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Washington D. C. 9 January 2013

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Travelling, Travels.
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After San Francisco, I started my trip towards London. Having a bit of time six weeks before the next engagement there, however, I decided to meander my way via a few places I always really wanted to see. First stop, Washington DC.

I conveniently know a couple of people there, which I sincerely recommend. Travel to places where you know someone. And I don’t say this to make you all into moochers, because I don’t mean for free accommodation. But experience tells me that even in cities like Warsaw, which can be cold and its history sad and oppressing, you can end up with fantastic memories if you have someone to show you the sights, tell you what they like about it, and feed you in their favourite restaurants.

And ask questions – about their lives, what it’s like to live there, where to go. If they know you, they are also able to recommend things specifically for you.

And if you know people somewhere, contact them on advance and tell them you’d like to take them out for a coffee/ beer/ meal (depending on their budget) to pick their brains. I have found this to be a more valuable investment than a Lonely Planet. Although of I travel somewhere where I don’t know someone, I don’t go without one, of course.

So, Washington was… At the risk of sounding corny… Grand.

There’s a real sense of the importance of politics, democracy, and the people behind it all in the capital. The wonderful sense of the processes and indeed the celebrations of freedom.

The massive buildings, the memorials. The institutions (I took a picture of the IRS offices for a friend, as I think she’s spoken to every single person in that building at one point) and museums.

I was lucky with the weather, too. Mild, almost warm. Blue skies. And grey squirrels everywhere.

One of the highlights for me was Alexandria, an old town outside of Washington which was supposed to have been part of District of Columbia, but ended up as part of Virginia. It is quaint, pretty, and somehow quintessentially American. I enjoyed walking the little streets with my friends, soaking up the Christmas atmosphere. I had Mac and cheese for the first time in my life and felt like I was having an all round American experience.

I also loved walking everywhere. I thought the city very manageable, and although the distances are not for the faint hearted (the mall is 3 km from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol) there is plenty to see. I took lots of photos, and simply enjoyed seeing all those sights I have seen in movies; Capitol, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Memorial. I couldn’t help but think of the scene in Forrest Gump where Jenny runs through the water in the mall.

The museums are clearly among the best in the world and far too plentiful for me to sample all of them. So, I simply chose things that sounded interesting to me. I went to a miniature train exhibition at the Botanical Gardens which was probably meant for kids more than me. Little train sets were set up in a fairy land with mosses and mushrooms. I’m not sure if I should admit to this, but I loved it.

I also went to the Museum of Natural History for the dinosaurs and got completely drawn in by their gems and precious stones exhibit. And the Air and Space Museum! I swear I should have been born a boy, because between the trains, dinosaurs, fossils, rocks and space shuttles, I was in heaven. I could have spent days in these museums alone, so I only scratched the surface of what was on offer.

The nerd in me also had its fancy tickled as I went to the National Archives and saw the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with its many amendments.

I loved Washington. It was a fun, manageable city. I had delicious winter cocktails with Asian-Mexican fusion food (it strangely worked really well) and good friends to keep me company in the evenings. I went to an improv theatre performance and generally had a wonderful time.

As I left on the train to go to New York, I genuinely wanted to come back to Washington some time. Perhaps even to live!

These holidays were going well indeed.

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Ha Giang is good for your soul 13 June 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Travelling, Travels, Vietnam.
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Yes, we are back in Ha Giang. This is my third time. And I still haven’t had enough.

Last time we were in Ha Giang, I had a lot of things to deal with. I felt devastated and fragile. But the mountain passes shrouded in mist gave me time and space to process my emotions.

Today, we are back. And this time, the mist, which made everything mystical, beautiful, heavy and wet (and freaking scary when buses popped out of the mist in front of you) had lifted.

Imagine valleys stretching one after the other, each as different as the one before. One moon landscape, the next rice paddies. The next again limestone mountains full of caves, then valleys of corn waist high.

Meandering along steep mountain paths, alongside rivers bursting at the seams with clear, frothing water. Playful shades of fresh green mingling with more established leaves from yesteryear, fading into blue in the distance.

Hairpin turns along breathtaking drop-offs into nothingness.

Buffaloes and little black piglets keeping you on your toes.

And that does not even begin to describe Ha Giang.

Today, we rode 160 kilometres through cool, clean air, which after Hanoi onset of summer was a marvelous relief.

And then there’s the people. Little half-naked urchins with gigantic, black eyes, women in flashy coloured minority costumes with hoes slung nonchalantly over their shoulders, elderly men with missing teeth lounging on a plastic chair at the front of their house. And each one of them smiling, welcoming. Nods, smiles and waves.

The children sometimes run to the road when they see you coming, yelling “bye!!” as you pass.

How could this be but soothing?

I will never get enough of this place. It wins hands down every time. We discussed whether we should see a place we hadn’t been yet for our last domestic holiday in Vietnam, but the pull of the clear, tall mountains was irresistible.

If you get the chance, go to Ha Giang. It is not really on the tourist trail yet. And you might be better off with a motorbike, as it is so much fun. But if you are ok with that, and relatively hard beds, Vietnamese style, it is amazing.

Signing off from Dong Van. Keep an eye out for tomorrow’s installment, as we will attempt to move on to the next province, Cao Bang.

Cycling the Mountains 5 May 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Happiness, Life, only in Vietnam, Traffic, Travelling, Travels, Vietnam.
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Last weekend, I went with a friend into the mountains to see a part of Vietnam that I had already seen, but in a way that I have been wanting to see it since I have arrived.

Disclaimer: I am Dutch. I like bicycles. How stereotypical.

When I was 12, my family went on a cycling holiday (riding from our house to the boat, take a boat to Germany (Kiel) and then cycle through the north of Germany to the Netherlands, covering around 50 – 60 km a day).

Many members of my family cycle for sport, transport and fun.

Several uncles, aunts, and cousins have racing bikes and cycle a lot, including for competitions.

My uncle decided that upon retirement (64 years old) he would join a tour from Istanbul to Beijing, riding a bicycle the whole way. What an awesome thing to do, right?

So I have a very romantic notion of bikes. I have been wanting to explore Vietnam on a bike. But I have not had the guts or the company to try (my partner is more into the motorbikes, which I admit are good fun, and faster, too).

So when my friend called and said that there was a spot that opened up on a tour that she was signed up for, I realised this would probably be my only chance! And having a follow vehicle made it a very good, easy first try, to see if I would even enjoy it.

Friday, we left on the overnight train for Lao Cai.

Once arrived, we were served breakfast, and loaded into the bus to Can Cau (120 km north) to see the local market with the Flower H’Mong. We then cycled back to Bac Ha (about 20 km) which was mostly downhill trough beautiful countryside.

That afternoon, we cycled with our guide through the countryside surrounding Bac Ha, and seeing a local village nearby. (Total of about 6 km).

The weather was glorious, slightly overcast, dry, warm but not hot nor humid.

Sunday, we explored the Bac Ha market (which I have blogged about before), had breakfast, and then set off back to Lao Cai.  By Lunch, I sent my partner a giddy message that I had already done 45 km, and only had 26 to go. The first 30 of those had been mostly downhill, and I only got nearly killed by oncoming traffic once.

After lunch (at some random food stall along the way with a marvellous spread of awesome, wholesome Vietnamese food, which we knocked back in no time) we continued, and about 10 km out from Lao Cai we stopped for pine apples, loaded up the bikes onto the truck, and did the rest of the (more busy) roads in the safety of the car. We stopped off at the river crossing to China to take a photo of us standing in front of China, which was pretty nifty, and obviously a very popular thing to do.

Conclusion? I loved it. But next time, I would want to do it without the guide, as it was like travelling with someone on a schedule, and I often felt pressure to keep going even when I wasn’t ready to.

But what an amazing way to see the country side. Half of the people we encountered smiled and waved. The other half were wondering why on earth we would want to ride a bicycle.

Most of the locals were so welcoming and friendly! A young girl, maybe around 14, decided to ride and chat with us in Vietnamese for a while. Most of them had never seen foreigners that spoke a word of Vietnamese, which was amazing. One lady looked so proud and happy that we had taken the time to learn her language, she clasped her hands together in front of her chest and just asked me lots of questions, then hardly charged us any money for what we wanted to buy.

It was a wonderful adventure, and even though I only rode 80 something kilometres over two days, it is something I really enjoyed doing, and wouldn’t mind doing more of…

Now I just need to convince my boy that he should come with me next time.

Easter treats #1 24 March 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Baking, Easter, Happiness, Life.
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Easter is rapidly approaching, and I never had the chance to share my Easter recipes with you! Have a look at my previous post on descriptions of my Easter growing up, great memories, and lots of good food. And, as I say at the end of that post: it meant family above all.

My dad and I would often bake together for Easter, so I will share his recipes with you first. We would eat these buns for Easter breakfast, just like little baguettes.

Pistoletjes

Ingredients:
500 g flour
25 g yeast (fresh, or 1 sachet of dry yeast)
10 g salt
3 g caster sugar
200 g water
rice flour
12 g butter
8 g sugar

Method:
– Make the dough, leave it to rise for 30 minutes. (For tips on making a dough, see here)
– Knead, divide the dough into 15, and roll into round buns.
– Leave again under a damp towel in a warm place for 30 minutes.
– Sprinkle riceflour over the top. Use a chopstick to make a crease along the middle of the bun (take care to not cut through the dough, but there should be two distinct mounds of dough barely attached.
– Rise for another 20 minutes
– Place a large oven proof dish of water in the bottom of the oven before turning it on, then preheat it to 230 degrees.
– Leave the container of water, and bake the pistoletjes for 15 minutes. (With steam)
– Remove the water, bake for another 10 minutes.

Austrian New Year 26 January 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Christmas, Travelling.
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On Christmas Eve, two twenty-something, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed tourists drove through the mountain passes in the south of Bavaria into Tirol, Austria. Another country neither one of us had ever been to. Another snow-covered, picturesque adventure awaited.

First stop was Wattens, the Swarowski factory and museum. Personally, it was a little out there for me, there was just too much glitter, sparkle and neon. But there were also some beautiful things: my favourite part was the Alexander McQueen/ Tord Boontje Christmas Tree, which was obviously most appropriate for Christmas Eve.

Image courtesy of the internet.

After frolicking in the vast expanse of glittery opulence that is Swarovski, we went on to Mayrhofen, a ski resort town where we had booked 3 nights accommodation to celebrate Christmas. We stayed at a wonderful chalet in the valley which was walking distance to the Penkenbahn, which is the main cable car that takes you up to Penken ski area.

My partner took a lesson on the first day to relearn the tricks of the trade, and I must admit that I took a while to get used to the long flat sticks on my feet, too. At one point standing at the top of a red slope and watching an older American man fall and fly head first all the way down the mountain, I could literally feel my knees knock together, and I felt fear for the first time in my life while skiing.

When younger, I never even thought twice. Back then, I would bounce back up after a fall. I used to ski all the time. And, the big clincher, I had never heard of anyone dying from a skiing accident. Now, older, more brittle, and with a few more skiing horror stories under my belt, I am not as confident. But slowly and surely, I regained my confidence. My partner reminded me of the technique, and soon, I was back to my old tricks, and it was fun again.

The second day of skiing, we had wonderful blue skies, fresh snow, and we found a fantastically fun slope with small cottages selling lunch in the middle of them. You literally skied around the cottages to go down, so we stopped off at one for Goulash Soup and beer. We left our skis on the slope and climbed to the top of a hill (snow boots and all) to get a better vantage point, and to take pictures of the gorgeous backdrop. Many people refused to believe that it was real when we later shared the photos. We sat there together for a while, in the snow, eating snickers bars and watching the sun hit the mountains opposite. Magical.

For my Christmas present, I was given a beautiful scarf (which I had plenty of opportunities to wear in the cold) as well as a trip on the Zillertalbahn, an old steam train going up and down the Zillertal. I love trains. I always did enjoy train rides and seeing old trains, so my partner decided to spoil me by taking me to Jenbach on a local train (which is quite fast) and then back again on the steam train (which is slow and very smelly, but mighty fun). The carriages are also all wooden and quaint, so I was in heaven. While riding, I walked the whole way from one end to the other, and we took lots of photos of each other hanging out of windows and standing behind the locomotive. Good times.

We then decided to drive through the Gerlospass, which is a mountain pass through the alps with more picturesque viewing spots and lovely scenery. We took this way, as we all of a sudden had one extra day (somewhere in the planning, I missed the 28th) and we thought we could do the Grossglockner Road. Driving along, the road started showing up on signs, but crossed out. In Zell am See, we pulled into a petrol station to ask about this, and we were told that this particular road, famous for it’s windy trail through the mountains, is closed for winter, from October to May. Thank you, Lonely Planet, for not mentioning this!

So, my partner suggests that the old farmstead he wanted to stay at should be somewhere nearby. He gives them a call to ask if they can take us. We are in luck, they have a vacancy. So where is it exactly? Turns out that Taxhof is literally 2 km away, up the mountainside. From Taxhof, we could see the petrol station where we had stopped and called them in the valley!

Taxhof, by the way, I will recommend to all who will listen. A real gem that we discovered via the New York Times. It was fantastic food, a relaxed atmosphere, friendly guests who greeted you when you went anywhere and the two sisters running the place are wonderful. The farm has been in the hands of the family for 300 something years, and it was completely different from anywhere I’ve ever stayed before. The barn had a number of donkeys and cows, and while we were there, a calf was born.

In the morning, after there being more snow falling all night, we drove to the start of the Grossglockner Road, and walked up along it to look at the amazing scenery, the snow covered trees and the curtains of icicles tumbling down along the rock face. We threw snowballs at each other and took (more) pictures, and generally amused ourselves by looking for deer (none spotted, but we found plenty of tracks).

After two dreamy nights, feeling most relaxed by now, we continued to Salzburg, where the kitsch and faux-glamour made us cringe. I am sure this is not what Mozart had intended for himself! We went to his birth place and ate copious amounts of Mozartkugln, but it all felt a bit off.

The highlight of Salzburg, however, was our accommodation, which was our Christmas present from my partner’s parents: a stay in Moenchstein castle for a night! That same evening we went to a concert in the Marble Hall in Mirabell Castle, which was quite decadent and wonderful. We ate sandwiches in an Italian pub around the corner.

The next day we continued in one go to Vienna, where we returned the hire car, and went sightseeing. Vienna was truly gearing up to New Years’ Eve, with a festive air throughout the city. We stayed in a private apartment (rented via a sub-let website) for two nights and discovered the delights of the city. We had more sausage (they have fantastic ones filled with cheese in Vienna!) as well as more gluhwein and hot chocolate.

New Year’s Eve we first went to the Statsoper (the National Opera) and saw Die Fledermaus, which was very romantic, although some of the people on stage were ad libbing in German, meaning that we had no idea why everyone else was laughing so hard! After the opera, we had Sachertorte (apparently a must, so we stood in line to get a table) and then we walked to the Heldenplatz for the midnight fireworks.

In Austria, everyone is still allowed to buy and set off their own fireworks, just like when I was little, so I was thrilled about being on a large open space with a 360 degree fireworks display overhead. Kissing each other at midnight with cheers and jubilation, and lots of fireworks… What could be a better way to usher in the new year?

After the fireworks, we walked along with the crowds returning home, calling our parents (his being nine hours ahead and already far into the new day, and mine being an hour behind, preparing to celebrate their own entry into 2011) and generally grinning from ear to ear.

Best holiday ever.

Three Castles and a Monastery 25 January 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Christmas, Happiness, Travelling, Travels.
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As flights were delayed and cancelled all around Europe, we were worried that we would not be able to travel onwards from Warsaw. I was checking the weather forecasts (and the news about the Christmas tree in Japan being lit up with the electricity generated by an eel) anxiously as we awoke on the Monday morning to snow twirling outside of the windows. We were in luck, however, both Warsaw and Munich airports seem to have heard of this winter phenomenon (“snow”) before, and neither one was seemingly having much trouble. Our flight ended up being only 30 minutes delayed.

We arrived in Munich after dark, and took the train to Marienplatz, where we had found a place to stay. The underground at Marienplatz was cold, grey, and uninviting, though not as cold as the weather had been in Poland. Yet stepping out onto the market square (albeit with suitcases hobbing along behind us) was like stepping into a Christmas romance. The Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market) there is quite famous, and as we emerged from under ground, there were carollers lined up along the balcony of the Town Hall, singing. Fairy lights, Christmas decorations, sausage stands and other booths selling anything you might need at a Christmas market made us determined to drop off the bags as quickly as possible, and return to drink in the delights of European Christmas.

Image courtesy of the Internet

A most refreshing thing is that the Christmas markets seem to not only be filled with tourists like us, but the locals come out as well to try their hand at the famous gluhwein. Groups of smiling people gathering around standing tables with their real cups (upon return to the stand, you would receive a deposit back), all wrapped up in scarves and gloves, breathing frosty air and enjoying the Christmas spirit together.

Although I must admit that the gluhwein of Poland has a far more potent kick to it than the one in Germany, (who would have thought?) I never thought I could consume this much of it. But everywhere we went, it was a complete must, and we enjoyed letting our spectacles fog up from the cups containing the boiling liquid. For dinner? Currywurst with bread ordered in my most atrocious German. Currywurst is a famous (and delicious) sausage, which, it appears, also has a museum dedicated to it in Berlin. Let the sausage diet begin.

Bavaria has much to offer, but getting around is not easy. The “Romantic Road” is serviced by a number of tour bus companies in summer, but in winter, you are hard pressed to find one. Trains are available, but afford little or no flexibility in general. As we are terrible at deciding in advance what we wish to do on our holidays, flexibility is a must, so we rented a car.

We joined the Romantic Road towards the end of it (at Landsberg am Lech) where we had a break to look at the church and the town in general. Churches in Bavaria (mostly Catholic) are gilded with gold, and have fantastic frescoes. Most of them are open to the public, and shelter a weary traveller somewhat from the cold outside, although they are generally not heated.

From there, we went on to stay at Irseer Klosterbrau, which is an old monastery/ beer brewery which had been recommended to us. It is like stepping back in time, with the rooms entirely fashioned to look like (a modernised and idealised version of) the middle ages; think knights and maidens and eating meat and drinking beer in front of a fire. The beer brewed on site is fantastic, and served in huge steins, or beer mugs. This side trip alone made it totally worth it having the car!

The next day, we did as many castles as we could possibly stomach:

Hohenswangau, a castle built by Maximillian II near the Austrian border. We were taken on a highly efficient but fun tour through the rooms, by a very knowledgeable guide called Wolfgang.

Neuschwanstein, the unfinished castle started by Ludwig II, but stopped after his sudden (and suspicious) death. The famous Disney castle apparently was inspired by this castle. We missed out on going on a horse carriage on the way up to the castle, but we did catch one back down.

Linderhof, which we saw only after closing time, as getting there takes you into Austria, then back into Germany, and is a small mountain road with a lot of snow. Seeing the snow-covered mountains and the icy lakes was a serene and beautiful experience in itself, but driving a small car through them was exhausting. I haven’t done any winter driving for years, so it took a bit of getting used to, especially with giant trucks coming the other way. So getting there took longer than expected, but I don’t think we could have processed the opulence of (yet another) castle had we been there before closing. Walking through the gardens was enough.

That evening we continued to Garmish-Partenkirchen, a mountain town that anyone who follows winter sports will be familiar with (at least by name): I spent every New Year’s Day of my youth with the television on in the back ground showing the annual ski-jumping contest. Cue for more gluhwein, sausage, Christmas markets, cheese fondue, raclette and skiing!

And with that, we ended our Bavarian adventure, as we headed onwards into Austria the next day. Only half-way through our holidays, we were stoked that everything was so perfect!

Cabbage, Pork, Kitsch 8 January 2011

Posted by uggclogs in Christmas, Happiness, Life, Travelling, Travels.
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Growing up in Western Europe, I was never really aware of what else was available on the continent. I mainly travelled to see countries for a reason, such as seeing family, going on a study abroad for High School, or on shopping trips to avoid insane prices. I have rarely been on a tourist trip of Europe.

Consequently, I had never been to Central or Eastern Europe. I had never ventured further east than Berlin, and that was in 2008, long after the wall fell. My mother had been east of the Iron Curtain when she was young, and raved about the countries and the peoples. But growing up during the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent large influxes of workers coming from the east during the summer months to earn as much over a summer picking strawberries as they did working normal jobs over the whole year, I was left with an image in my head of all these countries being cold, poor, and grey. I imagined bitter cold, long food stamp lines and miserable living.

Warsaw, however, has made a tremendous effort to dispel these notions over the weekend that we spent there. It is clearly a city on the way up – with a lifestyle becoming pretty similar to other small, Western European cities. It reminded me of Oslo in many ways. Don’t get me wrong, it was still cold! But it was not as poor or as grey as I had imagined it to be.

We stayed with friends who showed us around and took us to the unseen parts of Warsaw (the best way to see any city!), including a sampling of the the local foods (cabbage, sausage, hunks of meat, gluhwein, dumplings and more meat). And they showed us the sights.

It is a city with a gut-wrenching past which still permeates everyday life. I only vaguely remember my European history, and had to be reminded of all the atrocities that Warsaw has lived through, and it is hard to imagine where you would even start putting your life back together at the end of or at the midst of all that. Between the country being split up several times, then given away from one empire to the next, to a large part of the city serving as a ghetto during the Second World War where the Jewish population was first locked up, then murdered, to the Warsaw uprising resulting in the complete destruction of the city at the hands of the Nazis while their supposed saviours and allies, the Red Army, watched on from the other side of the river, to the Cold War. Where do you start to rebuild after all that?

Our friends took us to the place where the last remaining part of the ghetto wall is still standing. It is only about 10 metres long, and used to be part of the southern-most end of the wall. It now has a school yard next to it, and a plaque has been mounted which shows the city plan and the outline of the ghetto. Its location is harrowing, as it fully brings home how central the ghetto was. It was not an outlying suburb that was set aside for this purpose – it was a large part of central Warsaw. The actual remainder of the wall is surreal and underwhelming, as it is only about 2.5 metres tall. Standing back from it, you can clearly see the buildings surrounding the area, and if you had lived in one of the buildings inside the ghetto, you could have easily seen life outside go by from a second or third storey window. The fact that this is the wall that encircled and entrapped so many people, is unfathomable.

We went across the river Vistula to Praga, where the old Brodno Jewish cemetery is. It was entirely destroyed during the Second World War, and now, the grave stones (called Macewas) are basically piled up in large heaps. Macewas made from precious materials such as marble were sent off to Germany to be used for building projects. Sadly, there are few Jewish families remaining in Warsaw, so there is no one left to care for the cemetery, or to fight for restoration or commemoration. When we were there, snow covered the ground, and the birch and fir trees that have grown in the cemetery since the war added to the desolate and lonely feel of the place.

We went to the Warsaw Rising Museum, which tells the history of the uprising in 1944 against the Nazis. The Poles knew that the Soviet Red Army were closing in, so they staged an uprising, in the belief that victory would only take a couple of days. Instead, it lasted for almost two months before the Poles had to surrender. The Nazis subsequently set about systematically tearing down the remaining city block by block, destroying more than 85% of the buildings.

Yet after the war, even though the entire city was rubble, somehow, the Warsawians picked up the pieces, and rebuilt the city, brick by brick. Literally. Using old photographs and paintings, they reconstructed the city as it was. And they managed to rebuild the city to be believable, quaint, beautiful and historic. To think that at the old market square, where we enjoyed the Christmas market stalls and the surrounding buildings, have actually all but one (one miraculously remained standing) been rebuilt since 1945 is hard to understand.

The tenacity of such a feat is beyond me, yet it seems to be reflected in the Poles; they are serious, somewhat hardened people, and they give off the impression that they are not people that give up easily. And, if I were to generalise grossly after only being in the city for three days, they seem inflexible, stern, worn and tired, not overly friendly to foreigners in general, but they are reliable and earnest, hard-working and aiming for a better life. At every turn, there is a nation moving forward, yet the past is evident everywhere. Great sadness can be read in the people’s faces, as they struggle onwards.

Modernity has now come with shops, malls, cafes and coffee shops littering the city, which was to great benefit for us, as we needed regular rewarming beverages (including potent gluhwein, hot chocolate, coffee, tea, you name it) to prevent us from freezing to the bone. The locals also subscribe to this outlook, with one of my favourite moments being had in a cafe at the base of the Cultural Palace where, while drinking gluhwein, I noticed that the two young men at the table next to us had two cups of tea, two shots of Vodka and one other unidentified alcoholic beverage, which they casually knocked back before slinging their hunting rifles back over their shoulders and strolling out into the cold rugged up and looking like they were heading off to hunt.

After so much history and sadness, we also tried to fit in something a little more lighthearted. On our last day, we went to a second hand market out in the suburbs which I absolutely loved. It was a second hand goods paradise: old clocks, silverware, toys, books, military memorabilia, kitsch and rubbish. I am so glad I do not live in Poland, or I would have bought so much stuff! In particular, I fell in love with a little old rocking horse made of wood, precariously placed on top of a pile of snow, ready to be sold off. It was a gorgeous piece which would never have fit comfortably in my luggage.

So, after a lovely rest and seeing our first snowfall bucket down over Warsaw, we were ready to face our Christmas holiday head on, collars turned up against the cold.

Childhood Memories 8 December 2010

Posted by uggclogs in Baking, Christmas, Happiness, Life, Sinterklaas.
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Today, I received a package from my mother.

It wasn’t supposed to arrive, as generally food stuffs are not allowed through the post. I expected it to be sent back upon arrival, without me even seeing the contents, just like what has happened to my partner’s packages of food before.

But it did arrive!!!

My dearest mum, who is one of the most well-meaning and well-balanced people I know, who sent me a post card every week while I was at boarding school, and who I can literally speak to for hours, sent me this package. I have all my nurturing abilities from her – I love doing things for others to make them happy. I like getting up early and making my partner coffee in the morning. I love cooking and baking for others, spoiling them rotten, to show them that I care. I like making home-made advent calendars for people I care about, and cheer them for the 24 days that it lasts. This is a page straight out of my mum’s book.

We disagree sometimes. And I can tell her that she annoys me, and she still listens. She is amazing. And now she’s sent me a package full of Sinterklaas goodies. For a moment, standing there in the kitchen, having run up the stairs like a child whopping and hooting, after which I ripped open the packaging, emptied the entire contents onto the counter, and stuck bits from all the goodies in my mouth at once, all of a sudden memories came flooding back.

I don’t know if this was my mum’s intent. But standing there, at the kitchen counter, eyes closed, savouring the sweets and cookies, my partner found me smiling, far away in memory land. He had to laugh at me, and my childish expression. He’s mentioned that exact face to me before – the ability I still seem to have to utterly enjoy something for the happiness it brings me at that time. The look of marvel that will flash across my face when I experience something new and turn around to smile at him. He once said he was jealous of my childlike ability to just enjoy something.

And this time it was triggered by the morsels of cookies that evoked my childhood, even the smell brings me back to cold winter nights, snow, rugging up and that special type of electricity that builds in December. And it reminded me of family, spending time around the fire, cat on my lap, parents reading or watching TV, brother being annoying.

And I do not know how my mum managed to get the food through customs, it must have been shear will power. And it’s not like she sent me a package with a few food items amongst other things, it was an entire box of food.

My poor man, who, a year and a half back, when I was in a real dip and feeling home sick, tried to cheer me up in the same way. I remember mentioning to him that I missed my family. I missed having them there. So the little darling hopped on the internet and ordered Dutch treats for me, including liquorice, and other things he knows I love due to my heritage, but which the rest of the world thinks is disgusting, and therefore doesn’t sell. He had meant to surprise me.

Yet this is the package that never made it through customs. He was gutted, because he had really wanted to do something nice for me, and it fell through. And here is mum’s package on my doorstep with no effort at all.

So thank you so much, mum, for the memories and the treats which we will enjoy so much! And thank you to my partner, who I know tried very hard, but whom the postal system thwarted. You both spoil me rotten.

Lao PDR – Vientiane 21 October 2009

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It is hard to believe that Vientiane is a capital city, it has the feel of a large country town.

But it was an amazing and relaxing time that we had there, especially after the less than perfect time that we had in Luang Prabang. We were able to explore the city and see the sights within one day, but had trouble fitting in all the bars and restaurants that we wanted to eat and drink at during the weekend.

During one of the days, we went exploring the National Monument, which is an impressive golden stupa surrounded by beautiful temples. Gold leaf paint and splendour all around, and although Lao buddhist temples cannot outshine its Thai counterparts, we did enjoy exploring them.

Vientiane, for being such a small city, obviously does not have a huge array of restaurants, but the ones that are there are qualitatively very good. Even the interior decoration of most of these places was tasteful and cozy, which was a really nice change to Hanoi, which has an abundance of quantity, but quality is a little less.

We hardly ate any street food, due to my previous bout of food poisoning, so I readily admit that we may have limited our choices quite a lot.

Here are some recommendations;

JoMa

JoMa is A lovely little coffee shop chain with lovely biscuits (their oatmeal cookies are great! But their choc-chip ones are not bad either.) It is apparently a bit pricey for Lao, but all in all, it was a lovely ‘Western’ refuge for a seasoned expat or backpackers alike. There are rumours that they are looking to expand into Vietnam. Yes, please!

Makphet

A vocational training centre, where the staff are disadvantaged youth that receive training and education to break the poverty cycle. The food is also really good, the chicken curry and the larp are really good.

Le Silapa

French food. Need I say more? They had run out of creme brulee (and if you know me, you know this is a disaster) but their food is not half bad. Here’s what Frommer had to say:

For cozy atmosphere and authentic French cuisine, this is a find in Vientiane (if you can find it). The effusive French proprietor will make you feel welcome. There’s a great wine list to go with tasty meals like whitefish subtly garnished with capers, lemon, and parsley. The food is a lot more sophisticated than you might expect from such an unassuming storefront.

P.V.O.

Awesome Vietnamese Banh My (Baguettes). Yes, we went to Lao, and still ended up eating Vietnamese. But it was worth it.

Jazzy Brick, Martini Bar, Spirit House, Kong View

Lovely bars with a nice, relaxing feels to them.We had a few too many cocktails, but what the heck – we were on holidays!

So although a lot of tourists leave Vientiane off the list when they go to SE Asia, I would highly recommend including it if you have the time. Especially if you just need somewhere where you will not feel guilty just relaxing, because there is not that much else to do!

On the Saturday, we went on a day trip outside of the city, to one of the smaller rivers in the area. There, we had booked a boat that serves dinner on the boat while it drives you up the river. At the other end, they turn off the engines, and you float back down to the docs along the stream. It is amazingly relaxing, and with a few beer Lao under your belt, the world could not be a more pleasant place to spend the time.

Thank you, Lao, for a very interesting (although not purely relaxing) week.

Lao PDR – Luang Prabang 19 October 2009

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So, with minimal notice, we decided to hop on a plane and fly to Lao. Here’s the ‘adventure’.

The country Lao (also sometimes referred to as Laos) is a neighbouring country to Vietnam, and has long been on our ‘must see while in the region’ list. (There are many others still on that list, as most of our travels thus far have happened within Vietnam proper.) From Hanoi to Luang Prabang is an easy flight, and the waiting time at the Hanoi airport (where supposedly you need two hours for check in) is longer than the actual airtime.

Touching down in Luang Prabang just after dark was lovely, because from the air you could really get a sense of how small the town was. We were met at the airport by the hotel, and all seemed to go smoothly until…

Well, the hotel informs us that there has been a mistake, some ‘trainee’ had made a double booking, and we did not have a room. Rule number one in hospitality: take the blame unequivocally, and don’t blame it on some poor trainee. If that really was the case (something I doubt) it is management’s fault for not properly providing supervision and training to this person. It does not come across as very professional either way.

So, they are trying to convince us to have dinner at the hotel first, but both of us feel that having dinner was not on, we just want to get to the room, have a rest, and get started on our holidays. So we asked them to take us to another hotel straight away. We ended up staying in a little place called Phousi Guest House for 25 USD, which was basic, but nice and clean, and since it was supposed to be for one night only, it was perfectly fine.

We went to explore the night market (but with no Kip in our pockets, so ended up buying nothing at all) and basically tried to get a feel for the town. For some reason, the layout is really confusing, and it took me a long time to get my bearings on which way was up.

In the middle of the night I wake up feeling less than average. Hello food poisoning. And if you’ve ever had food poisoning, you know it is less than pleasant. The worst is that I had eaten nothing that was clearly dodgy, and I suspect it was the apple I had on the plane that did it.

The next morning, when my partner wakes up nice and rested, and asks me how my sleep was, he has a real shock when he finds out that I had basically spent it in the bathroom. He instantly became super-boyfriend, and took care of everything. He called the first hotel to picks us up again (as we had promissed to stay there for the rest of our time in LP). He packed the bags, carefully lead me downstairs, carried the bags, sat with me in the car, told the hotel that they need to find a room instantly (they said our room was not ready, but having a sick lady on their hands in this day and age of swine flu put the wind up them, and they upgraded us to their best room) and lead me to the bungalow.

It was a strange room, with very little privacy. The bathroom and the shower were in the same room as the bed and the TV, with only a tiny partision. There were no chairs, and the toilet was in a separate ‘room’, but without a ceiling. Luckily, we had a balcony, where one person could retire with a book in order to give the other some privacy when they went to the toilet.

My partner made sure I was totally comfortable and had everything I might need (bananas, water, medical supplies, book, remote control for the TV) within reach, and let me sleep all day while he went and rented a motorbike to explore Lao. He even took extra many pictures for me so I could have a look at them that night. So Day 1 in Lao was a write-off for me, I slept the entire day.

But by Day 2 I felt heaps better, and we went into town. We looked at all the Wats, explored the streets and the shops, ate at a bakery and generally enjoyed ourselves. We tried some Lao food (carefully) and marvelled at the apparent quality of wares even in touristy shops compared to what is available in Vietnam. Dinner was at a tiny restaurant in the main street overlooking the quiet life that is Luang Prabang go by, and marvelling at the other Westerners who seemed to be coping less well with the heat than we were. I guess we have finally aclimatised to the weather.  

Day 3 was not so great. After a not-so-fabulous start (a fine for not wearing a helmet, even though we were only given one helmet, and all the locals seem to either wear none or one), we wanted to buy a H’mong silver necklace to add to our collection, and while in the store, the rented motorbike, which was parked outside, was stolen. I am still miffed that in a street where there are stores all along the opposite side to where we were, and where there are a lot of people at all times, no one seemed to have seen anything. We ran around a little while to see if we could spot it, in case someone just moved it. But no such luck. So we went to the police station.

There, we are met with three fold-out camping beds in the foyer, and two sleeping officers in them. A third is awake, but does not speak English. Turns out they are closed for lunch, and we should return in two hours time. We should have known better.

We decide to walk back to the hotel (which happened to be really close) to ask if they have the number plate there. They freak out, because, as it turns out, of course, they had not rented us a motorbike from the ‘only rental company in town’ as they said they had, but the thing had belonged to the hotel itself. So massive search party sent out.

The motorbike is nowhere to be seen. The police station opens again, but when my partner gets there with the hotel manager, they are sent to a separate station which is the ‘tourist police’ station. There, they are told that we are not likely to ever see this motorbike again (partly due to the two hours that have lapsed since it was stolen. Thanks). A police report is being drafted, but it is not likely that we will be able to even claim it on insurance. Turns out the hotel has not insured their vehicle either against theft.

So finally, after a lot of calling to the consular section at the Embassy in Vientiane, speaking to our insurance, and negotiating with the hotel, who have now produced a document stating that the motorbike was purchased in January 2009 for 1400 USD, we end up having to pay for the thing. We of course refuse to pay that much, since it was pretty banged up from lots of tourists driving it around, and with depreciation etc, we figured it was worth a lot less now.

That night, with nothing resolved and a whole day wasted running around trying to fix the situation, we take a Tuk-Tuk into town (the first one for this trip) to have a Lao set menu that we had booked the day before.

The Tamarind restaurant in Luang Prabang offers a great tasting menu that allows you to try a bit of everything in a very friendly environment. If you want to go, make sure you book ahead for this, as they need lots of time to prepare. They also offer cooking classes.

The manager of the restaurant, Caroline, is Australian, and she seemed to have all the time in the world to chat to us about the food and its flavours. Lao food is really interesting, even though I am not the biggest fan of it. It is spicier than (north) Vietnamese food, but also has more strongly flavoured herbs in it. One herb in particular that they use is a type of basil with an aniseed or fennel like flavour which is used a lot in curries and soups. I found it extremely overpowering the first time I had it, but you soon start getting used to it, and even liking it a little.

Although we ate well, the highlight was the dessert, and especially the tamarind and coconut sauce (served as a condiment next to sticky purple rice and banana), although I could not eat much of it, as I was already very full. The rest of the evening we did some shopping in the night markets and wandered around the town.

The next morning, we woke up before daybreak to see the procession of monks receiving alms in the morning. I had wanted to do this the whole time I was in Luang Prabang, but due to a combination of being ill and lazy, had not been able to get up early enough yet. As it was our last day and our last chance, I really really wanted to go. We caught another Tuk-Tuk, and reached the centre of town in time to find a good spot, and to see the entire procession pass through. It was pretty special, although someone told me afterwards that the monks don’t actually want to do this anymore, but are required to by the government for the tourists. Sort of takes the enjoyment out of it for all parties.

We walk back to the hotel, and the early morning stroll really brings back my appetite for the first time since Day 1. The hotel breakfast, though, was atrocious. The yoghurt was off, the orange juice a sugary, syrupy chemical concoction, the croissant was filled with ants, and the bread was dry as a bone. Off putting.

My partner is off again to the police station, and, he tells me later, it was still a mess, no police report has been made, the first station sends them away to a second station who in turn referres them back to the first station. Something that should have taken a very short while ends up lasting three hours, and we end up having to pay a significant sum for the lost bike. In the mean time, I pack the bags and get ready to go.

Sitting at the restaurant, ready to leave for the airport 10 minutes later, the manager comes careening onto the hotel grounds on another scooter, and is waving his hands, jumping up and down.

He’s found the motorbike!

And it was completely by chance! After having hugged my partner several times, dancing, punching the air in jubilation, shook my hand, and generally being thrilled, he calls the airport to confirm our tickets, but that we will be a little later, because he needs to return our money. While this is done, we are given the amazing story of recovery.

As the manager is on his way to the police station to get the police report (which he ended up getting), he passes a bike on the side of the road which looks familiar. Now, they have already changed a lot of things about the bike for it to look different enough for him not to be sure, but during Lao New Year, when the locals pelt each other with paint bombs, the bike had received a distinctive paint splash under its seat. This was what he had seen.

So he turns back, and confronts the person with the bike. They deny it, but cannot produce the papers for the bike. So the manager calls the police , who come straight away (huh?) and impound the bike. At the station, they check the serial numbers against the numbers on the papers belonging to the manager, and voila! It is the right bike. And thus, we received our refund. All we ended up paying was 5 USD for the police report. Which we now no longer need.

So then it was off to the airport to check in and to fly away to Vientiane.