Beijing

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November 16, 2013: We got to Beijing late Thursday afternoon, and it started with a bang! Right out of the gate, my sister had a throw-down with the taxi driver. He saw a couple of American women and saw opportunity. My sister saw a taxi driver who was trying to take advantage. He lost. But not before we threatened to get out on the exit, and had the airport authorities over for a visit. My sister, pointing at his meter saying, “Meter! Meter! We’ll get out if you don’t charge according to the meter!” He responded by yelling at me in Chinese, showing me his cell phone, and pointing at my suitcase, which was sitting on the seat next to him. (He wouldn’t talk to my sis.) Dude. No matter how loud you yell at me in Chinese, I’m still not gonna understand a word you’re saying. Exhilarating way to start this leg of the journey. All I can say is my sister is bad ass.

We were in the lobby getting ready to check in when my sister got a call from her good friend in Beijing. Her water had just broken (a month early), and her husband was still in the states. We met another friend of hers, and they went to the hospital and acted as last-minute, surrogate coaches. I stayed at the hotel, ordered room service, and watched the whole first season of Breaking Bad. I think I had the more relaxing evening.

Friday was a lot less contentious, but very eventful. We had a guide that drove us to the Temple of Heaven, which was really interesting. It is in the middle of a park, and there were hundreds of Chinese folks that gather for a variety of activities. The Chinese are very communal, and they congregate at the park to sing patriotic songs (loyalty to the communist party), take dance lessons, play cards, dominos, and exercise. The Temple itself was beautiful, and is constructed without nails or glue. Everything has meaning … the number of steps, the tablet in the center, everything. We went from there to a jade factory, then on to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall. Our guide, Patrick, was fascinating to talk to, and we named our driver, Mr. Yan, “Mario”. He was a maniac. Susan preferred to avert her eyes, but my tendency for carsickness had me watching the road the whole way. You truly take your life in your own (driver’s) hands on those winding, mountain roads. Near miss after near miss, yet I’m here in Seoul to tell the tale. And the Great Wall is … epic. How this was accomplished, at the time it was accomplished, defies explanation.

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We headed back to the Olympic Village, saw the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube, then headed off for an authentic Chinese banquet. My sister, who had traveled extensively to Beijing, is changing jobs, so it was a farewell in her honor. It was absolutely fascinating, and extraordinarily meaningful. So much ritual and ceremony. And, boy, can those Chinese drink! There is toast after toast of this alcohol called baijieu. (52% alcohol content … yikes!) And it’s considered rude to pass on a toast. From there, it was on to another favorite Chinese pastime … karaoke. You get a room of your own, where you dance and sing with your own group. With all of the toasting, I’m afraid I sang. This is not my gift. I did, however, perfect my patented Jackie Chan dance move. At the end of the night, I told a woman in our group that she had a beautiful voice. She said to me, in her heavily-accented English, “and you have a beautiful dance.” This was one of the most glorious moments of my life. I was born lacking the rhythm gene, so even if she was only being gracious, I know this was likely the one and only time I will hear these words.

Yesterday, the winds blew in and cleared the polluted skies. (Beijing is not conducive to asthma.) The weather gods were smiling on us the whole trip … we had one rain squall in Bangkok that lasted about an hour. Other than that, we were under beautiful skies, warm air, and tolerable humidity. We visited the new baby, shopped at the Silk Street Market, had dinner, and now … homeward bound!

I am so grateful to live in the United States. In China, if you are wealthy, you can enter a lottery to win the right to buy a car. You can drive every other day, depending on your license plate number. You must fill out paperwork to request permission to move to another city. People wear masks in the city because of the quality of the air. We, on the other hand, have western toilets. And Charmin …

Chiang Mai, Day 2

November 12, 2013: Best. Day. Ever. And that’s something, given the quality of days we’ve experienced in the last week and a half. We spent the day high in the hills of Chiang Mai. Now, THIS is what I imagined Thailand to be … beautiful, expansive rice paddies and thick jungle. And the Patara Elephant Farm is no ordinary ride high atop a houdah.

The experience starts with a bit of storytelling … And what a story it was. Pat, the owner, fell in love with a woman from Chiang Mai, and wanted to start an organic farm here. He found his little piece of heaven, but it came with an elephant. If he didn’t take the elephant, he could not buy the land. So, he did. He knew the elephant needed a partner, and from that union came their first baby, Lucky. At times, the farm has had in excess of seventy elephants, and right now there are around 50. They’ve bred, rescued, and nurtured these beautiful creatures over the years, and Pat has become a sort of cat lady of the elephant world.

We are partnered with an elephant for the day, and mine was a middle-aged 28-year-old named Mae Khan Jun. My sister spent the day with Bun Pao, a 19-year old, headstrong young man, who gave her a run for her money. He was a fan of getting his bum rubbed, against a tree, a bank, pretty much whatever was available. He also wasn’t a fan of the beaten path, and trekked off in unplanned directions.

The interesting thing is that you first must see if your elephant likes you. You spend some time with them, feeding them bananas, sugar cane, and bana grass. If they like you, you’re in. If not, you’re out. On to another elephant. Fortunately, neither of us were rejected, and we had our partners. I was initially a little concerned. Mae did not seem enamored. She apparently was not a fan of my sunglasses … I took them off and looked her in the eye. Made all the difference. I fell in love with those bright, intelligent eyes.

The next step is to assess the health of each animal. An elephant that sleeps lying down is healthy. You check this by seeing if they have dirt on their sides. A happy elephant swings its ears and wags its tail. Are they sweating? This is determined by sliding a finger between their toes. And finally, the unadvertised special … what’s up with their poo? Count of poos (five or more is good), consistency, scent, and the amount of moisture. The counting part? Piece of cake. The other checks? Done by hand. Yes … Today I squeezed elephant poo. I was concerned at first, because Mae had no poo in her vicinity. She accommodated me, however, by presenting me with a warm, fresh pile. I think I would have preferred an aged one.

Then, it’s off for bath time. You scrub, rinse, scrub, rinse, then scrub some more. My trainer did not approve of my light touch. Their skin requires a more vigorous rub. I was afraid to hurt her, but I think they’re pretty tough. Then, we were off for our trek. You ride on their neck, knees braced behind their ears, with a single rope loop to hold on to, behind your back. One hand holding the loop, the other flat on her head. Initially, this feels unsteady, precarious, and just the tiniest bit terrifying. But soon you acclimate to the rhythm. You lean forward on the uphill, lean back on the down. We traversed the jungle … up, up, up … down, down, down. Bamboo, unsteady ground … butterflies. An iridescent beetle, the shiniest green I’ve ever seen. We stopped for an authentic Thai lunch, then played with two new babies, one of which was only six days old.

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Then, it was back up on our new friends, heading home through a river under a bamboo canopy. The scenery was breathtaking … acres of rice paddies, wildflowers and orchids … more of the prolific, dancing butterflies. Then, goodbye. I don’t think you’re the same after looking into an elephant’s eye … pressing your cheek against its cheek. They’re magical, these creatures. This was a day I will never forget.

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What a way to end this leg of our trip. Thailand, that’s a wrap …

Chiang Mai

November 11, 2013: Early exit out of Bangkok. Five o’clock in the morning was the only time we saw light traffic. There were still stale traces of night life … that is one mo’ fo’ crazy-ass town. I was able to take advantage of the time zone difference and make a quick call to my son from the airport. I was excited to tell him about getting a tattoo in Bangkok. He spent a good part of his life thinking I was so NOT cool. Finally! My chance! His hip mom, livin’ life on the edge! First words out of his mouth? “Mom! That is VERY dangerous!” Sigh … before I knew it, my window of opportunity had slipped through my fingers. My boy is now … dare I say it? Mature.

Chiang Mai is beautiful. The Mae Ping River runs all the way through the city. It is flanked by trees, and a multitude of fountains send a cooling mist over the streets. It seems simpler than Phuket … more gentle. (Though the scooter riders are universally nuts.) We spent a lazy day by the pool, recharging after the frenzied bustle of Bangkok. The night market is right next to our hotel, and we shopped for a few trinkets on the way to get a Thai massage (our fourth of the trip). This one was a doozy. My masseuse walked on me! Luckily, she weighed about 85 pounds. We had a moaner in the “stall” next door. Not sure what was going on over there, and I’m fairly certain I don’t want to know. Yikes. After our massage, we had dinner at a joint called “Lemongrass”. Its motto drew us in … “No view, but tasty”. Who could resist?

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We experienced a short-lived adrenaline rush as we traveled from the airport to our hotel this morning. Never laid eyes on the protesters in Bangkok, but one of the first things we saw in Chiang Mai was a large band of angry marauders. Hostile desperadoes, sporting red bandanas, gunshots … fists in the air. Well. Turns out Owen Wilson is starring in a movie that is being filmed here called, “The Coup”. It’s the story of an American family in the midst of rebels attacking the city. Less dramatic than an authentic uprising, but infinitely preferable.

Tomorrow, we spend our day with the elephants. I am so looking forward to learning about and playing with these gentle giants. Until then ….

Bangkok, Day 2

November 10, 2013: Bangkok … total. Sensory. Overload. It’s loud, dirty, colorful, ancient, and chaotic. We had a couple of cups of coffee this morning, and headed to the Sky Train, which, by day’s end, we had mastered. It is an efficient, albeit crowded, mode of transportation. Two train lines and a boat ride later, we arrived at Wat Pho, where there is a concentrated group of temples.

While we were cruising down the Chao Phraya River, we thought, “Oh, shoot! We forgot to eat breakfast!” “We can just grab something there”. Wrong. Not unless you’re jonesing for some dried fish parts. We got off the boat, and stepped in to a makeshift market that was really just a shack on pilings. You had to duck under the chest-high support beams, where they hung partially-full water bottles, so you wouldn’t conk your noggin. In hindsight, this was genius, especially for a noggin-conking expert, such as myself. We exited the shack, and walked past the street vendors, who were selling the aforementioned fish parts. Yikes … that was stinky.

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The temples were truly magnificent. To enter, there were to be no shoes, no bare arms, and no shorts. Fortunately, and since I was (as per usual) breaking the rules, Rent-a-Robe was available for our convenience. This is a sublime corner of the planet … it was like nothing I’ve ever seen.

After touring Wat Pho, we caught the boat. Going the wrong way. This, in no way, is a reflection of our sense of direction (or lack thereof), we simply knew the thing eventually had to turn around. So, forty-three stops (I might be exaggerating) and an hour or so later, we reached the end of the line. “Excellent!”, we thought, until the rare unfriendly Thai said to us, “Get out.” Wait … What?! “Get out.”, she repeated. We’ve been waiting DAYS for this rig to turn around! But nooooo … we had to get in the OTHER boat. That would have been useful information forty-two stops earlier.

Five o’clock in the afternoon. Still. Have. Had. No. Breakfast. At last we reach our hotel. Chicken satay, spring rolls, cosmopolitan by the pool. Whew.

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Next mission … find Bangkok Hard Rock Cafe to buy my boy a t-shirt. This was easier said than done. This city is a maze that you navigate body to body in a sea of bodies. But we did it! Two more for the collection. (It was challenging enough to find that it merited a second.) Dinner at the amazing Basil restaurant, where I had fish with its head still connected. I’m getting more adventurous. I ate an egg the size of a marble the other day. I don’t want to know its origin.

Off to dreamland … four a.m. wake up call to head to Chiang Mai. Until tomorrow …

Bangkok

November 9, 2013: “One night in Bangkok, and the world’s your oyster …” Thanks, Murray Head. That song has been stuck in my head ALL day. My sister and I decided we would save a little money and time by taking the express bus, then the Sky Train to our hotel. This seemed logical. Until you throw in a 50-pound suitcase, a small carry-on, and a backpack. Escalators or elevators? I think not. Even the rare escalator has stairs leading up to it. I am going to be SO buff by the time I get back home. We noticed that all the other travelers were taking taxis. They were definitely on to something. When we arrived at the hotel, we calculated our savings. About ten bucks. This was not a well thought-out plan.

We spent a good part of the afternoon relaxing next to the rooftop pool, sipping colorful drinks with umbrellas in them. We are in a tropical oasis in the midst of an urban metropolis. You literally have no idea you are surrounded by a city with a population of around 12 million. Wildly different than Phuket.

Last night, an ingenious plan was hatched. This has been an amazing trip. It simply had to be commemorated. So mom and dad, we’re probably going to get grounded when we get home, but we’re comin’ home with tattoos. Our virginal flesh is now inked. A hummingbird for my sister (in an area that will rarely see the light of day), and the word “breath” written in simple Chinese symbols on my ankle. I considered “breath” in Thai, but it was a LOT more letters. The hotel recommended Jimmy Wong, tattoo artist to the stars, or at least Kate Moss. Jimmy and his studio are a story unto themselves, but we’ll save that for another day. Getting a tat in Bangkok was just too good to pass up. And I’m going to love to tell that story when I’m 80.

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Tomorrow, we’re hitting it early, and are going to see as many temples as we can. We’ll try to do some shopping at the local markets, too, and hopefully locate a Hard Rock Cafe to add to my son’s t-shirt collection. We really have only one full day here before heading to Chiang Mai, so we need to go in to turbo mode! Until then ..

 

Flying Hanuman

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November 8, 2013: The Flying Hanuman jungle zip line course, or as my sister refers to it, “The Flying Human”, was a hoot. There were 28 lines that ran through the rain forest, and a couple of them were about two football fields long. We traversed swinging bridges, belayed down about 75 feet, and even “surfed” across one stretch. We did a double zip, where we were tied together and instructed to hold hands. This activity was a workout, no ATVs, trams, or jeeps to get you up that mountain … no sir. Foot power all the way! And I didn’t fall today. Even once! Okay, maybe once. And that was on the hotel tram. Hardly counts at all. Noteworthy fact … the safety instruction was delivered in Russian. The good news is that my sister and I both know the most important word in this circumstance … “nyet”.

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So, mission accomplished on our quest to locate and utilize all the hotel pools. We discovered two waterfalls, a number of lagoons, two water slides, an underground cave, and four full-sized pools. The first water slide was a little sluggish, so we expected the same on the second. My sister went first, and a good hint of what was to come was the fact that she was there one second, gone the next, like an astonishing magic trick. I thought, “I’m game”, so I slid in. One full-on nasal rinse, a nip slip, and a wedgie later, I realized this was no ordinary water slide.

We went to dinner to a restaurant in Kata called, “The Boathouse”. Best meal so far. There were couples on the beach lighting lanterns and sending them floating through the air. Beautiful.

We have a 4:00 a.m. wake-up call for our flight to Bangkok tomorrow, where there is apparently some civil unrest. What’s a trip without a little protest, eh? Amnesty, red shirts … Whatevs. Girls just want to see some temples and get a little shopping in. Until then ….

Phang Nga Bay

November 7, 2013: Interesting trivia … there are “Elephant Crossing” signs in Thailand. Even more interesting trivia … they actually do cross the road.

There were a number of fascinating sights on the way to our boat ride, and that was before the day officially started! We saw two elephants, lending credence to the warning signs, then saw a water buffalo grazing along the road. We saw a rubber tree farm with rows and rows of trees with spigots, reminiscent of the maple trees in the northeast. Our driver today had symbols painted above his sun visor. I asked him about them, and they are apparently a Buddhist safety blessing. You need all the help you can get while driving through Patong Beach, so we were more than grateful for the blessing.

Today’s boat ride was more of a thrill ride than yesterday’s amble through the islands. It was very fast, and our first stop took us to a hong at low tide, which meant we walked in, rather than paddled. We were given helmets, which was puzzling until I walked head first in to a stalactite. Then I fell again in to the incoming tide / bat guano. I really do take klutz to the next level. (My sister apparently has this on video. I can only hope it was too dark in there to really capture my graceful plunge.)

After our hike through the drained lagoon, we headed out for some more kayaking through a mangrove forest. Our guide thought my sister and I were lovers, and he made us a heart-shaped frame from a leaf, through which he took our photo. There were two Polish cousins on our trip that were experiencing the same misconception, so we had a good chuckle over that.

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The next stop was my favorite of the day. We went to a Sea Gypsy village … a linked group of run-down shacks on piers attached to a small island. They were granted the special privilege to stay there, since the village has been there for a couple hundred years, but it is the only one of its kind. There is a school, restaurant, a market, and the homes. It was absolutely fascinating.

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On the way “home”, we discovered the method for troubleshooting electrical problems in the spaghetti bowl of wires that generate the local electricity. You lay your ladder against said wires, and jiggle things around until they work again. Whatever works!

Tonight, we went to dinner, and ordered up a couple of cocktails. I had a Cosmo, which they served in an extraordinarily large glass. So why not have another? Afterward, we decided it was imperative that we get a local aloe vera massage to soothe our sunburns. Well, let’s just say I had to take a “break” midway through (which happens when your Cosmo is served in a vat), so I had to go down a hallway to the ladies’ room, which is shared by a restaurant and several other establishments, wearing nothing but a sheet. I don’t think this is a common occurrence, because all the ladies were giggling.

Tomorrow … Jungle zip lining.

Kho Phi Phi

November 6, 2013: Fact. The proportion of wildly attractive to average men who scuba dive is appreciable. Especially when they speak with an Australian accent.

Fact. Even an average man is attractive in dive gear.

In light of this, today was another good day! We started the day with breakfast poolside. We still have no idea of the footprint of this establishment. It is my goal to set foot in each of the pools here, but first we must find them. Our room overlooks a pool that has lights that sparkle like diamonds in the night. I’m not sure it’s open after dusk, but hell, I just went topless on our lanai. We’re in Thailand, so rules are pretty sketchy.

On the way to our first dive site near Phi Phi Island, I got to see my first flying fish! They look similar to a sparrow, skimming just above the surface of the water. My sister had her own personal dive master, Neung, while I got to be rather independent as a snorkeler. I made a new friend from Moscow, and we paddled around the cove, looking at a kaleidoscope of fish, coral, sea stars, and urchins. The water here is a vibrant emerald green, about 84 degrees, and is as clear as glass. Our second site was even better. We swam through schools of tropical fish, and hung out with a couple of sea turtles. It was like swimming in the world’s largest tropical fish tank. The third site was limited to divers, because the current was too strong on the surface. Boss man told me I would be swept straight out to sea. I wasn’t really a fan of that, so I complied.

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We enjoyed a fabulous sunset on the ride home. I must say, one of my favorite things on this trip so far is meeting people from all over the world and hearing their stories. The Scottish woman who spent the last month exploring Singapore, Dubai, Bali, Borneo, and countless other exotic locales. We’ve met Russians, Aussies, French, Chinese, Brits, Scots, and, of course, our gracious Thai hosts. It’s a different world here. Neung, my sister’s dive master, appears to be this innocent, fragile, beautiful young woman. Her appearance, however, contradicts her backstory. Orphaned at ten, pregnant at fifteen, her five-year old son takes care of himself while she works to support him. They have good neighbors, she told us. If he gets scared, he can go visit them. Unheard of for us, but a way of life for her. I’m counting my blessings tonight …

Dinner was a bottle of red wine on our lanai and room service. After our long day on the water, we were jonesing for something simple. A steak sandwich fit the bill quite nicely. Medium for me, medium rare for Susan. When it arrived, we asked our server which was which. This caused a great deal of confusion, as he looked from tray to tray. He finally said, in his heavy Thai accent, “I do not know.” Well, alrighty, then! Next time, let’s select a Thai dish.

Tomorrow, we’re off to Phang Nga Bay and James Bond Island. Until then …

Patong Beach, Thailand

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Nov. 5, 2013: A good vacation is about being flexible, I think. Our (best-laid) plans included a trip to Phang Nga Bay and James Bond island today. Well apparently, they forgot us. So now, that will be Thursday’s adventure. This, to us, was a clear sign to enjoy the local area and do a little exploring. We decided to walk to old-town Phuket to have breakfast. Much to my surprise, rice, glass noodles, and black-pepper chicken is quite delightful in the morning. On our way, I caught my flip-flop on an uneven piece of sidewalk, and took a spectacular tumble. This wonderful Thai gentleman was ever-so concerned, but I insisted on capturing the moment on “film” before I made my way back up on two feet. After all, this is all part of the story, right? This was, by the way, my second fall of the trip. There is far too much to see all around me to pay much attention to what’s going on down south, where my feet reside. So, in addition to unforgettable experiences and fantastic photography, I am also collecting an impressive array of bruises and skinned knees. My sister has taken to calling our vacation, “Trippin’ in Thailand”. I rather like it.

After breakfast, we made our way down to the sugar-sand beach in front of our hotel and set up our nest for the day … reclining beach chairs, umbrellas, and a couple of good books. Midway through the day, we enjoyed a Thai massage. Now, this was no gentle massage on a beachside cabana by a uniformed spa employee, mind you. This was a step-in-the-bucket-to-rinse-your-feet, get under a rusty, framed canopy, lie on an old beach towel kind of massage. The elderly, leather-skinned Thai pretzeled me into shapes I had no idea were physically possible. Oh, and beach sand makes an excellent exfoliant. Jell-O was firmer than I when I stepped out from under that tarp. I grabbed my snorkel gear and walked straight out to the warm, clear, emerald sea, where I floated face down long enough to acquire an impressive sunburn.

After rinsing the sand from our bodies, we grabbed a tuk-tuk and headed to the wild side of Phuket, Patong Beach. It is a chaotic, frenetic city, with kamikaze, helmet-less motorcycle riders vying for space and speed, beautiful people, smells, and sounds the likes of which I have never experienced. We had happy hour beachside, with our cocktails served from a pink VW van. My sister is working hard to teach me the art of negotiation, but alas, this is not my gift. I talked a woman into selling me a tunic for 350 baht (she started at 600), and after paying her, I gave her back 50 baht. I may not be ruthless, but the smile she gave me was worth it.

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Now, we’re back at the hotel, ready to rest up for our next adventure. Tomorrow is a dive for my sister and a lazy snorkel for me at Phi Phi Island. Until then …

 

Phuket, Thailand

November 4, 2013: This was a magical day, and I don’t want to forget a moment. My sister and I intended to spend our first day resting by the pool and maybe taking a beach walk. That lasted about seven and a half minutes before we decided to check out what sorts of other trouble we could get in to. We settled on a day-long boat and kayak trip that went in to the evening. It started with about a 45-minute drive through Karon and Surin Beaches. What a city of contrasts! I had heard that Phuket had, for the most part, recovered from the 2004 tsunami. And it had … for the wealthy. The less fortunate have patched up their homes with old wood and rusty, corrugated metal sheets. There are roadside shrines, construction, and ghost homes that were a mere shell of what they once had been. We saw goats and cows wandering roadside, and small motorcycles rule the roads. People load their motorcycles down with their families, and we saw everything from a man riding wearing nothing but a speedo and a good tan, to a local woman in head to toe traditional Thai clothing, completely adorned with sequins. Helmets are NOT preferred. The electrical system here is comprised of hundreds of loosely-draped wires. I am bewildered as to how an electrical issue is found and resolved.

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Once we arrived at the pier, we took about an hour ride out to the smaller islands and did some cave exploring by kayak (including one with thousands of bats!), had a wild monkey jump in to my lap, and participated in a Loi Krathong ceremony, where we made lotus flower floats, and sent them off, lit with candles, into the hong (lagoon). This last part was done in the pitch dark, and it literally took my breath away. As we made our way out of the hong, I dragged my hand through the water. The phosphorescence was like watching hundreds of fireflies dance from my fingertips. The last and final adventure of the day (you know me – there had to be at least one more) … we grounded our (big) boat, lost a propeller, and had the boat spitting black smoke and spinning. I think there is something just the tiniest bit wrong with my psyche that this can happen, and all I can think is, “this is going to make a hell of a story.” The scenery and the people here are like no other. I said this was a once-in-a-lifetime trip. I hope that’s not true. There is a specialness to this place that will never leave my heart. Wonder what tomorrow will bring?