City by the Bay

In my early days of travel, when I was much younger and before I tested the international waters, I did a lot of domestic travel. Even though I couldn’t wait to travel abroad, I found that some travelers preferred to stay a bit closer to home. Their reasoning is that there’s so much to see and do in our country. I don’t disagree and, indeed, I do have a list of favorite U.S. cities. I’ve been to California several times and must admit that San Francisco did capture my heart. As a city, it’s vibrant but comfortable.  It lacks the aggression that can be found in New York, is not as stuck up as Los Angeles and is definitely not as bawdy as Las Vegas. San Francisco has an easy, laid back vibe but with all the high end amenities such as restaurants, arts and shopping that attracts travelers to a city, but without the pretension. Perhaps because, like so many of us who remember the 60’s or those who reached adulthood during the age of Aquarius you might still expect to find hippies on the street corners. I’m not saying that’s not possible but their numbers have dropped and are reflected in today’s hippies with their vintage clothing and shabby chic décor.  My second trip to California brought me to San Francisco. I was still new to the travel industry, without a lot of disposable income. I may not have had a lot of money, but I still had good taste. I chose to stay in the San Francisco Hyatt Regency Embarcadero and they were happy to have me because I was a ‘Travel Agent from New York.’ The Hyatt was gorgeous and swanky with a modern and upscale design. Tram tracks ran through the building and the exposed elevators slid up and down the walls of the lobby. It was the featured site in several notable films such as The Towering Inferno, Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety, and the romantic Time After Time.  This was a hotel with a pedigree and a great location and I stuck out like a tourist without a clue. The other tourists were more sophisticated, better dressed and could afford to eat at the restaurants in the lobby. I blended in better on the streets where fashion still allowed for a great deal of personal comfort and interpretation. A tight budget was all the encouragement I needed to try their underground system, BART. The acronym breaks down to Bay Area Rapid Transit and is like a friendly but polite cousin to the ‘dirty with attitude’ service you find in New York City. It was an affordable and fun way to see “Frisco,” a name the locals don’t particularly like. As a city, it’s vibrant but comfortable. It’s fascinating but manageable in that it doesn’t overwhelm you. The San Franciscans were friendly and the public transportation even friendlier. The iconic cable cars are an easy and fun way to get around the city. The locals look at the cars as a quick way to literally hop on and hop off, often while the cars are still in motion, but I saw it as part of the overall experience. It’s easier to navigate the steep and busy streets without a car and being much younger and with a very tight budget it was an affordable way to see the city, a city also filled with fabulous restaurants. But, McDonalds was my go to “restaurant” out of necessity and back then you could get a meal for a dollar. I don’t regret missing out on the cuisine scene but I’ve grown enough now to know that sneaking McDonalds’ food into the Hyatt wasn’t my best idea. I thought I was slick hiding it inside my jacket. My plan was to dine on the cheap in the comfort of my own room overlooking the city. It would be dinner with a view. Who would know? Telling from the sniffing and the repeated sideways glances from the elevator operator, he obviously knew. I thought I was going to have to buy his silence with a bribe of French fries when the elevator reached my floor and I got off without looking back. The local shopping also induced a bit of sticker shock.  For those born with the shopping gene, Union Square was the place to go.  As someone who cringes at the thought of going to the mall, I prefer a more eclectic, international flea market type of experience.  However, it was in San Francisco that I discovered two stores that would remain favorites even long after I had returned to New York. The first was the San Francisco Music Box Company where everything and I mean everything played music. For years after my visit I continued to purchase musical gifts that delighted the recipients with their detail and whimsy. The second store was the Rand McNally Map and Travel Store. They had anything and everything a traveler could desire. Maps were available in all styles from old world to modern and black and white to full color. I’ve always been interested in maps but not the local kind that show you highways and road ways and street locations. I like the kind that offer more of a global view. The maps that show you oceans and continents, mountains and countries. Yes, these maps illustrate how large the world is but they also make you believe that every place is within reach. I’m sure it’s no surprise that a Travel Agent would become enamored of such a store and indeed, this was the one store where I allowed myself to stretch my budget. I ordered a full wall size map of the world. It was designed to be mounted as wallpaper. I wanted to hang it in my travel agency but didn’t want the responsibility of permanently affixing the giant mural to the wall in a building I was renting. 30 years later that map still hangs on the wall. It’s taped in some places, faded in color in others. Approximately 20 percent of the countries listed no longer exist. It’s a great conversation starter and if you’ve been in my office you might have noticed the map and may even have commented on it as many do. To this day it still remains one of my favorite souvenirs. It doesn’t so much remind me of where I’ve been as it does the places I still want to go.

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The Disposable Camera

Long before there were digital cameras there were good, old fashioned buy the film-insert the film-take the pictures-send the film to be developed-await the return of photos- type of cameras. As my first trip to the Hawaiian Islands approached I eagerly compiled list after list. I’m a list maker by nature and for me, compiling lists is actually part of the fun of travelling. Lists are full of possibilities. They’re supposed to help you remember everything that you want to remember including the items that you wish to bring along on your trip.  “Supposed to” being the operative keywords in the previous sentence. I was in the car about 15 minutes away from Kennedy Airport for a departure to the Hawaiian Islands when I remembered that I forgot to pack my camera, even though it was on “The List”. Apparently I had packed all of the film (yes, that’s how long ago it was) but left behind the most essential part of the whole picture-taking operation, the camera.  New York to Honolulu is an 11 hour flight. When you add transport time to the airport, check in time and waiting to board time, you can pretty much factor in a 16 hour day. It’s no wonder I was tired upon arrival and worse, because of the time difference your body is still on 9:00pm New York time when it’s actually 3:00pm Hawaii time. I believe I made a wise decision when I chose to delay the inevitable camera purchase until the following day. I had planned on staying on Oahu for only three days, so time was at a premium. With a long wish list of tourist sites to visit where I would surely want to photograph the experience, it was necessary to make my first tourist stop at the local camera store. I chose a moderately priced camera. I didn’t want to invest a lot of money since I had a fairly good camera waiting for me back in New York. The new camera didn’t have any of the bells and whistles my 35mm did but, surely it would do the job. The moment I spied Diamond Head, the iconic volcano crater, in the distance and took multiple photos, it easily justified the unexpected expense of the second camera. On Maui and Kauai I took photos of some of the most beautiful foliage I think I have ever seen. I captured images of lily pads that were 6 feet across and the gorgeous overviews on the Road to Hana on Maui. Kauai is lush and tropical and when I soared above Waimea Canyon in a helicopter I was able to take incredible photos of what is referred to as The Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Those photos are a little shaky though as I discovered that helicopter rides and motion sickness often go hand in hand. My final stop was on “The Big Island”, which carries the name of the collective island chain, Hawaii. This island is very different from all the others. The entire island chain was formed by volcanoes but the island of Hawaii is still in the process of forming which means lava is still flowing. It currently has three active volcanoes with Kilauea being the most active. That’s the volcano that you want to drive by or sail past at night to see the glow of the lava. The Mauna Kea volcano actually ranks in the top 75 tallest mountains in the U.S. Indeed she is tall at almost 14,000 feet, making her even taller than Mount Everest but much of the mountain lies below sea level. Mauna Kea is old, dating back about a million years. Fortunately, she’s dormant and therefore no longer a threat. However, if you get the urge to go skiing or snowboarding during your Hawaiian vacation you can do it on Mauna Kea.  At her top elevation the temperature averages around 30 degrees in the evening which is the perfect environment for an occasional snowy peak. Another unusual byproduct of the volcano eruptions are the beaches. Hawaii’s black sand beaches are legendary and are what I came to see. Unfortunately, due to more recent lava flows the access to these beaches is now somewhat limited. You’re probably wondering why anyone would want to visit a volcanic black sand beach. Perhaps, like I did, you might expect the beach to resemble something like the remains of a beachfront barbeque with chunks of black and burnt rocks strewn about. To say that I was surprised by the sand would be an understatement. To this day, it remains the silkiest, softest sand I’ve ever laid foot upon. Midday was also a foolhardy time to visit with the sun beating down and turning that beach into some of the hottest sand I’ve ever walked upon. Hot to the point of being able to cause blisters. Fortunately the ocean waves run in and out and were a natural way to cool the heat under my feet. In case you didn’t know, water and electronics don’t mix well at all. As I eased my burning soles by standing close to shore, a wave broke and sent up a small splash of water. The water hit the camera, I heard a fzzz, a zzzrrp, and then saw a flash and heard a “pop.” Camera number 2 was now a goner. Fortunately, the film was undamaged but the camera was definitely DOA.  I was able to retrieve the film which was successfully processed with all of my images intact. That’s why I now claim to be the inventor of the disposable camera.

President’s Day

Several decades ago I travelled to Washington D.C. for the dedication of the Viet Nam Veterans Memorial Statue. This was in 1984, two years after the Memorial Wall had been unveiled. The statue entitled “The Three Servicemen” was to be dedicated on Veteran’s Day 1984.  President Ronald Reagan was scheduled to speak in the late afternoon. I planned to arrive several hours prior to the President’s appearance to secure a good spot and it must have been a good plan because thousands of other people apparently had the same idea. I joined the crowd that eventually swelled to 300,000, an intimidating number when you’re in the middle of it. It was even more intimidating when you realized that if you left your spot for a bathroom break or any other reason, the odds against you reclaiming your place in the crowd were probably similar to winning a lottery.  It was no place for anyone with claustrophobia and even though I don’t have space issues it became a bit overwhelming to be pressed body to body for a prolonged period of time. Probably the only positive result was that the wind chill was kept to a minimum due to shared body heat and the electricity of anticipation. It doesn’t matter what your political leaning is or who you voted for in the last election or if you even voted. When you see, in person, the President of the United States, it is an awe inspiring moment. A moment that fills you with excitement and I believe, makes you proud to be an American living in a free country. I have no information on how many citizens actually ever get to see the Leader of the Free World, other than as a 3 inch televised icon but I have been privileged to see one President and that man was President Ronald Reagan. To be completely honest, I can’t remember if I voted for him or not. But that didn’t matter because once he took office, he was my President, due every bit of respect that the office and position commands. But, I also felt a bit of fear. When you see a lone man standing in front of a crowd numbering in the hundreds of thousands, you get a sense of just how vulnerable the President often is. My excitement at seeing the President, even from a great distance was tempered by worry for his safety as President Reagan had already been the victim of an assassination attempt by John Hinckley on March 30, 1981. Ronald Reagan had been President for less than 70 days when he was shot and fortunately survived.  According to Wikipedia: “assassination attempts and plots on Presidents of the United States have been numerous: more than 20 attempts to kill sitting and former Presidents, as well as the Presidents-elect are known. Four sitting Presidents have been killed: Abraham Lincoln (the 16th President), James A. Garfield (the 20th President), William McKinley (the 25th President)” and the one that I personally remember “John F. Kennedy (the 35th President)”. In addition to Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt (the 26th President), was also injured in an assassination attempt. With the exception of Lyndon B Johnson every President’s life since John F. Kennedy has been threatened with assassination“. These numbers are staggering, frightening and shocking and make you wonder why anyone would volunteer for the job. It also makes me wonder about society. I’m sure that most aspiring Presidents believe that they can bring about positive change for a country they love and a way of life that they believe in. Perhaps their belief in a better country helps them look past the statistics.  The President was introduced at 4:30 in the afternoon. He was a tall man at a little over 6 feet. Perhaps the title made him seem taller. But, even from a distance you could see that he stood head and shoulders above the contingency that surrounded him. It’s possible that he had them beat by several inches or maybe it was the mantle of authority that made him seem larger than life. As he took the stage, his security detail was discreet but definitely present. They appeared to form a protective semicircle to either side. I could see from the reflection that he stood behind a protective shield as he spoke. I assume it was bullet proof. His speech was emotional and inspiring and the crowd was drawn in by the moment of brotherhood created by the Great Communicator. Indeed, if you read the transcript of his speech, it stands the test of time. When I read the words of the speech I heard delivered by the President at the dedication ceremony, I still feel the emotion, the excitement, the sorrow and the relief that was shared by all members of the audience that day. However, what I remember most from the event is the courage of a man who chose honor above intimidation and to lead by example in a way that showed us that fortitude, not fear, is the American way.

Go to Hell!

If I told you to “go to Hell” would it anger you, would you be offended? You sure as heck would be surprised. It’s not a directive that people take kindly to and certainly not what you expect to hear when you walk into a local travel agency. Most visitors to our office come in expecting a recommendation of a cruise or an all-inclusive vacation. If they really want a wild time we can send them to Las Vegas. However, if your version of Hell includes fire and brimstone and miserable lost souls who didn’t do the right thing as mortal beings, allow me tell you about my version of Hell. On both a suggestion and a whim I decided to make the journey and starting planning my arrangements! I grabbed my passport and some sunscreen, (I assumed that it would be fairly hot and sunny down there, wherever “there” was) and decided to head straight for Hell. But, first I needed to locate Hell.  Being a good Travel Agent I laid out some basic steps. Step #1 – Review my cache of exotic maps. I was pleasantly surprised to confirm that it was easier to locate than expected, but was that really a good thing? In case you’re wondering, Hell’s geographic location is charted at Latitude: 19°22’59.98″ Longitude: -81°25’0.02″, roughly only 2,000 miles away from New York. Hmmm, it was also much closer than I’d hoped for. Perhaps even too close for comfort. Interestingly, it turns out that Hell is located in the Caribbean Sea. It sits slightly to the South, just below Cuba and is part of an island grouping called the Cayman Islands. Grand Cayman is the largest of the three islands and these days most visitors arrive by cruise ship. That choice is understandable as it can be an expensive island to visit. It also lacks the multitude of popular all inclusive resorts that are found on islands such as Jamaica or Dominican Republic. Step #2 – How do you pack for this kind of trip? Would I need a hand basket or just a simple suitcase? Since the average temperature of Hell actually falls somewhere in the balmy 80 degrees range, I decided comfy light weight clothes would probably be the best option. Sunglasses certainly wouldn’t be a bad idea either. Then I wondered “once on the island, how do you actually locate Hell?” Normally, most people don’t go looking for it voluntarily, which leads us to the practical game plan of Step #3.  Pick up a rental car and get some good directions. Would the road be clearly marked or just paved with good intentions? I assumed that I would recognize Hell when I saw it, but even though it was on a fairly small island, it was still challenging to find. Eventually, I stopped to ask for directions and was told that I was getting close. “Go this way for a couple of miles and stay left. The “stay left” part wasn’t part of the directions; I was being reminded that I was driving on the incorrect side of the road as they observe British driving rules. There is actually a map that tells you how to get to Hell which I suppose could take the guesswork out of how you’re doing in life and where your final journey will actually end. I was fairly confident that my trip to Hell would definitely not be one way! Not everyone can say that however. Where hell goes, surely evil must follow and thus if money is the root of all evil that would probably explain the more than 700 banks that populate the island – that, and tax evasion. As I followed the bright light, which turned out to be the sun, I came upon the whitest and softest sandy beach that stretched for miles. It was almost 51/2 miles long, despite being named Seven Mile Beach. It’s probably not a good idea to exaggerate when you live so close to Hell, but that’s just my humble opinion. Continuing on my journey I passed through an area of private homes where yachts were suspended above the concrete of the driveways leaving little room for common automobiles. These people certainly didn’t appear to be suffering, perhaps life in Hell wasn’t too “hellish”. The arrival at the final destination was almost a fait accompli. No fire, no brimstone and if I’m being candid, I have to admit that l fully expected to see a few familiar faces upon my arrival, but that wasn’t the case. With the entire island population counted at only 53,000, I certainly expected Hell to be more densely populated and I definitely expected it to be larger with lots of room for future arrivals. In an area approximately 60 yards by 40 yards, black limestone formations that resemble stalagmites rise from a crater. It’s an eerie sight and easy to understand how it acquired the name of “Hell”. There’s not much else in that area except the souvenir shops selling t-shirts that say “Go to Hell, Grand Cayman”, or “I’ve been to Hell and back!” All very witty and certainly marketing at its finest. For those wishing to send postcards there is a post office and in an attempt to make it easier to find, Hell hath its own zip code. I would suggest you take care before accepting any invitations with a return postal code of KY1-1100. Winston Churchill once quipped “If you’re going through Hell, keep going”. However, I would suggest that you relax, enjoy the view and warm weather and stay a while. I’m happy to report that I’ve gone to Hell and come back and had a mighty fine time.  If you ever visit my office and I suggest you too go to Hell, I’ll really mean it. Rest assured; you’ll thank me.