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!

Monday, January 11, 2016

A little layover in Tahiti

My friend, Florence and I, had been talking about traveling together for awhiles. She's taking a year off and I have my odd winter break so we started brain storming. A special flight deal to New Zealand came up with a 4 day layover in Tahiti at a resort so we went for it.

Turns out I kept forgetting that I was going to Tahiti, even as I was packing. I was so focused on New Zealand and Tahiti was never on my to-see list. I actually packed for this trip about 3 weeks ago (what?!) because I was in the bay area with the family for Christmas for a week then directly road tripped via Las Vegas to New Mexico for a week and a half. I was in snow on Tuesday in NM, rain in LA for 24 hours on Wednesday and then this on Thursday ...

View of Moorea from our resort (yes, resort!)
This was the first time at a resort for both of us. New territory! We made a concerted effort to not do anything. It was hard at first, but I think we got the hang of it. Here was our "itinerary".

Day 1: Chill and two grocery store runs
Day 2: Chill. Did not leave resort
Day 3: 1 grocery store run. 1 SCUBA dive
Day 4: Chill. Did not leave resort.

We were thrilled when we found the local grocery store and even more excited to find out we had a kitchen.
French baguettes for 53 cents! 
Local dish, Poisson Cru, which is raw fish with coconut milk.
Sashimi was excellent and cheap.
We even found a rotisserie chicken ($16 for an extra-large one) but it was a miraculous chicken that fed us for 4 days and 4 nights. We made chicken with ramen noodles and bok choy, chicken sandwiches and jook. Too bad the cleaning lady threw out our coveted sauce in this magical bag. On the flip side, we learned that they wash your dishes.

The one and only activity we did in all of our time was one SCUBA dive with Eleuthera Plongee. Decent dive shop and definitely worth it.
Me at the shipwreck 25 meters down.
My first SCUBA pic and 6th dive
Plane wreck 13 meters down
Otherwise, we just chilled in the room or by the pool. I read my 3 National Geographics from 2012. Yes, that's how far behind I am apparently. With ok internet, I got some blotchy skype in. Unfortunately, I also got work to do so I was productive in that sense. But I can't complain because I also researched and booked my next vacation to Honduras while sitting in my Tahiti resort.

I'm starting to understand more the appeal of the resort vacation. Not too shabby. But this part is over and tomorrow we are off to New Zealand where we probably won't be able to maintain the chillness of Tahiti, but we'll try to not go crazy. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Cuba: Hasta La Victoria Siempre!

I was itching to go to Cuba since it just opened more to the US earlier this year. We are now allowed to go on "people-to-people" tours, but I'm not a huge tour person and they cost a fortune. Do I sneak in via a third country solo? Luckily on a chance e-mail, Jane jumped at the chance to go too. How to sneak in? Buy separate tickets from Mexico to Cuba via Aeromexico office in London.

Cuba is close. 60 miles south of Miami. Why did it take a whole day to get there?  I took an overnight to Mexico City, met Jane at the airport, got a Cuban visa then waited another 8 hours for the flight to Havana.

Havana: Time Warp

Our first day exploring we didn't make it half way down the main road before snapping tons of pictures of classics on our walk to Habana Vieja (Old Town).

Car museum!
Floridita: where the first Daquiri was made and Hemmingway frequented
Old Skool Pharmacy, still functioning but only for the wealthy and foreigners
Cuban sandwich! 
They actually exist, though this was an upscale one. The typical ones are bought in a small hole-in-the-wall shop or out of a box. Neither looked too appealing. Havana Club is the main rum, and their glasses were everywhere. This one has fresh guayaba juice. Delicious tropical fruit! Unfortunately the food wasn't that stellar. There just isn't access to a variety of good ingredients. But we did have some decent home cooked meals, and lots of seafood (lobster, shrimp, fish, crab).

Typical street in Havana

Malecon: the famous oceanside drive and walk
Guys fishing on the Malecon
Half the buildings were dilapitated, another 1/4 in forever renovation by the government (why was that crane there for 2 years, immobile?), the last 1/4 remodeled.

Jane and Me at La Bodeguita, the place where the first mojito was made. 
Unforunately the mojitos were pretty awful, and believe me, we tried a lot of them. At the end we wondered why we still bothered trying. Also, I had to go low key on the alcohol. No pina coladas, daquiris, etc. Bummer, but at least we know they weren't tasty anyways.

We took one guided tour by a Chinese-Cuban guy who was a teenager during the revolution. We rode around in his classic Opel (he was surprised when he found out that my dad had one back in the days too). We got a lot of insight into Cuban history and its people.

Government store where locals can purchase limited products (rice, beans, soap, toothpaste, etc)
Food rations
People are given a certain amount of food at very discounted prices, but it is not enough to survive on. This is the list of what you can get, how much and for what cost. For instance, you can get 5 pounds of rice for about 5 cents/pound.

Plaza Vieja (Old Plaza) en Habana Vieja (Old Town)
Government poured a ton of money into restoration but you can see the faded "Fereteria" word (hardware store) from the old times.

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana: a missile from the Cuban Missile Crisis
Revolution signs everywhere!
There was USA graffiti right next to it along with a skateboard ramp.
Che "Hasta La Victoria Siempre"
"Until Victory, Always"
Revolucion Plaza
Che had a major influence on the revolution in 1959 in overthrowing the Batista Government. He partnered with Fidel Castro.

US Embassy opened in July 2015
This made us feel better about going to Cuba. Yes, the Cuban flag is about 5 times the size of the American flag. Also, right in front of the embassy is the anti-imperialist plaza. Coincidence? I think not.
View from our homestay (casa particulares)
The Cuban network is amazing! We booked our first hostel (actually homestays called casa particulares) in Havana at Hostel Pelegrino. The owners Elsa and Juan were amazing and helpful. Although, their house was full, their "cousin" 3 doors down had a room. Turns out everyone is in a connected network. So, when we wanted to go to Vinales next, Juan hooked us up with transportation, a little tour and the next casa particulares to stay at. 

Havana is a fascinating city and we could've stayed a few more days easily, but limited time meant we were off!

Vinales: the Napa of Cuba, except tobacco fields instead of vineyards

We stopped at Las Terrazas en route which was an old coffee plantation. It was suppose to be a little off-the-beaten path and gorgeous nature. It was great, but we didn't hike around at all.

New and old at an Eco Village
The Eco Village seemed to not be "Eco"-y at all. There was a lot of trash every where and I didn't see the sustainability, except maybe those solar panels above. Not impressed.

After about 4 hours en route, we reached Vinales.

Vinales! Valley of the tobacco plantations

Biking in Vinales
We came here basically to bike. We were promised that it would be "bucolic bliss" - flat and few cars. No and no. Totally not flat! And we were dodging cars, trucks, big RV-type things, horse and carts on windy narrow roads. Luckily the goats and cows were tied up to the side.

Prehistoric Mural?
We thought we were going to see a mural painted in prehistoric times. Turns out the "prehistoric" mural was painted in 1961. It's a hideous at 617 m high and 120 m wide with psychedelic looking dinos and snails. Why?! At least the bike ride there was redeeming.

Off to Playa Larga for some beach time

It was a 4 hour ride that we took with a couple from the Netherlands. It started off in a classic car with AC. What a pleasant surprise! Half way through, it changed to a little tin can with no AC. Who knew it was so hard to just sit in a car. Awful.

Our reward after the awful ride: view from our casa balcony

Ah, relaxation
OK, so we spent 1.5 days on the beach! I know, Americans "are not allowed to just relax on the beach" said many websites, but we managed to do just that!

I also managed to pick up a cough and the heat and humidity were doing a number on my head. So I felt pretty crappy for the majority of the trip, but I didn't let that stop me!

We even got a SCUBA dive in. Awesome tropical waters. Crystal clear blue and warm so we only had to wear shorties. I also saw my first tiny shipwreck!

Three friendly Italians were staying in the other room of our Casa. After we kept running into each other in town we decided to just plan our time together. Off we go!

Cruising in our classic until ...

I think we have a problem.
We pulled off the road and into a bush-like area. Hmm, scene for getting jumped by the cartel? Well, it was peak day = peak heat (100+ deg with humidity). Our driver pulled out his mechanic suit and toolbox and got to work for at least an hour. Then he just decided to just give it a go on 3 out of 4 brakes. That's 75%, passing. OK, right?

After hitting a poor man's resort and chilling one more night in Playa Larga (to say it is a town would be stretching it), we headed off to our next destination.

Propaganda lines the roadside
Guiseppe, Marco, Guiseppe, Jane and Me in our replacement car with 4 functioning brakes.
That car took us to our next and sadly last location...

Cienfuegos: neoclassical french bayside town

We really wanted to go to Trinidad, a colonial town, which was where the boys were headed, but that was another 5 hours on the road and we didn't have the time.

Parque Jose Marti, a UNESCO heritage site
Atop palace ruins of Casa Benjamin Duarte 
Palazio Azul (Blue Palace) in Punta Gorda
with ominous rain clouds in the background.
Parisian influence with a Miami feel.
Delicious tropical fruit
at breakfast every morning (always $5 at the casa)
After all our traveling around, we finally got on the much coveted Viazul (tourist) bus that was famed for being over-AC'd. It was a splendid, slightly chilly 4 hour ride back to Havana. So nice to be a bit cold for once.

Havana en route to the airport

We had a few more hours in Havana before heading back to the airport. We had one Spanish restaurant to hit up, los Nardos, Unfortunately it was a bit disappointing.

Touts hanging out in the Havana streets

Kids kicking it in the streets
What's wrong with that scaffolding?
30 years makes for good tree growth.
To the airport in our last classic ride with classic Boyz II Men en Espanol. Gotta love it!
Overall, the Cubans were really friendly and there was no animosity at all towards us Americans, just some a few surprised people wondering where our "tour group" was or how we got in. Our Spanish, although limited, took us a long way with the locals.

Cuba was fantastic! And the US let us back into the states! Whew. Hope they never find out. If anyone asks, I was in Mexico City for 8 days. I bought nothing back but a Cuban cough. I'm glad we went even though it was only for a week and it was crazy hot and humid. While I don't think Cuba is rapidly changing anytime soon, you can start to see some movement so it was nice to go sooner rather than later. A short, awesome, packed trip!