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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Scuba Diving Trip 2014: Florida Keys

 Two weeks before we were supposed to leave for La Paz, Mexico, we found ourselves 
searching, in anyway possible, for information on Hurrican Odile, and how much damaged 
it caused in Cabo san Lucas and La Paz.  Finally, a week before our departure date, the
trips cancellation was confirmed. We were all very bummed but knew it was for the best.
We had no communication with the resort or dive shop and therefore had no idea of what the 
conditions would be like above or below the ocean. Leif, Sara and I moved quickly. 

After such a wonderful experience with AirBnb in Europe, we decided to check out what
was available in the Florida Keys. Our dive shop here recommended a dive shop down there
and we based our AirBnB search off of the dive shops location. Thankfully, as it is their off
season, there was plenty available. We quickly jumped on an apartment that looked like it 
would fit our needs and booked our flights. 

Sara's parents live in Naples, so we flew down Saturday morning to Fort Myers and joined
up with Sara. After an hour trip to Walmart, our favorite guilty pleasure when away from
NYC, we went to Miller's Ale House for some dinner. It was already late and we wanted to
wake up early and get to the beach so bedtime came early. Sunday morning, we made 
breakfast, packed our cooler for the beach and headed down to Clam Pass Beach. We 
rented a huge umbrella, laid out or things and spent the next four hours relaxing. It was
so nice to be on vacation. That evening we cooked dinner and hung out at the apartment.

Monday morning we were a little lazier and eventually got up, cooked breakfast and
went to the gym to workout a bit. By workout I mean walk on a treadmill for 30 minutes.
We packed our cooler for the beach and headed out to Vanderbilt Beach. The water was
quiet and perfect. This was probably our favorite beach of the trip. That evening, we
had dinner reservations at Roy's in downtown Naples. My friend Samantha, who I 
went to middle school with in Saginaw, MI, lives in Naples with her husband, who
just happened to be a partner chef at Roy's. 

We had a wonderful and delicious dinner along with great company. Sara's parents
 arrived back from their vacation so we headed back to hang out with them for a little 
bit as we were leaving the next morning.

Tuesday morning we packed up the car and headed south to Tavernier, FL which is just
South of Key Largo. We arrived at our AirBnB right on time and our wonderful host was
there to meet us. He gave us a wonderful tour of the apartment and back yard which was
right on the canal. He also recommended some touristy activities he thought we might be
interested in as well. We unloaded the car and the first stop we made was the grocery store. 
The dive shop, Captain Slate's Scuba Adventure and Dive Shop, did not included lunches,
which we were used to, so we picked up some lunch items. Then we went to a Cuban
market our host recommended to pick up homemade freshly cooked Cuban food for dinner. 
It was delicious! We all loved it. 

That evening, our host was gracious enough to take us out on his boat around the Bay.
He showed us where to kayak, toilet seat pass, and of course, the sunset. Unfortunately,
as it was off season and late for summer, the sunsets were mostly disrupted by clouds.
However, it was still very beautiful. That evening we popped open two bottles of wine
and spent an hour in the hot tub. It was wonderful and just what we needed. 

We also were lucky enough, as it was still early in the season, to see some manatees in the 
canal right behind the house. Manatees usually hang out by the power plants in the Summer
and make their way to the canals in the Winter. Thankfully, this mama and her new born baby
decided to make an early appearance. We were informed that they love to drink fresh water 
and the manatee came right up to the dock and drank forever. They said this was the tiniest
baby they had ever seen! They were so cute. 

Wednesday was our first day of diving. The dive shop asked if we could do afternoon 
dives which we agreed to. That morning we took the kayaks out for over an hour. It was
quite the workout. We found great paths through the mangroves and the little canal which
ends up where the neighborhood kids had made a huge fort, water slide included. We 
made our lunches, packed the cooler and hopped in the car. There were four snorkelers on
the boat with us along with two crew members. We did two dives with almost little to no
rest time in between. We surfaced, shoved food and water down our throats and before we
knew it we were gearing back up to get in the water again. We were all shocked with how
much marine life was there. Schools and schools of fish everywhere. It was amazing. We
saw nurse sharks, sting rays, coral reefs, green eels, spiny lobsters and every kind of fish
you could imagine, big and small. 

That evening after cleaning our gear and ourselves, our awesome host invited us out on
the boat for another sunset ride. His son also came down from Miami and we took his
boat out to a bar right on the water for some dinner. We had a great time. We did not 
want to stay out that late because we were diving early the next morning. 

Thursday morning we arrived bright and early at 7:50am. It was rough getting up but we did
it and even managed to make and pack our lunches for the day. We signed our waivers and 
received news that the captain was running a little bit late that morning. We found some 
seats along the dock and waited....and waited...

Around 9:30am the crew told us we could start loading our gear on the boat. The captain
arrived shortly after. He was carrying the canvas windows that snap on the side of the boat.
They were getting repaired and apparently we needed them. He and two other crew members 
cursed their way through installing these canvas windows. It was almost 10am and we were
starting to get annoyed. However, we figured there was a reason he was installing them 
now and delaying our start even more. The canvas was finally installed and after two rain 
showers, thunder and lighting appeared over the bay side and we were ready to leave. We 
headed out into the ocean watching the lighting strikes, crossing our fingers they were 
telling us the truth about how it will stay in the Everglades. 

Another rain shower and a double rainbow later and the wave swells were about four
feet high and we were almost to the dive site. It was about this time when we realized
we were in for an adventure getting back on the boat. Not to mention, at this point we were 
extremely thankful the captain put the canvas windows up. The spray from the waves 
and boat was insane! As we approached the dive site, the captain asked Leif to grab the 
line and hook us to the buoy. For some reason, the captain came over to help Leif and 
left the propeller running and with the swells the boat turned just the right amount for the 
line to catch in the propeller. There was a loud noise and then smoke. We knew something 
wasn't right. What we didn't know was that this was just the beginning to our adventure. 

At this point the captain mentioned to us he did not bring any scuba gear and would one of us
check the line and see how wrapped it was around the propeller. Being the awesome dude that
he is, Leif volunteered and jumped in. After what seemed like eternity, he finally surfaced 
and stated he had got the line free. What he didn't state was how many times the boat had 
knocked him in the head and the amount of sea water he had swallowed that moment while
talking to the captain. As we got the all clear, Sara and I jumped in and started to descend.
When I was about 50 feet deep, I looked up wondering why those two were not down
with me. This was when I noticed the single lone buoy floating in the middle of the ocean
with nothing attached to it. Not even the boat. Oops. 

They both motioned for me to come up. As I surfaced I saw the boat heading back towards us. 
The captain asked if we would like to do a drift dive since we could no longer tie up at this 
dive site. We all agreed we did not feel comfortable enough with him following our bubbles.
We managed to board the boat without too much trouble and headed to another dive site.
At this time, the salt water was shaking around in Leif's tummy and he was not feeling 
too well so we cut the first real dive a little short. Sara and I managed to eat some lunch
during the roller coaster ride on the way to the next dive site. Leif unfortunately was still
not feeling too well and skipped lunch. Our second dive was very similar to our first.
Shallow but lots of marine life. We also surfaced early. It had been a long day so far
and we were all tired. 

We started gathering our gear and headed back towards home. We got about a mile away
when we heard the captain yell something which we knew was not good followed by
"I lost the steering!" He thew an anchor and started opening all of the mechanical panels.
Everything seemed to be working well however, the boat wouldn't steer. He believed it 
had something to do with our little incident before and it was probably underneath the boat. 
The captain got out along with Leif because the boat was shifting with the current and
we were in very shallow water, about three and a half feet. They were trying to keep the
boat from getting stuck in the sandy bottom. While they were working hard, I spent
the time snorkeling finding nothing but the grassy bottom. Thankfully, half an hour later
the tow arrived and pulled us in. But, before that could happen, as the captain wasn't
having a bad enough day, a jelly fish decided he needed a little loving while pulling
the anchor back to the boat.  

Scorpion fish....

We had never been more ready to get off a boat. We cleaned our gear and headed
home to shower and relax. That night, we did absolutely nothing. It was perfect.
We did spend a little time with our new friends. They invited us to their forth floor
balcony to watch the sunset. It was beautiful. 

Nurse shark....

The captain told us tomorrow we would have a new boat and a different captain 
as he was headed to the Cayman Islands to receive an award. That morning when
we woke up, we were immediately informed that the conditions were worse than
the day before and you will see no locals out on their boats today. After yesterday,
the last thing we needed was another adventure. We headed to breakfast avoiding
the topic until we talked to the dive shop. They were completely honest with us and
said the same thing but, the diving would also be great. If we were in, then they 
were in. It came down to a coin flip. We were going diving. Then we realized they
were loading the gear back on the same boat as yesterday! I had a minor panic
attack and told them the captain promised us a new boat. He informed us they 
worked on it and it was all fixed. When Sara and Leif boarded, I followed.

There was also an abundance of jelly fish. That was
not fun. Although, they were beautiful.  

All systems a go, and we pulled out of the slip. However, the boat turned the wrong direction 
and we were now stuck in the canal doing circles when the captain realized whoever fixed
the boat put a pin in backwards and the steering was backwards. We spent thirty minutes
doing circles in the mangrove trees, which almost pulled our tanks out of the holders twice.
Finally, they told us to get off the boat and they would pull it in via rope. By this time, we
were done for. There was no way we were getting back on another boat. We packed up our
gear, and with a good laugh all agreed that if a woman had fixed that boat, she would have 
taken it for a spin before putting anyone else on it! Men! 

Sara decided to head back to Naples to spend some time with her parents and Leif and I drove 
South. We were about 40 miles from Key West when we were too tired and turned around to
head home. Almost! Next time you bet I will make it to the end! After a long nap, we headed
out to get some dinner before the Full Moon Party, which our host told us was mandatory!
We actually decided to have dinner at the same venue where the party was. We had to pay a
fee to get into the party but because we were so early we got a great parking spot and a 
wonderful candle lit table for two right on the beach. It was very romantic. There was a live
band playing and the food was delicious. We even got Key lime pie for dessert!

After the first band finished, a second band started on the other stage. We walked
around and found our new friends right as the parade and fire dancers started. 

After the parade, the fireworks started and my best friend called me to tell me the 
amazing news that she was engaged! Of course I already knew it was happening. Her
sneaky fiance had been in touch with me for two months planning the event! Since I 
was supposed to be in Mexico without cell service, I was sad I was not going to be able
to talk to her but since we were in Florida, I got her phone call and got to celebrate
 too... with fireworks!

The following morning, Leif and I packed up our things and loaded the car. We thanked
our wonderful new friends for the great week and headed out to do some touristy things.
Our first stop of the day was the History of Diving Museum which was pretty incredible.
We also stopped by Largo Cargo for some gifts for our families. We picked up a key lime 
bar and key lime cupcake to share on our road trip back to Naples. 

We arrived to Naples with little time to relax before dinner with Sara and her parents.
We headed to a restaurant right on the water. After dinner we walked along the beach
and watched the sunset. I probably took one hundred photos of the sunset. It was so

We spent the evening playing pool at their favorite dive bar. The next morning we 
flew back to NYC. Back to work. Back to reality. But, I am so thankful for how our
last minute trip planned out. We really did have such a fabulous time. Not to mention,
Captain Slate felt so bad he sent us some free diving vouchers that never expire! 
You know what this means, summer diving trip in the Keys! We know where we
are staying too! Thanks again everyone! 

Friday, September 26, 2014

Europe 2014: Budapest, Hungary

The train ride from Vienna to Budapest was as easy as could be. It most likely had 
everything to do with the almost empty train, reclining seats, foot rests, wifi, close
bathrooms, hostess who took our drink and food orders and that we all sat together.
The only downfall of the train ride was the time. It was night time. We missed the
beautiful country side views along the way. That is, if there are any. I'm sure there 
are right? Actually, it is probably all industrial filled with eye sore after eye sore.
We didn't miss anything. 

We were once again not sure how the train station would be. In the Budapest book
we read, it said the train stations were older and more run down. It looked like that
for the last few miles arriving into the city. When the train stopped, we stepped out
and were all in shock. The place was beautiful. The old glass dome was shining bright
with the moonlight and to make things even better, there was wifi. We easily found
a cab driver who took us, rather quickly I might add, to our last and final apartment.
He informed us of some Hungarian history along the way including the beautiful

Our host, was standing out in front of the apartment building upon our arrival. It 
was a great relief to know we would have no issues this time around. She brought
us upstairs, gave us a little tour and important information, which included how to
lock the five locks on the two front doors. As she left, she said please lock all doors
even when you are home. We made sure we always did.

Before we left the cab driver, he told us to walk down to the river and take a
look at Buda because tonight might be the only night it does not rain and it is
worth it. Before we unpacked  we did exactly that. The three minute walk
definitely was worth it. It was so beautiful.

The following morning we woke up bright and early before the alarm. We were
now obviously on European time. The first order of business for the day was 
money. However, it being Saturday and early morning, nothing seemed to be
open as of yet. We walked down Vaci utca towards the Elizabeth Bridge and
crossed the main street towards what looked like coffee shops. Thankfully, the
one right on the corner, Coffee & More, was open, took credit cards and gave
you free wifi with a purchase. We had found "our spot" in Budapest and it only
took less than ten minutes. Mom and Aunt Nan got the original latte and I went
for a Chai Tea Latte. We got a vanilla cream croissant and sat down to enjoy 
our breakfast.

Afterwards, we walked across the Elizabeth Bridge and up the hundreds of steps
halfway up the Gellert Hill to the statue of Saint Gerard. It was very woodsy and
there were tons and tons of snails. You had to be careful where you walked, or 
else you'd squish them left and right.

After walking back across the Elizabeth Bridge to Pest, we found a place to
convert money. We were all set to start the day. We started by walking along
the promenade along the Danube River where we found the Little Princess
We made our way into central Pest where we saw the Mihaly Vorosmarty Monument 

We eventually made our way to Leopold Town where we saw the US Embassy,
Soviet War Memorial, some of the oldest apartment buildings in Budapest, one
of the last remaining Art Nouveau buildings in Budapest, and finally
the Hungarian Parliament.

We decided to head up to Hero's Square and City Park after. It was such a long walk
and the day was quickly passing by that we hopped a cab. 

We walked just a few minutes into City Park and realized there was a Hungarian
festival and market happening. It was amazing. There were live animals hanging
out in the fields,dancing all around, food stands, oh the smell of the food was
wonderful, kids toys lamb stuffed animals and clothing, shoes, and candy!
We got my Dad a piece of the black licorice. 

Eventually we came across these two hanging pots of beef stew and my Mom
decided it was time to eat. She made friends with the cook and he let her taste
the stew right from his wooden ladle. That was it, she was hooked. The next
thing we knew, we were sitting down all sharing this amazing beef stew 
with a slice of rye bread. Aunt Nancy also found a Hungarian wine booth
and brought back some wine for us.

On our way out of the festival we found this great little scroll on parchment
for Sara. After we paid for the scroll, the guy made us all take moonshine shots 
with him!  I was impressed with Nan and Mom. That was strong! Bennett got a 
little lamb stuffed animal that also turned into a pillow. It was so soft, he almost

didn't get it in the end. I wanted to keep it. 

Go Mom!!

We left the park and walked to a bike shop. I was on the hunt for a water bottle
and jersey for Leif. No one had anything Budapest labeled so I ended up getting
him a Bianchi water bottle as he does ride Bianchi and he doesn't have one. We
eventually found a cab to take us back to the apartment. However, on the way 
we found another ferris wheel in Elizabeth Square and we once again convinced 
Nan to do it with us. Thankfully she obliged. It really was awesome to see the 
views that high.

On our way back to the apartment we stopped by Hard Rock Cafe and picked
up Bennett his first Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt. We also got Andy some drum sticks
and Uncle Dan a shirt. We walked through the outdoor market and found Nan
a beautiful blue blocked scarf. We also shared an ice cream cone before heading
back to the apartment to rest up before our big night out on the town.

After a nice nap, we showered, and dressed for the opera. We were going to 
the Hungarian State Opera House to see Cavalleria Rustica. The opera house
was spectacular. The opera was fantastic as well. It just so happened we were
surrounded by other American women. Four of them on their 50th nursing
school reunion. What a great reunion!

It was raining when we left the opera and we were all hungry. We walked back
closer to the apartment before we settled on a restaurant, Loft Bistro. Mom and
Nan split the Hungarian pizza which looked amazing and I had the spaghetti
bolognese. The sauce was  awesome. There was a spice none of us could figure
out and then we  realized it was obviously paprika! . 

We also shared a dessert. It was probably the most interesting dessert of the trip.
 It was a chocolate and vanilla pound cake topped with whipped cream and
blueberries and grapes.  It was delicious and gone within a matter of seconds,
literally. We eventually made it home and crashed quickly

The following morning was our last full day of our amazing Europe 
trip. Once again, we were all up bright and early and headed over to
our favorite coffee shop for more lattes and cream filled croissants. They
were just as good this time around! After yesterday, we were running
low on cash again so we picked up some more. We headed over to the
Jewish Quarter. I read out loud, the history of the Jewish people in 
Budapest. It really is such a sad terrible story. It deserved to be read
aloud and learned.

We eventually happened upon a craft market which was amazing. I think
I found something I wanted at every single booth. However, we had to
save our money for later that day and spent only when we decided we 
absolutely needed something. Of course I needed absolutely everything.
I found great gifts for my girlfriends here in NYC, and obviously got
one for myself too. I also fell in love with a print and had to have it. It
is signed and dated. I met the artist who was so friendly. Nan got Dan
a shirt from there as well. We had to force ourselves through the rest of
the market without buying anything else. We stopped by the apartment 
to drop our new gifts off before heading to our next adventure.

We headed back North to the Chain Bridge and crossed back into Buda.
We walked up the hill and found ourselves at the entrance to a wine
festival. How appropriate. Unfortunately, we did not have time to drink
and made our way towards Mathias Church. This church was definitely
my favorite church of the trip. It was absolutely stunning.

We found a little spot for lunch and all decided to finally have goulash
in Budapest. Like we heard, it was a soup served with a large basket of
fresh bread. After lunch we headed back down the hill towards the 
Elizabeth Bridge. It was almost time for us to check in and pick our seats 
for our flights back. We really wanted to sit together again so we made
sure we were at our favorite coffee shop in time to have a delicious
treat and pick our seats. We arrived just in time for the rain to start.
Thankfully, we also finished in time for the rain to stop. Someone must
have been watching out for us because it did not rain for the rest of the trip. 

We headed back to Buda across the Elizabeth Bridge, again, because right
in the foothill was the Rudas Bath House. We had been waiting for this
all day long. Of course it had to be the last thing of the last day. We deserved
this relaxing time. The employees were amazing. They showed us where to
go and what to do and we had not one problem. Except maybe the unisex
dressing rooms! They did have private changing rooms as well. After we
changed, we headed into the main room with the 300 year old glass dome. 

We started with the steam room which was almost unbearably hot. I lasted much 
longer than Mom and Nan. When I came out I found them in the coolest of the 
five pools. It was almost too cold to handle. But they made me. Eventually we 
worked our way around the other two pools before entering in the hottest pool
at 108 degrees. It was almost scalding at first but after a few seconds, slowly
you could make your way down a step. Once you were in, you were golden. 
It was wonderful. Your skin felt so soft, your muscles finally felt relaxed and
loose and your mind finally forgot about everything going on in the world and
then, it was time for the ice bath. Yes, ice bath. I ran in, dunked, came up
expecting to turn right around and run out but realized it felt almost awesome.
We loved it so much we did the whole thing, including the ice bath again! 

With one foot in front of the other we made it back across the Elizabeth 
Bridge for the final time. This time it wasn't from exhaustion, it was from
pure relaxation. We were done for. We were so done for we stopped at 
the famous McDonalds for dinner before heading home to pack and sleep. 
When I say famous, I really mean famous. This McDonalds was the first 
east of the Iron Curtain. Mom had the Big Mac, Nan a chicken wrap and
I had the double quarter pounder. We shared fries of course. 

That night we packed everything, dried our swim suits, lounged around
and discussed the next day. We all slept long and hard that night. We 
could not believe we were leaving tomorrow.

The following morning we were once again up early and headed to our
coffee shop. This time we passed on the croissants and headed South to
the Liberty Bridge. Tess had given me a challenge to complete and I was
on top of it. Two years before she took a photo on the Liberty Bridge and
challenged me to recreate it. Thanks to Mom and Nan for putting up with 
me. We did it!

After we completed the challenge, we headed to Central Market Hall for some
breakfast. The bottom floor was filled with tons and tons of meat, cheese, spice,
honey, and vegetable stands. The food looked amazing. While the upstairs was
filled with touristy gifts as well as a mini food court along one side. We decided
to have a savory breakfast of sausage wrapped langos. We also found a few gifts
 for family members.


After the market, we headed back towards the Hungarian Parliament. There was
one major thing we had missed and needed to see. The Budapest Holocaust Memorial 
in memory of the victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiaman in 1944-45. 
Erected April 16, 2005.

We had planned out where to find a cab the day we arrived. Just two blocks 
towards the water, there was a Marriott Hotel and cabs seemed to line up
on the streets outside. We easily hailed a cab and headed to the airport. 
It was a bittersweet ride. We were excited to go home, share our adventure
and gifts with our loved ones but also sad our vacation was over and mostly
the thought of having to go back to work. I won't lie. 

Nan and I browsed the shops in the airport and ended up purchasing some
wine and chocolates to bring back. The wine was for me and Leif, the 
sweets for my office. We had just enough time to get some lunch before
our gate was announced and we boarded. The flight to Zurich was easy
however the flight attendant on this Swiss flight was a big fat asshole. 
However, our next flight from Zurich to Newark was amazing. We sat
next to a man who was on our first flight as well and remembered us.
He used to live in New Jersey and how lives in Brussels by way of 
London. We each watched four movies, enjoyed dinner, a wonderful
snack and free wine. We managed to stay awake the entire flight and
flew through immigration and our Uber was outside waiting for us.

We arrived back to my little apartment, without Oliver to welcome
us and unpacked, showered and crawled into bed. All of us slept 
well that night until Nan had to get up to catch her train home.
The trip was over. I was off to work and Mom was leaving that
night. However, we managed to squeeze in breakfast at the new
fancy Denny's across from my apartment and lunch at Chop't along
with a frozen yogurt from Butterfield's. When I got home I was so
lonely and emotional. It was depressing.  But my Mom had washed,
dried and folded all of my laundry which was laid out on my bed,
receipts from the trip labeled and sorted and everything completely
in order. I realized, it was actually nice to be home and alone. 

This trip was one in a lifetime and I was so honored to share it with
two of my favorite people. It might not ever happen again, however
I think I might be able to convince them into Tuscany.... yes?