A Year of Adventures and Doing Stuff

Rodin on traveling abroad.

December 31, and the week leading up to it, has always been of interest to me. The culmination of a calendar year causes me, and seemingly every other blogger, to reflect on the past year’s events, what happened, what didn’t, where’d they go, what did they cook/eat, who did they date. The arbitrary nature of time demarcators has led me to question the significance of today versus yesterday or any other day. As a society (and world) we mark today as the end of the year and tomorrow the day to join a gym, just as soon as the room stops spinning and we find our pants.

In stark opposition to the mindfulness movement, I have largely been focused on the parts bookending “now.” Where am I today versus a year ago? Where will I be a year from now? In my 29 years I can safely assert that I am not clairvoyant, nor a historian. I often struggle with remembering where I parked my car or what I just ate. I have a vague notion of where I will be tomorrow and maybe a week from now, but beyond that…

The basis for mindfulness is that you can’t change the past, nor predict the future, so why worry about either? If you have any friends who post those inspirational quotes or read any profiles on a dating site this year, I’m sure you’ve read some variation on that axiom, likely attributed to Buddha.

While I try to become more “now,” I did want to enumerate what happened in 2014, mostly so I have some reference point when I fry my brain from rapidly vacillating between gadgets and apps.

Travel

Oh, the places you’ll go…

Where didn’t I go this year? I have dreamed about going to Europe for many a New Year’s reflection day. This year finally was the year. After dating Leann for about two months, I shared that I wanted to spend my birthday somewhere other than Chicago. She asked where and I said Italy and Paris. She followed up with inquiring if I was going solo or with friends. Leann shared that if no one else would go, she would be interested.

“How committed are you? If you had to give a percentage…”

“75-80,” Leann answered.

A few weeks later I asked “Are you sure?” no less than five times. And after that our first trip was booked. My quest for a passport stamp would be realized. Oddly, I don’t think I’ve looked at those stamps since the adventure. Even more peculiar was that someone was willing to go overseas with me for a prolonged period of time.

Stops along the way: Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris, Fajardo, Old San Juan.

Each inspiring and beautiful in their own way. Florence was one of the most breathtaking places I have been, possibly due to the steeply sloped hills. Traveling was one of the main themes for my writing this year. While it certainly can be expensive, seeing other cities and cultures opens the mind. Plus, I don’t think many people want to read about my daily commute. Traveling is my escape to newness. Experiencing a city for the first time is magical. There is no feeling like my first time in Paris. Walking around Paris that premiere nuit. Wandering in the damp and chilly early evening. Emerging from the Metro and seeing I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid. Turning to Leann with mouth agape. Then walking some more. Wandering. Then, our feet hit the damp pavement a little faster. There it was. Illuminated in all its glory.

Le Tour Eiffel.

Le Tour

I have never experienced anything like that day. That’s the magic of travel.

I hope to return to some of these places in the future, but I’m not focusing on the future. MINDFULNESS!

Dating

More than traveling this year, there was a larger theme. Adventures with Leann. By some luck I happened to find someone who is eager to try new things, a patient listener (we all know my stories are seldom succinct) and someone who says yes. She gives unconditionally. She has unknowingly reminded me of the innocence of young love. Those times before becoming jaded or disenchanted with the dating “process.” There is little doubt that I am crazy. Somehow that doesn’t bother her. What started as a conversation about ice cream while sipping margaritas has developed into a year full of happy times getting to know her, her family and her friends. What adventures will we get into in 2015? Follow #lookatusdoingstuff to find out.

Foodstuffs

This was the year I became a professional chef. Thanks to Chicago Food Bloggers and Mealsharing.com, I hosted my first dinner party at a swanky rooftop in Chicago’s South Loop. This was also the year of bacon. Leann and I entered a cooking competition through The Takedowns. To supply us for the showdown, they gave us with bacon. Lots of it. Enough to clog all your arteries. And those of your friends.

Also thanks to Yelp and Chicago Food Bloggers, I got to eat some delectable dishes that inspired my cooking. I had the chance to meet restaurant owners and some other bloggers in the process.

Dancing

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2014 was also the year I became a professional dancer. No, not that kind. Thanks to Nicolle Wood, I got a bit closer to learning that devil dance known as balboa. The first few weeks were rough because I had basic knowledge of the basic step. Through her patience and generosity with her time, I was able to learn hangman, crabs, scoots and the routine in time for our performance outside Harold Washington Library. Hoping to take on lindyhop in 2015.

Working

Another year at the same place, but there were lots of shuffles. The company was acquired by another company and the office moved from the ‘burbs to downtown. That has necessitated several shifts in commuting and lifestyle. The company continues to grow and my team is growing exponentially. I have had the opportunity to recruit and hire some very talented people.

So now, it’s off to another party. Some close friends are gathering for homemade pizza and reflecting on the year that has been full of -ING verbs. Thanks for following this year and I hope to share more great adventures from around the world in 2015!

The Impenetrable Fortress of San Juan

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San Juan appears to have called it a night. We expected non-stop salsa around every Christmas-lit corner, especially tonight. Instead we found a few bars blasting club music and one street that was swarming with minors.

Today included a fascinating tour with a park ranger at Castillo San Cristobal, one of three forts in San Juan. The tour included access to tunnels otherwise closed to the public. Our ranger explained the labor efforts to construct the daunting fort and how it was nearly impossible to approach as an opposing fleet. The fort was challenged once by the Brits. After two weeks they gave up and retreated. That was the only test of the fort. The tunnels were interesting to explore and a phobia check. I highly recommend taking the tour and seeing the forts.

The rest of the day was occupied by walking around and sampling food and coffee. For lunch we had Mallorca sandwiches, which are dusted in powdered sugar. Think of it as the love child between a beignet and a grilled cheese.

We grabbed iced coffee at cafe cuatro and walked by stands selling this and that.

We attempted to visit a book store that housed old manuscripts and texts, but they are in the process of moving locations and were unresponsive to knocks, calls and an email.

Travel tip: guide books are just that. Information can change and businesses can move. Even if you double check online before departing, things can change.

Anticipating a late night on the town, we stopped back at our hotel for tea, a foot dip in the rooftop soaking pool and a salsa nap. We got cleaned up before our hotel/home’s nightly wine reception. The terrace overlooks Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, one of the oldest buildings in San Juan. The current building dates to 1540. Someone was getting married so we watched with our wine as the couple exited the iglesia.

We went to mass where I understood about three words in the mass: Jesus, Maria and hermano. I’ve now seen mass in English, Italian, French and Spanish.

A college friend happened to also be in San Juan, so we met up for dinner to compare itineraries and discuss travel, jobs, literature and how no one ever describes me as “adventurous.” After that we wandered around looking for live music. We were only able to find one club and it didn’t sound like salsa. Instead we settled on a corner bar and got two cocktails. Soon after a man picked up his guitar and started taking requests. He played “Yesterday” for Leann.

You may note that we did not have mofongo today. So ends our streak of 2 days.

Tomorrow we tempt our luck with aquatic transportation to tour the Bacardi facilities. At least this time we know how to kayak if we miss the ferry.

Wish us luck.

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Why You Need to Haggle On Your Trip

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Being on hold for the majority of two hours was not on my itinerary for this trip. Starting the day with fresh coconut water and pineapple, wasn’t officially, but it was a welcomed breakfast.

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Following the theme of this trip, today started with a few knuckleballs. I have started to reluctantly await each day’s plot twist, a la Scrooge and his spirits in A Christmas Carol, whether it’s a restaurant that’s closed or a ferry that filled before we could get our tickets.

Today was transition day from Fajardo to Old San Juan. That meant checking out, returning the rental car and checking in at our new hotel. On our way to the airport we stopped to get fresh fruit from the coco frio man. Not knowing Spanish well enough to barter or attempting to, we got hosed on the cost of the fruit. To save some toll money we took the 3 all the way to the airport instead of getting on 66. That saved at least $7. The first two legs were relatively smooth, minus creating my own roundabout trying to find a gas station before returning the junk bucket.

IMG_6244 Continue reading Why You Need to Haggle On Your Trip

Fish Don’t Go to Heaven (and other advice from Fajardo)

Loquillo

“Sometimes certain things happen…” Denise trailed off before pausing, shrugging her shoulders and raising her hands to the sky. She works in the mornings at the front desk of the hotel where we are staying. “Everything happens for a reason, you know? That’s what I believe.”

My girlfriend and I got up early to purchase tickets for the ferry to Culebra, an island said to have one of the best beaches in the world. We were advised to be there at 6AM for the 9AM ferry. That seemed ridiculous, so we walked there from our hotel and were in line by 7. It was a 10 minute walk from our hotel and we figured we’d save the $5 on parking. While Leann waited in line, I went to the nearby post office to attempt to pickup or MIA sunscreen and contact solution. En route a man waved me toward him. I asked where the post office was and he pointed up the street before asking me if I could give him a dollar for the ferry. I said I didn’t have cash and walked into the post office, which didn’t have an attendant for another hour.

Back in line with Leann, the line inched forward. There were three windows to buy tickets; one for Culebra, Vieques and cargo. Everyone was in line for the best beach in the world. The family of four in front of us purchased their tickets. Then the woman waved at us, shook her head and signaled to another man who announced that the 9:30 ferry to Culebra was sold out. That was our plan for the morning. The ferry to the other island was available, but they weren’t known for being one of the best. We decided to check the post office again and regroup. Continue reading Fish Don’t Go to Heaven (and other advice from Fajardo)

191 to 3: dia dos en fajardo

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“191!” he shouted as we walked in opposite directions.

We started today with directions from our hotel, along with a highlighted map, to el yunque. I put the rainforest into the Google maps app and away we went.

Fun fact about the roads near Fajardo: the main interstate is circular. The 191 circumscribes the rainforest. We discovered this after we took the 3 south through flooded back roads with cows, stray dogs and chickens, all sorts including spotted ones and ones that look like Foghorn Leghorn.

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GPS said we had arrived. We hadn’t. We drove up 191, which wound its way up and up past vibrantly colorful homes and more dogs who were unable to provide us directions. One looked like Baxter from Anchorman; he also spoke Spanish.

We drove up a few kilometers and doubted we were in the right place. We drove down past the dogs and Pantone wheel of homes. Consulting the map on the phone, we couldn’t see any other route taking the 3 to 191 would lead to El Yunque. So, back up and up we drove. At this point the dogs were so irritated by our disrupting their naps, one was stretched out in the street begging us to end his days. Driving. Farther up the 191 we were about to give up when we saw a sign indicating we had arrived in the rainforest! There was no welcome center like our map indicated and three other cars. Not positive signs for a major tourist destination. We walked around and confirmed we weren’t in the verdad spot. On our way out we asked two men walking their dogs if they spoke English and how to get to the visitor center. One man told us the path was closed due to rain, but we had to take the 191 toward Luquillo/Fajardo.

We thanked him profusely and walked back toward our white hatchback speckled with what used to be bugs. “191!” He shouted.

Were it not for our “scenic” driving we wouldn’t have heard the birds, experienced the nearly desolate grounds and seen this.

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2,077 Miles from Chicago

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There’s something comforting about a neighborhood Walmart. Some scenic turns through the area surrounding Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport allowed us to see chickens strutting in the narrow streets, with cars parked however the owner felt convenient. The wandering cats are in need of Purina. I opted against attempting to play fetch con los gatos.

The roads immediately leading from the airport to Fajardo were a bit circuitous and GPS wasn’t immensely helpful, beyond triggering my fight of floor it reactions. Our rental car is a Mitsubishi hatchback, light on features and horsepower. Eventually we wound our way to the interstate and made it to the hotel.

In an effort to be efficient, my girlfriend mailed our fluids (contact solution, bug spray, sunscreen) two weeks ago. The thought was we wouldn’t have to wait for checked bags. The USPS, being occupied with delivering Christmas cards, has yet to deliver our package. So, with a dinner recommendation from the front desk we adventured out to get dinner and contact solution.

Our first stop was the restaurant. It was full and the host told two women in front of us they were closed. We hopped back into the hatch and drove toward the Walgreens. We spotted a familiar, glowing sign.

WAL-MART
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I have often lamented my irritations with Walmart’s clientele back home. Oddly, after a day of flying, driving, and being hungry, the familiar store brought a weird amount of comfort. Everyone may be speaking Spanish, but I know these aisles. Following up the trip to Wendy’s drive-thru may not have been authentic Puerto Rican comida, but I stopped caring about that as soon as I could feel the hangry coming on.

Tonight, we ate Wendy’s on the hotel bed and watched A Charlie Brown Christmas. As the locals say, esta bueno.

I’m reminded today of the mindset that we hear about in all those TED talks. We learn more about ourselves, not through introspection, but by testing our boundaries and extending our comfort zone. At no point did I feel horribly unsafe; the surroundings are just different. And my Español is nowhere near my remedial French.

I also recalled that little bit of mom wisdom when turning out the lights tonight. I may be six feet tall and finish my burritos at Chipotle, but always pack a nightlight. I always forget something when traveling.

Tomorrow is a new day. We shake off the previous day and embark on trekking the only rainforest in the U.S., el yunque.

Hasta mañana.

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Become a Travel Expert in Two Weeks

Always find the view.

All it takes is one trip to be perceived as a travel expert.

Prior to this adventure my only international travel explorations were Canada and Mexico. I have been back in the states for five days. In that time I have been asked for advice on upcoming trips by friends and coworkers, including my VP. I suspect his budget may be a bit different from mine.

I am guilty of asking everyone and anyone I have ever met for their advice before I left. Beyond anything else, I hate waste. Wasted words, time, energy or money. I wanted to travel efficiently. And who better to ask than someone who has already been where I was going?

While catching up with some of my well-traveled coworkers this week, one asked me what I would have done differently. I wish I’d taken a formal tour of the Vatican and Colosseum. The manager promptly replied, “I told you so.” I will take this opportunity to repeat his advice. If you are going to the Vatican or the Colosseum, get a tour guide.

Be careful if/when you return. Some people will ask you about your trip. Others will hate you for having left the office, especially if they had to cover your work. This may be why Caesar was really killed. Brutus got jealous that Julius was gallivanting around like he ran the empire.

The Vatican is overwhelming. Wandering around aimlessly is fatiguing and frustrating. I ended up not enjoying the Vatican Museum as much as I hoped I would. I’ll write more about that in a separate post.

If you are a history buff and remember everything from World History in high school, you are my enemy. But, you will be well prepared for visiting the sites in Roma.

The Colosseum is doable sans tour guide, but if you get one of the tours offered you gain access to restricted areas like the third level and onto the main floor. The tour was about 10-15 euros and lasts an hour. In our haste, we ascended the stairs after getting through the gate and marveled at the spectacle of the monstrous arena. After an hour walking around mouth agape we headed for the exit and saw the signs for the guided tours. At that point we didn’t want to spend another hour walking around the Colosseum.

Traveling is one giant upsell. You buy a museum pass, then you get there and a tour is offered for another 10 euros. Or an audio guide for 7. You begin to forget you already paid to access the site or museum.

Tip: Read as much as you can pre-trip. Stock up on history texts. If you’re like me and don’t have a ton of time to read (fall asleep on page 2), there are tons of podcasts and lectures you can stream.

Aside from those two sites, I wouldn’t have done anything differently on the trip. That’s a bold statement from me. I am extremely critical, especially of myself. One time I parked in the wrong parking garage for a company party. The garage cost $30, instead of the valet that was pre-arranged and cost $12. I still haven’t forgiven myself for that.

Most people enjoy talking about two things: themselves and their travels. So, be curious. Ask them questions. What did they love that they didn’t think they would? What would they have done differently? Where do they wish they had time to go? What was underwhelming? What’s the transit system like?

Those are all questions I asked anyone willing to talk to me. The answers helped me shape the time in each city and agenda. I’m fortunate to have a lot of friends who have traveled the globe. My cousin studied in Rome for a semester. Another friend spent a significant amount of time in Italy. I didn’t get a ton of advice on Paris, but supplemented personal advice with travel books and Paris’ tourism site. I was also extremely lucky to have someone with similar cultural interests and curiosity joining me on the trip.

Ultimately, if you are a planner, you’ll do your legwork before take-off. If you like to wing things and live each day as it comes, you will also have a great time. The biggest advice I could give if you are traveling with someone is to make sure you know what type of person your companion is. If I had gone on the trip with someone who wasn’t a planner and relied on me for everything, I would have been resentful and burnt out.

Traveling is tremendously rewarding but also tiring. I haven’t tallied up all the museums and sites we saw or the mileage covered, but this may be the first trip where I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Aside from getting on the flight back to Chicago.