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The nature of the north

Written by Chaz on 21 October 2012

Fueled by our fond memories of the road trip we took last summer, Emmy and I wanted to relive our glory days on the western highways with a miniature road trip at the end of our time in Maine. I devised a plan that would take us deep into the Canadian province of New Brunswick first, to visit Fundy National Park, then back into Maine for a stop at Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land, a not-quite-state-park just shy of the Canadian border in a section of the state known as the Bold Coast. In both parks we planned to backpack into the woods and spend the night, reminiscent of our canyon days.

And so it was that we rose around 3:30 on Saturday morning, made coffee, said goodbye to my mother, threw our things into the car, pointed it east and were on our way to Canada by 3:45. As we drove along the so-called “airline route” to Calais, Maine’s easternmost moderately-sized town, we had a good two hours before the sun finally began creeping over the horizon. Unsurprisingly, we did not see many fellow travelers.

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Before long, we were in range of the end of the United States, and after a quick stop for a much-needed coffee refill and one last refuel on American soil, we hopped over the St. Croix River, stopped for a brief passport check and found ourselves in beautiful New Brunswick — or, if you prefer, Nouveau Brunswick. New Brunswick is Canada’s only constitutionally bilingual province, and nearly a third of the population speaks French, though very few of those don’t speak English. (Quebec’s language status isn’t mentioned in the Canadian constitution, and French is the only official language of that province. The federal government of Canada is also constitutionally bilingual.)

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The highway from the Canadian border was a model of infrastructure investment, and before long, the city of Saint John — population 70,000 — was beckoning to us.

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We pulled off the highway, got a bit lost and eventually found our way to the Saint John City Market, Canada’s oldest farmer’s market, which our usual sources had recommended as one of the city’s few sights and perhaps the best place to find breakfast at 7 a.m. on a Saturday. Sure enough, it was an adorable market, and the various stalls were all setting up for the day’s business. We were beckoned into a small restaurant, Slocum & Ferris, by none other than the proprietor, with whom we dined and discussed our voyage north.

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We did only the tiniest bit of exploring in the small city, including a short walk through King’s Square and a quick look at the Loyalist Burial Ground, before hopping back in the car and getting back on the very impressive yet equally rural highway along the southern coast of the province.

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We pulled off the expressway onto the two-lane highway that leads to Fundy, and after a bit more driving on one of the more abandoned roads we have ever traversed, we entered the national park. We were almost immediately met with stunning views across the Bay of Fundy to Nova Scotia. A nice French-speaking family took our picture.

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We continued down the highway to the visitor center, where we picked up our backcountry permit from a park ranger who was not as excited about our visit as we were. Adjacent to the visitor center lay Alma Beach, where we were told we could see the legendary tides of the Bay of Fundy, which are some of the largest in the world. Of course, it’s hard to see tides in one instant, but we took another look across the bay to Nova Scotia.

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Our first hike of the day was the Dickson Falls trail, a very short jaunt through lush woods. The best view of the hike may have been from its trailhead.

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Our next hike was to Matthew’s Head, a beautiful forest trail to a rock outcropping where we enjoyed a picnic lunch — sandwiches of turkey, muenster, horseradish and cranberry — surrounded by excellent views and few other travelers.

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We made a quick stop after our second hike at the Point Wolfe covered bridge. For some reason, Fundy is known for its several covered bridges.

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As we drove to our third hike, though it was only about 1:00, we were realizing that we were incredibly tired. I guess getting up at 3:30 will do that to you. So we pulled into the parking lot for the Laverty Falls trail, which was unpleasantly full, and promptly fell asleep for about 30 minutes. We were barely able to pull it back together and hit the trail. Though it was beautiful, it was unfortunately much more crowded that we were hoping for. The trail took us through forest to a trio of waterfalls, then along the stream back to the trailhead.

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From Laverty Falls, we drove to Bennett Falls, where we parked the car and prepared for our short hike to Tracey Lake, where our campsite for the night was. As we have done on several previous journeys, we had already begun to develop a new nonsensical way of referring to our belongings. We had two backpacks for the trip: one brand-new overnight pack that I had purchased at L.L.Bean on the way up, and one day pack that had previously been converted to a overnight pack for our somewhat improvised Grand Canyon backpacking trip. This day-night dichotomy led us back to yet another television show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and the two bags became “day man” and “night man.”

The acquisition of a true overnight pack meant that our packs were much easier to carry than on our last backpacking adventure, but that still didn’t allow a less humiliating place for my Crocs than simply tied on for all the world to see.

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After about an hour of hiking, we arrived at our personal slice of paradise. There was no one else in sight as we set up our tent and made ourselves at home. I even took a quick swim on our private beach.

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Obviously our remote location did not lead us to compromise on cuisine, and we began with cocktail hour: red pepper dip, carrots, celery, cheddar bunnies, and a shared gin & tonic that was a bit more like warm lime water — and about as refreshing as that sounds.

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Emmy broke in our new lightweight camp stove with our shrimp fettucini dinner, mostly prepared in advance.

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After dinner, as the sun began to fall behind the trees, we realized we had to do something with our food in case of bears. Though the ranger at the visitor center had told us they had never had any problems, we still didn’t want the food in the tent with us. So I slung day-man, full of every food product we had, up into a tree a couple hundred feet from our tent. Was it the safest way? No, but it made us feel better.

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We turned in early, exhausted from our long day and truly one with nature.

Just shy of another border

Written by Chaz on 28 July 2012

I spent a weekend in early June with my uncle Eric, who lives outside Albuquerque, and his family. I last saw him over Christmas, when we explored local culture and did risky things in the snow. I’ve still been traveling to Texas to work, so I was once again able to tie a visit to a business trip. In fact, I met Eric on a business trip of his own. He had been in Las Cruces, N.M., so I flew into El Paso, Tex., not far away, and he picked me up there. We had planned quite a weekend: a bit of tourism in El Paso, a day in Las Cruces, a night camping in the backcountry of White Sands National Monument, and the rest of the weekend with Eric’s family at his vacation house in Ruidoso, N.M.

We started the weekend immediately upon my Thursday evening arrival with a visit to El Paso’s L & J Cafe, nicknamed “the old place by the graveyard” because it is across the street from the enormous Concordia Cemetery and vaunted by our favorite source as one of the best places in El Paso for Mexican food. (Though I had pressed Eric to take me across the border into Old Mexico, the violence in Juarez now makes this a terrible idea. Not so long ago, I crossed into Juarez with Eric and his family with no concern, but now that would be unthinkable.) Despite being in what looked like a bit of a seedy area of town (after all, next to an enormous graveyard), the streets around L & J were packed with parked cars, as was the restaurant itself.

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My uncle and I started by ordering a pair of margaritas, which my uncle immediately — and I do mean immediately — followed up with a beer order. Inspired by his boldness, I ordered a Mexican beer. The waitress skeptically asked whether we wanted all our drinks together. We said we could tolerate a slight delay on the beer, and put in an order for chile con queso. I was envisioning a beef (like chili) and melted cheese situation, but this was literally just chile con queso: fantastic green chiles in delicious melted cheese. Eric said it was the best he’d had, and I agreed.

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Our main courses were equally fantastic. This wasn’t the Tex-Mex that I’m used to in Dallas, but the real thing. Eric ordered chicken enchiladas with green chile, while I took the Times’ recommendation and went with the caldillo, a Mexican stew of potato and beef with green chile. Simple flavors, simple composition and an ethnic food experience totally new to me.

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Eric insisted that we follow up our main courses with a sopapilla, a puff pastry smothered in sugar and honey. Light and delicious.

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After dinner, we walked across the street and into the cemetery to find the grave of John Wesley Hardin, a Civil War-era cowboy and outlaw eventually shot to death in a saloon in El Paso. The cemetery fit perfectly into the desert landscape: cactuses between graves surrounded by orange dirt. Hardin’s grave was surrounded by a cage to protect him from people like us.

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From the cemetery, we drove across town to the University of Texas at El Paso, where there is a desert garden that was one of the very few tourist sights I could find in El Paso. The Centennial Desert Gardens were actually very nice, with a variety of plants that I don’t see everyday, and Eric rolled his eyes as I walked around taking pictures of things I found interesting and beautiful.

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From the garden, we headed onto the interstate to drive back to Eric’s hotel in Las Cruces, stopping only briefly for a view back toward El Paso through mountains.

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Before long, we had crossed the border into New Mexico, and were soon heading to bed.

The next morning, Eric headed off to work while I opened my computer and made a virtual commute from his hotel. Thanks to the time difference, I was able to start early and finish early, so I was nearly ready for the weekend by the time Eric and I headed to a late lunch at Nellie’s Cafe, a well-known Mexican restaurant in Las Cruces. Even though the restaurant was just barely a storefront, when Eric texted a picture to a friend of his, the friend replied that they must have made improvements. But the little hole-in-the-wall was still sporting pretty legitimate credentials.

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We were seated by Nellie’s exuberant son Danny and began our meal with tortilla chips and salsa. These weren’t your mother’s tortilla chips, though — they were still hot, and more flavorful than any I can recall. Inspired by their quality, we ordered another round accompanied by more chile con queso. For my main course, I ordered the tostadas compuestas, which featured three hard tacos of different compositions: one with red chile, one with green chile and one with avocado. The dichotomy between red and green chiles is a recurring one in the cuisine of New Mexico. As I learned, either color can be hotter in a given restaurant, and either can be tastier. You have to ask at each restaurant and balance your preferences. Eric went with the combo platter, which was roundly recommended. It was immediately apparent from our plates that we were beginning to transition from the Mexican food we had had in El Paso to the unique culinary blend that is New Mexican cuisine.

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Though not quite as flavorful and exciting as L & J Cafe, Nellie’s was much more of a scene. Las Cruces is, of course, a much smaller town that El Paso, and I’m sure that contributed to the sense that everyone in the restaurant knew everyone else. It was a fun dining experience, which you can’t always say.

From Nellie’s, Eric and I drove slightly west, to old Mesilla, a small town near Las Cruces known for its historic square and old-timey feeling. Having not so long ago been to both old Albuquerque and old Santa Fe, I had to comment to Eric that I was starting to get the feeling “seen one old square, seen ’em all.” There was a pretty Catholic church and a nice square whose architecture wouldn’t feel out of place in old Mexico, but that was about it.

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Mesilla, of course, receives a lot less traffic than its historic neighbors to the north, which did give it a bit of a more homely feel. I was able to take one photograph that may be the closest we ever come to the caption: “The checkpoint visits Havana.”

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Having scoped out the scene in Mesilla, Eric and I high-tailed it east out of town and through the mountains toward our next destination.

Across the border

Written by Chaz on 15 June 2012

My friend Max, whom I met studying abroad in Sweden and who showed up a couple times on my abroad blog and again on this blog, moved to Detroit after we graduated to do Teach For America. Max is passionate about education, but that decision seemed to me to encompass a couple of pretty big sacrifices, not least of which was living in Detroit. I always enjoy visiting friends because I feel like I leave with a much better sense of what their life is actually like, and I was especially curious to find out what life in Detroit is like. My visit to Detroit coincided with a visit from Jeff, Max’s best friend from Wesleyan who now lives in San Francisco.

With few exceptions, Detroit was about as desolate as I was expecting. I quite frankly did not know there were places like it in the United States. The number of abandoned buildings is out of control — not just homes and offices, but even public buildings like an enormous former Amtrak station that was sold and then abandoned. There are some hints of life among the empty hulks, but the reality is that there’s no real path to recovery once you have so many unnecessary buildings. Detroit is a city of 700,000 that once held 1.8 million, and it shows.

So on Friday afternoon, we made a spur of the moment decision to ditch the Motor City and drive four hours northeast to Toronto. I was able to get hotel rooms on points at a moment’s notice, and about 90 minutes after conceiving the plan, Jeff, Max, Max’s girlfriend Amelia and I had hit the open road. We stayed outside the city on Friday night in Missisauga, a thriving suburb, before driving into the heart of the city on Saturday morning — stopping, of course, at Tim Horton’s for breakfast on the way. When in Canada, eat breakfast with the Canadians.

Toronto was booming — the opposite of Detroit’s bleakness. As we were driving in, Max commented incredulously, “What’s with all the construction?” Someone’s been spending too much time in Detroit.

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After checking into our hotel, we took a long walk down to the waterfront of Lake Ontario and returned to the city center past the CN Tower. Our hotel was right across the street from City Hall, a hulk of a concrete building that is fronted by an equally unattractive plaza containing a skating rink — full of skaters on this Saturday morning.

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We also stopped in a few boutique shops along Queen Street and began to get a sense of Toronto.

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In the afternoon, we got a free walking tour that took us to some of the sights near City Hall and our hotel, ending in Eaton Centre, an enormous shopping mall that several parts of the city underground.

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Thoroughly chilled, we retreated to our hotel for a drink in the hotel lounge. From the 43rd floor, City Hall didn’t look quite so bad.

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We walked to dinner at Campagnolo, which got great reviews online but was in sort of a random part of town and was too new a restaurant to even show on Google Street View (it showed instead a Coffee Time, apparently a Canadian coffee chain). Little did we know what laid in store for us. We ended up having one of the best, and most fun, dinners I have ever had.

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After laughing our way across Toronto all day, we were all in a celebratory mood, and we started with a few great cocktails before proceeding to our food, which was equally terrific. Our waiter was super fun and spent a good deal of the evening joking with us about the difference between the U.S. and Canada. We had long since detected a strong hipster vibe in Toronto, and our waiter could not have confirmed it more perfectly when he told us he was very curious about living in Portland, Oregon. We enjoyed a smorgasbord of delicious items from the very creative menu to share, none of which photographed well in the dim restaurant.

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The trendy area in which to go out has apparently migrated progressively westward in Toronto, from West Queen Street to an area that became known as “West Queen West,” then even further west onto Ossington Avenue, where we moved from hipster bar to hipster bar, more than confirming Toronto’s extensive hipsterdom, before calling it a night.

On Sunday morning, we took another long walk before stopping for brunch, at which we shamelessly and ignorantly quizzed our waitress about the Caesar, a Canadian cocktail that’s like a spicier bloody Mary.

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In the early afternoon, we returned to our car and set off back for Detroit. Though I have visited Montreal a couple times, it was my first time in Toronto, and I was very impressed. A Canadian couple had told me at a street wine stand in Chiang Mai that Montreal is Canada’s cultural capital while Toronto is its more soulless business hub. I definitely agree, but much like my hometown of Philadelphia, Toronto struck me as a city that is likely fantastic to live in, even if you can cover all its tourist sites in a short weekend visit. And more importantly, I had a fantastic time with Max, Amelia and Jeff, and Toronto was a great backdrop for it.

Speaking Valenciana

Written by Emmy on 2 November 2011

On Friday morning we bid farewell to Barcelona and boarded the train to Valencia. The three-hour ride was pleasant and comfortable and our train had assigned seats and in-flight entertainment, more than I can say for Amtrak or Thai Railways. The journey began and ended along the coast, weaving inland between the seaside stops. Just outside Barcelona, the landscape became totally rural, with farmhouses, fields and mountains lined with windmills.

We arrived in Valencia just in time for lunch. After quickly dropping our belongings at the hotel, we headed to Mercat Central, the large food market that claims to be the largest in Western Europe. This is a superlative I’ve heard thrown around a few times before, but Mercat Central was pretty impressive.

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We picked up a lunch picnic to eat on the steps outside the market. Jessica sampled some of the market’s prepared foods, while I went for more of an a la carte antipasto approach, purchasing manchego cheese, hummus, artichokes, sundried tomatoes and peppers.

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Valencia is organized similarly to Barcelona, with a condensed egg-shaped historic center and a more sprawling modern section built along a grid. Though Valencia has an equally large share of Mediterranean coastline, the historic part of the city is a solid 10-minute drive from the water. The old walled city kept its distance, earning Valencia the translated-from-Catalan tagline of “the city with its back to the sea.”

We had plans to explore the old center later in the afternoon, so we decided to be atypical and check out the parts of the city that do touch the sea. The main thoroughfare that begins at the old gates of the city and heads toward the water stops about a kilometer before the Mediterranean. Blocking the major avenue from continuing straight ahead is the neighborhood of Cabanyal, and this is a major source of municipal tension. El Cabanyal is the old fisherman quarters and is filled with charming old townhouses, but it has a bit of seedy reputation these days. Tired of prostitutes and poverty and interested in connecting the water to the old city, local politicians have campaigned to knock down part of the neighborhood in order to build the last kilometer of road. This has incited quite a bit of pushback from locals, who are advocating for restoration of the neighborhood instead. Clearly people are very up in arms about the whole debacle; a woman saw Jessica and I taking photos and began screaming at us in Spanish, assuming we were with the pro-destruction group.

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A mile or so down the water awaits a very different sight. Now a decade old, the Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias – the City of Arts and Sciences – was Valencia’s attempt to build a major tourist attraction. The architectural fantasy of native son Salvador Calatravas includes an art museum, a science museum, an underwater restaurant and several other attractions. The ticket to enter is pricey though, and really, the exterior is the most exciting part. Most tourists we saw there were doing the same thing as us: wandering the perimeter, taking photos and then leaving. This is problematic for Valencia as the complex was expensive to build, is expensive to maintain and now the responsibility is falling on local citizens. Particularly in the current Spanish economic climate, the Ciudad doesn’t exactly generate goodwill among locals.

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After walking the exterior and frolicking in the sculpture garden, we headed back to the old city to meet up with our tour guides for the afternoon, Toni and Marisa. In my final semester at Brown, I was desperate for one last chance to take a Spanish class. Normally the offerings are limited to centuries-old literature, but there was a one-semester-only course being offered on the topic of communication, with an emphasis on modern-day journalism in Spain. Syllabus unseen, I was prepared to sign up. The class far exceeded my expectations. The professor, Toni Mollà, was visiting from Spain, where he teaches at the University of Valencia and works as a journalist. Our small class formed a strong bond with him, in and outside the classroom, and I had the chance to make tapas with him and his wife Marisa in Providence. When I told them Jessica and I were coming to Valencia, they graciously offered to tour us around and share their infinite knowledge of the city.

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We began our tour in the heart of the old city, the Jewish Quarter, and visited the ancient Universitat de Valencia. The old university was built in the same style as many other European colleges that I have seen: a central open atrium, where students and professors could gather and socialize, surrounded by a ring of classrooms. Classrooms on upper floors could all be entered from a communal balcony so there would be even more space for socialization. In my experience, that’s where students gathered for a quick coffee and cigarette between classes. The old university is only used for municipal ceremonies today; the University of Valencia outgrew its old building and the different departments are now scattered around the city.

IMG_6977We had arrived that morning at the newer and uglier of the city’s two train stations, the Penn Station of Valencia. The older station, Estacion Nord, is an example of the Spanish modernismo style, which is nearly as plentiful in Valencia as it is in Barcelona. The interior of the station is decorated in a tile mosaic style typical to Valencia.

The main thoroughfare of the old city that begins at the station is punctuated by several squares. The first is Plaça del Ajuntamento, home to Valencia’s city hall. Like Barcelona, Valencia is the capital of its autonomous community, so the city is filled with government buildings from the various federalist levels. Valencia’s community is conveniently called Valencia. Bordering Catalunya, Valencia is part of the ancient group of Catalan speakers. The language is still spoken there today, but it is called Valenciana, and don’t you dare insinuate it is the same as Catalan. (But really, it is. It would be like saying the languages spoken in Boston and New York are different.)

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The next two squares are Plaça de la Reina and Plaça de la Virgen, which house the cathedral and basilica, respectively. Every Spanish city has its big cathedral and the one in Valencia was built over the span of several centuries. The thee entrances represent the three different styles used and are arranged in chronological order: Romanic, Gothic and Baroque.

IMG_6992Behind the cathedral, we found we had looped back to the Mercat, which looked even prettier at night.

Just beside the Mercat was the Lonja, an open forum where silk manufacturers once gathered to trade their wares. Today the space is used for conferences and city events, but every Sunday, stamp and coin collectors gather in the traditional fashion to make sales and trades.

By this point, we had completed our historic walking tour, but no self-respecting Spaniard dines out before 9 p.m. We planned to eat in Carmen, a trendy neighborhood within the old city walls, and so decided to get a drink first. In an almost comical fashion, our table of four began to expand as we saw people Toni and Marisa knew and we suddenly found ourselves at a table of twelve, which included Valencia’s most famous journalist and a prominent local photographer. Several jokes were made comparing Carmen to the Village in New York.

After bidding our new friends farewell, the four of us walked into Can Bermell, a restaurant in Carmen that Toni and Marisa have been visiting since they were in their 20s. They reportedly were eating lunch there the day their daughter Marina, who is my age, was born.

We offered a few suggestions forth based upon the menu, but took a very backseat approach and let the locals do all the decision making. The dishes were much larger than tapas, but everything was placed in the middle to be shared.

The food was pretty similar to what I’ve had in Barcelona, though with perhaps a bit more emphasis on seafood. I thought everything we ordered was positively delicious. The dishes came out of the kitchen individually, which made it easier to enjoy and appreciate the flavors of one dish at  a time. The first was esgarrat, a typical Valencian dish. Composed of dried, salted cod, red peppers and oil, the name translates to mean “broken” because of the aggressive manner in which the ingredients are mixed together. We were instructed to eat our food with fresh bread and learned that an upside-down roll is bad luck.

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The next dish was the house salad, a composed tower of tomato, fresh cheese, homemade croutons and basil, doused with balsamic vinegar. The delightful salad was followed by fresh mussels cooked with olive oil, which we fully demolished before I remembered to take a picture. Butter is an unheard-of ingredient in Spanish cooking; olive oil is considered king. Following my semester in Barcelona, I adopted a similarly firm stance and only cook with olive oil. (It’s a good thing I don’t bake that often; the result could be kind of gross.)

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We also enjoyed a salad of mushrooms topped with grated truffles, which one of our new journalist friends had recommended. The final dish, which was probably my favorite, was chipirones con ajos tiernos. It translates to squid with garlic, but the dish was cooked with a kind of garlic I’ve never seen before. Toni and Marisa explained it as the stem of the garlic bulb; it was green and flavorful, but not in quite the same biting way as a garlic clove.

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I was personally a bit full for dessert, but the waiter told Toni and Marisa he had a pumpkin in the oven and that was something we needed to see. Apparently in the fall, one of the most popular things to do is slice a pumpkin in half and pop it in the oven. No sugar, no cinnamon, no nothing. You just let the pumpkin roast for about an hour and then eat it as is. It was hard for me to conceptualize, but really, it would be just like eating roasted butternut squash for dessert. Pumpkin is eaten at all times of day and is very healthy. To balance out the healthy nature of the pumpkin, we also had a slice of chocolate almond cake.

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Spanish dining practices place far more value on personal pleasure than communal table manners and so there is no inhibition about just sticking your fork in the central plate. It creates an element of community and sharing to the meal and we caught on quickly. Our dinner was overall phenomenal and it was so great to see Marisa and Toni again. We picked their brains for advance on Valencian activities and made plans to meet up again on Sunday.

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Final destination

Written by Emmy on 7 October 2011

After our picnic, we bid farewell to the Grand Canyon and hit the open road.

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Although the Grand Canyon was our last real destination, the remote North Rim is a bit far from all commercial airports. Since we planned to fly out of Phoenix in the early afternoon the next day, we had decided that we would get a bit closer to reduce pre-flight rush. So we drove the deserted highways of Arizona and made our way to the first real city beyond the canyon, Flagstaff.

Along the way, we passed mesa after mesa, cactus after cactus, and very few other cars. These are the roads that 75 miles per hour speed limits and cruise control were made for.

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The only real landmarks along the way were two national monuments, neither of which I had ever heard of before picking up the area map. Contained within the same 35-mile loop detour off the highway, the Wupatki National Monument and Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument are definitely removed. Wupatki, where we stopped for an emergency bathroom visit and a NPS passport stamp, is considered a sacred place among many Native American tribes. Sunset Crater, where we arrived after the visitor center had already closed, was formed by several volcanos back when Arizona was a more fiery place.

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We pulled into Flagstaff with storm clouds looming overhead. I had read all about a hotel in historic downtown Flagstaff and so reserved us a room. The Weatherford Hotel was definitely unconventional. I think there were more barstools than rooms in the establishment. Flagstaff lived its heyday in the 1800s during westward expansion. The town was christened on the country’s centennial — how it came to be named after the pole hoisting the stars and stripes. The Weatherford was a relic from that era, which meant that it lacked some more modern amenities. But upon arrival, all we really needed was a long shower to wash the canyon off of ourselves.

After washing up, we headed to Beaver Street Brewery, a restaurant highly recommended by all of our usual sources. We ordered a couple of the local brewery’s wares and tried to stick to local fare as well. We started with the thus appropriately named Arizona quesadillas, which were filled with chicken and served with sides of fresh guacamole and salsa.

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We asked our waiter what he liked best and he recommended any of the flatbread pizzas and one of the house platters. We had already decided he was pretty awesome, so we followed his directions to a tee. We split a southwestern chicken pizza, which was topped with a chicken, tons of veggies and a cilantro pesto (take that, cilantro haters — even if you might not be able to help yourselves). We also had the shrimp taco platter, which we both thought was phenomenal.

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After dinner, we strolled past the Flagstaff train station and decided to check it out. Amtrak was my primary mode of transit between home and Brown, so I became quite accustomed to delays on the Northeast Regional line. But we’re talking 15 to 30 minute delays. Apparently on the western lines, like the one that runs through Flagstaff, delays of one, two, ten hours are basically par for the course. Without an agenda for the rest of the night, we decided to sit on a bench and wait with the angsty passengers of the evening Southwest Chief.

IMG_6345While we were waiting, we must have seen ten giant freight trains roll through. Flagstaff sits on the highly trafficked Los Angeles to Chicago route of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, more commonly known by its acronym, BNSF. I’m not sure I have ever seen so many large aggressive freight trains before. We discussed the politics of transcontinental trains until the Chief finally arrived about an hour after schedule. We waited till the train had departed the station and then we retired for the evening. However, the freight didn’t stop just because we did. The trains ran all night, which was a bit more disruptive than our prior few nights under the stars had been. Price of capitalism?

We woke up in the morning and undertook our largest challenge to date. More strenuous than Half Dome, more tiring than the Grand Canyon, completed on less coffee than Angels Landing: unpacking, cleaning and repacking Dorothy. We managed to do quite a number on her in two weeks. If you happen to rent a black Dodge Grand Caravan in Phoenix anytime soon, just don’t open the stow ’n go compartments.

Before leaving Flagstaff, we managed to sneak in a quick and authentic breakfast at MartAnne’s Burrito Palace. Chaz ordered based upon the restaurant’s name and had a breakfast burrito.

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I followed their tagline — “the house that chilaquiles built” — and went with the traditional Mexican dish of scrambled eggs, tortillas, cheese and green salsa. Both portions were enormous and came with beans, rice, potatoes, lettuce and tomato, and tortillas. Breakfast was delicious, and I’m not sure I ate another full meal for the rest of the day.

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After finishing breakfast, we powered south to Phoenix. Over the course of the drive, we dropped almost 7,000 feet in elevation, a shocking accomplishment considering it never looked like we left the desert. We stopped briefly for gas and then pulled up in front of the Delta terminal at Sky Harbor International Airport. We couldn’t both bring Dorothy back, much as we would have liked to bid her a teary farewell together, because of the sheer amount of luggage we had. So Chaz took our girl home while I babysat what can only be dubbed a mountain of baggage.

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The final count on Dorothy’s odometer was 2,417.3 miles — a fairly awesome feat for two weeks. (Never mind that we flew more miles than that just to get to our starting point.) From the windows of our minivan we had seen deserts and the ocean, packed freeways and empty country roads, mountains and vast flat expanses. We had eaten (and spilled) countless meals in her confines, possibly broken a GPS system we never asked for in the first place, and listened to the same classic songs on infinite repeat. (And happily, we managed all this without damaging the car or earning a single traffic or parking ticket.) But now it was time to board our plane back east.

We flew together to Detroit, where another journey once began and others are likely still to come. “You don’t get to be silver without going to a hub a few times,” Chaz said, when I pointed out this symmetry. And so we hugged goodbye and ran to our separate planes, ending yet another fantastic voyage for the checkpoint.

The adventure spirit of the southwest

Written by Chaz on 5 October 2011

Our second day at the Grand Canyon started early. If there’s one thing I got better at on this trip, it was getting up early. (Actually, it was probably endurance hiking.) But we were in the car heading to watch the sunrise from Point Imperial within minutes after our 5:15 alarm. The cold was extreme, and we were both wearing every layer we had brought.

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Point Imperial is the highest point on the North Rim, and we were joined there by two other extremely intense photographers to catch the sun’s first rays.

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Though we had planned to make coffee at Point Imperial and enjoy the sunrise, our lighter’s premature demise prevented us from doing so, so we hightailed it back to the North Rim to visit the Rough Rider Saloon, which starts each day as a coffee shop before transitioning to a bar just before lunch hour. As we drove, the sun’s new light on the rim’s landscape looked beautiful.

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We took our coffee out to the porch, where we sat on the Adirondack chairs, contemplated the canyon in front us, and began to plan our day. A young man came over to us, and seeing the way we were studying our maps, asked whether we were planning a trip into the canyon. I admitted that I was flirting with the idea of trying a short one, but that we didn’t have any real hiking backpacks, which would make it tough. He encouraged us to try it anyway. He had just completed a “rim-to-rim” hike, and said it was amazing.

Encouraged by this advice, we returned our campsite after replenishing our lighter and chocolate supply at the general store. We packed our bags with snacks and lunch for the day’s hike and drove over to the backcountry permit office to discuss our plans with a ranger.

Though the ranger seemed pretty skeptical of my plan to tie our sleeping bags onto day packs, she encouraged us to go for it. “If it were me, I would definitely do it,” she said. So we headed back to our campsite once more for a dry run of our packing system, using twine to tie our sleeping bags — which were not exactly compact models — onto our backpacks. Lo and behold, it worked, and while our packs were far from light, we decided to pull the trigger on an overnight trip down into the canyon. One quick trip back to the permit office, and we had an official permit in hand for one night at Cottonwood Campground, seven miles down the North Kaibab Trail into the Grand Canyon.

Our plans finalized, we were at last ready to start our hike for the day. We had decided to tackle the trail out to Widfors Point, which winds five miles through the North Rim forest out to a beautiful overlook. The first two miles were peppered with intermittent views into the canyon, and then we meandered through the forest for the last three before spilling out onto the end of Widfors Point, where we had lunch: turkey, muenster, avocado, cashew sandwiches and our leftover Jacob Lake Inn cookies.

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We hiked back to the car and returned to our campsite, where we went into full production mode for the food we’d need for our trip into the canyon. Once we had a few things squared away, we were ready to relax for the evening, so we drove back down to the rim and ordered drinks at the Rough Rider Saloon to take out onto the porch for sunset. The Adirondack chairs were much more crowded than earlier that morning, but we managed to snag two. The pastel colors of the day’s last sunlight on the ridges of the canyon were just gorgeous.

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We returned to our campsite for a long-awaited Mexico night. We had a full selection of salsa, guacamole, chips and Mexican beer to kick off dinner, and Emmy whipped up a delicious Southwestern-inspired dish of spicy chicken sausage, refried beans with jalapeño, a blend of Mexican cheeses, fresh bell peppers, onion and corn salsa. It was perhaps her best campsite creation, and went very well with our surroundings.

IMG_6247Taken during a daytime encore.

As we cooked, I had to make two emergency runs to the general store as we realized we had neither propane nor graham crackers. But once we were restocked, fed and s’moresed, we headed to bed early, excited and nervous for the odyssey that lay ahead.

The grandest of all special temples of Nature

Written by Chaz on 28 September 2011

We woke up early on our second day in Yosemite, around 6:30, marking the beginning of a long, productive and somewhat unpleasant trend of our beginning our days between 4 and 7 a.m. We hopped in Dorothy and headed down to the Wawona Hotel to “borrow” their wireless Internet for a pressing need: securing permits for the trail up Yosemite’s famous Half Dome. Though most are reserved months in advance, the Park Service releases a few each morning at seven for use the next day, and so by 7:02, we were back in Dorothy, permits successfully reserved.

After two attempts, I was able to make us coffee using our camping stove and percolator (both worked flawlessly for the rest of the trip). We stopped by the campground’s amphitheater to ask some questions a park ranger about our plan for the day. Her coffee setup put ours to shame.

At the ranger’s advice, we hurried into Yosemite Valley to leave Dorothy and catch a bus back to Glacier Point, where we would begin hiking back down into the valley via the Panorama Trail and the Mist Trail. Unfortunately, by the time we got to Yosemite Lodge, the bus was completely full. We pled our case to the very friendly bus driver and before long, we were on our way to Glacier Point in the most comfortable seats on the bus: two white towels in the center aisle.

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The bus driver, Charles, kept us entertained on the drive with a very interesting narration of the park’s history, botany and geology. By the time we arrived, we were already hungry again, so we fueled up with some Clif bars before heading down the trail to begin our nearly nine-mile hike.

The hike took us around the edge of Yosemite Valley to Illilouette Fall, the first of three huge waterfalls we saw on our hike, with sweeping views of Yosemite Valley, Half Dome and the other two waterfalls along the way.

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John Muir, who fought to preserve and protect Yosemite as a national park, called Yosemite Valley “the grandest of all special temples of Nature.” As we began to explore, I started to see what impressed him so much.

We stopped at a beautiful overlook just past the waterfall for our packed lunch: turkey, muenster and avocado sandwiches on whole wheat bread.

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After a couple more miles across the valley ridge, we stopped at the top at Nevada Fall, where just a few hundred feet before the fall’s precipitous drop is a calm pool, ideal for a quick foot bath in the middle of a long hike. We stopped and had a snack and relaxed our feet. At this point, we were nearly directly in Half Dome’s shadow, though the trail to the summit winds around through the forest to ascend one of its hidden sides.

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From Nevada Fall, we began descending back into the valley, passing Vernal Fall on our way. Vernal Fall is a very popular destination if you’re going to do just one hike out of the valley, so the trail began to get significantly more crowded. The views remained spectacular.

We wound down the Mist Trail’s thousands of stone steps back into the valley, through the mist from the fall that gives the trail its name.

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We made it back to the valley in one tired piece, and after picking up a couple things at the general store in the valley, we headed to the visitor center to get advice about our hike up Half Dome. The ranger in the campground had told us to start the 18-mile hike at sunrise or earlier, and we were hoping to get a few more tips. As we walked up to the counter, we saw that the weather board indicated a 30 percent chance of thunderstorms for the next day. I pointed this out to the volunteer on duty and told her we had Half Dome permits.

“Well, if there is lightning, do not go on Half Dome,” she deadpanned. “You will die.”

Scared but not deterred, we decided to get as early a start as possible the next day to maximize our chances of a death-free experience. As we left the valley, we stopped at Tunnel View, a scenic overlook named for the long highway tunnel to which it is adjacent and owes its construction. A fellow tourist took a wonderful picture of us in front of the valley’s splendor.

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We hopped back in Dorothy and hightailed it to the Mariposa Grove, a grove of enormous giant sequoia trees. We were only able to spend a few minutes there because we were quickly losing daylight, but we got a good glimpse, included one fallen sequoia that has been there for centuries, preserved by the trees’ natural composition.

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We drove back to Wawona and kicked off dinner with an appetizer of hummus and carrots, before Emmy whipped up some chicken sausage and vegetables on our trusty stove. After our long hike, it tasted just about heavenly. I made a fire, and we roasted marshmallows for s’mores.

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After dinner, we began preparing our extensive supplies for the next day’s voyage, and we went to bed under the stars before long.

Back in the north

Written by Chaz on 10 July 2011

Ah, Sweden.

My trip so far has been the perfect counterpoint to our month in Asia: calm, quiet and relaxing. I have lots of great things to say about our trip, but those three adjectives do not come to mind immediately.

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IMG_2784The flight over the Atlantic seemed ridiculously short compared to our flights to and from Asia. I had watched part of a movie and slept a little bit, and hey, we were getting ready to land. After a confusing trip through the Paris airport, I found myself in a glass pavilion that closely resembled an airport terminal designed for Lilliputians. I grabbed a quick bite to eat — goat cream cheese, mountain sausage, and salad on a baguette — and made my way onto the flight to Stockholm. I slept for most of the flight, missed my chance to have coffee and thus arrived in Sweden a little out of sorts. But I quickly recovered when I was reminded of the real reason I studied abroad here.

ABBA, living legends

My contact family met me at the airport and whisked me through the Swedish countryside to their summer cottage in Lögla, nestled in Stockholm’s pride and joy, its skärgård, or archipelago. Hundreds of small islands protected the city for centuries, and today they make Stockholmers’ favorite vacation spot. Anna, my contact mother, said she doesn’t like to go abroad for vacation during the summer because Sweden is just so nice at this time of year. Their summer house is a perfect getaway: only an hour from the city, but it feels like a different world entirely.

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I jumped right back into Swedish traditions with a fika, or coffee break. Fika is coffee and a little snack — in this case, cheese and bread to make smörgåsar, Swedish open-faced sandwiches, and a delicious variant on the traditional kanelbullar, Swedish cinnamon rolls. The coffee made me a real human again, and the little snack made me a real Swede again.

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After a quick swim in the Baltic Sea (it’s not cold, it’s refreshing!), we had a great dinner of beef and vegetables straight from the grill, plus young Swedish potatoes and a fresh salad. Before I knew it, it was nine o’clock, but the light hadn’t diminished at all, thanks to Sweden’s northern location. As we sat in their yard, enjoying our food and conversation, I felt like I was in a place very near to paradise.

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We followed dinner with a homemade pie made of blueberries, freshly picked from right near their house, and crumbled oatmeal dough on top, followed by a healthy dollop of vanilla sauce. It was fantastic. Enough has been said about the importance of ingredients on this blog, but truly, they make or break a dish.

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After some more conversation, reading and relaxing, I finally headed up to bed after midnight, at which point it still wasn’t completely dark. During the summer, it never gets pitch black dark in Sweden. It gets to the darkest part of twilight around eleven, and then the darkest part of sunrise by two, and everything starts all over again.

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I slept like a baby thanks to the Isakssons’ terrific hospitality, dreaming of midnight sun and pickled herring.

To market, to market

Written by Emmy on 24 June 2011

My favorite thing to do in a new city is just to walk around. Observing the people, hearing the language and taking in all the sights and smells is a perfect way to get a sense of the the culture, the city and the people living in it. Throughout our trip, we have done quite a bit of walking. We have the blisters — and one pair of broken shoes — to prove it. But seeing the streets has been amazing, especially since many of them are covered in streetside markets.

We market-hopped extensively in Bangkok, and I was excited to see how the frenzied Thai streets looked up north. Our first visit was to Chiang Mai’s Warorot Market. The narrow alleyways packed with everything from raw meat to t-shirts to spools of ribbon were not dissimilar from many of the anonymous street markets we saw in Bangkok. Street signs are not so popular in Thailand. It was not uncommon for us to have no idea where we were, and though Chiang Mai and Warorot were more manageable than Bangkok, we would probably never have made it out of the maze of shops and tuk-tuks were it not for our trusty map.

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In Chiang Mai, the guidebooks all rave about the Night Bazaar. Every night, starting at about 6 p.m., merchants of every kind set up stalls inside a few freestanding buildings, as well as throughout the surrounding streets and alleyways. Hawking jewelry, scarves, housewares, food and every other possible item you could think of, they beckon to all passersby. Our hotel in Chiang Mai was just blocks from the Night Bazaar, and I had sort of assumed when we picked it that we would wind up walking through the market to go everywhere. As it turns out, the market was filled with more tourist junk than real items, and it was disorganized mayhem, not quite the organized chaos of Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market.

Nancy Chandler’s rendition of Chiang Mai’s night bazaar

On Sundays, everything is different. One of Chiang Mai’s most motorcycle-and-tuk-tuk-congested streets is shut down to traffic and from 4 p.m. until midnight, merchants line the sidewalks. The Sunday Walking Market, as it is known, is frequented by as many locals as tourists. Many of the stalls are staffed by representatives of retail stores, peddling their merchandise in a more visible arena. The stalls also seemed to have a more thematic organization, with jewelry in one place, pillows and posters down a particular side street, and Buddha statues down another. And of course, there’s a food court or two.

The market stretches for countless blocks and for several hours. After a little while, Chaz left to get a massage and I continued perusing the market stalls. This marked one of the first times on our trip we separated. In Bangkok, the logistics of relocating each other seemed too daunting. Even in smaller Chiang Mai, we had a very precise meeting place and contingency plan. That left me with over an hour to take in all that the colorful Walking Market had to offer.

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Walking through the market by myself, I observed an insane number of jewels and scarves. Like I learned in Hong Kong at the jade market, few items are what their sellers profess them to be. The jade is usually just green plastic and Thai silk is rarely more than shiny cotton. The mantra of “what you see is what you get” is an appropriate mindset for the marketplace. Though I picked up a shirt (discounted because I am “pretty lady”) and a Hello Kitty item or two, the focus of my market-going was less on shopping and more on seeing.

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The market was filled with performers, including an official stage with little Thai girls dressed in outfits remarkably similar to those I wore in my four-year-old tap-dancing performances. What was somewhat disturbing though were the young children playing musical instruments among the shops. These kids were working for tips, and it was hard to discern whether they had been put up to it by their parents and whether they would ever see the money. With all the fun and festivity of Thailand, it was at moments easy to forget the realities of the developing nation we were in, but these kids were a definite reminder.

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The other markets we visited in Chiang Mai were less official. Among them was the Eastern Fruits Festival, a series of temporary tents housing dragonfruit, durian and the other exotic specialties of the region. Because it was smack in the middle of the city, we cut through the festival to walk elsewhere during the daytime, when sellers were just setting up their produce, and at night, when traditional Thai dancers came out to shake their stuff.

One morning, as we paused in front of a pad thai saleswoman so I could discretely take her picture (it never gets old), a group of schoolgirls stopped us. Having been warned so many times about marketplace scams — and narrowly avoiding a couple of them — we had a pretty heightened level of skepticism about any natives who approached us, but the girls seemed totally innocent and authentic. Armed with a tape recorder and a list of questions, they told us that they were students of English and they wanted to know where we were from and what we thought of Chiang Mai, among other things. The whole encounter reminded me of an almost identical interview I participated in for English students in Barcelona. (Both times I told the natives I thought their food was delicious.) At the end of our Thai interview, the girls asked to take a picture with us and we agreed — as long as we could have our own copy too.

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Our final notable street encounter took place on the walk back to our hotel on our final night in Chiang Mai. A quiet nondescript street by day, the road linking our hotel to “downtown” Chiang Mai took a darker turn at night. Go-go bars lined the entire walk, and each seemed to be identical to the next: staffed by young Thai girls and frequented by older Western men. The whole thing was a little unsettling. But in the midst of the mayhem was a cute little stall that we passed most nights, advertising cheap, homemade wine by the glass. To his credit, Chaz suggested we stop there one of the first nights, but it wasn’t until the last night, when we were walking back to the hotel and noticed a young Western couple sipping their wine, that I finally agreed to stop.

The pair of Canadians was vacationing in Thailand before beginning the school year as teachers in Bangladesh. The girl, Kat, had taught for a year in Chiang Mai previously and used to visit the wine stall regularly. Run by a Thai couple, the stand offers strawberry, ginseng, lychee and longan wine, all of which are on the sweet side. We sampled three of the four flavors — the longan was my favorite — but Kat warned that the wines tend to vary from bottle to bottle.

The proprietors took our photo and took down our names, a tradition repeated with all of the stall’s customers. So once again, we decided it would be only appropriate to take away keepsake photos of our own.

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We also took away a keepsake bottle, but because of our concerns about continuing to travel with it, it had to be consumed.

Quiz night in Chiang Mai

Written by Emmy on 22 June 2011

On one of our first nights in Chiang Mai, we found the city’s big expat community and channeled our inner competitive selves at quiz night at U.N. Irish Pub.

I love a good trivia contest and was very excited about our prospects for Thursday’s competition. However, we were less successful than I might have hoped. After the first two rounds, we had dropped to last place.

Here are some possible explanations as to why:

  • For one, we were the youngest people in the room (except for one table of 20-somethings, but they were far away and not that invested in the game). We also had the smallest team.
  • For the most part, everyone else appeared to be a regular, so that was working against us too. How could we compete with teams that had names like “Chardonnay Sipping Socialists”? (Our name was Absurdity Checkpoint, in case there was any confusion about that.)
  • I thought the geography category would be a strong point for us. I didn’t account for the fact that we were halfway around the world and the reality that our knowledge is a bit, well, Americentric.
  • Nearly every movie and musical artist referenced came into their prime long before we were born. Our one saving grace: What 1970s pop sensation has a palindrome for its name, and for a bonus point, which of their billboard-topping hits is ALSO a palindrome? (See below.)

  • One of the final rounds was based on a handout. Every question consisted of three definitions and we were required to provide the word that fit all three. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Well, you try coming up with a word that simultaneously means a compartment, reddish-brown and a long howl. (We scored a 2 out of 10 on this particular round. Even the team that jokingly named themselves “Damn the handout” beat us.)

We ended the game in last place, with less than half the points that the winning team had. But here in Chiang Mai, there is such a thing as A for effort. We were awarded the Triers’ Prize: a pitcher of beer.