Thursday, September 23, 2010

The thing about Paris

I struggle to sum up my summer in Paris. I'll start with what I know for sure: these past few months have been one of the most incredible experiences of my life. The uninhibited fun I had this summer rivals my college days. I'm certain I've never worked so hard or so much. My life in Paris required an inordinate amount of energy and the ability be highly functioning - even entertaining - on very little sleep. Even though my days were seemingly repetitive giving the same speeches on the same tour routes, every day was filled with an unexpected adventure.

Being a bicycle tour guide in the City of Light has to be the greatest job in the world. I met so many wonderful and interesting people this summer. I also met really annoying ones. How I'll ever sit in a cube again after having the streets of Paris as my office is hard to imagine. This job requires more patience and toughness than I ever knew I had in me. Back in July when I was working triples (16 hour day) and completely exhausted I thought that 31 August would never arrive. And now that it soared past I'm left me wanting to wind back the clock, not ready to say goodbye to the people or the position.

One evening a few weeks back after work a group of us had relay races on kiddie bikes. A bunch of ultra-competitive tour guides racing around on tiny 20 -inch bicycles was absolutely hysterical.  I recently went to an "en plein air" cinema in a park and watched Grease. We sang along with Sandy and sipped French wine. It doesn't take an organized effort to have a wonderful night in Paris. Like the night I biked to meet friends at super cool restaurant called Ave Maria and devoured Himalyan food, then pedaled around the city. Those are perfect nights.
Bike Race

I'm all about biking now. I love biking to the market and putting fresh produce in my bike's basket. Pedaling home with a baguette makes me feel so French. Fortunately I never had one get stuck in my bicycle spokes. I'd love to live in a city where biking is a popular mode of transport. Lately I find myself day dreaming about what kind of business I'd like to open in Paris....taqueria perhaps? I'm also noodling on starting an adventure travel company for women. One that combines self-discovery, reaching stretch goals and devouring delicious food all while staying in a villa on a beautiful ocean for a week. Many new dreams and ideas noisely roll around my head like my suitcase wheels on cobblestone streets. I may get tired of the noise so pick one of the ideas up and carry it somewhere new.

I met a man on a train on my way down to Bordeaux that challenged me in conversation on the idea of "blissipline." His thought is that we need not worry about being disciplined and instead focus on what makes us happy and content. Making money in and of itself should never be a goal for someone; rather it should only be a means to the real goals, be them traveling, gardening, shopping, golfing. Travel is my blissipline. Engaging new people and triumphing over challenges are my blissipline. The past eight months since I left the US have been charging after my bliss.


Ten years ago I took my first bike tour in Munich. That's when I got the idea in my head that it would be great to be a bicycle tour guide in Europe. It's been a dream of mine for years to pack my corporate life into boxes and pack a bag for a trip around the world. I finally decided to turn my ideas into reality. No one gave me this chance, I just simply decided to stop waiting for my dreams to come to me and instead go after my dreams. It is never too late, too hard or too impossible to experience life in the way we really desire. The biggest obstruction standing in the way is ourselves. Now I'm warming up a whole new crock-pot full dreams and ten years from now I hope to be writing about how fulfilling they were, and coming up with new ones.

Monday, September 20, 2010

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream, gelato and sorbet

Before I left for my around the world trip in January I had a question of great importance posed to me. One which required thoughtful consideration before answering, one which would be a true window to my soul. The question: what is your favorite flavor of ice cream? I thought about it for a minute and landed on vanilla as my favorite flavor. Good old fashioned creamy vanilla. I was scorned for my choice, scoffed at for such a simple choice. I knew that this summer on Fat Tire's night bike route that we stop for Paris' famous Berthillon ice cream (that I get for free) so it became my goal that by summer's end I'd have an answer for my favorite ice cream that is as firm as a fresh from the freezer carton of Blue Bell.

So with great vigor I set out on this quest of self-discovery. I've had sorbet, gelato and ice cream. I've had flavors I never knew existed. A few that I tried this summer: licorice, Speculos (like gingerbread), chocolate nougat, nougat with honey, pistachio, hazelnut, cherry, melon, lemon, mango, peach, pear, grapefruit, lychee, passion fruit, fig, lavender, banana, avocado, chocolate picante, chewing gum, Grand Marnier, yogurt with berries, Nutella, caramel and gingerbread, cactus, profiterole, Bounty, chocolate, dark chocolate, white chocolate, cappuccino, cafe, caramel with butter and salt. So much of the ice cream experience is the pairings. Picking two flavors of ice cream is a skill much like pairing fine wines with stinky cheeses. Only there is no class for this; something this delicate comes only with many years of practice. Two of my best parings of the summer were on night bike and they were chocolate nougat and pistachio, and cherry and melon sorbets. The biggest disaster was the pairing of Bounty and cactus. Often times I leave my pairings to the real pros and I tell the gelato scooper to surprise me with the two "best" gelatos. This technique has rarely failed me and generally pushes me to the outer bounds of cold creamy deliciousness.

The chewing gum gelato was a result of a communication barrier in Nice and when actually wanting vanilla with jelly beans. I would have never picked chewing gum and it turned out to be a surprising treat. I felt an obligation to try the avocado as I had never seen it before but love it in the non-ice cream form. It really didn't really sound that appealing, nor was the taste of it. Speculos is something we don't have in the US, when really it's so fantastic it should be our largest imported product from Europe. I'm bringing home as many jars of the Belgian gingerbread spread as I can fit in my bags. (I mailed a jar to my brother earlier this summer because it's just that good and he too has placed an order for me to bring him back Speculos.) Be it in the form of a spread, cookies or ice cream, Speculos is definitely vying for the top of my list.

But one night it happened. It started out as a night bike like any other....me followed by 23 tourists on bikes dominating the streets of the Latin Quarter en route to Ile St Louis (tiny island in Paris next to Île de la Cite which is the island Notre Dame stands on). Île Saint-Louis has been home to Berthillon ice cream since it started there in 1960s. It's made fresh every morning, no preservatives, nothing artificial and it's shipped no where in the world. It's only available on these two tiny island sandwiched between the left and right banks of Paris. The flavors are always different so you must approach the ice cream counter with an open mind and a burning in your belly that can only be quelched with two frozen scoops of Bertillion. As the guide I cut to the front of the line where my girl Margot scoops me up a treat and then I head back to the bridge between the two islands to watch my group's bikes. Often times I tell Margot to pick, which she does a sublime job of doing. But on this night, I saw on the flavor board "caramel avec gingrebred." I wasn't exactly sure what to expect but since those are two of my favorite flavors I knew I was in for something good. The ice cream ended up being caramel flavored with pieces of freshly baked gingerbread mixed in it. It was as if someone baked fresh gingerbread then cut it into tiny pieces to be intermingled with the cararmel ice cream. Somehow the bread maintained its soft bounce and delicate moisture. The only thing I can think of is that it was truly an ice cream miracle. And so it came to be on that fateful nightbike tour that caramel with gingerbread ice cream came to be my answer to one of the greatest questions on earth. It became my favorite ice cream.

Realizing that I was unlikely to ever see that flavor of ice cream again anywhere in the world I contemplated again this great mystery of my favorite. I went back to the wise poser of the question and told him that with great bravery and valor I completed my journey this summer to discover my favorite flavor. Only I'm back where I started: vanilla is wonderful and so are many, many other flavors. I asked if it was okay if I didn't have a favorite? Parents aren't suppose to choose favorites among their children, right? So I cast myself as "mother ice cream" and choose not to have a favorite.

I heart tourists.

Some people are bird watchers. Me, I am a tourist watcher. And I'm no amateur. After this summer I'm full-fledged professional. Of course, I was also thinking earlier this summer that since I get paid to ride a bike that I'm a professional athlete but that logic is likely a bit skewed. Birds are beautiful and graceful. Tourists are annoying and oblivious.

I've always been a people-person. Still am. But after this summer I'm completely jaded against tourists. Especially the American species of tourists. It may sound harsh, but if you spent every day navigating the streets, sidewalks and bike lanes of Paris weaving between tourists and herding 25 people behind you, you too would feel the same way. Bike lanes are painted to be obvious. Two small lanes with a picture of a person on a bicycle every 15 feet or so painted on the lane. The person on the bike picture even indicates which way the bike lane goes to remove any complication for our friends from Commonwealth countries that may forget to ride on the right. Only I spend much of every day yelling at people walking in the bike lane and pointing to the pictogram. "Bike lane, no pietons! Velo Velo! Watch out! Move.You're walking in a bike lane!" I probably say it in my sleep now. I can definitely say it in several languages. And my favorite is the people who not only walk in the bike lane, but come to a stop in the lane perhaps to look at a map or pick their wedgie that rides high under their fanny pack. Whatever the reason, it makes me nuts. The people who I yell at actually have the nerve to yell back or muster up a dirty look and flash it my way. I'm really yelling for their safety! I'm the one on the bike - I could clearly mow them over and have my flock of 25 sheep behind me do the same thing. There was a girl walking in a well-marked narrow bike lane near Place de la Concorde, literally right next to a foot path. She had her iPod in and was choosing whether to play Beyonce or Brittany so she didn't hear me yelling. I didn't have much room and I literally hit her with my handle bar. Not on purpose, I'm not that hateful. But she left me no choice. I won't comment on the record if it felt just a little bit satisfying to ram her.

The American species is the easiest to spot. Men with their khaki shorts, white tube socks, white tennies and baseball cap make them an easy mark. I've seen people walk around with cameras so large around their necks they can probably see into the future with their giant lenses. I wonder if they really know how to frame a shot or extend a shutter speed to accommodate the darkness of night. No one can fill up the width of a broad sidewalk like a group of American tourists. We tend to spread out so much that three people can fill an entire 12 foot path. We meander completely obvious to two-way foot traffic, and give a startled little jump, sometimes even a yelp, when 25 bikers or 8 Segway riders come zooming past. It's the stopping with no warning that is the ultimate bane of my existence. Common sense says if you want to stop, move to the side. It's like being a tourist completely sucks the sagacity out of people. I can be guilty of it too; I am by no means a perfect tourist.

The loudness with which Americans tend to talk is also a big clue, especially in restaurants. Ordering food is a sign of origin, because in France no one is interested in holding the butter, putting the dressing on the side or making your latte with soy milk. It's not that the French are rude and want to be unaccommodating; it's just not the culture of the French to come into a restaurant and go all "When Harry Met Sally" on the servers.

On tour I get asked a lot of questions. I warn my groups I'll try my best to answer their questions and if I don't know I'll just make something up! The best questions are the ones that are really, really stupid. Yes, Notre Dame is open on Sundays as it is a church after all. No, Napoleon was not in the Italian Army. No, the Texas flag is not the Confederate Dixie flag. No, we do not have adult training wheels for our bikes and if you're asking that you should not come out on tour. Yes, I do live here...what do you think I commute here from the US every day? No, I do not speak French. Yes, I still do manage to survive in Paris. The one question I absolutely love and am asked at least once a day is if I just graduated from college. It helps me live in denial about the wiry gray hairs I see in the mornings as I pull my hair into a pony tail.

Little kids tend to want to ride up front with me. And even though their bikes have bells that they incessantly ring I enjoy having them up front. I generally ride up front alone and the kids keep up with me and pepper me with questions the entire tour. They absolutely crack me up. I had an adorable nine-year-old boy that was super smart and a great rider. The ENTIRE tour he would say, "Miss Stefani, can I ask you a question?" And then out would come the most hilarious question about Napoleon or French hot dogs. My favorite question he asked was, "you said that over 500 people have fallen to their death off the Eiffel Tower. Out of those 500 people, what percent do you think jumped, what percent got pushed and what percent accidentally fell over?" I said, "Well little man, I'm afraid that they all chose to jump." To which he simply replied with innocent wonderment, "wow." I hope I didn't give him nightmares.

I poke fun at tourists and I stand by my reasons but have not turned into a misanthrope. Truthfully, I'm just glad to see Americans traveling. According to the US State Department, only 22% of Americans even have a passport! It's shameful. So when my rubber bicycle tire meets the road, I applaud them for coming to Paris. For some people coming on a bike tour is a big stretch. For many it's been years since they were last on a bike, and riding down St. Germain Blvd. into the heart of Latin Quarter with taxis and buses honking and weaving through our lane is intimidating to some riders. I applaud those who push themselves beyond the comfort zone of familiarity. So for saving their pennies, getting out off their sofas and crossing the pond to Europe I think tourists really are a good thing. Everyone should be a tourist...just watch out for the bike lane.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Real Reason French Woment Do Not Get Fat

There is a book called "French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure." The premise is that French women do all things in moderation, have one glass of wine with dinner and a tiny self-controlled square of dark chocolate for dessert. That because French women walk everywhere they have no need for designated exercise time - high activity levels are a way of life. And voilà, they are thin.

This is as wrong as my French pronunciations. This is a bunch of bologna, or perhaps here in Paris it's some sort of processed duck deli meat. You get the idea.

After a summer in Paris I know the real story on this phenomenon. French women do not get fat because French women simply do not eat. It's true. They drink espressos and chain smoke cigarettes. It's the culture at Paris' ubiquitous cafe scene. According to the French sommelier who taught a wine class I took, French women don't drink wine. At all. He says it's a contributing factor to why French women are so boring (his words, not mine!)

I started paying attention to what French women order in bakeries. Baguettes. And I'm sure they're devoured by their families, not themsleves. I very rarely see a French woman order a pastry. I'm convinced that pastries are actually baked for tourists, not locals. Perhaps they're all baked for especially for me.

So, there it is. Caffeine, nicotine and starving are the weight-loss secrets of the French. And I'm so not French. But I have definitely mastered the secret of eating for pleasure - the secret is a little Jewish bakery in the Marais called Korcarz Bakery. It's where my girlfriends and I discovered the most delicious almond croissants we've ever tasted. They're filled with almond cream, sprinkled with sliced almonds and baked again, until the cream has set and the elbows of the croissant are crisp.We are convinced they get fried at some point in the process -  they're just so good they have to have been fried. They're very funnel cake-esque. The Texas State Fair has nothing on these babies. The bakery also whips up chocolate fondant and cheesecake that are so incredible they make me stay in Paris forever.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Greatest Generation

Before: I'm on the train to Normandy en route to a D-Day tour. My interest in WWII lies in its connection to my grandfather, Lt Col TJ "Curly" Williams. My grandfather (TJ Papa) was a B-25 bomber pilot in the south pacific. Though he didn't fight in Europe this was a war he strongly believed in, for which he willingly risked his life.

In 1943, my TJ Papa was a tank commander preparing to ship out to north Africa. A posting in the officers' club advertised that the army air corp had been formed and was looking for pilots. He and a friend thought the food would be better in an airplane than in a tank, so they joined up. In early 1944, he graduated from training and was sent to the Pacific theater, flying missions against the Japanese. He not only dropped bombs, but also leaflets warning of an impending terrible weapon attack ahead of both Nagasaki and Herishima. The entire tank battalion he was part of before entering the Air Corps was wiped out in northern Africa. Had he not become a pilot, I wouldn't be writing this.

My generation has it so easy. There is no fear of being drafted - the brave men and women in the armed forces today made a choice to join. No digging trenches and living in fox holes through freezing winters across Europe. I'm afraid the appeal of a day trip to learn about the Normandy Invasion will be lost on the next generation who grew up with wars only in the Middle East, with no appreciation of what their great-grandfathers did in the world wars. Most people don't even know the names of all their great-grandparents. I'm guilty, are you?

So, I write this all before walking Omaha beach and standing in the American Cemetery. I'm not sure how the experience today will connect with me, but I hope that it does.
 

After: Powerful day in Normandy. It was rainy much of the day which made the experience more authentic. We started at Pointe du Hoc which is where the Army Rangers came ashore for a cliff-side assault. From there we moved along Omaha Beach, where on June 6, 1944 approximately 5,500 Allied troops died during the invasion. The American Cemetery overlooks Omaha Beach where the remains of 9,383 servicemen and four women are marked with white gravestones. The D-Day museum is very well done and highlights soldiers' personal lives who died during the war in France.
Omaha Beach

I was affected by one photo that was taken of about 25 American servicemen in a boat prior to departing from England toward Normandy. The men have giant smiles on their faces, many of them holding packs of Lucky Strikes. I wasn't there, so this is all my interpretation and could be totally wrong. But the men looked genuinely happy - excited for the chance to go kick some Nazi butt. Things changed as they waded through the 54 degree water under a heavy barrage inflicted by the Nazis. Little went as planned that day and thousands of young men like the ones in the photo were slaughtered. It was haunting. It really made me appreciate the sacrifices of over 400,000 Americans who died during WWII.

It is with good reason they are called the Greatest Generation. 



Sunday, August 8, 2010

Starbucks in any language

I caved. I'm sipping a skinny vanilla latte at Starbucks as I write this. I had expected to give a tour this morning but fortunately it's drizzly and muggy out so I didn't have to go. (not that I mind giving tours - but I have guaranteed afternoon and night tours so I get to work 10 hour day instead of 14. And for that I'm grateful.)

I had a hunch I may not go out this morning when I looked out my window at the gloomy sky so brought my book with me. I've joined the craze and am reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I was craving something familair so decided to spend the morning reading and sipping at Starbucks.

It wasn't just the familiarity of Starbucks that appealed to me, it was the service. I came in and ordered my drink exactly as I pleased. My heart's desire. And it was prepared with a smile! I've been so underwhelmed by the service in France, especially of late. So the chance to order skim milk and Splenda is a satisfying change from the ordinary.

At restaurants I've noticed that tourists are often served differently from locals. For me, courses are often brought together - rather than salad first - unless you specify otherwise. But for locals the default is separate courses. I wish I had some "I'm local" badge so that I could earn the right to slowly linger over my meal. But my broken French when ordering gives me away every time.

Once you have your food you will likely not see the waiter again until you flag him down and ask for the check. No "how is everything?" or "can I get you a refill?" As an American I have come to expect great service. Shamefully I feel even entitled to it. Over here waiting tables is truly a profession - not something one does to put themself though college. Service (tips) is included in l'addition (bill) and the waiters are salaried or a given a high hourly wage so there is no motivation for good service.

In countries like Spain and Italy I found that servers enjoy tourists giving ordering a go in the local language. They often help you along, all with a smile. In France, not so. Trying to order in French generally is answered with an annoyed waiter responding in English - not at all interested in indulging tourist attempts at language mastery.

Another difference in service was highlighted during my day on the Côtes-du-rhône wine trail in the Provence region. Having spent days wine tasting in northern California, Australia and South Africa I had a presupposition of what the winery visit should entail. The domain visits here are a bit shocking to the American "I expect great service" system. No one suggests a tasting order, no one tells you anything about the wine. You are simply greeted by a grumpy French woman who expects you just to point to a list. They have no interest in answering questions and you definitely can't buy a glass of your favoirte to enjoy on a patio overlooking the vineyards. The only exception to this was at Domaine de Mourchon - where we met the friendly British owner (who made his millions living in Houston in the 80s). He told us all about the winery's history, the wines and his upcoming event at a steak house in Dallas. His wines were wonderful and will be popping up on a menu near you!

I've come to expect poor service in France. And on the ocassion where I get great service I'm very appreciative. I notice it, rather than expect it. It's the same in the broader since of my life. I pour my venti-sized expectations into an espresso-sized cup and am surprised when it makes a mess. This summer I have been trying to notice the wonderful things and people that surround me and experiences I'm given, rather than just expect them. Appreciation requires effort. So today I am savoring the sun that's now shining and the smile that comes with my cup of coffee.

*I realize this is filled with generalizations, and I'm okay with that.
** I also realize 'servers' is a more proper term than 'waiters' but just don't feel it appropriate in the French waiter context.

Annecy

Make a mental list of all the cities you know of in Spain or Italy or Germany. Several, right? Now think about France. My guess is Paris came first to mind and then the list quickly tapers. Unlike most countries in Europe with several large cities, France is built around the single City of Light. Up until recent years the rail system here even reflected this; Paris was the single hub of the wheel and to get to another part of the country you had to first travel to Paris.

Prior to this summer I had been to Paris a few times, but not explored the rest of the country. My goal for the summer was to focus on seeing a much of France as I can - especially towns I had never even heard of up until now. I asked people well-traveled in France what their favorite town is and was told "Annecy" several times. Having never even heard of the place I decided it must be worth exploring.

Delightful Annecy is in the Haute-Savoie region in southeast France near the Swiss border. Colorful flower box lined canals meander through the heart of the old town. The jewel though, is Lac Annecy (Lake Annecy). Situated in the foothills of the Alps, this topaz gem is 40 kilometers around and outlined with charming homes and castles.We went on a relaxing boat ride and the houses and private castles were just jaw-dropping!

On our second day in Annecy we rented bikes and rode the circumference of the lake. Most of the 26 miles is fairly flat, but there is one stretch of hills that made me want to throw my bike in the lake. The jaw dropping vistas distracted me during the three-hour ride. After spending so much time in wondrous places this year a move back to the scenery of Dallas would be a tough adjustment. (no offense Dallas I love you, but you're no village in the French Alps)

There was a musical festival taking place while in Annecy. It was very bizarre. It was mostly brass and percussion and the bands traveled around the streets. So it had some elements of a chaotic multi-directional parade. There was one group that were dueling drummers and used hand puppets. I cannot resist a musical sock puppet!

The rest of our time was spent sipping coffee and wine, napping in a park and of course eating ice cream. There is a place that has 55 unique flavors - and I thought I had already explored the outer boundaries of ice cream! I had reglisse, which is licorice flavored. It flavor was not over-powering, it was fantastic!

The trip was a great respite from the noise and busyness of Paris. And did I mention the hotel had air conditioning? For three sweatless nights it felt like I was living in the castle!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Friday, July 9, 2010

For Paris is a moveable feast - Ernest Hemmingway

Nearly every day someone asks me why I love Paris, why I chose Paris to spend the summer. My simple answer is that it is my favorite city in the world.

I first came to Paris when I was 12-years-old on a family vacation. That's when I fell in love with the city. While I remember I was disappointed when I realized that cars don't drive on the opposite side of the street in Paris, everything else amazed me - even the unrefrigerated milk! I have vivid memories from that trip. One in particular is going on the Ferris wheel that left me filled with wonderment looking over Paris rooftops in all directions. Monet's gardens, Normandy, Versailles...it all stuck with me. While visiting Paris twice since college I found myself drawn to the pace of the city. Somehow, Parisians manage to be high-strung and laid-back all at the same time. Life moves fast here, yet there is always time to enjoy an espresso at the neighborhood brasserie.

There is an endless profusion of how to spend time in Paris. I'll spend over three months here this trip and still not see it all, though I'm giving it my best shot. My life here is finally in a groove and on my days off work I now have the energy to enjoy this vibrant city and the French countryside.

I went back to Monet's gardens in Giverny about an hour outside of Paris. Though it was an oppressively hot day, the canvases of Monet's water lilies came alive as we walked through the gardens he loved to paint. 

King Louis XIV's lived in the Louvre Palace before he moved out to Versailles. I attended a wine tasting in his private cellar underneath the Louvre that was really interesting. When asked what we want to gain from the class my response was how to pick out tasty but inexpensive wine - I'm on a tour guide budget these days so 4 euros bottle is about all I'll spring for...and luckily in France you can get great wine for that price. I'll pass along a tidbit I learned, do not buy cheap Bordeaux.

I'm a professional picnicer these days. Not only are the surroundings beautiful, spending time en plein air means I spent less from mon wallet. There are so many wonderful places in Paris to have picnics and relax and read and people-watch. Picnicing is a way of life for Parisians. If you haven't been on a picnic - do it. Go get a baguette from your neighborhood store, some different cheeses, lunch meat, grapes, carrots, hummus and of course wine and go on a picnic. Slow the pace of your life, if even just for an evening and spend time en plein air.

Ernest Hemingway wrote "if you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast." I feel very lucky, and know the experiences I'm having this summer will stay with me. 

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

nothing smooth about this segue, err I mean Segway

Chaos. Circus. Cluster. Take your pick. All perfect descriptors for giving a Segway tour to 29 Israeli men who want to hear nothing about history but instead perform Segway stunts.

Today two other guides and I took a group of Israelis who are visiting Paris as an incentive trip from their company on a Segway tour. There was supposed to be four guides, but one of my fellow rookie guides fell off his Segway this morning and broke his nose. (Poor guy). It was like herding cats. A few minutes in they told us they didn't want to hear any history and just want to ride. Pandemonium. I feel like I should get some sort of sexual harassment bonus for putting up, "Oh Stefani, your eyes are so blue." Or, singing "Stefani, Stefani, eyes like an ocean." They would not listen to a thing we said and I finally decided that I would just sit back, watch them crash and laugh at them. And oh they wrecked. We even had one manage to lose his Segway key in the Seine and has to pay 200 euros for it!

The worst part was that their company hired a three-person camera crew to film their entire trip. They kept wanting to stage these elaborate theatrical pass-bys. I was trying to hurry them along and was beginning to annoy myself as I repeated things like - keep moving, watch your wheels, let's roll forward, blah blah.blah. One of the crew snapped at me and said, "Darling, we heard you and you need not repeat yourself." I'll leave my retort out to prevent sounding like a meanie. We miraculously all made it back alive and could do nothing but laugh at the craziness we endured.

After work I went to our designated Fat Tire crepe stand. Though not on the menu, our crew always order what's called a  'change your life crepe'. And I assure you, it does change your life. It's chicken curry, cheese, loads of veggies, hot sauce and optional egg. May sound odd, but I assure you it's delicious. My other absolute favorite gooey deliciousness is the Nutella-banana crepe. It's all in the name and needs no more explanation. No matter how crazy a day, how full or empty the tip jar, ending a day with a crepe makes it a good one.

 View of Paris at dusk I took on one of my tours, sky was so vivid I had to bust out my own camera!

Monday, June 14, 2010

somtimes a bicycle is just a bicycle

I used to dream of being a bicycle tour guide. Now, I literally dream about being a bicycle tour guide. Almost every night I have a dream about giving a tour, though some are more like nightmares. It turns out that this is a common Fat Tire phenomenon that afflicts most of the guides. I need not any Freudian interpretation of my unconscious mind and I'm pretty sure the bicycles in my dreams actually do represent bicycles.

I'm getting in the groove of giving tours. Though the information on the stops flows from me like wine from a barrel, not much else is the same on every tour. Segway tours are fun because the groups are much smaller (like 8 Segway riders compared to 22 bikers) so you get to know the people on the tour and the group size is easier to manage. Only there is one major obstacle in Segway tours - poles. And by obstacle I don't mean some figurative hindrance that must be overcome with sheer determination. I literally mean obstacle, because someone rides straight into a pole on nearly every tour. During the training at the beginning of the tour I drone on about looking out for poles and poodles yet somehow, people run straight into them. I had a lady this week ride directly into a light-post then her Segway rolled into the street, leaving me dashing out to save it from a passing Smart car. Most crashes result in a bruised ego more than anything else, thanks to the invention of the helmet. Never a dull moment.

Bicycles riders are slightly less accident-prone, but these tours offer their own set of unique challenges. I can now very swiftly flip a bike over like a pro. Once I have my tools-in-hand and am adjusting nuts and bolts (just learned which is which this week) nothing about me seems like a pro. I've made several fixes on my tours but thankfully have not had a flat tire yet. (please take a moment to say a quick prayer right now that no one gets a flat tire on my tours). It's inevitable - it will happen, and it won't be pretty. And sometimes when you don't know how to fix something breaking it entirely is the only thing to do - like I did with the tire fender in this photo.

I had an extra-large group on a bike tour last week - 25 people that were all traveling together. Seriously, imagine trying to lead 25 people on quick turns through neighborhoods or crowded bus/bike lanes with stoplights every 50 meters. I lost two people on my tour. Yes, you read that right. I lost two people on my tour and never saw them again. It was between the shop and our first stop. I searched for them, my manager rode his bike all over searching for them. I felt terrible, nearly frantic. Only, it turns out they decided the streets are too scary and turned back without telling anyone and dropped their bikes at Fat Tire and hung out in the park until the tour returned. I have now added a bit to my pre-tour speech that says if you want to turn back, please let someone know!

I am still exhausted on most days. My one day off was yesterday and instead of exploring Paris I stayed home most of the day. Even when I was in college I wasn't getting home this consistently at 2am! After work a couple nights ago a group of us hung out on the Peace Monument, which is at the end of the Champs de Mars (the park at the base of the Eiffel Tower). The tower sparkles the first five minutes of the hour from 10pm - 1am, and at the 1am sparkle the orange back-lights are turned off and the tower just sparkles. I see it sparkle nearly every night but I try to take a moment and appreciate it, and being here to see this great monument glitter in the sky.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

It's been a hard day's night (bike), and I've been working like a dog!

Last night after work I went with some other guides to the roof of the 59 story Montparnasse Tower- the tallest skyscraper in Paris. We brought wine and salty goodies and watched the sunset behind the Eiffel Tower, which doesn't happen until after 10pm in the summer months. The view of Paris from Montparnasse is arguably the best because you can see over the entire city, including the Eiffel Tower. It's never crowded and picnic-friendly. There happen to be several firework shows in Paris last night so we stayed until after midnight and watched the skies light up with colorful confetti. I'm finding life in Paris suits me.

But this week wasn't all sparkles and snackies. I did my first night bike tour. My blood pressure has finally gone back to normal nearly 48 hours later. Who knew leading bike tours could be more stressful than selling software? It was Friday night - and the traffic was absolutely totally and completely nuts. Leading a pack of bikers down major streets may sound simple, but keeping the group safe and together is quite a balancing act. I'm constantly yelling back - stick together...or, dig deep and pedal faster! I told my group that all the buses and cars honking at us had no malicious intent but instead really just saying - welcome to France! And that one special finger they point at us as we block the road, well they're just saying Fat Tire Bike Tours is #1! I knew it was going to be a long five hours when just a few minutes into the ride I had a lady fall off her bike. Completely. Her English was only slightly better than my Mandarin so a language barrier only made things more convoluted.

In addition to having riders who couldn't actually ride, my tour was also plagued with two chains falling off, one tire rubbing that had to be fixed (actually Andrew, a veteran guide, came to my rescue for this mechanical operation) and a woman whose brakes did not work. An hour in to the ride and I was completely covered in grease and sweat. I switched bikes with the woman with the non-functioning brakes - which was complicated by the fact that I was also hauling eight bottles of wine, two heavy bike locks, cords, tools, first aid kit and several other items in two saddle bags on my bike. So going down a ramp with nothing but my toes to break was a wee bit daunting. The boats were off schedule so instead of catching a 10:30 boat we caught an 11pm, which means it was well after midnight before our final ride back to the shop. As I was handling out bikes after the boat ride I told everyone just to wait with their bikes...blah blah...and then we'd get going. The same lady who fell off earlier got on her bike and just started pedaling, in the wrong direction. I mean really, was this happening? I was starting to wonder if she was a mean prank, like I was being hazed on my first night bike. She didn't make it very far, because she let her bungee cord dangle in the bike and get caught in the chain. I was going to just lock up her bike, give her mine and me run the last mile back to the office alongside the tour (that's a standard M.O. when things go wrong at the end of a tour). Luckily, I had two valiant men on my tour that were determined to dislodge the cord and did so successfully. About 12:30am we made it back to Fat Tire. Everyone had a great time, and everyone made it back in one piece so all things considered it was still a success.

I know things will get easier. The day bike and Segway tours are easy for me now. I have four night bikes in a row next week. Tuesday is my first "triple crown" which means I'm giving 3 tours totally 16 hours straight - no break. I'm confident that by next weekend night bike will become routine. This job is very physical. My legs are covered in bruises. And when I say covered, that's no exaggeration. I also have a lovely cut/bruise combination on my shin but it's not a battle scar from a tour. Nope, it's from tripping and falling flat on my face around midnight walking up the escalator at the metro station with a water bottle in one hand and my iPod in the other other. It was one of those 12+ hour work days and my legs rebelled. The bruises are a nice complement to my black mechanic hands. I'm definitely getting both tougher and dirtier with each passing day.

Today is my first day off work since arriving in Paris and I've been completely lazy. Walking from my bedroom to my kitchen is the farthest I've gone...and I'm loving it. I'm going to bed early tonight and will be geared up tomorrow for more adventures on my tours....and praying for no flat tires.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Conquering the streets of Paris on my bike



Some people are living a dream. I'm living a song. By Queen. And it goes like this...

Bicycle bicycle bicycle
I want to ride my bicycle bicycle bicycle

I want to ride my bicycle
I want to ride my bike
I want to ride my bicycle
I want to ride it where I like

Life has been absolutely crazy and exhausting since arriving to Paris just over a week ago. I think about what I knew about the city then, and that in just a few hours I'm giving my first solo tour to some unsuspecting tourists and it seems like I've been here for ages. Fat Tire gets us street-ready by going on 9 training tours and a logistical tour with just the Fat Tire team. Learning the French history of the stops on the tour was the easy part. The complication of this job is found in the details. On bike tours, I have a group of 23 tourists riding mindlessly behind me so I have to not only know the route through busy streets, but learn the timing of stoplights, where bus lanes collide with bike lanes, where we perform Advanced Traffic Maneuvers (ATMs) which are clearly a violation of many traffic laws! For Segway tours we stay mostly on the sidewalks, but have to know where are the ramps, where are the polls, where are the bumps - all things that have people flying off their Segways. Literally. I have already seen some gnarly Segway falls. I *think* I have it all down but will find out in a few hours.

This really may be the coolest job in the world. It pays somewhere just below poverty level, so it's a good thing it is an absolute blast! Most of the people who take Fat Tire tours are a lot of fun to talk to (although I'm giving a Segway tour to a non-English speaking group of Germans tomorrow, eek). An average work week is about 50 hours and a whole lot of miles. On the day tours we stop and eat in a cafe in the colorful Tulleries Garden outside the Lourve. At night we stop and have delicious ice cream and take an hour boat ride down the Seine where we drink wine and watch the Eiffel Tower sparkle. So I get paid to eat ice cream, drink wine, absorb a beautiful city and hear myself talk. Maybe I am living a dream!

I love my flat. It's in the 11th arrondissement which is on the right bank on the east side of town. When anyone asks me where I live and I tell them the 11th they say something like - ohhh, trendy. Except I've been working so much I have no idea where are the trendy stuff is - I do pass a McDonalds right down the street but I don't think that's it. When I haven't been working 16 hour days I've squeezed in some fun. I meandered through a street market and bought fresh fruit, cheese and perfectly baked baguettes (crispy on the outside, soft on the inside). Last week I joined guides at a picnic on the quay (pathway along the river Seine) and drank red wine and ate soft garlicy cheese that made me fall in love with France all over again. Last night eight of us went to a fondue restaurant in Montmarte. I think I have three pounds of cheesy bread stuck in my stomach at this very moment. Then we hiked up to Sacré-Coeur Basilica and sat on the steps soaking up the view over Paris rooftops at night. It was at that moment last night I had a 'wow' moment. I'm so blessed to have this opportunity to spend a few months in Paris making new friends and a wonderful (albeit exhausting) job where I get to share my love of travel and Paris with people every day.


It won't surprise anyone who knows me well that I've been here nine days and have yet to unpack my suitcase. So I'm going to make me a café au lait I made with fresh grounds I picked up yesterday and get to unpacking. 

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Travelology

I have been conducting very serious field research as I travel around the world. Through a blend of participant observation, data collection and surveys I have compiled a list of the results. I'm sure the impact of my study will be far-reaching and I just may be the next Jane Goodall.

There is a dead possum every .8km on the side of the highway in New Zealand - this is the highest per capita in the world.

After a stranger takes your photograph and you look at it, 72% of the time you smile, thank them, then hit your camera's delete button.  
Increase the odds you like your photo by instead taking a selfie!




Australia is the only country that eats its national symbol.  
* this one could possibly true and is courtesy of my new friend Annabel from Oz.

The international price index to pee is about $0.28. At this price, nearly 1% of my total trip cost went to visiting public potties. I miss American - land of the free (pee).


"TIA" is the most widely used acronym on the dark continent - This Is Africa. Its broad application is due to widespread corruption, breakdowns, and Africa just being a general cluster much of the time.  (but totally worth it!)  
 Supporting evidence: the border crossing into Zambia.



Baboons prefer power  bars over leaves 3:1 in a taste test.
 



An on-time train in eastern Europe is 30 minutes late.



There is a 22% chance that the monument/church/building you are most excited to see will be covered in scaffolding. 


The most accurate litmus test to determine if the city you're in has been westernized or not is one simple question: is there a Starbucks?

 

**These statistics are 100% inaccurate and completely fabricated by me. Not that there was any doubt, especially with my stellar math academic record...I can't even count how many times I enrolled and dropped statistics in college!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Scary Trains and a Rented Swimsuit, Welcome to Hungary.


It's 11:40am on Thursday as I type this. I haven't been to sleep yet. I am having a vanilla latte right now with skim milk which I was very excited about! (skim milk and flavored syrup are a rare find where I've been) I will do my best to write coherent sentences.

Last night I took another scary overnight train ride - this time from Belgrade, Serbia to Budapest. My last scary train ride was from Budapest to Brasov, Romania last week which is when I learned how dangerous night trains are in this part of the world. (I really liked Romania, by the way). Having taken many night trains in western Europe I hadn't thought much of it. My cabin on the midnight train to Romania had three locks - two of which could only be opened from the inside. I was given stern warnings about keeping them all locked because of the bandits and gypsies.

I got in my cabin in grungy Belgrade and to my dismay I only had one door lock. I was told by the cabin steward, " I must say you this. You must lock your door. Put your ladder in front of the door for extra protection. Put your head away from the door by the window so you can see the door. People will try to get in your room while you sleeping. Keep your passport and money on your body. I must say you." I was like, um, what about my lock? Can people still get in? Should I expect someone to come in? Holy crap what am I doing on a night train out of Serbia alone?!?


My weapons and I went undercover. Or rather, under the covers. I laid on my bed with my knife and my LED Defender flashlight in my hands. I made up my fake "throw down wallet" that I'd been advised to have in case I was robbed. I'm historically a quick draw on calling 911 at any perceived danger, so for someone like me this was very unsettling.


From 10:30pm - 2:30am I had a mix of police and border control agents pounding on my door then in my room  wondering why I was in Serbia to begin with....um, that makes two of us. At 2:30ish was the last time border control should have been there - and they always pound before they unlock your door. I got back on my bed and thought I really needed to get some sleep as my train arrives Budapest at 5am. The train is very creaky and squeaky...though as I was dozing in and out I heard a clanking noise on my lock at 3:45am. I opened my eyes to see that my door was cracked open and there seemed to be a person trying to peer in - and since no one had knocked so I knew it wasn't someone authorized to be doing that. I leaped out of bed and reached through the ladder rungs and slammed the door shut. It may very well be my fastest reflex reaction time to date, in my entire life. I heard footsteps and then the door at the end of my train car slam. So much for my weapons - they went flying on the floor as threw my blanket off so I'm glad I didn't need them! I was then too terrified to try to sleep so stayed awake until 5am when we reached Budapest.



Now if that wasn't enough excitement for one day...what on earth do you do in Budapest at 5am? Good question. I dropped my bag off at the hotel my cousin and I would be checking into later today and took the metro to a Hungarian thermal bath that opened at 6am. It wasn't until this morning that I realized I sent my swimsuit home. I did the unthinkable. I rented a swimsuit. I'm not sure there are many things in the world grosser than a rented Hungarian swimsuit that's about 5 sizes too big. I also rented a 'towel' that is actually a sheet. The bath facility felt more like an asylum and was a mix of creepy, disgusting and hilarious.

I signed up for a massage at 7am. The asylum workers made me put on the gargantuan one piece swimsuit and took me into my massage room. Before arriving I had visions of the Four Seasons spa in my head, not the Motel 6 spa. I lie down on the table in the bright light. No sheet covering me, no padding, and my Hungarian male masseuse pulls my swimsuit down to around my waist. As he rubbed my back it occurred to me that he may also plan to rub my front. This was all I could think about, then I began to giggle. I'm exhausted, in Hungary in a rented partially-on swimsuit on a table getting a rub down and growing certain that I'm about to get a massage to remember. It turned out I was partly right, I'll leave it at that. After the massage I got in the indoor thermal pools. Dozens of old geezers in speedos, and me. The men either had gigantic bellies, or looked emaciated. Trimming male nipple hair is not in common practice here. One man even wore whitie tighties and a shower cap. I hope that someday the mental images of what I saw this morning fade away.





I'm one hour away from getting into the hotel room - which means a shower and a nap. My cousin gets here from Dallas this afternoon and I'm so so so excited to see her! I'm sure she'll be very disappointed when I tell her what she missed out on this morning.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Portugal - I love it when a no-plan comes together!

I like fortunate accidents. Most of the time for me, accidents are not so fortunate (and often include me hitting a stationary object with my car). I did not plan to come to Portugal this week; nor did I plan to visit medieval castles, sip on port or take a morning stroll around 11th century fortified walls that encircle a charming tiny town. Being in Portugal has been delightfully accidental.



Lisbon is situated right on the Tagus river and is built of hilly cobblestone streets that wind around colorful facades. Its principle sites are standard European fare: castle, cathedral, monastery, piazzas and sidewalk cafes. Not far from Lisbon lies Sintra which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site on account of its 19th century Romantic architecture.

I didn't buy a proper Portugal travel book but saw one on display in a bookstore. I went in and had a quick glance at Frommer's recommended excursions and decided Obidos sounded like a nice place to visit. The next day I left my big bag at my pension in Lisbon and headed to the train station to buy a ticket. I was informed that the bus was easier, so I took the metro to the north part of the city then walked to the bus station. This sort of traveler confusion doesn't bother me. I'm not in a rush and since I have no rhythm on the dance floor, I'm used to moving off-tempo!

I got off the bus in Obidos and thought wow - these towns are the reason I love western Europe. I ambled down the narrow streets going in the local art shops and sampling port and local cherry liqueur out of edible chocolate cups.

The town reminded me of places in Italy I visited with my mom and our friend Lea. Having gone to Europe with my mom three times, it seemed unnatural she wasnt there with me. My mom collected nativity scenes from our travels and in one of the shops I saw a unique handmade ceramic nativity set and had a fleeting thought that I should get it for my mom. And then I started to cry. The poor shopkeeper wasn't sure what was going on, perhaps he thought I was really moved by his merchandise! I ache for my mom most all the time. Sometimes I go a few hours forgeting she died, and those are a welcomed reprieve. But it's in these unexpected insignificant moments that only she would understand that I miss her the most. I can prepare myself to miss her on holidays or birthdays; I cannot prepare myself for the moments like I had looking at a nativity set in Portugal on a Wednesday afternoon. I've said this is my year of healing after last being a year blanketed with loss. And since I do a terrible job talking about icky things like feelings, I decided I would go off-topic and write about it.


Back to Portugal. I only offer up two criticisms of the country. One: the "smoking kills" message has not made it through Portuguese customs. I would like to expedite the message's visa because smoky cafes are gross. Two: takeaway coffee is hard to find. The to-go concept abounds in the rest of Europe these days but not yet here. And since there are many non-English speaking baristas I learned that my charades impression of getting a cup and then taking it with me needs some work!

I don't hear much about Portugal as a place to visit when I'm in the US....perhaps part of its charm is that it isn't overloaded with American tourists (as an American tourist I can say that!). I could have easily filled up several more days in Portugal so I'll definitely be back.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Tale of my Missing Suitcase...or Rather Backpack


I always go back and forth on if I believe in luck or not. Oprah says luck is "preparation meets opportunity," and then there's just plain old fashioned chance. I'm currently reading "Fooled by Randomness" by Nassim Taleb so I'm going to keep an open mind for now. What I do know for sure is that my luck (or nonluck if there is no such thing) is like a yoyo. It has been my whole life. I am both the most likely person you know to win the lottery, and most likely to be eaten by a shark. It's either high or low, I don't dabble in the middle.
I hit a snag on my trip. My flight from South Africa to London was canceled because the pilots of British Airways are apparently not being paid enough, or maybe they want more gold shiny buttons on their uniforms. Because of it, I missed my connections on to Italy. I'm not a huge crier and tend to roll with the punches. But this set me off. MELTDOWN. A complete wailing idiot. It started as I dealt with the BA team's complete indifference in JoBerg, and continued the next morning as I described my rolling backpack to the "luggage inquiries" lady at Heathrow. She told me my bag was checked in Zimbabwe on the flight that was canceled (days before it turns out) and there was no record of where my bag was at the moment (they hand-write the tags in Zimbabwe so until it made it to SA it was untrackable). I finally made it through the long terminal change at Heathrow over to where the Italy flights depart. At this point I had been traveling for nearly 30 long hours, was sad to have left my friends in Africa but excited to be meeting someone in Italy, so my tears continued. Two very nice Alitalia agents tried everything in the world to get me to Sicily, but because of the strike it was going to take a couple of days. I thanked them for their hour-long effort and moped off in search of a coffee. I was now in London with no plan, no bag, wearing shorts and flipflops and it was cold and rainy outside. 
I regrouped, booked a hotel online from the BA lounge and took the tube into London. I bought a couple light sweaters on clearance at the Gap and even had dinner at Loco Mexicano right by hotel (margaritas were delicious, the fajitas need some work). I had complete faith that my bag would soon show up and I could depart London for somewhere warmer. The next day I tried to extend my hotel a second night when it was evident my bag's arrival wasn't imminent. It was full. I figured it would eventually be delivered to that hotel so needed to stay somewhere within reasonable walking distance. 
I walked to a few nearby hotels - all full. I was near Belgrave Road, a street lined with B&Bs, that I had stayed on twice during previous trips. I went door to door - occupied. No room in the inn; I have a new appreciation for what Mary and Joseph endured. I went into one and there was a nice Indian man working who told me they too were full. I must have had a defeated expression, because he then said, "well, we have one non-regular room." I'll take it. He assured me I should see it first so I followed him through the hall, down the stairs leading to the basement and into the laundry room. There was a door with nothing but an emergency exit arrow on it that he opened and sure enough, inside there was a bed. A large closet had been re-purposed and the nearest bathroom was on a whole different floor. Too tired to haggle, I paid way too much for my closet just happy to have a pillow I could rest my head on for the night.
London is a great city, so I decided take advantage of being there. The only major tourist site I hadn't yet been to in London that I could think of was the Tate Britain museum. I spent about 15 minutes wandering around it (national museums in London are free) and thought - I really don't like contemporary/modern museum art. My favorite part of the museum was the loo -  I lingered under the warm hand dryer as long as I could without appearing homeless. So I left and spent the rest of the afternoon wandering aimlessly around London popping into shops and cafes. Somehow in my warped brain, walking around the cold wet streets in flip flops was a personal triumph over British Airways...I'll show you who's tougher you strikers! Why buy new airline reimbursable shoes when you can make such a strong statement to those who strike?
I finally retrieved my backpack around 10pm on the second night. Even though I had updated/confirmed/reconfirmed my new hotel info, it was of course still delivered to my previous hotel. I checked the weather for a few cities in Europe I had not yet visited; Lisbon looked to be sunny and nice so I booked a flight for the following morning. My backpack and I set out for our next adventure, reunited at last.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


 I'm officially an Overlander. We bounced along 5400 kilometers through southern Africa. The beginning of the trip was like a bad boyfriend. You want to leave him, but then he goes and does something wonderful so you stick around. The first few days were so hot, long and the most exciting activity was putting up our tents, that I wanted to break up with it. Then I saw an African sunset and decided this was a three week relationship that I wanted to in...and what an incredible and fun life experience I got in return.

There is something about Africa. Photos do no justice and experiences do not translate into words. It's really more of a feeling you get. You get it when you're watching the sunrise over giant sand dunes, or while watching mommy and baby elephants frolic in a river. It hits you when you look into the night sky and the stars look so close that you can reach out and grab a handful. Or free-falling backwards in a gorge above the Zambezi river. You feel it when you're playing soccer against local village boys who are so excited to be kicking a real ball. Most of all, you get the feeling while looking into the eyes of the African people - eyes that tell a thousand stories of a life that I could never even begin to imagine. 


In an effort to keep this blog a reasonable length let me summarize: I'm sick of bugs. Flies buzzing in my ears makes me bonkers. A jackal pawing at my tent makes me scream and jump. I pretty much had "pissy ankles" for three weeks and the bottom of my feet may be permanently dirty. I can put up a tent but still prefer someone else to do the hard/dirty part like roll it up and put it in the bag (thank you tentmate Annabel). I had an absolute blast playing underwater Chinese freeze tag in a pool with my fellow Overlanders. Butternut is my new favorite vegetable. Botswana was voted "least corrupt African country" by its peers but I'm not sure I agree; the border
crossing between Botswana and Zambia ranks high in the most bizarre events I've ever experienced. Flipflops are not for rock climbing. Victoria Falls - amazing. Sleeping in an open-air treehouse along a river full of hippos is incredible. Lions are mysterious. Guinea Fowl are stupid. All the animals are fun to watch in their natural habitats. Sunsets in Africa overwhelm me with their magnificence.


One of my favorite experiences was in the largest inland delta in the world - in the Okavango river in Botswana. We went for a sunset ride in a makoro (that's me in the canoe) through the marsh - the pictures say it all. The African Painted Reed Frog we spotted was my favorite animal sighting of the trip!

Am I officially old if I talk about weather? It's just that I'd like to note that whoever says "dry heat" isn't so bad has never gone on a two hour walk through the Namib desert in 112f (45c) heat. The heat doesn't get much dryer than in the middle of sand dune, and there wasn't one piece of clothing on my body dry - I was drenched in sweat.

Vaccinations are really expensive, so I put mine to work. I ate loads of travel-expert forbidden fruits and veg; I'd even eat them unwashed from stands on the roadside. I'm a man(go)niac. Of course eating like this combined with strange meat is not without side effects. But that's okay because a trip like this brings people close together, quickly. I have never discussed "faxing" so publicly in my life. Sometimes it's an urgent fax, other times the fax machine is jammed. Perhaps it's out of paper, or worse you can only send one of three pages. These are the discussions that fused the lifelong intestinal bonds with my new Overland friends.

I was sitting on the dirty floor of the 'airport' in Zimbabwe waiting for my flight to JoBurg and this wave of sadness came over me. The same thing happened when I left Kenya nearly three years ago. Africa is like no place on earth. I want to go back before I even leave.

click here to see my overland adventure photo album