My Love Affair with Travel Guidebooks

The sad remains of my trimmed-down collection.

I recently culled my library of travel guides.

I set myself the goal of halving the shelf-full of books I’d accumulated. It was hard going. Some were guides to places I have been and so represented good memories. Some were for destinations I still hope to visit and so protected cherished travel dreams. Others sat on the shelf to remind me of places on my B list.

I must confess that a few were published in the previous millennium. <Blushing.> Yet I still clung to them and hated the thought of tossing any. What is more useless than an out-of-date travel guide? I told myself firmly. But (whispered another voice) who could let go of Insider’s London, a guide to delightfully quirky hidden spots and sights—even if it is over 20 years old? 

In the end, I achieved my goal. I started by arranging the books in date published order, then started cutting from the “written before cell phones were invented” end. Sometimes—as with Insider’s London—I took down the book with full intentions of heaving it into the bin, but after looking at it, I put it back. I had two old guidebooks purchased for a Galapagos Islands trip that never happened. I hesitated, then let go of the one with more time-sensitive info and kept the other.

As I said, difficult choices because, despite the huge amount of travel information available online, I still love my travel guides.

I enjoy the feel of a book in my hands and I like to get away from my computer when I can. I respect and understand the order that information is presented in a book. I like the fact that books are text-heavy, whereas websites tend to be image-heavy. I don’t mind that hard-copy content is not perfectly up to date—the things that interest me usually don’t change much over time and I can always use the Web to get recent info when I need it—things like opening times or ticket prices.

As soon as I start to consider a destination, I open the library website and order in two or three guidebooks for that place. Once I have them in my hands, I browse through them to get a general sense of whether the destination is going to make the A list. I read the “must-see” lists. Are these things that interest me? I look for special sections that might discuss niche topics like birding or lesser-known museums or regional foods. I stare at the maps of suggested scenic or themed driving routes. I might browse through the local customs sections

As I scan the guidebook(s), I insert Post-Its next to items that catch my interest. Eventually, I’ll transfer the info and any relevant URLs to my file of notes for that trip.

When possible, I try to check out a guidebook to take with me on the road. It seems somehow fitting that a travel guide should get the opportunity to visit the country it describes in such detail.

As a side note to using the local library resources, it’s always intriguing when I realize that someone else in my neighbourhood has taken out all the guidebooks for an area. I like the idea that this anonymous stranger—perhaps the fellow behind me in the grocery store line-up—is also dreaming about visiting my chosen destination. I wish I could sit down for tea with him/her and trade information: So what made you choose Argentina? When are you going? Where will you stay? Which tours are you thinking of taking? Maybe we’d even arrange to meet up and trade stories after our respective journeys.

Perhaps I should leave a note hidden in a library travel guide, prompting the next reader to get in touch. Hmmm…I think I see a future movie starting Jude Law and Helena Bonham Carter….

PS: FYI, all those guides on my shelf with library call numbers are not purloined copies. They are ex-library copies that I bought for 50 cents.

Am I the only crazy person with a collection of travel guides? Let me know in a comment.

Reality check

I saw this pair of photos on a Facebook post and had to give a rueful chuckle. So true! How often  we have high expectations of a travel experience that arise from photos that we’ve seen or descriptions we’ve read, without reflecting that the photo may well have been staged or the description may be omitting some important elements. And yet, it’s only natural to look forward to the exciting travel experiences we plan, sometimes for months or even years.

We travelled to Costa Rica a few years back with the express goal of seeing birds. Bryn was very into birding by then and he was making a documentary film about Costa Rica and its relationship with nature. A prime target was the resplendent quetzal, a magnificent bird with iridescent plumage and metre-long trailing tail feathers. The guide told us that our best chance would be to stake out a wild avocado tree that was in fruit, as the quetzals love to eat the tiny avocados. We would need to be in place around dawn, as the birds might arrive to feed any time thereafter.

The guide woke us at some ungodly hour and we drove in darkness into the valley through a thick layer of mist. The tree we were targeting was in a farmer’s field and he had given us permission to climb up the hillside through his cow pasture to where the tree perched on a high knoll. After navigating an extremely steep, slippery, muddy path, we settled in to wait for the birds. It felt like a classic birding expedition: the semi-darkness of sunrise, a remote location, peaceful silence, and that buzz of excitement as you anticipate the arrival of your quarry.

Then the tour bus pulled in. A horde of people tramped into “our” field. People carried small children or dragged them by the hand. They set up folding chairs and scopes. More groups arrived, each with their own guide. They blundered around in their neon-coloured rain slickers, talking loudly, some eating breakfast on the go.

We were gobsmacked. This was not at all what we had expected. But, of course, if we had thought about it, we would have realized that there were likely many other people who wanted to see the elusive bird, there were many other guides, and it would be their business to know this particular tree had ripening fruit and might attract the quetzals.

No birds showed up, whether because of the bustle of dozens of tourists milling around the tree I’ll never know. Luckily, we did see the quetzal later in the day, at a different location, thanks to our excellent guide. But that morning was definitely a letdown.

How can we avoid falling into the trap of disappointed expectations when we travel?

Well, we might try changing our expectations or changing our experience. For example, we might:

  • Try not to have expectations. Do research, choose destinations or experiences, and then try to let go of expectations. Instead, be in the moment. When we travelled to the Yucatan, I really wanted to see Chichen Itza, the famous Mayan site, because I had studied it in university. However, I dialed back my expectations after researching the site and realizing it would be extremely hot, unpleasantly commercialized, and very crowded. Accordingly, I tried to focus on enjoying what I could at the site rather than bemoaning the lack of tranquillity and opportunities for quiet contemplation.
  • Be realistic about expectations. Take a peek at the stats of how many people visit that place. About 30,000 visitors gawk at the Mona Lisa every day and if you’re hoping for a lengthy, private tete-a-tete with her, you’re bound to be disappointed.
  • Re-examine expectations. What is it about this place or activity that is really important to you? If being solitary or having majestic silence at a site that sees tens of thousands of visitors every year is the experience you seek, that is probably not realistic. But if you can adjust your expectations to “I will be there, I will be fully engaged, I will simply experience this to the best of my abilities, no matter what the circumstances,” you may still be able to find meaning in it. In Nova Scotia, I thought that taking a day cruise on the famous Bluenose II would be fun. But somehow, the reality just didn’t live up to the romantic notions in my head. Still, I reminded myself, I was on the sea on a beautiful ship, the wind in my face, and I had a stunning view of Lunenburg. I looked around and noted all the lovely details of the ship, the polished wood, the gleaming brass, the white canvas sails against the sky. I let go of my unrealistic expectations and relaxed into the cruise for what it actually was.
Across the river from Chenonceau.
  • Change the experience by finding a new approach. The Château de Chenonceau is the second-most-visited chateau in France, receiving around 800,000 visitors yearly. Not much chance of a unique or personal experience. However, in seeking places we could walk the dog we were caring for, we discovered a wooded path that runs along the other side of the river from Chenonceau. We rambled through the forest with just ourselves and the dog, coming upon perfect views of the chateau and its reflection in the still water.
  • Alternatively, choose a different experience that isn’t on such a well-beaten path. Mona is great and she’s certainly famous, but there are 35,000 works of art in the Louvre, many of them—IMHO—more interesting than Leo’s lady. Pick any one of them instead of Mona and you won’t have to line up for an hour to get a brief glimpse.

Finally, one of the best ways to beat the expectations trap is to remain open to and ready to embrace places/experiences that we haven’t planned or built expectations around. On a steaming hot day in Panama, we drove over the central mountain range to visit the Caribbean side of the country. After a few hours, we pulled off the highway onto a rocky, bumpy little track to check out a farmer’s field for birds. Not only did we photograph some interesting species, but we discovered that the track led down to a gorgeous swimming spot in the river, overhung with tall, leafy trees. The water was cool, green, and transparent and we were the only people there. Resistance is futile and I was soon paddling around, luxuriating in this totally unexpected delight. No expectations, yet it was an experience I will never forget.

Have you had a travel experience that did not live up to your expectations? Or have you found your own way around the expectations trap? Share in a comment!

Calidris Reads: France

City of Darkness and Light

Rhys Bowen
4 knots Recommended
First sentence: “Like many Irish people I have always been a strong believer in a sixth sense.”

One in a series of light mysteries set in the first years of the 20th century that centre on the adventures of an Irish woman. This installment has the protagonist in Paris among the artists and philosophers of the period, trying to track down some missing friends and solve a murder. It’s fluffy stuff, but takes you into the fascinating neighbourhoods of Paris and drops lots of famous names. A good plane read.

Five Nights in Paris

John Baxter
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from Chapter 1): “Some years ago, as a change from spending all my time writing, I began taking people on literary walks.”

This book is a mash-up of essays on a wide variety of topics loosely connected to the idea of “Paris at night.” I found the arrangement of the essays baffling and odd. There’s a prologue, followed by five pieces on random subjects. The rest of the book is organized by the five senses: sound, taste, touch, scent, and sight. An intriguing premise, especially when you consider experiencing each of these by night. However, the essays often seem to have little or no relation to the sense they are grouped under. Despite this, I found myself enjoying the book. Baxter’s writing conjures up little-known and fascinating aspects of the famous city. I found the best approach was to simply savour each essay on its own without attempting to make it fit a larger pattern.

Loire Valley:
DK Eyewitness Travel Guide

5 knots Highly recommended

This travel guide series focuses on presenting information in visual formats: maps, site and building plans, photos, sketched-out comparisons between architectural styles, etc. Smallish bits of text are balanced by lots and lots of images. Comprehensive, no, but the format makes for a quick and fun introduction to the chosen area. We used this guide extensively because it is very specific for the area we were covering. Being an old-school bookie, I admit partiality for the thick, glossy pages and high-quality image reproduction.

Portraits of France

Robert Daley
4 knots Recommended
Opening (from the prologue): “There are a thousand years of French history in this book, but it is not a historical treatise; there is much about France’s wars, but only the one battle that changed her forever is described in detail; there is much about religion, but it is not a catechism; much about food and wine, but it is not a cookbook; much about places of interest, some of which may be worth a detour or even a journey. However, it is not a travel guide….Each portrait had to bear on France as a whole. Apart from that I would write about places, things, and people I had stumbled on or gone looking for that had seemed notable to me, that had impressed or in some cases shocked me.”

Confession: I didn’t actually read the entire book but not because I didn’t like it. I simply ran out of time during the trip. However, I did scan sections and read parts of it, really enjoyed the writing and would definitely return to it to get “in the mood” for another trip to France.

France’s Loire Valley in Winter

Chateau de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley in February

France is one of the most popular destinations in the world. Which means that its beautiful places are overrun with tourists much of the year. The Loire Valley, with dozens of historic chateaux, fortresses, villages, and foodie delights like vineyards and farmgate sources, not to mention beautiful natural spaces, is no exception. When we visited in late January and February, we could tell by the acres of parking stalls that the larger sites are braced to receive hordes in spring, summer, and fall.

But in winter, those parking lots were nearly empty. We strolled through any site that interested us on a given day–no need to buy tickets in advance or line up. Once inside, it made no difference what the weather was doing outside. If it was a bit chilly, it made us appreciate more the challenges the original inhabitants faced in keeping warm. One of the chateaux had big wood fires burning in the huge fireplaces, which added to the historic ambience and put a lovely hint of woodsmoke in the air.

Beyond the chateaux, those charming medieval or Georgian streets are still there for your enjoyment, although you might need to bundle up for your stroll and sit inside the cafe or patisserie rather than on the patio (some restaurants do have a heated area outdoors). Cafe au lait or chocolat chaud is especially pleasant on a chilly day and you can savour the French food without guilt, knowing that you’re burning off extra calories when you walk in the brisk weather. And speaking of food, even the tiny gastronomic restaurants have space for last-minute dinner guests and the local farmers’ markets run right through the cold months.

The cooler temperatures and lack of crowds made the whole experience of visiting a site less tiring. I hate it when vacationing becomes an endurance test, i.e., I’ve paid 15 Euros to get in here, I have to stay X number of hours and see the whole bl**dy thing to get my money’s worth, even though I’m overheated, exhausted, and my feet are numb. This scenario is far less likely in the winter.

Whether you’re driving around or taking public transit, everything will be quieter. Parking in the villages will be easy. Churches and cathedrals remain open year-round and you will often have them to yourself on weekdays if you, like me, just like to sit in the pews and drink in the magnificent surroundings.

A few things to keep in mind if visiting in the winter:

  • Some sites are closed, especially in the second and third week of January when apparently many tourist-focused businesses shut so that employees can vacation after the busy Christmas season. Those that are open may have reduced hours.
  • Some amenities are unavailable, such as guided tours or onsite restaurants.
  • If a site’s gardens are a primary attraction for you, this is not the time to visit. The gardens will be immaculately maintained and pleasant to stroll, weather permitting, but trees will be bare and few, if any, flowers out.
  • Yes, it rains. And it’s windy sometimes. The temperatures are much like in the BC Lower Mainland, mostly hovering above zero. I believe that in the four weeks we were there, we had a couple of frosty nights. But we also had gorgeous sunny days with clear blue skies, as you’ll see in the photos.
  • The banks of the Loire (and other local rivers) are frequently flooded in winter. As many of the beautiful walks in the area run along the river shores, some were too wet or muddy to use. However, we never had any diffculty finding somewhere near the river to perambulate, if that’s what we desired.

Is housesitting for you?

Leon, our charming host in France.

Following a recent housesit in France, I have had a number of queries from curious friends and family for more information about how housesitting works. I hope this post will answer a lot of questions and give you a sense of whether you might like to try it.

Mark and I began housesitting about three years ago. I had bumped into housesitting sites on the Web and thought it an interesting idea.

In the typical housesit, no money changes hands. The sitter lives in the host’s home for free while the host is away and performs certain duties without pay. Those duties may include pet care, plant or lawn care, pool maintenance, etc. The sitter is also expected to keep the house tidy and clean to the standards of the host. There are variations on this model e.g., I’ve seen ads where the host expected the sitter to pay for utilities during their sit, or where the sitter was asked to look after an AirBnB suite, but these are not common. Sometimes the host will allow the sitter to use their car. Out of five sits that we’ve done, two gave us the keys to their car.

So that’s it in a nutshell: free accommodations for the sitter and free house/pet sitting for the host.

Sit periods can range from a couple of days to a year. There are sits available in major cities like Bangkok, London, and Los Angeles as well as in very rural settings. They are in sprawling farms and in tiny apartments.

To find a sit, you might want to belong to a housesit website, which will list available sits as well as available housesitters (should you be a homeowner seeking a sitter). I’ve dealt with three sites: nomador.com, trustedhousesitters.com, and housecarers.com, but I’m sure there are many others out there. Nomador (about $90 per year, with a free trial option) has a lot of sits in French-speaking countries plus other countries. Trustedhousesitters ($130 annual fee) I haven’t accessed for a long time, so I’m not sure whether they specialize in certain areas. Housecarers (US$50 per year) is the one I’ve used the most and the one where I’m still a member. It has a lot of sits in Australia, but also worldwide. You can browse all of these sites without becoming a member so you can get an idea of the kind of sits available, but if you want to apply for a sit, then you need to become a member.

Once you are a member of a site, here are some tips for getting the housesits you want:

  • Develop a good resume. Do a couple of sits so that you can advertise experience. You can do sits closer to home in order to gain this experience. Our first house sit was on Mayne Island.
  • Get references. Remember, from the host’s point of view, this is all about trust, so you need to do everything you can to gain their trust. Start with personal references and an RCMP background check (currently $25) then add references from hosts as you accumulate experience.
  • Be diligent about checking the site. An interesting offer will attract a number of applications quickly, so if you don’t see it for several days, you may have already lost out.
  • Be flexible and ready to commit when you see something you like. In the case of France, we had just returned from a trip to Panama and had already committed to a sit in Nanaimo over Christmas. I knew we had open time from mid-January to end of Feb, but I wasn’t seriously searching for a sit and I actually never considered France. However, when the French sit popped up and the time frame was ideal, I did some quick research on the area and thought, Wow, this would be a great place to spend several weeks. I also checked flight prices (terrible) and considered the ongoing general strike in France before applying. The point is, from first seeing the ad to applying was only a few hours, and there were already several other applications.
  • Keep your online profile up to date. Add photos. Mention previous sits and locations. After your initial contact message, your profile is your best chance to impress hosts with your reliability, personality, and character, so make it good.
  • Have a backup plan. We have not had any problems (crossed fingers) but I have read stories about hosts (and sitters) cancelling at the last minute, so I’m sure it happens. Since you’ve already made various arrangements—booked flights maybe, rented a car, taken time off work—what are you going to do? Cancel the whole thing and pay the penalties? Or go ahead and make other arrangements for accommodations? Either way it’s going to cost you more money than you planned, so it’s best to consider this in advance.

Housesitting has been a great experience for us. We’ve really enjoyed spending time in places we wouldn’t necessarily have visited otherwise and having a “home” rather than a hotel to relax in. We’ve also loved spending time with the pets we’ve met and getting to know our hosts.

If you think this might be something you’d like to try, do your research. Visit the sites I’ve listed and look for others to find the one that best suits your own needs. Read through their rules and browse the available sits before becoming a member. It’s a different way to travel but it might just be right for you!

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?

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.

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

Malarial Muddle

Worldwide distribution of malaria: green is malaria-free, blue is eliminating malaria, red is controlling malaria. Image source: thelancet.com

 

 

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you might be inspired to think about travelling to destinations like Thailand, Cambodia, Ecuador, or South Africa. All wonderful places to visit, but all home turf for malaria.

Malaria is nothing to take lightly; the World Health Organization estimates that in 2016 there were 216 million new cases of malaria worldwide resulting in 445,000 deaths. Thank you, Wikipedia, for those uplifting statistics. I got to witness the effects of this disease first-hand in 1972, when my mother was infected somewhere along the journey from Lebanon to Yemen. Luckily, she contracted a non-recurring form of malaria and recovered.

So when we travel to places where malaria hangs out, we always err on the side of caution. We get the best anti-malarial prophylactics we can buy and we take them religiously, even in zones where there is minimal risk. Any risk, I say, is too much.

In the early 1980s, Mark, my husband, travelled to South America. He planned to visit the Amazon and consulted a doctor here at home about malaria prevention. The doctor told him that the medication was much cheaper if you bought it in South America, and recommended he pick it up in one of the cities before he ventured into the jungle. When Mark arrived in Lima, Peru, he went to a number of pharmacies to buy the pills, but none of them had even heard of the drug, either by its common name or by its chemical name. He ended up cancelling the Amazon portion of his trip because he couldn’t get the necessary malarial protection.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago, when we went to a specialty travel medical clinic to get a prescription for Malarone, the current drug of choice for preventing malaria. We each needed 13 days of pills to cover the time we’d be in the Amazon region, plus a week afterward (as prescribed). When we arrived in Quito and prepared to take the first dose, we discovered that we had only 13 pills in total; either the doctor ordered the wrong amount or the pharmacy dispensed the wrong amount. In my busyness before departure, I hadn’t bothered to count the pills in the bottle. My mistake.

Well, we figure, no big deal, we can just go to a local pharmacy and buy more. Surely, people go in and out of the Amazon through Quito every day, so they must sell Malarone. Nope. Once again, the pharmacists looked completely baffled when we asked for Malarone. We tried the chemical name. Nada. We explained where we were going and that we needed something against malaria and they just shook their heads. We used the Web to try to find a source for Malarone in Quito and discovered to our dismay that the drug is not sold in many countries, particularly the countries where malaria is common. What the heck?? Apparently, the company that makes Malarone is restricting where they sell it in order to stave off drug-resistance and keep the medicine effective for as long as possible.

Whatever. The hard fact remained that we were in a pickle. Only enough pills to protect one person, no way to get any more. Options: travel unprotected or cancel our jungle excursion. After discussing it, we decided to proceed. The area we would be visiting wasn’t high risk and we both had waited a long time to visit the Amazon.

So who got the pills? Well, with half my internal organs either missing or severely diminished and a depressed immune system, I could not chance being infected, whereas, we reasoned, Mark’s more robust constitution should see him through in the unlikely event he did get malaria. Not a happy choice but one that seems to have worked out: a month after returning from our trip now, we are both feeling fine, and, in fact, we didn’t run into a lot of mosquitos in the Amazon.

Lesson learned: always buy your travel health prescriptions before you leave home and count your pills!

Afterword: Now I read that counterfeit antimalarial drugs are commonly sold in some Asian countries, including Thailand and Cambodia. Yet another reason to buy at home.

What would you have done in our shoes? Take the risk or cancel? Let me know in a comment.