Saturday, July 23, 2011

Best. Dessert. Ever.

When Ann and I are on a cruise, we seldom have meals off the ship.  Why would we?  The amount of food available on board that’s included with the price of the cruise is mind-boggling.  Breakfast, brunch, mid-morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, late-afternoon snack, gourmet dinner, dessert, midnight chocolate buffet.  If you ever find yourself hungry on a cruise, you have only yourself to blame.  A greeting card we found in the gift shop on a cruise some years ago sums it up perfectly.  The image is a member of the dining staff dishing a substantial portion of spaghetti onto the plate of a wild-eyed, older male passenger.  The passenger is saying, “Pile it on, Guiseppe.  I haven’t eaten in almost 15 minutes.”
Me in 15 years.
There are, however, exceptions.  On our first cruise, our honeymoon in 1995, we indulged in an afternoon snack of nachos and milkshakes in the Hard Rock CafĂ© in Cozumel.  I guess we hadn’t fully embraced the cruise food phenomenon yet.  But it was a stop on the Greek island of Rhodes in 2009 where we made our best off-ship culinary discovery.  We didn’t take any kind of guided excursion, deciding instead to venture through the ancient city of Rhodes on our own.  After hours of castles, churches, guilds and every kind of gift/clothing/souvenir shop imaginable, we found ourselves in a small square.  A fountain in the middle, surrounded by a church on one side, shops on the other and various eateries all around.  We were a little tired and a little hungry.  We’d take care of both issues by sitting down at a table under the awning of one the restaurants and ordering a local favorite: baklava.  The waiter assured us that one order would be big enough for both of us, especially since it was served a la mode. 
That's Ann in the blue skirt in the archway to the left (post-baklava).
To this day, I can’t explain why this particular baklava was so good.  The nuts were especially nutty.  The syrup, amazingly syrupy.  The phyllo dough, uncommonly phyllo-y.  And the whole, warm, decadent thing covered with melting vanilla ice cream.  We finished it off as a gentle rain began to fall.  Perhaps it was the food itself.  Or maybe it was the romantic setting of a medieval town on an island in the Mediterranean.  Whatever it was, Ann and I agree that it was the best dessert ever.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Extreme Travel Bucket List

I've had my travel bucket list and then I've had my EXTREME travel bucket list.  My bucket list includes such places as Australia, China, Kenya, and Cambodia. They're all far away and exotic and take some effort to get to.  But the EXTREME bucket list includes Easter Island, Antarctica & Tibet.  That's my extreme travel triumvirate or ETT for all you acronym fans.  All three are about as remote in the world as you can possibly get.  All three invoke an aura of mystery.  All three require numerous flights/sailings to reach and all three can only be reached during certain times of the year or on certain days of the week (usually depending on weather and season).  My point is that you really have to want to go because the journey getting there is very difficult.

We've already discussed Easter Island in an earlier blog and Antarctica is yet to come for us in February.  So that leaves Tibet.  Tibet was part of our most ambitious journey ever in the summer of 2010.  I admit it was tough and was part of my "while we're in the neighborhood" theory.  I had been to India, but John had not.  We had been wanting to visit Angkor Wat in Cambodia and check out Vietnam.  I had always heard that Singapore was gorgeous.  But above all, if we were going to that part of the world, I knew that I had to visit Tibet.  Maybe it was watching "7 Years In Tibet" or reading "Lost Horizon".  Maybe it was viewing  documentaries about Tibet or seeing the protests around the time of the Beijing Olympics.  Or maybe it's just my tendency to want to see parts of the world that are almost forbidden.   Whatever it was, I was not going to go back to that part of the world without seeing Tibet. 

So, we started the process in February.  I managed to use frequent flyer miles into Delhi and out of Singapore which was a proud moment for me.  Then we just needed the inter-continent flights and hotels.  We got everything arranged and then started working on the visas.  We needed visas for every country except Singapore.  So, not only did it cost a huge amount just for the visas (in the neighborhood of $800), we also had to make sure our passports were sent to each consulate.  Tibet was the big issue.  You had to get a Chinese Visa and on top of that you had to have a Tibetan permit.  You could only get a Tibetan permit from the travel company that you were working with in Tibet and you HAD to work with a Tibetan agency or you just don't get in.  You must be escorted in Tibet at practically all times.

We had all our visas, even the Chinese visa, when the travel company we were working with in Asia told us that there was a problem getting the Tibetan permit.  This was now April and we were leaving in early June so that was not something I wanted to hear.  We were flying from Delhi to Tibet through Kathmandu, Nepal which was a pretty quick and direct flight.  The Chinese authorities, however, do not allow just everybody to fly into Tibet and, in fact, they watch very carefully who flies in from Kathmandu.  They watch so closely that they want to "eyeball" everybody before they issue them a permit.  Our flight laid over only a couple of hours on a day that the Chinese embassy was closed and they, literally, want you to present yourself at the Chinese Embassy to get the permit.  Well, that was obviously not going to work.  So, 2 months into the planning we find that we are going to have to shake it all up or abandon going to Tibet all together.  I repeat.....I was NOT going to go to that part of the world without seeing Tibet.  If we flew in from China, it would not be a problem.  So, we somehow managed to change our flight and instead of flying a couple of hours from Delhi to Kathmandu, we were to fly all night from Delhi to Guangzhu and Chengdu, China.   That would bypass the "eyeballing" and then it was just an issue of getting the permit from the travel agency in China.  That was going to require meeting a representative of the travel agency (SITA) in the Guangzhou airport and they would then literally hand us our permit.

I was not totally comfortable with this plan since we didn't have all our permits in hand before we left home and were leaving acceptance into Tibet up to someone meeting us in an airport in China.  We would not have been allowed on the plane to Tibet in Guangzhou without this permit so it was pretty important that the travel agency actually met us.   We wouldn't know if it all worked out until we got there so we were sort of flying by the seat of our pants.  I was just a little nervous about it.

In the end, it all worked out and the travel agent met us, as planned, at the airport.  He helped us find our next flight and saw us on our way.  We had a fabulous stay in Lhasa, Tibet.  So, we had no real trouble getting INTO Tibet, however we had trouble getting OUT as our reservations had been cancelled somehow.  That's another story for another blog.  After all we went through, we made it in with no trouble and then had trouble getting out!  Go figure.  It was, however, worth every single uncertain moment and despite all these problems AND some altitude sickness too, I'd do it again in a heartbeat. Tibet IS magical.

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