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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Fighting Selfishness On Our 35th Anniversary Vacation, and a Day in Milan, Italy.

Have you ever stayed in a hotel with a bad bed? How about a bad pillow? For me the pillow is often the biggest factor in sleeping well. The Venice Times Hotel probably had the best bed/pillow combo for a great night’s sleep of any hotel I’ve ever been in. And just like that, it was 5am and I was ready to wake up and explore. That made one of us!

Two valuable life lessons are that of being flexible, and considerate of others. Forcing a 5am wake up on Sheri would have been selfish so I laid there until 6am until she was ready to wake up. Forcing 5am would have also fallen into the category of “How’s that working out for you?” Haha.

Sheri and I are similar in so many ways, but in our morning routine, we are opposites. I like breakfast and coffee right away, she likes to wait a while for breakfast. Although my morning routine wanted to head straight down to the restaurant for breakfast, eating breakfast by myself felt selfish. This  was after all, our 35th anniversary celebration.  I decided to use the hot water kettle in the room and make some coffee and wait for Sheri so we could eat breakfast together. I think one of the things married couples wrestle most with is selfishness. When we spend our time “taking” rather than “giving” we really set ourselves up for conflict and failure. I also find that this happens mostly in the little things. String a few “little things” together, and you’ll end up with big things. Again, this falls into the “how’s that working out for you” category. I haven’t met anyone who likes to live in the crazy cycle of arguing and fighting. I’d suggest a good first step is to get over yourself and quit being selfish. Let that become a habit, and you’ll have a lot more peace. 

And now for my Italian word of the week...”Prego”...which means “you are welcome.”

The words “breakfast buffet” can have a lot of meanings when staying in a hotel. This hotel was had a really nice breakfast with an assortment of scrambled eggs, bacon, meats, fruit, breads, and pastries. Now were were ready for our adventure.

I wasn’t sure how much I would like staying a block away from the train station, but it ended up being awesome. For one, you could never hear a train. For another, we were one block away from connecting to all of Europe! We opted for a 2 hour train ride to Milan. That seemed like a good option for a full day trip to see a historical city we’d heard about all our lives. 

Although I was a little nervous about buying train tickets and actually getting to Milan, it was actually a breeze, and finding our train was easy too. All the train routes were well displayed. We had the option of buying a first class or second class ticket. That triggered a bad memory. In the Solomon Islands, first and second class boat tickets only had a $5 difference in price, but a BIG difference in quality. First class was on the top deck with a half working air conditioner. Second class was in the hot, cargo dungeon. In Italy, the only difference was between a cloth seat, or a leather seat for $30 EU more. We bought the second class seat, saved the money, and that was just fine.

The train ride was scenic and very peaceful, with views of beautiful farm land, historic buildings, and gorgeous water fronts. Once we arrived in Milan, we scoped out one of our favorite, low cost things to do in big cities, the Hop on Hop off bus tour. There were 3 routes in Milan. 2 of them would allow us to see all of the big tourist sites and be done in time to catch the train back to Venice.

My favorite site was driving past the little church where Leonardo de Vinci painted “The Last Supper.” I was filled with awe being so close to a place where such a big historical event occurred. The city was filled with great architecture as most of Europe is, and offered lots of photo ops. One of the strangest things about this bus trip was that on both lines, Sheri had a headset that had English in one ear, and Italian in the other. We thought it was weird the first time, but when it happened on the second bus, it was kind of freaky. Who knows, that could be the secret to learning languages faster.

After the bus tour, we walked down some seemingly empty streets which is always a little unnerving. In the daylight I have a lot more courage and sure enough, a few streets later, and we were at a busy intersection filled with shops and restaurants. We made our way into a little deli and had an amazing green and fruit salad! Somehow we resisted the force of the bread that was everywhere. Bread is both of our weaknesses!

Once we started walking, we were a little heated up, but found a little water vending machine on the street corner. The only problem was that you needed some sort of prepaid card to use it. Fortunately there was a really nice man who noticed us struggling like the tourists we were, and he offered to use his card to fill our bottles. He was from Argentina and spoke a little English. Between his English and my Spanish, we enjoyed a nice conversation. 

We made it back to the train station with time to spare and had a nice ride back to Venice. We were both bobbing our heads on the trip as we were in need of a power nap. I set my alarm just in case I fell into a deep sleep and wound up somewhere in Europe that I did not want to visit.  For those of you who have traveled to Europe, you know how easy it is to get around on the train. I would highly recommend it from our Rookie point of view.

After dinner on the rainy streets of Venice, we were tapped out. The next day we’d board our cruise to Greece so we both wanted this sleep to go by fast. We had more amazing places to visit! Stay tuned and we’ll take you there.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Freestyling in Venice and Greece - How to get around

The smell of pizza, the color of gelato stands on every street, the busy water taxi’s and gondolas making their way down canals, could only mean one thing...We’re in Venice! Two years of saving and 2 weeks of quality time and rest were upon us. Our Greek cruise would get its start in Venice, Italy. This trip was somewhat planned in that we knew where we would sleep each night, but a bit free-styled as we did not pre-arrange any tours. For two pretty calculated people, we were looking forward to figuring things out as we went along. Turns out, this strategy would end up being our favorite vacation of all time! We hope you’ll enjoy the tour and learn a few helpful things along the way if a Venice or Greek cruise is on your bucket list.

First things we arrived at the Venice airport, I looked for a local SIM card option for my phone, a much cheaper way to stay connected. My AT&T account has a feature that allows me to pay $10 per day for phone, texts, and data, but the local Vodaphone SIM card was good for all of Europe and gave us 8gb for only $40 euros. We paid the $10 extra because Facebook, WhatsApp, Messenger, and Skype did not count against the 8gb. AT&T is good for Canada and Mexico, but for other parts of the world, I find a local SIM card to always be the best value. Focus on data. For our 2 weeks, 8GB was plenty to surf the web, get emails, post photos on Facebook, and make data calls on WhatsApp & Messenger.

Now for the first adventure...trying to figure out how to get to our hotel in the heart of Venice. Taking a taxi was the obvious choice because there were a ton of them at the airport, but we knew that could be costly so we asked around. For $14 euros, we got on a public bus that took us straight to the main bus station in Venice. It was the number 5 Aerobus. This was a double connected bus with a pivoting center. Sheri and I sat near the pivot point which made juggling our luggage quite a feat for the next 30 minutes. It was well worth the effort as a water taxi would have been $120 EU for a one-way ticket. Knowing what I know now, I would have bought a multi-day public boat and bus combo ticket that included the Aerobus to and from the airport. If you are going to this from the start and you will have unlimited travel around Venice at a great value!

So the bus got us most of the way there. Water taxis were taking off everywhere near the bus station when we arrived and were a little intimidating, but we just started asking around for help. We were told to walk across the bridge and down the path, past the train station, and our hotel would be nearby. 

So that “bridge” was about a 50-meter bridge that crossed the Grand Canal and had stairs going up and down both sides. It was pretty hot out so carrying a 70lb suitcase up and down a big bridge would definitely be a workout. Of course, porters were there to carry bags for a fee, but I needed a workout and didn’t want to pay so we carried our bags.

As we crested the bridge, we could see Venice was hopping with people! Thanks to Google and a local data SIM card, we walked right to our hotel. I’m confident we never would have chosen this hotel if it wasn’t for Trip Advisor. The Venice Times Hotel was tucked away down a little, narrow alley and was very unassuming...just a quaint little boutique hotel. Walking in we were greeted by a wonderful staff who gave us the lay of the land in a very concise presentation. I was immediately impressed by two things at this hotel...they gave us a FREE android phone to use during our stay with unlimited data and free calls anywhere around the world! Wow! Who does this? The second thing was that the wet bar fridge that was fully stocked, was completely FREE for the first round of snacks. It was water, sodas, and juice, but still, a nice touch to not charge for these. I could tell this hotel was going to work out great! Trip Advisor has never let me down yet.

People ask me all the time if I get jet-lagged from all my travel. When I say “no” people often wonder how that is possible. “Discipline” is the key! After a long flight, our body was telling us to sleep, but discipline was telling me not to listen, as that would usually mean a short nap that would turn into a sleeping marathon! Since it was only about noon, we decided to lay down for a brief nap. Without discipline, we knew this could have started our body clocks off on the wrong foot. Getting up after an hour nap was pure mind-over-matter because we probably could have slept for 4 or 5 hours! 1 hour proved just right, as we woke up refreshed and ready to explore. We also got a regular night's sleep that night.

We had always seen pictures of the Grand Canal, the gondolas, and water taxis. We were not really sure how big Venice actually was. Would we get lost walking? Would we walk for hours and not reach the end of the canal? Fortunately, our hotel staff let us know we could make the walk from end-to-end in about 30 minutes. A piece of cake right? Well, we still had to wind around on busy little streets, which were many times more like tight alleys where we feared we’d get lost. Between some well-placed signs, and following the crowd, we made our way just fine. You really can’t get too lost in Venice.

It was a little toasty outside, so after getting back to the hotel, we cooled off, then decided to look for a dinner spot. Another inside scoop from the hotel staff directed us to cross the bridge near the hotel and enter into the local side of Venice on the other side of the canal. We were told we’d find a quieter area with some restaurants and shops that were priced more for locals instead of paying high tourist prices. The suggestion paid off and was a very nice evening away from the crowds. We didn’t really have to walk that far to get there. Just cross the bridge and the vibe totally changed. We found a small little Italian restaurant and ordered some lasagna and pizza. Before long, a busking guitarist set up right near our table and gave us what felt like our own private flamingo guitar concert. He was awesome! For dessert, we found a gelato shop which is pretty easy to do. They are everywhere! Pistachio for me and some Mango sorbet for Sheri, and our night was complete!

There was more food to experience, more sites to see, but we were tapped out on Day 1. We were already planning how we’d mix it up on Day 2. Venice could not contain us. Where would we end up? Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Adventure and Challenges of Giving Clean Water in the African Bush

The Liberian Bush is a thick jungle teeming with wild animals, beautiful foliage, and bugs big enough that they seem like they could carry you away. Occasional tight paths cut by humans and lined with razor grass were many times the only sign that we were not alone. Roads can only take you so far, and my day began with that reality.

Toyota Land Cruisers are the vehicle of choice in Liberia and rightly so. They are tough and can climb almost any terrain, but in the Liberian Bush, they have their limitations. As we made our turn form the main highway, the lightly damp, red dirt road had many signs left over from the rainy season. Smooth patches of the road became scarcer the deeper we went, eventually leading us to the end of the road and to the banks of the St. Paul river. I had crossed this river a year ago using a canoe that barely could float, so the idea that today we would cross on a “ferry” was a little sketchy. “What do you mean by “ferry?” I asked my hosts. I would soon find out.

As we parked the Land Cruiser and walked to the banks of the river, we were met by the owner of the area we were in. Turns out, he had been very helpful with transporting the clean water filter systems we use to the other side of the river banks. With great joy, he welcomed us and thanked us for bringing life-saving water filter systems to their district. He shared with us that his family was the recipient of a system and it had changed their life. They all used to have frequent cases of diarrhea but since receiving the filters, their stomach sicknesses had vanished. He was so happy that every family in Liberia would have access to these water filters. After the customary Liberian handshake, a shake and snap of the fingers upon exit, we made our way to the ferry.

I could see that the ferry was on the other side of the river. The government had recently dedicated this ferry to the area. It was a large flat barge, maybe 16 feet wide by 30 feet long, with side rails and a tarped covering. There was a large cable that stretched from one side of the river to the other and the hand-cranked pulley system on each side of the ferry would serve as the “motor.” Two very lean young men would take turns and provide the cranking power to move the ferry from one side of the river to the other. Each guy cranked the entire width of the river. No CrossFit needed for these guys. They were cardio kings!

We loaded a few motorcycles onto the ferry and slowly crossed the river. Upon reaching the middle section of the river, I couldn’t resist snapping a few shots as canoes paddled by us making for a very picturesque setting. When we reached the other side, we were greeted by the rest of our clean water team. There were great smiles all around as we were reunited once again. After a little hike up the hillside, we all got on motorcycles and began a 1-hour ride on a narrow jungle path.

Riding motorcycles is a mixed bag for me. On one hand, they are so liberating as you feel as though you are one with nature. They also can go where no car can go. On the other hand, you are riding on the back of a motorcycle with no helmet on a slippery dirt path making your way to the middle of nowhere in the jungle of Africa. Fortunately, we couldn't move that fast so the thought of falling off wasn’t that scary until I thought about the idea of breaking a leg in the middle of nowhere in the jungle. Now that would be a super bummer!

One of the greatest thrills of this ride was passing by village after village that had already received clean water filter systems. Since it was morning time, all the huts had their filters outside filtering their morning 5 gallons of water for their family. It was quite a spectacular sight and I was so proud of our team for all of their hard work. So many tens-of-thousands of people had already had their lives changed and I was witnessing it with every village we passed.

After our 1-hour ride, we finally came up to our target village of around 50 mud and grass huts and were greeted by lots of smiling faces who had recently received filter systems. Today would be the second time in 8 weeks that they had received a follow up by our teams. In addition to tracking whether or not the villagers have mastered the usage and cleaning of the filters, our teams documented any further reductions in diarrhea, school and work days recaptured, and any financial benefits of using the water filter systems. The data on this day would once again demonstrate the incredible impact these filters are making at changing lives!

As we finished our day, the thought of making the 1-hour journey back to the Land Cruiser was mixed. “Let’s not crash” was at the top of the list for me, but no sooner than those thoughts came out of my mouth, we had an accident with another motorcycle coming from the other direction. Typically, it is customary to honk your horn when going around blind corners. The road that we needed to ride on cut right through the village huts we were visiting. We needed to make a sharp left hand turn around a grass hut in the village so we gave the horn a beep. Right as we did, another motorcycle rounded the same hut from the opposite direction, loaded with supplies he had recently purchased. We slowed down, but the other driver slammed directly into us. We stayed upright but he laid his bike down. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. The other bike had a little, broken piece of plastic, but we all were somehow uninjured. That was a relief! And now you know just one of the reasons why we need everyone to pray for us while we’re out there.

As we moved on through the jungle, the thought came to me that our teams really do go where no one goes to ensure that every man, women, and child have clean water in Liberia! That is a fact that will be accomplished by December of 2020. Before we blink, an entire country will have border-to-border clean drinking water. Take a deep breath because there is much work to do!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Redefining Adventure in Liberia

I had no idea that today would be filled with mountain climbing, sliding down hillsides, laid down motorcycles, black ant attacks, gold mines, lots of sweating, and yes, lots of clean water.

Driving into the middle of the African bush can be a little intimidating. Dirt roads that cars can easily drive on quickly turn into dirt paths that test the limitations of the best 4-wheel drive vehicle. If you want to give clean water to every village in Liberia, you’ll have to start with those paths and usually end up at a broken-down bridge. That’s where we parked our 4-wheel drive today. Fortunately, we had 5 motorcycles with us so I jumped on one of them which is really not one of my favorite things to do on a slippery dirt path.

The motorbike took us about a half of a mile where we approached our first testy hillside. We made a run at it but the morning rains made the path too slick. We had to get off and push the bike up what felt like Mt. Everest! To say my lungs were exploding would be an understatement. Once again in my life, I reached the great milestone of “max sweating!”

We finally reached the top of the hill where we all were gasping for breath. In what seemed like a miracle encounter, a young woman walked by us carrying a large plastic bowl of bananas. For $3 we cleaned her out and got a little energy. While I was standing there, I failed to realize that I was standing in a black ant frenzy. One of the motorbike riders pointed them out to me and that set off a race to get them off of me. We saw them in my socks, but those little things must be really fast because in a matter of seconds, I could feel them climbing up the inside of both my legs. There were even a few that had already made it up the outside of my pants and had climbed inside my shirt! Thankfully the ants were not hungry and I didn’t get one bite! I was just a little freaked out though.

Off on the path we went again, scaling the hillsides briefly by motorcycle until the path became unpassable. We found that out after one of the riders laid down his bike. Fortunately, he wasn’t hurt, and so we began walking until we finally reached a valley that turned out to be a gold mine. Yes, a literal active gold mine. There were a few people digging for gold, but we passed on the temptation and pressed on towards the village. Up another giant hill, we went slipping on the slick path while listening to the sound of what sounded like giant birds. Turns out, they were giant birds nesting high in the jungle treetops. They looked like some kind of Toucan with their giant beaks.  

Once we reached the top of this last hillside we FINALLY reached the village of 120 grass huts. It was a pretty awesome sight to behold and probably my favorite in Liberia so far. We were there to follow up with this village that had recently received clean water systems. What would we find? Would the villagers be using them? This village did not seem like it was very sanitary but I still had high hopes that the villagers would be using and enjoying their filter systems.

As the town chief approached, we were greeted with a big smile, and a very warm thank you! He said that their village used to always have diarrhea as they all drink water from the local creek. But since they’ve received their filter systems, all of their diarrhea has disappeared! They were so happy! Of course, I wanted to see the filters in use for myself so we could collect data on this life change. One-by-one, we went to each house. They were ALL using their filters on a regular basis and everyone was able to demonstrate proper use of the filters. We did give a little coaching to a few villagers teaching them to clean their filters systems right after they filter a bucket of water, but for the most part, this village was a home run!

My favorite part of the day was at the first house I visited. There was a little 2-year-old boy who immediately began calling me Papi. He came right up to me and wanted me to hold him which was so precious! He ended up following me around all day.

As we finished up the last follow-ups, the grueling thought came to my mind that we’d have to leave on the same path that we came in on. Well, we took a deep breath and started our journey. Needless to say, I was pretty tapped out after this journey, but it reminded me of just how hard these teams work every day to make sure every village in Liberia is reached with clean water! The NGO teams are the real heroes of this story.

I’m glad I experienced everything I did today! I have a new level of respect for those who do this day after day. No wonder they are so lean and fit!