The Soul Takes Photos Too

 Five months ago, we were in New Zealand.  It is still so fresh in my mind.  Not like vacations that have no staying power, and what I mean by that is four days after you are home, you can just remember bits and pieces of your traveling.  You argue with your spouse about which town had the aqueduct or which city it was where we ate grilled octopus like it grew on trees. 

But, New Zealand has been different.  It’s as if my soul is not counting on the mind to remember everything, and it has made its own backups of all those amazing landscapes which, at times, could have been moonscapes like the geothermal town of Rotorua where steam shoots straight up in peoples’ front yards or a sidewalk suddenly changes course to accommodate hot steam shooting into the sky.  And, from the surrounding hills, when you look down on the city it looks like the whole place had been on fire moments earlier but a downpour put out the fire, leaving everything in sight to smolder white threads of steam.  Sometimes I think about New Zealand, and just have to stop whatever I am doing so I can watch a scene again in my head.  Like watching the waves at Urguharts Bay in the Whangarei Heads.  Or the two-story tall Maori carvings on the side of a rock cliff  on Lake Taupo, or the drive to Coromandel Peninsula when we pulled over and I cried for joy at God’s creation.  I still think about our tour guide in a working Maori village  and how proud she was of her heritage.  Physically beautiful and built like a “she-warrior”, she walked down the streets of the little village like the mayor.  Not a forgettable person and a woman with such strength and confidence you could trace it with your finger.  There is also the time we spent talking about world politics with the captain of the boat we chartered on Lake Taupo.  That time was special.  His struggles and triumphs sounded a lot like our own, which reinforces that no matter how wide the ocean or how tall the mountain separates us all, we always can find something about the other that bonds us as citizens of the world. 



Maps and Roads   Don’t let maps fool you. New Zealand doesn’t have an interstate system and only has divided highways in the immediate cities of Auckland and Wellington, and they are short and brief. So distances on your map can be deceiving. In some areas, 150 mile trip can take three hours because of all the hairpin turns you must share with large trucks and RV travel on the single lane roads. In the summer, a lot of tourists traveling in RVs are driving at break-neck wagon train speeds. While we were there, there was a fatal car accident involving an American tourist who was driving on the wrong side of the road, hit a local and killed that driver.  He was in jail when we left and was going to be charged with manslaughter.  You are starting to hear rumblings about all the accidents tourists are causing on their roads.  If you rent a car, I suggest taking the time to getting used to driving on the opposite of the road during a quiet time of the day.  Don’t head off in Auckland during peak traffic time unless you are used to driving like the Kiwis do.  Turning on your windshield wipers instead of the turn signal will be a daily occurrence.  Believe me on this one.

If a route looks like it has soft gentle curves like say a wisp of a baby’s lock of hair, think again. It will be more like a tight ringlet straight off of Orphan Annie’s head. Often, roads do not have shoulders or rail guards. An example of this happened to us after leaving Thames on our way to the Coromandel Peninsula. We were headed to Tairua where we had rented an Airbnb beach hut. Instead of taking a more direct route, we opted (upon my suggestion – something I was reminded of several times later) to take the scenic route along the water’s edge of Firth of Thames. The Coromandel Forest Park was on our right. A maniacal laugh is coming from me right now as I look at the same map we used that day, noting how relatively straight forward our route appeared on paper. We started getting used to blind curves and harrowing turns as the forest gave way and we felt less hemmed Vista views were not often, but we finally encountered one and when we got out of the car,  we both gasped at the Genesis-like view of God’s creation. I felt weak knee’d looking at it.   Turns out scary, scenic routes can be worth the extra time and unbridled knee-knocking . Take them and don’t forget to stop and take a real gander. Take it all in. Press it hard into your brain so you won’t forget it. Later, when you are home, you can squeeze your eyes real hard and remember that you were there.
Road Construction    New Zealand has a unique way of pouring asphalt. They pour gravel down on the newly poured pavement but instead of huge rollers pressing the gravel down, they leave the rest to helpless motorists and their vehicles. On one stretch from Hamilton to Auckland, my husband and I, along with an impressive and steady caravan of cars, zipped along at 29 miles an hour. We probably could have gone faster but when the natives are poking along as well, there must be something to the road signs warning you about windshield damage.  The noise from all the gravel was deafening, but everyone was so civil….mostly I suspect from resignation.  It lasted about 15 minutes and then it was over except for the sound of all the gravel in our hub caps and in the underbelly of our rental.
I suspect that early Fall is a big time for road construction because in certain areas we stumbled on it but it wasn’t a huge problem. We did lose some time, but as always, the scenery was fantastic as we crawled along.

Creatures, Birds, Plants and Trees    Frogs.  In New Zealand, frogs are among the most ancient. They were carried to NZ by the continental drift millions of years ago. They have no eardrums and do not call or croak. They use their mouth to catch, not their tongue. They lay small numbers of large yolky eggs in moist places but not underwater. Tadpoles grow inside the eggs and hatch as tailed froglets. Although, they don’t have a tail, they are born with tail-wagging muscles. (I wonder what happens when they get excited. Do those tail-wagging muscles react in some way?)

Black Swans.   New Zealand only has black swans which are native to this country. They are considered somewhat of a nuisance because of their numbers. We saw them many times all over the North Island and always in large numbers. They do not have white swans.

The Kiwi bird is nocturnal and very shy. We never saw one while there except the stuffed variety in museums. One hundred years ago, they were in the millions, but apparently, ‘they’re good eatin”. They were overhunted and new predators, especially dogs and cats, were introduced to New Zealand and now they are seriously endangered. Approximately 20% of the kiwi population is under management.
In management areas where predators are controlled, 50-60% of chicks survive. When areas are not under management, 95% of kiwi die before reaching breeding age. We saw several signs for managed areas. Sorry we never saw one of these unusual birds. They don’t fly, their feathers are like hair and they have nostrils at the end of their beaks. There eggs are very large and a new born chick has enough nutrition in its belly to survive almost a week without a feeding. They behave more like mammals and at times have been called “honorary mammals”. (I wonder how the other birds feel about them.)

Plants, trees and things I couldn’t identify   This is one of the aspects of visiting New Zealand which I had expected but when it happened, I felt like I fell into a crevice in the ground and ended up in Jurassic Park. New Zealand is a Disneyland of Weirdness (although I haven’t been to Australia yet and suspect they top NZ.) Fern trees abound, their trunks long and spindly. Then, there are the trees that belong in the land of Jack and the Bean Stalk. (I can say the same for the three-story tall stone cairn we saw in downtown Auckland’s Albert Park. I suggest avoiding it in an earthquake.)
I was fascinated by all the moss growing on trees. Often, they were thick like a hipster’s beard.  Other things grew on trees like jewelry, like these cranberry colored whatever-you-call-them. While on a track near the Huka Falls, I became obsessed with all these things I couldn’t identify. I wanted to know more. I realized a huge appreciation for botantists and dendrologists, and vowed to hire a guide next time we explored forests in New Zealand.

New Zealand is a geological wonder. You can drive in farmlands that are awash in the most vibrant green. I think God added extra pigment to the color green in the land of the Kiwi. And, to shake things up (literally), he made it a place of earthquakes and volcanoes. In those rolling hills of wheat, grapes, orchards, and kiwi fruit, you will spot small peaks covered in grass. In a drive from Rotorua to Lake Taupo, we kept noticing them everywhere. Then it hit us. They were probably dormant “vents” formed to relieve pressure from volcanoes nearby. If they were in the States, they would have been the playground for dirt bikes and land-altering vehicles of pleasure. Here, they were just part of the blindingly green landscape.


New Zealanders (also called Kiwis)   Since they are under the commonwealth of Britain, they have manners. They know how to stand in a queue which is something I totally respect after visiting Italy and Greece. They like order, something we noticed in particular at cafes, and New Zealand has a lot of cafes. You go to the counter and place your order. Staff will deliver it to your table. On your table, you will find drinking glasses with cutlery wrapped in a napkin and placed in the center. Just from observation, I noticed that staff was intent on keeping everything in order. Not just neat and tidy, but keeping a system in place. I suspect it is a system that has been in place for generations. If you put something back in the wrong place, it is quickly corrected. Not with judgment but out of necessity for their own sanity.

Miscellaneous Stuff about New Zealand  I never saw a mega cinema house like here in the States, but we never ventured into the suburbs of Auckland, the biggest city. There are small, 2-3 screen theaters in mid-sized towns. Where we went there appeared to be only two people working there. The cashier, a harried-looking woman, also worked the concession area. We saw her later cleaning up after the movie. From our one experience seeing a movie, all three movies started at the same time. We all queued in the same line. Then at the appropriate time, the other person working in the theater, made his appearance; yelled out the name of your movie (we saw Lion) and said anyone viewing that movie to come forward quickly. And, that’s what we did in an orderly fashion.  No stampede like when the airlines start their cattle calls based on your status, starting with cream of the crop to crumbs of society. [That is another topic for discussion some other day. The shaming of passengers based on status. Ugh.]  And, perhaps the most remarkable thing we witnessed:  no commercials before the movie.  Zip.  All I could think was “lost revenue”.



New Zealand-The North Island

West of Coromandel, on the scenic route along Firth Bay

I started planning for this trip to New Zealand five months ago and in a couple of hours, we will be boarding our flight to San Francisco, then on to Auckland, New Zealand.   I am having trouble wrapping my head around the fact that we are leaving tonight (Thursday) at 11 pm from SFO and will arrive in Auckland shortly after sunrise on SATURDAY.  Equally weird, on our return, we leave on a Tuesday at 2 pm and our plane touches down here in Austin the same day, an hour later.

I knew a little bit about New Zealand, but planning the trip was more of a challenge than usual because I simply didn’t know the lay of the land.  One of the challenges has been the names of  towns.  A large portion of the names are in Maori, an Eastern Polynesian language spoken by the Māori people, the indigenous population of New Zealand.  I did learn that the vowels are pronounced the same as in the Spanish language.  One major difference is WH Is generally pronounced like an F (the top front teeth and bottom lip barely touch).  A significant thing to know since a lot of towns start with Wh.

There is one name of a town in New Zealand that would stump most people and that is the longest name place of any in the world per the Guiness World Records.  Located near Porangahau in Hawke’s Bay (North Island wine country) is Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu”, which translates into English as “the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as ‘landeater’, played his flute to his loved one.” Locals simply call it Taumata Hill.  


Exceptional Places to Eat in Merida, Yucatan, Mexico

We barely scratched the surface of restaurants in this sprawling city.  I am only mentioning the ones that were so exceptional that I wish I could walk out my door and they would be right on the corner.

K’u’-uk.  Calle 58A#488 por 27 y 27A.  Col. Centro (Monumento al Patrio)  Has the distinction of being named one of 100 restaurants in the world to visit.    52 999 944 3377  Closed on Mondays.  Get 15-course tasting menu, which lasted three hours for us.  We feasted on elaborate and artful, even downright architectural appealing dishes.  After each course, everything was removed from the table and an entirely new table setting was placed before us.  Most of the dishes and cutlery were handmade.  The whole meal was so well orchestrated that I often felt like I was watching a gripping movie.  This meal was memorable, which means I will never, ever forget it.  Often, we go somewhere, eat a fine meal that comes with a hefty price, then 24-hours later, we have forgotten what we ate.  OK.  We might remember the dessert.  Not so with K’u’uk.    With alcohol our entire bill was $135 US.  If your server is not too busy, ask him to give you a tour of the restaurant’s library and their intriguing laboratory, which could easily be Mr. Science’s chemistry lab.   

Oliva Kitchen, comida italiana, Calle 47 & Esquina con 54 S/N Centro, (999.923.2248).  We loved this charming little neighborhood place that we ate here twice.  Everything is handmade and fresh.  The owners have two restaurants.  We always ate in this tiny one that only has 8 tables.  The other one Oliva Enoteca Calle 47 Esquina Calle , (54. 999.923.3081 ) in Centro has more seafood on their menu and totally different atmosphere (much larger space).  Heard great things about it as well from several guests at Hotel Julamis where we were staying.  Go early to these places or make reservations. 

Apoala Mexican Fusion Cuisine in the newly restored Santa Lucia Park. Calle 60 471-2 X 55 | Portales de Santa Lucía, Centro+52 999 923 1979, 1pm to 12 a.m.  Beautiful place, with dining outside or inside.  Great meal and excellent service by a personable and knowledgeable server.  You can park behind the Santa Lucia square, turning left off 60 into a modern and very pretty parking lot. The restaurant is located under the arches next to the Ki Xocolatl store and chocolateria.

Ki’Xocolatyl, Chocolate shop. Av. Andrés García Lavín 315, San Antonio Cucul, 97116 Mérida, Yuc., Mexico, Ph. 52 999 920 5869, 11 a.m. at 8 pm.

First Impressions of Merida

Overview of Merida:

Taxi drivers are the first impression of a city. Merida’s came in the form of a short, brown, smiling taxi driver who beamed at us the moment we got out of the car, and said, “Bienvendos a Mérida”. I think he genuinely meant it. It was the beginning of many such encounters. People on the street stopping as you searched a map to ask you if you needed help. Always, they would say welcome to my beautiful city. Sometimes, they would reach out and shake your hand. Often they would give you a history lesson on whatever cathedral was nearby. I don’t mean, just a three or four sentence overview. They could be tour guides. Maybe they moonlight on their days off. All I know. No one wanted anything in return except a promise to explore and learn more about the place.

The Mayan Creation
The Mayan Creation

For you see, Mérida is a city full of ambassadors who are proud of their history and their culture. After love of family, I think it is the next most important thing about who they are.

Merida is flat. Palm trees peek out from interior courtyards of homes and parks abound. Although a thirty-minute drive from the Gulf, there is a tropical breeze in the air. I’ve heard it is a steam bath in April and May. This is February, one of the best times to come to Mérida. Today, it is even a little chilly and I’m glad I brought a thin little jacket. (I will end up wearing that jacket every day of the trip.)

The Paseo de Montejo, a wide boulevard with grand houses and government buildings reminds me of places in Europe. The architecture is a mixture of Italian, French and Spanish. The best way to see the Paseo is to walk, beginning at Calle 47.  Walk up to the Monumento a la Bandero on one side of the street, then cross and walk back to the beginning.  You can also explore on a horse-drawn carriage (calesa).  The Turibus has a stop at the Museum of Anthropoogy at the corner of Calle 43.

Sundays are the best time to explore the older part of the city when streets are closed to cars.  It’s a great time for bike riding.  Notice all the families out together.

In the Historical Center of town, again you find more of a European influence in the buildings with many in need of a new coat of paint. I’ve never been to Havana, but sometimes a street reminds me of pictures I have seen of it (but with new cars), then one turn later and you find yourself on a new street that has been totally refurbished to its former glory, often by retired Americans and Canadians. The colors are varying degrees of pastels. The streets are made by Mr. Clean:  they are spotless.  The sidewalks are Mexican: rutted, crumbling in places and definitely warrant caution. I wince at the missing coverings for utilities that lie below the concrete sidewalks. One step in them, well, that would be a vacation-killer.

Merida SquarePlazas and Parks:  There is always something going on in the evenings at most of the plazas.  Older people dancing, bands playing, dancing groups performing, festivals, and my favorite, people watching.  In Plaza Grande, there is free Wi-Fi.  DSCF3317Dean and I shared the white-painted, love seats that are scattered around the park.  Enchanting.  The main thing:  pick a park and park.  Listen to a local soloist or a band.  Step back in time.  It’s only a wee bit but it is enough to recharge your 21st Century soul.

Some cathedrals are really grand but we found this sweet one that didn’t have an ounce of gold in it.  DSCF3319



My Encounter with an Afilador – Knife Sharpening Vendor

It could have been a missed opportunity. I could have ignored the melodic flute sounds coming from the street as I sat in our upper floor patio of our Merida hotel. From a long ago memory, I thought of one of my earlier visits to Mexico as a kid. I woke up one morning to the sound of a man urgently calling out: “Tor-TEEE-yahs” and pushing a ramshackle cart full of fresh, hot tortillas. Maids carrying woven baskets came out in the early morning light and filled their baskets. To this day, I still think those tortillas were some of the best I ever tasted in Colonia Florida in Mexico City.

So these flute sounds, which had the timing of a car alarm, beaconed me to peer down below to see what was going on.   Below I saw a straight-backed, thin man pushing a similar version of a handmade wooden cart as the guy selling tortillas, except this one had a bar-height stool attached to it. I wondered. What the heck is he selling? Afilador

Only one way to find out. I grabbed my camera and raced down the stairs out onto the street. The man, who I now could see was quite elderly was talking to a woman in her doorway. She handed him something and he returned to his cart, pulled out his chair and sat in front of his jalopy cart. It was then that I approached him, and told him I was a tourist and I was curious. What was he doing? He showed me the knives and scissors he had been asked to sharpen. His cart had a belt and foot pedal, much like an old sewing machine and he began to sharpen first knives, then scissors. I asked if I could photograph him which pleased him. (Thank God. The last thing I wanted to do was offend him.) Between a combination of scissors and knifes, we talked. His name was Eduardo and he was 77 years old. He had at one time belonged to a special security force that protected “Politicos”. [I should add here that often in Mexico, politicos (or politicians) are also called ratóns (rats).] He told me how he used to stay in five-star hotels when he had to travel with dignitaries, but now he was poor and had nothing to show for it. I asked about family, and he said he never saw them anymore. Tears filled his eyes. He told me, “God is my family now”, and looked up at the sky.  Whatever pain he had felt earlier, melted away from his face.

I knew there was a story there. A story about his family, but one that I needed to leave alone. I watched him finish his work and could tell he was proud of what he did. I remembered a pair of manicure scissors in our room and asked if I could get them and have them sharpened. He said, “Por supuesto”, Of course.

When I returned with them, he had finished his transaction with the woman in the neighborhood. He was sitting on his little stool waiting for me. He told me the cost would be 25 cents. I told him the last time I had a knife sharpened professionally, it cost me ten dollars. His face crumbled in horror, and he said, “Eso es muy caro.” That is too expensive. I wanted to say: Hell, yeah.

Afilador.2I watched him gingerly sharpen my tiny scissors. His concentration so keen as he worked the pedals turning the grinding belt. His bare feet were swimming in a pair of backless shoes. He was skinny. Too skinny. I tried to imagine what his life was like. I tried to imagine where he might go at the end of the day. I hoped it wasn’t too far. His frail body needed every once of energy possible.Afilador-shoe2

I paid him way more than 25 cents. I now wish I had paid him even more. His face will join the others I have met along the way in Mexico: the less fortunate that cross our paths in travel. There was one ancient-looking woman in downtown Mexico City I will never forget even though it has been decades. It isn’t the image of her face that I recall as much as her extended, whithered, brown and leathery hands that I see in my mind’s eye. I saw her, hesitated but continued down the busy city street. After walking two blocks, I simply couldn’t shake her. I retraced my steps, but it was too late. She was gone.

Her face with a thousand winkles haunts me but it is always her hands that the memory ultimately rests upon. I can almost look at my age-spotted, arthritic and bony hands and see hers.  But, don’t get me wrong.  Not for one moment have my hands suffered like the poor and labor-burdened people of the world.  No.  I should keep my mouth shut.

Eduardo, wherever you are:   It was such a pleasure meeting you. You proud, sweet man. I am so glad I ran down those stairs to meet you.

The Day Before Merida


Tomorrow, we head for Mérida, the capital of the state of Yucatan in Mexico. Located in the northwestern part of Yucatan, it is about a four-hour drive to Cancun, which we will not be visiting.   We choose Mérida because it is a good base for exploring Mayan ruins, cenotes (underground rivers), feasting on Yucatecan cuisine (perhaps my favorite of all the regions in Mexico), celebrating Carnival this week – which means plenty of people watching — exploring the town and looking for a cool hammock for the backyard. (Mérida is known for their hammocks.)

Mérida has a population of almost a million, so this isn’t a sleepy little village. The people are largely indigenous persons: about 60% are Maya ethnicity. The city was founded in 1542 by two Spanish dudes, both with the first name of Francisco. Because the city was built on the site of a Mayan city, Merida is considered the oldest continually-occupied city in the Americas.

I’ve just told you in a nutshell what the tour books initially say about Mérida. I went there back in the 70’s and I only remember that I felt freakishly tall among these short people. White clothing seemed popular, probably because it was summer and hotter than hell. (Air conditioning was as common as Eskimos in Florida.) Skillfully sown embroidery in every color imaginable adorned almost everything I saw. That’s about all I remember beyond a plaza with trees and lots of couples, families, and friends enjoying a time-out in the middle of the day.

Other than a few shows I have seen about Merida on House Hunters International, which showed star-struck Americans buying 100 year old houses that had been abandoned after the “Sisal Crash” (I’ll get to that in another posting), and actually believing their architect when he said construction would only be three to four months, (when it ended up being nine to twelve), I am going back to Merida pretty much like a first-time visitor.

Probably one of the reasons we choose Mérida for a vacation really can be attributed to a book we both read a couple of years ago: “1491 – New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus” by Charles C. Mann.   Now, this is a thick book, and I could have easily come up with a million excuses not to read it, like I could break a fingernail reading it, but when you can’t go to sleep at night because your husband keeps reading excerpts from a book he is reading, which are so fascinating that after a while you can’t wait to get your hands on it. (Hey, the Mayans were out there, man. They understood the concept of zero, something the Egyptians didn’t know. Yet they didn’t have the wheel, which would have been nice since they didn’t have any beasts of burden like horses and mules.) Anyway, I got the book, and by the time I finished it, Dean had found the sequel, “1493 Uncovering the New World Columbus Created” by the same author. Now this book was even more mind blowing: What was life in the New World like AFTER the Old World spent one year in it.

I’ve just glanced at the clock. I still have a few more things to pack. Bringing my dancing shoes, because it turns out the people of Mérida love music and dancing. (My husband, Dean will wince when he reads about the dancing. I don’t think he owns dancing shoes, just like I know he doesn’t watch “dancing shows”.) Anyway, every night there is something going on in one or more of the plazas. I’ve got dinner reservations at a couple of restaurants, hired a tour guide for Chichen Itza, and have a list of suggested restaurants and things to do from someone who used to live in Merida. However, I’m hoping for the unexpected (and unresearched) to become what will become the most memorable on this trip to Mérida in 2016.

Feeding a Dying Dragon (Mexico D.F.)

Sometimes you see something that never leaves your mind.  Such an event happened in my twenties while in Mexico City visiting family.  Here is a short story I wrote about what I saw.

As your taxi idles at a traffic light on a busy street in Mexico City, a man with sharp cheekbones and a hawk’s-beak nose appears out of nowhere.  He stands next to the driver’s front tire and leans across the hood.  He is holding a smoldering rag wrapped around a broken broomstick.  In it, you can see a  small flame flicking in the faint wind.  You lean forward to get a better look.  Drops of sweat drip from the man onto the car hood.  There is a heaviness as they fall away from his body.  You watch him take in a long, deep breath, then inhale the fumes from the kerosene soaked rag.  You half expect what happens next, but when it does, it takes your breath away.  In one instant, the man belches out a blue-orange flame that flashes across the hood of the taxi.  Then, he draws it back in like a medieval dragon and, with eyes that remind you of a reptile, peers under the maze of stickers that cover the top of the windshield.  His bloodshot eyes make your white eyes sting.  You look away.  You know that you are looking at a dying man.  Your hands shake as you fumble for your purse.  You push a wad of pesos into his extended hand.  For the first time, you notice that he has no eyebrows.

The light turns green and the taxi driver throws the car into drive.  You turn and watch the fire-eater.  You can almost hear the death rattle in his chest as he steps back to the curb.

That afternoon, I told a cousin who is a doctor about what I had seen.  She told me that they come into the emergency room often.  “They usually don’t make past their mid-twenties.”

I will never forget that man’s face or how sorrowful I felt as we drove away.  -Elizabeth

Letting Sleeping Dogs Lie (Copper Canyon-Mexico)

It seemed like a good idea, taking the Copper Canyon Train to Chihuahua The brochure said it had a glass-topped roof. I imagined myself watching the spectacular gorges while sipping rice water in clay mugs.

The train was overbooked and I felt lucky to find a seat. An elderly woman, with hips that spilled over onto my seat, ate raw radishes and grilled onions. She offered me crispy Chicharrónes with fried hair that glistened in the sunlight. I declined. She looked offended, heaved a sigh and her hips multiplied by a factor of ten. She had been holding back.

I tried to imagine being somewhere else, but it wouldn’t work. I got up and looked for the glass roof. My body moved between the swaying cars like a drunken crab. I asked about the glass roof. No one had seen it.

I started regretting giving up my seat. Where was this stupid glass roof.

Then I saw a man greedily sprawled out on four seats, one arm tucked under his head like a pillow. I approached the man and demanded he sit up like everyone else. Looking around at no one in particular, I yelled, “He’s taking up four seats”.

A woman leaned forward and placed her hand on my shoulder with the grip of a rock climber. Her eyes were so far apart that it was hard to stay put on just one. Maybe nature had made room for three, but somewhere in the womb, the Cyclops eye had been forgotten. I heard her say, “Leave him be. He fell over dead half way across the canyon.”

At that moment, not being able to look this woman directly in the eye was a blessing. All I could think was I had just yelled at a dead man. Someone needed to give me a hat with “jerk” written across the front.

I never found the glass roof that day and I don’t recall much about the train ride after my encounter with the dead guy. I do remember that I never found a seat again but, at that point, I didn’t think I deserved one.


A Guide to Vacation Rentals

I don’t begin to even think I know everything about traveling. There are travel warriors out there who are always one step ahead of the rest of us, so I’ll talk about what I do know. For the past ten years I have been booking short term rentals instead of hotels when we travel. My primary experience has been with VRBO, Homeaway and AirBnB. There are others, like Roomorama or Flipkey, but I’ve never used them. Once, when we went to Argentina, after receiving a friend’s recommendation, I booked a fabulous apartment in Recoleta through a local real estate agency  Reynolds Properties short term rentals in Buenos Aires.

BA apartment
Buenos Aires Apt
(Old World Charm of Recoleta)

It was a smooth transaction and a wonderful apartment. For the most part, all have been very good choices. I have nothing against hotels, except they can be more expensive and if you are in one place for an extended period, they often feel claustrophobic and uncomfortable. I do remember a trip to Paris back in 2007. Our hotel was in a great location, charming but tiny and cramped (often described as “cozy”). After a while, I don’t give a flip about charm if there isn’t a place to sit except the bed or nowhere to put toiletries or my reading glasses. I vowed then that I would only stay in a hotel if it was for a day or two. Over that time period, I would seek out rentals.

I’ll warn you: Finding the right rental can take hours of your time. It’s a process, and hopefully some of these guidelines will save you precious time — Time that you can use to nail down some restaurants you want to check out!

First of all, why get a rental instead of a hotel?

  • It can be less expensive than a hotel. Compare prices of apartments with or tripadvisor if you are skeptical about a property.
  • You will have access to a kitchen. I love this aspect. At breakfast time, I can sit at a dining room table in my jammies with spiked rooster hair and eat breakfast at my own pace.
  • In most instances, you will have more space than a hotel, and that may even include a studio apartment. (I really look at the photos of a rental property. Futon couches and flimsy chairs are a turn off. I want a chair I can curl up with a book and relax.)
  • You get to “live like a local” in a neighborhood. On market days, you won’t drool over food stalls. You can actually take home that fresh pasta or basket of fresh picked berries and experiment in your kitchen…or not.
  • Unless you are looking for a property in the suburbs, the biggest demand in rental properties tend to be in the thick of things. Hotels can often be in an area of the city that dies when the sun goes down and office workers head home or located by a mall.   Yikes. I want to walk out the door and find restaurants and bars around me.
Collobrières France
Our Vacation Rental
Collobrières, France (above art gallery)

What neighborhood appeals to you? This is where some research is necessary.   Perhaps, you are already familiar with the area, which helps. Figure out how you will likely spend your time. Will it be mostly going to museums, looking at architecture, galleries, or are you content with mostly exploring shops, eating in cafes, sipping wine and watching people?   Look at a public transportation map and figure out how you will be getting around. Just Google or Bing “neighborhoods of your desired city” and you’ll find a wealth of information. Also, don’t just rely on the Internet. There are some excellent books out there and a lot of them are at your library, so no additional costs to you. Personally, I love Rick Steves’ books and website stories.

More recently, I’ve started looking at blogs by expats in areas that I am interested in visiting. Those blogs lead to other blogs or other websites and my notes become a notebook. It’s equivalent to working on a puzzle on the dining room table. Consult friends who have visited your destination. Consult friends of friends who have lived there.

There is another way of knowing what neighborhood is the most appealing. I watch a lot of House Hunters International and when I see an area full of restaurants, bars, and galleries in a city of interest, I jot it down for later use. Note: The TV series has become so contrived and scripted now that I can fast forward through a 30 minute segment in 7.35 minutes. (For the love of God, can they please stop having the buyers say, “Now we’re talking” or “We have a lot to think about”)

Once you have decided on your preferred location, start looking at rentals on established rental websites, such as Homeaway, VRBO, or AirBnB. I have not used Flipkey, but it also becoming popular.   Here’s a Rick Steves article about vacation rentals.

Orvieto Vacation Rental
Orvieto Apartment (Italy)


Looking for Your Rental: This is where you put on your detective hat. First sign in and create an account at the sites you have chosen to review. This way you can keep a list of favorites and any correspondence you may rack up with owners. Always remember, other people are looking, so if you zero in on a place that you love, don’t wait too long to make your booking.

Begin your search and place your booking as early as you can.   The best properties go first. Also, many properties get repeat business and they are often the cream of the crop.

You may find yourself scanning the descriptions of properties. That’s understandable, but if you are really interested in a property, before you take any steps to contact the owner, thoroughly read the description.

Study the photos. Does the furniture look worn? Does there seem to be natural light coming in? If you can’t quite figure out the configuration of the apartment, ask if there is a floorplan available.

Study the amenities list carefully. Some of the things you want to look for:

  • What size is the bed? Outside of the USA, king-size beds are rare. A double in Europe is usually the equivalent of two twin beds together. A full is a little bigger than a twin.
  • Know if there is a shower and tub combination or just a shower.
  • If the apartment is on the 5th floor, don’t assume there is an elevator. In a lot of countries that will not be the case.
  • If you are going in the summer, and with recent heat waves in Europe, you may want air conditioning. Ask what rooms are air conditioned because sometimes it can be just the main room, or just the main bedroom. What is the source of heat in the winter?
  • If you have picked a bustling part of a city and you are concerned about noise pollution, ask if the windows are double-paned.
  • Know the terrain around the property. If you don’t mind climbing hill after hill at the end of day of playing tourists, then go for it. Me. I don’t want to have to hail a cab all the time. I want to walk but I always don’t want to walk and pant, day after day.
  • What all is included? Linens, towels, dishwasher, utensils and kitchenware for cooking?
  • Is there a washing machine, and specifically, is there a dryer? Often a dryer means some drying racks.  If there is not a dryer, know that can be common in Continental Europe.
  • Is there WI-FI? Sometimes they will say they have free Internet, but it’s just a hard line modem/router. How many devices can it support?
  • If there is a TV, do they have cable or satellite and, if so, are there any English channels?
  • If you will have a rental car, find out if parking comes with the property. If not, where is the closest parking facility or is on street parking viable?
  • Does the owner have a list of recommendations, i.e. restaurants, grocery markets, ATMs, phone numbers for calling a taxi to the airport, or nearby metro or bus stops?
  • Is this an “Owner occupied” or “Holiday Rental”? Owner occupied means that you will be surrounded by a lot of the owners’ personal items, something I personally would not like. A holiday rental will be more geared to your needs and less “hands off”.  VRBO and Homeaway are usually dedicated rental properties.

Read Reviews, then read them Again.   This is often where your detective work really comes to play. Note references to noise pollution or poor water pressure. If more than one review has comments about a lousy mattress, you may want to know if the owner has addressed this issue or just not chance it. Do, however, notice if a reviewer seems to have expected much more than the price would warrant, you may need to trust that review accordingly.  Keep in mind, renters often form a connection with their hosts and don’t want to say anything negative in reviews, but watch for subtle  hints.

Contact the Owners  Don’t rely on the website’s availability calendars to always be up to date. Contact the owners and give them your dates. If you have any questions, pose them now so you don’t waste everyone’s time. Ask them to furnish you with the street address if the property is indeed available for your requested time frame. Map out the location on Google Maps, and go one step further, check out the building and the neighborhood on Google’s street view. I studied our apartment in Orvieto, Italy so often that when we arrived in the town in our rental car, I was able to guide my husband directly to our apartment. (I also already knew where a bakery and a wine café was located.)

detective graphic
Read the Fine Print Before you Book

Read the Fine Print   My preference is Homeaway and VRBO.   There contract is straightforward, but then I have used them the most. I found AirBnB’s website easy to navigate, but I loathe their cancellation policy. The only time I have used them was when I booked a house in Philadelphia. I accidentally booked the wrong place, caught the mistake before 24 hours had lapsed and contacted the owner, who was great. The booking was five months away. I went to my account on AirBnB and cancelled my reservation, then booked the correct house. I rechecked the transaction and my account clearly showed my cancellation before 24 hours the period. Five days later, I get a call from the original property owner, telling me I was still registered to rent his place. After going into my account, I noticed I was no longer cancelled. I did this immediately, then got an email that they were keeping half of my deposit (around $600).  Keep in mind this was a booking five months away!   Their “help desk” is maddening, a list of multiple choices to explain your problem (none of which included my situation). I wrote several messages to them and I never received a direct reply. After two weeks, I got an email telling me that they were returning all of my deposit except a $100 administration fee. Way too much time was spent dealing with them and not once did anyone answer my questions. So, don’t hit that send button until you are certain you have the right place!  Good luck if you have to cancel at all.

I’ll be posting shortly more information on what to look for when you first arrive at your rental.