Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Journey to Nepal! (Dec 14th - 27th, 2011)

So we meet again! I just drank a whole pot of ginger lemon tea (I'm sick again), so let's hope I can make it through this post without peeing myself. I'm not going to bother with dates, everything has blended together anyway :)

I left for Sabiha Gocken in Istanbul a few hours after Khalid left and made sure to ask the flydubai desk if my flight was cancelled. The lady checked and said it was not, so I began my journey in an excellent mood! The flight to Dubai was, in a word, uncomfortable. I didn't really sleep because there was a big burly man behind me that kept tapping my seat, but I arrived and the flight was cheap, so what can you really say? Upon my arrival I was informed that yes, duh, your flight has been cancelled, so they re-booked me on a later flight and so began my 7 hour wait in the Dubai airport (which, if I can be frank, is not the best airport to be stuck in). I tried sleeping on the seats, but each seat had an armrest, so you couldn't exactly stretch out. I sort of draped myself over the seat and rested my head on my arm (I got bruised armpits from this endeavour. Have you ever bruised your armpit? It's totally ridiculous). But! Let's skip ahead to the good bits, I arrived in Kathmandu and was picked up by the staff coordinator and taken right to dinner where the other volunteers were already waiting. I don't even know the name of the restaurant, but they had traditional Nepali music and dancing all through dinner, so it was a great first night! Almost every volunteer at dinner was from Australia, save for me and Eladio (who was from Brazil). Canada, represent!

The next few days were spent wandering around Thamel, bargaining for socks and eating coconut tofu curry at Ork2. In there we also went to Patan and saw the Golden Temple and Durbar square (pay attention, apparently there are 3 different Durbar squares in Nepal!). The first time I went to withdraw money from the ATM it told me I would be charged a 400 rupee service fee. 400 rupees! I canceled the transaction and whipped out my calculator. 400 rupees was only $5. I restarted the transaction (it is still bizarre to me that something can cost 10,000 rupees and it's not very expensive). I had banana porridge every morning for breakfast, and it's a good thing I got my fix in because outside of Kathmandu "porridge" is made with oats and wheat.We were also supposed to visit Bodnath on our last night, but there was a strike so we were stuck. We sat inside and did sporkle quizzes instead, which to me is just as exciting :)

I ended up being placed in Pokhara, which is about 7-9 hours outside of Kathmadu (depending how many over turned trucks and goats are on the road the day you leave). I'm pretty sure I had eaten an entire chocolate bar by the time we actually left, and I mostly read and watched out the window during the ride (and ate trailmix, lots of trailmix). Mostly the ride wasn't too terrifying, but then I'm also aware that I picked the good side of the bus. Every once in awhile though you happen to glance out the window and there just isn't any road beside you... just abyss. But then you go back to eating your trailmix and try not to think about it. The organization that we volunteer with in Nepal is called Hope and Home and does orphanage placements in Kathmandu, Bhaktapur, Pokhara and Chitwan. I was placed in Pokhara in the Himalayan Children's Care Home (HCCH) with Brittany, Rachel and Alyssa (who are all totally great and like to pass the time telling me horrifying stories about Australia... like the fact that you can't out-drive a bush fire, and that they had a 14 year drought, and that there's one town in the desert that has to live underground because it's too hot to go outside. They also told me about drop bears, but I think they may be a fable...).

The kids here are so great! Every morning you wake up to the sound of roosters and honking, then they ring the gong downstairs and the orphanage erupts with the sound of 51 pairs of feet cascading down the stairs (we're staying in the orphanage with the kids). All the kids are Tibetan refugees from the area of Mustang, which sits on the Nepal/Tibet border. As I understand it, most of the kids still have parents and family that live in Mustang, but the area is so remote and harsh that the parents have the kids come to the orphanage here so they can receive a good education. For the first few days it was our task to walk the kids to and from school, but now they are on winter holidays, so we teach them for 1-2 hours in the morning to help them with their English. You'll see lots of photos of them on facebook, and I'm slowly trying to learn all their names (which is aided by the fact that there are lots of Tserings and Tenzins). Essentially it holds that kids and kids wherever you go. They like to play, they have perpetually snotty noses, they want to climb things you'd rather they didn't climb :) They are exceptionally well behaved though! The staff at HCCH have their routine down to a fine science and they move through the day with lots of structure, which makes it easier for us. On Christmas Day we took them to the World Peace Pagoda and spent the whole day with them there. We also decorated the orphanage with snowflakes and made them all Christmas Cards! It didn't really feel like Christmas (I mean, when do I ever get a sunburn on Christmas?), but then I got to talk to Mom and Khalid via skype later that evening and that brought the Christmas spirit back :) I still can't get over that I can skype with family in Canada for only 81 cents an hour. What is this amazing place?!

Everything in Pokhara has kind of blended together, but if I had to paint a picture for you, it would be of a hippie town sitting beside a nice lake, with the backdrop of the Himalayan mountains. They're gearing up here for the Pokhara street festival, so all the lanes and alleyways are strewn with prayer flags, which just adds an extra special touch. It's easy to go for walks along the lake, or just sit in a cafe and drink tea while overlooking the mountains. The weather is nice and warm during the day (the night is freezing, but we shan't mention that) and the streets are filled with local women doing their washing and lots of roaming cows (most Nepali people are Hindu so it's illegal to kill a cow). Every once in awhile you can even happen upon goats or chickens being slaughtered, naked old men wearing Santa hats, etc. etc. I try at least every other day to do some sort of exercise, whether it's on the roof of the orphanage, or going for a run (the altitude kills me). At night I like to go up to the roof and do stretches. You can see all the stars and the lights of houses on the hill look like stars because the actual hills themselves disappear against the sky. I am here until the end of January and then my next move is up in the air. The laid back attitude of the city doesn't lend well to actually making decisions, it's much easier to chill out with a book and drink masala tea :)

Lots of love from Pokhara!

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Istanbul, Turkey (December 6-13th, 2011)

Hello friends!
After some fiddle farting around we figured out how to change Khalid’s laptop settings to DVORAK, so now I can speed away at this blog entry. I have sent Khalid away to find the only Afghani kebab shop in the city, he has to take the tram to get there (with only the word of our hotel owner that it actually exists). Anyway, so I now have the room to myself to update you all about what Istanbul has been like! Please forgive me for not updating sooner, it's been busy!!

December 6th, 2011
So this was the day that I had to make my way from Dusseldorf to Istanbul; Shannon worked in the morning so I was on my own for the bus and the train. I made it to the train station okay but missed the first train because I could not for the life of me figure out how to work the ticket machine. And yes, it was in English, I was just a totally noob head. After making it to the airport and checking in I had some lunch and decided that Dusseldorf’s airport (Flughafen?) is my favourite, probably because they have giant buffets, and I’m all about buffets. The flight to Istanbul was fairly uneventful, I immediately regretted not having dedicated myself to learning more Turkish before I left, but that’s okay. I flew to Sabiha Gocken airport, which is on the Asian side and is the less popular airport (woo hoo cheap flights!). But then it took me two and a half hours to actually reach the hotel because the traffic was so bad. Khalid was there waiting for me (despite the fact that his flights had been delayed) and he got to tell me all about his awesome journey on Air France. We dropped our stuff and then wandered around looking for dinner. We found really cheap rice and chickpeas called Pis Pilav that they sell on the side of the street, and it was pretty good (we later read in the guidebook that this is one of the best ways to get food poisoning, woops). Then I got jipped by a street vendor into buying the grossest and most cancerous corn ever, Khalid resolved after that not to let me get bamboozled into any more food purchases. We unpacked and fell into a coma.

December 7th, 2011
First morning at Ast Hotel! The breakfast here is a traditional Turkish breakfast: bread, boiled eggs, tomato slices, cheese and olives (very Greek if you ask me). Note that as the week went on the variety kept diminishing until the last day when it was only cheese slices and olives, I think maybe they do their shopping on Tuesday night? This day can be summed up in two words: Grand Bazaar. And that’s all we did, all day, just wandered. This Bazaar has everything you want, and nothing at the price you want. But it’s so much fun to wander through! Everyone says to you “Hello miss, how may I help you spend your money?” I bought a necklace with a koranic inscription and Khalid looked for a special bowl called a jam (sp?), it’s inscribed with koranic verses and you’re supposed to fill it with water when someone is sick. He didn’t find any that day that he liked, but he might find some in his wanderings tonight. We mused about buying carpets, tea sets, copper pots, shawls, silk hangings, etc. etc., but in the end only ended up with the necklace and some halva (it’s a type of pistachio dessert, kind of like Turkish delight, this was obviously a Vicki purchase). We almost bought a $900 carpet, which upon later inspection would have been a terrible idea. But you see they suck you in, bring you tea, and all of a sudden they are taking your money, it’s marvellous. At the Grand Bazaar we had our first doner kebap (compressed meat on a rotating skewer that they shave off for you) and we definitely had liver. It was labeled as beef, but I know liver a mile away. But I like liver, so it was all good. I was jealous of Khalid because the sandwiches here are really cheap (like $1-2) but I obviously can’t have bread, so unfair. We stopped at a fruit shop on the way back and bought some pears, apples and bananas. The pears and oranges here are to die for (but this particular fruit shop had crazy prices, we would later find out). We also bought some backlava, which I tried (I cheated just this once on my gluten-free diet), and I was underwhelmed by it. I really like the halva though, must learn how to make it.

December 8th, 2011
We started this day with a trip to the Book Bazaar, which is right by the Grand Bazaar. Khalid was looking for a huge book by Rumi in Farsi. Everything he found was at least 3 volumes, which would have been a nightmare to try and pack, so we didn’t end up getting anything. We stopped next at Sultan Bayezid II Camii (Mosque of Sultan Bayezit II), which was our first mosque experience. We took our shoes off, I covered my hair and we wandered around inside. I have to be honest, my first mosque experience was not exactly pleasant. I felt like a massive intruder, of the female variety. It didn’t help that there were other tourists that had crossed the “tourist” line (literally, there’s a line) and walked right up to the front, where they were taking photos of the people praying. I don’t know, it felt like we were trespassing on private property, that’s the best way I can describe it. Right after this we went to the New Mosque, which wasn’t much better for me. Here there were women praying behind their screens at the back. And yes, I know the koranic explanation for why they pray at the back, but I still felt very aware that I was female as we wandered around. Poor Khalid, because he was loving every minute! The architecture and tile work was amazing, lots of intricate details and lots to see. I wish I had done a better job at hiding my feelings, lol. But don’t fret, my other mosque experiences were really good. After this we stumbled upon Istanbul University, which we wandered through (even though they only let us in because we said we wanted to take a photo). Once we found our way out we headed to the Spice Bazaar, which is just a little bit past the Grand Bazaar. The smell of this place was just like I imagined. Bins and bins filled with spices, henna powder, Turkish delight, nuts, dried fruit and everything in between. And holy samples, more samples than Costco. At one point Khalid said “okay, I’m  done with the sampling” and I looked at him like he had three heads. Um, hullo, free food, how could you ever be done sampling? Whatever, boys are crazy. At the end of this day it was raining and we were exhausted, but we still wandered down to the water and strolled along for a bit. The owner of our hotel said that strolling in the rain is very romantic :) 

December 9th, 2011
Today we walked up to the Hippodrome, which used to be a large stadium where they had chariot races. We took pictures with the Egyptian Obelisk (a massive, engraved pillar from 1500 B.C.) and then headed to Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts. This Museum was really great and apparently has one of the most impressive old carpet collections in the world, which Khalid obviously loved. He touched one too before I could pounce on him, I thought we would get kicked out (but no one saw. Khalid’s excuse was “I wanted to feel if it was good quality!”). After the museum we went to Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia), an old Byzantine church that was later converted into a mosque. Both of our jaws were on the floor the whole time (including when one of the security guards spit on our feet, that totally happened). Here is where I learned more about mosques. Muslims wash their feet, hands and face before praying (ablutions). Inside the mosque there is a muezzin mahfili, a raised platform for the mosque official. At the “front” of the mosque is the mihrab, an ornate door that points toward Mecca, and the minbar, a pulpit beside the mihrab that the Imam delivers the sermon from on Fridays (I kept calling this the “minibar.”). After a long time of wandering around Hagia Sophia we had some milk pudding and ate dinner at a place right by our hotel. I had kofte and rice! The kofte (spiced beef patties) was not as good as Khalid’s parents make, but it was still pretty delicious. I also tried the yogurt, Khalid thinks between that and the cancerous corn I am definitely going to get food poisoning). Then we crashed in our room for the rest of the night and drank Turkish tea (half strong brewed tea, half hot water… they think it tastes better than simply making weak tea). A note to our hotel room, sh-ady. I won’t even describe, you can ask Khalid when he gets back to Guelph ;)

 December 10th, 2011
Neither Khalid nor I were woken up by the call to prayer this morning, we must be getting used to it. As the breakfast variety at the hotel dwindled, the more fruit and German chocolate I started eating in the morning (thanks Shannon!). Our first stop was the Blue Mosque, arguably the most famous mosque in Istanbul. It has 6 minarets (the large spires/towers outside that the Imams used to climb to call prayer), which at the time of its construction was considered sacreligcous because the people thought it sought to rival Mecca. This mosque was my first positive mosque experience! There were lots of people milling about and you don’t have to cover your hair. I think I felt more welcome here, that’s probably why I liked it more. I think with churches it’s different because anyone can come in and sit down (you are apart of the faaaaaaaaaamily! Anyone know that song?). With mosques it doesn’t quite feel that way, so I think the touristy vibe of the Blue Mosque helped to make me feel like I belonged. The inside is simply beautiful and when the sun comes through the windows it makes everything glow soft pink and blue. There’s also lots of tiling here, which reminded me of the azulejos in Lisbon (I sure am glad I went to that museum now!). After the Blue Mosque we hit Gulhane Park, which used to be apart of Tokapi palace (the “i” in Tokapi palace is not really an i, but I can’t make that symbol here, so bear with me). If you climb up to the top of the park you get a beautiful view of the Bosphorus, and it was a beautiful day. The plan was to go to Tokapi palace, but we decided instead to walk along the Bosphorus, across the bridge and into Takism, the newer part of Istanbul (we are staying in the old part of the city). By the by, the Bosphorus is the water inlet that leads to the Black Sea and connects it to the Sea of Marmara. The prices in Taksim were surprisingly better than the Grand Bazaar, which was a pleasant surprise. I checked our guidebook and found a great old book shop that I thought Khalid would like, so we set out to find it. After climbing through some unmarked streets we ended up walking into the busiest shopping street in Takism (totally by accident). The street is called Istiklal and it was decked out for Christmas, which I loved! We spent the rest of our time just wandering through the street and the shops. Here I bought another fleece sweater and we even found a fancy restaurant where I had chocolate pudding and Khalid had milk pudding (the pudding thing is about to become a theme, you will see). We walked back from Takism at night and along the Bosphorus, watching all the fishermen and the ferries mill around. As a side note, the seagulls here sound like crazy lunatics, it’s difficult to even describe. If you come to Istanbul, make sure you journey down to water so you know what I mean. When we got back to the hotel I tried on my sweater again and realized that they had forgotten to take the security button off. Takism is a pretty far walk for us, so we decided to champ it and try to remove the button. Those things are like steel traps, I tell you. After about an hour we managed to get it off, but I ended up with four little holes and some blood on my sweater, lol (Khalid will tell you I was more concerned about the blood on my sweater than by the fact that he was bleeding… but that’s a lie, because I totally pilfered my bandaid cache for him). The rest of the night was spent on the computer, trying to figure out what I was going to do about my cancelled flight to Kathmandu (thanks for that mini heart attack, flydubai).

December 11th, 2011
Today there was no panir cheese for breakfast and I berated Khalid, saying that we needed to get up earlier before all the cheese has been eaten. We walked to Suleymaniye Mosque, almost as famous as the Blue Mosque and sitting behind Istanbul University. This mosque is renowned for being light inside and having fabulous security guards (that last observation is mine). This mosque is legitimately all pink inside, it was great. We had read in the guidebook that there was a northeast set of stairs that leads you to a balcony overlooking the inside of the mosque, where the sultan used to pray. When we asked the security guard he said that the stairs were closed, but then he took a quick look around and took us up them anyway. How great! That’s a really great memory of mine. After the Sulemaniye Mosque I endeavoured to find a famous little bar that sells boza, a fermented grain mixed with water and sugar (looks like mucous) that reportedly increases strength and virility. I don’t know how we ever found the bar because I was sure we were on the wrong street. Anyway, there were lots of Turks there and Khalid said the drink was good. We were feeling kind of tired at this point so we headed back to the hotel and napped. Isn’t that lame? What bad tourists we are. Strengthened from the boza Khalid did most of my laundry for me and fashioned a clothesline to hang everything on (what a great guy to have around!). The clothesline ran into the bathroom though, so we could no longer close the door. It got personal (good thing we are “married,” hey-o!). We had our kofte for dinner again and did some more wandering. Also, today was raspberry pudding day.

December 12th, 2011
(The lack of panir cheese has nothing to do with the time we get up and everything to do with the fact that there is no panir cheese anymore. What am I supposed to do with just olives?!)
Today we finally made it to Tokaip palace! We briefly considered not going and then made ourselves do it, and it’s a good thing we did because this is quite honestly the most massive museum I have ever been to.  After touring the courtyard we visited beautifully tiled rooms, like the circumcision room and made our way through the many exhibits around the perimeter of the palace (none of which you could take photos in, so you’ll have to take my word for it). These small exhibits had things like old jewellery, fancy bowls (and dessert cups, which were my favourite), even an 86 karat diamond that was found in a rubbish dump (if only I were so lucky to find massive diamonds in the trash). Khalid’s favourite part were the exhibits that had all the inscribed swords, bows, armour, maces, what have you. I’m not big into war artefacts, but he did listen to me gush about the jewelled dessert cups, so I got myself into it. We accidentally found an exhibit with old carpets and textiles, so that was cool. They also had exhibits with things like pieces of Muhammed’s beard, Muhammed’s tooth, and even the prophet Joseph’s turban?! I doubted the legitimacy of these things, but I didn’t say so (but really, that could be anybody’s hair in there…). We spent four hours wandering around Tokapi palace and didn’t even get to the Harem, which is a whole other section (that you have to pay extra for, naturally). We were starving at this point, so we had our doner kebap with pilav… and then pistachio chocolate pudding, as per my request. Khalid tried Turkish coffee, which he said wasn’t totally great (and quite expensive for the dinky little cup they give you. But my pudding was fantastic, so I wasn’t disappointed). One of the waitors took our picture and told us to write a review for the restaurant because we had been there so many times (what can I say? I like my Turkish pudding! Which is really just regular pudding, but you eat it in Turkey).

December 13th, 2011
And that brings us to right now! Khalid isn’t back from the bazaar yet, so I’m going to assume that he found the Afghani kebab place. Today we mostly did chores, my chores, because life goes on even when you travel! Some of my laundry wasn’t dry, so we took it across the street to the Laundromat. The lady was very kind but spoke no English, so we made use of elaborate hand gestures to indicate we only wanted the dryer, lol. I had to call flydubai about my cancelled flight, which the lady said wasn’t cancelled, so what’s up with that? I guess we’ll find out when I show up at the airport tomorrow. I found a cheaper shuttle back to Sabiha Gocken airport, so I booked that. We also had to go to the eczane/apotheke/pharmacy because I’m having a crazy allergic reaction to something. Khalid looked up what “antihistamine” was in Turkish… it’s “antihistaminik”. After successfully getting some topical antihistamine, Khalid suggested I get some rubbing alcohol which works too. And so proceeded the pharmacist to be very offended that we were asking him for alcohol :) It wasn’t until I grabbed a paper and pen and wrote “isopropyl” that he knew what we were talking about. After leaving, Khalid commented: “thank god for science.” Amen to that, brother. The last adventure chore of the day was trying to find a bank that would take my debit card and give me USD… not as easy as you might think. In the end the winner was HSBC (though figuring out which ATM to use was another story). What else happened today other than me writing you this? I took to the road because the sidewalk looked slippery, Khalid kept saying “Vicki, could you please walk on the sidewalk?” And then, to prove his point, I actually got hit by a car. Well, my purse got hit by the car and the driver yelled “this place is for ME!” I think Khalid was in on it with him, because what kind of perfect timing is that? I walk on the sidewalk now. I got us lost a number of times (i.e. the right street but the wrong way). Khalid must think I’m the world’s worst navigator. And so friends, thus ends my time in Istanbul! Hopefully the next time you hear from me I will actually be in Kathmandu and not stuck in Dubai (what good will my winter clothes do me there?).

Lots of love from Turkiye!
P.S. Khalid just got back, he didn't go the Afghani place, he went shopping for PJ pants for me (man do I love this kid)

Monday, 5 December 2011

Vicki in Deutschland! (Nov 30 - Dec 5)

Guten Morgen!

I have a bit of catching up to do here, so let's talk last day in Lisbon and German fun!

Nov 30
This was my last day in Lisbon, and the only real thing on the schedule was "get to see that freaking cemetery." Which I did! Cemiterio dos Ingles (British Cemetery), and it was lovely (I even found Henry Fielding's grave). Did I mention that this time the tram stopped halfway there and let everyone off? End of the line because there was a protest across the tram tracks, so it did end up taking a 30 minute walk to get there (uphill, which is the way of the world in the Estrela district). On the way there I found a beautiful church called Igreja de Santa Catarina, not even in my guidebook but well worth the detour.

I was feeling pretty lousy at this point (with the cold), but I decided to stick it out and take the bus to the other side of town so I could hit the Museu Nacional de Azulejos, the Museum of awesome tiles (a loose translation). This museum is dedicated to the azulejos that became popular in Portugal in the 16th century and have been used ever since to decorate buildings and tell stories. If there is one museum in Lisbon you must see, I would say it's this one. This is also the home of Igreja Madre de Deus (Church of our Mother of God), the most ornate church I have been to yet. In short, absurdly glad that I came.

I spent my last night in Lisboa Central Hostel, they even made gluten free chickpea stew for me :) My stay here was fantastic and I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Lisbon!

Dec 1-5, Deutschland!
Okay, so trip to Germany was fairly uneventful, except that the change in cabin pressure did terrible things to my clogged sinuses. At one point I was fairly sure my head would split open, to the point that my left eye started watering uncontrollably... I must have looked a mess. But! I arrived in Dusseldorf and Shannon was waiting to tram me back to the apartment. We went out for seriously the best Indian food I have ever tasted! It seems the first thing I eat in each new country is Indian :) If I ever go to India I'll get a burger or something to make it fair.

The next morning Shannon and Dave left for work, so I wandered around a bit and got some groceries. Side note, food here tastes better. The yogurt is amazing! But so is the cheese and the meat and the butter and the everything. The eggs at the market are all free run and the yolks are the brightest orange I've ever seen. If you've been to Europe you probably are just rolling your eyes at me, but Canadian food sucks. There, I said it. I was on to it in Portugal and now I am convinced. Moving on though, after that I alternated between reading my Stephen King and working on this absurdly hard puzzle that Shannon and Dave started (assume that in my downtime I was doing one of these two things). That night we went out to the Weinachtsmarkt (Christmas market), which I can't even describe it was so great. They set up all these little booths selling Christmas food/drinks and little trinkets, plus they deck the streets out with trees and lights, right off of a postcard. I tried feuersangebowle too! Basically it's a giant copper vat filled with red wine that they heat over the fire, then they have a massive sugar block balanced above the vat that they pour steaming rum over, so the rum and the sugar end up mixing with the red wine. It was delicious, but I felt a little wobbly after only one cup. We wandered around and checked out all the gingerbread booths, candied nuts and so many pastry shops you can't even count! We also had kartofflecken with kraeuterquark (read french fries with delicious garlic tzatziki) for dinner. Then we headed back to the apartment and watched Fright Night, and when Dave got home from work headed out and spent the night with their friend Babette. We played Looping Louie (great game, highly recommend) and had gluewein, a hot red wine that is spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and a few other spices. Such a great introduction to Dusseldorf!

(you pay a deposit for the cup and then you can either keep it or return it and get your euro back, but I definitely kept it).

On Saturday we went to Babette's and Bodo's for a Christmas dinner party which was great! Note to self, upon return to Canada, will throw dinner parties. I met a bunch of their expat friends, Pete and Natasha, Dinesh and Eugenia and Anirudh. They all brought dishes and I stuffed myself with food. There was bryndza halushky, a traditional Slovak dish made with potato dumpling noodles and bryndza cheese (and back fat, naturally) brought my Dave, turkey cordon bleu from Shannon, awesome appetizers from Natasha and Pete, moussaka, a Greek lasagna with mincemeat and eggplant from Eugenia and Anirudh, and Irish coffee from Dinesh. Babette and Bodo made dessert, and a special flourless chocolate cake for me. The night was amazing, I wish I could stay in Germany and repeat it everyday. After the stuffing was over we played who am I with post it notes stuck to our foreheads, it was a riot... until people can't guess their thing, and then it gets testy. On the last round I had "CEO", Dave was "Vitamin C" and Dinesh was "Candlelight Dinner." (you could tell that after the first round people were out for blood). Lots of yummy food and the best company since I left, you couldn't really ask for more :)

The next day (Sunday) we slept in really late, I laboured over the puzzle some more and then Shannon and I visited Benrathschloss, a barbie palace, essentially. We laughed about how the seagulls sound like they're getting murdered here, Canadian geese have forgotten their Canadian voice and how Germans like to "make" everything (would you like to make a party, would you like to make a photography?). Who knows, it was great. P.S. Shannon and I met in first year University and lived together until third year. Did you even know that? Well, now you do.

And this brings us to today, my last day in Germany. Shannon and I trammed around the city and went to a Japanese Noodle place for lunch, the soup was great (and homemade rice noodles don't hurt). We also watched documentaries about purity balls in the States and then one about the inheritance of epigenetics, with some puzzling thrown in between. When Dave got home we went for Mexican and that brings us to right now!

(Shannon buying the biggest pastry danish type thing I have ever seen)

As I sit here writing this I'm getting emails from Khalid saying that everything in JFK is shutdown and he's stuck in Pearson. This is bad news bears, because I'm relying on him to orient me in Istanbul (which I currently know nothing about). Anyway, my translator is stuck in Toronto and I'll have to make sure I get more Euros to pay the hotel (what a clever scheme, Khalid!). I haven't packed anything yet, but Shannon did my laundry today, so the most important things are done. Also, I have a TON of chocolate to bring because it is ridiculously cheap here, so if all else fails I'll just sit in the Ast Hotel lobby and eat chocolate until my "husband" arrives. Send good vibes our way that everything pans out, if not, I'm going to have a great time getting sugar high at the blue mosque while Khalid camps out in Paris. It's all good, folks.

Love from Deutschland,

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Nov 28th and 29th (Cascais and Tram 28)

November 28th, 2011 (Cascais)
Ah, yesterday was such a fantastic day! Other than the fact that I got a cold, I don´t think it could have gone any better. Before I get into that though, I must share a quote that´s been on my mind a lot. It was used frequently in Stephen King´s book Insomnia and it´s from a poem called "Pursuit" by Stephen Dobyns." It goes:

"Each thing I do, I rush through, so I can do something else."

I´ve been thinking about this a lot (there´s lots of time to think here!), it seems that, especially with churches for some reason, traveling has become checking a bunch of things off a list. So much so that you come to the end and have done a lot of things, but haven´t really seen any of them. Does that make sense? Maybe it´s because I´m sick and snotty, but I´ve been particularly bothered by the feeling that I won´t spend enough time to actually enjoy where I am. Always there´s that nagging feeling "Oh, if I finish here in 5 minutes then I can catch the next bus and get to this cathedral before I have to have lunch." and on and on, you get the picture. Anyway, so yesterday I created what will become my new "10 minute rule." If I get somewhere and really like it (i.e. part of a monastery, garden, museum, etc.), I set my watch for 10 minutes and just sit there.That way I actually make sure that I focus on being there, instead of simultaneously wondering what I´m going to do next. Perfect!

Okay, now back to the blog :P Yesterday I took the train from Cais do Sodre (I just spent 10 minutes trying to get the accent but I can´t figure it out) to Cascais. Cascais is an old village turned surfing destination because it has great beaches. I got there really early so I wandered around the warf and old citadel all while the sun came up and you could watch the fishermen on the dock getting ready to cast their nets. So neat! 

My guidebook suggested a church called Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Assuncao, so I checked that out quickly... yeah, definitely people praying there. Nothing like the scowl of an old Portuguese woman to make you slip quitely away. So, you do your best to blend in and avoid drawing attention to yourself. I managed some stealthy photos but then just sat down and enjoyed listening to people with their rosaries. Then it was time to find my way back to the train station, so I could find the bus station! Finding the bus station was only half the battle because then I had to find the right bus stop. I asked at least 3 people. Got it! The bus ride was nothing short of amazing. It climbs along this winding road up a cliff so the views of the Atlantic are astounding. Where was I going? Cabo da Roca (Rock Cape), the most westerly point in Europe. THE BEST PLACE! I greatly extended my 10 minute rule, found myself a perch (that was no small feat to climb to), and chilled out in the sun for an hour. What a view! 

 You can hear the swallows along the rockface, there was a cool breeze but the sun was great. I could have sat there all day. Ah, so amazing! At this point the pre-cold hit and I struggled not to sleep on the bus ride back. Back in Cascais I walked along the waterfront to Boca do Inferno (Mouth of Hell), a really neat rock formation opening to the ocean. As the waves come in the hole fills up with water, it´s really neat. 

The exhaustion was taking over though and everything is sort of a blur from there on out. If I could go back I would spend more time in Parque Marechal Carmono, this crazy awesome park that looks like a jungle. That´s my only regret, that I didn´t get to wander through there more.

 Back in the hostel (with a nap on the train, where I woke up with a start because I thought someone was in my purse, but it was just the train attendant checking tickets), I did my laundry (woo hoo!) and then crashed into a dead sleep. So nice. P.S. I forgot to mention that before I climbed precariously down the cliff for the perfect vantage point, I picked up some walnut gelato to take with me, lol. I must have looked hilarious. If you guys have facebook, check out the video of me trying to get to the edge for a better photo :)

November 29th, 2011 (Alfama, as seen by Tram 28)
So, what better way to spend a sick day than by taking one of the rickety old trams through the city? Tram 28 is particulary famous, so I bought a day pass and away I went. First stop (before I even hit the tram) was Igreja de Sao Roque (forgive my lack of accents, if any of you knows how to put them in, fill me in). This is a 16th century church with a particularly famous Capela along the side (A capela means "chapel" and refers to the little "scenes" along the side of the church that usually depict the life of Christ or other important figures. For example, Capelo de Sao Joao Baptista is a scene with paintings and sculptures that depict Saint John the Baptist). People come and pray at these different Capelas. Anyway, in Sao Roque the Capela de Sao Joao Baptista is very ornate and apparently cost $500,000 to make in Rome and then ship to Portugal (in 1724), lol. 

 I like visiting these churches, but I try not to take too many photos when there are people actually worshipping there, I feel like an intruder. Mostly I just park in the pews and listen to the organ. Okay, on Tram 28 and climbing through the streets of Alfama (district of Lisbon). First stop was Igreja de Sao Vincente de Fora, a monastery built in 1147. This place is huge with its own museum (only 2€ with a student card and proof you´re younger than 25!). I meandered through the church and cloister but my favourite part was the museum dedicated to La Fontaine´s fables (illustrated in azueljos, these famous painted tiles that are found all around Portugal, a trend started in the 16th century). I stopped to read all of them, it was great fun. I also climbed to the top of the church, which affords great views of the city. I kind of just ran around there for awhile, it was really lots of fun. 

Back on Tram 28, getting off here and there at neat parks and "miradouros", otherwise described as "viewpoints." Largo das Porto do Sol and Miradouro de Santa Luzia were the best. I took the tram all the way into Estrela because I noticed it makes a stop near the Cemetiros dos Ingles... but it was CLOSED! Are you serious?! This is the third time I tried to find the cemetery, lol. The first time the workers were on strike, the second time it was the wrong cemetery, and this time I was outside of visiting hours. Tomorrow is my last day, and sometime between 10 and 1 you´d better believe I´m going to see that darn thing, lol.

I stopped at my favourit buffet and then decided at the last minute to go up the Elevador de Santa Justa, which takes you to the top of a tower that you can see Lisbon from (great view of Castelo de Sao Jorge). Such great pictures from up here! I met up with a fellow North American-er, Jim from Detroit. Such a great guy and what a pleasure to have a conversation in English! I got to chat about my beloved bacteria :) He was traveling with his friend who had planned a 2 week vacation and called him up to join him at the last minute with the instructions "pack for 14 days" and nothing else! He has no idea what the itinerary is and didn´t even realize they were stopping in Lisbon until they landed, lol. What great fun! Dear my friends: this sounds like a solid idea for an adventure, don´t you think? Anyway, I gave him my blog URL, so Jim if you are reading this, thanks for bringing a little bit of home to Lisbon! Sunset from the tower and sweeping views of Lisbon make the climb worth every penny.

And friends, so concludes the last two days. Tomorrow is my last full day here and so far there is only one solid thing on the itinerary: get to that freaking cemetery!

From a very snotty Vicki in Lisbon!

Sunday, 27 November 2011

November 26-27, 2011

November 26, 2011 (Belem)
Today was an okay day, I ended up with a pretty bad headahce and I felt very touristy... and I took the wrong bus and got lost, not in the fun kind of way, lol. But! Aside from that, here is what I did: I started off with a UNESCO World Heritage Site called Jerónimos Monastery:

It was built first as a monastery, but later became a school for orphans. These walls have seen some pretty famous explorers (Belem is known as being the port from which many famous voyageurs set sail). At the time I was here a wedding was taking place so we couldn´t walk to the front. But, on the second floor I did get to watch them reading their vows and exchanging rings. They had the choir and the organ going so it was a great experience. On the inside of the monastery is a grand courtyard with the cloister running along the perimeter (as I understand it a cloister is a covered walk that opens to the inner courtyard of a monastery or convent).

The monastery now houses a number of small museums (rooms, really) dedicated to important Portuguese figures. After this I went next door to the Archaeological museum, but everything was in Portuguese and I didn´t have the greatest time. I wish I had known so that I could have spent that hour just sitting in the courtyard here. I think that´s what´s starting to bother me most, all the rushing from activity to activity, not really seeing anything because all you´re doing is looking through your camera. I mean, you´ve barely seen something, have for a split second decided that it is awesome, and up comes the camera. The places I remember best are the places I have sat and enjoyed myself in, but of course that means you can only do so many things. I have yet to decide how to navigate this problem (aside from simply moving somewhere so that you can truly take your time, lol).

Okay! So after the museum I have a massive headache and decide I am going to skip the Torre de Belem so that I can sit in the park across from the monastery and eat roasted chestnuts (castanhas). The street vendors here roast them in the fall and they are cheap and I´ve been meaning to try them (I had them the next day too, they are my new Portuguese comfort food... though someone today told me they have them in Switzerland and France too, probably everywhere in Europe).

Alright! So full of chestnuts and thoroughly "park"ed I decide to walk back to central Lisbon. But then I get distracted by what I think is the cemetery I was trying to find the other day, perched on a cliff at least 3km away, so I head towards that. I somehow end up climbing the road that swings all the way around the cemetery (great view of Lisbon though) and eventually make it. Oh, it is totally not the cemetery I thought it was, but it is so neat! Cemetery and chestnuts were the highlight of this day. This is the Cemitério Prazeres (Cemetery of Pleasures), where, I just found out today, all the rich people are buried. It´s HUGE and filled with row upon row of these ornate houses that contain the coffins of the entire family (most have doors infront so you can see in to the coffins and the altar with everyone´s pictures and personal belongings, like coats and shoes!). Towards the back, where things get older, some of the glass doors are broken and the coffins have fallen over and open, but you try your best to avoid those ones (but then you kind of look too, because maybe you´ll see something you´ll regret seeing later... but then you also hold your breath because you´ve seen those National Geographic programs where long dead mummies have crazy bacteria that kill people). Anyway... the cemetery was awesome, and it only took me an hour to climb there (I found out today there´s a tram that drops you off right infront of it, and I´ve been meaning to take that exact tram... oh well!). The walk back was buh-rutal, let´s leave it at that, but the pistachio gelato I had in Rossio square more than made up for it. I went to bed early and woke up headache free!

November 27, 2011 (Marques de Pombal)
I woke up today thoroughly determined to spend most of my day wandering in the parks, which I did, so this will be a short post. In the morning I hit the Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, the museum containing the massive art collection of Calouste Gulbenkian (who I am to understand made a fortune in oil and bought 2.8 billion euros worth of expensive art). Onwards! Museums are free on Sunday, hence why I found myself here today (that and they have free classical music concerts on Sunday as well). The museum was absolutely astounding, there were mummy masks, Persian carpets, Chinese pots, Japanese silk hangings, Roman busts, paintings, ornate jewelery, this Calouste guy had good taste! I really enjoyed myself here, it was quiet and I took as much time as I wanted just wandering.

 Silk Hanging, Japan, 19th Century
 The Mirror of Venus, Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones
Jewelery by René Jules Lalique (I can´t even express how beautiful this collection was)
 Spring, Alfred-Auguste Janniot

I spent some time listening to the music in the foyer and then headed next door for the Modern Art Museum. I should probably know by now that Modern Art is not my favourite, but hey, it was free, so I gave it a go. As expected I waffled between "I don´t get it" and "I could have done that." Maybe that makes me uncouth, but there you have it. However! There was one particular piece that made me "hmmm." It was an untitled painting by João Queiroz, and I´ll post the photo and its description below. Essentially, I got the impression that the artist paints his impression or feeling from a landscape, not the landscape itself. I thought that was fascinating because I´ve been thinking a lot lately about how we remember places that we have been. For example, I have a very vivid memory from a pagoda we visited with Sareth up in the forest in Samdech Oy (Cambodia). I remember the smell of the forest, the sound of the birds, the way the marble felt walking around the giant statue of Buddha, and how there were small puddles from the rain earlier. How would I paint that? How would I purposely capture an impression of that place, what colours would I use, how do you paint the feeling of cool marble on your feet? Anyway, that totally captivated my attention and I stood and stared at the piece for a long time (and read and re-read the description). Lots of love from Lisbon everyone, I hope you all had a great day :) P.S. dessert today was Iogurte Mel e Nozes (yogurt with honey and walnuts).


Friday, 25 November 2011

Lisbon and Sintra (November 23-24)

Double blog day!

Yesterday (November 24th) was lovingly dubbed my "church" day because I went to so many Basilicas! I did try to hit a Museum and an old Jewish cemetary, but I forgot that public workers were on strike, so churches it was! I went to the Igreja de Sao Domingos first, right by the Praca da Figueira. The inquisition used this church to do nasty things, but it´s really nice looking! It is one of the only churches that survived the 1755 earthquake, so it´s one of the few that hasn´t been restored. Next was Basilica dos Martires (Basilica of the Martyrs), which has little inlets around the whole church depicting different martyrs. Igreja da Encarnacao (Church of our Lady of the Incarnation) (not incineration, which was my translation) was my absolute favourite, it has pink marble and gold trim, plus they play Baroque chants in the background to put it over the top.

Then it was time for lunch. I sat down in the Praca de Principe Real to try and find my way to the restaurant in Estrela, but I was totally lost. So, I set out in the "general" direction and eventually found it. It´s a small vegan/vegetarian buffet called Terra and is absolutely charming. I ate out on the enclosed patio, with the birds and some classical music. I had iced jasmine tea and passionfruit mousse for dessert! I did some more wandering around Estrela after that and finished with the Basilica da Estrela, one of the most famous Basilicas in Lisbon, and it´s a giant. It was here that I accidentally wandered in on a wake (I thought I was heading towards the tombs), so I don´t have many pictures!

Today (November 24th) was my "Climbing" day in a city about 40 minutes outside of Lisbon, called Sintra. Here I climbed a 3km hill to get to both the Castelo dos Mouros and the Palacio Nacional da Pena. The Moorish Castle was built by the Arabs in the late 8th century and is totally overgrown with forest, which of course makes it 1000 times more awesome. Apparently these cliffs are usually shrouded in mist, but on this day it was clear and sunny (every day here has been beautiful weather, though I don´t want to jinx it). Parts of the watchtowers were a little high for my liking, but I did get some stellar photos. After the Castle I walked (more climbing) to the Palacio Nacional da Pena, a candy coloured fortress that looks like it´s straight out of Disneyland. What a peculiar and delightful place! The scariest part was the wall walk, which takes you along the perimeter of the castle (perched on a precipice, of course). I had to run toward the end of the trail because it was WAY too high and too narrow. There was a video of it, but I deleted it because it was totally embarrassing. The tour through the castle was great too, all of the wood and plaster details are stunning. If I had a billion dollars I would deck out all of my ceilings just like that.

After exploring the palace I headed through the Parque, which is filled with all sorts of treasures, including a meditation cave for the friars. At the winding top of this trail (more walking!) Is the highest point in Sintra, where they built Crux Alto, a white cross. The last picture was taken from this vantage point, I definitely think it was worth all that climbing :)

Later days,
P.S. I have NO idea what I want to do tomorrow, so stay tuned (hopefully something that doesn´t involve building upon my already massive blisters?)