Oct 192018

My early days of adventure travel were bolstered by slim travel volumes, such as those from Lonely Planet. Among the best of my resources was the thin tome, “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring.” The finest travel advice, though, came from a friend just before Jim & I set out for our year of wandering: “Tips from other travelers are like dancing lessons from the gods.”

Indeed. At the hostels we frequented in those days, we compared notes with people traveling in the opposite direction. The result was fresh word-of-mouth insights and important travel tips, and often, new friends. I miss that serendipity.

We walked some 212,000 steps in the cities we visited

The digital age, with its risks and benefits, has really changed things. Nowadays, it’s barely necessary to look up from your screen for travel information. Indeed, one can “know” about places far from the comfort of home before ever setting out. Where’s the adventure in that?

The loss of interpersonal connection saddens me. At the same time, there are some fine benefits (if you can avoid the time-crushing digital rabbit-holes that inevitably present themselves). The abundance of the internet yields many excellent browsing and informational opportunities. I swallowed my age-related stubbornness and tried embracing what’s good about all this when taking advantage of four websites this summer that I’d like to share.

1. Air BNB: My three travel buddies and I shared Air B&Bs in three European cities for four nights each in August. Wow! It’s not a bad way to go, as long as you plan carefully. For example, I think we were all a little surprised by the 56 steps up to the first one (Budapest), and the grafitti on the entry door of the second (Prague—but it was a fabulous and, as it turned out, safe location). In Split, Croatia, we got suspicious of the bed arrangements (there was some…unclear, okay, not quite honest information on the website). We troubleshot that suspicion a few days in advance and the folks at Air B&B upgraded us to a fabulous, modern, clean place near the one we bailed out of. Do your homework, and when you arrive, check for safety things such as extinguishers, CO alarms, and emergency exits.

The street door to our (lovely) Air B&B

2. Taxi alternatives (Lyft and Uber): I’ve now used both and like the systems very much. They are very similar. Just make the pick-up location as precise as possible to avoid missing your driver (you’ll be charged for that). A couple of safety notes: the driver’s name and license plate/vehicle ID will appear on your reservation. Check the arriving vehicle to be sure you’re getting the right ride. Also, never offer up your name. Instead, ask the driver, “who are you here to pick up?” Be sure to follow the prompts for the tip and rate the quality of your experience at the end. The drivers I’ve met have wanted (and earned) that perfect score! Be aware, too, that they will also be rating you. It’s a true social media experience all the way around.

Our local guide took us up into the hills for a traditional Croatian octopus dinner. Delectable!

3. Eatwith: One of my travel buddies found this site, and we tried it in Prague. What a great, fun, delectable evening! Many of these events occur in homes, but in our case, it was in a private room at a hotel, with a couple from England and three hotel operators who were scoping out the opportunity to tell their guests about. The idea is to experience authentic local cuisine, and browsing the site shows there is a range of how people interpret that. Our host was a wealthy man with a country estate, and all the food was grown or raised there or nearby. He was a gourmet cook, and knew his wines. A fun evening! (Sadly, there are no EatWith hosts at my next international stop, but I’ll keep looking on future trips.)

At the Cave Church in Budapest.

4. Tours by Locals: We landed a fabulous local guide for four hours on our first day in Budapest. Sandor showed us the city’s highlights and how to use the public transportation system. I loved the personal touch. He was nicely knowledgable (and a professor of history, I think it was, at a local university. His guide license lent legitimacy, although not all guides are licensed. Make sure your guide speaks your language, and arrange to meet in a public place, just for safety. And if you’re going to Budapest, seek out Sandor Doman at Inspiring Budapest. Tell him I sent you.

Remember those dancing lessons from the gods and share your own tips with others. Safe and happy travels, wherever you go!

A Dalmatian dog on the coast of Dalmatia. Of course!

Oct 052018

[The Generally Write blog has suffered lately, I’m sorry to say. I have been traveling a lot in the past couple of months, including trips overseas. The good news: stay tuned for lots of travel/adventure entries! To make up for lost time, I thought this essay from 2009 might help explain the feelings of re-entry common to anyone suffering jetlag. It was originally published in the online journal, Airplane Reading, which can be found at www.airplanereading.org]

The first thing is the light, opaque like glacial runoff. At first, I don’t even recognize this murky peculiarity as light, but I can see that it is somehow framed, organized.

After some time, it occurs to me: it’s a window. The thing hovers, open to the stars of a moonless night, or maybe the faintest infusion of pre-dawn.

Where am I? I don’t know. I don’t know, but it doesn’t really matter. I know I am lying in unfamiliar air with a big, open window.

Night noise floods in, louder than the underneath hum of crickets. Not man-made, although there is also the lonely sound of tires passing fast on a distant roadway. It is a whine more urgent than crickets. Cicadas maybe.


I am floating up from a deep place, an indolent, looping spiral. I am on my back. I am on smooth cotton sheets. I stretch myself into a five-point star, and barely reach the edges of this bed. I am in a certain season, maybe summer, but late summer because of the cool air, the cicadas.

Lazy, a mud bubble, the thought rises again: Where am I?

Wherever I am, I am not where I have been lately. A whisper of exotic memory echoes bottomless, relentless: trolleys, horns, bustle. Scratchy sheets. Airless rooms. Beds too small to stretch. This place has none of that. Is this a dream?

The weight of my body returns, leaden. I cannot imagine rising. I detect stiffness, puffiness, a cramped echo of sitting, sitting, sitting for hours.

I am a wave exhaling into sand.

I manage raising my arm. A wristwatch hovers, its glowing dial on two-thirty. My mind still lacks quick measure; I am slow-witted, dull. I am alone with a certain stillness except for a ceiling fan, turning slowly.

Where am I?

I move only my eyes, inventory the room. This bed draws my body to it, flat, heavy. A minute passes. Another. No, this is not a dream. An aftertaste of recollection filters into my waking mind, of aircraft engines throbbing, endless motion. Ah yes: my transoceanic journey ended. I am home.

The Adventure Juggling Act

 Adventure, Travel  Comments Off on The Adventure Juggling Act
Aug 222018

Adventures are all about challenging myself to step beyond the everydayness of daily life and finding that which can teach me something new. It begins, I suppose, by taking on the attitude that life itself—even that which appears to be normal or routine—is always a challenge, even without the add-on of going somewhere. Just getting out of bed is a new adventure, if you ask me.

But when I’m headed out in a way that will cause me to be absent from my routine life, getting out the door takes on a higher degree of challenge. Leaving home and hearth even just for a week or two requires the ability to walk through the house with eyes re-trained for the possibilities, and taking the time to prepare for the best outcome possible.

It’s not easy, extricating oneself from the usual. There are other humans (and, for me, animals) whose upcoming needs require forethought. It’s reassuring to know who will care for them, and that they feel ready to handle the various things that can arise. There’s a plethora of little things to address: bills, feeding the fish in the fishpond, watering the plants, and such. How to address weather-related possibilities, such as power outages or flooding? (I finally invested in an auto-generator, the peace of mind from which exceeds the considerable financial hit! This, in the wake of a freezer filled with a mix of meat, fish, ice cream and veggies that failed one hot summer, and wasn’t discovered for, yeah, weeks…) I deep-water the newly-planted trees, hoping they will be ok ‘til I get back. I fret about the hydrangeas.

It seems emotionally worth it not to let preparations take on a frantic or urgent or hassled air. I know I’m incredibly lucky to be able to wander the way I do. I think about this if the build-up threatens to become overwhelming. I relish that delicious sense of anticipation that comes when I step back and think how, out there where I’m headed, it’s all already there. I ponder what it will be like when I get there, what the weather will be, who I’ll meet, what we’ll do with our time. It’s a happy gift I give myself over and over, when I think, “In xxx days, I’ll be in ___!”

In-home preparation includes walk-throughs assessing what needs my attention, given the upcoming plans. Although it’s not such a great idea to broadcast that I’m leaving home for an extended absence, I always speak with my nearest (and trusted) neighbors in hopes they’ll call the authorities if they hear anything suspicious, or see a van being loaded up with my stuff. There are electronic back-ups to conduct of my computer files, and a hard-drive to drop off at a friend’s house in case the house burns to the ground. They will also get left-over food that won’t keep, along with a list of how to reach the plumber, the propane folks, the heating & cooling guy I use, others.

Day of departure involves its own special to-do list. Are last-minute items in the luggage? Are the windows closed? Doors locked? Grand-father clock pendulum stopped? Disposal run? Heat down? Electronics unplugged? Compost and garbage removed from the house? Toilets flushed?

I never leave home without honoring the concept that it (or I) could all vanish while I’m away. I take nothing for granted. I make sure the people who need to hear it know that I love them.

Adventures! We plan and anticipate, we prepare, we pack and leave, and the time passes (far more quickly than we imagine it will!) We come home again, with luck. Whatever your adventure is, even if it’s a modest one such as getting through the day you have here and now, make it a good one. And enjoy the journey. It’s the stuff of life.

Jul 132018

Whales are so mysterious, rising from the deep the way they do. It begins with an impression of presence, then your eyes discern a change in the darkness of the water, then, yes!, there’s something there. Right there! See it? A whale!

For those, like me, who mainly come from earthbound realms, seeing whales could never get old. Sometimes they are so distant that you only see the far-away puff of “blow” as a whale exhales at the surface. Sometimes you get lucky, and they swim past more nearby. Either way, it must be impossible to be a lover of nature, and not love whales.

Humpback blow

Humpbacks rising from the deep!

Here’s some interesting sleep research trivia related to whales. Sleep occurs in phases, include rapid eye movement (REM) and non-REM (NREM) sleep. During REM sleep, the tone of voluntary muscles is completely absent, rendering one essentially paralyzed. This bodes poorly for mammals who are swimming! Not wanting to drown, dolphins and whales have evolved the ability (researchers say) to skip REM sleep. However, the restfulness produced by NREM sleep is so essential that marine mammals do something called “split-brain” NREM sleep. “When it is time for sleep, the two sides of the brain can uncouple and operate independently, one side remaining awakes while the other snoozes away,” according to Matthew Walker in Why We Sleep (p.64).

During our time plying the Antarctic waters in January & February, 2018, travelers aboard the National Geographic Explorer saw fin, minke, humpback, and killer whales, and also a couple of the mighty (and mighty rare) blue whales. Even our naturalists were excited to see the blue whales there in the waters south of the South Shetland Islands.

Killer whales surface near the ship!

Our collective excitement stemmed from knowing how, as seal populations faltered in the face of the hunting frenzies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whale hunters swept into the region. They targeted one whale species until it became scarce, then another, and another, until the whalers worked their way through populations of humpback, blue, fin, sei, minke, and sperm whales. Now, most have rebounded some, but they’re far from safe.

An artfully-arranged whale skeleton

The blue whale population is still rebounding from the decimation of their numbers. In all, more than 300,000 blue whales were taken. The world population now estimated at about 2,000 is still just a fraction of the pre-1911 population. To see them at all, even for seasoned veterans, was highly encouraging.

The whale’s blow-hole — up close!

Blue whales aren’t the only ones in trouble, though. The killer whale researchers onboard our ship said that those they studied on this visit seemed thin. Their theory is that as sea ice diminishes (the place is warming faster than anywhere else), there are fewer stores of krill, which are the shrimp-like creatures relied on for nourishment by all the creatures along the food chain there. Of course, this is worrisome. The researchers are dedicated to monitoring the situation. Armchair whale lovers everywhere: support the science being done on behalf of these magnificent creatures, won’t you?

Antarctic Seals

 Generally Write  Comments Off on Antarctic Seals
Jun 112018

Being at the tip of Antarctica brought about unusual wildlife viewing opportunities. I’m more accustomed to watching out for land-based critters in my travels. In Antarctica (the only continent without an indigenous human population), evolution still resulted in many “locals,” but they are mostly in the water. Even penguins, who go ashore to hatch and raise their chicks, spend much (maybe most) of their time in the water. Here, a good pair of binoculars and time spent studying the surface of the water and icebergs were necessary for success.

Because it was late February, the critters were “enjoying” the end of summer. Often, ice floes were populated by basking seals, mostly of the Weddell, Antarctic fur, and crab-eater species. We watched a leopard seal “take” a penguin for a meal one day, which was both gory and fascinating. We were also lucky to encounter elephant seals, on our first foray ashore (see the blog “Oh, Those Penguins!” dated Apr 9, 2018).

Here’s some Antarctic history: In the 1700s and 1800s, seal hunting (and then whaling – to come in the next blog) ran unabated in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, until many species were nearly wiped out. According to www.coolantarctica.com, “Captain James Cook visited the island of South Georgia in 1775 and reported that there were a great many seals present. Within 25 years of being discovered, the summer catch had climbed to 112,000 animals. By 1822, the southern fur seal was virtually extinct on South Georgia.” It was a story sadly repeated throughout the region.

It was the search for oil (of the seal and whale variety), however, that also led to exploration of the white continent. The first sighting is credited to Russian Naval Captain Thaddeus Bellingshausen in Jan.1820. The first overwintering experience (unplanned!) was a British crew on the ship “Lord Melville” in 1821 (they were rescued the following summer). Throughout the 1800s, intrepid adventurers peeled back the continent’s mysteries, mapping and exploring it (many seeking commercial feasibilities, although none were really found once the whales and seals were hunted down).

The “Heroic Age” of exploration lasted from 1900 to 1922, placing Robert Scott, Roald Amundsen, and Ernest Shackleton firmly in the history pages (along with many others). A familiar saying credited to Raymond Priestley is: “For scientific discovery, give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amundsen; but when you are in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

The first female to set foot on Antarctica wasn’t until 1935, when Caroline Mikkelsen accompanied her whaling captain husband there. Luckily, people of vision prevailed and treaties to protect this final frontier. In 1958, the International Geophysical Year initiated efforts to keep the place “non-national,” leading to the Antarctic Treaty in 1961. This has led to strict environmental controls over this fragile place (which seem to be heeded, refreshingly), and thank goodness for that.

[Source: https://www.coolantarctica.com/Antarctica%20fact%20file/science/threats_sealing_whaling.php, accessed June 6, 2018]

May 042018

As mentioned in the previous blog post, ice is the most prominent feature in Antarctica. No surprise, considering that the continent is covered with it. Add to that the ice shelves and sea ice that greatly enlarge its area in winter.

Under the ice are vast mountain ranges and sprawling plains, crushed to elevations measurably depressed by all that massive weight on top.

This was a huge iceberg!

Scientists report that if all the ice in Antarctica melted, it would raise sea levels by about 200 feet. It’s pretty cool to see on this photo from NASA how the continental US would look superimposed on the “white continent.”

Closer up, ice offers an unending array of otherworldly and beautiful vistas. Here are some more images from my January/February 2018 visit to the Antarctic Peninsula.

The suggestion was made after the previous blog post to mention how incredibly hard old glacial ice is. It’s an excellent point. I tried to bite some crystal clear glacial ice in Alaska once and was unable to make a dent. The effort nearly broke my teeth!

Notice the seal tracks!

My reader went on to comment that the density of glacial ice is, “part of the reason the Titanic came away so badly damaged, and why the [National Geographic] Explorer [our ship] pushes relatively blithely through sea ice, but is very, very respectful of even small pieces of glacial ice. Whether the pitcher hits the stone, or the stone hits the pitcher, it is still going to be bad for the pitcher. Ditto ships and glacial ice, I believe.” And he’s right!

Home Away From Home

Apr 092018

How can a heart not melt when amongst penguins?

Photo Credit: Alison Taggart Barone

This, my first close encounter, came January 29, 2017 on our voyage’s first foray onto the Antarctic landscape. This chinstrap penguin looking directly into the camera can’t possibly be for real…can it? I know anthropomorpholizing animals is antiquated, but, gosh, it was impossible not to attribute any number of endearing adjectives to these hardy, impressive creatures. Continue reading »

Mar 052018

Some of the roughest seas of anywhere in the world belong to Drake Passage, making it one of the most iconic, must-experience journeys for anyone in love with adventure. How did I come to know about Drake Passage? I don’t remember. All I know is it has figured in my imagination seemingly forever.

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Chomolhari: Bhutan’s Goddess Mountain

 Adventure, Generally Write, Travel  Comments Off on Chomolhari: Bhutan’s Goddess Mountain
Jan 312018

The Kingdom of Bhutan in the eastern Himalaya is among the world’s few remaining mystical, magical places. Hidden from external influences until just a few years ago, the tiny landlocked nation of mostly Buddhists continues to honor its traditional ways while also trying to enter the mainstream of the 21st century, cell phones, internet, and all.

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