Monday, July 17, 2017

Nepal

Pokhara Lake
In July Mr. CT Lawyer and I went to Nepal to see two of my friends from grad school (one Nepalese, one American) get married. Since we were going a far distance for a wedding, we decided to also take some time to explore the mountainous country.

Unsurprisingly, Nepal resembled a lot of cultural similarities as India...only perhaps with a more reserved culture. When I think of India, I think of a place packed with people, all shoving and vying for attention and help. Nepal isn't as packed, so I felt that while it had a similar desire/urge for "more" (whatever that means), they had more wiggle room and breathing space.

Kathmandu
I landed in Kathmandu and stayed in Thamel for a few days before heading off for the wedding in the eastern part of the country.

Everyone who had been to Nepal before had only described Kathmandu to me as "dusty". I initially scoffed at this description, feeling like people were not trying hard enough to relay the vibe to me. When I got there, however, I realized that I, too, could only find one word to aptly describe the country's capital: DUSTY! And maybe noisy. The city is coated in a thick layer of dust that permeates everything and saturates the air ". If I could find a way to market dust in a desirable way, I felt that I could definitely help Nepal with part of its economic woes. Without a good business idea for selling dust, Kathmandu survives on many tourism opportunities.

On the first day there, I hired a car to show me the main tourist spots. We started with a beautiful tour of the Monkey Temple, which is covered in peaceful prayer flags and stone steps that lead up a hill overlooking much of the bustling urban sprawl. Of course, there was a colony of monkeys playing and running around the temple area. As the town woke up, we proceeded to visit Durbar Square where I got a taste of how the city may have looked a long time ago without the new concrete jungle around us. Much of the square was damaged after the 2015 earthquake, but there was a lot of rehabilitation activity around the beautiful wooden buildings and temples in the confined square area. There was still a lot to explore despite the construction, and I enjoyed climbing through the little doors and peering through windows into more open areas, discovering little coves of architecture and curious pieces of intricate artwork hiding from the main thoroughfare. Did you know that the Nepali style of columns is the thinnest type of columns? Now, you do!

I was slightly annoyed during my tour and ended it before I was done; I had become somewhat of a "tourist attraction" to a  group of Bangladeshi men who thought that seeing a white girl in the area was amazing and worth stopping her from her explorations for pictures. I tried hiding behind trees and construction boards, but I was found by them every time and found myself being held a little too tightly in their pictures over and over again.

After hiding from Bangladeshis, I was driven to the serene and sacred Buddha Stupa that we walked around clockwise in a big circle. It was peaceful, but the square around the stupa has been very much overridden by tourist shops and hostels. I asked for a quiet, local Nepali lunch with the driver, so we went to get a thakali (which is like a cousin to the Indian thali) in a little house off of a side street nearby. The last place we visited that day was Pashupati - a temple and cremation site locals. It was nice to visit and busy with tourists weaving between locals who were there for meditation or remembrance. For me, though, it was also hard to be there, watching bodies burn on the waterfront (since it had only been a few months after my mom died and was cremated).

The rest of the time in Kathmandu I spent shopping around Thamel for nice artwork, scarves, and hunting down tea shops for reading and momo restaurants for eating.

Dharan
After a day or two in Kathmandu, I took a plane. With the reputable Buddha Air. And I need to pause to talk about flying in Nepal. Finding airlines in Nepal wasn't too difficult - any Google search will show you a list of local airlines there. The challenge was finding an airline without a track record of crashing! When researching, we found out that arguably half of the world's least safe airlines were in Nepal. To be fair, Nepal is a very difficult country to fly around because of all of the different altitudes and treacherous terrain, coupled with small landing strips in hard-to-locate places and cloudy days. Buddha Air had only crashed once in its history; therefore, it was our choice flyer for the majority of the trip. Yeti Air was the second option, as it was popular and had a lot of flights.

Fortunately, all of our flights were successful, and the view of the countryside during the flights was beautiful and was full of rolling green and spiked tops.

Once I landed on my first plane, we drove through a flat area that are part of the Terai plains (I never realized that Nepal was anything but mountains!); the flight was going to the surprisingly flat region of Dharan. From the small airport, I was driven to my girlfriend's house to attend the evening's wedding preparations - I was able to make it in time to join the women's' henna drawing activities and got a delicate design painted on my hand.

The next day was the wedding. It was loud and energetic and confusing and awesome. It was an all-day affair that started at 6am with sari wrapping (I had been given a sari to wear for the day) and makeup...and ended near midnight with dancing and heavy rain that flooded our simple guest house accommodations.

The whole day was an unforgettable experience.

I was surprised that I was asked to be in the wedding - the guy friend from the US didn't have a lot of family on his end who were there for the wedding, so I was asked to represent part of his family. I happily obliged.

The music at the wedding was a cacophony of instruments that mimicked animals sounds - from elephants and monkeys to birds and other animals I couldn't pinpoint. The wedding was Hindu, and as Hindu weddings are typically a few days long; as the wedding had to be packed into a mere day (the US crowd had flights to catch), everyone scrambled everywhere to make sure all of the necessary ceremonies and celebrations occurred. I think we checked all of the boxes by the end of the day - we had rice paste pushed onto our foreheads, we offered plates of food to the right people, we ate ample food, we danced, we respected some solemn marching, and we witnessed a lot of pouring of water on the betrotheds' feet.

The day after the wedding the boyfriend and I tiredly grumbled out of our flooded room and rolled into a car that drove us back to the airport so that we could take 2 more short flights to Pokhara on the other side of the country.

Pokhara
Though the wedding was our favorite experience of the trip, going to Pokhara and the deadly Anapurna Mountains may have been the most breathtaking part. It was a heavily touristy place (we found all of the white people we hadn't seen elsewhere), which made sense because it was so beautiful. We were there in the off-season and the clouds hid the snowline of the mountain peaks surrounding us, threatening rain the whole time...but a few times we were lucky and the clouds lifted to present us awe-inspiring visions of immense crags and mixtures of gray and white. We were staying in a gorgeous boutique hotel with a balcony on the lakeside of the mountain range, so a lot of our time was spent sitting and admiring the rolling and jagged mountains surrounding the town. No wonder a lot of Tibetans find refuge there.

We started our tour of the town with a tranquil row around the lake to see the different views of the hills and mountains. We got off the boat once at a Hindu temple in the middle of the lake and took our time soaking in the beauty around us. We then found ourselves trying Thakali food - a regional type of food - and it was delicious (and spicy).

One day we felt bold enough to go on a car ride to a fancy resort sitting alone on a mountaintop to see the views. The concierge at our hotel politely mentioned that the roads would be a bit bumpy, but I believe he did not sufficiently describe the danger we were putting ourselves in. "Off season" in Nepal (much like India) means Monsoon season (aka rainy season). Unlike some countries with strong infrastructures, Nepal's roads are largely unpaved, and that especially goes for the hillside and mountain rides hugging the higher altitudes. The roads were rough - really rough - and it was clear some minor landslides were in process or had already happened recently. The roads were not wide enough for our Jeep, let alone sharing with the mopeds and busses that slowly navigated around our car. It was death-defying, and I was sure we were not going to make it up, let alone back down.

Once we finally made it to the resort, I genuinely needed a glass of wine to calm my nerves and regain the courage to go back down. I asked one of the staff how they made it to the hotel every day, and she explained that they lived at the resort during monsoon season to avoid the roads. Also, during that period of time most guests seem to arrive via helicopter. Noted.

At least the views of the valley below coupled with the mountains were as dazzling as we had hoped and kept us company until I had regained my nerves for the ride back. Despite the terror of the roads, the view was genuinely worth it. On the ride back we got to see people going up the same roads, only sitting outside on the top of the busses.

We stopped by at Begnas Lake on the way back to the hotel. It felt like a nice community spot that just happened to have breathtaking mountain views 360 degrees. People were swimming and rowing in the lake as the sun started to go down. I could see myself going there with friends for a friendly evening, as well.

Sadly, I had to cut our trip a day short due to a stupid error by the airlines. We scrambled to the airport early and boarded a plane to get us back to Kathmandu. We checked into an iconic hotel for the boyfriend (and for me to shower, feeling irritated I couldn't stay there the night we had planned) and ate a heap of buffet food there before I darted to the airport for my long flight home.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Ghana

Berekum, Ghana
It's been months since I went to Ghana. I've been wrapped up in the grief of losing a parent and the whirlwind of a changing job. I'll try my best to recollect my trip to Ghana, though I'm sure a lot will have been warped with the months. But later is better than never?

I got off of the 10-hour plane ride (riddled with crying babies the whole trip) and found myself walking into a wall of heat. It was like my welcome to the country included an invisible welcome crew who cloaked me in a layer of heat that would stay with me the whole trip. My office's driver met me in the front of a sea of people, looking around confused and tired for their arriving guests. Once he found me, he escorted me to the office truck and shuttled me to the office (because I got in too early to check into my Airbnb).

The office is a large 2-story house, converted into office spaces and hallways for our overwhelmed Ghanian colleagues. It was a similar situation in Rwanda, so I wasn't very surprised that it was a practice elsewhere. People were surprised with me, though, because I was in the office as soon as I landed. I didn't have much choice!

Once I got to the Airbnb place around lunchtime, I did crash into a nap for a healthy amount of time before returning to the office. It was a huge apartment with a few rooms that were rented out to short-term guests like me. The amount of money we were spending per day for such a large (and very polished) place made me feel like we should have insisted on paying more, especially given our living conditions in NYC. The complex where the apartment was had a good-sized gym I paid for every morning so I could sweat on the cardio machines with the other well-to-do Ghanaians and non-Ghanaians before going to work, which was a 5-minute car-ride.

While driving around the area with the office drivers for lunch and dinner, I was highly amused while reading the restaurant names we passed - or rather, most of the storefront names for any kind of business. We got Turkish food that was named DNR (surely, an innocent abbreviation for doner, though still alarming!), God Is Great, and (my favorite) Jesus Made It! Restaurant. This was a constant source of entertainment for me while I floated around Ghana for the 10 days - I was constantly amazed by the inspirational business signs I would see. Apparently, the culture deems shop naming as a way to express religious enthusiasm.

What's more, I was surprised to see numerous healing signs for local witch doctors. These signs were amusing in design (a serious image of a man holding strange objects over people's heads, or simply posing with a drum) as well as the list of ailments that were stated curable by these magical people. The signs would range from topics such as "get rich quick" to "HIV/AIDS problems" or "barrenness". Or even something so medically reasonable as "snake bites".

Foodwise in Ghana, I was always served far more than I could stomach, and the flavors of the country were okay but not always things I enjoyed eating. I went to an upscale local dining place in the center of Accra called Buka for groundnut soup and banku (mashed up/balled up fermented maize) and found that the food was decent, but I am not quite used to the aftertaste from eating gelatinous balls of carbs. This was a common characteristic of the meals I ate. In particular, locals found it especially amusing to watch the random foreigner swallowing down fufu (mashed up/balled up plantains and cassava), which I found rather tasteless.

I quickly found out I was not eating their food appropriately, though - banku and fufu are not made for chewing, they collect flavor from stews and then are supposed to slide down the esophagus in a rather effortless way of filling up. The feeling of not chewing and gulping down something gooey was odd for me (and a bit confusing)...I admit it was not my favorite thing in the world. That said, there was always ample food in my stomach and I was stuffed most of the time.

I didn't spend a lot of time traveling around Accra - I went to field visit some of our stations nearby in outer Accra areas for a day or two, but I didn't tour the city to see what was going there.

In fact, on my weekend I took a domestic flight to Kumasi to visit my graduate classmate Salley and his family. I understood that he lived about a 3-hour bus ride away from Kumasi, but I found out it was more like 6 or 7 hours on the way to his home (closer to the Cote d'Ivoire border than anywhere else) in a rural part of Berekum. It was very hot there in the rural area with chickens and farms hung out. His family was very sweet, and invited me into their house with open arms and hearts. It was simple living there, with unfinished rooms lingering in their newly-purchased plot of land, but we had a nice time.

I will note that foreigners are not a common occurrence in the area, though -we took a trip to the local market to pick up food for dinner, and I turned somewhat into some kind of walking spectacle for the community. People wanted to touch me and interact with me in some way, though I didn't know how to speak with them (they spoke Twee, I don't). I sipped on an apple juice box while we traveled around the area and it seemed to cause quite a reaction with people who stared at the car; some people started to laugh and run with the car, others pointed in shock. I guess it's not common to see random white folk sucking on juice boxes.

On my way back to Accra for another week of work, my plane got canceled due to rain and we got stuck in Kumasi for a night. We walked around the newly-opened mall in the area, which was pretty much the busiest and most chaotic shopping experience I've witnessed outside of Black Friday in the US. We got nearly smothered in a grocery shop - where people were in full gowns there shopping for cheese and tea - and I nearly wept at the number of people who kept on barreling into me as we looked around.

A final note, Ghanaians are some of the nicest people I think I have worked with yet. Whoever I met or approached was extremely pleasant and accommodating to me while I blundered around the hot, new country.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Puerto Rico

Mr. CT Lawyer and I went to Puerto Rico about 2 months ago with his friends for a birthday celebration. A lot has happened since then (my mom passed as soon as I returned) and it feels like ages ago, but it was such a wonderful trip I want to make sure I document somewhere, so if I forget again that I went, I have this place as a reminder.

I arrived in San Juan late and after a turbulent flight. I wanted badly to sleep in for a long tim - and the rain before, during, and after our trip beckoned me - but we had a flight the next day to another island in the region, the naturally beautiful Vieques. Luckily, when we woke up and looked out the window, the mess of the constant rain and annoying flights were erased by the opulent blue we saw at the resort's beach, and all across the horizon.

The next morning, we grabbed our backpacks and took a cab to the small domestic airport in the middle of town. There, we were placed on scales and assigned one of the 7 seats available on the prop plane we were taking to get to Vieques.

A note to appreciate the tiny prop plane we took - our trip there was a delightful float to Vieques. We were below cloud level the whole time, and our 30-minute trip was a wonderful tour of the coast of San Juan and the dazzling blue waters that surround it. Our older pilot was a real gentleman type (with the coiffed hair and dress all in the appropriate classiness), and our little noisy plane dutifully tooted over to Vieques with his attentive switching of switches and watching the radar screen. The flight back, on the other hand, was turbulent and like being in a toy boat during a storm, rocking and zigzagging in the air while we beat the rain and rough low clouds. One of the ladies on the flight back got sick and I prayed for an emergency landing the whole 30 minutes in the air.

Anyways, Vieques.

Vieques is an island that boasts being the least touched by the modern world in a bunch of places (save the nuclear testing happening on one end of the island that kind of ruined parts of the island off limits to others), and we loved it for that. We arrived at the little airport to a beautiful smell of tropical trees and fresh rain, with the temperature being lower than the main island. We took a cab and drove to Esperanza on the southern side of the island (where the small tourist town was) and admired the lush green going past us as we drove. Vieques has a large National Park on it, but even the area where we were staying felt peacefully rural and low key. The roads aren't repaved because of the stormwater runoff impacting the beaches, and there is not a lot of light pollution. There are (what I believe are wild) horses roaming the streets of the tourist area, chilling out in a truly laid back beachy vibe that encompasses the whole island. For the very brief day we visited, we loved it!

Our Airbnb wasn't much to write about, so I won't. And it was raining a lot while we were there so I won't go too much into the tourism there for the one night we stayed there, for there wasn't much that we did or ate (except at a little joint named El Rancho Choli, where we were given tasty but huge portions of local pork and rice).

We were in Vieques for a very specific reason: bioluminescence. I have wanted to see bioluminescent waters for a while (since I found out about them, probably), and Vieques is supposed to be one of the best places in the world to see them. So when Mr. CT Lawyer mentioned his friends trip to PR, I almost immediately started to research how to kayak in the bioluminescent bays. We were fortunate that we were in the area for the appropriate time of the month (during a new moon), or else all of our trips would have been for naught. And apparently Vieques can fill up quickly, so we were extra lucky we booked it so early on so as to avoid missing out.

The evening we arrived, we went to a green store and waited for a bus to drive us to the bay for the kayaking experience. We had hired a local eco-tour group (Jak Water Sports), which turned out to be at our benefit as they only do small groups and use minimal light while we are on the water. The friendly staff got us ready to go and rocked us down the rocky road to the water, and at 8pm we headed off into our partner kayaks to experience the bioluminescent plankton.

At first, we didn't think much of the water that lit up gently while we touched our paddles onto it, but the further we got from the beach, the water sparkled like stars around us. We had a glass bottom kayak, and we could see the little glowing specks rushing past us like we were traveling through space at great speeds. We put our hands in the water and they would be covered in twinkling stars. I threw water on my partner and his back shimmered. And we had perfect timing because as we started to kayak back to the beach the rain started to downpour; we were able to run into the bus quickly. As the rain started, though, the light flickered in the water as the drops hit the surface each time. Magical is the word.

After our fun bioluminescent adventure, we returned to Old San Juan and became standard tourists. I don't mean that in the sense that we wanted to be that way, but it was just easier to be that way, because of our large group and our resort deal and the way PR works. There is a lot of tourism-based shopping and tours and places in San Juan - it was hard to not be a standard tourist. It was still lovely.

We had a day in Old San Juan, where we did the routine pilgrimage to the old and beautiful fortresses that hug the coast and tried to get a feeling of the town. We enjoyed looking at the waters through the 16th-century porticos and walking around the old architecture of big defense walls. We carefully navigated old cobblestone streets and tried to get lost down alleyways in a small strip of land that is Old San Juan. The town's buildings were vibrant colors and closely packed on the old Spanish streets. It reminded me of New Orleans a bit, only with more commercial than NOLA's artisanal local shops laced in between tourist traps. We were surrounded by shops like Ben & Jerry's, Adidas, and Coach - not normally what I think of when I think of Puerto Rico. We were clearly not the target audience.

Foodwise, this trip was a lot less gastronomic than many of my trips have been in the last few years. Sure there, were a lot of food options, and the pork and seafood were delicious, but we weren't having mind-blowing meals every time. Which was fine! The one thing I wanted to try, mofongo, my partner had tried before I arrived and had proclaimed to never wanting to try it again, so I didn't have a lot of time (or options) to go for it in the 4 days we were there.

BUT! We did have two awesome meals while we were there. Let me tell you about those memorable meals.
  • Cafe Cortes Chocobar is my dream-come-true restaurant because they incorporate chocolate into everything. Take, for example, the chocolate-infused ketchup we had with our waffle fries, or our chocolate-spiced ceviche. And, of course, decadent chocolate shakes with chocolate shavings! The place was bustling, and we only got snack foods to hold us over for dinner. There was a line waiting to be seated before us, and it was worth it. I brought home some hot chocolate bars they had, and I have to admit they've already been drunk in entirety.
  • Marmalade was our fancy romantic dinner date for the trip (because every trip has a fancy romantic dinner date), and we were both blown away by the meal. We ordered way too much (they offered dinners based on 5, 6, and 7 dishes - we chose 6, and were full to the point of popping), but each dish was delightful and fun. Most of the dishes we picked were rich and flavorful (our mistake), but there were a lot of lighter and fresh dishes as well. I had a very nice sangria, and finished off with creme brulee (my favorite). I had to walk outside for a while to get some air after our filling meal, but we already talk about going to Marmalade again when we return to San Juan.
Finally, a lot of our trip, when we weren't kayaking in Vieques or scaling Old San Juan, was stationed at the resort. We were, after all, there for a friend's birthday, and for mandatory relaxation. We spent a night enjoying a lovely birthday party under a colorful sunset on a vanilla sky, and one day we went to the spa for a treatment and massage after lounging around the beach and pools for a few hours. That's not normally how I travel, but I think this time it was glorious and (given the events that happened after the trip) necessary.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Delayed Swedish (Chef) Post

Vasa Museum
It has been months since I visited Sweden, and I have only now found the time to recall and describe my visit there. It just goes to show how quickly life can run away from me.

Why did I go to Sweden? Because I was attending a big conference for the global water industry - Stockholm World Water Week (aka, SIWI). I had bought my tickets to go to SIWI before I got employed, but I ended up helping out my organization while I was there to get better involved.

SIWI is essentially the Lollapalooza for water professionals in the world, where developed and developing country people meet in droves at meetings, social events, panels, and other conference-planned fun. Some couple thousand of us attended and took over the city for a week. It was overwhelming and wonderful. I won't be going into the details here about the whirlwind of the conference - just know it was very useful and that I passed out cold every night I approached the bed.

I was also committed to being a full-on tourist between conference events and professional moments. My partner Mr. CT Lawyer also took the opportunity to join me there for his own holiday, which gave us exciting romantic moments.

Aside from it being cooler in temperature compared to what I'm used to in August/September, I found Stockholm to have a quiet regality to it. Everything felt clean to me (including the youth hostels I stayed in when Mr. CT Lawyer wasn't there), and the city felt small and functioned without much fuss. I'd even say politely. If NYC was freshly washed and cleaned in the West Village or UWS, I'd say it felt of similar color to me as Stockholm. With that includes the fact that Sweden has apparently a culture (at least in the city) of late night happenings starting at midnight. As I am not someone who frequents bars and likes to be in bed by 11pm, I can't expand more on this as I was fast asleep, wearing ear plugs

I got to Stockholm a day or so before Mr. CT Lawyer, so I took my jet-lagged self on a walk through the town to see what was going on and how to navigate the conference before it started. It was rainy when I arrived (and throughout my visit), but I bought myself a small umbrella and walked through the business districts, through the ancient area of Gamla Stan with the palace and winding alleyways with old brick houses and customs houses, and back across towards the museum area. Aside from the bustling tourists, I found the quiet while walking around to be quite soothing compared to the hectic NYC noise.

While I'm not much interested in visiting museums while I 'm traveling, I visited the Vasa Musem that is dedicated to an old Stockholm harbor shipwreck that was resurfaced and preserved. It was a fascinating place that hoisted the delicate ship remains at the center of the building, with displays and stories spiraling down from the masts to the base of the ship's belly.

Once Mr. CT Lawyer came in town, we loaded tourist activities into our schedule before my conference started. We went on a mini-archipelago cruise, which for a few hours wove between some of the closer islands that populate the waters in and around the city. We also walked over to the outdoor museum called Skansen. Through our meandering walk through the museum I had hoped to espy (and pet) some living moose and reindeer who had such little interest in us humans they (understandably) stayed as far away from the edges of their enclosures. To soothe my sad inner child, we relished at the food court a traditional smorgasbord of meatballs covered in lingonberry sauce and mashed rutabaga.

We ate a lot of food while in Stockholm - probably more than we should have. All of it was so delicious and scrumptious...and sinful. I discovered pear soda/seltzer, which was so refreshing I am still actively hunting for it in the US. It was also morel and crayfish season so, of course, I had to try different delightful dishes with those in it to "make sure" I understood what morel and crayfish tasted like. And I ate some tender reindeer accompanied with a rich and comforting sauce a couple of times. One luxurious meal that we went to was at a super restaurant called Djuret, which I believe means animal in Swedish. There, we had a 6-course meal dedicated to one daily animal (ours was lamb). Each new dish was just as fascinating and fulfilling as the dish before, and I started to fully understand what people mean when they talk about food being a journey or adventure. We had a blast trying out the unique flavor combinations and admiring the stunning art of food. He had an applemust (like sparkling apple cider) that was so good it made me angry. I had a new glass of tasty wine with every dish and became sufficiently silly by the time we left the fancy restaurant - hours after we started.

I felt like a lot of the food was very creamy, like the seafood salads and all of the sweet treats, so I am baffled at how Swedes are able to keep their stereotypically lithe figures, considering all of that cream and butter put an extra load on my person. I spent enough money on souvenirs and delectable foods that at least my wallet was lighter than it was before I arrived.

One day we walked through Gamla Stan and found a lovely candy store that hosted an array of homemade taffies and hard candies. We walked in like children and gazed at the unique (to us) flavors of the candy canes when the runner of the store - a young a more svelte version of Santa Claus - came out jubilantly and sold us some candy, giving us free candy canes for "being good". Speaking of which, something I noticed that was fun about the area was that candy canes (called polka in Swedish) were ample, despite it not being the Christmas season. I had always considered candy canes to be solely dedicated to the month of December, but in Sweden, you can get polka ice cream from a non-Santa-doppleganger while sweating in a t-shirt and shorts. I guess, in my head, Sweden lived up to every stereotype I've ever harbored about it and its relationship to Christmas.

We also took a leisurely stroll at some point around the river in Sodermalm, where we found a hidden gluten free bakery on a quiet street, called Friend of Adam. There I bought a princess cake to try out. After my experience with it, I strongly believe that all cakes should now be princess cakes. The fluffy, spongey cake with the soaked up bits of berries, along with the light and buttery cream in the middle, and topped with a fun layer of marzipan was everything I could ever ask for in a cake. I hope you, too, get to experience the joys of a princess cake.

We were lucky in our Airbnb hunt for finding a nice place to stay for the week, in the southern city island of Sodermalm. While Gamla Stan is a quaint little tourist spot, and other areas are commercialized with shops and touristy food, Sodermalm helped us feel like we had found the "real" Stockholm - where people worked and lived life. We were surrounded by fun local restaurants and grocery stores that delighted and mystified me with its different selection of foods. We got to be away from the overly priced fikas and had pleasantly quiet morning enjoying creamy pastries while watching people stroll.

Before he left, we went to city hall for a conference buffet dinner. Along with many (many many) other water professionals, Mr. CT Lawyer and I found ourselves in an expansive hall that led into a gold hall that was covered in golden mosaics and had me gaping at the ceiling in between gulps of reindeer meatballs.

Mr. CT Lawyer left a few days before me, so I ended up having some time to explore more of the country by myself before heading home. Firstly, I met up with my online buddy, Malmo Martin, and we ate lunch at a cute little train restaurant and ended up walking around (and outside) of the city to help him prepare for a friend's bachelor party the next day. We chatted and joked about life while he patiently explained and detailed for me Swedish culture, politics, and current affairs.

The day before I left I decided to take an express train north to explore the old town of Uppsala. I only knew of Uppsala because of my appreciation for the popular book series by Stieg Larsson, but I am very glad I made the trek up despite intermittent rain. I started in Gamla Uppsala, where the old town used to be located some hundreds of years ago. In this area are three ancient royal burial mounds, which are hard to miss as you walk around and between the mounds. The museum for the ancient site was small and simple but well done. I learned about the occult linkages to the grounds, and they ended up handing me an iPad and told me to walk around with it outside as I scaled the old ruins. When I looked up, I saw the quiet ruins of a cute sprawl of land with grass and a church. When I held up the iPad and looked into it, I saw a rendering of a living and populous town hundreds of years ago happening on the screen. This made me giddy with excitement.

After my adventures in Gamla Uppsala, I took a bus over to the new town area, where the university is. This area was a lot more like Stockholm, and I mosied around and explored some of the university campus without having to get in the way of celebrating college students running around. I visited the big cathedral and the Gustavianum Museum, where I got to go into a creepy operating theater (the world's 2nd oldest) and explore their collection on Mr. Nobel and his famous prize.

I wish I had been able to write this earlier so I could have more fully remembered all of the pieces of my visit there, and perhaps portrayed a fuller vision of what I experienced. What I do know is that I am looking forward to going back to Sweden. I know there's more in store for me.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Leaving Brisbane

When I returned to Brisbane, I was surprised with the challenges I had with readjusting. I had major jet lag from the flying, and people commented for a week or two that I seemed flat or unwell. I’m not really sure what was going on, but I was hurting for a little bit after returning from SE Asia. Either I missed the lifestyle I had grown accustomed to in Phnom Penh, or I was recuperating from months of being sick off and on there. Either way, it was hard.
I do know that I was struggling to adjust to the bus system in Brisbane. In most of my adventures through SE Asia I was used to hailing a tuk-tuk driver with a simple nod of my head and for small denominations of dollars get carried to anywhere in the area I desired to see. In Bangkok, there’s a transit system that operates regularly, much like the NYC subway system only above ground. In Brisbane, on the other hand,  I lived in a place where buses were maybe every 30 minutes normally needed at least one transfer somewhere to get where I wanted to go. There was a lot more planning that had to happen for me to get anywhere.
Brisbane, after all, is a very large suburban-urban area. Or, as many people told me time and time again, Brisbane is a big country town.
Which meant I was at the mercy of the usually-late TransLink buses that would take me from Point A to Point B..with about 20 points between the two. During Brisbane’s cool winter time. With shops closing at 6pm every day (as opposed to SE Asia’s “open late” culture). Being a famously impatient and cold-adverse person, I did not take to these readjustments easily.
Most of my first four weeks of being back emphasized finishing my piece de resistance – my Final Project for the Masters of Integrated Water Management! I am pretty good at time and project management, so I was ahead of schedule and was able to calmly hunker down and polish my 70-page paper over and over again until I could submit it several days early. I booked several health appointments during this time (I wanted to check everything before I left since it was cheaper there than in the US), where most professionals remarked how calm I seemed considering how close my deadline was.
Admittedly, my calm demeanor and confident project management did not prevent me from stress eating. And I did have a hospital run a few weeks after returning…but that was mostly because I had had my medication adjusted just before and my health insurance told me I needed to make sure I was not reacting adversely to the change. Unfortunately, I had another infuriatingly bad run with the public hospital system in Australia (with a doctor yelling at me about how we are all going to die someday while I was asking him if I was okay) that may haunt me for a while to come. Don’t worry – I am still fine, just angry at a cocky doctor who was less than helpful with a simple concern.
Also, one week before submitting my paper there was a full-time conference on WASH in Brisbane. This was a huge week, as I was wearing several different hats every day at the conference, depending on the audience and time of day. I was working my consulting job a few hours during each day of the conference while I also represented my masters program…while trying much as possible to network for my own emerging WASH career. In some ways, the week was overwhelming because of the amount of people I talked to, but I also felt in my element. I am a social person who is hungry for learning and likes to network, after all. It was also very fun to see those I met in Phnom Penh and throughout my consulting/education come together and weave in and out for a few days.
And then, I submitted my paper.
I submitted it early, and it was anticlimactic. I was expecting some kind of little trumpet announcing my completion, or maybe a hug. Instead, I simply got an email saying, “Assessment Received”. And that was that. A few days later my friends from the class got together to celebrate our completion of the program – only then did I feel like I was really done.
Of course, my six weeks back in Australia included reuniting with friends and seeing people I had met throughout the last year and a half. I met up with friends as much as I could before I left – for dinner, for lunch, for festivals, for walks.
Some of my closer friends and I took a few days to rent a cabin in the Bunya Mountains and enjoy some relaxing freedom with each other before we started to return to our own countries. On our trip, we stocked amazing amounts of food that we cooked between long hikes around the mountain trails. There were wallabies carpeting the landscape with little joeys poking out of pouches everywhere! The air was clean (and COLD!) and smelled like trees and wooden stoves. At night, we’d go outside and gaze at the Milky Way in the darkness of a quiet, lamp-less place. We talked about funny and serious things over wine and movies. We fought off red-bellied black snakes before munching on trail mix. The retreat was a lovely respite from the rest of the world.
I worked until I left to return to the US (I am still consulting, too) so I did not have a lot of downtime before leaving. But that’s okay, because it meant I was busy and productive, which I like. 
A few days ago, I got on a redeye plane that took me out of my Australian Chapter of Life and placed me soundly back into the US for the next chapter that I have yet to open. I got a bit emotional while I left, but by now I have moved back and forth so much that it's become almost standard procedure for me.
In reflection about Australia, people asked me if I would take a job and live there. The answer is, I’m not sure.
The whirlwind 18 months have been so incredible and eye-opening that I feel it really gave me a chance to learn about my adult self and become more me. Australia was definitely a key piece to my transformation and incredible experience. It’s definitely a beautiful and peaceful place with more adorable and fuzzy animals than you can shake a stick at. And the people I’ve made friends with in Australia are outstanding and supportive friends. I am so glad that they are in my life and I wish I could safely bottle them up and take them with me wherever I end up. 

That said, I’m used to a different lifestyle that lets me be more mobile without a car or worrying about early business closing hours. I’m not used to watching TV in the evening - I'm more about  exploring interesting social events in random parts of the world. In some ways, the Australian culture is perfect and family-friendly and relaxed and secure…but I don’t think it’s for me. I like messy, adventurous, buzzing, aggressive places and cultures…like what I've experienced in NYC and Phnom Penh. I like dirt and tightly-packed streets where I can escape for a weekend. I like knowing that I have a small patch of city I can walk around and get everything I want without taking a 45-minute bus where I will feel carsick. 
I think if I was a quieter person with a lot less demands on a place (i.e. free and diverse activities, late-night options), and with a family to care for, I would jump on the opportunity to stay in sunny Australia. For now, I think I will love my Australian Chapter and look forward to visits back for friends and vacations.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Perth

I know I'm over a month behind on writing blog posts. I have been finishing my masters thesis...and consulting...and tying together the pieces before I leave for the US. Better late than never?

I should probably start from when I reentered Australia.

I came in through Western Australia, stopping in Perth for a few days. It so happens that stopping over in Perth from Southeast Asia before heading back to Brisbane saved me hundreds of dollars, and I have a friend in the area I was keen on visiting. Also, I had the rare opportunity to see one of my absolute favorite animals in the world, wild! It was a pretty good deal.

My friend met me at the airport. Upon seeing me at the gate, she handed me a sweater. After putting it on, she got me into her car so I could drop my heavy bags off at her house before adventuring around the area.

The weather in Perth compared to Phnom Penh was shockingly cold (I was shivering a bit). All of my heat rashes (I had quite a few on my limbs)from living in boiling Cambodia started to heal immediately after landing. I felt ill-equipped to deal with weather, though, as I had packed only tank tops and light shirts that breathe well while sweating. I was cold.

The culture shock from SE Asia to Australia was subtle and easy. The cleanliness of the streets surprised me for a while, as I was now used to streets lined with dust and dirt and litter and other curious objects (eg, half sets of sandals). I had learned how to listen for oncoming traffic so that I could leap out of their way and avoid injury. Here, the streets had grass and trees to divide the pedestrians from the cars, and the only trash you see is safely contained in bins, ready for pick-up. Here, everything looks so shiny and polished compared to what I had gotten used to.

The other surprise I had was the lack of people on the streets. There were so many streets, but I wondered where all of the people were. In SE Asia, it was a rare moment to be alone and free of other people. Now, the place seemed empty while we drove.

And we drove around a lot. For those who don't know, I am easily carsick and don't personally enjoy being in cars for long periods of time. This has been the case in Brisbane all year, where everything is accessible by riding in buses through long stretches of suburbia. Perth seemed to be formatted like Brisbane, with lots of roads and highways to drive. Aside from the discomfort of long drives, driving around did help me get to see the area quickly; given I only had a few days to see everything, I was glad to see the country gliding by my window.

We explored Freemantle a bit. Freemantle is kind of like a cute, quiet area of Perth that grew legs and walked down the shore a few miles. It is an adorable area with cute shops and pleasant cafes down small streets. It also used to be where a big prison was located, which is now a museum and performance space. We didn't get to go to the prison because of my limited time, but we visited the harbor area with a few older stone buildings we could walk around before eating fish & chips for lunch at an open-air harbor joint called Kaili's. Oh yeah, I was also having culture shock (and still am) to the high prices of Australia. This place is not cheap!

The second day in Perth was the piece de resistance of my trip. We woke up early, got to the port, and hopped onto a ferry to Rottnest Island. This, my friends, is where the adorable, angelic, absolutely amazing QUOKKAS LIVE!!!!

To say I was beside myself with excitement would probably not do justice the giddiness I had all day. I mean, I have been loving quokkas from afar for years! Finally, I got to go to quokka paradise and pet them! I got to potentially love them and rally the quokkas to happiness and freedom, with me, forever!

Well, I didn't expect the quokkas to be little sugar junkies, though. There are bakeries and sandwich/candy shops dotted near the harbor, and the little quokkas by the shops have grown accustomed to tourists dropping tasty things on the ground for them to try. The quokkas near the shops rummaged around for little morsels of chocolate or sugar or other highly-addictive substances that could cause major damage to the health of these succulent-eating marsupials. It was heartbreaking to be turned down by quokkas while holding a succulent leaf in exchange for someone nearby who had sugar-coated hands and a piece of banana (other tourists were idiots and kept feeding quokkas things that are not good for them). One local guy came over and told me that some of these quokkas by the shops have been losing chunks of fur as a result of eating sugary sweets instead of succulents. I was devastated to hear this. Later on, I saw a little quokka huddled in the corner of a shop's alley with Snickers wrapper in its delicate little paws. I shouted and ran over to grab the wrapper from the poor little fluffball, and it gave me a confused and sad look as I threw away the wrapper saying in near-tears, "No, quokka, no!"

Outside of the shop area, the beaches on the island were gorgeous and wild, and less-addicted quokkas came over and investigated our squee-ing selves for a little while. We tried our best to master the quintessential quokka selfie without intimidating the meek little things. They were sweet and gentle, and I was in love so much I barely could get myself to leave them. We also went for a quokka tour to learn more about their lifestyles and stumbled across a heavily-quokka-ed area where we oggled and awwwed for a while, trying to lure them to love us (I wasn't alone in this endeavor!). It was a heavenly day, and I could not have felt more accomplished in life.

We also enjoyed some snacks and toured the island on a bus, finishing our adventures with lunch at the port - I got myself an unprecedented amount of chili mussels for consumption.

I got another surprise during my short visit to Perth - I had found out that an old friend from NYU I hadn't seen in a decade lived in the area! We ended up meeting in Freemantle and enjoyed drinks and dinner with each other as we caught up on life over a few hours. I was so pleased to hear how she's doing and what has changed for both of us since last time we met. Reconnecting with old friends might be one of my favorite things in life.

On my last day, we visited the CBD of Perth. The buildings in Perth are big and loom over the streets in silence, but the city overall is a pretty small and compact place. Most of the places we wanted to visit (like museums) were unfortunately closed for the day, but we wandered a bit and I took in the quietness of the small city before getting on another plane to get back to Brisbane.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

A Farewell (for Now) to Cambodia

A few days ago in Phnom Penh, I packed myself up, grabbed a tuk-tuk to the airport, and flew out of the country back to Australia. It was a bittersweet farewell.

Let's start with the bitter part....

A lot of my time in Cambodia was framed with unforgiving heat and constant sweating. By the end of my visit, Shana and I found ourselves sitting in our common room staring at each other with dazed expressions, carefully keeping body parts away from each other to allow for sweat to dry (I was always covered with rashes and blisters from the sweat).  And the oozing heat was combined with a dangerous ongoing drought that is beginning to threaten food security (read: looming food crisis). So I won't miss that too much.

Also, I dealt with the long and arduous rites of passage of white foreigners that are GI tract issues. I had amoebic dysentery and a number of food poisonings during my stay. Even during my last week, right when I began to feel nostalgic for a country I've learned to love, I was reminded not to love any place too dearly because of some rotten food. Shana and I found ourselves clutching to bathroom doors with food poisoning from a nearby restaurant. Back in Australia now, I can say that my GI is on the mend and I am thrilled to feel less likely to get ill from the food (though I'm still wary of leafy greens). I definitely won't miss that, either.

Overall, though, sweetly, I found Cambodia to be a lovely place to be for a while. It is so easy to be a foreigner there - the country is brimming with NGOs and development work, and the country (the city especially) caters to the palates and whims of Westerners at pretty decent prices. I never felt like my safety was compromised while I was there, and the Khmer I met seemed more concerned with my well-being than even I was. So many of the people were friendly and generous to a humbling degree.

Also, I discovered my love of bobor/congee, for which I am grateful - I have a new comfort food! I was fortunate that Virak took me to get two heaping bowls of bobor a few days before I left.

Sure, there's issues with corruption and more political issues than you can shake a stick at (I'd rather not get into it at the moment), but the country works and grows in spite of those challenges. The economy is shifting and booming, and the changes are easy to see even over a brief stint like mine. I mean, a Krispy Kreme was about to open down the block right after I left! I cannot imagine what Cambodia will be like in a few years.

In fact, those challenges helped remind me that no country is immune to problems - especially the US. Though I admit, I am happy to be back in the developed world and am enjoying the comforts of my upbringing - the air is fresh, the food is clean, and the streets are quiet!

Final thought: I look forward to going back to Cambodia sometime soon (though, I hope, with cooler temperatures!).