Friday, December 27, 2013

Visiting the Final Resting Place of a Hero: Jimi Hendrix's Grave


Growing up, my dad made sure I had a rich, cultured, and thorough knowledge of music.  We listened to the whole gamut: classical music, opera, grass roots, and of course, rock.  My dad is a huge fan of 60's and 70's rock, particularly the kind with wailing, intricate guitar riffs and solos.  Some of our favorites were Cream, The Who, The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, to name a few.  Oh yes, and Jimi Hendrix.  Good ol' Jimi!

In the summer of 2011, I weaseled in on a family road trip with my neighbor, Jana, and her two kids.  We decided to head down for some touristy fun to Seattle, Washington.  It was a total blast - Jana is just like me in that she likes to see everything and anything an area has to offer while visiting.  One of the things we learned about the Seattle region is that you can go visit the grave site of my former guitar hero, Jimi Hendrix, in a little town called Renton just south of Seattle.

tomb of Jimi Hendrix Seattle
During a trip to Seattle, I got to visit the grave site of one of my teenage idols.

Before driving through Renton, I'd had the chance to stroll through the extremely interesting EMP Museum in downtown Seattle.  The EMP Museum, or "Experience Music Project" Museum, is dedicated to Seattle-based musicians who made a mark on the music industry during their rise to fame.  Nirvana was naturally a main feature, and so was dear old Jimi.  It was cool to walk the aisles of the exhibit and see Jimi's personal collection of guitars, some of his more famous and flamboyant outfits, and read some of his own handwritten notes about music.  It was also the perfect way to gear up for a quick jaunt out to his tomb to pay my respects.

One of Jimi's more famous outfits - no, the color has NOT been photoshopped!

One of Jimi Hendrix's smashed guitars at the EMP Museum in Seattle.

Renton, as stated before, is just south of Seattle, about a 25 minute drive from the EMP Museum if you want to hop right to it after visiting Jimi's exhibit. Once you enter Renton, you are looking for the Greenwood Memorial Park, on 350 Monroe Avenue NE.  (If you have a GPS, it comes in handy for sure!)  There are no major signs or billboards - the cemetery looks just like any other, so don't rely on guideposts to help you find your way.

The Hendrix family tomb in Renton, Washington, just south of Seattle.

Once you reach Greenwood, you will then be able to locate Jimi's grave quite easily.  His plot is a family plot, and his tomb is a giant stone gazebo filled with etched pictures and lyrics from his songs.  Jimi is buried with all sorts of members of his family, although naturally his tomb is the biggest and most prominent.  It is free to enter Greenwood and to pay your respects to Mr. Hendrix, so don't worry about visiting an ATM first.

One of the beautifully etched plaques that guard Jimi's grave.

For those younger people who don't know much about Jimi Hendrix, here is a quick breakdown: Hendrix was born in Seattle and became famous for his experimental and influential guitar playing (think "Purple Haze" or his riotous version of "Star Spangled Banner").  He is considered one of the greatest songwriters and musicians in American history.  He is also, sadly, part of the "27 Club", a group of fast-living, hard-partying rockers who seem to meet tragedy at the age of 27.  When Jimi was 27, he died in London, England after suffocating on his own vomit following an overdose of barbiturates.

Me beside the tomb of Jimi Hendrix.

For me, it was an honor to stand at his grave site and leave a token for myself and for my father, who first introduced me to his music.  I know it might be a macabre task to accomplish during a family summer vacation, but the significance for me was more reverent than morbid.  I am glad that I had the chance to visit!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Why I've Changed my Mind about Hostels


While planning last summer's trip through Iceland, I made a point of writing about why I disliked staying in hostels - the dormitory-style beds, shared bathrooms, lack of privacy, and the possibility of stolen possessions all made hostels sound horrific and "too young" for an older traveler like me. (I'm aware being in your early 30s is not OLD; but nor am I in the college crowd era anymore.) While finding a 'home away from home', I like the privacy and security of my own hotel room, or at least my own tent.

However, I must say, my opinion of hostels has changed greatly since our trip to Iceland.  Hotels are difficult to find in Iceland - they book up nearly a year in advance for the summer season (usually by big travel companies who reserve entire hotel floors at a time in anticipation of tour groups and cruises).  Hotels are also expensive, and quite rare.  It is much more simple to find accommodation at a 'guesthouse' - read: hostel - than it is to book a hotel room in Iceland.

hostel living room Iceland
The shared sitting area in Hvammur Guesthouse in Hofn, Iceland.  Not too shabby!

In order to save money and to make life easier, while planning for Iceland I just gave up and booked us a room at Guesthouse 101 in Reykjavik for our first three nights in Iceland.  It was a semi-hostel set-up: we have a private room, albeit with separate beds, but shared bathrooms and kitchen/sitting areas.  It was the best I could do considering all of the hotels I had looked at were full (and I was booking in March for a trip in July).

hostel Guesthouse 101 Reykjavik Iceland
Our tiny but private room in Guesthouse 101 in Reykjavik, Iceland.  

I still don't like the idea of sharing rooms with strangers (I snore a little, I drool, and I'm also hella-sensitive to other people's little sounds and movements, lights, etc., which wake me up), so this set-up I could live with.  We had privacy, could lock up our possessions without jamming them into a tiny locker, and I could sleep in my undies should I so choose.  I was alright with that.

hostel bathroom Iceland Hvammur Guesthouse
The shared bathroom in Hvammur Guesthouse - nicer than expected!

I even discovered I actually ENJOYED some aspects of hostel life.  I liked the shared kitchen and the freedom to cook your meals.  Dishes were provided so we didn't have to worry about lugging around a picnic basket filled with plates and utensils.  As long as you cleaned up after yourself, all was well in kitchen-land.  I also liked the chance to sit around and meet people and chat - people seem more open and willing to converse when in a hostel versus when in a hotel restaurant or lobby.  While staying in a hostel in Hofn, Hvammur Guesthouse, we sat down and ate a lovely breakfast together with a wonderful couple from Denmark, who offered to do a house-swap with us next summer.  They had a cute two-year-old who didn't understand why we couldn't understand her - next summer we'll have a 6 month old (who could be fun to take to Denmark...)

hostel kitchen Iceland Hvammur Guesthouse
The cheerful and well-stocked kitchen in Hvammur Guesthouse where we dined with a Danish family.

Another hostel we stayed at while in Vik, Hostel Lunda, was hoppin' with people from all over the world as well.  We met a young geologist from the United States who was in Iceland to work on her doctorate regarding the thermal activity on the island nation.  She was fascinating to listen to, as she'd been to Iceland at least twice before, and knew of some really cool locations to explore if you were curious about geothermal hot spots.

So here is my hostel run-down:

Pros:

  • Hostels are extremely cost efficient, much cheaper to stay in than hotels. Sometimes not by much, but still, a penny saved...
  • Hostels are usually available at the drop of a hat. We booked in Hostel Lunda and Hvammur Guesthouse about 10 minutes before being shown to our rooms.  Unless you are visiting Iceland off-season, that probably won't happen with a hotel.  Some hostels have more to offer than others: Hostel Lunda didn't provide blankets on their beds, just sheets, but that didn't matter to us as we'd been camping all over Iceland and had nice, comfy sleeping bags to curl up in.
  • Hostels are great places to meet people from all over the world - the open, shared atmosphere of a hostel lends itself much better to conversation than an individualized, compartmentalized hotel
  • Some hostels even provide you with food.  Hvammur Guesthouse in Hofn offered us a stocked fridge for a very tasty breakfast, including cheese, bread, milk, juice, fruit, cereal, and lots more. It was nice not to have to pack in our cooler or worry about going breakfast shopping in the morning.

Cons:

  • There is little to no privacy, depending on your type of hostel. It is great if you can get a private room, and lots of hostels offer those, but still, you are sharing showers and toilets, which isn't the most hygienic.  The walls of every hostel we stayed in were very thin, so you had to keep conversations low. (And if someone doesn't keep their conversation low, they can potentially keep everyone else in the hostel awake all night.  That happened to us a couple of times.)
  • Along with the thin walls and chatty people, comes the annoyance of hearing people come and go at all hours, or smelling their cooking at all hours. In a hotel, with thicker walls and carpets, you might not notice this as much (and you really wouldn't notice the cooking as most hotels don't do the kitchenette thing anymore).  If you are a heavy sleeper - bonus!  Hostels are for you! I am a bit of a light sleeper, so I didn't get the greatest sleeps while staying in the hostels.
So I leave it up to you. Are you a hosteler? Or a hoteler? I am proud to say that I am both - depending on the circumstance!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Snorkeling Yal-Ku Lagoon in Akumal, Mexico


Way back in May of this year, my husband and I visited Akumal in Mexico for his brother's wedding.  We were only in Akumal for about four days due to my work schedule, but we managed to pack a lot in while there, including the wedding and precious family time.  One of the alternate activities that we tried was snorkeling in some of Mexico's natural areas, including one hidden gem called Yal-Ku Lagoon.

things to do in Akumal Mexico, snorkeling in Akumal, snorkeling in Mexico
The beautiful natural area of Yal-Ku Lagoon in Akumal, Mexico.

Originally, I had wanted to go snorkeling in Akumal Bay, where according to other blogs and websites, there is a plethora of free-swimming and wild sea turtles.  That sounded amazing to me, so my husband and I grabbed our personal snorkeling gear, called a cab, and headed out towards Akumal Bay from our hotel, the Gran Bahia Principe Tulum.  As we chatted with our cab driver, he suggested the nature preserve of Yal-Ku as it is quiet, not touristy, and an area where locals go to do some sunny-day snorkeling.  Always a fan of what the locals suggest, I agreed.

Yal-Ku is located a little bit past Akumal Bay, but in the same general vicinity, just off the Playa Akumal exit on the 307.  We drove through a little village with a deeply rutted alley and cute shops selling locally-made wares - along the right-hand side I could see Akumal Bay peeking out from between buildings.  Then we turned left and left Akumal Bay behind us, and made our way to Yal-Ku, which is a small lagoon connected to the ocean via two narrow channels.  Yal-Ku is a small and beautiful government-protected nature preserve that houses many specimens of fish and ocean vegetation, unique because it is the site where the salty waters of the Caribbean meet with the fresh waters of the Yucatan.  While you snorkel through the lagoon, you can literally see the layer where the fresh water rests atop the salt water.

things to do in Akumal Mexico, snorkeling in Akumal, snorkeling in Mexico
Preparing to 'go deep' while snorkeling in Yal-Ku Lagoon.

Our cab driver, thrilled that we had followed his suggestion and chosen Yal-Ku (and certain that we'd like his suggestion much more than any trip to Akumal Bay), offered to wait for us to do our snorkeling and then take us back to the hotel.  He asked for $60 US, which included the cab ride from the Gran Bahia, an hour and a half wait, and the ride back to the hotel.  This seemed reasonable to us, especially since Yal-Ku is a tad bit in the middle of nowhere and we weren't certain how easy it would be to find a cab to get home. We agreed, and he happily made his way to a car wash to clean the cab while we snorkeled.  Maybe we got ripped off, but frankly I didn't care - it was nice to know we'd have a ride ready and waiting for us when we were done.

The entrance fee to Yal-Ku is $12 plus the cost of equipment - however, we had our own snorkeling gear so I can't tell you exactly what the rental rates are.  You can check out a great informational website for Yal-Ku here. You must shower before entering to get off any hairspray or sunscreen (they want to keep the water as pristine and chemical-free as possible, and the oil and grease residue from sunblock is not good for the fish).  There are lockers you could rent to store your belongings - we didn't do that as Yal-Ku really is a hidden gem and there were hardly any other people snorkeling with us. Instead, we took our belongings with us to the bay-side and left them on a bench.  Nobody touched them.

things to do in Akumal Mexico, snorkeling in Akumal, snorkeling in Mexico
Yal-Ku Lagoon is protected by the rough ocean waves due to its limestone formations.

From the entrance, you must walk down some beautifully manicured pathways to reach the edge of the bay.  There are many ladders and platforms that allow entrance to the water dotting the edge of the bay - simply find a relaxing area to sit and prepare for your dive.  Iguanas were everywhere - sunning themselves on rocks, eyeing your bags in case you brought food, or skittering across the pathways ahead of you.

things to do in Akumal Mexico, snorkeling in Akumal, snorkeling in Mexico
An iguana suns itself in Yal-Ku Lagoon's secluded beach area.

Unfortunately, there are no turtles in this bay (and if you do spot one, consider yourself lucky, for it is a rarity), which I found to be the only disappointment.  However, there were tons of tropical fish and surreal looking rocks and inlets.  At first, the water seemed really murky and I was worried we'd see nothing, but then I realized I was swimming right in the slipstream where the fresh water met the ocean water.  Once I reached the calmer edges where the limestone rock formations created a natural barrier, things really cleared up and I was able to see some amazing sights.  In fact, it is recommended that people snorkel in Yal-Ku Lagoon on days when the ocean is rough (rather than Akumal Bay) because the rock formations block the waves and keep the lagoon calm and smooth.

I don't know my tropical fish varieties very well, but we did see plenty of different, colorful, and curious fish.  One for sure that I knew was a needlenose fish - a few of them followed us around for awhile, maybe hoping for a treat (which we didn't give - it is forbidden to feed the fish at Yal-Ku Lagoon).  Most of the fish schooled inside the limestone rock cracks and crevices, and we found it was a fun game to poke our heads inside to see what was there.

things to do in Akumal Mexico, snorkeling in Akumal, snorkeling in Mexico
A friendly needlefish joins Joey and I for our afternoon of snorkeling in Yal-Ku Lagoon.

We snorkeled for about an hour and fifteen minutes before running out of steam.  We didn't know it at the time, but I was pregnant and therefore fighting occasional bouts of nausea. After spending extended time in the ocean water, the salty taste would begin to make me feel sick.  In reality, an hour or so of snorkeling is probably plenty anyway.  We happily packed up our gear, found our cab, and headed back to the hotel.  I highly recommend visiting Yal-Ku Lagoon if you want a nice afternoon of peaceful, successful, and stress-free snorkeling.

things to do in Akumal Mexico, snorkeling in Akumal, snorkeling in Mexico
The clear waters of Yal-Ku Lagoon allow for some great marine life sightseeing.

Next time, however, I'd like to try Akumal Bay so I can see some sea turtles!