Tour guide for Italy

If you’re looking for a personal tour guide when you’re in Florence, Siena or the surrounding area, here’s the contact info of the woman we hired.  She’s very knowledgable, laid out a good itinerary based on our wants and needs, and is relatively affordable.  Obviously, there are hundreds of tour guides in Italy, so if you find another one who you think will give you a good tour for a better price, I won’t sit here and tell you that you HAVE to hire this woman.  But we were perfectly happy with the service she provided.

Elisa Camporeale, Ph.D.
Art Historian — Tourist Guide
Florence, Siena & Provinces
elisa.camporeale@gmail.com
+393285693802
http://www.tuscanyrevealed.it

For 10 people, she charged 30 euros per person for the day.  I’m sure you can negotiate a price depending on your group size and the season you visit.

 

Tuk Tuk – the Auto Rickshaw

A popular mode of transportation in SE Asia is the Tuk Tuk (pronounced “Duk Duk”), which is an auto rickshaw.  Generally cheaper than cabs if you can negotiate correctly, the Tuk Tuk is a fun way to get around.  But know that your heart rate will be accelerated as you ride on them.  Think of it like taking an amusement park ride without the benefit of a safety bar.  And again my mantra for SE Asia — Keep Your Elbows In!

Peru Part II – Inca Trail and Aguas Calientes

No trip to Peru would be complete without seeing the country’s iconic ruins high up in the Andes: Machu Picchu.  There are several ways to go about visiting this legendary place.  For the adventurous backpackers, there are 3 and 4-day hikes on the Inca Trail that finish up at Machu Picchu.  For a less vigorous trip, you can opt for the option we chose:  A one day hike along the last part of the Inca Trail, a night in the small town of Aguas Calientes and a sunrise visit to Machu Picchu the following morning.

Before I get into the “good” of the trip, I want to get the relatively “bad” out of the way.  The tour company we booked our trip through was called Peru Gateway Travel – and I would NOT recommend them.  Now nothing “horrible” happened, but they were very disorganized and did a piss poor job of preparing us for the excursion.  They typically hold pre-trip briefings where a company rep comes to your hotel and goes over what you’ll need to pack, where to be, details, etc.  However, in our case, we were directed to a random address in Cusco to find for ourselves, and relatively late at night.  The thing is: they gave us the wrong address. So my family, while suffering from altitude sickness, was left wandering around a city they don’t know in the dark.  When they got back to the hostel, we had the hotel manager call the company (who gave them an earful) and a representative eventually showed up.  The next problem was that the kid they sent barely spoke English and thought we were going on the 4-day hike.  He was going over all the wrong details, and had no idea what details we needed to hear.  So we ended up bringing way to much of the wrong items for our hike, and all along the way didn’t really have any clue at any given time if we were in the right place or not.

So long story short, like I said, while the hike wasn’t horrible (our guide, Diego, was actually quite good), I’d recommend working with a more organized group.  Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the trip itself.

We took the Peru Rail to the 104 KM point of the Inca Trail.  The train ride took about 3 hours from Cusco and was surprisingly comfortable.  We got of the train and our guide Diego* commenced to take us on our hike.  Going back to how bad our prep was, we were seriously over-packed so here’s are a few tips:

-Take only what you know you’ll NEED and not what you might need.  Figure out if water and/or food will be provided in advance.
-If you’re getting a travel company to put this together, they’ll probably provide a bag lunch.  Leave extra room in your backpack for that so that you’re not carrying around a one pound plastic bag full of food  on the Inca Trail.  Trust me, it’s super annoying after about 200 meters.
-If you’re not in the best of shape, or would have trouble walking up to the 15th floor of a building at any given point, I’d suggest having a walking stick.

The hike itself is moderate to very challenging at points, including one steep section the locals call the “Gringo Killer”.  You’ll also want to make sure you’re good and acclimated before you go.  Coca leaves, which Peruvians/Incans have been using for centuries to help with altitude sickness, might help you.  But even if they do, it’ll only provide a small amount of comfort.  Once you get going, take the time to enjoy the beautiful mountain ranges, hundreds of different types of orchids along the path and and the unmatched feeling of breathing in the fresh, clean air of the Andes.  Part of the way on the trail we stopped at Winay Wayna, an ancient Incan ruin built up along the mountainside.  This location provided a great place to sit back, relax and enjoy the view.

The end of our hike concluded at Machu Picchu, but we only did a quick look since it was towards the end of the day and we would be going to be back the next day at sunrise.

For our evening stay, we made our way down to Aguas Calientes, the teeny, tiny town at the bottom of the Machu Picchu mountain.  This town really isn’t worth visiting on its own unless you’ll be at Machu Picchu for two days.  The town is very touristy and is full of hostels, touristy restaurants, an unbelievable amount of massage parlors, and a ton of backpackers.  Despite the touristy-ness, the town is cute and not a bad place to stay for the evening.  Here’s where we stayed and ate:

Hostel Chaska
Alameda los artesanos #209
Urb. Las Orquideas,
Machu Picchu, Peru
974 789818
chaska_machupicchu@hotmail.com

The hostel we were put up in was Hostel Chaska which was a perfectly good, above average hostel.  Clean and no nonsense.

Chaska Restaurant
It was “eh”.  Full of backpacking groups and a basic menu of steaks, chickens, and other normal peruvian fare.

Inka Wasi Restaurant
Another “eh” restaurant.  Clearly you’re not going to have fine dining in Aguas Calienetes.  I did try one of the dishes here that I heard I had to try called Cuy, otherwise known as Guinea Pig.  Again, it was “eh”.  Kind of annoying actually.  I’d say it’s worth trying for the amusement of seeing a whole guinea pig (head and all on your plate), but it’s like eating shitty crabs: it’s a lot of work to get to just a little bit of not that great meat.

Cafe de Paris
Actually a pleasant little place to take a load off and have a latte and croissant.  The owner is actually French and you can tell he’s really into his baking (we asked him about the ingredients) which uses Peruvian spices along with European ingredients.

*Diego has been a Inca Trail guide for over 15 years and has hiked the Inca Trail hundreds of times.  His rate to guide a 4-day hike is $500.  So if you are ever interested, contact me and I will send you his email address.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Who makes the best Philly Cheesesteak?

On a recent trip to Philadelphia the other weekend, a friend of mine and I decided to try our hand at two of the most famous cheesesteak shops in Philadelphia.  Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks are located literally across the street from one another at the intersection where 9th Street, Passyunk Street and Wharton Street meet.  On any given day at any given time that corner is overflowing with people stuffing their faces with bread and meat since both are open 24 hours (so you can get your heart attack in at any time).

Now admittedly, we heard from several locals that these two places are touristy and that some of the best places are actually out in the suburbs (Tony Luke’s for one was a place a local Philly girl swears by).  But since we only had a weekend, we had to see what the hype was about.

Here’s a rundown of how they compared:

Both had similarly long lines and both are Cash Only.  Geno’s by far has the more elaborate looking shop; it looks like something out of Las Vegas, wheras Pat’s has a more local, sandwich hut type feel.   Geno’s easily has the better eating setup: both have picnic tables (about 12 picnic tables or so each), but Geno’s is smart enough to set up standing bar style tables for people to eat along the side of the walls of the shop.   But while Geno’s may have the better seating, they get knocked down a notch because of something that made me feel a little uncomfortable.  When you’re at the casher, there are signs and pictures up of the owner with a “I want my country back” sign and “This is America, we only take orders in English” and shit like that.  Now, I’m not going to use this forum to get too much into it, but as an Asian-American I didn’t feel all that enamoured by that.

Onto the food.  When ordering, both places have the “instructions” on how to order your sandwich quickly.  Probably no one will do anything if you don’t order it like a local, but they may just get a little annoyed if there is a long wait.  You can compare it to putting ketchup on your hot dog in Chicago – they’ll just frown on the out-of-towner.  We ordered the same sandwich, “wiz wit”, at both places.  If you get the cheesesteaks “wiz wit”, which is the cheese whiz, it’s going to be very, very messy.   The steak at Geno’s is a bit more like steak-umm’s flat and solid strips.  The steak at Pat’s is more shredded and a little leaner.  The bread at Geno’s is more like a traditional sub roll like one you’d get from Jimmy Johns, whereas Pat’s break is a lot fluffier and spongier and more like a roll.

In the end the winner is: Pat’s King of Steaks.  You can’t really go wrong with either;  it really comes down to a matter of personal preference.

For good measure, we also tried one of Pat’s cheesesteaks with provolone cheese, peppers and mushrooms and that to me was actually the best out of all of them!  So if you’re up in Philly, enjoy!

Jerusalem – Part II: The Old City

Back to the highlights from Israel.  As I mentioned before, the advantage of staying at the Eldan Hotel is its proximity to the Old City.  Arguably the biggest religious center in the entire world, the highlights of the Old City can be done in a day – but it would be very, very exhausting.  My suggestion would be to give it a day and a half.

***I’ll try and limit the amount of historical background I get into (because quite frankly it would require pages and pages) 

Before you go into the craziness of the Old City, I would actually recommend checking out the Tower of David Museum at the Jaffa Gate.  We visited the museum at the end of our trip through the Old City, but in hindsight doing it beforehand probably would have been more beneficial.  This museum will give you a great history of the city before you go and see the actual sights and can be realistically be done in a couple of hours.

You’ll also notice as you begin your journey into the Old City how remarkably international the environment is.  Jerusalem, and in particular the Old City, really is the most international city that I’ve ever been immersed in with every sort of ethnicity represented.  It just shows you how widespread Christianity, Judaism and Islam are practiced throughout the world.

Christian Section

We started our journey through the Old City at the Jaffa Gate, and made our way into the market to try and find the start of the Via Dolorosa.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Via Dolorosa, it’s the path that Jesus Christ took on his way to his crucifixion.  On the Via Delarosa, there are several checkpoint stations that mark where different miracles/events allegedly occurred during Christ’s walk.  Be prepared to get lost.  Although there are maps and a few signs to attempt to help visitors guide their way through, the Via Dolorosa runs through a very busy and crowded bazaar (much like the one in Fez, but with far fewer shop owners in your face).  While some of the locals will actually try and help you, I’m afraid their kindness gets tainted by the locals who try and take advantage of you and get you in their stores.  What you will find helpful is that there will be tour groups surrounding each of the landmarks, so use that to your advantage.  I really need to find a way to create a perfect map of the Old City, with all the weird little roads and alleys marked.  I’d be a millionaire from the sales off of the tourists.

Expect to see A LOT of religious zealots.  As we were walking up and down the Via Dolorosa, there were several religious groups carrying crosses and chanting.  At the final stop of the Via Dolorosa, the Holy Sepulchre (the site where Christ was allegedly crucified), there were hundreds of worshipers praying and weeping at the locations of the actual execution, where Christ was laid to rest, and his resurrection.  I for one greatly appreciate the historical significance of all these landmarks, but I’ll be the first to admit that I was unsettled by the amount of crying and just 100% pure worship around me.  I did feel in a way like an intruder invading people’s private moments.  And I don’t mean to be insulting, but if I’m going to be honest – I really did think some of the people around me may have been slightly crazy.

Jewish Section

Towards the end of the Via Dolorosa, you’ll approach the Jewish section and the Western Wall (a.k.a. Wailing Wall).  Needless to say, you have to go through tight security to get to the Western Wall courtyard.  My first reaction to seeing the wall was surprise at the size of what was actually left.  I imagined that there was only small portion, but the ruins of the western side of the ancient Jewish temple was much larger than I thought.  There are separate men’s and women’s prayer sections of the wall, so make sure to find a place to regroup after you’re done looking and/or praying (though I heard recently they are considering making the prayer areas mixed).  There is also a dress code: men should have their heads covered and women should be pretty much covered to the knees and over the shoulders.  Shawls and skullcaps are available to borrow.

You’ll notice when you approach the wall that there are thousands, if not millions, or pieces of paper shoved into the cracks of the wall.  These are prayers or letters that have been placed in the wall as messages to God by pilgrims and anyone is welcome to contribute.  Although I don’t practice the Hebrew faith, I still partook in writing a personal note and placing it in one of the cracks in the wall.  God is God, no matter what your faith right?

Muslim Section

Part three of this world religion tour (seriously it was like a straight-up, real-life Epcot Center World Showcase going from religion to religion) was to head to the Muslim section of the city.  Because both Muslims and Hebrews share the Temple Mount, you will literally see a ramp along the Western Wall that will take you to the Dome of the Rock, the site where the prophet Mohammad is said to have ascended to heaven.

There aren’t many signs telling you that the ramp is the way to get to the Dome of the Rock, that’s why I’m telling you now.  Also, there is a long wait – at least 30 minutes – so be prepared for that.  Finally, be sure to figure out what hours the area is open for non-Muslims and plan accordingly.

Once you make it to the top of ramp, you’ll notice how serene the scene is and how impressive the gold dome of the Dome of the Rock stands out.  Compared to the rather crowded Western Wall, there’s much more room to leisurely walk around.  Although non-Muslims aren’t allowed inside, the Dome of the Rock is very impressive on the outside to see and one can imagine how much more impressive the building was centuries ago to the visiting pilgrims.

All in all, seeing this melting pot of religions and nationalities is easily one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had.  It is hard to put into words how fascinating it was to see thousands of people from these three major world religions crash into this one area no bigger than the size of a small town.  It amazes me to think about how much conflict has occurred over the years over this one region and, quite honestly, how much of a shame it is that there hasn’t ever been a way to find a resolution between what are essentially “distant relative” religions.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Why I Love JetBlue

Hello friends.  Sorry I was silent for a little while there.  As much as I would love to be traveling around the world 365 days a year, I’ve still got that little issue of vacation time to worry about.  That being said – this is a good time to remind all my readers – I ACCEPT SUBMISSIONS TO POST ON MY BLOG.  Obviously, I can’t go everywhere in the world, but with your help we can try and cover each corner of the globe together.  So, if you have any sort of reviews, pictures, stories, tips (especially tips) about any places, restaurants or sights in the world, please feel free to forward them on to me and I’ll load them up.

Moving on now.  The one bit of traveling I did do was going home to Boston for Thanksgiving.  And while I generally hate dealing with the craziness of traveling during that time of the year, one thing made it far more managable: flying on JetBlue.

I absolutely love JetBlue, especially now that it flies in and out of the much more convenient Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. (as opposed to Dulles and Baltimore/Washington airports).   But aside from the convenience, JetBlue in my opinion gets everything right.  Because it’s a smaller airline, and generally flies mainly on the east coast, a lot of people haven’t had the chance to give them a try.  Here’s a rundown of why I think they’re the best.

– Just read this story about what did JetBlue did to help the family of one of the 6-year old victims of the Sandy Hook massacre:
http://www.travelerstoday.com/articles/3951/20121217/jetblue-airways-customer-help-families-newtown-connecticut-shooting-victims-sandy-hook-elementary-noah-pozner-emilie-parker.htm 

– Price.  Airline tickets are ridiculously expensive, but JetBlue has managed to keep their prices consistently reasonable.  Like Southwest, the first bag you check is free of charge – without the 100 commercials you DVR fast-forward through.  Though admittedly JetBlue’s ticket prices aren’t gonna be as cheap as Southwest’s in some cases, it’s worth paying the few extra dollars for all of the following…

– Customer Service.  Great customer service on every flight I’ve been on.  The flight attendants are always friendly, and on one occasion I saw the flight attendant help every single female with a carry-on put their bags in the overhead – every single one.  They also provide bottles of Dasani water, Dunkin Donuts coffee along with blue Terra chips and/or cookies, nuts in the gate area as well as on the plane ride.

– 32 channels of DirecTV and SiriusXM satellite radio for free.  I cannot tell you how many times I was so happy to have a chance to watch the end of football games on my flights home on Sundays.  And going back to the customer service thing – my co-worker told me that on her shortly delayed JetBlue flight, they gave all the passengers free access to all the movies as an apology.

– Legroom.  Unlike on the larger carriers, JetBlue’s regular seats have more than enough room to cross your legs without the “can I do this without awkwardly banging my dirty-ass foot into the seat in front of me or the passenger next to me” hesitation.  And those are just the regular seats.  The “Even More Space” seats have so much room, they’re good for parents with little toddlers who want to stand/waddle in front of them.

– The Red Sox.  It’s the official airline of the Boston Red Sox.  That one’s just for me.

r-JET-BLUE-RED-SOX-large570

JetBlue is essentially that perfect blend of budget airline and big carrier without the annoyingness of the getting loaded onto a plane like a bus, or dealing with such a big airline that you get treated as poorly as your luggage.  I would go as far to say that if I had the choice of a direct flight on something like United or having to have to deal with a layover with JetBlue – I would actually take the layover.