally, some Caribbean waters that could stand up to the fabulous scuba and snorkeling we had on San Salvador when I lived there (San Salvador is a tiny and little-known island in the Bahamas. I lived there with Club Med for 6 months and was in the water every possible minute, so I got to be a bit of a scuba/snorkeling snob).

The name "Champagne Reef" is completely earned and appropriate! There are dozens of tiny volcanic vents on the bottom blowing up little bubbles and at one point, you swim right through a whole wall of them. It is literally like swimming through a glass of champagne! I was thrilled, but it came with a bit of a price. First off, my mom (Train Wreck #2) is not a snorkeler, or even much of a swimmer. I bought her her own mask and snorkel and she used flippers provided by our guide. I had all of my own gear to use. We have cootie-phobia, so we don't do shared snorkels. (TRAVELER WARNING! People have been known to get gum infections and such from snorkels that other people have used!). Secondly, the way you get to Champagne Reef is from a beach that is very rocky and extremely slick, not to mention you're fighting with the tide. It can actually be amusing to just watch people try to get in and out. All the snorkeling I've done has been in a river or spring, off a sand beach or in the ocean via a dive boat. Mom has only been a couple of times and just off a gentle, sand beach. Like everyone else, we were both struggling to get in and out, but of course since it's US, it's twice as challenging because we are CLUTZ's and we'll have the bruises to prove it tomorrow! She began to have some equipment issues after she'd been in for 20 minutes or so, so she didn't make it as far as the wall of bubbles, but I was so proud of her! My mom has serious anxiety issues, especially in places she's not comfortable and familiar with. But, I've mentioned it before...she is willing to try just about anything once when we travel! She gets it from her kid. LOL. She was out long enough and far enough from shore that she got to see more than she'd ever seen in the ocean before, especially because it is a reef. She really enjoyed all the colorful fish and different vegetation and can see now why I've always loved diving so much.

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Big annoying cluster-f**k of the day... NEW UNDERWATER CAMERA FAILED!!! It seemed to be fine yesterday, but when I went to take my first picture at the reef, nothing! And today, of all days on the cruise, was THE day to have a water-proof camera! Grrrrrrr!!!


     We didn't make it to all of the places we were thinking we were going to get to, because, while apparently drivers are slightly less insane here than on St. Thomas, the combination of construction and 'political' road closures was playing havoc with our sight-seeing plans and we had to keep turning back to try different routes out of Roseau. We did make it up to Morne Trois Pitons National Park, which is where the Emerald Pools are (our geocache target for island credit), but we had lost too much time to see that. However, we went to other, way more interesting sites that I'm really glad we got to see.


     We went swimming at Titou Falls Gorge in the National Park. OMFG...amazing! The favorite highlight of the day for me. In the desert, we would have called this gorge a "slot canyon" with water in it. First of all, adrenaline-junkie that I still try to be in my broke-down, train wreck of a body, I was the only one of our group of 8 willing to jump the approx. 40-50 feet into the gorge below. Let me say, you have to jump in a VERY specific place because of the close proximity of the walls of the gorge (like 8 feet?), and the small area where it's deep enough to land safely from that height without hitting big rocks under the water. ONE other guy from our group decided to jump AFTER I told him how cool it was. Our guide didn't do it, and clearly he didn't think I was going to do it, 'til I did!  What a rush, too!  I would have preferred someone would have warned me for how much cooler it was after swimming in the ocean, but that made the heart beat even faster! It is possible to wade in gradually from the shallow pool and hot spring nearby... if you're chicken!



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(Falls in Titou Gorge)


     Our guide, myself and one other headed back into the gorge, away from all the people (there were a couple of small tour groups at that spot). As you swim along, you look up and at the top of the 50 foot canyon walls above you is the rain forest stretching up even higher. Those we left behind will never know what an amazing sight they missed! Unless, of course, they watch the second "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, that is. Part of it was filmed back there, so I got to hang out in the Johnny Depp zone for a bit. Once you get back in a ways, you come to two small, stacked waterfalls. I had my water-socks on, which do have tread, but it wasn't quite good enough to get me over the first set of falls to the second in the strong current, so they went ahead and I took pictures for the other group member coming back down. I could see the second set of falls just around the corner and above the first, and it wasn't big or anything, but there was just enough of a gap in cloud cover that the only ray of sunshine making it's way into the gorge was shining right on the falls! Awesome! The guy that I was taking pictures for felt bad about my stupid camera and promised to send his snorkel and gorge pics by email, so I'm really hoping he does. The following video is not mine, but does a great job showing this whole experience as I've explained it. Coincidentally, Levi, the tour guide in the video, was another of our Bumping Tours guides. (Thanks to "lereddick" on YouTube for giving me something to show my friends in lieu of my own pictures!)




Continuing on, we did get a little bit rained on, but really? It's a RAIN forest so I wasn't whining! It was a short duration and we were already wet anyway, so who cared? Our next stop, also in the National Park, was Trafalgar Falls. It was a bit of a hike (Yeah! Made up for the disappointment of yesterday's so-called hike!), up a nice trail to a beautiful spot with two, large waterfalls. Our thoughtful guide even produced a hiking staff for mom, who was missing her own at home. I thought these falls were actually way better than any I saw on all the Hawaiian islands. I DID get pics there with the trusty Smart-Phone, so at least there was that. The two falls are nicknamed "The Father" and "The Mother", the father being the highest. A little further down the path from the photo platform were the hot springs, which were tempting, but it was a bit of a steamy bottle-neck of people there and that meant negotiating more slippery rocks than my poor feet could handle. Mom wasn't interested in that either! She's pretty sure I gave her stress fractures on the beach earlier.



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Speaking of the beach at Champagne Reef again, me being my usual self, I almost fell twice and thought the required injury for the vacation was over (to quote my friends and family, vacation's not over until I've fallen or broken something. Sad, right?). Said fall was not on the beach (I fell for landscaping issues there! Namely big, slippery ROCKS!), but getting back on the boardwalk FROM the beach. The guide said, "Watch out for the top step. It's tricky.", because there was a bit of a gap between the boards at the top. Now, had he not said anything to make me actually think about the steps, I would have been fine. But, as usual, as soon as I started concentrating on the putting of one foot in front of the other, I got confused and almost went down. Our guide caught me once, and then when I got to the top step, I nearly fell through the same hole he was warning me about in the first place! He caught me again before I broke an ankle with a, "Ooh, la, la!" in the local Creole-French, and I chuckled and told him this was how I walked all the time. He may not have believed me at that point, but by the end of the day, he knew I was a danger to myself. I jump off, perfectly good canyon walls, you know!



Back on the ship, mom and I got showered and dressed in girl-clothes and headed to one of the sit-down restaurants for a change. After four days of dealing with the ship's buffet, we were both sore and tired and just didn't want to be pushed around by passengers fighting the line for crappy food. Good choice. We went in right after it opened, before the majority of loud people and children were back from shore and made ready. We got a quiet table at a window and ordered an excellent bottle of Muscato and discussed the adventures of the day. We really loved the whole day on Dominica. Gary, our tour guide, will be getting rave reviews from both of us. He was very knowledgeable about the island and helpful, and genuinely NICE. We couldn't have done better. So, after just two islands, Dominica is leading by a landslide as our favorite for this trip. Tomorrow we are on to Barbados. It is scheduled to be another long day so hopefully mom and I can hold out. Somehow, neither of us wrote down the specifics of our tour tomorrow, so basically it will all be a surprise! And hopefully, we'll have another day like today...and find a fix for the stupid underwater camera!

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Southern Caribbean Cruise Day 1 - St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands

Day 1 - St. Thomas, USVI

Mom and I decided to take 2 different excursions here because I wanted to do one that was a little more physical than she was ready to tackle. This was our first stop and we were so excited...especially after two, very long, boring days at sea (I am NOT a happy sea-day person!). Both excursions were booked through our cruise line (Norwegian Cruise Line), and were quite pricey for what they delivered. First off, I had a 9:30 departure so I jumped off the ship and down to the first store to buy totes for mom and I, because we were idiots and forgot to pack them. I practically ran back to the ship to be where I was suppose to be for my group. The cruise people holding excursion signs didn't have mine on it. I asked, and was told to just wait and they would let me know. Yeah, after I stood in the sun baking, they came BACK for me because everyone else was already on the crappy "bus" waiting to go, and they noticed I had my own snorkel-gear on my back. "Bus", in this case, is a very loose term. Every taxi and bus on St. Thomas is actually the front of a Ford or Chevy pick-up with open sided safari kind of contraptions built on the back. Insane traffic and construction everywhere on top of it made for a terrifying ride. There are no road rules apparently, and I literally almost fell out the open side twice. Everything seems to be communicated between drivers by different horn signals and just playing "Chicken".

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(One of our guides helps a kayak get free of the mangrove trees)

I chose the "Hike, Kayak and Snorkel" excursion. Problem number one - There were THREE cruise ships in port at the same day and time. Something like 7,000 people all swarming into this little, tiny village at the same time. So while I was happy thinking that my excursion group was not huge (16) and there were no kids, that didn't guarantee an enjoyable trip. The two other cruise ships in port (a different NCL ship and a Celebrity) apparently book through the same excursion group. Specifically, the only group that takes people out into the mangrove lagoon. We all arrived at the same time and spent the next 3 hours tripping over each other. One would go on the "hike", which was basically a path through the mangrove to another part of the beach, where you looked for some signs of life...sea urchins, conch, etc. As a hiker, it was an insult to even call it that! Then the other group would hit the kayaks, the third would snorkel, and then we all changed, but that wasn't well-organized either, because not each group was spending the same amount of time at each part. 

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(Our guides (left) show urchins and conchs to the group)

As one of the few single people on the cruise ship, I got partnered with the other only single person from our group, Roger, (I know this because I met him on sea-day-two, at the singles gathering...I was the youngest and he was 54 and the only male. The other four single women were around my mom's age. A grand total of six of us). This wasn't necessarily a problem, but they wanted everyone kayaking in tandem. I asked our guide if I could have a single because I've never done a tandem kayak. She said the company was fully booked so they didn't have any left by the time our bus (the third, of course) got to the hut and was able to get to the boats. Roger asked if there was a difference and our guide said, no. Uh, I beg to differ! Roger thought he would do better in the back doing the steering. He clearly didn't do that very much, because I kept having to corrective-paddle against the current over and over. I can also tell you that when you've had 3 lower back surgeries, you sure as hell notice the additional 250 lbs. sitting in the back of the boat when you're doing the majority of the paddling!  No difference, my ass!  Literally!

Our guides were informative and showed us some interesting things, but the teaser-ads on the ship and website for that particular excursion were completely deceptive. We didn't kayak through the mangrove forest with crystal clear turquoise water. We were on the very edge of the forest, in a lagoon. And with the snorkeling, I ran into the same problem I had with the Hawaiian snorkeling...too many people in a shallow area all bumping into each other and kicking up sand until the visibility is cloudy at best. I did manage to get a few pics on the new waterproof camera, but that was short-lived (see Day 2!). This excursion cost me $89. It was suppose to come with a snack. Apparently, THAT consists of water out of big coolers, so probably tap water, and a 2" mini-Snickers bar. I hadn't really eaten anything for breakfast knowing I'd be in and out of the water. So at 4 o'clock when I got back to the ship, I was ready to chew my own arm off. Poor mom practically got dragged upstairs and then the buffet was closed, so we had to make due with the outside buffet on the back of the ship, which is what we consider the very last resort. Everything is basically cold and tasteless. Mom's hamburger doubled as a hockey put.


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(some of the few varieties of fish we saw near the mangroves)


      Mom didn't fare any better than I did with her excursion. I had actually looked to go with her on that excursion first, but when I saw the hiking, kayaking and snorkeling one, mom said it would be okay to go separate ways. She had the "Best of St. Thomas" tour, also through NCL. She paid $49 for hers and was gone just about 3 hours. Same kind of ride and driver as we had, however instead of showing her the Famous 99 Steps, Blackbeard's Castle, the funicular to the top of the mountain, or several other sites that are well-known on the island, she got bussed from one shopping area to another. Why do all the cruise lines just assume that everyone that comes on a cruise just wants to buy over-priced jewelry and artwork? The shit they sell on shore is the same as what they constantly bombard you with on the ship. She never even got into Charlotte Amalie! I made it back in time to get a taxi to Charlotte (our bus driver is actually a taxi, but he didn't want to go that far), because I wanted to see Blackbeard's Castle and the Rum Factory. 


 photo 99stepssm.pngMy taxi-driver didn't even take me to the 99 steps. He took me to the 30 steps and a right turn you have to walk to GET TO the 99 Steps. I passed them once and these two local ladies corrected me and showed me where the steps were. I was contemplating whether I had enough time to get up them, look around and get back to the boat before we were due to shove off, but my legs were wobbly from the excursion and no food. Just as I was preparing to assend, an American couple were coming down and I asked them if they thought it was worth it. They said it was closed! No rope at the bottom of the stairs warning people, just CLOSED! There was some kind of a bar up there, but they said they couldn't even get into the Rum Factory because you have to pay the Blackbeard's Castle tour price to get in. Had I actually made it up that distance for nothing, I just don't believe you can imagine how pissed off I would be! As it is, mom and I will be making complaints to NCL and posting on the shore excursion "Trip Advisor" type site, when we get home. 

We have 3 excursions over the next 3 days that are not booked through the ship but through ShipExcursions.com. Then our last tour is with the ship again. It's suppose to be a "Best of St. Maartin" tour, and we're wondering if it will just be more shopping centers or if we actually will get to some points of interest! Overall, quite disappointed with St. Thomas. But tomorrow is Dominica!

Monday, March 24, 2014

I lied. Update...

      So, I know I said I was going to do better at keeping my blog updated. Yeah, I said that in September and in the six months since then, I have spent several weeks in Florida, took a cruise to Hawaii (future blogging on that), geocaching/camping trip on Route 66 in Arizona, a trip to SoCal to see my friends one more time before I moved 2,700 miles across the country (unfortunately, this meant a divorce between my mom and step-dad, but we're all still friends, so that's good at least!). Oh, and we drove that distance for the move and tried to get in some site seeing in the process. I think it's fair to cut me some slack, cause I've been BUSY!

      Additionally, the two Train Wrecks are going on a 10-day cruise to the South Caribbean in two weeks. There will be 6 ports and I've never been to any of them, so I'm excited.  My theory is that we have two 'at-sea' days at the beginning of the cruise, and two at the end. 'Sea-days' make me crazy because I am bored to tears.  I just moved AWAY from Vegas, so I have no desire to gamble. Cruise ship Bingo is expensive, as is the spa, etc. etc. And one can endure only so much trivia. So, the intention is that I will spend those sea days parked on a deck chair catching up on some blogging, and maybe even get a little ahead.  We'll see.


     Mom and I decided to move back to my small hometown of Ocala, because unlike Las Vegas, you don't have to drive 5 hours in any direction to get anywhere. Ocala is right in the heart of Florida... literally you're an hour from the Atlantic and an hour from the gulf coast. We can set out in any direction in the morning and find all kinds of trouble to get in to!  Also, with three major cruise ports within reasonable driving distance, the money we no longer need to use on airfare can be applied on more trips and cruises!  Bonus!  

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Updates - Alaska, Arizona and Florida

It's been a very busy couple of months and of course, the blog is way behind on what we've been up to. I am currently in Florida with my mom and staying with my grandma for an undetermined amount of time to help her out. My mom is actually considering moving back to Florida, and back to OCALA, of all places since she constantly says how much she hates Florida and Ocala.  It's a small town, but it's where I was raised and will probably always think of it as "home". 

So, in July, mom and I went on a one-week cruise to Alaska.  She's been several times, but it was my first trip and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  Now that I'm in Ocala and seem to have time on my hands, I'm hoping to get more blogs posted to include the ports the cruise stopped at and my favorite areas.

Last month (August), mom and I went camping at our favorite get-away-from-the-Vegas-heat spot, the KOA at Circle Pines near Williams, AZ (also known as the Gateway to the Grand Canyon). My parents have often gone to Williams when they used to have their RV. But now that mom and I discovered the KOA Kabins, we LOVE it.  On this visit we actually got the cabin we wanted that faced away from the camp and towards the forest.  


We did a little hiking, and a lot of geocaching. Once again, we train-wrecks managed to both sustain injuries while geocaching. I got tripped on a branch and managed to hit it right on the last geocaching scar (my shin), so I guess it will just blend in when it is healed. Not to be outdone, Mom, on the other hand, had a nasty interaction with a barbed wire fence.  She cut her hand open (I said she needed stitches but she wouldn't do it), fell and cut the back of her leg as well. For the first time, we didn't have the first aid kit with us, so we did a makeshift bandage until we could get to the store for bandages and butterflies.  What a trooper...I had set the goal for 11 caches that day to give me an even 700 finds, and she was determined to get me there.  So we actually went and got the last two before she would let me go for bandages.  Our geocaching catchphrase:  WE BLEED FOR GEOCACHES!


But overall, we had a good time. The weather was beautiful and perfect for camping and hiking and even mom discovered a few new places even after going to Williams numerous times over the years. We got off the Interstate and followed historic Route 66 a good distance and found some cool places. If you're headed down to Arizona, try the back road. It's pretty, has interesting stops and in some spots, is actually in better condition than the Interstate!



Alaska will need it's own post.  Maybe more than one.  My goal is to get that done while at my grandma's house with bad cable and no Internet.  So stay tuned for that.  I'm on borrowed time, at the moment, since we're at the library using WiFi and my battery is quickly dying. More to come!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Flight from hell

     So, yes, I know that once again, it has been a while since I posted, and once again, I will give the same lame excuse...I've been TRAVELING!  I just returned from an awesome Alaskan cruise with the other Train Wreck and we had a blast.  Now that I'm home and possibly have some downtime, I'm going to try to get some of the Alaska stuff up as well.  But first, let me tell you about the flight home.
     I have been on dozens of flights since my first one at age 15.  Honestly, I couldn't count the number of flights or airports I have encountered.  I've been on good flights and on bad flights. I even endured a nine-seat puddle jumper in a thunderstorm flying from Nassau to my little island of San Salvador when I was living in the Bahamas with Club Med. I've made numerous trips 'across the pond' (Including one in First Class...now THAT was the way to fly! Spoiled me for all other flights after that!), but this flight back from Vancouver takes the cake.
     The flight out to Anchorage had a stop in Salt Lake, which added some time to the flight. It was a full flight and the idiot in front of me, of course, had to recline his seat, so my knees were wedged under him the whole 4 hours. But after that, we had absolutely gorgeous weather the whole week we were in Alaska. However, while we were enjoying that awesome weather, here in Las Vegas, they were having severe thunder storms and flash flooding. 



     Our flight home was on West Jet...an airline I hadn't been on before, but Delta just put us with them as a sister airline, I guess.  I didn't mind because it was a only a 3 hour straight flight from Vancouver to Vegas, and like Jet Blue, they have TV's in the seats in front of you and and wrap around headrests. It was also nice that the flight was less than half full, which meant almost everyone could have their own row.  That is always really great for us tall people, and my mom's back was really not doing well so the extra room was appreciated even more. 
     Now, about an hour before landing in Vegas, the, up to then, non-eventful flight got a little more interesting.  I would describe it as a cross between "The Twilight Zone" (the Shatner version of course, because he's the man and we know I'm a die-hard fan!) and Stephen King's "Langoliers".  We hit the weather that was pounding Vegas and it started pounding us. I was really glad mom and I keep our seat-belts on when in our seat regardless of how much turbulence there is, because when we started rocking and rolling, we actually came up out of our seats a couple times, as least as much as our belts would permit. We were sitting behind the wings (a bad place to sit if you know anything about planes in storms and landings) and I just couldn't stop OCD'ing enough to just shut the damn shade. Maybe I was expecting the gremlin on the wing. We were all over the place!  Mom was sitting in the row in front of me and I asked her if she was alright (it takes a lot to fluster mom), but at one time I was starting to get really concerned.  I later told dad it was "scary" but mom said it was "concerning" so I had to amend my comment to "alarming". I was just starting to think about whether I should try to make that last phone call home to say goodbye, when we came into view (albeit through the clouds) of Vegas. The ride did not get any smoother.  At one point, the pilot literally had us on our side trying to make the turn for landing.


     Through all this, with the exception of an occasional expletive from someone at a particularly bad bump, that plane was quiet.  It didn't help. I was holding on to the back of mom's chair with both hands, considering prepping the barf-bag as a precaution for the onset of motion sickness and still unable to look away from the wing. As we came in for landing, the pilot was dipping the wings a little too much for my comfort and when I saw the runway beneath us, for a minute, I really wondered if he would level out in time because it looked like just a few feet between wing and runway.  Had that wing hit, we would have spun out, broken up and likely exploded on the runway.  Yes, I first think of the worst scenario.  Fortunately, the pilot pulled it off in the last few seconds and we landed safely.  For the first time in my life, the entire plane applauded the landing.  They then happily got off the plane ASAP.
     Mom and I were the last ones off since her back was really bothering her. I had asked for a wheelchair to be waiting at the gate in Vegas before we left Vancouver. It was there, but the terminal was completely empty and alien to us. (What ever happened to porters to push the wheelchairs, or those little golf-cart thingies you always see when you DON'T need them?)  Then it occurred to us that we were in the new Terminal 3, which has just been completed and is HUGE. This was the first time either of us had been there.
     The 'baggage claim' sign pointed down an escalator across from the gate, but with mom in the wheelchair, I needed to find an elevator. With no one to ask, we finally stumbled across one and got on to go to the lower level. When we got there and stepped off the elevator, there were two glass doors in front of us which slid open and led to a tiny sally-port and another set of glass sliding doors to the right.  The problem was, where THOSE doors led was an apparently unused part of the new terminal. It was dark, and there was carpet down, but no chairs, desk, etc. and the one side was still covered with construction plastic. Thinking we had gone to the wrong floor, I tried to take mom back on the elevator, but of course, those first two glass, sliding doors wouldn't open from that side.  OK, off on another adventure!


(Imagine this, only dark and at night)

     We went out of the sally-port into a hallway leading between the wall and the carpeted area and finally saw two employees. I asked if we were headed in the right direction of baggage claim and the one ignored me and the other just nodded.  What? Are we hiring the mute in this section of the airport?!  So we started following the baggage claim signs.  Let me tell you, that new terminal is ginormous! And we couldn't find any employees anywhere for help.We finally wandered long enough to find the baggage claim and there were a few people there from another airline, but the carousel that our flight's luggage was suppose to be on was just going around and around, with no baggage and no people nearby waiting.  WTF, now? Just as I was starting to lose what little patience I had left, an announcement came over the P.A. that anyone claiming baggage from our flight must come to the security office to claim it.  Oh, crap.  What could possibly be wrong with our suitcases?  Or did we lose them somewhere over Utah when we were trying not to barf all over the plane?
    So we went to the security office and there were our two suitcases.  The security agent told us they had just collected them because everyone from our flight had come and gone long ago.  That was how long it took us to find the damn thing. She saw us come up to the carousel and made the announcement. Because she couldn't just stick her head out the door and say, "In here!"? Next came me trying to maneuver a cart with all the luggage and my mom in the wheelchair. Honestly, I don't remember how I did that. Hmmmm.


     We went out the door for passenger pick-up like we've always done at the other terminal, but of course, this one had to be more complicated.  Apparently, there were two passenger pick-ups and the one dork I could find to give us instructions had no clue what he was talking about.  Back in we went, up to another level and out again to hopefully be where we needed to meet dad. And he actually found us!  
    Ugh. In conclusion, I really don't want to have a tougher flight to blog about at a later date.  This little adventure in air-travel will be plenty, thank you very much!

Sunday, June 16, 2013

It's a Small World, After All!

We've all heard, and probably used, and more than likely SANG this: "It's a Small World, After All". Who hasn't gotten stuck on that ride at least once in their lives until you are ready to jump out of your little boat and throttle those joyous little dolls from around the world. Or it could just be me and I have anger issues. You don't have to choose...for me, probably both. But I was at a Geocaching event a couple of nights ago and this woman kept looking at me. Finally she asked what my name was. Warily, I told her. She said, "I thought that was you!" She then told me her name and I was like, "Oh, my god!" and then we jumped up and hugged each other. Given that Las Vegas now has over 2 million citizens, it seems odd that you would meet people you know at such random gatherings. Although, after I broke up with my last boyfriend, I kept running into HIM everywhere. And I wasn't even stalking him! But anyway, this lady and I had taken a Cultural Anthropology course about 10 years ago and while we've kept in touch, first with my original blog, then my MySpace and currently on Facebook, this was the first time we'd seen each other face to face since that class. Small world. See? But, I have another story to go along with this saying that takes it to a whole new level. 


To set it up, let's go back to February of 2000. I belonged to a special club that made European travel deals that were very good. I was making good money, had lots of time off and was wanting to see the world. On this occasion, my club was offering a 12-day Alsace, France driving tour. I will say this and you will hear me say it in other posts frequently: I do NOT do group tours. If I wanted to hang out with American tourists I would have stayed home in Vegas! I almost exclusively like to travel either alone or with my mom, and our usually unattainable list of too many things to see. Things tour buses don't often go to.  For this trip however, I asked two coworkers if they'd like to go, and they accepted. First problem: princesses. When I am traveling and don't know anyone, why the hell do I care what I look like? Up, shower, out the door to see as much as possible. Why do you need 2 hours to get ready? Especially since this was a driving vacation through the Eastern border of France in February? We had a little rain, a little snow, and all that hard make-up and hair work was shot by lunch time. Second problem: tiny car. Princesses require more luggage it seems. Our car was barely more than a smart car and loading up every morning was always a challenge in geometry, not to mention it was difficult to keep moving at a fast pace on the main motorways, though the four little squirrels in the engine were trying their hardest. Third: My two friends did not speak a word of French. Not ONE. I spoke only a little French that I had picked up while working for Club Med, a class at the community college, and my trusty English-French dictionary, but for the most part, it was enough. Bottom line was, I was the only French-speaker in the group and that wasn't saying much! 

But enough on that. We'll return to this later on down the train track. Looking at our schedule and our predetermined lodgings set with the deal from my travel club, I came up with a pretty good itinerary and we managed to cover a good deal of Eastern France, and I even managed to swing us into Germany for one day and Switzerland on another and still stay on track. While we started at Charles de Gaulle Airport, we got our rental car and following the lodging schedule, we headed out. But not to Paris. That would be the last two days of the trip. Our first stop was Reims as we headed to the border and Alsace. Saving all that for another blog entry, I will say this: In France, they drive on the same side of the road as we do. Not that it mattered, having spent the previous summer driving on the wrong side of the road in England, Scotland and Wales. I figured I was invincible on the international driving venue! Uh, no. 


(One of our stops was the Chateau Septmont. We wanted to get in there so bad, but they were closed that day.)


On our last night in Paris, we split up and my two non-French speaking friends wanted to go check out this night club. I asked if they were sure they could get there and back to the hotel alright and they said sure, and I reminded them we needed to leave early in the morning for the airport. I had met a really cool American guy on the top of Notre Dame cathedral while making faces for gargoyle photos, and we went for a beer at a cafe instead. I made it back to the hotel first, and it was just after midnight. My two friends were not back yet. Oh, dear. Worry started to kick in. I think they came back around 3 or 4 in the morning. Yet more for that other story! 

(A shot of us on top of the Arc de Triomphe with the Eiffel Tower behind us.)

Needless to say, we were dragging when we had to get up and leave around 7:30am to go to the airport. In case you're wondering, that's rush hour in Paris, too. Our hotel was located a couple of blocks off one of the numerous 'spokes' that shoot off from the freaking GINORMOUS Arc de Triomphe round-about. This monster of a traffic death-trap is bad during all hours of the day but especially THIS time of day! Again, as a master of the round-abouts in the UK, I didn't think it would be a problem until I got in it. It has about 9 lanes of traffic entering, circling and exiting all these different spokes of roads and their idiot cabbies are insane! I was trying to be polite and follow the rules of get in the inner lanes depending on how far you have to go around and leave the outside lanes for people getting on and off at the next immediate road. But cabs don't care! They'd come shooting across in front of me like it was a straight street! And honk at ME! To further make you understand how bad this round-about is, in order to get to the Arc, you have to go through an underground tunnel that comes up in the central part of the round-about where the Arc is. Once I got the car in the round-about, I was too shell-shocked and too nice to push my way to the outside to get off on our road, so we had to make a few laps before frustration, lack of time and a little motion sickness finally made me play the game their way. I hit the gas and prayed. I may have even closed my eyes. That might have helped, actually. 

(A time lapse image of the Arc de Triomphe and it's formidable round-about.)

When we got off on the wrong road, I had to stop for a second to catch my breath and wait for the adrenaline shakes to go away. Then we started off again. Except now, we didn't know where we were or how to get to the airport without going back the way we just came, and THAT was NOT happening! I drove while the two girls tried to make sense of the map. It didn't go well. We got stuck in construction. Then I turned the wrong way on a one-way street and while I stopped immediately, this bus had to pull up right in front of us and lay on the horn (there were 3 other empty lanes available). Finally, SOMEHOW, we made it back to the highway and were headed to the airport again. But our trial wasn't over yet! We had lost a lot of time. I was now panicking that we weren't going to make it in time for check-in, security, customs, etc., etc. 



When we got to the airport area, I was looking for the sign for rental car returns. I saw it, and took the turn, but we never found the car rental area. Having deja vu of the Arc de Triomphe, we got stuck going around and around the airport but couldn't get where we needed to be. At one point, I saw a gas station with a policeman and I stopped to ask him where to go. My French was bad, his English worse. He couldn't help at all. And so it started again. Finally, on one of our laps, we spotted the Hertz car rental shuttle and I started honking. We pulled up next to him, rolled down the window and we understood each other enough to tell him we needed to return the car but couldn't find it. He told us to follow him, and we did. We pulled up in front of the doors of the airport where the rental counter was. I asked the van driver what to do with the car and (I think!) he said just leave it and take the keys in. We were now 30 minutes away from departure. Uh, oh.

Heading his advice, we grabbed our luggage, ran past the counter and threw the keys and bolted for baggage check and customs. I heard the girl at the car rental counter calling to us from behind, but I told the girls to just keep moving. But, after all that, the customs officer advised us, there was no way we were going to make our plane. Ugh. So we went to the ticket counter to see about changing flights and they were very nice about it. They got us on a flight leaving about 2 hours later and didn't even charge us for the change. I felt at this point I could relax. A bit, anyway. 

I must interrupt for a moment for a little more background: When I moved to this area about 20 years ago, there were less than five female officers on the entire police department in the then little town near Vegas. They were opening a new jail and needed five female officers to help man it. I was hired with four others. 

Charles de Gaulle Airport is not small. It's a pretty airport, with glass escalators heading in all directions under a huge glass roof in the middle. Just as we're now taking the first unhurried steps of our day and looking for a coffee shop, I hear someone yelling my (last) name from somewhere behind me. My first thought was, "Oh, lord, someone hit the rental car and they're out for blood". I have an Irish last name which is the name that everyone who knows me calls me by. It's not a common name in France and not something you can assume is meant for someone else. Reluctantly, all three of us turn and see a woman in a uniform coming toward us waving. It took a second to realize this was a friend! One of the officers that had been hired WITH me and we worked together at the jail for several years. She even knew the girls with me. Of all the places to run into someone you know! PARIS?!? 


(The many glass escalators going every which way at Charles de Gaulle Airport)

After the initial shock wore off, we hugged and chatted and said how great it was to see her, but what the hell was she doing there? She basically asked us the same question, although she knew I was a globe-trotter. A few months earlier, my friend had quit the police department to become a flight attendant for United Airlines. (Note: I later tried to do this and was even sent to Chicago for final interviews, but in the end was told I still had "too much cop mentality" and didn't get the job. A few months later, 9-11 happened and I wished they would have reconsidered that) She was on her one and only overseas training flight before being a full-fledged flight attendant. And guess who's flight she would be on? Oh, yeah. 

 She tried to see if she could get us bumped up to first class for free, but there were only 2 seats available and none of us three wanted to leave one person in coach, so we all stayed back. It was quite a full 10-hour flight. But determined to look after us, my personal flight attendant would bring us glasses of Dom Perignon, upgraded meals and specialty chocolates back in coach! Surprisingly, while we had several curious stares, only one couple across the row asked about the special treatment. My friend, who was always a quick thinker, says, "Oh well the redheaded lady is a famous American novelist and that's her entourage. There was some confusion about their seats in first class so we're trying to make amends." Coincidentally, there is a romance novelist with my name, but I am not she. We tried not to start giggling while my friend brought the couple each a glass of champagne as well, and they were happy. She was so funny...when we got off the plane, after catching up a bit more, she gave us each our own bottle of Dom to take home. Good stuff, that. 

 So the moral of the story: While there are now 7 billion people in the world, up more than 3 times what it was when I was born in 1971 (don't get me started on that...over-population is a big pet peeve and I don't have enough room left on my soap box today), it is still possible to find people you know in the least expected places! Had everything fallen into place that morning as it should have, we wouldn't have seen her at all, and it did make for a memorable experience!

Friday, May 31, 2013

A Little Day-Trip to AREA 51 (and Rachel, NV)

Here's the back-story:
Everybody's heard of it. It's been featured in numerous documentaries, articles and Hollywood movies. The supposedly innocent, but super-top-secret, air base out in the middle of nowhere in the Nevada desert where all kinds of weird goings-on and sightings in the night sky occur.  Is this where the aliens have been held since the 1947 crash in Roswell, NM? After years of conspiracy theories and denial by the government, not too long ago, they finally admitted Area 51 IS out there, but allegedly, that it is no longer being used. It's part of the Nellis AFB Bombing and Gunnery Range. There were military planes flying the day we were out there, but low cloud cover prevented us from seeing which ones (I have a small bit of knowledge of military planes going back quite a ways). Oh, and by the way, satellite images show there has been recent construction on new hangers and existing landing strips have been lengthened.



Ok, so here's what happened... A couple of weeks ago, mom and I took the "Two Traveling Train Wrecks" on a mini-road trip a couple of hours north of Las Vegas, to Rachel. Rachel is literally in the middle of nowhere, on the Extra-Terrestrial Highway. The E.T. Highway is what's known in the geocaching community as a "Mega-Trail", because there are over 1,500 geocaches hidden along Its entire length.  We were meeting other geocachers for several events that weekend.  Rachel consists of the Little A'Le'Inn Restaurant and Inn, and about 80 people living in the vicinity on small ranches or mobile homes. That's it.  Not even a gas station. 

(Gray Pride and "Live Long and Prosper" at the south end of the E.T. Highway)
Now, I've always been a conspiracy theorist and of course, Area 51 is one of the biggest ones out there. I have wanted to go there for YEARS. As I told mom, I can't explain why...just that I have an image in my head of what it looks like and had to see it for myself.  Being so close (it's sort of near Rachel), I wanted to go find it and take pictures of whatever I found. Every account of people going out there talked about the security guys in the white pick-up truck seen on the top of the ridge. If nothing else, maybe I could harass them a bit. So we headed up the long, dusty 13-mile Groom Lake Road off the E.T. Highway. (I suspect the dust trail helps the security guys to see you coming)

(The 13-mile stretch of Groom Lake Rd., but don't look for street signs...there aren't any)
I absolutely love traveling with my mom. She'll do almost any weird thing I want in the name of adventure! On this particular ride, she wasn't digging it so much. Fortunately, there were two caches hidden on the road as well, so we had an extra excuse to go. We only found one before we got to the end of the road. We must have missed a turn onto another nondescript dirt road, other than the one we were already on. Now, rumor has it, they have motion detectors, ammonia detectors (allegedly for urine), trip-wires, audio-listening devices, etc, etc., and they know everything about you before you get halfway there. Surprisingly, there were no fences. At one point, mom and I argued about the 26 mile out-of-the-way trip to get a picture of a picture I could find on Google. Totally not the point! 

(The first sign we came to was not the expected sign. Note, however, the white security vehicle on the ridge to the right of the sign)
At what was the end of the road (for us), we came upon 2 signs: this "Nellis Bombing and Gunnery Range Warning!" and another saying, "Warning! Photography of this area prohibited" (that doesn't mean I can't take a picture of the sign that says no pictures, right? Otherwise there'd be another sign saying no pictures of the first sign...that was my logic, anyhow). 


Basically, if you literally cross the imaginary line between these two signs and you get arrested. Period. So, of course, I have to jump out and get a picture with the sign. I was disappointed because there was no gate, no "Area 51" sign and no "Restricted! Use of Deadly Force Authorized" sign. BUT, behind the sign I was taking a picture with was the infamous white pick-up on the ridge. Now I'm retired law enforcement and I'm telling mom it's probably an empty, dummy truck. Agencies sometimes use them with a mannequin inside and park them in a problem area because it's cheaper than using officers, but it keeps people out of mischief. Uh, I was mistaken.  Definitely not a dummy truck! Mom and I sat there and mulled it over a few minutes whether to keep going, but we're just too damn honest so we turned around. 

About a mile down the road GOING BACK to the main road, here comes the military chopper from behind us. Mom's like, "Are they coming after us?" I'm like, "Nah!" But after it got in front of us and practically landed on the road forcing us to stop, I was getting a little concerned. The pilot circled around us once to be sure we could see his really big gun. Mom's like, "What is he doing?" I said, "He's threatening us, mom! He's probably trying to get a good shot of YOUR license plate!" (she's panicking because they were probably running her through all the major databases and I'm having a blast) I think I probably pissed them off more because, being me, I just keep taking pictures of them. We were on a public road so there wasn't much they could do (in theory, although making us disappear out there would have been no problem at all!). 

(Note BIG gun barrel sticking off the side)
About the time the chopper flew off, the security truck had come up behind us but stayed about 200 feet back. We came to a branch-off road where we thought the other cache might be and sat for a minute deciding if we'd had enough excitement for the day or if we were going after it. Security was still behind us and watching every move, so we decided not to test them. It was another mile before they stopped following us, but we were out of sight before they turned back. We agreed that made the drive worth it even if we didn't get to the gate! I was telling mom though, if they have the listening devices they're suppose to have, they would have heard us talking about geocaches and arguing about going down the road and known we were tourists. But, thinking back, it may have sounded like we were looking for "it" and maybe we should take another road to get to "it". We did have a geocaching sticker on the back of the car, so who knows if they figured it out. I then said, "They're probably just bored and giving the tourists a good show". Yeah, no. The folks at the Little A'Le'Inn said locals don't go down that road at all, but there IS an actual gate and the Area 51 / Deadly force sign, had we managed to get any further up the road without being arrested. I told the guy that had hidden the cache out there what happened and he said he's been going back in that area for years and never had a chopper chase him down! Ha, ha, ha! Mission accomplished!!

After that, even mom was proud to have the tale for her blog!  I do believe she's an adrenaline-junkie at heart. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.  After stopping briefly to visit the infamous "Black Mailbox" (it's white), and unfortunately not finding the cache hidden there, we happily went on down the road to Rachel, checked in to our "room", got a bite to eat and hung out with the locals. 

(The "black" mailbox. It WAS black at some point, but then painted white because so many people would go through this poor rancher's mail looking for classified stuff. He now has to padlock it and it's covered with graffiti. It's become kind of a "must see" for Ufologists and conspiracy theorists... also featured in "Paul".)
If you've seen the movie "Paul" (if you haven't, see it...it's a personal favorite!), you know what the Little A'Le'Inn is. It was NOT filmed there, but after the movie's release, the whole cast went and spent a weekend there.  The lady that owns it is, in fact, named Pat (as in the movie), but resembles more of a grandmotherly type, as opposed to the blonde in the movie. We did leave reviews on Travelocity for our room (Someone that was there before us had written very harsh things and we almost didn't stay there because of it).  Most of the other cachers were camping across the street, but we're just too damn crippled for that. Plus mom's convinced every creepy-crawler in the desert is lurking about just waiting to attack her when she lets her guard down.  If you want to have some fun and enjoy the whole mystique of the area, it's a nice little place to stay. It's not a motel, it is an inn.  Basically, they have taken older and gently used mobile homes and converted them to rooms. They were clean and offered air conditioning (a must for the desert in May), DVD/VCR, satellite TV, coffee maker in-room and hot water with good pressure, in a bathroom that you must share with whomever is staying in the other room. In between rooms is a small common area with a shared microwave and fridge.  You'd be hard-pressed to find the same in other small motels.  On a side note for other Sci-Fi movie fans, the producers of the movie "Independence Day" placed a plaque and time-capsule at the Inn, as well.


We thought we would be bored out of our minds up there for a weekend but between Area 51, geocaching down the E.T. Highway, the annual "Rachel Day" parade (Ha, ha, ha!  That's just silly, but they know it and embrace it!) and accompanying events all day on Saturday, plus our four geocaching events, we never even turned the TV on and were exhausted by 9pm.  I never got the telescope out of the car and we didn't watch the skies for very long at the bonfire because we were back in our room before full dark. But, just so I wouldn't be sad about missing the aliens, they had a light-up UFO outside our trailer and this little guy on the trapdoor above my bed to keep me company at night:


A really fun and interesting weekend we look forward to doing again next year!