Monthly Archives: January 2011

Airlines Profit, We Lose

Flying isn’t much fun anymore.   Ruth and I automatically expect trouble of some sort anytime we travel.  When I see my old, beat up suitcase emerge from the black hole and tumble to the conveyor belt, I want to shout for joy and break out the champagne.   We’ve had “baggage issues” on three of our last four trips that involved flight.

Most recently, we took Ryan Air from Ireland to Malta.   The basic fare was fine, but airline restrictions went on for pages and as passengers we didn’t  even get a cup of water during the flight without paying for it.

We had to organize the entire trip around Ryan’s baggage laws.  We bought no souvenirs, took no extra pair of shoes, no heavy travel guides, no snacks squirreled away in case there were delays, etc.   This airline’s first checked bag can weigh no more than 15 kilograms (33 pounds or less) and automatically costs 15 euros.  IF you checked in on-line.  Try to do that from the United States if you have several hours and want to experience plenty of stress.  Try to call Ryan Air from the United States if you want to risk a stroke.  If your bag weighs 20 kilograms (44 pounds or more), the fee is 25 euros if checked on-line and 45 euros if you wait for terminal check-in.

You’re allowed one carry-on.  One.   So if you have a purse and a bag, the purse must go in the bag.   And that carry-on must be no more than 55x40x20 centimeters.   Sound generous?  That’s 21 by 15 by 7.8 inches. If that still sounds generous, get out your usual carry-on and measure it for a reality smack.  And trust me, Ryan Air personnel hover around waiting passengers like contraband sniffing dogs looking for bags to check and charge for.

Because we were very,very careful, we made it to Malta OK.  But we had, let’s call it a little trouble, checking-in on-line in Malta and had to pay an extra 70 euros to get our meager possessions back to Ireland.  That was about $100.

We’ll take Ryan Air again only if it’s the only way to get somewhere.  The airline pictured above–Virgin–is certainly one of the better ones, and KLM treated us like VIPS even though we were traveling coach earlier this month.  I’ll tell you what happened within the last six months on Delta and TAP, the Portuguese National Airline, in future blogs after I get my blood pressure back to normal.


Shanghai Surprise

Ruth and I are pretty brave when it comes to potentially difficult destinations.  But we have resorted to the safety of tours when it seemed wise.   So when it came to going to China, we had doubts about being on our own.

A cousin was in Shanghai for two years on business and invited us to stay in his apartment, but he would be at work all day.   And he was off to climb Mount Fuji in Japan for some of the time we’d be there.

Although everyone we knew who had been to China had been on a tour, we decided to chance it.  “Are you crazy?” was the common question when anyone heard what we were attempting, namely spending two weeks in four destinations–Shanghai, Qingdao, Hangzhou, and Suzhou–mostly by ourselves.

At first it was easy because Tom had been in China for a while, had learned enough of the language to function, and was a patient teacher.  He showed us the waterfront, took us on a night cruise on the Huangpu River, and treated us to the circus.

But could we negotiate a city of 20 million people on our own?   Tom’s apartment was across the street from a Carrefour, the French Walmart, so he taught us to say its name phonetically–ja lay fo.   It didn’t sound like this when a Chinese taxi driver repeated it back to me, but I was always understood and earned a sigh of relief, or a laugh because of my pronunciation.  We were instantly, consistently whisked to the right place in Pudong New Area.

But how could we go to places that weren’t close to the excellent Shanghai metro system?  At first we had Tom’s housekeeper, who spoke zero English but nevertheless taught Ruth how to make water dumplings, would write the name of the destination in Chinese for us.  That worked sometimes, but sometimes it led only to puzzlement.  So I learned a new use for our guidebook.  If the written name received a blank stare, I would show the driver a picture of our destination.  Nods and smiles always resulted.  We were now free to go anywhere in Shanghai and ready for the other cities.



Looking for just the right word to describe Andorra is not easy, so let me just say that I found it, well, unusual.

Andorra has no airport, yet.  One has been proposed.  No trains enter this tiny principality birthed in 1278 but without a constitution until 1993. It was not easy to get there, high up in The Pyrenees, from Barcelona, but I managed to find a bus to take us there and bought tickets using extreme body language.

Andorra’s main tourist attractions, as far as I could determine, are skiing and shopping.  Ruth and I cruised many stores which sold what is readily available in airport duty-free shops but with a lot more, mostly casual clothing.  But we saw no bargains.  Maybe that’s because we were not there during two annual sales.  Andorra is said to be a tax-free haven, but the tourist literature is kind of vague about how the system works, as in, “When shopping in Andorra, we must remember the customs taxes.  The products which can be taken out of the country are tax-free to the limits determined by the customs exemptions….”  We weren’t tempted to test the law.

Andorra’s number one product and export is cigarettes, number two is cigars, and three is furniture.  Anyone looking for that place in the world where they can still smoke freely should head for Andorra.  There’s even a Tobacco Museum.   There’s also a Pin Museum.

The official language of Andorra is Catalan, making it the only country in the world where Catalan prevails.  We heard Spanish and French too but didn’t find the locals especially friendly.   They mostly seemed glum and preoccupied, maybe because they have to go so far to be warm.

We experienced local food twice but weren’t especially impressed, perhaps because we were surrounded by avid smokers.  The tourist literature promised 425 restaurants in a land where, “Throughout the year, popular culinary meetings are held which keep the country’s gastronomy alive.” We didn’t sample sausage meal or sponges.

Despite tourism being a big business here, Andorra might soon be making international headlines.  Barcelona, which has already hosted the Olympics, is thinking about bidding for the winter games.  If it’s selected, Alpine events will be held in Andorra and Barcelona will become the first city in the world to host both the Winter and Summer Olympics.

Andorra is quite scenic.  Its tiny capital, Andorra la Vella, is in a narrow cleft between high mountains.  Wedged between Spain and France with only one road in from each, Andorra’s mountains are impressive.  Andorrans call their home “a country of snow.”  Don’t forget your coat.


Balboa Park, San Diego

I’m rather fond of this picture.  It’s one of those accidents of light and shadow that sometimes occurs when you’re taking dozens of photos hoping for just a few good ones.  I took it in the Botanical Building in Balboa Park in San Diego on the trip that almost didn’t happen.  I don’t even know what the plant is, other than a mysteriously glowing exotic in my photo.

Balboa Park is spread out and parking is not easy, but it has some great attractions, like the Old Globe Theater, but that day we were focused on the not necessarily highly promoted ones.

The San Diego Model Railroad Museum looked like it was still in development stage.  It probably still does because it’s run by knowledgeable, enthusiastic volunteers more focused on training the young and talking to anyone passing through who will listen about their passion than model building.  Ruth and I quickly found ourselves on a guided “under the layout” tour.  It was fun, kind of like an unexpected backstage tour on Broadway.

The Timken Museum held the Putnam Foundation’s art collection including some Russian icons, not my favorite art form but stunning here, and any number of impressive paintings.  What made the place special, though, was a museum guard who had stationed himself in front of San Diego’s only Rembrandt painting and was passionately telling anyone who would stop and listen about it.  We had lunch in a fine restaurant, the Prado, before wandering over to the botanical building which looked like  a long-ago world’s fair project and was, the 1915-16 Panama California Exposition to celebrate the new canal in Panama.

The trip almost didn’t happen because we were snowed in for Christmas.  For a week we didn’t leave the house.  No parties, no surprise presents, no big feeds, no caroling, no way to the airport.  It was wonderful, like my photo.


Bear Country

This is John.  He’s from Australia where the only bears are in zoos.   He and his wife Trish are good friends and great travelers.  When Ruth and I heard that they were going to tour The West with a stop in Yellowstone National Park, we joined up.

The original plan was for us to rent a full-sized comfortmobile together, but then John emailed that he had rented a small car so we would have to do the same and travel in tandem.

We flew into Salt Lake City to join them and, because we were curious, selected a Yaris.   Shortly thereafter we arrived at our hotel meeting place to learn that John had been offered and taken an upgrade.  He was driving an 8 cylinder behemoth that could accommodate an entourage.   For the next week, we played the mouse chasing the greyhound all the way to Lake Tahoe.

As you can see from a picture taken in Park City, we had lots of fun.  Being late October, we were consistently one day ahead of snow, which finally caught up with us in the Sierras near where the Donner Party ended up.   We also learned a lot.  Did you know that the Utah State Capitol is located on what was called Arsenal Hill because 2 boys running cattle exploded 45 tons of black powder there leaving a huge hole just perfect for a large building?  Neither did I.