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!

Monday, February 19, 2018

2018 Pyeongchang Olympics!!!

When Jane asked if I wanted to go to the Winter Olympics, there was only one answer, "YES!" I was on sabbatical, love the Olympics and wanted to go to Korea so it seemed perfect.

We looked at events and booked our flights accordingly, a month before the games. It was not an easy feat to plan. Order of operations: buy tickets to events, book airbnb, secure train tickets to events. Korea was not exactly forthcoming in the transportation plans and at one point we thought we wouldn't be able to make it to our events because the trains were blocked off to foreigners during Soleil Holiday (New Year's). It was madness. Shout out to Sharlene: thanks for helping me as I spent hours trying to book train tickets while visiting her in NYC.

But alas, it all worked out! While my colleagues went into their second week of the semester I set off for 5 weeks of travel. First stop: Korea!

 Right when I landed at Incheon Airport. Olympics!
Beware: you are going to see a lot more of this adorable tiger in upcoming pics!

My first Airbnb in Seoul.

Cozy space for 3 occupied by just 1. Little room with full kitchen and bath centrally located inbetween Myeongdong and Insa-dong. Not bad. Very common in Seoul.

Day 1: Sightseeing

My first 3 days were solo. No Olympic events my first day so I explored. I only rushed through Seoul on an 8 hour layover with Jane back in winter 2011 so it was nice to actually explore.

 Changdeokgung Palace with Huwon (Secret Garden)
Definitely winter. 

 Amazing hole in the wall dumpling soup find (kalguksoo).
Perfect for a cold winter day.

Wandering the alleys of Bukchon Hanok Village

At night, I explored the Namdaemun Market, which was eerily dead. Maybe it was more of a daytime place. I got some interesting anchovy based meal. Very local.

Day 2: Men's Snowboard Halfpipe Finals

Commute to event consisted of walk to subway. Subway to train. Train to mountains. Shuttle to event location. Walk to event. About 2 hours total. And, it went smoothly. Korea pulled it together.

Shaun White (#2)!!!
I saw him right when I entered the venue. AHHH! 
Olympics are REAL!

Men's Military Drill Team warming up the crowd before.
Only in Korea. They were actually pretty good, unlike the cheerleaders.

I'm at the Halfpipe! 
It's huge! And the athletes went even a good 10 feet above the edge.

A clip from Shaun White's Gold Winning Run. Hear the crowd!

Shaun White steals the Gold!

Seeing Shaun White snatch the gold on the final run of the competition was pretty EPIC.

Jyongmo Shrine

I got back to Seoul in time for half day of sight-seeing. I hopped on a Korean tour of the palace above so I didn't have to wait around.

Gwangjang Market for early dinner

I squeezed in with the locals and got blood sausage and jop-chae. Much better market experience. Then walked along the Cheong-gye-cheon, a demolished highway line that revealed a stream going through the city. Not bad. After a little breather at my airbnb, I went back out to explore Myeongdung for shopping.

Day 3: DMZ (Demilitarized Zone)

No real spectacular events this day so I decided to trek out to the DMZ as I have been intrigued with North Korea and have given a lot of thought to its citizens and way of life.

 DMZ  train

I decided to take public transport on Korail. This train is so bizarre. It's very cheery and plays upbeat music yet you are going to a somber area. It is suppose to represent freedom, peace and reunification with North Korea. The train first opened in May 2014 and the dream is yet to be realized.

After arriving, a bus took us to Peace Village, another desolate icon of the peace that is yet to come. Then we went onward to the closest border point viewing.

 Looking out into North Korea over the DMZ. 
In the distance you can see the iconic North Korean flag pole in Kijong-dong, the closest town to the border.

North Korean town through binoculars.
It's hard to imagine that it's only 35 miles from Seoul.

Dorasan Station: connecting North and South Korea

This station was built to be the thorough way between Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, and Seoul. Only unused border checkpoints are present. The only train is the DMZ that comes and goes once a day.

It was such a bizarre feeling to be at the DMZ at a time when tension with nuclear weapons were surmounting, yet the Olympics was in full force which is suppose to represent world peace and cooperation. All the while, it was just me and a handful of tourist wandering the desolate grounds awaiting years for the reunification that is yet to come. 

After a full day on tour, I gathered my luggage from the storage locker (thank goodness it was still there), and headed to a new airbnb (closer to the train station to get to the Olympics) to meet Jane. As always, so great to have a reunion with a friend, who I don't get to see often, in a foreign country. I was also super grateful that she is fluent in Korean and spent a fair amount of time in Seoul in her childhood. Finally someone who can interpret the menus for me! We got some delicious soup in our local neighborhood and caught up.

Day 4: Women's Snowboard Cross Finals

 Snowboard Cross

6 snowboarders hurling down the course with this as the finale. We would watch on the big screen then turn to see the live finish. Usually only 4 or 5 would make it across the line. It was much more fun to share the excitement with Jane. She's an Olympic junkie too! Sadly Lindsey Jacobellis for the U.S. got 4th. 

By the way, it was COLD! No matter how hard we tried, we could not keep our feet from freezing. We both had hardcore boots with fur lining. We tried double socks, heat packs, standing on cardboard. Nothing worked. It was about 20 degrees F and we were standing on snow after all.

We decided to take the subway a few stops over to explore Dongdaemun for dinner. It was Lunar New Year so most places were closed.

 Heungin Jimun Gate

Korean BBQ!
Notice the kimchi is below the pork. The drunk father next to us kept raving how it was the best kimchi ever because of the pork fat drippings. It was pretty tasty.

Dongdaemung Design Plaza

Seoul has really stepped it up in urban planning lately with these futuristic buildings.

February 16, 2018

Day 5: Women's Super G Finals, Olympic Village and Women's Skeleton Finals

This was our big full day with two events. It was hard to double event it in a day because venues often took at least an hour to travel between.

 Women's Super G
They zoom down the mountain at 80 mph! It's pretty insane! And even crazier seeing it live.

 Jane and me at the Olympics with our paraphernalia!

For all events we stood, but this one was sold out so Jane splurged on seats. It was nice since it was an hour delayed due to high winds.

Next, we were off to the Olympic Village. We've been dying to go to the super store and buy all the tiger paraphernalia that we could. Each venue was very isolated and had limited food and souvenirs. We need to go to the source!

 Jane and the rings

 Here I am!

 The torch

 Women's Skeleton

Who ever thought: Hey! I want to go down a track at 80 mph miles on a dinky little sled, HEAD first?! See video below. Unfortunately, we only got an hour here as we needed to catch the last train back to Seoul.

Women's Skeleton
The crowd responded the same way every time! Even after 20+ athletes went.

Tiger and me. I just can't get enough of this cutie!

Day 6: Men's Alpine Slopestyle

We were super stoked for this event! The athletes go down an obstacle course individualizing their tricks ending in a series of spectacular jumps. But first...

Gimbop sold on the street near the train station

We smuggled these into the events as they were delicious, cheap and lines for the food at the venue was insanely long. 

Impressive Slopestyle

Celebrity sighting in the Spectator Tent (ie. place where you can defrost)

We chilled here for an hour in between the quals and finals. It's hard to stand in the cold for 5 hours straight!

We were pretty tired when we got back to our airbnb at 5 so we chilled, grabbed Korean BBQ for dinner again (not much was open still), and crashed.

Day 7: Last Day Exploring Seoul

Jane left in the morning to catch a flight to Hokkaido to go snowboarding powder. I couldn't join because I had plans to go to Patagonia with Christopher. So we parted ways.

 Gyeongbokgung Palace

Early in the AM before tour buses arrived. I loved how these temples were in the middle of the bustling city. I saw the changing of the guards here.

 Special Winter Exhibit at the National Folk Museum. 
Great Museum on the grounds of the above palace.

I hit up the Jogye-sa Temple which reminded me of Tibet and then spent the afternoon and evening wandering around Hongdae. It was a fun hip area.

 Random gallery that I stumbled upon exploring.

KFC: Korean Fried Chicken
The street food was epic, delicious and cheap.

 Hongdae at night
 I picked up pens, stationary, face products and all sorts of fun things here.

 View from our airbnb

I would totally come back to Seoul. There's so much of the city I didn't explore and seeing it in warmer weather with some greenery would be nice.

Day 8: Back home via Tokyo

I was just going to chill in the airport for my 5 hour layover but I found out I could take the JR/Kensei rail one stop (10 min) and walk another 10 minutes and see this lovely temple.

 Great Pagoda of Peace at Narita-san Park

Beautiful grounds.
I wish I had more time to walk around

Matcha green tea ice cream

I ate my way down the street. I spent $20 on two ice creams, red bean bread, mochi, rice crackers and rice milk wine. Oh Japan how I miss you! It's been too long since 2004.

Yeah! Olympic success!

This has been one of my favorite travels of all times. I mean, it was the Olympics! But Jane and I decided Winter Olympics might be a once in a lifetime event. It's sooooo cold! But, I'm excited for my first Summer Olympics! Perhaps 2028 in LA?!