Visiting the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival in Taiwan

As soon as Jacob and I fixed the date of our trip to Taiwan, we started researching the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival. Our time in Taiwan landed just after Chinese New Year, coinciding our trip exactly with the Lantern Festival, which takes place around the 15th day of the month following Chinese New Year.

At the time, we didn’t realize that there was a difference between the Lantern Festival and the Sky Lantern Festival.  Turns out there is a big one. The Lantern Festival takes place all over Taiwan (and mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, etc. – but for obvious reasons, I will focus just on Taiwan for the moment).

The lantern festival in Taipei consisted mainly of a festival area with a walking tour of massive ornate silk “lantern" sculptures. I say “lanterns”, because they do not look like what an American would define as a lantern – many of them are over 10 meters high and look more like an illuminated float from a parade. Nevertheless, they are stunning works of art.

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Lantern Festival Taipei-1.jpg

A Sky Lantern Festival it turns out; is closer to what I had visualized when I heard “lantern festival”: thousands of glowing paper lanterns released into the night in one breath-taking moment. Sounds magical, doesn’t it? The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is Taiwan’s most famous sky lantern festival, with hundreds-of-thousands of lanterns being released and tens-of-thousands of visitors. If Jacob and I were going to be in Taipei during that festival, there was no way we were going to miss it.

Pingxi Lantern Festival.jpg

As with much of our Taiwan research however, we were surprised by how little English information there was to be found. Jacob is a consummate researcher, and hardly ever visits a new place without digging up all the insider tips and local information available on the internet. Most of our favorite restaurants and destinations are a direct result of his research. For the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival however, we had very few clues.

Taiwan’s tourism website offered general information on the festival itself, but how to get there was another question: Pingxi is outside of central Taipei. Between TripAdvisor comments and the festival website, we managed to piece together the information we needed.

This next part is for those of you who may have stumbled on this blog trying to figure out how to get to the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival yourself.

Take the Brown metro line to the Taipei Zoo stop. Taipei Zoo is the last stop on the brown line, and is also where you can catch the Maokong Gondola.

Taipei Zoo Stop

As soon as you exit the metro, you should see signs clearly marking the way to the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival stop. Follow the signs (or the crowd of people), and get in line for the bus.

Pingxi Lantern Festival.jpg

There are two lines: one for a seat, and one for standing. The line for standing-only goes much faster. (We chose the standing option – it wasn’t bad at all.) You can either scan your metro card to pay, or give them cash as you get on the bus.

The bus ride to Pingxi takes about 45 minutes. The buses will drop you off in a parking lot at the base of the town.

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Prior to the festival we started to get a bit nervous. Between our friend’s words of caution and the stats we had read online, we were pretty sure this would be the largest crowd we had ever experienced: somewhere around 80,000 visitors were expected. We decided to arrive early to the festival grounds to grab a good viewpoint.

We got to Pingxi about 4 hours before the first scheduled lantern launch. The town is beautiful – built into a hillside above a river, in lush jungle-like countryside.

Pingxi Taiwan.jpg

A train track runs directly through the main part of town, with surprisingly little space between the track and the shops. The train only comes through the town a few times a day (and slowly at that), at which point everyone clears off the tracks and huddles under the shop awnings. When no trains are passing through, the tracks are packed with throngs of people, many of which are setting off sky lanterns of their own.

Pingxi Lantern.jpg
Pingxi Lantern Festival.jpg

Pingxi has become famous for her sky lanterns. Though the annual festival draws the most people, visitors trek to the town year-round to buy a lantern, paint their wishes and hopes on it, and set it off into the sky. Jacob and I walked around the town for a short while, watching people release their lanterns into the sky, before making our way over to the festival grounds.

I had expected the festival grounds to be a massive open field – something that could accommodate these projected 80,000 people. Signs and security guards pointed the way down a road away from the town.

Pingxi Lantern Festival.jpg

We entered through a festival gate and walked 15 minutes down the road, lined with food and lantern vendors, before the path angled up and dropped us in a parking lot. The parking lot held a stage on one end and a large corded off square of empty space in the middle. Hundreds of photographers were already set up around the square, their tripods forming a wall of spindly black legs and camera lenses.

Pingxi Lantern Festival 16.JPG

Honestly, we were surprised. The parking lot could hold maybe 2,000-3,000 people – certainly not 80,000. As it was, there weren’t even that many people there. Three hours before the festival was due to begin, the parking lot was only about 1/3 of the way full. We found a good spot and settled down to wait.

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As it started to get dark people began to crowd in around us, though it never became uncomfortably packed. The ceremonies began, with a woman hosting the festival and entertainers performing on the stage. There was a lot of talking as groups of 100-200 people were ushered into the square in front of the stage, readied with their lanterns, and then all instructed to light and release them at once.

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It was, truly, an awe-inspiring sight.

Was it what I had imagined? No. I had imagined thousands of lanterns going up in the sky in continuous waves, everyone allowed to participate as long as they had a lantern. Perhaps, in some places, that is the reality.

Here, the lanterns were released 100-200 at a time, accompanied by a television host interviewing people and giving little “Sponsored by” commercials. Then someone would sing, dance, or talk on stage for 20 minutes while the next wave of lanterns was being prepared.

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Pingxi Lantern Festival-10.jpg

Was it worth it? Yes, because sky lanterns are gorgeous, and every release would take your breath away. Is it the be-all, end-all sky lantern experience? Probably not. (I haven’t been to Thailand yet.)

We stayed through 5 or 6 waves of lantern releases, before deciding that it would be wise to beat the crowds back to Taipei. We grabbed our stuff and pushed our way through the crowd to the edge of the parking lot, where the road sloped down and curved left back towards Pingxi.

At the edge of the parking lot, our jaws literally dropped. There was the other 77,000 people that couldn’t fit into the parking lot. It was a veritable sea of people; unlike anything I had ever seen before. And to get back to the bus, we had to somehow get past all of them.

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Pingxi Lantern Festival-12.jpg

The police had roped off a narrow middle corridor through the sea of humanity, and we joined the steady stream of people who were pushing themselves against the tide. It was packed like nothing I had experienced before. We didn’t even need to walk – the sheer force of the people surrounding us pushed us forward, while you felt the pressure of some random person’s body on every side. I had been “packed like a sardine” before, but typically only when everyone was standing still: packed into a concert, or (worse), with your nose in someone’s armpit on the metro. Being packed that degree while moving, however, was another experience entirely.

Thankfully we had the advantage of height. Jacob and I are a head taller than the average Taiwanese, so we could at least see above the crowd. As we shuffled our way along with the tide, I felt a rustling by my waist and saw three tiny old women, hands clasped, heads bowed, muscling their way forward with practiced intensity.

It was a long 10 minutes of wondering how you would avoid getting trampled if someone started a stampede before the crowd broke and we were finally free. The lanterns may have been the breath-taking highlight of the evening, but it was the crowd that ensured we would never forget our time at the Pingxi Sky Lantern festival.

Back to you travelers who are reading this blog for more information on getting to the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival:

Leaving Pingxi is just as clearly marked and well organized as getting there. You will see the queue for the buses extending far along the road you walked up to get to the festival grounds.

Once again, there are two lines: one for seats, the other for standing. I would recommend buying some street food and then hopping in line – the standing one goes quite fast.

The buses will drop you back off at the Taipei Zoo stop so you can head on home by metro.

 

 

 

 

My Top 5 Non-Street-Food Eating Experiences in Taiwan

Hello world! So, it looks like something happened. Blog posts that were meant to publish in March never did, and in the ensuing cyclone-of-crazy that is late spring and summer, it never got fixed. So better late than never, here are the last parts of the Taiwan saga.


I’ve talked (in length) about the street food of Taiwan. But the truth is, street food is only half of Taiwan’s culinary picture, and some of the most memorable food-experiences we had there took place in restaurants…and warehouses. Here’s my top 5:

5. Running Sushi

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Running sushi can be found all over the world, I know that. It was, however, a first for me – and I found it to be exhilarating. There were a several reasons for that. First, it was our first full day in Taiwan, and I was so excited by everything I saw that I was bouncing off the walls like a kid hyped on sugar. Second, it had to be some of the freshest sushi I had ever tasted. Third, every plate was so cheap – we ate gorgeous slices of salmon belly, mounds of fresh sea urchin, freshly barbequed eel, and more to our heart’s content. In the end, we barely spent $11 USD.

More than anything else however, I found the concept of running sushi to be fascinating. Not only is it a cost-efficient way for a restaurant to serve customers, but it also turns eating into a psychological game. If you pass up that plate coming down the line this time, will there be another? There is no guarantee that someone else won’t take the plate you want before it gets to you. What if you choose one thing, and then see something else you want more just two minutes after?

Running Sushi Taiwan.jpg

Most restaurants hand you a menu, effectively asking you to make a decision once, and then stick to your choice. Running sushi forces you into constant decision making, offering an endless variety of options that will “expire” (ie: run past you) if you don’t decide quickly. It’s intensely manipulative, and unlike any dining experience I’ve had before.

4. Beef Noodle Soup

Beef Noodle soup is so beloved; it is often called Taiwan’s national dish. Jacob did some research to see where we could find the best Beef Noodle soup, and came up with an informal restaurant called Yong-Kang Beef Noodle. We showed up to the restaurant one day for lunch and immediately knew we had made a good choice. The line for the restaurant snaked outside the door and past several other shop fronts. While we walked down to our place in line, taxi’s rolled up to the curb and dropped off passengers with suitcases…who then got in line behind us. Apparently Yong-Kang Beef Noodle was so good, it was worth making it your last or first stop in Taipei.

Yong Kang Beef Noodle Taipei 1

The restaurant was nothing fancy – fluorescent, cafeteria style, and crammed with people sitting at communal tables. Once inside, we placed our order at the window and found a spot at a table to wait. Behind us, a view into the kitchen showed a pot of soup broth big enough to drown in.

Yong Kang Beef Noodle 1
Yong Kang Beef Noodle 2

Our soup arrived within 5 minutes – large bowls of noodles and melt-in-your-mouth tender beef in a fatty, anise-spiced chili broth. The garnish of choice was a pot of pickled mustard greens sitting on the table – a dash of bitterness and vinegar to cut through the richness of the meat and broth. It took us barely 10 minutes to polish off our food. Once again our “Taiwan mantra” was affirmed: If people are waiting in line to eat it, it’s good.

3. Addiction Aquatic Development

Jacob and I live in a landlocked country. Though there are many, many things I love and appreciate about Austria, it’s landlocked status is not one of them. I could easily forego meat for a fish and shellfish only diet. The mere mention of fish, shrimp, scallops, clams, lobster, or – my favorite – CRAB, is enough to turn me into a real-life “heart-eyes-emoji”. So of course, the prospect of visiting an island where seafood is a staple of the cuisine is profoundly exciting for me. Especially when said islands have places like Addiction Aquatic Development.

Addiction Aquatic Development Taipei

Addiction Aquatic is part fish market and part grocery store, housing a variety of seafood based food stalls and restaurants. As soon as Addiction Aquatic popped up in our research, it went straight to the top of the list. It was a must-visit for seafood lovers like us.

We saved Addiction Aquatic for our last day in Taiwan, making the trek to the massive fish warehouse with suitcases and backpacks in tow. It did not disappoint.

We spent a long time slowly perusing the fish market, staring wide-eyed at incredible varieties of shell fish and unimaginably large crabs. SO MUCH CRAB! Crab paradise. I was one happy Chelsea.

Addiction Aquatic Development Taipei 1
Addiction Aquatic Development Taipei 3

After checking out all of the food and restaurant options, we found ourselves returning over and to the grocery area, looking at glistening trays of brightly colored sashimi and boiled crab ready to be cracked into. We grabbed one of each, a beer, and a large stack of napkins and settled down with our luggage at a table outside. It was far from fancy, but high-quality enough to have been served in the world’s best restaurants.

Addiction Aquatic Development Taipei 4

2. Din Tai Fung

Din Tai Fung is a world famous Dim Sum restaurant originating from Taipei. The restaurant now has branches all over the world, some of which have been awarded Michelin stars for their food. This was one experience we knew we needed to fit into our itinerary. Our hosts, Dave and Wendy, joined us for our meal at Din Tai Fung, which was really good for two reasons. One, Dave and Wendy are wonderful people and we love their company; and two, Dim Sum is a world in itself that Jacob and I would have been totally lost in.

There are a couple locations for Din Tai Fung in Taipei, and we wound up at the branch at the base of Taipei 101, the tallest building in Taiwan. Even though the restaurant is massive, with space to accommodate thousands of diners, there was, of course, a wait to get in. We put our names on the list and grabbed a menu so we could strategize our meal.

Din Tai Fung Taipei 101

Dim Sum is traditionally considered a brunch meal, though places like Din Tai Fung have made it an all day affair. Food is served in smaller portions and meant to be shared family-style. Whereas many other cuisines (ie: Thai food) focuses on balancing all of the taste elements (salty, sweet, spicy, sour, bitter, etc.) in a single plate, Dim sum focuses on balancing the table. One dish may be spicy, another is sour, another is sweet, another is cold, etc. Together, you create a balanced palate – one reason why a proper Dim sum requires a lot of different dishes.  

We feasted. We had seaweed salad, marinated wood ear mushrooms, cold rice noodles with soy beans, spicy cucumbers and more – and that was just the salads. Our cups were filled with round after round of green tea while steamer baskets full of beautiful fresh steamed gyoza, shaomai, and bao began to arrive.

Din Tai Fung Taipei 101 1

Din Tai Fung is particularly famous for their Xiao Long Bao, or “soup dumplings”. These special little dumplings of joy are filled with meat and a richly flavored broth, and require a special process to eat them. First, you pick up the Bao and support its heavy soup-filled bottom with a spoon. Then you bite a little hole into the Bao and slurp out the broth. Once you have slurped the broth, you can pop the whole thing in your mouth (and close your eyes and melt inside because it tastes so good).

We had quite a few of Xiao Long Bao, but the one that Jacob still talks about was the truffle bao. Yep, you heard me right. Bits of truffle and minced pork in a buttery, truffley soup broth…only five came in the steamer basket, so one lucky person got to have two of them. I still remind Jacob of how gracious I am that I let him have it. ;)

1. Shrimp Fishing

Top on my list of Taiwanese food experiences is one that actually involved so little food, we went out to dinner afterwards.

Shrimp fishing is a popular pastime in Taiwan, though you would have to ask the young, hip Taiwanese crowd to find out if it is actually considered “cool”. Regardless of cool-factor, Jacob and I were very keen to give shrimp fishing a try. Thankfully Dave and Wendy had some friends who had shrimp-fished before, so we called them up and headed over to the local shrimp-fishing spot in the early evening.

Shrimp Fishing Taipei Taiwan

Shrimp fishing takes place in large warehouses filled with pools of varying types of shrimp, crawfish, and lobster. It’s not a fancy affair – it’s a fluorescent-lit, slightly smelly warehouse of fish. Patrons rent or bring their own special shrimp fishing poles and tackle, pull up a plastic chair to the pool of their choice, and settle down for some leisurely hours of fishing.

Shrimp Fishing Taipei Taiwan 1

We bought a two-hour pass, which basically meant we were entitled to eat as much as we could catch in that period of time. Armed with bamboo poles, nets, and slabs of raw liver for bait, we selected our pool and settled down. Shrimp fishing, as it turned out, takes some skill and technique. You wait patiently until your pole’s bob, floating on the top of the water, starts to be pulled down. Once it has been pulled far enough into the water, you flick your pole up, pray the shrimp is still hanging on, and bring the shrimp in to your net as quickly and smoothly as possible. This happened to me exactly once. I got so excited to have caught one that the line swung back over the pool and the shrimp dropped back off into the depths.

Shrimp Fishing Taipei Taiwan 2
Shrimp Fishing Taipei Taiwan 2

I have to say, as a group we weren’t the most successful shrimp fishers. Seasoned old men, who were so confident in their skills that they knew sitting at the more expensive pools was worthwhile, pulled in lobster after lobster with ease. There was a reason we had stuck with the run-of-the-mill shrimp pool. In the end, between the 6 of us, we had caught 9 shrimp.

Off to one side of the warehouse was the cooking area. With the help of our friend who knew what he was doing, we skewered our shrimp on metal kebabs, covered them in rock salt, and placed them in a large electric toaster oven until cooked. Plastic trays, napkins, and our prized shrimp in hand, we sat down at a plastic table and feasted on our 9 shrimp.

Shrimp Fishing Taipei Taiwan 3
Shrimp Fishing Taipei Taiwan 4

It was delicious – I had never known that shrimp could taste so sweet. Cooking them so simply only heightened the freshness of the meat. I could see myself taking to shrimp fishing in Taiwan, joining the old men on a regular basis to fish while reading a book or chatting with friends. Perhaps one day, I’d even graduate up to the lobster pool.

...Then we went out for Teppanyaki, because 9 shrimp isn't much to feed 6 people. 

Exploring the Gard Region of Southern France

My family comes from the Gard region of Languedoc Roussillon, a stunningly beautiful, but comparatively little known area of Southern France. While many visitors to France head over to the more famous Provence and Cote D’Azur regions (just bordering Languedoc Roussillon), they miss out on a stunning area of France filled with medieval villages, vineyards, dramatic mountains, rivers, ravines, castles, and gorgeous coastline.

I could write for hours on all of the things to do or see in the region, but for now I will focus specifically on the Gard, the eastern-most province of Languedoc Roussillon. The Gard is characterized by a landscape of rolling hills and rivers that build into the grand Massif-Central Cevennes mountain range. The area is predominantly agricultural, meaning that between the quaint villages, your drives around the Gard will be filled with gorgeous panoramas of vineyards, sunflower fields, and iconic tree lined avenues. 

The agricultural nature of the Gard also means that the area still preserves many strong food and food-making traditions. You can turn down nearly any gravel road and find yourself at an independent winery or a farm selling house-made goat cheese, pâté, honey, and more.

 To the south, the Gard does offer a small spit of coastline, but frankly, it is not as nice as many of the beaches that can be found to the east and the west. If you want to go for a swim in the Gard area, do as the locals do and head to a river. Mountain rivers score the landscape, often cutting through deep ravines and spanned by gorgeous Medieval bridges and aqueducts. Grab your swim gear and water shoes and you are sure to find a well-beaten foot path leading down to the water’s edge.

To the north, the Gard is hedged with dramatic mountain ranges, sweeping panoramas, and enough lovely mountain villages to get lost in for months at a time. There is so much to see and explore in the Cevennes mountains that you may just find yourself packing a picnic and driving up the first mountain road you find. Regardless of which one you take, you are bound to find yourself somewhere beautiful.  

The pace of life is slow in the Gard, and can best be enjoyed by allowing yourself the time to relax, enjoy long, leisurely meals, and take sunset walks. There is certainly enough to do in the Gard that you could pack your visit full of activities, but to get the most out of the local culture, I would recommend purposefully slowing down – even if that means doing less.

That being said however, let’s get to the list of things you won’t want to miss in the Gard.

Three Days in India: Pt. 2

Continuing from Three Days in India: Pt. 1... 

 

Day Two

The taxi arrived at 3:45 am to take us to the airport for our city transfer flight. By 4 am we were speeding down the road on the dark, mostly deserted streets when suddenly three large moving shapes loomed ahead. Camels! I stared open mouthed as we passed three boys riding three enormous camels along the side of the road and the opening words of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody floated through my head. “Is this the real life, or is this just fantasy…”

On the way to the airport I was informed that I would need to show my itinerary as proof of my flight before I would be allowed to enter the airport. Not having the itinerary printed or available Internet, I had no way of accessing the information. Ahead of me, my colleague showed the itinerary on his phone and was waved through. My turn. I explained that I couldn't show it, but did have an email with a taxi itinerary that mentioned Hyderabad.

"Sorry", the guard said, "you can't enter. You have to go print your itinerary." 

"Where?", I asked.

The guard pointed in the general direction of "outside the airport". 

No way was I going to leave the airport to track down an internet signal and printer at 4 AM in a city in India I knew nothing about. I argued with the guard and when my colleague joined in the fuss the guard apparently decided we weren't worth the trouble and let me in. After passing through security and receiving my boarding pass (funny, it's really easy to prove you have a flight once they let you IN the airport...), we went to the gates to wait.

Our flight status was posted as "Check in", so we kept an eye on the screens for update. 15 minutes into our wait the intercom came on: "Will Wolfgang Platz and Chelsea White please report for last call boarding immediately." What in the world? They never even posted a gate! We walked the 3 meters to the gate mentioned and they sent us down a flight of stairs - directly onto the Tarmac.

It was like a scene from Casablanca. Small groups of people streamed to various planes in the foggy morning air. I half expected to witness a tearful goodbye between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. We were directed to a small plane on the edge of the Tarmac, ducked under the propellers, and climbed in to an already full and boarded plane.

Once again the question arose: when did they announce the gate? How did all these people get here?!

Our short flight landed us yet another world away. This time the air was pleasantly cool, the airport modern and clean compared to Pune. The landscape was filled with jasmine trees, plumerias, and oleander. The roads were well kept and traffic showed a tendency to slightly more order.

Thankfully, our agenda for that day was simple: arrive in Hyderabad and check into our hotel, once again located on a campus of the tech company hosting us. 

We arrived to the guard house at the campus entrance knowing exactly what to expect. We stepped out of the taxi with our laptops already in hand, ready for the 6 security guards standing behind the desk to assess our threat level. Badges were issued within 10 minutes and we were waved through. The Hyderabad campus didn't seem to take security as seriously as Pune…I don’t think anyone even checked the taxi undercarriage.

The campus at Pune had been impressive, but it was already clear from our drive that Hyderabad was a wealthier city overall. The grounds were gorgeous; lushly landscaped with meandering paths cutting through glades of palms, fountains, and flowering trees to shiny glass building complexes. 

The air smelled like jasmine and plumeria, and there - just a glorious 20 meters ahead - was a hotel where I could face-plant onto a large, soft bed and go back to sleep. After two room changes and a small negotiation of “Excuse me, this room doesn’t have internet, how do you expect me to work?” with the hotel clerk, I did just that, my hard-won Wifi password clutched in my hand.

I woke up ravenous three hours later at 11 AM and feeling like I was wasting my short time in India. All I had eaten so far was a spicy chicken and cabbage wrap thing purchased from an airport kiosk 7 hours earlier. Thankfully I had been given multiple bags of a regional sweet-spicy pastry to take back to the office in Vienna - that would make for as good a meal as any. Munching happily away, I soon noticed the slogan written on the bag. 

Mmm…nothing like the taste of cannibalism. 

Around noon my colleague and I met up to go on a shopping excursion. We got the name of the nearest mall and waved down a Tuktuk on the busy street outside campus. For the uninitiated (as I was), Tuktuks are an extremely common form of transportation in India (and many parts of Asia).

A hybrid between a taxi and a man-powered rickshaw, they are a cheap and effective way to navigate cities quickly. The back seat of a Tuktuk is designed for two people, though I don't think I saw anyone besides ourselves with less than 4 people crammed into the back. On a later excursion to pick up food for dinner that evening, an Indian colleague explained to me how, as a child, he and his friends would fit 20 children into the back of one Tuktuk. It sounded like it was a feat in human Tetris. 

Our ride to the mall was thrilling. The Tuktuks ride low to the ground, sans-seat belts and the sides of the car open to the air. Cars and busses make up maybe 40% of the general traffic, with the other 60% of Tuktuks and motorbikes cramming themselves into the crevices between the cars, one wheel up on the sidewalk just to get an edge on their neighbor at the next green light. It felt a bit like real-world Mario Kart, though the drivers were so skilled and confident you never had the chance to feel nervous. 

The mall was a shiny testament to globalization surrounded by tell-tale signs of a growing economy. We passed through security entering the mall (as was becoming standard procedure), while I was pulled aside by a female guard to be patted down in a curtained cubicle. My threat level assessed, I was free to start shopping. 

First thing first was food. My “taste of people” wasn’t holding me over too well. Frankly the thing I found most challenging about my short time in India was the need for hyper-awareness about food and drink. I am privileged enough to hardly ever think twice about whether something is safe for me to eat or drink, and often found myself having to slap my hand away from fresh fruit, vegetables, or tap water being offered. Having double and triple checked that my lunch order did not contain anything fresh (I was getting excited to eat a salad when I got home), we ate a nice lunch in the food court, fielding the stares of every other person at the mall. We were the only non-Indian people there. Being a minority - also something I have not experienced frequently in my privileged life.

The majority of shops employed their own security guards, who would manually check your bags upon entrance. One of the stores even had a mandatory bag-check to ensure shoppers couldn't squirrel anything away into the bags they were already carrying. I was surprised to stumble across an entire UCLA Bruins merchandise corner of a department store - apparently they are big fans of the Bruins in Hyderabad. 

After a couple hours of shopping we had a coffee from Dunkin Donuts on an abandoned outdoor terrace overlooking posh apartments on the waterfront and tarp-covered hovels at the base of a half constructed building

Back at campus I took the opportunity to explore. It was amazing how much more it felt like a university than a workplace. We passed a glorious looking pool and fitness center, an outdoor amphitheater where a staff talent show was taking place, and an outdoor yoga class. Re-entering the hotel lobby, I came upon a young man leading a group of women in aerobic exercises.

I settled back in my room, got some work done, and re-emerged to meet Vaibhav, an Indian colleague, to pick up food for dinner. As tired as we were, we had turned down any sightseeing options earlier in the day, but now I was getting antsy to see something other than a mall. Vaibhav was a gracious and knowledgable tour guide, answering all my dumb questions (Why is everything here in English? British colonization, duh.), and sharing stories from his life. 

My Austrian colleague, in true Austrian form, had requested we bring some beer back with dinner. Beer wasn’t technically allowed on campus, but my purse was large enough to smuggle it in, and, to be honest, I really wanted a beer too. We stopped at a liquor shop first, then had the Tuktuk follow us as we walked up the side of the road so I could see everything going on. 

I tried to take lots of pictures but was self conscious about taking the time to stop and set up a shot. We passed a flower stand and I bought a strand of gorgeously fragrant jasmine to wear in my hair. It cost me all of 20 cents. 

Dinner was to be ordered from a well known Biryani shop, the famous dish of the area. We passed through security entering the store, placed our order, and waited 15 minutes before being presented with more food than the three of us could possibly eat. 

Back at the hotel we crowded into the bathroom to transfer our beer into the plastic water bottles (“If anyone asks, it’s juice”), just like rebellious teenagers. We found a table outside and ate a messy but delicious dinner with our hands while my legs got steadily consumed by mosquitos. Only half way through dinner did I realize that it was Thanksgiving. I counted 29 bites on my legs that night. 

 

Day Three

The next day we were packed and out of the hotel for a day-long conference and a flight home in the evening. The conference took place at a large hotel across the city, the drive for which provided a lot of good photo opportunities.

The conference went very successfully without drama. 

A group of men from a local TV crew asked to take selfies with me (uhh…sure?), and I found an outlet Macgyvered with unlit matches and wire. It seemed to be working just fine. For the moment.

That afternoon we unexpectedly ran into a woman we had met at the conference in Pune two days earlier. She happened to be at the hotel to celebrate the wedding of a friend. In the evening, as we prepared to leave, I heard drumming of a wedding procession begin in the street outside. I ran out into the courtyard and climbed up onto a wall to watch as much as I could. My view was limited but the music was loud and vibrant. What I would have given to see the full thing!

Soon after, we were packed back into the taxi and whisked off to the airport. This time I had my itinerary ready to ensure I could enter the airport. Two flights, some failed attempts at getting upgraded to first class, and a great conversation with a Welsh man in Abu Dhabi later, we arrived home to Vienna at 6:00 AM. The first thing I did was buy a salad and fall straight into bed. 

Three Days in India: Pt. 1

At the end of October, as a large yearly work conference was wrapping up, the CEO of the company I work for came up to me and announced that he would like me to accompany the Founder of the company on a business trip to India. Would I be interested in going? 

I was dumbfounded - of course I was interested in going! But why me? What did they expect a "Marketing Specialist" like me to accomplish? As it turned out, my main responsibility was to do one of the things I like best: observe. I was to join the Founder of our company in attending two software conferences with the goal of getting a "feel for the market". Observe, interview people, attend presentations, take notes, and see if I could figure out a better strategy for reaching the market that exists in India. 

Challenge accepted. 

*I have very few good pictures from the trip as the majority of my time was spent in a hotel or in the car. Hopefully whatever pictures I have will help to round out the story. 

Getting From Point A to Point B

The flight to India was uneventful in all the best ways. I watched the sun set over Iran during 3 pm my time, a fiery sunset unlike any of the soft palates featured in Vienna. We landed in Abu Dhabi after dark, and but for some clues I could have just as easily been in Arizona as the UAE. A long bus ride took us to the main terminal, passing an overhang covering luxury cabs - a Rolls Royce pulling out of the drive ahead of us. Within the terminal we passed through a mall's worth of luxury shopping.

The UAE is a famously wealthy country with a penchant for luxury brands. I was struck by the disparity between those shopping, covered and uncovered Arab women and men (in the white robes and checkered head cloths I had only ever seen in movies), as they were surrounded by the silicon advertising of airbrushed models, all invariably Caucasian. Does it ever strike them as odd? Do they ever wish they would see a Chanel or Burburry ad featuring someone who looked like them? 

Our flight to India was delayed, meaning our slim chances of sleep were further shortened. Once we had disembarked the plane in India at 4 am, I was naive to think we were on the home stretch and sleep was in sight. A taxi would be picking us up from the hotel at 7:30, so if I was lucky I might get 2 hours of sleep.

But first we had to get through customs. 

The "foreigner" line was short, but operating so slowly that 50 people had cleared customs to our right before we even arrived to the desk. We were admitted through customs, then asked to show our customs declaration pink slip to a guard by the stairs. He looked at it and waved us on. Down the stairs we found another queue being aggressively guarded by a paunchy uniformed military man, with a red stripe finger-painted onto his forehead. He didn't speak any English so he augmented his communication skills with an extra dash of enthusiasm. Before we could move on to the luggage pick up, it would seem, we first had to have our hand luggage re-screened and our tired bodies metal detected. The metal detector was held together in parts with packing tape.

Once our luggage was retrieved we passed through another checkpoint, this time, a re-screening of our checked baggage - our final barrier to India. A taxi driver was waiting for us, and led us out into the warm humid early morning amidst an ongoing symphony of car horns. In Indian traffic it would seem, car horns are constantly in use. The honking doesn't seem to accomplish much besides providing the drivers a constant source of cathartic self expression. That being said, I didn't see any car crashes - a feat unto itself. I liked to imagine that the honking was actually just their way of saying hello to each other. 

Even in the dark 5 am morning there were many people out on the streets. The drive revealed a non-tourist-board-approved India: fading and threadbare infrastructure, decades of signs and placards ripped and plastered over, heaps of dirt, rock, and rubbish. Stray dogs and people roamed freely, even in the street. Sidewalks were few and far between. Glimpses of temples and monuments integrated into strip malls flashed by, including one infinite second into a low fluorescent lit room, where a man with a tambourine chanted loudly over a floor covered by the praying bodies of men in white.

Our entry to the technological sector of Pune was met by an unbelievably large neon sign stating "Persistence",  illuminating the atmosphere with red light pollution glow. I learned that Persistence is the name of one of the local companies when a handful of their delegates arrived to the business conference the next day. That knowledge did little to make the sight of the monumental glow on the horizon less surreal. 

It was nearing 5:30 am and we finally had arrived to the campus of the company that was hosting us. A massive and powerful enterprise, the company has Google-esque campuses all over India, equipped with guest houses where we would be staying. We drove to the gate where we were stopped by a security guard and made to get out of the car so he could look at our laptops. 

He shook his head at us as his colleague held a mirror on a stick underneath the taxi carriage to check for explosives. "You need a pass". Frustrated but too tired to argue, we drove back down to another gate and entered the office, where a woman who was quite happy to take her time checked our trip details, confirmed our contact at the company, reviewed our passports, wrote down the serial numbers of our computers, and finally issued us a guest pass with our computer serial number printed on it. While this took place another guard held a mirror under our taxi.

Passes in hand, we drove back up to the first gate where the same guard as before re-checked our computers. We were waved onto the grounds while I asked my colleague why the company was so concerned about our computer serial numbers. It remains a mystery. Once at the guest house we passed through another security checkpoint. Our luggage was scanned as a guard reviewed the serial number on our laptops, compared the number to the one on our guest passes, and wrote the number down in a thick black ledger. It was past 6 am and we were finally free to check in.

Day One

I got ten minutes of sleep before I had to get up to prepare for the conference. My first impression of the Pune streets did not change now that the sun was up. Even more people thronged the streets, crossed haphazardly, or casually checked their cellphone while leaning against highway middle barriers.

Cows had been added to the mix now, standing just as casually as the people on the side of the road, munching on trash, far from any sign of grass. One white cow stood motionless in the middle of the road itself as traffic diverted around it. No one seemed to care.

We passed slums that looked like beaver dams made of rubble, and searched for the most daring biker (a barefoot family of 5 on a motorbike won that day).

We drove through the gate to the hotel hosting the conference and entered another world.

This world had two story waterfalls, lush palms, uniformed waiters and crystal chandeliers. This world felt odd being so close to the one just outside. We left that world at 5:30 pm and by 6:30 I was back in my room, finally able to sleep for the first time in almost 40 hours.

To be continued...

Things I Love About Living In Vienna

Jacob's mother, Marcia, arrived for a two week visit last Saturday, and I can tell you - she is one happy momma. We are pretty happy kids as well. We have already packed in an incredible amount of sight-seeing and eating into the short time she has been here, and somehow the conversation always swings back to this question: "Isn't Vienna great?!". 

It is especially meaningful for us to experience Vienna through Marcia's eyes and vice-versa. Jacob's parents (and mine too for that matter) supported us all the way through the thinking/praying/planning process of moving to Vienna - even though it was an unfamiliar place for them and meant we would be settling far away from California. Now, after continuing to support us through all of the ups and downs of the move, Marcia can finally meet the Vienna that we fell in love with. 

On the flip-side, as we approach nearly a year of living in Vienna, the "tourist-vision" has worn off. We no longer look at places through the lens of a tourist: on vacation, a little disoriented, and surrounded by new and unfamiliar sights. Now when we walk the city, a network of correlations, petty annoyances, memories, and to-do lists crowd in and color our perspective. In my opinion neither perspective is bad in itself, but my ideal is a good mix of familiarity (to keep from getting burned out) and strangeness (to keep from getting stuck in a rut).  

Marcia helps us to see the city through fresh eyes even as we give her the "insider's tour" of Vienna. We discussed impressions of the city over cake and coffee today at Demel (the famous patisserie to the former imperial court), and began to make a list of things we like most about the city.

Now before I get to the list, I have to throw in a substantial caveat: It's no secret that I love living in Vienna. Every now and then I am hit by a wave of gratitude and perspective for where I am. Jacob and I have not forgotten the pain and frustration of waiting to move. We spent two years praying, searching for opportunities, and dreaming of a future in a place we barely knew. The one thing we did know? Vienna was calling, and God was telling us to go. It was not an easy time.  I have said before how blown away I am by God's provision. We quickly made dear friends, found a wonderful church, work, an apartment...I've said it so many times I must sound like a broken record. The truth is, I'm not "over it" yet, I'm still in awe of God's goodness. 

1. Walking 

I LOVE not needing a car. It's true that most cities have at least some public transportation available, but Vienna is on another level. The public transport is so good that you can be nearly anywhere within the city in under 40 minutes. My commute is 30 minutes total, 20 of which is spent walking. I can walk to all of my shopping places, and be in the heart of downtown Vienna in less than a 10 minute walk. Added bonus - public transport is quite cheap here compared to many areas of Europe. Buying a Jahreskarte (year card that allows you full access to public transport in Vienna proper) for €365 certainly beats paying for each ride on the London Tube. Very occasionally I miss the conveniences of a car, but I honestly think that should we move somewhere where a car was necessary again, I would miss walking everywhere quite a bit. 

 Jacob and I lugging home potted trees on the subway. 

Jacob and I lugging home potted trees on the subway. 

2. Living Outside

I have always wanted to live in a city, and as far as cities go, Vienna is a pretty ideal one. It's small enough to feel intimate and manageable, but big enough that we are still discovering new areas, streets, and pretty courtyards. As the weather has warmed the city has sprung back to life. The cafes have set up their outdoors terraces, and groups of people loiter in the city squares long after sunset chatting and drinking beer. Festivals and events pop up on virtually every corner (or so it seems), as if all anyone is looking for is yet another reason to lounge around outside. 

San Diego is rightfully famous for it's impeccable weather - a fact that I miss in the dead of an Austrian winter when I haven't seen sun in two weeks. But the flip-side of having imperfect weather is that you are all the more grateful for sun and warmth when you do have it. No one wants to waste what may be the first perfect day in weeks, so no one does.

On that note...

3. Parks

Having never lived in a city before, I had never before appreciated the value of a good park. Granted there were parks in the suburbs, but those tended to be populated by the homeless and pot-head kids hiding from their parents. Parks in Vienna are wonderful. In Vienna, you don't just walk through a park. You meander through, enjoy the sites, find a sunny spot, then flop down on the ground and take a nap. Or play lawn games. Or sit and chat with friends while drinking beer (you can drink in public here - it's awesome). Parks are well-kept (I am amazed at how large the city's flower budget must be...they have replanted flower beds three times since spring) and well used. 

4. A Small Refrigerator

"Everything in America is bigger", the old cliché goes. And while that may not be true across the board, when you compare our refrigerator with the one we had in the States...it is undeniably true. Our apartment came equipped with a half-size refrigerator, the size college kids put in their dorm rooms. That fact that our apartment came equipped with a kitchen at all was a blessing - in Austria kitchens are considered "furniture" and are often moved out right along with the couch.

While at first Jacob and I worried whether the tiny refrigerator would suffice, upon falling into the rhythm of European life, our fears were quickly put to rest. Europeans tend to grocery shop for a couple of days at a time, rather than the American habit of stockpiling for the week. It makes sense in America - often you have to drive to the grocery store, which can take up a ton of time out of your post-work routine. Here however, with a grocery store a stone's throw from our apartment, realizing "shoot, I forgot the milk", isn't such a big deal. 

5.  Church bells

There are at least three churches within a short walk from our apartment, among them being Karlskirche, one of the most famous churches in Vienna. On Sunday morning, Christmas, Easter, and any given Catholic holiday, the church bells will ring in a glorious cheerful cacophony. I love quiet Sunday mornings when I can drink a cup of coffee and listen to the church bells calling the people to worship. I love Christmas morning when the church bells ring in a seemingly endless announcement of Christ's birth. I know the angels are singing along with the bells, and I will never grow tired of hearing them. 


Road Trip to Slovenia

There are two types of people who are going to read this blog post. The first are those people who know Jacob and myself and are just here to see the pictures. The second type are those who would like to take a road trip to Slovenia from Vienna and find themselves sadly bereft of useful information. 

To those of you who fall into the latter category: Welcome. I hope you find this information helpful as you plan your trip. Enjoy the pictures of my parents. 

To the rest of you, I've got your number. Here's a picture:

 Lake Bled. Jacob would like you to know that he took this picture. 

Lake Bled. Jacob would like you to know that he took this picture. 

My parents, Jacob, and I decided to rent a car and take a road trip to Slovenia during their second weekend visiting us in Vienna. Slovenia is not a terribly well known travel destination, though I will state loud and clear: IT SHOULD BE. Located on the southern edge of Austria, the Slovenian border lies just 4 hours driving time from Vienna, and less than an hour from Klagenfurt. 

The Republic of Slovenia, formerly known as Yugoslavia, was a communist state until the 1980s. Though technically part of the Eastern Bloc, Slovenia enjoyed far greater economic and personal freedoms under President Tito. Why do I bring this up? Because, surprisingly enough, those freedoms are quite noticeable. Venturing into other countries of the Eastern Bloc from Vienna (such as Hungary or Slovakia), there is often a dramatic shift immediately upon crossing the border. The effects of years of communism and political upheaval are immediately felt and visible. In Slovenia? Not a whit. 

The cities are clean, the countryside is beautiful, the tourism is well developed, the roads are excellent and thoughtfully planned...but I am getting ahead of myself. 

We left on Friday morning, driving from Vienna through Graz (on the E59 and E66), and around Klagenfurt. We stopped for lunch near Klagenfurt at a cute little gasthaus tucked up in the pre-Alpine hills, and sat outside reveling in sunshine and warm weather for the first time all month. 

After lunch and a good stretch we crossed the Slovenian border, at which there was virtually no official border crossing. As a civilian vehicle we drove right on through, without even being stopped for a passport check. Shortly after crossing the border we stopped at a gas station to buy a "Vignette", which buys us permission to drive on the roads (a week long pass is about €15)

Upon crossing into Slovenia, we immediately found ourselves in the Julian Alps. Though just as impressive as any Alps you might find in Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, etc. the Julian Alps are significantly less well-known. One of the most popular spots is Lake Bled, a fairy-tale-like lake and resort spot located just over the border from Austria. Within 45 minutes of crossing the border we were pulling up to our hotels perched on the side of Lake Bled.

 Bled Island 

Bled Island 

The iconic image of Lake Bled is the church that graces the tiny island in the lake's center. There is also a small town that has cropped up around the lake, and a castle set high above on a cliff over the water. All around the lake you can find quaint guest houses and hotels to stay in. Jacob and I were doing a hotel review for Our Man On The Ground, so we had arranged to stay at Vila Bled, the former Yugoslavian royal family's residence, and more recently, one of Tito's presidential residences. The hotel was magnificent - it felt like someone had given us the keys to a museum and said "have fun!". 

 The Vila Bled Hotel

The Vila Bled Hotel

The area around Lake Bled is well built up, including a paved (and lit) walking path around the entire lake. The popular activities include rowing to the island and ringing the "wishing bell" of the church, as well as climbing up the cliff to see the views of the lake and surrounding mountains from Bled Castle. 

We spent our first afternoon walking the perimeter of Lake Bled, which took about two hours (at a leisurely stroll, and stopping to take pictures every 30 seconds).

Bled 4
 A rare lone Chelsea sighting. 

A rare lone Chelsea sighting. 

Afterwards we had dinner and called it an early night. The next morning after breakfast we procured a row boat to head over to the island. Though designed for two people (ideally), we managed to cram all four of us into the canoe. We were a bit low in the water. Jacob muscled us to the island as I clutched my camera in fear of tipping over. The island is quite small, with exactly enough space for a church, a gift shop, a cafe, and a path that goes around the island. 

 A not so rare lone Jacob sighting. Prior to rowing 4 adults across a lake. 

A not so rare lone Jacob sighting. Prior to rowing 4 adults across a lake. 

Bled 7
 Jacob, after rowing 4 adults across a lake. 

Jacob, after rowing 4 adults across a lake. 

After our foray to the island we went back to shore, and opted to drive up to the castle for a view of the surroundings before heading out on a hike. Our first stop was Vintgar Gorge, an Alpine river gorge that is 3 km away from Lake Bled and absolutely worth a couple hours of your time. We had been informed the gorge was closed for the season, but decided to take a look at it anyway. Though the ticket office was shuttered there were plenty of people around, some of which were walking along the path barricaded by a wooden gate with a Slovenian word written on it. Not speaking Slovenian, we assumed the word meant "welcome", and hopped over the gate, following suit with the hikers ahead of us. 

Vintgar 1
Vintgar 2

The hike is about 3 km in total (but you will be stopping to take pictures every 10 seconds), and ends in Slovenia's largest natural waterfall. 

After spending a couple of hours gawking at the gorge we hopped back into the car to head deeper (and higher - much higher) into the mountains. We drove towards Bohinj Lake, where we had been told we could drive up into the mountains, then hike to some high Alpine pastures. The drive through the countryside alone would have made the trip worth it. The Alpine valleys were dotted with quaint villages and stunning panoramas. The roads were exceptionally well marked, and we found our way to the road winding up the mountains with very little trouble. 

Bohinj 1

As we got higher into the mountains snow began to appear in patches. Once we we had been climbing with the car for roughly 40 minutes, we hit a large spot of ice and snow on the road. As we did not have 4-wheel drive and figured that we were close to our destination, we chose to park the car and head forth on foot. 20 minutes of walking later we found ourselves at an Alpine pasture covered in moss and crocuses and decided that was a good place to eat our picnic lunch. 

Bohinj 2

As our lunch wore on we began to see more signs of life - a group of hikers passed through the base of the pasture, and a car passed on the road by us, evidently coming from a nearby gasthaus. Spurred on by the fact that we were evidently heading towards something, we finished our lunch and kept going until we came to a much larger Alpine pasture decorated with little chalets. We stopped into one of the chalets for warm apple strudel, gawked over the scenic view, and decided we had done enough hiking for the day. 

That evening we checked out of our hotels and drove 45 minutes to Ljubljana, the capitol of Slovenia. Ljubljana is a quaint city, so charming and pretty that it almost seemed like a European Disneyland than a real place. Except - it IS real, which makes it about a million times better than Disneyland in my book. A river, channeled into a pretty canal, cuts through the center of the city, with plenty of outdoor cafes and weeping willows lining the water. 

That weekend they were having a craft beer and hamburger festival downtown, just a short walk from our hotel. We had such incredible gourmet hamburgers (about €5 each) and craft beer (about €3 each) for dinner the first night, that the second night we went back and ate more. 

Sunday morning we walked through the city, then headed out into the mountains for another hike. This time we went to a separate set of mountains, about 45 minutes from Ljubljana, and took a gondola up to a high Alpine pasture, still dotted with patches of snow. A steep 30 minute hike took us to the top of the mountain, where we were greeted with a vast network of trails, high Alpine chalets, and this incredible view. 

Slovenia 1
Slovenia 2

We stopped for lunch at the top of the mountain. It is amazing how much better some foods taste in their proper context. Typical German/Austrian/Slovenian food is delicious at any time, but high on a mountain after a grueling hike? It makes sausage, dark bread and sauerkraut that much better. 

Slovenia 3

After hiking around the pastures for the afternoon we took the gondola back down to the base of the mountain and headed back to Ljubljana. The following day we drove back to Vienna, refreshed, relaxed, and positively in love with Slovenia. 

Mark my words, you will soon see Slovenia at the top of those "Undiscovered treasures of Europe" lists. You heard it here first! 

To wrap up, here is a picture of what Jacob would look like if he was blind. 

Blind Jacob

Lost in Bratislava

This past weekend Jacob and I realized that we hadn't left Vienna or the immediate surrounding area in 5 months. We have had the itch for a weekend trip for several months now, though every time we tossed the idea around, the actual followthrough fell like a deflating balloon. 

We really have very little excuse though - leaving Vienna is not difficult. One subway stop away from our home is a train station that can take you nearly anywhere you want to go in Europe; or at the least, an airport that will get you the rest of the way. Determined to escape the city for a day, we decided to spend Saturday in Bratislava - one of the most obvious day trips from Vienna. The city lies right inside the border of Slovakia, and is conveniently accessible by an inexpensive hour train ride. 

Jacob had done his research of course. He had a list of sights to see, micro breweries that offered craft beer, and a general idea of how to get from the train station into the city center. We crossed the border into Slovakia around 10:00 am, and immediately felt the difference of being in a new country. 

So many countries have rather homogenous borders - particularly in the European Union where no one will be coming by to check a passport. As a result, the borders tend to blend into each other, with citizens of one nation casually driving into the other for grocery shopping or dinner out. Though this is true of Austria and Slovakia as well, the difference between the two countries was immediately pronounced, at least along the train tracks (which perhaps should not be a surprise). Vienna has long been known as the city that connects Eastern and Western Europe, and visually at the least, the change is immediately apparent. 

The historical city center is filled with lovely buildings, surrounded by old and graying suburbs. The moment you cross the Danube however, you are in a land of identical, albeit colorful, concrete apartment blocks, stretching as far as the eye can see.

We missed the city center during our bus ride from the train station. We passed it without so much as noticing a downtown area, crossed the bridge over the Danube, and found ourselves craning our necks ahead, trying to see around the cinderblock sea ahead of us.

Bratislava1

Several minutes later, and no end to the apartment blocks in sight, we reconsulted our map and realized we had needed to disembark the bus before we crossed the river. We caught the next bus in the opposite direction and got off at the stop that looked like the most logical route. 

In our experience of traveling together, Jacob and I have realized some valuable things about how we operate as a team. Simply stated, without Jacob, I would have no idea where I was going. Without me however, Jacob would know where he was going, but never get there. He finds the maps, and I interpret them. The map we had for Bratislava, thoughtfully provided by the local tourism office, was just about the worst map I have ever used. Every time we followed the map we wound up somewhere that we had not intended to go, then had to compensate with Google Maps on our phones. 

Fortunately Bratislava's city center is charming, small, and....closed? Though it was a Saturday, 75% of the shops, restaurants, and tourist attractions were shuttered for the day. The city was surreally quiet. As far as we could tell it was not a holiday (the grocery stores were open), however very few people were on the streets with us - for the most part, we were alone. Coming from a city that is continually bustling with tourists, walking into Bratislava's main square, only to find it completely empty, was odd. 

Bratislava2
Bratislava3

We spent our day touring the churches and back streets, and climbing the hill to the old castle overlooking the city and Danube. In the afternoon we set out to find the breweries that Jacob had researched. We found the first one with some difficulty - but in the end, the beer was delicious. And cheap. Bratislava is known for being inexpensive (it is on the Euro), though I wasn't expecting to be able to pay for two beers with a small stack of change - the price of one beer here in Austria. (Which, is still cheap compared to San Diego. Forget paying $8.00 for a small beer in America- it's more like $4.00 for a pint in Vienna, $2.00 for a pint in Slovakia.)

Bratislava4

Leaving the brewery, we found our bearings to head over to the next spot. From the map, it looked like the second brewery was located on a small side street on the far side of the hill with the castle on it. At that point we had been walking quite a bit, so Jacob suggested we take the next tram over the small pedestrian bridge and see where it took us. I agreed, and we hopped on to the next tram. It crossed the bridge - so far, so good. Then the tram bore to the left and took us through a long tunnel through the hill. Once we exited the tunnel, we figured, we would get off the tram and be in a good spot for a short walk to the brewery. 

Jacob and I have a history of taking the most difficult route to destinations however, so I don't know why we had so much optimism. The tram exited the tunnel, bore left, and deposited us along the river at the foot of the hill: far from where we wanted to go. Feeling that our tourism map had failed us once again, we switched over to Google maps on our phones and saw that all of the roads surrounding us ran parallel with each other around the hill, when we wanted to go up the hill. We were stuck. Spotting a set of broken stairs across the road, Jacob and I set off to see if we could access another road at the top of the stairs. Rather than a road, we came across another flight of stairs: this time a 500-some step concrete staircase running at a 40 degree angle up the mountain. This, apparently, was our most direct route.

Bratislava5

We climbed the steps, shedding our scarves and gloves by the time we got to the top. Now we were level with the castle, and on the home stretch. We found the street the brewery was located on, and followed it around behind the castle. As the GPS indicated that we were nearing our destination, I noticed that things were looking familiar. Wasn't that the copper roof Jacob had pointed out just as we were getting on the tram? 

Wait...was that the pedestrian bridge?! 

Yes, my friends, it was. At the point we had stepped onto the tram, we had been a stone's throw away from the brewery. Remember how the tram bore left under the mountain? Well had it born right, we would have been right in front of the brewery. It was less than a two minute walk from where we had started. 

 To the left you see the tunnel we went through....and to the right is the brewery (where you see the cars parked). 

To the left you see the tunnel we went through....and to the right is the brewery (where you see the cars parked). 

On top of that, the brewery was closed. 

I'll admit that we were somewhat frustrated: our entire day in Bratislava had been marked by disorientation. The sheer ridiculousness of our route however - that is priceless. Ready to return home, we hopped onto the train back to Vienna feeling grateful to be returning to a place where we don't get lost.

That evening we had been invited to celebrate a friend's birthday at a local Viennese brewery. I looked up the directions, and we dragged our tired feet out into the rainy night to celebrate our friend. It turns out I had misread the directions. We were lost. 45 minutes of walking later, we crawled into the brewery, looking a bit like drowned rats. So much for not getting lost in Vienna. 

Travel: 5 Ways To Sabotage Your Vacation

My travel day-dreams are always the same: Beautifully dressed and wearing chic red lipstick, I am walking through the golden glow of Paris (or London, or Barcelona) at sunset while handsome men (Jacob) blow me kisses. 

City Street

Then I arrive in Paris, jet lagged and hungry, with greasy face and matted hair, and realize the ugly truth that being in France didn’t mean I miraculously left all my hang-ups behind. In fact, I find that for all its splendor, Paris is still a real city, filled with real, beautifully flawed people, and I am just as flawed as the rest.  

Having traveled a fair amount, I know that moment of disillusionment very well.  When it comes to travel however, you make your own destiny. You can let your joy be stolen by the unceremonious disintegration of your dreams, or you can embrace the moment and find joy in the unexpected. 

The good news for you is that I have discovered (the hard way, of course) five sure-fire ways to sabotage your travels. When it comes to this, learning by personal experience is overrated, so feel free to count me as your guinea pig.   

Travel: How To Travel Long Term (Without Going Broke)

Not too long ago I received a really exciting email. 

An old friend-of-a-friend from university days tracked me down and said she was planning a long trip with her husband - would I mind answering some travel questions?

Would I?!  Answering travel questions is practically one of my love languages (along with food, of course). My old friend received an email back from me that may have been a little too enthusiastic. Yes, give me all your questions! 

That interaction made me realize something however - I have been traveling for as long as I can remember. I was one year old for my first trans-Atlantic trip, a feat for which my mother deserves an award. As a result however, many of the questions that plague travelers have never even crossed my mind. The answers were trained into me along with being able to pee in a toilet. 

Suddenly I realized that my "love language" assumes quite a lot of prerequisite knowledge. So here is my question and rally cry to you, dear friends: 

What are your travel questions? 

When you are planning a trip, what keeps you lying awake at night? What keeps you in endless looping Google searches for information? I would love to know, and I would love to share a bit of my experience if it is helpful. I may not always have an answer for you, but I promise to have an opinion. (Hah - you can always count on me for an opinion!) 

So comment, message, tweet, and email (wywchelsea@gmail.com) your questions! I look forward to reading, sharing, and discussing them with you! 

In the meantime though - inspired by a question Jacob and I have received regarding our past travels and planning strategies: 

How To Travel Long Term
(Without Going Broke)

Margareten

Travel: How To Find Cheap Airline Tickets

The biggest, scariest step in traveling is buying your plane ticket. 

AirlineTickets

It's a game in second guessing. Is that the cheapest ticket available? The shortest flight? The best airline? Thankfully, purchasing an airplane ticket does not need to feel like hitting a target while blindfolded, but searching for advice online doesn't always make for a good solution.

I am beginning to see more and more clearly that Internet opinion is a dangerous thing. Sometimes those opinions can help; but why are the only people who share their stories the ones who have ridiculously bad experiences - most of which are likely a result of their own stupidity? (Though that's not the way they see it, of course.) 

So here is a good story for you: Jacob and I bought our tickets through Turkish Airlines through a bargain site (Cheap0Air), and everything went perfectly. There were no issues with logistics, the flight was comfortable and the food delicious. Encouraging though that might be, it does make for a boring story, doesn't it? But when it comes to airplane travel, boring is good. 

Well then, how about that advice? 


Travel: 5 Reasons You Shouldn't Travel

Pardon me while I step on my soapbox.  

Swedish Road

I have been asked countless times how Jacob and I managed to make traveling for 6 months a reality. It's a question I enjoy answering. 

When it comes to not traveling, I have heard every excuse under the sun. Some of them are valid, and others are not. The truth is, the hardest part of traveling is laying your excuses to rest and committing to get your butt up and out the door. Once you have done that, you will be surprised how quickly the rest can come together...