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Around The World, 2018

Well, this is a first. I’m writing this blog post on a Virgin Atlantic flight somewhere over the UK. Our family vacation around the world–which isn’t a first–was scheduled to start this upcoming Thursday for all of us, but I’ve departed a bit early in order to spend a couple of days in England with members of my future / new team.

That requires some explanation: I’m starting a new job in a new industry in mid-June with a company based in England. Like most of my professional career, I’ll be working remotely from my home office in Florida, as well as traveling pretty extensively — including probably monthly trips to the UK once I’m established in the role.

So, this week will be a preview of that (and my future professional life) for me.

Since there wouldn’t have been time to participate in these meetings, fly home, and then immediately return to Europe, I rearranged my travel so that I’ll meet Libby, Emerson, and Mom in Frankfurt, Germany on Friday morning. From there, we’ll be off on a drive through Germany and France. We’ll spend a couple of days in Paris. Then we’ll fly to Dubai (despite it being summer and the holy month of Ramadan, neither of which are optimal for travel to Middle East). Finally, we’ll end our trip in Tokyo, which will include a visit to Tokyo Disneyland (something that thrills the girls).

I should mention this flight as it was my first time in Virgin Atlantic’s Upper Class. The airline recently updated the cabin on their A330 fleet, which now has three rows of single seats that are angled forwards (so, you take off and land at kind of a 45 degree angle to the direction of the plane). The seats and bed (though short) are very comfortable. The food and drinks were just alright. And, while the space in your “suite” / seat module is used very well, it’s used a little too well for my liking. That is to say, there’s very little room on either side of your seat and essentially no storage space other than the overhead bins. Overall, I like Delta’s business class product better — even the much maligned 767 product.

Note: I finished this post about 6 months after our trip. As is often the case, I’m frequently delayed in my writing–sometimes during and almost always after our trips.

For our final day in Quito, we planned a fairly relaxing day knowing that we’d be flying back home late in the evening (after midnight). Indeed, since we were departing so late and the hotel room was fairly cheap, I opted to keep it for an extra evening to give us a place to relax before departing around 9:30 for the flight.

Our day began with breakfast in the Marriott executive lounge. After breakfast, we walked to the nearby Parque La Carolina, which is home to the Quito Botanical Gardens.

The gardens were lovely.

After visiting the gardens, we stopped by a local shopping mall and browsed the goods on offer. As I mentioned in my previous post, some items (locally produced or cheaply imported) are more affordable here, but I’d imagine one would sacrifice much of the lower cost of living savings in Ecuador if they continued to purchase major American or foreign brand goods that are multiples of the price back home.

After the mall and lunch, we returned to the hotel where Emerson and I went swimming in the lovely, heated pool:

Pretty nice on a cool-ish and windy day at 9,000ft of altitude!

For dinner, we returned to our favorite Crepes and Waffles. Emerson and I shared a delicious dessert:

Unfortunately, the journey home was a little less than ideal. Our already late flight out of Quito was delayed by a late arriving aircraft. The flight was also a bit turbulent due to weather in the Caribbean, making it a little more difficult to sleep on an already short flight. We landed in Ft Lauderdale to be greeted to chaos and delays at immigration, which seemed to be undergoing some sort of renovation. Blah!

Ultimately, we made it to the car and drove home with minimal hassle. I felt surprisingly good despite the lack of sleep. And, all in all, it was a fine ending to what I’m sure will be a memorable trip.

Day #8: Real Quito

Today, we met our guide for the “Real Quito” tour, which was billed by Happy Gringos as more of a look inside the lives of locals. We started with a drive to the Old Town for a fairly extensive walking tour where we explored numerous shops and markets, which was intermixed with explanations of how various products were created or used in the local Spanish, indigenous, or mixed cultures.

This is where it helps to have a local guide. He knows where things are made (local vs. import) and who things are used. For example, we saw a shop that made what looked like Halloween masks:

As a casual observer, we would have simply thought “ahhh… cool masks” and moved on. But, he explained to us that people in Quito use the masks to dress up as themselves on New Year’s Eve and then burn their own effigies later that night to ride themselves of the bad things (stresses, problems, concerns, etc.) from the prior year. This process repeated again and again as we learned about the use of plants, foods, clothing, hats, etc. and where to buy (and not buy) goods due to variations in price and quality.

For example, we found that the cost of everything from fruit to HD TVs varied greatly between the large stores in the neighborhood of our Marriott vs. the small shops in the markets of the Old Town. Indeed, our guide picked up some Christmas tree lights ($2 for a set instead of the $5 he would have paid closer to his home for the same product).

He also pointed out to us the small ways in which neighborhoods changed in the span of a few blocks. “Notice here the music is different and what’s sold in the stores has changed.” And, it was true: the music had a more distinctive “folk” vibe and electronics boutiques had given way to shops selling staples (rice, beans, and spices) in bulk. As a visitor from a different culture, you might not pick up on these things so easily as the contrasts aren’t always stark.

We visited the streets of La Ronda, which had been a dilapidated and dangerous area near the central bus depot a little more than decade ago but now the bus station was a park and the neighborhood was a charming, restored spot for night life.

Here are a few more views of the Old Town of Quito:

Our final stop was something completely different, a visit to La Casa Museo Guayasamín and Capilla del Hombre, basically Oswaldo Guayasamín’s house and studio (now a museum of his own work and his collection of pre-Colombian and colonial art) and his masterwork, The Chapel of Man, a purpose-built museum dedicated to Latin Americans to house his paintings and sculptures in an atmosphere which he designed for his artwork.

His house, studio, and its collections were simply stunning and nearly impossible not to like.

It was also interesting to watch videos of him working. Professional artists simply wield their tools with a kind of confidence and virtuosity that’s something to behold. He’s not an especially popular or well known figure in the United States, probably due to his political views (as a socialist and atheist) and close relationships with unpopular Latin American figures (e.g., he was an admirer and close friend of Fidel Castro).

Overall, his art–which reminds me a lot of Picasso, who was his strongest influence–doesn’t blow my hair back, but I greatly appreciated his creative energy, desire to improve the lives of (disadvantaged and native) people, and the world he’d built for himself (down to designing his own floor lamps).

Day #7: Leaving Santa Cruz

It’s amazing what a difference a day can make. I woke up this morning uncertain about how I felt about the Galapagos.

At its best, it’s thrilling and exhilarating. But, it can also be challenging and frustrating. It’s very isolated, relatively expensive, you’re highly restricted in your movements, and you’re at the mercy of nature.

The weather might not cooperate. The animals you’re interested in might not appear along the approved path. The terrain can be difficult to navigate. And, based on some of the “walking wounded” (folks walking with crutches and with arms in casts) I saw at the airport as we departed, I have to imagine that it’s not uncommon for people to injure themselves: twisted ankles, broken bones, etc.

In short, it’s not a typical vacation. Indeed, it’s not really a “vacation” at all. It’s more of an expedition, journey, and adventure. If you’re an outdoorsy-type, especially of the waterborne variety, this might feel very comfortable to you. But, I have to imagine that for many people (us included), the Galapagos presented some unique challenges and an opportunity to grow as a traveler and explorer of the world.

So, yeah, we liked the Galapagos and plan to return one day when Emerson’s a bit older and more experienced/comfortable with aquatic adventures.

In any case, that’s how we felt while sitting at the airport waiting to depart for Quito.

We’d started the day by grabbing breakfast at OMG Coffee before walking to see a sweet, little ceramic garden with colorful murals:

From there, we walked to the Charles Darwin Research Station to view their program for raising tortoises:

Around noon, Ronald (our guide) and Rolando (our driver) picked us up to visit a farm and transfer to the airport.

The El Trapiche Ecologico farm was surprisingly charming. They produce coffee, chocolate, candy, and liquor. We met the owner, who gave us a tour of their production processes and facilities.

Emerson helped him produce sugar cane juice:

We watched him roast, shell, and clean coffee beans:

We also saw his still for producing his version of Galapagos rum:

We sampled all of the products (which were simply excellent) and purchased a variety of his offerings (reasonable prices — couldn’t resist).

The airport transfer was greatly eased by the Guiding Galapagos crew, who handled all of the luggage and got us to the front of lines. Nice!

We checked in, said goodbye to the GG crew, and had a snack at the airport before boarding our flight about an hour before the scheduled departure time. Amazingly, we actually departed 40 minutes early (guess everyone was already there), which meant we arrived in Quito almost an hour early.

We took a taxi back the JW Marriott, checked into our room, headed over to Crepes and Waffles for dinner (love that place!), and went to bed happy.

Day #6: Tortuga Bay

So, Ronald showed up at our door last night around 9pm with the news that our itinerary had been altered. It seems that the seas between Santa Cruz and Sante Fe had been fairly rough the past few days, making our only landing impossible. The new plan was for us to go to Tortuga Bay (a nearby beach) early in the morning (7am) followed by the 2 hour (one way) cruise to Santa Fe around noon for a single snorkeling expedition in one of its bays.

I pretty much knew immediately we wouldn’t take the more limited day trip to Santa Fe. I also knew Libby felt exactly the same way (which she confirmed). Why?

When planning the trip, we’d debated pretty extensively which excursion to do on our second full day with our planner. Santa Fe was ultimately picked despite the bay snorkel, as I knew Emerson would enjoy the beach landing. Now we faced 4 hours of rough sea crossings, having to tank Emerson (and perhaps us) up on Dramamine, eat a so-so lunch aboard the boat, to do an activity only one of us would ultimately participate in — nope, nope, nope!

While I’m sure some (maybe most) folks would have soldiered on and forced there family to do the activity, I’m just not that guy. We’ve traveled too much. I also always believe “we’ll be back” (whether we ultimately will or not). Therefore, I don’t stress about “missing something,” especially if “missing something” forces us to do something we’re not feeling. Ultimately, I’d rather waste money than time — I have more than enough of the former to meet our needs and an unknown and indefinite supply of the latter.

So, when we met our guide at 7am, I informed him that we’d only do the Tortuga Bay part of the trip. I suspect Ronald had told him this might happen, as he didn’t seem too shocked. But, it nonetheless resulted in him doing some logistical gyrations to give us more time at Tortuga Bay and a lunch in town.

In any case, he packed us into a taxi and went to collect another family that we’d be meeting up with at the Tortuga Bay entrance checkpoint.

What to say about Tortuga Bay? There are essentially two beach areas.

One is postcard-worthy long stretch of fine white sand facing the ocean that has some serious surf and therefore is unsafe for swimming:

The other is an equally pretty sheltered lagoon / cove that’s on the back (far) side of the long beach:

So, it’s a really nice beach.

But, being in the Galapagos it entirely lacks facilities of any sort. By land, it is only accessible after a 3.5 kilometer walk from the checkpoint over small hills on a paved path that’s pretty exposed to the sun (plus the walk down the beach to the lagoon). It’s also not a very interesting snorkeling spot.

It is, however, a great place to see many marine iguanas:

The plan was for us to swim (which we did) and take a later (11:30) water taxi back to town where we’d be met on the dock by one of the Guiding Galapagos team members, who’d take us to a lunch spot in town.

The swimming part went fine — basically a day at the beach (not wildly novel to a Floridian, but perfectly pleasant). Our guide introduced us to the captain of the 11:30 “water taxi” before he left with the other family. So, all in all, things went fine until it was time to go.

At that point, we made our way to where the water taxi embarks. For some reason, they use a lava rock cliff as a kind of pier (similar to a dry landing from a panga). From there one is expected to step from the rock ledge to the bow of the boat. The lava rocks, however, are pretty uneven and the step–now at low tide–was gargantuan. By that I mean at least as great as Emerson is tall (about 4′)… from a slippery, precarious rock face… to a moving vessel.

Emerson and Libby were kind of “freaking out” about having to do it. And, I personally thought it had the potential for all sorts of orthopedic, spinal, or head injuries written all over it. Umm no — fuck that!

I turned around, and we started to leave. This sent the captain running after us. We exchanged a few choice words in which I explained in Spanglish that this was exceedingly “stupido” and that we intended to “vamanos” the way we came.

And, that’s exactly what we did… trudging unhappily with our gear the few miles back into town under the noon sun.

Once in town, we headed to the highly-rated Galapagos Deli (I didn’t even worry about finding someone from Guiding Galapagos) for lunch. Emerson and I ate exceptionally good pizza and had ice cream for dessert. Libby had a great chicken sandwich. We all enjoyed ice cold drinks and relaxing in the shady restaurant.

We then made our way back to the hotel, got cleaned up and relaxed for a couple of hours (something we really hadn’t done yet on this trip). Ronald showed up before dinner looking kind of sheepish. I think he expected us to be pissed off, but by that point I was in a better mood. I explained what had happened and was non-committal about his invitation to dinner in lieu of the included lunch that we missed (though it was a nice gesture).

In keeping of the theme of doing what I want vs. what’s cheapest, we opted to blow off the Guiding Galapagos invitation and ate at Il Giardino again, which is a really nice spot with good food:

All in all, the day was fine. Had it been planned this way to start (just doing our own thing), we likely would have been perfectly happy. However, feeling like we wasted time and money left something of a bad taste in my mouth.

But, this happens.

Travel often isn’t perfect. Some days are better than others. We’d just spent Thanksgiving Day in the Galapagos. And, that’s pretty cool in and of itself.

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