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Quality, Bargain Travel within Europe

8 May

Water Wheel: Treviso

While I loved my new life as an ex-pat in the lovely Mediterranean village of Altea, Spain, I relish the opportunity to affordably travel to other destinations. For my most recent trip, I went to Venice, Paris, then back to where I live, with all three flights costing only 150 Euros.

 

There are many low-cost options available for transportation and accommodations. My original plan was to go to central Spain to the historic, beautiful and interesting cities of Salamanca (with arguably the most beautiful plaza in Spain), Segovia (with its intact Roman Aqueduct), and Avila (with its intact medieval city wall), all UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Spain has the second most UNESCO World Heritage Sites, after China.

 

Piazza San Marco

However, getting to those locations from where I live is not easy to do in a timely manner via train or flight. I did not want to rent a car or take ride-sharing Bla Bla Car. As I did not want to spend many hours to get to my destinations, I looked at the direct (non-stop) flights that departed and arrived from the two airports closest to me, Valencia and Alicante. Originally I found direct flights from my preferred airport of Alicante to many destinations, and I decided to go to Venice, then Paris, then home to Alicante airport. I also checked for airlines and hotels that accepted dogs, as I initially planned to take my small dog, Pepper. I subsequently decided not to take him because it would preclude us from going to events like the ballet in Paris, or restaurants which have only indoor seating.

 

Often flight, bus and other transportation schedules within Spain and Europe are not published until a few months before departure. Whereas my initial search found direct flights from Alicante to Venice, when I went to book it, there were no scheduled flights for March, none until July. Being flexible and willing to search for other options can yield reasonable alternatives. I was going to meet my son in Venice on a Sunday in March, and all the flights with more than one leg took a ridiculous length of time. I then found a flight the prior day, a Saturday, to Treviso, which is only a mere 30 minutes train ride to the Venice train terminal for only 3,40 Euros. I decided to get a hotel in Treviso, “The City of Art and Water,” that Saturday and explore the town, which has interesting history and culture. The next day, I strolled around town before heading to Venice. Of course, I had researched, and where necessary, scheduled all the connecting ground transportation for the whole trip. That was not necessary for the train from Treviso to Venice. In Italy, (and some other European countries), after you purchase your ticket, you must validate it in one of the machines on the wall or you risk getting a large fine when they train staff check your ticket.

 

As private water taxis are very expensive in Venice, as are taxies in Paris, I scheduled them on Alilaguna, a group water taxi for about 14 Euros one way and 25 Euros roundtrip, and Blacklane for a roundtrip private transfer from Paris Orly airport to our hotel in the Plaza Vendôme area for about 50 Euros each way.

 

One unexpected issue we had on the flight from Venice to Paris on Transavia was just as we got to the staff to present our boarding passes we were told we could only have one carry-on, and that we would have to put any other items including my purse in my carry-on suitcase, which was already stuffed full. I had to throw out a few items in order for my purse to fit. All three flights were about two hours. It was the first time I had taken low cost airlines, and found them organized, and comfortable enough.

 

We enjoyed stops in historic churches, art museums, live music venues, and public gardens. Included in this article are some of the interesting sites we saw on this trip.

 

For me, one of the many considerations, albeit not the most major, in making a decision to move to Spain was the ease and cost of travelling to relatively nearby European and African countries.

 

 

 

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FISHING FIASCO ON THE ZAMBEZI RIVER

14 Jun

While fishing on the Zambezi River, I turned around from the boat’s railing and saw my pink wallet suddenly being shoved back into my purse. At first, with the bright sun, I wasn’t quite sure what I had seen, but then I realized one of the two local fishing guides intended to steal money from my wallet while the other man was the look-out. Usually one for confronting mistreatment right away, I paused, realizing the two of us were alone on this fishing venture in the middle of the Zambezi River with the two guides. These were desperate times in Zimbabwe, with the continuing pillaging and mismanagement of the economy by President Robert Mugabe, not to mention his human rights atrocities.

Almost worthless ten million Zimbabwe dollars

When we were in Zimbabwe, we were given local paper currency from the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe in the amount of “Ten Million Dollars,” which at the time was worth a mere 66 cents. There was even an expiration date on the bill. It continued to depreciate so much that this past week Zimbabwe took their currency out of circulation. One can now exchange 35000000000000000 Zimbabwean dollars for $1 U.S.

A guide at the elephant refuge center explained to us that before Mugabe took power Zimbabwe had better employment rates and quality of living; the ongoing deteriorating economic status of Zimbabwe’s citizens made things even harder for those who compare their current situation to their lot in the past. We were told that many Zulu were killed by Mugabe. Some of the Zulu warriors danced and sang for our tour group at the grand, colonial Victoria Falls Hotel. (I plan to later post video of their performance.)

As these thoughts quickly raced through my mind while on the fishing boat, I decided to casually meander over to my purse at the back of the boat, pretend to need my lip balm from it, and then carry it to the front of the boat where we were fishing. The river has a number of dangerous animals including hippos and crocodiles, and I feared if we confronted the two men that they might be desperate to protect their precious livelihood. We tried to look nonchalant while continuing to fish.

IMG_1006We were supposed to take a sunset Steam Train across the Victoria Falls Bridge over the thunderous, misty falls, but the train wasn’t running due to the inability to pay for needed parts. Our tour had also scheduled a helicopter ride over Victoria Falls. If they couldn’t get parts for a train, I wondered about the maintenance of the helicopter. So that is one of the reasons we instead opted for the unique opportunity to fish on the Zambezi River. That option may have been no safer than the helicopter ride. In both cases, we and all of our tour companions ended up safely back at The Victoria Falls Hotel where we watched the colorful sunset, flanked by mist from the Victoria Falls on one side and the baboons running around the grounds and up the walls of the old grand dame hotel.

KENYAN CONNECTION

4 Aug
Mother and baby elephant in Tsavo

Mother and baby elephant in Tsavo

Almost everyone who has been to Africa describes it as among his or her favorite travel destinations. I am no different. When as a single mother, I took my 11 year-old son by myself to Kenya, some wondered about that decision, especially as it was shortly after the 1998 Kenyan bombings.

After a couple of unmemorable days in Nairobi (perhaps I shouldn’t elaborate), we headed toward the Tsavo National Park, one of the largest and oldest game reserves in Kenya. Because it was only the two of us, our driver, whose name we later learned was Muguro, picked us up in a smaller van rather than the usual larger Landcruiser. As we headed down what they call a “major road” or highway, we were wide-eyed with clenched fists as he navigated the road’s huge craters. Littered along the road were many overturned trucks and other vehicles sacrificed by the perilous road, but we relaxed as Muguro deftly maneuvered the van.

The flight fiascoes we faced en route to Nairobi won’t be revisited here, but suffice it to say we missed our original flight, arriving late sans luggage.  While staying in Nairobi and waiting for our luggage to arrive, we purchased one spare set of clothes each and the most basic toiletries. The suitcases had not arrived by the time we left for the safari.  As we travelled the potholed road, it quickly became evident our luggage would never make it to the safari site. That actually turned out to be a freeing experience-in the morning, we hung our dirty clothing outside our hotel room door to be washed by the staff, and donned our clean apparel-no decisions to be made about clothing or other grooming.

While driving toward Tsavo, Muguro pointed out wildlife in the hills or on the distant horizon.  Asking how he spotted them, he said you look for movement or a change in color. That lesson has helped me be far more vigilant in spotting wildlife, whether in Africa, home or other places.

Muguro was a quiet, dignified man, speaking only those things that needed to be said.  As he took us on our dawn and dusk safari rides with the backdrop of Mt. Kilimanjaro, we gradually got to know him a little better. Besides his excellent skills at sighting wildlife on land, he was keen at identifying the many different birds.  He also explained there were about 40 tribes in Kenya, each which had its own language, with most Kenyans speaking English and Swahili.  He taught us some Swahili; my favorite word was “twiga” which fittingly means giraffe. Muguro related there were good relationships between the tribes and various minorities at that time.

We asked what area he was from, and he told us the Mt. Kenya area. Knowing the Mt. Kenya Safari Club was a popular big game safari and celebrity destination, I asked if he led big game safaris. When he affirmed he had, I asked if he had any interesting memories. By this time, we had been with him for five days, so he was somewhat less reserved, and related that he used to take William Holden on safari. Though not particularly impressed by celebrities, I asked him how those ventures went. He replied that Mr. Holden had sat around and in the tent all day drinking.

We loved our twice daily drives with Muguro, his beautiful countenance and incredible skills at spotting and tracking animals. We learned he was a loving father and husband. It was with sadness that we said our good-byes when he returned us to Nairobi. When we were at the Nairobi airport, as we were ready to depart, my son spotted Muguro and ran to give him a hug; Muguro smiled and hugged him in return.

Last letter from Muguro

Last letter from Muguro

We had already exchanged addresses, and kept in touch, receiving a last letter from him in 2003. Sadly, the next letter I sent came back as undeliverable, and I have never been able to contact him again. Near my home, I recently spotted a camouflaged fox traversing the landscape-a fond reminder our special time with Muguro.