Photo of the Day: Sunday Morning in Quito

By Sarah

The eastern slopes of Pichincha, an active stratovolcano in the Andes mountains, stretched outside my window at the Amazonas Rios Hotel, a stunning show of nature in a city that had been bustling with dancers and street vendors the night before.  On Sunday mornings the streets in the city center close down to cars and runners, walkers and bikers have free reign.  Quitoians are mildly active — I passed a couple dozen people during my  half hour walk.  I did go at 7:30am, a time when the streets of New York are at their quietest.  
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Wat, Did You Say? 5 Must-Do’s of Siem Reap

By Perrin


1. Wake with the paper boy.

The curtain rises on Angkor Wat.

When sunrise hits the shadows of Angkor Wat, it’s curtain rise on opening night.

An early start is your ticket to the light show, and also your first defense against an equatorial climate. If you start midday, you will sweat through two outfits in under two hours. Fact.

2. Get in with the out crowd.

The tourist-free entrance to Banteay Srei.

Cambodian government surveys estimate that 57% of all visitors to the country tour Anchor Wat during their stay. Its neighbor, Ta Prohm, has seen similar crowds ever since Angelina Jolie staged a showdown there in Tomb Raider in 2001.

Though those two sanctuaries are highlights, there are over thirty other temples that welcome visitors. These less-frequently others are more likely to provide adventure. Off the beaten track, we stumbled upon deserted temples that looked like they had not been touched for centuries:

Mossy, crumbling temples tower as high as the centuries-old trees that shroud them. Peaceful faces of Hindu and Buddhist deities, carved from stone panels the size of a Wal-Mart, watch overhead. Sculpted elephant tusks jab from walls. It’s easy to imagine how explorers must have felt when happening upon the temples for the first time. I pretended I was Indiana Jones all day.

3. Ditch your guide.

Climbing a Banyan tree that is swallowing a doorway.

Spend at least one day to explore sans guidance. Climb refrigerator-sized blocks that have fallen from temple walls. Sniff the fig trees. Lick up the sugary candy that the local children convince you to buy.

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McDonald’s, the American Embassy

Sofia: It’s almost as if we speak Bulgarian!

By Perrin

Before Sarah and I left the US, we generally avoided McDonald’s.  Admittedly, we sampled its wares and enjoyed some of them. (Sarah can even plot from memory the price distribution of its frozen yogurt throughout Manhattan – cone cost ranges from $0.90 in Columbia Heights to $1.62 in Times Square. However, most other foods under the golden arches made our stomachs churn.

Kandersteg: McDonald’s adorable Swiss relation McDoris.

Perhaps this decidedly un-American abstention from Mickey D’s stemmed from our father, who has boycotted the restaurant since the age of 17, when he noticed that a golden arch had sprung up by a favorite beach.  Surveying the greasy red and yellow blemish on the smooth face of the sand, he vowed never to set foot in a McDonald’s as long as he lived.

Belgrade: McD’s changes things up with some Mediterranean flavor – looks like fish sticks.

Such a vow was easier kept in 1968.  Over the past year, Ronald McDonald beamed at Sarah and me throughout our treks in Europe, Northern Africa and Asia.  His was the consistent friendly face in 23 of the 25 countries we visited.  As for Laos and Cambodia, where the big M was MIA, we probably weren’t looking hard enough.

Prague: Stylish al fresco seating in which to enjoy a sloppy, juicy burger.

Our perception of the food chain began to transform five weeks into our travels. On one Italian afternoon, the Sisters Bailey and our buddy Bogdan sweltered for over an hour on the side of the highway to Pompeii.  The egg-frying July heat drew sweat as we stared collectively towards the horizon, aching to spot our bus in the distance. No bus arrived.  Taxis and public transportation were far beyond reach. The only thing in sight was a pair of golden arches.

“If the sun sets and the mafia comes out, we can stay at the American embassy,” Bogdan concluded.  He indicated the McDonald’s.

Berlin: Rock and roll art suits this young city. McDonald’s keeps a higher standard of decor in Europe.

Suddenly, the giant M shone as a welcome beacon of familiarity.  We embraced it. For the rest of our journey, the chain’s boldly colored huts provided us with WiFi, English speaking employees, and recognizable edibles.  On lucky days, we found outposts that kept soft American cookies baking on hot plates behind the counter.

We salute McDonald’s for its backpacker comforts, in addition to its sumptuous one dollar/euro/pound/lira frozen yogurt.

Istanbul: Kahvalti or Egg McMuffin – a rose by any other name…

Turkey’s take off on McDonald’s, Burger Turk, suggests that super-sizing is a transnational impulse.

London: 200 seats?! Almost spacious enough for a Royal Wedding after-party.

Vienna: You know a city is posh when McDonald’s is housed in a Park Avenue-ready townhouse.

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Iceland Day 3 | Blue Lagoon

By Perrin

En route to the Blue Lagoon, a swimmable Icelandic lake, I hardened myself for a polar bear dip.  I envisioned daredevil bathers darting through arctic air, sporting bikinis and speedos in lieu of parkas.  A character-building frigid dip would follow, and survivors would then bask in the cool aura of victory. And the hot embrace of pneumonia.

However, as Dave and I neared the snowy enclave I noticed people of all shapes and ages wading leisurely through the opal waters.  These would-be polar bear dynamos looked just tough enough to survive a thumb-wrestling match with Winnie the Poo.

As it turns out, hot springs and geysers surrounding the lagoon provide phenomenal insulation.  Moreover, steam and low-hanging mist create privacy.  The viscous, salty water glows opaque turquoise and buoys swimmers.  Under the surface, a white clay lake floor rubs and squishes satisfyingly between the toes.  I’d sooner expect such a well-administered spa experience from a $200 Brookestone device.

Visit for serenity, romance and pruney but fresh skin.

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Iceland Day 1 | Winter Has Come

By Perrin

The afternoon heat of tropical Iceland.

Our snowblond Icelandic flight attendant welcomes us to her country with a Reykjavik Excursions brochure.

The viking interpretation of the bull differs greatly from the chic rendering on my old Wall Street doorstep.

The front features an acid-green sky punctuated by jagged volcanic boulders and obscurred by fog.  A forboding coat advertisement reads, “This is Dyrafjordur.  The sea temperature is 5°C.  On a good day.” The Land Before Time, the story of dinosaur extinction, set a more hospitable scene.

How did we manage to vacation somewhere with worse weather than Britain?

If one of us slips, we’re going down together.

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Iceland Day 2 | Rugged

By Perrin

Famous Geysir, namesake of all geysers: 23 meters deep and 120 degrees Celcius.  Kabaam!

The Golden Circle beckons Dave and me out of hibernation.  This circuit of landmarks encompasses Geysir zone, a geyser minefield the size of an airport; Gullfoss waterfall, a two-tiered glacial cataract and natural wonder; and Þingvelli national park, the only place in the world where you can easily see tectonic plates move.

I must first confess: we took a coach bus.  Of course I wouldn’t normally indulge in travel means that provide comfort and convenience.  If locals employ idiosyncratic vehicles or smelly animals, I say, grab jumper cables and stirrups and follow suit!

Reykjavik chills such principles into remission.  Here, I hunt radiators with a crazed fervor normally reserved for pursuing chocolate.

A geyser minefield: water water everywhere, and not a drop to drink

Coach drivers obligingly warm vehicles to simulate Jamaican heatstroke.  As windows steam, tourists press noses against heating vents like pink lichen.  Sighs resonate as airways defrost.  Dave, who’s English and built for grim weather, catches sunburn.

Here we go…

We arrive at Geysir geothermal region.  This could easily be where NASA took its pictures of “Mars.”  I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I can recognize a barren, steaming and craterous horizon when I see one.

“Hold your breath,” Dave advises.  The mammoth geyser two meters ahead of us explodes.

 

Water launches upwards and I launch with it: shock jolts me a foot into the air.  Geyser explosions, which can send boiling water up to 70m high, are now among the coolest things I have ever seen.  The vat burps and discharges again.  It thunders through the white sky like an inverted waterfall.

Woooow

That accomplished, the geyser simmers.  The hot spring churns and bubbles like a bewitched cauldron.  The crowd stares hypnotically.  Surely I’m not the only one humming the Macbeth witch chant,

“Bubble bubble, toil and trouble, Fire burn and cauldron bubble.”

I do hear some (fellow Americans, probably) cheer the geyser like it’s the home team,

“Spray baby, spray!  This is the big one!”

A five-year old boy throws an ice block towards the geyser and I chuck a volcanic rock.  We both miss, perhaps because we’re nervous about seeing these objects regurgitated at top speed.

Several explosions later, the cold ushers the group back to our heated chariot.

If your hat blows into the abyss, try an Arabic style.

We move to Gullfoss, the “Golden Waterfall.”  Captain Ahab’s jaw would drop at this watery confusion.  Thundering reverberations press my ears as the glacial river plummets 32 feet into a narrow 70-foot deep canyon.

My eyes squeeze shut.  Between a tangible rumble and icy rain, I imagine the otherworldly falls crashing at my fingertips.  I reopen my eyes and remember that the fall stands over fifty meters away.

One the way to the final stop, we brake for wild horses.  Icelandic horses are a unique breed: Law prohibits the import of any steed onto the island, and once a horse leaves the country it may never return.

These horses are the only animals in the country to spend the winter outdoors. Their 4-inch thick coats inspire jealousy in tourists.

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Superlatives | Craziest Transportation

And the Bailey goes to…Southeast Asia!

By Perrin

A crafty tuk tuk chauffeur repurposes CD's as tail lights.

Long boats, windowless buses and wooden train tracks rumble through Southeast Asia. These vehicles entered this world with the baby boomers, and these days they run about as quickly as a toddler taking its first steps.

Head of the transportation monarchy.

Obstacles inherent to local roads make the ride even bumpier: during a 10-minute trip it is possible to skid over both a mattresses-size pothole and a pot-size monkey.  Dirt and exhaust pepper the air like teargas.  Passengers launch skywards like popcorn kernels and baggage and children topple overboard.  Luckily, locals are used to being ejected from vehicles, and they swing back aboard with the practiced finesse of John Wayne straddling a horse.

The roof of this caravan looks like a yard sale. Dibs on the fan!

We rate longboats the smoothest ride in the Mekong region.

After one month of nerve-numbing transport, Anne and I hopped a plane.  We flew uneventfully from Vientiene, Laos to Siem Reap.  It was wonderful.

Unfortunately, when our plane deposited us at the airport – which makes a phone booth look like a spacious facility – there was only one thing in sight: ground transportation service.

The service manager informed us, “Taxi $10.”

$10 for a taxi?  Parked before us was a collection of local cabs, usually referred to as “tuk tuks.”  Cable cars are a trademark of San Francisco; yellow-top taxis are linked to New York; and tuk tuks are a cornerstone of daily life in SE Asia.

A colorful Bangkok tuk tuk awaits.

A tuk tuk, for those who have not yet encountered one, is essentially a motorcycle dragging a 3-wheeled golf cart.  Carved buddhas swing from the roofs and embroidered elephants decorate the upholstery.  Windows and doors lack covering, which can be unnerving, but this does accommodate panoramic views.

Anne and I began negotiations with the tuk tuk drivers.  To our chagrin, the drivers had formed a cartel and the fee stuck at $10.  The priciest tuks of Bangkok had never charged us over $5, so we defiantly left the airport and began walking towards town.

A driver followed.  He quietly explained, “Outside airport, tuk tuk only $4.”  Not surprised, we hopped aboard.

The drivers – not just their vehicles – can throw travelers for a loop.  But as with any old engine, knowing their tricks smooths the ride.

All aboard the Thai limousine!

This we can get used to: the boat from Sihanoukville to Ko Russei, Cambodia.

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