Saturday, January 23, 2016

Sojourning Through Central Europe – December 2015

Sojourning Through Central Europe – December 2015

Friday, 25 December 2015 – Arriving to Prague

Every Christmas season I get nostalgic for the Christmas markets of Europe. My absolute favorite thing there is to get a cup of Glühwein (hot mulled wine) and a bratwurst while wandering around the market. While we had to go later in the season than was optimal, the Christmas markets didn’t disappoint. I also was reintroduced to some cities that I had visited last as a young adult, so I learned to appreciate them anew as someone with a “couple” more years under his belt on this trip. Overall, I’d say it was a big success: no one got sick, we experienced no crime, and we only lost each other for brief moments.

Months prior, we had made our travel plans. Since the tickets to Europe were significantly cheaper leaving out of New York rather than Washington, DC (both cities have direct routes to Vienna on Austrian Air), I bused up to the city and met my good friend, Erica, and Erica’s mom Alane right on time inside the terminal near our departure gate. The flight over wasn’t bad at all, and I was sure to take as much opportunity as I could for the complementary red wine offered. Speaking about those who like their booze, we met some new “friends” in Vienna’s central train station (Haubtbahnhof) that had been evidently up all night celebrating Christmas, because they were making all sorts of noises and screaming at one another. My German came back to me rather well when one girl was using every curse word I knew (and many that I didn’t) to call out at one of her party. Luckily security came and asked them to disperse, so we could wait for our train to Prague in relative peace, even if we were all sitting around like zombies getting off a red-eye flight to Europe.

The plan was this: take a direct flight into Vienna, immediately take a train to Prague to really start our adventure there, plane it to Munich (because the train would take too long), train it back to Vienna for New Year’s, and fly out the day after. It actually worked our rather well. Having already bought all the tickets, I knew where and when we needed to be for our travel plans. I figured we’d be wandering around like zombies that first day, so the plan was to get immediately to Prague because I figured nothing would be open Christmas day. As we’re checking into our hotel in Prague, the young guy checking us in told us that the Czechs celebrate on the 24th, so yesterday had really been the holiday. That was good for us, because more things were open (including their Christmas market).

After looking at a map, we generally pointed ourselves toward the two main squares of Prague, Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. We found the latter first, which is where a lot of major department stores are located. Even more convenient was the fact that not only was their Glühwein, but it cost something like $2 per glass. I’m going to like this place! We wandered around there a bit, checking out the stalls, but I knew the main action was in Old Town Square. More or less following the flow of people, we made our way to Old Town Square, which was lit beautifully and had a musician on the main stage blasting Christmas carols out to everyone. Not only are Christmas markets great themselves, but when you place them in a setting like Old Town Square, you’re in for a real treat! For some reason I wasn’t super excited to come back to Prague, but almost immediately I fell back in love with the city. I could easily move there and spend the rest of my days getting lost in its labyrinthine streets.

While Czech is obviously the most popular language there, we never once had an issue with anyone not speaking at least a little English. The first time I went to Prague—back in the mid-90s—German was definitely was more useful, but now English was everyone’s preferred backup language. Regardless, we found an outdoor café right on one corner of Old Town Square and ate an awesome meal; I had schnitzel, of course. One of many to come. I mention that it’s an outdoor café because remember, it’s the end of December at this point; it’s supposed to pretty damn cold out! Not so much, at least not at the beginning of our trip. This café had space heaters, so we were perfectly comfortable eating schnitzel outside and watching the people meander around us. What a great way to start this journey.

We obviously slept like babies that first night, since we’d been up for over 24 hours at this point. Our hotel is worth mentioning, because it was a big surprise to us all. Walking in it didn’t look overly fancy, but nice enough that I wouldn’t have to question whether they had actually changed the sheets since the last guest. Our room had a loft with a large bed and second full bathroom upstairs, so that really helped us three adjust to living in relative small quarters, since the girls had their own space upstairs. I got the pullout couch downstairs, and if I could have somehow stolen this couch from the hotel I gladly would have. Instead of you taking the pillows off the couch and pulling the folded mattress out, you pulled forward on the back cushions of the couch, which made the back fold forward onto the couch’s seat. You then continued to pull forward allowing all of those cushions do a summersault onto the floor and magically a bed appears. Not only does this method get rid of that center bar constantly jabbing you in a normal pullout couch, but it’s one easy movement to either stow or unfurl the bed. Pretty neat.

Saturday, 26 December 2015 – Prague Castle

As I mentioned, the hotel we stayed at—a Sheraton property—was pretty decent. Breakfast the next morning formally showed me the caliber of service we were dealing with. Although the breakfast area was smaller than the rush demanded at times, the staff always kept their cool and even smiled at you! It was amusing to hear Erica and Alane’s comments about personal space (people just running into you) and the fact that no one provided American caliber customer service. But that’s not the focus here, back to breakfast. There was a juice and coffee bar, which included a super fancy make-your-own-espresso drink machine that I need in my life. Further back there was a collection of crusty breads, yogurt, sliced cheeses and meats, and an omelet bar. Yeah, I could be happy here. The routine ended up that we’d load up on a big breakfast, usually find a light snack out somewhere, and then find a local restaurant along our journey for dinner. It generally worked out rather well.

Given that I didn’t have a specific game plan in mind for Prague, I asked Erica and Alane what they wanted to do for our sole full day to ourselves in Prague. Erica suggested that we go to the Prague Castle, so that’s where we went. My favorite way to explore a new city is to wander around and generally point to a destination. If your destination is a castle on the top of a hill, it’s rather easy to orient yourself in that direction, even if none of the streets run in a straight line. As we got closer to the Charles Bridge, which we’d have to cross in order to get to the castle, it got as crowded as Times Square. By the end of the day, I was feeling a tad murderous, but for now I was soaking it all in. Really what I was doing was reacquainting myself with an old friend. I had been to Prague multiple times before this trip, and every time I had come I truly fell in love with the city. That was no different this time. In fact, I think I was the saddest leaving Prague than any of the other cities we visited. In other words, Prague’s the kind of city I could see myself moving to and never returning.

Once we hiked up to the castle, it was a big cluster just to find out where we buy tour tickets. We had about an hour before the tour, so I naturally gravitated to the handful of Christmas market stalls right outside the main gate and ordered a Glühwein. Erica suggested we three share a couple of bratwursts, which was a brilliant idea (as brats and wein go well together), but what she returned with surprised me. German bratwursts are a mild pork sausage, something akin to the morning breakfast sausages you’ve probably had at home on the weekends. The sausages that Erica brought back, however, were much more like a Polish kielbasa. It was an interesting regional variation worthy of note. I suppose it’s just a form of Slavic comradery with one’s neighbor. After eating our kielbasa, it was time to go meet our tour guide and get this tour started!

The Prague Castle (or “Prasky hrad” in Czech) is the current home of the country’s president, at least that’s true for the newer side of the complex. The castle wraps itself around a huge cathedral in the middle, the cathedral of St. Vitus, which holds the seat for the Archbishop of Prague (even if something like 80% of the country considers itself atheist). We met our tour guide, Vaslav, and started in the cathedral, which has a great history. I won’t bore you with details here, but it’s interesting to note that the cathedral itself wasn’t completed until the 20th century. One of the more modern additions is a stained glass window painted by an early 20th century artist named Alfons Mucha. After a lap around the church and going down into the crypt, we made our way into the castle itself. Two things stand out during our tour here: 1) a woman asked what the big ceramic boxes were, and I knew right away that they were heaters for the large rooms because my mom had shared this piece of trivia with me the weekend before in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 2) In a smaller room just off of the royal chapel, we saw the window where two Catholic regents were thrown out by means of defenestration that started the Thirty Years War. The view from the window of the city below is quite nice, though I imagine less so if you’re being pushed out from said window.

That night, after we had walked what felt like for eons, we wanted to grab dinner close to the hotel. Yelp worked just fine for us, and we found a local restaurant just around the corner. The menus were in Czech, German, Russian, and English. Nonetheless, I was able to use one of my handful of Czech words: “pivo” (beer). Instead of a fried pork chop like the previous night, I had a grilled pork chop smothered in a creamy green pepper sauce. God I love Central European food! More interestingly, though, was what the family next to us ordered. It was a couple, one of their mothers, and their younger child. Everyone except the kid had beers in front of them, and the family ordered what looked like the entire bone-in shoulder of a pig. They collectively and happily ate off of this giant hunk of animal. That was something to see.

Sunday, 27 December 2015 – Terezin/Theresienstadt

One of the suggestions my mom had made before going on this trip was to go see Theresienstadt, or Terezin as it’s known in Czech. Named after Maria Theresa (because it was originally built during her reign), it originally was a rather expansive fortress that cut off the one valley that the Prussians could have used to infiltrate into Austro-Hungarian lands. This was at a time when the Protestant Czechs had been rebelling against the very Catholic Austro-Hungarian rulers in Vienna, and I believe our tour guide also mentioned that Bavaria had temporarily succeeded from the empire at about this same time too. So Maria Theresa was keen on holding onto any and all land claims at that point and needed to “protect” them from outside invaders. But that’s not why Erica, Alane, and I wanted to tour Terezin. During World War II, Terezin was turned into a sort of concentration camp for Czech Jews.

To be clear, when I say concentration camp, I don’t necessarily mean extermination camp. And that’s the first surprise I had once we got to the compound. Our tour guide for the day, Pavel (another great Slavic name), dropped us off at a sort of art museum that greeted us with children’s drawings from those who were living in the camp. While there were scenes of ugliness, the pictures generally showed a society working. The Nazis weren’t explicitly killing the Jews here—at least not at the beginning—but were rounding them up to remove them from Czech society. Pavel started our tour by painting the picture, since it was a question of identity. What I’m asking is: what does it mean to be a Jew in Czechoslovakia during the time leading up to WWII? The society itself wasn’t very areligious, just like the Jews. According to Pavel, the Jews were more integrated into society than most other countries in Europe at that time, so it was even harder to remove them and send them away.

In Terezin, there was a functioning Jewish government led by upper class Jews, professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and professors. There were research health clinics and significant arts projects going on all the time. That’s not to say the Jews were free to move about and do as they please. Terezin was a kind of social experiment to see how the Jews would react to certain stimuli. The International Committee of the Red Cross, for instance, came by at one point for an inspection. As you’d imagine, everything was planned out to the smallest detail to make it look like the Nazis were, in fact, treating the Jews within these confines respectfully. One way or another, the ICRC bought it. Walking around the town now it’s eerily quiet, only because the few local residents are living in government housing.

The other side of Terezin, the side that scholars have historically called a political prisoner camp, is much more dreadful. That’s where the incinerators are, for instance. We walked around a small prison with a couple dozen bunk rooms where political prisoners were held. While traditionally it was thought that this population never comingled with the Jewish population, according to Pavel a handful of Jews would be sent over for “entertainment” purposes for the Nazi officers running both installations. An example of this would be to hold a Jew at one end of a long-ish courtyard. Along the side of the courtyard Nazis would be setup with their rifles. The Jew would be told that if he could run the length of the courtyard and survive, he’d be allowed to go back to his family in the village. Few survived the gauntlet, but if they did they were beaten to death, either by Nazis or the prisoners of the camp while the Nazis looked on. Other examples of this could be shared, but suffice it to say we left our tour of Terezin on a more somber note than we had coming into the experience.

Since it was our last night in Prague, Alane wanted to get some night pictures of the Christmas market in Old Town Square. We wandered along until we found an Italian restaurant right in the middle of the tourist section of the city, but we welcomed it after eating fried pork chops steadily for multiple days now. Things were surprisingly cheap in Prague. Glühwein, for example, was less than half of what it was going to be in the other cities we visited. Our collective bill for dinner was something like $30 for the three of us, except we had a problem. The restaurant didn’t accept credit cards, and we didn’t have enough koruna to pay the bill. Not a problem for our server, however! We paid what we could in koruna and then threw in the rest in euro and were set! Not only did the server do the math in his head, but his English was rather good. In fact, I was surprised at how much English was spoken throughout our time in Prague. There was only one time when we stopped for a bathroom break did the bathroom attendant, who was of an older generation, prefer German to English to communicate with foreigners.

Monday, 28 December 2015 – Hofbräuhaus

I was sad to leave Prague. I wasn’t very excited to go back there at the beginning of this trip for some reason, but after walking across the Charles Bridge I was hooked again. You could leave me there for the rest of my days without a bit of remorse on my part. The streets wind in all sorts of directions, and I like that Czech uses the Roman alphabet so I can randomly pick up words from signs. With that said, though, we had an adventure to continue! Flying from Prague to Munich, we heard all sorts of languages on the train and in the airport. We had a hotel car, an E class Mercedes, take us to the airport—“the only cab I’m ever going to ride in from now on” Erica told me.

Once we arrived to our hotel, about a block away from Munich’s main train station, we wandered our way to Marienplatz, the main square of Munich. This has been the main square of Munich since the 12th century, and just like then a lot of commerce happens there. As luck would have it, the Hofbräuhaus, one of Munich’s best known beer halls, was just on the other side of the plaza. We found a communal table in the back, ordered some beer and some snacks, and enjoyed taking it all in. One of the things that Munich is known for is Weißwurst, or white bratwursts. They come to you in a clear broth in a white and blue ceramic bowl. We had to have some of those, and we had to order a giant pretzel from the pretzel lady. While the beer and food were good, I couldn’t help feeling like this was a tourist trap. I thought to myself that we’d need to ask the hotel’s concierge for a more “authentic” dining experience for tomorrow. We had a couple days here, so I wasn’t too worried.

After getting back to the hotel, we decided to grab a drink at the hotel’s bar. Checking in I already knew that the caliber of service at this hotel was going to be phenomenal, so when Erica ordered a Pinot Grigio, I asked our server whether Germany grew any Pinot Grigio. Without skipping a beat, she said yes, but explained that it had a different name in German—Grauburgunder. I later learned that “grigio” means grey, which is the hue the grape takes on as it ripens, and that it’s a mutant variety of Pinot Noir, which is where the Burgundy reference comes into play. Having worked at a winery in Northern Virginia for 2½ years, I thought I knew my stuff. But really there are whole other wine worlds out there that I have barely the faintest knowledge about. Is that the universe telling me that I should be drinking wine professionally? But how? Or maybe it was just the booze talking.

Tuesday, 29 December 2015 – City Tour of Munich

Since neither Erica nor Alane had been to Munich before, I suggested that we play tourist for the day and buy one of those day passes where you can hop on and off a sightseeing bus that goes around the city. We found the closest bus stop easy enough and loaded onto our double-decker. After passing by the museum district on the western side of the city (with enough museums to rival the Smithsonian collection in Washington, DC), we decided to hop off at the Residenzmuseum (residence of the Duke/King of Bavaria during Hapsburg rule). It’s a palace smack dab in the middle of the city, so we could hit anything else we liked afterward. The best thing I got out of this experience is the resilience of the German people. Whole wings of this palace had been bombed during WWII, but nevertheless the Germans recreated the interiors. This is what, I believe, art historians would call restoration rather than preservation. It allowed the observer to note how these rooms were decorated and adorned at that time, rather than trying to preserve what was left of the building after the bombings. There was one noted exception, however, in one of chapels/concert halls. They hadn’t stucco-ed the walls, leaving the brick exposed, and you could easily note where the original brick ended and restored brick began. It was a neat effect that showed the multiple iterations this building had gone through.

After the Residenzmuseum we were close to the English Gardens, the largest outdoor park in the city. It was a nice enough day for a stroll, but moving with any kind of speed proved to be too much for us, so we cut that outing short. Erica suggested that we find a café to sit and rest for a while, but the closest café to our bus stop was completely overrun inside and out, so we hopped on our bus again and returned to the main train station where we started. Erica and Alane were taking the street car (S-Bahn) out to Dachau the next morning, so we bought them train tickets and showed them where the track was so that they’d be able to find it the next morning. Easy enough, but we were all beat. It was mid/late afternoon by this point, so we walked the block or two back to the hotel. We left Alane in the hotel room for a while, and Erica and I [naturally] headed to the hotel’s bar for a drink or two before dinner.

There, after making a toast with our newly acquired drinks, Erica and a made a friend that called himself Steffan. Steffan was doing business in town, but he was from the town of Bitburg (home of Bitburger beer). His English was about as good as my German, so we muddled through using both in a vain attempt to chat. It apparently worked well enough that he offered to do a shot with us. He asked the bartender to pour three shots of something he called Borgman. After taking the shot, I’d describe it as something akin to a high-end Jägermeister. It was good, so I asked my new friend where I could find it. Apparently it’s a highly exclusive item that’s allegedly only available at very exclusive hotels. It’s a shame we’re not still in Prague because we had all sorts of liquor stores not far from our hotel that I’d be happy to scour to see if I could find something similar.

Alane found us, so we headed out to dinner. The hotel’s concierge had reserved a spot for us at local German restaurant where all the patrons sit at communal tables. We even got a bite of the freshly fried doughy dessert from the table next to us! Alane and I ordered—are you ready for this—some sort of pork chop that came with sauerkraut and a potato dumpling, while Erica got a roast beef-type dish that was equally amazing. I don’t know if it was the liter of beer I had or the shot of schnapps we sipped afterward, but I highly enjoyed my meal that evening. Our walk took us back to the hotel took us through Marienplatz again, which held several street musicians and all sorts of people just milling about. A lot of the shops were surprisingly still open, so we lost Erica in a multiple story bookstore at one point. No one necessarily bought anything, but we had the time to mill about and enjoy ourselves before calling it a day. Yeah, I was really enjoying Munich too.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015 – BMW World

The next morning we got up and had our delicious continental breakfast once again, but then Erica and Alane departed for their day trip. I was in no rush, but I eventually headed out to what I thought was the correct subway stop. Unfortunately, the line that I thought I could take directly to BMW World didn’t seem to go through the main train station. I looked up another line that appeared to connect to a third line that would work, but by the time I got to the connecting station, it was evident that connecting line only ran on certain days. Great. Amazingly enough, though, my Verizon cell phone allowed me to use GPS on it, even though it wasn’t connected to any data network. I had downloaded a city map of Munich on my phone back at the hotel, so I could easily look up a destination on the saved Google map and figure out how to get there. I had about 2km to get to my destination, which didn’t faze me one bit because I had my headphones and a map that would get me there. It worked like a charm.

Two kilometers later, I made it to BMW World. That requires a little bit of explaining. Bavaria’s Motor Works (BMW) is headquartered in Munich, and not only is there a factory at the headquarters, but also a museum and that newest addition to the collection: BMW World. If you buy a BMW stateside and arrange to have it picked up at the factory, you’d come to this very architecturally interesting showroom. Unfortunately there’s not much for the everyday person to see, so I headed over to the museum to check that out. While the museum was rather interesting with the information it shared, I feel the way it was presented had a lot to be desired. For one, the path that the visitor takes can potentially send you in circles, if you decide to vary from the standard path they’ve lined up for you. Another thing, and this is inexcusable in my book, is that all displays were presented in German and English. That sounds great, except the English captions were printed in white lettering on a light grey background with powerful lights shown directly on it. In other words, it was exceedingly difficult to read any of the signage in English. Not the smartest move from a German car company that prides itself on thinking of every minute detail.

After the museum experience, I hopped on the original subway line I thought I’d be taking and headed back downtown, this time heading for one of the three original gates to the city walls. I remember seeing on our bus tour the other day a victuals market (Viktuellsmarkt) nearby that sounded interesting. As our tour guide had stated, the English word “victuals” means everyday grocery items, which is what this market appeared to be. Apparently the original wording described raw ingredients for beer production, which I suppose was an everyday foodstuff in Europe many years ago. Interestingly, once I got to the market, there was a large May pole that included the word “Reinheitsgebot,” which is the original German beer purity law stating that only barley, hops, and water. This law dates back to 1516, right around the time the North American continent was being discovered and explored. Since I already had my music blaring, I just wandered around to see what types of goods were being sold. Beyond farmer’s market-type goods, there was the requisite Glühwein stall, but I settled for the beer stall that was selling ½-liters of Löwenbräu for something like €3.50. Add a Weißwurst to the mix and my lunch cost me something like €5, adult beverage included! It was difficult to gather whether or not the foodstuffs at the market were a good deal because weights were measured in kilos, so everything appeared to be priced twice as much as I’d expect. Regardless, it was a neat experience to actually experience the market where beer was decreed into being and whatnot. On the way back to the hotel for meet Erica and Alane after their trek out yonder, I stopped off in the German equivalent to Macy’s, called Kaufhof. I remembered these stores from when my family and I lived in Germany some twenty years before this, so it was neat to see they were still around. Clothes and shoes seemed expensive, but housewares were rather reasonable. I bought some souvenirs and a 2016 calendar just because I could.

Since we had such a good time at German restaurant the night before, we asked our concierge to setup another reservation for a local favorite, and he did not disappoint! This time we went to a veritable German beer hall called the Augustiner Keller (cellar of the Augustine monks). Let’s just start with the fact that the logo of this beer hall states that it had been founded in 1328. The staff were surprisingly bubbly, even though things were always hectic in there. We nevertheless found a table and quickly had beers in hand. Schnitzel was on taps for us (clearly), and the service was quick and friendly. The only hiccup we had was when the table had been cleared and we asked for the check. Our server was clearly busy with other tables, but finally she came over, dropped off a tray of empty Biersteins, and pulled our tab out of her bra. Once we had settled up, Erica told me that it had been worth the wait just to experience that moment. Priceless.

Thursday, 31 December 2015 – The Hills Are Alive With…ABBA

One of my favorite things in Europe is their rail system. The first day we got here we took a train to Prague, but we all slept as best we could on the train, so I don’t really count that experience as anything more than getting from Point A to B. Leaving Munich, sadly, we walked the block or two to the train station, easily found our train, and got situated for the 4-ish hours it takes to get to Vienna. While I should have probably guessed, this train line goes through Salzburg and ultimately ends in Budapest. Salzburg was discussed when we first started planning this trip, but something had to get cut to make the whole thing manageable. I told Erica we’d just have to come back so we could skip through the fields belting out “The hills are aliiiiiiiiiiiive!” Traveling through the countryside made me feel at home, since as a child we took so many road trips. I loved seeing the small villages (always with a church steeple) whiz by with their terracotta roofs a stucco/plaster buildings. That hadn’t changed since before I was born, but one thing that did pop out as relatively new were the number of solar panels on most buildings. I wish these panels were as prevalent in the United States, especially in the southwest.

We easily grabbed a taxi from the Vienna main train station, where we had started this whole adventure a week before. Unbeknownst to us, our hotel was located a few blocks away from the Wiener Riesenrod, the wildly popular Ferris wheel I had seen as a child after taking my first overnight train to Vienna from Würzburg. The subway stop is called the Prater Stern, which used to be a rather Jewish neighborhood before WWII. (The Ferris wheel, incidentally, was designed and build for Franz Joseph I’s golden jubilee in 1897.) While our hotel wasn’t anything to write home about, it did give us easy access to downtown via two different subway lines that went through that station. We didn’t stay long in the neighborhood because, for one, not many things were open on account of it being New Year’s Eve, and also because we knew we only had a limited time in Vienna so we got downtown as quickly as possible. And boy, were we happy to check out the New Year’s festivities!

You could hear the music pumping from the subway station as walked out onto Ratzkellerplatz. This is the site of the biggest Christmas market (which was still going on) in Vienna, so we quickly found some Glühwein and Kartoffelnpuffen (potato pancakes) to tide us over until dinner. Aside from the castle-like façade of the city hall and the air filled with magic because of the holiday and the fact the Christmas markets were still open, the best thing about this whole scenario is the fact that an ABBA cover band has been playing on the main stage this whole time! Yes of “Dancing Queen” and “Mamma Mia” fame. Of COURSE we’re going to celebrate New Year’s in Europe with an ABBA cover band! The whole stage was sponsored by a local radio station, so I enjoyed hearing the announcements and commercials. Again, you could’ve left me in any of these cities. Have I mentioned that yet? After ABBA finished, we walked around the market. We stuck around to hear the start of a Stevie Wonder cover band, but the lead singer obviously couldn’t cut it in the States and is trying his luck in Europe. So we decided to wander nearby to see about some dinner.

After several nights of fried pork chops, I think we all could take a break to something else we all like: pasta. The quality of pasta in Europe, at least in the cities we hit, was phenomenal. This restaurant, in particular, had a great staff that was remarkably friendly with excellent English. In fact, we asked one of our servers about the pig-shaped ceramic mug in which we had received our Glühwein, and he matter-of-factly responded (as any good Austrian would), “Why, it’s the pig that’s rooting around in the Earth to find you good luck for the coming year!” and left it at that. Alrighty, well there you go. Now one of the four mugs I had collected from various Christmas markets is now shaped like a pig. That’s actually pretty cool, if you nerd it up for booze like I do!

The rest of the night was rather uneventful, except for all the people setting off fireworks outside our hotel window all night long. Let me take a step back: we were getting pretty damn cold out there listening to mediocre Stevie, so we took the subway back to the hotel. I figured we’d get either an MTV or a CNN that would have some sort of New Year’s program, but not so much. We found a TV channel that was airing an Aerosmith concert…and that was about it. Aerosmith it is. While Steve Tyler looks awful and scary, he can still belt out some music for the fans! After Aerosmith we saw some Katy Perry concert, and let me just say homegirl cannot perform live. She sounded awful! So after an hour of Katy, we had had enough. Luckily was almost midnight, so what did we do? We found some local, German language countdown show (Lederhosen included) and counted down with the live studio audience. It was a strange situation, but we celebrated with some bubbles I had bought at Kaufhof a couple days ago just for this moment. Here’s to 2016!

Friday, 1 January 2016 – Last Day in Country

With only one full day left on the European continent, we wanted to make the most of it. Except we hadn’t factored in one small detail: a lot of things were closed because it was New Year’s Day. Ironic how we thought we’d have that problem at the beginning with no such issue, while it wasn’t planned for at the end, and that’s when we wanted to really maximize our time in Vienna. Oh well, rolling with the punches is one of the first lessons you’ve got to learn while traveling. So we did some online research (thanks to all of these hotels having wifi) and realized that two major points of interest were open that day, the Schönbrunn Palace and Mozart’s house. Away we went!

We had tried to gather some information about tour times and the costs of admission on the Schönbrunn’s website, but that wasn’t very helpful. We arrived in the late morning thinking that there’s most likely be a tour at the noon or early afternoon hour. Nope! Not until 3:30 that day, so we did our own self-guided tour with handheld audio devices. While the information for each room was good, the tour was setup in a way that seemed haphazard. First you’d walk into the private study of Franz Joseph, then there’d be an impossibly-too-ornate-to-describe room that Maria Theresa had created as homage to her parents, then there’d be a room where some feeble heir died. They were all named Franz-Karl or Max-Anton, so who could keep up? I think my exacerbation with the tour came up because there was nothing at the beginning to put all of this into perspective. I’m sure it’s me as the lazy, fat tourist expecting this, but with such a magnificent home and a building so crucial to centuries of history, it would’ve helped me understand what we were looking at. I guess I’ll just have to go buy a book.

After successfully navigating out to Schönbrunn, we were equally successful directing ourselves to Mozart’s house. It was situated in the oldest part of town, right near the city’s main cathedral. This area would’ve been a joy to wander around for a day or two, if any of the shops or cafés were open. Oh well, we found our street and museum without much of an issue. Mozart lived in this house for only a few years, right at the height of his success, mostly due to the fact that he liked to bop around Europe moving every few years. I can appreciate that, since I like to bop around every few years too! In this house, Mozart created scores most notably for The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute, though I believe it was the former that received a much greater reception when it debuted in Prague than in Vienna. This was a good reminder to illustrate that Prague and Vienna have been so closely linked for centuries. The apartment itself wasn’t too flashy. It was located in a building with multiple similar apartments on each floor, which have now been turned into a museum explaining the life and times of Mozart. What I liked about seeing the actual space was what it would’ve looked like in Mozart’s time, particularly the views out to the city surrounding the building. I liked that those views hadn’t changed much.

With not much else on our docket, Erica wanted to go back to the Christmas market we had seen the night before for one last time around (read: we needed more Glühwein). Actually, in all seriousness, I think Alane wanted one of our pig mugs, so her daughter was nice enough to oblige and have another drink just so mom could get her mug. The toils of being the daughter! Right near the subway stop stood a cute little café. What sealed the deal for me is that they were advertising Schnitzel on the chalkboard outside, so I suggested we check it out for our last dinner in Vienna. While Alane ordered goulash (something that was featured just about everywhere), Erica and I had to have our Wiener Schnitzel, and boy howdy was it good! What struck me about this experience was the general pleasantness of our server. She was a happy, quick-on-her-feet kind of lady, and I would’ve happily chatted with her about what she’s seen working right next to City Hall for God knows how long. A great meal to finish off the adventure. Vienna, you represented yourself well on this trip.

Saturday, 2 January 2016 – An Epic Trip Back (and Epilogue)

Although I got an email from the travel agency that had booked our plane tickets that the plane had been delayed, we taxied to the airport and found that everything was on time. The flight was back was surprisingly easy, though they’ve implanted this new electronic customs questionnaire procedure at JFK that made things unnecessarily chaotic. I’m not exactly the quickest on my feet, both literally and figuratively, after sitting in a tin can for ten hours. After gathering our bags and getting through customs, it was time for the Nadels and Noel to part ways. I was concerned about making my bus connection down to Virginia, so I scurried onto the New York subway to get into the city. Of course I boarded a local train (not an express), but I [barely] made it onto my bus before it left. Another 4 ½ hours of sitting in a tin can! Yay! That part of the journey was rather unpleasant, mostly due to the fact that the woman sitting next to me crammed me up next to the freezing window the entire journey back. But we made it home as planned, and I passed out immediately on my bed.

Ultimately I’d say this was a rather successful adventure. My friends got to experience that part of Europe for the first time, and I rediscovered my love of German culture. While it may be a while before I go back again to that part of the world, I know I’ll be back because it’s so wonderful. Erica really wants to hit Neuschwanstein, and I suggested that we tack on a trip to Prosecco while we’re playing in the Alps. I imagine a trip like that could be planned rather easily. But really, and I’ve said this all along, I could’ve spent weeks/months/years in any of these cities. Not only are they all great walking cities, but they all have such wonderful day or weekend trips from the city center that you could do to explore the greater areas surrounding them. What I also appreciated on this trip was the shared history that all of these cities had with one another. The Hapsburg Empire ruled for centuries and really brought together quite disparate groups of people under one crown. That Maria Theresa knew what she was doing. Now that this trip is over, it means I need to start planning the next one.

Navigating Napa - May 2015

Navigating Napa - May 2015

5/23/15 – Trekking Up Knob Hill

Some time ago my friends Lauren, Jesse, and I decided to maximize the opportunity and spend some time in the San Francisco Bay Area on account of Jesse having a conference in the city for work. Jesse, a newly minted Physician’s Assistant (PA), had a work conference in downtown San Francisco for a number of days. While he, his wife Lauren, and myself had all been to San Francisco before, Lauren’s mom Diane had not. We all thought it’d be a great opportunity to take this motley crew the West Coast for a week or so. Man did we have a good time!

I arrived without incident to the San Francisco International Airport a couple hours after my friends. Once I threw my luggage in our hotel room just off of Union Square, Jesse and I decided to take a walk and let the girls take a nap. We ended up hiking up Knob Hill, smack dab in the middle of the city. This gave Jesse and me opportunity to reorient ourselves in a city we both have grown to love. On our way back to the hotel, we stopped as at a neighborhood crêperie for a snack. While enjoying the afternoon sun and sipping on a beer, I heard a distinctive, “Noel?” Oh hell, who knows me in this city? It turned out to be my weekend job’s (I work at a winery in Northern Virginia on the weekends) general manager/winemaker’s step-son, who evidently moved out to San Francisco six months ago to study at a local film school. What a crazy reaffirmation that it’s a small world!

While walking downhill to the hotel, Jesse offered up another positive reaffirmation to me: “this is exactly what I wanted to do this afternoon,” he says. What a great way to start a vacation. That night, the four of us ventured out into the Mission, which is San Francisco’s hipster/trendy neighborhood. My crew and I were in search of a restaurant called Gracias Madre (the madre, in this instance, isn’t the woman that birthed you, but rather Mother Earth). This is a vegan, Mexican restaurant. While I thought the food visually was appealing, my black beans were a little flat (on account of no fat back). With that said, it astonished me to see the variance in restaurant patrons: you have the local hipster neighborhood kid (more likely to be gay than not), men in formal business attire, as well as families with children that happily eat vegan food. I don’t know a better way to sum up San Francisco than that!

5/24/15 – Chinatown

The next morning, the girls and I decided to go on a walking tour of nearby downtown. We wanted to take Lauren’s mom, Diane, through Chinatown. While Diane’s familiar with the sizeable Chinatown in Philadelphia, the Chinatown in San Francisco is its own experience. I remember once, after eating at a great little hole-in-the-wall restaurant, my server kindly informed me that they only accepted cash. I figured I could find my way to an ATM pretty easily, but after realizing that no one on the street spoke English, I found a U.S. Post Office building (thinking that federal employees must speak English, right?) Apparently not. After wandering around for multiple blocks, I did find a cash machine and made it back to the restaurant. That story illustrates the cultural homogeneity of the neighborhood.

So Lauren and I take Diane through Chinatown. We all found some amusing souvenirs at various shops, but the fun began when we decided to stop and grab a snack. We stood in line for a local bakery, but then we discover they don’t have one of the specific things we’re looking for, so I’m sent into the restaurant next door to find some steamed bao (vegetable or meat-filled buns). I found my favorite, a shredded port-filled balloon of dough, and happily bought it for less than $1. I got outside to share in my trove of goodies, and so I reached inside the bag for my pork bao. Evidently, the shop keeper asking me if I wanted the bun “cold” should’ve translated to “uncooked.” I was holding a ball of raw dough, probably some not-quite-cooked pork, all on top of a banana leaf ready to share. Yeah, that didn’t turn out quite as expected.

We did have some delightful sesame-coated bread balls, so not all was lost. We met Jesse at the Ferry Building, a short walk through the center of town from Chinatown. The Ferry Building, interestingly enough, is where you can pick up multiple ferry lines that take you throughout the greater San Francisco Bay. Our destination is the coastal town of Sausalito, in Marin County, on the north end of the bay. Before going there, however, a note about the Ferry Building itself is in order. My first encounter with the Ferry Building was in the summer when there are farmers’ markets that wrap around the entire building. Picture an old-school train station complete with art nouveau architectural elements throughout. The building faces out into the bay with the Port of Oakland facing back at you. To the north along the water are various warehouses, and you can eventually get to Pier 39/Fisherman’s Wharf after a bit. Equally distant to the south of the building is the righteously impressive Bay Bridge. This whole area in downtown San Francisco is known as the Embarcadero.

From the Ferry Building, we took a 20-minute or so boat ride over to North Bay and disembarked in the town of Sausalito. My first impression was that it’s rather crowded, since a lot of people are trying to fit into not a lot of sidewalk space. We found a higher-end restaurant that served generally American food, though with well-timed and informative service by the restaurant staff. I was craving a burger and a beer, though in retrospect I probably should have chosen something more like Diane’s Coq au Vin, which she shared later that it was her favorite meal of our trip. The couple square blocks of Sausalito are unremarkable in that there’s not much going on, and beyond the touristy shops and handful of cafés and restaurants, the only remarkable thing about the area is the fact that hundreds of beautiful homes dot the hills that soar upward from the coast.

The ferry ride back to San Francisco was relaxing, though cold. The waves roll you back and forth, and if you stand outside you can smell the rather frigid Pacific Ocean on just the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. The boat stops at Fisherman’s Wharf for passengers to get out, but we stayed on the boat to return to the Ferry Building, since our hotel was [relatively speaking] within walking distance of that stop. That night we hit up a hole-in-the-wall noodle house where everyone could get a plate of noodles of their choice. It was rather cheap, quick, and a perfect way to end an eventful day in San Francisco. I knew we had another day planned for tomorrow, which excited me because I’d get to see some good friends out in East Bay.

5/25/15 – East Bay Mexican Food

While in the city, I had a couple of friends who lived in the area that I wanted to see. One couple, Brian and Meghan, live in Walnut Creek. Brian went to Berkeley for undergrad, so I figured we could generally meet around there and wander around campus. It was decided that I’d meet them in Walnut Creek for lunch, and then later we’d head over to campus to walk around. I was hoping that some of my travel buddies would want to join along, but this was the day they decided to take Diane to Fisherman’s Wharf and Golden Gate Park. Since I had no need to be there, it made the most sense that we could all just meet up for dinner later in the day. As luck would have it, a friend from grad school, Maggie Peters, was willing to drive up the two hours from Monterey and meet us in Berkeley for our wander around campus.

Before that trek, however, a note should be thrown out there about Mexican food. I’m a big fan, and as I’ve shared this with Brian and Meghan on past visits, Washington, DC doesn’t generally have good Mexican food. Brian remembered this and decided to take me to one of their favorite local Mexican places not far from Walnut Creek. I’m especially a fan of Californian Mexican food (think Tex-Mex, except Cali-Mex) after having visited my aunt and uncle years ago in the San Diego area. We went to their neighborhood Mexican place for dinner one night, AND IT WAS THE BEST MEXICAN FOOD I HAD EVER EATEN…including what I’ve had in Mexico! Anyway, lunch was good, but the trek around Berkeley was fantastic.

Brian, Meghan, and I met up with my friend Maggie in downtown Berkeley right near campus. After wandering a couple blocks into the main drag where all the college stores are (used CD stores—yes they still exist—college gear store, etc.), we went through campus to essentially make our way to the other BART station in Berkeley, since that’s where a lot of the nicer bars and restaurants are. On our way through campus, two things of note come to mind: 1) walking through a eucalyptus grove with Maggie at my side (having this girl next to me while inhaling the heavenly aroma of these old trees was amazing), and 2) getting an opportunity to check out the view from the top of the Campanili. Modeled after a similar structure in Venice, Berkeley’s Campanili was a gift to the university by a female benefactor at the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, it was 1915, because they were celebrating their 100th year while we were on campus. I liken the experience of seeing out of the top of the Campanili to that of going up to the top of the Washington Monument—it really allows you to get a bearing of your environment and see what’s around. One thing I need to do on my next trip to the Bay Area to go wander around commercial downtown Berkeley, it looked like a decent place to check out.

Since the 25th happened to be Memorial Day, the final adventure for the day was the most fitting. My travel buddies and I decided to meet up in the Castro, which is the gayborhood of San Francisco. I had a fantastic time walking around getting to the Castro from East Bay, which included learning of a restaurant called the Meat Factory. After mentioning this to Diane, Jesse, and Lauren, we decided to have dinner there. On our way down the main drag (pun intended), I started hearing Aretha Franklin playing: “we’re goin’ ridin’ on FREEEEWAY of love in my pink Cadillac…!” While I fully support the playing of Aretha at any time, I was wondering where the music was coming from. Not long after did we see a guy dressed in a proper Army uniform dancing on a corner with his boom box blaring the Queen of Soul. I’d call him a street performer, but really he was just dancing at an intersection, and happily danced with anyone who would come over to celebrate Memorial Day with him. After wandering through the Castro a bit, this made me fall in love with San Francisco all over again. That was, in fact, also the moment when Diane discovered her love for San Francisco, The way she put it, Union Square is like downtown Philadelphia: there’s an abundance of homeless people and the city isn’t particularly clean. Walking from Golden Gate Park (via the Haight) to the Castro, Diane discovered the real personality of San Francisco.

5/26/15 – The Golden Gate Bridge

Few things are more iconic than the Golden Gate Bridge. Beyond something like the Statue of Liberty, nothing signifies a city more than this magnificent structure. After playing in the city for a few days, it was time to start our journey up to wine country (hallelujah!) Needless to say, Diane and I were excited to get up there and check out some amazing wine, but before that there were plans to stop off in an equally amazing place called Muir Woods (named after John Muir, the naturalist and explorer who essentially created the National Parks system). I had been here before, but this time it was like coming back to an old friend that was just as loveable and radiant as ever. I was concerned, given the current long-term drought that’s hitting California, that Muir Woods wouldn’t be as spectacular. But really it was just as amazing, and I discovered new trails I hadn’t been on before during this trip.

I have to come clean: the real reason we came to Muir Woods wasn’t to show anyone the spectacle that it is, though that was a nice side-effect. The real reason we showed up here is because Tyler Florence, a well-known celebrity chef on the Food Network, had shared that his favorite grilled cheese of all time was at their small restaurant. We all bought the Tyler Florence combo, which included a sandwich, cup of tomato basil soup, and a drink. They make the sandwiches to order, and I must say that my sandwich was pretty damn good! What made it special for me was the fact that they had hunks of a Brie-like cheese added in for the gooiness factor, and then the [sourdough] bread had roosted pumpkin seeds in it, which gave the whole thing an added crunchy texture that wasn’t expected. Ultimately, I’d say our trip to Muir Woods was successful, though I’d love to hear Diane’s thoughts of the place—was it as spectacular as it was for me my first time there?

Getting to Santa Rosa, the county seat for Sonoma County, we decided to explore “downtown” Santa Rosa (as it is), for a bite to eat. We landed on a Chinese restaurant, which didn’t have a soul in its dining room when we entered. This is a tell-tale sign, though this experience taught me that nothing is for certain; a restaurant with an empty dining room can still produce some stellar entrées. Diane and I both had stellar meat-based Chinese dishes, whereas Jesse had a plate of greens (and sautéed garlic) and Lauren had a fried tofu dish that was divine. Jesse and Lauren left us to visit the used bookstore across the street, so Diane and I ordered another carafe of wine to start our adventure in Sonoma. That night we played Cards Against Humanity (Diane’s first time) and drank more. Traveling is fun, especially when you can let loose with your traveling companions. I think we all needed a breather to enjoy the next day’s adventure.

5/27/15 – Crossing Into Napa

Our first real wine exploration day is here! After stopping by Target and acquiring far too much wine already, it was time to show these folks the beauty that is Napa. The first place I wanted to hit was the Mumm tasting room, which I had taken my parents to years before. Mumm is just down the road from St. Helena, which is centrally located in the valley both north-to-south and east-to-west. To get there we had to travel on a two-lane road over the hills that separate Napa and Sonoma Counties, which dropped us on the northern end of the county near Calistoga. Pretty immediately you’re then driving through rolling hills of vineyards with the sun shining brightly down. Yeah, it’s a good way to start.

To actually get to the Mumm tasting room, you have to go through their retail space, which just puts you in the right mood (having to wade through cases of sparkling wine to then drink the stuff, I’m okay with that). The tasting room itself is outside, and a server comes over to explain the procedure. Like any fine dining restaurant, there’s a great utilization of timing to have the guests get situated in their space and take in the awesome view of the valley before anything begins. Our server had been there for over ten years, and in fact she was a grape grower herself (syrah and chardonnay). In fact, that was the most popular question I got, “oh, what do you grow?” when I mentioned that I too worked in the industry. But back to the bubbles. We all selected a premier flight, because that’s how you do it, and sat back for the wine to begin flowing. While the wine was superb, after four half-flutes of incredibly delicious sparkling, I was feeling a little peckish, and luckily I knew the perfect place to hit after our first stop.

Before going out to wine country this time, I did a little online sleuthing. Rather than searching for “best wineries in Napa” knowing that there are too many to count, I localized a few searches to towns that I knew we’d be traveling through. And as luck would have it, one of the wineries on my list from these searches was also recommended to me by Meghan (of Brian and Meghan that I met up with in Berkeley a couple days before). V. Sattui Winery is actually one that their friends had gotten married at, and there was a huge selection of hot deli items once we arrived. With the knowledge that food was close-by, Diane and I decided to do a tasting at V. Sattui to see if there was a bottle or two we wanted to buy to have with lunch. We had a great server who kept pouring things off the menu (it didn’t hurt that I let her know I also worked at a winery and was passively interested in their club). I ended up joining the club, which worked out when we wanted to buy more wine at the end of our stay in their tasting room—it was the one winery on the trip that wouldn’t comp me something as being part of the industry. “We only comp California wine industry,” the cashier replied when I asked. But being a newly minted member gave us a discount on the half-case that we were shipping back.

After lunch (and after a  couple more glasses of wine), we started our journey back toward Sonoma because we eventually had dinner plans with our friends whose dad’s house we were staying while on this leg of the journey. Before dinner, however, we still had some time to hit another winery or so. Lauren had once worked in the restaurant industry, and she recognized a higher-end winery from those days, so we stopped. Like V. Sattui, Markham Winery can trace its story back to the 1880s with a Frenchman originally from Bordeaux coming over and planting the first vines on the property. Not only were their wines superb (you know it’s good when you don’t want to finish the last sip in your glass because you’re enjoying the bouquet from the wine too much!), but one of the regions in Napa where they source their grapes is a place called Oak Knoll. I asked to see a map to confirm that I heard our server correctly, and sure enough Oak Knoll exists! I laughed and told him my name is Noel Oakes, so obviously that’s where I need to live out the rest of my days! Needless to say, I joined another club.

After unsuccessfully trying to find a wine shop that I had visited on my last trip out to Napa (the wine garage is sadly permanently closed), we headed back to Santa Rosa for dinner with our friends. Since they don’t get out much on account of them having two small children, we let them choose a place. Sushi was the final decision, which worked totally fine for our group. After dinner we went next door to an ice cream shop that’s run by magicians and hosts magic shows from time to time. The space itself looked like a gutted theater, so I imagine there’s ample space in the back for performances. As we were enjoying our ice cream, one of the employees came around and performed a couple magic tricks for our group. While we spent most of the day doing adult things like day drinking, having a magician come around and entertain us for a moment reminded me that: a) California is a weird and wonderful place, and b) there’s joy wherever you go—you just have to seek it out and live in the moment.

5/28/15 – Le Méthode Champagnoise

Because it worked for us so well the previous day, we decided to start the day off with some bubbles again! This time we were playing in Sonoma all day, so we headed over to Korbel. Yes, that Korbel, the one you find at 7-11 for cheap. I heard their tour was rather informative, since they highlight for you the story of the winery’s founding and the traditional methods they use for making sparkling wine. Their address is on River Road, which is a road that tracks the Russian River, one of the preeminent regions within Sonoma County. The ride there was gorgeous, mostly with winding roads through forests. While I knew there was a lot of wine around us, you couldn’t see a lot of it from the road. Once we got to the Korbel Winery, however, vast tracks of vines were evident. The tour guide did a really good job of telling the fascinating history of the Korbel brothers coming over from what was then Czechoslovakia and following the gold rush craze to California. The demonstration of their old equipment and bottling practices was rather awesome. I decided that if I were Oprah, my theater room would have walls lined with sparkling wine that you could pull at any time to simply open.

Here’s something I learned on this trip concerning the terms “sparkling wine” and “champagne.” According to our tour guide, the trade agreement we signed with France that prohibited our use of the term champagne for any sparkling wine that was made in the United States was signed during prohibition. If there were any wineries open during prohibition that were making sparkling wine, they would be grandfathered into this agreement and could continue using the term champagne. As luck would have it, Korbel was one of just a handful of wineries that were legally able to stay open during prohibition, making wine for sacramental and medicinal reasons. So Korbel, to this day, calls their wine California Champagne.

We lunched in the charming town of Healdsburg, which is right near Dry Creek Valley, another well-known region within Sonoma County. We had some great Californian fare at a place simply called The Shed, though it was heaven for us foodies. With lunch a had a glass of wine from a local winery, and it impressed me so much I suggested we go visit it, since it too was in Dry Creek Valley. Having to get to this winery, we drove all through Dry Creek Valley. I saw some 100+ year old Zinfandel vines that were gnarly, old bush-like things with leaves and branches growing in every possible direction from these trunks that looked like arthritic trees. These bushes-o-Zinfandel weren’t trellised at all, yet they were strong enough to support their ancient grapes (that turns into some inky goodness)! It gets hot in these areas, and there’s a whole lot of sunlight beating down on those grapes.

Preston Family Vineyards was our destination, and it was great to see what this established winery was doing with biodynamics. We headed into Dry Creek Valley and continued on one of the major thoroughfares until the very end, and that’s where our winery was. We pulled up to this large-ish, old farm building and wandered around. The first thing I noticed is that it’s significantly warmer up here than it was in Healdsburg. We saw signs for produce, and invariably there were animals milling about. What a great and unexpected destination! The woman pouring our wines inside told us that they’re certified biodynamic, which is a whole level above being certified organic. Not only is there no use of unnatural chemicals to care for their crops, there’s a whole self-sufficient ethic that goes along with the movement. What I mean is there’s ideally no outside influences (beyond weather) to a biodynamic farm—the cows produce natural fertilizer, which can be used in the fields, and the plants and vines are grown in a responsible way allowing for years and years of cultivation. Some of these vineyards have been doing it for years.

After wining for most of the day, we had to get going in order to make our dinner reservation down in the very other end of the county. The Girl and the Fig is a well-known restaurant in the town of Sonoma, and Lauren had requested that we check it out since she and Jesse had had such a good experience there the last time. I had heard about it through the food writing I’ve read, so I was more than fine with the decision. The restaurant is on the edge of a cute little town square in an old hotel. What used to be the lobby is now the bar/waiting area, but we had a reservation so we were whisked away to our table immediately. The service was slow, but the food was divine! We started out sharing a plate of mussels only because the table next to us had gotten them and they looked so good. We all then went our separate ways into our own food interests. I did some sort of fig and arugula salad for my next course and then for my entrée I had a home-made pasta dish with micro greens and sweet peas. Fantastic! We all knew this would be our last big hurrah together, so we made it count.

5/29/15 – Solo Travel

I had to get up early the next morning to get on a commuter-type bus shuttle to head down toward the city and find my flight back at SFO. The ride down from Sonoma into Marin and then across the Golden Gate Bridge was rather pleasant in that everyone generally kept to themselves and zoned out. I started gathering my thoughts about the next chapter of this adventure, but really, I was sad to be leaving California again. I had rediscovered my love for the place, and I have always felt comfortable there. My next big move may be to go back out west, because I really do enjoy it so much. I mean, hell, there’s an Oak Knoll out there. If that’s not a sign from God that I should be living in the middle of California wine country, I don’t know what is!

Not knowing what to expect for a Delta flight, I downloaded a movie to watch on my Kindle. That turned out to be unnecessary since every seat had its own infotainment center. While I poked around on it a bit, I was more than content to watch my movie, listen to music, or read a book during the relatively short flight to Detroit. While Delta had the normal infotainment system that I’d expect on a transcontinental flight like this, I was surprised at how United had addressed the issue on the way out here. Instead of spending the money to put LCD screens in for each seat, they moved the compartment where you normally would keep the magazines on the back of the seat in front of you up to the head rest. This allowed for a good couple more inches of legroom in coach, which is always appreciated. While the infotainment system wasn’t available, United apparently has created an app you can download that allows you to stream video through the plane’s wifi system. A pretty impressive solution, I thought! Unfortunately, I have an old Kindle that wouldn’t allow me to download the app.

Traveling alone doesn’t bother me. In fact, after the rat race that had been the last week I welcomed some decompression time. I knew I’d have to be charming and on my best behavior once I got to my next destination, so heading back east without anyone else to have to account for was perfectly acceptable. I had a layover in Detroit for a couple of hours, so once I got to the airport I wandered around a bit. Luckily my heavy bag (the one packed with a half-case of wine) was checked, so it wasn’t too much of an issue to get around the airport with my multiple carry-ons. The main concourse at the Detroit airport is one massive hallway that stretches out about five city blocks. There are news kiosks, stores, and restaurants clustered throughout the concourse, so you never have to walk far to find just about anything. I knew I should grab a bite to eat during this layover, so I was generally on the search for food. I came across a Longhorn Steakhouse—a far cry from my dinner the night before—and saddled up to the bar. Having the ability to read my book, sip on a beer, and generally not worry about the trip was heavenly.

Although it’d ultimately take longer for me to travel from my point-of-origin to my destination, stopping over in Detroit’s airport allowed me to do two things: 1) it broke up a longer flights into two completely manageable legs, which ultimately made the whole travel experience more enjoyable, and 2) it allowed me to check out another airport. I’m sure I’ve flown through Detroit before, but it had been years since the last time I had been there. The main concourse was fairly mundane, in terms of shops and food selection, but I definitely enjoyed the opportunity for people watching and generally wandering about that my couple hours there afforded me. On top of all this, a ticket with a layover is usually cheaper than a non-stop flight. I may have to rethink the way I travel.

5/30/15 – Wedding Day

I arrived to the Pittsburgh airport without incident. My friend Richelle, whose sister was getting married this weekend, came and picked me up right on time. The morning of the actual wedding, her mother had already left the house by the time I woke up, so Richelle, her dad, and I went out to their local town (about an hour north of Pittsburgh) for breakfast at the local diner. I liked how Richelle’s dad, Rich, knew the server from high school and greeted a group of older ladies who I’m sure had been coming to this place for years. This was definition small town Americana at its finest. After breakfast it was back to the house to get ready for the big event. While I wasn’t in the wedding (I hadn’t even met the couple getting married), I was in this nebulous place of being a so-called date for a member of the wedding party. It was an odd role to play, but that’s why I’m invited to such things!

Richelle left early to help her sister, Lauren, get ready for her big day. A little while later, her Dad and I drove to the chapel for the big event. Amusingly enough her Dad was [understandably] nervous as hell, so we talked about what we saw driving by: the difference between what corn and bean sprouts look like when they’re first coming out of the ground (this is rural Pennsylvania after all), growing up on a farm, all of that fun stuff. We made it to the wedding chapel in time for me to meet the groom and groomsmen (henceforth referred to as “Hans and the boys”). They were discussing the proper method waterproofing fancy cowboy boots, since that was the dress code for Hans and the boys. I didn’t have much to contribute to this conversation, though it was an amusing learning experience about what rural life in Northwestern Pennsylvania considers “fancy.”

The wedding was pleasant enough—short and sweet—and as the guests were leaving the chapel we stopped by the new bride and groom to offer our congratulations. This was the first time I met Lauren, so shaking her hand (or giving her a hug) I’m sure I said something along the lines of, “Congratulations! By the way, I’m Noel.” Awkward. But it was just fine. The wedding party (and dates of said wedding party) all piled onto a rented passenger bus, which was already stocked with large amounts of really cheap beer. Oh dear, I thought, since I generally don’t drink crap beer. When in Rome…so we all were triple-fisting Bud Lights for a good long while, playing drinking games on the bus, and stopping at Hans’s father’s house for pictures of the bride and groom in a horse pasture while the two held hunting rifles. An odd choice indeed, but it made sense to them. The boys (of Hans and the boys) and I generally sat around drinking beer and belching in each other’s faces. A good time was had by all.

The reception for this wedding—for which we were rather late—was held in a small country club and fed us well. The most intriguing thing about the guests is that we had a couple Amish families in attendance, since Hans employs a couple Amish guys on his construction projects. I was afraid I was going to get belligerently drunk and start screaming random modern German words at them, but they generally kept to themselves. Interestingly, one of the younger guys would walk up to the bar, order a beer, take a sip out of the bottle, and nonchalantly slip the open bottle into an inside vest pocket. He kept this up all night. So when it was time to leave he was bloated with open beers, and you could hear him very clearly clinking as he waddled out to his presumed horse and carriage. My understanding is homeboy was going to drive back home while enjoying the multitudes of free beers before he got back. As long as he can keep himself from falling off the buggy, I say more power to him.


Richelle and I left on the earlier side the next morning, mostly because she had been home for more than a couple of days and wanted to get the hell out of there. I was more than happy with that, though I was ready to not be traveling anymore. Along the way we stopped at a highway rest stop called Breezewood, where the Pennsylvania turnpike intersects Interstate 70 (in west-central PA). Richelle was all excited to stop, which I didn’t get because to me it looked like a collection of truck stops put together. Then I remembered my love for South of the Border on the NC/SC line, so I had to give her some leeway in what random things she loved along the way home from DC, or vice versa. The whole trip itself worked out well. I loved seeing Diane discover the greatness of San Francisco, and I LOVED playing in wine country for a few days. I’m pretty sure one of these days Noel Oakes will be living in Oak Knoll, CA.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Bouncing Around Bangladesh (and Singapore)

Prologue: Freaking Out – 1/14/2013

So I’m going to Bangladesh. Why the crap would anyone do this, you may ask? One of my bestest buddies is stationed there with the State Department, and it’s my God given right to blow a huge wad of cash on a ticket to the armpit of South Asia! Yesterday I spent most of the day packing bags and running to various stores to buy the last minute things, so I had some time to realize that I’m about to start on an adventure…that’ll take TWENTY-FOUR HOURS of travel on planes to begin. Oh dear. Now that it’s actually happening, I’m doing a little bit of freaking out. Not because the journey’s long, but really it boils down to the fact that I’m having to get out of my comfort zone, and not just for an afternoon or even a weekend, but really for two weeks. I’ve gotten past the fact that most people won’t speak my language or understand my customs, but at the end of the day I like being able to go home, unwind with some mindless TV/internet, and reenergize for the next day. Is that going to happen? Stay tuned to find out.

Starting Out – 1/15/2013

I called a local cab company to come pick me up with plenty of time just in case they didn't show. At the very minute I had asked the cab to be there, my cell phone rings saying that my cab's outside waiting for me. After getting settled in the car, the driver asks me where I'm going. When I say Bangladesh, he gets a little quiet, so I just assume he doesn't know where it is. He then says that he was born in Dhaka and couldn't believe that I was to his home country! I took this as a good sign for the trip to come. Getting through the check-in process was incredibly easy, so note-to-self: leave late at night because the airport is so much quieter.

Once I had gotten to my terminal, I still had a few hours before my flight. I had hoped to give myself some time to grab some food and drink before I settled in for the 10-hour flight to Istanbul. I found a bar/restaurant and settled in for a while. My other patrons were taking late-night flights out too, but they were all government contractors going to Afghanistan. Another person at the bar who was also going to the "sand box," but wasn't a contractor in the strictest sense of the word. Instead, she was a two-time American gold medalist in rowing and was going there with a group of athletes to do some sort of USO show for the troops!

Like most international flights these days, our rather new A-340 gave you your own video screen, a game controller-type interaction device, and loads of music and movies to watch/listen to for hours. The new thing I hadn't seen in this kind of entertainment center was the touch screen you could use to interact with all of the menus. While thoroughly entertained by that technology, the best part of the flight was the food (who says that about airplane food??) I was flying Turkish Airways, and because I had flown domestically in the U.S. for far too many years, my opinion of airplane food was quite low. But on Turkish Airways I was pleasantly shocked because you were served Turkish food! Yum!

I had a few hours to kill in Istanbul’s airport, so I wandered around a bit to see what was around. I thought I was going to be in some foreign land, but for the most part the local Turkish population wore European clothes. There were ads featuring Brad Pitt selling Chanel No. 5, Jack Daniels prominently displayed in the duty free stores, and even Michael Bublé's Christmas CD available for purchase! Had I really traveled to the crossroads of Europe and Asia?

It did become more evident, however, that I was about to travel somewhere decidedly not in Europe by who was gathering near our departure gate. You'd expect to see a fair share of short, brown people, but I thought I'd be one of the few white faces on this flight. To my surprise, there was a group of 15 or so white folks coming from the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. I ultimately had to ask them what their plans were, and I found out they were a group of medical professionals headed to some village to teach a local hospital how to repair cleft palates—just like Project Smile. The other noticeably distinct group (apart from all the Bangladeshis) was the Muslim contingent. Let me be clear, I don't mean Arab. This linen- and abaya-clad group was headed to the "Biswa Ijtema," or the second largest annual Muslim gathering after the Hajj. So my Muslim, Minnesotan, Bangladeshi friends, and I all ultimately got on our second leg of this journey to really let the experience begin.

Day 1: Arriving to Bangladesh – 1/17/2013

The first sentence in my guidebook about Bangladesh says that going here "is not just a journey, but an experience." I took this to mean that you wouldn't be going on vacation so much so as a ride of a lifetime. Landing at the airport seemed harmless enough (multiple friends stateside had warned me that the crowds could be overwhelming). There was a sizable line at passport control, but nothing I couldn't handle...or so I thought. It took at least 90 minutes, maybe even two hours, to get through for no apparent reason. At least I saw my friend, Mikkela, waiting for me past the checkpoint while I was in line, so I knew I wasn't going to have to figure out a way to get to the embassy after I was through. Once I got to Mikkela, it shocked me how relatively organized things were. My flight had come in so long ago there was a baggage porter moving my bags into a pile off the carousel. We collected them and made it out of the airport with ease.

Driving on the main road connecting the airport to downtown Dhaka was my first taste of local culture. Like inside the airport, I was surprised to see cars moving and road construction. Don't get me wrong, this was no ordered movement, but the cars generally stayed on the inside of something like a four-lane road weaving anywhere to get ahead, the CNGs (tuk tuks, so called because they run on Compressed Natural Gas) generally stayed on the outside of the cars and trucks, and human-powered rickshaws generally stayed on the outside edge to try their best to not get plowed over. On the edges of the road, small animals like goats and wild dogs freely roamed, and whatever free sidewalk space was consumed by shops and booths generally selling goods. While the level of commerce wasn't particularly impressive, it was amazing to see that an economy was bustling and that somehow all of these people were doing it together.

We arrived at Mikkela's building in no time at all, which was a good thing because I was bone tired. The plan was Mikkela was going to leave me to pass out for a few hours while she finished up some things at work. Just as I laying down in her guestroom, the afternoon azan, or call to prayer, sounded. I was in no mood to have someone wailing into a loudspeaker how great God/Allah is, but by the third or fourth day it was beautiful to hear all lf the mosques calling the faithful to prayer. You could hear multiple mosques from Mikkela's guestroom each having their own style. It reminded me of being on a rooftop and being able to see multiple communities' fireworks shows on the 4th of July.

That night there was a going-away house party for one of Mikkela's colleagues. Still more than a little unsure of what time zone I was in, I went to my first diplomatic party and really had a good time. Everyone was engaging, intelligent, and sympathetic to fact I had gotten on a plane from a 24-hour journey just a short time prior. The flow of conversation and the level of aptitude toward international affairs that you'd expect from a group of diplomats really got my intellectual juices flowing. Meeting Mikkela's boss, who was convinced that this trip was a catalyst for the beginning of my own journey into the Foreign Service, really had me thinking about my future plans. Another thing that struck me about this group of people was how easily I fit in. I feel that in most groups of people anywhere I don’t really fit in, in the sense that I don’t have a “home.” This group knew both my North Carolina “home,” as well as my DC “home.” I met GW alumni, as well as people who had gone through Ft. Bragg during their tours. Because Germany is my first frame of reference to foreign cultures, it holds a soft spot in my heart. The hosts of this party had spent time in Garmisch during their military days. I really felt at home with these people, even though I had no idea where I was.

Day 2: Shopping in Dhaka – 1/18/2013

On my first full day in country, Mikkela had already lined up a full day of events. Starting at a brand new restaurant that was still in the process of opening called Istanbul (more Turkish food!) we ran into some of her colleagues and feasted on a huge spread of tasty salads, sides, and soups. This was my first venture into eating on the economy, so I repeatedly asked Mikkela about food safety (don't need to get a stomach bug your first day, eh?) I quickly learned that the restaurants Mikkela would be taking me to were very much geared toward the expat community and didn't want to get anyone sick. As long as we were careful about drinking nothing but bottled or distilled water, we'd be fine.
After our Turkish brunch, it was off to go shopping. Not really sure of what I may need, we stopped at the apartment of one of Mikkela's colleagues who had exquisite (read: expensive) tastes, and she showed us the things she had collected so far from being posted here. Some of the items included an intricately carved teak box, about three feet wide, that would traditionally hold a family's valuables, and these fantastic wooden stamps, about three inches square, used to stamp colored dyes onto a cloth into an intricate pattern.

Textiles are one of the things that Bangladesh is known for. The country is situated on a river delta, so sediment is constantly flowing downstream depositing nutrients in the soil. Their agricultural sector is vibrant and so is their ability to grow cotton for fabric and other fibrous reeds. One such reed is called jute and it's well known in the textile industry. Once it's woven into any sort of product—from rugs to bags to shawls—it initially has the feel of burlap or canvas, but it softens substantially with use. Jute area rugs are quite popular and I picked one up with fantastic colors and patterns. I’m not really sure what I'll do with it once I'm home, but hey, that’s part of the adventure of seeing new things and buying souvenirs when traveling in far-off lands.  

And speaking of fabrics, guess where a huge portion of your clothes are now made. If you said Bangladesh, you're right! On our shopping adventure, Mikkela took me to a shop called "Artisan." My ever-so-logical brain thought it'd be a shop of artisanal crafts, but oh no! The interior of the store looked more like a TJ Maxx than anything else. It was all western clothes that had been deemed not fit for sale. In the guy's section, jeans, slacks, and button-down dress shirts seemed to be the most popular things. Button-down dress shirts are very often worn in a western or with the traditional lungi, a kind of tubular skirt tied at the waist allowing for ventilation, comfort, and all-around utility. Also available within this store were sweaters and hoodies that wouldn't look out of place at a Gap or American Eagle, but were here because it's the dead of winter and the Bangladeshis are legitimately cold (even though it's usually something like 80 degrees during the day).

For dinner that night, Mikkela took me to a local favorite called Barbeque Tonight, which is a Pakistani kabob chain. We were in a part of town right near one of the big universities, so away from the very high end restaurants we had been going to. No, this was local, which normally meant eating with your [right] hand, which poses a problem for this left-handed boy. You can use your left in the meal, to tear apart bread for example, but bringing food to your mouth should be done only with your right hand. Since this place served us basically flat bread, skewers of meat, and lassis, it didn't really cause any issue.

That evening's entertainment was a shared birthday celebration between a local Bangladeshi boy, an embassy staffer, and me. Beyond all having birthdays near one another, we were all also gay. A week or so before my leaving on this trip, I got a Facebook event invite to a "pink" party. I didn't know what I was getting myself into. Everyone was supposed to wear pink, so Mikkela brought her beautiful, pink sari she had bought for a wedding, for me to have tied and tucked into. The sari wasn't for her, but rather for me. The host of the party, a local guy that worked a couple doors down from Mikkela, was going to wrap me in this thing, but only from the waist down in something called a dhuti. All night long, little drunk Bangladeshi boys kept coming up to me and saying they loved my dhuti. But I digress. Walking into this house party, it seemed like the smoke machine had been turned on full blast for hours. You couldn’t see what was happening immediately, but you sure could hear the dance music. Once we had gotten a round of cocktails for everyone, I noticed that all of the furniture had been moved out of the dining room to make dance floor. Upon said dance floor were 20-30 young Bangladeshi boys dancing and grinding on one another. Honestly, it was a beautiful thing to see that these boys actually had an outlet to be with one another and have a community. It was hard enough for me to come during college a (G)ay (W)hite University, but I can't even imagine how hard it's got to be for these boys. Some traditional drag queens were there, and at some point they danced for us. Incidentally, like the western notion of drag, two of them introduced themselves as drag mother and daughter. Another amusing event during this party was seeing two boys cuddling on a bed in another room. They weren't making out, just cuddling. Then you notice this must be some child's room because the sheets on the bed were very obviously Disney princess themed! The little queens were lying on top of little queens! It was truly a birthday celebration I won't ever forget.

Day 3: International Day – 1/19/2013

While traveling abroad, you have to be flexible in your plans because you never know what events will be happening locally. Case in point: in Dhaka right now is an international trade fair with goods coming from all over the world for sale. This was going to be my first real foray into a large group of Bangladeshis, so I was both excited and nervous. We got up relatively early to get there before the hordes arrived, and I was impressed with what I saw. Think of something like a fairground with permanent structures and massive tents selling anything from Turkish lamps to Iranian jewelry, and yes, to jute rugs and handbags. The people watching at a place like this was phenomenal, though I was rather shy when it came to taking pictures of people. Mikkela's thought here are that if the locals blatantly stare and take pictures of you, why can't that be true from the opposite perspective? At any rate, I took some great pictures, bought some colorful jute bags that I'll keep in my car for groceries, and found a great deal on a bedspread that I'll use as a wall hanging. It's just great to see commerce flourishing much more than I expected and with nations that the American government designates as the "bad guys."

For lunch we went to a rather lovely Chinese restaurant. The foreign community is quite amusing in Bangladesh because they comprise the upper crust of economic power, but it's not just the Americans. Our Chinese meal started with a lovely cup of lightly brothed tofu soup. Since tofu isn't generally available in the commercial centers of Dhaka, there's an underground market for tofu for those who just have to have it. The vegetables we had served--mustard greens and some sort celery-style green--were rather yummy. While I recognize that this restaurant is on the very high end of the city's food scene, I'm just impressed that it's here at all.

One of the first things I had heard about diplomatic life in Dhaka was that there was an American club, or the ARA (American Recreation Association). Mikkela got me in to see the facilities and I really enjoyed it. The club is right within the diplomatic enclave, has a pool and tennis courts, and an outside cabana/cantine. The thing to get there is a freshly squeezed lime soda that they serve with a small pourer of simple syrup to sweeten it to your liking (apparently Bangladeshis like things very sweet).

January 19th is my birthday, and no Mikkela adventure would be complete without some Korean food. This very high-end Korean restaurant is still in the process of opening because they're training their staff to be sure they can handle the hopeful onslaught that will be coming. When Mikkela and I normally go out for Korean food, I typically defer to her to order because: a) she's more familiar with all the options available, and b) it's rather amusing to watch the Korean server's inability to comprehend why Mikkela doesn't just speak Korean to order our food. That being said, when Mik orders it means we're going to get about three times the amount of food we can eat. And on top of that, because the proprietress of the restaurant is so good to Mikkela, she brought up multiple supplemental dishes for us, including a plate of glass noodles that's meant to symbolize long life for the birthday boy.

Rounding out the evening, we went over to a colleague's house to meet a new tailor. Because labor is so cheap here, a lot of people have custom clothes made. The tailor hadn't arrived yet, but a group of people were in a back room singing karaoke. While Mikkela & co. discussed clothing options, I was belting out a few songs (including Me and Bobby McGee for Janis Joplin, who shared my birthday). Interesting thing here: the tailor didn't arrive in some fancy new outfit he had made, but rather a white cotton outfit a pious Muslim would wear. This is an interesting country.

Day 4: River Boat Cruise – 1/20/2013

One of Mikkela's local contacts arranged a river boat cruise for us, which makes sense because the water is so central to the Bangladeshis and has been for millennia (it's a lot cheaper to move things by water than by building roads and then maintaining them). Water is a pretty crucial element to us all, and even more so to Bangladesh. Seasonal floods require that locals build their houses on stilts in order to survive the major floods every year. It's important to note that probably the two most well known rivers that flow through India, the Ganges and Brahmaputra, also flow through Bangladesh and empty out into the Bay Bengal. I read in my guidebook that together, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra (known locally as the Padma and Jamuna respectively), spit out as much water through Bangladesh--a nation the size of Wisconsin--as all of the river systems in Europe. That's a lot of water! Mikkela and I walked to the American Embassy to meet up with a group of people who would be going on this river cruise with us. There were supposed to be a few American families that were going to join, but they all left us for one reason or another. The group that ended up getting on the bus with us to travel to the river was: three Bangladeshi boys, three Americans, and about fifteen Bhutanese children. I had met the "mother" of the group at our pink party two nights ago. My first interaction with an honest-to-God Bhutanese woman was when she was offering me Bhutanese whiskey. How does my life work like this?? At any rate, we all get on the bus and true to form in Dhaka, we're stuck in traffic for a solid hour not moving. The Bangladeshi boys holler out the window of the bus to grab some snacks from a roadside food stall and I generally amuse myself by taking pictures of city life.

One of the few things I knew about the Ganges is that it starts out pristine in the Himalayan Mountains and then proceeds to get dirtier and dirtier as it rolls along its way. Again, this river system empties out into the Bay of Bengal, so we're seeing the water at its "finest." With that in mind, I made my best efforts not to fall off the gangplank getting onto our boat. Once we were all settled and off on the ride, I quickly became surprised at the amount of traffic on the river. I grew up on the Rhine River, one if not the major rivers going through Western Europe. There, all of the boats are large barges that are big enough to hold a sizable amount of goods, but also small enough to fit into the series of locks that control the height of the river. Here, just like the roads, it's pretty chaotic. There are barges with bays in them carrying what looks like sand, but are just barely keeping their hull above the water line. There are ferry boats of all kinds ranging from gondola-sized craft carrying a handful of people to bigger car-carrying ferries to shuttle people back and forth. There were even tanker-shaped ships used for larger excursions out to the ocean headed for Chittigong, Bangladesh's major international harbor some hours southeast of Dhaka. A member of the crew commented that at Chittigong, it was a place known as a ship graveyard because there they stripped the ships down to their individual parts and sold the material as scrap. Here, however, they actually built the ships. This was just another example of seeing the whole life cycle of a particular product. The most pervasive boat we saw on the river was a smaller type of barge that carried bricks upriver to be used in construction in Dhaka. Bangladesh doesn’t really have any mountains, and by extent doesn't have many resources to make cement for construction purposes. They do have a tremendous supply of clay for brick making. They mold the bricks, let them dry in the sun for a particular amount of time, and send them upstream to be used in the constant stream of buildings being built in the greater capital area. It was fascinating to see the number of these small barges we constantly saw inching their way along.

It was also fascinating just to see the teeming vibrancy of river life. Like any country's capital, you have to get out of the city to see what the real people look like and how they live. I had been very impressed with how modern and seemingly functional Dhaka appeared on the surface, but getting out of the city really did show me the image that I was expecting to see. I don't imagine that a lot of people think about Bangladesh, but before this trip what I knew was that it was a developing country with A LOT of people and relied on the river to fish, bathe, and generally stay alive. This was the Bangladesh that can be seen here, anything from people shuttling from place to place, to people bathing outright at the water's edge, to groups of kids scurrying along the shore just to see something out of the ordinary (a group of tourists) floating by. On one of our stops along the way, we had what seemed like made an impromptu stop so that people could jump in the water and swim around. I've already mentioned the state of the water here, so I had no interest in getting in. Because the Bangladeshi boys didn't know any different and the Bhutanese boys were just so damn happy, they all jumped in. God help us all. In the meantime, the Bhutanese "mother" wanted to go trample along the riverbank because there were numerous fields growing produce right around us. She must be something of the gardener because she was pointing out tomato, pepper, pumpkin, and mustard plants even in their infancy. I didn't think of this, but because all of the sediment that flows down the various river systems into Bangladesh, the country is amazingly fertile. This is really the only way so many people can be fed in such a small place. Walking around the plots reminded me of gardening with my Dad as a child because I saw cucumber and tomato plants when they were small. Just another reminder of how very similar we all are.

Day 5: Inside a U.S. Embassy – 1/21/2013

Mikkela was taking off a big chunk of time while I was here, so one morning we decided to go into the embassy for a quick second so that she could check on a few things and pop right back out. That was the plan, but because everyone loves her so much, a 20-minute jaunt took multiple hours. I didn't mind because she plopped me in the cantine right around lunch time and all the people I had met so far seemed to filter through. After she had finished up, she showed me around. Let me back up: in order to get into the embassy, Mikkela's driver had to turn off the car and have the security staff inspect that we weren't carrying any bombs, even though Mikkela had her embassy badge and the car had diplomatic plates. Hey, better safe than sorry, right? Once you get into the building, we had to talk to a Marine guard who pointed us to a sign-in desk. After getting a visitor's badge, we were allowed through what looked like a bank vault door and we were in. Mikkela showed me each of the different sections of the embassy: consular (where locals come to apply for a visa), political/economic (where FSOs monitor the daily happenings in-country), and management (Mikkela's section, where she has her hands in anything ranging from housing to motorpool to any kind of special project). The consular section was of particular interest to me because that's the part everyone thinks of when you think about an embassy abroad. It was such a small section! Inside the consular section, there's also a department that handles American services abroad (if you've lost your passport, things like that). One of Mikkela's friends who works there told me that a lot of the issues she had heard about were Bangladeshi-American dual-nationals coming over to Bangladesh under the auspices of seeing family but then being forced to marry someone locally. That didn't sound too fun.

Visiting one of Mikkela's friend's apartments on my first day in country, I saw that she had these framed, wooden blocks that looked rather intriguing. The blocks, I was told, were stamps used to place a certain patterns onto a garment for decoration. The Bangladeshis love all sorts of colors and patterns, and consequently there were all sorts of block patterns available. I decided I wanted to buy some of these blocks and have them framed because the labor cost here is so cheap. We went to one of the shopping centers, something more akin to a strip mall in the U.S., and easily found a wide variety of blocks. Once my blocks had been selected, Mikkela knew of a high-end framer that would make the job look fantastic. I didn't really know what I was doing, but when we got to this guy's shop, he showed us frames and matting, and we eventually settled on a color and block combination that I liked. He said it would take a week or so for the job to be completed, but I knew it was going to be a fabulous piece once it was all said and done. My first piece of art that I'd have for the rest of my life and be able to show to people and talk about my adventures in Bangladesh, really.

That evening's events were somewhat low-key, but quite enjoyable. Mikkela had her housekeeper make some Bangladeshi food for me to try, which included some chicken biriyani, curried vegetables, and dal. Mikkela's not a big fan, but I could have that food multiple times a week. Again, because the land is so fertile, vegetables and rice are ever-present. Add some lentils and what else do you need? We invited one of Mikkela's local friends over for food and also to show me how to tie a lungi. Lungis are the traditional dress in this part of the world, and by this part of the world I mean the greater northern Indian Ocean, and is a kind of skirt the men wear that's tied around the waist. It can be as long as ankle-length or it can be tied up to make a sort of shorts/diaper-type situation, depending on the region and what you need to be doing in it. Not having to wear pants is a pretty exciting prospect to me, so I was all about learning how to wear one of these suckers. It's pretty easy: you bunch the fabric together in the front, tie a knot, and essentially tuck the ends of the knot into the waistband so that they don't come undone. We'll see if I can remember how to put my lungi back on once I'm stateside. Another memorable event that evening was watching the president's inaugural address from across the world. CNN International had it playing live, and I couldn't help but be reminded that I wasn't in DC the last time President Obama had an inauguration. Last time I was in California, and there was a little piece of me that was sad that I couldn't be "home" to experience Obama's second inauguration because I had missed the first. That all being said, it was still neat to be able to see and hear his speech from as far away from Washington as a person could possibly get and still be on the same planet.

One last thought I wanted to share about today's events, and that's the Dhaka cough. After our riverboat cruise the other day, I had acquired a pretty nasty cough. Mikkela dubbed it the Dhaka cough because apparently a lot of people get in while they're in country. There are multiple resources that say that Dhaka is a rather polluted place, but this really brought it home for me. I felt fine, so I didn't think it was some sort of cold or even bronchitis, but it was unpleasant. According to Mikkela, some people come into country and have this cough until the day they leave. That's no good! After a few days it generally got better, but even on my last day in country I was still hacking from time to time. Even though I felt fine otherwise, I have a new appreciation for those who suffer from seasonal allergies. Not fun!

Day 6: Old Dhaka – 1/22/2013

After having been on so many adventures already in and around Dhaka, I wanted to spend a day playing tourist and seeing some of the sights and sounds of historical Dhaka. Not knowing much about this nation, I first read my guidebook to see what it could tell me about the country. Without going into too much detail, at around 1000 AD, Bangladesh was an outpost in Mogul empire, which was headquartered in Accra, India. Various regimes and spheres of influence controlled the area that is today Bangladesh, but it's important to note that the Bangla language is essentially the same language that's spoken in West Bengal, India (where Calcutta/Kolkata is). After India's war for independence, the majority Muslim portions of the Indian sub-continent were partitioned away from India and given the names East and West Pakistan. Since all foreign funding and the capital were in West Pakistan, East Pakistan (Bangladesh) fought for its independence in the early 1970s. The father of the nation, Bangladesh's equivalent to America's George Washington, is a man named Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, or more familiarly Bangabandhu. In the early days of independence, he was gunned down, along with several members of his family, in his home. That home is now a shrine to his life. Because the home has been maintained in how the place looked from the early 70s, it honestly reminded me a fair bit of Graceland. The living quarters were a similar size (huge for that time) and had the same level of technology (read: a singular TV in the living room). We weren't able to get much out of the museum itself because nothing was in English, but you could very much feel the somber atmosphere and the need of these people to remember the struggles they went through to gain independence. Interestingly enough, his daughter is the current Prime Minister of the country.

One of the sights I was keen to see while in Old Dhaka was the Liberation War Museum. It was definitely worth the price of admission, about $1, to see some of the artifacts--including skulls--from the liberation war. The museum, for its level of organization, was pretty impressive. Nothing too fancy, but it definitely told the story and showed a lot of the different pieces of how Bangladesh, or "Land of the Bangla [speakers]" came into being. Because we only can relate to things from what we know, I particularly enjoyed the portion of the museum that talked about international reaction/support for Bangladesh's war for independence. Neither the UK nor the United States were explicit supporters of the movement, but the U.S.'s Counsel General in the country at the time sent word back to Washington saying that we should support the Bangladeshis. Because of his support, he's considered one of the few outside heros to the country. After the Liberation War Museum, we headed over to Lalbagh Fort, one of the few green spaces in downtown Dhaka. We were given a private tour of the bathhouses by one guard, who definitely wanted a modest tip at the end, and walked around seeing all the locals generally milling about. Mikkela found this place particularly interesting because this is one of the few places that young couples could come and visit for a while and be alone. Granted, everything's still in full view of everyone else, but you could find a little alcove somewhere and chat with your honey. It was all quite sweet because in the States a place like this would be run over with punk kids or young couples trying to hump each other. Since this such a modest/conservative country, all these couples wanted to do was have a few moments alone together to actually chat.

That night, Mikkela and I ventured to the airport to catch a plane to Singapore. Because she had purchased our tickets together, I was essentially a diplomatic spouse and got into the airport with no problems at all. In between checking your bags into the first ticket counter and getting to the gate where they do your requisite security screening, there's an emigration/passport check. Once we were past that point, we were "inside" and didn't have any issues. I was actually pleasantly surprised because of my debacle trying to get into the country, so I guess having a diplomatic passport (and knowing where to go) helps get through the process easier. For whatever reason, Asian airports prefer to have you go through security at your gate rather than a central checkpoint after you've checked in. This doesn't help the boarding process, especially when you've got a significant portion of those flying having never been on an airplane before. We took a low-cost carrier, Tiger Airways, and set back for the not quite four-hour flight to Singapore. Since you have people who've never been on a plane before, the flight attendants had to regularly spray out the bathrooms because people didn't know they were expected to flush the toilet. That was one thing I was very much looking forward to, among other things, in Singapore: clean and modern toilets. Not that it bothers me all that much if I need to go pee on the side of the road (or wherever), but the smell of sewage is exactly the most pleasant thing.

Day 7: First Impressions of Singapore – 1/23/2013

It’s not quite a four-hour flight from Dhaka to Singapore, and the only times that planes leave out of Dhaka’s airport, it seems, is some absurd time at night. Because we left at something like 11:00pm (local time), we got into Singapore at 5:00am (two hours ahead). After having spent something like a week in Bangladesh, I had become desensitized to a lot of the toils of traveling in the developing world: traffic jams at all hours of the day potentially preventing you from moving down any indiscriminate road, potholes the size of a CNG, and mosquitoes everywhere! I say this because Mikkela and I were literally the first two people off the plane, we had our immigration card filled out properly, and were promptly let through immigration without the batting of an eyelash. I was dumbstruck at having an airport far too clean for my standards, and even having a touch screen in the bathroom asking each patron to rate the level of cleanliness (it’s actually illegal in Singapore to not flush a public toilet). Far too much order, I say! The large sign at the beginning of the baggage claim area even very clearly told us from which baggage carousel our bags would be coming out! What??

Beyond the order and general cleanliness, I must admit that I was a little let down. Let me explain: I have a pretty active imagination. I’m always disappointed with the movie version of a book I’ve read, because the visualizations that pop into my head while reading the book invariably can’t be made into reality most of the time. Same goes for what I had pictured in my head for Singapore. With all that said, it was nice to be able to pop into a cab, tell the cab driver where we were going, and generally get a sense that he knew what we were saying. Granted the roads were empty at 5:00am, but it was a treat just to have a car ride that was freely moving and with signs on the side of the road that told you which exit to take to go to anywhere! We finally made it to our friend Sarah’s apartment and promptly crashed, but not before making a general plan to meet her for lunch at her place of employment, Google, that afternoon.

Google is a pretty unique place to work, regardless of location around the world. During grad school in California, I’d hear constant stories of innovation, not only on the technology front but on the employee happiness front too. Sarah told us exactly what to say to the cab driver that we were to take to get to the CBD, or Central Business District, where Google’s offices are located. We checked in with the receptionist in the lobby and she handed us a paper card that was to serve as our pass to get through security and into the elevators. What was remarkable was you stuck this card into a slot where the elevator call button would ordinarily be, and a screen would tell you which shaft to stand next to for the next available elevator. Getting into the elevator, there aren’t any buttons to push to reach the floor you’re trying to get to; Instead, the elevator already knows to drop you off at floor…say…30. Sarah escorted us into the cafeteria area, and she explained that there was always some sort of western dish, an eastern (Asian) dish, and some sort of vegetarian dish. In addition to the hot food line, there was a sizeable salad bar, as well as a juice and coffee station. I was told later that the former American Ambassador’s wife insisted on the fresh orange juice pressing machine—hey, I’m not going to argue there!

After lunch, Mikkela and I took a little while to orient ourselves. Having never been to this city/state before, I had very little idea of where we were in relation to other things. The aptly named Singapore River passes through the island of Singapore, which naturally would create numerous quays for all the boats that travel along the river and coast. We started at Raffles Quay and made our away around the block to our first food Hawker Center, Lau Pa Sat. Not knowing it, but my Lonely Planet guidebook and placed this at #2 on its list of Hawker Centers to experience while in Singapore. Hawker Centers are food courts, often covered but exposed to elements, that sell traditional food at rock bottom prices. We just wandered around in amazement at the assortment of foods available: Korean barbeque, noodle dishes, fresh fruit juice stands, dumplings, and more stalls of unidentifiable (though, I’m sure, amazingly delicious) food you could count! Because Singapore is so close to the equator, it’s pretty much constantly hot and humid, which means there’s a labyrinth of underground tunnels connecting major commercial centers and subway stations. We somehow made our way into one of these tunnel systems, and popped out over at the next quay, Boat Quay. After orienting ourselves, Mikkela and I wandered over to Chinatown, because why not start your tourist experience in the wonder that is any city’s Chinatown. Even though I was literally on the other side of the world from my home at that moment, it really did feel like being back in San Francisco’s Chinatown with all of the people and, more specifically, the smells that I picked up from all of the different stalls. We stumbled upon another Hawker Center in Chinatown, but eventually we made our way to the subway/metro system to meet Sarah on the edge of Little India.

The metro system in Singapore is so ridiculously easy to use and efficient. You enter into any station, and the way you acquire a ticket to get into the system is by interfacing with an ATM-type machine with a touch screen. You literally tap station you want to go to, the system determines the fare, and you get a card spat back at you in a matter of seconds. You then swipe the card on a pad next to the turnstile and you look for the clearly marked sign for the platform. Once on the platform, it’s evident to even a first timer which side you should stand on, and a sign tells you when the next train is arriving. I should add that I never had to wait more than four minutes for a train. Another thing I liked about this system is that there were interior doors to the platform, and by that I mean you had a set of doors on the platform that prohibited you from somehow getting onto the tracks and mucking up the system for everyone else. Not only did this keep the system running smoothly, but you knew exactly where the train was going to stop so you could line up on either side of the door to wait for passengers to disembark. There’s no comparison when looking at this system and DC’s metro system. It just makes me want to shake my head and sigh thinking about how good a public subway system could be.

The understatement of the year is that Singapore is a melting pot of cultures and nationalities. Mikkela and I were meeting Sarah near Little India, but in a neighborhood called “Arab Street.” As you may have guessed, this was the Arab quarter filled with bars, lounges and restaurants for the tourist and Arab populations. We found a jazz bar with outside seating at the end of an alley and decided to order a beer tower, since that’s what multiple tables had. Five liters of Tiger beer, their local brew, might sound like a lot, but it’s never a question of quantity, but rather a question of time. And we had all night. That being said, I was thankful when one of Mikkela’s friends joined us from the American embassy to generally socialize and help us drink our beer. We ended up finishing the evening at a Turkish restaurant we found on Arab Street. So to recap: we started the day at an American based company, walked through Chinatown, took the metro to Little India to a jazz bar, and had dinner in a Turkish restaurant. How more international can you get?

Day 8: Wandering Around Singapore – 1/24/2013

The next day Mikkela had some medical appointments to attend to, so that left me to figure out what I wanted to do on my own. I judge a city on how walkable it is, and Singapore is one fine city in which to aimlessly wander! I wanted to get on the metro again and head to my various destinations, but since Sarah isn’t a regular metro rider, I had to find the station on my own. Before I got too far, I found a European style café and had some breakfast—no better way to start your day than with some coffee and BLT-style sandwich, I say! I started generally wandering in the direction I thought the metro station would be, but there weren’t any clear markings along the way. I had to stop and ask multiple times where the metro station was, which got me thinking that Singapore is an ideal primer city for the uninitiated to start traveling. What I mean is just about everyone speaks some level of English, signs are clearly marked, and it’s an interesting place to generally wander around, and public transport is cheap and incredibly easy to use. If you want to start traveling and haven’t done much in the past, this is really your ideal place to start.

After eventually finding the metro station I made my way to Orchard Road, which is the premiere shopping district in Singapore. Besides eating, Singapore is a haven for those who want to shop. While I generally recognize a mall by a vast parking lot and large signs that say Macys, these malls are more like giant department stores of every street corner. One of the malls my guidebook told me to check out is called Ion Orchard, which conveniently enough, is exactly where the metro spits you out if you exit at the Orchard Road station. Ion Orchard is enormous, and a shopper could spend days just in this one mall alone. I quickly found the information desk because I was looking to buy an unlocked mobile phone that I could use anywhere. I was given directions to a Singtel store in the mall, and before I knew it my baby-faced store assistant had be hooked up with a new phone and SIM card ready for action! I did wander down Orchard Road for a bit, which is akin to Rodeo Drive if you’ve ever seen Pretty Woman. All the brands are here, including a roadside Garrett’s (Chicago popcorn) stand, in case you were hungry.

Later that afternoon I headed up to the Botanic Gardens, which I’m told are very much worth the visit. Unfortunately, the minute I got off the metro at the Botanic Gardens stop it started raining. I made into about halfway through the gardens and had to take shelter underneath a gazebo. What I found there was quite spectacular: the gazebo was right next to a honest-to-God turtle pond! All around and within the pond turtles were swimming, sunning, and generally thriving in their environment. A mother and her two children (of Asian descent but speaking perfect British English) were feeding the turtles the equivalent of pellets you’d throw into a fish pond. My feet were sore and I was sun baked, so it was a refreshing moment just to sit back and relax. If I had another day in Singapore, I would’ve happily wandered through that garden, which includes an orchid farm that I’m sure my camera and I would’ve loved to capture in a picture format. Oh well, something for next time.

Since I had a phone at this point, I texted Mikkela and Sarah and made plans to go to Little India that night to actually experience the Indian side of the district. It took us a few attempts to find an adequate restaurant that all three of us were willing to try, and the funny thing was because most of the “Indian” restaurants were actually Bangladeshi. There’s a sizable Bangladeshi laborer population in Singapore, the equivalent of America’s migrant Latino population. Because of this, there needs to be a place for them to congregate and socialize, and apparently it’s in Little India. Our main reason for going to their area again was because of the Mustafa Center. Like I said, Singapore is THE place to shop. One of the 24-hour shopping malls in the Mustafa Center, which I’d equate to a level up from your average Wal-Mart, but a rather similar idea of goods sold (read: everything). Mikkela was in the search for an LCD TV that she could bring back with her to Bangladesh. Beyond describing the Mustafa Center as a higher caliber Wal-Mart, it’s worth noting that the salesman that sold Mikkela her TV personally took the product out of its box and tested to make sure it was functional and ready for use (i.e. did the initial setup) for us while in the store. Outside the Mustafa Center, it’s also worth noting that this was the only place I saw a single piece of garbage on the streets of Singapore. And by garbage, I mean a stray cigarette butt. Even the South Asians wanting to spit into the street found a trashcan. I liked Little India because it was the only part of town that I felt wasn’t completely sanitized. That and you could find amazing food for dirt cheap and a 24-hour shopping center to provide your every desire.

Day 9: Getting Lost in Singapore – 1/25/2013

The next morning I had told Mikkela about the European style café I had found, so she followed me along for a cup o’ Joe and a croissant. She wasn’t feeling very well, and as luck would have it, there was a clinic the same building that housed our café. I later learned that Mikkela walked into the clinic with no appointment scheduled, saw a doctor almost immediately, was prescribed some pain medication and a cough suppressant, and was out all of about $40. Not only does Singapore have cheap food and spectacular public transportation, but their healthcare is incredibly easy to use and inexpensive. Again, these are lessons that the United States could learn, but that’d just make too much sense.

I left Mikkela all happy with myself knowing she was going to see a doctor and I knew how to get to the closest metro station. My guidebook had told me that the Singapore Zoo was not to be missed, so while the guidebook told to get off at metro station x and take bus y to the zoo, I looked at the map detail of the zoo and thought that if I got off the metro just two stops further down the line I’d be within walking distance of the zoo and wouldn’t have to wait for the bus. Yeah, I should’ve looked at the scale of the map realized that it was still a pretty insanely far distance away, but everything’s clearer in hindsight. May I remind the reader that Singapore is only 85 miles north of the equator? In other words, it’s hot and humid ALL THE TIME. I get off the metro and start walking in the direction I should be going. After about half an hour, I’m alongside some major road watching pretty steady traffic drive by, and I notice I’ve been the only person on foot since I started this journey. Not a good sign. After another fifteen minutes or so, I find a shady spot and start reevaluating my plan. I do have a smart phone at this point, so I pull up Google Maps to see where I am in relation to where I want to go, and I’m not even halfway there! I can either start walking back, admitting defeat, or I can continue on and be suffering from a case of heat stroke by the time I get to the zoo. I choose the former and end up heading back toward the metro station. I passed by a 7-11 in an apartment complex right next to the station, so I buy some chips and a big gulp full of Fanta to replenish fluids.

This experience is fraught with lessons to be learned, dear reader. In a country so densely populated, there shouldn’t be very many times that you find yourself alone. While there were cars and trucks whizzing by me the entire time—and I’m in Singapore, so there’s basically no chance of anything happening to me—there’s probably a reason why no one walks down this particular road. Another lesson learned is to come properly prepared for an adventure. I just had some flip-flops, no sunscreen, and very little water for this journey. Not a smart move. And lastly, guidebooks, while ubiquitous and generally not adventuresome, do include useful tips from time to time. You know, like how to properly get to a rather prominent tourist attraction within a tiny city-state. It really isn’t that hard. <sigh>

After admitting defeat and replenishing my liquids, I decided I still had time to check out another attraction on the other side of the island: Gardens by the Bay. This is a brand new botanical garden that’s just opening up as part of a giant complex next to Marinas by the Bay, Singapore’s response to the Las Vegas über hotel and casino. Gardens by the Bay is, strictly speaking, a man-made path along some very sculpted and manicured dunes that leads you to the center of that park/garden. Within this center lie a dozen or man-made trees the size of giant redwoods. Each tree is a metallic cylinder about 100 feet high that blooms out into a magnificent canopy comprised of metal branches. The tops of these metallic trees are flat, so it leads me to believe that the garden plans to introduce live plants into the top to make a real canopy as the project continues to grow. This whole area, I should add, is open to the public and ogling tourist alike. It’s right near the Singapore Flyer, the world’s largest “observation wheel” (just like the London Eye). It’s a wonderful place to loaf about, catch one’s breath, and generally enjoy the ocean breeze nearby.

At this point I start texting with Mikkela and Sarah to ask them where to meet for dinner. We settle on a seafood place right in the center of town, right along the Singapore River. I use my cell phone to tell me the best way to get there and I’m off. Once I get out of the closest metro stop, I don’t know which direction to turn. I whip out my phone once again (God I love technology!) and it easily guides me to my destination. One of the two foods you absolutely must try while you’re in Singapore is chili crab, which is a wok-fried crap that’s been cut into quarters and doused in God knows how many spices. The crab itself is huge, something akin to the Dungeness crabs found on the West Coast of the United States. Now, I love my some crabs. I was raised on Chesapeake Bay blue crabs and was taught early on how to crack and pick at these shelly bastards. Their taste is divine, but nearly as divine as the goop they excrete and mix with that becomes the paste or sauce that comes with your crab when it’s served. This paste on top of a bed of fried rice is quite possibly the most heavenly thing I’ve ever put in my mouth. After a day of sweating buckets and walking miles, it was the ultimate (and unexpected) reward to such a laborious day.

Before I end this thought, I want to share with you what happens next. Because we’re not far from Sarah’s apartment we walk back, which takes something like ten minutes. Once we’ve settled in, I make our group a round of gin and tonics. All of this may not sound too strange, but the reason why we’re drinking at home is because it’s insanely expensive to drink at restaurants here. Booze is plentiful, but it costs somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 for a 375ml bottle of Bacardi rum! At the 7-11 I was at earlier in the day, a 12-pack of locally brewed beer was also somewhere around $40. While you’re welcome to “sin” (read: enjoy life), you’d better be prepared to pay for it. It amazes me that Hawker Stands can present a huge plate of food to you for less than $5, but if you’d like a cocktail or beer to go along with it, God help you!

Day 10: DTF? – 1/26/2013

Although I’m sad to say it was our last day in Singapore, Mikkela and I nonetheless had an errand to run for one of Mikkela’s colleagues. We were responsible for bringing back kilos of two specific fruits that are only available in tropical climates. One is called a lungen, which is similar to a lychee nut, but closely resembles a nutmeg. You squeeze open the lungen to find a fleshy inside, about the size of a cherry, with a pit in the middle. Like a cherry, you eat the outside flesh and discard the seed, only the flesh is milky white and the taste is sweet and juicy like an Asian pear. We also were responsible for bringing back mangostines, which look like and are about the size of a large plum. Their purple, outer skin is quite thick and the fruit inside is segmented into wedges, like an Clementine. Again, the fruit is sweet and juicy, but much more silky and soft. Both of these things I’d never had before, but part of the journey is trying new things and learning that you love tropical fruit (something I already knew on account that I bought a bag of Asian pears and a perfectly ripe pineapple to bring back with me).

To find these things, Sarah reached out to her colleague who had lived there for a couple of years and suggested a part of time town that has a fruit market open most days. We hopped in a cab, found the first fruit stand that met all of our requirements, and were off to meet said colleague at a local café. One thing I must say about Singapore is that coffee is never far away. After having fretted about where I was going to get my next cup of coffee in China some years back, it was SO NICE to know that coffee was available everywhere. I even learned how to order my own personal style of coffee, “Kopi-C kosong,” or coffee with evaporated milk but no sugar. Tropical fruits, cheap public transportation, and coffee all rolled into one city. What more could a boy want in this world??

After our fruit market/café outing, it was time to DTF. Let me explain. DTF, or Din Tai Fung, is Singapore’s answer to dim sum. You go to a restaurant, order your food in advance by scribbling on something like a sushi menu, and when your number’s called you get seated and promptly showered with baskets of steamed dumplings. After the chili crab, this is one of those MUST EAT dishes in Singapore. I’m not clear on how or why we ended up choosing the place we did, but I’m really glad we did. We took a cab from the fruit market back to the Marina Sands resort (where the Gardens by the Bay botanical garden is). The actual Marina Sands is a hotel/casino/shopping mall on the scale I’ve only seen in Las Vegas before. The hotel/condo complex is a series of three towers that rise up some fifty stories to another block of building that rests on top. This block, parallel to the ground, holds what I’m sure are ridiculous restaurants, nightclubs, and spas for the you luxuriate in and swim out to your infinity pool on top of the city. That’s the “residential” side of complex, if you will. The commercial side holds a casino and shopping mall that would take hours to explore, but like the rest of Singapore, it’s ridiculously easy to navigate. We ask the information desk how to get to the restaurant we’re looking for, and they give us the stall number. So like the Hawker Food Stands, each place of business has its own address, which makes it all too easy to find. It’s usually something simple like “floor # - stall #,” so we were looking for something like 1-33, which would be on the first floor, stall 33. Interestingly enough, Singapore uses the European floor numbering system, so the “first” floor is the first floor above the ground floor, unlike China while uses the American system where the “first” floor is the ground floor.

So we find our restaurant, and like any other American girl in the mall, we lose Sarah immediately to the draw of Banana Republic. Mikkela and I eye the menu and put our order in for a lovely selection of dumplings, stir-fried veggies, and fruit juices. You wait outside like you would a service counter until your order’s called and then you’re seated. Our food started showing up promptly, which is good because Mikkela and I had a flight to catch sooner rather than later. We proceed to stuff an amazing assortment of dumplings into our faces and have to whisk off again to the airport. Before I leave the idea of din tai fung, I must share with you that the locals call this restaurant experience “DTF-ing,” as in “we DTF-ed last night.” In my primordial brain I know the acronym DTF as “Down To F*ck,” so hearing that people DTF-ed last night pretty much makes me giggle every time.

Mikkela and I cab it back to the airport, and because this damn country is so orderly, we’re at the counter to check-in our bags before we know it. Mikkela had bought an LCD TV, which is nicely packed inside her suitcase, so we tell the check-in attendant we need a “fragile” tag on this bag. She simply tells us to put it off the side with some other random suitcase and it’ll be taken care of. Anywhere else in the world I’d object, but you know that Singapore will properly label/handle this bag. We get through security fine enough, though in Asia they don’t go through metal detectors until you get to your gate, so really security was passport control. Once we’re inside, we have Changi Airport at our disposal. I had heard about the free foot massage chairs and the hotel inside the airport that wouldn’t require you to go back through immigration, but I hadn’t heard about the sunflower garden or the movie theater room that was available, for free, to all passengers 24-hours a day. I wanted to take a picture of a sunflower in the foreground and a jet airplane in the background, but true to Asian stereotypes, there was a group of tourists busy taking pictures of inanity. The food court was also open 24-hours, so if you needed a fresh coconut or some laksa (a Malay noodle soup popular in Singapore) at any given point, it’s definitely available to you.

Last Days in Bangladesh – 1/27-29/2013

After flying back to Dhaka with Mikkela, I had a whole slew of emotions and thoughts going through my head. I was relieved to be back because at Mikkela’s I had my own bed, and if I wanted to sleep in or just take a little quiet time at any point during the day, I could shut the door. I was also relieved to be coming back to something familiar. While Dhaka was by no means my home, everyday in Singapore was exploring some new part of town, and after a while you just need to be able to go back to your own familiar place and be content there. I think this is what I was talking about at the beginning of this write-up saying that I like to go home at the end of the day and recharge. There was also a sadness in the air because I hadn’t been keeping specific days straight, but I knew that once we came back from Singapore my days with Mikkela were numbered.

The weekends in Bangladesh are considered Friday and Saturday, since Friday is the equivalent of the Sabbath in Islam. For whatever reason, it’s local custom for the commercial centers in various neighborhoods to take a day off during the week. In the part of town that Mikkela lives in, that day is Sunday. I say all this because Mikkela and I had a pretty relaxed day our first day back in Bangladesh. While we flitted about a bit (we went to the grocery store and bought eggs, for instance), it was generally quiet. Mikkela had arranged with her housekeeper to make some food for Sunday night, and we had a couple of her closer friends come over for a sort of low-key going away party for me. It struck me at this party how wonderful this group of people is. They come from all walks of life—from local Bangladeshis to crazy black girls from West Philadelphia to former military badass chicas—and yet they all can happily get together and enjoy each others’ company. I’ve come to appreciate those moments when you realize that a group of people is genuinely happy to be together, and that was one of those moments.

In what we all thought at the time was my last day in country, Mikkela took me out for Korean food one last time before we parted ways. She had already taken me to this restaurant before for my birthday, but this was going to be a smaller affair, though with the same actors. What makes this Korean restaurant special are a few things: 1) the proprietress has taught her staff imperial Korean dishes, which means detailed presentation and exquisite flavor, 2) if she’s there she comes out and greets Mikkela like some long lost daughter, and 3) she takes care of her staff. By that I mean she feeds them, trains them, gives the uniforms they’re expected to wear, and she gives them the afternoon between 3:00 and 6:00 off to go about their business and run errands. We saw that maître d’ out and about one day, and it works out wonderfully for everyone. Because the whole place runs so well—which says a lot because nothing runs as planned in Dhaka—both the restaurant staff and the diners have a marvelous time. Not to mention the fact that the food is superb!

The plan here was for Mikkela’s driver to take us from the Korean restaurant to the airport for me to check. After having a little actually finding the check-in counter, the employee behind the counter smilingly tells me that, oh no, my flight’s ready to take off so I won’t be able to get on. I look at my watch and I’m nearly two hours early, so in so many words I ask this poor man to repeat himself. He makes a couple quick taps at his computer and he tries to reassure me that everything’s take care of and that I’m booked on tomorrow’s flight that will be leaving at the same time. That’s all well and good, I thought, but I didn’t have anything in writing that told me that I had a reservation on tomorrow’s flight out. He waves the thought away and says that he’ll write his name down in case there are issues tomorrow. Right buddy, you’re going to be off in the market sipping on a coconut when I try to find you to ask about my reservation. That doesn’t help my situation! He tries to convince me that everything will be fine, but I’m pretty much in panic mode at this point because I was all ready to start my 24-hour journey back to DC, and it’s NOT HAPPENING. We drive back to Mikkela’s apartment resigned to the fact that we’ll have to try this again tomorrow. First thing I do is write a strongly worded email to the company from whom I bought the airline ticket, and within an hour or so I’m getting a call from the local representative from Turkish Airlines assuring me that he sees my reservation in the system for tomorrow. This makes me feel a little better that two separate people have told I’ll actually be able to leave tomorrow, but it doesn’t solve the problem that I have nothing in writing stating this. So we try again the next day. We find the Turkish Airlines ticket counter, get in line with the other passengers (I see the old man who was in front of me the night before undoubtedly having the same confused conversation I had the night before). When it’s my turn at the ticket counter, I hand the man my passport and after no time at all he hands me two boarding passes, one for my first flight to Istanbul and one for the flight from Istanbul to DC. All he essentially says to me is “enjoy your flight,” and that was that. How the hell can it be that easy when they just randomly changed the departure time for me flight the previous night?!?

The best part of this story is after sleeping in because I had an extra day in Dhaka, I get an email response from Orbitz. It starts out with the usual “we’re sorry about your inconvenience” drivel, but then it goes on to say that the person writing this message back has just gotten off the phone with a Turkish Airlines representative stateside and they’ve confirmed my flight out—AT THE ORIGINALLY POSTED TIME—from Dhaka the following evening. So if I hadn’t done what my local airport employees had told me to do and listened to the company I bought the ticket from, I would’ve been stuck in Dhaka for yet another day! There obviously had been some sort of misstep in communication between Orbitz, Turkish Airlines – America, and Turkish Airlines – Dhaka. We’ll never know all the details to this travel mystery.

The Journey Back Home

Now that I was actually on a plane and starting my journey home, I was happy go get back into a normal routine in a place that I knew how to get around, but it’s pretty heartbreaking leaving someone like Mikkela behind. Before this trip she had been on two of my biggest adventures: traveling for two weeks in China, and a year or so later taking a cross-country road trip from one coast to another. Now that she’s working in the State Department overseas, I envision countless adventures ahead. But right now I’m sad that I’m leaving my friend for another year until her assignment in Bangladesh is up and she’s in DC for training for a while.

I learned this on my trip to China, but when you travel for days, you actually lose or gain a day when crossing over so many time zones. Case in point: I left on a Tuesday night and arrived in Bangladesh on a Thursday morning. What happened to Wednesday?? On my way back from Bangladesh, I’m leaving on a Tuesday night and getting back on a Wednesday night. You’d think that’s only 24-hours lost, right? Oh no, you’re forgetting about the time zones that you’re crossing through. All told, I figured it’s taking me about 38 hours of travel, from the time I arrive at the airport to the time I leave the final destination’s airport. It’s exhausting just to think about, and this is coming from a boy that doesn’t really sleep on planes!

This time I have a 12-hour layover in Istanbul. Knowing this, I reach out to one of my Turkish grad school buddies currently living in the city. Seda and I were close, not only because we started and finished the same program at the same time while in Monterey, but during our time there we participated in multiple “projects” together. These projects ranged from belly dancing in drag for the school’s talent show to her directing a group of us in a group of dramatic monologue readings for a violence against women project to working as consultants for the City of Carmel to revitalize their commercial downtown. I was happy to try to meet up with her, but I was nervous because she simply told me to meet at the water-taxi station in a particular marina. During my 24-hour delay in Dhaka, I Google mapped the area and noticed that there was a Sheraton Hotel right in that marina area. After going through the proper transfer procedures in Istanbul, I took a nap in the airport for a couple of hours because it was at that point something like 3:00am local time. I found my way to the visa office, which cost me only $20, and hopped in a cab to Ataköy Marina. It really worked out well because I got to the dock something like ten minutes before their water-taxi arrived (right on time), and we had a long breakfast at a local café. Not only is Turkish food amazingly flavorful, this is the land of coffee. While it may be expensive to live a western lifestyle in Istanbul, I must say that it’s a place that could hold your attention for a long while should you ever want to move or visit.

After I saw Seda and her husband off, I taxied back to the airport and made it through security with no problem. I was rather proud of myself at this point because I had successfully gotten halfway home, seen my good friend from grad school, and gotten back to the airport with time to spare before my last leg of the journey started. Although the flight was long (12 hours from Istanbul to DC), everything worked out. I should point out that, like getting into Bangladesh at the beginning of this adventure, the immigration line at the airport was so long that by the time I was through my baggage was again off the carousel and just waiting for me to pick it up. At that point I just gathered up my things, found a cab for the 10-minute ride home from the airport, and simply crashed. Because I lost my cushion day from between I got back from my trip and when I had to be back at work, it took until that weekend for me to feel more or less like a human being, due to the lack of sleep and the inability to fully understand which time zone I was in at that particular moment.

Final Thoughts (about a week later)

This trip was another demonstration of the lesson I had learned on my trip to China: that we’re all such similar creatures. Sure we may do things differently, eat different food, and have completely different views on a lot of subjects, but when it boils down to it we’re all just trying to get by and do the best we can with what we know. You can look at developing countries as poor and unsophisticated, but really they’re just doing things a little differently because their culture and history has brought them to a slightly different place, as compared to ours. Americans certainly haven’t figured out the solution for a modern utopia, so I don’t we should be so quick to judge others on how they do things. In fact, I think we should really sit back and soak in the lessons that we may be able to learn from others when in a new place.

What my continued travels have taught me is humility and a sense of greater awareness. At the beginning of this journey everyone was telling me to lower my expectations of Bangladesh because the streets are filled with sink holes and open sewers, and it’s not an incredibly pretty place. Because I had such low expectations starting out, I was incredibly impressed with the place. Dhaka is a giant, vibrant metropolis that’s obviously in the middle of a rebirth into a world city. I’m not say that commerce and tourists are flocking to come, but everyday there is a more prominent international presence. There are still serious problems, for sure—ever the Peace Corps has had to pull out of the country—but construction is a constant and you’d be amazed what you can find and buy here.

The people of Bangladesh have also really surprised me. I had heard that the people are generally friendly, but what I saw was a huge population just trying to get by. Everyone was working, which speaks volumes about their work ethic. Mikkela says that everyone has to keep a certain level of calm because it’s a hot, crowded place, and if someone were to spark the populace, riots would be uncontrollable. While only having spent a very limited amount of time there, I think there’s a deeper layer that needs to be expressed. I was expecting a conservative country that wouldn’t allow anyone to prosper outside of traditional sociocultural norms. But I met gay men, independently minded women living on their own, and a society that generally allowed women the same luxuries as a man. They even have a female Head of State, something that the United States can’t yet boast!

As someone who can confidently call himself a world traveler at this point, I cannot express the importance of flexibility in your travel plans enough. Coming from a family that likes to plan every detail town to the minute of a vacation, I quite enjoy giving yourself some flexibility when traveling to experience those unexpected gems that you may just stumble upon. With that in mind, I encourage any traveler to actively wander outside of the neighborhood or part of city that’s typically considered the tourist section. People live here, so life happens in some manner. By that I mean locals may do it differently that you, but it all still somehow works out at the end of the day. Start your adventure with that thought in mind and you’d be amazed at what you come across. On the same token, be vigilant, aware, and smart about your travels. Try to wear local clothes as much as possible, and do some research before you leave about local customs and things to generally do while you’re in country. There’s generally some sort of tourist office or even a concierge at your hotel, but take some time to get off the beaten path. That’s where the world really lives.