Thursday, June 27, 2013

Just get on the damn train!: A global adventure with Mom & Dad... Part I: Doha & Dubai...

I wanted my parents to visit me... in Doha, about three hours after moving here. The excitement of living in the Middle East in an Islamic country has long since died out for me; but the thought of putting my parents on a plane and just seeing their wide-eyed stares for my amusement made the idea of a visit all the better.  Dad and I had discussed getting them over to Doha, but he had a major demand, “I don’t want to spend all my time in Qatar.” I thought about trying to convince him that Qatar deserved at least as much time as Paris or China, but in all honesty, after two days you’ve pretty much seen it all. So I was ordered to go out and search for an itinerary worthy of the physical and monetary cost of a seventeen hour flight for my parents… and the search was on.

There were some rules, though. “Your mother doesn’t want to go to India.” It turns out a leg of The Amazing Race went thru the Calcutta ghettos and the abject poverty, filth, and potential aroma had soured my plans for tea plantations and the Taj Mahal. “January and February will work best for us.” Damn you Dad and your devotion of doing taxes for the homeless and elderly! He needed to be available for the late filers in April, so scratch off northern Europe and Poland. “We like cruises.” Oh for God’s sake! How in the world am I supposed to get a cruise out of the Persian Gulf?  (*note – there are now cruises out of Dubai).

Months went by of searching guidebooks, travel websites, and staring at Google Earth. Would they like an African safari where you pitch your own tent surrounded by bugs and hyenas? How about Thailand with its incredibly spicy food and ladyboys? How about a few days of seclusion in the Maldives with unlimited booze? I sent Dad an email asking for some clarification, and got the following response with my father’s standard dry wit and sarcasm. I can hear him typing this with a slight chuckle:

“Wait a minute!  You were supposed to be finding a trip for us. You said you would take care of it, keep it on budget, and make sure that your mother would feel safe.  Don’t come back to me trying to worm your way out of your promise… go find us the trip that you promised!”

Unfortunately, my father has trouble reading the small type on his laptop… and instead of enlarging the font, he types in all caps.  So re-read the same paragraph exactly as he sent it to me:


I was sitting at work, reading this email, struggling to hold back tears as the paragraph came off the page in the voice of my father yelling at me like when I sat on the dryer door and broke the hinge. I half expected the email to finish with him telling me to go his closest and grab the belt.  I sniffled my way through a phone call to Dad explaining to him the protocol of ALL CAPS means yelling in emails. “Well… if they made the type bigger...”

Months of searching later, I finally found it.  An “off-season” Mediterranean cruise.  Much cheaper than the summer cruises to keep us under budget, multiple stops to places neither my parents nor I had ever visited, plus some time in Doha before and time in Italy after.  This could work!!  I sent off the itinerary to my parents for approval, wonderfully entitled,” Your Grand Tour: Houston, Doha, Dubai, Rome, Genoa, Marseilles, Malta, Alexandria & Cairo, Israel, Palestine, Cyprus, Crete, Naples, and some more time in Italy to finish it off.”  Mom was thrilled!  She was going to get to see the Pyramids; Dad was going to get to see Israel!  He wrote to say that Mom went on the computer “by herself” to look up the places we were going to visit… she was that excited. Proud in my accomplishments and thinking about changing careers to travel planning, we spend the money, bought all the tickets in advance, and just had to wait another two months…

And then... the Arab Spring.  I had one job to do.  Plan a vacation so that my parents could see the wonders of the world… and Egypt burns to the ground.  Dad wondered if we should cancel the entire trip as the U.S. news was reporting that the entire Middle East had erupted in protest.  I had to buck him up, saying that Qatar was stable and very secure.  The cruise ships sent notice that they were going to bypass Alexandria and cancel the excursions to the pyramids. Mom, without a word of protest, said it was OK… but I could tell she was a little upset, but she would never show it to me. If Egypt ever calms the fuck down, I promise to take her, if just for one day.

I spent three days scrubbing my apartment, washing all the sheets and towels, and paying the maid extra to soap down the windows. The fridge was stocked with apples for Dad, the freezer with discount cigarettes for Mom.  They boarded the plane, and were on their way.

And that was when I received a call from an old family friend in Houston. One of my mother’s closest friends had passed away. It was now my job to tell her. For eight hours I wavered between joy and nervous energy that soon my parents would be here, in Doha… and dreading the thought that I was going to make my mom cry.  They showed up, joked about the multitude of different people and clothing on the flight over, and stared out at the unfamiliar Arabic lettering and signage as I brought them back to my old apartment. It was there where I had to break the news to Mom.

With one sentence, I knew my mother would forever associate this trip with the loss of her friend. Selfishly, I asked Dad if Mom was going to be OK, or stay depressed while trying to travel. Dad said not to worry; she'll be OK.  After a while, Mom composed herself and simply stated that yes, she was going to be sad, but that she came here to see amazing things and to enjoy her time with me and Dad… and that’s what she was going to do. “Now… what are we doing first?”
That’s my mom…

My friends Ed and Nicole were having a “fancy dress” party that night, so Mom and Dad put their shoes back on while I slipped into a dinner jacket, and we went over for glasses of wine, Nicole’s amazing food, and canapés.  Dad drank an Old Fashioned while we chatted with my friends in a strangely elegant setting before the jet lag kicked in.

Next morning I pulled out the pre-packed cooler, told my parents to put on a bathing suit, and headed out the door just as the sun was coming up.  We went over to Tim and Melissa’s, two dear friends of mine, who agreed to help take my parents out to the Inland Sea for a day of dune bashing.

Driving south out of Doha, I spent all my time explaining what all the signs meant, who designed what, pointing out Al-Jazeera and the Emiri Diwan, and why you couldn’t use horns near some buildings… basically giving my parents the double-decker hop-on, hop-off tour experience. As we reached Sealine, the road ended.  Really… the road just comes to a dead stop at the start of the Empty Quarter… an expanse of desert with salty limestone hard pack and towering sand dunes.  Before we went off-road too much, I had to take Mom and Dad to the local Bedouins who camp at the desert entrance. I’m not sure if they’re really Bedouins or not, but they have camels to ride.  Mom and Dad were surprisingly eager, and climbed onboard the pack animals while I took photo after photo of the two rejects from “Lawrence of Arabia.”  The ride was only for a few minutes, but the joy on their faces was worth every riyal... especially when we cracked the "it only took traveling to the Middle East for Dad to get humped" jokes.

Camel riding near Sealine
We lowered the pressure on the tires to almost nothing, and headed due south into the desert. Trying to describe the desert is almost impossible… it’s not like the deserts we know in Texas or Arizona.  These are bleak, eerie, and foreign; with almost no guidelines or markers to find your way. As I gunned the engine to climb the steep dunes, Mom was quietly swearing under her breath.  She never did enjoy the driving in Doha.  We bashed our way up and down the dunes until we reached a quiet outlet near the Inland Sea passage to the Arabian Gulf. I explained that the rocky outcroppings just across the narrow inlet was Saudi Arabia, and pulled up a map on my phone to show them exactly where we were. We set up a tent, fired up the charcoal, and spend the hours swimming in the cold salty water and climbing the nearby powdered dunes. We sat for hours talking about life in Qatar, drinking our beers in spite of the Saudis, and digging our toes into the cool winter sand. Dad found the absence of any noise from birds or insects fascinating. After our bellies were full of blackened hotdogs and kielbasa, we packed up and headed back along our GPS path.  Some traffic cones popped up in the middle of nowhere, and we decided to follow them, trying to fathom who would need a path out here.  By accident, we found ourselves driving onto the set of the movie “Black Gold” with Antonio Banderas… prop biplane and all.  

Instead of forcing my parents into Turkish or Lebanese food right away, I thought I would take them to dinner at my favorite restaurant in Doha… Thai Snack. I explained that the kitchen is how all of Bangkok smells; herbal and fragrant of broth and pandan leaves. The table was soon covered with dumplings, noodles, green curries and fried morning glory.  Dad enjoyed it except for the spicy heat.  As for Mom, “it’s different.”  Dad quickly interjected that “it’s different” is her way of saying she didn’t like it.

The next morning was giving them a tour of work and Education City. We had morning tea with the Bosses and I was able to give them the grand tour, followed by a respectable lunch of Hot Chicken. Yes… Hot Chicken… possibly the best restaurant in all of Doha.  While I realize that at least half of the meal is made up of Indian bacteria, the strange mix of Pilipino, Indian, and Nepalese cuisine with mystery meat is still our most beloved lunch. And the mixed chow mein is to die for. Mom and Dad rested while I went back to work, and then picked them up to go to Sunday afternoon church in Church City. Not an actual city of churches, but it is the location of all the non-Muslim worship sites in Qatar. High security and way outside of town, we had to follow Tim and Mel since I never went myself.  While I am Catholic… I’m not a very good Catholic.  To prove it, Dad and I almost died laughing as Mom took a header into the pews.  Sorry Mom. We spent the next three hours in traffic trying to reach the gold souq to pick up the gift Dad had me order for Mom’s Valentine’s Day present. On the way home, I pulled into Majelis Restaurant, a good place for some authentic local lentil soup, hummus, mutable, lemon with mint, and a big mixed grill cooked in a pocket of flatbread; the standard fare at every restaurant in the Middle East.  Mom… “It’s different.”

I had to work the following day, moving chemicals from an old building into our new stockroom, while Mom and Dad chilled out in my flat. I got home and picked up Dad to get a haircut and a shave.  My father shaves everyday… no exceptions. The only time in my life I ever saw him with any facial growth was as a kid when he would go hunting for a few snowy days in Michigan. He would come back smelling of kerosene from his hand warmers with just the slightest bit of shadow on his cheeks.  I told him that he had to let his hair facial hair grow for a few days so he could enjoy the wonders of having a haircut and a straight razor shave. Unbeknownst to him, I instructed the non-English speaking Indian who would be cutting his hair to also give him a facial scrub.  After my woefully needed shave and a haircut (I let my beard grow for four months just to hear my Mom’s mocking), I opened the cubicle next to mine and saw my dad’s face covered in a thick, pale-green paste.  He heard me laughing, cracked his eyes open, and saw me taking his picture in the mirror.  He tried to laugh, but the face peel I paid for was hardening around his jaw.  Somehow, he was able to yell, “Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord… I will repay!”  Later on he would tell me, “The guy just started to put shit all over my face… I didn’t know how to tell him to stop!”  If I go to hell for pulling that prank on my dad… it will totally be worth it.
He's about to yell out Biblical phrases at me...

Since it was Valentine’s Day, I got reservations for an expensive Italian restaurant on The Pearl called Bice (coincidentally, I now live on The Pearl.) We walked around the promenade and gawked at the mega-yachts docked at the water’s edge.  We went up for dinner, ordered some truffle pasta and a few bottles of merlot from their extensive stock, when the waiter told us that it was a “Muslim holiday.” Turns out, Valentine’s Day is also the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday! And to celebrate, no alcohol can be sold! What kind of God would allow this to happen?!  You can ask my sisters, there’s no way in hell we could get through Jesus’ birthday without a fully stocked bar.  This news just totally killed the dinner.  We were all expecting some nice wine with our food, and the letdown was catastrophic.  We spent the next two hours picking at our food wondering how much better it would be with a cabernet.  The only thing that saved the night was that Mom loved her present from Dad; an Al-Jazeera teardrop necklace with her name written in Arabic that I gotten made from a custom jeweler in Doha.  We skipped dessert, headed home, cracked open a few bottles of red and retired slightly drunk and early.
Mom left claw marks...

I wanted to make sure that my parents got to see everything the Middle East could offer.  I knew early on that this would probably be a one-time trip for my parents; so I needed to make the best of it. Saving up my Qatar Airways miles, I was able to get three almost-free plane tickets to Dubai for a one-day excursion to the United Arab Emirates. We woke early and drove to the Doha airport, leaving my car in the lot. I had pre-purchased tickets to the viewing tower atop the newly opened Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. The tickets are pricy and time-stamped, so we had to be on time otherwise it would cost me a fortune.  We arrived in Dubai a little late, and then had to wait for the metro train at the airport.  Of course, I ended up paying for a cab to drive us two minutes to the tower entrance because I feared we were going to be late. Scrambling around, we found the visitor line where I explained between wheezing breaths that we were late but had passes.  The guide just laughed me off, moved us in front of the crowd, and we got in line for the express elevators… no problems.

Burj Khalifa is tall… really fucking tall.  It is 2,716.5 feet tall.  The Empire State Building is only 1,184 feet tall. It is much more than twice as tall as the Empire State Building… that’s tall!! The elevators, the fastest in the world, take you to nearly the top floor with 360 degree views of Dubai.  You can actually watch planes fly past the building below your feet.  Mom inched around the room, never once letting go of either Dad or a supporting column.  You could see her fingernail marks in the walls.  There’s also an ATM that spits out gold bars… in case you need that sort of thing.  There’s even an outdoor patio where you can look straight down; that part even made my knees a little weak.  Back on the ground we walked around and enjoyed the musical fountain show, all the while constantly staring back up at the building’s peak that was barely visible.
Burj Khalifa...

We cabbed it over to the Mall of the Emirates (once again, over here, everything is in the malls) to show them Ski Dubai.  This is the same indoor ski slope that I enjoyed three years previously, and where [NAME REMOVED] blew out her knee.  I expected that Dad would want to have a go, but he deferred. Instead, we went to the food court where we got Dairy Queen and dip cones.  From there it was another cab to sightsee the seven-star Burj Al Arab Hotel, the Palm Jumeirah, and the Dubai Atlantis. Mom and Dad were amazed at the wonderful architecture and how much money each place must cost.  I tried to explain that to most of the locals, cost was something they never had to worry about. At the Atlantis hotel, I walked them around to show them the aquarium and the water park.  The Atlantis water park is designed and built by the same family who own and operate Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels, Texas; one of the places my parents love to visit. I expected them to want to spend the day at the water park riding the uphill water coasters, cruising along the lazy river, and speeding down the water slides that pass through shark tanks.  I even brought their bathing suits in my backpack.  Instead, they both said no.  “What about the aquarium then?”  Again… not interested.
"Mom can pull off European," I thought...

“Shit,” I thought to myself, “now what the hell am I going to do with them?” Dubai is all about shopping, which neither of my parents could give two shits about.  The waterpark is the closest thing to a cultural highlight in Dubai!  To make things worse, I realized I had our return flight time wrong… I needed to kill five hours until our flight. 

Thankfully, Mom came up with a solution.  The hotel was a stop for an open-topped hop-on/hop-off tour bus.  I never took these tours because I always wanted to be a “traveler… not a tourist” as Tony Bourdain is want to diatribe. But here I was with my parents, being a tourist. I bought the tickets, picked up the headphones, and climbed onboard.  Mom and Dad said that they love to take these buses; you get to see all the sights, don’t have to worry about cabs or metros, plus you learn more about the history from the prerecorded history piped into the headset.  The bus swung us back around the Burj Khalifa and past the three malls we had already visited.  But it then took us to Dubai Creek and the old ports and shipping areas where old dhows and rusty cargo ships were laden with goods arriving daily from India and Iran.  The bus tour was actually a pretty good time, and it was nice to sit back and have someone else do the explaining for a while.

We jumped off the bus at yet another mall to kill a few more hours before our flight.  We got some coffees and relaxed outside as we watched the sun set over the amazing skyline of Dubai. At some point we got into a fit of laughter at how badly I was handling the timing of this trip… rushing to the airport, rushing to the tower, getting the flight time wrong, too much time to kill.  And then it hit me.  “Dad, did you set your watch ahead an hour for the time change when we landed?”  Oh shit… I never told Dad that Dubai was an hour ahead of Doha, and we had been using his watch. I did the math… our flight left in seventy minutes. 

Fuuuuuuuck…  “We’re going to miss our flight!!”  We tossed our coffees to the ground and raced to the nearest metro station, “Yes, we’re going the right way, just get on the train Mom!”  Arriving at the airport twenty minutes later, I had no idea if we would get through customs in time.  We ran (no really, we ran) to check-in and got through security.  We busted our way to the gate on squeezed onboard just as they were closing the gate. Onboard, Dad kept teasing me about my planning, wondering aloud if I could get us to the cruise ship or whether we would have to charter a fishing boat.  After paying almost a hundred dollars to park for thirteen hours at the airport (never making that mistake again) we headed back to the flat and crashed.

Downtown Doha from the MIA...
The next two days were, thankfully, event free.  Mom and Dad toured the Pearl again, the Katara cultural center to visit the amphitheater and beach, a few of the more scenic malls, and down to the Corniche to watch the local dhows.  A spin through the Museum of Islamic Art finished off the day, and dinner that night was scheduled in Souq Waqif. I tried to get them some spiced camel meat, even just the hump, but the restaurant was sold out.  Instead, we spent hours drinking scalding hot mint tea and digging tajine lamb off the bone with our hands.  I ordered up some shisha for them to try, a sweet mixture of local tobacco and grape Kool-Aid smoked through garishly oversized water pipes.  They puffed away and swapped pipes while watching the array of Qatari locals haggling over pashminas, old coolies ferrying wheelbarrows of spices, and the colorful barkers trying to entice the tourists. As the waiter kept switching out our coals to keep the smoke flowing, we were all aware that this trip, so far a mixed bag of new sights and excitement had just begun.  Because the next night, we were headed to Rome. 
Smoking a fatty that tastes like an Otter Pop...

Our final day in Doha, I went into work for a while and came back to an apartment that had been scrubbed down to an inch of its life… even the baseboards. Those of you who know my Mom will understand; I guarantee you my maid didn’t. I’m willing to bet the following week she walked into my place, saw the floors, and immediately left knowing that she would never clean a floor as good as Mom.  A final dinner at Turkey Central for shish tawook and kofta (“it’s different”) and my parents said their goodbyes to Qatar.  The taxi was picking us up at eleven for our 1:45 a.m. flight.  

My parents arrived in Qatar with expectations of the Middle East, most of which we fashioned by too much FoxNews.  But my mother, as we were leaving, told me that she was totally surprised at how modern and beautiful Qatar actually was. The Muslims she was always slightly nervous around were welcoming and friendly, and not the screaming zealots they are always portrayed on the nightly news. My mom, in a moment of complete sincerity, told me that this visit had totally changed her views of the Middle East and Islamic culture… 

I cannot find any better reason to travel…

On top of the highest dune in the land...

Part II, we tour the Vatican, I chide Mom on her garbage luggage, and Dad hoses down complete strangers…

Monday, June 17, 2013

3 Dalmatians... Split & Dubrovnik, Croatia...

It’s been almost two years… since I last posted on my travels, and almost three years of travel not mentioned at all. Sorry to say… but I haven’t really missed taking notes in hotel rooms and looking up the names of landmarks along my paths. But I was reminded not too long ago by my dad that I really needed to go back and talk about my trips again. I stopped mainly because I was too busy, as I had decided to work on a Master’s degree online in my spare time. How would I have time to spend hours writing when I was taking nine hours a semester and studying from 4-9pm at my desk plus weekend mornings? Some things had to go by the wayside, and my blog was a usual suspect. 

But a month ago, my dad passed away suddenly.  I regret that I didn’t get all my posts up for him to enjoy.  He loved reading about my travels, and made me promise that his illness wouldn’t deter me from doing the things I loved most; including spending my time and energy traveling around, finding fun wherever I could.  

So here we are.  It’s Father’s Day, 2013 as I write this, and while I’m making a conscientious decision to stay offline today, trying to steer clear of the tributes to fathers everywhere; there’s really no possible way I can ignore the fact that I really miss my dad.  And so, the daunting task of summarizing my most beloved and amazing trip I ever took is just around the corner… the tale of a fourteen-city, nine-country, whirlwind cruise of the Mediterranean with just me and my parents. That one is going to take a while…

In the meantime, imagine yourself in December, 2010…

In case you don’t know... Christmas in Doha sucks.  It truly does suck giant reindeer balls. There is absolutely no sense of holiday spirit anywhere in town (minus Eagle-Eyes apartment). What makes it worse isn’t that we are lacking the trappings of the holidays here, but that they do exist. Our French Wal-Mart, Carrefour, stocks an aisle full of grotesque plastic trees with silver garland and plastic bulbs. Paper cutouts of Santa and reindeer are widely displayed for the expats to swoop down and tacky-tape them to their barren hallways.  But I just can’t stand it.  It doesn’t work.  I’m not someone who demands that Christmas only be about the nativity or midnight mass, but without those things, those things that my parents worked so hard to maintain, they always made Christmas special in our house… it just doesn’t feel right.  

And that’s why we always get the hell out of Doha for the holidays… except last year.  I took five big trips in the previous year, and was planning my biggest one yet for the spring, so I decided to stay behind in Doha for the holidays.  So around the first week of December, everyone I knew left in droves, fleeing to the states, Europe, and the far-east… anywhere but Doha.  I tried my best, but two solid weeks of absolutely no one, minus Van Gogh (he stayed behind too), in town… I had to get away.  I knew it was time when I went all Christmas day bumming around the house, and didn’t even realize it was Christmas day… just plain sad.

So some phone calls later, plans had been put in place.  Back when [NAME REMOVED] and I used to date, I convinced her not to plan a trip to the Dalmatian Coast because it was too expensive, and we ended up on a budget tour of China instead. I guess now it was time I repay the debt. With her expertise, she, Van Gogh and I would join up in Frankfurt on December 28th and meet up for a flight to Croatia.

Why Croatia?  Not a damn clue.  Seriously… I know nothing about Eastern Europe.  I think we went there because it would be cold and none of us had ever visited the area.

We all arrived in the coastal town of Dubrovnik… well, mostly.  [NAME REMOVED]’s bags were nowhere to be found.  She had flown in to Frankfurt from the U.S., and her luggage didn’t make the flight in time.  Some pushy French assholes cut in line and, not knowing who they were messing with, got into a fierce argument with [NAME REMOVED].  The customs lady almost had to call the cops and I almost had to punch an old frog in the face… 
Van Gogh's two favorite things...

Now that’s how you start a trip!!

 Even though we landed in Dubrovnik, we had booked rooms up north in the city of Split.  Supposed to be a charming coastal town, we needed to catch the bus up the coastal road.  A taxi into town (sans some luggage), and we found the bus terminal.  

Walking around felt wonderful!  The air was crisp and clean with a touch of salt in the bitter chill.  The mountains on one side of the road climbed up into the clouds as the land faded into the crystal blue Mediterranean waters just across the road.  Green islands sprouted up from the sea while a multitude of tiny fishing boats scampered amongst them.  

We climbed aboard our bus and headed north.  Trains still haven’t, and will probably never grow in popularity in the former eastern bloc countries… buses are the main form of long distance transport.  We were scheduled for a five hour ride, which didn’t seem too long at the time.  The bus chugged up into the mountains with the sea always on our left glistening the sun’s rays.  At times it seemed that we were driving along the beach, sometimes it was a deep blue jewel thousands of feet below.  The whole time it was a non-stop twisting and turning along the steep cliffs and bends.  The occasional citrus and olive orchard popped up full of young fruit.  Traffic accidents and road works forced the bus to keep to a crawl as we trudged along.  Our break stops were filled with [NAME REMOVED] trying to find a clothing store in walking distance so she could pick up some panties and a shirt, since God only knew when she would ever get her luggage.

Split, Croatia
At the half-way point we had to cross a checkpoint and show our passports.  We were entering into a narrow outcrop of land that stretched to the sea.  We were no longer in Croatia; we were driving thru Bosnia & Herzegovina.  This narrow strip, only about 20 kilometers wide, was a major battlefront just years ago back in the 90’s.  I know a civil war was happening, I know that it was a religious war between Christians and Muslims, but I have to admit my naiveté about the entire matter.  All I knew was that this area was not considered friendly territory.  We used the pissers, had a smoke, bought some chips, and got back on the bus.

Van Gogh seemed to be enjoying himself, but he’s a hard read sometimes. This was my first trip with him, and I found it strange that he was always chatting up the people sitting next to him; both on the planes and the bus.  Strange that in everyday life, he makes it a point not to socialize with people… 

As night fell, the twisting of the pitch black road became slightly harder to bear.  But finally on the horizon was a cascade of light, we had reached Split. Large cruise boats were docked just outside the bus terminal right on the water.  A taxi took us around the main square of town and deposited us on the northern edge of the old town.  Instead of getting a hotel for us, I tried a new thing and booked us an apartment.  Just up a narrow alley was a tiny door that opened up into a four seat restaurant that smelled of roasting fish and tomatoes.  The owner and proprietor, a charming young woman, took up upstairs and showed us to our room.  

Renting an apartment was a risky move… but we were all trying to do this trip on the super cheap.  Thankfully, the room was excellent.  It was super tiny! One bedroom, a fold-out couch, and a hot plate were the amenities… but it was so charming that we totally overlooked anything else.  But it was really cold; the stone walls were sucking the warmth out of the room.  Downstairs we dined on local fish and squid with a bottle of local red wine.  Instead of checking out the town, we all needed a rest after a long day on the bus, so we bedded down for the night.  

The next morning, our landlady brought us breakfast of cheese sandwiches, yogurt, and juice (didn’t even realize we got the continental service!)  The sun was out beaming down upon us, but it was still only a few degrees above freezing… and man did it feel great.  We walked all of two minutes and we were on the seafront promenade; similar to Galveston but not full of drunken rednecks.  Instead, gorgeous stylish people were sipping on café’s and orange juices with hot croissants and buns on their bistro tables.  At the far end of the street was a mass of people milling around. It turned out that it was the morning farmer’s market… table after table of the most beautiful produce you have ever seen! Piles of freshly picked wild mushrooms, truffles, and carrots lulled me in.  But best of all were the racks of whole smoked bacon slabs and aged handmade sausages… the smell almost drove me to tears.  I bought a half-kilo of some cut of smoked pork just to snack on during the day.

From here we entered the old town Split.  Old town is actually a Roman walled city.  The wall still exists and you enter thru massive roman arches.  The main roads of smoothed marble with chariot ruts worn are still used. But in the midst of the ruins, an entire other city decided to be built! Every open area was consumed over the centuries by narrow homes and businesses.  Inside the city walls is a massive maze of narrow alleys, crisscrossing pathways, stunning archways, and Juliet balconies.  We spent hour after hour just meandering thru the dark back alleys and walking into t-shirt and leather shops.  [NAME REMOVED] was on a quest to find some underwear and socks.  

Gregory of Nin
At the eastern wall we came across a patron saint of the city, Gregory of Nin.  The statue looks like someone carved a massive Dungeons & Dragons wizard chess piece out of stone.  At the town square, the Christmas decorations were still hung up, and the tree was still standing.  Everyone in the city was beautiful, with all the women wearing pea coats and knee high boots with fur muffs. Hour after hour was just walking around and taking in the odd realization that people were living completely modern lives in what would easily be mistaken for a movie mockup of a medieval castle. Every hour or so we had to stop and grab a fresh coffee or cocoa and stare out into the mass of people walking past our table.  Lunch was plates of local fish and pork cooked by our waitress right after she took our order and some local beer to wash it down.

Just outside of the old town were the new, modern shopping centers, clothing stores, and an ice rink set up in the middle of the main square.  We spent the last few hours of daylight at the water’s edge enjoying beer, wine, and olives as the sun set into the sea’s horizon.  What a great day.

That night we re-walked the old town just to see what it was like at night… and it was so incredibly charming and beautiful.  But as the sun set, the temperature dropped like a rock.  One last hot chocolate to keep us warm for the road, and we had them so thick that our spoons literally stood straight up in the glass.

Around the bend from our room we searched out a local restaurant that had great reviews.  The tiny place, maybe eight tables, squeezed us in and we ordered a buffet of delights.  First off, we had to teach Van Gogh that sharing food is polite; but the farmboy in him tried to stop his brothers from taking off with his grub.  Plate after plate of local cuisine kept arriving: mussels in garlic, plates of charred roasted squid, gnocchi in cream and spinach linguini, and night black squid ink risotto so dark that it stained the plates… god only knows what it did to our stomach linings.  What great food… all local, all fresh, all delicious…

The day was nearly perfect except for when we got back to our room.  The heater had been turned off all day, and none of us realized it.  Our room was not cold… it was frozen.  I undressed and climbed into bed and nearly died from hypothermia just from the sheets.  I cried it was so cold.  I had to put all my clothes back on just to sleep.  [NAME REMOVED] kept trying to shove her hands under my shirt so her fingers wouldn’t freeze.  I had to kick her in the thigh to get her off.  We all bundled up in our sweatshirts and extra socks, and made a night of it.

The next morning we broke the ice crystals off of our beards, and stirred awake.  It was then that we discovered that none of us had realized that the space heater had to be turned on.  A semantic argument broke out over whom was responsible: the psychologist, the chemist, or the IT professional.  After long and heated discussions that included morality, science, and the meaning of God, we decided it was Van Gogh’s fault that we froze our nuts off.  We used to heat lamp in the bathroom to defrost our socks, and headed out.

We loaded our bags and hiked across the promenade one more time to the bus station, and caught the early bus out of Split back to Dubrovnik.  [NAME REMOVED] was feeling peckish on the ride back, and decided to snack on my bacon log. But without a knife or fork between us, she was relegated to stabbing her beak into the soft flesh like a carrion bird on a carcass; ripping away strips of the tender flesh between her teeth.  
Between Split & Dubrovnik

The stunning landscape that we had missed in the night drive now flashed before our eyes.  This was amazing country… as serene and as beautiful as I have ever witnessed.

Around midday we arrived back to the Dubrovnik bus station.  From there it was a fifteen minute cab ride to our apartments just outside of the scenic old town.  The cab dropped us off right where the busses carrying tourists from the cruise ships drop off their passengers.  Staring at my map trying to find our apartment just made things worse.  I had to ask a tourist official to help us find it, and she pointed down a flight of steps.  We walked down, turned right, and found ourselves in a hidden alcove of the sea.  A miniature bay was right before us strewn with small fishing boats floating on the blue-green rocks.  On either side was the fortification of Dubrovnik: the old city on the left and St. Lawrence’s fortress overhead on the right.  And our apartment building… right on the edge.  We kept knocking when an old gentleman ran down the steps apologizing profusely.  The apartments were his son’s, but he was sick… so instead we had the old man for a landlord.  He grabbed our bags and carried them up the spiral stairs to our third floor abodes.  

We got two apartments here, and it was worth it!  They were fantastic!  The spaces were fairly small, but decked out in all brand new appliances, modern furniture with lots of chrome.  It was if someone had actually bought an entire IKEA room.  Best of all was that we overlooked our tiny bay below, and were exactly one minute from the Pile Gate to the city. Viktor (the old man) got us settled in and made arrangements for [NAME REMOVED]’s bags to arrive later that night.  He suggested we grab some lunch at the seaside café nearby, and we did just that.  A nice outdoor lunch of more squid, fish, and pasta… so good… and we headed into the Old City.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Old City is truly magnificent; an absolute wonder to behold.  Built in the 11th century, it’s a completely walled-in medieval city.  You enter thru the Pile Gate, drawbridge and all, and enter into an apse built to keep out foreign invaders.  From there you enter into a gorgeous avenue of shops and stores, boutiques and restaurants called the Stradun.  Everywhere you looked were souvenir shops in alcoves built over a thousand years ago!  After a few hours of wandering thru the maze of streets followed by some more local wine, ice cream, and coffee, we headed back to the apartment where [NAME REMOVED]’s bags finally made an appearance.  She finally got a change of clothes, and I got my Christmas presents… boxes of Star Crunches and Oatmeal Crème Pies.  And yet, she constantly nags me about my weight!

Our apartment was right on the water...
In the morning we headed back into the old city and walked along its most prominent feature, the wall. For a small fee you can climb a narrow flight of stairs and walk on top of the wall around the entire city. We spent a few hours just staring out at the clear blue sky and sea; drinking in the chilled air and warm morning sun.  Most amazing was that this ancient city is still lived in by common, normal people.  I always imagine only the richest and posh old European families could live in such accommodations; with battlements and the sea meters away.  But along the wall you spy clotheslines, tricycles, and broken washing machines shoved into dark corners of small backyards with single citrus tree and herb pots. You have to keep reminding yourself… real people live here.  In one corner, surrounded by the red clay tile roofs was the local school, with a misshaped basketball court wedged onto the roof of a former convent.

nice court...
After a small lunch, we all napped then got dressed up for New Year’s Eve. We didn’t know what, or if anything was planned, but we headed out into the night. The old town was dark and quiet with a stage being constructed at the far end of the Stradun under a church bell tower.  We found our way to the back wall that was keeping out the sea and into a bar that was located on balconies of rock perched over the water.  The stairs and railings were wobbly and terrifying to climb down.  When we reached the bar, the waiter told us that the bar was, presumably, closed. We were defeated and started to climb back thru the wall when the bartender told us to sit… we could finish off some opened wine. It was here where we watched the sun set over the water, with the small islands off in the distance to keep us company.  The night air became brisk, the lights of the bar were never turned on, and we sat in darkness enjoying the silence.

View of Dubrovnik from a watchtower...
Thoroughly drunk, we left the bar after sunset and went in search of good food.  One restaurant we came across was one that I had unashamedly bashed in a map advertisement… the Taj Mahal Restaurant, “serving the best Dalmatian cuisine.”  Now… why would you name your restaurant the Taj Mahal if you’re not serving Indian food?? No one ever compares food to the timeless classical and symmetric beauty of the Taj Mahal! No one has ever said “this gnocchi is amazing! It’s the Taj Mahal of southern Italian!”  That has never happened! But here we were, outside of a tiny, four-table hole in the wall decorated in wine glasses and red lights; without a single sari or chutney plate around. We quickly secured the lone empty table and ordered up plates of squid, fish, pork, and goblets of wine…

I owe the Taj Mahal an apology.  The food was, without a doubt, the best I had the entire trip. Shame on me for doubting their nomenclature.

The sunset bar...
Afterwards we spent hours barhopping drinking the local beer and wine, listening to bands of clarinets and accordions, and watching the streets fill with revelers.  We made our way back to the main stage and were shocked to find thousands of people bundled up buying beer and vodka from the makeshift bars set up along the church steps. Performers had taken to the stage and were belting out tunes that only the locals knew and were proud to sing along. A highlight was when a beautiful woman wearing a silver costume that bared her thighs and mid-drift (in this cold?) took the stage with her modern/techno looking cello and played a full hour of incredibly beautiful and inspiring music that took the chill from the crowd. Even though everyone we could see had drinks in their hands, no one seemed overly drunk or rambunctious, and all seemed to have a smile on their faces. 

The bell tower counted down the seconds as Croatian celebrities and politicians took to the stage. At the end, the entire crowd yelled out the Croatian “Happy New Year” and started to sing their national anthem. Kisses, hugs, and sprays of champagne were thoroughly spread amongst the crowd. A cascade of fireworks and sparks exploded from the bell tower that lit up the square.  Normally, I’m not one for New Year’s… always felt too forced and the after-party was always a letdown. But this… this was magical.

Van Gogh and I...
The next morning we packed up our goodies, nursed our hangovers, said goodbye to Viktor, and flagged down a ride to the airport. A quick stop in Zagreb for some pork sausages in the airport and Van Gogh and I said our goodbyes to [NAME REMOVED]. Every time we travel she always thinks it will be the last time… and every time she’s been wrong.  

Croatia was beautiful, filled with nice people and amazing food. The winter trip was stunning, but I wonder what it would be like during the summer when the boarded up resorts clean off their sheets and the beaches become packed with Europeans flocking to the warm beaches.  Maybe next year I’ll find out.