Category: Vacation experiences

Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida – videos

I had a fun trip to Tampa today that included a stop at Big Cat Rescue. Admissions was $29 per person and we went on a guided 1.5 hour tour with 19 other people. It was a little bit hard to find prime viewing spots along the fence but it was still very cool. I’d say you got to see their cats (all rescued from pet owners in over their heads or breeders or circus folks or whatever – bobcats, tigers, lions, cougars, an oscelot) closer up than you would at most zoos.

It’s not cheap, but it’s hard to rail against the prices charged by a non-profit animal rescue group. Plus it’s a cool way to spend an hour and a half of your time. There are many more videos on their Youtube channel. My own pictures will come in time.

Mulberry Phosphate Museum & digging for fossils

A while back my mom reviewed Reader’s Digest off the Beaten Path. So I recently moved to America and saw the book for the first time. Impressive looking hardcover, not unlike the Lonely Planet Food Lover’s book I reviewed recently. But Off the Beaten Path is more a book of travel ideas, with some interesting stuff to do in each US state. And the things aren’t big tourist attractions. For example, today we went to the Mulberry Phosphate Museum, about an hour from Orlando (probably closer to Tampa).

It’s not the sort of day trip most tourists would skip Disney World for, but I thought it was fun. My wife thought it was boring and after only a few minutes of digging for fossils she was rushing me out. All pics are thumbnails.

Digging for fossils at the Mulberry Phosphate Museum.

I think I found a tooth of some sort, and apparently finding fossilized teeth is real common there. Seems great for kids and adults like me. Not for my parents or my wife though. In addition to the dig site, there was a bit of information on phosphate mining, a room with a few fossils, and a caboose you could enter.

My father and I on a caboose at the Mulberry Phosphate Museum.

All in all, it was a nice hour or so at the museum.

Public transportation: Matatus in Nairobi, Kenya

Please enjoy this guest blog entry by Kurt Wenzing.

During my recent vacation in Kenya, I took my life in my hands on several occasions by being transported by several different vehicles of the same type, known as Matatus. They are vans built to accommodate about 14 people. But on occasion the passengers are “pushed in,” as on a subway in Japan, sometimes with 5 people squeezed into a row designed for 3, sometimes sitting on the lap of a stranger. I guess you are no longer strangers after a ride like this. One passenger had a bag on his lap approx. 3 feet high and 2 feet in diameter, jammed against the ceiling, the seat in front of him, and his lap. Most of the time your knees are jammed against the seat in front of you. I had a seat once next to the door. The passenger next to me was about 350 pounds, and I was squeezed hard against the door. I prayed that the door lock would not fail while I was being pushed against it.

Most roads are only 2 lanes, one in each direction, with many potholes and bumps. During conditions when traffic is traveling fairly smoothly and continuously, the driver moves along at 40 to 50 mph while passing pedestrians and bike riders only inches away. There are often no sidewalks or curbs, so the pedestrians are on the same level as the vehicles, with nothing to deter the vehicle from easing off the roads onto the walkways.

The “conductor,” or money collector, raps loudly with his fist on the wall or ceiling to notify the driver that someone is about to disembark. He also shouts solicitations to potential passengers when stopped at a “bus stop.” When oncoming passengers are loading, he makes the decision as to how many people to push onto the vacant seats, occasionally even when there are no vacant seats. The conductor sometimes stands in the open doorway of the Matatu while it proceeds down the bumpy street, swaying, veering wildly, and bouncing. He also may sit in the lap of the closest passenger to his door.

When the traffic in the lane in which the Matatu driver is traveling slows or stops, he (usually a male driver) simply pulls out into the oncoming lane and drives at up to 50 mph towards the oncoming traffic. At the last moment he will pull back (or force his way back) into the correct lane. Many times a collision seemed inevitable to me. I finally began staring at my feet on the floor so I could avoid seeing the traffic coming directly at our vehicle. I think that drivers in passenger cars realize that the Matatu drivers are going to hit them if they don’t allow them to force their way back in front of them, so for self-preservation they allow it to happen. My experience in Matatus was mostly in Nairobi, the capitol of, and largest city in, Kenya.

I once observed, when the traffic was at a standstill, the driver could not even get into the oncoming lane. So, he had the conductor get out and walk over to some traffic “barriers” placed for ongoing construction in a road being repaired. The conductor moved the barriers, and the driver drove down the newly constructed gravel. When we reached the end of the “new” road, the driver then drove onto the sidewalk and proceeded for another 50 feet, scattering pedestrians left and right. Then he drove back onto the main road, having progressed about 600 feet further into the stopped traffic.

Part of the traffic problem is that there are few traffic lights, so at most of the intersections, drivers just pull into the intersection from all sides, and the bravest move through first! Also, some drivers ignore the few traffic lights that exist.

To make the ride even less desirable, the music is played almost always at VERY high decibels. I would guess it is about twice as loud as I would ever play my music, even though I am known for playing music loudly.

Another factor to be considered is that when traffic is VERY poor, meaning even worse than the usual poor standards, the driver simply leaves his designated route. He may go blocks away, but parallel, to his planned route, while heading in the same general direction. Thus, he may drop you blocks away from your planned/expected destination.

There are other options for public travel, such as buses and taxis. They are considerably more expensive and slower. Although the Matatu rides were unusual, the photo safaris in the wildlife sanctuaries/preserves were wonderful and well worth the transportation problems in Nairobi.

I am home now, safe but with a few new gray hairs.

Naps and missed flights in Paris

Another travel story from one of my Korean university students:

I spent 6 months in Stockholm as an exchange student. My first trip outside of Sweden was to Paris.

I bought the cheapest ticket I could. It was a low cost carrier that departed from a small city nearby, Nykoping, at 6:30 am. I only had to be at the airport an hour early, but getting there was a problem. I took the last train to the central bus station at midnight. There actually was a night bus I could have taken, but I didn’t know it at the time.

The bus stationw as closed from midnight to 4:00 am so I spent 3 hours in McDonalds. It was winter and freezing, even inside McDonalds. And there were lots of drunk people there. I sat by myself for three hours reading my guide book.

I did get to paris, though, at 8:30 am. I walked a lot, mostly to save money. But then I enjoyed walking around Paris so much that I woke up at 6:00 am the next day and wandered around until midnight.

The next day I did the same, except for an unplanned nap. I was in Notre Dame. I was praying and listening to a grand song and then I woke up 20 minutes alter. I was shocked that I fell asleep in church. I must have been really tired.

My last night in Paris, I hung out with some other travelers in the hostel and had a beer. It was really interesting to chat with the other travelers there.

My last morning in paris I overslept and missed my flight. It seemed like the end of the world and I was practically crying. But soon I realized it was just a flight to Stockholm and not all the way back to Korea. Only two hours away. I calmed down and bought a ticket for 2 days later so i had more time in Paris.

Culture shock when traveling in Japan

Another travel experience from one of my students:

In Japan, people were prohibited from smoking on the street, whereas in Korea men often smoke on the street. When I saw their little smoking areas, i was shocked to see so many women smoking because in Korea you usually see men smoking in public. But then I went to a fast food restaurant and people could smoke in there. I was shocked again.

Then I could barely find anybody who spoke English. Tokyo is a major city but they don’t know the international language.

Then I learned that taxis have automatic doors and drivers don’t like it when passengers touch the door. And taxis are about three times more expensive in Japan than in Korea.

Then I went to a bar. First I was surprised that I had to pay for my beer in advance. In Korea you pay when you leave. Then I was shocked that they wanted 500 yen for a water – it should be free in Korea. Then they closed at midnight. In Korea, we start drinking at midnight and many bars will just close when the last customer leaves – maybe 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning.

In conclusion, my first day in Japan shocked me four times and surprised me a few more times (the huge gambling halls, people riding bikes to work, paying for side dishes, eating ginger like Koreans eat kimchi, people dressed up like animation characters, and people being extremely polite).

Dagoberto’s family in Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Here’s a great story from one of my students who made his travel experience far more meaningful through a random act of kindness.

I visited some friends in Mexico because I missed drinking and eating tacos with them. I was traveling from east to west and when I was in Merida, I met a Cuban guy who worked in the motel I was staying at. His name was Dagoberto and he escaped Cuba by boat. Whenever someone was walking outside the hotel he got nervous and uncomfortable.

What was worse was that he left his family in Cuba. He had a plan to get to the US and then bring his family to America. I wanted to do something nice for him so I came up with an idea. I asked him if he wanted me to take his picture and deliver it to his family along with a message.

“Gracias amgo!”

I had been planning to visit the eastern part of Cuba but I changed my plans because his family was on the west. I was nervous because traveling in Cuba is much harder than traveling in Mexico. Almost no one speaks English (my Spanish is not good) and the public transportation is not good.

I was able to take a bus to Dagoberto’s hometown, Pinar del Rio, which is 3 hours from Havana. His family treated me like family. I showed them the pictures and they cried. I was able to really experience Cuba, Cuban people, and the importance of family.

I haven’t heard any news about them since I left. I still miss them and I hope we can meet each other in the future.


Finding romance on a beach in France

A couple years ago, I asked for your travel romance stories. Here’s one from a student of mine:

When I was 21 I went on a backpacking trip to Europe. After spending a couple of weeks in Paris visiting my sister, I went to southern France and in front of Avignon Catholic Church I saw her.

At that time, I was addicted to a Japanese movie star, Nakayama Miho, who starred in Love Letter. The girl I saw in Avignon resembled Nakayama Miho. I fell in love at first sight.

I was too shy to speak with her though so I went to Cannes, regretting my lack of courage. I missed her.

Then I saw her in Cannes. I was so happy and surprised. I tried to talk to her several times but I was too foolish. I met her in two more cities, Monaco and Menton. And I couldn’t do anything.

I went to my final destination, Nice, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. I was walking along that beach, thinking about her as the sun set. Then I saw her, glowing in the setting sun, taking in the same view.

This was my last chance. I knew if I didn’t talk to her, I’d regret it for the rest of my life. I walked over to her and told her my name and that I had seen her in the other cities and that she was beautiful and that I wanted to travel with her..

“That sounds good. I saw you in many places and was curious about you. I’m Michiyo from Japan.”

It was a miracle. We went to Italy and had a fantastic time for two weeks. I thought it was fate. It turned out we were using different translations of the same guidebook, We laughed together for a while when we realized we had been following the same itinerary.

The night I met a devil and an angel in LA

Here’s a travel horror story from one of my students:

It was my second day in America. I was nervous because I had never traveled alone before. I was staying at a cheap hotel near LAX but my friends were at another hotel.

I took the subway to the station nearest their hotel. Outside there were very few people, totally unlike the Hollywood streets I had seen before. I was scared so i walked as fast as I could while reading my map. The situation got worse and I saw fewer and fewer people. And I was lost.

I decided to take a taxi, but there were no taxis there. A car stopped in front of me and the man driving offered to take me for a ride, I couldn’t trust him though. But a few minutes later, when the next car stopped, I got in. I felt there was no other way.

He was kind at first and he looked at my map carefully. We talked and became friendly while he drove. But I knew something was wrong when we entered a quiet, residential area.

“How about coming home with me?” he asked. “It’s near here.”

I was so embarrassed. I told him I already had a hotel. He continued driving down the quiet, residential street. I thought I was going to die on my second day in America. I prayed.

Suddenly, he stopped the car and said he needed to look at the map again. I handed it to him, but he said he couldn’t see it. He got out of the driver’s seat and got in the backseat where I was sitting.

“I need to see the map here.” He tried to push me over and get in the backseat with me.

I pushed back in a panic. “Please don’t do this. I know you’re a good person. We just became friends. Don’t do this. Please let me go.”

We pushed each other for a few seconds. Maybe he didn’t want to use his strength or maybe I used my superpower; I finally managed to get out of the car with my belongings.

I couldn’t cry as I walked down the street, with even less idea where I was than when I was lost before.

An old man asked me what happened. I didnt trust him so I asked if he knew where the hotel was. He said it would take an hour and a half to walk there. He offered to drive me.

I felt helpless. I hesitated but what could I do? I got in his car. When we reached the hotel I must have thanked him a dozen times. I gave him a doll I had brought from Korea. He seemed happy and drove off. I sat down on a bench outside the hotel and cried. I cried a lot. That night I met a devil and an angel both.

LA day 3 – the day Lucky became a Coton de Tulear

We were walking Lucky and Libby in Beverly Hills and some woman came up to us:

Her: Is that a Coton de Tulear?

Me: I don’t know what that is.

Her: It’s a breed. My dog’s a Coton de Tulear. Yours looks just like him.

So from now on, whenever I mix with high society (proabbly not that often) Lucky is going to be a Coton. The only problem is that whenever I tell this story I forget the fancy French name and have to go look it up online again.

That was pretty much the highlight of our third day in LA. We had a good time walking round Beverly Hills, taking frequent breaks because the dogs were hot and tired. Frequent breaks meant frequent meals while sitting outdoors. I have a bunch of details I wrote on my wife’s laptop but for some reason we can’t get that one online and we can’t save that stuff to a USB so it may be a little while before you get to read it.

I suppose the other thing I’ll remember from the third day was the expensive yoga clothing store. As we were about to enter I was picking up the dogs. The said it was no problem – just let them walk around. They even had a water bowl in the store for the dogs. I’ve never seen that before.

LA with dogs – days 1 & 2

So we escaped LAX, though not without incident. The roads and sidewalks are in pretty bad condition and as we were crossing the street at a crosswalk, there was a sudden bump in the road that sent all our luggage and one of our dogs flying off the carts and into the street. Luckily the dog was OK – just shaken after his 12 hour flight.

We had made a reservation with Supershuttle. So we first had to find them and then we had to figure out why they had no idea who we were. Anyway, we get it all sorted out and get to the hotel around noon or 1:00.

We fed the dogs, showered and stuff, and then walked to Rodeo Drive – maybe 15 minutes from the hotel. The weather is great and the dogs are happy. It’s Saturday afternoon but the streets are not really crowded. Rodeo Drive got a little crowded but nothing compared to Seoul.

For my first meal living in America I had a chicken salad sandwich. My wife had a tofu platter. The dogs got some brown rice. One of the nice things about LA so far is that it’s pretty easy to eat outside with your dogs. The good weather means lots of outdoor seating and dogs seem to be welcome anywhere with a seating area outside.

We went to bed around 5:00, woke up at 9:00, went back to bed around midnight, and woke up the next morning at 7:00 AM. Jet lag solved.

On Sunday we left the hotel around 8:30 and walked from Beverly Hills to the Farmer’s Market. Stopping for breakfast, the walk was 2 or more hours. The highlight at the market was the Three Dog Bakery. The doggy treats and some fruit from the market made for a nice family picnic on the grass in the Farmer’s Market.

Then we walked a couple more hours to the Chinese Theater and walk of fame. We stopped several times, including pizza for lunch, because we were afraid the dogs were getting too hot in the LA sun. My wife got burned actually. At one point my wife decided to go shoe shopping while I hung out with the dogs in the air conditioned store. This may have cooled them down but it also stressed them out since they don’t like watching one of us walk away. Still it was nice that there was no problem bringing the dogs in the store although holding them both when they wanted to chase after my wife wasn’t fun.

Anyway, we finally get to the Chinese Theater. I wanted to walk my dogs there, maybe take a picture of whichever stars they decided to pee on, but it was a mob scene so we carried our little guys and they didn’t get to pee on any stars.

Then we decided to take a taxi back and headed tot he taxi stand. The first guy refused us. The second guy said we had to take the first guy. We explained that he didn’t want us so he said then you have to call the number on his taxi and report him. He’s breaking the rules. So the first guy who refused us gets out and starts yelling at the second driver. I asked my wife for the phone and then he came over and kind of chest bumped me. So I pushed him away and we left. That was pretty exciting.

Then we hailed a cab and got back to Beverly Hills no problem. Back at the hotel I did call to complain about the driver who refused us. The supervisor said drivers are allowed to refuse passengers with pets – so why did the driver get all upset about potentially being reported? And why did the second guy suggest it? It’s all very strange. And it makes LA less pet friendly than I initially thought.

We slept from 5:00 to 9:00 that night and midnight to 5:30 AM.