Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Things I learned on my trip to Spain and Portugal...

I am a firm believer that you learn a lot when you travel to new places.  While I had been to Madrid and Seville before we took our trip, Lajes, Lisbon, and Rota were all new to me.  I love it when I experience new and exciting things when I go abroad.  So, since I think I'm pretty much done with the story of our most recent "seat of the pants" trip, here's a list of things I learned in Spain and Portugal.

1.  Spaniards are not rude.

The last time I was in the heart of Spain-- meaning not Barcelona-- I picked up sort of a negative opinion of Spain.  I think part of my problem was inexperience.  Another part was that I was traveling with my older sister, who didn't seem to like Spain much.  Somehow I came away with the idea that Spaniards are rude.  I am happy to report that on the whole, they are very warm and pleasant.  They seemed to like Americans, too… or at least, most of them seemed to like Bill and me.  I didn't feel like I needed to tell anyone I was Canadian, for instance.

2.  Donuts are a big deal in Portugal!  

I had no idea how much the Portuguese like donuts, but I saw them offered everywhere.  I didn't partake of any donuts in Portugal, but I did have a couple in Spain.  They put Krispy Kremes to shame!

3.  Portuguese restaurants bring out food that appears to be free but isn't.

Food wasn't all that expensive in Portugal, but they do make you pay for everything, including butter.  If you eat the bread or dig into the octopus salad or crab dip, you have to pay for it.  If you leave it untouched, you don't have to pay.

4.  Siesta still goes in Spain, but not Portugal.

I've heard that the siesta tradition may be going by the wayside because of business.  However, I did notice that shops shut down at 2:00 so people could have lunch.  I didn't see this in Portugal as much and was told by a travel agent that they don't do siesta there.

5.  You have to pay to go into the Seville cathedral.

As a matter of fact, I didn't see too many churches open in Spain or Portugal like I have in other European countries.

6.  Trying to speak the language is a good thing.

My Spanish sucks, though not as much as I thought it did.  I charmed more than a couple of people by trying to speak it, even though I probably sounded ridiculous.  I have found in other European countries, if you try to speak the language, people will either appreciate it or immediately shift into their far superior English.

7.  Tipping is appreciated.  

This is especially true among cab drivers and carriage drivers.

8.  Don't take the rosemary.

If you're in a touristy area and pushy women try to give you anything for "free", be sure to keep walking.  Chances are excellent that they will either try to pick your pocket or will demand payment for what they're giving you for free.

9.  There's a lot of value in just people watching.

Sure, it's great to see the sights and shit, but I get a huge kick out of just watching people and listening to snippets of conversations.

10.  Street musicians selling CDs are awesome!

Some of my favorite mementos anywhere are CDs I've bought from buskers.  I highly recommend supporting street artists if you like what they're doing.

11. Spanish orange juice is amazing!!!

I miss it.

12. Spanish ads are awesome!

I got a huge kick out of the one featuring the naked guy running through the street with his private parts blurred out.  I also liked the one for nose spray that apparently is so powerful that you can suck up a couple of pencils into your nostrils after using it.

13. Space A trips are very cool! 

Some people are planners, but I love traveling by the seat of my pants.  I love planning things on the spur of the moment.  I also love flying to and from Europe for less than $50.  If you are in the military or retired, I urge you to take advantage of this benefit and see the world.

14. Sometimes you have to trade one travel memory for another…

I'm sorry we lost our wee Scottish umbrella in a bar in Madrid, but I'm not sorry we spent an evening in a seedy local bar, watching the locals mingle and staring at a woman with huge tits.

15. Hit the spa.

I loved our experience at Aire.  I loved goading Bill into it, too.

I learned more than this and I'm sure I'll write more about it later, but right now I have to snuggle Arran, who begged to get into my lap.  I missed my dogs like crazy while we were gone.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Back to America...

Our flight from Rota was pretty awesome.  It was very smooth and I was able to sleep for a good part of it, despite lying on the floor and being a bit cold.  We landed at Whiteman Air Force Base at about 9:00 in the morning.  It was absolutely FRIGID there.  The temperature was about one degree and the wind was blowing like crazy.  We were on the plane as the load masters removed the chains and cables from the helicopters, so it was cold as hell.  An airman came on the plane to clear us through customs.  It was a very laid back interview and the guy who did it was quite cool (in a good way).

A bus was waiting to take us to "base ops", which is a very small lounge with TVs and couches.  Someone in charge at the base explained to us that there was no support for Space A people and taxis were not allowed on the base, so we might have to walk to the front gate, which is not close to base ops.  It was also freezing!

Fortunately, the guy who drove the bus was available to give us a lift to the visitor's center by the gate.  Bill and I and the Seabee called Enterprise and they picked us up, not realizing that there were three of us going instead of two.  For some reason, the sales agent from Enterprise had a driver, so we all had to squeeze into the car for the twelve mile ride to Warrensburg, Missouri.  We got our rental cars and said our goodbyes.  The Seabee was planning to drive to Virginia, while Bill and I planned to get a commercial flight out of Kansas City, Missouri.

I had booked us a room at the Embassy Suites at the airport because after some cursory research, it was clear that trying to get home on Friday would cost significantly more and wear us out.  As it was, we were already pretty tired and needed to sleep.

Bill started the 90 minute drive and we stopped in Independence, Missouri for a bite to eat at a place called The Corner Cafe.  The parking lot was absolutely full of cars and it was barely 11:00am.  I figured that was a sign the food was going to be good.  I had never heard of this place, but it's obviously a chain in Missouri.  We walked into the place and it kind of made me think it was what you'd get if a Perkins and a Cracker Barrel mated.  The menu was full of comfort food and there were a lot of pies.  The clientele appeared to consist of a lot of people with walkers, blue hair, and oxygen support.


Lunch!


We bought this to go and ended up eating it for dinner.

The food was indeed quite good.  We were hungry and I was ready for something comforting.  I had fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and some surprisingly good green beans.  The meal also came with a roll.  Bill had a sandwich and fries.  Walking into the restroom, I could hear the 50s era rock and roll playing.  I took note of the toilet and realized that this was the kind of place that served food that led to taking a big dump.  I saw evidence of that…  'nuff said.


I had to take a photo of this huge American flag on our way to Kansas City.


Bill after we checked in at about 1:00pm.


A folksy note left for hotel guests...

One thing I noticed about Missouri is that everybody seems really down home and "folksy".  Another thing I noticed is that obesity is a significant issue there.  I mean, I am by no means thin, but I was feeling almost petite in The Corner Cafe, the hotel, and even at the airport.  I saw a lot of people using canes, walkers, and oxygen, too.

Anyway, when we got to our hotel room, I took a shower and started watching college gymnastics.  Bill went to bed.  I joined him about an hour later and promptly fell asleep.  The bed in our room was surprisingly and delightfully comfortable.  We slept through the manager's reception and didn't feel like going out for dinner, so we ate the pie we got to go at The Corner Cafe.  Then we went back to bed and slept until about 5:00 Saturday morning.

Bill was fretting a bit about what he was going to do with the rental car.  It turned out it wasn't an issue.  We ran into another guy, obviously military, who told us he works in Hawaii.  We found the rental car facility and got the shuttle to the terminal driven by a kindly older gentleman named John who was very chipper, especially for the time of day it was.

We went to get our boarding passes and drop our luggage.  Since Bill is active duty military, he can check two bags for free on Delta.  So we checked in and it turned out our flight was so packed that we were assigned seats at the gate.  The agent who helped us then said that only Bill was entitled to get free bags.  Bill said he knew, but since he's allowed two bags, he claimed mine as his.  I'm not sure why this was an issue for the agent.  I mean, in his shoes, wouldn't she do the same thing?  Who wants to pay $30 a bag?  She let it go and then asked us to take the shoulder straps off the bags.

Our bags dropped, we headed toward security, where I noted that I had been pre-selected for "pre-check".  That meant I wouldn't have to remove my shoes or jacket, nor did I have to pull out my electronics for security, as long as I made it through the metal detector.  Well, I was wearing two jackets because it was so goddamn cold outside.  I took one off and left the other one on.  It had a metal zipper, so I set off the metal detector.  So then a member of the security force came over to escort me to get my hands swabbed.

I initially thought these people were TSA, but it turns out the Kansas City airport is one of the few airports that doesn't have official TSA people on the payroll.  Instead, they have a private security force that follows the same procedures as TSA does.  Anyway, the young woman who was to swab my hands came over and asked me to go with her.  I reached for my stuff and she said that she had to carry it.  I still had my passport and boarding pass in my hands and set it down while she prepared to test my hands for nitrates.  Her machine wasn't working, so another security person had to do the test.  I went to grab my passport and boarding pass and she said she had to take them.  We went to another testing site and the guy swabbed my hands.  Naturally, I came up clean.  The experience made me think it would have been much easier to just go through the regular screening.

We ended up getting seated in the exit row at the ass of the plane.  A very sunny flight attendant confirmed we were willing and able to help the crew if we should crash.  The flight was basically very pleasant, until we were about to land.  I had left my purse on the floor for the entire flight because I couldn't hear the announcements very well where we were sitting.  It turns out that if you sit in the exit row, you have to put all your stuff in the overhead bin.  A different flight attendant came over and asked me if she could put my purse in the bin.  I said, "If you must."

I really wasn't bitchy about it.  My voice was matter-of-fact.  I know they have their rules.  However, the damn purse was on the floor for the entire flight and no one said anything and I honestly didn't hear them say that it had to be in the bin.  I had put it under my seat when we ascended.  So then the flight attendant said in a preachy voice (as if talking to a child), "I must because you are sitting in the exit row!" Fine.  The explanation wasn't necessary, really, and I could have done without the holier than thou tone.

The other flight attendant who had been so nice made an impression on me.  I actually went to Delta's Web site and sent a note complimenting her.  I had made a note of her name and wrote that I hoped they'd let her know that a passenger had appreciated her very pleasant personality.  Maybe random praise will help her get a promotion.

We were supposed to have a two hour layover in Atlanta.  Bill and I decided to have lunch at the Sweetwater Tavern.  Sweetwater is a craft beer made in the Atlanta area.  We used to drink it a lot when we lived near Atlanta.  The waitress ended up chatting with Bill about home brewing, which Bill started doing in earnest when we lived in Georgia.  We gave her some tips and it turned out the guy sitting near us was also a home brewer.  It was kind of neat being around all the beer geeks.


We left the tavern with a few minutes to go before we were supposed to board our flight.  It looked like we were going to get home early.  But then, just after Bill called the kennel to let them know, we got word that the plane we were supposed to board had a maintenance issue.  Once again, we were going to be delayed.

So then Bill struck up a conversation with a guy who turned out to be a lawyer in San Antonio.  Bill is taking a computer law class, so they had something to chat about.  I sat there and played with my phone.

Naturally, the plane was packed.  It was a very obnoxious flight and we were in the second to the last row, so there was a parade of people passing to go to the bathroom.  Some Army guy reclined in my lap and there were conversations so loud I could hear them through my noise canceling headphones.  That flight could not have ended soon enough.  And then, once it did, it took awhile to get our bags.  Mine came out quickly, but Bill's took much longer.  

When we got to the parking lot, we couldn't find the damn car…  And then the road we needed to get on to get to Camp Bow Wow was under construction, forcing us to take a detour.  But we did finally get there and the boys were delighted to see us!  I even filmed our reunion.  There wasn't any barking or howling, but there was a lot of kissing, tail wagging, and genuine happiness at being sprung from the joint.



Arran welcomes Bill home.

It always takes me days to get everything back to normal after a trip.  However, I always learn a lot when we travel.  This trip was no exception.  I think my next post will be about all the new things I know, now that I've gone to Spain and Portugal!


Flight time!

Thursday, it became clear that we had some options for getting out of Spain.  Rota was offering two flights that would work for us.  One had a "showtime" of 00:10 very early Friday morning.  The other had a showtime of 5:55am.  Of course, I was inclined to choose the later flight.  Both were supposed to stop in Bangor, Maine and Warrensburg, Missouri.  The earlier flight had a final destination of Travis Air Force Base in California.  The other had a final destination of Charleston, South Carolina.  Bill and I ended up in Charleston the last time we did a Space A flight.  Of course, at that time, we were living in North Carolina.  Landing in South Carolina wasn't such a great thing, though, since we left our car at BWI in Baltimore.  We ended up having to fly from Charleston to DC, where we took a series of subways and buses to get to the airport.  Yes, we could have flown directly to Baltimore from Charleston, but that would have required going on Southwest Airlines and I preferred not to do that.

Now that we live in Texas, we figured it was better for us to go to Missouri.  Stupidly, we figured we could get a direct flight from Kansas City, Missouri, since we had done it before.  Of course, that was in 2007 on a now defunct/merged airline.  But we didn't know Thursday what we know now, which was that in order to get to Texas, we'd end up going through Atlanta again.

Anyway, Bill walked to the terminal to speak to the Space A folks.  He was told that the earlier flight was going to originate in Spain.  That meant that they might skip the Bangor stop.  The later flight was originating in Turkey, so that meant the crew would need to rest.  We'd end up overnighting in Bangor and probably trying to get commercial flights from there.  We decided to go for the earlier flight.


It almost looks like you could swim...

In the meantime, we had Thursday to kill in Rota.  We walked more around the town and went back down to the beach area.  The weather was pretty good and it was almost warm enough to take off our coats.


We stopped at a cafe and had a nice lunch.  I had ham croquettes and Bill had beef with Pedro Ximenez sauce.  I later learned that Pedro Ximenez refers to a sweet type of grape used to make wine.  Again, the area we were in is noted for its sherry.  Sure enough, the beef had a sweet sauce with raisins in it.  We both enjoyed a couple of beers before we walked back to the base to rest up for the evening.  I had to pee like a racehorse by the time we got to the gate, so we stopped at Baskin Robbins to see if they had a restroom.  They didn't, but we got some ice cream anyway.

We walked to our room and I took a nap while Bill washed clothes.  While I don't really enjoy military lodging, I can't deny that having washing machines available is a huge plus.  It really cut down on the wash I'd have to do when we got home.

At about 11:00 or so, we checked out of the hotel.  We thought we were going to have to walk to the terminal, but it turned out taxis can get on base.  One picked us up and delivered us to the almost deserted terminal.  Bill noticed an older couple sitting near the sign up area.  He noted that those same folks were there earlier in the day and perhaps either declined to fly out or weren't able to.


There were fifteen seats available on our flight and only seven people claimed them.  One was a dad with his three kids, all heading to California.  There was Bill and me and a guy who was a Seabee.  His wife was in the Navy and stationed at Rota, while he was the equivalent of a Naval Reservist.  He had to go to Virginia to drill.  The elderly couple seemed interested in our flight until they were told we wouldn't be stopping in Bangor after all.  I'm guessing they must have stayed in the terminal for the next flight.  If so, that's a long ass time to sit around an airport.  The Rota terminal offers free WiFi, though, so that's one way to pass the time.

In any case, the flight was free, save for the $12 Bill paid for two boxes of food.  We didn't even have to do that, really, since we were provided with snacks that were pretty generous.  They also gave us blankets and pillows, which was a good thing.  It got a bit cold on the plane.  I also had my own blanket and pillow and was actually able to sleep for a few hours on the floor.  I almost never sleep on planes.


The box of food.

We were on a C17, which is a huge Air Force plane that usually carries cargo.  We flew on one on our last hop back to the USA.  That time, the cargo was "hazardous"… probably ammunition or the like.  This time, we flew back to America with two big Apache helicopters!  There were two female senior airmen who were the "loadmasters" and they were very professional.  I enjoyed the safety briefing one of them gave us about what to do if the aircraft depressurized.  We put in ear plugs because those planes are not as insulated as passenger planes are and they are very loud.  I also had Bose noise canceling headphones, which were a Godsend.


This is the plane we were on last time we went Space A… very similar to the one we got in Rota.

As far as I'm concerned, flying on Air Force planes is the best way to travel.  A lot of times, you sit along the side of the plane, so no one reclines in your lap.  The crew is very laid back.  No one cares if you listen to your iPod or play with your iPad as you take off.  When the plane is in the air, you can lie down on the floor and sleep if you want to.  Some people even bring sleeping bags or air mattresses.  Baggage limits are liberal and you don't have to pay for them.  The food is usually pretty good or at least edible and doesn't stink.  And you get to fly home with helicopters!  I love it!













Inside the aircraft!



I got a kick out of these ads, obviously targeting Americans...

























Adios Espana!

Off to Rota!

The morning of Wednesday, January 22nd, Bill and I finally ventured to the tapas bar directly next to our hotel, Las Columnas.  We had noticed the place was often packed with locals.  That shouldn't have turned us off, since any place where there are a lot of locals is usually going to be decent.  But I don't like crowds and the place looked like it was one of those establishments where you sort of stand at the bar.  Nevertheless, we didn't feel like spending 20 euros for a hotel breakfast, so we went to this place a stone's throw from our hotel.

We weren't disappointed.  Granted, all we had was bread, butter, orange juice, and cafe con leche, all of which tasted fine.  What made this place a winner for both Bill and me is that it has a lot of character.  The guys running the bar had a lot of personality.  I'm sure they get a lot of tourists during the high season, but the guy who helped us seemed genuinely surprised to see us.

I got a kick out of watching the barman flirt with the ladies.  Two middle aged women sat near us and he said, "Hola, ninas!"  Granted, my Spanish sucks, but I understood that he was calling them young ladies.  They giggled at the joke, as did I.  When another table opened up that gave them more room, they moved and said to the barkeep, "Nos cambiamos."  It was at that point that I realized that the few days we'd spent in Seville had been good for me.  Not as much English is spoken there, so I was forced to use my crappy Spanish skills.  I told Bill that he would get some brownie points at his job, since he works with people who speak fluent Spanish and Portuguese, since they work with militaries in Central and South America.  It's nice to know that neither of us sucks at Spanish as much as we thought we did.

After breakfast, we checked out of our hotel.  The lady who checked us out told us that her family had a home and a boat in Rota, which made me think it must be a nice town.  We then got a taxi to the bus station.  There, we would buy tickets to Rota, since the little town near Cadiz is not serviced by a train.  I went to Cadiz in 1997.  It's very close to Rota, though you'd kind of have to go over water to get there efficiently.  Anyway, we went to the wrong building first.  A lady working there said, "La proxima edificio…" and I understood that to mean "The next building."  Yea me!

We spent about 22 euros for our tickets to Rota, which would make a stop in Jerez de la Frontera.  I knew that as the place where Harvey's Bristol Cream sherry is made.  I remember seeing the vineyards for the sherry in 1997 as the train passed.  Since we were on a bus, we went through a different part of the city.  It took a little over an hour to get there… Bill and I were one of maybe a half dozen people who were on the full sized bus.  He sat next to me, which he didn't have to do… but it's nice to know he doesn't mind sitting next to me and my substantial ass.




No, that's not an actual bull on the hill…  It's a big billboard looking thing.  Only in Spain!

When we stopped in Jerez, the bus rounded a corner where a guy in a leather jacket was unloading his car.  The bus almost hit him and the driver honked.  I happened to catch the disgusted look on the guy's face.  Wish I could have seen the driver's face.  I'm sure it said a lot.


Jerez has a lot of weird "art" on the road… like this disturbing sculpture in the middle of a roundabout, and the horses and waving Michelin Man below...





The rest of the ride to Rota was easy enough.  In fact, it kind of reminded me of Texas.  I saw lots of cactus and crappy little shanties on the side of the road.  We pulled into the bus station, which is tiny and very close to Rota's main gate.  Bill had planned on us taking a taxi to the gate, but it was so close we just walked there.  We got our passes and, since we already got stamped into Europe when we arrived in Lajes, all we had to do was get passes so we could get on and off the base.

After that little detail, we approached the gate guard, who asked if I had my ID.  I did, but it was in my purse.  The guy shrugged and said never mind, which kind of surprised me.  We started walking to what we thought was the Navy Lodge, where Bill had made reservations for two nights.  I must say, hauling the bags wasn't so easy, though I'm fitter than I appear.  We stopped at the first lodging we came to, which was right across the street from the Naval hospital.  It turned out we were at "Navy Gateway", which is not the Lodge but offers rooms.  The ladies running Navy Gateway said they had rooms available; they were slightly cheaper; and the Gateway was a tiny bit closer to the PAX terminal than the Lodge was.  She said the Lodge was really more suited to families anyway.  So with our approval, she called the Lodge and switched our reservation.

The Navy Gateway in Rota offered accommodations very similar to the Mid Atlantic Lodge in Lajes.  We had a bedroom, a bathroom, and a sitting room.  There were two TVs, a microwave, a fridge, and the free laundry room (except for the soap).  Better yet, the toilet flushed better and there was a tub/shower instead of a tiny shower.  Even the toiletries were better.

I commented to Bill, "Looks like it's true that the Navy offers better shit than the other services do."  I was kidding, of course, but this lodging was slightly better.

We dropped off our bags and started walking back toward the gate so we could get a better look at Rota, which happens to be a cute town.  I was pretty hungry, since we had a light breakfast with no protein.  When I do that, I usually end up ravenous after a couple of hours.  We had to walk a ways before we finally found a bar that had food.  Once again, we ate meat on a stick accompanied by large Spanish beers.  The barman didn't speak much English, but he did bring out some delicious carrots marinated in some kind of brine.  We had a beef skewer and a chicken skewer.  I felt much better after we ate.  I find as I get older, my tolerance for hunger and dropping blood sugar is not so good anymore.


Waiting for food and beer...



The view from where I was sitting…

After lunch, we walked down toward the beach and discovered that Rota has a big castle and a lighthouse.  There's also a ferry, an Irish pub, and an American bar called "Honey Don't Cry".


Honey Don't Cry!


Rootbeer signs on the wall near the pub...


Irish pub.  Would have liked to have tried this place.