Wednesday, December 14, 2016

R&R in the DR

Summer in December
Sun, warm breezes, humidity, crystal clear water, a white beach--how different than Lubbock in early December! But that's what I treated myself to last week when I used up one of my timeshare weeks to simply hang out and not worry about a thing in the world. It's not really that I needed  a vacation after just having returned from Europe a few days before my departure for the Dominican Republic, but thanks to the clavicle break (mostly mended by now) things have been a bit chaotic with the timing of trips. I could have cancelled this one, but then, why?
One of two large pools, with swim-up bars, of course.
H10 has a property in Punta Cana, on the east side of the island of Hispaniola, which the DR shares with Haiti. I cashed in about 100,000 miles for a first-class flight that took all day and arrived late on a Friday afternoon at PUJ. Forty-five minutes later my shuttle driver dropped me off in the resort, and by the time night fell I was sipping the first pina colada.
Beach butler service, please
Life in an all-inclusive is not for the faint of heart. You have to be able to stomach a veritable assault on your body in the form of too much food and too much booze. Sure, the days of buffet-style only resorts are pretty much passe, and all the better ones now offer "specialty restaurants" where one can eat a la carte. But while that does help limit the calorie intake somewhat, it's still not easy....
Tropical storms are a sight--and sound--to behold
Thanks to night-time rains some streets made for some interesting riding
To combat ballooning beyond the point of no return I had taken a bike along. The weather forecast had threatened much more rain than actually manifested itself, and therefore I had chosen to take the old Bike Friday along, which runs with a single chainring and about six or seven speeds in the back. It's seen its fair share of rough trips and shows the scars, so it's ideal for a trip that promises some equipment abuse. The fact that I didn't even take bike shoes or shorts along but rather rode just in Patagonia baggies and sneakers tells you how little I expected to ride. But I wanted to have a way to escape from the "compound," and overall I rode 83 miles while down there, some of it quite enjoyable as I found the old north/south highway that's now decommissioned but still is used by very light local traffic.
This big ol' crater could have swallowed the Bike Friday whole
Bike Friday and banana trees
Unfortunately it was not mango season
Litter is ubiquitous along the roads; dumping seems to be a national pastime
The old highway lies pretty much abandoned, with the jungle encroaching
Obviously, most of my time I spent on the beach or by the very nice pools. Morning reading sessions started just minutes after sunrise at 7 a.m., with a nice cup of joe and a prime spot overlooking the beautiful sea. I'd have a light, heavy-on-the-tropical-fruit breakfast in the H10 Privilege Lounge, to which I have access as a TS owner. Nice. Ownership also means a somewhat private beach area with waiter service and comfortable chaise lounges in a prime location to watch the beach walkers filter by. The H10's beach has suffered some pretty big hits from storms in recent years, and they have to struggle not to lose even more sand; the pictures show some of the stopgap measures management has taken to preserve what is left.
Massive reinforcements are supposed to keep the beach from total destruction
Continued erosion by the sea is going to take out these palm trees sooner or later
My rides usually took place before noon, for an hour-and-a-half or two. After returning, the routine consisted of cooling off in the wonderfully warm Caribbean, followed by a refreshing round in the pool and a nice drink to finish the morning. Then read, lounge, read more, maybe have some lunch, and watch the Eastern European babes that flood this part of the world, accompanied by Speedo-wearing beer-bellied dudes 20 years their age, with lots of gold chains. In all seriousness, I would guess that during the time of my stay at least half of the guests were from Russia, the Czech Republic, and some other Slavic countries. Quite a few Canadians and Italians were also noticeable, but relatively few visitors from the US, who generally are easy to spot because they can be almost as obnoxious as the Brits .... Anyhow, the sightseeing was quite delectable, but I didn't want to cause any international incidents, of course, and so I didn't try to speak Russian.

Evening comes early in the DR at this time of the year, and pina coladas were replaced with G&Ts while enjoying the last daylight at the Lounge before heading for the piano bar, dinner, maybe the entertainment in the theater, and then a final toddie in the main bar. You see, a week of this will destroy anybody.
This does beat the hell out of Lubbock--any time of year, not just in December
I had a really good time and enjoyed a few nice conversations with various tourists from different places, but mainly I was by myself, which suited me just fine. And after a week of all this I was ready to head back home, even if now I question whether I was out of my mind when considering that the low is supposed to hit 12 F in a few nights. Maybe a good time to test whether memories can keep one warm....


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Madeira, island of tunnels and levadas

Steep cliffs, beautiful coastline, rich fields

One thing is for sure: It is practically impossible to go on vacation and simultaneously update the blog, at least when one travels with someone else. Case in point: Sabine and my trip to the Portuguese island of Madeira last week. Here we are, four days after our return to Freising, and I still haven't written much--and it looks as if completion of this update will have to wait for a few more days since I am about to get on a plane to Berlin to see my brother.
View of Madeira's northern shoreline after crossing the island
Regardless, the memories of Madeira will stay with me for quite a while. What an amazing place! I had of course heard of the island before, but quite truthfully, until about a month-and-a-half ago I wouldn't have been able to pinpoint it with accuracy on a map of the world. When, thanks to my clavicle fracture, we had to scrub our planned trip to Croatia and had to make new plans, I looked at what direct flights we could find from Munich to interesting locales. My search produced Air Berlin's once-a-week non-stop to Funchal, Madeira's capital. Cashing in 40,000 British Airways Avios points and paying $116 in taxes and fees for our two round-trip tickets, we were on the way to the island that's somewhat northwest of the Canaries yet south-east of the Azores. Yep, smack-dab in the middle of the Atlantic. Good thing that the pilot had the GPS on and landed us safely on Funchal's tricky airport after our 4-hour flight.
The tiny port of Paul do Mar, five minutes by car from our domicile, 2 1/2 hours on foot

It's possible to trek along the waterfall to the next village
Our rental car was already waiting, an 80-dollar gem from Bravacar that featured close-to-bald tires and wipers that hadn't been replaced since the car had been built, in addition to scratches all around--thus perfect for the narrow lanes that we'd encounter in villages. From the airport it was about an 80-minute drive to Jardim do Rio, the tiny hamlet where our vacation villa for the week was located. As usual, we had gone back and forth between various housing options, from AirBnB and HomeAway as well as other sites. Practically everything was located in the mountains or away from the coast, but somewhere I ran across the Casa Pontinha, which immediately caught my attention: a luxurious villa with private swimming pool, set among a beautiful garden, overlooking from a promontory the Atlantic 20 meters below. I had contacted the Welsh owners of the villa and had received a rate that was a little more than 100 euros a night--totally insane when similar places had been fetching three to five times as much during our search. Sabine had been a bit hesitant first, thinking there'd be a catch, but we now can both say: This was by far the best vacation home we have ever rented, and I doubt we will top what we had for a price that is comparable. I think the photos speak for themselves.
View from our terrace; the port of Paul do Mar is visible in the  background

Our private pool, between 71 and 72 degrees
The villa Casa Pontinha--all ours for a week

Casa Pontinha was our private haven for one week. The pool was warm enough for daily swims, and when neighbors are not able to look over walls you know what that means: No wet bathing suits afterward. Imagine swimming in this pool, looking over the Atlantic, hearing the waves roll in, and seeing the verdant mountains rise immediately beyond the village limits. We had our breakfasts outside, enjoyed two "pool days" when we were too tired to go for long walking excursions, and were able to barbecue in the evening after enjoying toddies from the deck. Our bedroom's veranda door opened toward the sea, and we slept to the sound of the relentless waves below. OK, let's be frank: I am planning to go back to this heaven on earth. The Dolmans, who own this place, are truly fortunate people.
Hiking the levadas; I managed not to break anything
Steep in Madeira means really steep
Overlooking the Atlantic on one of our hikes
But we hadn't come to Madeira just to enjoy luxurious digs; that just set the baseline. No, we had also been attracted to Madeira because of its moniker, the "flower island," and its reputation--at least among Germans--as a hiker's paradise. Going to Madeira in early to mid-November put us right in the middle of the rainiest part of the rainy season, but we figured that rain gear and umbrellas would go a long way in keeping us comfortable. Maybe we were just damn lucky, but we had only one really rainy day when we got fairly inundated on our first walk. From then on, we were rather fortunate and enjoyed high temperatures around 72 F, low temperatures around 67 F, and lots of sunshine with just the occasional intermittent cloud in between. From what we understand, the temps go up somewhat in the summer but seldom exceed 80 F, thanks to the leveling effect of the big pond around the island. The overall climate is what is called "subtropical," as evidenced by the largest export crop, bananas. But it is cool enough to allow the cultivation of wine:


Maracuyas of all types and flavors

Weird exotic fruit in the market
Dinner in Old Funchal
Of course we had to sample and learn about this wine that we all know but maybe don't understand. During our day excursion to Funchal, we spent a delightful hour and a half at Blandy's Wine Estate, where we learned about how Madeira differs from other reds. Fascinating. If you want to know more, ask Google or Wikipedia or better yet, go to Madeira. Or come to my house for dinner once I am back home. The bottle of fine Blandy's that I bought should last until February, or so. Funchal has other attractions, such as a quaint market where you can buy exoctic fruit that look as foreign as anything you've seen at Marketstreet or other grocery stores. The weirdest was probably the thing that looked like a banana but tasted a bit like a passion fruit yet looked like a  green pine cone. The old town of Funchal has some narrow streets and tourist-oriented tiny restaurants  galore. Fun for an evening, but about as authentic as the restaus and their barkers in Paris' Quartier Latin.
Funchal's old harbor
Oak barrels that are holding decades' old madeira at Blandy's

The remnants of the tasting
As mentioned somewhere above, there was a lot of balance in our stay in Madeira--pool days, a look at the capital, and the hikes. About one hundred years ago, the first levadas popped up, irrigation canals that were to bring much-needed water from the mountains (the highest peak on this tiny island is around 4,500 feet tall) to the sugar-cane (now defunct) and banana fields. The project to expand these canals was accelerated in the early part of the past century, and today's tourists benefit from the engineering work that went into building the levadas: One can now hike for 10, 15, even 20 miles through the mountains along a 2-foot-wide concrete canal that loses all of maybe 100 feet in elevation along the way. One hikes along the hills' contours, not across the mountains! What a concept! All levadas are intimately paralleled by footpaths that used to allow (well, they still do) the caretaker of the levadas to open sluices or remove twigs or leaves and in general access this intricate irrigation system. Nowadays, with only limited banana production, the network has become an increasingly important part of the island's tourism infrastructure. No complaints from us!

If I bemoan anything about our stay in Madeira, it is the lack of more time to explore other parts of this microcosm. Such a small island, and so many things to see (and hundreds of miles to hike!). I am quite determined to go back, and I hope that will be sooner rather than later. I'm not crazy about staying in the same place twice, but here I'll make an exception (just like in our domicile in Tuscany in 2014 and 2015). Assuming that Air Berlin--taking honors as Worst Airline in the Known Universe, or WAKU--maintains its non-stop Saturday service from MUC to FCN and the Casa Potinha is available, Sabine and I will revisit Madeira before we turn 70, but quite likely much earlier. Hell, the levadas are navigable almost in a wheelchair!
Easy hiking

Bring your raincoat

Relaxing after another (albeit short) hike
Last evening before heading back to Munich and winter


Thursday, October 20, 2016

How ground chipotle and a parking lot speed bump can change so many things ...

This post was supposed to be quite different. It was supposed to chronicle my trip to Croatia, with cool pics of Dubrovnik and quaint Adriatic fishing villages. Well, instead you get pics of a broken clavicle and a titanium rail that's now part of my left shoulder. Sometimes things happen so quickly and with such impact that we really can't make much sense of it all.
Emergency room x-ray of my comminuted left clavicle
Three weeks (minus one day) ago I went for my usual morning ride here in Lubbock, on what was a beautiful late-summer day. Shortly before leaving for my ride I had Skyped with Sabine, who had asked me whether I could maybe bring along some ground chipotle, a Mexican spice that she can't get in Freising. Since it was such a nice day I decided to make a little detour to the store where I had bought the spice before, the Lowe's down on 19th and Frankfort. Chipotle in my jersey pocket I was in the last three miles of the ride when I cut through a parking lot, to avoid fairly heavy lunch-time traffic, when suddenly I was down on the ground--I never saw the small speed bump in the freshly blackened parking lot. I went down hard, really hard, on my left elbow and the left side of my head. Thank goodness for helmets; had I hit the ground the way I did without one, I probably would not be writing this right now. The elbow took the brunt of my fall, and it is still quite sore. I'm not sure whether the lingering numbness and tingling (it has continually improved since the accident) has been caused by the impact of the elbow or some other (the doc says temporary) nerve damage in the clavicle area.

I picked myself up, initially hoping that the clavicle was intact but soon realizing that that was only wishful thinking helped along by the sudden super-dose of adrenaline that our bodies produce in such a situation. A Good Samaritan in a pickup who happened to see me going down stopped and transported me home. I somehow wiggled myself out of my cycling kit (believe it or not, neither shirt nor bibs are damaged--the helmet of course is toast), gathered my insurance card, ID, and VISA, and then was driven to the Emergency Room by my neighbor, Janet. Since she had some urgent business to attend to I told her to just drop me off. Luckily, there wasn't any pain, well, not really bad pain.
The elbow was my major point of contact with the asphalt
Make a long story short: I was x-rayed and sent home with an arm stabilizer and a sling. The ER doc opined that I'd be fine and that the clavicle would heal by itself. Luckily I took a photo of the x-ray, and once at home I started to think, and then think some more. Wes had picked me up after my four hours in the ER which were billed at way more than $1,000 by the insurance--a fee of more than $800 for the quack of a doc who spent less than 10 minutes putting me into the stabilizer and who told me that this fracture would heal just fine by itself. And so I kept thinking about that x-ray.

The next day, I posted my x-ray on Facebook, asking my friends for input. The response was overwhelming. Man, it seems that everybody has had experience with broken clavicles; the top two places are occupied by longtime friends who have had six (three bike related and three during karate) and eight (two of them surgically repaired; all bike-related) fractures, respectively. Wow! General consensus among amateurs and those in the healthcare field was that this break would never properly heal by itself and that I should consult an orthopedic surgeon as soon as possible. Easier said than done as the accident had happened on Friday at about 1 p.m., and over the weekend all orthos are playing. Thanks to my cardiologist buddy I was able to get an appointment right after the weekend.
The TSA will have to "wand" yet another area of my body ...
You know how scheduling works, so it wasn't until Thursday afternoon that I went under the knife. It's nice to know one's anesthesiologist and feel confident about the surgeon, one of Lubbock's best. Those are the moments when I truly feel at home and comfortable in Lubbock--the network of friends and acquaintances I have is amazing. Surgery went well, and a few hours later I was at home; two days later I quit taking pain meds.

And so I have been spending the past two weeks trying to mend. I am so glad that I had surgery. For a week now I have been able to fend for myself, being able to take showers and get dressed and undressed and cooking for myself. During the first week, Janet, who lives two doors down the street, was at home and she invited me over for nightly dinners and helped me with all of those "life tasks." She left for a vacation a week ago and will return tomorrow. I owe her big time.
Two days after surgery
I am using the left arm and am doing exercises, and the incision has healed up beautifully. Range of motion is still limited, but compared to my first clavicle break (the right one) in 2008, when I was chief referee at a mountain bike race in Canada, I am so much farther along. I didn't have surgery back then since it was a simple break, but I remember that it took much longer than a month until even basic moves were possible. As I mentioned, there is still some slight numbness as well as diminished grip power in my left hand, but I trust Dr. Scovell when he says that this is normal and will vanish, even if it takes a month or two. Every day sees some improvement,

Obviously, I had to cancel my trip to Europe, and my bicycle trip to the Argentinian wine country in November dissolved into thin air as well. Luckily for me, American Airlines and United as well as various hotels and a car rental company where we had prepaid our car in Croatia all issued full refunds, without change fees or other hurdles. Only our return flight from Dubrovnik on Transavia could not be refunded, and we lost about $200--it could have been so much more expensive! I would have preferred not to spend my cash on medical bills, but thanks to a supplementary accident insurance that impact will be softened a little. Overall, everything could have been so much worse! Still, did I really have to pick up that chipotle that day?
Two weeks after surgery--internal stitching! Cool!
It's been two weeks of reading, walking to the park, watching movies, admiring the neighbors' Halloween decorations, and just general relaxing for me. A break provides a break, and I have not quarrelled with what has happened but rather have tried to stay positive throughout. My friends have helped me along (thanks to Janet, Wes, Susan, Smitty, Bobby, Donna, and Lou!), and I know that in two weeks things will be much better than now. Actually, things will be so good that I have changed my October flight to Europe to early November, with the doc's blessing. So, maybe I can post some quaint pictures, after all.


Monday, October 3, 2016

Happy 18th birthday, young Jonathan P. Voß!

This blog post is not about me. Well, maybe in a way it is, but it's really not. It is about a child I met six years ago who is now not only an adolescent, but a young man. It's about a member of our human species whom I have seen, in spurts, grow up from being a rather timid, almost nerdy kid to being an equal partner in conversation, in views about the world, in questions of taste and style, an overall partner embedded in our society. A budding artist of life, if you so will.

I met Jonathan for the first time in early 2011. After Judy's death I had somehow reconnected with my (almost) lifelong friend Sabine. I hadn't known (or had only marginally registered in our sparse Christmas and birthday communications over the years) that she was a single mother, bringing up a dark-haired, scrawny kid with an infectious smile. His name had been inspired by the story of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a short book that had lasting impact on Sabine. A fitting name, as it should turn out.

As a 12-year-old growing up only with his mom, Jona was understandably shy toward this man who occasionally would drop in from some far-away country for a few weeks; for all of his already-remarkable skills having to do with electronics and computers, Jona had no inkling about geography. He was much more concerned about tinkering with his soldering iron and transistors and odd-looking hardware to build some electronic contraption or other. His favorite "book" was certainly not a world atlas (alas, had I loved my Diercke Weltatlass, as had Sabine!) but rather the Conrad Electronics mail-order catalog, chock full of everything a young Ben Franklin could desire.

I am sorry that I have missed those first twelve years of Jona's life completely, but Sabine told me many, many stories about how she, the hands-on, DIY landscape architect spent all that quality mother-on-son time instilling in Jona love for experimentation, courage to take risks, and appreciation for natural beauty as well as human-created masterworks. So when I met him at age 12, all the foundations had long been laid.

Jona gradually lost his shyness toward me, quite likely because I approached him not like a kid (or worse, my kid!) but as a young friend with whom I would speak frankly and seriously but with whom I would also gang up in some practical joke on his mom. (Jona back then saw his dad every four to six weeks, depending on the school schedule, and to this day they share vacation time going on skiing, scuba-diving, and sailing trips together.) For Jona, I was that cool guy who'd show up and make his mom feel more relaxed than when they were living their usual life. I think he still occasionally thinks of me as "cool" or whatever the current word is, even though I am old enough to be his grandfather. And his mom is just two years younger than I, so it's hard to admit for him that she actually is a damn cool mom. To acknowledge that is just not cool.

Jonathan is what is sometimes labeled a "super-taster." If I cooked and added a tiny bit of pepper he would not eat that part of the meal. Sneaking ingredients past him that were not to his liking was nearly impossible. Spicy foods? Forget it. For a few years he was on a semi-vegetarian trip; thank goodness, that somehow dissolved itself. But natural curiosity, a willingness to at least try something unfamiliar, and my steady importation of Mexican foodstuffs and spices--plus watching me in the kitchen and learnin how to chop garlic--slowly changed all of that. He has an impeccable palate, loves to try new wines, and cooks up a storm when his buddies come over, leaving the small kitchen ashambles. And he mixes unbelievable cocktails!

For a few years, Jona's preoccupation with computers and electronics, his loving math and information technology in school, his total disinterest in sports (apart from skiing in winter) made Sabine, and me, wonder whether he might grow up to become some nerdy loner who'd spend the rest of his life programming computer games. Well, were we ever wrong! The kid has grown into a social butterfly who is well-connected not only with peers his own age but who has created relationships with young university students thanks to his thespian involvement (who would have ever thought that he would rip off his shirt on stage while playing a gigolo, and making the audience exhale in an audible way?) as well as his wide-ranging "adult" contacts. One such example, a school project designed to help young refugees in his hometown of Freising, led him to meet numerous Bavarian politicians, from mayors to ministers, while leading this group project that involved direct contact with those young individuals displaced by war.

Trying to emulate his longtime idol, 007 aka Mr. Bond, James Bond, Jona strives to be suave and worldly. Admittedly, there have been times when this went a bit overboard, but what kid does not search for that identity, that who-am-I? Does a boy really have to spend 35 minutes coiffing his hair, every morning? Apparently. Sabine and I grew up during a different time back in the '70s when neither young women nor men paid much attention to their appearance. Back then, nobody had an inkling what a selfie might be, an outlet that Jona certainly has adeptly adopted, not only with his cell phone but also with his DSLR.

And that brings us to the last point of this unconventional Happy Birthday wish: Jonathan's undeniable ability, imagination, and understanding of photography. Sabine most certainly was the catalyst as she exposed him even as a toddler to art works, in print or in real life. She shared her love of nature with him, and his preoccupation with computers and photo-editing software played another important role. But his creativity appears boundless, as he showed in a 10-day internship with a design company where he was given free reign to design several book covers. I was floored. It'd be easy to continue gushing about his various skills and abilities, but I don't want him to get a big head. Instead, I will end these words with my very sincerest wishes not only for your 18th birthday but also for this rich life that lies ahead of you, dear Jonathan--you alone hold the keys to whichever doors you want to open! Don't squander the opportunity but continue to explore and enjoy and love life! And for the rest of us, here's a short sampling of Jonathan P. Voß' amazing portfolio of original drawings, photography, and collages. Enjoy!