Riverside Lodge Resort: A Veritable Oasis in Citrus County

Nestled in dense woodlands along SR 44 seven miles east of Inverness, the Riverside Lodge Resort is a veritable oasis right at the heart of Citrus County in Florida. As you enter, an odd-looking life-size statue of a man fishing while sitting on a boat atop an RV, greets you. As you drive along, small cottages and log cabins reminiscent of ski chalets in the Alps are spread across the 10-acre campground. Lush, gnarled oak and cypress trees dot the landscape.

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The exterior of our log cabin

At the entrance of the resort is a small, low-roofed log house labeled ‘Office’. It may look small on the outside but once inside you’ll find it spacious. The Office is also part of the Clubhouse, an extended relaxation area with an old, relatively small electric piano, a pool table, table tennis, exercise equipment and a mini library.

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Another exterior view

The custom-built luxury cabins at Riverside are made entirely out of logs with metal roof shingles.  Our rented 2-bedroom log cabin had a 12-foot wooden patio excellent for barbecuing or simply relaxing while watching turtles floating by at the nearby creek. The interior is even more inviting, made out of solid oak and cedar woods. Once you open the door, a very cozy living room with a sectional sleeper sofa beckons. On the wooden rack in the corner sits a small flat TV set with a DVD player and CD with stereo.

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Living Room

A wooden breakfast bar separates the living room from the fully equipped kitchen. The drawers are stocked with clean cutleries and crockeries. There is also a microwave oven, a kettle, a fridge as well as a convection oven. Opposite the kitchen is the small but roomy enough toilet and shower. There is no bathtub considering the limited space.

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Kitchen and loft

At the end of the kitchen is the main bedroom, spacious enough for a couple even with a baby. A king sized bed is at the center of the room. There is also a thin built-in vertical wall closet. Outside the main bedroom is a narrow, winding and carpeted wooden staircase, almost hidden like a secret hideaway – the attic. You would have never guessed there was one from the outside.

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View of the kitchen from the main bedroom

In the low-roofed attic is a beanbag and another small TV set. Two single sleeping bags lay on top of a thin double mattress. An excellent idea for one or two people ‘camping in’. Designed as a loft, the attic bedroom overlooks the living room. With air-conditioning, ceiling fan and free WiFi, our cabin really is a snug home away from home in Citrus County.

The main bedroom

The main bedroom

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Although the place is along the highway you could hardly hear the cars passing by. You only wake up to the chirping of birds in the morning or sleep to the chirping of crickets and the croaking of frogs, sounds of nature that make your stay a perfect bliss. Kayaking, canoeing, fishing, bird and alligator watching are just some of the outdoor activities at Riverside.

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A gazebo by the creek that has been taken over by algae

The only downside is the pair of unwashed pillow cases I found on top of the sleeping bags in the attic. I suspect the housekeeper had to rush cleaning up as she saw us coming before she could clean our cabin. We arrived two hours earlier than expected just to look around and left again to explore the surrounding area. Apart from the pillow case snafu which can easily be overlooked, we found the lodge quite comfortable and had an enjoyable stay. The owners, Karen and Hardy van Niersen, originally from Germany, were also very friendly.

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As my African friends call it, ‘brai’!

We paid $140 (cash, cheaper) for the 2-bedroom luxury log cabin with loft for a 2-night minimum stay but rates may vary. Please check with Riverside at (352) 726-2002 or toll free: 1-888-404-8332 or visit their website at www.riversidelodgeresort.com for more details.

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Picking a Life Lesson From a ‘Secret’ Rose Garden

“What’s in there?” I asked Ivan, my brother-in-law, who was driving at the time. I was referring to the rich foliage we were passing by. “Oh, that’s a garden,” Ivan replied nonchalantly. Then he added, “And oh, there’s a rose garden in there.” “Can we stop?” “Can I see it?” I quickly asked. We were on our way home driving along Park Avenue, the bustling shopping street in Winter Park, a suburban city north of Orlando. We have just left the hospital after my pregnant sister’s checkup. Sightseeing wasn’t on the agenda but upon learning there was a ‘rose garden’ hidden behind the rich foliage, all I wanted was to get out and explore. Ivan acquiesced and said, “Okay.”

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The Rose Garden in Winter Park’s Central Park

I got off right away, in case Ivan changes his mind. I crossed the West Avenue railroad tracks gingerly and walked to where the garden was. I stepped through the brick-columned trellis teeming with vines and other crawling plants, and there it was. Rows and rows of roses in different colors, shapes and sizes forming a circular pattern. I was like Alice in Wonderland, mesmerized, mouth agape. A perennial shrub, roses come in over a hundred species. The garden looked like it had at least 20 species including Romantica, Flower Carpet, Darcey Rose, Multiflora Floribunda and Eternity Red Rose. I hopped from one rose to another. Some were still bulb-like buds while others were already in full bloom.

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A Darcey Rose in full bloom

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A different kind of a rose among roses

Ivan, who followed me, smelled an Everest Double Fragrance, a soft-pink rose, and announced it had the nicest scent. I smelled it but I wasn’t convinced. I tried a Heritage Rose, also a soft-pink bloom, and decided it had the best scent. Yet my favorite was the Eternity Red Rose. I bent over one, held it closer to my nose and uttered in despair, “Why can’t the Eternity Red Rose have the best scent? Then it would have been the perfect flower.” Ivan simply chuckled.

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Eternity Red Rose

I looked around and noticed that the rose garden seemed to be just a small section of a bigger park. We didn’t know it then but we’ve actually stumbled upon the Rose Garden in Winter Park’s Central Park. Located along Park Avenue, Central Park is considered the crème de la crème of all the parks in Winter Park. Spanning across 11 acres, the park plays host to annual festivals including the Winter Park Sidewalk Art Festival and 4th of July celebrations. The Rose Garden itself is often used as a venue for weddings. We were blessed to have found it deserted when we came.

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The ‘infamous’ withering Jasmine

“Oh look, they have a Jasmine.” I didn’t notice that my brother-in-law has wandered off and discovered something else. “This is my favorite flower.” I came over and recognizing the flower, I laughed. “Really, how can that be your favorite flower?” “They’re used for funerals!” I exclaimed. “No, they’re not. It’s a popular flower in Argentina.” “My mom always used them in our home,” he said, smiling. Fearing I was being rude, I tried to stifle my laughter and told him that it always reminded me of the dead so I never liked it. As we rejoined my sister in the car later, we told her of our ‘discoveries’ and the Jasmine flower. She agreed with Ivan saying they were in fact used in both funerals and homes in the Philippines. “Oh yeah?” I thought. I don’t remember ever seeing them in homes.

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A Floribunda rose with soft-yellow turrets

I then realized what I might consider grotesque may actually be statuesque to someone else. Never laugh at someone’s seemingly odd choice even as trivial as a Jasmine flower, everyone’s entitled to his own opinion after all. All that ‘picked’ from a ‘secret’ rose garden in Winter Park, I mused.

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A brick-columned trellis canopies over the paved pathway leading to the ‘secret garden’

How to get here: From the Northeast of Orlando via Florida Turnpike, take Exit #87 to Fairbanks Avenue, turn right heading East, proceed approximately 2.5 miles to Winter Park. Turn left to Park Avenue. Entrance is free; open all day. Dogs however are not allowed.

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Central Park has a variety of flowering plants

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Exploring Historic Oakwood in Raleigh

Tucked away on the northeastern fringe of downtown Raleigh in North Carolina is a cluster of old houses dating back to the mid 1800s to the early 1900s. This neighborhood is called Historic Oakwood, aptly named not only for its old houses but gnarled oak trees lining the narrow, zigzagging streets. It was previously known as ‘Mordecai’s Grove’, named after the prominent plantation family who used to own the lands. Today at least 400 houses in Victorian, Queen Anne, Neoclassical, Neocolonial styles or the more flamboyant Mansard roof style stand proudly in the area, vestiges of North Carolina’s glory.

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Mid-Victorian Vernacular Variations architectural style

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Queen Anne Variations

Walking through Historic Oakwood is a literal walk in the past. One minute you’re in downtown Raleigh with all its skyscrapers and hums of the car engines. The next minute you’re in the shades of the densely wooded residential area with only the chirping of the birds as the sound you will hear. You’re left wondering if you’ve left North Carolina. It’s like time stood still in Oakwood. As you walk along you marvel at the different architectural styles of the houses reflecting the individual taste of the owners. Turret accents of houses in Baronial style and Queen Anne Variations and spires of Victorian tenements peek through the trees’ thick  green foliage.

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Neoclassical revival

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White paint peels off what seemed like an abandoned decaying house

Sometimes you will see ivy crawling on the walls of an abandoned house, paints peeling off tattered walls, a broken wooden fence begging for repair, or a dying lawn long left abandoned. The walk can be a bit eerie at some point. The narrow and winding streets are deserted giving the false impression the place is uninhabited if not for the parked vehicles outside the houses, or the handful of geriatric cars passing by.

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Italianate architecture

Tucker House at 418 N. Person St.

Tucker House at 418 N. Person St.

Not everything is old in Historic Oakwood though. Occasionally you will see interspersed between old houses a new Queen Anne architectural style house that makes you grimace and gape at the same time. You glower because it’s incongruous to the old appeal of the place. You also heave a gentle sigh of relief because it’s a true breather, a punctuation in what seems like an endless row of antiquated houses.

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Mid-Victorian

The North Carolina Executive Mansion peeking through the foliage

The roof of the North Carolina Executive Mansion peeking through the foliage

Along Oakwood Avenue, you will find the 102-acre resting place of the Confederate soldiers as well as Raleigh’s departed. A platform to remember the dead and an avenue to walk back in time, the Cemetery is popular among locals and visitors alike. Tours are regularly organized, check here for details. The Governor’s Mansion also known as North Carolina Executive Mansion, is a massive, red-brick, black-gated house in Queen Anne architectural style built in 1770. From outside it is truly eye-catching albeit typifies a haunted house featured in horror movies. The gigantic trees almost camouflaging the Mansion don’t contribute to the residence’s aesthetics either. The North Carolina Museum of History organizes tours of the Mansion, please check their website for details.

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The Governor’s Mansion, looks like a haunted house from outside

Historic Oakwood is only two blocks away from the North Carolina Museum of History in the center of downtown Raleigh. Should you find yourself in the neighborhood pay eclectic Oakwood a visit, it’s worth a peek. Join a tour or walk with someone but don’t go alone. Some parts are too shady you may not feel comfortable.

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Baronial style house with corbelled turret accents

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Queen Anne variations with turret accents

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Not sure if this was a (Queen Anne style) house or a church

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Corks for Cancer Festival at Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards

In July this year, I left Orlando and flew all the way to Napa Valley in California to see its world-renowned vineyards. Little did I know that Florida had its own winery, Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards. I only learned about it when I was working on the Top 15 Free Things to do in Orlando.  Thankfully on the day I decided to go, they were hosting an event ‘Corks for Cancer Festival’. I couldn’t think of a better reason for going. So off we went, me and my sister’s family from North Carolina, on Saturday 13th September 2014.

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Fermentation tanks

We were greeted by teenaged volunteers sporting a neon green vest as they directed traffic. I was surprised to see the slope fronting Lakeridge was already crawling with cars and vans. I was afraid there won’t be many people but the turnout actually looked good. We were herded off to a golf cart and dropped by the main lodge. We could have walked the few meters’ distance but the cart was a nice afterthought to keep us from getting burned in the midday sun.

Wine tasting for adults, grape juice tasting for kids

Wine tasting for adults, grape juice tasting for kids

We joined the queue for the wine tasting. As expected I was asked for my identification card. I look like a 14-year-old (worse, sometimes mistaken as a 12-year-old), you know esp. in the western world. I’m already used to it. I just smiled and teased the lady that I was already old as I handed over my passport. The first wine we tasted was called Sunblush, a concoction of Muscadine grapes mixed in a blush style. It tasted nice surprisingly, almost like a regular grape juice. Now, you must understand I’m not a drinker although I’m not totally opposed to drinking.

I’m a Christian but I don’t mind my friends drinking a glass of red or white wine occasionally. But personally I just can’t seem to tolerate the taste of wine. Despite that, I utterly love the sight of vineyards. Seeing the endless rows of trellises teeming with grapes just takes my breath away. I even dream of living in a small cottage (yup, not necessarily a massive house) surrounded by a vineyard and apple orchard. Just dreaming.

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The Lakeridge Winery Gift Shop

Mercifully, it was okay for us to jump the queues for the wine tasting. There were at least six stops for all sorts of wines but we managed to skip at least three. I wasn’t queuing for the wines anyway, I just wanted to look inside. In contrast to the wineries I visited in the Sonoma and Napa counties, the Lakeridge Winery does not use oak barrels. Instead they use gigantic steel fermentation tanks, making it easier for them to control the temperature considering the tropical summer heat of Florida. We were then directed to the gift shop selling bottles of wine and a wide array of souvenirs. After a few minutes, we were led to a room upstairs for a 15-minute video presentation of Lakeridge’s history and their wine-making process. Quite an educational and informative tool I must say.

The vineyard!

The vineyard!

Next, we were led outside for a glimpse and photo-op of the 127-acre vineyard behind the lodge. We then walked back through the gift shop to pay the $2 donation for the benefit of Moffitt Cancer Center. Mature shady oak trees provided a much needed canopy over the entertainment area. The Groovemasters band was currently performing on stage while on the right, food stalls lined the wall of the lodge. A number of arts and crafts kiosks stood on the lawn, bustling with activity. Overall, it was a well-organized charity event. I wish though they’d improve the  quality of the food being sold.

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Arts and crafts kiosks

Located in Central Florida Ridge, a thriving agricultural center, the Cox family started planting grapes on the rolling hills of Clermont in 1989. Today, Lakeridge Winery is considered Florida’s largest and offers complimentary tours lasting 45 minutes. Entrance is free and they are open every day, Monday – Saturday, 10am – 5pm and Sunday, 11am – 5pm. It is approximately 25 miles west of Orlando on Highway 50, and 30 miles north of Walt Disney World via U.S. 27. The drive takes about an hour and a half from Carrier Drive in Orlando. Lakeridge Winery hosts festivals and events  throughout the year, check here for details.

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Lakeridge Winery

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Grooving on the music under the shade

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Food stalls

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Good jazz music at a charity event makes a perfect day out

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7 Things to Consider When Applying for a US Visa

For those who require a tourist visa to enter the United States, if you’ve never applied before, you’ve probably heard how difficult it is. Difficult for some, yes, esp., if you’re a first-timer but not impossible. Consider these things when applying for a US Visa and you might just get it.

1) Fly away – You must think this is an oxymoron but if you’ve just gotten your passport, you’re single and dreaming of going to the United States, applying for a US visa may not be the best route for you. One of the factors visa officers consider is your travel history so if your passport is empty, it’s dodgy already. Being single also suggests you lack social ties. But if you can show that you’re a frequent traveller then you might just get away with it. Otherwise, hop on a plane and fly away to neighboring countries and explore. Your primary goal is to collect stamps on your passport. If you could make your way to Schengen countries, the better. Remember, the world is vast. There are many other countries that will welcome you with open arms. For Filipinos, there are at least 50 countries that do not require a visa. Check this list.

2) Stash cash – If you know you’re planning to travel sometime in the future, be sure to save enough money way in advance. Embassies like the United States require at least six months’ bank statement. Don’t try to deposit a big amount a few days before your visa appointment and plan to withdraw it afterwards. It doesn’t do the trick. Sometimes (I say sometimes not always) visa officers check bank statements thoroughly. They can easily pick out that recent big deposit you made. Even if they don’t check, why risk it? The best thing is to plan and save (at least USD 3,000 should be safe) and budget for your airfare. If you have a sponsor in the US that’s another story. Bear in mind though that having a sponsor is still no guarantee you will get a visa.

3) Papers in – Be sure to have all your papers in, anything and everything that could tie you to your home country as well as your country of residence. Car registration if any, land or house titles back home, and/or any other forms of assets. The more assets you have the more likely they’ll believe you have reason to return, the more chances of getting a visa. Boyfriends (sometimes), siblings also count as ‘social ties’ so put them on the list. 

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The White House

4) Be honest – If you have family in the US, declare it. In some cases, if a person has family in the US they think that person has a proclivity to overstay . Some people try to pre-empt this by lying in their documents. Please don’t. If the immigration office finds this out you might be banned for life. Personally, I’ve always believed that, “If God wills it, nothing and no one can stand against it.” If you get the visa, thank God. If you don’t get it, thank God anyway. It may not have been the perfect time.

5) Be clear – Be clear on your intentions. Whether it’s for business, leisure or pleasure, it must be clear why you’re going to the United States. Be transparent on how long you plan to stay. It helps if your stay is shorter, less pressure on your pocket. Unlike other embassies, the US embassy is more generous when it comes to the validity of the visa. Nowadays they normally grant a 10-year visa. This allows you be more flexible with your travel dates.

6) Book early – I know in the Philippines and the UAE, appointment dates can get snapped up pretty fast. The earlier you book the better your chances of getting your preferred time and date of appointment. You can do this at least three months in advance of your planned departure date.

7) Ooze confidence – On the day of your appointment, be sure to ooze confidence. Remember, it’s just a visa application. Whether you get it or not it’ll be just fine, unless you’re applying for emergency reasons (God forbid). The world is vast. You can always go to other places. There is a wide expanse out there, uncharted territories waiting for you to conquer.

These are just tips and ‘tricks’ when applying for a US visa. I must reiterate there are no guarantees. You may have all documents in place, have travelled in Asia and Europe, be married, have a flourishing business and yet you can still be denied. There are those who have never travelled before and have small amount of money but got a visa. The good news is, if your application is denied, you can always try again. Some get theirs after four attempts. You can also refute the embassy’s decision but it can be a lengthy battle. Re-applying can be heavy on the pocket I know. But if you really want to go, give it a go. If you do get a visa, please don’t let it expire or travel a year later. It can pose problems for you later.

For more info on documents required and other factors to consider, please check here. Should you have further questions, please feel free to email me. I’ll be happy to answer if I can. Or if you have anything to add, please do share your thoughts. Here’s to getting your US visa and exploring the land of the free.

Photo above: The imposing US Capitol

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Top 15 Free Things to do in Orlando

Aptly called the world’s amusement park, Orlando has an extensive list of must-sees and must-dos. From adrenaline-pumping zip line ride with 120 gators looking from below to a relaxing kayak down winding rivers, you can never run out of things to do in Orlando. And if you’re looking for activities that will cost you little or nothing, here are some (among many) options for you.

1Harry P. Leu Gardens – Enjoy 50 acres of breathtaking flora in this garden. Free entry from 9am – 5pm on the first Monday of every month.

2Kraft Azalea Gardens – Tucked away in Winter Park, along the banks of Lake Maitland earning the moniker Central Florida’s ‘secret garden’. Free entry and open every day, from 8am till dusk.

The Rose Garden in Winter Park's Central Park

The Rose Garden in Winter Park’s Central Park

3) Winter Park’s Central Park – Located on S Park Avenue. Visit the rose garden and lose yourself in the heavenly scents. Or simply relax under the oak tree canopies or unwind by the fountains.

4University of Central Florida’s Arboretum – Offers self-guided tour of the more than 600 plant species in the 80-acre conservatory.

5Lakeridge Winery & Vineyards – spanning 80 acres of awe-inspiring scenery offering free tours, tastings and festivals. Located 25 miles west of Orlando.

6) Black Hammock Adventures – Come here for free live alligator and bird displays. Listen to free live music to boot on Fridays and Saturdays at the Lazy Gator Bar.

At Universal CityWalk

At Universal CityWalk

7) Universal CityWalk – Don’t want to pay the Universal Studios’s USD 186 park-to-park exorbitant admission fee but still want to enjoy the park’s ambience? Visit the Universal CityWalk instead. It’s like you’re already inside the park with an array of restaurants, you can also watch live concerts for free. Depending on when and what time of the day you’re going, be prepared for the throng of people squeezing their way in or out of the park.

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Sunset in Disney

8) Downtown Disney – Go to Disney’s Pleasure Island, a one stop shop for dining, shopping and entertaining. Don’t miss the Ghirardelli ice cream, it’s so popular people line up for a scoop of their favorite flavor. Oh, I forgot this was meant to be a list of free things to do. Just in case you wanted to treat yourself, starts at USD 5. Kids will have the time of their lives at the 4,400-square feet of delight at the LEGO Imagination Center in Disney Marketplace. Watch live street entertainment including talented musicians in the evenings at Disney’s Boardwalk.

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Ghirardelli ice cream, tastes just like any ice cream. 😉 Ssssshhhh.

9) CityArts Factory – It is a collection of art galleries located in downtown Orlando featuring local and international artists. Free entry from Tuesday – Saturday, from 11am to 6pm.

10) Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art – This museum boasts an impressive collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s works. It is open for free on Fridays between 4pm – 8pm, from November until April.

11) Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida – Remember the Holocaust and be reminded to never forget what happened to the six million Jews who perished. Educational events and seminars are also hosted at the Center, donations are accepted.

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12) Winter Park Historical Museum – Features a photography timeline of Winter Park’s history with themed exhibits.

13) FleaWorld – America’s largest flea market with more than 1,700 vendors. It features acrobatic shows, circus and other forms of entertainment.

A bronze bust of Philippines’s National Hero, Jose Rizal, stands guard over Lake Eola Park

A bronze bust of Philippines’s National Hero, Jose Rizal, stands guard over Lake Eola Park

14) Explore Downtown Orlando – What’s a better way of getting to know a city than by walking down its main streets? Marvel at how clean and green the city of Orlando is and see for yourself why it is America’s most visited city today.

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15) Ride a bike – Assuming you have a bike or can borrow a bike, there are a number of comfortable bike lanes in Orlando. If you’re in the busy I-Drive area, from Wet n’ Wild, follow the Universal Blvd going towards the Orange County Convention Center. Bike past the Convention Center and turn right at Destination Parkway. Turn right behind the big houses and you’ll discover a lovely bike and jogging trail lining a placid swamp. Use this site to map a suitable route for you. Alternatively, refer to this site.

Featured image on top: Lake Eola Park in the foreground, Downtown Orlando in the background

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Volunteering in Nepal: A Journey Worth Taking

My fascination over Nepal started when I stumbled upon Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air” around six years ago. The book was a personal account of their treacherous climb to Mount Everest. Like Krakauer I wondered what possibly lured men to Mount Everest. Why would a man leave his family and those he loves just to conquer the ‘snow-capped beast’? Since then I’ve always wanted to see Mount Everest myself. I knew I would go someday as a volunteer in Nepal. My plan was to ‘conquer’ Asia and Nepal much later, maybe ten years later. But God had a different plan altogether.

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A special Christmas in Nepal

Thoughts of Nepal started to fill my mind in May, 2012. I had no intentions of going so I wondered where it was coming from. I tried to dismiss it until October but to no avail. Come November I was already sold out that it was God telling me to go. The main challenge was, I didn’t know anyone in Nepal. I planned to volunteer at an orphanage and spend Christmas with orphans in Kathmandu. I made a few enquiries but not one of the orphanages I contacted, replied. I found it strange. Nepal had thousands of orphanages, brought about by the civil war between 1996 to 2006. The war left thousands of orphans and displaced families. Orphanages mushroomed and so did charlatans and unscrupulous individuals. Finding a legitimate orphanage proved difficult. By the first week of December I was already desperate. Thankfully God did lead me to the Iris Nepal Children’s Home in Kolkanah.

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Kolkanah Village

Fast forward to my arrival in Kathmandu. Turned out there were 20+ Christian missionaries from all over the world who have just arrived from a missions-oriented training in Pemba, Mozambique. They were also temporarily housed at my generous hosts’ home. Meeting them really strengthened me spiritually and I felt that I really made the right decision in coming. It seemed I was in the right place at the right time. Still I longed to see the children God was seemingly eager for me to meet. I wondered what was so special about them that it couldn’t wait four or maybe five more years. Two days later I found myself crammed inside an old, rickety 7-seater van packed with at least 15 people en route to the children’s home. We could hardly breathe but we belted out Christian songs as the van rolled up and down the steep hills and the winding, narrow streets of Kathmandu.

After a bumpy half-hour drive, we stopped at the bottom of an uphill tapered street. I looked around and saw a bucolic village, small, narrow houses bordered by a lush mountain on the left and empty rice terraces at the front. Soon we were outside a three-story narrow house. Five round-faced and rosy-cheeked Nepalese children peered down at us from the balcony on the third floor. We finally reached our destination.

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Excitingly unwrapping the gifts

It was a home for 24 orphans aged 1-14, mostly from Nepal and a handful from India. The home had very basic furnishing – a small TV set covered with an off-white plain cloth was the only appliance in the living room. Thinly padded wood on the floor served as a sitting area. My temporary bedroom was also sparsely decorated but clean with one queen-sized bed in the corner. On the floor on the other side  was a stack of sleeping bags. Opposite my bedroom was the washroom with no shower and had intermittent supply of running water.

Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, crippled by corruption and dysfunctional bureaucracy. Despite its hydropower potential the country has no robust power supply infrastructure and produces only half its electricity needs. Load-shedding (illegal connections) means homes experience power cuts for 12-14 hours daily. Power distribution is announced but sadly, even the scheduled time is never reliable so you could be left waiting for hours for nothing. Worse, you might have to take a shower with freezing cold water during winter.

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How deep the Father’s love for us

Next to the washroom was the children’s surrogate parents’ bedroom. The two higher levels served as sleeping quarters for the children and the two ladies helping at the home. Boys and girls had separate quarters for obvious reasons. The children slept on bunk beds and were trained at an early age to keep their areas clean. The rooms were surprisingly in order. On the roof deck was the kitchen with massive pots and pans stacked in wooden shelves. Outside the kitchen sat a rustic BBQ grill, which also served as a makeshift fire pit during the cold winter nights. I knew I would put the grill to good use for the children later.

Our Christmas celebration that night turned out to be quite simple yet meaningful. Beaming children carefully unwrapped their presents amid young multinational missionaries and the Iris Nepal staff. The children sang, danced, played instruments and performed plays, clearly demonstrating their artistic talents. The celebration was sometimes interrupted by power cuts that lasted only minutes. We were prepared and had torches ready but we constantly prayed that the electricity would come back and it always did within minutes. We shared a simple meal of goat meat, Nepalese potato, tomato and pea curry. As the night waned, the guests eventually bid their goodbyes one by one.

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Bucolic Kolkanah

Sleeping that evening proved challenging. December is the beginning of winter in Nepal, the temperature can drop to 8°C (46°F) during the day. While at night it can be quite chilly dropping to almost freezing temperature. I realized I wasn’t prepared for the weather. Alone in the room, cold and shivering in a strange land, miles away from my adopted home of Dubai, I couldn’t help feeling a little despondent. All I could do was pray. I tossed and turned in bed that night. My furry coat and woolen blanket did little to keep me warm. I wished I could move to a hotel but I told myself I will stick it out. I was not going to leave until I saw what God wanted me to see at the orphanage.

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So disciplined they automatically prepared their homework upon reaching the home

The following morning was a holiday for the children so I finally had the chance to engage them individually. Turned out hardly any of them spoke English and I had to rely on the 6-year-old Abishek to translate. It was fun albeit frustrating at times as I so wanted to understand what they were saying. They were very friendly, very polite, very respectful, and they called me Maricel Auntie. The next two days left me dazed. The children automatically opened their homework once back from school. And when the light went out they quickly switched to using torches. There were no complaints, no whining. They simply continued working on their papers as if nothing happened and it was the most natural thing to do. I was impressed.

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BBQ night and worship afterwards, how I miss these nights

Spending time with the children, helping them with their homework, identifying with their lifestyle (if my little attempts counted) were an encouragement and an eye-opener at the same time. I realized they had little but they had everything, they didn’t have much but they were very rich in love, the Father’s love. They were always smiling and always happy. They were genuinely appreciative of every little thing I gave. They reminded me that I should have the faith of a child, always trusting, always believing, always hoping, always thankful. I left on my fourth day at the orphanage knowing everyone in the home impacted my life more than I impacted theirs. Volunteering in Nepal was truly a life-changing experience. The memories from this journey will surely last me a lifetime. I knew I will go back and I did.

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Applying for a Visa on Arrival in Nepal

So you’ve been dreaming of seeing the majestic Mount Everest and been wondering what it is like. Or maybe you’ve been longing to go somewhere exotic, far from the madding crowd but somewhere that will not burn a hole in your pocket. Well, Nepal is just one of the many places you might want to visit. But before you go, here are some of the things you might want to consider when applying for a visa on arrival in Nepal.

All nationalities except Indians require a visa to enter Nepal. Standard multiple entry visas are issued at the Kathmandu Tribhuvan International Airport. You can also apply at the borders in Kakadvitta, Birgunj, Bhairahawa, Nepalgunj, Gaddachowki on Nepal-India border and Kodari on Nepal-China border. Visas are valid from three to six months depending on the length of your stay but the shortest is for 15 days. If you have free time, you can always get your visa at the embassy/diplomatic office nearest you.

Visa Application Form – Some airlines provide the visa application form right on the flight. If not there are plenty of forms available in the airport, at the arrivals hall right before you go through customs/passport control.

USD 25 cash (exact if possible) – You must have USD 25 cash with you for the 15-day visa application, USD 40 for 30 days and USD 100 for 90 days. You can pay in Euro, Swiss Franc, Pound Sterling, US Dollar, Australian Dollar, Canadian Dollar, Hong Kong Dollar, Singapore Dollar and Japanese Yen. Please note that credit card, Indian Rupee and Nepalese Rupee will not be accepted. So save your Nepalese Rupee for when you’re inside the country.

Return airfare – You must have a return ticket stating clearly your return date. They do not ask to see this but you’ll have to state your return date on the visa application form. Make sure you book your return flight before you arrive at the airport.

Hotel booking – Although they never ask to see your hotel booking, if you’re not staying with a friend in Nepal, you must have an address of where you plan to stay. This will also be required on the visa application form.

Pocket money – The visa application form requires you to state how much money you have as pocket money for your visit to Nepal. I recommend you state at least USD 500. Depending on your planned activities, where you will be staying and where you plan to eat, you may or many not spend USD 500. Nepal is relatively cheap compared to other Asian countries. You can easily get by at less than USD 50 per day.

Passport with at least six months’ validity – Like any country, Nepal requires that its visitors should have a passport with at least six months’ validity. Be sure you renew your passport way in advance if you know it’s expiring before your planned trip. Or delay your trip up until you have renewed your passport. Sadly some people do travel without checking their passports’ validity. Worse, some do not even look for their passports up until their departure date only to realize it’s missing.

Passport photograph – Be sure to have a spare passport photo with you on arrival. There is a photo booth at the Kathmandu Tribhuvan International Airport but the queue could be long and will hold you up unnecessarily. They’re not very strict about photos except that it has to be a professional one for obvious reasons and has a light background.

Your adventurous self – Nepal is almost synonymous with adventure so be prepared to have a blast whether things pan out the way you expect it or not. Have fun and I hope everything works out fine when you’re applying for a visa on arrival in Nepal!

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A heart-stopping sight.

 

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Explore the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland

Stand in the footsteps of giants

Located in the North coast of Northern Ireland in County Antrim, about two miles north of Bushmills and 13 miles from Balllycastle, is the Giant’s Causeway, a striking landscape of basalt columns, whose origin is steeped in myth and legend. When exploring the Giant’s Causeway, before turning towards this magnificent landscape, a sign says, ‘An area of natural outstanding beauty’. True enough, as you walk down the path, the glimmering azure waters of the Irish sea on the left and the towering lush mountain that juts out into the sea on the right cannot fail to take your breath away. It is no surprise then that the 71-acre attraction is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Walkway to the Giant's Causeway

Walkway to the Causeway

The Giant’s Causeway was first discovered by the Bishop of Derry in 1692 although it was Sir Richard Bulkeley who reported to the Royal Society about the natural occurrence on Antrim’s northern coast. The Giant’s Causeway was then documented the following year. Soon after debates on its origin arose – whether it was a natural formation, formed by men or shaped by Finn McCool, a giant well known in Irish and Manx folklore. Perpetuated mostly by tour guides, legend has it that it was carved out by the mighty giant Finn McCool. But one popular version goes that as Finn was preparing a pathway in the sea towards Scotland to avoid getting his feet wet, he was told that the giant Cuhullin (another Irish hero) was on his way to fight him.

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Standing in the footsteps of a giant

Realizing that he cannot beat Cuhullin, Finn connived with his wife Oona who dressed Finn as a baby and put him in a cradle. When Cuhullin arrived Oona tricked him into eating a griddle-cake with iron in it which chipped Cuhullin’s teeth. But when Oona showed Cuhullin that her baby (Finn in disguise) ate the griddle-cake without any problem, Cuhullin tried to feel Finn’s teeth to see how sharp they were. The cunning giant Finn saw his opportunity and quickly bit off Cuhullin’s little finger, stripping him of his power. Cuhullin then shrank to the size of an ordinary human and scampered in shame.

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Flat-topped mountain jutting out into the sea add to the breathtaking scenery

Another story goes that the Scottish giant Benandonner challenged Finn to a fight. When Benandonner came and saw the baby (Finn in disguise) in the cradle, he feared the baby’s father must be gigantic. He then fled, went back to Scotland and pulled down the causeway behind him so Finn could not follow. Similar basalt columns can be found on the rock islet shaped like a pyramid called ‘The Herdsman’ just off the Isle of Staffa in Scotland.

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Massive basalt columns

A more scientific theory is that the Giant’s Causeway was caused by a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago. The formation of the polygonal columns of layered basalt was due to intense volcanic activity that lasted for at least three periods resulting to the Lower, Middle and Upper Basalts.

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Towering polygonal basalt pillars

Today the area is maintained by the National Trust. A state-of-the-art Visitor Centre reflecting the Giant’s Causeway’s stone pillars offers keepsakes and insights into the history of the area. Whether guests believe the Giant’s Causeway was formed by men, by nature, by giants or by God is entirely up to them. But the 40,000 basalt columns and the 71 acres of outstanding natural beauty should be enough to convince anyone that the Giant’s Causeway is undoubtedly a reflection of God’s glory. The Giant’s Causeway is definitely worth exploring. It deserves not just one visit but even a hundred and you’ll never get tired of it.

Vistior Centre reflecting the basalt columns

The Visitors’ Centre reflecting Giant’s Causeway basalt columns

Operating hours: Open throughout the year from 9:30am, timings may change so please check before going

Admission fee: Online discounted tickets are: Adult GBP 7.50, Child GBP .50, Family GBP 18.50

How to get there: Traveling by car is by far the best way. Follow the B147 Causeway Road and soak in the scenery – narrow winding roads, cottage style houses, courtyard gardens, mazes of dry stone walls, rolling green hills, cattle grazing contentedly, white-knuckle cliffs, impressive rock formations and so much more. The Causeway is only two miles away from Bushmills village on County Antrim’s North Coast, 11 miles from Coleraine in County Londonderry and 13 miles from Ballycastle, a small town in County Antrim.

Public bus options are: Ulsterbus Service 172, Goldline Service 221, Causeway Rambler Service 402, Open Top Causeway Coast Service 177, Antrim Coaster Service 252. There’s even an incentive if you travel by bus – you’ll receive a ‘green discount’ at the Centre on arrival.

 

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Formed by God or built by giants?

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How to explore Washington DC for free

If you’re short on cash but have plenty of time and wouldn’t mind ogling magnificent works of art and digging into the long forgotten past of America, well, here are just some of the things you can do to explore Washington DC for free (and almost free) in the city.

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The World War Memorial, Reflecting Pool and Abraham Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial – America’s 16th President, Abraham Lincoln or ‘Abe’ is the man behind the abolition of slavery in America. You probably knew that already. Standing 19 feet high and weighing 175 tons the statue captures Abe in contemplation while overlooking the Reflecting Pool and Washington Monument. The memorial is visited by millions annually and has seen many large gatherings including Martin Luther King Jr’s famous speech “I Have A Dream” in 1963. Located on the West end of the National Mall, start your exploration here and meet the man who made America finally live up to its name ‘land of the free’. Open 24 hours a day.

Vietnam War Veterans Memorial – On the left hand side of the Lincoln Memorial, is the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial, only a few steps away. Honoring the men and women who served in the Vietnam War, the wall lists the names of more than 58,000 Americans who gave their lives in service to their country. Open 24 hours a day.

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The Reflecting Pool

Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool – From the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial, walk down the Reflecting Pool, the largest in Washington DC. Approximately ,029 feet (618 m) long (over a third of a mile) and 167 feet (51 m) wide, it is lined with trees on both sides and is a great place to relax and unwind. The area is also perfect for jogging. Open 24 hours a day.

World War II Memorial – Opened in 2004, the memorial honors the 16 million who served in the armed forces of America and the more than 400,000 who perished. It also honors those who supported the war efforts locally. Open 24 hours a day.

Museums galore – Sometimes visiting museums can get pretty overwhelming especially if choices abound and they’re so spread out. Not in Washington DC. Big thanks to The Smithsonian Institution, most museums in the capital are concentrated in the National Mall (not a shopping mall). Guided tours are available so make sure to ask at the information desk. Here is the list of museums:

Smithsonian Castle, open from 8:30 am – :30 pm

African Art Museum, open from 10 am – :30 pm

Air and Space Museum, open from 10 am – :30 pm

Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center, open from 10 am – :30 pm

American Art Museum, open from 11:30 am – 7 p m

American History Museum, open from 10 am – :30 pm

American Indian Museum, open from 10 am – :30 pm

Anacostia Community Museum, open from 10 am – pm

Freer Gallery of Art, open from 10 am – :30 pm

Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, open from 10 am – :30 pm

National Zoo, April–October open from 10 am – 6 pm; November–March open from 10 am – :30 pm

Natural History Museum, open from 10 am – :30 pm

Portrait Gallery, open from 11:30 am – 7 pm

Postal Museum, open from 10 am – :30 pm

Renwick Gallery (currently closed for renovation but look out for re-opening date)

Ripley Center International Gallery, open from 10 am – :30 pm

Sackler Gallery, open from 10 am – :30 pm

United States Botanic Gardens – Has three sections – The Conservatory (open from 10am to pm daily, including weekends and holidays), The National Garden (open from 10 am to 7 pm daily, including weekends and holidays) and Bartholdi Park (open from dawn to dusk daily, including weekends and holidays)

United States Capitol – Open for visits from 8:30 am to :30 pm Monday – Saturday except public holidays. Walking tours are available from 8:50 am to :20 pm but must be booked in advance. Click here for more details. Food and drinks are not allowed (not even a plastic bottle of water) but there is a nice cafeteria in the basement with a good selection (range from USD 7 – USD 10). Foreigners can easily access the House and Senate Galleries by requesting for a pass at the counters once inside. US citizens must channel the request through their respective Members of Congress. Photography is allowed except at the Galleries.

White House – Although self-guided tours of the White House are available from 7:30am – 11:30am, tour requests must be done through one’s Members of Congress (if US citizen) or one’s embassy in Washington DC if a foreigner. I satisfied myself with a ‘tour’ of the White House from outside like almost everybody. The White House is also walking distance from the US Capitol and/or the Washington Monument.

The Washington Monument – Admission is free but you have to join a (long) queue at the The Washington Monument Lodge along 15th Street. Free ticket is for the same day and timed. Otherwise book online for a meager fee of USD1.50.  Book as soon as you can as availability is limited. You can go up to the observation deck 500 feet above the ground and enjoy the sweeping view.

These attractions are all walking distance from each other. The National Archives requires a bit of walking but is also worth a peek. It is located at Constitution Ave. NW (between 7th and 9th St.). Here you will see the original Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, The Constitution and the Magna Carta. Admission is also free, open from 10am – :30 pm. If you still have time visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, open every day except Yom Kippur (October ) and Christmas Day (December 25), from 10 am – :20 pm (timings vary). Between March and August, timed passes are compulsory and this can be booked here for only USD1.

Getting around

Bike rentals are available for only USD 7 for the whole day. A deposit of 100 USD will be charged on your credit card. There are numerous docking stations throughout DC and Arlington.

Metrobus lines pass by the Smithsonian Museums. You can use the Metro’s Services Nearby tool to find the best bus route to any museum. Use Metro’s Next Train arrival tool to save time.

I explored for at least three days and it wasn’t enough. To really enjoy Washington DC for free, allot at least 7 days to make the most of your stay. Enjoy.

Photo above: World War II Memorial

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