Laredo

Night fall slowly upon Laredo. It’s still hot, but a strong breeze cools things down. The wind is harsh and blows  all kinds of garbage onto the courtyard of our hotel. I double and triple check the ratchets. Both, the roof rack and the bikes are holding firm. We’ve dropped some stuff at a local Goodwill store, so there is now more space inside. And after leaving Alex’s bike, the van is also much lighter. Still heavier that I would have wished for, but every ounce left behind helps get us farther.

Plastic bags dance in the wind. There is nervousness in the air. Large, black birds – hundreds of them – gather on a nearby trees and make alarming noises. The storm  seems near. Except there is none in the forecast…

I look up and see an orange dot glowing on the walkway above my head. In the darkness brightened only by a dim light of the parking lot lamp, I can barely recognize a large Mexican watching me from above. Laredo might be considered an American city, but that’s entirely misleading. Everyone here speaks Spanish. Whenever you go you’ll be greeted by a friendly “Buenos Tardes” or “Hola!”. Every restaurant has tortillas with “Salsa Verde” on their menus. You can even buy them along with Mexican car insurance, on every gas stations. The streets are busy. Loud Mexican folk music is booming from every store, service garage, street vendor stand and every other passing car. All the signs are in Spanish, sometimes bi-lingual. There is no doubt, Laredo is a pure Mexican city on American soil.

The night before departure from Corpus Christi we’ve met Ryan. He’s from British Columbia and it took him four months to get there. He’d been pedaling through the mountains and some of the most beautiful places on this planet to arrive in plain, dusty, a little boring, but enormous Texas. We’ve shared Ten Ren’s King’s 913 Oolong tea and a few stories from our travels. Obviously we look at World from different perspectives, watching it’s beauty comfortably through a TV-like car window or experiencing nature and the elements first hand on a narrow, hard bike seat. Despite differences, I think we found that we do have a lot in common, share similar views on life. We spoke about Mexico and after a while, we got a little depressed as discussion kept coming back to travel safety. When we split up for the night, I started looking for news about road conditions south of Brownsville and accidentally stumbled upon a site dedicated to road safety in Mexico. It looks a bit dated, but the information is fresh. I contacted it’s owners, who responded very quickly and proposed an alternative, apparently much safer route. This is how we ended up in Laredo, instead of Brownssville.

Tomorrow morning, we’ll head out very early, probably before sunrise. After crossing the border we’ll circle around Nuevo Laredo, head towards Monterrey, but stay away from the city, then through Saltillo arrive in Matehuala, where we plan to stay for the night. This will be a long day, as this 350 miles stretch is supposed to take some seven hours. Hopefully, there will be no crowds on the border.

On Saturday, we’ll move on to San Luis Potosi and finally to San Miguel de Allende, where we plan to stay until Thanksgiving. I will give an update on Sunday, once we recover form the trip.

Agnieszka turned off the noisy air conditioning and it’s now hot and humid in the room. It’s late and the kids sleep sound. It’s time for us to retire too. Tomorrow will be a long day.

And I’ve heard that it’s snowing in Rochester…

Texas

This is where the Texan alligators live.

In the last few days we’ve been traveling fast. It was Friday, when we left New Orleans and tonight I’m writing this short update from Corpus Christi, Texas. There was a cold front passing through the Gulf’s north shore and temperatures at night fell down below 40’s forcing Agnieszka to upgrade her sleeping bag. Despite relative luxuries of the park in Louisiana, we decided that we deserved a hot bath and comfy beds at a decent hotel. Half way to Houston is Lake Charles, where we settled for the night. The next morning, refreshed and invigorated we’ve entered Texas.

Originally, we planned to stay in Houston for about a week. I wanted to look at lighter bicycles. Mine is rather heavy and after a week of riding on a beach, the gears started to skip. I also wanted to browse Craigslist and see if there are any replacements for my broken Kindle. I must have dropped something heavy on it and the screen cracked. I have to admit, that this loss bothers me a lot. Not that I have so much spare time to kill, but not having a good read at night is depressing. We decided to stay in Brazos Bend State Park, but arriving on Saturday night, we were lucky to get a spot on the overflow site. The park wasn’t very exciting, except for the alligators and a first class observatory – we had a chance to take part in a night sky viewing event. And for the mosquitoes that turned up in such numbers that we decided to evacuate the next morning. This is how we ended up in Corpus Christi a week or so ahead of time. And the park we found a spot on isn’t necessary the most exciting either. It’s nothing more but twenty sites nested between the ocean and a busy highway, which gets really loud, especially early in the mornings. Between that and the red tide, we decided, it’s time to head South.

If everything goes well towards the end of the week we’ll enter Mexico. We are headed to San Miguel de Allende, where we found a large apartment for the next three weeks.

New Orleans

New Orleans 2011

Sunday was a travel day again. We’ve packed our stuff, folded the tent, got the bicycles on the rack and left Fort Pickens before noon. The three hours ride was rather smooth  and after crossing three state lines (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana), we’ve arrived at the Fontainbleau State Park on the north shore of lake Pontchartrain. The weather was still very nice, so Agnieszka and the kids went to a water park, while I was setting up the camp. To my surprise, the whole campground is covered with strong WiFi signal, a playground and clean bathrooms, which coupled with rather inexpensive price tag, lifts the park to the top rank of places visited so far.

The park itself is very popular and busy, especially on the weekends. It has nature trails, suitable for bikes, a lake front, couple of small alligators and other attractions. On the south side of the lake is New Orleans, but instead of going around the lake, we were able to cross it on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, which according to Guinness World Records is considered to be “the longest bridge over water”. With almost 24 miles it’s a rather boring ride, unless of course there are strong crosswinds and you happen to have a faulty roof rack installed on your vehicle.

The city of New Orleans, or the French Quarter at least, is as wonderful as we remembered it from our last visit here eleven years ago. We haven’t seen any remains of the devastating force of the 2005 hurricane Katrina. Apparently though, the French Quarter or the Garden District that we’ve visited yesterday were not the ones hit the hardest. We chose Tuesday for our field trip, which meant no school for Nadia yesterday (yipee!). Instead, we’ve been to Jean Lafitte Park, where Nadia and Alex became Junior Rangers and got badges to prove it. They’ve learned about a French privateer, a pirate and slaves trader, who despite numerous robberies and acts of violence against the USA, became it’s national hero. Apparently, he had a sudden change of hart at some point and became a maritime version of Robin Hood. He stole from the bad guys, mostly Spanish and gave to the poor people of Barataria and New Orleans. Most important though, he supported Andrew Jackson against the Brits in 1815, which probably accounts for most of his heroic life.

Greek Festival

On the last day before leaving Pensacola, we’ve gone downtown to a Greek street festival. Obviously, it’s only curiosity, not an actual affection  that drove us to that place.  Unless you count baklava, which my wife is truly passionate about. Unfortunately, the one served was a bit too sweet for my wife’s taste and way to expensive for mine. On the flip side though, the Greek know how to party, and our kids felt very comfortable dancing with the natives. All we knew about traditional Greek dances, was limited to a distant memory of an old movie. Turns out Sirtaki, which is the proper name of a dance commonly associated with Zorba, the Greek is not even a traditional folk dance anyway. Did it stop our kids from making new friendships…? Not at all.

Naval Aviation Museum

Today we’ve finished school early and took a field trip to the Naval Aviation Museum. The exhibition is just across the bay from Fort Pickins, on the premises of the military complex. The base is so close, that every morning we hear the soldiers’ reveille and yet it takes about 40 minutes to get there by car. At the entrance to the Naval Air Station Pensacola, or the cradle of naval aviation, we are greeted by a cop asking for my driver license and whether we have any weapons. The entrance to the museum, the lighthouse and few other places in the base is free, but they need to know who are they letting in.

Even though we had about four hours to see the exposition, it was not enough. Even though it is smaller than the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum we have visited last year, it seems more interesting. There are things to touch and play with, not just boring exhibits.  The kids mostly appreciated the  loony tunes played in a 1940’s theater. We walked down a WWII american street, saw a few typical stores, examined food stamps and food items from that era. There is a lot of interesting stories about pilots and sailors. Walking aboard replica aircraft carrier, we were able to imagine life on the ocean with 2796 other crew members. Well, to a point at least…

Fort Pickens

We’ve arrived at Fort Pickens early afternoon on Sunday. The park is located on an island, right off the Pensacola Beach. There is nothing, but miles of white sand, ocean on one side, bay on the other. And obviously there is the fort at the tip of the island.

Overall, there isn’t much to do in the park. There is a daily guided tour in the fort, but other than that we’re on our own. With no other interpretive programs, we have plenty of time for homeschooling in the morning and ride bikes and play in the Ocean in the afternoons. Every other day we do the school at a local library, and sometimes there are story times to keep everyone entertained. Libraries also provide for free Internet access, which means I can do this updates and work on my Customers’ websites.

Chattahoochee to Pensacola

Great Blue Heron at Sunset

Just as the name suggest, we stayed in Florida’s outback for a couple of nights. We’ve left Jacksonville on Friday morning, just on the brink of an upcoming storm. As we learned later, it was a rather large one, therefore I’m glad to report that our timing was impeccable once again. We escaped west far enough to stay dry and we left Chattahoochee just before the storm caught up with us. We’ve packed the car last night and after folding the tent, we’ve left before breakfast. When we stopped at a nearby Micky Dees for a bowl of cereal at a curb, it started to rain.

I think there is really no need for us to complain about the weather at all. Yes, we got wet, real soaking in fact, but only once in Rocky Gap near Cumberland, MD. We also didn’t time properly our departure from Cheraw, SC and left the campground in rain and in a hurry. We’ve learned from these mistakes and now we’re packing the night before departure and keep observing the weather forecest changes to react appropriately. In fact, rain and sun dictate the direction and speed at which we’re moving. After all, our journey is a a true wander…

If I was to rank the places we’ve visited so far, I would have given Smith Mountain Lake State Park in Virginia most points for their interpretive programs, their facilities and very friendly, dedicated and knowledgable staff. Hunting Island ranks best for the weather and the overall vacation-like setting. Buckaloons in Pennsylvania still holds the 1st position for their bathroom standards. In fact, I have to say that in this category, the cleaningness and features are adequate to park’s latitude. North ranks much better than the South.

All the places we’ve visited so far had their own highlights and all of them had their problems. Too moist, too hot, too many raccoons, ants, skuns, armadillos, you name it. But all of them were really fascinating and I’m glad we had a chance to visit them all.

This morning, we’ve crossed a timezone line. We are leaving the East and will be travelling along the gulf coast. If there only was a ferry from Florida to Yucatan, it would have saved us a lot of time, and probably money. In fact, apparently there used to be one, back eight years ago. Unfortunatelly it failed to attract enough interest to stay in business for too long and left the owner with a USD $Million hole in his pocket. There might be another one launched as soon as early next year, but it’s not sure. We’ll take the long road and start learning Spanish along the way.

Hanna Park

Yesterday I got distracted. Instead of enjoying our terrific vacations, I started stressing up again. Why? The culprit might be a broken wheel bearing, unlocked GSM phone or maybe a fact, that when the money runs out, the dream life of ours will burst like a soap bubble.

We knew all along that our car had a bit of a problem. There was this grinding noise coming from underneath the car, quiet at first and getting louder and louder as we moved south. Obviously, it’s not the direction, but rather the distance that made the problem sounds worse and worse. I’ve been putting off a visit to a repair shop until we got to a bigger city. Jacksonville was big enough for that.

I checked on Google all the reviews of local service garages. Authorized Nissan dealers around here didn’t have much to offer, beside rants of furious customers who complained about the service. Instead, I chose a small, privately owned shop nearby. Unable to describe the problem, I invited the mechanic for a ride. Couple hundred yards later his diagnosis was clear – bearing in the front right wheel was shot. They offered to do the repair right away, and gave us a ride to a nearby library. It took about three hours to get the part from the dealer and get the repair done. It was just enough time for a daily dose of homeschooling.

While Agnieszka took care of our kids’ education, I decided to take a walk to a nearby plaza to get a Pay As You Go SIM card. Since we’re traveling all together, we decided to suspend my wife’s cell phone contract and communicate with our friends and family only through internet. I have to admit, this setup works very well for us. We live like on a sailboat, always close to each other. Since we only have one car, whenever we separate it’s mostly within walking or a bike ride distance. An old fashioned walkie-talkie works great in such proximity. Heading towards less populated areas and being somehow responsible parents we decided that we will need a cell phone for emergency situations. It doesn’t make sense to pay $50 a month just for an ability to make a phone call. Therefore we’ve decided to get a Pay As You Go SIM card for the old phone (which happens to be a CDMA/GSM hybrid device). For some reason, we’ve decided that T-Mobile would be the best choice, even though the rates between operators are quite comparable. I think it’s got something to do with the commercials we’ve seen back in Poland suggesting that T-Mobile subscribers around the World can talk for free within the network. I got the card and I’ll let you know if it works once I unlock our damn Verizon cell phone.

Anyway, after spending $540 for a single wheel bearing and wasting four hours searching the internet for cell phone unlocking instructions, I realized that I was stressing out again. It’s been almost three months now since I quit my job and frankly speaking I’m not any closer to know what I want to do when I grow up. On top of it, I have some commitments towards my paying Customers, which I don’t have the time to fulfill. Around midnight I realized that instead of enjoying the ride, I let such comparatively minor issues ruin a perfectly nice day.

Fortunately, the next morning we took the bikes and went to a nearby park. During the week and probably already after season, the park was rather empty. Great! That gave us the opportunity to enjoy all its’ amenities without the usual crowds and hustles. And the Kathryn Abbey Hanna Park has indeed much to offer. First there is the beach, probably over a mile long and pristine. There are lakes and over 22 miles of bike and hiking trials, picnic shelters, playground and much more. Everything we needed was there. Including the peace, quiet and picturesque views, that attracts multitude local painters. We’ve seen probably a dozen artists throughout the park, contemplating nature and working on their masterpieces. Or the fishermen on the beach, standing still with their fishing rods, waiting for the big catch. They all seemed at peace with their life, happy with what they have and what they are doing – living life – not chasing the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. We tend to overcomplicate things, but in fact life is indeed very simple. It’s about being present and enjoying every moment, rather than stressing about the future. After all, the social security system is almost bankrupt already and the economy is going down the drain. We may as well enjoy our retirement right here, right now, as we’re still young and our children still value us more than their videogames.

Sitting at the ocean, I realize that the car repair bill might seem expensive and will definitely shorten our trip, but on the other hand, this could have led to a much bigger problem or even a disaster on the road. The cell phone is not a necessity; we are still in urban areas. And after all, WalMarts are at least every 30 miles apart throughout the entire United States – we can always get a cheap device. And right now, I’m done thinking about the future. My kids are at the beach and really, really do need me right now!

04-Oct-2011 19:06, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 200.0mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 800
04-Oct-2011 19:09, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 11.0, 28.0mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 200
04-Oct-2011 19:17, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 6.7, 85.0mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 200
 
04-Oct-2011 19:21, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 4.5, 28.0mm, 0.011 sec, ISO 200
04-Oct-2011 21:50, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 9.5, 45.0mm, 0.002 sec, ISO 200
04-Oct-2011 23:02, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 200.0mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 200
 
04-Oct-2011 22:25, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 11.0, 45.0mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 200
04-Oct-2011 19:12, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 200.0mm, 0.002 sec, ISO 200
04-Oct-2011 21:50, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 45.0mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 200
 
04-Oct-2011 21:57, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 70.0mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 200
04-Oct-2011 19:16, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 8.0, 200.0mm, 0.002 sec, ISO 200
04-Oct-2011 21:49, PENTAX Corporation PENTAX K100D , 9.5, 70.0mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 200
 

 

Jacksonville

While enjoying the luxuries of a civilized World, yesterday morning we’ve watched the weather forecast. Apparently, the summer is over in Florida and with the first day of October also came in autumn. Indeed, we’ve noticed quite substantial temperature drop – from high 80’s to just shy of 80 degrees during the day. At night, the temperature drops to 60’s or sometimes even high 50’s. It’s terrible!

Looks like everyone got terrified by such gloomy forecast and instead of the beaches, crowds hit the malls. We decided that instead of a regular school, on Saturday we’ll go to a book store, where the kids can play and read books, while I can work a little on the websites business of mine and Agnieszka can go shopping bargains and end of season sales. Sounded like a lazy early afternoon, but I have to admit, it’s been a while since last time I had problems finding a parking spot in a shopping center! And Jacksonville is just packed with commercial activities. It seems as there are malls and plazas at every street corner. All of them packed and looking real busy.

After couple of hours at Barnes and Noble, we bought some groceries at a local Wegmans equivalent (Publix) and headed downtown to Arts Market for a picnic. The market was already closing, but the place was being prepared for an evening movie show. “Alice in Wonderland” was on the menu, so we decided to stay. Since we had a spare hour, we took a stroll downtown on the riverside walkway. Contrary to Savannah, we were really sorry, we didn’t take our bikes this time. Instead, we saw some manatees and enjoyed the late afternoon on the water. It was a Philippines Pride Day and downtown was packed with street vendors, shows and plenty of people. Unlike Rochester, Jacksonville makes an impression of a very lively city.

Tomorrow, I plan to visit a service garage and do some maintenance on the car. Today however, learned from yesterday’s experience, we hit the beach. Right now, while typing these words Agnieszka and the kids are finishing building a sand castle. I think they may need my help with the towers. Enjoy this “unseasonably cold” fall..!

 

 

Savannah

We’ve left Hunting Island on Friday morning. We headed south towards Jacksonville, where we’re about to spend the next seven days. Today is the last day of September, a month during which we’ve only spent couple of nights in actual beds. I’m proud of us all, but mostly of Agnieszka, for whom the camping experience seems to be the most difficult. Especially as the last few weeks have been rather damp and moist. Sometimes cold, other times hot, but always wet. I think we’ve deserved a break. The next week we’ll spend in a clean and dry hotel downtown, with such luxuries as cable TV and 24/7 high-speed internet.

On our way to Jacksonville, we’ve decided to visit Savannah, which we’ve heard is a beautiful town. We’ve arrived around 1.00 PM and fooled by a “Bike Route” sign next to our free parking decided to explore the city wearing helmets. First we had fix them though – a week of sand and salt water proved to be lethal for the chains. Once I got them all fixed we hit the streets, only to realize that this otherwise gorgeous downtown wasn’t built for bicycles. Cobblestone streets with tram cars near the river are as picturesque, as they are uncomfortable. We’ve ended up walking the bikes most of the time.

At some point, we stopped next to a small statue and wanted to take a picture with all of us in it. We asked a bystander for help, only to be answered in Polish. Turned out we’ve asked a lovely lady from Philadelphia, who happened to be originally from… Chorzów! Among other things, they also showed us a way to the City Market, which is a great place for lunch, especially if you’re a fan of New York style pizza…