So, there I was, sitting on the couch in my hotel room when a monkey climbed through the window. This sounds like a great opening line as a set up to a classic joke but it actually happened. I was in Sun City, South Africa for a convention and educational opportunity. Sun City is located about 2 hours from Johannesburg and borders the Pilanesburg Game Reserve and located near the malaria free Madikwe Reserve. Sun City is a megalopolis that rises out of the plains of South Africa. It serves as a vacation resort loaded with deluxe, over sized opulent hotels, shops, restaurants and of course casino gaming. It’s the kind of place that has a huge man made sandy, palm lined beach with mechanically generated waves that wash over you every 90 seconds and could certainly give Las Vegas a run for its money. Everything you might imagine Africa to be. Sarcasm intended. It draws a lot of Europeans but it also serves the local population looking to take a holiday locally. Once boycotted by many major performers who protested the culture of apartheid prevalent in the 1980’s, it has now grown considerably and all people are welcome.
Looking out my window I could see an occasional break-in currently in progress as scampering monkeys spied opportunity and entered yet another room. Sometimes their entrance would be accompanied by a shriek from the room’s occupant followed by a hasty retreat by the monkey. An audience would gather on the ground with everyone looking upwards to watch the monkeys pop in and out of windows like a game of hide and seek. Often the monkeys would emerge grasping something they stole from the mini fridge or anything edible that might have been left lying around the room. You might wonder why the hotel management seemingly did nothing to stop these marauding simians but a sign placed in each hotel room explained why. In part, it stated “Sun City is an extended wildlife area where Chacma Baboons and Vervet Monkeys can still roam freely. We endeavour to find a balance between ensuring the safety of our valued guests and conservation of these precious animals.” I applaud their policy which went on to remind us that the monkeys are wild animals and should be treated as such. In case you didn’t know how to treat a wild animal, the sign continued to explain that we should keep the doors and windows closed when we left the room and to keep all food concealed. Wise advice although I’d be willing to bet the last banana that the monkey would find any tasty tidbit, no matter how well hidden it was.
Unfortunately I hadn’t yet read the sign before the hairy visitor stepped through my window. If I had read the sign I would have known to stay calm and exit the room slowly or telephone extension 900 for assistance. Good advice, if only I’d known. Instead I sat completely still both transfixed by such a close encounter and too frightened to move. I decided panic would be the best option and repeatedly yelled out to my travel companion. “there’s a monkey in the room!” “What?”, he responded.”There’s a monkey in the room!” I repeated, probably with more urgency than the first time. Apparently unable to hear me over the running water from the shower he opened the door and again asked “what!?” This time I didn’t need to answer because he was able to size up the situation pretty quickly. Now it was two against one. The monkey had a choice to make. I assume he chose to make a retreat because he was now outnumbered. He did not go with haste. Oh no, this brazen little monkey actually sat on the window sill for a bit. Perhaps watching us, perhaps taunting us as though to let us know that he was only leaving because he wanted to. Not because we told him to go. He left empty handed though, as we had just arrived and barely had time to unpack. Perhaps he appointed himself the welcoming committee.
Now monkey-free we decided to tour the grounds. Lushly foliated with an occasional stray giraffe, it made for an interesting stroll. As we toured the entertainment options we learned that Sun City also has 2 beautiful golf courses, both designed by Gary Player, South Africa’s own golf champ. I don’t know much about playing golf but I guess it’s a bit more challenging in Sun City than in the local courses. I can tell you first hand that it has nothing to do with weather or terrain and everything to do with the monkeys that come and steal your golf balls.
When it was announced that the annual American Society of Travel Agent’s convention would be held in Montreal Canada, and in the winter, no less, I admit to being a bit disappointed. My first thought being couldn’t we as Travel Agents come up with something more exotic? My second thought being “who the heck goes to Canada in the winter?” Certainly there’s a Caribbean island to visit that we could all agree upon. To answer my own questions I first reminded myself that the point of these trips is to gain in depth, on site knowledge about a destination. And as it turns out, lots of people go to Canada in the winter, including several thousand Travel Agents that particular year. While most travelers go to enjoy the skiing, others go for the French food and ambiance. The purpose of us gathering en masse was to see, first hand, how wonderful the city of Montreal is. Mission accomplished! It was an easy and comfortable ride heading North on Amtrak and since I was travelling with other friends in the travel industry it seemed more like a rolling party than a trek to a conference. Montreal is designed to be a year round destination. The nearby village of Mont Tremblant is a picturesque ski village that was inspirational enough to make even a non-skier like me stroll through the village, peering in the windows of the upscale shops while cradling a cup of fabulous hot chocolate. Apparently this snowy, cold town is a hot spot for the rich and famous. But, there were no rich and famous people to be found on the day that I happened to be looking. The Canadians are a clever lot. When a city has the potential for 5 months of temperatures likely dipping below freezing, why confine yourself to your home, or worse, have to face the cold head on? But the people of Montreal have found a practical solution. I firmly believe that the underground malls of Montreal should be included as the 8th wonder of the world. In a city that’s brutally cold during the winter the Montrealers or Montre’alais in French, have devised a comfortable way to shop, dine and socialize, freezing weather be damned! Since the 20 miles of interconnecting malls cover almost 5 square miles, you can literally go clear across town without having to surface. It is truly an underground city and is one of the largest underground complexes in the world. It is estimated that half a million people can be found underground each day. That might explain why when I heard someone calling out “Debbi, Debbi!’ I didn’t bother to look up. I have a very common name and am used to not being the Debbi that people are usually looking for. Because the caller was so insistent, I finally turned and looked as though I could help locate the correct Debbi he must be searching for. To my surprise, it was the high school aged son of a good friend. He was, if not the last person I expected to see then at least pretty close to the end of a long list. My first question “what are you doing here?” was closely followed by “do your parents know that you’re here?” He assured me that they were aware and then introduced me to his schoolmates and I joined them for a lunch of crepes. What are the odds?
A better time was still to come. On our final night in Montreal, we were guests at an evening performance of “du Rock a l’opera” which basically translates to “Rock to Opera.” It was a dynamic stage extravaganza that covered multiple musical styles with an energy that left me exhausted. I’m very proud that with so much distance between me and my high school years, I could still rock out with the best of them. However, instead of my head hurting the next morning I found that my hands were bruised from banging them excitedly on the table to the beat of the music. It was definitely a great finale to a great trip. As we began our journey back to the states, it was with a new found appreciation of Montreal as a potential vacation destination. It is easy to forget that this is indeed an international destination. But, in case you needed a reminder, proof if you will, that you had crossed a border into another country’s territory, U.S. Border Control is there to remind you. Once you reach the border the train stops for an immigration check. It’s a bit intimidating to see solemn U.S. Immigration Officers board the train who asked to see our “papers.” However, once they were confident that all was good our train continued on its path back to Poughkeepsie and I came home with great memories courtesy of our friendly neighbor to the North.
“Tell me you’re not from Oregon!” Talk about a great opening line. In the long history of opening lines this probably ranks at the top of the list. It practically begs a response and was the greeting I received when I first entered the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul Turkey. Not that there’s anything wrong with being from Oregon but in fact, I’m from New York, Brooklyn actually, by way of the Bronx. If you ever get the chance to visit Turkey and I highly recommend that you do, you must visit the Grand Bazaar. This is one of oldest covered markets in the world. It is also one of the largest markets encompassing 60 plus streets and approximately 3000 shops. It sort of gives “Shop till you drop” new meaning. Nothing helps you to get to know the local culture more than visiting a local market. It’s a quintessential experience as commerce centers are often the heart and soul of a country and its people. It often combines local foods, current trends and best of all, local people. There’s no pretense in the fact that the people on the other side of the table want to sell you something. Their goal is to separate you from as much foreign currency as you will permit and your job is to find something suitable as a gift for people back home at a budget that works for you.
The art of the deal is a centuries old tradition that includes one part haggling and two parts showmanship. Each vendor is vying for your attention in the 5 seconds it takes you to decide to stop by his or her booth or move on to the next. Many of the vendors actually carry similar if not the same merchandise as someone several booths down. That’s where the fun begins. However if you lack the competitive “bone” it might be less a challenge to you to find the best deal and more of a stress inducing concession of sorts. In reality if you take a step back and just watch for a while you’ll find the whole situation amusing if not downright funny. In the art of the deal, haggling is not only expected but is part of the culture. A lively exchange in determining the final price might actually be more memorable than the item that you finally decide to purchase. I soon realized that you literally need a map to wind your way through the maze of vendors and different sections. A local guide might be your best bet in understanding how to barter and to determine whether or not you’re receiving a good value. If for no other reason, a guide can ensure that you find your way out of the Bazaar instead of wandering around for an interminable amount of time looking for an exit. Either The Grand Bazaar or the Spice Market could put our local markets to shame. The Spice Market is the second largest covered market in Turkey. With 88 connected rooms, not shops, but high domed large rooms, each stall is filled with vendors displaying an incredible variety of spices, dried fruits and herbs. I’m not sure that it’s the right place for anyone with claustrophobia to choose to spend their afternoon but if it’s variety you’re after, I couldn’t think of a better place.
I went in to the market determined to not be overwhelmed. Since the best defense is a great offense I decided my opening move would be to choose beforehand what I wanted to buy. This would eliminate the stress of trying to discover the perfect purchase and wandering for miles without a positive outcome. I had my heart set on a particular type of lamp. I wanted something that definitely said “Turkey” to me. Clearly I hadn’t given much thought as to how to get it home or whether it would actually meet our standardized UL code. What initially seemed wonderfully unique and personally appealing to me soon lost its luster as I wandered through aisle after aisle seeing the same style of lamp replicated over and over again. Even the colors and patterns were being repeated and each time the bargaining process needed to be started anew. In the end, I found that the most effective way to get a better price was simply to say “thank you” and walk away. Sometimes the vendor would choose to sweeten the deal in order to urge you back into their stall and other times they just moved on to the next potential customer. Perhaps wanderlust was my muse or perhaps it was an occupational hazard but I decided to purchase a piece of luggage. It may seem an unlikely choice for a souvenir but for a Travel Agent it was an appropriate choice. It was designed like an old fashioned carpet bag. It was the type of bag that could take you to faraway mysterious places such as Istanbul. I don’t remember what I paid for it and I’m not really sure I got the best deal. More importantly I got to experience the Grand Bazaar first hand and came away with something I like and I use it whenever I travel. Maybe one day I’ll take it to Oregon.
You never forget your first island. My first was St. Thomas, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Back then, you didn’t need a passport for the Caribbean and today, you still don’t for the USVI, but it sure seemed exotic at the time. Having never visited a tropical island before, I didn’t know what to expect. I suppose notions of Gilligan’s Island were possible but the biggest surprise for me was how developed the island actually was. I had been given a choice of staying at the largest and at that time, most prestigious hotel on the island. The other choice was a small locally owned inn with no amenities. Which do you think I chose? Well, of course I went with the little inn. I credit that long-ago decision for having started my love affair with the islands. It was small and quaint and best of all, casual. There were barely 10 rooms, one of which was occupied by the promotions director for a major league hockey team. I figured he must already know something that I had yet to figure out. Each room was individually decorated and the manager who dressed in shorts and moccasins was always on site. She didn’t own the place but sure knew how to make you feel welcome and comfortable. The now popular all inclusive concept was still a relatively unknown option at that time. This was a time before anyone heard of a Sandals resort and when Club Med was a playground for only the more adventurous traveler.
I still consider the best part of vacationing on an island to be the laid back atmosphere and interacting with the locals. Island life is supposed to be simple, casual. They use the phrase “Island time” which sort of means that whatever you’re waiting for will get there or happen sooner or later (usually later). Things were kept pretty simple at the inn. A cooked breakfast was available daily and was always overseen by the manager. I suppose I could have chosen to eat in town but the meal usually turned into a communal event with the other guests. During the day and into the evening the Inn offered an “honor bar” where you kept a tally of whatever beverages you consumed and would settle the bill upon check out. After breakfast and full of energy, I would trek down the long hill on foot. I spent my days not only exploring the island but experiencing it like a local. I used local transportation in the form of buses and ferries. I had my choice of heading towards any of multiple white sand beaches or the shops of the main town, Charlotte Amalie. I used public transportation to the Red Hook dock to take a ferry over to the smaller island of St. John, formerly a gift to the U.S. people from the Rockefeller family. Two thirds of the island has been preserved as a National Park and will always remain as such.
The evening was a different story. On my first night I stayed in town just a little too long. I was too tired to make the steep trek back up the hill that only hours earlier was so easy to descend. Despite a tight budget I wisely decided that I would need a little bit of motorized help in the ascent back to the Inn. It never occurred to me that the taxi drivers would be unwilling to make the drive after the sun set. Driver after driver turned me down. Finally, I found a cabbie willing to take me up the hill. A little bit of pleading and some extra cash usually gets you what you need. I got the impression that he lived somewhere along that route and jumped at the chance for a guaranteed fare at the end of his shift. All I know is that he showed up each and every night after that to bring me back up the hill.
I’m sure that many people would question my choice of accommodations but the vista was so incredible at that height that I saw no reason to be anywhere but there enjoying the view. As dusk settled in before becoming night the homes below would slowly start to light up. I enjoyed local rum from the honor bar and the snacks prepared by the staff as I watched the twinkling lights below turn on one by one as the island settled in for the evening. I have a feeling that if I had stayed at the big fancy resort, I probably would not have ventured over to St. John. I would never have seen the underwater snorkeling trail at Trunk Bay, or experienced the pristine sands of Cinnamon Bay. I might not have found Magens Bay, once named one of the top 10 beaches in the world. Instead I chose to stay at the hotel less visited or you might say that I took the road less travelled. Instead of Robert Frost’s grassy wood my road was up a steep dark hill and that definitely has made all the difference for me.