Wednesday, June 30, 2010

California Gurls

It was just another average hump day at work when the travel bug set in like an unsuspecting sneeze or hiccup that somehow erupts seemingly out of nowhere.  Okay, well, I have a good idea of what triggered it--it was because I had JUST been alerted that I had a three day 4th of July weekend ahead, and for once there was no Bumbershoot or Sasquatch requiring my presence in Seattle.  Thus, the urge to travel set in like wildfire, and before I knew it, I was perusing Airfare Watchdog and Kayak for inspiration.  The first destinations that came to mind were New York (my favorite city) and Atlanta (home of the wildest random party I've ever been to).  Then, it hit me where I should go, and you can blame Katy Perry and her ridiculous song for it.

The Golden State has always had a mysterious draw for me, likely because I spent most of my childhood summers there.  I'd had my heart set on living in California all my life, only to end up in Washington, and not return for a visit since the Pratt family reunion back in 2006.  It's been four years since I've been to California; six years since I went to Los Angeles (LA) to visit the campuses of UCLA and USC, my two dream schools back in the day.

 Summer 2006-last time I was in CA.  In SF with the bro.

Anyway, back to my story.  I had an urge to go to California, and within an hour, I had an email confirming that I'd be heading to LA in T-minus four days.  Did I have the slightest idea what I was going to do there?  Absolutely not.  I approached the trip like I did for Atlanta, Switzerland, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, and over half of the destinations I've been to:  find a way to get there, and the rest works itself out.  Turns out that this is one time when spontaneity is particularly rewarding.  After shooting random Facebook messages around, I discovered that my best friend from kindergarten just happens to be in the area for the week celebrating his birthday, and my pen-pal from the fifth grade will be hosting me for a good chunk of my trip.  I still have no idea where I'm sleeping on my last night in LA, but if I've learned anything from my other travels, I know that'll work itself out.  Here's to random fun in LA!
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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Manhattan, NYC - No Sleep Til Brooklyn

"Excuse me sir, can I have a quarter so I can kill my wife?"

When in Manhattan, you can expect to have such a question posed to you.  In this case, Dave and I were attempting to navigate in the Astor Place area when a likely crazy man popped the above question.  All you can do is pretend to not hear, yet chuckle inwardly, because it's just one of many things that ascertain that you are in New York City (NYC).

My third trip to NYC was different in many ways, and similar in others.  This was my first trip to New York that did not include a trip to Ellis Island (thankfully...once is enough), and I did not spend any time in museums or my favorite district, Times Square.  Rather than be a tourist as usual, this was my first trip ever that was centered around food.  It was delicious and absolutely worth it, even if my jeans and credit card might protest.

NYC_Times Square

Times Square...very wet.

Dave and I arrived separately on Friday night, meeting at our temporary residence Brooklyn, just a few blocks away from Central and Flushing Ave.  My first NYC meal of the trip was Mexican: burritos and horchata (con whiskey!) from L.A. Burrito in Brooklyn, followed by a night of hipster art show entertainment with free booze and wedding cake.  Chinese man artfully cracking raw eggs onto a mirror table, girl having nails and feathers stuffed into her mouth, a faux bicycle race and wedding was so random that it became obvious why the booze was free.

NYC_Brooklyn art show

Girl on the right with nails in her mouth.

To our disappointment, NYC was flooded with pouring rain and strong winds throughout the weekend.  The impact of the rain was interesting, because New Yorkers, unlike Seattleites, actually use umbrellas, but once they break, they do not put them in the garbage, but merely toss them aside.  The streets were what Jon Stewart described as an "umbrella cemetary." On the day I left, the sun was out and skies were blue.  I suppose I'm becoming a true Seattlite in the sense that I appeared to have brought stereotypical Seattle weather with me.  Besides getting soaked to the bone on some days, we didn't let the rain get to us, and still managed to have very full and fun days.

NYC_Umbrella cemetary

Umbrella Cemetery

On day one (Saturday), we slept in until noon and met a friend for a bagel brunch at Murray's Bagels, home of arguably the best red pepper garlic cream cheese ever.  We then decided to brave the nasty weather, but after taking a beating from angry wind and rain, settled for relaxing in Rockefeller Center for the afternoon.  For the evening's entertainment, we kicked it off at McSorley's Old Ale House, going through several rounds of all two kinds of their beers (light and dark).  I loved this Ale House, where Abraham Lincoln used to drink, and so did the throngs of Manhattanites and fellow visitors that filled the bar.  We topped off the evening with a few slices of New York pizza and a night of blues  at the prohibition era dive bar 55 Bar in Greenwich Village.  Sweet Georgia Brown was the entertainer for the night.  Known on her website as "the last of the red hot mamas," she and her band exhibited impressive blues style musical talent, while Brown with her humorously racy commentary and outspoken personality made it clear that she is more than a singer, but an entertainer as well.  Dave can definitely attest to this, as she chose to include him in one of her acts.  

NYC_55 Bar_Sweet Georgia Brown

Sweet Georgia Brown at 55 Bar.

Sunday morning was also slow-going, starting off with a delicious brunch at Sarabeth's just off of Park Avenue.  The brunch crowd was definitely a crowd, and while the menu featured traditional breakfast items, the food was wholesome, rich, and worth savoring every bite.  I ordered a farmer's omelet, which was plump and full in size and flavor, with chunks of potato, gruyere cheese, ham and leeks.  The eggs benedict and chicken/apple sausage were also impressive.  For a complete NYC brunch, I recommend Sara Beth's.

NYC_Sarabeth's_Eggs Benedict
Eggs Benedict at Sara Beth's.

Not long after brunch, a late lunch at Meatball Shop followed.  The menu is quite simple, with an emphasis on the five specialty meatballs of traditional beef, spicy pork, salmon, and veggie. And dessert of homemade cookies and homemade ice cream (gingersnaps with vanilla bean for me!).

NYC_The Meatball Shop

Meatball sliders! Salmon meatball with parmesan sauce, and spicy pork meatball with tomato.

That evening, we attended a comedy show at Comix in Chelsea.  It was a special event, in more ways than one.  For starters, it was called Generosi-titties (emphasis on the "titties" part), meaning it was topless standup comedy featuring women telling jokes without their shirts off.  Second, the audience consisted mostly of women--gay women.  This became more apparent as the six comedians throughout the course of their material revealed that they themselves were lesbians (most, if not all).  Whew.  If that wasn't enough, they had door prizes, since it was after all a benefit for breast cancer, and wouldn't you know it, someone  of the male gender at our table won the top prize--a vibrator.

To top off a stellar day of food and comedy was a late dinner at a restaurant not far from the Meatball Shop.  WD50 specializes in molecular gastronomy, a "scientific discipline that studies the physical and chemical processes that occur while cooking."  In short, it was a pricey, tasty meal of food that looked more like a work of art than anything else.  We shared a corned duck appetizer, and each ordered our own entrees: mediterranean bass, venison chop, and Wagyu skirt steak, all delicious.  As a finale, we had the five course dessert tasting menu, which ended up being like 7 courses with the extra palette cleansers thrown in.  After all, how often does a restaurant offer a DESSERT tasting menu?  At the very end, as I was force feeding myself chocolate, it became apparent that sugar and fat aren't the best things to overload oneself on--savory food are far more indulgent in the long run.  The desserts featured a lot of flavored foam, and perhaps my favorite pieces were the whole wheat sorbet, carmelized brioche with apricot filling, peppermint ice cream (reminiscent of Altoids), and the coffee ice cream that had the curious texture of cotton candy after it had been scientifically expanded.  Feast your eyes on photos below!

Mediterranean bass, artichokes, bamboo rice, halva, chicory

Venison chop, freeze dried polenta, fennel, Asian pear

2010-03-14 23.03.07
Wagyu skirt steak, long bean, tamarind, peanut butter pasta (like pad thai)

Palette cleanser: vanilla-mango ice cream, yuzu, spruce foam

2010-03-14 23.41.56
Lemongrass mousse, brown sugar crisp, jack fruit, whole wheat sorbet

2010-03-14 23.51.22
Caramelized brioche, apricot filling, buttercream, lemon thyme

2010-03-14 23.57.09
Coffee ice cream (texture like cotton candy), pecan, cocoa, argan oil

2010-03-15 00.02.42
It was like a rich chocolate moon pie. This was my filling point.

2010-03-15 00.10.29
Soft chocolate, peppermint ice cream, black cardamom, toffee. So full...

Monday, my last full day in New York, was also a late-starting day.  We reached Manhattan shortly before noon and brunched at Ess-a-Bagel--everything bagel with scallion cream cheese...yum!


We then attempted to see the special Tim Burton exhibit at the MoMA, but were quickly dissuaded by the hordes of people and headed down to wait in line to catch a live taping of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.  After waiting a couple hours in line in front of two gossipping sorority girls, we were let into the studio for the hour-long taping, which went rather smoothly and required only one re-take.  Jon Stewart was a cordial and humorous host, allowing guest questions before taping started, and addressing us between takes as well.  The guests for the day were professional WWF (or WWE) wrestler Mick Foley who likened Congress to pro wrestling and financial author Michael Lewis.  It was a nice once in a lifetime experience.  The evening consisted of a low key dinner and another comedy show, this time at the Upright Citizens Brigade (UBC), a club much less swankier than Comix, but much more down-to-earth in its interior as well as its humor.

NYC_The Daily Show

NYC_The Daily Show

The morning I left, we had breakfast at Clinton Street Bakery, not far from WD50 and the Meatball Shop. They are famed for the blueberry pancakes, and some wait 2 hours in line for them! They were pretty darn good, with the buttery, brown sugar "syrup," but I don't think I'd wait two hours for them.

NYC_Clinton St Bakery pancakes
Clinton Street Bakery blueberry pancakes.

We then got a tour of the Google NYC office, which was pretty cool considering it's the second-largest Google office after the Mountain View, CA headquarters. It certainly adheres to the rumors of being a fun place to work. How about getting around the office by scooter, getting free food, being able to work from an electric massage chair or the elliptical? All of these and more are possible at Google. As cool as it all was, I couldn't help but remember that it was still an office, and if anything, it's turned into the perfect way to eliminate any excuses for NOT being at the office.


NYC_chair massage
Massage chair at Google

Overall, NYC treated us well our third time around.  I look forward to the fourth!

Random Add-Ons

NYC_Boka_Korean Fried Chicken
Korean fried chicken at Boka restaurant in East Village

NYC_NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center
NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center

NYC_Rockefeller Center mural
Rockefeller Center ceiling mural

NYC_halal street food
Halal street food

NYC Metro mural

NYC_Roosevelt Island
Roosevelt Island (yes, this is the day I left, hence the lack of rain)

NYC_Roosevelt Island
Roosevelt Island
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Thursday, March 11, 2010

Empire State of Mind

Statue of Liberty

Statue of Liberty

Whenever I ask a foreigner where in the USA they want to visit the most, the most common answer is New York City, and who would blame them? New York, NYC, Manhattan, Empire State, Big Apple...however you refer to it, if you're not enchanted by this city, you're in the minority.  The chorus of Jay Z and Alicia Keys' hit single "Empire State of Mind" just about sums it up:

Baby, I'm from New York
Concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There's nothing you can't do
Now you're in New York

There streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you
Let's hear it for New York, New York, New York

I first ventured to the Big Apple back in the spring of 2002, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  It was part of a two week field trip to the East Coast during my sophomore year of high school, and my memories of the city are blurred, granted it was during a very unique time when life in NYC was anything but normal.  We did typical NYC tourist activities such as shopping in the famous Fifth Avenue district, saw Oklahoma! on Broadway, visited Ellis Island/Statue of Liberty, and went to the top of the Empire State Building.  But we also had the once in a lifetime experience of standing mere meters away from the remains of the Twin Towers, and paying respects to the many makeshift memorials and "Lost people" ads littering the blocks surrounding Ground Zero.  While it was thrilling to finally visit the famous New York City, it was also a very sobering experience.

Fast forward to the fall of 2008: this marked my return trip to NYC, and it was long overdue.  One of my closest friends from high school ventured to the "concrete jungle where dreams are made of" after college, and I came to visit during Thanksgiving week of 2008.  I slept on a couch in her shared loft in Brooklyn and had the NYC experience I was hoping for, sans the Macy's Thanksgiving parade.  Wandering through the financial district (this time amidst the less visible but equally devastating 2008 financial crisis), the MoMA, Guggenheim, Museum of American History, Central Park, Times Square, Madison Square Garden, etc. It was a splendid week, complete with mildly cool weather.

2008 NYC Photos

This weekend will be my third trip to the Big Apple, this time with a travel partner and no real plans, other than to revel in the greatness of one of my favorite American cities.  I can't wait to see what NYC has in store for me this time around; after all, third time's a charm.


NYC Subway Breakdancer

NY_Times Square

Crazy Times Square at night

NY_Astor Place Cube

Astor Place Cube

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pleasure, Happiness, and Travel

 "....Americans have an inability to relax into sheer pleasure.Ours is an entertainment seeking-nation, but not necessarily a pleasure-seeking one....This is the cause of that great sad American stereotype- the overstressed executive who goes on vacation, but who cannot relax...But is it such a bad thing to live like this for just a little while? Just for a few months of one's life, is it so awful to...nap in a garden, in a patch of sunlight, in the middle of the day, right next to your favorite fountain? And then to do it again the next day?"

The above quote is from Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Eat, Pray, Love, which got me through the second half of my travels.  In her deeply emotional and personal writing, Gilbert made a lot of statements that I identified with and a few of which I shared above. I do very fervently believe that "Americans have an inability to relax into sheer pleasure."  Despite my embarking on a month of travel "for pleasure," I admit that at times it was hard to completely forget my responsibilities and wonder exactly what I was going to do when I got home.  I can't think of anything worse than lying on one of the world's most beuatiful beaches in Costa Rica when "the worries" start to set in, and suddenly I can't appreciate my current pleasures because my mind feels so dependent on having every future detailed in my life figured out.

And then I realized that maybe it didn't have to be that way.

We didn't know where we were sleeping that night, and I was freezing cold, but I was also in Germany, with two of my best friends and a steaming cup of hot chocolate.  How could I not choose to be happy?

My two main pleasure reading books for my trip were Eat, Pray, Love and The Power of Now.  I couldn't have chosen more appropriate books

"Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it. You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings. And once you have achieved a state of happiness, you must never become lax about maintaining it. You must make a mighty effort to keep swimming upward into that happiness forever, to stay afloat on top of it." -Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love

"Be present as the watcher of your mind -- of your thoughts and emotions as well as your reactions in various situations. Be at least as interested in your reactions as in the situation or person that causes you to react. Notice also how often your attention is in the past or future. Don't judge or analyze what you observe. Watch the thought, feel the emotion, observe the reaction. Don't make a personal problem out of them. You will then feel something more powerful than any of those things that you observe: the still, observing presence itself behind the content of your mind, the silent watcher."  -Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now

Elizabeth Gilbert and Eckhart Tolle have their fair share of critics.  A NPR feature reported a man who considered Eat, Pray, Love "chick-lit crap," which I could understand because Gilbert is very forthright (and hormonal) with her emotions in her writing, which could drive a man insane.  My friend who began reading The Power of Now after I had finished it couldn't get past the first chapter because his theories and observations were "too out there," which I could understand.  Some of Tolle's points seemed a little hokey to me too.  At the same time, both authors had their good points.  I think Tolle is absolutely right that too many people aren't really alive in the sense that they are too caught up in the past or future, and are thus unable to live in the now.  I am more than guilty of that.  Gilbert has a similar revelation when she is studying yoga and meditation in India, and at one point makes the declaration that happiness is earned and requires work to maintain.

Perhaps I am speaking to a minority, and I am one of few who has this problem of living in the past and future, and not realizing that one needs to work to find happiness.  If you've already figured all of that out, congratulations, and keep it up.  If you haven't, then I hope that these points are as enlightening to you as they were to me when I first realized them.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wrapping Up a Month of Travel

What's my age again?

A huge leafy green salad.   That is the one thing my body is craving when I touch down onto US soil in Houston after my 9 hour flight out of Amsterdam Schipol.  The nutella-peanut butter sandwich and stroopwafle had definitely worn off, so a Wendy's chicken salad leaves me contented, and thus, my one month of traveling is coming to an end.  I can hardly believe that the full month has come to an end.  Part of me is itching to hop aboard another international flight, and part of me is ready to quit living out of my backpack, wondering how long I'll have to keep re-using my clothes before I can wash them again.

Overall, this trip has been rewarding in every possible way.  As always, I managed to travel relatively lightly, since the only souvenirs I collect are postcards, chocolate bar wrappers, and Coke bottle wrappers.  I must confess though that my pack has gained a few more kilos due to the licorice, stroopwafels and cookies my friends sent with me.  As another sad yet unsurprising fact, my favorite clothes that were destroyed, in this case, a pair of jeans I've been wearing for the past 3 years, and 5 pairs of socks that got moldy and ant-infested in humid Costa Rica.  Still, I managed to see and do an amazing amount of things during my travels including:

- kicking back in Americus, Georgia

- partying up in Atlanta

- experiencing an "authentic" Costa Rican holiday in Limón

- lounging the beautiful beaches of Puerto Viejo and Puerto Jimenez 

- hiking the rainforests of Corcovado and seeing all the wildlife

- relaxing and taking in the beauty of Bahía Drake

- seeing good friends in Wageningen

- walking the infamous streets of Amsterdam

- falling in love with Bavaria on the Romantic Road

...and all the while being reunited with old friends and making new ones in every destination.

In the mean time, you can read about and support my next (planned) big adventure to Pokhara, Nepal by clicking here!

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bavaria, Germany - recap

Sadly, I am no longer in beautiful Bavaria, but I was fortunate enough to spend last weekend with two of my favorite people in southern Germany doing the route my parents took me on 20 years ago when I was a toddler.

"Sprechen Sie deutsch?"
"Nein...definitely nein."

There's no better way to be humbled than to realize that you can't even walk into a store and complete a simple transaction because you don't speak or understand a lick of the language. In this case, the German references from Rammstein and The Producers did me no help.  Our roadtrip down to Germany began as expected with a few fiascos.  Kirsten and I have encountered so many travel disasters (everything from losing each other in Italy to taking out my car's brake light and bumper in Canada) that we have matching St. Christopher charms to attempt to bring us better luck.  Possibly because I forgot my St. Christopher on this trip, we took off from the Netherlands 4 hours later than expected due to the Avis Rent-a-Car business changing locations without notifying clients on their website.  After finally picking up our cute little Opel car in Arnhem, we (or Adam) drove nearly 9 hours straight down to the town of Füssen on the German border, where we then encountered our next dilemma of trying to find our hostel without a map or hint of directions whatsoever.  Luckily, it all worked out and we had a place to sleep that night that was not in the car.  

Beautiful lake in Schwangau, nearby Füssen.

Füssen is a cute German town located 5K (3.1 miles) from the Austrian border.  At 808 meters above sea level, it is the highest town of Bavaria, and the famous Hohenschwengau and Neuschwenstein castles are a 5 minute drive away.  Bright and early the next morning, we trudged through the snow and chilly weather to spend the entire day exploring the famed castles and their surroundings.  Schloss Hohenschwengau (literally: Castle of the High Swan County) was built by King Maximilian II of Bavaria on top of the remains of fortress Schwanstein.  The royal family, including sons Ludwig and Otto, spent their summers here.


After King Maximilian's death in 1864, Ludwig took over the throne at age 18, at first occupying his father's room in Hohenschwangau before construction of his own castle Neuschwanstein began in 1869.  Schloss Neuschwanstein (literally: New Swan Palace) was commissioned as a retreat for King Ludwig and as a homage to his friend, composer Richard Wagner.  The castle is now an popular icon for Bavaria, having served as inspiration for Disney's Sleeping Beauty Castle, and it currently hosts about 1.3 million visitors annually.  Interestingly, the large castle is one of many architectural wonders of the world that is not yet completed.  It was near completion in 1886 when King Ludwig was declared insane by the State Commission.  Ludwig was taken to castle burg and found dead in Lake Starnberg.  The exact circumstances remain a mystery, but there is speculation that the accusation of insanity was in response to Ludwig's extravagant spending on his castle. 

Neuschwanstein from the ground. Its sheer size reminded me Duloc from Shrek.

After short 30 minute guided tours of the interiors of both castles, we grabbed traditional German grub of shnitzel, knödel and pig knuckle from a nearby restaurant before hiking around the snow-covered trails surrounding the castles. 

Adam's huge pig knuckle meal.

Most of the trails were blocked off with warnings of there being too much ice and snow for hikers, but...well, since when have the three of us been sticklers for following rules?  We followed the trail up to the famed Marienbrücke (Mary's Bridge) which crosses a large gorge with gorgeous cliffs on each side and running waterfalls in the valley below.  It provides a breathtaking view of Neuschwanstein Castle, but it definitely is not for those with a fear of heights.
A view of Neuschwanstein from Marienbrücke.
Gorgeous waterfalls below Marienbrücke.

As stunning as the view from Marienbrücke was, we were still determined to find the spot where all of the famous "postcard" photos of Neuschwanstein were taken, so we kept on hiking.  We walked close to four miles that day.  About an hour later, we were up on a cliff where we got the following snapshots, just as the sun was beginning to set:

Neuschwenstein Castle

Kirsten and I

After a day of castles, we began our nearly two-day trek of driving the Romantic Road (Romantische Straße) north from its southern-most point of Füssen to its last stop in Würzburg.  The Romantic Road was once a trade route during medieval days and is now a popular tourist route.  Many of the towns on the route are ideal for sight-seeing, shopping, cultural festivals and active sporting holidays of cycling and hiking.  During the winter, unfortunately, most of the towns shut down due to the cold weather and lack of tourists, which was nice in that we didn't have to battle crowds or traffic, and we got to see the Romantic Road in a winter wonderland.  Still, I am positive that a spring or fall visit would also be beneficial to take full advantage of what the Road has to offer. 

We drove through all 28 listed cities on our map, only stopping in a few select towns.

Wieskirche (Wies Church) in Steingaden.  This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a rococo church designed by Dominikus Zimmermann in the 1740s.
Harburg Castle-according to Wikipedia, this was the castle of Michael Jackson's dreams and he tried to buy it (and failed).

Probably our favorite stop (besides Schwangau for its castles) was Rothenburg.  We spent the night just outside of the city at a Best Western and were fortunate enough to arrive in time to take the Night Watch tour that evening.  Rothenburg ob der Tauber is medieval walled city with iconic Town Hall and St. Jakob's Lutheran Church. 

Town Hall in Rothenburg
Rothenburg's "drive thru church." St. Jakob's needed to be expanded, so they cleverly built over the nearby street.
Holy Blood Altar within St. Jakob's Church with a removable Judas at the center, rather than Christ.

As we learned from our tour, Rothenburg was a dirty middle ages town whose main source of entertainment was the occasional public execution after a 3 hour mandatory church service.  Currently, it is a largely tourism-based town that is well preserved due to its strict building codes, including the requirement that all businesses must have metal signs, including McDonalds when a local branch was shortly open in Rothenburg.

Medieval entrance to Rothenburg.
Typical German fare: Pork schnitzel, pomme frites and dunkel (dark beer).

The next day (Sunday), we left Rothenburg and finished driving the Romantic Road, arriving back in the Netherlands later that evening.   My final European meals consisted of nothing but my absolute favorites: döner kebab with a Bock bier for dinner, and a Nutella-peanut butter sandwich with a stroopwafle for breakfast.  And thus ended my second tour of Europe.
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