I have ridden a bicycle in many places. Here are a few strange bicycle rules or laws:
You have heard stories of people flying or traveling to the wrong Paris, Texas instead of France. Or Oakland, CA instead of Auckland, NZ. How about Grenada in the Caribbean instead of Granada, Spain? Worse yet, Birmingham, AL instead of Birmingham, England? Another similar name is Dhaka, Bangladesh instead of Dakar, Senegal. Or Ghana instead of Guyana? Or two places I have been, San Jose, CA or San Jose, Costa Rica? Las Vegas, New Mexico instead of Las Vegas, NV? Or even my new hometown of Clovis, CA versus Clovis, NM?
My monumental mistake occurred in 2014 while on the Trans Siberian Railway. I stopped in Ekaterinburg, the fateful home of the last Tsar, Nicholas II and his family. After a pleasant two night stay, I taxied to the train station to continue my journey to Moscow. I looked up at the big arrival/departures board, waited for my train to be called (in Russian?), and headed out to Platform 8. There was no train there?
Perhaps it was on the adjacent track, but the providnitsa (the typically large and gruff Russian female conductor) yelled at me after I showed her my ticket. Totally confused, I headed back into the station, and saw that my train had already departed. It turns out my train was scheduled for Track 8, not Platform 8. I missed my train!
Now, I am thinking about what to do. I tried to find some help at a security desk. She yelled at me too! I got in line at a window whose sign I could not read. She yelled at me too. I got into another line, only to have it close for lunch! But, with no other choices, I stayed in line, behind a Russian woman, who could not speak English. I thought about going back to the hotel for another night, or even taking a cab to the airport and fly to Moscow.
But I stuck it out, waiting for the window to open. When my turn came, the woman yelled at me, much like all the previous Russian women, all large, all very mean, and with no sense of compassion. Just as I was about to try option B or C, a young Russian man speaking English appeared out of nowhere. After I explained my dilemma, he told the Russian window woman what I needed. I was in luck, so I thought.
They explained to me that the only train coming through Ekaterinburg today would be a second class only train to Moscow. So, without any viable options, they reticketed me, gave me a huge refund on my credit card, and I waited another two hours for my train. That said, I barely made it down to the correct track, and loaded myself onto my train.
After traveling up to this point in first class, I was rather dismayed at the four bunks in my cabin, and the stench of cigarette smoke everywhere. How would I endure three more nights in this hell hole of a situation? As the day went on, several seat mates changed as we stopped at various stations. None were very friendly, but they all smoked, and smelled like B.O., even the women. Oh yes, they mix the sexes on these Russian trains, though you would be hard pressed to call any of these females, young or attractive women.
Without a cafeteria on this train, I bought food at the platforms where we made stops. No problem there. But as nightfall came, I had to climb up to my upper bunk, a feat that requires one to be a Romanian gymnast! Add to that, my three roommates decided to smoke themselves to sleep. And I was still not sure how many were men or how many were women!
Mercifully, the next day, I spotted three young, attractive Russian grad students in the hallway. Apparently, they sneaked on during the night and were now staring at me from a distance. As we warily approached each other, the three, two young ladies, and a young man, wanted to know if I spoke English. Hallelujah!!!!
Needless to say, we became engaged in a great discussion, shared our food, and otherwise had a great time together in their cabin. In fact, after spending the entire day and evening with them, it quickly became the highlight of my trip!!!
We talked about many topics of interest to them, like university level academics in the U.S., the economy, social life of students, everyday life in America, you name it. But they would not talk much about politics, gays in Russia, or Putin. We passed by several gulags, military bases, and missile sites without so much as a comment.
I was so sad when they left the train in Omsk, as I still had another night on the train before getting to Moscow. But I realized it was the best part of my trip, and it happened only because of my incompetence in reading the Track and Platform in Ekaterinburg. Somehow, I was surviving a second class train!
So, was it a monumental mistake? It could have been. But it turned out to be the best part of my trip to Russia. But if you have ever been in a similar situation, I would love to hear about it.
PS: I did meet another nice group of people traveling with Intrepid Tours. Mostly Aussies, a few Canadians, a motley crew at best. We shared food, beer, and vodka, so it helped make the last leg of the trip to Moscow somewhat bearable.
We are on our way to UC Davis, near Sacramento, on a trip of indefinite proportions. We are not sure how long we will stay, one day, overnight or more. But it does make one realize that our state capitol, Sacramento, is an underrated place to visit.
From Cheapism: In a state packed with tourist meccas such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego, Sacramento will never get top billing, but there’s still plenty to see. The Old Sacramento Historic District is a charming, kitschy window into the city’s Gold Rush past, and the California State Railroad Museum is a train buff’s delight.
Who agrees with me? First, Sacramento is easily reached via freeway or Amtrak. Old Town Sacramento is walking distance from the Amtrak station. So is the state capitol, numerous places to eat and drink, and the above mentioned Railroad Museum.
Paris currently holds the record in the world for the most trees in one city, but Sacramento comes in at a very close second.
Only in Sacramento will you find a national landmark named after its previous title of a once proud music retailer in history: Tower Records. The same building is now known as the Tower Theater, and it’s so popular that within that intersection is Tower Liquors, Tower Books, and Tower Video.
Sacramento’s California Railroad Museum is the largest establishment of its kind in the entire country. The museum houses an astounding 21 restored locomotives.
The largest almond processing plant in the world, Blue Diamond, is headquartered right in town and processes 12 million pounds of almonds every day during harvest.
At one point in 1866, Sacramento was considered home to one Mark Twain back when the Sacramento Union newspaper was operational. This was actually when Twain began writing long before even considering the adventures of one Huckleberry Finn and one Tom Sawyer.
Fast forward to today, Sacramento is home to nearly 500,000 people, the sixth largest city in California. The city was named for a friend of Cosmo Kramer’s, named Bob Saccamenna during a long lost Seinfeld episode. The name somehow morphed back in Gold Rush days by the Spanish into Santisimo Sacramento ( Blessed Sacrament).
So, who might some of their famous residents be, besides my old buddy, Governor Jerry Brown? How about Barbi Benton, Mark Goodson, Pat Morita, Herb Caen, Lester Holt, Joan Lunden, Mark Twain, Joan Didion, Mayor Kevin Johnson, Andrew McCutcheon, Mark Spitz, Kyle Larson, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, and Evelyn Ashford.
Sacramento is also home to the California State Fair, the Sacramento Kings NBA team, and the Sacramento River Cats, the Triple A affiliate of our San Francisco Giants.
From the Daily Meal: Sacramento is a sacrilegiously overlooked food city, plus it’s in the top three for weather conditions, making it a fantastic summer stop. The Californian capital is home to many museums as well as the Sacramento Zoo, and it made the list as part of the Sacramento–Roseville–Arden-Arcade metro area, giving visitors easy access to other attractions such as Lake Tahoe and the Davis Farmers Market, one of the best in the country.
Back in the 80s’ I was a consultant to the statewide hospital association, as well as the state pharmaceutical association, both based in Sacramento. Even back then, I was impressed by the quality of restaurants and food in the downtown area.
You may or may not be surprised. But I nominate Hawaii for the best place to spend Easter, particularly Easter Sunday. Most striking are the Easter services, held on many beaches in Hawaii, including Waikiki Ala Moana, and Kaanapali. The minister and the congregation enter the ocean for some or all of the ceremony, and release leis into the water for their departed loved ones.
Second, everywhere you go, people are celebrating Easter in some fashion. All of the stores and restaurants are decorated, and give Easter candy to children and adults. The Easter spirit is everywhere. Easter ham is represented by Spam musubi!!! Even the Easter bunny is wearing a lei.
Third, all of the families are gathering for their traditional Sunday picnics and luaus. Every beach, park, and public place is filled with people celebrating Easter. The children are playing games, the adults are fishing and napping. But everyone is together.
So, I nominate the Easter aloha spirit as number one!
BTW, over 16 billion, B as in Billion, jelly beans will be sold for Easter. Guess the number one flavor? Or number 2?
Usually Easter eggs symbolize fertility but in orthodox Christianity they also symbolize the empty tomb of Jesus.
Historically, egg dyes were made of natural substances such as onion peel, tree bark, flowers and juices.
The chocolate Easter egg began in Europe, in the 19th century, and has been adopted world wide since.
Almost 89% of Americans eat the ears first, when eating a chocolate bunny.
The White House Easter Egg Roll began in 1878. Our dear friends in Virginia have been able to take their children to this great event.
Over 700 million peeps are sold every Easter. No word on favorites or color. It only takes 6 minutes to make a peep.
Number one is Buttered popcorn
Number two is Black licorice
Now for my annual Easter/April Fool’s prank: My friend Barry the V and I are co-starring in a movie about his life.
When it comes to crossing international borders, I tend to err on the side of caution. I have heard too many stories of corruption at “unofficial” border crossings. Rule One: Always, I repeat, always get your passport stamped when you enter or leave a country. Did I say ALWAYS!!!
Most of you know I crossed a rather notorious border back in 1971, from West Berlin to East Berlin. I would consider that one of the most unique, and dangerous border crossings of my life. The East Germans pointed a machine gun at me when I crossed. I also told you that I went across on foot with an American hippie couple. She was rather attractive, so of course, they strip-searched her!!!
We flew over the world’s tallest international border. That would be none other than Mount Everest, which between Nepal and the Tibet Autonomous Region (part of China). The border sits at over 29,000 feet above sea level. We flew to Everest on a local Nepalese airline, called Buddha Air. Turns out they have many fatal crashes!
Another interesting “border” crossing is located between St. Taffy’s Basilica (aka St. Peter’s) and Vatican City. It might be the quirkiest border in the world. You must enter Vatican City, a city state surrounded by Rome, to access the Sistine Chapel and other Vatican museums. With the throngs of people coming through, it was too difficult to get a passport stamp. And the Pope was having a “viewing” that day to top it all!
Rumor has it that only one place on earth is a true quadripoint, a place where four countries meet at a single point. This would be the intersection of Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Namibia. And Mr. Mike and I were there on our African safari venture back in 2012. And though we spent two weeks in South Africa, we did not venture near Lesotho, a kingdom completely circled by South Africa, and our friend Barry the V.
The reason I said always is for good reason. A dear friend went over the border from northern Thailand to Burma, before they changed the name back to Myanmar. It was a strict and harsh military dictatorship. They crossed the border at a small river by local ferry and were told upon landing on the Burma side that they could pay and get their passport stamped on the way out. When they returned, the “guard” at the gate was gone, the local ferry was nowhere to be seen, and the military police were descending. They were jailed until they came up with $1000 cash to buy their way out!!!
Just be careful!
There are very few things I tell people not to do when they ask for travel advice. Some are obvious to me, since I have done it so often. But whether you are a rookie or a veteran of travel, some simple rules are always necessary.
Never overbook yourself I know, it is tempting to make reservations for all of the top restaurants that your friends have suggested. We had reservations at Mexico City’s top places. But once I was toppled over by altitude sickness, I had to cancel all of them. The same goes for tours and excursions. I arranged a food tour and bike tour on successive days since I was by myself until Mr. Mike arrived. It worked out just fine. But I do see the problem with tour after tour, activities that interfere with your spontaneity.
Many of you ask about my travels, such as where I have gone or what I have done or seen. Rarely does anyone ask how I feel. Perhaps we should lend a bit more scrutiny to the traveler’s mindset.
To start, here is an “insider’s tip” on being a tourist from Tom Dichter of Quartz. “Keep in mind that travel is work. The origin of the word travel, most experts believe, is linked to the French word travail, work. Travel, as opposed to tourism or vacationing, is work; we take that as a given and own it. For us, perhaps like many people, we travel to get away from our everyday lives, but it is also a kind of research—to see how the world is getting along and to affirm and marvel at both sameness and difference. There will be moments of fun and joy, quite often in fact, but they are a by-product of the work, not the main objective for us. By embracing the idea of travel as work an escape from the crowds becomes possible, even in crowded environments.”
For me, when I traveled on business, it did always feel like work. Other than day trips to Southern California, most business trips involved an overnight at the least, and several hours on the plane each way, as well as a car rental. Having a secretary make arrangements was helpful, since it saved time, and the internet was not fully on board with travel in the 80s.
But after a few months, I got the “hang” of it, and decided I would rather book my flights and hotels. We had a deal with Hertz that guaranteed a car rental under any conditions. That is when I started the frequent flyer nonsense, and the hotel loyalty programs. Now that took work to manage that part of the travel, along with filling out an expense report.
The miles and points allowed me to take some wonderful family vacations for very little expenditure. Most companies allowed us to keep the miles and points since much of it was earned on our own time, such as nights and weekends.
The business part of travel was always separate in my mind. For one, I usually wore a suit, and carried a garment bag and a briefcase. For leisure travel, I never wore a suit, and left the briefcase at home! It was very easy to compartmentalize!
Fast forward to today. I have accumulated a “travel” wardrobe, mostly clothes that I wear only on longer cross country or overnight trips. These are things like pants with zip off legs, layering items like a compact down jacket, sink washable underwear and socks, and a special sling backpack for my tablet and camera.
Now that I have the proper mindset, what else can I do? “International travel has more than doubled in the last 20 years. About 1.3 billion people—nearly one fifth of the world’s population—are now traveling internationally, nearly one fifth of the world’s population. And while France and the United States remain the top destinations, tourists from almost everywhere are now going almost everywhere (Thailand, Belize, Cambodia, Chile, and Namibia have all experienced big jumps as destinations). Likewise, spending on international travel has shifted. It used to be dominated by those from the US and western Europeans nations, and Australians, but now the Chinese dominate. In 2016, they accounted for $261 billion or 20% of worldwide international tourist receipts.”
So, yes there are more people than ever traveling. But again, if you are willing to embrace the situation, rather than fight it, the rewards are numerous. First, and most obvious, is that you will meet some interesting people. Over the years, I have made many lifelong friends on my travels, people like Barry the V, Cesar, Jason and Chun, Angela, Dirty Pat, Wendy, Miller, Michael, Damon, Leicey, and perhaps you? But even the most casual encounters are mutually beneficial, like pairing up with others in a strange place like Tangiers, or a dangerous place like the Amazon.
Perhaps a more subtle benefit, is observing how others react when experiencing these breathtaking moments. On our flight over Mount Everest, I could not help but see and hear the excitement of the Japanese tourists. I wondered why they were so excited to see Everest. The same was true when we saw Victoria Falls in Africa, or Milford Sound in New Zealand.
One of his best observations is to always walk or take public transportation, rather than cabs or Uber. There is no better way to capture the “feel” of a city or place as walking up to it, rather than getting dropped off by a car. And for the record, the “King” of walking cities and towns around the world is none other than my travel buddy, Mr. Mike. Often times, he has the city scoped out before I can unpack my bag!!
Often, the so-called travel experts often tell us to skip a meal. But like the erstwhile travelers on the Travel Channel, the meals and beverages are a great way to learn the local culture and to meet people. Yes, a light lunch is a good idea, but a bowl of soup and a beer never hurt anyone. And you just might discover a hidden gem, or make a contact that leads to better experiences.
Trip Adviser and Yelp get a bad rap these days. But let it serve as a guide. Definitely stay away from the places where the reviews really pan the joint. But realize you do not have to spend 5 star dollars for a great meal. Use it as a guide, but not a must eat destination. I always ask a local, or at least someone who looks like they know how to fill their belly with good food and wine. Or just stand in the longest line!
Now, I love taking photos as much as you do. Why do the experts say to stop the photos and selfies? I would agree on the selfies, but along with capturing the moment in the hard drive in your brain, a gentle reminder of a photo is a great way to share your experience with the folks back home. And years from now, as your internal hard drive fades, you will be glad for the digital or print photo.
Finally, I say there is no best way for you or me to do things while traveling. It must fit the situation, your likes and dislikes, your budget, and most of all, your level of risk. Nobody has taken the “perfect” trip, despite what they tell you. But sometimes, the imperfections make for great experiences and stories.