Friday, June 08, 2018

Nica - Afuera!

Sharlene and I schemed Nicaragua when I was visiting her in January. That was before my semester travels commenced, and as it turns out Nicaragua is where my semester travels ended.

In January, Nicaragua was peaceful. In fact, it is one of the few Central American countries that has a relatively calm history. Yet, it is not heavily touristed like its neighboring Costa Rica which Sharlene and I have both been too. Since it's a little more off-the-beaten path yet not far away, we thought it was perfect.

But in mid-April riots erupted after an unpopular social reform. The demands increased to wanting to oust the current president, Daniel Ortega, along with his wife. Many signs with "AFUERA Ortega!" which literally means "Outside Ortega" or off with Ortega. There were reports of military violence against the protesters in Managua, the capital, but we thought it had calmed down by the time we arrived on May 16. Apparently it had not. So, this made for an interesting adventure. Each day we never knew what the conditions were going to be, if the roads would be open or if transport would run. But overall, the people were very friendly and helped us along the way to still have an enjoyable and safe trip. 

Day 1: Arrival to Granada

Luckily we had booked a taxi from the airport in Managua to Granada, about a 45 minute ride. Our taxi driver weaved around road blocks (including a flaming tire), paid off a masked protester and steadily drove us to our hotel.

 First afternoon: one of the many peaceful protests we witnessed.
Families were marching. We learned that afternoons were prime protest time. 

 Typical streets of Granada with colorful buildings.
The colonial town was pleasant, but nothing particularly special in my opinion.

We spent the afternoon walking around town and also trying to organize our next day. Not that easy. More on that later.

Former train station not turned into technical trade school
You can see the desks on the right.

Typical Nica dinner. Rotiserrie chicken, rice and beans, plantains and cheese.

We found this neighborhood food gem on the outskirts of town going on an unsuccessful hunt. We got it to go, which meant in several layers of plastic bags, and ate it on our bed. Note: the cheese was very squeaky like rubber. Hmm... We got tired of rice and beans pretty quickly.

We then retired to sleep early, which would become a regular schedule for us.

Day 2: Village plans canceled; where to go from Granada?

All public transport was not working while we were in Nica, so we had to shell out for expensive taxis. Not only was it pricey, but we were sad to not get to experience some of the true culture that comes out in the chicken buses rode by the locals. On the flip side, it actually made for easier travels in many ways to always take taxis from door-to-door.

We learned that the earlier you leave, the better chances you had of a safe, block-free road. So, we were up early, ate a lovely Nica breakfast (more rice and beans) and went to wait for our taxi to drive us to white villages (Pueblos Blancos) about 30 minutes outside of town. But the hotel just received a call that the roads were closed and that we could not go. We also could not go to the lava-bubbling volcano at night. Same road. We were sooo disappointed because we were really looking forward to it.

After much debate, we were convinced to go walk around a cloud rainforested crater. Since Sharlene and I have traveled a lot, there were lots of activities that just didn't excite us. I felt bad since Nica really is a beautiful country.

Why does this frog look so familiar?
Oh! It was on the cover of my bio book! So cool to see it in real life!

View across the crater and into lake.
The crater was actually so old that this forest grew up in it. 

Yoga-ing in crevices of the rainforest.

We also got to stop at a coffee farm, saw monkeys and our favorite, a sloth!

After we arrive back in town, we are told by our guide who called another person who I'm sure called another person, that we can go to the Masaya Volcano at night to see the bright red lava. Really? We were excited, but also a little bummed that we had gone our earlier too.

  Masaya Volcano, lava and me at sunset

Usually there is a long hour wait to get into the park and then you only get 10 minutes near the volcano. But, it's been closed for awhile and people haven't been leaving the house really at night, we almost had the entire volcano to ourselves. There were only 3 other cars there and we could stay as long as we wanted. Luckily, no problems in transit either. Score. 

Day 3: En route to Ometepe, a two-volcano island

Our second destination was a little tricky to get to. We were told to take a ferry at noon. Then we were told to leave earlier to avoid road troubles and take a 10:30 am ferry. Then we were told to leave even earlier and take a ferry at 9:30 am to a different destination to avoid other road troubles.

We arranged a taxi to take us to the ferry terminal at 6:45 am to give extra time in case we hit road blocks, but we smoothly sailed and arrived at 8 am. When we arrived, we were told to take the 8:30 am ferry, and that the 9:30 ferry wasn't going. EH? OK, here we go...

 Gorgeous morning views from the ferry from Port San Jorge to Moyogalpa, Ometepe

 En route to our ecolodge we hit two road blocks. Luckily it was only a 10 min wait at one and a 20 min wait at another before they let us through.

Road blocks from trees and signs:
"Live Nicaragua FREE" and "Out Daniel"

After arriving, we grabbed lunch at a comedor, a very casual eatery. In other words it was someone's home with a table outside. Mom grilled pork, onions and peppers in a tomato sauce while a toddler grabbed ice from somewhere and the daughter chopped up a pineapple and added the ice. Of course, the meal included rice, beans and plantains. We avoided the fresh cucumber tomato salad as we were certain the sanitation grade was not anywhere near passing. All for an unknown cost which ended up being 150 cordobas each ($5). A true local experience.

Kayaking .... through cabbage. 
That was a first, and rather challenging!

 But quite a rewarding sunset view on the water and beach to end.

Day 3: Cruzing around the island on bikes

Neither Sharlene or I are huge scooter riders, but we love our bicycles. For $5 and no collateral, we were off on quite hilly roads. First stop ...

Ojos de Agua

Amazing natural mineral water pools and also very empty. The perks of traveling in shoulder season and during protest time. It was sooo nice to cool off and just not be hot for once. We chilled with a Tona (the national beer of Nicaragua) for Sharlene and a fresh coconut for me. We spent a good 3 hours here, but alas had to leave because we got hungry. We scored again on going to a lovely lunch spot (a hotel) with nice grounds. It was hard to find places to eat since many places closed shop because no one was around! In fact, we just skipped dinner this night.

 Hotel Finca Del Sol
Our ecolodge that had a compost toilet (not my favorite), mosquito nets, solar energy and lots of critters! It was on the less crowded side of the island and off the beaten path. Definitely worth the trek.

 Hammocking at sunset in front of our lodge with a volcano view.
Looks lovely, was lovely, but we paid the price with mosquito bites.

Day 4: Off to Leon

The truce a few days back was broken so still holding breath for smooth travels. Another early start at 6:15 am with a 45 min ride to the ferry, an 1 hr and a half ferry ride (thank goodness it ran) to the mainland, an hour wait then a surprisingly short 3 hour shuttle ride to Leon. Whew. Everything ran very smooth again, thankfully.

Cafe at our Airbnb with Flor.
Really nice decor.

We went to the Ortiz Foundation Art Museum, the best art museum in Central America. It was in old houses and pretty diverse.

Day 5: Volcano boarding!
 Quetzaltrekkers: Hike Volcanoes, Help Kids

We came to Leon for the star attraction, volcano boarding about 45 min outside of town. We chose this company because of its social cause. We highly recommend them over the other many companies.

 Volcano boarding!

What is volcano boarding? You hike up active volcano (shown above). Then sit on a wooden board (shown above) and sled down said volcano (see below). This company was great because you could carry your board with their backpack which was so much easier than your arms for the hour hike up. For the board, thinking of an old school wooden sled. Not exactly light.

 Me boarding down volcano

Sharlene boarding down volcano

Quezteltrekkers lets you go down twice (but that means you also have to climb up twice). Sharlene and I did that because we wanted to improve our run. That we did. We made it up in half the time (I did pay a porter this time to bring my board up. Best $ spent), and boarded down faster with less pebble interference. Even though we were covered head to toe in a yellow jumpsuit (think mignon) we still got volcano pebbles everywhere!

Street food attempt 2

We made a mistake of taking it to go at night and some kids tried to steal it out of Sharlene's hand. In the process the container dropped and all the food fell. Oh well. We weren't that hungry, and we're pretty sure the kids ate the food off the street. If they need it that bad, they can have it. The second night we just ate on the street to avoid any issues. Is all the Nica food starting to look the same?

Day 7: Chill in Leon; Happy Birthday Shar!

We scheduled this trip to include Sharlene's birthday. It was a perfect last chill day and birthday celebration.

We ate a lovely breakfast at Flor de Sarta then walked around town.

 Murals in Leon depicting the history

It's a college and artsy town, with strong political views. Protests were rampant here.

 Chilling by the pool in our lovely airbnb.

 Overlooking the main plaza

 On top of Cathedral Leon

It took us 3 tries to get up on the roof but we finally made it. It was worth the effort. Then we chilled by the pool and at the french bakery, Pan y Paz, which had a lovely atmosphere but not so good chocolate influenced drinks. The weather held out. Hot, but no crazy downpours.

At night, we ventured out to try and find a bar that would play the Warriors game. The Biblioteca projected it. Score. It was interrupted by lots of the same commercials. Unfortunately, we did not pull through in the end. The streets at night in Leon were fairly deserted, not particularly safe feeling, because of the riots. Luckily we got back safely. But that last night was a doozie.

Day 8: Safely back to the airport and off

In the morning we were up before the alarm clock again around 5:30 am. "Did you sleep well?" I asked Shar. "No", she replied. "Did you?" "No." There were LOUD sounds all throughout the night, more than usual, about every 10-20 minutes in the late evening. A few even made our airbnb rattle and I heard the dust and pebbles fall. When we asked our driver later what the explosions were he said "Oh, la bombas." Great. Bombs from the university which was nearby.

We were enjoying our pastry and coffee/tea on the patio when we get notice that we should leave earlier. We were used to that. Off we go for a two hour taxi ride to the airport. We hit several road blocks in Managua. Protesters ripped up the cobblestones from the street and built barricades. At one point we were driving down the middle divide. When we arrived, the taxi driver said with a sigh of relief, "aeropuerto". We made it exactly in time. Whew. And, flights were on time.

What a crazy, great adventure in Nicaragua. Definitely back to traveling with the will see-as-we-go mentality. We were fortunate to stay safe the whole time and not have major disruptions to our travels. Thanks to all the Nicaraguans who were super friendly, concerned for our safety and helped arrange our travels to ensure we still had a great trip. For the most part, we didn't feel unsafe and were still glad we came despite the travel warnings. Most natives we talked to were sad, but accepting of the unstable situation and maintaining a resilient mentality. My heart goes out to these admirable people, and I'm glad that we got to experience both the pains and beauty of the country. We definitely recommend going to Nica, but perhaps when it settles more.

And thanks to Shar of course for another great adventure in another part of the world!

Friday, July 29, 2016

To Eastern Europe, Again

Traveling with the parents

After brainstorming, I remembered my parents talked about going to Eastern Europe. Now, I’ve had my share of Eastern Europe (Romania, Budapest, Prague, Croatia, Baltic States, etc.) but Berlin has been high on my Europe list. So, here we go to Berlin, Prague and Vienna. It’s been over ten years since the 3 of us have traveled together!

3 Packed Days in Berlin

Day 1: Berlin take 1
There was no time for jet-lag. We headed out early in the morning to make our 10 am museum entrance time. 
Museum Island: Pergamon Museum and Neues Museum

We also climbed the Reichstag Dome and passed by the famous Brandenburger Tor, a symbol of division in the Cold War and now symbolizing German reunification between east and west. Our day ended at the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial Church which was a half-bombed church with an amazing stain glass cathedral. This was the furthest west we ventured.

Day 2: Berlin continued
We followed Rick Steve’s ambitious walk through the city. With free audioguide in ears, we walked all day from west to east Berlin. We started at the Jewish Memorial Museum which was heavy, but well done. Our walk bought us to ...

Humboldt University where intellects like Albert Einstein studied.

The cheerful walking ampelmann

But this city is not for the elderly or slow because rarely did we make it across both sides of the street in one walking man go. The stop man halted us in the median every time!

I made friends with new boys, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
OK, so maybe we have a few differences in political viewpoints.

Plaza in East Berlin.
Reminded me of Almaty, Kazakhstan, with Soviet influence seen in concrete efficient rectangular buildings.

We also hit up the DDR Museum of everyday life in East Berlin. It’s a great interactive hands-on museum, but was way too crowded. We ended up in Alexanderplatz, a main square in Eastern Europe.

Taking the U-Bahn around town.

I love taking local transport and love it even more that my parents are still up for that too. You get a different taste of the city, perhaps a more realistic one, than if you take tours and taxis. Sure we took a few wrong turns, and GPS wasn't always reliable, but it worked out.

At the end of the day we retreated to our bustling neighborhood near Mitte. Lots of restaurants and mostly locals. It was supposedly up and coming, but clearly it has already came. Reminded me of Park Slope in Brooklyn. 

We ended the day at the Prater Biergarten with delicious food! 
This garden was 3x bigger than any other one I went to. I love that everyone eats outside in the summer.

Probably my fave meal of the whole trip: pretzel, potato salad, cous cous and wurst. 
By the way, currywurst is the best wurst.

Day 3: Berlin wrap up
We hit up Potsdamer Platz which is more modern and on the western side. Then we went to Checkpoint Charlie where there was a border crossing through the wall between East and West Berlin. The museum, though way too cluttered, was fascinating in showing how people escaped. They hit in gas tanks, canoes, dug tunnels, ziplined, flew planes and my personal favorite, hiding in the speaker belonging to musicians!
Historical walk along the wall.
The mood over Berlin was a bit somber as we visited several sites related to the Holocaust and Berlin Wall. 

Above left: Detour to see the astronaut. It was also nice to be in a non-tourist neighborhood. There’s great street art throughout the city.

Above right: East Side Gallery walk. This is the longest stretch of the wall remaining. Murals were painted in 1990 and again in 2009. On the backside was regular graffiti and a startling exhibit on the Syrian War.

Woman vs. dragon

Parents at Berliner Dom before taking the touristic river cruise.

Berlin has a great mix of old architecture and new modern buildings. Overall, it was a great city to explore and I would definitely go back to check out more of the other neighborhoods and non-touristy sites.

Day 4: To Prague, now Disneyland on crack
I went to Prague 16 years ago in 2000. I recall it being fascinating as it was the first Eastern European city I went to after weeks of western Europe. I remember it being beautiful and a perplexing blend of east meets west Europe. I went back with fond memories and curious to see how it has changed since I heard that it is not the same Prague. I could have never envisioned how different this city has become. The train station welcomed me with a Sephora for crying out loud.

Pleasant train ride

We entered Prague via Dresden which is how I came the first time. Except the first time I was supposed to go on a night train from Innsbrook, Austria, straight to Prague but got lost in the train split and somehow ended up in dreary Dresden. This trip was much better, not being alone with no clue where I was. We rode first class, which was only $5 more, but it wasn't all that. We had two disgruntled Germans and a very chatty, friendly sociology professor living in the city of Brno who gave us the low down on many things.

It was late afternoon when we arrived. We headed off on another Rick Steve walking tour. Prague is a beautiful city since it was spared from all the European Wars.

Center of Old Town. Lots of art nouveau architecture from the 1920’s.

Astronomical Clock.
My most remembered photo of Prague that I took 16 years ago, except a running Sharlene is missing from the scene. Interesting the things I remember.
Prague Opera House. I remember this building.

Ended up on Charles Bridge overlooking the castle. Way too crowded.

Day 5: Prague continued
We awoke early to beat the mad tourists to the castle. After a tram ride and a little uphill hike, we made it before everyone else. Success!
Parents at the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague Castle. 
We had the grounds practically to ourselves at 9 am. The whole city was up too late the previous night.

Ornate d├ęcor in the cathedrals.

View of the city from the Prague Castle

Changing of the guard amidst the hordes of tourist.

Nighttime in Old Town Square. It really is impressive.
Horse and carriage for tourist entertainment.

Day 6: Kutna Hora side trip
We were mostly done with the sights in the city after a day and a half so we decided to escape the crowds and head to the nearby town of Kutna Hora. It's a UNESCO town and pretty quaint with two cathedrals, St. Barbara and Virgin Mary. But the main attraction is...

Bone church (Sedlec Ossuary)

Yes, I was fascinated! 40,000+ skeletons. I just kept thinking of all the bones turned into grotesque artwork (femurs, tibias, skulls, pelvic girdles, ulnas ….). I found out about this from my Lonely Planet top 500 places to see in the world.

Not a bad side trip, and fun to explore the local train and a non-city. If pressed for time though, I wouldn't prioritize it. We were able to finish Prague in 2 days, but had already scheduled 3 days.

Day 7: Prague to Vienna
Our last few hours we hit up the Jewish quarters in a series of 6 museums. I didn't recall any of this before. Did I really forget all this? Turns out that these sights didn't open to the public until 2003, so my memory may still be OK, somewhat.

Old Jewish cemetery. 12,000+ crumbling tombstones with 100,000 graves in layers.

We tried to hit up all the Czech foods which included pork knuckle, sausages, pickled cheese, churro-like-things and more.
Palacinky, crepe-like Czech pancakes. Our last meal well done. 

I'm glad I went back to Prague. It's still a beautiful city, but I'm sad that it has become so westernized. With joining the EU, westernization came in with a brutal storm. High end boutiques like Prada make some parts look like any other city. The worst was probably the insane amount of tourist crammed throughout the town. As my dad noticed, the tour groups would spontaneously break out in cheer. It was a totally different ambiance from my first visit. I'm glad my parents got to see it though. Needless to say, I have no desire to go back.

Day 8 and 9: Vienna

We trained into Vienna. After arriving in the evening we had a lovely dinner then two full days to explore. We went around on public transportation, mostly metro, and walked our way through the city.

We started our exploration with the Hofburg palace. It had great exhibits explaining the different ruling kings and queens.

Elaborate dinnerware and decorations in Hofburg Palace in the city

My first two spins through Austria I somehow missed the Apfelstrudel. How?! I really don't know. But this time around I made up for it. Pretty delicious. Not flaky like the ones in the states.

Gelato break! 
I got skilled at deciphering flavors. It was all decent, but not near Italian standards by any means. No shortage of gelato. Wish I could pack it in like this lady. My hero!

Famous Opera House.
Vienna is known for it's music, especially with Mozart as its claim to fame. But, I'm not a huge fan of classical music, and most definitely not Opera. So we admired from the outside, unsuccessfully tried to get a tour of the inside and then moved on.

We hopped on the tram that circled the city, and put in another Rick Steve audio tour (he does know his Europe). We hopped off and detoured to this...

Iconic City Ferris Wheel 
It was originally built in 1897 in Prater, an old school amusement park.
8 Euros to ride?! No thank you. This reminds me of one "Before Sunset" a movie set in one day in Vienna back in 1994, a classic in my library.

Stephansdam Cathedral 
reflected in a newly erected glass building in the center of Old Town. OK, so I’ve seen many cathedrals in this trip, and in all my travels, but this view caught my eye.

View of city from the top tower of Stephansdam Cathedral

Night walk by Hofburg Palace, the city dwelling of the Hapsburgs.

The next day we meandered out to the summer palace and took a leisurely stroll through the gardens and the neighboring hoods nearby.

Summer Palace of the Hapsburg slightly out of town. Beautiful gardens.

What an empire these Hapsburgs had! I vaguely recall studying them back in MEHAP (yes, I said it. Modern European History AP. Sophomore year of high school). I still wish I had gone to Europe back then so I could match history with what I see. While Austria is a solid county today, I forget what a major power it was with the Hapsburg rule and Austrian Empire. A good history reminder.

Vienna was never high on my list of places to see, but nonetheless it is a beautiful city that I'm glad I saw. It had great transportation and it was nice to be in a real city, unlike completely touristy Prague. Though there were obviously many tourists here too.
Early the next morning I hopped on a flight back to LA, while my parents continued on to explore Vienna one more day and then train to Budapest. I went to Budapest in 2002. I hear that Budapest is now what Prague was like 15 years ago. It's apparently up and coming I'll keep my fond memories of Budapest from back in the days from a very special trip in and out of Romania, thank you.

It was great to travel with the parents again. As life progresses and work and other obligations creep in, it's unique to be able to spend one on one time with the folks in foreign countries. No one is getting any younger so we gotta take advantage of the opportunities! Thanks for a great trip!