What happens in Las Vegas…

My husband and I recently spent six days in Las Vegas. Neither of us are gamblers or heavy drinkers so the ubiquitous slot machines, card tables, and bars weren’t the beneficiaries of any poor choices on our part. We were there to attend an event, but added a few extra days to look around since neither of us had been to Sin City for many years.

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We spent one day walking up and down the Strip, enjoying the kitschy fantasy hotels created to emulate great cities of the world, such as Paris, New York, and Venice. I have to admit the designers did a pretty good job capturing their essence… if Paris, New York, and Venice were filled with bright and noisy slot machines and cigarette smoke (OK, maybe they nailed that part).

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The next day we took a tour of the Neon Museum and Boneyard, which features discarded signs from old hotels and casinos. This two-acre outdoor museum is crammed full of vintage neon; some of signs still light up (they offer an after dark tour but it usually fills up quickly), but most are in various stages of decay and show the lovely patina of age. The hour-long walking tour was full of history and the photo ops were glorious.

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After our tour, we drove a few short blocks to the Mob Museum where we learned about the history of the Mafia, both in general and, more specifically, in Las Vegas. Although there are guided tours and audio tours available, we opted to take ourselves through the fascinating and well-organized museum. (Tours of both museums can be booked online, and there is a special price when you purchase the two together.)

As interesting as these museums were—and I do recommend them if you ever find yourself in Las Vegas—the main reason we were there was to attend Viva Las Vegas: a four-day extravaganza of music, cars, dancing, and a people-watcher’s paradise.

Viva Las Vegas is the largest Rockabilly festival in the world and attracts about 20,000 attendees from around the globe. The event features over 75 bands, North America’s biggest pre-1960s era car show, and hundreds of vendors selling vintage clothing and accessories. There are also fashion shows, tiki pool parties, and dancing, including demonstrations and contests.

Did I mention the people watching?

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Although my husband and I love to swing dance, I didn’t know very much about Rockabilly or the Rockabilly culture. Viva Las Vegas provided an extreme immersion course. Apparently, there is a whole subculture that embraces a style that combines 1940s/1950s dress with tattoos and hair colors not found in nature. I was fascinated by these Rockabilly aficionados and we’d often find a comfortable seat just to watch them stroll by. As members of the selfie and social media generation, most seemed completely comfortable in their (heavily tattooed) skin and were happy to pose for pictures.

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I couldn’t help but contrast myself at that age… trying so hard to fit in, but not stand out. If this was a “thing” when I was young, would I have gotten tattoos or dyed my hair a cartoon color? Probably not. I both admired them for their confidence, and worried for their future marketability in the job world. Hair color can be easily changed, tattoos… not so much.

We had such a great time that we already have our hotel reservations and tickets for next year. Although we won’t be getting tattooed in the interim, we do plan on picking up a few new dance steps and some vintage clothing before we return. It’s all part of the fun.

GratiTuesday: Making travel plans in the digital age

My parents were great travelers and encourage us kids to follow in their footsteps. Although I’ve visited many of the places they traveled to—and several they didn’t—I feel as if I’ve just dipped my toe into the deep well of possibilities.

Because they traveled so much, my parents had a close, personal relationship with their travel agent. Helen knew my folks’ likes and dislikes, preferred way to travel, destinations of interest, and budget considerations. Although they seldom encountered any problems while traveling, they knew that they could call Helen if they needed help and she’d work things out.

Despite all online resources, I still love paper maps.
Despite all online resources, I still love paper maps.

I am currently firming up travel itineraries for two upcoming trips, and making some preliminary plans for a few more that are on our radar. Like most people in today’s digital age, I am not using a travel agent to help me plan and book our trips. The resources available to me online are vast, powerful, accessible, and, sometimes, a little scary.

I can research our destinations using multiple travel websites and helpful blogs. I have reached out to blogging buddies who live in the areas we are visiting for first-hand recommendations (and, hopefully some meet-ups). Using mapping apps, I am able to chart our route and look for points of interest along the way.

Once we know where we will stop on our journey, I can book our hotel rooms (after reading extensive reviews) online. For the first time, we are also going to try Airbnb, whose website is robust and pretty easy to navigate. Tickets for attractions can be purchased in advance and I can often load them to my smartphone so I don’t need to worry about misplacing pieces of paper.

And, of course, any airplane and rental car reservations are completed with a few keystrokes and a credit card.

There are pluses and minuses to planning travel this way, of course. Using a travel agent provided my parents with valuable peace-of-mind and allowed them to tap into Helen’s professional knowledge and years of experience. Since she did most of the work (and, as I remember, the service was provided for no, or very little, cost), my folks didn’t have to spend hours doing research. Helen’s agency was a one (or two)-stop-shop for planning, finalized itinerary, and tickets.

By making our travel plans online, I have a lot of control over our itinerary. I don’t need to rely on someone else’s preferences or affiliations. I can spend time looking at different options and search-out deals and off-the-beaten-path opportunities. Once on the road, we can take advantage of apps that will help us to find places to eat and points of interest to visit. I can read about the history of an area, check out the weather, and even avoid road construction and accidents up ahead.

Although we may not have someone like Helen to provide travel assistance and hand-holding, I am so grateful that the internet has given us the power to design our individual journeys and create our unique adventures.

Why, yes, I do look like an aged zombie

When my husband and I recently traveled to Mexico, our passports were six months away from expiring. We were a little nervous because we had read that some countries require passports to have more than six months left before their expiration date, but we didn’t have enough time to renew. Fortunately, we passed through the border check with no issues at all.

Almost as soon as we returned from our trip, we began the process of renewing our passports. We hope to travel outside the country later this year so we wanted to ensure adequate turnaround time without having to pay the $60 expedited service fee.

Our first order of business was to have updated photos taken.

The hair! The make-up! The lips that say, "damn, I look good."
The hair! The make-up! The lips that say, “damn, I look good.”

You probably have seen – or at least have heard about – Prince’s new passport photo. He was so proud of it, he tweeted it out to his followers. And, it truly is a thing of beauty:

Since Prince’s private make-up artist and photographer were busy, my husband and I decided to get our photos taken at Costco. This would be the same Costco that manages to make me look like a shrunken pinhead each time they take my photo for my membership card. For some reason, we thought this was a good idea.

My prior passport photo was taken just after I turned fifty. It wasn’t great, but I was happy that my Farrah Fawcett winged bangs on my 1970s-era passport were a thing of the past. Fifty-year-old-me had a bit of a deer-in-the-headlights look, but it wasn’t too bad.

To be fair, the young man who took my photo this time did his best. He offered to take it again but I was pretty sure it wasn’t his skill as a photographer that was the problem. It was me. I was in a hurry that morning and didn’t take the time to fix my hair or put on makeup. I was in full retirement mode and didn’t think that it was important. I hadn’t considered that I will have this photo in my passport for the next ten years (at which time, I’ll be 70 years old and, I promise you, no better looking than I am now).

A close approximation of my actual photo, which, I assure you, won’t be tweeted to my followers
A close approximation of my actual photo, which, I assure you, won’t be tweeted to my followers

It wasn’t until after we mailed off our photos and passport renewal paperwork that I truly grasped the gravity of my mistake. I realized that I was going to cringe every time I had to present my passport to tour operators, border agents, and hotel clerks. What if it is so awful they don’t believe it is truly me? Even worse, what does it mean if they think it looks exactly like me?

Doing some online research after the fact, I found this 2014 Vogue Magazine article that provides five helpful tips for preparing for a passport photo shoot. Even though the tips are geared towards women, men also might find it helpful and even consider borrowing – and discreetly applying – a little makeup too (after all, Prince did it, why can’t you).

It’s too late for me, but there may be hope for you if your passport needs updating soon. Why look like a zombie when you could look like royalty?

GratiTuesday: No more vacations

Vacation \ vāˈkāSH(ə)n \ n1: a period of suspension of work, study, or other activity, usually used for rest, recreation, or travel; recess or holiday  2: freedom or release from duty, business, or activity

 

I remember what taking a vacation meant when I was working full time: I’d decide on a destination, figure out how much time I needed to take off work, consult my schedule and my boss to make sure the dates were OK, fill out any necessary H.R. paperwork, work extra hours before my vacation so that I didn’t leave any loose ends while I was gone, then put in even more hours when I returned so I could catch up on all the work that wasn’t done while away.

After one or two days back in the office, it hardly felt like I had been away at all. In fact, I was often twice as busy and felt more stressed than before I left.

relaxing

Now that my husband and I are retired, we no longer take vacations. Packing our bags and leaving our home for a few days, a few weeks, or a few months, isn’t a “release from duty or business.” We might need to stop our newspaper and mail deliveries, have a neighbor watch the house and water a few plants, or arrange for friends or family to stay in our home while we are gone, but, our time away is no longer “a period of suspension of work or study” nor does it require prior approval. Instead, it is a continuation and enhancement of our retired life.

Rather than take vacations, what we do now is travel. We take road trips. We visit. We tour. We go on great adventures. Sometimes we aren’t 100% percent sure of our itinerary or when we’ll return home. If we decide to stay a little while longer somewhere, no problem. If we see a road less traveled and decide to take it, fine and dandy.

I am so grateful that our retirement has given us the freedom to stop taking vacations from something and instead be able to say “yes, we’d love to,” “yes, we’ll go,” “yes, we will be there.”

The heART of La Paz, parte dos

I knew I would find unique and colorful buildings in La Paz. I knew that I would also find friendly people, amazing food, and gorgeous vistas. I had traveled to Mexico enough times in the past to know that I would find a culture that is somehow both exciting and relaxing at the same time.

What surprised me during our recent, brief trip to La Paz, was the quantity and quality of artistic expression that we found throughout the city. As I wrote about in my last post (here), art was abundant and took many different forms, including colorful murals, paintings and pottery, signage, and sculpture.

In my first post about our trip, I shared pictures of some of the many murals we saw as we walked around the town. Now, in parte dos, you will see some of the wonderful sculptures we found.

La Paz’s Malecon, a 3.5 mile seaside promenade that follows the curve of the shoreline, features the sculptures of several Mexican artists. All have the sea as their theme. The first one shown is of Jacques Cousteau, who once described La Paz as “the aquarium of the world.”

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Whimsical seashell musicians joyfully play their music in a downtown plaza.

Seashell musicians

We found this pocket park several blocks inland as we searched for a recommended restaurant. The park, called Stones and Birds, takes its name from a poem that is written and illustrated on one of its walls. The heads of the fountain’s sculptures are half men/half birds, with bodies of stones. The expressions and detail of the faces was exquisite.

Park 1

Park 2

Park 3

The heART of La Paz

La Paz was not a destination that had been on my radar screen. There are several other locations in Mexico that we plan to visit, but when some friends asked if we’d like to join them in southern Baja for a week, we said “yes” (“yes” being our favorite word now that we’ve retired).

La Paz Map

Although we were headed for a resort a few miles from the city, I knew that my husband and I wouldn’t be satisfied staying in the cocoon of the compound. We wanted to explore the surrounding area, especially the city of La Paz.

The bit of research we did before our trip told us:

  • La Paz, which translates to “The Peace,” is located close to the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula. With about 250,000 inhabitants, La Paz is the capital of the state of Baja California Sur.
  • Because it is located on the coast of the Sea of Cortez, La Paz is known for water-centric activities like swimming fishing, sailing, snorkeling, diving, whale-watching, and kayaking.
  • The city of La Paz has a nostalgic and provincial atmosphere, with a laid-back lifestyle, friendly residents, and wonderful cuisine.

What my research didn’t tell me about was La Paz’s rich and ubiquitous art scene. As I walked around the city, I was thrilled to find richly colorful murals, whimsical sculptures, and small pocket parks that not only offered quiet places to relax in the shade, but also beautiful and thoughtful design.

The weather was perfect, the sea a tranquil mixture of turquoise and deep blues, and the resort where we stayed was gorgeous, but it’s the city of La Paz and its art that will bring me back some day.

(I’ll show more art in my next post. Apparently WordPress has a limit.)

Mural 2

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GratiTuesday: Home, sweet home

My husband and I just returned home from a trip to La Paz, Mexico. We enjoyed a week of lovely weather, beautiful vistas, wonderful food, and pampered relaxation. On most of our trips we tend more towards the Best Western or Hampton Inn-type accommodations. We are much more inclined to spend our money on our daylight adventures and less on where we lay our heads. This trip was different; some friends invited us to take advantage of a deal they found through Expedia and join them at a lovely beach resort near the tip of Baja.

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Our trip couldn’t have gone any smoother or our travel companions been any more compatible. The resort was lovely and, although it was off-season, we enjoyed picture-perfect weather and warm ocean water.

Tomorrow I will finish unpacking and doing the laundry. I will start having to plan meals and making lists of errands that need to be run. I will miss having fresh towels provided and our room cleaned every day. I will especially miss the pool that was just outside our door, and a nearly deserted white sand beach that was just a few steps further.

But, right now, I’m so grateful to be back in my home. I am always sad when a trip is over, but I love to return to my comfortable and familiar surroundings. No matter how interesting and beautiful the world outside my little bubble is, there really, truly, is no place like home.

A most cherished object

This post was written for the Cherished Blogfest 2015, which is taking place July 24, 25, and 26. Each participant is to write about one of their most cherished objects. After considering writing about my cherished husband, health, and friends, I decided they weren’t really “objects.” What I chose instead is a both an object and an entree to adventures.

 

I have in my possession, a magical and powerful document. Held within its dark blue covers is my key to foreign lands and infinite experiences. It gives me the ability to not only travel freely around the world, but to return to the United States with few questions or concerns.

Written inside the front cover are the powerful words that confer this special status to me and that asks other nations to offer me reasonable freedom of movement and protection:

The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.

Passport

Although certainly not unique – after all, there are close to 150 million U.S. passports in circulation – my passport allows me to visit 174 counties, many of them without the additional requirement of a visa. The ease with which my passport allows me to travel from one country to the next is almost unparalleled. In fact, United States citizens’ travel freedom is ranked first, along with Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Finland.

My passport has taken me throughout Europe and it has accompanied me across our northern and southern borders into Canada and Mexico. Most recently, it traveled with me to Cuba. I’ve only had to present it when I’ve entered and departed each country, but having it in my possession along the way has given me a greater sense of comfort and safety.

The United States is not perfect and I know that we could do many (many) things better, but I also feel very lucky to be a citizen. The happenstance of my birth has offered me privileges that many people born elsewhere don’t have. My U.S. passport represents the strength of my nation and the relationships it has built over the decades with most other governments.

Despite all of its power, my cherished document is lacking something very important which I hope to resolve over the next several years: there far too few entry stamps. My husband and I are looking forward to years of adventures in our retirement and I hope that, over time, those pages will be filled with dozens of stamps as we travel the world.

 

To read more posts by Cherished Blogfest participants, please link to this page to visit other most cherished blogs.

Building a bridge to Cuba

Although the news wasn’t a surprise, I was heartened to hear President Obama announce the formal re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba. This breakthrough came after months of secret talks between the nations followed by his acknowledgement last December that the relationship between the two countries was headed for a profound change. This Monday, the Cuban flag was raised over the country’s newly restored embassy in Washington, DC.

In 1961, the United States enacted an economic embargo with the explicit purpose of ousting the Castro regime. The sanctions were tightened even further in 1996, again in an effort to unseat Castro. History has shown us that these restrictions haven’t attained their goals; the Castros are still in power and democracy has eluded the island’s citizens.

Political billboards are common in Cuba. This one translates as "The great homeland that grows."
Political billboards are common in Cuba. This one translates as “The great homeland that grows”

Although past U.S. administrations have sought to moderate or remove the sanctions, politics has, until now, stymied any efforts. Politicians seeking the votes of the large population of Cuban exiles in the swing state of Florida have been unwilling to support any changes.

There are many reasons why what seemed impossible before, now appears to be happening. For Cuba, their two main benefactors, first, the Soviet Union and then, Venezuela, imploded, leaving the government without critical economic support. Tourism, trade, and investments from the United States will offer them much-needed monetary infusions. For the U.S., not only have the sanctions failed to oust the Castro regime, but they have severely constrained our country’s trade and foreign policy options. In addition, with an agreement, the Cuban government will lose a powerful scapegoat. No longer will they be able to blame their failed economics on the policies of the United States.

Demographics have also played a big role in the softening of the stance of both countries. The Castro brothers are now in their eighties and soon these powerful symbols of the revolution will be gone. In addition, the original exiles – the most vocal opponents to any change – are also aging, and younger Cuban-Americans are more open to removing the restrictions of the embargo. Although no one believes that Cuba will instantly become a bastion of human rights and democracy, it will be hard for their government to maintain its current policies when there is more freedom of communication, travel, and commerce.

Cuba's famous Malecon at sunset
Cuba’s famous Malecon at sunset

When my husband and I traveled to Cuba earlier this year (you can read about our journey here, here, and here), we found a country hungry for change. The Cubans we talked to (and there appeared to be little or no restrictions on our interactions) were friendly, welcoming, and eager to engage with Americans. Despite – and maybe because of – the hardships they face, many have a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit. They are also very proud of their country. Cuba has a 96% literacy rate and their citizens enjoy free education and healthcare. According to the World Health Organization, Cuba’s water quality is among the best in the world, as is its citizens’ nutrition levels, health, and life expectancy.

Cubans are also very proud of their medical system. Cuban doctors are highly trained and their skills are in demand around the world. In fact, some 50,000 Cuban medical workers have been deployed in over 66 nations. That, of course, hasn’t included the United States, but maybe that could change. There has been a lot of concern lately about the dearth of general practice physicians here in the US. As the Baby Boomer population ages, more and more medical care will be needed. In addition, now that healthcare is more widely available through the Affordable Care Act, we need more doctors to provide care.

I know that there are many who feel that the sanctions should remain and that formally re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba sends the wrong signal. I, on the other hand, think it’s time to admit that our half-century estrangement hasn’t yielded the results we wanted and has actually produced many unintended negative consequences.

Because of decades of neglect, many of Havana's buildings are at risk of collapsing
Because of decades of neglect, many of Havana’s buildings are at risk of collapsing

By joining the rest of the world and opening up relations with Cuba, we can start a dialog that could result in increased freedom for their people. It might also mean that we could help satisfy our growing need for doctors by inviting members of their highly-trained medical establishment to practice here. Wouldn’t that be better than to continue a failed policy which, after more than 50 years, has yet to show any positive results?

It’s the journey, not the destination

Route 66

When my husband and I were planning our recent road trip, we realized that our drive home from St. Louis could naturally follow the same trajectory as old Route 66. Even though our trip west wouldn’t begin in Chicago (the traditional starting point) and our final destination wasn’t Santa Monica (Route 66’s “end of the trail”), we were excited to have the opportunity to see many of the famed byways and unique roadside attractions we had heard so much about.

Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis, MO. Where our journey west began.
Chain of Rocks Bridge in St. Louis, MO. Where our journey west began.

Like many of the original highways constructed in the early 1920s, Route 66 was designed to connect urban and rural communities and break the monopoly of the railroads. Nicknamed “America’s Main Street” and the “Mother Road,” it linked hundreds of small towns along a winding 2,400-mile ribbon of asphalt. Although the highway was used during the Dust Bowl and the Depression by those who traveled west seeking better lives, it wasn’t until the late 1940s and early 1950s that Route 66 fully became a symbol of freedom and the wide open road. With the economic boom of the post-war area, more Americans had money to buy cars and the leisure time to travel, and a road trip on Route 66 was almost a rite of passage for many.

That began to change in 1956, as the Interstate Highway System started to develop super highways that were straight-lined and designed to move people from one place to another as quickly as possible. Because the modern highways bypassed hundreds of the small towns along the path of Route 66, many couldn’t survive. Just like the cracked and crumbling asphalt, the towns and the business that depended on travelers began to decline. In 1985, Route 66 was officially decommissioned by the federal government.

Missouri Hick Bar-B-Q in Cuba, Mo. Very different from the Cuba we visited in January.
Missouri Hick Bar-B-Q in Cuba, Mo. Very different from the Cuba we visited in January.

As we made our way west, we ran into a lot of fellow travelers who were also tracing the historic route. Some were dedicated Route 66 explorers and others, like us, made stops here and there at towns and attractions that sparked an interest. We were surprised to discover many Route 66 aficionados were visiting from other countries, including a group from Sweden traveling on rented motorcycles.  Just about all of us were baby boomers.

World’s largest rocking chair in Fanning, Mo.
World’s largest rocking chair in Fanning, Mo.

Many of the shopkeepers and restaurant owners we talked to along the way shared that business wasn’t what it used to be. Several pointed to the recent recession as the beginning of the downward trend and I’m sure that had a big influence. But, I also wonder if the lure of America’s Main Street just doesn’t tug at the imagination of Gen Xers and Millennials as it does for Baby Boomers*. Yes, there are various Route 66 associations and preservation groups, but most members are over 50. Back in 1999, our former Boomer-in-Chief, Bill Clinton, signed a National Route 66 Preservation Bill. I’m not sure a similar bill could pass today.

Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton, OK.
Oklahoma Route 66 Museum in Clinton, OK.

A majority of the original road is gone and many of the roadside attractions are no longer open. Some of the small towns are now boarded up ghost towns. But, there still is a lot to see and do. If the lore of Route 66 has ever pulled at you, or if you want to find some escape from our modern generic world (even in bits and pieces), I encourage you to make your travel plans soon. Route 66 awaits you and I’m not sure how long many of the places can hang on.

The Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, TX.
The Cadillac Ranch outside of Amarillo, TX.
Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ. Yes, we stayed here and, yes, it was awesome.
Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, AZ. Yes, we stayed here and, yes, it was awesome.
Standing on the corner in Winslow, AZ. We were a fine sight to see.
Standing on the corner in Winslow, AZ. We were a fine sight to see.

* There may be hope for Generation Z as many of them would have see Pixar’s 2006 animated film Cars. In it, the once-booming Radiator Springs, situated along Route 66, is now nearly a ghost town because it was bypassed by Interstate 40. Perhaps the movie’s success has generated a resurgence of public interest in Route 66.