The Good, The Great, and the Bittersweet
As I write my last post for 2017, it’s 26˚F outside. There’s no snow on the ground, but it’s bloody cold! I’m sitting in the comfy recliner in my warm office, wrapped in a cozy blanket, lap desk and laptop resting securely on my knees. In an odd sort of way, this is a fitting reminder of what this past year has brought us. Yes, there were challenges, but things could have been so much worse. On the whole, though, 2017 has been our best year since we decided to trade in the specter of the rocking chair for a retirement of travel, meeting incredible people, and sharing our experiences through writing and photography.
In 2017, our travels took us to 12 countries outside the United States, as well as to several destinations in-country. Here is a rundown of some of the outstanding places we visited, the fascinating experiences we enjoyed, the delightful people we met, and what we learned from all of it.
Simon, Otto, and I began 2017 where we left off at the end of 2016: in Boquete, Panama. Two months flew by as we spent time with friends, volunteered, and took in another Boquete Jazz and Blues Festival.
From Panama, we flew to Orlando, picked up our car in Jacksonville where we had left it in December with our son, Gary, and drove to Atlanta. A couple of days with our longtime friend, Joan, and it was off to Amman, Jordan for our first visit to this remarkable and sadly under-rated country.
The Middle East
Jordan turned out to be one delicious surprise after another. The historic and archeological sites, the new, yet somewhat familiar foods, and the welcoming, generous people made Jordan another country to which we long to return.
We were mesmerized by breathtaking sites in Amman, Jerash, Madaba, Petra and Wadi Rum. And yet we didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the wonders of Jordan.
A TBEX (Travel Bloggers Exposition) conference in Jerusalem afforded us the opportunity to explore Nazareth and Masada on our way there, followed by a brief but restful visit with my family in Gedera. This respite gave us as well as Otto some much-needed downtime.
Spain and Portugal
From Tel Aviv we flew to Madrid for a week at La Alberca volunteering with Diverbo. This was our fourth program of English immersion for Spanish professionals where we acted as facilitators.
From La Alberca we drove through Basque country, Santander, Cantabria and Galicia. Northern Spain was new to us, but we had the joy of meeting up with Carmen, Tere, and Colin, two students and a fellow volunteer from our 2016 Diverbo class. They added depth and delight to our journey through their individual corners of Spain.
Leaving Spain was as always, difficult, but Portugal awaited us with its unique history, cuisine, and architecture. Lisbon and Porto stole our hearts. And guess what? That’s right. We want to go back for more.
The flight from Lisbon to Atlanta turned out to be my undoing. I must have caught a bug of some sort because, by the time we landed, I felt so awful, Simon had to request a wheelchair to get me through customs and out of the airport. Even worse, as soon as we stepped on to the MARTA train for our 45-minute ride to where Joan was to pick us up, I upchucked. My Atlanta friends found this rather amusing because of our ongoing issues with the transit’s abysmal service. I admit it’s funny now, but it was anything but at the time.
Rolling Home Part I
Recovered and rejuvenated, we drove to Huntsville, Alabama for our second TBEX conference. As always, TBEX was informative, fun, and a networking goldmine. Through organized FAM (familiarization) trips, we discovered the greatness and ghostliness of the Rocket City, as well as the making and marketing of Jack Daniel’s Whiskey in Lynchburg, Tennessee.
From there it was on to the Finger Lakes for a hosted visit resulting from a meeting at our first TBEX in Fort Lauderdale. The natural beauty and diversity of activities won us over. And yes, we’ll be back.
This four-and-a-half-month journey ended in Montreal with a visit with my mother. The boys joined us and we were pleased to see she was still smiling when she saw us. My mother didn’t call us by our names. In fact, she spoke very little, and only in German. Watching her mental capacity deteriorate for the last few years has been painful, but her smile gave us hope that she still was enjoying some quality of life.
When we returned to New Bern the third week in May, we found that our house sitters, John and Heather, had taken excellent care of our home. They had even planted some vegetables in our garden, and we were able to enjoy their cherry tomatoes later in the summer.
We passed the summer blissfully catching up with home, garden, friends, and volunteer commitments. Aside from short visits to our son, Kevin and his new Labrador retriever puppy, Knox, in Charlotte and Gary in Jacksonville, we spent an entire four months at home.
On the Road Again
By the third week in September, we had zipped up our suitcases and backpacks and were ready to go. First, we drove up to Mount Kisco to drop off our car with friends. (Are you seeing a pattern here concerning our car?) We had found an amazing air fair with Norwegian out of Stewart International Airport in Newburgh for a flight to Belfast. There we toured the city, learned how the Titanic was built and delved into both the Catholic and Protestant sides of what is now known as “The Troubles.”
In Dublin, we met up with Simon’s sisters and brothers-in-law, as well as Kevin, who had flown in from Charlotte. Colin, a fellow Diverbo volunteer from earlier this year, took us to Glasnevin, where you could read the history of Ireland from the gravestones. We also did our share of sightseeing and pub crawling, both of which are easily accomplished in Dublin.
Killarney was the site of yet another TBEX conference. We enjoyed meeting up with our ToTravelToo friends, Jane and Duncan, as well as our one-day FAM trip to parts of the Kerry Ring and a four-day FAM trip back in Dublin.
From Dublin we flew to Krakow, where we were once again hosted for four days. During that time, we spent a day with Jola, a phenomenal guide who showed us around old Krakow. She brought the city’s historical triumphs and tragedies to life for us through her rich and informative narrative.
Our visit deep down in the Wieliczka Salt Mine was uplifting, but not so the day we spent touring the hell that was Auschwitz and Birkenau. I have already written about the former, but it will be some time before I can gather myself to attempt a post regarding the latter. I will say that as horrific and soul-wrenching as the experience was, it is my belief that everyone should see these death camps at least once.
After taking a bus part way and then the train to Prague, we rented a car and drove through areas of the Czech Republic previously unknown to us, and then into Slovakia. There were many interesting surprises and you will read about them in due time.
We returned to Prague just long enough to catch a flight to Rome. We drove to Civitavecchia where we boarded the Holland America Westerdam. Our three stops in Cartagena, Malaga, and Cadiz gave us a flavor of the towns that left us wanting more. Cadiz now has an especially strong draw for me.
Opting to forgo the ship’s group tours, the three of us took walking tours and then did our own exploration. Simon even took a dip in the Atlantic when we were in Cadiz.
For the next eight days, we did little more than relax and enjoy ourselves. But isn’t that what you’re supposed to do on a cruise?
Rolling Home Part II
Simon, Otto, and I picked up our car in Mount Kisco and headed for Montreal to celebrate my mother’s 100th birthday. She had lost weight, was recovering from a virus and had fractured her hip since we last saw her. The smiles were still there, though, and with several family members surrounding her, she seemed to enjoy the moment.
Then it was back to New Bern. We celebrated Thanksgiving in Charlotte at Kevin’s new house and Christmas with Gary in Jacksonville. New Year’s was to be spent with friends at Beech Mountain, but we are now in a holding pattern where we need to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
My mother is deteriorating rapidly, and traveling to Montreal is complicated at the best of times. Either 2017 will end with sadness, or 2018 will likely begin with it.
Since 2013, each year has brought new destinations to explore and new insights to incorporate. These have been glorious, but what has made everything three-dimensional and real have been the people we have met. 2017 was no exception.
Our tour guides in Porto, Lisbon, and Krakow were outstanding. They had a deep love for their cities and wove their stories with insight and passion. The Lisbon guide had us spellbound as he described the 1755 earthquake and what it must have been like for the people of the city.
Although our guides were top-notch, perhaps the one who stands out was Hasan, a guided provided for us by the Jordanian Ministry of Tourism for our three-day hosted visit to Petra. He covered all the bases for a learned and professional guide, but knowing him on a personal level added new and complex layers to the experience.
Also, Bobesh, our Cesky Krumlov guide made an especially strong impression with his combination of hard facts and humor. The same was true of Krzysztof, our guide at the salt mine. Okay. They all stood out
Everyone we met in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was memorable. The Irish are some of the kindest, funniest and joy-filled people we have ever met. Like the Spaniards, they know how to party, but the Irish have a style all their own.
I should also mention the fellow TBEX bloggers and hosts with whom we spent time during our fam trips. Travel bloggers are natural sharers, and we learned so much from them on bus rides and during meals.
Of course, there are many more, but if I get started, this post will never end. I will say that these individuals come from all the places we have visited. We have remained in touch with some. Some we may never see again. But they all have enriched our lives in their own special way.
The Lessons Learned
So what did I learned from our travels in 2017? Hopefully more than the year before. Here are some lessons that stand out:
- Hasan taught me that Islam isn’t anything like what some would have us believe. It’s not for me, but I appreciated Hasan’s candor and willingness to answer my questions. There is more common ground shared by Christians, Muslims and Jews than most care to admit.
- From Angel, a Diverbo student, I learned that there is a song for every occasion. A lesson Simon wishes I hadn’t learned.
- From Ed at Rocky Hill pottery I learned that almost anyone could learn to throw a pot, but I really should stick to writing.
- From Tere and her friends in Oviedo, I learned the proper way to drink apple cider.
- From the people of Ireland I learned that despite famine, war, and countless tragedies, a population can still find love, joy and the will to do more than survive.
- From Paul, our guide in Belfast, I learned that The Troubles had two sides and that the deep wounds left behind are still very much in the healing process.
- From Michael, owner of Glen Duff Manor in Tralee, I learned that a kid with empty pockets can grow up to be a millionaire by recognizing opportunity, grabbing it, and working hard in order to prosper.
- From our housesitters I learned that sharing the home we love with total strangers isn’t scary. It’s a win, win. We may even try it ourselves in the coming year. Thank you, Dan, Carolyn, Heather, John, and Sharon.
On a personal level, 2017 has reinforced a lesson with which I’ve struggled all my life: I don’t have the power or presence to fix the lives of the people I love. My mother’s failing health, the life-threatening illness of one of my oldest and dearest friends, our children’s challenges, Simon’s software frustrations, all humble me to the core. I can’t bear to see people I love suffer, whether it’s going through chemo or enduring several stitches on a thumb for an accidental slip of a sharp knife. I’ve had to learn that doing my best will never be enough, but will have to do. So I make sure my mother has the best care, crochet warm shrugs for my friend, encourage Simon to stop cussing and call tech support, and remind Kevin that the puppy phase will pass for him the same way his adolescence passed for us.
Our Travel Plans for 2018
Despite our holding pattern, this is what we have planned so far for 2018.
Simon, Otto, and I will be heading to New York for a TravMedia networking event and the New York Times Travel Show. Both will be new experiences for us and we expect to come away with new contacts, useful information, and new directions to explore.
Following the travel show, we will fly out of JFK to Dublin. (You didn’t think we’d refuse an opportunity to return to Ireland, did you?) Following a week of a partially hosted visit to the city and beyond, we fly to Madrid to volunteer for two sessions with Vaughan Town, a program similar to Diverbo. No, we haven’t had a falling out with that organization. We just want to try a new program in two new and different locations. After all, we can only hear about the La Alberca pig so many times.
A couple of weeks of hosted and self-hosted visits to Costa Brava, Barcelona and Valencia, and we will be off to Tuscany in early March. While in Barcelona and Valencia, we will meet up with at least two of this year’s Diverbo students.
We will arrive in Pisa, then make our way to Florence. There we will meet students and fellow volunteers for a week-long program at Speak-in-Italy. We’ve done these programs in Spain and Germany. Now it’s Italy’s turn. Tough job, but someone’s got to do it, right?
Venice is next on our list, but we have no firm plans at this time. What is set in stone is that we will be in England toward the end of March to see the family and the first of the next generation. Our niece, Emily and her husband, Simon, whose wedding we attended in 2016, are expecting around the end of January. There will be plenty of family and baby cuddling time, but we are exploring at least one hosted visit. I’ll let you know.
The three of us get back in early April and almost immediately drive to Baltimore. Simon will be attending a photography workshop, while I catch up on my writing and check out the city.
Shortly after our return to New Bern, Simon and I will fly out to spend two weeks in China. Otto won’t be joining us on this adventure for reasons of bureaucracy, accessibility and safety. He will either be tearing around Kevin’s house and yard with Knox in Charlotte or with a house sitter. I’ll try not to go crazy missing him. That damn wall had better be worth it!
Fast forward to September when we will drive back to Finger Lakes and TBEX in Corning. The conference will be held in the Corning Museum of Glass. Following this trip, we hope to leave some time in mid to late fall for Australia, New Zealand and possibly Japan. We are still in the very early stages of exploring the intricacies of this one, so keep your fingers crossed for us.
I want to end this last post of 2017 by thanking you, my readers, for joining Simon, Otto and me on our adventures. Your comments, emails and newsletter subscriptions are a constant reminder of the reason I write this blog. Your feedback is important to me and gives me the incentive to strive to make this blog even better. To this end, one of my plans for 2018 is to revamp the weekly newsletter and make it more personal. In this way, I hope to engage with you on a whole new level.
We wish you safe travels and a happy, healthy New Year.
What a great year past and a great year to come! We will no doubt catch up with you on the road! Happy New Year Penny Simon and Otto.
Hi Penny and Simon! Your blogs are always insightful and wonderfully descriptive, not to mention, oh, so inspiring! I love the way you intertwine the sensory details with the personal stories of connection. I share many of your same interests, destination-wise! Hopefully our paths will cross again!
Thank you, Patty. I also hope our paths will cross again, and sooner than later. What are your travel plans for the coming year?