Heaven for Horse Lovers

It was a sight I will never forget. Thousands of horses and riders packed virtually nose to tail, haunch mere inches from haunch, filling the main street of Costa Rica’s capital city as far as the eye could see.

Warmblood stallions with thick, arched necks, luxuriant braided manes falling over rolling eyes and silver-plated bridles, capered next to placid work ponies with no more than a rope hackamore to guide their measured steps. Riders in brilliant historical costumes sat stiffly erect in their saddles, knees expertly communicating with their mounts, while bosomy girls in cowboy hats and shirts tied tightly in front to show off their curves waved to the crowd from floats sponsored by beer companies.

On December 26 of each year, the Gran Tope Nacional takes over not only San Jose, but the entire country. It is a day for Ticos to embrace a once-a-year, completely over-the-top love affair with the horse.

Researching travel destinations is my passion and sometimes I discover something unexpected. We were planning a trip to Costa Rica and had little interest in San Jose; our goal was the parks and wildlife farther afield. As I idly browsed a hotel website, however, a phrase caught my eye: “Located close to the route of the Gran Tope.” Although I had already done a lot of reading on CR, I had never heard of the Tope. I began searching the web for more info. At that time, there was very little information available: a couple of Spanish-language sites and one or two news reports. The travel guides never mentioned it, yet it sounded big. At any rate, a day devoted to horses was enough to get me booking a hotel for the date.

On Boxing Day, the Tope commands day-long national television coverage. This is the Superbowl, the Oscars. There’s a pre-Tope show with multiple celebrity hosts and there’s moment-by-moment on-the-ground coverage of the four-hour parade, with interviews, comedic episodes, and lots of shots of pretty women with cleavage. Happy spectators push up against the barriers, some sucking on beer bottles, other on baby bottles. Loud music blares, people shout, a drone zooms overhead.

In the face of this chaos, the horses are amazingly calm. As the parade stops and starts, stops and starts again, they wait patiently as they are jostled by other steeds or fondled by strangers’ hands that stretch out over the barriers to stroke silken rumps and noses. When the tiniest space opens up, a rider is sure to have his mount dance across it with fancy steps, inviting admiration. If a child beckons from the sidelines or a lovely lady is spotted, the most mettlesome stallion is brought to the barrier to be petted and praised and accepts it with equine dignity.

I see small children pulled from the crowd by riders who swing the young ones up behind for a taste of what it feels like to be King Cowboy. I am embraced by half-drunken celebrants who are intent on nothing more than having a fun day and think being photographed with a gringa tourist is a lark. I point a camera at the parade, and riders stop before me and pose with obvious pride.

As far as I could tell, there is no competition, no prizes, no winners or losers. Just an outpouring of affection and appreciation for the horse. Imagine that: an event that’s all about participation.

For the rest of the trip, when locals inquired politely as to what I had done in Costa Rica, their faces would light up when I mentioned the Tope. It was as if I was now a member of a secret club because I had sought out and experienced this event dear to the Tico heart. “What did you think of it?” everyone asked eagerly, and they would beam when I said in all sincerity, “I’ve never seen anything like it!”

 

 

First-time Cruising Part 2

In my first blog on cruising last week, I covered the basics. This week, I’ll talk about all the fun extras.

Entertainment As a performer myself, I was, of course, curious about the type and quality of entertainment provided—all for free—on the cruise. I’m happy to report that I found the musical talent to be top class. The family-friendly “main-stage” shows presented each evening in the large theatre were all very good and varied, including magicians, acrobats, a stand-up comedian, Motown review singers, a country music review, and a couple of shows that involved the whole cast. The daily entertainment found scattered throughout the ship in lounges, bars, and at poolside featured guitar and piano soloists, a reggae band, and a couple of dance bands. I enjoyed all of them, although I didn’t hear as much of some as I would have liked, as they played in areas where there was cigarette smoke. Also, the bands tended to be amped at ear-splitting levels, not conducive to quiet enjoyment.

Grade: A+

Activities This is where my expectations really were not met. Everyone I spoke to prior to the cruise who had cruised before said, “You’ll never be bored. There are so many things going on all the time.” However, when I looked at the list of daily activities that they provide each day, I could quickly eliminate those that:

  • Required extra fees (e.g., bingo)
  • Were thinly disguised attempts to help you part with your money (e.g., a talk on How to Spot a Real Emerald)
  • Were targeted at specific groups to which I don’t belong (e.g., LGBT meet-up)
  • Were dance parties of various kinds

This left me with a short list of things such as the “Crossword Challenge.” The “Crossword Challenge” consisted of a bored-looking staff member handing out copies of a puzzle–but only if you asked for it. That was it. No interaction between people, no game aspect to it. Wow. Basically the same as if I sat at home and did the daily crossword in my newspaper. To add insult to injury, there was a glaring error in the puzzle.

My friends went to the “Family Balloon-Twisting.” When the balloon they were working with popped and they asked for another, they were told they’d have to go up to a higher deck and get another balloon from the kids’ club. It obviously hadn’t occurred to anyone that twisting balloons inevitably results in some collateral damage and it might be a good idea to have spares. Duh. Not to mention that if an error like this occurs (i.e., they neglected to bring extra materials), it’s the staff’s job to solve the problem, not the person with children who should go running to another deck.

For the “Caribbean Dance Lessons” by the poolside, I was the only participant, which wasn’t their fault, but the staff person in charge spent a mere five minutes teaching me a simple set of moves to the music, then seemed to lose interest. After muttering about how brave I was (to be the only participant) and that she would “reward” me, she started talking to the band, leaving me standing there like a bump on a log, not knowing if there was more to come. When she finally noticed me, she shooed me away, saying I could sit down. Again, as a sometime performer myself, I know that when you only get a small turnout, you work twice as hard to ensure that those who do show feel extra special and are glad they made the effort.

So much for activities. There were a couple of fun group games that we enjoyed, but most were equally lame.

Grade: F

Shore excursions  Getting off and on the ship at the ports of call was much easier than I expected. Line-ups were minimal and the staff was efficient.

We only booked one organized excursion. It was okay, but expensive for what you got. From the cruise ship dock, we spent approximately one hour getting herded onto the bus and driving to the tour dock, one hour motoring to the snorkel spot, an hour in the water actually snorkeling (and the snorkeling was good, so we pushed the time to the max), a half hour eating lunch and lounging on the catamaran, and an hour to return to the cruise ship. The bus ride back to the ship was quite uncomfortable, as we were all in wet swimsuits and the bus air conditioning froze us, plus some of us were forced to sit on seats over the wheels where there was literally no leg space, so you either sat with your knees around your ears (for the young and flexible) or twisted around to jam your legs into the aisle where fold-down seats and their passengers already took up all the space. It’s the kind of situation I would normally just laugh off when I travel, but when I’m paying a premium price for a tour, I expect better.

Grade: B

A few health and safety issues

  1. In my humble (non-smoking) opinion, there are too many smoking areas, especially since the smoke seeps into adjoining areas. The ping-pong zone, for example, a hub of youthful activity, was always choked in fumes from nearby smoking areas, as was one hall where people–including families–would wait for the theatre to open.
  2. Some of the globe lights are set along corridor side walls at a height and angle such that my not-extraordinarily-tall companion smacked his head on one. A ship’s officer who happened to witness the incident merely paused for a moment and then continued on his business without apologizing, expressing sympathy, or checking whether my friend was injured.
  3. Most flooring was secure, but one outdoor area (around the outdoor aft eating area) was extremely slippery when wet. Both myself and one of my companions had scary near-falls and we witnessed a number of others skid in the same area. And no, none of us had been drinking!

Overall, I would have to recognize that this cruise was good value at about $100 per day per person. Would I get a luxurious, spacious room in an all-inclusive resort with gourmet food, excellent entertainment, pool time, beach time, and new scenery every day for that price? Unlikely. So it isn’t really fair to expect all of that plus more from the cruise.

In addition, I admit to being awed by the efficiency of the behemoth. Just planning for, keeping safe, feeding, and managing several thousand people floating on the ocean is a logistical miracle.

Would I recommend this cruise? If you like to eat, drink (for an extra charge), sprawl in the sun, dance to loud modern music, and watch some great entertainers, this cruise might be for you.

Would I cruise again? Never say never, I say. There are a wide variety of cruises and cruise lines, and I’m ever amenable to trying something different. Under the right circumstances, the open seas may beckon again.

First-time Cruising

I admit it: cruising has never been high on my travel list. I understand the appeal for many people, but I had my reasons why I steered clear. Recently, however, several factors came together to nudge me onboard. Like a good traveller, I tried to set aside my preconceptions and be open to a new experience.

After eight days at sea, I had compiled a stack of notes too long for one blog, so I’ve broken the topic up into two. This first entry will discuss the basics: general comfort and atmosphere, stateroom, food and beverages, computers onboard, and staff. I’ve assigned a letter grade for each category and included jottings about whatever caught my notice, good or bad. Since this is my first cruise, I’m not sure whether some things are specific to the cruise line (Norwegian) or common to the whole industry, however, one of my travel companions has cruised before and we were able to compare experiences, which gave me some context.

General Comfort & Atmosphere  Decor ranged from bright and colourful to garish in some areas (e.g., purple, orange, and silver in one lounge). Staterooms were calmer and more tasteful. Twelve elevators seemed sufficient to transport everyone at most times, except when large crowds came through at the same time (e.g., when the theatre shows let out, there might be short waits). Pools were small but adequate, since surprisingly few people actually go in. Staff were vigilant about keeping youngsters out of the adult pool (bonus if you’re an adult, not so much if you’re underage and trying to sneak in).

It could be hard to find quiet spaces outdoors, as there was almost always loud music broadcast. Even in the upper-deck “quiet zone” you could still hear it.

Grade: A-

Stateroom  Our room in the cheapest price range was excellent, more space than we expected , bed large and comfy, everything clean and in good repair, TV remote didn’t work probably due to a dead battery. Despite it being an inside cabin, it was quiet and had no smells. I am not claustrophobic, so having an inside cabin (no window) didn’t bother me.

Pet peeve: toilet set into bathroom at an angle that made sitting on it straight impossible, I had to sit sideways. Awkward and uncomfortable. (I know—too much information!)

Grade: A

Food  We did not eat in the paid restaurants but tried all the included (free) eateries. Food was plentiful, available nearly round the clock, and of solidly good–not brilliant–quality. Full disclosure: I’m not much of a foodie when it comes to savouries. For me, the main dishes were fine. However, my companion–who has cruised before–was not impressed, especially when she compared to her previous cruise on another line.

Pet peeve: French fries were universally crap. Thin and cold, like they salvaged them out of the trash bins of the closest fast food joint. Come on, folks, I know you can do better than this.

Grade: B

Desserts  Given their central position in my solar system, desserts form a separate category. Sadly, most were based on the “pretty but virtually tasteless” model. What my companion has aptly christened “sweet goo.” Comes in a variety of colours and shapes, sometimes shaped like cake, sometimes in a bowl, but always the main “flavour” is sweet. I stopped eating these after one day, having sampled enough to know they would all follow this pattern.

Bonus point: what saved desserts from a D grade was the crepe bar, where the chef hustled up fresh crepes with your choice of toppings. Yum.

Grade: C-

Beverages  The expected restrictions (pay as you go alcohol and soft drinks) aside, beverages did not impress. Watery, sugary “fruit” drinks and unsweetened ice tea were on offer at meals, plus coffee & tea.

Pet peeve: fruit drink bar. Fresh fruit and veggies aren’t expensive–they provide racks of them at every meal. But if you want those same fruits and veggies freshly squeezed and blended, you have to pay. That’s just stupid.

Saved from C- by unrestricted palatable water and ice.

Grade: C

Computer  Internet available but expensive. I wonder how long they’ll hold out on this one, considering that the grubbiest little cafe onshore anywhere now provides FREE wifi and people expect it.

Pet peeve: the onboard Internet cafe computers do not provide any programs for general use e.g., Word. They only allow paid access to Internet.

Grade: D

Staff  In general, I found the staff to be excellent, very friendly, helpful, and efficient. 

Bonus point, bumping this grade from A to A+, goes to the Washy-Washy Lady* who turns an incredibly dull but vital task into a bouncy moment of song-and-dance fun. For me, and, I’m sure, everyone else on the cruise, it will be her face, voice, and cheery greeting that stays in memory.

Grade: A+

*For you fellow cruise neophytes, the Washy-Washy Lady stands at the main door of the central dining room with a spritzer full of hand sanitizer, encouraging and assisting everyone to cleanse their hands before eating. Our WWL was a smiling, ad-libbing, entertaining individual who, I’m sure, had a night job headlining at some Philippine cabaret.

To be continued.

 

Talk May Be Cheap, But Travel Talk is Beyond Price

I love it when people share their travel experiences with me.

I have read that the Internet is replacing one-on-one discussions with those you actually know in favour of anonymous opinions online. Probably it’s true that when Jill wants to get more information about a movie or a restaurant, instead of phoning James to hear what he has to say, she likely turns to Google. It’s fast, it’s free, and hey, 1,257 reviews by total strangers can’t be wrong, right?

I admit that I read those 1,257 reviews, too (okay, maybe not all of them). But I value the reports from my friends and even from casual acquaintances much higher and I take the trouble to seek them out.

On a recent trip, I spent 20 minutes with a taxi driver as he conveyed me to the airport. As often happens, he was an immigrant and quite happy to talk about his homeland, Croatia. As he described the blue of the Adriatic Sea, the historic streets of Dubrovnic, and the beauty of the islands, I was captivated. I had never thought about visiting that area before, but now, I was eager to learn more.

By coincidence, I soon had two more chances to share the experiences of people who were familiar with Croatia. At a dinner party, I met another immigrant who, with a little encouragement, was equally eager to rhapsodize about his native country. Following that, I met up with some friends who, I remembered, had travelled through eastern Europe recently. Had they visited Croatia? Yes, indeed, they had, and the conversation revolved around their impressions (also favourable).

By asking a simple question or two, I can open up a world of first-hand knowledge and experience.

So have you travelled anywhere recently?

What’s your favourite place that you’ve travelled to?

Were you born here? Tell me about the place where you grew up.

From the ensuing discussion, I learn much more than I can from online reviews.

First of all, people that you speak to face-to-face will almost certainly be honest. Anonymous online reports, not so much. They should always be taken with a grain of salt, because you never know whether a review has been posted by someone who was paid to say good things, or, on the other hand, by someone who holds a grudge. When you talk to someone, their genuine enthusiasm or disappointment comes through clearly.

Secondly, if it is a friend, I know that person and her or his tastes, so I can judge the information in that context. If, for example, I know Jill is a budget traveller who always seeks the least-expensive option, I’m likely to pay attention if she describes something as “value for money.” If James is the kind who likes pampering and feeling everything is taken care of for him, I might not expect him to enjoy a “roughing-it” adventure weekend in the desert that his girlfriend talked him into.

On the flip side, by listening, I learn more about my friends. How people react to travel—especially challenging situations—is very revealing. When James tells me about that adventure weekend and chuckles when describing the giant creepy-crawly in his tent, I may have to reassess my opinion of him and his travel tastes!

Finally, their experiences open my eyes to travel ideas that may never occur to me. When I go online, I have a specific destination in mind. When I talk to people, I’m open to any travel idea they care to share with me.

So talk to your friends, and even strangers, about their travels. What they have to say is—as MasterCard would put it—priceless.

Have you received a priceless piece of travel information from talking with friends or strangers? I’d love to hear about it.

Wild Animals I Have Annoyed

Elephants are majestic and beautiful. The babies can even be cute, with those little trunks and mischievous eyes, hiding between Big Mama’s massive legs. Awwww.

Elephants can also be very, very scary.

It was my second trip to Africa and I had already seen a lot of elephants. Elephants tearing up trees for lunch. Elephants bathing in rivers and rolling in the wet mud. Elephants playing or trundling across the horizon on elephant business. I had been extremely close to some of those pachyderms. Not that I approached them, but often when I stopped at roadside to watch, their meanderings would bring them near. They would continue doing whatever it was they were doing, clearly aware of my presence and about as concerned as if I were a small, harmless mammal, which is probably what I was from their towering point of view. They seemed like gargantuan but amusing vegetarians.

I had read all the safety tips for safaris and I never, ever left my car. So long as you’re in your car, the guidebooks say, the animals see you as a part of it and, since they have long since learned that cars don’t do much other than chug along well-worn tracks, they view you as neither prey nor predator and, consequently, of little interest.

As I drove slowly down one of the backroads of Kruger National Park, my car topped a hill. Below, about a hundred metres away, a herd of elephants was crossing the road. I stopped the car to enjoy the sight and to stay a non-threatening distance away. The group consisted of cows and their offspring of various ages.

As the parade wound down, the tiniest calf of all scuttled across, followed by the largest cow. I guessed that she was the matriarch of the group, bringing up the rear to make sure no one was left behind or nabbed by lions in her absence.

Maybe she was feeling especially protective of that newborn calf, or maybe she didn’t like the way my car was perched above them on the hill. Whatever it was, she turned in the road to face me.

Oh, crap, I thought.

All the signs of an elephant preparing to charge flashed through my mind. Direct stare: check.  Ears flapping: check. Trumpeting: check. Trunk swinging: check.

Double crap.

I threw the car in reverse and began backing up just as she charged. It is nearly impossible to drive rapidly backwards down a narrow, winding road while keeping terrified eyes on an elephant that is looming ever-larger in your windshield. Within moments, I missed the track and backed firmly into a thorn bush.

The elephant pounded up to the bumper of the car and stood there, swaying with menace. She stamped her feet so close that I was sure she was going to mash the hood. I wondered briefly if the damage waiver on the rental car covered crushing by angry elephant. She backed up and made repeated short charges at the car, trumpeting furiously all the while.

I remembered every detail of every photo and video I’d seen that demonstrated the destructive power of the great grey beasts—the tusk thrust through a window, the rolling of a VW Bug to the edge of a precipice, the flattening of a sedan when an ellie chose to make a joke out of reclining upon said vehicle.

I shouted to my companions: “Get down, and don’t look her in the eye!” as if the challenge of our puny gazes could incite this behemoth to any greater wrath.

The matriarch was shortly joined by a second, smaller cow, which ran around the melee, calling excitedly. I thought perhaps this was Big Mama’s teenage daughter, come to join in the fun of terrorizing tourists. Luckily, she provided a desperately needed distraction for the murderous matriarch. After what seemed like an eternity of close and hostile action, Big Mama turned away for a quick tete-a-tete with her daughter. Instantly, I slammed down the accelerator to send the car past the two elephants, and shot off down the road, in the opposite direction to the herd, needless to say.

Shaking with fear, I spent the next couple of hours reciting nonsensical expletives and repeatedly reminding my companions that we had actually just been charged by an elephant, like it would have somehow slipped their minds.

Do I still think elephants are majestic and beautiful and sometimes cute? Absolutely. Would I go to Africa again on safari? In a heartbeat. Do I want to see wild elephants up close and personal? Not on your life. But I wouldn’t trade this memory for a month of free nights in a calm, safe resort hotel.

Have you had a frightening encounter with wild animals while travelling? I’d love to hear about it.

NOLA & All That Jazz

louis_armstrong_restoredNew Orleans. Why does that name draw me? I’m not really a city person, yet I’ve always wanted to visited NOLA.

I definitely associate it with the exciting history of American music, for which I blame Ken Burns and his excellent series, Jazz.

Maybe it’s the hint of Mardi Gras that seems to linger in the air all year round. There’s the possibility of exotic Cajun food and French pastries to tempt, plus the proximity to natural habitats of bayou and mangrove that promise bird species for me to add to my list.

Since this will be a winter trip, the warm climate appeals; although I don’t expect to be swimming outdoors in December, I do hope to escape subzero temperatures for a while. I also like the idea of visiting an antebellum plantation.

The visit to NOLA will be a few days tagged on after the end of a cruise out of Tampa, not a huge amount of time, so I’m happy to focus just on the city and nearby.

I started by doing quick online research on the average Dec/Jan temperatures in that area. Double-checked that I wouldn’t have to worry about hurricanes at that time of year (whew!). I also used Expedia to compare the cost of flying into Tampa/out of NOLA versus Tampa in/out—it was actually slightly cheaper, hurray!

Next stop was my local library to pick up any available guidebooks. As it happened, they had only one on the shelf, but luckily, it was a good one: the 2016 edition of Moon’s New Orleans.

In its pages, I discovered that NOLA is the home of the Jazz National Historical Park, run by the U.S. National Park Service. According to Wikipedia, “…created in 1994 to celebrate the origins and evolution of jazz….The Park provides a setting for sharing the cultural history of the people and places which helped to shape the development and progression of jazz in New Orleans.” They actually have “ranger-musicians” who perform and educate visitors. How cool is that? They also offer a free brochure outlining an 11-stop tour of jazz history sites in the city and you can download an MP3 version of tour narration to listen to on your own mobile device. Historic education embracing modern technology. Go, U.S. National Parks! (DYK?—it’s the 100th anniversary of the USNPS. Happy birthday, you wonderful Park People!) The Jazz National Park moves onto my “must-do” list for this trip.

Thinking about a boat trip into the bayou, I scanned the guidebook’s list of tours, but didn’t see one that really grabbed me, so I Googled “birding tours Lafayette” and found The Atchafalaya Experience, which seems to tick a lot of my boxes: small tours, experienced, knowledgeable guides, philosophy of getting out into the bayou in a quiet boat and seeing what there is to see on that day, rather than chasing down ‘gators or specific creatures. I know that December likely won’t yield as many species as a spring or summer trip, and I won’t complain if I’m chilly or damp. On the up side, mosquitos probably won’t bother us much!

My companion, who has visited NOLA on business before, was keen to select our accommodations in the city, so I acquiesced gracefully; after all, I do 99% of the travel planning/booking, it’s good to let go the reins once in a while. He chose the Hotel St. Marie for its location (just off Bourbon Street), price (moderate), and streetside balconies, while I liked the reams of positive reviews on TripAdvisor. Let’s see if she lives up to her reputation.

Whenever I hit a new destination, I have to check out bakeries, pastry shops, and chocolate emporiums. I have a sweet tooth, but I have very high standards: pastries and chocolates that are merely sweet don’t cut it. They must have rich and satisfying flavours. A beautiful presentation doesn’t hurt—but I’ve had too many fancy cakes and bon-bons that were all looks and no taste to fall into that trap. In NOLA, I’ll be visiting Blue Frog Chocolates, Sucré, La Boulangerie, and Le Croissant d’Or. Good thing I have some walking tours ahead to work off all that sugar.

Speaking of walking tours, I’ll round out my time in southern Louisiana with at least one of those plantation tours. Not very politically correct of me, I know, but I will mitigate my guilt by choosing the tour of Laura, which focuses on the history of the plantation’s women, both free and enslaved. I’ll never be hungry again!

Anyone planning a trip to NOLA? Let me know what you are looking forward to doing, seeing, or eating.