May 252018
 


Despite the lack of air conditioning and any city noise at all on Moon Mountain I slept like a rock and woke up just as the sun was coming across the horizon. View from my private plunge pool just outside my tent:

Yup, I think if I spent a few more days here I might have actually managed to relax enough to enjoy the peace and quiet of the amazing surroundings:

The road into Moon Mountain…it’s definitely “real” and “remote” Africa:

Leaving breakfast, the sun was coming up just over the mountains:

Headed out to get an early start, because I wanted to make it to Windhoek in time to see a bit of the city. Of course, I stopped at the bakery in Solitaire one last time for another piece of apple pie. Third visit, and I finally noticed the pictures of Moose McGregor hanging in the bakery:

So, this is where things got a bit messy. Maybe 30 minutes out of Solitaire, I saw a warning on the “D” road that I was on that trucks were not permitted due to steep inclines. I figured hey, how bad could it be, there would be some sort of serious warning if it was that big of a deal – right? I should probably preface this by saying that I don’t really deal well with heights.

Well, after 30 minutes more of driving, that’s when I saw it. The road took a very sudden right turn, and started heading up the side of the mountain, on a long and winding road with switchbacks and no guardrail, at roughly a 15% incline. It also kept going and going. I froze probably a minute in, and was like “ok, backing DOWN this thing at this point is going to be even worse, not to mention 2-3 hours probably out of the way to find a better route, so hey…you’ve lived a good life. Go for it.”

Yeah, I’m being a little dramatic because I hate heights, but it really is a pretty bad road. Fortunately, it’s been bricked over so at least you’re not sliding on gravel. The road crossed up over the Spreetsoogte Pass which is bad enough to have its own Wikipedia entry. According to Wikipedia, the road varies between 16% and 22% grade, making it even worse than I thought.

I was way too whiteknuckles the whole way to stop for pics, but a couple from google:

So, I admit that based on these pics it doesn’t look too terrifying, but if you need to see for yourself, the D1275 from Solitaire towards Windhoek will do it for you. I promise.

Anyways, I lived…and at the top I was terrified that if going up was rough (when I looked down at the road in front of me the whole way), I was scared how bad going down would be when I couldn’t avoid looking down, down, down. Well, surprise surprise, we never went down. We were actually drive up onto a plateau, so thank God for small miracles?

Driving the rest of the way to Windhoek was pretty easy, and the road actually turned to asphalt for the last 45 minutes or so. Waze did a great job of guiding me all the way into my hotel at the Hilton Windhoek, and had no problem getting the car parked and surviving the trip without wetting myself. After patting myself, I checked into my first super comfortable hotel with great AC in a few days and went for a walk.

Right outside the hotel was a statue of Curt von Francois, the founder of Windhoek in 1890:

Along the walk I stoped at Cramer Ice Cream, which tempted me with a waffle with amarula ice cream:

One of the best parts of Africa is the streets named after dictators:

Christuskirche:

The Independence Museum, with a statue of Sam Nujoma in front of it:

Very North Korean looking statue – it would not at all surprise me if Mansudae Overseas was responsible for this in addition to the statues in Senegal and other places.

Speaking of streets named after now former (sort of, since he’s still living in the Presidential Palace) dictators, it’s Uncle Bob Avenue!

After a long hot walk, I retired back to the rooftop pool at the Hilton where I had a couple of ciders and just relaxed.

View from the roof wasn’t half bad at all:

At the recommendation of friends i negotiated a taxi on the streets to take me to Joe’s Beerhouse, which was supposed to be a Windhoek institution. Based on the literally hundreds of people hanging out drinking and eating, I’d definitely found the most happening place in the entire country. The oryx lasagne was definitely a one-of-a-kind treat too!

Back to the Hilton, where the city looked just as amazing at night:

Off to bed, because it was time to get up early and fly to Zimbabwe in the morning!

May 242018
 


I was clearly tired from the night before when I slept poorly due to being up with food poisoning half the night, because even though the cabin was very bright and there was a fair amount of noise as people got up for sunrise at the dunes, I slept…and slept…and finally woke up at 9am just in time to get some breakfast and check out of the lodge before heading into the park.

A view of my cabin/room/tent from the outside:

First stop inside the park was at the lodge where I was able to buy the park permit, and drive into the park. I guess I hadn’t paid all that much attention when planning, as it was nearly a 40km drive to the first big dune, “Dune 45:”

Feeling much better today, I decided to head up the dune. Note the little person for scale:

Up we go! Fun with perspective:

More fun with perspective and shadows…it was a very hot and dry climb to the top…and surprisingly windy up there!

After hiking up it was back in the car to drive 30 minutes further to the main attraction…Dead Vlei, Big Daddy Dune, etc. So you have to (well you don’t HAVE to, but unless you’re good with a 4 Wheel drive on very loose sand you need to) drive to a car park, and from there take an overpriced shuttle the last mile or so.

Dropped off after a mile, I’d managed to chat up a nice Portuguese couple which was fun for the Portuguese practice…but trust me when I say, following them was NOT the best idea. Normal people? They walked in a line towards the Dead Vlei, but I figured the Portuguese must know what they’re doing…so followed them to the left on this pic, up that big dune…not following the line of people and the semi-worn trail:

Big mistake I learned after 20+ minutes of very hot hiking to the top…only to realize I was absolutely no closer to Dead Vlei…but hey, at least I could see it from way up there. Down, down the due we go. Now, mind you, it was nearly 100 degrees fahrenheit at this point because I was stupid and had started late…and there was zero shade obviously, and I hadn’t brought a head. Smart right?

But once I finally got to Dead Vlei, the sights were amazing. The contrast of the dead trees against the sand and the bright blue sky was absolutely stunning!

Again, amazing….and I take terrible pics!

Slowly starting the walk away from Dead Vlei:

Not being well-prepared, I opted to skip the hike up the Big Daddy Dune. If you’re going to do it, bring lots of water, covering for your head, and start early in the morning.

On the way out of the park, I stopped to snap a pic of the UNESCO World Heritage Site marker:

After leaving a park I stopped at the lodge again to grab a small snack and some diet coke and water to rehydrate before getting on the road. It was about an hour drive from the park to my lodging for the night at Moon Mountain Lodge.

It was about 20 minutes out of the way, but I totally backtracked to Solitaire again because…I was hungry and the apple pie was THAT good!

First off, let me say, the setting is stunning. The lodge is perched on the site of Moon Mountain, and unless you’re VERY good with a 4 Wheel Drive there’s no way you’re making it up to the lodge yourself. Fortunately, they see you coming and send a car down to get you.

First off, the big down side: internet is only available in the lodge, and has been broken for nearly six months. Coincidentally, they’re also recently under new ownership, and it definitely seems like upkeep hasn’t been great. In addition to internet, the path lighting to the tents at night was out, and if I hadn’t had my phone as a flashlight it could have been a dangerous walk.

Right, first off, the inside of my tent…well, “Executive Suite”, but it was a real tent…canvas walls and all. Note the door on the right to the bathroom…which was almost the same size as the tent, and connected with a small walkway:

Did I mention stunning views? Sunset from the lodge:

Sunset in the other direction:

One of the best things about the lodge in addition to the view was the dinner buffet. Plentiful selections, and with maybe 40 guests in the whole place there was plenty to eat…and really tasty as well. Drinks were a la carte, but very reasonable, and the staff really did go out of their way to be as helpful as possible. Overall, it was a really enjoyable night, even without AC and internet.

Off to bed…another long day of driving tomorrow to Windhoek!

May 232018
 


Fortunately after falling back to sleep around 3 or 4am I managed to sleep until 8am, and only woke up feeling terrible – and not like death. I felt well enough to try and shower and leave the room, and at least see what breakfast looked like. I was craving salt for obvious reasons, and figured I might get a little food down.

The breakfast buffet all looked totally unappetizing, but used it as an excuse to force myself to eat some cinnamon buns and bacon, and get some calories and nutrients back in. I was feeling so dodgy I even skipped coffee and went with tea, and actually started to feel  moderately human afterwards.

Human enough that I decided to go for a little walk outside and see if I could see anything more in the daylight. To say it was a little foggy out would be an understatement:

Woerman House, now a museum and library:

Under the pretence of needing calories and caffeine, I stopped for a nibble at Cafe Anton for their Apfel Struedel as a few friends had recommended. Unfortunately, my piece wasn’t very good and the crust was actually a bit raw in spots. The espresso was, however, pretty good, and there may have been a second one….and still no signs of the upset from the night before other than feeling slightly nauseous. This might be the quickest bout of food poisoning I’ve ever dealt with!

The Leuchtturm – lighthouse – and one of the symbols of the city:

Rather gory war memorial near the lighthouse:

Für Kaiser und Reich!

I found the monument rather fascinating in all its gore!

Memorial to those killed in the Two World Wars:

Walking back along the still foggy beach back to the hotel:

Got back, packed up, took some meds, and hoped I would be well enough for the long five hours of driving ahead. At least I reasoned that if I started to feel too awful again I would at least be in the middle of nowhere where nobody would be witness!

After checking out I got back in the SUV and stopped by a grocery store to stock up on supplies for the next three long days of driving. Lots of water, caffeine, and some Pringles for good measure just in case I needed the salts. Headed out of town, and within an hour I was near the turnoff for Dune 7. It was pretty good roads all the way here so far, and I was beginning to think this might not be too bad. Well, except for the fact there was exactly zero cell reception at the dune. Note the tiny people climbing the dune to get a sense of perspective:

Golden sand against clear blue sky: #nofliter

I still wasn’t feeling 100% so opted to skip climbing the dune and proceeded further east. Had to stop in front of the Walvis Bay airport sign for a selfie to prove I was there:

However, soon after the airport the road turned to gravel, and then even rougher gravel. The car was handling it pretty well for the most part with minimal sliding and despite the challenging terrain, it was even worse off the road:

I probably drove another 90 minutes to two hours, stopping every 20 minutes or so to give the arms a rest from the jarring of the bumpy roads on the steering wheel. Eventually I made it to the Tropic of Capricorn. Hey baby…what’s YOUR sign?

Finally after nearly four hours of driving I made it to the “town” of Solitare, which is located in the middle of nowhere in the desert. I thought I was probably just a little over an hour from my destination at this point, but it was nice to finally sit down at the cafe and rest a bit. This is the only sign of civilization for hours, so a popular waypoint with tourists on their way to the dunes.

Old abandoned petrol machine in Solitaire:

Grave of Percival “Moose” McGregor who had died just a couple of years prior, and was well known in Solitaire for his bakery.

Rusting out truck cab. Spectacular against the blue sky and desert:

Rusting car in the desert:

Welcome to Solitaire sign:

After enjoying a piece of apple pie it was back into the car to finish off what was hopefully the last hour or so stretch to the lodge. Waze was acting a bit crazy (did I mention there was no data signal anywhere in the desert, and only the gas station in Solitaire had weak wifi?) and took me a bit of a longer route off of a “C road” and onto a “D road.” If the C roads were gravel and bad, I shuddered to think what a D road would be like. Fortunately, it was really no worse…maybe even better…and after a bit finally made it to Sossusvlei Lodge.

First disappointment: again no internet, except in the reception area and bar, and even that was rather weak. Fortunately, my hut/tent/whatever you want to call it for the night did have one small weak AC unit, but I was able to move the bed right under it and sleep really well:

Plenty of space in the room:

Huge spacious washroom with walk-in shower:

Sunset on the edge of the desert:

Gorgeous pink hue in the sky:

Wandering a bit further from the lodge, and hoping not to run into scorpions or other wild critters, the sunset got even more vibrant:

Dinner was a buffet affair, and tables were assigned. I sensed a sense of pity from the staff that I was all alone, and they acted like it was the first time they’d seen a visitor not in a group. They walked me over to my sad and lonely table for one, and I set out to explore the buffet. It was a carnivore’s dream, with just about every type of wild game you could imagine for grilling:

I guess I was feeling better and my appetite had returned!  Boerewors, oryx, haartebeast, springbok…had to get my protein levels back up!

With that after a long day of driving I was exhausted, and crashed hard for eight hours. I was told it was a good idea to get up for sunrise over the dunes, but I just couldn’t be bothered…

May 222018
 


After a very long week of even longer days at work, it was time for a bit of holiday before going back to work. Due to prior commitments I couldn’t get all my client commitments lined up in one week, so decided to separate them by a week and take some holiday in the middle. So, Saturday morning arrived, and I was off to OR Tambo Airport to get away.

Every time I’m there I totally want to buy the zebra pelts in duty free as a rug, but at a price tag of 16,000 rand, it’s a bit steep for my budget!

While I waited, I caught a great view of my plane waiting for us. I had opted to go with Air Namibia for the novelty factor, despite their points not being worth anything. The flight time also allowed me an extra 90 minutes of sleep over South African, so that was a bonus as well. Air Namibia used a contract lounge whose name I can’t remember, but it was pretty decent, and I would say about as comfortable as South African’s lounge, which I rather like.

No priority boarding queue at all, and it was a mad scrum of European tourists. I think I boarded maybe #100 on the plane or so. Also, it might be the longest jetbridge in the world. If you look at the pic above you can see the part that connects to the plane, but at the top it zigs left and hugs the terminal building finally ending near the nose of where the Turkish plane is parked. Yes, ALL of that is jetbridge!

Air Namibia flight 726
Johannesburg, South Africa (JNB) to Windhoek, Namibia (WDH)
Depart 11:40, Arrive 13:45, Flight Time: 2:05
Airbus A319, Registration V5-ANM, Manufactured 2013, Seat 2A
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,026
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,088

First impression: I love the cabin. Sure, the seats are super old school leather recliners, but they weren’t lumpy at all and reasonably firm, and….

…look at that legroom! The inflight magazine quoted 54 inches, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was accurate. Extremely generous for a plane that often does 90 minute to two hour flights! You don’t see that often at all!

Sadly, the pre-departure beverage was water, water, or…water.

Flamingo…the in-flight magazine.

After 30 minutes after takeoff, out came the appetizer. A warm piece of what I’m pretty sure was beef, some grilled pineapple, and some orange wedges. Along with a roll…and some South African sparkling wine that was absolutely terrible. I asked to see the bottle, and was met with a “we cannot do that.” Uhhh…ok? At least it was a friendly refusal.

Beef, vegetarian, or fish. I went with the beef, and it was straight out of the United Airlines short rib kitchen. Tasted the same, looked the same, and once again, repeat after me: like grandma’s cooking. Now, remember this meal…we’re going to be coming back to it later…

Soon we were over the amazing landscape of Namibia…

Arrival was about 15 minutes late, which worried me because I only had a 45 minute connection to begin with. I had tried asking the flight attendants if this would be an easy connection, and they didn’t seem terribly interested in helping me.  Encountered probably one of the rudest immigration officials I’ve ever met anywhere in the world who finally stamped me into the country, but not before making very clear that she disliked me.

The path to connecting flights led me…right into the arrivals hall, where fortunately the departures hall was just a two minute walk away. It wasn’t entirely clear if I needed a new boarding pass or what, but there were literally hundreds of people queueing in the checkin lines, so decided to head for the door to security and try my luck. They seemed a bit puzzled with me (since everyone else was going straight from a check-in counter to the door towards security and departures) but apparently after explaining I was connecting that was enough.

Security was pretty quick and easy, and then….immigration counters. Wait, I’m on a domestic flight. Why are there immigration counters. Well, I just walked up and told the guy I was on a domestic flight, and he waved me through. Turns out the one room departures lounge has five gates that handle both international and domestic traffic.

I didn’t have to worry about the close connection since we left over 30 minutes late, so soon it was time to walk to our plane. I tried to snap a pic, but was very sternly chastised by a ramp agent. Ho hum.

Air Namibia flight 715
Windhoek, Namibia (WDH) to Walvis Bay, Namibia (WVB)
Depart 14:30, Arrive 15:10, Flight Time: 0:40
Airbus A319, Registration V5-ANN, Manufactured 2012, Seat 1F
Miles Flown Year-to-Date: 36,210
Lifetime Miles Flown: 2,556,272

Unlike the previous flight, pre-departure sparkling wine was offered. Unfortunately, it was pretty terrible again.

Nothing to say about the 30 minute flight, except it was absolutely packed. Oh, and we got a “snack”:

Pretty sad…and again…make a metal note of this for later…

Arrival in Walvis Bay was a casual affair, and passengers continuing to Cape Town were asked to remain on board, which seemed to be about 75% of the crew. Finally snapped a pic of our plane upon arrival:

Just walk from the plane to the terminal…it’s out there somewhere…

Finally, the terminal building…one of the smallest I’ve ever seen…and this is the “new” terminal!

I had rented an SUV from Hertz for the five days, and when I arrived the contract price was more than double what my confirmation said. First, there was a one-way rental fee when Hertz Platinum told me there wasn’t. Then there were about six or seven different insurances, etc. The guy seemed confused, but I just crossed out and initialed what I refused to pay for, and he was like “oh, ok.” I figured this would get interesting when I returned it. Oh, and the Walvis Bay location no longer takes AmEx, but he was “pretty sure” they do in Windhoek. He eventually agreed to let me go by writing down the credit card number, and we were off.

Drive into Swakopmund was just under an hour, and finally I found my hotel the Swakopmund Plaza Hotel. I had booked the larger “family room” since it was only slightly more, and it still wasn’t very large, so I was glad I’d spent the little bit extra:

It did, however, have an amazing view of the South Atlantic Ocean:

Oh, and it also had a lovely beer garden right on site which brewed its own beers. Unfortunately, they weren’t very good…

Walking along the beach:

Local house in old german architecture:

Sunset over the jetty bridge:

Africa meets the South Atlantic Ocean waves:

Sunset from the jetty:

More old German architecture:

The Höhenzollernhaus – a 1904 baroque building that’s been during into condos:

Kücki’s Pub, location of tonight’s dinner. First thing that struck me: the staff switching back and forth between Afrikaans and German, with English clearly the third language. I actually didn’t know before this trip that more Namibians speak Afrikaans as a first language than English.

Determined to explore the deliciousness of African wildlife, started out with a springbok carpaccio:

Followed up with an oryx burger and a side of Spätzel:

The first of many malva puddings on this trip:

With that, it had been a long day so I walked back to the hotel and promptly crashed. Only to wake up at 12…and 1230, and 1, and 130….clearly something had gone off (most likely airplane lunch based on timing) and I was suffering one of the most violent cases of food poisoning I’d had in many years. Fortunately, around three o’clock, with nothing much left in my system I finally managed to get back to sleep, and prayed that I would feel well enough the next day to even consider the five+ hour drive ahead of me. I hoped so, or this trip was over before it even began….

May 212018
 


After landing in Johannesburg fortunately the passport queue wasn’t too long, and I was off to the hotel by the Gautrain. It might be a slight bit faster by Uber, and not much more expensive, but I feel like supporting the Gautrain is the right thing to do. Don’t ask why, it’s just one of those semi-rational things. Plus, environmentally more friendly?

You know it’s bad when you get to a hotel more than 13,000 km from home and the staff all know you like it’s been since yesterday when they last saw you….and in truth it’s only been a couple of months in reality. Quick check-in, and the first item on my agenda was a three hour nap. It was still early enough in the morning I didn’t feel like it would throw off my sleep schedule too much, and I know it would be a huge help with adjusting to the time change.

Nice and refreshed, I woke up and did a walk around the neighbourhood where the first stop was, of course, Starbucks for some “good morning juice.” Once again, sad, the staff all remembered me. I guess I’m just one of those memorable people… spend the rest of the afternoon just walking around Rosebank, Parktown, and Parkhurst, just to walk off the jetlag a bit and get the legs moving.

I did stop into the Pick’n Pay, and you know you’re in South Africa when there’s an entire huge case of boerewors….

To bed relatively early, and managed to sleep until 7am the next morning which was a Sunday, so great job of getting onto local time. Next stop was Starbucks, of course, where I can’t seem to escape the name the staff seems to remember me by…

While relaxing, I got a call from my client to make plans for Monday, and she insisted that i get out and explore the city a bit more. I’ve been coming here for over 20 years now, and while the city has changed I do feel like I stick primarily to the same areas. Little did I know that this would be the trip that would challenge a lot of those “usuals.”

Since it was Sunday, my client insisted I head down to Maboneng and check out the Sunday Market. Now, just on the east side of downtown Maboneng definitely used to be a “no-go zone” 10-15 years ago, but I decided that my client (who I trust completely after many meetings) knew better than anyone, so off I went. Short Uber ride, and by chance they dropped me right in front of Origin Coffee. How did they know I was still battling jetlag? Yup, quick iced coffee and I was set to explore…

Into the main market, and the stalls were very lively with delicious smells everywhere. It was going to be a really hard call what to choose for lunch!

Maybe some paella with fresh prawns?

In the end, being tired and not wanting to eat standing, I selected a small restaurant with outdoor seating where I could sit down and people watch while eating. Bottle of ginger beer, some boerewors in tomato sauce, and a bowl of biltong with chips. You can’t get much more stereotypically South African than that!

Just as I finished eating the skies opened up, and for the next hour it was a torrential downpour. Was a good excuse to have another beer and another coffee, and as it let up it was early evening and time to catch an Uber back to the hotel.

For anyone who finds themselves in Johannesburg on a Sunday, I highly recommend getting down to the Maboneng Market. As long as you’re even marginally travel savvy you’ll be fine, and get a great taste of how this amazing city is revitalizing. Now, time to work for a week before taking a well-deserved holiday…

Mar 102018
 


At the recommendation of my friend Daniel, I had booked a “Historical Center Food Tour” with Sabores de Mexico Food Tours. I figured that using my one full day to walk around the historic center while eating at a variety of places that were largely unknown to tourists sounded like just my thing – and I couldn’t have been happier with the experience.

At 11:30 I met my guide, Liz, at Oaxaca en México, a restaurant that specialized in authentic cuisine from the state of Oaxaca. I learned here that there were only two of us booked on the tour today, so we could pretty much go at whatever pace we wanted. Fantastic!

Unfortunately times had gotten mixed up, so the other lady doing the tour with us didn’t show up until almost noon. Not a problem though, since I tend to move at a quicker pace normally anyways. Our first dish would be a delicious chicken tortilla with molé and some rice with local Oaxacan herbs. It was absolutely delicious, and I’m pretty sure that I licked up every drop of the delicious sauce.

After finishing the mole, we headed off for a short walk of maybe 15 minutes until we got to the large covered Mercado de San Juan. One of the older markets in Mexico City, it started out as a place to get more “exotic” and fancier foods that couldn’t be found elsewhere. We entered through the seafood section of the market:

Our first stop inside the market was at Delicatessen La Jersey Gourmet where we had some local cheeses and beats on baguette which were served with a variety of jams….and all the wine we wanted. I loved that the plates were covered with plastic covers, presumably to re-use them without washing. Environmentally terrible..

From there we moved on to another part of the market – the “exotic animals” section. Here we stopped at El Gran Cazador – or “the Great Hunter.” First up? Grasshoppers fried up in either garlic or chilis….very crunchy, but other than that the chili and garlic flavours really overpowered the insect.

Next up? A local ant that only comes out of its burrows for a couple weeks a year, which is the dedicated harvest season and as many of them are gathered up during this time as possible. Not much taste to these either… note the grasshoppers closeup underneath…

Pigeons anyone?

Decorative corns in the market…and I can’t help but see this and remember Lisa Simpson saying “or, as the Indians call it….maize!”

Next up we stopped at another stand of El Gran Cazador, where they cooked up wild boar for us….with grasshopper sauce naturally!

To fortify for the long day ahead, we stopped for a coffee from a stand reputed to have the best coffee in the area. It was pretty tasty, and the proprietor was clearly very proud of his coffee.

Final stop in the market was Rosse Gourmet, which was a fruit and vegetable stand. Here, we got a great discussion of the produce – especially tomatoes, from the very energetic Claudia who was clearly incredibly proud of the quality of her produce. Here she is explaining the difference between tomatoes and tomatillos to us:

Look at the colour of those peppers!

Claudia also surprised us with a homemade cheesecake with fresh fruits and a passionfruit sauce…which was absolutely delicious!

Now THOSE are leeks! …and look at the size of the cauliflower!

Next stop was actually at a food truck/cart with a couple of barstools on the side called El Caguamo where we were treated to a tortilla with octopus and prawn ceviche with fresh avocado. Absolutely delicious, but I was a bit nervous eating street food ceviche given that some of the worst food poisoning I ever had was from ceviche. Fortunately, no issues this time!

We were getting a bit parched by this point, so fortunately the next stop was an old school traditional cantina called La Mascota. It was like other traditional cantinas in that you pay for a (often overpriced) drink, and then you get to eat anything on the menu for free – as much as you want! The place was absolutely packed with locals chowing down, so it was a really fun and lively atmosphere.

A mezcal margarita…and yes, it’s as big as it looks. Fortunately, it was pretty watered down so wasn’t that strong. The chicken tortilla was one of the options on the food menu, and was just meh. You clearly come here for the atmosphere, not for the food and drink which was of very average quality at best.

They even had an old compact disk jukebox!

As we continued our walk, we passed a building where some of the stucco had fallen off the day before during the earthquake:

Next up we stopped at a “new school” cantina (to contrast with the previous stop) called Pasagüero. We had an empanada and a small tapas dish which were both tasty. It was absolutely packed with young people and families, and open to the street so had a very lively atmosphere. I’d definitely come back here for afternoon drinks and people watching.

It was nearly 4pm at this point, and we had one last stop – the Dulcería de Celaya – one of the oldest traditional candy stores in Mexico City – dating back over 100 years. Some tasty local treats.

It was about 4pm at this point, and I had booked tickets to see the Frida Kahlo Museum which came highly recommended and had pre-booked at 5pm entrance so after thanking Liz quickly rushed to the metro to find my way across the city to the museum. The other lady on the tour decided to come with me, and together we figured out how to buy metro tickets, went about 10 stops, and then hopped in a taxi to the museum. Much easier than it sounds.

Frida was a Mexican artist early in the 20th century, and was actually close friends with Trotsky. After he was exiled to Mexico they became close friends, and Trotsky actually lived with her for a period. Frida had polio as a child, and a terrible car accident in her teens, and this combination left her more or less confined to the house as she was not overly mobile…and she spent a lot of her time involved in political causes an artwork.

Some of the art in the museum, also known as the “Blue House”:

The gardens:

The blue walls of the house:

From the street outside:

Went for a bit of a walk after the museum, and found an amazing church:

Grabbed an uber back to the area near my hotel, and caught this great shot of the Angel de la Independencia monument all lit up at night:

I was only a little hungry at this point, so decided to head to a local brewpub which had a rather impressive beer list:

The people watching at this sidewalk bar was lots of fun. This guy might be a little proud of his country:

With that it was time to walk back to the hotel (about a 15 minute walk) and catch some zzzzs. I was feeling exhausted from having been ill the previous week and a long week of work, so definitely wanted to make sure to grab some sleep before flying home!

Mar 092018
 


I just realized that I had way more pictures from Mexico City than I thought I did, so I’m going to break this up into two pieces. The first will be the five days I was there for work, while the second part will be mostly the food tour I did on my last day there. With that out of the way let’s get right to it.

The line for immigration and customs was super long – I would guess 500+ people – since a few widebodies from Europe had just landed. Fortunately, there was a crew and diplomats line which I was able to use that only had a few flight attendants in it. Saved me at least 30 minutes, maybe closer to an hour, which was a good thing since I was getting tired after being ill much of the preceding week.

Outside customs, I pulled up Uber and got ready to call a car, but apparently Uber had decided there was fraud on  my account and they had locked it. I submitted their “proof you own the account” form, but after 15 minutes still hadn’t heard anything so I chose one of the pre-paid official taxi services which actually didn’t end up being much more than an Uber anyways. Stopped at the ATM for some cash, and we were off.

I had heard how awful traffic in Mexico City could be, and since I was going clear across the city to the west side area of Santa Fe I was worried it might be awful. Fortunately, traffic wasn’t too bad this late at night and it only took maybe 45 minutes to get to my hotel, the Sheraton Santa Fe.

This property used to be an Embassy Suites I believe, so all the rooms are suites, but they had upgraded me to a larger corner suite as a platinum member. The living room area was huge, with a dining table and desk for working:

Living room from the other side….full sofa, couple of chairs, and tv area….it was quite spacious!

Bedroom was nothing special, but was also quite roomy:

Bathroom was quite roomy as well. Not pictured was the shower cubical which was to my back in the pic:

I was a little hungry, but not enough that I wanted to order anything from room service, so minibar time it was. Cuando en México…

Slept reasonably well even though the room wouldn’t cool quite as much as I would like, and was up early for a short run. Despite no major time change I was feeling super jetlagged and sluggish and couldn’t figure out why. I knew Mexico was at altitude, and I thought something like 5,000 feet, but turned out it was more like 7,400 feet above sea level. Definitely enough to feel it.

No matter, a quick breakfast at Starbucks would take care of that. I wish that I was Jessi’s girl….

Not too much to say. Spent the next five days working long days, but seeing this sunset every day from the parking ramp around 6pm was pretty awesome and cheered me up after a long day:

Client dinners a few nights, including an amazing dinner at Restaurante Cascabel in Santa Fe. Delicious tapas and some cactus salad and octopus tacos. Out of this world – highly recommend it!

Even the room service at the Sheraton wasn’t bad….tacos arachara and tres leches cake….yum!

This fashionista at Starbucks was definitely ready for the day ahead!

On my last day there, we were just wrapping up work and getting ready to head out when a loud siren started going off in the building. That’s when I learned a new word in Spanish – sismo – earthquake. I was amazingly impressed how everyone knew exactly what to do. People moved quickly, and I mean VERY quickly, up the stairs and out the building, and everyone knew where the designated meeting/shelter spots were.

We had about 45 seconds due to the distance from the epicenter, and just as we got to the meeting point you could definitely feel the ground shaking. About an hour later we were given the all-clear, and fortunately there was no major damage despite the earthquake being relatively strong at 7.2 on the Richter Scale.

This lady, however, had had a major panic attack. I was impressed just how quickly paramedics got to her and took care of her.

Back to the Sheraton, packed up, and called an Uber to take me to the centre of the city for my last two nights so that I would be able to maximize my one full day in the city. Unfortunately, due to the earthquake, traffic was an absolute mess and it too me nearly two hours to get to the Le Meridien. By the time I got there it was after 10pm, and despite it not being that late by Mexican standards I was exhausted from a long week of work and opted to just have a small dinner in the hotel bar.

More tacos arrachara which were amazing, and a local craft beer. Not bad at all! I wish all room service were this good!

Upstairs for a shower and sleep. They had upgraded me to a suite, but only had ones with two smaller beds, so I just took the regular room – which was still quite big. I think this hotel had also been an Embassy Suites since all the rooms were suites as well. When your faucet isn’t marked, you make do the best you can….stencilling it on the wall with marked. Classy.

Slept well, and managed to sleep in a little bit. Best part of the Le Meridien? There was a Starbucks right in the same building so that made getting breakfast nice and easy! Still not sure what they thought my name was…

Walked around a little bit before my walking tour was to begin, and there were earthquake meeting points painted on the ground all over the place. I have to say, I was really impressed with the preparedness.

Next up, a food walking tour of the historical center…I hope you’re hungry!

Feb 242018
 


A had a little bit of time in the morning before catching my train to Hamburg, so I decided to do one quick last sight in Berlin. I’ve always been interested in the story of how the U-Bahn and S-Bahn were partitioned during the divide of Berlin, and had read that the Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station was one of the best places to see examples of this. From 1961 to 1990 the station was closed, since the exits were into East Berlin. West German trains still passed through the station, however, but for 30 years did not stop.

Entering the station, the old script was still in place:

There was an exhibit in the station (a bit difficult to find) with lots of cool photos and maps. This is the U-Bahn network, with the “ghost stations” in East Berlin shown on a black line with the thick grey line representing the wall:

Outside the station, just 50 meters away, the wall was marked on the ground:

Along with an exhibit of posts showing where it had stood:

Entrance to the Nordbahnhof station:

From Nordbahnhof the S-Bahn took me back to Friedrichstraße station, and a quick walk to the Westin where I checked out and did the short walk in very light snow to the U-Bahn where I caught the train to Berlin Haupbahnhof. I was a bit early, so to keep warm I walked a few laps of the station (also to get some credit towards the Fitbit steps, of course) until it was time to board the train to Hamburg.

The train to Hamburg was right on time, and incredibly empty today. By this point I had finally figured out that empty train = ignore seat assignments as long as nobody is getting on during your trip, and find somewhere comfortable like a set of four seats around a table so you can spread out a bit. Normally when I travel I select single seats whenever possible because I hate climbing over people or being climbed over, but I’ll always take a set of two seats together to spread out if they’re free!

Train ride was a bit under two hours, which was once again enough time for a snack and to do the day’s Duolingo study. Directions to the U-Bahn were very clear once arriving in Hamburg, and on the train I had found the local app and bought a one-way eticket. It was a direct shot and only like five stops to the Baumwall station which was about a 10 minute walk from…yes…you guessed it…the Westin Hamburg.

The Westin sits on top of the Elbphilharmonie Concert Hall, and occupies its top floors. Unfortunately it was dark when I arrived so I couldn’t enjoy the view. Unfortunately, because, the property had noted it was my 500th lifetime night with Starwood, and marked obtaining Lifetime Platinum Status with the Starwood Preferred Guest Program.

To celebrate the milestone, I got a really nice suite with floor to ceiling windows, despite the hotel being sold out:

Unfortunately work and being tired caught up with me, and I just couldn’t muster the energy to go in the evening. Yes, this is foreshadowing, but it’s like my body was trying to tell me “stay in and rest…you’re on vacation…resting is ok….you can always see the city another time….”

So, up to the executive lounge I went, where they had a fantastic spread of appetizers for cocktail hour:

Look at that variety of sweets!

Mini quiches, prosciutto skewers…

There was more than enough food and drink to make a dinner out of, and with Happy Hour lasting nearly four hours that’s exactly what I did while I rested and caught up on some work.

Off to bed early, and told myself I’d try and wake up super early to have coffee and then do a boat tour of the harbour. Mother Nature, however, had her own ideas…

Feb 232018
 


After a fun first afternoon and evening in Berlin, I was excited to take advantage of having another full day with absolutely no plans at all. Slept in a little, and when I woke up and looked out the window…it was snowing. There wasn’t any sticking on the ground that I could see, and a walk down Friedrichstraße to Starbucks confirmed most of it was melting on contact…but unfortunately that meant things were a wet and slushy mess out.

Over coffee I decided to walk up to the Brandenburger Tor and snap a few shots, and along the way I decided it might be fun to see the dome of the Reichstag if tickets were still available. They were, and with an hour to kill I had a leisurely stroll. There was a lot more snow on the ground around the Brandenburger Tor – not sure if that was because it was that much colder just 500 or so meters away, or if there were less buildings or what, but there was enough that someone had managed a sad snowman:

Brandenburger Tor:

Arrived at the Reichstag about 15 minutes before my scheduled time, but no problem and no line. Quick pass through the metal detectors and x-ray, and it was inside. Free audioguide was included which gave an interesting history and tour of the dome. The tour is a walk in a a circle around the inside of the dome, on two spiralling ramps that go up about 3-4 levels and then comes down in between:

Better view of several of the spiralling levels of ramps towards the top:

By this point the snow had stopped, and the water on the glass dome made for some neat pictures:

Nearing the top of the dome. As someone who doesn’t always do well with heights, this was enclosed just enough that it didn’t really bother me. In the middle of this picture, against the walkways, you can see a bit of a “shade” – this tracks the movement of the sun and prevents direct light from being beamed into the chamber below and blinding people. The mirrored cone in the middle directs indirect light down into the chamber, and helps provide lighting and reduces electricity costs:

Better view of the sunshade and mirrored cone from below:

By the time I finished the tour the skies were clearing and the lighting was great for pictures just outside the dome:

Front of the Reichstag building:

No real plans for the rest of the day, so I decided to just keep walking. After wandering the grounds around the Reichstag for a bit, decided to hop on the U-Bahn and go for a ride. Obligatory shot of the U2 at Zoo Station:

Getting a bit hungry at this point in the day, so when in Berlin a U-Bahn Döner is in order:

I really wanted to do the tour of Tempelhof airport, so headed there next. Unfortunately, there were only German tours on this day, but I decided that even if I only caught 50-75% of it it would be worth it to get the guided tour around the airport. Unfortunately, when I got there, they told me there would be no tour today because the guide was sick. Major bummer. Now I have to come back.

Eagle on the side of the airport:

Sun was setting by this point and I was getting sleepy, so stopped for a coffee. I wanted to check out the eastern part of the city a bit more, and coincidentally what I was promised was one of the best craft beer bars in Berlin was located there – Protokoll. This involved taking the S-Bahn to Berlin Ostbahnhof – the main train station in the former East Berlin – and taking a bus from there. Finding where the bus stopped was a little difficult, and the area right around the station was definitely one of the sketchier parts of Berlin I’ve found. No problem at all though, thanks to google maps, and soon arrived at Protokoll which definitely had a great beer list:

Although the coffee had helped a bit, it was still a Monday night and rather quiet out, so I opted to call it a semi-early night and catch the train back from Ostbahnhof to Friedrichstraße Station and walk back to the Westin from there.

It was down to about -8 degrees by this point with a bit of a wind, and I definitely froze a bit waiting for the train. Thankfully I’d bought that hat back in Dresden!

It was definitely nice to have a day with no plans or commitments, and I think I managed to see a reasonable amount. It confirmed that I really enjoy the city, and now have to make a point to get back for a longer trip very soon. Off to bed, and excited to see another new city the next day – Hamburg!

Feb 202018
 


Woke up relatively early since I’d only had a little time to explore Dresden before the sun set the day before. I also wanted to get up in time to catch some of the ski race as well. Headed out of the hotel to grab some breakfast at Starbucks, and right outside the hotel the women’s race was already underway:

I wandered around the old city for a couple of hours, but didn’t really take any pictures. It was a Sunday morning and everything was pretty much closed, so I just enjoyed the time wandering about and taking in the architecture and a bit of people walking.

There was definitely something a bit charming about Dresden, but at the same time it felt quite small-town and provincial. And that was with several hundred international visitors for the ski race. My impression was definitely that it’s a bit of an “out of the way” destination, and it reflects its location in the east of Germany much closer to Poland and other central and eastern European countries. It definitely still felt German, but in a bit less globalized way than major cities like Frankfurt, Berlin, and Munich.

One nice thing about having a BahnCard is that local transportation to the train station is included with most tickets, so I hopped on the tram right outside the Westin to take me to Dresden Hauptbanhof. Arrived with plenty of time before my train, grabbed a small snack, and did some train spotting from the upper level tracks looking down on the main part of the station:

It was probably a bit silly, but I planned most of this trip around ICE train schedules. Since there is no ICE from Dresden to Berlin, I opted to do Dresden first, then backtrack an hour to Leipzig and then on to Berlin. Fortunately, since there were only a few ICEs between Dresden and Leipzig I chose the one that left mid-day so I could have a little extra time in both cities. Train was quick, and an hour later I was in Leipzig. Just enough time to knock out the day’s Duolingo lessons.

Leipzig Hauptbanhof turned out to be located barely a five minute walk from the Westin, which made for a very convenient arrival. Yes, I hadn’t really done all that much research in advance for this trip, and just enjoyed taking things as they came.

The Westin Leipzig was much more modern than the Westin Dresden, which you could tell was a much older hotel which had been renovated. The Leipzig hotel, however, seemed to be very new and modern, and was a highrise. It took a bit of arm-twisting to get the hotel to honour the Platinum best available room benefit, but when they did I finally got a nice (but semi-small) corner suite.

The sitting area with the afternoon sun streaming in:

Another shot of the living room from the other side – you can see the desk, the main entrance door, and the unusual minibar in a column which separated the living room from the entryway, bathroom, and bedroom:

Bedroom was on the small side, but perfectly adequate:

One of the nicest features of the room was that there was a balcony where I could take a good panorama of the area around the hotel:

One of the oddest features was that the bathroom also connected the bedroom and living room. It was in itself divided into FOUR small cubes…each with its own sink. I was beginning to get a sinking feeling this was one of the strangest hotel rooms I’ve gotten in a long time. Starting in the living room, you entered the toilet room, with sink:

Next to that was a sink room…with just a sink. How…useful?

The third cube was a shower cube…which connected the sink room with the bathtub room…this was the only room with no sink:

Then once you pass through the shower cube, you enter the bathtub room…which also has its own sink. Just strange.

Having had my fill of sinks for the day, I wandered out to begin exploring Leipzig. The old town was just a short distance from the hotel, and I immediately decided I liked the city.

I wandered for a couple hours, grabbed some coffee to warm up, and eventually got to the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church) which is probably Leipzig’s best known attraction since Bach is buried right inside the church. Trying to get cute with my photography and frame the church with some tree branches:

Statue of Bach outside the church. He’s bringing sexy Bach. Sorry for all the bad jokes….I guess I’m just going for baroque with this post.

Inside of the church, with Bach’s grave in the middle:

Looking the other direction, with the pews:

I’m not certain what this part of a church is called, but I like this shot with the stained glass windows in the back:

The Markt Square and Old Town Hall with the sun beginning to set and a pink hue to the clouds:

After a short rest back in the room, I headed down to the lobby to see what the makeshift lounge had to offer for happy hour. The lobby bar doubles as a lounge for platinum members from 6-7pm with free drinks and a “special platinum snack menu.” Reasonable choice of drinks:

The platinum snack turned out to be some mixed nuts, a small cup of soup, and a rather impression salmon roll. Some good high-quality protein. Overall, it was the perfect offering since I was planning to head out to dinner shortly.

Dinner involved figuring out how to purchase an S-Bahn ticket (turned out to be easy with ticket dispensing machines right on the platform) and some cool artwork in the arrival station:

Dinner may have been walkable if it wasn’t dark and cold, but taking the train was kind of fun too. I headed to the Bayerischer Bahnhof for dinner, which brews their own Gose beer, a style that is native to Leipzig. So, even those gose is far from my favourite beer, when in Rome:

The restaurant is located atop an old train station which sat unused until the S-Bahn was expanded and a new station opened. Now this is more like it! Sausage, potatoes, and a bit of mustard…you can’t get a much more German meal than that!

They refused to take no for an answer on desert, and it was amazing as well:

Back to the hotel where I passed out from a long day of walking, ready to get up the next morning and walk around a bit more before catching my onward train to Berlin. I definitely want to get back to Saxony in the future and explore it a bit more in depth as well as checking out some of the smaller cities – maybe in the summer!