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Working my way across the ocean

Written by Emmy on 19 May 2013

When I took a job out of college that involved a lot of travel, I was not exactly expecting glamour. I had been braced for a few years of toodling around America’s best office parks in my stylish rental car. Still, I was excited about the idea and I reaped benefits even in the most unexpected places.

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But mixed in with innumerable journeys up and down the Jersey Turnpike, I’ve also seen my fair share of excitement, spending a fair amount of time in my own city of New York and jetting off to fun destinations like San Francisco. The particular relevance of my work experiences to this blog are the culinary experiences I’ve been able to have as a byproduct of my work at places like Slanted Door and Gary Danko on the West Coast and notable hotspots like PDT and Spice Market on the East Coast.

photo (33)photo (37)photo (35)Scallops, as interpreted by Slanted Door (left) and Gary Danko (right), and the delightfully colorful tomato salad at Gary Danko

Of note to my co-blogger would also be the two months I spent eating Wawa hoagies. I convinced my team to forgo the cafeteria in favor of the Philly-area favorite because of all that we could learn from their superior business acumen. (The significantly superior sandwiches helped.)

2013 brought the most exotic work destination as of yet, sending me over the Atlantic to Basel, Switzerland. Before I set foot in the country, I knew nothing of Basel other than the legislation that bears its name. (The first time I got there, I joked there should have been a “Basel: Home of Financial Regulation” sign, the way many U.S. towns welcome you with their sports team accolades, but no one else thought I was that funny.)

On my way to Basel, I traveled through Zurich, a city for which I think the best adjective is “sturdy.” The city runs like clockwork — and is punctuated by clocks at every turn — and is incredibly easy to navigate. It sits on the edge of a beautiful lake, and though I didn’t have much time in the city (and was advised there wasn’t much to see), at least walking by the water provided for a pretty view.

By day…

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…and by night.

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Basel, just an hour north from Zurich by train, has aspects of both a quaint European village and an industrial powerhouse. Walking its adorable cobblestone streets, you pass the beautiful old city hall and centuries-old buildings, made even more picturesque when covered in snow.

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On the other hand, a number of companies have corporate headquarters on the border city — Basel deals with the Swiss, Germans and French — and the city is lined with factories and office buildings. Despite its international surroundings, the city is Swiss through and through (or so I’m told). There’s a sense of formality and punctuality to all operations that is hard to find elsewhere, and the cheese selection is phenomenal.

Basel at sunrise

When I first got to Switzerland, we partook in local tradition and ate our fair share of fondue and raclette. Both dishes feature copious amounts of melted cheese, though in slightly different forms. Fondue is the more internationally known, and its incarnations outside of Switzerland are pretty true to original form. Essentially, you get a vat of cheese and a bowl of bread, and you dip.

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Raclette is less of an activity-based meal. At least in the restaurant where we had it, the cheese came to us melted and we ate chunks of the rich goodness with potatoes and pickles.

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After a week, I needed a break from the Swiss cuisine. To the Swiss, “light” eating does not exist. I tried to order a salad as-is one day and discovered my dressing applied more like pasta sauce — a very generous and creamy coating. So my colleagues and I quickly banned fondue from our dining repertoire and set out in search of Basel’s other offerings.

It took some digging, but we found them, in the form of Asica, an African-Asian fusion restaurant with pretty decent curries, and Aroma, a tiny Italian trattoria, and my favorite, Eo Ipso, a trendy ambiguously European restaurant built inside of an old warehouse.

photo (34)Dinner at Eo Ipso for the girl who can’t decide: fish on top of a ravioli on top of vegetables on top of meat

I also probably consumed my weight in chocolate, but that’s neither here nor there…

One of my favorite things about Basel was its airport. It’s one of the only truly international airports in the world; the structure sits firmly on the border of France and Switzerland (and just a 20-minute drive from Germany, too). When you land at the Basel airport, you have to very carefully choose your exit. Go out the wrong door and you’ll be in another country. The border is much more fluid than it once was, but there are still checkpoints; after all, Switzerland is not in the EU. The two sides of the airport take different currency and pick up different cell signals, and the cab lines are separated by a 15-foot-tall partition. The first time I landed in Basel, I was quite tickled.

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My love for the tiny airport dissipated quickly when I faced a flight cancellation one Saturday morning that stranded me in Basel on my way to Washington, D.C., for the presidential inauguration. I had planned to fly to the capital via Paris and found myself stuck when my flight to France was delayed, delayed, delayed and then finally cancelled. That late in the day, there was no way I could make it to the U.S., and I was nervous to try the whole proceeding again the next day. Fortunately, nothing is really that far away in Europe. So after spending a day in the Basel airport, I formally migrated from Switzerland to France by exiting out a different door from the one I had entered in, took a taxi to Mulhouse and boarded an express train to Paris.

Three hours later, I was looking at the Seine and found myself with a dinner invitation; one of my colleagues had family in France who graciously made us risotto and served us a traditional king cake. I did not find the prize, but was still permitted to wear the crown.

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I woke up on Sunday morning to a Paris blanketed in snow and a notification that my flight was, again, delayed. With an unplanned day in Paris, I decided to head to the one neighborhood I knew would be open (and that I knew I knew how to get to), the Marais. I trudged my way there as the snow continued to fall, pausing to have a café au lait and pain au chocolate to warm up. I easily could have taken the Metro, but it was a beautiful walk despite the cold. One thing I will say about Paris: nowhere else looks as pretty covered in snow.

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With just enough time to have lunch before heading to the airport, I stopped at L’Aus du Falafel, which I would reason has among the best falafel I have ever had. OK, you could argue there are many other culinary delights I could have taken in while in Paris. But this is the one I know, and the one I knew I would enjoy, and enjoy I did.

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Nearly 48 hours after I first arrived at the Basel airport, I finally touched down in Washington. I had sadly missed much of the gathering to which I was headed, though in the grand scheme of things, Paris is not too bad a place to be trapped.

However, I chose not to visit my formerly favorite little airport ever again.

Crossing a checkpoint and ending an adventure

Written by Emmy on 23 October 2012

We woke up with the sun on Sunday morning and discovered why we were the only people staying in the woods of Fundy: fall comes early. We snuggled into our sleeping bags for a bit longer before emerging into the morning fog. Originally we had planned to hang around, make some coffee and have breakfast straight from the backpacks, but the chill overtook us, and so we quickly packed up and made our way back to the parking lot and to Adrienne.

IMG_1803IMG_1809IMG_1815At right, no Crocs left behind

We started driving south, back past Saint John and then through long passes of rural New Brunswick with spectacularly well-paved stretches of highway. We came to a southern tip of Canada and boarded a ferry, the first of the day. We were planning to take the boat to Deer Island, where we would take another ferry, this one from Deer Island to Campobello Island. Campobello, the summer home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, is home to an international park, co-managed by the U.S. and Canadian parks services. The island is actually part of Canada, but during the months when the ferry is not running, is only accessible by a U.S.-controlled bridge. It’s a bit of a brainteaser.

But given the season of our trip, we boarded the first of our two ferries for the day and hit the open seas.

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While on board the ship, I aimed to recreated what Chaz now claims was his favorite snack of America Part 1: Trader Joe’s multigrain crackers, sliced asiago and a spicy dip; in this case, it was the leftover spicy chicken salad. In keeping with tradition, I pulled out a cutting board and knife while the vehicle was moving. I like a little adventure.

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IMG_1865We arrived on Deer Island, which, as part of New Brunswick, has all its signage displayed in English and French. Because of the prevailing religious traditions and the fact that it was Sunday, we found very little to see or do on the sleepy island. We hadn’t planned to do much, truthfully, but were at the whims of the dual ferry schedules. So we meandered our way from one end of the island to the other, pausing to check out what is rumored to be the largest lobster pound in the world, and ending up at the largest whirlpool in the northern hemisphere.

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The lobster pound was uninspiring, but the whirlpool was very cool. The somewhat mesmerizing rush of the currents was captivating enough that we nearly missed our ferry, ending up last in line of the cars waiting to board a boat that looked like it hadn’t been replaced in about three decades, give or take.

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Seriously, the boat was really old. So old that the steering part detached from the car part. The ocean was looking awfully cold, but despite its creaky parts, the ferry ferried us across safely.

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We docked at Campobello and drove to the interior of the park, where we were directed to photo opportunities and to the house that FDR spent his summers in. We walked through an interesting exhibit about the history of friendship between the U.S. and Canada. I was most excited to see that friendship manifest in an international stamp for my parks passport.

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We weren’t interested in waiting for someone to come show us around, so we took the self-guided version of the FDR house tour, pausing of course, in the kitchen.

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We drove around the island a bit, but without planning to take a hike or bike ride, there wasn’t much to tour; we stopped at a few rocky overlooks to gaze out on the water and identify distant land masses. I was more amused by the traffic signs that pointed to “U.S.A.”

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After cruising around for a bit, we selected the only completely empty picnic spot and overlooking the water, emptied the contents of our cooler onto a table – of course using a Delta blanket as the picnic cloth. Using a couple different containers of already-ready ingredients, I whipped up sandwiches of turkey, grilled eggplant, and red pepper and feta spread.

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Once we had finished our sandwiches and packed back in all the cooking implements, we loaded the car and made haste toward the tip of Campobello. We made the requisite lighthouse visit before approaching the bridge to the other side.

We were briefly reprimanded at customs. Evidently, limes cannot cross the border between Maine and Canada because of some weird soil disease; we think the border attendant just needed a spritz for his drink. (This was not my first time being stopped at a border crossing for a citrus infraction, but this stop was a little less alarming.) We entered the U.S. into Lubec, Maine, the easternmost town in the country. The town itself didn’t have much going on, but we made a pit stop at West Quoddy Head lighthouse, noted for being the easternmost point in the country.

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IMG_1998Now able to say we’d dangled out feet over the eastern edge of the modern world (or, you know, something dramatic like that), we headed a bit south to the entrance to Cutler Coast. Cutler is an area of land preserved and maintained by the state of Maine, but in a much more rugged way than the national parks. Cutler’s waterfront campsites are first come, first serve, and you claim them by logging your name into a guestbook at the trailhead. But when we found a completely packed parking lot and a fairly empty guestbook, we were a bit confused. If we chanced it and found the campsites totally full, we would have to turn back – a challenging feat given threatening rainclouds, vanishing daylight (ok, it was 3 p.m.) and a relatively lengthy hike (almost 10 miles to do the full loop past the campsite and back to the lot). But if we gave up and found the campsites empty, it would have been hugely disappointing. So we decided to hedge our bets, assume most of the parked cars belonged to day hikers and charge forward. The only people who had signed the guestbook were a pair from New York, Adam and Jake, who we kept calling for as we hiked through the brush, assuming that they would take us in under their wing if all else failed.

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IMG_2015The hike took us almost immediately down to the water, where we could see several bits of Canada off in the distance. But mostly, we were just surrounded by the very vast ocean – a truly beautiful site. We could feel bits of rain beginning to fall from the sky, but luckily had brought layers and the majority of the trail weaved through trees, providing cover. The only catch was that the state of Maine seemed content to let the wild run wild and so maintains their trails a bit less than the NPS, leading to overgrown brush. I think that might explain the mosquito bites I later discovered in somewhat inexplicable places.

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As we hiked, we could hear a dim noise in the distance, growing louder and louder. Chaz was convinced it was an owl, but I was determined to prove it was mechanical. We had to round several craggy corners and summit many slippery rocks, but eventually, a lighthouse came into distant view. To keep myself entertained, I yelled back to it every time it yelled hi to us.

After the yelling, beeping and raining went on for a while, we found ourselves at the first campsite, where a woman was standing guard. We kept walking until we came to the second site, where we found Adam and Jake, setting up fancy hammocks in the trees. Excited as we had been to make friends, we abandoned the cause, and like Goldilocks, tried out the third campsite, which was just right. We set up shop and I began to prepare our gourmet dinner, beginning with a cocktail hour of G+Ts (yes, we had managed to import them), cheese, crackers, sliced veggies, and Annie’s bunnies.

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Dinner was going to be a fancy home-cooked affair, which required a series of spices. In lieu of bringing spice jars with us, we had mixed Thai spices in a ziplock bag, to which we added peppers, celery, scallions, cashews and spiced chicken sausage.

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As we dined, we enjoyed the bright, glowing sunset over the water. We could still see our lighthouse friend blinking and beeping in the distance.

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IMG_2146We awoke the next morning, rolled up our sort-of soggy tent and hiked the five or so miles back to the parking lot, which was significantly less full than it had been the prior afternoon. We started the drive back south, where we encountered a rather strange site – several towers looming in the near distance. Ever the journalists, we got closer to investigate, stopping just short of the “Property of the federal government” and “No trespassing” signs. We later uncovered that we had happened upon the VLF Transmitter Cutler, which provides one-way low-transmission communications with U.S. submarines. Having completed our journalistic mission of the morning, we picked up the scenic Route 1 and a bit of speed, making our way back down past the turnoff for MDI and toward new pastures. As soon as we regained cell service, I was hot on the pursuit of little-known and well-regarded lobster rolls, figuring I should get one more in before leaving the state. Our other major planned stop was to be Freeport, Maine, birthplace of L.L. Bean. Our attempt to stop at the famous Red’s in Wiscasset, Maine proved a bit fruitless when we encountered its 30 minute line. The food did look good from a distance. Just after Freeport we stopped at Cindy’s Lobster Rolls, which had been hyped on the internet for its lobster roll (what I was most excited about) and its fried clams (which Chaz had requested as a final item).

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IMG_2165We had a little fun at the kitschy roadside stand while we waited, but at 2 p.m. or so, we were among the stand’s only patrons and so our lobster roll, clams and mix of french fries arrived quite quickly. We dug into our seafood, hob-nobbed with Cindy’s eclectic owner and after not too long, hopped back into the car for the less scenic portion of our day’s drive.

From Cindy’s, we left behind the scenic highways of Maine and merged onto 95, making our way south through traffic-filled New Hampshire. But with shocking expediency, we found ourselves back in Boston. We undertook the great feat of unloading the car, making quite a mess of Chaz’s sidewalk in the process. We hadn’t been back in the urban world for long before Chaz walked me to the train, where I boarded my New York-bound Amtrak, and he walked back across alone. It had been nearly a year since we had bid each other farewell from our last road trip adventure, as we ran to our separate gates in the Detroit airport. We were older (definitely), wiser (debatable), and heading home to our grown-up lives and real person jobs. But really, we’re still the same people as when the checkpoint began. We’ve still got backpacks full of unnecessary electronics, eyes bigger than our stomachs, and a sense of adventure tuned to the open road ahead.

Family time and relaxing eats

Written by Chaz on 2 August 2012

Heading northeast from White Sands, we blew through Alamogordo and made our first stop about halfway to Tularosa. All along the highway was farm after farm growing a crop I had never seen before: pistachios. The nut, a desert native, thrives in high sun and low humidity and needs long summers to ripen properly. As a result, it has become very popular in New Mexico, which meets those criteria perfectly.

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We stopped at the Eagle Ranch pistachio grove and, after taking a look at some pistachio trees, went into their store to sample their wares, which included not only several flavors of pistachios but also a selection of pistachio wines. We had a taste of a few and selected one to take with us for dinner. There’s nothing like a bit of wine at 9:30 in the morning to get you going.

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Eric had promised that he would take us to a little hole-in-the-wall Mexican place attached to a gas station in Tularosa for huevos rancheros, which sounded like a location our food guru would approve of. But when we arrived, it became clear that we had made a huge mistake. What had once been was no more.

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Fortunately, there was another gas station nearby that also had a Mexican restaurant attached. Welcome to New Mexico. Eric had the huevos rancheros while I opted for another menu items that was basically the rancheros with scrambled, rather than fried eggs. The dishes were good, though no comparison to Eric’s own homemade version.

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From Tularosa, we continued northeast to Eric’s house in Ruidoso, where we spent the rest of the day enjoying the sun, swimming and having some family time with my aunt Teresa and cousin Madison. We discovered when we arrived that the forest fires we had seen from White Sands had become enormous and were very close to Ruidoso. The highway that we would use to return to Albuquerque the next day was closed, so we would have to leave much earlier to retrace our steps to Tularosa and head north from there.

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Eric was planning to grill steaks for dinner and add some New Mexican flair with a topping of onions, mushrooms and spicy tomatillo, a combination he had recently discovered.

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The steaks turned out excellently, and were joined by green beans, a delicious salad with strawberries and pecans, and the pistachio wine.

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We sat out for a while after dinner, watching hummingbird after hummingbird visit the feeder hanging near the porch, as well as a family of deer that made someone very excited.

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The next morning, we rose early in anticipation of our long detour back to Albuquerque and headed out for breakfast in downtown Ruidoso at Peña’s Place, where we beat the morning rush and grabbed a table on the porch.

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At Peña’s, the breakfast burrito proved to be the most popular choice at our table. I ordered mine “Christmas,” which refers not to a holiday in December but to the combination of both red and green chiles. My aunt Teresa opted for the eggs benedict. All were excellent.

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Before we headed off to drive back to the airport in Albuquerque, we took a moment to do some family portraits.

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After the pictures, Eric and I bid farewell to Madison and Teresa and hit the open road.

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A few hours later, I was saying goodbye to Eric at the airport. Though my visit to New Mexico was just a weekend, we had seen and done so much that it felt like a much longer vacation, peppered with excellent eats, terrific nature and wonderful family time.

Heading inland to Zion

Written by Chaz on 2 October 2011

Ambition became reality when we awoke at 3:30 a.m. to take quick showers and ready ourselves for the long drive east to Zion National Park. Everything was in the car and ready shortly afterward, and by 4:02, Dorothy was pulling away.

Los Angeles had one last chance to confuse us with its freeway system, but we were ready for it. By 5:30, we had maneuvered from the 405 to the 105 to the 605 to the 10 to the 15, making an essential stop for coffee along the highway. We watched the sun rise over the California desert.

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Interstate 15 winds east from Barstow through the Mojave Desert to the Nevada border. And as we approached the Silver State, it became clear that the casinos and outlets started immediately across the border. In fact, the town of Primm, Nev. is right up against the border, positioned as a first temptation for gamblers coming from California or a last hope for those leaving Vegas.

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Shortly afterward, around 8:30, we arrived in Vegas, where we stopped for gas, a bathroom stop and a good look at the casinos. It was my first time in the city, and my initial reaction was that it reminded me so much of Macau — which was ironic, since Emmy’s reaction to Macau was that it reminded her of Vegas.

IMG_5560IMG_5573IMG_5582IMG_5583IMG_5584Wynn casinoLeft: the Wynn casino in Las Vegas. Right: the Wynn casino in Macau.

Northeast of Vegas, I-15 cuts through the rural northwestern corner of Arizona and winds through the Virgin River Gorge, a dramatic rock formation created by the same river that made Zion.

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We pulled off the highway in Washington City, Utah for a last supermarket stop and lunch at In-N-Out, which we had missed in California. From there, it was only a short drive into Zion, where we parked Dorothy at our campsite in Watchman Campground and walked back to the visitor center. To reduce congestion, you can’t drive into Zion Canyon, the heart of the park — you have to park and take one of the frequent shuttles. As a result, there aren’t any parking problems in the canyon, and the views are unspoiled by heavy automobile traffic.

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Zion was given its name by Mormon farmers who discovered it and believed it to be close to paradise. I really liked the idea that the park was preserved because people saw it and said to themselves: wow, this place is close to God.

After checking in at the visitor center about our best course of action, we hopped on a shuttle and rode to the Weeping Rock stop to begin exploring. The beauty of the canyon was readily apparent.

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We hiked from the shuttle stop up a steep trail toward something called Hidden Canyon. As we ascended, the views of the canyon became even more picturesque and panoramic.

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The weather was visibly deteriorating, and when we got to Hidden Canyon (surprise — it was a hidden canyon), we quickly turned back around, not wanting to get stuck on the steep trail once it became wet and slippery. We took a short detour to Weeping Rock, and as it had begun to rain, the weeping was even greater than usual.

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We walked back to the shuttle and rode up to the last stop, the Temple of Sinawava, where we took a soaked stroll up the paved Riverside Walk along the Virgin River. The canyon gets too narrow for the road to continue, and at the end of the path, it gets too narrow for the path to continue. But, we learned, many people rent special boots to wade through the Narrows, as the section of the river is known, starting above the canyon and hiking through the water back down. It sounded really cool, and it definitely made my next-visit list.

We had to wait a few minutes for a shuttle back to the campground, as the heavy rain had apparently caused a mudslide on a section of the road. Sure enough, we passed a park ranger directing traffic around the debris in the road. According to our shuttle driver, the rainstorm was “one for the record books,” and the subsequent mudslide was “unprecedented.” When we got back to our campsite, we took advantage of a momentary lull in the rain to set the tent up at a record pace, and fortunately, the rain mostly held off for the rest of the evening.

Our campsite at Zion was one of the nicest we stayed, with a beautiful view of the canyon. We settled in to enjoy some appetizers by the fire before dinner. Naturally, given our early wakeup, we were getting quite tired.

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As the sun began to set, Emmy whipped up some apple chardonnay chicken sausage with mixed fresh vegetables.

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After a round of s’mores, we were more than ready for bed.

The scenic consequences of progress

Written by Chaz on 28 September 2011

After our ordeal on Half Dome, we felt free to allow ourselves the luxury of sleeping in until a whopping 8:30 a.m on Saturday. Though I was skeptical of our (well, my) ability to pull off any physical activity that day, we nevertheless packed our bags for a hike in the park’s less-visted Hetch Hetchy section. After a relaxed breakfast at the campsite of cereal, fruit and coffee, we threw our things into Dorothy and set off for Hetch Hetchy, the route to which requires one to exit and reenter the park, passing through private land.

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Hetch Hetchy Valley is like a smaller twin to Yosemite Valley, nearly as dramatic if not on the same scale. But the steadfast march toward progress led the city of San Francisco to campaign for a dam in Hetch Hetchy to provide the city with water and power in the early 1900s. Over John Muir’s strenuous objections, the project was green-lighted, and so the first thing we saw as we descended on the winding road into the valley was the huge O’Shaughnessy Dam, which still provides water to San Francisco. The dam has since become a rallying cry for the preservation of national parks, and it’s extremely unlikely that another project like it could ever be approved. Though some people call for the restoration of Hetch Hetchy, it’s far more likely that we’ll just have to imagine what Hetch Hetchy Valley would look like were it not flooded.

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We hiked a couple miles along the northern share of the manmade lake to Wapama Falls, where we stopped for lunch, our leftover tortellini. Each time we stopped and started again, my legs cried out in protest.

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After we hiked back to Dorothy and bid farewell to Hetch Hetchy, we took a short driving tour up the Tioga Road, which leads to the eastern part of Yosemite. Though we had dinner reservations that prevented us from going all the way to Tuolomne Meadows, we made it as far as Tenaya Lake, stopping at Olmsted Point for a beautiful view. Though we had enjoyed blue skies all morning, storm clouds were rolling in and we got hit by heavy rain and even some violent hail as we retreated west.

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We drove back to the valley through the very visible scars of a huge forest fire, beautiful in its own eerie way.

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As we headed towards dinner, we took off our outdoor trekking hats and got ready for something more refined.

Our biggest challenge yet

Written by Chaz on 28 September 2011

We awoke on Friday at 4:15 a.m. sharp, immediately jumping out of our sleeping bags excitedly (yeah, right) to strike camp, pack the car and brew a much-needed pot of coffee. Our plan was to spend two nights in Wawona, in the south of the park, and two more in Crane Flat, in the northwest, closer to our eventual destination of San Francisco. Unfortunate scheduling meant that this change of camp coincided with our day on Half Dome. But even so, we were out of Wawona by shortly after five, and as I drove us back into Yosemite Valley, Emmy served a light continental breakfast and began packing our backpacks.

All told, by the time we arrived at the parking lot at Curry Village where we left our car, our two packs contained no less than:

  • Six Clif bars
  • Two bags cashews (assorted)
  • One bag Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies, a snacking essential
  • Two apples
  • Two peanut butter sandwiches
  • Two tuna sandwiches
  • Eight Oreos
  • Two packs chewing gum
  • Two containers chicken sausage and vegetables, leftover from dinner
  • Eight water bottles
  • Two raincoats
  • Two sunblocks
  • One hat
  • One extra shirt
  • Two lip balms
  • Baby wipes, without which the checkpoint does not leave home
  • Wallets
  • Phones
  • Flashlight
  • Toilet paper

Shortly after leaving the parking lot, we realized that we had made a huge mistake. There was a parking lot closer to the trailhead than the one in which we had left Dorothy, adding a total of about three-quarters of a mile to our day’s already-long journey. But we soldiered on, walking through the forest to the actual trailhead at Happy Isles and setting foot onto the trail at 6:35 a.m. Not too bad.

The first part of the hike took us up the John Muir Trail, an alternative to the thousands of stone steps we had descended the day before on the Mist Trail. Though slightly longer, we figured switchbacks were a much better way to ascend than stairs. By 8:30, when the sun really started hitting Yosemite Valley, we had already gained thousands of feet and had a beautiful view across to Nevada Fall.

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We veered off our route from the previous day onto the trail up to Half Dome, taking a short detour through a backpacker camp that enabled us to make the hike, usually almost entirely out and back, into a tiny bit more of a loop. As it turned out, hiking is a pretty tiring business, and long before we made it to the summit, we were more than ready for lunch. Or, at least, round one of lunch. We stopped for our tuna sandwiches (never have I had such a delicious tuna sandwich experience) as we gained even more elevation.

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The trail grew ever steeper as we approached Sub Dome, Half Dome’s much smaller sibling which sits immediately north of it and looks like a little bubble growing out of its side. At this point, the hike, which had seemed to be flying by in the first couple hours after we left Curry Village, began to drag. But at long last — about 11:30 a.m. — we arrived at the permit checkpoint, and chose to mark this joyous occasion with a frank discussion with the two rangers of the various ways in which we could die on Half Dome. “Honestly, most of the rescues we do are actually body recoveries,” one told us. (Just before we left on our trip out west, the New York Times ran an article about the growing death count within Yosemite’s bounds. This article, along with our previous day’s warning about lightning-caused death, really set the tone for our ascent.)

We began climbing the steep, winding granite stairs up the side of Sub Dome, and after a few exertion-filled minutes, arrived at its narrow but flat summit. Already, the views off to the north were spectacular.

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Soon after, we found ourselves face-to-face with what we had been dreading all morning: the infamous Half Dome cables.

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The cables stretch up an extremely steep granite face to cover the final 400 feet of Half Dome’s immense height. I had trouble picturing what the cables were going to look like, but that was because we were missing a key fact: The cables are connected to steel poles which are bored into the granite, and above each set of poles is attached a wooden two-by-four. As you pull yourself up to each set of poles, you can balance yourself, and nearly stand, on each two-by-four as you wait for the person in front of you to clear the next two-by-four. These pieces of wood totally answered my question. You’re never actually hanging off the side of the mountain by a little cable; you’re pulling yourself up to the next place where you can pause a second. And when traffic is heavy, you can expect to wait quite a while at each two-by-four.

As we starting ascending Sub Dome, Emmy started freaking out a bit about what was to come, and while I remained more stoic at that point, I too start to lose my calm as we picked out gloves from the enormous pile at the bottom of the cable and began to make our ascent. It was, in short, terrifying, not least because of the continued lengthy waits as people above us climbed, which we spent perched on the side of the rock clutching on for dear life. Not to even mention that it was becoming quite clear that the advertised storms were somewhere in the area, though it was still blue skies over Half Dome.

But once we got to the top, and heaved ourselves off the ascent onto Half Dome’s flat 13-acre surface, I forgot all my fears and all the effort we had expended as I took in the amazing view.

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IMG_1074We stopped for a quick picnic of our leftover chicken sausage, which we’d like to think is among the more gourmet of meals served on top of Half Dome, and for pictures. But we could see storm clouds rolling in off in the distance, and we were reminded that the cables act as lightning rods during a storm. (Is that not the scariest thing you’ve ever heard?) So, after a brief celebration of what we had accomplished, we headed back to the cables. I think both of us were almost more worried about descending, even though it would clearly be physically easier, but I realized as soon as we started that it was really no problem. Again, the two-by-fours were the key to the whole system.

We ended up making it off the twin domes safely, and sure enough, it started raining about half an hour after we reached tree cover, though very little rain fell on us. (Fortunately, we had packed our raincoats — see above.) The nine-mile slog back to our car was arguably more difficult than the ascent since we were so exhausted. Simply the pain in my feet was more than enough of a reason to stop. We opted for the Mist Trail again, so thousands of stairs and a few miles after that later, we made it back to Dorothy, who was truly a site for sore eyes.

We drove north out of the valley to Crane Flat Campground, where we hastily set up camp and fixed an appetizers course of chips, hummus, guacamole and a few well-earned cocktails. Emmy once again mastered the camp stove to produce a delicious dish of pesto-filled tortellini and roasted eggplant in marinara sauce.

IMG_4355Though we had long lost the light required for photography, here’s the dish in its lunch reincarnation.

Despite being essentially on the ground, I don’t think I’d ever fallen asleep so quickly.

An introduction to the sights and tastes of Singapore

Written by Emmy on 4 July 2011

Months ago, when we first began planning our trip to Singapore, Vernie created a very lengthy list of all of the foods we non-negotiably had to try while in her hometown. For a three day trip, it seemed like we would be eating nonstop. With four days, it was marginally more reasonable — as long as we stayed on mission. We also had quite a few sights to see. So starting on Sunday morning, we began crossing things off of our food and sights list with gusto.

We started the day by visiting a tall building to take in views of the city. You may note this quest to see cities from high up has been a trend throughout all of our travels. Up above the city, we could see everything from the Singapore Flyer (the ferris wheel) to the protected heritage buildings to the giant Marina Bay Sands casino, which looks like a spaceship taking off from the top of a building.

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The Singapore skyline is filled with apartment buildings that have a very distinct look. These are HDB flats — apartments subsidized by Singapore’s Housing and Development Board. The vast majority of Singaporeans live in these apartments, due to the astronomical cost of housing. You have to be married to apply for a subsidized HDB flat, and so many twenty-somethings get engaged in university in order to put themselves on the waiting list.

From our high-up perch, we could also see Malaysia: just a short car ride away!

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Once we had taken in the views and taken an inordinate number of photos, we went to try one of Vernie’s favorite foods and one of Singapore’s noted dishes: prawn noodle. Singaporean food is influenced by the many different ethnic groups who live on the island, including people originally from China, Malaysia and India. Culinary influences from all of China’s different provinces have left their mark on Singapore, as have generations of intermingling between the various groups. One of the popular types of food in Singapore is classified as Peranakan, a blend of Chinese and Malaysian influences.

Known in Chinese as hae mee, prawn noodle is one of these blend dishes, truly only found in Singapore.

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The noodles and prawns are served in a soup, which has a distinctly shrimp-like taste to it. Chili powder can be added to taste, along with fresh chilies for a serious extra dose of kick. We ate our noodles with lime juice, a popular local drink which provides a real contrast to the shrimp and the spice. Vernie and her parents showed us how to attack our soup like locals: you peel the shrimp with your fingers and chopsticks, throw the peel onto the table and then dip your shrimp in soy sauce and chilies.

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After finishing our delicious lunch — which also included an assortment of items, such as fish cakes, fish balls and fermented egg, to be dipped in a chili sauce — we began our walking tour of the city. We started on the aptly named Arab Street, which is filled with shops selling Persian rugs and reams and reams of fabric. In the center of the area is an old mosque and the palace that housed the Malaysian sultan when Singapore was unified with its neighbor. Briefly ruled by the British, Singapore has been completely independent since the 1960s.

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After a brief walk-through of Arab Street (mostly spent under a shop awning due to a flash thunderstorm, which thankfully ended almost as suddenly as it started), we headed for the MRT. Like in Hong Kong, the subway stations in Singapore seem to be connected to shopping mall after shopping mall. Something about having a 90-degree climate all year round must have inspired this building pattern, where “air con” is a necessity at all times. Inside the many malls and stations are massive food courts, with each stall peddling a particular item.

The first thing Vernie had us try was takoyaki, a traditionally Japanese snack. Takoyaki are little dough balls, baked and stuffed with everything from octopus to mushroom and cheese. Kind of like the Asian version of a crepe. Before being served, they are of course drizzled with chili (among other toppings).

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Another must try item was a curry puff. The stuffed puff tasted entirely different from the many versions we had tried in Thailand.

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And because aspects of the food court scene started to make us a little homesick, we tried some frozen yogurt. Before you begin taking wagers on how much weight we must have gained in Singapore, please note that all of these tiny snacks were split three ways. Our general rule on this food-driven voyage was, order everything and just take a bite. It was the only way we could have ever have hoped to accomplish all the items on our epicurean to-do list.

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Following our parade of snacks, we paid a visit to Orchard Road, the epitome of a shopping mecca. The street is packed with fancy mall after mall, each containing the highest price designer stores. It seems like each mall contains the same stores as the next, but each is packed with eager shoppers.

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We explored several fancy malls before heading to the basement of the newest and fanciest one, ION, to check out — what else — its food court. We made a beeline for a particular favorite stall of Vernie’s in order to cross another item of the eating list: beef noodle. In Singapore, noodle dishes are either served dry or as soup, and those that are served dry come with broth on the side. “Dry” is not necessarily the best description, since the noodles often come in a sauce. Beef noodle comes in a dark sauce, a heavier dish than those we ate in other parts of Asia.

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Following our epic eating afternoon, we went for a very very long walk.

Singapore is filled with construction sites, evidence of a rapidly expanding and developing city. The building projects are particularly evident on the coastline, where buildings, bridges and walkways have sprung up dramatically in recent years. In the midst of the new development is Singapore’s mascot, the Merlion, a giant statue of a half-mermaid half-lion who spits out water.

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IMG_0973We walked a giant loop before coming face to face with the rocketship-shaped Marina Bay Casino. The enormous building is home to a fancy shopping mall, Venice-like canals, a hotel and the largest casino I have ever seen. Singaporean residents have to pay $100 to enter the casino, but foreigners get in for free — the government’s not-so-subtle way of indicating that Singaporeans should keep their money and let the visitors fork it over. Vernie waited for us while we used our American passports to take a quick peak. They scanned them carefully as if we were going through customs in an airport.

Photos are not exactly permitted inside the casino, but it was a little too decadent not to capture on film. Plus we wanted to show our Singaporean hosts a glimpse of what’s on the inside. The photo at right shows about a quarter of the casino floor, which is ringed by a balcony filled with card table after card table.

We walked the perimeter of the casino and then left, showing our passports again in order to exit. We relocated Vernie, located the nearest MRT station and headed back to her apartment for a nice relaxing swim. It’s a very hard life.

NOTE: There’s going to be a whole lot of food discussed in the Singapore portion of our blog. We may have been instructed in school that Wikipedia is not a reliable source, but the article about Singaporean cuisine provides a fantastic primer on all the things we ate, all the things we wished we could have eaten and the items we were happier not to eat at all.

Welcome to Singapore

Written by Emmy on 3 July 2011

Saturday brought even more torrential rains to Hanoi. We woke up at 5:30 a.m., hoping to check out another round of tai chi. This time I was going to go in my official outfit. But when we woke up and saw the pouring rain, we decided it would deter even the most determined Vietnamese exercisers.

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We headed back to sleep, woke up at a slightly more reasonable hour and enjoyed our last hotel buffet breakfast. We went to meet the cab we had prearranged to take us to the airport, but it never came. As the hotel attempted to call us another one, a German family also departing for the airport generously offered to let us join them — they had been touring Hanoi with a guide and a van, and had an extra row in their car. On our trip to the airport we got to hear a very flattering tale of Ho Chi Minh’s early life from the family’s guide, making it even more apparent that the Vietnamese people have been taught a filtered version of history.

Once at the airport, our new friends headed for the business class line at Singapore Air and we made a beeline for the long line at the more budget Tiger Airways. Apparently due to a technical malfunction of some kind, the desk could not print luggage tags, creating a bit of a hold up. With handwritten stickers indicating our destination on our suitcases, we were quite suspect that the bags would follow us south. We finally checked in and spent some downtime in the rather sparse Hanoi airport before boarding our plane.

Three-ish hours and a time change later, we landed in Singapore. The Singapore airport is legendary for its amenities, including a swimming pool. However, when one lands in the literally named Budget Terminal, the bonus features are not included. After claiming our suitcases — which did miraculously make it — we donned our Vietnamese rice patty hats and went to find Vernie. (We just wanted to make sure she could see us.)

Vernie lives on the eastern side of the island, not too far from the airport. At just a quarter of the size of Rhode Island, Singapore is a tiny country. The island nation is totally urbanized, covered from end to end in tall apartment buildings.

Vernie and her dad, who graciously drove us around throughout our time in Singapore, narrated our quick journey back to their apartment, giving us an intro to the city and pointing out all the sights we would get to see.

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Note: it was basically dark when we landed in Singapore. This is a sunnier view of the city.

After a quick shower, we headed out on the town. Singapore is known for its efficiency, and true to form, we were able to take the MRT — which stands for Mass Rapid Transit — straight downtown. We were not originally supposed to have a weekend night in Singapore, but following our last-minute change in travel dates, Vernie was able to plan a great Saturday night. We went to Clarke Quay, a must-see nighttime spot on any tour of Singapore. The whole area felt almost like Disney World: restaurant after restaurant, all representing a different world cuisine, and all with seating on the water. After the crowded and dirty streets of our prior stops, the perfectly immaculate and spotless streets of Singapore were a bit of a culture shock. Plus, jaywalking is illegal, a real adjustment following Hanoi.

We took a walk around the whole area before sitting down to eat at Brewerkz, a German-themed brewery. Our very Western entrees of grilled mushrooms, pesto pasta and chili could not have been a further cry from the foods we had been eating for the past three weeks. After catching up over dinner, the three of us met up with Dhiviya, one of Vernie’s friends from secondary school. Our tour of a Saturday night as Singaporeans continued with drinks on a bridge, and then our first taste of the clubbing scene.

After a fantastic night, we returned home to get some sleep in preparation for our whirlwind Singaporean foodie tour.

Rain, rain go away

Written by Emmy on 2 July 2011

On Friday, we were supposed to see this:

Instead, we saw this:

An incoming typhoon and monsoon-like rains prevented our trip to Halong Bay. When the weather turns tumultuous, the local government does not allow tourist boats into the water. And since that’s the only way to see the world-renowned sight, our overnight trip was canceled. (It took a series of emails, phone calls and visits to the front desk before we were able to actually confirm that the trip was canceled, but that can mostly be chalked up to the language barrier.)

Because we had already seen most of Hanoi and because the apocalyptic rains showed no signs of stopping, we decided to spend one last day exploring Vietnam and move our departure to Singapore up to Saturday. (Thanks to Tiger Airways and Maison D’Hanoi for making our logistical moving-and-shaking pretty easy.)

Determined not to allow the weather to ruin our final moments in Vietnam, we set off to find the opera house in the nicest part of Hanoi, flanked by designer stores and fancy hotels (including the Hilton Hanoi Opera, so named to avoid awkward confusion).

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IMG_2895After snapping a quick picture, we sought refuge in the International Press Club, a recommended coffee stop. In Thailand, the delicious cuisine was missing one key item: coffee. In our two weeks, we only encountered weak, instant coffee. The Vietnamese, on the other hand, seem to have learned an important lesson while under French rule. The cafe au lait drinkers may have been driven out of the country half a century ago, but their caffeine-worshipping behavior left an impact.

We followed our coffee stop with a lunch break. Walking through a monsoon is awfully tiring. We headed to Tamarind Cafe, a recommended vegetarian restaurant. The cuisine had a Vietnamese influence, but clearly was going for more of an international menu. We had a mixed salad and summer rolls with tofu and veggies. I tried Double Happiness, which was not quite the bundle of joy I thought it was going to be. It turned out to be fried tofu with a side of noodles, which was relatively bland in comparison to many of the other things we’ve eaten to date. Chaz had a Malay quesadilla, which was a bit more interesting — a combination of many different international influences. Overall, not the most exciting meal we had — and definitely pale in comparison to our many Thai vegetarian lunches.

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After lunch we attempted to check out the Army Museum — where there are supposedly several American fighter jets from the Vietnam War — but an armed guard told us it was closed. Our book had not indicated the museum would be closed on Fridays, but we decided that unlike when people in Thailand told us that museums were closed and we ignored them, assuming a scam, we would listen to this gun-toting guy.

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The rain ultimately forced us back into our hotel room, but it did eventually clear in the late afternoon. Following the ever-trusty advice of the New York Times’ 36 Hours, we hopped in a cab to the Intercontinental Hotel. Built on an artificial island in the middle of a lake, the hotel is 15 minutes outside of the center of Hanoi. The main lobby and bar are firmly on dry land, but all of the rooms appeared to be floating out in the sea.

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After a lovely sunset drink and a snack at the Intercontinental, we hopped back in a cab to have a delicious dinner basically on a sidewalk.

We later attempted to visit the night market, but found that that too had been washed away in the rainstorm. So we settled for one final street corner bia hoi among the motorbikes and the pineapple saleswomen.

Understanding the capital of Siam

Written by Emmy on 18 June 2011

IMG_1368Bangkok wears its history on the surface, with wats and prangs as plentiful as its shopping malls and pad thai carts. The Thai people demonstrate enormous respect for their past, a fact which became even more evident on our day trip to Ayutthaya on Monday.

Ayutthaya, situated about 70 kilometers north of Bangkok, was the historic seat of Thai power. Beginning in the mid-1300s, kings from five successive dynasties governed the Siamese people from the palaces and temples of Ayutthaya. Sacked by Burma, Siam’s constant enemy, in 1767, Ayutthaya was later abandoned as the capital in favor of a more geographically secure city: Bangkok. Though much of Ayutthaya was destroyed in several battles with the enemy, what remains has been preserved for tourists — Thai and foreigners alike — to come explore.

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We began our trip at Bangkok’s major train station, where we were offered the opportunity to pay 20 baht (less than $1) for a third-class ticket to Ayutthaya. We opted to pay a slightly steeper fee in order to enjoy much-needed air conditioning. After a 90-minute trip through the Thai countryside, we arrived in Ayutthaya and made our way to a small pier. The old city is separated from the train station by a narrow river, which must be crossed by boat. We paid a total of 8 baht in order to board what was generously dubbed a ferry.IMG_1409

Once on the other side, we purchased an all-access pass to the many ruins. Fragments of the once glorious temples remain, and though the stone towers and walls are punctuated by overgrown grassy fields, what still stands serves to demonstrate the impeccable craftsmanship that went into building Ayutthaya so many centuries ago.

IMG_1401After all of our touring around, we’ve learned a couple helpful hints to better decipher the temples and ruins of Thailand. For example, a Buddha with the left hand extended means “Stop fighting.”

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In Ayutthaya, many of the ancient Buddha statues are still intact, but the majority had their heads cut off by the Burmese invaders, leaving rows and rows of headless bodies. In contrast, one of the most famous Ayutthaya sites is the bodiless head of Buddha, encased in tree roots.

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We trooped around the old city, pausing in our historical journey only for a brief lunch of pad see ew and chicken with cashews.

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Appreciation for the wonders of Ayutthaya is still very fresh in Thai minds. Only recently, excavators discovered a crypt inside on the more majestic temples. I got a little creeped out by the steep, deep staircase, but Chaz went down to check it out for himself. The piles of golden Buddhas and other relics found in the depths of the temple are now on display in Bangkok’s National Museum, which we were able to visit on Wednesday before heading out of the capital.

We walked the entirety of Ayutthaya’s ruins, but caught a glimpse of Thai transportation history: elephants paraded around near the ruins, carrying tourists on their backs.

Toward the end of our day, all the walking began to take its toll. Though we did not board an elephant, we did partake in another feature of Thai life: a tuk-tuk. All week in Bangkok, we kept encountering these strange vehicles. An alternative to taxis, tuk-tuks look almost like golf carts from the front. Some have only a small bench for passengers, while others look like they could seat eight people. In Bangkok, tuk-tuks stopped every time we tried to hail a cab, but we waved them all away, opting for safety and air conditioning. In Ayutthaya, conventional taxis were nowhere to be found and we were a very solid walk from the water. So we hopped into the backseat of a persistent tuk-tuk driver and held on for the bumpy ride. There’s no meter, so we had negotiated a price beforehand. We most definitely paid more than a local would, but for less than $2, not an awful way to travel. Still, we disembarked in agreement that once was enough. (But I have since learned that apparently in Chiang Mai, taxis can be hard to come by and tuk-tuks are the way to go. We’re hopeful the city’s small size will make it easily walkable.)

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On our way to the boat, we walked through an open food market: the first signs that Ayutthaya was still a flourishing town of any kind. But just as we were getting into the trenches of the fish display, the sky opened up. Big, dark clouds had begun to emerge in the later part of the afternoon and the moment of monsoon had definitely come. Only problem: we had to cross the river. Putting everything we had with us into my bag and then under my raincoat, we ran for the ferry and made the adventurous crossing.

Despite the insane weather, our little train managed to get us back to Bangkok on a relatively timely schedule, wet, but a bit more cultured.