Calidris Reads: U.S. Virgin Islands

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read books written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Night of the Silent Drums

The true and gripping tale of
the St John, Virgin Island slave rebellion

 

John Lorenzo Anderson

Read for: U.S. Virgin Islands

3 knots Recommended

 

First sentence: “In the hush before this moonlit tropic dawn not even the gecko stirs.”

Have you ever heard of the slave rebellion that took place in 1733 on the tiny Caribbean island now called St John? Neither had I until I found this nonfiction book. It is not a happy or pleasant story, but it details the horrific place of slavery in the history of this seemingly idyllic island. Probably not what you want to read while relaxing on the beach; maybe tackle it before you go as a bit of background history to the sugar-mill ruins that are scattered around the Virgin Islands.

Yucatan Birds and Builders

Rancho Encantado.

I’ve never been to Mexico, which seems amazing to me, considering how far I’ve travelled around the world. But lovely Mexico—just a relatively short trip away—just never made it to the top of my A list. I’m not sure why.

Earlier this year, however, I finally started putting two and two and two together and realized that Mexico’s Yucatan is not only accessible, but allows me to combine several of my interests in one trip. Birds, of course (578 species, including 7 endemics), but also pre-Columbian architecture (over 4,400 Mayan sites alone; phew!), local culture, road tripping, and swimming. Add to that cheap flights via the uber-popular beach town of Cancun and reasonably good infrastructure throughout the region and you have a pretty attractive package.

We’ll spend our first few days on the laid-back, hopefully sargassum-free beaches of Isla Mujeres doing absolutely nothing. A ferry ride back to the mainland to pick up our rental car and we’ll head down the coast to the region of Tulum, where we’ll have a couple of nights at La Selva Mariposa. The attraction here is the natural rock swimming pools on the property. We have a couple of birding sites planned plus the possibility of a visit to the Tulum or Muyil sites, but I suspect those pools will lure us into spending time at the bed and breakfast.

We then head northwest to Valladolid, which we’ll use as a base to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Chichen Itza and enjoy the festivities surrounding Revolution Day. Our accommodations here will be Casa Hamaca. Driving north, we’ll visit the ruins at Ek Balam en route to the north coast of the Yucatan peninsula. We’ll stay one night in Rio Lagartos and take a dawn birding tour via boat with Ria Maya Birding Lodge. Apparently, flamingos congregate in this area and I hope to get photos of the pink waders.

The colonial capital city of Merida will be our home for six nights, staying at the Hotel Luz en Yucatan. I’m looking forward to exploring what sounds like a charming city with tons of culture and entertainment, much of it free. If the city pales, we can always take a trip north to a beach or find a local cenote.

Back on the road to ruin(s), we’ll drive south to Uxmal (another UNESCO World Heritage Site). As with most of the Mayan sites, there should be decent birding on the site in addition to the ruins. We’ll sleep at the appropriately named Flycatcher Inn.

I was keen to visit the port of Campeche (one more UNESCO World Heritage Site) on the Yucatan west coast and walk the old city walls that were built to keep out pirates, so we’ve booked a couple of nights at the Casa Mazejuwi. We may also take in the nearby Mayan site at Edzna.

Next, we’ll take a long plunge south with a 5.5 hour drive to complete our “grand slam” of World Heritage Sites with Palenque. Here, we’ve opted for an Airbnb room at Villas Adriana. If time permits, we’ll check out Cascada de las Golondrinas, a pair of nearby waterfalls that look enticing. The jungle surrounding Palenque should yield some different birds, as this will be the southernmost point of our journey.

Back up north in the little town of Xpujil, we’ll stay in the Chicanna Ecovillage Resort while we explore the area around Calakmul (you guessed it, another UNESCO Site). One of the more intriguing attractions is the famed bat cave, where every evening millions of bats fly out for their evening feed.

We then finish up our loop through the Yucatan with a couple of lazy days at the Rancho Encantado on Bacalar Lake (yup, the website photos got me on this one), and a final night within easy drive of the Cancun airport at Jolie Jungle (despite the obviously fake Photoshopped shots on their website).

That’s a lot of ground to cover, but we have several weeks and plan to drive no more than 4 hours per day on most days. With this basic structure in place, I can relax and enjoy each day as it comes, knowing exactly where we will lay our heads each night.

Hmm…why does this shot seem Photoshopped to me?

Knot Spots: Bangkok’s Chocolate Buffet

 

Heaven, I’m in Heaven….

Spotted: Sukhothai Hotel, Bangkok

Generally, I’m not much of a foodie. “Fill my tummy and don’t make me sick” is usually all I hope for from travel meals.

Chocolate, however, is another thing altogether. I will go significantly out of my way to track down a new chocolate experience. The chocolate buffet in Bangkok did not disappoint, featuring a variety of tasty non-chocolate savouries as well as a staggering array of chocolate-based cakes, pastries, confections, and drinks. I snapped this photo of the “tasting trolley,” which offers only pure chocolate in its many varieties, from single-source darks to premium whites and every shade in between. A polite gentleman stands in attendance to dish out as many and as much of each as you might desire. Or he will blend your choices into custom-made hot chocolate.

Here’s the tragedy: having stuffed myself shamelessly on the other options, I actually could not try one bite off the trolley. I stared at it with unbridled lust while the nice gentleman stood poised with his spoon, ready to serve, and I couldn’t do it. I knew that if I indulged in “just one little bite,” like the man in the Monty Python sketch I would explode. Not a pretty picture.

On the up side, I now have a very good reason to return to Bangkok someday.

One afternoon in Otavalo, Ecuador

Face painting for charity

One sunny day, we sat in Otavalo’s main square. We saw people wander past, families, couples holding hands, young men in groups, laughing loudly, wearing t-shirts and hoodies, phones in hand. Young women in twos or threes, jeans skin-tight, careful make-up, arms linked. Women in traditional dress carried children slung in shawls on their backs. All the old people were tiny, nearly dwarf sized.

The Ecuadoran Red Cross was raising funds by offering face-painting for donations. We watched the artist spend a good half-hour decorating a little girl’s face while her mother waited patiently nearby. I asked permission to take a photo and the mother smiled and gestured: Go ahead.

An elderly woman in traditional clothing begged for coins. When Mark gave her a couple of dollars, she smiled broadly and launched into a long speech in Quichua that seemed to be a mix of gratitude and blessings heaped on our heads. She had only a few teeth and those were rotten and rooted at wild angles. She shook his hand and shook my hand. Then she reached over, stroked his cheek, and touched the skin on his hand. She began talking to me, saying I don’t know what. She pinched the sleeve of his black jacket and shook her head. It seemed to me that her gestures encompassed his jacket, his face, Heaven, and his skin.

Perhaps it was my imagination, but was she telling us that he should not wear black, that it made him look sad and pale? Of course, he WAS sad and pale. As she spoke and gesticulated, I wanted so much to grab my camera and take photos of her amazing wrinkled face, but it just didn’t seem respectful.

After a few minutes of this one-way conversation, she wandered off, her small figure quickly out of sight in the colourful crowd.

Market sellers

Young senorita in traditional dress

When is a Direct Booking Not a Direct Booking?

Travel is a never-ending process of learning, and so is travel planning.

A few days ago, I was working through bookings for an upcoming trip to Mexico. I had narrowed down my accommodation choices for one particular city and was ready to reserve. My usual policy with bookings now is to avoid third-party sites (e.g., Booking.com, Expedia, etc.) if the prices offered on the hotel or airline site are comparable and if booking directly is reasonably feasible.

My reasoning is that I’d rather deal directly with the business in question, just in case there’s an issue. I’ve had situations with reservations made through a third-party site where the hotel seemed to care less and actually said something to the effect: “Too bad. It’s booked through Expedia, so we can’t do anything about it.” That’s not what I want to hear when there’s a problem. Airlines, too, may shrug their shoulders if there’s a flight change or other muddle—not necessarily your fault—and you booked through a third-party site. I’ve also wondered sometimes if Expedia bookings get dropped to the bottom of the priority list when it comes to assigning rooms or other things left to the discretion of hotel staff, but I have no proof of that.

Finally, I imagine that the third-party sites take a commission for handling bookings, so I’d rather give that money to the hotel or airline and support the business.

In this case, I went to the website of the hotel. After obsessively reading every page of the site (sorry, that’s just what I do), I went to the booking page to reserve. I clicked on the “Book now” button and was flipped into the reservations page. I had planned to book two nights, but as I was filling in the reservation, something occurred to me that made me decide to book three nights instead.

Great. All done. I get my reservation confirmation within minutes.

Then I recall something about a “romantic getaway” package that I saw on the website. Yup, there it is: book three nights and get free wine, flowers, and a discount. But you must book directly. Okay, I’m thinking, that’s worth following up. After all, I just booked the stay moments before, directly through the website, surely they will be gracious about awarding us the perks.

I write to the manager, explain the situation, and ask if they will honour the package deal.

No, he says, that’s only for bookings made directly.

I’m scratching my head: I did book directly. I point that out. He then explains that bookings through the website are not considered direct bookings.

Say what?

He further explains that a booking through the website actually takes you to a form on—you guessed it—Booking.com. So that’s not a direct booking, in their eyes. A direct booking is only if you telephone or email the hotel.

Now, I’m not really worried about getting the package perks, but I am concerned about this odd definition of “direct booking.” Especially since, when I clicked their “Book now” button and I flipped into the reservation page, the page setup and background visually matched the hotel website. There was no indication I was no longer on their website, unless I decoded the enormously long URL in the browser window. How would I even know that I wasn’t booking directly?

Well, lesson learned. I now know that booking directly through a hotel (or other business) website may not actually be a direct booking by their definition. I must needs be more careful in future. Sadly for the businesses involved, this may also mean I’m less inclined to take the trouble to book “directly” through their sites, if I’m just going to end up on Booking.com anyway. Thus, they will lose out on the commission they pay to the booking site.

What are your experiences with booking through third-party sites and/or directly with hotels? Let me know in a comment.

Gringo Trails: Asking hard questions about travel

In 1981, I attended the fourth Vancouver Folk Music Festival. It was amazing. It was fun. It was (relatively) small and manageable. Everyone sat close enough to the main stage that we could all see the performers without a telescope. You could buy a snack without spending the entire evening concert standing in food booth lineups. You could actually get to use a PortaPotty before Daylight Savings Time ran out. It was a lovely festival.

Then it got Known. More and more people poured into Jericho Park each year. The daytime stage audiences got to be as big as the main concerts used to be. Finding space to park or sit down, getting food, going to the loo, moving between stages, all became huge efforts. The fences got higher. The crowds outside the fences got bigger. The lovely festival became a hassle. I stopped going.

This sense of being in “at the beginning” and then seeing something valuable and beautiful crushed under the weight of its own success is what fuels Gringo Trails, a 2012 documentary film.

I stumbled across it at the Vancouver Library (I love their documentary collection!) and found it riveting. It contrasts archival footage of popular tourist destinations from the 80s, 90s, etc. against recently shot footage of the same places, while discussing why and how these “hidden” gems became overrun with (mostly) young (mostly) low-budget travellers.

There’s the corner of the Amazon that became a backpacker’s Mecca after the publication of a popular book about a young man’s survival and rescue set in that area. And there’s the tragic tale of how a picture-perfect, pristine beach in Thailand evolved into a massive party site where tens of thousands of drunken, drug-sodden good-timers congregate regularly, leaving heaps of garbage on the shore and permanently displacing the original residents.

The solution to these destination disasters, the film argues, is locally based, “managed” tourism, where residents plan out how they want to control the onslaught of outsiders and receive the financial benefits. For some places, like Bhutan (profiled in the film) and Botswana (not mentioned), this leads to something called “high-value, low-impact” (read: “high-cost, low-volume”) tourism,” a strategy of deliberately keeping prices for travellers high.

In Bhutan, for example, visitors must spend a minimum of $250 per day, according to the film. High prices mean that fewer tourists can afford to come, but those few bring in the same amount of cash as a horde of backpacker types, who typically take pride in having the lowest-cost vacation possible. Smaller numbers of tourists are more easily controlled and their impact will be much less.

“We don’t really allow the backpacker here coming independent,” says the director of the National Museum of Bhutan during an interview for the film. “We get only multi-millionaires, retired professors, Hollywood, [which I take to mean “celebrities”], and those…who can afford to come.”

Keeping out the riff-raff, which is what this amounts to, may work, but raises its own set of moral issues. If only a certain number of people will be allowed to enjoy a beautiful place in order to prevent damage to it, why should it be only the rich who gain this privilege? The wealthy have no monopoly on respecting cultures or the environment; in fact, some would argue that they are more likely to feel “entitled” and act irresponsibly. Why not establish a test of cultural and environmental sensitivity to determine who gets in?

Well, because money is so much easier to weigh—and so much more fun to rake in.

Countries like Bhutan and Botswana want tourist dollars to preserve unique places, and to prop up the local economy. And that’s perfectly reasonable. But then don’t try to pretend you are on some moral high ground when you are really pandering to the world’s wealthy few.

Gringo Trails is a film for anyone who travels. It’s shocking, disturbing, and thought-provoking. In the course of my own years of being a tourist, I have seen deterioration in some of the places I’ve revisited, and I’ve known that my actions 30 years ago almost certainly contributed to that downslide. It’s a sobering realization.

Have you seen places or events that you loved go downhill as they became more popular? I’d love to read your story in a comment.

Knot Spots: Stairway to Heaven

Spotted: German railway station

Gotta love those crafty Germans! They have their priorities right: celebrate the many colours and varieties of Ritter Sport chocolate bars on a stairway trod by tens of thousands daily. How could one climb this stairway to Heaven without coming away with a sinful craving for chocolate? I had to run right out and find my favourite flavour (hazelnut rum raisin). And no, I’m not getting a lucrative endorsement from Ritter Sport. (If someone from the company reads this and wants to offer me one, please do!)

Having the ad painted on stairs in a railway station fits perfectly into the Ritter Sport’s branding as a yummy snack “on the go.” Why not grab one before you’re stuck on the train for an hour? It will make the trip more pleasant!

In researching this in-depth article, I discovered that Ritter was founded in 1912 and has 33 regular varieties of the Sport bar, 5 organic varieties, and a few “limited edition” flavours that come and go.

The brand eschews the usual rectangular chocolate bar shape for a distinctive, solid-feeling square, leading to their motto: “Qualität im Quadrat” (Quality in a Square). They have their own museum, the Sammlung Marli Hoppe-Ritter, described as an “homage to the square,” which consists of nearly 600 square paintings, objects, sculptures and graphic works, all housed in a square, blocky building. Naturally.

Have you smiled at some very clever, nonintrusive advertising that still gets its point across? Share in a comment.

 

 

 

The Romantic Road Bus Part 2: Escaping the Castle

Ancient painting of Harburg area. Photo of painting (and additions) by Marian Buechert.

 

When the Romantic Road bus finally dropped us off in Harburg, we discovered that their bus stop is nowhere near the town and a looong way from the castle. We were left standing with our luggage outside a boarded-up guesthouse on the edge of a semi-rural area, with no way to get to the town or up the mountain to our castle. There were no taxis and no commercial buildings other than one small grocery store across the street. Now, this isn’t the fault of the driver, but the company should warn customers about this situation and not just strand people who probably don’t speak the local tongue and may not have a phone (we didn’t).

I walked over to the store to see if I could get any information from the staff or maybe find a phone. All the staff were very busy, so no one to talk to. I wandered back out and spotted a man climbing onto a bicycle. Aha, thinks I, obviously a local. I will attempt to extract useful info from him in my rudimentary German.

It was our lucky break. This kind man not only answered my questions (Yes, a looong hike up a steep path. With luggage, not possible.), but once he understood our dilemma, he immediately said he would get us a ride. He looked around the parking lot and, spotting someone he knew, asked if the guy could take us to the castle. No problem, we would just have to wait until he did his shopping and he would drop us right at the door.

And so it was, with the generosity of two gentlemen of Harburg, we finally arrived at the castle gate.

Happily ensconced in our castle turret room, we nonetheless still faced two major challenges on the morrow.

Number 1: How to get back to the lonely bus stop. If we had to walk, we would at least be going downhill, but it was still a long hike. Number 2: If we could get there, would the bus driver even stop? If he didn’t know to stop there with us on the bus shouting at him to stop, what were the chances he would merrily whiz by on the freeway without a glance at Harburg?

Once again, we were lucky enough to encounter a kind soul; in this case, the gentleman who ran the hotel (he may also have been the owner; if so, I apologize for calling him the manager). Despite being extremely busy with a large party of guests, Herr Marzahn took the trouble to phone the drivers to ensure that one of them would indeed stop in Harburg. He then drove us to the bus stop.

The rest of this part of our journey was smooth: the bus picked us up and the driver was prepared with our train tickets for the onward leg from Augsburg to Munich.

Although we enjoyed the scenic route the Romantic Road bus took through the countryside and we did, eventually, reach our destinations—which were lovely—I must warn travelers away from this company. They are still having major issues with reliability and service and don’t seem to have any concern for their customers’ safety or peace of mind. Do the Romantic Road, but do it by car.

As for us, we’ve chalked this up as another travel adventure: stressful at the time, but kind of a funny story in retrospect. I realize that it’s getting harder and harder to travel without a phone, simply because everyone is expected to have one. Ninety-nine percent of the time you can get by, but then there’s that one situation where it’s vital.

The best part of this experience, however, is that it has reminded us how wonderful people can be in reaching out to help inept travelers. Many thanks to our three white knights who rescued us from our castle plight.

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

—Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire    

Have you escaped from a travel dilemma through the “kindness of strangers”? Tell me about it in a comment!                                        

The Romantic Road Bus Part 1: Bumbling through Bavaria

The very romantic medieval streets of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Photo by Marian Buechert.

The Romantic Road. Sounds charming, right? The website hype reads “[B]uses…connect the Romantic Road, Germany’s most famous and popular holiday route, with the international gateways of Frankfurt and Munich. As there are no direct rail links, and only a few towns and villages can be reached by train, the bus with its ‘hop on – hop off’ concept, offers the ideal way of organizing one’s own individual voyage of discovery.”

Apparently, at one time, the Romantic Road bus was charming and fun. So despite negative reviews about this tour, my sister and I wanted to see for ourselves if perhaps the company had heeded travelers’ complaints and improved service. Bad idea. (Note to self: Unless you’re being paid, you never want to check out whether bad reviews are accurate.)

We caught the bus in Frankfurt. It was half an hour late. The group of tourists waiting—including us—became confused and concerned that we were somehow not in the right place. When the bus finally showed up, the driver muttered something about traffic. No smile, apology, or explanation.

We learned later from talking to other travelers that this was not an uncommon experience.

On the bus, things were about as expected. Typical long-distance bus: comfy and with good windows. (We won’t go into the WC; it was not pleasant, but I gather fairly standard for those buses.) The bus wasn’t even half full, so there were many empty seats and passengers could easily move around if desired.

There was no mention of the promised audio guides (supposedly available in various languages with a deposit). An on-board announcement system with pre-recorded info provided some cursory comments in English and German. We felt sorry for the many Asian tourists on board whose needs were completely ignored. There was a box full of printed cards with info in a variety of languages and you were welcome to dig through it to find your language. No English versions of the card seemed to be in stock and the pre-recorded voice over the PA was usually inaudible due to the driver’s music playing loudly and the ambient noise of a bus roaring along.

Although the bus stops in some smaller towns along the route, some are not visited unless the driver has a prearranged drop-off or pick-up in that town. The stops in the major towns are scheduled, some for 15 or 30 minutes. Since we were so late leaving Frankfurt, the driver attempted to make up time by shortening the stops, so we had only enough time to jump out of the bus, walk around the square and then race back to our seats. Forget getting lunch or even an ice cream, unless you wanted to eat on the bus. If the public WC was more than a hundred metres from the bus stop, it was a no-go.

At one stop, a local guide from the nearby historic palace came on board to scoop up as many of us as were willing to take a condensed 25-minute tour of the building and gardens. I suspect most of the travelers didn’t have a clue what she was offering, since their English/German was minimal, so we ended up the only takers. It was only one Euro, so we figured we couldn’t lose. It took five minutes to walk to the palace and five back, so the tour was actually about 15 minutes. She showed us the most important room in the building and left us for five minutes to gawk, then whisked us outdoors to the gardens for another 10 minutes of gazing around at lawns, bushes, and statues. That was our memorable visit.

We eventually arrived in Rothenburg, our first destination, without further ado and enjoyed that town’s charms for two nights. Our pickup from Rothenburg went fine, the bus was on time. Different driver this time.

When the driver read our tickets, he said “Remind me after XXX town to stop at Harburg” (our next destination). That seemed odd, because surely he had a daily manifest that told him where to stop? Since we had pre-booked our stops, he should have known that we were getting off in Harburg.

Oh well. We settled back to enjoy the drive through picturesque villages and winding country lanes. After XXX town, we duly reminded him to stop in Harburg. “Yes, Augsburg,” he replied. We looked at each other in alarm. “NO,” my sister said, “Not Augsburg, HARBURG.” “Yes, yes,” he said.

A few minutes later, we started to see the signs for Harburg and waited for him to turn off the highway. Nope. We saw a castle on the hillside that looked suspiciously like Harburg Castle (our accommodations for the night)—and the driver went right past it.

My sister spoke to the driver again and reminded him that we needed to stop in Harburg. “Still ahead,” he said. What do we know? Maybe there’s a special route he’s taking. We watch the last of the Harburg signs disappear behind us.

Twenty minutes later, we start seeing signs for Augsburg. Now we know there’s definitely something wrong. My sister talks to the driver one more time. “Harburg! We need to get off in Harburg!” He finally pulls the bus over and phones in to his office.

It turned out that it was his first day on the job and he didn’t know the route at all. Neither his English nor his German was very good, so he didn’t understand what we were talking about. Now he had to turn the bus around and go back nearly 30 minutes, putting the rest of the passengers probably close to an hour behind schedule.

Next week: Part 2—Escaping the Castle

Calidris Reads: Worldwide

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

Reading on Location

Great books set in top travel destinations

Luisa Moncada & Scala Quin

4 knots: Recommended

First sentence: “At some point in our lives, we have all been armchair travellers, whether it be sitting by a log fire in the depths of winter and dreaming of exotic, steamy locales, or sweating away in the maddening heat of a tropical forest and imagining a much cooler place.”

I came across this title when I was Googling something completely different, but which the search engine obviously thought was related. Sometimes those scary algorithms actually connect to a useful strand on the Web. A book about books set in travel destinations; this one was tailor-made for me!

The book is arranged into major divisions by sort-of continent, some of which are a bit odd. Africa stands alone, logically. North and South America are lumped together but the Middle East gets its own tiny section. Russia is part of the Europe section, but not in the accompanying map. Obviously some kind of communication glitch between the image editor and the text editor.

Within the major divisions, countries are listed alphabetically. Larger countries (or perhaps those with a broader literary culture in English) are given more space, with books categorized by region or city. For example, nine pages are devoted to India, with subgroupings of North and Indian Plains, the South, Mumbai, etc. I like this, because it allows you to find stories that are set right in the area you’re visiting.

Both fiction and nonfiction works are included, but only books available in English.

Each listing includes a short summary of the plot/theme as well as some supplementary information via icons that indicate whether the book has been made into a movie or TV series and if there are websites, tours, museums, author houses, etc. associated with it.

Whether your destination is Albania or Zanzibar, It’s a fun reference that could generate some intriguing choices for travel reads.

The only reason it didn’t rate 5 knots is because it’s now seven years old and there has been no second edition to list really recent books that might be pertinent. Sometimes it’s interesting to read something that reflects on the current situation in a region rather than its history.