Saturday, March 16, 2019

A Ghanaian Funeral

I didn't go to this funeral.
I was just in Ghana for a few weeks working in the field on a project. During my stay, I was asked to join my team to attend a funeral for one of our colleagues who had passed away, over the weekend. Of course, I agreed to join....but it was clear during the experience that I was wildly unprepared and still prone to culture shock.

According to my Ghanaian colleagues, weekends are for funerals. You attend lots of funerals, here - for people you know or people you knew of from others - so that eventually you'll have a sizable gathering for your own funeral. Because in Ghana, funerals are big deals - much bigger than weddings.  I mean, they're big enough to the point that some think they can be a bit excessive.

Perhaps you've seen on social media one or two videos from a Ghanaian funeral? You know, one of the pallbearers dancing with a coffin bouncing on their shoulders?

I find it almost impossible to explain the Ghanaian funeral I attended by comparing it to anything we have in the US...but I found myself comparing it a bit to Indian weddings. It had a lot of pomps and circumstances (like an Indian wedding) and it was long. And apparently, by Ghanaian scale, this funeral was a very small one.

But I'm ahead of myself.

The funeral was in the Central Region - about a five-/six-hour drive from Accra. My 60 Ghanaian colleagues and I sleepily piled into a VIP bus at 2am (!) on Saturday and started our journey. If you've ever driven down Ghanaian roads, you may recall that speeds are managed via ample speed bumps and potholes (every mile or so?). Sleeping on the bus was difficult.

A few towns before we reached the funeral, we stopped at a guesthouse to dress for the service. Ghanaian funerals are formal events - no jeans or sneakers! The standard colors are black and red (with a few exceptions for those in church groups with costumes - yes, costumes - and etc.). Women wear tailored outfits with a flared blouse paired with a mermaid skirt, while men wear smart kente shirts or elaborate "togas". Apparently, in the Ashanti region, funeral attire is so strict that one can be refused entrance if the outfit isn't up to code. Luckily for me, we weren't in Ashanti and I was allowed to wear simple black pants and a modest shirt.

When we arrived, we had to line up and start a procession to the funeral (women in the back, of course) and around the corpse of our late colleague before sitting down.

Okay, so this is when the culture shock for me started during the funeral. There much to unpack in my culture shock, so I will explain the uniqueness in my favorite format - a list:

  • The (dressed) corpse was laid out in full view on a table in a clear tent. I was not expecting the body to be on display as fully as it was. In Western funerals, *if* the body is on display, it's only from the torso up. This body, however, was not covered at all - I saw the rigid legs leading to the stiff upper body of someone who has been moved into position after Rigor mortis set in. There was no way to deny death at this funeral, for his body was so clearly visible to all who attended at all vantage points.
  • The corpse was a month old. In a country that is hot and so very near the equator, I was baffled to see the body in such a well-preserved state...and that they had taken so long to bury the body. My colleagues explained to me that burial customs in Ghana sometimes prohibit bodies from being buried for quite a long time, which means families and morgues will do what they can keep bodies on ice if there are delays.
    Why would there be delays? One example I heard was that if a local royal died before your loved one, you can't bury them until the royal is. And, since 
    funerals are such big deals in Ghana, funerary ceremonies for royals can last weeks/months/years! Which means you just have to wait to mourn your loss until the royals are buried. I'm not entirely sure why this funeral was a month late, but it was - and that was not abnormal to anyone but me.
  • There were hundreds of people at this "small funeral". In the West, a large funeral may have 100 people or so; in Ghana, large funerals have more like a few thousand. I was in awe that so many people turned up at the funeral, but was even more surprised when I was told that it was a tiny funeral. The reason why thousands of people didn't show up was that my colleague died rather young and before his parents - in Ghana, burying a child requires a smaller, not-very-spectacular funeral.
  • The service had lots of emotions expressed. I'm used to funerals being somber, sad events. Ghanaian funerals have (potentially professional?) wailers and sobbing/moaning family members, of course, but there was also a lot of singing and dancing. The church that ran the service brought the chorus. They banged tambourines, sang joyfully to songs about Jesus (I think? It was in Twi, but "Jesus" sounded the same...), and danced in a parade around the center of the funeral grounds - sometimes even around the body. At some point during the funeral, the corpse was moved discreetly into a coffin, which was then placed in the middle of the compound, and more dancing circled it. Some periods of the funeral had rowdy songs juxtaposed with people crying loudly. I didn't really know how to process the information during this service because I felt overwhelmed with emotions at the moment, but I think I was glad to have some levity in what normally is a dark event...even if the contrast was so stark.

  • The service was quite long. In my world, funerals are for about two hours. Max. We ended up staying at this funeral for six hours before hopping back in the bus to return to Accra...and we had left early! Once again, funerals can last a long time, and apparently, I only got a taste of all that would be included in the ceremonies. To me, it was extremely long; understanding only a smattering of words - mostly being "Jesus" - probably made it feel even longer.
  • We had to go through a lot of formalities. So much of the funeral included people moving around, shaking hands of everyone else attending the funeral. And much else of the funeral were different people making speeches (again, in Twi) in what appeared to have been normal standard operating procedures. I'm not sure most of what happened, but there seemed to have been some kind of formula to go through for the event. We did a lot of standing and sitting for songs and other parts that I didn't understand, as well.
    There was one part of the ceremony that was in English: the eulogies. And it was heartbreaking to listen to several people read out their written eulogies in between sobs.
After the initial religious part of the ceremony and people moved around the coffin a few times, it was time for the pallbearers to lead the hundreds of attendees to the burial. We were in a rural community, so everyone piled onto the road and slowly walked to the cemetery off on the shoulder of the road, at the end of the village.

Did I mention that it was hot out in rural Ghana? It was probably 100F/37.8C outside and as the sun climbed the sky, all of my colleagues and I started to pour sweat (I won't lie...I was comforted to see that I wasn't the only one sweating). There was a point during the day where I wasn't sure my clothing would ever come off again from my sweaty body. I wasn't sure if I'd ever know what it felt like to be cold again, either. There was some cooling wind...but not much.

At some point after the burial, I realized I had an urgent need to urinate. A few of my lady colleagues helped me find a village toilet, which was harder than it sounds as Ghana is known in my sector as having low sanitation coverage. Anyway, somebody showed us to a roofless structure with walls that wrapped around like a spiral and told me to have at it. I walked cautiously through the spiral to find a stained floor and a small hole in the side of the wall that outputted into a divet near someone's home. This was the only toilet in the community apparently, so I took off my pants and squatted...and proceeded to urinate openly and indiscriminately. It was so hot out I couldn't tell where my urine was going, but I would be lying if I said I didn't get any of it on my person. Oh well.

The happenings continued.

Our organization wanted to donate some money to the bereaved family, which meant the formalities continued for us. All 60 of us were ushered into a family compound where we sat and waited for the bereaved family members to greet us. My understanding is that we first had the widow's family leaders come to greet us and asked us our intentions, to which someone on our team represented us and stated our intention to donate money. The widow's family left, satisfied. Afterward, we waited for a while until the bereaved blood family joined us and we went through the same formalities again. Each time a new group or family came to go through this process with us, there was handshaking. Everyone had to give each other handshakes. Which meant I shook a lot of people's hands that day. Many of them seemed quite pleased to have shaken the hand of a foreigner at the funeral - it appears I added some prestige to the funeral and showed that our colleague had had an international network.

Once the handshaking ended, we then had to do the process all over again, this time in public at the official ceremony where donations were publically announced. Again, someone had to state our intentions to give money to the family, and we had to shake hands. The difference with this version was that afterward our team had to dance around the altar that replaced the coffin before we were able to leave the funeral and head home. 

We finally got back to Accra around 9pm - about 20 hours after our days started. But, of course, not without me peeing on myself one last time (this time at a gas station) while we headed back.

Overall, it was a fascinating experience. I wish I had thought to have read up more in what a Ghanaian funeral would entail, and I wish I had prepared myself better to deal with an overwhelming cultural experience in blistering heat. But it is still a memory that I will not forget and is giving me food for thought about my own future funerary experiences and last wishes. I'm sure I got some of the details mixed up or misunderstood, but based on my understanding of what happened that day, the Ghanaians hold their deceased in the highest of esteem and respect.

One last note: I found this article about how some of the funeral calls in Ghana can be quite comedic - enjoy!

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Iceland Road Trip

A little fairy house we saw on our drive.
After our delightful time in Denmark, the CT Lawyer and I jumped over to Iceland for the remainder of our holiday. Our Iceland adventure included us flying to the other side of the country and drive south on the Ring Road for a few days back to Reykjavik. It was quite a fun road trip!

Day 1: Blue Lagoon
We got on a bus from the airport that headed straight to the Blue Lagoon. It was my second visit to the spa, but it was even more relaxing and fun than the first time! There are always a large group of tourists revolving all day through this place, but they do a great job making it enjoyable even with lots of people. We waded through the water and soaked for a while with their silicon face masks before dinner at their Lava Restaurant.

During dinner, my face turned bright red and steaming hot - my super sensitive skin had a reaction to the face mask. The reaction made me unable to really enjoy the good food, sadly. Fortunately, the rash went away during the 45-minute bus ride to our hotel in Reykjavik.

Day 2: Reykjavik to Egilsstadir
The next day we woke up to a bright and shining Reykjavik. We took a fast walk around downtown, where I insisted on eating a hot dog at a famous stand. It was pretty darn good (and cheap), though definitely not gluten-free.

We had an afternoon flight to Egilsstadir, where our road trip would begin. The domestic airport is in the heart of Reykjavik, separately from the international one that is an hour out of the city. We arrived two hours early (as we do for US flights), but, upon reaching the airport and reflecting the small size of Iceland, we realized that we were painfully early. The airport is essentially a simple room with access to the tarmac - it reminded me of the domestic airports in Puerto Rico or Myanmar. Without enough time to go back out and explore, we waited patiently in the quiet airport for our flight.

We picked up our rental truck right after landing in Egilsstadir. Getting to the rental truck, our lungs exploded with fresh air and my ears buzzed with the quietness of the area. There are, after all, only about 2,500 people who live in the area and a light sprinkle of houses contrasted with lots of open space.

This was something we experienced for the first few days of our road trip; we found ourselves in very sparsely populated areas; we would see no one else for miles, and when we did see people there weren't that many. It was wonderful.

Once checked into our guest house, we drove out a ways to visit the coastal town Borgarfjörður Eystri; we wanted to see if the puffin hotspot was still buzzing or if the puffins had left for the season. We drove through lovely countryside dotted with farms until we reached the mountains lining the coast, which is when the road started to wind tightly and become treacherous. To make driving even scarier, a thick fog settled around us, forcing us to drive at a snail's pace so we wouldn't fly off the road suddenly.

When we finally got to our destination, the puffins were long gone. There was a whipping wind in the tiny town, so we got back in the car and drove (slowly again!) back to Egilsstadir. Once we had returned to town, we ate dinner at a small house and I enjoyed one of my first bowls of delicious lobster soup. There wasn't much else to do as the sun disappeared, so we napped a little bit before we went back outside later at night.

Our goal that night was to espy some aurora borealis, clouds permitting. Our host recommended a few vague locations for us to see the aurora well, including a 10-minute drive to some vague location on the top of a hill outside of town. We tried a walkable location first, which was a little too well-lit...which meant we got into the car and got lost for about 30 minutes until we finally figured out where the host's directions were leading us. It was worth it - before the clouds overcame the sky, we got to watch the slow movement of a green swirly band of light caress the stars.

Day 3: Egilsstadir to Hofn
In the morning we started our long drive south to a town called Hofn. The host told us to not trust Google and take a specific route that was safer and prettier than the older road Google indicated in our directions (the "new" Route 1). At first, we were hesitant (we'd be going on verbal directions for hours), but we followed his directions and enjoyed long views of the water and rolling mountains. We were surrounded by natural beauty and barely made any contact with other humans or towns along the way - there weren't even other cars on the road for a long time! The Google-recommended road intersected with ours halfway into the drive and we saw a line of rental cars (with Google-navigating tourists), all muddied and battered from old road gravel. We were so glad we listened.

We started to see the outlines of glaciers on the horizon. The closer we got, the bigger and more daunting (and otherworldly) they appeared. We were going directly to one of those glaciers, actually - we had bought tickets earlier for a kayak tour of a glacial lake.

We checked into the tour in the parking lot of a dairy farm next to the glacial lake, put on our heavy-duty ice-ready gear, and shuttled off to the kayaks. After a few fits and starts (and almost capsizing), CT Lawyer and I decided to kayak in separate kayaks and joined our small tour group (about 14 people...and no other humans in sight) as we waded around calm yet ever-moving icebergs floating in the water. It was stunning. Part of the kayak adventure also included hiking on top of some of the icebergs. We put on ice shoe chains and learned about the lives of glaciers while we walked on the giants. It was an extremely neat tour!

After kayaking, we drove into the town of Hofn for dinner plan - one of the locals had started a business offering traditional, local meals for tourists, and we went to her home to enjoy some fish casserole. Upon arrival, she presented to us a fascinating walk through the history of Icelandic food. We got to try fish leather and fermented shark (which kind of reminded me of very strong brie) and whey (do not recommend). The fish casserole was creamy and comforting in the chilly weather.

Day 4: Hofn to Vestmannaeyjar
We drove towards the Westman Islands, but we had a lot of time between how long it would take to drive to the ferry and when our ferry was scheduled, so we took our time and visited a number of places on the way. We started to see more people (especially tourists).

The first place we visited was the famous "James Bond Lake" - Jökulsárlón Glacial Lake. It was busy with tourists on inflatable rafts. After ogling the lake, we soon went back into the car and kept our drive going. We were trying to run away from a storm that was traveling in our direction.

As we kept speeding down the road, we happened upon a beautiful, picturesque glacial area (Hvannadalshnúkur) with wildflowers hiding at a swampy marsh. We stopped to admire the background...and then we kept going.

We also took a quick stop to hike up a mountain and peek at the Svartifoss waterfall (where, again, we saw more tourists), but neither of us was feeling particularly dazzled and we went back to the car. We took other pit stops at waterfalls like Ásólfsskáli and a few others I can't remember (there are many waterfalls all over the place). We finally had put a few hours between us and the storm.

We also stopped at an outside turf house site. There's a little museum for the special houses in Keldur, but it was closed for the winter. Fortunately, the gate was still open (not sure if that was intentional...) and we quietly walked through the small row of sweet turf houses and circled the adjacent small, steepled church. In the back was a small graveyard that overlooked a swiftly-traveling river. The panorama was breathtaking.

We still had an hour or two to kill before the ferry, so we drove to a museum we had seen advertised on a billboard - the Saga Center. Essentially, it is an indoor exhibit that retells the famous Icelandic story called Njal's Saga. We, apparently, were the only people who thought this was a good idea - no one else was around! We walked through the exhibit (which had background noise of people fighting with swords) and read the storyboards throughout summarized the tale. The exhibit ends in a restaurant that was modeled after an old Nordic longhouse. In there, we found two guys manning the bar (in metal shirts) who were very eager to sell some ribs. I'm not sure why ribs were on the menu, but we humored them and ordered some. They tasted fine, the guys asked us a lot of questions about their cooking tactics (I doubt they had been serving many people lately). It was a strange place but an entertaining experience.

Finally, we got to to the ferry that would take us to the Westman Island. We were visiting the island specifically because it has one of the largest puffin colonies in the world, and we were hoping for a little puffin viewing action before we left the country. So we got on a very large freight ferry with a bunch of local families and semi-trucks that were bringing merchandise to the community.

The wind was strong and the seas were very angry; while the travel time was only 45 minutes, it was a harrowing ride and the ferry tipped every which way. I saw the locals running to puke in the toilets during the ride. There was a TV room in the ship that played continuous episodes of Friends, which I made Mr. CT Lawyer watch while being sure we were going to die in the waves.

But we made it to the island alive!

And the island was super duper windy - I mean, windy doesn't even describe the severity of the wind...gale-ish is more like it. This was slightly problematic for us because we were staying in a barrle cabin at a campsite and the toilets were only accessible by walking outside. But that made it fun, right?! And kind of nerve-wracking.

Upon checking in, the campsite manager let us know that there were pufflings (BABY puffins) out and about the island still and the Islanders were running around at night with cardboard boxes to catch them! She lent us her puffling box and we ran out to the port to go puffling hunting.

Let me explain.

Adult puffins leave the island in late August, but they leave pufflings behind to learn how to fend for themselves. Think of it as the teenagers being kicked out of the nest to figure out life. The pufflings now struggle with the island's urbanization; they get confused and lost at night because of the streetlights, which makes them susceptible to moving cars and hunting cats.

So we, along with local children and parents, were running around the port with our cardboard boxes, trying to catch pufflings and turn them into the local aquarium for tagging and release the next morning. The atmosphere was a lot like Halloween because people ran around the streets with flashlights and containers.

We honestly didn't think we were going to actually find pufflings. But we did.

We stalked the harbor for places pufflings could hide. I thought of how our little pup likes to find comfort by huddling next to walls, so I looked around the corners of buildings. Pretty quickly I found a little puffling cuddling the wall of a generator building by the water, trying hard to look invisible. I slowly approached the little guy and he ran under a nearby car...where a cat was waiting. CT Lawyer joined me and shooed the cat away. We then spent the next 10 minutes coaxing a reluctant puffling from under a car. He wasn't happy about being captured (CT Lawyer was holding him) and he pecked away at CT Lawyer's gloved hands while I grabbed the cardboard box from the car. Meanwhile, a local man slowed his car with the lights shining on what looked like a tiny black ball (aka terrified puffling). He got out of his car and professionally snatched the puffling before it could run away, but he started to look around his car thinking, “Well, what am I going to do with this puffling now??” I ran up to him to offer to care for the puffling if he didn’t have time. He shrugged nonchalantly and handed the puffing over to me. And then there were two.

There was a small challenge we hadn’t thought of; the pufflings were apt at escaping their box in the back of the car. We spent another 15 minutes digging around for two pissed off pufflings hiding in the nooks of the truck. At last, we got them in the box and kept them in the blustery campsite overnight until the aquarium opened up.

And our lives are now complete. We have unlocked all of our achievements and could go home right then and there. Well, we still had to bring the pufflings to the aquarium in the morning.

Day 5: Vestmannaeyjar to Kjarnholdt (aka middle of nowhere)
When we got to the aquarium, the floor was covered with boxes with live, mad pufflings. The aquarium was great with them, though – they measured the pufflings, weighed them despite being pecked, and asked if we’d like to release our two little guys off the cliffs. And we did, off the windy cliffs off Vestmanaeyjar, and boy did they fly! 

Also, there was an adorable adult puffin at the aquarium named Hetti who waddled around the exhibit (with an aquatic pitter-patter) and greeted the humans and pufflings upon entering.

Oh, and if you were wondering, puffins smell like fish.

Otherwise, Vestmanaeyjar was gorgeous but terribly windy, and we drove around the entire island in about 20 minutes. The other attraction there was a museum and buried outdoor village that memorialized a local volcanic eruption from a few decades ago, called the Pompeii of Iceland (it buried so much of the island, but I think only one or two people died in the eruption). The museum centered on an excavated home and was fun and engaging with games, videos, and music – if you’re ever on the island, you really should hit it up.

Before we ferried back to the main island, we stopped by a little fish shop for lunch. Everything was exceptionally fresh. I had a fish curry that almost made time stop for a few minutes for me.

After a less terrifying ferry ride, we drove west and headed more inland for a night, because why not?

We drove to the Gulfoss Waterfall and went to a camping restaurant to have some pizza (it,,,was not good). We eventually drove to our guesthouse that was so incredibly remote and off the main roads that we worried that we would be kidnapped and imprisoned in the guesthouse's basement.

But that’s not what happened; instead, we slept in a quiet ranch for a night.

Day 6: Kjarnholdt to Reykjavik
In the morning we drove to the Geysir for a hot bit and took a stroll through the Þingvellir National Park to see the tectonic rift under crystal clear water. There were hordes of tourists now wherever we drove, which was jarring and made us itch to escape the humans. In any case, we were in a rush – we had a scheduled event in Reykjavik.

The drive wasn’t very long, fortunately, and we had time to kill. We enjoyed the Perlan (which is a big, fancy Icelandic nature museum slash observatory). They had a simulated glacier walk in the basement (with real glacial ice) and a stellar view of the city.

The event we were running to was a four-hour class at elfschool. Yes, it was a class about elves - Icelanders have strong, fascinating mythology around elves still. It was fun…and mighty quirky (just how we like it). The elf expert was extremely knowledgeable about elf stories while keeping his class tongue-in-cheek. And he served us tea and pancakes, which was very nice.

After we earned our diplomas in elf studies, we went to our final dinner at an upscale restaurant, fishmrkt. I was tired of eating fished by then and ordered lamb (which is also popular in Iceland), and it was good despite their specialty in marine life.

Day 7: Reykjavik to Back Home
Our flight back home was later in the day, which means we had time to for one more walk around Reykjavik. We got another hotdog and visited the Icelandic Phallological Museum (aka penis museum), which is essentially a room filled with preserved penises from all kinds of animals, including humans.

A lot of the tourists, like ourselves, visited the museum for the novelty of it…but most didn’t get the full experience. We saw a lot of tourists walking around the room, chuckling and pointing at the jarred penises…but they didn’t experience the best part of the museum, which was the audio tour. The audio tour was so good because the guy who founded the museum was the orator…and he was a dry, academic older Icelandic man. He said things that were hilarious about his phallological studies without trying to be funny (favorite point of the audio tour: when the professor discussed how the penis collection used to be at his home until his wife ordered him to get rid of them). A perfect way to end our Nordic holiday.

Last Thoughts
Our trip was magical. There were some really great overarching things from our road trip I want to reflect on:
  • Nature is the Best: While we were far east, we were completely immersed in nature, and it was magical. The landscapes were beautiful and humbling to see. It was a balm for our souls to be in nature the way we could, and it was really nice to slow down.
  • Hot Dogs and Lobster Soup: There were two things in Iceland of which I ate a ton - hotdogs and lobster soup. The hotdogs were crunchy and delightful, and I would have injected the soup in my veins if I could have. Everyone made both dishes very well.
  • Radio Stations are Great: The radio station we had listened to on our road trip (don’t ask me which one, I have no idea) was hilarious. The station played whatever records were available; one song would be some very modern rock song, the next one an Icelandic polka! We were confused and not at all sure what songs were on the queue while we drove, which made it more interesting for us.
  • Tourists are Dumb: It's a shame how often we observed tourists being really stupid there. We saw many rental cars sinking in swamps or buried in the gravel on the side of the road. We saw tons of tourists stepping on the areas where signs explicitly requested them not to. And other things (see bullet below). There are 10 tourists per Icelander in the country now; the tourism boom has supported Iceland out of their recession, but the consequence has included making a tiny population of citizens clean up after a large group of strangers. We can be better than that, people.
  • Outside Poo: Iceland suffers an unfortunate issue close to my heart because of the tourist boom – tourists poo out in the open in nature all of the time. There are apparently “No Pooping” signs all over the place. CT Lawyer was adamant to find a sign for me to enjoy, but when we asked locals where the signs were, instead they would just point to me where the tourists pooed. Often they included areas where locals traditionally foraged for wild berries.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

A Danish Break

The famous Nyhavn port
The CT Lawyer and I try to take international holidays every year. For this year's holiday, we had a deep desire to go to places that were clean and quiet (and low risks of giardia - my own request). We chose Denmark and Iceland on our two-week trip.

It was indeed clean and quiet.

Much of our trip to Denmark was centered around Copenhagen. We had Airbnb-ed a very quaint boathouse on the edge of the city, which meant we woke up to beautiful rays of sun on placid water.

Much of our visit to Denmark was simply walking around the streets of Copenhagen and other towns, admiring the quirky old buildings alongside the sleek new ones. We walked so much mostly because it was really enjoyable and quiet to do so (and we were blessed with great weather). We also unexpectedly walked into Nyhavn, the hotspot port that all tourists orbit, which was indeed a lovely place. I was more fascinated with the port's great many public toilets along the waterway...but the colorful buildings were lovely to look at, too.

We also dedicated a lot of our trip to enjoying the great food in Denmark. I mean, Denmark is known for its amazing culinary renaissance, and we can confirm the truth in that. Even if we weren't eating delicious food at a Michelin-starred restaurant, I loved how vibrant and colorful the food was in most of our meals. I also was so pleased to have so many gluten-free options, including really tasty cinnamon rolls from Landbageriet! I ordered a box of rolls for myself on day one to consume each day we stayed in the country (they were that good).

One day we met up with my friend Martin who lives in Malmo, Sweden (it's only a 30-minute train ride to Copenhagen). Martin showed us around some tourist areas while we caught up and joked about American politics. He took us first to a greenhouse in the city so we could enjoy butterflies, and then led us to the Vor Frelsers church so we could scale the corkscrew steeple. It was a harrowing climb up the stairs - they were so narrow and curvy! It was clear the staircases were old. Once we neared the top of the steeple, we ended up outside, clinging to railings as we stepped up the corkscrew incline!! My fear of heights dutifully kicked in and I waited for CT Lawyer and Martin by the indoor stairs, grasping the building for dear life. The cool thing about going up and down the stairs for the steeplechase, though, were the hodgepodges of assorted churchy things scattered on the different stair landings - a heap of cherub statues lying down on this level, an old organ patiently waiting on the was like hide-and-seek with Christian artifacts!

We then ambled towards Christiania, a micronation within Copenhagen that's all about free love and weed (but we didn't consume any - truly!). The lakeside community was very much doused with hippy paraphernalia...but honestly? The place looked kind of sad and run down. The buildings were worn significantly and there were lots of tourists pilfering magnets and mini bongs out in the open, which made it feel less like an alternative living experiment and more like a region in a dystopian theme park (with some artwork definitely appropriate for unsavory adults). We stopped for a vegetarian lunch (that was actually quite delicious) and headed out to take a quick look at the fun things in the Museum of Design and eat ice cream before Martin headed back home.

Later that night CT Lawyer and I went out for a nice dinner date at Hoest. We opted for a prix fixe dinner that was paired with mocktails. I cannot tell you just how incredible the meal was, but we were both floored by each of the dishes (and there were so many!). One of the mocktails was a tomato juice seltzer, and to be honest it was mind-blowing. I'll be thinking about it for years to come.

The one Michelin-star restaurant we reserved in Denmark (sorry, Noma) was so we could enjoy a Sunday brunch at Den Rode Cottage. When arriving, we found ourselves in a wooded area with a sweet little red house in the middle of a clearing - I was enchanted (...for a price! And the restaurant is out of the city and in a very fancy little town full of tennis courts and high-end shops.) We had a charming brunch that had a mashup of quintessential breakfast dishes for each course (pancakes, toast, eggs, etc.).

After my pants were charmed off at brunch, we cabbed over to a suburb called Fredericksburg to visit the Cistern Museum. The neat thing about this place was that, since it was historically a community cistern, it was underground and inside a bucolic park. The art exhibit in the quiet, dark, musty museum was simple and fun - there were soft balls shuttled around the cisterns on pulleys that would eventually ding one of the many singing bowls in the space, making nice meditative echoes.

We walked back slowly to the center of Copenhagen, making stops for rehydration along the way. Did we visit Tivoli Gardens? No, but we did walk past it! I know, I know...everyone insisted on us visiting Tivli, but while walking past we couldn't bring ourselves to disrupt our relaxing time with the buzz of a theme park.

One of the last days we were in Denmark we rented a car and drove across the country four hours to the oldest town in Denmark - Ribe. When we entered Ribe, we parked at the Viking Museum and explored the exhibitions inside. I have to say, it was a great museum - I highly recommend. After that, we meandered around the old town, admiring buildings that were so old that structures were sagging dramatically. We also visited the old cathedral. It was a really lovely respite from urban exploration.

We got back to Copenhagen in time for dinner. We swung by an outdoor market before they closed.

Before we left the next day, we wanted to make sure we could see a few of the Forgotten Gianthidden in different parts of the country. These art installations aim to get people exploring in nature more. It worked! We had to hike around an industrial park into a grassy meadow to find one; the other one required us parking at some stranger's house and trek up a forested hill. It was fun!

And then we were off to Iceland

Some final thoughts on Denmark I'd like to share:
  • Toilets: The place is SO TOILET FRIENDLY! It's a big deal for me, and I was so pleased to keep finding toilets in almost every situation where I had an urge.
  • Bees: We experienced a lot of bees swarming us. Almost every day there was a short period where we were surrounded by either bees or hornets. I'm not sure what that was about...climate change?
  • Food: I already said this, but there really is some amazing food in Denmark! Just be warned that it's pricey. The ice cream there is ample and recommended, as well.
  • Living vs Touring: While Denmark isn't exactly an exciting place to visit for most tourists, we were so excited about how livable Denmark really is. We read about it in the news a lot, and it was clear how true it was to us. There are so parks everywhere, and we saw many dogs frolicking around with their humans (this is very important to us). Copenhagen is on the water, and we got to use a ferry quite a bit to travel up and down the city, which is soothing. Some of the apartments there even had docks into the water with kayaks and floats stationed for use, which is a new life goal for me. Lastly, we didn't see many police lurking around, and people even honked more pleasantly (aka never)! If we only could figure out how to move there...

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Taipei Layover

Toilet tourism!
My final leg on the 2-week, around-the-world adventure was a 24-hour layover in Taiwan. I arrived late in the evening and was really worried that I wouldn't be let in the country, despite having researched entry requirements three times. Why? Guess.

Luckily, I was let in without anything more than a sniff at my passport.

The train ride to Taipei from the airport was longer than I had expected, but it was clean and quiet (like much of the city), so I didn't mind much.

The youth hostel I stayed in was clean and quiet (and after the long trip I've had, I was looking forward to some quiet). One of the hostel volunteers offered to take me out to a night market nearby so I could try some street food before bed. I drank papaya milk and ate stinky tofu (I liked it) and a few other things.

Then I went back to the hostel and passed out for a night's sleep.

The next day was a whirlwind. My 24 hours was halfway over (thanks, sleep) and I needed to pad the end of my trip with an extra 4 hours to get to the airport in time for my international flight back to the US. I had to be very clear about what I was going to do for 8 hours in Taipei before I returned to the airport.

I wasn't that clear. Well, I thought I was clear, at first...until I went outside and felt the amazing heat early in the morning that was not mixing well with my stomach (I discovered after returning home that I was battling giardia). I improvised once I took notes on where I could be near toilets while adventuring (fortunately, that wasn't too much of a compromise).

I first hopped over to see some of the old temples around the Taipei Confucius Temple, which was also Confucius' original residence. Their toilet was very nice.

Right next door was the Dalongdong Baoan Temple, which was old and quiet and beautiful.

After the temple visits, I tried to hail a cab and go to some art village I had heard about. I never made it there; it seemed that it either wasn't open or was mythical because people had no idea what I was looking for and there appeared to be no English signs.

This was when I realized how disadvantaged I was visiting Taiwan without any knowledge of Mandarin. The signs were almost all hanzi character-based and many had no English translations or very poor translations that only confused me more. Also, despite many business people understanding English in the city, the cab drivers I happened to hail were not knowledgeable in English. With my inability to speak Mandarin, this led to a lot of confusion about wherever I was trying to go. Apparently there are translation services for situations just like this in Taiwan (it must come up a bit), and many of the cab drivers called a number, talked on the phone, handed the phone to me with a pleasant English speaker on the other line asking me where I was going to, and then taking back the phone with the other side of the line translating. In other attempts, I would show Google Maps on my phone to the driver to indicate the place I wanted to visit; this was only sometimes successful.

So here I was, with only a few hours left in Taipei, realizing I was at a real disadvantage to getting where I wanted to go. I decided to make things simpler and go to only big places that tourists were expected to visit and with easily-translated names. That worked!

So I walked around a few more temples and went to the Lin An Tai Ancestral House, which is an outdoor museum that educates people about older customs and living arrangements in Taipei back in the 18th/19th century. It wasn't crowded, which meant I got to take my time reading plaques, loitering bridges over ponds, and tastefully spying on a couple taking wedding photos.

The piece de resistance of my quick visit to Taipei - nay, my entire trip! - was the lunch reservation I had at a restaurant called Modern Toilet. The restaurant is, as you may have guessed, themed around toilets...and very tongue-in-cheek. The food was served in different kinds of toilet- and latrine-shaped containers and the food options were essentially curries and french fries (which means it looked like stuff that should actually be in toilets). And they had a little booth by the hostess stand that sold anything toilet or poo related - lighters, pens, erasers, legos, etc. It was kitschy, fun, and amazing. I had an absolute blast! The best part was the dessert - chocolate soft serve in a small squat latrine-shaped bowl. It was actually very tasty! And of course, was meant to test people's stomachs with its aesthetic. I saw another table order some monstrosity of a dessert with flan and jellies and all kinds of strange items - it looked like an overflowing toilet!

I've officially lived my best life.

After sating myself with toilet-inspired cuisine, I walked back to the hostel to pick up my stuff and head back to the airport. I passed by some popular-looking shopping areas. Amongst the shops included outlandish things such as penis-shaped pineapple cakes on sticks.

My trip to Taipei was too short, but I still found it interesting even when I was confused and lost! I think it's a place worth inspecting more in-depth at some point. I hope to visit again so I can see the areas outside of the city center, too.

A Malaysian Wedding Trip

Murals in Penang
Malaysia was Stop Three on my flight around the globe. Malaysia was originally going to be Stop One, as I was going to join up with a few friends to attend one of our (Denise's) weddings. But then my work trip was tacked on. And here we are.

Jetlag & Confused
When I arrived, I was confused about where I was ("Which country am I am? Who am I?"). I realized while in the immigration line that I had arrived a day earlier than I had thought and realized that the connecting flight I had to Penang wasn't until the next day.

My friends, mystified that I didn't know where I was or what day it was (and that I was a day earlier than I told them I'd be - surprise!), took me out for dinner at an outdoor market. We feasted on all kinds of fish and vegetables and chicken dishes. Eating with friends and soaking in the heat of KL melted my confusion.

I found a KL boutique hotel for the night in Chinatown that was beautiful and had outdoor bathrooms, which was delightful. My toilet and shower were in a private courtyard! There were shades that kept any guest staying above or below me to peek at me. There was rain falling down on the courtyard next to the courtyard when I showered.

The next day I hopped in a car with friends from Colorado for a road trip to Penang. We had decided to remove ourselves from the wedding chaos so Denise could have one less thing to worry about...and so we could travel around the country some.

Once we got out of KL, driving to Penang felt a lot to me like driving through much of the US, aside from the tropical vegetation everywhere. There was a lot of open space with small towns hugging the highway. Much of the drive to Penang was pretty uneventful.

In Penang
We got to the island of Penang and drove in the rain to the UNESCO town of Georgetown and waited for our Airbnb host. Our Airbnb was outside of the tourist areas, which meant that it was quiet and had a nicer view of the water. After we checked in, our host insisted on cramming us into his car and give us a tour around town for a while. While it was a nice gesture, we were starving and really weren't interested in getting a full-on tour. We wanted to gorge on street food, which is what Penang is known for! We finally got let out in a food alley, ravenous and eager to eat something. Anything.

Luckily for us, "anything" in Penang is worth trying. And so we did. We ate a lot of great things while in Georgetown: assam laksa, duck sausage noodles, chendol, laksa regular, nasi lemak, and so many other things of which I don't remember the names. Everything was fresh and bursting with flavor. I didn't know half of what I was eating....but I was pleased as punch with all of the the tastes.

We seemed to arrive there on a quiet day for the town. We saw a lot of tourists (which, with its UNESCO status, isn't very surprising), but things were not open for tourists to do. We managed to find a small museum - the Museum of Glowing Image - where we walked around under purple lights for an hour. It was ridiculous, but we had fun being silly while glowing in the dark.

We were still fighting off jetlag, so we went to a night market for a bite to eat and quickly walked back to the Airbnb to crash hard.

The next day we decided to drive around the island to see what is happening in Penang outside of the tourist-centred area. We visited the local snake temple (it is a temple with snakes in it, and you can hold them!) and got lost driving around because Google Maps gave us directions to roads that didn't exist (or were lost to the jungle overgrowth). That's when we stumbled upon the Tropical Fruit Farm. The title of the farm tells you exactly what the attraction was - a farm of tropical fruit...but we had a blast on the tour, tasting and learning about the plants along the farm.

We spent another day in Georgetown before heading back to wedding ceremonies. It was a supremely hot and exhausting day. We walked around to see all of the tourist sites like the murals, ate some not-so-local cakes, visited the Cheah house, and walked around the port neighborhoods with drop toilets on the edge of the docks. Walking around in 90F degree heat and 95% humidity, though, can be trying on the body. We slept early and hard that night.

Back in KL
The next morning we drove back to KL to get ourselves fitted in saris for the wedding and have amazing ice cream with the bride-to-be and some other international people. The couple had a group of us foreign friends attending their wedding, and we quickly became an international group of friends (I'll call them "The Friends"). We agreed to go touring around the next day to stay out of the couple's way while they ran last-minute errands for the wedding.

Batu Caves
The Friends arranged to visit the Batu Caves in the morning. We got there before it was too hot outside, which to be honest isn't saying much because it was still very hot.

The Batu Caves are an impressive sight because there is (1) a large, steep staircase to the caves (there are two) that loom above the tour buses and (2) a massive statue of Lord Murugan that guards the height of the stairs. The climbing....was treacherous. Not because of the number of stairs to climb - I mean, I'm a New Yorker and we climb stairs a lot - but because the stairs were narrow and uneven. To make our trip up to the caves more precarious, there was a mound of sand next to the stairs and a pile of small plastic buckets next to a sign requesting tourists to carry full buckets of sand to the top (for construction...which, of course, we did).

Once we reached the top of the stairs and went into the cave temple (the popular cave), we were all appreciative of the gaping hole in the mountain, but I kept thinking "...was this why I lugged two buckets of sand for?!" My travel partners agreed to go to the more sciencey cave (the other, less popular cave) and take a tour that walked us deep into the darkest crevices inside the mountain. We were loaned hard helmets and penlights, and off we went with a tour guide into the depths of the cave. It was beautiful and so well worth the expense. We got to explore different rock formations and got to an area where there was a skylight into the cave that lit up a gorgeous, quiet, mossy nook of the cave that made me think of some kind of magical backdrop to a fairytale.

Upon leaving we saw an armada of tour buses coming to the caves and watched hordes of tourists drip with sweat as they crawled up the stairs. I'm so glad we went early.

Before we made our train back to KL, we visited the only other tourist site nearby - the Ramayama Cave. This cave was ground level, and a wild(ly strange) sight to behold. There, the Hindu community took a natural cave and carved it out so that the inside of cave walls became platforms all along the perimeter to showcase a life-sized 3D display that unfolded the story of the Ramayama. With statues and paintings. Most of The Friends didn't know much about Hinduism, but even my knowing smatterings of the story didn't keep me from being bewildered and amazed.

Once back in KL, another friend of Denise and mine - Alicia - joined us getting our hands henna-ed for the wedding and partaking in essential tourist shopping in Central Market. Later on, she led us to a local restaurant that served Chinese food and ordered us a whole lot of foods that were delicious and fascinating and things many of us had never eaten before - smelly fish soup and congealed pork knuckles. It was family-style and a local hangout. We had so much fun we shut down the shop.

Wedding Time
The big day finally came - the day for Denise's wedding! And it was all day, so it was a big deal. Why was it so long? Because of the cultural mash-up that was going to happen; she is Chinese and he is Hindu, but both are also Malaysian. We had three different chunks of wedding celebrations to experience before the day was over.

The first part was Chinese. We arrived at Denise's family's house before the sun rose. We met a lot of bleary-eyed family members setting up the buffet (it felt so weird to eat spring rolls so early) and prepare the festivities. This part of the day was when the groom had to play games with the bride's family and friends and persuade them to let him into the house to find his bride. This took a few hours and a number of different "obstacles" for him to overcome. It was all in fun, luckily, and he was successful in retrieving his bride.

Once that happened, The Friends (and some of the bridal party) shuttled over to another home to get changed into saris and kurtas for the Hindu festivities, which were scheduled around lunchtime (based on the celestial alignments the Hindu priests deemed appropriate). The sari changing took a while - by the time we were fitted and ready to go we hurredly drove into town to the temple.

Once we got to the temple, we were pleasantly surprised to see one of our other girlfriends (Pritha). She flew just that morning there from India with her husband to attend this part of the weddings.

A few hundred other people also decided to observe the wedding at the temple.

It was fun to watch the Hindu wedding because it was a whirlwind of noise and processions that none of us understood (and apparently not even the couple fully comprehended). There was flowing music and vibrant colors that made it still exciting to witness. AND we all got snack bags during the ceremony. The Friends sat in a clump and were fortunate that a few of the older aunties sat near us and explained in English as best they could what on earth was going on. The rest of the crowd seemed just as bewildered about us being there as we were watching the ceremony.

The public wedding processions ended after a while and people grabbed plates of buffet food before heading off. The Friends slowly shoveled food in our mouths as we sweated it back out again and left for a long break before we rejoined the now-married couple. I napped the entire break

The final part of the wedding was the reception in a restaurant and felt a lot more Western than the rest of the day. There, we ate even more food and danced the night away. We also watched some of the FIFA World Cup game when we needed breaks from the dancing. It was a wonderful ending to the wedding, and more intimate than a lot of the rest of the day.

But I was exhausted and burned out. Not as burned out as the married couple was, of course.

The next day I requested a day alone. I went to the Patronus towers mall (oh the irony of finding quiet time in a big mall). After my break, we met up for dinner one last time with the married couple before my flight out. The dinner was a lot more low key than the rest of the wedding festivities - we hung out at tables in the groom's front yard and talked about nonsense, and caught up on each other's lives. What was so extra wonderful about this trip and wedding was that we ended up making more friends.

End Thoughts
The trip to Malaysia had a few themes that I will reflect on more as I continue my life of travel:

  • I prefer slow travel. This trip, albeit fun and action-packed, was not slow. A lot of my fellow travelers wanted to see everything, exploring all of the things and walk all of the roads. That path is not for me - I was exhausted so much of this visit. Instead, I like taking my time while I travel. Maybe I won't see everything (read: all touristy things), but I get to go at a relaxing pace and see the things that really mean something to me. And often, I don't find the touristy stuff very interesting. This does mean that I do more research about where I am going before I get there, normally. Oh yeah, and mid-day naps are the best, even when I'm missing out.
  • I love SE Asian food. I love the unique flavors smashed together in one dish. I love that the desserts are funky and not chocolatey (even though I love chocolate). I love the comfort in even the spicy soups. I love everything about them. It is amazing.
  • Hot and humid is hard. I already knew this from my previous trips in SE Asia, but it bears a reminder, especially after scaling Penang in 95% humidity and 95F heat. Hydration salts are my saving grace on those kinds of days.
  • Malaysia? It's Okay. Surprisingly, Malaysia is not my favorite place, despite it having amazing food and some very interesting spots to see. For me, it was culturally not too far away from the US, which to me is a mix of a bunch of cultures to the point where there is a missing keystone to the culture. It is an odd place of rigid laws and lax customs, which is a bit confusing. I can't say I would ever want to live in Malaysia, but I was glad I got to see more of it with my friends and see my friend at a joyous occasion in her life.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Istanbul Layover

Mmm baklava...
A last-minute change happened to some of my travel plans.

I had scheduled a trip to Malaysia for Denise's wedding in late-June. I had booked the tickets ages before, planning on stopping over in Taiwan on the way home and taking time with some friends to plan out our Malaysian adventure.

Two weeks before I left, though, it became clear I was needed to attend a work thing in Ghana right before my trip to Malaysia. With that, I had to make a mad-dash effort to change my flight details going to Malaysia so that I could arrive from Ghana...somehow. Those two locations don't often connect (if you were wondering).

Last-minute international flights can sometimes be (crazy) expensive...especially when they're not exactly roundtrip. The short version is that I ended up having to book my trip to Ghana and Malaysia through Turkey (both ways) and I would literally make a lap around the planet. Since I had such an intense itinerary, I decided I may as well enjoy myself and take a 24-hour layover in Istanbul.

Preparing for a last-minute layover in Istanbul was interesting. US-Turkish relations were not great - only a few weeks or months before I went a travel ban to Turkey was lifted for US citizens. I received my Turkish e-visa and started looking for information about travel concerns (a.k.a. where should tourists avoid) only to find out that the US government still strongly discouraged people from going to Turkey at all. The US government site indicated that before I traveled to Turkey, I must write out my will and make plans with my family about what was to happen "when" I get killed or dismembered while touring the country (as if it was a sure thing). That felt a bit extreme; I knew plenty of people who had recently been to Turkey and lived to tell the tale quite happily. I decided to visit the French government website for traveling in Turkey, to compare... they expressed that one should exercise caution and not be an idiot when traveling in foreign countries. It seemed more reasonable, so I heeded the French government's advice.

As I was boarding the plane in Accra to Istanbul, however, my newsfeed informed me that I was going around the day before a major election. This often spells bad news, and tourists are often encouraged to avoid areas with election, just in case there are demonstrations that could turn violent. I was anxious that I was getting myself into trouble.

I, fortunately, needn't have worried - apparently, elections are only a concern AFTER they happen, and no one seemed concerned about it on the plane nor in the city while I was there.

So I landed in Istanbul and made my way to the old town area and checked in to a hotel where I could shower and nap, The hotel felt like a French hostel, with an old building's charm and creaking floorboards to anounce your presence. The guys running the hotel were extremely sweet and warm, too; I was very early for checking-in, but they invited me to go upstairs and enjoy the breakfast.

I left my luggage behind, crept up the spiral staircase to the roof with a sunroom, and found myself staring at a Turkish breakfast buffet. If you've never seen this, know that it is colorful - reds and greens and yellows and purples. Everything is freshly cooked - eggs, cheesy dishes, sausage medleys. And everything tastes satisfying to the soul. I was starting to doubt that the Turkish food so often eaten from NYC street carts would not hold a flame to the real thing, here.

After being nourished, I walked around the old town to the Blue Mosque. This is a huge mosque that appears to be blue (there you go) and is still a working place of worship. I threw a scarf over my head and made my way into the mosque. It was indeed lovely to look at, and rather simple...but there was also a feeling of overbearing sacredness that I can feel in places where people invest so much time praying.

I was approached by a pleasant man - a Kurd - who wanted to sell me rugs. I thought to myself, you know what? Why not? I'll go look at rugs for a little bit. And I totally got sold - not for a rug (that was way too far out of my price range), but for a tablecloth. It is a gorgeous, hand-woven tablecloth that is both heavy and delicate. It could have been a fake or poorer in quality than the "real deals", but I honestly don't care - it took my breath away. And now, it may be one of the most expensive things I own.

After dropping a healthy amount of grocery money on a rug, I made my way to the cisterns (essentially an old underground reservoir). I'm a water expert, so of course, I'd want to see an underground Basilica Cisterns - especially one with ancient columns that are decorated with heads and Corinthian pillars. And it was the coolest thing! I walked down a staircase into the dark cavern of cisterns. The pillars were lit modestly, which makes it feel like the water and pillars are lit by candlelight. I walked along the soggy tourist path and found the famous Medusa heads at the end of the path. How did people carve heads into poles for underground water storages? I'm mystified. Something also nice about visiting the cisterns was how few people were there enjoying the damp, magically-lit site when I was there. It almost felt like a secret.

Probably where all of the people were really, though, was across the street to view the famous Hagia Sophia.

The Hagia Sophia is a ginormous domed building that has a patchwork history - during Byzantine times, it was a huge church. Afterward, it became a mosque. It's now a museum. Really, there isn't much that has to be said by the museum curators with any placards, though, because the building inside and out is majestic and jaw-dropping enough to distract even the most adamant historian buff from some painfully-written narratives. The whole place just felt simple yet magical - I don't know how else to describe it. I went in to see what the mammoth building was holding, and I was surprised to find a bunch of large, rather-famous-looking Jesus-related mosaics. All were impressive.

But let me emphasize - the building is very large. Very large. There were some times where I found little pockets where there weren't a lot of people hanging around and I would see something small, simple, but beautiful to look at. Like mossy water jars in a little nook by the crypts. And a cat bathing in some light coming through a window.

A note: This is well-known to many, but Istanbul has a lot of feral cats hanging out all over the place. They're everywhere, minding their own business, running the world enjoying the sights like the rest of us.

I felt dizzy with the sights after walking through the museum, so I decided to take a break for lunch at Cafe Rumist. I had something amazing and delicious, but don't ask me what because I don't know what it was (I just pointed and said, "yes, please.").

After, I made my way to the Grand Bazaar and went to a patisserie to have some baklava. Yes, I'm still gluten intolerant. My rationale for contaminating my gut with the honeyed, flakey pastry was because (1) the stuff in Turkey should probably be a million times better than the stuff I had as a kid in New England and (2) it was in memory of my mom, who loved baklava to a point that it caused family drama on some occasions. Was my experience worth the pain, in the end? Was it delicious enough to justify the outcome? Absolutely.

I continued to walk around and went to the Grand Bazaar to buy some stuff. I wasn't there for long, but I can confirm it is indeed grand, and that the architecture is, once again, beautiful and graceful (like so many buildings in Istanbul).

After collecting some presents, I walked to the Bosphorus near Galata Bridge. I had read somewhere that fish wraps were tasty and were freshly-made under the bridge, so I went to get myself a wrap. The white fish was roasting on a little outdoor open grill by an old man, and I asked for one wrap. He smiled and quietly started to pull it all together, dousing it with sauces I didn't know and stuffing the wrap with veggies I didn't see coming. I took the wrap and bit in. There was sumac mingling with warm fish and veggies. I am pretty sure I saw God at that moment.

After my small holy experience with the fish wrap, I hopped on a (very cheap) boat ride so I could enjoy the river and look at the rest of the Istanbul coasts that hug the Bosphorus. I saw that different areas of Istanbul looked really different from each other - I was concentrating mostly on an old area with lots of mosques. Other chunks of the cities were more modern and had taller, glassy buildings.

My boat ride ended and I was tired. I walked back to the hotel (it took a while) and grabbed some snacks before I took a nap and watched a FIFA game before getting back in a cab to go to the airport.

Istanbul is beautiful. It isn't entirely European - it does indeed have characteristics unique to Asian cities I've been to. It's also very old. I felt like it had an ancient feeling like if Paris, London, and Bangkok had a similar Great-Great-Grandmother...that would be Istanbul. I admired the mosques dotting the city and the peacefulness I felt while roaming the city.

I've already told Mr. CT Lawyer that it's not a matter on if he'll ever visit Turkey with me someday, but when. Because I fell in love with the place in under 24 hours.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Amsterdam Layover

Before the sun comes up
On my way home from Ghana recently, I opted to take a long layover in Amsterdam. This had two opportunities for me: (1) I could visit Amsterdam for the first time and, (2) I could see one of my closest friends on a leisurely Saturday. It was also cheaper than a direct flight to/from Ghana.

When I go out of the airport and made my way to Amsterdam, it was 5am and still very dark and quiet out. It was also extremely cold. After just having spent two weeks in the balmy tropical weather of Ghana, I admit I was unprepared to no longer feel my fingers while walking to my Airbnb.

I rented an Airbnb because I knew I would nap for a few hours before exploring the city. (One thing I have learned while traveling overseas so often and having flights that depart/arrive at peculiar times of day is that, no matter how eager I am to visit a new place, I must take care of my health and nap after red-eye flights.) I rented an Airbnb on one of the canals in the heart of the city - at the very top of a walkup building with just enough space to stand in the bathroom, stand at a sink, and sleep on a single-serve bed. I passed out for a few hours.

Once the sun was up and people were roaming the streets, Marion and her boyfriend (Dutch Wouter) found me coaxed me out to see the city. But before we explored, we had pancakes. Because the Dutch are known for pancakes.

We went to a particular pancake place that had gluten-free options. The restaurant was creatively named Pancakes Amsterdam and had a bustling queue of people outside shivering in the cold for some pancakes. We joined the shiverers. When we finally got a table, we had some Dutch pancakes - thin, crepe-like confections that creep over the edges of large plates with delightful toppings embedded into the dough. Mine had bacon and maple syrup. It was a wonderful welcome to Holland and a comforting meal for a travel-weary lady.

After the pancakes renewed my energy, we went for a walk and chatted the whole day.

A note on walking. If you don't know me or haven't picked up by now, a walk may sound like a small thing - a mile, perhaps. That is not how I travel - I am someone who enjoys scaling a city with my shoes. I like walking around, zigging and zagging maps and finding parts of towns that other tourists overlook. I walk, and I don't stop long for hours. Fortunately, Marion is a 10-plus-year veteran of my walking habits, and Wouter was happy to show me around, answering my questions of all-things-Dutch.

Don't worry, we stopped a few times - after all, it was bitingly cold. Most of the times it was a brief pause where we would warm up with hot chocolate, tea, or street sausages. Once our noses thawed each time, we were back at walking.

We tried to go to the Anne Frank House, but it was too busy (and tickets were sold out well in advance). I decided I didn't have time to wait in line all day to see something I may not have had the emotional strength to explore. So, we walked on.

The canals and streets in Amsterdam are beautiful. Of course, water is so often beautiful to me, but I thought what was so lovely about the canals was how labyrinthine they felt to me in my short stay. I could imagine easily getting lost in the canals because they were everywhere. But I thought it was for the best that way - Wouter knew where we were the whole time, and it allowed me to let go and enjoy finding the little things that become apparent when buildings start looking the same. Like a strange store sign, or a funny-looking window. Or a gorgeous underpass between streets. Or finding a delightful cranny with a convent or inspirational bookstore in the thick of the city. Those kinds of things are what travel is all about.

After we walked around the main thoroughfares, we walked to a museum called Micropia. All three of us are life geeks and going to a museum to learn about microscopic life at a charming interactive museum was an easy sell to us. It's hard to explain the museum other than it was awesome and full of fun games and activities (for adults!). It taught us plenty about bacteria. We also got to explore more information about water bears, which are tiny water animals that can survive in the world's toughest environments. I bought a stuffed water bear in appreciation. I highly recommend it.

Before dinner, Marion and I caught up more deeply over wine and waited for Wouter to rejoin us. We went to an Indonesian cafe (the Dutch colonized Indonesia for a long time and now showcases its cuisine, as many post-colonizers can do). It was probably my first experience eating Indonesian. It was rich and flavorful and filling and I loved the peanut butter aspects of the dishes. I got the Indonesian plate, which had satay and pendang on it.

It was a glorious day, but I had to sleep before my flight in the morning, and we parted ways. It was bittersweet.

On my way back to the Airbnb, I realized how much I miss Europe. I miss the clean yet old buildings. There's a laidback feeling in European cities I don't feel when I'm in NYC or many other US cities. Amsterdam was graceful and vibrant yet quirky and confusing. I loved it.