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.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Glorious Granada!

I can't believe I almost skipped this city and am so glad Otavio encouraged me to come.  I met Simone at the crack of dawn (for all essential purposes) at our hostel where a swede named Freddie gave us a vibrant descriptions of the city.  I love when he added audio enhancement to his descriptions, mimicking the cha-cha-cha of the ticket printer, the wail of gypsies, drum beats of the flamenco dancers and the battle cries of the crusaders.  Simone, the couchsurfer that I'm staying with is absolutely hilarious.  She's born and raised in Jersey, with the attitude and accent to prove it (when she got her earring stuck in her scarf, she joked "jersey girl problems") but both her parents are Greek and she's currently in Athens teaching rich kids English on a Fulbright.  She's definitely immersed in the culture too- she complimented me on my gloves at one point, and when I lost one, she thought it must be the case of the "evil eye".  In Greek culture, light-eyed people are often the target of envious glares which lead to a day of headaches until cured with burning cotton balls in oil and mixing water and oil.  Or something.  Fortunately, I found my mitten and don't have a headache!

Simone and I with nice view of the city and Alhambra

Anyway, she's a little energizer bunny, up for anything, even after three planes and a bus ride so we took off armed with a bad map and the spirit of exploration.  And there was much to see!  We poked our head into cathedrals, wandered around the Jewish section where we found a minuscule semantic museum in some hidden neighborhood and she invited us to a Hanukkah music concert tomorrow (I doubt we could purposefully find the museum again), had tea in the Arabic section which where hookah pipes and Turkish lanterns spilled into the streets and pet cats at another randomly amazing museum on some painter who liked to collect Asian things.  
Typical Granada street with snow covered Sierra Nevada mountains in the background

The whole day we planned to visit St. Martin Alto for sunset which ended up being a day long epic adventure.  Between our bad maps, tendency to veer off course to investigate interesting looking things and our preference for standing in sunshine (Simone joked "I'm solar powered!  I only function when the sun is out"), it seriously took all day to get there.  We hiked through gypsy territory where ladies tried to put tree branches in my hand and mumble madness about "hijos, amor, vida larga".  We saw people living in mini caves with teensy horses eating grass under garbage outdoors.  We climbed a billion steps to the top of the city to reach our vantage point to enjoy the view- the Alhambra glowing orange, distinct personalities of different neighborhoods and the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance.  Definitely worth the hike, especially since rolling down the mountain ended up being a lot more direct.
Sunset from San Miguel Alto

 Friday night, we met up with some locals for tapas in a Valencia-style and some perreo latino (Latin dance).  My British couchsurfers complained how Americans dance so dirty, grinding up on each other and told me they don't do that in Europe.  It was strange to see Spaniards dance to very, sexual Latin music because they do it in a rather spacious more formal way.  But good times were had by all, dancing well into the night!
Famous Court of the Lions at Alhambra
On Saturday, we toured the famous Alhambra palace complex, which they've compared to Taj Mahal and the Acropolis in Greece.  It was absolutely massive- at least three palaces, three giant churches and elaborate gardens.  I think all of the palaces were built by the moors so the palace was covered in colorful mosaics, intricately carved plaster and ornate calligraphy.  Definitely more of a middle eastern vibe that's infinitely more interesting to be than standard European architecture. This city has made me so excited for my trip to Turkey to February because like Istanbul, like Grenada is a city where Jewish, Catholic and Muslim cultures collide and I just love walking down a street selling hookah pipes, spices and tea from the orient then being suddenly surrounded by Stars of David then in front of a huge cathedral.  Grenada also has gypsies in the mix (we're hopefully going to a flamenco show tonight) and the free, elaborate tapas with a 2 euro beverage don't hurt either! Anyway, Simone and I had another lovely day of getting lost, tapas with four locals and perusing the markets.  Nap time now. More later!

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Jamon, chocolate & churros y marizipan: more Madrid and Toledo

Day 2 had the perfect blend of culture, deliciousness and more interesting people.  After a morning with cafe con leche, croissant and catching up emails, I met up with the Taiwanese girls for a Spanish feast near the puente del sol, "the center of the center!", as dramatically described by my host.  Madrid is famous for its jamon, and literally there are hams lining the ceiling of restaurants and markets, and they love to shave off slabs to serve with melon, crusty bread or alone.  We went to el museo del jamon to indulgent at one of the most famous places to get it, standing at the counter to enjoy the cheap and delectable meal.  As a vegetarian, I elected for the tortilla espanola, another dish that testifies to Spaniards' abilities to do great things with patatas (and not just smile for photos... It's their version of "cheese"), a vegetable I have never enjoyed before coming here.  After some more wandering, munching and caffeinating, I parted ways with Sarah and Ellen to meet Alexandra at Museo del Prato, "the Spanish louvre".  Alexandra was born in Texas but has lived in London for most of her life, raised by an adventurous family that encourages her to kiss giraffes in Kenya, Safari around almost every country in Africa and adventure in the Middle East.  I felt like a home body after hearing the list of places she's been.    Anyway, I don't usually get too excited about classical art but after finding out students get in free and hearing couchsurfers rave about it, I decided to give it a chance and I'm so glad I did!  In addition to seeing famous works by Goya and el Bosco that I remember learning about in Spanish class, the collection contained many religious paintings but several were portrayed with a surprising sense of humor.  Vibrant colors that last 600+ years, photo-like precision and larger-than-life paintings that spanned the wall took my breath away.  After our daily dose of culture, Alex brought me to madrid's oldest churreria.  We waited in a line that spilled out the door to share churros and chocolate, a treat more typically enjoyed post-party, during pre-dawn hours.  But the place was packed even before dinner... Who doesn't love thick, fried sticks doused in a steamy mug of melted dark chocolate?
Churros and chocolate with Alexandra
After Alexandra, I met up with Rob, a quiet but super sweet computer scientist who brought me to the couchsurfing language exchange at a cozy bookstore.  Lead by a very Nordic looking Minnesotan, it was mostly Spaniards trying to improve their English but I met an Italian mathematician too.  Interesting conversation ensued, discussing eating alligators and the depressed Spanish economy.  Rob took me on a scenic walk past more Christmas lights and historic area of towns to meet up with my host. Martin saw me swaggering like a sailor because of the blisters from my boots and recommended a perfect bar, where we reclined on cushions and people-watched (the bar was close to the gay part of town).  I must admit, I thought people from Asheville were intense with their unapologetic, full frontal staring at strangers.  At least three times in Spain so far, groups of people brazenly stare and talk about me, in front of my face.  I usually hear "rubia", "guapa" and "solo" (blonde, good looking, alone) so it's awkward but it could be worse.  And they love it when I pipe in with some Spanish.  At this bar, a few middle aged people were making bets whether or not I was a professor.  The flight attendant on the plane to Spain asked me whether I was going home for Christmas, even though I practically knocked her over with my big backpacking pack.  How these people get these ideas is beyond me but the middle aged people were pretty close.  Woot for giving off nerdy vibes!
Me near the Metropolis, one of the most photogenic sites of Madrid on the Christmas light tour
For my final day in "Madrid", Roberto, the Taiwanese girls and I met for a day trip to Toledo, a walled city famous for marzipan, mosaics and swords, about an hour away.  Toledo was adorable, with its windy streets, multicultural Arabic, Jewish and Christian influence and hilly panoramas.  We mostly just wandered, delightfully perdidos (lost) in Toledo,  peeking into churches and re-appearing in people's back alleys.
Ellen, Sarah and I with Cervantes in Toledo
I considered staying in Madrid for another night for a holiday party with Otavio and friends but when I heard they gather at 10:00, go out at 1:00 and come back at 6:00 am, I elected to take advantage of the rainy weather and hop on a bus to Granada.  I'm looking forward to "Spain's most tourist city", especially because I'll be joined tomorrow morning by Simone, a solo traveler from Greece who will bring the sunrise when she arrives at 7 AM.  We also hope to meet up with a pink-haired Bostonian working in a hotel there.
Thanks for reading- I wish I had the time/resources to make these entries more like the blogging I've practiced for epicure and culture, but given the circumstances, hopefully you find it somewhat educational/entertaining.

It's a small world after all: Madrid day 1

Greetings from a bus gliding through the rain to Granada.  As I warned in the previous post, this entry is going to be pretty bare-bones since I have no way to add photos and trying to handle life with this silly iPad's touch screen and ridiculous autocorrect is pretty diffult.  Especially when your advisor wants you to change your dissertation topic for the second time in a week and move to Tallahassee, Florida.  And work with a technology-inept nuclear physicists that sends you cryptic emails without the Rosetta Stone to make send out of them.  But that's not what this blog is about.
So Spain! Europe was never high on my travel list... Probably near the bottom to be honest.  Why?  Everyone goes there, it's not too different from what I'm used to and expensive.  But for solo travel, Spain was a great choice especially with couchsurfers enhancing every moment.  When they said, it's easy to travel around Europe, they weren't kidding.  I sailed through the border with no forms, no questions and barely a glance to check my face, after he already stamped my passport.  I'm definitely practicing my Spanish- even the people at the airport tourist booth didn't speak English.  Didn't know where the metro was.  I'm not really sure who hires these people.
David at the gardens of the royal palace- I had to sneak this one- he's camera shy!
Fortunately, David came to my rescue.  He's a Peruvian who has been here for three months for a graduate program in renewable energy.  As much as I didn't want to be an engineer, it's pretty nice to have them around and he navigated me to the city center, got me lined up with a Spanish number and gave me a fantastic tour of a city he's only recently discovered himself.  We strolled around plazas filled with Christmas markets, the royal palace, royal gardens, by the river, through several parks and by the famous museums.  Like me, David has noticed that the Spanish people have a leisurely way of life and tend to disappear for siesta when you need them.  Like when you arrive at the airport at a reasonable hour and the SIM card booths are closed, or the bank takes random days off and David joked that the Spanish ducks swimming at the beautiful Retiro park probably disappear for siesta too.  After a few hours, we met up with Taiwanese girls who scrutinized me upon arrival, "were you playing in the airport?".  I replied in confusion, "like an instrument?  Hopscotch? I don't think so" and finally they remembered that I asked them to watch my backpack when I went to the bathroom back at JFK. Small world!
Reunited with the JFK bag watchers at the Royal Gardens
After continued explorations, I had worked up quite the appetite by the time I met up with Roberto, is a madridelo (Madrid born and raised) geophysicist.  He showed me some other areas of the city, decked out for Christmas, sharing Madrid's history and traditions.  I'm a little disappointed I won't be here for New Years to eat twelve grapes and ring twelve bells.  Speaking of traditions, I got to experience tapas at el Tigre, which may be my favorite thing about Spain thus far.  You buy a beer for 2 euros and it comes with a huge plate of bread and cheese, crispy potatoes, jamon and other meat treats.  He did research on glaciers and mountains in Patagonia in Argentina and Chile and it was interesting to hear how those periods of complete isolation changed his outlook on life.
My first tapas at Le Tigre... life-changing!
After Roberto, I met another Peruvian, my host Martin.  He's literally living my dream as journalist for El Mundo, the most widely read newspaper for Spanish speakers, and a novelist.  Martin is a self-described dreamer, who grew up in the poorest areas of Lima and has no family left but now he travels the world reporting on a variety of cultural, political and economic issues.  He's a character with thick-framed glasses, swooping hair, a tablet in reach and a poetic way of seeing the world.  We started in a local teen hangout with cheap alcohol, more delicious potatoes and olives which he would flamboyantly pop in his mouth, raving about them as "jewels of Spain".   With food in our bellies, he took me into a hole in the wall wine shop with dusty bottles piled from floor to ceiling.  We sampled wines from Spain's three regions... The most famous, the most underrated and his favorite. I'm a fan!  And of Madrid day 1 in general!
Me and my Madrid host, Martin, the journalist living the dream

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Here today, Spain tomorrow! Not sure what to be doing with myself right now

If you haven't heard, I decided yesterday to go to Spain tomorrow.  If you’re like most people I’ve told, you might be nodding empathetically.  And about ten minutes later, realize what I actually said.  I barely believe it myself, but it’s happening. 

Why Spain? Why now?  I’ll tackle the second question first- this week, I switched my dissertation topic and went from a 0% to 60% completion overnight, with my committee member’s blessings.  I also retroactively got reimbursed with two grand of student fees (thank you National Science Foundation!).  Switching my dissertation topic also means the clock is ticking for me to take advantage of the flexible freedom of graduate school and being able to write from everywhere.  And the way time flies these days, I’ve realized time is the most precious resource and what better time to live life to the fullest than when you’re young, able-bodied and relatively free?
Why Spain?   They say Disney World is the happiest place on earth but when I look at pictures of Barcelona’s carefree, colorful architecture, I can’t imagine how anyone could walk around the city without a smile on their face.  I’m completely smitten (and expect to be disappointed) but until I see it for myself, I’ll keep dreaming about skipping through streets surrounded by a blend of modern, gothic and renaissance self-expression.  It’ll be nice to revive my Spanish skills before they meet an irreversible demise.  I’ve never been to Europe and it should be a pretty safe place for my first completely unchartered solo travel adventure.  And because one of my couch surfing friends here is going to Madrid over break (he's Brazilian but has lived in Madrid the last nine years and loves it) and he didn’t think my plan was crazy.  Well, maybe he did, but he thought random adventures like this give life flavor.  If other people in Spain embrace this kind of insanity, I’ll be in a good place.  And last-minute flights were absurdly reasonably priced.  We’ll see if those are actually good reasons.
I know probably should be a frenzied machine of frantic preparation but things are falling into place so I thought I deserved a writing break.  The past 45 minutes I spent dancing in one sock and teal leggings, transporting random articles from my closet into my backpack to Shakira radio on Pandora.   Multi-tasking packing with practicing my salsa shake made one of my least favorite activities infinitely more bearable. 
And as previously mentioned, I think I’m in pretty good shape for the next two weeks.  Within 48 hours of this decision, I have an itinerary and I’ve found friends almost everywhere I’m going.  Between Otta, his friends and couch surfers, I’ve got plenty of help for three days in Madrid.  I found a Greek girl who I should be able to travel to and stay with in Grenada.  From Grenada, I’ll take the overnight train to Barcelona where several friendly people volunteered to show me around.  For the Christmas festivities, I’ll be celebrating and staying in a hostel with a couple other travelers- an Indian engineer who works with Saab in Switzerland currently and his American friend that he met at the University of Maryland.  From there, I’m flying to Lisbon where three people offered to host me.  I’m getting such good vibes from that city and can’t wait!  After four days in Lisbon, I’ll fly back to Madrid and fly home in time to watch the acorn drop in Raleigh for New Year’s Eve.
So we’ll see how this goes! I’m leaving my computer home so I’m not sure how many pictures and good quality posts I’ll be able to share during my journey.  I want to switch to Wordpress one of these days but that’s why I decided to wait a little longer because pecking on an ipad does not lead to award-winning narration. 
I’ll close with a quote from Jack London, “I would rather be ashes than dust.  I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry rot.  I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in a magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.  The function of man is to live, not to exist.  I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.  I shall use my time”.

Saturday, 3 August 2013


I apologize in advance for this slightly disjointed post- I started it this morning in Singapore but haven't gotten a chance to finish it until 20 plane hours later, a twelve hour time difference in DC.  I don't even know which way is up anymore but I'm chewing on gum (illegal in Singapore) and happy to be back in the States.  Even though I spent over two hours waiting in immigration and security lines, which would never happen in Asian airports (the guy next to me said "so this is what hell feels like.  Crowds, chaos, ill-functioning air-conditioning.  Well, if it was really hell, Celine Dion would be singing.").  I'm pretty pumped there's only another hour of waiting, a 75 minute flight and a squishy ride under my suitcase in Zach's Miata between me and home.  So here goes nothing!

Whew!  I don't know how many of you were following my blog from the beginning but I started this summer's journey with a list of booked airplane codes.  The list has since exploded!  I'm currently in the  Changi airport (Singapore), a place that is starting to feel like a second home after being here almost every weekend.  But it's quickly nearing time to say goodbye, not just to the airport but to all the places and all the people that have made the last eight weeks so perfect.
This week didn't disappoint.  As I mentioned, on Tuesday, I met up with Etkin and Zooey, my Turkish and Vietnamese couchsurfing friends respectively, for an evening in West Coast Park.  Poor Zooey had an accident where she toppled off Etkin's longboard "like an unbalanced potato" just prior to me meeting them at UTown.  But she was a trooper and still enjoyed the evening, rocking an ice pack like a sexy, off-kilter hat.   I love discovering new places until the very end and West Coast Park was a perfect choice, especially after giving the NUS-Yale talk and finishing my slides for the final presentation.  I've had a lot of fun this summer, but made an effort to remain a responsible adult, living and working in a foreign place.  Playing in the park felt reverting to childhood, devoid of externally or internally imposed responsibilities.  We hopped on the bus, made a pitstop at 7-11 to stock up on snacks which we consumed while walking around.  We settled "seaside" to watch the illuminated boats and tankers floating in and out of the port, dropping off shipping containers and dissolving back off in the distance.  The scene helped me appreciate the transience of life- people constantly come and go, things change but sometimes, you just need to stay calm and let things happen.  A beautiful Australian Aboriginal Proverb that captures the experience far better than I can is as follows: "We are all visitors to this time, this place.  We are just passing through.  Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love and then we return home".  And all I can say is: mission accomplished!
I forgot my camera but here's someone else's picture of the Park
To switch to a less serious note, after about an hour and a half, Ken, Louis and Kevin found us (apparently West Coast Park is big enough that its important to confirm a more specific meeting place than "close to the 7-11" because 7-11's are everywhere in Asia).  We climbed the jungle gym, the boys took turns pushing each other on the baby zip-line and the evening ended with milkshakes in McDonalds.  Definitely an evening designed for teens without licenses, but also ideal to get me ready to throw off the bowlines and sail away from the safe harbor that's been my home for the past two months.Wednesday was the much anticipated wine and cheese in an al fresco bar at the top of one of the supertrees.  
"Charlie's Angels" enjoying our wine above Gardens by the Bay
Sipping on French/Australian wines and nibbling on cheese, watching the sunset with excellent views of marina bay sands and the port was the perfect way to enjoy the company of many of my favorite people from this summer.  Dawn, Deb and Alissa came and Alissa brought her mom and sister who just got into town to visit.  Meeting Alissa's mom made it clear where her adventurous spirit came from... Her parents took the whole family with four kids on a road trip across Australian when Alissa was six.  At some point, they were given the option to enjoy a local delicacy where you load your mouth full of ants smack your lips in such a way that they urinate.  Alissa's mom, Pat, was the only one brave enough to try.  Alissa also remembered napping while her family decided to share their staple food, wonderbread, with the local wallabies.  She woke up to a baby wallaby eating bread off her stomach!  Alissa got to do the semester at sea program as an undergraduate and her moms considering doing the same, through their life-long learner a program.  I hope I'm that spunky when I'm her age- I have a hard enough time convincing my parents to visit me in Raleigh, never mind halfway across the world!

Alissa's sister, mom, Alissa, Lauren, Deb, Dawn and me: sunset and MBS

Lauren (who gave me Japanese cooking lessons) was the one who invited me so she was there and we finally got to meet her fiancé.  They're also amazingly adventurous, living in Asia for the past three years.  They are getting married in Bali next month and their wedding sounds dreamy.  Duly, the dumpling girl, also materialized out of thin air, dressed all in black and looking like a ninja.  It was fun to be surrounded by some of my favorite people from this summer (some more random than others), especially since everyone got along so well.
Thursday, I met my host researcher for lunch and Thursday night, Kevin, ken and I met up with some couch surfers for a foodie tour of bedok.  While we were in the Philippines, Deb met up with Jan, the queen foodie multiple times for delicious dishes and good conversation.  This time, we were joined by four girls from the Philippines and three Singaporeans (two were native).  Jan and her friend took us to a hawker center and they sure knew their stuff- most of the dishes had meat so I just learned about them but jan ordered me some delectable braised tofu, bean cake and eggplant at a vegetarian stall.  I wish I had met them earlier in the program because I wasn't all that impressed with food in Singapore but that probably would have changed if I knew what to eat.  I couldn't stay for the whole evening since the following morning was an early one but after I left, they continued their excursion with a supermarket tour and durian.
Friday morning was our closing ceremony.  We gave talks on each of our research projects and a group talk on our experience in Singapore, got more free swag and heard speeches from their national research foundation and representatives from the universities.  Then had a catered lunch and it was over!  As suddenly as it began.  Pretty hard to believe.
I went for one last swim, donated my dolphin kick board to future generations and said goodbye to the lifeguards and cleaning lady (who approaches me daily, so excited you'd think I was her long lost daughter.  I don't really understand what she's saying but I always smile, laugh and wave vigorously back).  Some of us did dinner at "the flaming Indian" (actually called "flames of India" but that's so much less dramatic) then ken and I met up with Kevin, Dave, Louis and the irrespective girlfriends at boat quay.  New neighborhood even on the last night!  We hung out for awhile, tasted some green beer (brewed with spirulina... supposedly good for you!?!), danced to some acoustic punk rockers and I called it a night, considering my 4 am wake-up call the next morning.
So that was my amazeballs summer!  Between having the round-trip flights taken care of, generous stipends in Singapore and the US and SE being so cheap, I'm not even going to end the summer "in the red", despite having all these priceless experiences.  All my weekend trips together cost less than a roundtrip flight to one of those places.  I highly recommend SE Asia to all my readers!  Deb and I definitely want to backpack Laos-Vietnam-Cambodia and visit Myanmar before it gets too touristy so I don't think this summer will be my last excursion in that part of the world.  But I'm in no immediate rush for that... it's crazy enough that in about 36 hours, I'm leaving for a road trip from San Francisco to Seattle with two of my roommates from undergrad.  Then it'll be realllly nice to stay in one place for the awhile.  I'm planning to just enjoy (and not blog) that trip.  But thanks for reading this summer- I know I'm hard to keep up with- last I checked, I had 4281 pageviews which is pretty ridiculous!  Signing off until next time!  Oh and if you want to see a video slideshow from my photos this summer, check it out here

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Turnin' Avocado to Guacamole

Final countdown begins!  Only three full days left in Singapore.  Fortunately, I've been able to cross off all the last major things off my Singapore bucket list.
Last Tuesday, Jen, Dawn, Marie and I finally made it to the famous Gardens by the Bay, which was incredibly impressive even for someone who doesn't know too much about flowers.  The cab driver told us that the gardens contained over 70,000 types of vegetation.  Jen and I focused on redeeming our Groupon to see the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest conservatories.  The Flower Dome featured gardens from around the world, including some crazy Baobab trees (from Australia, if I recall correctly) that inspired the Supertrees that they illuminated each night.  The Cloud Forest was undisputedly my favorite- despite the humid moistness was frizzing my hair beneath its braids.  It featured a 35 meter high man made waterfall covered with a variety of orchards and ferns, which you could explore from the inside on multiple levels- I've never seen anything like it.
Waterfall at the cloud forest

We finished those gardens just in time for the simultaneously futuristic and tribal Supertree sound and light show- it felt like a cross between the Lion King and Star Trek.  Tomorrow, I'm meeting Lauren, Daly (my dumpling friend) and some fellowship people for wine and cheese inside one of the Supertrees!  So pumped- Lauren went last month and said she felt like she was inside a James Bond movie.
Supertree Grove
Speaking of fun Wednesdays, I think Wednesdays are favorite day of the week in Singapore.  Last Wednesday was particularly amazeballs because Ken got the EAPSI gang a room at Marina Bay Sands.  AND we got upgraded to a premiere room on the 47th floor with a ginormous bathtub.  I'm not used to staying places so nice- we called down to order some ice and ask for extra cups.  They called back, what kind of cups we would need.  Sure enough, when we opened the cubard, we found at least a dozen cups: coffee mugs, wine glasses, beer mugs, tumblers, highball glasses... more glassware than I know how to name!
Alissa jumping up and down- blur of excitement!
We didn't linger too long because fellow fellows were flooding in and we didn't want to miss out on our Ladies Night free drinks.  Almost everyone showed up and it was a fun way to celebrate a successful and truly unforgettable summer.

Katie, Dawn and Alissa in the infinity pool
Once Alissa and I stopped jumping for joy over the spacious epicness of the room, we donned bathrobes and headed to the infinity pool on the 57th floor. Nothing can beat the viewing experience of peering over the edge of the pool to see the illuminated city, spilling out before you.  It's where the musical genius B.o.b. shot his "Livin' the high life" music video (I think I shared it in an earlier post), rapping to life changing lyrics, including those in the title of this post (just kidding, it's an awful song but we like it for nostalgic reasons).
Most of the Marina Bay Sands crowd- some of the boys were still having fun in the room
Work has been going well too.  Last Monday, I gave a successful talk at NUS high school, despite being bleary-eyed after stepping off my Sri Lanka flight at 5 AM.  All of the physics teachers came and most stayed an hour and a half after my talk to chat (and eat yummy snacks).  Prior to my talk, I got a private tour of the impressive facilities.  Singapore definitely is doing some extremely innovative things with their education system.  NUS high school is exempt from national exams and they exploit that freedom to get students engaged in high level research opportunities, machine shop classes and electronics labs.  One student independently constructed Tesla Coils (a project beyond the capabilities of his teachers- they just gave him space to work).  Pretty impressive for 7-12th graders!
Today, I gave my final educational outreach "talk" to NUS-Yale college, which I was a little nervous about because the professors there were by far my most educated audience.  The acceptance rate for students was only 4% (in the first year of operation!) and students turned down Stanford and Yale to attend this brand-new school.  Dr. Adams, who I had met with before, was born in Kenya, earned degrees from Stanford, Oxford and Cornell, earned the prestigious National Research Fellowship scholarship in Singapore and helped set up a S$225 million educational initiative as a graduate student! He encouraged me to read the faculty bios of the RSVPed attendees and everyone was Ivy League educated, innovative and adventurous.  And he wanted me to provide a ten-minute introduction to SCALE-UP then lead a two-hour discussion so I had no idea what they were going to ask me.  Over a dozen people showed up which was an impressive turnout considering they have a small staff to begin with and everyone's nervous about classes starting next week.  I wish I knew more specific details about SCALE-UP implementations in the humanities (NUS-Yale College is Asia's first Liberal Arts College so they have a strong presence in the humanities) but at least I could successfully direct them to further resources.  Most of them stayed all two hours and it was cool to hear about their visions for the school.  Everyone gets the 7th week of classes off and students are encouraged to go on interdisciplinary trips- that sounds right up my alley!  And I got jokingly offered a job so they must have liked me.
So life is good!  Vice President Biden visited Singapore this past weekend and I was kinda bummed to have to turn down my invite since I'd be in the Philippines (in Dawn's approximate words "Superpumped to be invited to VP Biden's visit to Singapore.  Bummed to miss it.  Superpumped to miss it because I'll be in the Philippines") but the cohort who went, said we didn't miss much (just a 30 minutes broadcasting America's greatness).  So that was a relief.  Tonight, I'm meeting Etkin and some other couchsurfers at West Coast Park for some good brews and views.  Tomorrow is Wine and Cheese in the Supertrees, Thursday is lunch with the lab, Friday is the closing ceremony and Saturday morning, I'm off!

This summer has been the ultimate amazing adventure.  I've accomplished all I wanted (and more!) so I think I'll be happy to be home.  I told Zach that this summer was the traveling equivalent of a thanksgiving feast- it'll be nice to wallow in the equivalent of the subsequent "food coma", blissfully filled with good travels, good times and good memories.  I'm definitely looking forward to cooking, eating oatmeal, getting back into yoga, playing with Effie, seeing everyone and enjoying ant-free workspaces and warm showers.  
I won't be surprised if the next time I write, I'm in the airport- so enjoy life until then!