Vacation Fiascos

Not every trip is paradise perfect.   I’ve had my share of travel mishaps. In Buenos Aires, three gold chains were ripped from my neck (my fault for wearing them).  I missed out on an excursion to the Brazilian side of Iguaçu Falls because I did not have a Brazilian visa.

I never made it to the Brazilian side.  No one told me I needed a visa.
I never made it to the Brazilian side. No one told me I needed a visa.

The trip had been prepaid, but the travel operator failed to tell me that as an American I needed a visa, and there was no time to get one.  $100 out the window.  In New Zealand, I was so excited about the chance to swim with dolphins – something I’ve always wanted to do.  Alas, I swam in frigid water, but nary a dolphin to be seen.  (I’ve written about these catastrophes in previous posts. “Misadventures in New Zealand,” Apr.27, 2012;  “Cry for me Argentina,” Oct. 30, 2010; “Iguaçu Falls,” Nov. 19, 2010 )

Last fall husband Bob and I had some frustrating experiences thanks to GPS.  We are slow to get on the technical bandwagon, but finally decided to purchase a GPS gadget for this drive trip.  All went well in Germany.  Without it, we might still be driving around looking for some of those off-the- beat- and -track hotels I had booked.

When we got to northern  Italy and were trying to find my friend Trina’s apartment on Lake Varese, another story.  Suddenly we were crossing the border into Switzerland as directed by our GPS mentor.  (She’s British, and her pronunciation of Italian, French and German  street names is abominable, but good for a laugh.)

GPS got us to Bellagio on Lake Como, but failed us thereafter.
GPS got us to Bellagio on Lake Como, but failed us thereafter.

This can’t be right?   What’s with this wacko woman directing us?  What’s with GPS?  We stopped at the nearest gas station, and were told she was all wrong.  Reverse directions and go back to Italy.  We eventually found Trina, but with a map.

After the Italian/Swiss mishap, I verified GPS instructions with a map.  Until we were driving back to France on the autostrada in northern Italy, a stretch we had driven many times.  I relaxed. All seemed well.  Then out of the blue  we ended up at the toll booth for the Frejus Tunnel, 39 euros, no turning back.  Strange.  We had not remembered going through this tunnel before. Perhaps our GPS genius  knew a shorter route?  We had no choice but to continue.

It’s a long, long tunnel.  When we emerged, I checked the map.  Holy S—!  Where are we?  We had driven far out of our way to get home.  And, that GPS crackpot was leading us farther astray.  So much for advanced technology.

Time for another gas station inquiry. I was obviously distraught,  thinking about all those extra miles and hours lost.  The kind woman in the gas station took pity on me and explained that we had two choices, one route via Grenoble, much longer but all on the speedy autoroute, and one over the Col du Galibier, a slow but scenic mountain pass.  We opted for scenery. It was an adventure, up and up a twisty road into the wilds of mountain tops with no civilization in sight, but incredible views.  It was getting dark and this was not a road for sissies, so we took no time to stop and ponder the surrounding beauty. But, it’s a drive to repeat.  Sometimes bad leads to good.

Lots of gold shops in Singapore, but it was in a camera shop where I made my mistake..
Lots of gold shops in Singapore, but it was in a camera shop where I made my mistake..

And, sometimes, as with the jewelry theft in Argentina, you learn from the disasters.  Such was the case in Singapore.  I needed a few accessories for my new camera.  This was the beginning of a long trip, so best make the purchases here.  We paid a visit to a camera shop in Singapore’s Chinatown where a very eager and fast-talking salesman convinced me to buy, not only the needed accessories, but a few other items – including a very costly filter, which, he cleverly demonstrated, would do wonders for my photos.  I was taken in and made the purchases – over $400 worth.

As we ate lunch, I pondered the purchase.  Something did not seem right.  Should they have been that expensive?  I went back to the hotel and checked the items on Amazon.  I had been royally ripped off—the total for the items at Amazon prices would have been no more than about $50.  How stupid I was.

Not to be outdone, I printed out copies of all the Amazon data and marched back to the photo shop for a confrontation. I was all smiles and friendly and took photos of our chatty salesman before presenting the evidence of his deceit. I threatened to put his photo and the shop on Facebook with a warning if he did not give me a refund. The manager, another slick operator, appeared.  He was wary and not about to risk bad publicity.  I could have the refund, but first he wanted to delete the incriminating  photos on my camera.  I obliged, took my money and ran.

Back at the hotel, I related the experience  to the desk clerk who had helped with the copies.  Never do business in Chinatown, he said.  And, never be so dumb and shell out big bucks for items if you have no idea of the going price.

Tour of the wondrous Sydney Opera House was a trip highlight. But, it was downhill after that.
Tour of the wondrous Sydney Opera House was a trip highlight. But, it was downhill after that.

No trip is without some minor aggravations.  In Sydney, when we purchased our tickets for an opera house tour, we were given coupons for a free cup of coffee valid until 5 p.m. at the opera house café.  We showed up at 4:40 pm.  “Sorry. Too late.  We had to close early today.”  No big loss.  Back to the hotel, but by bus as it was raining. We waited and waited.  Finally bus number 53 came.  We proceeded to pay the driver for our passage.   ”Sorry.  No tickets sold on buses after 5 p.m. “  They must be purchased ahead at a ticket office, he explained, but we weren’t about to track down the office, which, by then, probably would have been closed anyway.  O.K.  We’ll take a taxi.  We wandered from street corner to street corner and hailed many a taxi.  All full.  Distressed and soaked, we gave up and trekked in the rain back to the hotel – a good hour’s walk.

Not our lucky day, but far worse could happen. It’s all part of the adventure that can make travel a challenge – and an educational experience.

Black Bean Pumpkin Soup was the overwhelming favorite at a lunch I recently prepared for friends. Several requested the recipe which is listed in the column at right.

Comments on blog post and recipes are welcome. See “Leave a Reply” below under Comments. Subscribers also welcome.  Don’t miss future posts.  Click on Email Subscription at top right


Dazzling Singapore

I was blown away by the airport.  All so sleek, modern, clean, beautiful.  Greenery in the middle of the baggage belt.  Vast carpeted halls. Classy shops.  No lines at customs.  Pristine washrooms.   The drive into the city was even more impressive with lush bougainvillea in bloom along the highway and stunning skyscrapers looming in every direction.

Welcome to Singapore. For futuristic architectural magnificence, it’s tops.  Of course, there’s more.  Fascinating ethnic neighborhoods.  Beautiful botanic gardens.  Mega shopping.  Fun and interesting entertainment venues.  And, of course those pricey Singapore Slings at the legendary Raffles hotel bar.

 Husband Bob and I began a six-week odyssey which would take us to Bali, New Zealand and Australia in this awesome metropolis.

Dinner after arrival at the Maxwell Road Food Center near our hotel on the edge of Chinatown was a fun and tasty introduction to the city. This “hawker center” — there are many in Singapore — is  a big building packed with vendor stands, all selling different Asian specialties, and bustling with diners, all using chopsticks, seated at tables opposite the stands. Pigs’ organ soup.  Braised pigs’ trotters. Soup dumplings. Onion pancakes. Plus, desserts and strange drinks such as chestnut wheat grass and dragon fruit.  I chose a stand with Seafood Crispy Noodles for  3.20 Singapore dollars ($2.50) — a bargain.

Friends had raved about the Botanic Gardens, first stop on our city visit.  We mastered the subway, another marvel of modernity, to get close, then trekked, and trekked yet more once we arrived.  It’s enormous (150 acres).  Meandering paths lead up hills, around lakes and waterfalls, all lined with abundant  vegetation and colorful blossoms. The Rain Forest and Orchid sections were  my favorites.

These days Singapore’s star attraction is the new Marina Bay Sands, a gargantuan three-towered, five-star hotel complex with more than 2,500 rooms. On the rooftop there are viewing platforms and a glamorous, monstrous infinity pool, said to be the world’s largest. 

“This was all sea three years ago.  This is all reclaimed land and these buildings weren’t here three years ago,” explained the taxi driver on our ride to the sensational structure.

The $15.50 admission to the Sky Park viewing platform no longer includes a walk around the pool. Guests who obviously pay big bucks to lounge in these elegant surroundings on top of the city were probably complaining about groups of tourists parading around.  Now only one pool tour is scheduled each day at 2 p.m.  But the views of the sprawling city, its dramatic skyline, numerous construction sites and harbor, are worth the price.

Sentosa Island, a tram ride from the city center, has been developed as “Asia’s Favorite Playground” with all manner of attractions: Universal Studios (a Hollywood theme park), rides, interactive movies, a water show, a sandy beach and more.  We rode the elevated tram to the last stop, Underwater World Singapore, an oceanarium with an 83-meter long tunnel surrounded by water and all matter of sea life.  We watched divers feed sharks and rays, admired fish large and small, sea dragons, jelly fish and more. The show at the outdoor Dolphin Lagoon is a treat with adorable seals clapping, dancing, shaking hands, and  dolphins swimming in synchronization, then leaping out of the water, even gliding over to the edge of the pool so selected visitors could touch them.

After our sea adventure, we walked to the beach where we had lunch and watched as a young couple tried to master the Flying Trapeze. Harnessed and attached to a cable, they jumped off a platform and soared, bounced, and flew high above a mat.

My Singapore research recommended the  Night Safari,  an excursion through a jungle park on the edge of the city.  Instead of riding the tourist train into the darkness, we walked along paths in the tropical forest, spooky at times, but full of surprises.  Crazy, noisy birds; bats you could pet hanging from branches; otters frolicking in streams; lions; civets; even a beauty of a leopard who stared at us from behind a glass enclosure.  A fun finale is the Night Creation Show at an outdoor auditorium where handlers come on stage and entertain with various creatures – otters trained to recycle, raccoons, wolves etc.  For drama, a boa constrictor was said to have escaped. Staff ran up and down, rousing the audience.  The missing critter was discovered under the seat of someone in the audience where it had obviously been planted.   

Singapore’s Chinatown and Little India are packed with ethnic shops and eateries.  Chinatown features a lively night market with colorful lanterns decorating the streets.  Our best meal of the trip was at Da Nang in Chinatown where I went for the special, Chili Crab, a whole crab smothered in a gooey, red, spicy sauce.  It was very messy to eat, but delicious.  Bob ordered a scallop, shrimp and broccoli dish with fried rice.  Tab with two beers:  $105.   

Other highlights of our visit included a river cruise with interesting commentary on the city, and the obligatory Singapore Slings, the city’s legendary cocktail served at the Long Bar, a woodsy place with ceiling fans, in the Raffles Hotel. The colonial style hotel was built in 1887, its white façade and old world architecture standing out amidst the contemporary surroundings.  It is considered one of the world’s finest hotels.

The Long Bar was the favorite watering hole  of  Somerset Maugham and Ernest Hemingway. Today it’s a must for tourists who want to relive the colonial era,  soak in the ambience, and are willing to pay $60 for the privilege of sipping two of the sweet  pink drinks. You do get some peanuts at no extra cost. 

We loved our Singapore hotel, the Berjaya Singapore Hotel, with a friendly and helpful staff, convenient location.  

For a taste of Malaysia, click on “Malaysian-Style Chicken Curry” under Recipes in right column. Photos follow. Click on photo to see full size.