So This Is What Makes Life Divine

by Nancy Bestor

When our younger daughter Sarah was first home as a new-born from the hospital, her sister Emily—then age 2—took to serenading her. She would put her face very close to Sarah’s and sing “So this is love, so this is love, Sarah. So this is what makes life divine.” I’d like to think she was singing about the love she saw between her two parents, however, the truth is, she was singing one of her favorite songs from Cinderella.

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But without getting too mushy here (I know this is a travel newsletter, not a newsletter for cupid.com), I would say that Bob’s and my relationship is indeed all about love. My world changed for the better the day I met Bob, and I am fairly certain he would say the same thing too. He’d better.

grandoleopryBill Murray, or Carl Spackler as he is known to golfers around the world, said if you have someone that you think is the one, don’t just make a date and get married.  First, travel around the world with them, and if you’re still in love after your travels, then get married at the airport. Bob and I may not have traveled the world before we got married, nor did we get married at the airport, but the first significant trip that we took together was a doozy—our extended five month long honeymoon around the United States in a Volkswagen bus.

We drove—slowly—from California to Florida, then up to New York and back across the northern states to Oregon. In our time puttering around the USA, we learned that we travel well together. Let’s face it, if you’re spending all day every day with a new spouse in a tiny Volkswagen pop top camper, you’re either going to decide you are good travelers, or you’re going to get a divorce.

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We gave up the VW Bus a long time ago, and now do most of our traveling by air. We haven’t been everywhere—far from it—but as Susan Sontag would say, it’s on our list. And almost twenty-four years later, we’re still traveling well together.

Just like in our marriage, we seem to have figured out how to be good traveling partners for each other. Bob helps me be more spontaneous and adventurous when we’re in a new place. He also helps me stay out later when I’m fighting jet lag and really want to crawl into a hotel bed at 6pm. I keep us organized and am the source of communication with our kids, work and family. Bob might tell you I am the source of too much communication, but I digress.

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We’ve traveled when nothing is planned out, and we are choosing hotels and restaurants on the fly, and we’ve traveled when everything is planned to a T. Our activities when we’re traveling together are not that different from our activities when we are home together. We enjoy eating, we enjoy walking and exploring, we enjoy bike riding, we enjoy drinking beer, and we enjoy listening to music, to name just a few things.

The truth is, I think what makes us such good traveling partners is that our traveling life is pretty similar to our real life. We each have our strengths and weaknesses (although I don’t really know what my weaknesses are), and we play to our strengths. When one of us is panicking about something—the time we didn’t have visas before an overnight stay near the airport in Australia comes to mind—the other of us is the port in a storm. We encourage each other to try new things, but also recognize that at times a person just needs to chill out in a hotel room and surf the internet. I’ll sit with Bob in a bar in a remote place in the world and watch the feed of an athletic event that is important to him, and he will tirelessly shop with me for the “right” gift for our daughters.

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We’re off this month to explore new places and experiences in Japan. And let’s face it. There’s no one I’d rather share these things with than Bob. This really is what makes life divine.

The Roman Ruins of Jordan

by Nancy Bestor

If you asked me before the days of owning a travel store which countries had the best preserved Roman ruins, I would have said Italy (duh!). Little did I know that the Romans left their mark in countries all over the ancient world, and although there are indeed fabulous Roman ruins in Italy, there are also top sites in Turkey, Syria, Spain, Libya, Jordan and more.

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Before our bike tour of Jordan began, Bob and I took an extra couple of days to visit two fantastic Roman ruins north of Amman and fairly close to Syria. The first was in the city of Jerash, the ruins of the Greco-Roman city of Gerasa. It is said that these ruins are the best preserved outside of Italy, and they are outstanding. Everything from a hippodrome and theater to a colonnaded street still paved with original stones that are rutted from chariot wheels. The oval forum, surrounded by 56 columns, was particularly impressive, as were the columns that, 2,000 years after being built, still sway with the wind. This is a great site, fabulously preserved, but with little signage and no shade. And it is big. We were glad for our guidebook and water bottles on the day we visited.

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Outside of the ruins of Gerasa, Jerash is surprisingly not a tourist city. Indeed there are just two hotels in the city of more than 50,000 people. It seems that tourists come to Jerash on day tours to see the ruins, then bus right back out. We stayed overnight, at Hadrian’s Gate Hotel, a lovely hotel run by a family originally from Yemen. It was here in Jerash that when we walked into town to find an ATM, we realized that locals don’t see many tourists, particularly women who are not wearing headscarves and whose pale lower calves are exposed to the sunlight. We also strolled to another part of town for a dinner of hummus, falafel and shawarma, and children hung out of their car windows to get a closer glimpse of us. No television was needed this night, as we were the show.

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While the ruins of Gerasa were fairly quiet, another great Roman ruin further north was virtually empty. Umm Qais is located in the northwest corner of Jordan, above the Jordan Valley. Although the ruins of the Decapolis city of Gadara (now called Umm Qais) are smaller than those of Gerasa, they also include the remains of an Ottoman Village, and much of the city was constructed with black basalt, which makes them incredibly striking. We explored a well preserved theater and church/temple, and also got a close up view of a mausoleum/crypt, that gave off Indiana Jones-like vibes. Umm Qais offers great views of three countries, Jordan, Syria, and Israel. We loved our visit here.

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We had hired a driver for 60 Jordanian Dinar—about $84—to drive us from Jerash to Umm Qais, Ajloun Castle, the ruins of Pella, and then drop us in Madaba. After visiting Umm Qais, we asked our driver to take us to a locals spot for lunch. Sameer didn’t speak much English, so he called the hotel owner who had arranged our transportation for the day, and he was able to translate our request. Sameer stopped at a local joint along the road, and we had falafels in pita with tomatoes, pickles and fries. (Ashlanders might recognize this as similar to the old Happy Falafel’s “bomb” sandwich.) It was delicious, and two falafel sandwiches, along with two sodas, cost 1.3 Jordanian dinar, less than $2.

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At times we were less than 10 miles from the Syrian border, and we would never have known. Twice we were stopped at checkpoints along the road, and soldiers manning the checkpoints looked at our passports. One time a Jordanian soldier asked “Nancy?”, and when I responded with “yes”, worried about what he might ask me, he replied with the phrase we heard again and again on this trip, “you are welcome.”

The People on the Bus Go Up and Down

by Nancy Bestor

img_4491When traveling overseas last month, Bob and I flew on Alaska Airlines out of Medford, Oregon, to San Francisco—via Portland, Oregon—to catch our Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul. San Francisco was apparently having some significant weather delays, so our flight out of Portland was delayed, and delayed, and then delayed again. Finally, we were told that our plane would take off shortly, but not to SFO as ticketed. Instead we would fly to San Jose, and then be bused about 45 minutes to SFO. We originally had a six hour layover in San Francisco, and thank goodness we booked it that way, as we ended up getting to San Francisco with just enough time to grab a quick snack and board our Turkish Airlines flight.

The flight to San Jose went just as planned, but the busing, well, let’s just say that left something to be desired. The Alaska gate agents had an extremely difficult time communicating with the bus company in charge of picking up the Alaska passengers and getting them to SFO. We were told the buses would leave San Jose within 20 minutes of our deplaning, but it took the two buses over an hour to get to our waiting point. We could, however, see the buses from where we were waiting, but they (for some strange reason) could not get to us. They kept driving around and around on the wrong access way. Needless to say, many passengers got a little angry. Anyone who had a tight connection in San Francisco was out of luck. For that matter, even those with a generous connection time (2-3 hours) were out of luck. Passengers unfortunately started taking their anger out on the Alaska gate agents, who were trying as best as they could to get the buses to come to the right spot. But the buses continued to drive by us, just slightly, and ridiculously, out of reach.

Finally the buses arrived and we made our way to SFO. Bob and I were fortunate enough to be sitting in front of a three year old girl who sang “The Wheels On the Bus” almost the entire time. Frankly, it was refreshing to hear this little girl happily singing after watching too many adults throw temper tantrums. Because apparently, it’s not just babies on the bus who go “whaa, whaa, whaa.”

Delays happen. We don’t have to be happy about it, but we also don’t need to take out our wrath on other humans. We’re all just doing the best we can.

Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall

by Nancy Bestor

I’m a planner. I like to know what I’m going to be doing two hours from now, two days from now, and two weeks from now. When traveling, I like to have seen the hotels I’ll be staying at ahead of time. I like to read restaurant reviews prior to dining, and I like to know how far I’m going to be traveling to my next destination. Spontaneity is not really in my vocabulary.

But alas, travel plans don’t always go the way we expect. Hotel pictures are frequently deceiving, and a good restaurant review on Yelp doesn’t guarantee a good meal. And then there’s weather – it seems that Mother Nature often has a mind of her own. Thus, sometimes you’ve just got to make lemonade out of lemons.

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When Bob and I were in New Zealand earlier this year it was their “summer.” The weather wasn’t hot, rather it was mostly very pleasant. But when we got to Franz Josef, a town on the Western coast of the South Island of New Zealand, a place we had pre-booked for three nights, it started raining. But it wasn’t just raining, it was pouring. Our plan had been to do lots of hiking in this beautiful part of the country. Franz Josef boasts two beautiful glaciers, Fox Glacier and Franz Josef Glacier, as well as many other outstanding treks with stunning vistas. But did I mention that it poured? It rained so hard that many paths and walkways were completely washed out by flooding. And in addition to the rain, the stunning vistas were often shrouded by fog.

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But Bob and I agreed that we had no control over the weather (a shocking revelation, I know) and just figured we would play the cards that nature dealt us and get outside whenever the rain let up. New Zealand is incredibly organized for tourists. Each city we visited had amazing tourist offices, boasting great maps, the ability to make reservations for any kind of activity you wanted to do, and most importantly for us, the latest news on open tracks for hiking.

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One tourist office was directly across the street from our Franz Josef hotel, and we stopped in many times to get updates on hiking paths. The national park workers were diligent and worked as fast as they could to get paths (even makeshift ones) open for hiking, and detailed, up to date news was always available at the tourist office. Information such as “this path will be open at 3pm this afternoon, or another path at 10am tomorrow,” could not have been better.

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So even though the weather was iffy, we hiked anyway.  Yes, our hikes were cold, wet and foggy, but we dressed appropriately, and every now and then the clouds would break and we’d get a stunning view of the glaciers. We may not have been able to see the perfect reflection of Mt. Cook and Mt. Tasman in the still waters of Lake Matheson, but we got to pose for a great kiss on a beautiful walking bridge with no one around to bother us. And perhaps we didn’t get as up close and personal to the primary viewpoint of Franz Josef Glacier, because the path had completely washed away, but we did get up close and personal to some beautiful sheep on a hike along Gillespie’s Beach. This hike had an awesome miner’s tunnel too, at the end of a jungle-like hiking trail.

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I dare say our three days in Franz Josef with inclement weather worked out just perfectly. It turns out our lemonade was really delicious.

I’m Gonna Pack My Suitcase

by Nancy Bestor

img_4489Bob and I almost never check our bags. It’s not that I am worried about lost luggage. And it’s not because I don’t want to pay the checked bag fee. The real reason is that at the end of my trip, when home is ever so close, I don’t want to wait  the 15 interminable minutes it takes for bags to come off the carousel at the Medford Airport. Er…excuse me. The Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport.
I’m always surprised at how long it takes. The airplane is really just a short distance from the baggage carousel at our little “International” airport. And when I’m tired and just want to get home, the 15 minutes seems like 45.

But, unfortunately, there are times when checking a bag is necessary. Last month on our cycling trip to Jordan was one such time. We needed to bring lots of our own equipment—bike helmets, bike shoes, bike pedals, etc., etc. So we paid to check one bag on Alaska Airlines down to San Francisco, before catching our international flight via Turkish Airlines, where a checked bag is still free. We also had to pay for our return from SFO back to Medford. The cost was $25 each way. Alaska conveniently lets you pay for your checked bag when you check-in online, 24 hours or so before your flight, AND print your luggage tag right at home. This saves time at the airport, as we did not have to wait in line with other travelers who were checking in for the same flight. Alaska also provides a plastic reusable bag tag holder at the airport, and we simply slipped our tag into the holder, attached it to our bag, and handed the bag to an agent. You can even request up to four reusable holders to be mailed to you in advance on Alaska’s website.

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We did indeed have to wait 15 long minutes for our bag to come off the carousel in Medford. But what are you going to do? Patience is a virtue, or so I’ve heard.

Workin’ on our Night Moves

by Nancy Bestor

Bangkok is busy seemingly at all times of the day and night. Like many other Asian cities, locals seem to live a lot of their lives outdoors. Thus people are everywhere, and when you combine that with the tuk-tuks, taxi’s, autos, delivery trucks, motorbikes and more, the city is bustling.

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So a night bicycle tour of Bangkok, although rated easy due to its flat terrain and approximately eight miles of riding, is a bit challenging. But based on the experience Bob and I had on the tour earlier this year, it is very much worth the challenge.

We booked our evening tour through Grasshopper Adventures. The three and a half hour experience cost about $36 per person, and included a mountain bike with lights, helmet, guide, water, snacks, and insurance. The tour got rolling around 6pm, and right off the bat our “peleton” of ten cyclists was riding down busy alleys and narrow paths. Cars and people didn’t really move out of the way for us, so we had to ride somewhat aggressively (a little hard for me) to maintain our position on the roads.

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We took our bikes on the ferry across the Chao Phraya River, Thailand’s biggest river, and traveled the back roads to Wat Arun, the Temple of the Dawn, and Wat Pho. Along the way we were cheered by children playing in the streets, high-fived by security officers, and gawked at by more than a few locals. It was awesome. A nighttime visit to the temples of Bangkok is a special experience. There are few, if any, tourists, and their stunning architecture is lit up to highlight ornate carvings and vivid colors.

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We also rode our bikes to, and even through, the Bangkok Flower Market (Pak Khlong Talat). It’s open 24 hours, but is busiest at night, when hoteliers and restauranteurs travel from far and wide to purchase flowers for their establishments. The market was stunning, and we rode our bikes directly through some of its warehouses before parking on the street and walking the rest for a slightly slower and up close experience of its stalls. We also ate some delicious chicken satay from a street vendor.

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We rode down narrow alleys that would be difficult to navigate without a guide and Bob and I even got lost at one point. We had stopped to take a photo of a temple, and before we knew it, the rest of our group and guide was gone. We quickly pedaled one way and then another down a street outside the temple, but to no avail. A kind Thai woman hollered at us and pointed in the direction that our tour had gone, and we found our way back to the rest of our people.

This tour was definitely a highlight of our Bangkok stay, and it showed us another side of this busy city. I’m not sure I’d want to commute by bike in Bangkok, but I’d highly recommend a night tour by bike with Grasshopper Adventures.

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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

by Nancy Bestor

Airlines tell us that most of the fares we purchase are “non-refundable.” But is there any wiggle room? Can the right customer service agent give you a full refund on an airline ticket if your story is really good, and you’re just the right helping of nice? I think so. Consumer advocate Chris Elliott says that while there is no “discernible pattern to the refunding of nonrefundable tickets, it does happen. Sometimes it happens with little fanfare, and other times it takes many phone calls and or letters, or the help of a consumer advocate like Mr. Elliott. It seems to me that at the very least, travelers who cancel a “non-refundable” ticket for a legitimate reason ought to contact their airline, and at least give it the old college try.

Over the years we’ve received a couple of refunds. Once when the airline changed our flight schedule in a manner that would have made it very tight to make our connecting flight. This took two phone calls and two emails to obtain. We also got a refund when a travel warning was issued by the US State Department for our destination. We did not have insurance, but the third customer service agent I spoke to on the phone had two children herself, and she understood where I was coming from. Notice I said the third agent? Yes, I called the airline three different times, because I didn’t like the first two answers I received.

Perseverance seems to be a good trait to have if you are trying to get a refund from your airline. And contacting your airline’s customer service center both via phone and in writing is another good tip. And being nice should go without saying too. Because nice is always bound to get you more than crabby.