Day One Hundred and Forty One November 6th

We love Hog Hollow.  The name alone makes you feel like you are staying in a fairy tale.  Everything about the place is enjoyable.

The rain stopped so we are off to the Tenikwa Rehabilitation Center to see cats.  The center is a non-profit that specializes in big cats. There are leopards, cheetahs, sevals, and a bunch of others.  They give us a private guide (we are the only ones here for the 11a tour) that takes us into the large free-range cages they have for the animals.

It is pretty crazy to be so close to such big cats.  They are no more than a few feet away.  Before we go in our guides asks us to keep the kids really close so the cats don’t get excited and lunge for them.  So, what about us?

Most of them are lying around and sleeping.  At one point he takes us into a run with two male cheetahs that have been at the rehab center since birth and are “used to” people.  Are you sure?  I clutch Vince to my leg and Teri has Adele in a vice grip.  We stand well within striking range.  It’s a strange experience.

We are so used to seeing cats in zoos, at a distance, and with good reason. These things are big and powerful.  It is no wonder they are in charge.

For lunch we drive down to a beach at the end of the road.  It is stunningly beautiful and completely empty.  I can now confirm that South Africa has the most beautiful beaches in the world.  They go one for miles and miles, each turn more impressive than the last.  The surf never ends.  Now if they could just do something about the sharks.

We lunch at a beach bar at the end of the Otter Trail, a five-day coastal hike famous in this neck of the woods.  The bar has a tree where the hikers toss their boots at the end of the hike and the boots are dangling from branches high and low.  The hike looks like great fun.  We need to come back and do it one of these years.

Evening finds us enjoying the surroundings of our “room” at Hog Hollow, Skyping back to the States to catch up with family and taking care of some logistics on the business front.  It’s another great day in the Crags.

Day One Hundred and Forty Two November 7th

We really don’t want to leave.  If we didn’t have a reservation up the road at Addo Elephant Park we would still be at Hog Hollow.   If you ever come to ZA, come here and stay a while.  It is one of our top three so far.

To further prolong our drive we stop just a few kilometers up the road for lunch at Natures Valley.  This is a collection of locally run shops supported by the surrounding businesses.  Tourism is the lifeblood here.

We find a beautiful necklace and earrings for Teri made by the women living in the village across the way.  There is also a great café where we sit outside and enjoy the warm sunshine.  A group of local school children are playing on the playground and singing beautiful harmony, very softly, as they slide and swing.

Our next leg turns out to be longer than we expected.  The Elephant Lodge is on the other side of Port Elizabeth by forty-five minutes and it takes some time to get there.  Again we drive by huge shantytowns full of intense poverty.  

At one point closer to the end of the drive we pass three bushmen standing on the side of the road in loin clothes, painted white and carrying spears.  No joke, these guys were the real deal.  They had just emerged from the bush and were standing there carrying on an everyday conversation with one of the men from the shantytown. It was a strange clash of old and new, both living a very difficult existence and undergoing tremendous change.  

Our hotel is just off the main road to the park and is tucked away under a grove of trees.  It is another great find.  We have a little house/hut in the back with two rooms, a thatched roof, a small porch and right next to a little pool.  It’s prefect.  

Dinner is in a café across the way that serves as the restaurant for the hotel guests as well as a rest stop for park weary travelers.  We eat quickly and rest our tired bones by 9p.

Day One Hundred and Forty Three November 8th.

Addo is must do if you come here.  It’s an Elephant Park by trade but it also houses the big five (lion, leopard, cheetah, rhino and water buffalo), as well as sharks and whales since the southern boundary is the Indian Ocean.  

Elephants are everywhere.  It is like they are falling off trees.  This natural, protected habitat suites them very well and this is the largest collection in South Africa.  I believe they said four hundred and fifty.

It’s hard to describe just how big these animals are.  They are massive.  When they stand next to the car or walk directly towards us then we are all on edge.  Even Vinny stops his constant chatter but not before whispering, “Dad, dad, these are HUGE!”

The park is great fun and we spend the morning exploring the dirt roads with animals around every turn.  It’s like a who’s who of animals.  By lunchtime we have fourteen checked off on our park list. 

Lunch is terrible.  I actually have water at the bottom of my salad.  They tell you not to drink the water here so to see a small pool at the bottom of my plate is disturbing.  I would have ordered a burger but they eat anything and everything here so you never know what the “meat of the day” is.  Between this water thing and the malaria pills we are all a bit freaked.

Since we are the only ones around most of the time and we are on dirt roads out in the middle of nowhere, the kids take the wheel.  Both Adele and Vince are “driving” and could not be more thrilled.  It’s such fun to see them light up with excitement.  

With about an hour to go, so maybe five hours into the drive, we find ourselves tired and hungry on a small dirt road ready to throw in the towel and call it a day.  That’s when we round a corner and come head on into two male lions sitting RIGHT next to the road.  So they are RIGHT next to us.  I MEAN RIGHT NEXT TO US.  And a third, a female, circles in from the side.  

Lions rule for a reason.  They are clearly in charge.  Nothing fazes these guys.  These three sit, stretch and move at their own pace, completely at ease, not worried about anyone or anything.  They could care less that we are there because they know they can take us down in a heartbeat.  We are alive because they chose to let us live, not the other way around.  This is an unbelievable feeling.

You get an overwhelming sense of awe.  I keep whispering, “EVERYONE STAY CALM!” over and over, despite that fact that I am the only one freaking out.   Teri is rapidly snapping photos, Adele is hiding under the seat and Vince is shouting something about the Backyardagins. 

I stop the car.  The big one stands up.  The female stands and stares us down.  Then all three stand and move with in a few feet of the car.  We are truly scared for our lives.  A car window offers no protection what so ever.   Seriously this is very, very scary.

At the same time it is exhilarating.  They are majestic.  The most efficient animal I have ever seen in the wild.  And they are so confident and arrogant.  I have never felt outmatched out here in the open like this before.  I have had a few close encounters with bears and wolf in Yellowstone (OK maybe it was a coyote) but nothing compares to this.  And it’s just us and one other car with two people cowering in the front seat.  We are very much alone and out of control of the situation.  All we can do is be still, watch and wait.

Eventually they pass by.

In many ways this was the most exciting half hour of our trip. 

After that the rest of the day and night are a blur.

Day One Hundred and Forty Four November 9th

The next morning we are still recovering from the lions.  The feeling is hard to shake.  It’s like any adrenaline rush.  All you do is want more.

In the morning the kids have school and I spend the day tackling travel logistics and dealing with ATT back in the States.  We are having Blackberry issues again. No emails, not good as we head to Kruger tomorrow and will be off the grid for five days.  These communication issues are frustrating.  

We have decided to splurge on a safaris ride this afternoon at the Schotia Reserve just up the road.  The reports from other guests are all very positive and they tellus  it is more intimate than we will get up north in the national park.  Schotia has a drive from 3p to 9p that bridges afternoon and evening so you get a taste of both a day and night drive.  Plus, they take kids: many of the others do not.  We are beyond excited.

When we check in they give us a piece of paper with rules and regulations.  One of the rules is: if you run out of fuel, feed your ranger to the lions.  They claim no responsibility for: dust, rain, mud, snakes, spiders, hail, lightning, thunder, cold, lions, punctures or mechanical failures.  The last piece of advice: hold on to your hats!

This is the most exciting six hours of our trip thus far.  I know I said yesterday was the most exciting half hour and it was because we were on our own without a safety net stalking Leo the Lion.  Here we are in a Land Cruiser with six others and protected by our driver but the experience is just as phenomenal. 

First off the lions are here.  There are eight total, we see six, and they come within a few feet of our “Landy.” (Their term, not mine.) They are close enough to make us all nervous.  Plus they have all kinds of animals here: giraffes, zebras, buffalo, and many types of antelope, hippos, and a gator.

And then there are the rhinos.  I should say that Adele is sitting right behind me and we are both on the outside in the back half of the “Cruiser.” (My term, much more appropriate.)  The rhinos come down a hill, stop by a waterhole and come over towards us to munch on some grass.  They are massive.  One of them is pregnant so she is even bigger than usual.

How cute they are munching on grass and wandering our way.  And they look so menacing with the enormous horn dangling in front.  I swear the horn takes up a quarter of their bodies.  Munch, munch, munch, here they come getting ever closer.  Ha, exactly when do we start to drive?  

We sit very, very still and the rhino munches his way right up to us and scratches its horn on the Cruiser.  SCRATCHES ON THE CRIUISER! It is inches from Adele and I.  INCHES!  I hear, “I am really scared” in a loud whisper.  She is a trooper and so very brave.  My hands are shaking.  There is nothing we can do but sit and wait for him to pass by.  

The adrenaline rush is crazy, the impact a lasting memory.  We will tell this one at family parties forever.

They only way to calm down is a big bowl of warthog stew.  

After dinner we drive around in the DARK looking for lions.  Why?  I have no idea.  Having been there it now seems like lunacy to me.  I don’t really like the night drives.  It is chaotic and hard to focus as the high power light beams bounce around looking for shinny eyes in the night.  We freeze in the rain wrapped in layers of blankets and rain gear.  How incredibly great is all of this?

By 10p we carry two sleepy children to bed and call it a night.  Come see Addo and take a tour at the Schotia Private Game Reserve.  They are both incredible.

Day One Hundred and Forty Five November 10th 

The 5:30a wake up call comes all too early.  We need to head back to Port Elizabeth to catch an 8:45a Kulula flight to Jo’berg (that’s the hip way of saying Johannesburg).   

We get there with time to spare.  When we check in the Europcar they do not even bother to look at the car.  In fact they don’t even re-check you in, they just take the keys and email you a receipt.  All that worry about the rims and the hubcaps for naught.  Don’t worry, be happy.

The flight is really rough and the landing very choppy.  When we get off on the other side we are all a bit shell shocked.  No wonder the six-hour drive feels like and eternity.  

For the first two hours we are lost going in the wrong direction and then retracing our steps back to the airport to start again going the other way.  It is all very frustrating. 

It starts to pour down rain, from all directions, simultaneously.   Then the drive turns out to be much longer that we though and we miss the cut off time for the entry gates to the park.  That’s how we came to stand in the pouring rain at 6:29p (the gates close at 6:30p) discussing with the park guard how we need to drive to another gate, three hours away, to be escorted in to our camp.  And that we need to be there by 9p so we better hurry and drive fast, in the dark, and the rain, after six hours of driving, after a 5:30a wake up call, a zillion diet cokes, no real food, and a handful of Pringles.  Not a chance.

We make a half-hearted attempt at the drive and end up in a Southern Sun hotel somewhere along the way to where we think we are supposed to be going.  Africa is really dark at night and they don’t have road signs.  Tension is running very high by the time we unload.  Good thing we all get to sleep together in a tiny room with two double beds.  And to think it only costs an arm and a leg at such a late hour.  

Travel days can be hard.

Day One Hundred and Forty Six November 11th

The good news is that the breakfast buffet is included! After a terrible nights sleep it is nice to have an endless supply of coffee.  Another please, better yet just leave the French press.

More good news.  By shear chance we are next to one of the best shopping malls we have been to all trip.   It makes stocking up on supplies for Kruger down right enjoyable.  We are staying in a self-catering camp for three of the nights and we need to pack in all food and necessities.  Lucky the park supplies guards and ammo.

The meat section is crazy.  You can buy blesbuck, buffalo, bushbuck, crocodile, duiker, impala, kudu, springbuck, warthog, zebra and god knows what else.

The park list includes: aardvark, ardtwolf, giraffe, hare, hippo, impala, jackal, kudu, lion, monkey, mongoose, porcupine, reedbuck, rhino, wildebeest as well but I am not sure any of these are edible.  

The drive is almost three hours all in and passes through and endless stream of poverty.  For some reason the street is packed with school kids, all dressed in school uniforms with pressed white shirts and blouses.  I have no idea how they do it.  They live in shacks held together by twine and they step out each morning looking starched and pressed.  It is such a contrast to what it appears to be outside looking in.  

Its clear the Christians have been through.  The schools are all biblically based.  Saint so and so, Nazareth Christian, Jesus and Mary.  I have no idea if Christianity rules the roost here but its tentacles are obvious everywhere.  

By mid-afternoon we arrive and check in to our camp. Unfortunately they refuse to refund last night since it was clearly our fault that we could not make the late night drive to meet the escort.  Luckily they held our cabin.  

This is the Skukuza Main Camp the largest in the park.  Kruger is the size of New Jersey.  It is not to be confused with New Jersey’s Cougar National park where you go to spot 40 somethings on the prowl.  The joke is completely lost on Vince.  He keeps saying “Cougar? There are Cougars here?” We are staying in the lower third for four and a half days to see some animals and relax a bit before the Asia leg of the trip.  This camp is the jump off point for many and has the highest human traffic.

Our hut is large and comfortable in a roughing it / almost camping sort of way and is right next to the pool that is almost clean except for the brownish water and the bugs.  Welcome to safari.

We unpack, swim with the bugs, checkout the monkeys trying to break into the hut next door, get out our sleep sheets, lock all of our windows to monkey proof our hut and head out for a drive.

Animals are everywhere.  Impalas seem to be overrunning the place.  Hippos are wandering around.  Elephants and giraffes meander aimlessly; water buffalo herd up and mosey about.  Wildlife abounds.

In the evening we head up to hear a ranger talk that is actually a really bad movie made way back it in the early 80s about elephants.  For some reason they are focused on death and dying and the kids are a bit freaked out.  So are we. There is no need for that sort of thing in national parks: they should keep the message positive.   

This is followed by a terrible buffet dinner at the main lodge.  Not a great way to end the day and certainly not a good impression of the South African National Parks.  The infrastructure is clearly lacking.  How could a country with such natural resources be so far behind the rest of the world in terms of managing them?

Day One Hundred and Forty Seven November 12th

We wake to clear skies and hot sun.  Our first stop after school is the swimming pool for some exercise and play.  The pool has filled up with some very cool looking bugs.

Kruger is mostly dirt roads with a few paved sections connecting the dots.  We are spending our time here in the most southern section, the part closest to Jo’berg and easiest to access for a short stay.  The dirt and solitude make a great place for the kids driving lessons and both take to the task with great gusto.  I think Adele has a future in Formula One.

Once again animals are everywhere.  We see elephants, giraffes, and more impala than I thought possible, water buffalo and so on.  They don’t seem to notice us much as we creep along trying to be quiet.  It is so much fun.  

For lunch we stop in a dedicated camp so we can get out of the car.  They have a rule that you cannot exit your vehicle unless you are in a marked area.  I’m not sure why they need to make this a rule: the thought of getting out never crossed my mind.  When we start back out again we find a rhino waiting for us as we turn onto the road to our next camp.

Our camp for the next three nights is a “bush camp” tucked way off a side road with only fifteen cabins and one ranger.  It is enclosed with an electric fence to keep us in at night.  Our hut sits on a bend in a river that is running from the recent rains.  It has a thatched roof, monkeys trying to get in and a screen door without locks.  It’s spotless, comfortable and empty and we are the only ones there when we arrive.  The others are out and about.

This is an amazing place to be.  We are in the middle of Africa staying in a hut on a river surrounded by wild animals.  We’ve come a long way from home.

They should tell you to shut the windows while it is still light outside so the bugs don’t seep through the screens and charge the light bulbs after dark.  That is useful information out here in the bush.  Instead we are covered in bugs.  Adele is not a big fan of bugs.  They are everywhere.  But that’s not as bad as the lizard that crawls out of the light fixture while she is brushing her teeth.  Then again that is not as bad as the noises coming from outside.

We hear roars. Big roars. And elephant trumpets, and a deafening chorus of various bugs.  It is over powering and all encompassing.  Plus it is all happening right out side our hut on the riverbed.  We stand trying to see out the screen door.  It’s a rock and a hard place: stay in and fight the small creatures go out and risk the big ones. 

We don’t sleep much the first night.  But this is really, really exciting!

My head is spinning round, my heart is in my shoes, yeah
I went and set the Thames on fire, oh, now I must come back down
She's laughing in her sleeve boys, I can feel it in my bones
Oh, but anywhere I'm gonna lay my head, I'm gonna call my home
-Tom Waits, Anywhere I Lay My head

Day One Hundred and Thirty Five October 30th

Today is a rainy day of sorts, almost always cloudy with a few sprinkles here and there.  We spend the morning at school and playing around the house.  At long last we are starting to feel settled in and get used to this Cape Town lifestyle.  It suits us after the run of constant activity we have had this past few months.  I am just now starting to feel a bit rested and relaxed.

Our big activity today takes us around to the other side of Table Mountain to Kirstenbosch Gardens.  On the drive over the skies get darker and darker and the weather much more ominous, but we forge on.  There is a heavy mist when we arrive.  The place is absolutely beautiful.

The gardens are set on the side of a hill sloping up towards the rim of Table Mountain.  They were first set aside as gardens way back around 1900.  However, people had been planting and farming here since the early 1600s so much of the landscape has been worked for centuries.  

I am not sure why we like it so.  Perhaps it is the gentle mist or maybe the peace and quiet.  There are indigenous grasses, plants and trees in various stages of bloom.  A whole section is devoted to medicinal plants with detailed descriptions of their ability to cure ailments of every conceivable type.  Sadly and maybe only in Africa, there is a large sub section for plants used in fighting AIDS and AIDS related issues. 

Here’s why:  There was an estimated 5.7 million people living with HIV and AIDS in South Africa in 2009, more than in any other country. It is believed that in 2008, over 250,000 South Africans died of AIDS. Prevalence is more than 15 percent among those aged 15-49, with some age groups being particularly affected. Almost one-in-three women aged 25-29, and over a quarter of men aged 30-34, are living with HIV. The national average of all persons is around 10%.

Think about that.  

Now link the epidemic to the living conditions in the shantytowns and you start to get a picture of the undercurrents here in ZA. As I have said all along this is a hard place to get a handle on.

The garden also has a brail trail that runs through the woods past wild almond trees and through ferns and berry bushes.  There are a series of ropes running at waist height that you hold on to as you walk with closed eyes to get an idea what it is like to be blind.  For those that actually are blind they have signs in brail to help guide and fill in what is around various resting spots.  Adele takes it all very seriously and does a great job navigating her way around.  

At the very top of the hill we branch off on the “Skeleton Canyon” trail looking for “bamboos.”  It is a fun hike down on a pretty stretch of single track.  Luckily all the “bamboos” leave us alone.  Late in the afternoon we stop off for a hot chocolate and a cookie at the guesthouse before heading back home.  

We were all very excited to be part of the “Scuarium” Halloween festival at the Cape Town Aquarium.   The kids get all dressed up: Adele in her belly-dancing outfit from Turkey and Vinny in his Stars and Stripe American Flag pajamas.  However, when we get there we discover they sold out online and refuse to let us in.

It is like a bad dream as a parent.  We stand there with two crying kids, clearly crushed they could not trick or treat and missing one of the few things that remind them of home, talking to the “director” all of about nineteen who could care a less about any of it and is willing to do absolutely zippo for the traveling family far from home.  

The Cape Town tourist board should be ashamed.  I can tell you this: the one thing the kids will definitely remember is NOT being able to trick or treat at the Aquarium in Cape Town.  How infuriating to turn away an eight and four year old, both so full of hope and wonder.   

We drive back to the house, rent a movie, burn some popcorn and have a family movie night instead.  If only we had not picked Toy Story 3, its terrible, we turn it off half way though and call it a night.

Day One Hundred and Thirty Six October 31st

We are up to a beautiful morning of bright sunshine and clear skies. It is Halloween!  And after last night we are even more determined to find some trick or treating.  

Cape town has pretty much everything you could want as a traveling family: the options are endless.  Today we are heading off to the Indian Ocean to see a small fishing village and catch a Halloween parade we found in one of the “Things to do in Cape Town with kids” magazines.  

The coastline on this side of the peninsula is beautiful.  The beaches are built for surfing with endless swells and wind swept shorelines.  I can only imagine a hot summer day when the place must be packed with people.  Or maybe not.  We are finding that South Africa has plenty of room for all.  

Lunch is in the town of Kalk Bay, a small single lane town with a jetty shielding a fleet of fishing boats.  Our restaurant, Live Bait, sits on rocks so close to the ocean that waves crash into the windows at high tide.  It’s excellent, fish so fresh it comes off the boats and straight into the kitchen.

For those that remember winding away a few happy hours at Live Bait in NYC I assure you this was an entirely different experience.  Though if they added frozen margaritas to the drink menu the place would really rock.

Vince has been wearing his Spiderman pajamas all day in anticipation of the Halloween parade.  Adele has her belly-dancing outfit from Istanbul all ready to go as well in the event it all works out this time.  Muzenburg won’t know what hit them!  The Americans are coming, and we own Halloween!

We pull up to a nondescript building off the main road running through town.  We could not find the road we are looking for so after several attempts I finally stop and asked for directions.  “Just passed the robot down there you turn right,” she says.  Robot?  “Yes, the robot, go there to the bot and turn right and then right again after the tracks.”  Sorry, are you making fun of me?  She smiles and waves.  A robot, as it happens to be, is a traffic light.  Who knew?  

The gymnasium is crowded when we get there and it gets more so over the next half hour.  It seems the entire town is here.  By the time we start out on the parade there must be hundred people.  

It is all very bizarre.  There seems to be a leader of sorts, a big guy in a leather jacket and a mesh halter-top with a huge beer belly hanging out.  He is pierced pretty much everywhere.  Then there are a bunch of others wandering along, some may be in costume but then again maybe not.  It is like one of those very uncomfortable dreams where everything is off kilter.  

Adele notices that the kids here are “all dressed as scary things.”  Back home they are “nice and go as princesses and fairies, good things.” Here they are all in black and wearing something out of a horror movie.  There are a number of scary witches, people with various wounds, bleeding from various places.  One guy has an ax in his head with fake blood everywhere (he is one of the fathers), a girl has a big safety pin through her nose with fake blood on all sides.  It is all very dark and gruesome.  Both of our kids looked concerned.

In the end they each manage to get a few treats so all is right with the world.  After a long day, we eat our few pieces of candy on the ride home, talk about the differences between here and the States, and wonder if anyone filled in for the annual Halloween party we through each year.  We love that party: it is one of our favorite times and highlights of the year.

It has been a good day but a hard one as well.  Holidays away form home are tough.  We all fall off to sleep a bit homesick, missing a normal life with friends around to share in the times we have together. 

Day On Hundred and Thirty Six November 1st

The weatherman doesn’t lie here in Cape Town and today, as predicted, is our best beach day yet.  We wake to a brilliant, sunny, cloudless sky.  

After an hour or so of school we are ready to go back to Boulder beach and swim with the penguins!  It is unbelievably cool.  The beach is formed from giant boulders that are stacked upon one another and spread out along the coast.  They create this natural cove, protected from the winds and high surf.

We spend all day here lounging around, swimming in the Indian Ocean, building sandcastles and watching penguins.  They have a restaurant with excellent food for lunch and a small store where we buy assorted penguin paraphernalia. 

It is a long day in the sun and worth every minute. We wind down back at home with Teri at a yoga class, the kids and I cooking dinner and everyone in bed for and early night.

Swimming with penguins!  Can you imagine?

Day One Hundred and Thirty Seven November 2nd.

All good things much come to an end.  Teri announces at breakfast that today is our last day in Cape Town.  We planned to spend one more day but a room cleared up the road in one of the B&Bs she has targeted and we are out of here.  However, there is much to do before we bid our farewells.

First off we have a bunch of logistics.  We head to the crafts mart for some gift shopping which leads to the need to find shipping back to the States.  I also need to stop by the rental car place to sort out billing issues and extend the rental for another week.  On top of that we are waiting on a fed-x package from home that is to arrive at the place we already checked out of and we need to squeeze in a trip to Robben Island to do the whole Mandela thing.  That coupled with a two-hour drive and the stress levels crank up a bit.  

The trip to Robben Island takes us by surprise.  You start by boarding a boat and ferrying across the bay.  The waves are bigger than you think they are going to be and the boat rocks for most of the crossing.  It’s a half hour ride to freedom or captivity depending on the direction you are headed.  When we arrive at the port there are big pictures of prisoners being unloaded and their guards watching over them.  When we bought the tickets we sort of forgot that we were going to a prison.  It brings up a lot of eight-year-old questions.

Our guide is an ex-political prisoner held here in the mid-90s.  It is strange to walk through the halls of the prison and hear him say, “this is where we were kept” or “this is where we were beaten.”  He decided that the peaceful resistance targeted against the way public education was being taught to blacks was taking too much time to foster change so he skipped across the border with the ANC and trained as a militant leader.  Upon return, and getting into some trouble I assume, he was picked up and sent here after being held for six months in detention.  The six months did not sound pretty.

It is odd to stand here with him now after all he went through.  He does seems at ease and content with his current lot in life. It is however hard to place him in the context of the Mandela story. Is a militant political prisoner, one trained in violent tactics, a martyr or a criminal?  It’s a struggle to sort it all out.

The prisoners were the ones that rallied to turn the island into a national park so I guess in many ways the place is testament to the struggle for freedom.  The fact that it held the leaders of the resistance movement here, pretty much in isolation, for such long sentences, strikes a note in all of us.  Mandela was here for eighteen years then another seven on the mainland.  That is a long, long time.

By later afternoon we are camped out in a Thai restaurant across from the lobby of the cottage place (they closed at 5p) waiting for the FedEx guy.  Do not believe the FedEx ads you see on TV.   Their service overseas is terrible.  I mean really, really bad.  They don’t show.

We track them down by begging our way on to the restaurant’s wifi system (our blackberry battery died) and finding them via Skype.  Turns out they have our package at the airport, sounds simple enough, so we head off to pick it up.  

Cargo at the Cape Town airport is not easy to find.  We wander aimlessly for an hour or so before we bump into the place by chance. God does watch out for fools and drunks.  By 7p we are on our way.

Our next stop is another home stay in Franschhoek, a pretty little town in the heart of South African wine country.  I am sure the drive was beautiful.  Just not at night with three other tired and weary passengers.  

The house is well worth the early move.  This self-catering travel really works well if you hit it right.  You end up with a house for the price of a mid-range hotel.   This one sites just off the main street, has three bedrooms, a great kitchen and CNBC on the cable system.  What more can you ask for?

Day One Hundred and Thirty Eight November 3rd
It is so nice to wake up after a good nights sleep in clean crisp sheets.  These are the things you miss the most while on the road.  So far in South Africa sheets seem to be a priority.  I guess good Egyptian cotton and cheap labor make all the difference.  

In the light of day our house is even better than we expected.  They have a large farm table perfect for school and an Internet Café around the corner.  I know, I can see the emails already, by way of defending the use of the “public Internet” we have been off the grid and need to get back on to secure reservations for the next few nights.  The Internet Café is a necessity.  We pray they do not hack into our Google accounts.

The boxes still need mailing.  I venture to the post office to try and send them back home.  The long poster size tube with four wooden men goes off with out a hitch.  The big box of stuff is another story.  They have two classes of mail, the first a slow boat that may or may not get there.  This one cost a few bucks.  The second is the one they tell you will get there but it costs a bit more.   Teri and the kids are back home and I can’t remember what is in the box and I forget if it has to get home or not.  A decision has to be made.  I opt for the “this one will get there” service and walk out two hundred dollars poorer.  I am still not sure how it happened.  

By mid-day we have planned and reserved the camps in Kruger, picked up cheap tickets for Jo’Berg and rented a four-wheel drive to chase lions, all in all a productive couple of hours.

We need to split up so I can focus on some CallMeCuff logistics back home and write up a complaint against the Cooking Vacations people that took advantage of us (and all of our money) back in Tuscany.  When we do Teri and the kids go to a gator farm to check out the crocs.

There is much excitement when they return.  The gator farm sounds like it was some sort of breading place for gator meat, a local favorite around here.  Regardless, the kids had a blast and “culling” the gators “at a certain size and age” can be easily explained away.  Sort of.

This was Teri’s first drive since the Fiat 500 way, way back in Edam.  With the steering wheel being on the “wrong” side of the car and all I ask how it went. Everyone bursts out at once.  Apparently the hubcaps are in the front seat because of the “rock” or maybe a “bump” or perhaps a “hole”.  Nothing to worry about they all say.  Just going a bit fast over a bump.  When I go out to put the hubcaps back on they don’t fit because the rims are bent on both tires on the drivers side.

For some context, another reason I needed to see the car rental people was to review the American Express insurance policy to avoid paying the supplement rates they are convinced they need to charge me.  I have been dealing with Amex and the Europcar folks for the better part of two weeks and final got it sorted out today.  I cancelled it.  Just before the hubcaps came home in the trunk.  We can’t get a break.  Maybe they won’t notice.  Teri is sure that the hubs were bent before we left. I tie them on with the kids string and hope for the best.

It is Election Day back home.  We have no idea what is going on and honestly don’t really mind.  My Google headlines fill me in on the important stuff like we failed to legalize marijuana in California.  Other than that it seems to be business as usual.  Someone won and another lost.  No one is working.  House prices are plunging and the mood is grim.  Glad to be here instead of there, we picked a good year to get out of Dodge.

The guy that rents the house we are in has a sitter service (actually it turns out our sitter works as his house cleaner) and we have booked Julie for a few hours so Teri and I can grab dinner.  She looks a bit shell shocked when we leave but she has a few of her own so it all works out.  

Dinner is a few blocks away at a nice place with average food and great wines.  None of the details matter, a nice dinner with just the two of us is priceless these days. 

Day One Hundred and Thirty Nine November 4th

It poured late last night and the roof of the house is corrugated steel.  I ended up sleeping downstairs in the back room (too many people in one bedroom) but Teri and the kids took the storm full on. It raged and was unbelievable loud.  Somehow, Vince and Adele slept through it all.

We skip school today and instead catch a quick breakfast and start one of our longest driving days yet.  Today we are on The Garden Route to The Crags, a seaside resort near Plettenberg Bay up the coast almost 500K.

The drive is uneventful.  It takes forever but for the most part it is a blur, kilometers slide on by.  The countryside here is some of the most beautiful we have seen anywhere.  Farmland stretches for miles, blue herons stand in freshly cut fields, sheep and cattle graze about.  Honestly, it doesn’t look real.  It’s like a landscape captured in heavy oils by one of the Masters. If you saw it hanging in the MET or the Louvre you would think it imagined. 

By the time we get to Hog Hollow, an Inn at the end of a long narrow road, it is half past six and we have been driving all day.  Everyone is exhausted.  

Sometimes in life you wonder why thing happen the way they do.  You get hit with the unexpected and it lifts you up.  The sense of surprise and wonder sort of shock and startle you.  This is what happens when we check in.

Let me first say that we booked a “family room”.  Or at least we booked a room suitable for a family.  

When the check in guy comes out to get in our car to drive to our room we all sort of grumble that we would like to be close to the main house with the pool.  The guy just smiles and says not to worry we are close.  We leave the main property and head about two hundred meters down the road.

“Turn in your driveway” he says. Did he way our driveway?  The house is probably the closest we have come to a dream home.  It’s bigger than our place back home.  It has a “family room” complete with pool/ping pong table, beanbag chairs and dragon kites.  There are two rooms and baths upstairs one for each kid.  

The main room has a wall of folding sliders that open on to a deck that overlooks the jungle.  There is a private infinite pool.  The kitchen is fully stocked.  There are two or three fireplaces.  I could go one forever.  I actually say to the guy, “Is this all for us or are we sharing?”  He just smiles.

Somehow we must be on a list.  The one they take out for road weary travelers in search of some down time and relaxation. The one that says these people need some space, some room to spread out a bit.  It is reserved for the ones living together every minute, twenty four seven, for one hundred and thirty nine days. I have no idea how we got on it but I pray we never drop off. 

Later that evening while we stand on the deck we can hear the voices of a local gospel choir bounce off the treetops. They come over to the lodge to share traditional African folks songs.  Now I truly understand the inspiration for Paul Simon’s Graceland.  Empty as a pocket with nothing to lose.
Day One Hundred and Forty November 5th

It’s raining.  Not that we care.  We don’t plan on leaving the house.  Actually we do try and see a Cheetah Reserves but it’s raining too hard so we pick up some supplies and retreat back home.  The cats can wait.  

VCC: There are flamangos there?
DAD: Mingos, fla- mingos Vince
VCC: No dad, it’s mangos, fla – mangos, the birds

It is a prefect day to simply sit in front of a roaring fire.  

For dinner they have arranged a sitter so we can have adult conversation at the main house.  How nice it is to be out and about with others without distraction.  This is the first time in a long, long time.   

As luck would have it I find a seat next to an older lady from Holland that I cannot understand.  I struggle to pull conversation out of her.  Teri gets to sit next to a guy who is in pharmaceutical sales in the UK and is starting a business to coach the mental side of golf.  Everything happens for a reason.

On my end of the table I notice that some of the men describe themselves as “working for and American company” like it is a badge of honor in some way.  They don’t discuss professions and skirt around which American companies but you get the sense they are all sizing each other up.  I freak them out and totally confuse them.  

Teri’s guy is into some organic, linguistic, life balance program something or another.  He describes it as a transforming personal philosophy or an approach to life that changes your entire outlook on things.  I am in but I’ll pass on the week long off sites.  Been there, done that.  Basically all the mumbo jumbo boils down to this: you are the one who decides where to go.  The good doctor is always right: sometimes you just need to hear a second opinion.  Same bat time, same bat channel.

You can choose to be happy, sad, playful or frustrated.  You are in charge not the situation.  It strikes a cord.

At this point in the trip we are all getting a bit tired of each other.  Vince is constantly asking if we can go home. Adele doesn’t come right out and ask but you can tell she is thinking it.  The contact with the kid’s friends back home is really minimal and they are feeling a true sense of loss: one we cannot replace.  

You would think that they would meet other kids as we travel but it’s not like that, only an occasional playmate at some random pool. We are not in one place long enough to truly settle in so we have not met many others traveling with kids thus far. Ours are feeling very much isolated and alone.  The same goes for Teri and I.  I hope it all changes with the six months in NZ.  As a parent and a participant you feel the pain.  

Hang ups and bangs ups do happen to us.  


These are the roots of rhythm, 
And the roots of rhythm remain.  - Paul Simon, Under African Skies, Graceland

Day One Hundred and Twenty Eight October 23rd

This alarm system will be the death of me.  I can’t sleep with the thing on because I am convinced something is going to set it off and we are all going to be freaked out in the middle of the night.  Then again, I can’t sleep with the thing off because Marko the house manager put the fear of God in all of us that people are standing in the shadows just waiting to break in.  This leaves only one option: stay awake as much as possible and worry about the alarm.  Not a good way to get by day to day.

Instant coffee does the trick.  I am actually learning to enjoy the instant coffee.  This is a shock to those that know me well.  The secret is to put a bunch of spoonfuls in so it gets a strong as possible.  Sugar helps.  I am convinced that they put instant into the French Press pots at the hotel in Cairo.  There were no coffee grounds in the French Press pots there.  How can that be? Plus it was painfully weak coffee.   It had to be instant. 

After school this morning we load up the car and start to drive the coast.  Once you get out of the city you immediately notice two things: (1) the shantytowns with intense poverty and (2) the beauty of the land.  

I will take them in reverse order.  The landscape is stunning.  When you get away from the populated areas the natural surroundings are still relatively untouched.  There are no billboards or electric lines, housing developments or random suburbs.  Not by LA standards anyway.  You notice that there aren’t any roads connecting places.  The only road is the one we are traveling on. Occasionally you see a dirt side road or we come across some random intersection but other than that it’s just our “highway” (two lanes, max speed 120K on the straightaway).

The poverty is really intense.  South Africa is deceiving: one minute you are in suburban paradise the next a ghetto of cardboard boxes.  In the back of your mind you know that this world exists: the apartheid and segregation issues.  But somehow you think it is all better or fixed in some way.  Don’t let the waterfront and the new stadium fool you.  It isn’t. 

These towns of cardboard and corrugated steel rise up as stark reminders.  At first sight you cannot believe people are living in them.  It is unbelievably congested with huts and boxes and simple square shelters made out of all kinds of materials.  There are old highway signs, cardboard appliance boxes, random pieces of wood, tents, sheets and blankets, all stacked together, leaning into each other for support.  It looks like one good storm would wipe the place clean.  

The crazy thing is that there are electricity lines running everywhere and there is a sense of permanence about the place.  It feels as if generations have been passed through here, raising families and living out their lives.  There is a clear and present danger to those of us looking in from the outside, but it seems not as much so to those looking out.  Then again what do I know: I am just driving by at 120K.

Garbage is piled randomly with out apparent rhyme or reason, though there must be some method to the madness.  I have no idea how they handle sewage.  There does seem to be a central area with block cement buildings.  These may be community, water and waste centers but it is hard to tell.

The other crazy thing is that these areas are so contained.  The towns are large but they seem to exist within set boundaries. The closest I can come to it is Cabrini-Green on the North side of Chicago when I lived in Lincoln Park back in the early 90s.  At that time you literally walked one block over and you were in a radically different world.  The same hold true here. One minute you are driving along looking a pristine countryside, the next you are passing by some of the most disturbing living condition in the world.  This is a strange country.

At lunchtime we find ourselves in the town of Noodhoek looking for horses to ride on the beach.  To give an idea of the scope of things here, they have 8K of unspoiled beachfront for riding.  I don’t think we have 8K of unspoiled beachfront left in all of the US. It turns out we need reservations for the ride so we cannot go today.  All is not lost though as we find a great little shopping/play area with an excellent brunch place.  It feels very much like Carmel or maybe Mill Valley up in Northern California.  

After lunch we continue on our way to the Cape of Good Hope.  This is another “biggy” for those of us ocean freaks out there.  It is the notorious Cape route that opened the trade links between Asia, Africa and Europe.  We are psyched.

The Baboon Crossing sign makes us stop and reverse the car to make sure we read it correctly.  Then sure enough, a large one comes walking up the road.  Baboons!  In the wild, not caged, just walking around looking for something to eat.  Vince is calling them “Bamboos” and Adele “Bambooms.”  There is much excitement in the car with all of us talking at once and all calling them something different.  Teri is trying to snap photos and I am trying to roll up the windows, press the door locks and not to run into them.  Baboons, really, walking down the street.

The drive to the Cape is majestic with big, wide-open spaces and wind swept landscapes.  If the end of the world had an address this might be the place.  The land mass gets narrower and narrower the farther out we go.  I understand why they used to think the world ended at this waterline.  From the tip of the point there is nothing but ocean as far as the eye can see.  

We drive the climb up to main lighthouse that sits on top of the final peak.  The kids and I take a cable car up to the very top and explore the observation decks carved into the mountainside.  These are old rock walls and platforms used for a few hundred years to call out to boats as they attempted to pass by.  Over six hundred and fifty recorded wrecks lie beneath the waves.  With the winds and waves you get a clear sense of how dangerous a journey it is.

Down at the shoreline they formally mark the Cape coordinates with an official sign so we head off to take a few photos and walk amongst the crashing waves.  As we drive in we notice that big necks with beaks are watching us.  Ostriches.  There are big wild ostriches, walking around and checking things out.  They are enormous birds, much bigger than we are.  It’s a bit scary to see them standing roadside waiting for you to get out of the car to see if you are indeed ostrich food.  Once again I feel the need to lock the doors and windows.

Our last stop of the day is Boulder Beach the home of wild African penguins.  Adele has always loved penguins and she can barely contain herself on the way over.  When we get there it is almost unnatural to see them sitting around in the wild.  Your instinct is to pick them up and call the zookeeper.  

They are all over the place: in the water, on rocks, under trees, all along the boardwalks.  Adele teaches us everything she knows about penguins.  It is amazing to see her so passionate and excited.  We have a great time and vow to come back to swim with them at the beach if it warms up a bit during our stay.

After a long afternoon we head back to our compound, eat in, watch some Animal Planet and call it a day.

Day One Hundred and Twenty Nine October 24th

Today turns into a rest and logistics day.  In the morning we have school, fill in our journals, lounge about the house and play an extended game of cars.  

By mid-morning we venture back into the city for lunch at the Waterfront Pier and an extended shop for necessities.  

Evening finds us on the couch watching Planet Earth.

This is our goal for these next few weeks, to slow down and regroup. We need some extended R&R.

Day One Hundred and Thirty October 25th

Up to more sunshine and wind.  This is one of the windiest spots we have experienced to date.  It never stops and the sudden bursts are really strong and powerful.  At one point I overhear Teri telling Adele that the constant “winds can drive people crazy.”   It’s time to move over the hill.

We are city people at heart and feel the need to be in Cape Town to fully experience all it has to offer.  Luckily we found the De Waterkand Cottages online.  They are in De Waterkand a largely gay neighborhood that climbs up from the base of the hill leading up to Signal Mountain. 

The company has fifteen or so houses spread though out the neighborhood.  The owner, Richard and his partner have been building up the business over the past eight years.  They own six or seven houses with the rest owned by out-of-towners and managed by them.    We have a great time touring five of six to see if we can find one that will work for the four of us.  We do and it is available tomorrow morning.  Decision made: we will stay another week in Cape Town. 

The kids are wound up so we try to go to Table Mountain to burn off some energy.  By the time we arrive the cable car is closed.  If you keep driving past the main station the road goes on for another half mile or so before stopping due to a large rockslide that knocked out a lane and a half.  You can however continue on foot.

Adele and I brave the winds and walk along the deserted road.  It is great fun.  We wander as father and daughter, keeping a watchful eye out for “bambooms”, talking about Apartheid and Robben Island (sitting just off shore in the distance), trying to figure out how people actually live in cardboard boxes, wondering where the winds come from (Antarctica I am told) and making up whale jokes.  It is the perfect moment.  

To celebrate our last night in the  “alarm house” we head down to Camps Bay for dinner.  Our restaurant, Blues, sits just across the street from the beach and has incredible sunset views.  The food is good but expensive.  Camps Bay wants to be the Hamptons of Cape Town but instead feels like a mix between the seeder side of the Cape and nicer parts of the Jersey Shore.  It has a preppy appearance with a gritty undertone.  Not our style.

Day One Hundred and Thirty One October 26th

We are so excited to be leaving Camps Bay and the “alarm house” that we are up and out by 9a.  If we thought we could have moved in early we would have left at 6a.  By the time we settle in to our new place it is close to 10a.  

Adele and I walk across the street to do a food shop and check out the local shopping area. How great is that?   We are just a few steps to a great grocery store. This is exactly what we are looking for.

The De Waterkand neighborhood has been gentrified over the past decade and is a collection of one and two story row houses.  The streets are cobblestone with tree lined and the there is a constant buzz of activity.  With a Yoga studio around the corner and the city sights in walking distance from our front stoop we feel right at home.

Determined to get to the top of Table Mountain and anxious to take advantage of another stellar day, we once again head up to the cable car to see if we can hitch a ride.  Today we are in luck.

Table Mountain is a “must see” for good reason.  It rises up and towers over the city.  The top looks like it was severed off with one quick blow leaving a clean, flat “table” upon which you can wander around and explore all sides of the mountain.  The views are incredible.

The most interesting to me is Robben Island, sitting just off the coast.  To think that Mandela spend eighteen years imprisoned there looking out to where we are standing as a focal point for strength and hope is both thrilling and disturbing in a way.  It is hard to form opinions of South Africa without context.  We need to get a better understanding of the trials and tribulations of this land.  

We hike along the ridge and learn about the shipwrecks and the sacrifices men made to round the Cape of Good Hope.  We see the three-meter high cairn used to make early calculations of the arc of the earth. The city and new stadium gleam down below basking in the sunlight.  It is windy and cold even on this glorious day: I can not imagine what it is like in stormy rain and gale force winds, especially on a ships deck.

In early evening we head back to our new house for a home cooked meal and early to bed.  

Vince is bleeding again. The red line runs down the back of his head and seeps out into the blond hair.  Do we go to the emergency room?  After much debate back and forth we decide not to go.  Back home, under insurance, we would have been in for a few stitches in a heartbeat.  Out here we are a bit more cautious not sure exactly what awaits us in the ER.  Besides it is not that deep and head wounds always bleed a lot.  The call could go either way: hopefully we made the right one.

Day One Hundred and Thirty Two October 27th

The wind is still blowing.  I don’t believe it has stopped since we arrived a week ago.  The only thing to do in these circumstances is to turn your attention indoors and go bowling!  Yes that’s right we are going bowling!

The lanes are on the other side of town tucked into a video arcade place in the basement of a strip mall.  Perfect.  It is supposed to be “duckpin” but we may have confused that with “ten pin.”  Either way, the lanes are long and the balls are heavy.  

But not too heavy for Vincent the Strong!  He has a dark green ball and Adele the Bowler has a light green one.  They put up lane guards so it is impossible to throw a gutter ball.  Bank shots add a whole new dimension and make the game so much more interesting.  We have a great time.  

The afternoon is spent napping, Teri doing a Yoga class, the kids get ice cream, we all cook pasta, the kids take a long hot bath and finally we wind down to a good nights sleep.  

It is nice to be settled and living a semi-normal life without the constant movement.  At times it feels unnatural and takes some getting used to again.  You almost need to reacquaint yourself to the day to day.  Then again, just as you settle in, you remember that there are “bamboos” lurking about.   

Day One Hundred and Thirty Three October 28th

The town of Hermanus is about a two-hour drive.  After breakfast and school we head out to see if we can find some whales.  This harbor is now world famous for offering the best land based whale viewing.  We have some inside scoop from a fellow traveler that the place is teeming with whales.  

The drive is another mix of beauty and poverty, the ying and yang of South Africa.  It is hard to take in and synthesize the opposing points of view.  

Hermanus is a pretty little seaside town that is all about the whales.  They have a guy, the Whale Crier, who stands around and blows a horn every time he sees one in the bay.  Apparently he is one of the most photographed images in all of ZA (yes, it si ZA not SA, no idea why).  His horn is silent when we arrive.

Where are all the whales?  We thought they would be lined up like SeaWorld waiting to pose for photos.  Did someone forget to fill them in?  No whales from what we can see.  

Then a big one sticks its flipper up in the air.  The thrill of seeing such a large creature in the wild is really incredible.  These are southern right whales and humpbacks, big ones, swimming around and having fun.  

For the kids (and parents) it is a lesson in patience.  You need to sit and watch the horizon or you miss them.  It takes time and energy to sit and whale watch.  Especially when you are four.  It’s a bit easier when you are almost nine.  

Satisfied with our whaling experience we grab a bite to eat cliff side and then head back to the city.  At one pint during lunch Adele and Vince wander across the street, staying in our line of sight, to get a better look at some whales. When they do an older lady approaches us to ask, “Are those your children?”  We say yes and start to talk about how fun it is to see whales and such.  She cuts us off, “In this country, never, ever, leave them alone like that.”  Startled, Teri mumbles something about being able to see them, and she cuts us off again, “Never leave them like that: not here, it is very, very unsafe.”  They are no more than twenty-five yards away.  The undercurrent here is so strong.

At days end we are all exhausted.  Teri and Adele are so tired they skip yoga class!  That’s OK though, Bilbo Baggins, Thorin and Company need to face up to their fears and deal with Smaug the dragon…

Day One Hundred and Thirty Four October 29th

Teri is a bit under the weather today so after school the kids and I head over to the waterfront park for a few hours of “gym class.”  The wind is still howling but we manage to stay grounded and burn off some energy.  We meet a nice lady that tells us it is usually beautiful this time of year and rarely this windy.  Not sure I believe her!

After traveling for two hours yesterday in search of whales it turns out we have some of the best viewing right in our own backyard.  There are two big ones surfacing about fifty yards from shore.  They are something to behold.  

The playground is part of the newly completed Green Point Stadium complex.  The stadium is very impressive.  I am told the cost came in at over four hundred million dollars.  The odd thing is that is now stands empty.  When I get into a discussion about it with one of the shop owners in the neighborhood he tells me there was much controversy with FIFA over the location.  

You need money to get here.  Parking is expensive and you need arrive by either car or public transport.  As a result, they don’t actually have a team assigned to play in the stadium because they’re afraid it is too hard to draw enough people to keep the lights on.  Apparently South Africa did present the option to put the stadium further out of town and make it more accessible to the masses but FIFA pushed the country and eventually got their way.  It’s a shame; the four hundred million dollars could have gone a long way towards upgrading the shantytowns.

We decide to make mom some chicken noodle soup to make her feel better so Adele and I head off to pick up the fix’ens at the market.  We spend an hour or so walking around the shops checking things out and talking to the owners.  Two conversations stand out.

The first is at the climbing store about a brand called Sherpa, made in Nepal.  This is a small company just starting to branch out into new markets and run by two American guys with local Nepalese workers.  They are creating products and selling them with the goal of upgrading the lives of their worker force.  This is right up my alley.  I need to research them a bit and see what they are up to.

The second is with an Austrian guy that runs a local weaving shop making hand loomed rugs. He is training and employing local women to work in his shop.  They are the main breadwinners for their families.  

Adele and I are drawn in to see the differences between hand looming and weaving via knots as we saw in Turkey.  This leads us into a discussion on travels and comments on Cape Town.  The comment that strikes me most is that he says, “We are living on a powder keg.” In response to my comments on the poverty he let’s us know that Cape Town is one thing on the surface and something entirely different underneath.  As we part the store he shrugs, tells us to be very careful, shakes his head and says, “such is South Africa.”

“It never got this hot in Brooklyn. It's like Africa hot. Tarzan couldn't take this kind of hot." - Matthew Broderick, “Biloxi Blues,” 1988

“I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs 215 pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the gray truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. Now why would I (need to) know that?"
--Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), "The Bourne Identity," 2002 

Day One Hundred and Twenty One October 16th

Teri and Adele are out at the crack of dawn.  Vince and I roll over and get out of bed closer to 8a, much more our style. We wander down to the buffet, have breakfast and pass the time discussing various episodes of the Backyardagins.   

By 11a Teri and Adele are back, our bags are packed and we are heading out back towards Amman with a stop planned to swim/float in the Dead Sea.  One of the things on Dad’s list of trip highlights.

It is just one of those travel days.  We drive on the Kings Highway, an ancient travel route running up and down Jordan.  The road is two lanes wide, sort of, and winds through a number of small towns.  The signs are impossible to decipher making it hard to follow the route in places.  Getting lost on small side roads is not recommended.  It feels less welcoming out here.

We search for the crossroad heading towards the Dead Sea but cannot seem to find it.  An hour or so in the drive feels fairly far off the beaten path, not many fellow tourists around, and the towns seem a bit rough and tumble for our liking (meaning no place to stop for lunch), so we end up heading back to the main highway and calling it a day.  No Dead Sea for Dad.  I guess it is true that it’s best to leave something on the table as a reason to come back.

Four hours later we arrive once again at the Four Seasons for our final night in Amman.  Now that we are “regulars” we get a much nicer room with a little more space.  Everyone is ready for some swim time so we head down and order dinner by the pool.  Adele is swimming really well, doing alternate side breathing and more laps than Dad.  Vince has also come along way, leaving the sides and bobbing up and down on his own.

At days end we Skype back to the States and then fall off into a much-needed sleep.  It has been quite a week here in Jordan. 

Post script on Jordan:  This is an interesting country and we loved it.  We always felt safe but we were constantly on edge.  You really need to look at the glass as being half full.  If you look at it the other way you may never leave your hotel.  

The sights and history are staggering, some of the best we have seen thus far.  The people are wonderful to children, giving them gifts and engaging them at all times.  It’s funny, we spent almost three months in Europe and no one spoke to our kids.  As soon as we hit Turkey and now Jordan we find that the people here worship them.  We are constantly told how beautiful our family is, how wonderful the kids are and how much people love to engage us.   Folks actually cross the street to get a closer look and snap a photo.

On the half empty side the poverty is very intense.  People live in some of the worst conditions we have seen to date.  True, they may not know any other way of life, but poverty is still poverty no matter how you slice it.  Water and sewage are often a mystery.  Camels, sheep, goats and chicken living amongst people are common.  

Women are subservient to men.  Most are fully covered at all times.  People often address Teri to do things and then me for approval.  It’s as if the men make all decisions and the women must do all follow up, tasks and chores.  It is apparent and uncomfortable.  

Mosques are everywhere.  Not just in the town center like the churches in other parts of the world.  Here, the mosque is integrated into the fabric of daily life.  I bet the call to prayer can be heard from any point in the land.  People here pray all the time and almost everyone has a set of prayer beads in hand.  Islam is front and center and it clearly guides everything.  

We want to come back and go north up to Jerash, Umm Qays on the Syrian boarder and the Dead Sea.  If anyone wants in, lets us know…

Day One Hundred and Twenty Two October 17th

Nothing prepared us for this.

We are up for one last swim before take off.  We check out around 10a and head over to the airport to catch a flight to Cairo, Egypt.  The cab driver makes the forty-five minute trip in twenty minutes.  I am glad Allah is watching over his shoulder (and ours as well).  

The flight is on Egypt Air, a Star Alliance member so we get frequent flyer miles with United.  I mean how bad could it be?  The plane is so old that they still have ashtrays in the seats.  This is never a good sign.  When we take off part of the overhead compartment falls on top of Teri and kids.  No kidding, the part that holds the oxygen canisters in case of emergency actually falls in to their laps, a huge panel falls from the ceiling and dangles by wires swinging overhead.  No one seems concerned.    

They kids are freaked out.  

They manage to move us to new seats at the very back of the plane probably just so we can feel the full brunt of the horrible landing.  The pilot comes in way to fast, bounces and barely breaks in time.  

En route I overhear the following:
Lady from Chicago:  “Why can’t you just all be friends?”
Man sitting next to her: “These are our lives.”
Lady from Chicago: “It is so sad all the killing and fighting.”
Man sitting next to her: “There is to be no peace.”
Lady from Chicago: “But what about all those people in the hotels?”
Man sitting next to her:  no response, her question speaks volumes about her perspective, I am glad he is not armed. 

Welcome to Egypt.     

Thinking that we were being incredible efficient we spent every last JD at the Amman airport to avoid the currency exchange tariff.  Unfortunately, we forgot about the cost of the Visas to actually enter Egypt.  Fortunately, they have one ATM at the Visa Entry place.  Unfortunately, BOA will not agree to give us any money because my card is not supposed to be in Egypt.  Apparently it is supposed to be back in Los Angeles.  Not good.

We rummage through our bags to find $45 USD.  In the end we need to raid Adele’s secret supply of Save the Wolves money to pay our tab.  It is a collection of $10 bills from each country we have been to.  Luckily we only need the bill from the States but she starts crying uncontrollably none-the-less and Vince is now lying in the middle of the floor babbling randomly.  Chaos.

It gets worse.  When we get through baggage and customs we find our driver waiting with a sign.  This is good.  He then passes us off to another guy that will actually drive us to the hotel, not so good.  The car is actually a small van, falling apart, sort of air conditioned, cramped and crowded.  We all look very concerned.

The driver is very friendly or at least he sounds friendly as he goes on and on in Arabic about the things that pass by.  It is impossible to focus.  Cairo is insane.

There are people everywhere.  I had no idea what to expect with a population of twenty five million but it certainly was not this.  You can’t believe how many people there are.  They drive six lanes across on a four lane highway.  The side streets are worse. There are no lanes, rules or reason. There are people walking between cars, standing around in the middle of traffic, selling stuff, getting on and off buses so crowded they hang from window and doors.  There is little difference between street and curb. A herd of goats passes by.   

Trash is a natural part of the landscape.  There are piles of stuff everywhere.  Actually, everything is everywhere, without boundaries. There are no rules and little order.   I assume some of it is trash but it is often impossible to separate garbage from storage.  It is so filthy and dusty I can’t describe it.

The side streets off our main road are all dirt.  There are open fire pits, people cooking and washing and playing and sitting and living all in the dirt and mud on side streets in the middle of the city.  It is endless: going out in every direction as far as the eye can see.

The dust gets you before the air pollution.  It is so dusty that everything has a light layer of dirt.  You can see fingerprints on everything.  Your lungs feel heavy.  The car exhaust is overpowering.  The air pollution is acute. It is a radical environment.  Lights appear with glow rings around them from the haze. The heat holds all of it close to the ground.   My eyes are tearing.  I am actually afraid for our health.

It takes a lot to rattle us.  This shakes us violently.  It is deeply disturbing in everyway.  

The hotel security is cranked up.  They have gates, metal detectors, guards, guns and ammunition.  The difference between the hotel and the surrounding area is severe.  The contrast is so extreme it does not register: you can’t fully understand it.  

We have two rooms on the fourth floor with views of the Grand Pyramid.  Yes, we do see the pyramids on the way in but the drive is so overwhelming that none of us really notice.  It is hard to focus.

Everyone is on the take here.  They all come right out and demand tips.  Everyone that does anything for you asks you for money.  If you don’t give them enough they get mad and will not leave until you do.  It’s unnerving.
The kids are in shock because the Egyptians clearly don’t care about them as much as the Jordanians or Turks.  If I were in there shoes I would be totally confused.  One minutes you are the main attraction, the next almost invisible.  Plus, we will not let them wander more than an arms length from us without a firm and very tense call to fall back in line.  There is no margin for error here.

We need to lie down.  After a two-hour nap we rally, head to the pool for a late afternoon dip and then on to a quick dinner at the hotel.  The hotel is crowded and it is clear that no one goes off the property here.  

Did I mention its over ninety degrees?

Day One Hundred and Twenty Three October 18th

When we wake up and look out the window at the Grand Pyramid yesterday seems like a distant dream.  Sure it is hot and the air is thick and heavy at 8a but the hotel is air-conditioned and the rooms are very pleasant.  We wander over to our buffet breakfast and get they lay of the land.

We have one main objective here in Cairo: to see the pyramids and the Sphinx.  This is the only reason we came in and why we booked our hotel so close by.  The guy that brought us to our room said he would arrange a car to drive us to the park for $50 US.  Just for fun we check with the front desk to see if this sounds legit only to find out that we can walk next door to the entrance.  $50 US, be careful, everyone is on the take.

Vince is excited to see some more “old woodens.”  It took a while to figure this one out.  He is referring to “old ruins.”  As soon as we leave the compound they descend on us.  Within three steps a guy is trying to sell us camel rides.  On the walk over another guy tells us we are going in the wrong direction and suggests we follow him down a blind alley for a private guided trip.   We are reminded of the “not so goods streets.” Men follow us all the way to the entrance of the park trying to sell us something, anything.  When we finally pass through the main gate the police turn them back.

Buying tickets is totally confusing.  There are plenty of lines but we can’t seem to find the right one.  All of them lead to nowhere.  Eventually we end up with four tickets to the museum and one of the pyramids.  Then the guy letting people in tells us we don’t really need a ticket for Vince and he sends us back to get a refund only to then ask for half of the refund back in the form of a tip to let us all in.  Everyone here is working the system.

But none more so than the camel guys: they rig the system.  I have no idea how we ended up on top of camels posing for pictures.  It started when Teri bought postcards and needed change.  One of the camel guys came over to break a large bill (we should pay attention to prior lessons learned in the desert) and the next thing you know Adele and Vince are on a camel.  Then somehow I end up on Adele’s camel with her and they start to lead us off on a walking tour.  We politely and firmly refuse.  It sounds more like panic in our voices than anything else. 

They eventually let us down and demand payment.  When I give them a few dollars they suggest $20US.   When we try and explain that we told them we had no money they respond that we have a stack of cash in the moneybag.  So they carefully watched Teri pull out the bill earlier.  It is all very creepy.  Eventually we get away without paying them but they are really unhappy and everyone is a bit freaked out.   Including the kids.  It is clear we are in a different part of the world: very unfamiliar, uncomfortable and potentially unsafe. 

The pyramids are very cool.  It is amazing to stand before them and look up at four thousand year old feats of engineering.  It is mind boggling that such complexity was possible.  We tend to think that we are on the forefront of development.  I am not so sure.  The more we see and experience the more I believe that we are all moving forward incrementally around the edges but that the basic human elements remain largely unchanged.  

The most significant development in my mind seems to be the advent of the concept of a single god: a monolithic belief structure.  I am still struggling to work through an understanding of the big three (the Jews, Christians and Muslims) and how they all interrelate.  Wait until we get to Asia when the big three expands to the big five (The Hindus and the Buddhists) and the paradigm shifts yet again.

The rest of it is pretty much divided into the ebb and flow of the “haves” and the “have not’s.” Those that “have” rule, those that don’t, eventually try to take it away from them.  Outside of that, people just go about their business: Cairo, the Pyramids, Amman, Petra, Istanbul, Ephesus, Rome, Pompeii, Oslo, Eidfyord, Paris, Versailles, London, Stonehenge, New York, Mesa Verde.  The day to day is all the same.  We all wake up and put our flip flops on one foot at a time.

It must be the heat: there is much to think about standing at the base of the Grand Pyramid.

The Egyptians had it going on.  All of this splendor was for dead people, and as they say, “it is good to be king.”  We have tickets to go into pyramid number two and visit one of the king’s tombs.  At first it appears we have the wrong tickets but after some discussion we manage to talk our way in.  When you enter the tiny door and descend into the hot, stuffy passageway that gets smaller and smaller the deeper you go, the claustrophobia intensifies, though not if you are four or eight.

Vince is sprinting down the chute and Adele is close behind.  First we go down, then up, then over, then around, then up again, then back down a bit, we veer to one side, then the other and then finally we arrive.  It is a big empty chamber.  All of the stuff that was in here has been removed and placed in museums so we end up standing in an empty room somewhere in the middle of the pyramid.  It’s kind of weird in a way.  You sort of wish they put some fake stuff in just so you can get the sense of arriving somewhere.  We stay for a second or two then scramble back out.  The air is so thick we are dizzy.  I now understand the true meaning of “a light at the end of a tunnel.”  

With the temperature rising we push on to the Sphinx.  Yes, the big cat is still standing.  Reports of near total decay due to air pollution are pre-mature.  Its true the nose has crumbled a bit, but that’s to be expected after four thousand years of standing around in the desert heat.  My whole body is crumbling and we have been here less than twenty-four hours.  

On the way back up the hill we tuck in behind a large family.  This is a good thing as they provide some shelter from the hawkers.  Two sets of sisters fall in next to Adele and Teri and cautiously engage.  It turns out they are early teens and one speaks a few words in English.  Whenever they reach a level of understanding with Teri and Adele they fall back and start to giggle.  It is great fun.   

The walk back to the hotel is much the same as the one heading out.  People are trying to sell us something at every turn.  When we do walk through the gates of the hotel it is clear we will not be venturing out again today.  Instead we head down to the pool and order lunch.  We lounge around for a few hours before I get the wacky idea to head off the premises and try and buy some snacks and Coke Lights.  It must be the heat.

Crossing the street in Cairo is a full contact sport.  The “grocery store” that the hotel recommends is in the Mobil station across the main street.  Food and gas makes some sense I suppose, at least it is in the public eye.  

It all sounds easy enough in theory.  In practice the cars don’t stop.  Ever.  They keep coming and coming.  I try to cross on the corner but it’s impossible because the cars are all speeding up into a traffic circle to gain advantage. There is absolutely no room to negotiate.  I stand watching the locals for a while but the rhythm escapes me.  

Within minutes I am surrounded by guys trying to sell me something.  When they realize I am trying to cross the street they try to sell me an escort across.  When its apparent I am not going to buy anything they stand around watching what my next move will be.  At this point I basically have nowhere to go.  I can step into traffic or stand twitching on display.  Such fun is Cairo.

Somehow I manage to get across.  It isn’t pretty but I arrive on the other side in one piece.   The Mobil station speaks volumes.  There must be twenty gas pumps and each one is manned by a dedicated service person. No one is buying gas.  There are five or six extra guys doing clean up and landscaping.  Two more are washing windows.  Four policemen stand armed and in full uniform.  All of this is for an empty gas station with a Pizza Hut and a minimart.  The Pizza Hut is jammed with guys in suits.  It appears to be a popular upscale eatery.  There are way too many people here.

The rest of the day is spent napping, eating Indian food at the hotel (Vince actually falls asleep at the table!) and trying to sort out the ups and downs of Cairo.  We are all exhausted.

Day One Hundred and Twenty Four October 19th

We have a free day.  Anywhere else this would be a good thing: here I am not so sure.  The only other thing to see that we believe is “low risk” is the Egypt Museum.  This is the place where they put all the stuff from the empty pyramid we toured yesterday.  Getting there is our main concern.  And getting back as well.

It turns out we can hire a taxi for the day for $50 US.  Done deal.  The car will take us to the museum, wait around and then take us back.  No need to deal with hailing a cab.  It is the only way to go.

Our driver is a really nice young guy eager to up sell us on a full day of sight seeing.  We keep him on point and use the kids as an excuse to turn down the Mohammad Ali Mosque (everyone is quick to point out that this where Obama spoke when he came to Cairo), the Citadel and the open-air market.  I can’t even imagine an open-air market.  

While we drive I ask our driver about the vans with people hanging out the doors.  He tells me they are for the regular people and it costs about $.10 to ride anywhere in the city.  Our air-conditioned car runs us $50 to and from the museum.  It registers that our three hours can buy a lot of $.10 rides.  He goes on to say that it cost so little because everyone is so poor that they cant pay anymore so that’s what it cost.  Everyone is poor here, he says, everyone.

The museum is hard to imagine.  It looks like archeologists just dropped off stuff at the front door and drove off.  There are statues sitting in boxes, big stones wrapped in plastic, mummies pretty much everywhere.  The place is packed, there is no water, the restaurant is a thousand degrees and there is a dead cat lying in one of the statues in the garden.   It is unbelievable hot, the exhaust from the tour buses is overwhelming, the line to get in and out is chaotic and the signs to the Children’s Museum lead to an empty courtyard.

On the flip side, we do get to see King Tut’s tomb.  His headpiece is here as are his jewels and much of the burial chamber.  It is incredible to see the wealth and power. The carvings and paintings are equally impressive.  If you have time, patients and stamina this would be a great way to spend a day.  We have none of the above so we head back and try to recoup.  

I know this is not going to come across well and some may think we are to sheltered but it is near impossible to leave the hotel grounds here.  Especially with kids.  Perhaps if you come solo or as a couple you could manage it but the thought of trying to eat out or shop seems ludicrous.  

Our senses are overloaded.  

When we return all we can muster is a swim, a meal and an early goodnight.

Day One Hundred and Twenty Five October 20th

The good news is that we get to fly out of here today.  The bad news is that the flight is a red eye leaving Cairo at 11:30p and landing in Johannesburg at 8a with a four hour layover and then a connection to Cape Town at noon tomorrow.  Easily the longest travel day yet with nothing to do until flight time.

We get up and pack.  The hotel decides we need to be out of our rooms at noon instead of 6p as originally panned so we have nowhere to go for about six hours.  We turn towards the pool and arrive just in time for lunch.  

The old quote “mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun” must have come from an Egyptian, probably in Cairo.  We are not alone poolside.  The English are here in force.  Luckily the kids all congregate in a kids pool and soon enough Adele and Vince are off and away.  Teri and I try and deal with the sun and heat.  It is very, very, hot.

As it turns out London is a five-hour flight and many people come down for holiday.  This is why they are all sitting around the pool.  They are relaxing and enjoying the sunshine.  When I ask if they go off the property they look at me like I am out of my mind.

The six-hour pool stretch, broken up by a great lunch at the Italian restaurant onsite, works out just fine.  The kids get some quality playtime and interact with others: Teri and I can relax some and can actually have a conversation with out interruption.  At sundown we sneak in and shower in the spa, pull our bags from storage and catch our transport back to the Cairo airport. 

Darkness is falling when we get in the cab.  Traffic is stopped.  People are everywhere.  We move in tiny increments.  It’s painful and numbing.  We don’t say much on the drive.  Instead we all sit and look out the windows watching the world pass by.  It’s a difficult passage.  Two hours later we get out curbside and start our journey to Cape Town.

A few thoughts as we leave Cairo:  I am glad we came.  I don’t want to come back.  Cairo has become a new benchmark for me on so many levels.  These were the worst living conditions I have seen.  The poverty is severe, the desperation palpable. The difference between rich and poor is frightening.  There appears to be very little middle ground.  There is no more room.  I can’t convey just how many people there are here, what twenty five million looks like living day to day.  It fascinates me that people have been living here, in this spot, pretty much forever.  I try and understand but it is so foreign.  I am so thankful that we have what we do.

A thought as we leave the Middle East:  Never let your guard down.  Maybe it is traveling with two small children but I keep coming back to Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in that I always have one eye roaming, noticing, probing, assessing the situation and weighing options.  Or better yet, Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, always sitting with my back to the wall and eyes on the door.  It takes a tremendous amount of energy and focus. It is not for the faint of heart.  

Dim the cabin lights and take us to thirty five thousand feet… 

Day One Hundred and Twenty Six October 21st

We arrive in Johannesburg at 8a.  Vince fell asleep in the cab to the airport and slept straight through to landing.  Adele was not far behind.

Everything is going along smoothly until we check in for the Cape Town flight. Today is actually the 21st since we flew overnight.  When we booked our tickets we booked on the 20th, failing to take the overnight into account.  An easy mistake: not easily fixed.  

It seems our tickets were super restricted and completely non-refundable.  Getting any money back is impossible.  We can’t even apply them to another flight.   On top of that everything thing going into Cape Town is booked for the day.  Our only hope is to pay five times the current ticket price and fly in on something called Kulula Air.  

We do toy with our options: an eight hundred mile drive, an over night at the airport, or simply bursting out in tears.  In the end we do what you must do with two young kids, we write the check and get on the next Kulula flight.  

It is actually a very nice flight, the engines stay on and they keep the livestock underneath with the luggage.  The Cape Town airport is manageable and the cooler weather a welcome relief.

Did you know they drive on the wrong side of the road here?  Imagine my surprise when I sat down to start the rental car from the passengers seat.  This was totally unexpected.  Why do they do this the British?  What is wrong with them? Is it some kind of cruel joke on the rest of the world?  Crazy Brits.  No wonder the rental car guy kept insisting I rent an automatic.  The last thing you have bandwidth for is shifting when you are struggling just to stay on the right, err correct, side of the road.  

We have been talking about the Cape Town house since we booked it online via Home Exchange.  We so desperately want to have a week in a normal home doing normal things.  We need to learn to manage our expectations.

Let me first say that Cape Town is beautiful.  Our house is in a place called Camps Bay on one of the most beautiful beaches in town.  On the surface it sounds great, four bedrooms, lots of living space, a pool.  

When we pull up the first thing you notice is the big ADT security sign.  They are everywhere.  The house across the street has an electric guard wire atop the fence.  Five houses in a row are all for sale.  We have one in the middle.

It is clearly a rental house.  The carpets are really, really dirty.  The hardwoods are filthy with a layer of dirt and grim.  There is a hole in the couch fabric.  The place is huge, and the bathrooms are nice enough.  The kitchen has newer appliances and the pool is working but cold.  It is livable but not desirable.  We immediately start to try and back peddle to find something else.  It is too late, we pre-committed to a minimum of five days.

Within minutes I set off the alarm and can’t figure out how to reset it.  The ADT guys are there within five minutes apologizing for being late.  When Marko the house manager arrives we get a better understanding about security issues.  We must use the alarm. He keeps stressing this is a safe area but that we need to be careful.  Always park in the garage and lock the car.  Always lock the doors and windows in the house.  Turn on the alarm at night.  You can walk to town alone “but if someone follows you then immediately run up to any door, pound on it and cry out for help” He ends with “don’t worry, we all watch out for each other here.”

He scares us to death.

It’s late when we drive down the hill for a quick shop.  We are all very weary but with the security warning from Marko we are afraid to separate and leave half of us behind at the house.  Parking is difficult, the store is too small, and the labels are all foreign.   It has been a long, long, day.  

Hungry and tired we all head off to bed.  At 3:30a Teri get s up and trips the security beam which sets off the alarm.  The kids wake up and everyone freaks out.  I manage to shut the thing off, get dressed and go out to deal with the ADT guys.  This is not going to be the relaxing week we so much looked forward to. 

Day One Hundred and Twenty Seven October 22nd

After the alarm fiasco in the middle of the night I moved into the master bedroom so I can quickly reach the upstairs alarm control panel if need be.   You only have thirty seconds to call off the guards before the ADT guys start driving.  The kids moved in with Teri.  
At 6a the blackberry goes off so I can turn off the alarm system so everyone can get up to go to the bathroom without tripping the beams.  It is no use trying to fall back to sleep, I am too exhausted.

The sun is shining which always helps bring things into focus.  We are after all staying in one of the nicest neighborhoods in Cape Town with incredible ocean views at the foot of the Twelve Apostles and in the shadow of Table Mountain.  And even though it is puffy coat weather we do have a pool.  

Marko comes over to talk about the 3:30a alarm and give further direction on the beams.  When I ask about the parking guys that appear to be everywhere he says we should give them one rand as a tip for watching our car while we are away.  If they ask for more tell them “no.”  He goes on to explain that this is their only form of income and it is better than having them milling about begging.  For the record, one rand is worth about a $.15 – this is a very strange country.  

We have breakfast, drink instant coffee, spend some time doing schoolwork and pay some bills.  Around 11a or so we actually gear up and drive over the mountain into the city for lunch.  The waterfront is really great.  There are shops, restaurants, ice cream places, a working harbor, a crafts market and World Cup stuff everywhere.  The place is crowded with all kinds of people, seemingly from all over the place.  There is a group of guys singing and dancing traditional African music.  It is great fun.

Bank of America refuses to believe we are in South Africa despite numerous conversations giving detailed instruction as to our whereabouts.  I manage to hold up the line at the outdoor store for almost half and hour while trying to convince the BOA customer service representative in India to accept our charge in SA Rand.  I can’t stand BOA.

They have an excellent aquarium since this is the meeting place of the Indian and Atlantic oceans.  There are all kinds of marine life, notably the Great White shark and whales.  Both are common in this neck of the woods.  WE spend a few hours checking out sea creatures.

On the way back over the hill Vince lets out a big yawn and asks, “Dad, can we go home to Malibu, our real home?” Vin, we are going back to our house, the one over the hill.  “No, no, no, Dad, I mean our real home.  I want to go home.”


“It’s midnight at the oasis, send that camel to bed.” - Maria Muldaur 1974

Day One Hundred and Fourteen October 9th

We are up to a cold morning here in Sirince.  My puffy coat comes in handy.  Breakfast in this neck of the woods is a mix of olives, flat bread, jams, yogurt, strong tea and coffee.  This suits us just fine.  

When we warm up a bit we venture down the hill to Ephesus.  For those in the know there is no need to explain, for those new to ruin hunting, this one is a grand daddy.  You can put it up against the best Italy and Greece has to offer and Ephesus is almost always in the top five.  

I assumed it would be bigger.  When you pull up to the entrance and park just off the road in a grass field you think that maybe you are in the wrong place.  There are a few tour buses but nowhere near what I expected.  There is no line to get tickets and a few guides lounging about waiting for you to ask them to guide you.  It is all so different than Italy.

We wander in and pickup an audio tour headset to get a better lay of the land.  There are ruins everywhere.  Unlike other places, there are no ropes or barriers, you can walk all over them here in Turkey.  There don’t seem to be any rules about where you can and can’t go so it is sort of a free for all.  There are people climbing all around wandering in an out of places.  It’s great fun.

There are two highlights here: the first is the main façade of what was once a huge library from what I can make out.  It is incredible.  You get a true sense of what the place must have been like with the intricate carvings, statues and the massive entranceway.  It is commanding from both near and far.

The second is the amphitheater.  It is carved into the side of a mountain and is can seat twenty five thousand people, or a tenth of the population of the city in its prime.  That is a lot of people.  We have seen a number of these on the trip to date and this one takes the cake by far.  It is just magnificent.

We wander for the entire morning from one end to the other.  The city was strategically placed in one of the prettiest settings imaginable.  It fits perfectly onto the mountainsides and rolls down the valley.  With over two hundred and fifty thousand people living here at one time the ruins stretch all over the hillsides.  You can see arches and walls well off into the distance, far beyond the borders of the park.  

Adele: “Why ducks, why are they about birds?”
Dad: “Huh?”
Adele: “Aqua ducks, why do they call them ducks?”

We stop in town for lunch.  To our surprise today is Saturday and the weekly market is in full swing.  Most of the streets are lined with stalls selling everything imaginable.  There is some order to it all with likeminded vendors clustered together.  The food makes you wish you could take stuff back home and cook up a feast. Everything is fresh.

We eat at a place just off the main square and have an assortment of hot and cold small plates and kabobs. Watch out for the little green peppers.  

Vince has been asking for a haircut for weeks so we line him up with the local barber. It is great fun watching a young kid, probably the owner’s son learning the trade, giving Vince and trim.  I can’t tell who enjoyed the experience more, the guys in the shop, Vince or us.  In the end he walked away looking like a little boy again.

We get into a conversation with an American guy who is “couch surfing” his way around Europe and has ended here in Sirince for a while.  He liked the place and has decided to stay a bit.  Coach surfing is defined as sleeping on some elses coach.  Apparently they have a website and it is some kind of organization.  It all seems a bit sketchy but the travel tales are great fun.  Imagine touring Russia this way.

Anyway, he introduces us to Marco who invites us in for tea.  Three hours later we have our Turkish rug.  Actually it is a Kurdish Bedouin rug made by Marco’s family up on the Turkish border with Iraq.  This is not easy territory and he fled there some fifteen years ago and came here to start a new chapter.  

He has four cats in the shop that keep the kids busy for hours while we have tea and chat.  It is great fun sharing the time together.  We learn about his home town, he has pictures of the tent he was born in, we learn about doing business in Turkey and what it is like to come in as an outsider.  He is curious about California and our lives back home.  It is the perfect way to spend the afternoon.

When we get back up the hill to our hotel we are due for an early dinner.  They set us up in the main area with a roaring fire and an excellent meal.  Vince runs around the grounds picking flowers while the rest of us try and stay awake.  It has been a long day.

Later in the evening as I sit filling in the day’s events the music from a wedding in town pulls me in and I wander out the front door of the hotel.  There is only one street and it is blocked with white plastic chairs forming a big circle around the center.  The whole town is there, singing and dancing on the cobblestones.  The bride and groom are in the middle of it all, swinging arm in arm with the rest of the town folk.  These are people that know each other their entire lives, probably cradle to grave. It is so interesting to watch them all interact.  These are the times when it is so much fun to be off the grid.  

The music goes late into the night.  And the call for prayers comes over the loudspeakers just as early in the morning.

Day One Hundred and Fifteen October 10th

You can’t avoid the early morning wake up calls here.  If the loudspeakers don’t get you then the follow up by the roosters will, or the dogs, or maybe the tractors.  It would all be so much better with a hot shower.  But that’s not to be today, someone forgot to turn on the hot water switch.  They actually turn the water generator on and off every day.

We have a quick breakfast and get on the road.  The car says it’s 7 degrees outside, I am not sure what that is in English but it seems cold.  Our drive to the airport is fast in easy.  In no time we have dropped off the car, checked bags and cleared customs. 

I always get nervous when I see grown men with prayer beads praying feverishly pre-flight.  You just don’t see that kind of thing in the States.  Here it is commonplace ad I tell you it throws you for a loop. Sure back home you may run into an old lady holding Rosary beads but here seemingly everyone has prayer beads and most are actively praying.   It is a very devout practice this Islam.  

We do a fly by Istanbul again and pick up an Air Jordan flight to Amman.  As we stand in line to check in you can already feel a subtle change. It is mostly men, many are in either white or black gowns: the guy sitting in front of us has a headpiece on and a flowing scarf.  He must be someone since almost everyone that passes by seems to know him.  

It’s big plane that lands on a long runway and taxi’s to a spot out in the middle of nowhere.  We all deplane and bus in from there.  It is much hotter here and from the looks of things we seem to be in the middle of a desert.

We change what money we have (mostly Euros and Turkish Lira) to Jordanian Dinar so we can pay cash for the Entry Visa.  Then we clear customs and try to hail a cab.  It is a bit chaotic with people pulling us in all directions trying to get us to let them get us a taxi.  In the end two guys manage to get one for us and become very vocal about getting at tip.   I have no small change so I give them what Turkish Lira I have and a Euro. They seem totally confused but it does the trick.

As we drive to the hotel we see our first camel and Bedouin camp.  Amman is all one color – sand.  The buildings all look the same and blend into the hillsides.  The only color variation from sand is the garbage that is everywhere.  It is striking how much trash there is here.

When we pull up to the Four Seasons they stop and check our taxi for explosives.  They have a guardhouse with cement barricades; one entrance lane blocked with cement cylinder shields and armed guards.  To get into the building they have a metal detector and they screen our luggage.

It is all very surreal as the nice hotel employees and saying, “welcome to the Four Seasons, nice flight?”  All you want to do is ask why they need to x-ray your carry on and make your kids pass though a metal detector just to check in.

It is very late by the time we are in our room and ready for bed.  I say goodnight and wander downstairs to spend a few hours filling in my journal.  I love hotel lobby bars.  It is almost sacred ground for people watching.  In this case we have a true mix of global travelers, mostly on business, some for pleasure.  The bits and pieces of conversation are well worth the price of admission.  In my case an $8 bottle of Perrier and a glass with ice.

There is a wedding downstairs going full tilt.  The music is loud and the people are all milling about dressed to the nines.  It reminds me of why security is so tight here.  Just four years ago Amman was the site of the coordinated hotel bombings that killed sixty people, a good number of them at a wedding.  The Four Seasons was not one of the hotels that night but that was just luck, it could easily have been, and it is a harsh reminder of where we are.   

This part of the journey is going to be much, much, more than we bargained for.

Day One Hundred and Sixteen October 11th 

This is a rest day.  We have been going at it pretty hard since we left Italy and we all need a break so we have pulled into the Four Seasons Amman to regroup and spend the day at the pool.  

Our first impression of the Four Seasons is that it is like a nice Marriot back home.  Maybe.  Everything is old and a bit worn.  Since it is “the only game in town” by Western standard, so says pretty much everyone in the know, it clearly gets a lot of use.  

The people working here are friendly enough but they all seem stressed.  At breakfast the place is a disaster: tables are half set, the staff is running in all directions, no one seems happy or satisfied.  Guests are getting up to set their own tables and searching for stray salt and pepper shakers: this would never happen back in the States. We muddle through and manage to find coffee and feed the kids.

By 10a we are poolside up on the roof over looking the city.  It seems to spread out forever.  It’s very dense with people and cars going in all directions.  In the haze of the morning sun the air is thick and the streets are very loud and noisy.  

There are many mosques calling out prayers around noon, just as they did in Istanbul.  I am actually getting used to the sound and the rhythm of the calls. The horizon is filled with their minarets.  In Europe you had the church in the middle of a village or town and the steeple rising from the center.  People we called together towards a singular focal point.  Here the mosques are everywhere.  

We pass the entire day just hanging out in the sunshine, swimming, reading and relaxing.  The break is much needed and it is a nice way to ease into the Middle East.  There are helicopters buzzing by, horns and traffic sounds rising up from the roundabout below, political signs for the upcoming Parliamentary election hanging about everywhere.

Poolside conversation:
Adele: “Dad, why are there so many sleigh dogs?”
Dad: “Sleigh dogs?”
Adele:  “Yeah, the sleigh dogs all over Rome.”
Dad: “Stray dogs, you mean so many stray dogs.”
Adele: “Oh, I was wondering about all the sleighs.”

It is nice to spend the day sitting above it all before actually entering into the fray.  By dinner we are ready to venture out so we head to Houston’s of all places to get a little taste of home.  Lonely Planet says its one of the top places to go in town, actually listing it as a high end option, but when we get there we find that we are the only ones in the place.  Maybe we are at the wrong one? It is all a bit odd but the food is great and it is nice to be out of the hotel for a bit.  However, this is yet another reason that Lonely Planet’s days are numbered.

In the elevator we run into an American claiming to be a “diplomat” working on the peace process.  It is sad I suppose that we don’t know which peace process.  It could be Iraq, Israel/Palestine, Iran, really any of the countries around us.  It is also strange that we are so far removed from the news of the world that we have no context for diplomatic discussions.  The man looks tired and he just stands and smiles politely.  Tough job working for peace here in the Middle East: must be like Sisyphus rolling a rock up the hill.  

We also meet a very nice woman from Chicago who is here scouting out locations for a travel tour company.  Now, this is a great gig.  When I come back in life, I want this job.  She used to be in finance until she made a change and hooked up with a high-end tour company serving wealthy travelers from the States going to Jordan.  When asked if she likes the work she just smiles and chuckles.  Apparently she does not miss finance.  Lucky for us she gives an overview of the main sights here in Jordan and shares a few special spots to eat along the way.

Feeling much more relaxed we wrap the day and I head off the lobby to fill in a few more days and post some more photos on the blog.

Day One Hundred and Seventeen October 12th 

Renting a car in Jordan is an adventure.  First off, Thrifty Car Rental is the preferred agency for the Four Seasons.  Not kidding.  The nice people at the front desk call the man from Thrifty and he suddenly appears next to me, standing and waiting for me to introduce myself.  I don’t know he is doing this so we stand smiling at each other for a while.  

When I do finally say hello, he addresses me as “Mr. Carcano”, and lets me know that he is very pleased to be able to offer me a “nice car”, a “big car” for “let’s say seventy JD a day.”  He made the number up in his head and writes it on a scratch pad from the hotel so I suggest sixty JD, which he accepts, but only because I am “Mr. Carcano from America.”  I should have offered thirty.

When we get the car it is by far the worst looking rental I have ever seen.  It is one big dent.  It takes him twenty minutes just to mark everything that is wrong with the car on a piece of paper and then another fifteen minutes to review it all with me.

When he hands me the key it is taped together.  When I put it in the ignition the key part falls off and breaks in half.  I return to the front desk holding two pieces of key and ask if the Thrifty guy is legit.  They insist that he is and that he must have made a mistake. 

When he returns he has made “no mistake, just forgive, it is the only key, can nto find other.”  Then he just stands there as if two pieces of key are normal. We look at each other again for a while until I finally suggest another car.  The only other car they have is ‘much older” and “not good for a family with children”. The car can not possible be older than the five year old Mistubishi with 118K on the odometer.  “Yes, yes, much older, I have a Jeep that is only six years old but no air conditioning, very good for the desert.”  What about a new key? “Maybe.”

An hour later we are on the road in the “new” five year old car.  The inside is actually very clean and it only makes noises when you break so all in all I would say we made out pretty good for fifty JD a day, we did get a price break for the broken key.  Welcome to driving in Jordan.

There are no driving rules here.  None what so ever.  Go as fast as you want, stop if you feel like it, the lanes are not marked even though we are driving three, sometimes four cars abreast.  I have done some pretty intense driving thus far and this absolutely the worst yet.  Forget the Italians or the Turks.

Wadi Rum is at the other end of the country down by Saudi Arabia so we have a four-hour drive in the blazing desert heat.  Actually, I am told this is not blazing, that in summer it is unbearable even by Jordanian standards.  I cannot imagine what it is like out here. 

When we do finally arrive to our “lodge” it is off road a bit and out in the middle of nowhere.  We are supposed to sleep in tents, Vince is very excited about this, but the pillows are so filthy and the dust so bad we refuse.  They do have a room with four beds, old worn out blankets, very dusty sheets and a light bulb.  We opt for indoors.  When we ask for a bathroom for Vince while we are checking in, the women suggests that we use the nearest bush.  Just as well the shared bathrooms are not the cleanest.

This is the official end of Lonely Planet for us.  They recommend this place as being clean and upscale.  It is neither and a bit scary.  To make the best of things we climb a hill and watch the sunset over the reserve.  Sunset is a very special event here in the desert.  Feeling a little better we go to the big tent for dinner and find a bunch of other Lonely Planet readers in the same state of shock we are.   Except for the ones smoking hooka pipes: they all look like they don’t have a care in the world.

We met a very nice Australian couple that has an olive farm back home and we exchange Jordan travel plans and get a few recommendations.  Dinner is a buffet of hummus, olives, chick peas, cucumber and pita bread.  We make do.

The bathrooms are filthy even by our camping standards so there are no showers, just a quick wash and off to bed.  In the pitch black we lay sleeping in our clothes with our jackets and extra clothes as pillows, convinced bugs are everywhere, and listening to the local mosque call out prayers.   Once again strangers in a foreign land.

Day One Hundred and Eighteen October 13th 

The morning call to prayer comes at 5a in total darkness.  It jolts me awake, confused and disoriented.  They go one for ten minutes of so then stop as suddenly as they started.  I fall back to semi-sleep and an hour later we are up at first light.

Breakfast is pretty much the same as dinner the night before except we get instant Nescafe as an added bonus.  It’s not half bad if you add enough sugar.  The kids are starving: we are all surviving pretty much on pita bread, hummus, olives and water.

The book says to go to the Visitors Center to get a guide.  This makes the man in the camp parking lot most unhappy and he keeps following us around pushing his jeep ride on us “for a good price of $35JD”.  His jeep is totally open, no windows, just benches in the back without seat belts or restraints.  Teri looks concerned.

When we do get away from the man in the parking lot and arrive at the Visitor’s Center we find all of the jeeps to be in the same or even worse condition.   The cost is the same as the parking lot however, it turns out we support the preservation of the park by coming here, so all is not lost.  We buy a two-hour desert tour ticket.

They should tell you when you but it that they time stamp the ticket starting your two hour block.  Not knowing this we take our time getting over to the pick up area, buying waters and making a bathroom stop along the way.  When we do get there our driver is frantically waving us down in the middle of the road.  I don’t recognize him and drive on by.  When I do so he looks near panicked and starts to chase down our car.  I get a bit nervous when crazy men in head scarves start chasing the family in the middle of the desert so I do what any one else would do in the situation: I turn around and drive by him again going the other way.  To which he counters and turns around, continuing his pursuit. 

It is all so confusing since I swear to you that I have never seen this guy before and he claims we met at the check in.  Somehow, by hook or by crook, he has the other half of our tour ticket.  With no other options we load up into his ancient Land Cruiser and start driving at break neck speeds to make up for the lost time we spent dilly dallying.   

The kids are in heaven.  The parents I’m not so sure. We are flying along in the middle of the desert in the back of a jeep sitting on benches, holding on for dear life.   Once we get comfortable enough that we will not fly over the sides and begin to settle into the experience we realize just how incredibly cool this all is: we hit bumps and go flying, get into deep sand and skid, stop at Lawrence of Arabia’s favorite watering hole, climb a real sand dune, pee out side and see it dry up as it hits ground, stand in the shadows of giant rock formations, see ancient carvings on the walls dating back thousands of years.  This is all happening in the heat of the desert in Jordan.  Honestly an adventure cannot get much better than this.  

Our guide, as it turns out, is gracious and so incredibly friendly that we decide to hire “his father’s” camels for our camel ride.  At first they were “his brothers” camels but now they are “his fathers.”  He must have been mistaken. 

When we return, I need to break a fifty.   Some advice to those that may follow in our footsteps, always carry small change in the desert.  Otherwise things cost exactly as much as the size of the smallest bill you have on hand (or the largest if you are foolish enough to flash it). All I have are JD 50s, about US $70.   I can probably buy a camel for JD 50, maybe even a two humper.

Mistake number two after no larger bills, don’t leave you wife and kids in the back of a pick up truck sitting road side in the desert surrounded by camel hawkers.  While the lady behind the counter in the shop digs through everything looking for change, Teri and the kids are surrounded and hemmed in by the crowd of young camel guys.  

They all want us to hire them for a ride.  At one point they are trying to pull Vince and Adele out of the car and put them on camels.  It is a zoo.  When I get back to the truck with our guide there are six or seven of them leaning into the truck with Teri and kids pressed against the benches trying to get some space.  

Our guide immediately starts yelling and chasing them away.  They push back and a great shouting match begins.  About midway though the argument our guide tells us all to get in and he drives down the road only to have the hoard of others get on their camels and follow.  He speeds off down a side street to try and lose them.  We have no idea what is going on.

A ways down we pull in to his father’s house.  This is also his house, his brother’s, mother and father’s, son’s and a host of others house.  When he stops and hops out he motions us to get down and sit on the ground to wait for his father’s camels.  A few minutes later the others find us and they try to move in again.  He runs at them screaming, probably cursing, eventually chasing them away.  

In the midst of all this our guide’s mother comes out and offers us tea.  We are sitting on old cushions in the dirt under a tree drinking painfully sweet tea from dirty glasses.  There are camels, chickens, old dogs, cats, trash, car parts, cardboard, old tires and god know what else scattered all around us.  It is one of those times when you ask yourself, “How did I get here?”

The camels are fifteen JD for three so I give our guide a twenty and he disappears.  So does the five in change.  When he returns he announces he must leave and do another jeep tour so he motions for us to keep us sitting on the ground waiting for camels with his mother.  When I tip him for the jeep ride, he get teary eyed, hugs me and kisses me on both cheeks, gives me Allah’s blessing and wishes us safe travels.  

At long last the camels arrive.  They are big and smelly and they burp and gurgle.  Somehow they manage to get us all up on them and we head off for our half hour ride to nowhere.   Adele has her own camel but she is still a bit traumatized from the earlier camel hawker experience so she is out of sorts a bit.  Vince and I share one and have a great time discussing the merits of one verses two humps. Teri has her own as well and has great fun trying to capture it all on film without falling off.  After all this prep and drama, we walk around the block and then our camels sit down and we are done.   We are on them maybe fifteen minutes.   But it is fifteen minutes that will last a lifetime.

Since we started at dawn we are done by noon and are up for a drive to the Dana Nature Reserve to stay at an eco lodge somewhat off the beaten track.  The drive is long and hot.  What was to be two hours turned into four somehow and we ended up way south down in Aqaba before taking the Dead Sea Highway back up north.  It is strange to be on the Saudi boarder seeing signs to Yemen.  At least we get a glimpse of the Red sea.

When we finally manage to find the turn off the Dead Sea highway we are all a bit weary.  The road now winds deeper and deeper into a valley towards the base of the mountains.  Living conditions are dismal.  The Bedouin tents are supplemented with mud huts and make shift housing.  It is hard to imagine anyone lives here, much less spends an entire lifetime.  From the look of things they don’t know any other way of life though I do spot satellite dishes on most mud huts.  

To check into the eco lodge we must leave our car under a make shift carport and board a broken down truck for the final half hour leg.  We travel up valley on dirt roads rutted and cut deep with tracks.  It is one long bounce and bump.

The drive is along an ancient seabed strewn with rocks.  Over thousands of years people have tried to clear the land at various times leaving a maze of rock walls and traces of buildings and towns.  Our guide tells us the larger ones are Roman and from the looks of the ancient arches it appears so.  It is fascinating to see ruins in their purist form, untouched and left to crumble back into the land.  

When we get to the eco lodge it is dark and lit solely by candlelight.  No electricity out here save for a few lights in the kitchen and bathrooms.  They apparently go through over four thousand candles a month!  It gives the place a mysterious look.

Check in is confusing.  There are two guys, Mohammad and Ali, at the front desk.  The reference to our Mohammad Ali fails to humor them. A reference to theirs does the same.  When you take them off script you get blank stares back.  

Mohammad checks us in and Ali sits us down for a twenty-minute overview of the property.  His combined English and Arabic leaves us all wondering what in the world is going on.  The talk is a mix between a welcome / orientation, some kind of explanation of the candles and recycling program (I think) and some up selling other services offered (i.e. camel rides, guided hikes).  

At one point a third guy comes in carry Vince.  His name is Hussain and he introduces himself by saying, “here, we are all friends.”  There is a particular stress on “here” making it clear that in other places we may not be.  He is pleasant enough on the surface but underneath you can tell there is something entirely different going on.  We do not feel threatened per say, since we are surrounded by and in the comfort of fellow travelers.  But if we ran in Mohammad, Ali or Hussain on the street I have no doubt it would be a very different story.  The place is a bit creepy that way, we feel tolerated but not comfortable.

When we finally get to our room, it is really something.  We each have our own bed with mosquito netting that you pull down around you, its dark but we have two candles that give the place a warm glow.  

We wander down and have dinner with the rest of the guests; they seem largely uninterested in mingling so we have our own table.  It’s a vegetarian menu, delicious but sparse: pita, olives, hummus and water. 

After dinner we all go up to the roof to lie on big pillows and gaze at the night sky.  We have tea and make wishes on shooting stars, then, at long last, we are off to bed to read by candlelight and catch some much-needed sleep.  

Day One Hundred and Nineteen October 14th

Vince and I sleep in while Teri and Adele go for a morning hike.  They return around eight or so and find us fumbling around the breakfast area.  We slam a few cups of tea and get ready to start the day.

The sun is up and it is clear and crisp day here in the desert.  The camel guys come in around 9a and proceed to pose in front of the breakfast crowd looking for a couple of JD per photo.  They have no takers so they settle in, sitting under a small bunch of trees, seeking shade.  Vince promptly joins them.  

He sits under the tree chatting away, pointing to the camels and picking up sticks.  The camel guys have no idea what to do with him.  At first they laugh and joke, then they ask us for 2JD for a photo, to which we say no, so they get a bit grouchy. We part ways and go up to finish packing.    

When we come back down Vince runs outside shouting, “Hi guys, I am back!”  They have no idea what to do.  Eventually he warms them up and they are all sitting in a circle tossing rocks at sticks.  The kid should go into sales.  

We check out and they nickel and dime us in subtle ways: not enough to argue about but enough to notice.  It feels good to move on.

The guy watching our car at the carport says the road to Petra over the mountains will save hours and that it is “just a few bumpy” OK for cars? “No problems.” Said with a big smile. “Just turn 2K down the road and head straight, water is at the store.”

15K later we find the turn off but there is no store and we only have half a bottle of water.  How bad can it be?  The pavement stops immediately.  Giving us some comfort the camels appear just off the sides of the road so we are not alone out here in the middle of nowhere.  It is very hot.  The kids are already complaining. Some water would have been nice. 

This drive is one of the most intense we have done to date.  It is on a single lane dirt road, riddled with hairpin turns and thousand foot drops.  At one point we pull over and email our where bouts just in case something goes wrong.  If it does we may never be found.

We go up and over several peaks and valleys all in quarter time.  The 50K “short cut” with an average speed of 10kph is not as “short” as we expected.  Never the less, by noon we are over the hill and back down in civilization.  It is nice to actually see other people again: we were getting lonely out there on the edge.  

Petra is much smaller than I thought it would be.  For some reason I imagined a bigger town and more infrastructure. Instead there is one main road that starts at the park entrance and ends up the hill when it hits the other main road going north/south.  The guidebook only has a few recommendations for eating, all of which look pretty average.  This is not a place know for fine cuisine.  

Our lunch is terrible.  We are all tired and hungry after the drive so the bad food is amplified by the situation.  We eat as much as we can and head off to find the Marriott.  Yes, that’s right, we are staying in a Marriott.

Hotels were very hard to come by and we got lucky with the Marriott.  It is considered an upscale brand here in Jordan; really anything is with an American label.  The guard rolls back the heavy metal gate and after a few questions lets us into the parking lot.  We are the only car.  It takes awhile but we finally figure out we are the only ones driving ourselves.  Everyone else staying here is on a bus tour.   

Marriotts are predictable the world over.  They are no different here than at home except they make you pass though metal detectors and serve pita bread, olives, hummus and water for breakfast.  We get the kids to the pool for a bit but it is way to hot in the midday sunshine.  By late afternoon all four of us are in the cramped hotel room lounging on the two double beds.  Such fun this travel thing.

Teri and Adele head out at 6:30p for an evening tour of Petra.  There is much excitement as this is one of the highlights for Teri.  She has been talking about Petra since day one.  Vince and I have some food, play around and crash around nine.  

When Teri and Adele roll in around 10p, Vince is fast asleep.  They are both very excited: the candle lined walk and ceremony at the Treasury were everything they expected.  (Except for a few people steaming. Leave it to the Americans to come via tour bus and sit smoking amongst the ruins.)  The walk in is 1.2K and the word is that Vince will probably not make it in the stroller due to the sections of Roman pavers.  Therefore, I draw the 6a walk up card and get to go in on my own.  How cool is that? I set the alarm and try to sleep.

Day One Hundred and Twenty October 15th 

The Petra experience is very hard to describe.    It is so vast and powerful that my descriptions will be painfully inadequate.  I will say upfront that if you ever get the change to come here you should take it in a heartbeat.  Do not think twice, and sign up immediately, it will be a life highlight.

I get up at 6a and grab a quick breakfast at the buffet.  The only other hearty souls up at this hour are doing the same thing I am.  We all look kind of nerdy in our zip off pants, long sleeve REI shirts, hiking boots and assorted cameras.  I leave them to the buffet and speed on over to the entrance hoping to be one of the first to arrive.

The doors open at 6a and I am in at around 6:40a.  To my surprise I am all alone .  Apparently most people sleep in.  When you come get our to bed and come early, you will have the place to yourself.

The walk through the Siq is fascinating.  It is the main entrance to the city of Petra and it runs through a winding slot canyon for 1.2K.  The natural rock walls are tight and high giving the impression that you are at the bottom of a riverbed.  They are smooth to the touch almost polished.  All along the base of the passageway there is a trough carved into the wall to bring water into the city.  Along the upper walls are looks outs and carvings tucked into the rock.  They go unnoticed if you don’t look up.

You don’t really get any warning as you come upon the Treasury.  You have been walking for twenty minutes or so with expectation building with each twist and turn but nothing really prepares you for the initial encounter.  Suddenly you get a glimpse of something entirely different.  It appears out of context and is actually carved into the rock.  Somehow they carved the thing into the rock!  And it is a masterpiece.  

The light has not crept into the Sig when I round the corner so it is still wrapped in the dull grey light of early morning.  The rock is a red and orange with subtle colors changing as the eye move up the structure.  It is massive.  You come into a small opening and it dominates the natural square.  I have nothing to reference for comparison, not sure anything exists to do so.  It makes you stop, stand and stare.

I am the only one there.  It is an eerie feeling to be standing all alone in front of such significance.  You feel like a visitor from some other world, almost like an intruder in some aspect.  All I can think of is Angor Wat in Cambodia.  This place has the same kind of mystery and inspires the same sort of reverence.

I am alone for most of the morning wandering amongst the two thousand year old ruins.  It is an incredible experience.  As the city unfolds before you the size and scope of the place becomes more and more apparent.  It would take a good week to hike and explore the different sections.  In the short time I am there I wander through the Street of Facades, the Theater, Main Promenade, the Grand Temple, the Winged Loin Temple, a well preserved set of mosaics and the Royal Tombs.  

By the time I start heading back out around 9:30a the tour groups are pouring in.   People are everywhere.  The Siq is actually crowded with big groups of folks from all over the world.  I am so thankful I got out of bed and made the early morning trip.

On the way out I stop by and pick up a tee shirt written in Arabic with picture of camels on the front. The guy tells me it is made in Jordan.  When I point out the Made in Jordan label is sewn on top of a Made in Syria label he just shrugs and denies it.  Then his father comes in holding a wad of bills and asks me my name.  When I tell him he nods, “Steve, you are Steve Austin, very rich man, you Steve Austin, million dollar man, buy more shirts made in Jordan.”  I burst out laughing.  

I spend about twenty minutes talking to the two of them trading barbs and talking about women.  They are arguing over which country has the best looking women.  When they find out where we have been I am anointed arbitrator and tasked with making the final decision. At this point several other vendors come over and join in.  After much debate over the Italians and French I suggest the Americans to break the tie and get nods of general agreement all around.  

When I tell them my next stop is Cairo the old man frowns and starts cursing the Egyptians.  I try to explain that we are only going in to see the pyramids but he gets so bent out of shape that he throws his hands up in frustration and moves on.  I make a mental note not to bring up Egypt again in conversation.

I get back to the hotel at 10:30a.  Adele is just wrapping up school and Vince is bouncing off the walls so we immediately head out to the castle of Shawbak.  This turns out to be true Indiana Jones stuff.  An ancient ruin set on a mountaintop with one guy taking tickets and no rules or regulations what so ever.  We are all alone and have full run of the place.  

It is almost to cool to be true, especially if you are eight and four years old.  Vince wears his headlamp and Adele clutches her flashlight as we shine them into pitch-black spaces and around blind corners exploring secret passageways.  It is dusty and dirty, hot and dry.  There are old wooden planks that shift when you cross them, balanced up three stories high across different sections of wall and tower.  The inner rooms have secret tunnels that go down over three hundred meters and exit well below the castle coming out somewhere outside the grounds on a lower road to town.   

On the way in to the castle we meet one of the friendliest people in Abu-Ali.  He is selling jewelry outside a small café by the entrance and he immediately takes a liking to Vince and Adele.  Initially we discuss the potential of buying one of his necklaces, the “oldest and best one of Bedouin beads” for a mere 40JD.  Over coffee the price falls and the added value grows.  He showers the kids with gifts.  His generosity is so genuine that it takes us off guard.  He keeps bring out more and more things, all small items but ones that mean so much to the kids.  

At one point he pulls out a cell phone and calls one of the guests staying in “his cave”, also American apparently staying in Shawbuk on business.  He hands the phone to Teri and it turns out the guy is an archeologist from San Diego studying/working in Petra.   Abu Ali is so happy that the two of us are both Americans and that he can connect us he looks like he may explode with joy.

As we finish our drinks and start to head into the castle Abu Ali notices Adele’s necklace from Wadi Rum and suggests he take it down to his cave to make the “A” prettier and more suitable for her.  We are all totally confused.  In the end, Abu Ali takes the necklace and tells us to meet him down at his cave at the bottom of the hill when we are done with the castle to pick it back up.  How will we find it?  Apparently we can’t miss it.

That is how we managed to end up sitting in a cave sipping unbelievably sweet tea and watching CNN with Abu Ali and his son MJ.   The scene is surreal.  We are in cave in the middle of the desert in the middle of Jordan.     

MJ’s English is excellent.  He is self-taught, mainly via school, television and interaction with tourists.  He hands me a book, “The Cross and Crescent” and says the it is a good read, I believe implying that Christians and Muslims can get along.  This is good to know when you are sitting in the cave under the Jordanian flag with it’s seven pointed Islamic star. 

We spend a wonderful hour or two touring the cave and the newly built cave hotel, talking to our hosts and various others that come in and out.  What ever else they had planned for the day did not seem to matter.  They would have visited with us all day and far into the night is possible.  We are not accustomed to this kind of behavior.  Our lives back home are so structured that the thought of tossing out an afternoons activities to just visit with some one from a foreign land would never, ever cross our minds.  It is not even in the realm of possibility.  But here, in the cave, it seems perfectly natural.  It is a healthy lesson for all of us.

When we get back to the hotel we are all exhausted.  Over a quick dinner we decide that Teri and Adele should get up at 6a tomorrow morning and make the early trip into Petra to beat the crowds.  So by 10p we are all fast asleep.  

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we are not in Kansas any more!” – Dorothy, The Wizard for Oz 1939

Day One Hundred and Seven October 2nd

On a warm fall morning, with sun shining and the light glittering off the sea, it is near impossible to pull our selves away from Ravello.  It is almost as if the gods ordered up perfection just to make the memories and impressions that much stronger.  The yellow lemons dripping off trees, grape vines snaking around trellises, fresh vegetables exploding out of every nook and cranny.  

Our week has ended and its time to move on.  Motivating is a struggle but we do manage to get the bags packed and the kids fed.  Breakfast is different today.  Most of the others that have been with us this week have moved on and new people are in their place.  It sort of feels like we are the last to leave a party: suddenly coming to and noticing that the others have all gone.

The two couples from Boston are still here and luckily we do find them to say goodbye.  Vince is choked up about leaving them and keeps making gifts out of paper towels, trying to prolong the departure.

By ten we are all packed into Antonio’s van and headed for Naples.  The drive seems to affect everyone today.  I am not sure if it is the let down after such a great week, the twists and turns of the mountain roads, the anticipation of another travel day, saying goodbye to Denise, or transitioning into the next phase of the trip but by the time we climb off the coast everyone is feeling a bit car sick.  We are all quiet en route.

On the other side of the mountain, back down in the shadow of Vesuvius, things are looking up again.  Our first stop is the train station in Naples.  It appears we have been staying on “the other side of the tracks” so to speak. The drive in is startling and the experience a heavy dose of reality.

The first thing you notice is the trash.  It is everywhere, stacked high and wide. Then it starts to register that people are living amongst the piles, tucked into little pockets of space, apparently just trying to survive.  It’s a far cry from Ravello.  Many of the buildings look like they are abandoned until someone steps out the front door and toss's another bag of garbage into the street.  It appears to be extreme poverty by European standards, by any standards, certainly some of the worse we have seen so far. 

The station is in a small clearing right smack in the middle of it all with trains coming and going, oblivious to the surroundings.  If you don’t wander too far on either side the place actually looks rather inviting.  We say our goodbyes and then leave Denise on a platform waiting of the train to Rome. There is a heavy police presence so she’ll be fine.   We need to motor to get to our next stop: SpanAir to Istanbul via Barcelona.

Yes, that’s right, via Barcelona, an hour and a half flight backwards before a three-hour flight forward.  That’s what you get when you need four cheap seats out of Naples.  

The travel is easy and it feels good to be back in the air.  This is our first flight since landing in London way back on June 20th.  From here on out the big jumps will be air travel coupled with car rentals in country to get around and see the sights.  

The Barcelona airport is very impressive.  It’s big, bright, clean and empty on a Saturday evening.  They have a red carpet club partner we use as a home base for our two-hour lay over and plenty of food and shopping.  Vince and I play cars while Adele and Teri pick up “reading material” (magazines) and wander around.

As we race our cars and banter back and forth I ask Vince about his new comment, “next time we go round the world,” as it has become a common point of discussion as of late.  He explains in classic four-year-old logic that since Adele is going round the world when she is eight that next time we will go is when he is eight.  Makes perfect sense to me.  Adele will be twelve in four years so I am not so sure we will be able to pull here away.  Plus we have the World Cup in Brazil that year, but it is something to think about.

Barcelona feels very Spanish.  The people are dark and ethnic.  It’s festive and comfortably casual.  It makes us realize we should have stopped by Spain, I think we would have really enjoyed the experience.    

At 6:45p we board the flight to Istanbul and say goodbye to Europe.  Sure, some may consider Turkey part of Europe, but for me it is the gateway to and part of the Middle East.  I have visions of getting off the plane to a crowded, smoke filled airport filled with dark swarthy people drinking tea.  It is out of the comfort zone and part of the unknown and I can’t wait!

Much to my surprise the place is empty when we land.  I mean really empty as in we are the only flight at the baggage claim and we get our visa and clear customs in less than half and hour.  With the late hour we had our hotel bus pick us up so we do not have to deal with a cab.  It’s a good call.  The airport we land in, there are two here, is way out of town and it takes almost an hour drive to get to the Blue Hotel.  The hour drive would have freaked us out in a cab.

As we drive along the lights seem to go on forever.  The further we drive the more it looks the same, kind of like Queens or Brooklyn late at night, with lots of low rise buildings and blaring street lights.  It is definitely lit up.  

When we leave the highway and start into the older part of town more and more people are out and about.  Soon they are everywhere: walking, talking, smoking and strolling.  Usually arm in arm and in groups.  Cars are going in all directions with absolutely no respect for lanes, lights or horns.  It is basically a free for all.   

When we finally pull up to the Blue Hotel, tucked in below the Blue Mosque, I am totally turned around and have lost all sense of direction.  The man at the front desk gives us a warm greeting and helps steer us upstairs.  

The elevators are tiny and you need to pull the door open and closed by hand.  There is music rising from the street below and you can feel the beat of the city when you open the windows.  It is cool and crisp and sounds exactly like you would expect it to. 

We settle into room number 45 and drift off to sleep.  I give you the number in case you every come to this neck of the woods. You should request it.  Why you ask?  

Day One Hundred and Eight October 3rd

Because the view is unbelievable!  We wake up not really knowing what to expect.  Coming in under a cover of darkness leaves much to the imagination and this morning it is surpassed by reality.  When we open the curtains we are staring at the minarets of the Blue Mosque a glow in the early morning sunlight.  

It’s about five in the morning when I first peak around the curtain.  I am up because the speakerphones are blearing the first call to prayer of the day.  We will soon learn that this is the first call and that it happens five times per day in all of the mosques in all the lands.  It is a foreign sound, a voice, with an offbeat cadence, sort of singing.  It is part of the fabric of daily life.

We pull ourselves out of bed around 9a and head down for the buffet breakfast filled with excitement and expectation.  Today is our first day with our guide, Yavuz, who comes highly recommended from a friend of mine back home.  We have never had a guide before and do not really know what to expect so when we find him waiting in the lobby, an hour ahead of schedule we are confused.  Turns out he is always leaves home early to be sure he will be where he needs to be on time.  We like him already.

Breakfast is filled with tourists.  I thing Adele is right when she observes that they are “probably from a bus tour.”  They are all women from either the States or England and very, very focused on shopping.  The Grand Bazaar comes up often in their conversation.   We eat quickly and clear out as soon as possible.

Yavuz is waiting in the lobby.  He may be one of the nicest people we have met thus far on our trip.  He is warm, friendly, incredible helpful, interested in our travels and the kids and so full of information that he amazes us all.  And we have not even left the lobby!

When we do get up and go we wander right next door to the Blue Mosque.  This is our first mosque, never having been in one before, and it is beautiful and majestic.   Yavuz stops at several points along the way to explain what we are looking at and why things are the way things are.  Adele hangs on every word.  For instance there are places to sit and wash so the person immediately behind you can smell clean feet.  There are no statues or pictures, just words and patterns, that way people will not falsely worship the statue instead of the God.  This mosque is unique with six minarets apparently due to some miscommunication between the ruler and builder.

The place was finished in 1616 and is called the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles that cover the interior.  When we take off our shoes and walk into the main chamber it stops us in our tracks.  It is like nothing I have experienced before and it has the same kind of feeling as walking into the Vatican.  Both significant houses of worship both so much larger than life.  

Candelabras hang down from the dome and hover just above us: the wires holding them crisscross above like spider webs.  Until recently they held small candles, now little electric lights allowing for easy reading of the Koran.  There is a pulpit but the leaders climb only half way up, the top is reserved for Muhammad.  Script is everywhere.  And then there are the tiles.

It is a sea of blue.  Some of the patterns repeat, others standalone, collectively they create a tapestry. Yavuz points out that they are filled with meaning, telling stories through symbols and patterns.  It’s truly remarkable.

After some time we manage to pull away and wander over to the Hippodrome, an old chariot racetrack from the third century AD.  Today it is a nice walking park with several obelisks carved by the Egyptians around1500 BC and brought here by the Romans. In its heyday the stadium on this site could hold 100,000 people. 

The kids eat ears of corn hot off the grill as we walk the park.  For a few minutes we are out of the fray.  Istanbul is very crowded with tourists. It may be more crowded than Rome if that’s possible.  People are everywhere, being lead around by someone holding a stick and waving a flag. They travel in big packs, walk three and four abreast and seem generally ignorant of those around them.  We can’t relate and try to avoid them.  Luckily Yavuz knows the ins and out so for the most part we can keep our distance.  

Heard on the street: “Mister, mister USA, come here, we cheat you less than the other ones!” Said with a big smile, a wink and a nod.

The next stop is really unique and one of the coolest things yet.  The Basilica Cistern was part of the main water system of the ancient city and is between 1500-2000 years old.  When we wander down into the darkness Vince immediately starts asking of his headlamp.  “For sploring, dad, for sploring!”  How great it would be to see this through the eyes of a four year old.  Or an eight year old.  Adele is “kind of scared” and hovers behind Teri, inching along in the darkness, not quite sure what to make of it all.

There are hundreds of columns holding up the ceiling and wooden walkways standing just about the waterline.  As we walk it feels like we are actually on the water.  It sits perfectly still just beneath our feet and shimmers in the light.  Everything about the place is dramatic.  

At some point they need more columns to reinforce the roof so they grabbed anything lying around, including two enormous carved heads of Medusa that now sit sideways and upside down as supporting stones.  How crazy is that?

Istanbul has grown from three million people to almost twenty million in the last thirty years.  Think about that for a minute.  It took NYC two hundred years to reach half that number: LA only has eight or nine in greater metro.  It is had to understand that kind of growth and its impact.  

They come in from the isolated regions of Turkey fleeing one war or another.  Many come seeking a better life and more money, some a more open and less oppressive environment.  Still many more bring with them a serious, fundamental religious perspective, less tolerance and more aggression.  Yavuz seems worried. 

Lunch is a place named the Pudding Shop, famous apparently as one of the cafes in the opening scenes of Midnight Express.  In the 70s is was a tried and true local place where visitors and locals would post communications and connect.  Today it is owned by the same family that owns our hotels and is right smack in the middle of the tourist route.  

Luckily for us Yavuz knows the owner.  Actually I believe Yavuz knows everyone in the neck of the woods.  People go out of their way to say hello to him as we walk.  Turns out he has been guiding here for twenty-seven years. We are in good hands.  The guy in charge clears us a table upfront and takes us all to the front counter where we look and point at dishes.  He notes everything and disappears in to the back room only to reappear with plates of all the things we pointed to.  No menus here: just point and shoot.  The food is excellent: a lot of veggies, olives, oils, bread, beans, and tea.  Very strong local shai tea.  We spend a wonderful hour getting to know Yavuz and resting our weary bones.

At around 2p we are back on our feet and heading towards our next stop, Aya Sofya, one of the oldest churches in town dating back to 400 AD.  The dome is impressive and is one of the largest freestanding domes in the world.  It reminds us of the Pantheon.  Can Adele get a better third grade education?  One day we at the Pantheon, the next in Aya Sogya.  

Today the site is a museum and is no longer a house of worship: instead it pays tribute to an ever-changing landscape that is Istanbul. It is not only the architecture and the history but also the religious and cultural climates.  

Istanbul is one of the most fascinating places I have been to.  It is influenced by Asia, Europe and the Middle East.  There are major ruins from every period in history.  Really, really old stuff sits beneath stuff from the Ottoman, Roman, Greek, and who know what other empires.  Religions smash up here and run into each other without holding back.  It is very much alive.

We find the city’s sense of constant movement and its ever changing nature amplified in the Spice Market.  As we wander through, so thankful for Yavuz, you can feel the pulse and rhythm.  Pretty much anything and everything is for sale here.  There are big piles of spices and teas, shoes, leather goods, clothing, jewelry, birds, leeches, all sorts of animals, and more people than you can imagine.  The stroller makes navigation difficult!

At one point as we wander down a narrow side street Yavuz pulls us inside a small doorway and we head up an ancient flight of marble steps.  One flight up we open onto the courtyard of Rustem Pasha Mosque, known for one of the finest collection of ceramic tiles in all of Istanbul.  Again it is stunning and beautiful.  

The people of Turkey seem to say the same thing of our children.  Since we got here strangers have been touching Adele and Vince at every turn.  It is a natural response and done with out malice or bad intent though it takes some getting used to for all of us.  People here will cross the street to reach out and touch the kids blond hair.  If I were any shorter I am convinced they would do the same to me!

So it comes as no surprise to find Vince bouncing on a policeman’s knee when we step out of the mosque.  Vince is laughing and joking with the guy and Yavuz, telling them all about The Backyardagins, perfectly comfortable and so excited to have “new friends”.   What surprised me is that we don’t need to think twice.  The interest in and admiration of kids is so genuine that it takes you back some.  As we leave and the policeman gives Vin a big kiss on the cheek, Yavus smiles and points out that it is always good to have a friend on the force here in Istanbul.  I hope we never find out why.

On the way back from a very long and exciting day we make one more stop at Sirkeci, the railway station for the orient express.  It sits just up from the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market having feed both the goods and wears of Asia for so many years.  In the end we all exhausted.

As we wander home I notice that drinking tea on the steps in Istanbul is like sipping 40s on the stoop in Brooklyn.  People are just hanging out, almost always in small groups, passing time, enjoying each other’s company.  It has that distinctly urban feel about it.  It makes you want to be a part of it.

Back at the hotel we Skype back to the States, get some room service and settle in.  Both kids have trouble going down, which means we don’t get any down time, which means everyone is cranky and out of sorts.   On top of that, just to add a little more edge to the situation, we have a 4.4 earthquake that rocks our fifth floor room. 

I would be concerned but the music from the market below provides a steady under current and the Blue Mosque is calling for prayers again.  From what I can tell the loud speakers are calling out to Allah to protect us all.  

What a day…

Day One Hundred and Nine October 4th

The loud speakers repeat their call at 5a and jolt us out of a deep sleep.  It is too early to start another day so we roll back over until 9a.  Actually, as it turns out we forgot the time change so its really 10a and Yavuz is meeting us at 10:30a.  We try and bang out a quick breakfast but is tough to motivate and we end up being about half hour late for our start.

This morning we decide to go to the Topkapi Palace with the rest of Istanbul.  There are so many people on line to get through security we almost give up.  Yavuz tells us in all his years he has never seen it this bad.  Apparently four or five cruise ships are in town and they all seem to be on the same agenda.  Poor party planning in my book.

When we finally get in the place is really impressive.  We see the royal jewels with an 86-caret diamond; tile covered rooms, beautiful gardens, the imperial gate, courtyards and the like.  The line for the harem is way too long so we skip it, probably best with the kids.  

Yavus tells how they would raise all the male heirs secluded together in one of the areas until the time came and one was picked to b the next sultan. Then on the evening of the decision all the rest would be killed to stave off any disagreements with the chosen one.  Adele’s eyes are very, very wide as she absorbs it all.  She is growing up fast on this trip taking in both the good and the bad.

As we walk towards our next destination:

Adele: “Why is it so strange?”
Dad: “What?”
Adele: “The market!” 
Dad: “What market?”
Adele: “The Grand Bizarre”

Grand is not big enough for this place.  They should call it Mega or Uber.  I think Yavuz said it has five thousand stalls.  No kidding, five thousand.  All selling stuff that you could easily convince yourself you really need.  Like my new scarf.  That’s right a scarf, everyone wears scarves here in Istanbul, it will look great back home.  I feel like Lawrence of Arabia.  Actually, it’s a practical purchase since the weather is colder than we expected.  Certainly as practical as Adele’s belly dancing outfit which we buy with full accouterments: belly dancing started here you know.  

We have lunch at a restaurant in the middle of the mayhem.   The food is mediocre but the setting is cool and it feels good to sit down and take a breather.  Our senses have been assaulted since we got off the plane.  Everything is new and different.  Even things that seem the same are not.  

Our lunch conversation is telling in just how far we are from home.  When we ask Yavus for travel recommendations he actually suggests we go to Iraq.  To the area just over the Turkish border.  This is how far from home we are.  We have become travelers and travelers are not bound by borders.

Crazier still is that it dos not seem that insane to me.  After all we are in Turkey, thinking of going to Damascus because we hear it is still off the tourist routes, what is a little side trip to Kurdish Iraq?  

I feel this moment demonstrates some kind of fundamental shift, of what I am not sure.  I am not afraid but know that perhaps I should be, not elated but know elation  is a possibility, definitely not lost, but I have know idea where I am, not that I want know or really need to.  

We get into a discussion about the wealth in the Middle East and Yavuz tells the story of guiding a contingent of oil money and how they spend to excess.  They order things by the dozen and leave a trail of people paying their bills and shipping their stuff home.  It sounds unbelievable.  

Juxtapose that with meeting a guy that Yavuz knows who restores antique teapots and bowls.  The only way he can get them clean is to dip them in some kind of acid, which he has done repeatedly for years now.  His shop is packed to the brim with stuff and he stands amongst it all covered in soot.  When I ask what he charges for several unique bowls Yavuz that buys I am told that since the guy believes the acid is killing him he doesn’t really charge much to friends.  He just wants to see his work go to someone that appreciates it.  It makes your head spin. 

Shopping for rugs is an experience here.  We don’t mean to shop for rugs it just kind of happens.  We stopped by Punto Carpets to see a women hand looming and two hours later we have it narrowed down to three we really like.  How does this happen?  One minute the kids are at the loom then next we are trying to figure out how to wire money.  It is fun but we really need to leave, any longer and we would be sitting on Adele’s 520 Plan.  

Vince is a natural born salesman.  He spends the entire visit laying out carpets, directing the guys that work there and trying to up sell other customers.  At one point the host offers him a job.  No doubt, at some point down the road he may come back and accept it.

When we get back to the Blue Hotel, Melissa, Yavuz’s fifteen-year-old daughter is waiting to watch the kids so Teri and I can have a night on the town.  How nice it is to have someone we can trust.  The kids immediately take to her and we are long forgotten in a matter of minutes.  While we get ready, they take a walk to the get something to eat.  As it turn out a friend of Yavuz’s gives Adele a chain for her horn, one that we have been looking for all day at the market.  She is beside herself.  

Our restaurant is on the other side of town and Yavuz decides to wait to drive Melissa home, so he volunteers to take us over via train. It is great fun.  We train over and then walk a new neighborhood filled with people out for the evening.  This is a younger hipper Istanbul.  With streets filled with teahouses and bars, outside tables packed with people hanging out and having fun.  Everyone wear dark colors and sits in groups of friends or family.  It is vibrant and buzzing.

Our restaurant is on top of a hotel and it has an unbelievable view of the city.  We sit at the bar for a bit, Teri sipping a $26 martini, until a table opens.  Catch that one?  $26 for a martini.  The meal was good, not great, but the time alone was priceless.   

When we get back at 10p everyone is still awake and it is back to the grind of the day to day.  Vince will not go down until he climbs into bed with Teri and I end up on the sofa with feet hanging over the side.

No worries though, the Blue Mosque calls everyone to prayer.

Day One Hundred and Ten October 5th

Unfortunately all that prayer does not take care of the bugs in the breakfast cereal.  When Vince puts his spoon in to a moving bowl it kills all of the momentum.  We wrap up the meal shortly there after.  

Teri is dealing with Bank of America AGAIN to try and get her cash card working.  These calls take forever so the kids and I head out with Yavuz to explore some crafts shops.  They are in a rehabbed building just around the corner and feature local artisans demonstrating their skills.  We are the only ones there.

A nice guy comes out to talk to us and notices Vince’s CallMeCuff.  I have the kids wearing them to test the adhesive before we take them to market and this one has my Skype number.  He points and with a big smile asks:

Guy: “For the accounts?”
Me: “My phone number, to call me.”
Guy: “Yes, for the accounts, the numbers.”
Me: “Not accounts, for phone, in case he gets lost.”
Guy: “Not for lost, for the accounts, so you wire the money to return.”
It gives me chills when I realize what he is saying.  We are not in Kansas anymore.

Teri finishes up with BoA and joins us as we head to the Islam Museum just off the Hippodrome. It houses an incredible collection of carpets one that you should not miss.  After that we walk for a bit before getting into Yavuz’s car for a driving tour of the old wall and a stop at Kariyre Camii.

This is a small church somewhere in Istanbul, I have no idea where.  It is famous for the mosaics that line most of the interior.  The detail is incredible.  The artist used the smallest pieces of stone.  Having been to the shop in Rome we can appreciate just home much work goes into each fresco.  It is the quality that is so striking: these have lasted for over a thousand years so far.

We cross the bridge for lunch over in Asia.  This is a new part of the city, with wider streets and more of an Asian influence.  As we walk the streets we fall upon a market with all kinds of sights, smells and sounds.  They sell sardines from big tubs, goat heads, pig’s feet, and olives in every color, fresh vegetables, pashmire scarves, pants and cell phones.  Again its exciting and stimulating just to walk around. There is much hustle and bustle.

Our meal is the best yet, maybe one of the best on the trip.  We end up in a small innocent looking restaurant that serves out of this world organic food.  All of it from regional recipes handed down by generations.  We eat all kinds of things and enjoy every bit of it.  

Our search for an Apple firewire may have ended on the fifth floor of a high-rise building dedicated solely to electronics.  We need one to transfer the information from our old one to the new and this is our last hope for a while.  Hopefully this will work and the computer saga will finally come to an end.

Our last stop for the day is a mountain top view of all of Istanbul over in Uskudar.  It is a fitting way to wrap up our time here, proving that we have seen so much and barely scratched the surface.  The city goes on forever.  We stay for a while and enjoy the views until we all agree that it is time to ferry back across the Bosphorus at call it a day.

We ask Yavuz how things are going in Turkey.  His response surprises us though he has hinted at it over the past few days.  The fundamentalist movement is gaining strength to the point that he is concerned.  In the last twenty days or so, post a recent election, the country has taken a noticeable turn.  In his eyes not for the better and you can feel his tension when he discusses it.  As fathers of daughters and husbands of wives, we share empathy.  This neck for the woods is not known for respecting women’s rights. It is hard to think that a city of such stature can change on a dime.  Unfortunately in this neck of the woods it can and has happened for thousands of years.

Today is our last day of guiding and we must part ways with Yavuz.  I can’t express how much he did for us and how thankful we are too him.  He made Istanbul come alive and is a large part of why we love it so.

Day One Hundred and Eleven October 6th

I will miss the loudspeakers of the Blue Mosque.  They are one of the best wake up calls I know of: so foreign and different, reminding you that you are in a foreign land yet still under the watch full eyes of God.  Today we manage to get up, pack and taxi to the airport by 8:30a that in and of itself is a miracle.

We are in a different airport this time flying Turkish Air domestic to Cappadocia.  Luckily we are there early enough to have breakfast and coffee pre-flight.  Teri strikes up a conversation with some folks on the jet way as we board the plane and it turns out they are the parents of our neighbors two doors down.  It is such a small world.

It takes a while to cram everyone onto the bus that takes us to the plane.  We wait forever while folks push their way in to the already crowded cars.  Teri and I fight off the crush to save some airspace for Adele and Vince.  When we are all accounted for the driver makes and announcement, closes the doors and pulls away. Then he stops and parks about twenty yards away, the doors open and everyone starts to scramble out to get on the plane.  I kid you not: I could throw a stone farther than we drove on the bus.  Why we didn’t walk is beyond me. 

The flight is full of tourists.  It could be one of the old shuttle flights between LAG and Logan.  It seems most people are from the east coast with a few Canadians thrown in here and there.  It is disappointing in a way: I half expected chickens and goats.

We land in middle of nowhere.  The land is arid and dry with low lying hills and few trees.  It is sunny with little shade.  After gathering the bags we find a guy form Avis standing outside with our name on a sign.  It does feel good to know you are in the right place.  The single runway and tiny airport gives little comfort.  

Driving is easy since there are no people on the road. We see a few cars when we pass through towns but for the most part it is deserted.   In the first town we come to I venture in to a small market to get directions.  You do need a healthy dose of courage for adventures like this.  Luckily the fascination with our kids continues and the six or seven rough looking men all smile and laugh as they hover around the car window.  The Turks maybe the nicest people we have meet along the way.

Armed with Coke lights, chips and waters for less than a third of what we paid in Istanbul we are back on the road and headed in the right direction.  Cappadocia is known for houses built into rock towers that were left by centuries of erosion from the elements.  The early Christians used them to hide out in the hills avoid persecution.  Today they are still used as houses and increasingly as high-end hotels.  

We are staying at the Museum Hotel, perched on a hilltop with one of the best views of the valley below.  Our room is incredible.  The kids have their own cave, one used for storage and wine making in the old days.  Teri and I are in the main room, big enough for a bedroom suite, living room and work area.  These cave people know how to live it up!

Once settled we turn to town and find The Orient, an organic restaurant recommended by the owner of our hotel.  The food is excellent with big salads, lots of olives, tomatoes, bread and cheese.  The kids’ even try Turkish pasta, a ravioli dish with a yogurt based sauces.  

As usual Vince refuses to eat, Adele tries to convince him to:
Adele: “you need to eat to grow”
Vince: “yes but I don’t want to grow I am already four”
Adele: “not four, grow bigger”
Vince: “you mean if you don’t eat you will not be nine?”

Istanbul wore us out so we head back home to play with the puppy at the hotel, search for turtles in the garden, catch the sunset on the veranda, and watch the lights flicker on across the valley.   We need to adjust and calibrate to the Turkish countryside.  We are farther east, closer to the borders with Iraq, Iran and Syria.  It all takes some getting used to.

Everyone is too tired to attempt the restaurant so we order room service and try to wind down.  As usual the excitement has Adele and Vince wound up so it takes a few hours to get them to bed.  Teri and I work on travel logistics, pay bills and journal.  By 11p the kids are tucked into their cave and all is well.

Update on the family travel service business: Yavuz proved how valuable local knowledge and “boots on the ground” experience is when exploring a new place, especially with children.  He was so impactful to all of us but especially Adele and Vince: teaching them on a level they can relate to and lending a credible voice from someone other than the parents. His travel partner helped us with all of our arrangements for Turkey setting us up with in-market flights and hotels.   A new twist on the family travel idea we are working on is to couple a local guide service and a local travel agent to offer a service dedicated to families with kids.  

Day One Hundred and Twelve October 7th

We sleep late in the cool, calm, quiet of the cave.   Breakfast is OK but not great in terms of price value.  We are getting by on bread and honey, tomatoes, cucumbers and olives.  Plus, we have developed a taste for Turkish and Apple tea.

As I glance at the IHT for the first time in ages I see that the travel alerts are cranked up and Europe appears to be on the warning list.  Good think Turkey is considered by some to be Middle East, we pay in Lira not Euros.  I do get the headlines from my Google home page but I have no interest in going any deeper, I have no need to know.

For some reason I read the article on the terror alerts as far down as the part where they arrested some guy, some place, some time in Italy for suspected terrorist activity.  The guy turns out to plotting to blow things up, the somewhere turns out to be the train station in Naples and the sometime turns out to be within an hour of when we dropped of Denise.  So now I know but am I any better for off for it?  Timing is everything here and I trust ours will carry us through unscathed.

The caves are in an area similar to Mesa Verde or Bandelier NP.  The doors dot the stone columns and lead into a vast underground network of pathways and tunnels.  
We have fun wandering in and out of churches, houses, communal kitchens, a gravesite, and various other caves, all hidden in the mountainside.  It is an odd place out in the middle of nowhere.  

We see our first camel.  He is all dressed up and ready to get his picture taken for 10TL.  This sparks a long conversation about the seven hump wump and the merits of a one or two humper.  We all decide that a two humper is the way to go, especially if you want go fast, that is unless we are all going, and then we definitely need a seven hump wump.

As we drive we find a turn out for a short hike in the hills.  We are pretty much all alone wandering about in this surreal landscape.  Then a nice guide appears with a couple from Canada and asks if we “know the snoop dog.”  Snoop Dogg as in the rapper?  “Snoop dog, snoop the dog!”  The man is pointing, jumping up and down and waving his hands towards a rock.  Snoop Dogg, as in yo, yo, mofo?  “No, no, SnoopYdog, SnoopYdog!”  And sure enough, there is the head of Snoopy if you look at the rocks just the right way.  He pats me on the back beaming from eye to eye when I finally get it.

Then he looks around and leans in to let me in on a little secret, “Napoleon’s hat!”  He nods in another rock’s direction.  I look around to see if someone is filming us since the scene is so absurd.  Sure enough there it is right there in front of me.  When I point them out to the kids they ask, “Who is Snoopy?” and “what hat?”  Then when I point out Tyrone from the Backyardagins the fun really begins!

Lunch/dinner is a 4p start at the Center Restaurant in town.  It is in a little room heated with a wood stove and we are the only ones there.  It is quick and easy and delicious.  The food here is really top notch.  

By 6p we are back at the hotel, by 8p we are in our caves trying to sleep, by 10p Vince is out with Teri in our cave and Adele and I are on the sultan sitting benches trying to sleep, by 11p we give up trying to get everyone to go down for the night, by midnight they finally do.

Day One Hundred and Thirteen October 8th

It’s raining when we wake.  The desert takes on a strange vibe in the rain, almost as if it is a necessary evil.  You get the feeling that this must be a tough place to hang your hat in the cold of winter.   

We pack, take care of a few logistics and check out around noon.  We are off today to see an underground city before we fly over to Izmir.  The drive is dreary in the rain.  Everything is brown and wet.  The hillsides are pretty but they look uninviting and harsh in the mist.  It feels like we are in a foreign land.

After we wind off the highway down and little road to nowhere we end up following hand made signs to the entrance to the underground city.  At one point we double check to make sure it is really listed as a sight to see on the map.  

When we pull up a kid comes out and tells us where to park.  His mother comes out of a hut and points to a door with “Underground City” painted in white letters above.  We walk into total darkness.  

She follows, children in tow, and finds a light switch.  A narrow passageway lies in front of us with a small bare bulb lighting the way.  We take a deep breath and send out Vincent the Brave.  He sprints down the tunnel.  Adele starts to whimper.  

It turns out to be a few rooms and passages underground.  It is fascinating that people live this way.  It has clearly been used for centuries and will probably be use for many more.  Next time someone suggests we think less of our enemies for hiding in caves, politely suggest that they do not underestimate the situation.  You must be extremely tough to live this kind of existence and the people here have been doing so for thousands of years.

On the way back to the airport we grab an excellent lunch at a place called Ziggy’s in Urgup.  It was listed in a magazine article Teri has been carrying around all this time.  See, it pays to save all those pull outs, this one is an excellent find.

The drive takes longer than expected and we get to the airport with only forty-five minutes to spare.  I drop Teri and the kids off to clear luggage and drive two doors down to find the Avis counter.  Then I do something that would never happen in the States, I pull up and leave the car curbside right in front of the terminal.  No one seems to care.

The guy that dropped the car off in the other airport is at this one as well and he greets me with a big smile.  I try and get him to help rent a car in Izmir but I cannot really remember the name of Izmir and may say something different plus the language barrier is tough.  I have no idea what awaits us on the other end of the flight.  

Check in is difficult.  For some reason we are having trouble clearing the flight.  At one point three or four people are looking at our tickets trying to figure something out.  It takes well over forty-five minutes.  The flight is delayed so we are OK on this side but now the connection in Istanbul is going to be tight.  

At last they clear us and our bags are sent off to try and make it on board before the doors close.  It is a mad scramble to get to the gate only to be delayed again and forced to wait another half hour.  It is one of those days.

When we do finally land in Izmir it is past 8p and everyone is wiped out.  Our rental car reservation never arrived but the guys at Avis do hook us up with a car for the next two days.  It costs a bit more: that comes with the territory, but at the end of the day we are mobile.

Our hotel, the Gullu Konaklari is in the town of Sirince.  We drive in darkness and arrive past 9p.  We are at the end of a single lane cobble stone street, 8K up a mountainside, in the middle of nowhere again.  Our room is just big enough for our bed, Adele’s roll away and Vince’s crib.  We stack our luggage in the bathroom.  Oh, did I mention it is freezing?

Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore.

Day One Hundred September 25th 

We are on a 10:45a train to Salerno.  How Italian does that sound?  In order to get to the station on time we need to eat, pack, call a cab and mail a box back home.  Guess which one is the most challenging.

Post Italia sits a block or so away from the apartment and after a failed attempt to mail our yellow box yesterday afternoon I now know that the doors open at 8:30a.  That’s plenty of time to mail a box.  We picked up a bright yellow box last night and filled it up with all sorts of things including, but not limited to: (1) about half of our rock collection (2) Adele’s big white blanket (3) a few jackets (4) our European GPS.  It weights in at 8 kilos.

The nice lady behind the counter speaks absolutely no English whatsoever and seems to think that I will understand Italian if she yells at me and says things twice.  Since this is what I have been doing to others for the past month or so it seems perfectly natural to me.  It appears I need to fill out some forms.  She smiles and points to lines on the paperwork and goes on and on about this and that.  I have no idea what she is talking about.  There appears to be three of four of things to fill out: one needs passport info, another looks like a background check and the other two are for my parents address, a list of items and maybe some kind of valuation for tax information.

She sends me off with a pen.  Everything moves along fine until we get to the item list and the valuation.  First off who really knows what’s in the box. We all added stuff before closing it up.  I list out the big white blanket, jackets and GPS and since they are all really old I listed them as having no value.

She looks at the list, looks at the weight, looks at the valuation and starts muttering and shaking her head.  I would have listed rocks but I thought getting across the explanation would cause us to miss the train.  After all I only have an hour and a half.  Then she calls out a second lady from the back room and the questions come rapid fire.  

The second lady does not speak English either.  It appears they can’t understand want I have listed and they need to look up each time in the computer.  We tackle the easy one first.  “Bambino jacket!” I explain miming the process of putting on a jacket and pointing to a guy standing in line wearing one.  It takes a few minutes but we work it out.

Then comes the GPS.  I had a feeling electronics might be a problem.  Using my iPod as a sample I set it on the counter kind of like a GPS, semi-sit down to pretend I am driving and then look at it for directions.  It all makes perfect sense to me.  They call out a third lady to see if she can help.  This one takes a little longer.

At last we come to the blanket.  The line is now five or six deep and there are three ladies trying to interpret.  It feels like we are playing, “Lets make the foreigner do funny things”, the people on line are now in the game and folks are shouting out what they think the answer is.  Blanket is a hard one.

I take off my shirt and lie down on the floor and then cover myself back up with the shirt like a blanket.  All the while I am shouting out, “Blanketo, blanketo for bambino! Mia daughtereriao has a blanco blanketo!” Every few seconds I look nervously at the clock because I sense it is getting late.  They look very concerned.  

At long last someone on line yells out the word for blanket in Italian and everyone seems to breath a sigh of relief.  They all laugh and clap hands and go back to what ever they were doing before.  I get dressed and hand her my credit card.  

The nice lady ignores it and looks at the line that lists the box weight at 8 kilos and then back at the three items I have listed as contents.  It is a stretch to thinking they weight 8 kilos.  I should  have listed the rocks.

Did I mention that this Italian Post is a very serious place? You enter one at a time though a series of locked doors and what appears to be a metal detector and cameras.  You take a number and they call you up one at a time to stand all alone in front of the counter.  The first thing they did was scan my passport.  It is like crossing a border.   

8 kilos, three items: three items, 8 kilos.  She looks me over: I stand and smile.  I stand and smile: she looks me over.  Again. The minutes click by.  After two more meetings with the ladies in the back she picks up my credit card.

It turns out they don’t take credit cards.  Imagine that.  I have been at the counter for almost an hour, I have tried to pay twice with the credit card (by mistake, in all the confusion of filling out the forms) and not once did they mention anything about payment, until now, with minutes to spare, and they decide they want 100E in cash.  

It makes you want to cry.  “ATM!” I shout.  “BankOmat?” she shouts back.  “Si, si, BankOmat!”  I shout again.  She hand motions “around the corner” and I run off like a rabbit.  She looks a bit concerned that I am leaving the box but I can’t wait around to explain.  I run out the door, around the corner into the square and start sprinting from corner to corner in search of the machine. 

I can’t find it.  I run up one block, then back, then up another and back again.  Finally in utter frustration, I stop, card in hand and resign myself to missing the train.  That’s when someone from the line inside sees me and comes out to lead me over to the BankOmat right around the corner from the entrance exactly where she said it was.

Mental note to self:  no more mail from Italy.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, poor Teri is stuck with all of the packing and prepping.  Thankfully when I return everyone is ready to roll.  Our hosts bid us safe travels, pour us into a cab and we are off to the station, T-minus forty-five minutes to lift off.  

We settle into our first class seats on EuroStar Italia, only a few extra Euros and worth every penny, with five minutes to spare.  It has been an incredible stay here in Rome: one of our greatest adventures to date.  As we pull out of the station we say goodbye and hope to once again return.

Our packing strategy has been refined several times now and we have become a lean mean travelling machine.  Between the four of us we can now carry everything we need to survive on the road.  We probably have one or two extra small bags but I have a feeling we will shed them on the intra-Turkey flights.  All in all we are primed and ready for the Middle East.

But first we have a week of relaxation in Ravello on the Almafi coast.  

Salerno’s train station is small compared to Rome, filled with homeless people, dirty and generally unappealing.  Welcome to southern Italy.  We are just south of Naples, north of Sicily and in kind of a no man’s land seemingly searching for an identity.   They have found one in the rocky coastline of Amalfi.

Our taxi driver meets us with a big, broad smile.  He seems genuinely excited to see us!  Born and raised in Ravello, he knows every inch of the winding road and handles the twists and turns sure footed, like mountain goat.  I thank God I am not driving.

Our hotel, Hotel Scarpiello, hangs over the cliff.  Our room is 150 steps or so down towards the sea, close to the pool and on top of the ocean.  The waves are pounding so hard into the castle wall beneath us that the doors to the balcony shake and the windows rattle.  Apparently surf is up.  

We explore the grounds and settle in.  Adele and I are charged with going to the store to stock up on provisions.  The guys at the front desk say the market is no more that 600 yards away, just a short, easy walk.  Clearly he has lost all perspective.

It is a harrowing walk along the side of a hairpin laden, one lane road (maybe considered two lanes here but not in my world).  Cars and buses pass by inches from us, going very fast, at times actually accelerating into blind turns.  We fear for our lives.  

All this risk for the reward of a market tucked into the back of a bar: Adele determines it is 9m by 3m.  The crazy thing is that when we first walk in we are convinced they will have nothing on our list.  I mean we have candles on there and suntan lotion 30spf.  Then, when we walk out a half hour later, we find that we have everything except for few minor items.  Neither one of us has any idea how it all happened and we marvel at the experience.  

Somehow, when the kids take showers, a big pool of water leaks out onto the bathroom floor and the spills out into the hallway.  It leaves a big puddle right in the middle of the hallway.   When we call the front desk they don’t seem to really care much and of course blame us for not closing the shower door.  It was closed.

 As Adele rounds the corner to go in to her room she slips on the puddle and crashes into the corner of the wall with such force that her head actually dents the plaster.  Not good.  She has a big indentation on the side of her head, no blood that we can see, but plenty of pain.  I call the front desk for ice but it does not arrive.  In a bit of panic I head up and find them watching TV.  In the states we could sue them to kingdom come, here they could care a less.  It is infuriating.

Adele is tough as nails in these situations.  She handles it all very well and is really impressive in the situation.  All we have is Tylenol, but it seems to do the trick.  We cancel dinner and stay in keeping a sharp eye out for signs of a headache or mild concision. 

Day One Hundred and One September 26th

I wake up in a bad mood, exhausted from trying to sleep over the sound of the crashing waves, with a pounding headache, two screaming children, an unsympathetic wife and no where to run.  Every once in awhile we have these days.  All of us do in some form or another.  All you can do is ride them out and hope they pass with as little damage as possible.  24/7/365 can be a bit much at times.

We have breakfast and then try to catch the bus to Amalfi. On Sundays the buses make their own schedules.  We wait for half and hour in a doorway of a house on the really narrow street with the cars screaming by inches from Adele and Vince before we decide to call it a day.  It is apparent that logistics here are going to be an issue.

The pool is very nice and we make the best of the rain and clouds.  Teri decides to walk to Amalfi, as much to take a break from the rest of us as to shop I think, and she heads off to fight the oncoming traffic.  Seriously, it is like bull fighting with cars on that road.

It is a slow day spent waiting for Aunt Denise and passing time trying to relax.  The kids are beyond excited for her visit.  All they can do is make little gifts, color cards and presents and ask over and over, “how much longer?”

The highlight of the afternoon, aside from the rickety ping pong table, is our discovery of the lemon trees and a juicer to make fresh lemonade.  We spend a good hour or two picking lemons, squeezing them, adding in just the right amount of sugar and water and serving it to Teri.  Great fun.

Dinner is a simple pasta with local olives cooked in olive oil, topped with fresh Provolone cheese. 

By the time Denise arrives it is well past 11p.  Talk about a journey: taxi to LAX, Los Angeles to London, London to Rome via planes, then Rome to Naples, Naples to Salerno by trains, then taxi to the hotel.  Twenty-four hours en route.  All with a suitcase full of work and play clothes, stuff for her meetings at Cannes, our new computer, my callmecuffs samples, eight people magazines and a few Vanity Fairs.  She is truly amazing! 

Adele wakes up to greet her and we all catch up for few hours before calling it a night.  This may be our latest night yet!  Such excitement and so great to see someone from home...

Day One Hundred and Two September 27th

Breakfast here is simple but plentiful.  They have good strong coffee, rolls, pastries, coco and tea for the kids and fresh fruit from the trees in the garden.  All of the guests seem to congregate and share travel stories and tips of things to do along the coast.  This morning we meet several couples form the Boston area, a couple from Chicago, some ladies from Denver and one more couple from Vegas.  It appears everyone here is from the States, most sourced the place from a blurb either online or in a past edition of Travel and Leisure. It shows the power of the press.

Jet lag hits Denise so she heads back to bed while the rest of us lounge at pool, catch up on journals, do some school work and mill about the hotel.  By mid-afternoon we manage to find a small local restaurant, supposedly 30 meters around the corner (do not believe the guys at the front desk) for lunch.   It is mediocre at best.  I think part of it is that our standards are so high after almost a month in Italy that anything ordinary seems average.  

The town of Ravello is a short hike, 1700 steps, uphill.  I have no idea what we are thinking about when we start to climb.  Teri and Vince and the first to bail: Adele, Denise and I make it to the mid-point then we too turn around and head back down.  From now on we take cabs.

Our afternoon is spent making more lemonade, sharing experiences, getting news from back home and relaxing.   

Dinner is another “short” walk, this time in the dark along the treacherous road, to a place owned by the same people that own our hotel.   Again it has all the potential to be great, no menu just a waiter taking orders, tiles of Italian scenery on the walls, a nice friendly atmosphere but the food is just mediocre.  Maybe this area is known more for the scenery than the food.  

Vince is out of control again so we need to leave.  Both kids have been out of sorts for days. They are not sleeping, acting out and generally out of control from about 5p until they go down around 10p.  We try to get them to bed earlier to no avail.  This then cuts into my time downtime with Teri.  Actually, we have none.

Maybe it is the change of seasons, or that life continues back home and we are not part of it.  Or maybe it is that we are not home for the beginning of school or no longer active in an “industry”, of missing family and friends.   Hopefully we will figure it out and it will all pass before we hit the Middle East.   I have a feeling we will need all the sleep we can get to tackle Istanbul.

At the end of the evening we are back home once again catching up on life and telling tales of travel.

Day One Hundred and Three September 28th

I travelled a lot as a kid: even more as an adult.  And where ever we go there are a few places that I always use for comparison.  The memories of past visits are used to judge, rank and file the present day experience.  Visiting Pompeii as a kid is one of my benchmarks.  

I have distinct memories of Pompeii that flash about and wander around in my head.  It was very hot on a blistering summer day.  We walked forever in the sun.  The ruins were unlike anything we had seen before: they appeared to be massive and endless.  It was one of the first times in my life that came to understand and experience historical perspective.  At least that I remember.  It impressed me that people lived there a thousand years ago.  In a city much like our cities today. 

Now I get to return and test those memories to see if they still hold true.  I also get the rare gift of creating a lasting impression with my children like my parents did with me.   Such promise as we drive over the mountains on the narrow, winding roads.

Antonio, our driver, is from this neck of the woods so we are in good hands on the twists and turns.   He spends his day driving a cab, hunting for truffles with his trained “wild ‘ boar, checking in with his brother  (a very successful restaurateur in the States – Vegas and Georgetown) and spending time with his wife and kids.  He gives a familiar honk to people he knows as we drive by.  You notice that he seems to be very happy and content with life.

The first sight of Vesuvius takes us by surprise.  When you crest the last mountain and start down towards the valley floor it looms over everything.   The upper third is gone, blown away during the eruption, much like Mt. St. Helens back home.  A friend of mine gave me a great book, Volcano Chaser’s, that talks about the great eruptions and the power and force they release.  All I can think about are the descriptions of the magnitude of these events as we look down on the small towns below.  From this perspective the people of Pompeii had not chance what-so-ever. 

The entrance way is a bit chaotic.  Somehow we get caught up with a Japanese tour group and it takes us a while to shake them.  It really doesn’t matter though as the place is jammed with people.  When you first come in it is totally overwhelming.  There are people everywhere trying to follow some crazy numbering system that makes no sense to any of us, we wander guidebook in hand, map unfolded, pointing and flipping pages.

We do what we usually do in these situations and instinctively move in the opposite direction of the crowds.  Within a few minutes we are all alone on a quiet side street standing amongst the rubble.  

Our time here exceeds expectations.  After four hours of touring we mange to tear ourselves away having done only about a third of what there is to see.  Hunger and a 2:30 scheduled pickup drive us outside to find a restaurant.  Yes, it is another mediocre meal, but at least this time we have adjusted our expectations.  On the way back home we manage a quick stop at the grocery store and stock up the rest of the week.

When we get back, the hotel has opened up the lower gates and we are able to swim in the sea!  We can dive right off a platform on the rocks at the base of the lower landing.  When you swim out you realize why the tour boats keep driving by our hotel.  It looks like a castle!  Plus, there are huge sea caves along our coast.  

Adele is now diving in headfirst and swimming back to the ladder on her own, seemingly without fear though it is hard to tell.  She does however insist someone is in with her at all times. Even Vince goes in with me and floats around for a bit.  The salt content is so high you can’t help but to float.

We return to the room where Adele and Denise prepare our evening meal of salad, chicken, fresh spinach and assorted cheeses.  Both are very excellent cooks and Adele is beside herself with joy as she has been talking about doing this for weeks!

The sage continues with our new computer.  The fire wire does not seem to connect the two together so we can’t transfer Teri’s files to the new machine.  As if that’s not enough, somewhere along the way all of the Microsoft Office files have vanished from my section so I can’t open any files, including our budget and my journal.  I wish I had a little IT guy in a box we could carry around with us to solve all these issues.  These are the things that take up huge amounts of time for common folk like us.

After dinner Vince is totally out of control and refuses to go down.  Adele is equally out of sorts as she wants to stay up until we all go to bed so she does not miss anything.  It seems the evening dynamic is one that needs to and must change.  It better or we may not make it.

Just to add to the frustration level I have the unpleasant task of writing to the Cooking Vacations people again outlining our understanding of the contract, countering their last email and once again requesting our money back.  Overall its a tough end to a great day.

Pompeii remains a benchmark in my mind.
Day One Hundred and Four September 29th 

It was a restless night of sleep or, better yet, non-sleep.  Believe it or not at times the logistics and dynamics of travel make for stress and that has to manifest itself somehow.  With me it’s the 2a wake up call.  

We have breakfast on the veranda with the rest of the other guests and plan out the day.  In an attempt to make up for the cooking fiasco in Tuscany we have arranged for Denise and Adele to attend a one day class up the hill in Ravello.  It is in one of these agri-tourism deals with all natural ingredients picked fresh form the garden.

Everyone heads out around 10:30a leaving me to do bills and catch up on journal writing.  It is a nice couple of hours of solitude, most of it spent on logistics.  

It turns out the class is more of a lecture: they don’t actually cook as a group but instead watch a chef do so and explain away in Italian.  Adele hangs in there the entire time and seems to have enjoyed it.  It is hard to tell.  Why we can’t catch a break and have a place where they actually roll dough and make pasta is beyond me.  That’s all the kids want to do.

The rest of the day passes slowly by with a home cooked meal, a swim in the sea and another tough time getting everyone to bed.  Life in Ravello happens in slow motion.  Probably just what we need right now.

Day One Hundred and Five September 30th

I have been wearing my Italian horn for almost forty years. It has brought me incredible luck in life and thus far fought off any evil spirits that have come my way.  Once or twice is has gone missing but it always comes back.  I can’t imagine life without it.

My Italian horn hails from the Isle of Capri, a small island about an hour and a half by ferry.  Today we are setting off to find one for Adele so she can be like her dad.  The fact that she actually wants to be like her dad fills me with joy.  The deal is she needs to come back forty years later with her kids and pass on the tradition.  For me it is one of the highlights of the trip.

One of the nice things about our hotel is that the set up allows you to get to know the other guests.  At this point we are all on a first name basis and we go out of our way to say hello if we run into each other in Amalfi or at Pompeii.  As we check in on plans for the day it seems everyone at breakfast is heading out on the 9:45a boat to take advantage of the calm seas.

The ferry holds a few hundred people by the looks of it.  There are two sections: an upper deck with outside seating and an inside seating area below.  We grab the inside seats and settle in.  

As we hug the shoreline heading towards the end of the peninsula and out into open seas, we pass countless small towns and villages, some reachable only by boat.  Remains of castles sit on hilltops: a few single houses standalone on rocky cliffs.  Lemon trees are terraced on steep hillsides and grape vines drape over ancient stonewalls.  It is exactly what you think of when Italy comes to mind.

It is our first glorious day in a while and the warm sunshine helps keep the chill from the wind and sea at bay.  In no time we are pulling into the main harbor on Capri. So is everyone else in Europe.  

The place is crawling with people.  There are so many people that we can not figure out how to get from the base of the cliff where the ferry drops you off up to town which is about two and a half kilometers up the hill.  The line for the cable car is insane. There is a bus that holds about twenty people but it looks like only one is running per hour and there are probably over a hundred people waiting in line.   A few hearty souls are starting to walk, not really an option with the stroller.  The thought of turning around and heading back to the mainland cross everyone’s mind:  but not those of us in search of horns!

Luckily, as if by fate, we hook up with a really nice Canadian family that is also staying at our hotel and we all decide to bite the bullet and take a cab. It is an excellent idea!  For twenty Euro, just a bit more than a cable car would be for all of us, we are up to the top in no time.  

Our new friends are a wonderful family from Toronto.  They have a girl a year or two older than Adele and in short order the two of them are off together being kids and having fun.  We all wander together along the main street past the high end shops and boutiques.  It looks as though all of the shopping is over the top expensive.  Its funny, the streets are jammed, but very few people have shopping bags.  I have no idea how these places survive.  

Our meandering soon leads us to the other side of the island and to a lookout onto several rocks jetting from the sea that sort of remind me of Cabo.  Down at the base for the cliff, along the waters edge, we spy a few umbrellas and what appears to be a place for lunch.  Let’s go down to the waterline. 

The lunch spot sits on the edge of a little cove with a sitting area and several boat slips carved into rock.  Our table is pretty much on the water, overlooking the bay.  I have no idea how they built the place: must have brought all of it around by boat.  The kitchen in big and airy, the tables and eating area are all clean and inviting.  They are serving a catch of the day, salads and pastas, all fresh and delicious.  It is just what we are looking for.

We waste away an hour or two in great conversation, enjoying quality time with newly found friends.  Toronto sounds like a great place to visit!  By the end of lunch we are already planning a trip to the new spa they are building just outside of Blue Mountain.  

The hike up goes better than expected, largely due to a lollypop and the promise of gelato.  Incentives always work in these situations, much better than carrying kids on your shoulders let me tell you. 

On the way back into town Adele finds her Italian horn in the window of one of the jewelry stores.  She is jumping for joy! We head in together and start shopping.  The first one has too may twists and looks like a hot pepper.  The second one is too big and the third too small.  After several more attempts we finally find just the right one, and it looks perfect on her. 

We pass on a chain, thinking it best to get one next week in Istanbul.  We do however get a horn for Vince as a Christmas gift.  I let Adele know that the condition of getting one and explain that she needs to bring her kids back to get one someday.  She listens intently and solemnly nods her head.  In the end we leave with two little boxes and one very excited eight-year-old girl (and her dad!).

The 5:15p boat is fast!  The one and an half hour trip this morning turns into a forty-five minute barnburner of a return.  In no time we are back in town, with groceries in hand, hailing a cab to go back to the hotel.  

Somehow, I have no idea how these guys do it, our regular cab driver Antonio is waiting there for us at the taxi stand.  I can’t believe it: we never told him when we were coming in.  And it is all so natural, he is just there as if he should be there and so should we.  So, we all pile in and everything is great.  However these things happen they certainly add to the overall experience and make you want to come back again.

With fresh food and wine, we all gather on the balcony overlooking the ocean and have a party.  It is our family, the Canadians and two couples we have been hanging out with from Boston.  It is a great time that turns into a long dinner at our place and several hours of great conversation and much, much fun!  

Everyone gets to bed very late, including the kids, as we finish the dishes well after midnight.  

It is true that the people you meet along the way make for the best memories.  I am sure this day, and this week, will linger for quite a while. 

Day One Hundred and Six October 1st

Today is a catch up day.  We all need to plug in and get some logistics done before we head over the edge and drift even further off the grid into Turkey.  

Teri and Denise spend the morning on dueling computers, booking flights, hotels, rental cars and expeditions.  By mid-afternoon the month of October is shaping up to be stellar. 

I spend the day with the kids swimming in the pool and down at in the sea.  The jellyfish are gone so we can safely dive off the dock into the salty, warm waters.  There is nothing like swimming in the ocean to sooth the soul.

At around 2p or so, Teri and Denise head to Positano while the rest of us stay behind and rest.  Everyone is a bit tired after a full week and a late night last evening.

With the girls out late, the rest of us decide to bed down early, for tomorrow we leave the comforts and familiarity or Europe and we fly to the heart of the Ottoman Empire.

It is time for a magic carpet ride!

“Veni, vedi vici.” – translation: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Gaius Julius Caesar in a six-word letter to Rome on his progress at war circa 60 BC.

Day Ninety-Three September 18th

All roads lead to Rome.  As they should.  We are up early for the drive, excited to be heading south and looking forward to getting back into an urban environment.  We have a quick breakfast then hit the main highway down the Adriatic coast.  The drive is beautiful with long curves rounding hillsides that wash into the sea.  They are covered with gardens, lush and green.  I wish we had a convertible.  

Some of the hillsides soon turn to mountains and we need to go through them instead of around.  At some point we drive inland and start a series of tunnels that takes us across central Italy and out of the sunshine and then in and out of pockets of rain.  

The drive is easy if you ignore the Italians.  They can’t drive.  I assume they think we can’t drive but that’s not true.  We can drive: I learned in New York and drive in LA so I have some perspective on this one.  These people never bothered to learn, they just got behind the wheel, punched the clutch and stepped on the gas.  If anything or anyone gets in the way they just hit the horn and start yelling.  

The trick is to always, and I stress always, assume you are right and the other person is wrong.  It doesn’t matter what the issue.  If you want to drive on the sidewalk go right ahead, just make sure you yell and honk at anyone that shouts at you, except for the old people, always stop and given them the right of way, they will take it anyway since they believe, actually they know, they deserve it more than you.  

The same holds true for parking.  Feel free to stop anywhere: middle of the road, sidewalks, in other people’s driveways, in front of hydrants, in handicapped spots. It doesn’t matter as long as you where dark glasses and act like you are in a hurry.  

On the highway drive as fast as you can and honk if anyone is going slower than you are.  Do not slow down for any reason, the sole exception being if you see red taillights and pass a sign with a picture of a camera and a big red letters on it.  This is one of the traffic ticket cameras and everyone seems to know exactly where they are and what the speed needs to be.  You can drop from 150k back down to 80K in a matter of seconds only to resume the 150K when the little sign passes by.  What a system.  

Rome is actually very easy to drive into.  It’s not so easy to drive in, but the approach itself is pretty straightforward.  One of the hardest things to do is to keep watching the road with all of the sights flying by and the cars coming at you.  There are ruins everywhere.  We pass the Coliseum, the Forum, statues, fountains, old walls and aquaducts.  The kids are like spinning tops as we shout out “Look at that one, and that one, over here, look over there, check that out!” 

We found our apartment on Home Away.  It is tucked into a little side street somewhere in the historic section of town, in an area with restricted driving access. No cars allowed after 2p.  At 2:07p we arrive.   Instead of doing the Italian thing and ignoring the restrictions we are good tourists and park along the river. Teri then heads into the maze of small streets to (1) find and ATM to get the rest of the cash we need to pay for the apartment and (2) see how far we need to carry the bags.  I wait with the kids who are about to explode with excitement.

Turns out the parking gods took care of us and are only half a block from our building.  With a week to explore the city we wanted to be in our own place, with a nice kitchen to take full advantage of the local markets and some room to spread out, lounge around and relax.  At this point in the trip we are looking for a home instead of a hotel, even if it is for just a while. 

Jill (American) and Stephan (German) are waiting for us when we ring the buzzer.  They are incredibly nice people.  This is their apartment that they rent out from time to time: it is their home, very much like we do with our place in Malibu.  

To give a sense of the impression the apartment makes on us is nearly impossible.  You really need to be here.  The building is 500+ years old, sitting on a corner of a cobblestone side street across from an elementary school and down the block from a large church.  The old wooden door opens into a courtyard with a loin head coming out of the wall, spitting water into a huge basin.

The staircase is grand and the elevator is tiny with doors that you close by hand.  The outer door to the apartment opens to a smaller entranceway that has another door opening up into the apartment.   All of the doors are ancient.

When you walk in you immediately notice the high ceilings and the sense of space.  And that it seems to go on forever.  The ceilings are originals, hand painted hundreds of years ago.  Since Jill and Stephan are in the art world almost every inch is covered with art of some kind, all of it perfectly placed and situated.  Books line all of the walls and huge French windows open onto the street in both front and back.  Remember, we have been living in a 7m camper for two months, so at first, we find it hard to even speak.

Our hosts need to run to catch a train to Florence for the weekend so we get a quick download on instructions and then they are off.  In a matter of minutes we are all sitting comfortably on down couches just looking at each other and laughing at our good fortune.  It is too good to be true.

After we stop wandering around getting use to the space, Teri heads out for a quick shop and then I begin my quest to return the car.  For some reason the GPS decided to stop working as I pass the Mausoleo Augusto.  I was on Lungtevere Marzio heading towards Lungotevere Augusta and then I think I am supposed to turn onto Via Ferdinandi di Savola or something like that, where I do a quick right and catch Via Princi Clotilde by the Piazza die Popolo.  What was that name again? 

Instead I am on a bridge going in the wrong direction in what might be a bus lane for oncoming traffic. Vespas come at you at astonishing speeds: they have replaced chariots but its clear the competition remains.  I do the only thing I can: I start blowing my horn, hitting my palm on my forehead and shouting at the other cars.  When in Rome…

The walk back across the city is a pleasure.  It is early evening on a warm Saturday in September.  The streets are crowded, the sun is shining low it the sky, dinner tables are being set and shops are opening back up for the evening.  In the twenty minutes it takes to find our place the streets come alive.  I can’t wait for tomorrow when we can start to explore.

Day Ninety-Four September 19th

Rome has been crumbling forever.  The Romans don’t seem to mind too much though: in fact they seem to make the best of it since they really have no choice in the matter.  Plus “old” looks good on the city with the really old stuff from BC, mixing with “newly old” stuff from AD, to paint a picture of all things Roman.  

The Pantheon is one of these things.  Let me say upfront for those that slept through History in their youth that the Pantheon should not be confused with the Parthenon. When you go looking for a bunch of columns on the hill and end up with a dome in the middle of a square it can be very confusing. Not that I would know, just that it may happen to some people. 

Anyway the Pantheon has been around for two thousand years and is the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built.  The unreinforced part does cross your mind when you stand underneath it.  Another cool thing is that the diameter is the same as the height.  The place is impressive even with the crowds.  There are so many people that you have to fight for floor space. It’s like being in a mosh pit.  

We are in and out in ten minutes.  Check off sight number one.  Vince is convinced the guys outside dressed as ancient Roman soldiers charging for photos are real.  He keeps pointing to and talking about the swords.  We have entered the stage of swords and guns and light sabers.  Such the boy.

Adele and I are focused on gelato.  Lonely Planet has a list of the top five places in the city and we have made it our mission to check them out.  The first stop is Gelatoria Giolitti, a personal favorite of several Popes. 

The place has an attitude.  First off they charge to sit.  I can’t stand that.  Why charge people to sit at a table if they buy something from you?  I still don’t understand it.  Then you pay first and head over to the counter where you fight everyone else to get the servers attention to place your order.  Think of buying a round at White Horse Tavern in NYC on a Friday afternoon around 5:30p.  

I can belly up with the best of them and we manage to get the guys attention but Adele is completely overwhelmed with choices and Teri insists on tasting samples so we end up losing him.  Luckily Vince and I placed our orders, a caffe and pistachio cup and a watermelon cone, before he got away.  We leave the Chicas to fend for themselves.

I get why Pope John Paul II ordered in at the Vatican.  It is superb.  And to think it is only 11a and we are eating ice cream.  The kids just can’t believe it is so.  

Wandering around Piazza Navona and exploring the Pantheon was supposed to take a few hours and be our main sights of the day.  We banged them both out in half an hour.  Best laid plans.  We know from experience that wandering aimlessly in a city with two small children is a mistake.  So we decide to have lunch as soon as we finish our gelatos.  

It turns out that not one but two of the restaurants recommended by Lonely Planet are closed.  Not for good, just for lunch on Sundays.  In a strange twist of fate we find another version of the first one, Pizzeria da Baffetto II, tucked away on a small square off Campo de Fiori, with make shift tables jetting out on the street.   It is packed and the pizza looks amazing so we grab a table.

They ignore us.  I can’t tell if they ignore everyone but for some reason we seem to be invisible.  I know when we order that it’s a mistake.  The food takes forever.  I kid you not we wait almost an hour for three plate size pizzas.  The other tables all turn over while we sit and wait and wait and wait.  

It is times like these that travel becomes weary.  All you want is to eat something and go home and rest but you can’t because you need to eat out and feed the kids and there is not food at the apartment yet and the waiters refuse to see you wave and the pizza takes forever and the guide book is only 50/50 at best and you can’t understand anyone and on it goes.  Until suddenly you are all sitting silently in the back of a crowded restaurant, heads down, just trying to get through the next hour.  It comes on fast.   

Eventually we wind our way back home to nap and rest.  By days end we have gone to the store for the basics so we can eat in, talked for a long time to family and friends back in the States, unpacked and settled in.

It is nice to be in a place for more than a day or two.  This is our first week in one place since we left Malibu.

Day Ninety-Five September 20th 

Monday morning means school.  Nothing like reading about the Vatican as part of your class work in the morning then standing in the center of St. Peters at noon.  

I grew up with Catholics and know them to be a pretty serious bunch.  There were lots of them on Long Island: mostly Italian and Irish, big families with hoards of kids. Growing up Presbyterian I was always jealous that they had a choice to go to Mass on Saturday evening instead of waking up early on Sunday.  Especially during the high school years when sleeping in meant everything.

On occasion as a kid I would go with friends to Mass at St. Anthony’s, everyone went to church back then.  We would all pile into station wagons with three little ones in the way back, four in the back and the parents up front.  People crossed themselves with holy water, priest burned incents, everyone knew all the words and sang along in Latin, we all knelt and prayed and lit candles.  It was great fun: so much more pomp and circumstance than our little church across the street.  You would think this would be enough prep for the Vatican.  Think again.  

Standing in the center of St. Peter’s Square, in the shade of an obelisk brought to Rome by Caligula, circled by 284 columns capped with 140 saints, is surreal.  It is like nothing else: you come to know sheer unbridled power and wealth. 

Then when you walk into the Basilica, into the work of Michelangelo, and stand where Charlemagne was crowned, and by the tomb of St. Peter, and the high alter of the Pope, with its soaring dome and massive statues, it is hard to fathom and understand. It is all so much, so vast and so awesome.  

When you walk though the door and see the interior for the first time you skip a beat.  I actually stop walking and pull in one of those short quick breaths just to try and settle down and digest what we are looking at.  Even the kids stop the constant chatter.  We wander through, mostly in silence. 

Teri and Adele find a side chapel and send a prayer to those of you in need.    
I cannot find words to adequately capture the experience so I must let it pass without putting pen to paper.  All I can say is that everyone should come here.  

Lunch is at Pizzeria Amalfi a few blocks away.  It’s a nice little place, just off the main tourist route.  The food is good and it is nice to sit and relax.  We are in a neighborhood with wide, tree lined streets and plenty of shops.  Adele searches for Roman sandals and running shoes and Vince and I get “football” shirts.  He is now an official member of the all red Scudari Ferrari team: I am donning the royal blue of Italia.  

We return to clean laundry!  Our host Jill volunteered her housekeeper to help us out with a “few Loads.” Little did she know that we needed to wash almost everything we have, she must think we are nuts arriving on vacation with backpacks full of dirty clothes.  How good it feels to have clean tee shirts again.

In our continued quest for the best gelato in Rome, Adele and I stop by Gelato Teatro just around the corner from our apartment.  It is a tiny place at the end of an alley and comes highly recommended by our hosts. The variety is incredible.  Adele orders Ginger and Lemon Cheesecake and I get Caffe and Sicilian Almond.  From the first bite we are hooked. This must be what heroin is all about.

When we return Adele volunteers to cook dinner.  She is more than excited to have the responsibility and takes to the task with earnest.  I must say she is a very good cook at a very young age.  With almost nothing to work with she ends up with “primia” of toasted bread covered in arugula and shaved Parmesan cheese, sprinkled with olive oil and a side of tomatoes. Plus a “secondo” of apples and green beans. Not bad for an eight year old, going on twenty-one.

To close out the day I get and email from the Cooking Vacations people letting me know they refuse to refund any money.  We now need to decide if we are going to sue them or not to try and re-coup the cost. 

Day Ninety-Six September 21st

The fresh market at Campo di Fiori is not to be missed.  Or so Teri and Adele tell me upon their return with bags of fresh vegetables, bread, pastas, cheese and olives.  Vince and I slept in.  After coffee and some schooling we ready to start our day.

Today we explore Ancient Rome.  The main events are the Forum, Palatino and the Colosseo.  Enough ruins to last a lifetime.  The crazy thing about Rome is that you just walk on over.  It is like stopping by a friend’s house for a visit.  

As a warm up we pass by the impressive Monumento a Vittorio Emmanuele II.  I have no idea what it is or why it’s there but “monumento” is certainly appropriate.  It towers high up in the air and is seemingly made entirely of white marble.  There are carved horses and statues of gods and columns and fountains.  The front it gated and there are guards watching out for trouble.  It must be on the tour bus circuit because there are thousands of people standing around snapping photos.  

Stretching out from there on either side of the Via dei Fori Imperiali sit the big three in all their glory.  First up is the Forum.  If you come here buy a combo ticket at the Forum instead of the Coliseum, the line is much more manageable. 

The Forum was the epicenter of Ancient Rome.  Coming in off the street you get the sense that the area has been in continual use pretty much forever.  There are buildings built on top of buildings that sit on top of other building and so on and so on.  Plus, they keep finding new really old ones whenever someone starts digging.  

I was here as a kid.  Back home I still have a piece of a column that I brought back with me from that trip.  I remember being able to just walk around back then and pick stuff up.  Like it was no big deal for a ten year old to walk off with a piece of Caesar’s house.  All these years I have wondered if it is real.  Being here today I now know it is.  My rock looks like all the other pieces lying around.  Only now they don’t let you walk off with one.   

Adele is fascinated when I tell her the story.  And she immediately starts picking up rocks.   We already have a small collection tucked into the nooks and crannies of our bags.  I have a feeling it will only get heavier as we move on.  

The Forum blends into the Palatino.  This is one of the wealthy neighborhoods from the olden days.  The Caesars all lived here: as did the Senators and wealthy citizens.  The ruins are scattered over one of Rome’s seven hills and are impressive even today.  It is interesting to see how everything fit together.

There are houses, temples, arenas, baths, areas for grapes and olives, public squares, arches and streets.  Everything modern Rome has today, really not much has changed after all these years.   

It is fun to walk on ground that people have been covering for so many generations and over so much time.  Back home our house is the first that we know of to sit on our land.  Sure a few Chumash Indians may have camped on the hillside at some point but it is nothing like this.  This is a place of spirits and souls from thousands upon thousands of years.  If you listen close enough you can still hear them whisper on the wind and in the rustle of the olive branches.

Lunch is mediocre: another one lost to a bad Lonely Planet recommendation.  Their guidebooks are proving to be really hit or miss here in Rome.   To make up for it we make a return trip to Gelato Teatro to share our joy with Teri and Vince.  Flavors for today are: Raspberry Garden Sage, Tiramisu, Hazelnut, Vanilla with Chocolate Chip, Pistachio, Walnut and Watermelon.  If we lived here, this place could become an issue!

Around 5p Teri heads out to get a haircut and the kids and I walk over to a glass bead shop to pick up the fixins for new Italian bracelets.  We are already wearing  seashells from Mexico and Viking beads from Norway.  The addition of a few Italian beads certainly adds some bling.

Adele whips up a tomato, fresh basil, garlic and olive sauce for our pasta while Vince and I string the beads.  Teri returns looking fabulously Italian claiming it may be the best haircut she has ever had.  We all agree she looks like a movie star.  

Life goes on like this in Rome.  We add it to the list: not as high up as NYC or Paris, maybe on par with Oslo and certainly ahead of Frankfurt.

Day Ninety-Seven September 22nd 

We need a semi-rest day so today get up late, have school and then head off to the Villa Borghese park with reservations at 1p for the Museo e Galleria Borghese.  

The park is a bit of a walk from the apartment and we enjoy peeking in shop windows and the warm sunshine of mid-morning.  It feels like we are the only tourists out and about as we wander down side streets and snake our way across town.  Then we notice a tour bus. 

When we turn a corner there is a mound of people scrambling about like ants.  Somewhere buried under what appears to be layers of tourists are the famous Spanish Steps.  I have no idea why they are famous: after all it is just a few flights of stairs leading to a street like any other.  

There are so many people standing around that it is just silly.  Most of them are trying to take pictures but you can’t really see the stairs with all the street vendors and people on them. The rest of them are eating ice cream, calling out to each other in various languages and taking up space. Climbing the steps is nearly impossible, especially with the stroller.   

We work up an appetite navigating the sea of tourists so we grab hotdogs from a street cart for the kids and head into the park.  It is so peaceful compared to the hustle and bustle of the city streets.   

The museum sits in the far corner of the park, set in an old Villa, housing the Borghese art collection.  Apparently the Cardinal was a ruthless collector back in his day sometime around 1600 and the Villa showcases the fruits of his efforts.  It may be one of the best museums we have been to on the trip.

The reservation allows a set number of people in at two hour intervals, plenty of time to take it all in.  The artwork sits on two floors, one focuses on sculptures, mosaics and frescos, the other on paintings.  Both are equally impressive.  With the kids we are through in about an hour.  If we were solo we probably would have used the full time allotment.

The museums in Rome are expensive for families.  For some reason they do not offer kids a half price rate (or free under five, like other cities).  Therefore we must pay full boat of all four of us.  If you are a member of the EU the rules are different and kids get in for free.  Someone should call the Italian consulate and tell them to stop nickel and diming US families.  They would see a lot more family business with a more liberal pricing policy.  Not that they need anyone else to visit.  

The afternoon is spent wandering around the park, renting bikes, exploring a kids reading room/play area and working off some pent up energy.  It is a great place to spend the day.

By 4p or so we are wandering down Via Vittorio Veneto, a high-end hotel and shopping street, sort of like our Rodeo or Fifth Ave, in New York.  It is funny to see doormen.  We have been out of that world for so long now that it seems foreign and otherworldly.  

It reminds me that I have come along way in a short amount of time.   A year ago I was on a first name basis with the staff of the Trump International on Columbus Circle.  For the past decade, I logged over well over one hundred thousand frequent flyer miles per year and navigated business travel with comfort and privilege.  I travelled on a wavelength well above the masses.  

Travel was a means to an end, necessary and tolerated.  To others, on the surface it was glamorous and exciting but underneath the long flights and constant stress take their toll.   I don’t miss that life.  Now when I see men in suits getting out of chauffeured limos and rushing into meetings I just stand, pushing the stroller, watching them pass by, and smile.  There but for the grace of God go I…

Now that we are officially main lining gelato our stop at Gelato Teatro comes none too soon.  We have been discussing today’s flavors since we woke up.  Adele gets Lavender Flower and White Peach and I get Pistachio and Pure Chocolate.  Wham!  All is right with the world.   

Dinner is home cooked with local ingredients.  Afterwards we find Bilbo Baggins battling giant spiders and wandering off the path.  Another excellent day.
Day Ninety-Eight September 23rd

We know fountains.  Fountains, oceans, seas, fjords, rivers, rain, Pellegrino, really any water-based thing out there we have intimate first hand knowledge of.  The Fontana di Trevi is supposed to be an epicenter, the grand daddy of them all. It is an entire piazza of carved marble dedicated to Neptune.

Every tourist in Rome is here.  Actually, I think all of the tourist in Italy may be here.  It is so crowded that we can’t even push the stroller.  We maneuver around and push our way towards the front elbowing up to the railing.  It is fun, sort of like sport.

When you actually see the thing it is impressive.  Water spills out everywhere.  Legend has it that if you throw a coin in you will return to Rome someday so everyone is tossing coins from all directions.   We stand and snap a photo or two then move on.  There are way too many people for us.

Teri and the kids are headed to a children’s museum and I am off in the opposite direction to the train station to pickup the tickets to Salerno. Before we split we have lunch in a great little restaurant packed with statues.  

The main terminal is a half hour walk and worlds away.  The area around it is sort of seedy as you would expect but it is masked by the grandeur of ruins.  The homeless and hustlers sit beneath marble statues and ancient aquaducts.  Cheap hotels are in five hundred year old buildings.  

The line for EuroStar Italia is manageable by Italian standards, lasting only about forty-five minutes.  It is a good thing to do without kids.  It would feel like an eternity with them in tow.  The station is very busy with people coming and going: it’s a healthy mix of tourists and locals seemingly tolerant of each other. The Polizia are there in force in the event they are not.  

After a long walk home I find myself in the middle of a religious parade.  They entire congregation is marching through the streets behind four pallbearers carrying a bust of some saint or monk.  The priest is preaching into a portable microphone that is connected to big speakers held up on poles by parishioners.  It looks like a scene from a movie. 

The parade lasts forever.  They keep walking around the block and then returning to the main square just down from our apartment.  This morning the police came and took away all the cars parked there so the church could set up chairs for the outside service.  Now people have shown up looking for their cars only to find chairs full of old ladies and several separate arguments flare up around the edges as they come to realize their cars are gone.  The whole thing is pretty chaotic.  All the while the service continues unabated.  

Remember the computer?  It is North Carolina.  A customs agent emailed us asking for paperwork.  They will not release it in the States without proof we bought it there and we don’t owe any kind of import tax.  This required printing, signing and scanning documents.  A task that is near impossible when you travel off the grid.

The kids return singing the praises of the Children’s Museum and clamoring about gelato.  It is that time of day.  Today is a mix of milk chocolate, strawberry, coconut, basil and walnut. As regulars our portions are getting a bit bigger each time and the server’s smile that much broader.  

Tonight we try a local Neapolitan place around the corner for pizza and pasta.  Naples pizza is between the ultra thin Roman crusts and the thicker crusts up north.  It’s a good meal in a comfortable atmosphere.  Vince spends most of the time running up and down the sidewalk avoiding his dinner and Adele is in heaven with a pizza without cheese!

Day Ninety-Nine September 24th

Today is our last full day in Rome.  Our time here went by so fast and we are sad to see it end.  It’s raining so there is no need to hurry this morning.  Instead we have an extra long school session and begin the process of packing and organizing for the next leg.  

Our main sight today is just across the Tiber from our apartment.  The Castel Sant’Angelo is a two thousand year old mausoleum built for the emperor Hadrian.  It is an imposing structure, made even more so by the rain, that sits just down from the Vatican and promises excellent views of the city.  

It is dark and mysterious.  To get to the top there is a tunnel/pathway that winds along the outer wall, dimly lit and down right spooky.  The kids jump at ghost noises.  At the mid point they let you out onto an outer walkway for the first view of the city.  It is great fun looking at our apartment and all the places we have seen over the past few days.

Then they take us back inside to tour some really bad paintings of old kings and Popes before we climb a few more flights of stairs to the top section on the roof.  Here the view really is incredible.  

Me: “Look kids, there’s the Vatican!”
Vince: “Mannequins?”
Me:  “No the Vatican, see the big dome?”
He then runs around pointing to all the domes of the city.
Vince: “Dad a Mannequin, look, look, lots of mannequins all over the place!”

On the way down we find stacks of cannon balls, suits of armor, swords and pistols.  In the mid-point we veer off onto a secret passageway that connects the Vatican city to the Castel.  Over the years when ever the Vatican came under attack the Popes would use it to flee to safety.  

When we come back over the river we stop in to a shop that I have been walking by all week.  The owner sits hand making mosaic tiles.  These are modern day works of art based on applying the ancient process to modern interpretation.  He has a dark side of the moon album cover next to a replica from Pompeii.  We watch him work for a while and he explains the process and the different valuations. The finer the tile pieces the higher the cost. Adele is totally into it.

For dinner there is much confusion since we left the guidebook at home and have no recommendation.  We wander around looking for someplace to no avail.  In the end, we go back to the same place we went to last night and call it a day. 

To end the week on a high note Adele and Teri head over and then bring back one more round of gelato.  Today we have caramel, peach and something called trofilino (?), it’s some kind of chocolate mix.  If you come to Rome, go out of your way to go to Gelato Teatro, on your first day as it is habit forming, I promise it will not disappoint.  

And we really recommend staying in Jill and Stephan’s apartment instead of a hotel.  The comfort and freedom it provides can’t be beat. Plus, they are some of the nicest people we have met.

Tomorrow we go south to Ravello, Amalfi, Capri, Pompeii, and our first week with someone meeting us from home!  We can’t wait to see our Aunt Denise.
It is hard to believe that nine years have passed.  When we wake up on 9.11 we stop and remember 2001 and send out our thoughts and prayers.

Day Eighty-Six September 11th 

Up to a warm Tuscan sunshine.  We wander around looking for breakfast eventually finding a plate of meat and cheese (the same as last evening) some stale cereal, a bowl with random fruit set on a table and some flavored yogurts from the supermarket.  Trying to figure out the coffee maker is near impossible.  The tables are still in disarray from dinner and there is no one about for the first half hour or so.  We simply fend for ourselves and try to make the best of it.  

By late morning we move to our new room. Finally, I also get the password to access the Internet.  The one they gave me last night was incorrect.

Sitting on a bench outside the “pizza oven and barbeque” area because this is the only place I can get a signal, by the way the barbeque is filthy and has been turned over to the cats, I discover we have paid roughly 2.5 times the amount it would cost to book the same week online.  Worst fears confirmed.

Then we start to look around.  Everything here is shoddy.  The “winery” sits behind a locked fence towards the back of the house, all the machinery sits idle, disconnected, propped up and leaning together.  Below, sitting in a flat outside the fence, are bundles of wine bottles, covered in dust and dirt, clearly untouched in ages.

The pool is unusable for a four year old.  There is no way for him to get in or out.  The tiles around the edge are loose in places and most of the furniture is old and broken in some way.  The umbrellas have pieces of notebook paper stuck in the stands to keep them from tipping over.   They do anyway and blow into the pool almost taking out Adele in the process.

Then we check into our new room.  There are holes in several windows, big ones cut in for some air conditioning system used at some point in the past but never fixed. The unit sits idle in the corner taking up space, cord and connects draped about.  The shower is moldy and the oven is covered with pieces of old food, the carpet is stained, the fake plant is covered in dust, the springs show through the worn pillows on the sofa.   The kitchen is completely bare: the fridge is not turned on, there is not ice or cold water, no spices, salt or pepper, not even olive oil.  The pictures on the walls are faded faux art posters from 1996 placed in plastic frames.  The television is a 12-inch model from years ago, my computer has a larger screen.  There is no Internet access from here since the wireless only works very near the “office.” It is not for the faint of heart and is uncomfortable in every way. You don’t want to take off your shoes.

Starving, we try and walk to the “local village”.  It is 7k away.  There is a place at the base of the hill but the nice women working in the kitchen tells us it is very expensive and she does not recommend it.  That is until she realizes we don’t have a car then she shrugs her shoulders and wishes us luck. Clearly we need a car.  

This is insanity coming full circle as we had a discussion with Lauren, the women from Boston, asking if we could keep the car we had and the pick up in Florence for Sunday, giving us mobility to settle in but they said no we don’t need one and that we needed to be picked up yesterday.  This means we now need to spend another thousand dollars for a car so we can get away from this place during the week. There is nothing in walking distance. 

Not knowing what else to do we talk to Fabrizio.  He refuses to address our concerns about paying 2.5 times the going rate and appears shocked at what the folks in Boston charged us for last evening.  Even he scoffs at the price for the room.  He tells us there is nothing he can do for the rates of the room and the classes but that he will agree to cancel the driver for the “eight hour driving tour” since we will now have a car and we don’t need a driving tour.  He says he will take the 400E he would pay the driver and use it to rent us a car.  He also suggests that “maybe there has been a mistake in the billing” the “maybe we have been charged too much for the cooking and the children” and that he will check with Lauren.  Maybe it is a way to save face and to get everything back on track.  I have no idea.
When we do some quick math and send an email to Lauren in Boston outlining our concerns with the room and suggesting a partial refund she refuses and becomes increasing hostel.  Apparently they have not heard of customer service.  It is a very bad situation.  We have clearly been taken advantage of and for a lot of money.  

There is a welcome dinner that is supposed to be “a tour of the winery and a wine tasting.”  There is neither.  They serve Campari and soda in plastic cups and finger food at the “pool house.”  Again, there are no drinks for kids and no alternatives for them to eat, if they refuse the same meat and cheese from last night and breakfast or the items made by a class earlier in the day, they go hungry! Melon balls and cured meats just don’t work for four year olds.

Dinner is very odd.  We sit with the Australian women again and a couple from Dana Point that arrived today.  The host Fabrizio joins our table and hovers over the new arrivals, retelling the tales about wine making from our lunch the day before.   There is one other table with three guest couples and then two other tables: one with the staff of the nearby stable and the other with their children.  None of us can figure out what they are all doing there.  They all keep to themselves and don’t mingle.  The least they could do ask if we want to include ours kids at the kid table.  Instead they sit with us.

Vincent tries desperately to play with the other kids.  It is almost painful to watch him try and connect as he wants to play so badly. The other little boy’s mother does not seem to want her son to stray too far.  

At one point I find Vince on the stairs to our room, just sitting there on a step, head held in his hands, almost in tears.  When I ask him why he explains that he was trying to play cars when the other little boys mother came and “hurt him on the arm when she grabbed him to come away, he was crying.”  When I tell him these things can happen sometimes he looks up confused and hurt with a look that says, “but mommies don’t hurt kids”.  It is heartbreaking.  Then to add to it all he says, “I just want to be friends.”  I have tears as I write this.

Day Eighty-Seven September 12th

After another breakfast, the same as yesterday, I head off to find Fabrizio to take me over to the airport to pick up the car so we can get out of here for the day.  He is beside himself and unable to speak to me.  Apparently he read our email outlining a few of the issues with the room (the holes in the windows, springs in the couch and food in the stove to name a few) and now he refuses to speak to us because we have insulted his house and in turn his family.  He actually brushes me off with his hand and says he must not speak to me about these things any more as it is too painful for him.  I ask for someone else and he points me to a woman down in the kitchen. 

Regarding the ride to the airport he lets me know he will call a taxi since he does not want to ride with me due to our email on the room condition.  It is unbelievable.   We agree on an 11:30 pick up.

At 11:30 Fabrizio suddenly wants to drive me over, I can only assume it is to avoid paying the taxi fare.  When we get to the car rental counter I ask if he would like to charge the car or pay cash to which he says he can do neither.  I offer to wait for him to go to an ATM and he refuses claiming he does not have any money.  He gives me “his word” that he will get me the money in cash or charge back 400E to my credit card (350E for the driving tour and 50E for the unused airport transfer) as soon as we get back to the villa.  

Meanwhile Lauren from Boston sends an email responding to our concerns and suggestions with the following:

“Subject: Cooking Vacations has the right to and will remove you from the Program without refund.”  You would not believe the email so I will spare you the detail.  To think that this is their response to the issues we have with the condition of the room and to our suggested compromise on the package rate.  It is all really insane. 

I cannot believe that this is how they handle customer complaints.  They seem to be getting more and more aggressive with each email so we stop the correspondence.  The situation is clearly impacting all of us, including the kids. 

By the time I get back from picking up the rental car, Teri is sitting in disbelief, incredibly uncomfortable and near tears, Adele is in tears and sobbing sitting by the bags and Vince is visible concerned.  Enough is enough, we need to leave.  

It is very difficult to actually pack the car and get out as Fabrizio follows our every move and aggressively tries to stop us.  He keeps waving his cell phone and dialing the woman in Boston, then pushing the phone at me demanding I speak to her. When I tell him that Lauren should call our cell if she wants to talk about the situation it only gets worse.  It seems that once he realizes we are actually leaving he panics.  By the time we get the car doors locked and start down the drive my hands are actually shaking.  What a way to spend a summer vacation.

Without reservations for the night we head to a Tourist Office just outside of Florence in Fiesole to try and find a room.  They have none but recommend a new hotel just down the hill that recently opened. Apparently they may have a few rooms since they are so new.  So with nowhere else to go and daylight hours fading fast we head over with fingers crossed.

The entrance looks like every other Tuscan Villa on the block so naturally we pass by two or three times before we actually find the place.  When we do manage to locate and enter the gates and start up the drive towards the main house our frame of mind immediately improves.  By the time our tour of the main house is over and we have selected a room we know we have found a home for a few days.   

This has been some day: the hardest thus far.  They say adversity makes you stronger.  Today, I am not so sure…

Day Eight-Eight September 13th

Welcome to Il Salviatino!  

The Villa has been a private residence until the recent owner upgraded the place and turned it into a five star hotel.  It has 45 rooms, all unique and different ranging from ours (the smallest) to a grand suite with a fireplace so big you can stand in it.  The library is too much to try and capture with words.  The dining area is perched above a formal garden and overlooks the lights of Florence.  The swimming pool sits down a hillside tucked away in a private valley.  It is the complete opposite of the last few days and a much needed refuge to all the chaos.

We spend the morning settling in and re-energizing.  The kids have school; I catch up on the journal and Teri books much of our upcoming Turkey trip.  By mid-afternoon Teri and the kids head off to a park while I tackle more bills and logistics back home. 

It is a day spent trying to forget about the cooking school fiasco and shaking off the trauma of the experience.  Honestly, it was all so shocking to the system that we are sort of pacing through the day reviewing the last 48 hours and wondering what happened.  You know the feeling when someone takes full advantage of you, knows that you know they are doing it, and then does it anyway? We got taken for a ride and it feels terrible.  

I have dinner with Vince on the terrace while Teri and Adele get in-room service.  Vin and I play with magnets and have fun sitting under a big tarp during a hard rainstorm.  It is nice to be sitting warm and dry and enjoying the time together.  At the end of the day we all watch the US Open and drift off to sleep.  

Best to be here more so than anywhere else.

Day Eighty-Nine September 14th

After breakfast on the veranda, it is oh so civilized here, school starts with a new class taught by dad: gym.  I figure some organized exercise might be in order to burn off some energy and keep everyone fit (including me!).  We start with jump rope and move on to various forms of long jump, high jump and leaping in general.  Vince gets to be the coach, one of his favorite things in life, and Adele gets to jump, one of her favorite things.  For the two-hour class all is well.

Except for Teri who has been on the phone dealing with the computer (remember the new computer stuck in customs in Koln?  It finally arrived, about five days behind us but then our friends left for vacation so it got delayed again.  They just got back and now we need to figure out logistics. 

Apparently we cannot get it to Italy with any certainty.  The mail is so unpredictable that everyone recommends against using it.  At one point we are considering taking a train back to Stuttgart to pick it up until we learn it is something like 14 hours to get there.  In the end, we decide to try and send it back to the States so our friend Denise who meeting us in Ravello at the end of the month can bring it back over to us in person.  

If it gets delayed in customs on the return to the States we will pass the thirty-day return window with Apple, miss Denise’s flight and end up with a computer that we cannot seem to get hold of sitting idle in LA.  It takes the better part of the day to figure all of this out.  Perhaps it was not meant to be.  

The pool, or should I say pools, here are pretty spectacular.  While Teri struggles with FedEx, we lounge around for the mid-afternoon stretch, have some lunch, stage underwater swimming contests, work on our floating and try to relax.

The hotel has set us up with Uffizi reservations for Adele and Teri at 5:15p so we all load up into the car and drive downtown.  On a side note, the hotel washed our rental car for us because they noticed some dust and dirt and they thought it best. Not once did they wash it, but twice because it rained after they washed in the first time so they thought it needed a second rinse.  I swear to you this is true.  We are ready to move in. 

It is surprisingly easy to drive downtown, just about ten minutes or so.  And by shear luck we land a parking space right along the Arno just a quick hop from the museum.  In no time the “chicas” are viewing art and the “chicos” are sitting in the main square chasing pigeons.  I ask you, who had more fun?   

In less than an hour, after all we did the Louvre in two hours flat, the “chicas” bump into us by chance and we all decide to find a place for a quick bit.  If you come to Florence stop by the Cantinetta dei Verrazzano just off the Piazza and tell the waiter you’re a Yankee fan.  Then run and duck for cover.  Apparently the Red Sox nation is alive and well in Florence: so says the man whose mother is a native Bostonian father native Florentine.  He was born in Italy but you would never know it as he easily converses in English (yes, with a Boston accent), Italian and French.  The food is great, conversation lively and atmosphere just what you need after the hustle and bustle of the main square.

From here we head “home” to the Villa on the hill and take advantage of our wireless connection for Skype calls to family back in the States.  It is always good to be reminded that despite the wrongs and injustices people inflict upon you that life goes on and you really need to put them behind and move on.  Leave the negative energy back at cooking school.  

After all you only go around once in life, might as well make the best of it.  

Day Ninety September 15th

Breakfasts are becoming one of the highlights of the day.  All of the hotels include breakfast with the room and the meals are top notch.  Today starts with pancakes, fresh fruit, yogurts, eggs, a plate of salami and cheese, fresh baked bread and strong coffee.  Ah, so good to be an Italian!  It will be tough going back to Cheerios with skim milk let me tell you.

Sadly, we must leave.  The service here has been some of the best we have experienced in all of our years of travel. In fact, the overall experience here makes Il Salviatino one of the best hotels we have ever stayed in.  There is no doubt in my mind that we will return.  If you ever get the chance to stay do not miss it.

It is a beautiful day for driving.  The funny thing about the GPS is that after awhile you blindly follow it even if instinct tells you otherwise.  We knew the town of Portonovo was almost due east of Florence and on the coast.  So why then, when we are cruising at 130K towards Bologna, due north and inland, don’t you say to the GPS, “are you sure?”  Maybe it’s the English voice that is getting me, after all she is so polite when giving directions and she tries so hard with the long Italian street names.

At around 5p, after 3 hard hours of travel, we turn down a narrow single lane road following a sign to Portonovo.  This one is in the middle of the country.  It seems a bit out of whack that Napoleon would build a seaside fort in the suburban Bologna. We are over 200k in the wrong direction.  What do you do?

It’s 5p everyone is hungry and getting grouchy by the minute, we have nowhere to stay and the prospects are dim.  It is getting dark earlier here so by the time we re-assess and decide to head towards the coast night is falling.  6p turns to 7p turns to 8p and we are still driving.

Napoleon was a mad man. Every time he conquered someplace he gave it to one of his family members for safekeeping.  At some point he built a fort in Portonovo on the Adriatic Sea to protect the town of Ancona from the British of all people. Apparently they always got under his skin.  

Luckily for us the fort is now a hotel.  When we leave the highway and make the final descent to the sea with have no idea where we are or what lies around us.  All we know is that we are clearly in the middle of nowhere.  No phones, no lights, no motorcars.  

There are big cannons guarding the main entrance, back light for effect and dramatic as can be when driving up out of total darkness.  It is magical.  There are big thick walls with little windows closed off with shutters.  A main room in the center is surrounded by breezy interior walkways.  Everything is made of stone. The place was built in 1803 based on plans designed by Michelangelo.  All that and the ocean’s so close, the waves so loud, that you feel like you are sleeping on the beach.    

Adele and I try and see the ocean and get our bearing but it is too dark to make much out beyond the break.  We go to sleep having no idea what we are in for.

Day Ninety-One September 16th

It is sunny when we rise.  Even before the buffet we rush to check out the beach.  It is glorious.  That’s right, glorious!  Rocks worn by the sea lead down to clear blue water.  No sand here for the meek and mild, just miles of rocks and ocean.  The bay is perfect.  Having grown up across the street from one I appreciate a good bay when I see one.  This one is perfect.  Think Cinnamon Bay on St. Johns only with rocks, the warm, salty Adriatic Sea and Italian hills spilling down to the shore.  I cannot get over it.    

We take full advantage of the buffet (as always) and then go to school for an hour or so, but all the while our minds are at the beach.  By 10:30a we are swimming.  The salt content is so high here you can taste it when you lick your arm.  Plus, you float so easily!  

The rocks are something: some flat, others round, many that look like eggs, a few agates tucked in here and there.  We spend hours checking them out.  The flat ones build excellent fort walls to protect the crabs from the waves.  The long oval ones are great for massaging backs.  There are skippers that easily jump half a dozen times and small pieces of tile from the “olden days” mixed in now and again. By noon my pockets are so full of “keepers” I cannot stand.  

Meals are pretty uncomplicated as we are in Umbria, the “slow food” capital of Italy. This means that almost everything is grown on the hillsides and caught in the bay. Then it is prepared with the utmost care and doled out slowly over time.  Lunch can take hours, dinner even longer. 

Since we are here mid-week in September, no one else is save for a few locals.  The kids can run freely, watched over by everyone on the beach.  We are able to sit and enjoy our meal while they run and wade.  It is nice and peaceful.

After lunch we take one more dip before going back to nap.  Adele is swimming really well.  We actually head out about 25-30 yards off shore for the first time, far out by any standard.  She does the crawl back in, nice and relaxed, never worried, treading when she needs to.  It the first time she is actually swimming and she is beyond excited.  So am I knowing she can handle herself in the water. A milestone.  When she wins the 200 fly at the 2020 games I will be quick to tell the world that it all started here in the Adriatic.  

Vincent befriends the Italians.  There is a pack of locals, probably three generations  deep and maybe four families wide, that finds him irresistible.  The elders take him under their wing and help him catch crabs to put into his little plastic cup.  He squeals with excitement while they laugh with sheer joy.  Both sides talk a mile a minute neither having any idea what the other is saying.  Vince is naming the crabs, talking about Lightning McQueen and telling them all about how the crabs can come on the trip around the world.  They all nod, shout out “Vincenzo!’ and clap hands.  

For dinner we go to the other place.  Not to be outdone, it is certainly as good as the first.  This time we start with fresh mussels in white wine, lemon and garlic, just like when I was a kid on Long Island.  My kids cannot believe we used to pick them when I was little on Sunday afternoons right from our beach on the Long Island Sound.  That’s followed by a truffle and fresh catch risotto.  The sea breeze blows gently in and the waves lap the shore.  Really, why ever eat out again?  Can it get any better?

After a tough day we end up exploring the fort with Vincent’s headlamp looking for crabs and making sure the cannons are kept at bay.   If Napoleon only knew…

Day Ninety-Two September 17th

It’s raining again.  I cannot believe that we are finally on the perfect beach to burn off a few days and relax for a bit and it is raining.  What have done to offend the weather gods so? 

Let’s be honest, not much can slow us down if we sense a good day to drive.  Besides the hotel is supposed to be full this evening so its at best only a 50% chance we will clear stand by.  By the time we swing by the desk to see if they have room for us for one more night we already have a full tank of espresso and one foot out the door.  

The front desk guy hems and haws.  He frowns, shakes his head, points at the computer, shakes his head some more, stands up and shakes his head, actually slaps his head full on with the palm of his hand and then disappears to the rear office. We stand in silence.  After several minutes of hushed conversation he emerges and quietly whispers, “it’s OK, but we only have 53.”  We stare back blankly. It is like he is speaking in some kind of code.  His eyebrows dance up and down.

Last night we were in room 50, right next to the office, so we can only imagine what room 53 is like.  He waves us on to follow him, “we see if it works”.  Then we all walk into the restaurant.  Thinking he is going to put us in the kitchen, I immediately start to think up excuses to rescue us.  He holds the door until we are all inside, then he marches us out the other side and down a long narrow stone corridor we have been using to get to the beach.

Suddenly he stops in front of Napoleons suite.  I have no idea why he decides to gift us a night in the best suite in the house at the same cost as our small little one room next to the office but he does and it is unbelievable.  We have two big rooms and separate bath, television with English kids programming, and separate beds for Adele and Vince.  All this on a rainy day when staying inside is inevitable.  

By the look on our faces and the shrieks of joy from the kids, he knows that we know and appreciate what he has done for us.  He never breaks form. When I confirm it is for the same price as the other he almost half smiles, just for a second, and then he shrugs his shoulders saying, “yes”.

I draw the math card today and Adele and I start in on the multiplication table.  It is so much fun to watch others discover something.  She dutifully writes out 2-12 along the top and sides, then we start along the horizontal ending at 144 and then finally we back fill sections.  Each time she fills in a row and starts to see how the numbers form patterns and relate to one another she gets a rush of excitement.  It is as if she is the first to discover a great secret about something she really loves and it makes it all the better.  

After school we need to run into the city of Ancona to pick up cash for the apartment in Rome.  The payment wire was too difficult to pull off on the road so we need cash when we check in tomorrow.  Unfortunately, with the ATM limits on International withdrawals, it has been difficult stock piling.  If you head over seas make sure you up your daily limits before leaving the states.

The first two machines don’t work.  This is common in Italy but we are still concerned.  Finally, on the third try, we find one that does.  My card is working but Teri’s is still out of commission.  For the record, we spent almost an hour on the phone with BOA two days ago and they assured us it would all be in working order.  I can’t stand that bank.  

Ancona offers little except a boat ride to Croatia if you are so inclined.  We are not but we are hungry and we do find a little out of the way pizza join with very good extra thin and crispy slices.  This is Roman style pizza.

Once back at the fort Adele and I are determined to swim, even under cloud cover.  We find the water to be so warm that we are actually warmer swimming than standing on the beach.  Once we get in others soon follow, kind of like they were waiting for someone to take the first plunge.  

By the time we get back Vince is literally bouncing off the walls: he has so much energy.  I eventually get him outside where he just runs and runs in circles around the patio by the beach.  It is crazy.  For a full half hour all he does is run.  You would think that he would be worn out come dinnertime, but no, he is still as manic as ever, only now he is tired as well, always a dangerous combination.

To thank our hotel for the upgrade we decide to eat in the restaurant onsite and drop some coin in the kitty.  The food here is excellent.  Lemon sole, a mixed fresh catch grill and pastas for the kids.  They even have lobsters on ice, watching us eat and still moving around if you look close enough.  Vince holds out until dessert thanks to the iPad and the Backyardagins.  In the end we all begin to melt.  

Despite the rain it has been a good beach day and a most pleasant stay at the fort.  We really love Portonovo and hope to return someday, but as of tomorrow all roads lead to Rome…
“We don’t build cars, we build dreams.”  -  Enzo Ferrari 

Day Seventy-Nine September 4th

Goodbyes are always hard, especially when you don’t really know when you will see someone again.  For Adele this has been an especially good time as she and Mira have been playing together pretty much non-stop since we arrived.  It has been nice for her just to be a kid again.  Staying and viewing how folks live the day-to-day life here has been a great experience for all of us.  

You realize that where and how you stay really shapes your view of the place you are visiting: the apartment in Paris, our HOW and camping, the hotel stays and now staying with friends in country.  All very different from one another: all impacting us in different ways.

It proves you need to think about how you are going to tackle travel and the type of experiences you want.  I think cities are best served via apartments (if you have a week or more) and/or hotels (for shorter stints).  When exploring the countryside camping is best hands-down.  It’s a great way to cover distance and get a big picture.  For immersion into culture and language stay with friends or in cities and hang for a while without pressure to move on or do anything.  Here you need to put the agenda aside and let the days take on a life of their own.  We like them all and are thankful we have the opportunity for such variety.

After our goodbyes we load up and move on.  Always moving on.  Our drive is a long one stretching from roughly Stuttgart to Lago di Garda.  Everything moves along at around 140kph until we hit Innsbruck.  Then the bumper-to-bumper traffic begins.  

For some reason (we think it’s a tollbooth on the Italian side) the traffic is backed up for hours on end. We crawl along in second gear seemingly forever inching our way into the Dolomites.  The borders come and go, license plates change from G to A to I, speed limits and protocol go up and down. All of it is in three quarter time.

Around 6p, after seven hours in the car, we bail on Lago di Gardo saving the rest of the trip for tomorrow and stop off in Bolzano set in a deep valley way up in the Dolomites.  We are at the very top of Italy looking down from on high.  Out hotel, Stadt Hotel Citta, sits on the corner of a cobblestoned square complete with cafes, a statue, a grand fountain and plenty of Italians.  Finding the place seems crazy to an American from So Cal but the Italians take no notice of someone driving on the insanely narrow pedestrian walk streets.  What’s a few wrong turns between friends?  

This is our first night of living our “hotel” lifestyle so we do what anyone would and bring everything we own in with us.  It takes two main trips and one or two more before nights end to get settled.  It’s clear we need a new packing strategy.  Vince loves hotels so he is talking non-stop and moving constantly.  Adele is crashing from the long drive and once again leaving friends and moving on.  Teri and I just sort of sit and try and get our bearings, shuffling from bag to bag looking for stuff.

A big change going forward will be meals.  We pretty much need to eat three meals a day out since we no longer have refrigeration and/or storage space.  On the surface this may seem like a luxury to some but when you have kids and are used to setting your own schedule it is not as exciting as it seems.  Plus, it is much more expensive.

At Lonely Planets recommendation we head out to our hotel’s restaurant on the square.  It is so good to be back in the city.  People are strolling arm in arm. Couples and families, children and old folks all mix together creating a collage of daily life here.  Drama is everywhere: in facial expressions, cadence and volume of conversation, dress and appearance.  It is a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere, one that we intend to enjoy to the fullest.

Day Eighty September 5th

The unplanned places we encounter along the way tend to be some of the best, probably due to the surprise factor.  The Messner Mountain Museum is definitely one of these places.  Any serious armchair mountaineer knows of Reinhold Messner.  The holder of many “firsts” including the summit of Everest without oxygen, a feat considered impossible at the time.  It seems he is actually Italian and that he cut his climbing teeth here in the Dolomites outside of Bolzano.  

To celebrate climbing and the highest peaks around the world he has built five museums set in historic castles up in this neck of the woods.  The one we are at this morning is his centerpiece sitting just outside of town.  It is fantastic.  Thought out the rooms of the old castle and peppered though out the grounds are relics of his climbs and commentary on the expeditions.

There are oil paintings of peaks and climbers, prayer flags and cairns, statues, symbols and mythology from the seven summits, an extensive photo collection, music and burning incense.  These are all interwoven to tell a story of truly epic adventure.  

Like the Vikings, Kon Tiki and Fram this museum speaks to us and flames the desire for adventure.  By lunchtime Adele and Vince are climbing rocks and discussing repelling technique, Teri is recounting her Rainer summit and I am eyeing my Vasques wondering if they are up for some hard-core altitude.  Perhaps Nepal will find its way back on the itinerary.

The drive south into Italy reminds us of the fjords only with land in the ravens instead of water.  The Dolomites are a beautiful range, well worth exploring someday.  They are lighter in color than the Alps, not quite as steep but still big and broad just the same, almost creating a buffer from the North, shielding Italy from the rest of Europe, or vice versa.

Our destination this evening is the town of Sirmione on Lago di Garda.  Sirmione is known as an historic, ancient town on an islet tucked into the lake where Italians come to relax and vacation.  How great does that sound?  It’s is all going along fine until we get to the part about checking in with the police before we enter the “old section” that is “limited to hotel and pedestrian” traffic.  

There is a barrier blocking the drawbridge, barely visible behind all the people.  It is 2p on a Sunday and the town is teaming with people.  They are everywhere.  I cannot express the intense fear and disbelief that accompanies a nod from the policeman as he waves us on.  No kidding, even as I write this, I still cannot believe he told us to drive head on into the crowd.

Forget about how narrow the streets are; forget about the labyrinth of blind twists and turns, the tunnels passing through buildings and an impossible to understand blinking traffic light system.   Forget about the cars coming at you, thousands of people pressed against the walls for fear of being crushed, the baby carriages taking up too much room on the sides and the old people walking obliviously down the center.  

Think of an “intermediate” sized Skoda (we really should have tried to squeeze into the Fiat 500 again), with German plates (thankfully, since they assume the Germans will just run them over) a failing GPS system (the roads are too small and narrow to get a proper signal), a really bad map (from the tourist office used as a walking guide) and us, nervously inching forward.

It was the worse drive of my life and an excruciating ten minutes that I hope never, ever to repeat.

When we get out on the other side of hell we find our Hotel Olivia, a pretty postcard of a retreat at the far end of the island.  The lobby is markedly Italian with marble floors and columns in greens, pinks and yellows.  The average age of the people spread out on the white and red furniture is about 110 years old, save for a few middle age men with their mothers.   It’s all very trippy, like some kind of weird 1950s Italian movie.  

The best thing to do in these situations is swim.  So we head to the pool to let out some steam and try and relax.  It is deathly quiet with a bunch of old brown (perhaps they prefer “golden”) people that look like they have been here forever.  I feel like we are on display.  

These are the old “golden” people that you may want to be like when you grow up. Someone once referred to them as raisins, a perfect description for the occasion.  They are so incredibly tan, wear heavy gold bracelets and chains, big baggy boxer swim trunks and hats to block the sun.  They clearly don’t give a dam what anyone thinks about anything.  They just stand around in the cold Jacuzzi and talk in hushed tones for hours on end, hands gesturing and moving about, occasionally laughing.  They are genuinely content passing by the days and hours at the Hotel Olivia.

At 5p the pool guy rings a bell and people appear out of nowhere.  It is almost comical to see everyone line up, grab a cup and a biscuit and then sit and chat at the poolside tables.  They all move from lying horizontally on the lounge chairs to sitting upright at tables.  Its weird and we have no idea what is going on, but everyone seems to be there. I assume coffee, the kids are running around looking for ice cream and I think Teri is counting on a glass of the local red.  Instead we get tepid English Breakfast.  

Dinner is fun.  We find our restaurant just off the main drag and end up sitting outside in a courtyard next to a lemon tree.  It is a meal of tomato and mozzarella, pasta and the local catch of the day.  Teri samples the local wines, Adele and I continue our quest of the perfect water “with gas” and even Vince gets in the game with an affinity for the local “flat” water.  All is well.

We are home to bed around 10p, early for Italy, for school starts tomorrow.

Day Eighty-One September 6th

Up to a very slow day.  They have a nice buffet here with good strong coffee, much needed to fight off the clouds and rain this morning.  Seems the weather has followed us.  Not so good for our pool plans.

The kids start school.  We are home schooling both Adele and Vince and are going to start with an hour or so each morning and see how it goes.  Teri has the first shift so I head down to the lobby to write up journal notes.  Two hours later the kids emerge full of energy and excitement.  They both love school.  

Not much else happens.  We wander around the town, it is much more enjoyable on foot, ducking into places for both lunch and dinner.  There is some pool time between the rainy spells and some running around and playing in the front yard.

We do learn that the new computer has actually arrived in Germany but our friend is now off on vacation until the 11th so we have no way to resend it anywhere. We are beginning to feel that logistics are near impossible on the road and shipping anything is a potential fiasco.

It is slow day that just fades back into night.

Day Eighty-Two September 7th

Today is much the same as yesterday.  The weather is unchanged with clouds and some rain now and again.  We have decided to move on tomorrow, several days early, to try and find sunshine and a more kid-oriented hotel.  Without the pool there is nothing for them to do here. 

After school we all walk over to explore some ruins at the very point of the peninsula.  It turns out this is the largest private residence uncovered from the early Roman times.  It stretches out, expanding around each corner and falling down into the sea.  The upper section, a vast flat area on the top of a hill, is actually the main floor of the original villa.  As we wander down we go through porticos, bedrooms, kitchens, support structures, pathways, all kinds of chambers, columns and staircases.  It ignites the imagination.

Adele and Vince pose as statues, climb the rock walls, search for yet to be discovered “artifacts” along the stone pathways, pick olives from ancient trees and dream of being the family of the original owners.  We discuss what life must have been like in those times, the good and the bad, given them a real life history lesson.  These home school field trips will be tough to beat!

In the evening we find a comfortable out of the way local place for a quick meal.  Vincent sits outside on the step “performing” and getting his photo taken by people passing by.  No fear of the limelight with this one.  By 10p of so we are finally back home and off to sleep.

Day Eight-Three September 8th

Fearing the drive back out of the old town we start our day early hoping to avoid pedestrian traffic.  The strategy works.  Despite the rain and incredible tight turns the drive is much more manageable before 9a.  

There are two stops today as we travel down towards Florence, , one for Adele and one for Vince.  The first one, Modena, may ring a bell if you like Balsamic Vinegar.  This is the epicenter of the vinegar world.  Every bottle of balsamic vinegar in the States claims to hail from here.  

Adele’s favorite thing in the whole world is bread, oil and vinegar (and dad’s pasta, thank you very much).  She eats it whenever possible: she takes it to school for lunch, enjoys an after school snack, before dinner, with dinner, as dinner, after dinner.  She’ll even try to work it into the breakfast menu given the chance.  Today we get to see how it is made!

When we get to Modena things are a bit hectic.  No surprise parking is difficult and some what of a mystery.  It seems people just pull in anywhere and leave their cars while they go about business.  I would follow suit but with the big Europcar rental sticker on the back and German plates we fear retribution if we do the same.  Eventually we do find a space that looks legit and I manage to squeeze in without setting off the car alarms in front or behind me.  As I turn off the ingnition I am compelled to wave to the crowd of storekeepers keeping an ever present, watchful eye on us.  “Grazie! Grazia! Tutti!”

The archway heading into the “mercato” is non-descript.  The only telltale signs of life inside are the old ladies with shopping bags stuffed so full that the bread and vegetables stick out of the tops.  By chance we decide to wander in and see what we can see.

It is noisy and active, crowded but manageable.  The stalls lining the outer walls, the ones built into the structure, are for meats, fish and dairy, really anything that requires power for refrigeration.  Those in the middle are for fruits and nuts, vegetables, baked goods, oils, vinegars, and wine.  Everything you need is right here.  All being picked over, scrutinized, discussed, held, bounced, smelled and tasted by the grandmothers of Modena.

It is a shame we do not have the HOW, we could have stocked up for weeks.  This place is wonderful.  Armed with dried fruit and nuts we move on in search of the tourist office.  It has moved of course, nothing is where it is supposed to be Italy, but after several attempts we do track it down and mange to set up the balsamic vinegar tour.

They make this stuff in attics.  Who knew.  You kind of expect to see a factory with machines and bottles and labels and stuff.  Instead you get a street address to a house in the city and a buzzer to push where a nice lady with a big smile throws open the door and invites you into to her home. 

“Is this the balsamic vinegar place?” We ask.  “Si! Si! Ciao! Come meet mia madre! First, we go to the attica.”  Did she say meet my mother? We climb the stairs to the attic.  It is all a bit confusing.

Up a flight of stairs, protected by an old attic door, sits a treasure of unimaginable beauty in the eyes of Adele Rose Carcano.  It is here, where the temperatures rise and fall and the humidity can come and go, that the elements are free to work there magic on grapes to create perfection.   

Azienda Agricola Marisa Barbieri has been making balsamic vinegar forever.  The last fifty years they have practiced the tradition in this attic.  There are barrels everywhere, well worn from years, generations actually, of use.  They were part of the dowry of our host, the daughter of Marisa and the current caretaker of them.  

It is hard to believe the vinegar sits for 25 or more years up here going to smaller and smaller barrels getting more and more refined and intense.  One taste and you know that this is what balsamic vinegar is meant to be.  If Adele could move in here she would, she is wide eyed the entire time.
After our tour of the “attic” and our lessons on production and process we are honored to meet the family matriarch in the living room.  We are invited in for cake and coffee where the kids get small gifts: a hand made doll for Adele and a little toy for Vince.  We communicate via hands, eyes, broken French on both sides, smiles and lots of laughter for a half hour or so. We share our travel experiences and plans, discuss recipes for vinegar dishes, exchange emails and then head on our way.  If you are ever in Modena be sure and stop by.

Now we transition from slow and refined to fast and furious.  You see Enzo Ferrari is from the nearby town of Maranello and to Vince, affection ado of all things built for speed, there is no finer way to spend an afternoon than appreciating Enzo’s genius.

The first thing you notice is red.  Everything is red. Then it’s the “cavallino rampante” or stallion that looms over the entrance.  Finally it is simply the cars.  They are works of art: things of beauty.  People stop and stand, as if worshiping an idol.  

The lines are incredible and seductive, their steering wheels and lights make them seem alive.  These are the kings of the jungle just resting for a minute before bothering to chase down prey. It is clear we are in the inner sanctum of the auto world.  You want to fess up and let them know that as former Prius drivers perhaps “we are not worthy.”  But it makes no difference to them.  These cars ignore you unless you can write the check.

Vince is in awe.  For a full twenty minutes he just sits at the center of the Formula One display and stares at the cars.  At one point I wander over to check on him to see if he is OK and he can barely speak.  “Look at the race cars!” is all he can manage to get out not taking his eyes off the race footage playing on big screens above the cars.  I mumble something like “take all the time you need son” and then sit in silence holding his little hand.  I feel like I may have been displaced in some way.

The drive into Florence is easy.  We arrive late and snake our way into the “centro” just off the main square in the shadow of the Duomo.  Our hotel is the Hotel Morandi alla Crocette, a medieval convent that we found in Lonely Planet.  The room reflects the 400 plus years of wear and tear but the people are very nice and helpful and their recommendations are great.  

After a great dinner just a few blocks away we are home and off to sleep post one of our best days in a long time. 

Day Eighty-Four September 9th

Florence is one of our favorite cities.  I am not sure why as it tends to be very crowded with tourists, kind of dirty and the times we have been here very hot.  It must be that history is lurking around every corner: or maybe the ever-present green and white marble of the Duomo juxtaposed to the foreboding stone palaces of the Medici.   Maybe it’s the people that live and work here, zipping by on scooters looking like living breathing works of art.   I don’t know, but I do know it gets under your skin and stays with you for a long, long time.  

The main square is jammed and the line for the top of Duomo (460+ steps) looks to be over an hour wait.  For fun, we check the Tower line (416 steps) and it is wide open!  Adele and I start to climb.  One, two three, four….

The view up top is amazing offering three hundred and sixty degrees of beauty.  You can see all the way out to the Tuscan hills, trace our drive down from the lakes, gaze off towards the sea and get a birds eye view of the city below.  Well worth the climb.  

When we descend we find Teri and Vince and wander aimlessly towards the Arno. 

Vince announces, “I don’t have my bathing suit,” looking very concerned, “or my goggles or float,” he continues, as we stand beneath two enormous statues outside of the Medici Palace next to the Uffizi.  “That’s OK Vince, we have them back at the hotel, we did not forget them.”  I offer trying to placate him.  “No, no, no!” he insists, “my bathing suit for right now, for the Jacuzzi.”   Seriously, this stuff should be in a movie, its just priceless.

The “Jacuzzi” line is too long, best to make reservations in advance, so we walk along to the Ponto Vecchio, cross the river and head downstream searching for “one of the best playgrounds in the city” per Lonely Planet.

We may scratch Lonely Planet off the list as well if this keeps up.  The playground has one swing, a slide and a few homeless guys sleeping on benches.  Someone needs to create an independent, family oriented, travel guide.  One with kid friendly hotels and restaurants, playgrounds, sights and experiences.  It seems that in all of the travel literature, both online and in hard copy, family travel is a sub-section or and after thought.  We have seen many families out and about here in Europe struggling, as we are, to find a high quality family experience.  One without graffiti.

Note to self: There is a business waiting to happen for a company that gives families an alternative to the current status quo.

In the afternoon, Teri and Adele get their nails done while Vince and I play cars and Legos.  Dinner is at the Admiral restaurant a block away and actually tops the meal of last night.  The food here is really something.  Our up coming cooking school is very much top of mind.

Day Eighty-Five September 10th

Like Paris, Florence can be judged by the quality of the Laundromats.  This one is exceptional: it is clean, has soap for purchase by the load, has plenty of room to sort and fold and offers a nice place to stand around and wait while washing.  Plus, I get three loads done in an hour and a half; perhaps record time so far on the TATW.

The kids are in school until 11a.  When they finish we pack up and are ready to move on to our cooking school a day early to settle in and relax before we start our classes on Sunday.  How exciting!

Teri struggles pulling the early arrival together dealing with the people back in Boston that booked our week but in the end it all seems to works out.  We must drop our car a day early at the airport, meet our transport driver and head on out.  They can offer us a regular room for tonight as a bridge to the start of the program.

As it turns out everything here is really close together.  The airport is ten minutes from downtown, Tuscany starts a stones throw from there, and our villa is a short twenty minute ride.

We meet Fabrizio, the driver, at the Europcar place.  He arrives in an old jeep, dirty from a recent family vacation he claims, mumbling something about the other car not being available and the real driver being delayed and speaking a thousand miles an hour in broken English and Italian.  It is all very bizarre, not what we expected, but we go with it none-the-less. 

The name and location of our “villa” have been a mystery.  The folks in Boston don’t actually tell you where you will be they just keep saying “a villa in Tuscany”.  In retrospect I now understand why.  You would never sign up.

The “villa” is run by Fabrizio the driver and it is named Podere Dell’Anselmo.  It sits on a rutty dirt road half way up a hill overlooking some grapes and a bunch of warehouses, not quite high enough up to avoid the sound of the road below.  The place is old and disheveled, not in a charming way but in more of a very casual approach to things.  The sitting area has not been swept from the dinner the night before; the office is a mess with piles of papers stacked everywhere.  

On the surface things seem to be fine.  They put together a lunch of meat and cheese, pour wine and water and scramble around trying to put our itinerary together.  It seems at though we have surprised them with our arrival.  When I ask about the winery, Fabrizio points down to a collection of steel containers around back all disconnected and sitting slightly off kilter. He says, “not to worry, we will tour tomorrow.” The radar goes up. 

When we ask about the kids classes Fabrizio lets us know that actually there are not any other kids here this week and that some other adults will join us. He shrugs and keeps saying, “don’t worry, don’t worry.”  We do.

The first sign of trouble is when we ask if Adele can go horseback riding and they charge us 20E to ride around a ring for an hour.  We understood that for the money we have paid out horseback riding was included in the cost of service.  Apparently not.  Nor is there any welcome information, directions, no snacks for the kids, and no water in the room, no one to tell us how to use the Internet or find food.  

There is a pool but it has no stairs for Vince so he can’t really get in, the ladder moves around when you step on it and the water is cold.  The hot tub is off the kitchen and full of cobwebs.  The kids want nothing to do with it.  The play area has one broken plastic slide and an old plastic playschool playhouse.  It is all sketchy at best.  For the kids sake we make the best of things and forge on. Besides, there’s no one here to talk to anyway.

At dinner we meet young couples from Belgium and Germany and a young Australian women traveling alone.  It turns out that the couples are not in cooking school, they booked on the Internet when searching for a place to stay, and they had no idea classes are available.  Really.

The Australian woman has been to the cooking school and she seems happy though her perspective maybe very different than ours.  We are hopeful that things will work themselves out tomorrow. 

It is off to bed with a growing concern that perhaps this is all a con.