New Zealand: Wellington and Queenstown

In November 2013, I put my painting on hold for a couple of weeks and traveled to a place that has been on my list for years: beautiful New Zealand.

While it has always been on my “someday” list, 2013 pushed it into my “now” list. My second cousin from Russia, Sergey (who is in his 20’s and whom I have not seen since he was a toddler) picked up a year-long gig, working for a Russian Embassy in Wellington. Thus, perfect time to travel to Middle Earth presented itself: I had to go there and reunite with a relative, of course! Promptly, Kurt and I purchased our airfare.  And after 22 total hours of flying time, we were there.

We started off at Wellington, where we met up with Sergey and explored the capital for a couple of days. Our explorations included a fascinating free tour of New Zealand Parliament (a must!), museums, a street food festival, a Balkan band concert, miles of walking, driving around nearby coastline, and hiking up a few hills.

From Wellington we flew to Queenstown, New Zealand’s “adventure central”. The natural beauty of this place is just stunning.  This, for example, was a view from our hotel deck:

When visiting “adventure central” you must start off with adrenaline-inducing adventure, of course! Queenstown area offers so, so many options, but a free fall into a canyon has long been on my bucket list – hence it was time for the Shotover Canyon Swing! Here is how Canyon Swing works: you free fall off a platform for 60 meters, and then, hanging over a river, you swiiiiing! Like a big pendulum.

I admit, I was a little nervous during the 15-minute ride to the canyon, but I practiced my jump in my head many times, so it was going to be ok. That feeling of “ok” lasted until I got harnessed up, stepped to the edge, and looked down. Around the same time, the skies opened up, and a downpour started. And so – my legs froze and refused to move. I was being told that it was safe to go, my logic agreed, but all the instincts in my body were screaming – no way! I even asked one of the guys to give me a push, but he told me: “You’re on your own, lady”. So, timidly, I jumped forward. Whoa!!! There is nothing, nothing like a feel of free fall into a rapidly approaching ground. It was amazing. And that downpour? During my flight, I never even noticed it.

If you have gone this far, you may as well do a second jump – right? – so my second free fall was done “backwards”. This time, while falling, I looked up at a rapidly diminishing jumping platform, an equally thrilling rush. And then the rush is over, and you swing over a river surrounded by stunning beauty, without a care in the world, and you wish you could bottle that feeling and keep with you forever. Sergey chose to fall into a canyon while “sitting” on a plastic chair. (Yeah, they have that jump option available too. Those guys are insane). Kurt preferred to just take our flying photos, and maybe collect my life insurance. (well, that second plan failed, clearly).

Queenstown adventure continues: the following day, we booked a scenic flight to Milford Sound. We went in a tiny 6-person plane, operated by Glenorchy Air. Flying over New Zealand fjords, in such proximity to mountaintops, was jaw-dropping.

In Milford  Sound, we cruised all the way to the ocean and back, and then – my favorite part – Milford Sound kayaking. Kayaking got even more magical – as we spotted several Fjordland Crested penguins casually cleaning their little wings and then jumping into water after some fish. These are some of the rarest penguins in the world, and to see them while KAYAKING – most likely a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence!

The rest of our time in Queenstown land was allocated to beautiful hikes.  In the evenings hiked the  Queenstown Hill track ,  part of Ben Lomond Track, and then spent a long day walking up and back down of the Routeburn track portion in Glenorchy area.

And after Queenstown area, we headed up the South Island coast. Go here to read Part 2 of my New Zealand trip review!

Graffiti in Southern Spain

When people ask me what inspires my paintings, I can’t just name one thing, or one artist anymore. Yes, back in my very-very young days it was Dali, and Van Gogh, and such masters; but now a variety of things, like alignments of buildings along a street, or certain colors in the sky, or even a melody can create a cocktail of inspiration inside my head.

One thing I very often name though is graffiti I see when I travel abroad. Graffiti (or, street art) in certain countries is painted with such freedom, such creativity – and Spain has never disappointed in that regard. After all, stores in Barcelona hire graffiti artists to go to town on their metal doors so that pedestrians have something to gaze at along the quiet streets after stores close.

A few days ago I have returned from a wonderful trip to Southern Spain (particularly, Seville, Cordoba, and Granada). Here are some pictures of great wall / sign / gate embellishments I’ve collected during my time there.

(…Ok, this very first image is not graffiti. This is Jesus on a wall of a church in Sevilla. But what a beautiful street image nonetheless!)

 

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

March came and went, and with it a scary thing happened: I
turned 30. Well, maybe not so scary, but still – thirty! I’m not used to saying
that number yet. As Chicago tends to have still cold and glooomy weather in
March, it became my annual habit to take a mini vacation and celebrate my
birthday elsewhere – and this year we descended down to Mexico, specifically –
San Miguel del Allende.

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For the last several years, during Chicago’s Bucktown Art
Festival
, I had the pleasure of exhibiting across Berit and Pat, the owners of
J.P. Wilds Jewelry. They spend half a year, during the art festival season,
based in Madison, WI, and the other half – in their home in San Miguel. They
have been inviting us to visit them in Mexico for a few years, and we finally
took them up on their gracious offer!

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A few years ago, we visited Guanajuato – a neighbor/sister
city of San Miguel, and this time I knew to expect another town full of charm,
sun filled streets, fresh tortillas, and bright colored houses. San Miguel is
situated in a dessert, so the landscape and vegetaion here is somewhat similar
to Phoneix, AZ area – but because of its higher elevation, San Miguel has more
temerate climate with fewer blazing hot days.

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The house of Berit and Pat is so cozy, and so beautifully Mexican.
On our first evening here, they put me to work  (well, I offered to help!) – with preparing some raw
vegetable-based crackers that they sell to a neighborhood organic foods store.  These crackers get dehydrated
overnight, and in the morning they are ready for delivery and so delicious,
that I had a hard time not eating more than just a few of them.

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What I always loved about Mexico is that it is so close, but
yet so far. The flight is easy, but it trasports you into a different world –
much more slow paced, with less rules and regulations, bright, sunny, and
always friendly. The crackers don’t have to be approved by any FDA to be sold
in a corner store, either.

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The day after arrival was my birthday, and we set out to
explore the town. In the center of San Miguel is a zocalo (or, el jardin – as
locals refer to it) and the absolute gem of the city is the pink granite Cathedral (official name – Parroquia de San Miguel Arcangel), which
was built in 1800s, apparently from a european postcard photo. The church’s pink color changes its shade with sunlight. 

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Across from el jardin is a Starbucks – yep, even authentic
San Miguel couldn’t escape it, but this one wins the prize of being the most
gorgeous Starbucks I have ever visited. Very colonial décor, with a big
coutrtyard – wow. 

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San Miguel is not large and is very easy to navigate. It is
in a valley, with some very steep streets going outward. The town is also full
of American expats (who significantly drove up the real estate prices in the
area) – and it is amusing to watch the retired ones lazily move about the town
from el jardin, to a coffee shop, to a restaurant, only to repeat the same pattern
on the following day. Below are some street shots from our explorations.

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San Miguel is also full of artists – many immigrated from the States, but there is also a lot of authentic Mexican
talent. A short walk from Pat and Berit’s home, there is Fabrica La Aurora – a
big warehouse building that is an old textile factory that has been converted
into art galleries and artists’ studios. We spent a few hours here, exploring.
I enjoyed looking at so many paintings, and should have taken more photos. Here
is some art by Juan Ezcurdia, one of the
resident artists of Aurora who made quite a name for himself in San Miguel.

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To watch the sunset, Kurt and I lounged in one of several
bars near Jardin that have a rooftop deck, with some mandatory birdthay drinks!

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For birthday dinner, the four of us drove outside of the
city to Da Andrea – an italian restaurant operated out of a huge La Landeta hacienda which is
known for its excellend food. Da Andrea doesn’t have a menu – the chef verbally
tells you what he is preparing that day. This lady was actually making our
ravioli and gnochi from scratch!!!

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Needless to say, the restaurant did not disappoint – it was
a perfect birthday! (with some appetizing sunburn)

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The following day, we drove to swim in La Gruta – a series of outdoor pools and waterfalls fed by thermal hot springs just outside of San Miguel. I did not bring my camera there since
the plan was to be soaking in mineral-rich water all day. The greatest thing about La Gruta
springs is the grotto – a huge cave where you can relax in the warmest water. Trust me, this place is worth a visit!

Another day, another adventure. We wanted to spend a day
riding bikes through the surroundings, and Pat, who goes biking regularly,
gathered a fun group to show us the area. So, we rented some wheels. We started biking on the paved highway leading out of San Miguel, but
followed them off road and stayed on dirt roads for the rest of the day. My
butt, but being used to dirt road bike seat abuse, protested, but the pain was
worth it. We saw some Mexican country life that no tourists usually get to see.
For example, how often do you bike in the middle of nowhere and find an 18th century abandoned church??

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And here is the abandoned church’s ceiling, you can still make out the original designs.

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Here is a bridge that we crossed over a river, that is actually old railroad tracks:

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Here is an encounter with a farmer and his “family.” The
cows and sheep didn’t know rules of the road, but we eventually got around them.

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We biked through a town called Atotonilco, a small village with only one mail street, which is famous for its
beautiful white-washed pilgrimage church. I was interested in the fame of this tiny town and a Google search brought me to www.sacredsites.com, which says this about Atotonilco church:

“Thousands of Christians come each year to participate in religious exercises such as sleeping in stone cells on cold rock floors, crawling around the perimeter of the shrine on bare and bloody knees, wearing crowns of thorns, and flagellating themselves with whips. This is done for a variety of reasons. Many of the pilgrims feel they must experience some of the pain they imagine Christ felt during his carrying of the cross to hill of Golgatha, and his subsequent hanging on the cross. Local history recounts that from 1880 to the present times as many as 100,000 people a year have made pilgrimages to the shrine.”

Wow. There you have it. The interior of the church is quite beautiful:

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…and so is the exterior:

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And THIS local tradition even has Mexicans
scratching their heads: all the new male members of the church have to parade
around town in white veils. I respect their customs and all, but it was quite hilarious.

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And here’s a mandatory snack cooked right on the streets of Atotonilco – washed down with some fresh carrot juice.

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In the end of the day, Pat’s group – 3 guys in their 60s and
70s – left us in the dust. We rode about 40 miles on dirt roads, and towards
the end I slowed down to an embarrassing speed and told everyone not to wait on
me. My butt was numb by then. But once we finished the trail, had a cold beer
in our hands, and my butt came back to its senses, we were delightfully happy
with our day.

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The following day we went to El Carco del Ingenio, the botanical
gardens. Even through they are outside of the city, we decided to follow the
map and walk. It ended up being a longer walk than we expected, but that’s
ok. The botanical gardens themselves weren’t too impressive – well, unless you
like cacti… Lots of cacti. Pretty much, the same cacti that grows OUTSIDE of
the gardens (just my humble opinion – I don’t want to offend any botanists).

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But, hiding in the back part of the gardens’ trail, there is a
small, but beautiful canyon. Upon further exploration, we hiked down some rocks
and eventually noticed some metal… which ended up being a ladder all the way to
the bottom of the canyon! Yess! We climbed the ladder, of course, and were
granted with a nice little water oasis (and a small group of Mexican teenagers
jumping into that water from various rocks). It was such a fun detour from
otherwise plain botanical garden.

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By the way, that (very sturdy) ladder is hidden behind the sign that says
“danger.” This is NOT my legal advise, but going around the signs that say “danger” pays off sometimes!!!

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Our last couple of days of San Miguel were spent walking up
more steep streets, exploring city’s park, eating chocolate churros, tortas,
and breakfast crepes, taking in more of San Miguel’s views, sleeping in late,
and listening to mariachi and flamenco guitar performers outside in the jardin.

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And of course, I sketched the beautiful Cathedral:

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Well, sorry I couldn’t post about 300 additional photos that I took. It was a GREAT birthday vacation. I returned inspired by all the bright colors and ready to paint, and can’t wait to return there someday!

Vietnam: Hue

And so, we arrived to Hue. Hue was the capital of Vietnam from 1744 until the last emperor in 1945. The city was damaged greatly during American war (known to us as Vietnam war), but many landmarks remain intact.

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In the center of Hue is the Citadel, with Imperial City, inside of which is another Citadel with its forbidden Purple City which was reserved only for emperor and his family and servants. Around the Citadel, there’s a system of protective trench. And then there are these fishies in the waters around Forbidden City.

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Hue temperatures were extremely hot. We walked around the Citadel for a couple of  hours, looking for shade every few minutes to cool off. The Citadel is so large impressive that it would be easy to spend a whole day here.

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I’m very proud of this Citadel photo – check out the butterfly I caught in mid-flight!

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Luckily, in the evening the Hue cools down quickly and the air becomes pleasant. But before the night descended, we just wanted a swimming pool. And so we (Kurt, myself, and one of our travel companions, Dezbah) went to a public swimming pool where for an admission of 75 cents we were totally entertained by swimming laps in a communist-style Olympic pool. Vietnamese music blasted through the speakers. Guys and girls had to swim in separate sections, and being the only tourists there, we were a curious wonder for all the locals.

For dinner our group met up in a fancy mansion-style restaurant on the north side of Citadel and then, instead of taking a cab, we took an hour + walk back to our hotel, stopping for beer at a small café by the river.

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The next day, we hired a boat and went to see numerous pagodas along the Perfume River. Our “dragon boat” was small and Spartan, with plastic chairs and a lady guide who didn’t speak much English. The heat was unbearable again. And this is November, I can only imagine the summer season! We saw many beautiful pagodas, but the distances between them were long, and in this heat our 4 hour trip was 3 hours too long. Still, it was amazing to see all the river life and work that goes on here daily, despite the hellish heat.

 

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We couldn’t wait to get back to the shore, eat lunch and jump in the pool. This time, to swim we went to the fancy Imperial Hotel. You can pay $5 admission and access just about any pool in any hotel of Vietnam.

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The Imperial hotel also has a beautiful rooftop lounge, and from here the whole city view looks and feels a little bit like Europe. Just see for yourself. Of course, martinis were in order!

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During our second night in Hue, Kurt and I strayed from the group and ate dinner in a delicious Indian restaurant (I was ready for a break from noodles and spring rolls!). Then we went for a walk in the bar and gallery district, which was a very cute area and hopping and full of tourists. We had a drink in a hostel that charges $1 per night! For a dorm room. So don’t you ever think you need a huge budget to travel. I was trying to discover what is a special / delicious drink in Vietnam. They don’t drink Sake.  Their mojitos are… well… not made the way you would want them to taste in a hot climate. And then, we found it. Watermelon Vodka. Sounds gross at first, but it actually consists of a real iced / crushed watermelon with a little bit of regular vodka in it. Perfectly refreshing!

Overall we really enjoyed Hue. Many tourists bypass Hue because to them it appears to be a mediocre large city, and head straight to Hoi Ann. But we are so glad we stopped here.

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The view below is from out hotel balcony.

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How to survive an overnight bus ride in Vietnam

Our trip to Hue started with an overnight bus ride from Hanoi. Vietnamese sleeper buses are quite an experience, and are certainly not for everyone. So, where can I begin. First off, the beds are made for petite people, as most Vietnamese are fit or skinny, and shorter than the average Westerner. So, if you are very wide or very tall, you will be very uncomfortable. Second, the roads in Vietnam pretty bad. They are probably not the worst I’ve seen, but they can be paved, unpaved, or unevenly paved, the buses go slowly, and shake a lot. Third, there’s honking. LOTs of honking. And the bus drivers’ horn is so damn loud that you can forget about sleeping, especially if you are in the front of the bus. Fourth, there’s the bathroom. If the bus bathroom “works”, it is merely a hole. There is usually no toiler paper or soap. Fifth, there is AC. It either works too well, so you are freezing, or doesn’t work at all, so you are hot. And sixth, Vietnamese never, ever, waste space. If you get on the bus that is half empty, you better know that it will not depart until all seats and all the beds are filled. So, don’t use more than one blanket or you will be asked to forfeit it. And when the bus gets full and there’s no more room for luggage, guess  where the big luggage goes? On your “bed” with you. Oh, you think now the bus is full? Not so fast. A couple of straw mats go down on the floor and more local passengers get on, most likely riding a short distance on the discounted fare.

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And that’s the gist of Vietnamese bus riding. At least this was the case with our Camel Open Tour ticket. Funny enough, most of the passengers on the bus were European tourists. A British group could not handle the ride and after accusing driver of being drunk, got off the bus in the middle of nowhere (a stupid decision, I think, but to each its own). (Yes, the substitute driver did have a beer, but then he took a long nap, and then started driving. I think that is perfectly acceptable).

But basically, handling an overnight bus ride comes down to a list of things. 1). Earplugs. For honking. 2). Eye mask. The lights go on and off all the time as the bus stops for passengers. 3). Sleeping pill! Very important. A 7-hr Ambien did the trick for me. 4). Try to be closer to the back of the bus, but not the very back. 5). A jacket in case the AC gets you. 6). You will be asked to take your shoes off, but do put them on before going to the bathroom, or else you will regret it. I had all the necessary items with me, and miraculously slept like a baby. Waking up at 6-7 am just in time for our breakfast stop!

Vietnam: Ha Long Bay

In between our days in Hanoi, we took an overnight trip to Ha Long Bay. The tour consisted of a 3 hour bus ride to Ha Long city’s port then we got on the boat and after a short ride were in the middle of a natural wonder. Ha Long Bay is a grouping of over 3000 natural limestone islands (or islets), rising majestically from the waters of Gulf of Tonkin. This place is a huge tourist destination, and a Unesco World Heritage site. The limestone in this bay has gone through 500 million years of formation in different conditions and environments.

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But despite swarms of tourists, the boat tours here are so calm and peaceful (for now). Our big wooden boat glided gently to the central “area” while we ate delicious lunch (fish, fish, and more fish, with yummy local wine) admired views, and then later docked to take a cave tour.

 

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Here I am, sitting in the boat’s dining room, with Kurt’s friends, Andrew and Stephen. They’re the reason we went on this trip, months ago they sent us the email with an itinerary and we couldn’t resist!

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And this is my cozy boat room. I didn’t know what to expect when we were told of sleeping on a boat (and part of me didn’t mind dozing off in a sleeping bag under the stars) – but this was a pleasant surprise!

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And this is the boat’s upper deck, which seemed like the most relaxing place in the world.

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The cave tour at first seemed moderately interesting. The first room of the cave was medium sized and… pretty. But then we walked into the 2nd room and were amazed by the sheer size of this underground wonder. This cave was the size of a football field. It was illuminated by colored electric lights, and even though we walked on a paved path (I prefer unpaved hiking!!), the underground views were enjoyed by all.

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Outside of the cave, the “boat vendors” try to get your attention. These ladies must have super strong arms – their boats are not motorized and they spend their days chasing tourists on water!

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After the cave, we were taken to a “water village” for my favorite part – kayaking!!!! The water village is a settlement of houses (and boats) right here in the middle of Ha Long Bay. Its residents make money by selling fish and providing service to tourists (primarily, kayak / canoe rentals, food supplies and, I guess banking). Our guide, Tong, told us that they hardly ever step on land. Generations after generations of these villagers have made their home on water.

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Kayaking was beyond spectacular. My husband is not happy about this one as he is an avid kayaker, but due to work has missed this part of the trip. And of course, if didn’t help that later I would taunt him with Ha Long Bay photos. So, my kayaking partner was Andrew. We rode off into the pink sunset between the majestic limestone towers. I could spend days doing this.

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And after kayaking, out guide announced that “we will now go swimming!” . So they departed the village and anchored the boat in a different area, apparently designated for swimming. The only problem is, by now it was a pitch-black night. At first we wall hesitated – after all, we could barely see the water and all of its possible Asian creatures. But one by one, we jumped in the dark sea. It was very salty and very refreshing. I do love night swimming.

After dinner, all hung out on the upper deck, drank beer, and I chatted away, looking at the starts, with tourists from Europe and New Zealand. Back in my Boat room, falling asleep was very easy, as we rocked gently on the calm waters of Ha Long Bay.

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Waking up in this beauty was serene. Breakfast time was 7 am. This is why I LOVE jet lag. I can never, ever wake up at 6 on my own. But here in Vietnam it was a piece of cake. After breakfast, we went back to the “swimming area” for some daytime swimming.

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This time, since I could actually see the water, I got more courageous and started jumping off various parts of the boat, climbing up and finding higher and higher points for “take off.” Neither our guide nor the boat crew stopped me (what liability? I love it). Later in the shower, I found an unexpected present. Turns out during one of my jumps on the way back up, I caught a small fish with my swimsuit pants.  And I DID take it to the kitchen and asked them to cook it. For some reason my request was not granted… could it be the size?….

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One of my travel mates, Lydia, and I, managed to talk our guide into allowing us to go kayaking again. Since the 2nd kayaking event was not included in our tour, we had to pay a rental charge… about $3. And we were granted this amazing experience again, making our way in the water between limestone… oh, the memories….

And thus our Ha Long Bay experience came to an end. The boat took an hour to make its way back to the port. Our guide, who spoke very good English, told us stories of life in Vietnam. We ate lunch in Ha Long city – which is so much calmer, by the way, than Hanoi. And what was served for lunch? More delicious fish, of course. You better be a seafood eater if you come to Ha Long Bay. And then we took the 3 hour trip through countryside back to Hanoi.

Just a note about this photo, below. This is the same exact location pictured in a photo here, that I randomly found on Google months ago, when looking for striking images of Vietnam. It is funny how distant and dreamy it seemed then. And before I knew it, Ha Long Bay became another familiar place on the globe.

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Vietnam: Hanoi

I arrived at Hanoi late at night by myself after 20 hours of flying and met up with some of the people from our group. At night, Hanoi is pretty dead. Everything is dark, and hardly any people are roaming the streets. This city shuts down very early – a standard thing in communist Vietnam. However, what greeted us in the morning was a whole different picture. Hustle and bustle starting at 5-6 am, people gathering to eat pho (Vietnamese soup) at street stalls, grilling all kinds of meat on the streets, rushing to work, motorbikes everywhere, children running to school, honking, bicycle vendors selling everything from balloons to floor lams, noise, humidity, honking, honking…. That’s Hanoi, and if I may say it gently…. This place is not for a delicate novice traveler.

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We were staying at the Old Quarter, which means the space on the street is even tighter (than in the fancier French Quarter). All the life happens on the sidewalks here (from selling to eating to manufacturing and repairing), and each street is dedicated to one type of product is sells. Here’s, for example a toy street:

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Also, anything and everything can be sold or transported on a bike (or a motorbike). This lady is selling all kinds of flowers, but we observed much crazier things too. Like, fence… or other motorbikes… strapped to the guy’s back as he tried to balance on the street. Maybe I should consider displaying my art on a bike and rolling with it through downtown Chicago?… Just a thought.

 

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If you’re a pedestrian in Hanoi, you’re kind of have to make your own walking path. Streets are full of cars, motorbikes and the occasional bicycles (oh, I wish I came to Vietnam at a time when bicycles still ruled!). Sidewalks are used for parking those motorbikes, selling food and goods, and eating. So you are forced to walk on the edge of the street but you have to watch your footing so you don’t trip over a parked bike or an occasional dog or child, and you have to watch the road so you don’t collide with a random motorist. And somehow, day after day, this flow works for everybody.

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Ironically, the very first statue I saw in Vietnam was a statue of Lenin! For a second, it felt like I was back in the communist USSR. …and not too far, was a Ukrainian consulate.

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After out first morning of exploring Hanoi (which meant endlessly walking the streets to get familiar with the city) we were a bit exhausted. Central Hanoi is rather small though, and even though the streets of the Old Quarter seemed incomprehensible and confusing  at first, by the end of the 1st day I could make my way around without looking at the map too much. But our lungs got overwhelmed by the fumes of the motorbikes, and it was a welcome break to sit down for lunch at an air conditioned cozy restaurant. For locals, such restaurants are a luxury, and it felt a bit odd to see these places full of white tourists. Locals mostly eat at street stalls. (however, read the comments for more on this topic). But, we shamelessly enjoyed our “expensive” and relaxing $5 meals.

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Later on our first day we couldn’t resist a spa. 1 hour massage for a mere $10….need I say more?

After a day in Hanoi, we took a 2-day trip to Ha Long Bay, and then returned to the crazy city for a couple more days, at which point Kurt joined us.

We spent much time walking around the central lake. As central Hanoi doesn’t have much green space, the lake is the Old Quarter’s only oasis, and locals come here in droves to do their morning tai-chi, their evening runs, for romantic dates, and for wedding photos.

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This is the temple on the lake:
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We also very much enjoyed viewing paintings at Hanoi’s Art Museum (or officially called Vietnam Fine Art Museum). Heavy on communist and war themes, Vietnam’s historic specialty is lacquer paintings, and I found their colors, blends and details to be fun and refreshing. Unlike the air in the museum, which was hot and humid (with the exception of a couple of fans) – but I highly recommend the museum anyway.

On our last day, we spent much time walking around French Quarter. In comparison with Old Quarter, it is a much calmer area with wider streets, fancier hotels and shops, and art galleries. It look
s and feels more like Europe. Here’s the Opera House:

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I don’t remember the name of this hole-in-the-wall but Kurt and I enjoyed sipping our morning coffee here and watching all kinds of characters and Hanoi life unfold on the street:

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And this electrical wiring… reminds me of the favelas in Brazil. Not a big deal though, our Chicago alley wiring is only a tad bit less messy.

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Last but not least: during the first couple of days each of us learned quite a lot about Vietnam traffic. First, there are no (or barely any) traffic lights. At the intersections, vehicles just… avoid each other. Miraculously, swarms of motorbikes usually don’t collide. But if you are a pedestrian, trying to cross the street, you may think you need nerves of steel. But the formula is simple: just go!  Don’t even look too much – there is always a motorbike coming right at you – just start walking. But once you are walking, whatever you do, do NOT stop. They know how to avoid you if you keep moving, but if you stop, you confuse them. I saw may near misses between tourists and bikes or cars simply because they were not walking consistently. Ok, I admit. Often I was one of those tourists.

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Bye, Hanoi! It was so fun to meet you.

4 hours in Seoul

While we’ve been back still digesting our impressions of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Bangkok, here’s a little post about our mini-tour of Seoul, South Korea.

One the way home from our big trip, we had an 8 hour layover in Incheon (Seoul) airport – way too long to stay in the airport and do nothing. Luckily, our awesome airline – Asiana – offered us a choice of a free city tour or a free hotel stay. So, we opted for the city tour, of course!

After spending weeks in a tropical and humid climate, Seoul greeted is with cold, Chicago-like weather. Unfortunately, I did not pack any scarves or sweaters on this trip and had to rely on my semi-warm leather jacket. On any other day, we would be eager to forget the tour and explore the city on our own (risking late arrival to the airport and missing our flight) but on a day like this we were so glad to be driven around in a warm and cozy bus!

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Seoul is a huge sprawling city with a population of about 10 million. Almost half of South Korea lives in Seoul. Incheon airport is over an hour away from the center. This day was very foggy (and, did I mention cold?) – so foggy that is was hard to make out the surroundings on the bus ride to the city.

Our tour guide was a very cute, nice and bubbly girl (but who in Korea isn’t? :). She tried to teach the whole bus some simple Korean words, bot I don’t think any of us retained them for longer than just a few minutes. Korean words are LONG!

The first stop on the tour was the Blue House. “The Blue House is like your White House!”. Official name is, actually Cheong Wa Dae, s the executive office and residence of the president of republic of Korea. We couldn’t really go inside, or get close to the Blue House – at least not on this tour – so we hung out and snapped some photos in the “public area”. Take a look at the traffic guard – they look so funny in their little boxes with their pink and white outfits. And they have to keep a serious face on!

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Our next stop was the Joyge-sa Temple. This part of the tour was much more interesting. Inside the temple, it was a full house praying/chanting ceremony was in full progress yet nobody opposed us quietly walking around and taking photos. The “main monk” with a microphone was chanting away and creating rhythm with some wooden stick – it sounded very meditative and beautiful.

 

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Outside of the temple, there was a full blown kimchi production! It was the largest kimchi-making operation I have even seen. Well, so far it is also the ONLY kimchi operation I’ve ever seen… Our guide explained to us that kimchi was being prepared to feed the homeless who come to the temple during the holiday season. She said that this kimchi will not be preserved by traditional methods – for months in a barrel, it will only be fermented for a day or two and then ready for consumption.

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Our next stop was a meal at a Korean Barbeque restaurant (also provided, free of charge, by our airline – thanks, Asiana!). The meal consisted of beef bulgogi, rice, and various sides, including, of course, kimchi! We paired it well with a couple of glasses of Soju – Korean sake. Yum.

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The last stop on our tour was a “shopping street”. I was hoping for some unique outdoor market full of Korean crafts, but instead we were taken on a street full of pretty average mall-type retail stores. Needless to say, we didn’t do much shopping, but used the opportunity to walk around on the side streets and peak inside houses and restaurants.

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So, that summed up our 4 hour tour of Seoul. Defintely wet my appetite for returning to Korea some day, I really liked Seul! It is very hilly and in this climate had a bit of a Euro / Switzerland feel. The tour itself combined good and cheezy parts, but it was way more than we expected to get for free and from an airline!

Several hours later, righ before boarding our 12-hr flight to Chicago, we bought another bottle of soju at a duty-free store to take home. However, the airport security searched our bags at a boarding gate and did not allow us to bring the bottle on a plane. How does this make any sense!?! Well, we did not want to waste our precious Soju and proceeded to open the bottle and finish its contents right there in front of laughing Korean security personell. Koreans usually drink soju very very slowly, in small sips – it is really like rice vodka – so they got their entertainment for the day, and we had a very fun flight home!

Rio de Janeiro and Favela Life

Our ridiculously long (but free!! thanks for skymiles) flight to Rio (with three connections!) was exhausting, but once we got in and settled, it didn’t take us a long time to get into the groove of the city and fall in love with it.

We stayed at Atlantis Copacabana hotel, located in a little area called Arpoador, right between Copacabana and Ipanema. Hotels in Rio are not cheap! I would say, price-wise they are pretty comparable to Chicago. Atlantis is on a cheaper end, they have simple rooms, good service, and, most importantly, a rooftop deck with a swimming pool and beautiful views! How can you not relax when you are greeted with this:
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The first favela view was also from the rooftop deck of our hotel:
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Rio (and Brazil in general) is hot and steamy. Both literally and figuratively, of course, but I am talking about the climate here. The humidity level is about 100%, and the tropical weather changes several times daily, bringing everything from sunshine, and all shapes of clouds, to rainstorms. I wish I didn’t pack any long-sleeved shirts or jeans though, because those just ended up being a dead suitcase weight.

IPANEMA, COPACABANA AND CARIOCAS
We spent our first couple of days here just exploring Ipanema and Copacabana, and sniffing out good restaurants and getting a feel for Rio’s energy. Ipanema and Copa are the trendier and the most touristy neighborhoods of Rio, primarily because their prime real estate is located along the beautiful beaches. But population from many city corners comes here to enjoy sand and water (and for employment!), so people on the street are a truly diverse Carioca sample.

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Cariocas, by the way, is what Rio natives call themselves, regardless of their skin color. And their skin color can be anything from pale to midnight black – but, as one local told us, all Cariocas are capable of getting a very good tan!!! (unlike us pale northerners who just burn and peel). Here, it was great to witness many different shades of skin living in such harmony. Of course, I won’t to make a blunt statement that Rio has no racism. But through the eyes of an American newcomer, it almost seems like it doesn’t! In reality, through, Rio suffers from classism, and often racism is its byproduct.

So, back to the waterfront. Rio is a total dressed down beach culture where people walk through high end shopping areas with surfboards. The beaches are lined with little kiosks where you can sit and relax with aqua de coco (coconut water that you drink out of a fresh coconut), cerveja (beer), capirinha (a mixed drink made with cachaca, liquor fermented from sugar cane), or a plate of fried seafood. We are not big beer drinkers, but here we had several every day – because they cool you down perfectly in such a hot & humid air. Brazil tends to offer only light beer – and darker brews don’t really work with this humidity anyway. At nights, especially on the weekends, some of the beach kiosks in Copa keep the crowds entertained with live music – mostly acoustic bossa nova performers (who also proudly sing American pop songs with their accents). Swimming here is just lovely. The water is perfectly clear, and its April temperature is cool enough to leave you feeling refreshed all day.

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On Sundays the road that lines both beaches is closed off to traffic and open to bikers and pedestrians. You can also rent bikes here (something that we didn’t have time to do). In Copa, they here are several beautiful sand sculptures, impressive in their size and detail. They always guarded by a guy who sits near them and collects donations. The funny thing is, they are guarded 24-7. Many times we passed by them in a cab in a middle of a night to witness the “guard” in a chair next to them, sleeping.
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The Morro do Leme (Leme Hill) in the end of Leme beach (next to Copa) has a hiking trail to the top behind it, but the trail is on the army territory and can only be walked with their guide during certain times of the day.

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HIPPIE MARKET
On Sunday, we went to Ipanema’s Hippie Fair, located in Praca Gen. Osorio, just a short walk from our hotel. Perhaps back in the days it was full of hippies, but now it is full of vendors selling leather goods, jewelry, souvenirs, food, and the center of the praca is lined with artists. I was very impressed with the quality of art!

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We bought a painting and a wood carving from 2 different artists that both happened to be deaf and mute. It might be redundant that both of the artworks have Corcovado (the hill with the Christ statue) in them, but that’s ok with me. I also have to show off my new red jewelry purchase, made from Amazonian seeds (that cost a total of $7).
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Our first couple of evenings here were rather quiet, we just explored Ipanema and Copa at night. These neighborhoods don’t offer much of the crazy nightlife (most of music and dancing are concentrated in Lapa), but we enjoyed its restaurants (where we had some excellent sea food and feijoada – a traditional Brazilian meat dish), always finishing off with a 2am capirinha at one of the beach stands (yes, many of them are still open then!).
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ROCINHA FAVELA VISIT
After getting our feel for the beaches, we moved on. The first part of Monday we spent in a Rocinha Favela. Favelas are Rios shanty towns (slums), and favela tours is a controversial conversation topic amongst many travelers. Some say, favela tours are “unethical because you are looking at poor people as if you were in a zoo, while your tour guide is earning money for it”. But I happen to disagree!! Favelas are a HUGE part of Rio, and we came to Rocinha to INTERACT with people and learn about their life and culture, as we are always interested in learning about various social classes. Having said that, I want to point out that it was important for us to do a tour with someone who actually lives in a favela, not an outside agency. And we were happy we did!
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Brazil’s favelas are quite unique. Most of Samba Schools (the samba-dancing participants of Carnival parades), capoeira, and many artists, writers, and musicians come from the favelas, so there is no shortage of talent here. But for the most part, favela residents are hard working people who can not afford to live on the expensive city lands but have to be able to live close to work. Favelas are now very ethnically mixed, and people live there for economic, not racial reasons. And although I don’t know exact statistics, I suspect that at least half of Rio’s population (or more) lives in favelas. Rio has over 700 of them, and Rocinha is the biggest and most visited favela of the city. Rocinha’s population is an astonishing 170,000 (or higher, depending on who you ask).
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Many companies in Rio will give you a Rocinha tour, but here choosing a right guide really matters. To us, it was important to walk the streets with an actual Rocinha resident, so most of the money we pay for the tour goes back into favela’s circulation. We also were not interested in being a part of a big fat tourist pack getting out of a van and snapping photos (hey – most of Rocinha’s streets are not even vehicle accessible!). After doing some research, I came across forums on TripAdvisor and found Zezinho, who gives very personal tours, and takes only 2-3 people at a time. Zezinho, however, was out of country, traveling to raise money for DJ school in the favela, to he referred us to Carlos, another freelance favela guide who met us at our hotel that morning.
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Carlos is a hilarious guy, full of energy, and speaks perfect English (and 3 other languages, besides Portuguese). We took a street van to Rocinha (a street van in Rio operates just like a bus, but faster and smaller, and much cheaper than a cab). Many (but not all) of Rio’s favelas are on the hills. The hills offer less transport options and are further away from employment – so here the higher you live, the poorer you are. Quite different from many other parts of the world, where the most prized real estate is higher up. Consequentially, the poorest residents here have the best views. This is what we saw from the top of Rocinha hill. In comparison with other less fortunate ones, Rocinha is a “high end favela”. Its residents enjoy proximity to water and the best neighborhoods of Rio – so there’s easier access for better employment. In fact, those waterfront highrise condos are priced in the millions – and that’s how social classes coexist in Rio. “So close, but yet so far.”
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Exactly how a favela operates, is a complicated thing to explain (and to understand). According to Carlos, the 700-something favelas of Rio work in 700 different ways. Sure, there are drugs and gangs, and clashes with police, and occasional deaths and shootings, but most favela residents are so sick of the world media focusing only on that. Where are the international newspaper articles about favela’s culture and talents? 99.9% of the time, Rocihna is peaceful and safe to visit. It gets about 200 tourist visitors each day. It is such a close community, everyone knows each other, and even visitors are greeted by locals on the streets. It is unthinkable for a favela resident to not know their neighbors, or even people who live down the street. So, favela really works like a one big family. I am not glamorizing the favela life here, but I think many outsiders can learn from it, and get to know their neighbors at home.
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We started our tour at the top (or, as Carlos says, “upstairs”), and slowly made our way down, chasing Carlos through narrow streets, and stopping to greet a million people he knows in the neighborhood. We visited some of his relatives, including a home of his mother in law (from one of his ex wives), a sweet old lady who loved having us over at her tiny apartment.
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This photo is of Kurt and Carlos with the owner of Rocinha’s only ad agency. Run from another tiny apartment, they print booklets and flyers to promote various stores and businesses here in the favela.
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Many streets, of course, do not have an efficient sanitation system here, and garbage can pile up in some corners, such as this. Also, take a look at the typical electrical system of the favela. Here in Rocinha,
most residents have electricity – unlike some unlucky ones in other,
poorer favelas. Also, according to Carlos, most here do pay for their
utilities (instead of getting them illegally through “gatos”).

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We visited Rocinha’s church, right next to a hospital, where Carlos told us how his community battles various disease outbreaks, such as tuberculosis. When the neighborhood had a big outbreak, hospital assigned a worker to watch over each patient, daily knocking on their door, bringing them meds, and making sure they follow treatment schedules. Persistence paid off – Rocinha no longer has a TB problem. Hospital also distributes pamphlets (and condoms) in the community to educate and prevent other diseases.

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In Rocinha, we were free to take photos of whatever and whomever we wanted with one exception – young men (most of them, boys), who are hired by drug gangs to work as lookouts while holding machine guns on street corners, do not want to be photographed. In the past, photos of them ended up in newspapers, and, needless to say, they do not want the world to know of their affiliations. We walked by a couple of such kids holding weapons, and I asked Carlos if he knows them – turns out, he does, mentioning that they come from good, hard working families but chose a wrong path to follow. In any case, we knew that they would never point their weapons at tourists or residents – thus, we did not feel threatened to share a street with them. Again, I realize that violence does happen here – but that is not the norm, and seeing someone just hold a weapon on a street is something I’ve witnessed in several countries before.

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Drug gangs in favela are a complicated story and, contrary to common belief, gangs do not own and control EVERYTHING here in Rocinha. Rocinha elects its own officials (including a mayer), and runs more democratically than people like to believe. Residents here do not pay taxes, but the government is still involved in their lives (in good and bad ways, I suppose). If you want to build something, even a shack, you still need to obtain a building permit, otherwise the city will tear it down. (how the city would notice a new shack being constructed in this maze of buildings, is a mystery to me – but I will never claim to fully understand a favela).

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We also stopped at a preschool that teaches one of Carlos’ daughters. Ladies running the school told us about various art and crafts programs and also about the school collecting money and donations to help the poorest of the poor in Rocinha. It was naptime, and most kids were passed out on their little floor blankets. And how cute is this view?

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We ended our tour with lunch in a little cafeteria-style Rocinha eatery, and what we had there was some of the best food I’ve tasted in Brazil. Everything was fresh and beautiful. You pile up whatever you want on your plate (chicken, fish, many kinds of meat, veggies, rice, beans, etc). and they simply charge you by weight. My huge plate ended up costing about $3.
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Over our meal, Carlos told us how much he can’t stand popular favela-themed films, such as “City of God”. “Why are they glamorizing f**ing blood and murder, when so many good things come out of favela? Why don’t they make a movie about me? I’ve lived in a favela all my life, and I am fluent in five languages. There is a blind 90 year old lady who lives here, and she has written 3 novels. Why don’t they make a movie about her?” I can’t disagree. Before saying our good byes to Carlos, we made plans with him to meet up on Friday night.

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The Bottom of Grand Canyon

(This is Post #5 from a series about our Arizona trip. Here are the links to Post #1, Post #2, Post #3, and Post#4)

Serious hikers wake up at 4 am, get on the trail by 5 and are often done with their long hike before the sun starts casting strong shadows. Recreational hikers…well, they don’t always have such big goals. Today, we were more on the serious side, as our goal was to get on the trail before sunrise. And let our pace dictate our day. And, hopefully, reach the river and come back to the top before the sun goes down.

We prepared by packing multiple layers of clothing, food and snacks, a ton of water, and a flashlight. Signs like this one pictured below are posted all over Grand Canyon trails. I don’t advise that everyone ignores this sign, especially in time of summer heat. Know yourself. We were about to ignore the sign because we knew our bodies and our hiking pace. We also knew that this November day was going to be hiker-friendly, with temps ranging in the 40s-60s. Our sole limitation was having only 10-11 hours of daylight. Hiking at night is just not as pleasant.

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Naturally, I am not a morning person and waking up is often the hardest part of my day. Once I am up early though, I love it. We got on the Bright Angel Trail (a short walk from our cabin) at 7:00 am, with sunrise scheduled for 7:20. The Canyon looks blue and beautiful before the sun colors it. The trail was pristine and quiet, with no mules or other hikers in sight. I loved being there so early.

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Our average pace was about 2 miles an hour, including occasional stops for rest and photos. We also had our camcorder with us and started filming a goofy “documentary” about reaching the bottom of the canyon (or failing to do so).

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Bright Angel Trail is very well maintained, and is the least steep one out of the three we hiked. After descending switchbacks, the trail flattened out. We reached the Indian Garden Campground (4.5 miles from trailhead) fairly early, when campers were still waking up (and complaining about cold November nights!). Indian Gardens looks like a mirage – it is a sliver of green vegetation in the midst of otherwise barren canyon landscape. The trees and plants are here because of a consistent water supply, flowing form the pipeline and the creek. This is also the only spot on the trail where you can get fresh drinking water during winter months.

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Continuing towards the river, the trail stays flat and passes along some impressive sandstone formations, crossing the creek once or twice. Then, half a mile later, more beauty opens up. Wow. All of a sudden, we felt like we were in an Asian painting. This area of the trail is called Devil’s Corkscrew, an abrupt descent to the bottom. The light was hitting the rocks just right, and we kept stopping for more photos.

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We came across many hikers walking up after their overnight Phantom Ranch stay, many of whom, I am happy to note, were seniors. The trail then flattened, went on for another mile, and brought us to the Colorado River. Yay! We reached the bottom of the Grand Canyon, and it was only 11 am! The River, 8 miles from the trailhead, is just gorgeous.

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I wanted to get in, but its currents are too fast (and the water is probably too cold) for swimming. Looking at the Colorado River, it is amazing to think that most of its shoreline was never touched by human foot. The Grand Canyon Beach (as we called it) gets limited direct sunlight and thus looks surreal. This was a perfect location for our lunch and a half-hour rest. The trail goes on for 2 more miles to Phantom Ranch. I wanted to continue, and SEE IT ALL, but my husband, the rational mind, protested, so back up the canyon we went.

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The Devils Corkscrew switchbacks were not as hard to hike up as I imagined. We just weren’t tired yet. Walking back along the creek, we watched a family of deer feeding on leaves and branches. We were doing well on timing, and back in Indian Gardens, decided to do a 3-mile round trip detour to Plateau Point. The walk on the Plateau is well worth it. The trail is flat, surrounded by shrubs and cacti, and at the end there are stunning views of the river. Not for the vertigo-challenged! Here is an aerial indication of where Plateau Point is on the trail:

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And this is what you see from Plateau Point:

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From there, we started a 6-mile journey back to the top. The hardest part, of course, came at the end. After having walked all day, my legs started to feel like concrete. And that’s when we began our uphill climb. The last 3 miles of switchbacks became a dreaded exercise. Now we walked at the pace of old people, taking frequent breaks. We started dreaming about what we’ll have for dinner. I got a craving for a prickly-pear margarita, my favorite local drink. The thought of that margarita kept me walking uphill until the end. At 5:30 pm, just before the sun disappeared, we were out of the canyon – exhausted, but SO happy. We hiked a total of 19 miles in 10 ½ hours. Our honeymoon goal was complete! After dinner, I passed out at 9 pm.

The following morning we left Grand Canyon National Park via East Entrance. There, we briefly stopped at the medieval-looking Observation Tower, and then headed to Page, AZ.