Tuesday, July 3, 2012


So, here I am in Rome, blogging about Barcelona.  Don’t worry, I’m not taking up precious sight-seeing time to blog.  Believe me, we’ve done more than our share of sight-seeing today, in fact, I’m rather sick of sights, plus certain readers seem to be getting awfully testy about infrequent blog posts.  I’m trying to have a life-changing trip here people.

No but seriously, I need to blog while it’s fresh.  In a nutshell, Barcelona was amazing!  A beautiful city.  I loved it.  Ok, here’s why…

First of all, it took us over 24 hours on like, seven different trains to get from Amsterdam to Barcelona.  I believe Esack and I may have forgotten to mention that from Berlin to Amsterdam, I lost my phone.  Bummer.  We had an overnight train to Am*dam (I’m very trendy, try to keep up) and we slept the night away on our top bunks, assuming that we would easily wake up when we arrived since Amsterdam was the last stop.  Apparently we missed all that because at about 8 am our cabin door slammed open with a hearty, Dutch accented “AHMstahDAHM?!  You have two minutes!”  Ughhhh the worst way to wake up.  Somewhere between making sure I didn’t leave a shoe behind I must have forgotten my phone in the tangle of sheets.  At least it wasn’t my passport.  And now that it’s gone, I don’t have to worry about losing it anymore!  Sick logic, I know.  Anyway, I started telling this long winded story because one shift you’ll notice from our trip from Berlin to Amsterdam is that all of a sudden, I’m in a lot more photos!  I was the more prolific photographer before my phone flew the coop.

So, 24 hours, seven trains, Barcelona, where was I?  Finally, when we got to Spain we had a little bit of summer!  Up until then it was cold in almost every location we’d stayed in.  Well, Singapore was disgustingly humid, and China was slightly less disgustingly humid, but those weather conditions alone don’t usually equal summer.  Anyway, we finally had some heat and sunshine!  Together!  Perfect Fanta drinking weather.  Oh yes, in Amsterdam Esack and I also discovered the fine art of European Fanta, made with real sugar, it’s what I imagine spouts from the fountains in heaven.  It’s what oompas loompas probably drink with breakfast, it’s… it’s… delightful.  It’s orange soda.  Ok I’m done.  In Barcelona we bought an orange Fanta almost every morning from the hostel.  One day we tried the lemon and immediately regretted it.  Esack will deny this, but seriously orange is the way to go. 

We made friends with the lovely woman who worked the front desk at the hostel.  She was adorably scatter brained and she LOVED Esack’s (very respectable) attempts at Spanish.  She was able to point us to a great restaurant called La Fonda where we tried paella and sangria for the first time.  Along with gazpacho and Iberico ham with asparagus.  The paella was very tasty but not exactly brimming with fruits of the sea.  There were exactly two of everything.  Still, it was great.

We walked along a very famous street in Barcelona called Passeig de Gracia (I am pretty sure that’s what it was called).  It’s a great shopping street and it has some famous architectural spots designed by Antonio Gaudi.  He designed two houses on the street, and I believe some lampposts.  The lampposts weren’t being as avidly photographed by the hordes of tourists, but as an art history major, I can appreciate boring stuff like that.  The houses were amazing!  One in particular is designed to mimic skeletal structures and it is really beautiful in person.  We also visited Gaudi’s infamous, unfinished cathedral Sagrada Familia.  It’s the melting wax church.  It was immense in real life and totally breath taking, although it is and seems forever will be under construction.  I never really understood how you can finish architecture that someone else started, especially when it looks like melting wax.  I think the best part of Sagrada Familia was the pinnacles that seemed to be topped with bowls of tropical fruit.  I mean, that’s religious architecture I can get down with.  We ALSO visited Gaudi’s famous park, Park de Guell.  It’s high up above Barcelona so you can see the whole sprawling enormity of it all.  There is a sitting area with beautiful tiled benches, a small church and baptistery that are very gingerbread house-ish.  From the park you could see the low-lying landscape of Barcelona, all orange and dusty, and then to one side up sprang Sagrada Familia, like an evil melting lair of some demon.  Very cool.  While we were in the park we also found a little feral cat, a busker covering Coldplay songs, and some American study abroad students smoking pot!  Wowz!

So, while we were in Barcelona we didn’t JUST track down Gaudi architecture we also… went to the beach!


Even though I’m the whitest white girl ever, I love the beach, and I’d been whining to Esack to go forEVER.  We decided to get up really early one day and hit the beach before it got too crowded and the sun got too hot.  There is a huge beach right next to downtown called Barceloneta.  The sand is lovely and the water looks beautiful, although it’s allegedly very dirty and was too cold to go in past my knees.  It was a very European beach, aka topless, and at first that was kind of strange but then we got used to it.  Really, everyone minds their own business and most people were just there to get a tan or read a book.  It was so much more relaxed than any beach I’d been to anywhere else.  I did get one beach souvenir, a horrible sunburn!  I’m still peeling, two weeks later.  Oh to be a fair-skinned princess!  And luckily it was only on the backside of my body.  Hooray!  And to top it all off, the sunscreen I did apply did make some attractive streaks on the backs of my legs.  I submitted to Esack’s jokes as long as he agreed to help me apply the aloe.  A fair trade in my opinion. 

Our last night in Barcelona Esack and I decided to try paella again.  We got a recommendation from a Colorado bro who gave Barcelona tours to go to a restaurant called La Rei de la Gamba.  It lies admidst the touristy beachfront restaurants we try to avoid but we decided to give it a shot anyway.  The paella was exactly what we wanted!  Tons of seafood, yummy flavor, and perfectly cooked rice.  We cleaned the pan easily.  Actually, and we happened to see a “friend” of ours from our hostel there.  Ok, well not really a friend, but a guy who was staying in our hostel who happened to be from Pittsburgh!  Weird huh?  There are Pittsburghers everywhere…

Some other food highlights were a tapas meal we had.  There were these little fried fish, potatoes with curry sauce, roasted peppers and other yummy things.  We also went to a delicious bocadillo restaurant called Bo de B.  There is always a huge line and it’s essentially meat in a baguette, with sauce, and then all these crazy toppings like peppers, lentils, cucumbers, corn, cabbage.  Esack ordered chicken, with every sauce, and every topping.  I ordered steak, repeat, repeat.  We didn’t want to miss anything!

A final note on Barcelona.  I always imagined that there S’s were distinct lisps.  But not really… Also, Spain Spanish is so beautiful.  It sounds different than Mexican Spanish.  I think so far, it’s the most beautiful language that I’ve heard.  It bubbles and rises and falls like music.  I had to stop myself from just staring at locals when they spoke.  It’s a good thing you don’t have to stare to listen.  But so their S’s.  It’s really more like a soft T.  That’s the best way I can explain it.  And so, with that, I will no longer make fun of Barcelonans (Barcelonitos?) with a lisp.  I guess I was wrong about that.  And to think!  I thought Americans were right about everything!  This trip is doing strange things to my head….

On to France!

Skeletal Gaudi house

The fruit bowls on Sagrada Familia


Sagrada Familia from Park Guell

Mean mugging tourist

Esack's tourist shot


Gaudi's chapel and baptistery aka gift shop.  Nice!

Sangria man!

The roosting pigeon that won our hearts

Can I do it?

I can, with a touch of lemon!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

European Vegas

by Esack

My plans for a feast and a triumphant return to Berlin were almost cut short just days later, when I was nearly killed by a bicycle in Amsterdam. And again in Leiden (30 minute train ride from Amsterdam), and then again and again in Amsterdam. Bicycles rule the streets of the Netherlands. Anthony Bourdain says, even cars fear them, and he’s right. This was one thing I loved about Amsterdam, and Leiden. The bike lanes are neither on the street, nor on the sidewalk. They are their own thing. The street design of Amsterdam in particular looks like something out of a video game like Mario Kart or Frogger. Gameplay would be most similar to Frogger, though. If the bikes don’t get you, a passing trolley probably will, or at the very least a car, lest you forget that some DO drive there. Julia correctly described it as “an obstacle course for stoners.” [Note from J: I also consider the layout of the city as Dutch revenge for hosting so many annoying tourists. Ha!] And there were stoners aplenty, of course. If you spot a stoned person in Amsterdam, you are also spotting a tourist. Despite the relaxed attitude in the Netherlands toward marijuana (though it is NOT legal, important distinction), the rate of use for citizens of Holland is vastly lower than that of the citizens of The United States. I will resist the urge to make any statement regarding current US drug policy or the money we spend on said policy.

The marijuana, stoners and coffee shops aren’t what I will remember about Amsterdam. I will remember how ridiculously touristy it is. Now, as tourist, I realize that I’m not really qualified to complain about something being touristy. So, I will anyway. It’s too much. The city center area, at least. Our host in Leiden, Berry, told me that the concentric circle layout of the Amsterdam city center is designed to keep people walking in… circles. Let me tell you, it’s effective. Just minutes after leaving the train station we wandered straight into the Red Light District. You literally cannot help but discover the most stereotypically-tourist things in this city. Hence, they will always be the touristy things. We wandered past H&M clothing store probably 20 times unintentionally. H&M, by the way, is the business we have seen the most, after McDonalds, in all our travels. Maybe equal to McDonalds, in fact. I’ve never shopped there. H&M that is, I’ve shopped at McDonalds. On this trip, in fact. Out of sick curiosity Julia and I went the Big Mac route in a couple of different countries. I was pleasantly surprised that there are, in fact, differences in both the menu and the quality. Australia had my favorite Big Mac, if anyone is as sickly curious as I was.

We did NOT go to McDonalds in the Netherlands, however.  We didn’t have to, they had FEBO! I’m not putting FEBO in all caps out of excitement. I’m not sure if it’s an acronym, or they just liked the block letters for the logo. Either way, it’s a delightfully bizarre eating experience. The food is prepared by cooks, I guess. You can sort of see them through the little windows in the wall where they put the food. By “windows” I actually mean little see-through doors. Sort of like the wall is lined with microwaves, and you put a few coins into the microwave that looks like it contains the tastiest something-or-other, open the door and there you have it! It’s crazy cheap, and something you have to try in Amsterdam. I tried something that was like a deep-fried peanut-satay-mashed-potato croquette. It was weird, but somehow delicious. The eating habits of the Dutch can tend to be strange. Something I fell in love with was the herring sandwiches. Usually you think of herring as something pickled and in a jar, that you’ve probably only seen your grandpa eat. My love affair with herring started in Russia, made it through Finland, and culminated in Amsterdam. I tried pickled, salt-cured, and fresh. Poor Julia. The fresh herring sandwich in Amsterdam, served on a hot-dog bun with raw onions and pickles, was the best.

Everything I wanted Amsterdam to be, Leiden was. It had the canals, the beautiful and old architecture, and the bicycle madness. All without the touristy brand name shopping, crowds of people, and the you-WILL-stay-here-forever street designs. We were hosted, as I mentioned, by an amazing young man named Barry. He was a squatter, meaning he occupied a property with a bunch of other people. Squatters don’t own the property, but whoever does either can’t or won’t do anything about the people living there. If I had an extra property I wouldn’t mind having squatters, provided they were the kind of people Barry and his housemates were. Artists, musicians, wanderers, it was a modern-day bohemian paradise. I suppose the situation made Julia and I squatters, as well. I feel good about that, if it puts me in company with the people we met there. We found Barry through an online service called Couch Surfing. A lot of backpackers use it, as well as older non-backpackers. I was really surprised how many people used the service, considering I hadn’t heard of it until the last year. You set up a profile, sort of like Facebook, and send out requests to people living in cities you’re going to visit. If they can host you and they want to, they can put you up, free of charge. I don’t think we would have met someone like Berry otherwise, and that would have been a shame. A very gentle soul, very giving, loving, and accepting [note from Julia: he also taught how to correctly pronounce gouda!  “how-da” who knew? I had an epic tourist moment in a cheese shop asking for the best goooda they had]. One night in Leiden his friends threw a big party to celebrate the shutdown of his old squatter pad. Live music, a bar, great friendly people everywhere. And it was a party, no cover charge, cheap drinks, and a fantastic atmosphere made it one of the best parties I’ve ever attended. Thank you Berry, I won’t soon forget you or your unique lifestyle, if I ever forget at all.

Berry wasn’t the only person I knew in Leiden. A few years ago my family in Iowa City took a foreign-exchange student named Nienke. She was Dutch, and luckily we were able to meet up again in Leiden! She currently attends the University of Leiden. It’s great to catch up with old friends. Nienke took us to her favorite cafĂ©, her favorite Dutch pancake place (tease yourself and see the picture), and took us to her student house to meet her friends. We wound up watching the Netherlands-Denmark football (soccer to you yanks) match. Although the match ended in heartbreak for the Dutch, we met some fantastic people. Not being completely privy to Dutch eating habits, Julia and I brought a bag of apples… yeah I know, if I brought a bag of apples to a Super Bowl party no one would have touched it, either. I should have known better. Ah well. I was invited to play a drinking game with Nienke’s friends. I knew a similar game from back home called a “power hour.” The idea is you take one shot of beer every minute for an hour. This was a football version, played over the 90 minutes of the game. It’s a LOT of beer. By the end of the first half it was already down to myself and a Dutch girl named Marta. We both seemed fine, and ten minutes into the second half we were both still doing great. She was studying English, so she wound up talking to Julia quite a bit. It was because of this that the beginning of the end was so noticeable. In the span of about three minutes, the English started to trail off, and all of a sudden BAM! She threw her glass on the ground and shattered it. I was glad she did, earlier in the game I had knocked an empty beer bottle over and broken it as well. The drinking game was over, and I was happy to call it a draw to avoid drinking a shot-a-minute for another half hour by myself. But I could have, no problem, so be warned, Europe, Americans CAN drink! It must have been the training I did in Australia. The Aussies can drink, oi oi oi! Thank you again Nienke for spending time with us and showing us a bit of Leiden, we loved it. And we avoided getting killed by bikers the entire time!

Love at first bite


Pancakes for dinner with Nienke!

Cone of fries with mayo and onions, our favorite low-cal snack

Making friends with the cat who lived on one chair in the courtyard

Being touristical

The streets of Amsterdam, dangerous to stoners everywhere, and the closest thing to a real live video game in the world (I bet...)

Berlin! My Favorite Thing!

by Esack

I’m reminded of a fake diary entry I read recently. The entry was “written” by a dog, detailing its daily routine. Example: Food! My favorite thing! A walk! My favorite thing! (a link, my favorite thing!) I could easily write this post regarding Berlin in a similar fashion:

Cheap hostel in a great location! My favorite thing! Easy metro system! My favorite thing! Cheap amazing beer! My favorite thing!

Aaaaand you get it, I loved Berlin. Ever since the first day in Australia, I found that most travelers I met were from Germany. Knowing I would soon be in their home country, I always asked for their advice on which city would be the best to visit. I’d estimate 90% of them answered Berlin immediately. From my point of view as a young person, I understand why. It’s a great feeling to be able to go into a grocery store, pick any random beer off the shelf (because every German beer is great), and open the bottle up AS YOU PAY FOR IT, take it outside and drink! They often provide bottle openers in checkout lines. But I DID get to cut my hand several times trying to use my hostel key to MacGyver the bottles open. I used to think I understood why drinking wasn’t tolerated on the street back home, but now I have no idea. It wouldn’t work because we have different drinking cultures, blah blah blah. It’s an awesome idea! You don’t see drunken idiots wandering everywhere, discarding empty bottles and cans here and there. It happens more at home where it ISN’T legal on the street. Go figure. Germans can drink on the street, Americans can buy 30 cans of beer for ten bucks. Both have their advantages.

I reject the notion that enjoying oneself in Europe needs to be an expensive affair. Hostels are key. Street food is key. I don’t think we spent more than 5 euros on any single dish while we were in Berlin, and oh goodness was it delicious. Famous for currywurst (a German sausage covered in curried ketchup sauce, usually served with fries [get mayo on the fries]), the street-gastronomy of Berlin has much more to offer. BUT, currywurst IS incredible. To avoid turning this into a food blog, I’ll just give honorable mention to Mustafa’s. It’s a little food stall serving up what Europeans call the doner kebab. It would probably be called a gyro or something like that back home, because it’s a similar idea. Meat and toppings inside a flatbread or a tortilla [note from Julia: but these were not your typical veggies, it was peppers and eggplant that was amaaaazing, cooked perfectly, and the whole thing topped off with fresh lemon juice… I could eat Mustafa’s every day]. You see doner kebab places quite literally everywhere in Europe. In my limited experience, Mustafa’s gets my vote for number one. If you go to Berlin, you must try this. Oh, they have a vegetarian option too for you veggie people out there (like you Mom).

We received great advice on a few must-visit areas of town from Jeanette, the partner of Julia’s father. Her advice led us to many things, but for some reason my favorite was called a Turkish pizza. It was only 1 euro, and so tasty that Julia and I hunted them down in the Netherlands. We found it in one of these areas of town Jeanette recommended, actually while we were looking for a taco truck I looked up online. We didn’t find the tacos, but the Turkish pizza was an excellent consolation prize.

We did a bit of sightseeing: the Berlin wall, and the Jewish museum. I give Julia credit for the Jewish museum, apparently she had heard of it in an architecture class [note from J: it’s the Daniel Libeskind one, the museum itself is better than the exhibits]. Not surprisingly, the design of the building made me feel like I should study it in an architecture class. A very interesting and informative museum about the holocaust and the history of Jewish people in Germany, as well. We also saw Checkpoint Charlie, but didn’t visit the museum. Our hostel was just a few blocks away, but we never got around to the museum. I did get some pictures of the area, and I also grabbed some perspective. In high school I though the West side of town was hostile, because they were the “other” high school. Silly high school me. But still, go Little Hawks, you know who you are.

The hostel itself was nice. Great location, but otherwise unspectacular. The most notable experience came in the form of our four Lithuanian roommates. They were two couples traveling together, and I’d be hard-pressed to think of nicer people we’ve met so far. Equally nice people, yes. I hadn’t hardly put my bags down when one of the men introduced himself in what I considered very passable English. He humbly insisted his English was not so good. On that subject many Europeans are embarrassingly humble. Not embarrassing for them, but embarrassing for myself. Man, if they think their English isn’t so good, what did the Germans and Italians think of my attempts at “I would like the… [word in English]… Uh… that one? No, uh… [points and smiles] yes, thank you.” Ugh. I digress, the point is that I now plan to visit Lithuania someday.  Thanks to these fantastically nice people.

I will return to Berlin someday soon, to eat my bodyweight in currywurst and Mustafa’s. Oh, and this roasted chicken place we found, also on the street, also for 5 euros. Okay… must remember this isn’t a food blog.

A very effective and haunting installation at the Jewish Museum to commemorate victims of violence

At Checkpoint Charlie, just down the street from our hostel.  

Attacking my Mustafa's with gusto!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mockba, St. Pete's and Finlandia! Ja!

I (Julia) am writing from a train headed to Helsinki, Finland at the moment.

Two weeks ago exactly Esack and I flew from shanghai to Moscow. And let me tell you, the way I felt about Russia from then until now has COMPLETELY changed!  I was absolutely terrified to get to Russia when we first arrived. To be fair, while we were in china Esack and I talked to a friend of Trevor's named Peter, who has spent a lot of time in Russia, and after hearing of our plans to spend ten days in Russia his response was: "oh, you're definitely going to get robbed."


 So with my base knowledge of Russia from American movies, I figured that 80% of Russia's population is made up of KGB assassins, and the other twenty of babushkas who look like life size nesting dolls. Well I was wrong, apparently, the other twenty are there to rob us.

As you can imagine, I really was wrong. About everything. Our first interaction with a Russian was our taxi driver, hired to take us to the Moscow hostel for 1700 rubles. I'll let you figure out how many dollars that is. Fine, 35. He was a large man named George who expressed his love of American music very enthusiastically by cranking up the billy Joel, Celine dion, aretha franklin, and Barbara Streisand for the ride home. He gave me a giant bottle of iced green tea to keep me occupied while he and Esack grunted to each other in the front seat. It's really lucky Esack speaks fluent Male.

The hostel was homey and had free tea. We met some friendly Kazakhs and Nepalese guys. Then the next day we were scheduled to be picked up by a driver to take us to an apartment owned by my friend Varya, who I know through my dad. She and her husband live in st. Petersburg but offered to let us stay in their apartment in Moscow that they use when in town for business. It was a luxury having a place to ourselves even for just 36 hours or so! We cooked, watched Police Academy dubbed in Russian, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. We hit the major tourist attractions of Moscow: st. Basils, red square, and of course, saw lenin's embalmed body. Creepy.

 Then we took an overnight train to st. Petersburg. We slept well and awoke to watch the obese Russian man across from us eat half a chicken and guzzle vodka. Like it was water. But he was nice and helped us order tea, which is some word like "cha" which is how you say tea in Chinese. Wow. Cultures colliding!

 Varya picked us up on the platform and drove us back to her home in st. Petersburg. Esack and I both liked her right away and really she's wonderful! Friendly and intelligent and so welcoming... Really we could not have been luckier to know someone like her in Russia.  We stayed with Varya for a week. Her children were at their summer home in Finland with their nanny, so we stayed in their room. She encouraged us to spend our time sightseeing while she worked during the day and then she cooked us amazing meals in the evening. Varya's husband Kirill came home a few days after we arrived because he was in finland as well.  Both understand English very well but he didn't seem as comfortable speaking as Varya was. Esack and kirill really seemed to connect though.

 So we did see the sights in st. Pete's. We went to pieterhof (the Russian Versailles sort of), Peter and Paul's cathedral, church of Christ on spilled blood, Nievsky prospekt (main st), artillery museum, and spent a whole day at the hermitage. We also walked around on the city's birthday, so there was a celebration with music and dancing and food. We saw two adorable kids doing traditional Russian dancing, and this really strange contemporary dance where this guy wearing a beige sheet and a helmet danced with a giant gold ball to a Tool song. The fair was a great place to people watch too... We noticed that Russian women really love to dress glamorously. They wear high heels always! It doesn't surprise me that a lot of models come from Russia. We also saw a lot of women pose really dramatically when having their photos taken. We started doing it for our own photos :) Varya told us a Russian saying that basically says, even in the morning, Russian women are dressed for the night. Oh and apparently it's very stylish to be taller than your man in your heels.

Our friend Peter also kindly sent us a huge list of Russian food that we had to try. We showed it to Varya and she took it on to help us try everything! She made incredible homemade borscht, which we drank with frozen vodka.  We had several kinds of pickled fishes, including sturgeon which only comes from st. Petersburg area.  We had two kinds of blini, sweet and savory with salmon caviar, piroshkee or dumplings, shashlik (meat cooked over open fire), buckwheat, Russian black bread, kvass which is bread soda and kind of tastes like sweet nonalcoholic beer and so many more things! If you are reading this Peter, thank you for the list, and I think we did you proud! I didn't really understand Russian food before, or at least had heard it was nothing special, but that's totally untrue! It's earthy and wholesome and so delicious.

 So then, towards the end of our stay with Varya, the four of us were sitting around their dining room table drinking wine. Varya and kirill were leaving for Finland the next day and we had a train scheduled for Helsinki, where we were going to spend a few days then take a ferry to Rostock and then Berlin. Working through the logistics we realized it was going to be a little complicated, and Varya suggested we just trade in our rail tickets and spend the weekend with them in Finland and then go to Helsinki and fly to Berlin from there!

 So that was that and we drove to Finland the next day.  They have a beautiful wooden cabin on a lake. It's next to their friends who also have a cabin. The two cabins are secluded among a forest of beautiful birch trees.  One of the best things about staying the weekend was getting to spend some time with varya's children, Tima and Gregory, ages ten and two. Tima is smart and well mannered, and totally relished his time with Esack. They played chess and soccer together. Tima loves to eat and one night he agreed to workout in order to have extra scoops of ice cream for dessert and so he and Esack did push ups together! Tima speaks excellent English and we had a lot of fun with him. Gregory, who everyone calls greisha, is funny and loud and very energetic. For some reason he really took a liking to me... Varya often told me he would ask "where is Julia?" in Russian when i wasn't around. He was shy around me, but Warmed up slowly. He would climb up on the couch between Esack and I and get cozy. It was really nice to be around kids for awhile.

 Our first night in Finland kirill made salmon that was grilled on a cedar plank so it partially smoked, and was the most amazing fish I've ever eaten! It was so moist and juicy and had tons of flavor! Kirill was also very generous with his extensive liquor collection. I tried port for the first time, we had lots of different whiskeys brewed different ways, and good Cointreau drizzled over ice cream! It was so luxurious to spend a weekend this way, especially since Esack and I have been trying to be conservative with money since we are traveling.

But possibly the MOST amazing part of Finland was the sauna. Both Varya and her neighbors have their own sauna houses. So Esack went with kirill, Tima, and misha (the nanny's husband) and I went with Varya's friend anya, her friend Alissa, and a girl named Olga who is my age.  The saunas were about 80 degrees Celsius and the process was basically: go in the sauna as long as you can stand it, then run and jump in the lake, Get out and drink some water, spend a few minutes outside, then back in the sauna. I think I went four or five times. They also do a special practice where they dry birch branches and do and combination of fanning someone and hitting them with the leaves. Anja did it to me and it was intense but felt good! Esack said kirill did it to him too. The best part was the smell the dried birch emitted... Like the best pine tree in the world!  Doing the sauna was the most relaxed I've felt in months. It felt so nourishing too... To go from super hot to super cold. Anja said they even do it in winter, cutting a hole in the ice which can be up to a meter thick.  Yikes.

And so here we are.  On the train to Helsinki. Esack and I have a busy six weeks in front of us but we are so excited and ready for an adventure. We sent a bunch of stuff home while we were in china, so our packs are light, and we are well rested. We are over halfway through our trip now and plan on moving every five days or so in Europe.  Our plan is helsinki, Berlin, Amsterdam, Leiden, Barcelona, Italy (cinque terre, Florence, parma, maybe Siena), Switzerland, maybe austria, trier, and finally Paris!  

Europe, bring it on!


Saturday, May 26, 2012

This. Is. CHINA. (contributed lovingly by Esack)

Shanghai was a different experience entirely. My great ally-in-the-Orient, Lord Vor (note from Julia: that's our friend Trevor Smith who we know from Iowa), met us at the airport, so there was no “where the hell are we?” period. This was a good thing. In the other cities we’ve seen so far there was definitely a feeling out process, a sort of wandering around time. It was necessary to cut this out in China, as any sort of aimless strolling would see us mostly pretending to look at signs (not in English) and hiding our fear of the unknown (note from Julia: though we blended in very well). Thankfully, Lord Vor had our backs. That isn’t to say “where the hell are we?” wasn’t one of the first questions out of my mouth.

Vor had set us up with a hotel room for most of our stay. The most notable things about the hotel were the view, and the mattress. There was a lovely, large window which looked out directly onto a concrete wall. Not as in, we could see across the parking lot to a concrete wall, but as in: we could see a concrete wall less than a foot outside the window. I have suspicions that the mattress was also made out of some sort of concrete. I was told that in general, the Chinese prefer firm surfaces for sitting and lying down. I was skeptical about this only until our first night of sleep. I slept straight through the night and awoke feeling refreshed. The concrete wall gave the room a constant 7-in-the-morning vibe, even at our usual waking hour of noon (note from Julia: If we set an alarm…) Come to think of it maybe getting up at the crack of noon led to the feeling of refreshment…

We stayed up late and got up late. Honestly it felt like the right schedule to be on for Shanghai. By the time we got up Lord Vor was usually about ready to shuttle us around town. I wouldn’t recommend anyone go to China without someone who speaks Mandarin. You can definitely survive by smiling, pointing, and either nodding or shaking your head, but you would definitely miss a LOT of fantastic stuff heading around town without a proper guide. We got up earlier a couple of times to experience the Shanghai morning, but mostly we stayed out late. Probably never made it to bed earlier than 2 or 3 am. More than once it was 4-5 am. So, I think we can be forgiven for sleeping in a little.

If I had to summarize what we did in Shanghai, I would say that we ate. We ate all day, we ate everything we came across, and we ate oh-so-affordably. I mean, really affordably, most of the things we tried cost 7-30 yuan ($1-5). Noodles, noodles, dumplings and noodles. So many different kinds of noodles. I won’t tease all of you who don’t get to try the goodness with detailed descriptions of everything we ate. I DO need to mention a tasty little dish called chow see fun. No promises on the spelling (cut me some slack, they’re characters not words), but I can promise chow see fun is $1 you’ll never want back. Very simple, vermicelli noodles fried up in a wok with cabbage and fried eggs. It’s advisable to eat it with plenty of the hot chili and the vinegar sauce, condiments you can find at just about any of the eateries we tried. Also bearing mention, thanks to a learned friend of Vor’s we went to a little hidden restaurant with a chef serving the best unagi (Japanese BBQ eel) outside of Tokyo (according to Japanese folks, I haven’t been to Japan, YET). Seriously, truly and unbelievably delicious. (Note from Julia: also home to an amazing beef appetizer that had broth made by angels and what tasted like bread soaked in it.  Although for all I know I was eating duck brains).

I almost hesitate to mention the wang bars. Wang bar. The very name conjures images of scatological humor and a certain 80’s one-hit wonder. What do you do at a wang bar? You play computer games. “Who’s down for wanging it?” or, “let’s go wang it” were phrases frequently thrown around that hid the benign and undeniably nerdy intentions of the group. The game of choice was Warcraft 3. For those of you losers who have never spent 6-10 hours straight playing this game, it’s of the RTS family of games. Or, to the layman, you build an army and go attack the opponent’s army. I’m sure many of you readers will laugh, assuming that 6-10 hours is some sort of hyperbole. Not so beloved followers of this blog, not so. Seeing as I spent much of my childhood playing games like Warcraft 3 (including Warcraft 3), I wasn’t surprised (but “maybe” a little disappointed) with my capacity to drop that amount of time in a computer bar. What DID surprise me (any members of the Gouge family may want to skip this next part) was Julia’s capacity to do the same. Julia not only went along with the Warcrafting, she ate it up. Never in my wildest, lamest dreams did I dream of a girl who would spend 7 hours in a computer bar playing Warcraft with me. But spend the 7 hours she did, and I fell in love. Julia, Lord Vor and I wanged it hard.

This is where Esack’s contribution ends… mostly because he is napping.

Now, I, Julia must explain that wang bars are certainly gross, but I think anyone can admit there’s a certain appeal to hanging out in a place where you can veg out totally uninterrupted. Plus we always had supplies (milk tea, candy bars, seaweed crackers, and “Ethnican” flavored Inca chips).  The game is like the Sims, except you get to battle!  Why would I ever not like that?!

So anyway, Esack did a great job describing Shanghai.  My favorite thing we ate were called xiao long bao.  They are small steamed dumplings filled with pork and this absolutely amazing broth!  A friend of Trevor’s named Michaela told us that they put an ice cube of the broth in the dumplings before they steam, and voila!  Broth dumplings. (pictured below)

What was interesting for me about Shanghai is that although we stuck out like sore thumbs, sore white thumbs to be exact, I came to really love China.  We got plenty of stares, and heard murmurs of “lao wai…” (foreigners…) everywhere we went, the Chinese people we met were always put up with us and did their best to communicate.  I felt safe 100% of the time.  Now that Esack and I are in Russia I notice that I feel nostalgic whenever I hear Chinese.  It is a beautiful language and one that I’ve never understood.  I never thought I’d be interested in learning Chinese but I am!  It’s an entirely different way of communicating and it totally changed the way I think about language.  More to come on this as I work it out in my head.

Look forward to a Russia post coming soon. 

Thanks for reading!


Esack and Trevor in Hangzhou

Wanging it hard in the Wang bar

A boat on Hangzhou lake

A catfish from the collection of them swimming in a container just outside the window on the left

Xiao long bao.  Food from Chinese heaven.

Saturday, May 5, 2012


Hello! My goal is to do at least one post for each location of my travels. Tonight is only my second night in Singapore, although it happens to be my last as well. Esack and I arrived late from Auckland and we leave early tomorrow for shanghai so that left only two full days here. My first impressions of Singapore were very positive. It's hot and tropical, really close to the equator. It's clean and easy to navigate. Everyone speaks English and is helpful. It's safe and everything is cheap! I titled my post Singarich not because it's particularly over the top or anything, but really, it seems like most of the people here are wealthy. Im sure it doesn't help that one of the first things Esack and I did was go see art at the ritz-Carlton hotel. But anyway, the nice cars, well dressed people, plethora of banks, and sparkling streets all lend to an atmosphere of wealth. Unfortunately, it also lends itself to a resort-like, touristy vibe. Singapore in itself doesn't really have much local history, and it comes through. There doesn't seem to be much in terms of localness anyway. The whole city is representations of other cultures: Malay, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, and European. I'm sure Esack and I still stick out as tourists, but there are just as many white people here as everyone else. Everyone sort of looks like a tourist! I read online that the best place to get authentic Singaporean food is at the Chinese heritage center in Chinatown. Ok... I feel like Singapore has taken bits of other cultures, polished them up a bit, and then sewed them on to other cultures. It hasn't all quite blended together. I told Esack that this is what I imagine Dubai to be like. All this said, I really have enjoyed my two days here. I'm excited to go to shanghai and get a little terrified though. And Russia too. Scary. Will I miss the ease of Singapore in about a week? Most definitely.

 Esack and I are staying in an adorable hostel called pillows and toast, which has really comfy beds, free toast in the morning, friendly staff, air cnditioning, and a no shoe policy. I really like it here! We are staying just down the street for a street food center where we have eaten just about every meal. They have over a hundred stands and we've tried tons of new foods, like Rojak, fried bananas, popiah, sardine curry puffs, kachanga, and laksa. The most bizarre thing for sure was the kachanga, strawberry kachanga to be exact, which is a Chinese dessert. It cost about a dollar and twenty cents and is a huge bowl of shaved ice, with three different kinds of syrup on it, like an American snow cone, and then strawberry syrup over top. At first we were like ok, kinda sweet, not too bad. Then we dug down under the ice, and lo and behold, we discover spoonfuls of red beans and corn. Then we come up with three different kinds of gelatin treats, these white gelatin balls, red cubes, and black strips. It was SO bizarre. Haha Esack definitely liked it better than I did, but I think i was just psychologically confused. Taste wise, it really was pretty good. My strangest dessert experience to date.

 So the other way we have been spending our time and money is on the fresh juice! It's amahhhhhzing. There are the standards: orange, pineapple, mango. Apple, lime, mint, ginger, blah blah yum yum but then more unusual things like bitter gourd and honey, balonglong and sour plum. I wish I could try everything!

 We checked out the nightlife last night at a place called Clarke quay by the water and it was unbelievable! Full blown concerts going on next to each other, what seemed like hundreds of bars. So much live music, restaurants, everything. We ended up at a live blues bar and watched a pretty good band with a great guitarist cover al green, bb king, and lynyrd skynyrd. People watching was especially fun, particularly these two drunk guys who were just a hair away from moshing.

Then today, Esack and I spent most of our time at the botanic gardens where we walked around all afternoon and I took about 200 hundred pictures of orchids. For dinner we tried a new street food market which wasn't very good. I got very mediocre chicken biryani and Esack got decent nasi lemak. Disappointing, but then I got some good Indian tea, so no harm done! Ive also turned Esack on to the wonders of fresh coconuts, so we got those twice today. They're more expensive than in India, but sometimes tastier :) I have lots of pictures to upload and show you all, but unfortunately I can't do it from my iPad, somill wait until I can use esacks computer. Im sure I'll have plenty of time to do it during my two week stay in china. But look out for those soon!

 Love, Julia

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Out of the Mountains

So let's see... Lots has happened since I last wrote.  Esack and I are back in Auckland, at a different hostel this time around.  We are in a room with 8 other people or so.  One of whom is an unbelievably loud snorer, and one who is an unbelievably sleazy Italian.  The other six don't really speak.  So anyway, we are happy and enjoying some down time before we move onto Singapore on May 3 (happy bday L).

We loved our time in Queenstown.  It was much colder there, but the leaves were turning colors and it's situated on Lake Wakitipu, which is absolutely gorgeous and you can see it in The Two Towers!  I seriously considered doing an LOTR tour but it was waaay too expensive and plus they really just take you to the top of a leafy hill.  I don't really know but I'm telling myself that.  Anyway, this one bus driver did point out a hill where they filmed the epic battle in the woods (the one where Boromir gets shot... sorry if that's a spoiler, but it's been like 7 years so...).  If you watch the scene (which Esack and I did, along with the rest of the movie and the first and third movies #timewellspent) you can see the lake in the background.  So long story short, Queenstown is pretty.

Esack and I did the Caples and Greenstone tracks from there.  It's essentially a big loop with a saddle about halfway between.  The Caples was beautiful, all different kinds of landscapes, flatlands, hills, mountains, forests, plains.  At one point we felt we were in Rohan.  And I'm officially done with the LOTR references.  Oh, except we were also in the Shire once too.  Ok now done!  We got eaten alive by sandflies the first night but then we figured out them out a bit and struck a deal.  It got COLD at night. I think we were out there for 7 nights.  The very last night we stayed in a hut, but every other night we camped.  

On the second day we came across this unbelievable little campsite.  It was small and right next to a really rocky part of the river.  We found the perfect little square of red moss where we layed our tent and it was sooo comfortable.  We slept for 14 hours that night!  There was a giant rock dividing the river and sort of worked as a dam, so there was this crystal clear water pool right next to us.  I wanted to swim so badly, and Esack frequently egged me on, but in the end it was just too cold.  It might've been fun at first, but then I would've just been cold for like five days and so I just got into my sleeping bag and pretended to swim in that.  "I wish it was summer!" was probably the most frequently said thing at that camp site.  Or maybe "this place is so beautiful."  One of the two.  We decided to stay there for a second night, partially cause we loved it, and partially cause we woke up really late after our 14 hour nap.  We made chocolate chip pancakes and tea that day.  Plus we really didn't need so many days to do the trek.  The day after that we hiked up the saddle, which is a just a crossable area between two mountains.  We went down the other side and camped in the plains-ey area.  Then we took another day off the next day and did a day hike up to the beginning of the Routeburn track.  On the map it's a place called the Divide.  We thought it was going to be some epic crater in the earth or something.  But... it was a parking lot.  Haha so we had lunch in a parking lot and enjoyed semi-civilization for an hour or so.  Then we hiked back in.  We walked the Greenstone pretty quickly.  It was relatively easy and mostly on the flatlands by the river.  There were lots of cows and sheep, but it wasn't easy to make friends.  We did make some bird friends though.  Esack got one to eat a noodle out of his hand.  I got one to mimic my singing voice perfectly and carry small objects for me.  Ok I didn't, I'm just jealous of Esack.  But I left a few sunflower seeds for them :)

After we came down from the formidable hills of lower NZ we had a couple days to kill in Queenstown.  We did a soak in the Onsen hot pools, which were a major highlight.  It felt great on our very tired leg muscles.  Now, back in Auckland.

Yesterday Esack and I saw the Avengers, cause apparently movies come out earlier here.  It was 20 bucks to see it in 3D but we figured why not?  It was a lot of fun and a rainy day so it was a good way to spend it.  We went back to Food Alley for lunch and I tried Korean this time.  

Today we got together with Maggie Grueskin's (Esack's stepmother) friend John who lives in Auckland with his family.  He took us out on his boat and it was amazing to see a whole other side of Auckland!  We circled Rangitoto, a volcano island in the bay, and then went out to Waiheke, an island with lots of vineyards we plan to visit again.  We have just a few more days here, but honestly, I'm getting ready to go.  I love the scenery of NZ and the people are great.  But everything is so expensive and it's exhausting trying to balance having fun versus counting coins.  

So anyway, onto Singapore next and then China for a whole two weeks to visit Trevor!  Both Esack and I are very excited for China.  It's gonna make a huge difference having a guide who speaks Mandarin and just another friend to talk to.  Esack and I haven't gotten sick of each other or anything.  But we are literally together 24 hours a day and it will be nice to have another friend.  It's a good thing we make each other laugh so much.  Lately Esack has been particularly entertaining by singing death metal versions of musical theater numbers, or really any non-death metal song.  

I hope you enjoy reading this post and if any of you ever have questions about our trip or something specific you want me to write about, I'd love it!  Sometimes I feel like this is Live Journal or something, so I have to at least try to make it entertaining.  

Esack and I already had an early dinner of Bento boxes, so tonight the menu is: read, hang out, and most importantly... track down ear plugs!  

Peace love and meows xoxoxo

A note about the pics:  for now I can't easily upload pics from my phone, only Esack's.  I'll upload more when I can, and check my facebook for a few more.  

The first memorable bite of a Ferg Burger.  The best burger I've probably ever eaten.  

Lake Wakitipu from Queenstown

Day 1 of our hike!

Making friends.  

The Caples river

There is fungus among us!

On top of McKellar saddle

In the Greenstone River valley.  The tent is our bedroom and there is Esack in the kitchen, making something scrumptious!