Monday, 6 January 2014

New Site!

I moved my blog over to:
Check it out! There should be some new updates after January 30, 2014 with my trip to Turkey.  I plan to see Adana, Cappadocia, hot springs, Izmir, Ephesus and of course, Istanbul with Orhan, my Turkish friend and personalized travel agent!

You can also check out my contributed posts to Epicure & Culture:
Going local at the South's Only Organic DistilleryCambodia Beyond Ankor Wat: Ton Le Sap's Floating CommunityLaMothe's Sugar House: A Family Owned Business Bringing Artisan Maple Products to New EnglandTop Holiday Hotel Packages in the U.S.Sipping more than just wine: Supporting Sustainable Farms and Local BusinessesIndonesian Coffee Culture: Drinking Cat-poo-chino in Bali

Friday, 3 January 2014

What I learned from 13 countries and 11 states in 2013

What a year for travel!  Pretty unbelievable- especially considering that I maintained full-time doctoral student status and worked another job during the year.  In wrapping up the Europe trip and starting a new year, I thought I’d reflect on what I’ve learned from 13 countries (Brazil, India, Thailand, (Laos), Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Spain, Portugal and US) and 10 states (NC, TN, CT, MD, DC, VA, MA, CA, OR, WA, NY) in 2013.  All this travel makes me realize how little I actually know but my globe trotting has taught me a few things: (Warning: this post is long. You have my enthusiastic permission to read it over multiple occasions!)
11. Technology makes traveling easy!
There’s no way I would have been able to pull off a transatlantic trip with two days of planning 10 years ago.  Being able to research/ book flights, accommodations and other activities online makes it easy and quick to do yourself.  Exchanging money used to be a pain but ATMs solve that problem. Even if reading maps is a struggle, following the blue dot on my ipad has helped me navigate out of unchartered territory countless times.
22. Travel light
Especially if you’re city hopping, it doesn’t make sense to be dragged down by large luggage with failing wheels.  A hand towel can sufficiently dry you off.  Braids tame wildabeast hair better than straighteners and anti-frizz products.  I brought 5 outfits to Spain and I’m wearing the same cheap scarf, blue coat and clown boots in every picture.  Who are you trying to impress anyway?  I lugged around a sizeable first aid kit in Spain but the only medicine I needed (for my cold), wasn’t there.  I know I complained about not having my laptop, but I survived. In civilized countries, you can usually get what you need when you need it.  And if you don’t need it, don’t bring it.  Your feet, your back and your hosts will thank you!
Not much room for luggage on one of these things!
33. Keep an eye out for opportunities
People are always amazed how much I’ve been able to travel when a graduate student salary barely keeps you above the poverty line.  I’m lucky that specializing in science and science education, opportunities for fellowships and travel grants exist but I’m convinced that with some searching, you can find ways to fund yourself too.  When airline companies overbook planes, volunteer to postpone your trip a few hours and you’ll get a free flight somewhere else.  There are countless blogs about ways to travel cheap/for free- when there’s a will, there’s a way!
44.  Doing your job is the easiest part of working in another country
That being said, be prepared since getting things done in foreign countries can be a challenge.  Undergoing research projects in Brazil, Singapore and India and teaching in India has revealed what may be written in your job description (collecting data, educating/assessing students) is the easy part.  Getting used to how another country works (and having your salary depend on it), is much more difficult, especially since they don’t write instruction manuals for this type of thing.  Who would have guessed that cooties are still a very serious issue for Indian 7th graders?  That staircases in Singapore lock behind you, causing you to miss meetings as you hunt down a way to bust out?   That a working voice recorder with batteries is essentially too much to ask for in India?  If you are making presentations abroad, have some one from that culture preview it- when I was invited to speak at the “Republic of China” physics conference, I almost used statistics from the “People’s Republic of China” which would have made me look like an ignorant American, assuming Taiwan and China were equivalent.  I already looked a little ridiculous, bragging about how 66% of American students go to college right after high school, when nearly 100% of their population gets a college education right after secondary school.
Some of my class in India- boys in front, girls in back
55. Don’t be afraid to travel alone
Yes traveling alone can be scary, inconvenient (having my huge backpack follow me everywhere I go drives me nuts, especially in dirty bathrooms) and sometimes more expensive.  More than half my international travel has been mostly independent and it’s incredibly liberating to do what you want, when you want to do it.  More important than that flexibility, traveling alone allows you to more fully immerse yourself in a culture.  Without worrying about engaging someone in conversation, you can people-watch without distraction, food-gasm without interruption over your Portuguese pastry and generally, makes you more fully engaged in the present.  When you have to figure out what you are doing, you notice things, strike up conversations that you won’t otherwise and more easily take advantage of opportunities that arise.
66. But then again, you’re never alone
Almost everywhere I’ve gone, people have gone out of their way to help.  Yes, I’ve used couchsurfing to broadcast my pleas for advice and assistance, “Hey! I’m here! I have no idea where to go, what to see or how to order a coffee in this crazy place”.  Typically, way more people want to meet up than I have time to accommodate.  But even strangers in the metro who miss their train to point you in the right direction, people who exercise broken English to make you feel comfortable and unfathomably generous people who welcome you into their homes to share food or their families with you.  I remember spending Chinese New Year with Professor Pao’s family, eating a chaotic Sunday dinner in Brasilia with two dozen members of Henrique’s family, learning to make dumplings in Singapore with the random lady who asked directions to the train station.
I found a second set of parents when I traveled to Brazil- I still talk to Reva almost weekly!
77.  Pre-planned travel buddies are also amazing
Although there are advantages to traveling alone and it’s nice to make new friends around the globe but sharing special moments with long-time loved ones is really special.  This past summer, I went on a West Coast road trip with two of my best friends from college and its nice to have people who know you and love you so you don’t have to be Miss America Posterchild 24/7.  You indulge the history buff at the American History Museum and they let you go to the Fortune Cookie Factory in San Francisco Chinatown.
88. Transplants make excellent tour guides
Always say yes when locals offer to show you around but I’ve found that people who move to a city later in life do an even better job.  When you are born and raised in a certain place, there’s a lot you don’t notice and you take for granted.  Transplants are often more likely to seek out cool places and better articulate interesting facts about a city.  I know even with myself, it’s easier to show people around Raleigh than my hometown because you are more attuned to what may be cool or different about a certain place.
99.  Make your country proud
For a surprising fraction of the people I’ve met abroad, I’m the only American they’ve ever met.  It’s partially because Americans don’t really travel as much as Europeans or Australians who have vacation time that better accommodate big trips and there’s also plenty to explore within our country without having to go through customs.  However, its important to recognize that many people (at least young-ish ones) from other countries see our movies, listen to our music and the common consensus seems to be that life in the United States is like American Pie.  Crazy college parties, lots of sex and generally speaking, anything goes.  I find the image of America that makes it overseas pretty embarrassing- McDonalds, gossip columns broadcasting the drug and marriage problems our celebrities and a consuming materialism.  I try to represent the best of what America should be- an open-mindedness to diversity, welcoming different ways to do things and a belief in equality and freedom of opinion.  I’m hoping to help people realize there’s more to America than Big Macs.
110.  Travel karma is serious stuff
What goes around, comes around.  The world is smaller than you think and being hospitable and generous now will probably benefit you later on.  As a non-profit, Couchsurfing basically operates on this principle and hosting people in Raleigh has already opened a lot of doors for me.  I hosted a Turkish guy for four back in September and now I’ve got a place to stay, travel agent and tour guide for ten days in Turkey later this month.  Some girls watched my bags at the JFK airport, we got reunited in Madrid and I invited them along on a free trip to Toledo with another couchsurfer.  This isn’t limited to couchsurfing- I photographed some Brits riding elephants and Thailand and now I’ve got free places to stay in London. 
Discovering new fun places near Raleigh with Orhan who I'll be visiting in Turkey

111. Collect memories
      I’m not a materialistic person and usually the only souvenirs I buy abroad are postcards and maybe something for the person watching my hedgehog or my ride to the airport.  Nothing with a price tag could possibly compare to the experiences I’ve had abroad.  But with all collections, it’s important to be able to share and showcase what you’re passionate about.  It takes effort for me to disconnect from a moment and pull out my camera to capture it, but I’m infinitely grateful to have it recorded later on.  Blogging is important to me for the same reason.  With action-packed trips, bouncing between cities on little sleep and typically little time to process what’s happening, it’s easy to forgot amazing things so document it somehow.
112. Enjoy the journey
When planning the West Coast road trip previously mentioned, one of the first versions of the itinerary had us making the 11-hour drive from San Francisco to Portland overnight.  Sometimes we’re so focused on getting from point A to point B that we forget to savor the in between.  The cities were neat but my favorite parts of that trip were watching the fog-filled hills of San Francisco, twist into a coastal drive over powerful Pacific waves, evolve into wine country with gnarled grape vines and making us feel miniscule in the majestic forest of the giant redwoods.  Planes are nice to get us places quickly but sometimes its worth a bus drive to see what life looks like in “more ordinary” areas of a country.
Shannon and I inside a Redwood- hardly ordinary but still a notable stop on the way to Portland
113. There’s a whole world outside your front door
Obviously, I’m a huge advocate of traveling but I’m also convinced that you don’t need to travel far for international experiences and you should thoroughly explore your own neighborhood.  Hosting people from other countries and writing for Epicure and Culture has encouraged me to find neat places and give me a new perspective on things that seem ordinary to me.  I’ll never forget how the Brits’ sole request for visiting Raleigh was a trip to Walmart- watching them roam the aisles felt like witness a baby’s first Christmas.  In addition to enjoying your own culture, if you look, there’s usually communities of people from other places that can’t wait to share their heritage with you.  Tonight, I’m getting a gourmet cooking lesson from an Italian in my yoga class.  The Turkish cultural center hosts free Sunday potluck brunches where you can stuff your belly full of deliciousness while learning something new from the guest speaker.  Going dancing at Columbian night at Carmine’s is a different universe- no conception of personal space and not an ounce of English to be found.  Even walking through my apartment complex, you find yourself in a cloud of curry, surrounded by people speaking Hindi where complete strangers are willing to teach you how to put on saris, for you when are appointed “the sari guide” at Desi housewarming gatherings.
Sari guide success!  Thanks to some last minute lessons from my Indian neighbors

Monday, 30 December 2013

Grand finale Lisbon: cherry liqueur, coconut bread, port wine, people watching

Wow it feels like the past two weeks flew by in the blink of an eye!  I'm already in Madrid, preparing for the second of three flights home.  Goncalo #2 met me in downtown yesterday after lunch to make the most of my last day in Europe.  Goncalo is my age, trained in advertising/marketing and has done a bunch of traveling through Europe, sometimes euro-exchange programs, (for example, helping scouts in Poland for a month)  opportunities that made me jealous.  It's so easy and cheap to move between these countries and the geographically disadvantaged US has along way to go before it can successfully promote this degree of cultural interchange.  Goncalo also has volunteered at the Lisbon zoo for the past 6 years and his eyes would lit up when he talks about the tricks the vultures and macaus can do at the presentations he used to make.  As a born and raised Lisbonite, Goncalo didn't waste any time immersing me in veggie-friendly experiences of his stomping ground.  We started at a teensy booth behind the hustling bustling street of shops.  I would have never thought to hide the original location of Lisbon's famous cherry liqueur here!  But this is where you can get the beverage fresh from the tap, poured over a vase of cherries then poured in a shot glass to be enjoyed with a smile and "salud"!
Lisbon's famous cherry liquor
From there, he navigated me to the entrance of the Castillo de st. Jorge.  After getting lost in the snaking streets yesterday, Aga and I gave up when we appeared at the backside of the massive complex and heard entry would require circumventing 3/4 of the building with a slightly challenging route.  I was glad to return with an expert, especially since Goncalo loved to share the history and wander the town built within the city walls.  Speaking of history, one of the places he took me to was the church of Carmelo, which was one of the few buildings to survive a 9 scale hurricane in the 1700s. Next door was where the dictator was taken during the peaceful overthrow of the dictator in 1970s.  We tried to find a postcard depicting the famous scene with children stuffing carnations into soldiers guns because the transition was so peaceful that only two people were killed, mostly because of a silly skirmish.  We stopped for roasted chestnuts as we walked to a paneria portuguesa to try this fluffy, slightly sweet, sunrise-colored coconut bread (which they like to serve with ham and cheese).  He took me to several overlooks, around 5, we went to a place filled with teens and young adults gathered with beers, musical instruments and their friends to watch the sun sink behind the "San Francisco bridge", with light reflecting off the Tagus river.
Goncalo #2 and I at an overview of the city
We went to an old-school shop that featured vintage products from regions all around Spain- port wine, special biscuits, toys that his parents grew up with, soaps and an extensive selection of sardines, which the area is famous for.  He took me to this super-retro, hipster street of revived warehouses filled with art galleries, unique shops, bars, an awesome library and large graffiti paintings outdoors.  Only a couple places were open when we went but it would be a really neat place to see on a Saturday, especially during the weekly flea markets.
Pavilhão chinês Club... best bar ever!
For the purpose of people watching and an authentic-ish experience of Lisbon nightlife (as much is possible for a Sunday night during the holidays), we started a leisurely bar hops designed to drink in the sights, more than maximize alcohol consumption.  We began at a fancy place that was covered, floor to ceiling in collectibles.  There was a room filled with dolls and old toys, war paraphanela (from war helmets, to fighter planes to GI joe), paintings on the ceiling and statues.  We sat in velvet chairs to pursue the menu, which was more like a colorful storybook of hand-drawn, bare-chested flappers getting in all sorts of shenanigans as they danced around descriptions of their artisan cocktails.  He drank hot chocolate and I tried the famous Port Wine (too sweet for me) as we keep finding new objects to look at, feeling like guests in a royal cocktail room/tea parlor. To experience his more typical weekend night, we sauntered through Barrio Alto (nightlife hub of Lisbon), squeeze into a dim indie rock bar, only large enough to fit four small tables, sipping cheap beers in a swirl of smoke and Portuguese banter, accented by the clink of a piercing on the glass.  With closing time at 2:00, we took the scenic route through the crowded street, where "everyone gathers together but stays apart", slightly separated by the hip hoppers, metal heads, foreigners here on Erasmus, hipsters and "the normal people".  We weave by two guys trying to swing dancing in the street, a girl braiding her boyfriend's Afro hair, a group trying to guess which country a blonde guy is from (it looked like he was having a hard time remembering the answer himself) and the ever present puker.  After that, he wanted to show me "pink street" (so-called because it was decorated for breast cancer awareness for awhile) which used to be filled with shady strip clubs and hookers but has undergone a more recent revival.  We enjoyed our last drink at this bar that looked like (and may serve a secondary purpose as a tackle shop).  Fishing poles lined the wall, hooks and sinkers were on display, sardines and bait were available for purchase- it literally just looked like someone stuck a keg behind the counter.  At this point, we returned to the car for a 45 minute power nap then it was time for my 5 AM arrival at the airport.
Bye Lisbon!  Photo taken at sunset overlook.
I definitely feel a little closer to understanding Portuguese food/culture after that little adventure but its still much more elusive than Spain.  Portugal has a very diverse population and seems to be influenced by the culture of its colonies, especially with many people from Mozambique, Brazil, etc. migrating back to Portugal.  I'm really glad I chose Lisbon as my last stop but the country as a whole needs more exploring.  Retrospectively, it would have been nice to cut a day from Barcelona and Granada to go to Porto for a couple days but I'm happy how it turned out.  Link to Portugal photos is here.
Now, I need to concentrate on keeping my eyes open until I can zonk out on my 7.5 hour flight back to the US.  I may try to do one more post reflecting on my trip as a whole (my brain is not capable of that now)... If not, happy new year!
"What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies." -Jack Kerouac

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Sun Shines on Lovely Lisboa!

Despite a bleak forecast, my frenzied sun dances paid off and it was a brilliantly sunny day in Lisbon.  A toasty 16 degrees Celsius- I couldn't be happier!  We spent the morning getting Aga ready for the bus tomorrow so she can head off to "sleep with" her polish host in Porto. Her naive use of English ushered a day filled of teasing, Jorge in his exotic accent asking, "so you will take her, in the night, in your strong polish wrestler arms and she will call you 'my Tarzan!'".  When we saw that even the doves were canoodling outside the monaster, we predicted a good love forecast for Aga in Portugal's seaside hub, famous for their wine cellars (Port wine! Get it?).
Famous Belem pastries
We started our sightseeing at Belem, tasting the Belem pastries at the oldest and world-renowned Pastéis de Belém.   Unless you've been to Portugal, you may not be impressed with the accolade.  But I've never been to a country with so many pastelerias- I'm convinced that's all they eat.  There's one on every corner and especially when real restaurants are shut own for the holidays, that's practically the only option.  I liked the little tart- creamy, almost rice pudding-like, mini tarts in an almonds he'll dusted with cinnamon nod optional powdered sugar.  Not too sweet which was nice.  After spying on their production line, we headed net door to the monastery of San Jeronimo, with the canoodling doves, precisely trimmed gardens with a music fountain which created rainbows in the sunshine and the monument to the discovers, which had excellent views of the "San Francisco" bridge and Portugal's Cristo.  I barely knew what country I was in with all these conflicting national landmarks.  But then we took photos after mounting (yup some more jokes were made, poor Aga) the obligatory cows before heading off to Belem tower, the monument for the first trams-Atlantic flight and the Africa war monument.
Aga and I at the San Jeronomio monastery
Portugal has a bit of an identity crisis...
After exploring that part of town, Jorge dropped us by the "penis fountain" to explore the city by ourselves for the next several hours.  As with many stoic statues to commemorate good battles, this fountain looks oddly reminiscent of a male sexual orgn.  Jorge was laughing as he told us how he was bragging about the ever flowing waters of this vigilant member, overlooking the city to a Mexican couchsurfer he picked up late from the airport. They arrived at the fountain just before 11 and the water stopped flowing!  Jorge prescribed Viagra.  He's a lawyer but he loves to prescribe things.  At 10 am, he prescribed I drink vodka for my cough and sore throat. Even though he doesn't drink, he had some in his trunk and recommended I carry it around all day for convenient swigs for my daily doses.  I decided to stick with my ineffective cough drops but I probably would have forgotten all about my cold if i tried his technique!
In case you were curious... "Penis fountain" looking down on the city
Anyway, so the rest of the afternoon was kind of a blur, as we blindly followed the map between pink circled attractions,neighborhood and streets.  We found lots of churches, many fountains, beautiful overlooks of the Atlantic, we kept dodging cable cars (the bridge isn't the only similarity with Sanfran) and generally had a good day.
Cable car near Barrio Alto
I've been shrugging to find a cohesive conception of Portugal and it has been tough.  First, we've mostly been in tourist territory but it's pretty hard to figure out what a stereotypical Portuguese personal looks like.  Spain, it's easy.  Dark-hair, dark-eyes, petite (even most of the guys- I commented that I was surprised how daintily kings were portrayed on statues. I even went in a male bathroom by accident once because the stace and stature of the sassy hipped stick figure looked like a girl to me until after I got out and saw the real girl).  The first night, I was getting Jersey Shore cheesy beach vibes from the beach across the bridge, the second day in Sintra and surrounding nature was more surfer/fisherman/fairy princess vibes and today... San Francisco vibes? Want some marijuana with your sunglasses vibes? Very historic and usually cute but then you round a corner and you are in a dump vibes?  It would probably help if I could taste their food beyond bread (which is rather extraordinarily for bread) but dishes are meaty and fishy and not veggie friendly. Hopefully meeting locals tomorrow will better clue me in.  I was supposed to get drinks and listen to the traditional faro music tonight with a German couchsurfer but getting let back in the apartment is unfortunately surprisingly complicated.  Anyway, tchau for now!

Friday, 27 December 2013

Dancing around Lisbon

So I arrived in Lisbon yesterday but in my first 24 hours, I've been spending time everywhere but the city itself.  I was expecting to be received in the airport Jorge, a born and raised Lisbon-ite lawyer.  Sure enough, a blonde girl with pantalones Rojas and purple framed glasses emerged from the crowd and muffled through a hug, I heard, "Katie! I'm George!".  I'm infamous for displaying my un censored thoughts and emotions on my face and I started to say, "I thought you were a man" but decided to shrug it off since I like staying with females better anyway.  She kept a straight face but the real George, a perpetual jokester, couldn't contain his laughter and emerged from behind.  Turns out the blonde girl is agnesesta, a polish girl who arrived earlier in the afternoon and will be staying 3 nights with me also.  So the sun had set but Jorge took us across the "san francisco" bridge for some nice views of the "cape of jewels" beach and the city, moon-lit oceanside strolls (it's weird to be on this side of the Atlantic) and a pizza dinner.
Jorge drinking a yogurt milkshake on the coast
Today, we set out for a mini-road trip along Jorge's favorite road in Portugal, along the Atlantic Ocean.  We drove through cascais, with some of the country's most beautiful homes then embarked on one of my favorite parts of this whole trip: the hike to urca.  Jorge explained the mythical origins of the beachside rock formations, something about a disowned mama bear.  I didn't retain much of the story but the hike was absolutely gorgeous, even with dark skies and in the misty rain.  We sauntered through fields of aloe vera plants (they look different here) and yellow windflowers, the wind whipping through Jorge's "rain cape" (poncho), which he insisted on wearing "I feel like a bird! I can fly".  One of his friends is a medical representative so Jorge had a box of ponchos in what looked like Pokemon balls.  Throughout the day, he used the ponchos for rain protection, trail markers, picnic table cover... And now I've got a magic item of my own to use for everything.  If only it could keep the rain from falling from the sky in the first place!  Anyway, we marched along, me plodding in the 5 euro clown boots that I traded my blisters boots in for in Granada, puddle-hopping then scooting down rocky banks.  When we got to the beach, we stood in huge shadows of looming rock formations, found a hidden waterfall and all sorts of other hiding places.
Me at the start of our hike to Ursa
Aga and I at the most Western point in Europe
After Ursa, we stopped at Cabo da Roca, the most western point of Europe and headed to Sintra National park.  We picnic-ed in the moss-covered, "mystic forest", where Jorge claimed spirits like to roam (he said that about he 130 year old apartment we're staying in too but I haven't experienced that except for doorknobs perpetually falling to the floor) and witches like to brew things.  I didn't believe him until we repeatedly saw a haggled, German woman impatiently cursing her photographer husband.  I didn't witness her casting any spells but I tried to be on my best behavior with her around.  After the national park, we checked out some of the sites that made Sintra a UNESCO site and the "most romantic town in Portugal".  We peered at the moorish castle overlooking everything, several royal palaces and the queens gardens (Jorge knew all the best spots to get pictures without having to pay).  Then we walked around the tiny, tiled streets of downtown, I got jittery on Portuguese espresso and we tasted Sintra's famous little cakes.
One of the (non-royal!) palaces at Sintra
After Sintra, Jorge didn't want to waste the daylight so we craned our necks to take in Portugal's largest convent then stopped at some cutesy park built by a famous potter.  This guy made an old-fashioned Portuguese mini village with windmills, scenes of everyday life and model railroad villages which he insisted should be free to visitors.  After enjoying that "strange little adventure", we headed home after enjoying more ocean views and twisted, fishing village streets at Ericiera, one of the world' stop surfing destinations.  And I couldn't believe it, but people were riding the waves in wetsuits even today.
The evening was more relaxing- I hunted down some wifi, (surprisingly difficult) then met up with goncuelo #1 for some walking in the rain through Lisbon's night time hot spots and a cheese sandwich at the famous A Brasileria.  He's lived here his whole life and went to school at Lisbon's top tech colleague, affiliated with MIT.  He loves his country, even if it doesn't make sense to me.  I love all the pastel-colored houses but I commented I've never experienced a place so obsessed with tiles.  They cover the exteriors of houses with tiles, sidewalks with tiles and neither of us had any idea why.  Goncalo said boring sidewalks elsewhere are one of the things that make him most nostalgic for home.  I didn't appreciate it as I slipped, slid and "surfed" (in his words) down the hilly streets of his city but it certainly is unique!  Goncalo is a lover of languages, has traveled extensively with his telecommunication company and since he has dated a vegetarian in the past, he had some dining tips for me.  As well as advice for city sightseeing in general.  Now I plan to stay dry and fight off this cold for Lisbon city-sightseeing tomorrow!  I no longer have access to Lucas' nifty SD card thing so photos will have to wait!
A Brasileria

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Feliz Navidad & Bon Natal from Barcelona!

Barcelona is a beautiful city and a pretty perfect place to spend the holidays.  I arrived early on the Eve of Christmas Eve and met up with a friend of Octavio's who generously put me up in some luxury accommodations for the duration of my stay here.  Lucas is Argentinian but has lived here the last five years, working in something related to information technology.  He's kind of soft-spoken but the more I talked to him, I realized he's an amazingly classy man!  We bonded over alternate rock, traveling and cooking.  He plays guitar and has been to some ridiculous music festivals, which were fun to hear about.  I felt right at home. After he oriented me to his city by looking at the map, we bundled up and I climbed on the back of his motorcycle to get an overview of the major parts of the city.  We saw the famous Plaza Espanya fountain, climbed the Olympic park mountain for the best views of the city, drove by the port and the Mediterranean Sea and down the Avenue Gracia "Barcelona's equivalent of 5th avenue".  As he finished some last minute Christmas shopping, he pointed out the Catalan flags as well as yellow and red striped flags with a star in a blue triangle, (supposedly illegal but everywhere) flags promoting independence from Spain.
Some historic Barcelona buildings- you can see the illegal independence flag toward the bottom
Lucas made me a phenomenal quiche for lunch, I sampled some of the truffles he stayed up making until 4 AM that morning then we head to the gothic quarter of Las Ramblas.  He explained that the city had outgrown the original walls fortifying the area so to create space for agriculture, they created this space within a second set of walls.  The Las Ramblas street incorporates multiple areas, stretching from the busy commercial Plaza Catalunya, the market of St. Joseph (with fish so fresh that many of the lobsters were still climbing over each other), the ornate opera house and ending with the famous Christopher Columbus statue near the sea.  We veered off the main paths to squeeze between massive stone fortifications in paths too small for cars.  We saw the fountain where evanescence made a music video and peered upward to see a walking bridge between buildings, with a statue which would be the last thing people saw before getting executed.  Many of this old buildings currently house art galleries, shops and restaurants so they definitely have a gothic, mysterious feel even today.  We stopped at Ovella Negra, a castle-like tavern filled with expats taking advantage of cheap cervezas and complimentary popcorn then continued on for some tapas near his place.
Park Guell overlooking the city
On Christmas Eve, I began seeing the city from a different perspective, commencing an exploration of the Gaudi influence with a visit to Parc Guell.  I met two girls studying abroad and their mother on the metro and we huffed and puffed up the hill together as we walked to the park.  This was the mom's first trip to Europe (first trip to basically anywhere significant, I think) and she thought my spontaneous Spanish holiday was the best thing she ever heard.  She reflected on how easy it is to make excuses, postponing trips for lack of time and money, then time flies and you haven't been anywhere.  Parc Guell was massive!  I didn't realize that the Gaudi monument section was only a small fraction of the green space, where people were running, walking, playing instruments and selling things.  Gaudi's colorful mosaic stairs and fountains accentuated a city that was pretty colorful to begin with, so that was a great place to relax.  Afterwards, I headed down the hill to Gracia, the bohemian, arts district where I met Juan, Peruvian #3, a Spanish teacher for cervezas on his terrace, then climbed on his roof for an even better view and salsa lessons in his living room.  He said there were 7 steps to salsa and I passed them all!  "derecha, izquierda, delante, atrás, encima, abajo" even though he moves on a different beat than New York style mambo-on-2 master Benno taught me in Raleigh.  After passing bonus level 8, he showed me some of his neighborhood with a hole-in-the-wall bar and we got groceries at the market to make pasta after dancing up a storm.
Fountain featured in Vicki Cristina Barcelona

From there, I met up with Sebastian for a walking tour of the city.  Sebastian was an amazing tour guide... He has incredible curiosity and attention to detail, and as hopped between churches, parks and picturesque streets, he'd point out things I would never notice.  He showed me plaques in front of historic stores that showed businesses in operation since the 1800s, lamp posts designed by Gaudi in a random courtyard of fancy restaurants, a beautiful fountain featured in Vicki and Christina Barcelona movie, a secret garden nestled in a hotel and a life-sized mammoth.  So many best kept secrets away from the crowds up people finishing up holiday shopping!  After that, I met up with a Finnish girl and the two Indian engineers who I was supposed to stay in a hostel with.  We roamed the streets of the city center, looking for food.  Places were closing in front of our eyes so we ended up in an Irish pub, munching on a random assortment of things.  Fortunately, Ruptav didn't resort to the Indian curry but it was still pretty weird to be eating fajitas and burgers in an Irish pub in Spain, where the waiter greeted people speaking in Spanish through a thick Irish brawl.  It was slightly reminiscent of my "traditional New Years dinner with Professor Pao's family", eating pizza while drinking jasmine tea in an Italian restaurant in Taiwan.  But it's the company you keep that matters and Kajsa and the boys made it a delightfully evening.
Ornate exterior of Sagrada Familia
Christmas was another Gaudi day.  I was supposed to meet the boys at Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's famous basicilia.  But that place is a tourist trap and they couldn't get their tickets online so they were lost in the sea of people.  The cathedral itself is absolutely gorgeous, with curvy supports, sparkling stained glass and exterior scenes that describe the nativity and passion of Christ.  It was fun to peak downstairs, where they were actually holding Christmas mass and people were lined up to kiss a baby Jesus, decked out in Christmas finery.  Also in the basement-ish, there were exhibits showcasing the cypress trees, gems and other flowers that inspired Gaudi so that was cool. But Lucas recommended Casa Battlo as his number 1 gaudi recommendation and I'd have to agree- less crowded, student discount, audio tour included and also a really interesting space.  I walked from the cathedral to the house, passing through Avenue Gracia which is where all the Catalan bourgeoise built their flashy, fancy new homes so it was a beautiful walk.  Part of the way through, I noticed people entering a cathedral for Christmas mass so I decided to join.  The mass was in Spanish but I knew what was going on and it was probably the most beautiful church I've sat through a mass in.  They even had a hidden courtyard in the back with a nativity and live chickens set up.
Me outside of Casa Battlo, my favorite Gaudi attraction
After mass and Casa Battlo again, I met up with the Indian guys so they could see Las Ramblas.  Fortunately, they enjoyed the haphazard tour I took them on, following the blue dot on my google maps down the Main Street, to the port, almost through some dark sketchy parks, ending by the Mont Juic castle and fountains.  I think the castle serves as an art museum but it's a gorgeous building peering down at the city.  The grounds were covered in fountains, gardens and even had outdoor escalators to shuttle people up and down the big hills.  We watched the magic fountain show, Christmas edition, so rainbow colored spurts of water and mist danced to Christmas carols.  Not a bad way to spend Christmas. After that, I met my turkish friends' classmate in the train station, since he decided to come here from Rome.  While utilizing the free wifi, I watched a girl taking selfies with McDonalds macaroons.  What a weird world we live in.  Joseph and I had dinner and I tried to get him situated.  Europe is definitely a nice place to spend Christmas- some things did shut down but it's nice to see so many families outside walking off their holiday feasts and enjoying the Christmas lights.  In general, the European culture is so much more outdoorsy and social that makes it incredibly warm and welcoming.
Today has been a pretty lazy day because I'm coming down with a cold and it's windy outside.  But Barcelona has been incredible, and contrary to my Facebook photos, I shared memories with amazing people every step of the way.  I'm always shy to ask them to be in pictures with me but I should demand it in the future.  I'm thoroughly satisfied with my Barcelona sightseeing and semi-shortly, I'll be starting the journey to the airport and then I'll be off for a final four days in Lisbon, Portugal.  The link to my full Barcelona album is here.
Raghav and I near Port Vell

Monday, 23 December 2013

Gipsys and flamenco: final day in Granada

I think Granada is going to be my favorite Spanish city I went this trip.  After I wrote last, Simone and I went to a flamenco show after intense consultation with Freddy. We heard mixed reviews about the potential to be a tourist trap and how the gypsies can rip you off if you go to some of the caves in Sacra monte to view the performance.  On the other hand, Simone's friend said she was brought to tears by a flamenco performance in the caves so we decided to follow Freddy's advice and went to Le Chein Andalou "the andalusian dog".
Flamenco... pretty intense!
 Proceeding down a short, dark tunnel, we squished ourselves at teensy picnic tables and looked around to see if the 20 or so other people in the audience had any idea what we were in for.  Freddy had warned us that Granada was famous for gut-wrenching, tragic flamenco and if we wanted to see happy flamenco, we were better off in Sevilla.  And he wasn't kidding! For the first part of the show, it was the music.  The hunched-over guitarist looked like he was hanging onto his guitar for dear life, and his fingers flew over the strings in a strange strum, more similar to that of a harpist.  The skinny singer, wailed about rosas negras y notches obscures, almost dislocating his jaw with the raw emotion of the cancion.  And occasionally rocking back and forth with his eyes closed, adding syncopated claps to the instrumental.  About halfway through, a scowling back-haired woman with dramatic make-up rustled through the aisle with her polka dotted dress, flashing her fishnets.  She started sitting, just adding rhythm with her claps, snaps and taps but then she really got going.  She filled the small stage with dramatic glasses, sharp turns, and remarkably fast footwork.  From prior reading I knew the exact origin of Andalusian flamenco was highly debated, potentially influenced by Hindu music brought over from gypsies who originated out of the india, Jewish chants or the call of the Islamic muezzin.  Dancing on the wooden box (which she didn't do here but is also stereotypical) probably began later with South American or African influences. Watching it, I agreed flamenco was probably a combination of all above, and tried to imagine what life must have been like to inspire such raw emotion.  I'm definitely glad we experienced it, but a little of that kind of intensity goes a long way, so after being flamenco-ed out, we decided to obey our when-in-doubt-eat-tapas rule with our new friend Jesse.
A Colorado resident and recent college graduate, Jesse is still bright-eyed and bushy tailed after 2 of a 3 month European backpacking adventure.  A self-described "yes man", Simone and I instantly liked him, as someone who had the rare combination of being both interested and interesting.  We happened across a medieval themed tapas bar, where we drank sangria in front of swords and full suits of amor.  When our tapas appeared as bagel sandwiches with ham, both of them were exuberant, having being deprived of bagels in Europe/Greece for months.  Before coming to Spain, I pictured tapas as some bread and cheese, or something uniform across bars but in Granada, it's the ultimate lottery and you never know what you're going to get.  Earlier in the day, we met up with three locals at a global tapas bar Babel, where our tapas where cheese risotto, pad Thai, fajitas... Large, gourmet meals, free with your beverage.  The previous night, had been three courses of fried fish dishes.  And here, you can barely buy bagels if you tried, but they magically appeared under our noses!
Corn risotto and fajitas tapas- they don't joke around in Granada

Anyway, a finance and economic major, jesse entertained us with an update on the current status of marijuana legalization in Colorado.  Supposedly, you can call up delivery pizza places for marijuana-infused, custom-foods delivered to your house.  Although Jesse doesn't smoke much himself, he seized a business opportunity to as an advisor/support person for budding pot growers, sometimes earning $1000 per client.  Between being this business savvy and selling his car, he took off on this epic adventure, already having covered most of France, Germany, Netherlands, hitch hiking in Poland, Slovenia, Portugal (one of his favorite so far which makes me excited), Croatia and probably much more before coming here.  Next stop for him will be the Spanish Canary Islands where he's considering trying to find a gig working on a super yacht, which made Simone and I quite envious as we elected to stay bundled in our winter coats and scarves, even inside. Speaking of warmth, we decided bid goodbye to Jesse, who exited the bar with an exuberant "hasta Luego, señor!", and head back to our warm beds.
Alhambra from Paseo del Tristes
Our last day in Grenada involved sleeping in and a much-needed leisurely morning. After checking out of the hostel, we set out to find free "wee-fee" (as they say it here) and breakfast.  At breakfast part I, Simone asked for a detailed description of the beverage options and enthusiastically chose the one the waiter couldn't explain in English.  She lucked out with melon nectar.  When I tried to do the same at a local bakery, I pointed to a pastry that looked like it was covered in cinnamon sugar and nuts.  "Coca de chicharrones...", simone muttered, "that sounds familiar but I can't remember what it is".  I decided I should order it and find out, "that's weird.  It has a salty, crunchy topping kind of like barely-cooked popcorn," I remarked, surprised after taking a bite.  Then she remembered,"pork rinds!!!", instant disgust on my face after eating a pastry of pork rinds.  She got a free meal out of it, though!
After some shopping, we met Jesse to take advantage of the free tour time for the royal chapel, where king fernidad and queen Isabella are buried (the famous founders of columbus' journey) then we headed up the "sacred mountain" to find some more "gipsys", walking by beautiful overlooks of the city as we made our way up.
Simone and Jesse in gypsy kitchen

Per request of Simone, we went to "el museo del cuevas" (museum of the caves) where they promised to enlighten us on the history of gypsies and flamenco.  Eventually, we learned something but not before reading posters on the geographical history of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the mating habits of frogs, history of cave living around the world, iron making, recipes of gazpacho soup, and other very random pieces of knowledge, that seems to be very loosely, if at all, linked to what we sought to see.  But it was pretty interesting because the displays were spread out in 11 different caves to showcase how they live, cook and house the horses.  After getting our fill of knowledge, we followed the river down El paseo de Tristes (sad street, misleadingly advertised as one of the most beautiful streets in the world), we adventured toward a new area of town for more tapa hopping.  We found a "good joint" where we joined locals, who brought their whole families, including napping babies, to enjoy the Granada versus Barcelona soccer game.  After a couple more stops, we bid goodbye to Jesse, after making him promise to let us join him on a future yacht adventure, if it works out.  I grabbed my bag and trudged to the train station, somehow getting swallowed by a nun, candle-lit Christmas procession, complete with caroling.  Then took the night train to Barcelona, which is not as romantic as Jason Aldean makes it sound in his country song.  Riding a fully illuminated car for 11 hours is definitely not as enjoying a picnic under the stars watching the trains go by. But it got me to Barcelona! Woot!
Here's the album link to Spain photos thus far, if you are interested.