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Madagascar general info…

EXPENSES

A room with two beds and a private bathroom with hot water ranged from 35,000 to 55,000 Ar in various places. The more expensive places were Tana, Tulear, Ranomafana and Andasibe (of course I’m not counting Vakona Lodge, which was about 200USD total for the stay plus meals and activities).

Typical “western-friendly” meals at hotels cost up to about 10,000Ar per person if you’d like a drink and maybe a small dessert. Going to a Malagasy restaurant frequented by locals usually costs no more than 6000Ar. You can stock up on roadside snacks like samosas, sausages, fried mashed potato things, fried plantains, fried doughey curry filled things, etc for about 200Ar each (and 2100Ar = 1USD).

Hiring a 4×4 for a day in Ifaty cost us 120,000Ar; our private car hire was 35EUR/day and you pay for gassing up the car at gas stations (fuel is pricey there– similar to Europe).

Every park has a park fee on top of a guide fee. It’s usually the varying guide fees that are the most expensive, which depend on the duration of the hike, which route, which park, etc. At Ranomafana and Andasibe where we did a 1.5 hr night walk and 3-4 hr day hike, we paid about 150,000Ar each (which included tips for guides). The smaller parks cost about half that.

Our three day trek in Isalo included three meals a day and our own porters, a cook and a guide. It also includes tent, sleeping pad and sleeping bag. That was 255,000Ar per person, and we paid an extra 45,000Ar total for the one-way 4×4 transfer to the trailhead (to avoid the several kilometer long walk through farmland to the trailhead).

GENERAL LOGISTICS

There is contradictory information in the Bradt and Lonely Planet guides! Although, LP is coming out with a new edition in a few months, so maybe some things have been corrected. We had some trouble communicating the names of places sometimes; a lot of places go by several different names that not everyone is aware of. For example, “Perinet” has been linked to Andasibe, but no one seemed to know what I was talking about even when I wrote it out. Fianarantsoa is also known as Fianar, Tulear is Toliara, etc.

Passport control is a nightmare at Tana. Try and be one of the first off the plane and in line. They collect passports in groups and you have to wait in a big group until they wave your passport in the air.

The majority of roads in Madagascar are not paved, and some are not accessible by a regular car.

I wasn’t able to get a concrete answer for the electrical outlet plug shape. But now, I can tell you that everywhere we stayed used the two round European style plugs.

You won’t encounter a lot of English speakers outside of Tana who aren’t guides. Most people speak French, but some of the older people only speak Malagasy (but can usually grab a nearby French speaker to help out).

PARKS

Ranomafana has mostly narrow dirt baths, some scrambling through bushes. You’ll definitely need good shoes, and a walking stick or trekking pole may come in handy in some isolated areas.

Reniala Spiny Forest and Tortoise Village are right next to each other. They’re both sandy and very easy/flat, so sandals are probably ok.

Zombitse was also an easy walk, but I wouldn’t recommend sandals. It’s hard to spot animals here, and I think we may have gotten overcharged and/or this park is overpriced. We paid about as much for this as we did the larger parks like Ranomafana and Andasibe.

Isalo is full of huge ups and downs with no shade, lots of sharp, brittle, steep surfaces. The walk to the Blue and Black Pools near Namaza Camp is very perilous– slippery, narrow walkways over ledges. Very sturdy hiking shoes recommended for Isalo, but don’t forget sandals so you can kick them off at the end of a long day’s hike and still be able to get around.

Mantadia is closed until further notice due to cyclone damage (along with some trails in Vakona Lodge), but Andasibe trails are great for everyone. They’re wide and clear, though you might have to scramble through some foliage depending on where some wildlife has been spotted. Initially, there is a steep ascent to the plateau where the indri are, but this can be detoured (which we did because Sara had a leg strain). Don’t forget to bring a raincoat– the guide said that we were extremely lucky to be there during a 3-day dry spell.

Mitsinjo is steep at first, climbing up to that same plateau. It is more dense than Andasibe and is also a lot more muddy. There were also a lot of mosquitoes at the lower elevations, a little less so in Andasibe.

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Beautiful, amazing, wild Madagascar…

Well, I’ve been back from Madagascar for 2.5 weeks now and it’s only been lately that I feel like I’m back into the rhythm of things. This post is about the trip itself, and then I”m going to put up a second post listing general tips, facts, prices, etc. Sara and I grew very frustrated with both the Bradt and Lonely Planet books because both had conflicting information! In one book, village A was north of B, in the other, village A was south of B! I also feel like there just isn’t enough information on traveling in Madagascar, so I hope these will help anyone else planning a ‘backpacker’ style trip there. Anyway…

Not surprisingly, Madagascar was amazing! Maybe except for Antananarivo (Tana for short)– it is so smoggy and polluted there that both Sara and I had sore throats within minutes of walking around outside. We arrived late at night, meeting with Andry the following morning to hammer out details of our private driver hire through his company, Madagascar Tour Guide. Considering we only had 16 days to hit as many of the national parks as possible, we thought it would be worth it to spend a little more on a driver (35EUR/day split between us) instead of trying to get around on taxi-brousses. That method of transportation is unreliable to say the least, as anyone that has traveled in Africa can attest to. The route we decided to do was along national road RN7, one of the few national roads that you actually don’t need a 4×4 to drive on. This was our route:

(RN7 - https://i1.wp.com/www.mada2047.com/images/cartos/detail/mada-rn7.jpg)

We spent most of the first day driving south to the village of Ambositra and stayed at Hotel Artisan, which I highly recommend! A bungalow with two beds (one in the loft area) was 55,000Ar or 26USD. We continued on the next morning after a cheap, very satisfying European-style breakfast. Our first park stop was a short hike at Ialatsara Lemur Forest Camp, which led through some farmlands before the actual forest area. The trackers here operate similarly to the mountain gorilla trackers in Rwanda– they all communicate via radio and span out ahead of the guides. Our first lemur sighting of the trip was the Milne-Edwards Sportive Lemur! We also saw a few small chameleons (the second smallest ones, before they discovered the species that can fit onto a matchstick) and crab-spiders with large, elaborate webs. They have an option to camp there overnight as well, but we decided to drive on to one of the big parks, Ranomafana. This park is bisected by a paved road, along which the village of Ranomafana is found. Prices here were a little more than Ambositra. Up until this point, the drive along RN7 has been super windy– Sara and I both got motion sickness, which is very rare! The road is less insane after Ambositra.

madagascar, may 2012
(Milne-Edwards Sportive Lemur at Ialatsara)

We signed up for a night walk with our Ranomafana guide, which was just along the paved road (they used to have night walks in the park but there were too many tourist accidents). The guide explained that since the pavement holds heat, a lot of cold-blooded reptiles come down there at night. Even just walking along the road, we saw so many different types of chameleons, a ground boa and even a brown mouse lemur. Spotting the reptiles/lizards aren’t so much an issue of how rare they are– it’s how good your eye is. They are EVERYWHERE! We started the Ranomafana day hike as soon as the park opened (to avoid the heat and to catch animals at a higher activity level). The hike first starts as steep steps down to a river, before climbing back up to the peaks via different side trails. They are mostly narrow dirt paths, but there is some scrambling through dense brush depending on where lemurs are when they’re spotted. If they’re not busy munching away on leaves, they’re leaping from tree to tree. The wildlife here is similar to Ialatsara since they are in the same area, but it is at a much larger, wider scale. We got to see a red giraffe-necked weevil and a tiny leaf-tailed gecko; its camoflage was so good that we were staring at a branch that had maybe 3-4 green leaves and 2-3 brown leaves..? Neither of us could spot it after several minutes, and were in disbelief when the guide traced its outline for us!

madagascar, may 2012
(tree boa in Ranomafana at night)

madagascar, may 2012
(find the leaf-tailed gecko!)

After Ranomafana, the plan was to spend the night in Fianarantsoa. Sara and I decided to keep driving on for another 1.5 hours to Ambalavao. Fianarantsoa is insanely huge, crowded, noisy, dusty– it was so disorienting after having stayed in small villages for the previous 5 or 6 days. On our way to Ambalavao, we stopped at Lazan’i Betsileo Vineyards– yes, Madagascar produces wine! We took a tour (Sara was the French translator since most people in Madagascar only speak that and Malagasy), and then had a tasting. They produce a large variety of wines in their 1960’s equipment, including a “grey” wine which is apparently white wine that has been aged extra long. We spent the night in quaint little Ambalavao at a place that had algae coming out of its tap and frogs that appeared in the bathroom (we’re assuming they came out of the tap).

madagascar, may 2012
(beautiful landscape at the vineyard)

At this point, since we were both getting over a cold, we decided to finish driving all the way to the east coast before hitting the parks coming back up to Tana. So, we spent the next day driving to Tulear, a large-ish city that serves as the entry point to a village called Ifaty– that is, if you have access to a 4×4 to take you on national road RN9 or are willing to deal with the taxi-brousses. The locals live in simple thatched huts that are fenced off with upright branches in between all the resorts for rich, older French tourists. It’s a very stark contrast. Ifaty is also where you can visit Reniala Spiny Forest and the Tortoise Village, which is working to breed several species of endangered tortoises. Reniala Spiny Forest has several trails that lead you around to different types of trees, including bilbaob trees. The trails are on flat sand, so no hiking boots are necessary. We had lunch on the beach at one of the restaurants before heading back to Tulear.

On our drive from Tulear back up north to Ranohira, we stopped by Zombitse-Vohibasia National Park. This park isn’t one of the big popular ones, but it’s still worth checking out especially if you’re interested in birds. Our guide spotted a Hubbard’s Sportive Lemur and it took us a few minutes to actually SEE it– we have no idea how he spotted it! We also drove by Ilakaka village, the hub of the sapphire trade. My Bradt guidebook described it as a Wild-West town, with prostitutes mingling with hired security with villagers risking their lives going into the mines for a chance of finding a sapphire that could potentially take care of them and their family for the rest of their lives. In fact, our Reniala Spiny Forest guide used to work in the mines and told us that several of his friends had died. Have any of you ever watched Blood Diamond with Leonardo DiCaprio? Do you remember the scene when he pops a diamond out of his tooth and sells it in town? That’s exactly how Ilakaka looks/feels like. Out of curiosity, I asked to stop. Our driver Bio recommended that we go to the village of Sakaraha instead, since it was a little more safe. He took us to this “shop” which had several men hanging back near the entrance, two plastic lawn chairs in front of a vinyl-covered desk with another chair behind it. A sleazy Sri Lankan man came out and started showing us cut and uncut stones. We left after a horrible attempt to rip me off. I don’t regret going– he still talked to me and showed me some of the stones he had.

When we arrived in the pseudo-desert town of Ranohira (which really is in the middle of nowhere, it’s probably only there because it’s the jumping-off point for Isalo National Park), we booked a 3-day trek with Momo Trek complete with porters and meals, and decided to stay at one of his bungalows that night. The Isalo area used to be full of rivers but now it is arid and airy, with massifs coming out of the ground every few miles. I should point out that the Bara people believe that pointing with your finger is fady (taboo). You can point with your middle knuckle instead. Anyway, the next morning we took a 4×4 to the trailhead and began a very steep, difficult ascent up a canyon face. There was barely any cover from the sun, plus this was at some elevation (not a substantial amount, but enough to notice!). This was the Canyon of the Monkeys. We camped that night in a valley and showered under a natural waterfall. We met two girls– one Malagasy with a French teenager. Apparently, France has a program that judges or parents can enroll disenchanted teens in, which pairs them with a local Malagasy mentor for 6-9 months. The next day’s hike was a little easier, going by the Piscine Naturelle and ending in Namaza Camp. This is the campsite where families of ring-tailed lemurs meander through the campsite and mingle with visitors. Sara and I had plopped down overheated and exhausted at one of the stone benches and were about to dig into some delicious pineapple slices (those things were like ambrosia at that point), when a ring-tail jumped onto the bench! They were like aggressive squirrels that I’m sure you’ve experienced before when picnicking at a park at home! The last day was really fast, walking from Namaza Camp back to Ranohira.

madagascar, may 2012
(beginning of our Isalo trek)

madagascar, may 2012
(ring-tail!)

On our way back up, we stopped again at Ambalavao, but stayed at a place that had a great shower (with no frogs or algae!), Bougainvillees. It was so nice!! Near the top of my list for Madagascar accommodations. Our next stop was Anja Park, which is actually a co-op run by the village. There wasn’t much wildlife to be spotted except for another family of ring-tails, but it was so much fun, scrambling up and down huge boulders on all fours!

We had to stop in Fianarantsoa to exchange more money (only Ariary is accepted everywhere), and got totally screwed by the exchange rate. Andry had warned that the further you get from Tana, the worse the rate gets. The trade-off is space, surprisingly. Their largest note is 10,000 Ar and that’s only about 5USD! Our original pile of 1000USD (which we got an outstanding rate on through Andry in Tana) came out to be $2.1 million Ariary which was at least 3 or 4 inches thick. You may have heard that there has been political tension– the last presidency was kicked out in a coup and is now ruled by a self-proclaimed leader who no one acknowledges. There are police and military checkpoints at every other village (even if it only takes a minute to drive through the entire village), but I’m not sure if that was always the case or if it started since the coup. People are not happy with the situation. When we were leaving Fianar (seems like there’s nicknames for every big town), we drove through a student protest full of teenagers that had walked out of class. Oh and I think there was a cockfight about to start at the gas station we stopped at.

From Ambositra, we drove to Andasibe-Mantadia National Park. This is actually two parks, the much larger one being Mantadia. We encountered no notice of this in all our online research, but MANTADIA IS CLOSED INDEFINITELY thanks to the huge cyclone earlier this year! Lame, especially since we had planned on spending several nights here since there were so many trails in Mantadia! Andasibe has three trails, but the third one covers the first two anyways. Andasibe is popular because of the largest existing lemur, the Indri indri. Besides their size and the lack of a tail, another distinguishing feature is that instead of grunts and shrieks, the indri sing. It’s very eerie– almost like whale song. They sing in the morning to call to their family and to protect their territory. At this park, we also saw the colorful Diademed Sifaka (sifakas are like larger lemurs) the Eastern Wooly Lemur and the Common Brown Lemur. And of course, so many chameleons! We also went for a night walk along the road, but at this point, we were chameleon’ed out. There was supposedly a mouse lemur, but no matter how hard the guide tried to point it out with his two different colored flashlights, we just could not spot it.

madagascar, may 2012
(indri)

Mitsinjo Park shares the same area as Andasibe, and is actually run by a local NGO. Their goal is to protect the endemic flora and fauna of Madagascar and one way of doing that is by slowly removing invasive/introduced trees and replanting native trees once they’ve grown enough in their tree nursery. It really is an impressive organization. Our Mitsinjo guide spoke great English (probably the best English speaker out of all our guides!) and was genuinely interested and invested in his cause. Still not convinced that Mitsinjo is worth checking out? They have something that Andasibe doesn’t– the territorial line that splits two families of indri! During our hike, one of the families was leaping through the trees above us to take up arms after sounding the alarms! (The territory-alarm sounds similar to their regular call, except it goes on for longer.) Our guide found another species of leaf-tailed gecko, this one much larger than the Ranomafana one. He tested us and gave us a minute to find it– we stared at that two foot long part of the tree trunk but managed to barely spot it! I’m still not sure where its tail ends though, even if I stare at the picture.

madagascar, may 2012
(just a tree trunk?)

We decided to splurge and stay at Vakona Lodge. What a beautiful place!!! They have their own private reserve with several trails (a lot of them were closed because of cyclone damage as well, since this is closer to Mantadia than Andasibe), a crocodile farm with a tree boa you can handle and some tortoises you can feed flowers to, a pair of caged fossa (kind of sad)– they even have a private island, Lemur Island. It’s called that because it’s full of habituated lemurs that were donated as ex-pets that run and jump all over you! They’re mostly the common brown lemur, but there are a few black & white ruffed lemurs. They seemed to be the more mellow species, but both loved plantains (and also, the salt from dried sweat– agh!!). There is a family of ring-tails on another small island; they don’t like to be pet, but they’ll clamber on you.

madagascar, may 2012
(so mellow– black and white ruffed lemur on Lemur Island)

Our flight out of Madagascar wasn’t until 1am so we spent the last day roaming in and near Tana. We checked out the ruins of Ambohimanga, where the emperor used to live a few centuries ago, then onto Ilafy to visit a small museum that focused on the different tribes of Madagascar where we befriended some teenagers studying to be guides. Back in Tana, we had lunch near the prime minister’s palace, which contained some artifacts of the queen that survived a huge fire that occurred not that long ago. Our last two stops of the day were the croc farm near Tana which was also a zoo and an orphanage, Akany Avoko.

I would suggest that if you’re out in an area with any kind of forestry or shrubs, keep your eyes and ears peeled! You’re bound to spot something, like…
… a bumbling lowland tenrec
madagascar, may 2012
… or Parson’s chameleon!
madagascar, may 2012

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Back to Little Corn

It’s about time for a tropical beach vacation again! I knew Little Corn (La Islita), a Nicaraguan island in the Caribbean, would be a safe bet judging from my experiences there in 2008.

We arrived in Managua and stayed for what we thought would’ve been one night at Camino Real, a large, modern hotel close to the airport and not really anything else, unless you count the casino next door. They offer free airport shuttle service, though at the time it seemed like it had to be pre-arranged (maybe because it was the low season?). A room with a king size bed was 90USD with an amazing breakfast! A lot of the people there had a lot of attitude, but it was a good place to get refreshed and cleaned up.

I had assumed that we didn’t have to pre-book our flights from Managua to Big Corn via their domestic airline, La Costena, but I was wrong. The afternoon flight (they have two flights a day, 630am and 2pm) was completely booked. As we were waiting on standby in the domestic terminal, it started raining.. torrential, tropical style. This delayed the flight, and although we were told the entire flight was cancelled, we found out the next day that only the second leg of the flight was cancelled– passengers spent the night in Bluefields, on the coast of Nicaragua. I walked next door to the La Costena agency and booked for the 630am flight the next morning, about 169USD each, round-trip. To play it safe, we decided to fly back to Managua a day early instead of the original plan, which was flying back on the early morning flight and spending 4-5 hours at the Managua airport before our flight home.

little corn island, nov 2011

After landing in Big Corn’s tiny airport, we shared a taxi with a traveler from Belgium who had been on a year-long trip. It costs 1USD (or 15 cordoba) to get anywhere on the island, including the pier. There is a pier tax (can’t remember the amount but it was pretty low). We had some time to kill so we grabbed a bite to eat at the nearby restaurant. There, we met the British couple that runs Dive Little Corn, one of two dive shops on La Islita. They’ve taken a lot of extra certification classes, including one aimed at handicapped divers.. you could clearly tell that they were in it because they love diving, not necessarily to just make money. The panga from Big to Little Corn costs 110 cordoba per person and takes about 30-40 minutes.

We had a reservation for five nights at Little Corn Beach & Bungalow (LCBB), a newer (it wasn’t there in 2008) highly rated place to stay on the ocean-side of the island. This little spot is owned by a couple from Colorado, soon to be managed by another couple that is moving from their resort in Granada (the wife is American and the husband Portuguese). They’re all super nice and accommodating. The rest of the employees are locals; I’ve had some of the best service ever at this place, including at their restaurant, Turned Turtle. Also, Turned Turtle has some of the BEST food I’ve ever had! The best filet mignon, the best lobster tail, the best butter garlic shrimp.. the list goes on– and this is compared with every other restaurant I’ve been to around the world and at home. The prices are great by American standards, 15-20USD for those meals, which include appetizer, salad and dessert. Their pina coladas and margaritas are amazing as well– I’ve been thinking about them everyday since I got home! We spent the first four nights in a 84USD/night ‘Gulliver’ level bungalow, which includes a mini fridge that works when the island has power (it goes off everyday from 5am-2pm) and the last night in a ‘Crusoe’ level which is 20USD cheaper, but has way fewer amenities (since we missed the first La Costena flight, we pushed our reservation back one night but had to switch bungalows the last night due to another booking). I would say the worst con was that the Crusoe had no fan, and even though it had windows, we still ended up sleeping with the door open. A little aggravating, considering there were a few storms that rolled in throughout the night! Overall, LCBB was an awesome place to stay. Two unique perks I really appreciated was that they have someone that will meet you at the panga and transport your luggage in their wheelbarrow, and will walk you back when you leave (you will be extra appreciative in the rainy season when the trails are super muddy and slippery). The other unique perk is that they have wifi when there’s electricity.. not that I was too attached to my inboxes, but it was convenient in terms of checking other reservations, etc.

little corn island, nov 2011
(the beach at LCBB)

Besides lounging around on their hammocks, eating and drinking at Turned Turtle, reading your book on the veranda of your bungalow, LCBB also has kayak and snorkel rentals. Brian snorkeled from the beach and swam all the way to the reef, but it took a lot of effort. Another morning, we booked a 15USD, 2-stop snorkel trip with some guides that stopped by the LCBB beach. We spent a lot of time playing dominoes as well. Oh, what a hard life!

little corn island, nov 2011

little corn island, nov 2011

If LCBB is beyond your budget, I recommend staying at Derek’s Place, on the same side of the island. I stayed here last time and fell completely in love with it. It’s more affordable than LCBB, but that also means less amenities.

A note about Little Corn is that this is not a 5-star location. Electricity is limited, and most of the places to stay encourage limited water usage since the only water sources are an aquifer and collected rainwater. There are NO paved roads– there are only a few dirt paths that cross the jungly interior of the island, though most places are on the beaches so you can just walk along the shore. The plumbing is sensitive, so all toilet paper must be thrown away, not flushed (most Central American countries are like this). Only cash is usually accepted, and even then, they have to scramble for change if you try to pay with a larger bill. There are no banks or ATMs on this island, though there is one on Big Corn with an ATM that gives you dollars or cordobas.

We spent our one night on Big Corn at Sunrise Hotel, which is where I stayed last time. Even Scott at LCBB said Sunrise Hotel was a great place to stay. Their ocean-view rooms are 55USD/night. A little old, but really clean and well-furnished, with lots of natural lighting. Big Corn is noticeably more developed than what I remember. As in, there actually is a slum there now. There used to be more Garifuna than Nicas but that’s not the case anymore. One very unexpected thing was that there seemed to be a lot of tourists from the American South here..!!?? We met one guy at Sunrise, who works on an offshore oil rig in Louisiana. He showed us some nasty looking cuts on his palm and bicep (nasty as in, fat tissue was visible), telling us he got completely drunk the night before, rented a golf cart, convinced some local woman to drive it even though she insisted she didn’t know how to (‘well, you’d probably drive it better than me right now!’), then crashed it. He flew off and the first thing he grabbed was barbed wire.. refused to go to the hospital to get stitches, was still in his bloodied clothes drinking his beer at the bar the following morning, which is when we met him. These are the Americans that give the rest of the Americans a bad reputation abroad!! I have no pity for him.

We had a couple hours to kill that morning before our flight so we ended up renting a golf cart ourselves (25USD for their 2-hr minimum) and driving around. There are still no souvenir shops, which is a good and bad thing! Anyway, I was right to book our La Costena flight back to Managua a day early. That flight was delayed by a few hours! It’s really saying something when my experience with that airline was way better three years ago. But, what can you do? That’s the only airline that services Big Corn. I highly recommend leaving a big buffer on both sides of the trip. We stayed at Camino Real for our last night in Nicaragua. Same crabby attitude, same great rooms. I love Little Corn, but it’s definitely nice to be able to take a long, hot shower with great water pressure, and then step out in an air-conditioned room with low humidity. And now, back to a fast-paced life complete with traffic jams, smartphones, rapid-fire emails and excel spreadsheets. Until next time…

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New Orleans

Teresa and I just got back from a weekend in New Orleans. Unfortunately, I had a full blown cold by the time I landed so I couldn’t do or enjoy much!! It was mostly a quickie foodie trip so here are my findings:

If you love that Cajun/Creole cuisine, call ahead and reserve a table at K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen and Emeril’s NOLA Restaurant, around the corner from K-Paul. They were both highly recommended to me by a lot of people and I can see why! For a cheaper, but equally yummy option, check out Acme Oyster House (just be prepared to stand in line outside). When you’re strolling around, grab some beignets (fried doughnuts buried in powdered sugar) and an iced latte at the legendary Cafe Du Monde! Keep in mind though, that it’s cash only and pretty chaotic inside– just grab the first open table you see and a server will eventually come up to you.

new orleans, june 2011
(garlic crusted drum at NOLA)
new orleans, june 2011
(beignets & frozen cafe au lait at Cafe Du Monde)

My other favorite thing in New Orleans was checking out the voodoo stuff. The New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum was well worth its $5 entry fee and the store, although small, had well-priced items (especially compared to other shops). Down a couple blocks is Voodoo Authentica, another interesting voodoo stop. I’d say that the Voodoo Museum was the better of the two.

new orleans, june 2011

And now, I return to my Tylenol Cold induced haze…

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Eindhoven & Amsterdam

One of the projects I have going on at work is a collaboration between our lab, PATH (another non-profit research institute based in Seattle), and Biocartis, an off-shoot of Philips. We were sent to the Biocartis facility at the High Tech Campus in Eindhoven, Holland for a 4-day training session.

Holland, April 2011

We flew into Amsterdam, rented a car and drove the 1.5 hours down to Eindhoven. Others had chosen to fly into Brussels instead, driving for 1 hour but leaving Seattle several hours beforehand. I was a little freaked out about driving in another country, but it wasn’t bad at all! (Plus, we got a nice car.) People there drive better than in Seattle. But all I can say about Eindhoven is that… it’s a cute little modern town, but it doesn’t have much going for it if you’re just a tourist. Sorry!

Holland, April 2011

After training was over, we spent a little time in Amsterdam, keeping it pretty tame. Our lodging of choice was RobertRamon, a cute little boutique hotel with a great location. The rooms were small and the walls were thin, but service was excellent and it was fairly priced for what and where it was.

We had pre-purchased timed entry tickets for the Anne Frank House, which I highly recommend. The line to purchase tickets at the door literally stretched around the corner! I think we could’ve probably purchased tickets for the Van Gogh Museum at the door. It seems like there are special events there on Friday nights (they’re open later and by the time we got there, a kimono fashion show had just ended). For most of our one full day there, we just walked around and used the hop-on/hop-off boats, checking out the Tulip Market and the shopping areas.

Holland, April 2011

Holland, April 2011

Holland, April 2011

Not much to report… we were gone for just a week! 😉

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Beautiful Blue Lagoon

After a physically and mentally trying several days (the ATV accident, subsequent whiplash, then off-roading and getting stuck on a huge snow drift and having to help get the vehicle unstuck), Brian and I were anxious to get to the famed geothermally heated healing waters of the Blue Lagoon right after the 4×4 trip.

We got off at the BSI bus terminal after the 4×4 trip and immediately bought bus tickets to the Blue Lagoon. Reykjavik Excursions offers round trip bus fare with hotel transfer with and without Blue Lagoon entrance. If you buy their package, you end up saving about $10USD (versus if you only bought bus fare yourself, and paid separately for the entrance fee). However, Brian and I wanted to do the exclusive lounge, which came out to only be about $60USD more per person. You get your own private changing room with a magnificent shower with WCs in the same area (ours was right across the hallway), towels, bathrobes, a fruit plate, bottled water, tea, coffee, a private indoor section of the Blue Lagoon, access to the rest of the Lagoon, a small lounge area with a fireplace, and your own personal host.

Walking into the reception area, we were tired, cold (the kind of cold that drains your energy and gets right into your bones), in pain and cranky. Gunni, our host, led us up to the quiet private area and right when we walked into our private room, we were enveloped in a blanket of luxurious, warm air. It made my ears tingle! The interior was beautiful– modern design, heated stone floors, backlit blue and purple lights, brushed steel and aluminum appliances. When Brian went out to go smoke, I sat down, closed my eyes and enjoyed the wave of glee that came over me.

We went downstairs to where the lounge was, inhaled our fruit platter, and stepped into the warm water. The water is light blue due to silica and algal elements, and is geothermally heated. There are several outlets of steam around the Lagoon, I’m assuming excess energy that hasn’t been harnessed by the nearby geothermal plant. The air is still super cold and chilly, but the water is so warm that everything is perfect! There is also a bar that you can wade up to and charge your purchases to the wristband that you pay out upon departure. We spent the next few hours wading around, exploring the nooks and crannies of the Lagoon. Beautiful and relaxing… it was exactly what we needed!

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Ouch! Brrrrr!

Got into an ATV accident yesterday. I was following Brian who was following our guide, Thor of Eskimos (http://www.eskimos.is). We were quading around some roads that were covered with gravel and at times snow and/or ice, going up and down small mountains, crossing running rivers and frozen ponds that broke underneath the weight of our ATV’s. It was fun! I deliberately hung back so I could gas it all the way at times (NOT where there was snow or ice, just on gravel). Unfortunately, these were tuned down to be street legal so the acceleration and top speed were less than what I’m used to.

Anyway, so there was one part that literally had a foot of solid ice covering most parts of the road. Brian said that even Thor had to slow down to maneuver the road. So from what I gathered afterwards (from what I remember and Brian seeing it happen in his rear view), I hit a foot-deep rut, it yanked my handlebar all the way to the right, I yanked it forward but by then it was too late. I hit the left side of my head (yes we had helmets) first before getting more banged up and my left foot pinned underneath the ATV. The ATV was somehow completely upside down and perpendicular to the direction I was traveling. I laid there dazed for a bit but managed to wiggle out. By the time we got back to the apartment, my head was pounding and I could already feel whiplash settling into the left side of my neck, plus several spots where bruises would probably form.

Probably against better judgement, I still went on our 4×4 offroading tour this morning, which probably aggravated my neck. Then to top it all off, our vehicle, which was pretty much a Mormon Mobile that was equipped with enough gear to make it close to impossible to get stuck, got stuck. On a six foot snow drift. And we had to get out and push. Unsuccessfully. For a full freaking hour in sub zero temperatures. Not cool. Luckily, some guys on snowmobiles saw us, grabbed their own 4×4 and towed us out. Well, at least the surrounding snowscape was beautiful!

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