Lessons learned from 13 countries in 2013

Lessons learned from 13 countries in 2013

What a year for travel!  Pretty unbelievable when you’re getting a PhD in physics.  In wrapping up the Europe trip and starting a new year, I thought I’d reflect on lessons learned from 13 countries (Brazil, India, Thailand, (Laos), Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Spain, Portugal and US) and 10 states (NC, TN, CT, MD, DC, VA, MA, CA, OR, WA, NY) in 2013.  All this travel makes me realize how little I actually know but my globe trotting has taught me a few things: (Warning: this post is long. You have my enthusiastic permission to read it over multiple occasions but it should be the last one until Turkey in February) 1. Technology makes traveling easy! There’s no way I would have been able to pull off a transatlantic trip with two days of planning 10 years ago.  Being able to research/ book flights, accommodations and other activities online makes it easy and quick to do yourself.  Exchanging money used to be a pain but ATMs solve that problem. Even if reading maps is a struggle, following the blue dot on my ipad has helped me navigate out of unchartered territory countless times.  I don’t even have a smartphone, for heaven’s sake- with Whatsapp, Mapswithme… I don’t know the details but the sky’s the limit when it comes to travelapps. 2. Travel light Especially if you’re city hopping, it doesn’t make sense to be dragged down by large luggage with failing wheels.  A hand towel can sufficiently dry you off.  Braids tame wildabeast hair better than straighteners and anti-frizz products.  I brought 5 outfits to Spain and I’m wearing the same cheap scarf, blue coat and clown boots in every picture.  Who are you trying to impress anyway?  For the same trip, I lugged around a sizeable first aid kit  but the only medicine I needed (for my cold), wasn’t there.  I know I complained about not having my laptop, but I survived. In civilized countries, you can usually get what you need when you need it.  And if you don’t need it, don’t bring it.  Your feet, your back and your hosts will thank you! Not much room for luggage on one of these things! 3. Keep an eye out for opportunities People are always amazed how much I’ve been able to travel when a graduate student salary barely keeps you above the poverty line.  I’m lucky that specializing in science and science education, opportunities for fellowships and travel grants exist but I’m convinced that with some searching, you can find ways to fund yourself too.  When airline companies overbook planes, volunteer to postpone your trip a few hours and you’ll get a free flight somewhere else (I’ve earned approximately $1000 in flight vouchers this year).  There are countless blogs about ways to travel cheap/for free- when there’s a will, there’s a way! 4.  Doing your job is the easiest part of working in another country That being said, be prepared since getting things done in foreign countries can be a challenge.  Undergoing research projects in Brazil, Singapore and India and teaching in India has revealed what may be written in your job description (collecting data, educating/assessing students) is the easy part.  Getting used to how another country works (and having your salary depend on it), is much more difficult, especially since they don’t write instruction manuals for this type of thing.  Who would have guessed that cooties are still a very serious issue for Indian 7th graders?  That staircases in Singapore lock behind you, causing you to miss meetings as you hunt down a way to bust out?   That a working voice recorder with batteries is essentially too much to ask for in India?  If you are making presentations abroad, have some one from that culture preview it- when I was invited to speak at the “Republic of China” physics conference, I almost used statistics from the “People’s Republic of China” which would have made me look like an ignorant American, assuming Taiwan and China were equivalent.  I already looked a little ridiculous, bragging about how 66% of American students go to college right after high school, when nearly 100% of their population gets a college education right after secondary school. Some of my class in India- boys in front, girls in back 5. Don’t let traveling alone hold you back Yes traveling alone can be scary, inconvenient (having my huge backpack follow me everywhere I go drives me nuts, especially in dirty bathrooms) and sometimes more expensive.  More than half my international travel has been mostly independent and it’s incredibly liberating to do what you want, when you want to...

Gaudi Christmas in Barcelona!

Gaudi Christmas in Barcelona!

Barcelona is a beautiful city and a perfect place to spend the holidays.  I arrived early on the Eve of Christmas Eve and met up with a friend of Otavio’s who generously put me up in some luxury accommodations for the duration of my stay here.  Lucas is Argentinian but has lived here the last five years, working in something related to information technology.  He’s kind of soft-spoken but the more I talked to him, I realized he’s an amazingly classy man!  We bonded over alternate rock, traveling and cooking.  He plays guitar and has been to some ridiculous music festivals, which were fun to hear about.  I felt right at home. After he oriented me to his city by looking at the map, we bundled up and I climbed on the back of his motorcycle to get an overview of the major parts of the city.  We saw the famous Plaza Espanya fountain, climbed the Olympic park mountain for the best views of the city, drove by the port and the Mediterranean Sea and down the Avenue Gracia “Barcelona’s equivalent of 5th avenue”.  As he finished some last minute Christmas shopping, he pointed out the Catalan flags as well as yellow and red striped flags with a star in a blue triangle, (supposedly illegal but everywhere) flags promoting independence from Spain. Some historic Barcelona buildings- you can see the illegal independence flag toward the bottom Lucas made me a phenomenal quiche for lunch, I sampled some of the truffles he stayed up making until 4 AM that morning then we head to the gothic quarter of Las Ramblas.  He explained that the city had outgrown the original walls fortifying the area so to create space for agriculture, they created this space within a second set of walls.  The Las Ramblas street incorporates multiple areas, stretching from the busy commercial Plaza Catalunya, the market of St. Joseph (with fish so fresh that many of the lobsters were still climbing over each other), the ornate opera house and ending with the famous Christopher Columbus statue near the sea.  We veered off the main paths to squeeze between massive stone fortifications in paths too small for cars.  We saw the fountain where evanescence made a music video and peered upward to see a walking bridge between buildings, with a statue which would be the last thing people saw before getting executed.  Many of this old buildings currently house art galleries, shops and restaurants so they definitely have a gothic, mysterious feel even today.  We stopped at Ovella Negra, a castle-like tavern filled with expats taking advantage of cheap cervezas and complimentary popcorn then continued on for some tapas near his place. Park Guell overlooking the city On Christmas Eve, I began seeing the city from a different perspective, commencing an exploration of the Gaudi influence with a visit to Parc Guell.  I met two girls studying abroad and their mother on the metro and we huffed and puffed up the hill together as we walked to the park.  This was the mom’s first trip to Europe (first trip to basically anywhere significant, I think) and she thought my spontaneous Spanish holiday was the best thing she ever heard.  She reflected on how easy it is to make excuses, postponing trips for lack of time and money, then time flies and you haven’t been anywhere.  Parc Guell was massive!  I didn’t realize that the Gaudi monument section was only a small fraction of the green space, where people were running, walking, playing instruments and selling things.  Gaudi’s colorful mosaic stairs and fountains accentuated a city that was pretty colorful to begin with, so that was a great place to relax.  Afterwards, I headed down the hill to Gracia, the bohemian, arts district where I met Juan, Peruvian #3, a Spanish teacher for cervezas on his terrace, then climbed on his roof for an even better view and salsa lessons in his living room.  He said there were 7 steps to salsa and I passed them all!  “derecha, izquierda, delante, atrás, encima, abajo” even though he moves on a different beat than New York style mambo-on-2 master Benno taught me in Raleigh.  After passing bonus level 8, he showed me some of his neighborhood with a hole-in-the-wall bar and we got groceries at the market to make pasta after dancing up a storm. Fountain featured in Vicki Cristina Barcelona From there, I met up with Sebastian for a walking tour of the city.  Sebastian was an amazing tour guide… He has incredible curiosity and attention to detail, and as hopped between churches, parks and picturesque streets, he’d point...

Spanish culture: Gypsies and Flamenco in Granada

Spanish culture: Gypsies and Flamenco in Granada

Granada’s such a cultural experience and I’m glad we decided to immerse ourselves with a flamenco show. We heard mixed reviews about the potential to be a tourist trap and how the gypsies can rip you off if you go to some of the caves in Sacra monte to view the performance.  On the other hand, Simone’s friend raved about a tear-jerking show she had seen so we decided to experience this piece of Spanish culture at Le Chein Andalou “the Andalusian Dog”. Proceeding down a short, dark tunnel, we squished ourselves at teensy picnic tables and looked around to see if the 20 or so other people in the audience had any idea what we were in for.  Freddy had warned us that Granada was famous for gut-wrenching, tragic flamenco and if we wanted to see happy flamenco, we were better off in Sevilla.  And he wasn’t kidding! For the first part of the show, it was the music.  The hunched-over guitarist looked like he was hanging onto his guitar for dear life, and his fingers flew over the strings in a strange strum, more similar to that of a harpist.  The skinny singer, wailed about rosas negras y notches obscures, almost dislocating his jaw with the raw emotion of the cancion.  And occasionally rocking back and forth with his eyes closed, adding syncopated claps to the instrumental.  About halfway through, a scowling back-haired woman with dramatic make-up rustled through the aisle with her polka dotted dress, flashing her fishnets.  She started sitting, just adding rhythm with her claps, snaps and taps but then she really got going.  She filled the small stage with dramatic glasses, sharp turns, and remarkably fast footwork.  From prior reading I knew the exact origin of Andalusian flamenco was highly debated, potentially influenced by Hindu music brought over from gypsies who originated out of the india, Jewish chants or the call of the Islamic muezzin.  Dancing on the wooden box (which she didn’t do here but is also stereotypical) probably began later with South American or African influences. Watching it, I agreed flamenco was probably a combination of all above, and tried to imagine what life must have been like to inspire such raw emotion.  Here’s a youtube video of similar Granada gypsy flamenco to give you an idea.  I’m definitely glad we experienced it, but a little of that kind of intensity goes a long way, so after being flamenco-ed out, we decided to obey our when-in-doubt-eat-tapas rule with our new friend Jesse. A Colorado resident and recent college graduate, Jesse is still bright-eyed and bushy tailed after 2 of a 3 month European backpacking adventure.  A self-described “yes man”, Simone and I instantly liked him, as someone who had the rare combination of being both interested and interesting.  We happened across a medieval themed tapas bar, where we drank sangria in front of swords and full suits of amor.  When our tapas appeared as bagel sandwiches with ham, both of them were exuberant, having being deprived of bagels in Europe/Greece for months.  Before coming to Spain, I pictured tapas as some bread and cheese, or something uniform across bars but in Granada, it’s the ultimate lottery and you never know what you’re going to get.  Earlier in the day, we met up with three locals at a global tapas bar Babel World Fusion, where our tapas where cheese risotto, pad Thai, fajitas… Large, gourmet meals, free with your beverage.  The previous night, had been three courses of fried fish dishes.  And here, you can barely buy bagels if you tried, but they magically appeared under our noses! Anyway, a finance and economic major, jesse entertained us with an update on the current status of marijuana legalization in Colorado.  Supposedly, you can call up delivery pizza places for marijuana-infused, custom-foods delivered to your house.  Although Jesse doesn’t smoke much himself, he seized a business opportunity to as an advisor/support person for budding pot growers, sometimes earning $1000 per client.  Between being this business savvy and selling his car, he took off on this epic adventure, already having covered most of France, Germany, Netherlands, hitch hiking in Poland, Slovenia, Portugal (one of his favorite so far which makes me excited), Croatia and probably much more before coming here.  Next stop for him will be the Spanish Canary Islands where he’s considering trying to find a gig working on a super yacht, which made Simone and I quite envious as we elected to stay bundled in our winter coats and scarves, even inside. Speaking of warmth, we decided bid goodbye to Jesse, who exited the bar with an exuberant...

Alhambra is not the only treasure in Granada!

Alhambra is not the only treasure in Granada!

I can’t believe I almost skipped this multicultural, snuggled-in-the-mountains, breath-takingly beautiful cultural city!  I met Simone at the crack of dawn (for all essential purposes) at our hostel where a Swede named Freddie gave us a vibrant descriptions of the city.  I love when he added audio enhancement to his descriptions, mimicking the cha-cha-cha of the ticket printer, the wail of gypsies, drum beats of the flamenco dancers and the battle cries of the crusaders.  Simone, the couchsurfer that I’m staying with is absolutely hilarious.  She’s born and raised in New Jersey, with the attitude and accent to prove it (when she got her large hoop earrings stuck in her scarf, she joked “Jersey girl problems”) but both her parents are Greek and she’s currently in Athens teaching rich kids English on a Fulbright.  She’s definitely immersed in the culture too- she complimented me on my gloves at one point, and when I lost one, she diagnosed it as the case of the “evil eye”.  In Greek culture, light-eyed people are often the target of envious glares which lead to a day of headaches until cured with burning cotton balls in oil and mixing water and oil.  Or something.  Fortunately, I found my mitten and don’t have a headache! Anyway, she’s a little energizer bunny, up for anything, even after three planes and a bus ride so we took off armed with a bad map and the spirit of exploration.  And there was much to see!  We poked our head into cathedrals, wandered around the Jewish section where we found a minuscule Semantic museum in some hidden neighborhood and she invited us to a Hanukkah music concert tomorrow (I doubt we could purposefully find the museum again), had tea in the Arabic section which where hookah pipes and Turkish lanterns spilled into the streets and pet cats at another randomly amazing museum on some painter who liked to collect Asian things. The whole day we planned to visit San Miguel Alto for sunset which ended up being a day long epic adventure.  Between our bad maps, tendency to veer off course to investigate interesting looking things and our preference for standing in sunshine (Simone joked “I’m solar powered!  I only function when the sun is out”), it seriously took all day to get there.  We hiked through gypsy territory where ladies tried to put tree branches in my hand and mumble madness about “hijos, amor, vida larga”.  We saw people living in mini caves with teensy horses eating grass under garbage outdoors.  We climbed a billion steps to the top of the city to reach our vantage point to enjoy the view- the Alhambra glowing orange, distinct personalities of different neighborhoods and the snow-covered Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance.  Definitely worth the hike, especially since rolling back down the mountain ended up being a lot more direct. Friday night, we met up with some locals for tapas in a Valencia-style and some perreo latino (Latin dance).  My British couchsurfers complained how Americans dance so dirty, grinding up on each other and told me they don’t do that in Europe.  It was strange to see Spaniards dance to very, sexual Latin music because they do it in a rather spacious more formal way.  But good times were had by all, dancing well into the night! Famous Court of the Lions at Alhambra On Saturday, we toured the famous Alhambra palace complex, an architectural gem which has been compared to Taj Mahal and the Acropolis.  It was absolutely massive- at least three palaces, three giant churches and elaborate gardens.  I think all of the palaces were built by the moors so the palace was covered in colorful mosaics, intricately carved plaster and ornate calligraphy.  Definitely more of a middle eastern vibe that’s infinitely more interesting to be than standard European architecture. This city has made me so excited for my trip to Turkey to February because like Istanbul, like Granada is a city where Jewish, Catholic and Muslim cultures collide and I just love walking down a street selling hookah pipes, spices and tea from the orient then being suddenly surrounded by Stars of David then in front of a huge cathedral.  Grenada also has gypsies in the mix (we’re hopefully going to a flamenco show tonight) and the free, elaborate tapas with a 2 euro beverage don’t hurt either! Anyway, Simone and I had another lovely day of getting lost, tapas with four locals and perusing the Arabic...

Local food, art, and experiences in Madrid and Toledo

Local food, art, and experiences in Madrid and Toledo

Day 2 had the perfect blend of culture, deliciousness and interesting people.  After a morning with cafe con leche, croissant and catching up emails, I met up with the Taiwanese girls for a Spanish feast near the Puente del Sol, “the center of the center!”, as dramatically described by my host.  Madrid is famous for its jamon (ham), and literally there are hams lining the ceiling of restaurants and markets, and they love to shave off slabs to serve with melon, crusty bread or alone.  We went to El Museo del Jamon to indulgent at one of the most famous places to get it, standing at the counter to enjoy the cheap and delectable meal.  As a vegetarian, I elected for the tortilla espanola, another dish that testifies to Spaniards’ abilities to do great things with patatas (and not just smile for photos… It’s their version of “cheese”), a vegetable I have never enjoyed before coming here.  After some more wandering, munching and caffeinating, I parted ways with Sarah and Ellen to meet Alexandra at Museo del Prato, “the Spanish louvre”.  Alexandra was born in Texas but has lived in London for most of her life, raised by an adventurous family that encourages her to kiss giraffes in Kenya, Safari around almost every country in Africa and adventure in the Middle East.  I felt like a home body after hearing the list of places she’s been.    Anyway, I don’t usually get too excited about classical art but after finding out students get in free and hearing couchsurfers rave about it, I decided to give it a chance and I’m so glad I did!  In addition to seeing famous works by Goya and el Bosco that I remember learning about in Spanish class, the collection contained many religious paintings but several were portrayed with a surprising sense of humor.  Vibrant colors that last 600+ years, photo-like precision and larger-than-life paintings that spanned the wall took my breath away.  After our daily dose of culture, Alex brought me to madrid’s oldest churreria.  We waited in a line that spilled out the door to share churros and chocolate, a treat more typically enjoyed post-party, during pre-dawn hours.  But the place was packed even before dinner… Who doesn’t love thick, fried sticks doused in a steamy mug of melted dark chocolate? Churros and chocolate with Alexandra After Alexandra, I met up with Rob, a quiet but super sweet computer scientist who brought me to the couchsurfing language exchange at a cozy bookstore.  Lead by a very Nordic looking Minnesotan, it was mostly Spaniards trying to improve their English but I met an Italian mathematician too.  Interesting conversation ensued, discussing eating alligators and the depressed Spanish economy.  Rob took me on a scenic walk past more Christmas lights and historic area of towns to meet up with my host. Martin saw me swaggering like a sailor because of the blisters from my boots and recommended a perfect bar, where we reclined on cushions and people-watched (the bar was close to the gay part of town).  I must admit, I thought people from Asheville were intense with their unapologetic, full frontal staring at strangers.  At least three times in Spain so far, groups of people brazenly stare and talk about me, in front of my face.  I usually hear “rubia”, “guapa” and “solo” (blonde, good looking, alone) so it’s awkward but it could be worse.  And they love it when I pipe in with some Spanish.  At this bar, a few middle aged people were making bets whether or not I was a professor.  The flight attendant on the plane to Spain asked me whether I was going home for Christmas, even though I practically knocked her over with my big backpacking pack.  How these people get these ideas is beyond me but the middle aged people were pretty close.  Woot for giving off nerdy vibes! Me near the Metropolis in Madrid on the Christmas light tour For my final day in “Madrid”, Roberto, the Taiwanese girls and I met for a day trip to Toledo, a walled city famous for marzipan, mosaics and swords, about an hour away.  Toledo was adorable, with its windy streets, multicultural Arabic, Jewish and Christian influence and hilly panoramas.  We mostly just wandered, delightfully perdidos (lost) in Toledo,  peeking into churches and re-appearing in people’s back alleys. Ellen, Sarah and I with Cervantes in Toledo I considered staying in Madrid for another night for a holiday party with Otavio and friends but when I heard they gather at 10:00, go out at 1:00 and come back at 6:00 am, I elected to take...

Local tour of major Madrid attractions

Local tour of major Madrid attractions

Greetings from a bus gliding through the rain to Granada.  As I warned in the previous post, this entry is going to be pretty bare-bones since I have no way to add photos and trying to handle life with this silly iPad’s touch screen and ridiculous autocorrect is pretty diffult.  Especially when your advisor wants you to change your dissertation topic for the second time in a week and move to Tallahassee, Florida.  And work with a technology-inept nuclear physicists that sends you cryptic emails without the Rosetta Stone to make send out of them.  But that’s not what this blog is about. So Spain! Europe was never high on my travel list… Probably near the bottom to be honest.  Why?  Everyone goes there, it’s not too different from what I’m used to and expensive.  But for solo travel, Spain was a great choice especially with couchsurfers enhancing every moment.  When they said, it’s easy to travel around Europe, they weren’t kidding.  I sailed through the border with no forms, no questions and barely a glance to check my face, after he already stamped my passport.  I’m definitely practicing my Spanish- even the people at the airport tourist booth didn’t speak English.  Didn’t know where the metro was.  I’m not really sure who hires these people. David at the gardens of the royal palace- I had to sneak this one- he’s camera shy! Fortunately, David came to my rescue.  He’s a Peruvian who has been here for three months for a graduate program in renewable energy.  As much as I didn’t want to be an engineer, it’s pretty nice to have them around and he navigated me to the city center, got me lined up with a Spanish number and gave me a fantastic tour of a city he’s only recently discovered himself.  We strolled around plazas filled with Christmas markets, the royal palace, royal gardens, by the river, through several parks and by the famous museums.  Like me, David has noticed that the Spanish people have a leisurely way of life and tend to disappear for siesta when you need them.  Like when you arrive at the airport at a reasonable hour and the SIM card booths are closed, or the bank takes random days off and David joked that the Spanish ducks swimming at the beautiful Retiro park probably disappear for siesta too.  After a few hours, we met up with Taiwanese girls who scrutinized me upon arrival, “were you playing in the airport?”.  I replied in confusion, “like an instrument?  Hopscotch? I don’t think so” and finally they remembered that I asked them to watch my backpack when I went to the bathroom back at JFK. Small world! Reunited with the JFK bag watchers at the Royal Gardens After continued explorations, I had worked up quite the appetite by the time I met up with Roberto, is a madridelo (Madrid born and raised) geophysicist.  He showed me some other areas of the city, decked out for Christmas, sharing Madrid’s history and traditions.  I’m a little disappointed I won’t be here for New Years to eat twelve grapes and ring twelve bells.  Speaking of traditions, I got to experience tapas at Le Tigre, which may be my favorite thing about Spain thus far.  You buy a beer for 2 euros and it comes with a huge plate of bread and cheese, crispy potatoes, jamon and other meat treats.  He did research on glaciers and mountains in Patagonia in Argentina and Chile and it was interesting to hear how those periods of complete isolation changed his outlook on life. My first tapas at Le Tigre… life-changing! After Roberto, I met another Peruvian, my host Martin.  He’s literally living my dream as journalist for El Mundo, the most widely read newspaper for Spanish speakers, and a novelist.  Martin is a self-described dreamer, who grew up in the poorest areas of Lima and has no family left but now he travels the world reporting on a variety of cultural, political and economic issues.  He’s a character with thick-framed glasses, swooping hair, a tablet in reach and a poetic way of seeing the world.  We started in a local teen hangout with cheap alcohol, more delicious potatoes and olives which he would flamboyantly pop in his mouth, raving about them as “jewels of Spain”.   With food in our bellies, he took me into a hole in the wall wine shop with dusty bottles piled from floor to ceiling.  We sampled wines from Spain’s three regions… The most famous, the most underrated and his favorite. I’m a fan!  And of Madrid day 1 in general! Me...