Tuesday, March 30, 2010

7 long years for this??

Since September 2003, when I received my passport to discover far away lands, I've been working towards one goal, and one goal only:  to get more pages added to it.  The path to additional passport pages has indeed been a long one.  One with blood, sweat and tears... (okay, maybe no blood was involved).  But, when I reached the end of that journey, and discovered that I had less than 2 full pages left in my passport, I couldn't contain my excitement.  And I know it may come as a shock, being the modest person that I am, but I must confess that my uncontrollable excitement led me to boast of my own achievement.

Maybe that's why I came away from the US consulate slightly disappointed.  Maybe it's true what they say about karma... .  Maybe, as Justin Timberlake so eloquently sang, "what goes around, comes around."  Because what should have been a thick and amazing passport, is one that looks counterfeit.


Due to the age of my passport, it doesn't look like the newest US version of colorful pages and pretty pictures, instead the pages are blue with state seals in the background. Low and behold, though, the new version was added into my booklet.  And if you were not already aware, the pages of the newer passport are smaller than those of the older version.

But just to add to the fraudulent look, the new pages weren't added where they're supposed to be, in the amendments and endorsement section.  Instead my passport pages go from 1-20, A-X, and then 21. 

I can't wait to try out my newly renovated passport at customs.  Maybe I should plan on arriving at the airport an hour earlier than planned on my next trip, just in case.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Full Integration

Some people think that in order to be fully integrated into a culture you must pass a test, speak the language, and get an official certificate. I'd like to disagree.

On my way home from work on Monday, I felt the air diminishing from the back tire of my bike.  I had only gone 1.5 miles of the 5 mile journey, and was not amused at the prospects of walking my bike all the way home. So I slowed down a bit, hoping that by doing so the air would magically stay in. No such luck.  I only managed to make it a few yards further until I was faced with the bitter taste of defeat, which came in the form of a deflated tire thumping it's way forward.

As I got off my bike and started walking it, I longed for a miracle... or at least for someone to see me and let me borrow their bike pump.  The miracle did come, but not until I reached the 5 star Amstel Hotel at the end of the road.  I debated whether I should even try my luck, but the thought of the long walk home gave me enough motivation to enter the grand hotel in my jeans and Sketchers. Clearly, they could tell I was not a guest. I had my best "please pity me" smile plastered on my face when I asked the doorman if they had a bike pump I could borrow.  Five minutes later I was waving goodbye as I biked away, happy to have two fully inflated tires.

I wish my story ended there.  Then again, it wouldn't really be a story worth telling, would it?  Instead, a mile after the air refill, I found myself walking alongside my bike again, making the 2.5 mile trek by foot. Unfortunate conclusion:  the tire had a leak. That evening I did nothing more than lock up my bike and call it a night.  Besides, without owning a bike pump there really wasn't much I could do. 

Thus began my final steps of full Dutch integration the following day.  First, I finally gave in.  That's right folks, after two whole years of living here, I finally bought a bike pump on my way to work. I could feel a change start to bubble within me as I held it in my hand.  But it wasn't until I went home that night that the transformation was complete.

I, Claire - the American who hadn't ridden a bike in years upon moving here and had a rocky start with my bike once I arrived, have successfully (and single-handedly) patched it's leaky rear tire.  Even amid the stares of onlookers, I pushed forward.  Even when I couldn't find the leak initially, I carried onward. And it was that determination which led to success.  I, yes I, completed my final rights of passage last night.

Today, I am Dutch.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Year two, in review: March 2009 - February 2010

As each year has passed since being here, I've been left nothing short of amazed.  The time has flown by and the experiences have only gotten better. Of course those experiences have come with their minor challenges, such as a gimpy foot, last minute change of plans, food poisoning, and the likes. But the good, (ie. motorcycle rides up the Coasta Brava in Spain, glacier walking in Norway, and a paradise escape from the worst winter in 30 years) has far outweighed the bad. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

It wouldn't be a typical vacation if everything went smoothly.

When Dana and I had arrived in Madeira, I found a restaurant I really wanted to try.  Dana, however, with her extensive list of what is acceptable to eat, was reluctant to go.  At the time she was vegan... no, raw / no, vegan / no, raw... you get the point. That night we ended up settling on a restaurant miles away from the one I desired to eat at.  All throughout our stay I had the nagging urge to try out the restaurant I initially suggested, and was finally granted my wish our last night there.

The ambiance of the restaurant was fantastic. The evening was beautiful, the location couldn't have been better, and our table was located on a balcony overlooking the downtown area of Funchal. The food, we decided, could have been better.  It definitely wasn't what I had envisioned it to be from what the menu suggested.  But, we agreed that the ambiance made up for what the food lacked.

That was, until 3 o'clock the following morning when I woke up to food poisoning.  The weather outside matched how I felt: torrential rains, strong gusts of wind, and hail beating on the windows.  As I made my way from the bed to the bathroom and back I prayed that both my stomach and the weather would calm before our flight scheduled a few hours later. 

Unfortunately luck was not on our side. When we left the hotel at 9am the rains were still pouring, mini rivers were replacing roads, and I was still doubled over in pain.  The agent at the check-in counter informed us that our flight was still scheduled to depart on time, despite the weather. At least there was a small ray of sunshine with that knowledge, or so I thought as I made my way to the bathroom.

But that glimmer of hope was just that, a glimmer.  It faded as quickly as it appeared.  Our flight was delayed... for 5 hours.  It really wouldn't have been too big of a problem if we hadn't been flying easyJet, a British discount airline.  Their flights are only point to point, not connecting, and most flights leave from London.  Meaning, we had to buy a flight to London and then buy a separate flight to Madeira and vice versa - although all in one transaction. 

With that in mind, I quickly started wondering about the last leg of our flight, which we would undoubtedly miss due to the 5 hour delay.  Upon checking with the local ticketing officer at the airport (after I dragged myself out of the bathroom), she suggested I contact the easyJet customer service and provided me a phone number.  I was informed by the customer service agent that due to the fact each flight was deemed a separate contract, and that I was going to miss it - even though it was due to the initial delayed flight -, we would have to buy tickets for a new flight home.

I'm not sure if it was the nausea due to food poisoning, the stress of the flights, or both, but at that moment I had to fight back tears.  I successfully held them back, though, at least long enough to jump online to see which flight to purchase from London the next day.  And then I situated myself comfortably back in the bathroom to wait out a few more hours in the airport.

The turn of events forced us to sleep at the Gatwick airport, again.  (We knowingly had to spend the night on our way to Madeira).  So, once we arrived around 9pm and spoke to the ticketing manager at the airport to see if there was any way we could get our flight situation resolved, (meaning: a reimbursement for having to buy a new flight home after he stated we could have gotten on the next available flight for free), we staked our claim on plush sofas we had eyed during our first overnight stay.

By the time we reached the front door to my apartment at 9 o'clock the following morning, I couldn't have been happier to be home from a week of relaxation.  So I took a day and a half off to enjoy it... and recuperate.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Cultural variety

It's an amazing the number of cultural differences that are found within a 285 square mile island... and we only visited half of it.   From modern amenities to triangular thatch roofed houses, basket weavers to folk dancers, farming plants to farming salmon, each region of the island had it's own unique style and personality.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Good things come to those who wait... but why not get it NOW?

With motion sickness like my sister has, it's not hard to visualize the look she gave me that screamed "are you crazy??" when I suggested we take a day long tour encompassing the eastern portion of the island.  Actually, the only reason she gave in was because the tourists office assured us that the bus would drive no more than 20-30 minutes at a time.

Due to potential weather conditions our trip was traveled in the opposite direction than normal, leading us through the center of the island first and then winding around the coastline. It left us with the opportunity to save the best for last:  a breathtaking view that my sister and I wished we had hours to take in.

And since you're not on the trip, and I'm controlling what I want to show and when, I'm not going to hold back. There will be no suspense here.  No saving the best for last.  No wondering what could have been so beautiful, so peaceful, so majestic as to make us want to stay in that one spot and not leave.

No, because sometimes I like my dessert first... I'm showing you now.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

A surfer's desire

My sister, Dana, surfs... so she likes to inform us each, and every, day. The entire time leading up to our island adventure she would ask me repeatedly if she could surf there, and if in the off chance she couldn't, why (and I quote) "in the world" would I have chosen an island like Madeira to visit.  She tried with all her might to get me to make last minute changes to another island... any other island that had surfable waves.

That wasn't going to happen, no matter how hard she tried.  Besides, I knew I was going to stay on the 'favorite sister status' either way. But, just to make sure I'd have a valid reason to stay on the top of her list, we checked with an information desk as soon as we arrived to see if there were any surf spots on the island.  Turns out, there was ... on the opposite side.

Trying to please my sister, and her cravings to surf, I expressed my enthusiasm for going.  Little did I know at the time, she could have cared less and the main reason she was going is because of my "enthusiasm".  The hour and a half long bus ride to Sao Vicente (our destination) was an hour and a half's worth of torture for Dana, who has extreme cases of motion sickness.  All but 30 minutes of that ride we were going up and down switchbacks; her face was nearly green by the time we arrived. But the prospects of surfing nursed her back to health as soon as we exited the bus.

When we reached the surf area, a very small recess in the shoreline, there were a handful of people in the water.  We looked around for a rental shop, but found none.  Instead we stood on a dock watching as those who surfed missed one wave after another. "GO!", Dana would scream, "AHH!  That wave was awesome and you let it go by!"  Or she would exclaim, "Dude! Cut back, cut back ..." and when the surfer would fall she would turn to me and say, "see, he didn't cut back!"  To be quite honest though, most of her lingo went over my head.

So she moaned and she groaned, incensed that she couldn't go out on the water and teach the kooks (pronounced kukes) -apparently a term for beginner surfers - a thing or two. And I, indifferent to it all, just ate my lunch...passionately, because it was THAT good.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme...

Remember in "Cool Runnings" when the recently formed Jamaican bobsled team practiced their moves by piling into a plywood box on wheels and maneuvered their way down a large grassy hill?  Well, go a few thousand miles to the east on another island of sun, switch the plywood box on wheels for a wicker basket on wooden skis and a large grassy hill for paved roads, and you've found yourself at Madeira's famous Monte Toboggan ride.

The toboggan rides, which are steered by two men in white suits and a straw hats, initially started in 1850 as a quick mode of transport to get down the hill into the city of Funchal.  In the early 1900's this mode of transport soon changed from a convenience for the locals to a tourist attraction.  Since then it's become nothing short of a legend and a "must do" for everyone who makes a visit to the island.

In order to get to the toboggans you make your way up the hill by a 10 minute cable car ride that provides phenomenal panoramic views of the island and coastline. As you enter the cable car your picture is taken; when you reach the top, someone is waiting to greet you with your photo for purchase. You can either graciously (and eloquently) decline like we did by stating "um, we'll think about it and, uh, come back", or pay the 10 euros for a picture of you sitting inside of a cable car that's not in the air.

Then when the time comes that you'd like to go back down to the city, you head over to the toboggan rides.  (You could also go back down via cable car, which is cheaper, but quite lame in comparison).  The entry point is filled with toboggan drivers playing cards, standing around in groups and relaxing on the wicker baskets.  The ambiance is full of peace and relaxation... and then you enter the wicker death trap that speeds down narrow streets as you slide sideways, barely missing the ravine like ditches that line the roads.  You think about all the bones in your body and how you love them just the way they are. You pray that the skilled drivers who are steering the toboggan from behind don't allow you to flip or hit an oncoming car that could shatter every last one of those bones you internally expressed your love for. But most of all you laugh and try to carry on conversations with the drivers who are out of breath from running and steering and running some more.

When you reach the bottom, which is actually only half way down the mountainous hill, you're again greeted with someone presenting a picture of you being driven down the mountain.  You could pay the 10 euros to remember the once in a lifetime experience, or you could graciously decline like we (meaning my sister) did by saying, "haha...what?!  Please Claire, don't buy it... you look good but I look like crap." To which you take over the situation and say, like I did,  "since I'm an awesome sister and only aim to please my family, we won't buy the picture. But thanks anyway... ".  They may persist by exclaiming, "but what better way to remember the ride than by this great picture?", because they are salesmen after all.  You then put on your sweetest smile and reply, "oh, not to worry, we already have that taken care of.  See?"