Friday, October 24, 2008

On the road in Montreal

I’m back home now from my trip to Montreal. There was so much to see and do there that it was hard to decide. I did lots of sight-seeing. Highlights were the hike I took through Parc du Mont Royal. The foliage is absolutely beautiful this time of year and the fall leaves, all gold and orange and red, were falling from the trees like snow. There’s a long staircase that goes up to the top of the hill and overlooks the entire city. The view was breathtaking.

I was staying in an excellent location right in Downtown Montreal which had a ton of great museums and restaurants as well as fantastic architecture to look at. Another area that I really loved was Vieux-Montreal (Old Montreal) which had the Notre Dame Basilica, Clock tower, Hotel de Ville and lots of other Neo-Classical buildings to admire.

Botanical Gardens

Over the weekend I went to the Botanical Garden, the Insectarium and the Biodome. You can buy a combo ticket for all three of these places which is what I did. The woman at the ticket booth told me that I could see all of these places in one day but this turned out to be absolutely insane!!! The Botanical Garden is enormous and involves a ton of walking plus it’s the type of place that you don’t want to rush through. You could literally spend the entire day here and still not see the whole thing. It is recognized as one of the world’s finest and largest botanical gardens and I know I mentioned my previous blog that I am not much of a “plant person” but I was definitely blown away. (The one plant that I own has been sitting in a bucket of water in my apartment while I’ve been traveling and it has actually never looked better. I feel a little insulted that it has been thriving in my absence. )

The gardens and arboretum were impressively beautiful and there were also 10 greenhouses as well as various art exhibitions in some of their thematic gardens, and the Tree House which has a permanent interactive exhibit and activities for kids. If you want to see it all while avoiding the painful sensation that your legs are going to fall off, I’d recommend hopping on and off the mini-train which drives around the park. This is an especially good idea if you have kids.

I also thought that it was nice that they had a “Courtyard of the Senses.” This is a little area where everything is at wheelchair/child height and you are encouraged to touch and smell the plants and flowers. The labels are also in Braille and the path is wheelchair accessible.

My favorite garden in the park was the Chinese Garden. Most of the park closed at 5 o’clock but they kept Chinese Garden open until 9. When the sun went down, all of the lanterns lit up and it was really pretty.

The park has a free shuttle bus which will take you over to the Olympic Stadium and the Biodome which was my next stop. I guess the Biodome could be described as an indoor zoo. It has these faux-natural depictions of four ecosystems. It’s a good rainy day activity but if you’re looking to occupy your kids for an entire day then this is not the place to go. You can see the whole thing in one hour and don’t expect to see any large animals. The biggest animal I saw was a sea otter. The Madagascar exhibit was pretty disappointing too. It was basically a small room with about 3 or 4 lemurs sitting in a tree. I am a little biased though, since I was just working on the Madagascar exhibit at the Bronx Zoo back in June and it is a million times better than the Biodome’s exhibit (I’ve been meaning to write a new blog about the opening of this exhibit so check back in the near future to read all about it!).

One of the things I did like about the Biodome was the graphics in the Marine Ecosystem. They had both overhead and floor graphics and the floor tiles had a rock and water design. Placement of graphics in Aquarium settings is always tricky because everyone tends to lean on the handrail, which is the typical placement for animal ID’s, and then no one can read them. The Biodome had ID’s overhead and on the floor which was pretty clever since most people were looking down to see the fish.

After zipping through the Biodome I hopped back on the shuttle to the Insectarium. My expectations were that it was either going to be A) Creepy. or B)Gross. But to my surprise it was C) None of the Above. The museum was actually quite phenomenal. It had live insect displays as well as 160,000 fantastic mounted specimens throughout the entire space.     
From my observation, the kids absolutely loved it and so did I. The museum was extremely kid-friendly (because kids love bugs) and there were lots of low to the ground insect/kid height displays (see image on the left) which I never would have noticed if one little girl didn’t slam into my knees and start clapping and jumping up and down when she saw it. I thought these ground displays were very clever and a nice touch.

This butterfly display in the image here shows the butterfly migration from Canada through the United States to Mexico. I found this particularly interesting because I followed a similar migration pattern although not in the same order. I’d have to say the way the butterflies do it is much better.

Which brings me to my travel tips for this week….

1) I do not recommend traveling straight from a country that is typical 90 degrees every day to a country that is typically 40 degrees every day. This is very painful.
2) Tell immigration that you are a tourist even if you are traveling for business. This will save you a lot of time and frustration and will prevent you from being detained for not having a work permit while you watch from a glass room everyone else who is allowed to enter the country.
3) Become bilingual OR at least learn how to say “I am not a spy who is trying to steal company secrets” in both Spanish and French.
4) Once again…Don’t fly on Delta. If you have no other choice then arrive at the airport an hour earlier than the recommended 1 hour before your flight’s departure or else you will be running to board your flight while they are announcing your name throughout the entire airport. Their check-in process and security is always a disorganized mess no matter what airport.
So that’s it for now for my “On the Road” adventures. It’s been 8 weeks, about 15 cities, 16 flights and 10 hotels. I’m happy to say I made it home in one piece which is pretty impressive since the airline literally made me sign a waiver to release the remains of my suitcase and my shoes completely disintegrated while still on my feet. It’s been a lot of fun and an amazing experience but now I am looking forward to getting reacquainted with my couch!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

On the Road in Mexico!

After 8 days in Ohio, I made a pit-stop in New York for less than 48 hours before heading off to Mexico. This gave me just enough time to pay my rent (for the apartment I never see) and other bills (for utilities I don't use) and change the water in the bucket that my plant is sitting in. I came home with one less shoe and a brand new suitcase. After 9 flights in 3 weeks, my old suitcase couldn't go on any longer and is resting in peace in the dumpster behind the Columbus Best Western.

So I packed my new suitcase and was off to Mexico. The first stop was Mexico City. The climate was a moderate and comfortable low-70's. Everyone there seemed to think it was cold because they were all bundled up in winter coats and scarves unless they were protesting something, in which case they were standing in the street naked. The city was crowded with people and traffic (about 10 times more than NYC) but really colorful with beautiful views of mountains and volcanoes. I especially liked that all of the streets were lined with benches that were each a unique sculpture. I was only in Mexico City for a few days before flying off to Veracruz so I didn't get to see any museums but I did take a tour of the Pyramids. The tour stops at several churches and archaeological sites on the way but the most interesting stop was the Maguey shop. We got to watch how the artisans make things out of obsidian which comes from the volcanic lava and how the silversmith turns the silver into jewelry but the most intriguing demonstration was where they showed us all the ways they use the agave plant. First, they peeled the skin of one of the leaves to create paper. You can write on it with a pen and the ink won't smudge. Then if you rub the leaf it will create a film that is used for antiseptic. Break off the tip of the leaf and the sharp point is used for a needle. Attached to it are long strands that are used as thread. Lastly, inside the plant itself, they stir the pulp to create the liquid that is fermented to make tequila. This part of the demonstration involved getting us drunk off of pure agave juice, mescal, and tequila. This was great but probably would have been better after the climb to the top of two pyramids!

After that, we went to the Pyramids of the Teotihuacan. I climbed to the top of both the Pyramid of the Sun and the Moon. The climb up was pretty treacherous and steep. It's helpful to have really long legs (which I don't) because the stairs are very high but once you get to the top the view is worth the effort. There were butterflies flying all around me. I felt like they followed me on my journey across the U.S. and we all migrated together from North America to get to this place! They only added to the surreal feeling of being someplace so ancient that so many others throughout history have climbed before me. If you've never climbed to the top of a pyramid then I highly recommend putting it on your to-do list because it was an absolutely amazing experience.

The next day I flew to Veracruz. I don't have much to report about this trip because I was advised by my local site contact to stay close to my hotel due to the unsafe conditions in the area. This
part of Mexico was not a tourist destination but this was the real Mexico that most tourists never see. People were living in extreme poverty (mostly Third-world conditions) and scavenging what was supposed to be a beach but looked more like a garbage dump.

It was about 20 degrees warmer than Mexico City... approximately 90 sticky degrees every day.

Now I'm in Montreal, Canada and it feels like it's been a year rather than a week since I was in Mexico. Probably because I flew out Summer and straight into Winter! The leaves here have already changed to yellow and orange and from what I've seen of Montreal so far it looks like a beautiful city. My brain is having a bit of a meltdown though. I'm finally remembering my room number and floor but now have to remember to speak in French rather than Spanish. It also would have been useful information to know that there are 5 Marriott hotels here. Two are on the same street. Luckily, I found mine on the second try.

It's been almost 9 weeks and I've been in about 15 different cities and on 15 flights with one more flight to go (back home to New York!). This will be my last trip for a while and I'm hoping to see some great museums while I'm here so check back next week for the last of the "On the Road" blogs.

On the Road in Ohio

COSIAfter my trip to Wisconsin, I went to three cities in Ohio. My favorite city that I visited was Columbus. There's a lot of great restaurants, shops, art galleries and museums in Columbus and the people were great too. I think a must-see for anyone who goes to Columbus is COSI. It was rated the number one science museum in the U.S. by parenting magazine and although I haven't been to every science museum in the U.S. I'd have to say it was the best one I've ever been to. The staff was very friendly and helpful, the children were well behaved and the museum was clean. The exhibits were engaging and immersive and well-maintained. There were very few out-of-order signs and it was just a fun place to visit.

Franklin Park Conservatory
During my fun-filled trip to Ohio, I also went to the Franklin Park Conservatory. Horticulture is not one of my biggest interests but they boasted having some pieces leftover from Dale Chihuly's traveling exhibit. I saw this exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden and it was fantastic so I thought it would be a place worth visiting. The Conservatory was very pretty and Chihuly's work was beautiful as always but I was expecting more. There weren't very many pieces and they were dispersed throughout the entire space with bits and pieces placed here and there. Even in their Chihuly Resource Center, there were only a couple small pieces of his work. I thought the nicest part of the Franklin Park Conservatory was the outdoor area which is free to the public (as opposed to the $7.50 for admission to the greenhouse). If anyone wants a nice peaceful outdoor activity with beautiful scenery then they will really enjoy this area and save themselves $7.50.

I also have some more valuable travel tips for this week:

1. If you are staying in 3 different hotels per week, it's a good idea to write down your room number on a piece of paper, on your phone, or on your arm. This way you won't repeatedly go to the room numbers of the 5 previous hotels you just stayed in and try to unlock someone else's door. You might also want to make a note of the floor you are staying on so that you don't spend your whole day in the elevator trying to figure it out. This also applies to the city that you are currently in because that tends to get confusing too. Just be sure to carry a pen and paper wherever you go and write reminder notes to yourself and you will be fine!

2. Do not put your magnetic room key anywhere near your phone or keys because apparently, it will de-magnetize the key. I managed to lock myself out of a hotel room 3 times in 4 days before I figured this out.

3. If you are running late for your flight you can fake a broken leg and get an airport wheelchair. Anyone in a wheelchair gets to go to the front of the airport security line (including all of the people traveling with them). I've never done this myself but I've witnessed people suddenly being afflicted with all sorts of disabilities when they approach airport security. I recently witnessed one woman with a broken arm suddenly become incapable of walking. The airport wheelchair is the E-Z Pass of airport security. It took me 15 minutes to get to the front of the line. The lady with the broken arm (and her husband) were through those metal detectors in less than two.