Packing Checklist for New Zealand

Every trip I create a new packing list. This one is tailored to my upcoming trip to New Zealand and Australia. cheklist-3

 

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Destiny Part Five; Chasing Shadows

We had a rough arrival in Athens!  The honeymoon was over, I thought as we were starting to wear on each others nerves or maybe we were just tired, either way we arrived by plane late afternoon and made our way via bus to the city center.  After about a 45 minute bus ride we had finally made it to Syntagma Square. Stepping off the bus I felt as though we had been magically transported to a different world! Athens was the complete opposite of  the serene island of Santorini; horns blared, scooters whizzed by, people rushed through the streets, and all the signs were in Greek, I felt so disoriented. 

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 “Ok which way to the hotel?” I asked.

“I dunno”, Tony said, “you got the map”.  I studied the map and could clearly see where our hotel was but as we walked up and down the street a few times I realized it was hard to tell which direction we were walking. Not to mention the street names were unrecognizable as they are basically just a long string of Cyrillic letters.

“What should we do?” I asked. Tony hailed a cab and we headed to our hotel in Omonia Square, about a ten minute cab ride from Syntagma. The driver dropped us off at a small hotel a few blocks from the square. Later we found out that Omonia is not a popular tourist spot, actually visitors are advised not to stay in this neighborhood. Once inside the hotel manager was friendly enough and notified us of the typical amenities; breakfast, safe options and what to do in the area, before we went to the room to unpack and change.

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Once checked into our room I asked Tony again what should we do today? In a somewhat edgy tone he said, “I don’t’ know, just figure it out. I’m not just gonna tell you what to do Chrissy, Do I have to do everything?”

“You… do everything?” I shot back, ” I have pretty much read all the guidebooks and found all the restaurants and bars up until now.”  Not wanting to argue, I asked; Are you mad at me or what is your problem?

“No of course not-I just feel like you expect something from me, I’m not used to it. Can you just figure out what we should do today?” he said using a slightly softer tone.

I went over by the window and studied the map, pretending to not be bothered by his hurtful comment. “Ok, the Plaka is the main strip of bars, restaurants and shops and is just a ten minute walk away so we should do that”, I said.

Walking in silence on the walk to the Plaka, I couldn’t help but think about Tony’s accusation- that “I” needed someone to tell me what to do, how dare him! My ex-boyfriend would never have been so mean…what is his problem?

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Suddenly I realized, maybe I am used to someone telling me what to do, I haven’t really been alone or single in at least 10 years! I had been in 2 serious relationships, one right after the other since I was 18 years old. Quickly scanning through the past 5 years of my ten-year relationship with Mark I saw how dependent on him mentally and emotionally I was. Of course it happened gradually, I always considered myself an independent person but somehow I began to rely on his input, his perspective until mine somehow got lost…maybe even disappeared. This bothered me. Who am I by myself? I wasn’t quite sure.
A disturbing thought dawned on me, am I doing the same thing now?  Following Tony around, expecting him to provide direction, be who he wanted me to be. I had a sinking feeling of disappointment in my stomach…in myself. Even this trip-was just me going along with Tony’s vision and plan. Anger welled up inside me- what the hell am I doing? Am I just going to blindly follow someone around my whole life-an interchangeable figure or can I figure out what the hell I want to do for myself? Isn’t that what I have been doing the past few months that I have been single-trying to replace him because I cannot think for myself or don’t want to be alone.
Tony interrupted this disturbing train of thought, “ What do you want to do?” I don’t know I answered honestly. Maybe, I was being a little hard on myself but still; this is not who I wanted to be. I suggested that we eat some place in the Plaka where I could read through the guidebook and put a plan together for the next week.

Athens From our hotel we headed down Athinas Street, past Central Market over to the Plaka. The walk was quite an experience, most of the walls were covered in graffiti-this might be concerning to some but the grafitti and street art is my favorite part of Athens.  A photographer’s dream in fact! I could walk around for hours and days photographing graffiti, and it was so much more creative than that in Chicago. Athinas Street heads straight into Monistiraki  Square where we could then cut over to the Plaka to get something to eat. But once in Monistiraki, I didn’t want to leave, the energy is captivating. Sitting under the watchful eye of the Acropolis, Monistraki Square is the center of activity with people-watchers, dancers, street performers, trendy shops, and the ever popular flea market on Sundays. I wanted to sit there every night. Not to mention you can get a Frappe for 1.50 euro and a Souvflaki or Veggie Pita sandwich topped with French fries for only 2.00 Euro.  This turned out to be our favorite lunch-every day in fact, Tony would get the souvflaki pita and I got the veggie and sit in the square.

But that night Tony insisted we get some food and dragged me off reluctantly, to head to the Plaka.

Monastiraki Market

Ouzo, Ouzo, Ouzo!

Rows of Greek Taverna’s along the Plaka made it difficult to make a final choice of an eatery, each one looked better than the next, each one the host outside insisted had the best food, eventually we found a quiet little place near the end of the strip. After a delicious meal of Mousaka ( a rich casserole of baked eggplant, zucchini and potato topped with béchamel sauce) and a Greek Salad I started to feel better. Tony got Pastitsio; a baked dish made from ground meat layered with pasta and usually topped with white sauce too. We hadn’t eaten all day! The waiter must have noticed that we were not talking as I poured through the guidebook and Tony looked at his camera, he tried to cheer us up by slamming down two shots of liquor onto the table and yelling Ouzo! We all started laughing and I reluctantly swallowed the whole thing, he cheered and we all laughed!

After dinner I carefully planned out what Tony and I would do the next day, which was New Year’s Eve. We would start early in the morning with a visit to Central Market to take photos, and then in the afternoon visit the Acropolis, then at night celebrate New Year’s Eve in Syntagma Square with fireworks and drinks.

After dinner the tension between us died down, we wandered around the Plaka, taking photos and looking at paintings for sale and evil eye bracelets, it turned out to be a fun evening.

Part 6; An Athens New Year!

Monastiraki

Hot Chocolate and Rich Mole Negro! Indulge Your Sweet Tooth on a Chocolate Lovers Holiday to Oaxaca

Oaxaca is a lively colonial-style city located in central Mexico that boasts many grand churches, trendy restaurants, and hip Mezcal bars! But it is also the producer of the best chocolate in Mexico. Rich Mole Negro, Mexican Hot Chocolate and freshly-made chocolate treats are consumed at almost every meal in Oaxaca. Chocolate lovers will be in heaven!

Oaxaca Chocolate makers!

Oaxaca Chocolate Makers!

The Birthplace of Chocolate

Not many people are aware that Oaxaca is the birthplace of Chocolate. The Aztecs believed chocolate was the food of the gods. At one point it was such a valuable commodity that they even used it as currency. The Aztecs and Mayans were the first consumers of chocolate although not in its current familiar form. A popular drink among the Aztecs was Xocolatl; a bitter chocolate concoction made from ground cacao beans, vanilla, chili peppers and spices. The famous explorer Hernan Cortes introduced chocolate to Europe in the 1500’s when he brought it back home from his journey to Mexico. The Spaniards created their own version of the Aztec’s chocolate beverage by adding sugar and removing the chilies. This creamy hot chocolate beverage became a hit that spread across Spain and then throughout the world. As it turn out the Aztecs and Spaniards were onto something in their obsession with Chocolate! Many people now believe that chocolate has proven health benefits; it is shown to be rich in antioxidants, have anti-aging properties and is a mood enhancer.

Traditional Mole and Chocolate in Oaxaca

Chocolate is a main staple of the cuisine of Oaxaca. Chocolate is not just used in beverages and desserts but to make a variety of dishes as well. Rich chocolate in its raw form is used to produce a delicious traditional dish in Oaxaca called Mole Negro. Most are familiar with Mole; a sauce typically served over pork, chicken, turkey or enchiladas, but Mole Negro is a rich sauce made from dark chocolate, garlic, sesames seeds, cloves and many other spices and ingredients.

The actual chocolate is locally produced in Oaxaca, but the seeds come from the Theobroma Cacao tree that grows in the Tabasco and Chiapas regions of Mexico. The cocoa beans are then locally produced into a variety of chunky bars, slightly different than what Americans may be used to. This pure dark chocolate has a grainier texture and is semi-sweet. Popular bars are made with Canela (cinnamon), Vanilla, Mezcal, con leche (with milk) and sin azucar (without sugar).

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Calle Mina or Chocolate Street

The best place for you to sample this rich delicious chocolate is on Calle Mina; coined Chocolate Street because of the concentration of chocolate shops located on it. Within a couple block radius of Mina you will notice the scent of richly ground chocolate that fills the air. It is intoxicating! Their are three main chocolate purveyors located on the same block; Mayordomo, La Soledad, and Guelaguetza.

If the scent doesn’t lead you to this chocolate strip-here are some directions; start at the corner of Calle 20 de Noviembre and Mina at Mayordomo- the biggest chocolate producer in Mexico. They have a multitude of shops in Oaxaca including a large one in the main bus station. This large shop located on Calle Mina produces chocolate right in the front of the store. They sell a large variety of rich chocolate products including Mole Negro. People can bring in their own family recipe and wait for the chocolatiers to grind and prepare it for them. This large shop also has a chocolate bar where visitors can indulge in a frothy Mexican Hot Chocolate or other snacks.

The fun part is watching the chocolate makers make the chocolate right in the front of the shop! Groups of visitors frequently crowd to watch the production of freshly made chocolate at the first shop they come to but you can see this process at all three shops. First they grind the roasted cocoa beans in large grinders then they mix in vanilla and nuts or cinnamon. The result is a pure dark chocolate paste that can be made into bars or mole.

Chocolate Lovers Vacation

Chocolate fanatics can overdose on all things chocolate at La Soledad, located at Mina 212. This bustling Chocolatier produces chocolate on-site but also has a hotel and restaurant specializing in the decadent treat! Plan to have breakfast or lunch at the Chocolateria Restaurant de Soledad where they specialize in many chocolate-filled desserts, moles and beverages. Need a quick burst of natural energy? Soledad sells a delicious product called Choco-energetico; a fresh chocolate treat made with chocolate and honey guaranteed to kick you into high gear. Still need more chocolate immersion? Stay above La Soledad at the Chocolate Posada Hotel. This cute little bed and breakfast has 15 rooms centered around a courtyard. The best part is waking up or going to sleep to the delicious smell and taste of chocolate.

After chocolate street, head over to Oaxaca’s central fresh food market; 20 de Noviembre Market. This is a lively market to shop and have an authentic Mexican Hot Chocolate beverage. Mexican Hot Chocolate can be made with aqua or leche (water or milk) and is served in a small bowl with a side or pan or bread for dipping. Vendors sample and sell a variety of traditional Moles such as Rojo or Negro to try or to prepare at home.

Chocolate Vendors at the Market

How to Make Authentic Mexican Hot Chocolate

If you can’t make it to Mexico try this recipe for authentic Mexican Hot chocolate at home. You will need a Mexican molinillo; a whisk used to froth hot chocolate. In a medium sauce pan melt 2-4 squares of dark chocolate such a Mayordomo or Abuelita. Slowly mix in 4 cups milk (almond milk or water). Stir constantly using the molinillo or wire whisk until the mixture is frothy and the chocolate is melted. Add sugar, cinnamon or vanilla to taste; serves four.

For a thicker and creamier hot chocolate try a traditional Champurrado. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, mix 1/4 cup masa flour (light corn meal) and 1 cup hot water. Stir with whisk constantly to remove all lumps. Slowly add 4 cups milk and 2 squares of Mexican chocolate (or amount desired). Stir with a wire Wisk until all chocolate is melted and allow it to reach a boil. Reduce heat until it reaches desired consistency. If it is too thick add more water or strain. Serve immediately.

Visitors to Oaxaca fall in love with this charming colonial-style city rich in culture and tradition, but its the prevalence of rich chocolate treats that will draw them back time and time again!

Yummy Hot Chocolate!

Yummy Hot Chocolate!

Red Line…Blue Line…What? Chicago’s Public Transportation System

Red Line… Blue line…what? Ask a Chicagoan for directions and your bound to get a number of cryptic responses. Get on the “L” and take the Blue line to the Red line and get off at the “Loop” and just walk over to the “Bean”.

Chicago!

Chicago!

Warm weather, beaches and fun festivals; Summer is the best time to visit Chicago!  Must see for visitors are Millennium Park, Navy Pier, the Jazz Fest and of course the Taste of Chicago. Currently hotels in Chicago are offering a number of discounts and specials to draw visitors to this great city. When deciding on where to stay in Chicago, transportation options and what you want to do while on vacation are important factors to consider. For example, staying out by O’Hare Airport might save some money, but be prepared to take a 30-40 minute train ride into  downtown. But don’t worry with some careful planning and a basic understanding of the transportation system visitors will be able to pick the right location for their visit and check out all of Chicago’s main sights-no stress involved.

The Chicago Transit Authority Bus and “L” System for Tourists

Ask a Chicagoan for directions and you can get a number of cryptic responses. Get on the “L” and take the Blue line to the Red line and get off at the “Loop” or walk over to the “Bean”.  Once you learn the lingo-the system is actually quite easy to follow. The “L” is Chicago slang for the Elevated trains that run North and South to various points in the city. The colors correspond to the lines and its destinations. There are actually 8 different “L” lines, but most tourists will probably only use the Blue Line, the Red Line and the Brown Line trains. The Blue Line starts out on the far North side at O’Hare airport, heads South through the downtown area and ends at Forest Park. The Red Line, which runs from North Chicago starting at Howard through the downtown area and ends in South Chicago at 95th. This line hits both major ball parks: Wrigley Field (Addison exit) and US Cellular Field (Sox-35th exit). The other frequently used line is the Brown Line which runs between Kimball on the North end to the Loop Downtown.

The "L"

The “L”

How to Get to Chicago from Midway or O’Hare Airports

The “L” train is also the cheapest and often fastest option for travel to and from both airports into Chicago. Taking a cab is the most expensive option. Expect to pay $30.00 to $50.00 for a taxi depending on which airport and your final destination. The “L” is the best deal at $2.25 a fare!

From O’Hare, visitors can easily take the Blue line into the city. If you arrive at terminals 1, 2 or 3, look for the signs that say “CTA Trains” or “Trains to City.” These will take you straight to the “L” station. From airport terminal 5 you will have to take the Airport Transit System (ATS) to Terminal 2, and then simply follow the signs to “CTA Trains” or “Trains to City.” Travel from O’Hare to Downtown takes about 45 minutes.

For tourists flying into Midway, the Orange Line offers a direct route from Midway into the downtown area of Chicago. Once off the plane or out of baggage claim area, look for the signs labeled to “CTA Trains” or “Trains to City.” There is also an orange line painted on the ground that will take you directly to the train station by enclosed walkway. The train travels Northbound around the Loop (downtown area) and then heads back South to Midway, passengers will need to transfer depending on their final destination. The trip into the Loop takes about 20-25 minutes. The Orange Line does operate daily and holidays but does not offer overnight service so it is important to check the schedules.

Chicago Bus and ‘L” Passes and Rates

Cost per ride either Bus or “L” is reasonable at $2.25 per single use, if you pay in cash each ride is 2.25.   Transit Card Vending Machines are located in all “L” stations and at the airports and accept both cash and credit. You cannot purchase Fare cards on the actual bus; cash is only accepted.

There are a number of day passes ranging from 1-3o days, that might be a better value if you are using public transit during your whole stay. CTA Pass Machines are located at both Midway and O’Hare airports, the Chicago Cultural Center, and CTA’s Lake, Roosevelt and Adams/Wabash rail stations downtown, they accept cash or credit cards and dispense a variety of passes including 3-Day, 7-Day, and 7-Day CTA pass. These types of passes allow unlimited rides for one person starting at the first usage. Most stations also have an attendant to offer assistance.

Train service on the Blue and the Red lines runs around the clock; including holidays. The Brown Line has limited hours and stops running around Midnight or 1:00am. Visitors should check the hours on the CTA website.

Chicago Bus Tracker for Tourists

To supplement the “L” trains, the Chicago Transit Authority has an extensive network of bus lines available too. Buses are easy to use in Chicago as they typically follow a straight path along one designated street as opposed to some other countries where the bus follows a route. This makes the buses in Chicago easy to use and bus stops are located on almost every main corner in the city. Keep in mind the suburbs have totally different system called “Pace.”

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) has a great program accessible to any traveler called the CTA Bus Tracker by logging on to this site online or via mobile phone passengers can view exactly where their bus is and when it is coming. A great tool for those who have to endure waiting for the bus during the grueling Chicago winters.

Another great tool is the CTA Bus Tracker by Text. Users can receive texts with the estimated arrival times for their specific bus. Instructions are now appearing on all posted CTA bus stops. Basically locate the site ID located on the bottom of the CTA sign you are at, then text ctabus [stopID] to 41411 to receive the bus arrival time. Some buses do have limited hours so check the schedules posted on the CTA website. Both bus and “L” line maps can be printed or accessed online making sightseeing in Chicago easy and fun. Check out the CTA website for how to guides and schedule/route information.

Chicago is a world-class city filled with an endless variety of options for fun and entertainment. So whether you are heading over to Navy Pier, Millennium Park, Lincoln Park Zoo or Oak Street Beach, don’t stress-hop on an “L” or a bus for a fun day in a great city.

A Guide to Navigating Dia de los Muertos; Oaxaca, Mexico

Sugar Skulls

Sugar Skulls

Every year Oaxaca Mexico comes alive for the colorful Dia de los Muertos festival, also called the Day of the Dead. Strongly rooted in Mexico’s indigenous traditions, this festival honors and celebrates the relatives and ancestors that have passed on. During the period from October 31st to Nov 2nd, elaborate altars are constructed for the dead, parades and live music fill the streets, traditional moles are prepared, and late night vigils are conducted in the cemetery.

Aside from the festival, Oaxaca’s center is filled with colonial-style churches, a car-free main square, trendy mezcal bars, and many traditional restaurants.

What is the Day of the Dead?

Although the Day of the Dead festival occurs at the same time as Halloween, the two holidays differ significantly. Halloween tends to focus on ghosts and trick or treating, whereas Dia de los Muertos is a celebration and remembrance of relatives who have passed on, inviting them back into the lives of the living for one short week before they have to depart again into the afterlife. Although the Spanish linked the holiday to the Catholic All Souls Day in an effort to colonize Mexico, it’s no secret that Dia de los Muertos is strongly rooted in the local indigenous traditions of pre-colonial Mexico.

Even with its strong emphasis on honoring the dead, this is not a sad event; don’t expect tearful vigils by gravesites, or people in mourning, this is a fun celebration marked with feasting, parades and live music!

Shopping and Markets in Oaxaca

A fun way to get involved first hand in the Dia de los Muertos is with a visit to a local markets: check out Benito Juarez market, 20 de Noviembre market, or further afield is the massive Abastos market. During the festival week these markets become increasingly crowded with shoppers purchasing colorful decorations, costumes and ingredients for traditional dishes.

The excitement is contagious at the 20 de Noviembre market, children pour through booths filled with devil masks and skeleton costumes, laughing and picking out their attire for the kids parade. Stalls and tables are overflowing with grave site offerings (ofrendas) and altar decorations such as fragrant copal incense, bright orange marigold flowers called cempasuchitl coined flor de muerto (flower of the dead), candles, and religious statues.

Kids Parade

Kids Parade

The market is also a great place to buy purchase inexpensive souvenirs and decorations to take home. Many vendors sell wooden Day of the Dead boxes; these colorful scenes depict skeletons poking fun at everyday life and human existence. Typical scenes may include a skeleton mariachi band, a skeleton riding a bicycle, or two skeletons getting married. Other fun items to purchase are the hanging ornamental metallic cut-outs of male and female skeletons and devils in festive clothing. Sugar Skulls are an iconic image as well; many stands and carts are filled with dozens of chocolate or sugar skull candies in all shapes and sizes, some with names written across their foreheads.

Creating the Altar

Creating the Altar

Benito Juárez is the main food market located just a couple blocks south of the main Zócalo. This is a great place to sample and purchase traditional food items that are central to Oaxaca. Mole is a popular holiday sauce or paste that comes in many varieties like Roja (red) or Verde (green). But the main staple for the holidays in Oaxaca is Mole Negro, a dark paste made with chilis, freshly ground chocolate, garlic, tomato, herbs, cloves, and many other seasonings usually served over chicken, turkey, pork or enchiladas. Another popular holiday item is Pan de Muerto (bread of the dead); visitors will see dozens of large displays of these big round loaves or some formed in the shape of bodies with skulls baked into them.

Snacks at the Market

Snacks at the Market

Adventurous eaters can try some chapulines; this crunchy salty snack is made from grasshoppers and insects seasoned with chili and salt. Visitors will see many chapulines vendors with overflowing baskets and carts filled with these crunchy snacks.

Chocolate lovers will be in heaven in Oaxaca. The chocolate sold is locally produced, freshly ground and minimally processed. For a delicious treat at the market try a creamy hot chocolate made with milk or water served with a side of mini pan de muerto. Afterwards head over to Mina Street, coined chocolate street, to visit one of the local purveyors of chocolate. Visitors can watch as the cocoa beans are ground in large grinders into a rich creamy chocolate paste to later be made into bars or mole. This is a great place to purchase fresh chocolate bars for souvenirs or to eat.

Shopping at Abastos Market in Oaxaca

The bustling Abastos market is another major market on the outskirts of Oaxaca. Navigating this humongous market can be tricky, especially on the days during the festival. But it is worth it. The market is packed with food vendors selling fruits, vegetables, chocolate, cheese, meat, and fish. In addition, there are huge sections selling furniture, religious goods, clothes, shoes, rugs, birdcages and pet products. The handicraft section is overflowing with hand-made baskets and clay and glazed pottery.

The streets leading in and out of this daily market can get extremely crowded, especially during the holidays. Because parking is an issue, it is not advised to rent a car to get there. The most convenient and affordable way to get to Abastos is by public transportation or private taxi.

Constructing a Day of the Dead Altar

Many shops, businesses and homes will have a large altar set up for Dia de los Muertos. The tradition of setting up an altar has a dual purpose: to pay respect and honor the dead and also to invite the deceased back to visit. Most altars contain pictures of loved ones, Cempasuchitl flowers (marigolds), candles, offerings of fruit, chocolate, incense, sugar skulls and candies. Usually people place favorite items their loved ones enjoyed while alive on the altars. If the deceased drank or smoked, one will place a shot of Mezcal or a cigarette on the altar.

A trail of marigold flowers, candles and sand leading from the door to the altar will help show souls the way back home. Copal incense has a heavy flagrant scent and is burned as an offering to the deceased and to help purify the souls of the dead so they can safely make it back to the afterlife.

The Xoxocotlan Cemetery in Oaxaca

The Xoxocotlan cemetery comes alive (pardon the pun) with an almost carnival-like atmosphere on October 31st with live music, clusters of food vendors serving delicious traditional foods and partying crowds that spill out of the cemetery onto the streets. The atmosphere is contagious – order a giant foot-long stuffed flour tortilla filled with ground meat, cheese, beans and hot peppers, and wash it down a cervesa fria (cold beer).

Xoxo ( pronounced ho-ho) cemetery is divided into two sections: the pantheon Viejo (old) and pantheon Nuevo (new). Each area exudes its own atmosphere and experience for the all-night gravesite vigil. The old side offers a more traditional and quiet approach. Families quietly sit around the dimly lit decorated graves and share stories of their loved ones. In the center of the pantheon Viejo is the Capilla de San Sebastián; this old church structure is a sight to see. It was built in the early 1500s by missionaries and has been damaged by multiple earthquakes.

The new area of the cemetery is louder and filled with a younger partying crowd. Many children and adults wear costumes, and the graves are elaborately decorated with statues, candles and sand art displays. At the pantheon Nuevo the music, drinking and partying go on well into the morning hours. Although there is a fun, festival nature to this holiday, it has deep spiritual meaning to its participants. The cemetery is not a tourist attraction, so it is essential to be respectful when viewing and walking through the gravesites.

XOXO Cemetery

XOXO Cemetery

Dia de los Muertos Events

Many of the main events are centered around the Zócalo or city square. This tree-lined square is filled with restaurants, cafes, churches, and shops. Many of the comparsas, or traditional parades, originate and end at the Zócalo. These are not scheduled events so check with your hotel for more information.

During the course of the week, dozens of people are busy constructing large scale sand art displays in the center of the Zócalo. These intricate colorful works of art depict skeletons or scenes typical of Dia de los Muertos. Another fun sight are the dozens of giant decorative skulls that line the main streets surrounding the Zócalo. These colorful six-foot tall paper mache skulls are elaborately constructed with colorful themes and artwork by local artists.

Fun Events in Oaxaca!

Fun Events in Oaxaca!

 

Tours in Oaxaca Mexico

Many tour companies and taxi services are available in town to help visitors navigate and make sense of this event. Norma Hawthorne of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator offers small group size photography expeditions to the festival in both Oaxaca and Teotitlan del Valle. The most valuable part of her tour is her personal expertise on the culture of the area.

Another option is to visit Oaxaca on your own and use private taxis or guides, easily arranged upon arrival. Oaxaca is a safe city, sheltered from the violence prevalent in the border cities of Mexico. Once in Oaxaca, most of the sights and events are within walking distance from the main square and the historic center.

Dia de los Muertos is a colorful festival full of fun activities and events not to be missed. Visitors to Oaxaca are often captivated with its old-world charm, its gourmet restaurants, trendy bars, amazing markets and colonial churches.

Dude…Where’s My Luggage?

 New York LaGuardia International Airport

We had just arrived in Paris! Excitedly we hurried off the plane from Palermo discussing what to tackle first; the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame? While waiting at the luggage turnstyle at Charles de Gaulle Airport I started to get nervous when the last bit of luggage was scooped up by a fellow traveler. Watching as the empty belt circled around a second time not carrying my luggage, it finally sunk in…the worst has happened my luggage was missing. Now what?  

Whether you are traveling internationally or domestic, when your luggage doesn’t make it to your final destination it is a huge inconvenience to say the least. But don’t worry – there are some preventative measures you can take to lessen the likelihood of this happening.

With the cost of travel so high, saving money on flights is always a huge plus but make sure to check all the details before booking that cheap flight. Minor inconveniences such as tight layovers between flights, flying on multiple airlines, or flights involving multiple stops may save you money now but your luggage may be affected if something goes wrong. According to the Aviation Consumer Protection Division, the safest option (for your luggage, that is) is to take a nonstop flight; and the riskiest is an interline connection meaning change of aircraft and airlines. It might be worth it to spend a little more money to take a non-stop flight on a reputable airline. One potential scenario is missing your connecting flight, this can mean bad news for your checked luggage especially if the flights are on multiple unrelated airlines; you may not have enough time to recheck your luggage between flights. Your luggage may get lost in transit when taking flights involving two or more stops-the more people handling your luggage, the higher risk you take in it getting delayed or lost.

Pack Smart for Travel

Of course the best guarantee against lost luggage is to carry-on, but this may not always be an option. Sometimes during boarding if the crew notices that the overhead space is getting tight they will ask the remaining boarding passengers to check their baggage. Some smaller planes used for domestic travel will have different baggage limits too forcing you to check it before getting on.

In the event that something delays your luggage it is always wise to take a small carry-on bag for your essentials and valuables. Items such as jewelry, camera equipment, lap top, phone/camera charger, medicines, and itinerary are not only hard to quickly replace but also are not covered by most airlines lost baggage policy. Don’t forget to carry your spare glasses and contacts as these items are hard to locate internationally or the prescriptions are not the same.

Camera chargers and extra batteries can be heavy but they can be hard to replace internationally especially if you have a DSLR camera. Often they need to be ordered online which is not feasible on vacation. Make sure to pack all camera equipment in your carry-on to avoid this potential problem.

Choose your Luggage Wisely

Choose your luggage wisely. I love designer bags and luggage but the only time my luggage was lost in Paris was coincidentally when I checked an expensive and stylish Guess upright. When we arrived in Paris, my bag was the only piece that was missing. Skip the super expensive-looking luggage and go with something a little bit more conservative.

To avoid having someone accidentally pick up your luggage at the baggage claim, make sure it stands out. One suggestion is to put a colorful tag or sticker on it so it is immediately recognizable to avoid this common occurrence.

Make sure to have a baggage labels that are clearly visible and durable enough so they cannot get easily ripped off. Clearly print your name and contact info including your email and phone number. It is a good idea to put a label inside the luggage as well.

Don’t lock your luggage. Airline security may need to inspect your luggage and if it is locked it may get delayed or detained.

Don’t Check in Late for a Flight

I found this rule out the hard way. While traveling to Texas to hike the Guadalupe Mountains, my friends and I had individual carry-on bags but we had to check the one bag with all the camping equipment; tent spikes and propane and all the dangerous items not allowed on a plane. We were running a little late but had more than enough time to board. But we did not look up the airline’s baggage check in deadline. This is often a shorter deadline then you have to make it onto the actual flight. Our luggage had to be put onto the next flight and we had to wait at the airport in Texas for our bag to arrive. We were all happy the luggage finally arrived but it put us behind a few hours. If we would have had a connecting flight it would have been a big mess!

I also found out that in some cases the airline will not assume liability for your bags if you miss this deadline. This is one mistake that can start the trip out on a bad note.

Purchase Travel Insurance

I have never been a proponent of travel insurance until my luggage was permanently lost. Purchasing travel insurance may provide the traveler with additional reimbursement of up to a standard of 1000.00 for lost luggage and an additional 500.00 for delayed luggage expenses. Travel agents and even Travelocity offer travel insurance for a small fee.

Although every airline has a lost baggage policy the key benefit of purchasing travel insurance is it is hassle–free to file a claim. Most airlines take a minimum of three months to cut a check for your lost items. When Easy Jet; a UK based airline, lost my luggage on a trip from Palermo, Sicily to Paris, France (a non-stop flight,) it took over six months, 3 claims forms, and 10 follow-up emails to get a check for my items. For a small airline they actually had a pretty good reimbursement policy and I got paid $1700.00, but I had to provide original receipts and an itemized list of everything in my bag

I highly suggest reviewing the lost luggage policy on the airline you will be taking to find out if you need travel insurance. I was surprised to learn that there are limits to how much an airline will compensate you for lost luggage. For example American Airline and United have a similar lost luggage policy. Maximum allowances for lost luggage on domestic flights (U.S.) is generous with a maximum of $3,300 per lost checked baggage, however, international travel will only be reimbursed up to $9.07 per pound with a maximum of 70 pounds per checked bag. That is hardly compensation at $634.00 per bag. Under the Montreal Convention 1999, International airline carriers in the EEU may be liable for damages up to $1500.00 depending on the exchange rates and airline policy.

Most travelers erroneously believe if their luggage is lost they will be compensated for all its contents. Unfortunately this is not the case. Almost all airlines share a common list of items that are not reimbursable such as jewelry, cameras, laptops, medicines and personal documents. It is also required when filing a claim with the airline that you must submit receipts and a detailed description for every item in your bag. Failure to accurately fill out the paperwork, not providing receipts or failure to file timely may result in a delay of your reimbursement check.

What to do if your Luggage does not Arrive?

You’re waiting at the baggage claim as others pick up their bags and leave you start to get nervous. The worst has happened. Your luggage has not shown up at your final destination. Now what? Go directly to the lost baggage department to file a report. Even if they assure you it will turn up make sure you have all the necessary information and understand it before you leave the airport. They will give you a lost baggage number; you will need this number for everything including tracking and later for filing a claim. Make sure you have your baggage tags claim tickets and boarding passes for outbound and return travel. Ask where your luggage will be sent when it finally arrives. Leave the dates and addresses of the hotels you will be at in case it arrives and they will ship it to your hotel. Clarify what number to call or web address to check to find out the status of your luggage.

Find out if they have a policy on purchases made for essential items. When my luggage was lost, Easy Jet airline reimbursed me up to $300.00 for the first three days my baggage was missing, but it ended up being incorporated into the total amount I could claim.

Most airlines do not consider luggage officially lost for 21 days, at that point you will have to file an official lost baggage claim with the airline.

To check or not to check…that is the question. I advise carry-on whenever possible. If you have to check your bag, always take the above precautions to minimize the inconveniences that will definitely follow when your luggage does not make it to your final destination.

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Get Ready for a Wild Ride…Icelandic Style

Iceland is a land of extremes filled with hot geothermal springs, ice cut fjords and sub-glacial volcanoes.  What better way to tour Iceland’s natural beauty than by dog sled?

“Waiting at the top of the Mýrdallsjökull glacier was a team of ten anxiously waiting sled dogs. These tough but adorable dogs are purebred Greenlandic Huskies, Yann our dog musher told us.  Despite their tough exteriors these dogs are friendly and playful.  After playing with the dogs for awhile, we climbed onto the long white wooden sled.  Markus the second musher, warned us to sit as far back as possible and leave enough space in the front for them to stop the sled in case of emergency. Though I was not quite sure what that meant, I did as instructed.

My dreams of an energetic start failed to materialize. The dogs were off to a slow start. The lead dogs would trot a little then stop and look back at the mushers, as if to ask, ”What should we do?”

Markus ran up ahead to lead the dogs so they wouldn’t keep stopping and playing with each other.  Yann and Markus skijored (skied) alongside the sled calling out commands to the dogs. “Hike!” they shouted, to get them to run, “Haw!” they yelled to turn left, and “Gee!” to turn right.

 I was enjoying the ride as the dogs were trotting along now at a leisurely pace. Skijoring effortlessly alongside, the mushers were successfully controlling the team. All of the sudden the dogs took off and ran out of control at full speed.  I was surprised at this sudden change in speed. Yann yelled “Whoa! Whoa!” repeatedly, but they didn’t stop.  I was laughing hard but also was kind of scared that they would run off the side of the glacier!   All of the sudden Yann let go of the rope to avoid skiing wildly into our sled.”

Read my full article online at Dog Sledding Adventure Tours Near Reykjavik Iceland.