International Travel


After Leon and I got back from a wonderful weekend in Houston with my grandfather, parents, and a few aunts/uncles/cousins from the Douthit clan, we both jumped back into work.  Even though we’re in completely different professions, our colleagues and everyone around us in D.C. were talking about the debt ceiling agreement and the stock market.  For my job, I also had to do a little analysis work on the current economic conditions (scary).

Which, in an indirect way (and probably to try and cheer myself up) made me think of non-stock related marketplaces in the U.S. and around the world.  With all of the talk about GDP, enormous debt, high unemployment, and so forth, all of the numbers and statistics being thrown around can be overwhelming.  For a smaller economic microcosm that’s easier to digest, however, one need only look to a marketplace.  Whether visiting a market in your neighborhood or a bazaar in some exotic location, the economy of culture is alive and well everywhere.

My mother first introduced me to markets as a child.  She was an antique collector, and to make extra money she would sell her finds at a local shop in McKinney.  I remember dreading the early Saturday mornings when we’d head to McKinney Trade Day or other markets to scour the booths for treasures.  Now, as an adult, I love going to markets.

Markets are fascinating snapshots of the local culture.  You can gain great insight into how locals live, what kind of food they like, what they consider to be worth selling, and what social mores exist within that particular environment (yell while bartering in Egypt and you’re normal, yell while bartering in Texas and you’re crazy).  They’re also a lot of fun.

Whenever I go to a new country, I try to check out the main market and usually make a Saturday of it.  In my mind, there’s nothing more fun and relaxing than poking around a market with some treats to nibble on and interesting people to watch.  (I also began a jewelry collection from my market experiences, so if I have a daughter she’ll have to listen to plenty of stories about where Mommy bought such and such necklace).

I still think back fondly on the times when my parents, brothers, and I would go to McKinney Trade Day, and I hope to take my family to markets one day.  I’ve listed some of my favorite markets around the world–I definitely recommend each of them if you want a unique, “culturally economic” experience.

Madrid, Spain:  El Rastro.  Literally translated, it means “the trail,” and it certainly is one.  I spent an entire day winding my way down the long road of stalls checking out antiques and other cool Spanish wares, scoring some framed antique prints of the Spanish landscape for only a few dollars.

Bangkok, Thailand:  Chatuchak Weekend Market.  This enormous market covers 35 acres of land and has over 15,000 stalls filled with goodies.  I picked up some locally made wallets, coin purses, and other crafts to give to friends back home, plus stocked up on delicious smelling incense.

Bali, Indonesia:  Kuta Market.  Bali is lively and laid back at the same time, and this market is no exception.  I remember picking up beautiful scarves, handcrafted shoes, and indulgent coffee there.  You can also find nice handcrafted wooden things there–I got a pretty carved container to put in my bathroom.

Seoul, South Korea:  Namdaemun Market.  In Seoul there are two gigantic and famous markets, Dongdaemun and Namdaemun.  Dongdaemun is larger than Namdaemun, but I always went to Namdaemun because it was closer to where I lived.  You just have to walk around to get a VIP pass to Korean culture.  Ajima (word for married or middle aged Korean woman) and ajasshi (Korean men) sold everything from pig’s feet to Korean health concoctions to clothing to furniture.

London, England:  Covent Garden Market.  England has dozens of markets filled with wonderful things, but Covent Garden was my favorite.  I went there pretty much every weekend while studying in London–it’s that addicting.  You can find everything from gorgeous British antiques to funky jewelry to locally made Cornish pasties that melt in your mouth (savory pies filled with meat, cheese, vegetables, or other combinations, done like only the English can do).

Buenos Aires, Argentina:  Recoleta and La Boca Markets.  Recoleta market is located next to Recoleta cemetery, where Evita Peron is buried, and has amazing local jewelry makers displaying gorgeous wares at every turn.  I purchased a necklace made from a local stone, rodochrosita, that is pink with white streaks in it and that always draws compliments from friends.  I’m wearing it today actually.  La Boca market is in a neighborhood of Buenos Aires with super bright and colorful buildings.  It was such a unique neighborhood that in the market I bought a framed picture of one of the buildings as a souvenir.

Santiago, Chile:  Santa Lucia Artisan Market.  While in Chile, my mission was to find some lapis lazuli jewelry, and that was accomplished at Santa Lucia.  The jewelry and other Chilean crafts were also quite impressive.  I walked away with a pretty lapis necklace and keychain without spending that much.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil:  Feira Hippie de Ipanema (Ipanema Hippie Market).  This market, open on Sundays, is close to the world famous Ipanema beach and is so much fun to visit.  You can scoop up precious stones at wonderfully inexpensive prices, fun crafts, locally made belts and purses, and tons of other things.  And, of course, don’t forget to pick up a pair of Havaianas while you’re there.

Moscow, Russia:  Izmailovskiy Park.  This is apparently the place to go for souvenirs in Moscow, and you can find everything from the famous Russian nesting dolls to replica Faberge eggs to Indian rugs.  I tried Russian shaslik there for the first time and definitely recommend it (the Russian equivalent of barbeque).

Those are just a few of my favorite markets.  I also enjoyed checking out the wares at the Khan al-Khalili market in Cairo, Egypt, Central Market in New Delhi, India, and the Grand Bazaar in Kusadasi, Turkey, but each of those experiences was pretty intense.  Between having obviously American features (a friend overseas told me that Americans are easily spotted because of our teeth) and, at times, being overwhelmed by heat/aggressive vendors/pushy crowds, I remember leaving those markets exhausted.  The souvenirs were worth it though…

I also can’t forget the market that I frequent here in D.C.  Eastern Market is located somewhat close to Capitol Hill, and it is a great place to hang out on the weekends.  There are fun places to have brunch before browsing the jewelry, antiques, furniture, and so forth.  Local farmers also bring fresh fruit and vegetables, and depending on the season it’s a great place to pick up items that aren’t as good at the grocery store.  I love to stock up on locally grown apples, white peaches, and berries.

Even though the financial markets are not doing so well these days, the economy of culture is thriving.  It’s refreshing, for me at least, to take a break from discouraging economic news and enjoy seeing markets that aren’t so volatile.  Markets provide millions around the world a chance to enjoy economics at its most basic–you either like an item or you don’t, you see if the vendor will come down on the price or won’t, and you buy it if you can or don’t if you can’t.  It’s as simple as that.

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

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!

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.

 

 

This morning at the gym, I turned on the news to see live footage of the riots taking place in front of the Greek Parliament building in Athens.  Dark-haired Greek men and women faced off with tough-looking policemen bearing shields and tear gas, in an awkward dance where both parties tried to guess when or if the opposing crowd would make a move.

I recognized that square in front of the Parliament building in Athens–I had gone there with friends back in 2006 on a tour of Greece.  My friend Sy and I had crashed a Greek wedding nearby, on accident (we walked into a church where a wedding happened to be taking place, and we couldn’t very well just leave–it was a Greek wedding!)  Sy, my other friend Ileana, and I had also explored the market in the square and really enjoyed the laidback feel to the Greek capital.

It seems like the laidback feel also came with some risks.  I remember a guide telling me in Greece that life there was great–you could retire super early and enjoy a generous government-funded pension, when you did work you received tons of government-subsidized perks, and you received a ton of paid vacation days.  I definitely could not say the same for the U.S., and the Greeks definitely could not understand the concept that Americans barely get one or two weeks of paid vacation a year, if they’re lucky.

In the end, sadly, Greece faced major deficits and saw their economy spiraling out of control.  Today, June 29, the government had to vote on whether or not to make serious economic reforms.  People were out protesting because, naturally, it was difficult to even fathom the reality of all the benefits they were used to being taken away.

While trying to stay focused on my workout and burn off the ice cream from last night (red velvet ice cream if anyone’s curious–heaven in a pint), I thought about how much I had enjoyed Greece.  Sy, Ileana, and I had taken our graduate exams at King’s College London and had gone straight to Heathrow Airport to catch a flight to Athens.  We spent several days exploring the ruins of Athens, then took a cruise around several islands such as Mykonos, Crete, Santorini, and others.

My favorite memories from Greece were visiting Patmos (where the apostle John, according to historical analysis, wrote the Biblical book of Revelation); strolling through the amazing Plaka shopping district in Athens and buying way too much; having a Greek boatman say, “Parakalo” with a toothless grin when I tried to use my pocket dictionary Greek and told him, “Efharisto” when he helped me off of the boat; riding a donkey down the caldera of Santorini; and the food.

Oh, the food.  I fell in love just with the Greek cuisine alone.  Every morning I eagerly headed to breakfast so that I could enjoy a big bowl of Greek yogurt with fresh honey and pistachio, at lunchtime I couldn’t wait to dig into a heaping plate of moussaka, and about twice a day I had a craving for yogurt and honey ice cream.  I remember making numerous trips to the market for fresh olives, stuffing my backpack with jars of Greek honey, and hauling away bags of fresh Santorini pistachio nuts to take back and enjoy in London.

When I snapped out of my reverie, the news reported that they had received word on the outcome of the vote.  The government did indeed go through with passing austerity measures, and it looks like Greece will face tax hikes and spending cuts in order to secure bailout funds from the IMF.  Things are about to change in major ways for the Greeks.

I hope that Greece is able to get its economic situation under control soon.  It’s such an amazing, unforgettable place, and once you’ve been there, you understand why.  Athens alone is unlike any other city in the world–once you’ve stood in front of the imposing Parthenon, all of those pictures in history books from your childhood come to life.  And the islands…I could go on forever about the islands.

In the meantime, as a country with such an incredible history, hopefully Greece will write a new chapter.  One with brighter days ahead.

 

 

In the U.S., it’s a common weekend practice to head to the movies, grab a bucket of popcorn, and enjoy the newest release.  After all, the American movie industry is known as the gold standard in cinema (even though Bollywood does produce more films per year, but that’s another matter), and we Americans love our movies.

So, it was only natural that even when I was overseas, I would crave a good movie outing.  Thus began adventures in botched subtitles, creepy art films, and 3-D Polish eyewear.

My first international adventures with movie theaters began in Europe.  Now, most Europeans can’t get enough of the latest American blockbusters, so I assumed that going to the movies over there would be similar or pretty much the same as heading to my local theater in Texas or D.C.

Nope, not so much.

In Madrid, some of my classmates and I decided to test our language skills and go see a movie that our Spanish teacher told us we absolutely had to see while we were in Spain.  So, we headed to a movie theater and were really excited to see what a Spanish summer movie would be like–would it be an action film with an Antonio Banderas lookalike, only he would actually be speaking Spanish?

Not even close.  The film was pretty much about a little boy growing up in Madrid when the Franco regime came into power and he was ripped apart from his friends.  As an adult he returned to Madrid and had flashbacks of the past.  Now, it was great to get a local perspective on the difficult times that Spain went through under the dictatorship, but it wasn’t what we were thinking for a lazy Saturday afternoon.  We left pretty depressed, actually.  But, the next weekend we saw “El Fantasma de la Opera” (The Phantom of the Opera) and enjoyed that, minus the fact that the phantom almost fell while doing the scene where he swings in on a chandelier.

My next movie experience overseas was in Rome, where I lived for a summer while interning with the State Department.  They showed movies at the American embassy each week, but I wanted to stick to the local movie theaters to get the real Roman experience (as a result I missed meeting Matt Damon, who apparently showed up at an embassy event when they were showing one of his films).

And experiences they were.  The three movie theaters that I tried out in Rome only showed a couple of American movies at a time, and way after they premiered in the U.S. I tried to watch Italian movies, but the thing about European movies, whether Italian, Spanish, or French, is that they are pretty depressing for the most part.  We Americans know how to do r0mantic comedies with happy endings–in European films, they often start out as a typical rom-com and then end up with someone getting hit by a car or something.

I convinced two of my friends to check out an Irish/American movie that was showing, that looked like an indie film but was being shown in English (usually in Rome they dubbed over everything, and there were times I just wanted to hear English-speaking actors in their normal voices and not in breathy dubbed ones).  My friend Sophie hesitated and said that it looked a little weird, but I insisted that it should be fine.

We walked out of the theater in states of shock and quietly headed to dinner without saying a word.  Lesson learned that day:  don’t see an artsy, weird looking movie unless you do some research.  Let’s just say that the movie was about a teacher who, well, took a liking to his young pupils in 1940’s Ireland.  I can’t say anything more without throwing up.  After that, to be safe, I saw “Harry Potter.”  Twice.

Going to the movies in South Korea was also interesting.  In Korea, they usually left the English sound and did Korean subtitles, which was a relief since I was learning Korean at the time but didn’t have great listening proficiency.  They loved American movies and showed more recent films than I had encountered in Europe, interestingly enough.

One day, while out with one of my dear Korean friends, we decided to see “Shrek 3,” which had just opened and was received enthusiastically by Korean moviegoers.  I was the only non-Korean person in the movie theater, and that became obvious during one scene in particular.  In one part of the movie, the three little pigs yell out, “Pigs in a blanket!” before slinging one of them out of a blanket.  I laughed my head off, and quickly realized that everyone else in the theater was silent (and looking over at me with curious looks on their faces).  My friend Chi-hye whispered to me that the subtitle in Korean had read, literally, “Sausage in a blanket,” and that the Koreans were all confused because it didn’t make sense to put sausage meat in a blanket–you put it on a plate.

Another memorable movie outing was in Warsaw, Poland, while I was visiting my friend Kora.  We planned to head to Berlin for the weekend when she finished work, so I hung out and killed some time at the train station before she left her office.  The train station in Warsaw is attached to a really nice shopping center with a movie theater inside, and since it was a hot day, I decided to see a movie.  I said “jin daubbre” (“good afternoon” to the teenager working at the box office and asked for a ticket to “Step Up 3.”

I didn’t realize that the movie was in 3-D, so when I walked into the theater, the other Polish moviegoers were decked out in giant 3-D glasses.  Okay, random, I thought–but just go with it.

It ended up being one of the most fun I’d ever had at the movies.  Watching a dance movie in 3-D was by itself randomly hilarious–add in several Polish audience members dancing in their chairs with their big glasses on, and you have movie magic.

In conclusion, when heading to a movie theater overseas:

–Proceed with caution when a film looks artsy or you’re not sure what it’s about.

–Don’t expect foreign films to be uplifting.

–Don’t expect the popcorn to be fresh.  In some countries, I gleefully ordered popcorn but then spit it out in disappointment (sometimes they’ll have it, but since the locals don’t go for it like we Americans do, it sits there until an American comes along and orders it).  Unless you’re in South Korea, where they have the most addicting caramel popcorn ever.

So, while traveling, consider heading to the movies for a taste of home and/or a bit of local culture–just make sure to take your sense of humor with you.

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