Bioilluminescent Bay in Océano Pacífico

15 02 2019

After Becky flew home, we still had a few days left in Costa Rica. By that time, our native friend, Leo, had arrived to travel with us and answer a thousand questions I had developed over the previous seven days, about culture and language and landscape.

We decided to do one last excursion, booking a hotel for a night across the bay near the towns of Tambor and Montezuma. I had read about a beautiful waterfall there, and great snorkeling nearby.

The trip started off a lot more stressful than we expected. Given how sleepy the town of Puntarenas is, and Leo’s memories of riding the ferry as a child, we didn’t expect to see a line of cars wrapping blocks around the peninsula waiting to board the 9am ferry.

We did not make the 9am ferry. I don’t think we would have even made the 11am ferry. So, we shifted gears and rerouted to another ferry at 10am, which would take us about an hour’s drive further north from where we expected to land. We had no urgent time restrictions, and Bethany was game for more driving adventures, so we happily opted for this route!

After another hour waiting in the hot car, it came time to board the boat. Bethany had to drive the car on, and we weren’t sure if I was allowed to ride with her or not, so I got out and waited. There was an intimidating interaction with the angry ticket man yelling at Bethany in Spanish, until Leo came running back to bring the extra ticket he forgot to give her, and then we began our getaway.

Remember, Bethany was a Boat Grrrl before she became a Travel Grrrl, so, despite the stressful start, she climbed right to the top deck, face to the sun, and immediately relaxed on the ferry. It was about an hour-long ride, and I got to practice my español with Leo and his friend, Andres, while Andres polished up his own classroom inglés.

After we arrived at the dock across the bay, we disembarked and began the next leg of our journey. The roads were mostly dirt, and undergoing major construction. The drive south the Tambor Beach area was slow, pausing frequently to wait for massive earth moving equipment to finish scooping up what was left of the old road that they were replacing long stretches of. We arrived at our remote hotel, Castillo Resort, dusty, thirsty, and hoping for an early check-in.

Immediately I could tell that the woman who greeted us was not a native- her English was perfect- and she shared that she’s originally from Italy. She and her Tico sweetheart were continuously adding and improving their property, which featured just 7 modern guest rooms, delicious gallo pinto, and a gorgeous courtyard centered around a small pool. Compared to the other places we had stayed, it was a steal. It was clean and modern, and we only paid $106 (+13% tax) for our room. The best part, was that the couple also booked excursions, and by the time we had checked into our rooms, we already knew what our plans were.

We originally hoped to go to Isle Caños for snorkeling, but the excursion prices were a bit steep, and the timing was challenging, since we were only there for one night. Instead of squeezing in a trip the next day (with a generously late checkout offer by our hosts), we were surprised to learn about an evening excursion alternative.

“Night snorkeling,” they explained, “is unique to this area and this time of year.” I was intrigued. There is bioilluminescent algae that lights up with movement, which you can only see at night. Coincidentally, there happened to be a new moon the next day, so we should be able to see the stars really well, if nothing else.

So, although $50 seemed a little steep, even with free drinks, we negotiated that they bring a wine option for us non-cervesa drinkers, and went for it. None of us had ever done anything like this. In fact, Leo’s local friend shared that this would actually be his first time snorkeling at all! It seemed like a memorable experience to try out while we were there, and we all grew excited to see what was in store!

The trip did not disappoint!! We had no images or expectations in our heads, and, of course, Bethany was just happy to get on another boat. We drove down to the beach around 5pm and boarded a very small boat with another group of six Americans.

“Boarded” probably doesn’t do it justice. With heavy waves crashing in, they brought the boat as close as they could, standing about knee deep in water. Then, two strong men struggled to steady the back of the boat enough between waves to allow one or two people to jump on, shouting, “Go!GoGo!” each time it was safe for another brave passenger to board.

The trip started out with a tour up the river to see the unique habitat of the nearby mangroves. Our guides explained that the unique conditions of partially salt and partially fresh water create perfect conditions for all sorts of creatures, as we slowly puttered along, trying to spot some activity. When we turned around to return to the bay, there was a gorgeous vista of the sun setting behind the mountains.

We motored around to an empty stretch of beach, save for a couple of perros running up and down and barking excitedly to welcome the daily guests! We still had time to either swim or drink or just stare at the surroundings while we waited for it to get dark.

In the water, still reflecting the warm colors of dusk, we couldn’t yet see anything unusual. After a few minutes, however, several people were commenting about getting stung or bit by something. Then I felt it. It was tiny, whatever it was, but it was definitely real. I pulled off a tiny brown speck where the sting was felt. We tried asking the guides about it and they brushed it off. We started worrying that these uncomfortable creatures were just part of the experience. We later concluded that it was something like sea lice or sand fleas, and thankfully they seemed to disappear.

It finally came time for the show. We boarded the boat once more and drove out 20 meters from the shore. Once there, amid the inky darkness of the almost new moon, we could barely see to put on our snorkels, and I think we were all questioning what exactly we had paid for, while looking over the edge of the boat at nothing but darkness.

Ready to find out, I was the first to jump off the boat. As I emerged from my splash, I heard the rest of the party exclaiming, “Whoah! That was so cool!” I looked down and saw my hands slowly swooshing before me, completely surrounded by a cloud of glowing blue dots! I stopped moving, and they disappeared.

I dunked my face in the water and ferociously kicked my feet, in awe of the reactiveness of the microscopic creatures. At first, I was wondering if there were any glowing fish or anything more, but as I sat there, floating in the dark ocean, mesmerized by this natural phenomenon, I realized that this was completely enough. I looked up at the starry night sky, back down at the glowing ocean, and a rush of bliss came over me. It was like the stars of the ocean had come out to greet me.

When our time was up, I was the last one to get back in the boat. I didn’t want it to end. It was one of the most magical and memorable experiences I’ve ever had. I didn’t even bother to try to photograph it, because it would have been impossible to capture. If I ever get the chance again, I will definitely take it.

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The Bay at Puntarenas

7 02 2019

Our time in Costa Rica started with ocean and ended with ocean (as it should be). After our excursion to the mountains for some failed attempts at volcano sightings, we returned to the Pacific to let my mom say adios before her early flight home. We drove from the Casa down to the long, skinny peninsula town of Puntarenas.

In its heyday, Puntarenas was a magnificent, vivacious place. we heard stories of its former glory only after our visit. Given its unique layout, and the fact that trekking all the way out to the end rewarded one with a lighthouse and the ferry station to cross the bay, we expected more than we got.

The perimeter of the town is all beach, lined with street-side parking. We saw a group of police officers standing in the shade near the lighthouse and deemed it safe to park nearby, only to be accosted by a man wearing a self-anointed reflective safety vest and asking us to pay him to watch our car. Bethany refused, speaking only English. She then asked the police officers if we had to pay for parking and confirmed what we thought the man was doing. The area was desolate, though it was still early in the morning. A once glorious resort at the very end was now shut down and abandoned, its dry pool still conveying the impressiveness of its elaborate design and features.

We walked along the beach, which was the only thing to do, given that there are no shops or cafes at the end, and then we decided to move our car and drive further down the coast to a more populated area where we would feel safer being out of sight of our vehicle. Indeed, it did get a bit livelier, and we found a couple of small hotels with street-front restaurants, so we set up our beach towels and relaxed in the sand.

Unlike in beach towns further south, the water in the bay is a muddy grey, with sand clearly made of different material than elsewhere. It wasn’t remarkable, yet we still enjoyed frolicking in the waves for an hour before packing up and heading back to San Jose.

As we drove out of town we found a pocket of activity and stopped for some refreshing drinks and a chance to use a restroom (and hopefully rinse ocean muck from our legs). As I reviewed the menu, even here I had to order en español, and thankfully I was getting better at it by then. I enjoyed a pina fresca con aqua, and Bethany opted for a fresh coconut water, while Becky got a lemonade.

For being just half an hour from the casa we were staying at, it was a fun and worthwhile visit, but I would definitely opt for the prettier beach just slightly further south. The beaches at the nearby town of Caldera looked a bit nicer as we drove past. Water is water, and I was happy to admire it from near or far. We hope that Becky had a wonderful stay, and the multiple and varied experiences all added up to a richer picture of Costa Rica!







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.

 

 








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