There was that time I was hopelessly lost in Bangkok. Or all of the times in Indonesia, so many in fact that I won’t even bother linking or compiling a list. Five years later I still remember the charming older French couple that went out of their way to drive me and a friend to the Matisse Museum in the south of France (really that guidebook map was not drawn to scale!). Travel always comes with challenges and I’ve been thankful for all of the random acts of kindness from strangers that have come my way. I never thought that on my stoop in Harlem I would have the chance to repay some of those acts. It was a warm Sunday afternoon in September. I was just settling into life in New York City — a life that is full of surprises and parades (many of the photos below are from the African American Day parade that happened in my neighborhood). As I walked up my block I saw an older couple with several suitcases standing on my stoop.
I was confused. Maybe someone else in the building had grandparents visiting? As I walked up the steps and then punched in the building code, the man and woman said, “Bonjour.” I was taken aback and said, “Bonjour.” The couple both smiled and before I knew it I had answered that “oui” I speak French (a bit rusty, it’s been five years since I lived in Paris). Well, in a very French manner, the couple had made a vacation rental reservation in my building over half a year before and since they spoke no English (they were from a small coastal southern town), they never bothered to email and confirm before arriving. And now, there was no key for them.
They handed me all of their paperwork and I became alarmed. The rental was my unit number. My mind started racing. Was this a scam? Had I been scammed with my lease? I had dealt with enough sleazy brokers during my apartment search that I wouldn’t put anything past them. On a side note, searching for an apartment in NYC is a horrid experience that I don’t wish on anyone. If a broker uses the phrase “just imagine it clean” do yourself a favor and turn around immediately. I saw one apartment in Harlem that had floor to ceiling junk. The prior resident had just been evicted and his/her food was still on the kitchen table. I have a vivid imagination, but there are limits.
I started calling all of the phone numbers on the reservation rental papers. But of course, it was a Sunday. Meanwhile my apartment-mate returned home and brought down some orange juice to the French couple, who then wanted to know “where she was really from” after I had told them America — ah yes, the not so casual French racism peaking through. We sat on my stoop together while I made phone calls and the woman showed me their French guidebook while her husband hand rolled cigarettes. Two hours later after numerous phone calls, I got to meet the Italian speaking owner of my building. She informed me they had cancelled all vacation rentals and converted the whole building into full-time rentals. Apparently emails written in English had been sent.
Luckily there was one empty unit in my building which she quickly made up for the couple while I tried to play with her hysterically crying son. I was exhausted after over two hours speaking non-stop, improperly conjugated French. The couple had another older French couple joining them that evening. The husband in that couple speaks Italian so they said they would sort everything out in Italian with my landlord the next day. And people say Americans don’t speak other languages!
It grabbed hold of me immediately. The colorful license plates read “Land of Enchantment” and, well, I found it enchanting. A month ago, before I moved to New York City and began a life consisting of going to and from the library, I visited my good friend Chloe in her hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Chloe and I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia at the same time and she’d mention her hometown when we were both craving good Mexican food. I’d never been to the Southwestern part of the United States, so I took her up on an offer made on the other side of the world. It was the vast openness and the way the clouds hung low against the red and orange rock landscape that made me greatly regret that I’d only planned a three-day trip.
Albuquerque is known for its balloon fiesta, which is taking place in early October this year. The morning before I left, we took an early walk and watched the sunrise and a few balloons float over the landscape. Albuquerque has also gained some notoriety as the backdrop of the TV show “Breaking Bad” which airs its finale tonight.
From Albuquerque we drove to Bandelier National Monument. I’d seen photos of Bandelier growing up and I used to associate it with a place the ewoks from Star Wars would have lived.
You are allowed to climb up the ladders and into the cool hollowed out caves. Here’s a link to the history of the ancestral pueblo dwellers who started out as nomadic hunter-gatherers. Some of their painting is still visible:
We hiked around a bit and Chloe told me to smell the bark of the Ponderosa pine. It smelled like a mix of vanilla and maybe some cinnamon. I could have stood there for way too long just smelling the bark of the tree.
I have always said and will always say, that in the fine union of these United States, California is the best state. I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t visited all 50 states and there’s a chance I’ll fall in love with another (I recently visited New Mexico and loved it — post coming soon), but California will always hold a dear spot in my heart. It’s one of the most unique places in the world because in a single day you could go skiing, go to the beach, go to a desert, and go pick some fresh fruit. In October, Victor and I took a road trip from Los Angeles to San Francisco — and since I am moving to New York in a matter of hours, I wanted to look back through these photos. October was a fantastic time of year for the drive — not much traffic, not too hot or too cold and the light, the sunlight was amazing late into the day. So we rolled down the windows, while “take a long drive with me, on the California One” played in the background. Our itinerary involved spending one night in Santa Barbara, waking up early the next day to visit the Hearst Castle, then driving to Carmel and spending the night and morning there and then taking our time getting to that city by the Bay.
We started out in LA and paid a visit to Venice Beach, a tourist favorite. I’ve never been a big fan of Los Angeles, but for a weekend there are worst places you could be.
One of the best parts of driving 8+ hours from southern California to northern California are all of the beaches. We pulled off at Leo Carrillo Beach and watched the surfers and explored the small tide-like pools.
We pulled off at another beach just in the nick of time to catch a beautiful sunset:
A friend in college, who had grown up in the Phillippines, had one thing to say to me before I moved to Asia: “You know nothing about mangoes.” She went on to tell me how the one, maybe two, easily found varieties we get in the US are sub-par. Needless to say, within about a week of being in Indonesia, I realized she was completely and totally right. Not only are there hundreds of varities of mangoes, they can taste like completely different fruits. Really I could write a Dr. Seuss rhyme here…
So in my effort to get to 20 tropical fruit posts, here’s my ode to a fruit most people know, but don’t really know. When mango season arrives across Asia, there’s an excitment among the vendors. And the fruit isn’t necessarily cheap. I would sometimes pay almost $2USD for a large, perfect mango in Jakarta. Often street vendores give you a spicy salt that you can dip the fruit into.
It seems that India wins on the mango craze. The Alphonso variety is considered the creme de la creme — here’s a NYTimes story on mangoes in India. And here is a CNNGo piece about the same area where the very expensive prized variety comes from. I have yet to try it.
Finland. If there is a perfect opposite to the hustle and bustle and warmth of Southeast Asia, it’s Finland. From Laos, we flew to Bangkok where we were going to have an amazing 24 hours of seeing it all. Well, I spent 24 hours with a huge fever in bed at a nice hotel sweating out a real SEAsia bug. So after seeing the nice hotel lobby, we flew to Helsinki (because it was the cheapest route back to America). As soon as we arrived in downtown Helsinki, I noticed it: silence. It was so quiet in Helsinki it made me nervous at first. Where were the street vendors shouting? The motorbikes zooming past? And why was it so cold here in summertime? Welcome to Scandinavia.
We had about 24 hours to see Helsinki, so we wasted no time and went to the Helsinki Cathedral, aka the White Church. We spent a good part of our time walking around the city — I was so excited to finally be in a place with sidewalks again.
The architecture, the buildings — it all felt familiar. I started wondering if this same feeling would be with me when I return to Asia some day in the future? I guess I’ll have to go back soon and find out.
I have to say, my love for Scandinavia grew by the minute. Where else do people bike to work in suits?