Tuesday, June 21, 2011

10 Places You'll See on a Bus Tour of London

When I organized a Europe Trip with my junior high students two years ago, I had a huge, long list of the places and things I wanted to see in London, which was one of our stops. The travel company that was responsible for taking care of my lovely students and I did their best to accommodate my demands, and I ended up seeing or visiting virtually all of the places on my list.

The majority of the stops were quick ones that consisted of us standing in front of the building, snapping a few shots, hearing some history, and then moving on. I would love to go back and explore more fully some of the places we visited - go inside the buildings, explore the nooks and crannies, and talk to the people who work and live around each location.

Hmm, who shall I call from this AWESOME British telephone booth?

However, I did truly enjoy my walking / bus tours - over the course of two days, my students, chaperons, and I managed to see and enjoy the following places:

1. St. Paul's Cathedral

We actually had time to go inside the Cathedral and walk around the 'free parts' - part of the cathedral is roped off and you need to pay admission to walk inside. As well, photography was not allowed inside the building. We did go downstairs to use the free washrooms, and purchase some touristy items inside the souvenir shop. We loved the massive grandeur of the entire building, from the swooping ceiling arches to the giant front doors.

St. Paul's Cathedral has survived a lot during its lifetime, and is still standing strong!

Knock, knock.  Please open these GIGANTIC doors!

2. Westminster Abbey

We only stopped outside the Abbey for about five minutes, as our bus was practically parked in traffic. So really all we had time for was to snap a few photos, and run back to the vehicle. I desperately wanted to go inside, but alas, it wasn't to be - at least not this time around!

Westminster Abbey - oh how I wanted to go inside!!  Image via.

3. Big Ben

We passed by the amazing clock tower several times during our bus / walking tour, but never did get close enough to stand under it. We took pictures of it from street corners and from the London Eye, but that was about it.

Big Ben stands out against the London twilight.

4. Covent Garden

Ah, the fun we had at Covent Garden! From watching street performers to eating sparkly cupcakes to wandering the quaint cobblestone streets, my students and I had a ton of fun exploring this exciting and interesting shopping center.

To be honest, the fancy cupcakes were my favorite part about Covent Garden.

5. Trafalgar Square

Just outside the National Gallery lies Trafalgar Square, with its impressive fountains and the Nelson Column (replete with giant lions great for climbing). My students were like ants, crawling all over the place, posing in front of the fountains, and lounging atop the lions. We even got a fantastic picture posing with a true-blue British bobby! (And no, I was not traveling with headless ghosts - I have to blur the faces of my students for privacy purposes...)

Trafalgar Square - a great 'hang-out' place in London.

Some students and I pose with one of the enormous lions in Trafalgar Square.

6. Buckingham Palace

My lucky group arrived just in time to Buckingham Palace to catch the "changing of the guard" ceremony. We only had about 15 minutes to walk around the palace, so it was sheer timing that we were there for this interesting and historical tradition. My students, being country kids, loved the horses!

Buckingham Palace in London - packed with tourists!

The "Changing of the Guard" ceremony was fun to watch.

7. British Parliament

I love this building (or it is buildings?) Whatever the term, this architectural marvel is beautiful to behold. I love all the towers and spires. The British are lucky to have such a lovely Parliament building!

The British Parliament has so many peaks and spires - I love it!

8. Harry Potter's "Diagon Alley"

Sadly, all we could on our bus tour was drive past the entrance to this quaint street, which was used as the inspiration for "Diagon Alley" in the hugely famous book and movie series. Because my students were dying to see more of it, our bus driver obligingly drove past it a couple of times, and slowed down as much as humanly possible in London traffic so that we could frantically snap photos of it while hanging dangerously out of the bus windows. I have heard rumor that they do walking tours through the street - as an avid Harry Potter fan, I'm hoping to do that tour if I find myself in London ever again.

The inspiration for "Diagon Alley" in Harry Potter.  Image via because mine was just so blurry!

9. The London Eye

Although considered one of London's biggest 'tourist traps', I find the London Eye to be 'eye-catching' (ah, see what I did there?) and a great way to see the city from above.  Everyone, and this includes locals, should try riding the London Eye at least once.  I have written a separate post about it here, so you can get all the details you need to do a loop on the giant, GIANT Ferris wheel.  When we visited it during our Europe Trip, I had to organize a side journey to the London Eye, as it was NOT covered on our bus / walking tour.

The London Eye - try it at least once in your life! 

10. The Tower of London

One other place that I have visited in London, although not specifically during this trip, was the Tower of London.  At the time, the only part of the Tower we explored was the creepy wax museum.  However, the castle offers a lot more: a view of the precious crown jewels, a chance to feed the castle ravens, tours, and more.  This is one attraction that I'd really like a chance to visit again!

The historical Tower of London offers a lot for the everyday visitor

Monday, June 13, 2011

Tijuana: Not On My List?

Thus far, all of my entries have been about places that I've been to, or that I want to travel to. I haven't really had a lot of "misadventures" that would make me say, "Never go to this place." A typical misadventure for me involves getting a little lost, but finding my way again after meeting new, wonderful people, and discovering new, wonderful places. Then again, I am a bit of a cautious traveler.

This story is not mine to tell. This is my husband's story, which I have entitled "Tijuana: Not On My List?" OR, conversely, "The time I nearly became a widow when my husband was nearly murdered in Mexico". I'll need his help to share it with you, as I was not present for this outlandish, outrageous, and at times comical-in-its-danger story.

It all began when my husband flew down to San Diego for a Neuroscience convention (my husband was a neuroscience researcher before he became a Chartered Accountant - he likes to keep busy!) He was with some of his fellow research buddies, one of whom was a tall, skinny Asian man named Chen. This is important to know for later. Halfway through their conference, the boys decided it might be fun to catch the train from San Diego to Tijuana, Mexico for an afternoon, just to say they had been to Mexico and to drink a bit of tequila before boarding the train again and heading back to the city. Everyone agreed, and off they went.

Tijuana on a busy tourist night.

After departing the train in Tijuana, the boys attempted to grab a cab. About 12 cabbies, seeing the only white people in the train station, flocked to the boys to rustle up some business. Apparently Tijuana is not a busy tourist location on a Monday night. At this point, my husband and his friends should have realized that they stuck out like a sore thumb, and perhaps they should have their guards up. But they didn't.

The cab took them to the downtown area, and they visited four to five bars. During this part of the night, they had a great time. While at the bar, a man introduced himself to the boys, claiming he was a local from Tijuana who loved getting to know travelers, and offered to hang out with them, show them local hot spots, and keep them safe. He seemed nice enough, and they agreed. My husband didn't really trust him, but let it go. After all, what harm can come to you when you're with a fairly large group of guys?

The boys did have to attend the conference the next day, and so tried to wind down their evening at a reasonable hour. Their Mexican "guide" offered to help them find a cab so they could get back to the train station. As they were walking down the street, away from the bars, the Mexican police pulled up in a large van. The guide, who had been wearing a backpack the whole evening, was asked to hand over the bag for inspection. The police, one man, one woman, found a machete inside: the boys' eyes widened as they gasped at the size and sharpness of the weapon they'd been so close to all night, unknowingly.
Not the kind of souvenir Joey was looking for!

The police, rather than reassure the boys that they were safe and protected from the man with machete, accused the boys of being "accomplices" to whatever concocted scheme the "guide" had been planning. They were told to get into the back of the van, and that they would be sent to jail until a judge was available to see them and determine their fate. With that, the van doors slammed shut.

The boys found themselves in a van with a few other people who had been arrested that night, people who didn't really enjoy spending their time with some scared white boys. Among them was NOT the man with the machete - the police had set him free. My husband, with a sinking stomach, began to feel as if this whole thing might have been set up purposely.

The boys were driven around for about 15 minutes: the whole time they wondered what might be in store for them. Then the van stopped, and the police hauled open the back doors, addressing the boys specifically.

"How much are you willing to pay to get yourselves out of this situation?" the female cop asked. "I think $2500 would do it."

My husband was willing to pay anything to get out of the stinking van, but luckily, one of the members of his group had a cool head and stated simply, "We don't have any cash on us - certainly not that much."

"Well, we can take you to a bank machine," the female cop slyly suggested.

Before any of the boys could nod their heads in agreement, the cool and collected friend said, "Sorry, we've been in the bars all evening. We've all hit our limits. The bank machine won't give us any more money today."

"Well, then, I suppose you'll be going to jail. The judge might not be available for three to four days. That's all we can do for you." With that, the cops slammed the doors on the boys again, and the van revved its engine. They began to move once more. The boys began to sense that the van was moving aimlessly, turning corners so frequently they wondered if they might not just be driving around the block over and over again.

Joey's police van was not a nice-looking as this one...

After another 15 minutes, the van once more pulled over. The cops returned to the doors, this time demanding a mere $1500. Once more, the boys insisted they had no money, or access to money. The doors were slammed with force, and the van began to drive. After 10 minutes, the offer dropped to $1000, but the boys stuck to their tale. Finally, the police had had enough of the game playing, and outright demanded the money the boys had in their pockets. Between the four of them, they managed to round up $17 US dollars: a ten, a five, and two ones.

"I will never forget the way she looked at that money," my husband told me. "She stared at it like a hungry animal eyes a bone."

With the money in their hands, the cops were satisfied. The boys were ushered from the van, and left alone on the outskirts of the city: they were on the edge of the urban developments and some fields. Relieved to be free and far from a Mexican jail, the boys stopped to heed nature's call (after all, they'd been at the bar only an hour or so before...) As they were completing their business, one of the boys stopped and stage whispered to the others, "What's that, over the hill?" Tired of the drama, the other boys shushed him, but upon their friend's insistence, looked up to the top of the hill just beyond them.

Trapped in a strange city at night with gangs is not my idea of a good time.

Up on the hill, a man was crouched, using hand signals as if he were rounding up a posse of hidden soldiers, signaling them to flank the enemy. All of a sudden, a group of ominous men emerged from around the hill and the edges of the surrounding buildings. The boys took one look at each other, turned, and RAN. My husband was intent on leading his friends down a gravel road, away from the men, but luckily, no one listened to him. Instead they followed the cool-headed boy, who had lied to the police about his bank card. Cool-headed boy led the group for about 10 minutes through a series of empty lots and fields, towards a tall fence with thin railings, spaced apart just enough so the boys couldn't slip through. They had to climb.

The whole time the boys had been running for their lives, my husband locked into self-preservation mode. Selfishly (but practically I think) he was thinking, "Stay ahead of Chen and you'll be fine!" The entire duration of the chase, Chen had been far behind, bringing up the rear, making him the first to be potentially caught by the thugs. But when the boys hit the fence and had to climb, Chen, the thin boy that he is, slid through the bars like a ghost, and ended up in the lead on the other side!

Once over the fence, they were in a more urban area. Across the street, they saw a cab idling without a fare, and the boys ran like crazy for safety. Their pursuers jumped the fence, but didn't edge any closer to the cab.

"Take us to the border, NOW!" the boys shrieked, wild with fear and relief. The cab driver chuckled, nodded, and calmly pulled his gear shift from park to drive. He leaned back into the seat, relaxed, and let his cab roll about one foot before he then very smoothly replaced the gear shift back into park. He turned to the boys.

"Now you are at the border," he winked.

Glad to be safe at the border - think twice next time, Joey!

Too relieved to be embarrassed, the boys thanked the cab driver, who laughed and didn't ask for payment. The boys left the cab, and made it into the border station. Once they cleared customs, they had to walk to the nearest train station on the U.S. side, which was about 2 miles away. By this point, the boys were exhausted, hungry, covered in blood from their various cuts and scratches, and had grubby, torn clothing from climbing the fence. By the time they reached the train station, it was 3 am, so they slept for a bit on the train station benches, and then caught a train ride home with quite the story to tell!

And THAT, my friends, is why Tijuana is not on my bucket list!!

(Of course, I realize this is only one bad experience and that Tijuana may not be ALL bad - but this story was enough to make me wary!)

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Visit Rome and see the Coliseum

It's hard to put into words those moments where, upon encountering something truly magnificent from the past, you feel literally dumbstruck by what you are seeing. You feel small, insignificant, and meekly awed, but at the same, feel energized, powerful, and vibrant. It is a meeting of the past and present, and you are there to witness it.

Feeling small and insignificant inside the Roman Coliseum.

This is how I feel when I step into the Coliseum in Rome, Italy. The building, although pockmarked with time, vandalism, and the ravages of nature, still holds such power and intimidation - I would love to be able to travel back in time and wander through the structure as it must have been during the times of Ancient Rome. I could probably do without seeing the gory, bloody gladiator battles, or watch animals being hunted and tortured to the delight of the Roman populace, but then again, I wasn't raised around A.D. 80. The ship battles would have been really interesting to see, but unfortunately, according to the guide at the Coliseum, these probably didn't actually happen (and if they did, it was only once when the Coliseum was first opened, and the first level of seating had not been fully built).

Sunlight streaming into the Coliseum in Rome.  Stunning!

To get to the Coliseum (also known as the Colosseum if you want to Google it), you have to purchase tickets, which at the time I visited, were 15,50 Euros. If you want to wander around outside the Coliseum, it is free, but I recommend STRONGLY that you go inside. Why wouldn't you??

The outside of the Coliseum is impressive in itself: the walls tower over you, the giant archways welcome you, and the 'Swiss cheese' pattern on the wall befuddles you. I was informed that the multiple holes in the wall of the structure indicate areas where metal beams once rested, attaching the outer, more decorative facade of the Coliseum to the practical (and now the visible part) of the inner wall. Over the course of history, the Coliseum's walls have been plundered and the metal stolen to be melted down to make weapons, pots, and pans. It is an interesting look now, but I do wish the walls had been left alone, so that today we could see the Coliseum standing in all its original glory.

Outside the Coliseum.  Check out the 'Swiss Cheese' look!

Inside, the Coliseum seems to span forever. I took about a billion pictures, trying to capture its size, its play of shadow and light, its history. The base of the arena is open for visitors to see the maze of pathways that loop throughout the 'under stage' area of the floor. The floorboards were made of wood, and a small replica of the original floor can be seen at the far end of the Coliseum. Chunks of pillars dot the floors, and scraps of original marble can sometimes be found along stairways, a vague reminder of the level of extravagance that was used to decorate the arena.

The interior of the Coliseum.  Photos don't even do it justice.

When I took my students to see the Coliseum, I couldn't help but grin as I watched their reactions. My loud and giggly Junior High group of travelers closed their mouths and opened their eyes wide in admiration as they quietly explored the gigantic monument. It wasn't until we found a couple of the famous "Coliseum Cats" that they relaxed, and we took some goofy pictures. It was a reminder to me that these moments, these dumbstruck-with-awe moments, can and should happen to everyone.

A Coliseum cat walks gracefully along the edge of a ruin

Monday, June 6, 2011

Go to an All-Inclusive Resort (For at Least One Week of My Life)

When you travel, what type of accommodation is your favourite? Hotel? Hostel? Tent? Holiday trailer? Couch surfing? I myself am quite flexible and have tried nearly everything (except couch surfing, but I'd like to one day...) However, in all my life, I had never stayed at an all-inclusive resort. Many of my friends had, but not me. And I was curious.

Now, I'm going to guess that most hard-core travelers who read this blog automatically scoff at the term "all-inclusive resort". To me it does sound a bit frou-frou, la-dee-dah, lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous and whatnot... but at the same time, I do see their appeal. For years, friends of mine who had traveled to Mexico or the Dominican had returned singing the praises of all-inclusive resorts, with their multiple pools, swim-up bars, beach massages, and never-ending buffet meals. It sounded lovely. At the same time, when I asked my friends what they had seen and done while vacationing, they would flippantly tell me, "Well, we didn't leave the resort. We didn't need to - it had everything there."

The beach at my resort, the Park Royale Cancun

This shocked me. To never leave your hotel (yes, a resort IS a hotel) is to kill the spirit of travel. As in, brutally stab the spirit of travel and then rub salt in the wound type of killing. How could you never get out of the hotel zone, see the historical sights, meet some locals, shop and barter with the merchants, or see the flora and fauna of an exotic place in this world?

The giant piika tree at Chichen Itza, Mexico

I went in March to Cancun (which I have previously written a lot about) and I did stay in an all-inclusive resort. I wanted to see what my friends had been talking about: the buffets, the pools, the swim-up bars, etc. And see them I did. I vacationed in Cancun alone (my husband was working, and quite honestly, I felt like going alone). It was nice going alone, because I know me best, and I know what level of comfort I need. I didn't need a five-star hotel, but I didn't want to stay in the cheapest all-inclusive in the hotel zone - I wanted mid-grade. I stayed in the Park Royale Cancun hotel, which was affordable, clean, conveniently located, and had an exceedingly friendly staff. I had no complaints.

The dock at the Dreams Resort where the dolphin swim was - beautiful!

I swam in pools. I frolicked on the beach. I drank at the swim-up bar. I ate (too much) at the buffet dinners. And that was about all I did at the hotel. I enjoyed the creature comforts of an all-inclusive hotel for about the first day, and then it got old. It probably didn't help that I fell asleep on one of the pool chairs and burned to a crisp, but there is only so much of swim-up bars one can take when vacationing solo. However, I am not one to sit idle while traveling, and after the first evening and first morning, I was itching to leave the hotel.

During my stay at the all-inclusive, I was probably there for about five hours (not counting sleeping hours). I was gone during the days, exploring Chichen Itza, swimming with dolphins, sailing on catamarans, and snorkeling at Isla Mujeres. And I was only in Cancun for three full days!

Sailing towards Isla Mujeres on a catamaran with new friends

So... the answer to that eternal question: to stay all-inclusive or no? I don't have one for you. I probably would book at an all-inclusive such as the Park Royale again: cost-wise, it was affordable, it covered all my meals, and I had a lot of fun with the staff, who felt bad for me vacationing alone and took it upon themselves to entertain me in the evening at dinners. But it wasn't so costly that I felt guilty leaving it and its pools and swim-up bars behind to explore the rest of what Cancun had to offer. I suppose the answer is up to you and what type of adventure you'd like to have.