Mexico with Global Volunteers

With so many fantastic places to visit, it is highly unusual for me to return somewhere, but that is exactly what I am doing next week.

I visited Querétaro in February, 2015 as a member of a Global Volunteers’ team.  Was it the work, the city, the food, the students, or our wonderful leader, Pam, that is drawing me back?  Short answer–all of the above.  What will make THIS trip even more special is that my cousin Kristy and two friends that I met on other Global Volunteer projects (Jeanne and Sally) will be joining me.

At first, I was going to just write an email to my travel buddies, sharing what I remembered  from my prior experience, but then I thought why not blog so that the  information is available to anyone contemplating volunteering?

In getting ready for the trip, I also realized just how much I had forgotten–and how helpful it was for ME to go back and look at my old posts to see what I was wearing, which luggage I took etc.  When the space between my ears fails me, which happens quite frequently these days, I am glad to have an electronic memory to supplement the “organic” one.

Getting Ready

The Hotel Hidalgo was once the finest lodging in Queretaro.  It was so grand that in 1848,  Santa Anna stayed there prior to signing the Treaty of Guadalupe with the USA.  As one might expect of a hotel built in 1825,  there is no elevator.  There is also no staff to carry your luggage up the 31 stone steps to your room.  (Yes, I DID count them the last time I was there).

I actually LIKE having a built in stair master.  It’s a great way to work off all the excellent Mexican food I’m looking forward to eating.

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Fortunately, there are only two floors! Still, you can get quite a workout climbing up those stone steps multiple times a day.

It is always wise to travel light, and this trip is no exception.  The good news is there is a laundry right around the corner from the hotel.  You drop off your clothes one day and pick them up the next evening.  The bad news is you may experience all three seasons in ONE day.  So, the tried and true travel advice works here:  Dress in layers.  One clear advantage of being older–your days of making a fashion statement are a VERY distant memory. Clothing is chosen for comfort and utility.

In case you’re wondering what I am bringing, here’s a visual:img_3604

I will wear the heavy tan sweater and blue fleece on the plane, but everything else goes in my bag: Hair dryer (they are not supplied by the hotel), toiletries, long underwear (can double as pajamas when the one pair I’m bringing is at the laundry), 5 pants, 4 long sleeved cotton shirts, 1 long sleeved knit top, 3 short sleeved shirts, 1 long skirt, 1 windbreaker with hood, enough underwear for 8 days, hat, small purse, and travel meds (Airborne, Neosporin, motrin), 1 pair of sandals.  I will wear sneakers on the plane.

My routine (as you can see) is to lay everything out on the bed, then determine whether I can get it all into my carry on.  Total weight:  a manageable 24 pounds

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Yep–it all fits, with room to spare. for any last minute toss ins, like scarfs and jewelry.

My backpack will hold my iPhone, iPad, chargers, money, credit card, passport, index cards, tissues, hand sanitizer, erasable markers for white boards (Pam tells me she has a good supply from volunteers leaving them behind, so no need to bring more), pens, notebook,  facecloths (used to erase the white board), tea bags (water coolers on each floor of the Hidalgo dispense both hot and cold water) water bottle, and snacks for the flight.

There is no heat, so the rooms get a bit cool at night and in the morning.  You can request an extra blanket for sleeping, but you need something warm for when you get out of the shower.  A bathrobe is too bulky to pack, so I buy an inexpensive one in Queretaro, and leave it behind when I head home.  That’s one of the advantages of being in a city.  You can buy just about anything you need at either Del Sol or Woolworth’s (Yes, Woolworth DOES still exist. Just not in the USA).   For me, the problem is I am WAY bigger than the average Mexican.  This time around, I’m going to try shopping in the men’s department!

The stores carry just about everything, including products that you would never in a million years buy!

The stores carry just about everything, including products that you would never in a million years buy!

The high altitude dries your skin, but lotion is available everywhere, so I didn’t bother packing it in my toiletries bag.  There is no need for insect repellant.  I never saw a bug the two weeks I was there.  A hat is important, because the sun is strong.

The hotel uses the same kind of plug and the same current as the USA, so no need for an adapter and converter.  Even so, I’m bringing my trusty little gadget that I bought at Staples, because most rooms only have one electrical outlet.  Notice the two USB ports, plus one regular plug?  This little treasure allows me to charge iPhone, iPad and camera all from one socket!

USB slots , with the C adapter extended.

USB slots , with the C adapter extended.

Arrival 

If you are arriving at the start of the program, Pam will arrange for your transportation.  I like to go in a day or two early, so I handle my own transportation to the hotel.  It was 350 pesos to get to the historical center, (about $17 US).  There is a booth in Queretaro airport, just outside  immigrations and customs that helps with getting a taxi.  I recently learned that Queretaro now has Uber service, but I think I’ll stick with the taxi to get to the hotel.

Money

You don’t need to bring much money with you.  There are ATMs at the airport and in town, so it is easy to use your debit card to get pesos.  For those that want to exchange dollars, there is an office around the corner from our hotel, but ATMs are so abundant, I find it more convenient to just tap into my checking account.

Because the program fee covers room, board and transportation, you only need cash for shopping or if you plan on traveling on the weekend.  Even then, credit cards are widely accepted.

The Project

Pam, our terrific leader, contacts all volunteers in advance of the trip.  She explains that we will not be working with the same group of students every day.  Instead, when we arrived at the school, we go off with whatever teacher we are assigned to.  The students could be beginners, intermediate or advanced.  Some teachers will tell you what they want you to work on–others will tell you to do whatever you want.  This is where an iPad comes in handy. Last time,  I took photos of common household objects so we could practice “what is this”,  “this is a —“.  For the more advanced students, we were able to talk about what was important to them: dating, family, work, food, entertainment, travel.

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One of the photos on my iPad used for a beginning lesson.

Because there are also evening classes, our hours vary.  Some days we start early and end early, with a nice break before we get back together for dinner.  Other days we have our mornings off, but pack food for dinner and arrive back at the hotel around 9 PM.  I thoroughly enjoyed the varied schedule.  It gave us a chance to experience the city of Queretaro, although I have to tell you — not much is going on before 10 AM!

I bring my backpack to school every day.  It holds my meal (lunch or dinner), extra layers of clothing, teaching aids, hand sanitizer and toilet paper (there are no paper products in the ladies’ room) and water bottle.  It also serves as my luggage for my weekend excursion.

backpack and carry on

backpack and carry on

Free Time

Global Volunteers have their weekends free.  You can book  trips on the Primera Plus bus at the travel agency around the corner  from the hotel (in 2015, it was open from 10-2 and 4-7).  Last time, we took the 8 AM bus on Saturday to Guanajuato, returning on Sunday’s 3:30 bus.

This time, Jeanne, Sally and I plan to visit San Miguel de Allende on the weekend between our two work weeks.  Pam, the GV team leader, warned us that we needed advance reservations in San Miguel if we wanted to stay in the town center at a reasonably priced hotel.  Good thing she did! There weren’t a lot of choices left when we made our reservations a few weeks ago.  Once again, we will head out early Saturday morning and be back in time for dancing in the town square on Sunday night.  Maybe Uber will be a good choice for getting between the bus station and hotel.

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Wonder if I’ll run into my dance partner again?

That’s all I can think of.  I hope it is helpful, especially for my travel buddies Sally, Jeanne and Kristy.

 

 

 

Bergen, Norway

I am ending my Viking Ocean Cruise narrative the way I started it oh so many months ago, with a photo of Bergen’s  colorful harbor houses.

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What wasn’t apparent to me when I downloaded Viking’s promotional photo was that some of the facades were fake.  See the red and tan canvas coverings draped over two of the building fronts?  They are concealing  extensive restoration work currently taking place. What an ingenious way to preserve the beauty of the waterfront!

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We had decided to extend our stay in Bergen for two post-cruise days.  Trip Advisor helped us find the Oleana, a wonderful little boutique hotel just a couple of blocks from the waterfront.  It was compact, but very well designed.  That area to the left of the refrigerator and bar, behind the colorful, abstract graphic, is the bathroom.  The graphic hides the more interesting parts of your anatomy from any viewers in the room while you are showering, but you can still smile and wave.

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In addition to the delicious free breakfast, The Oleana offers afternoon waffles.  Wifi is free, the port is just a couple of blocks away, it is reasonably priced, and it has character, full of memorable art–see for yourself.  What’s not to like?

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Bergen is a lovely town, but I was unable to fully enjoy it because I was very concerned about my main man.  He was badly bruised from the the spill he took coming down the mountain in Flam, however the worst part was what was unseen, and not discovered till we got home.  He managed to crack three ribs when he fell, which made him quite uncomfortable–no only for our three days in Bergen,  but also for the following several weeks.  Although we DID manage to get out and about, we were not able to explore to the extent that we had in other ports.

Normally, we hit every possible overlook wherever we go.  But not this time.  We didn’t make it to the top of Mount Floyen on the Floibanen.  Instead, we took short walks in the port area.

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Notice the funicular at the top of the photo. Also notice how clean the streets are!

Fortunately, it is great place to hang out, full of little shops and restaurants, plus a huge outdoor market.  There is something for just about every taste.

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For those with less adventurous palates, not to worry.  You can always dine in splendor at what our Danish guide called “the American embassy”.

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Believe it or not, we passed up eating at Mickey D’s

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We DID visit Starbucks. It provided the perfect shelter when we got caught in a brief cloudburst.

The outdoor market was quite colorful, with lots of flags and trolls.  I wish I could have brought this guy home with me.  I know two little girls that would have loved to have him in their back yard!

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The side streets have stores with more traditional goods, just in case you are in the market for a new tractor.

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Only kidding. This “super duper” store actually sells clothing. Sorry, I have NO idea why there is a tractor on their sign!

Just a few more photos from our rambles before we bring  our Viking Adventure to a close.

Bergen’s public art pays tribute to an important source of the population’s livelihood.img_2894

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Another lovely, clean side street in the port area.

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The lake and park near the port

What better way to sign off, than with a photo of two of travel buddies modeling their St. Petersburg purchases at our last dinner on board the Viking Star?

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Flam, Norway

Imagine waking up to THIS spectacular scenery!  Ahhhh…

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If you did, you would be just outside the little village of Flam.  It is peaceful, majestic, quiet and breathtakingly beautiful.

There isn’t much in the center of town–just a few shops and a train station, where you can buy tickets for one of the most scenic rides on this planet.

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Viking offered a combined bike/train experience for $179 per person.  You take the train up the mountain and part way down, then get on a bike and glide the rest of the way into town.

I tried repeatedly to enroll us in that excursion, but the website consistently listed it as sold out.   Damn, I was deeply disappointed.  That disappointment lasted about 15 minutes.  Then I decided to do something about it, so I took to the internet.

Eventually, after much hunting and more than a few pokes around Trip Advisor and Cruise Critic, I discovered Cafe Rallaren.  Located in Myrdal, the last stop for the Flamsbana train, it not only supplies food (that’s the cafe part), but also offers bikes for rent.  You can ride the 12.5 miles down the mountain, then leave the bike in town.   No need to lock the bike, you just leave it there.  In town.  What a concept. Try THAT in Boston or San Francisco!

Total cost for the train ticket plus bike (and helmet) rental for both of us was $161.50.  Sold!

A closer look at Flam

A closer look at Flam

We chose the 11:05 departure, which gave us time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast on the ship, and wander through the town. We would arrive in Myrdal at noon, just in time for lunch at the cafe.  We were the only ship in port that morning, so Flam wasn’t crowded at all.  That was about to change.

When our train pulled into Flam, literally thousands  of tourists came rushing off–perhaps heading for the bathrooms?  To get a window seat on one of the tour buses in the parking lot?  Who knows?  It was a Chinese tour group, so we weren’t able to ask anyone why they were in such a hurry or where they were coming from.

The good news is OUR ride up the mountain wasn’t crowded at all, and we all had our choice of seats.

The train makes a stop at a waterfall,  so the obligatory photos can be taken.  That spray was COLD and powerful, so after about 10 seconds spent admiring the falls’ grandeur (and getting damp), I quickly reboarded the train to photograph the waterworks from the doorway.   I know.  I’m a wimp.  I just hate discomfort of any kind.  Especially when it is self inflicted.

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What I didn’t see, but Mike (who is made of much stronger stuff) did, was the water nymph who appeared alongside the falls, waving her arms to the tourists. He took the next two photos.

Can you spot her?

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How about now?  Don’t you love a zoom lens?

Getting our bikes and helmet at the cafe was easy and uneventful.  Not so for the rest of the trip.  So how was it?  It was incredibly beautiful.

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It was incredibly steep, and rather rocky, for the first mile,

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One of the many hairpin turns on our ride

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We are smiling now, because we are standing on one of the flatter stretches during that first mile.

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Check out the rocks and ruts.  Hitting one of those the wrong way while hurtling down a steep slope could be quite uncomfortable.  See the drop on the left side of the road?

Best strategy?  Walk your bike down the steep sections of that first mile.   Unfortunately, Mike didn’t, and took a bad spill.  He injured himself enough to made him uncomfortable for the rest of the cruise.  To make matters worse, shortly thereafter, his bike got a flat tire.  He soldiered on, NOW walking the bike.  What else could he do?  You don’t see any cell towers in these photos, do you?  No houses or cars either.  Put it all together and you end up with no bloody way to get help.   It was bad, but it would have undoubtedly have been far worse if the drama queen member of our duo had gone down.  (That would be me.  Mike, on the other hand, never complains…)

Eventually we reached a more inhabited area, where both Mike and the bike were rescued and given a ride back to the ship.

The ship sponsored bike trip started at the flatter, paved section, about half way down the mountain.  That’s something to keep in mind for the less adventurous.  Unfortunately, I can’t give future Flam visitors any information on how THEY could get in touch with that particular bike vendor.   I just spotted a trailer by the side of the road, with lots of bikes loaded onto it, but no signs or identifying information.

Of course, if you decide to do it on your own from the top of the mountain, you DO have the option of walking your bike down and around the hairpin curves.  That worked quite well for other bikers (such as me).

I was in a bit of a hurry to get back to the ship to make sure my guy was doing okay, so I didn’t take many more photos.

In the US, we have speed bumps.  Here in Flam, they have speed goats.

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Although we didn’t encounter any Trolls, we met more than three Billy Goats Gruff

This guy either took a shine to me, or thought I was the “other” character in the fairy tale.  All I know is he was repeatedly butting against my leg and followed me a while!

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Beautiful flowers and clean water along the way.  The perfect photo for a happy ending

Yes, there was a happy ending.  Mike visited the ship’s doctor, who after determining that nothing was broken, sent him on his way with some happy pills.

Next stop, Bergen.