Thursday, June 30, 2011

Julia & Her Octagenarians

SOUND THE TRUMPETS! My new career has officially begun as a tour director! I survived my first tour. I am now a bonafide tour director, tour manager, program coordinator, or whatever you want to call it! It was a 7 night, 6 day Culinary Adventure of 3 Cities: Philadelphia, New York and Boston with two excursions to Newport, Rhode Island and Gloucester, Massachusetts. (For some reason the real theme of this year is, you guessed it, FOOD--and you can definitely tell by the looks of me. I do indeed look as though I have been eating VERY well lately. I do not resemble the skinny, stressed-out office girl that quit her job and fled the country last year). That's fo' shizzle.

It was actually a great first trip. The boss-man went along with me the whole time because it was such a complicated, difficult first trip, navigating through 3 of the largest cities along the Eastern Seaboard. I won't lie, it was very intimidating, but at the same time, my boss Chris is a really laid-back fun guy and just kinda let me do my thing with some tips and pointers and reminders along the way. I say that it was a great first trip for several reasons: 1.) it went smoothly on my part--all errors were really made on Chris' part! 2.)the errors that were made were GREAT for me to learn from, especially since I had my boss there to help me handle all that arose.

Like I said, it was funny because all the errors that were really made were on Chris' part as he would make decisions that caused us to be late, etc. So I got to sit back and watch with amusement and LEARN. A lot of little things did go wrong just like I had been taught in my course. This one couple (one of the more difficult couples) had originally requested a king bed in the 3 hotels we stayed at but the arrangements had not been made so I had to clean that up, but it was easy enough. The bus driver also could have been a little better...and I feel bad saying that because he was a real nice guy and a pastor in his previous life to boot! He showed up late the very first day, caught in traffic--and he was a LOCAL so he should have known to leave an extra half hour, hour to account for that. Then the DVD player didn't work and because he had shown up late I didn't have the opportunity to check that out BEFORE my passengers got on and ended up looking like a ninny.

As far as the group itself, my 13 octogenarians were really great. There were a couple of them, when they arrived the first day in Philly that didn't give off the greatest first impression. Chris was actually shocked that the group was THAT old. Normally there's a lot more variation in the age range. I think my youngest passenger was 69...maybe. They were all generally in their 80s. Some of them had issues walking which concerned us because this program had a lot of walking tours involved, so I spent a lot of the time taking the back, making sure everyone was doing okay and no one was getting left behind. There were a few tense moments when it came to high curbs and uneven roads and there were some ESPECIALLY tense moments namely in the Reading Terminal Train Shed when we were getting our private tour. We had all made it up the rather long escalator easily enough, but it was a different story coming down! One of my passengers, this really sweet older man had had a stroke earlier on and had a shake in his hand and really kinda shuffled instead of "walked." At one point I looked down at his shoes and with HORROR I saw one of his laces untied. It was ALL I COULD DO NOT to bend down and tie his shoe for him cause I thought for SURE he was going to fall and break a hip or something. He said he could managed and I just held my breath and watched with continued horror as he kept shuffling his feet narrowly missing catching a shoe lace. As if THAT wasn't bad enough, when he went to get on the escalator, after everyone but 2 women, shoe laces flapping around wildly, he went to grab the MOVING rail and wasn't quite fast enough to step on the stairs in time with the railing so his body kinda pitched forward as his arms were out moving the rest of his body and then his shuffling feet managed to stop directly over where the steps were going to separate! I. just. about. had. a. heart. attack. I cannot STRESS to you all how SCARRED OUTTA MY MIND I WAS BECAUSE IT WASN'T JUST FOR MY PASSENGER, but if he had fallen, HE WOULD HAVE TAKEN DOWN ALL BUT 2 OF MY PASSENGERS, IT WOULD HAVE BEEN LIKE DOMINOES FALLING. Next thing you know I would have been ordering a slew of ambulances and my trip would have been over. OMG. SO THEN. (He doesn't fall--THANK YOU, GOD!--evidence that again, suggests that there is INDEED a god up above and a god that DOES in fact LOVE ME). So ya, if THAT wasn't bad enough, another one of my passengers, this really nice older lady that walked with a cane turned to me and said, "Julia...I'm scared of going down the escalator" to which I thought, "Oh my god." Luckily, or so I thought, Chris, who was a big guy and was still up at the top with us, volunteered to help her down, got on the escalator and took her hand, but she got so scared at the last minute that she backed away just in time so that Chris was stuck on the escalator and couldn't come back up and I was stranded up at the top with her thinking, "Great. How on EARTH am I gonna get her down that escalator. I'm half her size." All I could see was us tumbling down the escalator. Again, though. Yet MORE proof of God's existence: there was an elevator. The day was saved.

So ya. Aside from a few stressful, tense moments, everyone got along really well and I found myself really just having a blast hanging out with everyone. Now while it sounds like it was all fun and games--and there WERE moments were I was like "I can't believe I'm getting paid to do this," I just want you all to know that I did work 18 hour days the whole week and that doesn't even account for all the research and studying and memorizing I did the month leading up to the trip. So it was a lot of work. But worth it I think!


For those of you who want the nuts and bolts of my tour here it is:

Dinner at an INCREDIBLE Mexican fusion restaurant called El Vez

Day 2:
Tour of Chinatown (& fortune cookie factory) & private lunch with celebrity chef Joe Poon
Tour of Reading Terminal Market w/taste tests-chocolate, pretzels, scrapple
Afternoon off (my boss drug me out to dinner with his friend)

Day 3:
Took off for New York
Tour of Chelsea Market with LOTS of taste testing-lobster bisque, cupcakes, spec, Parmesan, etc.
Tour of New York City & Central Park with hop-on guide
Dinner at an amazing Italian place called Naples 45

Day 4:
Tour of Lower East Side with lots of taste testing-pickles, mozzarella, canolis, tofu, mango balls, etc.
Lunch at Katz's famous Deli-had pastrami on rye sandwiches
Afternoon/evening free (my boss again drug me out to dinner with his cousin: BBQ)

Day 5:
Left New York
Lunch in Newport at the Pier-Amazing clam chowder and salmon
Tour of Newport Summer Mansions
Continued on to Boston
Dinner at Rani's Indian restaurant

Day 6:
Quick tour of Boston
Shopping time at Quincy Market
Lunch at Antico Forno in Boston's North Italian Neighborhood
Tour of Italian neighborhood with tons of taste tests-cookies, limoncello, grappa, olive oils
Tour of Sam Adams Brewery with tasting
Lobster dinner in Gloucester with story telling

Day 7:
Bus all the way from Boston back to Philly
Then drove from Philly to Albany with Chris

Monday, May 16, 2011

Amazon River Wrap-Up

.....ya, it was a long time comin'

Amazon River Route:
(For those of you crazy enough to want to give it a whirl or just curious enough to know how it all happened)

The Nuts & Bolts
Frank and I chose to take the route less traveled. Most do not choose the Rio Napo in Ecuador, but instead they start in Peru as there are many more regular boats that go up the river. Frank and I were a little more intrepid and decided to just wing it and hope for the best. It took us a total of 41 days from Coca, Ecuador to Belem, Brazil at the mouth of the Amazon where it enters into the Atlantic Ocean. 21 of those days were spent in hammocks on boats (or on the floor under all the hammocks if you're Frank). We got stranded in Pantoja, Peru for 10 days waiting for the next boat south-bound and we were lucky it only took 10 days because there's normally only ONE government-run boat that goes up and down ONCE a month under no certain schedule. Our route took us from the Andes Mountains down through the jungles of Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, and Brazil, some of those sections were governed by FARC (the largest Colombian drug cartel) and had never seen tourists before. We traversed roughly 5,000 miles of the watery brown highway from start to finish and saw a myriad of wildlife from 2 types of dolphins (yes, we did see the elusive pink river dolphin), to monkeys, tucans, turtles, etc.


Quito to Tena --6 hours ($8)
Tena to Coca --5 hours ($7)


Coca to Rocafuerte --12 hours ($15)
*on a small, cramped motorboat, ONE 15min bathroom/eating break

Rocafuerte to Pantoja --2 hours ($25)
*on a small "peke peke" canoe

Pantoja to Iquitos --10 DAYS ($30)
*Small commercial riverboat called "Denis Luis"
*Stopped at every village & hut that waved us down--slow ride
*Meals included (rice, rice & more rice with plantains & pasta & white bread)
*Sleeping accommodations: Personal Hammock

Iquitos to Leticia, Colombia/Tabatinga, Brazil --2 Days ($40)
*Larger commercial riverboat- fewer stops
*Meals included
*Sleeping accommodations: Personal Hammock

Tabatinga to Manaus --4 Days ($120)
*Large commercial riverboat
*Meals included (much better food, Brazilians know how to eat)
*Sleeping accommodations: Personal Hammock

Manaus to Belem --5 Days ($150)
*Large commercial Boat
*Meals NOT included
*Sleeping accommodations: Personal Hammock


Belem to Algodoal (a coastal paradise located on the Atlantic Ocean) --4 hours ($30)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Travels with Frank: Breakdown in the Amazon

(please read this entry with a sense of humor because, believe it or not, I did write it with a smile on my face...a deranged smile, but a SMILE nonetheless...)

It's official. It's been 45 days since I left Cartagena with Frank and 29 days since we boarded our first boat in Coca on the Rio Napo in Ecuador. We're halfway there and Julia's TIRED. And sick of MANY things thus far. Allow me to expound on that last statement.

I'm sick of boats. I'm sick of hammocks. I'm sick of rice, plantains, white bread, bland pasta, and weird sections of meat I can't identify. I'm sick of screaming children and crying babies. I'm sick of squealing, enraged pigs and constantly confused crowing roosters. I'm sick of disgusting bathrooms and no toilet seats. I'm sick of weaving and ducking through impossibly crowded decks of hammocks to get to the bathroom or off the boat. I'm sick of wading through sh*t: pig sh*t, chicken sh*t, people sh*t. I'm sick of toxic black exhaust and the smell of urine and sh*t of all kinds. I'm sick of not sleeping well. I'm sick of epically slow Internet connections and no wi-fi and bad instant coffee with no cream. I'm sick of smelly clothes and not at least having the option of a nice restaurant or supermarket to eat from. I'm sick of limited water and electricity. I'm sick of bug bites that won't heal and men staring at me and cat-calling (no I don't want to talk to you or give you the time of day; why should you be different than any other old man trying to get my attention?). I'm sick of heat and humidity and never ending stickiness.. I'm sick of constantly meeting new travelers and the same old questions: Where you coming? Where you going? How long? I'm sick of being either constipated or running to the bathroom every 10 minutes. I'm sick of ants swarming everywhere. I'm sick of dirty, loud buses, reggaeton and changing money and badly dubbed pirated movies. I'm sick of Frank stressing over every cent, sole, peso and real, being too slow and getting caught up in every little detail. I'm pretty much sick of everything


Travels with Frank: Scraps of Life in a Small Amazonian Village

FB Posts that would have been had I decent Internet for my 10 days in Pantoja...

-dreamed about quesedias with velveeta cheese. I don't even eat velveeta cheese but DAMN those looked GOOD! Wonder when the last time anyone here actually ate cheese...

-actually won at poker last night...too bad we were only wagering with aluminium Peruvian centimos and old military buttons...

-YAY for firefly filled trees and insanely bright (light pollution-free) starry skies!

-would like to thank Frank for at least getting that MONSTROUS intimidating arachnid to move behind the shelving--outta sight, outta mind! I'll sleep tonight!

-feels really sorry for the two turtles waiting out the end in Rodrigo's kitchen...wonder how long they've been waiting there to be cooked...

-had a really TASTY dish of "majas," a local jungle rodent, relative of the guinea pig. Better than chicken or pork! YUM! MORE MAJAS, PLEASE!

-wonders how truly preventative a mosquito net is when you wake up and the first thing you see is a HUGE cockroach hanging out right above your head IN your netting...I guess they only call it a "mosquito" net...

-Yay! One of the turtles trapped in the kitchen escaped!

-spent the afternoon walking through the jungle munching on freshly scavenged sugar cane.

-finally found a board that will allow her to sit with comfort on Rodrigo's toilet. YAY! Never been so excited about a piece of wood before. It really is the little things...

-can't get enough fried plantains. YUM!

-would be a fan of Amazonian fish if it weren't absolutely FULL of bones (that get lodged in her gums!) OUCH!


-saw a little boy carrying the charred corpse of half a monkey by the arm home for dinner...

-along with her friend Dara, were the honorary guests on the Pantoja military base for their monthly celebration. Watched their football matches and then for 3 hours was surrounded by 70 soldiers dancing salsa...

-would like to extend a "thank you" to Frank for doing another good job trimming her hair. Not exactly professional, but it'll do in a pinch.

-admits that constantly being serenaded by the town poet every time she leaves her accommodation, while initially flattering, is now getting a bit old...

-SALVATION! A small commercial boat arrived randomly in town today! It will be going to Iquitos! WE ARE SAVED!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Travels with Frank: The Amazonian Twilight Zone & Transit Hodge Podge

I have to say, maybe it's because I just spent practically the last 4 days in some CRAZY transit or maybe this place is as crazy as it looks and seems...

I have now entered the Amazon Twilight Zone...Do do do do do do do do do do do dooooo...or an X-files episode (or as Frank says, the Amazonian equivalent of Mayberry with it's very own Ecuadorian Andy Griffith, Gomer Pile, and Aunt B--who is the owner of our hotel). This place is INSANE, like I've already hinted at. Frank and I arrived after 4 days of almost solid transit from Quito, Quito of which was...not as fun as I'd have liked it to have been. That being from battling an epic sore throat due to the miserable cold weather (and no heating), to almost losing my cool (and my chances at a Brazilian Visa) at the incredibly RUDE women at the Brazilian Consulate to just about having my purse stolen in broad daylight in a park by a disturbing Ecuadorian Albino who threatened my life as he made a grab for my purse--luckily I have a grip like a VICE and didn't let go or let him scare me! Ya, Quito was pretty much bad "juju" from day 1 and I was HAPPY to blow that pop stand, let me tell you! Anyway, I'm getting way off topic but I have to fist finish the little tid bits about my journey here to...Amazonian Wonderland. So we took a 7 hour bus ride from Quito down through the Andes to the little town of Tena in the Amazonian basin of Ecuador, where, interestingly enough I had been to 7 years before when I spent 2 1/2 months volunteering on the Jatun Sacha Reserve right out of Tena. Tena, of which, in the preceding 7 years had done quite well for itself. It even had a supermarket! But again. I digress. Frank and I spent one day in Tena pumping the local hostel owner, a trite and impatient German for information regarding boat routes to take from Coca along the Rio Napo to Iquitos---quite a feet as there are no regular boats that run that route. After getting sufficient enough info, and a photo copy of a section of his map (they don't sell maps in South America wouldn't you know...) we boarded another bus and spent all day going to Coca. In Coca, the edge of the Ecuadorian Amazon we located the boat to take us to here, the Amazonian Twilight Zone, and actually ended up saving a few bucks by sleeping on the boat (or rather over-sized "canoe" with an engine) and then proceeded to spend ALL day, a COMPLETE 12 HOURS, heading down stream on the Rio Napo, a major tributary to the Amazon River, deeper and deeper into the jungle...(Oh. And I'd like to add that the boat only stopped ONCE in those TWELVE hours for FIFTEEN minutes in which you were supposed to go to the bathroom AND EAT a full meal. The whole time I was concentrating on not drinking anything so I wouldn't have to go to the bathroom!).

So that brings us to where we are now. In a small village called "Roca Fuerte." By coming to Roca Fuerte, the Amazonian Twilight Zone, we have reached the point where cars no longer exist because, well, there are no roads to this town. You can ONLY get here by boat. And What few roads they do have are paved, interestingly enough, yet there are no cars. Town-wide the electricity goes out completely, and water, at 11pm sharp. We are in a town where everybody knows your name...literally, you walk down the street and everyone greets you and introduces themselves. Frank and I were here all of 1 hour and already we were seeing people we knew calling us by our names. There is one village policeman. He just about invited us to come over to his friend's house where they were having a "capibara" BBQ...Now. If Frank and I remember correctly, Capibara, the largest rodent on the planet, about the size of a pig, furry and cute, is on the endangered list and prohibited from being hunted. We, however, did not bother to mention this to the only village policeman...In addition, I've noticed that as I've been walking around all the stray dogs are...pure breads (?!!!!). Ya. We're talking Great Danes, Dalmatians, etc. I know, STRANGE. IN THE MIDDLE OF THE JUNGLE: DALMATIANS. GREAT DANES. At least this village has the local high school! Frank and I are definitely at the end of the world, or the world of reason anyhow. Beyond this here point be monsters!

We'll see. But first, we need to get on it and find out how on earth we're gonna get ourselves on the ACTUAL, FACTUAL AMAZON RIVER! Because apparently, we've chosen the most difficult route where there are no regular boat routes! Yay! I sure do like a good challenge! More to come on Travels With Frank: The Amazon. Man I could use a shower after 2 days of hard traveling. And I need to go pee. Op. It's 11:09. Damn. Guess I'll have to wait till morning to do both...

Monday, January 24, 2011

Travels with Frank. Installment #1: Life with a 60yr old Ex-Marine

Life has been especially interesting (and sometimes equally frustrating admittedly) because our Fearless Adventurer has taken up with quite a unique and quirky fellow lately. Namely, that of a Mr. Frank Broadfood Taylor. A 60 year old American ex-marine who hasn't worked a day since he got out of the marines 30 years ago. How to go about describing Frank. Most, if not all, wonder why on earth a chick like me would choose to hang out with such a seemingly strange fellow. After all, it's not like he goes around practically naked (in warmer climates of course) and barefoot--as well as runs barefoot--eats raw meat like my grandmother, is the must frugal human being known to man as well as GARRULOUS to high heaven. OMG, the man can talk! Well ya...he's actually all of these things and MORE, MUCH MORE.

Frankly speaking ;) I am a magnet for such odd, strange people. Maybe because I find that they just add SO much extra spice to life and make it SO DAMN amusing! Or maybe because I'm rather a strange duck myself.

Regardless of all the outwardly visible oddities and slight annoyances (prime example being the other night when we had just arrived from Medellin, Colombia after 34 hours of bus travel, Frank had managed to piss off the only 3 cab drivers at the terminal at 2 in the morning as were FREEZING our butts off over a buck or two--not a smart move) we make a reasonably good dynamic duo. We are good running buddies, we prefer the same type of diet--high in veggies and protein, have the same financial limitations and he reminds me of a family member in the way that we are able to openly and candidly talk about a wide range of topics (he keeps himself highly educated and informed) and also has a heart of gold. In addition, he is not the overly sensitive sort which is good for someone who has to be around me for long periods of time as I can be a little...acerbic to some!

It all began back in the beginning of December when Frank showed up at my hostel. Admittedly, I avoided him the first few weeks due to his glaring idiosyncrasies. But, like all fungi, if you're around it long enough, you start to grow accustomed to it and even start to appreciate it, or, it just simply starts to grow on you. And for better or worse, it's there to stay. This is how I feel about Frank. After a few weeks, he convinced me to run with him. Then we started cooking together and sharing meals. A month later we were contemplating a trip down the Amazon River together--and if you're Julia, you're crazy enough to go PAST THE POINT OF CONSIDERATION to ACTUALLY ATTEMPTING TO DO SOMETHING LIKE THAT with such a person.

So that's where my story leaves us currently. Frank and I have traveled from the beautiful Caribbean Coastal city of Cartagena in Colombia, to Ecuador where tomorrow, we will begin our daring decent into the jungles of the Amazon where we will hop on the Amazon River and if successful in obtaining our Brazilian visas, take it all the way through the top portion of Brazil's wild jungle to the Atlantic Ocean. I know I'll definitely make it. The question that everyone else and probably yourself is asking is how far Frank will make it before Julia ends up pushing him overboard! I trust no one will say anything though if I emerge on the other side solo... ;p

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

From Fiji to Colombia in 72hrs: The $1,300 Mistake

So Colombia is FANTASTIC. It's hot, tropical, the people are awesome, have the best fresh juice EVER, and they not only de-lactose their milk but put FIBER in it too! Man, any country that does that (AND has PALM TREES!) is O.K. in MY BOOK! I Spent the day wandering around Cartegena along the beach and in the old town with two cool, laid back Norwegians. I am hot, sweaty, sticky, a little sandy, and am surrounded by guys (apparently not many girls travel to Colombia by themselves which means the hostals are PACKED with guys...!) In other words: Julia. Is. Happy.

Now, if only the fact that it cost me $1,300 in a lost ticket to Fiji (and another $230 to get here) would stop smarting, everything would be perfect! But, alas! Such is life! We learn from our mistakes which means we must acknowledge them, accept them, and continue to move onwards and upwards! Which is what I'm currently attempting to do. It's just hard sometimes. Especially when it has to do with money at a time when you don't have a lot to waste.

ANYWAY. I KNOW all y'all wanna know exactly what happened in the span of 72 hours that caused me to end up in COLOMBIA verses FIJI on November 8th, 2010. So there's the story:

Back in Mexico when I was doing my research and figuring out where I wanted to spend the winter I narrowed it down to two options: 1.) Colombia where I would go, hang, focus on continuing to make myself happy, do English lessons via skype, work on my Spanish--and maybe learn some salsa too! and 2.)Fiji where I would do a 4 month internship with a tour operator that also owned a restaurant and was opening up a hostel which would be really good for the resume and where I would hopefully also have time to explore gorgeous turquoise beaches, etc.

Now. I really wanted to go to the Caribbean coast of Colombia but Fiji just made more sense. After all, it was just as tropical as Colombia, even nicer, safter, PLUS I would get practical experience as well in the field I would be going into. So it was kind of a no-brainer that I take the position in Fiji. Only, I didn't feel good about it. But, I talked myself into it, because who wouldn't?!

Get this (and tell me if YOU wouldn't then have misgivings): on the day I'm leaving, Friday, for the airport I get this email from the family that owns the tour company in Fiji. They ask me to pick up a carton of cigarettes and some rum at the airport for them. I say to myself, "that's okay, Julia. Perfectly normal. Duty-free. Of course they would want to save money while they can...I'm SURE they'll pay me back...No reason to get alarmed." So I'm feeling really kinda shaky at this point. THEN, less than a HALF-HOUR before I leave the house for the airport at 12am I check my email to confirm my flight info. There's another email from the family in Fiji. It reads something like this:

"Hi Julia, we just want to ask if we are picking you up at the airport or if you will be taking a taxi. If we are picking you up then it will be $50."

As I read this all the warning bells and red lights began REALLY F-ING DISCO-TECH-STROBE-LIGHT-FLASHING in my head. I called them up via skype and asked them about charging me to pick me up (because, after all, I HAD ALREADY PAID ONE THOUSAND AND 300 BUCKS JUST TO FLY OUT THERE TO WORK FOR FREE FOR THEM FOR THE LOVE OF GOD!) and asked them how much a taxi cost. They said $80 which, made it look like it was a good deal they were offering. Then I asked about a bus ride. They said EIGHT DOLLARS. At this point I hung up. I realized that they were not going to, in all likelyhood, pay me back for the cigarettes and rum and that in the four months that I worked for them, they would probably take advantage of me thinking that I was just some spoiled American girl made of money that was just looking for an adventure. (In all fairness on their part, that's all they see over there probably.) As soon as these realizations hit, and they hit HARD, I started crying and remembered what the D.A.R.E. Program at school taught me: "Just say NO!" A little out of context, but hey. It works.

So, it was like that. I just knew. I could FEEL with every ounce of my body that it was not a good idea and for the first time in my life I canceled a trip. Ticket and money be damned. And now I'm in Colombia in the most beautiful city in South America, happy, albeit licking a few monetary wounds and trying not to be angry with myself for not initially listening to my instincts.

Let that be a lesson to all y'all out there! LISTEN TO YOUR INSTINCTS THE FIRST TIME AROUND AND YOU WILL PROBABLY SAVE MUCHO DINERO. Especially when it comes to traveling.

*On a side note: I think it's hilarious that I went from Chihuahua, center of the drug problems in Mexico to Colombia, the source and center of the drug problems in South America. Am I missing something? A hint from the Universe? Maybe I should do a documentary or something on the drug trade...