2014 in Travel

Two-thousand fourteen was not my most travely year, but it was a good one. I kicked off 2014 in Panama, having just celebrated NYE with a transit through the Panama Canal and a cruise ship celebration. Winter and spring saw me toiling through my teaching credential classes at Stanford and student teaching. Summer featured two separate US/Canada cruises on separate coasts, both planned almost on a whim (at least for me), separated by a trip to Boston for reading workshop training. In the fall I began teaching full time (with the one travel highlight of chaperoning a trip to Yosemite). I spent winter break relaxing, with a New Year’s trip to Death Valley that featured all of us in bed by 10.

Bar Harbor, ME, July '14

Bar Harbor, ME, July ’14

So, for 2014…

  • New countries: 2 (Panama, Colombia, on Jan 1 and 2)
  • New Canadian provinces: 2 (Quebec, Prince Edward Island)
  • Places revisited: Las Vegas; Alaska; Victoria, BC; Boston; Bar Harbor, ME; Nova Scotia; Yosemite; Death Valley

Upcoming travel in 2015…

  • Iceland with the fam during Presidents’ Week (is that how you punctuate that?). Northern Lights will be sought and jackets will be worn.
  • Sweden in July with Claire. A trip we’ve been talking about since 2008 is finally happening. Much ABBA and lingonberries planned.
  • Balkan trip with the fam in July, featuring Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia.
  • Somewhere in Central Europe TBD for a few extra days.
  • Hopefully NY in Aug for a professional development course.
  • Whatever else comes my way!

Things I’ve learned this year

So I recently celebrated a birthday. And completed a fairly arduous year at STEP. And graduated from Stanford (again) and am entering a new phase of life/the working world (again). And am on a plane with nothing else to do but update this LONG NEGLECTED blog. As is fitting for a teacher of English and a student of learning (or something) let’s journey back through what I’ve learned this year, loosely defined as starting in April 2013 when I last did a life-update post.

In April 2013, I left DC and moved temporarily back to Redlands en route to coming to Stanford. I learned: that I am directly responsible for one marriage and emigration from China, that Malaysian noodles are a dish best enjoyed late at night and probably mostly in Malaysia, that just because a couch wouldn’t fit through an apartment door doesn’t mean you can’t wrench it out.

In May 2013, I took the Social Science CSET, a test required of social studies teachers in California. I learned: there is more to California history than Junipero Serra.

Padre Serra in the Capitol, 4/19/13

Padre Serra in the Capitol, 4/19/13

I traveled to Paris and learned: that Benjamin Franklin’s nickname in 1780s Paris was The Lightening Ambassador, that you can have a bad meal in Paris but it’s not very likely, that entry to the Disneyland Paris hotel is for guests only but if you walk with purpose you will be fine, that you must know the storyline of Phantom Manor (the Disneyland Paris Haunted Mansion-equivalent) in advance to understand the intricacies of the ride, that “Get Lucky” was about to be a Song of the Summer, that the line for Notre Dame is very long at all times always.

Small World America room, 5/27/13

Small World America room, 5/27/13

Then we went to Geneva. I learned: that Chez Ma Cousine and its chicken is as wonderful as it was in 2006, that the Wall of Reformation is larger than I remembered but the Reformation Museum is smaller, that the Movenpick ice cream store is not properly positioned on Google Maps, and that CERN really just looks like an office park.

The Wall of Reformation, 5/30/13

The Wall of Reformation, 5/30/13

At the start of June 2013, we were in Grindelwald. I learned: that the Swiss Alps are truly delightful, that no one does hiking signage like the Swiss, that there are many types of mountain transportation available, that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is terrible, and that my love for my water bottle knows no bounds. Later I learned: Zurich is really expensive.

Selfies with timers are hard, 6/5/13

Selfies with timers are hard, 6/5/13

Then Italy. In Milan I learned: that pointy cathedrals are amusing, that Lord Byron stole a treasured lock of Lucretia Borgia’s hair, that you should not stand directly in front of the automatic doors at “The Last Supper,” that amazing food can be stumbled upon anywhere. In Bologna I learned: that sometimes it’s worthwhile to take a cab rather than drag luggage over yet more cobblestoned blocks, that aperol is not good, that food souvenirs are the best souvenirs, and so are vintage fashion magazine covers purchased from street vendors. In Ravenna I learned: Galla Placidia is an excellent historical character, that green is the best color for mosaics, that beach parties don’t happen on weeknights. Finally, I learned: that transport strikes can derail your rail-to-San-Marino-and-get-a-new-country plans, that Ferrara is a good back-up plan, that the Sforza reign was dramatic, mighty, and fairly brief, that sage/squash/browned butter is a winning combination, that Sicilians make excellent mussels.

The pointiest of them all, 6/8/13

The pointiest of them all, 6/8/13

I started STEP. I learned: that they weren’t kidding about it being busy, that Munger is an excellent place to live, that the Tresidder Southwest Chicken Salad is as good as I remember but still too stuff-heavy.

In July 2013, I learned: that sixth grade is actually kind of amusing, that Little Brother ™ has a switch on the back of his neck (spoiler alert!), that the math building Thai Café is still $6 and still a model of efficiency, that kale is plentiful and wonderful in California.

English STEP at summer school on my bday

English STEP at summer school on my bday

In August 2013, I learned: that on Fridays we wear orange, that the Olsen film Holiday in the Sun has aged very well, and that learning speech cues like “say more” in our Literacies class would have a lasting impact on the conversational gambits of many STEPpies. 

In September 2013, I learned: That you should never set up your tailgate at the lowest point of the lot when rain is predicted, tthat I am definitely allergic to Ambien and that Chinese lanterns ala HSM2 make a wonderful way to end a wedding.

Peace Corps wedding reunion, 9/14/13

Peace Corps wedding reunion, 9/14/13

In October 2013, I learned: that most of the Stanford class of 2008 has aged well, that the panda vest keeps one extremely warm, and that three times is the right number of times to celebrate Halloween. 

Stanford Halloween Party 1

Stanford Halloween Party 1

In November 2013, I learned: That I am the best at planning Napa trips (let’s be real, I knew that already), and that it is very difficult to determine which Oak Glen ranch makes the best apple cider.

Chilling in the kitchen at French Laundry, 11/11/13

Chilling in the kitchen at French Laundry, 11/11/13

In December 2013, we went on a Panama Canal cruise. I learned: Puerto Vallarta makes for a fabulous food tour, that there are no sloths on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, how locks work, that I’d been misattributing the number of countries I’ve visited (should be either 58 or 48 depending on your definitions). I also learned that Lil Jon can come on to DJ extremely late.

Puerto Vallarta food tour, 12/24/13

Puerto Vallarta food tour, 12/24/13

In January 2014, I learned: that I like Great Expectations a lot more on a second, adult read, that Petaluma makes for an excellent day trip, and that iPhones are much sturdier than you might think.

In February 2014, I learned: that taking four graduate classes, teaching one class, and applying for jobs makes for a busy existence, that going directly from the airport to the party is the correct way to start a Vegas weekend, and that crowd safety and control is not something taken appropriately seriously. 

In March 2014, I learned: that I make an excellent Miss Havisham, that you should not try to go down a steep unmarked path near Half Moon Bay while holding beach chair and you should not attempt to go up it at night.

Miss Havisham, 3/14/14

Miss Havisham, 3/14/14

In April 2014, I learned: that Carmel Valley is a lovely place and so is Point Reyes, that Stanford’s Ram’s Head can put on a great musical, and that even when the parameters of a job search are well-defined there are no sure things.

Carmel Valley, 3/30/14

Carmel Valley, 3/30/14

In May 2014, I learned: PACT (the performance assessment that most California credential programs use) isn’t actually that bad, that making others listen to you reflect on your teaching journey has its amusing parts, that deep fried moon pies actually aren’t even that good but artichokes always are, that I am fabulous at murder mystery games, and that there is no cell service in Dorrington, California.

Castroville Artichoke Festival, 5/31/14

Castroville Artichoke Festival, 5/31/14

In June 2014, I learned: you can store a lot of tissues in the sleeves of a graduation gown, that there is no good way to wear a mortarboard, that it is possible to go do a bar mitzvah, bar mitzvah party, two-hour drive, wedding, and wedding party in one day, and that this is a thing that necessitates having seven pairs of shoes in the car.

Post-graduation ceremony, 6/15/14

Post-graduation ceremony, 6/15/14

I learned things in July too! But that’s going to be a new travel-centric post of delight.

14 Days in the Southern Caribbean, aka, most fabulous last-minute vacation eva!

Happy Pi Day! Pi may not have been much on my mind recently, but pie certainly has been. For you see, I recently returned from a vacation with my extended family’s most accomplished pie maker—and I don’t think an evening went by between Feb. 25 and Mar. 9 that didn’t feature a mention of pie or a discussion of our ship’s standard Apple Pie a la Mode in comparison.

Ft. Lauderdale, two sea days, Aruba, Curacao, sea day, Grenada, Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten, St. Thomas, two sea days, Ft. Lauderdale

My maternal grandfather, Leo, has four siblings with whom he’s always been close, and in the last few years my grandparents have taken several cruises with these siblings and spouses. Gleo (Gloria+Leo), started planning this two-week Southern Caribbean cruise on the Celebrity Constellation several months ago, and as I continued to enjoy my funemployment I had in the back of my mind the idea of joining them. I wasn’t sure I had the time to do it until the morning of February 22, however–and within four hours, Ro and I were booked on a cruise departing three days hence! We were thrilled to join Gleo, along with great-aunts Lee and Bert, great-uncle Bill, and great-aunt’s-boyfriend Irv as a last-minute surprise.

Last-minute is pretty key here. We ended up booking the cruise and flight to Florida about 50 hours before we left for the trip, and we literally booked our return flight from Ro’s iphone while waiting at the airport for our departure flight. We got about the same price for our cruise as we would have gotten if we had booked several months earlier, but our airfare cost about twice as much as my grandparents’ (booked in November). Since I’m a champion packer—who, shh, was still partially packed from Southeast Asia and recent weekend trips—getting my suitcase ready last-minute wasn’t an issue. (I approach packing using the container approach, using separate organizers/bags/folders for each category of clothing and accessory, since you asked.) Instead, our biggest problem with such a short prep period was that we didn’t have much time to plan for our destinations.

Knip Beach, Curacao

Our two-week cruise featured five sea-days and eight ports in the Southern and Eastern Caribbean, with a day spent in each port. Usually before a cruise (and did I mention this was my 18th cruise? jeez), we would have spent time researching each port and figuring out the most interesting things to see most cost-effectively. For example, since ship’s shore excursions are often more expensive and more limited than excursions booked directly through independent operators in each port, with more time I would have done more research on operators and recommendations. (To get started finding non-ship’s excursions, searching for recommended operators on Cruise Critic is a great place to start.) We were able to do some of this, and all of our port days turned out well, but with more time time we might have done more planning more calmly.

Deciding, within a four-hour period, whether I+Ro could go on this trip and whether we could justify the cost and time away was a little stressful, but in the end we were very glad everything worked out so well. I got to know family with whom I had never spent much time, and I don’t know if another opportunity like this one will come about again. And with great weather, beautiful beaches and islands, and delicious cruisey food, how could we go wrong?

I know you probably don’t want to read a step-by-step rundown of our time on the cruise, so instead I’ll leave you with my favorite kind of trip summary: by the numbers.

Average age of the members of our party, excluding Ro and me: 86.3

Approximate average age among the 2000 passengers on the ship: 65

Number of people ages 3-18, out of these full 2000 passengers: 11 (Do you see what I’m getting at here, about the demographics of this cruise?)

Number of injuries or illnesses among our party that required a visit to the ship’s doctor: 6

Most serious injury in our party: broken nose and two black eyes from a ship lurching-related fall

Most ridiculous injury in our party: driving Leo’s electric scooter over one’s own feet

Most important piece of family trivia learned: In his youth, Leo could skin 85 muskrats in an hour (with carcasses purchased from the fur trappers and pelts then sold to the traders)

Games of trivia played on the ship in which Ro’s and my team either won or tied for the win: approx. 6/14

Most important game of trivia played: Broadway Name That Tune, which I won despite playing solo versus teams of up to 6

Number of pages of novels read during trip: 1700

Most embarrassing moment of trip: when Ro and I tried to leave a show early and were called out by the performer from stage. This happened TWICE.

The family on the final formal night. Clockwise from top left: Ro, Me, Irv, Lee, Bert, Bill, Leo, and Gloria.

Number of first-time ports for me: 8/8

Number of islands visited that are independent countries I can add to my list of countries visited: 4

Number of islands visited that are kind of independent countries: 3

Total number of countries I have now visited (counting generously vs. technically): 48, 42

Official ship’s excursions taken: Aruba (catamaran and snorkeling); St. Lucia (jungle mountain biking excursion); St. Thomas/St. John (ferry to St. John for snorkeling and beach)

Non-ship tours taken through private operators in port: Curacao (all-day van tour of island with Peter Trips); Barbados (found a 3-hour van tour at the tourism desk when we got to port); Saint-Martin/Sint Maarten (all-day minibus island tour with Bernard’s Tours)

DIY days in port: Grenada (walked around town, took a cab to the beach); Antigua (cab to the beach)

Island to which I’d most like to return for a longer visit: Curacao for a low-key vacation, Saint-Martin for a partying-and-French-food vacation, or Barbados for a no-cost-barred vacation

Planes landing overhead at Sunset Beach, Sint Maarten

So, a great trip overall—very different from my recent tromp through Southeast Asia, but variety is the spice of travel. Cruising has its drawbacks, like not getting to spend more than a few daytime hours in any given place, but it’s hard to find an easier, more accessible vacation. Cruising caters to a range of activity levels, since you can do anything you want in port and still make it to Family Cocktail Hour and Dinner. Two members of our group never even left the ship and still had a lovely time hanging out on the ship and enjoying the family. Ro and I enjoyed plenty of beaches and sightseeing, and got a taste of where we might someday care to return, and only had to unpack once.

The next big adventure? Moving to DC! As I’ve mentioned before I’ve had a tentative job in DC to start around April, and today I got an official start date. I’ll be working as a management consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, and am starting April 9 and heading to DC shortly before that. Very excited that everything has worked out, and although spending six months at home while job searching and then waiting to start work wasn’t what I expected, I have no regrets–especially since I got to spend so much time traveling and with family.

Barcelona Day Trip: Montserrat

Part 8, the final installment, in a series about a January trip to Barcelona and a Western Mediterranean cruise on NCL.

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Just after the ship docked back in Barcelona, we dropped our bags at our hotel and headed off on a daytrip to Montserrat. Montserrat is an easy subway, train, and tram trip away from central Barcelona, and is certainly worthwhile.

The Benedictine Santa Maria de Montserrat monastery was established in the Montserrat mountain in the 11th century and later the Romanesque-style church came to house a precious statue of the Virgin carved during the Middle Ages from dark wood—thus known today as the Black Virgin. The Madonna sits in its own shrine behind the apse of the church, and is a pilgrimage site for Catholics as well as tourists.

Montserrat came to capture the imagination of writers and artists LIKE, and understandably so. Besides the spiritual element of the peaceful monastery and pilgrimage site, Montserrat is a haven for nature lovers and hikers. Walking paths of various lengths and difficulty levels fan out from the monastery, all of which promise gorgeous views of the mountain scenery and panoramas across Catalonia—at one point, we could see as far as the Pyrenees to the north and the Mediterranean to the southeast.

Another of Montserrat’s best-known features is the music school and boys’ choir that make their home at the monastery. The choir, or Escolania, is comprised of adolescent boy sopranos who rarely tour or sing outside the monastery—thus it is a special treat to hear them perform the mass there. Unfortunately, it was a treat we missed due to high winds that kept the boys from returning to school after a holiday in time to sing on the morning of our visit.

Exploring Malaga, Granada and the Alhambra

Part 7 in a series about a January trip to Barcelona and a Western Mediterranean cruise on NCL.

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Spain was once again the destination for the final stop of our Mediterranean cruise. We docked for the day in Malaga, the heart of the Costa del Sol and, for us, the gateway to Andalucia. We spent only a few minutes in Malaga to pick up a pre-reserved rental car, and then off we drove to Granada.

Granada Then and Now

Granada is burned in Western memory perhaps most strongly as the site of the Moors’ last stand before falling to Catholic Spain in the seminal year 1492. Over the prior centuries of Islamic rule, Granada became a wealthy economic and political center, falling into decline by the fifteenth century that only abated with the influx of travelers in the last two centuries.

Although there were some minor snafus upon leaving Malaga in our rental car– why the sign announcing the proper highway onramp appeared after the turn-off to the ramp had already passed, we never knew—we had little trouble reading Granada once on the road. Our first stop, stowing our rental car in the easily accessible Alhambra parking lot, was the Royal Chapel.

The Chapel is attached to the larger cathedral, but here it is the famous inhabitants, not the architecture, that is the main attraction. Here are interred the great Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, along with other family members, in a crypt in simple coffins behind a screen. The cathedral, which was built over two centuries beginning after the Royal Chapel was completed in the sixteenth century, is an interesting blend of Gothic and Renaissance styles, and also houses a museum of artifacts from the monarchs’ lives and religious art.

We wandered through the drizzly old streets before stopping for lunch at a restaurant filled with locals, picked at random. With my high school Spanish background, I offered to help translate the menu for our friends—which worked out well for them. However, my mistaking the meaning of “croquette” meant that I ended up with something kind of like mozzarella sticks, but vaguely fish flavored, and breadier. Mmm. Continue reading

Scenery in Madeira

Part 6 in a series about a January trip to Barcelona and a Western Mediterranean cruise on NCL.

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Of course I had heard of the fortified wine that Madeira is known for, but that was about the limit before I visited the island as the penultimate stop on my recent Mediterranean cruise.

An autonomous part of Portugal, Madeira is actually an archipelago lying fairly remotely in the Atlantic, closer to Africa than it is to Europe, the continent to which it culturally belongs. Today, Madeira’s principal island, lying atop a massive volcano, is a haven for primarily European vacationers and, of course, cruisers.

Our ship docked in Funchal, the island’s major port city and soon set off on a private tour with a few other shipmates. Although it is an island resort, it is the mountain scenery, rocky coastlines and rich vegetation that Madeira travelers love best, perhaps more so than the beaches. So gorgeous sights were the order of the day—our guide had lived on the islands for decades and expertly plied the winding roads to show us the best of the island’s west side. Continue reading

Gran Canaria Sights

Part 5 in a series about a January trip to Barcelona and a Western Mediterranean cruise on NCL.

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There’s no consensus on why the Canary Islands are so called: perhaps it’s because of the dogs that roamed the island (Latin canus), the name could have derived from a Berber tribe with a similar name who settled there, or perhaps the island took its name from the eponymous birds—though more likely the relationship developed the other way around.

For its part, Las Islas Canarias have embraced the canine explanation most enthusiastically, and on our visit to Gran Canaria, one of the biggest of the province of Spanish islands, we couldn’t go far before encountering yet another of the dog statues that litter the town.

Las Palmas de Gran Canaria is the island’s capital, a fair-sized city of several hundred thousand people that feels more like any other city in Spain than a resort town. Continue reading