Housesitting in Monterrey, Mexico

Deah and Chris in Monterrey Mexico

For Thanksgiving week, Chris and I got to experience travel with a twist: we went as certified housesitters and cared for a cat while her owner was away. We’ve been members of the website Trusted Housesitters for a year now, and we finally found a gig that would match up with our schedule, plus a place we wanted to visit.

Although we could have flown from our home airport of Austin, there were cheaper and more direct flights from San Antonio. The two airports are only about 75 miles apart, and sometimes it really pays off to have that flexibility. We took an Interjet flight from San Antonio to Monterrey, Mexico, and stayed the first night in a hotel in the city.

Deah and her trusty Osprey backpack are ready to jet!

Before meeting our cat and her abode, we took a walk through part of Monterrey, Mexico’s third largest city. Our La Quinta hotel (or LQ as they called it) was located just a block away from the Macroplaza, all decked out for the Christmas holidays. Also on the plaza was the Governmental Palace of Nuevo Leon, which is now a museum dedicated to the history of the state of Nuevo Leon (free; closed Mondays). It was a nice way to spend a few hours. I highly suggest going for lunch at El Rey del Cabrito, if you enjoy grilled goat.

Christmas at the Macroplaza

From there we took a quick Uber ride just eight miles away to Santa Catarina, and met our new friend for the week. After Bella’s owner gave us all the details for cat care and took off for the airport, we got to know the area. We walked around the small town, found some tacos al pastor for dinner, and visited a nearby bodega to pick up some ice cold Tecates and limes to drink while sitting on the roof, watching the sun set. The next day we went to Huasteca National Park and did some hiking- a really nice day to be outside. The park also features some really good climbing routes, if that’s your thing.

Deah and her new friend, Bella
Chris at Huasteca National Park

In between feeding Bella and trying to get her to like us (she’s a bit of a cantankerous old biddy), we Ubered back to Monterrey to visit the Antiguo Barrio and the Paseo Santa Lucia. The “Old Neighborhood” was a fun little area of 16 old cobblestone blocks and small, brightly painted pastel buildings, dating back to 1765. Some of the buildings are still homes, but most are now cafes, bookstores, restaurants, nightclubs, bars, and coffee shops. Definitely a fun place to meet for coffee or to hang out on a Saturday night! We also walked along the Paseo Santa Lucia, a riverwalk with boat rides and a walking path that stretched a couple of miles. Later, we visited the Museo de Historia Mexicana (40 pesos; closed Mondays)- as luck would have it, celebrating their 25 year anniversary- so we got wine and cupcakes along with a first-class museum visit!

A row of shops in the Antiguo Barrio
Wine? Mariachi? A giant cupcake cake? Plus a museum. I’m in!

Our cat owner came back from vacation and we stayed one last night in Monterrey at the SmartHotel Cintermex, next to the convention center. We explored Parque Fundidora, an old manufacturing zone of town. Most of the factories have been dismantled, but they’ve left a couple of old ones- now turned into a museum and a zip-line, as well as huge machinery pieces dotted here and there as statuary. It’s a fun place to explore, and with no cars and plenty of greenery, a nice park to spend the day in. From mid-November to mid-January, the Paseo Santa Lucia and the Parque Fundidora also feature Luztopia, a beautiful light show that runs each night. For dinner our last night, we found a little place called El Tony’s Papa Asada- seriously delicious baked potatoes topped with two kinds of cheese, carne asada, and jalapenos, all for a whopping $4.

Parque Fundidora
Parque Fundidora Paseo Santa Lucia Monterrey Mexico
Paseo Santa Lucia

All too soon it was time to head to the airport and return to the United States, where unfortunately, beers are not $1 all the time and we don’t have a cat to greet us every time we come home- and we don’t have a fabulous view from our rooftop.

Sunset over the Huastecas

Have you used housesitting as a way to increase your travels? Any funny house- or pet-sitting stories? Let me know in the comments!

Volunteering for Hurricane Relief Efforts in the Bahamas

Bahamas Strong

On September 1st 2019, a category five hurricane passed through the northern Bahamas. For 24 hours, the hurricane- the strongest to EVER hit landfall there- stalled out over Abaco Island in particular, pummeling the island with 185 mile-per-hour winds and a 25 foot storm surge. By the time the hurricane passed on to other parts of the Bahamas, more than 80% of the buildings on Abaco Island were damaged. An untold number of lives were lost- as much as 25% of the population of Abaco are Haitian refugees, who are not counted by the Bahamian government- and an estimated $3 billion of infrastructure was damaged.

Homes, cars, shipping containers, and boats were tossed around in the storm

An organization I volunteer with, Team Rubicon, was one of the first to arrive to provide immediate aid. Less than a week after the deadly hurricane hit, Team Rubicon had a medical team on site, and an advance team of sawyers there to help clear roads and search for survivors. A further call for volunteers went out, and my husband Chris joined up and was sent with Wave 3, from September 27-October 8. For two weeks he cut down trees and other debris, mucked out houses, tarped roofs, and assisted with World Central Kitchen, who were feeding over 6,000 meals daily on the island of Grand Abaco.

Chris whips up a huge pan full of protein, veggies, and rice with World Central Kitchen

Another call for volunteers went out, and I signed up as well. Chris came home and gave me some of his gear, and on November 5, I boarded a flight from Austin, through Fort Lauderdale, and on to Nassau. After one night in Nassau, I arrived on Abaco Island, ready to work. The flights for me and over 50 other volunteers for Wave 6 were donated by JetBlue and SouthWest Airlines, with several other corporations donating miles, dollars, and tools needed for our work there.

The beautiful Bahamas from above

For the next two weeks, we slept in hollowed-out ravaged school classrooms. The building had been swept by the storm surge, and an earlier team had ripped out all the drywall, the ceilings, the classroom materials, and carpets. They salvaged what materials they could, tarped the roof, and used the space for our base of operations for the months of October and November. We slept on cots, with mosquito netting hung from the bare rafters. Out back we had two outdoor shower stations set up, and five portajohns. We ate MRE’s (meals-ready-to-eat) for breakfast and lunch, and had a hot meal provided by World Central Kitchen for dinner each night.

We were divided into eight or so teams, some with hand tools such as hammers, crowbars, shovels, and drills, and two teams with heavy equipment such as skid steers and earth movers. Our teams mucked out houses, carrying out everything from toys to clothing, furniture to appliances, baseboards to crown molding. Once the house was empty, we cleaned it as best as we could, and assessed the roof (if there was one). We put tarps or plywood up, which should last temporarily, and families were able to start moving back into their living spaces and begin the process of starting anew.

A homeowner who asked for our help. Photo posted with his permission.
All the waterlogged materials removed, the homeowner can now move back into his house. Photo posted with his permission.

I worked several days in the World Central Kitchen. What an amazing organization! Every day the chefs, and their island assistants, slice, dice, mince, stir, cook, and serve over 6,000 meals. Since they arrived in the Bahamas (before the storm even arrived), they have distributed just over 2 million meals. With no grocery stores, produce, fresh meat, or dairy for the months of October and September, the residents of Abaco had no other options besides World Food Program and Red Cross emergency rations. The World Central Kitchen, founded by Chef Jose Andres, promises “a hot plate of food when it’s needed”, combining both nutrition and deliciousness to those in need. From Puerto Rico, to Haiti, to the Bahamas, to the wildfires of California, this organization of “food first reponders” is getting the job done on a daily basis.

Unloading a delivery of produce to World Central Kitchen

All too soon our time in the Bahamas was over. It was time to pack it up and head home. Every day we worked on Abaco Island, at least one- most days more- islander came up to me or my group and thanked us for being there and helping. At times it felt like the work we were doing was just a drop in the bucket, but hearing the heartfelt thanks from dozens of hurricane survivors made every aching muscle, mosquito bite, and bump and bruise worth it. I know that we couldn’t help every one of the 17,000 inhabitants of Abaco, but I also know that we enabled dozens, if not hundreds, of people to return to their homes and face the future in the Bahamas.

Proud to be a “Grayshirt” with Team Rubicon

If you would like to donate to Team Rubicon, or another organization that helps with disaster relief, here’s an article about various teams that are assisting Hurricane Dorian recovery efforts.

*Also, a huge thanks to the dozens of other NGO’s and organizations that have responded to the crisis in the Bahamas, including but not limited to Samaritan’s Purse, All Hands and Hearts, NetHope, 4Ocean, USAid, HARP, Americares, Heart to Heart, Telecom Sans Frontiers, Sol Relief, and Catholic Relief Services.

**Don’t worry, we did get a day off to get out and see some of Abaco Island and nearby Hopetown on Elbow Cay. My team went to the beach and had some drinks and dinner at a local restaurant that has now opened up on a limited basis. I’m happy to report that the natural beauty of the Bahamas is still amazing.

The view from Pete’s Pub

***For more information: https://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/hurricane-dorian-destruction-abaco-islands-bahamas-11279524

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/abaco-islands-letter-d-marks-site-grim-recovery-effort-n1052166

https://nypost.com/2019/11/16/damaged-caused-by-hurricane-dorian-totals-3-4b-in-the-bahamas/

Uniquely Ukraine

Blue and yellow Ukraine highway sign

Ukraine is fairly new to the tourism scene, and is less-traveled by western tourists. But there’s still a lot to do in this sprawling country, and in fact, some of the things to do here are so uniquely Ukrainian that they can’t really be done anywhere else! Read on to discover some of the adventures Chris and I had during our two weeks in Ukraine.

Hit the beach:

For centuries people from northern climes have flocked to the Black Sea near Odessa to “take the waters” of the sunny south. There are busy party beaches within walking and tram distance of Odessa’s downtown, such as Arkadia and Ibiza. If you prefer a quieter beach scene for your holiday, take the commuter train heading south and visit any of the beach towns the train passes through. We spent three lovely days at Zatoka, about 50 km from Odessa, and loved the relaxed atmosphere there.

There’s nothing like a cold beer on a hot beach

Explore the catacombs under Odessa:

The city of Odessa was built with blocks of limestone mined from tunnels near the city in the 19th century. In later years, these same tunnels were used as an extensive network of bomb shelters and command centers in case of a Cold War attack. Now, visitors can visit the Museum of Catacombs to learn about the 2000 km of tunnels, or take a tour through the “wild” catacombs themselves. We went with Leonid and had a great time exploring the creepy but cool underground. Don’t sign up if you are claustrophobic or afraid of the dark!

Welcome to Odessa Underground!

Free Walking Tour

Of course, nearly every major city in Europe offers free walking tours now, but there’s only one in Odessa! We walked the city with Svetlana for two hours, taking in sights such as the Potemkin Steps, the Odessa Opera House, the “Flat” House, and more. It’s a great way to orient yourself to a new city, plus you learn a bit about the history of the place and get tips on local bars and restaurants. These guides live on the tips they earn, so please tip them according to how much you enjoyed the tour and the time they put into it.

The Odessa Opera House

Odessa City History Museum

This was our favorite museum in Odessa. It’s situated in a beautiful 19th century historical mansion, and details the history of Odessa from early Greek fishing village, up through the Cossacks, the Russians, and World War II. We visited on a Friday, so the dates/times in Google maps are wrong (it said they are closed). The museum costs just 30 Hrievnas (just over $1). It’s located just off the lovely City Garden off Derybasivska Street (the main pedestrian street in town).

The decree from Catherine the Great to build the city of Odessa

Chernobyl Exclusionary Zone Tour:

Most people over the age of 35 remember the events of April 1986, when news emerged that the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in Ukraine was severely damaged and had spewed radioactive gases that reached all the way to Scandinavia in just a few days. The area was promptly evacuated and until 2011, only workers involved in the on-going clean up effort could visit inside the Exclusionary Zone. Tours began running a few years ago, and now, with a new 1.5 billion Euro cover over nuclear reactor number 4, visitors can do a one- or two-day tour to the the Zone. Since the new HBO miniseries debuted in May 2019, Chernobyl has seen a 40% increase in tourism. For visitors who want to learn more about the disaster but don’t have the time or funds to visit the site, there is also a Chernobyl Disaster Museum in Kiev.

Chernobyl Reactor no.4, now covered by a super-dome

The abandoned amusement park at Pripyat, the town that housed the workers of Chernobyl

Street Art and Craft Beer

Not only do we love drinking local beers at small breweries, but we also love looking at amazing street art that pops up in cities. On our walking tour of Kiev, we passed by several large-scale murals and wanted to find more information on them. We were super happy to find this blog post from “What Kate and Kris Did” that not only detailed the art murals, but planned a route around Kiev that encompassed several beer stops along the way! A win-win situation for us. Be sure to check out their other posts on Ukraine as well.

“Rebirth”. Tiny Chris, big mural.

Enjoy Ukrainian Food

We love to eat, and trying out some local delicacies is always high on our list when we visit a new place. You definitely cannot leave Ukraine without tasting some beef stroganoff (created in Odessa), salo (sliced pork fat served with garlic, herbs, and black bread), and of course borscht (beet soup with beef chunks). Some other favorites of ours that we tried were okroshko (cold yogurt soup with egg, ham, cucumber, and onion), caviar, and kvas, a non-alcoholic malt beverage served ice-cold on hot days. A really fun place to try some Ukrainian specialties in Kiev is Ostannya Barykada (The Last Barricade)- a secret, underground restaurant that will give you a short tour and explanation of the 2014 revolution which took place in the square just above the restaurant. You need a password to enter- hit me up on Twitter or Instagram and I’ll tell you what the password is!

Salo, horseradish, Black bread Ukraine food Kiev tour
Salo, a delicious pork snack

You can give the password in Ukrainian or English at this (literally) underground restaurant

Study a Modern Revolution

Maybe when you think of revolutions, you think of one’s in the past like the French Revolution or the American Revolution. Well, in this part of the world, revolution is a daily occurrence, with some Ukrainians still fighting their big brother neighboring country Russia for portions of their land, such as Crimea. In late 2013, a revolution erupted on the Maidan, or main square, in Kiev. Over the next several months, partisans fought for Ukraine’s freedoms and to drive repressive forces out of the city. To learn more about the “Revolution of Dignity”, you can join a short walking tour, daily at 10:30 am, or visit the Complex of Heroes at Independence Square.

Of course, there’s so much more to Ukraine than just Kiev and Odessa, but our time was limited and we found these two cities to be fascinating. We hope to get back to Ukraine one day and explore the east and the west parts of the country as well.

Have you visited? What was your favorite part? Let us know in the comments below.

From Moldova to Transnistria (a country that doesn’t exist)

Chris and I took a bus that wound through the vast sunflower fields and bumpy roads of eastern Romania. We crossed the border with relative ease (15 minutes on each side), and arrived in Chişinău, the capital city of Moldova. We rented a spacious “apartment-hotel” there, unpacked our bags, and spent a few days getting to know the area.

Moldova is not a very large country, and it has no access to the Black Sea. Once part of the Principality of Moldavia, later part of the Russian Empire under the name of Bessarabia, the town was a staging ground for a war between the Ottoman and Russian empires. Later they joined the Kingdom of Romania, but were annexed to the Soviet Union in 1945. With the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Moldova achieved independence.

Chişinău

We spent a few days in the capital city, Chişinău (pronounced “Key-she-no”). It’s a very flat, walkable city, with a small lake and recreation area on one side, and a long main boulevard of monuments and public buildings. We stopped by the Ionika Hostel for a great map of the city (check out their very cool rooms). A number of the buildings in Chişinău were built by Russian architect Alexander Bernardazzi, over a period of 25 years from 1850-1875 (he later moved to Odessa and constructed many of the buildings there). It’s not hard to spot the design similarities in Bernardazzi’s work in Chişinău , or the white limestone marble he used from nearby quarries.

Museum of Natural History

Cathedral of Christ’s Nativity

Water Tower, designed by Bernardazzi

Abandoned Soviet Circus

Milestii Mici

As it turns out, those limestone quarries near Chişinău make excellent wine cellars, and now two of the largest cellars in the world run tours of their vast caves. You can visit Cricova– where Putin celebrated his 50th birthday- or Milestii Mici– the largest wine cellar in the world, certified by Guinness in 2007. There’s over 60 smaller wineries in Moldova to visit as well if you get out of the capital city area.

Deah at the fountain in front of Milesti Mici

We hired a taxi with our Yandex taxi app to take us the 15 km to Milesti Mici (100 MDL), and did a one hour tour and tasting. You need your own vehicle to drive through the tunnels, or you can use the taxi you arrived in (310 MDL/ $20 for the tour; 150 MDL for the taxi). A tour guide rides with you and explains the various streets underground (all named for different wines), and you get out of the car a few times to look at specific points of interest.

Chris, inside Milestii Mici

The cellars remain a constant 12 degrees Celsius all year round, and MM’s holds 65 million liters of wine, in bottles, oak barrels, and stainless steel tanks. They have 200 km of tunnels, with 55 km currently in use. Altogether, their wine cellar is the size of Monaco, and includes a secret room that sheltered 50,000 bottles in the years that Gorbachev prohibited alcohol. After the tour, you can do a tasting, which includes 3 jugs of wine, some meat-and-cheese snacks, and live music. We were glad we had the taxi for the ride home after tasting the white wine and the dessert wine, and finishing off the jug of red wine!

The map of Milestii Mici tunnels

Music, food, and wine

Transnistria

In 1992, there was a brief military conflict in the breakaway region of Transnistria. Since then, it’s been ruled by a joint control commission of Russia, Moldova, and Transnistria. No United Nations countries recognize it as a country, although the breakaway entities of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh do. Transnistria doesn’t actually call their “nation” by that name- it’s the name of the region- they call it “Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic”. They have their own passports, visa, and currency.

The Transnistrian flag

Anyway, whether you consider it the “country that doesn’t exist”, a nation, an autonomous region, or just part of Moldova, we went for a visit to its capitol, Tiraspol. It’s a one hour ride on a mashrutka bus, with a very brief stop at their border for a free visa. We had a hotel reserved for two nights, but they stamped us in for two weeks.

It’s Putin Time

We explored the city with Anton, a local tour guide who offers both a one-hour (tip-based) free walking tour, or a six-hour extended tour to a few places nearby. Tiraspol is full of Brutalism-style architecture, a curving river, and leafy parks. Once a thriving factory region for the Soviet nations, many of the factories are now closed, leave behind an empty, abandoned atmosphere. However, people do still live here! Our guide said that renting an apartment in one of the blocks of Soviet flats costs just $100 a month. Some people call Transnistria “the land that time forgot”, but to be honest, I thought it looks like so many other small towns across the former Soviet nations (or anywhere, really, that once thrived and now does not). With tourism, the Internet, and a growing economy, I predict this area will be joining the “modern age” sooner rather than later.

Back in the Land of Lenin

Abandoned Soviet playgrounds always feel creepy!

Train station mural

From Transnistria, we head to Ukraine. Off to see what adventure we can find near the Black Sea!

Roaming through Romania and Hungary

castle fortress Brasov Romania

I visited these two countries waaaay back in 1985, when the Texas Girls Choir was invited to a “Goodwill Ambassador” tour of the USSR and a few surrounding countries. I was only ten years old, and one of my only enduring memories was of visiting Dracula’s castle in the cold, snowy, winter month of January. Now we are here in high summer, nearly 35 years later, with a lot of changes in the region!

From small towns to big cities, the scenery is beautiful here

Budapest

From Slovakia, we took a train to Budapest, and spent a few days there. We stayed in District 7, also known as the Jewish Quarter , site of the 2nd largest Jewish synagogue in the world. That area is filled with cafes, pubs, and “ruin bars”, which are combo indoor/outdoor spaces filled with a whole hodgepodge of items- supposedly a remnant of bombings in World War II (although I suspect some of those bars are not anywhere near that old). Still- fun places to hang out and have a drink, especially Simpla Kert.

Just sittin’ in a bath tub… at a bar

Budapest itself is a splendid city to walk around in and explore, with a helpful tram and subway system assisting. We walked along the Danube River at dusk and watched the lights come on at the massive Parliament building, checked out the beautiful Matthias Church, and spent some time in the City Park, home of one of the city’s oldest thermal baths.

Budapest Parliament Building

St Matthias Church

One of the “micro-statues” you can find around Budapest

Gyor and Pannonhalma Monastery

A dear friend of ours was visiting his hometown in western Hungary, and invited us for a visit. We hopped on a train and 90 minutes later were in Gyor. Adam showed us around his town, situated on the banks of two rivers, and took us to the Pannonhalma Monastery. It was established 1,000 years ago, the first in the country, and has one of the most beautiful libraries I’ve been in. Below the monastery, acres of lavender are grown and distilled into oil, producing the most delicious scent all over the area.

Gyor, Hungary

Fields of Lavender at Pannonhalma

Just a small part of Pannonhalma’s amazing library

Lake Balaton

Adam drove us to Lake Balaton, stopping at two ancient castles along the way- defenses against the Mongols and the Ottomans. Lake Balaton is the largest lake in Hungary, and the second biggest in Central Europe. We stayed in the town of Keszthely, just one of a dozen small towns along the lake. We went hiking, ate langos (fried dough slathered in sour cream and cheddar cheese), and swam in the lake. There was a wine festival that weekend, and a reggae/rock concert that night. We enjoyed experiencing the more personal side of Hungary.

Keszthely, along the shore of Lake Balaton

Timisoara

From Balaton, we took two very comfortable and on-time trains to get to Timisoara, a town in western Romania. We stayed at an atmospheric, wooden hotel and did a walking tour of their Old Town. They were having a jazz festival while we were there, so it was nice to wander around to the various stages to catch different bands playing as we took in the 18th century buildings.

Jazz Fest!

A bit of rain brings out the colorful side of Timisoara

Sibiu

The trains in Romania are inexplicably slow, so we took a bus to Sibiu, a small town near the center of Romania. They have a beautiful walking center in the historic part of their town, which features several large, old churches, fortification walls, and the “bridge of lies”!

The “Bridge of Lies” will supposedly collapse if you tell a lie while walking across it

Brasov

From there we took a bus ride (in which we were the only riders for three hours!) to Brasov, a town in the heart of Transylvania. This is probably the most beautiful part of Romania, with miles and miles of forests, the Carpathian Mountains, and dozens of castles dotting the countryside. We learned about the convoluted history of the area (Romans, Huns, Bulgarians; Hungarians, Ottomans, Hapsburgs; Romania, then Hungary, then back to Romania). Just ten miles from Brasov is the famous Bran Castle, the literary setting of Dracula, although in actuality the castle had very little to do with Vlad the Impaler, son of Vlad Dracul. Still, the scenery is beautiful, and it’s an easy day trip to visit both Bran Castle and Rasnov Fortress, also nearby.

Bran Castle

While in Transylvania, we tried some of Romania’s gustatorial delicacies, including papanasi (fried dough with sour cream and cherry jam sauce), and sarmale (cabbage leaves filled with meat, rice, and spices), served with manaliga (polenta served with sour cream)…. always accompanied by a frosty Timisoarana beer.

Complacent George is ready for some papanasi

Sarmale with manaliga

Today we head to Moldova, one of Europe’s least visited countries, to see what adventures we can get up to there! And in exactly one month, it’s back to the US for us.