Sunday, March 28, 2010

Go for the glow!

Flag of Puerto RicoWith only the slight glimmer of the moon and a few glow sticks to light the way a half-dozen kayaks slowly snake their way between the boats anchored in the bay and toward a narrow gap in the mangrove trees. Like knurled fingers, the roots of the mangroves grip the banks of the canal and pull it open to invite us in. The splish-swish of the oars break the stillness of the canal. A faint glow begins to wrap around them as they pierce the surface. Soon we'll be in the bioluminescent lagoon.

The light emitted by the dinoflagellates, a microscopic plankton, grows more intense with each stroke of the thirty minutes spent slowly wiggling our way up the canal to the lagoon. Entering the lagoon becomes an other-worldly experience.

The kayak and the slight breeze become afterthoughts as shooting stars appear below the surface. The lagoon is super-saturated with these dinoflagellates and everything, including fish speeding below, agitate them. Their response is to dazzle us with their light show.

The Takeaway ...

What and Where:
Bioluminescent Lagoon
Fajardo, Puerto Rico
GPS:
+18° 21' 48.13", -65° 37' 32.19"
(18.363370, -65.625608)

Who:
Eco Action Tours
web: http://www.ecoactiontours.com
Phone: (787) 791-7509 and (787) 640-7385
email: info@ecoactiontours.com

When:
Bioluminescence is brightest August through October and during a new moon.

Why:
Because it's amazing!

Dining:
The only restaurant in the immediate vicinity is a greasy spoon-like fish place. It was quite busy so that may speak for its quality. Not being a fish eater myself I had to go back up the road a ways to find a small pizzeria on the side of the road. I'd advise either eating well before getting to the lagoon or bring a picnic lunch otherwise you may go hungry.

Bioluminescent lagoons with this level of intensity are rare in the world. Puerto Rico is home to three of them. The Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve surrounds the lagoon in Fajardo, on Puerto Rico's northeastern tip. As a protected wetland it is an ideal place for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of running a hand through the sparkling stardust in the warm waters of the lagoon. Though the park service frowns on people swimming in the lagoon, the occasional kayaker does “fall in” and is thrilled when millions of glowing pixies dance across their body. It is haunting and ethereal.

The warmer the water the brighter the bioluminescence. Though cooler water decreases the effect it can be seen pretty much year round ... with August through October usually being the best time to view. As with any light show the effect is more spectacular during a new moon or when the moon is obscured.

Guides on the tours provide in-depth knowledge of not only the lagoon but also the surrounding wetlands. The environmental sensitivity of bioluminescent lagoons is often stressed and is the main reason that kayaks, not motorboats, are the main form of transportation on the tours.

Bioluminescence, even at its brightest, is far too dim for photography. Images on the Internet are doctored to include the effect, though they do not do it justice. Enjoying the phenomenon can only be done in person and is well worth the trip.

There are numerous tour companies on the island offering treks for various prices. Despite arriving about a half-hour late I still happily recommend Eco Action Tours for the bioluminescent lagoon tour. These are family-friendly tours with all safety equipment provided. Our guide, Dixon, was knowledgeable and friendly ... making the experience one-in-a-million.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Conquering culture shock in Italy

Sunset on the Ponte Vecchio - Firenze, Italia Traveling abroad can bring a great deal of satisfaction. It can also bring a great deal of frustration if you travel with the expectations that everything in your destination country should be like your home country. Embrace the differences and you'll have wonderful memories that you'll share over and over again. Go against the grain and you'll shudder with dread at the mere mention of the country.

Here are a few tips about traveling to Italy that will make your adventure everything you hoped it could be.

Italian Time

No, it's not like Eastern Time vs. Central Time. In Italy, Italians do their thing on their own schedule. In the more industrialized north of Italy if someone were to say they would do something "piu tardi" (later) that could mean some time within the next few hours. As you travel further south to places like Sicily "piu tardi" could mean some time tomorrow!

Banks and ATMs

ATM Machines are your best friend. They are safe, convenient and during the day there is usually armed security posted near them. Banks on the other hand have their own peculiar quirks. They open late, close early and have a long break during siesta. Unlike American banks where people wait in line for their turn, Italians will walk in the door and cut you off on the way to the teller window. What appears rude to us is just how it is in Italy.

These practices are the perfect reason why you should not carry traveler's checks and instead should confirm with your bank that you can use your ATM Debit card in Italy (or any other destination when traveling). It's always advisable to carry some local currency on you from home so that you have it available for transportation, food or refreshments when you first arrive in country but the bulk of your money should be accessible via your debit card.

If your bank doesn't do currency exchange there is a currency exchange office at the airport. The fees will be higher at the airport but having some local currency when you land as opposed to trying to find a place to exchange money when you get there gives a great peace-of-mind and reduces the stress of culture shock.

Mocha-Cappu-Frappa ... What?

Starbucks does not exist in Italy. What is readily available, on nearly every corner, is the fantastic classic Italian café, or coffee shop. In the home of espresso and cappuccino you can expect to have strong, tasty drinks which taste nothing like what you get from Starbucks. This is a good thing! Most of these cafés are coffee bars, literally ... as they serve alcohol. In the morning you can get an "espresso corretto con brandy" which means basically "espresso with brandy." As for cappuccino, it is only drank in the morning in Italy. It's not a tragic faux pas to order cappuccino after noon but you will get a funny look.

These cafés are also a great place for breakfast. You can get all kinds of fresh pastries at a reasonable price. Often, later in the day, you can also get gelato! One last, important thing to remember about not only cafés but any place that serves food or drinks ... sitting costs more. If you stand up at the bar you are charged less than if you sit at a table. Think of it as a service fee. If you order and pay at the bar and then sit down someone will come over and ask you to pay the difference. Don't be offended ... this is common in other countries in the region such as France and Spain also.

Water

When you sit down at a restaurant for a meal remember, water is not free. And, if you want to order water, order "Acqua, no gas" or you'll get a bottle of carbonated water. Water fountains fed by springs are very common in cities in Italy. Once you are in Italy buy a bottle of water and keep the bottle to refill with fresh, crisp and cool spring water. Not only will it save you money but it allows you to keep hydrated ... which is important in the warm Italian sun.

Sicily vs Italy (North vs South?)

Though Sicily is part of Italy, in many cases it is good to remember that it does have its own culture and language. Though you can get by with standard Italian phrases don't be surprised if you hear or see things that are different than what you saw or heard in Milan, Florence, Rome, Venice, Naples, etc. As you travel further south the country becomes more rural and their economy becomes more agriculturally based. The further south you go the later they eat dinner. It's not uncommon for people to be going to dinner at 9pm in Sicily.

There is a Mafia presence in Palermo and Messina. Unlike during the 70s and 80s the general public is fairly safe from the Mafia. They aren't doing drive-by shootings, car bombings or anything like that at this time. In fact, it's unlikely you'll actually notice any mafioso unless you happen to walk into a church during a wedding and it happens to be a mafioso wedding. It happened to me. Just turn around and walk out. Not a word was said to me nor was I hassled in any way when that happened. Weddings do occur during the week in Italy and Sicily not on Saturday and Sunday like in the U.S.

Markets

The best places to shop, whether for snacks such as fresh fruit or a good deal on Italian-made products, are the open-air markets. In Sicily that would include the Ballarò and Vucceria. Be sure to seek out tarocchi (blood oranges). Blood oranges are a very tasty variation on the oranges we are used to. Personally, I prefer them over standard oranges.

Tipping

Unlike in the U.S. tipping in most European countries, including Italy, is truly optional and certainly not expected. The reason for this is that most restaurants charge a "servizio" or service fee. Even if a place does not charge this fee, tipping is not expected. If you decide to tip a few coins is appropriate. Tipping 15-20% is mostly unheard of in European countries.

Dining

Your most cost-effective dining is done at cicchetti bars. Basically finger foods at reasonable prices. Food from street vendors are tasty, low cost and allows you to experience Italy the way the people of Italy live and eat. Formal dining is divided up in multiple courses: "prima piate (first plate)," "secondo piate (second plate)," etc. Eating this way can get expensive, fast. Usually, if I am sitting down to eat at a regular restaurant, I just eat a main course (secondo piate) in order to keep expenses down.

Gypsies

You will see Gypsies wherever you go. They will beg you to death if you let them. They range from small children to old women and ... believe it or not often they will fake injury or cause themselves some physical harm just to pull off their con. Your best bet is to ignore them and keep walking. When traveling on public transportation, including trains, buses and subways, keep your bags in front of you where you can see them. Pickpockets are everywhere and will rob you blind if you give them the opportunity.

Transportation

Subways, trains and buses are reasonably priced and very abundant in Italy. If you plan your itinerary before you go you can buy a Eurail Pass to cover your train rides. There are numerous options for these and can save you money. Best thing to do is figure out what cities you are visiting and how long and see if the Eurail Pass might save you money over buying them ala carté. Sometimes it doesn't.

Jet Lag

Only one way to beat jet lag ... you have to stay awake. When you land in Italy it will likely be some time in the morning. If you're like me, you probably won't get much sleep on the flight and you'll be tired. DO NOT GO TO BED when you get to your hotel or you will regret it.

I've never suffered jet lag because when I've landed over in Europe I've stayed awake until 10pm or so. This helps your internal clock adjust accordingly. Going to sleep while the sun is still up will keep your internal clock on its home time and you'll be dragging ass for three days until you adjust. Luckily, coming home from Europe you generally don't have that problem because your flight will likely leave in the morning and land back home some time in the afternoon.

Language

Italians speak Italian. Yes, I know you just said "No $#&%!" ... but it is important to remember that not everyone speaks English or is willing to speak English even if they can. The easy way around this is to learn some key phrases such as "buon giorno (good morning)," "grazie (thank you)," "dov'è il bagno" or "dov'è il toilette (both basically mean where is the bathroom)." If you make the first effort to speak in their language they will likely speak to you in English (if they speak English) because they'll notice right away you are not a native Italian speaker. Carry an "Italian Phrasebook" or an Italian-to-English dictionary and you'll get pretty far.

Also, the further south you travel in Italy the more resistant they seem to be to speaking English. Just because someone works at a hotel, restaurant or even the train station don't assume they can speak English. My first trip to Italy I spoke almost no Italian and got along fine for three weeks on the minimal phrases I knew and with the help of both a phrasebook and a dictionary. The second time I went to Italy I actually carried on simple conversations in Italian in many places because I'd taken an Italian class at the Italian cultural center and borrowed language CDs from the library so that I could learn to better understand and pronounce the words. I am by no means fluent ... but with the proper accent, pronunciation and fluidity you wouldn't believe how many times the people I was speaking to replied as if I were a native speaker.

Money Belts and Money

Keep your money, ID, credit cards, etc. in your money belt at all times. Before you leave your room for the day take whatever cash you plan on spending and put it in a pocket that isn't easy for a pickpocket to access. I usually wear a light over shirt with a zipper pocket on the chest. This is where I keep my large bills. A smaller pocket with a Velcro closure is where I keep a few small bills and my change. This gives me easy access to my daily spending money while keeping the bulk of my money, important papers, etc. safe from pickpockets. I don't keep money or anything of any value in my pants pockets.

Italy is on the Euro (€). The Euro coins come in 1 cent, 2 Euro cent, 5 cent, 10 cent, 20 cent, 50 cent, 1 Euro dollar and 2 Euro dollar. You'll find that if you spend those coins first you won't end up with a pocket full of change.

Change

Speaking of change ... Don't get upset if you don't receive exact change. Many times in my travels through Italy the vendor I was dealing with rounded the change they gave me. Sometimes in their favor and sometimes in mine. Don't be offended by this or cause a scene over a few pennies. Typically you'll see this from street vendors where they may owe you two or three pennies and either they don't give them to you or they round up to the next full cent. For example ... say the change due is seven cents. Sometimes they'll give you a nickel and keep the two extra pennies for themselves and sometimes they'll give you a dime so you're making out by three cents. At the end of the day for you it really is a wash. Don't get hung up on exact change and you'll be happier for it.

Packing Light

If you're hopping on trains, buses and subways with your luggage as you travel from place to place you have to travel light. One person trying to drag three or four bags on a train or subway car, especially subway cars, will very quickly discover they over packed. Italy is a first-world country. There are laundromats, Internet cafés and many amenities similar to those in the U.S. Throw your clothes in the laundry and go grab lunch. Plan this in your schedule and you won't feel like you're wasting your time.

When I travel I use only one carry-on bag and a small backpack. Yes, this is adequate for a trip of any length if you're willing to wash your clothes. If you'd rather carry all kinds of excess luggage and struggle with it instead of enjoying your vacation, do so at your own peril! Traveling light, like I do, saves time waiting at the luggage carousel because you won't have to! I get off the plane and I'm on my way to my first destination while most people are still heading to the luggage carousel.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. It should give you some basic idea of what to expect so that culture shock is minimized. Italy is a brilliant, beautiful country with much to offer at every turn. Enjoy it for what it is by experiencing it as an Italian instead of trying to place "American" preconceived notions on anything and you'll really enjoy your trip!