Our first spritz

We learned from watching videos about Italy by travel-guru Rick Steves that, any in Italy, Aperol spritz is a popular aperitivo: a happy hour drink made from Aperol (an orange bitter liqueur), Prosecco (bubbly white wine), soda and a boatload of ice.

Made correctly, it’s delicious. It’s a tiny bit bitter and a little bit sweet – and utterly refreshing on a hot afternoon overlooking a public square (piazza).

Made incorrectly – as it was on our first afternoon wandering the historic quarter of Roma – it’s a saccharine mess that has no character beyond being cloyingly sweet.

It’s still pretty though – as you can see in the photo.

Sadly, it wasn’t until a couple of days later that we screwed up enough courage to try ordering these delicious drinks again – with much better results, at a better bar.

If at first you don’t succeed…

The Spritz we had on our last full day in Rome was so nice we had it twice – a double dose of summer goodness! This one, sadly, was just a sweet mess.

Advertisements

Pizza: The food that lifts a tired spiri

We were all exhausted after we got ourselves situated in Rome.

A half day of work was followed by a drive to Montreal Airport, then a slightly uncomfortable 8-hour flight, topped with tackling the chaos of finding a ride into Rome from the airport. Thankfully the process of checking into our AirBnB was seamless – but either way, we were all mercilessly tired.

Still, rather than grab a nap in the early afternoon and risking a serious bout of jet lag, we knew enough to push through. We headed out into the CIty to walk around and grab some lunch.

It didn’t take long to catch our second wind.

Rome is just that exciting. That and the pizza we grabbed to fuel our afternoon of sight-seeing made it easy to overcome our exhaustion.

The pizza was from La Boccaccio: a little corner shop in Trastevere, recommended both by Yelp and by our knowledgeable host.

Mmmm… these pictures remind just how good the crispy pizza of Rome can be.

So many flavours to choose from at La Boccaccia restaurant.

Snapseed

Mary and George, excited for their first bite!

A selfie of yours truly(s) ready to dig in to the food that sooths the savage soul.

Not Ringing any Bells

Nothing familiar about giant domed churches.

Often when we hit up a new city, there’s something about it that strikes us as familiar.

Mombasa, for instance, despite the fact it’s about as far removed from east Asia as you can get, reminded us both of Malaysia. Probably due to the fact that both were colonized by Britain. Parts of Cape Town, in particular along the harbourfront, felt very much like Boston.

All across the planet, there are examples of architectural echoes, and when you feel them they offer a sense of comfort. As a traveler, they make me feel less out-of-place.

And yet, despite our many travels giving us ample places to compare it to, neither of us has felt that sense of familiarity with Rome – aside from with the silly recreations in Las Vegas and Macao, like Caesar’s Palace and the Venetian. Nothing here has rung any bells for us.

It’s only slightly disconcerting; mostly it’s exhilarating. It feels like we’re exploring. Frankly, I was not expecting that.

This is my first trip to Europe and, going into it, I definitely have some pre-conceptions that travel in Europe would feel fairly tame. I expected it to pale in comparison to my adventures in Myanmar, Ethiopia and Namibia.

Similar balconies in Casco Viejo, Panama, maybe – but not quite. This feels different.

But it hasn’t!

Rome has been fascinating, and it makes me want to explore more – not just of Italy (which, thankfully, I WILL be doing), but lots of other European Countries too. Europe just got a bump up the travel bucket-list because of this adventure!

I wasn’t expecting that, but I’m happy it happened.

Bird on a grid – I can’t say that cobblestone streets are something I’ve had the pleasure of coming across before.

You Get What You Pay For

A cramped cabin full of crusty travelers. The fellow passengers added most to the dissatisfaction.

Maybe I’m just getting old and crusty in general about flying, but our first flight on Air Transat seemed particularly irksome.

The airline isn’t horrible, like United, but it’s also pretty far from being a top-tier airline.

There are a few positives, like the in-seat entertainment system, which was clean, responsive, and easy to use. Even the leg room wasn’t bad; I’ve been on airlines where my knees were touching the seat in front of me, and that wasn’t the case here.

But this is a low-cost carrier, and they have to save money somewhere, I suppose.

You really begin to see a difference in how NARROW they have made things. I was in the middle seat and felt like I was constantly at risk of elbowing those on either side of me. And with nothing to divide the space under the seat in front, I was playing footsie with them throughout the entire 8-hour flight.

Worse than the narrow seats though, the aisles are about half the normal width! That makes it hard to get to the washrooms without tripping over the feet of sprawling passengers.

The food is also not good, but at least they provided SOMETHING for free; that already puts them a step ahead of United. Still, a warm chicken sandwich and a frosty container of slaw hardly makes for a satisfying meal. Thank goodness we decided to eat at the airport before boarding or we would have been too hungry to sleep at all – a tough enough proposition on ANY aircraft.

Oh well, at least they pass along some of the savings to passengers; the cost of a ticket is pretty reasonable, which is, after all, the primary reason we chose them to begin with.

I think 8-hours would be the upper limit of how long I’d be willing to spend on an Air Transat plane. The sad thing is that I’m not rich, so the likelihood that I’ll need to rely on this carrier again is pretty high.

It’s either that or watch for the rare deals on the better airlines.

Prep Work

Junkii and I at the Pantheon, on our first full day in Rome.

If our trip to Italy turns out to be a success, it will only be in small part due to the prep work that I did leading up to departure. Really, the lion’s share of congratulations will go to the countless, myriad friends who went to Italy before us and who were so generous in sharing their own experiences and in walking us through the prep work that needed to be done.

I love the Lonely Planet guidebook, but their Italy book is ridiculously huge. Dauntingly so. I was, frankly, put off of reading through it for months simply because it’s so exhaustive.

Which is stupid… I should want my travel guidebook to be complete. But in Italy, there’s just so much to see that “complete” is prohibitive.

The fact that I was so put off from travel planning was actually a huge stressor for me. In the end, it meant that we put off buying our plane tix, booking our hotels and figuring out an itinerary for so long that when I finally did get around to reserving space for four people (Junkii and I are traveling with my parents, Mary and George), we were often greeted by a message that there was no space available for the requested date.

A selfie with the Colosseum as seen from the top of Il Vittorio.

Ultimately we found places to stay everywhere we wanted, along with means of travel and space on any guided tours.

We opted for a mix of skip-the-line tours and self-guided exploration. A mix of trains planes and rental cars. A mix of city and country. In short, we consulted our friends about their past trips and then threw a lot of money at the problem to make the planning nightmare go away.

I don’t think we’ll be disappointed. And if we are, it’s nobody’s fault but my own.

A big thank you to our friends as we set off on or Italian adventure!

The view from the window of our awesome apartment in Trastevere.

Oahu in a Day

On the beach in Kailua, on the Windward side of Oahu.

We landed Back in Honolulu early in the morning, after our side-trip to Fiji. Our flight back to Canada was not scheduled until later in the evening, giving us ample time to explore.

We had already done a whirlwind tour of Waikiki Beach at the start of our Hawaii adventure, but we had been unimpressed. More than that, I’d say we disliked what we had seen of Honolulu. So we weren’t actually all that keen to spend the day there.

This is NOT our photo. I can’t believe that NONE of us took a photo of loco moco throughout the entire trip!

But then, we also weren’t keen to wait around the airport all day, either.

Our tour book suggested a few activities that lay in wait across the rest of Oahu; sites we could manage to get to in a day. So we decided to rent a car and see how far we could get.

I’m so happy we did. Oahu has so much more to offer than just Honolulu.

After landing, we quickly picked up our car, and headed to a well-rated restaurant for our last loco moco – a Hawaiian specialty of a hamburger patty on rice, topped with a fried egg and gravy. Then it was off to our first destination: Pearl Harbour.

Taken by Michael, Jenn out front of the Pearl Harbour historic site.

The stop at Pearl Harbour was more for Michael and Jenn, actually. Junkii and I are both on the same page when it comes to anything that involves celebrating or commemorating the military or warfare. So we hung out in the car while Michael and Jenn went to take a look.

I know we encouraged them to take the time they needed, but ultimately they satisfied themselves with a photo in front of museum’s sign as their only memento that they were ever there. I feel bad because they probably felt rushed, but it was probably for the best: there was still a lot of Oahu left to see.

Our next stop took us outside of Honolulu for the first time. We crossed to the windward side of the island, and stopped at Byodo-In Temple, a gorgeous, Buddhist-temple complex, more or less en route to the town of Kailua.

Byodo-In Temple: Plenty more photos below

The temple was serene and stunning, and as you can see below, we got some some great photos there. But being at the temple also hit Junkii hard.

This trip to Hawaii happened shortly after Junkii’s brother was killed in a highway collision. The combination of being in a place that was so spiritual and that felt, at least culturally, like being at home with his family in Malaysia, flooded him with emotion.

It probably didn’t help either that he hadn’t slept on the rough flight from Fiji back to Hawaii. But as you can see below, despite the tears, Junkii still managed to take some beautiful photos.

He’s such a trooper.

From the temple, we hit the coastal town of Kailua. As I said, this is on the windward side of the island, and you can see by the photos the impact that the constant heavy winds have had on the trees. You’ll also see people holding tightly onto their hats.

As seen from the shores of Kailua.

Kailua was one of the nicest surprises that Oahu had to offer. Honolulu might be the “big city,” but Kailua would be the place that I would most like to live if I moved to Hawaii. Kailua is a decent size, and near enough to Honolulu for anything that might be lacking.

While there, we wandered around one of the residential neighbourhoods, and the houses were gorgeous! Frankly, it would probably be too costly for us to actually live there, but it would be a really lovely place to own a house.

Oh well. Maybe if I win the lottery.

Our next stop would take us all the way to the north shore, up through the middle of the island, past the Dole pineapple plantation. We didn’t stop at the plantation, but we did stop en route for lunch – I forget where, but I mention it just to give a sense of time.

Everything I described already was done in the morning; we were motoring!

A big payoff for our drive up north: massive waves and brave surfers out on the water. It was a real sight to behold, and well worth the voyage!

Ultimately, we made our way to a beach on the north shore. Again, I can’t remember where it was we actually stopped. Based on Google Maps, I think it might have been Pupukea, but it was somewhere up there.

Michael snagged some great pics of the amazing surfing that was going on. We hung out for a while just enjoying the fact that we were so far from the touristy part of Oahu.

From there, we gradually made our way south again, along the coast for a lot of it – winding our way slowly back towards the airport and towards the plane that would take us back to the frigid tundra that is home.

I’m so happy that we got to see another side of Oahu. I’d hate to think that Honolulu and Waikiki is all it has to offer. I’m looking forward to a return visit someday to see what else we can see.

The view from the temple.

Wind sailing on the windward side of Oahu.

Grab your hat, Jenn!

The trees are permanently bent one way (photographer: Michael)

Rough Haul

Turbulence

Our overnight flight back from Fiji to Hawaii was rough – one of the roughest we’ve ever been on. Lots of turbulence and frequent drops – the kind that sent your stomach up into your throat.

Junkii and I are both experienced flyers, and we’ve never been that affected by a bumpy ride, but something about that particular flight triggered something in us and left us both with some mild form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The next few times we boarded an aircraft, we both found ourselves rattled at the slightest shaking during flight. That’s not a tenable situation for a couple of guys that like to travel!

Thankfully, partway through our next adventure (to South Africa, I think it was), Junkii managed to find an article online that was particularly helpful.

It was written by an airline pilot and basically talked about how little the pilots are concerned about average everyday turbulence. It goes into detail about how insignificant those “drops” really are when you see them measured on an altimeter.

If you have concerns about flying and about turbulence, it’s a valuable read. I actually go back from time to time to re-read it. Hope this is helpful to some poor traveler suffering from the after-effects of a rough haul.

Smeared, not Dunked

In the Mud Pool, near Nadi, Fiji.

We arrived back in Nadi from our whirlwind tour of Fiji with ample time to spare before our flight back to Hawaii. But how to kill the day?

Lonely Planet had suggested a mud bath experience on the outskirts of the city, and we hadn’t had time to try it during the front half of our trip. Since neither of us had ever had a mud bath, we thought this sounded like a relaxing way to spend our last day.

I had a preconceived notion about what a mud bath involves. I assumed a true mud bath would entail getting somehow dunked in mud. Or at least lowering oneself into a pool of goopy muck so that one is immersed to the neck.

That’s not what we experienced.

We were the only ones at the place – an outdoor affair, with a few thermal pools, and a couple of roughed-in gravity-fed showers and changing huts nearby.

We stripped down to our swim trunks and then met up with the guide, who walked us through the process. It turns out the only pool we needed to know about was the one that was full of hot, muddy water. He instructed us to get in and warm up.

The pool was deep, but not so deep that you couldn’t touch bottom. That’s where the mud was – full of nutrients and earthy goodness, apparently.

It was absolutely squidgey

Thankfully, it wasn’t up to us to dig up the mud ourselves. The next step had us get out of the pool and smear mud all over ourselves. They had scooped out buckets of the stuff nearby and the aim was to spread it thin enough on your body so that it could dry quickly.

Gettin’ ready to jump back in the Mud Pool.

Junkii and I helped each other coat our backs and worked the rest of the mud over our own torsos and limbs. Then we just stood around waiting for the mud to dry out and do it’s rejuvenating magic; waiting for the guide to say “okay, jump back in the hot pool!”

The guide had done this before, and before he gave us the go ahead, he grabbed our camera and snapped a few photos, since our hands would be too muddy to do it ourselves.

Dried and ready to rinse off.

Then it was back into the pool to rinse off and let the mud return from whence it came.

That was it. We were told to continue on as long as we wanted, repeating the process… but Mother Nature had other plans.

I don’t even think we managed two full cycles before a freak rain storm swept in. We high-tailed it out the makeshift showers to clean off as best we could (it wasn’t easy!) and to try to get dried off with he threadbare towels they had provided.

Running back to the change room as the rain was about to hit.

With wet, muddy sandals and ill-fitting clothes (it’s hard to get underwear on comfortably when you’re still half wet) we dove into the back of the car (Our driver Roman was still taking care of us) and headed back to town in the pouring rain.

We would need to find somewhere to freshen up before it was time to board the plane to Hawaii; otherwise, it promised to be an uncomfortable 8-hour flight!

I hope I haven’t undersold the experience. Yes, it was kind of a rough experience, but by the same token, it was absolutely one of the most memorable things we did in Fiji.

And as far as travel goes, memorable is the most valuable thing you can hope for.

Coated. I think I even had it in my hair!

There are a few muddy spots left, but it looks like we’re mostly cleaned off in this photo, and just ready to relax in the warm water for a bit.

Concentrated Culture

Learning how to drum on a djembe.

Learning how to drum on a djembe.

In our limited experience, restaurants that promise an authentic cultural experience tend to be tourist traps.

That’s not necessarily a complaint. They reel you in with the promise of an authentic experience and then bombard you with local traditional dance and music performances. The food can be sub-par compared to smaller local eateries and the performances might be somewhat amateurish – but despite all of that, it’s possible to have a good time.

That’s what we found years ago when we were in Cambodia. The cultural evening we spent in Siem Reap was too pricey for the quality of the evening, but it was still worth taking in.

Still, that one experience has had an impact on our travels. We have tended to avoid this kind of restaurant simply because we’d prefer to spend our money on better food and better performances at separate times, rather than rely on one-stop shopping.

But because we had planned such a short stay in Victoria Falls, we were limited in what we could achieve. So when the hotel recommended BOMA: Place of Eating as place to take in food, drumming and dancing all at once, we decided to take their advice.

We weren’t disappointed.

The food was quite good – especially for a buffet – and the entertainment was top notch. Here’s a short video:

It was also immersive!

We each received our own djembe drum and the EmCee led the entire restaurant in a round of drumming, after a quick and fun tutorial. But the audience participation portion of the night didn’t end there!

After the drumming, they pulled up a bunch of volunteers onto the dance floor. We didn’t know what to expect, but we definitely wanted to take part – even if we were likely to be made to look the fool.

Jenn and I jumped up when they called for volunteers. Junkii stayed back with the camera. Little did we know it would be a dance circle and each volunteer would be made to strut their stuff in the centre of the circle.

Jenn nailed her solo, as you can see in the short video below. Her rodeo moves stole the show. I looked somewhat less comfortable, and somewhat goofier – But I held my own against the other men at least.

Wish I had had a little more experience with BodyJam before this happened. I could have knocked it out of the park.

I still think the third video from the evening is best. And it speaks for itself, so I’ll just let you watch it on your own.

I’ll just conclude by saying that, while the restaurant might have been a tourist trap, this evening opened up a whole batch of new experiences for each of us. And that is absolutely what travel is all about! Now here’s the video, followed by a few last photos from our evening of Zimbabwean food and music.

So Happy with my drum!

So Happy with my drum!

A full bowl of Mopani worms for the taking.

A full bowl of Mopani worms for the taking.

Close-up of the mpani worms.

Close-up of the mpani worms.

Some of the other more delicious dishes.

Some of the other more delicious dishes.

They like peanut butter

They like peanut butter

Victoria Falls

Kudu is like an antelope.

Kudu is like an antelope.

More happy drummers.

More happy drummers.

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls

Boma

Boma

Pest-Traumatic Stress Disorder

As much as I hate winter (despite the fact that it can be pretty), it can be very useful to have a reliably prolonged period cold weather from time to time.

As much as I hate winter (despite the fact that it can be pretty), it can be very useful to have a reliably prolonged period cold weather from time to time.

About 3/4 of the way through our Panama adventure, Junkii started to notice itchy red bumps on parts of his skin. It was hard to tell whether it was a rash or bug bites, but of course, with travel, the immediate fear is bed bugs.

We’re generally pretty consistent about checking for bedbugs everywhere we go; but partway through our Panama adventure, there were a couple of nights when we neglected to do so.

I guess we just got lazy…or forgetful.

So, did Junkii’s skin condition mean we were infected? We weren’t taking any chances. We unpacked everything and rummaged through all our clothes, checking the seams of our luggage and our toiletries kits. We looked everywhere, but nary a bug was found.

It didn’t matter. The damage had been done.

We could have had a panel of doctors explain that it was just an allergy, but neither that nor the hours spent scouring would ever have been enough to ease the feeling that there were bedbugs SOMEWHERE in our backpacks. Junkii felt as though he had been violated…as though bugs were STILL crawling all over him.

We managed to minimize the trauma with a thorough inspection of our belongings, and thankfully the itchiness only lasted a day or two before the spots started to fade. So we were able to put the incident behind us enough to enjoy the rest of the trip – but part of what helped set our minds at ease was the knowledge that we had a secret weapon waiting for us on our return to Canada: winter.

The benefit of winter travel is that the February deep-freeze is waiting for you at home to take care of any unwanted hitchhikers. We would be able to throw our luggage outside for a week and let nature do the work that an exterminator would charge us a fortune for.

As soon as we made it home from the airport and inside the door, we stripped off, packed everything that could stay outside into our hiking bags, tossed them in a garbage bag, and threw them out on the deck.

It’s unlikely we even brought back any bed bugs, but if we did, the little bastards wouldn’t know what hit’em!

Never did find any dead bugs when we brought the stuff back inside, but Junkii is still convinced it was bed bugs.