Sahara Sahara!

One of the big reasons Morocco has been on my want-to-go list for some time is because of the Sahara. It is storied, it is beautiful, it is different, it is mysterious--basically, it is all things I look for when traveling. While not all my super high expectations were realized*, after a two-night camel trek into Erg* Chebbi outside of Merzouga, Morocco, I've got a little better understanding of this place I've been so anxious to see for so long.

One of the things that I learned was that riding a camel isn't the most comfortable experiences in the world, both physically* and mentally *. But they are incredible interesting creatures, and to be so close to them was really great.

When I wasn't busy holding on for dear life on the camel*, I was constantly engrossed with the vistas. The desert, esp. sand dunes, are really beautiful! Very few of the pictures I took turned out*, but I'm okay with that. I've got the necessary imagery up in my noodle.

Yep, it was quite an adventure ("nomad village", an oasis, scarab beetles doing it, traditional Berber drumming, a frisky scorpion/spider getting intimate with my leg, bright stars, isolation, and more) and I'm so glad to have done it.
Friday May 10 2013File under: travel, Morocco

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Sometimes Photos Just Dont Cut It

Some places, no matter how good a photographer you are or how good your equipment is, defy being captured to any sufficient degree. No photo can convey the feeling of being there, whether it is an issue of sounds or smells, scope, or merely an issue of geometry. That's not to say, of course, that good photos can't be taken, but they just don't do the place justice.

Medersa Attarine in Fex, Morocco, is just such a place. Among the elements that can't be captured are: the agreeable drop in temperature from being surrounded by stone that's been in the shade, the surrounding nature of it, and the drastic calm compared to the bustling Medina just outside its elaborate gates.

I stumbled upon said Medersa while aimlessly meandering* the narrow descending avenues of Old Fez which made the impact of it all the greater: I didn't know what to expect. "Oooh, that looks like an interesting gate. I wonder what's through it."

I am heartily comforted by the fact that some places you just have to visit to understand. It helps justify travel*, as opposed to looking through beautiful National Geographic photos. So while I always attempt a few photos, just to spur my memory later, I basically just end up staring in wonder trying to soak up the moment.
Tuesday May 7 2013File under: travel, Morocco

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Melilla - A Thought Provoking Place

Sometimes when travelling, it isn't so much what you see that is noteworthy, but the thoughts it evokes. Such is the case of the Moroccan-surrounded Spanish exclave of Melilla. While the town itself is nice (highlighted by a well-maintained fort/castle* and an elaborately tiled city park strewn with dozens of fountains), the concept of a tiny autonomous territory separated from its homeland by a vast sea is what really interest me.

Melilla is about the size of central park in Manhattan, i.e. pretty dang small—smaller, in fact, than Fidalgo Island. I walked from one side to the other in search of a geocache*. And with a population of around 80,000, I imagine you'd get to know your fellow countrymen pretty well in no time.

But for all its tinyness, as far as I understand, it pretty much does its own thing. So, for example, on taxes, it decided it didn't want to have any, so everything is "duty-free"*. Does it allow casinos? Sure, why not? Legal driving age of 12? Sounds good!*. And that's just the issue of laws. What about national identity? Economy? Interscholastic sports? And what about the whole thing from Spain's side? "Hey, let's fight oodles and oodles of battles just to maintain this tiny chunk of land that we essentially have no claim to! Huzzah!" My mind chugged along on overdrive weighing all the ins and outs of a tiny territory such as this.

In reality, I'm sure it's all much more bland than I think. With close ties to Spain, they use Spanish currency, the Spanish mail system, and very likely many Spanish laws. That also probably answers the question of national identity. And with Spain just a 4 or 8 hour ferry ride away*, I'm sure people pop across just to buy a new couch. Surprisingly neat, simple, easy, and boring.

But the probable reality of it all doesn't hinder the intrigue for me. I'm sure disconnected territories such as this* will lodge themselves and the thoughts they stir in my memory of my travels just as much as any cathedral or beach. Yep, just another fun facet of the exciting world of world travel!
Sunday May 5 2013File under: travel, africa

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Photo Recap of Portugal

A week isn't a lot of time to really check out a country such as Portugal. We knew that from the start. But the parts* that we did spend a little bit of time, we enjoyed quite a bit. I guess next time we'll just have to explore some of the other parts of the country. Until then, here are some of my favorite photos from the past week.

(I would apologize for instagramming them all, but it's just so dang neat. But if you hate neat things, I'm sorry.)


Friday May 3 2013File under: travel, portugal

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The Electricos of Lisbon

Lisbon is full of narrow winding streets that, esp. from the perspective of 2 people having spent the last 10 days aboard a ship, were wonderful to explore. Public plazas, statues, fountains, back alley squares—it is European in so many wonderful ways. But, as 2 people having spent 10 straight days only walking from ice cream machine to movie theater can tell you, these long meandering explorations into the different parts of Lisbon can tucker a body out.

Enter the electrico, Lisbon's answer to public transportation, at least in part. Designed long before the automobile was a glint in Mr. Ford's eye, many of Lisbon's streets are hard pressed to allow passage to a mini* let along a regular-sized public bus. Electricos are small trolleys with rounded ends to make some of the narrow corners. They rattle along the tracks, up and down hills, through tight parts of town carrying both tourists and locals alike.

For me, riding the electricos was a merging of so many favorite things; exploration, public transportation, narrow old streets, and sitting. All in all, not a bad start to a European vacation!
Thursday May 2 2013File under: travel, Portugal

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Cruise Food - A Gaining Proposition

It's common knowledge that one of the awesome upsides of travel by cruise is the food. This upside, however, has a bit of a downside. Judging from how I handled the bi-weekly trips to the Jumbo Buffet this fall, I was in for either a challenge in self control or a severely expanded waistline. To impericially figure out which of these won the day I decided to do an experiement. My first stop while boarding the ship was the scale.

So the food worked like this: From about 7 in the morning until 9 at night, the all-you-can-eat buffet was available. We ate about 80% of our meals there. The fare was good and plentiful, although got monotonous after a while*. Then there was the full service dining room that was open for limited hours for each meal. It worked mostly like a restaurant where you got a menu (which changed daily), and you ordered appetizers, main course, and dessert. In the evening, you were seated with the same people so you had a nice little cadre of people to share stories with. We went here maybe 3 times. The languid pace of the meals, the extreme degree of fanciness*, and the rigid schedule made us opt for the buffet most of the time. Our other option was a little cafe type thing that had a small but sufficient menu that was open later into the night. We would occasionally stop in there for a cup of soup or a burger after the late show.

And that was all free and all as much as you wanted. If you wanted 3 shrimp cocktails to start your dinner in the main dining room, you could. I did. And whoever thought to put a self-serve soft-serve ice cream machine onboard gets both my highest praise and cruelest fist shaking (but mostly the former).

So this is what I had to contend with. Almost daily visits to the gym helped, but were also depressing. Thirty minutes on the stationary bike reported that I burned 300 calories while I know that my breakfast alone was up in the quadruple digits. But that's what vacations are for, right?

The morning of our last day, I faced off with the scale...for science. (I would have taken daily data points, but it turns out a scale doesn't work so well on a rocking ship.) The verdict? One pound. Jigga-what? Twenty six ice cream cones, 14 pounds of mashed potatoes, and the equivalent of 3 pigs worth of ham, bacon, and pork chops and I only gained one pound!?! I figure it was a tactic by the cruise line to slowly recalibrate the scale throughout the trip so skeptics like me walk off believing that the food thing turned out all right.

And it worked. I feel pretty good about the whole thing. Sure I didn't do the healthiest thing for myself. Sure all those 4-meat breakfasts probably weren't so good for my heart. But I'm okay with it. More than okay, I'd say. In fact, I can't help but ponder when I'll get my next chance to eat on a cruise ship again.
Sunday April 28 2013File under: travel, cruise

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Cruise Amenities

While you can get the official word on the amenities of our ship, Brilliance of the Seas, from Royal Caribbean or the ever helpful Wikipedia, I wanted to share the features as they pertained to our experience, not just the official line. (Note: the ship was headed into dry dock directly after our trip to undergo a significant revamping, so much of this info is probably already out of date)

Like I've mentioned before, there was a ton of stuff to see, do, and experience. Ten days at sea, however, gives one lots of time to explore them all. So here's my report.
  • Pools: There were 2 pools onboard*, one outdoor and one indoor in the solarium. At first impression, the pools were quite small, but then I realized there was a reason—11 floors above the ocean on a rocking ship can cause water to slosh to an extreme degree. It was pretty weird being in the pool and having waves slosh back and forth more than waves at a beach. But it was neat. The pool also had some very specific design features to try and lessen the slosh which made me marvel at all the ingenuity that it takes to build such a massive ship*. Another neat feature of the pool was that it was saltwater, which makes total sense*. The water is just pumped in from the surrounding waters (after being filtered). Great idea! There were also a couple of hot tubs (both indoor and out), but the temperature was tepid and the weather was warm enough anyway, so we mostly just played in the pools. (I did try the kiddie waterslide a time or two, but it wasn't made to entertain such a waterslide connoisseur as myself.)
  • Shows: There was a show in the huge, state of the art theater every night. While styles of shows ranged from singing and dance, to comedy, and even to juggling, the majority of the shows were music/song based. We at least poked our heads in to every show, but ducked out of a couple. But this can be said about all of them: they were very professional. The dancers were incredibly well rehearsed and the sets for those shows were amazing. The "headliner"* were good too, all of whom seemed like they were used to the cruise ship gig. The jugglers (a husband and wife duo named Airborne) had a great show, although nothing mind boggling skill-wise. But very professional. We also got a chance to meet up with them for a drink later in the cruise and they were incredibly nice.
  • Movies: If the main attraction show didn't suit us, we would usually check out the cinema. They played a different movie every day (usually 4 times a day*) with pretty good variety of action, comedy, etc. We saw the Dark Knight Rises, Bourne Legacy, and Sherlock Holmes 2. What surprised me, however, was that the cinema wasn't all that nice. It had super tiered seating, which made you feel super close to the screen, but it was a square screen (instead of widescreen) and the projector looked like it cost $129 from the local Wal-Mart hooked up to a bootleg DVD player. The movies were still totally watchable, but I was really unimpressed. We figured they wanted to discourage movie watching because it meant you weren't out buying drinks or gambling in the casino.
  • Gym: Della's got me going to the gym more at home, so I had a good comparison for the gym onboard. Basically, it was pretty good. Lots of machines, treadmills, stationary bikes, and ellipticals. We tried to make it up there every day (Della sometimes 2 times a day). It's a good thing too, because we were eating a 9000 calorie-a-day diet (more on that later). But the gym wasn't the only exercise we got. Our stateroom* was on floor 4 while most activities were up on deck 12, and we vowed not to take the elevators. So 8 flights of stairs 4-5 times a day is a great additional workout.
  • Climbing Wall/Mini-Golf/Pool Table/Ping Pong: I never got around to doing the climbing wall, but it seemed mostly like a gimmick that everyone thought was neat but very few people did. It makes for great promotional pictures though. The mini-golf was more or less the same. It was less a traditional mini-golf with windmills and loop-d-loops than a faux putting green for real golf enthusiasts. It was all moot, more or less, though because of the rocking ship not allowing a putt ball to take its directed path. The pool table, however, didn't suffer from the boat's rocking. It was self-leveling and totally hypnotic to watch*. We played a game or two, but the tables were usually full up with other players. We also had a couple gos at ping pong, where the rocking of the ship mattered a little less.
So that's just a taste of our impression. Speaking of taste, this list leaves out the main activity of the cruise: eating. I'll have to work up a different post on just that. Thanks for reading!
Thursday April 25 2013File under: travel, cruise

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Middle Of Nowhere

The captain just announced that we are halfway to Europe. At first pass, I applied that concept to this part of my vacation—I'm halfway through the all-you-can-eat buffets, free shows, and relaxing time by the pool. But when I really thought about it, it struck me in a different way, you might even say a more profound way. We are 1300 nautical miles from Puerto Rico with another 1300 to go to the Canary Islands. A brief glance at the various charts and maps around tells me that there's not much land out here. In fact, I think it's safe to say there is no land for 500 miles in any given direction. When you look at it that way, it's kind of errie.

It's not like the feeling of isolation is all that present, though. There are over 2000* people on board this massive ship, so finding peace and quiet, let alone isolation, is a challenge.

But from an esoteric stance, it's kind of neat. I remember a similar feeling when sailing to Tahiti, studying the GPS to find out where the nearest land was and realizing it was a long freaking way away. Both then and now, I realize we are father away from anything resembling civilization* than 99.9% of the worlds population. It really reminds me how small I am, how big the world is, and how great it is to get out here!

Someday I might find myself in an even more remote place, father from, say, an airport or grocery store, or whatever "civilization" means. Until then, I'm going to keep gazing out at the huge expansive ocean and marvel at it all.
Wednesday April 24 2013File under: travel, cruise

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Cruise First Impressions

In the three months since booking this cruise, my feelings towards it have ranged from intense excitement to cautious trepidation. The reasons for excitement were clear and what I touted when telling people about the trip: all-you-can-eat food, good shows, out of the way ports-of-call, etc. My trepidation, however was a little harder to explain. Basically I was concerned I just wasn't the cruise ship type. Dress up dinners, contrived scavenger hunts, lay by the pool, dissimilar demographics*. With both sides of the spectrum represented, I was curious to see how it all played out.

After less than 24 hours aboard Brilliance of the Seas, any thoughts about trepidations are long gone, replaced with excitement, curiosity, amazement, and down right giddiness. I was almost wishing I had one of those reality TV style camera crews following me for that first half hour as I explored with a ridiculous grin on my face. Everything is so nice, and not just in that way that cheap things try to look nice but aren't. It all feels so real deal.

And the food. So many all-you-can-eat places have food you stuff yourself with not because it looks amazing, but because you want to get your money's worth. The buffet here, not so much, and definitely not the table service meals. My pork chop was great!

Another thing I was concerned about was being nickle and dimed to death. I've been in situations where a cheap deal becomes much less so with all the fees*. While some of the services aboard do charge an add-on fee, it is always clearly advertised and on things that are totally non-essential. I foresee us easily making it 10 days without pulling out our wallets once.

Yep, it's safe to say I'm stoked (probably to an annoying degree to my dear Della). And with more of the ship to explore, tons of events planned daily, and 9 more days to enjoy it all, I'm thinking I will only get stokeder. Whatever the case, I'll keep you posted. Stay tuned.
Tuesday April 23 2013File under: travel, cruise

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San Juan Puerto Rico Instagrammed




Thursday April 11 2013File under: travel, puerto rico

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