Sunday, July 10, 2011

Spain Pt. 2: Madrid y Barcelona: A Partial Food Rant

By Madrid, we were kind of done with Spanish food.  Wait!  Let me explain!  I know Spain is renowned for its Michelin-starred chefs, its tasty chorizo, cheese, seafood, and paella.  People are quick to name drop Ferran Adria, whose innovations have made El Bulli (when it's open) THE destination for "serious" foodies.  And yes, when we went to El Corte Ingles (the ubiquitous supermarket) or an outdoor market and bought our own ingredients, we feasted like reyes.  Jamon iberico, manchego cheese, every imaginable olive variety.  Eating at home is affordable and rewarding, assuming you want to cart around your olive oil, salt, and pepper to every city (which we did to some extent).  Here's Spain's problem: there is no mid-range good food.  Go to Italy, to France, to London even...part of the fun of these places is stumbling upon an amazing local eatery where you pay next to nothing for the best meal of your life.  I love eating at fancy restaurants and, to be honest, if El Bulli had been open, we'd have reserved a table.  But Spain shouldn't be only that.  Spain has charisma and history.  It has a precedent for Good Food.  Why then is it impossible to find something between uninspired bar food and self-conscious haute cuisine??

One thing I will say for Spain: I am in love with the concept of beer + lemon soda, which is usually on draught (Damm Limon being the most prevalent).  Even if they don't have it, they'll mix it right up for you or you can try the wine equivalent: vino de verano-- like a less sweet and more refreshing sangria.  Another thing I'll say: MEXICAN FOOD.  This seems like a really strange recommendation, but I swear to you I've never had better than El Chaparrito.  Get the guacamole nachos, the pollo de flor de calabaza, and the olla cafe.  Oh my GOD, y'all.  Also, the froyo place in Mercado San Miguel is obscenely good.  So Spain I can recommend booze, Mexican food, and frozen yogurt.  Sad or awesome?

I think Barcelona, as expected, was our fave.  Guys, it's a charmer.  We searched out every Gaudi structure (why is Park Guell covered in sand?  not fun on a slightly windy day) and found a lot of lesser known architecture just as fascinating.  Even a lot of seemingly basic apartment buildings had cheery, ornate paint jobs.  By Barcelona, we knew that we'd have to research if we wanted to find a good restaurant, so after a LOT of internet research, we came up with La Divina, in the Barri Gotic.  It was full of expats and we had some pretty delicious devil shrimp.  Another traveler's note: get a recommendation if you're going for what could be a painful esthetic experience.  Ouch.

Pretty things:

Monday, July 4, 2011

Spain Pt. 1: Valencia, Granada, Sevilla + Portugal

By the time we boarded our plane from Marrakesh to Valencia, we were ready to re-enter the Western world. I'd contracted a stomach virus and a Valencian robot pharmacist fixed me right up. We stayed at our first fancy hotel, which turned out to be a respite from what seemed like a good idea....Fallas. If you google it, you'll read lots of enthusiastic testaments which imply that this is a festival you should plan your visit around (which we did). Sounds good, right? Fireworks, effigies to vices ceremonially burned on the last day, parades! What this really means is that for a week solid, Valencia turns into a dynamite-fueled hell, with giant firecrackers incessantly booming around you. Not the pretty kind. The earth-shaking kind. The only positive thing I can say about Valencia is that......okay, robot pharmacies and I'm out. Did I mention we had some really expensive stuff stolen in Valencia? Also, passports.

Granada, though. We loved Granada. We randomly stumbled upon an amazing tapas bar called Huerta de Morgana and discovered there was a city-wide tapas festival going on. We left with a map and a mission. Winner: the very first place we stopped. Hmm. The Moorish detailing at the Alhambra gave us something to compare with what we'd seen in Morocco. Even our apartment, Aljibe Albaizin, felt like a riyadh with its sunny courtyard. We caught a flamenco show and were amazed by the clapping, of all things. Such a simple "instrument", but so impressive!

We caught a bus for Seville next and the first thing we noticed was the orange blossom scent in the air. Is it always like that? God, I hope so. Since it was Semana Santa (Saint Week), there were Nazareno figures all over the place. I'll provide a visual and you can decide if this is terrifying or if I'm imagining things:

From Seville, we bussed it to Lagos, Portugal (gambling that the Schengen agreement would mean our missing passports weren't a big deal...we won). Lagos is dramatically gorgeous, with wildflower-covered red cliffs and crashing waves. Considering how few tourists Portugal gets compared to Spain, it felt like we were discovering a secret: better food, cheaper everything, and wilder landscapes. On our third day, we decided to sign up for private surfing lessons. Our Peruvian coach, Jesus (not 'Hay-sus'-- Jesus.), picked us up and decided he wanted to take us to a place a bit farther afield, but more stunning. After a reggae-filled half hour ride, we arrived in beautiful Aljezur. Jesus was a fantastic teacher and we had a great time hurling ourselves against brutal, optimal waves. My only disappointment is that Jesus is unfamiliar with Christian marketing and my WWJD jokes fell on deaf ears.

Lagos was SO idyllic that we ended up extending our stay. We'd rented an apartment (Sol Lagos Apartments-- VERY affordable and comfortable) and were able to cook at home a lot of the time, which made us feel a lot more like ourselves. I highly recommend apartments when you're doing extensive traveling.

From Lagos, we took a bus to Lisbon, which we weren't all that excited about. We'd determined at this point that we prefer small, beachy towns to big cities. They tend to be more laid back and friendly, which leads to that traveler's dream: a local experience. Lisbon surprised us. Maybe because it's Portugal, after bustling could it get? We loved our hostel (Lisbon Dreams Guest House), which was modern and beautiful with extremely helpful staff. One food disappointment was due to Jesus' recommendation: Leao d'Ouro, which felt very Disneyland. One uh-may-zing foodie find was due to complete chance. It was raining and we ducked into this empty restaurant where the staff kindly served us up some appetizers and drinks even though they weren't open (this is Europe...what were we thinking trying to have dinner at 8 PM??). Chão de Pedra introduced us to a new favorite: white port!  We kept eating well after we were full (the migas!  dear lord, the migas) and the owner took great care of us.  Another great meal was found at....the mall.  This food court was unlike any I could ever imagine.  We saw a bunch of suits all lined up outside an Argentine Grill and decided this must be where you get good food.  A short wait later, we had the most incredible beef and pork served with beer and wine.  In. A. Mall. 

We'd heard great things about Sintra, a holiday destination for Portuguese royalty and a prime spot to view Manuelian architecture.  It's an easy daytrip from Lisbon, so we hopped a train and headed up to Palácio da Pena.  Aside from the busloads of high school kids, apparently Sintra is still a royal destination.  A minute after Alex told me Charles and Camilla were on vacation in Portugal, a long motorcade whizzed by with Union Jacks a-flyin'.

And then, with new passports in hand, we flew to Madrid.....

Monday, March 21, 2011

"You want a Moroccan has-been?"

After London, we headed straight to Africa! We'd researched and found that Casablanca and Rabat seem skippable, so we flew into Fez for its winding medina (old city). The first night, we settled into our beautiful riad and ventured out for our first tajine meal. The medina has prime people watching-- men in their pointy-hooded jalabas, and women in their multicolored hijabs-- donkeys strapped to unwieldy carts-- chickens being slaughtered by disinterested butchers, mid-conversation--

The next morning, we met Mustafa, our guide for the day. We liked him right away, for his charm, his Arabic lessons, and his 'we are the world' philosophy. He took us to a couple of obligatory sites and we soon realized this medina was one big family...everybody was helping everybody else make a little money off of the foreigners. After a lesson on Berber weaving, we found ourselves being pressured into buying a carpet (okay, we bought one, but not until we'd knocked the price down by 70%). We visited a beautiful riad that had been turned into an architecture school, surrounded by endless date palms and orange trees. Next, we were taken to Mustafa's aunt's house for lunch...a lamb tajine with almonds and prunes. By the time he brought us to the tannery, we'd learned how to avoid being pressured into buying: act disinterested. Simple as that. The techniques we saw for naturally dying fabrics were ancient. Like a lot of Morocco, it seemed stuck in time.

That evening, Mustafa propositioned us with an ingenious solution to the rest of our time in Morocco. He set us up with private transportation (taxi and 4x4) to the Sahara, including a camel ride where we camped in a Berber tent. Our driver, Mohammed, turned out to be a loony old man with a cheetah print clunker-- awesome. He communicated with us only in French, but his French was even worse than our French, so there was a lot of animated battle cries like, "A Rissani (the town he drove us to)!!" And "Madame! Monsieur! Manger? Cafe?"

We met some cool people in Merzouga (the Saharan town), but it didn't make our requisite drum circles any less awkward. Still, there's something eerily authentic about sitting in the sand around a fire with Berbers beating drums. As Alex said, "We are IN this culture right now". The Sahara was rad. We climbed dunes, scampered down dunes, and vowed never to ride a camel again (saddle sore for days after).

We worried the entire trip that Mustafa was gonna take our money and run, but lo and behold-- every step of the way, someone was waiting to take us to the next place. After Merzouga, we were delighted to find that we had a new driver, Hassani. And Hassani spoke English! Turns out, he was a Taekwando master and had visited Seoul...could even say the Korean numbers in a hilarious accent. Hassani had a much nicer taxi and actually stopped at various points for us to take pictures, including the most gorgeous landscape I've ever seen, coming down out of the High Atlas toward Marrakech. We got stuck in a blizzard while crossing the mountains--gridlock and very poorly insulated taxi-- for 2 hours. At that point, we decided we didn't come to Morocco for snow, so we said goodbye to Hassani and took a bus to Essaouira, on the coast.

The bus ride gave us a chance to meet Ingo, a middle-aged German with a dark sense of humor. We decided to stick together, and surprisingly, one of the little boys hired to take tourists to hotels from the bus station led us to a fantastic place...beautiful, good location, and really cheap (who needs Lonely Planet??). We noticed that, at least in Morocco, it really pays to have a little faith. Aside from carpet shops, don't expect that someone's trying to scam you. No one ever tried to take advantage of us or overcharge. No one was ever late to pick us up or forgot us. Maybe along the way our chauffeur would conveniently stop for tea at his uncle's tannery, but a simple, "We're too tired to shop," was enough to close the matter. We learned that responding to every offer with a polite "no, thank you" in Arabic (la shukran) often brought on a surprised giggle and we weren't pestered anymore.

Essaouira turned out to be our favorite place in Morocco. Its medina felt more modern and much less oppressive, despite being a tourist destination. The buildings are white with striking blue accents and there are plenty of hip or no-frills places to have a glass of wine (wine! our first sips since entering the country) and fresh seafood. Lots of lazy days and good chats with our German friend. We spent our last night in Marrakesh, but its snake charmers and midgets plucking violins pushing themselves into a photo op felt oppressive. The food market that Jamie Oliver raved about seemed hardly worth it...lots of shouting and repetitive stalls with nothing very interesting to offer. We were plenty ready to head out to our next destination...Spain!

Monday, March 14, 2011

London Bridge Arizona?

On February 28, Alex and I began a real adventure. We had vague ideas in mind of places that we wanted to visit, but the plan was to take a couple of months off and enjoy ourselves before figuring out the next career step. London seemed a logical first stop...something easy and where Alex has family. We could relax and organize a some of the food we've been missing during our time in Korea. Alex's cousins are restauranteurs and share our love of food , so right away we were whisked off to an unassuming pub with incredible local dishes. Our kindly host ordered plate after plate of unbelievable deliciousness...goat cheese only a day old on crusty bread, new potatoes with fresh herbs, fresh cockles, sea bass, churros with apple mash, Rhubarb Queen of Puddings, and a chocolate hazelnut pie. Can there be an equivalent to culture shock involving food? I think I died that night. Still a bit disoriented from our 12-hour plane ride, we were further overjoyed at how darn polite the English are. In Korea, I'm accustomed to being mowed down unapologetically, but here---here!-- "Excuse me!" for the slightest graze. We basked in our new/old life and exchanged several "this was a very good idea" looks.

In the days that followed, we ate more food that I've craved for a year and a half...and did some sight-seeing. We got a private tour of Parliament from an acquaintance of Alex's (who yelled across the room at a question posed for a Member of Parliament...needless to say, the MP was pretty pissed. Awk-ward.) She also took us to the Parliament Bar, which was filled with less than important people, I'm fairly sure. But hey-- I've now had a neat whiskey in Parliament. We visited the Tower, the Tate Modern, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Portobello Road, had high tea at Kensington, and everything else you're supposed to do in's such a dense city and very walkable.

Our last night was spent with Alex's other cousin, the cousin's Swiss-German wife, and their two adorable kids. We had a really homey meal of fajitas and brownies and I sent the kids to bed with a rendition of a book about animals pooping on other animals' heads. Perfect.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Adventures in Scambodia

Finding myself alone for the final week of vacation, I needed to figure something out quick. I'm sure I could've had an amazing time with very little exertion by staying on the beach, but that's not really my style. After checking in with a few ramshackle travel agencies in the touristy Koh San Road area of Bangkok, I found a van bound for Cambodia the next day. The trip would take 9 hours, so it meant if I was doing this, I'd have only a day in the country and 2 days spent in this questionable van.

Of course, they somehow squeezed 12 of us into the vehicle, even though I was told it seated 10. We stopped more times than were necessary and always at suspiciously expensive roadside snackbars. At one point, our shifty-eyed "guides" informed us we had to pay a penalty for not bringing photos for our visas. By the 3rd stop, I'd mentally sized up the group and decided who I'd buddy up with: 2 strapping Canadians, an irreverent Hungarian (think the Sesame Street Count crossed with the main character from Despicable Me), and an Italian couple.

By the time we made it to the border crossing, we were pretty sure the current dude leading us around was schiesty as hell. We were made to wait for long periods of time, supposedly for other groups, that never came. Then, we were told a story about Cambodian currency. According to these assholes, Cambodia only deals in Real (Cambodian currency). The tricky bit is that the ATM's in the country only dispense American Dollars (????). SO, if we didn't want to pay a transaction fee twice, we should load up on Real. Then, we were taken to the glitziest rest stop imaginable to change our money. Hmm. I decided to change the equivalent of about $10, just to be safe. This bought me two fistfuls of disintegrating Cambodian Real. Our gangster guide tried to hurry me through the process, saying I had to jump in a taxi right then. I made him wait (all of about 2 minutes), then went outside to find he'd let my cab go. "You no hurry, now you wait!!". I sat on a bench and watched as he loaded 20, 30 travelers into taxis...meanwhile my van companions sweetly offered to stick around with me. I assured them I'd be fine...we'd all end up at the same hotel, anyway.

An hour later, I angrily tracked down the "guide" and told him I wanted to be put on a bus NOW. I'd just seen a girl extract $10 from another guide by throwing a fit and opting for the bus instead of a taxi. So, after a half-hearted argument, I got my money and hopped on the giant tourbus. After another overpriced pitstop, at about 8:30 P.M., they unloaded all of our baggage and tried to sell us on a vacant hotel, saying it was high season and hard to get a room. I already had a room at another hotel booked! Why wasn't I being taken there? What the hell was this bullshit? All this I communicated to one of the guides and was escorted to a waiting tuk tuk with, "Don't worry! I'll take you now. Only 10 Baht". Steely glare = free ride = ridiculously meandering ride = FINALLY arrived at the hotel where my travel buddies were waiting with welcome drinks and minutes away from calling the police. We went out that night and had a great time in downtown Siem Reap. No surprise...the restaurants (and everywhere else) don't take Cambodian Real. Awesome.

Feeling pretty paranoid, the next morning we met our official really real guide, Pissa. He turned out to be fantastic...very passionate about his country and the sites he showed us. We toured Angkor Wat, The Jungle Temples, Angkor Thom, and then decided to take a boat on Tonle Sap Lake to watch the sunset. Most of Tonle Sap's circumference has been gifted to Vietnamese refugees, who have set up "floating village", complete with schools, fish harvesting sites, and homes. It was fascinating, but overly-touristy and a little sad. Children take makeshift boats (plastic tubs, etc) out to meet tourists and beg for money, often using strange novelties like snakes around their necks. At one point, we realized a little boy had hopped on our boat like a damn pirate and was selling beer and soft drinks for $1 American (he made a killing).

Despite the scams, I could not be more glad I braved traveling alone for that last week. The sites we saw were overwhelming and the people I met were hilarious and interesting. In fact, we're trying to tack Hungary onto Alex's and my big trip (which begins in 8 days!!) to see the incomparable Peter again.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Snowmen in the Sand: A Thai New Year

A quick glance back at January of last year's entry finds a promise made to myself: get the HELL out of Korea for winter this year. So I did.

Swarna, July, and Alex joined me during this little reprieve from Seoul's biting winds and infuriating slow-walkers. The number of times I've said, "I hate this [weather]," since December was eclipsed by, "Oh my god, I'm so happy. I'm never leaving this paradise with its $5 massages and hand-delivered beach chicken.". Seriously, y'all...a little woman walks around with a basket contraption on her shoulder that's cooking your perfectly marinated chicken and she brings it right to your lazy butt in a beach chair, if you but only nod your glistening head. Mango, dragonfruit, coconut ice cream? Why the hell not? I've been lying here for a couple of hours...I deserve a treat.

That becomes your inner decision-making algorithm. I just had a massage yesterday and the day before that, but they're cheap and they're good for me. I'll have another. Hedonism doesn't have to be debaucherous, right? The pursuit of pleasure has gotta be a good thing for you.

Foodies often laud Thailand as a culinary giant and damn if they aren't spot on. The creativity behind street food took me by surprise. I expected a lot of fried things on sticks...which is definitely around...but there's SO much more. We had pancakes filled with spices and shaved coconut, thin fortune cookies filled with a light marshmallow cream and candied orange peel, fresh juices in shockingly vibrant colors, and even a baguette sandwich from cart vendors. We definitely ate well, on very little money. Two pricier exceptions were: Alex's and my special New Year's Eve dinner on the beach (worth it! so worth it!) and his farewell dinner, at an amazing tapas place in NaNa, where we ordered THREE desserts. Still just hedonism, right?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Buy the Barkada Pack: Cebu, Philippines

This past September was Korean Thanksgiving, or Chuseok. What that means for foreigners is: Bonus! What country can I check off my wishlist? People have been coming back from the 'ppines with stories of paradise all damn year and I felt like it was time to give it a try. My fellow 2nd floor English teachers and I (July, Swarna, and Michael) brought our luggage to school and practically ran toward the airport the second 5:00 ticked over. Our first indication that this is the Latin America of Asia was during my currency exchange at the airport. NEVER would a young Korean man be so bold as to hit on a woman during a transaction. Maybe that's an, pretty sure that would NEVER happen. It was a welcome change and we soaked up the compliments...who doesn't want the supermarket bagger to tell them, "Goodbye, Miss Beautiful,"? As we drove through Cebu City, Swarna and I decided that a better descriptor (based on our knowledge up to this point) is that the Philippines are a wacky and colorful (I'm talking literal color) mishmash of Latin and Indian culture. Indian because of the particular kind of poverty that results in row after row of blue plastic lean-to's. Latin, because of the friendliness and genuine happy-go-lucky attitude in spite of it all (and no, it wasn't only randy men who were exceptionally friendly). Filipinos are very humble people and their ability to make you feel at home is astounding.

Take Michael's Malapascua water adventure. As usual, all through breakfast we'd heard the sweet sounds of old dudes gettin' serious with some videoke. We finished, started back toward the hotel, when Michael decided to run back to our little corner store for some water. We stood for a while, got chatted up by some locals (by the end of the trip, people would shout "GINA!" at us everywhere we went. They never bothered to learn anyone else's was more like plural noun). Well, Michael took a lot longer than expected, so we backtracked and found him inside the little store/shack with a microphone, singing along to a Filipino music video. The guys told us to come on in and passed us some ashtray-flavored beer and shrimp chips. By this time, we had quite the crowd...faces pressed up to the windows and scrawny kids standing in the doorway. Finally, they found some English songs for us and we belted out Bon Jovi with all the passion we could muster at 10 AM. It pretty much ruled.

Malapascua was eventful, to say the least, for a tiny and untouristy island. The beach was immaculate...almost unbelievably white sand and clear blue water. We befriended the guys who took us over from the dock and they gave us a decent snorkeling tour before we decided Josh, the Boat Principal (our secret name for him) was maybe a little off his rocker. We couldn't seem to shake him and finally agreed to meet up with him for dinner. After a haunting walk through dark, quiet fields dotted with houses blasting videoke (at 9 PM...presumably going strong since morning), we arrived at..sure, a great restaurant, but was in the middle of freaking nowhere and NOT where you want to be when your tourguide launches into intense stories of his past. We nervously laughed and/or tried to not appear freaked out as Josh held our gazes a little longer than is comfortable through tales of heads being crushed by speaker boxes. Weird. Where oh where had our way more fun boat companions (Boat Pro, Ice Man/Chomps, for example) gone??

On our last night in Malapascua, they had a disco party on the beach, where I cha-cha'd with a big ole jolly Hawaiian and got to really, intimately loathe red rum. The music on the beach was loads better than any we've heard at a Seoul club, but I think Swarna and I were the only women there. On the return bus ride, pretty sure I became unofficial godmother of the child next to me, who basically napped in my lap for the two-hour ride. The thing about the Philippines is this: there's some degree of people-watching, and it's fascinating. But before you know it, you somehow become involved in the scene. I handed my bag over to a father whose son's tummy wasn't taking the bumpy terrain well. Some little boys smoking a cigarette on the hood of a car noticed my picture-taking and jumped down, break-danced, then gave me a sly wink. Swarna, absently staring out the window, noticed a guy playing with a stick. He turned it this way and that, letting a row of spiders scurry from one end to the other. Just when they were at the edge, he popped them in his mouth and flashed a toothy grin at Swarna.

After a night in Cebu City, we decided to head to Moalboal, based on several recommendations. Maybe this place is fun during peak season, but in September it'd DEAD. We walked by what looked like fun spots, but we were the only people there. Finally, after a few uneventful bar stops, we decided to make our own entertainment at a videoke bar. We were getting into it when our room got invaded by a karaoke professional and her minions. This girl worked the room, told us about her semi-professional gigs, and then began a steady stream of memorized selections (she didn't even need to look at the book). At around 3 AM, we started walking back for home and passed a restaurant that looked possibly open. Apparently they weren't, but they reopened the kitchen just for us and we ate some surprisingly good Filipino food, while being entertained by the tranny waitstaff. I even learned the Shakira Waka-Waka dance from one of them.

The next morning we met our darling Creen Creen, the masseuse/manicurist/Arabian prince lover. Although we loved him, he had the most hilariously bad setup for a spa...a basket of half-filled polishes in old lady shades and a facial that featured St. Ives products. We ate one last delicious adobo meal before grabbing Take Two burgers and hopping on the unairconditioned bus.