I Want “Paler-mo” Of It!

I Want “Paler-mo” Of It!

 

After 2 days relaxing in the off-the-beaten-path island of Lampedusa, the gang took a direct evening flight out to Palermo, capital of Sicily, afterwards.

 

 

Founded by Phoenicians under the name of “Ziz” and later renamed by Greeks “Panormos”, which means “all port,” Palermo’s golden age was during Arab rule from 9th to 11th centuries AD when it became one of the most prosperous cities in the Mediterranean and Europe.

 

 

It was referred to as the “city of delights” for its gardens, mosques and palaces.

 

 

After the Normans conquered Palermo, they destroyed most of the palaces and mosques, but replaced it with a unique architectural mix of Arabesque, Romanesque, and Byzantine influences known as the “Arab-Norman Style of Sicily.”

 

 

Modern history, however, would make Sicily infamous for cosa nostra, aka the Mafia that now predominate the popular culture consciousness whenever Sicily is referred.

 

 

Let’s begin.

 

 

Starting from the west side of Palermo, we tried to visit the unique Catacombe dei Cappuccini filled with 8000 dressed up corpses and skeletons, but it was closed at the time of posting. So we walked by the 9th century neo-classical era Norman Palace instead, where the ancient chapel Cappella Palatina is also located; you can find elaborate Byzantine mosaics and paintings inside.

 

 

While here you might as well also peek inside the red-domed medieval church San Giovanni degli Eremiti:

 

 

 

Then working your way beginning east towards the harbor, pass through the symbolic and landmark Porto Nuovo, built in 1570.

 

 

Weave around Teatro Marmoreo and through Villa Bonanno park

 

 

As you walk east towards the water, stop by 12th century Cattedrale di Palermo:

 

 

If you pay the 12-15 euro ticket to access the rest of the cathedral, there’s the gorgeous roof:

 

 

…and the underground tombs:

 

 

Take a detour at the open-air Market Ballaro:

 

 

Head into the winding alleyways further east to find the baroque Chiesa del Gesù, built in the 1630s:

 

 

There’s also Church of San Cataldo, built in 1154 and featuring landmark Byzantine mosiacs, including Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio which lies next door.

 

 

…and equally beautiful Chiesa di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria:

 

 

Inside there’s a monastery you can stroll through for a few euros:

 

 

Then swing around Genius of Palermo Statue:

 

 

…past Fontana del Garraffo:

 

 

…past Fontana del Cavallo Marino:

 

 

…and as you approach Porta Felice, you know you’ve reached the sea:

 

 

There’s also an abandoned UNESCO World Heritage Site Ponte dell’Ammiraglio (“Admiral’s Bridge”) to the south, although there’s nothing much else to do around here:

 

 

Donna and I are taking it easy from here on out, because from here it’s a long way home. Brian knows it:

 

 

Palermo to Rome to Brussels …to Paris

The original plan was fly from Palermo to Rome to Brussels to NYC. So after Donna and I parted ways at the Palermo airport, I did just that. Once arriving into Brussels, however, it felt like …something was pulling me to Paris. I don’t know why since “I have come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains” …but I trust my gut. 

MXMS and Carla Bruni play on and on in my head.

 

Passing by the very same piano that caused us to miss our flight to Lampedusa 3 days prior

 

While arriving into Brussels, I got on the chat with United and asked if I could change my economy Brussels to NYC flight to a free business class upgrade at no extra cost. The answer: Sure, but you’ll have to get from Brussels to Paris and take a flight from there instead. Furthermore…

  • Evie also left her ONLY charger back in Palermo, and she was going to be in Paris that night.
  • Gina and Priscilla decided on a whim yesterday to extend their layover in Paris an extra day.
  • Priscilla had something personal of mine. And her foot, which had been injured during Yacht Week and became taken under my medical attention, appeared to need extra care.
  • Gina was still probably annoyed Evie, Sabrina, Sampson, Donna and I all barged to crash in her room 5 days ago in Olbia. It was a bad goodbye; I owed her a drink.
  • We would all be in Paris after a united last minute extension of all our trips. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.

These were enough signs. And so I booked the next Brussels to Paris Thalys 9388 train at 9:16pm, arriving into Paris at 10:38pm where I would crash with one of them before all our morning flights back to the USA at 10am. It would be perfect.

But as we all know with travel, “perfect” may always involve a snag where the universe tests your will: Soon after booking my train ticket, I would get emails from Thalys every 15 minutes informing me of significant track delays up to 2 hours long. Every email indicated a longer and longer delay, to the point I was worried they were going to cancel the train entirely.

 

 

And yet when there’s a will there’s a way: although I had considered giving up on the idea of Paris as the logistics seemed too prohibitive, the prior Thalys 9376 train that had been due to arrive at 7:13pm in Brussels Midi Station instead pulled into the platform in front of me at 8:50pm. It was also running nearly 2 hours late, but oddly did not show up on the departure board as a possibility.

I immediately asked if I could board this one instead, but the agent at the station informed me that my ticket I had bought for the 9:16pm 9388 train would not apply and I would not be allowed onboard 9376. Once she left, I stowed away onboard the 9376 anyway, staying in between cars looking for a place to put my bags, pretending to wait for the bathroom, and hanging out at the café until the bullet train was well already in France.

Eventually my ruse would be noticed (I’m the worst spy ever), but after a discussion with the onboard police, playing stupid showing them I had already purchased a ticket but for a different train, a copy of a negative test for COVID-19 (with a BivaxNOW self-test kit which I had done with Donna the day before…thanks Donna!), that I was fully vaccinated, and a USA passport to accompany my vaccine card, they had no legitimate reason to throw me off the train when we were already 10 minutes away from Paris Gare du Nord station. Checkmate.

And to even make it more opportune, Evie’s hotel — where I could drop off my stuff — was located immediately outside the train station. Does that sound familiar to the beginning of this trip when I had arrived into Florence train station to briefly meet Patricia? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.

Evie would have travel issues of her own: her flight from Valencia almost would be cancelled by a tornado there. Nevertheless it was a false alarm as she arrived, although 45 minutes late. Then from her hotel room we both set out to meet Priscilla and Gina, surprising them both (well, really just Priscilla; Gina had said she always knew I’d had it in me to make it work) that we’d make it in time right before they went to bed. And so our goodbye 5 days ago in Olbia was extended in none other than a midnight in Paris. 

Having stayed up for our third sunrise, we felt the third time is always the charm.

 

 

Then at 8am Priscilla, Gina and I then coordinated a cab together back to CDG where we would be all leaving at similar times back for our onward connecting flights home. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.

And of all the business class flights to be upgraded to for free, United would choose SWISS Airlines, with the exact same layover in the exact same city of Zurich . . .  WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.

 

 

. . . and in the exact same 7A seat I had flown to begin this trip 16 days ago. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.

 

 

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN

 

 

The magic of the universe has and shall continue. Whether in circles or forward, probably the next step for us would be time travel.

 

- At time of posting in Palermo, Sicily, it was 30 °C - Humidity: 61% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear

 

OPorto-nity Awaits!

OPorto-nity Awaits!

 

 

After nearly 3 days in Madeira, we flew out on a late night flight back to the Portuguese mainland, arriving into Porto at midnight. Then Uber’ing straight to our lodgings at Ribeira São João Apartment in the city center, we arrived by 1am. I immediately fell in love with the city:

 

 

The next morning I quickly grabbed coffee at Café do Comercial in the neigborhood at 9am where lo and behold, I’d make sure to run into Vibhu, whom I first met in person 25 days ago on May 20th in NYC, before she’d catch her 10:25am train to Lisbon

Flippantly at the time when we had first met, we quipped then that “who knows, we might run into each other traveling,” not realizing a scheming universe always could make sure it would actually happen 25 days later.

 

 

I mean of all places to have a run-in, what better than a place like Porto? The city oozes with saudade:

 

 

So take your time wandering, especially in the alluring and evocative winding and hilly streets of Riberia.

 

  

19th century built Bolsa Palace is right next door:

 

 

And facing the palace is Mercado Ferreira Borgesa landmark building from the 1880s now converted into a nightclub and performing arts space.

 

 

A few paces away from both structures is the local’s favorite pasteis de nata at Castro:

 

 

Walking 10 minutes uphill and northeast along Rua de Mouzinho da Silveira, you’ll reach the decorative São Bento Train Station, which was formerly a monastery.

 

 

About another 5 minutes walk south street stands the 12th century Porto Cathedral:

 

 

The Cathedral is in the same complex as the former Bishops’ Palace of the Episocopal Palace. It became controversial for how lavish the residence became for the bishops as the rest of the city languished economically.

 

 

The cathedral complex faces the 16th century Convento dos Grilos across an overlook:

 

 

If you dig old bookstores, head up 10 minutes north from the cathedral for some Harry Potter vibes at the historic Livraria Lello. To set the record straight, the bookstore has no direct connection (the movies were never filmed here) with Harry Potter other than it was known that JK Rowling used to live in Porto while in an abusive marriage before leaving for Edinburgh.

You have to reserve ahead of time online to even get in (a minimum of a 5 euro entry per ticket, which can be used as a voucher towards a book at the gift shop; vouchers cannot be combined for a single purchase), let alone wait on the hour and half line. If you want to skip the line entirely, expect to pay up to 15-17 euros for a book you can then pick up at the store. We got lucky as we visited in the afternoon during lunch, so our wait time was only 20 minutes on the 5 euro voucher. They even give you umbrellas in line as protection from the elements!

 

 

This place is currently regarded as the beautiful and one of the top 3 bookstores in the world after Cărturești in Romania and Avid Reader in Australia:

 

  

After about 15 minutes at the Livraria Lello (it’s otherwise pretty small), walk 5 minutes southeast along Rua Das Carmelitas to Igreja dos Cléricgos, the world’s tallest building made of granite. For 6 euros you can climb the 200+ steps to the top for 360 views of the city, which I found to be similar to the views I got from Luis I Bridge and the countless elevated terraces around Porto:

 

 

The continuing along Rua dos Clérigos, you’ll reach Av. dos Aliados a few minutes away:

 

 

A little more north leads to the streets of Rua Santa Catarina, famous for eating, shopping, and churches with Azulejo tiles:

 

 

If you’re feeling peckish, there are numerous small dessert shops back in Ribiera. We picked out a special homemade nata dish at the oldest building in Porto:

 

 

And finally to the south of Riberia, you can walk along the top of Luis I Bridge for the views of Porto from afar:

 

 

Venturing further outside of Porto’s old city, we looked at the unique trees at Jardim de João Chagas. They’re not a native species but rather newer trees replanted within the old, dead trunks that swelled immensely from a tree-specific bacterial infection decades ago.

 

 

You may notice that across the street from the park, António de Oliveira Salazar’s unique “Lady Justice” statue stands imposingly outside the very un-Portuguese brutalistic architecture of the Tribual da Relacão do Porto. The statue is unique in that it has been redesigned without the typical “justice is blind” blindfold and the scales are tucked away at her side.

The redesign became symbolic of the fascist style of justice that Salazar’s reign wanted to convey to his people: we’re watching you and it’s not going to be impartial.

 

 

I then walked south back towards the river into the former Jewish neighborhoods of Porto, situated by the Jardim Municipal do Horto das Virtudes:

 

 

Of note, the stray cats here are taken care of and have been trained so well by the neighborhood here that they’ve learned to do their business in the man-made drains:

 

 

Resting a bit in the afternoon, we then headed back out in the evening west, passing by the Casa da Musica:

 

 

…before finishing our trip with a splendid al fresco dinner at Em Carne Viva:

 

 

Most atmospheric dinner of the trip so far:

 

 

Let’s begin:

 

 

Arugula Bread and Vegetable Chorizo with Chickpeas and Spices Tapenade:

 

Vegan Francesinha:

 

 

Bulhão Pato Mushrooms – Shiitake and Marron mushrooms in a white wine, garlic, and fresh coriander sauce:

 

Spinless Tofu with seaweed “Lagareira” – Finely sliced grilled tofu with seaweed from the Atlantic, crispy bread topping with herbs, sautéed greens and roasted potatoes:

 

Spearmint Petit Gateau, Caipirinha Hail, Creamy Lime Ice Cream:

 

How this trip ends:

 

 

Returning to the USA (COVID-19)

While in Madeira 2 days ago (which was at the beginning of our 72 hour window on our return back to the USA), we scheduled a rapid antigen test beforehand at one of the pharmacies in the neighborhood. Many already have testing tents set up in front of them but they only take appointments, which you must arrange at the sponsoring pharmacy itself.

 

 

Timing our flight back to NYC to be 4pm exactly 2 days from today, we selected the 4:35pm time slot the next day (yesterday) to be tested. This way our tests could count not only for our return back to the States, but also our layover in Madrid beforehand just in case we wanted to leave the airport.

 

 

Then yesterday afternoon we checked in at the tent located about a 2 minute walk past the pharmacy in front of Sé Cathedral in Madeira:

 

 

They really go up there in that nose here! Our rapid antigen test results were ready within 45 minutes and we picked them up back at the pharmacy where we originally scheduled our tests:

 

 

Then I uploaded my test result to the new app Verifly so I can make sure I minimize the fuss on my way back to NYC tomorrow morning.

 

 

 

 

- At time of posting in Porto, it was 15 °C - Humidity: 74% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

Lis-“bon” There…But Haven’t Done That!

Lis-“bon” There…But Haven’t Done That!

 

Yes I’ve been to Lisbon before! But that was back in 2011 after my first ever group monsoon and spent only 12 hours wandering. Didn’t even make it to Belem Tower then. So this is a return for a proper visit.

 

 

After our successful trip last month to Cyprus, I wanted to balance out the high with some solo travel: When I saw roundtrip flights between NYC and Portugal drop down to $340 USD all inclusive (for both flights!), I jumped right in, timing it to the reopening of the EU after the pandemic and before flight prices would rise. And what better way than with additional island hopping to Madeira and Azores via the mainland of Portugal for less than $90 USD per leg between each destination?

 

 

If there was a time to travel fully vaccinated and with a good deal, this is the time to do it.

After obtaining negative PCR tests the day before and boarding a 9pm Iberia flight from JFK to Madrid, I spent a 5 hour layover catching up on sleep at the Plaza Mayor lounge in Terminal 4 of MAD airport.

 

 

Then I boarded the 3:40pm Iberia flight onwards to Lisbon, landing at 4:05pm local time.

But before leaving, I made sure I picked up a pre-purchased 48 hour Lisbon Card for 34€ to save some money for the rest of my time here. It activates only when you first use it and is valid for a year since purchase, it’s hour to hour (so if I first used the card at 8am Monday, it would last until 8am Wednesday), and covers numerous admission fees at the top sites and most public transportation. If you missed getting a card at the airpot, you can also snag one at the Lisboa Welcome Center or Foz Palace.

Then catching an Uber at arrivals, we finally reached our lodgings at Porta do Mar in central Lisbon, a few paces away from Praca do Comércio:

 

 

And not even within an hour of landing in Lisbon, we ran into friends back home: Jinny and her friend Maggie, both of whom who had actually cancelled their trip to Portugal a few days ago, only to rebook it the next day on a whim and find us here. It was meant to be. We reunited with dinner at da Prato 52:

 

 

After a spirited conversation and 2 hours there, we headed up to the photogenic 19th century Santa Justa Elevador

 

 

… making it up the stairs and just in time for drinks at Topo Chiado before their 11pm curfew:

 

 

I struggled with not being able to sleep for more than 4 hours my first night before heading out again to meet with Jinny and Maggie for brunch. Thankfully I didn’t have to walk very far as I recuperated from jetlag:

 

 

After bidding them farewell as they headed off for Porto, we began our day at the Lisboa Story Center, located in Praca do Comércio. The admission fee is included in the card and expect to spend at least 45 minutes here learning about Lisbon’s history. It can be a decent a family-friendly (or cheesy, depending on the perspective) primer before you explore the rest of the city.

 

 

From here, I made a 4 minute walk uphill to the 18th century Saint Anthony’s Church (believed to be the birthplace of Saint Anthony):

 

 

…and across from the church stands the 12th century Lisbon Cathedral, which has been rebuilt numerous times in different styles due to earthquakes. The admission fee is not included in the Lisboa Card.

 

 

Another 10 minute walk up to the very top led me back to the 11th century Moorish built Castelo de Sao Jorge. Its admission fee is also not included on the card.

 

 

Then I headed back down to sea level by Praca do Comércio and took Bus 728 for a 25 minute ride to Jerónimos Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most prominent examples of the Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline style of architecture in Lisbon:

 

 

With the admission fee included in the Lisboa Card, it took about half an hour to explore the monastery in its entirety:

 

 

Next to the monastery is its accompanying church, which you can visit free of charge:

 

 

Across from the monastery at the Tagus riverfront, start your boardwalk at the Padrão dos Descobrimentos monument, built to celebrate the Portuguese “Age of Discovery/Exploration” in the 15th to 16th centuries:

 

 

From there walk along the river past the unexpectedly diminutive Belem Lighthouse:

 

 

…and you’ll eventually reach the landmark medieval defensive tower and de facto symbol of Lisbon, Belém Tower:

 

 

If you’re looking for a cafe in the area, look no further than the original Pasteis de Belem:

 

 

If you ask me though, its mortal enemy and competitor Manteigaria has a better crust experience at the expense of the creaminess of the custard you’d get with Pasteis’:

 

 

And in the spirit of gastronomy, later that evening we snagged reservations at José Avillez’s Belcanto, with 2 Michelin stars and ranked the 42nd best restaurant in the world:

 

 

I went all out for its Evolution Tasting Menu, beginning with Elderini with lemon foam and zest, and paprika salt, Brioche with cod liver and trout roe:

 

 

Oyster and tuna belly tartare with borage

 

 

Golden sphere with foie gras and Port, Minced squid with roasted chicken skin, egg yolk purée and huacatay, Marinated and brasied sardine, bell pepper and eggplant (bottom 3):

 

 

Carrot and olive in different textures with pine nut milk and lupin bean “caviar” (bottom plate):

 

 

European lobster “Casear salad” with avocado, tomato water and, yuzu and truffle emulsion:

 

 

Springtime scarlet shrimp with shrimp head curry, green apple, green asparagus and coriander:

 

 

Creamy egg yolk with spring flavors and, chicken and mint consommé:

 

 

Hake in fig leaf with its ‘tongues’, Barbela wheat crunch toast with fig leaves, dried fig butter and cured ham:

 

 

Crispy suckling pig ‘sandwich’ with sarapatel paté, peppercorn sauce, orange purée, watercress emulsion and puffed potatoes:

 

 

“Bacon-from-heaven” and earth:

 

 

Strawberry-tomato textures (yes with real tomato!):

 

 

Petits fours:

 

The Vegetarian version of the Belcanto Tasting Menu

 

Explosive Olive, Brioche bun filled with eggplant caviar:

 

 

Golden sphere with hummus, Jerusalem artichoke with avocado and corn, Charcoal toast with eggplant, and bell pepper (top 3):

 

 

Carrot in different textures with cashew milk, olive and tangerine bonbons (top plate):

 

 

White asparagus with avocado, tomato water, yuzu and truffle emulsion:

 

 

Artichoke with spring flavors and mushrooms consommé (top plate):

 

 

Vegetable curry, green apple, peas and coriander (top plate):

 

 

Vegetarian “cabidela”:

 

 

Sweet egg cream and lemon:

 


Sintra

The next morning to save us time, we arranged a bag pickup by Luggit from our lodgings; this way we could sleep in and leave later for Sintra, spend more time there (instead of returning to Lisbon for our bags), and then head directly to the airport afterwards where our bags would be waiting for us.

After getting our bags quickly picked up by Luggit without any drama (other than I slept through my alarm and made my keeper wait 20 minutes outside…sorry!), we took the hourly Linha de Sintra railway west from Rossio to Sintra, a 40 minute train ride away and also included in your Lisbon Card perks:

 

 

If you had to choose one castle out of the countless ones to explore in Sintra, choose the National Palace of Pena:

 

 

As my friend Sharon remarked, it’s “Disney World without Mickey Mouse.”

 

 

Each castle can either take an hour to explore (reading every exhibit and taking a ton of photos), or as little as 15 minutes if you’re not a big museum person. After enough spelunking they might start to blend in together, so unless you’re an expert in this field of Portuguese history and since most come to Sintra on a day trip, pick one or two at most to fully take in instead of trying to knock them all down in one day.

 

 

In the area I also recommend taking bus 403 (or an Uber) for a 40 minute drive away to the viewpoint and lighthouse at Cabo da Roca, the westernmost part of the main European landmass:

 

 

Afterwards given the convenient luggage service of Luggit that couriered our bags from our lodgings to the airport this morning before we left for Sintra, we saved ourselves a trip back to Lisbon and instead headed from Sintra directly to the airport. This trip took an hour from Sintra by means of public transportation, all of which included in the Lisboa Card.

 

 

After nearly 3 days in Lisbon, we are now about to board the evening 7:05pm Azores Airlines flight to Ponta Delgada in Azores.

 

 

- At time of posting in Lisbon, it was 24 °C - Humidity: 42% | Wind Speed: 13km/hr | Cloud Cover: sunny

 

Views So Good, Almost Can’t “See-It-All”

Views So Good, Almost Can’t “See-It-All”

 

 

“Maybe that’s what life is… a wink of the eye and winking stars.”

 

 

It’s time for every journey to close a chapter. Noeleen and I woke up early at 6:50am to drive our RV for one last hurrah.

 

 

With just the two of us (everyone else was asleep back at our apartment rentals), we decided on a last minute whim to drive up to see the Fremont Troll, best known for an appearance in the 90s romcom 10 Things I Hate About You:

 

 

Then we drove 5 min away to peek at the random Lenin Statue in the neighborhood:

 

 

After the drive-by we headed back south towards the RV park, during which we stopped uphill for a shot of the Seattle skyline from Kerry Park:

 

 

Then Noeleen and I bid one final goodbye to our RV at the local Road Bear in Seattle.

 

 

Taking 20 minutes checking everything and being charged a bit for going over the mileage by 450 miles, a few hours of generator use, and unfilled gas, we took a Lyft back into Seattle and met the rest of the group at Biscuit Bitch:

 

 

In addition to great coffee and biscuits, they also call you various insults in good humor as they serve you.

 

 

We then turned the corner to the famous Pike Place Market:

 

 

Here at the open air fish market on the corner of Pike Street and Pike Place, there is a local tradition where fishmongers literally throw fish that customers have purchased before they’re wrapped.

 

 

It is also where the reportedly first ever original Starbucks is located (although controversial as the actual real original Starbucks burnt down and this one was rebuilt instead for the lore and added business).

Because of COVID-19, there were NO LINES.

 

 

The video of the tiny interior (and without the crowds!) is on my instagram:

 

 

And at Raubern’s suggestion — even if you would have otherwise avoid a Starbucks in your daily routine — at least consider purchasing their daily reserve beans as this is the only Starbucks in the world where you can get them.

 

 

Since the greater city of Seattle is known for their coffees, just know you’re not alone if you have a hard time choosing which to drink…

 

 

We then headed down the steps underneath the Fish Market to see the famous Gum Wall:

 

 

… where Dan made his contribution here on our behalf:

 

 

From here we walked a few minutes further inland for some doughnuts at Top Pot Doughnuts before returning back to our apartments.

 

 

And during this whole eventful morning we somehow pulled off a monsoon shuffle: We bid our goodbyes to Noeleen and Brandon as they hailed an Uber for the airport for their early afternoon flights home, and later to Raubern as he set off later to see family. In the same vein, Sina, Evie and Karen would fly in during the same time to link up with us for part 2 of the trip.

FWIW, Noeleen was very forthcoming with her thoughts on the trip once she landed back in NYC:

 

 

Ughhhh, so hard to move on. We’ll miss you and your daily vlogs Noeleen.

Once the new group had formed, officially our first stop together in Seattle would be a visit to the famous Space Needle:

 

 

You can buy tickets online or at one of the outdoor kiosks, and there’s a whole COVID-19 proof screening involving the following:

  1. Face coverings on and up to your eyes at all times inside
  2. No talking or whispering during the 41 second elevator ride up to the observation deck since you can’t physically distance a crowd in there
  3. An airport metal-detector shaped UV device that you have to dance in a circle under for 20 seconds to disinfect yourself

 

 

Up to you if you think the views are worth the effort!

 

 

Afterwards we toasted to our new travel group and the second part of our trip in Fremont, inviting along Spencer, who’s the link for getting Dan to come on our trips after hearing about us via Melissa Weinmann (and despite this mutual connection, Dan and Melissa have yet to meet in real life!).

 

 

And thus we toast to one final hurrah to Seattle on the rooftop, where Raubern rejoined us for one last encore as well as a friend I know only via Instagram, Angela, would even meet up with us.

 

 

Tomorrow we officially begin the long epic drives along the Pacific Coast Highway!

And if it isn’t obvious by now —

 

 

- At time of posting in Seattle, it was 26 °C - Humidity: 44% | Wind Speed: 33km/hr | Cloud Cover: minimally cloudy

 

From Wall Street To Maine Street

From Wall Street To Maine Street

 

 

After nearly 3 days in Rhode Island, we head onwards to my first time ever setting foot in Maine.

While the COVID rates here have remained low like the rest of the Northeast, they’re not quite containing it as well as NYC, CT or Rhode Island

 

 

But luckily for us when we arrived at our hotel in downtown Portland, the AC Marriott, we found out that TODAY would be their first day reopening after a 1-2 month lockdown. This meant our room definitely would be clear of COVID-19 as nobody had stayed there for more than enough time for a lonely virus to die off on any surfaces (usually 3 days).

 

 

When you check in, they make you check off and sign this on the honor code (they don’t check for your results otherwise):

 

 

After 10 minutes settling in, we walked out to explore Portland, beginning with a 15 minute walk to the Portland Observatory (closed due to COVID):

 

 

We then walked 10 minutes towards the water and the majestic scenery of the Eastern Promenade:

 

 

It’s a dog paradise still at East End Beach:

 

 

Weaving along the coast back to downtown Portland, we came across a series of abandoned railroad carriages:

 

 

Once back in downtown Portland, we strolled around the charming cobblestone-lined paths of Old Porta quaint historic tourist district that before the pandemic also had functioned as a hip nightlife hot spot for locals.

 

 

As of the time of positing the traditional seafood spots by the waterfront have just begun reopening for outdoor and partial indoor dining.

 

 

When restaurants like Scales was too full, we managed to get seats at the last minute at DiMillo’s On The Water.

 

 

When in Maine…

 

 

…you do it right…

 

 

…and I definitely do it right.

 

 

The next morning we wandered past Old Port into the more modern Downtown Portland where I sampled some of my favorite espresso so far at Speckled Axe.

 

 

In the area and under better circumstances (aka if there were no pandemics), you can visit the magnificent interiors of Portland Museum of Art

 

 

…and Victoria Mansion, one of the most historic homes of the 19th century.

 

 

We then headed back to Old Port for an outdoor seaside lunch at Gilbert’s Chowder House:

 

 

…and we followed up with Duckfat‘s famous fried donuts served with caramel dipping sauce.

 

 

Heading out of Portland at 2pm, we drove 10 minutes to Bug Light Park, named after its tiny 24 foot tower that has a direct view of Portland Harbor.

 

 

The much larger and historic (and Maine’s oldest) Portland Head Lighthouse, built in 1791 and located within the 90-acre Fort Williams Park, is another 10 minutes’ drive south.

 

 

After a 20 minute cliff walk at the park, we drove back to Portland and showed up about an hour late to our online reservation (whoops!) we had made for a tandem kayak at Portland Paddle.

Luckily for us in the era of COVID they honored our reservations as demand here still remains low.

 

 

We spent about an hour kayaking in the bay, going as far out west as an abandoned railroad bridge by I-295 and as east to Pomroy Rock.

 

 

Another thunderstorm then arrived in the evening, so we sat that out back in our hotel before compelling ourselves to walk in the rain for our 8pm reservations at Scales.

Remember the Baked Alaska we had 3 years ago at Eleven Madison Park and 10 months ago in Greenland? We had it again here!

 

 

But this has been the running theme of Portland thus far:

 

 

Finally on day 3 of our time in Portland, we decided to finally honor all the recommendations for us to try The Holy Donut the next morning, especially their Vegan Fresh Lemon, Vegan Chocolate Caramel, and Maple Bacon potato donuts.

 

 

And I’m glad we did, physically distanced lines outside and all. 

This is a great send off for the road as we now drive up the 3 hours north to Acadia National Park!

 

- At time of posting in Portland, ME, it was 16 °C - Humidity: 66% | Wind Speed: 11km/hr | Cloud Cover: thunderstorms

 

The “Cabin-da” Woods: “We Are Not Ready For Tourism” | Everything You Need To Know About Visiting Cabinda!

The “Cabin-da” Woods: “We Are Not Ready For Tourism” | Everything You Need To Know About Visiting Cabinda!

 

Primer on Cabinda

Formerly known as “Portuguese Congo” and no larger than the state of Delaware, Cabinda is a curious little region sandwiched between the Republic of the Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Having endured a 30 year long struggle to claim independence from the rest of Angola, it likely may become one of the next world’s “newest” countries give or take a few years (decades?). We’re arriving here early before that happens.

The reason why Angola wants to keep Cabinda is because the region is rich in natural resources and one of its wealthiest: it supplies 65% of Angola’s oil! Nevertheless, it remains one of the least visited places on Earth and where things can get a little rough during our 2 weeks in Angola.

 

 

Arriving from Luanda to Cabinda

Barely getting much sleep after arriving last night from Lubango (especially since the guy next door to my motel room was having an epic fight with his wife), we rushed to board our 5:50am TAAG flight from Luanda to Cabinda.

 

 

Class C on TAAG means business class! It just meant I got a bigger chair and a quick meal of cheese, dried meats and fruits all saran wrapped onto a tray.

 

 

After an otherwise uneventful 45 minute flight, we landed an hour later at 6:50am at Cabinda’s sole airport.

 

 

Amusingly, someone checked in their shoes as luggage. Must’ve been over the baggage minimum.

 

 

Once we hit arrivals, there were no signs of the massive police and military presence they had warned us about.

 

 

Exploring Cabinda City (There’s Not Much)

 

Our local guide’s uncle Jovanny promptly picked us up outside arrivals and we began our quick city tour of Cabinda. There’s not much in terms of “tourism” so you have to do your best with the following 3 “sites”:

1 May Park:

 

 

The Church of the Immaculate Conception:

 

 

And Central/Municipal Market:

 

 

At the market we got a glimpse of the famed Cabinda wood, aka their Viagra.

 

  

Exploring Outside Cabinda City

After driving an hour around the city, we decided to venture outside Cabinda, which we had been warned not to do earlier in the trip due to safety reasons. So many kidnappings and clashes occur on the road between the towns of Cabinda and Malongo that there is now a highly profitable helicopter service that takes oil workers and businessmen from the airport directly to Malongo!

State departments around the world also continue to cite the random roadside attack on the Togo national football team in 2010 as the reason for this region’s notoriety as an active “war zone” and “separatist” region, although nothing as major has since happened.

 

 

Nevertheless, our local guides from Cabinda insisted that we still leave the city, citing a significant improvement in the security situation and that there was nothing to worry about. We went on their word.

After all, they said, “there’s nothing else much to do here in Cabinda.”

 

 

The only thing that “happened” was when a soldier stopped our car to make us delete a photo we took of a random river. They’re bored. Power trips. 

 

 

We then passed through the towns of Cacongo and Malongo in an unsuccessful attempt to see the “bacama” (Angola’s version of voodoo).

 

 

Then we made a random unannounced lunch stop in a random soulless banquet hall in Buco Zau, where we ate with the soldiers stationed there (they made us turn our cameras away).

 

 

And then after 3 long dreary hours on the road, we finally reached Maiombe Forest Reserve, the biggest rainforest in Angola. Not many tourists have ventured here: It took 20 minutes of intense discussions between our local guides and the military stationed there to let us get out of the car.

They wanted us to drive the 3 hours back to Cabinda, get special written permission, make a reservation, and then return to visit the Forest Reserve.

 

 

And yet saner minds prevailed. After checking our passports and taking our names down letter by letter, they sent off a senior officer to guide us to the river. They told us the only thing we could not do was to take photos of any chimpanzees we saw (they inhumanely locked them away in squalid cages).

We hiked about 20 minutes towards the river.

 

 

After 10 minutes here, we turned around and headed back for our jeeps. That’s it! As our local Angolan guide shrugged his shoulders and said: “We are definitely not ready for tourism.”

So by 3pm we headed back to the city of Cabinda.

 

 

As if were the theme of the second half of this trip, however, we suddenly felt our tire go flat. And we did not have a spare tire.

 

 

Luckily (or unluckily?), however, this all happened next to a lake/marsh not even marked on the map.

 

 

So we decided to take advantage of this sign from the universe and pay a few boatmen 4000 kwanzas to ferry us around the lake for a few minutes. Although these boats are meant for 2, we barely made 4 work before threatening to sink our boat completely.

In the meantime our driver Jovanny also successfully flagged down a Good Samaritan to spare a tire.

 

 

After an hour, the tire was quickly replaced and we drove another hour and reached the Monument to the Treaty of Simulambuco

It somehow still exists despite etching in Portuguese that Cabinda should be an independent country from Angola!

 

 

Then we checked into our lodgings and had dinner at the swanky Apolónia. Despite the upscale ambience, the dinner is buffet style where they even weigh your plates as if we were at a bodega.

 

 

Afterwards we officially finished our trip, enjoying one final round of drinks with Rik and Ingrid back out hotel bar. We also did our best to politely ignore all the sex workers aggressively interrupting us to get them a drink.

They also sport a very unique shower head. I never seen something like it before.

 

Close enough.

 

Crossing into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) from Cabinda

 

The next day we enjoyed a lazy morning by the hotel pool before having a late lunch back at Apolónia among an international mix of soldiers from Brazil, USA, Portugal, Namibia, and Angola who seemed to be there socializing and inspecting a construction site by the restaurant.

With nothing much else to do, we decided to peek at the Cabinda/DRC border about a 20 minute drive south from the city.

 

 

The security staff in the pink structure that issues exit stamps may appear strict here! 

However, they seemed to not care when I asked to walk across no man’s land and across the border into the DRC without needing an Angolan exit stamp or DRC visa.

 

 

They replied as long as I didn’t take any photos and walked back into Angola within their eyesight, it would be fine.

 

 

They also didn’t chose not to stamp me out as “we don’t want you to be kidnapped when you reach the other side.”

Why not?

“By not officially getting an exit stamp, you’re still under our protection.” I guess that makes sense?

 

 

So I did just that as I crossed through no man’s land.

 

 

And then I reached into DRC territory.

Except for the photos part since they also didn’t seem to really care about that and looked the other way.

 

 

And Google maps even proves that I made it. I’m actually in the DRC!

 

 

Although I didn’t wander any further than here, I spent enough time across this border in the DRC to have a drink, take a dump, and say hi to the guards there, to the point I didn’t really feel it was a big deal at all.

 

 

Whether or not it counts is entirely up to me (or you as my humble reader), but I know I’ll visit the DRC properly when I swing by Burundi next year. Count this as much as you can count my visit to Paraguay?

 

 

Returning back to the city, we then kicked back at a smaller Apolónia café for an hour before heading back to the airport to check in early.

 

 

We then returned again to Apolónia proper for a 3rd meal there!

 

 

Afterwards we quickly stopped to say hi to our guide’s aunt as he needed to drop something off.

 

 

We then headed back to the airport one last time for our return 8:50pm flight back to Luanda.

 

 

Keep in mind like in Comoros if you have checked luggage, you’ll need to claim it a second time on the tarmac so they know to load them into your flight.

 

 

Once we returned to Luanda, we got to stay at the best hotel in town, the HCTA Talatona Convention Center Hotel (they have a full working gym!).

 

 

Now waiting for our 11pm flight out of the country, where I’m now catching up on all the COVID-19 stuff I need to be prepared for when I return to work tomorrow back in NYC.

 

 

It’s ironic that even though I just spent the last 48 hours traveling through an active conflict zone and region notorious for a brutal civil war, I still my life would still be more in danger back home. Hopefully this won’t be my last trip in a while.

On the bright side, since nobody’s traveling these days (let alone to Angola), I got “business class” again on an economy fare.

 

 

See ya back home!

 

 

- At time of posting in Cabinda, it was 25 °C - Humidity: 94% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy