Southeast Asia: Where the Internet is Slow and the Living is Cheap

Oh dear lord, this has been way too frigging long. I don’t even know where the time has gone, but unlike in Europe, where I had long train rides in between places, in Southeast Asia, I feel like I am constantly on the move. And don’t even get me started about the Internet: I am STILL in the process of uploading photos to Flickr from the family’s time in Vietnam, which really delays posting the blog since the main point of this thing is to show some photos.

I don’t have the energy or time for specifics on everything, but thus far, Asia has been wonderful. It all began in Singapore, a crazy efficient mecca to materialism on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Their underground system is extremely well-run and the food in their hawker centers is delicious and exceedingly cheap. Not to say this place is cheap: you can spend your money liberally, if you so choose. Orchard Road is full of every designer store you could ever imagine. Like Hong Kong, only bigger stores.

Little India is quite a trip, as no international city I have been to has quite the same energy in their own “Little Indias.” Chinatown is frenetic, if predictable, as any city with a Chinatown can be. This one has a fabulous night market, however, and the aforementioned hawker centers are to die for. The highlight of my four days there, however, was the Singapore Botanical Garden. The Orchid Garden there is absolutely astonishing, but the garden as a whole is a tranquil escape from an otherwise chaotic city.

Next, it was on to Bangkok, where I met up with my brother Graham and his girlfriend Amanda for a four day visit in the Thai capital. In a nutshell, this city runs at a frenetic pace. Whereas other southeast Asian cities have a massive amount of motos EVERYWHERE, this city has motos AND cars. The traffic is the only thing about this city that’s not frenetic: it moves at a positively glacial pace. The traffic aside, we had a wonderful weekend in Bangkok. I fell in love with its hip grittiness: it’s equal parts developing, developed and over-developed. It’s consumerist and unburdened by material goods all at the same time. It has public transport (a personal favorite) that’s not quite as extensive as it needs to be, but it does the trick. It’s full of beautiful Wats and decaying homes and five star hotels and skyscrapers and shanty towns. And the food. It’s beautiful, beautiful food. I enjoyed it so much that Graham, Amanda and I will be back there this weekend for another go. And then I head up to Northern Thailand for an even better sample of the food on offer there.

So then we flew back to Phnom Penh and after an expectedly long wait to get my Cambodian entry visa (which is goddamned expensive considering how cheap this place is) we made our way back into the city that I got to know last year. But this year, it was different. I’ll talk more about Phnom Penh in a little bit, but basically, I can see why Graham has fallen in love with living here. Yes, it can be polluted and there’s trash in the streets and its corrupt, but this place has a lot to offer.

Anyways, our dear parents made the trek from the San Francisco to meet us in Cambodia to set out on our three week journey through Vietnam. To get to the heart of the Vietnam trip quickly: we had a great time, though we were at times frustrated by the steady stream of tourists throughout the country and the incredibly high amounts of pollution. We had an entire itinerary mapped out before we arrived, with tour guides and private cars etc. all included. It was nice to have that level of attention (like when I stupidly left my passport in a hotel safe and the guide called the hotel who sent an employee four hours by public bus to give me the damned thing) but it was also sometimes constricting, as we’re a family who knows how to travel and knows the pace at which we do things (read: there shall always be ample time for an afternoon rest even if there are a billion sites to see). To that end, we were also tired some days since the days were long and we saw a LOT of stuff. I won’t bore you with the details here, but rather, let the pictures and a skeleton outline of the trip guide you.

We started in Hanoi, the beautiful Vietnamese capital and home to some beautiful architecture a whole lot of history. We all loved it here, for its wonderful people, majestic beauty, delicious food and great shopping. This served as our base for all things North Vietnam as well. Our lovely guide Trung was always there with a smile on his face and perfectly willing to accommodate any silly request. He made our trip up there an absolute joy and we got to learn a lot about Vietnamese culture and his life growing up as the son of a rice farmer.

We spent two days in the rural Mai Chai among beautiful rice paddies which are set in a valley surrounded by majestic cathedral-like peaks. No drive is short in Southeast Asia because the roads are either crowded or worn by time, but the long journey was worth the R&R at the Mai Chau Lodge and our wonderful meals at Mr. Binh’s guesthouse (note: it was here that Dad aka Paul and I were quite ill, though I never quite got it as bad as he had it. Thank GOD we had a day to do nothing here.)

Next it was on to Tam Coc, home of some beautiful karsts that open up over a sprawling river. A bit touristy but also quite beautiful. Again, a drive of epic proportions (but this road was EXTRA bad).

Back to Hanoi for a night and then we set off to Halong Bay. Of course, I start to develop a head cold (cuplrit: the lovely goddamned pollution). We are spending the night (my birthday) on a boat in the bay, which sounds like the perfect antidote to the dumb cold. But, problem worsens when: A. we realize the pollution in Hanoi is probably partly coming from Halong Bay, which has a bunch of polluting coal power plants and cement factories nearby and B. Our pretty little boat, while full of fun people, is also a tourist hell hole and relies on showing us the most touristy shit you can see for miles in the enormous Halong Bay. Oh and C. when we realize the nighttime activity is karaoke. Conveniently located on the other side of the wall of my bedroom. I got over the cold through a mix of Graham’s French cold meds and my determination to not let the thing spoil my fun. Plus, they knew it was my birthday, so I got a tacky bouquet of flowers and a cake that was likely the result of scientific experimentation rather than a mixture of eggs, flour, water and oil.

While Halong Bay was beautiful, it was mostly memorable for being extremely touristy, polluted and funny. It was just so goddamned odd. Terrible, terrible food. TERRIBLE. Oh and Graham, Amanda, this British dude Richard and I all got “caught” trying to take our kayaks beyond the dumb little bay we were allowed to paddle in. So that was funny.

One more night in beloved Hanoi. Included a make-up dinner for my birthday at the Green Tangerine that was absolutely delicious but partially ruined by this weird guide who worked for our tour company who insisted on sitting and talking with us and watching us eat even though we didn’t know him and didn’t want to talk and wanted to enjoy our own company. Though I’ll give the guy some slack, as the tour company provided the cake and this one was a homemade beauty courtesy of his wife. Anyways, we did that then the next morning (after one more delicious breakfast at our Swiss-owned Moevenpick Hotel) we set off by plane for the ancient capital of Hue.

Hue was rainy and, by comparison, quite cold and also quite rainy. Needless to say, it was refreshing for the lungs (and my persistent head cold). We spent two days in Hue, seeing the sights of the former Vietnamese capital, including the ancient citadel/royal palace, which is astonishing in its beauty. Unfortunately, much of it is in ruins (as a result of the infamous Tet offensive at the height of the Vietnam War). Our wonderful guide Truc taught us quite a bit about the architecture of the period and was an invaluable resource for all things Vietnam, from food culture to war history. He even spoke openly and candidly about his family’s opposition role during the war (the pro-Democracy, anti-Vietcong types).

Our trip in Hue was a nice diversion from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. We saw an incredible amount of beautiful temples, as one often does in Southeast Asia, but nothing could prepare us for how much we would enjoy our next destination. We left Hue in the rain and relative cold, drove over a stunning mountain peak and arrived on the other side to perfectly sunny and warm weather, like one might find in California in early summer. We were headed to Hoi An, where we spend the best three days of our trips. Hoi An is a town where time has stopped; it has only recently opened up for the thousands of tourists who throng here every year. It thrives on tourism and lovely little shops and restaurants. The architecture is French colonial farm house style and it is set on a nice little river and not far from a beautiful beach. My oasis, basically.

It was here that we had a lovely time relaxing by the pool at our beautiful hotel. It was here that we had a meandering bike ride to an organic farm that grows everything you can think of in sun. It was here that we collected shells on the beach and basked in the warm glow of the sun. It was here that we had our very own suits made by one of the town’s many cheap-but-good tailors. It was here that we took a wonderful cooking class and ate our best meals. Some of the best food ever, really. And it was here that we finally had to say goodbye to Graham and Amanda who had to be back to life and work in Phnom Penh. While our time there was too short, we will always remember what a wonderful time we had in Hoi An and how glad we were to have shared it all together.

After an extra day in Hoi An, my parents and I set off for Saigon, where we met our last guide, Anh, a nice guy but also a very programmed individual–he had bought in to all the Vietnamese government propaganda years ago. We had only one full day in Saigon and it began right when our plane landed at 9:30 a.m. Saigon is Bangkok but 4 million motos. It’s insane. Really. I can’t even explain it, you just have to see it to believe it. We enjoyed a lot of the war history that the city has to offer and some of the remaining colonial era buildings are quite nice, but it lacks some of the charm of Hanoi, which is also smaller.

The last two days of our trip in Vietnam included a stop to a Cao Dai temple, which is a religion created here a century ago to include all the major religions of the time. The worship ceremony is quite fascinating, really. We also had a chance to see the tunnel system made by the Vietcong, which includes the chance to shoot an AK47–GRRRRREAT. If you know how I feel about guns, you can probably imagine that I hated it.

And our last day, before our boat ride back to Phnom Penh, included a fascinating tour of the Mekong Delta. We definitely didn’t have enough time here, but its someplace I’d like to come to some day. We saw how they make puffed rice, ate a delicious meal of fried fish and ate more tropical fruit than we ever thought possible. And, to end the day, we stayed in the weirdest hotel ever–which was hotter than hell.

Well, that’s about the quickest summary I can give on Vietnam. Here’s the part where I get all reflecty, so skip if you like, but this is perhaps the clearest picture I can give of what it’s been like on this five month journey:

Now I am back in Phnom Penh. I’ll have been here, on and off, for a little over two weeks, including the rest of this week and some time here before the family went off to Vietnam in late October. This place has really grown on me and I have become increasingly comfortable here. Sure, I long for the conveniences of home, like broadband, public transport and tempeh (I kid, sort of), but there’s something to be said for life here. I get it now. Whereas I was skeptical of Graham’s extended stay here, I understand now how this place can change a person in a multitude of ways. And I say this with not an ounce of mocking or insincerity: I am really, really proud of my brother and his bravery in coming here and staying his course. He impresses me daily–while still annoying me too–and he challenges me to think critically about this tiny little planet seven billion of us are sharing. He’s truly a brilliant guy–he’s surely one of the youngest in his field and has a knowledge of world history and current events and politics like no one I have ever seen. It’s mind-boggling. Yes, frustrating too, especially when you want to make your point heard, but ultimately, I am happy for Graham because his know-it-all nature shows that he does what he loves and he has passion for it. If there’s any recurring theme from my journey, it’s this: love what you do and don’t settle until you find it.

I can’t say that the picture for me when I return is anymore clear than when my journey began. My list of thungs I want to do in life (aka careers) and places I want to visit and foods I want to try and books I want to read and movies I want to see have all multiplied in my five months abroad. This time was long enough to realize that I have so much more living to do and yet, I am not so sure I can imagine a life without the constant excitement travel provides. But, unlike the billions of people in this world who are not so lucky to see as many places in a lifetime as I have in 23 years, I realize now that my travels have changed me a great deal. My “lists” of :”things to do” are not really lists at all but rather a reflection of the people who have touched my life during all phases of this journey. I have learned more about myself through these people than I could have ever anticipated.

So every time I step on that plane or train or bus off to the next place or back to the place whence I came, I remember I didn’t just see a place. I became part of the symbiotic relationship between people and place, animal and earth, plant and sun. As far fetched as it sounds, there is so much to be seen if you really just take a closer look. What brought these people here so many years ago? Why did such a culture develop? What are the sum of the parts that make up this entire culture?

SO WHAT THE HELL DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH LOVING WHAT YOU DO? Well, it made me realize how many things I do feel passionate about. And that, despite my best attempts at convincing myself otherwise, I wouldn’t be happy going into organic farming just because I believe it’s something we need more of. No, I’ve seen it and it can be miserable. So I’ve settled on my greatest strengths in my time here and I am ready for a few years of figuring out how the hell those puzzle pieces fit together. I know I’ll figure it out somehow. If not, there’s always escaping to far flung places again… Until next time (which will surely be sooner rather than later in the high speed internet zone of THAILAND!)


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Vietnam, how I heart thee.

Halong Bay (4), originally uploaded by TheAndrewGardner.

Here is the fam enjoying a leisurely convo on the deck of the super tacky Phoenix Cruiser in the super tacky touristy Halong Bay, which is still, despite pollution and lots of tourists (I mean LOTS), quite beautiful. We enjoyed northern Vietnam quite a bit, fell in love with capital city Hanoi and relaxed amongst the serenity of rural Mai Chau and its rice paddies.

While I am really bad at posting right now, I promise I will get better soon. It truly is a beautiful country.

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Singapore, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Hanoi, Oh my!

OK folks, I am really enjoying my time with the family in Vietnam but I have yet to get my photos of it up yet. We are spending the next two weeks in Vietnam so I will update you on more of it then, but my time in Singapore was great. It was wonderful to reunite with my brother Graham and his girlfriend Amanda in Bangkok. And seeing Mom and Dad in Phnom Penh was awesome. Now we’re all together here in Viet.

I will keep you updated on everything when I have more time, but in the meantime, have a look at my Singapore and Bangkok here. More soon…

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While in Asia, I will update you on Germany.

Well folks, I am more than halfway finished with my journey and write you all from Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I arrived here after spending a wonderful few days in Singapore and Bangkok, which were both preceded by an equally good time in Germany. In the land of the Deutsch, I caught up with old family friends in Bremen and Hamburg and then spent five days in Berlin, a city I have often wanted to visit but had not yet had the chance to do so. So, while Asia is exceedingly interesting, let me spend this post talking about Germany.

My time with my old friends Constanze and her sister Caro (and their respective families) was too short as always, but we had an excellent time, laughing and drinking good wine and eating good food. Constanze and Caro each spent time with our family as an au pair when Graham and I were growing up. Needless to say, we have remained in contact and I try to see them whenever I am in mainland Europe for a length of time. The last such time was two years ago, when I studied in Budapest and came for a weekend visit, which was a lot of fun too. Stanzi’s family is well-established, while Caro’s is just starting (she welcomed her first child Max about ten weeks ago–he’s a cutie pie). I hadn’t yet met Max’s dad Henry, who was also a really great guy. All in all, a short but successful visit to see old friends.

Maria and Martin

While I wish I could have had more time with them, I also wanted to see Berlin, a city I have heard great things about but have never had the opportunity to visit before. It was, as one might imagine, fantastic. I met up with my friend Maria, the same one I saw whilst in London, and some of her friends (who quickly became my friends as well) from when we all studied abroad in Budapest two years before. While I spent the first night on my own, I was quickly joined by Maria the next evening, who was arriving by train from Warsaw, where she is spending a semester working at the Swedish embassy.

It was bloody cold in Germany, so it was a trial trying to see (and enjoy) some aspects of the city. I stayed thoroughly bundled and did my best to look past the first signs of what’s likely to be a very chilly winter. I quickly learned a few things about Berlin: 1. You don’t come here for any sort of architectural wonderment (though the city has some amazing structures, like the complex of museums on Museumsinsel or the recently restored Reichstag) like you would in a city like Prague or Vienna. 2. The city is absolutely massive and there is no one central area. 3. Berlin is great because there is so much to discover in every neighborhood; we did our best to spend a little bit of time in each.

Maria at Holocaust Memorial

Berlin was a good reminder of how traveling through and experiencing a place with other people makes such a difference in comparison to solo travel. Maria and I made a good team, good roommates and we were both on the same level as far as the ratio of adventure to relaxation time was concerned. I also had the chance to see my friend Amanda, who went to A.U. and is living in Berlin and working for a German news organization as a translator. She and her boyfriend Vallen, a really nice guy from near Amanda’s hometown in Ohio, live in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of southeastern Berlin, a resurgent area that’s home to a lot of creatives and a large gay community.

It was awesome having Martin, Dries and Matthias, Maria’s friends from Budapest, on our adventure as well. Martin lives in Berlin as well in the Fredrichshein neighborhood, which is home to some great Berlin nightlife (something for which the city has become increasingly famous–as people who live there will tell you, Berlin party animals can sometimes stay out until the following afternoon). Dries, from Belgium, and Matthias, from Leipzig in east Germany, were also a lot of fun. Anyhow, the people on the Berlin trip were a lot of fun and I was only sorry that I didn’t get to meet up with a friend of our friend’s named Stella. So many things to do and see, so little time!

So what DID we do while in Berlin? Well, as we were staying at the awesome Circus Hostel in the central Mitte district, we spent a lot of time exploring that area (an aside for anyone planning a visit to Berlin: for backpackers, you MUST head to the Circus Hostel and for those on a hotel hunt should consider their beautiful hotel across the street, the Circus Hotel). Anyways, we also took in the aforementioned Museumsinsel (Museum Island, FYI) which includes the Old Museum and the New Museum (real creative, no?) as well as the Pergamon Museum (an archeological museum) and the Berliner Dom, an old church that was thankfully restored instead of being torn down in the years after the war.

We saw fragments of the Wall and took in the Hollywood of Berlin, aka “Checkpoint Charlie,” which is one of the former gates between East and West Berlin. We gawked at the insanity of the Americans who proposed, in one plan, MOVING the Brandenburg Gate to accommodate the new U.S. Embassy on Paris Square. For those who don’t know, asking to move the Brandenburg Gate  ten feet is like asking Paris to move the Eiffel Tower to accommodate another structure. The gate, in essence, is the symbol of Berlin and is not to be touched.

We also had a fine look at the restored Reichstag, or State House, which has been thoroughly modernized but in a cool way. It still retains the centuries old façade but they have added a beautiful all-glass dome to the top, where only the most patient tourist can wait in line to walk up the ramp to the top of the dome and look out over the vastness that is Berlin.

I was also lucky to have a day before Maria arrived when I could do things I knew only I would like. So I headed to the Hamburger Bahnhof, an old train station converted to a wonderful modern art museum. I also hopped over to West Berlin’s Charlottenburg area (an area, quite frankly, that pales in comparison to anything in the East, despite the fact that many people say the West is going to become the new East again, which is to say, the relatively cheaper and more hip area to live). In the West, I saw the Museum fur Fotografie, which is essentially a vault for famed German photographer Helmut Newton’s lifetime of work. It even has a recreation of his office.

Needless to say, I was never bored in Berlin, what with great (and cheap) food aplenty, a wonderful cast of fellow tourists and the unmatched creative spirit. Berlin, while not an architectural gem, is one of the most creative and vibrant hubs of cool anywhere on earth. It’s also one of the most diverse: While in Berlin, I sampled no less than five different cuisines from around the world and the rest of the food was pan-European. Perhaps this is a testament to the fact that German food sucks (especially for us vegetarians) but it’s also a testament to the wide array of cultures that meet in the German capital.

After five days in Berlin, all I found myself wanting was more. So, when the ice melts and the chill leaves the air, I will be back for a visit, because I am sure any city as vibrant as Berlin when it’s cold is that much more amazing when the summer weather shows its face.

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Another boring week in my boring life of boring international travel.

Well, I am trying my hand a shorter update cycle so I don’t get too far behind in my “work.” I am on the train headed from  Amsterdam to Bremen in Germany. I just spent the last eight-ish days touring a few of the better known cities in Belgium and up to Amsterdam. I guess if I have learned anything in travel is that you should never go in with preconceived notions about a place or the people who live there. No one else’s experience can change what I saw and what I did and how I felt. SO THERE.

But seriously, it’s been a wonderful journey. I am ready to head to Germany to get a social recharge, however. Traveling alone does tire after a while, so meeting up with people, like my old au pairs Constanze and Caro and their family in Bremen/Hamburg as well as my friend Maria from my time studying in Budapest sounds quite nice at this juncture. A side note, which I share only because it’s been on my mind a lot recently (when one spends ample time alone, one has much time for self reflection, introspection and personal judgment): WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING WITH MY LIFE AFTER THIS? As you can see, I capitalized that to emphasize the unbridled dread that greets me every time I think about how I have two months before I better figure out a way to make some cash. Yes, yes, I know. Andrew, live in the moment, you say. And that’s right and the right thing will happen. But still, it does make one panic sometimes.

Ok, so that was one of my little digressive self-hating diatribes. I don’t do those often and I promise, I am really, really, really taking this trip for all it is worth. Whew!

So, the last eight days. Well, it all started with a train ride from Paris to Bruges, the place where Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson and a bunch of other crooks kill each other in that pretty decent 2008 film In Bruges. Just as Mr. Farrell’s character learned to fall for this city, I too loved my visit here. It really is pristine and beautiful and fantastical, like they say. I wandered about quite a bit and took in about five different museums in one day (the Groeninge Museum [forgive spelling error here] is a phenomenal Flemish art museum, I must say).

I met weird guys from Quebec who insisted that I, along with two Spanish women who spoke almost no English, sit with them so that we could all eat rather than continue to wait to be seated in a mediocre but cheap Italian place. It was my idea of hell, but a memorable hell and one that I refuse to allow to be repeated ever, ever, ever again.

I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking here, but basically, Bruges was great. I don’t think I could have possibly found things to do after two days, so it made sense to head to Brussels from here. Also, I totally love the Belgian policy of making most public museums one euro for those under 26. So cheap and so good.

I arrived in Brussels, after the shortest train ride ever, to terrible weather. I mean, after such a short train ride in a country no bigger in size (probably) than the San Francisco Bay Area, , how the hell are the weather patterns so vastly different? Bruges and Brussels lie virtually on the same latitude, don’t they? DON’T THEY? I won’t bother to answer this question, as I am too lazy to Google the answer, but I am almost certain I am correct. Ok, digression. Anyways, so it was cold and rainy in Brussels. And it was Monday. So every museum was closed. And what’s the one thing a tourist wants to do when it’s cold and rainy? Go to a museum. So what did I do? I got wet, mainly.

Yes, Mom and Dad, I saw the Grand Place. And the Royal Palace. And I saw lots of chocolate shops. And found a neat bookstore in the cool Galeries St. Hubert. But honestly, after 6 hours of looking around, I was pretty damn bored. The rain subsided a little and I was able to meander through some parks, but I pretty much just was searching for things to do. Where was the vibrancy, the culture, the excitement of a big city? I assume that next to no one lives in the city center of Brussels, so I may have been in the wrong area, but dear readers, what was I missing? Where was all the life? (Yes, I found some nightlife but it was minimal and tame at best).

So, the next day, instead of museum-hopping about for the entirety of the day, I decided I would be happier if I went to explore a new place. And explore I did. I went to Antwerp, north of Brussels and the style/cool/awesome capital of Belgium. The people were young and fun and excited. They were students. The city plays home to a few universities and a prestigious fashion school. Within that school is the Mode Museum, Belgium’s celebration of all things fashion. Naturally, I was enthralled. This was after a meander through some neat shops, a great art book store and a lunch at Belgium’s only restaurant offering vegan selections. I checked out their Musee des Beaux-Arts (sorry, I don’t remember the Dutch equivalent of that name) and in general had a good day of strolling and exploring. The trip was book ended by a trip to the city’s beautiful train station, which is a site in its own right.

After dinner and a sleep in Brussels, I was off the following morning for Amsterdam. And yeesh, I was sure excited about it. Okay, I must admit that I wish I had more time to explore other places in Belgium, but it was a good start. And moreover, I wished I had more time to see the Netherlands. But, you can’t have it all, and I figured focusing on one place really well (four nights and five days in Amsterdam, for example) would be much more worth it than trying to rush through everything.

Let me just say that this was the best decision I ever made (well, the best decision I ever made that week, at least…) Amsterdam, as those who have been know, is a beautiful city. Yes, it has marijuana and yes, it has prostitution. But that’s not all. It’s a remarkably friendly place, full of people who are kind, smiling and, dammit, happy. Everything works so well in this country. Apparently, Holland has the highest population density in the world, but it doesn’t seem to pose any sort of problem for these people. Hell, they even invite you to look into their houses; they seem to have an aversion to curtains and blinds, which is odd for a country where space is at a premium and you would think having a private sanctuary would be really nice. They all speak English better than any other country I have ever visited (someone in their education department caught on a lot earlier than other countries and realized that a global language was critical for global success). Not to say that I liked it because I could be lazy with speaking another language, but I marveled at everyone’s proficiency with two languages and the relative ease with which they switch back and forth.

For those that have visited Amsterdam, a few things probably struck you like they did me (though I had heard all this before, seeing it is a whole other thing). One, the Dutch love riding bicycles and they ride them everywhere and often, rain or shine. The city is filled with bike lanes too, so cars, trams, buses AND bikes can all share the road together. Two, the canals that run through the city are just plain gorgeous. Three, Dutch design sensibility, in everything from eating utensils to magazines, furniture and toilets, is astounding. Aesthetically speaking (for a person who is a constant observer of good design), this country is perhaps one of the most exciting design epicenters in the world.

These people know their art too. So while my peers (many of the same age and national origin as I) toured the red light district and inhaled their ganja smoke (I ain’t judging, I swear!) I went off to the museums. Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum (which has a limited collection, as the majority of the building is being renovated for the next God-knows-how-many-years) are perhaps the best known and both of these are quite impressive. I couldn’t find the temporary home of the modern art museum, which is also undergoing extensive renovation and has relocated some of its collection to aforementioned unknown places around the city. I also made it to FOAM, the city’s photography museum, which had some pretty incredible exhibits on, including one by a photographer who did a portrait of her family‘s struggles with her mom‘s OCD. On the non-art side, the Anne Frankhuis is really an incredibly well done history museum. While the price for many of these museums was steep, it was well worth it in the end.

So besides museums, I walked around and got to know the city as best I could. And one day, I did it up like a local and used a rented bike to explore the city. I spent a lot of time in the Jordaan and the Pjip (where I was staying), which are both really cool, boho-chic sort of parts of the city. The weather for the majority of my time there was flawless, with nice sunshine but cool fall breezes. And I ate incredibly well too. It felt so much less awkward eating by myself here, because the people are so goddamned nice about everything. Lunches were light and pleasant and usually consisted of an open faced sandwich with cheese and veggies. I had a lovely tapas dinner of dorado and vegetables and a nice green salad at Café de Pjip. I also sampled some lovely ayurvedic Indian (though I am not sure how ayurvedically sound the whole meal was…) from a vegetarian restaurant in the Jordaan. I felt the whoosh of cool at Bazar, a converted church that now is a high-ceiling, high-volume restaurant on the same street as the famed outdoor Albert Cuypstraat market.

And the Dutch (or at least Amsterdamites) understand the virtues of organic and sustainable and ethically raised meats and local foods, etc. Yes, yes, they’re all buzzwords, as this weekend’s NY Times magazine, which is the food issue, reminds us. But dammit, we have to start somewhere and these buzzwords seem to be resonating with more and more people. Whoa, whoa… digression. Sorry.

Anyways, my time in Amsterdam and in Belgium was memorable and I know I will be back. But now I have Germany and Southeast Asia to look forward to. Man, oh man. Do I HAVE to get a job?

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Another two weeks of pure bliss: Languedoc-Rousillon to Paris

Folks, I hate to tell you that I am writing this among the beauty of the Luxembourg Gardens. Either you are thinking A) what the hell? He brought his laptop to a public park?! or B) I kind of hate him right now for being in Paris. And to be quite honest, it’s pretty glorious here. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sit outside on such a lovely day, though lovely weather days haven’t exactly been few or far between as of late.

In the spirit of blog writing, I am going to do my best to make this entry as short and succinct as possible. After all, who the hell wants to read 2,000 words on a computer screen. And let’s be honest, you all just look at the photos anyway. Which I can’t blame you for.

So, I’m obviously in Paris now, the land of my dreams, my blissful cosmopolitan playground and probably one of the most beautiful places on the planet (city-wise, I mean). But before this blissful ten day romp (I’ll talk more about the City of Lights a little bit later on), I spent an incredible five days in the Languedoc-Rousillon region of France, a place known to few Americans and the home of some of the world’s best table wine (OK, it’s no Burgundy but they seem to be upping the ante around those parts and the wine keeps getting better and better.) I based myself for four nights in Carcassonne, a city that’s home to Europe’s oldest remaining fortified medieval castle. The added bonus? My friends Hannah and Dave, from my first experience working on a farm in Burgundy, were down in the area doing yet another WWOOFing gig.

I should mention: Languedoc-Rousillon covers the area of the further west parts of France’s Mediterranean coastline and all the way down to the Spanish border. It’s an interesting mix of cultures and it’s definitely beautiful in this largely undiscovered region.

Carcassonne was impressive sight to see, though the throngs of tourists (and lack of any discernible local liveliness) made it the experience a bit underwhelming. The castle and the old city hold quite a bit of history, but perhaps the most interesting part for me was the fact that Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, the same man to refurbish Cathedral Note-Dame in Paris, was responsible for bringing the medieval city back to life in the 19 th century.

I had a chance to rent a car and drive through Narbonne, Beziers and on to the coast to a town called Agde (with a ‘70s afterthought beach resort tacked on). It was a great drive, though at times frustrating, and the coastal town reminded me of why going to a tacky beach resort town is never a good idea. The highlight of the day was meeting Hannah and Dave in Narbonne for a quick beer, where we strategized about our day trip to Collioure and Perpignan, two Spanish influenced towns in Rousillon, directly south.

Sure enough, we were not disappointed by our trip. Essentially, this trip with Hannah and Dave made up for whatever mediocrity may have reared its ugly head earlier in the week. We met up early on Thursday morning and made our way in H&D’s little red VW Polo towards Collioure. We were on a mission, so to speak. We arrived, after a drive that seemed much shorter than we anticipated, to the amazing coastal town, set against the backdrop of the beautiful Mediterranean and ample amounts of sunshine (well, most of the time… it wasn’t boiling hot there, however.) How to describe the place? Well, quite frankly, I will have to let the pictures do it justice. A crepe for lunch (I made the mistake of ordering an OMELETTE—whoops!) and some wonderful meandering was all we needed to put our dampened tourist spirits back in check.

Our meandering led us back towards our respective “homes” with a wonderful stop along the way in Perpignan for a delectable dinner at Laurens’O. First, Perpignan is vastly underrated as a French city and second, cities close to the Spanish border (aka Collioure and Perpignan) have a unique Spanish-ness to them. They combine the best of both cultures, leaving out the Spanish inability to keep time and the French hoity-toity-ness. Anyways, we had a marvelous dinner at the restaurant (a meal we had been looking forward to all week) and laughed and had trouble with our French and just all around had a really good time.

After a long drive back to Carcassonne and a night of too little sleep, I bound a train to Paris, via Montpellier, where I stopped for a breather and some lunch. A really nice city and one worth exploring a bit more when I am back in France one day. But then it was on to Paris, a THREE hour TGV train ride from the south of France all the way to the north. Incredible.

And Paris. Oh, isn’t it always beautiful? Well, the ungodly beautiful weather didn’t hurt, but it was simply delightful. And staying in our friend’s flat, having my own place to call “home,” made all the difference. So I arrived on Friday evening, was let into the flat courtesy of family friend Adrien and slept for a short time before I had to wake up to welcome Graham, who arrived at six in the morning on Saturday from Cambodia.

My poor brother. So early and so much to think about before he would leave on Monday for Chad. We had an incredible time together, however, despite how exhausted he was. A lot of walking and a lot of laughing. We went to Musee d’Orsay, which I have never visited before, took the requisite trip to the Eiffel Tower (after seeing it so many times, I still have never been up it though!) and ate an amazing meal at Le Petit Marche in the Marais, a restaurant recommended to us by Hannah and Dave. We had to toast  Graham’s three week business trip to Africa and his birthday on 2 October, of course!

Anyways, while the weekend with Graham was brief, it was really good to see him. He was quite good to me and even bought me some groceries at the lovely outdoor organic market that they hold every Sunday! Needless to say, I made some nice meals for one during the week with all that good stuff.

Well, what did I do for the rest of my week in Paris? As is to be expected, I walked. I walked a lot. I walked so much that I got blisters all over my feet. I attempted to do some of the touristy things that one feels one must do when in Paris (Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysees, Notre Dame) but it didn’t have the same pull for me as walking about and getting to know the city the way the people who live there do. I did do a few great museum stops: the Rodin Museum, a must for anyone who’s never been and Musee de Quai Branly, a recent addition to the Paris museum circuit (opened in 2006) that’s as much incredible for its collection of worldly artifacts as it is for its stunning architecture, complete with a living wall of plants and an incredible (and incredibly diverse) garden. Thanks, Phillippe Starck! Check it out next time you’re in Paris.

I also went to the Pere Lachaise cemetery under the advisement of Hannah and Dave. I am glad I did, as it’s incredible to see the place where some of the most prolific figures (Parisian and not) lay in eternal rest. Jim Morrison, Haussman AND Edith Piaf in the same place–whew! The resulting photos are below.

Essentially, I lived in that flat for ten days, making a home for myself, cooking, going to films, reading a lot, etc. This was one of those Paris trips that you can never forget, just as my family had said two years before when we spent a week in the same flat for Christmas. Much in the way I fell for London a few months earlier, I have fallen for Paris, in part because I have had the chance to create my own memories and have my own experiences in the city of light.

I made new friends, like Adrien, the family friend who graciously met me to give me the key to the flat, and Mai and Aurelien, two newlyweds who are friends of a friend of mine back in D.C. Graham and I met some of my parents’ friends, Andrea and Paul, two great people with a passion for travel and a zest for life. I reconnected with my old friend Aniella, a fellow intern at Conde Nast Traveler last summer whom I hadn’t seen in over a year.I had lunch at my cousin Victoria’s parent’s home on the outskirts of Paris, which was simply divine and a lovely introduction to her multinational family (her English father, Argentine mother and very French brother with a French girlfriend and child.)

It was such a pleasant stay that all I can remember are the lovely people encounters and the one or two outstanding meals I experienced. For the record, one must go to Quai Quai the next time one is in Paris. Divine food on the Ile de Cite, home to Notre Dame. Also try Bread & Roses in St. Germain des Pres (my home base.) Mmm mmm good!

Anyhow, I have forsaken my vow to make this a short post, so I will end this quickly. One note, however: . This is late to be posted–I am finishing this five days after I first left Paris but I return there this evening for a rendezvous with Aniella and her boyfriend Haisam. I have been back in the Loire these past few days checking in on Christie, my dear friend from my second WWOOFing experience who is recuperating back on the farm after suffering from a fall and subsequent breaking of two ankles back in Germany. Joyce was kind enough to have me back and I helped finish up the painting inside the house so Joyce can start accepting guests in her bed & breakfast again.

I cooked a few good meals for everyone and made new friends called Jess and Scott, two Brits about my age who are dead set on seeing the world. They are an incredible duo, as they both have an insane ability to reference any film, music or book you’ve never heard of. Made for some good conversation, however. I was also lucky enough to meet Sondra, Christie’s daughter from California, who came all the way across the globe to help her mom in the recovery process. She’s an awesome girl, full of encyclopedic knowledge on all things plants. I’ll miss them all, but also look forward to my next step: Bruges and Brussels in Belgium and then Amsterdam! More soon!

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Long time, no post: my time in the Loire Valley.

So it’s been a while since I have posted anything or shared any photos. This is in no small part due to the fact that I have not had a wifi connection (therefore rendering photo uploading useless) and also, working on a farm takes a large chunk of time out of your day. It’s hard work being a tourist-farmer sometimes. Oh and you should know the following was written more than a week ago, but again, wifi and my computer don’t mix. But I digress.

So let’s get down to the nitty gritty of it. I stayed for two weeks at La Besnardiere, a bed and breakfast and gite (converted barn made into a holiday home) that’s located in the heart of the Anjou-Loire region between a little village called Fougere and bigger one called Bauge. The setting, needless to say, is breathtaking.

I arrived to utter chaos, as Joyce (my lovely ex-pat Brit hostess, a wonderfully giving individual with a knack for scrumptious vegetarian cuisine and running a tight, but friendly, ship, and as I would come to find out, an in-demand local masseuse) and her crew of family, friends and WWOOFers had just finished helping dismantle the original 400-year-old roof so that roofers could replace it with a new one.

Upon my arrival, here were the other characters that greeted me:

Christie (WWOOFer, 48, from northern California, heart of gold, left her two jobs and sold her house so she could leave home and follow her dream of seeing Europe).

Seran (Joyce’s daughter, amazing artist, the most soothing voice ever, entrances people with her discussions of art, over from Rumsey, England to help de-roof).

Seran’s daughter Maya (wears glasses like me, 12, bakes up a storm, says “Well  that’s not very nice” in that innocent and charming English way).

Pat 1 (aka “short Pat,” ex-psychoanalyst, 69, Joyce’s dear friend from London, traded her home for a camper van, the type of wizened soul you hear about only in stories, came over to help with the roof for five weeks, considering buying a home in the Loire Valley).

Pat 2 (aka “tall Pat,” 52, semi-permanent WWOOFer who stays with Joyce much of the year, working towards her masters in organic farming from a uni in Scotland which is funny because she pretty much lives in France, knows more than I’d ever dream to know about all sorts of farming methods, can fix anything, pictured here in the background of this photo of Joyce).

So, I was thrown into the mix upon arrival as the only male (though, quite frankly, gender didn’t make one shred of difference at La Besnardiere as we all learned to contribute equally to its success) but, to tell the truth, I fit in right away. Since the roof was being finished, the upstairs rooms were out of commission and so, we were all scattered about the property in makeshift rooms. I settled into a tent among the poplars at the front of the property, which was a bit of a tight squeeze for my lanky frame but a fun adventure.

Trying to better my French skill was quite difficult, I must admit, because at times it felt like I was in the middle of England (no native French speakers anywhere!)  Even the lovely gite guests who arrived the day after I did, John (a management consultant, who loved pitching in to help around the farm at the drop of a hat) and Carolyn (a hospice nurse with the sweetest demeanor and a knack for engaging anyone in a thoughtful conversation) from Lancashire, were English. Lovely people, I must say, but dammit, NO FRENCH! Pat 2 had been having the same difficulty for two years and has since taken to reading in French because she never really speaks it.

Needless to say, I was in hot pursuit of native French speakers. On my first weekend there, we were off for what I thought would be an exciting French cultural experience: a vide grenier, or “car boot sale,” held in nearby Cuon. Joyce’s dear English friend Richard would be there selling some things and so would many other townspeople as they celebrated the start of the new school year. What I came to find upon my arrival was a good ole American hoedown, complete with an American flag, bandstand, country western band, line dancing and knick knacks not unlike the ones you might find at an American flea market. As Christie and I gawked at the un-Frenchness of it all, the Brits laughed. I told them that at the farm, I feel like I’m in England and now, I leave it and it’s like the States. Where am I?!

Back on the farm, we were all busy. Whether it was cleaning up the constant roofing mess of broken tiles, sharp metal flashing and nails; weeding the hogweed from the chicken and geese patch (it’s apparently bad for their livers); digging deep ditches to repair the washing machine drainage; patching and painting the upstairs pitched ceiling; preparing one of our many eating/drink breaks throughout the day; bringing water to Poppy, the sassiest donkey I have ever known; moving Bertie and Bertha, the two goats who had to be tethered in their pen for fear they might escape and wreck havoc on the rest of the garden; or overanalyzing Christie’s budding romance with French roofer Dou Dou (no, his real name is Edouard, FYI), we were never bored. Hell, I barely had any time for reading and when I did, I figured there was always something else to be done.

Did I mention the food? To borrow a term the Brits use handily, it was gorgeous. Simply divine stuff. While I think in my time there I ate my weight in cheese and delicious organic bread from down the street, it still was such amazing food. Tomato soup, my own ratatouille, vegetarian pasta Bolognese, stuffed courgette/zucchini, couscous with a mélange of vegetables, grilled fresh sardines, tons of tomato salads, beetroot, roasted potatoes. The list goes on. Richard had us over for lunch one day and there we also ate deliciously: smoked salmon quiche, tomatoes and basil, a green salad and Pat 1’s coleslaw and my potato salad. And the dessert. Oh, the dessert! A plum crumble made from plums picked right down the road. I impressed everyone one night when I made an orange polenta cake, inspired by the work of Ottolenghi in London. That creation was to celebrate the arrival of Pat 1’s son, Nick, his Spanish wife Maria and their two girls, Natasha and Anushka. While they were only with us one night (they were driving back to London after six weeks holiday in Spain and Portugal), we all had an excellent time and along with my other new Brit friends, I hope to visit them on my next trip to London.

In my time there, I grew really close with everyone who was there. Seran and Maya left only a few days after my arrival, but I felt an immediate connection to Seran’s passion for art and her search for meaning in the smallest things (literally, she works with microscopic images and makes them into art).

Christie, as the sole “real” WWOOFer (Pat 2 was definitely a veteran), was my immediate partner in crime, as we did most work together and laughed and complained and talked about life. I came to realize, as Pat 1 helped me discover, I do a whole lot of listening, as Christie told me all about her tumultuous life and shared with me some of her most inner most thoughts. I think it was nice for her and I really enjoyed getting to know her really well. We had many a good conversation over painting. She loved the farm so much that she changed her ticket to stay a week longer—after some earlier bad experiences, she felt pulled to La Besnardiere and the people there. She left last Tuesday for Germany to fulfill a lifelong dream of her mother’s to see the Black Forest (her mother is German and escaped the Nazi youth by marrying an American service member). She is still waiting to see the Black Forest as I write this, because a week ago Friday, upon arriving in Baden Baden, she fell off a curb and broke both of her ankles. She now lies in a hospital bed there, hoping that the diagnosis of 6 weeks recovery isn’t the case. It’s hard for her, as she still feels drawn to La Besnardiere and wonders if she should have even left. Her romance with Dou Dou budded in the final days she was there (I served as translator at dinners, which helped my French skill). She’ll be back, she promises.

In Christie’s recent plight, I have only just now realized how close we had all become. Joyce called me the day after I left and said things were quiet around her place, for the first time in a while. The summer rush was over. The day before I left, Pat 1 headed off in her van back to England. That too was a tough goodbye, for Joyce and myself. I enjoyed Pat as a constant stream of wisdom. Teamed with Joyce, those two could get anyone rolling on the floor laughing. Pat has one of the remarkable personalities. And the most incredible English accent you’ve ever heard. Subtle and cool, she sounded like the epitome of English refinement (without all the stuffiness). Pat 2 left not long after I did to go back to England for a few weeks, leaving Joyce on her own at the farm (save for gite guests and animals).

While the sightseeing was quite lovely (going to Angers and it’s incredible chateau that displays an incredible 500m+ tapestry; seeing the lovely outdoor markets; exploring the countryside), it was the simple things that made this part of my journey worthwhile. Leisurely dinners with generous helpings of wine and ample amounts of laughing. Bike rides to the baker down the road, who bakes out of her home three days a week. Endless aperitifs with the endless stream of visitors who dropped in. Seeing French customs like the Sunday lunch in action (including more aperitifs and other alcoholic beverages). Such is the case with all of my travels: the people are what make the place (including the roofers, see below.)

But I decided that it was my time to leave finally on Friday, September 11. A foreboding day, one that for most Americans will forever live in infamy. I left Joyce, who gave me a great big hug and a kiss and headed further east to have a look at the rest of the Loire’s famed chateaux. While I had a nightmarish time trying to pick up my rental car, I finally was on my way to Chenonceau, one of the most incredible monuments to French nobles’ decadence but a genuine look into the life in 16th century France. Other less exciting visits included a stay in Blois and a look at look at the impressively huge Chambord (but devoid of the beautiful gardens of Chenonceau and not nearly as much authenticity inside). I managed to see Clos Luce as well, a small chateau in the shadow of a bigger one at Amboise. Clos Luce is where Leonardo Di Vinci spent his last few years among the tranquility of the surrounding woods. It’s an interesting monument to his life’s work and a great history lesson.

My next (and last) day sightseeing on my own took me to less known chateaux: Villandry and Azay-le-Rideau. I must say this was my best day. While I was (and still am) missing the people I met, this was a picture-perfect solo sightseeing day. Villandry’s gardens are more than impressive; they are inspiring. From the ornamental kitchen garden, laid out in a purely French manner, to the sun garden and the love garden, this was a chateau with a character all its own. My lunch at the chateau café, which claims to celebrate the ingredients of the garden, was delightful and topped with a helping of French gingerbread and honey-nougat ice creams. From Villandry, I set off to see Azay-le-Rideau, a chateau set among a beautiful clearing of trees. While the chateau itself offered little inspiration, the vast lawns, informal and welcoming to picnickers and sunbathers alike, offered me the chance to get my daily dose of Vitamin D. I ended my day with a leisurely stroll around Tours (an agreeable enough city, but it was mostly a good base for sightseeing) and a dinner at an organic creperie. All in all, a very wonderful Sunday, filled with sun and leisure.

Well, this one is getting long, and was written as such for posterity’s sake. Now I must get on to my next destination: Carcassonne, back in the south of France. It is here that I will spend four days and where I will meet up with Hannah and Dave, my friends from my last farm in Burgundy. After that, it’s ten days in Paris, including a weekend with my brother Graham before he sets off on his work trip to Chad. Phew!

[editor’s note: all the above stuff happened. Graham is already in Chad. Thanks to not having wifi for so long, this is a delayed posting]


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