Tuesday, December 12, 2017

48+ hours in Heathrow

When I arrived here in London's Heathrow airport on--what was it?--Sunday morning, I thought, wow, I love this airport--transfers from terminal to terminal and breezing through security are a breeze. Well, it may be so, but those are not the only issues defining an airport.
Cancelled BA flights left and right, after other
airlines had started to fly again
Snowy and icy weather hit Britain this weekend, and from what I have read and heard and seen, Heathrow was and is totally under-prepared compared to most other airports of this caliber. And British Airways is none the better.
Long, long lines in Heathrow's T5 on Sunday afternoon
Make a long story short: I've been stuck here in London since Sunday, and now it is 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday. But there is a silver lining: My flight to Munich is supposed to be on schedule, and my baggage (which has been languishing in the bowels of this huge airport) appears to be in a container marked MUC. I was not the only one who was inconvenienced: According to the newspapers up to 50,000 travelers have been stranded.
I really hadn't expected to be in the catacombs of The Tube on this trip
I don't know whether all of them were given hotel and meal vouchers the way I was. Maybe it was my flying on a (freebie) First Class ticket, maybe it was status, but BA did make accommodations for me. I stayed in two nice hotels (first in The May Fair in central London and then in the Radisson here at Heathrow), I was given generous meal allowances (and boy, those prices here are not the same as in Lubbock!), and I got to sample a few pubs along the way.
The May Fair, in central London, home for night #1
Still, this was a pain in the ass, to put it mildly. Interminably long lines, total lack of communication, few trained staff to assist travelers--it all showed how ill-prepared BA and Heathrow were (even though they knew the weather was coming. Ironically, there was less than an inch of snow outside the entire time. Apparently, both entities got thoroughly reamed eight years ago when a snow event of less than five inches crippled the airport for 5 days, and improvements were promised in the aftermath. Well, that apparently didn't happen.) The few BA staffers that could be found worked their butts off and tried their best, but it was painfully clear how thin they were stretched and how few of them were properly trained to take charge in the face of such a situation.
Central London Christmas decorations
You see all that snow? I don't either!
Festive-yet-empty frigid London near Piccadilly Circus at 9:30 p.m. on a Sunday night
So, now I'm about an hour from boarding. On the one hand I am obviously extremely relieved since there were two flights on two days that were cancelled and I had no idea this morning whether my re-booked flight would actually happen. But at the same time I'm disappointed: Today is Sabine's 60th birthday, and I had planned for a few things that would have required part of yesterday to prepare. Needless to say, there was none of the fulfillment of waking up and looking over and saying: Happy Birthday, young lady! But, in the grand scheme of things and with the wisdom of us who have traveled much over those past six decades, does it really matter? Probably not. Just getting there in one piece does, and all the rest is secondary.
The Pheasant, in Hillingdon, near Heathrow ...
... and a perfectly poured pint
So, I enjoyed the two pubs (The Clarendon and The Pheasant) that I got to go to, and I made the best of my entire forced stay. And then, in the lounge, things were happy once again!

Rock on!


Saturday, December 9, 2017

What happens between international trips, you ask?

Simply put, lots.

I returned from Mexico on a Tuesday and was picked up by my good friend Andrew, who 18 months ago had given up a secure position as an engineer in the Permian Basin oil patch to get on his (Tandem Pro-supplied) Seven with the S&S couplers and traverse Europe and East Asia. Andrew had made landfall on the West Coast and was en route to his folks in Kansas (before going back to Bosnia to start a microbrewery cum coffee roastery), so he was bunking out in my place for a few days. It's easy to connect with someone who is currently living what others dream about but what I have experienced. We had two fullfilling evenings.
The Beemer is getting all festive
Early Thursday morning I cranked up the Beemer and headed south toward the Hillcountry to spend Thanksgiving with my in-laws. It was a great 24 hours with Mike and Candi and a bunch of folks I hadn't seen in a few years. We ate too much, drank even more, and played just the right amount of Yahtzee, an old Austin family tradition. I really need to make an effort to not only improve my Yahtzee game but also see my folks more often.
With Mark on the left, and my bro-in-law, Mike
Maybe that's the Yahtzee problem ...
Friday I was off to Buda to visit the folks with whom I had spent some time in Breckenridge early this year. Gwen and James had opened their house, and for several days I got to ride in the San Marcos/South Austin area. The highlight was probably the ride with Micki, James, and Kent around Zilker part and (way!) beyond. The weather cooperated, we didn't get lost, and I saw parts of our state capital that I didn't know yet. Thanks, folks!
With James at Two Wheel Brewing
James and Kent showed me around Zilker Park
Something like 1,273 bikes are part of this amazing sculpture
Back in Lubbock on Monday it was time to finally get settled back into my house. The weather was mostly nice (I got to ride several times in shorts and short sleeves), paperwork that needed to be taken care of was processed, and I got to reconnect with my neighbors. Janet had a few wine-slinging jobs, so when Saturday came around we had seven (partially emptied but mostly full) bottles for our post-Thanksgiving/pre-Christmas Kamado-smoked turkey. Joining us for this culinary highlight of the month were former neighbors Tom and Trish. They're always good for massive amounts of salad and desert.
Another perfect turkey in the making
I kept eating turkey for the rest of the week. Of course I tried to ride my bike, too, (201 miles in 9 days) to stave off adding even more  poundage, while Janet tried to sabotage these valiant efforts by continuing to sling wine at Marketstreet and bringing  home three-quarter full bottles. We shared many of them, and several meals. Here's to our tidy little neighborhood that encompasses Irene, Ted, Megan, Janet, and Kelly. No, Mr. Pope is not included.

And then it was Friday, December 8, and time for our annual WTCA bike club Christmas and Awards party. Since I'm in charge of our mileage competition I played a pivotal role, which, I hope, I fulfilled with the appropriate poise. My friends Smitty and Lori offered to give me ride to the place of celebration, so I was able to enjoy some vino without having to worry about the driving. Another great evening.
WTCA Christmas Party
And now it's Saturday night, I'm sitting in the Admiral's Club in DFW and have 30 minutes until boarding time for my flight to London. I've cashed in a few miles for a freebie Business Class flight to Munich. Tuesday is Sabine's 60th birthday, and with Jonathan off to New Zealand I figured this was as good of a time to visit her as any. I probably won't finish this post until the morning, in LHR, but you get the gist.
Bye Lubbock--will there be a lake when I get back?
Life between countries is fast-paced and exciting, to say the least. And oh, did I mention that I made reservations for another (bike) trip to Argentina in January?


Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Riding and chilling in Playa del Carmen

What would I do without the trusty Ritchey? I'd get even fatter on trips like these! All joking aside, it sure is nice to have my bike with me when I go to a place where I don't have a particular task or job to do--and in an all-inclusive like the H10 Ocean Riviera Paradise just outside of Playa del Carmen one doesn't have any other job to do than just chill!
The beach at Playa del Carmen
Less than a week after returning from Europe I cashed in a few miles and flew down to Cancun for a week of R&R. This is a good time of the year to do so: The hurricane season is generally done by now, the days are agreeably warm but not stiflingly hot, and the tourists are just about to arrive for the Thanksgiving holiday (but haven't arrived in droves just yet). So, it was time to travel to H10's newest property in Mexico, the Ocean Riviera Paradise.
I had to suffer here for seven days!
I have to say that this is a damn nice resort where pretty much everything still works (not always the case, especially in older resorts). The grounds are immaculately kept, the architecture is inviting and modern, and the various specialized restaurants serve really good food (although the large buffet-style restaurant remains an option for all meals). Even the wine is a bit better than usual, drinkable, but still a ways from matching the quality (and presentation) of the food.
My room was in the building on the left, with a nice pool view
There's quite a cultural difference between the workforce here in Mexico and what I encountered last year at another H10 property in the Dominican Republic: more smiles, more little friendly touches, more happiness. The food is on a higher level, but what is at least just as important is that the presentation of the fares is so much more appealing. This resort has four major pool areas, each with an attractive swim-up bar, and there is a really cool kids area (away from the adult pools) with all kinds of adventurous contraptions such as slides and whatever kids like to do. Add to that an attractive beach area and this place is a winner. The only thing that is a bit of a bummer is that practically no rooms have ocean view, and even as a "Privilege" member I didn't score one of the few top-floor rooms close to the water that may afford a view of the ocean.
If I were a kid, I'd go apeshit!
Well, that's OK. For breakfast I'd go to the fourth-floor Privilege Lounge and look out on the island of Cozumel in the far distance. I could have my lunches at the ocean-side Vela Pez restaurant (where I  dined three evenings as well). The entire resort is built on a kilometer-long piece of property that has only maybe 200 meters of ocean access, so the architects had to come up with a layout that fits into this type of space. Quite frankly, I think they did a remarkable job.
View from the Privilege lounge, where I had breakfast every morning and G&T time before dinner
During my five days of morning rides I covered 167 miles total. Riding north, toward Puerto Morelos, seemed to be a better choice than heading south to Playa del Carmen and beyond. There are two reasons: The prevailing wind comes from the north, so going north first gave me a nice tailwind coming back. Maybe more importantly, Playa del Carmen has developed so quickly over the past few days that the traffic going south is pretty insane. Add to that lots of uncoordinated stoplights, and riding becomes tedious. Still, on my second day I found a well-maintained bike path that leads from Playa all the way to Xcaret, one of the many big amusement parks and major attractions around here.

An interesting way to plant trees (entrance of Xcaret)!
On my first ride (toward Puerto Morelos, where my "home resort," the Ocean Coral & Turquesa is located) I noticed on the way back a promising sign, Craft Beer 400 meters. That was followed up by a 200 m and 100 m warning, and then there was Cerveza Pescadores on my right. Since I hadn't brought any money I had to wait until another ride to sample their brew, and I have to say that their IPA was very nice, especially at a price of about $2.30 for a pint. Obviously, I had to repeat that ride to have another pint on another day.

Cerveza Pescadores is a small craft brewery, the only one (currently) in the entire region
Riding here is always interesting, even if the Carretera Federal is the only north-south highway and thus extremely busy. But there's a wide shoulder, and it feels safe to ride. I continue to be amazed by the sheer size of the entrances of so many resorts--they look huge, with waterfalls and oversized  proportions. The grounds are always immaculately kept, with workers wielding machetes pruning and keeping the vegetation under control. Manpower is exactly that: men working. Walls are being built stone by stone, workers with hard hats sit in a ditch using hammer and chisel to laboriously do the work that a front-end loader could do in minutes, and wheelbarrows allow for sand, or rocks, or whatever to be transferred from here to there. Workers will sit by the side of the road in the shade, with a small plastic canister of water for the day. Mexico may have changed over those 40 years that I have been traveling down here, but some things just stay the same.
Size does matter
The road signs are still the same as 40 years ago: Watch your speed! and Safety belts save lives--use yours! are common admonitions. Stay to the right! and After an accident nothing will be the same! are apt to teach the passerby a useful set of Spanish words. Yep, that's where some of my Spanish comes from, learned during all those trips by car, bus, and bike through the great Republica Mexicana. Billboards and signs (and there are hundreds of them on each ride) are another source of higher learning for the aspiring gringo, and I have to say that some of them are truly entertaining, like the one that in huge lettering warned that one was passing private property, that it is not for sale, and that one should not be fooled. There must be some stories behind that one!

As I said, Playa del Carmen has become an important and populous place, about 35 miles south of sprawling Cancun. When I came down here for the first time, about 40 years ago, this was nothing but a tiny, sleepy fishing village. Seriously, this was not even a hole in the wall. And now? All the big hotel corporations are represented, and the traffic is horrendous. Still, it's fun to sightsee. Puerto Morelos has changed a lot in the past two years, too, and I think it's about ready to become a new major player on the Riviera Maya. The formerly dead center around the market square now has dozens of restaurants and even more shops, and there is lots of building activity up and down the coast.
"My" beach at the H10
Having the bike as always allowed me to escape the compound and see a bit of the area. Still, I spent a lot of quality time by the pools and on the beach, careful not to get sunburned. Over the course of the week I did well in that regard. If only they hadn't come by all the time to ask me whether I'd like another cervecita or pina colada, now, that would have been considerate!

Overall, this was a fun and relaxing trip, and now it's time to start fasting for two days before Thanksgiving!


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

La Palma, isla bonita in the Canary Islands group

Una palma en la Palma
Our 10 days here between Tijarafe and Puntagorda on the tiny island of La Palma are slowly coming to a close. With an hour of downtime after our visit to the old "harbor" of Puntagorda and our evening reservation at the restaurant Murilla Sabine and I are sitting on the porch of our rental home, overlooking the Atlantic 800 meters below us and 2.7 kilometers away as the crow flies. Yep, this place is steep! The island may be small, but getting around takes patience since the roads are more curvy and steeper than anything I have seen anywhere. As we continue to repeat time after time on this trip: Thank goodness we didn't bring bikes.
First you drive serpentine after serpentine of steep roads ...
... and then you park the car and it gets really steep!
La Palma is located in the southwestern area of the Canaries, which themselves are located in the Atlantic west of Africa (Morocco). Similar to Madeira, they typically enjoy a year-round climate of spring-like conditions with a long dry season and a much shorter wet season that allows large forests to grow on the windward slopes of the volcanic islands. Our various guidebooks gush about the verdant valleys with rushing water, but it seems that climate change is starting to take its toll here, too. The always predictable rains have not arrived the way they did for centuries, and much of what we have seen of La Palma is desperately parched. Our house, located on the west side of the island and surrounded by a pine forest, reminds me of all those homes in California that recently were destroyed when fires raged through sonoma and Napa. As a matter of fact, on our hikes we have seen many indications of large forest fires over the years,with only the most hardy pines surviving. Just in case I parked the car every night Kojak-style for a better chances of escape. Really.
The countryside is parched
Dry and diseased paddle cactus
Typical palmero house in the north-west part of the island
Almond about ready to fall off the tree
The pine trees are green, but fires have removed any underbrush
We had decided on La Palma because we had been looking for a warm destination, preferably a place we hadn't visited before, that we could reach by cashing in some American Airlines miles. We hit the jackpot with a one-stop flight from Munich on Iberia. A few miles and a moderate co-pay were all it took to cover transportation. Bonus: On the way out we had an 18-hour layover in Madrid where we saw my old buddy Howard and his family, who live less than 10 minutes from the Barajas airport. Using a German rental car website I was able to secure a Citroen for our 10-day stay for less than $6 a day--however, I have to admit that we spent another $95 on full insurance since we were not able to decline some of the coverage that was automatically included in the rental and my credit card company was a bit iffy in regard to whether they'd cover any eventualities if I didn't nix any supplementary insurance. So, that left the VRBO rental of our wonderful house, which came to about $100 a day for first-class accommodations.
With Howard and his wife, Lidya, and the always-lovely Karen on the way to La Palma
The little Citroen somehow managed all those steep inclines. Kudos!
Our VRBO rental, built into the mountainside with a porch that overlooked the Atlantic
La Palma has so many faces. Every day we have gone on hiking excursions, and every day has been different. It's hard to pinpoint a favorite. Whether you hike through laurel forests and get bombed by falling chestnuts (and the edible kind has some very pointy husks!), or you cross lava fields that are just 50 years old, whether you hike above the clouds and the astronomic observatories on 2,426-meter-high Roque de los Muchachos, or cling to almost vertical cliffsides on the way down to the old port of Puntagorda, it all is stunningly beautiful. No wonder so many Germans come down here to hike and enjoy the sun. If Madeira is firmly in British hands, well, the Germans have laid claim to La Palma.
A gaggle of German tourists on a guided hike
Edible chestnuts hurt your head when they hit you!
Normally, this photo should be dripping with water!
Dragon trees
Without going into blow-by-blow details of our hikes, here are some generalities. First of all, we lucked out with the weather in that every day was calm and sunny (not a good thing for the local plant life, but we took the bonus). When I bring up "calm," please remember that this island is surrounded by the sheer endless Atlantic, and if it blows in Lubbock all the time, well, it should gale here! But not while we were here. We had read about the quickly changing weather conditions and how important it is to always carry raingear and a warm hat, especially when hiking at elevation, but we had no problems. In the sun it was warm, if not hot; in the shade, temps were in the high 60s, as they were at night. In other words, we experienced the most beautiful of late falls one can imagine, except that this seems to be the norm here.
Trails were well marked, but this cairn went a little overboard!
All you need is a map and a general idea of where you want to walk
A vineyard at about 1,300 meters
Of course, we had brought our hiking boots, and without them not much would go here. The trails are rocky and often loose, and the steepness is staggering. If you don't have proper footwear, you're not going to get far. Navigating was much easier than expected. I had downloaded a free app called Locus Maps that allows to use detailed maps off-line, and the accuracy of the map for La Palma was simply amazing, down to the last few meters. Established and marked hiking trails, roads (paved or unpaved), minor trails and local footpaths are all captured, and with instant GPS location we were able to follow routes that we had mapped out the night before (with an internet connection). Add to that descriptions from the guidebooks that Sabine had on loan from some friends and the local library, and the generally excellent rail signage, and we were set. Add two small backpacks, collapsible hiking sticks for the worst of trails,  and a few waterbottles plus a daily lunch, and you're ready to roll.
The north coast is much wetter than the western part of the island
All beaches on La Palma feature black sand
Trying to suck in our guts ...
When was the last time you were above the observatories?
Daily distances varied between about six to eight miles, which at first doesn't seem to be all that much until you realize that about 2,100 to almost 3,000 feet of elevation change were packed into these relatively short distances. When we hiked, we hiked--and at the end of the day, our legs told us that they had done most of the work. Fortunately, it was never very far from wherever we had parked the car to the next little town and a kiosk where we'd have a beer and a few tapas before heading home. We even found the allegedly one-and-only operating microbrewery on the island, Cerveceria Isla Verde, at the end of one long hike just a few miles from home. Yeah!
Beer on the beach (after packing it in)
Big cold beers ...
... and yummy tapas
The bird kept us entertained
As mentioned earlier, we were on the west side of the island, which sees more sunshine and less rain than the north and east. Most of the big banana plantation are located here, and with their immense tent structures that protect the plants they look like giant concrete bunkers. A very strange sight. There are also unprotected plantations. and we could never figure out the difference. Back in the late 19th century bananas became the major export commodity for the island, making their way mainly to Britain. Even today they are the biggest money maker, even ahead of tourism. Of course, much of that success seems to depend on funding by the EU. Sabine has an insight or two into how EU moneys are being doled out for projects both deserving and totally asinine--one of them, a 50+ million euro harbor in Tazacorte whose only purpose is to attract aliens as a gigantic spaceport, or so it seems. Shipps of the kind it was built for have never anchored here.
Banana plantation with tent cover
All those beige-colored areas are banana plantations under tents
Some of the tents are starting to fall apart
Inside of a tent
The ultra-modern (and unused) Tazacorte harbor
Old-fashioned fishermen with the day's catch of bonitas
There's a reason they call them yellow-fin tuna
We saw a few other buildings and projects that looked totally out of place, obviously subsidized with money from richer European nations who have no idea where their tax dollars flow in the grand scheme of things. Maybe the Brexit has some valid footing.... It wasn't quite clear to us whether the roads and streets that cling to the mountain sides like strings of swallow nests are simply the pinnacle of the evolution of ancient walking paths or whether EU money has played a role here as well, but they sure are miracles of civil engineering and old-fashioned construction. Rock walls holding back the mountain sides are examples of the finest imaginable stone-masonry. And if you think a road can't get any steeper, well, it can.
Cave building at Cueva de la Candelaria
The steeper, the more secluded
Late afternoon sun on the west coast of La Palma
Crossing the lava fields
Every one of our hikes had a different character, and every day we saw new stuff. For example, I had never heard of the dragon trees that one finds mainly in the northwest corner of the island. Gofio was another new one to us, a type of flour ground from various cereals that then are fortified with whatever may be available, such as lupine seeds. The original inhabitants of the island (conquered by the Spanish in 1492 just before before Columbus launched his final hop across the Atlantic to discover the Americas) already knew of gofio, and it still is a staple for the older Palmeros. We visited a gofio mill, which reminded me of our world-class windmill museum in Lubbock.
The old gofio mill close to Puntagorda
No, we were not flying when I took this photo of the immense port facilities of Tazacorte
Dragon tree stands close to our house
Hiking along the Caldera de Taburiente was one of the most impressive sights we had, if one discounts the immensely steep and abrupt cliffs that fall into the ocean. The views that we had of this ancient caldera, down toward Tazarote and the banana plantations will stay with me for a long time.
Hiking along the rim of the Caldera de Taburiente
The Caldera de Taburiente in the afternoon light
That's what it must look like on Mars
I could go on and on, but it's time to close things down and publish this blog post. La Palma is a bit out of the way, but from what we saw, I'd recommend a visit to anyone who's looking for something extraordinary.