Tag Archives: Jill Travels

Postcard from Niagara Falls

12 May

If you find yourself traveling in the Buffalo area, you might think, Hey, maybe I should duck over and see Niagara Falls while they’re so close. And that’s a good thought to have — they’re pretty spectacular. But if you’re not from around the area and trying to find parking, you’ll probably end up in the official State Park parking lot, which costs $10.

Seems like a decent chunk of change to go glance at some water, right?

Not to worry! The State Park parking lot gives you 20 minutes of free parking, which is plenty of time to get a Niagara Falls experience.

Take a parking ticket, and park in a spot that gives you easy exit access. This is important because if you’re running short on time, the last thing you want to do is coast through the parking lot and get stopped by tons of cars pulling in and out of parking spaces.

Now, you book it.

The main access to the Falls is through the visitor’s center. Walk in and go down the stairs that are either on your right or left. Avoid the store at the bottom and walk to the back and out the door. Viola! The falls are right there!

Head over to the railing and look to the left. There’s the falls! Marvel at them, wonder what they look like from the Canadian side (sorry, but they’re better), take some pictures and selfies. Head back quickly–your 20 minutes are almost up and you want to be able to walk like you’re a normal person and not on some non-existent Amazing Race.

That’s it. Head back in, avoid the crowds, head back up the stairs and out of the visitor’s center. What? You wanted a souvenir? Pull four quarters and a penny out of your pocket and make yourself a pressed penny (I know, pressed penny aficionados. Four quarters). The machine is downstairs, next to the door that goes out to the falls. You’ll have time for that.

Once you’re out of the visitor’s center, start walking quickly back to your car. Check your parking ticket–are you still in your 20 minute window? Good! Don’t even bother trying to pay for parking. Even if you’re under 20 minutes, the machine will try to tell you that you owe money. Don’t let it confuse you.

Get back to your car–even if you have to run at this point–and hightail it to the gate. Stick your ticket in the card reader, and congratulations, you’ve just gotten a free quick side trip to Niagara Falls.

 

Postcard from Argentina

28 Apr

A couple of weeks ago, I got to go to Argentina to teach an officiating clinic and officiate at a tournament. Argentina hadn’t been high on my list of places to visit, though the Boy and I often joke that we are Argentinian because we tend to eat dinner around 9 or 10PM. But I didn’t really know why else one should go to Argentina–and from what I read, there’s not much touristy about Buenos Aires. You really go there to live it.

This is also fine with me, as when I travel, the ratio of museum visits to everyday activities skews heavily toward the latter (if you pit a high quality museum against a trip to Carrefour, 9 times out of 10, I will pick Carrefour. That 10th time I’ll visit the museum out of guilt). But it did very much make for a lot of pre-trip confusion and concern about what it is that I’ll actually do with the couple of days I had off–and because my Duolingo lessons had focused heavily on horses and military titles, I wasn’t quite convinced that I’d be able to figure out much.

Needless, to say, I had a lovely time, although I just barely scratched the surface of a complicated part of the world. I stayed in Vicente Lopez, a nice suburb of Buenos Aires, but did spend a bit of time in the city too. But “nice” is relative, and Vicente Lopez–to me, at least–was a good example of the juxtaposition I felt was likely a characteristic of this area. Nice houses and apartment buildings lined dirty streets with randomly patterned cracked sidewalks. A fantastically huge park with a great walking/biking path and playgrounds and fitness stations and more butted up against a river full of trash.

But for all the layers of pollution and graffiti, there was also inventive, colorful art and architecture that I’d randomly come across, when I was not looking down trying to avoid the piles of dog crap dotting the sidewalks. This element of surprise and discovery (along with a late dinner hour) really made this place captivating–and one I’d like to revisit.

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The Travel Advice Service Tailored for You

14 Apr

I’m getting ready to go to Argentina, and part of my mandatory travel routine is to call Ma Jaracz and let her know I’m heading away from home for a little while. As with most trips, she has some advice for me:

Don’t eat the meat!

Wait, what? One of the things I’m most excited about doing in Argentina is eating beef. Chorizo, bife de chorizo, vacio, entraña, bring it. Even better, bring it at 9:00 or 10:00 pm, because that’s when I normally eat! I’m going to be with my people–how can I not eat like them?

Turns out that when I was in Australia, the meat industry in Brazil had some upheaval, with a major scandal exposed where meat processors used chemicals to cover expired meat smells and they filled out sausages with flour and cardboard.

OK, I’m going to Argentina. While it does have a shared border with Brazil, it’s not that long. And Argentina produces its own beef, so why would they import it?

Tell that to Ma J, and she concedes, but still. I need to be careful.

This got me thinking that my mother could probably make some extra money giving her patented travel advice. Remember, this is the woman who told me last year before I went to Alaska:

Just be careful up there. They don’t solve their murders.

And before the Boy and I went to Japan, she told us:

You remember Pearl Harbor! You remember Pearl Harbor!

While Ma Jaracz’ advice might sound a little absurd, I think it serves a good purpose: It makes me forget the stressful and scary parts of traveling, namely getting out of your comfort zone and experiencing a different culture. In this case, it’s going to be my first time in South America, and I’m a little nervous. The second-world country factor is one–though cities in the US have parts that likely aren’t much different–so I’m a little concerned about wandering into the wrong place or getting taken for a ride. I’m also worried about the language barrier. I realize I just went to Dubai, where I was worried about that too, but once I got off the plane and saw that English was everywhere, that fear faded away. I’m not so sure I’ll have exactly the same experience here.

I have been preparing though. Over the last couple of months, I’ve been cramming in lessons on Duolino. According to it, I’m 17% fluent, which is a slight comfort because it’s better than the 0% fluent that I was before I started to learn, but then, I’m learning what they teach me, which tends to be a fair amount about owning a horse or cooking onions. Now that I think about it, I don’t think Duolingo has taught me anything about steak, but maybe Argentina’s a fair ways down on their cultural list when it comes to language learning.

Still, I’m nervous, and because I also have some pre-roller-derby-tournament anxiety, that’s really made me a mess this week. That’s when I think Ma Jaracz’ Travel Advice Hotline would come in handy. Give her a call before your trip. She’ll tell you something nonsensical that takes away your focus on whatever it is that’s worrying you.

Thanks to her advice, while I’m packing, I’m wondering if anybody noticed the cardboard taste in the Brazilian sausage, or if the original just tasted that bland. When I’m on the plane, I’m likely going to remember Pearl Harbor or wonder how the cold cases are going in Alaska. Her advice will get me through some take-offs, some turbulence and perhaps even over the nervousness until I get to a place that I’m actually really excited to experience. And perhaps she can do that for you too–care to find out her rates?

 

 

Road Tripping: We Did It All Wrong

20 Jan

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For about five years or so, the Boy and I have pointed the car south to spend Christmas with the family in Florida. Sure, it’s a long trip–two days at least–but we like having access to a car, and it’s fun to experience little bits of the country along the way. Driving south reminds me of how vast and different our country is–how interesting it is–and how those differences weave together to become one.

Over the years, we got pretty good at making this trip, finding great stops that we looked forward to making every drive. This year? Not so much. It’s as if we had never taken the car out of state before. How bad was it? Well, it made me feel like I needed to turn in my frequent traveler card.

It was a learning experience though, and if you’re not experienced with road-tripping, here are some of our biggest blunders. Learn from them so you can have a better time in the car!

  • The night before you leave, don’t go to bed so late that you oversleep the next day and are forced to make a late start.
  • Don’t start late enough to avoid Boston rush hour traffic, and then wonder why you’re in New York/Philadelphia smack dab in the middle of evening rush hour.
  • Know where you’re going to spend the night more than an hour before you decide to stop so that you’re not driving from hotel to hotel looking for a room.
  • If you don’t want to deal with full-service gas stations, don’t calculate your gas tank refill to be smack dab in the middle of New Jersey.
  • Stop at Wawa. Don’t bypass Wawa.
  • Find decent restaurants for meals. We actually did better on Day 2, when we found Molly MacPherson’s in Richmond Hill, GA, and had decent food (including excellent salads) and great service).
  • If you want to stop and see something along the way, figure that out early on in the day, not when you’re driving by and realize it’s closed for the day.
  • Pack good snacks.

We did make our traditional stop at South of the Border, but having spent far too long on the road, we were in and out as fast as possible.

Needless to say, we got to Florida in a less than optimal mood, and that’s not a great way to start holiday vacation. It got better, for sure–because sun and warmth really do make a difference–and we had a really fun trip. However, we also pledged to make sure our drive home was something we actually wanted to remember.

 

Postcard from Portland

18 Nov

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If you’re flying to Portland, get the window seat that faces the mountains because if you’ve got decent weather, you’ll spend your descent looking at mountain majesty. In terms of going to Champs, it’s a pretty good way to start a weekend that’s all about majestic performances.

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned I’d be leading a non-skating officiating crew at WFTDA Champs, my third time in this role at the top tournament in the roller derby calendar. One of the fun things about being a crew head is that each crew you lead is completely different, and in my experience, the tone of the crew has been completely perfect for that particular tournament.

In 2013 I had a “yes, and” crew, which was fantastic for the pre-tourney exercises I wanted my guinea pigs them to do. I’d been reading up on coaching and talent development and wanted to to prepare more than I ever had as a Champs official. They did me proud all month leading up to the tourney–mention a concept, and within two hours of group messages, you suddenly have a mascot and a t-shirt and a crew head who wonders what the hell is this awesomeness that is happening before her eyes.

Last year, my initial reaction to my crew list was “Champs! Champs! Awesome! Awesome!” which  played out all weekend. Getting to Champs takes work. Staying alive in Champs takes work. Being the Champ takes work. We experienced all of that over the weekend. After Day One, the crew needed focus, and it took one very long shower to figure out a potential fix: hot potato. Luckily, I had packed way more pairs of socks than I needed, and those became our hot potatoes for pre-game warmups. But when the crew found their focus, they insisted on continuing hot potato play before every game.

This year, with an all-female crew, our crew circle felt very nuturing, very welcoming and very caring. We wanted crew time together and were lucky enough to have assignments that gave us the opportunity to do that. Side note: Should you find yourself in Portland, have breakfast at Cheryl’s on 12th. Two words: complimentary beignets.

This crew was amazingly talented and came together nicely, which is impressive, considering we came from Europe and all points of the US. The teamwork we had was inspiring. We brought their best every game and then performed even better, which made me proud and a little bit wistful. This was a last tournament of sorts because change is coming: New rules and standard practices are around the corner, so this may have been the last weekend I officiated this way. There’s always a little sadness on closing the door on a rule set–another chapter in the history of roller derby is closing, and even though the coming changes are exciting, this moment of change as they all are, needs its moment of acknowledgement.

Rules may not be the only change. I recently started reffing, which is a whole different skill set that’s put me at the bottom of the reffing mountain in the range of officiating. Depending on the path I choose to take–and there are many officiating paths, so I need to map them out and find my optimal route–this could have been my last Champs for a while. Hopefully not forever though. The top of the mountain does have a nice view.

Postcard from Winnipeg

21 Oct

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You know those cities that just make you feel happy and delighted whenever you think about them? Winnipeg filled one of those slots in my heart this year.

I was in the unofficial Gateway to Churchill this August to teach at a WFTDA Officiating Clinic (more on officiating in a future Friday diversion). Churchill’s the Polar Bear Capital of Canada, and to get there (from the US at least), you’re likely flying through Winnipeg. But Winnipeg isn’t just a fly-through or flyover city, even though that’s the mantle it seems to wear.

I learned this from the minute I walked over the Hug Rug at the airport and met the clinic hosts, who took me on a driving tour of the city. Along the way, they apologized for the state it was in. “The city doesn’t spend much money,” said one. “Our roads are just horrible.”

I peered out the window. “You’ve never been to Boston, have you?” I said, noting the pretty dreamy condition of the roads we were currently driving on. I honestly never really saw what they were talking about the entire weekend. Sure, the roads weren’t brand-spanking-new, but they weren’t chock full of potholes either.

Perhaps it was their modesty–and it turned out to be the modesty of the city–that I found so charming, but after exploring for a little while, I wanted to scream, “Listen to that message on the garbage cans, Winnipeg! This place is great!”

Why? Perhaps it’s the idea that it’s this sizeable city smack dab in the middle of of the prairie, rising up out of the flat earth. Perhaps it’s the bustling Forks area by the rivers–and the really nice riverfront path. Maybe it’s the beautiful Legislative Building. Or the French Quarter with that chocolate shop that sells delicious Manitobars. Or the amazing collection of native statuary at the WAG. Or the delicious meal at Peasant Cookery that put the cap on a lovely weekend.

I had a day of exploration before the clinic, and during it I made the mistake of going to the tourist office and getting some brochures. This made me a little depressed about all of the places I couldn’t fit in on this trip (new polar bear exhibit at the zoo! The Exchange District! Baseball game!), but the bright side is that Winnipeg will just go higher up on my list of places to revisit.

Postcard from Montreal

14 Oct

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Over Labor Day weekend I was in Montreal for a couple of reasons: to officiate at the WFTDA D1 Playoffs and to visit the Olympic sites for my Olympics blog, The Feverr.

I hadn’t been to Montreal in over ten years, so suffice it to say, I didn’t remember much, although a few places jogged my memory, which was nice. But even though Montreal’s surely changed in the last decade, I’m not sure it’s changed so much.

Montreal’s one of those cities that doesn’t have a je ne sais quoi; it has a je ne sais meh. There’s definitely something special about Montreal, and you can see that in the way design matters. So many times I turned a corner or walked out of a Metro station (like the one above) and saw something surprising, cool and unique. They make the city exciting, you want to be a part of that creativity.

On the other hand, while design matters, other things clearly do not. Like clean streets. Or urgency. At the tournament, one of the skaters had a bad accident and needed an ambulance. The ambulance was on its way, tournament staff was told, and they’d get there soon, unless, of course, there was a stabbing or something that they needed to go to first. Maybe translation and Franglish comprehension was bad, but it sounded like there was only one ambulance on the island on Sundays.

Twenty, thirty or so minutes later, one shows up. No rush, no big deal.  One of the women on ambulance watch thought maybe the delay was a Canadian healthcare thing, but one of the locals set her straight: No, no, no. It’s Montreal. Why the rush? Meh, you’re not dying.

And maybe that’s the reason I waited so long between visits. Why the rush, Montreal? You’re lovely, but eh, there’s the rest of the world too.

 

 

Latest Travel Feature: Midwestern Fun in Valpo

6 Sep

I grew up about 45 minutes away from Valparaiso, so it was a real treat to get this assignment from AAA Midwest Traveler to write about the town and Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore during fall. It’s a great time of year to visit and see a beautiful part of the country–then get a great meal from one of the many choices in Valpo.

We Dig These Dunes

Summer might be over, but it’s still beach time in northern Indiana.

Summer doesn’t have to end when the sun sets on Labor Day. September is a great time to hit the beach and enjoy the last warm days of the year — without the crowds. Lake Michigan offers some of the country’s finest dune areas, including Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Park. Between the two protected areas, beachgoers can enjoy 15 miles of beach nestled between Gary and Michigan City, Ind.

Preservationists fought for decades to protect the area, succeeding with the development of the state park in 1925. In 1966, Congress created the national lakeshore along with the Port of Indiana. The two parks today have more than 15,000 acres of protected lands covering a variety of habitats, including marshes, prairies, bogs, and beaches.

Read more here.

Postcard from Ketchikan

26 Feb

img_20160219_113526708.jpgI made it out of Alaska alive. Not even one attempted murder….I mean, as far as I know. Nobody attempted to murder me at least, so I’ll chalk that up to a successful trip. But really, would a murderer have this kind of interior design sense?

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As for not knowing who I was staying with, all I have to say is that people everywhere can be amazing and interesting. I first stayed with a woman who counts fish, as in, will go out into the woods and count fish to make sure the population stays within a healthy range. Her dog? Adorable. Her girlfriend builds ships. Just to make you drool, she has an 11′ level at work. That’s eleven feet. Of level. My second hosts were a public defender, who’s had a case of assault with a bear skull, and an engineer who tests submarines. Dude.

I’m glad I got to experience Ketchikan during the off-season and as someone who wasn’t quite a tourist. We tried to do tourist-y things during my free day, but most of them were shut down, which was fine because I got to go to my favorite tourist trap: the grocery store.

Each of my hosts took me to a different one. I went to A&P — that’s Alaska & Proud for those of you who immediately thought of Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company — and also Safeway (open late!). Sadly, I did not also go into Tatsuda’s IGA, which has been around a long time, but I’ll save that for the next trip. Oh, and I went to Wal-Mart, which was an experience too, since I couldn’t tell you the last time I stepped into a Wal-Mart.

I’ve got to give my hosts credit here–they let me wander the aisles as long as I wanted. I told one I’d be in there a good hour, so she left to run errands and came back later. I saw lots of West Coast brands I was unfamiliar with, as well as some other random brands from around the country. Several different types of Louisiana-based hot sauce, Russian-style mustard, evidence of a Filipino community due to the prominence of (and what I thought was cheap at $1.69/pound ) frozen banana leaves and sweet corn ice cream–at Wal-Mart they also have Filipino-style spaghetti sauce. I also saw two kinds of buttermilk: regular and Bulgarian style. Where did the demand for Bulgarian-style buttermilk come from? My host didn’t know and said that a lot of products are in stores based on requests, so somebody knows some secrets about buttermilk!

You could also get massive quantities of onions and potatoes (think 25 lb. sacks) and meat. You want roughly 14 lbs. of NY Strip? That’ll be $111. 48. Beef brisket? I can get you a 18.27 lb. hunk or $91.17. If you’d rather have pork, how about a nice 23 lb. untrimmed pork butt for $80.55?

But beyond grocery shopping, some amazing scenery and eating fresh fish and chips, there was a fair amount of “let me blow your mind with this factoid.” I was amazed that Alaska Airlines lets Alaska residents check two bags for free (three if you’re flying within Alaska), which means that Alaskans will fly down south with two large plastic bins and go grocery shopping. My one host grew up in a smaller Alaskan town (Ketchikan’s about 12,000 for the town and surrounding borough) and said it was normal to fly somewhere once a month for groceries because that’s more economical.

Meanwhile, I blew their minds by telling them I had to have a permit to own a gun, not just for concealed carry–and that I don’t yet have a concealed carry license due to my town’s restrictions. We won’t even get into the reaction about how up until recently you needed a license to carry pepper spray in the Commonwealth. For them, it’s assumed that you own guns. Plural. Period. Of course you do. It’s Alaska.

But let’s not forget that I was there for roller derby, which was a really great time. I met some passionate and dedicated people who are working really hard to have this sport take off in their little portion of the world–which is an uphill battle when you’re competing with a pretty big basketball scene during the few months where people aren’t swamped with seasonal-based work and tourists. I’m always so amazed at how I’ve been able to go all over the world and basically walk into the same scene–and even though this group was mostly learning from books, manuals, videos and the occasional person who’s been able to travel outside of Alaska, they’ve been doing pretty well for themselves. I hope they can continue to grow the sport because you can see how much of a difference it makes in people’s lives, and Alaskans are no different.

This weekend, though, has put Alaska higher on my list. I’d love to go back and experience more of our country’s last frontier–there’s so much to learn from there.

Postcard from Cleveland

22 Sep

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Hello Readers!

Somehow summer has almost completely passed, and although I’ve thought about you a lot over the last few months, I really haven’t done my part to keep up. Time to get back on track though, so I’ll start with some of my summer travels that caused disruption in my routine.

In August I went to Cleveland to officiate the first WFTDA D2 Playoff of the season, but I’m writing to you not to talk about the tournament (fun) or the officiating (which I thought went really well), but to  mention how smitten I am with Cleveland.

I’ve visited a few Rust Belt cities over the last few years, and I’m thrilled that many of them are experiencing a renaissance, with downtowns going through revitalization, people moving back in and interesting places opening up. You can feel a buzz of optimism, and it’s catchy enough to make me want to move there (Buffalo, I’m looking at you too).

If I had to move to Cleveland, I’d like to be able to live where I could regularly shop at the store pictured here. Oh, you thought it was the interior dome of a museum or something? No. It’s a grocery store. All right, Heinen’s didn’t build it that way, but they did keep The Cleveland Trust Company  building that is their downtown location pretty much intact from its good old days as a bank.

Heinen’s is on the fancier side in terms of grocery stores. They stock a couple of flavors of Polar, which is nice because you don’t always see Polar outside the Seltzer Belt (New England). They also have Noosa yoghurt, which you know is fancy because “yogurt” is spelled with an “h” (you should look for it in your local stores though–it’s totally delicious). Other froo-froo items include the parmesan-stuffed dates and some fancy tortilla chips that probably didn’t contain a lick of corn that I bought to fulfill my snacking needs for the weekend.

The best part about Heinen’s is its prepared food section (well, maybe the upstairs beer and wine tasting is better, but since I can’t drink and officiate, I didn’t even go up there). And here’s a tip: If you want a salad, skip the pay-by-the-ounce salad bar, and go to the global grill counter. This is where you can get things like meat and rice in a bowl or a themed salad OR you can make your own bowl.

I was in the mood for a big salad and thought about the salad bar, but I knew that with what foods I wanted, I’d quickly have a $15 salad on my hands and would have to hold back my tears at the cash register while I forked over the money and told myself I’d better be licking the plastic container clean.

Then I saw the bowl station had prepared salads, so I sauntered over there to get a Mediterranean salad, which would have fit the bill. Then I noticed that you could build your own, and they had maybe 30 different toppings, which was pretty much like the salad bar, except minus the cottage cheese, which I don’t eat anyway.

So I ordered a build-your-own salad, and the employee asked me what I wanted on it. I said, “Everything.”

“Everything?”

I scanned the rows of ingredients. “Well, maybe just two of the three coleslaws…and we can skip the kimchi. And I guess I’ll do just one kind of cheese.”

Raised eyebrows. “All right.”

Best damn salad ever. You can totally mix salsa and two kinds of coleslaw with spinach and peppers and feta and have a delicious concoction called “lunch.”

I went back to Heinen’s the next day and had the same thing, different dressing. Again, fantastic and joy-inducing, and I’m not sure if that’s because the food was good, the employees were super friendly or if shopping in such a beautiful building made the difference. I just know that it’s making a difference in a city–that still has a long way to go to get back to its glory days but is definitely showing a lot of signs of life. I’ll take that and look forward to the next time I go to Cleveland.

Now, if we could all work to get Gary back on track….

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