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Hold Your Horses

Hold Your Horses

Being flexible when traveling is a key component to enjoying your trip. Things aren’t going to go exactly as you planned them and the sooner you learn to roll with the punches (or in this case, the changing weather) the more fun and less stress you’ll have on your vacation.

During a recent trip to Iceland, on the day we were scheduled to take a whale watching trip, we woke up to rain and howling winds. From our bedroom window we could see the waves kicking up on the fjord.  Over breakfast, I confessed to my traveling companions that there wasn’t enough Dramamine on the planet to make the whale watch enjoyable in these conditions and I hoped it would be rescheduled. Everyone sighed with relief. Apparently we had all been thinking the same thing, but no one wanted to disappoint anyone else. A quick call to the whale watching company confirmed that the boats would not be going out and we booked a trip for the next afternoon.

“We have an unexpected free day. What should we do?” Chamomile asked.

When we were in the early planning stages of the trip, I considered a tour where we would get to ride Icelandic horses. These horses are shorter and have patient, cheerful dispositions which make them an excellent option for inexperienced riders. Short and patient is my specialty, so I truly appreciate those qualities in an animal I’m going to rely on to squire me around.

Other adventures took priority so horseback riding didn’t make the final cut. Now that we had time, I suggested it. Everyone loved the idea. After some research on TripAdvisor, we called a nearby farm that offered tours of the surrounding countryside.  Cheerio told them we had never ridden horses and they recommended their two hour tour.

When we arrived at the farm, there were five horses saddled up and waiting along with our guide.

As we approached the horses I leaned over to Oregano, “These horses aren’t as small as I thought they’d be.”

“They are smaller than regular horses. They just look big to you because you are so short.”

We were outfitted with gloves and a helmet then our guide gave us a quick tutorial on how to hold and use the reins. People have been riding horses for thousands of years. I thought I could manage this feat for the next two hours.

Our guide then brought each horse over one at a time and explained how to correctly mount them. Cheerio was the first up and looked comfortable in the saddle as his horse patiently waited for the rest of us. Oregano was up next and did equally well. Then it was my turn. The guide walked my horse, Clara, over and introduced her to me.

with Clara

Here I am with my ride, Clara.

For a person with no horseback riding experience, getting onto a horse is no small endeavor. When the person with no experience is less than five feet tall, getting onto a horse is a small miracle. The guide held my horse steady and I put my foot in the stirrup. This meant that my left foot was now resting on a small piece of metal with my knee slightly higher than my hip. I was supposed to push down on the stirrup with my left leg while flinging my right leg over the saddle.  I’m no expert in the laws of human physiology, but there was no way I was going to be able to hoist myself onto the horse from this position. Frankly, I was impressed that I could lift my foot as high up as I did to get it into the stirrup. This little expedition was my suggestion so I was going to give this my best effort.

I pushed down mightily on my leg in the stirrup and pushed off the ground with my other leg. With all of that exertion, I managed to get my right foot 6 inches off the muddy ground.

“Try again on the other side. Use your right leg this time. It’s stronger,” everyone encouraged me.

Try again?! I was surprised I wasn’t hanging upside down with my left leg caught in the stirrup. Don’t I get any credit for not falling off completely and landing in a pile of horseshit?

I switched sides and tried again, but got the same result. Clara was very patient while this uncoordinated human attempted to climb onto her back.

Sensing this exercise was not going to end with me in the saddle, the guide disappeared for a minute and came back with a milk crate.

“Step on that to help you,” she instructed.

The crate did the trick, but the guide still needed to shove my ass to help me up and over the back of the horse. A more unglamorous mounting of a horse would be hard to imagine.

Sitting astride the horse, reins lightly in my hands, I took a moment to congratulate myself for successfully getting into the saddle. Just then, the horse jerked her head forward pulling the reins and me along with them.

“Yikes!” I cried out. “Why did she just do that?” I asked the guide.

“Clara is excited to go for a walk. Once we are going, she won’t do that.”

As Chamomile got on her ride, I sat there desperately trying not to be yanked over my horse’s head. Just sitting still on horseback was proving to be a challenge for me. I was not liking my chances of staying on this creature for the duration of our tour.

When we started moving forward, I was downright terrified, but I tried to project an outward calm so as not to worry my companions. My anxiety is my own problem and I try not to visit it on anyone else.

“You look good up there,” Chamomile said. Oregano looked over at me and could see the nervous smile plastered across my face.

“That’s her scared smile,” Oregano noted to our friends who weren’t familiar with my particular hybrid of grimace and smile.

After a few more steps, my horse started shaking her neck and back. This was probably just her moving, but she may as well have been a bucking bronco. We hadn’t even gotten to the entrance of the farm yet. My nerves were completely jangled and I was ready to bail.

“You know what?” I calmly called out to the group, “I think I’ll wait in the car.”

“You’re not going to wait in the car,” Oregano said. “We’ll be gone for a long time and you’ll miss out on this experience.”

“This has already been an experience. I have my book. I can absolutely wait in the car. Go ahead without me. I’ll be fine here,” I said as the horse pulled her head forward again.

The guide realized I was not doing well and asked me to come up next to her so she could help me. I attempted to move, but couldn’t seem to get the horse to go where I wanted. The guide gave me a few suggestions which I employed to no avail. Despite the beautiful Icelandic landscape splayed out in front of us, I desperately wanted to get off this horse.

As I was fantasizing about the comfort and safety of the back seat of our rental car, the guide sidled up next to me and hitched my horse to hers.

“Clara seems a little fussy today, but having her next to my horse will keep her in line,” she said.

We started walking again. My horse seemed to calm down. I wondered if the guide could hook something up to me to calm me down, too. Why hadn’t I thought to take a tranquilizer before doing this?

Our parade of horses walked along the trail in the stunning Icelandic countryside. The rain and wind had started up again, but it just lent more beauty to the setting. We were surrounded by a heather covered meadow where sheep wandered around grazing as a stream meandered past. The only sounds we heard were the horses’ hooves on the ground, the babbling water and the bleating of the sheep. It was surreal scenery.

IMG958311

I was grateful to have the opportunity to see so much natural beauty and I was focusing on it to distract myself from the fact that I was sitting on the back of a very large animal.  When we arrived at a one-horse wide bridge, our guide dismounted, unhooked my horse from hers and handed me the reins.

“You’re doing a great job. You can handle the horse across the bridge,” she said.

As soon as I had the reins in my hands again, the horse jerked her head forward.

“Here we go again,” I murmured as I contemplated the temperature of the water in the stream into which this horse would surely pitch me.

I watched as my friends smoothly navigated their horses across the wooden bridge. I’d been sitting on my horse for 45 minutes and I hadn’t fallen off. That was quite an accomplishment. I could do this! Alas, my horse did not seem to share my positive attitude. She refused to move.

Our guide once again grabbed a tether for my horse and led her across the bridge closely following behind her horse.

Once safely across the bridge, Clara remained attached to the guide’s horse and we continued through the meadow walking closely side by side. As we were walking, I realized that my right leg was often brushing up against the buttocks of the guide’s horse. The tail was gently brushing over my leg. It was at this moment that a new worry presented itself. What if this horse crapped on me? I considered looking down at my own foot, but didn’t dare shift my gaze for fear of falling off.

I could always just ask my husband and friends if I had horseshit on my leg. Surely they would have said something if this was the case. Then again, they all knew I was uncomfortable. Telling me I had been shat upon wouldn’t make me feel any better and there was nothing I could do about it anyway.  Did I really want to know? My anxiety was already in overdrive. In this case, I decided that ignorance was bliss.

I kept my eyes on the horizon trying to pick out the barn in the distance. I thought we were heading back when the guide took us across the road and up a hill. As I held on to the saddle and tried not to roll backwards off the horse, I marveled at how well she handled walking uphill on loose rocks.

When we reached the top, the guide announced that we would be taking a short break. Really? Can’t we just get this over with? I kept these thoughts to myself, but when the guide suggested we dismount the horses, I spoke up.

“As much as I would love to get off the horse, I won’t be able to get back on.”  I was already contemplating the idea of being back on my own two feet and hiking to the farm. Despite the long walk, the thought made me giddy with relief.

“There are lots of tall rocks,” she gestured to our immediate surroundings. “You can stand on one of those instead of the crate.”

I actually laughed at this suggestion. This young girl didn’t know my proclivity for clumsiness. Attempting to get onto a horse from atop a wet, moss covered rock, all but guaranteed that our next tour in Iceland would be of an emergency room.

Everyone else climbed out of their saddles and was walking around. Realizing that I most likely did not have the physical coordination or the emotional fortitude required to get back onto this animal, my friends convinced the guide that the best course of action was to leave me right where I was.

After 10 minutes, everyone else nimbly remounted their horses. They wanted a group picture and lined up around me before we headed off down the hillside. As we rounded a bend, the barn appeared. The end was literally in sight. I just had to hang on for a few more minutes.

When we arrived at the stables, Chamomile climbed down from her horse and announced, “That was a once in a lifetime experience!”

“It absolutely was! I am never getting on another horse in my lifetime,” I replied as I ungracefully slid off the horse and my feet landed in a puddle.

the 4 caballeros

 

 

 

 

Water Under the Bridge

Water Under the Bridge

The difference between bravery and stupidity often lies in the outcome of the undertaking. Ideas that seem good at inception often prove themselves to be significantly less than good in execution. Setting goals for yourself is a laudable endeavor, but when you are only focused on the end result, you often get swept up in the process. Oregano and I proved this theory while vacationing in the Florida Keys.

Neither one of us is particularly athletic, but we have been kayaking off the beach at our hotel for the past few winters. One year, we were kayaking in the warm, shallow water at a pretty good clip and were quite impressed with our paddling prowess.

“We’ve gotten a lot better at this,” I shouted over my shoulder to Oregano.

“Yeah. We are really in the zone. At this rate, I think we could actually make it to Duck Key,” he said pointing at the island directly in front of us.  

We were half way to our goal when common sense seeped into our consciousness. Upon more careful consideration, we determined that the next island looked closer than it actually was so we turned around. It wasn’t until we pointed the bow of the boat towards our island that we realized why we had the feeling of being such powerful paddlers. The strong headwind hit us smack in the face. The kayak was bouncing on the waves and we had to dig deep to make any forward progress. It was exhausting, but if we stopped paddling to rest, we were simply pushed back erasing all the progress our physical labor had produced. After an hour of slogging our way to a shoreline that never seemed to be getting any closer, we beached our kayak and I flopped, exhausted into a hammock.

“Well, I guess we’re not quite the paddlers we thought we were,” I said to Oregano while letting my rubbery arms dangle over the edge over the hammock.

“That paddle back was challenging and we did it, so I prefer to think of us as strong kayakers,” he replied.

“One might argue that strong, experienced kayakers would have realized they were being carried along by the wind and current rather than patting themselves on their backs for being so awesome,” I countered.

“Be that as it may,” Oregano said, “we were strong enough to paddle back safely. That counts for something.”

Chalking up that experience as a lesson learned, each year we’d try to explore a different area around our island. Not too far from our beach is a bridge for the Overseas Highway. More than once we had talked about paddling under the bridge which would take us from the calm Atlantic Ocean to the equally calm waters of Florida Bay.

Sitting on the dock one night, Oregano announced, “I think we should try to go under the bridge this year. We’ve gotten a lot better at paddling and it would be fun to explore the bay.” 

bridge-from-distance

Our lofty goal was reaching the bridge in the distance.

“I don’t know,” I responded. “Just getting to the bridge seems like a long paddle. How much energy will we have left to explore the bay? We’d also still need to have enough umph to make it all the way back.”

“We’re strong enough to do it. We’re in a tandem kayak so we can take turns paddling if we get tired,” he said trying to persuade me.

It was an enticing idea, so we waited for a day when the winds were calm. (See, we had learned not to go on a windy day.) We set off from our beach full of vim and vigor.

bridge-from-water

a close up picture of the bridge from the kayak

As we approached the bridge, I turned back towards Oregano, “Are you sure we should do this?”  

Before he could respond, we got sucked into a current that pulled us under the concrete arches of the bridge. Our kayak spun around in circles as we got frighteningly close to the low sides of the arches. Instinctively, we put the paddles up to keep our heads from banging into the concrete. As we swirled around uncontrollably, we quickly reviewed our options before we didn’t have any.

“What do we do now?” Oregano asked, his voice echoing off the concrete arch.

“Well, we’ve got 3 options.” I responded. “We can protect our heads until we get dragged out into the bay then paddle to the edge, hoist the kayak out of the water and walk back across the road with it.”

“We’d have to cross the highway carrying the kayak and we’re barefoot. Next idea?” Oregano responded.

“We could abandon the kayak and swim back.” Oregano and I were both on the swim team and knew we were strong enough swimmers to make it back to shore.

“You hate swimming in the ocean with all the critters.” Oregano shot down that option as we continued being tossed around the whirlpool.  “What’s option 3?”

“Paddle like hell and hope we can push our way out of this swirling vortex of near death,” I shouted.

“Start paddling!” His answer reverberated off the bridge.

“Ok. Dig in! This is going to be quite a feat!” I said leaning forward to avoid smacking my head.

We paddled as hard as we could to get the kayak to move forward against the churning water as we laughed at our stupidity. After ten grueling minutes that seemed like an hour, we cleared the vortex. Once we were on flat water, we bobbed peacefully in the ocean to rest and reflected on our experience. 

bridge-from-above

We only noticed the swirling waters AFTER we got sucked into the current.

“Wow! We made it out of there!” Oregano said celebrating the not so small victory of emerging without concussions. “How did we not think about the current?”

“From the beach, the water looks calm. To be precise, we never really did commit to going under the bridge. We got sucked under it while we were deciding.We may have survived the swirling vortex of near death, but we still have to paddle all the way back to our beach. Let’s save the congratulations for when we are safely on land.”

Forty-five minutes later we arrived on our beach. Our arms and shoulders were a little worse for wear from the intense paddling, but the kayak, paddles and, more importantly, our skulls were still intact.

“See, I told you we could kayak all the way to the bridge and back. We reached the goal we set for ourselves,” Oregano said feeling a sense of accomplishment.

“If our goal was demonstrating our utter lack of understanding of ocean currents, then you are right. Goal achieved!” I gave him the look then dropped onto the nearest lounge chair and took a long nap.

paddles-at-sunset

Angry Bird

No. I’m not writing a post about virtual birds that are programmed to be angry. This is about an actual bird that was really angry.

When Oregano and I arrived at our cottage on Lowell Point in Seward, Alaska, we heard the cawing of crows from high up in the trees just off the beach. Not the most pleasant sound as a welcome, but we just accepted it as part of the background noise and began unloading the luggage from the trunk of the car.

I stayed inside unpacking and Oregano went back out to the car. I could hear the crow squawking loudly again. Seconds later, I heard Oregano’s feet pounding against the wood deck before he burst through the door.

“Holy shit! That bird just dive bombed me at the trunk of the car!” he said slightly out of breath from the exertion of running with a suitcase.

“Really? Dive bombed you? Are you sure he wasn’t just flying to those shrubs near the car? I saw some berries on them. Maybe the bird was just trying to get something to eat.” I offered by way of an explanation.

“No. I’m pretty sure that bird had it out for me,” he said. “There’s still more stuff in the car. I have to go back out there,” he said as he steeled himself for another trip to the car and another potential bird bombardment.

A few minutes later, I heard the squawking again followed by the sound of Oregano running along the deck.

“That bird buzzed my head. I’m sure he was trying to get me!”

No sooner had the words left his mouth than we could hear the bird walking on the corrugated plastic roofing over the deck. It sounded like the bird was pacing back and forth waiting for us to exit.

“That is one angry bird.” I said. “We need to unpack. Hopefully, he’ll lose interest in us and fly off to find another victim.”

The noise coming from the roof stopped. We thought the coast was clear until we looked out the window. The pacing had stopped because the crow was now sitting on a ghost tree just outside our window. He was staring at us with his beady black eyes.

He was staring at us hoping to keep us from leaving the cabin.

It was like he was just staring at us inside the cottage waiting for us to come out.

“Is it just me or do you get the feeling that he’s just waiting for us to come outside?” I asked Oregano.

Always optimistic, Oregano said, “Maybe that’s his usual perch and we’re reading too much into this.”

Thinking the bird would fly off eventually, I busied myself in the cottage reading through information about the area.

When I lifted my eyes from my reading material, the crow was still there. The tide was going out exposing a huge expanse of beach. I wanted to go beach combing. With all the confidence of a creature higher up on the food chain, I opened the door to the cottage and strode right past the crow on my way to the beach. That crow watched me like a hawk, but didn’t fly at me.

For a long time, I wandered aimlessly on the beach with my head down searching for interesting rocks and shells. When I finally looked up I saw that the crow had followed me down the beach and he brought his friends for back-up.  With the spooky fog and the ghost trees, I felt like I had been dropped onto the set of a Hitchcock movie. A half mile away from the safety of our cottage, I no longer walked with the same confident swagger. The only way back to the cottage was right past the tree with the crows in it. As far as I was concerned, that was not an option.

Beach-combing on Resurrection Bay under the watchful beady eyes of the crows.

I’m the tiny dot beach combing on Resurrection Bay under the watchful beady eyes of the crows.

I decided to keep walking farther down the beach collecting rocks hoping that the birds would eventually fly off on their own before the tide came back in and the beach disappeared. The next time I turned around, the birds were gone. I walked briskly back towards the cottage with my eyes to the sky. As I approached the stairs leading from the beach up to our cottage, I heard the squawking begin again. I high-tailed it up the stairs, onto the deck and burst through the door.

Oregano looked up at me, “I see the crow is still out there on patrol.”

“Yeah, and this time he had a posse.” I said trying to catch my breath.

The angry bird was back and this time he had friends.

The angry bird was back and this time he had friends.

Later that afternoon we wanted to get ice from the main cabin located across the road. That meant venturing outside and into the crow’s domain. Oregano picked up the ice bucket and opened the door. As he stepped out, I grabbed my umbrella and tried to hand it to him.

“It’s not raining.” He was confused as to why I was offering him an umbrella.

“The umbrella’s not for the rain; it’s to protect you from the crow. Maybe with the disguise of the umbrella, the bird won’t realize you’re a human and won’t perceive you as a threat,” I suggested.

“Do you really think the bird is that stupid?” Oregano asked. He was unsure of what I considered to be unassailable logic.

“The expression bird-brained had to come from somewhere. Other animals use camouflage to effectively protect themselves,” I said with my arm still extended holding the umbrella.

“They do, but I’ve never seen plaid used as camouflage in nature,” he argued, but took the umbrella from me anyway and headed out the door.

Plaid doesn't exactly make for good camouflage, but it was enough to fool the birds.

Plaid doesn’t exactly make for good camouflage, but it was enough to fool the birds.

Ten minutes later, he calmly walked back onto the deck carrying the filled ice bucket.

“What do you know? Your theory worked. The crow didn’t dive bomb me this time,” he said sounding surprised. “The manager told me the crows have a nest in the tree adjacent to our cabin. They’re just trying to protect their nest.”

“That explains the crow’s behavior. Did the manager have any helpful hints on how to be outside without the fear of being pecked to death?” I asked.

“No, but he thought your umbrella was a good idea,” he said while chuckling.

We realized that for the duration of our stay, the only way we were going to peacefully co-exist with the crow was with our trusty umbrella.

When the tide came back in and the beach disappeared, we sat safely in our cabin enjoying the view. We were admiring the peaceful beauty in front of us when we heard sounds of squawking birds and screeching humans.

“Sounds like the crow found someone else to bully,” I said as we both stepped onto the deck to see what was causing the commotion. The people in the next cabin had arrived and the crow was none too pleased about it. He was going after them with even more enthusiasm than he had when he came after us. We saw a man carrying a suitcase while his wife walked behind him yelling and wildly waving a stick in the air. It was like she was whacking at an invisible piñata.

“The crow has a nest with babies in the tree right between our cabins,” I shouted to them to be heard over the loud cawing. “Holding an umbrella over our heads seemed to distract the bird. Would you like to borrow our umbrella?” I offered.

They declined and opted to continue using the long stick method. They very quickly learned that twirling the stick above their heads like a helicopter rotor was an effective deterrent. It looked ridiculous, but it got the job done.

When the tide was out again the next morning, I stepped onto our deck, popped open the umbrella and headed right past the crow perched in the ghost tree.  From the beach, I called back to Oregano. “When we were preparing for this trip, I learned that more people are killed by moose than by bears. I read up on moose evasion techniques and how to be bear aware.  Of all the potentially dangerous animals we might encounter in Alaska, who knew the most threatening one would be a crow?”

Oregano trying to balance the protective umbrella while taking a photo.

Oregano trying to balance the protective umbrella while taking a photo.

 

A Night in a Yurt Won’t Hurt

One of the most alluring parts of travel is the opportunity to experience something new. When we make the effort to go someplace, we want it to be different. We don’t want it to feel like home with better scenery. We try to sample the local color and, when possible, prefer to stay in smaller places that give us a better sense of the area we are visiting.

Despite the fact that we were planning our trip to Alaska more than 6 months in advance, we found that many of these smaller lodging options were completely filled. While researching our options on the Kenai Peninsula, I discovered a resort that was highly rated on TripAdvisor. When I clicked over to the resort’s website I realized that the accommodations are luxury yurts. I know a yurt is a glorified tent, but I was curious about what features turn a regular yurt into a luxury yurt, so I read through the website and more glowing reviews.

That night Oregano asked how the lodging search had been going. I told him that I’d discovered lots of great options, but that availability was a problem. Jokingly, I told him about the luxury yurt resort.

“Yurt? What’s a yurt? I’ve never even heard that word before,” he said.

“A yurt is a round, sturdier version of a tent,” I answered.

“Cool! Let’s go for it!” he said enthusiastically.

I looked at him like he was an alien. Five minutes ago he didn’t know what a yurt was and now he’s ready to spend the night in one. We aren’t campers. We’re not exactly outdoorsy unless you count sitting in the hammock in the garden. The idea of sleeping in a tent, albeit a sturdy one, didn’t exactly appeal to me.

“Are you serious? You want to spend a night in a yurt?” I asked incredulously.

“Sure! It would be an adventure. What are the details?” he asked.

I regretted mentioning this resort, but it was too late now, so I continued. “It’s on a beautiful remote island. We’ll need to leave our car at the public dock and take a water taxi to get there. The yurt is very spacious and will have a bed and bathroom with a composting toilet. There are solar panels, but reviewers said there wasn’t much electricity. Cell service will be questionable.”

“Twenty-four unplugged hours enjoying Alaska’s natural beauty sounds like a fair trade off for electricity,” he said trying to convince me.

“When I was perusing the website I did a quick check of the pricing and it looks like it is $250 for the night.” I hoped the price would give him some pause.

“That’s more than we usually spend for a night, but it sounds great! It’s like getting a hotel and an adventure all in one.” He peeked over my shoulder at the website. “Look! They have kayaks to use during our stay.”

I was a bit alarmed by his enthusiasm.

“I’d really prefer sleeping in something with sturdy walls when there is a possibility of bears sneaking in during the night and eating us,” I said with great concern.

“The website said there aren’t any bears on that island,” he pointed out.

“Ah, yes, I saw that, but did anyone show the website to the bears? I’m pretty sure they go where they want.” His casual attitude about animals that could snack on me as an appetizer before moving on to him as the main course disturbed me.

He still wanted to know more, so I kept going. “We will have a small propane stove, but no fridge. We’ll need to bring all the food we’ll need for our stay and enough ice to keep it cool for the duration. That’s a lot to schlep down a dock with our luggage then haul onto a boat.” I was trying to discourage him.

“So, we’ll eat granola bars during our stay. If we do that, we won’t need any ice,” he offered by way of a solution.  “It will be an adventure. C’mon, let’s do it. We can kayak and just enjoy the peace and quiet. It’s only 24 hours. When are we ever going to have an opportunity like this again?”

“The weather in Alaska is unpredictable. If it rains, we won’t be able to kayak. We’ll be stuck in the yurt all day. There will be no TV, no internet.”

Unfazed by this information, he said, “It’s a good thing we enjoy each other’s company. That could get pretty boring. It’s only 24 hours, how bad could it be?” He was really giving me the hard sell.

I could conjure numerous scenarios of how bad it could be. It could rain the entire time trapping us in the yurt. The owners who ferry us out to the resort could meet with some unfortunate fate, stranding us on a remote Alaskan island without cell service. I could go on and on, but Oregano was so excited about the prospect of spending a night in a yurt. I suspect part of the appeal was that he just enjoyed saying the word yurt.

“Okay,” I acquiesced.

“Okay, what?” he asked.

“Okay. I’ll spend the night in a yurt,” I agreed reluctantly.

“Great! This is going to be a once in a lifetime experience,” he said.

“Let’s hope so,” I muttered under my breath.

“Check the availability on the website,” he said quickly hoping to book this before I could change my mind.

I pulled up the website and saw that they did have availability. Damn!

“They have several yurts available for the date we need. Let me just read through their policies and the logistics of getting there one more time before we commit.”

I carefully read through all the information and then realized I had made an error about the price.

“Hmm… I think I read this wrong. It looks like the price is $250 per person; not per night,” I said rereading the website.

“$250 per person! It’s a yurt!” he exclaimed horrified by this new bit of information.

“Yes, but it’s a luxury yurt and, as you pointed out we’ll have a kayak to use during our stay,” I said.

“$250 per person!” he sputtered. “There’s no electricity!”

“Yes, but it’s about the experience, not the electricity,” I reminded him of his previous argument.

“$500 total and that doesn’t include food!”

“No, it doesn’t include food, but it does include the water taxi ride from town,” I pointed out.

“Not only does it not include food, we have to bring it all with us and the ice to keep it cold,” he said shaking his head.

“No, we’re going on the 24 hour granola bar diet. That was your plan so that we wouldn’t have to carry ice. Don’t you remember?” I asked.

“I remember, but it still seems like a lot of money for one night with no amenities and very few necessities.” He sounded disappointed.

This was great! I had dodged a yurt shaped bullet. I get the credit for agreeing to be adventurous without actually having to be adventurous.

“So now what?” he said dejectedly. Not yet willing to give up on his dream of spending a night in a yurt, he grabbed the laptop to search on other yurt lodging in Alaska. Five minutes later he called out to me, “Hey, I found a cheap yurt we can stay in!”

I stopped what I was doing and looked at him in disbelief. “Think about what you just said,” I replied. “Really, think about the combination of words you just used: ‘cheap’ and ‘yurt’.”

“So?”

“So, those are two words that shouldn’t be together. If the luxury yurt didn’t have electricity or a refrigerator, what things are missing to make a yurt cheap?” I said completely unwilling to find out the answer to that question.

“Good point,” he conceded.

After more searching, I found us an affordable, lovely lakeside cabin with wooden walls, electricity and running water. If wanting those few luxuries makes me a princess, then so be it.

 

At Least We Can See France from our Toilet

One of the allures of traveling is the chance to break out of the grind of daily life. Without the familiarity of surroundings or language, even the most mundane tasks become exotic and adventurous.

Several years ago Oregano and I wanted to visit friends who live in northern Italy, but the airfare to Italy was prohibitively expensive. After much investigating, we discovered that it was half the price to fly into Zurich then drive over the Alps into Italy. We’d never been to Switzerland so we decided to seize the opportunity, rent a car and explore the country en route to visit our friends. The more planning we did, the more excited we got about the idea of beautiful Alpine villages and cheese. The fact that we didn’t speak any of the four languages spoken in Switzerland was mildly disconcerting, but we’d find a way to manage with the remnants of my high school German, a phrase book and a lot of gesturing.

Our first week was spent in a tiny Alpine village in the German-speaking part of the country. Between the residents’ knowledge of English and my limited German, we managed quite nicely. Our true test would come in the French-speaking city of Lausanne on the shores of Lake Geneva. I can’t speak or read French and Oregano can barely understand someone who speaks English with a French accent. Our 3 days in Lausanne were going to be an interesting experience.

The Alpine village of Murren, Switzerland.

Knowing that this would be the most challenging part of our trip, I selected a hotel that had a central location and an English-speaking staff. Our GPS struggled to help us find our hotel among streets with names that were all “Rue du” something unpronounceable. As a result, we had an unplanned driving tour of the one way streets of Lausanne. When we finally arrived at the hotel, I walked up to the clerk at the front desk and offered a bright, cheerful, “Bon jour!”

The desk clerk gave me a friendly “bon jour” in return then began speaking in French. The majority of my French vocabulary was used up with my greeting, so I had no idea what he was saying. I waited for a pause and then asked in French if he spoke English. He replied with the universally understandable, “No,” and continued to prattle on in French. I smiled, gave him my credit card and waited until he handed me keys and pointed to an elevator.

“I thought you said you picked this hotel because of its central location and English-speaking staff,” Oregano said opening the door to our room. We were immediately distracted from our conversation when we noticed the view of Lake Geneva and across it, France and the French Alps.

“Well, it is centrally located,” I said hustling past him to get to the bathroom. “And, check this out, if you leave the bathroom door open, you can see France from the toilet. That wasn’t in the brochure.”

They didn’t speak English at our hotel in Lausanne, but the view from our toilet was impressive.

Since no one at the front desk could assist us, we were on our own to decipher the twisty streets and hills of Lausanne. We decided on a café and set out to find it. A quick right turn at the end of the street revealed the first of the many steep cobblestone streets we’d need to negotiate. After much huffing, puffing and map consultation, we were both stunned that we had successfully navigated our way to our destination. Truth be told, we were just about to give up and pick another café when we stumbled upon it. We congratulated ourselves for our small victory then walked towards the front door of the café only to discover that it wouldn’t open for another hour. Undeterred by this small obstacle, we sat near a fountain and discussed our options. We decided to wander around, admire the architecture and hope we could find our way back to this café. If not, we’d just choose another one.

After wandering the hills of Lausanne, we finally found the cafe.

I distracted myself from my hunger by shopping using a lot of pointing, gesturing and writing of numbers. After successfully purchasing earrings in a store that only accepted cash, we realized we only had 20 francs left. Fearing the café wouldn’t take credit cards either, we decided to find a cash machine. Surely in a country known for banking, there would be readily available, easily identifiable cash machines.

Thirty minutes more of hiking up and down the hills of Lausanne’s “Vieille Ville” (old town) and we had gotten a great tour of the city, but no more francs. Hot, tired, hungry and low on francs, we decided it was time to employ the assistance of one of the locals. We whipped out the handy-dandy French phrase book, but quickly realized that it has certain limitations. It is a wonderful resource for asking a question, but you are shit out of luck interpreting the answer to that question because you have no way to look up the response in the book.  Nevertheless, Oregano made a valiant attempt to ask the shop owner where a cash machine was. Taking pity on Oregano’s hideous French pronunciations, the man stepped out of his shop and pointed to a cash machine inconspicuously nestled into the architectural detail of a building we had passed no less than 3 times. With a grateful wave and “merci” to the shopkeeper, we dashed across to the cash machine.

Nervously, we stuck our card into the slot while saying a prayer to the Swiss ATM gods that we’d be able to successfully conduct our transaction without our card being swallowed by the machine. Our prayers were answered because we were given the option to conduct the transaction in English! We chose to withdraw 200 francs figuring we’d get a bunch of 20’s or other small bills, like we do at home.

Let me take a moment to explain Swiss paper currency. Unlike the uniformly sized and green U.S. dollar bills, Swiss francs are very colorful. The size of the bill varies by the denomination; the smaller the denomination, the smaller the actual size of the bill. So, when I say we were hoping for small bills, I meant it literally. To our great relief, our card spit back out into our waiting hands, but so too did a single, gigantic 200 franc bill; a bill so large that I needed to fold it into thirds to fit it into my wallet. Very large cash in hand, we headed back to our original dinner destination. Thanks to our unintentional walking tour of this section of Lausanne, we were able to return to the café without making any wrong turns.

Traveling is always a learning experience. Oregano and I learned a few lessons on that trip through Switzerland and Italy.

  1. Learning a few words in French only caused us more trouble. When we opened with “bon jour,” we had nowhere to go from there, but people assumed we could actually carry on a conversation.
  2. Mimes are not performance artists, but rather frustrated, desperate non-French speaking tourists attempting to communicate. Given a wardrobe change and some make-up, we could have easily been confused with mimes.
  3. Packing a sense of humor when traveling in a country where you don’t speak the language is almost as important as packing your passport.

 

 

The same view of Lake Geneva and the French Alps from the marina, not the toilet.

What Happens in Vegas?

With the nickname Sin City, it’s no surprise that Las Vegas is a city of excess. Of course there are the usual excesses that immediately come to mind when one thinks of Vegas. Many people drink to excess in Las Vegas. The lavish buffets and upscale dining options allow people to eat in excess while visiting the city. There is no shortage of ways to dispose of your excess cash in the casinos or shopping in the ridiculously expensive stores in the resorts. Even entertainment options are excessive. You can be amazed by the acrobatic feats of the Cirque Du Soleil artists, marvel at magicians or enjoy kitschy lounge acts belting out tunes from behind a piano in a hotel lobby bar. If you prefer entertainment of a more personal nature, all you have to do is call the numbers listed on the backs of the baseball-like cards men hand out to passersby on the Strip. You can select your very own personal entertainer from an array of ladies with this specialized skill set. Like a Domino’s Pizza, they will arrive at your door in less than 30 minutes; how long they stay is entirely up to the individual’s credit limit. These excesses should not surprise anyone who has ever been to Vegas, read anything about Vegas or watched an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigations, but on our recent trip there, I noticed a few excesses you may not be familiar with.

In our minds, the 6 mile round trip walk to Max Brenner Chocolate Restaurant in Caesars Palace justified our indulgence in this chocolate and caramel fondue.

Excessive Walking –The resorts and casinos are immense, sprawling structures that require hoofing it lengthy distances to get from point A to point B, so I wore a pedometer to keep track of how much we walked. We were fascinated by the distances we had to travel. Going to the valet stand to pick up our rental car was a half mile journey. Oregano pointed out that when he walks a half mile, he isn’t usually still in the same building. A round trip trek to the gelato stand in the hotel was also a half mile which justified the nearly daily trip we made there. A chocolate fondue was our reward for the 6 mile round trip from our hotel to Caesars Palace. According to our calculations, all of that walking offset our decadence; everything in moderation, even gluttony.

Excessive Bathrooms – All of the walking combined with the desert dryness means people need to drink in excess. The excessive drinking leads to excessive – well, you know what that leads to and so do the resorts and casinos because there are almost as many bathrooms and stalls as there are slot machines. As someone with a bladder the size of a walnut,  I appreciate these ever-present bathrooms. While my tiny bladder is often inconvenient, it has given me the opportunity to become quite the public bathroom connoisseur.  I can tell you that the bathrooms in these resorts and casinos are among the cleanest and most lavishly appointed that I have seen anywhere.

Excessive Glitz– I am not referring to the blinking, twinkling lights on the Strip or the over-the-top costumes on the showgirls. The glitz to which I am referring was on the tourists. Never in my life have I witnessed such a vast collection of clothing and accessories festooned with sequins and sparkles. Even more amazing was the range of sizes these snazzy clothes came in. Can someone please explain the trend of wearing pants with glittery words emblazoned on the derrière? When the numerous lights in the lobby and casino hit that word it lures your eye to the source and then that image is indelibly burned in your brain. Maybe I am not trendy, but I prefer to let my personality sparkle, not my clothing.

Excessive Heels – Given the amount of walking required to get anywhere in Vegas, wearing high heels may be fashionable, but it is foolish. The number of women precariously balancing themselves on high heels and huge wedges was staggering. These women were wearing shoes my mom would refer to as “sittin’ shoes;” shoes better suited for sitting still and looking pretty than for actually walking somewhere. These teetering women were usually texting as they walked posing a hazard to those of us in more sensible footwear. If they were texting, teetering and drinking they gave new meaning to the word tipsy.

Joshua trees in Mojave National Preserve, California.

Excessive Natural Beauty– When we got weary of the manmade excesses in Las Vegas we headed into the desert to see some of Mother Nature’s finest excesses. Joshua trees in the Mojave National Preserve are surreal.  They look like Dr. Seuss and Salvador Dali joined forces to create a tree. Oregano learned not to touch these trees the hard way because the pointy pom-pom clusters weren’t a big enough warning. In Valley of Fire State Park we played on rock formations that seemed better suited for Mars than Nevada. The splendors of Mother Nature’s excesses were a nice balance to the overindulgence of Vegas.

In Valley of Fire State Park Oregano does a near perfect impression of Winnie the Pooh.

What happens in Vegas is not exactly human nature demonstrating its finest behavior. No matter what your definition of fun is, that is one commodity Las Vegas has in spades.

 

 

** And now a word from our sponsor.**

I’d like to thank Custom Trip Planning for “touching” me. This is a kinder, gentler version of the earlier game of blog tag that was circulating around. I’m touched that she recommended Good Humored to her readers.

I’d also like to thank Roshni for brightening my day with the Sunshine Award and recommending me to her readers. It’s a wonderful feeling to wake up on a gloomy morning and find a kind note and some sunshine in your inbox.

High Anxiety

Traveling is always an adventure. Sometimes that adventure begins before you even reach your destination. I enjoy the surprise of the seatmate lottery during the few times a year I fly for vacations. Since I’m traveling with Oregano, I’m guaranteed to have at least one person next to me with whom I have something in common. Over the years, on my non-Oregano side, I’ve had a wide array of seatmates: quiet ones, chatty ones, way too chatty ones and smelly ones. There was even a woman who quietly wept for an entire cross-country flight, but all of these seatmates pale in comparison to a man named Filbert.

Oregano and I were flying home from Florida and arrived at the airport earlier than we anticipated. For a nominal fee, we were given the option to take an earlier flight. The only catch was that the seats were not next to each other; they were the middle seats on each side of the same row. No problem. Once we boarded the plane, we could ask someone if they would mind swapping seats so that we could sit together. If not, oh well, we’d just spent 8 days alone together; three hours separated by two people and an aisle might be a refreshing change.

When we arrived at our designated row, I asked the large, older gentleman who had the aisle seat next to me to move so that I could get into my seat. The loud groan he made upon standing coupled with incessant muttering about how uncomfortable he was made me realize that he would not be a good candidate for the switch. I climbed into my middle seat between him and a young woman. As I reached to buckle my seatbelt, I realized that my big and tall seatmate was taking up more than his fair share of our already cramped personal space. His long legs were spread widely apart instead of directly in front of him. I looked to see what was under the seat in front of him that was preventing his feet from being where they should be. Two black eyes and a mop of white fur stared back at me through the mesh panel of a duffle bag style dog carrier.

Filbert saw me glancing down at his dog and, without solicitation, loudly said, “The bastard flight attendant made me zip the bag all the way up for take-off.”  My crotchety seatmate continued, “The dog flies with me all the time. Once, I flew all the way to California with her on my lap. I know for a fact that there is absolutely no need for my dog to be zipped into the bag. Bastards!”

Just as he was finishing the tale of his dog’s airline experience, a different “bastard flight attendant” walked to our row and asked, “Who has the service dog?”

I looked down our row to see if there were any other dogs sitting among us. I expected to see a German shepherd, Labrador retriever or some other dog of that size, but when I didn’t, my eyes darted to the dog that was so small it fit into a bag that fit neatly under an airline seat. Service dog? This thing was a shih tzu. What kind of service does a tiny shih tzu provide for this not so tiny man who clearly has the use of all of his senses? The “bastard flight attendant’s” inquiry prompted the man to groan dramatically, stand up slowly and announce that he had recently been released from the hospital. As he shuffled through the papers in his vintage, hard-sided suitcase he complained, “It’s ridiculous that I need to show you these papers!”

Now, one would think that a man with a dog with such vast flight experience would know to keep the necessary papers in the seat back pocket in front of him, but I digress from the real issue which is…. what kind of service does a shih tzu provide? Apparently this same question was on the minds of those of us privileged to be seated in Row 6 with Filbert. We all looked quizzically at each other. Our outgoing friend must have sensed our curiosity because he broadcasted, “My psychiatrist writes me a note stating that I have anxiety issues when flying. The dog provides emotional support and calms me down during flights.” He went on to further clarify his point, “Don’t worry. I don’t really have anxiety and I am not a nut case or anything. The doctor just writes the note so that I don’t have to pay this damn airline the $75 fee for carrying a pet on board.”

A medically certified nervous flyer and a dog, I had hit the airline seatmate jackpot! There was no way I would be switching seats now and I’m betting there was no way anyone within earshot would be willing to switch with me at this point anyway.

When Filbert finally settled himself into his seat, I quickly pulled out my book hoping to project the image that I wasn’t interested in chatting with him for the duration of the flight. Sometimes this simple action is enough of a non-verbal clue to deter someone from conversing with me. It must have worked because Filbert promptly turned to the middle-aged man seated across the aisle and engaged him in conversation.

It was impossible to focus on my book because Filbert’s booming voice was echoing in my ears, but I wasn’t about to close my book lest he turn his attention to me. If avoiding conversation with him meant I had to stare blankly at that book and turn a page every few minutes for the entire flight, I was going to do it. Alas, he wore out the conversation with the man across the aisle and despite my best efforts to avoid eye contact, Filbert began talking to me.

“Why aren’t you sitting with your husband? Don’t you two like each other?” was his conversation starter.

The woman in the seat on the other side of me began to convulse with laughter and buried her face in her hands.

Without looking up, I disinterestedly replied, “We weren’t able to get seats together.”

“Why don’t you ask someone to switch with you so you can sit together?” he asked.

“It doesn’t matter. We can sit apart for a few hours. Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” I said, all while not lifting my eyes from my book.

In an effort to spare me from more conversation with Filbert, the woman to my right began asking me about the book I was reading. She winked at me, lifted her arm rest and scooched over in her seat to give me a bit more wiggle room away from Filbert. We sat, sharing some quality ass space, and chatted about books.

Filbert got a bit jealous and leaned across the aisle to get Oregano’s attention. “Hey, your wife’s making a new best friend over here. You better watch out.” Oregano just nodded his head and smiled that kind of smile reserved for small children and crazy people.

Filbert was quiet for a bit, much to everyone’s surprise and auditory pleasure. Then the “bastard flight attendants” began the beverage and snack service. Filbert requested a drink for himself and water with ice for his “service dog.”  When the drinks arrived, he unzipped the bag and the dog’s head and upper body popped out. Filbert introduced her to us and began giving the dog ice cubes while babbling on about how much she enjoys them. It wasn’t long before Filbert’s beverage worked its way through his urinary tract and he needed to use the lavatory. Guess who he asked to watch the dog while he was away from his seat?  It’s not like I could refuse. I couldn’t exactly say I was busy or that I had somewhere else to go. As he lumbered down the aisle, I wondered how long a man with his health problems could be in the bathroom.

The minute the dog realized her owner was gone, she began wriggling to get out of the bag. I tried to zip her back in as best I could, but there was already quite a bit of dog sticking out of the bag and I didn’t want to shove her back in. So, my only choice was to lean down between the seats, pet her and speak reassuringly about her owner’s return. When that didn’t stop her squirming, I scooped ice cubes out of my drink and held them in my hand as she licked at them. I used my dry, dog saliva-free hand to hold her in place lest she break free of her duffle bag and begin running around the cabin. The sight of me bent over and squashed between the seats holding Filbert’s dog while simultaneously attempting to feed her ice cubes made everyone in Row 6 snicker uncontrollably. Oregano looked at me and said, “Only you could get yourself into a predicament like this.”

Thankfully, Filbert returned after 10 minutes then proclaimed to the whole plane, or maybe it just felt that way with his booming voice, that the dog loved me and had made a new friend. I was just making friends all over the place on this flight. Lively and perked up from his caffeinated beverage and jaunt to the potty, Filbert renewed his vigor for conversation much to the chagrin of everyone trapped within listening range. No one in Row 6 was immune to Filbert’s invasive and somewhat inappropriate questions. The only thing that stopped him was that eventually he needed to tinkle again. I was back on dog sitting duty since I had done such a stellar job earlier. The shih tzu was no less anxious this time around. Despite Filbert’s assurances that the dog and I had become fast friends, she was eagerly trying to break out of the bag. I spent another tense few minutes holding down the dog with one hand while the ice cubes I offered her melted in my other hand as she lapped up the water running through my fingers. Luckily, I managed to keep my charge in her carrier and was spared any additional dog sitting duties for the remainder of the flight. Later, as I reflected on the dog’s behavior, perhaps she was thinking that this was her only chance to escape from Filbert.

Who would have willingly chosen to sit next to Filbert after reading a profile describing him as a large, loud, older gentleman with a fear of flying, service dog and a tiny bladder?  I’m certain I would not have, but look at the opportunity I would have missed out on. Sometimes it is more interesting to see what the universe has in store for you. It gives you a chance to exercise the ability to make the best of a situation and find the humor in it. After all, Filbert was the best in-flight entertainment I have ever experienced.

 

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