Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Show Me The Money And The Hiking

Check out these photos from last weekend:

Pretty sweet hiking, right?

These shots were taken as we tramped through Rocky Gap State Park in North-Western Maryland. Before you heap praise on Shira for being such a trooper you should know that we didn't camp in the state park. Nope, we lived it up and stayed at Rocky Gap Casino and Resort. That's right, when we weren't outside roughing it, we were inside playing blackjack and craps.

Imagine my shock when I learned that we could stay at a casino and yet have all the outdoorsy fun of a state park at our fingertips. It really is true. Unlike the fake facades of Vegas and Atlantic City, Rocky Gap really is the authentic outdoor experience the brochure promises.

We did the 5 mile hike around the massive man made lake. During warmer months you can also rent boats and play golf. Heck, they'll even rent you fishing equipment. This is definitely my kind of casino experience!

The casino itself is a relatively small one, with the notable games being two craps tables and one non-continuous-auto-shuffled blackjack table. What was more surprising was how warm the crowd was. It's like Shira and I stumbled into a small town bar; everyone wanted to introduce themselves and learn our names. You could definitely tell the regulars and by the end of the weekend we nearly felt like one of them.

Another bonus: the minimum on the craps tables was $5.00. Given how many bets you can have going on simultaneously, the low minimum is really appreciated.

Shira tried her hand at 2 deck blackjack, the style where you actually hold your own cards and have to keep them hidden from other players. It was an interesting experience, and one where when played right, has by far the best odds in the house. It's unfortunate that this game was played at a single table, yet, Shira never had any problem getting a spot.

If I was to level one criticism against the 'resort' it's that the food was less than stellar. They need to up their vegetarian game, and the food offered in the executive floor lounge was bordering on pathetic. But hey, the place was clean, non-smoking and price wise quite affordable (especially when compared to a weekend rate in Atlantic City).

As casinos go, any one that recommends I bring along fishing and hiking gear is a winner in my book!

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Colombia Adventure - Day 7

November 26, 2016

We started our second day in Cartagena with a thorough tour of the massive fort, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. Shira gave me a treat and let me get the hour plus audio tour, which went into detail not only about how the fort was constructed, but the various attempts to take the fort.

As forts go, San Felipe is a beast. It's got overlapping defenses, fake points of weakness and a crazy system of tunnels. Looking at it, you notice various wooden constructions - like a set of stairs leading to one of the main sections of the fort. Those are wood by design, allowing for easy destruction, which would make taking the fort even harder.

Like the Salt Cathedral we toured earlier, this too is among the most amazing pieces of architecture I've ever encountered.

And then we walked. And walked. We made it from the old city to Bocagrande, and what do you know, we found ourselves at the "Emerald Museum." The 'museum' was actually pretty cool, giving you a 15 minute tour of everything emerald and ending up in a large showroom. Our tour guide and emerald salesman couldn't have been nicer and there was no pressure to buy. We headed back towards home, once again catching the sunset from atop the wall of the Old City.

We finished the evening at the eclectic Kokoa Sushi Wok restaurant. The Mozzarella Tempura Roll (with mushrooms on top!) and Caprese Roll were both different and delicious. I know they'd be a hit here in the US. After all, who wouldn't like sneaking mozzarella sticks into their sushi dinner? Yum!

Colombia Adventure - Day 6

November 25, 2016

Welcome to Cartagena!

Unlike Bogota, Cartagena did make a strong first impression. First off, you've got the heat! Hello humidity! And then there's the walled city: it felt like we were back in Marrakesh, getting lost on in the hustle and bustle of the city streets.

In truth, Cartagena's old city isn't nearly as confusing as Marrakesh and generally the streets are wider and with way less traffic. Still, there's no denying that Cartagena has real character.

We wandered the old city, with the first priority being to find and eat ice cream. We then hit the only vegan restaurant in town and enjoyed a full set meal for $3.00 USD each.

One location that was especially powerful was the Inquisition Museum. While most of the exhibits were in Spanish, there was enough English to appreciate just how thoroughly cruel and evil the inquisition was. I knew that Jews were persecuted during this time, but I hadn't realized so too was the local Afro-Carribean community. In the end, the museum stands as a beacon of acceptance, taking a place of unspeakable evil and re-purposing it for good.

The irony wasn't lost on me when, a few nights later, we'd catch a live troupe of dancers performing in the square in front of the museum. The dancers seemed to do both a traditional Spanish dance as well as a traditional African one. It was a visceral way of showing just how thoroughly the likes of the inquisition has failed to silence ideas and traditions.

We finished our first night in Cartagena watching the sunset from the Northern wall of the town. It couldn't have been more perfect.

Monday, December 05, 2016

Colombia Adventure - Day 5

November 24, 2016

Our fifth, and last full day in Bogota, began in the style we'd been accustomed to: with a huge, delicious breakfast at one of the nearby bakeries. After finishing breakfast, I was pretty sure I wouldn't need to eat for the rest of the day.

We then made our way back to the historic downtown area where we hoped we'd catch a view from the tallest building in Bogota. Alas, the building was closed. But we rolled with it, opting to head towards the famous Botero museum and shop along the way.

As we approached the main square in the center of the historic district the police and military presence started to vastly increase. We skirted around barriers keeping traffic out and men armed with assault weapons. Finally, we entered the main square and found a healthy crowd of people hanging out. Apparently, nearby they were signing the peace treaty between the Colombian government and the FARC. In the time it took us to figure out where to eat, the deed seemed to have been done, as the police and military dispersed without incident.

After lunch we made it to the Botero museum. Botero, apparently Colombia's most famous artist, is known for his distinctively chubby subjects. I have to admit, I got a kick out of them, though Shira was less impressed. Also at the Botero museum were a number of other works by famous painters, including Monet and Picasso. The whole experience was like taking in an art museuem in the most fun possible way.

After browsing art, it was time to get down to the real matter at hand: emerald shopping. Colombia is well known for its emeralds and the 'Emerald Trade Center' is a location in Bogota packed full of small shops all selling little chunks of green perfection. Like a walk through an art museum, Shira didn't rush the experience. Instead, we browsed every shop in the whole place at least once and finally settled on one particular piece she liked. Some store keepers in the center spoke English, but alas, the place that had the piece we liked, only spoke Spanish. Not to worry, between pointing and Google translate we got the transaction done.

When we finally settled on a price we had just one more detail to accomplish: we needed to withdraw over a million pesos from an ATM. Is such a thing even possible? We didn't know. But off we went to find out. Although it took a couple of attempts, we eventually did get the wad of cash we needed and made it back to the jewelry store. The whole experience was a positive one, and finally a non-bakery experience that Shira could get behind.

The next day we'd be leaving for Cartagena. To fully prepare, after our day of roaming the city, we plopped ourselves on the couch with our friends and watched "Romancing the Stone." I'd seen the movie years ago, and enjoyed it then. I have to say, it's held up well and was still quite watchable. Sure, the 80's action seems like little more than a Universal Studios attraction (so many bullets fired, so few people hit), but the story is still a good one.

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