“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” -Mark Twain

Sunday, December 17, 2017

How Do I Afford to Keep Traveling? A Guide to Airfare Search Tools.

There is one question I'm asked most often about travel: How do I afford to do it so often?  So I'm going to break it down and describe how easy it is to apply it to your own life.

1) I have no car, no kids, and no pets.  All these things cost money that can be used for travel.  But worry not, even if you have one or all of the above, there are still ways to find deals.
2) Year 2 of attempting to revive the dead Money Tree in my living room window has proved futile.  Therefore, I must resort to a few other tactics to still pursue my dreams yet still be able to pay the bills.

These tactics fall under one of the following 3 categories, which may apply to you at any moment:
A) You know where you want to go, and when, so you need to know when the fare is cheapest.
B) You know where you want to go and don't care when, as long as it's on sale.  (Or know when you want to go, but don't care where)
C) You have no idea where you want to go, or when, so just go when you see anything interesting is on sale.
My trips have fallen under one of these categories, which I've described in detail below.  The longer you use each of the methods and tools described below, you'll get used to seeing patterns in airfare, seasons, and what is considered a deal for a particular route or not.

A) Where and When

If you know where you want to go and when you need to go, this is where the Hopper app (iOS, Android) comes in handy.  Search for your destination, then by month/dates (green for cheapest flights, red for the most expensive), and search flights.  The app will give you hints about the best days to fly surrounding your dates, and any cheaper nearby airports.  Once you have refined your search, you can Watch the flight.  Then you'll get alerts telling you about fare sales on those dates, and a predictor to either buy now or wait.  I have to be in New York twice next year for certain weekends, so I'm going to set my Hopper to watch non-stop flights into JFK (because no way in hell am I flying into LGA) and buy when I see a good fare alert.

Google Flights is an even better tool on which to set alerts or check for fare availability.  Last week a friend told me about a $300 roundtrip nonstop fare to Iceland.  I wasn't ready to purchase, but I did a search in Google Flights with all my criteria (dates, non-stop, airline if preferred), and set a flight alert/tracker.  A week later I received an email from the flight tracker that the fare fell to $200.  I bought a ticket within an hour.  I'm not flying until April, but I don't care since I only paid $200 to get to Iceland!  I can't even get a fare that cheap on a domestic legacy airline to visit my family on the East Coast.  Google Flights will be mentioned in each section of this article, since I also use it as a tool to confirm available sale fares that appear in other methods.

B) Where, I Don't Care When

Let's say you've always wanted to go to Hawaii or Paris.  You don't really care when, or at least have some guidelines of when (a few months' window).  You just want to go when it's cheapest.  You also really don't care too much about the weather circumstances (monsoon season in India, hurricane season in the Caribbean, or winter in London).  You just want to GET THERE.

This is where Airfarewatchdog.com comes in handy.  I use this as my travel wish list.  First, get an idea of what a good fare to your destination looks like.  Enter your home airport and destination, and search.  The site will tell you what the current fare sale is along with the terms.  Such as, Chicago to London for $555 on Icelandair, fare available January through April 2018, with certain departure days.  You can set up all sorts of fare alerts which the site will email you when they see a great fare.  If the fare conditions align with when you can get away, BINGO!  Book your ticket!  This method has bought me trips to Argentina ($540), Peru ($400), and Turkey ($532).  I use this tool for airports where I have family, so when a good fare pops up, I jump.  A few years ago I called my sister and said, "Free this weekend?  I got a fare alert to leave this Thursday."  Or in 3 months.

I also love this tool because it is a good gauge for what typical and sale airfares look like to your destination.  Watch notices on this site long enough (plus the weekly email updates) and you'll start to develop a gut feeling for when you see a good fare.  My friend and I are planning a safari next summer, so I've set up alerts to a few airports in Kenya and South Africa to begin to get a feel for average and sale fares so we can budget properly.  Perhaps a Tuesday departure is cheaper than a Saturday, so we'll build that into our itinerary.  We also used Google Flights to search entire date ranges and months to see when fares would be best to Kenya and South Africa.  Google allows you to see almost an entire year's price projections if you search by date range (there are three date search options, so dig around).

C) Anywhere Anytime

You've been bitten by the travel bug.  You want to GTFO and really don't care much where the destination is.  Or, you'll know it when you see it.  The world is your oyster and you have a sense of adventure and an open mind.  Sometimes I don't know where I'm traveling next because I'll just wait for a great fare to anywhere interesting.  Many destinations that have been somewhere on my list - or not even top of mind - I've ended up buying immediately.  Such as India for $640 or Hong Kong for $540.  When you see a great sale, sometimes you can't say no.  Hell, when my friend Anna found out about the great fare I got to Mumbai, she threw her credit card at me across the dinner table and we booked her a ticket on the spot.  Her husband stayed home with the kids and we had an absolute blast running around Mumbai and spoiling ourselves at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.  Sure, it was monsoon season, but who cares, we were in India!

The Flight Deal daily email newsletter is a gift from the travel gods.  It's also responsible for draining my wallet.  See above.  It's responsible for why I went to Jordan over Thanksgiving for only $499 nonstop, roundtrip, and earned miles toward elite status.  I couldn't in good conscience not purchase that ticket since Jordan had been on my radar for decades and I've been keeping an eye on the average fare for a few years through Airfare Watchdog.  The Flight Deal is a daily email and lays the groundwork for distinguishing good fares from great fares.  This summer I saw a $668 fare to Bali.  *faint*  Waiting for that one to resurface... The email newsletter will detail sale fares from a variety of airports, destinations, airlines, and seasons.  It's a mashup of any place in the world, so you almost have to look at the email every day so you don't miss something.  And sometimes you have to move very quickly to get the sale fare because it could be gone in a few hours.  Usually you have to buy the same day but the flight may not be for a few months.

What do you do if you want the fare but aren't sure you can commit, or want to sleep on it?  This is where I love American Airlines.  They're the only airline to allow you to hold a fare for free for 24 hours.  If you don't book by midnight of the next day, your hold is cancelled.  No cost to you.  Carrie and I have used this method on quite a few occasions to lock in great fares.  For instance, you see a good fare and put it on hold (this only works on American, btw).  You sleep on it.  The next day you check the fare again by re-running the search.  The fare has jumped $200!  Ah, but you put the ticket on hold yesterday at the lower fare.  So you buy the ticket at the better rate!  On a couple occasions I've saved $400-$600 from a fare jump by holding the day before!  I've also seen this happen on group trips.  You put a fare on hold and tell your friends about it.  They don't pull the trigger and want to sleep on it.  The next day you re-check the fare and it jumped $100.  Suddenly everyone is afraid that it'll go higher and they book the fare at $400.  Luckily you put it on hold yesterday at the lower fare and saved yourself $100 more than everyone else.  Delta and United will allow you to purchase fares and cancel them within 24 hours by refunding the fare.  But I like American because they don't charge to hold up-front.  Yet.  Crossing fingers that they keep it this way.


I don't buy every deal I see.  I can't afford to.  And sometimes it's not worth it to me at that moment.  As of this blog entry, I have Gold elite status on American and if I have to spend money, I prefer to spend it on revenue flights that earn mileage that I can cash in later.  I learned from flying to Thailand a few years back on a great fare on Cathay Pacific that I wouldn't earn miles because the fare code didn't qualify.  I'm currently saving miles to cash in for the safari flights, so I'm trying to earn as much as possible plus attempting to retain elite status (comes in handy when requesting upgrades).

If you're loyal to one airline and alliance and want to earn miles on a sale fare, it's a good idea to check the fare code before purchasing.  Again, use Google Flights to look up the fare, proceed to almost purchasing, and locate the fare code (usually a CAPITAL LETTER).  Then go to your member airline account and find out what fare codes qualify for earning on the partner airline.

Say your office is closed (like mine) for the last week of the year and you want to get out of Dodge, but you don't know where to go, except you're looking for a good deal or something attractive.  Google Flights is also useful in this respect.  In the main screen ON A COMPUTER (the following feature isn't available on mobile), enter your departure airport and dates (and airline alliance, or # of stops).  Then click on the map to move around and see standard prices for destinations around the world.  When you have no idea where you want to go, this really feeds the imagination.

Now with all of these tools, when you purchase a ticket the same day you discover the fare sale, it doesn't necessarily mean you have to depart right away.  The trip could still be 4 or 10 months away.  It's not like you have to book today and get on a plane next week.  Sure, maybe that'll happen, but you usually have time before you travel.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Ecolodge Experience

Feynan Ecolodge has been named by numerous sources as one of the world’s Best Ecolodges. Since I’ve never stayed in an ecolodge, I wanted to find out what the hype was about. But to get there would be a three-hour drive back north through the country.
Feynan Ecolodge

I had asked how far the border was from where we stood. Khalil said there was no physical border. There used to be, one staffed with legions of armed men. Years ago a number of Jordanian military were killed in an attack, but ever since the peace agreement with Israel, the soldiers were replaced with land mines instead. This was No Man’s Land. Mines were cheaper than supporting an army at the border. Most checkpoints and watch towers were eliminated, save a few that we had passed (as well as being pulled over a few times by roadside soldiers to check ID). It was an eerie feeling to be driving along just yards from one of the most heavily-mined pieces of land in the world (oddly, this would not my by first encounter with a mined landscape, see also: biking through the Cambodian jungle in the dark).

We headed back north up the King’s Highway and right past Petra. To be honest, I’ve been swamped since I booked the plane ticket, so I outsourced the trip planning to the tour company. The itinerary hit every site I wanted to see, but I didn’t look too carefully at the sequence, except for ending in Amman. So this took me far south then had to double back a couple days later. I need to play more of an active role next time I work with a tour company or travel agent. It would have made more geographical sense to begin the week in Wadi Rum and continue to move north.At any rate, driving
The only way to legitimately access the ecolodge is to drive to their reception building, which is a separate building a few miles from the lodge.  From there, I was handed off to a young Bedouin driver who was to drive me to the lodge.  His truck was old, and I could feel the front suspension under my feet, as though the entire floor were going to dissolve at any moment.  He didn't speak much English, about as much as my Arabic.  When he asked where I was from, I dutifully responded Chicago, America... and I usually add "Michael Jordan" or "Barack Obama."  There is one universal truth when traveling: EVERYONE knows who Michael Jordan is.  He held out his hand, and I slapped it in high-five agreement.  A few minutes later we continued what loosely resembled chatting, and he held out his hand again for me to slap, although his hand lingered and I wondered if he were looking for a grasp.  A few hundred feet down the road he took out his phone and began snapping pictures... WHILE DRIVING.  Mind you, we were going about 2 MPH over what loosely resembled a road, so there was no danger in crashing.  However, there was zero reason he needed to be snapping pictures of the landscape.  He wasn't even aiming.  Then he asked, "Selfie?" I learned back in Petra to be a bit more stern and stubborn with my friendliness around young men, so I said, "le le, yalla!"  No... GO! and I waved my hand for him to keep driving.  He put his phone away and didn't attempt another photo op or handshake.  *sigh*
Apparently goats can climb trees
As I took a walk around the outside of the lodge at dusk, Ali met me outside for a chat.  We had just hear the news out of Egypt of the 305 victims of the Sufi mosque bombing.  It was an opportunity to find out how the locals in the region felt.  Ali was visibly saddened.  The consensus of anyone I spoke with in Jordan about this tragedy was that those terrorists were animals, that it had nothing to do with religion.  There were safe places where anyone should be able to worship without fear: mosques, churches, and synagogues.  No matter your religion, you should be safe in your temple.  No argument here.  We discussed the similar tragedy that America has been experiencing, the senseless mass gun violence.  These men, too, are animals, targeting innocent people where they should feel the safest.  Schools, churches, concerts... We agreed that there was no difference between the people who use bombs or use guns... it's all a senseless tragedy.
Water jar
By 8pm I was nearly passing out, and after a very brief period of stargazing on the roof (they has set up a powerful telescope), I retired to my room since I had been up since 4am and barely slept 4 hours the previous night.  The chest cold I had started to wear on me and sleep was calling.  I hope my neighbors didn't hear my coughing in the early hours of the night, but I finally settled down to a peaceful sleep after midnight. The next morning after breakfast a new driver met me to drive me back to reception.  This was an older Bedouin who was driving a brand-spanking new 4x4 truck.  He still kept the bubble wrap on the handles and gear shift.  As I rolled down the window to get some air, he kept wiping down the dashboard and I finally relented and rolled the window up so as not to get any more dust inside his new truck.  He was so proud of it.

around was just as much of a treat as sightseeing itself as the geography of Jordan is so varied. North of Petra we had to pass over a spectacular mountain range with a range of switchbacks I have had yet to experience. So often we’d ascend a hill and not be able to see the road dip down ahead of us, as I leaned forward over the dashboard as if I were on a rollercoaster. I resisted the urge a few times to fling my hands in the air as if I were on one. At the very top of the mountain range - which was a gorgeous geology of black rock - we stopped at a small roadside stall for a stretch. I scrambled atop a rock and looked out upon the vista that stretched before me. A great dusty and rocky flat plain spread out for miles. Across the valley the land rose up again. This was the West Bank.

The lodge was very relaxing... After a whirlwind few active days, I needed peace and quiet.  After settling in and a hot shower (solar panels on the roof heat individual room water tanks), I saw outside under a tree just taking in the scene.  A German group descending from a long hike in the mountains... a couple kids playing with goats under a tree, Bedouin coming and going... I watched the sun set from the lodge rooftop while a cat curled up and purred in my lap.  

There is no refrigeration in the lodge, so all food is vegetarian, and I didn't miss the meat because the dishes they served were the best meals I've had all week!  The bread that is served with each meal is made fresh by neighboring Bedouin women.  The lodge doesn't advocate for bottled water on the premises - because plastic bottles - so each room has a clay jar full of fresh mineral water.  This was the first time I have ever drank non-bottled water in a foreign country, but I had to trust them this time.  And so far, so good.  *touch wood*  There was a sunset hike scheduled, but I was so worn down - the staff couldn't understand why I didn't want to participate, but I've seen a lot of sunsets already - so I asked if I could help the staff light the candles in the lodge.  I helped an older guy as he gestured to me how to do it and where to place the candles.  The lodge construction was interesting, too, as there is an open courtyard, open hallways, and narrow vertical openings throughout the public places which force air through as a breeze.  Since there's no air conditioning, it's an interesting innovation for temperature control.  My
room was small but functional.  My bed was covered by a mosquito net canopy, and it was so quiet inside that I could hear my heart beating in my head.  In preparation for staying here, I packed a head lamp that was indispensable when night fell and light was necessary for unlocking the room door or even navigating the hallways beyond candlelight.  I really did keep to myself here.  Not talking to people and just being quiet with myself was much-needed.  Although I'm not used to the attention and would rather have been left to my own vices, Ali the manager was very polite and struck up a few conversations with me, and one of the Bedouin guides visited me at each meal to chat for a few minutes.  I imagined I was the mysterious woman solo in the corner - was I American?  Dutch?  Australian?  Who knows... the only tourist that spoke to me was a little girl of about 8 years old with an accent I couldn't quite place.  I settled on New Zealand.  

After dinner there was a presentation by the staff about how the ecolodge contributed to the local economy.  It provided jobs for the Bedouin (cooking, baking, delivering visitors, guides), and different activities allowed tourists to participate, such as spending a day with a shepherd or learning a new craft.  Income from the lodge also went to fauna and flora conservation inside the Dana Biosphere Reserve where the lodge is located.  I continued to be amazed at how much of an effort Jordan is making toward environmentalism and conservation.  But in a way, they really do have to be conscious of this.  Jordan is the second poorest water country in the world.  Their only source of water is the Jordan River, which was dammed in many places - together with mining has caused the Dead Sea to recede at 1 cm per year!  The country understands the importance of preserving and protecting the Dead Sea, so they've started pumping water back into it from the Red Sea. 

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Wadi Rum and Desert Nights

In her autobiography, Queen Noor described weekend trips to Wadi Rum with her husband, the late King Hussein, on the back of his motorcycle. It was the description of this Mars-like landscape that inspired me to put it on my must-see list. It did not disappoint. 

Wadi Rum is a protected area in southern Jordan just north of the Saudi border. The drive down from Petra brought us along the ancient King’s Highway over a mountain range with spectacular views. At elevation,  and this area can see snow in winter months. Driving by through Jordan this week has been a treat in and of itself, just as fun as sightseeing. The history in this country boggles the mind. The King’s Highway was mentioned as far back as Genesis, and the route by which Moses requested to move his people (was that Exodus?). Moses will be a subject of interest a few times on this trip.  I’m no biblical scholar, nor religious, but I do appreciate the ancient history of this land. 

En route to Wadi Rum we passed a small train station and a train engine with cars. This marked the place where Lawrence of Arabia and his men attacked an Ottoman train, as depicted in the famed movie. We have a Japanese sand garden in my office back in Chicago. I so desperately want to put a little train, horses, and miniature army men in this sand, as a diorama of sort. I wonder if anyone would notice. Dad, can you send me a set from your model train collection, please?

Something I noticed and found alarming during he drive but is quite normal in Jordan according to my driver, is the frequency of hitchhikers. Many people stand along the side of the road and flag down anyone passing. It’s part of the hospitality culture to aid the traveler. I love that this is a thing, but my driver was surprised that I found it shocking, and that it’s so dangerous to do in America. “Really??”  Dude, is go from the side of the road alive to the side of the road dead. #nope

As we arrived at the Sun City Camp in Wadi Rum, I experienced what was becoming a pattern during this trip... being handed off from man to man to man. My tent wasn’t yet ready, so I was “handed off” to a young Bedouin man who was sharply dressed in a long white thobe, grey overcoat (much like a dress), and a keffiyeh headscarf. His English was pretty decent and he was friendly, but not overtly so. We hopped into his Jeep for a 3-hour tour of the surrounding desert.  Much like Mongolia, roads are an idea, not a concrete patch of tarmac. When we stopped for pictures at a rock carving by commemorating Lawrence, a bus of Chinese tourists engulfed my guide with unsolicited pictures and selfie sticks. He wore an embarrassing friendly smile as picture after picture was snapped alongside strangers. He was obliging them but clearly uncomfortable. When he did manage to steal away, I shared a similar story of being in his position as a white blonde female photo attraction in China and India, and we shared a good laugh. I hope I put him at ease, so I did feel his discomfort, although innocent. 

The geography of Wadi Rum consists of fine, soft rolling sand dunes broken up by massive red and black mountains. I would love to see this country with a geologist to know HOW this place was formed. Some of these isolated mountains and rock formations were created. Many of them were not so much connected to each other as much as stand-alone with sheer cliff faces. We witnessed some petroglyphs that were drawings of camels and people. When ancient caravans were traversing the area, these petroglyphs were road maps of sorts.  The direction the camels in the pictures faces was the direction the caravans should follow. How cool is that?!

One moment we stopped near what appeared to be a near-dead bush. My guide started pulling sprigs of green off the bushes and mashing them with a rock on top of a larger rock. I didn’t ask questions, as I wanted to see where this was going. He picked up the mash in his palms then asked me to pour some water into his hands. When he rubbed the water, mash, and hands together, suds began to form. This is what the Bedouin use to clean things! 

The little desert excursion ended as I climbed atop rock formation as we watched the surrounding mountains turn a bright red and orange from the setting sun. 

Back at camp, my tent was ready for me; a  large goat hair tent lined inside with faux satin walls and an ample washroom. I was surprised to find that I had running water and electricity!  The blessing was the discovery of a heated mattress pad on my bed that warmed up while I was out for dinner in the main dining area. Temps in the desert dipped just above freezing at night so this was necessary. I event grabbed the quilt off the other twin bed and added it to my own. I’m a hot sleeper, so I fluctuated between sweaty hot between two down quilts and a heated mattress pad, and cold when I turned off the pad or shook off a quilt. But at least I was sleeping in a real bed and not on the ground in a basic camping tent (see also; Mongolia). 

As dinner was cooking nearby under a pile of aluminum foil and sand, I sat by the fire pit  chatting with some Kiwis. While I was shocked to learn that it was 17-hours and 3 flights from New Zealand to Amman, they were just as shocked at my direct 11-hour $499 nonstop from Chicago. Score!

Cats are a fixture in Jordan, and this camp didn’t suffer from a lack of them. They always knew where they were getting their next meal. As dinner was served, kitties roamed the diners looking for scraps. They were friendly. I bonded with some nearby Spaniards at the hilarity of the cat’s cunning, as they were pretty endearing. One cat snuck up behind the food table and helped himself to the baba ganoush!  This is how I spent Thanksgiving dinner, with heaps of roasted lamb and chicken amidst the felines and travelers. 

I had also signed up for a sunrise camel ride which needed me to be at the rally point at 5am. I usually listen to advice about great sunrises and have yet to be disappointed. It turns out I was the only sunrise camel rider despite the camp being full, and another Bedouin man beckoned me over to where he camels were parked and off we went back into the desert, again, the repeated experience of following strange men that don’t speak English into the unknown. Since all experiences had turned out just fine, I had to learn to trust and get over my American suspicions of potentially shady encounters. I had only slept three hours - not in a row - so I admit I was looking forward to napping before breakfast was served after the ride (spoiler: a nap never happened). We sauntered out to a sand dune and joined another group of two Portuguese-speakers, their Bedouin guide,  and playful sheepdog. As the sun broke over the horizon, the mountains burst into color again and I nearly applauded. Okay, I did actually clap, although muted by my mittens. It was colder than expected, but happy I was prepared with my latest love of Uniqlo Heat Tech ultra-thin layers, down jacket, a warm hat, and thank god for gloves. 

Not being a morning person (so why do I keep doing these kinds of things??), I ate a delicious traditional Bedouin breakfast alone and enjoyed a cup of tea back at the comforts of the fire pit, just watching the rest of the tour groups shuffle about. In this environment I was the only solo traveler, which I would repeatedly experience outside Petra. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Petra, Betch!

Landing in Amman was uneventful and I quickly moved through passport control. A guide from my tour company met me to help me get my visa. Since I went through an official group, my visa was free. After checking into my hotel I ventured out to find dinner... I was able to read the sign of a shwarma place across the street and place a basic order. Success on Day One!

The next morning my driver picked up Arabic coffee for us. I’m not a coffee drinker but I obliged due to his hospitality. Extra sugar, extra milk. The coffee is made is cardamon and smelled fantastic! And it tasted as much, too! I could get on board with this. But I also think the offers of coffee and tea every other hour is why my Ambien isn’t keeping me down all night. 

The drive to Petra was three hours along the Desert Highway. This country isn’t nearly as chaotic as Egypt, so one could easily rent a car here to get around. Signs are in English and traffic rules are mostly obeyed. Just be alert for bedouin crossing the highway and lots of police checkpoints monitoring speeders. 

A bit of news about Jordan relative to its neighbors. Jordanians can no longer take weekend shopping trips to Damascus or Beirut due to the conflict in Syria. Two million refugees have flowed across into their borders, adding to the already taxing one million Iraqi refugees from the 2003 war *sigh*.  Jordan avoided the uprising of the Arab Spring because the monarchy is extremely popular. Queen Noor was officially designated as the Queen Mother (even though she’s the King’s stepmother), and she implemented a lot of programs across the country to promote culture, micro loans, education, and elevating the poorer class. (Did you know she is American?) King Abdullah II aso remains popular, and as a western-educated scholar, he is familiar with democratic principles. There is little corruption. There is secret police, mostly undercover to keep an ear to the ground to listen for discontent. Complaints were addressed during the Arab Spring and the public satisfied. What Khalil told me matches the news of Jordan I’ve been monitoring for years, as well as having read Queen Noor’s autobiography myself. Jordan may have shady neighbors, but hey, don’t we all?

What I have not adjusted to here is the ever-present scent of cigarette smokes. Everyone and their dog smokes. Indoors. Khalil doesn’t smoke in the car with me, but you can tell he does when he’s not toting tourists around. Inside restaurants, rest stops, the list goes on. I may have picked up a mild chest cold on the way, so my asthma is extra sensitive this week and the smoke really gets to me. Cash me ou’side. 

I didn’t roam into Petra until nearly 2:30pm. Wanted to take a spin about the place and get a lay of the land since I had to be out by 5. Turns out, Petra is MASSIVE. The entrance is about a mile long through the Siq, which is a narrow 20-story canyon winding through the sandstone. Think Antelope Canyon in the US. I had a feeling I was getting close to the Treasury because there were more people leaving (I was one of the few to be going IN at this late hour).  Khalil suggested I get a guide, but I do so much damn research and watch every damn documentary that I feel pretty well prepared. And I like to roam solo. I don’t feel like making small talk with a guide. I turned my iPhone video on (because if The Last Crusade was true, there would be a reveal).  And indeed it was. Through the narrow sliver of the Siq, the Treasury appeared to an open clearing. Here it was. Magnificent. Exactly as I had seen and imagined. There were far more tourists than I anticipated, which I was happy to see that business was good. I walked about to take pictures from different angles, at which I became verbally haggled by touts. No, I didn’t want a guide or a camel or a donkey or climb up above.  It was like swatting flies. “I prefer to be left alone” seemed to do the trick. I had my Rough Guide and maps and a Nova documentary committed to memory so I was good. This is my solo trip. I want to be solo. 

Walked to the right past the Treasury, The Valley begins to open up and reveal numerous temples and crevasses carved into the sandstone cliffs at all heights. Souvenir vendors were constant. A couple girls took me for 3 necklaces. They could probably use the money more than I, is how I justify it. An ancient Wadi, creek, ran through the center of the city. In one side is a massive amphitheater, and opposite side of the Wadi are many levels of more massive temples carved above. Standing in the middle of this took my breath away, followed by an audible WOW. I’ve been to Karnak and Thebes. They were huge temple complexes. But Petra is an entire city. I’ve never seen anything like it. It surrounds the visitor in all sides and heights. Perhaps the Forbidden City May be as large, but it’s a tough call. Past the amphitheater, the ancient cobblestone toad turns to one long, wide, straight Avenue with a large multi-tiered grand temple as the focal point. The river used to flow along the avenue, and I could almost imagine pools of water and waterfalls cascading down into the creek. This was clearly a bustling ancient city. 

But at this time fog was rolling in and a light rain began to fall. It was starting to get dark and I didn’t want to be in the Siq after dark. As I approached the Treasury at 4:30, all but the last carriage remained. We agreed to 10 dinars and I hopped in the carriage for the ride back. I would come to find that walking is preferable because the carriage is a rough ride on old cobblestone. I took advantage of some quick gift shop shopping (rather, I was on the advantage was opposite) to land a tunic and a caftan. All along my standard wardrobe has been Jordanian-inspired. Who knew??

Khalil introduced me to Mohammad at the Sand Stone restaurant by the entrance, so I returned twice to eat and build a rapport. Mohammad looked out for me by giving me free desserts and bottles of water. Their mansaf was also quite good. But again, I couldn’t linger since smoking is permitted inside, and my lungs weren’t having it. 

The next day, another driver was coming to pick me up early to take me on my hike. It was a cold rainy morning and I had forgotten my umbrella in Khalil’s car. So I layered with my Uniqlo ultra-lite down coat, Cubbies visor, wrapped my new scarf over my head, and donned my long black hoodie.  No’ar delivered me to Hamad The Bedouin. It would be just me and Hamad. His English was worse than my Arabic so we would mostly walk in silence. He was as think as two noodles in traditional Bedouin robes and keffiyeh. And off he went! While at this early hour I knew I had to pull it together to keep up with him. The first hour was a light rain. We took cover a few times. My jeans were wet against my skin. My coat soaked. But here we were. Fortunately the forecast said it would be over in an hour, and indeed it was. Thanks to Google Translate and an extensive cellular service even in remote areas of Jordan, I was able to whip up a few questions, like, how long is this hike? Two hours. Okay. I can handle that. 

Part of this hike reminded me of Mongolia where there were no roads, but Hamad knew exactly where he wanted to go. The landscape was a mix of sand, rocks and boulders, sprouting crocuses, and shrubbery that looked like it would burst into flames at any minute and begin talking to me. How biblical. Surrounding us were massive stone mountains and rock formations in every color, with peaks and valleys through which we trekked. At one point uphill, my trekking stick came out. Hamad may be used to this terrain, but Chicago is flat. I am out of shape. I can deal, but with a bit of effort and a couple occasional hits off the Albuterol. Every time we reached a peak, the vista did not disappoint. I knew some basic conversation words, and the most successful conversation we had and understood was 4 words: Bush bad. Obama good. (We didn’t talk about the other guy).

At the highest peak we stopped at what  oils best be described as a shack with a view of Wadi Arabia and a huge black mountain far off in the valley. Breathtaking. The Bedouin woman greeted us with hot mint tea and I warmed my hands by the small fire with her daughter. She had some trinkets set out so I patronized her and purchased a few camel knickknacks for my nephews. Yesterday they requested camels. Mission accomplished. 

Feeling refreshed, we set out again, and at the two-hour mark, my guide stopped and pointed. “There. You go. Left.”  He was sending me on to The Monastery and he was turning back. I saw some people far in the distance, but there was no other soul near us. Just me? Alone, in the desert? He’s going away? I did not expect this. I did, however, come equipped with paper maps and Google Maps was working. However, I opted to set out on instinct alone. Down the crevasse I went, following footprints from some traveler before me (today? Yesterday? No idea). It was just ME. Quiet. Solo.

Welp, time to pay attention. Look for footprints. Any consistent path of animal drippings. A semblance of a path. And general direction as I switched back down the valley. A bit later I spotted a sign and heeded the direction toward the monastery. Soon I spotted goats. A heard of goats means a shepherd is nearby, and therefore civilization. Follow the goats. And I did... right up until I spied the top markings of the temple peeking out from the rocks. As I approached the site, it was 10am and a few tourists had already made their way up from Petra. Me, I emerged from the opposite brush like some dirty hobo, damp and caked with mud and my hair looking like Medusa done over. I felt like Reese Witherspoon in Wild when she encounters civilization. Fortunately the clouds were parting and the sun shining so I could dry out. I was able to get some solo shots of this huge temple. It was worth the hike from any direction. I asked a couple next to me which was the way back to Petra and they looked at me like I WAS Medusa. They didn’t understand that I arrived from an opposite route and didn’t come up with them. When they asked where I came from, their eyes were as big as soup spoons. That tended to be the typical reaction whenever anyone asked me what I did today. Clearly my hike wasn’t a frequent route. I set my Apple Watch in the morning, and it died a few hours in. About 9 miles, 1000 calories burned, until the battery died. Ammarin-Little Petra-Monastery-Petra. 

I relaxed a while with mint tea before heading down into Petra. The climb up was noted as about 800 steps. Gravity isn’t exactly your friend here, to quote the infamous 2011 Huayna Picchu Hike, it’s like holding a squat for 40 minutes. What made this easier than Huayna Picchu was the addition of a trekking pole. God bless. The trek down was lovely and a jordan kitty followed me for a while then jumped on my laps for pets when I rested. At one point there was a second Jordan kitty about my ankles. I wasn’t mad about it. Kitties! Gatitos!

Emerging from the Monastery path I was at the far end of Petra in the main city center. I missed this end yesterday so this was fortuitous. A massive and nearly-intact temple stood at the far end. As an archaeological architecture geek, I nerded out in the Nabatean design styles that I’ve seen in no other ancient ruins. There were hints of Greek and Byzantine influence, but also Abyssinian, which was a special treat. And then styles that were uniquely Nabatean, such as split crowns and inverted steps and oblong angled towers. (Pictures to come soon.)

I walked along the main city street admiring everything around me. Goats had found their way into high temples. “Sure-footed as a mountain goat” rings true. The same girls found me again today and I snagged one more necklace. Who wants a Jordanian necklace? I have extras. Back at the Treasury where this all began yesterday, I rested and hung out for a bit. A young teen that recognized me from yesterday spotted me and I agreed to let him guide me to the cliff above the Treasury, because heck, it’s a view I may never see again. Despite my aching feet and jelly legs. So up we went. It was a rough climb. A few times he had to grab my hand to hoist me up. This kid is used to this kind of activity. It isn’t customary form for males to touch females here (outside a handshake) but I permitted it for this sake of safety and not plunging to my death. But when he asked for my hand to guide me down a flat path, I refused. Let’s not get carried away, kid. I may not be a hijabi but I wasn’t born yesterday. 

That said, I was joined upon the cliff by another female solo traveler from New York. I was glad to meet so many solo dames this week. I wanted to stay in her company for a while because she also had a young male guide. The view promised was delivered and worth the effort. I paid Omar and he quickly scampered down. Without me. My mistake. So I had to find my own way down, which at one point I got stuck on a six foot drop without a grip or place to secure my trekking stick. So... I squatted as low as I could and slid down, landing with a reasonable thud on the rocks below. I tweaked my ankle a tad but was able to shake it off and hours later is still seems fine. I was able to hike another mile on it. So all good there, and all my camera equipment in my bag survived. Okay, good. 

Back on the ground, it was the typical routine of playing whack-a-mole with camel and donkey “taxis.”  I had come this far on my own and wanted to walk out of this place just as I had entered. A nice, level walk back up the Siq would bookend my time in Petra.  And so ‘twas. 

I brought a bottle of water and snacks and did utilize them, but realized at 3pm that I hadn’t eaten lunch. I reeked of fire smoke, sweat, and a red dust clung to me. I desperately wanted lunch IN my bathtub with those Dead Sea salts I received. I grabbed some take-out for my room and attempted a bath. But because water is scarce here, hotels don’t permit baths. Dammit. I needed to do something to ward off imminent pain the next day, so I sauntered into a Turkish bath, a Hammam, just down the hill.  It wasn’t fancy, but it was utilitarian, and had distinct separate male and female sides. (Did some quick research beforehand and this isn’t always common). 30 JOD got me a half hour in the steam room (with a rented bathing suit - I didn’t bring my own because I didn’t plan on swimming, so... but whatever. They were clean.  Then the lovely Hammam mom came to get me for my table scrubbing and massage. Aaaaaahhhhhhhh........ all the dead skin, a healthy rub-down of my legs and feet, alternating hot and cold splashes. It’s a bit more structured than a Korean Spa, so I was fine with the routine. After dressing again I relaxed in the quiet room with some tea, google translate, and showed her pictures of my sisters and nephews. Mashallah is the standard exclamation for “how wonderful!”  

Refreshed after the scrub, I popped in to a shop that was sporting some handsome tunics. The young shopkeeper, maybe in his early 20s, was a bit too eager to fit me into the tunics. He wasn’t overt, but I kept pushing his hands away, with a few “don’t touch” vocalized.  In Chicago this wouldn’t be a thing, but on a scale, he thought he could get away with it with a non-hijabi (despite me wearing baggy pants, a tunic, and large scarf, I still sported blonde hair in a bun and, well, am Western. The male adults here have been respectful, but the young ‘uns ain’t got no sense yet. This is a tourist hot spot. I get it. You see what you can get away with. I knew this wouldn’t be Jordan’s high point of hospitality and decorum. I expect better outside this town. Perhaps I’m more sensitive right now due to the political climate in the US at the moment, but either way I realize I have to be more insistent if it happens again. He breached cultural norms and knew it. As did I. It’s not a #metoo thing, just when you’re out in the world, everything is on a scale. But hell, I got a tunic I wanted and I’m leaving town tomorrow. Get over it. 

I feel like I turned a corner on this trip. No guide in Petra. Hiking alone after Hamad left me to fend for myself. No fear, no hesitation, I just dove right in on the first night, facing the challenge of a new written and spoken language, then relying on my bearings. I was so incredibly comfortable exploring Petra on my own, I felt as if I belong there and belonged to what I was doing. Me, a backpack of supplies, a camera, maps, tech, and the ability to go and do whatever I wanted, far away from the familiar life I knew. And although this was all new to me, the feeling wasn’t. This is what I do. This is what I love to do. To chat up some Bedouin kids or tourists from Chile. Changing three languages in a few hours. Wanting to trust and push myself. And sure, I have already made a few mistakes, but I take them as “notes to self” and learn from them. I feel as though I have finally left “amateur traveler” status behind. I never knew where or what trip would do it, but this was it. Been there, done that. 

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving and I’m headed to Wadi Rum. Will I get a Mars space capsule tent where I can fall asleep watching the night sky?? We will see! And we’ll also find out how stiff these limbs are about to be. 

Jordan Here I Come!

I’m off to Jordan. More than a few times I’ve been asked the question, “Why Jordan?” Why? Why NOT? Petra! Wadi Rum! Jerash! Amman! Seeing the great movie sites of The Last Crusade, Lawrence of Arabia, The Martian, and Hurt Locker. Legendary hospitality. The tribal culture. The serenity of the deserts. To see the Dead Sea before it evaporates. To appreciate the history of the Jordan River. Because tourism is down 50-80% in places. Because they need our tourism dollars to support their families. Because it’s under-appreciated. Because I’m attracted to places off the beaten tourist path. Because I have an “I’ll show them” attitude about visiting the Middle East compared to many Americans who put too much stock in media hype and Jordan’s shady neighbors. Because it’s been on my list since I was a child, picking up a book in my parents’ library about biblical archaeology with a picture of Petra’s Treasury on the front and wondered where this magical place was. 

And because the ticket was $499 nonstop round-trip. How do you say no to all that? Surprisingly to me (maybe not to you), not many (any) were interested in making the same trip. So here I am, settled in to my seat after a delicious chicken makhni dinner (I confess I love airplane food) and watched The Devil Wears Prada for the umpteenth time. Two Xanax in and I’m not even caring that this plane is bouncing about over the Atlantic. I hope it rocks me to sleep first. 

This is my first flight aboard the Dreamliner and I announced my excitement to the crew that greeted us at the door. One attendant took me on a brief tour of the first class cabin, complete with wooden floors, the infamous magical Dreamliner windows (they don’t have shades, they darken digitally!), and even offered me a cup of Arabic coffee when I commented on the pleasant smell of cardamon filling the front cabin. I carried the cup back to my coach seat and settled in. The Dreamliner is spacious and pleasant, and so very quiet compared to most jets. Following dinner, I retired to the loo to change into my pjs. Listen, on any flight over 6 hours, I’m going to attempt to feeling a human on land and go through my bedtime routine just the same, and change again after breakfast service. Staying in the same clothes for 16 hours does not sound appealing. Although in the 10 minutes I was changing, someone absconded with my pillow and blanket as later lingered in the galley stretching my legs, hydrating, and practicing Arabic with the FAs. So they didn’t seem too peeved when I reported my missing bedding and rolled they’re eyes with an exasperated “oh, passengers!”  Pretty confident it wasn’t directed at me. 

So what’s planned? After some quick R&R upon arrival in Amman, it’s off to Petra for two days! I opted to stay right outside the entrance in case I want to catch sunset, sunrise, or the Treasury illuminated by a thousand candles at night. I can’t wait to be inspired with my camera again. The next day I’m off on a Bedouin-guided 13km hike into the back of Petra. They claim it’ll take 3-4 hours. I’m counting on 2. I learned my lesson from hikes in Peru and China that this time I’m prepared with a trekking stick and proper shoes. And a compass. You never know. 

Thanksgiving will find me dining at a Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum eating a roasted lamp cooked in a sand pit, under the desert stars. Have you ever been in the remotest parts of the middle eastern and Arabian deserts? It’s as beautiful and calming as the sea. I look forward to the solace. Life since July has been punching me from all directions; professional, emotional, physical, psychological, financial, social, along with my own doubts about my future, whatever that looks like. Insert midlife crisis. I have fine-tuned my life to be as devoid as drama as possible, yet sometimes the planets align against you and test your blood pressure. I need an astrologist, not a therapist. This all has been necessary. Looking forward to walks and silent meditation under the infinite stars and the red cliffs. 

Next stop will be an Ecolodge well far off the tourist track in the Dana Biosphere Reserve, names by Condé Nast Traveler As one of the The 10 Best Ecolodges in the world. Since the Ecolodge I’ve wanted to visit in Egypt (Adrere Amelal in Siwa is too close to the Libyan border for comfort), Feynan will do. No electricity, no refrigeration, all food is grown on the property, the lodge is lit by candlelight, and the lodge proceeds support the nearby village, where the women cook all the bread that’s used as the lodge. 

I didn’t want to hop on a generic tour bus here. I wanted my money to mean something and make a difference. So I chose an organization to organize my driver and activities that had partnerships with initiatives that directly enrich local communities. For instance, after Feynan, I’ll depart for a small impoverished village on the Dead Sea that the Jordanian conservationists are trying to revitalize. This is exchange tourism. Helping with the olive harvest, learning the art of local crafts, baking bread, cooking, and passing down stories helps enrich not only my view of the world, but my funding contribution is used to fund micro loan programs that the villagers use to start businesses and hopefully find a way out of poverty. Forget staying at a Marriott and hopping on and off a tour bus. I want to make a small difference to someone. 

My next stop is oh-so-characteristic of me. It will be in Madaba, the home of Byzantine-era mosaics. Artists would apprentice here and then set out across the Byzantine empire to practice their craft and adorn places of worship like the Hagia Sofia. On the floor of one of these ancient churches is a mosaic map of the Holy Land as it was known nearly 1500 years ago!  I’m crazy about maps, new and old. My Greek is a bit rusty, but if I learned one thing in my college sorority, it was the Greek alphabet, so I’m hoping to interpret some of this famous map, located next to Mount Nebo, from which Moses allegedly viewed the Promised Land. 

And then onward to Amman, where I’ll spend a half day exploring Jerash, the largest collection of Roman ruins outside, well, Rome. I hope to be able to squeeze in a couple afternoons of shopping in Amman, with the ultimate weeklong goal of grazing on a great platter of mansaf, Jordan’s office’s dish. If I haven’t made this dish for you yet, reminded me to invite you over for this indulgence. Perhaps I’ll find time to squeeze in a mansaf cooking class, but this week is already jam-packed with activities. 

It’s been 20 years since I embarked on my first solo trip - to San Francisco and Silicon Valley. It was for a fencing tournament and a friend backed out. I swore then I wouldn’t let someone else spoil my plans, so continued without him. Since then I’ve embarked overseas solo to Dubai, Rio, Europe twice, and now Jordan. Solo travel gets a little easier each time, although some mild pre-trip anxiety is normal. But once I’m at the airport, the jitters are gone. The Middle East is a magical place in which I’d love to share the experience with someone else so we can exchange ideas and perceptions and reflect on our visit. Don’t dismiss this part of the world because of the raucous neighbors. You’d be missing out on what makes the culture and religious customs so great. Actually, this will be my first trip back to MENA when it’s NOT Ramadan, so I’m also looking forward to what normal daily life looks like. 

It’s interesting... Middle East, Paris, Spain, any Spanish-speaking country feels more comfortable to me than many parts of America. It’s no secret to myself that I feel more at ease around diversity, or even when I’m in the minority (I’m one of two blondes on this flight).  Perhaps because the world fascinates me so I, that I’ve dreamed of exploring the world from such a young age that this has became familiar to me. And yet I continue to surprise myself with every trip with how much more I learned and am humbled but why I don’t know. Exploration feeds my yearning to learn. I am so excited fo what lay before me and what I’ll take away from this trip. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Hong Kong and Macau

Woah boy, do I owe you blog post.  I haven't updated since 2015.  I owe a bit of Madrid, some Thailand, Switzerland, Milan, Paris, and Mumbai.  For now I'll focus on Hong Kong and Macau.  This trip - more than any other - was chock full of learning experiences and I just had to get words on paper.  Whenever someone asks about this trip, I just want to point them to a blog so they can understand just how this journey went, and even after years of traveling, you can always learn something new.

HK happened quickly.  Airfare sale was spied and the ticket was bought immediately.  It worked out this year just as Istanbul 2012 did: fare sale over Thanksgiving weekend allowed us to take few vacation days off work.  Bonus: we'd miss Black Friday insanity and have "Chinese turkey," aka, roasted goose, for our Thanksgiving feast.  After the Mumbai trip I came to appreciate a solo hotel room.  In Mumbai that was possible.  In Hong Kong, notsomuch.  We're not made of money.  Basic Holiday Inn rooms were going for $250/night and that was with a Friends and Family discount.  I stumbled upon a 3 bedroom apartment on AirBnB in a quiet neighborhood on Hong Kong Island and across the street from a subway line.  Kitchen, washing machine, balcony with a water view, and most importantly, since we were a trio on this trip, one room for each person.  We paid under $1000 in total, which made this an ideal choice.  Listen, I'm a night owl and not a morning person.  I'm the last to get up and the last to bed.  Separate rooms are a relief for everyone involved if you can be on your own schedule in solitude without disturbing anyone else.  I tend to get overstimulated by too much activity, noise, and goings-on (like not being a morning person, but all day), so to be able to shut a door in quiet solace helps bring the volume in my brain back down to a reasonable level.

Usually my routine involves sleeping on the plane, checking in, napping, then going out.  This time we hit the ground running.  Ever since being scammed in Buenos Aires by a taxi driver upon arrival, I've always scheduled a private car/pickup at the airport.  Mumbai spoiled me for a comfortable Mercedes, so we did this again in Hong Kong.  The cost split between a few people was unnoticeable once we arrived, were escorted to our car, and driven across the island in comfort.  Worth every penny instead of stepping off a plane 20 hours later and having to navigate a new subway system.  Lately I've been relying on a concierge service provided through my Citi AAdvantage credit card (which gets me Admirals Club lounge access +2 guests which I will never give up).  In the past, the concierge service helped me book two hard-to-get restaurant reservations in Paris, so I turned to them again for the car service.  Upon my request, they triple-bid a car service and HongKongShuttle.com gave us the best rate by far.

Back to our schedule... we arrived on Wednesday, were delivered to the apartment, and immediately hit the streets.  We had plans to have tea at the Peninsula Hotel at 2.  Carrie has carefully detailed the food and experience at the Peninsula on her blog so I can skip the pictures.  It was nice, and finally a chance to relax.  Well-worn silver, tiny treats, and the obligatory champagne lead.

Go Cubs Go!
We explored the idea of doing a hop on/hop off bus pass on one of those double-decker buses.  The three of us bought a pass, with Kat getting a 48 hour pass (Carrie and I had other plans the next day).  In hindsight, if you're doing to do this, then don't schedule anything else for that day.  We only managed to take advantage of the bus to get us to Victoria Peak (the bus ticket included a pass to the Victoria Peak tram and able to skip that ticket line).  After Flying the W over Hong Kong, we had a food tour to catch, which was 4 hours long.  Fantastic, but that cut into our bus tour time.  We explored around Mong Kok neighborhood during our food tour (Thanksgiving Day roasted goose and snake soup!), then hopped back on the bus to get to the Peninsula to catch the night tour bus.  It just so happened that the night tour (that we paid extra for) was the same route as the regular daytime blue line bus tour.  We could have saved some money here.  The next day when Carrie and I headed to Disneyland, Kat took advantage of her Day 2 bus ticket and toured all around the city.  She wasn't even the first person back to the apartment that night!  I may not opt for a bus tour in all cities I visit, but it is a good chance to get from point A to B and do some sightseeing while sitting down.

Mystic Point at HK Disneyland
Friday took us to Disneyland.  This was Carrie's day to plan.  She was going with our without Kat and I, so I decided to join her.  I've never been to any other Disney property outside Orlando, let alone an amusement park in another country.  Like all things in navigating Hong Kong, you have to be a dummy to not be able to find your way around the city.  Disney was no exception.  The park even had its own train line.  I've never experienced a more sophisticated infrastructure than in HK and we were all thoroughly impressed with how easy it was to navigate, and how clean and comfortable the trains were, including all the pedways.  America, you have some major catching up to do.  HK Disneyland was like Bizarro World... everything was the same but just slightly different.  Sadly there was no Pirates of the Caribbean ride, but there is a Jungle Cruise, the Tarzan Treehouse replaced the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse (I want to live in there!), and the Haunted Mansion was replaced by the Mystic Point mansion which I absolutely LOVED!  Ghosts don't exist in Chinese culture, so Mystic Point was a story about a professor and his mischievous monkey companion who opens a charmed box and releases magical light that took us on a journey through time.  Very well done.  Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in HK was the Grizzly Gulch coaster ride and it had a few surprises thrown in!  I won't spoil it for you, but this HK ride is even better than the Orlando version!  If you want to delve into details, Carrie has the info here.

In the meantime, Kat journeyed with us to the Disney train connection, where we got off and she continued to the end of the line to see the Big Buddha.  Carrie and I didn't do this until the last day of our trip.  I didn't make it an entire day through Disney, as I tuckered out at about 4 and headed back to the apartment.  Carrie stayed for the night parades and lights.  If I had to do it all over, I would have gone to the Big Buddha in the morning and met Carrie later at Disney to see the night lights.  Our experience 3 days later at the Big Buddha had us standing in lines for hours to get a ticket then another hour to get on the gondola, then another hour to get back.  At that point we were lugging our carry-on luggage and I had a major indentation in my shoulder from dragging around a large tote bag with a vase that I had purchased in Macau.  I could have gone to the Buddha 3 days sooner, not been lugging the bag, and not waited in lines as long.  But in the end, we saw what we wanted to see, so I hope to save you some time with logistics.  The Buddha is near the airport, so we opted to go to the statue first then head right to our flight, hence our carry-on bags.

Big Buddha

Which brings me another infrastructure point: the airport express train line.  It runs from Central to the airport.  And if you were like us and had an evening flight but nowhere to put your bags after checking out of your lodging, you can go to the airport express train terminal in Central and CHECK IN YOUR SUITCASES TO YOUR FLIGHT!  I kid you not.  The train station had airline desks and computers so we checked in to our flight from across town, saw our bags get toted off, they were put on a train, and re-appeared in Chicago 24 hours later.  Magic.  The HK transportation system is so efficient that it blew my mind.  There is no reason why Chicago couldn't do this with the Blue Line that runs from downtown to O'Hare and just tack an extra luggage car to the back of the El train.

While I'm talking about infrastructure, let's discuss HK culture.  It's the most densely-populated city in the world, home to 8.5 million residents.  We were there for 5 days.  Not once did I hear a car horn.  It took 5 days until we saw a police officer.  Not a lick of trash anywhere, including anything washed up along shore.  Nothing.  The trains didn't smell like urine, no one ate or drank in on the subway, the floors were very clean, and signage was abundant, including guide lines to stand off to the side to permit others to exit the train car first.  Glass partitions separated the train platform from the tracks, a major point if you live in NY or Chicago and are used to delays due to people jumping, falling, or being pushed in front of trains.  *sigh*  Why aren't all subways built this way??

Tea at The Peninsula
So some thoughts about food... A few things were on our must-do list: Tea at the Peninsula, a food tour, lunch at Amber, and dim sum.  We chose The Peninsula because of the time-honored tradition of high tea there, done in a traditional British manor.  The scones were worth writing home about.  The silverware was so pure and heavy I was tempted to pocket them.  No worries, nothing was taken, but it did give me flashbacks to my childhood of polishing our mother's silver.  Tip: Tea starts at 2, and we were in line just after 1:30.  They don't take reservations, so be prepared to wait.  We were seated a few minutes past 2 with no problems.  And dress up a little.  Call me old fashioned, but I just because you're a tourist doesn't warrant jeans and a t-shirt.

Snake soup
Also mandatory on the food front: A food tour.  We took the Kowloon tour via Hong Kong Food Tours because it was a bit more adventurous.  We spent Thanksgiving Day eating roasted goose!  It was a long 4 hours and we were stuffed, but the group was small and made for good conversation.
 We got a bit of history, a bit of pastry, tofu, dim sum, snake soup (yep!) and a stroll through the seafood market.  You won't need any other big meals this day if you're on this tour.

Dim sum was another obligatory item on the food checklist.  Since we got acquainted with a few new bites via the food tour, we felt comfortable venturing into a dim sum restaurant on our own.  We had heard of Tim Ho Wan through other foodie blogs and knew about their Michelin star.  There are a few branches throughout the city; we frequented the shops in Central and North Point.  It's well worth the stop!  The restaurant has a green sign written in Chinese, and no identifiable markings in English.  You know you're in the right place by seeing every table packed with diners, a line outside, and a tiny red Michelin sticker on the door.  We even saw a few other lone tourists looking at their phones, looking lost, and helped them out with a greeting of, "Yes, this is the place you're looking for."

Tim Ho Wan dim sum

Something that Carrie and I do whenever possible is dine at one of the World's 50 Best Restaurants if there's one in the city we're visiting.  Hong Kong happened to have a few, so we chose the best in town: Amber.  Once in a while we can splurge on a full dinner tasting menu with wine pairing, but last I checked, the money tree in my living room window was dead.  So we opted for the Wine Lunch which kept the individual tab under $200.  It was a lovely long lunch and our table had a great view of the dining room.  The restaurant captain was from Paris and eau-so-very French at that.  A table across the way was full of businessmen (and one woman) who appeared to be a mix of French and Chinese diners.  They also opted for the wine pairing lunch, and the three of us were appalled at their inability to finish their glasses of wine.  So much good vino left on the table!  Lightweights.  Amber had a standard waiter, a bread person, a sommelier, busers, water person, etc.  The captain roamed the room keeping a sharp eye on the goings-on.  At one point, one of the French gentlemen at the opposite table got up and helped himself to the bread basket that was on the service station at the center of the room, and returned to the table.  *GASP*  Serious faux pas!  The captain caught this and approached the man, both talking in very hushed French tones, perhaps delivering a scolding.  As a guest, you don't help yourself to anything but the restroom in a 3M-star restaurant.  A schooled Frenchmen should know this.  The captain knew this.  We knew this.  Eventually the captain stopped at our table to chat, and we hinted that we saw what happened, and that we knew it wasn't kosher.  He rolled his eyes and shook his head toward the table.  Mind your manners, people!  It may seem like a small gesture, but in an industry and restaurant that prides itself on delivering service, and following protocol, helping yourself and stepping on the staff's toes is a big no-no.

Besides eating, we did do a bit of shopping.  Okay, I did a lot of shopping, Carrie and Kat did a bit of shopping.  Kat and I were set on hitting the Jade Market, and we had a great time, especially since we went early one Saturday morning as soon as they opened and practically had the place to ourselves.  It took a while to get a feel for how to identify the real versus fake jade.  The fake glass "jade" was easily identifiable by the sheer volume of items on display on the tables.  If it's piles high, it's

I use this method at home now.
probably cheap and easily manufactured.  But that's not to stop you from buying something you like.  Just haggle hard.  Be prepared to walk away because chances are there are five other stalls selling the same thing.  Shop around first to get a feel for pricing, then go back to the stall you want to deal with.  A lot of stalls are owned by the same family or groups.  The real jade can be spotted by looking for the stalls with just a few items, and locals huddled around.  Once I figured this out, I also realized that these dealers don't haggle as much.  Their prices don't drop as easily, and they're happy to wave you off and not make a sale at all.  I landed at a stall near the rear that was selling beautiful light green Burmese jade.  I picked out a bracelet, beaded necklace, and a small wheel-like pendant.  At first I couldn't get the bracelet on my arm.  Too small.  The woman shook her head and put a small plastic bag over my hand, then slipped the bracelet over it.  Magic!!  The jewelry went on and off with ease.  Her prices were higher than the fake stuff, but the value was fine for me and I was happy with my purchase.  It's very much worth making a stop here in Kowloon (north of the Temple Street Market) if you're a fan of jewelry.  Plus I walked out with two blue glazed ceramic foo dogs to boot.

Faberge phoenix at the Wynn Cotai
We also decided to spend one day in Macau.  It's another autonomous Chinese territory just an hour's ferry ride away.  We didn't plan much for this.  Figured we'd just head down to the ferry, buy a ticket, and be on our way.  Lesson: Set aside one day for this and don't make any other plans.  It took nearly two hours to get tickets, go through passport control, board, sail, disembark, back through passport control, and we were in Macau.  And... this is where we really should have planned more.  We had no idea how to get from the ferry port to the old city center.  Didn't see a taxi stand.  Had no idea how far the city center was (is that a mile on the map, or five?).  After wandering a bit we saw free casino shuttle buses lined up and figured we'd just get on one that would bring us nearest to the old center, and we could hoof it.  We saw a bus for the Wynn, and knew that casino was near where we wanted to go.  And hey, the Wynn is a classy joint.  We figured we could trust it.  It wasn't like getting on the bus to Circus Circus ifyouknowhatimean.  If we got to the Wynn, somewhere a concierge would help us out.  So on the bus we go, aaaaaand over a bridge we go.... away from the city!

We didn't realize that the Wynn also had a casino on the other side of the territory on the other island and we got on the wrong bus!  Whoops!  We were headed to Cotai.  Welp... this is where so often we realized that the three of us developed an unspoken dynamic.  Kat was always ready to walk up to any hotel concierge and request information and ask for directions.  Carrie was good at spotting landmarks and signage that we needed to look out for.  And I usually would get us from Point A to B (okay, except this one time in Macauj; I took a time-out from navigation).  After a lovely spin around the Wynn Cotai, we hailed a cab from taxi stand and headed into old Cotai.  I had previously flagged a traditional Portuguese restaurant on this side of the city and it was time for lunch.  The cab didn't have any idea where we wanted to go, so I sat up front with Google Maps and directed him.  We found the restaurant on a pedestrian side street and loaded up on Portuguese goodness.  This was a nice break from Chinese food which was frequently full of bones and chicken feet (apparently the Chinese cuisine is big on texture and working for your food).  Another taxi got us back to the old colonial center of Macau where we hit up a couple churches and historic sights, and decided to head back to Hong Kong.

Except we also should have purchased our return ticket that morning.  The return ferry was full and we stood in standby lines in the terminal to try to get on the next ferry.  We had reservations for a traditional Chinese junk Victoria Harbor cruise that evening.  We did get on an earlier ferry, but missed our junk cruise boarding time.  All this took another 3-4 hours to get back to Hong Kong.  At the Aqua Luna cruise dock, I explained the situation to the host, and she was happy to let us on to a later cruise.  We had paid for a more expensive, earlier cruise that we had missed, so in exchange, she agreed to allow us additional free drinks on the later cruise.  Woot!  
It was no hassle at all and the staff was very accommodating.  We arranged to board the cruise on the Kowloon side, but since our plans had all been re-arranged, we wanted to actually disembark on the Central side.  Again I spoke to the cruise host, explained the entire situation, she spoke to the captain, and they agreed to make an exception for us and let us stay on until we reached the Central dock later in the evening.  Aqua Luna had been especially accommodating and I have to remember to leave them a rave TripAdvisor review.  The cruise was so relaxing, sitting on the front of the boat, reclining with a glass of wine and a warm breeze and staring at the gorgeous Hong Kong skyline.  For as crazy as that day was, everything still worked out.

We combed Hong Kong.  By the end of the week we were exhausted and not looking forward to 11 hours in cattle class.  Fortunately Carrie and I applied for upgrades and we scored seats in Business Class (I love free pajamas and lay-flat beds!).  We had a long layover in LAX, and Carrie was my guest in the Admirals Club lounge.  After 10 hours in flight, I used the lounge showers to freshen up and feel a bit more like myself before getting on the red eye to O'Hare.  I may never give up lounge access.  Free wine, snacks, soups, salads, showers, power charging stations, and friendly service.  Bless them.

Hong Kong was a success.  I learned so much on this trip.  Just when I thought I had traveling figured out, it throws a curveball and you learn on your feet again.  I'd happily go back.  It's friendly, clean, organized, well-marked, cosmopolitan, international, and just beautiful.