I’m dreaming of a … Penguin Christmas

Some people are dreaming of a white Christmas, and I’m dreaming of penguins. Two years ago right around now we were setting off for Antarctica and the ultimate Penguinland. What impressed me the most about penguins? It’s that they have no problem diving off a cliff into the freezing ocean, that they can propel themselves back out like little torpedoes and that a friendly slap with a flipper is reciprocated with a similar friendly slap and there’re no hard feelings. (And of course, how they manage to find their nest in the penguin megapolis of South Georgia, how they give beak kisses to their spouses and steal pebbles from their neighbor is a whole different story.)

Anna Bob St Andrew's Bay








Apparently I’m not the only person in awe of these fascinating animals. UK-based John Lewis department story has scored over 20 million views of their 2014 Christmas ad featuring penguin love.


Here’re penguins heralding in Christmas in South Korea.


And this is what it looks down there in South Georgia right around now… where it’s almost Penguin Christmas time.


How I Met the Bartender

crabs in cabo san lucasWhen I saw the paddle boards tied to the top of the SUV that was supposed to transport us to the beach, I could taste breakfast again. Just one gulp of saltwater disturbs the delicate fauna of my stomach for days, and no amount of food or alcohol seems to calm it down. It’s like having a hurricane that’s always with you.

Looking at the boards, I knew I was screwed. Members of our group were smoothing on sunscreen and looked forward to the caresses of the ocean. I was thinking about pervasive nausea, skinned knees and a heatstroke.

“Do you want to go snorkeling first of paddle-boarding first?” asked our driver as we made our way to St. Mary’s Bay past the beautiful hotels of Cabo San Lucas. Watching the cacti go by, I was thinking about breakfast in bed and the pool, oh so far away.

Then I had an idea. “Can I just go snorkeling?” I asked. That part, especially in a life jacket that makes you bob like a buoy, I could deal with. “Can I just go snorkeling twice?”

Then I looked around our group, with all its shapes and sizes and virgin enthusiasm, and heard the voice of Sir Richard Branson. “Screw it. Just do it.”

On the beach, I picked out the pink board because it matched my toenails. It had indentations in vague shapes of footprints, and I stuck my feet in them to see if they were a match. They were. We were on.

The surf crushed against the shore with enough ferociousness to smack you against the sand or at least tear off your bikini. That didn’t seem to bother our muscly guide who was in charge that our little group of first-timers wouldn’t sink. We did sign a disclaimer but my Inner Pessimist was screaming,” Really?”

The guy pushed my board forward across the waves, and I tried my follow him and not get knocked over. The salt water was stinging me like an evil form of acupuncture but I figured it was working its magic on my pimples.

“One, two and go!” the macho commanded, expecting me to jump right onto the board and not tip over. I held it with both hands and just about got smacked my face as the next wave rammed us on its way to the shore.

“The trick here is to get on it and stay on it,” I thought, remembering the embarrassing surfing lesson in Hawaii when after watching in-flight commercials, I assumed that surfing was akin walking. Just look at all the people who do it. After two days of lessons, I had a rash even with a rash guard still hadn’t caught a wave.

“Ride it like you mean it,” suggested the macho. I swung my leg over the board and leaned onto my hands for balance. I was also supposed to hold the paddle while performing this, but the macho man took pity on me and waited till I was on my knees.

Getting up and using the ore as my third leg turned out doable. But then the horizon started to tilt. “Imagine you’re on a subway,” I thought. “When your train is going fast and you have nothing to hold on to, you keep your balance by shifting the weight.”

Another wave. Tilting horizon. Muscle memory kicking in. So that’s why the board had indented footprints. “Get on and stay on.”

Keeping my eyes on the horizon and not on the people diving off their boards and showing off their pushup skills, I began to wonder how I was supposed to move forward, towards the cliffs that supposedly harbored marine life. Because there’s only one paddle, the board never goes straight. Two strokes on the right – you go left. Two strokes on the left – you go right. Add the waves working against you and you’re standing still.

But the promise of marine life was too enticing. “Get a rhythm,” I began to hum, counting strokes on one side and then the other. “One, two, three… one, two, three.” Oceanic waltz.

Sweat was leaving a wet trail along my spine. My legs, constantly balancing, screamed for a break, but that meant a potential dive. No dice. I hadn’t been writing a newsletter for my yoga studio for almost two years for nothing and had to have some muscle. The gig came with free classes. Now if only I’d actually gone…

My eyes began to adjust to the glimmering surface of the ocean and as my basic needs were met, I began to wonder about the promised wildlife. In all honesty, had I been a sea turtle, I’d keep this cove with all its novice paddlers and snorkelers and jet-skiers way out of my route. Had I been an octopus, I’d probably not care because no one would be able to get to my anyway, and if they did, it would have been their fault.

Then I saw what I thought were wings, but very close to the water. They went in and out, a whole group of them. I stepped back on my board to give it speed and went to row like a New Zealand native. They were manta rays. Big. Black. Leaping out of the water and going back under. Leaving our little cove in a hurry. My treat from the ocean.

Once the rays were gone, it was time for me to head back too. Everyone else was still paddling around as I made my way toward the macho, who caught my board and invited me to come surfing with them sometime. I said, “”No thank you. A woman has to know her limitations.”

Back at the hotel, I didn’t even take off the wet swimming suite before heading to pool. Why bother, right? Floating like a giant turtle, I made my way up to the swim-up bar and ordered a Virgin Sunset (a sad thought, if you think about it, but tastes great). And that’s how I met the bartender.

lizard in cabo san lucas. marriott hacienda hotel

A Pooping Horse

Flying back from Florida, I didn’t realize that my layover was in Cincinnati. I discovered it when registering for the flight and didn’t think too hard about it until we landed. Walking up the jet way, I realized I could see my breath.

“I can see my breath!” I exclaimed to a group of strangers pulling their suitcases next to me. They looked like me like, “Where do you think you are? Florida?”

The trouble was I didn’t know much about Cincinnati or Northern Kentucky. My only association with Kentucky was Jim Beam.

The layover was an hour, and ventured into the warmth of the airport in search of coffee and fried chicken, because nothing makes you feel better about just about anything than piping hot fried chicken.

Then in the window of a souvenir store I saw a women’s sleeping t-shirt with a pink horse and handcuffs on it and a tagline “Fifty Shades of Hay.”

This was when I was seriously sorry that my phone had died.

Inside, they had masterpieces like a pair of boxers with “horsepower” across the front. T-shirts with a slouching cowboy and a responsible-looking dog on a horse and a tagline “Designated Driver.”  In the food dept., there were mint jelly and bourbon-flavored pancake mix.

I brought a glass jar of blackberry syrup to the checkout and as the lady in what looked like a sari was checking me out, she asked,

“Do you need a pooping horse?”

What do you tell a person who obviously think you’re in need of a pooping horse? I was taken aback.

To help me make an educated decision, she took a keychain with a horse from a plastic jar and squeezed the horse. A piece of brown poop made its way out. The lady let go, and the poop got sucked back in. She did that a couple of times, just to make sure I got the idea, delighted with the horse’s stellar performance.

I passed.

But was fully awake now and not in need of fried chicken anymore.

At least I didn’t come across the chocolate version of Kentucky Horse Poop.

A Day Without Sue: A Perfect Day in Chicago

It’s only fitting that a trip to Chicago would start at the Untitled, a speakeasy-inspired supper club/bar in a dark, sprawling basement complete with a formidable whiskey collection, live music, to-die-for tapas and Al Capone on the wall. Here we met Janet, a lawyer in Mad Men-style glasses, who the next morning texted me an itinerary for “Anna’s Day in Chicago.” Complete with passwords

Untitled bar chicago

John Hancock Observatory. “It takes only 39 seconds to get to the 94th floor,” said an elevator attendant here. “Will it make my ears pop?” I asked. “More than once.”  What do you do when you get to the top? You have a Nutella espresso with a view.

chicago john hancock observatory

What kept amazing me in Chicago was the crazy juxtaposition of old and new, like the Old Chicago Water Tower and the skyscrapers around it.


Or the lacy Wrigley Building against the steel and glass.

wrigley building chicago

Some heads are bigger than others. This one in front of the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art also comes with its own palette in a surreal nod to our collective imagination.

Head sculpture chicago contemporary art

The Atrium Mall also houses the government center. Here I got yelled at by the security guards for taking photos. It didn’t exactly stop me.

atrium mall chicago

A Miro sculpture across the street for the Daley Plaza. Chicago = hidden gems.

Miro sculpture chicago

Macy’s on State Street is getting ready for the Thanksgiving Day Parade.  A beautiful historic building, it used to be the flagship store for Marshall Field & Co.

macy's chicago

I had every intention of getting closer to greatness by the Monet paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago but instead, I asked a guy in a tie to take a very touristic photo by the Bean at the Millennium Park.

chicago bean

PS: Allen wants to know what I was doing in Chicago if I didn’t go to see Sue, a 40-foot-long T. Rex at the Field Museum. Not sure what to tell him.

Toilet Trouble

toiletBack when I was an interpreter, one of the most fun things about the job was that you never knew what was going to happen in the next few minutes. Your life in a constant state of flux because it’s really an extension of the lives of other people for whom you are interpreting. If they have a crisis, you have a crisis.

Like the first time I was taking a group on a bus tour and a grandma in flowery pants came up to me looking like she was going to ask me for a best place to purchase nuclear weapons.

“Excuse me, dear,” she said. “But do you happen to know where I can find a rest room?”

A rest room? Did she need to take a break? There were 55 chairs on that bus and even though they were not exactly borrowed from a Lamborghini, they were comfortable enough, at least for resting. Rest all you want, enjoy yourself. Take a nap if you wish. You’re on vacation.

“What do you mean?” I decided to clarify because the woman’s request was obviously urgent.

“Well, a powder room,” she said.

That was helpful. Now she wanted a room with powder in it. So resting by itself wasn’t enough. Did she need drugs? What drugs came in a form of powder? Cocaine? And she looked like such a nice old lady in flowery pants.

“I am sorry, but I don’t understand,” I said.

“I need a bathroom,” the woman announced. This was too much. Our tour was getting held up by a woman who kept changing her mind about her pressing needs, and I seemed to be incapable of helping her. Now she needed to take a bath in the middle of the day, take a nap and polish everything off with a little snort. Some grandma.

How was I supposed to know that the word “toilet” was offensive to her and impolite to use in good company? That’s how in Russia people refer to that sacred place of contemplation and it sounded like it should be universal. Except for it wasn’t.

In fact, it is often marked with a Russian letter ZH – ж –  which some of my American friends refer to as barb wire because it looks like it. The last thing it inspires is to think that your salvation is behind it.

Had it not been for her friend how had spotted a sign with an upside down triangular apparently symbolizing a woman in a dress – which also took some imagination to decipher – the grandma might have had to suffer even longer, and I would have gone on to become a doctor or a librarian.

The Monsters of Thailand

I am a total chicken when it comes to three things: bugs, snakes and being late. Maybe it has something to do with being a control freak and the fact that all of these things can catapult you out of your comfort zone and into the stratosphere of “horrible things that can happen,” a special haven for people with overactive imaginations and a tendency to panic.

What better place to confront your anxiety monsters than Thailand?

It all started with trusting the alarm clock on my phone. In retrospect, my phone probably was probably in some nearby time zone, maybe India. In retrospect, setting an alarm at 2 am after over 24 hours of traveling was like drunk driving. But at the time, it seemed perfectly normal that when it went off,  I got dressed and went to breakfast even though I could barely make out the skyline.

At the restaurant, a few sleepy strangers were drowning their jetlag in miso soup and coffee. As the rising sun turned the skyscrapers a warm shade of amber, I had the presence of mind to ask a waiter what time it was and discovered that it was 6.30 am. At this point, my choices were infinite coffee, an infinity pool on the 10th floor, a nap or a walk in the park.

lumpini park bangkok

An hour in the Lumphini Park in the heart of Bangkok was a gift from my time zone-challenged alarm clock. Before it got too hot, locals were practicing tai chi and yoga on its green expanses, and what looked like social clubs were gathering around picnic tables. A packed food court featured roasted ducks, little plastic bags with soup-like substances, and all sorts of fruit, including what looked like pink golf balls with green hair.

What at first I took for a log in the pond turned out to be a Monitor lizard, and then another one, and then one sitting in a tree right next to me, and one poking its head out from a water pipe. It seemed like the only two people who took notice of them was me and the guy who shot this video:

Which brings me to a question of snakes.  As our group made its way among the bungalows of a resort at Railay Beach, until recently one of the most expensive ones in Thailand, I couldn’t help but scan the tropical forest for wildlife. And there it was – green, thin and dead in a water feature.

“Oh, it’s just a viper,” informed us the director of marketing.

“Is it venomous?”

“Yes, but it’s pretty rare.”

Obviously, not rare enough. For the next hour, as we inspected luxurious accommodations for perfect honeymoons all I could think about was what snakes are not rare here, and exactly how not rare. But then we were at a beach that where it was sinful not to go in the water, and my anxiety temporarily shifted to the question of bathing without a bathing suit, which I had managed to leave at the hotel.

Bugs can take many forms. In Africa, I was so preoccupied with not getting bitten that I turned out bedroom into a gas chamber every night. Our nephew Allen did get bitten by a spider on the very last day when he walked across a lawn in his sandals without socks. Five meters of green grass was all it took. On the plane ride home, his foot began to change in shape and color, and my imagination was going into overdrive with CSI-style pictures.

Some of my most favorite bugs are bacteria that live in food and can turn your body into a microbrewery of new forms of life. Cue in Thai

ducks at lumpini park

street markets, where curries of all kinds are prepared in giant aluminum dishes, unknown meat is waiting in 95-degree heat to be roasted on skewers, and roasted ducks take the place of rotisserie chickens.

My guide Jintana asked if I wanted to try any of these goodies. I said I was happy taking photos. She offered to pay. I still said no. She began to talk to a vendor roasting bananas and bought three little rectangulars made of green banana leafs stapled at the ends. Tamales Thai style. I pretended I didn’t notice. We walked into an air-conditioned café for a cup of coffee, and she placed them in the middle of the table. I was already living through the repercussions on a 15-hour flight home. She took one and began to unwrap the leaf. Curiosity got the better of me and I followed suit to discover inside sweet, sticky, uber-delicious rice, way better than my emergency Cliffhanger power bar.

And I didn’t die. And didn’t even get sick. Not until a taco salad at LAX.

How May Day Changed My Life

novgorodWhen I was little, my only desire was to turn eight.  My grandparents had promised that when that magical day came, they would start taking me on trips with them. Until them, I got postcards from all sorts of places, making me aware at an early age that “there’s life outside your apartment.

Then a little over a month after my eight birthday, the grandparents kept their word and announced we were going to Novgorod, an ancient Russian city known for early democracy, a medieval fortress and fermented honey moonshine.

They booked a room at the most expensive hotel in town. I got a pink top, a pink hat and green corduroy pants. We were off to enjoy the May holidays, which in the Soviet Union, pretty much just as in modern Russia, take up almost half of May.

I will be lying if I said that I remember a lot about this trip. I do remember the ozone air tickling my nose right after a thunderstorm, and my amazement at how something as trivial as air could change so dramatically. I do remember medovuha, or rather, its watered down yet still delicious version served in a restaurant inside a round tower. My first restaurant.

And I remember the cruise. For a different perspective on the ancient city, the grandparents decided to go on a cruise across the Volhov River. Think serene water, thick fortress walls made of giant boulders and covered with auburn moss, and golden cupolas of churches dotting the horizons all around.

Our boat made its way to the other bank, and people began to get off. I followed suit, just to realize that my grandparents were nowhere to be seen, and most likely, were enjoying the view from the back deck. The boat began to pull away, and I was still standing on shore. Within seconds, the gap began to widen, much to my rising panic.

The conversation must have gone something like this:

Sailors: “Little girl, where are your parents?”

Me: “They are on the ship.”

“Then what are you doing still standing there?” Then Russian words that I can’t quote here.

How I got back on board I don’t remember. And the conversation with the grandparents I also don’t remember. But I do remember how for the next several years I would lay awake at night and wonder what it would be like to be left on other side of the Volhov.

Both of my grandparents are gone now, but I still think about them often. It was thanks to them that I got unconquerable wanderlust and the need to explore. It was thanks to grandma that I learned English, among other things, and it was granddad  who on long walks would always tell me stories about his adventures with his friends. And every year, in early May, I think about how lucky I am to have had them in my life.