Understated bike directions, a stoner’s lunch, and my kind of bus rides

I’m catching on that the uber-casual Ecuadorians have a penchant for understatement.

“The road from Banos to Rio Verde is mostly downhill,” said the guide in the bike shop where I rented a mountain bike and took off on a solo 15k “waterfall route” tour. I’d ride through the verdant mountains along a pulsing river and would see a dozen or so stunning waterfalls, he said. I’d have a chance to navigate the “cyclo vias” – narrow, cobblestoned routes carved into the side of the mountains that bypassed a series of motorized vehicles-only tunnels and get some views that motorists don’t see.

What he didn’t bother telling me, however, was that the first waterfall at Chamana was up an impressive incline that only halfway up forced me off my bike and to my feet, pushing my steed up the last half kilometer. Fellow bikers will understand what I mean when I say I was tapped out in my granny gear, wheezing in the thin Ecuadoran atmosphere and bonking, big time.

Translation: I couldn’t turn the pedals, the road was so steep, and I was out of gas, physically. So I walked, huffing and puffing up the hill.

It was worth all the grunting and struggling in the thin Andean air.

Surrounded by lush green vegetation that rises a couple thousand feet to the mountain’s crest, the Chamana falls first appear well down the mountainside and plunge several hundred feet into a series of deep pools. I stood on a small bridge over a large pool; the only one in sight, an occasional barking dog the only audible interruption to the soothing sounds of the gurgling waters.

Oh, THAT Orlando International Airport…

Leave it to the uncivilized frontier of central Florida to throw a serious wrench into our travel plans.

We are veterans of air, bus and train travel in some of the world’s edgiest of  places, having negotiated the quirky schedules and logistical challenges of the likes of India, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and a good chunk of Europe. We have successfully found our way where we didn’t speak the language and were confused by cultural nuances and dramatically unfamiliar turf. Yet we found ourselves lost and just about out of time and luck only miles from Disney World and Cape Canaveral.

On our way from Orlando to Atlanta and then on to Ecuador, we’d gone to the wrong airport, blithely following signs for Orlando Sanford International airport instead of plain old Orlando International Airport. Why Orlando would require two international airports is beyond me. Why they’d name them so similarly (and fail to point out the difference in roadway signage) is downright baffling. Regardless, there we were, standing in the rental car depot, 35-40 miles from our port of exit to Ecuador, without a car or directions and with only two hours to spare until departure, hearing to the dreaded words that travelers hate to hear the most:

“Honey, you’re at the wrong airport.”

The agent suggested that we hot-foot it back to where we left the car, jump back in and “scoot” over to the right airport, wherever that might be. Hustling around the corner of the depot in the blistering mid-day Florida sun, we got a glimpse of the car drop lane: too late. Our car had already been taken for cleaning for the next renter.

Ignoring the fact that we’d left our rental at the wrong airport, we hailed a cab, tossed our bags in the back and pleaded with the driver to step on it. Hauling his massive 6-foot, 2-inch (both ways) frame into the minivan, he responded by launching into a series of stories about the rude passengers he’d had over his 20-year driving career as he crawled towards the exit. I can rollerblade faster than he was driving, but he changed his tone and dramatically picked up the speed when the subject turned to his college football career.

‘Murica Musings

Gone from these shores for more than four years, each return to the US affords me with a string of head-scratching bafflements that leave me mute with wonder and amazement.

To wit:

What Rhodes Scholar at Gillette decided it would be a good idea to add thousands of little blue dots to a tube of underarm deodorant? These antibacterial microbial agents may or may not work, but they caused me no small measure of alarm when I noticed in the mirror that my pits were dotted with tiny blue pocks when I applied my daily dose. Turns out it’s “high performance odor elimination” owing to “cool wave power beads.” Who knew? Initially, I thought I’d brought some nasty dormant skin disease with me from Southeast Asia. Think I’m switching back to Old Spice.

Twice, now, I’ve seen an enthusiastic exercise buff in Marblehead doing one of the weirdest workouts I’ve seen. He trudges through the streets of the Old Towne, vigorously flailing his arms with a hiking pole in each hand, sweat pouring from his face  and bathed in an eruption of perspiration that I’d bet would put the aforementioned Gillette Endurance elixir to the ultimate test. He’s wearing a harness on his torso attached to two truck tires that bump along the road behind him, creating a serious drag in more than one sense of the word. It must be like swimming with a parachute trailing behind you. Maybe he’s planning to climb Kilimanjaro. Will keep an eye out for him to find out, assuming I can catch up to him, to learn whassup.

Rental car wars, battle #3,187. Presenting my driver’s license and credit card to the friendly clerk at the Thrifty counter for my six week rental, I was surprised when a horrified look came over his face. He informed me that the Thrifty system “would only allow rentals up to 30 days,” and that I would have to return the car after a month and obtain an extension for the remainder of my rental period. Ignoring the fact that my reservation confirmation had guaranteed me a car for the full six weeks – and had even provided a hefty quote for the duration – he shrugged and happily passed me off to a manager to try and resolve the logjam. Mr. Big was as useful as a lame duck congressman, echoing the clerk’s finding and inviting me to “take it up with headquarters.” If I don’t return the car after 30 days they report it as stolen. Sounds like fun to me, a guy with plenty of time on his hands and who loves a good tussle. Stay tuned for periodic updates as they occur.

“Nice Joke” (or, An Unscheduled Trip To Kalamata)

Little did I imagine that, less than 72 hours after dining on a delectable meal of salmon and grilled cheese salad at a beachfront restaurant to the sound of ocean waves, I’d be lying in a hospital bed in Kalamata.

It all began with an itch. I thought I’d been bitten by one of the hundreds of mosquitoes buzzing around the sandy shore. But several hours and a miserable sleepless night later, I discovered there was more than a mosquito bite or two. Much of my body was covered in an unbearably itchy rash and the light-headed dizzy sensation I was experiencing couldn’t have come from the single mojito the night before. The next day it continued, so I went to a local clinic in Pylos and was given a very painful cortisone shot along with a dose of anti-histamine pills which helped a bit.

But the next morning it was worse and spreading so Skip suggested another visit to the clinic which turned into a ride to the larger hospital in Kalamata about 45 mins away to see a specialist.

Twists, turns, dead ends and a man with a four-foot snake

Getting lost in the hills of Peloponnese was all fun and games until our car quit in the middle of nowhere.

All the dead ends, narrow lanes edged with scratched walls where intrepid drivers before us had left pieces of their cars’ quarter panels, and all the landslides, manure-covered roads, goats and even a man with a four-foot snake hadn’t fazed us.

But a dead car hung up on a bridge covering a ravine well away from the so much as the tiniest of Greek villages was of more than a little concern.

We were crossing a crude bridge after taking the 3,987th wrong turn in our quest to find our way out of the mountains and back to the ocean’s edge when our Toyota Yaris sputtered, stalled and wouldn’t start. Worse, the bridge lay between two sharp rises of the road, so pushing it out of the way was going to be a challenge. Worse yet, the desolate, narrow road was experiencing a surge in traffic, and a guy and his wife on a motorbike was fast approaching with no room to pass.

Stupid us. We misread a sign, taking this goat path through a village as National Road. We broke down not far from here.

Stupid us. We misread a sign, taking this goat path through a village as National Road. We broke down not far from here.

Good for us, he got off and helped me push the car up the hill 15 feet so he could pass. Bad for us, he hopped on his motorbike with his scowling wife and took off without so much as an inquiry if we might need further help.

But no worries! I can jump start the car by rolling it down the incline.

Bullish on Istanbul

Oh, to live the life of a feral cat in Istanbul.

To spend languid days bathed in sunlight, and to be fed, coddled by strangers and generally looked after as we wander aimlessly through this wondrous city.

A bunch of street cats await feeding from evening diners at Karatos.

A bunch of street cats await feeding from evening diners at Kabatas along the Bosphorus.

But wait! That was us, at least in the seven days we enjoyed exploring the depths and edges of ancient and contemporary Istanbul. We’ve sampled its food (amazing), probed its neighborhoods (walkable, friendly and fascinating) and met its people (they ooze warmth and hospitality). Herein follows a rundown of our findings.

Getting around                              

Istanbul is a sprawling city of 14 million split in three by the Bosphorus and The Golden Horn, and there’s affordable, clean and efficient transport to help people get around. The tramway ($2 a ride, no matter how far you go) and ferries ($5 took us on the 45 minute ride to the wonderful island of BuyukAda) are simple and go most central places one would want to visit.

Convenient buses fill in the gaps, and once we figured out how to buy a ticket (you step on the bus, look dumb, and the driver beckons a nearby vendor to pay for your fares using a handy Istanbul Travel Card, then you pay the vendor for the fare) the bus lines are easy to navigate as well. Note that taking the buses place you at the mercy of Istanbul’s impressive traffic, as we learned the night we went to a nearby neighborhood for dinner and spent an hour looking at the cars around us.

Best to take the tram, the ferry, or walk. You’ll get there faster on foot.

Six weeks of magic, mystery and mayhem

With two days left in our six-week stint in Cyprus, now’s as good a time as any to share some parting thoughts about this tiny island of magic, mystery and mayhem.

Cyprus’s one million inhabitants enjoy a rich cultural and social  history, cobalt waters that caress pebbled beaches along a fascinating and gorgeous coastline, brown and grey wheat and barley fields that bake in the hot sun beneath mountains dotted with olive groves and vineyards, and tiny villages that seem to feature one 24 hour bakery for every 50 inhabitants. Since neither of us had visited Cyprus before, we arrived here with no expectations of what a wonderful place it would be to soak in the sun and affable local vibe.

This is an ancient island with a boatload of contemporary problems, some of which the locals blame on the 2004 decision to join the European Union and the ensuing economic collapse of Greece. This event led to what is widely referred to around here as “the crisis”, and changed Cyprus from a prosperous island in many respects to a struggling sub economy that has yet to recover.

A vineyard beneath blue skies along the roads of Cyprus.

A vineyard beneath blue skies along the roads of Cyprus.

It’s also a slightly tormented place whose history of occupations is underscored by a tense takeover of the northern part of the island by Turkey. Nicosia is the last divided capital in Europe, and you have to produce a passport to get from the Greek Cypriot to the Turkish Cypriot part of the city to shop in the markets, stroll the streets and visit the mosques.

Island life as the Cypriots do

The sun continues its inexorable whitewashing of Cyprus as another day greets us on this tiny island of history, mystery and magic.

Cyprus is a tiny dot of an island in the Mediterranean whose capital, Nicosia, is the last divided capital in Europe (under Cypriot and Turkish control, marked by a border crossing that splits a major shopping avenue). The island has been occupied by the likes of Mycenaean Greeks, Alexander the Great, Ottomans  and, most recently, the Brits, whose administrative oversight lasted from 1878 until 1960.

The former left behind ancient ruins and infused the culture with influences that show up in the food, music, language and politics of Cyprus. The latter – some of whom remain, either as languishing pensioners or military staff – left behind many a British pub, an enormous military base and decent fish and chips in most tavernas.

The island – at 3,500 square miles and 1.1 million people – is the third largest and third most populous island in the Mediterranean. Perched 47 miles south of Turkey and within half an hours’ flight from Lebanon and Syria, Cyprus has long been a coveted strategic outpost. Hence the 1974 conflict with Turkey that resulted in the island’s partition.

Cyprus' cobalt waters, near the beach city of Agia Napa.

Cyprus’ cobalt waters, near the beach city of Agia Napa.

It is an island of brilliant blue skies and cobalt waters, endless rolling hills of brown and grey sand and stone dotted with scrub and olive trees and splashes of purples and blues from the bougainvillea and oleander that flourish in abundance. The island is largely flat, but features mountain ranges to the center and north of the island that loom over the countryside and form natural strategic barriers. The faint odor of cows, goats and sheep that graze in open spaces all around the island floats in the breeze which seems to ramp up each afternoon, building to a steady blow and then easing off around dinnertime.

Greek-speaking Cypriots are warm, engaging people who offer refuge to sun worshippers from around the world, notably England and Russia. The UK seems to have deposited half of Essex on the island’s shores in an exodus of expat pensioners bent on absorbing enough of the sun’s heat to make up for lives spent in England’s endless drizzle. Head out to Lithos Grill, as we did one night to hear an appalling opening duo challenge listeners to stick around for a serviceable Roy Orbison tribute act, or to The Only, whose name is far from the truth but offers up a decent coffee and pints to the crowd that gathers from breakfast to closing, and you’ll hear more Britspeak than you would in the East End.

Fawlty Towers, Italian style

Halfway through the woefully under impressive but wildly amusing meal at Ristorante da Vinicio, Gabi put down her fork.

“It’s like being in the Italian version of Fawlty Towers,” she said, causing me to pass half a teaspoon of tasteless red wine through my left nostril. I choked back the laughter and acknowledged her perfect assessment of a mediocre dining experience that came with fabulous unintended entertainment.

The chubby guy with the “Sex N Jeans” dungarees who greeted and waited on us was Basil Fawlty. The distracted, smiling yet mildly miserable waitress with the appalling haircut was Manuel, and her bumbling, misdirected wait staff efforts rivaled those of the hapless Fawlty Towers waiter himself. I’m not sure where the elderly guy with the neck brace might have fit into the BBC sitcom’s cast of characters, but judging from his disinterested non-involvement with the goings on and comical appearance he’d belong somewhere.

The gang at Ristorante da Vinicio was earnest, well-intended and seemed to be trying hard. Like a paint-by-numbers artist pressed into service at a Soho art opening, though, they were all flailing instead of finessing their way. It was a bit like watching an episode of the Three Stooges (working title: “Made to odor!”).

The inviting exterior of Ristorante da Vinici, known locally as "The Two Fat Guys'" restaurant.

The inviting exterior of Ristorante da Vinici, known locally as “The Two Fat Guys’” restaurant.

But not to worry. We ate in good humor and left laughing despite the simple fact that the food was pretty bad.

A memorable dining experience isn’t at always only about the food. Sometimes it’s the experience, often the more bizarre the better. And if we were rating Ristorante da Vinicio for twisted entertainment value, we’d give it five Michelin stars.