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LONDON: DAY ZERO

Yes, London. At least, that’s where I am for now; in four days I’ll be in Paris – and yesterday I was not, as one might expect, in Seattle, but instead visiting family in Minneapolis. Thus begins my next adventure – an international melange of destinations that, when accompanied by the plane trips on either end, will end with me having circumnavigated the world.

To explain: Originally, there were to be two separate three-week trips – one to Europe, and one to India. The Europe trip was, until the end of 2009, a sort of floating exploration of the thing us Americans call “Euroland” or “the land of skinny jeans” – no specific destination was set, just a discussion about how I might be able to meet up in France with my friend –

Steven. Let me introduce Steven: many years ago, when I was still institutionalized in the school system at a small private school by the name of “Seattle Country Day School”, I met Steven. I don’t remember what our first class together was, nor what our first conversation was about – but what struck me first was that this boy was brilliant. At the time, that manifested itself as a predilection towards solving challenging math problems before they were halfway out of your mouth; but even now I stand firmly by that assessment as I have seen his talent spread towards writing, history, and (my personal favorite) board games. Now, I’m not talking about Monopoly, or Life, or Sorry!; I’m talking about board games not that you simply play, but that you seriously dedicated a few hours and a lot of pulled hair towards. They’re fun – but they’re hard.

The board games served as strong application of social glue; whereas during the course of my high school experience I fell out of touch with the majority of my SCDS friends, after the first invitation to play a game at his house (it was “Pandemic” – still one of my favorites) we started trying to make “game night” a little more regular. We even tried to expand it, once, but being the week before finals we had a small turnout (Alex, who, incidentally, got himself a copy of “Pandemic” afterwards); you would think that college students wouldn’t agree to any distractions before studying (in fact plenty of them rescheduled) so it’s worth mentioning that Alex’s last final was actually that day – and I should tell you now (or two paragraph ago) that Steven, much like myself, is taking a gap year.

Yes, in fact that does directly translate into “travel buddy.”

So as I’m getting ready to leave for, I believe, Frankfurt when we got on the topic of my travels, and the proposal to “plan something in Europe for a bit” was made. Time went by, and as I toured Frankfurt-Salzburg-Vienna-Prague (FSVP) (entries will be completed upon my return), Steven put together the “three-week budget dream trip itinerary” – and I cannot begin to thank him enough for doing all that work (not just the itinerary, but all the train and hotel bookings as well). How it shapes up is:

London: January 26th – 30th;; Paris: January 30th – February 5th;; Venice: February 5th – February 8th;; Florence: February 8th – February 11th;; Rome: February 11th – February 18th

It sounds amazing, and looks even better on paper – we have so many fun things planned, and I have my camera to capture every second. However, I have an eensy-weensy logistical error that could pose an issue, which has been the consternation of my mother and myself, as well as the reason behind those above-mentioned dates being a week earlier than originally planned:

India. My fourth and supposedly final trip this year is to India, with my mother, and I was planning on leaving for that trip somewhere around March 1st, and returning towards the end of March, or even April. We had those tentative dates at least set aside, but while I was on my FSVP trip my mother did some more research into my benefits, and we got a little concerned. Expect a side entry on how my benefits work, but the short explanation is that my benefits have two expiration dates – my 19th birthday (March 15th, 2010), if I’m enrolled full-time in college, or my 23rd birthday (March 15th, do the math), no matter what. We knew about this potential snag years ago, but we were hoping that with a physical letter of enrollment from my school, I would be permitted to continue using the benefits.

Well, 1) we don’t yet have our hands on a letter of enrollment from Willamette, 2) even if we did, processing could take a long while, 3) my benefits may be denied anyway until I actually physically begin attending classes in the fall, and 4) I’m not going to have any money left to travel with by the time India is over anyway. Since Steven’s schedule had been finalized, and I really liked it, we decided to move it up one week, and tack the India trip onto the end. Now, I’m beginning on a six-week London-Paris-Venice-Florence-Amsterdam-India-Nepal trip.

Please note, Amsterdam is a 22-hour layover where I simply meet up with my mother before heading on to Mumbai. Sorry to disappoint, but there will be no crazy Amsterdam stories – at least not of the variety that I’m guessing 90% of you readers are hoping for. But yes, India and Nepal have been added to my itinerary. I’ll go more into detail as those trips near, but in the meantime I have plenty more current events to discuss. The point is, I am coming home, and “staying home for a bit” (prepare to disregard that last statement when I figure out how to put myself on the next plane out of SeaTac) after my benefits expire on March 15th.

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If there’s one thing I like to do on a regular basis, it’s make people think. Well, not “make” – maybe, “encourage”? It’s a little hard to describe, what word or phrase would you recommend I use?

Yes, that was a cheap shot. Sorry. However, where this comes into play is that I have procured a set of mind-bending “Killer Sudokus,” a Sudoku variation that I recommend to people at every opportunity – you can check them out online. Another cheap shot – not so sorry this time. The point is that the man sitting on my right (we’ll call him Mr. 19C – can you guess where I was sitting?) began doing an evil Sudoku the moment he sat down. Naturally I invoked the above-mentioned rule of “Don’t Shut Up About Killer Sudokus”, which then spiraled off into a discussion about Sudoku (didn’t see that coming), plane travel, complex systems analysis, enzyme reproduction, technology, and business models. All before take-off. Better than the man sitting on my left – who we’ll call Comatose Carl. You can guess who was the pinata at our fiesta.

Actually, I joined the Legion of the Seriously Unconscious as Sergeant Pass-Out-on-Takeoff, a rank I proudly held until landing… in Minneapolis. Yes, Minneapolis, MN is a typical layover for trips to Europe, since it is a relatively major international hub – but I didn’t just have any layover, I had The Layover: Family Edition. Being located in the area where the rest of my Dad’s family lives, this special edition comes packed with genuinely fun extras like getting picked up at the airport by your aunt, visiting your grandmother, doing your grandmother’s exercises (my legs feel ten times stronger), and then getting the best gourmet pizza in recent memory at a place called “Black Sheep” – meatball, feta, and garlic, with an extra helping of incredibly delicious. And then, with two leftover pieces in hand, you get dropped back off at the airport for your flight later that evening.

Long story made semi-short, I got on my flight with no worries, and proceeded to fly to London. Upon my arrival, I grabbed my bag and decided to take the Tube to the hotel, the Royal Lancaster @ the “Lancaster Gate” station on the Central Line; I navigated this route with bravery and precision, arriving only a solid two hours after Steven and I agreed to meet (my plane was, in fact, delayed taking off) at the hotel.

The reunion having eventually been made, we promptly rested our weary feet in our wonderfully comfortable beds – I managed to completely pass out, while Steven rested for a bit and looked through guide book. By the time I woke up an hour later, he had some good suggestions for how we could spend the rest of our afternoon. The first idea, that we had discussed earlier, was to explore Hyde Park, a moderately-sized (relative to the rest of the parks of London) park across the street from the hotel; following this we would traipse to the Docklands, a new, vibrant social and business center by the Thames/ Tower Bridge.

Sounds easy enough, right? Well here’s how that actually happened: It’s just past dark (at five o’clock) when Steven and I cross the road and wander over to the giant map of the park. While perusing said map, I happened to mention how it looks like a beautiful park and I would like to walk around the lake (Serpentine, it’s called) – however, this is apparently the exact cue for some hitherto unknown source to send forth a car-mounted loudspeaker announcing that “the park is now closing” and to “leave immediately through the nearest gate.”

Next time, I’m going to say how much I hate the park, and maybe then it will stay open all night. Or we’ll just be accidentally locked in. Maybe I just won’t say anything, to be safe. So with Hyde Park having taken a good 99% less time than we were expecting, we headed to the Docklands, through a variety of subway stops to come out on Bank Street. For those that know London, you appreciate that, in fact, the Bank Street subway stop is nowhere near the Docklands. Map in hand, we weaved our way to the waterfront, in the dark, armed with cameras and giant flashing signs that say “tourists” – and, apparently, signs that said, “cars hit here,” London traffic being London traffic. As it was, we wound our down a back alley, up the same back alley, and across Tower Bridge. (good views!); hung a left at some crazy office building (it was either a tribute to, or in defiance of, Euclidean geometry; or both) and headed down the “Queen’s Walk.”

Keep in mind, the planning that was involved in this route was, “Hey, this looks good. Up here. Oh, how about there? Oops. Lets turn here. Oh hey, what’s this waterfront thing? The Queen’s Walk? Cool. Let’s do that.” We never did make it to the Docklands; but that doesn’t matter, because we found good food.

Remember, folks, I am a stomach on legs. The place was “Cote Brasserie”; the crime was a delicious mussel dish followed by a equally delicious set of salmon cakes. The mussels themselves came in a delicious red sauce, which was completely misleading since I can guarantee that it was more white wine than anything; but they were incredible. All fifteen of them. The salmon cakes were, as I mentioned before, also delicious; as expected, they were half potato (after all, they were huge), but extraordinarily flavorful, on a bed of heavily sauteed spinach, turning the whole thing into a sort of salad (except tastier). The piece de resistance, though, was the chocolate pot. When Steven ordered it, I think we were both expecting it to be, well, particularly larger than a ping pong ball. We were wrong; and initial disappointment was replaced by nothing other than relief when we had each tried our first bite, and realized that if it was any larger we would both be experiencing diabetic comas. Let me make sure you understand just how rich this little pot of joy was: two teenage boys, splitting it 50-50, could just barely finish it. I think the table partly buckled when the waiter set it down.

After that, however, and probably because of that, coupled with jet lag, we decided to head back; and now as Steven gets ready for bed I sit here detailing London Day Zero. Let the adventure begin.

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Ghana: Day Two

There are a few things worth mentioning.

One, that I’ve had to “break into” the building three times. As  mentioned yesterday, my room is inside a guest house of some kind; and my neighbor, who I rarely see, has the only key to unlock the door. Two details: he insists on locking the door when he leaves, which like I said is at complete odds with my schedule; and the lock is an actual bolt, not just a handle lock. So not only have I had to break into the building three times, I’ve had to break out if it as much as well. Here’s how that works: the door is actually a set of double doors, and the fundamental flaw in bolting double doors is that if both doors are loose, there is enough give to open them simultaneously. That’s a handy fact when you’re on the inside and can see the latch keeping the fixed door in place; but when you’re on the outside, trying to get in, there’s a few more parts to that equation. Specifically, two broken deck chairs (as a stepladder), one partially dismantled window (I removed a plane of glass, temporarily), and one really dirty arm (the window sill above the door was, is, and forever shall be nasty). Throw in some amused children to complete the picture, and you’ve got yourself my morning and evening routine.

Two, roosters. Specifically, the ones that start cock-a-doodle-doo-ing at 2am, and continue, right outside your window, every five to fifteen seconds (I timed it), indefinately. Having that begin, after a heat-and-Mefloquin-induced night of vivid dreams, tied up in the kevlar cocoon,  is not a pleasant morning.

Naturally, I got up at 4:45 AM. Not that I have any right to complain about the time – everyone here wakes up at 4, does their chores, showers, and the kids leave for school at 8:07 (they said), come home, do their homework, play, and everyone seems to be in bed by 8:30. So really, I’m in a timezone somewhere far, far away; the point is, though, that waking up at 4:45 AM after lots and lots of travel just physically hurts – I’m going to try to eat something but no promises about keeping it down.

Regardless, my morning was productive. I managed to rig the mosquito net in such a way that it regains most of it’s effectiveness, and then proceeded to devise some exercises that a six-foot-two person can do in a five-by-three space. I’m predicting that I’m going to be working out a lot, since a) between the hours of 8 until 2, there’s nothing to do, b) the only way I’m going to be able to sleep is if I physically exhaust myself, and c) I’m probably going to end up shirtless occasionally, seeing as it’s still hot. After these shenanigans, I decided to see if I could help at all with getting the kids ready for school; I arrived in time to dry off some of the younger boys who were showering, and to help sweep the grounds.

Sweeping the grounds is another one of those totally new things for me; not that I haven’t swept before, it was an integral part of my old job at Swanson’s. What was new was watching all the kids do it; first because they spread out in an unspoken but organized fashion, then because they totally focus on the job, then because they do it really quickly and effectively, and finally because they use a gigantic brush made out of what I think are small palm leaves, dried and tied with shoelaces or ribbons. This is a clever invention in that not only is it easy to make, but it sweeps better than most brooms I’ve seen – and you can use them as a giant pair of tongs, by separating the the leaves and grabbing the trash with them. Another unique aspect of these brooms is that the bundle will loosen as you work, so you have to continually stop and pound the leaves back down (it’s hard to describe, I’ll try to get a picture).

After volunteering, and having the boys teach me how to sweep (I’m still not very good, apparently) I ventured back to my room to rest until the boys had gone to school, and I could walk around the area outside the orphanage in search of breakfast and adventure. It’s 8:45 now, so I’m going to leave soon – I’ll be seeing my friend again this morning in a bit, and then I’m truly on my own here. There are international volunteers coming today, from what I’ve heard, who work during the week and stay at the Salvation Army. Most of them are European, and I might end up befriending them.

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I’m sick. I’ve been sick for a few days, but I was hoping it would go away before I left; it hasn’t, and instead it’s slowly getting worse. I’ve never had anything like it before – it’s almost like the right side of my head is malfunctioning. It started a few days ago with a canker sore on the underside of my tongue (which is honestly annoying enough), and now there are some on the bottom right side of my mouth and one on my gums on the right side. I’ve been brushing religiously, and i rarely eat junk food. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve tried lancing them with a gum strengthener soaked in hand sanitizer, which works really well but I have yet to decide if that’s actually a good idea. I’ve been sleeping on either my right side or my back so that it doesn’t spread to my left side (I think it’s just a nasty cold, since my lymph nodes are inflamed on the right side) and this morning I woke up with my right ear and right nasal passage plugged. If it spreads or gets much worse, I might end up having to return home early.

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I am not, by nature, a poet, but rather, by nature, I am inspired. When this happens, I write. Apparently. You have to understand, up until the end of the school year this year, I’ve never been happy about writing anything (Deathssay, the first thing I enjoyed writing, I’ll post later); and yet now I won’t shut up.

The reason for this revelation is because I went on a walk this morning. As walks go, it was fairly mundane – just a stroll around the orphanage; however, I wasn’t alone. In fact, the walk wasn’t my idea or even really my choice. As it happened, on my way to breakfast, I ran into a mute and slightly touched in the head girl, whose name I still don’t know, but with whom I embarked on a fantastical journey through the orphanage. I still haven’t had breakfast.

And this is all the explanation I’m going to give for “Ode to a Morning Walk with a Mute Girl.”

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There is an extremely vocal goat outside my window.

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I finally managed to leave for the bank, to change my currency, and ChurCheese, for lunch. This being my first real foray into the city, I learned a lot more about my surroundings. The first thing you notice, that I should have been more careful about, is that every guy wears slacks – not just jeans, nice slacks. With dress shoes. Ah well, if they couldn’t figure out that I was a tourist before I’ll be easily identifiable now (ha ha).

The next thing is that there is a type of beauty in this sparse, dry, open area – a lot of the flowers, trees and bushes in the estates near the orphanage are blooming in full color right now; there vivid pinks and yellows, fruity reds, purples and oranges, and even the greenery seems to thrive.

Finally, there are about four times as many taxis s there are cars. Taxis are everywhere – and they would be very popular if not for the trotro, a sort of bus that I have yet to experience.

Of course, when you’re wandering around noticing things for the first time, things are bound to notice you – enter Nicholas. As I’m walking down the street, this Ghanaian kid with a sachet of water (very popular here – not always good for tourists) falls into place walking next to me. He’s a bit wiry, wearing a Spain soccer jersey, and the first thing he asks me is if I’m a footballer, and I say no – he says that I look like one. He plays all the time – and oh by the way, where are you staying? I tell him at the orphanage, and we get to talking about that; apparently he has a bunch of friends there (as later find out, the orphanage is a sort of community center, especially since they have satellite tv). It turns out he’s waiting for someone to show up at the orphanage around three o’clock, and is just killing time until then. What about school, I ask, since that’s where almost the entire orphanage is right now; that, and I passed one cross the street from orphanage with children playing football (you know what I mean) in the courtyard. He told me that he actually has two days of midterms, and gets out of school early – would I like to go to the beach with him tomorrow, around 11? Being me, adventurous, foolish, or whatever, I say yes, and tentative plans are formed.

Meanwhile we traipse to the bank, with Nicholas asking directions of random passer-bys, change some money, and make our way back up to ChurCheese. It’s completely empty, which is slightly disconcerting, but we sit down anyway, and when the waitress comes over I chat with her about Ghana, this being my first time and what foods she could recommend; I still don’t know exactly what I got but it was good, and cheap. Nicholas got a chicken something (it’s typical for tourists to take kids out to lunch) that he shared with me, also good; and the rice that came with both our meals (they were out of chips) was borderline addictive. Keep in mind that ChurCheese is like a more full-service fast food joint, think Marie Callendar’s or Applebee’s but with a gigantic playpen. For some reason, our service was crawling (I think we waited easily 15 minutes for our food, and we were the only people there) but Nicholas and I talked and watched the plasma tv on the wall that was playing the top ten South African music videos (the number one spot went to some song by The Parlotones with a great music video that I’m going to check out).

Post-food found us back at the orphanage, where I immediately ran into my friend, turned around, and saw the rest of the crew that had come over from the hotel. My friend gave the tour, again, and everybody just absolutely swooned at the toddler’s house (it’s really hard not to, I do every time). I got to talking with one of the crew (who I think was actually the boyfriend of one of them but lives here) and he told us that there had been some issues with orphanages selling babies, into labor or any of that category of horrible outcomes; that’s why I was originally asked for those police & medical reports.

We finished up the tour pretty much at that point, but not before my friend introduced me to two of the volunteers that were here with Projects Abroad. I don’t remember their names, but I do remember their countries (Germany was feeding the kid in the wheelchair, England was playing with the toddlers under the tree in the courtyard) and their generally cold shoulders. I used to be sensitive to people generally showing disinterest in you from the moment they meet you, but it’s still a little disconcerting; more so when you’re gambling your social life on them.

At this point it was around 1:30, so my friend and I headed to the library so I could begin helping kids with there homework, a task that I later found involves less math, science and reading skills than a loud voice and the ability to physically restrain a large number of children at once. I began by helping Dwuly with his multiplication tabled, which he actually knows fairly well; and then moved on to helping him with his reading, which is not particularly easy when they have a heavy accent and a lisp. And when they primarily mimic you; I guess that’s more normal than I thought, but a lot of what would happen when I read with the kids is that they would try to perfectly mimic what I said, without even looking at the page. I’ll have to think of something a little different for tomorrow.

But here’s where things do a total handstand – Frank, Andy and Laura. Frank, to the best of knowledge, helps out in the library and is a really nice guy; I think he invited me to go golfing with him on Friday which would be totally random and really, really fun. He’s looking for a netbook, so I’m going to have him take a look at this model eventually.

Andy is one of the two “new” Projects Abroad volunteers. He’s been in Ghana for about a month and a half, in the Volta and Ho(?) regions, but I think he just got into Accra. He’s an eighteen-year-old Buddhist from England and loves Bob Marley and giving his number out to random people (he listed off everybody in his phone book, which was amusing).

Laura is, at this point, my saving grace. She and Andy showed up during the tutoring session and helped out/ saved my life, and we got to talking a bit. She’s nineteen, from England, and here with Projects Abroad but on her own – she’s actually taking a gap year, which makes me really excited, since now I realize I’m not the pariah of the academic experience. The reason she’s my saving grace, though, is because she offered to show me around, take me to the beach and get a cell phone – and just generally hang out, a pleasant and welcome surprise after the other two Projects Abroad volunteers. I’m still to sure what Andy’s doing, but I’d like to hang with him too.

That evening i showed Laura where Celsbridge was, and she had a chicken sandwich with chips and I mooched off her, but not before I had tried my luck with ordering the goat pepper soup. Yes, the goat pepper soup; take three parts “indeterminate mass of bones, meat, and what I think were intestines, most likely from a goat” and two parts “peppers from hell, or paint stripper, whichever you can get your hands on first”, and throw it all in a blender. Serves one foolhardy tourist. I have never, and I promise you, never, tasted anything so spicy in my life; it was good, but after the third sip it felt like it was eating through my stomach lining (just to clarify, that’s not a literary device. It did actually feel like it was eating through my stomach). Hence, Laura was nice enough to let me eat some of her food, and satiate the lava monster in my intestines. Pleasant visual.

We got back after I stocked up on some water, and the rest of the night was uneventful. Andy and Laura left abut ten minutes after we got back, and I spent a bit talking to Okorse, Daniel (the soccer player, not Moses’ brother), and a few others. Daniel actually invited me to his football game on Sunday which I eagerly agreed to attend; and we walked down to the end of the block to look at this street vendor that sells something having to do with movies (Like pirated dvds on steroids, they advertise as being the best collections of a certain genre or theme with up to 3000 minutes of footage. Slightly dubious). Finally, Leon and I ended up talking (he wouldn’t let me go back to the room and go to bed) which is when he told  me his story, which I unfortunately didn’t fully understand; I might get him to e-mail it to me, since from what I could understand it’s a good story if it’s true.

Then I escaped to my room, lay down, and promptly fell asleep.

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