On Tour April 7, 2008


April 7, 2008 Spring seems to have returned yet again, and maybe it will stick around this time. The first vanguard of swallows are wheeling in the sky, to be followed in a few days by the rest of the flock. But this is the second time this year that I thought spring had arrived. For a week before the Portugal tour, the temps were closing in on 60°F and I was walking around in shirtsleeves. However, the morning I left for the Rome airport to fly to Porto, I drove through a snowstorm. There were a couple of times I was worried about seeing the road. “Global Warming” is the wrong term: it should be called “Global Weird.” Mercifully, our weather on the Portugal tour was only a bit on the chilly side, and the only time it rained was either when we were on the bus or in our hotel rooms.

Personally, I had some pleasant surprises on the tour. The level of affluence has risen considerably since my first travels to Portugal some 14 years ago. Lisbon was all but unrecognizable with all of the new construction. Both Lisbon and Porto were fortunate in a way. They had no money during the 60’s to either tear down the old or build anything new, so their architectural heritage was not lost to the mindless modernization that plagues some other European cities. Porto, particularly, has enacted some strict zoning laws that demand refurbishing the 19th century façades rather than tearing them down. The result is a wonderful architectural feast for the eyes.

My other surprise was rather humorous. Our bus driver did not speak one word of English, which is unusual now. First I tried pidgin English, but to no avail. Then I tried Italian and that was close enough to Portuguese for him and he would respond in his language. It worked for the most part except that the tour company that I used had made some changes on the itinerary. He had the changes, I didn’t. After the second time trying to “correct” him, I gave up and in essence said, “where are we going today, boss?”

One of the changes the company made was the inclusion of a visit to the Bussaco Palace Hotel. The palace was built for the last kings of Portugal and was converted into a deluxe hotel in 1917. It is located in the Bussaco National Park, 260 acres of forest, planted by the Order of the Barefoot Carmelites in the 17th century. I envision including a night or two in this sumptuous hotel when we return to Portugal in March 2010.

Portuguese appears to be a combination of Latin, French, Spanish and Italian, all thrown into a mixing bowl. Most of us who have studied any of the aforementioned languages could make some sense reading most of the signs. Hearing it spoken was another matter. Vowels tend to be closed and there are a dizzying number of consonant sounds that are foreign to the other Romance languages. Mercifully, most everyone–bus driver excepted–spoke some English.

In preparation for the upcoming China tour, I returned to an earlier BET packing and luggage scheme–smaller luggage, fewer clothes, and doing hand laundry regularly rather than counting on a laundromat. When I was in San Antonio in February, I revisited Good Sports (on the corner of De Zavala & IH10 across the freeway from the HEB) and picked up an Eagle Creek Tarmac ES 22 wheeled bag. (Note: I receive no remittance for recommending the Eagle Creek brand. I use it, like it, and appreciate their “no matter what” lifetime guarantee. You will pay more for their products–the bag I just bought retails at $225–but I feel confident that a wheel is not going to break off in the middle of a tour.) Though it is advertised as meeting most airlines’ carry-on requirements, I was unable to test that aspect since the planes that I flew on this trip were too small for all except the smallest of carry-on bags. But my new, smaller bag did carry everything I needed–socks, underwear, shirts, pants, Gore-Tex jacket, fleece vest, computer, camera and all of the attendant paraphernalia. And on the return flight, there was even room for the bottle of port wine that I brought home, plus the various little gifts that I bought for the people who took care of my plants while I was gone. Oh yes, and the very welcome gifts from the states–two jars of peanut butter from Ron & Dale, and four 2-Alarm Chili Kits from Mickie– also fit in.

Those of you going on one of the China tours and who live in the San Antonio area might do yourselves a favor by dropping by Good Sports. Besides the luggage, check out their travel accessories and clothing. The underwear that I bought dried in about 6 hours. The “smart wool” socks dried overnight, as did the travel shirt that I wore on an almost daily basis. Remember that you are allowed only 40 pounds per person of checked luggage for the domestic flights. Talk to Jordan, Tommy, or Marsha and they will give you a discount on whatever you buy. They have a list of all of the BETVets who live in the San Antonio area.

And speaking of China, I will need to close the May-June tour to further enrollments on April 15. There is room for nine more. As for the October tour, I have an opening for two people now. At the moment, China is perhaps the most exciting destination in the world. Don’t miss it.(back)