July 2011

Houston, Texas, will always have a special place in my heart.  It’s where my parents lived after they got married, where my brothers and I were born, where I was baptized when I became a Christian, and where a large part of the Douthit family lived or still live.

Leon and I are headed to Houston this weekend for a quick but meaningful trip.  It might seem insane to leave the D.C. temperatures, currently hovering in the mid to high 90’s, for the warmer Texas temperatures and the balmy humidity of Houston.  I remember as a child how stifling the Houston humidity was, that when you walked outside in the summer months it felt like you were breathing hot steam.  My mother used to make sure that damp towels were hung up to dry, because if they were thrown and left forgotten on the bathroom floor they would mildew.

We are heading to Houston to spend time with my Granddad Douthit and to commemorate the one year anniversary of the passing of my grandmother, Mammaw Douthit.  It seems like yesterday that the Douthit clan all gathered, exactly one year ago, to celebrate her life and legacy. I remember standing in the funeral home for the viewing, talking with family members and with Korean friends who came (after they had served as missionaries in South Korea, my grandmother stayed highly involved with Korean families at the church, teaching English and helping them adjust to life in the U.S.).  My grandfather stood at the front while we all prepared for the funeral directors to lower the top of the casket, and he prayed the most beautiful prayer, in the most sincere voice, that I will never forget:  “Lord, thank you for my wife. Thank you for giving her to me for almost 60 years.”  (Mammaw had passed away two weeks shy of their 60th wedding anniversary).

Going back to Houston always brings back plenty of memories–from my childhood (we moved away from Houston when I was seven), from Christmases and summer visits with my grandparents, and from the weddings of Baylor friends from Houston.  This visit will be especially emotional and meaningful, as it will take place during a significant anniversary of a woman who greatly impacted the lives of her family members and beyond.  I’m sure we will eat Mexican food, as we always do, talk about how everyone is doing, as we always do, and so forth.

There will be a void this time, however, and I’m bracing myself for that.  But what better way to spend the weekend than to tear yourself away from the hectic pace of the daily grind, touch base with family, and be reminded of the important things in life, namely, faith and loved ones.

Houston, here we come.  It will be good to be back.


As many of you know, I spent two years in South Korea.  After I finished graduate school in London, I felt compelled to gain more international experience and live abroad.  My grandparents had been medical missionaries in South Korea during the 1970’s, and we still have family friends in Seoul.  So, when I ended up moving to Seoul in October 2006, even though the country was radically different from my other travels, it was comforting to have people there who knew my family.

My two years in South Korea were a time of personal growth, challenges, and learning.  I worked at Seokyeong University, teaching English to university students, and volunteered at the Jayoutuh Center for North Korean Refugees.  It was truly a life-changing experience to work hard to earn the friendship and trust of such resilient individuals who had escaped from such a brutal regime.  At my farewell party at the refugee center, after spending two years with those amazing people, one of my North Korean students approached me and said, in broken English, “Kim Jung Il, he lie to  us.  Americans, you are friends.”  Needless to say, I could not hold back the tears, even though I had lived in the stoic Korean culture for awhile.

I left Korea with many friends whom I consider to be family, and we still keep in touch.  I’ve been praying for them this week as news reports continue to come in about severe flooding and landslides hitting the Korean peninsula.

I remember well “monsoon season” in Korea, when the rain just never seems to stop and you’re always walking around feeling drenched and windblown.  My friends in Seoul appear to be okay this week, although their schedules are completely disrupted–many of them are posting pictures on Facebook of the heavy downpours that prevent them from leaving their apartments.  Seoul has been hit by landslides, according to AP reports, as well as the town of Chuncheon (about 68 miles northeast of Seoul).  According to news reports, at least 32 people have died amidst the crushing weather, and many more have been injured.

South Korea is an incredible country, with a complex culture that reveals itself slowly, like the layers of an onion, and even then you’re still never quite sure if you’ve gained even a superficial understanding of it.  I love the country and, even though I joke that it tried to kill me (I became very ill and ended up in a Korean emergency room, was unable to keep down solid foods, and lost about 12 pounds in one week) to make me prove my sincerity.  I enjoyed my time there and will always consider a piece of my heart to belong to Seoul, and to the Korean people.  I hope and pray that the pain and destruction caused by the recent landslides and flooding are soon alleviated.


While living overseas for a few years, I managed to cross off most of the places on my travel “wish list.”  I could have crossed all of them off, but I deliberately left a few on there.  After all,   part of traveling is working towards the goal of visiting somewhere–budgeting, planning, and making it happen.  I wanted to leave some unattained goals to work towards later in life.  I also wanted to leave a few places on the list to–hopefully–visit one day with my husband, whether on our honeymoon or a special trip with our future kids (yes, I’m planning on raising little Texan/Coloradan/internationally minded whipper snappers).

Machu Picchu isn’t #1 of the places remaining on my travel “wish list,” but it comes in at a close second.  (For those of you curious about the #1 place, well, some of you already know–but if you don’t, all shall be revealed in time).

I first fell in love with Machu Picchu while studying and traveling around South America back in 2008.  I loved Argentina, Chile, and Brazil, but I wanted to make a point to head up to Peru and see the incredible ancient Inca city that has long fascinated travelers.  I couldn’t find anyone to go up to Peru with me, however, and my Spanish teacher at the language institute in Santiago, Chile, told me, “Mm, no es una buena idea que vayas sola alla.”  It wasn’t a good idea for me to go there alone, she stressed, and even though I was dying to see Machu Picchu, I decided to keep it on the list and hope that whoever I married one day would go there with me. (I knew Leon was game when his response was to chuckle and say, “Of course you want to go there.  Cool. We can hang out with the llamas”).

On July 24, 2011, Machu Picchu celebrated the centennial anniversary of its official discovery.  Now, many historians claim that the city was discovered before 1911, but there is still a longstanding debate about when it was discovered and who discovered it.  In the meantime, July 24, 1911, is the celebrated date.  I didn’t know this, but a Yale professor named Hiram Bingham III is credited with discovering Machu Picchu and became the source of inspiration for the famous movie character Indiana Jones.

Machu Picchu, even in pictures, is breathtaking.  You can imagine the proud Inca people still there, cultivating the land with engineering genius that we wouldn’t have imagined to exist back then.  Apparently archeologists still can’t figure out what the city was used for–some say that it was a royal estate of the Inca king Pachacuti, and others say that it might have been a sacred religious site.

To get to Machu Picchu (not that I’m sketching out travel plans yet…), it does take effort.  Machu Picchu is accessible from the city of Cusco, Peru, which can be reached most easily through Lima, the Peruvian capital.  According to Peruvian tourism sites, it is best to take a three-hour train ride from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo), then hop on a bus for about 20 minutes to the ruins.  There are some really cool looking hotels to stay at in Aguas Calientes–According to Tripadvisor.com, the top ranked hotels to stay at while visiting Machu Picchu are the SUMAQ Machu Picchu Hotel, Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, and Machu Picchu Santuary Lodge.  All are pretty pricey, so another option would be to stay somewhere in Cusco if you wanted to save more money to pick up some local Peruvian crafts.

Happy anniversary to Machu Picchu–I hope to see you soon.

This morning at work, as I sipped on my morning cup of coffee trying to wake up, my friend and coworker Lisa suddenly said, “Have you heard anything about Oslo?  Twitter is going crazy!”

I quickly did a news search and was saddened to see news reports that earlier today, Friday, July 22, 2011, a giant explosion happened in downtown Oslo.  According to reports, one blast happened near Prime Minister Stoltenberg’s office, and another occurred close to the Norwegian parliament.  So far Oslo police have not confirmed whether or not it was a terrorist attack, but they did tell reporters that at least one person is dead and several are injured.

My mind raced to my friend Sonja, a close friend whom I had met at church in London during my graduate studies there.  She is half Norwegian, half Northern Irish, and her family still owns property in Oslo.  Sonja works in London, but since she often travels to Oslo and has family there, I sent her a quick text to make sure she was okay.

It is always sad to see a place that you enjoyed visiting hit by tragedy.

I visited Oslo almost exactly a year ago, during what you could call a burst of spontaneity.  I had been in a bit of a slump at work, it was before Leon came into the picture and I had decided to take a break from dating, and I felt like I was lifelessly going through the motions of the D.C. professional routine.  While chatting with Sonja and Julie, another close friend who is American but also lives in the U.K., on Skype one day, they mentioned that they were planning a girls’ weekend in Oslo.  The plan was to get away, relax, and enjoy Sonja’s family’s flat in the city.  I told them that their plan sounded amazing, and that I missed them and wished I could go.

Now, as many travelers have experienced, before I knew it the “I wish I could go” somehow turned into, “Hm, I found a good deal on Expedia for those dates….”  I knew that it was pretty spontaneous, but I had never been to Norway, and when else would I have the chance to visit friends there?  Before I knew it, Sonja and Julie were clapping over Skype as I grabbed the tickets.

And off to Oslo I went, for a long weekend.  It was wonderful to see friends, of course, and having a girls’ weekend in a new country made it even more special.  I fell in love with the calm yet vibrant atmosphere of Oslo.  It is most famous for being the site of the Nobel Peace Center, but it offers so much more than just medals.  My friends and I took a rail car up to Holmenkollen, home of the giant Olympic ski jump where we saw people training for the winter Olympics (or, as I saw it, flinging themselves down the slope at scary speeds).  We strolled through the grounds of Akershus Slott (Akershus Castle), which sits on top of a hill overlooking the sparkling fjords that make for perfect photographs, and stopped by the visitor’s center to brush up on Norwegian history.  After our history lesson, we headed downtown for some great shopping, coffee, and mouthwatering Norwegian smoked salmon (now, I’m not really a fan of smoked salmon, but I savored an entire plate of it there–another example of how sometimes you have to try a food where it’s from to appreciate it).

During the weekend, aside from having girl talk, we explored the Oslo sculpture garden, took pictures in front of the royal palace, and had a mini snowball fight (it was snowing late for the season, so we took advantage of having fresh powder to make snowballs).  It was a fantastic weekend.

Oslo is a great city to visit, as it is less hectic than other European capitals, but it still has great history lessons to offer, great sights, and smoked salmon that will make you a fan even if you don’t currently like it.  I hope that the Norwegian police are able to find the individuals behind today’s explosions and hold them accountable for creating tragedy in such a wonderful place.

Downtown Oslo at dusk

As a busy person trying to balance a full-time job, time with family and friends, laundry, exercise, cleaning the apartment, and so forth, it is hard to find extra time to keep up with the news, let alone continue to garner knowledge about international relations.  Who has time to read full reports from the United Nations when your brain barely functions at the end of the day?

With this in mind, my goal lately has been to find ways to pursue “continuing education” opportunities for foreign affairs.  Doctors and lawyers, for instance, are required to do so many hours per year of continuing education, so why not someone interested in the world, which changes constantly?

My search led me to the section of the State Department’s website that allows you to sign up for State press releases, official statements, and so forth.  I excitedly clicked on all of the options, and the next day alone I think my inbox received about half a million emails–our State Department is one busy entity (plus, true to bureaucracy, clicking all of the options meant that I often receive the same statement ten times, sent from different bureaus).

So far, my favorite part of my self-imposed continuing education has been the Country Profiles that the State Department sends out.  I try to skim through all of them, which has proven interesting as well as helpful.  I received one yesterday, for instance, on the United Kingdom, and even though I lived there for a year, it was educational to actually read about its latest statistics.  I didn’t know, for instance, that the population of London has grown to 8.615 million and it is still considered the largest city in Europe.  When I lived there in 2006 I think that the city had just hit 7 million.  That’s the beauty of continuing education–you have background knowledge coupled with current data.

Like riding a bike or speaking a foreign language, staying up to date on global developments is something that you have to practice.  You have to consistently exercise the mind, in other words.  I’m often so busy with the day to day happenings of life in D.C. that I feel disconnected from the rest of the world, so it’s nice to know that in the meantime it’s possible to learn new things so that I’m better prepared for future travels.

Those who continue to learn, continue to grow, so whether traveling or settled into one place for awhile, it’s important to strive for continuing education.  Just one word of caution–I would advise not to check all of the update options on the State Department’s website, unless you’re okay getting lots of emails!

Rejoice, my fellow Americans–Thursday, July 21, 2011, is National Junk Food Day.

What a fabulous concept, to have a holiday that celebrates all of our guilty pleasures.  Now granted, I try to eat my vegetables and exercise like a woman conscious of the fact that 30 is looming in the distance, saying, “Your metabolism is mine!”  With that said, however, I have many vices in the form of junk food (or what I like to call, treats).  Treats, as I like to say, make the world better.  Let’s face it–after a long, tough day at the office, or just a crazy day in general, a carrot just won’t do the trick.

I also began to think about my favorite treats from around the world, and I’m a little embarrassed to admit that they are ubiquitous.  I tend to form treat “obsessions” wherever I’m living or traveling, and they form the bulk of my cravings when I need a reward or when I make up a reason to have a reward.  These days in D.C., for instance, my food obsessions have been (and often eaten together, but don’t judge me) crab legs, fried pickles with ranch dressing, and key lime pie.  Those three things right there are my fantasy come to life, a perfect pigout feast that you dive into when you’re not counting calories, or when you’re trying to gross friends out.

When I’m back home, my biggest splurge would have to be chile con queso.  In Texas, children tend to be raised on Mexican food, to say the least.  I seriously think that my parents put chile con queso in my bottle, because to this day, when I go to a Mexican restaurant that does not offer chips and queso on the menu, I feel like the meal is missing something.  You can ask Leon–we went to an El Salvadorian/Mexican restaurant in Silver Spring, Maryland, and I looked excitedly at the menu until apparently my face fell.  He immediately said, “Uh oh, they don’t have queso on the menu, do they?”

I also love to hit my favorite frozen custard place, Double Dip in Frisco, Texas, when I’m back in the Lone Star State.  While most people in front of me order things like vanilla frozen custard with strawberries or something to that effect, I tend to shock and awe (or disgust, but same difference).  Whenever I stop by Double Dip, close to my hometown of McKinney, I pull out a Post-It and write down everything I want thrown into the frozen custard blender.  The owner started saving my Post-Its, funnily enough, and keeps them on the wall–the last time I drove through with my Post-It ready, the employees all ran up to the window to get a look at “the Post-It girl from D.C.”  I’m sure they also wanted to see if I weighed a million pounds.

My last combination at Double Dip, I believe, contained the following:  vanilla frozen custard, chocolate syrup, marshmallow cream, peanut butter, pistachios, Kit Kat pieces, and green mint.  (Stop gagging–it was delicious!)

Internationally, my list of favorite treats goes on and on.  Here are a few of my favorites:

London:  Lemon merengue tarts from Paul Cafes; Lamb korma from Indian takeaway places (pretty much on every corner); Fish and chips, Fried duck from the restaurant 1997 in Chinatown; Fancy chocolates from Harrod’s (I used to walk an hour and a half from my flat to get to Harrod’s, buy chocolate, walk back, and justify eating the chocolate since I’d walked so much)

Paris:  Fresh, crusty baguettes smothered in butter and confiture aux fraises (strawberry jam); Fruit tarts

Rome:  Gelato–pistachio, hazelnut, and bacio (chocolate hazelnut) from Giolitti or Blue Ice

Buenos Aires:  Dulce de leche on everything, from ice cream to cakes to coffee

Santiago:  Alfajores, these amazing little sandwich cookies (I usually got the dulce de leche ones)

Rio de Janeiro:  Home of churrasco, a.k.a. grilled meat that is heaven on a plate

Seoul:  Green tea ice cream

Tokyo:  Ok0nomiyaki (this amazing grilled concoction with sauce and shaved fish pieces and seaweed–I promise it’s delicious); Takoyaki (popular street food consisting of octopus pieces cooked in these glutenous kind of ball shapes, smothered in sauce and shaved fish slices–again I swear it’s delectable)

Guadalajara:  Avocado popsicles (those are healthy, right?)

Athens:  Moussaka; Yogurt and honey ice cream

Moscow:  Shashlik (Russian barbeque)

Salzburg/Berlin:  Apple Strudel

Warsaw:  Pierogi

New Delhi:  Paneer Butter Masala (tofu-like cheese smothered in a savory sauce); Samosas

Bangkok:  Coconut ice cream

I could go on and on, but I’ll stop there (it’s very eye opening, and somewhat humbling, to realize that you’ve almost literally eaten your way around the world).  This year I’ll be celebrating National Junk Food Day in Washington, D.C., so I won’t be able to grab a favorite treat from an exotic location, but the nation’s capital is definitely a bastion of classic American goodies.

So raise your French Fries and milkshakes, cut a deal with yourself to hit the gym sometime tomorrow as well, and have a happy National Junk Food Day!

So it’s Friday, and everyone in D.C. is looking forward to the weekend (well, except for my friends who work on Capitol Hill–their weekend will be spent trying to help their bosses solve the debt ceiling crisis).  I, however, found myself wondering where Leon and I would go for our dinner date tonight.  Would we hit a new place in D.C. that we’ve never tried before, or would we go to an old favorite?

Perfect timing–literally, right as I was thinking about dinner, he texted me:  “How about the Ebbitt tonight?”

I smiled and immediately texted back:  “Yay!!!!”

The Old Ebbitt Grill is a Washington, D.C. staple.  I went there often as a young intern in D.C. back in 2005, funnily enough during the time that Leon worked there during law school (we joke that we probably passed each other constantly but were busy doing other things and didn’t notice each other, just like in the movies).  The Ebbitt has served as a special place for me in D.C., not only as an intern, but also as a young professional starting a new job in D.C., and now as a woman who has lived in D.C. for two years and is now engaged to a former employee.  I’ve hit the Ebbitt for lobster with my mother and grandmother, spent hours chatting with friends over crab cakes, and shared desserts on double date nights with Leon and our friends Chris and Rose.

The Ebbitt is literally down the street from the White House, so it’s located right in the heart of downtown D.C.  When you walk in, you are greeted by a marble entrance and antique wood everything.  It’s comfortable though–it has the feel of a cozy lodge, but with prices that even interns are okay with, and food that keeps you coming back for more.  I’m not the only one who adores the place–since it was established in 1856, the Ebbitt was frequented by Presidents Grant, Cleveland, Harding, and Teddy Roosevelt.  It’s known as Washington’s oldest, most historic saloon, where famous political figures from the past met to discuss pressing matters.  To this day you might sit next to a political hotshot (or an aspiring political hotshot) enjoying some comfort food.

By comfort food, I mean comfort food from all genres.  The Ebbitt is famous for having the best crab cakes in all the land (they use giant chunks of fresh crab meat instead of heavily breading smaller pieces like lots of restaurants), and they have a famous oyster bar as well.  During lobster season, you can get a Maine lobster for less than $20.  As a Texan used to paying a lot more for a succulent lobster dunked in melted butter, I thought that I was hallucinating when I read the price for the first time.

Besides great seafood, the Ebbitt has everything from juicy burgers to cheesy pasta dishes to flavorful ethnic dishes.  My usual order is the crab cake sandwich or the crab cakes, but everything else I’ve tried has been wonderful, from the hummus appetizer to the Portobello mushroom sandwich.  They do a great brunch too, with fantastic offerings like country brunch plate, ham and bacon stuffed French toast sandwiches, and fresh strudel.  I also had a wonderful brunch of Eggs Chesapeake there (and I don’t even like poached eggs).

And of course you can’t forget my favorite course, dessert.  I love ordering a cup of coffee at the Ebbitt to go with a slice of cheesecake, creme brulee, peanut butter pie, strawberry shortcake, key lime pie, and so forth–and then taking a scenic walk around the sights to burn off calories afterwards.

If you’re looking for a really cool, historical place to go in D.C., with great food and located close to that famous white house on Pennsylvania Avenue, I definitely recommend the Old Ebbitt Grill.

Now my mouth is watering–is it dinner time yet?




During the summer months, when the days are longer and warmer, I find myself craving lighter food (my mother would be proud of how many vegetables I eat, willingly, when temperatures spike).  When it’s hot, you feel sluggish anyway, and a big salad with crisp veggies sound much more appetizing than a piping hot bowl of soup or something.

Today was certainly no exception–as of this afternoon, the temperature hit a balmy 95 degrees in Washington, D.C.  Now, in my homeland of Texas, this is common for the summer months.  In Texas, however, I tend to get around more in cars and usually hop from one air-conditioned location to another.  Getting around in D.C., on the other hand, is a different story.  I usually take the Metro to work, and if I need to grab lunch outside of the office or run errands after work, I have to brave the elements and walk everywhere (or run, as I did recently when a lightning storm hit and I didn’t have an umbrella).

At work today, thankfully in my air conditioned office, I read a great post on D.C. food trucks by my friend Lisa (a.k.a. http://www.thenovicenosher.com) and was inspired to think about my favorite summertime meal.  (Food trucks, on a side note, are all the rage now in D.C., for good reason–gourmet cuisine, from cheesy macaroni and cheese to Chicago style pizza to lobster rolls, all available at your fingertips around the city).

Although not available through D.C. food trucks, my favorite summertime meal, by far, is a big plate of insalata caprese.  I first experienced the culinary delight of insalata caprese while living in Rome, and I’ve been obsessed ever since.

Insalata caprese translates as “salad in the style of Capri.”  It’s apparently unknown if the salad actually originated from the island of Capri (a gorgeous island off of the Amalfi Coast, a common honeymoon destination for Italians and a favorite destination of mine while living in Italy), but it did become popular after being served there to King Farouk of Egypt during the 1950’s.

Making insalata caprese is super easy, and it’s great as an appetizer or a light meal.  All you really need are the basic ingredients:

–Fresh tomatoes (unfortunately, in the U.S. we don’t have great tomatoes like they do in Italy, but I find that the vine-ripened tomatoes they sell at grocery stores are better than the regular ones)

–Basil leaves

–Mozzarella cheese (in Italy they use buffala mozzarella, which is the best kind to use but is pretty expensive here in the States–it’s worth the splurge though, in my humble opinion)

–Extra virgin olive oil

–Balsamic Vinegar

–Salt to taste

When I want to throw together an insalata caprese, like I did recently for myself and my fiance, I simply place tomato slices on a plate, put a slice of buffala mozzarella on each tomato slice, and put a basil leaf on top of each mozzarella slice.  Add olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and salt, and you’re done.  Some people also put pesto on their insalata caprese, which is also delicious.

So, if you’re looking for a flavorful, colorful dish that’s easy to make and is perfect for beating the summer heat, thank the gastronomic genius of the Italians and make yourself a big plate of insalata caprese.  And buon appetito.


“It’s easier to get to Europe than the British Virgin Islands!”

This statement was running through my head as I made the final leg of my journey to BVI, after flying out of D.C., staying overnight in Miami (long enough to grab some real Florida key lime pie), taking an early flight to Puerto Rico, landing on the island of Tortola, clearing international customs, and taking a boat from Tortola to Virgin Gorda.  My family was getting together for a vacation, and Virgin Gorda, BVI, was chosen because of its reputation as being somewhat undiscovered and private.  After an almost 18-hour trip to get out there, I understood why the island had earned that description.

As I cruised along in the boat to Virgin Gorda and relaxed, enjoying the sights of the lush, green islands and the sparkling turquoise water, I began to experience the trance that travelers to the British Virgin Islands experience upon arrival.  My family was staying in a local villa, owned by a Canadian couple trying to capitalize on real estate in the islands, and the privacy factor was not underestimated at all.  One side effect of being difficult to get to meant that Virgin Gorda was not as developed as other islands and you truly felt like you were escaping to another world.

My room in the villa overlooked a crystal blue bay and had a little balcony, outdoor shower, and a welcome committee consisting of several island lizards.  I bid hello to the housekeeper (foreigners who own real estate on the island are required to employee at least five locals) and was told that because electricity is so expensive on the island, everything needed to be unplugged and turned off when I was away from my room.  Fair enough, I thought–at least there was air conditioning, a luxury that one must often go without in the islands.

Day one on Virgin Gorda consisted of a hike down through the Baths (giant rocks forming impressive structures around the water) to Devil’s Bay, a great snorkeling spot known for colorful fish.  That snorkeling excursion, my first out of three that week, included my first out of third close encounter with a great barracuda.  Having a large, snarling, beady eyed barracuda swim much too close for comfort resulting in a heart that felt like it was going to pound out of my chest.  By the third time a great barracuda swam by me, it was safe to say that the cause was my sparkling diamond engagement ring (so, ladies, I beseech you–leave the jewelry behind while snorkeling, as scary ocean creatures, much like our gender, tend to be attracted to shiny things).

The trip also included a full day of boating and snorkeling with Captain Dave of the local company “Double D’s” (the name, I hope in vain, was an innocent oversight). Captain Dave hailed from Toronto and had been a successful businessman and entrepreneur until the Canadian housing bubble burst in the 1990’s and he decided that he was done with the corporate life.  He relocated to Virgin Gorda and had been living the island life ever since.  Full of fascinating knowledge, Captain Dave was like having a professor for the day.  He filled us on everything from the local economy (Tortola is doing pretty well as one of the most popular places for offshore banking in the world) to tourism in BVI (because of offshore banking, they don’t really need the tourism, but according to him 90% of the locals are employed in the tourism industry, and being on welfare would simply be “demoralizing”).

After a lecture about the economics and culture of BVI, Captain Dave steered us over to Cooper Island, a small and charming island with a beach club offering fresh seafood and the best French Fries I’ve ever had in my life.  We enjoyed a leisurely lunch and then endured a rainstorm to sail over to Salt Island, my favorite excursion of the entire trip.  My family spent the afternoon collecting colorful sea glass, which was ubiquitous on the sandy shore, and listened to Captain Dave’s stories of the island.

My favorite story about Salt Island was about the history of the shipwreck that had happened off of its coast in the 1800’s.  One fateful day, a British mail ship had tried to dock at the nearby St. Thomas island, only to view a yellow flag raised high, indicating that the island had a yellow fever outbreak and to stay clear.  The captain changed course over towards Salt Island, when a powerful storm hit and he lost sight of everything.  The ship slammed into giant rocks peering out of the water, filling the underbelly of the ship with water and causing the vessel to snap in two.  Back then, according to Captain Dave (who told his stories with the inflection of a Canadian but the dramatic flair of an islander), most people could not swim and wore heavy wool clothing.  As a result, only a handful of passengers survived, and only thanks to the courageous efforts of the inhabitants of Salt Island.  As a gesture of gratitude to the island’s residents, the Queen of England declared that the island was exempt from its monetary taxes and only asked that the island provide five pounds of salt to Her Majesty each year.  The last inhabitant of Salt Island, who had died a few years ago at the age of 84, had a yearly ritual of setting aside a five pound bucket of salt each year for the Queen’s official to claim–even though officials had stopped collecting the salt tax ages ago (the island was granted its official independence from England in 1960).

During the trip, my family also discovered what Captain Dave confirmed to us was the best food on the island.  We came across Chez Bamboo, a small patio restaurant with decorative Christmas looking lights cast about erratically and plastic chairs at the tables.  It looked charming, in terms of the casual/fancy fusion that islanders do so well, and the food was outstanding.  I enjoyed an Anegada lobster that was literally almost the size of my arm.  In my mind, on tropical vacations you’re already relaxed, but add a giant lobster smothered with melted butter sauce into the mix, and you enter nirvana.

We also discovered Yum Yum’s, a Virgin Gorda sweets shop located next to Chez Bamboo.  Hankering for some ice cream on another balmy tropical day, we stepped in and looked around at the various treats on display.  I noticed that, perched proudly on a shelf next to lollipops and sour candies, were several boxes of edible underwear. My brother Taylor, never one to hold back, asked the pleasant looking woman running the shop if anyone ever bought them, and if they came in different sizes.  She grinned slyly and drawled in her islander accent, “They’re one size fits all, man.”

After several days of boating and snorkeling adventures, coupled with good seafood and a Robinson Crusoe-esque environment, it was time to begin the long journey back to reality.  As I began my day of boating to Tortola and flying to D.C. via Tortola/San Juan/Miami, I bid adieu to the raw nature that is Virgin Gorda.  The quiet, undeveloped beauty truly enthralls and relaxes.  I arrived in a pensive state, but I left in a peaceful, contemplative one.

Virgin Gorda might indeed be trickier to get to than Europe, but like any unique and exotic destination, it’s worth it.

Last night, my friend Kristin and I decided to head out to our favorite little nail place in D.C. to get manicures and pedicures.  I had not had my nails professionally done in about a year, so I figured that I could justify a trip to the salon in the name of girls’ night out.

We headed to Mimosa in Dupont Circle, where we’ve gone for the last 2 years for birthday mani-pedis, or in this case, for “we’re exhausted from work” mani-pedis.  Apparently we weren’t the only ones needing to be pampered, however, and we had to wait for about an hour before getting into the wonderful massage chairs.

Oh, it was worth it though–as most girls will attest, having someone else do your nails is truly a treat.  They have all of the fancy little nail tools to make your cuticles look great, and they paint the polish on smoothly and perfectly.  I do my best when I paint my own nails, but at times I struggle–my fiance Leon once saw my self-painted toenails after I had slopped on some polish (hey, I was busy that week) and remarked teasingly, as only a guy can, that it looked like a kindergartner had painted my toes.

As Kristin and I sat in the plush chairs and enjoyed our pampering session, I thought about the mani-pedi and its context in the international realm.  Mani-pedis are pretty much universal.  From Asia to North America, most women don’t mind getting their nails professionally done.

I’ve had mani-pedis in several countries, and while the experiences have slightly differed depending on the location, overall they have been somewhat similar experiences.

My first mani-pedi overseas took place in Madrid, where the salon had a little basement area and the Spanish manicurist had to fill a plastic tub with hot water upstairs and then carry it downstairs for my pedicure (I remember praying she didn’t fall down the stairs and spill hot water everywhere-ouch).  I found that in western European countries (with the exception of England) overall, there isn’t much space and they don’t have the big, fancy chairs like we do in the U.S.  It’s a more modest experience, but hey, it’s still a mani-pedi.

Having a mani-pedi in London was quite reflective of British culture, interestingly enough.  After turning in our Masters theses, my friend Kora and I decided to celebrate by going to a well-known salon in London to indulge in mani-pedis that we knew were way overpriced but wanted to try anyway.  They had the fancy massage chairs like we do in the U.S., and I assumed that it would be like having my nails done in Dallas.  In true British fashion, however, the British ladies doing our nails weren’t very touchy feely.  Usually in the U.S. they rub your feet at least, and maybe your calves.  Not in London though–true to the more stoic British demeanor, my lady didn’t touch me except when she needed to use the pumice stone on my heels.

By far, my favorite place to get my nails done was in Asia.  Mani-pedis, at least in Europe and North America, are considered luxury services and you definitely have to budget for them.  In Asia, however, everything related to salon services–massages, waxing, body scrubs, mani-pedis, etc.–are considered essential to well-being.  My Asian friends take great care of their skin (my Korean friends shamed me into moisturizing twice a day, as they told me bluntly, “You American girls, you don’t take care of your skin! You look old when you are young!), and they place a high priority on having well-kept nails, hair, and skin.

It’s also easy to view pampering as necessary for personal maintenance when salon services are cheap.  One thing I absolutely loved about living in Asia was that I could afford to be pampered on a regular basis.  In Seoul, I could get highlights, a haircut, a special hair mask treatment, a manicure, a pedicure, and an eyebrow waxing for a grand total of about $90.  Having all of those services done in the U.S., for instance D.C., would probably set me back about four times that much.  So, I got my nails done regularly in Seoul, and while traveling in Thailand and Indonesia, I made a point to experience mani-pedis there.  In Asia they also give you more massage time on your feet than anywhere else, a definite plus.

Wherever the mani-pedi experience, it’s always nice to leave with shiny, healthy looking nails and feet that feel much smoother.  I probably won’t get my nails done again anytime soon, but I’ll plan on saving up for a future trip to the salon.  Or a plane ticket back to Asia.