Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Newport Film Festival

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Newport Film Festival. One of my friends is doing PR for the event and got me VIP access to some amazing films....and one not so amazing film!  

Newport is a fun place to visit in Southern's quite surreal and totally in-line with all the reality tv shows you see on TV. Amazing homes with unprecedented views of the water, high-fashion shopping, elaborate apparel worn for the most mundane tasks, and the home of the Newport Beach film festival! Shows were previewed at Fashion Island and at The Lido theater on Balboa Island. All sorts of celebrities were in attendance for the showings and the fabulous post parties.  

We drove up on Saturday and Sunday to check out the "scene" and see a few shows. It was quite entertaining! Two shows that I must recommend are "That's It, That's All" and "Rudo y Cursi". 

If you are a snow fan - skier or snowboarder, you'll appreciate "That's It, That's All" - the movie is a breathtaking documentary about snowboarding done with a fantastic soundtrack and the most amazing cinematography. I found myself grasping my seat and moving my feet as if I was riding the Alaskan glaciers and New Zealand terrain with these masters. Check out the trailers to see for yourself.  

For those who enjoy the Cuarón brother's (Carlos & Alfonso) films (i.e. "Y Tu Mama También", "Children of Men"), you'll love this new film with Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna, "Rudo y Cursi".  This is Carlos's directorial debut and he couldn't have had a better pair of actors. The film is about two brother's plights to get out of the 'campo' and obtain fútbol stardom as professional soccer players in Mexico City. Gael and Diego are phenomenal together, as always, and the Argentine narrator and talent scout adds a soothing continuity to the movie. Even if you speak Spanish fluently, you still may need to defer to some of the subtitles as the Mexican slang is, as usual, quite prevalent! 

Now I better get on booking a flight for heli-skiing...where to go?! 

PS - the movie NOT to see.... "Made for Each Other". I wanted to poke both my eyes out!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

My Favorite Things...ok, just a few

Since my blog so far has just been old e-mails from a few recent trips, I thought I'd add a list of some of my favorite things that I've visited in my travels over the last ten years or so...

Spain: This one deserves it's own chapter since I lived there for a year, but I'll just point out a few highlights....visit Toledo and see the only place where all 3 major religions have co-habitated peacefully...Tapas in San south to Ronda....skiing or riding at Baqueira Beret...stay in a Parador like this one in Granada...and don't forget the cradle of the wine region Haro.

Mammoth Lakes, California: Yes, I will drive 6 1/2 hours alone to go up there...I always feel so peaceful whether riding the mountain (snowboard or bike), sleeping outside in the summer, or
 just spending time with friends. The mountain stays open longer than most mountains in the West (11,000 ft peak) and spring skiing is the norm usually. The Summer is almost better than the winter as there are outdoor concerts, biking, hiking, ("wiking" for the less athletic), camping, picnics, etc. Yosemite is only an hour away as well!

Home: this is the view from my parent's's hard not to appreciate the natural beauty. Windansea Beach....Fidel's...North Park / South Park...running the convention center rides through the Elfin Forest....visiting Ready Room 6 on the Midway...cover bands at Surf N Saddle...Rock N Roll first exposure to Junior League....high school memories in LJ. Although I'm originally from Minnesota and will always appreciate my midwest roots, my formative years were here...wherever I am, this will still be"home". 

Snow sports: At age 3, my parents left me off with ski school at Deer Valley in Park City and, well, I loved it. I spent MANY cold days skiing in Minnesota and have been fortunate to take that sport around the world. The last 12 years have transitioned me into a snowboarder, but I still get a good ski in once in a while. Some of my favorite trips have been to Sun Valley, Idaho, Deer Valley/Alta/Snowbird in Utah, Telluride/Aspen/Beaver Creek/Snowmass/Vail, all in Colorado, The Pyrenees in Spain, Innsbruck, Austria (a MUST for the thrillseeker: Moonlight Toboganning!), and Mammoth Lakes, California. My list of places to "ride before I die" include the Chilean Andes, heli-skiing in Whistler, Chamonix/Mont-Blanc in France, and Gstaad in Switzerland.

....more favorite things and places to come....

March 10, 2009: The Great Wall to Deep Fried...??

Well, the day has come....we are en route from The Peninsula Hotel to the Beijing airport. I can't believe this amazing adventure has come to and end. Here's a recap of the last few days.... We left Shanghai on Sunday taking the Maklev bullet train to the airport. The train travels the 35 km in 7min 20 seconds reaching speeds of up to 421 km/hr! It was crazy! 

We arrived in Beijing and met Joe, our guide, and Mister 2, our driver...2nd best driver in China - 1st best is in the hospital (apparently). A side note - things are all referred to in numerical order....#1 road, #2 road or #1 university, #2 university...we asked why and they said it was simpler than naming them all. Guess that makes sense especially for foreigners to maneuver easily. Our hotel here was The Peninsula - one of the nicest in terms of amenities and accommodations I have ever stayed at. While at the gym this morning, 3 people were there to assist me with water, towels, etc. Service is paramount...almost overwhelmingly. 

On Monday we went to see the Forbidden City where the Emperors lived. It is 240 acres big and we were there for 2 hours and only saw about 1/10th of all there was to see. For those that remember the movie "The Last Emperor", the story of Puyi, many of the scenes we visited while there. This was an amazing place to visit - the main Hall of Supreme Harmony, Middle Harmony, Preserving Harmony, the living quarters where the concubines lived and the gardens. Quite an experience. 

From there we went to the Temple of the Heaven, the Daoist temple, surrounded by great gardens, which was 3 times bigger than the Forbidden City. As Joe said, everything in Beijing is big. He wasn't kidding. It was also very cold...about 35-45 while we were here with some good winds. We did see blue sky and a bright sun our first day, which was a nice change from Shanghai

We tried to visit Tiananmen Square three times during the trip, but the National People's Congress was in session while we were here so we could only drive by as it was blocked off. 

Our lunch was at a very chic restaurant, My Humble House, from Singapore. The food was fantastic - a little too much, but a very innovative take on traditional Chinese food. One of the "celebrity" news casters was eating next to us and of course Bob went to chat him up. My mom and I escaped out the door before the typical Bob introduction! 

Monday evening we went out for dinner....for pizza. You can tell we were a little Chinese fooded out. After dinner, we visited the night email subject above is in reference to what we saw. We had visited a night market in Taiwan and had seen some gruesome things. This market was much cleaner and the food looked very attractively presented. There was fruit on sticks that had been dipped in crystallized sugar, meat, fish, squid, etc. Many westerners were eating the food...I'm not sure how they managed as our guide said do NOT eat anything. Maybe they didn't make it out of their hotels the next day. 

As we continued through the food carts, I encountered a man shaking a stick at my with some rubbery white flesh wrapped around it. I couldn't understand what he was saying....Sheep something? I looked up at the "menu" and was shocked to read "Sheep Penis"! Holy moly! That same stand had chicken testicles, scorpions, star fish (yup!), cicadas, silk worms, caterpillars, ...I can go one but won't. It was quite a sight! I'll send pictures soon.... 

Yesterday we went to the Summer Palace where the Emperor and Empress spent their summers. It was on a huge lake with beautiful walk ways and amazing sites. It was freezing but well worth it. From there we traveled to the Great Wall. What an amazing site...I hiked up the steep steps and was awed by how this 4,100 mile long wall was built and then guarded with garrison towers by the soldiers from the Mongolians and Siberians. 

Our wall visit was followed by lunch at a very modern Kampinski hotel in the hills adjacent to the wall - another unique and amazing place. 

We are at the airport now...before I send this, a few notes: 

1. Toddlers go around with exposed derrieres...this is because they don't wear diapers and the exposure facilitates a quick "release". 

2. Wine in China is exorbitant. Beer is definitely not their forte either. 

3. The Chinese do not believe in heat during the winter. I had to sit on my mom's feet to unthaw them. 

4. Beijing was a very western looking city with huge avenues and much more organized and intuitive than Shanghai. While we drove around in circles in Shanghai, our travels were much more straight forward here. 

5. People believe in the People's party, think Taiwan is theirs and the Dalai Lama is bad. They "aren't sure" what happened with Tiananmen in 1989. 

So many more thoughts but I'll give you a break...

March 8, 2009: Hu...or Shanghai

Last Thursday (Wednesday for most of you), we started up the river that led to Shanghai. I can't describe the scene well enough...intense fog and about 45 degree weather, boats passing us on all sides with all sorts of cargo and all sizes. We eventually got in further and could see a vague outline of the coastline, which appeared to be all shipping yards. We pulled into Shanghai port at 2pm and out my balcony I could see through the fog the famous Pearl Tower in Pudong and the Global Financial Center, the 2nd tallest tower in Asia (2nd to tower 101 in Taiwan, which we visited a few yrs ago). Customs was interesting....2 hours for the officials to review every passport and then we all lined up and they had us present our passports personally one by one. 4 hrs after arriving we cleared customs (in all other ports it was a 30 minute process max). 

Thursday night we went to the Shanghai Center at the Portman Ritz-Carlton to see a Chinese acrobatic show. It was an amazing Cirque du Soleil times 50. Friday morning we departed the ship...we encountered some of my favorite ship crew men coming back from a night on the town...they'd gone big and looked like some hair of the dog was in order! Our guide and driver collected us and we spent the day visiting sites. Contemporary art is very big in Shanghai right now and we started at M-50, an art complex filled with a large variety of galleries with all sorts of contemporary media - really interesting. 

We visited the Yuan garden for lunch and had a LOT of dumplings (maxed out!). Tried some Tsingtao beer...kind of like a Miller in my opinion. After lunch we visited an antique market en route to the Shanghai museum where we saw the history of Jade, pottery, pottery and other artifacts. Quite interesting. The area where the museum was is the People's Square which used to be a race track back in the 20's. With the introduction of Communism gambling was outlawed so the racetrack was replaced with the square which has a beautiful theater, the museum, the urban development center and open parks. 
Saturday morning we headed to The Bund, which runs along the river and was part of the British Concession during the foreign occupation. All of the architecture is very western and if it weren't for being the only blonde person in a sea of Chinese I might have thought I was in England or Paris. We went next to the Urban Development Center which showed where Shanghai has come since its inception and with a HUGE model of the projected landscape for 2020 in Shanghai. It was amazing.     

Lunch was in the French Concession and we walked around touring a traditional Shikuman house. These homes that still exist house 5 Chinese families whereas in the French Concession one family would occupy the entire home. We enjoyed an amazing Shanghainese lunch at a fabulous restaurant there and then continued on to Pudong where we visited the Pearl Tower and the Shanghai History Museum. The rest of the afternoon we spent walking on Nanjing road looking at all the stores. One amazing store opened while we were there...a flagship Barbie store! Imagine 6 stories of Barbie with hundreds of Chinese children running around exploring all the Barbie paraphernalia - even a full size Vera Wang gown to match the Vera Wang Barbie! We enjoyed a brief tour and quickly escaped the excited swarms of children!     

A brief comment on the was about 45-50 degrees with some winds. The "sun" came out and looked like a dull light bulb in a smoky room. Even in winter the pollution is still quite evident. At days end my eyes were burning some so we toured mostly in the car especially because of dad's eye.   Yesterday we flew to Beijing. I am signing off now as we are in a trolley just arriving at the Forbidden City!!! 

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

March 2, 2009: Indonesia to Manila

Today we are sailing in the China Sea en route to Shanghai from Manila, which we left yesterday. The last week has been filled with 5 days at sea, 2 days in Bali and a quick day visit to Manila. The sea days are comprised of visits to the gym, ping pong games, pool time, water volleyball, lectures on a variety of subjects relative to our trip, jigsaw puzzles and reading. 

Bali is one of over 13,000 islands in Indonesia. We anchored off the southeast side of Bali (the rocky side) in Padang Bai on the 25th. All three of us (yes, even my dad!) went on a Village Cycling trip! 

It was quite an adventure cycling around the area visiting several temples, seeing the rice paddies and being welcomed into the home of one of the local villagers to see their family compound. The weather was overcast but very humid so we were all getting a good schvitz as we rode around the hilly area. Bali is absolutely beautiful – so lush and green. There are temples everywhere as Bali is the most Hindu of the predominantly Muslim Indonesian Islands

The following day was my mom’s birthday so we had a car and driver and guide take us around part of the island. It takes quite a bit of time on the small windy roads to get anywhere so although we were driving about for 8 hours, we only saw a small fraction of the sights. We headed directly to the John Hardy Factory (thanks Marina!). There were no road markings or anything to indicate we’d arrived but somehow our guide got us there. We had a tour of the factory and watched how these intricate pieces of jewelry are made. Each piece is made from a singular cast and then put together one by one. It was quite fascinating and the resulting pieces are very impressive. Beyond just the jewelry, the factory was self-sustaining and very eco friendly. They had their own rice paddies, animals, sustainable construction, fish ponds, etc. and had a very family oriented atmosphere for their employees. After the factory, we visited many rice paddies and temples including one that was built in front of a bat cave. We knew we’d arrived once the odor of the bats welcomed us. It was quite a sight – the inner temple area (there are 3 parts to a Hindu temple) backed up to a swarm of bats and you could see that they came out at night and flew around the temple area. 

For lunch we went to the boutique Amandari hotel, a boutique hotel in the rain forest overlooking the river. It was one of the most breathtaking sites I’ve seen and the location was absolutely amazing. The hotel and the food were excellent as well as we ate overlooking an infinity pool that continued the vista towards the lush rain forest surroundings. At this hotel we found some unique Javanese marriage sculptures which my mom purchased for her home. 

The next 3 days were at sea….just one day too long for me but that’s part of the process to get from one place to the next. While at Sea, there are organized cocktail hours in staff areas of the ship – we visited the bridge, the galley, the staff quarters and mess areas and the laundry. It is really interesting to see all that goes on to keep the ship moving along. 

In Manila, I went with 8 other people to the Pangsajan Falls, which was a 2 hour drive from Manila. Unfortunately we only had one day so my visit to the actual city was relegated to the bus ride to and from the city. The Pangsajan Falls visit was amazing. We put on our life preservers and got in hand dug-out canoes (2 of us per canoe) with 2 Filipino men paddling us up the river. Yes…UP the river. We sat one in front of the other on the floor of the very shallow canoe and felt we were going to tip out any second! To get through areas where there were rapids, the men would jump out of the canoe (typically dousing us with water over the side of the boat) and propel us forward by jumping from one shallow rock to the next at some points being up to their chests in water. Molly, the girl in my canoe with me, and I were amazed at the strength and the agility of these men. You’ll have

 to see the video to really appreciate it. Along our route were water buffalo, huge walls of rock and forest, water falls, turtles, spiders and we chose to think no water snakes. Ugh! They promised we’d be wet by the end and we certainly were. At the top there was a beautiful water fall with a cave behind it. We watched as several groups of Japanese tourists would be paddled out on a raft and shot under the falls to get wet. We watched and enjoyed the humor of it. The ride back was much more fun and less stressful (my stomach was in knots watching the men get us up there) and the return allowed us to ride the rapids to the end where we had lunch and returned to the ship. 

A side note to this Manila visit is that almost three fourths of the crew on this ship is Filipino. 1,500 family members of the crew visited the ship yesterday and for most of them this was the one day in the entire year that they would see them. Many of the staff are married with children and they had 8 hours to visit with their families. The ship was great in welcoming the families and had cookies and ice cream for the children and their families toured them around the ship. Departing Manila last night was very emotional for everyone on the ship as we watched the children crying on the dock and the families waving, saying goodbye until next year when they return. Just recalling the site brings tears to my eyes. My stewardess Maria saw her husband yesterday but her 6 year old son was unable to make it so she’ll have to go another year without seeing him. 

On Thursday, we arrive mid-day into Shanghai and will be going to a Chinese Acrobatic show at the Ritz Carlton. My parents saw it last time they were here and said it was spectacular. We depart the ship the following day and will be on our own in Shanghai for 2 days and then fly to Beijing for 3 days before returning home. I can’t believe I’ve been gone so long. It has been an incredible experience and I am so grateful to get to spend this time with my parents and see all of these amazing places. 

February 24, 2009: Exmouth

106 degrees, 100% humidity, Emu’s and Kangaroos running wild in the streets, untouched coastline, a town of 2,500 with no stop lights where people don’t roll up their windows or lock their doors. This is Exmouth. We arrived in Exmouth on Monday and took tenders into the harbor. There were a few excursions to the Ningaloo Reef and the Canyons; we’d been too late to sign up so we were waitlisted for the reef trip. While sitting under a canopy awaiting the bus departures and sweating to death, we (Mom and I) decided to take up an offer to hire our own car and tootle ourselves around the area. Brilliant idea in retrospect as we later heard the side trip was in a bus with no AC for four hours and quite disappointing. 

We rented our purple Kia Pasha and grabbed some sandwiches at the local bakery (again, quite good) and drove off around the Exmouth Peninsula. This city was founded as a joint US/Australian Naval Communications point during WWII and was used as a sub base during that time as well. Now there are only a few Air Force Families stationed there so the town is mostly a vacation spot for campers and hikers during the US summer (too hot otherwise as we figured out). Despite a jumpy transition from first to second gear, our car got us rolling around the beautiful scenery and off to the beach. It is so arid that very few trees grow in this area. There are long stretches of road (one road) sided by red dirt and low growing bushes that stretch for miles to mountainous perches on one side and sand dunes with adjacent beaches on the other. We stopped en route to the beach at a lighthouse that had been built in 1918. It was only used for 2 years before being abandoned for an adjacent communications station but was apparently bombed by the Japanese during the war. 

Exmouth is the only place in the world where a coral reef grows on the west coast of a country and this reef is right off shore (as opposed to the Great Barrier where you have to boat out to it). We traveled down to Turqouise bay with the plan to have lunch and swim in the water. I tried to convince my mom to be my snorkel partner (for those of you who know my anxiety about fish, you know why I need a partner!) but she refused. I found out why shortly when she and I stepped into the most beautiful bay with crystal clear water and we were suddenly surrounded by twenty foot long white fish. Apparently my anxiety is genetic! It almost made me feel relaxed! We were both squealing like little kids until one Australian woman came over and was like, “What did you find? A baby shark?” HA! To our chagrin, we admitted we were just scared of a few fish. Really embarrassing - she thought so too. 

We spent a good while at the beach, all of us enjoying the perfect water and breathtaking landscape. I swam out to a huge sand bar where the water was only about a foot deep. The currents were so strong that I could barely walk along it and turned back before being sucked over into the open water. 

On our way back, we saw a kangaroo hopping across our path and slowed to watch it hopping in the bushes. My mom and I had seen one in MRV, but dad hadn’t so he was excited. We also saw a few that had been hit by cars and were in the ditches. It seemed so sad to me, but there is apparently an overpopulation of them here so, although people attempt to avoid them, it is somewhat inevitable at times. The Emu (look like small ostriches) were stalking around in the bush and on our way back, one decided to walk down the road in front of us. Thank god there isn’t a lot of car traffic. We caught a good picture of him ogling us from the road. We returned back to town and spent our last Aussie dollars on some Tim Tam’s. My mom had seen Nicole Kidman talk about them on Oprah so we had to give them a try. They were quite tasty and we were thankful they don’t sell them in the US - too good! 

We were at sea yesterday - another scorching day of heat and humidity. Despite wearing 30 and 85 SPF on a daily basis, I have some “red” patches...damn that Irish skin! Afternoon cocktails on the boat are mandatory. Hinano beer or Pimm’s is typical followed by wine at dinner. My parents are great cohorts, but a younger friend would be nice on this trip. Today, Ash Wednesday, we arrive in Bali for two days. Despite it being the beginning of Lent, I think I’ll postpone my no alcohol abstention - too tough while on vacation (yeah, I’m a weak Catholic this year, but I’ll make up for it later). We are doing a village cycling tour today and have a car and driver for tomorrow to tootle us around on my mom’s birthday! Shh!!! She’s trying to avoid it - like it was an unexpected event or something. 

February 22, 2009: "Stay Right, Save Jenn"

As “Hey Bruni” was the catchphrase for last year’s trip in Ghana, “Stay right, save Jenn” was the catchphrase for the first day of our adventure in the Margaret River Valley. After the one-eye open drive to our hotel where Bob was relegated to back seat driving only, my mom took over the drive out of Perth to the MRV. She did a fantastic job; however, she seemed to drift towards the curb, which, being the left hand passenger meant trees and other obstacles were very close to my head. We worked out a little system where I would “beep” at her when she went to far over the boundary. Out of it came the phrase, but it seemed to work. Roundabouts are difficult for my mom when we’re in Europe, we use the turn at 3 o’clock tactic or take the third turn and count them collaboratively to get the desired turn. Throw in driving on the wrong side of the car on the wrong side of the road and well, even I had to think hard about it. Flash forward to my driving: I got the hang of it pretty quickly and quite enjoyed the idea of driving “backwards”! Must be that I’m farther away from my “0” that helped (Mom’s only 4 days away.) 

The Margaret River Valley was phenomenal! It was nice to be off the ship and on our own schedule. We made it down to Bussleton, a small town about 30 miles from our final destination and decided to have lunch there on the beach. In the US (particularly San Diego), there aren’t a ton of GREAT restaurants on the water. At this beach, there was only one option so what’s the chance it would be good? We expected mediocre and it was fantastic! I could go on and on about the food options here! I’ve been so impressed with the caliber of food at every restaurant we have been to and the variety of flavors. You can identify the Indian, French, Spanish, and Indonesian influences as well as Mediterranean flavors. And the bread - well, all three of us ordered a ‘mini loaf’ at every meal. The food on this ship is quite disappointing (which is OK) after being on Silver Seas. Our meal at Bussleton at The Goose was grand. I had a Beez Neez beer to go with the meal and Bob had a glass of Sauv Blanc from MVR to “wet his palette”. Unique to Bussleton is a 2 km jetty built forever ago. We walked to the end, quite sure it might collapse in some spots but it was well worth it to see the beautiful ocean and great scenery along the coast. 

We did a little bit of wine tasting along our way before checking in at the Smith’s Beach Resort. Um, if I could have moved there, I would have! I’ll admit it, I conjured up great ideas of how I could helicopter from there to the airport and commute to Perth for work. Still working on the details of that plan. We had a 2 story condo at the resort with a panoramic view of the beach and coastline. Granted, we have a fantastic view from our house in San Diego, but I think the untouched quality of the coastline coupled with the bright blue water and white sand enamored me. My parents were enthralled as well. Our stay in MRV was about 2 ½ days and we did some great wine tasting and made dinners at home and Bob and I played Gin Rummy. I was seriously beating him and then he crushed me. 

Back in Subiaco (Perth), we enjoyed another night at 8 Nicholson. We walked down the main street to the Subiaco hotel for dinner. There was a rugby game that night and it was packed with fans. If only I had some of you friends with me! Bob and Barbara weren’t super excited about loud crowds and beers, but I forced them to be in good spirits. Perth is such a beautiful city, very similar to San Diego. People were out and about everywhere (despite the 90 degree weather), road biking around the estuary and out at the beaches. We arrived back at the ship yesterday and checked in before going our separate ways. My parents went back to Subiaco to negotiate on some fabulous Aboriginal art we’d seen on our first day and I headed to Cottelsoe Beach for the day. The beach neighborhood was the caliber of La Jolla but with uninterrupted beach. No development directly on the water so I (and the other million Aussies with me) could enjoy a day of waves. The water is cool but refreshingly so after sitting on the beach sweating in the sun. I enjoyed the volleyball tournament going on next to me while reading “Twilight”. I’m already half way through the second book! Margaret, you (and Dr. Oz) were right! I’m emotionally involved. But, considering the “stock” on the ship, I need to look somewhere for romantic entertainment! Not even any “Anna Nicole Smith” opportunities!

I reluctantly returned to the ship last night and relaxed in the pool with my dad and some other passengers. We chatted with some New Yorkers that reminded me of Babi Ann (V’s grandmother). Too funny. The ship is mostly Americans with a smattering of Canadians (obviously given it is February) and a couple Europeans. Given the economy, the ship is only half full and Regent didn’t see the benefit of lowering prices close to the start of the cruise. We’ll see how long that lasts. Australia seems to be feeling the economic downfall as well, but certainly not as harshly as we’ve felt it. It is nice to escape the day in day out down in the dumps news headlines, but I’m obviously living vicariously through my parents life right now. 

Tomorrow we go to Exmouth on the northwestern corner of Australia. It’s a town of 2,500 with wild Emu’s running in the streets and a fantastic coral reef, Ningaloo reef. My goal is to go snorkeling if I don’t hyperventilate from anxiety as usual! This reef has manta rays and shark whales among other things. I already made myself nervous! We are in Exmouth for the day and then 3 days at sea before Bali

February 17, 2009: Melbourne across the country to Perth

Imagine sailing from South Carolina to Tallahassee and then from there to Galveston and then flying to San Diego. Five days since departing Sydney and two days at sea, that's where we are tonight...Perth being the Australian equivalent in this metaphor for San Diego.

Since my last bar-side email, we finished up our lovely stay in Sydney with a fun dinner and drinks with friends and a day ferrying around Sydney in the rain. We boarded our ship and my state room was facing the Sydney Opera House so I spent the afternoon relaxing on my balcony watching the rain and the sites.

The next day was a day at sea (Valentine's Day mind you....imagine a romantic table for 3!) My dad, consummate thoughtful man that he is, surprised my mom and I all day with cards and a teddy bear that said "will you be my valentine?”

We arrived in Melbourne early the next day and I opened my door to a smell reminiscent of San Diego in October 2007. The wind was flat and the smell and haze of the Victoria fires was evident. The fires, 22 of them at their peak, were not too close to Melbourne but we felt there presence while touring around until a wind pushed the smoke out. As some of us have seen in San Diego, there are a lot of talented architects from Melbourne and that is apparent in the varied architecture. I took many photos of some very interesting buildings both old & new. We visited Cook's house, saw a stuffed "Phar Lap" (race horse) at the Melbourne museum, toured the Old Goal (Jail) - quite interesting, walked the gardens, saw Rod Laver Arena and the Anzac memorial among other things.

Early afternoon my parents got tired and went back to the ship. I continued touring around and found myself parched...there are so many great outdoor cafes and I selected mine by the glimmering tap of Stella Artois beckoning my name! It tasted sooo good just then!

Back on the boat, we had another day at sea. This one I spent lounging at the pool reading. With news of another close friend being laid off it was a bit distracting to be so at leisure, but knowing her, she would have wanted me to order a I did. One for her and one for me! ;) (smiley face for you too.)

This morning we got off the ship in Adelaide (Galveston, TX in my metaphor) and flew to Perth. There was a side trip where you could take a train....65 hours thanks. We left the state of Southern Australia and arrived in Perth in Western Australia.

At baggage claim, we noticed a cute beagle adorned with an embroidered "coat" that said quarantine inspector. My mom was determined he was a drug dog. After US experiences were you basically have to disrobe, baggie up your Chap Stick and mascara and forget any hydration, we had gone through security with several bottles of water, shoes on our feet, and make-up, etc scattered in our bags. I didn't think her drug theory was right. In fact, the dog was a fruit/vegetable sniffer. He would circle your bags and if he identified contraband, he would...wait for it.....sit down. His guide would ask the bag holder to kindly show the contraband and either consume it or toss it. That was that. My mom had dried fruit which made her nervous so she tossed it before being sat by. It was quite entertaining.

We got our car...Bob somehow was allowed behind the steering wheel...that won't happen again...and eventually showed up at 8 Nicholson in Subiaco, a fantastic suggestion! This 4-room boutique hotel is brilliantly decorated by the owner through her travels around the world and is in a charming part of town. We spent the afternoon wandering around and had dinner at what I've coined an Aus-roccan restaurant (Australian-Moroccan).

Tomorrow we head off to the Margaret River Valley for wine tasting and more adventures.

February 11, 2009: A Walk About Sydney...

....So starts the first of my long winded e-mails on this fantastic month long journey. I will be briefer than usual with this one as I am writing it from my Blackberry and we've only been here a day & a half.    
Let's start with my current's 4pm and I'm sipping a glass of red wine from the Barossa Valley (south Australia) at the boutique Establishment hotel. Very stark decor with a huge marble slab bar and 70's ball of bulb chandeliers with a pressed tin ceiling. Tres chic. It's raining a bit (like SD rain) and I've been walking for hours so I deemed the stop well deserved!     

Now to recap...we left LA Monday night after a nice visit to the old "hood" of Venice/Santa Monica. Even did a drive by past 107 Brooks, Torrey & my old house. Our plane was one of those 747's with a second floor, which is where we sat. So cool! I was even invited into the cockpit (on the 2nd floor too) and got to sit in the pilots seat. I requested no "Sully" landings...they graciously complied. After a nice 10 hour nap in my fully reclining bed and 2 movies (I recommend "Nick & Norah's...T, you will like the tunes), we arrived Wednesday am in Sydney.

We walked about yesterday hitting The Rocks area (where we had a fantastic lunch...and a local IPA...John Squires Lainger...not too hoppy). Bob tried it & is still convinced all beer tastes the same. He is now intrigued by the topic of "hops"! We walked thru Hyde Park and saw an exhibit on the Hulks prisons where they held convicts in ship hulks. Having been here before, we didn't revisit some of the main sites (opera house, Bondi, zoo, etc) but did walk past most.     

This city is like Singapore blended with San Francisco. The nice weather, great architecture, distinct neighborhoods, hilly landscape, and supreme blend of cultures. And did I already mention all of the hot guys?! My mom and I are ogling all of them! New York what? He he...jk. The people here are so nice as well.     

Last night we ate at Altitude...a restaurant on the top of our it (shangri-la hotel, altitude resto). Panoramic views from the 30 something floor. The view was amazing and the food too.     

Today we went to Paddington, an area with charming galleries, shops & antique stores. We tootled around for a while, had a quaint lunch and then my parents went back to the hotel to rest. I walked back enjoying the different neighborhoods and shops along the way.    

Tonight we have dinner with a family friend and then a friend from USC will be joining us for drinks (Goody, V). Tomorrow we head to the ship which pulled in this morning. It certainly is larger than others we've been on! We set sail tomorrow evening for Melbourne. I'm not sure yet how we'll be impacted by the fires. It's quite tragic here with the dryness and vast amount of bush land. Almost 300 people have died already. They didn't have an emergency response system or forced evacuations like we do. Hopefully they get it under control soon. thumbs are about to fall off and I'd like to enjoy my wine. I hope you all are well and I'll be in touch with new stories shortly. 

March 12, 2008: Back to 92075

I'm not quite sure where or what time it is, but apparently I'm back at Casa Gallivan in Solana Beach. I've switched places with my parents who are somewhere in Southeast Asia/Middle East for the next 5 weeks. Justine and I got back to LA last night and I arrived back in San Diego late last night. I took a nice "nap" as my time clock is a bit screwy. So I figured the best use of my time this morning was a last e-mail about our final days of our 2 week adventure!     
After leaving Heidelberg, Justine and I had an awesome time visiting several amazing cities. We headed off to Bamberg, a UNESCO World Heritage City north of Nuremberg and one that I had just stumbled upon through my internet search of Germany. We underestimated the time
 it would take to get to Bamberg so we didn't arrive until about 8 PM. As we were clueless about how to get to our hotel, we phoned them and the wonderful lady there came and actually jumped in our car to direct us to the hotel. We'd unfortunately lost our reservation (in Germany, apparently if you don't check in by 6:30, they give away your reservation?!?!) but she was so helpful and took us to a charming guest house just down the street in the Old Town. Bamberg is a medieval town that went completely unscathed in World War II and Justine and I instantly fell in love. 

The winding little streets are filled with colorful half-timbered houses and the full spectrum of architecture. Separated by a river, the Old Town is on a slight hill and
 the top Cathedral offers a wonderful perspective of this great town. On our walking tour, we vsited the Rathaus, the old town hall, which the clever founders of the town had put on an island so that neither side of the river could collect taxes from them! Charmed as we were, Justine and I decided to forgo our planned hasty visit to Berlin in favor of staying another day in Bamberg and then not feeling rushed to get to our next destination in the Harz Mountains. We toured around and then found a charming restaurant along the river and adjacent to the Rathaus where we sat outside in the sun (still pretty chilly but we were bundled and joined all the other locals). The local "specialty" is smoked beer, which we tried. It was interesting...kind of tasted like drinking smoked Gouda. Interesting. Later we found a patisserie on the other side of the river and read our books for a few was very relaxing! If you are in Germany in the future, we both would highly recommend visiting this awesome city!!! 
We even picked out our "houses" where we would live in the city...mine's awesome and I'm sure you could stay in the spare room!    

The next morning after another great run along the river and through the old town, we departed for the Harz Mountains, which are in the Saxony-Ahlstat region of Germany, once part of what was East Germany. Our destination was Goslar, another UNESCO city, and we'd planned a stop in Quedlinburg en route. One aside on UNESCO Ghana we visited several castles and forts that were designated UNESCO world heritage sites; I'm intrigued to investigate what this really means as we were quite disappointed in the maintenance of some of the sites in Africa and would have hoped their historical importance warranted more attention.     

One note about traveling in Germany...I referenced the Autobahn in my last e-mail. I've been on it before but never as the driver. I'm sold. There is a "suggested" speed which is 120 KM per hour, approximately 75-80 mph. Justine and I in our little Ibiza were trucking along at 160 KM/HR feeling pretty good and making great time. We were going quickly but still in line with other "fast" drivers on the road...for those of you who have driven with me, you know I appreciate getting places quickly! hehe. Anyway...out of the blue, a streak of light would zoom past on our left (you only drive in the left lane to pass people...another amazing concept that GREATLY frustrated me in my drive home last night from LA!)...and then another streak of was an Audi, a Mercedes, a BMW...we could only speculate at their speed but they kicked our butts! We were feeling pretty "dangerous" at 100 MPH but they were barely visible as they passed us. Apparently the Spanish cars (Ibiza Seat) are as far behind in their automotive technology as they are historically! We were humbled.   

Quedlinburg and Goslar (again UNESCO cities), the final stops on our whirlwind trip were another bright spot on our trip. We departed the autobahn in favor of the county roads, traveling through many small burgs and along surrounded by vast valleys of green farms. So picturesque! Quedlinburg offers the most half-timbered homes in one city and was a nice pit stop on our way to Goslar, our favorite stop of the day. Another medieval city, Goslar is at the base of
 the mountain and offers another enjoyable walking experience through the winding streets admiring the fantastic homes with their engraved and painted facades and a charming stream that ran through the old town. In the Markplatz (market square), there was a really unique orange building with sculptures along the second story of the building. One had a woman, the goddess of abundance. Apparently the sculptor had a sense of humor and had a smaller sculpture below of a little man that had coins emanating from his derriere! We wandered around and found a fun dinner spot in the Ratskeller (cellar of the old town hall) and had our last German meal. It was a bittersweet moment...sweet with the apple strudel and apple beignets served for dessert! So good!   

We were so fortunate with the weather while in Germany. It was dry and mostly sunny throughout our visit, in the 30's-50's most of the time. Our last night the winds blew about 20 MPH and the rain started to pour. We got a quick run in the morning we left but were almost blown off the road when the winds caught us! Our 3 hour drive back to Frankfurt was a bit stressful - I was sure our little car was going to be taken away by the wind. But we made it. The trip was fantastic and JW and I had an awesome experience. Having the juxtaposition of Africa and Germany made the singularities that much more apparent and helped us appreciate even more the way we've grown up. I have several hundred photos (obviously) and videos so I'll compile them this weekend and send them out. I've attached just a few to give you a snapshot of our trip.   I hope you are all doing well and I can't wait to talk to you all on the phone! (But not having my crackberry was fantastic too!)

March 8, 2008: Gutten Tag!!! Greetings from Heidelberg!

I only have a few moments but wanted to send out a short email. Our last days in Africa were the best of our trip and were truly amazing. We went on a guided tour to Kejetia market, the world's largest open air market covering more than 12 acres. It sold everything you could think of and was more eye opening than anything I have ever seen. Our guide, Comfort, took us to the top of a building adjacent to the market and showed us the perspective and it was almost too much to take in. Then she walked us through the market stopping to explain things to us and introduce her "Bruni" to friends from her local village. It was hysterical, but also overwhelming. I'm not sure Justine and I could have made it through there on our own. Being in Europe now, a place I am very comfortable in, I realize just how exhausting Africa was. We were constantly aware of our surroundings, the people around us and trying to stay "safe" even though most of the people we were encountered were the nicest and kindest people I have ever met. Regardless, it was foreign territory and the conditions were so foreign and unfortunately so "third world", that it was better to be safe than sorry. 

One thing I never did comment on was what we DID eat in Africa. Per Anthony Bourdain's suggestion on "No Reservation" and the reality that the Ghanaian diet consists of mostly carbs, we did try two specialties. One was Banku which is basically a ball of sticky pounded maize (think uncooked bread dough) that you use as your eating utensil. Banku, similar to Fufu (made of cassavah) and Kenke (cassavah with maise..baked), is served with some sort of stew or protein. I had mine with fresh grilled fish and a pepper tomato sauce. Really good but the banku can get to be too much. Bean stew with whole fish and rice is another typical meal we had. It's good I got over my "thing" with fish because the whole fish does include the eyeball and the teeth that "grrrr" at you while you eat it! 

After a very long and hot overnight flight back to Europe, Justine and I arrived in Germany at 5 AM yesterday. Luckily, we were able to shower in the airport and hit the autobahn in our Seat Ibiza! Having control of our "destiny" (i.e. ability to drive ourselves) is SO underrated! We went first to Wiesbaden and did a day trip up the Rheine River Valley stopping at a Cistercian Monastery that used to grow Riesling wine and several castles and charming villages along the way. Although we are a bit early for the tourist season in the Rhineland, it was almost more fun as we were among the very few to walk within the castle walls and to tour the villages. 

We ate a very late lunch in Bacharach, a medieval village surrounded mostly by the original walls and traipsed up and down the hills looking at the old ruins and the vineyards (most are on the side of the steep hills that line the valley. Our drive along the Rhine brought us to Koblenz where we stayed last night. After a great run along the Rhine this morning, we did a quick tour of the city and hit the Autobahn again towards Heidelberg.
PS...the weather (about 40 degrees) is awesome as opposed to sweating all day! Justine is a bit in shellshock after 5 weeks in Africa but she's slowly coming around. Warm and inviting food is a great help...and fruit! I'll admit...I hit up the Starbucks in Wiesbaden yesterday for a latte! 

We toured through Heidelberg today, which is such a charming city, and we are about to leave for Bamberg, a UNESCO city just north of Nuremberg. We are planning a "picnic dinner" in our room tonight...very exciting for us apparently. 
I'm not sure I'll email again before I come home and if I don't, I will send photos when I get back. This has been an amazing trip and I can't wait to tell you more about it!!!

March 4, 2008: Hey Bruni!!!

32 hours after leaving Los Angeles, I was flying over Africa and looking through the very dusty and dense air above Lagos, Nigeria. Seated next to me was Danny, my very fragrant and would-be husband had he not exited the plane upon landing. He even requested a "peck" as he called it before leaving. That was one of my first introductions to the "friendliness" of Africans. He was harmless and actually told me a lot of about Nigeria (we stopped over in Lagos to refuel on the way to Accra) and the African culture in general. The title of the e-mail is a common "call" that Justine and I get in the means "Hey Whitey"! Although Justine is half-black, she is so much lighter than the majority of Ghanaians that she is seen as a Bruni.

Over the past five days, I have thought this e-mail over in my head so many times because I don't want to be more verbose than necessary! This is a trip I cannot articulate briefly and still leave you with a sense of what every day has been like. So...I'll give it a shot and I'll tell you more when I get back. Today is our first chance to check e-mail (can you without e-mail for this long!) I've relished the break, but it is very strange feeling totally removed from the rest of the world.

Justine and I met up in Accra last Thursday night and left for Cape Coast the next morning. In the taxi from the airport to my hotel, I pulled a Bob Gallivan and asked about the country...the literacy level, if school was mandatory/free, what the typical businesses were in the capital, and yes, alas, I even asked if the banks were run solely by the government or if there were foreign banks ('ll have to wait for that answer until you get back from your trip!)

Driving in our taxi to the "bus station", I got my first impression of Ghana...there were people everywhere and all of them had the most beautiful ebony skin. Tourists, particularly, Europeans and Americans are few and far between. Roads are lined with small stalls where everything you can imagine is sold...mufflers, mattresses, tires, furniture, phone name it. Some are made of corrugated tin, some of mud, wood or cement. Since we have been here, I have yet to see a central supermarket or something of the kind. Upon arriving at the station, we spent three hours waiting for our bus. At about 9 AM the heat kicked in and sweat started pouring off our bodies. We finally left at about 11:20 (on the 11 AM bus) and arrived in Cape Coast 3 hours later. Mind you...the distance to Cape Coast is only about 100 miles...took twice as long as it would at home. And that was a lucky trip.

At Cape Coast, we walked the streets to visit the Cape Coast Castle, built by the Portuguese and later taken over by the Dutch and the British. The walk from our small pension was very eye opening. Justine had to remind me that we are in a third world country where infrastructure is minimal if any. Taxis and tro-tros (shared buses) represent about 75% of the cars on the road and they WIZZ past you giving a quick honk to let you know you better move your ass or get run over. Now, that would be fine if you could walk on the side walk; the sidewalk is actually the open sewage ditches that line the roads. They are where garbage is tossed, the water from the "street baths" trickles and of course where waste ends up. Many people try to burn the garbage that lies everywhere ( garbage removal) so that smell mixed with the open sewage smell took some getting used to.

Both the castle at Cape Coast and Elmina (both originally Portuguese built and eventually British occupied) were fascinating. Elmina is the oldest castle in all of Africa, built late 1400's. These forts, originally purported to host trading of textiles with the Ghanains, became the last stop for slaves being sent to the Americas, Europe and eventually Asia. I cannot even begin to explain the monstrosities that occurred at these forts and the conditions in which the slaves were kept. In March, it is 100 degrees and 100% humidity. The slaves...hundreds of them, were kept in underground dungeons with only slits in the upper walls to the exterior to provide air and basically no sunlight. We went in one chamber that was about 20 x 12 and 200 male slaves were kept in there for 2 months without ever leaving. The chamber had been excavated and several feet of "filth" had been removed that had accumulated over the years. The slaves were taken underground through a tunnel to the "Door of no return" where they were sent off in slave boats to their next destination.

The goal seemed to be to starve and torture the slaves so that only the strongest and most valuable survived. The captors saved money on food and only sold the "best". The skinnier, the better - they could fit more on the ships. I will spare the other gruesome details until I return. Needless to say, both Justine and I were horrified at what we experienced. A funny note was that the man at the "reception" to the castle told us he would give us the student price if we promised to vote for Barrack. Justine was in...and I had to claim my Republican status; he let us both in anyway!

After seeing the Castle and Fort in Elmina, Justine and I walked the streets, followed by all the beautiful children calling "Hey Bruni!" and "Hello! What is your name?!" We chatted with some people as they are very friendly, but the men/boys are a bit "overeager"...asking for your e-mails and addresses and if you have a husband and children. Justine and I are apparently both married but yet to have kids! Still doesn't really stall the attention. One guide book writer actually gave out his address to all who asked for it and upon returning home had 40 letters from Ghanains! They are a friendly group! They do also like to touch you, which is a bit disarming when in very crowded places. Both Justine and I had our faces grabbed today in Kumasi, while we were trying to move through this very hectic town.

Travel in this country is a big pain. As mentioned above, it takes forever to go a distance that we take for granted at home. Yesterday, we traveled from 8 AM to 6 PM to get a distance of about 200 miles. We were fortunate in Cape Coast to befriend our taxi driver, Papa. He offered to drive us to Elmina from Cape Coast and then we made a deal for him to drive us to Axim, the beach "resort" we stayed at for two nights. We paid him $55 for the entire day, which, in retrospect was a bargain. The time at Axim was fantastic! We stayed in our own private hut on the hill above the ocean and had the quaintest room and shell encrusted bathroom. There was AC but as it is run on solar power, we discovered you cannot have a light, the TV and the AC on at once. Most everywhere seems to run on generators so we've experienced several blackouts at our hotels and tonight we had dinner by candlelight...fortunately they cook with gas so our pizzas (YUP!!!!) were just fine!

We went running on the beach every day and lounged by the beach. The ocean was wonderfully refreshing (not too warm) and we didn't venture to find out if there are sharks! Lizards are everywhere including one that hustles along a few feet and then does 3 push-ups! He's my favorite...little muscle head!

We left Axim yesterday for Kumasi...that entailed first checking out of our hotel. An aside...everything here is done in "Ghanaian time". Our trip demonstrates what that means. Checking out took 40 minutes. 40 minutes for the lady to process my credit card and call a taxi. Right. Then the taxi took us into town along one of the bumpiest roads ever (typical...most roads are not paved) with the biggest potholes you've ever seen and took us to the tro-tro station. Tro-tro's (shared buses) only leave when they are absolutely full to capacity (with the helper crouching in the front). We waited about an hour for ours to leave, sitting in the hot tro-tro to save our seats. Imagine sweat just pouring down your body...that was us.

The Ghanaians sweat too, but nothing like this Irish girl. After an hour and a half tro-tro ride to Takoradi in which our butts fell asleep from the bumping along and lack of cushions in our 1980's (maybe) beat up tro-tro, we arrived in Takoradi. Having some foresight, we had already bought our tickets for the bus that runs twice a day to Kumasi (4 AM or 12 PM - we chose 12). We waited about an hour and a half for the bus to leave on our 5 hour journey. A side quiz: what's the hardest thing to find in Ghana? Answer: a restroom. So...although it is 100 degrees, you have to be very careful not to over-hydrate or you will have no where to go. Literally. Justine warned me of this so we've unfortunately been slightly dehydrated most of the trip...also, finding something simple for lunch is practically impossible so of the last 5 days, we've only had lunch once and otherwise have subsisted on the lara/odwalla bars and dried apricots and mangos I fortunately brought. Our 5 hour bus ride was filled with wonderful entertainment...they played Ghanain movies. Remember the last time you saw a Ghanaian movie win an Oscar? Exactly. Pure torture played at HIGH volumes. Apparently the actors think if you shout it translates to the audience. Not really.

The countryside is amazingly beautiful. It reminded me a lot of Cambodia and Vietnam...very lush and full of forests of palm trees, plantain and banana trees and high grasses. The scenerey stretches for miles and offers some insight to how traveling between Cape Coast and Kumasi (200 miles) took several months a few hundred years ago. Villages break up this scenery and are mostly mud or tin huts bunched together on the side of the road. One or two wells serve the villages for water and the poverty is rather striking. The people are so nice and very welcoming - taking pictures is something you have to ask to do, but most people are very inviting.

In Kumasi, we visited the cultural center and museum and then went out to a village to see the Kente cloth being woven. Today was our most exciting day overall. We had the most wonderful guide through the Kente village...he was kind of effeminate and very chummy...almost the Ghanaian version of a gay guy friend. We loved him. He took us all around and was very funny with an infectious laugh. While touring, he said, "I'm peeping." Justine, having been here for a month, said, "OK" and ushered me to the side. Apparently Christian had to use the restroom...right there. Another thing you see everywhere is Christianity. The stores all have names like, "God Bless you Business Centre" - although I didn't see a Xerox or Fax machine in the 4 x 4 stall that housed this sign. Or "May you walk with him Beauty Salon". It's all over the place. Literacy is pretty low so most signs are accompanied by a painted picture. At the herbal medicine doctor hut, there were images depicting all sorts of sexually transmitted diseases. I couldn't get a photo, but it was rather humorous. We verified that we're "clean".

I have left out so much detail, but I will send another e-mail from Germany if possible and of course have a million photos already. I've taken video too as that really helps you understand what we're experiencing over here. We are off to go home right now and shower and probably watch a movie before going to bed.