Monday, September 29, 2014

Okay, though I did dive off of Angel Falls, the world's tallest waterfall at over 3,200 feet high, I didn't actually put on those body wings, pack a base jumping chute or rig up a super long bungee line at the top.

No, I was actually in a small prop plane with my kids and the pilot was doing zero gravity dives down the falls to allow us to both experience what it is like to float in space as well as to get some close up shots of the waterfall.

When your blog is titled 'Passport Obsession' it means just that.  So one moment I'm sipping fruity rum drinks by the poolside in Aruba and the next I'm taking my kids by myself into a country that speaks almost no English (and I spoke no Spanish) and heading to a pretty remote area.

It takes some comfort at travel to have two kids in the 10 to 12 age by yourself with three short flights to get to Angel Falls.  We almost lost our luggage in an office at one of the airports because we didn't know we should be towing it with us at all points.  We also missed a flight and had to have a driver get us from one place to the next since there were no more flights.  That was special; he gave us a tour on the way and we didn't understand anything he said and likewise.  Still, we got to enjoy some sites...we just had no idea what they were.

There are essentially two ways to see Angel Falls.  The first is to take a boat tour up to the base of the waterfall.  It's an interesting trip in of itself although its a true hike/scramble to get right up close to the waterfall base.  The other way to see it is via a small chartered plane that will take you over the top and all around.

Flying out to the top of Angel Falls
The plane ride is a must if you want to truly see some of the amazing features of this park.  If this place were in the USA, nobody would be talking much about Yellowstone; they'd be talking about this place.  It's truly amazing and some of it is so remote and difficult to get around that a plane tour is about the only way to appreciate it's magnitude.

Auyantepui mountain in the Canaima National Park
Of course, the plane ride comes at the cost of your fear factor.  Get motion sickness?  Then this ride isn't for you!  Scared of flying or turbulence?  Then this ride might not be for you.  My pilot flew through clouds with a hand altimeter sitting on the dash!  We bumped around like the thing was going to crash or run into some hidden jungle tree any moment.  Then, we just flew out of the weather and right up to where the water drops.  He would then dive straight down, swooping right to left so we could take different angles of pictures.  It was amazing if you're into a thrill.

It's a looong way down...
There's very little tourism at this park and I liked that.  It's way off the beaten path.  In addition to Angel Falls, there is another falls called Sopa Falls that you can actually hike to from where we stayed.  It's was spectacular.  You hike behind the waterfall.  It's a really wide falls which can have an intense amount of water coming down depending on what time of year you go.

Sapo Falls can have an incredible volume of water over it depending on the time of year
Starting from one side of the falls at first there is a trickle and then a stream of water and as you reach the middle it becomes a thundering force of water I've never experienced.  And to think you're right behind that curtain.  Amazing.

Not advisable to jump out into the "curtain" of water... can get pretty wet hiking behind the falls
The trail continues to the other side where you can soak in between the rocks with warm water while you watch the thundering water come down.

Can you say....Agua?
Looking down from the top of Sapo Falls
Later, after the boat trip I learned that the water can be infested with Anaconda snakes at times.  I'm pretty certain that given my luck with things had I gone swimming, I'd probably have some ridiculous snake tale to tell you.  Fortunately I didn't go swimming in it.

On the hike up to the falls...

Sunday, September 21, 2014

You know all those confiscated items the airport security would put on display and you'd think "what idiot would bring THAT through airport security!".  Well, that idiot would be me apparently.

I was in San Francisco, California for a quick visit and happened to be in Chinatown.  I thought it would be nice to call home and see if I should pick up anything while I was there.

Chinatown San Francisco...without the several thousand tourists in the street

"Hi, honey.  I'm here in Chinatown.  Do you need anything."

"Can you pick me up a meat cleaver?  I hear they're really good there."

So I ask and find the nearest place that might sell such things. Sure enough, they had a wide selection of meat cleavers.  The lady at the counter asks me if I want one that cuts through bone.

"Do you want one that cuts through bone?" I ask as I called back home.

"No, we don't need that." she replies.

She was right.  In Asia they don't really cut up a chicken like they do in Western Civilization.  They pretty much cut it however and so when you are there, you need to be very careful how you eat chicken as there will be bones in potentially every bite.

This is perfectly acceptable in Asia...
But my wife wasn't Asian and we didn't eat chicken Asian style so it wasn't a necessity to have one that cut through the bone.

So I bought the meat cleaver and the lady wrapped it up in paper and then put it in a bag.

I continued on with my touring around China Town and the lower downtown area before heading to the airport.

Now this was pre-9/11 and at that time I ALWAYS did carry on.  So it just didn't occur to me when I went through the security and put my bag through the scanner that anything was wrong.

Airport Security...without the thousands of tourists in line
The scanner guy looked at his monitor, brought somebody else over and they both stared at the monitor and then back at me.  They looked at me a bit perplexed and then one of them asks...

"Sir, is that a meat cleaver in that bag?"

At this point I'd realized what I had done but I quickly smiled and retorted back...

"Well yes, but it doesn't cut through the bone!"

They failed to see the humor in my response and needless to say I had to ship the cleaver back home.

Had this been post 9/11, not only would they have confiscated my precious cooking utensil but I'd probably be writing this from some "room", still quarantined by airport security.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Rule 1:  Don't talk about fight club.  Oh, wait, that's a movie.  This is travel. Rule 1:  Don't lay out in the sun right after a long flight!  I broke this cardinal rule in Punta Del Este, Uruguay.

I'd just come off a long flight from the states, did some work in Sao Paulo, Brazil and then had a couple day layover all to my own before heading on for work in Buenos Aries, Argentina.

I wanted to go to Iguazu Falls but couldn't get any last minute flights so I opted for Punta Del Este.  I'd heard it was the "San Tropez" of South America.  A lot of Argentinians came over there for summer vacations.

Arriving in late morning I immediately checked into my hotel and then promptly headed to the beach.  Why not?  It was summertime here and winter where I had come.  But in doing so, I'd completely ignored my cardinal rule not to do much other than site-seeing right after long flights when I am jet-lagged.  

Sure enough, I fell right asleep under the warm beach sun.  Asleep for 4 hours!  Luckily I carried a dark tan through a decent fall and it hadn't disappeared entirely by early winter so I didn't look like this guy...but I did have the classic sunglasses mark.

Sunburns...don't try this at home...
Beyond my stupidity, the visit to Punta Del Este was a good choice.  It's an awesome coast line and I explored a fair bit of it.  When you look at an overview of the city, it sits right at the southern most point so you have coast line on both sides.

The actual city of Punta Del Este, Uruguay goes right out to a point
But looking inland from the point of the city, the coastline stretches out East and becomes less and less populated the further out you go.

As you drive up the Coastline, the beaches are less and less crowded
You can easily walk around the actual urban portions of Punta del Este and if you want to go further, they have an easy bus line that you can take.

Part of the urban beach.  Still early enough that it isn't jammed packed with vacationers
Right on the beach, one of the first things I noticed is the iconic "Mano de Punta Del Este" or "Hand of Punta Del Este" in English.  It was built by a young sculptor back in 1982 during a sculptor's convention.  He didn't have room in the open area assigned for the sculptors so he opted to do his on the beach.  His was the only one that survived and is now internationally known.  In fact, he has done replicas in Madrid, the Atacama Desert and Venice.  This one is the original.  Here's what it should look like:

Pre-2005 shot without the graffiti that now plagues the palm side of statue (see my photo above)
What many don't realize is that the sculptor was signifying a warning about the dangers of swimming in the water as it is more suited for surfing and the sculpture is that of a drowning person and reaching out.  A bit morbid for an international icon...

The towns beyond Punta Del Este are small and laid-back surf locales
Now, heading Northeast passed the city, the scene changes quickly.  It first goes into that of more laid-back surfing villages.  I've enjoyed surfing before in the United States but don't seem to ever try and do any when I travel internationally.  That's weird because I seem to zip line and river raft wherever I go if I have the opportunity.  Perhaps the time when I almost broke my neck boogie boarding in Hawaii now subconsciously turns me into a wimp when it comes to ocean adventure.

Quieter areas with less people the further you go up the coastline
Once you leave the surf villages, you reach the Faro de Cabo Polonio lighthouse.  It's a an 1881 lighthouse that is on their registered historical marker list.  You can visit it Tue-Sat.

I was just off from having the lighthouse as a "stupid" hat in the photo...
The lighthouse also marks the last time you're going to see much civilization at all along the beach.  After this, you can pretty much have the beach to yourself.

Sing it with me..."Where have all the people gone..."
He's hard to see but notice the bike carrying the surfboard.  Who says you need a car...
On the way back I noted a couple of your typical houses along the way.  They are mostly of wooden construction and many have thatched roofs.

So if you want to sit with the masses, come in December or January and you can be among the Argentina, Brasil and European tourists.  As with anywhere else, if you come on the buffer months you'll enjoy good weather AND less people.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

I'm a simple person.  The thought, "Hey, we should climb up these waterfalls right through the river" never popped into my head.  But there we were in the Dominican Republic floating in a pool of water staring at a small waterfall that we needed to climb UP!

While my sandals never failed me hiking around and wading through water, they failed miserably when using them to climb up through rushing water.  The toe half would invariably come off my foot every time.

We were both having a blast but this was our eighth waterfall and we were exhausted.  Perhaps it was the reality of my having come directly from another trip to Aruba and then Venezuela to visit the remote Angel Falls, highest waterfall in the world.  Maybe it was that I'd come from tours of Kenya, Tanzania and Dubai even before that trip.  It was all adding up.  Plus added to that was the fact that Jeanne was still in a wrist brace coming off a break that left her in a cast for weeks only to be taken off just before we left.  She can thank me partially for that break but that's another post entirely.

We had two weeks of relaxation and exploration in the Dominican Republic and chose the Northern side of the island near Cabarete.  Cabarete is known for its wind surfing.  We found that the winds weren't particularly fierce while we were there but compared to the non-existent winds on the South side of the island, they were there.  Instead, what we found was a relaxed beach vibe at an economical cost.

The beach at living and good relaxation

Enjoy the dining right on the beach
Even so, laying around the beach gets old for me.  My exclusive sun worshiping days are over; I don't need leathery skin down the road.  I wanted some variety.  I wanted some excitement.  As a result, one of the many interesting things we explored was a river hike.  

Fruity Rum Drinks - One of the primary food groups...
They call it the "
Twenty Seven Waterfalls of Rio Damajagua."  
Not all of the waterfalls are always available for hiking/climbing but when we went there was plenty of water when we were there.  This is a gloriously beautiful limestone river with small waterfalls and pools that allow you to climb up and then jump or slide back down as a reward for your hard efforts.

The narrow limestone canyon provides and adventurous and beautiful playground
And while we're pretty active and adventurous, the reality is that we'd still be floating in some of the pools unable to proceed upwards without the strength and experience of the guides.  Not only did they get our butts up a couple of them but they would keep our cameras safe from water and provide endless comic relief as well.

Full gear is definitely needed for this adventure
I would have to say that of all the activities we did during our two weeks in the area which included river rafting, parks, snorkeling and relaxing, this river exploration was the highlight of our trip and very unique in the world.

A few of the cliffs were just too difficult by rock alone so we had "aids" to get up
I highly recommend this excursion if you happen to be on the North shore of the island.  And if you do go, just tune out your mind trying to argue with you about the logic behind hiking up waterfalls.  Sure, it doesn't make any logical sense but it's fun as hell!

Me taking a serious jump and plunge to the pool below

Saturday, September 6, 2014

The choice was mine:  Take the fall now knowing I'll lose a LOT of skin or continue on knowing that if I don't get through I could die.  I'd finally reached a point in life where mortality was a real concept and I chose life.  I laid myself down and took the fall.

And if you are lost about now, flash back to the mid-1990s when I used to take my inline skates EVERYWHERE I traveled.  Yes, I had them illegally on the subways in New York.  Asia?  Sure, why not.  South America?  You bet.

I had been at the forefront of the inline skating craze even before it was a craze.  I got my first pair in 1983, years before most people even knew they existed.  I used to get stopped by motorist wanting to know what they were and where I got them.  I used to get kicked out of roller rinks because they didn't know what they were and feared they would mess up their rink surface.

My transportation around the cities of the world
I'd yanked the brakes off of them by 1984.  That's a sure sign of a skilled skater from that of a beginner or average skater.  By the early 1990s I'd started testing skates for Nike and was then taking them along on by travels.

I skated down Lombard street in San Francisco.  I darted between massive waves of cars in Buenos Aries, Argentina and crossed the widest street in the world on them.  I cruised through Manhattan and along the Monuments in Washington, DC.  I skated the bike path high up in Keystone, Colorado.  I did the boardwalk in Hong Kong.  I skated to the Satay Club in downtown in Singapore.  Around the horse statues in Santiago, Chile.  Though heavy and bulk to travel with, they were a quick easy way to get around.

I even skated down this during my reckless years
So mid-1996 I was in Sao Paulo, Brazil and took advantage of the afternoon before a work trip to explore around via my skates.  This was the beginning of the end.  I'd gradually picked up speed on a downhill descent that was deceiving.  As the road rounded around to the right I was suddenly plummeting down an unknown road of questionable smoothness not knowing just how far it went down and what lay at the bottom.

I was back to my split second decision.  Normally, in years past I'd have not thought twice about my mortality and would have ridden it out.  But that past year put doubt into my previous unwavering confidence.  A series of entanglements with cars left me a bit shaken and scarred.  First was a car that forced me off the side of a road into gravel and causing me to wipe out with some road rash.  The second was a car that turned right into a driveway and blocked a sidewalk I was coming down leaving me into a dead end scenario.  On that incident I chose the football linebacker strategy and pummeled myself right into the side of the car leaving a dent big enough to look like a linebacker had made it.  I was unscathed that time and left the scene cursing.  No, I didn't even stop for identification.

These two incidents ran through my mind in microseconds as I pondered my choice.  I knew a crash further on meant serious injury or death.  I knew I couldn't now slow myself down as the road was too rough.  I knew I was screwed!  I took the fall.  The fall took about a football size patch of skin off my butt and leg.  But I'd lived!

Sao Paulo is full of urban hills, some with roads and some without
I sat in my work meetings the next day oozing.  There was no "second skin" back then.  It was a misery.  I had fortunately been and done much in Brazil so I wasn't missing a lot of travel opportunities this time around.  I stuck with my work agenda and hobbled through it.

Back at home and having taken a few days off of work to recoop, I came back to find a picture of a rhino with a helmet on it and a large bandaid on the hind leg.  It was taped to my office window.  To this day I still have that mocked up picture to remind me of the Brazilian dilemma.  

By the next year, 1997, I was out skating at lunch time and clipped a "For Sale" sign that had fallen across the sidewalk.  It was a silly thing.  My skate just caught the corner of it but it was enough to throw my balance off and send me crashing to the pavement.  Except this time something went seriously wrong.  I couldn't get up.  Turns out I had broken my left arm in five places. 

I had to have somebody in a Jeep give me a ride back to the gym as he found me in the road unable to get up.  My arm was completely loose, flopping around like a fish with no bones to hold it rigid.  One of my bones stuck through my skin.  I had a second elbow essentially.  And a funny thing happened.  Mentally, I just couldn't handle my arm moving around un-naturally like that and so I had to pin it to my chest to keep from losing my mind.

I waited in that state for 45 minutes before the Fire Department saw me.  All they had was a cardboard splint that once they took a look at me realized was useless.  Next came the ambulance.  By almost 2 hours into the accident and halfway through the ambulance ride to the hospital, I had to ask for some kind of pain relief.  I have a high pain threshold, but this was ridiculous!  They finally broke out the morphine.

I ended up with two plates in my arm that I have to this day.  Hand scanners at airports will set these off and forever remind me of my nearly 15 year stint inline skating.

Monday, September 1, 2014

I'm asleep at 35,000 feet but the feel of the plane slowing down wakes me.  It's night time over the Amazon.  I look out my business class window to see the engine shooting flames out over the night sky.  I sense that isn't a good thing.

This was a typical business trip down to South America.  My last stop was in Sao Paulo, Brazil and I had a business class ticket back to Atlanta, Georgia and then a connection on to Portland, OR.

No, that actually isn't my plane in the picture.  Very few indigenous tribes have cell phones and fewer still would send me a photo even if they had.  And no, I didn't bungee jump out of the plane for a quick shot just for a good blog post.  So back to the story on the plane...

Of course, by this time, it isn't typical.  the engine is on fire flying over the Amazon. Repeat; The right engine is on fire! I don’t think this is part of the new “come fly with me” feature that the airline sells me on TV. Of course, “Come die with me” is not a very big sales booster.

As I turn around to see the look of terror on the faces of the other passengers, all of a sudden every flight attendant on the plane comes rushing up to the front of the plane and disappears. WTF? Have they grabbed their emergency parachutes, said “Good Luck” and then parachuted out to safety leaving me to have to navigate the plane? Hey, I’ve seen those disaster movies...

When every airline attendant is holding one of these, you're doomed!
Luckily the attendants return. But with their red flight manuals! I’ve never seen flight manuals in a plane before. Am I still dreaming and we’re in airline simulation school? Did they have a quick staff meeting and brainstorm on the best way to scare the shit out of the passengers in the most subtle way? If so, they’re good at it because uniform red flight manuals scare the crap out of me! Could you please look up “Game Over” or “We’re Screwed” in the index?

Now the real terror exists outside. Sure, they could just land at the quickest available landing strip. Of course, WE’RE FLYING OVER THE BRAZILIAN JUNGLE!!!! Not a lot of jumbo jet runways or wide open Salt flats around. Oh, and just my luck…I’d survive the plane crash, be stuck up in the trees and have to find my way out of an endless leech and snake infested jungle eating bugs to survive. Death is sounding better all the time.

The Amazon you see a lot of landing strips?
Did I mention this is a two engine plane in which one of them is on fire? Sure, they have one other engine on the other wing. How hard can it be to fly with one engine? Apparently (as I found out later) it’s not that big a deal; the military does it all the time. Guess that speaks volumes for their defense contract quality measures, does it not?

Even Death Row inmates get a better last meal than this...
So…anyhow…we’re all sitting on the plane waiting to die. There’s no damn cell phone service and I’m wondering if I can leave my kids a message on that black box they always find when they search the wreckage. I’m also wondering why they can't make the whole damn plane with that indestructible material. Oh, and screw the cell phone rule; I’m calling home before the end. What? My phone service does not work over the Brazilian jungle? What a crappy phone network. There are many indigenous tribes I could be talking to right now if they’d ever get their act together. When I come back as a ghost, I’m haunting them forever!

As it turns out, we need to make an emergency landing in Guyana. Guyana! “Excuse me, Miss manual-carrying flight attendant, isn’t that the country that Jim Jones served Kool-ade to his followers and killed them all?” Not only is that the very same place but no airline flies there commercially and so the airstrip is very small. Very small! We did have a smooth landing but we were in the grass way beyond the tarmac. They used their brakes so hard that we had to wait twenty minutes before we could taxi over to the tarmac because the brakes were too hot to operate the plane. Joy!

Guyana...not on my travel bucket list, not on my plane itinerary but here I am...
After finding another pair of undies to replace my soiled ones from that experience, I got to enjoy all the pleasures that my $6,450 business class ticket price would bring. First of all, they wouldn’t let us out of the plane and after about four hours they finally open up the doors because we’re all sweltering inside as the plane wasn’t designed to be a human crockpot. Once outside, we’re allowed over to the gates and such. I snapped a great photo of me behind the sign that says, “Welcome to Guyana…We Hope you Enjoy our Malaria Infested Jungles” (okay, I may have embellished the sign a bit).

We had the benefit of waiting in the gate area or staying on the plane. For a few hours they let us walk around between the two. I did get to visit the gift shop and go out for a bit. How dangerous can it be? I did some walking around and that was about it. Nobody converted me into a sect. I didn’t see any mosquito infestations in town and nobody sold me drugs. But as I get back, they suddenly want me to decide: On the plane or in the gate area only. No more tarmac walking or going anywhere else. Riding home over land on a donkey wasn’t an option any longer. Building a raft out of coconuts and sailing up to Florida was out too. I’m going to have to fly again.

Somehow I missed this on my walk around Guyana
I chose to stay on the plane. The look of hard plastic chairs and no food service at the gate did not seem all that appealing. Our wait on the plane was an incredible nine hours. No, that’s not a typo! Apparently they had to get another plane from Caracas, Venezuela because ours was too big to fly out and replacing an engine there was out of the question. The airline was going to have to take apart the plane in pieces and fly it all back to the states. Fun!

So there we were, reading the in-flight magazine for 27th time and bitching about whatever mundane thing we were going to miss as a result of our being inconvenienced enough to survive but still be delayed. When our new plane did arrive, they found out that they could not just switch the luggage. Apparently the giant loader cubes are different sizes on these two planes. Lovely…that meant we had to wait another two hours while they unloaded and reloaded all of our checked luggage by hand! Oh, and Guyana doesn't have a credit system so the airport was demanding local currency in cash for fuel so we could take off again. Nice that we get to wait longer for all their little international gotchas.

Given that our new plane was much smaller; hard decisions had to be made. There were not enough business class seats on this plane for all of the business class passengers. Guess who got bumped down to coach? Yep, lucky me!

So we make it over to Miami and its Sunday night at about midnight Miami time. The captain informs us we’ll just be stopping for gas and then flying directly out again for Atlanta. Weird, I wonder if he has to pump his own gas? Of course nothing happened that way at all. As soon as customs found out that they manually loaded the checked luggage, they forced everybody in the entire plane to exit the plane and re-ticket for the same plane right after they got their luggage and rechecked it through customs. You would not want somebody to have smuggled more trinkets into the USA without accounting for them now!

You don't normally see this kind of line at 11:30pm on a Sunday night at ticketing
So 325 passengers are lined up at a single ticket agent counter awaiting another ticket for a flight they already have one with. As it was Sunday evening, the ticketing computers were off line and we had to wait longer while they booted them up. It finally took them so long and there were so many passengers carrying torches and ready to burn any airline personnel they could get a hold of that they ended up going with our old tickets. Duh! I have no idea what the big deal is; the entire flippin’ terminal is EMPTY! You could film a sequel to The Shining right here in the terminal and it would be just as creepy empty. Maybe have twins of Jim Jones walking up some abandoned hallway as they carry flaming black boxes. Hell, I’d run screaming…

So our plane is there, we have our luggage that we got the benefit of picking up from the plane only to take through a security scanner and then put right back on the same plane. We were all ready to board but they were not letting us. Apparently we didn’t have a flight crew! “What’s wrong with the flight crew we just had?” I asked. “Oh, they have exceeded their maximum allowable shift time,” claimed one of the airport flunkies. Errr…how about my maximum allowable tolerance of your airline fiasco? Where is my comfy bed so I can sleep?

A new flight crew finally arrived a couple hours later from Ft. Lauderdale. Great…we got a bunch of hung over beach party employees to assist us to Atlanta. Joy. We did make it to Atlanta without incident. Of course, I had to spend the night and get another flight the next day before getting home. I missed important things at home and work having lost a couple of days during my 36 hour saga. Afterwards, I pushed the airlines for compensation in the form of tickets or something! I deserved it. My pushing went all the way up to the President of Delta airlines (I still have the letter somewhere) where I’m basically told, “tough luck”; they were treating this with the same seriousness as that of somebody that had a movie-screen that didn’t work in their seat: a $200 voucher. Now there’s customer service!

After that, I took a different tact. The business class ticket cost $6,450 while an equivalent economy class ticket cost $680 dollars. You’d think that for the additional $5,770 I should be getting a massage, haircut and jacuzzi soak for that much more! Of course, I demanded that since they were the ones that bumped me down to coach and squished me into that tiny seat for all those hours and fed me coach food, they owed me the difference in cash. And guess what? I got the money and got to keep it myself even though this was a company ticket. Finally…some justice for my suffering…

Oh, and I'm sure there actually is a lot of beauty in Guyana and I'm sure there are travel blog readers who've been there to enjoy it.  Let's just say this wasn't the trip for me to.