Monthly Archives: April 2012

I Amsterdam

Amsterdam, the Netherlands

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My first time in Amsterdam was back in sophomore year in college when I was studying abroad in London, circa 2004, with my friends Jackie and Sharon. My second time was in 2012, while I was teaching in Madrid, to visit my friend Lillian who was in art school there at the time. And, both times, I never smoked or ate a specially made brownie. Instead, I was more interested in…

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…the drinky drinky of the Heiney Heiney. That would be the Heineken Experience. I normally like Heineken, though it’s not my favorite beer, but, the beer here tasted as if your taste buds literally rolled around and laid upon the fields of barley (guess the song and singer reference…). Included in the price of admission were 3 drinks and a “free” branded half-pint glass. I could’ve spent all day here. Instead, we hit up a cheese farm and a clog factory which, in retrospect, was kind of a waste of time. It was definitely catered to tourists. But, I guess as a 19-year old, it was still fun in some way.

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But, nothing was as memorable as the Anne Frank House. I saw my 5th grade required reading become beyond real and into surreal in front of my eyes. Seeing the actual diary, the very pages she wrote on, was unreal. It was hard imagining the neighborhood or even the city with its Red Light District being once occupied by Nazi soldiers. It was hard imagining this house as a secret hiding place when it is now a public museum. But, I guess you could say that about a lot of other places, where it once was a place of war and is now a place of freedom and capitalism or, vice versa. Every piece of land has seen its share of changes, both destructive and productive.

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At night, we did the touristy walk through the Red Light District. It’s against the law to take photos of the windows where the women posed and ‘marketed’ for business. Apparently, there were times when people did take photos and one of the women’s bodyguards came out and threw his or her camera into the canal. I get it though. To them, this is their livelihood, not a spectacle. You could, however, take a picture of the general area, as long as it didn’t involve the women. We bumped into this small Asian girl who was walking around the district while holding up a large sign that said “JESUS LOVES YOU!” I chuckled because it was cute and useless. I wondered if anyone ever paid attention and was touched by the sign? I guess I’ll never know. Just like how I’ll never know Amelia Earhart’s final whereabouts, what happened to the colony of Roanoke Island, if the Bermuda Triangle really did gobble up boats, if the Loch Ness monster really exists and who really murdered Hae 15 years ago in Baltimore (listen to the Serial podcast if you don’t know what I’m talking about). I need to stop thinking about all these unsolved mysteries or, I’ll drive myself crazy.

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Back in 2004, I didn’t care too much about going to art museums. I had limited time to roam around the city and obviously opted for the brewery instead. I can now say that my views on that have changed, and I’m talking about viewing artwork, not drinking great beer. My views on the brewery have not changed and if I were given a choice today, I would still choose the brewery over the museum. But, I got to visit the Van Gogh Museum and I really enjoyed it. No photos were allowed inside so, the above photo is all you get.

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I’ve been wanting to check out the tulip fields for awhile and so I was really happy to finally visit the Keukenhof. The park was beautifully filled with flowers, from tulips to orchids, gerber daisies, hyacinths and more.

How to get here: You can check out the website to find out the directions. I took the bus (line 858) from the Schiphol train station which was really easy to figure out.

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Just gorgeous. The weather in Amsterdam is usually gloomy but, on this day, the sun managed to come out most of the time. Otherwise, it was definitely a chilly day (it was in April) and I was getting over a pretty bad cold. But, that didn’t stop me from taking a bike ride with cold air blowing against my face for a good 3-4 hours. Again, I like subjecting myself to questionable circumstances that end up torturing me for a bit before I get my satisfaction at the end, whether it be gorgeous scenery or who knows. Although the park was filled with every flower imaginable, what I really was interested in seeing were the actual farms where the tulips were being grown to supply the market. To see this, you need to get there by bicycle or car.

Right outside the Keukenhof entrance, there was a bicycle rental stand called Rent-a-Bike van Dam. For the day, you could rent a bike for EUR 10 and they’ll supply you with a map and suggested routes. You just needed to make sure to return the bike by 7:30pm before they closed. I followed the route pretty well and almost rode off the path into some bushes when trying to look at the map and ride at the same time. There was a point where I got lost or, I thought I got lost because I had to ride across a major roadway and then into paths that either felt shady or like I was trespassing onto some private grounds. I finally passed by someone I could ask for directions. He, of course, led me the wrong way turning my planned 1 hour bike ride into about 3-4 hours. It’s okay, though…

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…because I finally made it to my destination. SELF HIGH FIVE!

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The boat ride from Lanzarote to this island alone made me feel not just alive but, more importantly, thankful to be alive. How often have you felt this lately? I often forget that life is beautiful. All I seem to pay attention to is how I’ve been mistreated or how the world always seems to be against me. What I don’t realize is that maybe I’ve brought and continue to bring this onto myself. But, nothing is permanent and you have the power to change your circumstances. So, why not start now?

I’m on the verge of accomplishing my first of three new year’s goals and, I feel change coming. It’s always a little bittersweet when you let go of something that you’ve loved until now while knowing that it’s for better things in the future. The only thing I can really do is sit back and enjoy the ride.

La Graciosa, Spain

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I spent a decent portion of my semana santa wishing I was back in Madrid with a certain someone, wishing I could be with him to soothe and balance out his roller coaster emotions. Sure, I loved him but, where was the love for myself? Coming to this island made me feel an independence that I knew I needed to re-realize. There was me. There was this beautiful blue. There were blocks of white against the blue. There was my soul’s reawakening. I made it here at last.

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After I grabbed a quick lunch by the shore of pulpo (octopus) and white wine, I rented a bike in the adjacent shop and made my way across the island. The island seemed flat but, with each push on the pedal, my thighs whimpered at the hidden inclines. There was also my body’s reawakening.

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I parked my bike here thinking that this was the only bike rack in the vicinity. Half a mile of walking in the scorching sun later, I found plenty of spaces by the beach. Curses! (Think Mojo Jojo from The Powerpuff Girls.)

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First stop – Playa de las Conchas in the northwestern part of the island. Whimpering thighs be damned. This was worth all the pain.

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Bahía del Salado

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Playa Francesa

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And, the last stop on my bike adventure, Playa de la Cocina against Montaña Amarilla. Note to self: never attempt to ride a bike on soft sand unless you want quivering thighs and to reach your nearby destination in quadruple the amount of time.

Travel tip: I was staying in Puerto del Carmen on Lanzarote at the time. I took the Line 02 bus from Puerto del Carmen to Arrecife, then the Line 09 from Arrecife to Órzola. From here, I caught the ferry to La Graciosa. Be mindful of bus and ferry schedules to and from!

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I probably teared up every time I watched this video and, that’s when I knew that of all places to visit while living in Spain, I had to get here somehow.

Gran Canaria, Spain

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So, “I had to get here somehow” involved finding people on Facebook to travel with me. One positive thing about having worked in a corporate job for 5 years prior was having some cushion to spend on traveling. And then, on the other hand, there were all the late nights at the office, eating bad takeout, drinking 5 cups of coffee a day, working on multiple engagements and literally wishing someone would just push me in front of a fast-moving bus on my way to work every morning. So yea, there was that, too.

Most of the people in the Auxiliares program were freshly graduated undergraduates. And, here I was, with a Bachelor’s, Master’s and several years of work experience…and, equally lost in the world. So, with that, it was hard to find someone willing to dish out the cash to fly to the Canary Islands, climb a volcano and see the galaxy suspended above your tiny speck of a body. (I mean, why wouldn’t you want to?? Really, why?? Don’t worry, I’m coming back to question you again.) I managed to find just one interested person in a Facebook group dedicated for Auxiliares and, in some ways, I think I may have been better off alone. She was a stereotypical blonde (sorry, I tried to be as politically correct as possible…um, a ditz who just happened to be blonde? Is that better…?) from the midwest with a Spanish vocabulary much more extensive than mine but, horribly butchered by her very American Fargo accent. She managed to sprinkle “like” in her almost fluent Spanish (if you ignore the accent).

“Like, dónde está, like, el centro de, like, la ciudad?”

“Quiero, like, un bocadillo de, like, tortilla.”

I entered Bobby’s World in SAP and may have even encountered Howie Mandel in the process.

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I first flew into Gran Canaria which is the main island that people access during travel since there are more flights available to/from the mainland. It’s a nice place to start because it has more of a city feel with beaches closeby but, don’t spend more than 1-2 days here if you’re limited on time. The true beauty of these islands lies in the ones adjacent to this one. Pictured above are las dunas de Maspalomas located in the southern part of the island.

Travel tip: I just remembered that due to a planned countrywide strike which affected public transportation, I slept overnight in the Barajas airport in Madrid to make sure I caught my morning flight to Gran Canaria. For whatever reason, it didn’t occur to me that Gran Canaria would also be affected and I ended up waiting a long time for a bus to arrive to take me to the city center (Line 60 to/from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria; Line 66 to/from Maspalomas). Make sure you look up possible strikes before you travel anywhere.

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And, so begins my journey to the Milky Way on el Teide. Most sensible people opt to take the cable car up (el Teleférico del Teide) and then hike the rest of the way to the peak. You can probably tell where this is going. For whatever reason, I tend to take the longest paths and do things in the most difficult and possibly most inconvenient way. So, I decided to go on foot and hike my way up (about 4-5 hours) to the shelter (el Refugio de Altavista del Teide), spend a night there and hike the rest of the way up at the asscrack of dawn. Now, this is me literally taking the longest path. The figurative aspect involved me wearing inadequate clothing and Tretorn’s (think Converse) which left me frozen to the bone and slipping on rocks.

Travel tip: I believe we took Route 102 from the North airport to Puerto de la Cruz. When we arrived in the city center, we had just missed the last bus going towards the cable car station at el Teide. Our last resort was to catch a cab which ended up being better as we were dropped off right at the hiking route, at about 40.7 km on the TF-21 highway (you will see the mile markers or, rather, the km markers along the side of the road). I don’t remember the exact cost of the cab though my memory wants to say that it cost up to EUR 80 or 90 in total, as opposed to a bus ride cost of less than EUR 10 each way. Be mindful of the bus schedule when you plan out your trip.

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But, nothing beats my Fargo-ian travel companion lugging her rolling suitcase up rocky paths, steep inclines and high altitudes with thinning air (pictured above). When making our travel plans, we both knew we’d be doing this 4-5 hour hike. Maybe I didn’t go out and purchase the necessary hiking gear but, I at the very least made sure to pack just a backpack. Given that we were doing this hike shortly after arriving in the airport, we were unsure we could even lock our luggage in an airport locker or leave it safely elsewhere. This time, logic was on my side. Other hikers kept looking at her in amusement and disbelief, with a few scoffs here and there. I found even more amusement in their amusement but, I have to hand it to her. She was adamant on dragging that mini fridge on wheels all the way up and all the way down, and tried to make it seem like it was no big deal at all.

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If you look from one photo to the other, you can see the movement of the clouds and gauge just how windy it was, especially in the higher altitudes.

You have no idea how disappointed I was when I found out as a child that clouds weren’t big pillowy clumps of cotton that you could sleep on but, instead, were masses of vapor you can clearly fall through. Or, maybe you can relate…

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The scenery throughout the hike was not just amazing but, AH MAY ZEENG. (‘I still would rather take the cable car,’ you say. ‘You are wrong,’ I retort. It’s been a pleasure having this dialogue with you.) It was just unreal seeing the geological differences that resulted from the volcanic origins of this mountain and island. Still, I felt great relief at the sight of the shelter (at an altitude of 3,270 meters or 10,728 feet). I’m sure I was still pretty out-of-shape from the probable 10 pounds that I gained in India several months before this trip. No, I clearly did not get Delhi belly in India and, yes, I’m not kidding about the weight gain.

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If you decide to stay the night at the shelter, make sure to pack an easy meal, some snacks and water. The shelter had a small basic kitchen and a cold/hot drink machine. There is also a bathroom but, no showers. Due to the high winds at night, the shelter shuts all windows and doors at a certain point and bedtime is around 10:30pm, after which you are not allowed to make any noise. If you don’t want to sleep, there is a common area with benches.

A night’s stay cost about EUR 24. There are a few rooms filled with bunk beds and bedsheets/blankets are already set up for you. The bed was actually very comfortable and toasty that a part of me just wanted to never leave. Unfortunately, you are supposed to leave by 7:30am since they close around 8am (and reopen around 11am). A good thing is that you are allowed to leave your luggage in the main area when you make your final climb in the morning and pick it up on your way back down.

In order to make the final climb, you generally need to apply for a permit for a specific day and time slot. However, if you stay a night at the shelter, you don’t need this permit. If you take the cable car up [like a wimp] and make the final climb from there, you need the permit.

At around 5:30 or 6am, the first group of people decided to start their ascent. It was still pitch black, windy as hell and freezing. My Fargo buddy and I decided to tag along with these Spaniards because, like idiots, we didn’t bring flashlights or head torches…nor proper hiking gear. Now, I may have been poking fun at my Fargo buddy this entire time but, she’s a frequent hiker with speedy legs and despite being thin, she somehow has the skin of a high blubber content whale. In just yoga pants and a thin jacket, she zoomed through the trails and felt only a little cold. I, on the other hand, couldn’t keep up and couldn’t feel my hands and feet after just 5 minutes of hiking. The Spaniards with flashlights and Fargo girl in yoga pants were so far ahead of me, I couldn’t see where I was going anymore because it was still pitch black. After one Spaniard came back to fetch me a few times, I told them that I would return to the shelter on my own so that they could keep going and reach the top in time for the sunrise. I would have to wait until sunrise to attempt the climb again.

So, off they went. And, I was left alone in the black trying to descend a rocky path. I tried using the meager light from my cell phone (didn’t have the flashlight app) and almost fell a few times. It was still so cold, I couldn’t hold out my phone for too long without losing feeling in my fingers. I remember at one point, I just stopped, leaned against a rocky wall and thought that I might die out there. I decided to take a few slow breaths and just stared off into the night sky. The beautiful starry night sky. I thought I could make out the Milky Way but, I wasn’t sure what I was seeing anymore. I realize now that it probably was the Milky Way and that professional photos always make it seem unrealistically bright through the use of high exposure camera lens. At least that’s what I tell myself.

I was glad that I took those few minutes to examine the night sky. That was my main reason for making this trip and my trying to catch up to the others only made me stare at the ground to make sure I was stepping on stable grounds. But, after those few minutes, I couldn’t feel my face and so, I slowly made my way back and waited until sunrise to finish the climb.

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The sea of clouds was just pure awe and beauty. When the sun rose, a group of college kids asked if I wanted to finish the climb with them. Yes, thanks 🙂

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The hike to the peak probably took about another 1-2 hours. At the top, it reeked of sulfur and was still so windy and cold. The view was spectacular but, the highlight for me is still those few minutes I took looking up at the starry sky shortly after I expected my imminent death.

I met the Fargo girl back at the shelter and we made the 4-5 hour hike back down. Once we made it down, we had no planned way of getting back to the city center. To give you an idea of where we were, please refer to the picture below:

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We basically had 2 options:

1. Walk/wheel luggage a few miles in one direction to the main cable car station (which also has a food court and restrooms), and catch the bus into the city center or,
2. Walk/wheel luggage a few miles in the other direction to the next town and somehow catch the bus from there.

We chose option 2 (not sure why) and Fargo girl began speed walking with her luggage and left me way behind without bothering to check on me. After being in the freezing cold up top, I was feeling fatigued and like utter shit. Option 2 also left me feeling like I might die for the second time on this trip with each curve I turned and encountered a car speeding past inches away, oblivious to my existence. So, as she zoomed on, I decided to take a break at a lookout point along the side of the road which opened up to a panoramic view of the mountains. I tried looking up cabs on my phone but, I either couldn’t find someone willing to come out there or it ended up costing a fortune. I finally decided to walk back to where we started and ended up bumping into the Spaniards who offered to hike to the peak with us earlier that morning. They were jumping into their car and readily offered me a ride to the cable car station. It is a time like this when I truly realize that there is some universe looking out for me. It’s something I would realize everyday if I weren’t so distracted by my own useless worries.

At the station, I was able to catch the bus back to Puerto de la Cruz and on the second or third stop, guess who comes on? Dontcha know??

Lanzarote

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I came here at the suggestion of a Spanish friend of mine and I totally suggest it to anyone planning on traveling to the Canary Islands. When we arrived at our hotel, we bumped into a French guy from Lyon who had a half day to spare before he needed to return his rental car and fly out. He offered to take us to la Fundación César Manrique, which was the house of the native artist turned into a museum and foundation.

I thought, “Why the hell not?” The French guy was a rugged-handsome and had just spent the last few days windsurfing. Rugged, sporty and manly; willing to drive us around; fun to talk to (as opposed to Fargo girl). Definitely ‘why the hell not.’

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César Manrique built his home over volcanic bubbles/lava caves which were formed after an eruption in the 1700’s and made rooms within each cave, interconnecting them with small passageways. Some rooms were lounge areas that led to a small pool area and a dance floor. MTV Crib this!

His artwork is displayed on the ground floor above the lava caves along with his contemporary art collection which included paintings by Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. After living in cities both in and outside of Spain, he settled back in his hometown in Lanzarote for a quieter life and dedicated himself to preserving the natural habitat and local architecture of the island. He played a part in preventing large hotel chains from overtaking the coasts, and most buildings are only a few stories high and are painted white by mandate to preserve the look of the landscape. If you saw the landscapes of Lanzarote, you’d appreciate all of Manrique’s efforts and how it continued after his passing.

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With some time left before the French guy had to return his car, we stopped in a small random seaside town and ate at a seafood restaurant by the shore – Restaurante Salmarina, Playa Quemada. One of the things I love about Europeans is how easygoing they usually are with meeting people, going out and just plain enjoying themselves. There are no attachments or expectations. If some stranger in the states offered to take me to a museum and restaurant (which, first of all, they probably wouldn’t even do but, hypothetically speaking), I would expect myself to be brutally murdered or tied up in a basement after being sexually harassed. This may also be due to the copious amounts of Law & Order: SVU episodes I’ve been watching lately.

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My dish – pulpo y papas arrugadas con mojo or, octopus with potatoes in a special sauce that’s native to the islands (usually spicy). I bet you are salivating…because I am.

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And, this is the day that Fargo girl and I officially parted ways and never spoke a word to each other ever again. She went north to join a surf camp and I decided to stick around and do a tour of the island’s natural wonders. I really wanted to try surfing but I realized that I could learn it anywhere. Could I see volcanic ruins anywhere? Less likely. So, at the last minute, I booked a spot on a tour bus called (how fitting) Last Minute Excursions. Though I was on a bus with a bunch of British and German families, it was nice being carefree on a bus while a guide explained everything in great detail. First stop, pictured above – El Golfo.

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The beautiful and unreal landscape of the island. We drove past the salt flats of Janubio and through el Parque Nacional de Timanfaya. At a lookout point and restaurant area (aptly named El Diablo), they brought us to a hole in the ground that was filled with air so hot that when they stuck a pitchfork of dried plants into it, the plants burst up into flames within seconds. Note to self: do not trip and fall into hole. Got it.

They then brought us to an adjacent area with smaller holes in the ground. When water was poured into each of them, the water shot back out high into the air like a geyser. The sound of it was startling at first and this one lady crouched towards her husband in fear while the husband held so tightly to the bottom of his shirt that at the loud sound, he lifted it up to reveal a part of his midriff. Note to self: do not stand near couple where husband is oddly holding onto a piece of his clothing and there are startling noises? Gotta work on that one.

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This part of the tour through the craters and lava fields was, by far, my favorite and is only accessible through chartered tour buses. I’m too lazy to consult a thesaurus so, I’m going to say that it was AMAZINGGGG!! Can you see the large crater in the last photo above?

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Next stop: a vineyard at El Campesino. SQUEAL! The wine was a bit too sweet for me but, I welcome any wine tasting (especially when it was included in the tour package that I paid for). The vines are planted behind semi-circle stone walls called zocos to protect them from the fierce winds. Definitely could’ve used one of these on my hike up el Teide…

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Next: Jameos del Agua. One of César Manrique’s creations and home to the blind albino crab which look like tiny creepy crawly spiders. Manrique transformed this volcanic cave to include an auditorium, swimming pool and a restaurant (among other things). Just seeing how blue the pool was made me want to jump in so badly. I suppose it’s worth following the rules and not getting kicked out and banned from a place, right? Then again, I’m most likely not coming back…

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Last stop on this tour: this magnificent view on our way to the Guinate viewpoint. What’s that word that I barely used…ah, yes. AMAZING!! From here, you can see the island of La Graciosa, the island I loved the most (and the last part I will write about).

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After staying in the Puerto del Carmen area for about 3 days, I decided to spend my last in the southern part – Playa Blanca. To get here cost effectively, I took the Line 02 bus from Puerto del Carmen to Arrecife, then Line 60 from Arrecife to Playa Blanca (bus info). This part of the island is definitely geared more towards families with its shopping and variety of restaurants. It also seemed cleaner and more spacious. From Marina Rubicón, I caught the water taxi to las playas de Papagayo, pictured above. There are several beaches separated by cliffs and all of them are a nice leisurely walk to the other. I loved that it felt remote and sparsely populated. I sunbathed here and relaxed with my Kindle until the last water taxi departed.