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Sunday, June 27, 2010

The "dog" flight to Houston from Chicago

MA and I travel often and we've seen just about anything on airplanes but today's flight from Chicago's O'Hare to Houston is one that we will probably not forget anytime soon. 

We got to O'Hare in plenty of time.  In front of us in line were all the folks who did not know how to use computerized check-in.  The couple behind us noticed the same thing and so the husband started directing people to available check-in  terminals and showing them how to use them and even assisting some with their luggage.  Mind you he was just there seeing his wife off on her trip.  He did not work for Continental!

Finally the line began to move and it was our turn to enter the necessary info for our single piece of luggage to get tagged.  There were only two Continental employees on duty to handle the 10 terminals and two hundred or so passengers, so we waited out turn to get their attention.  The clerk finally tagged our luggage after checking our ids.  We rolled our single piece of luggage over to the TSA check in and dropped it off. 

MA has a life-time membership in Continental's President's Club. Because of the pending merger between Continental and United we were directed to the United Red Carpet lounge.  It was, for lack of a better word, seriously lacking in "red carpeting".  The greeter who checks your card waved us in without so much as a glance. The coffee machine was broken and there was only toast and yogurt to eat.  To top that off they wanted to charge $7 for Internet WiFi access whereas everywhere else we go, well that's free.  There were no newspapers and a single TV. This does not bode well for the Continental-United merger.

We quickly realized that CO 447 was on a rolling delay because of the weather in Chicago.  We later found out the inbound aircraft that would take us to Houston had been diverted to Indianapolis for additional fuel needed because of the air traffic control rerouting around the storms.  No sooner were they refueled and ready to continue to Chicago than the radar system in Indianapolis went down, for over an hour. We were supposed to take off at 11:00 AM and it woudl be 1:10 PM before we finally pushed back. 

Anyhow, around 12:30 PM we headed for Gate B2 and got there with the other two hundred passengers. 
The first thing I noticed was a lady from Mexico with a yappy Chihuahua dog in a small carry bag.  I thought to myself:  "I hope that woman is not going to get on this airplane:"  Well my wish did not come true.  Not only did she get on our flight, she sat across the aisle and one row behind us.  You guessed it, the dog started yapping, and growling and barking and generally kept that up all the way to Houston.  That woke up the infant behind us who started crying which in turn activated all the other toddlers. We didn't realize it until too late, but we must have been assigned seats in the "Infant-Toddler" rows.

There was nothing the flight attendants could do about all that even if they were so inclined which we quickly realized they were not.  We finally had to put our I-Pod earphones in our ears to deafen the sound.  The flight attendant stopped me to ask me to turn off my electronic device!  I quickly explained I was only using the earphones to block out all the noise. She was not amused.

We had our credit card ready to pay the $6.00 (each) for the Direct TV screen in front of each seat.  Alas, no Direct TV. The system was out of order.

Well a couple of soggy sandwiches and two and a half hours laters we made back to Houston, infants, toddlers, dog and all.  It was the craziest flight we've been on but we're glad to be back home.  Oh yes!  Our luggage made it, but was just about the last piece off the plane. Whew!

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Chicago, IL renamed "Bean" Town

The Chicago "Bean"

Cloud Gate on the AT&T Plaza in Centennial Park, Chicago, IL

Cloud Gate, which Chicago residents refer to as "the Bean" is British artist Anish Kapoor's work installed in the United States. The sculpture is forged of a seamless series of highly polished stainless steel plates, which reflect the city's famous skyline and the clouds above. There is a 12-foot-high arch providing gate to the concave chamber beneath the sculpture, inviting visitors to touch its mirror-like surface and see their image reflected back from a variety of perspectives.

Inspired by liquid mercury, the sculpture is among the largest of its kind in the world, measuring 66-feet long by 33-feet high. Cloud Gate was made possible by a gift from AT&T to the City of Chicago.

MA and I flew up to Chicago, IL to see the grandkids, Jim and Sue.  It has been a fun filled weekend watching Jason play two baseball games and witnessing him make a triple play to end the second game.  He was playing shortstop with runners on 1st and 2nd.  He caught a line drive ran over and touched second and ran to 1st to beat the runner there, 3 outs in about 3 seconds.



  Jason playing 1st base      









We took the train into Chicago on Friday for a picnic in Millennium Park while Jim made a sales call.  Chicago is a beautiful town with lots to do.  The park has a two fountain towers with hundreds of kids playing in the cool water.  The inside of the towers are changing faces and wouldn't you know it, Obama's face is on one of the walls.  When his face appeared no one really cared.  After lunch we watched the kids play in the water.  We made our way back to the train station for the 3:40 home.  It is an hour and 30minutes by train from Elburn, IL to downtown Chicago.


That's us next to the "Bean"

 The chamber to the clouds










Looking up into the chamber

Monday, June 21, 2010

Travel Guides

Mary Alice and I are preparing for a trip to France to visit her sister, Nola, who lives near the town of Vence in the Provence region of southern France with her husband Randy.  I wanted to know what was near by so I had some direction to take off to with my Nikon D3s.  I began to look for a travel guide and discovered the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide series.  You can find them at www.half.com or www.amazon.com.  They are relatively inexpensive used.  I've bought 5 already and the most one cost me was $3.

This is the Provence guide.  There is more information in this little guide book than you can imagine. 




After our week in Vence, France we are flying to Venice, Italy where we board a Princess cruise liner for a 10 day voyage in the Mediterranean visiting Athens, Istanbul, Ephesus, Mykonos, Rome, Naples, Monaco, and ending in Barcelona.

We leave in September so stay tuned.  If you're traveling and need a guide book look for these DK Eyewitness Travel guides.  They are great. 

Monday, June 7, 2010

Iberian Cruise: Thoughts, Impressions and Summary

Thoughts, Impressions and Summary

MA and I arrived home on Sunday, June 6th around 5:00pm.  We drove home in a hard rain with three of our suitcases getting soaked in the pickup truck bed.  We were going to wash clothes anyway and the suitcases dried out in the bathtub.  It was nice to get home after being on the road for ten days.

My impressions of London are it's a great city to visit with the history, monuments and landmarks. However, I would not want to live there.  It seemed like everyone was in a hurry.  The sidewalks are crowded with people, the streets are crowded with cars and buses and the places you want to see are crowded with tourists.  What else? It is also a very expensive place to visit.  Also beware of the many "money exchange" booths.  We were shortchanged five British pounds, a little over $7.00 USD which I'm sure went into the clerk's pocket.  If you're going to change currencies, figure out ahead of time what you expect to get and ask before you hand over your money.  I liked Lisbon for the photography opportunities, diito La Rochelle with its beauty and more laid back lifestyle. 

Experiment at Sea:  Note in a Bottle

If you've ever read the comic strip B.C. you've see the theme of launching a bottle in the ocean with a note and it coming back to the launcher.  Well I launched two bottles with notes at sea.  We had two one liter plastic water bottles and I wrote a note in each one describing the ship and where we were at sea, the date, who I was and my address and email address, and a request to whomever finds the note to mail it to me.  I asked whomever to write their name and where they live, when and where they found the bottle. 

At the bottom I included two Bible verses; John 3:16-17 and Ephesians 2:8-9.  I also included an envelope with my address already printed on it with $2 in bills to cover the postage.  I launched the first one off the coast of Spain in the Atlantic Ocean about 12 hours after we left Vigo, Spain and I launched the second between La Rocelle, France and Guernsey Island in the English Channel.  If they never mail the note to me at least they may wonder what the two verses are and look them up.  By the way there are signs prohibiting the throwing of trash overboard.  I figured a note in a bottle was not trash but communication media so it was OK.  There were no witnesses anyway!

I am busy editing and loading all the photographs I took.  Each stop will have its own gallery; London, Vigo, Lisbon, La Rochelle, Guernsey Island.  I will take the best photos from each gallery and put them in one gallery titled "Best Of Iberian Cruise".  I'll email you the link when all this is done.

I purchased a new camera a few months ago, a Nikon D3s.  It is a 35mm Digital Single Lens Reflex with a full frame format.  It is larger and heavier than any camera I have ever owned.  I took three lenses with me; 16-35mm, 24-85mm, 28-200mm.  I used all three at different times for different reasons.  Carrying the camera in my backpack, I limited myself to just one other lens so I alternated which lens would be on the camera.  The 28-200 was by far the most used because of the versatility of going from wide angle to a decent zoom.  The 16-35mm is the sharpest of all three, make no mistake about it.  However, I didn't want to stop and unload the backpack, change lenses and repack so I used the 24-85 a lot and the 28-200 the most.  I have always advocated using a tripod, which I did when I had the time.  On some of the walking tours I just didn't have the time to set up so I kept the shutter speed sufficiently fast enough for hand holding.

I discovered f/11 on this trip.  Taking pictures of people, buildings and normal travel photos I could leave the f-stop at f/11 and get the absolute sharpest photograph with any of the three lenses. All I had to do was adjust the ISO (digital film speed) for the lighting and let the D3s do its thing.  The D3s does not produce digital noise like most digital cameras.  I have pushed it to the max ISO and I still cannot see any noise.  It is a superb camera, the best I have ever used, Leica included.  I will say this after carrying it around your shoulder for 10 hours walking around, up stairs with a backpack you know it at the end of the day.

I believe in prayer and answered prayer.  MA and I pray for a safe journey on every trip, for the people we encounter and that we can be a reflection of the Christ who lives within us.  The people we met on this trip know they have encountered two people who know Jesus and how He guides our lives.  We also gave thanks to God after arriving home safe and sound.

Travel Tips:

1.  Travel light; don't burden yourself with unnecessary clothes, photo equipment, souvenirs, etc.  Hauling luggage all over the place in today's airports is no fun.

2.  Never be in a hurry.  Plan ahead. Always allow yourself time to get somewhere.  When you rush and are in a hurry you forget things, leave stuff behind, and find yourself stressed.  Take your time to get some place and allow for contingencies.

3.  Keep your stuff in a bag, backpack, camera bag, shopping bag and keep it organized.  You'll know where something is because you always put it back in the same place.  Example: Passports and Credit Cards

MA is the keeper of the passports but we make a copy to carry with us ashore.  Losing the real thing is something you do not want to have happen overseas.  We only take the bare minimum of credit cards which I keep in a small wallet which in turn is in an inside zipped vest pocket or in a zipped small travel pouch around my neck and tucked into a pocket which I keep zipped up.  Thieves are ever present and they will try to steal from you if you look vulnerable.

4.  Take or buy bottled drinking water.  Do not drink out of public fountains, etc.  Wash your hands often to prevent the spread of viruses which sideline your activities.

5.  Know what you want to do and research the location on Google.  Learn from other people.


 http://birdshooter.smugmug.com/Iberian-European-Cruise-London  link to photos....

Crown Princess at Guernsey Island


If you're interested in learning about photography; composition, light, exposure go to:   http://shutterstuff.blogspot.com
I

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Guernsey Island to London to Houston


Friday June 4, 2010 to Saturday June 6, 2010


Friday we arrived at Guernsey Island, St. Peter Port, of the Channel Islands. I assumed it was part of the United Kingdom, but it is an independent island with its own self-government, its own flag, and money. It was declared so by some English king hundreds of years ago. The Grand Princess anchored off the coast and after breakfast we joined a nice group of folks for what turned out to be a forgettable tour that started out with a 60-person tender boat for the ride to the harbor. The weather could not have been better.

We were ushered onto a large bus with no air conditioning and windows that did not open. Needless to say it was “hot” in the bus. I thought we would get out more and walk but it was basically a bus ride around the island. We stopped halfway and had a cold drink and a snack, and then back on the bus for a short ride to the “Little Chapel,” a miniature build church made of cement with inlays of shells and broken porcelain. We got back on the bus for a short ride to a gold and silversmith shop and then back to the bus.

We elected to get off downtown where we walked around for a short walk. There was not much to see so we walked back to the embarkation area for the tenders, boarded a tender after a brief wait and got back on the ship. This was our last night aboard so we packed our suitcases and put them outside the cabin door where the ship’s crew picked them up and they were waiting for us in luggage claim in Southampton. We got up, got our things together, had breakfast, got our carry-on luggage (my camera equipment) and waited in the Explorer’s Lounge until our number was called. I think MA and I were the last ones off the ship.

We did not have enough time to catch a same day flight to Houston so we over-nighted in London again at the Hyatt Regency with the use some more points. We took a bus from the ship port in Southampton to Victoria Coach Station and taxi to the hotel.

I explained to MA that I wanted to do some night photography of the Tower Bridge and Houses of Parliament & Big Ben. She once again being the good sport that she is, agreed to go with me. We headed out of the hotel around 7:30pm to the Underground at Marble Arch, bought our day pass and took the subway to Bond Street where we could get on the Gray Line. The Gray Line took us to Tower Bridge.

We found a little restaurant and had our last fish and chips for this trip. After diner we walked over to the Thames River and walked along there to some spots where the Tower Bridge becomes a great photo subject. The sun set around 9:00pm and I got my photos of the bridge. We then made our way back to the Underground, got on the “tube” to Embankment. We exited the subway station to find the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben all lit up. We walked across the bridge to the south bank and I got some more shots for the website.

We went back to Embankment station. I have to tell you this subway is about 5 stories below ground. Thankfully, the escalators were working. We stayed on the Gray Line to Bond Street, transferring to the Red Line to Marble Arch and we were about 5 blocks from the hotel.

Saturday morning we got up at 6:30, packed the rest of our things, checked out of the hotel, and took a taxi to Paddington Station for the Express train to Heathrow Airport where I am typing this last trip report. We board Continental flight #5 to Houston IAH in one hour. Both MA and I agree that the train and subway service in London are to be admired. It takes about five minutes to figure it all out and you’re on your way.

One more thing: We have about come to the conclusion that going forward we will not do any more group bus tours ashore. It’s almost more about the sticker on your jacket to identify you, line up, sit, wait, ride, listen, listen, listen, off again, on again, more lines. Just not our style!

I hope you have enjoyed reading this blog and traveling with MA and I as much as we enjoy sharing our experiences with you. You who read this are our dear friends and family and you are missed when we are away.

WW & MA……Au revoir

Thursday, June 3, 2010

La Rochelle, France


Wednesday, June 3, 2010……….La Rochelle, France


Bon jour mon amis, (Hello, my friends)!

We arrived in La Rochelle, France this morning at dawn. Our alarm clock went off at 6:30 just in time to get the coffee delivered at the door. Mary Alice, being the good sport she is, got up too because we wanted to get off the ship right away and walk around La Rochelle before our afternoon tour.

We skipped breakfast on the ship as MA had an assignment to go to a restaurant in La Rochelle and order breakfast for both of us in French. I grabbed my camera gear, and we were on the 7:30am shuttle to town. We’d of walked the five miles but thankfully the Port Authority doesn’t allow for pedestrian travel!

The bus let us off in town along the waterway. After getting oriented, we walked a short distance until MA decided on just the right place to try out ordering breakfast in French. The waiter promptly came to our table and she actually managed to tell him what we wanted! That’s what one gets to do after eight months of lessons! Anyhow it was their breakfast special which was a basket with a loaf of the best French bread I’ve ever had, plus two croissant rolls, butter, jelly, and two orange juices with two coffees. The coffee cups were only half full but there was a small pot of hot water. The coffee was so strong that I cut mine 1:1 with the hot water. It was still strong. However the breakfast was good and it was fun listening to her speaking French to the waiter. I gave her an A for effort!

After breakfast we began our walking tour of La Rochelle. The city dates back to the 10th century and it has always been a major port on the Atlantic coast not to mention a major Nazi Germany U-Boat port during WW II. You can still see the concrete buildings where they stored all that.

Anyhow, we walked around as I photographed the architecture, windows, doors, and streets. Some of the streets were so narrow that special delivery vehicles about the size of golf carts were the only thing that could make their way through.

What you see in one of the photographs today is the remnants of an old medieval castle complete with ramparts and gargoyles. The gargoyles were images of devils meant to keep the other devils away. One of the more interesting places we found was the central market. Outside there were these colorful food stands under tents with fresh vegetables, flowers and sausages. But inside was a photographer’s gold mine of shops with fresh meats, fish, breads, vegetables, spices, and fruit. My D3s was humming.

Our walking tour ended about 10:30 as we had to make our way back to the shuttle bus stop to get back to the ship for our 12:30pm tour. We arrived with enough time for MA to deposit the goodies she bought in a local market. Her French classmates will like what she is bringing home.

The tour this afternoon was called Coulon & River Cruise and it is described as exploring the meandering waterways of the Poitevin Marshes by flat-bottom boat and then a visit to the small town of Coulon. So we boarded the tour bus which took us north and east out of La Rochelle. We passed through the town of Mouze-sur-le-Mignon to Epannes to Sansais and stopping at La Garette. We got off the bus and boarded eight-passenger flat bottom boats propelled by Frenchmen pushing poles, like Italian Gondoliers. They call this area Venise Vert – green Venice! The canals are peaceful and the scenery was beautiful and very, very green.

Along the way three of the boats came together and the drivers started churning up the bottom of the marsh with their paddles causing methane gas to bubble up to the surface. One of them then took a BIC lighter and lit the gas. It burned for several seconds to the amazement of all of us on the boat who thought we were on fire.

The drivers pointed our boats towards Coulon and we floated along for the most peaceful 30 minutes. Once there we had 45 minutes “on our own” so MA and I took off to scout out photo ops. I didn’t know where to start: the flower draped windows or the pastel color painted doors of this picturesque small town. Eventually we stopped by a local outdoor cafe where the chef was preparing crepes right in front of us. He didn’t even have time to object as the D3s got him in the middle of a crepe. We bought some water and headed out the door, meandering toward the meeting point and eventually towards the bus back to the ship.

My wife is amazing with her language skills. She has been taking French for 8 months and she carries on a conversation with the locals that amazes me. She will however tell you that as soon as they figure out you’re an American or English person, they insist on conversing in English. Same thing happened in Portugal.

Undaunted, as we walked back to the bus we met a couple, husband from Columbia and the wife from Cuba. MA then switched to Spanish and a lively conversation ensued. I think she could work for the UN if we lived in New York City, but that will never happen.

The ship departed La Rochelle at 5:30. Our next stop is St. Peter Port in Guernsey Island, UK, then Southampton, UK on Saturday, one more day in London and then Sunday afternoon, Houston, the Wendel’s will be landing!

Au revoir et a bientôt! ……..WW


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Lisbon, Portugal


 







 
 Tuesday, June 1, 2010………..Lisbon, Portugal
The Grand Princess arrived in the port of Lisbon, Portugal at dawn.  The ship uses its side thrusters to maneuver next to the dock without the aid of a tug boat, a little noisy but effective.  We had signed up for a “Walking Tour” of Lisbon as our shore excursion.  After a nice breakfast we made our way to the Princess Theater where we met our fellow tour group members and boarded our bus to town. The guide spoke fluent English; however my wife speaks fluent Portuguese, so we had no problem with the translation.
I was armed with my Nikon D3s and a 28-200mm lens with a polarizing filter.  I also carried a 16-35mm f/4 lens in my backpack.  I decided to leave the tripod on the ship because on a tour like this I don’t have time to set it up, compose the photograph, check the camera settings and trip the shutter.  I regretted that decision later when we stopped at the Lisbon Cathedral.  I could have used it.  However, I managed to set the camera up on a pew back and hold it steady. 
Our tour bus let us off on the edge of the Alfama, the medieval Moorish district.  This part of Lisbon is a maze of very narrow streets and apartments and houses decorated with superb tiles of all colors.  I took plenty of photos of this architecture.   The Alfama is also the home to a genre of Portuguese music called Fado.  It is one of my wife’s favorite.  Her favorite singer, Mariza, began as a Fado singer in Lisbon and she does a concert in Houston every year.  We walked up and down the narrow streets of the Alfama and then made our way to Commerce Plaza. 
As we were arriving there, the tour guide pointed out three pickpockets who had been eyeing us as their next victims.  I walked over to a police officer and showed him my retired HPD badge and with Mary Alice translating we had a great time getting acquainted.  He called me a “brother in the law”.  I started to ask him about the pickpockets but they seemed to be keeping their distance.  I pointed my camera at them and took their photo at which time one of them promptly let me know with rude gestures that they did not appreciate the attention. But they soon sidled across the street to a bus stop and we didn’t see them again.
We continued down a long outdoor pedestrian mall with cafes, shops, and other businesses as we made our way to a street car that carries people straight up a high hill, and I do mean straight up, to a park and a view overlooking the beautiful terra cotta tiled roofs of the city.  I got all that as a panorama picture. 
Our tour continued back down to the same pedestrian mall we had just left.  MA and I walked around for a little while.  It was hot and we had done a lot of that walking around so we decided to take the bus back to the ship, have lunch and enjoy the afternoon sailing as we set out north toward La Rochelle, France.  We will miss breakfast on the ship tomorrow as MA has decided she is brave enough to put her French lessons to the test and order us a French breakfast on shore at a local café.
Lisbon is very colorful. It’s one of those places I’ve always wanted to visit.  I just wish we had more time to see it.  Vamos voltar!  (We will return!) All that was yesterday! Today was an “at-sea” day.  I spent a lot of time editing my photos while MA went to Trivial Pursuit and a presentation on the Princess small ship itineraries.  Sometime back I had promised MA a movie date to see “Up in the Air”.  Well guess what was showing this afternoon in the theater.  Thank you Princess for helping me keep my promise.  Got to go for now.  Formal night tonight, time to dust off the Tuxedo!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Vigo, Spain





Monday, May 31, 2010 Vigo, Spain


The Grand Princess docked at Vigo, Spain, our first port of call this cruise. In her Pan Am days MA always dreamed of spending one of her 30-day annual vacations all in Spain, but somehow never got to do that. So this one-day visit is the first of that 30-day dream and maybe someday we’ll come back and spend some serious time here. Certainly her Spanish makes us lots of new friends.

Vigo is a large Spanish city on the Atlantic coast. It dates back hundreds of years and is said to be the place where James the Apostle was martyred. It is now a shrine and pilgrims flocked to the site. A Catholic cathedral was built in his honor between the 11th and 13th centuries.

MA and I had booked a winery tour for this morning’s activity. I like to get out of urban areas and into the country and this was our only option. We boarded a motor coach at 9:30 and made our way out of town going north along the coast and turning east into the beautiful mountainous areas. We arrived at the Agro de Bazan Winery, a 33 acre estate which produces white and red wines. This part of the tour was short but I managed to walk around, find some birds and take some photos. We then traveled back toward Vigo stopping for a snack in a small village on the coast and walking and taking photos in the old part of the town. Did I mention the weather? It was gorgeous, sunny, about 75 degrees.

We boarded the ship and had a late lunch and I took a nap. Later I did a mile and a half around the ship for exercise. MA’s into her third Sue Grafton mystery novel and busy refreshing her Portuguese for our next Port of Call Tuesday – Lisbon. In her Pan Am days she used to fly there and loved the city. So it’s a journey into the past for her too. Maybe we’ll combine those remaining 29 days of her dream and share them together in Spain and Portugal someday.

More later from Lisbon!