Tico Immersion in Costa Rica

17 01 2019

 

“It’s a lot like the state of Indiana,” I’ve been telling co-workers about my recent trip to Costa Rica, “except there are volcanoes where Indianapolis is, and ocean where Illinois and Ohio are!” They laugh, and then I lean forward to share the real deal travel stories.

Costa Rica was selected because our dear friend, Leo, is from there. When I asked him about places he recommended to see, he threw his hands up with excitement and exclaimed, “It’s ALL so beautiful!” It landed on the short list of places we were considering for a nearby, warm weather getaway, and I thought it would be an American-style destination that would be comfortable enough for my mom to enjoy joining us on our trip. A bonus was being told that Leo’s family has a little casa in the hills that we could use as a home base! Knowing this, we decide to plan our trip around 1 or 2 night excursions from the casa, renting a car for ultimate flexibility.

We learned on our honeymoon in Asia that, with good research and resources, the best travel experiences are mostly unplanned. We spent months reading up, adding to links and lists of possible activities or venues, all captured in an online Google doc, which we can then access offline from our phones.

Research everything, but book nothing. Let your local experiences guide you to what’s next!

Our holiday gift to my mother, Becky, was a handmade ‘coupon book.’ I filled it with colorful pictures and potential destinations that she could pick and choose from, based on what sounded good to her each day. She got to just relax and enjoy the ride, without worrying about planning a thing!

 

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Our very first full day in Costa Rica was unambitious. We had stayed at a western-style hotel near the airport, since Becky flew in ahead of us, I wanted it to be easy for her to navigate in a country whose language she does not speak. So Bethany and I walked to get our rental car, picked Becky up from the hotel, and I began navigating us to the tiny village of Cerilles.

49812750_2338561356226475_5709171916288294912_nThe Intercontinental freeway, Route 1, was nothing more than a winding 2-lane road with slowly chugging trucks, dangerously zooming cars darting ahead of us on blind curves, and the occasional four-legged perro happily trotting across the pavement. I saw more dogs in roads in Costa Rica than I saw deer in rural Michigan my entire life.

My child-level español vocabulary quickly expanded to understand signs like “Ceda el paso” (wait to pass) and “Puede Angosta” (narrow bridge), while Bethany adapted to the anything-goes driving style of the locals. You want to pass the overloaded S10 pickup truck driving 20 km below the speed limit to avoid toppling the entire contents of their apartment? Just beep twice to let them know, and scoot narrowly past them. The oncoming traffic will slow down or drive on the shoulder to avoid hitting you.

When we finally arrived at the last turn, we counted our blessings and tried to shake off the stress of the hour and a half drive from San Jose. Leo had arranged for his family’s neighbor, Diego, to meet us at the end of the road, to help us find the casa. Buildings don’t have numbers there, you see, you just get verbal directions to go by. Take a left at the schoolhouse onto a dirt road, and the casa is not far. Unfortunately, we had arrived about an hour earlier than we told Diego, and without wifi, we could not tell him we had already arrived. Plus, Diego speaks no English, so we needed a translator.

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As is common in Costa Rica, rural roads are dotted with tiny storefronts selling soda, bread, some necessities, and basic snacks. This was where we were scheduled to meet Diego in Cerilles. Knowing that my Spanish was nowhere near good enough yet, I stepped out of the shiny black SUV and entered the store. It was no bigger than a bedroom, I noticed, as the man behind the counter stared at the three pale gringas approaching him.

“Hola! Como esta?” I politely greeted the man, not knowing what I would say next, after, “Habla Ingles?” We tried to see if he would recognize Leo’s last name, asking, “Casa de Angulo?” while pointing up the road. Bethany pulled up Diego’s last name from her What’sApp conversation, and showed that to the man. “Ah, si!” the man nodded with much relief. What came next out of his mouth was a slew of words I did not know, dotted with a handful that I could recognize.

“Izquierda… rápido… casa… primera izquierda.”

“I think he’s saying it’s down this road and the first house on the left?” I tried repeating to confirm, using hand gestures, and he promptly told me, No, no… and then repeated himself with more emphasis on the up hill part of the directions. “Ah, si!” I gleefully replied, then turned to my wife and mother to translate. “Okay, I think past a couple other houses, then it’s up the hill, THEN the first house on the left!”

We bought some almost stale bread and a bag of clementines from him to show our appreciation, and because we had no clue where else we would find food nearby for the morning. We piled back into our foreigner’s vehicle, and took a deep breath. Bethany switched on the 4-wheel drive, and down the road we went. Just as the man described, at the top of the hill there was a gate and a driveway that disappeared behind a steep decline. We missed it, thinking it was a gate to a pasture, and pulled in the second driveway, where we were delighted to see a man standing outside. “Diego?” Bethany optimistically asked. “Si!”

After exchanging basic greetings, Diego turned to me and began speaking rapidly another stream of words I did not understand. My gift and my curse, you see, is that I have a musical ear, which allows me to learn and pronounce foreign languages very well, so I sound like I’m a fluent speaker, even when I’m not. “Estudio espanol,” I had practiced explaining, “perro intiendo solo un poco.” Diego nodded and resorted to hand gestures to guide us back to the other driveway. The dirt road, while technically two-way traffic, was extremely narrow, with ditches on both sides, which made for a twenty-point turn to reverse the direction of our large vehicle.

Diego got us into the casa, where we tried again to communicate in espanol. I felt a lot of pressure, as my mother asked me to ask him several questions, which I had no clue how to ask. While my spanish vocabulary is still infinitesimally small, I had learned some basic pronunciation trends, and started guessing at words that I expected would be cognates. Surprisingly, this attempt to make up words I didn’t know actually helped at times.

“Esta aqui air-condicion?”

“No.”

“Donde esta el restaurante bueno?”

[A bunch of words I don’t know]… “Neccessito algo con Supermercado?”

In my attempt to ask about a restaurant for dinner, I thought he was telling me that they were closed because it was Sunday, but that we could buy groceries at the supermarket. I think I was totally misunderstanding him, however.

49089405_201951067426052_4779967295260721152_nAfter we unpacked and opened a few windows to catch a breeze, I looked at my map again and we decided to drive back to the nearby town of Esparza, which actually showed a few gridded streets, and looked promising of some civilization. We explored the town square, a charmingly populated block shaded by a massive oak tree, adorned by holiday lights, and filled with the co-mingling sounds of Sunday evening music and the squeals of children playing. The plain white church (which every town square requires in Costa Rica) sat properly on the east side of the square, its tall wooden doors wide open to the setting sun. 

On the opposite side was the supermercado, and we walked in to get a few staples for the morning. As we entered, I realized that the loud dance music I was hearing was actually leaking out from the store, and we were greeted by a booming, live DJ to entertain us while we shopped for bread and wine. “Well I can say that this is a first,” I joked with my mom about our grocery store dance party.

Nobody in the store spoke English either, which was okay, since money uses numbers and we could figure out the rest from context. After we paid what seemed like an extraordinary amount of cash in the local currency, colones, we packed up our few items and headed off in search of dinner.

Most of the buildings were just one story, and appeared well worn by generations of families. The restaurants also appeared to be extensions of homes, with a very humble and casual set up. We found a slightly larger restaurant, called Albizu, which looked a bit cleaner, more commercial, and acceptable to all three of us. So, hungry and tired from our immersive travel of the day, we pulled in to attempt to order our very first meal without any English.

Unlike many other countries I’ve traveled to, not even the younger denizens are willing or able to attempt English. Once more, I became the dedicated translator, with the help of my app, of course. Much like the U.S., many people do not really understand what “vegano” means, so I found myself carefully explaining all the things we could NOT eat, and simply hoping that they understood my intent. “Sin carne, sin heuvos, sin leche…”

I ordered a delicious dish with fried plantain pancakes, and refried beans, which go surprisingly well spread atop the crispy, savory plantain. Mom was happy with her “pollo” (chicken), and Bethany with her salad. All three of us were relieved at the deliciously satisfying meal that we miraculously managed to obtain. As scary as the language barrier had felt earlier, we all breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that at least we would eat well. 

 

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A Secret Brazil in Kentucky

18 12 2018

Recently, while en route from Indiana to Tennessee, I stumbled upon a most unexpected surprise. A little snippet of my fond memories of Brazil, in nowheresville, Kentucky.

 

IMG_5278We had just completed a stop at a bourbon distillery, acquiring one of our Bourbon Trail Passport stamps. We were merrily cruising through rural Kentucky on two lane roads neither of us had ever before traversed. That is one of the neat bonuses about making bourbon stops along the way, yielding our familiar route over for new terrain. The late afternoon sun was growing lazy, as we all do in winter, fading behind an endless horizon of tree-covered hilltops. The fog rolled over grassy meadows with tar-black fences, settling in the valleys to warm the gently flowing waters that seemed to criss-cross this quiet countryside.

 

We turned onto another rural highway, and found ourselves near some semblance of civilization again. Instead of softly glowing windows from old farm houses, up ahead I saw the distinctive glow of a neon sign. There, sitting atop a 30 foot tall embankment, was a commercial building with a massive sign. thestill0 (2)

 

“Did that say ‘cachaça’???” I rubbernecked the building as we drove past. “I think it DID!” Bethany excitedly exclaimed. We were both questioning our eyes as to why we would be seeing a traditional Brazilian alcohol being advertised here in what is clearly very well known as bourbon country.

the still10Without further conversation, Bethany turned the wheel and slammed on the breaks, looking for a place to turn around. There has been no obvious way to get to the building, perched high up like a crown jewel, simply there to be admired but never touched. Nevertheless, she persisted.

We drove up a driveway to an industrial complex, ignoring the signs that said “No through traffic.” We looped around a warehouse, through the employee parking lot and smoking station, determined to find a way. Just when

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we were about to give up hope, a sliver of asphalt appeared, bridging the grassy moat that stood between us and that glowing building.

We must have looked like hungry children walking into a gingerbread house, our eyes wide with excitement, our tongues quivering with anticipation. Without so much as a “Welcome to The Still,” from the hostess, we poured out our story about our own love affair with cachaça.

It was in 2015 that we first discovered the liquor.

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We learned about it while tasting Caipirinha cocktails in Curitiba, after our host recommended the common drink to us. We enjoyed many a Caipirinha in Sao Paulo as well, but it wan’t until the day we were to fly out that we really sampled our first cachaça on its own. There, our AirBnB host, Adrianne, was holding a small Sunday dinner with friends, and we got to enjoy a traditional Brazilian meal. The centerpiece was a beautiful paella, a large flat dish as wide across as my arm is long. It graced the center of the large dining room table, surrounded by countless other colorful dishes, so that there was barely room to place a plate in front of you.

One of Adrianne’s friends brought his own, homemade cachaça, and insisted that we try some. It was Brazilian moonshine, more powerful than flavorful. He was so proud of his cachaça! I pulled on my whiskey-drinkin’ boots and graciously accepted his generous pours.

When it was time for us to call a ride to take us to the airport, this Brazilian man, a mere stranger two hours earlier, insisted on sending us back to America with his cachaça. Befuddled, we explained that there was no easy way to do this with an open bottle of liquid.

“Ah! I know!” exclaimed Adrienne, running back into the kitchen to retrieve something. She returned with a steel water bottle, its pink colored coating starting to reveal the shiny silver beneath it. She unscrewed the cap and thrust it towards me. “Take it in this!” she insisted. Bethany feebly explained that she didn’t want to steal her water bottle, but Adrienne scoffed at the notion and started pouring cachaça into the vessel. We opened the drawstrings on Bethany’s backpack, gently rolled the bottle in clothing, and prepared to check our very own moonshine cachaça to be reunited with us stateside.

At The Still, they explained how the owner of AmBev had traveled to Brazil for a wedding, and fell in love with the drink. Immediately, they hatched a plan to import cachaça to their home base, to become likely the very first purveyor of cachaça in Kentucky.

thestill6We eagerly sampled their three types of cachaça, and marveled at the fresh, subtly citrus notes in the original version. The others were good too, but the classic cachaça won over my heart once more. We bought a bottle to take with us home once more, to reminisce about our Brazilian friends and cultural experiences.

So, if you ever want to experience a little bit of Brazilian mixology, or find yourself driving down KY-127 in Danville, KY, do yourself a favor and stop in for a drink. You won’t be disappointed.

 





The Best Bourbon Tour in Town

15 12 2018

It had been a wonderful weekend catching up with my In-Laws. What can sometimes be awkward and exhausting, this time was all around pleasant and joyful! Alas, we had a 6-7 hour drive home ahead of us, and so, after a short but beautiful hike nearby, my wife and I hit the road to head home.

“Let’s stop at another bourbon distillery to break up the drive,” she cheerily suggested. Since she insisted on driving both ways, I was happy to oblige with a chance for her to step out of the car and walk around for an hour while we both learned more about the magic of bourbon, and I would get to savor some lovely samples.

I was floored that any of these bourbon trail stops would be open on Sundays, especially in Kentucky, but I guess the dollar speaks louder than I realized. Still, most of them close by 3 or 4pm, which limited our options given our late, post-hike departure from Loudon, TN. Thanks to the quick Google search results, I found a place open late enough that we could make it there in time for a tour!

town branch 1I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical about a distillery tour in downtown Lexington. My previous experience had been on large estates nestled between horse farms and rural country houses. Those tours were 1/3 process, 1/3 history, and 1/3 estate ambiance. Was  it possible to achieve the same result in a city block? Sure! But not nearly as romantic. I was dubious of the entertainment value of this so-called tour.

We were worried about timing as we pulled down the alley and found the parking lot behind the buildings. I rushed to walk our dog in the vacant lot next door so she could nestle herself back into her doggie dreams, despite my annoying interruption. Bethany rushed ahead to find the entrance and try to get our tickets in time.

Zaha refused to get back in the car, flopping unceremoniously onto the sun-drenched asphalt parking lot, wriggling around on her back like a pill bug. I rolled my eyes and tugged on her leash, but her red harness was busy being rubbed into the ground. An SUV turned to enter the parking lot, and I momentarily feared for her safety. The driver stopped, and I looked up to see their faces light up with laughter, filling their vessel at the sight of this unruly dog. I sheepishly waved to thank them for their patience as I wrestled my dog from the middle of the aisle to wrangle her back into her bed in our car.

As I walked briskly to catch up, passing the group of four who walked in right behind me. Due to our time constraints with the long drive remaining, the cashier decided to hand us over to our guide, Woodrow, for a customized tour for just the two of us. We skipped their brewery, and went straight to the distillery. The tour started off a little rushed, I’m sure because of whatever Bethany had said before I got there. But once we got to the tasting room, Woodrow relaxed and reflected our own pace and level of interest.

town branch2“Oh, you’re an Architect!” he lit up, “Well then you should know something special about this building they built.” He pointed at the dry stacked stone wall, and pointed out the significance of the heart-shaped stone hidden high up on the wall above the passage to the warehouse. From there on out, we were BFFs. Woodrow shared some interesting facts, prompted after he assumed we already knew them. “Oh, yes, you have a dominant nostril,” he went on to explain, “and it shifts every four hours or so.” REALLY?!?

He went into great detail to answer every single question we came up with. He made us feel like he had nothing but time for us. At the end of our tour, we thanked him again for spending so much time for us, and he retorted, “Some tours are dreadful, but I have honestly had the most wonderful time with you ladies, so thank YOU!”

town branch5We purchased way too many souvenirs to remember this day, prompting a bonus gesture from Woodrow, and merrily made our way back to our snoozing dog. A tour I was doubtful of, turned out to be one of the most intimate and heartfelt. Thank YOU, Woodrow! We will be sure to stop back by next time we are in Lexington.

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Sweden

13 06 2018

About six years ago, a dear friend of mine moved to Sweden. It was quite a departure from her life in San Antonio, Texas, where she had moved after we graduated Architecture school together in Austin. In fact, winter in Austin was just slightly cooler than summer in Stockholm, where she now calls home.

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For years, I had been meaning to prioritize heading there to see her and her husband, Carl. It just kept being pushed to the back burner for more adventurous trips that aligned better with our travel matrix. You see, as an avid traveler, with a modest budget, I can only make it so many places in a given year. Usually I try to travel to places that are higher on my list, which is a pretty simple assessment.

 

Top Travel Priorities =

  1. Places at risk of disappearing due to climate change (already checked off the Maldives, Glacier National Park, and the Everglades)
  2. Places that require very long travel times (Asia, Australia, very remote islands, etc.), which are easier to handle while my body is young, and will be more painful if I wait until I’m older to explore.
  3. Once-in-a-lifetime events and cheap deals that are too good to pass up. (Solar Eclipse in Paducah, KY is a local example, or visiting a friend in the Peace Corp in Ouagadougou, which I regret missing out on)

 

So, when I heard an interview last fall on NPR about silly-cheap flights to the Nordic regions, I had to explore. Apparently, Norwegian Air was offering round trip flights for as little as a few hundred bucks, which was less than half of my first European travel back in 2001! Online I went to explore the possibility.

 

At first, it seemed too good to be true! $400 to fly to see Raina and Carl? Totally worth it! As I worked my way through the airline’s website, however, I was nickeled and dimed to death, with add-ons for so many ridiculous things that mainstream airlines like Delta or American Airlines don’t pester customers with. Eventually, I made it to the final page, with the “no-turning-back” button staring me down. As I prepared to click to book the flight, I was accostsed with yet another pop up. “Want to pay with credit card?” It taunted, “That’ll  just be another $33 fee!” This was the last straw.

I opened another tab and did a quick search. Turkish Airlines, which we had flown last year to Sri Lanka, was all-inclusive, and just about $500. It was worth it to know I had an assigned seat, room for my luggage, and even free drinks on the flight! Plus- BONUS- I had enough reward points from my credit card hobby to buy both our tickets without spending a dime!!

 

Thus, our trip was booked! Free flight, free accommodations (thanks to Raina and Carl for putting us up in their office/spare room!), so we just had to pay for meals, entertainment, and local transportation. My wife and I were very much looking forward to a different kind of vacation, with the ease and comfort of knowing locals, and a cultural experience more like our own than different.

 

What I discovered, was a bit surprising. This is very much my personal experience, which reflects my own travel history moreso than Sweden’s generous offerings.arctic circle

 

Sweden is north.

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Really far north. Like, “further-up-than-most-of-the-country-of-Canada” north. Which means the sun plays tricks with your body, by doing things like making the sky light at 3am (or 10am, depending on the time of year). While it technically rose at 4:30am, the sky begins to glow for hours before and after the official existence of the sun in the sky. This seemed like no biggie, but after tacking up extra curtains, wearing an eyemask (thank you for the freebie, Turkish Airline!), and covering my head with a pillow, the sun was no match for my body’s incessant alignment to the cycles of the sun. I slept well every second or third day, which made it tougher to fully enjoy our daily excursions.

Sweden is soooo easy.

Never in a million years did I expect this to come out of my mouth, but our vacation was almost TOO easy for me. I didn’t realize how much I enjoy the challenge of learning a new language, adapting to other countries’ cultures, and the challenges of figuring out how things work. This is definitely a sensation that has evolved over years of traveling to less and less developed parts of the world. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a lazy day where I can relax, order a beverage in my native tongue, and not have a care in the world. But I also (apparently) really enjoy the challenges of foreign travel. Maybe it just makes for better stories.

There’s no language barrier.

In Stockholm, as in many large European cities, everybody speaks English. Here, it’s partly because they have free college education as citizens. Even when we tried speaking Swedish, people responded to us in English, which, as a language lover, was sometimes disappointing. Clearly, I’m privileged as a native English speaker, but it was also beautiful to see so many other visitors from countries all over the world speaking in their native language, and then switching to English (instead of Swedish) to order a meal.

 

Cars not required.

Our friends and hosts, Raina and Carl, do not own a car. They live and work in a place where they can either walk, bike, or take the metro every single day. Even when we wanted to escape to the country, we could do so by simply taking one of many ferries out through the archipelago to a remote island, knowing that there was a regular schedule to allow us to return home at regular intervals. Never once did I feel ‘stuck’ without a car, because their transportation system is so interconnected, frequent, and redundant, that at almost any point we had multiple options of how we wanted to get home.

Stockholm was inviting.

This city is extremely clean, feels very safe, and most importantly, it has good urban design.

 

As an Architect, I relish in discovering the dichotomy of ancient ruins, historically preserved buildings, and modern infill. Yet, unlike other major European cities I’ve been to, Stockholm feels much more preserved. It’s not that there is no modern design, but that the scale is kept in check with historic neighbors. There is not a ‘downtown’ filled with skyscrapers, in fact,  there are seldom any buildings taller than the predominant 5-8 stories. Instead, new construction is respectful, and typically built no higher than the tallest neighbor, which is often a church steeple from 400 years ago. The city has maintained a human scale, where you feel like you still matter. This makes it feel like a much smaller city than Indianapolis, despite having 50% more residents.

 

The density of the built environment n Stockholm is much more consistent, versus the skyscraper cluster that transitions into single family homes in less than a mile of downtown Indy. Single family homes are rare in Stockholm, and our friends owned a flat in a 4 or 5 story apartment building with a beautiful courtyard filled with bicycle parking.

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People MOVE here.

I’m not talking about immigration, although they DO have an unbelievable program that paid for Raina to take a year of intensive language courses specific to her field of expertise so that she could be a fully productive member of their society.

 

No, I’m taking about how people get around. I mentioned the mass transit, and referenced the bikes, but it really is amazing to see just how little cars are used here. It took me a few days to put my finger on it, but when I did, it was truly eye opening. After spending endless hours walking the cobblestone streets of the chain of islands that make up Stockholm, we sat at an outdoor cafe, joined by others willing to brave the chilly 61F temps to celebrate winter’s passing.

 

31403986_2000446300037984_1177753822146862086_nWith a glass of wine in hand, we sat and watched the boats pass by, the regular trains over bridges, and the abundance of pedestrians. I started watching more closely to observe the footwear of those who clearly were walking to or from work. What I noticed was starkly contrasting to what I would see back home. Unlike the business professionals in Indy, the very stylish Swedes made one small concession. They wore comfortable shoes. Think about this. Not a single woman walked past us wearing high heels. They were just too impractical! Instead, women wore sneakers- all of them! They might have fancier shoes at work to change into, but nobody was judged for wearing logical shoes on their walk to work. And you can see the difference in how fit everyone is!

 

There’s room to breathe.

One of the very unique aspects of Stockholm is that is is made up of a series of islands. Each island is connected via numerous bridges and tunnels, and many waterfronts are also lined with public parks and trails for biking and walking. While many of these parks are narrow strips of green, the interstitial space between the islands effectively functions like additional park space. No matter how dense the buildings are, you are seldom more than a 15 minute walk to a waterfront, which functions as a ‘release’ from the density. It gives your mind and body space to breathe, and enough visual distance for beautiful vistas that encourage you to slow down and enjoy the view.

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People Matter.

Hands down, the most fascinating thing to me about our experience in Sweden was the culture.  It left me so impressed, I can imagine why people want to live here, despite the dayless winters and nightless summers.

 

Taxes are high, and they have the social support system to prove it. For example, I saw more men pushing baby strollers on any given day than I have seen in the US in any given year. Swedes get 14 months paid leave when they have a baby! They also value work-life balance. When you work overtime, it gets banked as extra vacation time, on top of the 4 weeks of standard vacation folks already get. And your boss expects you to actually take all that vacation time!

 

Lastly, I have one word for you. FICA (pronounced “Fee-kuh”). Fica is a national concept that every employee, EVERYWHERE, takes a mid-morning break, where it’s practically mandatory for you to leave your desk, grab a coffee, and socialize with your coworkers for 15-25 minutes. Then, in mid-afternoon, you do it again. We actually went to Raina’s architecture firm to witness a Fica, and it was surreal. They even play ping-pong like socialists. Everyone grabbed a paddle, walks in a circle around the table, and takes one turn to hit the ball before continuing forward to make room for the next player. It felt like I was in a commune (but in a good way, and much cleaner). I’ve now taken it upon myself (as a person who eats lunch at my desk while working) to embrace this concept of Fica and bring it back to Indianapolis.

All-in-all, we had a very enjoyable experience. I didn’t even get into the specific sites and attractions Sweden offers, but that’s what your ‘big box’ travel sites are for! If you’re looking for a nice entry to oversees travel, I highly recommend it. Or if you just want an easy place to wander, you’ll never feel lost in Sweden. Say “Hi!” to Raina and Carl for us!





Turkey: The Architecture of Terror

17 04 2018

I’m getting ready to fly back through Istanbul for the second time in just over a year. This time, however, I have no plans to step foot outside the airport.

 

I wasn’t looking to visit Turkey again, but after chasing a ‘cheap airfare rabbit’ down a dead-end hole with Norwegian Air, I decided to look elsewhere for a cheap flight to Sweden. To my surprise, Turkish Airline was comparably cheap- around $500 round-trip! Bonus points because I actually accrued miles with them last year, and was able to buy my flight for free using other credit card points. So… Turkey is is then!

 

Last year, we flew through Istanbul en route to Sri Lanka, with a hefty 8 hour layover in both directions. Better yet, Turkish Airline offered a free tour bus for anyone with a layover of more than 6 hours! We could safely explore a few highlights in a group, with a tour guide and even two meals provided. I was excited about the opportunity to explore Turkey for the first time. As a young Architect student, I had studied Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, and was thrilled to finally experience these ancient architectural marvels in real life!

On the day of our departure from Chicago, a massive snowstorm was rolling in. While we were incredibly lucky not to be cancelled, it did leave us stranded on the tarmac for 3 hours until we could be deiced. We couldn’t watch any of the in-air entertainment yet, so I decided to catch up on email and social media. When I powered my phone back up, Facebook started exploding with concerned messages. “Are you two okay??” friends asked. Geez, it’s just a snowstorm, I thought. As I read on, however, I learned that this was not their concern. Apparently there had been a bombing in Istanbul at the stadium. It was chaos as the news was breaking, and friends and family knew only that we were supposed to be there, but were unsure of the exact timing. I spent the next hour assuring everyone that we were safely delayed. We were not counted among the 44 dead and 155 injured.

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This near miss certainly did not go unappreciated. Timing is everything, and clearly we were grateful for our 6 inches of snow and counting. Our flight delay did, however, carve into our layover, making the planned excursion impossible. I had mixed feelings, as a renewed sense of security concern washed over our plans to experience this famous city. After all, it was just 6 months earlier that the airport itself had suffered a terrorist attack. Is it wise to still consider exploring the city, after all that has happened there? We knew we at least had one more chance on the way home, and we would call it then.

 

After enjoying a successful conference and a couple weeks of vacation in Sri Lanka, we were renewed in our excitement to see Istanbul. Our flight arrived early, around 6am, so we headed to the VIP lounge (thank you, credit card perks!) to get breakfast and relax until the tour departure. We knew that we would have to get a visa, which supposedly was a quick and easy process. They lied. It was a nightmare! We spent 3 hours running all over, getting conflicting information, and watching the same visa guy treat everyone like wanted criminals. We missed our tour bus. Eventually, after spending way more money than we expected, we escaped the airport and took the metro into the city. This was my only chance, and I refused to let it slip through my fingers!

 

It was just above freezing, dreary, and drizzling. Bethany had lost her winter coat on the trip, so I gave her mine. We wrapped our heads in silk scarves to draw less attention to ourselves, and tried to blend in, knowing that being American was one thing, but being two American women- and lesbians, no less- was a whole separate level of risk.

 

Hagia Sophia WAS amazing, though not as mind-blowing without sunshine streaming in the windows to make the dome appear to float. There is no heat (it was built in 537 AD), and I was frozen to my bones after an hour. The rain had turned to sleet, and the inches-deep puddles were starting to ice over in shallower spots. We couldn’t bear the thought of taking off our rain-soaked shoes to step inside the cold, stone floors of the Blue Mosque, so that was the end of it.

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Just days after our return back home, Istanbul suffered yet another horrific attack, book-ending our trip in the most terrible manner. This pretty much settled it. No matter how much I desired to immerse myself in this ancient city, to go back and enjoy summer evenings strolling through sidewalk cafes, spending days-on-end losing myself in its architecture… Istanbul has lost all appeal to me… for now. So, next time I’m there, I won’t wonder what I’m missing, or expend energy calculating the mental stress of taking a risk being a tourist in dangerous times, or feel like a boring traveler for not getting outside of the airport. Instead, I will enjoy my free drinks in the airport lounge, and spend my layover hours practicing pronunciation with my new Swedish language app.

 

 





Berlin Spazieren Gehen

6 03 2018

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While living  in Prague for the summer, for the first time in my life, I had foreign culture at my fingertips. On weekends, studio mates would plan quick excursions to neighboring countries. I had never been to any of them. With feverish abandon, I gobbled up every opportunity. Although our true purpose was to study the Architecture and develop our design skills, I was deeply afflicted by the travel bug that could not be denied.

 

Anywhere I was invited, I went. Some weekends we just went to the train station and found the cheapest ticket to anywhere.

 

An overnight train to Poland, switching trains in Warsaw to go to Krakow? Absolutely! My modest attempts at learning Czech actually paid dividends there, as I discovered that Polish language overlaps significantly with Czech, and I could still communicate the most basic needs. Krakow was a dull, dirty town, when we arrived at 4:30 in the morning to an empty station lit with orange lights. It felt appropriately depressing as a transition to go pay our respects and weep at the horrors of the Birkenau-Auschwitz holocaust death camp.

How about Hungary? Why not? Another weekend a fellow travel grrrl and I went together to Budapest. I studied the language book feverishly during our trip, struggling to make heads or tails of this unusually difficult language. The city, however, felt instantly familiar. I began to notice that most old European cities follow the same basic pattern of settling along a major river, infilling the river basin on one side with the old town, while across the river an elevated cliff was dominated by an old castle surveying the kingdom. We actually stayed inside the Citadel, overlooking the Danube as it gently embraced  the town square.

Berlin? Our studio professors organized an optional group trip to Berlin, where I had just explored intensely for 10 days a couple months prior. I loved Berlin, and was thrilled to go back to practice more of the only foreign language in which I actually could converse fluidly. Since most of my studio mates had never been before, they set off on a whirlwind tour of highlights, all of which I had not only seen, but studied immensely for a semester before traveling there.

 

Berlin_Eiermann_Memorial_ChurchAfter I revisited the few highlights that I enjoyed the most, I departed from the group to explore a bit more off the beaten path. It was thrilling and a bit scary to be completely on my own in a big city in another country! I walked the streets, already feeling fairly oriented in Berlin, and familiar with the major metro lines to traverse the city easily.

 

I wound up at a large open green space, a lovely respite from a long day of flanuering on foot. I found a park bench, and sat down to absorb the sounds of birds dsc03240chirping from the trees, and to watch the steady stream of locals moving thoughtlessly through their daily routines. An elderly man slowly walked towards my park bench and asked, in German, if he could sit next to me. I politely agreed with a smile, secretly thrilled to get to use my German.

 

We sat side by side, gazing contently, the only two people breathing in the moment. He started making some small talk, and quickly noticed my accent. “Wo kommen Sie her?” he inquired about my origins. I smiled, and he quickly followed up with “Russisch?” I couldn’t help but chuckle… “No,” I told him in German, “I am not Russian.” “Really? But you sound so Russian!” he exclaimed in disbelief. I had never heard that one before!

 

We had a lovely conversation, and after a few more minutes he said, “Wir sollen spazieren gehen,” which is a German phrase meaning we should take a stroll together, and talk while we walk. I loved the idea, but then I remembered that, however sweet this old man seemed to be, I was a single foreign woman, in an unknown location, talking to a stranger, and perhaps changing destinations would be ill advised. He continued to suggest this, and I felt bad declining. It felt like such a German thing to do, but, alas, I elected to be safe.

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I often wonder what wondrous things this elderly man might have shown me on our walk, what stories he might have shared from his younger days. If he would have talked about the war, or the wall, and what life was like back then. He’s probably passed away by now, and I wonder if he ever thought twice about that Russian-sounding American young lady that he met at the park that day.





Hypnosis in Prague

22 02 2018

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Nervous and excited, I waited in the airport for my second overseas trip of my life. Just 2 months earlier, I had my first foray into Europe. The taste of travel lingered on my lips, a pure, crystalline addiction so sweet that I instantly craved for more.

 

Before I knew it, I was granted a scholarship to study abroad for the summer, packing up my apartment, and fervently studying a Berlitz Czech language book. One year earlier, I didn’t even know what country Prague resided in.

 

Together with just over a dozen others, I landed in this strange city with smoke-filled accents and endlessly winding city streets that left me dazed and disoriented. Four of us shared an apartment up on the hillside, a short walk from the zoo. It was a quiet neighborhood, with a small corner grocery store and a large open green space close by. The ‘Letenska Plan’ park used to be home to a giant statue of Stalin’s head staring down at the city, but by the time I arrived his head had exploded and been replaced with a massive metronome sculpture. I quickly learned to stifle my awe at the seemingly mile-deep escalator to get to my metro stop, ‘Hradcanska.’ I fumbled to understand why I was the only one standing bag-less at the grocery store checkout, grateful for the stranger who pitied my naivety and gave me one of her bags. I taught myself how to order “voda bez bubbly” in order to get free tap water.

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In short order, my routine afforded me a quick familiarity with the city of Praha. I checked off the touristy things, like the 1400s era ‘Karlov Most’ (Charles Bridge), and dining in a below-grade, brick-arched cellar restaurant. I began to easily orient myself on crooked streets by the landmarks and proximity to the town square. I didn’t need a map most of the time, though I always kept one in my satchel just in case. We didn’t have cell phones yet, and I relied 100% on my rudimentary Czech language skills and the kindness of strangers.

One afternoon I was preparing to go into studio to work on my design project. I needed to sketch out a few more ideas before I could start building my model, so I decided to take advantage of the beautiful sunny weather and go sit at a park bench along a small riverside stretch of green. I stared out at the gently moving water, listening to the birds, with the murmurs of Czech-speaking crowds a fuzzy distance away, filtered by my English ears. I pulled out my sketchbook and pencils and began to draw the scenery before me. I felt so connected to this place, which inspired my artistic side. Dappled sunlight filtered through the trees and kissed my bare shoulders. I felt like my heart was bursting with joy and an unimaginable sense of contentment.

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After a little while, I sensed someone observing me. A young man in his twenties stepped closer and smiled. “You seem so at peace,” he beamed at me. I was caught of guard, but replied, “Oh? Yes, well it’s a gorgeous day!” He asked me about my artwork, and sat down at the other end of the bench to get a closer look. He seemed nice enough, asking innocent questions, and sharing a joyful attitude.

 

Then it got weird. He started cooing about how “pure” my soul was, about how he could see into it through my eyes. The creepiest part though, was not that I felt like I was being hit on, it was that I FELT like he was actually seeing inside my soul! Without my permission, yet without any physical contact, I felt completely violated. My head felt suddenly dizzy, buzzing with strange thoughts, like, maybe I was being hypnotized?!? Was I about to be abducted into a cult? I had no idea what was happening, but it freaked me out in a way I had never felt before.

 

While this man had technically done nothing illegal, I stammered an excuse about needing to get to class, and hastily left. Was I overreacting? What just happened? All I knew was that my eyes were streaming tears the entire way back to my studio, and my sobbing left me struggling to breathe. I had no idea why I felt so scared. I took a few minutes, back against a cold brick wall, to try to calm myself before entering our building. With bloodshot eyes, I tried to explain it to my female classmates, who comforted me, though I don’t really know what they thought of my story. I still don’t know what that was, but it certainly left an impact on me, all these years later.

 

You don’t have to have a reason. You don’t have to wait for something bad to happen. No matter what, always listen to your gut instincts. I hope that all women will learn to trust themselves more than some external logic when it comes to their own sense of safety.

 

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