So there’s this stretch of restaurants…

Random short post: I pass this block from time to time and recently it struck me that we have been to each of these places! Xi’an, China; New Delhi, India; and Pattaya, Thailand.

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Family Road Trip, Florida and the Carolinas, Aug 2019, part 4

Leaving the Gainesville sinkhole, the daughter foursome became even more unhappy because we parents had miscalculated the distance to Chapel Hill and their friends. So not only did we drag them to the dreaded educational, character-building experience-slash-sinkhole, but we would arrive much later than planned at our much-anticipated rendezvous with the Fabulous family. I was not happy to learn of the extra driving either, but we were still having a pretty good time. Our car was doing great, the air conditioning worked, and the views out the window were nice. As I drove along, I savored the road trip and the road…but what was that bumping? I had recently taken over the wheel and hasn’t noticed it earlier…it didn’t seem to steer correctly and there was a definite rough feeling…it soon was revealed to us we had a flat tire. On a Friday after 5pm before a 3-day weekend. And we were in nowheresville, northern Florida, or maybe South Carolina. Anyway, we found a local place but it was closing time, so we went bumping along slowly to a mega-store that appeared like an oasis in the flat rural distance. They did tires. It set us back another hour, even longer probably, and some money of course, but we had some food and did a little school shopping so everyone was happy. Then we got back in the car and kept heading to our friends’ home. We arrived late but unscathed and settled in to a 3-night sleepover.

I know Chapel Hill is a great place and everyone tells me about the parks and the shops and the university and all, but to tell the truth, I didn’t see much more than the inside of the Fabulous house. It was hot, we stayed in the a/c, we watched movies and did a lot of cooking and eating and playing games, the kids had each other and the trampoline in the backyard, plus two friendly dogs, 3 cats, and plenty more kids up and down the street. Mr. Fabulous took the kids to a lake, possibly called Jordan Lake, they had a good time. Mostly we just enjoyed each other’s company and relaxed. I didn’t take any photos.

An event of note occurred as we were getting ready to leave. I locked my keys in the car while the other set happened to be in the car as well. We tried all kinds of maneuvering of coat hangers and other slender instruments into the closed windows without success. We were loathe to pay a locksmith. We tried unlocking the doors through the open rear windows, but it’s a minivan and the rear windows only open as narrow slits, so this method also proved futile. We were running out of ideas and we could see the keys tantalizingly close as we pressed out noses against the windows. What to do? Mr Marvelous had a plan. The idea was to use a fishing rod strategically poked through one of the open rear windows and oh so carefully maneuvered to the small well between the two front seats where we could see the keys. There was a keyring that was theoretically able to be reached by the fish hook that dangled from the pole. Mr Marvelous very patiently went fishing from the rear window, guided by the crowd to the keyring he could not see. So close came the shivering, slender pole with its hook and its potential to save the day, the kids oohed and ahhhed and shouted “almost!”. That he persevered is a true testament to the man I love and his expansive patience, in such opposition to my own (once compared to the patience of a gnat in heat!). That he succeeded, well, that is simply beautiful. And we finished packing up and we again headed back home after a memorable experience- quiet rural South Carolina to wacky Orlando to farm animals to friends in the tar heels state.

I’ve been waiting to post this until I could get a photo of the Amazing Fishing Pole Key Rescue, but it’s just not happening. Please enjoy this photo of the Fantastic and Fabulous kids from Thanksgiving, when we went back to NC again!

Family Road Trip, Florida and the Carolinas, Aug 2019, part 3 

We said goodbye to theme park madness and headed for rural northern Florida. We drove a couple of hours to a farm stay in Butler Lake, Fl. It is located near Gainesville and we were to stay 2 nights. We arrived before dusk so we could look around a little. It was a very flat landscape with some standing water due to a very wet summer. There were beautiful live oak trees festooned with moss.

There were donkeys, goats, horses, and chickens. They were all quite mellow and we were allowed to climb over the fence to pet them, so we did. We made dinner and settled into a cement block building that had been used at various times as storage space, a barn, and a tofu making facility. We didn’t spend much time there because we decided to explore Gainesville, but we definitely enjoyed quality time with the animals. I braved the mud for a short hike across the pastures and also explored the little camper parked on the property, adorably bright yellow and with a guest book that mentioned its adventures. Apparently the camper is rented out at times.

Gainesville proved to have many thrift stores, a college campus, and great pho. Worth mentioning is Flashbacks, a funky shop with all kinds of unique items and a great vibe. It’s everything I want in a thrift store; I kind of wanted to move in there. It was around the corner from Faith Vietnamese Restaurant where we had lunch during a massive downpour. We had a very cozy meal as the only diners, our party of six, watching the rain pound against the large front windows. The conversation with the owner and his wife was wonderful and the pho was delicious. After the rain subsided, we made our way through the puddles and streams in the street back to the car. We drove past the college, but our resident college applicant was not interested in finding out more, since she doesn’t want to live in Florida, and I can’t blame her.

More appealing was a bunch of graffiti- the 34th Street Wall, where we headed next. This is a low wall, over 1100 feet long, next to a fairly busy four lane road. It has been painted and painted over again by people of varying motivations- school spirit, peace, anger, self-expression. We drove by slowly and admired the wall. It went on for quite some time. Even the trashcans were painted.

A second night at the farm brought more hanging out with animal friends, another dinner and watching a cooking show we liked. The next day we said goodbye to the animals and did a little detour before driving up to Chapel Hill, NC. I had made the executive decision, a very unpopular one I might add, to go see the Devil’s Millhopper. When else would we get to see such a large, geologically important sinkhole?! It called to me. We headed out of Gainesville towards the site. We paid the modest entry fee, were jostled about not at all by crowds because no one else was there. We watched the somewhat dated but still informative educational video, and walked over to the sinkhole itself. It was magnificent, but we would have to admire it from afar because the famed staircase was closed for repairs. This would go down in the books as another miss in adventure travel, alongside the unseen pink dolphins of Thailand, the fog-obscured five sisters waterfalls of northeast India, the absent manatees of last February (come to think of it, that was in Florida, too), and probably others past and future. Anyway, it was a nice hike and maybe I’ll go back sometime. It’s supposed to be awesome! On this day, we hiked around the perimeter and called it a day as we headed for the last stop of the trip, the Fabulous family of Chapel Hill.

Family Road Trip, Florida and the Carolinas, Aug 2019, part 2

All of us in front of the Hogwart’s Express, inside the train, Really at the Leaky Cauldron

It was the next day and we were headed for Harry Potter World! First, we went to some ticket place to get discounted tickets, and we hit a grocery store to bring lunch. We ended up getting 4-day passes for the cost of a little over 2 days. They were paper tickets and we had to bring them to the park, and show them multiple times each day. We were going to both parks, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, because each has part of Harry Potter World, connected by the Hogwarts Express Train (well played, Universal Studios). We did a good job of keeping track of the tickets, though I did worry a little. Parking also was not fun, there was a fee of course, and a fairly long walk from our parking spot to the entrance, and then to HPW. Overall, though, we were in good spirits and ready to be entertained.

Suessland and Gringott’s

I have to say, I do not like crowds, I do not like heat, and we really did well on both counts. The week we chose was one of the less busy times for the park. It is hurricane season and the beginning of the school year, so many people do not plan their theme park vacation during the last week of August. We waited not at all for many rides, actually letting people in front of us in some cases, as we looked at the elaborate scenes in line for the HPW rides, and later for the Mummy ride. It did rain every day, and was a little intense one afternoon, but this didn’t affect our experience. We weathered the worse storm in the indoors Mummy rollercoaster, which we rode as many times as we wanted with no waiting. The movie is a little dated, but it’s an awesome roller coaster! I also personally loved Spiderman, also indoors, more rollercoaster and 3-D effects, and no line. There are lots of indoor options during rain.

We were there from open to close that first day, and I’m a little embarrassed to say how much I enjoyed myself. I really prefer actual life experiences to artificial amusement park ones but the rides were just so entertaining. It turns out I really like the simulated projections, especially the 3-D ones. I preferred them to the roller coasters, which I also went on because why not. The Simpsons ride was especially awesome because it was a cool simulation ride and incorporated a cynical take on amusement parks that matches my own cynicism, yet here we were at an amusement park! So meta and breaking the 4th wall, etc. The kids really liked the Hulk roller coaster, I think that was their favorite. We all liked the Harry Potter rides and shops, we also caught a couple of live shows in HPW which were excellent. We ate at the Leaky Cauldron and also at the Three Broomsticks, something I would normally never do because of budget worries, but this was a bit of a splurge vacation, the food was good and we really enjoyed ourselves. The scenery is great throughout.

Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, Stan Shunpike and the night bus, Diagon Alley

We pretty much repeated this on day 2 and 3, going back to our favorite rides, trying to go to the best Universal rides outside of HPW though they hadn’t been on our radar before arriving, enjoying the short lines and lack of crowds in general. At night we saw the light show on the HPW castle and also watched part of the Universal Studios fireworks and light display over the lake. We had one late morning and went thrifting while the kids swam in the pool and otherwise lounged at the rental apartment, but the thrift shop was mostly a disappointment.

The third day we packed ourselves out of the apartment and after our last day at the park (we never used our 4th day passes, 3 days seemed enough) headed for a farmstay I had arranged. It was time for part 3 of the trip.

Final thoughts and tips:

1) Don’t be afraid to go during “hurricane season”. Orlando is not near the ocean, so it might rain every day but likely won’t have serious flooding. The low crowd volume/short lines are worth it!

2) Universal has many awesome rides outside of HPW that should not be missed, easy to find lists of these. A surprise favorite for us was the Poseidon Adventure. Shrek we thought was overrated. E.T. was excellent for younger kids, esp if they saw the movie.

3) It’s ok not to buy the $100 HPW wands. Watch other people use them to see the cool effects that happen in the shop windows and displays. Spend instead on butterbeer, English pub food and excellent desserts in the restaurants.

4) Go at night to see the light shows. Spend a morning at your accommodations to enjoy the pool or just to relax in between time at the parks.

5) See the live shows, especially the short but excellent HPW shows. We also saw Sinbad (ok), the Hollywood make up/special effects show (pretty good), the Blues Brothers (I’m a fan), a Stomp type street show (great), and a random Marilyn Monroe street performance (cute).

6) Make sure you see the Gringott’s dragon breathe fire!

Family road trip, Florida and the Carolinas, August 2018, part 1

Coming back from going around the world a little under two years ago, we were done with traveling for a while and had to settle into life, work, kids routines, and all of that. We parents were faced with finding income, health insurance, a car, education for the kids, furniture, groceries…it was a lot. All we really had was the house, a somewhat neglected Victorian built around 1896, and plenty of bills. So we got to work, and little by little became sedentary and financially stable again. If I sound a little wistful, it is because I am, but even I have to admit that we are extremely lucky to have good health, marketable skills, and a functional house in a great neighborhood in a pretty awesome city. There were bumps, but looking back, things went remarkably well.

As we set up our lives again, we sometimes talked about our next family trip. We aimed for summer 2018 and we chose* to go to Harry Potter World. Time went by, as it tends to do, and soon we were looking at the 2018 summer schedule for each of the six of us and looking at dates and other logistics. We narrowed our focus to August, and finally to the last week of August into Labor Day. It looked like HPW was contained in two parks at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. The cost for six people to do this was rather astronomical, but we decided to go for 2-3 days and do other things as we drove down to Orlando and back. The week we chose coincided with Cleverly’s first week of school – of high school– but we prioritized family togetherness**after a summer of diverse schedules and not seeing each other much. I was heading back to-gulp- Orlando.

I don’t have much pride in this, but if there are two things my country of birth does right, they are highways and theme parks. We were about to take advantage of these on this trip, starting with the former. We left before sunrise on a Saturday morning and headed down mighty I-95. We were aiming for a small town about an hour from Charleston, South Carolina called Holly Hill. The photos of the rental house looked so lovely and inviting, we were going a little out of our way to get there. But first, Fayetteville, North Carolina for lunch.

It was about to get flooded about 2 weeks later, but that day it was nice to walk around the main street and eat at the cute Blue Moon Cafe. People were brunching outdoors, we met an adorable puppy and we enjoyed being out of the car for a spell. See how I got a bit Southern there? We were now in the South. We had gone through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia to get there.

After about 9 hours of driving, mostly on the interstate, we arrived in Holly Hill. We were so delighted with this rental, it is hard to describe it properly. We only had one night, but happily we arrived in the afternoon so we could have some time to enjoy the place. What a house! Large, gracious porch, modern, well-stocked kitchen, historic yet air-conditioned, it is probably the nicest place we have ever stayed. There were chickens, a hammock, and a hot tub in the big back yard. Really got right to work making popcorn.

There was a Harry Potter themed “cupboard under the staircase”, a piano, board games, a screened porch, and bookshelves full of interesting books. We had four large bedrooms with the most comfortable pillows, three bathrooms, and so many cozy spots to lounge and read.

The house had been a doctor’s office when built back in the early 1900’s and there were memorabilia and historic touches throughout. What a beautiful beginning to this trip. We walked a couple of blocks to the Piggly Wiggly and made a nice dinner. We slept wonderfully, listening to crickets in the otherwise quiet night. We relaxed and had a leisurely breakfast the next morning and left, reluctantly, as late as we could.

We decided to stop in Charleston for a couple of hours because it wasn’t far out of our way. We drove to the waterfront and went to the Ft. Sumpter National Monument. There was a small museum, and one can go on boat tours out to the fort. It was hot, the views from the museum were nice, and it was interesting to read about the history. We walked around the plaza, which includes an aquarium and a dock area.

Then we drove around the city’s historic neighborhood a little south and west of the waterfront. It began to rain, so we looked out the windows at the gorgeous homes, colorful with ornate ironwork, gardens, and balconies. We took one picture in front of the gate to a beautiful garden as a warm rain fell.

And then we got out of there! Universal Studios awaited us, also I didn’t like being near the coast during hurricane season as the rain and wind intensified. Next stop, Orlando! We continued South and stopped in Savannah, Georgia on the way, again in the historic main street. It is a beautiful town with many parks. We ate at the Kayak Kafe and walked around a little.

I have to mention here that as we continued south on I-95, this stretch had many, many felled trees along the highway. We had been appreciating the shade and scenery provided by the tall trees on other parts of this highway, why cut them here? Was it some type of infestation? Road widening? No, friends, I am sad to report, this part of I-95 has been having its trees mowed down due to what I can only call idiotic drivers. It is known as the “coffin corridor” due to many accidents that have happened here in which drivers leave the highway and hit the trees. As one article put it “While the first goal is to keep drivers on the roadway, “but when they do get off the road, we want to give them space to recover” before striking any trees, Wickenhoefer said. The state plans to clear all trees in any median less than 160 feet wide.” So the answer is to cut down trees??? I think if people are swerving off the road, trees may not be the biggest issue here. Especially after taking a train trip recently and pondering how much better the US train system could be, I remain stunned by the fact that this is where transportation money is being spent. Cutting trees down, because drivers swerve off the road and hit them. Unbelievable.

After a few hours, we were in the outskirts of the theme park city and headed to our rental apartment. We made it there, settled in for the night, and rested for the theme park excursion the next day.

* Not my first choice, but I had to admit I knew we could drive there, and I was pretty sure we would all like it there, as opposed to, say, South America where I have been setting my sights.

**also, 1) the school district was starting a week earlier than usual – did they consult us? No! 2) TBH we don’t take school that seriously, we are homeschoolers at heart and at 9th grade, it’s only her 2nd year of school. The other 3 kids school activities were not affected. 3) She didn’t miss much- it ended up being a heat wave and they had half days that week citywide because so many schools do not have a/c!

New Orleans by train October 2019, part 4

Just a few hours of sleep then it was back to the train. Leaving in the early morning sun, we saw things we hadn’t seen on the way in. Lake Pontchartrain was amazing- apparently we were next to the longest bridge in the world! It’s for cars so we weren’t on it, we were on a shorter, parallel train bridge. The car bridge we saw is about 24 miles long and crosses the lake at the widest point, doesn’t make much sense to me but there it was. Not too much later, I saw what had to be prehistoric mounds and I was delighted to read about the 2nd largest moundbuilders site in the US, outside Tuscaloosa AL. Apparently there is a larger one outside of St. Louis, MO, but this one was right outside my window! I had just finished reading 1491 by Charles Mann,so when I spotted the unnatural looking grassy lumps out the window, I was able to recognize and appreciate them. A woman we met while dining on the train said that Amtrak used to publish guides to such things one sees out the window on various routes.

I wish I would have had one of those guides! I’m sure we passed many notable sights during the 1200+ miles each way of the trip. I found a way to download the Amtrak Crescent Route Guide from the Green Education Foundation, I couldn’t figure it out from their website but when I googled the guide, there was a link from that group to download it. I couldn’t link it here but anyone who wants to should be able to find that link. I wish I had done it before the trip, but anyway, you can! I couldn’t find anything about the moundbuilders, a glaring oversight of you ask me, but the guide is a great idea.

I found something else on the internet. About a year ago, a New York Times hipster wrote about the same train, the Crescent, and his trip on the whole route from NYC to NOLA. He was unimpressed by some things and enjoyed others, it was an interesting read.

We again enjoyed eating with strangers, talking about our lives and travel and whatever was out the window. I can’t think of another setting where this would be the case- sitting at a table for four with people you don’t know. A little like a wedding dinner, but you likely don’t know anyone in common as you would at a wedding. Our dining companions were, without exception, older than us, married heterosexual middle/upper middle class and very pleasant. Many, as one might expect, had complaints and/or fears regarding airplanes. All but one couple were white. We avoided politics and any controversial topics, feeling many were more conservative than we are. We felt lucky to be a little late as we neared Philadelphia. It allowed us to have a fifth meal on the trip and we met a nice couple from Prescott, Arizona as we watched Wilmington, Delaware glide by. When we saw Septa vehicles, Philly’s local public transportation, we knew we had to pack up quickly, which we did, and went back to life off the train. One last photo- this is the switching of engines in D.C. South of there they use a diesel engine, north of there an electric engine is used. Strangely, it looked like the nose of the engine faced the rest of the train at the front, so it appeared to go in reverse, pulling the train cars the whole trip!

New Orleans by train October 2019, part 3

After biking, we walked around the French Quarter. We went to a big, old book store called Beckham’s bookshop for some reading material for the trip home. It was two floors of books with a third floor that has records. It has large windows (below) looking out onto Decatur Street. There were two older men who had been running the place for 50 years. There was a cat of course. I just wanted to curl up and wait for some bad weather so I could read for a while in that book store coziness!

We got some pralines at a candy store and then gumbo, hushpuppies, and shrimp and grits for lunch. We went back to Jackson Square, now full of artists and buskers and tourists, and to the waterfront, where we saw the giant steamboat the Nachez.

We returned to the hostel to leave our bags and rest a moment, then went to find a falafel place with pinball machines we had heard about. We went back on the 47 streetcar, transferred to a different streetcar, then we were back in one of the areas we had biked through that morning. We found the falafel/pinball place- it’s all that plus a bar! On the way, we passed a burlesque place and a slavic soul food bar with a mobile taco truck/performance space parked outside. This was along St. Claude street around the 2200 block. It was tough to choose where to spend our limited time, but the original plan was pinball so that’s where we went. Then we walked a few blocks to Frenchmen Street which was recommended to us as a more desirable alternative to Burboun Street by several people we met. It was great! There was an open-air art and craft fair, then we scoped the scene for a few blocks and decided to sit at a bar called Vaso, have a drink and watch a band. They had a great singer with a Janet Joplin voice. Next, we took a chance on stand up comedy at the Dragon’s Den, kind of expecting the worst but still curious. We were charmed by the narrow brick tunnel we entered as we followed arrows with the word “comedy” written in chalk on the ground. We went upstairs to a dark bar with a small stage and watched five comics do short routines and they were so good! Two were women, some were from NYC and some local, one was on comedy central, we were impressed. And we laughed and drank cocktails. Then we went back to the bars on Frenchmen. I really wanted to hear jazz and/or blues with horns. We went back to Vaso, then another bar I forget, and stayed for a few songs at each, each band had horns which I loved, trumpet and trombone. The sidewalks were getting more crowded and as we walked outside, we heard a band playing on the corner. It was all horns and drums, so lively! A guy on the balcony joined in on his trombone, wow!

I wasn’t at all hungry but realizing that it was our last chance, I convinced Mr. Marvelous to split a delicious last NOLA meal- jambalaya with greens and corn bread and peach cobbler with ice cream for dessert. Thank you Praline Connection! It was a down-to-earth place with great homemade soul food and it was open until midnight. We had a perfect window seat so we could see the scene outside with revelers drinking from open containers, cars trying to get through the crowd, a strange bike-on-a-bike contraption that pulled a giant glowing cube that suspended 4 swings from which people were swinging, party buses rolling by, and a guy setting up a colorful wooden kiosk where he was selling handmade books. We ate, enjoyed the view out the window, then joined the crowd as we walked through it to the streetcar stop. Sitting on the shiny wooden seats looking out at downtown with its theater marquees and streetlights and shops was nice as we rolled back to the hostel. It has been a long day and we did everything we hoped for, with the exception of finding a thrift store. They all closed at 7 which was about the time we remembered we had wanted to do that. Oh well, next time!