Revisiting the Past

Approximately 45 years ago my parents purchased a home in Ajijic, Mexico in order to spend the winter in a much nicer climate than Minnesota. Three of my youngest siblings who were still in elementary school joined them.  The rest of us (13 kids in all) would visit when possible, sometimes bringing friends, in-laws and our own children.

Mexico was a real adventure and one didn’t even need a passport back then.  My Dad absolutely loved the village life, the people, the culture and started every morning with a ” Another beautiful day in Ajijic!” His enthusiasm was contagious and his growing group of eclectic friends made life both interesting and fun!

   

Unfortunately he succumbed to cancer at the early age of 59 and my mother ended up selling the home a few years later.

Earlier this year my sister who was one of those spending her winters there found the same home on VRBO.  Along with my youngest brother they suggested a reunion to celebrate the 100th anniversary of my dad’s birth.

Since the remodeled estate now included two additional bedrooms and a swimming pool, the possibility became a realty for seven of us! The small town was now about 5 times larger with an abundance of great restaurants, near-by pickleball courts, and even a Wal-Mart….

We were able to connect with a woman who lived behind our home and owned a beauty salon.  She remembered our mother fondly and was thrilled that we were able to visit this haven once again.

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Pollution and Priuses

I always check ahead of time on best ways (cheapest)to get to the city from the airport and discovered that Ulaanbaatar had both regular taxis and entrepreneurial drivers with prices  anywhere from $8 to $20.  I was bombarded with offers upon leaving customs but I still needed to change money.  One driver patiently waited and agreed to the lowest fare.  He escorted me out to his waiting Prius.  I was quite surprised but even more so when I noticed that almost every other car was one.

    

Given the popularity of this vehicle the terrible pollution offending both my eyes and nose was unexpected.  We passed the city’s power plants spewing coal dust (combustion residuals) and I guessed that was the problem.  Later I discovered that the real issue was the number of people who had moved close to the city due to economic and climate change and used coal and wood burning stoves in their gers for heat and cooking.  According to WHO this is the cause of  80% of Ulaanbaatar’s pollution.

    

About those Prii (supposedly the correct plural form of the car Prius) and why they are the unofficial Mongolian car. First of all, they are relatively cheap as Mongolia does not charge excise or air pollution tax on them and most are used cars from Japan and have the steering wheel on the right side. Secondly, this car always starts even in the cold harsh winters.

 

 

 

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Who the Hell Goes to Mongolia?

I was talking about my latest trip and overheard someone utter that statement.  An interesting thought even to Mongolians who now list tourism as their third most important industry after agriculture and mining. Most of  these travelers are from China, Russia and Korea.  They list the following  reasons for visiting: to see the beautiful nature, partake in adventure travel,  experience traditional culture and learn more about Genghis Khan.

    

Further research shows, however, that a majority of the visitors don’t venture out of Ulaanbaatar, the capital city, and unfortunately with more pollution than Beijing and New Delhi!

   

In 1990 when the Soviets and Communism pulled out of the country the economic depression caused many people to move to the city. The country suffered greatly for the next ten years due to a deep recession and natural disasters.  Reviving the economy is a top priority.

    

This modern city showcases their country’s rich heritage in its many museums and sculptures but one would  have to travel far and wide in order to understand their nomadic history. What I saw are many four-star hotels, an abundance of karaoke bars ( apparently not so popular anymore), and  an abundance of coffee shops also serving wine or cocktails!

   

Cities are like shopping malls….a similarity you feel no matter where in the world you are.  I wish I had visited the Gobi desert or ridden a horse.

 

 

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Expensive Amusements in Iceland

While Iceland is cold in the winter, it’s also one of the hottest tourist destinations.  In fact, Conde Naste Magazine suggests that you might want to wait, especially when the number of tourists in 2017 was more than six times the total population.

       

When the Kardashians and the Housewives of Orange County  preceded me on one of my adventures I know I’m late to the table.  Both groups actually stayed in one of the same hotels as me, although I’m guessing they were in suites when I enjoyed the rustic cabin wing.

  

Iceland has found a way to cater to all comers, particularly Americans who seem to be visiting in droves.  They have decorated caves with white fur, carved out insides of a glacier,  built walkways through lava tunnels and brought in unstoppable monster trucks with 46 inch tires that can conquer almost any terrain.

   

These amazing activities may enhance the natural environment for additional pleasure but I hope the numbers participating don’t ruin what Mother Nature created in this wonderland.

   

Don’t be overly impressed with the low airfares because meals, drinks, lodging and activities will more than make up for those!  The prices in Hawaii seem very affordable when compared to Iceland.  Disclaimer: I loved it despite the prices! And does anyone know where I can buy Smjorbutter in the USA?

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Snow Shoes, Gripons and Crampons

Iceland is proud of their fables and folklore including the tale of how Iceland and Greenland were inaptly named.  But to be clear, Iceland in winter has plenty of ice and snow covering its wonderland.

   

Thankfully I toured the country without the abundance of tourists that visit during the summer.  And I was even more excited that my small group had so much of this unbelievable winterscape to ourselves.  The various activities were most memorable and breathtaking,  from the beauty, the cold and our exertion.  We hiked with our gripons firmly in place along the Kalda River and the next day through a geothermal valley with views of the largest lake, Thingvallavatn.

   

We even spent some time at the beach…watching the waves crash and eyeing the islands close by that host a special festival in June. I’m told that this is almost mandatory for Icelanders.  Their music and art scene are very much alive along with incredible love of their horses.

I was thrilled to finally put on snowshoes a couple of days later when we explored the Gifjokull Glacier and the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano (pronounced with a fake Iceland accent “hey I forgot my yogurt”).

   

Next came the crampons when we scaled the frozen landscapes of Solheimajokul Glacier, with a most experienced guide who knew where the deep holes were and how to avoid them.  And one could not leave this country without a visit to the Blue Lagoon.

      

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the cuisine, especially the butter and yogurt! Oh, and the lava salt!!!  Thanks Backroads for another wonderful adventure!

   

 

 

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Tasmanian Devils and Delights

Those poor little devils are dying of cancer. Apparently it is transmitted to others probably through biting (they are ferocious) and it can kill them in about a year’s time. Authorities are trying to breed them in captivity to save the species.
I went to visit one of these sites and was quite impressed with their efforts. Fortunately, I was also able to see kangaroos, wallabies and various native birds.

   

The history of Tasmania includes many stories of prisoners sent from the UK who proceeded to modernize the country with bridges, buildings and towns.  Of particular interest was Port Arthur, a World Heritage site. It supposedly was inescapable, much like Alcatraz, and was called a model prison with convicts as young as 9 years old.  However, in spite of the school and work opportunities it was known to be extremely harsh. Remains of many of the buildings remain as well as the graveyard on a separate island.

   

   

The landscapes of Tasmania are beautiful with many hiking treks and touristy spots including chocolate and cheese stores, wineries and many handicrafts.

   

   

 

 

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2 out of 5 countries this year didn’t have McDonalds!

An update on my five new countries visited in 2017: only 2 of them did not have a McDonald’s ! (Maldives and Haiti) I was surprised to discover that Cuba has one on the Guantanamo Base which is open only to their staff. To round out the five, Kuwait has 75 of them and Malta has 10….four countries that I have visited in the past have closed theirs: Bermuda, Jamaica, Montenegro and Macedonia.  And it looks like at least 4 out of the 5 I hope to visit in 2018 also have none….Iceland, Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC.

   

While McDonald’s has never been my first choice for dining in a new country, I have to say on a couple of occasions they saved me.  Once in Japan on a limited budget they were one of the few places I could afford and another time almost 20 years ago in Australia when I wasn’t yet weaned on drip coffee and needed a large cup.

Why McDonald’s and not Starbucks? While both are ubiquitous Starbucks is on track to be bigger but not yet!

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