Monday, June 27, 2011

Final Recap: Spain and Argentina

It has been one week now since I was walking off my final international flight and things haven't exactly slowed down. From the airport in DC, I packed up a rental car and drove straight down to Greensboro, before packing up my real car and starting my trek west. Right now, I'm kicking back in Minneapolis for one more day. But right now I want to at least give my brief impressions on my international travel before going into the nonstop USA road trip fun.

Spain Observations:
  • I may be in the minority but Madrid is my favorite city. The charm of Boston with the weather and kindness of the South was pretty hard not to like. Although I'll admit Barcelona is the ideal spot for outdoor lovers.
  • Spanish women are gorgeous. Even the "uglier" ones are attractive. And Spanish men are horrible. It just doesn't add up. I'm thinking Spanish women need to be matched with Aussie guys or some place like that.
  • The Spanish eating schedule should be adopted everywhere. Big lunch with a small, late dinner makes for an entire population of skinny people (not too many fit people though).
  • The "us" mentality in the country maintains a wonderful charm but holds them back globally.

Spain Highlights:
  • Both nights of dinner and drinks in Madrid with my Greensboro friend
  • Drinks with the bartender in Grenada while watching the US vs. Spain game
  • Church service at the Cathedral in Valencia
  • Visiting the Sagrada Familia at night with no one around
  • Running up the Montjuic in the early Barcelona morning with no one around
  • Pimientos Padron (aka perfect drunk food) at 29 Fanegas in Madrid

last night in Spain with Tera (Greensboro) on the left and her roommate Blanca on the right; taken at approx. 3:00am on a weeknight after plenty of vino

Argentina Observations:
  • People aren't so concerned with schedules and I didn't mind it one bit.
  • Asado is not just amazing food but an idea that underscores the importance of family in Argentina
  • They take partying to a better level.
  • Efficiency is not a priority in Argentina, for better and worse. People are more laid back but they are also less inclined to fix things, whether big or small.
  • San Juan's charm is best summed up in a quote from my sister: "This is a place unlike the US. There is still so much to do here that hasn't been done. To create, to build, and make things better for everyone."

Argentina Highlights:
  • Experiencing a day in my sister's shoes and understanding her love for the city
  • Asado with my sister's Argentine-family 
  • The beautiful countryside and untouched mountains
  • Empanadas, clearly

hanging with the sis on my final day in Argentina

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Latin America Winding Down

Well my time here in Latin America is almost coming to a close. I’ll have a reflection post in the next few days, along with the past-due final Spain post. But for now, here’s a quick recap of the last few days and some pictures to go along with it.

After my rest day on Thursday afternoon, I got to meet more of my sister’s students and talk to them about random things. I’m telling you, I really work well with the under 18 and 80+ demographic here. Following that, of course my sister and I had to scarf our faces with empanadas. Although nothing compares to the place in San Juan called, oddly enough, Empanadas.

Friday was more hanging out at the University, lunch with my favorite Argentine family, and shopping for a few goodies to bring back.

My last night in San Juan included tons of beef (that I was supposed to cut with a butter knife), goodbyes and photos with the family, and a little vino to boot.

As for my trip leaving Argentina, that’s where things went awry. The mountain pass was closed in the Andes because of the massive snow storm. I had to fork over a few hundred bucks extra to flight out instead. And I lost my book that I was really diving into. So needless to say my final day out of Argentina was a mess.

(leaving the desert and excited to bus through the Andes and send amazing photos... oh wait)

But fortunately I am now safe and sound in Santiago and already falling in love with the place. Last night we went to what could possibly be my favorite small bar in the world and today I accompanied my friend to his soccer game that was set in the foothills of the snowcapped Andes. Yea, this is the life…

(live music, small group of friends in a small bar, all Chileans who speak amazing English, and of course pisco)

(sadly you can only see one of the dozen peaks because of the snow storm in the background)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Busy Busy Days in South America

*was hoping to publish this with photos while in Santiago, Chile but now that I´m stuck in ARG with no idea how I´m getting out, I figured I could at least submit this so you could read about other parts of my visit. Photos to come in a day or two..

Here in Argentina, my sister spends quite a lot of time working. Her daily schedule has her starting University classes at 8:00 (which means waking up much earlier) and not wrapping up her teaching jobs until 9:00pm. Needless to say her free time is limited and her days are tiring. Why do I mention this, you ask? Well, I had the pleasure of spending my Tuesday following her around and spending a day in her shoes.

It began in the cold morning where we waited for a bus to come in the dark of a San Juan morning. Remember, it’s winter here so the days are shorter and the weather dips pretty low because of that whole dessert thing. From there, we made our way to the University where Alyson has two morning classes, one as a student and one as a TA. Fortunately, they were both English classes so my mind didn’t have to be at 100% so early in the morning. And surprisingly, both were interesting, albeit long. They teach English in a more conversational manner here and the students spoke very, even if it was with the same timidity that any non-native student has. We spoke about politics, random USA facts, and accounting. And not surprisingly, they asked how bad the US economy really was because of all the doomsday reporting that goes on in the media.

Following the two multiple-hour, morning classes, it was on to Alyson´s work-related classes. First up, 6th grade students. I won’t give too much detail here but another difference in these classes is the attention and organization. At all levels, students stand up randomly, come and go whenever, and constantly talk amongst friends regardless of what is happening. This was just amplified with 6th graders. 13 is always a bad age so I’ll chalk it up to that but half of those kids were simply not interested in any real schoolwork. I’m still not sure how my sister handles these ones.

After that, it seemed like smooth sailing the rest of the day. We headed over to “The Institute,” for another double-header of classes in what is most easily described as an after-school program for kids to learn English. Got to give it to these Argentine’s – they are committed to having their children learn English. Here is where the kids had plenty of questions and most were more than willing to practice their Spanish. I enjoyed responding to questions such as “Why do Americans dance erotically?” and at the other side of the spectrum – “Why doesn’t Obama pull all the troops out of the war?”

Then as all things, the classes came to an end and I was finally off the hook for my non-vacation, vacation day. But oh wait, there was more. Even though it was already 9:30pm and I was fading fast, Alyson’s friends wanted to get together for dinner. So of course, that meant pushing through and enjoying a little Argentine pizza at 11:00pm. P.S. Pizza chefs here could afford to visit Italy once or twice. Normally I wouldn’t care about staying out so late but the next day I was scheduled to spend a lovely morning and afternoon visiting one of San Juan’s popular spots – Moon Valley.

(Alysons best friends - the Dream Team)

So awake I was at 6:00am to enjoy a three hour drive out to this odd yet beautiful place. Simply put, it’s a huge National Park that feels just like you’re on the moon. Weird rock formations, vast expanses of crater-like valleys, and gorgeous views as far as the eye can see. Here are some photos below:

And that’s all the exciting news to report today. I finally got a rest day after 18+ days of nonstop adventure so I was able to catch up on all that’s happening in the real world. Glad to see that Washington still can’t be normal, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, and my future home of San Diego still has the same lovely weather as always.

Monday, June 13, 2011


So I lied, the final Spain post will have to wait. I want to make sure I post the picture with it so that´s TBD. No worries though, I´ve got plenty from South America to report.

After spending an odd, crazy, sleepless 12 hours in the US between my international flights, I arrived in Chile tired and cold. Fortunately, because traveling in South America isn´t as seamless as Europe, I had plenty of time to wait and catch some Zzzzz´s.

Saturday morning was my first taste of my sister´s life. I took a 7 hour bus ride from Santiago to Mendoza, Argentina through the Andes Mountains. On the one hand, it was the most picturesque ride of my life but on the other hand I felt like I was going to die at any moment. Weaving through the icy mountains roads of the Andes while I´m sitting in the front seat of a double decker bus was not exactly the greatest idea for someone who is afraid of heights. Nevertheless, I loved the views and just wish I could have jumped out with a backpack and crampons to climb every mountain we saw.

Upon arriving in Mendoza, I met up with my sister and got my first real taste of Argentine life. Let´s just say it is extremely different from the tourism heavy Europe. We walked around a lot, ate more meat than I wanted (…made me realize why I became a vegetarian), enjoyed wine, chocolate, olives, and plenty of empanadas. You´ll see that there´s a theme to this trip –

After 24 hours in Mendoza, we boarded a bus and headed for San Juan. It´s not glamorous, but any city that sits among dozens of gorgeous mountains is fine with me. I like to call it the Greensboro of Argentina. Not a lot to do but plenty of charm. Not to mention the weather is just like fall so every day reminds me of Thanksgiving in the US.

Since arriving in San Juan we have had quite a busy schedule. Within two hours we were headed for a club on Saturday night. The best way to describe the club is a perfect..err…gross blend of lasers, disco balls, remixed American music, extremely tall drinks, and the loudest speakers I´ve ever stood next to. So naturally, I was right at home. Fast forward a few hours and I´m dead tired from dancing only to find out it´s nearing 6am. Ugh, this Latin-Spanish party thing is nuts.

Fortunately, we were able to sleep in the next day and I woke up just in time for lunch. We went over to the house of the first family that my sister lived with when she moved to Argentina. Chicken, potatoes, tomatoes, vino, and great company. It was a perfect Sunday afternoon in a city that takes their relaxing Sunday afternoons seriously. Literally no one is on the streets and the only noise you hear is coming from families laughing or chatting over an extended lunch. Now this is something they do just right.

(Skyping with the parents)

Moving on to Monday, lo and behold, it´s an Argentine holiday! Well, a San Juan holiday at least. I´m told they have countless holidays per month which makes for a wonderful vacation schedule. So today we got up and traveled to the city center to check out the parade and see what else the bustling San Juan downtown has to offer. Long story short, not much. We watched the little children preparing to march, visited the main attraction to overlook the city, and…well… that was it.

But the best part of the day came right after. My sister is very close with an ex-professor (who is extremely young & intelligent) and her family, so they took me in like I was one of them. Even after eating empanadas together the night before, they rearranged their schedule to have us over again but this time for a real Argentine Asado, which basically translates into an extended lunch with more meat than you can handle. It was pure heaven.

Then, of course, because this family is so nice, they drove us out to the mountains and the lake to check out the natural side of San Juan.

(Standing where there used to be water two years ago, so sad but still a wonderful view)

(The nicest family in Argentina)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Granada, Sevilla, and a little more Madrid amazingness

Even though I´m writing this from Argentina, I´ll give you my second to last post about Spain.  And I´m also happy to report that I now have a new phone which means pictures! (In my final Spain post I´ll have the only picture I have from Spain with my Greensboro friend and her roommate during my last night)

After failing miserably with my paella adventure, I set off for Grenada to visit the infamous Alhambra.  Excited is definitely an understatement here. I originally hadn´t planned on visiting Grenada but my Madrileno friend convinced me that I should (she´s a history buff) so I snagged one of the final tickets a couple days in advance and set off on an overnight bus. Sidenote: I have a new apprecation for sitting alone and exploring places, realizing that wherever I go and however long I get lost, it´ll all work out.  Back to the bus... I arrived in Grenada early and had plenty of time to explore the city.  Per usual, I chose to forego the bus into the city and walk the few miles since I had time to kill and wanted to explore. After wandering a bit, I found this incredible chuch tucked away in one of the many narrow, hilly streets and couldn´t resist following the dozens of traditionally-dressed families into the venue. I still have no clue what it was but they had two bulls, the most gorgeous and bright dresses I´ve ever seen, and a small car-sized gold icon to Jesus that they processed in with. Definitely one of those moments I wish I had a camera for.  Fast  forward through more wandering and a little lunch, and I´m walking up to the Alhambra to get ready to enter. From 2:00 to 8:00, I could be found exploring the endless gardens, fountains, buildings, and cool things inside the palaces. My favorite was easily the view from the Mirador de Daxaxa, and just thinking about what went on in those rooms back in the day.

Then after the Alhambra, it was dinner outside and bar-selection time for the USA game. Fortunately, I found a small bar with a nice bartender where I could drink my sorrows of the 4-0 loss to Spain. Although I blame the bartender for my current sickness. He took a liking to me and after 4-5 beers, he thought it was a good idea to pour a few different shots for the both of us during the course of the night.  Let´s just say I was a tad wobbly when walking to the bus station at 2:00am.

From Grenada it was off to Sevilla. Here I had the most typical hostel-travel experience with late night bars and hanging out with American friends but in between I was still able to explore and get a taste of the unique Sevillana culture. This city had the most personality out of the 5 I visited. (my favorites list to come in the final Spain wrap up post tomorrow).  The Flamenco, the bold people, and the winding streets were all incredible. But the best part was easily the calamari across the river. I will never eat calamari in the US again. If you ever get to Sevilla go to El Kiosco de las Flores in Triana (it was triple recommended to me so that makes 4 recommendations!).  Best fried and fresh fish I´ve ever had.

So that about does it for my other cities.  I returned to Madrid for my final 36 hours and yet again the city didn´t disappoint. Obviously my friend´s hospitality swayed my judgement of where Madrid ranks but I don´t think I needed that to make it my favorite city.  I love Madrid and I will definitely be back.  We closed out my last night with a couple bottles of wine, queso, lomo, and plenty of good conversation with her roommate, followed by an extremely late night at the Flamenco bar (her roommate is Sevillana and can actually dance unlike the two of us). By far one of my favorite nights of 2011 thusfar. 

And ahora, I´m in a cyber cafe in Santiago, Chile waiting for my bus to Mendoza, Argentina. I can´t wait to see my sister and travel through the beautiful Andes mountains.

See you all tomorrow! I´ll be posting my Spain wrap up with highlights and lowlights and hopefully I´ll have a picture to at least prove I went there. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Great Paella Disaster

Ohhhhhh Valencia.  How I love you... how I hate you.  As of now I´m wrapping up my time in Sevilla but I wanted to give you all a little taste of my trip to Valencia. 

On Friday, I decided to stop off in Valencia for a little over 24 hours and see what this beach city had to offer. Also, I knew I needed to have some true Valencia paella before I left Spain.  So after arriving early, catching a morning church service (awesome experience) at the Cathedral, and wandering the streets a bit, I set out for the beach to relax and take a break from a week of walking. 

The initial plan was to chill on the beach, then get some paella for lunch on the beach. Problem with that was the wind and clouds.  After an hour on the sand, my entire body was coated in the tiny grains and I was trying my best to take shelter from the wind by tucking behind a cabana.  Fast forward another hour and I wake up from a nap in the middle of a sandstorm.  No more of that, I´m going back to the central part of the city.

And so begins the quest for paella....

My first stop was at this little outdoor place behind the Cathedral.  It didn´t look too touristy (although what isn´t in Valencia) so I sat down and immediately ordered the paella and a beer. Then ten minutes later I´m still drinking my beer and wondering where the paella is.... DUN DUN DUN. The waiter comes out and tells me that he forgot to inform me that they just ran out of paella and I was 5 minutes too late.  Fine fine, I guess I can wait until dinner....

Fast forward again to dinner time. My friend recommended this great place for paella and casually mentioned it was on the beach.  I, being the idiotic person I am, checked google the night before just to get a sense of the direction. Sadly though, when I searched google and it didn´t pull up a beach restaurant, I didn´t think to second guess my search.  Instead, I assumed google was correct (because really, they rule the world and how could they be wrong?) and set out for this random metro stop in the middle of town which was definitely not touristy.  After asking a few nice old folks and wandering for another hour+, I realized I made a bad bad bad mistake and was now pressed for time because I was hitting peak dinner hours. 

This is about the time I started to walk fast, really fast.  I rushed back to the middle of the historic district and tried to find the nearest non-franchise place.  After a little searching, I found this small spot with a couple different paella options.  But no more than 10 minutes in and right after I ordered a glass of wine, the waitress informs me that they can only serve paella to two people. Huh? This is not looking good.  I downed my glass of wine and got out of there ASAP. 

I was now pushing the limit on my bus departure so here you can picture me almost running through the streets of Valencia asking for paella. In a last resort effort, I saw a spot that had raciones for one annnnnnnnnnd minimum 2 paella orders. As an added bonus, it was right next to this incredible plaza by an old castle. But wait, what happens? Of course, just as I go to order paella, the waiter says the phrase that has haunted me all night. ONLY PAELLA FOR 2.  Nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.  ¨But your menu says...¨  Sorry, that menu is only for lunch. 

And it was here that I let Valencia beat me. After an odd day in a city that I quickly fell in love with, I sighed and ordered way too many beers with a little jamon iberico.  It may have been the saddest dinner of my life.

But hey, at least I´ll always have the ham! 

(aside from the paella problems, I actually loved Valencia.  Between the gardens, the historic district, the beach, and the high level of pickup soccer, I could have spent all week wandering around there.)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Leaving Valencia

Typing from a Best Buy store in Valencia. Just spent the day here but already fell in love.  Thie architecture, the people, the food.  Sadly I only get 24 hours because at  the last minute (and thanks to a friend), I snagged one of the last tickets to see the Alhambra tomorrow.  I was wavering between going or not because it would cut my other city visits short but I know everyone would yell at me if I didnt so there you have it, Im in.  Theres also this tapas place Ive wanted to try in Granada so win win win.  Now if I can only find a place to watch the US vs. Spain game tomorrow night. 

Ill post more once I get to Sevilla on Sunday but for now its been quite the trip.  Im also wasting away with all this walking so once I get back to the US I will be stuffing my face with an entire pizza.  Ordering 6 or more tapas in one sitting here just doesnt seem ok.