Things You Should Know

Things You Should KnowU.S. Travel

SEPTEMBER 2001: A TRIP FOREVER REMEMBERED

Sept 11 photo 2(1)

Washington, D.C., is a city I have had the pleasure of traveling to on innumerable occasions.  It was and to this day is one of my very favorite U.S. cities.  For a long time I thought it would a great place to live, as long as somehow the humidity was eliminated.

As a politically active couple, the hubby and I had a special reason to be in DC in September 2001.  A group of us went to the nation’s capital to meet with elected officials and have some unique access through the diligent work of our organizers.  We had a tour of the Pentagon on September 10th (see photo below) and listened to security advisers give a sobering talk about threats against the U.S.  A highpoint of the trip was to be a guided tour of the U.S. Capitol on the morning of September 11th, at 9am.  Later that day we were scheduled to visit the Supreme Court.

I took the photo below as we approached the Capitol building, Tuesday morning, 9/11/01.

I remember the events as if it were yesterday.  As we were progressing through the security line at the Capitol, people started reporting a plane had crashed into New York’s iconic World Trade Center — supposedly a small aircraft.  Once inside the building, the reports not only increased but became more alarming.  I became obsessed with the actions of Capitol personnel who seemed to be moving at an abnormally accelerated pace.  I remember saying, “Something’s not right.”

Moments later, the personnel literally screamed at us to run for the closest exit.  I never even looked to see where the hubby was; I just made a mad dash outside and immediately saw the smoke coming from the Pentagon.  Then I burst into tears.  Our kids were all the way across the country,  then just 10 and 12 years old.   Our group all gathered together and miraculously our bus and driver got to us through the chaos and took us as far out of DC as possible.  It was 3pm by the time we got access to our hotel and a television.

There was but one goal in mind and that was to get home.  Even if a flight were available, that was the last thing I would do.  We were fortunate to get a rental car and left Thursday morning with another couple for the drive across country.  An agreement was made:  the trip would be non-stop save for food and “pit” stops.

We reached Oklahoma City early Friday morning, September 14.  The day had been declared a National Day Of Prayer and Remembrance.  How fitting to arrive at the Oklahoma City Memorial, where victims of another act of terror are remembered – the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on April 19, 1995, murdering 168 innocents.   Two photos are below.

It was late Friday night when we knew none of us could drive without some sleep.  We got rooms to recharge and clean up in Kingman, Arizona.  The photo below is with our traveling companions Phil & Michael Anne Kurzner in Barstow.   

We arrived home midday on Saturday.  Neither of us had ever hugged our kids so hard nor been so grateful to see them.

Did the experience change my thinking about travel?  Only to the extent that none of us knows what can happen.  One thing I know for sure — the heroes of Flight 93 that took over the plane and crashed it in Shanksville, PA, averted another tragedy causing even more death.

And then a remarkable connection happened just this week after reading a column in the Wall Street Journal profiling the journey of Deborah Borza.  Deborah’s 20-year-old daughter Deora died on Flight 93.  The column is linked HERE.  I was so moved by the column that I wrote to the author, who immediately responded with her appreciation and that she had forwarded it on to Deborah.  She was hoping that was ok with me (it was more than ok — I wasn’t able to find how to contact Deborah directly).

After Deborah received the forwarded email, she called me and we spoke.  Deborah was an integral part of establishing the Flight 93 Memorial* in Shanksville, PA.  We visited there in 2018.  It is an emotional experience, but one that provides laser focus on what’s truly important in the scheme of things.   We plan to meet in person once Deborah returns to California after all the 9/11 remembrances.

We’ll never know whether the target of Flight 93 was the Capitol Building or the White House.  But 20 years later, I know the passengers’ bravery is something I will never forget.

*My blog from that visit is linked HERE.

Snippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

ALILA — EVER HEARD OF IT?

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No?  Neither had I until I got wind of a new property recently opened in Encinitas (north San Diego area).  In the course of looking for a fun getaway befitting a special anniversary, I explored Alila Marea Beach Resort.  This is a separate brand under the Hyatt umbrella where one might expect premium pricing from Park Hyatt or even Hyatt Regency.  I definitely was not expecting a room cost approaching $1,000 per night (includes breakfast!) on a AAA rate.  I will continue to look.

When considering where else where else to go, I decided to look into an old favorite from early in our marriage — Ventana in Big Sur.  Turns out that property is also now an Alila, and only the third one in the US.  All of the other locations are scattered around Asia and the Middle East.  Ventana was always a splurge, but nothing like it is now.   At least the rate is basically “all inclusive” — per the website:

Each Ventana booking now features the following inclusive offerings: Dining in-room (all meals), poolside on your dedicated chaise lounge (lunch), or at The Sur House (breakfast and dinner). Convenient, healthy, and inspiring snacks to take on the day’s adventures, along with complimentary keepsake reusable water bottles. The Ventana Big Sur picnic program. Access to indoor and outdoor fitness studios. Volvo chauffeur service within a three-mile radius. The Excursion Outpost, featuring complimentary items for your use on picnics, hikes, and more.

The cost for the above (lowest rate and you best sit down) :: $1,650 per night, plus tax of course.  Onward I go.

Then there is Napa, site of the newest Alila.  Scratch that for the desired timeframe (end of August). But we can go earlier in August with rooms starting at just under $1000.  I’m feeling rich.

Thus I look forward to sharing all the stories and photos of the settled itinerary :: Cleveland (the hubby’s hometown) for baseball plus seeing friends and family; Detroit (baseball only) and some glorious days in Chicago for eating, shopping, exploring and celebrating.  Sounds pretty ideal to me.

International TravelSnippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

DON’T LET THIS HAPPEN TO YOU!

passports

If you’re like so many others right about now, you have either booked or plan to book international travel.  BUT, have you checked your passport’s expiration date lately?

I cannot stress enough that you do, because the renewal process “ain’t what it used to be.”  Remember all those passport expeditors (even the USPS) who could easily get it done in a day or two for you?

Chalk up that absent service to another Covid casualty.  I just booked a client on an Alaska cruise that embarks in Seattle.  That means the ship encounters “international waters” en route — thus necessitating a passport.  She hadn’t checked hers recently and it expired in February of this year.  And then the fun began.

Expedited services at best still require 15 business days and some hefty fees.   According to a Wall Street Journal column this week, the State Department indicates the process can take up to 18 weeks for renewals including mailing.   In cases of a life-or-death emergency, there are some “very limited in-person appointments” that require either a death certificate or a letter from a hospital.  No one wants to face that in a time of need.

So, what is the takeaway here?  Like with all else in life, make sure your paperwork and required documents are in order and up to date.  People have waited so long for travel to resume that you don’t want to be denied because of an expired passport.

 

 

International TravelThings You Should Know

GORILLAS IN THE FOREST

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Wait; what?? There’s gorilla trekking in Uganda?  Now that’s something on the proverbial bucket list.  My thoughts that both the exorbitant cost along with adding Rwanda to our itinerary were deal breakers.  Upon learning the experience is the same in both countries but the cost is significantly lower in Uganda (the respective governments set the fees), the decision to go was fairly easy.   With either destination, there is a lengthy list of warnings and precautions one must consider carefully.

Following an Entebbe overnight after our remarkable experience in Tanzania (see previous), an 80-minute flight to the southwest corner of Uganda in a 12-seat Cessna Caravan took us to our next destination.  Again, we were a party of two plus the co-pilots for a great flight.  Both the smooth ride and the view were spectacular.  At the other end, William — our guide for the six-night, three-location stay — was there to meet us.

Heading left for the landing strip
Guide/driver William at our vehicle

Seeing the small villages and towns in the west of Uganda is an eye-opener; sadly not in a good way.  There is tremendous poverty and primitive living along with way too many unpaved roads.

Departure point, where we received our orientation and assigned ranger.

Our stay at Mahogany Springs requires almost no “commute” for the main event — trekking Silverback mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest.  In fact, sometimes the beasts venture onto the gorgeous premises.  And head chef Abraham did a terrific job with every meal!

Mahogany Springs view of the forest from the dining room

Trekking is a stunning and very challenging experience.  The forest is wet, steep, slippery, and full of fallen trees (mostly pieces of the trunk or branches).  Plus there are the tangles of vines which are impossible to avoid.  So a foot could easily get stuck and cause a trip or fall.  Walking sticks from the lodge are an essential component along with gaiters, long socks (for tucking in pants), gloves (for gripping), sturdy walking boots (mine are below — before and after our trek), and a lot of the strongest insect repellent.  Our pre-trip documents had this extensive packing list.

Here’s some million dollar advice:  Hire “sherpas” on the spot — porters who push you and pull you and hold your hand and tell you where best to plant your foot to avoid slipping (or worse) and carry your stuff.  And hire an extra.  They were invaluable, had significant training, and saved us from any accidents which could have easily occurred.

Above with the porters when we were clean and had no idea what lay ahead.  Below, one of many rest stops.  Not even close at this point (at least another hour to go).

Our three porters help the hubby navigate the slope

Once in the presence of gorillas, trekkers have just 60 minutes to observe and take photos.  If the gorillas move, so does everyone else (a team of armed guards in front and back; ranger; porters and trekkers).    Our successful viewing:  One large Silverback male, four adult females and two babies.  The photos:

Below — the silver “stripe” goes horizontally across the back at the mid-point.

The giant Silverback in repose after eating. Note the foot.
Can you spot all four??

Opposable thumb!

When it was time to leave, we had to call in reinforcements due to utter exhaustion from the trek at that point.  For the most part, the hubby and I are pretty healthy 67-year-old’s.  The time for doing this kind of hard-core physical endeavor has an expiration date in the not-to-distant future.  We are very happy to have it in our rear-view mirrors.  And thank the Ugandan Gods for the exit strategy from deep in the forest:  A “helicopter” evacuation.  I was expecting the real deal, but the photos show the actual ride. Had it not been available, we just might still be there.

About the evacuation experience:  It is a very smart and entrepreneurial solution for repurposing car seats.  Someone came up with the genius idea to mount a seat on two parallel metal poles and add an extra seatbelt.  Then, the team executes some Olympics-worthy choreography for changing positions (to shift the weight burden) while the chair and passenger are in the air.  On incredibly steep terrain.  Without missing a step.  Bravo, just bravo.  We (they came back for me too) probably went one-half mile via this mode to get to flat ground for walking.

Immense gratitude for this team

What an amazing experience.  One that shall be savored for a long time.  Next post:  The rest of our Uganda stay — boat safari, chimp trekking and some amazing scenery.

 

 

International TravelThings You Should Know

AND THE AWARD GOES TO …

FIRST PRIZE

For “Best understanding and navigating the complicated world of travel restrictions,” the award goes to :: Anyone who prevails, especially internationally.  I will gladly accept my blue ribbon (after untold hours spent).

Many of us might just cry “Uncle.”  Our family trip to Italy has been rescheduled twice since 2020 and is now calendared for November.  For me and the hubby, this year’s trip was always going to be Africa (Kenya and Tanzania), but what a ride it’s been.  And we haven’t even left yet.

Industrial-strength desire and patience is a must in the planning stages.  It might be tempting for some to think its just too much work to pull off a trip.  And is anyone truly patient?  I know I’m not.  Just when one is certain the itinerary is settled, a new wrinkle appears.  I could fill up a recycling bin with printed copies of reservations made and cancelled.

A LATE CHANGE

The biggest surprise, literally just contemplated and confirmed a few days ago, is Tanzania is out and Uganda is in.  That means in addition to the traditional “Big 5” — lions/leopards/elephants/rhinos/buffalo — we are including gorillas and chimps, oh my!  Until recently, I thought Rwanda was the only place to go for gorilla trekking.  In reality, there are some 400 of these amazing creatures in Uganda’s Bwindi Forest where we’re headed.

The staff at Africa Travel Resource have been extraordinary throughout the process.  Numerous itineraries were offered.  They weighed in with pros and cons.  They have continuously sent clients on safari in spite of the challenges from the pandemic and know the terrain extremely well.

THE JOURNEY THERE

The first hurdle?  Getting to the African continent with travel rules that change daily.  There are few routes (via American Airlines partners) where one is able to “transfer” through a destination.  That means arriving somewhere but not entering the country (i.e., outside immigration).  Instead, the onward travel to the next destination simply continues within the confines of the airport. This avoids any of the country’s quarantine requirements.  Even an overnight at an airport hotel might require quarantine; thus avoid!

A case in point of how airport transfers can become a nightmare:  We once had a plane change in Sri Lanka.  Since we weren’t technically entering the country, I didn’t apply for Visas.  Lo and behold, the Sri Lankans considered going to the baggage carousel to gather our bags for the next flight (on a different airline) to be “entering the country.”  Long lines, language barriers, and a ticking clock to the next departure equaled major stress.  Singapore Airlines more than earned their best airline status by helping us through the calamity.

By the way, if the Sri Lanka episode happens to you, be firm about not missing your next flight.  We were told that there was no way we would make it.  But because of polite persistence and some absolute insistence, we indeed made the flight.  (More about that subject is covered in a previous post linked HERE).

Thus I feel positively victorious to be flying from Los Angeles to Nairobi on just two flights in a mere 22 hours.  We have one plane change in Doha, Qatar, for two hours.  I used 75,000 AA miles per person for the flights on Qatar Airlines. Even with the first leg at 15-1/2 hours, I’m looking forward to experiencing their Q-Suites.

We’re scheduled for the required COVID test just prior to leaving Los Angeles.  Kenya requires proof of a negative test (not more than 96 hours old) for entry to the country.  From there, no quarantine is required so off we go.

The trip map

I will write more later about the rest of the journey.  I’m just happy to be able to finally focus on all that needs to be done before we leave in a few short weeks.  That is a great joy indeed.

Snippets from the RoadThings You Should Know

TRAVEL RULES — THEY ARE A CHANGIN’

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First the encouraging news :: travel agents, cruise lines and tour companies are all reporting record bookings for 2021.  If you’re like so many of us who love to travel, you’re itching to get back out there!  But the how, when, where and all the rest have unique protocols in place.  Nearly as fast as we read something, there is a new rule.

 

RESOURCES

Following are some great sites help you plan.  One of the absolute best I’ve come across is Sherpa via American Airlines.  It is so simple and so full of great information regarding entry Visas and in particular COVID restrictions for any country in the world.  Amazing, up to date, and beyond helpful.

Next is the CDC website.  These links are very comprehensive (if a bit complicated).  I just want the bullet points!  Regardless, check out the following:

Domestic Travel   https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/travel-during-covid19.html

International Travel  (this is a biggie with re-entry requirements just published for all US citizens) https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/travelers/testing-international-air-travelers.html

PLANS (which could be cha-cha-changin’)

I’ve written about our upcoming trip in April to Kenya and Tanzania.  American Airlines main partner is British Airways.  The vast majority of flights heading east have a stop at Heathrow along with exorbitant taxes.  If I can get somewhere and avoid Heathrow, I’m thrilled.  That is the case for this trip.  Our mileage tickets via American partner Qatar Airlines fly to Doha, then on to Nairobi.   Except Qatar now requires a 5-day quarantine. That does not work for our trip schedule.

But, and it’s a big but — some countries allow transit passengers meaning you can transit through the country but not leave the airport.  Sounds like a great plan largely depending on the length of said transfer.  Say it’s 12 hours.  What then?  Well, many large international airports (Hamad in Doha included) have hotels inside the terminal.  They are pricey, but you can book for as little as a few hours to rest, shower, change and proceed on.  It’s not nearly as interesting as departing the airport to actually get a glimpse of the destination or go out for a meal.   But it’s certainly beats hanging around a terminal — even if you have lounge access.

The decision for this year’s route is in flux as we speak. That is, until I can confirm transit status through Qatar.  Heathrow allows for transit passengers so it might just be easier to add the extra cost and change the tickets.    Whatever the route is, it will be with full knowledge of requirements for the trip ahead before leaving.  But we are leaving and that’s the best news of all!