Monday, May 21, 2012

High Plains Drifters on the Road Again

DSCF0089The High Plains Drifters, our other nom de blog, will soon be living for a couple of weeks in our hot, dry timeshare world -  Arizona’s desert. 

We’ve got plans to see a number of long time friends from the Northwest (who have also migrated south seeking sun) as well as some local folks we’ve met in the blogosphere: Jackie Dishner author of the guidebook, Backroads and Byways of Arizona, and publisher of the blog, Bike with Jackie (I love that title!) and David and Carol Porter, known  as The Roaming Boomers.  (Take a minute and check out those blogs by clicking the blue links.)

Before we settle in to our Scottsdale ‘home-away-from- home’ life, we’ll be traveling some of the back roads and byways,with stops in Prescott and Jerome in the north central part of the state.
We’ll also be taking a four-hour tour aboard the vintage train, the Verde Canyon Railroad, travelin’ 12 miles an hour through the Verde Canyon, once the home of the Sinagua Indians.

Have any recommendations for us in the Scottsdale/Phoenix area? Or north central Arizona?  How about recommendations for books set in Arizona? 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Global Entry and Pre Check: Ready, Set, Go!

DSCF2425Remember me? I’m the one on whom ‘explosives [were] detected’ during a random check at SeaTac Airport in January.

It was my hand lotion’s glycerin, we think. I now fly high, but dry!

And remember us being held in that ‘secure area’ of Iceland’s Airport after I passed with flying colors the the ‘random security check’ for which, by lucky draw, I’d been selected?

We weren’t alone; nearly three dozen other bewildered passengers bound for the U.S. were not ‘allowed to mingle’ until the plane boarded.

With both those experiences fresh in mind, I was a bit hesitant to apply for the U. S. Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry Program, for international traveler; the one that, in turn, qualifies participants for the T.S.A.’s PreCheck, domestic trusted travelers program.

 ‘Trusted Traveler’  programs

Global Entry is a program that requires completion of an extensive on-line application and payment of $100 application fee. If, following a background check, conditional approval is given, then an in-person interview at a local CBP office is conducted. Fingerprints are taken and processed and photos taken during that interview.

If approved, you use a kiosk when re-entering the United States, rather than waiting in those long lines to get the passport stamped and go through Customs inspection.

PreCheck allows approved passengers, whose backgrounds have been checked, or those in Global Entry, to use check-in security lanes that no longer require removing shoes, belts or jackets and allows leaving laptops and liquids in the bags. Instead of the controversial x-ray machine, travelers walk through a metal detector (like the early days of security).

Pre-Check is being introduced by a select number of airlines, including Alaska Air, the one we regularly fly. A select number of airports are participating in this early stages of the program and many more are slated to participate.

Our story

DSCF1003We completed the application form in early March, paid our fee and waited. By the end of March we’d  received notice of ‘conditional approval’ and set up in-person interviews with CBP officials. In our case, the closest office was at SeaTac Airport. 

In early April we were interviewed; each asked a series of questions, were finger-printed and had photos taken that would appear on an identification card we’d be issued if approved.

The finger prints were apparently ‘run’ while we were there as approval was given to each of us before the meeting was over. We were taught how to use the kiosk. Our ID cards arrived two weeks later.

Does it work?

washington wednesdays 005We used the Global Entry kiosk at San Francisco’s airport when we returned from Mexico. It was a snap – no lines, no wait time. In and done.

We’ll experience PreCheck at SeaTac next week when we head to Phoenix.  For the first time in many years I am looking forward to  check-in.

A Note to Naysayers

There’s been a  lot of critical comments added at the end of on-line media articles about this program. Critics call it a program for the ‘elite’ who can pay for a speedy security experience.  The cost, was $100, good for five years. That’s $20 a year. If you can afford to buy the ticket and other trip costs you likely can shell out an additional $20 a year for ease of check-in.
Some claimed the streamlined check in security isn’t thorough enough.  I can tell you that based on the questionnaire and interviews, our government knows far more about Joel and me now than they did when simply examining our bare feet in the airport x-ray machine. 

The program guidelines also make it clear:  random security checks will be done in this new speedy program just as is done in all check in lines. 

Sigh. We know my luck in being drawn for those random selections. . .

Note:  I’ve included links above that take you to the Global Entry and TSA PreCheck sites if you want to know more about either of these programs.  Are you already participating? Leave a comment and let us know how it is working.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

TPThursday: Mexico’s Men of the Sea

There is nothing more enticing,
disenchanting and enslaving than the life at sea.
--Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim

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Each evening -- after a full day of fun and frolic in Riviera Nayarit, Mexico --  we’d head to our condo’s deck to watch the sun set over Banderas Bay.  And, at a certain hour, the scattered parade of small wooden fishing boats would pass our viewing stand; the ‘rut-a-tut-tut’ of their engines announcing this nightly ritual.  Each was headed to some predetermined spot in this, the second largest bay in North America.

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As our day came to an end, the pescaderos, (fishermen’s), day was just beginning. From our deck in the early morning we’d see them still working in the same place they’d been the night before.

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I came to look for the two pictured above. It became a ritual: they worked and I sipped morning coffee and watched.  I pondered the story they would tell about their lives, these Men of the Sea.

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During our cruise ship stop in Cabo San Lucas, we gathered with a handful of other visitors and shoppers to watch this fisherman preparing his catch for sale. (Note the feathered  freeloaders who waited for – and often got – samples.)

Cabo is one of 31 ports on Mexico’s Pacific Coast that  produces nearly three-quarters of the country’s total catch.

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Huachinango, or Red Snapper, (pictured above) were readily available just north of Puerto Vallarta at the daily fish market at Cruz de Huanacaxtle’s slick new Marina. It’s one of our favorites so one of these guys went home with us and made for a great dinner.  Thanks to Mexico’s Men of the Sea.

It is Travel Photo Thursday so click this link and head on over to Nancie’s Budget Travelers Sandbox to take a quick tour of the world – it is great armchair travel.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Three phone calls later: Singapore is Rome

RivieraNayarit2012 335Regular readers and those who know us well won’t be surprised to learn that we’ve changed travel directions again.

The winter’s “Big” cruise from Singapore is now the autumn cruise  from Rome.

All it took was a couple of phone calls.  Really, it was that simple. Proving, once again, that planning travel really isn’t that difficult.

The original plan: Frequent flier airline seats to and from Asia. A Celebrity cruise from Singapore to Sydney, a few days there (using Marriott points), then off to Bali, returning home a week later . Yikes – that put us traveling two days before Christmas! (Read that: the dreaded holiday travel.)

We were looking forward to the Asian Adventure, but. . .

RivieraNayarit2012 155While in Mexico we had plenty of daydreaming time and started discussing other destinations that we want to visit in the next couple years. . .

Then, back in Kirkland this week Joel happened upon the ‘perfect’ Celebrity cruise – beginning in Rome, ending in Venice, with stops in Montenegro, Croatia, Greece, Malta and Slovenia along the way. If only we weren’t headed to Singapore. . .

After a 24-hour ‘ponder-the-idea-period', Joel checked on availability of frequent flier seats, which was key to any changes, with airline prices being what they are this year. Two calls to Alaska Airlines in as many days and we had seats and a good routing to Europe.  He nabbed them after cancelling the Cathay Pacific business class seats to Singapore. We’ll  fly business class on KLM to Rome and back.

DSCF2121The third phone call was to CruCon Cruise Outlet (the travel agency we use for booking cruises because they’ve had the best prices and on-board goodies). They moved our $200 deposit from one cruise to the other, we’ve now got a balcony room on the Silhouette; incurring no penalties and getting the same on-board credits and other goodies as we had on the other cruise.

Then he cancelled our Marriott ‘loyalty points’ reservation in Sydney and used them to book a five night stay in a Marriott “Autograph” Hotel in Venice. (Use of those hotel points in Venice saved us approximately $1,700!)

We were excited about the Sydney experience; but we are plain crazy about this new adventure. Joel’s dug out the Lonely Planet guidebook to Slovenia to get the research started. . .I ordered a new Baggallini roller tote from a discount on-line shop.  Let the fun begin. . .

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Where Paul Theroux Goes. . .so do we!

Paul Theroux, the prolific writer of travelogues and novels, is a favorite of ours. Through his books, we’ve followed him around the Mediterranean, India, England and Africa  . . . as he has travled on trains, ferries, and even on foot.

He inspires us to stretch ourselves until our comfort zones tingle . . .

It was after she strapped the mask over her mouth and eased on a pair of rubber gloves, that I started to feel nervous; about the time the reclining chair began elevating my feet higher than my head. 

“Paul Theroux did it, so can I,” I told myself.  But when she had me open my mouth and the instrument she held  began whirring, I thought, “Do I really need to do what Paul Theroux does?”

RivieraNayarit2012 054Our first stop in  Bucerias, Mexico was to have our teeth cleaned thanks to an article of his published in many U.S. newspapers that told of his walking into Nogales, Mexico. While its focus was on border crossings, among his experiences was returning with cleaner, whiter teeth.

Each of our cleanings took about an hour and included an exam by the dentist.  The total cost for both was $91US.  When compared to the cost of having it done at home, the savings had nearly paid the cost of one of our airline tickets.

We are not advocating an exodus to Mexico for dental work. We tried it and were so comfortable with our experience that a future cleaning might prompt our next visit south of the border.

While the article sparked the idea, we went to this dentist because he came recommended by gringo friends who’ve gone to him for years.  His web site explains his qualifications, has photos of his office that we reviewed prior to our trip.  (The waiting room was never empty and every patient was an American on the afternoon of our visit.)

There are hundreds of web sites citing both pros and cons of having dental work done in Mexico.  We didn’t research any of them prior to our trip simply because if Paul Theroux could do it, so could we.

What travel experiences have made your comfort zone stretch until it tingled?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

TPThursday: Getting Stoned in Mascota, Mexico

Our trip down Mexico’s Memory Lane took us last Saturday to the small town of Mascota, Mexico, nestled high in the Sierra Madre’s behind Puerto Vallarta.

We were delighted to see that little had changed since our last visit nearly a decade ago. The pasteleria (bakery), the iglesia (church), the zocalo (town square), the archeological museum; all were as we remembered them. 

As we toured our favorites, Joel recalled ‘that house made of stone' and we set off to stand on the sidewalk and admire its construction as we’d done on previous visits.

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What made it so amazing was that the stones used in the border on this two-story home’s fa├žade were so small they could  easily fit in one’s hand. It obviously had been meticulous, painstakingly detailed work.

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However, we were no longer  forced to admire the home from the sidewalk because seven years ago it had become a museum; El Pedregal Museo, The Stone Museum. Paying the 10 peso per person admission fee (less than $1US) gave us entry to one of those quirky, unexpected experiences that make this life of travel so wonderful.

We were greeted by the owner, curator, artist and our personal guide, all rolled into one Don Francisco Rodriguez, who told me I could photograph anything in the place with the exception of the dozens of historic photos that line the walls (each in a stone frame, of course).

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Perhaps because we were the only visitors at the time or because we were genuinely interested in his work, we toured the upstairs living area as well as the downstairs gallery. (Note the coffee table and the television surfaces as well as the walls are stone.)

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The dark diamond shape designs around the bed’s headboard and base are created by hundreds of black stones set into hundreds of gray stones that make up the background. “This is Fred Flintstone’s bed,” Don Rodriguez joked, as he provided a running commentary in Spanish.

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Everything and every surface in the gallery was covered with stone, including the guitars, and vases displayed at a stone planter.

Tables and chairs, whimsical and practical, you couldn’t help but be ‘stoned’ by the displays.

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Even the public restrooms in the gallery were stone, from the toilet to the sink and waste basket (yes, this really is the ladies room).

Pero, por que piedra? (But, why stone?), Joel asked of our 76-year-old artist as he explained how he goes to the river and searches for rocks, loads them into a wheelbarrow and hauls them back to his work table in the museum.

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Porque es mi pasion, (Because it is my passion),” he answered simply with a shrug and a grin. 

We spent far more time in the little museum than we had planned; his photos and the stories he told about them provided a fascinating history of this town in which he has lived his life.

I told him I planned to write about him and his museum for this blog. It was only then that he told me he was also a writer,  he’s authored four books on various historical aspects of the town and its culture.  (We later saw them displayed all over town). 

Writing is another of his passions and to that one I could relate!

Note:  If you find yourself in Mascota, (a 2.5 hour drive from Puerto Vallarta) the Stone Museum is two blocks beyond the town square and church. It is open ‘all the time’ according to Don Rodriguez (and if it isn’t, it would be worth going back to when it was). 

Today is Travel Photo Thursday so rock on over to Budget Travelers Sandbox to take a photo tour of other great places in the world.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Adios Riviera Nayarit ~ Hola Sierra Madres

Riviera Nayarit 2012 053 We are spending our last day in Riviera Nayarit at this week’s ‘home away from home’ - our beach front, Villa del Palmar Flamingos.

Our deluxe studio (the smaller lock-off side of this timeshare resort two-bedroom unit) has provided us a huge ‘home’ and a beautiful view out over the grounds and to the Bahia de Banderas (Banderas Bay).  It’s North America’s second largest bay.

Riviera Nayarit 2012 077 We nabbed this ‘home’ on an Interval World Getaway package that brought the cost to $60US a night (regular rate is $200US).  Again, we are reminded of why we are loving the timeshare world. We are sold on our membership benefits in this exchange company and recommend it to all of you who also have fractional ownership properties.

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We are back in the zona turistica, the tourist zone, between Puerto Vallarta and Bucerias, so there’s been a lot more resort-like feel to this location than our digs further out towards Punta Mita last week.  We would be hard pressed to choose between them, so we have decided a good solution would be a two-week stay again, split between them.

Riviera Nayarit 2012 075 We are an easy walk back into our old stomping grounds of Bucerias, and less than a 10 minute drive from it.  So although we’ve eaten at home a couple evenings, our social life with old friends has picked up and prompted a number of dinners out.  I’ll tell you about our old haunts in a future post.

For the golf enthusiasts out there, we are surrounded by three golf courses. 

But all good things come to an end, so tomorrow we are leaving the beach area and heading up into the Sierra Madres for a step back in time and a bit more Mexican adventure.  We found some small town treasures up yonder in those hills a few years back. . .we want to see if they still exist.  We’ll let you know next week.
Happy Cinco De Mayo!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

TPThursday: Mexico Magic ~ Un Fiesta Grande

Travel Photo Thursday finds us continuing our travels in Mexico ~ land of song and dance ~ living la vida buena  (the good life).  And nothing says good life  better than a fiesta. . .so let the party begin!

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We’d been talked into buying tickets, about $40US each, to this fiesta by one of our waiters at the place we are staying this week, Villa del Palmar Flamingos.  Would it be too touristy, we wondered, after our purchase.  Would it be worth what we had paid?

Toes begin tapping in the audience – made up of both Mexican and foreign visitors - with the first notes of the rousing songs performed by Mariachis, those iconic singing, strumming minstrels of Mexico. . .

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And then they added some most-talented dancers in colorful dress. . .

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And while we watched  these talented folks we danced our way between tables laden with ensaladas (salads), sopas (soups) and tortillas con salsa and tamales, and chicken en mole salsa, and frijoles (beans) and thankfully didn’t have room for the postres (deserts). . .but then what’s a  fiesta without food and drink!?

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Riviera Nayarit 2012 063 One of my favorite dances is the Dance of the Viejos (the old ones) which brings dance steps and slapstick comedy to the show.

Masked young men, tapping those canes, do a riveting job of jumping, falling and bringing on rounds of laughter during this routine.

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Somehow the early evening twilight had become nighttime darkness.  Those thoughts of ‘touristy’ were long gone; they were lost to the Mexico Magic of their songs and dances. 

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That’s a view of Mexico for this week’s contribution to Travel Photo Thursday.  To see what else is happening in the world, dance on over to Budget Travelers Sandbox.


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