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Exploring the countryside

Written by Chaz on 23 August 2012

We rose relatively earlier on my first day back in Lögla, having planned to make a trip to Linnés Hammarby, a botanical garden that was once the summer home of Carl Linneaus. Linneaus is the mastermind behind the modern system of categorizing plants and animals. It was another beautiful day in the Swedish countryside, and I felt a bit like the family in “Little Miss Sunshine” as the wide-open sunny landscape rolled by outside.

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We arrived at Linnés Hammarby and signed up for a tour of his house before walking around a bit on the grounds. There was a vegetable garden and a pasture of horses and sheep. Interestingly, the symbol shown on the sign below, also engraved on the command key of millions of Macintosh keyboards, originated in Sweden. The command key originally featured only the Apple logo, but Steve Jobs felt that was an overuse of the company’s logo. Its replacement is a Scandinavian symbol for a tourist attraction, and Apple designer Susan Kare found it in a symbol dictionary and decided to adopt it. The symbol thus took on a life of its own.

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We returned to Linneaus’ house, where we were led through its rooms by a very well-intentioned tour guide whose English left something to be desired. I think I could have understood her better had she spoken Swedish. After our tour into the Sweden of a few hundred years ago, we were ready, of course, for a fika. We returned to the cafe at the garden’s entrance, and were soon enjoying a platter of sweets: a chokladboll, or chocolate ball; a monster-sized kanelbulle that reminded all present of Cafe Saturnus; carrot cake; and a nut tart. And coffee all around.

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After our tasty stop, we took a walk through Linneaus’ own garden, filled with the many flowers that he so carefully categorized. The grounds were beautiful, and Anna suggested making a visit an annual tradition.

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Leaving the garden, we drove to the nearby city of Uppsala, home of Sweden’s oldest university, founded in 1477 and considered one of the best in Europe. Even though we had just had a fika, we beelined to Ofvandahls konditori for lunch. In spite of their extremely tempting pastry case, we all ordered baguette sandwiches — a few of salami and Brie and others of ham and cheese — and of course more coffee.

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We took a stroll through old Uppsala, and a guy from Denver picked me out of our group to ask me directions, hesitatingly asking me if I spoke English. I guess my cover was blown. It was especially amusing since he could have just asked any Swede, all of whom speak English nearly as well as I do.

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We walked up to the university library and stopped in at the exhibit of the Silver Bible, Sweden’s most valuable book and one of the best remaining examples of the ancient Gothic language. As we entered the exhibit, I realized it actually wasn’t my first time there. I had visited with my mother during my first visit to Sweden.

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After visiting the library, we returned to the car and set off in the direction of the archipelago, stopping along the way for groceries. We had a simple but wonderful dinner of korvar, the Swedish hot dogs, complete with fresh onions, peppers, roasted onions (very popular on korvar) and the delicious Swedish strong mustard. Though it wasn’t fancy, the meal was great, and at this point in the trip, the simple pleasure of another meal outside under the evening sun with my family was perfect.

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Nils, who had stayed behind in Stockholm to work, arrived after dinner on a bus, and we had a delicious strawberry cake (and coffee) once he got there. We sat around talking for a while over dessert, nearly entirely in Swedish.

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Anna had discovered that the only rebroadcast on Swedish public television of the Allsång performance we had attended was at 2:45 in the morning, so in order to see whether we had actually been shown on the broadcast, we dutifully stayed up to watch. We passed the time by playing cards — I tried to teach spades, but didn’t get very far — until the film “Little Children” came on SVT. After half-heartedly following the extremely creepy film, the Allsång broadcast finally began, and thanks to the fairly distinctive pattern of the shirt I had worn, I spotted myself not once but three times. (You can see the episode for yourself on SVT’s website.)

Tired beyond words but delighted to have become a Swedish television star, I headed off to bed shortly afterwards.

Happy 2012 from the other end of the globe

Written by Emmy on 21 March 2012

We fled the big city on the morning of New Year’s Eve in an attempt to escape the urban heat and anticipated insanity. We started toward the coast and toward the famous Chilean city of Valparaiso, or “Valpo” as the locals call it.

Valpo is one of the most lauded Pacific coast beach cities, but it is also the major shipping port of the region, adding to our collection of epic container ship sightings.

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IMG_8198The hillside beach town is renowned for its elevators, bringing you from street level up to the top of the mountains. The elevators are a bit rickety and don’t look like they’ve been updated since they were built in the early 1900s.

We took a jaunt up the hill for the cost of mere pennies in order to check out the scenery. The streets were oddly quiet — everyone was inside resting for the New Year’s celebrations of the evening ahead — and so we walked the quiet, empty streets and observed all the graffiti.

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The weather was cold and dreary, and the hills were all fogged over. The mist in the air was throwing a chill into our summer day. We were all starting to get hungry, and what better item to cure the foggy blues than a grilled cheese with tomato. We ordered five of them.

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IMG_8218We took the elevators up and down in a few other spots along the cliffs, but the crowds were getting pretty heavy. Valpo is renowned for its New Year’s fireworks and people begin lining the hills with beach chairs and coolers hours before the fireworks are set to begin in order to claim good viewing spots. Said coolers and lawn chairs all come in the elevators, holding up the line to get to the top.

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We forewent the elevators because the wait was too long, plus we had left the rented SUV in a situation that seemed less than guaranteed. So we picked up the car and started up one of the big hills. Though the hill roads are all marked as being two-way streets, that’s more funny than true. So as we started up a narrow, narrow hill, another car — directly facing us — was starting down. Uh oh.

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My father masterfully guided the car down backward. I hopped out to help — and to document — but we also had another guide on hand. The looks of fear on all passengers’ faces really speak to the terrifying nature of the straight backward drop.

We made it off the hill and back onto the main road, thankfully in one piece. We continued onward along the coast. Though Valpo is THE New Year’s destination, we were looking for something a bit less scene-y. So we continued driving along on a road that looked not too dissimilar from the Pacific coast many hundreds of miles north.

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The drive was shorter and a little less harrowing than the version Chaz and I undertook on the northern Pacific. The Liss family arrived in the charming town of Zapallar, a far cry from the developed and bustling Valpo. We arrived just before dinnertime and so dropped our stuff quickly in order to make a quick trip down to the waterfront.

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The coastline was raggedy and the path curved up and down the hill, snaking past some of the more spectacular houses I have ever seen.

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We came back to our hotel and sat down for the New Year’s Eve banquet dinner, which began with pisco sours. Pisco is the national liquor of Chile and we had yet to sample it. I can’t say it was my favorite drink I’ve ever had, but how can you not entertain local customs?

Our fancy New Year’s dinner gave us a chance to get out of our beach hiking outfits and into the one fancy dress each of us brought on the trip.

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Dinner had a seafood focus, appropriately. We began with a platter of various customary appetizers, including shrimp on toast, bruschetta, spherical crab cakes and another form of shrimp.

The first course was a choice of two items: salmon with avocado or a seafood and potato cake. We ordered some of each in order to get the full sampling.

After appetizers it became far too dark to take photos — perils of outdoor eating by candlelight. I had a lobster tail, served in its natural form straight from the ocean, more or less.

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After we finished dinner, we headed down to the beach along with every other dinner guest and neighborhood resident. The town of Zapellar was said to put on an epic fireworks show, and that they did. The fireworks were alarmingly close to the shore where we were standing, making for both a beautiful show and a mildly terrifying one at that. It was quite the way to ring in 2012.

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The next morning, we headed back down to the beach where an aggressive clean-up effort was already underway. We took a long and rambling walk around the shore, winding back up through the “town.” The only open establishments were a handful of small grocery stores. All the activity was down on the beach itself.

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No food is allowed on the public beaches in Zapellar, a clear drive toward the one or two restaurants lining the beach. We paid a visit to the one busting with people (which also happened to be the one closest to us). We enjoyed another round of crab “cake” with a side of fresh avocado and tomatoes. Sitting beachside, feet in the sand, with our fresh crab soufflé was quite a way to begin the new year.

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Full from lunch, we piled back into the SUV to head to the Santiago airport. We had more than enough time to get there; in fact, we were poised to get back there much, much earlier than necessary. But the seemingly simple drive became a bit more complicated than initially assumed as the highways started to change names and then failed to mark the turn-off for the airport. We pulled off the highway a few times to ask directions, pulled back on, and repeated.

Finally, we got ourselves on the path to the airport and had only one stop left: filling the car with gas before returning it. We pulled into a gas station and the attendant filled the car. Once the SUV was again raring to go, we handed over a credit card to pay. It was rejected. We tried another. Rejected. Clearly the issue was with the machine, given that at least some of these cards had been used earlier that day. Also an issue: we were down to about 20 Chilean pesos. We offered dollars, but that was not kosher. (Mind you, this whole debate was taking place in Spanish.) Finally, we settled on a solution: she would follow me to an ATM across the street, I would extract the cash and then we would move on about our day. By the end of the debacle, we’d become close friends and avoided what could have been a disaster of sorts.

And so with one more cultural transgression under our belts, we boarded the plane and returned to New York, another successful foreign adventure well-spent.

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.

So if it’s 11 a.m. here…

Written by Emmy on 17 June 2011

There is much confusion that results from being on the other side of the world. For one, everyone here drives on the left side of the road — something I ordinarily only associate with the Brits. The language and the foods are, as previously discussed, so foreign from anything I’ve ever known. But perhaps the most unnerving thing about being so far from home is the extremity of the time difference.

When I was abroad in Spain, I adjusted to thinking that lunch for me meant breakfast for my family. But 11 or 12 hours is a whole other ball game. I spend the whole day gallivanting around Thailand, and everyone I know is asleep the entire time. I wake up in the morning and have a full email inbox, exhibits of a day’s worth of activity. And trying to figure out the time when 16-hour airplane rides are thrown into the mix? Forget about it.

I keep thinking of this video, and hope it will help to illustrate the brainteaser I feel like I keep trying to work out:

Gone, but not forgotten

Written by Emmy on 12 June 2011

Tonight we visited the Suan Lum Night Bazaar. We were six months too late.

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First sights of Bangkok

Written by Chaz on 12 June 2011

We were feeling generous on Thursday morning, and as a result, we let ourselves sleep until nearly ten before we rolled out of bed and down to our hotel’s breakfast. Neither of us had had a sufficient night’s sleep since graduation, so we figured we deserved a little catch-up. Our hotel’s breakfast turned out to be surprisingly good. We order a hot entree each afternoon from a choice of Thai and Western breakfasts on a little yellow card, and there’s also a very generous selection of fruit and bread. We made it out of the hotel a little after eleven and took a taxi to the royal palace.

The palace was an incredible mixture of gilded statues and ancient architecture, easily besting any description of the site that any guidebook could have made. We were dazzled by sight after sight of ornately decorated temple and figure.

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As we drove up to the temple compound, we were waved into a receiving line of taxis, and welcomed by a guy who directed us to an entrance. At the “entrance,” we were informed that the palace was closed for the day, and an alternative destination was suggested to us. Though we had just been warned at our hotel about this common tourist scam, we would have recognized it anyway. The only thing that surprised me was that this rudimentary scam, documented in every guidebook, is so common and happens exactly as they say. Once we turned around and found the right entrance to the palace, it turned out to be open, of course.

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One highlight of the palace was the emerald Buddha, a relatively small sculpture of which photography is unfortunately prohibited. After we saw his temple, we visited a museum connected to the palace in which we saw his attire for the “cold season” and the “rainy season.” According to the exhibit, he’s currently wearing his “warm season” garb, so it was not on display.

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When we had had enough baking in the scorching Thai sun, we decided to set out for Khao San Road, which is supposed to be popular with backpacking tourists for its street food stalls. Already pretty hungry for lunch, it turned out to be a longer journey than we thought, and we were only able to find our way (and even then, barely) thanks to a random man on the street who gave us unsolicited directions. Our skepticism already inflamed from our experience outside the temple, we hurried away from him, believing there to be some kind of scam in play, but his directions ended up being very helpful. After sort of finding Khao San Road but then getting completely lost, we eventually found a little restaurant on a street corner. Though we had no idea whether we were anywhere near Khao San Road, our lunch was delicious: pad see ew and papaya salad, both with chicken.

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We hopped a cab back to the hotel, our first sightseeing adventure in Thailand solidly under our belts.

Touchdown in Thailand

Written by Emmy on 11 June 2011

IMG_0526We left Hong Kong Wednesday morning in the pouring rain, returning to the airport on the express train that we had taken in total bewilderment days earlier. We checked in with no problems at Terminal 2, and then somewhat nonsensically, had to commute to Terminal 1 for our flight. We quickly passed through security and customs, but I was then aggressively approached by a woman in an official-looking uniform. Normally, such an event might be unnerving in a security setting, but the exact same thing had happened to me the day before when leaving Hong Kong to go to Macau.

A woman had walked up to me while I was waiting for Chaz to clear passport control, and she asked if I could answer a few questions. After years of conducting polls for The Herald, I have a soft spot for surveying, and I also figured it was a bad idea to say no while still in view of someone who could easily detain me. The questions were all pretty benign: What country are you from? Have you ever been to Hong Kong before? What is the purpose of your visit? I was asked for my five-digit ZIP code, leaving me to imagine some Hong Kong official looking at the results quizzically and thinking, “Where the hell is Mill Neck, N.Y.?” I was also asked who I was traveling with, and by this time Chaz had caught up to me. I responded, “A friend.” The woman looked at me knowingly and said, “Oh, you mean boyfriend.” “No,” I said, pointing at the “none of the above” option. “Friend.” She apologetically changed it and dismissed me shortly after.

Our flight to BangkokWhen I was approached yet again — this time in the Hong Kong airport — I told the woman I had already taken her survey. She insisted I take it again. The only answer that changed was that because I had left Hong Kong to go to Macau, I had now technically visited HK twice. Because I knew what the questions were, I began to answer the survey questions before she asked them, loudly replying “SIGHTSEEING” before I had been asked why I was visiting Hong Kong. The experience reminded me of my dealings with Julie, Amtrak’s automated answer service. I’ve yelled “I ALREADY HAVE A RESERVATION” enough times to know the drill.

Finally, after surveys and finding a food establishment that would sell us coffee for the minimal HK money we had left, we boarded our flight. We received our pre-ordered meals and a “comfort kit” we had pre-ordered mostly out of curiosity. (It turned out to be an Air Asia blanket, among other things.) We landed in Bangkok and managed to beat most of our plane to customs, but waited in what turned out to be an epic line for reasons we couldn’t quite discern. But we made it through, gathered our baggage and located the representative from our hotel who had come to pick us up.

We drove into downtown Bangkok with a fantastic soundtrack: a CD of pop songs from the U.S., all slowed down dramatically in tempo and sung by a woman with a soothing voice. Hits included Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” Usher’s “O.M.G.” and Katy Perry’s “California Gurls.” We couldn’t figure out whether the CD had been put on for our benefit, or if it was the musical choice of our middle-aged male driver.

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Driving into the Thai capital, it was difficult to get a good sense of geography, mostly because the city is so sprawling. Home to about 7 million, Bangkok is enormous. Traffic can get pretty grueling, and according to Chaz’s uncle Bruce, cab drivers used to have to carry bladder bags. Things have improved drastically in the last 10 years, mostly following the construction of the SkyTrain. I imagined something like the Disney World Monorail, but the SkyTrain is really just an elevated subway, running through the more developed and bustling parts of the city. The train system is rapidly expanding: Our Lonely Planet book from a couple years ago shows the line ending two stops before it does now. The current maps displayed on the trains, on the other hand, show stops that don’t yet exist. Our hotel is at the end of one of the two Skytrain lines, which makes it infinitely more accessible than it might otherwise be.

IMG_0660Eager to explore, we took the aforementioned Skytrain to Silom Road, which the guidebooks call the Wall Street of Bangkok. We were also eager to eat, and pounced on a little cafe — chosen simply because the noodles and fresh ingredients on display on the street looked so appetizing. We had two small dishes, ordered, eaten and paid for in rapid-fire fashion. The two dishes plus two water bottles barely rang up to $5, though the price did sound high when quoted in Thai baht (the exchange rate is 30 to 1). We walked out satisfied, but not full. Luckily, we immediately happened upon a woman and her barbecue… she happily sold us a little bag of spring rolls. She asked if we wanted spicy sauce and when we vigorously nodded yes, she handed over a little baggie tied up with a rubber band. We ate our snack on the side of the road and then cleaned up thanks to the baby wipes my mom suggested I carry around.

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IMG_0668We wandered around, walking through a big park where countless Thai men were exercising. We strolled up a busy road filled with international embassies and found the American one, enormous and behind barbed wire. We tried to go in — I wanted a map, among other things — but were told that they only see American citizens before 11 a.m. Rude. I also almost got taken down for trying to photograph the embassy. Sorry!

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We walked around for a while more before taking the Skytrain back to our hotel to clean up for dinner. We chose a location that appeared in one of our guidebooks, wrote down the address and asked the hotel to help us get a taxi. Cabs are everywhere and incredibly inexpensive here. The only problem: We absolutely cannot communicate with the drivers, beyond words such as “meter” and “stop here.” We have a little business card with our address in Thai and the people at our hotel are very helpful, but basically we can only take taxis when going to or from the hotel.

It took a little work to find our restaurant of choice — it was located behind a market that took a some effort to get through. Ban Khun Mae turned out to be quite lovely, and filled with a combination of tourists and locals — a good sign for both authentic food and communication possibilities. We were overwhelmed by the lengthy menu, with dishes we recognized listed alongside totally foreign dishes. A man at the table across from us leaned over and asked if we needed help. “You’re taking too long to decide,” he said. He turned out to be very nice and conversational, and offered advice about what color curry to choose. He and his wife hailed from India and their tablemate, who helped flag down a waiter for us, was a native Thai. When we told the man where we were from, he said, “Oh, New York? My daughter is a housewife there.”

We eventually ordered and were promptly served spicy papaya salad (a favorite Thai item of mine), little pastry cups with minced chicken and corn, chicken with cashews and chicken in red curry. Chicken with cashews is something I often order in American Thai restaurants and this version tasted familiar, but tangier and a bit more spicy.

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After our delicious meal, we navigated the politics of hailing a cab, handed over our business card and returned to the hotel for bed.