Thursday, July 30, 2009

Is Travel Medical Insurance Necessary? Part One - Disaster in Provence

The Friday it happened a mistral was sweeping the city of Arles. This strong, gusty wind is either a blessing or a curse, depending on your point of view, but it's an unavoidable part of the Provencal weather in the southern area of France. Legend says it's the harbinger of good health because the gusts blow away the pollution and produce clear skies, but, in our case, the wind that tangled our hair and pummeled our backs as we scurried down the sidewalk heralded disaster.

After a week exploring the medieval city of Arles, Debbie, *Mary, and I were going separate ways. Debbie would pick up a Peugeot rental car to whisk her husband off to their gite when he arrived late Saturday, and Mary and I would be joining some friends of mine from Spain when they drove in on Sunday for another week of sightseeing. Then Mary would return to the US, and I would continue, alone, to join my cousins in Nice.

Even though we battled the wind as we walked from our hotel, tucked behind the old city walls, to the train station, we arrived in ten minutes with time to spare. Debbie filled out forms while Mary and I paced the hallways. We wanted to go somewhere. Anywhere.

We decided to drive to the outskirts of Arles to check out the hotel where my Spanish friends had reservations. I sat in the front to help navigate and Mary decided to monitor the trip from the backseat. Debbie climbed in behind the wheel, and, after five minutes, managed to maneuver the key to turn the ignition.

We'd probably still be sitting in that parking lot if Debbie had had to back out of the stall. It had been fifteen years since she'd driven a stick shift, but she figured if she could remember how to go forward, the backing-up-part of driving would return to her eventually. She asked that everyone please be patient since that backing-up-part hadn't kicked in yet.

Of course we were not about to hit the French streets without a little practice, so Debbie drove around the parking lot. We shuddered, rolled and stalled our way around the perimeter. Mary and I stifled groans when the gears ground and, instead, murmured encouragement. Debbie grew more confident with each revolution. She did, indeed, seem to be catching on to first, second, and third gears.

When we finally stopped shuddering and were doing more rolling than stalling, Deb was ready for the open road. We stalled, stopped and started all the way to the highway, but, then, at 40 mph, the ride suddenly became smoother. We were actually driving normally! Anyone who glanced at our car would think Debbie had been driving a stick shift all her life. I was feeling so confident I even thought about turning on the radio. But then, there was that one little problem when Debbie panicked going over a rickety bridge.

Waving one arm in the air and crying, “I hate bridges,” Debbie veered off to the right and on to what was undoubtedly the narrowest road in all of France. It dead-ended in what appeared to be a housing project of some sort.

Debbie and I stepped outside the car to get our bearings, when suddenly, from almost every doorway, women and children appeared carrying jewelry and clothing. They swarmed around us, shoving items in our faces and exhorting us to buy, buy, buy. Mary stayed in the back seat, while Debbie and I, still somewhat dazed, wondered how to get us and the Peugeot out of this situation and back on the highway. Debbie still had no idea where Reverse was, but, even if she found it, there was no way she could back out of that narrow road, several blocks long, to the highway.

Suddenly a short, swarthy man pushed his way through the gaggle of women and children and offered to back the car out. He spoke broken English, flashed a crooked smile, and waved his arms around in convincing backing-up kinds of gestures.

Debbie and I conferred. We didn't like the looks of this situation, but we'd either have to trust this man or else be more or less forced to buy enough flimsy jewelry and gaudy scarves to last a lifetime. Perhaps, if Mary were willing to remain in the backseat so she could pound the guy in the head should he try to take off with the car, we might manage to get back on the highway after all and salvage our pride as well as our fashion integrity.

Mary was agreeable. (She probably realized that, if the man kidnapped her, she wouldn't have to buy any of that jewelry or clothing.) We made it perfectly clear to the man, or at least as clear as our limited French would allow, that while we were grateful for his help, Mary would be watching his every move. When he nodded understanding, Debbie handed him the keys.



*"Mary" is not her real name.

Is Travel Medical Insurance Necessary? Part Two - Disaster in Provence

We motioned what we hoped was a, “Thanks, but no thanks,” to the hopeful women and children in the street and ran after the car. When the Peugeot turned around and stopped, facing the right direction--forward--Debbie and I quickly opened the front doors, said, “Merci beaucoup,” a dozen times as the man exited the car, and drove off in what, for Debbie, was record time.

On the highway again, driving a pleasant 40 mph, we could finally laugh. Mary swore she hadn't been nervous for a second as she was a good judge of character and knew our driver-savior had only the best intentions. Debbie and I recounted our experience fending off the jewelry and clothing sellers, grateful we'd managed to get away without investing hundreds of Euros. And all of us agreed we were anxious to reach our destination, have a drink at the hotel where my friends had reservations, and forget the dubious thrill of driving in France.

Despite a bit of trouble reading road signs and circling around the hotel four times before we figured out how to access the hotel driveway, we pulled into the parking lot around 5:00. Mary said she'd grab Debbie's purse, along with her own, from the backseat so Debbie and I should go on ahead. Deb and I were still laughing when we heard a thud and a moan.

We raced back to the car and found Mary flat on the ground, not moving. She said her foot had gotten caught somewhere, her leg had twisted, and she couldn't get up. The more she moaned, the more we fretted at not being able to do anything. Finally, Mary agreed we could help her up as long as we promised not to touch her leg.

Debbie and I lifted her as gently as possible while Mary stifled a scream. As we settled her on the back seat of the car, we noticed the seat belt was fully retracted and lying on the ground. She must have gotten her foot stuck in the belt and when she tried to leave the car, it jerked her backward and to the ground.

Once settled, Mary insisted she'd be okay. She wanted Debbie and me to go into the hotel and get, at least, a drink of water on this 90 degree day. When we came back with some water for her, it was clear that Mary was anything but okay.

Her foot, ankle and lower leg were swollen to three times their normal size, and she said the pain was clawing at her. Mary wanted to go home. Debbie somehow found what had eluded her all afternoon--Reverse--and we managed to drive the few miles back to old Arles without getting lost more than twice.

Although Deb intended to park in the public lot and had sworn she'd never drive on the ancient city's serpentine streets which had trapped more than one tourist, she didn't hesitate to drive right into the old city to our hotel.

At the hotel entrance, though, we were faced with a problem. Mary insisted she could not walk a single step, and looking at her leg, we didn't doubt her for a second. We thought about carrying her because Mary has spent her entire adult life on one diet after another, so she'd probably be pretty light. But, then, if Debbie and I dropped her, with Mary's luck, she'd probably wind up with two bad legs. We searched the street for good Samaritins, but, while all the faces we saw expressed concern, no one offered assistance. And the little bit of French Debbie and I knew eluded us at that moment, so we didn't know how to ask for the help we desperately needed.

Debbie stayed with Mary while I went into the lobby. I was trying to explain the problem to our friendly manager when I noticed the office chair. The one with casters. Those wheels would get Mary out of the street.

The manager held the door while Deb and I gently lifted Mary into the office chair and wheeled her to the elevator and up to our suite (actually one bedroom with two twin beds and a sitting room with a foldout couch).

Debbie went back to deal with the car. She told us later she got lost on the sinuous streets and a kind stranger had to help her back down a hill when Reverse mysteriously disappeared again. I tried to get Mary comfortable, but she begged to be left alone. She said she thought she might cry, and since she's the most stoic of women, crying in front of me would have hurt her more than her leg. I handed her a box of tissues and headed for the drugstore.

I'd passed the store, with its neon-green cross, many times before and knew the pharmacist, who, in France, was almost as well-trained as a doctor, would be able to help. One of the pharmacists in this store spoke limited English and understood Mary's problem; she gathered pain medication, a soothing salve, and crutches. The crutches were something of a surprise, but, then, drugstores in France always carry items that are unexpected. Just in case, I also asked the pharmacist for a map and the name of a local clinic. I hoped we wouldn't need it, that Mary just had a bad sprain. But, still, it was better to be prepared.

None of the items I bought helped. Mary couldn't get the hang of the crutches which rested under the elbows instead of under the arms, and no amount of pain medication stilled the throbbing in her leg. As she had since the accident, she refused to consider going to a doctor or a hospital. Maybe, she suggested, if she simply got a good night's sleep, she'd be feeling better in the morning.

Debbie and I studied the map over our salads that night in the little restaurant next door, Bar Americain, that had become our regular gathering spot. The Joan of Arc Clinic was the closest, we thought, but, still, given our navigational skills, it might as well have been in Italy. We remembered how frustrated we'd been earlier in the day trying to find a hotel. How on earth would we manage the traffic on a Saturday morning when the weekly market was set up along the main street? And there would undoubtedly be “backing-up” to do. Would Debbie be up to the task? Would Reverse be there when she needed it?

I had an extra glass of wine while Deb ordered a sandwich to take back to Mary. All we could do was hope that Mary was right. Maybe she did only have a bad sprain that a good night's rest would cure.

Is Travel Medical Insurance Necessary? Conclusion - Disaster in Provence

“Is broke!” Debbie and I, sitting in the waiting room next door, heard the radiografia technician exclaim. The tech must have been so amazed to see Mary's unusual spiral fracture that she forgot to lower her voice.

Still, the diagnosis was no surprise. Mary's foot and leg had doubled in size overnight. That morning, Mary was no longer insisting that the leg might heal on its own. Debbie and I ousted the manager from his office chair again to wheel her downstairs, and Debbie braved the old city streets to get the car as close to the hotel entrance as possible. Somehow we managed to avoid the busy market area and follow the map, getting lost only once, to the Joan of Arc Clinic.

Mary gave her name to the attendant and filled out a few forms with her home address and phone number. No one asked for insurance information. Thirty minutes later we were ushered into an examination room. Dr. Vladimir Pop walked in and Mary said, “Do. You. Speak. English?”

Dr. Pop said, “No, not a single word.” He laughed and Mary smiled for the first time since the accident.

After he had the x-ray results, Dr. Pop placed the leg in a temporary cast of sorts. He insisted it was too swollen to do anything else. Mary was given a prescription for pain pills and one for a wheelchair. She was told to return in a week for a permanent cast.

When she paid her bill, the total charge for lab and doctor services, in this country where medical care is reasonable for all, was 70 Euros. Before Debbie left to join her husband at the gite in the country, she and I drove to the medical supply store where we rented a wheelchair for 16 Euros.

Unfortunately, the wheelchair didn't help Mary much on the ancient streets of Arles. She used it to reach the hotel's first floor for breakfast and to wheel to the Bar Americain next door for dinner, but, with few curb cut-outs, most of the city was inaccessible to her. (I later saw a boy in a wheelchair, early one morning, being pushed down the middle of the street by his mother. Obviously, that approach is only practical when there's little traffic.) Still miserable and craving the assistance of her own doctor in Michigan, Mary changed her flight and made plans to leave on Wednesday.

Since she had to take the train from Arles to Marseille, she and I had to deal with another problem—the Arles train station. In smaller towns all over Europe, the train terminal consists of a series of staircases to reach the appropriate tracks. Mary would have no problem in Marseille where thirty or so tracks were all housed in one huge terminal, but, here in Arles, she'd have to navigate two flights down and two flights up to reach her train.

Luckily, the transportation system in France is prepared to deal with special needs visitors. The staff told me that an attendant would literally take her across the tracks to the correct platform so she could avoid the four flights of stairs. And, at 5:00 a.m. Wednesday morning, that's exactly what they did.

I waved her off knowing she would still have some difficulty navigating the taxi or bus from the train station to the Marseille airport, but confident that intrepid Mary could handle whatever lay ahead. And she did. After six weeks in a cast, Mary was busy planning her next trip.



Practicalities -

If you do not have insurance that is applicable anywhere in the world, or if you have chronic health issues, you may want to consider travel insurance. These companies are highly recommended in Travel Forums.
http://www.squaremouth.com/
http://www.insuremytrip.com/

For information about public transportation help for special needs visitors, see
http://us.franceguide.com/Progress-in-Rail-and-Plane-Travel-Options-for-Visitors-with-Handicaps.html?NodeID=1&EditoID=209058

Are you wondering why Debbie leased a car with a manual, instead of an automatic, transmission? She wanted to save money. Gas is considerably more expensive in Europe than the United States, and stick shifts use less gas than automatics. Therefore automatic transmissions are rare in Europe and add a couple hundred dollars to the lease cost.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – Hairspray

One item, in regular-sized containers, that always leaks when packed in a suitcase is aerosol hairspray. Avoid the problem by buying a small purse-size container and include it in your 3-1-1 plastic bag when you go through security. The Transportation Security Administration allows small aerosol cans if they are for your personal use.

If you prefer the non-aerosol, pump-spray type of hairspray, consider transferring the liquid to a leak-proof liquid medicine bottle. Rinse out the pump-spray apparatus and pack it in a separate plastic bag. When you reach your destination, simply pour the hairspray back in the pump-spray container.

Monday, July 27, 2009

France on $70 a Day - Including Food!

Imagine sitting in a little restaurant tucked on a winding, narrow side street in the Marais. There is, perhaps, seating only for twenty, and we are one of the lucky few enjoying a five-course dinner. We'd linger over the wine, congratulate ourselves on our dessert choices, and prepare to leave, hours after we'd begun, sated and smiling. But would we still be smiling after we paid the bill? Paying several hundred dollars for a meal, no matter how delicious or well-prepared, might leave us with nothing but indigestion!

In France, it is possible to pay as much for a meal as it is for one night's accommodation at a five-star hotel. Luckily for David and me, though, in this country where food is an art form, there are other approaches to eating well. We hope to use them all so we can enjoy fine food on a tightwad's budget.

One of the reasons we're choosing to rent an apartment with a kitchen is so we can feel as though we live in France, no matter how briefly. And having our own kitchen means preparing meals “at home.”

There are advantages to eating at home besides saving money. We can set our own pace and avoid stumbling out of bed in the morning, an hour before we'd like, to make sure we get to the hotel dining room before the buffet ends. In the evening, we can relax completely, knowing that we don't have to dress up after a long day of sightseeing, to go out to dinner. Sitting on our own balcony with a glass of wine and re-living the day's highlights is a better way to end the day than tromping through the streets searching for that restaurant Aunt Sarah recommended.

Another advantage to eating at home is that we will learn about the culture in the best way possible—by shopping. And the experience will be delightfully guilt-free as the French do not list fat content, or carry reduced-fat products, for that matter, on any of their grocery store labels! Will the French encourage returns by requiring us to insert money in a machine to get a shopping cart? Is bread so important in France that we can buy just half a loaf in the bakery department? Will recycling be encouraged by charging a small fee for bags in case we forget to take our own? Besides the grocery store education, in the markets,boulangeries,and patisseries we'll interact with shopkeepers, practice our French, and find the freshest delicacies that require minimum preparation.

Still, as delightful as buying and preparing our own food will be, our main objective, of course, is to save money. We arrived at the figure we're allotting for each day in France by considering the amount we spend at home in California.By scouring the weekly ads for the best sales, we spend about $275 per month, or $8.87 a day, on food in the US. In France, because we're unfamiliar with the markets, to say nothing of not being able to understand the ads, we're budgeting roughly twice that amount, or $15 a day for the two of us.

That figure will also allow for lunch picnics. We plan to either pack our own sandwiches, or buy them at the sidewalk counters that seem to exist on every street in France. We'll buy a croque monsieur (an open-faced ham, cheese, and bechamel sauce delight), fill our bottles at a water fountain, grab a few napkins, and find a bench to sit on and enjoy our food. Since French “street food” is so inexpensive, there will also be room in the budget for a special dessert treat later in the day.

We do plan to experience one or two drinks in a brasserie or a sidewalk cafe where we can enjoy the parade of passersby. The waiter, paid by the hour rather than by tips, won't mind our lingering over coffee because he's not anxious to turn our table over to new customers. Actually, although this is frustrating to the customer who'd like to encourage prompt service with a tip, the waiter's job is easier if we sit for a long time because he has fewer people to serve while still earning the same wage.

So, we will sit at that table for a long time. We'll be remembering all the wonderful meals we had and congratulating ourselves, not for our dessert choices at a Michelin three-star restaurant, but for eating well on our limited budget.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tightwad Travel Tip – Sink Stopper

Many budget accommodations are lacking a sink stopper in the bathroom washbasin. Losing a contact lens down the drain will ruin your vacation, so carry a flat plastic one-size-fits-all sink stopper available from any variety store.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

France on $70 a Day - The Plan

Although our airline tickets are not included in the $70 a day budget, you might be interested in how we got two round-trip tickets from San Diego to Paris for $1042.

I used frequent flyer miles, including buying some miles from my son's account, to purchase my ticket on March 3. With the processing fees and the purchase of my son's miles, my total was $291.

At the time I made my reservation, David's flight would have cost $1077. We decided to wait and hope for a price decrease. There are many free alert services available, but we used Kayak and asked for daily notification. (Sign up for a free account at http://www.kayak.com/ to use the Alert feature.)

By the end of March, we were getting nervous. The price from San Diego to Paris had dropped slightly, but it was still closer to $1000 than we liked. We worried that David might eventually score a lower price by waiting, but we didn't know if it would on the same airline or on the same day. We didn't want to wave to each other from passing airlines or arrive in Paris on different days. We'd give it another two weeks, and then he'd have to bite the bullet.

On April 4, just a month after placing the alert, Kayak's daily e-mail told us that the ticket we wanted was $751! Since it was still five months before our planned departure, there were plenty of seats left on our chosen flight, and we had no difficulty making the reservation. Thanks to Kayak and David's patience, we saved $326!

Accommodations

After airline tickets, the largest expenditure for a trip is accommodations. In Paris, you can spend $20 a day for a hostel or $500 for a luxurious hotel room. Obviously, for us, the answer was not even in the middle of the two extremes. We wanted a place that was close to the hostel price—cheap, yet being centrally located was important, and we wanted to feel, if only for ten days, as though we were living like Parisiens. The search began.

David and I, using our separate computers, combed the Internet for apartments. We used many sites too numerous to list, but the source we kept returning to was Slow Travel. Here, travelers like us who eschew tours and like to wander leisurely, post their reviews of hotels and apartments. This is the site we used to find our perfect place in Paris.

We will be staying in the 10th arrondissement, a newly trendy area that Matt Gross, who writes the NY Times Frugal Travel column, says is called bobo for bourgeois bohemian. Our 350 square foot apartment is on the sixth floor—there's an elevator—and contains two separate sleeping areas, a fully equipped though tiny kitchen, living room and small balcony. We will have a washing machine and dryer, a dishwasher, a computer, telephone, television, and access to bicycles in case we want to see Paris on two wheels. The cost is 660 E, or $933 at today's exchange rate of 1.41, for ten nights.

The next portion of our trip will be in the rural Dordogne area of southwestern France. A Rick Steves guidebook helped us find this gite which consists of two sleeping areas, a fully equipped kitchen, living room, and garden. There, too, we will have a washer, dryer, and television. The most wonderful feature about this property is that it's only thirty yards from the beautifully restored medieval city of Sarlat-le-Caneda. The cost is 450 E or $636 for eight nights.

So, we're spending roughly $87 a night, or $44 per person, for an apartment in two areas of France. Even Matt Gross, NY Times's Frugal Traveler, would approve of these prices, I think. And, if these apartments are as wonderful as we think they will be, you can be sure I'll be providing contact information about them in upcoming posts.

Practicalities -

Most ideas will be developed in much greater detail in subsequent articles, but this piece provides an overview of our plan.
This thread on Frommer's site lists numerous sources for locating a Paris short-term rental. http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/paris-apartment-thread.cfm

France on $70 a Day - The Plan - Sightseeing in Paris

We have frugal accommodations, but we won't spend much time there because we'll be too busy exploring. Unless we're feeling particularly energetic and want to use the bikes, we're planning to travel most days in Paris using the metro. We'll buy a carnet of ten tickets for 11.40 E and then walk from place to place. Since Paris is a relatively small city with the majority of sites being fairly close to one another, we think this is the best way to explore. Although the prices are outdated, this Slow Travel website gives excellent advice about buying and using metro tickets.


To get an overview of the city, we will take two free tours. The Paris Greeter organization is staffed by volunteers who love their city and enjoy showing it off. See this website to arrange a tour.  A donation to the organization and/or to the guide is appreciated, but not necessary.

The Global Greeter Network conducts tours in these cities—Houston, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; Toronto, Canada; Melbourne and Adelaide, Australia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Paris, Lyon, and Nantes, France; Kent, England; and the City of The Hague, Netherlands. On a recent trip to New York City, an enthusiastic Big Apple Greeter introduced me to Greenwich Village and several other places I'd always wanted to see. That day was the highlight of my trip, so David and I are excited about our own Greeter Tour in Paris!

I've had no experience with the other free tour agency we plan to use, but the website promises a three and a half hour walking tour of all the major historic sites in Paris led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. We expect to give the guide a tip, but, still, this is a fantastic bargain!

After getting to know the city a bit better, we plan to purchase a pass so we can explore the museums. Information about prices, points of sale, and list of sites is available at this website.  For information on how to use the pass, see this Slow Travel page.
If you want the museums sorted by arrondissements to cut down on your walking time, go to this website and click on Paris Museums.
The pass has two great advantages. It provides admission to sixty museums and monuments in and around Paris, including Versailles and the Fountainbleau. And, perhaps the best advantage is that there is no waiting in line. There's a separate entrance for pass-holders, so no time is wasted in queues.

The pass is sold for two, four or six days for 32, 48 or 64 E. As soon as David and I have developed our itinerary noting which museums we want to see, their days of operation, and which days are free-admission days, we will decide on either the four or six day pass.

On to the Dordogne -

After ten nights in Paris, we'll take the train to Sarlat-le-Caneda. We'll be buying our tickets shortly although we dread this part of the process. We will try to avoid using the popular Rail Europe. It's an easy site to navigate, but it's the most expensive and it often charges a booking fee and shipping cost.

Besides not listing all routes and charging too much for the ones it does list, my last experience with Rail Europe's scheduling nearly resulted in disaster. I asked for more time between trains, but the Rail Europe clerk assured me I'd have ample time. I didn't. With only fifteen minutes scheduled to change trains in the Nice station, I panicked when my train from Milan was running late.

I arrived at the station three minutes before the train, the last one to Nice that day, was scheduled to depart. Running up and down several flights of stairs—which isn't easy when you're lugging suitcases—to reach the correct platform, I got to the proper boarding spot which appeared deserted. I was barely able to breathe much less choke out, “Is this the train to Nice?” to the lone attendant. She mumbled something into her walkie-talkie, the doors opened, a passenger already inside the train kindly grabbed the suitcases I threw up the stairs, and somehow I got myself up the steps ten seconds before the train took off. This is not an experience I want to repeat.

The website David and I want to use is the SNCF,  but we know there are difficulties inherent in using the site. SNCF is affiliated with Rail Europe so the website tries to direct the English-speaking person there at every turn. For an understanding of this perplexing website, see The Man in Seat 61. Luckily, this website also tells you how to avoid being switched to Rail Europe, or, failing that, how to maneuver the site in French. See the section titled “How to Use voyages-sncf.com.” We'll be trying his approach, but, if it fails, we'll beg our French friend to come for dinner and help us navigate the troublesome site.

In Sarlat, we'll be renting a car. We'd prefer to use public transportation, but it is too difficult in rural areas to rely on buses or trains. The apartment we're renting has a free parking area, so the car will be secure while we're wandering the town of Sarlat itself.

Tightwad Travel Tip – Take Your Own Washcloth

Most accommodations outside the United States do not supply washcloths. I carry a nylon “scrubby” for use in the shower, but I've found that carrying my own washcloth, in a zippered plastic bag, is essential for washing my face.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Alaska Versus Mexico

I leaned from the bed and stretched a hand towards the window to pull back the “darkening” shade, then plucked apart the slats of the blind with two fingers. Would I find rain or sunshine? My cousins and I planned a trip to Glacier Gardens, but it wouldn’t be much fun in a cold rain.

“You might get one day of sunshine a week,” a wizened sourdough told us when we first arrived in Alaska, “if you’re lucky.” I guess the Weather Channel web site hadn’t made a typo when the ten-day forecast for Southeastern Alaska predicted rain every single day.

I knew this part of Alaska was a rain forest, but I was hoping the rain always fell at night the way it does in Ajijic. Mexico. Actually it always did fall at night. And in the morning and in the afternoon and in the evening.

So much rain falls in Ketchikan that it’s measured in feet, not inches, and it’s given the sobriquet, liquid sunshine. But a euphemism cannot disguise fourteen feet of rain per year. It was wet—all the time.

Dreary days that stretch into weeks do strange things to people. Alaska’s water-stained streets are usually deserted. Sunny summer days, however, are so rare no one squanders a moment of the nineteen-hour sunlight. Employers expect their employees to “be sick,” and parties are often canceled so folks can go fishing. In Juneau, some friends of my niece hosted a huge wedding. The chosen date, which fell on a Tuesday night, would have struck anyone in the Lower-48 as an odd choice, but it made sense to Alaskans. It never rains on July 3, so it was perfectly reasonable to hold the wedding in the middle of the week. They were right, by the way. It didn’t start raining again until 4:00 a.m. July 4.

Mostly, though, sourdoughs have resigned themselves to their fate and make valiant attempts to deal with unremitting gloom. Juneau’s Fourth of July parade went ahead as scheduled despite the drenching downpour. In the best bookstore in Sitka, a display sign cautions, "Don’t drip on the books." And for those who cannot cope any other way, bars open at 7:30 in the morning.

The Alaskan government distributes stipends every year to either offset the cost of living in the fifth most expensive area in the United States, or to alleviate the cost of escaping to a drier climate once a year, depending on whom you talk to. But it would take far more than $2000 to convince me to live there.

Yes, the Last Frontier, twice the size of Texas, is remote and beautiful. Most of the towns in Southeastern Alaska are landlocked and can only be reached by plane. No matter how large the city, there’s only a narrow strip of land between the mountains and the sea that can support only 30 to 75 miles of roadway. And it’s true beauty is everywhere. Sitka’s harbor is dotted with fir-covered islands and the mountains, which serve as the backdrop for the tiny town, are snow-capped. Ketchikan’s library juts over a rushing brook where you can read a magazine while watching the salmon struggle upstream. Waterfalls streak the mountainsides with silver and eagles hang glide overhead.

And certainly there are moments in Alaska not quickly forgotten. As our boat approaches the glacier, the celadon-glazed sea turns aquamarine and seals cling to floating ice chunks. The four-mile jagged wall, full of compressed ice crystals, can reflect no other light rays except sky blue. Standing on the boat deck watching a cruise ship, dwarfed by the glacier, pass closer than our fourteen-man boat dared, I think of the Titanic and this frigid water which kills in just five minutes. When the glacier calves and part of the ice wall falls into the sea with a roar, I am not the only one who shivers in the rocking boat.

But not even a two-million-dollar stipend could convince me to live there.

As I lay in bed on that second to the last morning in Juneau, I thought about my life in Mexico. I remembered a trip to Boca de Iguanas one winter when I marveled at the emerald mountains where a giant god had wrinkled the hills and sprinkled bits of chartreuse in the folds. Fjords are majestic, but not as lovely as the lake nestled in a ring of mountains in Michoacan. And nowhere in Alaska could I sit on a quiet Saturday morning and contemplate a ball court build in 450 A.D.

I released the slats of the window blind and huddled under the covers. The heater clicked on. I realized it didn’t really matter if it were raining in Juneau. All I needed to remember was that, somewhere in Ajijic, open windows welcomed the sound of church bells wafting on the warm morning air.


Practicalities -
I'm not fond of cruises. If I wanted to stare at water all day long, I'd fill up my bathtub. Still, there are definite advantages to an Alaskan cruise. Many of the most scenic places are only accessible by boat. A stop for only a day in each town is enough time for it to reveal all its charms, and then you can get back to the real show you'll see from the ship--the sea lions and whales.

My cousins and I did not take a cruise. We flew to Ketchikan, then to Sitka for a few more days, and finally, Juneau. With only those 30-75 miles of roadway to explore, we would have been bored after 24 hours if we hadn't taken some short, half-day cruises. So, the fly/boat option is feasible, but not one I recommend. Take the cruise. You won't regret it.

Tightwad Travel Tip - Stay Hydrated

Pack an empty water bottle in your carry-on. When you've cleared security, fill your bottle at an airport drinking fountain. You won't have to wait for the flight attendant to serve you and you'll stay hydrated despite the dry atmosphere of the cabin.

When you reach your destination, your bottle can be refilled daily to serve as your take-along water supply.

Sunday, July 12, 2009




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Death on a Sunday Afternoon - A Mexican Bullfight

The bull that will die this afternoon must have thought he’d survived the worst that could happen. He’d lived on a ranch for three years with no human contact. Yesterday, when he was forced into a truck, the men using metal prods remained hidden. Being shoved into a truck after a life on the open range is frightening. Bulls resist. One died yesterday as a result of the manipulation and another lost one of his horns.

Today, the bull will see people for the first time. The first boy he meets will stick him at least once before he enters the ring to be taunted and stabbed. The bull will be fighting for his very life, but the outcome is inevitable.

My friends and I get to the bullring in Zapopan near Guadalajara just as the band is warming up. Juan, owner of the bulls, motions for us to sit with him in the prized middle seats of the bleachers. Hugs are exchanged and people introduced. Some cattle ranchers pass tequila. The festivities begin promptly at 4:00, a time when the sun will be in the bull’s eyes so he won’t see too clearly the matador who will taunt him.

Juan’s sons and grandchildren, dressed in festive costumes, appear on horseback to wave their greetings to the crowd. Six matadors, thin, muscular men who swish fuchsia and yellow capes in what seems to be a choreographed display, come next. When the matadors retreat to the 8 x 10’ wooden barriers positioned along three sides of the bullring, a man parades through the middle of the ring displaying a sign that reads “Andariego 320 kg.” A rancher tells me this is the bull’s name and weight.

The bull that’s been stuck with a knife and is bleeding from his shoulder is released from the gate and invited into the ring to prove his mettle. If he doesn’t charge and pursue the matadors, he will be sent back to the paddock. He must exhibit power and strength in order to test the virility of the matador. That’s what all this is supposed to be about.

Two matadors claim each of the three wooden barriers and take turns darting from behind the walls to entice the bull to charge. He runs from one side of the ring to the other, snorting and bleeding, sometimes battering his horns against the wood while the matadors surely quake behind it. Capes wave in the breeze. The matadors, dressed in skintight pants and fancy jackets, perform a ballet, of sorts, while this beast of the field fights for his freedom.

The second stage of the bullfight occurs when the picador and his horse make their entrance. The picador, dressed in an elaborate vest and armored leggings, must insert two banderillas, three-foot long sticks decorated with red ribbon on one end and sharp points on the other, in the bull’s back. Because his horse is terrified of cattle and would rear if it sees a bull, it has had its ears stuffed with wet newspaper, its eyes blindfolded, its vocal cords cut so the crowd won’t hear its cries when the bull slams into it, and its sides and legs covered with batting. When the picador has successfully placed the banderillas, which will dangle from the bull until the very end, the rest of the matadors retreat and the battle becomes one of a single man against an angry, injured, and exhausted bull.

The matador now uses a red cape called a muleta. It makes no difference to the bull since he’s color-blind and will charge at anything that moves, but it signifies to the crowd that the true heroics of the bullfight are about to begin. The band, quiet until now, starts playing music designed to work the crowd into a frenzy.

As the matador swings his cape and the bull passes only a few feet from his side, the crowd notices the two-foot silver dagger hidden behind the matador’s back. The battle is staged right in front of us. I see the mucus streaming from the bull’s nose and mouth and the blood oozing a red glaze over his back. As the bull passes closer and closer to the matador, each pass now only inches away, I wonder if the man will be able to use the dagger in time.

The bull’s horns barely miss and his back grazes the matador’s side. The cape swirls. The ballet intensifies. The crowd shouts “Ole” with each near miss. The band plays louder and louder. I want to scream at the man and the bull, “Stop! Stop before you’re both killed!” But the matador goes on and on. The man and bull now just a breath apart. Sparring with each other in a deadly dance.

Suddenly, the bull rolls the matador in the dirt. He lunges again and again. But no blood seeps from the matador who still clings to his red cape. Other men appear and somehow get the bull to the far side of the ring.

The matador struggles to stand, bows to the crowd, and strolls to the back of the ring where men stand around the bull. As though trained to do so, the bull suddenly falls to his knees. Later I learn that the men inserted swords to cut his spinal cord. The matador plunges his silver sword in the bull’s neck again and again, and Andariego rolls over on his side. Since he dies just a few feet from the back gate, a couple horsemen with ropes quickly drag him out of the ring so the next bullfight can begin.

In all, four bulls will have a first encounter with mankind today. Not one of them will survive the introduction

Practicalities -
If you still want to see a bullfight after reading this, check the newspaper in any large Mexican town, look for advertisements on restaurant walls, or ask people in the jardin or plaza for information.

Tightwad Travel Tip - Packing

With the airlines' new stringent weight restrictions, it's expensive to tote your economy-sized bottles of toiletries. Besides, it's impractical to carry them even if you use a zippered plastic bag to hold the bottles. When you unpack, you find half the liquid puddled at the bottom of the bag.

Nalgene bottles are too expensive, around $18 for a set, for a tightwad traveler, and cheap containers from super-stores leak. So here's a suggestion for a fool-proof alternative. Use liquid prescription containers available at any pharmacy. I always offer to pay, but so far I've gotten eight bottles for free at a couple different drugstores. They come in all sizes, from three to sixteen ounces. I use a permanent marker to write the contents on the bottle itself.

I've road-tested these and guarantee you will love them. Not a single container has ever leaked!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Whirlwind Italian Tour

I like to travel in a leisurely fashion, skipping breakfast if I feel like sleeping in, and often indulging in la dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing at a sidewalk café. While an organized tour has never appealed to me because of the regimentation, I’ve got to admit that my recent Trafalgar Tour to Italy exceeded my expectations.

My sister and I explored Rome a day before the tour began. Everywhere we turned, we saw ancient ruins sidling up to modern sidewalk cafes, flowers spilling over wrought iron railings, and fountains gracing every piazza. As we were walking down the main thoroughfare trying to find the Borghese Gardens, we spotted a meandering street where, at the very end, a wall of pink azaleas appeared to climb up to the sky.

We couldn’t resist the temptation, so we walked down the street past the Gucci and Prada stores, dodging the vendors selling roasted chestnuts, and finally reached the bottom of the flower wall. Huge tubs of pink azaleas bloomed in the middle and along the edges of the steps. When I asked the chestnut vendor beside me where we were, he exclaimed, “Spagna!” and that’s how we discovered the splendor of the Spanish Steps, named after the Spanish Embassy to the Holy See and built by the French.

We didn’t have much time for independent exploration once the tour officially began, but we still saw a great many places and learned quite a bit of history. Our guide took us to the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Pantheon, but it was St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City, which fascinated me the most.

Several centuries ago, the Pope did not think nude statuary was appropriate for the Vatican, so he ordered the most intimate parts removed from all the figures. The authorities couldn’t bear to throw away art, however, so all of the pieces were stored in a room deep within the enclave. In the Twentieth Century, the Pope decided his predecessor had been far too prudish and that the statuary should be restored to its original glory. But no one could figure out whose part belonged to whom. The missing parts are still stored in a room somewhere, giving a whole new meaning to the title, St. Peter’s.

If ancient Rome was circumspect, ancient Pompeii believed in the power of advertising. Phallic symbols, chiseled into stone paths, led patrons to the brothel. Once arriving at the rabbit warren of private rooms, the illiterate Pompeian could consult the frescoes atop the doorway of each room depicting the specialty of that particular prostitute. I don’t know if these figures reflected truth in advertising, but the variety of poses certainly would have intrigued Masters and Johnson.

Assisi is the home of St. Francis who was far more interested in animals than fleshly pursuits. This saint, born to a wealthy family, was given his own horse, a retinue of servants and a suit of the finest armor. Because his family forgot to give him any training, however, he was severely injured in his very first battle and decided that war was senseless. He devoted the rest of his life to living humbly and talking to birds. His tiny chapel looks like a miniature dollhouse in the basilica that stretches for blocks to enclose it.

Both Assisi and Venice are dominated by former inhabitants. On our nighttime boat ride down the Grand Canal, we used our imaginations to supply the three-story palazzos with lights and people. Ten thousand tourists visit Venice every day, but no one can afford to live there. The real estate lining the Canal is the most expensive in the world.

Venice was the town where the passeggiatas finally got the better of me. No matter how charmingly our guide used the Italian word for “walk,” the passeggiata had a way of turning into a seven or eight-hour daily hike. These passeggiatas had taken their toll. I had long ago found a new use for the bidet that graced every hotel room in Italy. I filled it up with cold water and soaked my feet every night. This is the only way to remain mobile on an organized tour!

On our last night we enjoyed a group dinner in the Trastevere section of Rome where the Chianti flowed, and we sang along with the musician. We had a last walk across the most romantic bridge in Rome and sadly went back to the hotel to pack.

Will I go to Italy again? I threw coins in the Trevi Fountain, twice, just to be sure. But the next time I go, I plan to travel independently with a lot more la dolce far niente and far fewer passeggiatas.

Practicalities -
Atlas Travel provides information on the most popular and trusted tour companies, from budget to luxury. You do not have to purchase a tour from them to benefit from the information on their site. http://www.atlastravelweb.com/europetours.shtml