Monday 27 March 2017

How to Assure a Great Road Trip

    At first glance it would seem, “What could be more boring than a road trip?” The key to making sure that doesn’t happen is to remain flexible. Don’t over plan things. That way you have time to change your mind and go where the road takes you.

      In 1990 Karen and I were on our way to Florida with our sons Gavin and Adam. It was October and Universal Studios had just opened their amazing new theme park in June. We were all pretty excited about this holiday. As I was flipping through the channels in the motel that evening I paused on the Weather Network. An oncoming hurricane was due to hit Florida the next day, bringing with it copious quantities of rain and wind. These unsettled conditions were forecast to remain for a week to 10 days. That was really gonna suck!

      A quick family meeting yielded a major change in plans. Even though everything was booked we decided to turn right instead of left in the morning and head west to Colorado – the only state promising sunny skies over the next week. The kids were extremely disappointed but we assured them we would go to Universal the following year. We even booked the hotel when we cancelled for this year, thus casting our promise in stone.

      New found adventures like rock climbing and feeding and petting wild deer at the roadside made Colorado one of our best vacations ever – though it was a tad nippy in the snow dressed in our Florida attire.

      That change was extreme but smaller alterations can be made as well when you’re not tied to a tight schedule and more often than not they result in good things happening that would not have occurred otherwise. Our list is somewhat endless but here are a few examples:

  • Driving on a closed freeway to get out of Detroit; that was a reckless venture but only a few construction workers saw us and there was no gunfire.
  • A helicopter ride for the boys over the Badlands in South Dakota.
  • A boat excursion to see dolphins on Jekyll Island.
  • A beach concert in Nag’s Head, North Carolina attended by Gavin and Adam without us.
  • A visit to an authentic ghost town in the Colorado mountains.
  • And the ultimate…a KKK rally in Cleveland, Ohio.

      None of these things were planned; they all just happened and we took advantage, learning as we travelled year after year that these were the things that made our family vacations special and memorable and they always led to good times.


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Monday 20 March 2017

Lost Again - How to Make the Best Of It

    As marvelous as today’s GPS is I would advise that you keep a map handy. The GPS is modern technology at its best but it is not magic nor is it infallible. You do realize it’s the old adage “Garbage In Garbage Out.” It was explained to us on a trip to Tuscany by a very reputable guide that he had escorted a passenger whose job it was to map the area for a GPS. In so doing there was a lot of free reign exercised when it came to areas where it was debatable which way was the correct way to go. At one point said passenger could not make a decision so “went with their gut” and documented the directions accordingly. I guess that’s how it is possible to hear the following from your GPS, “When it is safe to do so, make a u-turn.” Immediately after completing the maneuver you hear once again, “When it is safe to do so, make a u-turn.” Now I’m no genius but if you follow these instructions you are right back where you started and if you continue to obey you will forever travel in a circle – well, a square.

      In Europe the markings of some city and rural streets are often not like anything we are accustomed to in North America. There is very little evidence of traditional signage on posts at intersections. If marked at all a street name may be on the side of a building. And not on a plainly visible side either. It may be painted on the brickwork and it may be a hundred years old. Even worse, that street name you are so desperately seeking may be painted on a curb or on the street itself – right under the car you are now sitting in cursing the situation.

      We realized early that the GPS was not performing well. Annoyingly, it TRIED to work, but gave false information, so we hit the point where it did more harm than good. What are we going to do now? Come on, surely you are not so entrenched in this electronic, technical world. No, not yet! We turned the GPS off, bought a map, got off the highway onto the secondary roads and got a good look at Western Europe.

      On the way back to Frankfurt the drive through the Dolomiti in Northern Italy was quite wonderful. Snow-covered craggy peaks, blue skies and wonderful Italian mountain villages. The roads were confusing as can be. Tell me how can you get lost on a road that goes into a tiny town then comes out about 3 miles later? Lots of turn backs, asking directions in whatever language seemed to work, and cursing – yeah, lots of cursing.

      When we got to Vienna we got hopelessly lost again. I couldn’t tell you where the hotel was; somewhere near the big Ferris wheel, but then looking for that nearly put us in Hungary; but it was a quaint, beautiful hotel. Travel is not easy when you have no idea where you are, where you want to be, or what you are looking at.

      We left very early (6:30 AM) as we anticipated hell on earth getting out of Vienna. Ironically, it was easier than finding our hotel from the parking lot. We had Mapquest directions (which got us started), the GPS (which pointed us in the right direction) and only one stop to ask directions (which, for once, were bang on). Can it be that this has just become so routine we’re getting better at it?

      An overnight stay in Frankfurt brought our European vacation to an end. Just so we would not finish the trip with too much confidence, we got hopelessly lost trying to return the car. We actually ended up back at the hotel we just left to ask directions for the second time; all this because the GPS originally led us to a totally different area with the same street name but in a different region, borough, or whatever.

      I guess we got to the airport (we were on a shuttle, which is the only reason we didn’t get lost again) just after 11 AM. By the time we checked our luggage, checked in, went through security, and lined up for final documentation in the boarding area, it was time to board. That’s the best part of cutting it really close. So, you see, getting lost has its advantages and it certainly puts a laughable spin on a fabulous 5,000 kilometer road trip.



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Monday 13 March 2017

Changing Rooms in Cuba

    As we sat down to eat we raised our glasses and toasted our finally making it to Cuba with our friends as we had been talking about this for some time now. In the back of my mind I was thinking, “I wonder what will be wrong with our room this time?”

      A little bit of background is called for at this point. My wife and I had been travelling together for over 35 years now and it was a rare occasion that we checked into a hotel or motel and ended up not changing rooms. It can be triggered by any of our five senses; sight, sound, smell, touch or taste. It can be something as innocent as a watermelon and a lawn chair floating in the pool, or a group of southern gentlemen sitting in the back of a pickup truck drinking beer outside our window, to weevils eating their way through the headboard of our bed. There might be a shattered ashtray in the bathroom leaving glass shards potentially disastrous to every step taken or there may just be blood on the bed sheets. Location is of no consequence. This could happen anywhere, from a Manhattan hotel in Times Square to the jungles of the Amazon. Suffice to say, there was usually something that caused me to holler, “Karen, phone the front desk!”

      With that in mind you can understand my hesitation and decided lack of confidence when I discovered that Murray and his wife Karen would be staying in the main hotel and we would be in a casita away from the main hotel down by the beach. It was a quaint little European style cottage-type of room and it reminded me a lot of the room where we spent our first night in the Cinque Terre in Italy the previous year. However, it took us about 5 minutes walking to get to it; it was a long way from the main hotel area – I think it was in Puerto Rico.

      It didn’t take long for the pieces to fall into place. It was one of the noisiest places we had stayed in quite some time. To begin with we went to bed at midnight and 5 minutes after the lights went out it was light enough in the room to read a book. The bed was just an old mattress and I mean it was old – I think Che Guevara used it last. Comfortable did not appear anywhere in its product description. Unless something really unusual happened I wouldn’t be sleeping much tonight so let’s see how the ambient noise works out.

      Well, by 12:45 AM I’m not sure if I had even closed my eyes much less slept because all I could hear was people talking. They weren’t talking particularly loud but they were on the porch right outside our window. My usual defense against this sort of thing is to turn up the air conditioning and drown out the noise with a more agreeable noise. Well, as luck would have it, the air conditioner was the only thing in the room that was built in this century and, naturally, it was whisper quiet. So at my urging Karen called the front desk to explain that it was nearly 1 AM and we were trying to sleep but the voices were carrying and these people were disturbing us. They said they would get security to look into it right away.

      By 1 AM the voices persisted so Karen looked out the window. She decided to get dressed and go visit the two guys herself. You are probably wondering why I would let my wife embark on such a potentially dangerous investigation. If I thought there was any real danger apparent, of course, I would not let it happen. The process was that Karen was very calm and persuasive talking to people in situations like this. I, on the other hand, would be very confrontational and abrasive and would quite likely make the situation worse and get shot doing so. I thought it odd that security had seemingly ignored our plea until Karen returned and informed me that the two guys in question were in fact two security guards. That explains why they were slow to respond to our complaint. Part of the noise we heard was them talking on their radios to the front desk – about our complaint!

      Finally, quiet, time to sleep. 1:30 AM – the first group of vacationers returns to the casita and of course they are very respectful of other guests and take care to be quiet so as not to disturb them. Yeah, right! Yelling and banging doors they arrive with the fanfare of a New York City St. Patrick’s Day parade. Sleep? Who are you kidding? 2:00 AM – the second group returns just as noisy, just as respectful. Now can I sleep? 3:00 AM – just outside our window we hear one incredibly loud WHOO-HOOO! Yeah yeah, we know, you’re in Cuba you Neanderthal. So, dare I say it, it looked like the Whiteheads were about to change rooms as soon as day broke.

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Monday 6 March 2017